As promised, I give you:
The Story of Celeditude
A cup of coffee steams silently on a blond table before me while a clock overhead metronomically clicks the room's pitchless score. Cocooned within the sallow incandescence of this minimal coffeeshop, a heated box marooned within a depthless charcoal abyss, I write, my face and fingers sanded by the brutal winds that rip through the streets like giant heat-seeking lawnmowers. Beyond these walls, midwinter drapes over New York City like a bum’s blanket, soaking up all its color and life like some malevolent existential tofu, leaving only an inchoate sense of absence that whispers despair to the soul, until Spring's first flowers again breathe perfumed life to the city.
It is the second day of the year's second month, which arrived on the back of a blizzard and landed in a splattering of limp snow. Since the mercury absconded with autumn’s last russets long ago, traveling through the city has devolved into a hopscotch of indoor oases connected by the city's comatose grid. It is my wont in this climate to seek asylum in coffeeshops, between the unavoidable errands, and thus I find myself here, in another stylized cell, staring at a cup of reprieve, my poor substitute for summer’s ephemeral joie-de-vivre, and mentally wandering through the brilliant winters of my youth, the days where sunlight fell like diamond cookie sheets from the Florida sky and the earth glowed platinum, as the crisp wind snapped you with the winking dissonance of the chilled air and the cloudless zirconium blue.
And as my thoughts echo through the jagged interstices of my memory, I wonder about this day so many years ago, suffused with magic, as I've been told. The eve of my birth, whose sinews wound around impossibility after impossibility, recruiting a whole city into their inscrutable adventure, and culminating in a finale so beautiful and perfect that no author or filmmaker or composer could invent it. ...And so inconceivable that no scientist or skeptic or impetuous exegete could explain it.
1973 sambaed into Florida with the insouciant grin of a Coppertone girl on a faded tourist postcard. Winter had been kind to the state again, and by February seemed already packed and ready for another 9-month vacation. The orange groves that were to the land like painted seashells to a tourist trap seemed eager to erupt into bloom and spray every wind with their flowers’ timeless scent. A vague anticipation hung from the clouds, not least in the city of Dunellin, where amidst the citrus fields and strip malls, Judella Shepp counted the days expectantly, awaiting at any moment the denouement of 9-month odyssey—the birth of her second child. She cradled her son while February's first sunset streamed through the window, scattering topaz rays all over her face like a golden goodnight kiss.
"Any day now you're going to have a new brother or sister! Aren't you excited? You'll have someone to play with! It's going to be wonderful," she spoke.
"Gah!" trumpeted the child in gleeful response.
And as the sky’s mood deepened from coy rose to regal sapphire, Judella pondered whether this pregnancy would travel the path of the last one and bring her a boy, or take a different turn and deliver her a girl. She gazed at the stars, which were like tiny children themselves, just opening their twinkling eyes as myriad planets watched. She whispered, unaware of herself, "I wish I could have both." And after a breath she got up, laid her baby in his crib and proceeded kitchenward to prepare the evening's dinner. A shooting star sprayed glitter across the sky.
The next day moved at the pace of a headache, the perfunctory rhythms of the city overlapping into a dull undulation, Florida’s typical glassy sunlight blurring everything together into a redundant, drowsy beige. Even the air seemed heavy, like in the moments before a thunderstorm, when the atmosphere buzzes like electrified Jell-O, before a lighting bolt whips open the bloated clouds. Judella Shepp again reclined in the chair before her window, accompanied by a glass of water and an unopened magazine, and felt the day sleep into her. She imagined herself a ghost in some sunny limbo, mechanically repeating cycles of cycles of cycles toward some unexplained purpose, exiled on the windowed precipice of a great event. She sighed as she counted the seconds, 1 to 60, of days so identical and nondescript that they coagulated into a kind of temporal blobmonster, whose gelatinous menace swelled daily, eventually to swallow up all of existence in one cosmic slurp. She glanced at the clock; then out the window, then back again--her inconclusive attempt to gauge whether the ennui actually was increasing with each second. She felt her baby kick.
Sometimes the most unremarkable scene, when viewed from the slightest change of perspective, reveals a whole universe of hidden activity. Like the scientist’s Petri dish, which the human eye perceives a circle of transparent stillness, but the microscope's lens exposes as a celebration of life in miniature, bawdily lunging toward manifest destiny. While the deadening routine of Florida life sprawled over the streets and sidewalks of Dunellin like a mustardy coating of tongue mucus ripened over a long sleep, in the dusky air a mile upward, peculiar and intense activity flashed and ricocheted about, clashing violently like two weaponized starlets appearing at an awards ceremony in the same spangly dress.
Somewhere in the indigo between the city’s housetops and the half-hiding moon which illuminated them, a morass of frozen air was creeping into the state, stealing away the temperature as it slinked across the skies. As hours elapsed on the unsuspecting ground, the atmosphere above was rapidly chilling, and degree by degree growing leaden with cold and drunk with moisture. Ice crystals glimmered within the charcoal clouds, and soon, crystalline snowflakes, each individual and perfect, assembled to deploy onto the unsuspecting city beneath them, like microscopic paratroopers on a kamikaze mission. The high arctic air balanced on the terrestrial warmth in an accord that was quickly and inexorably eroding toward an explosive clash which would flash-freeze the land below with unprecedented ferocity.
But the roads, houses and trees of Dunellin languished obliviously into their evening yawn, as sunset again sleepwalked onto the horizon. Judella Shepp stood at her kitchen counter, arranging the components of the evening’s dinner, when she felt an abrupt chill, and dashed to her bureau to retrieve a sweater. Returning, she spied that the view from her front window, usually as bland and soporific as a Boredom Cake with Valium frosting, had stealthily mutated into a panorama as dark and menacing as a flock of amphetamined funeral directors lusting to first use an advanced new embalming fluid. Gusty winds tore through the streets, and clouds resembling giant diseased cauliflower choked the sky, lit orange, like jack-o-lanterns, by the sunset from behind. The few people on the pavements scurried fecklessly for shelter like old, jerky cartoon clips in fast forward. Judella doubted the bizarre sight, assuming some illusion had hijacked her eyes, and she cracked the door a sliver to inspect it firsthand. An arctic swirl clawed violently through the opening, and she quickly resealed it, her disbelief rebuked. She understood then that a vicious winter storm was encroaching on the city, and hoped that her husband, who would be driving home at around this time, would arrive before its full fury unleashed. Just then she felt a stirring, a sensation she’d experienced before, approximately 9 months after she conceived her first child, and a food of alarming and exhilarating emotions rushed into her as she realized that this stormy night, when it seemed a frozen hurricane was about to make a citrusy Slurpee of the town, could be the very night her second child was born into the world! She zapped on her television and randomly clicked to a channel, searching for the city's meteorological prognosis as nightfall curled in.
Three streets and two avenues away her husband wrangled his Caprice Classic homeward, unprepared, like everyone, for the freeze that so swiftly clamped the city. As he navigated Dunellin’s icy topography, evidence of the storm’s escalating chaos sprung up at every turn: the mishmash of cars in retreat on the right-hand roadside, the dazed pedestrians wobbling like drunk chicken on the left sidewalk, and the striking perfusion of ambulances coursing like blood in all directions, their lights and sirens spilling further urgency onto an already dripping tableau. The spectacle alarmed him. But then he recalled the particular human subspecies that Dunellin, and indeed Florida as a whole, regularly attracted: elderly retirees, a good proportion of them well-pickled in dementia, who careened their station wagons into ditches at the faintest arthritic premonition of a thunderstorm and demon-sped to the hospital, and sometimes the morgue, on discovering the least somatic evidence, real or imagined, which hinted that their expiration dates were closing in. This thought calmed him, and he chuckled and persevered homeward. But as he rounded the last turn he beheld something genuinely astonishing, something he would dispute as hogwash if he weren't witnessing point blank: fat snowflakes tumbling from the sky like six-sided sparkles of impossibility, at first sparingly, then in a torrent. "Full snow?!," he thought. "In Florida?!?!" It defied nature, and being the informed good citizen he was, he feared momentarily that Nuclear Winter was pouring its dreaded devastation upon the city, somehow absent any explosion to provoke it. But he shook this irrational fear from his brain, as you would an overcooked string of spaghetti dangling from your nose, and at last he made it home, where he found his wife Judella fidgeting anxiously in front of the television, from which a panicky cacophony about the wintry bizarritude relentlessly expelled.
She turned to her husband, a kaleidoscope of uncertain emotions scintillating in her eyes, and said, “I think it’s time.”
It was 6:30pm.
The Shepp family collected their necessities and set off for the nearest hospital, one 20 miles north on Grove street, past the library and the grocery store, beyond the nursing home and its concomitant glut of pharmacies, down a foliage-lined corridor where it sprouted, preposterously, like a Floridian Taj Mahal, from the navel of a vast citrus jungle. The hostile climate ground the drive into a slow plod, which allowed the otherworldly view from the car’s frosty windows, the kind one instinctively knows comes once-in-a-lifetime, to assume the legible focus of still-life. Powdery umbrellas of snow domed the citrus and palm trees in rising white arcs. A frozen auto parade lined the roadside, ceding the byways to those adventurous enough to brave the snowfall's near-solid opacity. On a different day, the Shepps, generally more cautious than intrepid, might have joined the stationary procession, but tonight nature was tossing opposites around like candy at a carnival, and the Shepps uncharacteristically persevered, slicing through the treacherous conditions and landing at the hospital just four heartbeats before the snowfall’s ever-thickening density surged, blotting everything into an impenetrable white, through which even the most foolhardy wouldn’t dare attempt to pass.
Having reached their fortresslike destination, the Shepp family collectively exhaled, secure they had surmounted the evening's biggest hurdle. But when Judella Shepp inched through the hospital's entrance, her baby seemingly ready to burst forth from her like coiled springs from a can of trick peanuts, the delirious pandemonium that flushed toward her shattered her brief respite. The sliding doors parted with a beep into a tsunami of hysteria that announced itself with an assault on the senses:
A sonic onslaught of wailing patients, shouting doctors and countless blips and rings gushed out first, followed closely by a pungent olfactory mosaic. Odors of menthol, ammonia, linen, metal, anxiety and decay, laced with a hint of matriarchal tea rose, that scent so endemic to hospitals, family reunions and potpourri dishes, whirled together into an overpowering gestalt. With smell came its perpetual stowaway, taste, in the metallic astringency that transmutes the tongue into nickel, as if it would spew out coins at the pull of some imaginary lever. The fetid, balmy air then bestowed the greasy tactile dimension.
But the most distressing offensive shot directly into her night-adjusted pupils—a fluorescent impressionism that, as it solidified into discrete focus, morphed into the cluttered portrait of pandemonium. Scores of ill supplicants, their greenish faces contorted into mute groans of worry and resignation, congested the background, overtaking nearly all the open space, like some complaining fungus, topped with grayish-white blooms resembling painted stormclouds. Within this morass, white-coated flurries of doctors and nurses zigzagged in all directions, like paper dolphins diving in and out of a pool of off-tinted macaroni.
The teeming disorder, which by comparison the snowed-in entropy of the streets seemed almost quaint, convinced Judella that she’d plunged, Alicelike, into a discombobulated wonderland, and momentarily her mood sunk, dragged down by the sheer immensity of the obstacles which unfurled with each change of venue. But somehow, emboldened by the indomitable spirit of the baby growing inside her, Judella culled the strength of all her 27 years and fused them into a kind of psychic sword, which she used to slash through the infested bedlam toward its pulsating center, the hospital’s front desk.
There Judella encountered the post's guard, a disintegrating wax figure of a woman who looked like she might implode into a lard-and-hair soufflé if many more patients bombarded her with their ersatz emergencies and rapid fire interrogation. Judella gingerly addressed the seated landmine, who rewarded her with a jumble of forms and a prophesy that a nurse “would be with her shortly.” And minutes later one popped like a Kleenex out of the brouhaha and chirpily greeted Judella, ostensibly to shepherd her to her new residence in the maternity ward. But before Judella could attempt even one step, the nurse’s watermelon-glossed lips loosed a bombshell, which detonated with thermonuclear speed and force:
“Due to the excessive influx of patients that we’ve been impacted with since the beginning of the blizzard, at the present time we’re operating in an over capacity fashion and are not adequately equipped with the resources to offer immediate accommodations to all non-critical incoming cases. I’m sorry, Mrs. Shepp, but there are no beds available.”
Concluding her barrage with a smile so discordant and absurd that Judella wondered whether she had suddenly metamorphosed into a giant sleepy-eyed puppy, the nurse then anchored the Shepp family to a group of uncoveted chairs in the waiting area and assured them in her same quizzical tone that a bed would “almost doubtlessly without exception” open up any minute.
So the Shepp family encamped hopefully in their exile, choosing against evidence to believe that only a brief delay separated them from a more fitting arena for their upcoming event. But the fossilized clock the spectacle like a bored spider counted hour after protracted hour, during which the much-awaited bed perplexingly refused to materialize. And stunningly, despite the city’s snow-clogged arteries, more and more sufferers relentlessly hemorrhaged into the hospital, as if all lanes, trails, ways and walks somehow whirlpooled into it as into a fluorescent, disinfected black hole. Then Judella Shepp, planted on a hard plastic chair in the third row from the room’s northwest corner, wholly plummeted into the adamant, inescapable oscillations of childbirth
This was right about midnight.
Beyond the hospital’s citadel walls, the freak blizzard unceasingly rammed the city like an obsessive elephant demanding a meal. Within them, a gaggle of nurses, whose attention before had seemed more scattered than a squad of snowflakes somersaulting on a whirlwind, cemented into a barricade around Judella Shepp to assist her delivery. But the blizzard’s roar, the nurses’ bastion, the hospital's clamor, the frozen auto side-show, the winking dusk stars and the sun-glazed monotony all retreated into a echoed blur at the outskirts of Judella Shepp’s consciousness, as her every synapse and cell converged in light-bending focus onto one all-encompassing goal: bringing her second child into the world.
Judella labored powerfully, persevering through unspeakable struggle, wresting strength from reserves she thought she’d exhausted many lifetimes over, her determination never for a second waning. And after 6 hours and 18 minutes of the time that echoes through cliffs and chasms on some distant planet beyond any timekeeper’s discipline, a tiny, fragile miracle squinted his eyes as he floated on a doctor's gloved hands into a strange universe unlike everything he'd ever known. Judella Shepp looked upon the newborn taking his first breaths in a bewildering atmosphere, and he instinctively turned his just-opening eyes toward her, like a sprouting leaf to the sun. And for an instant the whole of existence apart from him went mute. It lasted only seconds, but they seemed to blink along at the stoic pace of a deity watching eons unfold in his creation during the time in which he almost finishes a sip of tea. It was a glimpse of eternity. And it would have occurred to her then, if the thought dared penetrate her mind, that whether the wondrous being before her was a boy or a girl made no difference whatsoever. It never did. All that mattered was that he was here, safe with his mother.
But before the moment’s timelessness could quietly withdraw to the obscurity it inhabits between epic events, an extraordinary amazement bolted Judella back into the noisy realm of nurses and clocks and plastic chairs, as her doctor announced that another child was winding the final turn of its watery journey from the warm comfort beneath her heartbeat into the unknowable expanse beyond. And after five grueling, exhausting, exquisite minutes, a twin miracle emerged with a dewy glow into the insistent glare of a totally alien cosmos, this time a beautiful baby girl, as precious and adored as the boy who arrived with her. Judella would name the children Edward and Cynthia.
And when Judella Shepp, in her wonderful exhaustion, cradled the fragile infants in her arms and looked, for the first time, into their enormous, familiar eyes, all the heavy, amorphous anticipation that had swelled and coiled within her over the past 9 months burst open, engulfing her in a wild torrent of emotion. Her eyes glistened with uncontrollable tears, and her lungs gulped the heavy, sweet breaths of a diver resurfacing after a long, fascinating immersion. The intensity, which swelled with every movement or expression of the babies, amazed her. The emotions crashed against her as forcefully as they did with the birth of her first child, in some ways more so. And while they were similar, these vast, indefinable sensations, they were also different, quite like the children themselves. One singular theme, however, resonated clearly and loudly through each arrival of each separate child: an overwhelming, ego-destroying, inextinguishable love.
While Judella exulted in the beautiful marvel of the tiny new lives safeguarded in her arms, the nurses encircling her disengaged their force field and scattered like electrified billiard balls in search of a blanket or pillow on which to lay the babes. And as they rankled, a realization gradually seeped into everyone in the hospital, like a drop of brilliant dye slowly saturating a swath of dull absorbent fabric: Over what must have been only the past twenty minutes, the winter anomaly that had spun the city around like a ladybug on a windmill, departed as abruptly as it came, and dawn’s golds and pinks and yellows were already streaming over the horizon, seemingly early, and beaming so triumphantly that every speck of the night’s of snow melted into history with time-lapse swiftness. And as if to affirm the sky’s warm jubilation, the forests of orange trees blanketing the entire vicinity simultaneously relaxed their waxy leaves and unfolded into full flower. And the rich bouquet from the miles of blossoms drenched the morning breeze like a delicious celestial dessert sauce, and all the people of Dunellin seemed to pause together, and evacuate their storm shelters to soak up the warm daybreak and inhale the intoxicating nascent bloom, whose voluptuous scent--familiar, yet strange and exotic--was unlike any they had smelled before, and evaded all efforts to describe it. Some remarked that if the happiness of every new mother or welcome sunrise could be distilled into one single odor, it would be the very one rejoicing through the Dunellin air, as soft and lush as a lover’s borrowed scarf. At the hospital, patients who had been clamoring for every type of pill or potion suddenly and astonishingly fell silent upon inhaling the euphoric aroma, as if it alone revived them. Years later, certain out-of-state horticulturists would speculate that somehow the night’s rapid freeze conceived the flowers’ resplendent fragrance, but the theory would frustrate all attempts to prove, as it continues to do today.
For several stints and more than a few jaunts, Judella Shepp’s attendants ransacked unsuccessfully for a blanket or pillow for the newborns to rest on. Then, with their trademark beep, the sliding doors separating the antiseptic hospital from the verdant morning parted, and a temporary nurse, who had trekked in from a neighboring city to assist with the storm’s anxious influx, strode in, crowned with a sunbeam halo and clothed in the wind’s fragrant breath. An abundance of white-and-green boughs, freshly cut from the exultant orange trees, brimmed in his arms. Their soft, nectary white flowers had sprouted in such lush exuberance that their leaves, to say nothing of their bark, modestly withdrew into from view, ceding the spotlight to the snow-colored petals. The nurse carpeted the velvety thicket beneath the two infants and laid them within its foliage-y embrace. And Edward and Cynthia Shepp rested peacefully on their bed of ambrosial blossoms.
Gradually the nearby patients, many of them the same elderly hypochondriacs who imbued the city with its inimitable character, rose with creaks and pops from their plastic perches and ventured to inspect the two angelic babes ensconced in Edenic splendor. And when they looked on them, their complaints, previously so urgent and vociferous, quietly faded from their minds, like unsolved algebra equations that inevitably proved irrelevant, and a good number emptied the hospital soon thereafter. Many, in fact, commented that the sight of the babies laying there, greeting young and old, sick and well, with such open-hearted, undiscriminating warmth, revived parts of them they thought had long ago withered away, and suddenly they felt revitalized--happier, healthier and more inspired than they had in decades. One-by-one they exited, the beep of the sliding door announcing each departure. At first the beeps, like the snowflakes, sounded individually, in sparse intervals, but as they multiplied, they began to mesh over each other, swelling into a spontaneous symphony. It was a joyful sound, and the babies playfully imitated it, amusing themselves.
Before long the hospital's mass exodus liberated some beds, and Judella Shepp and her children at last settled into their original destination, where a soft, pillowy crib replaced the babies’ flowery bed. But as a token of the amazing events of the past 24 hours, the nurses plucked a few flowers from the silken branches of their former cradles and sprinkled them into each child's crib. Later Judella Shepp asked for the nurse who gathered the boughs, so she could thank him for his beautiful and ingenious gesture, but he had vanished into the cloudless day, and, perplexingly, no one at the hospital could recall his name, or where he had come from.
The next day, the citrus blossoms' ethereal scent resumed its typical yearly character, but those who experienced its zenith that February 3rd in 1973, never forgot the rapturous aroma and how it transformed those who inhaled it. And within a week, spring firmly anchored in for its brief annual visit, smiling warmly like the two newborns who heralded its arrival.
And the Shepps became a family of five, and Judella, immersed in the wonderful responsibilities of her three children, never again noticed the quicksand monotony that Florida life formerly achingly resembled. Her three children’s joy and wonder radiated outward, like the unadorned beauty of a rainbow, infusing everyone who neared it with a vitality that obliterated all awareness of the perpetual Florida tedium.
And it is said that, to this day, if you stand in a blooming orange grove on a sunny February morning, you might still detect a faint echo of the young Edward and Cynthia Shepp playfully beeping, and that the same joy and inspiration that the babies breathed into the city of Dunellin that exquisite dawn so long ago, will smile into you as well, melting your worries like a spring sunrise and warming you with a contentment that will shine from within you perennially, like the inexhaustible glow of a new mother's love.
Sometime later, an unknown person, perhaps the mysterious nurse himself, christened the day Celeditude, though the word's meaning and origin remain unexplained. The select few who commemorate the occasion—those who remember or have heard of the fantastic events of that February 3rd—observe it to this day by placing an orange on every bed in a household, to symbolize those blossomy citrus boughs on which Edward and Cynthia Shepp giggled their first beeps; and then peeling the same orange, to liberate its bright, effusive scent, as a reminder of the transcendent fragrance that graced the earth that extraordinary morning, and how it, and the babies, infused everyone in the city with joy and renewal.
And as I notice the distant, delicate smile that sweetly ambushed me in my reverie, against my will the vivid, tangible fullness of that first Celeditude disperses, escaping from me like a dot of tender orange perfume, and I find myself again among the ticking clock, the dull lamplight and the still-steaming cup in this caffeinated purgatory which I doubt will ever assume the velvety nostalgic texture of home in my mind. But even within this drained desolation that weighs upon me like a cold, gloom-soaked sponge, a glimmer of the resplendent joy of that mythic day sparkles inside me, renewing my spirit and strengthening me to endure another of these bleak stretches of void, until the sky's melancholy curtain parts, and the sun defrosts the sullen earth, and color, warmth and life sweetly replenish the city, awakening it like a newborn child.
(PS - tune in to wfmu.org 2/3 at 6-7pm to hear the recorded version.)