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Man on A Turquoise-Colored Cloud


ISSUE:  Autumn 1996

    For Isaiah

When the thermometer dips below zero, as it has for most of this week, an ice crust forms on Lake Michigan. Slushy waves heave themselves against the shore and languish a while before receding. After high pressure arrives, sending sunlight our way, ice mirages rise on the lake’s horizon. In that blue space where water is indistinguishable from the sky, glass castles emerge, a shimmering city of towers, turrets, and fortresses in the middle of the lake.

The Fata Morgana effect. So named for King Arthur’s legendary sister. A wintry tromp Foeil, like July’s mirage of wet pavement.

Standing here at the window, I play with it a little. When I blink, the castles rise from the lake. When I blink again, they are gone.

Ours is not a city of illusions. It has too long a history of conservative politics gone mean, too wide a ghetto, too many violent crimes, for that. But when the mercury registers 10 below, distinctions between what is real and what is not break down.

I turn away from the lake now and look at Natalie. Draped around her neck are five or six beaded necklaces of varying lengths. On both wrists she wears as many beaded bracelets. Most of this day she has spent making jewelry: designing color schemes, threading plastic beads onto elastic, then knotting the elastic. Dangling from her right index finger is a predominantly blue and green necklace whose few amber beads glow in the clear afternoon light. That necklace, she told me while ago, is for her dad.

This touches me, for I am a first-time father and understand empirically the need for small encouragements. Natalie’s mother and I have just welcomed little Taliesin into the world. He yowls from the nursery right now where Etta bathes him. Wet, he’s a slick and slippery piglet of a squirming baby, Dry and dressed, he weighs less than the ham we had at Christmas, but a little more than a gallon jug of water. His wrist is smaller than my thumb, his torso the length of my hand. I am afraid of my largeness when I hold him, distrustful of hands better suited to hefting the Wisconsin Code and other thick-as-a-brick books in my work as a contracts lawyer. When Etta takes him from me, his skin grazes my cheek or his hair tickles my chin and I breathe deeply of his mysterious baby smell—a smell so stirring that only something commonplace and rare, like planets or stars, could duplicate it.

Natalie pauses next to a brass floorlamp, checks her watch. She lolls on a chintz-covered ottomon, then rolls off. Her beads click together. It’s only a matter of time before she moves over here to the sofa and takes up her watch at the window.

Natalie visits with her father one weekend a month and every Wednesday evening. She is now seven years old, and these visits have been going on for three years. Never has he failed to show, which is impressive when you consider statistics that reveal 1.8 noncustodial parents in 5 dropping all contact after the first year. But still I feel antsy.

I feel antsy when it’s his visitation weekend and 4 p. m. rolls around, and here in this house our waiting grows fitful, testy, and rude—like a spoiled family member.

“He was the kind of man who in the midst of telling a joke would become flustered and nervous as a result of having someone’s attention focused on him so long,” Etta explained once when I asked about Roger. It was late May, the air fragrant with spring, and we were on the peninsula, stripping wood floors in our new vacation home. She tore a bed sheet in half, then in quarters, then in eighths and began dripping the strips in solvent.”He always delivered a joke’s punchline down the front of his shirt, while staring at his feet.”

I watched Etta’s face carefully. “They were bad ones, huh, those jokes? Real clinkers?”

She sat back on her heels and considered. Fine wood dust and dirt powdered her hair. Never what you might call a pretty woman, Etta has an interesting face: freckles, wrinkles, a dent on her chin (chicken pox, Minneapolis, 1959), white pits over the left eyebrow (sledding accident, Chicago, 1968), scars on both cheeks (acne, 1970—74) and over her lip (malignant melanoma removed, Milwaukee, 1983).

She said, “Roger’s jokes weren’t bad at all. They were usually terrific, the kind you couldn’t wait to tell people at the office.”

We worked quietly side by side several minutes. Blocky late afternoon shadows lay across the floor, revealing splits, cracks, stress.

“What else?” I asked.

Her hair was pulled back with a yellow bandana scarf. One ragged end had fallen over her shoulder, and she chewed absently on it. “About Roger? Let me see. He kept a collection of Robert Frost poems in his glove compartment. Along with a bottle of Cover Girl liquid make-up, just in case he got pimples before a presentation.” Etta took the end of the yellow bandana from her mouth. It was frayed, wet, and faded.”When I was married to him, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to love someone else.”

“And now?” I tried to sound off-hand, but the hair at the base of my neck bristled. A part of me is never off-hand when it comes to Etta.

She merely smiled: simple, straight, kind. “Now, I know.”

When the doorbell rings and Roger finally stands in our living room, an Eddie Bauer sock hat in hand, I find myself softening to him. His face looks as if it has weathered a bitter nor’easterly. The mouth is pinched, colorless; the nose angular; the eyes immobile and gray, like frozen water. I feel apologetic for our warmth—our fire roaring in the grate, our sweaters, our cooking smells.

Beyond this, there’s something disshevelled about Roger, something untucked and mismatched. I inventory his apparel now as he greets Natalie and she shows him her jewelry, but am hardpressed to find anything out of place. The Goretex parka is stylish, the Thinsulate boots well-suited to weather like this. He wears silk liners under his gloves. And yet Roger looks like a sojourner from that place where lake blue and sky blue merge, someone who has weathered tricky ice and lived to tell about it.

This is what Fata Morgana can do to a man.

A chill inches down my spine.

“Hello, Roger,” I say.

He nods pleasantly, goes on admiring the necklace Natalie made.

When Etta walks into the room and hands Taliesin to me, I am grateful for the diversion. She follows Natalie and Roger into the vestibule to repeat some last minute instructions.

At nearly eight weeks, Taliesin’s head fits perfectly in the space between my uplifted chin and my chest. Now that he is actually here, I feel stunned at how my body and Etta’s joined: the audacity of it all, the mundanity, the boldness. This experience breathes through me, alongside me, beneath and above me. It is in my bone marrow, my mitochondria, the beds of my toenails. Etta carried him. But now I am big with child.

Natalie flies past me, running toward her bedroom to get some forgotten object. That leaves Roger and Etta in the vestibule, enduring an uncomfortable silence.

After a moment, I hear his voice. The horse. Something about Natalie’s horse. Going down to the stables when they get home, breaking up ice in the water trough. Roger’s saying something about oats and hay and bedding straw, and I catch just the tail end of a sentence: “Especially since Kipper’s no longer with us.”

There is a pause and then, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Etta’s words are reflexive, automatic, though the tone is sincere.

“Well, he was old,” Roger says.

At that point, Natalie comes charging back into the room, plastic pencil case in hand, and she’s ready to go. In the grate, the fire leaps as the door sucks softly open, and then it throws shadows across the hearth as the door closes.

Taliesin makes half-birdsong, half-prehistoric noises against my chest. This is the prelude to a fidget. I sigh, eager for Etta to take him. Something about fatherhood makes me want to sit off to the side, a spectator’s distance away, admiring them.

When she comes back into the room, she stands facing the door jamb, rubbing at something on the wood. Her right foot is turned slightly toward the left, and she stands off-balance like that. It takes several seconds for me to realize she’s crying.

Instantly, heat spreads down my back, and I’m shocked at my anger. A part of me watches myself fling open the door and stomp out into the below-zero cold where I seize hold of Roger and pluck every hair from his head.

“What happened? What’d he say?”

Still rubbing the door jamb, she shakes her head. “It’s nothing, Zach. Don’t sweat it.” The words break in strange places as she struggles to stop crying.

Head tussling against my neck, Taliesin stretches, farts, and a sound like squeaky hinges issues from his mouth.

“He said something?”

“No, no.” She wipes at her face with both hands and then turns to look at the room.”I mean, yes, he did. But it’s not like . . .well, it’s not like what you think.”

This pregnancy, Etta told me, took more of a toll on her than the first. Her skin looks sallow and shadowed, her hair dirty and uncombed even after she’s washed and styled it; and her skeleton juts underneath her clothes, underneath her flesh, like corn stalks in autumn.

“Etta, talk to me.”

Fresh tears skate down her cheeks. “Kipper is dead.”

I nod slowly. “Uh huh. Okay. And Kipper would be—?”

“The dog. Roger’s dog. A dog he had for 12 years.”

“And you—you were close to the dog?”

“That was a cantankerous old cuss of a dog. I hated that dog.”

After decades of bewilderment, I have come to believe, here at 40, that I do in fact understand women. But this from Etta now throws me.

“Then why—why are you crying. . . .”

She rushes forward and clasps me in her arms, so that we make a sort of sandwich, with Taliesin in the middle.

“I hate the passage of time. I hate how it heals wounds. I hate how it races on. I hate how remote my life, the one I had when Natalie was a baby, is. It mocks me. Forces me into two time frames, and I can’t live in those worlds.”

In lieu of hugging her, I feel my arms tighten around Taliesin. He squirms and twists.”Then stay here with me. Live in this one.”

“Zach, I know what it is to lose a beloved friend. . . .” A sob cuts her off, and she can’t look at me.

Her tears wet through my shirt sleeve. “. . . because you had a dog that died?”

She throws back her head, makes a stab at composing herself. “I remember what it was like. To be young and have a little baby. And I’m not saying I want to go back. But I remember. And remembering cuts into me.”

Taliesin fidgets and squeals and gurgles like a water hose. Inspite of my best efforts, impatience overcomes me.”I don’t understand. Are you saying you need to forget?” My body stiffens.”Is this something about Roger?”

Etta takes Taliesin from me, settles back on the sofa, and lifts her blouse to nurse him. It’s amazing how she can drop a mood, or file it away, behind the monumental task of mothering. Taliesin molds himself to her cradling arms, roots only a moment, and then suckles energetically.

She looks up and holds my gaze. “What I’m saying is that I love you. But with Roger, I remember. . . .” Here, her words become jumbled, oddly accented—”but I also, I also once loved”—and she can’t finish the sentence before fresh tears fall.

Outside, it’s twilight. Fata Morgana has dismantled her crystal city. The darkness at the lake’s horizon is the usual emptiness. North of here, the lighthouse begins its inexorable sweep of the waves, the shore, the cliffs. Slowly, slowly, the white beam searches first here, then there, then way over there. Superstition once had it that Fata Morgana came to our shores at night, when darkness fell and the ice palace could no longer hold her. She came ashore to bewitch orphaned souls. Now, the lighthouse tries to warn me of this fact, but fool that I am, I keep coming.

It’s five below zero, and the air cuts like a knife. I walk toward the yellow shimmer of lights strung along Downer Avenue, my neighborhood’s area of fashionable bistros, bookstores, and cafes.

People jostle past me, some carrying groceries, others shopping bags. There’s an odd tension in the air, a stricture in these faces. After a week of bitter cold, something is about to snap. A small and compact man slams into me, and I start to say, “Look out.” But I read a tightness in his body, the energy of something crouched and ready to strike. I look the other way and move on.

Yoga Institute, French laundry, shoe store, Hungarian bakery: just the usual assortment of businesses. A man and a bundled child emerge from a shop, and the man calls over his shoulder, “Lefty’s at 7.” His voice sounds robust and merry, the words punching holes in this thin air. But something in the child’s face stops me: a fullness, a joy, a familiarity. It’s at that moment I recognize Natalie.

With sinking heart, I notice she’s no longer wearing the coat she left our house in a while ago. The coat she has on is purple, made of a down-proof fabric, and has a storm flap over the zipper, a good coat. Why my heart should sink over this, I do not know. She and Roger take off in the opposite direction, and I find myself drawn to the door they’ve vacated. It opens into a stained glass studio, a place I’ve passed countless times, wondered about, and promised myself to check.

Now is the time.

The warmth here is solid and occupies space. Sheets of glass stand about: rectangles, squares, oblong pieces. Some of it is displayed in wooden bins; the rest fills a bank of shelves along one wall: orderly, arranged by shades and hues. All of it catches what available light there is and glows weirdly.

The proprietor stands at one of the bins near the window, sliding squares of glass into it. If the reinforced boxes around her feet are any clue, she’s unpacking a new shipment. Smiling mysteriously to herself when I walked in, even humming some be-bop something or other, she now turns to me, her face pleasant and neutral.”Can I help you?”

“I hope so. I’m looking for something special, something”—the words tumble out—”something for a nursery.”

With that, she slides the glass into a bin, clack, clack, clack. The edges gleam sharp and irregular, and I’m surprised she’s not wearing gloves. Cobalt pieces, amber, red tinged with gold. All of it has a place, and she finds that place. At the counter, she pulls out a photo album and flipping it open, swings it around so I can take a look. These pictures, she tells me, represent some of her commissioned work.

She says a couple more things about special orders and different types of glass before returning to the boxes near the window. Her voice is cool and smooth, like blue smoke, and it lingers in the air after she leaves. I glance through the photos. It’s enchanting stuff—unicorns, moons, clouds—but I find myself focusing less on it than on my sudden need to place her, this stained glass artisan, with Roger.

“Lefty’s at 7,” he had said.

I know the place, a fish fry kind of tavern/restaurant, a family place that serves Shirley Temple cocktails in champagne glasses and beer in frosty schooners. I glance over at the window. Roger’s lover.

“Look. I’ll come back some other time.” I close the album and slide it across the counter.

She turns around. “I’m sorry. Got all caught up in inventory. Please, take your time.”

She wears a shop apron made of heavy gauge canvas. Beneath that, she has on a buffalo-check flannel shirt, stove-pipe jeans, and leather hiking boots. She’s got a coil of lead snaked up her arm like a bracelet. Half of her face is uncomplicated, straightforward, even serene. The other half is what the years have brought on, an odd staring eye: green like the other, but dense with time and sorrow. I have read about the acrostic eye, an eye that can see both forward and backward as well as side to side, up and down, and diagonally, too. Life has enabled this woman to cultivate that eye.

Now, she turns it on me. Cobwebs and wood ash are in that gaze. She tilts her head to one side, and recognition flickers across her face. “Hey—you’re the guy with the little baby, right? The tuxedo baby the other night?”

It takes a moment, but I remember the reception last Tuesday evening. We had brought Taliesin to a local gallery where some friends were showing. It was a mistake. Etta felt out of sorts and I urged—no, prodded—her into going for a cup of tea with several other women.

“I’ll keep Taliesin,” I assured her. “Taliesin will be fine.”

Of course, he began to fuss the minute she was away. Of course, I wasn’t able to soothe him. Of course, he spit up all over the little tuxedo sleeper. Within seconds, he became a screaming redfaced stiff-as-a-board baby, and I a petrified monument to fatherhood. When Etta returned 15 minutes later, I was sullen and sharp.

“Something for the baby’s window, huh? A glass dream catcher, maybe? Take a look here.” The woman has come back to the counter and is showing me pictures in the photo album.”Babies love glass, the way it catches light. It’s spirited, playful, and alive.”

I smile. “Just like them.”

“In more ways than one.” She turns a few pages. “Glass even has the ability to mend itself.” When I frown, she says, “If you score it but later change your mind about the cut, you can set the piece aside and in time it will “heal.” Then you can start over.”

“Wait until vandals and street gangs hear about this,” I joke.

Her staring and sorrowful eye sweeps me. “Well, not all glass will do it.” She shoves back her gray-blonde hair.”Some scraps are stubborn suicidal fools. But come here. Take a look.”

Her work area is a skylit space in the back, and we head toward it. The glass there is not neatly contained and stacked as it is in the front. Some of it lies in disarray on her wide worktable, and other pieces lean precariously against a stool. The edges look jagged, crazed, haphazardly broken. Chips and shards litter the concrete floor. A powder of glass dust covers everything. She says something about the molecular structure of glass when we stop before her worktable.

“This is what I’m building right now.”

I take a look. It’s a still life of fruit. Purple grapes nestle among yellow pears and green bananas. The woman pauses a moment to let me take it all in. Her work is good, and she knows it.

“My intention was to use this piece three months ago, on another project.” She holds up a turquoise square of glass.”As it turned out, the cut was all wrong. Rather than toss it away, I set it aside. Now look.”

At first, all I see through it is her face, slightly distorted by the angle of the glass and the color. Then she runs her finger down a hairline seam, something so faint as to be barely visible, a place where the glass has knitted itself together, just like a broken bone will do.

“In another month this wound,” she tells me, “will have vanished completely.”

I shrug. “Yeah, but will it hold together in something complicated like this?” I point to the fruit still life.

She lays the glass aside. “A scar is always stronger than the skin it replaces.”

I feel something like ice along my spine, and I realize I don’t like this shop, don’t want to be here. The woman is affable, professional, and no doubt accomplished, and whether she’s Roger’s lover or not, I can’t wait to put distance between us forever.

We’ve moved back to the front of her store. Her recognizing me as the father who could not comfort his baby boy at the artist’s reception—this recognition has brought on for her a sudden inspiration. She wants to show me a special type of glass—cathedral glass, I believe she calls it—that she’s just received today. Cornflower, cerulean, powder blue, morning glory: boy colors, she says. She’s got them all. As she digs around in one of the boxes, she gets to talking about glass in old.houses—the windows, how when you pass on the street the panes look wavy.

“Gravitational pull,” she says. “Let’s not forget that glass is actually a liquid. A liquid arrested in a solid state.” As she speaks, she looks not at me but down at her hands where sheets of coffee brown glass, party pink, mango yellow, beige, and an opaque caramel flash by.

All at once, she quits talking. Although I haven’t been listening, have instead been making my way to the door, I get the sense she’s stopped in mid-sentence. She crouches before one of the shelving bins. Her palms rest balanced on her thighs. She moves her left hand. There is a crease between the thumb and forefinger. Within seconds, threads of blood darken it.

“Well, how do,” she says, her voice cool and blue, like the drag on a mentholated cigarette.”What say?”

My hand is on the doorknob. “Is it okay? You’re all right?” A woman bleeding is not a sight I can walk away from just like that, even this woman, an odd-eyed talkative Roger-type woman.

Instead of answering, or even glancing my way, she raises her hand.

It’s high enough for me to see.

She grips her hand below the wound.

And squeezes.

Blood spurts.

I let go of the doorknob and close the distance between us. Odd or not, this woman has been injured. She needs help. “Steady now. Steady, steady,” I say, taking her elbow.”Does that need a doctor? What about stitches?”

She glances from her hand to me. There’s something sharpened to a point behind those eyes.”Doctor? Stitches? For this?”

I swear I can see bare bone beneath a flap of skin, the cut is that clean.

But she jerks her arm from my grasp and heads toward the back of her shop.

Anger wells within me. I turn to leave this place for good.

That’s when I notice the blood—a smear of it on my right hand. It’s crimson and sticky, blood from this woman, something that should be contained, inside her body, not out here in the world, on me. I follow her to the small washroom and in a rush of water and flickering fluorescent lights get cleaned up.

“You should wear gloves. If you’re going to handle glass,” I say through a tightened jaw, “you should wear gloves. Leather ones. They’d protect you.”

She nods down at her fingers as the water streams over them. There’s something meditative and hypnotic in her motions.”This is part of it—working with glass. Forgetting. Not taking time. Deciding—well, I’ll risk the consequences. Meaning to do the right thing and never quite getting around to it. Backsliding. Not thinking. And then sometimes doing it—wearing gloves, going by the book, making the cut that keeps.”

I dry my hands on a work towel. A tension in them won’t let me hold my tongue.”I’m surprised you haven’t hacked a finger off. I’m surprised you’ve still got a leg to stand on.”

The woman holds her hands in front of her so that only the thumbs and pinkies show. The other fingers look like amputated stubs. “What? Me worry?” she says, the acrostic eye cagy and amused.

Outside, the sky is glossy and black, with the razor clarity that sub-zero temperatures bring on. Lake Michigan is a flat darkness interrupted regularly by the lighthouse’s beam. I know that an illusion combines one factual verifiable element—like air waves gone taut with bitter cold—and one fantastic element—like crystal cities?> on the horizon. The result is a grab-bag of myths, wives tales, and legends better suited to stories that begin, “Once upon a time . . .” and end happily ever after. That’s something a night like this won’t give, not to Roger, not to Roger’s lover, not to Etta curled up at home with her private pain.

I know what I’ll find when I get there: Taliesin drowsing in her arms, firelight bathing them both in a honey glow. Between them, the moon of her breast looks like a giant pearl, like a treasure mother and child quietly savor.

She shakes her head, looks dazedly at me, and says, About earlier. I wish I could. . . .

I groan, shrug my shoulders, tell her I know and I don’t know and what I mean is that’s all right.

We eat, clean up. Hearts beat, stomachs digest things, rib cages go in and out. In my arms, Taliesin sinks into me as he once dwelled deep within her. Something in my bones sings—like moths, like raindrops, like the sap in trees—when I cradle him. Our heads bent together, Etta and I contemplate the stuff of life: birthmark, diaper rash, confetti-sized toenails, high velocity bowel movements, complicated burps, the miracle of an arm turning into a shoulder turning into a neck turning into a chin.

. . . while outside the lighthouse continues its tireless search: the cliffs, the sky, the lake. The evening is young and the hours before dawn numerous enough in mid-February for it to mourn what it has lost.

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