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Going to Ninevah

Sandee Gertz

One way to avoid a root canal is to be picked up by the wind outside a periodontist’s office on Route 19 South, Pittsburgh. I am late because the wind picked me up, I told the receptionist, brushing off my jeans, picking off thorns from my hair and threads of my sweater. This same gray building — a visage of cubicles and windows is where I once walked with a panther on a leash, says an artist who dreamed it, though this man is one to paint only in black his suffering women.

It’s as far as I can go.

I told him, he said, I said, in the dream…inexplicably stopping at the smeared glass doors of the Deckman building’s 1970’s concrete block facade.

From childhood I knew I was not light enough for elements to lift me, the same way I knew the heaviness of steel in Western Pennsylvania and the inhibitions of the Conemaugh Gap-- my father’s inability to push his hips through a turnstile and Appalachian fears. As I flew that day over Route 19 South, there was not even rain or thunder, just a reading of time from the clouds, and a howl as I tripped along on the small slip of concrete toward white coated men who wanted to pull at the foundations of my teeth —where I had last been told I had a 50/50 chance of needing a root canal. As my body alighted close to the road’s borders and the building’s landscaped front lawn, I thought about the survival chances of molars and the imbedded bones of my 22-year marriage: the anniversary that had just passed and the insistent beeping of my husband’s phone before I picked it up that day in the champagne hotel, the pounding of my arteries I calmed with spirits from the tiny bottles of the bar.

Deposited outside the building’s first floor hair salon, stylists peered out at me, an alien landing in the rows of blunt-cut evergreens. No one is picked up by the wind in the suburbs, I thought, but at that moment across town, my son received his own omen while pulling down the handle of a barista’s espresso lever: you have to protect mom, it said in some sliver of light that crept in through the Victorian farmhouse windows where he sold scones and cappuccino. He never told me. I only knew that driving the safe streets of our city that month of winter before we’d left, he’d call; “Where are you?” he’d ask.

I’m driving from the gym to the grocery store, as banal and safe as bread, I’d say.

But in one month, I’d find myself touching the paisley patterns of bedspreads in my house, the woodwork and precocious oak lines in the wood flooring — marveling at the century of old grains. I’d run my hands over everything twice, “I don’t want to to Ninevah,” I told my husband. His dark reassurings it would be just three weeks, a simple trip to move our son who wanted to be a songwriter to Music City: me doing the promotion, the networking, and maybe a chance to write in a new cafe while I waited for my husband to confirm he’d been receiving my emails about subway tile samples for our last bathroom to renovate of our 1903 home. The waiting on his confirmation that he received the songs I’d sent him saying I am prepared to never leave here-- the house we’d opened to contractors that last year, and one man with a tool belt and a non-working knowledge of toile, who ran his hands along the 12-inch thickness of our plaster walls and announced upon entering my living room: “now this is home.”

I thought this too, but I would never live in that house again, heaved more authentic tears for the solid moldings than my emotional state of shock. I knew how to cry over 103-year old pegged pine floors and the way they felt under my bare feet with morning coffee, the tiny burn marks from sparks that escaped the winter fires, an indented patina. The paintings on the walls never seemed to appear the same way on any given day -- the women's portrait hands outstretched, their eyes holding secrets. Or how, in June slants of light, I could study the new blades of grass that ran in perfect rows along the peony-bordered yard, and how the flowers, I imagined, were tended by decades of grandmothers in housedresses. The day I signed the papers I can’t even recall the year — I only remembered the creak of the stairs of the Redstone House, the koi in the pond, and the kittens brushing at the hairs of my legs.

The year I left was the one I spent on my knees, digging through the brown, wormy soil in spring to plant the annuals near perennials that never took for us, out back in the high Pennsylvania sun. And so I’d dig it all up again: the earth ripe and worming, looking up to my husband’s reluctant shovel, saying: See what we have planted? But he was claiming allergies from the leaves and didn’t want to touch last year’s worms, or the soft, wet dirt— looking off into the distance, past our rim of trees, past the tiny skyline of our town into some other vastness I could not see or unlock.

Just six months prior, there were other signs I’d forgotten and filed away. We had come home from our annual beach vacation to a fine, plastered dust trailing down the bends of our wooden staircase. Alighting the steps with a mixture of anticipation and horror, we found our bedroom ceiling had fallen: it simply gave out from age, our painter who came to replace the sodden mess with beadboard and the lightest peach hue, reported us as we stood open mouthed and silent, imagining the truth of our bodies hit with the granular powder and nail boards if they had been in the bed. Instead, we were laying in the granular sands of Kiawah Island’s beach and counting the repeated years of tan lines and wait times to crack the shells of crabs against the picnic table at Chez Fish: buzzed and oblivious.

No one can say I did not love my husband: a man who began writing poems on the white backs of take-out bags while I panted and gave birth to our first son in McGee Women’s Hospital, who sneezed all the way through our second when I dilated from 1 to 10 centimeters in an hour. I loved our car trips where his geography degree helped me to understand terrain and why farmers didn’t run in their fields when I’d never seen so much open space. His Midwest roots open and stretching, allowing him to talk to every clerk or shopkeeper, telling them his life story while I cringed with my narrow, Northeastern grimace — the tightly controlled and reserved German heritage of second-generation immigrants wound up in me. His German ancestors dating to the 1700’s as founders of the Lutheran church in bald heads and long cloth vestments.

I loved our bathroom jacuzzi baths where the water roared and he was most himself: the self I loved — not the aggrandizing, flamboyant, twin self whose foot I kicked under the table at dinner parties, the self whose personality assembled and disassembled in whimsy: at one point saying he longed to be an Orthodox priest; another day his briefcase spilling with receipts for Broadway shows and furs bought on my birthday for women who were not me.

Every marriage is complicated, and yet it’s so simple to love one person year after year—to peck toward his stiff and delivered white shirts I no longer ironed and starched like when we were penniless and buying food on a J.C. Penney credit card that we learned you could max out at a Rite Aid. Instead, the bundles of button-downs arrived at the door in time for him to bolt out of it, to speed off in cabs to airports, long after I needn’t worry about cash for asparagus at the grocery store.

Months later, displaced to Tennessee, my three weeks turned to years: I saw how the Mississippian Era natives had also vanished from the flat bottoms of Shelby Park, where once they built thriving towns and mounds, coaxed shapes from clay and made a massive sculpture named “Sandy.” All we know is that when long hunters came hundreds of years later, the land was wiped clean, leaving only traces for archaeologists to dig up and place in the Smyrna Museum. On Sundays, we follow the footprints left in autumn leaves when walking the Rivercane Trail and catch glimpses of their wooded ghosts, blinking our eyes in diagonal sun.

Today in Music City, once named French Lick and then “Nashborough,”

we travel over the tops of sacred burial grounds on the way to baseball games at Sulphor Dell hearing only slight aches, thinking they are distant trees bending. In Sumner County, just east, they say the message came to them in a flash; a divine scorching of the earth that bore a crater into the ground. Burning for days, the natives huddled in their tents:

It meant “go” they decided.

Tennessee is supposed to be the State of Volunteers, yet I did not raise my hand, as dark new birds followed my son and I to Downtown Music City; how they’d brush against my cheek with something more insistent than the constant pandering of the sidewalks, the predators in the power lines that swooped and dared me to run, or those days my son would sprint to catch up with me —my body bent with calls to lawyers, my mind's eye replaying the blinking lights of my husband’s phone in the middle of the night and the unlocked code that lead to 15 threads and one reverse subplot of “My Fair Lady” being enacted that week in a loft back in the Strip District of Pittsburgh with a menu and stage directions.

As I walked, I recalled the silence of that next morning in the one-bedroom apartment, where together, we needed to assemble one desk from Office Depot for our son before my husband could leave for his business trip to Indiana. He laid out the hammer and black and white diagrams on the gray carpet while I fried eggs in the compact kitchen: not the mother holding the spatula, but the woman of the past night, rising from the mattress sleeper on the floor where I laid with his familiar scent, taking the phone and our years of candles and baths, births and birthdays into the bathroom’s dim light — inhaling the soot of texts and photos and voicemails that burnt the evidence of our union, the ashes of things I could not even verbalize to the wind at Public Square Park, nor to the rain on my way to the YMCA where I escaped in calorie counts, and where I was walking when my son caught up with me in the whipping gusts of Church Street, calling out across the ripping wind that bounces off the skyscrapers: “ARE YOU OK?!” with wild and panicked eyes.

Yes, it is cold in the south too: it is windy and icy and yet the air lacks the ability to make one snowflake. In that frigid dawn, he told me of the heating up of quiche and frothing milk -- the words that came to him like the Mississippian mound builders who had listened to the sky scorching their forest floor that day in the farmhouse cafe.

After the Orogeny, I learned the language of Tennessee sunsets, the violent storms of the Cumberland Plateau. I had forgotten my senses: cried at the perfectly drawn sidewalks when I’d accidentally stepped in the suburbs, astonished there could be something so uniform. I could not drive to a mall for three years for fear I would see my old life in a mirror.

Instead, I found myself burning toast in a Printer’s Alley oven because the furnished loft -- the former Banner Newspaper building -- has only one flat disk of cast iron and no toaster, nor one domestic tool to remind me of my mortgage in Pennsylvania or the geraniums in urns that must need watering. An exile so hidden that I blended into the skyscrapers of Nashville — pressing my body against russet brick walls where the vanishing journalists once tap-tapped their manual typewriters in the late 1800’s, and where I can see the ashes from cigarettes dropping precipitously from their desks.

I am burning because three weeks came and went and because songwriters in rounds on stages throughout the city spoke to me through their strings: songs of loss (theirs) echoing, and because the condo was available just beneath the always lit neon of the Printer’s Alley sign: a place where I broil every meal and use someone else’s spatulas—one half of me still at the kitchen table back home reading the Observer-Reporter, the other a new person who rises each day to lift the bamboo shades of the soaring windows, looking out to the miraculous sign of the building next door. “Blank Book Manufacturers” it says in faded lettering.

There is other fire here: the girls twirl with it in the alley next door where you can hear the blues of Bourbon Street stages and buskers sitting on pizza boxes. It burns on hula hoops and spins each night off 3rd and Church Street, where the intersection of religion and “Naked Karaoke” form the core of the city.

At noon, I walk outside to find Bicentennial Mall, our city’s sliver of green space where Langston Hughes’ poem is carved on the wall of the Tennessee State Fountain, and where I watch kids running in its splashing rain: my soul has grown deep like the rivers etched behind their bathing suit bottoms in the sun – breathing in open space and freedom, one mile from the Native American burial grounds paved over for a minor league baseball stadium. A woman on the other side of the street carries a blue hoop to the capitol lawn, ready to light it on fire.

In the alleys, I walk home to saxophones blaring outside the Boogie Bar, a place the wealthy built a tunnel to during prohibition and where blues notes fall into my hands like the cash I wad up to get in on a Saturday night to see Stacy Mitchhart lick his guitar strings like flames. Women employed as barkers hand me flyers, the marks on their tatoos fresh from shooting, while back home my house is being dismantled piece by piece, needling into my skin its own jagged geometry. On week three I learn my cat had been let out and never came back.

It is easy to smolder in the south and be lost in the labyrinth of music, to travel only where your legs can take you, to learn the air is thick with Southern history and can swallow you in its glittering pine knots. Yet so many things have saved me here too — the apparitions of river ghosts who washed their skins over creek rocks, the surgeon who peered into my insides and said “nearly cancer, stage 0” but also “caught” and “lucky” in a low-ceilinged room at Vanderbilt Oncology where six people sat at a conference table and stared at my films. Not one kind doctor back home on three tries could pry the poison completely from between my legs. It had traveled to a country so far interior that it’d almost found my womb – hiding there, like me that whole first year, tracing the ancestry of my younger lover’s Russian face, his chiseled abs and hair that women paid to touch when they threw tips in his jar. Time stopped each time we danced in the kitchen to Lyle Lovett and he picked me up to travel the three steps to our studio bed.

In the dawn, I’d listen to the creak of hotel garage doors next door at the Marriott, opening and telling me it was morning and that the city water trucks would soon travel down the corridor, hosing away the night’s detritus and the hula girl’s burnt ring in the pavement. Rubbing sleep from my eyes, I remember bleaching baseball pants for boys' All-Star tournaments, blinking up into an endless ceiling of gridwork.

It is still winter in Pennsylvania. The peonies of our Redstone yard would not be blooming the until the last week of May; I should be there to see their unfoldings. A month’s worth of fires were left to be lit in the Dutch Colonial living room. I would certainly be back to fan the flames, to be sure that the sparks that escaped were never left burning.


I start running at the Cumberland waterfront, feeding the homeless cats that live in the ruins of a riverhouse, unexpectant and feral. I make up names for each one and call them out, over and over, along the banks of tangled branches until they come to the sounds of the tin can flip tabs opening on the sidewalk, where I sit, grateful beyond reason they let me touch their silken fur.

When the sun begins to set, I hitch a ride on a white horse named Cinderella, her latticed carriage carrying me back into the fray of tourists, the cats full and following at a distance. Bachelorettes trip over their boots to my left, a video is being shot to my right at the waterfront: a girl’s pop voice singing “I AM, I AM” over and over to the wind, until I like it, believe it….who is she? Who am I? I am…this street, this city, this alley. Windows raised and open to the muggy Tennessee caress— to the alley below bursting with sound, the cats disappearing into the shadows of the Cumberland. Water is the only thing that moves slowly in this city, almost imperceptibly, on its way to The Stones and The Red River bends before losing itself in the widening body of the Ohio.

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