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Because We Know the German Word for Panicking at the Closing of the Gates


Here’s a sentence I’ve never thought,

though I should have: We leave only what we make.

Our narratives aren’t ours, no matter how much we claim them,

although that’s a decent name for what we’re about

with these status updates and FYIs and even the small talk

at the gym or the free concert or while walking the dog:

Here’s what I’ve been up to, here’s where I’ve been

since last we talked. Here are my breadcrumbs

for you to work with. But what we can’t engender

is the desire—for someone else to need

to tell that story, to make the breadcrumbs

into some fried mozzarella that everyone agrees

is worth the wait. I’ve been going to these funerals

where there’s a who-wants-to-say-something-now MO,

which is lovely in the abstract,

a Quaker meeting, a circle of pre-schoolers

with a “talking stick.” Practically, though,

it’s the burden

of who wants

to do some extemporaneous public speaking,

for the living, about the dead.

Which brings me to Alain Locke.

He did something when his mom died,

where he sort of propped her up

on the couch

instead of having her lay in the coffin.

So those who paid their respects or just showed up

they had to make a decision. Decision made,

there they were,

sitting next to a dead woman

dressed up in her finest clothes—

and now their posture’s that

of chatting with someone

and she fell asleep? Like what they’d say next might be,

“Let’s get you home.” I know

what I’d do, I really do: I’d stand in the foyer

for a few minutes, showing my Funeral Face

to people, and then, I wouldn’t say goodbye

though maybe I’d touch at least one woman

on the arm, if she was near enough, and then I’d go.

I like to do that before I leave a place, touch a woman

on the arm. Then I would breathe in and out

in the open air. I would consciously consider my breathing.

I may even say some words out loud: “I am glad

I’m not dead. And I’m glad I’m not the guy

whose mom just died and who no one wants

to talk to right now, because of the whole

propping business.” There’s another thing I know

about Alain Locke, and it’s about sex.

Or not. Really it’s about how we only leave

what we make. And the thing

this one young fellow made and left, the only thing

that gets his name mentioned in books and articles

a hundred years down, is this note

he wrote to Alain Locke—about how fooling around

with Alain had been truly repulsive and how even the thought

of being intimate with him again was revolting

and how he’d gotten so bone-hollowing sick

after the first time. Even if there are piles of anything,

someone else will make an accounting, or, worse, I guess,

they won’t. So I hope

my children have decent material for the eulogy

but not the memoir. That they’ll have decided

I’m worthy

of a few words, written out, and not just an open-call

for anyone to mutter, “I guess he did OK. He was pretty

nice sometimes.” My wife might forget the crueler parts

or misremember me as charming and funny,

in the way of those who’ve only known me

a week or so. What does it mean

to not want to share elbow-room

in a kitchen? To not want to sit near

on the couch, even when alive? Maybe I’ve unhooked

the sentence. Maybe it’s not We leave only what we make

but We’re leaving as we make.  Because there’s some leaving

every time, some little parts of self

that flake into the flake-bowl,

which is just another name

for a canvas or a poem or a self

or a note intended to say goodbye

or I couldn’t be what you need

or any other thing

and missing the mark.

What might it feel like, I wonder,

to want to be near the people who want

to be near me? I think there’d be a hum,

I truly do, if finally I sat near you on a couch,

just once, and neither of us had died.

Or maybe the hum is in the note I want to write:

what I’ve been up to lately, since last we talked.

That’s a sound that never happens, you know?

It’s weird how a life can be arranged

so that humming sound never really happens.

—Richard Sonnenmoser

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