Workshop Without End, Amen
Workshop Without End, Amen
Workshop Without End, Amen
Umbrella The Hook
Workshop Without End, Amen
by Toni Artuso
Workshop Without End, Amen
by Toni Artuso
Huffing, cradling a sheaf of papers to her ample bosom, Wilma burst into the classroom in a whirl of floral skirts, the rose-scented wave of her perfume wafting in in her wake. She slid into one of the old-fashioned student desk chairs with the built-in writing table. Three members of the workshop—Phyllis, Walt, and Langston—sat calmly in their seats, patiently awaiting her. Each offered their tardy classmate bemused, forgiving smiles. The fourth member, Sylvia, made a show of checking her wristwatch before offering Wilma a wry smirk. Ignoring Sylvia and catching her breath, Wilma turned to the professor.
“First of all, John, congratulations! You got your portrayal of angels right. To get here just now, I had to detour around a couple of them shamelessly copulating in the hall. That’s why I’m late.” She craned her neck to look beyond John, who sat immediately to her left, to fix her gaze on Sylvia, who shrugged dismissively.
John, though clearly the eldest of the group, actually compressed his frame into one of the student chairs in the circle, offering visible testimony of how seriously he took his pledge of treating his students as equals. “That’s redundant, you know, Wilma,” he observed with his usual fastidiousness in his upper-class British accent. “After all, in a prelapsarian state, which angels enjoy, there is no such thing as ‘shame.’ And I would think that you, of all people, would appreciate that. After all, you spent most of your life on Earth ashamed of your gender variance. Now, you feel no shame in being openly female.”
“That’s old news, John. I got over that before I turned 60. By the way, I know we have all eternity, but why are we waiting to get started? Time’s wingèd chariot and all that ...”
“Andy’s not here so let’s not pick at his stuff, okay?” Sylvia observed tartly as she examined the perfectly manicured nails of her right hand.
“Is that who we’re waiting for?” Wilma asked.
John shook his head. “No, my erstwhile amanuensis is not in this workshop. We’ve got plenty of 17th century representation already. After all, you’ve got me, and I’m not exactly chopped liver, you know? No, we’re waiting for a guest.”
“Speaking of who is or isn’t in the workshop, with all due respect,” Wilma nodded to Sylvia, then turned to John, “why is she here? I thought if you committed suicide you weren’t allowed to pass ‘Go’ or collect $200 but went straight to hell.”
Langston, who sat across the circle from Wilma, let out a little chortle, earning himself a venomous stare from Sylvia. She whirled on Wilma, “As a trans person,” she observed tartly, “I’d think you’d have more sympathy for a suicide like me. After all, enough of your trans brothers and sisters offed themselves ...”
“Well, I wasn’t one of them. I died of natural causes ...”
John cleared his throat with stentorian force. “I think we’re a little off topic here, ladies. Remember, this is a poetry workshop, not group therapy.”
Wilma shrugged, conceding the point. “Well, what is the topic? Why am I here? What do I need to resolve?”
John held up a bony finger. “Remember, ‘Those also serve who only stand and wait.’”
“Yes, John, but your sight has been restored to you.”
“And your gender has been restored to you, woman.”
At that moment, a young woman, looking like a coed straight out of the 1950s, complete with poodle skirt and saddle shoes, stepped into the classroom. Wilma’s jaw dropped. “Mom!” she gasped. “It is you, right? I mean, I never saw you like this, in your—what? your early 20s—but, somehow, I know it’s you.”
“Of course, she’s late, too,” Sylvia tisked aloud to no one in particular. “Like mother, like daughter.”
Ignoring Sylvia, Wilma’s mother dropped down in the vacant chair in the circle to Wilma’s right. “That makes two of us. After all, I never saw you this way,” she gestured vaguely with her unadorned left hand in Wilma’s general direction. “When I knew you at this age, you were not my daughter but my son, William.”
“Now we can commence,” John beamed. “Wilma, you have sufficient numbers of copies of your poem to distribute to everyone? Ah! Splendid! Please pass them ’round.” He reached a ruffle-encrusted hand toward Wilma.
Fingering the sheaf of papers she’d brought in, Wilma hesitated. “I’m not sure I’d have brought this one if I’d known who’d be in the audience.”
“Nonsense,” John waved a hand airily. “Proceed, madam.”
Reluctantly, she handed the sheets to John, who passed them to Sylvia. When all the students held a copy in hand, Wilma reluctantly cleared her throat and began to read:
Clearly the eldest in the room, I shift
uncomfortably in the church folding chair,
tugging the hem of my cat-print sweater dress.
I identify myself as she/her,
in a voice so croaky I cringe. The young
pixie-cut next to me, purple swish
of bangs falling in a swoop to eye-level,
introduces themself as Quincy.
Ice duly broken, sharing commences.
Quincy huffs, “My mother is clueless,” tosses
on the table a pack of lip gloss their mom
stuffed in their Christmas stocking. “Up for grabs.”
Michelle, the only other transperson here
above their twenties, snags the recycled gift.
Elisheva, a transwoman with a beard
full as mine when I tried to pass for male,
says, “My rabbi makes everyone in the synagogue
name their pronouns now, but one boomer
keeps rolling his eyes like it’s a big deal,
an imposition.” I tug at the scarf
strategically knotted to hide my Adam’s apple.
Next month, at the trans conference downtown,
I get lunch with my girlfriends, Suzanne and Rachael,
at the Panera next to our hotel.
Behind us, a couple with two school-age kids
hustles them through picking sandwiches, soups.
Glancing back, they all look cisgendered to me,
yet, they wear conference badges. I try to
imagine my own mother taking me
to meet other trans folk—and utterly fail.
Wilma considered the poker-faced reaction of the group before settling down to await the first comment.
Phyllis cleared her throat. “In the sixth line, I realize ‘pixie-cut’ is meant to synecdoche, but I think something akin to ‘young person with a pixie-cut’ would be clearer.”
Nodding, Wilma made notes on her copy.
“‘Uncomfortably’ in the second line is redundant. A comfortable church folding chair would be an oxymoron,” Langston laughed.
Her mother huffed, “It’d be just as much of an oxymoron to say a transgender conference in the 1960s.” She scowled at Wilma, whose pen paused as she looked up.
“Actually, Lousie,” John intoned, “the more appropriate term is ‘anachronism.’”
“The point I’m trying to make,” Louise leaned forward to meet John’s gaze, “is that William can’t imagine me taking him to a conference like that because back when he was little there weren’t any such things.”
Wilma winced. “Mother, that’s my dead name.” She muttered under her breath, “And, like the poem says, my pronouns are she/hers.”
John placed a calming hand on Wilma’s shoulder but leaned forward to speak directly to her mother, “Louise, whom are you addressing? There’s no one here by that name.”
Louise sighed, exasperated. “I’m talking to my son.”
“Son, madam?” John cocked his head inquisitively. “Your son, Donald, isn’t here.”
“Okay,” Louise threw up her hands. “I’m talking to my child who is here.”
“That would be Wilma,” John gestured to his right.
“Or you can call me ‘Kay,’” Wilma put in.
Louise compressed her lips, then went ahead, “Look, dear, nobody knew anything about people like you when you were little. What was I supposed to do?”
“Come on, Mom!” Wilma threw up her hands in turn. “How many times did you tell me that, just because everyone else was doing something wrong, it didn’t make it right for me? The same applied to you!”
* * *
Next session, when Wilma swept into the room, Sylvia checked her wristwatch and offered her a painted-on smile. “Five minutes early this time,” she clucked. “You’re improving.”
Wilma regarded Sylvia narrowly. “Perhaps we could get started—with you this time, Sylvia. I started last time, after all.”
John cleared his throat. “Much as I would like to commence forthwith, ladies, we, alas, must await another guest.”
Wilma cocked a skeptical eyebrow. “Another guest? Surely, it’s not my mother again. What now, my dad?”
“No,” John shook his head.
“Maybe someone else should have a guest then,” Wilma suggested hopefully.
“We shall see,” John shrugged. “All in good time, Wilma.”
They sat in silence, then, Sylvia checking her watch periodically and Wilma fidgeting, tugging at the hem of her skirt. Finally, Sylvia sighed in exasperation, “This is worse than last time. Then Wilma was five minutes late, and Louise came right after her. It’s already been ten minutes ...”
“Sounds like the right timing for my ex,” Wilma muttered, then hissed as if stung. “Shannon,” she gasped as a young woman in a corduroy skirt and clogs clomped in. “Speak of the devil ...”
“It’s nice to see you, too, Bill,” she offered sarcastically and sank into the empty desk to Wilma’s right.
Shannon waved a dismissive hand. “I know, I know, that’s your,” here, she made air quotes, “‘dead name.’”
“Then why’d you use it?” Wilma huffed.
“Ladies,” John chided. “Shall we begin? Wilma, please pass your poem ...”
Wilma rolled her eyes. “Why can’t someone else start this time? I did last session.”
John held out an insistent hand, and, with a reluctant sigh, Wilma surrendered her sheaf of poems. She didn’t wait for the papers to go completely around before reading.
After a decade of denial—ten
bosses come and gone—John, the last one, hired
an outsider over my head. Finally,
I admitted to myself that beyond
the horizon no promotion waited
so I announced my retirement. My last day,
Friday the Thirteenth, John chose to work
from home, huddling safely behind the excuse
of flattening the curve, not having to face
someone whose loyalty his company punished.
Every fortnight, my eldest, Jane, trekked
to see me at the nursing home, bringing
mail, small talk. She thought I didn’t notice her
wrinkling her nose at the sanitary stench
or checking her watch. Knowing the answer, she’d ask
if her brothers called. Sadly, I’d shake my head.
“Out of an abundance of caution,” she
said, she stopped coming but rang ’til her calls
stuttered then ceased, even as the virus began stalking
the wards, emptying beds of friends, neighbors.
Despite appeals to logic, reason, facts
of viral spread, Shannon flew on a near-empty
plane to celebrate the birthday of a friend,
a man with whom she’d corresponded secretly
for years, whom she visited faithfully
one week each month after her announcement
our thirty-year marriage was over. Possessed
by a dread of COVID, she declared it unsafe
to leave him, willing hostage of a pandemic
whose power she said she only now grasped.
Wilma looked up. Shannon started to speak but gagged, her face turning red.
“Are you all right?” Wilma leaned over, concerned.
John shrugged. “She’s fine. Why don’t I start instead, until Shannon’s, uh, sorted her thoughts?” He turned to Wilma. “I’m concerned that this poem is too deeply embedded in the context of a particular time. I believe this relates to the pandemic of 2020. Perhaps you should have chosen a more universal subject.”
Walt leaned forward. “With all due respect,” he said, tugging at his whiskers. “There’s nothing wrong with a piece being enmeshed in its time. After all, ‘O Captain! My Captain!’, for example, is very much rooted in a time and place: America that triumphant—and tragic—spring of ’65.”
“Truly, it was a momentous time in our country. After all, Juneteenth commemorates that period, but,” Phyllis shook her head, “you, Walt, chose a universal metaphor, that of the ship captain stricken down after guiding his vessel safely through a storm. This poem lacks such a universal trope. In fact, it lacks a single trope.”
“You have a good point,” Langston observed laconically. “That’s why I chose to write of rivers. You, on the other hand, chose to celebrate George Washington, a slaveowner, one of our oppressors.”
“It’s a lie,” Shannon finally managed to rasp out. “I never had, uh, an, uh,” here, she began gasping again, “affair.”
John looked on her distress impassively. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Shannon. You’re just a guest in my workshop so I can’t fail you, but I am honor bound to let your Legal Ethics instructor, Ruth, know you’ve been lying, and she’ll fail you, and you don’t want to have to repeat Legal Ethics again, do you?”
Recovering, Shannon sat upright, gulping. “What is this—some kind of extracurricular test?”
John shrugged and gestured vaguely around the room. “Everything here’s an assessment.”
Regaining her composure, Shannon fixed a withering gaze on John. “I still don’t see how it’s the business of a 17th century English poet to tell a 21st century American jurist what to do.”
John looked down his patrician nose at Shannon. “Unlike you, madam, I’m determined to behavior honorably, as are all the faculty here, even the lawyers.”
Flushing again, Shannon shrugged, “All right, but there’s more than one side to this story, and that’s all he—"
“You mean ‘she,’” John interrupted.
“Whatever!” Shannon threw up her hands. “All I’m saying is that this poem is very one-sided. After all, I thought I married a normal man, and, instead, I got this.” She waved her hands generally in Wilma’s direction. “Talk about bait-n-switch! That’s ample justification for doing what I did.”
“That was my mother’s excuse,” Wilma observed icily. “It seems like transphobia justifies a world of sins.”
“Well, like your mother, I didn’t grow up knowing there was anything like a transperson.”
“That’s right,” Wilma observed sarcastically, “they didn’t even have burritos in 1950’s Vermont, when you were a kid, let alone anything exotic as a trannie.”
“Exactly! How was I supposed to know what I was getting myself into?”
“And you grew to accept, even enjoy, burritos. I guess trannies are different,” Wilma shook her head.
* * *
Before entering the classroom this time, Wilma hesitated at the threshold, puzzlement creasing her brow. Sylvia, already seated in her usual spot, looked up.
“How is it you’re always here before me? Heck, you’re here before anyone else,” Wilma gestured around the otherwise empty room, the clicks of her high heels echoing as she finally entered. “Do you ever leave this place?”
“Believe me,” Sylvia sighed, “I wish I could ...”
Shrugging, Wilma took her spot one desk away from Sylvia, though every other seat stood open to her. The others filtered in. When John took his seat between her and Sylvia, Wilma regarded him expectantly. He pointed at the empty desk to Wilma’s right. “We shall commence upon our guest’s arrival.”
“Another guest?” Wilma practically whined. “This is starting to feel like the TV show This Is Your Life.”
“How do you think I feel?” Sylvia huffed. “Having to deal with all the issues from your past? I’m bored stiff.”
Wilma regarded her classmate. “Maybe this is purgatory for me, but it seems like hell for you.”
John shook his head. “Ladies, please keep the metaphysical speculations to a minimum. We’re here to discuss poetry.”
A short young woman in her late twenties or early thirties, wearing a red jumper and sneakers, walked into the classroom.
Wilma’s jaw dropped, and she winced in pain. “Kat, honey,” she moaned. “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here. You should be taking care of your kids. Aren’t they ready to go to college?”
Katherine plopped into the open seat to Wilma’s right and smirked. “It’s nice to see you, too, Dad,” she laughed. “And don’t worry about Kay and Lou. They’ve both got graduate degrees, careers, and families of their own, which makes you a great-grandma.”
Wilma licked her lips. “How is that possible, hon? You don’t look a day over thirty.”
“Dad, you don’t look a day over thirty yourself. In fact, I’ve never seen you this young before—except in pictures.”
“Perhaps I can explain,” John interrupted. “You see, Wilma, time doesn’t move on this side of the veil like it does on the other.”
Katherine, looking wise beyond her years, nodded sagely in agreement. “Yeah, Dad, I lived well into my triple digits.”
“Congratulations! Your great-grandpa and grandfather never made it past 98.” Wilma shook her head. “I don’t see how that’s possible that you’re here if you lived that long.” She whirled on John. “So how long have I been here?”
John shrugged. “That not a relevant question, really. Things can go faster or slower on this side, and time can go forward or backward.”
Wilma cradled her head in her hands. “Just trying to wrap my mind around that gives me a headache.”
John sniffed. “Perhaps, then, you should focus on the task at hand and pass out your poem.”
Wilma did, then began reading:
Just as the trailing end of a string rivets
our cat’s gaze, mine fixes on the silver speck
sparkles on my daughter’s tights as she descends
the stairs to breakfast. I squirm in my seat
as I recognize her leggings. I bought
them years ago as a present for my wife.
I handed them to her, hopeful she’d
look as good in them as the catalog model.
I never found out. She never wore them.
Unfulfilled, I forgot my fantasies,
until now, with my ninth grader filling
them. Silently, I applaud her aesthetic
but dread the fancies she will spark in others.
Her mother bustles in the room, huffing
that our child has raided her dresser.
I keep mum about missed opportunities.
“I’ll start,” Sylvia jumped in immediately, quickly breaking the agonizing silence that usually followed Wilma’s reading. “This poem is not only about missed opportunities, but it is a missed opportunity. We know that the writer is transfemale, but the average reader won’t, and that fact alone changes the entire meaning of the poem.”
On the other side of the circle, Langston grunted. “How so?”
Sylvia peered across at him. “The speaker bought those leggings for herself, but she was afraid to wear them because she hadn’t come out yet. That’s the missed opportunity.”
Beside Langston, Walt stirred himself. “Does a poet really have to reveal his or her full biography in every poem? After all, shouldn’t we leave the critics and professors some work?”
Wilma cleared her throat. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, Walt, I actually agree with Sylvia here. No reader’s going to know what was really going on with me. After all, who’s going to care about my biography?”
Phyllis, to Sylvia’s left, leaned forward. “You’d be surprised, Wilma, who looks at your work after you’re gone.”
“What?” Wilma scowled. “Are you saying some professor’s going to waste his or her time explicating my stuff?”
John cleared his throat with another of his stentorian coughs. “Katherine, perhaps you’d care to offer some observations about this poem.” He peered over his spectacles at her.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “I think the focus of this poem isn’t necessarily the speaker so much as the mother, and her missed opportunity. She could have chosen to engage with her spouse over this but didn’t. Now her daughter’s showing her up.”
Wilma snorted ruefully. “You did that in more ways than one, hon. After all, you accepted me for who I was long before she did.” She shook her head. “In fact, I don’t think she ever will, even now, even, well,” she threw up her hands, indicating the classroom, “after this she wouldn’t admit, well ...” Wilma shrugged.
“That she had an affair?” Kat prompted.
Wilma looked at the floor. “Yes,” she muttered.
Katherine leaned forward and put her hand on her parent’s wrist. “Look, Dad, I’ve forgiven Ma for drawing me into her lies to you.”
Wilma looked up. “When did that happen?”
Kat sat back and considered the ceiling tiles above her head. “When I realized it wasn’t my lie, after all. She imposed it on me. I mean, you know what that’s like.”
“How so?” Wilma arched a well-manicured, if skeptical, eyebrow.
“After all, you had a lie imposed on you, by grandma and grandpa, for over 50 years before you came out and transitioned.”
At the end of the session, after Walt, Langston, and Phyllis meandered out, Wilma, Katherine, and John stood. Only Sylvia remained fixed in place, seated.
John reached out. “It was a pleasure to get to know you, Wilma,” he said, giving her red-tipped fingers a perfunctory shake with his bony hand. “I wish you all the best.”
Wilma frowned at this. “Thanks, I think, but you make it sound like I won’t be seeing you again.”
“No,” John shook his head. “The semester is over.”
“Already?” Wilma frowned. “That was fast.”
“As I said earlier, time does not move on this side as it does on the other,” John sniffed. “And you needn’t repeat the course next term.”
“You mean I passed?” Wilma gasped.
“Yes, you can accompany your daughter. I believe she’s anxious to introduce some relatives you’ve yet to meet.”
Katherine beamed. “Yeah,” she tugged on her mother’s elbow. “I want you to meet Lou and Kay’s kids.”
As Wilma and Katherine turned to follow in John’s wake out the classroom door, Sylvia called out from behind them. “Wilma, feel free to come audit my class, if you’d like.”
Wilma turned. “You’re teaching this workshop next semester?”
Sylvia nodded. “Yes, John’s taking a break, so I get a turn.”
“Well, thank you kindly for the offer. Can I take a raincheck?”
“There’s no rush, Wilma.” Sylvia shrugged. “We’ve got all eternity.”