Somewhere, but definitely not in catechism class, I heard Sister Agatha say dreams are the wishes of the soul, daydreams the work of fierce intention. So, watch your mouth, she warned, and your mind. Years later, the memory made me think of that early indulgence, the juvenile fantasy of running away, of inventing a new life, of erasing history the way I once did with the wrong answers to Sister A’s world history test. At the year’s start, when she gave out textbooks, some were brand new, others had been around. I got a fresh one and asked for an old copy instead. She gave me a puzzled look, eyebrows wide awake, lines streaking across her forehead. I explained: older is better. It’s why I like picking up used books from dusty stores. The ones where someone’s underlined things, notes aflame in the margins. Unlike this one, tapping its cover, with a stiff spine and plasticky smell. The old ones have a history. She shrugged, as if I was putting her on, the way I thought later that year her final exam was putting the class on, with questions that pretended to know what we didn’t.
If I put down the test, I thought that day, took a hall pass, and with the essentials from my locker in a backpack, simply walked out of the building and out of my life, taken a bus that would bring me to South Carolina, found a flop in a shelter for runaways, concocted a story of abuse…a bit like inventing another history exam, the great escape, the self-created orphan on the path to self-made man.
The explanation I’d give those in my new life in the new place was a great American invention itself, a fabric of threads pulled from authors I never even knew at the time, a fever dream from Fitzgerald, the small-town sadness of Sherwood Anderson, Whitman’s exuberance, but told with an attitude that was all Twain all the time.
At the slaughterhouse job I imagined getting, I found myself mopping up blood, skin, brain porridge and splinters of bone. A priest’s collar seemed to show above the oilskin apron worn by one of the line-workers: a misplaced cleric with a long-bladed knife, administering last rites to sheep, made a kind of Old Testament sense of the whole idea of daily sacrifice. I am here to bring you the message, said his smile, wrapped around beautiful teeth. This is how the world works, he offered, as if the phrase was a wafer. Learn it while you’re young, and keep your weapon sharp.
I had never paid much attention to rituals or symbols in Sunday School, except to Josephine Rohrman’s big butt in the skinny folding chair in the row ahead. Some would call my gaze a sacrilege, but I thought of those generous cheeks as a sacrament, a gift to get me through the eternity of Father Brayton’s droning explanations, his everlasting sermons on eternity. There are so many words from so many mouths a young person has to listen to. Which is probably why my generation’s music is so important to us. The lines are poetry, the message and melodies so minimal. You listen, dream and dance, but don’t have to believe or answer to any of it.
In my final exam daydream, pushing that mop across the sticky sea of the butchering floor made me think of what death leaves behind. When my grandfather was dying in the nursing home, he’d say things that seemed absurd – or at least kept me listening, trying to figure out his meaning. Like: the only thing that makes life bearable is the prospect of death, and the only way to make death tolerable is humor. My Uncle Fred said your grandpa is trying to be oracular, but I didn’t know what that meant. Adults are hard to understand. But I thought they wanted it that way, as if needing to prove something.
When I left for my trip to dreamworld, the test I’d left back on my desk had seemed endless, just like history’s highway. Still, maybe there was a chance of being pardoned from both the exam and its subject, a comforting thought, as if indulgences were on sale again, like some medieval hall-pass from the Pope. But this indulgence of a made-up life, in a far-away town, with a nightmare job and weirdos with knives and identity crises, was also not working out the way I had hoped. In my dreamtime off-hours in that old mill town, I couldn’t find the right songs in the cheap places I went to eat, and cleaning up the bloodshed from someone else’s promises became boring after a few imagined days. Other people’s stories there were as ludicrous as mine, and I started to wince a lot when I heard myself in their voices. If this is the way history is made up, out of tales random people tell in a slaughterhouse, or the ones they believe in, then you know why believing accounts of the past is such a sad mess…why you don’t know who or what to think is true.
Now, if I could learn to doubt that much…maybe I didn’t have to know much more to deal with Sister Agatha’s test. That would be an answer, a declaration of independence I wouldn’t have to erase. So, I decided to put the fantasied knapsack back in my locker, walked my daydream-self upstairs to my classroom, and wrote these thoughts in the blue booklet she’d given out for our answers. I suspected Sister probably wouldn’t like my paragraphs any more than I like history, or the way it’s taught. But at least she’d know why I feel that way. And so, on the last page, I added, as if they were my own words, a scribbled phrase I had seen in the margin of that used text she gave me the first day: Beware -- few things last like a mis-remembered past.
Joel Savishinsky did stand-up comedy for 45 years; in other words, he is a retired professor, who taught anthropology and gerontology. His Breaking the Watch: The Meanings of Retirement in America, won the Gerontological Society of America’s book-of-the-year prize. A Pushcart Prize nominee and California State Poetry Society award winner, his poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Atlanta Review, Beyond Words, Blue Collar Review, California Quarterly, The Examined Life Journal, New Verse News, The New York Times, Passager, SLANT, and Windfall. In 2023, The Poetry Box published his collection Our Aching Bones, Our Breaking Hearts: Poems on Aging. He lives in Seattle and considers himself a recovering academic and unrepentant activist. Joel recommends donating to El Centro de La Raza.