How the Widow Velma Learned to Dance

I must apologize for all the tarps
and cans of paint I’ve strewn around the room
while painting Velma’s ceiling to improve
the vista from her bed of suffering,
where she’s lain, prostrate and staring upward,
since they carted Alfred in. I watched
her barking, I surprised myself by noting,
Velma with her white hair barking
as they carted Alfred in, dead
as meat. She levitated purely out
of anguish, bumping like a zeppelin
about the room, and up the stairwell before
our sense of peril was aroused, and she
nearly had transcended to the attic when
I finally caught her by the weights
of human nature. That was close.  Afterwards,
dressed in her bed things, she rode the unbridled
horse of hysterics. The spectacle has all but killed
the little shell of Evelyn, the eldest daughter,
who arranged the sweet peas in a vase,
and weeps beneath the rainy constellations
of her feelings. She isn’t being very
photogenic, and genuinely cringes
at her mother’s hydrophobias.
Ho, but Velma often battered Alfred’s
sentiments: Fat boy! she had yelled
in Evelyn’s hearing, and then denied him roasted
apples as he liked them most. Oh,
she bellowed, holding Evelyn by the cuff,
Oh she thought his love lubricious, physical
as it was, and for years refused
to touch his dick

                             My guess is Evelyn never
will forget the dreadful revelations
gibbered in her ear, and on the whole
remembers more about the funeral
than she wants–especially the bloat
man himself exposing what is mortal
in his box. Pray for a huge pity
on this woman, on us all, whose fantasies
and tricks of mind proved morbid as her father’s
body–which we viewed at last, to my
surprise, before the pageant minister,
robed in shreds and patches, bespoke himself,
closed the coffin lid, and sealed my friend
apart inside a distant and inhospitable
land. I wasn’t ready. In a lifetime
when the ozone layer is penetrated
by a mother’s can of hairspray, I’m humbled
by the victory of causes and
their preposterous effects, chased by lunacies
and wonders, in which I place all hope. The ceremony
grated harshly to its end, and then
we scattered from the graveside, green and drowned,
into the civil streets of the remaining
world, leaving Alfred to be stuffed
discreetly, and behind our backs into
a dirty hole. No one stayed to see
it closed, or watch the tanagers among
the starry bushes. Troupials were blowing
airs into the emptiness blue
as ink, and Elam could be overheard
to sing his sea chanteys, Sarah could
be humming something typically obscure,
but reminiscent of the fiddler birds
remembered from her youth. To hear them sing
like this across the gross diameter
of our experience, theirs and mine,
reminds me of psychotic processes,
or the ecstasies and revels of
medieval saints, friars summoning
through the gorgeous armories of prayer
their own seraphic messages from heaven.
If I had a rocket launcher, I’d maybe
stand a chance of pressuring important
messages from someone big, but otherwise
I’m used to the illumination from
the massive, dazzling static of the pulsars,
binary suns, and singularities
exploding overhead. In this century,
a body’s gotten cynical about
the salesmen seeing aliens, or postal
workers answering command hallucinations.

So the evolution of my jealousy
has seemed occult and melancholy, my brain
has held by night, in unknown places, an
ungodly envy of the Raleigh Baptist
women on the church committee who
communed in Velma’s parlor with their layer
cakes, and minced meat pies, to tranquilize
the seething widow with ancestral empathies,
at a time when I was drawing breath in pain,
but trying to be manly. Evelyn catered
to them sweetly from the hoard of pastries,
and each was growing sleepy at the moment
Velma hitched her afghan up, and ventured
into memory to ramble on
regarding Alfred’s manic appetite
for minced meat pie. Sisters, she had started,
and recalled incendiary chickens,
the cremated harrows and plows that happened when
the barn combusted, and there was Alfred, famed
among his neighbors as he extricated
their Barbary mare and foal, leading both
into the archetypal fields of sugar
beets.

           A minute later she lamented
her inner life, stuffed with history,
its revelations awful, the wind in it cold–
but that was after she remembered Alfred
in the ballroom, in the middle of
the rhapsody, had whisked the linen table
cloth from off a vacant table, and laid
it like a cape across her naked shoulders,
damp from the preceding waltz. There
she sat amid the sore-footed dancers at
the Peabody Hotel, no less, the shoeblacks
grinning in the halls.

                                    Forty years
of marriage passed before we had to gather
as a family for Alfred’s funeral,
with Evelyn pointing out the goldfish half
the size of boulders, Calypso blooms like dualisms,
and other universals of the Elams’
garden. We tried to keep our chatter to
a minimum.  New mothers washed
their boobs and red nipples: Keep an eye
on the toddlers, they called to husbands sitting
under the perpetual umbrellas,
sipping beers. Baseball featured the
St. Louis Cardinals losing to L.A.,
and all the kids had trooped into the kitchen
where, as usual, Sarah was bending
spoons with her telepathy: it was
a moving spectacle, and kept the children
out of mischief in the darker parts
of Elam’s woods, in which the lion plants
might eat them. It could haven gotten ugly, and turned
the public off. But our precipitation
there had been to bury Alfred, and
to smother Velma with our Southern over-
compensated love. You surely are
a comfort, Velma told the few of us
to bring her pomegranates, mow her lawn,
and Uncle Eddie Seymour–one of our
dear ethnic Catholics, along with Uncle
Anton–mornings in the shower said
novenas for her better health. Even
the gangsters of the family were reigning
in their hyperactive noise, and trying
to be tender,

                       but nothing of our physic
worked. Help. We had to be a little
smarter than we were. Eventually
we left the suffocating flowers, and
dispersed for home, nursing gingerly
our aching tennis elbows, and soothing our
pubescent sons and daughters, who developed
crushes on their cousins, and were then
bereft and humid in the separate backs
of each of our departing cars. What
had we accomplished? A unity of errors.
Velma’s grief, like solar heating, was still
in infancy. Alfred had been newly
and forever plowed beneath the Judas
trees when we reentered our abiding
cities, stepped off planes, and in walking
to the baggage claims admitted we
were irritated by the Krishna beggars
and the other vegetarians
displayed at airports. We assumed routines,
returned to copulations on our water
beds, how momentarily angelic,
and meant to be. We pulled the drapes. Incense
flamed in ashtrays,

                               and afterwards at malls
the charlatans had tossed us caramels
as some promotion–and so again
our metamorphosis into consumers
had us deftly waddling after sales,
and our way of life had fallen into
days of golf, and nights of agonizing
on our backswings with their unintended
circles. Velma, on the other hand,
remained depressed, and deviled by the malice
of her history. The contradictions
made no sense to her, for instance, once
when she was lost among the parlous streets
of Memphis, cabined in her huge Dodge,
and then a neatly groomed, a beautifully,
uh, rouged and tailored–in short a gorgeous
pederast kindly showed her home.
Travel seemed to be for liberals,
or other widows better suited to
it. She commuted in between the supermarkets,
armed with coupons, and on the loose among
her former incarnations as a cook
when she was young, and when her mother was
tubercular. The angers that had famished
Alfred’s appetites originated
in the sloughs of childhood as she stood
on top of orange crates to reach the stove,
and turn the rabbit quarters over with
a wooden spatula. And now, as then,
she gathered all her skillets, and attacked
the human drives for comfort, food and drink
by searing fatty meats, lubricating
everything with bacon grease, and acting
altogether like she never heard
the word cholesterol. Sunday brunch
became a terror to the delicate,
clogging the metabolism so
that afterwards, for days, my colon was
inflamed. Alfred was a bigger man,
however, and would have busted through the finicky
adjustments I required on Velma’s noxious
paradise: her mustang green grape
pie inside a milken crust was all
I’d touch, plus chicken, plus grits and pig’s feet. It
was clear to me, or should have been, the way
the flight of our desire was not between
our pleasures and their remedies, but
from hope to hope. I’ve been a slow learner.
One of Elam’s hopes was sighting whales
when he was on his polar expedition,
but it failed in its anticipated
greatness. One of ours turned out to be
that Velma journey to the Holy Lands
with Mrs. Usdan. Even I applauded
that. Like Solomon, let her be rich
in points of view, great in diction–haimisha,
a beauty if I’ve ever seen one, her hair
like a flock of goats.

                                  But she only
got as far as Nova Scotia where
she haunted fishing villages, and at
a minimum was drenched in all the rain.
She never did recuperate. When people
speak of it, they have to deal with Velma’s
losses, which are real. Once the brains
went out of Alfred, she never could recoup
the difference, never could recover,
never marry any of her ancient
suitors, who came replete with condominiums,
two physicians each who could not heal,
and simply chests of medicines.

                                                      And yet,
and by degrees, she stopped apologizing
for vitality. Several years
enwheeled around before I heard the joggers
trot aerobically across the lawns
as Velma roused the street at 6 a.m.
the stereo, to which she pirouetted
in her self-expression, deceived herself
in waltzing joyously at doctor’s orders:
to improve her heart, increase her circulation,
Dr. Rosen effectively prescribed
the studio at Fred Astaire’s Emporium
of Dancing, where Velma celebrated for
a fee the measured steps of tangos, danced
the sacred rumba, and participated
in the group emotions of a set of friends,
who, eventually, would take or leave
her. Each of us must love a special form
of violence. Velma found that dancing
was a multiplicity of social
fun, and soon discovered further that
the end of competition was in winning.
She has a cabinet packed in loving cups
she garnered at the national cotillions
held for ballroom dancers. I was at
the one in Memphis, watching Velma come
in second best because she rushed her entrance,
having gotten caught in traffic. Having
thought of strong language, and indicating
the dang weather, she nosed her Dodge through acid
rain that strangulated the mid-South,
not to mention Memphis, where it washed
the bridges out, polluted aquifers,
and mildewed everything that didn’t move:
closets full of linen, expensive winter
furs, shag carpets. Aquatic plants
were rooting in the living rooms, suspended
from the draperies, and catfish centralized
in kitchens, gluing luminescent eggs
in clutches to the bottom rungs of chairs.
It was one of our most famous hurricanes
for damage, calling forth the nation’s soldiers,
who resurrected barges sunk by the
deluge and scattered through suburbia–
bodies in the flower beds, and pools
of oil that oozed into the ritzy bedrooms,
where they emanated a prehistoric
stench. Velma scraped the killer mushrooms
from her walls before she dressed, and floated
to the Peabody Hotel, arriving
as the concierge conveyed the celebrated
ducks out of the lobby pond and fountain,
and in single file escorted them
through coteries of dazzling blondes in diamonds,
veered around bohemians, and cliques
of movie critics, then negotiated
plutocrats puffing on cigars
before he finally commandeered the elevator
to the basement, where they roost. Velma
paid them no attention as she trotted
every bit like Ginger Rogers to
the ballroom. It’s the end of speeches, the contest
will begin. Hurry. On the podium,
the maestro waved, and instruments combusted,
honest men huffed on saxophones
and trumpeters cut loose, but the truly
hyperbolic notes ballooned above
the tubas, while the treble violins
were sawing at their scores, the cellists waiting
for an entrance into music that
compelled the dancers to commence their risky
flapping, their whirling on the floor like Turkish
houris. They appeared and disappeared
as the ephemerae they are, infernal
beauties stomping toward the asymptotes
to strut in front of judges, each of whom
was buttoned in a tux, and stunned by the
insomnia of love. Velma hoofed
it with her gigolo–and it wasn’t
anybody’s business if she did–
and everywhere the elderly women with rubious
cheeks exuded their enthusiasm–
I said, were enthusiastic as
they sashayed, inspired by venery and sweet
cooperation. No one’s heart is ever
broken, though I find unspeakably
I have the urge to break them. I’m not the man
I was. And though there were no saxophones
and tubas, no treble violins precisely
as I saw them in the case of Velma’s
grief, still I wouldn’t either want
to say it didn’t happen just this way,
nor claim that, even if you wanted to,
you couldn’t see what looked like frolic in
the ballroom, or detect the signs of transport
in the many detours of exaggerated
waltzes–played by friends of mine beyond
all reason, and on toy horns and winds
in which suspend the deaths of Velma, me
and them

Author: Brad Crenshaw

I am a poet and literary critic. I have written two books of poetry: 'Genealogies' was published in April 2016. My first book of poetry is titled 'My Gargantuan Desire'. I also have two chapbooks: 'Propagandas', and 'Limits of Resurrection'. I am working on a manuscript titled 'Medical Life’, which is book of creative non-fiction. I have worked as a neuropsychologist for many years in a New England tertiary care medical center, and in the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services. 'Medical Life' reflects my encounters with people who have had neurological insults of various sorts, and the problems that result. When I am not writing, or working, I'll be out in my ocean kayak in either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. The unconstructed world.

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