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By Lloyd Schwartz
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
My mother is mad at the sun.
She hates the daylight — one more new day.
In a nursing home, stuck in a wheelchair, she thinks she's
In the background a woman's nonstop wail — my
mother can barely hear me on the phone.
She doesn't know she's speaking to her son.
I have to tell her she's speaking to her son.
"Oh, then I'm not alone! I have a son!"
"Please, don't forget that."
"How could I forget that? ... and you — who are you?"
* * *
"Are we related?"
"Are you my father?"
"Don't you remember your father?"
"Are you my brother?"
"You're my mother."
"I'm your mother?"
"Was I a good mother?"
"You were — you are — a wonderful mother."
"I'm glad you're my son. What's your name?"
"You don't remember?"
"I can't think of it — I'm all mixed up ... Are we related?"
"You're my mother."
"Did I ask you that before?"
"Are you angry?"
"Why should I be angry?"
"Because I'm so stupid."
* * *
"What lovely flowers," the nurse says, "did your son bring them?"
"Your son. Isn't this your son?"
"He's my friend."
I can't stop myself: "Where is your son?"
"Where's my son? What do you mean?"
"Where is your son now?"
* * *
"Mrs. Schwartz, your son is on the phone."
"Yes. Say hello."
"Hello! How are you feeling?"
"Much better, thank you. Why did you call?"
"I call you every day."
"Forgive me, darling. I didn't remember."
* * *
"Well, hell-o! How did you know I was here?
This is my son, isn't that right?
You're my son, aren't you?
You came out of my body. I'm your mother.
Isn't that right?
Isn't he handsome — even if he has a beard.
I'm your mother, I'd love you no matter what you looked like.
Gimme a little kiss, will ya huh?
What are ya gonna miss. Will ya huh?
Gosh oh gee, why do you refuse?
I can't see whatcha gonna lose.
So gimme a little kiss,
Will ya huh?
And I'll give it right back to you!
See, I know all the words!
(I probably won't remember them tomorrow.)"
My Other Grandmother
Her pale square face looks out like Fate —
through a dark kerchief clipped under her chin
with a narrow, elegant pin; you can make out
a white headband under her shawl; her jacket
and skirt cut from the same coarse dark cloth.
The uneven stitches of her hem hand-sewn —
dark leather men's shoes sticking out.
Yet her face has no coarseness — high cheekbones,
high forehead, small nose. Her narrow, suspicious eyes
don't give much away. The corners of her mouth
turn down almost in a sneer. Her private mind at work.
The closer you look, the younger she seems. Forty
dressed up to look sixty? She could be an actress
in a peasant costume — except for the rough
cloth of her thick hands, her long thick fingers in her lap
curling under her long thumb. Her hips seem broad,
but maybe the thick cloth makes her look heavy.
Her sons and daughters — one greedy; one
resigned to poverty and loose teeth; one fat and jolly; one
angry with the world — unfatherly, unmotherly (yet he could
still charm the ladies) — was it from her they
inherited their bitterness? Their charm? Their nerve?
Her only trace, this worn photo, crudely cut out
and pasted to a piece of cardboard.
My father must have carried it with him. Did he
ever hear a word from her (could she write?) —
or about her — after he left home; left Europe?
Did he know when she had died?
Her name was Leah — he never spoke of her.
Jacky Searle, 1949–1997
"You learn so many things in your life," she said the day after she learned the doctors could offer her no further hope —
"but no one teaches you how to die."
Rushing to fill the silence that filled the room, I said: "Don't they say we start learning that the day we're born?"
"Yes," she said, "I suppose that's another way to look at it."
* * *
"Devoted daughter" and "family rebel" (an only child, like you); "charismatic teacher" and "spiritual conscience" (patron saint: St. Francis); activist; organizer; passionate disapprover of her mother's politics of disapproval —
marathon runner in a hurry to get the operations, radiation, chemotherapy over with and get back to her running —
obstinate optimist (your opposite): your cousin; your "sister"—
how old she looks since our last visit —
back in the hospital, her face hollow; the dull yellow skin hanging on her cheekbones; the sharp clear eyes in your early painting of her now also yellow, larger than life but clouded over; her hair grown back, but still short, and suddenly ashen —
she hadn't said much —
we'd been talking about TV shows —
* * *
"Dear Ms. Searle: I feel extremely lucky to have had you hold my hand and point me in the right direction in life. I remember pushing to sit at your feet at Literature, just for the chance to play with the velcro on your shoes!"
* * *
At 42, against her mother's reservations, she married an ex-priest ("a foreigner," her mother said, "with black eyes") — then moved into a small house two doors from her mother.
"To keep an eye on her," she said ("It's a mistake," you predicted).
"I've always been partial," she said, "to lost causes."
(She once had a plan to turn the White House into a homeless shelter.)
Two years later, she discovered a tiny lump.
* * *
"She was my rock. While she was running around trying to figure out how to give more money to one of her causes, I was trying to figure out which movie to go to."
* * *
After each new piece of bad news, she'd repeat: "The doctors tell me I'm in the best possible position."
She refused to get a second opinion, she explained, "because my doctors would think I didn't trust them" ("I don't trust doctors," you said).
Even after her vital functions began to fail she kept asking for "one more treatment."
Quietly she submitted to a parishioner's idea for a hands-on "healing" ceremony ("She'll try anything, now," you said).
* * *
"She had expectations not only for herself but for us ... in a way, we too were first graders."
* * *
In the hospital, at her bedside, her mother and her husband screamed at each other about whether she should have a hospital bed at home: "I'm her mother!" "But I'm her husband!"
Months after the funeral her mother still says: "I'll never introduce him as my son-in-law."
On the morning before she lost consciousness for the last time (at home, in a hospital bed) —
when she finally woke, and her husband asked: "What can I do for you?" —
she signaled him to bend his ear to her mouth and whispered: "Will you marry me?"
* * *
"When we heard the news about Ms. Searle my girlfriends and I just had to go to the bathroom."
* * *
In the later stages of her disease, she admitted to you (and to herself?) how bitterly she resented having to work so hard to stay alive, while "some people" (not saying "you") did nothing to take care of themselves.
"She wasn't the person she wanted to be," you said, "but she tried very hard to be the person she wanted to be."
* * *
At 13, she wrote about her private world, her "retreat":
The beach at night is a somber place ... a graveyard filled with the skeletons of the beautiful and the ugly ... no stars ... blackness far as I can see ... a cemetery that changes with every tide ... yet it creates a peace inside me that I have never known before ... The blackness hides everything ... I am free ... Sometimes I feel that perhaps God created the beach and the night especially for me.
At 13, she wrote:
I shall burst if I become even a little bit happier ... I take care that my back is always to the world.
Breezing easily between exotic Chinoiserie and hometown hoedown, whisking lightly between woodwind delicacy and jazzy trombone, he must have the widest and oddest repertoire of gestures, which allows him a stylistic and dynamic range unusual even among today's most highly regarded conductors. The way he slipped from the grandiose opening Adagio maestoso to the suddenly jaunty Allegretto made me laugh out loud. Though his small, complex gesticulations can diminish and even undermine the passages where the melodic lines ought to soar.
He's all dippy knees, flappy elbows, and floppy wrists. Not Bernstein's exaggerated self-immolation, but little, complicated pantomimes: steering a car down a winding road, patting down a mud pie, robbing eggs from a bird's nest (and carrying them carefully away), flinging tinsel on a Christmas tree. As a baseball umpire, he could declare a runner simultaneously safe and out at home plate.
He threw himself into the music — and very nearly into the first violin section — with the kind of reckless abandon that comes only with complete confidence and authority; not so much confidence in himself and authority over his players, but confidence in his players, and authority over his material.
These glittering performances: more dazzle than warmth, more brilliance than magic. Sophistication without innocence. Does the music ever hold surprises even for himself? Or terrors?
How much would we love him if it did?
Getting out of his car one night, he discovers — No! It's gone! — the ring he'd worn on his left pinky for more than thirty years.
He treasured it.
Not because an old lover had given it to him — she'd stopped meaning anything to him decades ago.
But because it was an elegant thing: "like gold to airy thinness beat."
The band was etched with delicate crosshatchings — though some of the strokes had worn down to the same smoothness as the inside of the ring.
The part that slid onto — and off — his finger.
It was always a little big for his pinky, so he developed the habit of feeling for the ring with his thumb and pushing it down his finger.
So it would be safe.
He had done this for thirty years.
Why should he lose it now?
* * *
He'd been having a bad run of luck.
A downward spiral.
Like discovering he'd forgotten to record a movie he'd waited years to see — rushing home to see it, but no movie.
He never did that.
An unusual button had popped off his favorite shirt — he put it safely away; but where was it?
Where did it go?
Then while he was inching through a crowded intersection — BAM! — a driver who wasn't paying attention slammed into his car.
No one was hurt, thank God.
But he cursed the driver.
And he cursed God.
And now the ring.
He used to feel lucky, but he was beginning to think his luck had changed.
* * *
He searches around the curb near his car.
He reaches under the driver's seat.
He searches his driveway.
He combs through the trash bag.
He feels under his bed, where that morning he'd tucked in the sheet.
Could it be somewhere in his house, someplace hard to see, a place he hadn't looked?
He sticks his hand down the disposal in his sink.
* * *
Losing the ring is worse than the car accident.
His finger feels empty.
He feels empty and sad.
One more irreplaceable thing lost.
Another little hole in his life.
He keeps feeling for the ring with his thumb.
* * *
Endings — separations, partings — always leave him melancholy.
At a party, he's always the last to leave.
Leaving a city he likes, he'll linger on a favorite street corner when he should be packing for the airport.
Or in a museum, looking at a painting he'd come far to see (and might never see again); then peeking back into the room for one last look — then still one more — before finally tearing himself away.
You can't live in a museum.
Or one autumn when the leaves were especially vibrant — crimson and burgundy reflected in an enchanting chain of ponds alongside the road he was driving down (had he ever seen such intense reds?) — he'd have stayed forever; but it was already growing dark, and the leaves would be gone long before he could return.
He has a hard time letting go.
* * *
This is worse.
He almost asks God to help him find the ring.
Does he really think God can help him find it?
Didn't a missing carton of records turn up a year after he had moved into his new house?
And the book he couldn't find for months?
Even his comfortable shoes (what a thing to misplace!) — they eventually turned up too.
He never stopped looking.
And didn't he thank God when he finally found them?
Or when his father, who couldn't move or speak, died in the hospital the night before his mother was going to take him home?
It would have killed her.
Didn't he thank God for his father's death?
* * *
So what does he have to lose?
* * *
But he doesn't ask.
Does he feel foolish?
Or just not want to waste his wish on something unworthy, some material thing, even a thing that was precious to him?
Maybe he hadn't loved the ring enough.
* * *
He reads elegies —"The art of losing ...," "Nothing gold can stay ..."— but they don't console him.
Maybe he should write his own poem — the way other poets turn their losses into poems.
Wasn't he a writer?
Didn't he need some loss in order to write?
* * *
But wouldn't writing keep reopening the wound?
The more he wrote, the more he'd miss the ring.
Would he love what he wrote as much as he loved the ring?
Would he have to thank God for what he wrote?
Would he have to thank God for losing the ring?
* * *
He misses the ring.
He hates God.
He doesn't believe in God.
He tries to write.
He keeps looking.
* * *
And what if he found the ring?
City of Dreams
Should I tell you about my dream? It's a dream about you ... your familiar disarray an overstuffed Victorian elegance: antiques, bric-a-brac, dark horsehair sofa with swirling hand-carved arm-rests — plush but uncomfortable; you're offering me a drink, and showing me the score to your latest piece,
It's charming — bubbling with flutes, piccolos, clarinets. Fresh. Yet complex: sweet tunes you give a sly rhythmic tilt; harmonies you save from the saccharine with a razor-edge of dissonance. I didn't know you wrote music — could write music. And though I can barely follow a score, I'm actually
reading yours — listening to it in my head as I read.
I pick up one of the doodads from the marble coffee table cluttered with precious objects: a piece of polished mahogany carved into the shape of an arm. The hand end has shapely, arched fingers, with long hooked nails like a bird's claws; perfect for cleaning under one's nails? (Isn't everything here meant to be useful?)
You say: "Leonard Bernstein gave me that. He was so helpful to me with Masquerade. Donna sang the premiere."
Then Donna appears — her loose corn-silk hair; her white body wrapped in a swirling silk peignoir, fluid greens and tangerines, almost transparent. I didn't know you 'd been living with her — with anyone. And to tell the truth,
I was still half in love with her myself.
She offers to refill my glass, and pours more of the chilled Zinfandel. She's charming, bubbly, fresh from her recent triumph at the opera. She seems pleased to be pouring the wine. To be pouring my wine.
You beam. When did I last see you so productive? So happy?
What am I doing here? It's been a hundred years since I visited you, since we saw each other last — since my pocket was picked, my wallet stolen, in the crowd at your father's funeral. No — that was a different dream ...
What do I want? Some help? Approval? I've always needed something from you (and you've always been more than generous). I steel myself to ask, when (KNOCK! KNOCK!) a sudden pounding on the door (Who's there?)
interrupts our masquerade.
2. The Book of Paintings
Of course, I can't remember the artist's name — I'd forgotten it even before I woke up. But I certainly remember
the book of paintings.
I was visiting your house — an odd house, not at all like your real one: much bigger, with narrow
curving staircases and a grassy meadow out back. I was staying over, and coming downstairs late
to a sitting room, where you and some new visitors — an older man and a young girl with long
dark braids (his daughter?), a thin blond woman with large gray eyes, a pale man
in a dark suit (who were they? when had they arrived?), and your lover (whose name I couldn't remember) — were having tea and drinks.
You were sliding a heavy book from a locked bookcase — a thick, squarish, clothbound book: the cloth itself
grayish blue and roughly textured. I heard you say my name as you opened it. The pages were thick
and stiff; you turned them slowly.
I sat down in a large armchair. You crossed the room, and handed the open book to me.
The paintings were mostly abstractions — globs and dribbles of paint swirling up
out of a dark, grayish-blue background:
dribbles of yellow, delicate dribbles of black, little splotches of orange.
Full of atmosphere, I thought. Highly charged.
Suddenly, as I turned the pages, I began to make out faces in the thick swirls of paint;
then all I could see were faces — the same face! — all painted the same grayish blue, more gray
than blue. Each face had the texture of paint, not skin (the reproductions were
so real, I could almost touch the pigment). In each face, the eyes and mouth were wide open,
like holes in a mask, through which the darker background showed through.
I turned each page slowly, often turning back to a previous page. Each "portrait"
seemed exactly the same, the same dark, muted colors, the same frightening
unreadable expression. Were these self-portraits?
Why did you want me to see this book?
I must have looked for hours, while you and the other guests (was one of them the artist?)
stood or sat motionless, watching, waiting for me to close the book.
Then everyone moved again, talking as if nothing had happened.
Nearly dawn, we all went out into the garden; it was chilly, we had to take our sweaters; the sky
was still dark, but with some color — blue-gray, more blue than gray.
Excerpted from Little Kisses by Lloyd Schwartz. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Little Kisses 3
My Other Grandmother 7
Lost Causes 9
The Conductor 15
City of Dreams 23
Dreams (Gatsby's Beguine) 33
Six Words 35
Is Light Enough? 37
New Name 38
La Valse 39
Alfonso Romano de Sant'Anna: Music for My Ashes 45
Two Mineiro Poems on the Love of Death 45
Music for My Ashes 47
Getting Ready the House 48
They Are Moving Along 49
Viktor Neborak: Fish 50
Affonso Romano de Sant'Anna: Tehran Spring 52
On the Rooitops of Iran 52
Zayande ("The One Who Gives Life") 53
Tehran Spring 56
If You Lived Here You'd Be Home Now 59
Small Airport in Brazil 60
In Flight 62
To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence Is Like a Death 67
Two Plays 69
Jerry Garcia in a Somerville Parking Lot 72