WHOEVER BROUGHT ME HERE WILL HAVE TO TAKE ME BACK
...who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?
—Jalal Al-Din Rumi
translated by Moyne and Barks
Moses Ferros lives in a furnished apartment above an enduring bar. The apartment has two entrances, each with its own wooden staircase. One lets out directly onto the street. The other opens on the backyard, a squarish area with a chain link fence bent around its edges and nearly overrun with weeds. Moses and his dog have taken to spending the early part of evenings there, Moses in a world of softer days while the dog digs up bits of interesting vegetation, and, once, a perfect pink rubber ball with a lot of bounce left. You will not know by looking at Moses the way you look at others that he carries a terrible sadness. You will see a man, slight of stature, skin the kind of golden brown that sends light careening, loved by a brindle dog. I am here to tell you Moses Ferros used to flash a smile that bit away all the hard corners of men and all the hard corners of women, too.
There was a time Moses had possession of the keys to each of the two entrances. He lost the streetside key ten months ago, the day of the accident. After the accident, Moses quit driving and no one blames him for it.
The Oldsmobile sits out front. It is beginning to have rust like birds' feet, pattering the bottom of its beaten side. The owner of the bar wants it gone. Moses has lain a For Sale sign on the dash, handwritten, hard-lettered, each word a slash, pulled from the deepest part of pain. Moses Ferros might well turn out to be the strongest person you know. Not because he carries a terrible sadness, not because the sadness is such that he never puts it down, but because he keeps the sadness angled, in a private and solemn way.
Tonight, inside the bar, Moses Ferros is failing to negotiate, but not in the way you think. The other man sits across from Moses at the one table that doesn't tilt when you elbow-press it and fans the air between them with bills. This is fifty more than Moses asked and the man, dismayed by what he believes is Moses's true indifference, says Moses can keep the extra. Everyone has forgiven Moses except Moses. Even the girl's parents. No one could have known, they all said, not even Moses, how she would jerk the bike into traffic as though air not pavement had been her goal all along. Moses says tomorrow he'll let the man know. Alone in the apartment, Moses drinks a little from a warm brown bottle. The drink eases him down into his low-slung bed. The sentinel dog curls near the nighttime mouth of Moses Ferros.
The next morning Moses eats his breakfast, feeds the dog, and then the two of them are out in the sun that has begun to wash over the backyard. Moses can feel the warmth touch his skin as if testing for something. Head down, the dog noses nearby.
Directly facing Moses Ferros is the yard with its shored-up square of wilderness. To the left, the small gate, rusted into the fence like a child's hard grip. To his right, nothing, as if where the world stopped. Behind him, where he cannot see it, the Oldsmobile. Keeping the car off the road is a superstition and a prayer. It's Moses's way of ensuring one less harm in the world. He fears the moment the man aims the Oldsmobile in some direction and gives it gas more than the endless tickets, lick-orange bright, nibbling at his bank account and the bar owner's annoyance. How can he sell the car?
Moses is trying the word no, framing with his tongue the tent of his mouth, then the round syllable, when the dog begins to tremble, whine, dig furiously. Moses thinks of the lost key, though there is no reason for it to be there. He takes a step in the dog's direction. He does not see the butterfly until it is too late. His foot comes down, detaching the wings from the soft thorax, the thorax crushed. You already know, like Moses, the difference between butterflies and girls. Still, Moses drops to his knees and the whole world seems to tip and all the solid things rush forth. The warm brown bottle, the low-slung bed, a clear vase his mother loved, and the roses in it, moving toward a weeping abyss, and then Moses too while above him the sky rolls wide and blank. Oh, he says, and there, he cries. The sadness billows, a sheet of color, shimmering, exact. Then it subsides as it will again over the years, many of which the dog, turning to inhale the scent of it, will share.
The title and epigraph are from Rumi's "Who Says Words With My Mouth." The piece is from a happily fertile confluence of multiple streams—workshops with Amity Gaige and James Scott, and meetings with two writing groups. Moses snapped to life the instant his name appeared on a slip of exercise paper. His sadness shook and grabbed me, as did the silence in which he guarded it.