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"Mavis and Bruce" by Angela Townsend

Bruce and Mavis, Mavis and Bruce. They blow through my hair like the Holy Spirit. Our double helixes have never danced, but they are braided into my lanyard. We are some sort of three-stranded cord. The anchor holds.

If I ever get to tell Mavis, I will be a cascade of carbonation, all caffeinated with love. Mavis “Bubbles” Staples will laugh, as she does every time God gooses her. Mavis and God go back before Bruce and I were born. Mavis and her laughter stride into a future that smaller birds fear.

Mavis is rightly celebrated as a chord of the Civil Rights era, rebel joy without an umbrella in hate’s hailstorm. The Staples Singers, sparrows surrounding the venerable Pops, burst like dawn in all directions. They sang with Rev. King and sprinted down the mountain.

Mavis sprints still, effervescent in her eighties. She is phoenix and grandmother. She is larger than the shriveled world, winking at her small stature. She is the vial of unauthorized laughter I keep in my pocket, an emergency antidote to exhaustion.

Mavis rocked me like her own when I heard “You’re Not Alone.” She brought pie to my door but sang, “open up; this is a raid.” I was single and strange and scared that my mother was not immortal. I worked at a cat sanctuary and was turning grey at my crown. I did not have a church family or blood siblings. I did not believe in hell, but I could not catch a whiff of heaven’s kitchen.

“Open up; this is a raid.” I wanted to crawl under this woman’s arm. I wanted to ask how she loved calmly, how she fizzed forth every morning. I wanted to ask if she would shelter a thirty-two-year-old who felt too old to return to writing or dating or singing in choirs.

Mavis laughed. Mavis laughs often, her unscripted giggles leaking in the middle of a song. Listen, and you will catch her laughing when things are serious. Listen when you are hog-tied by Serious, and you will catch Mavis untying knots with that giggle.

Mavis laughs as though she’s been let in on a secret, which is the case. With headphones over her golden party hair, swatting away premature halos like dragonflies, she is in the moment with God. She smells the sacred in the profane, the organ under acid rock. She blows bubbles through the bendy-straw and waits for you to laugh. She blows the doubt off the record and waits for God to answer. She comforts me. She yanks me to my feet. I forget to doubt my joy.

I forget how Bruce came into the kitchen with Mavis and me. Perhaps he was always there, but I didn’t see him under the table with the cat, jotting notes about Tom Joad and God’s long vacations. Growing up adjacent to New Jersey, Bruce was as present as the bridges. But Bruce was everyone’s Bruce until around the time Mavis became my Mavis.

Bruce was born feral, in tank tops with torn sleeves. Bruce was “The Rising,” breathless up the staircases into God’s silence. Bruce was underestimated, the wrinkled doctorate on the backseat of an F-150. Bruce was patient, letting us figure out for ourselves that he never sang about America without a lover’s anguish.

Bruce was kind, saving seats for Jersey girls. Bruce was wry, reassuring me that I’m “not a beauty, but hey, you’re alright.” Bruce was not giggly, but Bruce was not giving up on God or people. Bruce was not given the luxury of leaving rumpled people, so Bruce gave himself to crumpling hasty verdicts.

Bruce loped into the kitchen and sang me a new sentence. He sat on the breakfast table in his dirty jeans and tore my contract with perfection. He taught me to howl psalms at the moon in the middle of the day. He taught me to go ten rounds with God in the middle of my life.

Bruce is not seltzer, and if you give him a lemon, he will squeeze it over his head and feel the sting. He has accepted that he lives in the grip of God, but don’t call him satisfied. He is Irish and Catholic and incensed. He resents believing, then laughs like a man who has received too much change from the cosmos.

Bruce laughs, too, even when his weathervane voice spins in the storm. The joke is on us all, Joads and gentlemen and animal-shelter poets. I once thought that Bruce’s songs were about getting the hell out of New Jersey – Badlands and Jungleland and Born to Run, run, run – but really they are about getting the heaven out of every exasperating hour. Bruce juices the outrage for mercy.

Bruce laughs at sex and carnival and death, because Bruce hears too much that is too good not to use in his next song. Bruce is older than my parents, but he has not been given the luxury of not writing a next song. Bruce swipes streusel muffins from Mavis’s pan, crawls on the floor with the cat, and gets back up to make sooty liturgy.

Bruce laughs, and Mavis laughs, and my loose ends come together. The lanyard is ragged, but it holds my faith and rebellion. My voice is shaky. I take a muffin and taste daily bread. I laugh all the way upstairs, not knowing what the next floor may hold.

Bruce and Mavis, Mavis and Bruce. They hold my hands. They hold the scandalous candle in the dark. All the little birds join the kitchen choir.


Angela Townsend is the Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary. She graduated from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Chautauqua, Paris Lit Up, The Penn Review, The Razor, Still Point Arts Quarterly,, and The Westchester Review, among others. She is a Best Spiritual Literature nominee. Angie has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 33 years, laughs with her poet mother every morning, and loves life affectionately.

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