The Silver Wall
by Chuck Rosenthal
Diosa worked for the Richmond Museum of the Civil War, archiving items in the basement. She ate lunch in the kitchen with the black help. In front of a mirror, she tried on Robert E. Lee’s coat. He had quite a nice sword, too. In an old box she found a letter from Jefferson Davis to Colonel Edmund Brady, Commander of the Confederate Army of the New Mexico Territory, outlining plans to annex California and the New Mexico Territory and invade Mexico and Cuba, then expand the Confederacy to Central and South America. Everybody’s got big, big plans. A man came into the office one day when she was the only one there. He was thin, with a dark, receding hairline, something grim with events to come in his brown eyes. “Is this the Museum of the Silver Wall?” he said. When he spoke, he barely opened his mouth, barely pronounced his consonants, and spoke so slowly that a train could pass between his words. She liked the music between those words.
“No,” said Diosa, “that’s down the street.”
He was back in ten minutes. “You lied to me,” he said. “This is the Silver Wall Museum.”
“Do you want to see Robert E. Lee’s coat?” she said.
“I want to see his horse,” said the man.
“Traveler,” she said.
“Is he stuffed like Trigger?”
“Not here he isn’t,” Diosa said.
“You’re kind of cute for a weird girl,” said the man.
“You’re kind of cute for a cracker,” said Diosa.
“Well, let’s take a look at that coat,” he said.
She led him down into the basement and over to a rack where she’d hung the coat after pulling it from a moth-balled trunk.
“Want to wear it?” said Diosa.
“No,” he said, “you wear it.” His accent was so musical you could almost smell it. And she knew where this would end up, don’t you? But what’s one redneck, more or less? She put on Robert E. Lee’s coat and he came to her.
“What are you looking for here at the Silver Wall Museum?” she said.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m looking for the Richmond Bank. I was told it was near the Richmond Bank.”
“Down the street the other way,” she said. He wasn’t that big, and he was quick, but he made a sound in his throat like you’d imagine a chorus of hummingbirds.
“Damn,” he said, “I fucked Robert E. Lee’s coat.”
“And what’s more,” said Diosa.
“What’s more?” he said.
“That’s what’s more,” she said.
He went down the street and tried to rob the Richmond Bank where the Richmond Police shot him dead.
So she quit the Richmond Museum of the Silver Wall and that’s when she went to work ordering provisions for the Virginia State Police.
“Stop working for the Virginia State Police,” wrote Stephen M_____, the greatest living poet in America. “Come to Utah where it never snows, except on the mountains. Why work? Be a poet. Scratch the blank soul of the empty world with your delicacy. Leave it wounded when you depart.”
There was something fishy about all that, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. And a big police officer was flirting with her. There was nowhere good that could go. She ordered eight truckloads of Fruit Loops and quit the job, ended up teaching outside Middleburg, Virginia at the Foxcroft Preparatory School for Girls where, among others, she taught a young princess from Ghana. Indeed, there at Foxcroft, Diosa taught many princesses of potentates and dictators and deposed dictators where in the hills of Virginia they rode there hot blooded horses, experimented with lesbianism and drugs, sneaked off to D.C. to fuck the sons of senators, seethed in the decadence of southern decadence; that’s what I like about the South.
Chaperoning one of those D.C. excursions, standing in front of a diorama of stuffed elk in the Natural History section of the Smithsonian Institute, Diosa met a scientist from Uruguay who survived the military dictatorship by teaching botany for free and obtaining a government license to beg in front if the cathedral in Monte Video. To be allowed to teach he had to prove he had no political history and lived without opinion. What they had in common: the morbid immortality of stuffed animals standing delicately poised on the cusp of the next moment; their teeth yellowing, their fur growing course, abandoned now by the site seekers of Animals Parks and Sea Worlds and giant zoos, the mystery of their once mysterious lives corrupted by television nature shows; there, so unconscious and fully loaded; the hand that stuffed them long dead; in the corner of the exhibit she spotted a live mouse. No one else there, just the poet and the scientist and the mouse, stuffed into a moment. That day she bought him lunch, but later he couldn’t break the habit of begging, and singing songs for food, and came to her window where she threw him scraps of bread. Without thinking, or rather, thinking of the mouse and not the scientist, the night before winter break she descended from her window on a rope made of silk scarves and fucked him on the lawn. When she returned from vacation, he’d died of starvation. Who wouldn’t?
Stephen M_____, America’s greatest living poet wrote her, “Come to Utah. Come to Utah where there is no winter and no summer. I will make you the Queen of Poetry.” She was twenty-five. Queen of Poetry sounded pretty good. She filled out an application to the University of Utah, then threw it away. Maybe the greatest living poet in America could survive her. Then again, maybe no man could. Now she knew. She knew it was true. That breaking up is hard to do.
Diosa decided to drive to Salt Lake City and become the Queen of Poetry. Back then she met a woman named Karla who had four kids – and oldest daughter, Dawn; twins, Flora and Fauna, who did not look alike; and a son, Retro – each had a different father, though they all had the same last name because Karla only married men named Kevorkian.
“You know,” said Karla, “you get tired of changing your name.”
Retro’s father was a famous wild game hunter and sport fisherman. Flora’s was a painter whose favorite subject was girls in long dresses on row boats in Southern swamps. Fauna’s father was the operations manager for an international cat show circuit and Dawn’s a doctor who helped terminally ill people commit suicide so ended up in jail. Right then, Karla was seeing a Marxist architectural theorist named Safety Kevorkian who’d just taken a job at Cal Berkeley.
Diosa coached softball at the Foxcroft School for Girls. She won the Virginia State High School Softball Championship without knowing how to catch, hit, or throw, without knowing the rules, without really understanding what her players, who were all the daughters of Central and South American dictators, were saying. She had a baseball hat that said Diosa and before every game she held up a Magrite painting of a pipe that had Ceci n’es pas un pipe written under it. Then she held up a softball and said, “Recuerda, en realidad, esta polleta no es blanda.” But it was time to move on.
At the moment she and Karla were sitting cross-legged in an alley off Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia behind their favorite thrift store; their long black coats fell around them like tipis; they drank from a wine bottle and shared a joint; snow fell. Diosa was still twenty-five years old, Karla Kevorkian forty.
“Queen of Poetry,” Karla Kevorkian said. She blew smoke. “How many before you?”
Diosa sucked on the fifth of Gallo. “None after,” she said.
“That’s what they all say,” said Kevorkian.
“He hasn’t been king that long,” said Diosa. She put out the roach. “I could move to Vermont and have Ruth Sparrow name me after a bird.”
Karla Kevorkian brushed snow from Diosa’s hair. “Snow in Richmond,” she said.
Diosa pulled out her Marlboros. “Want a cigarette?” she said. She lit for the two of them and they smoked. “It never snows in Salt Lake City,” Diosa said.
“I get it,” said Kevorkian.
Diosa offered her the wine bottle.
“Can’t I get an Irish coffee somewhere around here?” said Karla Kevorkian.
“Not for free,” said Diosa.
“How far is Salt Lake City from Berkeley?” asked Kevorkian.
“On the map?” said Diosa. She held up her free hand and separated her index finger slightly from her thumb.
“Six inches,” Kevorkian said.
(It’s a chick joke. They’d both be following men.)
“Fifteen hours,” said Diosa. “Day’s drive.”
“I lived in San Francisco in the Sixities,” said Karla K. “That’s where I met Dr. Kevorkian.”
They sat for a moment, the snow falling.
“Fifteen hours is a nice distance from a man,” Karla Kevorkian said.
“It never snows in Salt Lake City,” Diosa said.
So Karla Kevorkian made arrangements to have her kids, who were all pretty little back then, shipped out to Salt Lake City after she found a home. Diosa lost everything in her divorce to Swift Chris, she even paid his taxes and for his move to New York. She fucked her divorce lawyer who died a week later from a cocaine overdose. Though she was a surreal consciousness to whom causality was an anathema, there was something almost Pythagorean about her love life and she’d begun to sense it the way a fish feels another fish from ten feet away.
They piled what they could into the trunk and back seat and on top of Diosa’s white 1969 BMW 2002 – Snow White – and headed out.
“You have a map?” Karen Kevorkian said.
“It’s out there somewhere,” Diosa said. So she wrote this for some future love, a love she would really meet and then never write about him or for him again.
Touchstone: Another Digression
Truly, I would the gods had made thee
Or had given me a very beautiful poem
to give thee–
to use as a path, as it were, toward thee, my
beloved, and toward a vita nuova –
a poem which would be, would it not, a kind of
infinite metaphor for the phrase
I love you. And yet who is this I? Who is
this you? How shall we exorcise the
terrifying arbitrariness of our story?
I want you to exist in a body other than
the flesh and blood of my fingers lettering
you out, to be more in your life and death
than a great reckoning in a little tavern.
More than a quarrel over a bill –
I want and yet do not want
to be weaned from the full milk of the poem –
initiated into something more bitter
and divided. I would feign not feign
any of this. I would feign deign an actual
vacation with you and your little horse
in some fairy-tale forest of lions and palm
trees. There to be merry, if not married
inside the great, stubborn space of moving
sentence, enveloped in both longing and
myth, wearing the ritual skin of a stag
we have slain together. Let us leave
behind painted images of our hunt
which like a series of endlessly reflecting
mirrors might one day come to stand for