Trouble in Mind

1.

The Esopus Creek is a gushing brown torrent this fall from the September rain, but the trees surrounding the creek shimmer with red, orange, yellow.  The blue jays and chipmunks squawk and squeak.  Predictably, it all feels sad.

So many times over the past twelve years, Nadia and I walked down here, first carrying, then pushing, then running alongside of Spring.

“We’re going to the keek! We’re going to the keek!” Spring used to chant, and Nadia would join in the chant, dancing and spinning, as if performing some ancient ceremony.

I stop below the Woodland Valley Bridge, where Nadia and Spring picked wildflowers for Saturday night dinners. Because Nadia often worked late at the stupid magazine (Ulster Today!) where she was first the photography editor, then the production manager (and the lone sane soul employed there), we always made a big deal of those dinners. It was a time for just the three of us, a fond ritual. We would grill steaks, pour wine, make salads, light candles, play that CD with the haunting “Ashokan Farewell,” one of Nadia’s favorites; in short, we would have normal, thrilling family life, now gone forever.

I stand at the edge of the creek and skip stones, an admittedly pointless childhood skill which has somehow remained. One November afternoon I taught Spring to skip a small flat stone across the creek, causing Nadia to leap up and applaud.

“Yay! Daddy!” she yelled, and I yell it now, just to hear the sound of something other than my sighs. 

But the two bearded fishermen in their lime green waders turn and scowl.  I guess I am disturbing the fish. I am always disturbing something with my messy grief.

I walk across Herdman Road Bridge, and descend the little hill to the Woodland Valley Stream. I sit on one of the damp rocks where the three of us used to have picnics.

When Spring was eight or nine, a family of ducks made the stream their home, gliding up and down, up and down, dipping their brown-green bills into the shallow stream and pulling out bugs or tiny fish or whatever the hell ducks eat.  The mother duck would repeatedly turn her placid head back to see the baby ducklings behind her, and Nadia would tickle Spring and say, “See, Sweetie, just like Mommy! Always checking on you!”

Like virtually every other memory in my compendium, this one makes me wince.  The ducklings grew up, the family flew away, Nadia died and can no longer look back at her duckling–except, perhaps, in phantom form. 

 “Uccch,” I mutter.  That I am tired of obsessively circling the same thoughts like a dog chasing its tail, in no way alters the fact that  whether here in verdant Ulster County, or in our Manhattan sublet, I am still viewing the same images, an endless slide show in my head.

And sometimes, those images seem to slip the bonds of my thoughts, and appear out in what we like to call the real world, so that I fear I am seeing Nadia’s ghost at the window, or in the damp breeze along Woodland Valley Road.

As I trudge back up the hill, I am so lost in the past that the girl with long blond braids on the red bike whizzing toward me looks like the ghost of Spring’s friend Eirann.  Then, she screeches to a halt, and I realize this is not a ghost, but the real girl.

“Hey! Mr. Brickner!” she shouts.  “Hi! Hi! Hi! Where’s Spring? Are you guys moving back here? I need to see her! I miss her! Got so many things to tell her!”

I smile wanly.  Eirann was Spring’s most beloved neighborhood friend, and Nadia always treated her like she was an adjunct to our family, despite or maybe because of Eirann’s questionable family dynamics (long-gone father, hard-drinking possibly speed-freak mom, multiple dead cars in the front yard, scrawny horse in a shed).

Eirann was forever playing on the swing set with Spring and then later online with Spring, playing Minecraft, Spirit Search, Zombiekill, and all the other horrors of preteen fantasy games.

“She’s in New York.  She didn’t feel up to coming back here yet. She’s getting her ears pierced today,” I say brightly, because I can’t think of what else to say.

Eirann’s face falls. “She hasn’t been online for weeks,” she says. She is yanking her braids sideways, in the same way she has yanked them since she was a little girl, as if she wanted to pull herself out of the moment.  “We were always playing those games, she was always there when I logged on, and she saved me a bunch of times from the zombies and now she’s not ever there, it’s like she’s  vanished, she doesn’t even answer my emails, and there’s all these things, all these things have been happening that I want to tell her…”

“How’s your mom?” I ask, hoping to change the subject.

“She married that creep. Sometimes I just want to shoot him.  Or her. Don’t tell Mom I said that,” she whispers, looking down at her foot.

“I doubt I’ll see her, honey.  I have to go back to New York.”

“So you guys are just not coming back?” She glares at me, as if I were her enemy. “Ever? Spring’s just going to stay in New York? And forget all about us up here? That isn’t fair!”

Her pale face has turned bright red, is streaked with tears. “That’s what my mom said too, that you guys were gone and I should get over it. She said things don’t last, nothing lasts. Is that true, Mr. Brickner?  Friends and love and anything you care about, it just goes away?”

I try to put my hand on her shoulder, but she pulls back. “Some things last,” I say. “Feelings last.  The way you felt when you first saw somebody or when you last saw her. Some things never leave.  Even when you might be better off if they did.”

She bites her lip, nods, as if I have said something other than gobbledy gook, turns and rides back up Woodland Valley Road.

The forlorn swing set in our abandoned yard is speckled with moss and outcroppings of spectral fungus.  I cannot bring myself to go into the house yet, so I sit on the damp seat, swinging back and forth, back and forth.  I can picture Spring sitting on the seat next to me, and Nadia behind her, gently pushing her higher and higher, crooning, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” one of Spring’s favorite songs when she was little. 

And then, I don’t need to picture Nadia, because she is there, smiling crookedly, pushing the empty swing next to me, which creaks loudly as it goes up down up down, not as if it were drifting in the wind but as if it were being pushed by Nadia, who is clearly there, her face partially turned away from me, for a moment, two moments, and then is not.

And once again, I wonder: am I seeing Nadia’s ghost, for God’s sake? Twice before today—once in front of the NYU Global Spiritual Center on Thompson St., and once just staring out the big living room window in our Manhattan sublet—I thought I saw, heard, felt her.

Am I being haunted? Am I losing my mind? Do I know or wish to know anything about souls trapped between planes of existence?  About bereavement hallucinations? About cognitive yearning made manifest in some stupid and pointless way?

Inside, the house is dark and still.  I sit in the dining room and find myself gazing at the stack of festive, useless Christmas china, which Nadia’s mother gave us one Christmas in case we ever wished to host a big family holiday dinner (me: no! never! Nadia: yes! every year!).

Hungry, I wander into the kitchen, though I know I will find nothing edible there. In the dusty cabinet above the 1950s avocado-green oven, there is a can of tomato soup which expired in 2010, and a jar of dried cherries which I cannot recall ever having purchased, used, or even seen before.  It appears to have been sitting back there for a long time. 

“Yes,” I say to no one, “some things last.”

And that makes me laugh. And I keep laughing until the laugh sounds more like a rattle, a rasp, the sound of something which wants to be pleasure, which once might have been pleasure but is now the faint outline of something which no longer exists.

 

2.

Phoenicia is about as crowded as it ever gets—I actually have to pause at the one traffic light in town before turning onto Main Street.  I pull into the muddy parking lot behind Brio’s. I need comfort food—a hamburger, a turkey sandwich, something bland and soothing. But as soon as I start to emerge from the car, someone waves at me from the back of the restaurant.  I can’t really tell who it is, one of the waitresses Nadia befriended, probably, or the pizza chef whose daughter was in Spring’s class. Someone who knows me, knows my story, knows my grief, feels sorry for us, wonders what we are doing, why we left town without saying goodbye, why why why I am incapable of answering the phone, returning emails, going on with life.

I am frozen, half in and half out of the car, thinking of all the people I might run into in town.  I never made a lot of friends up here—shocking, I know—but Nadia made friends wherever she went. The old German lady at the Phoenicia Deli doted on her, the clerk at the Phoenicia Pharmacy would run out to chat when she passed by, the Irish guy at the Liquor Store knew which wines she would want and kept them behind the cash register for her.

Spring and I pulled up stakes without telling any of those people really.  Only our neighbors knew—ambulances and hearses are noticeable, I suppose.  Because what was there to say? Nadia died. By the way she was only 35. My daughter and I are devastated, see you around… ?

 I shudder just thinking of the polite yet probing questions I might have to field, my halting, fumbled explanations.  I slam the door, pull back out of the parking lot, head out of town, with nothing much in mind except a speedy exit.

I follow Route 212 toward Woodstock, where at least I don’t really know anyone. I bellow along with Lightning Hopkins, Trouble in mind/I’m blue/But I won’t be blue always…

But is that true?  Or am I just going to go on stumbling, moaning, seeing my beautiful dead wife’s image wherever I go, feeling her loss like the ache of a missing limb?

“Uccch,” I mutter again. I pull into the municipal lot at the end of Tinker Street, my jaw so clenched it feels like it has been locked down.

Woodstock, too, is crowded with shoppers and sightseers, and families out for a Columbus Day outing, but no one waves at me, and the chicken salad sandwich at Bread Alone does comfort me. A little.  It does. 

My phone vibrates, and a photo of Spring’s ear appears on the message screen. Her sweet earlobe is ever so slightly red and decorated with a tiny silver stud. SEE, the text from her new friend Irina says, YOUR BABY IS UNHARMED & LOOKS VERY GROWN UP.

I smile.  I want to show it to someone.  I want to say, Look! Spring is doing OK! She is growing up! I am not completely incompetent as a parent!  But there is no one really I want to say this to, or rather the one person I might want to say this to is a shadow, a ghost haunting me.

On the Woodstock Green, a circle of somewhat scraggly drummers is pounding on bongos, buckets, tablas. Two people of indeterminate gender stand at the edge of the Green holding signs which read We Are Not Invisible, though no one seems to notice them. Behind them is a little wooden stage, where a woman with a long gray ponytail is performing a puppet play.

The stage looks not so well taken care of; it says ROSE TREE THEATRE in faded red letters. I sit on a bench worn smooth by rain and age, and watch her manipulate the hand carved marionettes, which resemble objects from a lost era, equal parts delicate and grotesque.

A few families stop for a moment as they head to Woodstock T-Shirts or Long Strange Trip to buy psychedelic souvenirs, but she has no real audience except me. I sit there through the whole last part of the show, some version of a vaguely familiar fairytale. There is a beautiful white bird, and a repeated cry, My Wicked Stepmother Slew Me/My Grieving Father Ate Me. There is also a girl, and a dead mother buried beneath a tree, and a pair of red shoes, and a millstone which crushes an evil woman, and when it is over, life seems to have stymied death, and I am actually smiling.

The puppeteer sighs, gently folding the marionettes into a brown leather case.  I slip some money into the nearly empty canister beside the stage.

“I loved your show,” I tell her.

“Ah!” she says. “Not many care about my little guys anymore.” She has a lilting voice, and reminds me of my 9th grade history teacher, who declaimed Shelley to us in a clipped Oxonian accent.

“What’s the deal with the bird?  It’s like the soul, right? Rising up from the darkness?”

“Oh I don’t know.” She absently strokes the white bird. “My father was a magician, toured all over England with circuses and puppeteers, long ago, before the war.  But he died young, and what was I to do?  This. Only this. And just like in my little story, I wanted to make something lovely rise up from something sad.”

She slams the suitcase closed. “I came here in the ‘60s. I gave shows all up and down the Hudson, even performed with Pete Seeger, lovely man. But now I think all the time about retiring. Even children don’t care about stories like this now.  Who does? No one, I am afraid.”

“I think my daughter would love it,” I say, because I should say something encouraging, and because Spring loves fairytales, always has, would make me read Hans Christian Andersen to her, even when those stories scared the hell out of her.

“Then you are a lucky man.”

She hoists the little theater and the bulky case, and lumbers off toward a red van which says ROSE TREE THEATRE in gold letters.

Over near the Golden Notebook Bookstore, I once again see Nadia’s beautiful face hovering by the stairs, but I blink and it fades into the mist which hangs over this day.

“Yes,” I murmur, “what a lucky man I am.”

 

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About Stephen Policoff

Stephen Policoff's 1st novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, won the James Jones Award and was published by Carroll & Graf in 2004. His 2nd novel, Come Away, won the Dzanc Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. His essays and fiction have recently appeared in THE RUMPUS, PROVINCETOWN ARTS, RAZOR LITERARY JOURNAL, and many other publications. He is currently Clinical Professor of Writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU. "Trouble in Mind' is an excerpt from his 3rd novel, The Dangerous Blues.

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