Louisa, Elizabeth and Consuelo Sing
Another heat wave and more mosquito bites. Busy pinching dead buds off flowers baked by the sun, hanging laundry outside, gulping water, riding bike, kneading ideas and images, trying to relax the muscles gripping my jaw.
Got a song looping in my head – “Bésame Mucho” – kiss me a lot. I hear it when I’m working or washing dishes – and in the afternoons when I’m sprawled on the couch in front of the fan, cardboard over windows to block the sun that’s trying to burn right through the glass of our Victorian house – 85 degrees in the living room – warm even in the basement, where we keep the washing machine, ping pong table and tent.
Loved to camp when I was a kid – sometimes I think of that to soothe myself – sweetness of camp smoke, sound of playing cards cracking against each other as we shuffled the deck, orange soda cooling in a creek – me paddling a citrus-colored air mattress along the shallow shores of a lake, its banks curved like an embrace. Before each trip my brother and I would sit on my bedroom floor and make lists of what to take with us – swimsuit, sunglasses, marshmallows, crayons, books.
I always loved to read – our grandmother gave me Little Women and a nameplate to stick inside the cover to show the book belonged to me. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy all wearing big skirts and snoods and gloves, giving up their Christmas breakfast for a poor German family – a novel from another century.
Grew up in a big suburban house – outside, a sea of juniper bushes (kin to the tree that grows in West Asia), baskets of purple petunias (origin, South America) and blue lobelia (Africa) – inside, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a basement Dad called a party room where we slept during the summer heat.
The house I live in now sits near railroad tracks, where more and more people without houses/apartments/vans are camping on concrete that’s littered with petrified orange peels and streaks of excrement. One tall man in heavy jeans, although it’s over 90 degrees, is staggering – a macabre dance – of what? – drugs, hunger, dehydration?
In another city, Charles Dickens took long walks through smoke-shadowed streets – London, where brittle kids hauled coal, their little bones the fuel that kept the industrial wheels turning – Victorian London, where special trains would bring in the hoards to watch a noose snap the necks of undesirables.
Another Victorian, Elizabeth Gaskell, lived in Manchester where the lungs of millworkers, like pillows, were stuffed with cotton fluff. She visited them, fed them, made them characters in her stories: Mary Barton, Nicholas Higgins, John Boucher. She gave them names, dialog, dreams – eyes, ears, throats, tongues, hearts, hands, molars, shins, ribs.
Lately I’ve been thinking that all the March sisters in the world could never give up enough Christmas breakfasts to feed the wired bodies, the limp bodies, the shuffling reeking bodies/beings around us in the city – and the bodies, too, photographed for the news – refugees running from the world’s fires straight into the jaws of dogs who’ve marked their territory with snarls and teeth.
The sight of so many human bodies triggers memories of school films – oceans, continents of unwanted bodies, inconveniences – refuse packed into freight cars, bodies stacked on ships, bodies thrown in a ditch – killing fields and mountains of bones, piles of pure white skulls, still and silent as stone.
Yesterday, a man set up camp in the parking strip near our house – his belongings a heap of tarp, tent, bike and hibachi. Lately, I feel as if I’ve awakened in a different time/country/universe.
But of course it’s always been what it is.
In December 1969, when my parents were figuring out what Christmas presents to buy us kids, Chicago police shot the sleeping Fred Hampton (a Black Panther, age 21) in the head –
I was born in the 60s – more Victorian than hippy – kept my knees together and my mouth closed, followed directions, filled in the bubble, true/false, all of the above, while swallowing the cold peas of embryo thoughts.
Fourth week of summer heat. Afternoons, I droop, succumb to sleep.
Eastside, Westside, all around the town, you can see napping bodies stretched out or curled up on the sidewalk.
8 p.m. in a park, sitting in the grass and leaning against a stone wall that’s still holding the day’s heat in its fist – makes me think how fast ice cream melts on concrete when the sun is at its peak – imagine how it would sear my skin if I laid down on it, how my flesh would pucker like bacon in a skillet.
Walking to the store last month, I saw two houses with signs in front of them: One said don’t pick our plums; the other said please wait until the pears are ripe before you pick them.
I could do that next summer – plant blueberries in our parking strip, then put up a sign that says, Free, help yourself.
It wouldn’t be much –
wouldn’t keep anyone from starving –
wouldn’t offer protection from despots and indifference –
wouldn’t slow the rise of the Earth’s heat –
but it would be something,
better (for me) than sitting and sweltering, a dry knot of guilt tightening in my left temple.
Blueberries = love, right off the sun-warmed bush. Or in oatmeal, its steam scented with ginger and cinnamon. Or in a crisp, not cooked too long, so the berries are round and sweet and firm as a kiss.
Bésame mucho – kiss me a lot. The song was written by Consuelo Velázquez, a young Mexican woman who’d yet to be kissed in real life –
but she could imagine it.