Featured in Colorado Review
Throwing DovesFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Spring 2014
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there. —Rumi
In a noisy city teahouse due west of the Appalachian Plateau, I sat sipping hot rooibos and spying on a lop-eared man sleeping on the sidewalk. Rumor had it that this man, nicknamed Doc, panhandled strictly from eight to five, and if you donated a mere quarter during office hours, he spat and cursed. For pennies tendered, he’d swing a weathered boot at your head.
At eight sharp, fearless Doc emerged from a makeshift sandwich board, sloughed off a blanket, tidied his belongings, and amid the bustling foot traffic arranged the infamous Doc Martens boot. Stolidly, he strapped on the sandwich board, which read:
3 Years 0 Job
My father would have laughed at me, but I became determined to approach Doc, partly out of respect for his gumption, and partly out of shame, for he brought to mind a disconsolate Parisian girl, like one of Orwell’s down-and-out urchins, dashing down cobblestoned Rue d’Orsel, fleeing from me.
In graduate school, I conducted research. At least, I fancied myself a researcher, more scientist than scut monkey. In truth, I dissected data. These fed a greater good, my masters in engineering: “Genetic Algorithm Selection of Mammographic Microcalcification Features for Detection of Breast Cancer.”
I’m blanking on what exactly that long-winded title means. Let me back up.
Genetic algorithms: software designed by engineers with God complexes and kick-ass computers. Microcalcifications: bone dust in the breast, that versatile hub of compassion. Cancer: an argument within the body.
I labored in earnest, believing my research benefited indigent women. Only, I never saw these women. Never saw the X-ray machines pointed at them. Never saw their mammograms, only the radiologist who analyzed films of patients he may not have seen, and we met but once, at my thesis defense. I interacted with digitized films, chasing down false positives and data crumbs, ones and zeroes, bits I played dice with, crunched, churned out, agonized over with ludicrous seriousness.
Around campus, though, I encountered destitute men and women, some lecturing sidewalk cracks, others cradling paper-bagged bottles of King Cobra. As they neared, their rheumy-eyed stares filled me with pity and panic, making me hightail it to my advisor’s cramped, frigid laboratory, desperate for the company of my fellow graduate students: pole-thin Kevin hailing from Vermont’s Green Mountains; Yateen, a cherubic Pakistani who strolled home mid-day for salat al-Asr; and sallow-skinned Alexender, a recovering Kosovo war victim who coded so fast his keyboard rattled.
Hunched at roughhewn particle board desks, we ogled computer monitors and warmed hands over whirring motherboards. We never talked about breast cancer.
“To make chutney, you must buy green mangos,” said Yateen.
“Ohio should not be reclassified as a New England state!” said Kevin.
“Five dollars I am keeping in my sock for the robbers,” said Alexender.
We obsessed about being mugged. We believed that Burnet Woods, the city park surrounding campus, was crawling with pickpockets. We thought: We’re next.
Late one morning, Kevin stormed in, minus his omnipresent lunch sack.
“Man, I got jumped last night,” he said, hurling down his backpack and raincoat. “The guy took me for fifty bucks!”
Turned out, he’d been mugged between his apartment and Keller’s IGA by a teenager pulling the timeworn gun-in-his-pocket routine.
“But maybe it was only his finger?” Kevin whispered.
“No way,” I said and handed him my lunchbox apple.
“It could not be,” Yateen said, passing him homemade chutney inside Tupperware.
“I am with certainty it was a gun,” Alexender said and slipped him two Oreo Double Stufs.
We spent the afternoon commiserating. We commended Kevin for surrendering the cash. We thought: At least he’s gotten his mugging over with. We felt sorry for him, for ourselves, and yet we believed in benevolence toward the poor around campus, a tendency in people with scant time and even less money. We believed compassion has to matter.
The Parisian girl in question was a black-haired Roma wearing a black broomstick skirt, her face sooty, hand moored to a tin cup. She tugged on my jacket hem, begging for euros, and I disregarded her. Why? Maybe Chris, my husband, and I were arguing about the elusive Sacré Coeur basilica and our (my) inability to pinpoint it. My former French teacher had said it was a hop-skip from Place du Tertre’s modern-day Picassos, a snap to spot, just look for the breast-shaped dome rising above the butte! Maybe it was the feeling of dread shimmying through me, dread at missing the Métro station, of being hopelessly lost, buffeted by street hawkers’ shrill calls and hustlers’ shoves, the air pungent with rusting metal and wet crumbling stone. Dread of the creeping hands of pickpockets.
Locating a policeman, we quit the basilica hunt and sought directions to the Métro. Once on the train, I felt caught between guilt at slighting the girl and relief, for we were free of Montmartre, free and safe. To cast off my agitation, I suggested we visit Marais’s Beaubourg art museum, and upon strolling the galleries, we happily encountered a René Magritte trompe l’oeil. Soon I forgot the Roma girl. I’ve also since forgotten the exact Magritte painting. Possibly it was On the Threshold of Liberty, in which Magritte compartmentalizes a narrow room into fanciful panels, each one a scenic backdrop: forget-me-not sky lowered by clouds, an emerald forest, closed sash windows, a woman’s nude torso. A cannon takes aim in the foreground, but at what is it firing—the woman or the sky?
Throughout my childhood, my grandaunt Dorothy, a graying, pixie-haired nun who visited us annually, would invite my older brother and me on nature walks to collect trash. We tramped boldly through the forest bordering our property, despite illegal traps set by hunters, while cobnuts and acorns crackled beneath us. My grandaunt weighed a measly ninety pounds with her walking stick yet roved like Diana the Huntress, unearthing beer cans, plastic pop bottles, weather-beaten cardboard boxes. We bagged this newfound treasure to overflowing and, resurfacing into sunshine, tossed the garbage sack in her pickup. She recycled to raise money for poor Kentuckians, the foothill dwellers surrounding her convent, and believed I had nun potential. She refused to be disillusioned by my long-running antics of wearing torn jeans, cracking bubblegum, marrying.
Naturally, my father, wanting me to be financially independent, steered me toward engineering, not the nunnery, and dubbed my grandaunt a kook. She ignored his jabs, and I esteemed her as a pure soul. Then I recall that, if we looked away while playing croquet or gin rummy, she cheated us like mad, and with relish.
Come to think of it, unless the museum had borrowed On the Threshold of Liberty, that painting couldn’t have been at Beaubourg. It’s housed in Rotterdam. Neither was it the privately owned self-portrait The Healer, in which the artist depicts his head and trunk as an open birdcage, inside of which perch two doves, unwilling to fly away. The birds are unshakable memories, I imagine, or regrets. About such obscured paintings, Magritte said: Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden.
To which I say: A hidden thing sees what we want. We see by interest, always want everything, hide that which is.
Perhaps I’ve implied more fervor for breast cancer research than I felt. Upon further reflection, I recollect working six-hour days in the lab, rowing at the gym, slogging home for a Cheerios dinner, then, into the wee hours, writing a book I pretended was fiction. I penned passages about my brother stumbling upon peacock feathers near fields of trampled poppies; about our neighbors, penniless Miss Smalley and her sad, gap-toothed son, Ray, squatting in a shack; about one nun’s attempts to eradicate Appalachian poverty, care of Budweiser and Pepsi products.
On Saturdays, after writing past four o’clock, I attended church with my husband. Shambling along Saint Monica’s center aisle, heads bent low for Communion, we couldn’t help noticing the Hakenkreuz, a broken cross, hewn into glistening stone tiles illuminated by clerestory sunlight. Chris agreed that the broken crosses resembled swastikas, and, yes, actually, they were swastikas, but more to the point, they were the labor guild’s mark, etched by early-twentieth-century immigrants, the church’s artisans.
I didn’t care. My grandaunt had devoted sixty years to serving the poor. Surely I could campaign against offensive decorative flooring.
“They should rip them out,” I said on the car ride home.
“Probably,” Chris said. “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?” After all, the tiles were historic masterpieces celebrating blue-collar, German-American architecture.
The discussion became a protest of one, and eventually, none.
By chance, I’ve omitted a minutia from that Paris trip. The evening after ignoring the Roma girl, we dined at the pricey Tour d’Argent, world-famous for canard—breast, pâté, à l’Orange. Before entrées, I excused myself from the table, admired Notre-Dame’s glimmering lights reflected on the Seine, and, entering the washroom, misread the posted French verb laver, “to wash,” as lever, “to rise.”
While scrubbing, I tried resurrecting similar French words from memory. Les mains meant “hands” but sounded like demain, or “tomorrow,” as did the word “now,” maintenant, while both laver and lever appeared to be blood relatives of “to live,” vivre.
Returning to the table, I sat on my chair feeling so fuddled that I drank warm, soapy water from the finger bowl.
At school drop-off last winter, after my son slammed shut the passenger door, we spotted a wet, red wool mitten lying on the asphalt. It was imprinted with muddy tire tracks and looked deflated without a tiny hand to fill it.
Michael regarded me, a V stitched between his eyebrows, arms laden with his own concerns: Spiderman book bag and lunchbox, homework folder, a posterboard.
Letting the engine idle, I rolled down my window. The morning was bitterly cold. Snowflakes were falling. “Why not pick it up,” I said, “and take it to your teacher?”
“Some kid’ll come and get it,” he said.
“It’s the right thing to do.” Grandaunt Dorothy was elbowing me from the grave, yet I remained nestled on the warm seat, heater blasting, detesting my resignation.
Magritte believed these subconscious nudges can bring about personal, cultural, political, and social revolution. I fear we are lustrous stone tiles, pleasing on the surface, but underneath, hardened, impervious, inert.
Let me note that I didn’t simply snub that Parisian girl who’d seized my jacket. Startled by the contact, I yanked away my arm to shake her grasp, which sent her cup flying and nearly knocked her backward off the curb. She dropped to her knees, red-faced, and began fishing coins from the gutter. Waving off help, she glanced about furtively and refused my proffered five-euro banknote as recompense. Who could blame her? She carried only that dented tin cup, but it belonged to her.
That moment, a street-corner interdict symbol caught my eye, one of many posted proscriptions among a Parisian’s commandments: Thou shalt not panhandle.
On the street, traffic began backing up. A taxi’s horn blared. A policeman, the one who later pointed out the nearest Métro station, materialized and sauntered over to investigate.
Too late, I realized my second gaffe: offering the girl money around an officer.
“Bougez,” he said to her. Beat it.
Much of their subsequent gabble I didn’t understand, except the word arrestation. Still on hands and knees, the girl hid her face behind a sheet of matted hair, muttering her replies.
In Frenglish, I told the policeman she hadn’t hurt anyone. He swung his arm impatiently, as if sweeping her off the street. “Arrestation,” he repeated.
Darting a hateful look at me, she gathered her skirt and skittered off, racing past a bistro advertising soupe à l’oignon, bumping an unoccupied sidewalk café table, and almost losing a ballet flat before rounding the corner souvenir shop and disappearing. In her hurry, she’d abandoned her cup at the curb. The cop scooped it up and chucked it in a trash bin.
Shortly after returning to the States, I volunteered to scrub bassinets in a maternity ward and deliver day-old bread to a food pantry, although donating money to the homeless became my chief obsession, a peculiar emotional souvenir from Paris.
So you could say the girl weighed on my conscience when, on another autumn morning, I reentered that same teahouse to shadow ol’ Doc, who’d begun shouting, “Screw you!” at passing pikers. Downing my tea, I exited the shop, dredged my purse for cash salted away inside, and withdrew a hundred-dollar bill, a denomination guaranteed to kill guilt.
Doc was leaning against a nearby No Parking sign, fingers clutching his sandwich board protectively. Ignoring my father’s voice inside my head calling me a kook, I sidled up, palmed Doc the bill, lost my resolve to speak, and without glimpsing his face, glided away, feeling high.
On the drive to work, however, my guilt revived. The poor, I well knew, weren’t interchangeable, making the handout, like my cancer research, not just an ego salve, but an unreliable means of quizzing the universe. I was throwing a dove into the wilderness, indifferent to whether it returned with an olive branch as long as what it rendered resembled hope, hope that we are not unyielding tiles held fast by mortar. After all, where there is no hope, Camus wrote, we must invent it.
To which I, having spent years embodying my father and grandaunt’s dissonance, can only say: Lavez les mains. Levez demain. Vivez maintenant. Wash hands. Rise tomorrow. Live now.
Beyond the creek that cuts through my parents’ acreage, where the land dips low, swaybacked, before rising to a clearing, and where, for miles around, rotund hay bales and bony farmhouses dot the wooded landscape, you will find an untilled field alight with wildflowers and flowing bromegrass, much like the countryside outside Paris. In the years since my grandaunt, brother, and I crossed this lea hunting for forest trash, my aging father has stopped scything the overgrowth, and with time, the field will return to the woods it once was. But for now, it is flush with sunlight and intoxicating with the scent of wild mint.
Never again, it goes without saying, will the Roma girl and I meet. But as I walk this field, where fiery wands of goldenrod tickle my bare arms, I invite her into my imagination. In this space between who I am and who I long to be, there are no engineering degrees or art museums to distract, no muggings or snowy mittens or compartmentalized emotions, and no cannons or X-ray machines taking aim at a woman’s breast. Just me and the memory of a young girl who long ago forgot our encounter—she must have, for what lasting impact could I have had on her sense of self? But before she forgot, she may have come to understand I meant her no harm, that, like her, I’m forging this world without a map, struggling to transcend apathy and shake off fear, struggling to turn compassion into action. The hope that she may have understood makes me slow my pace, then pause, setting the doves inside my chest cage fluttering, and on this grassy hilltop, for all too brief a moment, they break free and take flight.
Christine Kaiser Bonasso earned her MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University’s English Department, where, to her delight, she was invited to teach after graduation. Her writing has appeared in National Journal online, Hot Metal Bridge, and various print dailies. Currently, she’s at work on a memoir.