Banana RoseNatalie Goldberg
FOR ROB STRELL,
MY LONGTIME FRIEND,
A Biography of Natalie Goldberg
If we have no soul
Something aches in us anyway
Heaves our breath
Pumps our blood
Sun thrown across tree tops
Do you see New Mexico?
Wind storms crack across it
Days break against it
I hurt for dry dirt
Bell in a tower
Sage across the eye
Old sand carcass
Your rosebuds are hardening
Your leaves turning
My heart burning
SHE HAD SENT ME a postcard just before she got in her car. “I'm finally coming home! I want to be near that blue sky again. Just like a raven or a magpie. I want to soar with that land. You were right. Give me that and I'll be sane.”
Even that Tuesday, a week after the accident, I couldn't believe she was dead. How can a life be there and then gone? All day Sam and Daniel gathered piñon and cedar. They piled it into a funeral pyre near the pyramid that Sam had built years earlier as an experiment. He’d heard that pyramids had magical powers.
I thought over and over again about what must have happened on the road that night in Kansas. It was a thin two-lane highway. Midnight was full of stars and the dry stalks of corn. She was in her Volkswagen. There were two semis, one driving ahead of her and the other thundering east. With the last slow insects of summer stuck on the windshield, she tried to pass the semi in front of her but her timing was off.
Here my mind always stopped. I didn’t want to think about the crash. In a few hours I was going to see her for the last time.
At sunset, we carried the coffin to the pyre and placed it on the piñon and cedar logs. Then we stood in a circle on the mesa, where we could see 360 degrees. We could see three hundred miles away. There were no trees, only sagebrush. People said it was like the Mind of God: empty. Daniel, Anna’s brother, opened the coffin. Each of us took a turn speaking to her. Then we each placed something in the coffin that we wanted her to have.
Blue went first. She gave her a pinecone. “Anna, honey, we’ll miss you. Nell wanted you back so bad. Remember when we ate posole together by the wood stove that October long ago? You sure had pretty gray eyes.” Blue paused. She swallowed. Suddenly the finality of what we were doing seemed to run through her whole body. “I hope we will meet again in the next life.”
We couldn’t actually see her. She was wrapped up like a mummy. The funeral home in Kansas had prepared her for the long ride home in the back of Blue’s red Subaru.
I gave her a bouquet of sage. “Oh, god, Anna, I’m going to miss you! Where are you? I can’t believe you’re gone. I pray to the sky and the heavens that they take you. Lift you like you were flying.”
The sun radiated purple and white rays behind silver clouds in the west. Just as Daniel placed in the coffin all the hair that he had shaved off his head that morning, there was a huge clash of thunder. Lightning shrieked across the southwest part of the sky. We saw rain in the distance, tall and blue-gray, the kind the Indians call Long Walking Man. To the east, over Taos Mountain, night began its black climb over the Sangre de Cristos.
We closed the coffin. Daniel’s hands were in tight fists at his sides, and his eyes stared straight at the coffin that held his sister. Blue’s face was soft, taking it all in, looking from me to Daniel and then over to where Anna was. Sam held his right elbow with his left hand, swaying slightly, grinding the heel of his black boot in the dirt. I was the only one crying.
Over the coffin we erected her tipi, the one she had lived in on the mesa before she moved to the rim, where I met her. I could imagine her stooping to crawl into the low tipi opening, her black high-top sneakers the last things that would disappear.
Anna was my best friend. She was a writer and had almost finished her first novel. She’d left New Mexico and gone back to Nebraska because she was born there, but she had never stopped being a part of us. I always wondered how long she’d last in her native state. Eventually, I knew, she’d have to come back to her real home.
Daniel doused the end of a cedar log in kerosene and set it on fire. The rainstorm in the southwest turned into a double rainbow, reaching all the way from the Rio Grande gorge to The Pedernal in Abiquiu. Everyone saw it and smiled. Then Daniel knelt and lit the bottom edges of the canvas tipi. I was amazed how quickly the material caught. I somehow thought we’d have more time. I wanted more time with Anna. The flames became huge. We all stood back from the immense heat. Why did she die? None of it made sense. I was still alive. How much longer in this life I didn’t know—years or days or minutes? But now I had to live that time without Anna. The moon’s full face rose over Taos Mountain.
Anna was burning. We smelled her through the cedar, the canvas, and the pine box. It was a clear and awful smell. We all breathed it in deep. It was the last of her and her smoke now entered our bodies. Something huge and blazing pink rose over the east. A spaceship? Someone said it was Venus, though I never saw Venus look quite like that before.
If I had had any doubts about the cremation, at that moment I knew we did the right thing for Anna. She was in our breath and we were all very close to her. Sam prayed that we do good acts with her life that we now carried within us. Blue passed around a Mason jar of rose water and each of us drank slow and deep.
It took all night for the fire to burn down to embers. In the last hour, Daniel took his sleeping bag ten yards away and lay on his back looking up at the sky. Sam hardly spoke at all. He and Blue watched that the nearby sage didn’t catch fire. And for a long time I sat on the ground, hugging my knees, rocking back and forth, repeating, “Anna, Anna,” slowly, like a mantra under my breath.
Late the next morning, Sam bent over the ashes and picked out the bone chips, his fingers rubbed blue-black. He put the chips in a green jar. He even found a chunk of Daniel’s blond hair untouched among the black cinders.
Days later, we scattered the ashes and bones in her favorite places. By moonlight, I placed some under a ponderosa where Anna had fallen asleep one night. I threw one bone over the Rio Grande bridge that she had walked across one early morning, pretending to fly. And one chip of a bone I secretly dropped by the curb in front of Rexall Drugs on Tao
s plaza. She would sit at the soda fountain there and sip Coke with ice after she taught writing at the hippie school behind the Church of the Handmaidens of the Sacred Blood. We also met there a lot for malts. Weeks later, I found a chip in my pocket when I was cutting across Kit Carson Park. I left it near a cemetery stone we once leaned against.
Daniel took some back to Nebraska and I kept two in a jar on my fireplace mantel. Someday I plan to leave one of those near the place where she died, where we saw the angels. And maybe sometime I’ll get to the Missouri again. That’s the one place I know for sure Anna wanted her ashes thrown.
And some bones just sat there near the pyramid for anyone to take. I imagine they are still sitting there, untouched.
THE FIRST TIME I saw him, he was standing in a corral. He wore a red shirt and had both hands on a brown leather saddle that he had just taken off the back of a black quarter horse. I was walking along the dirt shoulder of the two-lane highway, on my way to meet a friend a mile down at the Texaco station. A lawn separated the corral from the road by about two hundred yards. The grass belonged to the Sheepskin Company. It was early October and the grass should have been yellow—after all, it was New Mexico—but the company had hired someone to take care of it. I was walking west, but my head was turned north, looking at the amazingly green lawn and noticing the horse and the man with the saddle. Not watching where I was going, I stepped on the teeth of a rake, a big one, and its handle jolted up and hit me hard in the head, right between the eyebrows. I saw stars, lifted my left hand to greet them, and then I fell backward.
The next thing I remember was sitting under a cottonwood on the lawn. The man from the corral was handing me a bottle of water. His arms and face had freckles, his red hair was shoulder-length, and his eyes were a quiet hazel. I thanked him, took two sips, and said, “I better be going.”
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Sure, thanks, I’m fine.”
He went back to the corral. I let the cottonwood hold me a little longer and watched him lift a bale of hay. Then I stood on the miraculous two feet that I had just been knocked off of and began to take a step. With the first step that my left foot took ahead and away from my right, my mouth began to whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It was in tune and I knew all the notes, even though I had never whistled before in my life. I swung my arms and marched away from the cottonwood toward the Texaco station.
The second time I saw him was two weeks later on a Friday night at the Elephant House in Talpa. Every Friday night the commune celebrated the beginning of Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. Only two of us in the house were Jews, but it was the non-Jews who especially loved to celebrate it. It saved all of us in the commune. Each week we could easily have killed one another, but on Friday night we lit the candles and forgave the hair left in the tub, the mud on the floor, and the fact that Celeste didn’t know one thing about the Tibetan Book of the Dead. We fell into one another’s arms, ate a huge pot-luck dinner, danced, and sang gospel and old Beatles songs. The Shabbos became bigger and bigger until half the hippies in Taos came to one or another of our Friday nights.
On this particular one, the man from the corral came. I walked into the kitchen after taking a shower, rubbing my wet hair with a yellow towel, my head cocked to the right, and I saw him across the long room. He’d gotten the time wrong and come an hour early, so he was helping Carmel cut up celery. They laughed about how Friday night was like a salami. I didn’t get the joke. Actually, I wasn’t really listening because time had suddenly stopped. I saw him across the room, and I heard water running far away, and his laughter, too, was water.
We said hi to each other, and I walked through the kitchen and into my bedroom. I sat down on the bed. I got up. He was one room away. I put on my socks. I remembered I had to take the cheesecake I had baked out of the fridge and put strawberries on it. “Oh, hell,” I said to myself. “Just get dressed and go in there. You don’t even know him, and you probably don’t want to.”
I marched myself into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. I didn’t look at anyone. I didn’t want anyone to know I was in love. I wasn’t in love, for goodness’ sake! There were now about eight people milling around. I bent to get the strawberries from the lower shelf.
Carmel yelled out, “Hey, Banana Rose, you have on one red sock and one white. Is that a Shabbos tradition?” Besides Happiness, whose nonhippie name was Jane Berg, I was the only other Jewish authority in the house. Everything I did on Shabbos was considered significant. I looked down, flustered. Nearby, I heard him say, “So that’s her name.” I stood up, shut the refrigerator, and turned with a professorial air. I raised my right hand, my index finger pointed. “Yes, if Shabbos falls on October seventeenth, it is proper for all Jews to have on one red and one white sock. Deuteronomy, chapter twelve, verse eight, line three.”
He laughed with everyone else. I liked him; he appreciated my jokes. But I couldn’t act like I liked him. I acted like he was a wooden frame on the wall. I talked to everyone but him. I thought if I didn’t know his name, he wouldn’t exist. Nevertheless, this man whose name I didn’t know was blurring my heart like a forest of wild roses. I couldn’t see anything else, though I looked everywhere else but where he was.
At six, the sun set and we lit the candles. There must have been thirty-five of us in the big kitchen. Blue came from up Talpa hill. I remember her dog Bonnie pawing at the door. Blue brought posole, a corn dish we all loved, and she had on a babushka. That week she was reading a Russian novel and the peasant woman wore a babushka. She decided “babushka” would fit in with Shabbos. Big Allen was there and brought out his flute. Tiny William took his fiddle out of its case, but it wasn’t yet time for music.
“When I light these candles, we can let go of everything and enter a time of peace,” said Happiness as she flicked the match. There was silence in the room. I snuck a peck at him. He wore a pair of square glasses with the left stem taped on. Happiness then said the prayer over the wine. We passed a goblet around and everyone took a sip.
We took the napkin off the two challahs and thanked God, King and Queen of the Universe, for bringing forth grain from the earth. We passed the braided egg bread around. Each person took a hunk, enough to put a crumb in everyone’s mouth and wish them “Good Shabbos.”
“You can’t miss anyone,” I called out as people hugged and fed each other.
There he was. I’d already fed everyone else. Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling so robust. “Hi, Banana Rose.” He beamed at me. “I’m Gauguin.” He laughed, grabbed me, and gave me a big hug. Flustered, I hugged him back. We stepped away from each other, then he dropped his last piece of bread in my mouth, put his hands together in prayer position, and bowed. I bowed too. I still had the bread in my hand. I put it in his mouth.
Tiny began playing his fiddle. Gauguin went over to a black case in the corner and unsnapped it. He pulled out a trumpet. I wondered, Did he play his horn in Harlem or on the south side of Chicago? Did he shoot up heroin, stay up all night, and wear dark glasses? He joined in the homemade music. Happiness brought out our pots. Some people grabbed the utensils on the table. Paul and Ellen played hand drums. Blue hit a spatula against a wooden chair. A spatula! It was perfect with her babushka. Her eyes looked like she’d eaten chunks of turquoise for lunch—they were that blue. Her hands were so worn, you’d think they belonged to an old woman, but she banged her instrument with the vigor of a young girl.
I felt shy for the rest of the night. No matter where I was—washing dishes, hitting a wooden spoon against a glass to the rhythm of “Amazing Grace,” biting into cheesecake, talking to Lightning about his hurt foot, or listening to Fine Point whisper in my ear, “Banana Rose, I have a new lover. She lives in La Madeira, but anytime you want me you can have me”—all that time, I knew one thing: Gauguin was in the room. He played his gold trumpet, and when he wasn’t blowing, he tapped out the rhythm with his hand against his
It was 11:30. I was tired from the effort I’d made to appear not to notice him. Without waiting for everyone to leave, I went into my bedroom, threw off my clothes, and fell into a sound, dreamless sleep.
At 3 A.M. I woke abruptly and had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t want to get up, but I knew I would never get back to sleep if I didn’t go. I trudged through the kitchen in my long white T-shirt. The hall between the kitchen and bathroom was wide enough to hold a mattress, where guests stayed overnight. As I went down the hall, I noticed someone lying there. I didn’t much care. I was tired. People often needed a place to crash after Shabbos. When I came out of the bathroom, the person on the mattress was sitting up in his sleeping bag. It was Gauguin.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said, raising my hand and heading for the kitchen.
“Why don’t you sit down and talk a minute?” Gauguin asked.
I sat down on the edge of his bed. In my head a voice thundered, I want to hold him, be with him, and in my body I felt a howling of coyotes. I said to myself, Go ahead, Nell, just ask him to sleep with you.
While my mind was thinking all this, my mouth was making small talk with Gauguin. “Yes, Taos Pueblo has Indian dances several times a year. They’re good. You should go to see them.”
I counted in my head, “One, two, three...” As I opened my lips to speak, Gauguin said, “I know this seems odd, but I’d like to sleep with you.
For a second, I wasn’t sure whose mouth those words had come out of, but then I said, “I’d like that too.” Suddenly shy, we both got up, walked through the kitchen and into my bedroom.
As soon as we sat on the bed, Gauguin called me “honey” and “darling” and “baby.” I thought to myself, Who is this hick? Gauguin told me later that he’d thought to himself, What am I doing with her? She has such a heavy New York accent.
When Gauguin and I finally emerged from the bedroom late the next morning, people in the kitchen teased us. “Hey, Gauguin,” Happiness said, “we were afraid the coyotes carried you off. All we saw on the cot was your crumpled sleeping bag.” She yelled into her bedroom, “Hey, Light, we were right! Coyote Banana carried him off.”