After so much time you think you'd have it netted in the mesh of language. But again it reconfigures, slick as Proteus. You're in the kitchen talking with your ex-Navy brother, his two kids snaking over his tattooed arms, as he goes on & on about being out of work again. For an hour now you've listened, his face growing dimmer in the lamplight as you keep glancing at your watch until it's there again: the ghost rising as it did that first time when you, the oldest, left home to marry. You're in the boat again, alone, and staring at the six of them, your sisters & your brothers, their faces bobbing in the water, as their fingers grapple for the gunwales. The ship is going down, your mother with it. One oar's locked and feathered, and one oar's lost, there's a slop of gurry pooling in the bottom, and your tiny boat keeps drifting further from them. Between each bitter wave you can count their upturned faces--white roses scattered on a mash of sea, eyes fixed to see what you will do. And you? You their old protector, you their guardian and go-between? Each man for himself, you remember thinking, their faces growing dimmer with each oarstroke.
Paul Mariani - 1940-
Quid Pro Quo
Just after my wife's miscarriage (her second in four months), I was sitting in an empty classroom exchanging notes with my friend, a budding Joyce scholar with steelrimmed glasses, when, lapsed Irish Catholic that he was, he surprised me by asking what I thought now of God's ways toward man. It was spring, such spring as came to the flintbacked Chenango Valley thirty years ago, the full force of Siberia behind each blast of wind. Once more my poor wife was in the local four-room hospital, recovering. The sun was going down, the room's pinewood panels all but swallowing the gelid light, when, suddenly, I surprised not only myself but my colleague by raising my middle finger up to heaven, quid pro quo, the hardly grand defiant gesture a variant on Vanni Fucci's figs, shocking not only my friend but in truth the gesture's perpetrator too. I was 24, and, in spite of having pored over the Confessions & that Catholic Tractate called the Summa, was sure I'd seen enough of God's erstwhile ways toward man. That summer, under a pulsing midnight sky shimmering with Van Gogh stars, in a creaking, cedarscented cabin off Lake George, having lied to the gentrified owner of the boys' camp that indeed I knew wilderness & lakes and could, if need be, lead a whole fleet of canoes down the turbulent whitewater passages of the Fulton Chain (I who had last been in a rowboat with my parents at the age of six), my wife and I made love, trying not to disturb whosever headboard & waterglass lie just beyond the paperthin partition at our feet. In the great black Adirondack stillness, as we lay there on our sagging mattress, my wife & I gazed out through the broken roof into a sky that seemed somehow to look back down on us, and in that place, that holy place, she must have conceived again, for nine months later in a New York hospital she brought forth a son, a little buddha-bellied rumplestiltskin runt of a man who burned to face the sun, the fact of his being there both terrifying & lifting me at once, this son, this gift, whom I still look upon with joy & awe. Worst, best, just last year, this same son, grown to manhood now, knelt before a marble altar to vow everything he had to the same God I had had my own erstwhile dealings with. How does one bargain with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups the ante each time He answers one sign with another?