Alex M. Frankel
Once I had a little girl.
Once I had a dead fish beneath the ashes of the censers.
Once I had a sea. Of what? My God. A sea!
angie? it’s marilyn. I wanted to find out how you were coping. Haven’t talked to you since the funeral, but you’ve been on my mind an awful lot. It’s Friday, three o’clock. Do give me a call back when you get a chance! We don’t have so very much to report, except that Fred was reaching for a cherry in our cherry tree when his back went out. They ran tests and discovered he’s got what they call spinal stenosis, which we’ve learned is a narrowing at the bottom of the spine. He’s been doing a course of medication and exercise, and it’s paid off: last week he finally got back to playing golf. Twice a week, he still makes the strenuous drive into Harrisburg.
We sure are enjoying our garden—never dreamed we’d have so many peaches, apples, plums, cherries, raspberries…
Fred and I are glued to the Thomas hearings. We aren’t so sure they’ll go ahead and confirm him now—not after all this! We talked nothing but Thomas and Anita Hill last night at the Wolf’s. We eagerly await your verdict on the matter.
I hope your answering device is getting all this, Angie. Hope we can chat very soon…
Nick—maybe you’re not in. I shouldn’t assume you’re screening your calls. It’s Stephanie.
The only news here is that I’m working on a piece by Albéniz for a competition. It’s called “Sevilla.” I’m sure you’ve heard it. I’m playing it in memory of Brooke, since Spain is where she died. It is not a sad piece of music at all, though: it’s fresh, exhilarating—like Gottschalk, only better. Sometimes the piano turns into a delicate, soft, soulful guitar. Brooke would have liked it, I know.
What struck me at the funeral was how much she meant to so many people. At times I’ve hungered for more recognition, but when I saw the amount of family and friends who genuinely cared for Brooke, who’d had a genuine connection with her, who were so distraught and disturbed by what happened, I caught a glimpse of how little it matters, the kind of renown I crave.
I want to change my name to Sky—but I guess twenty-seven is too old to change your name. What do you think? I’ve always hated Stephanie.
Maybe Sky will be luckier, and smarter, than Stephanie. Oh, I don’t know!
Did you get the letter from Brooke’s mother? She blames Brooke for her own death.
I’d like to play you the Albéniz one day.
I miss you, Nick!
Angie—hello, this is Allen Hirsch calling at nine thirty-seven on Wednesday morning. I was hoping to catch you at home.
Regarding the possibility of our resuming analysis, it happens I do have an opening: it would be on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m. I don’t know if this hour is convenient. Everything else is booked, I’m afraid, though there are bound to be changes in my schedule over the coming months.
From what I understand—and it’s logical, given your situation at the present time—there is a certain urgency about your request for insights and guidance (help, in short), which I can well appreciate, knowing you, knowing your history. This must be a terrifically hard time for you. As you know, I’m not a counselor: that has never been the way I see my function. However, I will say right off the bat: I do not believe the antidepressants are a good idea. We will discuss this, of course, should you opt for a resumption of our sessions, but I feel I ought to point out that you can’t rely on chemicals. Recovery is now going to be a painful and complex process. Adjusting to the loss of a daughter takes time, particularly for those who already have a history of conflicts, difficulties… But you’ve got to give it time. Pills aren’t, in my opinion, the answer.
I’m sure we’ll discuss all of this in due course, Angie.
I’m pleased to hear, from your message, that Karl has been supportive even though he may live far away and you’ve been separated for a number of years. It seems you do have a network of people to count on. This is vital. And you have two children, Paul and Wendy, who still depend on you and are concerned about your mental health.
The optimal times to get hold of me are between eight forty-five and nine-thirty at night, or between eight and nine in the morning.
Allen Hirsch here. Good-bye, Angie.
Stephanie—or should I call you Sky? This is Nick and it’s Friday and I’ve had too much to drink.
I knew you wouldn’t be home, to tell you the truth. That’s why I chose this time to call. Brooke is in my thoughts a lot too. And I can’t stop thinking about trains.
When I was a kid, I loved trains. I’d hang out at the station and watch them come and go. And then once, when I was thirteen, I was at the station when I needed to take a leak. I went into the men’s room, and at the urinal next to me, there was a man and he was looking at me—at me! I got excited very fast; I didn’t know what to do. And he reached over. And he touched me, and it was my first time, and it was with a guy.
Now, after all these years, I keep thinking Brooke’s death is my punishment for doing what I did: I am being punished using trains. If I hadn’t started out that way, at a urinal, with a stranger, if I’d treated men and women a little better, if I hadn’t always tried to run away from what I really am, then Brooke would still be alive.
At night I hear the sound of trains in the distance. They used to comfort me.
Angie—hello, it’s Karl. Just wanted to touch base with you.
I got back a few days ago and everything went smoothly. I was in Barcelona for a week. I didn’t get much sleep in the hotel, though I had a comfortable room. One thing I must say: I was impressed by the sheer number of friends Brooke had in that city. People liked her—we knew that, of course, but how amazing to think that in the short time she lived there, she’d made so many friends. We should be proud we had a daughter like Brooke. I am aware I probably never said this enough when we were married. I’m glad I went, certainly, but if I hadn’t been able to go, there would have been others to empty her apartment, cancel her insurance, close her bank account.
And it’s about her bank account that I wanted to bring something up. I talked to her friends. They want to chip in and put up some kind of sign near where she died. A warning sign. I suggested the money she had in her account could be used for that purpose. She had about two hundred thousand pesetas in the bank—that’s two thousand dollars, I believe, and this could go a long way to paying for some kind of warning sign, or maybe more than one. Needless to say, I was terribly moved by this gesture.
I visited Sergio in the hospital. A fine boy. You would change your mind about him if you met him. He seems to be devastated. I honestly question whether he’ll ever really get over the shock of that day.
I went to see my mother in the home. The funeral took a lot out of her, of course. She’s doing all right, considering her age. I don’t think she suspects.
Let’s keep up the contact…
Mom? Mom? Where are you?
I won’t be able to call again. I mean not this weekend. It’s Brooke.
I wanted to say happy birthday. Sergio and I are going camping for a few days. We’re leaving right now. I hope you got my present. Sergio says hello, too, by the way. We still wish you’d change your mind and come to Spain. There’s plenty of room. You’d like our flat—you see, I say flat now, like the Brits! It’s on an old street in the Gothic Quarter, and it overlooks the Picasso Museum. Did I tell you I saw Gorbachev when he was here? He waved to me from his limo!
Anyway, I love you.
Hello—it’s a message for Angie, for Mrs. Leventhal. I am Sergio. I call at eleven in the morning, more or less, your time. Is five o’clock in Barcelona. I wanted to find out how are you, and so on. I am just now out of hospital and am feeling a little better, I mean my body is, but am still walking with a stick—what you call it properly? I know you miss Brooke. I miss her also, Angie, Mrs. Leventhal.
Oh, I’m sorry. My English is a little terrible today: Brooke and I, we never spoke English much, always, always in Spanish. She never wants to speak English with me. Well, I suppose is normal, no? Since we are in Spain.
The doctors they say me I’ll be good enough to be back to school for the return of class. It could help to do something that makes me think of another thing and not Brooke.
I have heard of a long letter which you wrote people after Brooke dead, and I cannot comprehend your sentiments. I do not understand what you meant by alternative lifestyle and counterculture. Clearly, I know what mean, what those words mean, but they don’t describe well how was Brooke, or how am I. We never live in any commune. I don’t have long hair and I don’t use flowers, and she has a beautiful flat near to the Museo Picasso and worked also in a good language school. You maintain the alternative lifestyle was somehow the cause of her die—and this isn’t just. I think it wasn’t this way. What happen is accident. Only accident.
I love Brooke, Mrs. Leventhal—Angie.
I will try to locate you again, and communicate.
Hi Doris, hi Frank. This is Marilyn. I wanted to talk to you, but at least you have this device.
We’re both looking forward to your visit. We know you’ll be comfortable here. We’ve had the kitchen remodeled and also Fred’s dressing room and the guest room. We’ve had all the furniture in both the living and family rooms reupholstered and are absolutely delighted with the results. Next month we’re getting a computer!
The other day I had my little surgery to remove three-and-a-half of my four parathyroids. The operation was a hundred percent successful, and also I have terrific news: I’ve totally stopped smoking. Forever. Cold turkey! And Fred and I are playing a lot of golf, and we’re spending time in the garden, where the trees have been unbelievable again.
I talked to Angie yesterday. She’s managing all right, I suppose. Did I mention there was also a ceremony for Brooke in Spain, where it happened? As for the service here, it was the most moving funeral I’ve ever attended. Their cantor sang, the one who wanted to be an opera star when he was young.
I ask myself: Why did that girl go to Spain? Her death was so ridiculous. Why Spain? It wasn’t as though her family were Sephardic and she was going back to her roots.
And I saw that Nick there—remember Nick? That excitable, nice-looking young man?
I’m a little worried about Angie. She saves messages people leave on her answering device and she constantly plays back the last one from Brooke. Every night, over and over…
Angie—it’s Rebecca. It’s about six in the evening my time. Good Yom Tov, by the way.
I’m not so good at leaving messages.
I haven’t even stepped out of my room today. Karl said he might come and see me, but I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if he forgot all about his mother on Rosh Hashanah. It’s been pouring here all day, and they’re talking about a long winter.
But I need to get to the point. There have been rumors going around here that have been disturbing to me. Yesterday at dinner, I couldn’t help overhearing two ladies at the next table talking about our family (yes, I still call it our family). To make a long story short, one said to the other, “It would have been too upsetting to her, so they made up a story.” Now, I am still not sure if I heard right, but it was something like that. The exact words don’t matter. But everything seems to fit together: your wanting to discourage me from going to the funeral, the fact that Brooke was cremated when no one in our family has ever been cremated, your whisking me away from people after the service so I wouldn’t hear anything I wasn’t supposed to hear. You would like to think I’m senile.
What I’m trying to tell you, Angie, is that I suspectthat my granddaughter did not die the way you said she did.
You still have a chance: you can tell me what really happened yourself, or I’ll get the truth from someone else. Why did you have to lie? You have a chance to prevent irreparable damage by opening up to me. Karl, of course, shuts up every time I try to hint.
What business did Brooke have going to Spain at the age of twenty-two? What business did you have encouraging her and giving her money? Now I am working myself up…
All right, Angie. My love to Paul and Wendy.
Thank you for your message the other day, Nick! It’s Stephanie. No, no, never Sky—that’s absurd, changing my name is absurd. I shouldn’t do it. I love Sky and despise Stephanie, but people ought to stick to the names they are born with, don’t you think? It would have been nice to be Sky, though.
“Sevilla” is going well. The competition is next month. I’m reading about Albéniz’s life—he wasn’t even fifty when he died. And yet all the things he achieved! People like you and me, we’ll live to be thirty and forty or eighty and ninety and it won’t matter; we’ll never do a fraction of what he did. I see he was born in Catalonia, not far from where Brooke was killed. But “Sevilla” has all the flavor of the south of Spain. I can almost smell the lemon blossoms, feel the southern heat, and watch the carriages and the ladies with their fans go past. Lazy days and a wide river—the Guadalquivir—and many fancy bridges and the excitement of bullfights and flamenco and duende and romance. I think of Brooke and Sergio. I’ve seen only one picture of Sergio, but I understood what she saw in him. Yellow streets and orange houses and patios—that’s the Sevilla I dream of.
That story by the urinal—it did not shock me, and I could see you there, and the man, and his need. You had nothing to do with Brooke’s death.
I want to play “Sevilla” for you one day, please.
Mom’s all right. I’m doing pretty good. School’s all right. I hurt my ankle last Saturday in the game against Richmond and Mom got hysterical. Last night I went out to Sizzler with some of my friends.
The coach would steam if he found out, but last Friday, me and Doug and those guys got very stoned. We got the munchies and ordered out Chinese. This was at Doug’s place. His parents were out. Then we rented a horror flick.
It was intense! It was crap! I can’t remember the title. But all that blood. I started to shiver and moved up against the heater. And I didn’t want to see any more of the violence, but I did want to—you know what I mean? I felt like I was in it myself sometimes. And I kept remembering Brooke. I know it took her only a second to die, but even that second…My God, even that second.
There was another heavy message from Grandma, but I erased it before Mom could hear it.
Stephanie—it’s Nick. Glad we’re in touch again. I hope you erased the urinal message I left a couple of weeks ago. Things are all right here. I don’t think about Brooke too much. I don’t know why. I feel guilty about it. I’m looking for work and shooting pool and watching porn—it’s almost sick and I can’t help myself. Sometimes I hang out at the Little Joy Bar and drink a lot and watch the kids who go there for the open mic. But there is no actual mic—they just slouch by the pool table and act out scenes from obscure sixties movies and people shake their heads, and I go home depressed and spend half the night jerking off. I’m over the phone sex phase, I think. At least for now. But I’ve given up cleaning the place. The other day a squirrel got in. I wish I could go to Barcelona. Pay my respects, know what I mean? The Olympics are coming. Feel like traveling?
Sean—Michael calling. It must be five in the afternoon in Boston. In all of Barcelona there isn’t a single person to confide in. I’d like you to listen to this, if you don’t mind, but will your machine get everything I have to say? I don’t care how much all this costs.
I went back to work again in the academy I’ve been at for years. It’s a cavernous, ramshackle church annex in the middle of a rich part of town. I hate it. It’s hard to believe I ever got excited about this job or the boring Catalans. The other day we had a teachers’ meeting before school officially began. Everyone was there: all the tired Brits, all the other strange Americans who’ve been away from home far too long (like me). They’re all people I can’t relate to at all. But one teacher I always did like—her name was Brooke—I noticed she wasn’t there and finally I made a remark. They all looked at me, the dead-looking, haggard, underfed people: “You haven’t heard?”
Where was I supposed to have heard? God, I hate the foreign ghetto.
And they told me, always observing and monitoring my reactions. Late in the summer, Brooke had gone to the coast with her boyfriend. They went often and had people there. They loved the sea. This time they planned to spend a weekend in that town known for its strawberries—I can never remember the name. Hiking down to the beach, they found some kind of shortcut. From nowhere, a train going a hundred miles an hour on its way to Barcelona from the French border shot out of a tunnel. The boyfriend jumped clear of it or she pushed him to safety, and he fell twenty or thirty feet. He’s going to live. The train didn’t even stop after it killed Brooke. The conductor must not have realized what had happened. They found a few scattered pieces of her, some blood was seen on the rails, and that was all.
I liked Brooke. We took our breaks together. She sang and played the guitar, and I always heard American songs coming from her room. And her favorite holiday was Halloween. Last year she even bought pumpkins (where she’d found them, I still don’t know) and helped the kids to carve out faces. When they were done, she switched off the lights of her classroom and invited all the other teachers in. I’ll never forget the scene, the dark room transformed by a dozen lit-up and grinning jack-o’-lanterns. The place looked like a kind of chapel.
One of the teachers (a wild little old drunk) said he didn’t believe Brooke was really dead. He said that it was all staged, that she’d secretly hated Barcelona as much as any of us and wanted to ship out to Brazil and start a new life under an assumed name. Another woman said that hair and fingertips and toes were seen along the tracks all the way into the suburbs, but so far none of these things have been conclusively linked to Brooke. The woman thinks Brooke is dead but “knows” it was no accident.
These won’t be easy days to get through. Once in a while, something happens and we’re reminded what we’re made of. All the plans we have, the aspirations, the illusions that thrive in the mind without considering the body—its weakness, its boniness. And a train comes by to let us know: Now! Now! This is what we are. The hell-noise of that train, all the trouble and enthusiasm and chit-chat and boredom and questions and one existence summed up: a quick taking of stock and maybe a scream and then lights out. An enormous wave coming to envelop us and drag us away. At least she didn’t have to suffer much, from what I hear. And then she’s released to what? Where? Only the minds of those who knew her?
It’s all so mechanical, year after year of phrasebook English: “Hi, how are you?” “Fine, how are you?” “Fine, thanks. How are the kids?” And then home for dinner, up seven flights of stairs, and the comforting voices of short-wave radio.
After the meeting, I opened the door of Brooke’s classroom and looked around. Pasted on the wall I saw some of the children’s work: drawings of farm animals, flowers, trees. And one project caught my eye: it was a kind of cartoon strip, the story of Little Red Riding Hood, with captions below. But the little girl who did it, Marta S., must have been a beginner because her English was incomprehensible. There was one line in particular: “Little Red Riding Hood flame at door and raisin.” And then I realized the girl had looked up words without knowing how to use the dictionary. I’m sure she’d meant to say, “Little Red Riding Hood knocks at the door and goes in.” In Spanish, llama means “knocks,” but it also means “flame.” And pasa means “goes in,” but also “raisin.” So the little girl ended up with nonsense, and Brooke must have let the mistakes stand. Pure nonsense on her walls. Pure nonsense all around us. The teachers’ meeting was over and all the dead-looking faculty had filed out. I sat in the dead school, the empty windowless classroom that was Brooke’s and now is to be mine, and I stared at the mangled English on the wall until a custodian came by and told me he needed to mop up. Flame at door and raisin—of course! I’ve just stepped out on my balcony. The air is un-breathable.
I wanted to say happy birthday… I hope you got my present… We still wish you’d change your mind and come to Spain. There’s plenty of room…
Hello, Mrs. Leventhal, my name’s Fiona Scott. My boyfriend Giles and I have been cycling around the U.S. for the past few months. We’re friends of Brooke’s. We were teaching with her at Bristol House in Barcelona two years ago, before we left Spain on our trip ‘round the world. We got into Manhattan last night, and next week we fly back to Britain. It would be lovely if we could meet you for a coffee. We’re at the Y now, and it’s filthy and Giles and I are both shocked by the prices here, but New York’s brilliant. How is Brooke, by the way? We’ve sent several postcards but haven’t heard a thing. All right, then, we’ll try ringing you later on tonight.
Good morning, Allen. It’s Angie, and it’s about four in the morning. I just had a dream I’d like to share before it slips away. I thought calling you and leaving it on your machine would be the way to do it instead of writing it down and waiting for our next session.
I’m on a train. We cut through a landscape that’s parched and hilly, and there’s cattle. This must be Spain. I’m sitting with Brooke and across from us is her boyfriend, Sergio. We’re in a beautiful dining car; bright sun comes through the windows, and then I remember that Brooke is dead and she can’t be with me, but I’m grateful that she’s here, somehow, anyway. Around us in this plush car are paintings by Picasso and Brooke is admiring them. These are all pictures of dying, suffering animals, and I look away. And then Gorbachev comes in and waves to everyone. “What luck,” I say to Brooke, “you get to see him a second time!” She reaches across the table and takes Sergio’s hand, and they talk about their plans to get married. “You have my blessing,” I tell them, “and now you also have his,” meaning Gorbachev, who turns with one more smile for us before he disappears into another car with his bodyguards. Then there is some kind of security check and soldiers rush in. Maybe we’re crossing a border. Maybe it’s a military takeover. The soldiers want to check our passports, but Brooke doesn’t have one, and I realize this is because she is dead. I make excuses for her to the soldiers, and they shrug and walk away. We pass breathtaking mountains, go through tunnels, break free into wild air again. And then we stop. And I see it in the dirt. The head of a young woman. And then we’re flying over water, the three of us—Brooke, Sergio and I—and she says she has a present for me because it’s my birthday. After that, I lay in bed wondering for the longest time what that present might have been, the package from Spain that never got here.
Nick—my piano competition is over and in my head I have nothing but Albéniz: the scent of citrus trees, the fantasies of flamenco, the bright fans, the wide Guadalquivir in the Spanish heat.
When it was all over, I gave the young Chinese prizewinner a great big hug. I was really happy for her, and I was crying for her, but she didn’t like me getting so physical. She had some family members pull me off of her. I walked around the block many times before I finally went home.
The TV said many clouds today, a ninety percent chance of rain, but there isn’t a single cloud. Not a drop of rain has fallen on this city.
Nick, I’d like a tattoo—at least one. A puma. Something with colors. But I’m also afraid of tattoos. And don’t see the point of them. And I don’t know where on my body I’d put one.
I don’t want to be Stephanie much longer—would like to be Sky, or Isla, or Olivia, or Constanza. A nicer name than what I’ve been given. I’d like to go before a judge and change what’s happened to me.
Are you there? Nick?
Hi, Doris and Frank. It’s Marilyn on the line from Fairfield. Everything’s fine here. We’re anxious to hear more about your trip to Nepal. We got your postcard. Lovely.
I just wanted to give you a rundown: Fred and I had a wonderful time in the South. It was the first time we’d taken a trip like this, and we can’t understand why we put it off so long.
I spoke to Angie the day before yesterday. It’s been a year now since Brooke’s death, and Angie is doing a lot better. She told me she traveled all the way to Spain to scatter flowers near the place where it happened. She couldn’t get to the exact spot because that’s off limits to pedestrians now. I do admire her. I admire her dignity, her elegance. She is going to teach citizenship classes again and get involved with the Hebrew University, I believe.
You must come and see us again soon. While we were gone, our living room was remodeled. We now have twenty feet of new bookcases and storage space, and new lighting too! And our garden has produced even more than last year: we’ve had peaches, plums, cherries, rhubarb, grapes, endless asparagus…
Alex M. Frankel has published poems, stories, essays, and reviews in The Antioch Review, Bloom, The North Dakota Quarterly, Sanskrit, Faultline, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Switchback, and the Cider Press Review, among other publications. He hosts the Second Sunday Poetry Series in Los Angeles. His chapbook is My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black (Conflux Press). His full-length poetry collection, Birth Mother Mercy (Lummox Press), is coming out at the end of 2013. His website is www.alexmfrankel.com.