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My Country 'Tis of Thee
No one saw her do it. She wasn’t in a mall, or on the corner of Elm and Main. She
wasn’t in traffic on the Garden State Parkway. Elsie Jo didn’t step out of her
ornately decorated townhouse and Mr. Oberst never left his 1995 Dodge Neon.
Silence tapped its toes to Blind Melon’s "No Rain" as Abner Doubleday saw
heartache on TV.
"Twenty two twin towers." This was what she chanted in her head before she did
it. An old tongue twister from her days at P.S. 24. Johnny Dell would recite it at her
French braid, tied with a ribbon the color of beet juice. An old Newsweek lay open
on her mock-cedar table. President Bush shaking hands with George C. Scott
were the only witnesses to the anti-war protest going on in her Harvard yearbook.
Across town, Johnny Dell sat in his barcolounger, watching Sixty Minutes and
ignoring the Viet Cong in his soupspoon.
Her grandfather told her she would do it. While he sang his way through Ethel
Merman and her Wild West, he would lecture on probable statistics, and ancient
Mesopotamia and how long it took for a cucumber to turn into a pickle. Or was it a
caterpillar into a butterfly? He had carried a red velvet handkerchief in his
pocket. He swore that it was from the Metropolitan Opera House before they tore it down.
He knew she would do it, even from his bed in the State Hospital, coloring with magic markers.
She did it while the Monkees and bubble gum factories played in the background.
She knew that sometimes people laugh when they are falling. Alice tumbled down
the rabbit hole. What was her mantra? Oh, yes, she remembered. But curiosity
killed the cat. So did a cupful of bleach in a waterbowl. Her mother used to read
Garfield comics out loud. That was before she married the Elvis impersonator and
moved to Reno. Didn’t she know that gambling could be hazardous to your health?
So can bleach, for that matter.
No one saw her do it. Or so she thought. Hunched over her mahogany photo album, Liz Taylor’s diamonds belying the stench of Karl Marx, she scratched at a
faded memory. Time and time again her gaze went to a clipping, yellowed not with
age but with the cheap budget of her cubicle’s copying machine. Calcutta’s
slums, reeking of vomit and poverty, stared back at her. A red-ink heart surrounded one
blue-striped veil, framing a walnut face. I saw her do it. I saw her tattered
kitten calendar, the numbers 1-9-9-7 surrounded by bored doodles. I saw the pages flap
to the month September, and I saw her fingers, Marilyn Monroe red, quickly wipe away a solitary tear.
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