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Life's Vignettes 

Scenes from a life. ...

Cemetery, the final splendor, a place of rest and rust. Astride Canal Street, so close to the scream and scut of the living, every passing curse and butt flies over the fence.

A toppled tombstone, cracked in half, lies unhappily on a neighboring grave. Its most recent inscription dates to 1966, a man who served as an army private in World War II, when he was already over 50 years old. There are a couple of immigrants from a county in Ireland and a couple of children, who died just before and after 1900.

And mixed in with all this formal sadness, some informal intrusion. Atop the grave, a tiny plastic bottle tossed from the nearby sidewalk. "Alcohol Intensifies Effect/ Use care using machines," warns the label. "HY1 Rocodo Elapap 10/650 Tabmuck. Take every 8 hours as needed for pain. No refills authorized."

Within a couple of steps is an empty Bud bottle, a calendar from a personal-injury lawyer, a flat Coke can. The tomb looks like a supermodel with wet mud all over the back of her dress.


The young soprano stands at the front of the altar holding with graceful hands a large songbook from which she sings Verdi, Puccini, Handel and Dvorak. Her voice climbs and falls like a flock of glass birds. The church is packed by polite listeners whose faces glow darkly under the golden lights overhead. They cheer excitedly after each song, half-rising to their feet.

The young soprano bows slightly and smiles broadly and the building is filled to its high ceilings with two joys, one old, one new. The old one is that of assembled sounds, disembodied, quivering, Platonic forms brought to shimmering life a century or so ago by people not afraid to be geniuses and resurrected on nights like this in half-empty halls and churches by sopranos not afraid not to be geniuses. There is joy in both the glory and the modesty of both the past and present and of the continuity between then and now.

The new joy? The possibility -- perhaps not likely, but possible -- that the young woman who stands before the forgettable on this forgotten Saturday, catching the desultory cheers and hugging them to her body like cashmere, where they run hot and cold, the possibility that this young woman will receive no higher public praise than that being sprinkled on her tonight and years from now she will think back on it as much as memory allows and maybe unlike most things around her, the cheers will have no age and will sound as new and bracing as they do tonight. ...


At the open-skied Antietam battlefield, there is a small patch of ground where an inexperienced Pennsylvania brigade launched one of those doomed assaults that inexperienced brigades are infamous for. As they were being ripped and slashed by shot and shell, the bullets unleashed hives of unhappy bees on the troops. Picture them being more disrupted and dismayed by the bees than the bullets; though far more lethal, bullets are no more impersonal and less visible and therefore more subject to habituation.

Decades later, at reunions soaked by time and whiskey, did the bees come back into the room brining laughter and confabulations.

I can almost hear them now. ...


Thoughts found at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box at Washington Zoo:

If there was anything at all to this reincarnation business, I just might want to return as a river otter. They seem to get plenty out of life. ...

On the other hand, the lone giant panda, listless but persistent, pushes an empty plastic water cooler all around his enclosure with snout and paws. Over a fallen branch after repeated tries. After a while, it is clear there is no strategic vision here, only tedium in its meatiest form. Is there a mirror someplace? Is this not the work-life of modern man, aimlessly pushing emptiness around a prison yard?

At last, he shoves it into a small pool, turns slowly around and shows his finely developed hindquarters. ...


Fight night at the Arena. Most of the crowd, thin as it is, is male and most that is not is pinched into tight pants and sweaters.

Inside the ring, walled off from the crowd by red, white and blue ropes, the two fighters sneak looks at one another. Waiting to be announced, they flex their middleweight bodies. In no other sport but swimming does the athlete get as naked as when boxing. Showing as much innocence and knowing as nakedness implies.

Their near-nudity shows oversized tattoos on the backs of both fighters, script on the darker one, a dragon on the lighter. A leggy blonde climbs in the ring, holding up a sign with the round number on it. She is announced as "Tiffany" and the frat-boy yelps are raucous and steady.

Then the bell rings and the most solitary of sports turns solitary indeed. First one fighter's punches whistle and splat, then the other's. The excitement of boxing is often encapsulated in the yin/yang of different styles. The fighter in the green trunks is a man who keeps coming back to toe the mark, always pushing himself to his own edge. The fighter in the white trunks is a man who keeps his own counsel, always within himself. ...

Styles and souls seek the depth of one another, three minutes at a time. The vicarious splash their seats with beer and bellow courage from a distance:

"All you got!"

"Jab, jab!"


"Body shots!"

Then comes the last round. A big round for the man in the white trunks, who is spinning and slashing side-to-side. The man in the green trunks is tiring, till right on the end, he connects with a long right, then another. The bell tolls. The crowd erupts, proud for the moment that from among their number have come these, white and green, green and white.

After a couple of minutes, the judges decide they cannot decide and rule the fight is a draw. The fighters put their arms around the other's shoulders and walk together in small circles around the ring.

Later they will complain about the outcome, but at this moment, it is too close. Too close to fight night at the Arena. .. .


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