“One does not see a psychical flame igniting the thatch, but an ordinary lighted bundle of straw.”
– Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande
Last night I dreamt of hot glass. Trembling, a great gob of the stuff hung in midair like a ripe peach that faded as it cooled. Now, as I enter the studio, Moe’s grey eyes glow with the same wild fire.
“Hey kid,” he says softly. “You’re early. I’m with another student for five.”
Heavy metal grinds away in the background as I wait for my lesson to begin. Queensrÿche. AC/DC. Soundgarden. I sit on a low stool and examine the menagerie of glass and metal that continues to evolve from one week to the next. A neon gas sculpture of giant kelp serves as the keystone for an entire eco-system of glass. Spheres with radial patterns recall black spiked urchins. A series of large-lipped tubes look like giant deep-sea clams, shells open wide to the world. From an iron nail hammered into the rafters above, Moe has hung an enormous jellyfish that sways to and fro as people move towards and away from the furnace.
Moe’s student leaves and we are alone. “What’re we making today?” he asks.
“A feather,” I reply. “A clear one with no color. One that’s almost weightless and can twist in the wind.”
I heft a pipe and lower one end into a pool of viscous glass that sits in a heat-resistant ceramic bowl in the furnace. As I turn the pipe in my hands Moe tells me about his most recent attempt to pass his kidney stones.
“Last night I was in the tub for what must’ve been eight hours. Had half a handle of Jack and a fistful of Advil. Hurt like hell and couldn’t even piss out a single rock.”
Before responding, I breathe evenly into the pipe and watch as a bubble slowly emerges from the molten glass. Then I try to comfort Moe with an image that I hope will bloom in his anxious mind: the extracted stone in the gloved palm of his surgeon’s hand, and Moe in a recovery room hospital bed, pain-free.
Buoyed by this thought, Moe proceeds with the lesson. With a gentleness that feels like thanks, Moe instructs me how to roll the glass into a long hollow tube on a nearby graphite plate and then flatten the tube using a pair of steel mashing pliers. I lay the pipe on the gunnels of a nearby workbench and use tweezers to pull individual feather barbs from the flattened hollow vane. Moe kneels, and as I rotate the pipe in my hands, he blows lightly, causing the just-formed feather to flutter and fill with his breath.
After a few moments, the glass has cooled enough that I no longer need to turn the pipe to keep the glass from dripping onto the concrete floor, so I bring it to the annealing oven for a controlled cool-down. I position the feather a millimeter above a braided cloth tarp inside the oven and with a swift motion, tap the end of the pipe with the back of a metal tool. This sends shudders down the length of the pipe and into the glass. It breaks evenly where the hot pipe meets the pre-chilled end of the feather.
As I close the door to the annealing oven, Moe shares that he has an appointment scheduled with a urologist to learn about shock wave lithotripsy, a surgical technique that uses vibrations from sound waves to shatter kidney stones.
“I’m like a friggin stone factory,” Moe says. “If I can just clean out these stones I can get my life back. No more feeling like I’ve been gut-stabbed with a dirty spoon in the middle of the night, screaming bloody murder. My baby daughter might get some rest too, finally.”
Despite his hopes, I can see that Moe still worries about his future as well as his daughter’s. Amidst the scramble of lines around his right eye, a muscle trembles.
As my hour lesson comes to an end I find myself as always, face flushed from the heat of the furnace, and my mind swirling with strange thoughts. Sand as grains of time; as the substance of glass; as the elements of the universe and life itself; as bits of calcium, phosphate, oxalate and uric acid; of kidney stones themselves.
It has been several months since I last saw Moe. He looks different now, fragile and thin, with sallow skin cracked around his eyes and lips. He clenches a cigarette tightly between his teeth even though I know he stopped smoking before his daughter was born. He gulps in the smoke and I swear that he takes another dozen breaths, never once stopping to let out a plume of smoke. Looking around, I see that the studio has changed too. The glass animals are gone, and in their place is a vacant square of concrete inhabited only by the gelid light of an upper window.
“My gallery burned down,” he says in a hoarse whisper. “All because of some kids playing with firecrackers in the street. Every beautiful thing I’ve made and hoped to sell for my daughter. Gone in an instant. Real pain is not knowing how to provide.”
Cautiously, I ask him about his kidney stones, hoping that he’d had them treated.
“I lost my insurance, so couldn’t afford the surgery. But hey they don’t hurt anymore,” he says bluntly. Quickly changing the topic, he asks “What’re we making today kid?”
I think for a moment, pausing to consider Moe’s sunken eyes, the stiff way he carries himself, and the pain clear in his face. He reminds me of a rock and roll Prometheus chained to his mountainside. “An anchor,” I tell Moe. “One that’s deep green, and looks like it could plunge to the bottom of the sea where it lies perfectly still.”
As I warm up the pipe Moe puts on Hotel California by the Eagles. Don Henley sings:
And in the master’s chambers, They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives, But they just can’t kill the beast.
There is a knock on the door and Moe lets in a thin girl with wispy blonde hair and a tattoo of a squid on her wrist. I say hello and tell her that her tattoo looks like the giant squid that attacked Nemo’s submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. She gives me an odd look and says nothing. Moe tells me that they will be back soon, and together, he and the girl disappear into the back of the studio.
I move to the furnace and stick the pipe deep into the orange heat, trying to coax the cooling glass on the end of the pipe to full color again. Once the glass is the consistency of molasses I remove the pipe from the furnace, position it vertically with the ball of glass just a few inches from the concrete floor, and spin it hard in my hands. Centripetal force causes the glass to migrate in two directions so that in a minute, two curved flukes have emerged from the ball. I breathe gently and the wings of the anchor expand. I then hang the pipe upright again and watch as gravity drags the anchor head nearly to the floor, creating as it goes, a long glass chain.
When Moe and the girl return, the girl is thumbing her tattoo, which I now notice is not a tattoo after all, but a tangled web of blue veins underneath her paper-thin skin. As the girl opens the door of the studio to leave, I get a glimpse of the icy blue winter night beyond. The crisp air snaps across my face. Strangely, I am gripped with the dead certainty that it is not cold air that is intruding into the hot studio, but rather hot air rushing out through the open door.
Moe rejoins me and avoids my gaze. I blow and blow into the pipe, but the glass is cold now, hard and fragile. For the first time, I notice that Moe too has a squid on his wrist, a small writhing creature for whom there is no comfort. When he looks up at me, I notice that even in the wan light of the studio, Moe’s pupils are like jet-black pinpoints. I think again about Nemo – no one, no-face – for his stare is vacant, anonymous. The face of a broken person relinquished of pain.
“If I could just rebuild my gallery. If I could just pay for my daughter’s school. If I could just make one last thing that is outrageously beautiful. If I could just. If I could just.”
When I go to Moe’s studio for my lesson I’m not allowed inside. There is yellow police tape barring the door and several cruisers parked outside, blue lights extinguished. I am struck by how quiet the scene is. The dull roar of the furnace that normally could be heard five hundred feet away is absent. I think about the pool of glass that normally swirls orange in the furnace, now hardened into a clear glass brick. In the absence of color, a cruel clarity sets in.
Suicide rates peak in the spring. This worry splays over me brutally and I clutch a nearby fencepost to steady myself. Then I start moving, running at first as pain swells inside me. After a snowy winter and a heavy thaw, the asphalt of the sidewalk under my feet is cracked in many places. The ground too is swollen.
Eventually, I stop beside a storefront whose window alcove is occupied by two stuffed baby beavers each with glass eyes and salted fur. This glass, embedded as it is inside real animals, leads me like a totem to Moe’s final lesson. For the first time I think of Moe, a man with a life-long love of glass, as an animal who, following great injury, licked his wounds as he only knew how.
In my mind, I hear Moe ask gently, “What’re we making today kid?”
At first, I don’t know what to tell him. Moe died of a fentanyl overdose overnight. No glass creation could change that fact. Nothing could have convinced Moe’s urologist who surveyed his stone-laden kidneys or the fireman who walked amongst the burnt rubble of his gallery or his daughter’s unpaid swim teacher that painkillers, clean-up, and a brusque nod were enough. Nothing could have transformed my view of Moe, the ordinary man, into the psychical flame of pain, compulsion, and fatherly love that he really was. And yet, as my thoughts turn to the magic of glassblowing, a singular idea fills my mind like a bright bubble on the end of a pipe.
“A spear,” I tell Moe. “A blood-red spear, to honor your life and your struggle.”
Addendum: The First Spear and the Umbaga
The opioid crisis is a national health care emergency. Its victims are from all walks of life and the actual causes are myriad. Medical analgesics can certainly treat physical pain, but opioid dependency is often exacerbated by underlying social factors and random life events as well. My understanding of addiction, and of my fictional character Moe, has been informed by work that the social anthropologist Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard conducted in the 1920s in northern Sudan. Evans-Pritchard published his seminal text Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande in 1937. This text explains how the Azande, a people of the upper Nile, believe in a ‘plurality of causes’ that underlie all biosocial and medical phenomena. When Azande kill game, there is a division of meat between the man who first spears the animal to slow it, and the second man who plunges a second spear into it to kill it. This second spear is called the umbaga which is used as a metaphor in Azande philosophy. If an Azande man takes his life by hanging, for instance, the noose is the umbaga, but the first spear – the real causal element in his death – can be any number of factors such as depression, shame, or feelings of inadequacy or stigmatization. The umbaga that killed Moe is the opioid analgesic fentanyl. There is no mystery there. But without the first spear there would have been no second spear, no umbaga.