It was the third and final day of the NFDA convention in Chicago, and weary of the panels and PowerPoint slides, I slipped away for the afternoon to visit the Art Institute, where I stood in open awe before works by Manet, Monet, and Morisot . . . though in all honestly it was the sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Degas, that left me somehow weakened with wonder. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but my youngest child—my sweet daughter Lucy—had left back in August for college in Austin, Texas, far from home, and I think the girl Degas created nearly two centuries earlier somehow reminded me of Lucy when she was younger, as though beauty might be a kind of aesthetic flu, and I was still wobbling a little beneath the weight of that emotion when I headed down the stairs at the front of the building and found myself faced with a sudden impediment to my path—a boy who couldn’t have been more than fourteen himself. And here’s the thing: I realized all at once that he was pressing a dark handgun into the folds of my belly and asking for my wallet, my cell phone, my watch. Earlier that morning I had attended a session on how to deal with belligerent and irrational grievers who wanted to take out their sorrow and pain on the ones who were only there to help them, and the session had sparked, at the end, some of the most impassioned dialogue I had ever heard from any collection of people in my profession—we are mostly, in my experience, a fairly reserved or even stunted lot—and now this boy seemed furious nearly to the point of stuttering, and he wore a green stocking cap and had brown dirty stringy hair slipping out from underneath it, and his skin was so pale I knew I would touch it up if I were preparing him for burial. I can’t explain it, but suddenly I imagined this poor boy on the table before me back in Highland Park, and we had reached the stage in the embalming process where I was suturing his mouth closed—threading the needle into the jaw then up into one nostril and septum then down into the other nostril and back into the mouth . . . an act I had performed so many hundreds of times I could do it in my sleep—and I felt such sadness for this child it was almost more than I could bear, particularly when combined with the emotions I had experienced inside the museum when I had gazed at the sculpture of the girl with her arms behind her back, one foot forward and tilted to the side, chin up, and I had realized that the model who had posed for the work was now a dusty pile of bones in a distant grave, if that, and yet once she had danced with enough enthusiasm and precision to inspire Degas to cast her into art that would persist long after she was gone. And yet this poor boy with his gun would not likely be preserved in anyone’s memory following his death—at least not for very long—and perhaps that was why he seemed so enraged to stand before me, screaming to the point that spittle was foaming around his mouth like with a rapid dog. And here’s the part that isn’t easy to explain: I had been transported by beauty and sadness so far from any visceral experience of the moment that I seemed to be watching from above, and what I saw was my own inert body standing on the steps, my arms slackened at my sides, as though I were the one who had died and not the girl who was Degas’s model, my navy blue tie a little askew at my neck, my gray eyes behind my glasses blinking and blinking. But what I wasn’t doing was handing the child the items he was seeking, nor was I answering him when he screamed in my direction and jabbed at my belly folds. And the part that no one believes when I tell this story, that I’m not sure that I believe myself, particularly since I recall it like a strange dream, is that I reached down and gently stroked the boy’s cheek, as though to comfort him, and he ducked away at once as though my hand were a kind of flame and he’d been seared, and then he was running down the steps and sidewalk, and I found myself for a moment going after him, not running but walking quickly, and I have no idea on earth why I did this or what I would have said should he have turned around again to return to me.
DOUG RAMSPECK is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies, was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is forthcoming by Southern Indiana Review Press. Two earlier books also received awards: Mechanical Fireflies (Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize), and Black Tupelo Country (John Ciardi Prize, University of Missouri-Kansas City). Individual poems have appeared in journals that include Kenyon Review, Slate, Southern Review, Georgia Review, AGNI, and Alaska Quarterly Review. He teaches creative writing and directs the Writing Center at The Ohio State University at Lima.