My granddaughter’s first birthday,
the final day we’d be caring for her
before she started daycare with kids her own age –
Mozart’s birthday, too, I heard on the radio.
She knew she was the center of attention
when her mother served a candled cake,
presented her with the gifts,
but of course no concept yet of age.
I’d gotten her a music box in the shape of a grand piano,
a ballerina spinning around on top, on a magnet,
while the toy played a tinny version of FürElise,
Beethoven’s 1810 composition
for Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza,
to whom, nearly deaf by that time, he proposed,
but she turned him down.
The ballerina spun round and round.
Paloma grabbed it from the magnet,
put it back on, took it off, put it back on…
I wonder if Beethoven felt as blue as I do now,
buried under an avalanche of the awareness of age,
knowing this babysitting gig’s over,
and Monday Paloma will be going somewhere else.
“If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his genitals, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.” Deuteronomy 25:11-12
The proscription in Deuteronomy
one verse before the Shabbat Purim maftir,
which is all about Amalek fighting dirty against the Hebrews,
made me think of our neighbor,
Herman Polanski, who’d threatened my dad,
“I’ll spill your kike blood all over the street,”
when Dad had had the audacity
to build a garage on his own property,
protection against the harsh winters
in Potawatomi Rapids, Michigan.
Herm fumed and sputtered
how it blocked his view of the rapids,
reducing the value of his own property,
diminished his pleasure.
Dad had advised him of his plans,
but Herm seemed to think
my father should bend his knee to him.
Then when Herm’s wife Mary apologized to my dad,
embarrassed by her husband’s churlish behavior,
excusing him for “just having a bad day,”
Herm accused her of an affair with my father.
“You’ve been fucking him all along,” he thundered,
“You just want to suck that circumcised cock.”
To this day I can’t swing a grogger
whenever Haman’s name’s read
during the recitation of the Megillah,
or nibble a hamentashen,
without remembering Mary Polanski
driving off in the family’s Buick
to her sister’s home in Kalamazoo,
leaving Herm at the curb, shaking his fist.
Sightseeing in St. Petersburg
The Hermitage? Are you kidding?
The Winter Palace was overwhelming,
but the modest MusEros on Ligovskiy Av.
was the high point.
Sure, we saw the Kolyvan Vase
in the west wing of the Old Hermitage,
largest vase in the world,
like a birdbath for pterodactyls,
after we’d already passed through
the Hall of Twenty Columns,
its amazing mosaic floor,
hundreds of thousands of cubed-tile tesserae;
over three million pieces of art altogether,
largest collection of paintings in the world,
founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, yes,
but the MusEros has Rasputin’s footlong dong
preserved in a glass jar,
severed from the mystic when he was murdered
a hundred years ago, in 1916.
They say just seeing it
can cure a man of impotence.
Did it work?
Maybe it was the exotic unfamiliar surroundings,
St. Petersburg so different from Davenport,
or maybe the aphrodisiac qualities of the vodka,
but when we got back to our room at the Pushka Inn,
I hadn’t felt such ardor for Alexandra
since the steamy backseat of my parents’ car
after football games on crisp Iowa evenings –
my wife’s name the same as the Romanov tsarina
rumored to be Rasputin’s lover.
I first met Jerry working the cash register
like a pianist playing a plaintive note
in the record department of the Harvard COOP, 1976,
sporting my green-and-yellow John Deere stocking cap.
He fixed me with that Ancient Mariner stare
I only later learned came from the meds.
Amused: he hailed from Iowa, familiar with tractors.
Two years later we’re both contractors
for an editorial outfit at the Department of Transportation,
Kendall Square, Cambridge.
Paunchy, puffs of whiskers exploding
like tumbleweeds from chin and cheeks
where he’d missed with the razor,
ratty old college professor’s corduroy sports coat –
and those eyes, like Bela Lugosi’s.
How was I to know he was manic-depressive?
One day he didn’t come to work.
Nobody saw him for weeks.
When he returned, fifty pounds heavier,
we learned he’d been hospitalized.
Co-workers avoided him like a leper;
conversations died when he approached.
But then he was on the radio,
a weak-signaled student-run show, true,
but he sounded so erudite, euphonious, sane
discussing his Ph.D. dissertation,
later a book: George Bernard Shaw,
Shaw’s criticism of Shakespeare,
his rage at the public fawning over the Bard
like star-struck girls: they wouldn’t know genius
if it spat in their eye.
“Shaw was both a word-musician,” Jerry chuckled,
“and a pitchman advertising his wares.”
I wondered years later,
when I learned about his death,
the body discovered after two days by his landlady,
if Jerry didn’t harbor similar resentments;
he could have been an academic superstar,
had he played his cards right,
at least head of the English department
in some little Midwest college,
if only he’d pitched his qualifications
like Ronald Reagan selling us GE appliances.
Bay State Road Blues
Upon listening to the Rolling Stones’ Blue and Lonesome for the first time.
Remember that time, forty years ago,
when we bought Hohner blues harp harmonicas,
got high on weed, wailed
what we thought inspired music
in that student studio apartment I had
near Kenmore Square, across the street
from the dormitory where they said
Joan Baez had lived?
Or was it Martin Luther King?
We fancied ourselves Chicago bluesmen,
Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter,
full of soul,
our next move to busk
on the Common or the Public Garden,
or on the Esplanade by the Charles River
until the girl in the apartment next to mine –
was her name Linda? –
pounded on the flimsy particleboard door,
threatened to call the landlord
if you don’t stop making that noise!
A Real Name
I’m not complaining,
“just saying,” as they say:
I have trouble with names already,
like remembering facts for History quizzes,
so when somebody changes theirs,
it feels like another unnecessary challenge.
My cousin Carol, after fifty years,
now goes by Carol Anne.
My daughter’s schoolmate, Sarah,
announced she wants to be known
by her middle name, Eugenie.
I try to remember these
when I address them,
not that they hold my memory against me.
I remember as a kid
discouraging people from calling me Chuck,
my fear that somehow
I could be labeled Chuck
for the rest of my life,
no say about it.
I even had to fend off charges
Charles was not my “real” name –
first name Julian, middle name Charles –
and I don’t need to tell you
the hell I’ve gone through with government forms.
A cousin named Julian got nicknamed
Juney at an early age,
spent his entire life fighting it,
calling himself Jay,
not that it did a lot of good
with the cousins who’d known him
all his life.
So when my friend Karen told us
her daughter Jennifer was now Jeffrey,
I understood the stakes of identity
had just been raised a lot higher,
this kid’s self-conception a central struggle.
So, Chuck? Not a crime at all, in the long view,
no matter how tenuous I might fear
my interpretation of my “self” might be.
Charles Rammelkamp edits The Potomac, an online literary magazine – The Potomac — A Journal of Poetry & Politics He is Prose editor for BrickHouse books in Baltimore, where he lives. His latest book is a collection of poems called MATA HARI: EYE OF THE DAY (Apprentice House, Loyola University) and another book, AMERICAN ZEITGEIST, has been accepted by Apprentice House as well.