What was her name? She modeled for him twice. The four paintings he made of her sold before the paint was dry. Something about her angularity—a hunger in her bones. Or was it the sorrow in her eyes—the first glimmering of old age?
A gigantic face looms before him, startling him. “Hello Boo Boo,” says a voice coming from enormous lips on their way to press a kiss against his cheek. “You poopy? Need a change?”
Huge hands close around his middle, lifting him from the cushioned chair. He moans softly, a sound his mother hears as the beginning of language.
I’m Walter Casey he tries to say. The artist.
But only the most primitive sounds escape him, his brand new larynx yet untrained.
* * *
Helpless on the changing table, his mother frees him from his itchy pajamas and lifts away his soiled diapers. He sighs with relief to have his bum free in the open air. She wipes him clean, cooing as she pulls the string on the musical bear—Twinkle Twinkle Little Star playing for the thousandth time.
Mendelssohn he tries to say. Mozart. Anything but this ice cream truck twaddle.
* * *
She sits with him in dappled shade, chuckling at how ravenously he feeds on her.
Maria. That was her name. She wanted to make love with me. All I had to do was ask. But I was too arrogant. No. Afraid.
His mother pulls him off her nipple. He begins to shriek in despair.
“Hold on, Boo Boo. Switching breasts, that’s all.”
* * *
He falls asleep and drifts through layers of time to
a snarling dog lunging at him
his father saying You Are No Son Of Mine
forms appearing on his canvas as if by magic mother clutching his hand as death takes her
his lover kissing his throat
* * *
The man who comes to visit every day is not the baby’s father. The baby’s father is bearded and stays in the house throughout the night. This other man has no beard. He only stays for an hour or so, speaking out loud to the baby, but conversing silently with Walter Casey.
How are you feeling? asks the man.
I forget more than I remember now.
Yes says the man. Soon you will forget almost everything that came before this life.
But I don’t want to forget.
What do you wish to remember?
Choose one thing.
The baby laughs. The man laughs, too.
* * *
The creek tumbles down through the wooded gorge—a sensual chill in the air. Yellow leaves drift through slanting rays of sunlight and settle on the forest floor. Walter stands at the water’s edge, the tip of his fishing rod pointing toward the sun, his line disappearing into a deep pool. Tomorrow is his seventeenth birthday.
His mother appears on the ridge above him. She is small in the distance, lovely and strong. She waves to let him know it is time to come home for supper. Walter waves back to her and reels in his line. Now he looks up at the falling leaves, at the branches of the aspens, at the billowy white clouds in the gray blue sky, and he begins to weep.
* * *
“Don’t cry, Boo Boo,” says his father, lifting him from his crib. “Here we are. Don’t be afraid.”
I am not afraid. I was remembering the happiest moment of my other life.
“Don’t cry, Boo Boo,” says the gentle, bearded man. “Mama will feed you. Everything is okay.”
* * *
Joseph, a self-conscious young man with a shaved head, sits at a small table in the darkest corner of the café, writing a poem. The first two lines came easily to him.
broken glass, green and brown—
a necklace round the tree trunk
Beyond that, he has drawn a blank. He wants to say something poignant and meaningful about the trees that grow up through the sidewalks of the concrete city, but every new line he writes sounds trite.
He puts down his pen, rubs his eyes, and decides to have a cup of tea. He prefers coffee to tea, but the three people he admires most—his mentor at the Zen center, his yoga instructor, his favorite poet—all drink tea, so he is trying to develop the habit. His father, from whom he is estranged, drinks quarts of coffee every day.
Stepping to the counter, Joseph smiles at the word
BUDDHA printed in large block letters across the pale blue T-shirt worn by Irene, the young woman who works the morning shift at Café Muse. Irene is a voluptuous brunette, each of her carefully plucked eyebrows pierced with seven gold rings, her dark brown eyes enormous. The U in Buddha rides atop her right breast, the H atop her left.
“Green tea, please,” says Joseph, raising his eyes from Irene’s breasts to her eyes. “Are you a Buddhist?”
“Sort of,” she says with a shrug. “Are you?”
“Absolutely,” he replies, his chest swelling with pride. “I’ve been going to the Zen center for years.”
This is not precisely true. Joseph has been going twice a week for three months.
“Is that, like, free?” asks Irene as she prepares his tea. “Can you just…go in?”
“We have regular meditation times.” Joseph’s voice deepens with authority. “I generally go in the evenings. Seven to nine.”
She hands him a white mug and a small black teapot. “I’ll check it out. That’s two dollars.”
“Cool,” says Joseph, eager to prolong the conversation. “So where did you get your T-shirt?”
“They’re my favorite band,” she says, turning around to show him the back. The word GROOVES is written in crimson Italics. Irene turns back around and peers down at her breasts. “Buddha Grooves. They’re kind of world beat reggae with some metal and hip-hop. Very danceable.”
“Are they Buddhists?” asks Joseph, his tone disdainful.
“Is that like a big deal?” she asks, frowning at him. “Knowing if someone is a Buddhist or not? I thought Buddha loved everybody no matter what? Wasn’t that why he stuck around instead of going off to nirvana? So he could spread the light?” She looks deep into Joseph’s eyes. “Isn’t Buddhism about becoming more and more open to what actually is, instead of just following some old dogma?”
Hearing these words from her, the blockade between his mind and his heart—an amalgam of fear and sorrow—begins to crumble.
(Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com)