Thursday, June 13, 2019


To whom it may concern: this is my last will and testimony regarding my body and its disposal after my death.

After considering the matter of maggots, the advancement of Science and the hope of my heart pounding in someone else's chest for umpteen years, I have decided to dedicate my body to the Plant World.

Therefore, it is my last will, wish, and desire that I be placed in a plain wooden casket and buried beneath a cottonwood tree in such a way that the tree can absorb my body for nourishment.

For those who want to measure the degree of my sanity in making this request, let me say I wish to feed trees because trees fed me. I am a writer who words have gobbled many a forest.

My choice of a cottonwood is childhood nostalgia for my days near a river bank where the rustling of wind through the cottonwoods seemed the purest music I ever heard.

I wish to be a lullaby, my body singing to some other child.

Also, I believe that in our world it is crucial that plants outlive humans.
We are tearing the earth apart, limb from limb. I wish to replenish it.

So do not give my eyes to science, my heart to my next-door neighbor
or my son; no, just put me inside a simple unfinished wood casket (I hate the thought of dirt on my eyes) and bury us both in the earth beneath the tooth of a cottonwood tree.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Scaring Myself to Death

During a recent storm, our house electricity vanished. Ignorant, I lay in bed sound asleep. If it hadn't been for the telephone lady, I would have slept right through the storm, but she felt compelled to ring and tell me if she was "on" or "off."

After she woke me twice, the storm intruded. Lightning flashed outside my bedroom window and I heard the thunder's responding roar. 

Hoping to calm myself back to sleep, I lay still and watched my breath: in, out, in, out. 

Then I heard a tiny sound inside my body: bip, bip, bip, bip.

Oh no, it's my heart bipping! 

My mind kicked into rapid gear: I'm just an animal, like a deer or a bear, human but an animal. And like us all, I'm just one "bip" away from death.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Her Daddy

Teresa Martin and I collaborated on her Orphan Train biography, which became the popular Mail-Order Kid. As we worked, Teresa at times implied that her foster father, Bappa Bieker, had molested her. When I pressed her for details, she fell silent.

At last she told me, and I understood why she'd refrained. With Teresa's consent, I opened Mail-Order Kid with her Bappa story. Here it is, below, in poetry form.

He's My Daddy
An Orphan Train Tale

I met him at the station
when I was three 
He put me in his wagon
took me to his store
sat me on his lap
lifted my dress
touched me everywhere
bounced me up and down
gave me a licorice stick

He's my Daddy
I ride his pony
eat his candy

I live with him
learn his language
Volga German sounds 
like barking dogs
I go to his church
Nuns teach me
in his school
His wife slaps me
He eats with his fingers
He calls me to his store
bounces me on his lap

He's my Daddy
I ride his pony
eat his candy

He's an old man but agile
bigger than me
When I turn thirteen
my breasts burgeon
He grabs my nipple
twists it
I slap him
He yanks my hair
right out of my head
I scream
hide in my bedroom
The sheriff comes
to take me away
"No, no,
I won't go"

He's my Daddy
I ride his pony
eat his candy

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Barney Baker

He's big
Two-hundred-eighty-four pounds, they say
Big enough to be a strong-arm man on New York's docks
Big enough to be a prize fighter with cauliflower ears

Three-hundred and-twenty-five pounds, they say
Big enough to dope horses, to bounce folks into line
to pull down bleachers at a circus, killing three
Big enough to be a hash-house voluptuary
gorging on Teamster dough from Chicago to St. Louis

Four-hundred pounds, they say 
Big enough to receive a bright red Caddy convertible, 
Big enough to wear a top coat large as a tent
sweat from his shiny pomade hair wilts his white collar 
A blubbery man with one pudgy hand on his shotgun

Five hundred pounds, they say 
Big enough to toss a nonTeamster taxicab into Wichita's
Arkansas river, to execute dynamite bombings there
ex-con, stink-bomb tosser, underworld enforcer, scum of the earth

Why is he knocking on my daddy's office door?

Nonfiction Poetry

Academics define "nonfiction" as writing based on facts, real events, or real people. As a rule, authors write nonfiction as prose but it can be poetry.

I wrote "Barney Baker," above, as a nonfiction poem, based on a real man with known traits. I learned about him from various news stories, including Time.  

My prose version of Robert Bernard "Barney" Baker appears in That Punk Jimmy Hoffa! Coffey's Transfer at War with the Teamsters. Baker played a major role in that war.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Bulging Calves

My mother despised physical exercise.

She found it distasteful.

I remember watching TV ballet with her. As delightful ballerinas in soft bell-shaped tutus danced on pointe, Mom said, "Look at her calf, the way it bulges. That's disgusting!"

Mother also picked at her food, eating much less than I did, keeping herself femininely slender with a narrow waist and calves that dared not bulge. 

In her eighties, mother developed osteoporosis, that disease of porous and brittle bones. 

Her fragility made her fall. She broke bones. After a hospital stay, she returned to the Home where she lived, to do physical therapy—exercises to strengthen her body.


How she hated them. 

She did them grudgingly. 

When she became stronger, she returned to her room. Predictably after a  week or two passed, she fell again. Once more the hospital and the loathsome exercises.

Repeatedly she fell.

She saw that the rest of her life would continue like this, and she couldn't stand it. 

She stopped eating. That was easy enough for a picky eater like herself; she just looked at her food to remember where it would take her:  fall, hospital, those horrid exercises. That quelled her already finicky appetite.

The doctor called me. "She has stopped eating." He paused. "Now we can feed her intravenously, but I really wouldn't recommend it." He paused longer. "She really doesn't want to live, but it's your call."

I slept on it, then I let her go.  

Did I kill her? Or was it suicide? Or just a strong case of will.

From the example of my mother's life, I learned to eat well, with plenty of calcium, and to exercise. 

Unlike my mother, every morning I voluntarily work through a sequence of 15 exercises: squats, twists, tucks, stretches and the like. Then and only then do I allow myself to eat breakfast, a hearty meal for me.

I'm almost as old now as my mother was when she died, and I'm used to nurses telling me what good physical condition I'm in. Periodically, my doctor tests my bones. They're fine, sturdy.

I don't tell Mother about this. I don't want her turning over in her grave at the thought that her daughter might have actually chosen calves that bulge.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Tai Chi Class

"Brush your knee," the svelte Tai Chi teacher says.

I glance to see how she's brushing her knee. She stands on one foot and seems to touch her knee with her other knee. Egads!

I try to lift my foot. It weighs like cement and refuses to leave the floor.

Now she's tapping — tap, tap. Around me I hear a dozen other feet — tap tap. Jeez! They're all tapping!  

I give it a go but stagger.

"If you can't stand on one foot, Marilyn, hang on to your chair."

I grip my chair. "Tap tap." But it's a solo. I felt ten inches high.

Never mind. I know I'm falling down the strange rabbit hole of Tai Chi. Down down down. I take my stopwatch out of my pocket as I pass a red rooster flapping its wings. Pass a deer waggling its antlers. Pass a tiger on the trail of the deer. Pass two elephants bending elbows.

I reach the bottom and stare at a stiff monkey grabbing peaches, looking right, then left, then gobbling.

We seize a boat and push it, but no one gets in. We're all too busy gazing at the sun and the moon. Then we stop to lift a stone from the bottom of the sea. We dust off against the wind, watch clouds roll round and round. A Great Spirit Bird arises. We raise our arms above our heads, again, again, again.

No one speaks English here. Sometimes I catch a word or two as we concentrate on our Dantians or our Laogongs or our Mingmans. By the time we leave, we're all fluent in Chinese.

"Practice standing on one foot at home," Jan Dixon, our teacher, tells me.  

I do. I'm determined to learn. I grab the kitchen counter, stand on one foot and lift the other. I march with slow high steps held long. I extend one leg behind me, repeat, repeat, repeat.

At last one day in class, I brush my knee. Soon I even tap-tap.  

But that's not the end of it. Now I must learn to perform the crane, that straight-necked whooping bird who sticks one long leg way up in the air—and holds it!

Thursday, April 18, 2019


Of the sixteen-hundred things that frighten me about my Parkinson's disease diagnosis, the worst is this: I might lose my ability to speak.

Imagine that I'm standing in front of a crowd of listeners, ready to read again my national award-winning poem, "Pricksong," but when I open my mouth, nothing comes out.

"Count out loud when you exercise," says my physical therapist. "Don't shout, just speak up. That will help." So I do. One-and, two-and, all the way to thirty sometimes.

At home I practice talking. Every time I see Ruby, my cat, I speak loudly to her. She seems to like it. So I talk to my plants, the blue jays, then to the refrigerator and the coat closet and my recliner. Now I plan to talk to my computer instead of using my keyboard if I can figure out how to do it.

Today I talked in my car. I spoke (not shouted) to the driver who roared out of line behind me to cut across the gas station and leap in line in front of me. I said to him (it must of been a "him"): "Why you stupid son of a butterfly, that was the dumbest-dimwit thing I've ever seen. No wonder your left fender is completely bashed in."

Now I speak all the time. I read every long column of my New Yorker out loud, struggling to pronounce proper nouns. Everything I think I say out loud, once, twice, sometimes up to thirty.

Hey, you, maybe you'd like to hear me talk, loudly, nonstop, for a couple of hours. 

What? No? 

Just remember, it could be worse. I could open my mouth and nothing would come out. 

Not even my crying.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Who Needs a Car?

When I moved to New York City from Nebraska in 1961, I didn't need a car. I could hoof it, bus it or subway it anywhere in town, although standing  in the subway did stimulate some male strangers to pat my butt.

However, subway rush hour proved impossible. When I tried it, we passengers lined up three deep waiting for a train to stop. The moment a door opened, subway workers pushed us inside. I swirled in with the pack, grabbed a strap, and balanced on one foot with no place to put my other one. I dangled to my stop. At home I discovered the twist had broken my brassiere. 

That ended my rush hour travel. Instead, I adopted the New York City routine, out of work at 5 and into a nearby bar to drink until the subways settled down.

In 1963, I moved to Boston. There I found public transportation so inferior to New York's that I had to buy a car. I bought the only one I could afford: a used turquoise Volkswagen Beetle.

I found a boyfriend, too, Jon Powell. Together we drove from my home in Quincy, Mass., to Wyoming and back on our first date. We all three held up well.

Later Jon and I drove into Boston for a theatre matinee. Afterwards we piled into my Beetle to head home, Jon driving. He took I-93 south to Quincy. As we crested a hill, we saw in the distance—to our dismay—all three lanes of highway ahead of us full of barely moving vehicles.  

John braked. We slowed but kept moving. He braked harder and harder until we crashed slowly into a stopped car.

The windshield crushed my nose. I sprained my right foot, in a foolish attempt to brake the car myself. Jon fared better, but he'd totaled my little Beetle.

Buying another Volkswagen didn't feel safe, so I chose a used Volvo station wagon, a German Duett, two-toned green. I liked it. It seemed sturdy but looked almost classy. 
As Jon and I drove the Volvo, I discovered its weakness: an electrical system that broke down so often I stopped hiring electricians to fix it. By then, I'd watched so closely that I could fix it myself.

When, in 1966, we moved to New York I took my green Volvo with us. 

Big mistake. New York parking regulations required a mathematician to follow them: on this street one day but not the next. My fines piled up until, in desperation, I sold my Volvo.

Solvent again, I hoofed it, rode the bus or took the subway. Or waited in a bar until subways mellowed down. 

Who needed a car, anyway?

Thursday, April 4, 2019

An Unexpected Gift

The morning I stepped out of bed and onto a carpet drenched with water, I couldn't imagine any good could come of it.

I cursed, walked around in my bare feet, and determined that  only the west half of the room contained wet carpet. The dry eastern half held my new big bed.

I'd dashed to Nebraska Furniture Mart and bought that bed when one of my Facebook lovers convinced me that he'd come visit me and we could rub-a-dub-dub. On my tiny twin bed? Hardly. Since a King size wouldn't fit into my bedroom, I'd settled for a Queen.  

When my lover demanded a sizable piece of cash for that rub-a-dub, we broke up, leaving me with that huge bed.

 "Oh, Paco," I cried to my housemate, "I'm going to have to send it back to the Mart."

"Nonsense," he said. "It's a good bed. Just sleep on it."

So I did.

Soon I loved it, as I stretched out my arms and legs as wide as they would go and still had plenty of room in the bed. 

I got in and out of bed the same way I had on my twin bed, curling into its West side. But that no longer worked as well. 

To scoot into the middle of my big bed, I had to lie, briefly on my right ear. My dizzy ear. My BPPV or "benign paroxysmal positional vertigo" ear. Its shifting crystals could make the room spin. So I squirmed uncomfortably around to avoid this.

Meanwhile, Paco and I vacuumed the bedroom with a wet/dry vac, sopped up water with bath towels, and to avoid mold, ran a fat commercial fan and opened windows.

"You going to sleep in here?" he asked.

"Yes." I couldn't imagine sleeping anywhere else. It had become "my" bed.

The only problem: I'd never climbed into bed on its East side before. I wasn't sure I'd like it. 

But that night, scooting into bed proved to be a revelation. I could get into bed and lie down without threatening my dizzy ear at all. 

What joy!

Who says that good can't come out of wet carpet?

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Turning the Key

At midnight, the phone rang. I stirred, half asleep. "Who's calling me? Nobody I know. Some damn robot." I didn't answer.

That morning I found the kitchen door locked. My housemate, Pakobsanh "Paco" Keopanya, hadn't slept at home. No big surprise. He often traveled  overnight on business. In 1984 he had immigrated from Laos but became a CEO in a Fremont, Nebraska, cleaning firm. It mostly cleans silos.

I went outdoors and fetched the newspaper, my resident's chore when he's home.

Then Paco, my friend for six years and housemate for four, wandered in grinning. I looked up from chopping strawberries. At forty, he'd lost his puppy fat and turned into a good looking man, beard and all.

"How ya' doing?" Paco's classic question. I'm happy to reply, "Great. And you?"

"You locked me out last night." 

"What?" I dropped my knife. "Where were your keys?" 

"I lost them. Don't you remember?"

I sort of recalled. "Well," I picked up a berry, "why didn't you call me?"

"I did."

"Oh! That was you?" I shifted toward him. 

Halfway across the kitchen, he turned. "You must have slept like a stuffed hog." He's smiling. "I stayed in a hotel last night." He seems to think that's funny.

I panic: Oh, my God. He's going to be furious. I grab his shirt sleeve. "This is your home, Paco. You shouldn't have to sleep in a hotel. I'll never lock the kitchen door again, not ever. You know I only do it because I'm afraid of the burglar who never shows up."

He bumped my shoulder. "Whatever it was is just what it was. Don't worry."

Well, at least I could make him new keys: two each for the kitchen, the garage, the basement, and the main door. I counted my current pile. Seven keys. I tested. A key for each lock except one in the garage. 

The Key Master buzzed new ones in no time.

"I don't have a key for my garage door," I eyed him. "Can you make me one?"

"You can bring the lock in here," he handed me the keys, "or I could go out there for $55 more." 

$55! I vowed to remove that lock myself.
At home, I dumped my shiny new keys on the counter. A single key turned the first kitchen lock, then, by accident, the second. What? One key turned both locks?

A vague memory surfaced. In 2004 when I made new locks for this house I'd just bought, I'd chosen one-key-fits-all style, hadn't I? 

Sure enough. That single key opened all my locks, even both garage door locks. 

After I laid the amazing key on Paco's desk, I mused:

I had locked him out, refused to answer the phone, made him sleep in a hotel—and he laughed. "It just was what it was."

Now there is a man who turns the key to my heart.