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Friday, April 28, 2017


by Terry Richard Bazes

Although we were strangers when I was a young man, in time my father and I became very good friends. It was, I think, the experience of being business partners that did it—an unlikely circumstance since neither of us knew anything about real estate. But somehow, we got caught up, knee-deep in the subdivision of a one hundred-year-old Chappaqua estate where we were decidedly the interlopers. In that improbable heyday of our time together, we bought stock, bartered and schemed. I navigated the politics of a fractious stepfamily, and he lent money that he couldn’t afford to lose—and worried so much that he lived on Tums. Eventually he got his money back and we made our profit—and our friendship. “I didn’t think you had it in you,” he said.
After that—when I lived far away and had sons of my own—my father and I spoke mostly on the phone. At first, in that shy way of his, he wouldn’t quite know what to say, and so there’d be a moment’s silence until I would find a way to begin. But there were always all the things we didn’t say—not because they couldn’t be said, but because there was something more articulate in the noiseless depth of feeling between us. And so, when I went down to Florida to visit him, I always sat beside him and it never really mattered what we talked about.
Like so many of his generation, my father had never entirely recovered from the terrors of the Great Depression. Although he had succeeded admirably—financially and as a surgeon—the fear of poverty that had seemed so close when he was seventeen still haunted him in his nineties. Mostly because he had been so generous and made my life so comfortable, I never completely understood what had terrified him so.
But I did understand that, although his family had never lost everything, he had felt that they were on the brink of ruin—and the panic he had felt had driven him to succeed. This indelible fear, even in his prosperous old age, lay behind the way he obsessively focused all his brilliance on the stock market—and behind the urgency of his insistence that I count my change and that I keep my wallet in my front pocket. Of course, I knew that he was thinking of his own father then.

At the height of the Depression, my grandfather, Sam, lost a hundred-dollar bill. It was my father who found it again, lying in a gutter.
This one episode of my father’s young manhood seems to sum up the saga of my grandfather’s bad luck and of my father’s life-long drive to get back what had been lost. I never knew my grandfather because he died long before I was born. But I’ve heard stories about him—that he was a bon vivant who owned a racehorse, that he loved to gamble, that he lifted weights with his teeth, and that he was (according to our cousin Rosette) “the most generous man I ever knew.” I’ve never been able to reconcile these stories with the photo I have of him standing between his two boys, in a cardigan sweater, with the eyes of a broken old man. This picture must have been taken after the crash of ’29, after his fur business went bust.
By the time my father needed to pay the tuition for medical school, my grandfather had no money to offer. When my father started selling his own blood to raise cash, I know that my grandfather was heartsick. But I also know that it was from his father that my father learned his excessive generosity—that he always gave me too much so that I would never suffer the terror he had felt. Maybe it was because his own father had been unable to provide for him that my father became, for we who loved him, such a bastion of capability and brilliance. Gambling was another of my grandfather’s legacies to him. For my father, in his own way, was a gambler too—yet never improvident like his own father, but with a shrewd, poker player’s instinct for how to play his hand.
He made so much money from playing poker in the army that he had enough to open his first medical office. That was because he had an extremely intuitive practicality, an uncanny ability to grasp the facts of a situation and find a solution. Even my mother’s father—that impossible old man who had been my father’s professor in medical school—conceded that he was the finest diagnostician he had ever known. For he was, quintessentially, the doctor. I will always remember him, when I was little and he came to kiss me good night after surgery, with the smell of ether on his face. He belonged to the last generation that still made house-calls, and my memories of what he was to me in my childhood—when I rode in the backseat with his black leather bag—are infused with the security of his quiet strength. When, as a little boy, I fell and cut my lip, he was there to sew me up. When I nearly died from pneumonia, he was there to heal me. He was doubly the giver of my life, both my father and my doctor.
His penetrating intellect and enormous resourcefulness somewhat oddly coexisted
with his occasionally awkward shyness. But           
as a doctor he had a way with people and would take the time to explain what they needed to hear.
For he had a faith in human worth: it was an integral part of his optimism. He traveled all over the world, as soon as he could afford it—and gave up a lucrative medical practice in order to donate his skills in Afghanistan.
Any kind of trip would put him in one of his expansive moods, when all things seemed possible, an effusive excitement that there was something more to be seen that would gratify his curiosity and hope. He was never happier than when he was moving. “All will be well,” he often said.
But then, even to him, it happened—the failing eyesight, then the blindness, then the hallucinations which—at first—he knew weren’t real.
And then came the broken legs, the frailty and his falling asleep even in the middle of a sentence.
One afternoon I got the call that he’d be dead within a day and that I’d better fly down if I ever wanted to see him again. So I got on a plane and, by the time I arrived in Florida, he was unconscious and breathing only two or three times a minute. But by that night he was sitting in a chair and talking: he had come back from the brink of death. And when I told him how infrequently he’d been breathing, he diagnosed himself—in that dispassionate, scientific way of his—saying that it sounded like “Cheyne-Stokes respiration” and adding that he “must have been far gone.”
And for those few, precious hours he was altogether himself again and we talked and talked and talked late into the night. We spoke of many things, but, beneath the surface of the words we spoke, the real subject was the understanding we had reached—and in his own quiet, deep, understated way, he blessed me.
And when he lay dying, I sat beside his bed and asked him questions so I could hear him tell me all the old stories one last time. He told me again how his first memory was of walking up the Grand Concourse with his Uncle Max and buying a newspaper that announced the end of World War One. And he told me again that his father had never allowed him to work with him as a flesher in the fur factory, but had saved him for something better, and fulfilling his father’s prediction he had been the young prince, the prodigy who’d skipped so many grades that he graduated first in his class from Columbia College when he was just nineteen. Thinking of when the family lived on Fox Street, I asked where had Grandma’s sisters lived, and where was Uncle Rome’s store? And what was the name of his first grade teacher who had complained about him to Grandma because he was too defiant? And did he remember the street address of the elegant Imperator apartment building on Riverside Drive where the family had lived when they were plush? Because I knew I was losing him forever, I made him tell me again about our crazy Brenner cousins, who’d cornered the karakul trade and been held for ransom by Chinese bandits, and about the troop plane he was on that nearly went down in a storm when he was stationed up in Gander, and about how in the army he’d made a bundle playing poker and caught so many lobsters that he only ate the tails.
But there was one story I needed to hear more than all the others.
And so, though he could barely talk, I asked him to tell me again how, during the Depression, when the family had lost all their money and couldn’t afford to send him to medical school, he and his brother Joe had gone to the races and bet everything they had on a long shot. For the very last time, he told me how the miracle had happened, how the horses in the lead had fallen but their long shot had kept driving on. Lying there on his pillow with his eyes closed he told me how, when—against all odds—their horse had come in first, he’d stuffed the winnings in his jacket pocket. And then he and his brother Joe had walked out through the crowd together, side by side, pressed close against one another to keep the money safe.
“How many horses fell?” I asked him.
“Every one but ours.”

Terry Richard Bazes is the author of Lizard World and of Goldsmith’s Return. His personal essays and fiction have appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post Book World, Newsday, Columbia Magazine, Travelers’ Tales: Spain, Lost Magazine, and the Evergreen Review.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Places They Could Go

by Rebecca Potter

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...”                                                                             
                                                                —Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go

I have a lump in my throat as soon as Pomp and Circumstance begins and the graduates file in. I sit with other robed teachers on one side of the graduating class, so close I can smell Ethan’s too-strong cologne and read the glittery inscription painted on Olivia’s mortar board: I applied to Hogwarts but was accepted at UK. Go Wildcats! Family and friends of the graduates surround us in stadium seating. Some wear suits and ties and others wear plaid button-down shirts tucked into khaki shorts. Several parents carry bouquets and gift bags. Phones out and ready. Now and then someone yells something like “You go, girl!” or “We love you, Matt!”  For a moment or two I put myself in the place of one of those parents watching a ceremony that officially says my child is grown and will be leaving me soon. I exhale deeply to prevent myself from crying.
The ceremony begins the way it does every year, with welcome addresses and speeches. Along with worn-out admonitions about always remembering the good times of high school and dreaming big and going far, the Valedictorian and Salutatorian both mention me in their speeches. They say kind words about the difference I have made in their lives. Colleagues sitting near me slap my back, graduates turn and smile and pump fists at me. These speeches are gifts. Teachers don’t get bonuses or merit raises; this is it right here—public recognition from former students. I am honored and humbled. But it’s not their speeches or the mention of my name that causes the lump in my throat to finally dislodge and the tears to come.
It’s the names. Nearly three hundred of them. With each name, a student crosses the stage, and so does a story. Mia went with the softball team to the state championship two years in a row. Alex has a 4.0 and scored well on several AP exams. Erin will be the first in her family to go to college. Ruby’s parents emigrated from Uzbekistan; she is the oldest of eleven children. Jessica is a Mormon, the only one in our school. Chris is going to a college thousands of miles away on a wrestling scholarship. Josh shot a buck with a beautiful set of antlers last fall. Andre wants to be a musician; his mom wants him to be a doctor. Missy hates school. Jeremiah is gay and is concerned about people in our small town not liking him because of it. Troy entered my class with a second-grade reading level. Beth is pregnant; her belly is big enough to cause the graduation gown to billow out. Hannah lived with her aunt and uncle until they were divorced this year. Logan broke his foot in the first football game of his senior year. Crystal’s parents spent their inheritance on drugs; she moved out. Ethan has a drug problem; he’s been arrested several times. Kayla’s boyfriend beat her up so her parents put a restraining order on him. Hailey’s mother passed away just three years ago, and she is constantly searching for someone to be her mom.
And on and on they go. Some dream of becoming doctors or pilots or lawyers or teachers or business owners. Some are going to travel. Others will join the military. Some of them will become engineers, welders, cosmetologists, or mechanics. They will go on to pursue careers, start families, and generally do good things in their community.
 But other names whisper failure. Some of them have no dreams. They don’t know they are allowed to dream, or they can’t. They are doomed before they have even really begun. They will jump from dead-end job to dead-end job, toxic relationship to toxic relationship, never settling down or finding contentment. They will abandon their kids, end up poor, lonely, and addicted to something. Or they will live in their parents’ basement far too long. Maybe they’ll end up in jail. Some will die too young.
As they graduate, their paths split and splinter. No matter what they do or where they go, they take part of me with me with them. They take what they have learned in my classroom and leave me behind to question if they will make it and to wonder what kinds of places they will go. It is this—having cared about these people so much and knowing only echoes of my voice go with them from this point—that makes me cry at graduation.
I think about this when Michael crosses the stage. There is no one there to clap for him. His celebration is his own. His dusty brown work boots and jeans peak from below his graduation gown. He towers over the principal as he heartily shakes his hand and receives his diploma, then gives a sideways smile for the camera. He lumbers off the stage, his tassel getting stuck on his lip.
I had Michael in class his sophomore and junior years. When he was a junior, he broke his ankle then caught his mother stealing his pain medicine. I can see his mom, dirty and small, short brown hair and sunken eyes. I imagine her rummaging through his drawers, under his bed, searching for parts of him to steal—his privacy, his trust, his love.
He confronted her about it. She denied it, accused him of lying, and called him ungrateful. She said he was a terrible son. And then she kicked him out with nothing but a duffel bag, a broken ankle, and memories of growing up with a mother who needed to be high more than she cared about her child and a father who was never there.
Eighteen and homeless, Michael went from one friend’s house to another’s, holding down a full-time job. He slept in most of his classes. When he was awake, his eyes were red and his attention somewhere else. But he was different in my class.
“Well, what do you think, Mrs. Potter?” His speech was slow and drawn out, very Southern and very kind. He constantly asked for approval, to make sure he was doing the work right, to know what he needed to do better.
“Michael, it’s great.” I returned to him the crumpled, scribbled-on notebook paper that was his rough draft. He had finished the assignment a full three days before anyone else and wanted feedback on the spot. Written expression was a real struggle for him because of a learning disability. I knew he had worked hard on this assignment. “I would give it a B. Well done!”
“What do I need to do to get an A?” I knew he would ask that; he always did.
After a few more drafts, he did get the A. And he continued to work hard for me for all the time I had him in class. After one classroom observation, the principal expressed shock that Michael, whom he knew well, participated and worked so much. He wondered if he was always on task. Of course he was.
“You know why he works for you?” My principal didn’t give me a chance to answer. “He knows you care about him, and he loves you for it.”
Now Michael is graduating and will soon be starting community college. I think when Michael is in class this fall, he will hear my voice telling him he is capable. He will remember the story that Cheever wrote about a boy meeting his father at a train station. He will feel that anger again and vow to never be that person. He will be better than his father, better than his mother. He will hear me tell him how proud I am of him, as I have done dozens of times, because maybe no one else has done so. In class when he gets sleepy, he will hear me tell him, “Wake up, Michael. You got this, buddy.”
I clap hard when Michael crosses the stage at graduation. I do not even follow directions and wait for all the graduates’ names to be called before I do so.
When I first started teaching, when I cared about my job but before I knew how to really love my students, I wondered what the point really was, especially for the kids not going to college, those who will be working on a farm or in auto shop or on a factory line. Those kids will likely work hard and lead good lives, but they won’t need to know how the final chapter of The Great Gatsby is soaked in rich irony or how point of view affects our understanding of poor Miss Emily and her rose. Why did it matter if they knew the plot of The Crucible or if they had read anything by Hawthorne? I wondered why I should teach them how to explicate a poem or write an academic essay. If they couldn’t identify a preposition in a sentence, would it really make a difference in their quality of life? These questions in my early years came from a concern for efficiency and effectiveness. I did not see the point of wasting time and resources on teaching skills and material students would never use.
Now that I know what it means to love my students, my concerns have changed. What skills and content do they need to be successful beyond the classroom, whether they are going to college or not? How can I be sure to reach all of them? Am I doing enough? Am I doing it right? More difficult, what do I do about the students who will go nowhere no matter what I teach them? Teaching these stories and skills won’t save many of my students from failure. It’s more than just a possibility that some of my students will fail. So many already have.
Like Justin. Justin should be at graduation tonight. He should casually stroll across the stage, the way he used to walk the hallways, nod his head as he accepts his diploma, then with a slight, shy smile leave the stage, diploma in hand—ready to go. But while his friends and classmates are celebrating and moving on, Justin is sitting in a jail cell writing me a letter, apologizing for letting me down, asking me to help him make his life matter.
Justin was never in trouble in school. He never caused problems. He came to class with his muddy shoes, Carhartt jacket, and a back pocket with a faded circle where he kept his can of dip. His hair was unkempt and his voice quiet. He punctuated his sentences with “Ma’am” and always looked me in the eye when I spoke to him. He was quiet and uninterested, but he did his work and was respectful.
Much of his life was a blank for me. His parents were divorced. I imagine his father wasn’t there for much of his childhood. And when he was there, they were working together in the tobacco field or under a truck. His mom probably worked a shift job, so she couldn’t help him with his homework or ask about his day or give him kisses which he would pretend  annoyed him. I think he grew up in an empty house where he filled his loneliness with mischief. I think he was expected to be a man before he knew how.
Now this barely-man is alone in jail because he committed armed robbery. He and two other of my former students robbed a local convenience store. They stole beer and cash. Maybe Justin was the one holding the gun, sticking it in the cashier’s face. I hear his soft voice, the polite tones turned to quiet threats, “Give me the money.” He wouldn’t yell. He wouldn’t even sound mean. That’s not who Justin is, at least not in my classroom. It would be only the gun and the mask that would scare the cashier as he hurriedly and with shaking hands gathered the cash from the drawer for the boy who thought he was a man.
I reluctantly think about what kind of life Justin will have once he is out of jail—in a few months or possibly several years. The consequences of his mistakes will always be with him, defining who he is and limiting what he can become. And I wonder what parts of my voice Justin has taken with him to jail. Which of my words did he remember as he wrote his letter? I imagine him sitting on a bed in a gray jail cell, writing to me. He probably did not think about the O’Brien story when he wrote he was sorry. He was not considering the Longfellow poem when he scribbled about wanting to get his life straight. He didn’t care about subject-verb agreement or parallel structure or comma splices.
It was my voice telling him he was worth so much more than he understood about himself when he told me he thought he might not pass my class. It was the times I told him he was preparing to be a husband and a father. As he wrote his letter, he remembered me smiling at the classroom door he used to enter every day, telling him how glad I was he was here today and meaning it. Oh, how I wish he were here tonight with his classmates.
While I know Justin hears me, even from behind bars, I can’t help but wonder what I could have done differently, done better, to keep him out of jail. More stories, more lectures, more encouragement, more rebuke, more smiling, more pleading. Even as I wonder this, I know that no matter what I did or how strong and loud my voice was, Justin would have followed his own path. He is just like so many others who will fail no matter how much I beg them not to.
Even though many will not succeed, I still teach each one with all I have. Their lives matter, even the ones who go to jail, and there is always hope for redemption. My job is not solely to prepare students for college and careers. My job is also to care and show kindness.
Just like I care about Breanna. As she crosses the stage now, her make-up is thick, so much so that her face is lost behind it. She covers herself with fake eyelashes, thick penciled eyebrows, lipstick that extends above and below her lips. She has a septum piercing and an eyebrow piercing. Tattoos and other piercings are covered by her robe. Underneath all the make-up and piercings is a beautiful young woman with a sad story.
Last year, she shoplifted a purse. Just because she wanted to. Just because she was a rebellious teenager pushing the limits of what she could get away with. But she got caught. She told me this in the quiet of my classroom during my planning period. She sat in one of the small student desks, me at my teacher desk. The space between us was wide enough and narrow enough to make Breanna feel comfortable to share.
Her parents had separated years ago, her father absent for much of her childhood. Her mom always had money problems. This past summer she and her mom had been evicted. Breanna faced foster care or moving in with her dad. While living with her dad was probably the better option, it wasn’t easy. He yelled and cursed a lot and loved and encouraged very little. When Breanna had been caught stealing the purse, her mom picked her up from the police station. They decided to keep it a secret from her dad. But he found out. Yesterday.
Breanna said he yelled and cursed and yelled some more. I imagine Breanna sitting on the couch with her father standing over her, his words falling on her head with a heaviness that told her she couldn’t be any better than this, with a coldness that said no matter how good she was after today, he would never see her as valuable. I imagine her pushing against his angry words, struggling to leave the room and his condemnation sentencing her to a lifetime of thinking she was destined only to make mistakes and let people down. She crouched below his yelling and made it to the door. After she left, her dad called the police. The officers found Breanna, took her home, and told her to sit down and have a rational conversation with her father or face more serious consequences.
Breanna and her dad sat at the kitchen table in silence.
She was telling me all of this because she just needed someone to listen, she said. And I was there. But then it struck me that she needed something else, too. “Breanna, do you need me to talk to you the way a mom talks to her daughter?” She nodded and let out a quiet yes. So I began. I spoke to Breanna the same way I would had it been my child who stole the purse, the same inflection I use when one of my sons has really, really messed up and I am beyond yelling, with the same intensity of motherly affection.
“You are worth too much, you are far too valuable, you are way too important to be making such bad decisions.” My words were quiet and solid, slow and separated. I looked her in the eyes when I spoke, watching to be sure she heard the love behind my rebuke. “I love you too much to allow you to ruin your life by making stupid mistakes. You are better than this.”
Head dropped and shoulders hunched over, this tough girl in front of me sobbed. I thought maybe I’d said too much. Maybe I had overstepped my place as a teacher. Through her crying she muttered, “I wish my own mom would talk to me like that.”
I left the separation provided by my big teacher desk and went to this child. How I ached for her in that moment. How I wished I could do more and be more for her. Just like any mother, I wanted so much to take her hurt away and protect her from ever getting hurt again. Just like any mother, I wanted this child to be happy and good and safe, and I felt the desperation that came from knowing she was none of those things right then. I held her while she continued to sob. I knew she was not crying because she had stolen a purse.
Now at graduation, she winks at me after she is off the stage and returning to her seat. I study her as she walks by. I am concerned about her future, about her getting hurt, about how hard her life will be. She has no plans for college or work. I doubt her parents will offer much guidance. She is stepping forth into the grown-up world equipped with so many strengths and abilities but also with so much against her.
I wonder where she will go. Maybe she will end up working in a salon in a big city making people look and feel beautiful. Or in the post-partum unit of a hospital. Perhaps in a real estate agency or a bank here in town. 
But I know she could just as easily end up homeless. Or in jail. Or on drugs. Or worse.  
Wherever she goes, I hope she will recall me telling her how beautiful she is, how valuable she is. Years from now when she is hurting because someone’s ugly words are pouring down on her, I pray my voice will rise above the other and it will give her strength. While I might never see her again, I will tell her in remembered conversations that she is better than her mistakes, that grace is thick and all-covering, that it is never too late to do good things in this world. I don’t know what kind of story she is going to write with her life after today, but I am so glad to be a part of it. 
I love graduation because it represents the exciting edge of adulthood. These now-adults can do whatever they want, go wherever they want. Become whoever they want. So at graduation, I dream of the places they could go. And even though I will miss them and worry about them, I am satisfied in the hope that maybe one day, weeks or years from now, in some moment of their life when they need me they will hear my voice and, though faded with time, it will be clear and full of love.
A colleague of mine once talked about the lie that graduation is. All these graduates, smiling as they wait for their happy future to be handed to them. A huge stadium filled with family and friends cheering and clapping as these teenagers file one-by-one quickly crossing a stage to receive a flimsy, nearly meaningless piece of paper. We tease the kids with promises of the good things that await them and the amazing things they will do because they have graduated. But for many of these students, this graduation marks the highest achievement they will earn for the entirety of their lives. This is it. The pinnacle of their greatness: walking across a stage that millions of other people walk across every year while their family is asked to hold their applause until all the graduates’ names have been called.
I see graduation differently than my colleague. Yes, for many, this is it. Yes, this might be the best thing they ever accomplish. And, yes, it hurts that so many will amount to so little. But they are here. They have accomplished something, even if it seems small to us. So let’s clap. Let’s celebrate. It might be our only chance. I clap for the many who will continue to rise to new levels of success. But I cheer just as mightily for the ones for whom this is it. Because this is it. Why not cheer? These people have value beyond their destiny.
So I cheer and clap and cry.

Rebecca Potter is an English teacher at a rural high school in central Kentucky. She is currently working on her Creative Writing MFA in the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. This piece is a part of a larger collection of essays that focus on how environment and relationships affect education. Rebecca lives with her husband, three sons, and two bulldogs. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

This Is a Dickie Lee Song

by Maria Trombetta

          Dammit, Dickie Lee, you were supposed to live forever. You always said to me, “No way, uhn uhn, not me. I’m never gonna die. I’m gonna live forever. I’m stayin alive, like John Travolta. Stayin aliiiive, iiiiiiv—ah!”
          He used to say he was born in the Sonoma State Hospital on March 6th, 1948. I can’t find any records of anyone being born there, no doubt his parents brought him there when he was a baby, less than two years old, after they realized he was blind. Albert says that Dickie Lee was on the little kid unit with him, Baine Cottage. When I met Dickie Lee he asked me my name, date of birth and place of birth. Vital facts that he stored in his mind for years. The fever that made him lose his eyesight may have pushed another part of his brain into overdrive, because he had a thing for dates and for music, an incredible memory bank that held lyrics and birthdays. He could tell anyone what day their birthday was going to fall on this year and next year. When I saw him in last April, he told me that in 2015, my birthday would be on a Friday.
          “Your name is Maria Trombetta and you were born on January 30th in Santa Rosa, right? You are married to Jonathan Palmer and his birthday is September 9th and he was born in Baltimore. Is his sister still Diane Bowcher and her birthday is March 31st?”

The first time I saw him at the Neighborhood House day program, he was sitting scrunched up in a corner next to a CD player, grumbling about having to listen to the Beach Boys over and over again. His head was folded down to his chest and his arms were wrapped protectively over his red lunch bag that hung from a black strap around his neck. He was small, slight, with dark short hair. I was stationed on a chair in the hallway, doing my “observation”—a week long training that consisted of sitting and watching what was going on, watching the dramas of thirty-five unique lives play out on a six-hour stage. Dickie Lee was in the art room, the room designated for quieter work, which also seemed to hold the people who were able to retreat out of the main room’s chaos without drawing attention from the staff. So most of these folks were either napping or doing mosaics with dried beans and glitter glue. Once in a while, usually on their way to take someone else to the bathroom, a staff person would pop in to the art room and press play on the CD player. I don’t know how long the Beach Boys were in there before I started my “observation” but it was on repeat for two days at least before Dickie Lee freaked out. The Boss was taking him upstairs to the van, arms linked together to guide him, when he turned his face up towards hers and let her have it.
          “I don’t wanna listen to the same goddam songs over and over! I’m gonna blow this place up! I’m gonna blow all you up!” He pulled away from her, elbows out and free and stretched himself taller.
          “I’m going to blow it up!”
The Boss hustled him into the elevator, promising new music tomorrow in a syrupy voice. I heard her start humming a song and by the time they reached the lobby Dickie Lee was singing, “Sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time …” with gusto.
          I made a mental note to change the CD every hour. At the end of the week I was allowed to go in the art room. Dickie Lee refused to move out of his chair, but while I was painting with Albert or helping Monica with her magazines, we would sing with each other. Mostly Beatles at first, because those songs I knew well. Then after a few months, we branched out to Creedence and the Rolling Stones and by then he would stand up and paint with me.

Do you remember when we went on the summer trip to Santa Cruz and I convinced you to ride on the Merry-Go-Round? You got stuck getting off the horse and kept shouting that your leg was going to break? I had to lift you up in the air and wiggle you off the horse and heave you over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. You said I saved your life.

The doctors say cancer has spread to his brain and he has maybe two months, maybe less. I have to go see him. I don’t want to go. He is receiving hospice care at his group home. My impression of group homes is that they are one step up from nursing homes, with plastic covers on the furniture and a lingering smell of pee. I don’t want to see him hurting and angry and belligerent. I don’t want to see him dying the way I saw Bill dying in SF General, shriveling up in the bed, or Albert, lost in his own mind and furious at everyone in the world. I dread calling his home. But when the phone rings, a really nice woman answers. She says yes, of course I can come visit and is this Maria Trombetta? I answer her, sounding I’m sure, confused.
          “He talks about you all the time. My name is Maria too. He always says to me, ‘But you’re not Maria Trombetta’.”

I cry when she hangs up. Even after I’ve been gone for five years, you must talk about me the way I talk about you. Telling small legends of our lives to other people.

When I introduce myself, people either forget my name instantly or start singing one of the songs associated with it. “Maria” from West Side Story is the most common for men between the ages of fifty and seventy, “Ave Maria” for the older folks who fancy that they can really sing, “Take a Letter, Maria” by a few obnoxious people, once the Blondie song by a slightly blitzed bartender, but the most common and horrible, from The Sound of Music, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”.
          This song was my sister’s weapon of choice for many years. She was clever with her forms of torture and as siblings do, knew what drove me to tears. The brown plastic Fisher Price record player placed just above my head on the dresser. She held the record like a trophy out in front of her, just out of my reach. One, two, three waltzing twirls around our bedroom she spun, pretending she was Julie Andrews on the mountaintop. Green shag carpet tickling my feet as I jumped for it, trying to swat it away from her.
          “Nooo!” I wailed.
Laughter. Evil sibling laughter.
          And as a child, I didn’t know that the nuns in the movie were worried about her free-spiritedness, or really why the nuns would care. All I heard was a nasty, mocking voice telling me that I was flighty and stupid and a big pain in the ass. When people sing it to me now, I have to stand there with a forced smile on my face and wait until they get through four or five lines before they forget the rest of it. Then they finish and I am still standing there, wanting to flee, and they always, always laugh a shrill little laugh. Like the song was a really funny inside joke.

I had been working at the Neighborhood House with Dickie Lee for two years when The Sound of Music appeared in a pile of videos after a trip to the library. I cringed and put Ben–Hur on top, hoping it would disappear. But, one movie day, somebody slipped it into the VHS machine. A great, green whirling Julie Andrews started singing before I could stop her, and Dickie Lee sat right next to the speaker on the T.V. I made a point to clean the bathrooms for a long time that day to avoid it.
          When the movie was over (well, we decided it was over after the goatherd puppet performance, since everyone but Dickie Lee and Rene had fallen asleep), Dickie Lee started humming the soundtrack. Days of humming, humming, humming. Songs that he had not heard in years, songs that had been displaced by Phil Collins and Elton John, they all came back. He hummed them all in a loop, until one stuck. The Maria song. Patting my arm, he hummed it. Coloring his sunrise pictures, he hummed it. It wormed its way around his brain and dug in. And then, after about a week of this, a week of me dreading that it would happen, it happened. He started singing. Quiet at first and then loud enough for the room to hear.
          “DA DADA DU DA DU DA DUUDO!”
Oh no. Oh no.
          “DA DA DU DU DU DA DU DOOO!”
I felt my face turn red hot, an instant sunburn. I wanted to hide. I wanted my name to be Julia, Rhonda, Sarah, anything but Maria.
          But this is what came out of his mouth.
          “NOBODY solves a problem like MA--RIA! NOBODY can catch a cloud and pin it down! NOBODY SOLVES A PROBLEM LIKE MA—RIA! Nobody holds a moonbeam in her hand.”
He lurched out of his seat and stood in the middle of the room, reaching his hands out for me, wobbling back and forth as he sang. I grabbed his hands and he pulled me in real close, arms crooking around my neck, chin stubble scraping my ear.
          “Nobody! Nobody solves a problem like Maria Trombetta!”

Were you the first person who made me feel loved?

I ring the bell on Tuesday and the other Maria opens the door. She is just as nice in person and the home is clean and beautiful, thank god. She brings me into his room and hooks him up to the oxygen tank so he can talk and breathe at the same time. He is in a reclining hospital bed, eyes open. I sit next to him and he doesn’t turn towards me. He looks smaller, face shaved, stubbly black hair cut short, a small sixty-six-year-old man sinking in to himself. I see the postcard of the Skunk Train I sent on the floor next to the bed, so someone must have read it to him. I rest my hand on his upper arm and try to think of something to say.
          “I heard a Billy Joel song on the radio today.”
          “Which one?” He rolls his head slightly back and forth towards me.
          “Piano Man.” Which is not true, it was “Only the Good Die Young”, my least favorite and too real for this moment. I suddenly can’t think of anything to talk about. I feel awkward and sad. His white t-shirt has a tiny spot of dried blood on it, right under his ear. I look at his dresser and the CD’s stacked up on it in desperation for a song. Journey? Is it possible that I will cry now every time Journey comes on the radio? He saves me by belting out Tina Turner unprompted. We sing “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and move on to “True Colors” and “Joy to the World” and “Stand by Me”. He tries to whistle “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” but the oxygen tube is in the way and he starts clawing at it. I hold his hand and convince him to leave it in. We talk about when I came to San Francisco, and he remembers that I worked at the cafĂ© in Noe Valley with our friend Max, who later got a job at the Neighborhood House after I put in a good word for him with the Boss.
          “Max Doyle was born on October 5th in Washington D.C.”
          “You are right, Dickie Lee. When I started working with Max, he was only nineteen.”
          “He is thirty-three now. Just turned thirty-three.”
           I notice the tiny hairs on his scalp and how they have thinned over the years. I suddenly see an image of my father in a hospital bed, hair falling out, skin yellow, propped up on pillows and me by the side, rails digging into my arms. What will I sing to my father when it is his time? “Blackbird”? “I’ve Just Seen a Face”? The fear of that day hits my stomach and I feel like I can’t breathe. This is coming for everyone, everyone I know and love and it is my job to watch and hold their hands and then be left all alone.
          An hour goes by of us singing and talking and by the end of it I feel like no time has passed. We were right where we always started. But I know I should go now. His breathing is off and he seems tired. I say that I will come back next Tuesday to visit. The other Maria adjusts his oxygen and looks at me with big eyes and tells me to please come back next week, that he will look forward to it so much.

I was ready to come visit you on Tuesday, October 14th, I made plans to leave early and my bag was packed. I called your home and Maria answered again. She said she was sorry. It was fast. You died on October 10th, a Friday.

Maria Trombetta is a graduate student in the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about the Sonoma Developmental Center, one of the last institutions in California that houses people with developmental disabilities. She received her B.A. in Journalism from San Francisco State University and has written stories for the Oakland Tribune and the Sonoma Index-Tribune. She abandoned the city for the country and now lives with her family three hours from civilization, on the wild coast of Northern California.