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  • Ode to Red and Speedy, and: Reading Can Kill You
  • Barbara Hamby (bio)

Ode to Red and Speedy

"Bernice," says my mother when I ask her who sent    the Christmas card signed Red and Speedy,and fifty years later I ask her if Bernice was Red or Speedy,    and she says, "I don't know," her voice like a raspyaccordion, but I wait till she warms up, and then she starts    singing, so I learn that even though Bernicehad red hair, she was probably Speedy, because she    never stopped, unlike my father, her younger brother,who was perhaps one of the most relaxed people ever to live    outside a Buddhist monastery, but his sisterwas in motion, loved buying houses and remodeling them,    by profession a beautician, her dark auburn hairin a perfect French twist, and she always drove a Buick,    often coordinating the colors of her outfitswith her cars, sometimes convertibles which led to filmy    chiffon scarves of baby blue or sea green.But who was Red? "Maybe that was the one she married    for a few weeks," my mother says. "She had sevenhusbands, her first when she was thirteen or fourteen." When I was ten,    Bernice and her current husband visited us,and all I remember was her slim gray suit, a frothy pink dickey    at the neck. I'd never seen anything so elegantin my born-again household. There's a photo of Bernice    in her twenties at a carnival with a caption that readsFeeling No Pain. Later Bernice became a Bible-wielding    Christian, to the dismay of her final husband,a former low-level mafioso from Miami who was famous    for burying thousands of dollars in coffee cansbut not sealing them and digging up the loot to find the bills    had rotted. "Wait a minute," my mother says. "Maybe [End Page 388] Bernice was Red," and I think of all my nicknames: Miss Astor,    Mole, Coco, Babster, Dharma Belle, or was it Bell?Who can remember all the selves stuffed into the miraculous    sack of skin? Her full name was Bernice Minerva,a glorious moniker coined by my grandfather, who was murdered    when my dad was five and Bernice ten. There's a photoof him looking like Rasputin, and here's a panorama of Bernice's    seven grooms, nameless now but who livedin Technicolor once upon a time, and someone finds a photo    of me and you fifty years from now without a caption,so here's to Red and Speedy, whoever you were. [End Page 389]

Reading Can Kill You

My husband and I are at a restaurant with another couple,    and after a few drinks the other man and I are talkingabout how much we love The Master and Margarita,    a novel we've both read many times in different translations,but it soon becomes apparent his wife and my husband are stewing,    as if Bob and I had discovered we had a former loverin common, let's say a woman, and we were more passionate    about her than our spouses because she was Russian,and instead of no, she said nyet, which sounds like a sexier yes,    and yes was da, which is so much more yes than yesbut with a twinge of nyet, and it was winter, a freezing Siberian    blizzard with days that began at ten and ended at two,and we sat in the dark next to the blazing enamel stove    and for breakfast drank tea from the samovar sweetenedwith jam and talked about Gogol's sentences and Mandelstam's    despair, and then at night it would be love and vodka,so when Satan showed up with his entourage, we were borne along    on his cloud of smoke, joining his diabolical magic show,flinging rubles into paradise, cuddling at night with his giant cat,    watching the dawn rise, reciting Pushkin and Akhmatova,thrilling to Mayakovsky's rants, and in the white nights of summer    we became poetry, every breath an iamb, our cries of ecstasythe nyet that is da, and I can see why my husband is silent and sulky,    so I return to our...


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