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Visiting Hour

In the pond of our new garden

Were five orange stains, under

Inches of ice.  Weeks since anyone

Had been there.  Already by far

The most severe winter for years.

You broke the ice with a hammer.

I watched the goldfish appear,

Blunt-nosed and delicately clear.


Since then so much has taken place

To distance us from what we were.

That it should come to this.

Unable to hide the horror

In my eyes, I stand helpless

By your bedside and can do no more

Than wish it were simply a matter

Of smashing the ice and giving you air.


Stewart Conn





     You may want to stop reading now, dear reader.  This may be your first and only chance.  The little girl I’m going to show you has been in a car wreck, and you’re driving by late one evening on your way home from work.  I’m sure you have better things to do than stop.  Your family has long since gotten home, there’s dinner to make, baths to give, and Survivor comes on at 8:00.  Here’s your chance to keep driving, stop reading, and get on with the business of being you, because what lies here beyond the rotating lights and emergency sirens is the twisted carcass of crushed metal and melted rubber, that some call life.  Nothing you really want to see.  Here, on the side of the highway is this poor little girl crying in the back seat, curled up, with those little shards of break away glass tangled in her hair.  As a matter of detail, she is clutching her teddy bear.  It’s ok if you have to go, she’ll understand, but just for the record, her name is Angel, and yesterday she turned six. 

     Behind her desk in the elementary wing at Longview-Hill School, Ms. Mary Oliver sips at her blistering hot coffee.  Outside her classroom lightning crashes, and sends white twigs of current along the underbelly of the gray and black clouds.  It’s 5pm, and the room is dim, utterly devoid of the energy that normally fills the class.  The laughter and childish chatter that takes the shape of the old brick walls and reverberates along the pipe work is gone, replaced by the haunting moans of the decrepit water heater.  As a matter of detail, it has rained for four days straight, and today the students left for Christmas break.  Ms. Mary Oliver, old schoolmarm, watches the rain outside the window, as it puddles around the bottom of the sliding board, and merry-go-round.  The grassless pits eroded by generations of students, her students. 

          The highway patrolman examines this wreckage like so many before.  Ole Joe Morrow has seen ‘em all.  The whole front end of the compact car is smashed under the cast iron differential of the one-ton pickup, reminding him of the way a black snake devours a rabbit; its rear legs still twitching to the very end.  Flashlight in hand, he goes about his inspection; proficient; businesslike.  He’s seen cars ripped completely in half, jagged metal piled like the discarded bones spit from the mouth of a chicken incinerator.  You may be interested to know that none of this fazes him.  His flashlight moves along the ruins, behind him the sound of fire truck sirens waver in the distance. 

      Back at her desk, Ms Mary Oliver flips through the piles of handmade Christmas cards.  “Here,” she thinks, “is imagination prior to educational tainting -the uncluttered vision of babes, before there is a right or wrong answer.”  In her hand is Santa Claus in his sleigh, weaving his way through congested neighborhoods, the smoke blackened chimneys bigger than the houses.  Another card has a crude green pine with finger-glued ornamentation.  She flips through the pile.  A snowman with a red scarf and stick figure hands, stares back from one card.  Another has a green wreath with “Seasons Greetings” scrawled in the middle.  She takes another sip of her coffee and slowly opens the folded construction paper.  Inside is a drawing of a woman sitting on a park bench with a little boy.  They are stick figures.  The woman has long hair with thick oversized glasses.  The woman, she recognizes, is Ms. Mary Oliver.  The boy is Mark Mayhew.  Little blonde haired Mark with burnt hands after his mom held them under scalding water for eating her boyfriend’s lunch.  As a matter of detail, Mark forgot to ask permission. 

     Joe Morrow spotlights along the bottom of the compact car while the fire crew are busily searching out chunks of the truck driver from the roadside shrubbery.  It may be of passing interest that a busted beer bottle can saw a person in half at 60mph; those little splinters of glass spinning about like tiny circular saws.  “We need hydraulics over here!”  In what is left of the compact’s front compartment are the mutilated remains of Angel’s parents.  Joe remembers back to his first year working the highway.  Two semi trucks had collided.  The trucks were so brutally smashed, and entangled that they had to be towed away as a unit.  A week later when a salvage yard worker noticed a foul smell, the two trucks were pulled apart.  Sandwiched there between the two trucks were the crushed remains of a Volkswagen, which contained a family of five.  Since then Joe has learned to distance himself.  As a matter of detail, war photographers allege, behind the lens of a camera atrocities can be captured that would otherwise render them mad. 

     The stick figures on the park bench share an egg salad sandwich.  Mark had tried to make his own lunch that day; two stale slices of bread with a hard piece of cheese between them.  He said his Mom was sleeping and he couldn’t wake her.  Here was little blonde Mark with his scabbed hands and dirty elbows, jerking his head to move the long greasy bangs away from his eyes.  In the distance the monkeys scream a primal chant, as a nearby jaguar stalks from side to side in its caged habitat.  The stick figure lady on the bench smoothes back his hair, tucking the stray ends carefully behind his ears.  Ms. Mary Oliver, stick figure lady, old schoolmarm, she kisses the little boy’s forehead; gives him the rest of her sandwich. 

     Joe’s flashlight moves toward the rear quarter of this compact car.  This Honda, this Hyundai, this Subaru or any one of a thousand other smashed up tin death traps.  Joe doesn’t draw a distinction, and as a matter of interest, these real world collisions rarely resemble the Division of Safety crash tests you see on TV.  The details on real world collisions are never that tidy.  Joe shines his light through the opening where the left rear window used to be. 

He stops cold.

For a moment his throat and chest contract and he can’t breathe.  The world around him goes silent.  There are no sounds, except the dull thud of his heart beating.  The downward yellow glare of the streetlamp backlights the little girl in the rear seat.  There are diamond specks glowing in her golden hair.  Her mouth is moving, but there is no sound, no sound. 

      The voice on the other end of the phone says, “He asked for you.”  The phone is trembling in her hands, outside the rain splashes down into muddy puddles.  As a matter of detail, it’s Christmas day and Ms. Mary Oliver had been alone, listening to the crackle-snap of cedar logs in her fireplace.  An anthology of American poets sits open on the nightstand, beside a glass of red wine.  Between the pages Sylvia Plath is suicidal for the tenth time, and Allen Ginsberg is high on LSD, ranting in four letter words.  The voice on the other end of the phone says, “You should hurry, Mary, he asked for you.”

     “It’s going to be ok, try not to move!”  The little angel in the back seat is asking for her mommy.  The rear passenger doors are crushed shut.  Joe is holding her hand through a narrow opening of jagged metal.  The bruised little angel in the backseat is shaking, clutching her teddy bear.  Men dressed in silver are peeling back the top of the car like a tuna fish can.  Outside the window the rain pelts against the twisted metal.  The scared little girl recognizes the policeman as her Uncle Joe, and he’s saying,

“It’s going to be ok, I love you Angel!” 

As a matter of detail, the policeman outside the window is crying. 

     Between the pages of the book on Mary’s nightstand, Robert Lowell receives shock treatment, while John Berryman stands on a bridge overlooking the Mississippi River.  The caseworker is telling Ms. Mary Oliver that Christine Mayhew swallowed a bottle of Prozac.  The caseworker is saying that she had a seizure in the early morning hours.  As a matter of detail, the caseworker says,

“Mark found her drowned in her own vomit.” 

“And the boyfriend?”

“Killed in a motor vehicle accident just yesterday, he was heavily intoxicated.  We couldn’t find records on any other living relatives, and your name is all he will give us.”

The caseworker is telling Ms. Mary Oliver that this boy is going to need a lot of love.  Somewhere, a million miles away the caseworker is talking about the importance of positive adult role models for battered children.  Between the pages of the book on Mary’s nightstand Anne Sexton is having a panic attack. 

     Col. Morrow stands watching the girl walk down the isle, the long white gown flowing out behind her.  Yellow beams of sunlight stream in through the church windows, backlighting the beautiful bride to be.  Joe thinks of his sister, and how proud she would have been to see her girl develop into such a radiant woman; this angel who had made his life complete.  Joe had made it a point to never let her forget how much her parents loved and adored her.  As a matter of detail, when the minister asked, “Who gives this woman away?” It was Joe Morrow who replied, “I do.”

     So, here, my beloved reader is the twisted carcass of crushed metal and melted rubber, that some call life.  It may be of some interest to know that Dr. Mark Mayhew stayed at her side until the last waking moment.  The old schoolmarm who raised him, this stick figured woman, now lying in the white hospital bed frail and fading.  Outside the hospital, the sun is shining in a blue cloudless sky.  Ms. Mary Oliver grips his hand, and sees that same scared boy staring up from the park bench, his big blue eyes shrink-wrapped in tears.  Beside him, is his wife Angel, the mother of her beautiful blonde haired grandbabies.  Between the pages of the book on Mark’s lap, Stewart Conn is trying to smash the ice, and give her air.