The Poet’s Voice

Fiction

The beeping of a monitor, the awkward angle of a wheelchair waiting beside a door—these things remind me of where I am. Repeated visits have reduced the corridor itself to a pale vagueness. Mom’s room is clearer. The few flowers on the window ledge are no longer fresh, but their presence marks the room as hers.

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“It’s early, Isaac,” she says when she senses me beside her bed.

“I thought I’d come for a minute, before your tests.” At the mention of the tests she shifts, her grey eyes close.

“Sarah?” she asks.

“Good. She’s had breakfast. I left her with enough books and puzzles to keep her occupied.”

“And your father?”

“I haven’t looked in yet. I expect he’s asleep.”

Dad’s room is one floor up. He’s been here six weeks. For Mom it’s only been two, but the routine feels ingrained. Nothing more can be said before the nurses arrive and I have to leave.

When I look in on Dad I can tell that he’s dreaming. The motion of his right hand shows it’s a restless dream. I’d like to talk, but I know I shouldn’t wake him. Even if I did there’d be little said. His words have always been spare, seldom more than necessities. I watch his hand for another minute before leaving. This, too, is part of the routine, but as I reach for the elevator button I have to concentrate to control the movement of my own hand.

When I leave the hospital the smells of disease and disinfectant linger close by. Each breath exaggerates, rather than diminishes, their presence. I try to take in the clean summer air, without success, then decide on a hurried detour across Elm Street to Sam’s.

Once I pass through Sam’s doors, all threats are pushed into the background. The endless variety of record sleeves delights my eyes. Flipping through them calms my fingers. Two full walls display sale-priced albums, most of them new, most of them intriguing. Like the one they’re playing now, Electric Music for the Mind and Body by Country Joe and the Fish.

The acid edge of Country Joe and the Fish is gone, replaced by a languid softness.

While I scan these walls for the most recent bargains, I glimpse Rebecca two aisles away. I’ve known her since grade school. She’s a friend, but I haven’t told her about Mom and Dad. I’m tired of the explanations and I’ve come to resent the inevitable questions about Sarah. Of course Sarah’s young, but in Mom and Dad’s absence she has me to rely on. And I have Sam’s.

Rebecca is talking to a girl I don’t recognize, a slender blonde with a fleeting smile. When I join them Rebecca takes my hand.

“Isaac’s an old friend. A classmate.” She nods towards the girl. “And this is Hope.”

Hope offers a smile, this one hesitant. The music changes then. The acid edge of Country Joe and the Fish is gone, replaced by a languid softness.

“You know that she’s half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there . . .”

I look towards the counter where the album cover is propped against the register. “Leonard,” Rebecca says, pointing towards the nearest display wall.

I’m enthralled by the sound, so unlike the West Coast Psychedelic I’ve collected. I drift in the direction of Rebecca’s gesture and find Songs of Leonard Cohen. Four words and a photograph. Nothing more is needed. I wave my thanks to Rebecca as I leave for home with my new-found treasure.

In my room the voice of the poet floats in the air whispering of pleasure and pain. The starkness of the music and the voice weaving through it are hypnotic, like ancient smoke. I study the dust jacket. Sombre eyes stare out from the sepia portrait, as if peering back from within the gates of hell. I can’t decide if they’re inviting me in or warning me away.

“Hey Isaac, I’m hungry.” My sister’s wail breaks through the wall of longing the voice is building within me.

“In a minute, Sarah. I want to finish this side.”

By the time I’ve got the words out she has run up the stairs and is standing in the doorway of my room. Her eyes look a little like his.

“Hey Isaac.”

“Yeah, Sarah, what is it?”

“He can’t sing. And it’s past lunchtime.”

He’s still in my head as I make lunch. An omelette of cheese, chives, a little parsley. It’s not as light as one Mom would make, but it’s not bad. She taught me well. I pour some milk.

“Okay, Sarah, lunch is ready.”

She dives into the eggs like she hasn’t eaten in days. “When are they coming home?” she asks.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I tell her. “Probably soon. Mom anyway. The operation is Friday and she’ll be home next week if everything goes well.”

“She’s not gonna die, is she?” Sarah asks.

I look at her. Her eyes are full of tears. “No, kid, she’s not gonna die. It’s a simple operation. Next week Mom will be back here making something for lunch besides an omelette or grilled cheese. And making sure that you do the dishes.”

Sarah grins. Drinks her milk.

“You going back after lunch?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m going back. You’ll be all right on your own, won’t you?”

Mom is folk, steeped in tradition but being updated—edit one section of bowel, no more colitis, we hope.

Back at Mount Sinai Dad’s still asleep, exhausted by the chemo. The doctors won’t admit it but I can tell they don’t give him much of a chance. They’re wrong of course. He may be silent. He may be lying there with his belly pointing at the ceiling, tubes going in and out of everywhere, but behind the grey eyelids, behind the trembling lashes, his brain is working. Thinking of ways to make their job as difficult as possible.

I think about Mom being one floor down—different diseases, different floors. It’s a lot like Sam’s: rock at the entrance, folk one floor up. Classical at the top, as if to make certain you have the chance to hear Moby Grape or the Doors before you’re safely behind the barricades with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

For the moment Dad is classical, filed with the choral works of Verdi and Fauré. The requiems. Mom is folk, steeped in tradition but being updated—edit one section of bowel, no more colitis, we hope. It was Mom who always told me hope’s a tricky thing. Even though you want to keep it close, you need to be wary.

She’s sitting up when I come in. She smiles broadly when I give her the fresh rose I’ve brought from the garden.

“How are you feeling?” I try to sound bright, cheerful, while the poet’s voice moves through me. Honey and gravel.

“You just missed your aunt.” Something inside me eases a bit.

“Too bad, I would have liked to say hello.”

“No you wouldn’t.” She laughs. She knows me too well to let that pass. “Did you see your father?”

This time the phrase “your father” irritates me. It’s as if she’s saying he’s a thing attached to me, a thing I brought into her life and not the other way around.

“Sleeping, as usual. But he looks okay.”

I turn my head towards the window. The sky is clear and blue. At least she has that to look at. When I look back Mom shakes her head, a little amused, a little concerned. I think I’ve been muttering—probably a line from Songs of. I bring my attention back to her and we spend our time talking, saying nothing of consequence. Then I’m free again.

Back in my room I listen to the ageless voice. There’s something elusive in the stories it tells. I listen to the words, again and again, but can’t be certain I understand all they say.

Maybe I need to be away from them for a while, to think about them. For tonight, I decide I’ll push myself out of this room. I make dinner and soon send Sarah off to bed. “I’m going out for a while. Okay with you?” I ask her.

“Sure,” she says. “if it means I won’t have to listen to any more of your funeral music.”

I wander up to Pancer’s. It’s not a coffee house; it’s not in the sacred heart of Yorkville. But it is close to home and offers Russian tea, potato pancakes and a chance to hear Old World voices. And on this August night, it offers another meeting with Rebecca and her friend, Hope.

Rebecca and I drink tea and trade a series of quotes. It’s a game we play. A fragment of a lyric or a line from a book known to us both allows us an exchange of meaningful looks. Tonight we ask each other if “God is alive and magic is afoot.” I don’t act on the looks we share. I never have.

Hope says nothing. She watches us with a peculiar kind of intensity I’ve never seen before. When it’s time to leave, her eyes hold mine for an uncomfortably long time and she says simply, “I know.” She offers one of her smiles.

I wonder if she’s referring to the looks I give Rebecca. Or if she knows I don’t understand yet what it is I’m reaching towards. The steadiness of her gaze is disturbing, but I don’t want to break away.

This might be what Mom means about hope. Hold it close, but be wary. The truth is I like the irony of the name as much as I like her odd smile.

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She comes home with me, not invited but in no way discouraged. We talk a while. She stays.

At breakfast Sarah looks her over and gives me a smirk.

“What’s new?” she asks.

“This is Hope,” I tell her. “She’s moving away from home and crashing here a couple of days while she decides where she’s going to live.”

“Cool,” Sarah says and eats her cereal. In the daylight Hope is pale. Lambent. She seems to shimmer as if she’s burning, or not really there.

When I see Mom in the afternoon, she’s already heard. I’ll have to make a point of thanking Sarah.

“I understand we have a house guest—a girlfriend you’ve been hiding from us?”

“No, Mom.” I feel my face becoming flushed. “Only a guest. Her name’s Hope. She’s a friend of Rebecca’s. She just needs a place to stay for a couple of days.”

“Right,” Mom says. “Just be careful.”

This time we talk about where things are going. How she’s sure she’ll be back at work soon. How we’ll organize our time to best look after Sarah. We’re practised at this. She’s always worked days, and this year I’ve started to work a few afternoons and evenings. The work at the welding shop isn’t easy but it pays more than most high school students make. And I like being near the scrapyards at night. There’s
a grotesque beauty about it all. The one thing that gives me pause is the look of the men I work with. Dull like rusting steel. So I’m happy to fly out of there at the end of the shift and shower at home.

On her second day with us, Hope makes dinner. She looks as if she’s rarely eaten a full meal herself, so I’m surprised that she can cook. Salmon steaks she’s pulled from the freezer, grilled with lemon butter. Potatoes roasted in rosemary and olive oil. Snow peas steamed so they’re still crisp. Even Sarah is impressed.

“No omelettes, no grilled cheese.” She smiles at Hope. “You’re gonna stay, right?”

“For another day or two, I think. After supper I’m going home, to pick up a few things. Will you come with me, Isaac? It’s not far.”

I nod, my mouth full of perfectly grilled salmon.

On the face of it where she lives is only a few blocks away. When we arrive, she hushes me as we creep into the apartment. Two minutes is all she needs to throw a few clothes into a bag and we’re on our way out again. There’s a man standing in the hall. He’s slender like her, but dark and there’s something unsettling in the way he stands.

Her eyes are tiny and sunken into cheeks that look as if they’re carved out of butter that’s starting to melt.

“I thought I heard you come in,” he says. “This your friend?” He sticks out his hand. As I take it he squeezes.

“Yeah. Isaac,” she says. “I’m staying with his sister for a couple of days. It’s okay, their parents are cool with it.”

“Say hello to your mother at least.” He waves vaguely to his left. He looks at me again. I try to smile.

I follow Hope into the living room. No lamps are on. In the far corner, a figure sits leaning into the light of a black and white TV. The figure is vaguely human, though bulkier and more pallid. Maybe it’s just the light from the screen. As Hope walks across the room the figure turns. Her dishevelled hair is sparse and whitish-blond. Her eyes are tiny and sunken into cheeks that look as if they’re carved out of butter that’s starting to melt. It’s too warm in here. She stretches an arm out, the flesh of it wobbling.

“Ma,” Hope says, “this is Isaac.”

Ma turns her grin towards me and grunts something in greeting.

“Look Ma, we have to go but I’ll be back. Maybe in a day or two.” By the time Hope has finished this explanation Ma has turned her attention back to the television.

We leave then. “I’m sorry, Isaac,” Hope tells me “I shouldn’t have asked you to come with me.”

I tell her I’m fine with it. But later, as we sit on the back steps smoking a joint,
I start to feel as if there’s something clinging to me I can’t shake off. I try to describe
the claustrophobic wetness—like trails left by the things that crawl over you when you dream of being buried. I’d like to peel it away, to be clean.

It’s a long time before I sleep. I’m aware of Hope standing by the window, moonlight dancing on her fingers as they scratch against her wrists. First one wrist, then the other, like a broken waltz. She’s still there when I fade.

In the night I feel her moving close by. I’m only half awake, or perhaps I’m dreaming. In my dream there’s a shout. A scream. A sharp pressure against my flesh. I shake myself fully awake. Hope sits beside me, moving her hand across my body—her eyes shine with compassion and her hand cradles a knife. The blade moves with careful precision but still it breaks the surface. I jump with the pain.

“I’ll take it away, Isaac. Don’t worry I’ll make sure there’s none left. You won’t have to live with it.” She scrapes carefully then runs the blade across her palm to clean it. The blade cuts into her flesh.

I grab the knife away. Sarah is standing in the doorway of my bedroom. The scream must have come from her.

Hope has moved to the edge of the bed. Her look is one of concern. “I haven’t finished yet Isaac.” She holds out her hand for the knife. I tighten my grip on it, shaking my head. Hope drops her hand, moves back to the window, and the moonlight.

I move quickly then, dragging Sarah with me to the bathroom. My arms and chest are torn, though only on the surface. Nothing serious. But how would I know, I wonder? I laugh at the thought. Sarah is cowering in the corner. She looks up when I laugh.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” I tell her. “Nothing. It’s just a mistake. It comes off, see.” She watches as I run a soaking face cloth over my arm and the red washes away like food colouring. It’s painful but I won’t let her see that. I try to make this look like a game, smiling so she’ll know everything is all right. I finish washing
off what I can, look for gauze but decide there’s nothing that needs to be covered up. I glimpse Hope’s pale figure slip past the bathroom door.

Sarah has moved to the edge of the tub. Her eyes look, more than ever, like the ones on the record jacket. I take her hand and draw her with me into the living room. Hope is sitting by the television. It’s not turned on. “I’m sorry, Isaac,” she says. “Sorry I asked you to come with me.”

“It’ll be all right” I tell her. She’s staring at the TV screen—as if she’s expecting it to drag her into some abyss.

I call Mom’s doctor. I don’t know who else to call. He says someone will come. I sit with Hope and hold her hands. Sarah sits beside me. I can tell she doesn’t
want to be so near Hope, but she seems to know I want her there. She might even
understand it’s the safest place to be.

When they come, Hope smiles. “You’ll be all right now. Won’t you, Isaac?” She offers them her hands. A little blood still oozes from her palm.

Before the ambulance crew leave, they spread something sweet and soothing on my arms and chest. In places my skin is raw as if I’ve been dragged through gravel. But they tell me none of the wounds appear deep, and appearances count at this point. I want them out of here. I need to stay and look after Sarah.

They leave when I promise to see a resident in the morning, before visiting Mom and Dad. When they’re gone, Sarah and I sit in the living room.

There doesn’t seem to be anything to say. I look out the window. I’m surprised that it’s still night, the sky is still dark. I watch and wait for Sarah’s eyes to catch fire. She’s the first to break the silence. “Isaac, can I stay in your room tonight? Just for tonight?”

“Sure,” I tell her. “Whatever you want.”

In my room I strip the bed. I’ll wash the sheets or, maybe tomorrow, throw them away. When I’ve finished putting on clean ones Sarah sits at the foot of the bed.
She leafs through the albums leaning against the wall and hands me one. Haunted eyes look at us from the cover.

“You sure?” I ask.

“Yes.”

The voice of the poet floats through the warm night air, whispering still of pleasure and pain.

They are leaning out for love

And they will lean that way forever. . . 

I’m still uncertain how much of what he sings is a dirge, how much a hymn of praise. But I understand a little of what it is he wants us to see.

I’ve begun to unwind the golden threads he has us hanging from.

I look at Sarah. She smiles and snuggles against the pillow.

“Hey Isaac,” she says, “I kind of like his voice.”


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