Today, after rising at five o’clock to talk to my lover on the phone between five and six when he is on his way to work, I return to bed and dream that my son Jonathan is driving my friend Manta and me somewhere downtown and we pass a house on a street of crowded houses where some wood is stacked outside on the curb and Jonathan stops and says, “Let’s pick this up.” Manta, being 93 years old and thrifty in this way, approves.
My son is mainly interested in the stack of firewood, but I see, laid neatly beside it, a couple of pieces belonging to a dismantled bird, an eagle or phoenix, some four feet tall with holes where wings might have been attached. It must once have hung in relief from an outside wall or perhaps was assembled in full round sculpture to dominate some part of a garden. It is charred black, so it must be a phoenix, I decide, pulled apart and laid beside the curb, not trashed but treasured for some passerby like me, or Manta, or Jonathan.
I get out of the car from the back seat beside Manta. Jonathan is already loading the trunk—his trunk, I am surprised to discover, for our cars are much alike, his being just more untidy than mine. My intuition says to take the two halves of bird. I am momentarily worried that we may be taken for thieves.
But no. Out of the front door of the house comes a sturdy dark man with black hair and beard and bare arms, making me think of a blacksmith, talking friendly as if curious about us, as we are curious about his wood. He turns a couple of pieces over, and lo! they are the missing wings. Then I hear the clock chime eight times and the dogs whimpering to be let out, and I wake.
My word! Such excitement in the brain when I recall my lover’s remark that one of my poems reminded him of a blacksmith’s piece of tempered steel with which one makes things that will last a long time. That, and having my son with me driving his own car and gathering wood to make a fire, along with my dear Manta about whom I want to tell some stories, made me feel as if my heart might need some tempered steel to keep from bursting bounds.
And now I am writing in a way I began a few weeks ago about sex and death and beetles, a liberated, loopy mode that Walt Whitman fathered a century and a half ago, elaborated in this generation by poet David Kirby, whose conversational poems have given me great delight while I am discovering who I am.
Here is one of the pieces I wrote about Manta:
MANTA FINDS HER EDGE
I don’t know how many people reach
the age of 93 and count long life a blessing
but my friend Manta has and does.
She has not wasted the years
so far allotted her in this life
and in the past several of them
has reaped some unexpected benefits,
not the least of which is that she
has given herself permission
to say exactly what she thinks.
For instance, after she’d moved into
assisted living quarters,
I said she needed a drainer
where she could wash dishes
and leave them out instead of
struggling to reach cabinet shelves,
and she came back with this:
Don’t buy one. See if Sherry doesn’t have
one among the things she stored for me.
There’s too short a time to buy one.
It would be a waste of money.
It took me a long moment to realize
she meant she wasn’t going to live
long enough to make frugal use
of a new dish drainer.
And that reminds me of her story about
going to the doctor to get some
relief from shoulder pain,
and he told her she couldn’t have
another cortisone shot just now.
It was too close to the last one,
and she might need it up ahead.
To hell with then, she told him.
I want it now.
He looked at her, she said,
and having no other real option
nodded toward the bed
and said, “You get on up there”
and gave her one.
That was awhile ago
but just this week
we were going out to lunch
and Sherry kept trying to adjust
Manta’s blouse to where her
cleavage wouldn’t show
and Manta kept readjusting it.
“What’s the matter?” she wants to know.
“Is it because I’ve got on a beige bra
with a black blouse?”
She moves the blouse over her bra strap
and leaves the cleavage on display.
“We want to show our cleavage,” she says.
“It reminds us that we’re female,
and we’re pretty. We like that.”
When we return from lunch
she says, to herself mainly,
“I see I’m going to have to buy a black bra.”
And this morning on the phone
she tells me how good she feels after
two nights ago when she woke,
got up, felt dizzy,
checked her blood pressure,
found and applied the nitroglycerine patch
she’d not been able to find the night before,
went back to bed and slept,
woke again the next morning thinking
her blood might need some thinning
and took some aspirin.
She says she had a little more dizziness
during the day but it went away
and this morning she feels so gooood!
She says, “You know, I think I am going to stop
doctoring myself. I could have gone
so easily the night before last.
Now I may live forever. How disgusting!”
But my favorite edgy anecdote
comes from her memory of her sister Alice
recommending the virtues of the Kegel exercise
that Alice said she practiced each time she
stopped at a red light.
Manta instructs me that in the Kegel, you
contract the pelvic muscles but NOT the
thigh or abdomen or buttocks,
ten to fifteen times, three times a day
for two or three months.
That will not only strengthen your pelvis,
Manta says, but will keep you warm
in a place that you want to stay warm.
When she wrote the instructions down
for me, she added that the Kegel
helps cure incompetence
stimulates the clitoris
and improves the quality of the organism.
Now because I am never laughing at Manta
but always with her (and she with me)
I will point out that she was not copying
from a medical dictionary but recalling
in a slightly off-kilter way what she had
heard and read, and so, even though
she knows well the difference between
incontinence and incompetence
they look enough alike for her not
to bother to correct her spelling
if she even noticed it in the first place.
And an orgasm does happen to an organism.
And who wouldn’t want to promote a
simple exercise to cure incompetence?
I have warned Manta that underneath
a layer of impatience, she has discovered
her very own humor, her edge, her wit
and if she is not careful,
she may wind up as a character
in a story, or perhaps a poem or two or three.
This is one of my favorite pictures of Manta Lester
Barbara Knott is host of The Grapevine Art and Soul Salon, an online literary and art journal based in Atlanta where she lives. She has a Ph.D. from the drama therapy program at New York University. Publications include poems in Permafrost, New Millennium Writings, and Minerva Rising, as well as a short story in The Distillery and articles in Pilgrimage. Her novel Muscadine has been short-listed in the James Jones First Novel competition and excerpted for publication in Now and Then. In 2009, Nikki Giovanni chose her poem “Boxwood” as winner of first prize in the New Millennium Writings’ poetry competition. Francois Camoin selected her short story “Song of the Goat Man” as winner of third prize in the Writers@Work 2010 fiction competition. Her chapbook of poems, Soul Mining, was published by Finishing Line Press in summer 2011.