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"Swoony and Moony," short story excerpt

Saturday 5/7/22

Swoony and moony, that’s what my granddaughter Esmra calls the old movies I watch. She snickers when I say something like, “I think you’d really engage with this one,” as I did the other day in touting the 1944 film Laura, starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Vincent Price, in which a woman believed to be dead makes a return.

I live in the house that my daughter used to live in, with Esmra and her dad, with whom I am less close than I used to be, but we make it work because need can pull rank on closeness. Last in, first out, or something hierarchical like that.

Esmra has the same short, curly red hair that my Eloise did, the kind that seems like it can only be that way. The length will never lengthen, that emboldened carmine never drain. Waves and ringlets, ringlets and waves, same as mountains and peaks, peaks and mountains. Other cuts aren’t options. The one in place possesses the finality of the universe—or is equally unilateral. “All your waves and your billows have gone over me,” was the sole part of a psalm I ever memorized, and sometimes we just have to say, “Yes.”

I try to negotiate with my granddaughter, because I know that being clever herself, Esmra respects an attempt at cleverness right back. Sardonic types value a well-returned serve. I say, “Don’t look at it as a black and white movie, and don’t be fooled just because a lot of people call something a romance,” unintentionally impugning whomever writes the crossover teases for Turner Classic Movies which are really quite solid, and, I think, effective in getting you to watch a picture you otherwise might not stick around for, which strikes me as an equally effective metaphor for larger concerns.

I can tell that she thinks about staying, perhaps not making plans with her friends, but she’s a popular high school kid, and it’s go, go, go, go, regardless of all that might otherwise subsume her—or conceivably because of it—like she’s the 1959 Chicago White Sox, a joke that, I admit, does make me sound like I’m a million, an age that Esmra once asked if I was, when she was four, and her mother was thirty-two, and I was just about double that.

“Do I look a million?” I smiled back, while her mother—who, if she was born all over again on that same day, would not live to see the age of two—laughed.

We were having chocolate pudding, the three of us at the kitchen table in what was then a new house that I had yet to live in, excepting babysitting weekends when the parents were off at a wedding, or a romantic recharge in the Dells, which I understood had the darker undertones that are always present in the desperate navigational search for calmed internal waters, and I came and stayed. My late husband Maury called it “sideline time,” which for him meant spraying the shrubs for bugs when we didn’t have any, and he just wanted to be out there on his own, “away,” which I’ve learned has a different meaning and value for all of us.

I’d given Esmra the remainder of my dessert, because that was a rule I had, to which her mother acquiesced. I got to do the spoiling when I was present.

“Maybe a thousand,” Esmra said, setting her spoon aside and rubbing the back of my hand, as if in consolation, but also to remind me that it could be worse. It can always be worse.

“I’ll kill myself if anything happens to Eloise,” I said to my closest and oldest friend Dolores, who was in the final year of her life and knew it, as did I, when we were talking on the phone and I thought Esmra, who was over my old house, had the TV up too loud to hear. It was strange that for the only time in our friendship, we talked about death, but not Dolores’s, as it advanced like a subway train that a voice on the platform intercom tells you is three stops away. We couldn’t comment on that, or we didn’t, when there was other bread on the table that was conceivably a necessary distraction for her, and the need of needs for me—my daughter’s mental health, and her safety. “I won’t be able to go on.”

Esmra, having crested past the age of six, if not the age of pudding, turned and gave me a look of brow-furrowed, mouth-twisted, “say-it-isn’t-so” imprecation from the adjacent room where some sing-song fare played on the TV and Super Grover crashed into a tree because he never could straighten up and fly right, and there I was doing my own version.

I think that’s when I made what was a possibility that wasn’t totally real to her the very definition of what was to come, and for myself as well with how those words tore themselves from me. I took love from her that day, and there hasn’t been one since that I haven’t thought about it, because sometimes love is not being as scared as we might be.

Because I’m now closer to a million, people will ask me what else love is, which they never used to do when I was married or a mom. As if this particular old woman—this lone, splintering fence post in ground that does not belong to her—should know better than newlyweds, or mothers who just met their baby for the first time, or fifteen-year-olds who suddenly possess an ardor for someone else that they’ve never experienced in their lives, which they’re ready to believe in until the death, even if the death ends up meaning the second week of summer vacation.

I’m fronted with inquiries from those who believe they have a desperate need to know, as if they might begin to evaporate unless they come by the truth, ASAP. Conceivably this is the utility of the elderly, allowing that the consensus—or general feeling—is that you’re not outrightly doddering yet. Close isn’t outright, which is a joke I’ll make in a back passage of my thoughts where I don’t venture much anymore.

Do I believe in love at first sight? Does each person have one true love? How about the concept of soul mates? And there are those questions that I ask myself. Can anything be loved like a child, and is there any individual more ageless, illimitable, to the parent who does that loving? I feel like I should have a buzzer to press, before I weigh in with my official opinion. In movies, a brass fanfare—like a darkling, cosmic frog’s punctuative burble of notes—makes that sound of “dunt dunt dah,” to signal that something you didn’t expect—though maybe you should have—has come to pass. Just as in life there are buzzers we cannot hear that go “ding ding ding,” and we only realize they were there after they’ve ceased to emit sound.

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