Tuesday, May 12, 2009

She Knew

...kiss the snake so that you may gain the treasure...

My mother, in her deepest heart, was a jazz pianist. She had perfect pitch, could learn by ear anything she heard on her cherished records. Satin Doll. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. Oscar Peterson. Marian McPartland. “The best by the best,” she’d tell me.

She made music everyday, but I never heard her describe herself as a musician. My mother played only in the living-room of our home in small-town Irondequoit, New York, most often to an audience of no-one. Or to me, who couldn’t stay on key if her life depended on it. My father was a man of his time and did not want my mother working outside the home. She came to believe it was better that way.

I’m way outside the home. I’ve brought my notebook to the open cocktail lounge overlooking the Reno Hilton Casino gambling floor. It’s ten a.m. I left the breakfast buffet, ready to either gamble or write. The little cocktail tables and big soft chairs made my decision.

I open my notebook and hear piano music. A shiny white baby grand sits on the veranda just above me. The piano bench is empty. And, the piano is playing. Under a chandelier made of gold birds and purple globes my mother would have found atrocious.

The piano begins to play Misty , Errol Garner’s classic. My mother’s favorite song. I go to the empty bench and sit next to the invisible pianist. I watch the keys move, remember my mother’s small, sure hands, a cigarette burning perpetually in the ashtray next to her. Morning or evening, bright sun or shadow, she always wore dark glasses. Back then all that was missing was a blue spotlight.

A tall young woman walks by, pauses and looks at my hands folded in my lap. She grins, “You play very well.”
“Thank you,” I say. Misty was my mother’s favorite song. She died five years ago.”
The woman nods. My tears are easy, an old knot in my heart loosening. “My mother,” I say, “was a jazz pianist.”
“Wow,” the woman says, “lucky you.” She walks away into the slot glitter and jangle.

The piano plays on. I consider putting my hands on the keys and don’t. That was her gift. The words, and the empty pages in my note book are mine.
---White Piano, 1999
Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest

Dear Mom,
Thank you for playing Misty and Lullaby of Birdland and I’ll Be Seeing You. Thank you for teaching me the names of your saints: Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington; John Steinbeck and Louisa May Alcott; Martin Luther King and Marian Anderson. Thank you for betting on death and insisting on life. Thank you for teaching me how to kiss the snake.

I have filled 320 pages of that empty notebook. I wrote at the roll-top desk that once reminded you of your father’s. I wrote on the battered back porch of the beloved cabin that is now a shell. I wrote on the shore of the Colorado River; on a basalt ledge near Wendover, Nevada; on a sandstone boulder at Muley Point in southeast Utah. I wrote in casino coffeeshops as I slammed down a comped breakfast that I had earned with five hundred bucks of deliriously joyful slot machine play.

If your soul hung around after your death in 1995, you must have been smiling as you watched me. There would have been a conspiratorial gleam in your eye. You might have whispered again what you told me on your death bed: “The biggest sorrow of my life is that the fucking depression kept me from mothering you and your brother the way I longed to.”

I know. I carry your genes. I move my fingers and make what is necessary and what is beautiful. More often than not, at best, my brain and I are in uneasy conversation---at worst, nuclear annihilation. You know.

So when I received the phone call a few days ago that told me that my second novel, Going Through Ghosts had been accepted for publication at University of Nevada Press---with unanimous approval, I felt the ghostly touch of your gifted fingers on my head. “Yes,” you said. I saw you as I had seen you an hour after your death. You were somersaulting through the air. You were laughing with pure joy.

Dear reader,
If you can find Errol Garner’s or Marian McPartland’s Misty, it makes the perfect soundtrack for this love letter.
It took over twenty years to write Going Through Ghosts. It took every moment of using whatever would blur the wars in my brain, of using what was killing me---and it took every moment of not using.
The body and the word have great importance. It is through their support that the true nature of mind can be realized. It could be said that, in a way, the body and the word are servants of the mind.
---Kalu Rinpoche

On May 27, I’ll drive north with a trailer loaded with what’s left of my belongings. On May 28, I’ll pull into the driveway of dear friends in Bend, Oregon. My work in Washington State softened the scars that were left in my heart and body. Without them as a carapace, the brilliant heat and glare of the Mojave are too harsh.
I go toward green and mountains and basin-range desert. My mother’s wise-ass smile watches over me.