The Writing Disorder




New Nonfiction


by Karen Joyce Williams

                  if you pass your night
                  and merge it with dawn
                  for the sake of heart
                  what do you think will happen

      When my son telephoned last night to haltingly inform me that he had lost two fingers in a Marine training incident in that carefully carved out swatch of North Carolina, Camp LeJeune, I pictured him, not pinky-less or pointer-less, but smooth limbed and small enough to fit into the white porcelain bathroom sink at my grandfather’s Greenwich Village duplex, glistening, redboned with dark coppery ringlets dripping with warm water and smiling.
      His father, my husband, was hands-on with the babies; his thick, calloused fingers warmed in the bathwater and glistened under a soft sheen of soap foam. I snapped only one decent photo that day of Max; now his widest saucers follow me across the bedroom as I make the bed each morning; dark lashes dripping with the warm water frame an eternal, detached curiosity.
      He seems like such an easy child, everyone said, forming their own version of the phrase. Is he a good boy? Yes, of course, he’s mine. We curled up in his oversize grownup towel after bath time, my moment of no-holes barred bliss: his warm back nestling into my arms; ears always ready for a story, and I, books upon books at the ready.
      Tell me a story from your mind. Okay. And I would have to swing my gaze across the hanging branches near the window in the night, only faintly outlining the new feathery spring growth. A full moon, the sleepless squirrel, a fogged-soaked sky.

                  if the entire world
                  is covered with the blossoms
                  you have labored to plant
                  what do you think will happen

                  if the elixir of life
                  that has been hidden in the dark
                  fills the desert and towns
                  what do you think will happen

      Constant dreaming takes me close to where I mistakenly think Max is some nights or where he will be if he gives into his awakening desires. I wake up chilled, or sweaty, or momentarily unclear of my own surroundings. I twist under the starched white sheet like a bat under its own wings, poking, angling, pushing to get free. I finally curl toward my husband, Deck, in a sleep moment, with clinging desperation and round my arm across his ribs and tuck four fingers between the sheets and his warm belly; if I squeeze closer we may osmotically become one flesh.
      I want him to sob uncontrollably for seconds, to spring a leak, but recover quickly. This is a selfish thought. His son’s life hangs between us like an amulet above the bed and I am a love object in an ancient Persian poem by Rumi, or the young hind in the Song of Solomon; I cling to Deck in the expectation of a vague but perfect transformation before dawn. But I am dreaming and drift off into battle with foxes twitching bushy tails in shades of gray; they wear berets and brandish guns and I move away from Deck under the covers without knowing it.

      My son is always sitting in some portion of my thoughts, lightly floating near the surface or entangled, deep and packed away in one of the many pocked craters in my head. I wait until I’m alone, until, like a clandestine lunch between lovers in a crowded park, I pull out delectable treats; one: a memory of little brown summery legs running against green grass and seersucker plaid; next: oversized eyeglasses in purple, shy whispers in restaurants and committing delicious crimes like peeing in the Maine woods. The pictures I conjure are salty, sweet, bitter; they pacify me, even if they do not satisfy.
      I once sat with Deck on the steps outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, surrounded by a blanket of sun-hot pavement and scuffling feet on the tiered stone steps. We had grown alternately anxious and tired of the crowds, the roped off and too-far away Van Gogh and sat deflated and motionless for a time; an occasional warm breeze coursed dashed lines through the heavy air and woke us to the heat and our hunger. Deck remembered. That day, we carefully pulled out our special lunch brought from home: a truly great pumpernickel with roast beef folded over into a pocket that held juicy black caviar and fluffy white cream cheese and horseradish. We revived and drank cabernet from jelly jars and held the world in our hands for an hour or so.
      I pull out my thoughts of Max like my long-awaited sandwich, not thinking about its future or its destruction or the creeping chill that comes with dusk on dirty, public stone steps, just its effect in the moment.

                  if because of
                  your generosity and love
                  a few humans find their lives
                  what do you think will happen

      Max is a Navy medic insisting on billeting with the Marines, inching closer and closer to his version of the action. Iraq, that redoubled catacomb of political intrigue and now a dampened flashpoint for the potential of the end of plebeian apathy, is dying down into the seedy, messy, trailing bits of a war moved forcibly off center stage. Max hopes to be dropped into the Afghanistan theater, crawling on his belly through [the kind of earth that is like our chapparral] to rescue troops held as prisoners under guerilla guard. Or something like that. But you are already special, Max; do you need such a grand force to commission you to summon your capabilities? Which fingers? I held out my own long-fingered hand and remembered suddenly that he played the piano.

      Just beyond the elm trees through our bedroom window in the attic, the Wolf Moon rose at perigee like a giant sacred rune pulled from a fortuneteller’s bag and ceremoniously laid out on a table. Its massiveness pressed against the dark sky behind the houses across our quiet street. The overgrown and bare branches of the elm tapped and raked the small diamond-shaped window panes as the January wind blew strong, beginning its crescendo around sunset, settling down to a whisper then revving up for a darker movement later in the night.
      That gangly elm I refused to let my husband trim so that I could have a morning soak in bed and listen to the birds chatter and the squirrels gallop perilously close, now scratched the face of the moon’s gold surface. I had hoped Max would have called tonight and I held my palm against the polished disk in the sky, my son possibly transfixed by the moon and his own hand a few hundred miles away.

                  if you pour an entire jar
                  filled with joyous wine
                  on the head of those already drunk
                  what do you think will happen

      He said that he was waiting for his papers to come through for his BUDs training, the beginning step on the journey to becoming a Navy SEAL. Now he would have to change his plans. By day he dispensed clap medication to cornbread-fed Marines straight from their high school graduations, their football team locker rooms and the backseats of their daddy’s Buicks. He said that these young Marines were cursed in the generous gifts common sense; if they had no idea how protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases slipped to them in the Dixie darkness, how would they discern the blunter, daytime threats of war? Of the four thousand he was responsible for from August to December, over half of them had just been transported to Afghanistan, the first of wave of President Obama’s arcane and nebulous plan to bring Democracy to yet another ancient and once-functioning civilization.
      This time he relaxed a little and prattled on about helping to raise his buddy’s puppy, finally discovering a Sonic for burgers and the feel of an M40 bolt-action sniper rifle in his hands on the range at night. My mind raced to catch the practical and academic worth of his daily challenges, but I asked him about his hand instead.
      He said he didn’t remember the poems of Rumi that I read to him when he was three or four. I remember choosing Persian poetry for its form and its power, hoping that the words and the translated rhythm would lull him to sleep and secretly imbue him with a thin layer of grace, a peaceably mien and a connection with an ancient sensibility. He said that now he works out in the gym before he goes to sleep, or instead of sleeping, goes on watch for the rest of the deep part of the night, breaking his vigil at four or five a.m. in the clear cold only to sleep, swim, work at the clinic and train all over again. Each day. I wondered what had become of his soccer skills, the technical prowess that won him and his team the championship on Long Island two years running; the focus that earned him the Chairman’s award at his prep school for his athleticism and team leadership.

                  go my friend
                  bestow your love
                  even on your enemies
                  if you touch their hearts
                  what do you think will happen

      When he called with his news I didn’t say much; I always seem to give weak-kneed advice that he accepts stolidly and respectfully like all first-born sons. I’m sure he tosses it into the trash like a half-eaten sandwich; the bread just a little stale and the cheese not quite right. I measured carefully and slowly throughout that conversation; perhaps this was my chance to get him back. It must be hard to be young and to carry a burden that won’t allow itself to be shared. The trip must feel longer on the legs than it should, say if you had on the right shoes and a snack for the road. I look away from the night, the moon and the window and come to rest on a photo of Max on the soccer field. An action shot, a field goal and the subject caught unawares and focusing in a bubble where nothing exists but the mission. A Sisyphean life, I tell myself and pick out small ticks in his past that should have served as red flags or flares or even hazy portents of his chosen path; another message, lonely like a January night, calling your mother after months of silence, in the darkness.

*The poem interspersed in this story is Ghazal 838
by Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (b. 1207 d. 1273) and Translated by Nader Khalili
Rumi, Fountain of Fire
Cal-Earth, September 1994

Karen Joyce Williams is a freelance writer and nonprofit consultant. She recently published Bringing Out the Music: A Handbook for Teaching Music to Physically Challenged Students for the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. She has published articles in Newsday, the Gannett Newspapers, short stories in Lines In the Sand, Writer’s Digest Anthology 2005 and poetry in The Witt Review. Other nonfiction has been published in Acquirements — a Journal of Antiques, The School Administrator and other publications. She is a columnist for Charity Channel and is working on a nonfiction book on youth mentoring. A new short story, The Death of Billy Holt will be published in The 13th Warrior this summer. Ms. Williams lives on Long Island.

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