The Enigma of Iris Murphy
Maureen Millea Smith
Why has everyone fallen in love with Iris Murphy? Even Clayton Santos-Anderson of the Omaha police department, he who "has no warm and fuzzy feelings for public defenders, or lawyers in general" is smitten with her.
You know public defenders? The lawyers that the city or county or state or the feds are forced by the Constitution to pay to defend the drug dealers, the pimps, the cholos, the drunks, the street people, the immigrants - - - the ones who are so bereft that no one else wants to take care of them, much less defend them in a courtroom.
Hell, most public defenders I know are not only scorned by the DA's office but even get insulted on by their own clients, the ones they are representing for free. My friend David had to jump back when one of his charges tried to stab him in the arm with the stub of a pencil. Maybe that's reason enough to love Iris: she cares for the downtrodden, will care for them against all odds.
One of her best friends is Paul Simmons. He's been in AA for years, and because he's in AA Iris refuses to have her usual glass of chardonnay on the evenings when she has her weekly get-together with him.
Just hanging around with Paul is a little dicey in Omaha. "It is not easy being a sixty-three-year-old gay man in Omaha, Nebraska, but he has stuck it out through a nasty divorce and many years of being sober."
Since being shoved out of the closet by this former wife, Cissy, Paul has had a series of lovers, but never a partner, and when other friends dropped him from their society after his outing, Iris and Martha stood steady by his side.
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Iris will do stuff that you and I would never drem of doing. For instance, her first sweetheart is in jail, and she won't abandon him, even though he is a jerk and everyone tells her to stay away from him. Iris's sister Bridget is deaf - - - the whole family has taught themselves to sign - - - and since Leonard is deaf, and stuck away in the joint, she is the only one who can sign with him.
As she tells Clayton Santos-Anderson, "I went to see him because he is a deaf man and because I am fluent in American Sign Language and I am sure that he doesn't have many visitors who can speak to him in ASL." After all these years, she tells Clayton,
I visited him because I wanted to know why he broke up with me. I have never married. The remembrance of lost love can eat away at one sometimes.
She pauses, and looks out the window, and Clayton "wonders how he had missed this woman's beauty." She's a loyal member of the Mother Church, and he asks himself,
How could he have walked past her as she struggled with the heavy doors of Saint Mary Magdalene Church and why he did not stop his truck to run and hold her elbow as the wind battered her about that day in front of the courthouse.
Clayton remembers now that they call her "The Bird." She's a tiny thing, but she's no patsy. She reminds Clayton of his mother and sisters, who are "Mexican-American women [that] embrace color. They love beauty. They go out into the world showing themselves at their best. Color, like spice, in the middle-western regions of the United States is seen a sensual thus probably sinful . . . "
Clayton, like most people in the book, is smitten with Iris. It is "within our genetic code to appreciate The Bird," he says.I also have fallen for Maureen Millea Smith. She wrote The Enigma of Iris Murphy, and I like her so much I want to email her to tell her how good she is. I should also lay out the plot of Enigma, to show why it's so dandy.
But I don't think I'll do that. It would probably drive us both nuts, and it might make you (or her, or me) yawn noisily and drift off to bed. I not one of those to give you a long fact-filled rewrite that you find in reviews at the New York Times or the New York Review of Books where the reviewer drearily rehashes the story, turns a good author's carefully chosen words into a mush of half-eaten plot-line.
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In the hands of a lesser writer this might have been just another whimsical Lake Woebegone look-alike, where all the men are brave the children above average blah blah. But Enigma has much more juice than that. Listen: this is Iris just beginning, as we all must, to hear the tolling of John Donne's bells, calling, calling to us.
I would have done all the chemotherapy, but I could smell the Angel of Death everywhere. He smokes cigarettes, you know. What's the use of losing all of your hair and having surgery when the Angel of Death is smoking Marlboros in your backyard? I knew the game was up and now I'm in the crucible.
Her life and those of her friends can almost be thought of as an up-to-date version Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. That book from eighty years ago came with enough poetry-in-prose to offer us the taste of the wizen little Saratogas that, Anderson recalled, were the last on the tree,
a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. One nibbles at them and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples.Enigma shares that kind of sweetness.
And, yes, the characters carry their own twisted spirits and souls. Iris had a full love life with Cameron Kills Pretty Enemy - - - what a handle - - - who long ago left the rez to become a lawyer. Then there's Kenneth Yellow Dog, the librarian, who now resides in the Nebraska State Penitentiary because he refused to leave the giraffes alone at the Henry Dooly Zoo, sat among them all day and night in the lotus position. "The giraffes wanted me to stay with them," he told the police. "They're my tallest friends."
And he's not the only one here to have a way with animals. Ezra the veterinarian can talk to cats and dogs. When they decided that Iris needed someone to keep her safe from another prisoner who has vowed vengeance, Ezra delivers "Boots" - - - his favorite dog - - - to her. When he does, "Black and white images flow from Boots to Ezra - - - the women, the house, the people standing on the driveway, his food dish, even a smudged vision of Horace Mann." (Horace Mann is Ezra's cat, now to be bereft because of the loss of Boots.)
With all these dotty characters you'd think you're at the zoo with William Saroyan. There is some of that, but what Enigma carries with it is another note of gentleness and affect, makes it so we want to think (have mercy!) of making a trip to Omaha just to see if we can find Ezra or John or Cameron . . . or Martha, Paul, Kenneth Yellow or lord knows, perhaps Maureen Millea Smith; just to spend a bit of time there chewing the fat with her, telling her what an engaging, soulful bit of writing she's cobbled together. It's so wistful that I took to leaving it on my bed-table to mellow each evening so that I could pick it up fresh, and mosey through it some more, never in a hurry, to let the characters become old friends to visit with again. And again . . . and yet again.