The Sawed-Off Past



2300 broadway ny 10024

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

I’m sitting in the essay aisle at Barnes & Noble trying to change my socks. I don’t have an apartment anymore so this is my pit-stop, Broadway and 83rd. On one side of me is Vivian Gornick’s “At Eye Level,” and on the other the complete essays of Montaigne. I’m planning to take a look at both, but first things first. I bought new shoes on my way to the city and wore them out of the store and the shoes are green with pink dots and my socks don’t match. Normally this wouldn’t bother me but these really don’t match, it offends the eyes to look at my feet. A young couple appears and settles down at the tail end of fiction which is four feet away. They are making a sound which if they were older would be called chuckling and he wants her to buy a book called Sex Something-Something but she doesn’t want that one. He won’t let go of her or stop doing to her whatever it is he’s doing until she agrees to buy the book with sex in the title, but she continues to resist.

If I weren’t busy, I’d be eavesdropping properly but instead I’m struggling to remove the black sock with red peppers from my left foot. I had hoped for privacy. It’s hard to sit on the floor and change your socks without looking as though you’re sitting on the floor changing your socks, especially when you’re sixty-three. I finally manage to yank them both off and slip on the new pink anklets, then slide back into my shoes. My feet are now a vision of loveliness. The young couple is whispering, perhaps discussing the likelihood that I am insane, but I don’t glance in their direction. I open the Montaigne at random. “Of Drunkenesse,” ah yes. You can do most anything in this friendly Barnes & Noble as it was at this branch that a man once sat undisturbed in a chair in the travel section, all day and all night, only to have it turn out, at closing, that he was dead.

Hours later I’m sitting on a bench in front of the bagel store on Sixth Avenue and 13th eating an everything bagel with cream cheese and trying not to spill any of it on my student’s story when a gentleman with reddish gray stubble on his face sits down next to me. This is a small bench. He smells of unwashed hair, old sweat and he is talking. At first I think he has a cell phone because he speaks and pauses, speaks again, asking someone if he’d like to come home. I check quickly, no cell phone. He asks again, politely giving himself time to think about his answer. From the corner of my eye I see him pull a pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket and then he searches for a light in the pocket of his jacket which is right next to the pocket of my jacket. “Some other time,” he is saying. I am still carefully eating my bagel but the everythings are falling on the title page. Finally he stands up to retrieve the matches, lights his cigarette and sits down. Two drags later he gets up again. “Well,” he says to himself, “see you tomorrow,” and then he takes off.

Bagel eaten, I rummage through my bag which is stuffed to overflowing with twenty or thirty single-spaced typed pages held together with a bobby pin and many creased soiled manila envelopes, a camisole (I can explain everything) a pair of dirty socks, three lipsticks, one mascara wand, a paper bag stuffed with tissue paper, napkins, two empty plastic bags, one poetry anthology (paid for) three diaries full of scribblings and shopping lists, various other pieces of balled up paper, a pen from a realtor in a different state and another from a hotel in South Carolina, and some cutlery just in case. I have a friend who always carries a copy of the United States Constitution in her bag in case she gets a chance to read it someday. It isn’t lost on me that to the casual observer I might appear for the second time today to be a person whose eye it is advisable to avoid, but I want to see if there are poppy seeds stuck in my teeth and I’m looking for my mirror. Pawing through this rubbish I’m about one plastic spoon shy of starting to shriek or mutter, but here comes my student. Well, I just won’t smile at him, that’s all. Thank god I changed my socks.

Class is over, it’s ten-forty five and I take the subway to 111th where I parked under a construction scaffolding this morning thinking que sera sera, and after I buy my big black coffee I am happy to find the car unscathed. This is my old neighborhood. One block from here, a painting that used to hang in my apartment went for sale on a card table in front of Academy Hardware. I know because the painter herself found it on the street and bought it back and then she called me up. I had not meant to throw it out, I told her, but in truth, I had.

I’ve got more past than future, why drag it around? I threw out everything when I moved. Thirty years of diaries. I even tossed the one that began “Today I married my darling” (but not before sitting down on the floor to read it through). It was terribly personal and terribly boring, not even useful as Cliff Notes on a life. How liberating! The minute I threw it into the trash I remembered how the judge had been late, and the party in full swing, and I’d been afraid he wasn’t coming, that he’d forgotten, or lost the address, or the phone number, that he was sick or stuck, that he was going to be a no-show. Rich put his arms around me. “Never mind,” he said, “we’ll go on our honeymoon and get married when we come back.” Was I comforted ? I must have thought that’s sweet but where’s the judge. Now I think, oh my god, what a nice man I married.

I drive back to Woodstock drinking coffee and blasting Leon Russell and I get home at twelve-thirty to three excited dogs. ­There is a varmint in the yard and they’d like to get busy. Forget about it, I say, this is bear season. I breathe the night, go to bed with the rest of my pack and wake up in the morning with a sawed-off past and a future I can’t imagine.


In the morning I decide to go through the rubbish in my bag, most of it easy to toss. I gave up the keys to my old apartment, but there are still four keys left on my key ring; I have no idea what they used to unlock, but I’m going to hang on to them. One of them might have opened my parents’ house, which was sold years ago. My sister has dreams that our parents appear at her door, asking why they can’t go home. “What do you tell them?” I ask, horrified.

“I skirt the issue,” she says and we both laugh. “But there was this one dream, I think they were younger. They were in the driveway and so was I. They wanted to go in the house and I told them they’d been gone a long time and somebody else lived there now.”

“Then what?” I ask.

“I don’t remember,” my sister says.

“How did they look? What did they say?”

“It was a dream. I woke up.”

“But­ . . .”

“It was a dream,” my sister says again.


There was a very old magnolia in their yard, and I remember standing under it with my father one day when the thick petals were mostly on the ground, making a lush slippery carpet underfoot. “This is an example of nature’s profligacy,” my father said, rather proudly, as if he had been somehow responsible. My memory has filed this together with something else he said another time­–how nature wastes nothing, everything is used again and again, nothing vanishes, it is only forms that change. Did he say the next thing outright or did I make it up? Why go to all that trouble just to waste a soul?

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