Madonna and Mr. Coffin

4FB0F7BA-F79E-4402-B6A5-C93445B0B024Madonna Margaret Burnside looked in the mirror and once again rued the day her mother, just days before her confinement , had visited the Raphael exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum.  That connection mother felt with the Sistine Madonna was the very origin of Madonna’s career of disappointment.  She often wished Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino had never picked up a paint brush, or become famous enough to be known by one name.

What was her mother thinking, naming her newborn after that Sistene vision of loveliness?  Had the humors clouded her vision?  Did she really believe her daughter would grow to be such a beauty?  Madonna wondered if Mother had ever paid attention to all those portraits in Grandfather’s salon, the ones that both proved the past and predicted the future.  The family face had never been holy.  It would have been a simpler life if Mother had chosen Faith, or Charity, or even Philomena.

But Madonna!  Now Mother was beyond ready for her to be married.  Whether it was to have her daughter out from under foot, to minimize further embarrassment, or in hopes of fulfilling her wish for easier satisfaction that grandchildren may offer, Madonna couldn’t tell.  Truth be told, she would actually prefer to live independently, and although she liked children, she could certainly manage without new people in her life to disappoint.

But convention obeyed only its own master.  With a sigh she looked at her reflection again, fixing a wayward curl that kept drooping down her forehead.  Mother’s plan to distribute these cartes de visits among her acquaintances in hopes of expanding the circle of suitors was bound to end yet again in disappointment.  How could a photo show her spirit of adventure when the world itself conspired against her even having such a thing?  Her mother would find better luck if this photograph cast her face the color or money and showed dollar signs hanging from her ears.

Madonna sighed, straightened the bow at her neck and went down to the parlor where Mr. Coffin had set up his equipment.  She would stare into the lens and defy any man to spy her through the eyes of Raphael.

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What it’s Like at 60


My husband phoned from the bedroom to tell me about a TV show I might be interested in watching. This is something he would do, in the middle of a Sunday, while I sit in the living room, reading a book more for the pleasure of its language than for any story within.
There had been music in the room where I sat, something classical and quiet, followed by a world program chosen for its foreign rhythm and words so as not to be distracting in the space beyond my book. The ringing of the phone, a sound not so pleasant, nor benign, broke the spell mid-sentence. With a deep sigh I rose from my chair and crossed the large room, wondering as always, if the race would be won by the impatience of the caller, or by my own curiosity to see who wanted connection. It was always a crap shoot, and I never knew, when I finally found the phone, almost always out of its cradle and left on the nearest surface to the last word of the last conversation, whether my salutation would be met with response or dead air.
Thank heaven for caller ID, that invention that had made the dead air tolerable, and indicated by technological advancement just who had come to call, but chose not to stay. So I knew before I spoke, the 204 number flashing as I reached for the talk button, half annoyed but oddly half amused. Does he really do this? I almost couldn’t believe it myself as I said hello, not in a questioning, welcome way, but more matter of factly, more expectant than curious.
Whatever it was that inspired him to phone had none of the urgency of real desire or need that would have driven him to more corporeal action. This was likely to be something simpler, his glasses left on the kitchen table, or a piece of Nicorette gum from the box on his desk. Anything more serious, less funny would be dealt with in person, as he might use the occasion to stumble to the living room, completing his own errand on his way to stand in the doorway watching me with a smirk, or to walk by and pretend to steal my book, kissing the top of my head in passing. If his loneliness was real, or large, he would tend his errands himself and use them as opportunities to physically connect. No, these phone calls were more simple, less needy, but no less full of love. This ringing was a mechanical tone that required a physical response but translated to “I’m thinking of you”.
“Hello,” I said, the sound of the word falling from high to low as one syllable flowed to the next, saying in those two bites, “I know it’s you, tell me how I can help”, a half smile making its way from my heart to my lips even as the simple sounds were being formed in my throat. In that instant it didn’t matter that I had been disturbed, that I was out of my chair, the mid-sentence text forgotten, and the briefest moment of anxiety about reaching the phone in time was forgotten, forgiven as I waited for what he would say, how he would mask the phrase “I love you” in the cloak of a lazy man’s request.
“There’s a show on channel 501 you might find interesting,” he said. “That’s all.” And the line went dead.
I turned the TV on, tuned to the channel and found a documentary about a famous poet’s life and decline through Alzheimer’s disease. I chose not to watch it, although I remember taking note of it when it had been advertised days ago. Poetry always interests me. Just for today, though, I don’t want to see the ravages of this disease, hoping that I can live a bit more in denial of my mother’s probable future, or just rest for the day in a space not occupied by her decline.
Still, how well he knows me, this man under the bed covers two rooms away, the TV now tuned to the football game, the muffled voice of the announcer and the rhythmic cheers of the crowd not unlike the world music station playing love songs in the background of my life.

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Part Two — The Adversary


Scarlotti hung up the phone and stood, unmoving for so long a clump of ash fell unnoticed to the toe of his left slipper.  He had too much disbelief at the moment for anguish, but he knew that would be just what he would feel as soon as he processed the thoughts.  For now, he kept his mind busy with the more simple where and how of the situation, leaving the why, answerable only by God, untouched so as not to raise regrets.

That the crazy bastard had been the one to make the find wasn’t a thought he could sit with for long without erupting into a rage strong enough to overturn his desk, so he settled on wondering how. What goddamned  circumstances, sick twists of fate and absolute lunacy had brought Clemens to that park in the first place?  And how had the prize come to be there, of all places?

He, Scarlotti, had studied its author for years, knew more about his work than any living soul.  He knew every place the man had ever been.  Why, Scarlotti had actually gone to each and every one of them, traveled the world three times over, searching all the nooks and crannies of the wise one’s life.  He’d befriended old friends, searched out old enemies, followed every whisper of a ghostlike sighting.  He’d spent the fortunes of many lifetimes, resorting at the end to paying an army of hunters working 24 hours a day in the remotest locations, the last places on earth to be searched.

Absently, Scarlotti placed the stub of his cigar on the ashtray, having noticed the tears running down his cheek, and attributing them to the smoke crawling under his eyelids.  An echo of the truth fluttered at the window of his consciousness, but he pulled down the shades and set to work mentally penning a crime story of theft and deceit, the finale of which found the treasure being spirited away by a carnival dwarf who stole it from the great cathedral during a thunderous storm and carried it in a painted wagon through the countryside of Bulgaria.  Yes, that could explain how the box ended up where it was found.

Relaxing somewhat in the flow of inventing, Scarlotti moved at last, sitting himself down at the desk with a sigh.  Lost in his tale, he started to reach for paper and pen, thinking what a compelling story he would tell, thinking so far ahead as to be counting the profits already.  But he froze as the truth of the situation finally burned off the last of his fog and forced him to see the simple fact that he had been beaten.

The upshot–the outcome–the final solution.  Not the why or the who, how, when, where, but the actual WHAT of the words he had heard.  Clemens had found the box.  The rest of it no longer mattered.  Scarlotti aged a thousand years. A strangled cry escaped his tightened throat at the  measure of his mournful loss.  The words he had searched his whole life for, spent his every dime and breath on, the ones that would have won Evangeline, were now in the heart of another man.

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Part One — The Find (Cliches)


Disclaimer:  This piece was a short exercise from a prompt, giving me the first phrase, and charging me to use a specific list of phrases.  Although I found time to actually write it, I don’t have time to do any editing, and would like to try to get at least a few pieces on here in the next month.  Any suggestions for changes or improvements in this piece, (except to ditch the cliches) would be appreciated.


He wasn’t a man of many words, so when he found the dusty old box tucked in the oddest of nooks behind the poster advertising the fire eater, he was delighted on opening it, to find a stack of small phrases written on scraps of worn muslin in a fading gray ink.  He sat quiet as a mouse as he gently ran his fingers through them, turning each as a page of some unbound book.  A sigh escaped his lips as he realized the full meaning of what he had found, and he was tickled pink to have been the one to find it.

Scarlotti had been looking longer than he had, spending his days in libraries and universities, convinced a piece of wisdom such as this must certainly have come to rest in someplace learned.  But that old fool  had apparently been barking up the wrong tree.  It wouldn’t have occurred to him in a million years that the box would have ended up in an abandoned funhouse.  Serves him right, the old man thought.  Scarlotti went about giving lectures and running paid seminars, charging admission as if he himself had been the one to have written these words by his own hand.  Most of the time Scarlotti was just too big for his britches.

But, HA, the joke’s on him.  For now that the box was actually in his hands–now that the phrases were there to be read after years of verbal drought and a famine of language–now, after miles of searching, — it seemed everything was coming up roses.

The man worked slowly. Lifting the pieces one at a time he read each phrase without being aware that, like a child, he fingered the space beneath each word as he went.  The texture of the fabric under his calloused fingertips, however, managed to smooth his way from word to phrase, reestablishing meaning and flow from the bits of inky symbols.  He tried to memorize as he went, but his sense of wonder trespassed on his concentration, and the anticipation of what came next prevented him from lingering.

He thought perhaps he should go somewhere more comfortable, less dusty, where the fading of daylight wouldn’t interfere.  He placed the scraps back in the box, brushed the lid off as he closed it, and slipped it deep into the pocket of his overcoat.  Feeling like a million dollars, he stepped out into the evening as shadows fell among the decaying skeletons of the abandoned midway.  As he made his way past the looming Ferris wheel, he broke into a waltz, twirling an invisible partner, dancing to the sounds of the new things he had to say.

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What I Would Build My House From

I live in a house made of beach stones, weathered and rounded . Cemented in place none touches the other, held in suspension as isolated worlds, but the way they rest in the substrate lends a texture to the larger surface, like that of a chill on bare forearms on a November afternoon, or  a clutch of eggs in an April nest.  Each stone on its own is a treasure, a solidly heavy thing in the hand, all the rough edges and corners having yielded to the caress of nature’s hand.  Together, they form an impenetrable wall, a lasting haven from the world outside.

By all appearances, the house sits unmoving, its color the grey of the long-dead.  People who pass by think it a strong and sturdy home.  It seems the perfect shelter in the storms of life, no wind can make it tremble, no river will wash it away.  At first look, that is its story, and by itself might be enough.

But my house is not so simple.  Contrary to its appearance, it is a living thing.  Each stone has a story, an epic, a saga, told in the tongue of its maker, a language I knew in another time, but have long forgotten  The stones hold the past, like the rings of a tree, in the strata of sediments bound under pressure and formed into mountains and cliffs, only to be worn down by water, and wind, to a size that now fits in my palm.  But not passively shaped, these stones only became what they are by their contact with others.  It was the proximity they shared that gave them the smoothness, the rounding, yes even softness that so appeals to me.  Sitting in my house on a quiet evening, I can hear the murmur of the voices.  Even without recognizing the language, I imagine stories of eons past, nostalgic longing, distant travel, even a boast or two.  With tales that make Scheherazade‘s thousand and one nights no more than the blink of an eye, my house regales me with histories I’ll never live to hear the finish of.  These are stories on the grandest scale, being told right where I live.

My stones are not dead, nor merely inert, but ever changing in the moment.  Without hands yet they hold;  the warmth of the day is slowly released  as if the heat is a lover’s gliding fingertip brushing the length of the longest finger, held as if glued, tip to tip in the moment before separation.  So hold my stones to the warmth, reluctant to let go of the gift it was entrusted to hold by the sun, until delivered to me in the chill of the evening.  On the hottest of days, the stones keep the air cool, manifested for my benefit by memories of the sparkling streams that once adorned their mountainous bodies.  Scientists and skeptics will try to explain this away using theories and numbers, but I live with my stones, and I believe that there is caring in them that cannot be explained so lightly.

The appearance of my house is not as stable nor as static as it may seem, either.  What looks to be the color gray at first glance is merely an illusion., meant to dull the truth, for if my human eye were to see every subtle shift of shade reflected by the stone at once, I would be spellbound by infinity.  Gray is not an end, but a means, the spectrum of creation itself, and all is held within each stone in a mixing and shifting of pattern and combination uniquely worked by an artist we cannot comprehend.

And if this is not enough, just wait until it rains, when my stones are wet, and you will see the wonder of their lives.  Waking the chameleon, water transforms grays to blues, violets and reds that in the dullness of the days are safely hidden from our mundane lives, waiting to astound us, and remind us of the glory, the beauty still there even in the gloom.   My house, on a rainy day, is nothing more than the truest truth, that what we are is not what we seem, that together we can shelter each other and comfort, and that our purest beauty sometimes can only be seen in imperfect time.

I love my stone house, I loved the building of it, holding each stone, and choosing its place in the bigger picture.  I loved collecting them, finding them one at a time as they called to me in voices I was open to hearing.  I liked leaving spaces for doors and windows to let in light and friends.,  I love each stone, but I also love that when joined in a group they managed to create space of their own out of nothing.  That space is open, and comfortable, and accepting,  and I know in their embrace I am home.

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They came on an autumn day, three lone men heavy with sadness and regret, a husband, a son and a brother, close but not friends, each lost in the duty that brought him to this place with the smell of the sea and the green of the marsh.  It was the husband who carried the urn, time and a promise having given him some sort of eminence in this twisted hierarchy.  No one was really in charge of this trip, the only control a breaking thread, combining the men but barely containing the emotion that strained to burst through.
They came at your request, Deb.  Having grown up near this site, you chose the Point for your watery grave.  It had taken nine long months for the men to be ready to part with you, the part of you that had sat as fine dust, like a genie trapped and held hostage on the mantle shelf.  The men had disagreed amongst themselves about the plan and the timing.  Three had lost you, but there were three of you gone, and each man felt your absence in a different part of his heart.
The husband, a throwback Italian, mourned his partner, but marked the loss in TV dinners and wrinkled clothes.  The son lost his life’s guide and was just beginning to trust his own inner compass, the one you inserted in his psyche at birth.  The brother seemed to feel the loss most deeply, having lost the only touchstone of his early years.
The three walked down the path,; no words were spoken.  The awkwardness of the relationships and the twisted sense of manhood kept them from sharing their bits of you with each other.  A short distance in, as they came to an opening in the brush, the husband decided they had come far enough, walked to the waters edge in a small cove and emptied the ash where water met land.
The current was weak here, and the ash stayed where it fell, dampening into a grey heap of mud.  No romance here, no waves came in to lift and carry you out to sea, no strong breeze lifted you to eternity, nothing to allow the men to see your passing, or to watch as the world reclaimed you.  The three stood in silence, staring at the mud, or not looking at all.  The husband felt a sense of completion, the bandage ripped from a wound just beginning to scab over.  The son felt a bubbling scream as he fought the desire to go down on his knees and scoop the mud to his chest.  The brother felt sadness and anger, convinced now more than ever that the world held no promise, that life would always let him down.  He knew that you wanted to be sent off the Point, into the wind and the waves off the cliffs.  He believed there was victory over life’s suffering to be found in such a release, but the lack of desire to make the long walk robbed you of that dignity, and he felt you die again.
The three returned to their cars, and drove home separately without further conversation.

And now time has passed.  They seldom see each other at all.  Even the father and son have drifted,  as if you were the only cord that united them as men.  The brother still mourns with grief unreleased, and clings to the anger he felt that your remains were so badly handled.
But were he to visit this place now, and just sit and look, he would see that the water is alive.  Whether rushing in powerful waves or sitting seemingly still, there is yet a rhythm and motion that reaches land at every point.  What seems like mud and sediment is not in its place forever, but like life itself, is reclaimed and reused, all in its own time.
I’d like to believe, Deb, that you disseminated slowly, making your way to the ocean in nature’s time.  In nature’s time perhaps some of your ash has dried in the sun and been carried on a breeze.  Maybe your mud was used as a cool resting spot for a bullfrog whose soft motions created a gentle current as he sent you a little further on your path.
Storms have come since you arrived, storms with pounding waves and troughs of water pushing and pulling with force unexpected in such a small cove.  You must have felt the pull, the call of the wider sea, and followed it, as you could, to the mouth of the shore.  I feel you out on the Point today.  I hear your laugh in the waves breaking on rocks, first here, and then there, unpredictable yet constant.  I see you on the horizon, just out of view, sailing in the space where the water meets the sky.
But I also see you in the cove, with the marsh grass and the weeds.  You have fed these things with your very being and they are part of you.  I take a deep breath and in the very air itself are molecules that once were part of you.
You were left at Bluff Point, gone but still here,  keeping time with the rhythm of the universe.


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The Walk

In the spring of 1975 I was doing my last clinical affiliation before becoming a certified Physical Therapist, in a clinic called Uncas-on-Thames Hospital, a one-time tuberculosis sanitarium that had been transformed by the State of Connecticut into a small cancer treatment center.  As a choice of learning facility, it was one of the least popular; the opportunities for rehab being sparse, the therapy primarily centered on pain control.  I chose it because it was my last; I was tired and it was close to home.  In terms of workload, it delivered on its lack of promise.  I spent a lot of time applying hot packs and giving massages.

Although the facility was small, the staff was top-notch, from Al, the orderly who transported patients to and from radiation with a new joke every day, to Dr. Joe O’Keefe, the physiatrist who did daily rounds to ensure the physical quality of life remaining was all that it could be.

One day I was assigned a new patient, Tom, a man in his late 30s with metastatic lung cancer.  My job was to put moist heat packs to his back twice a day to try to ease his pain.  The intake report described lesions in his ribs, spine, and pelvis and left femur.  He had plenty of reason to be in pain and even though hot packs are pretty much a joke as far as an effective pain reliever for that kind of pain, he always thanked me for bringing them.  One day I offered to bring them more often, but he asked me for something else.

“I want to walk to the bathroom” he said.

“You’re on strict bed rest,” I told him, “I think it would increase your pain if you tried that”.  He looked me in the eye, and in a soft but firm voice he said “I know where I’m at, but using the bedpan is already painful and I just want to be able to go to the bathroom like a man”.  His voice broke on this last word.

Dr. O’Keefe had shared Tom’s latest x-rays that morning.  The bones lit up with white spots like Christmas lights, one rib already eaten clear through.  The mass in his T-12 vertebra occupied almost the whole bone.

“I’m not sure you’d be strong enough,” I said, silently meaning NO WAY IN HELL.

“Isn’t that what physical therapy is for?” he asked.  “Please, this is important to me”.  I offered to pass his request on to the doctors, and suggested we might start with some bed exercise.

I found Dr. O’Keefe in his office, sitting on the handspun cushion he always carried chair to chair.  I liked that about him.  It made him seem more vulnerable and less intimidating that other doctors I’d dealt with to that point.  Plus, he was kind.  I told him of Tom’s request and he said “Wow, he’d be at great risk for fractures; you saw those bones.  The cancer’s made Swiss cheese of them”.

I asked if he could be the one to tell Tom.  I didn’t have the heart for it.  “Sure,” he said.

Later in the day he asked me to walk with him.  On the way he collected the charge nurse and we entered Tom’s room where the doctor explained gently but clearly the risks of Tom’s request.

“The tumors have eaten away at your bones,” he said.  “You already have a fracture in one of your ribs.  We’re not sure how your leg would react to putting weight on it, and even if the bones don’t break, the pain may be severe.  Worst of all, your thoracic vertebra is thin as an eggshell and could collapse at any time.  If that were to happen, you’d become paralyzed from the waist down.”

“I’m willing to take those chances, as crazy as it sounds,” Tom said.  “I may be dying but I want to use the bathroom.  It’s a matter of dignity and something I need to at least try.  Will you help me”?

Dr. O’Keefe looked at us each one at a time.  “Are you willing to try this, Pat”?

“I guess we could arrange the med schedule around the therapy visits”, Lisa offered uncertainly.

I looked at Tom and there was only one answer.  “We’ll take it a step at a time”, I said.

Falling back on my recent studies I created a plan, starting with gentle leg exercises in bed as preparation for standing.  We’d see what he could tolerate.  Immediately, Tom changed the plan.  “Forget the exercises.  Either my legs will hold me or they won’t”.

I taught him to log roll and to push up to sitting using the bed controls to raise himself so as to minimize any twist on the joints.  For a few days it was all he could do to sit on the side of the bed for a while.  Every day as he sat, he looked at the bathroom door, ten feet away but seemingly miles.

About 4 days in, he declared himself ready to try standing.  I brought in a walker and raised his bed to waist height so that he could just slide into a standing position without having to push himself up.  I couldn’t use a safety belt; there would be too much pressure on his back and ribs should I need to use it, so I just wrapped my right arm around his thin frame and held him close against my side.  As he began to move forward onto the walker I could feel the moment his weight shifted from the support of the bed onto his thin legs, the critical point when they would hold him or not.  Lisa stood nearby at the ready.  His legs trembled but held.  He was taller than I realized, a different man once upright.

Sweat poured off him, dripping to the floor below as he stood, breathing in short gasps, staring as always toward the bathroom door.  He gently shifted his weight from side to side, and still his legs held.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Help me sit” he said, and I eased him back to the bed.  The nurse stepped in with a shot of morphine and I watched a bit of the strain ease from his face.

In the next days he stood twice, three times, and took a few steps.  Each time he returned to bed he was drenched with sweat, ready for his meds.  When Tom was out of bed my senses seemed to heighten.   My hands felt every wobble and shift, my eyes scanned for paleness, and my hearing was focused on the rhythm of his breath, as often I held my own.  Every moment I was aware of the reserves needed for the trip back to the bed, so near yet now so far.  I knew each of his weak points, had memorized the map of his bones.  Lisa was never far away, watchful too, on the ready.

Some days Tom just sent me away without getting up.  Those were the bad days, the ones where he gave in, gave out, but never gave up.  “Come back tomorrow”, he’d say, thick tongued with eyes that barely focused, and I knew the pain was stronger than desire on those days.  To be honest, I needed those rests, too.


My pain was different and far less, but there none the less.  The stress of the risk we took, the guilt that lay dormant but ready should he get hurt, the nearness of death for my patient, my friend, my hero.  The bathroom door became my goal as well.  I knew exactly how many steps from the bed, how many breaths it would take to reach it.  As always, I held him close to my side and we moved as one.

Finally about 2 weeks in he chose to go for it.  It was a good day, good being relative to the bad, and good meaning the best he was likely to have left.  He knew the tide would soon be turning.

“You OK?”  Each time I asked he reassured me and took another step.  We made it into the bathroom, pivoted as if we were one, and I helped him onto the john.  He sat sweating and panting, but smiling.

“Look at you,” I said.


“How are you doing?’

“Could you step out and close the door?” he asked.  In the hall Lisa let out a breath and the sight of her blurred as my eyes filled with tears.

He made it back to bed in record time, riding the high of his victory.  “We did it,” he sighed, his grimace approaching a smile.  For the first time though, his eyes didn’t search out the bathroom door, but looked instead to the hallway, willing the space to be filled by the nurse with the needle.

“Thanks,” he whispered.

Tom made it to the bathroom two more times in the next 3 days.  Then, on the 4th day, in morning report the news came that his vertebra had collapsed during the night as he rolled over in bed.  It was frightening how close we had been.  As expected the paralysis was complete.  Breaking the chasm of silence someone commented that perhaps he’d feel less pain.  It was a long reach for the merest spark of comfort, and no response was made.

I didn’t want to see him, didn’t know how to face him, didn’t know how I could endure that truth, guilty that I could walk and live.  But there was no question of not seeing him.  When I walked quietly to his bed, he was awake, looking out the window.

“Hey there,” I said.  “I heard the news.  I’m so sorry”.

His eyes filled with tears.  “But we made it,” he answered.  “I’m so grateful for what you did for me.  You listened and helped me even though we knew it could come to this.”

I mumbled some inane response, wanting to run as far and as fast as I could.  As if reading my thoughts he told me not to bother coming back.  “I don’t want the hot packs anymore.”  I understood.  Just as it was difficult for me to see him in bed, it was far worse for him to see me standing.  Our connection was severed with his spine.

Not a week later Tom died of pneumonia, a complication brought about by inactivity and diminished lung capacity they said.  I thought it had more to do with his having reached his goal and lost it so soon.  I left Uncas soon afterward.  I graduated, passed my board exams and became a real therapist.

But it was because of Tom that I became a good one.

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