Wind, roofs, refugees

By

I wonder if at least once in the lives of serious, persevering people there doesn't come a moment of such wild longing for something lightsome that they don't know whether to be ashamed or transported. All I know is that for me such a moment came in the midst of my struggles to get through graduate school and to eat, too.

I'd been taking every manner of odd job that cold fall. My coziest, I was a baker's helper in a small shop. You could have seen me there every day but the Sabbath, all white from head to foot with the hopes of bread. Customers would come in and say an angel was helping out on earth. Then I was laid off, and I tumbled to the uncoziest extreme I could imagine, an old tackle and bait shed at the end of a long pier poking out into the ocean.

One morning, after hours of stitching holes the wind had made in the oilskin roof, I turned up the collar of my coat, pulled my watchcap down over my ears, and went outside to behold the weather that was keeping even the staunchest fishermen away.

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The wind rushed at me, flinging spindrift at my eyes and spinning me like a child in a game. Gulls wheeled in the sky, and the sky wheeled, and the cries of the gulls that were stronger than the wind sounded as hungry as the cries of those beaten back toward the shore. Worn out, I flopped down, letting my legs dangle over the whitecaps, and put my arms around a railing post.

The longing that came over me at that moment was so sweet it was almost a pity. It wasn't to be warm, or dry. It wasn't to be done with odd jobs, or, heaven forbid, to disappear. It was simply to be a child again. A child at bedtime, just before the lights go out, and everybody is making a fuss over you. Your father is drawing animal shadows on the wall with his clever hands. Your mother has her cool, light hand on your head. And your grandmother is spooning you a nightcap of chicken soup, and singing you songs, extemporaneous.

Fragments of one came back to me now, and I smiled to think of it. Pretty soon I could remember it all. And I sang it.

Here's my darling,

Knocked for a loop,

His chin's all smeared

With chicken soup.

The bowl is puffing

Steam into the air

That clouds his eyes

And wets his hair.

Oy, what a blob,

Oy, what a sight,

How will he ever

Get through the night?

Sleep, my rascal,

Sleep, my dear,

Grandma's here beside you,

Grandma's near.

There's my darling,

Ding a ding dong,

And that's the end

Of the chicken-soup song.

Water splashed over my shoes, seeping in. Everywhere waves were rising higher , as if the sky were calling them and they were trying to come as fast as they could. Clouds were reaching down long arms and lifting them, speeding their journey. I closed my eyes and rode atop the highest wave, as if on a bumpy wagon , clear to the heaven-far kingdom of childhood.

The wave-wagon stopped at an inn. It was dusk. Over the door was a lantern, bidding welcome, and a bundle of hay, promising sleep, as in the Old World. I went inside. There, having supper by firelight, were all the dear ones of my childhood. My worried mother, my clever father, my songful grandmother, and even my pious grandfathers. Oh, their faces, their faces when they saw me! I didn't have to say a word about how weary I was of wind and roofs and the whole risky business of being a man; how I longed for my animal shadows, my mother's touch, my soupy lullabies. Understanding shone from their faces, and with it a measureless sadness that what I wanted could never be. Well, and hadn't I known it all along?

I opened my eyes. Everywhere was white, swirling spray. I was sitting in the middle of an enormous cloud. Waves hadn't gone up to sky; sky had come down to them. And I was soaked.

Getting to my feet, I walked down the pier to the beach and for a long time just stood there, recovering from the wave-journey, and giving myself an occasional wet-dog shake. The oilskin roof, I saw, was holding, not sticking out tongues at the wind, but keeping the courage of a beleaguered equal.

Suddenly I saw an old man, a beachcomber who sometimes passed that way, watching me from a distance. In galoshes, slicker, and sailor hat, he looked for a moment like a little boy, lost and tired of hollering for help. My heart went out to him, this refugee from childhood like me. I waved, and he waved back. ''Don't worry,'' I called to him. ''He who gave us teeth will give us bread!''

The old man smiled. ''Thank you!'' he answered.

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