“Bridges Made From Junk”

Bridges Made From Junk

a short story by Stephen Page

brookln bridge under constructionAs the glass and metal doors slide open, Jonathan Burns steps outside into the cool October air. Crisp brown leaves scrape across the sidewalk. He rolls up a sheaf of poems, sticks it in his jacket pocket, takes out a pack of cigarettes, lights on, inhales deeply then lifts his face to the sun and feels the nicotine rush wash over his body. First cigarette he has had in weeks. He takes another drag, exhales, and watches the smoke tunnel out of his mouth. When the doors close behind him, he walks down the drive and out the front gates, finds the nearest bar, and orders a beer.

Jonathan is walking down a cobblestone street. Choral music emanates from one of the many churches that line the street. Bells are calling people to prayer. Holy men, their faces dark in the shadows of hooded robes, stand within pointed window frames. Jonathan looks inside one of the churches and notices the ribbed, Gothic-style vault. The masonry is smooth and gray and smells freshly built. He goes in, steals the sacrificial wine, and runs outside into the blaring sun.

He is sitting cross-legged on a tapestry rug, smoking hashish from a water pipe, listening to Jimi Hendrix play If 6 was 9. Jimi wears a multicolored silk shirt and strangles notes from his white Stratocaster within the confines of a black-light poster that hangs upon a wall. The poster melts, swirls, and transforms into a gilt-framed painting. It is Rembrandt’s Self-portrait c. 1667. The paint is glistening. A bowling trophy sits on a table below the Rembrandt. A woman wearing a minute array of transparent veils glides into the room. Her skin is the color of lightly creamed coffee. She is sable-haired, has sweeping cheekbones, wears small jeweled rings, and has thin gold chains adorning her wrists, waist, and ankles. She is carrying a cardboard shoe box. Jonathan wants to reach out and touch her, to place his cheek against the mouth of her belly. She sits in a chair behind the table, pushes the bowling trophy aside, sets the shoe box upon the table, and slowly lifts the lid. From inside the box, she carefully extracts a note pad, a pencil, and a stack of cards. She methodically positions them equally apart in front of her. She sets the empty box near her nude feet. One at a time, she turns over each card, examines it front to back, then stacks it face down into a new pile. When she has gone through the entire deck, she lifts the pencil and writes something in the note pad. She looks up at him. Her eyes are crystal yellow.

Jonathan is in a red-draped room. An early jazz song sung in French begins to play. All around him are women in various stages of undress, and men wearing Nazi uniforms stand near the women. They are all talking, laughing, drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes. A white-gloves hand offers Jonathan an enormous bottle of Dom Pérignon ‘38 and he pours himself a glass. As he sips, the cool bubbles burst inside his nose, releasing small drops of chilled, fragrant air. He peers over the rim of his glass. The harem girl is still at the table in front of him, as are the Rembrandt above her, the bowling trophy near her, the cards, the note pad, the pencil, the rectangular box at her feet. She gazes into his eyes and begins to shuffle the cards.

The jukebox against the wall of the soda shop blasts American pop tunes. Girls in tight sweaters, poodle skirts, bobbysocks, and saddle shoes dance with boys that have their hair slicked back and packs of cigarettes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves. One of the boys, an old friend of Jonathan who looks exactly the same as he had in high school, hands him an open pint of bourbon that smells like paint thinner. The harem girl is staring intently at him, and she begins to flip the cards face up and lay them out in neat vertical rows.

Jonathan and the harem girl are sitting together at the back of a dark, smoke-filled bar. Musicians on a low stage in the corner play bluesy jazz music with complicated be-bop riffs. Jonathan is squeezing the girl’s thigh. She is cradling the empty shoe box in one arm and pressing a breast into his ribs. They are sipping scotch. A man wearing a long black leather jacket walks up to their table and deposits a small packet of tinfoil. Jonathan pays the man, opens the packet, and puts the brown clump onto a spoon. It is the same color as the girl’s skin. He adds a few drops of water from a dripping ice cube, lights two matches, puts the flame under the spoon, allows the brown liquid to boil, and extracts it into a syringe. While the girl squeezes his biceps with one hand, he inserts the needle into a vein. She releases her hand. He jerks once and the girl drops the box, opens his shirt and frantically runs her fingers through his chest hair. His eyes flip closed. He floats with the girl to a small room in the back of the bar and drifts onto a bed. She removes his clothes, then, swaying to the music, slowly slips off her veils. She lies next to him and pulls him towards her so that his backbone is embedded in her warm spot and his shoulder blades upon her stomach. She turns his head, sets his cheek upon her breasts, wraps her legs around him, and places the soles of her feet upon his flaccid penis. She begins to hum. Her body smells of jasmine and salt. He falls asleep rocked in her arms.

Through the glass of a cracked-paint window frame is a view of the Brooklyn Bridge under construction. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D plays on a gramophone on the floor. Jonathan sits comfortably in an old brown chair, the only item of furniture in the flat, and stares at a wet spot on the hardwood floor. he has not changed his clothes nor shaven for a week. Roaches crawl on the walls. He is at peace.

Punk rock music is blaring. Jonathan is screaming. The ground is shaking and the ceiling of a dank basement is falling in chunks upon him. In front of him, the Rembrandt is hanging upside-down, the bowling trophy is smashed, the cards are scattered on the floor, and the girl is gone. Someone is lying in the box.

Brightness knifes into Jonathan’s eyes. The walls are white. Blaringly white. He is lying inert, face-down with his cheek on the cool white fabric of the floor. He pukes and lies there with his nose and cheek in the putrid, lumpy vomit. His throat is burning, his mouth feels sticky, he can feel bile clogged in his nasal passages. His intestines feel wrapped around his stomach and are moving up toward a point at the back of his throat. He pukes again. Attempting to rise, he finds it impossible to move his arms. The room begins to spin. He screams and a blonde, blue-eyed, beautifully pale woman wearing a white gown is standing over him.

this story first published on amphibi.us:

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Stephen Page reviews “What Work Is” by Philip Levine

What Work Is
By Philip Levine
77 pages. Alfred A Knopf Books, $15.00.
Reviewed by Stephen Page

Philip Levine is the voice of the working class, the undereducated, What Work Isthe unambitious. He speaks for those who do not know how to speak for themselves or were never taught how to stand up for themselves. He gives voice to those who never thought to ask, “Is this what work is really all about?” He creates portraitures of laborers and brings them to life, allowing them to communicate to the reader, even if it is only through their actions. Levine, a master artist, after giving the subjects sound and movement, mutes them again, paints them back into their frames.

We are drawn into the first poem, a rendering of man wearing rubber protective gear and a respirator descending the steps into a pickling tank to work with a cocktail of hydrochloric acid and other caustic chemicals. The man knows of the dangers of his job, but continues to go down into the tank twice a day. At lunch he sits apart from the other workers in silence. He is proud that the other workers know him only by his nickname, and proud that his dangerous job gives him reputation and meaning in life.

The second poem, “Coming Close,” mootably the best of the collection, begins with the narrator pausing for a moment to scrutinize a fellow worker to whom he delivers parts:

Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
over twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is this a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow….
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull,
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop…she would turn
to you and say, “Why?” Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?”
Just “Why” even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn’t dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.

The narrator is aghast at the appearance of the worker, thinks it a mutation, an unnatural being. It is only at the end of the poem that he admits she is a woman, with the image of the feminine fingers. There is no direct conversation between them, only their mutual knowledge of work slang, a gasp, her laughter, and a final physical touch. She doesn’t question her existence, would only question why the wheel stopped, if it did, as if her work were her only means of identity. The narrator does not tell but allows you to figure out that it is possibly the work that has changed her physical appearance.

In “Growth,” we have another statement on the dumb self-image:

In the soap factory where I worked
when I was fourteen, I spoke to
no one and only on man spoke
to me…..
where I hammered and sawed, singing
my new life of working and earning,
outside in the fresh air of Detroit
in 1942, a year of growth.

The boy, bursting into adolescence and the age of individuality, celebrates his place in the world by being proud he is earning money, not a bad thing considering it is a time of high unemployment, but he is not even considering the dangers of working in a soap factory. There is only a snide remark on the polluted air of Detroit. He feels no need to talk to anyone. He identifies himself through his newly found job as if it were a badge pinned on him saying, hey, this is who I am.

“Among Children” is a portrayal of a schoolteacher in a fourth grade classroom. His students are the children of the factory workers that live in and around Flint. They are at naptime, a metaphor for how they are inevitably going to sleep their way through life, “so as to be ready for what is ahead,” slaving silently at dangerous jobs until they meet death. The children at ten years old are already being trained as physical laborers, evident by:

…how there backs have thickened,
how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams.

The teacher has no words of encouragement for them, no hope that they will be anything else in life other than what they are, what they were born into. He even reflects back to their births, stating, “not one said, I am sick, I am tired, I want to go home,” revealing personalities that will be perfect for silent acceptance into the working life.

In another teacher-student poem, “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School,” the teacher makes a diagonal line across the blackboard and asks, “What have I done?” Several children offer logical answers, “You’ve broken a piece of chalk,” “you have created the hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle,” “you have begun to represent the roof of a barn,” “You’ve begun to separate the dark from the dark,” but M. Degas is waiting for only one answer—hers. This is a statement on conformity, the taking away of free thought that is prevalent in working-class public schools, and perhaps for a reason. How else will these students grow up and tolerate their grinding lives if they are not taught to accept authority. An orange is blue, if that is what the boss tells you. And, you, the worker, will agree, may even come to believe it.

The collection ends with “The Seventh Summer,” a poem about the narrator’s problems with his Jewishness. He receives all kinds of flak for his religious identity, and for several hours one fine summer Sunday, he doubts his teachings and his God. He spends the afternoon enjoying the beauty of the world and life, thinking that it could possibly be the suffering of the Son of God who made salvation possible. In the end, he rescinds into himself and his belief, though he never tells anyone, never stands up for himself. He slips out of the poem in silence, holding his head down with his Christian friends during grace, abstaining from saying the words, most definitely not thankful for what is being fed to him, and not accepting the norm.

Levine is from Detroit, where most of these poems take place. Unlike most of the people portrayed in What Work Is, Levine went to college and received a degree. He, unlike his portraitures, chose to do physical labor because he wanted a non-thinking job in order to free his mind to write. Levine offers no hope for the majority of the working class, offers no solution for the masses. He offers no demonstrations, no sit-down strikes, no cry against working conditions, no ripple in the fabric of society. There is only hope for the individual, not for the group. Does that diminish from the collection? On the contrary, it is non-didactic. By exposing these conditions Levine allows the readers to draw their own conclusions, to learn from the mistakes of others. Yes, Levine deserves the recognition he received for this book. He is a master poet—a maestro of maestros.

This review first published in the Buenos Aires Herald.

Buenos Aires Hearld