The last time I saw your face, I couldn’t see it all. It wasn’t that you were in profile, or lowered your chin in sadness, though sadness stalks your eyes too often, just waiting there for a sag of your shoulder to pounce. No, the last time I saw your face we wore masks for Christmas, perhaps to see New the Year, perhaps to see one another again at all. But I know the last time I saw your face, your eyes told me a smile was crossing its Tropic of Capricorn, since I’d come back safe from my own Tropic of Cancer. And I held your face close, its Equator to mine, our cheeks at anchor for a long moment, because what if this really was to be the last time I saw your face?
I know it’s never been a race, but I only know what it’s not. You’ve already passed me by twice; don’t know how many more laps I’ve got. I’ve given up trying to catch up as we’ve always run round and round. Our strides so evenly match up, but yours are swift, while mine pound. As along I plodded, I’ve pondered all the laps we could have shared, if out of my lane I wandered, if only I’d sped up and dared. I’m nearing the end of my run, and I just can’t catch up to you. Since we don’t know when we’ll be done, here is what I thought we could do. I’ll never get back my old zest, catching up I won’t even try. So I’ll wait here and rest and jump back in as you go by. And as I did, you turned and said, “Thanks for waiting ‘til I caught you.” Seems I was the one laps ahead, now we'll finish as we ought to. I think it’s seamlessly ironic, knowing how I get bogged down in my real life and the hundreds of lives banging around in my head, that I’m a day late in finishing this poem. The prompt was to write a “Catch up” poem. Indeed.
The old man’s creation days have long since passed. Says he feels useless as a bucket full of nothing but holes. Every day he still shuffles to his well of invention, but his arms aren’t long enough to reach whatever new is left way down that once splashing shaft. And even if he could reach whatever sloshes down in the dark, by the time he hauled it up all his creation would’ve run through that old bucket. This saddened and perplexed the old man, who judged his worth by what he could create. “I’m done. I’ve no reason to go on,” he said to his muse, who never gave up on her creative old man. “You can, too, still create,” she told him one night in the dark, for this is where they did their best work. “If you can’t reach a shiny new creation, why don’t you create a well-polished old one all over again? There really isn’t anything new anyone pulls from the dark out into the sun.” The old man spent but a minute pondering his Muse’s inspiration, because she always was the smart one, and said, “You know, your favorite’s a squint-eyed look at one of Stafford’s. Over here’s a slant re-telling of Emily.” And so he began to recreate the created. Because this is what poets do until they stumble over the new. And that’s what muses are for -- tossing inspiration out there in front of their old men to stumble over.
They tell me that the most powerful of the senses in terms of stimulating memories is smell. I believe that’s true, since my hearing went the way of my youth years ago.
And now my memory’s hard of hearing, too.
When even your memory loses its power to hear, let me tell you, you’ve got a problem. Or at least I do.
There are a few reasons I can’t hear anymore.
One, I’m old. Retired from the news business, the newsPAPER one where everyone read your work product behind their coffee each morning.
Two, I spent a lot of time listening to music in headphones while I worked. Turned up to 11, as they say. Plus, I spent a lot of time in the paper’s back shops watching — and, I suppose, listening — to the news being rendered onto erstwhile forests between the rollers of great mechanical transcribers of inky truth.
And three, I could never hear very well to begin with. Hence, the aforementioned headphone volume, which now I turn up to 15 or so via Bluetooth and electronic hearing aid magic as it shouts into the semi-useless holes where Bose headphones once howled.
And what does all this info dump have to do with scenting a memory?
Because I can’t remember Nicole’s voice.
I told you my memory’s lost its hearing, too.
Sure, I can sit on a mountain and look down onto a forest that missed out on feeding the news machines back in the Seventies and hear the wind strum the pines and the birds chant their matins in real time through my hearing aids. But even if I couldn’t, I can “hear” the music of Nature on some recording that I pump from my phone through these $4,000 miracles sitting in my ears. So even if I forgot the difference between a tweeting titmouse and a babbling brook, science can make the connection for me.
But recalling the timbre and music I found in the voice of the love of my almost-silent and forgetful life? That I can’t pull from some crusty fold in my gray matter. And I have to. I need to hear her tell my imagination I’ll be okay when that door opens and the light in the next room plays our song and I click my heels (I can hear that now) and say “There’s no place like home.”
And if home is where the heart is, then my next home will be with Nicole, because that’s where my heart’s been for thirty years.
Right now, when I think of her, I can see her pretty face, feel her warmth breath against my ear. But when she speaks to me, all I can hear is some generic placeholder of human sound. An Alexa or Siri voice that’s nowhere near as pretty as that face or warm as the life she breathed into me. I need that or my way out of this life will be as sad and silent as her grave.
We met on the job, both of us spoken for at the time, but we almost immediately found our voices stimulating some kind of vibration only we could perceive. I would say we were tuned to our own frequency, upon which sentences would abruptly stop somewhere before the next necessary inhalation, but the message would continue and be understood.
“Hey, do you want to…” I’d whisper behind her as she typed away at her desk.
She’d cut me off and whisper back, “No, but how ‘bout we…”
“Yeah, I like it there. Good i…,”
“I thought you would,” she’d say, smile that smile, and then get up and head back to the shop to check out some galleys for Thursday’s edition.
The print shop is where Nicole told me she was leaving. At first, I didn’t understand, the printers’ smudging her voice like her tears smudged her mascara. She pulled me close and placed her mouth right next to my ear and told me how she had to go, since her husband had been transferred.
The newspaper had already found her a position, a promotion no less, at their sister publication in the same city where her husband was going.
Then she kissed me, said, “I’ll talk to you later,” and hustled out to the office. Our city editor made the announcement right after that, pulled out a bottle of sparkling something and everyone toasted to her success. Except me. I stayed in the print shop trying to pull my stomach off the floor.
When I left the shop, she’d already gone. My cubicle-mate pointed to my face and asked what the black stuff was on my cheek. I knew, but I told him it was ink from the shop.
I never heard Nicole’s voice again. Not in person, nor on the phone. I received a bunch of letters, which became emails and then some Christmas and birthday cards and then nothing.
Her obit ran four years ago. No one at the paper by now knew who she was. I didn’t exactly know whose face it was in the photo the company ran with her story. The toll of those quiet years and the onset of my dementia, I guess. She probably wouldn’t recognize me either.
But I have old photos and some sweet selective memories where she’s as near perfect as my imagination chooses to remember. But I don’t have her voice.
Couple of months ago, I pulled a bottle of bubbly something from the fridge and filled a glass to toast Nicole like I never did the first time she left me behind. And as I watched those bubbles rise and (I assume) fizz and pop at the wine’s surface, the idea came to me.
The aroma of the wine reminded me of the night she left. And I thought maybe there was something else that might remind me of the sound of her voice.
So I stole my daughter’s Mazda (don’t tell her) and drove out to the old-timey Linotype printshop on Route 7. It’s run by the son of our old shop foreman. I introduced myself and told him I was writing a story about the old days and hoped I might take a few photos of his presses as a bit of inspiration.
He agreed and walked me into his back shop where I stopped cold.
“You all right, Bud?” he asked with the look of a guy who didn’t need some old reporter dropping dead in his place of business.
“Oh, sure. It’s just that I haven’t smelled something like this, heard that, in a couple of decades.”
“Yeah, that ink smell can get to some folks. I can see how it’s getting to you, too. Let’s grab a couple of pix and get you out of here, Bud.”
“I appreciate it, son. Could you get me a cup of water over there?” I choked out.
So I have those photos and a decent memory of the sound of a roaring press. But every night I can hear Nicole again whenever I pull out and take a deep sniff of the cleaning rag, still full of ink and oil, that I snuck into my pocket while that young fella was at the water cooler.
“I can’t believe you really…”
“Yes, Nicole, if I ever was going to hear your voice again, I had…”
“Okay, Bud. Did you see…?”
“Oh, that is quite a bright…”
“It’ll be all right. Been waiting for…”
After a lot of sputters, stops and no starts, I sat down with no expectations and tackled the prompt of Hearing in Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses. program. Had to use that photo up there, as well as two other. And, so lie me, my Hearing story hinged on the sense of Smell. This is a first-draft hope and a prayer. But it’s a thing where nothing was before.
She asked me what it was like to live up there where it got Winter early and Spring so late. I had to sit for a second to remember. Even though remembering’s almost all we old guys do. Mostly what I recalled was the heat on my face and the chill on my back, like when I would chase the sirens and lights to those trailer fires, where someone’s whole life, and few lives themselves, would go up in a smoke so stinking it clings to my memory harder than it clung to my clothes back then. But the fires weren’t the recollection I was thinking of when she asked me. No, it was heat of your breath on my face and the icy chill of the known unknown coursing down my back and how they melted together and steamed within me ~ and us ~ that one night I’ll never forget.
I wish I had a life something like yours, as sad as you feel you are. Yes, it’s dealt you some busted hands, here and there…even there…a scar. But at least you’ve lived and loved and felt, the sense that’s left me just old. And now I’m seeing that light up ahead, where the only touch I’ll feel is cold. Looks like I’ll always be left to wonder what my life would’ve been like if only… Wondering doesn’t feel so soft and warm, wondering like this only feels lonely. Too late now to hope some day I’ll find what I’ve not often felt to feel better. Your memories hold the warmth you’ve held, and I pray someday we can hold some together.
The heat of August remains in the sidewalk after the sun goes down, like a memory of the day. The girls, barefoot and playing at being ready, would remove their sandals on cool nights, dangle their toes off the stoops to massage them on that warm concrete skin of the city in the humming wake of street traffic. We boys would side-eye stare at their ostensible nakedness, from dirty soles to Promised Land thigh tops, from their bare shoulders to fingertips so small in our hands. I’d dream of massaging my fingers on their city skin. I’ve had such warm memories of those nights, now lying, as concrete as any I recall, in this sun-going-down Autumn of my life. A reposting from my first poetry collection, Penumbra: The Space Between.
From their highest branch perch upon us they’ll spy, in this sylvan church on whose floor they’ll all lie. But some have yet to fall, though look at them sway, like bold paintings on the wall of a windy gallery display. They must know come their ends, colors bright as beacons, as cold North Wind portends and their grip weakens. There goes another I see I’d hoped might be staying. Nature’s iconography at which I’d been praying. But all we can do is sigh as they wave ‘bye and fly, remember, when most leaves fall and die come dark mid-November. And that’s how it goes, as years and we grow old. Winter’s silver snows will plate even autumn’s gold. My prayers cannot stop the passage of time. Like leaves we’ll drop when we drop, with or without silly rhyme. It’s October and I’ve fallen, dear, and I don’t care if you’re an oak or birch. Labels don’t matter to me here, leaf’s a leaf, love’s love in my church. Photo ©2015, Joseph Hesch
I could tell you stories about the future if I only knew what the future times hold. But my time’s running down, I may not have much future left. So no such stories'll be told. But I can tell you about some of my past, at least what I felt of it way back when. My recall might drift from real to dreamed, so fantasy might be the genre I'll use of then. These remembered stories are built of words strung on these lines like sheets on a rope. But if you really listen, and look between them, you’ll understand my past was lined with hope. These days I remember a face but can't the name, I'll even see it when I detect a certain scent. I feel that warm touch, hear a certain voice, but not know if it's true or what they meant. Right now I’m cradling a picture in front of me in black and white of someone I never knew. Yet the feelings I’m feeling when I look in her eyes are almost the same as those I got from you. So I’ll cherish the image of this beautiful girl even if her name I didn’t know until today. And if tomorrow I might become part of your past, I’ll cherish this present more than I can say.
Once upon a time, I will sit on the end of the dock with you. Our toes will dip into the lake and now and then kick up diamond mirrors of sky and clouds, dock and shore, you and me. This very well may be a fairy tale, for many reasons, not the least of which is we have no lake and the lake has no we. But that doesn’t cool the warmth of your shoulder against mine, or warm the cool water splashed on our legs and faces or dim the smiles that we’ll share, once upon a time.