The meaning of life is death.
The meaning of Christianity is life
The profusion of words is to bide time.
Steven Ray Smith
Falling into The Sarah Book A strange, compelling self-reflection, The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan, entices with its sweet, experimental prose. McClanahan creates characters from their emotions, normal human emotions, sometimes exaggerated and often funny – like laughing on a …
My older brother would tag along
after my sadness.
He’d watch me stuff my head in the pillow,
scratch at the blankets, squeeze the sheets
together like the pimple on my chin.
“What have you got to complain about,”
was his favorite saying.
I’d take a swipe at him.
It was house money. At best,
I’d connect with his silly jaw.
At worst, he’d grab me by the arms
and hold me until my spit subsided.
Then we’d laugh.
He was right.
Teenage girls, acne, and algebra –
the unholy trio were cut down
by their own absurdity.
He was a farter par excellence
and the sneakiest of cigarette smokers.
And he always knew where to get his thumbs on
the latest Playboy magazine.
He taught me the ways of the woods,
not the names of tree and wildflowers
but the cussing you could get away with on the trail.
His vital signs took no comfort
in the screen blips
and the tube floating from his arm.
I figured maybe broken windows,
carpet burns, crash-landing model airplanes,
would scare the crap out of an aneurysm.
He was lying in bed, silent and still,
surrounded by at least one pretty nurse
and two ultra-forgiving parents.
I wanted to burst out with,
“What have you got to complain about.”
But I kept my tongue.
My biggest complaint, to this very day,
is with people who’d rather die than complain.
the tension around my tension tension
good and evil
After daddy died, I watched momma slowly convert from Sicilian Catholic to Baltimore Jew when she married Mr. David Morris. I met him long before momma did, at a local pool hall where he was a ball-racker, and bald, like I am now, and he had piercing eyes. I had no idea he would become my father. All I knew about him was that he was a non-practicing Jew, but that’s okay, I was a non-practicing Catholic.
But we all change. Just like I changed… that is, the chicken broth recipe momma passed down to me by simply adding parsnip to sweeten the savor. I learned that from Mrs. Goldstein on a local radio broadcast during Passover. My mother too used good & plump, Kosher-killed chickens for her soup recipe. (It’s the only humane thing to do, and prevent that adrenalin rush into the pullet’s flesh that could spoil the broth.) My momma also agreed about the importance of yellow onions, celery and carrots. And I would add more bay leaves (not the California variety) with the other herbs in case an extra sweet parsnip snuck in. The Mediterranean laurel’s earthiness would balance the extra sugars. Now momma didn’t make matzah ball soup (I think that’s the way the Ashkenazi say it), but I did discover Manischewitz Matzo Crackers. I prefer them straight out of the box. I imagine it’s like the unleavened bread mentioned in the sacred texts, as when the Israelites were in mad exodus out of Egypt. They’d stop briefly to eat flour-crackers cooked on hot rocks.
I also liked matzah with cottage cheese from the Castle Farm Dairy in Baltimore’s Lexington Market where momma would buy it religiously. It was worth fighting the crowd for the creamery, too—the market, more packed than a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or St. Mary’s down the street on Easter Sunday.
I suppose we Italians are all partly Jewish, not just because of our common cultural heritage (and our love for good food), but also because our DNAs come from the same blood—a genetic thread that binds us together. I read it on Nature.com. But there is some bad blood between us, which, for myself, I disavow. Even though Italy encompasses Rome, I am not Roman. Neither is the Pope. I’m not guilty of any of those injustices in the Middle Ages anymore than Saul of Tarsus was when he held the coats of the bloodthirsty who stoned Stephen, or even the law-abiding Jews who get the bum rap for crucifying Jesus when it was Caiaphas and his bunch of ne’er-do-wells all along. I understand enough about crowd psychology to know better, like when labor-striking unions spook workers into rebellion with their rebel-rousing loudmouths.
Some people get history wrong all the time (not to mention their rewriting it), but I learned something back then when Momma became Jewish—that I was Jewish all along, too, if you let me say Abraham was one of my forefathers; if you let me keep my heart turned toward Israel; if you let me pray the Shema and praise our Jehovah G_d next to my brothers and sisters in any church or synagogue (even if I mispronounce His name); if you let me break bread and rejoice in the Haggadah; and if you let me eat a bowl of chicken soup with you…with or without the matzah balls.
From the parking lot I see the class building with the cell towers looming ahead of me. I’m not sure it’s tall enough, but I have to try. At the crossing a red van slams on his breaks to let me walk. Why bother, I want to yell, just run me over, please. I march head down, seeing the dusty mulch at my feet, dead rose thorns grabbing at my ankles. A pole sign reads “Emergency.” You bet. My heart is whamming away inside me. I look up. Theology, Philosophy, Science, Art carved into the building. All crap, nothing but crap. A car booms rap music. I enter through the side door. The glass wall ahead of me is as clear as my intentions. I pass the cases of decrepit artifacts, the tear-stained face of an ancient marionette, the Rorschach painting, the fliers on the bulletin board—orange, blue, chartreuse—a maddening mess of color screaming at me. I see a painting of Madonna and Child. Even she can’t save me. The elevator door is shut. I pound on the button, but it doesn’t come. I start up the steps, turn at each landing, march up and up and up. At one landing a flier asks “Something bothering you?” Yep. Another: “Have you heard of Head Start?” Who cares? Up and up. I fight to catch my breath. They all despise me. I can’t do anything about who I am. Fifth floor, sixth floor, seventh floor. My heart hammers, my legs ache, my lungs burn. Almost there. Will it be high enough? At the last landing a red sign reads “Not an Exit.” I turn for the final set of steps. There’s the door. Another sign screeches “NOT AN EXIT.” Screw that. This is my exit. I turn the door handle. Then I see it, the padlock. I pull on it, I tear at the hasp. “To hell with this!” I cry. Gripping the padlock, I twist and yank until my fingers drip blood. Where is my exit?
Sarah found the pebble on the beach. It was the colour of shaken clouds. She put it in her pocket, took it home, settled it on her bedside table, and went to sleep. In the morning, the pebble had grown – it filled her hands. It was as cool as wind shadows. She held it to her ear, but heard only stone quiet.
She put the pebble in her bag and went to school. All day, through her drab lessons, while the teacher droned sums and grammar, the pebble swelled. By home time, it stuck out off her bag. She lugged it home, sat it on her bedroom chair, and ran her fingers on its markings; they felt smooth as silence. That night, she fell asleep gazing at its shadow.
As she slept, it grew. When she woke, her room smelled of whale sounds. The pebble almost filled the floor. Tip-toeing around it, she squeezed into a corner and leaned against it. Suddenly, it began to crack. The top fell off and a sea billowed out. Her room flooded. She clambered into the pebble’s shell as waves shattered her window. The sea soared over her town. She floated beneath salt skies past the horizon.