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The Thickness of Soup or Hair

by Mark Dow


The woman to my right was tapping a finger along to the Schubert octet:  two violins, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, horn, bassoon. In my mind’s eye, her polished fingernails were clicking the program across her leg, or the fabric under the program on her thigh crossed over her other thigh. The clicking was submerged a moment in the clarinet’s bubbly caw, then surfaced soft and regular but off of the beat. I took a look. Her elbow was propped in such a way that her wristwatch, ticking audibly, was closer to my ear than to hers.

~

If you meet someone from Michigan, he might ask you to bring the fingers on your right hand together, palm up, and then he’ll point to show you where he’s from. In a bookstore in Ann Arbor, which is in the meaty base of the thumb, I came across stacks of the Partisan Review. In the May/June 1951 issue (sixty cents), Clement Greenberg wrote of Cezanne’s search for a kind of unity that would combine “thought that was not a matter of extra-pictorial rules, but of consistency, and feeling that was not a matter of sentiment, but of sensation.” I first appreciated a Cezanne still life on January 7, 2000. Sometimes I meditate, and sometimes when I’m meditating and reach a certain switch, my diaphragm loosens abruptly and begins a bellowing as if motored by something other than its usual timer. “Bottle, Goblet, and Flask” took my breath to belly like that as soon as I was standing in front of it; I don't know why or how. The paint in each part of it seems worked and re-worked in such a way that each part keeps to itself and also is inside another part. The paint, maybe because of the paint underneath it, seems determined. By “determined” I don’t mean pre-determined, but persistent. The paint insists on the presence of the objects, and so it resists them, too, by containing their force, because if they were not contained they would not exist, but if they didn’t resist containment they wouldn’t matter. When my brothers and I used to fight, the most satisfying way to throw someone to the ground was to hold tight and go down with him, to feel the force of who took and who was taken down. Nothing exists except three windows, wall, tablecloth, and the knife which is both ballast and gap. Each is itself, but they share the paint like connective tissue, some of which becomes eye, some liver, some hand. Some bottle, some goblet, some flask. Nobel laureate François Jacob, who studies cell differentiation in mouse embryos, writes in The Possible and the Actual: “. . . the tinkerer picks up an object which happens to be in his stock and gives it an unexpected function. Out of an old car wheel, he will make a fan; from a broken table a parasol. This process is not very different from what evolution performs when it turns a leg into a wing, or part of a jaw into a piece of ear.”

~

One afternoon, not far from here, I cupped my palms to the reddened orange of compact marigolds and let their glow in, up, and through: wrist, forearm, bicep, shoulder, armpit, ribcage spilldown.

And?

Have picked at my nails to minimize myself and let the world align without my getting in the way.

~

Translator Idris Parry: “Kafka looked down after a long day spent in legal studies and noticed ‘how my left hand nursed the fingers of my right for a few minutes in sympathy.’  An entry in the second of his Octavo notebooks describes how his hands begin to fight each other, as if he has no control over them:  ‘They slammed shut the book I’d been reading and pushed it to one side so that it wouldn’t get in the way. They formally saluted me and appointed me referee. In a flash they had locked fingers and were surging from one side of the table to the other, first to the right, then to the left, depending on which hand was exerting superior pressure. I watched them attentively. If they are my hands, I must be a just referee, otherwise I’ll blame myself for a false decision. My job isn’t easy: in the dark between the palms they employ different dodges which I can’t let go unobserved, so I press my chin on the table and now nothing escapes me.’”

~

“He shall lay his hands upon the head of the burnt offering,” says Leviticus 1:4, referring to the High Priest and the animal cooked up up on the altar. Semicha, the laying-upon-of-hands, now means rabbinic ordination. It also means juxtaposition, because the hand of the rabbi almost touches the head of the almost-rabbi; is next to it. In other forms the word’s root can mean back support, trust, cross reference, and the thickness of soup or hair. Oh and a sort of grace note that’s on the beat and resolves into the one it’s next to and gracing. At the now-defunct Café Nostalgia in Miami, an old-school salsa band’s groove had gotten up into us, a friend and me, and we were doing what we could with it. The leader, a heavy and exuberant man, stepped down from the stage and, without warning, brought his maracas, one in each hand, close to the center of my back, at the middle and lower spine. A slight swerve, deliberate and concise, was involved.     

~

Thirteen hundred miles away, a man and a woman performed on the subway platform. He was from Honduras via Mexico and Texas, played acoustic guitar, and sang in a deep voice without vibrato. She sat in a folding chair next to him until he nodded. Then she stood up and joined him, too heavily on the beat, a crippled walk, and well off-key. A train came screaming into the station, so he stopped, but she kept on, so he slapped her. Then she stopped. Then he covered his ears with his hands. The train left, and he told me the noise penetrates his head. When he found out that I’m from Texas, he sang a song he’d written about a man near Port Isabel who wants to flirt with an American girl but can't because his English is no good. In the song he doesn’t name the American girl. He calls her chamaca, something like “kiddo.” After the song, he told me the American girl’s real name. It wasn’t the girl with him now; she was from Veracruz, and her name was Lucero. His own name was Santo. When he was singing about the hair of the unreachable American girl near Port Isabel, Santo’s right hand left the guitar strings for a moment to touch Lucero’s hair.

~

A singer at the Houston Coliseum held the microphone in his left hand and pointed into the audience with his right, the arm extended through the long sleeve of a marigold-orange blouse. I was eleven or twelve. He was pointing at me.

~

An autistic boy was vacuuming the wall-to-wall carpet. My impulse was to turn away. He hadn't seen me. But my job was to check on him. His right elbow was poised and lifted in front of him to about chest height. The right hand was loosely but decidedly in contact with the vacuum cleaner handle from below. He was humming in long drones to accompany the motor, in pitch with it, and rolling the machine in short bursts of back-and-forth while he did a little skip-and-hop to stay with it. With his left hand he guided the cord, fingering it with a lounge singer’s finesse. The electric bubble around him was palpable. It was as if nothing whatsoever was missing as he skip-stepped repeatedly onto tippy-toe, each rise promising, with its smooth jerk, a brief and blissful levitation.

~

One afternoon the autistic boy was talking calmly about an assignment or a field trip. He was looking me straight in the eye because he knew what paying attention was supposed to look like, but his attention seemed simultaneously riveted and elsewhere. It looked like he was looking me right in the eye, but it was just above. Down at belly level, his right index finger moved back and forth, describing a tiny arc, like the needle on a meter. He seemed to think his hand was hidden.

What are you doing with your finger? I asked.

Oh, um, I guess I'm just drawing the shape of your eyebrow.

Why?

Well, I guess it's just that I somewhat like the shape of it.

~

In Tulsa, in 1990, in the passenger pick-up and drop-off area in front of a luxury hotel,  basketball great Moses Malone was sitting on the floor of a van with the door open. His feet were on the driveway outside the van, and he was staring off somewhere. There is a through-line from eyes to the soles of the feet. Last name, first name, middle. Malone, Moses Eugene. Birthplace: Petersburg, Virginia. First player to go pro direct from high school. Played forward, then center. Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Bullets, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs. He had a relentless inwardness and 17,834 rebounds;  I stood in the sally-port and stared at him staring until my brother Stuart Jonathan Dow said I should just say hello. Wearily but agreeably, Malone lifted his arm and opened his hand to take mine. His fingers began to unfold.

~

One afternoon So-and-so abruptly held out her hand, palm up, and moved it toward me. I was confused, repulsed, and drawn. Her hand seemed to be floating away from her, but I knew she must also be controlling it. I started to touch it, and she moved it decisively away.

~

One evening a man shouted from the street toward the anonymous face of a low sun-bleached building: “Someone let me in, goddammit! My mother’s dying and I need someone to hold my hand!”

~           

One evening I sat with my friend in his backyard, in tree shade from the streetlamp light, the soft, starless, purpled, suburban sky like Houston’s, a touch less orange to it. Sometimes we want others to know what we want for them. Some things are too private to stand being said and they stand being said. He told me he wanted me to stop going toward the past. Instead he hoped I would project myself into the future. The opposite of paralysis, he meant. He gestured outward from his heart with both hands, so he has to have set his wine glass down.

~

Born in Kishinev in the first years of the twentieth century, my father’s mother never saw a banana until a sailor or longshoreman put one in her hand on the dock in the port of Galveston, Texas, just after she’d arrived. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to eat it because she wasn't sure bananas were kosher. (They are.)  

~

My father made a handwritten list when we were boys:

Basic Table Manners
1. Do not use fingers to help food onto fork or spoon.
2. Hold fork properly (like pencil).
3. Take food to the mouth; do not lower mouth toward the plate.
4. Keep left hand in lap when you are not cutting.
5. After cutting, switch fork to right hand (not mandatory).
6. Do not lick knife or eat from knife.
7. Wipe lips with napkin before drinking.
8. Wait until three people are served before beginning to eat.
9. Lay napkin to left of plate when dinner is concluded, without re-folding napkin.

~

The mother hands the baby boy to the godmother, who hands him to the godfather, who hands him to the holder, who holds him in his or her lap. The helper takes hold of the infant’s legs. The mohel, with his left hand, stretches the foreskin and holds it taut while, with his right, he places a shield to isolate the foreskin and protect the glans from the blade.

~

When he finally arrived, the emergency room doctor sewed up my goddaughter’s busted lip. After the fine motoring of each delicate, green suture loop, the larger muscle groups of shoulder would take his reach way back behind him to take out the slack, the way water-ski instructors at Lake McQueeney near Seguin, Texas, used to coil up the green or blue and white or the orange and white nylon ropes with confident, continuous, wide cowboy swings from elbow and tanned or peeling shoulders, the closely coordinated thumb-and-finger-work on the other hand evening up the more or less congruent coils, like a garden hose when one is done with it.

~

A lump or growth removed when I was about nine was benign. The room itself seems light blue. There is a burning sensation in my diaphragm, black in my solar plexus, but blue and white light, winter-sky-like, moves into chest, maybe willingly, slowly, then into abdominal cavity. It spills down inside the barrel of ribs. A brushstroke or swirl loops out of left scapula, down and around the length of the body, arcing away from it, in again through the side of the right foot, jumps to the left foot. Each side is saying to the other side do I know you. They are speaking to each other directly and in a roundabout way. Awareness glimpses itself behind itself, hangs back. Then the left hand comes palm-first toward the front of the body. No need to be afraid of me now. There are promises as well as empirical truths. Everything is observable. Now go to your room; come back.

~

A twelve-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome made a drawing of a hand hovering in the sky. A Crayola-brown mountain that would fit easily into the palm rose toward it. The boy wrote: “I felt something weird on the globe it was mountains on the globe I feel like a giant.”

~

In the March/April 1953 Partisan Review (seventy-five cents), one Gustav Janouch, whose father had been a colleague of Kafka at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institution in Prague, wrote: “Kafka's speech seemed angular because of the inner tension; every word a stone. The hardness of his speech was caused by the effort at exactness and precision. . . . His speech resembled his hands.”

~

There were moments during his farewell concert at Carnegie Hall on February 20, 2008, when Alfred Brendel’s left hand hovered a good eight-to-ten inches above the keyboard, caressing its rest there. At times both hands waited in the air, the right always a little bit lower. Pauses were everywhere. The watery Schubert sonata in B-flat seemed impossible as well as inevitable.

~

Rachel, my mother’s mother, once had a boyfriend named Schmuel whom she wanted to marry but never did. Rachel and Schmuel lived in Szczuczyn, but each had a brother in Monterrey, Mexico, and they planned to go there together themselves. Rachel’s brother there was her older brother, Moises. For some reason Rachel’s father warned Moises not to bring the boyfriend Schmuel’s brother into his business. Schmuel’s brother wrote Schmuel back in Poland to say it isn’t so easy here as we imagined. Schmuel had second thoughts. Packed trunks were unpacked. Rachel’s father, saying the indecision was an insult, instructed his daughter to break it off. Schmuel nevertheless came by the house one winter night. It was snowing in Szczuczyn, maybe in nearby Bialystock, too, and maybe across the Russian border. My great grandfather was standing on a low stool with his back to the fireplace. That’s what Rachel recalled fifty or maybe sixty years later, that before he stepped to the door, found Schmuel there, and threw him to the icy ground where he broke his leg, her father was up on the stool, his back to the fire, his hands behind his back to warm.

 

Mark Dow is completing a manuscript of nonfiction called Each Thing Starts, from which this piece is drawn. His poetry manuscript Plain Talk Rising was a 2010 finalist for the New Issues Poetry Prize. (7/2010)


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