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In Memoriam: Ginger

by Benjamin S. Grossberg


Ginger, whom I did not like to look at, or talk to, to whom
I was polite only by an act of will, is dead, dead and gone.
Vacant now: her apartment, the only one in the basement—
by the laundry and the small storage cubbies that the landlord
throws in for free. I saw the ambulance, noticed it
a few weeks ago when I shut my lights for sleep: blue and red
flashing through the blinds. I looked out to see Ginger’s daughter—
apartment three, other side of the building—walking doggedly
back and forth on the lawn, from her apartment door back out
to the curb. I didn’t know then it was for Ginger. Ask not.
That knowledge came later, when I told Aline—first floor,
decorates the hall for Christmas, Easter, the seasons generally,
plastic snowflakes, that sort of thing—that she looked nice.
Aline said it was for Ginger, the funeral held earlier that morning.

I wondered why I hadn’t been invited, but then I remembered
that Aline is kind to everyone, and I, a snob, had rejected Ginger.

My difficulty with Ginger wasn’t due to her weird body,
though that bothered me, her weird breasts hanging down nearly
to her waist. I’m not saying this was her fault. Or her laugh—
I want to write “cackle”—how loud it was, how I could see
when she laughed that her teeth were cracked, blackened,
that her middle-aged gums had burned-out spaces.
The landlord once tried to evict Ginger for having a cat.
The whole building was up in arms because others had cats, too.
I’m the only tenant with a dog; I didn’t get involved.
Even though the entire basement—laundry area, cubbies—
smelled like her catbox, the landlord eventually relented.
But none of this especially disturbed me about Ginger.
Certainly not enough to hope she’d be forced to leave.

No, the problem was her speech. The way she spoke
sent my shoulders up, made me back away nearly instinctively,
as from an object that cast my own humanity into doubt. Ginger
slurred her words incredibly, tortured and twisted each word
out of her mouth, each syllable like Blake’s tyger, violently
hammered in the furnace of her gullet. At first I thought
it was an Ohio drawl, but the more I heard it—scraping
chalkboards sonorous by comparison—the more I realized
it was all Ginger and no Ohio. I’d never heard anyone
do that to language before: no alcohol, no organic instigation
that I could see, just Ginger opening her mouth hugely,
gaping her mouth like a cavern at dusk delivering a nearly
unending stream of bats—the deep, cavernous mouth
guarded by only a few shards of teeth. It was horrible.
I kept my eyes down on the washer when she spoke,
my hands on the machine as if feeling for psychic contact
with the laundry. I didn’t understand a word she said.

I thought to ask Pat—second floor, across the hall from me,
clutters the area outside her door with boxes of scarves—
how Ginger died. Pat wouldn’t judge me for asking,
even though it’s not my business. Or is it? These people
with whom I live, whose sounds I know nearly as well as my own—
whose business if not mine? The woman whose living
room abuts my bedroom: I know what she sings
to help her baby sleep. She knows the universe
of pet names I have for my dog. What could be more
embarrassing than that? No more awkwardly intimate
or unchosen than those people into whom I was born,
though here with the surprising element of tolerance—

except for Ginger, whom I did not tolerate, unless avoidance
too is a brand of tolerance, maybe tolerance’s last resort.

Ginger’s door has been left open; she died midmonth,
so her clothes, her things have the space for a few more weeks.
After that someone new will come, and with or without effort,
that person will know and become known—will enlarge
this thing that isn’t a family, that is both more and less
than friendship, our daily unacknowledged intimacy. How odd
that it could be anyone. But that’s for later. Now, the apartment
is still Ginger’s, the empty space a collective—if temporary—
testament to her memory. I can see quite clearly inside,
her things half packed in boxes for Goodwill, the undusted,
closed blinds. Almost nothing, finally, of whatever it is
that Ginger was: mother and tenant, I guess; maker,
if nothing else, of a sound that has vanished from the world.

 

Benjamin S. Grossberg lives on a small farm in Ohio and works as an assistant professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Antioch College. His poems have appeared in journals such as Pleiades and Mid-American Review, and in the 2005 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology. Work is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Bellingham Review, and Tampa Review. In 2003, he received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council.


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