Monday, April 3, 2017

Whining Is the Prayer of the Dog

     Whining is the prayer of the dog.

     If I whine, sorry;

     it is me trying not to be a box.

     Mayakovsky saved me last night.

     That communist, chauvinist, pretentious, self-centered



     Lord how he rages.

     I have to rage till dawn,

     each hour like an individual watch

     and all the time that watch contains.

     Let screaming and banging and drinking do for me

     what a good-night kiss from a beloved daughter

     does for others.

     This poem has no point,

     but is

     5:24 to 5:39 p.m.,

     July 31, 1992.


            The old man couldn't see his wife.  The living room was black.  He knew when she stared at him though, and when she gazed into nothing.  He sat in his chair.  She sat in the facing sofa.  He sweated and almost fainted from the heat.  The shack was boarded shut.  The door had a piece of plywood nailed over the inside.  The two windows were filled with boards.  He could look through a knothole at the bears.  The glass was smashed.

            The old woman mumbled against him.  From the kitchen at the rear he heard his grandson move.  The boy liked to stay near the peanut butter.  That was all they had left to eat.  He liked to be near the bucket of water.  That was all they had left to drink.  For days after the faucets stopped, the grandson sloshed the liquid around as fun.  The old man made him stop.  The kitchen was black too.  The old man clenched his teeth until they hurt.  He wanted the grandson and his wife gone.  He opened his mouth but the teeth still hurt.

            Snarls and growls came at the front door.  Bears banged against the clapboard shack wall.  They tore at each other.  Their teeth sliced into fur and meat.  They ripped with sharp claws at face and belly.  At first the bears had eaten dogs and deer.  The county was emptied of that meat.  Then black and brown bears ate striped and yellow bears.  Ground bears caught tree bears.  The old man looked for but hadn't seen a grizzly.

            The sound of wood tearing came from the kitchen.  He tensed and felt happy for death.  Instead, the grandson screamed in ecstasy and ran outdoors.

            His wife laughed in the dark.  The old man pushed with effort out of his chair.  He stood.  He became dizzy because he had sat so long, and the heat.  A blacker black filled then cleared from his eyes.  He stumbled from chair to table into the kitchen.  Light pushed in from the sides of the opened plywood.  Light hurt his eyes.  He hated light.  He hated the grandson for disturbing him.  The boy was to stay a few days while his parents, with a farm down the dirt road, visited relatives in Nashville for the last time.  The grandson was a nuisance.  He ate their food until all that was left was the peanut butter.  He drank their water until the bucket was next to empty.  The old man grabbed a pot sitting on the electric stove.  Electricity cut off weeks before.  The phone stopped.  Then the faucets dried up so the only water was a stream in the woods among the bears.  He wedged his skeleton against the loose plywood.  He banged in the bent nails with the back of the pot.  A few points stuck in the door frame.  The kitchen went black again.  The old man felt better.

            When he woke in his living room chair he was a few seconds being sure he woke.  The room was thick with heat.  Decades before, when he was a farmer, he liked heat in the summer.  He worked hard.  His heart beat loud.  He moaned.  His wife snored from their bedroom.  She had become senile.  As she got old she wouldn't help him around the shack.  She made noises.  He wanted rid of her.  The old man went to the kitchen for a sip of water.  He stuck his head in the bucket for two sips though there was little water left.  He looked out the window through a crack in a board.  The sky was blue.  The hills were dark green.  The light hurt his eyes.  Scattered in the back yard were heaps of bone and fur.  Bears died stripped of meat.  A few dead bears were piled in a mound where he figured the grandson's carcass was.  The mound was at the edge of the soy bean field.  A farmer down the road sharecropped the field since the old man got tired of work.  A brown bear ran across his weed-grown yard chased by a black bear.

            Night came.  The dark of the living room became darker.  Heat rose to a peak he barely stood then eased a little.  Growls and bangings of bears decreased.  Bird calls came, the owl and the crow.  His tongue lolled out.  The old woman mumbled harder against him.  She walked back to the bedroom.  He stayed in his chair blank from the heat or dreaming in strips back to his regular days.  His wife cooked hours then, chicken and corn he raised.  His daughter was cute and good to show off to his neighbors.  He hunted squirrel and coon in the Tennessee hills.  From the River he hooked bass and catfish he fried.  He couldn't get enough of farm work then, the row.  TV shows came to talk about, and there was church to meet people on Sundays.  His wife to kiss.  There was the St. Patrick's Day parade in Erin, and the Okra Festival in Fulton at the harvest.  Christmas.  He couldn't taste anymore, not even oranges.  A few months before, he heard the radio news:  All the bears in the world were migrating toward his county.

            He slept in his chair.  Morning came.  The black was lighter black.  Bears roared and banged in the front yard.  The air got swelter hot another day.  He squinted through a knothole when bears roared so loud it hurt his hearing.  His hearing was still good.  Black bears fought over a brown bear where his wife's flower beds had been along the dirt road.  Bears banged into his truck, turned over and burned.  They ran, chased or chasing, by the dozen.  Even bear meat was growing scarcer the more bears arrived.  He had wondered what happened to bears running from foreign countries.  Maybe those bears drowned in the ocean.  He was disappointed he hadn't seen a polar bear.  He got tired.  All he wanted to hear about bears was on the radio before electricity quit.  He sat in his chair across from her again.  He heard her whine.  He wished he could quit hearing too.

            A few hours later he had to drink more water.  The heat made his mouth cotton dry.  The bucket was empty.  He licked the bottom, which was still cool and wet.  He heard his wife coming from the living room.  He closed his eyes in time not to see any of her in the dark.  A few days before, a ray of light like a line threaded through a front knothole and swept over her on the sofa.  He glimpsed two red eyes wide open and gray jowls.  He glimpsed her claw against her cheek and her white hair in tangles.  She was naked.

            He sat in his chair.  Soon he heard wood being chipped away.  He had been afraid a bear would find how flimsy the plywood and boards were.  The old man stood up.  The chipping came from inside.  He sat down.  The naked old woman pulled at the plywood with her fingers until the few nails pulled loose.  He heard her awkward steps on the back porch.  The roars started.  He was tense she might bring the bears too close.  He hurried to the kitchen best he could.  With the pot he banged the nails in the frame again.  Even fewer stuck.  The growls were loud.  He looked out a board crack.  Black bears streamed from the woods at both sides of the shack.  Dozens of black bears wrestled in a knot over his wife.  He turned away.  She hadn't said she loved him for years.  They had loved, slowly, warmly, when they were young.  The shack was so hot he didn't think long.  He forced his breath.  He licked the bottom of the water bucket again, but the tin was hot and dry.  The porcelain toilet was dry too when he licked it.

            That night he hardly had enough saliva to wet his mouth.  He ate a few fingers-full of the peanut butter, scraping the glass bottom of the big jar.  The brown paste was dry.  He had to work for the spit to get it down.  He felt free without his grandson and his wife in the shack.  He sat in a chair at the kitchen table where he'd wanted to sit all along.  Food he used to eat was what he pictured:  Catfish and hushpuppies.  His tongue swelled thicker in his mouth.  He decided to sleep in his living room chair; his mouth was on fire.  Fire was what he thought of.

            Heat woke him many times in the night.  Heat kept his sleep shallow.  He woke at sunrise exhausted in a chair full of sweat.  No thought stayed more than a few seconds of thirst and heat.  Thoughts came by the dozens that died fragments.  He had to drown his throat in water.  The stream was a hundred yards in the woods by the shack.  The old man fought taking the bucket to the stream.  He messed around the rooms feeling the furniture.  The overalls he'd worn for weeks bothered him with their touch.  He shed them fast as he could.  He got naked.  His teeth ached.  His body radiated heat like a fire.  His eyes burned.

            The bucket rattled when he picked it up from the kitchen sink.  The plywood opened at the touch of his fingers.  He stumbled through the back porch.  The sky was blue.  The sun was a red circle over the hills.  His eyes became black from the sunlight.  He had to close them then felt weak-headed.  The back yard dawned into sight.  His heart hurt.  Piles of bones and fur rose scattered in the weeds.  An extra big heap rose over his grandson, and an even bigger heap over his wife, dozens of dead bears.  The air stunk.  A black bear sniffed where the pump house lay on its side.  The bear rose on its back legs.  The old man rushed best he could down the steps and toward the woods.  He wasn't able to run.  A second black bear rounded the far corner of the shack.

            The old man limped toward the stream in the dark woods.  The bucket banged in his hand.  Behind rose one roar, then other roars.  The stream gurgled ahead, hidden by the tree trunks.  Pounding shook the ground behind him.  A black bear's claw swiped a chunk out of his back.  He was on fire.  Claws tore into the thin meat of his chest and his face as he fell on the leaves.  He was a flame.  A black weight of fur fought on top of the human.  Black bears bunched in a fury.  Tens of black bears ate each other, then hundreds of black bears, and in a day thousands of black bears.  The dead fell in a mound big as a hill over him.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


The small bell, furin, bender of bar on

which bell hangs, waits the flick of finger, waits

with memory the figure-shadow, shape

upreaching, ping.  Small sound, ping, yet sharp.  Sees

weight and force, not me, its start of voice fixed

by fellow's force, fellow's finger.

                                     Mold made,

mad with fire, molten metal froze by cold

water plunging to scream with peal, pinging.

I am sorry.  Birth hurt.  But then came not

breath but breeze-dead middling air.

                                      So hangs ping

and ping-potential until fire will melt

it back, not likely, while I, I fear more

than fire, and I, I sing ping on paper.

The World Has Completely Changed

            Olga Ivanova woke in a white room.  A woman in a white cap wearing a white mask looked down at her.  Behind her, a sun in a silver dome hurt her eyes. 

            "Barshnip bouknip," the woman said.

            Olga moaned.  Her head hurt with a pain that cleaved her skull.  When she touched it with her fingers, she had no hair, but a bare white skull with a hunk of gauze in the middle.

            "Nork nuggie barshnip," the woman said, jerking her hand back.

            "For the love of God," Olga said, almost in a scream, "what is happening to me?"

            The sound of the voices told her these were either Americans or British.  When she tried to remember though, Olga knew no Americans or British.  She thought of Leningrad, where she surely was, and trying to make a living after she wrote the play.  And her parents in their apartment.  Bits pushed through that confused her, however:  a bus and out the window the steppes of Kansas.

            She fainted.  She must have fainted.  Or it might have been the anesthetic, for clearly she was in a hospital.  A man with long hair and fat lips sat at the side of her bed when she woke, holding her hand, crying, saying in English something passionate that seemed full of love.  She didn't know this man.  She smiled at him, for she felt unsure, and shrugged her shoulders.

            And oh how her head hurt.  A small mirror was attached to the pale green wall opposite her bed.  Shock rolled in a wave through her as she saw her face on a white orb, a hideous monster's head with a white gauze bandage in a lump on top.  Then she laughed.  A sick egg.  That's what she was.

            Before she had been pretty.  She remembered dispassionately, for beauty was a tool to use.  She had been an actress, a bit, after she could no longer study the oceans.  But who was this man, with her hand in a grip hard as steel?  She felt pity for him. 

            "Zaplgloob zornat, pooitally," he said, staring into her eyes with the deepest sincerity.  "Zooballay." 

            She knew she was supposed to say something, so she smiled again.  Olga didn't dare move.

            A flood of humans gushed into the small private room.  Two were dressed in jeans, a man and a red-haired woman, both middle-aged.  Two were in white, a nurse and a man, likely a doctor.  Behind them came scowling a thin man in poor clothes.  He had a scraggly fringe of a beard and looked depressed.  Ah, at last.  A Russian.

            The others talked English to her, as if they expected her to answer.  Olga looked right at the man and said, "What is all this?  What has happened to me?"

            "You don't know?" he sneered, like it was her fault.  She felt comfortable with this man.  His Russian felt like rain, like meat, like a real job would feel.

            "Nothing.  Not a thing," she answered, and shrugged her shoulders.  "Something bad, though."  Life had to be bad.  A word, "catastroika" ran through her hurting head.

            "You fell on a bicycle.  Your head hit the curb.  Maybe your brain is damaged," he said.  His face was long and thin, and when he spoke the gray skin around his eyes wrinkled into despair.  She felt herself falling in love with this man.

            "But I am in Leningrad.  Who are these strange people?" she said, especially the man who held onto her hand like a life rope.

            Olga wished he would quite crying and let her go.  His face was fat and shiny.  When she spoke, no panic entered her voice.  She had seen worse.  Here there was even a color television on the wall playing a cartoon.

            "Leningrad!  No, no, no," the Russian said precisely.  Now he cheered up.  He could teach her.  Maybe he was professora.  The others waiting patiently had faces like masks; this one had a face like a bulletin board.  "You are in Oakland, California.  And besides, there is no Leningrad anymore.  There is only Saint Petersborg."

            "Saint Petersborg?" she said.  She couldn't believe it.  Olga sighed.  At least these strangers didn't appear to wish her harm, though she had to be on her guard.  Even if they hated her, what could she do?  She could just be sad.  Whatever had befallen her was going to be awful.

            "Gikky bitz snoob," the Russian said to the others.  Eyes widened, mouths dropped opened, sounds rose in a chorus.  She had to laugh.  They looked so funny.  What idiots.

            "I told them you lost your memory," the Russian said.  "Leonid Bozkaya." 

            The fat-cheeked man holding her hand broke into tears.  The man actually cried, and she disliked his weakness so intensely she could have spit at him.  A man crying!  Leonid's long, gray face was permanently depressed; he knew.  This baby, who rose as if to embrace her, knew nothing about life.  She felt his soft belly against her.

            "No," she said at him.  In English.  The nurse, thankfully, said something mean to the man, and he retreated with an expression like a spanked boy. 

            "Who is this man?" she asked Leonid cynically.

            "Your fiancĂ©," Leonid said.  A cruel smile slanted his thin lips.  "Maybe you would like me tell you a few things.  When was the last time you remember?"

            She pictured Leningrad's dark buildings, and trying to make a living after the government turned against her.  She remembered finishing at the Leningrad University with a degree in oceanography, and with that her love of the sea flooded through her pain-racked body like, well, the cold tide of the Baltic.  The stupid play she wrote, a satire of Brezhnev and his all-embracing Soviet bureaucracy, was produced by friends just before she was to graduate.  She was happy to see her words turned into humans on a stage; was that stupid.  The play made the government deny her request for a passport.  No passport, and she couldn't leave the shore.  No passport, no ocean, no graduate work in oceanography.  And with a bachelor's degree in oceanography, all she could do was fall back on her looks, and her legs.  How she loved the sea.  It stretched, gray and brooding. 

            "So I lived with my parents.  You know how that is, crammed into two rooms.  We hate each other.  Years and all I got was a job here or there as an actress.  Once I made a program for the television," she smiled.  Actually, she had loved the life of not working, standing in food lines and scrounging.  If not the ocean, then a life as a high official's mistress.   Work was for peasants.

            Her ancestors had been aristocracy.

            "When was this?" Leonid asked.  The doctor left.  And who were the man and woman, maybe in their 40s, beside the nurse.  She smiled at the man.

            "I . . .," Olga tried to think, and was aware of an empty space of years, empty and brooding like, well, the sea.  Everything was like the sea.  Her poetry mentioned the sea often, and for that the poets told her it was shit.  "The last for sure, maybe, winter, 1986."

            Leonid laughed, at her.  He told the others, and again that widening of the white eyes, that gasp, and the idiot man blubbering at her.  The Russian returned his sharp eyes to her, his head at an angle, and a know-it-all smile.

            "What if I tell you this is January, 1992," he said.  She shrugged her shoulders, a tired, sad egg.  Bad things happened.  Worse too.  She enjoyed the feeling that something incredibly bad had happened to her, because it was interesting in a life of boredom and struggle, and because it was bigger than usual.  And because she sensed that she would live and maybe have a better life, with air conditioning and a color TV.  If her head would just quit hurting.  And her beautiful hair!

            "So, it's 1992," she said flatly, enjoying Leonid's disappointed look.  "What else can you tell me?"

            "Everything," Leonid recovered, though irritated.  He had thought he would floor her, but how could any human react to such news?  "For example, you are not a citizen of the proud Union of Soviet Socialist Republics anymore.  There is no Union.  You are a plain Russian."

            He waited for her response.  Which was nothing.  How could she care about a stupid statement like that?  She grew suspicious.  What kind of lousy communist she had been anyway.  Politics bored her.  Rising to the challenge, Leonid tried to stab her with a knife of words.

            "And, you are divorced and have two children waiting for you back in St. Petersborg."

            Olga tried to keep no expression, but that news really hit.  Being a mother revolted her.  Families were bourgeois things she hated, like her own family.  But children!  The thought made her eyes water, though try as she might, she couldn't remember any babies.  Why hadn't she gotten abortions?  Which was the father?  With the greatest effort, she shrugged her shoulders, so what?  She was an actress.

             Leonid tried again.

            "And, there's a McDonald's in Moscow," he concluded triumphantly.

            Six years lost, but later, alone with the throbbing in her head, bits came to her, like pictures in somebody else's album.  The boy and girl, 3 and 4 years old she was told, and the husband who deserted her, did not return, so she dismissed them as inconveniences.  But she did remember, guiltily, sleeping with Tom in his Leningrad artist's studio for meat and warmth one year before, and she remembered meeting the woman with the red hair, his wife Victoria.  The man and woman in the blue jeans.  In the seconds between the shot the nurse gave her so she could sleep, and while she drifted off into oblivion, she laughed to herself.  It was said by the political outcasts of Leningrad that Olga Ivanova had beautiful pale-rose lips, and the sad eyes of a true Russian. 

            One Sunday a month later she remembered little more, though she accepted all the stories of her life she was told, like fiction:  the long bus ride from New York to San Francisco, and the man who stole her purse with the few dollars in the middle of Kansas.  Olga lay below blankets upon a mattress on the plank floor of Tom and Victoria's studio.  The wood was hard.  Above her the rafters, and around her the chaos of paint-splattered walls and failed gray sculptures.  The air of San Francisco's Mission District was ice cold, and she wanted to lounge below the blankets much longer, maybe all day. 

            Though Victoria was clearly growing tired of her staying for free, this second-story studio, a former warehouse, was better than the mystery if she had to leave.  Olga had no money, zero, nothing.  Below the blankets was better.  But then she had to trap an American husband quickly.  Too bad she had insulted Rich at the hospital.  Maybe Tom.  He could divorce Victoria.  At least he had been an immigrant once, from Prague of all low places, and the parents had brought him to America when he was only two.  So what did he know?

            The two daughters, Alyssa and Haley, burst from around the Japanese screen and jumped on top of her.  They pulled her ears and stuck their elbows and knees into her stomach and sides.  "Get up, get up, get up!" they yelled as one.

            "Get up?" Olga said, recovering her breath.  "What is the time?"  She really hated children, especially these two without discipline.  Victoria let them run wild.  She would borrow more money from Tom today.

            "Lazy bones," Haley, the oldest, accused her, eye to eye.  If this was her child, she would whip her until she obeyed.  The daughter's dirty blonde hair was chopped short.  "You get out of that bed, you whore!"

            The girls only repeated what her hostess said in private.  But they also enjoyed being cruel.

            "Tom?" she'd overheard Victoria the night before, when they thought Olga was asleep in the next room.  "When is that woman getting out of our lives?" 

            And that wasn't the first time.  Olga's story, apparently, had been that she was organizing an arts festival in St. Petersburg, and would remain in San Francisco one week, recruiting artists.  She wasn't sure if Tom or she had thought of that excuse.

            "So what do you want me to do?  Kick her out?  She hasn't got anywhere to go." 

            Tom had drank from a glass of vodka, straight.  He stared at his wife with stark hatred before he walked out.  Victoria suspected he took refuge in other women during these exits, and was sure Olga had slept with him, even after they had brought her from the Oakland charity hospital. 

            Olga wanted to sleep with every man when she first appeared before Christmas, unannounced to her though Tom, despite denials, seemed to know.  He probably slept with lots of Russian women.  Any male with an American citizenship and the chance for her green card had his neck surrounded by Olga's arms a few hours after she met him.  Victoria had watched even Haley's 60-year-old elementary school psychiatrist get the treatment.  But she couldn't condemn the woman.  Life sounded terrible back in Russia, with the riots and meat only once a month.  She supposed she'd do anything too, except maybe abandon two babies.  If Tom divorced her, she'd keep the girls and try to save them.

            Victoria opened the old refrigerator.  The frosty glow lit a slice of the room.  Their studio had been a small warehouse, divided into the big rough room where they painted and sculpted, and what had been small offices that became the kitchen-living room, and two bedrooms.  The floor was raw plank, pitted and splintery.  Furniture was garbage they got for free, though they painted it red and yellow, like canvas, to hide the age.  Tom contracted house renovations for the real money in their lives, and she had argued for him to make improvements in the dark, morbid loft.  But he was unwilling, too restless and always planning to move them elsewhere.  He also was very cheap.

            Among the leftovers wrapped in plastic and a dish with tuna fish, Victoria found the coffee can.  A few grains littered the bottom.  She sighed, because Tom had promised to buy coffee last night.  Without coffee, and the long, luxurious ritual of wakening that two cups every morning allowed her, especially Sunday, life seemed intolerable.  Shopping meant a walk out into the Mission District.  Even one coffee can meant leaving her fortress into the dangers of the American city.    

            Olga emerged with the two girls holding onto her legs and smiled at her sleepily, dressed only in Tom's shirt.  She looked sweet sometimes, like now, dewy and gentle in spite of the spiky brown hair growing on her bald head, and that terrible scar.  Sometimes Victoria even admired her.  To have demonstrated in the streets against the government, and to have climbed to the top of the municipal building to tear down the communist hammer and sickle took more courage than she had.  At other times, though, Olga had a nasty temper, especially after she and Tom or one of Tom's friends drank whiskey until comatose.         Victoria was incapable of holding a grudge; that was one of her faults.  Even if Tom slept with Olga, she was just one more.  And Victoria had slipped up a time or two, or three, but one night stands only.  At least the Russian, being pummeled by Alyssa who climbed around her shoulders, and Haley, who wrestled at her middle, was a good babysitter, patient and non-communicative. 

            Poor Haley.  Her first was already in therapy.  What would Haley do if Tom left?  Maybe craziness ran in the family. 

            Victoria's own mother was a manic depressive, and had to be put into the hospital for beating her kids, especially Victoria.  But she'd gotten over it.  She couldn't hate, even her mother.  Victoria couldn't even argue with Tom, who argued day and night.  She resented any lack of smoothness in her day.

            "I'm out of coffee, Olga," Victoria enunciated slowly.  At times she didn't believe Olga had lost her memory, because her little English came back right away.  "I'm going to Kim's."

            Olga smiled.  Haley stared through the glass of the office-bedroom with those red eyes down deep holes.  Why couldn't she just be a child?   Cynical at six!  Unlike Alyssa, who acted dumb and happy, the jock of the family.  Victoria put on her coat, because she could see her breath inside the room.

            She couldn't bear to look at her art drying on the walls as she walked through the studio.  Her paintings and installations were always dark and morbid.  A teacher of hers at the Art Academy once called them 'constipated.'  In contrast, the two paintings in their midst that Tom had brought back from Moscow and Leningrad were in yellows and reds, with cartoon-like robots marching in an abstract world of white squares and triangles.  Still, she kept getting grants, though all local and not enough to live on. 

            Down the steep stairs she carefully walked, then out the rotten door, having to wiggle the key in the lock until it finally gave.  A real drug crazee would find the lock no barrier at all.  She had seen more than one derelict walking on the roof a mere sheet of glass from the kitchen. 

            Then she was outside in the criminal alley.

            The sky was gray, and a misty rain filled the winter air.  Her rusted Sentra slanted half on the cracked sidewalk; she was always glad to see it still there.  The alley threatened her every second; she came from a clean east coast suburb. 

            Tom loved the decay, and painted the rot and the trash in hyper-realistic detail.  He said here was real life and he loved rot, but all she saw were broken bottles the girls might step on, graffiti on the walls--"Fuck the Shits," "AIDS Kills"--and the homeless, violent, resentful men and women down on the sidewalk as she walked by.  This morning an alcoholic man slept against a telephone pole.  Victoria stepped around a lake of still-liquid yellow puke.  Yesterday, when she escorted the kids out to an Indian woman on the next block who babysat, right by their door a man pissed into the gutter.

             How could she raise decent kids in the District?  Tom thought the girls were better off here than in some soulless suburb.  But Victoria would move in a minute if Tom left her.  She liked being happy.  Tom just had so much crap inside him from his own lousy immigrant childhood.

            At Kim's, the neighborhood grocery, Victoria had to step around a drunken woman dressed in rags standing in front of the screen door.  She was Hispanic and young.  Drunk at 9 a.m.  At least that was better than cocaine.  Inside, Kim greeted her with a sour nod of his acne-scarred face from behind the cash register.  The Korean was talking lottery to a black guy, maybe Haitian.  Kim rang up her coffee quickly, without a hint that he knew her or that she came there on average once a day, Tom two, three times for vodka and beer.

             After she had eased back past the woman, who mumbled a blue streak to herself in Spanish, Victoria halted before the telephone pole at the corner.  An ambulance rushed down the busy street, siren blasting, as she checked over the stapled flyers for events.  Blues, rock, rap, reggae, a peace poetry reading, a political rally against gay-bashing.  But no, no jazz. 

            Tom hated music, hated black music especially, hated blacks with an intensity that was scary, but Olga had arrived with a love of jazz.  The second night after she called from the bus station they had gone to a jazz club, where Olga, the dear, wanted to dance.  Dance to jazz!  The Russian had dressed up in her best man-catching clothes, a knobby tight yellow sweater and a pink short skirt to show off her terrific 31-year-old legs.  Her then voluminous reddish-brown, curly hair had been combed with a flirtatious slant to the right.  She looked like a woman from the fifties.   When Olga saw that nobody was dancing, she was disappointed. 

            "In America, jazz is more intellectual," Victoria had tried to explain through the smoke and the gloom of the club.  A man was passed out on the floor under the next table.  "We just listen.  Rock and reggae are better for dancing."

             Tom left in a rage, mad at being near black people, and  because Olga, in her feminine, vulnerable, seductive way had insisted on showing them how to dance jazz.  The black band and the white customers stared at Olga and Tom slow dancing to a Miles Davis moan.  Even with Victoria right there, abandoned, Olga rubbed her body tight against Tom.  And she was twelve years younger than Victoria.  Victoria's red hair was streaked with white.

            But Tom had stormed out without warning as something exploded inside him, and left the women alone at their table.  She stayed, in need of the blues and despair.  America was in a lousy mood.

            "Or we feel the music.  Just sit and feel it," she had added. Always it was hard to tell if Olga understood the English.

            When Victoria fiddled with the lock again, and the door at last yielded, she secured the wooden barrier in a hurry.  If she and Tom broke up, got divorced like everybody else they knew, she'd let him have the damn studio, and move somewhere nice, like Berkeley.

             The kids had torn up the newspaper, and pieces were all over the kitchen-living room floor like snow.  Savages, but what could she do.  Olga smiled at her, an egg with rose lips and blue eyes. 

            Victoria needed to work on her instillation that morning, the one where swinging doors painted and shaped like a rib cage would lead the visitor into a room, painted as the inside of a stomach.  Her grant was about to run out, and the church with the space was getting impatient.  She had work to do, studying Gray's Anatomy.        

            Haley and Alyssa would be dumped at day care, though Sunday was expensive.  But first, her two cups of coffee.  The blessed two cups of coffee.  Churchgoing had been part of her Philadelphia childhood, and though she hadn't been in decades, a Sunday morning ritual was vital.

             Heating the water in the banged-up pan, letting the liquid seep through the grounds and the filter, then hearing the fall of black coffee into the glass carafe brought peace and sanity to Victoria.  As she sipped the coffee, she forgot the rest of her life, past, present and future.  Let the shit flow past unnoticed; don't worry about tomorrow.        

            Olga glided into the room, looking sheepish and hung over.  Victoria and Tom had taken her to a poetry reading at the Cafe Beano the night before, and, as had become usual, a knot of male candidates had shown up too.  Rich, still trailing her like a dog, was kind of stupid, but he worked with Tom on house renovations and made a decent living.  Sid was unemployed and lazy, but he had a law degree from Berkeley and one day might snap out of it and be a good catch.  That Leonid too.  Olga could talk Russian with him, though Olga didn't take him seriously as a green card husband.  Just as long as that bitch was out of their studio soon.

             An image flashed through Victoria's mind as she took another full sip of the coffee:  the big blue eyes of Olga, dressed like a high school dream of the 1950s, standing in the vast auditorium New Years Eve night at the Exotic Erotic Ball, one week after her arrival.  Gay men made out, each wearing women's gowns; topless women bounced to the rock band; and in the middle of a thousand dancers an exhibitionist woman gave a man a blow job.  Olga looked like she had landed on another planet.

            "I drank too big," Olga said in her charming slurred accent, and smiled her humble smile.            

            "Where are you bursnip norfday?" Victoria said slowly. 

            The Russian felt uncomfortable around her.  She knew the American didn't like her, and she wasn't sure she liked the American.  Too chirpy and optimistic.  And she let those brats run wild.  But what choice did Olga have? 

            "Maybe, I think, I would see the ocean today," she said. "My heart, the sea."         

            She made a sweeping motion with her arms, like she would embrace it.  And she knew she could never leave San Francisco, or at least some coast of America where she might dive into the ocean.  So far she had hardly seen it, but that was O.K.  As long as the sea was nearby for her.  And a sophisticated city too; she needed a city.  The daughter of aristocracy had to have comforts.

            "Is Leonid dortforgy you?" the hostess said, pouring her a cup of coffee.  American coffee was terrible, so thin.  She sat across from the woman, whose gray streaks of hair in the muddy red were particularly noticeable this morning.  She was doomed be a wrinkled, ugly old woman.

            "No, no," she said.  Leonid was a good man, but he insulted her poetry, and told her she was spoiled, a city kitten.  She wanted a male who would spoil her.  Not loving a husband had its advantages too, beyond the financial.  If Tom left Victoria, as he said he was, he would be the best of a bad lot.

            America was too democratic, but what could you do?

            So the two women sat at the table, drinking coffee.  Olga's skull throbbed, the scar a burning ditch.  When her hair grew over the scar, she would feel more beautiful, and get down to business.         

            That night was the monthly grandmother night.  Tom and Victoria brought the kids and Olga to the nursing home where they had put Victoria's grandmother.  How could they say bad things about her leaving her babies, when, instead of the 92-year-old living with the family in their studio, they dumped her into a rundown building?  As was the routine, Tom and Victoria guided the brittle body out the security doors, and a few steps down the sidewalk to a Mexican cafe chosen because the granny could no longer bend to get into the small car.  El Palenque, the Fighting Rooster, had a linoleum floor, torn vinyl booths, and a few posters of bullfights on the wall.  The waiter, a glum man with a mole by his nose, brought them the menus.  Olga ordered a big enchilada, because Tom was paying, and stared out the window at the dirty street splashed with orange from high-intensity security streetlamps.

              Babushka looked around the cafe like she was in shock.  Her face was wrinkled like a sea turtle's, but white as her hair.  Long hairs grew from her chin.  Alyssa and Haley screamed in the booth beside her, but she didn't notice.  The granny stank.  And while Olga sat across from her, the yellow, rotted odor of her dry skin surrounded her, like medicine.

            "And who are you?" the old woman asked for the tenth time since they sat down.  Who were these people?  She concentrated, and there was the expected Victoria, and what's his name, Tom.  Tom looked Jewish.  Was he?  Surely Victoria, a good old Irish gal from Philly, wouldn't marry a Jew.  The cafe looked familiar, with this black-haired waiter with the fat stomach, but who were all those effeminate men in the other booths.  Why, those two at the next table were holding hands, and they were hairy as her husband, dead fourteen years now, bless his soul.  Philadelphia had sure changed.            

            "My name is Olga," the woman said.

             Her accent was confusing.  A Pole?   Good-looking though, and well-dressed in a silver silk blouse, pleated.  The name didn't ring a bell.  Mary drank her coffee.  They didn't let her drink stimulants at the retirement home.

             "Can I have a beer?"

            "Sure, grandmomma," Victoria said.  The cafe was too noisy, clinking plates and mumbling queers.  Why didn't they take her to Momma Leoni's where she always went on Sundays?  The husband hardly looked at Victoria, but that's the way it was in a marriage.  When she and hers first got hitched, they held hands and stared into each other's eyes for hours, like they were hypnotized.  A few years, and they were like strangers.  But, once you said 'I do' you did for life.  'Til death do us part.  She tried to picture her husband's face and couldn't, nor could she remember his name.  Where was she?  At least there sat Victoria. 

               The waiter brought some beer she didn't know, not the Budweiser she always drank.  Her granddaughter poured the bottle into a short glass, but made too much foam.  Mary downed it in a gulp.  There sat that foreign girl with the ugly haircut. 

            "And what's your name again?" she asked.

            "Olga.  Olga Ivanova."

            "Are you a friend of Victoria's?"

            "Yes," the woman said, with a sad smile.  She was real young.  The waiter banged a plate down in front of her, some cheese stuff she didn't recognize, and beans.  Every Sunday she ate spaghetti with meat balls; Victoria knew that.  She'd just starve.  He poured more beer into her glass, and she killed it.

            "Can I have another cup of coffee?" she asked Victoria.

            "How many is that?" what's-his-name, the husband, asked.  He always looked mad.  His eyes were alcoholic.  Oh well, that was Victoria's problem.  For better or worse, 'til death do us part.  Sixty-two years with hers.   Four kids raised right.  At least her husband never fooled around, like they do these days.  He was a good breadwinner, even if he was a bastard.  She'd had a secure family with him, and a house they stayed in forty years.

            "Just two so far," Victoria said.  "I'll cut her off, but let her have a day out.  I think that new roommate of hers is mean."        

            Bless Victoria.  She felt safe with her around.  Victoria was much better than her stupid daughter, Victoria's mother, who never called from Baltimore, just down the pike. 

            "Can I have a beer?" Mary asked.  The little girls giggled.  Her great-granddaughters were sure spunky.

            "Your beer is not . . . dead," the foreign woman said, pointing to the Mexican bottle.  Then smiled in apology. 

            "Are you sure a diet burrito is the right thing?" Tom asked, his dark face scowling. "She'll make a mess."

            "Then let her make a mess, for God's sake.  It's the least spicy thing on the menu."

            "Fuck it," Tom screamed.  He wiggled out of the booth and stomped out.  Mary turned red at the language.  They didn't talk like that in her day.  She'd almost never missed a mass at Christ the King for seventy years.  Maybe the priest could bring her the host.

            "What's his problem?" she asked her granddaughter.

            "Oh, he's just, just Tom.  I don't know," Victoria said, with resignation but also plainly glad to be rid of him.  Mary too.  He didn't even have a regular job.  She felt sorry for Victoria because she had to work, and couldn't be a housewife.  The kids didn't have a full-time mother like in her day. 

            "Something's on his mind lately." 

            Alyssa cried, but Haley just glared.   

            "Tom has very big temper," the foreign woman said.  "Kaboom."  

            "And who are you again?" the grandmomma asked.  Where was she?  Now it was just we gals.  She took a sip of beer straight from the bottle.  The waiter set a new cup of coffee beside her untouched burrito.  "Can I have another beer?"

            "Sure, grandma," Victoria said.  "Anything you want now.  Take your time."

            "Olga," the foreign woman said.

            "Polish?"  Coffee dripped off Mary's chin.  The strange woman reached across with a napkin, and patiently blotted her dry. 

            "Russian," she said, with a proud toss of her head and a smile.  "I am Russian."

            But maybe I will stay here, Olga thought.