“Body” Approaches the Codas

This is the end?

It is neither an apocalyptic nor dystopian book.

What’s the difference?

Ask me something I can answer.

So, then, the story is ending?

Nothing ends in an infinite universe.

But something is reaching completion, is it not?

The third serialization, the third trip around the world, the current trail of stopovers in exotic places—yes, that has had its denouement. Only the codas remain.


Yes, of course.

How did the denouement end?

Smitty said to Martha, “Dear, tell him to pack plenty of insect spray, and that we expect great things of him.”

The first coda?

Benschloss noted, “I gestured toward his bobber on the water. ‘You’ve got a fish.’”

And the second?

Chitwood writes, “I know that sounds dangerous, but we already know the world’s dangerous.” Well, that comes near the end, but I like it, so there you go.

Poetry. Are there more?

I have moved on.

To where?

More dangerous territory.

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Under the Ground

Chapters four and five (who says you must start at the beginning?) of volume three (in progress) of the history of St. Max.


She woke at five in the morning, as she always did, in every season, with no need of an alarm. And, as always, she stepped directly from sleep to consciousness, with no need to linger.

Smitty made light breathing sounds from the other bed. Even as a young woman Martha thought, “How can I invite him into mine if I don’t have my own?” Now, of course, they each luxuriated in the space of their unfettered sleep, and when they shared a bed it was a vacation.

Martha pulled the door behind her but didn’t latch it. She knew he liked to hear her moving around the cottage, even in his sleep, as long as the sounds were soothing and regular. She’d become a coffee snob late in life, and she wrapped the grinder in a towel to dampen the noise, then set the maker to steam the resulting Sumatran powder before brewing. It pleased her to develop a new indulgent habit at this age.

After preparing her mug she walked out the back door and stood for a while on the top of the three steps that led to a small patio and backyard. Deciduous trees embraced the cottage and clearing all around: oaks, maples, and a few birches. In another month she would see their naked fingers against cold skies, but not yet. When the sun rose it would find them ridiculous with color. She cupped the mug in her hands. She liked the balancing act of cold mornings and warm coffee. She would stand like this even in deep winter, with snow and ice on the ground. But only for a minute. She shook herself. Things to do.

She dressed quickly, made a breakfast of granola and yogurt, and opened her folder of notes in the corner of the dining room, where she’d made an office at the cherry secretary. It seemed she’d just settled when the mantle clock chimed seven. Martha raised her arms in mock alarm. Where does the time go? Car keys, jacket, canvas brief case, a travel mug of coffee, and finally she opened the door to the bedroom: “I’m going.”

“Be right there,” mumbled the lump of blankets.

Then she was off in her car as the sky began to lighten.


It had the same color when she returned, although now the light had begun its retreat rather than its advance. She hadn’t intended to stay this long. She never did.

Rather than driving to the cottage she drove to the school. Smitty kept a mailbox there, and he often forgot to check it. Martha also had a book she wanted to return to Adelaide Simpson, from whom she’d borrowed it: the teachers had bins as well as mailboxes in the mailroom, and she thought she would leave it there. All of this was unimportant. She’d thought of it only because she wanted to speak with Benschloss, and she had decided she wanted to do this in person. Loose associations waved in a breeze. The spring before, Benschloss’s life—more accurately, his imagination—had intersected with Adelaide’s life when her father had died, and Benschloss had learned something that Martha needed now.

She parked in the little lot near the main building. Benschloss’s shed stood alone across the lane. He liked to call it a cottage, but it had been, after all, a farm shed. She thought a shed suited him better. Only old people live in cottages, and although Benschloss pretended to be old, he wasn’t. He in fact always seemed on the verge of falling backward into adolescence, but the way he kept his footing was endearing.

As Martha entered the building a student was simultaneously exiting, and they both stumbled a bit as the door opened more quickly than either had expected.


“Ma’am. Sorry.”

“No harm done. How was summer?”

She knew it had been eventful. His life had changed. Martha hadn’t yet spoken to him since his return. Having a life separate from the school, she had irregular contact with the students and lived a step away from them. It was often a help.

“It was good.”

“Tell me one good thing.”

If she’d been a faculty member, this would have felt like an intrusion. But she wasn’t, and being old she could be direct.

He thought for a moment. “Cinder,” he said. “Our dog.”

“Ah.” She knew what he meant. “Good answer. We had dogs.”

Chitwood looked up. His eyes held the question.

“You get to that ‘last dog’ stage of life,” she replied. “It wouldn’t be fair, would it?”

She knew he knew what she meant. He smiled and looked down.

“Off you go. Good to see you, Chitwood.”

Off he went. Martha descended to the mailroom and retrieved a bundle of envelopes and catalogs from Smitty’s box. She shuffled through them in dim light that came from the corridor. All of the catalogs featured warm, lovely, expensive things for women: clothing, linens, bedding, quirky objets d’art to strew around a cottage. Either Smitty had a girlfriend or was planning on buying her something. She smiled. He was a thoughtful man, but most likely he had found himself on a mailing list after buying her a gift a decade ago and had received catalogs ever since. She pulled one from the pile: sale items from the previous winter.

Outside, she saw that lights had started to appear at the entrances to buildings. It was the perfect time of day, the cusp of light. She smelled autumn in the air, the sharp watery scent with a hint of apple, a time to get things done. She knocked on Benschloss’s door.



They paused to gather their wits.

“I’m here about the other bones,” she said. “I need your help.”


When Martha knocked I was in the midst of grading essays on the Peace of Westphalia, which no one remembers but which is responsible for everything in the West. It’s not unusual for someone to appear at my door in the evening, but I didn’t expect it to be Martha. She’d said she was going to call, but there she stood, wanting to talk about bones.

Martha enjoyed the freedom to be abrupt that age gave her. “It’s a bit late,” she said, both an apology and its dismissal. I liked Martha.


“I didn’t know you kept any.” She observed our habits and rituals at St. Max from a step removed, and remembered everything.

“Just for you.”

It’s almost always safe, if sometimes too cute, to be flirtatious with a woman in her seventies. She was good enough to smile rather than shake her head and mutter.

“In that case,” she said, took off her jacket, and folded it over the back of a chair.

I went to the tiny kitchen area in the backroom—it was the size of the small snack corner for a small office—and began brewing with my seldom used machine while she examined my bookshelves.

“I didn’t see Smitty today,” I called. Smitty, being unique, existed outside our usual naming rituals.

“I haven’t either. He had a meeting in Cambridge. I worked today and left the house early. He was asleep last time I saw him.”

“What was his meeting?”

“The usual. Making the world a better place.”

When I’d set things to brewing I found her examining the two shelves of vinyl records I keep. I collect them for their covers. Like the rest of the human hoard I can find anything I want to hear in nonphysical form, floating in the digital ether. It frightens me, but fear doesn’t stop me from scouring the invisible world for revelations like old tracks from Manu Dibango with the Cuarteto Patria Cubafrica. In the end we all embrace our particle beings and become less solid.

The coffee aroma seeped into the room from the kitchen. I love the smell of coffee, just don’t like the accompanying scour of acid when I drink it. Martha pulled an album of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s work from the shelf and looked at me with her brow raised. She pulled the record from the sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and turned the system on.

“I like the pops and scratches,” she said. “And this version of Greensleeves. They bring me back.”

The coffee maker made a sound like a small electronic mouse, and I poured her coffee. She sipped from the cup gratefully, thanked me, set it on the side table I’d found in the school’s collection of lost furniture, and said, sitting, “So.”

I waited. She shifted in her seat, sat back, draped a leg—gathered herself. She now looked as if this room was hers; she’d taken possession.

“Last spring,” she said, “as you were looking into the death of Adelaide Simpson’s father, you conducted a little field research. Into encampments of homeless people in the area, if I understand correctly.”

I nodded and sat on the arm of my small sofa.

“Joan told me about the excursions.”

I nodded again. “Actually, it was a more narrow, um, study. I visited drinkers’ camps.”

She looked at me steadily. After a few moments it became unnerving. She was assessing me. Finally she said, “Would you take me to one?”

I felt I should take my time answering, just as she’d taken her time asking. I let my consideration hang in the space between us. She didn’t mind.

“Any one?” I asked. “Or one in particular?”

She sipped her coffee. I wondered if it would keep her awake, or if she was one of those people who it relaxed.

“One in particular,” she said, and I saw that she was gathering the thought behind her request.

I waited again. It wasn’t a game. I offered patience as a gesture of respect. I would listen. The evening had both slowed and lengthened. The music had meandered outside the channel of its folk routes. It has always been a wistful song, and in Williams’s fantasia it’s more so. Martha was anchoring me in my own rooms as it flowed around us. The table lamps simmered with that light that’s seen through windows on autumn evenings.

“Tell me,” I said.

She nurtured her hands with the warm cup, looked off into the music, and settled into her knowledge that, after all, telling me is what she’d come to do. I was humbled. Martha has a reputation at St. Max as a curious creature who has embraced her place as the diminutive wife of our chaplain as a base from which to conduct excursions and undertake missions in the wider world. She muted evidence of the depth of her life in order to live it less noticed.

“The body of a young woman was found in a shallow grave near one of these encampments.”

I remembered seeing the article in the Townsman, and remembered avoiding it. She looked at me, again, assessing me, again, trying to determine if I was, in fact, the person with whom to partner on whatever quest she was about to embark on. There was sorrow in her face. I bowed my head.

“I know her,” she released at last. Then, after several slow moments, “knew her.”

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Cats #17rev

Kitties in the backyard

Kitties in the front

Kitty on the porch

does an acrobatic stunt.

Writer at the window

watches kitties play

and never makes a penny

for what he writes today.


Kitties in the backyard

writer on the ground;

he witties with the kitties

till the sun goes down.

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A Snippet from Murder at St. Max

Before Body in the Pond there was Murder at St. Max.

“Christ,” he suddenly exclaimed. “Do you feel it?”

“Feel what?” I asked.

“The cold wind, Benschloss. My God.”

I felt no wind. “Quit being creepy, Smitty.”

He made a gargling kind of sigh and leaned suddenly far back, so far back that my grip slipped.

“Smitty, hold on,” I told him, but he slipped away.

He splashed heavily. I couldn’t see a thing except the line where the charcoal float met the black water, but I heard Smitty making the sounds of a wool blanket struggling to swim.

“Oh for God’s sake, Smitty, give me your hand.”

He then made breathy noises that sounded exactly like the sounds of an old country vicar drowning in an English pond.

“Grab the side of the float, will you? It’s right beside you,” I insisted.

I lay prone on the old wood and sought him again with my arms. He wasn’t really thrashing about, merely waving his limbs ineffectively in slow motion. Maybe there wasn’t enough strength left in his old body for thrashing.


He didn’t reply.


I was going to have to jump in. I had just started to rise when I heard him say softly and resignedly, “She’s got me, John.”

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A friend, on our walk in late winter, both of us masked, confessed that he was more careful now than months ago, with vaccination in reach and immunity tangible. We’ve come this far. Don’t throw the future away here at the end. And so we have practiced restraint. And the days begin to warm. My heavy coat is put away. Rue Cler has opened after a year of hibernation. I can taste the moules frites. I have the urge to say thank you, and toast our health, and those we lost. Inshallah.

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The Space between Things

Are you still a fan of the space between things?

Yes, of course.

I’ve often wondered—would the ultimate result of such a stance by a writer not be a white page?

Could, I suppose.

Why then aren’t you dedicated to creating blank spaces?

Been done. You end up staring at “White on White #17” on a gallery wall and feeling ready for lunch, or a drink. But I think you’re confusing the space between things and blank space.

I know you’d love to discourse. Would you please?

Never thought you’d ask. And you know this. It’s all very simple. Everything is a cocreation. There is the artist’s creation, or the tree falling in the forest, or the memo at work, or the lover’s gaze, and there is the recipient, the observer, the other who is participating, and the act is a dialog between or among them, and the meaning exists in the space between. It’s a richly textured space.

For everyone?

I can speak only for myself.

And so you send writing into the world and it is completed only when it reaches the other?


What if the other really dislikes it?

That’s no fun, but c’est la vie.

Might as well jump off the cliff?

No. I’m also having an ongoing conversation with myself, and I’m a tough critic, and if I’m pleased, I’m pleased.

Is there a space between you and yourself?

It’s the same size as the one between you and me.

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Any Advice?

About what?

Anything, really.

I’m afraid not.

Why not?

What an odd question.

Everyone wants to give advice, don’t they?

Sometimes it seems.

And these words are available on the internet, aka the universe’s advice column, are they not?

In a very little corner of it.

The world is full of advisors helping us use our time more effectively, turn our anxiety into an asset, sleep deeper, and wake brighter. So full that it seems advising is the primary aim of our species, doesn’t it?

I take it that you would counsel that I should be advising.

Why not give it a try?

I have no advice.

What did you do yesterday afternoon?

Listened to Keith Jarrett, read Liu Cixin, and fell into a deep and wonderful sleep. It was the weekend. I’d just dug a drainage ditch for the outlet from the sump pump.

Well there you go!

Where’s that?

Surely you can make something out of that.

I advise you to undertake strenuous physical labor, shower, listen to good music, read a fine book, and fall sleep.

Excellent. What benefit will accrue when I do this?

You would be asleep.

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Tell Me Something Good

Out of nowhere?

Is goodness so hard to find?

It can be.

Giving up?

Give me a moment.

Done. Nothing good at hand?

Give me another moment.

Done. What does it say that you have no positive word within easy reach?

That it’s . . . never mind. OK. Last Wednesday the sun came out after weeks of cold and rain. Almost seventy degrees in the afternoon. We drove to a nearby brewery where picnic tables are scattered about the lawn and harmonious distancing is practiced. We sat in the sunlight with our droughts. A group of motorcyclists passed in the adjacent road. Loud, yes, but not a gang of threatening malice—a caravan of riders with the wind and sun in their faces. In the beer garden, a dog escaped its owner and ran to the street, up the sidewalk, and into a large grassy lot, where it chased dancing scents at a gallop. Fear and concern among all the people gathered. And then the rapturous dog, so happy to run free, but so close to danger, returned to its owner’s caress, and we all sighed and cheered in the sunshine with our golden drinks and the echoing song of the riders.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Oh stop it.

Are you smiling?

Dogs have saved my life yet again.

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The Veneer of Civilization

How thin is the veneer of civilization?

Thinner than you would like it to be.

It’s cracking then?

Veneer always cracks.

Then, are we in dire straits because it’s cracking, or are these days standard fare?

I could say both.

Oh for heaven’s sake, why would you do that?

I wouldn’t. Yes, I know I can be irritating, but I’m not sure why you’re asking me to assess the state of our communal being. Who am I to do that?

Who do you have to be?

Hm. I suppose the consequence of cracked veneer depends on the quality of the underlying wood. If it’s not sound, when the damaged veneer lets the elements in, the structure will decay and eventually, worst case, collapse. On the other hand, if the infrastructure is sound, and the piece is in a sufficiently protected area, you’ll have grandmother and grandfather’s dining room suite, whose wear and tear is a familial history map, maybe even a beloved one.

So then, now that we have our metaphors and allegories in place, what have we got? A cherished if bruised dining room table, or a sideboard laden with memories and meanings that will no longer stand upright?

I like the memories and meanings bit. We’ve got that, whatever else.

You’re really not much help, are you?

Less than you’d like me to be. But then, you always ask too much.

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Why won’t my child go to sleep?

Because she doesn’t want to. We could call in the psychologists and make it more complicated, I suppose, but let’s not. Time for bed…I don’t want to…I can tell you’re tired…Am not…You need your sleep…No I don’t…Everybody needs their sleep…Do not…Well, there was one girl who never slept…So…She’d heard of the thousand stairs…Mm um…You’ve heard of the thousand stairs…No…In Zanzibar, and at the top is a fabulous treasure…What?…Well, it takes a long time to tell. Are you sure you can stay awake?…Yes…She’d heard of Zanzibar. I don’t know how. I think she was the daughter of a famous explorer. And she hiked for many miles across desert and through jungle to reach the stairs. The weather was terribly hot, and she walked for hours everyday, exhausting herself. Putting one foot in front of the other. She wanted to sleep so badly, but more than that she wanted to climb the thousand stairs. Finally, after months of walking, she arrived and saw them rising into the sky so high that the top disappeared into the clouds. She sat for a moment, and it was then she saw the little bearded man sitting calmly on a stone at the bottom of the stairs. She said, “Hello,” and the man smiled and asked, “Are you here to climb the stairs?” She nodded. She was very tired by now but only wanted to rest for a while. “You’re wise to stop and sleep before climbing,” said the old man. “Many others have tried to climb without rest, and they never reached the top.” The girl asked, “What happened to them?” and the man said, “They all fell, but when they fell they became birds, and now they live among the trees in the jungle.” And then…the girl…(parental murmurings…goodnight).

Reprinted with enthusiastic permission from Ask Uncle Bob, 2012, with Uncle Bob’s hopes that it will work for you.

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