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Ode to Red and Speedy, and: Reading Can Kill You
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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 raspy
accordion, but I wait till she warms up, and then she starts
    singing, so I learn that even though Bernice
had 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 sister
was in motion, loved buying houses and remodeling them,
    by profession a beautician, her dark auburn hair
in a perfect French twist, and she always drove a Buick,
    often coordinating the colors of her outfits
with 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 seven
husbands, 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 elegant
in my born-again household. There's a photo of Bernice
    in her twenties at a carnival with a caption that reads
Feeling 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 cans
but not sealing them and digging up the loot to find the bills
    had rotted. "Wait a minute," my mother says. "Maybe
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 photo
of him looking like Rasputin, and here's a panorama of Bernice's
    seven grooms, nameless now but who lived
in 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.

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 talking
about 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 lover
in 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 yes
but 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 sweetened
with 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 ecstasy
the nyet that is da, and I can see why my husband is silent and sulky,
    so I return to our table, sip my Sancerre, talk about Paris,
because all four can agree we'd rather be lost in that...

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