6/20/13

Lesley Yalen

Hopscotch

Terrifying, to wake before light, before eyes worked. Makela lay under the covers trying to discern how she was oriented in the bed, and how the bed was oriented in the room, and where the door was. Her eyes opened. Saw nothing. She tried hard to recall where her head was by flexing her feet. Feet were at a constant distance from the brain. Eyes can sometimes see in the dark if they wait a while. Makela waited. But still. On this night, she could not even make out a lighter dark within the dark of her room. Dresser, chair, floorboards, door: everything was similarly dark. Makela knew that dying would be like this. That she would live a while more and then her eyes would cease to work. She would no longer see. Everything would be evenly gone.

**

Mothers die first, as a rule. But how would she know when her mother was gone? The world would not shudder. Nights would continue, and Makela would continue to be a daughter although her mother would no longer be a mother. Makela was sure she would feel it. She would hurt harder from then on. She wanted to be the one to go first. She wanted her mother to be around when she finally filled squid-like and sank. Makela’s head floated toward the window to be closer to the street. Her body found itself in bed. Is there anyone to tell Makela she will be okay?

**

When she turned the light on, no one said she would be okay, but she could see that her room was how it always was when she could see. There were curtains, slips of paper, bookmarks, socks. The crossword was ready: open-armed acrosses, retreating downs. Dreaming, she had seen a boy she loved in the second grade. He was eating a sandwich, far away but clearly; he was him. He was not her mother. His hair glowed religiously. You! Makela had said, I get to see you! You of the lowercase K that I kept. In the dream, the boy had dirtied his knees looking for four-leafed clovers. It took Makela a very long time to reach the boy. She approached for what felt like days, pushing through a hot plasmatic atmosphere, crossing a spiked and shard-strewn terrain, until finally she reached him, only to find up close, when their faces were almost touching, that he was not him. He was a different boy.

**

Seventy-six across was Dixie Drink. Five letters were needed, fourth letter E. Makela thought not of Dixie nor of Drink. She thought of no words at all, only letters, swirling, hurtling, filling every empty space. She watched them combine and recombine, lay down in squares and peel off. The alphabet narrowed, hollowed, released, was math. To recollect but not remember, to associate but not feel: this was the crossword’s light. A light to let go in. To let go of small k’s that leapt in king and kite; to let go of people who, when approached, were not themselves. Now, she saw only letters, stripped of sound and use, micro sculptures made of circles, planes, and hooks. They floated around her and she slowly dismissed all but five, and then she laid those five down in their only order, a single line in a network of intersections, in a pattern with no other message than itself. In this way, Makela got julep, and felt kissed.

**

She was always waking to a ripe night—This is it. Today, whatever she needed most would be snatched from her fist. Whenever she said this, the psychologist said, Say more, and Makela said the same thing again. The psychologist asked many questions that were the same question, made comforting noises that were one noise. Her posture was kind, her hair a deep bowl. Makela stuck to a few statements that were irrefutable: I am the only person who lives for certain; nothing will end until I die; once my mother dies she will no longer be my mother. Makela could not answer the psychologist’s questions and the psychologist could not prove Makela’s assertions wrong. It was a draw, they were equally matched. Makela was sometimes confused about where she was. Where am I? is what she wanted to ask, but she knew that the answer to this question would come more quickly if she watched and waited for the psychologist to speak. The psychologist, strictly, never spoke first. The two women, then, would sometimes say nothing for fifty minutes, only gesture and pose: eyeglasses were wiped, noses were blown, legs were crossed and uncrossed dozens of times. Makela was happy in this quiet, happier than usual. How unusual, she thought, how pleasant, saying nothing to a person. She thought, If only people were like this. Every Monday at 5:30, Makela went to the muted office, in the muted building, in the muted part of the city that was always under clouds, and there worked her hardest on knowing where she was. She tried to be less afraid of life and death but she made slow progress. The psychologist did not seem bothered by Makela’s slowness, she accepted every contingency with her eyes.

**

Makela had not been able to talk to her mother for three years. In part, this was because Makela had no telephone. But Makela had no telephone in part because she was not able to talk to her mother. Makela sometimes wondered how her mother was doing. Her mother was not young. She lived in a cold place. It was possible that in three years she had become very old. She could be eighty. She could be housebound or snowed in. Makela’s mother stood at the stove, making stews. She had a hand on a hip. It seemed that she could stir forever, that she might have been happy if stirring was her only occupation. Cook, she didn’t. Only stir, served liquids. Two giant pots made on Sunday were food for the week. Makela sometimes asked for something different and was given a smack. She was shooed from the kitchen, forbidden to nibble, and smacked again for putting a spoon in the pot. But Makela’s mother had a voice, and on Sundays she stood by the stove singing. Makela liked to be nearby, smelling the tasteless soup and listening to her mother sing, despite the trouble that stalked the stove. Her mother would sing whatever Makela requested, though she sang it as if there was no one alive in the world. Sometimes, waking at night, Makela needed to hear that voice she had not heard for years. With quarters in her hand, she went out in her pajamas to a payphone. She had the slip of paper always on her. The woman who answered sounded like her mother, but not exactly. Hello? the woman would say. Hello? Hello? Makela could not confirm the voice. Breathless, her head floated toward home, and her body followed, confused. She went back to bed. In bed, she could not be sure if she had gotten up in the first place or only dreamt it, she could not be certain if they sky was just before dawn or just before dusk. She looked for her mother by the stove; found her photographically. She looked for her mother in other places, in order to cross-reference and corroborate, but nothing else came. Please, Mama, stand in another place, please. But there was only the warm stove and the singing, and a dollar in quarters in Makela’s cold fist.

**

She began with City ESE of Calais and from there the whole thing opened. Answers came, blanks filled. She knew things in the puzzle that she didn’t know anywhere else. The essence of prefix. The probability of T, S, or C preceding H. Puzzles came twice a day, and had to be conserved. Pills came once a day with breakfast. They made her drowsy. Makela washed her face and ate an egg. She did not shower or dress very often. In the center of her living room, away from the walls, was a rocking chair, reaching out to Makela as she entered from the kitchen. Mornings were confined to that chair, an island in the carpet sea, where she marked up a pristine puzzle until it was right. Outside, there was a school and the children who went there were sad. Makela used to watch their mothers leaving them at the curb. She used to open her window and listen to the children play. Often they screamed, sometimes they cried. In the afternoon, the abandoning mothers reappeared and children got into vans. Junk food was promised, Makela could tell by the greedy excitement in the air, by the anxiety of craving which rose even to her window perch. The psychologist suggested that if Makela moved the chair away from the window she might feel better. From the center of the living room, the children could not be seen, and their talk was muffled. A layer of foam and cardboard on the window smothered them completely. Now Makela’s house was petrified. Any street sounds that came in were like fossilized bugs. She heard nothing but the crossword puzzle which spoke loudly about nothing: Abu Dhabi Bigwig, Cato’s Clarification, Jitterbug Move. To this voice Makela could respond as herself but without herself, her mind could safely wander toward a response. She fell asleep for spells in the rocking chair and woke with answers spurting from somewhere beyond her consciousness, and she stayed there until lunch, solving the puzzle like a machine that dreams.

**

Makela was by the stove, stirring. Get out of my kitchen, scram, wash your hands. Lunch was a stew made of whatever was wilting in the fridge. The smell was enormous. I’m tired, go find a friend and play outside. Broth like grass, firewood. Makela added brown sugar to make it bearable to eat. You will eat what I have made, blow on it first, swallow it down. Inside her mouth, a toothbrush rarely went. She could not put much in there without gagging. Her nose was her favorite receiver. It picked up signals from many stations, but none too clear. The smell of the stew was why Makela ate at all. Sing “Greensleeves,” please. I promise, Mama, I won’t bother you at all. Makela put her face above the pot and shut her eyes. She was still except for her fist which went around and around. Sometimes she stirred the soup for hours.

**

Suicide was something to talk about once in a while. How often do you think of it? the psychologist asked. Never. Do you wish for your own death? I wish for a whip or a shot, like any horse. The psychologist said that a thought like that could be classified as suicidal. They disagreed. My days don’t come, they stay fixed. Suicide is stopping something in motion, not something still. They argued the point; they came to an understanding. Death wishes are neither irrational nor uncommon, said the psychologist. Dying is neither irrational nor uncommon, said Makela. No one had died in Makela’s mother’s house, but death was there, in the soup, in long silence, in blanks and strains. Makela was mummified. The natural order is muddled, she said. The child should go first, not vice-versa, since the mother doesn’t need the child to survive. The psychologist did not agree or disagree. Makela had lived with the visible veins, the cracked lips on her cheek, the stale breath in her mouth. This decay was not concocted, it came from somewhere. Would you see your death as retaliation for your mother’s rejection? Retaliation was not something that Makela had ever considered. She had never given much thought to anger or where it went. The hour ended dizzy, trouble standing. Tricky, often, getting to the door and getting through it.

**

After lunch there was sleep because Makela was drowsy. This was good sleep, in daylight. She did not have to wake to a morning. Dreams came, not with weight, but color. In day-sleep, Makela dreamt of red, yellow, white, green, purple, or, happily, maroon. She chose one, a swathe of it, hung it like bunting across her eyes. Everything she saw then was touched and equal. People could not be separate from each other and objects could not have individual uses. Everything red. Or everything green. The edges of things were rounded, the faces of people blurred. Makela breathed through a colored veil, air out and in filtered. Nothing escaped. Everything ran, trailed green like a streamer, flown rose like a kite. Every color was itself and unstuck, not an attribute of a more solid thing. Black was pure. Blue was blessing. Yellow rested. This was Makela at her best. Sometimes it was evening before she woke from her afternoon nap.

**

Every day that wasn’t Monday, Makela called the psychologist and left her a message. The phone number was kept on another slip of paper. After her nap, Makela put her jacket and boots over her pajamas and, clutching quarters, went to a payphone and closed herself in. The psychologist never answered her phone. No psychologist Makela had ever known had ever answered his or her phone. They let it ring. All their answering machines had a similar appeal. They returned your calls more faithfully than other people, if you wanted them to, but Makela rarely wanted her calls to be returned. Years ago, the psychologist had said she could call whenever she wanted. She said to leave a message after the beep, then her voice was gone. Often, Makela could not remember then who she was calling or why. In these cases, after the beep, Makela just said her own name and hung up the phone. Sometimes, she spoke in clues from the morning puzzle. Slightly Gamy—Heavenly Abodes—Propelled—Spiny-rayed Aquarium Fish. This was a message she would like to receive. When she was more lucid, and sure of who was listening, something important might occur to Makela to say. When we both die we will both be dead, for example. Or: Retaliation requires a person who hurts when hit.

**

Makela woke before light. Hurt from all the dying everywhere. Tried to know where she was. Made her own man-made light. She crossed words, one with the other; soldering difficult and disparate objects was her occupation. She found the “i” that Clarinet and Nagasaki shared. No one said okay, it will be or it was or it is. How to survive that. The psychologist has said that, ideally, we learn to self-soothe at a very young age. Suck a thumb, gurgle softly. What can you do? What do you like? The psychologist made room for everything and expected a lot. Makela took her pills and drowsed. She ate an egg. She sat in the center of the room far from the school where mothers dropped off children, in the rocking chair that certainly used to belong to someone. She began her second crossword of the day. And what else, besides the crossword? the psychologist asked. It’s not good to have all your eggs in one basket. What Makela liked besides letters was colors and sometimes shapes. Never sounds. The psychologist suggested she might try jigsaw puzzles or maps. What would I do with maps? asked Makela. What would you like to do with them? Makela was not sure she wanted a new hobby. She would wait and see. There was liquid for lunch, her teeth unchewing. She slept afterwards, left a message after the beep. Stood stubbornly by the soup, and only there, thinking. Please move Mama, be  somewhere else.

**

We can continue to talk by telephone, the psychologist said. Would you like that? I don’t have a telephone, Makela said. You can get one, or use the payphone. Makela thought finding enough quarters would be very tiring. The psychologist sat steady-eyed. In there. I would like to continue working with you, she said, You’re important to me. She was definitely in there, behind her eyes, holding. Makela had never met anyone so visible. You are disappearing, Makela said. No, I’m not, the psychologist said. I am still here, I am here. In a month, the psychologist would be moving away. She had a family Makela had never considered. A house she was selling. A reason to move. The psychologist insisted that Makela at least take a referral, the name of someone in town whom she knew and trusted. I want you to live more full and less fearful, she said, and Makela took the name, but soon lost the slip of paper. She lost all her slips of paper around that time. A chest pain called out, Makela left it unanswered. Now no one was with her, this truth had finally caught up. She found herself in less fear but more pain, a kind of progress, a preference. There was a void in the shape of the person who had gone. A few voids, a few different shapes, merging, hurting, but not the worst yet. There was no way around it, only in.

**

In the next period, Makela had the same ache, the same deep inside suck. On the other hand, she made some small changes. She opened the window and put the rocking chair back where she could see the children. They see-sawed and swung in colorful jackets. She felt little. She thought about what she would do with her anger when she found it. Would she retaliate? Would she know how? Makela found a map of Africa and color coded the countries, the ones she liked—green, the ones she would never go to—purple. Senegal was the prettiest thing she had heard in many years. The psychologist agreed. She was at the stove stirring soup. Greensleeves, she sang, and she insisted on answering questions with questions. Makela rarely left the house. She didn’t put her spoon in the soup. She sat at the window and watched the children stick in grooves: pick up, put down, hop forward, hop back. They keep doing the same things over, Makela said. Yes, the psychologist said. See how good they get at self-soothing? In awe, Makela watched the children follow their patterns, pick up their jacks.

Lesley Yalen lives in Northampton, MA. Her poems have appeared in jubilat, Glitterpony, Invisible Ear, Octopus, notnostrums, Encyclopedia Vol. 2, H_NGM_N, and elsewhere. Her chapbook The Beginning In is available from minutes BOOKS.

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