Jul. 6, 2002

The Long Marriage

by Maxine Kumin

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"The Long Marriage," by Maxine Kumin from The Long Marriage (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.).

The Long Marriage

The sweet jazz
of their college days
spools over them
where they lie
on the dark lake
of night growing
old unevenly:
the sexual thrill
of Peewee Russell's
clarinet; Jack
Teagarden's trombone
half syrup, half
sobbing slide;
Erroll Garner's
rusty hum-along
over the ivories;
and Glen Miller's
plane going down
again before sleep
repossesses them…

Of course
the Germans have
a word for it,
the shutting of
the door,
the bowels' terror
that one will go
the other as
the clattering horse
hooves near.

It's the birthday of Bessie Head, born in South Africa (1937). Her mother was a Scottish woman who was committed to a mental hospital after her love affair with a South African man was exposed. Since their child was the product of an "illicit union," authorities removed the infant from her mother at birth and placed her in a foster home. She was sent to missionary schools, and said later that she was grateful for access to the mission's big library in a country where any collection of books was a rarity. She worked as a teacher, then as a journalist, and then in frustration left South Africa for Botswana, where she lived in constant fear of repatriation. She published three novels: When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Maru (1971), and A Question of Power (1973).

It's the birthday of Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, born in Tibet (1936). He has written, in collaboration with other scholars, several dozen collections of Buddhist teachings. He was born to a peasant family, and when he was two, a delegation of monks recognized him as a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The monks listened to portents given to them in dreams, and tested him by setting the former Dalai Lama's possessions before him to see if he could distinguish them from counterfeits. He spent his boyhood years at the palace in Lhasa, dividing his time between the one hundred and eight sacred books of Buddhist teaching and The London Illustrated News. He passed a series of public examinations in 1959, and then took eighty thousand refugees to India rather than capitulate to Chinese rule in Tibet. Although he was schooled as a monk, he is also a good mechanic. When he was growing up in the monastery at Potala he fixed broken machines of all kinds. A couple of years ago his younger brother gave him his first tube of Superglue. He was enchanted.

On this day in 1895, the writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) hopped a train for New Orleans rather than stand trial for embezzlement. He was raised in North Carolina, but relocated to Texas after he began to show symptoms of tuberculosis. He worked in Austin as a teller for the First National Bank, got married and had a child. In his spare time he edited a humor newspaper called The Rolling Stone. Then he moved to Houston, but was summoned back to Austin when shortages were discovered in the bank's ledgers. They were probably due to bad bookkeeping, and he might have escaped conviction, but on the way from Houston to Austin he lost his nerve, stepped across the platform, and boarded a train going the opposite way. He landed in New Orleans, where he took a job on the docks. From there he went to Central America, making friends with criminals who gave him money after they pulled off big robberies. In 1897 word reached him that his wife was dying, and he went back to Austin, knowing he faced a certain prison sentence. His wife died, and he served five years in an Ohio penitentiary. There he began to write short stories, some of which he published under the name of one of the guards, Orrin Henry.

It's the day Louis Pasteur gave the first inoculation against rabies, in 1885. On July third, a rabid dog bit a nine-year-old named Joseph Meister. Pasteur and his associates injected the boy thirteen times in ten days with stronger and stronger suspensions of dried virus, and he never developed symptoms. Neither did a fifteen-year-old shepherd who Pasteur inoculated the same way a couple of months later. The idea that rabies could be treated was a tremendous relief, particularly to the researchers in Pasteur's laboratory. They had been forced to keep a loaded revolver in the laboratory at all times in case one of the dogs they were trying to treat turned on them. Joseph Meister, the boy whose life Pasteur saved, returned to the Pasteur Institute as an adult, and became the Gatekeeper there. In 1940 the Nazis ordered him to open Pasteur's crypt. Rather than comply, Meister committed suicide.

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