Read an Excerpt
Later the Same Day
By Grace Paley
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1985 Grace Paley
All rights reserved.
First I wrote this poem:
Walking up the slate path of the college park
under the nearly full moon the brown oak leaves are red as maples
and I have been looking at the young people
they speak and embrace one another
because of them I thought I would descend
into remembering love so I let myself down hand over hand
until my feet touched the earth of the gardens
of Vesey Street
I told my husband, I've just written a poem about love.
What a good idea, he said.
Then he told me about Sally Johnson on Lake Winnipesaukee, who was twelve and a half when he was fourteen. Then he told me about Rosemarie Johanson on Lake Sunapee. Then he told me about Jane Marston in Concord High, and then he told me about Mary Smythe of Radcliffe when he was a poet at Harvard. Then he told me about two famous poets, one fair and one dark, both now dead, when he was a secret poet working at an acceptable trade in an office without windows. When at last he came to my time — that is, the past fifteen years or so — he told me about Dotty Wasserman.
Hold on, I said. What do you mean, Dotty Wasserman? She's a character in a book. She's not even a person.
O.K., he said. Then why Vesey Street? What's that?
Well, it's nothing special. I used to be in love with a guy who was a shrub buyer. Vesey Street was the downtown garden center of the city when the city still had wonderful centers of commerce. I used to walk the kids there when they were little carriage babies half asleep, maybe take the ferry to Hoboken. Years later I'd bike down there Sundays, ride round and round. I even saw him about three times.
No kidding, said my husband. How come I don't know the guy?
Ugh, the stupidity of the beloved. It's you, I said. Anyway, what's this baloney about you and Dotty Wasserman?
Nothing much. She was this crazy kid who hung around the bars. But she didn't drink. Really it was for the men, you know. Neither did I — drink too much, I mean. I was just hoping to get laid once in a while or maybe meet someone and fall madly in love.
He is that romantic. Sometimes I wonder if loving me in this homey life in middle age with two sets of bedroom slippers, one a skin of sandal for summer and the other pair lined with cozy sheepskin — it must be a disappointing experience for him.
He made a polite bridge over my conjectures. He said, She was also this funny mother in the park, years later, when we were all doing that municipal politics and I was married to Josephine. Dotty and I were both delegates to that famous Kansas City National Meeting of Town Meetings. N.M.T.M. Remember? Some woman.
No, I said, that's not true. She was made up, just plain invented in the late fifties.
Oh, he said, then it was after that. I must have met her afterward.
He is stubborn, so I dropped the subject and went to get the groceries. Our shrinking family requires more coffee, more eggs, more cheese, less butter, less meat, less orange juice, more grapefruit.
Walking along the street, encountering no neighbor, I hummed a little up-and-down tune and continued jostling time with the help of my nice reconnoitering brain. Here I was, experiencing the old earth of Vesey Street, breathing in and out with more attention to the process than is usual in the late morning — all because of love, probably. How interesting the way it glides to solid invented figures from true remembered wraiths. By God, I thought, the lover is real. The heart of the lover continues; it has been propagandized from birth.
I passed our local bookstore, which was doing well, with The Joy of All Sex underpinning its prosperity. The owner gave me, a dependable customer of poorly advertised books, an affectionate smile. He was a great success. (He didn't know that three years later his rent would be tripled, he would become a sad failure, and the landlord, feeling himself brilliant, an outwitting entrepreneur, a star in the microeconomic heavens, would be the famous success.)
From half a block away I could see the kale in the grocer's bin, crumbles of ice shining the dark leaves. In interior counterview I imagined my husband's northcountry fields, the late-autumn frost in the curly green. I began to mumble a new poem:
In the grocer's bin, the green kale shines
in the north country it stands sweet with frost
dark and curly in a garden of tan hay
and light white snow ...
Light white ... I said that a couple of questioning times. Suddenly my outside eyes saw a fine-looking woman named Margaret, who hadn't spoken to me in two years. We'd had many years of political agreement before some matters relating to the Soviet Union separated us. In the angry months during which we were both right in many ways, she took away with her to her political position and daily friendship my own best friend, Louise — my lifelong park, P.T.A., and antiwar-movement sister, Louise.
In a hazy litter of love and leafy green vegetables I saw Margaret's good face, and before I remembered our serious difference, I smiled. At the same moment, she knew me and smiled. So foolish is the true lover when responded to that I took her hand as we passed, bent to it, pressed it to my cheek, and touched it with my lips.
I described all this to my husband at suppertime. Well of course, he said. Don't you know? The smile was for Margaret but really you do miss Louise a lot and the kiss was for Louise. We both said, Ah! Then we talked over the way the SALT treaty looked more like a floor than a ceiling, read a poem written by one of his daughters, looked at a TV show telling the destruction of the European textile industry, and then made love.
In the morning he said, You're some lover, you know. He said, You really are. You remind me a lot of Dotty Wasserman.CHAPTER 2
Dreamer in a Dead Language
The old are modest, said Philip. They tend not to outlive one another.
That's witty, said Faith, but the more you think about it, the less it means.
Philip went to another table where he repeated it at once. Faith thought a certain amount of intransigence was nice in almost any lover. She said, Oh well, O.K. ...
Now, why at that lively time of life, which is so full of standing up and lying down, why were they thinking and speaking sentences about the old.
Because Faith's father, one of the resident poets of the Children of Judea, Home for the Golden Ages, Coney Island Branch, had written still another song. This amazed nearly everyone in the Green Coq, that self-mocking tavern full of artists, entrepreneurs, and working women. In those years, much like these, amazing poems and grizzly tales were coming from the third grade, from the first grade in fact, where the children of many of the drinkers and talkers were learning creativity. But the old! This is very interesting, said some. This is too much, said others. The entrepreneurs said, Not at all — watch it — it's a trend.
Jack, Faith's oldest friend, never far but usually distant, said, I know what Philip means. He means the old are modest. They tend not to outlive each other by too much. Right, Phil?
Well, said Philip, you're right, but the mystery's gone.
In Faith's kitchen, later that night, Philip read the poem aloud. His voice had a timbre which reminded her of evening, maybe nighttime. She had often thought of the way wide air lives and moves in a man's chest. Then it's strummed into shape by the short-stringed voice box to become a wonderful secondary sexual characteristic.
Your voice reminds me of evening too, said Philip.
This is the poem he read:
There is no rest for me since love departed
no sleep since I reached the bottom of the sea
and the end of this woman, my wife.
My lungs are full of water. I cannot breathe.
Still I long to go sailing in spring among realities.
There is a young girl who waits in a special time and place
to love me, to be my friend and lie beside me all through the night.
Who's the girl? Philip asked.
Why, my mother of course.
You're sweet, Faith.
Of course it's my mother, Phil. My mother, young.
I think it's a different girl entirely.
No, said Faith. It has to be my mother.
But Faith, it doesn't matter who it is. What an old man writes poems about doesn't really matter.
Well, goodbye, said Faith. I've known you one day too long already.
O.K. Change of subject, smile, he said. I really am crazy about old people. Always have been. When Anita and I broke up, it was those great Sundays playing chess with her dad that I missed most. They don't talk to me, you know. People take everything personally. I don't, he said. Listen, I'd love to meet your daddy and your mom. Maybe I'll go with you tomorrow.
We don't say mom, we don't say daddy. We say mama and papa, when in a hurry we say pa and ma.
I do too, said Philip. I just forgot myself. How about I go with you tomorrow. Damn it, I don't sleep. I'll be up all night. I can't stop cooking. My head. It's like a percolator. Pop! pop! Maybe it's my age, prime of life, you know. Didn't I hear that the father of your children, if you don't mind my mentioning it, is doing a middleman dance around your papa?
How about a nice cup of Sleepy time tea?
Come on Faith, I asked you something.
Well, I could do better than he ever dreams of doing. I know — on good terms — more people. Who's that jerk know? Four old maids in advertising, three Seventh Avenue models, two fairies in TV, one literary dyke ...
I'm telling you something. My best friend is Ezra Kalmback. He made a fortune in the great American Craft and Hobby business — he can teach a four-year-old kid how to make an ancient Greek artifact. He's got a system and the equipment. That's how he supports his other side, the ethnic, you know. They publish these poor old dreamers in one dead language — or another. Hey! How's that! A title for your papa. "Dreamer in a Dead Language." Give me a pen. I got to write it down. O.K. Faith, I give you that title free of charge, even if you decide to leave me out.
Leave you out of what? she asked. Stop walking up and down. This room is too small. You'll wake the kids up. Phil, why does your voice get so squeaky when you talk business? It goes higher and higher. Right now you're above high C.
He had been thinking printing costs and percentage. He couldn't drop his answer more than half an octave. That's because I was once a pure-thinking English major — but alas, I was forced by bad management, the thoughtless begetting of children, and the vengeance of alimony into low practicality.
Faith bowed her head. She hated the idea of giving up the longed-for night in which sleep, sex, and affection would take their happy turns. What will I do, she thought. How can you talk like that to me Philip? Vengeance ... you really stink Phil. Me. Anita's old friend. Are you dumb? She didn't want to hit him. Instead her eyes filled with tears.
What'd I do now? he asked. Oh, I know what I did. I know exactly.
What poet did you think was so great when you were pure?
Milton, he said. He was surprised. He hadn't known till asked that he was lonesome for all that Latin moralizing. You know, Faith, Milton was of the party of the devil, he said. I don't think I am. Maybe it's because I have to make a living.
I like two poems, said Faith, and except for my father's stuff, that's all I like. This was not necessarily true, but she was still thinking with her strict offended face. I like, Hail to thee blithe spirit bird thou never wert, and I like, Oh what can ail thee knight at arms alone and palely loitering. And that's all.
Now listen Philip, if you ever see my folks, if I ever bring you out there, don't mention Anita Franklin — my parents were crazy about her, they thought she'd be a Ph.D. medical doctor. Don't let on you were the guy who dumped her. In fact, she said sadly, don't even tell me about it again.
* * *
Faith's father had been waiting at the gate for about half an hour. He wasn't bored. He had been discussing the slogan "Black Is Beautiful" with Chuck Johnson, the gatekeeper. Who thought it up, Chuck?
I couldn't tell you, Mr. Darwin. It just settled on the street one day, there it was.
It's brilliant, said Mr. Darwin. If we could've thought that one up, it would've saved a lot of noses, believe me. You know what I'm talking about?
Then he smiled. Faithy! Richard! Anthony! You said you'd come and you came. Oh oh, I'm not sarcastic — it's only a fact. I'm happy. Chuck, you remember my youngest girl? Faithy, this is Chuck in charge of coming and going. Richard! Anthony! say hello to Chuck. Faithy, look at me, he said.
What a place! said Richard.
A castle! said Tonto.
You are nice to see your grandpa, said Chuck. I bet he been nice to you in his day.
Don't mention day. By me it's morning. Right Faith? I'm first starting out.
Starting out where? asked Faith. She was sorry so much would have to happen before the true and friendly visit.
To tell you the truth, I was talking to Ricardo the other day.
That's what I thought, what kind of junk did he fill you up with?
Faith, in the first place don't talk about their father in front of the boys. Do me the favor. It's a rotten game. Second, probably you and Ricardo got the wrong chemistry.
Chemistry? The famous scientist. Is that his idea? How's his chemistry with you? Huh?
Well, he talks.
Is Daddy here? asked Richard.
Who cares? said Tonto, looking at his mother's face. We don't care much, do we Faith?
No no, said Faith. Daddy isn't here. He just spoke to Grandpa, remember I told you about Grandpa writing that poetry. Well, Daddy likes it.
That's a little better, Mr. Darwin said.
I wish you luck Pa, but you ought to talk to a few other people. I could ask someone else — Ricardo is a smart operator, I know. What's he planning for you?
Well Faithy, two possibilities. The first a little volume, put out in beautiful vellum, maybe something like vellum, you know, Poems from the Golden Age ... You like that?
Ugh! said Faith.
Is this a hospital? asked Richard.
The other thing is like this. Faithy, I got dozens of songs, you want to call them songs. You could call them songs or poems, whatever, I don't know. Well, he had a good idea, to put out a book also with some other people here — a series — if not a book. Keller for instance is no slouch when it comes to poetry, but he's more like an epic poet, you know ... When Israel was a youth, then I loved ... it's a first line, it goes on a hundred pages at least. Madame Nazdarova, our editor from A Bessere Zeit — did you meet her? — she listens like a disease. She's a natural editor. It goes in her ear one day. In a week you see it without complications, no mistakes, on paper.
You're some guy, Pa, said Faith. Worry and tenderness brought her brows together.
Don't wrinkle up so much, he said.
Oh shit! said Faith.
Is this a hospital? asked Richard.
They were walking toward a wall of wheelchairs that rested in the autumn sun. Off to the right under a great-leaf linden a gathering of furious arguers were leaning — every one of them — on aluminum walkers.
Like a design, said Mr. Darwin. A beautiful sight.
Well, is this a hospital? Richard asked.
It looks like a hospital, I bet, sonny. Is that it?
A little bit, Grandpa.
A lot, be honest. Honesty, my grandson, is one of the best policies.
Richard laughed. Only one, huh Grandpa.
See, Faithy, he gets the joke. Oh, you darling kid. What a sense of humor! Mr. Darwin whistled for the joy of a grandson with a sense of humor. Listen to him laugh, he said to a lady volunteer who had come to read very loud to the deaf.
I have a sense of humor too Grandpa, said Tonto.
Sure sonny, why not. Your mother was a constant entertainment to us. She could take jokes right out of the air for your grandma and me and your aunt and uncle. She had us in stitches, your mother.
She mostly laughs for company now, said Tonto, like if Philip comes.
Oh, he's so melodramatic, said Faith, pulling Tonto's ear. What a lie ...
We got to fix that up, Anthony. Your mama's a beautiful girl. She should be happy. Let's think up a good joke to tell her. He thought for about twelve seconds. Well, O.K. I got it. Listen:
There's an old Jew. He's in Germany. It's maybe '39, '40. He comes around to the tourist office. He looks at the globe. They got a globe there. He says, Listen, I got to get out of here. Where you suggest, Herr Agent, I should go? The agency man also looks at the globe. The Jewish man says, Hey, how about here? He points to America. Oh, says the agency man, sorry, no, they got finished up with their quota. Ts, says the Jewish man, so how about here? He points to France. Last train left already for there, too bad, too bad. Nu, then to Russia? Sorry, absolutely nobody they let in there at the present time. A few more places ... the answer is always, port is closed. They got already too many, we got no boats ... So finally the poor Jew, he's thinking he can't go anywhere on the globe, also he also can't stay where he is, he says oi, he says ach! he pushes the globe away, disgusted. But he got hope. He says, So this one is used up, Herr Agent. Listen — you got another one?
Excerpted from Later the Same Day by Grace Paley. Copyright © 1985 Grace Paley. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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