Beholder

Beholder_please stay

Shea awoke and looked reflexively at the bedside clock. 3:23. Outside a wind had kicked up and was ‘howling’. The enormous decrepit oak in the front yard could be heard hissing and tossing, its stupid single foot planted firmly, its moonlit arms probably waving wildly in the black turmoil. All the foliage out there could be heard moving around, stupefied and bitch-slapped and helpless to respond. Or possibly the helpless waving around is a coherent response, a satisfactory response? There in the dark, Shea immediately imagined the worst. His mother will have been awakened by the windstorm, slipped out of her bed, taken the elevator down and crept unnoticed by the attendant at the front desk. By now she would be out of doors, in the wee hours, in a roaring pitch dark tempest, shuffling along the city sidewalks in a wind-torn nightgown, reaching her arms out like the blind; helpless, adrift, weeping and gnashing, hair flying, tears blown back along her crows feet like raindrops on a freeway windshield. Calling Shea’s name. She did not own such a nightgown, but its being plastered against her fragile, osteoporotic body in a midnight storm added to the horror-fantasia Shea now entertained from the warmth of his own useless bed now that he lay awake again. The wind grew explosive in gusts. He thought the oak tree might actually give it up this time, surrender to the elements and come plowing down through the recently renovated roof.

Friday morning and the tempest had passed, the azure sky so crazily clear the racket of the night before, and the waking horror-film of his mother, Eleanor, shuffling through the nightmare storm, seemed itself to have been a sleeping dream and not a waking one. Shea placed the phone call. The receiver was picked up, followed by what sounded like a small struggle and some angry murmuring.

“Hello!” As usual she answered in the irritated manner of someone in the precise middle of some vexing chore.

“Mom, Alan calling.”

“Well, hey!” Her sudden brightening always caused his eyes to mist.

“Feel like going for a drive?” He wouldn’t mention the doctor yet.

“Oh, anything, anything Alan! Oh, my god, yes!”

__

Town and cityscape moved by outside the car windows in the same welcoming, deluded fashion as it had on Tuesday. Southern California sun bathed the trees, parks and slate-roofed office and commercial buildings in the same honey-colored glory. The storm had scoured the elements. Shea had to admit to himself that despite present circumstances the day was indeed beautiful. Would the doctor think so? Though his exam room had a largish window that looked out on trees, flowers, an embarrassingly glorious city park and a handsome, well-tended parking lot crowded with the shining cars of robustly insured clients, he would need to minister to Eleanor’s needs. Her generally annoyed confusion and litany of self-same jokes and gags would test the doctor’s professionally inured patience yet again. His hurried manner always managed to include the inference that she was uniquely difficult to suffer.

After several minutes of drivetime chit chat during which she asked three times “So how’s the family? What’s happening in your neck of the woods?” she finally popped the question. The question itself was, as usual, preceded by that quietude that told Shea his mother was connoitering and hoping not to embarrass herself. There were still marbles. Increasingly, it became clear that she was aware that they were leaving her. The last dregs of cognition taking the stage to announce closing time.

“Where is it we’re going?”

“To the doctor.” At that she turned stiffly in her car seat with something like alarm, but no more or less like alarm than any of the dozen or so other times that day she would wheel and yelp with surprise from behind the restraining straps of her seat belt. Her whiskered, jowly face, her flyaway eyebrows, the sore on her cheek he couldn’t get her to stop picking at, the faint organic funk that accompanied her; these elements of Present Day Eleanor were so utterly unaligned with the gorgeous sloe-eyed visage of 60 years before, Alan often had to visualize her 1942 iteration just to keep her Truth in his sights as they trundled about on these days.

“The doctor? Why?”

“Your leg,” Shea abbreviated, hoping he didn’t sound angry. She craned her neck to look down at her leg in the shadows under the dash.

“What about my leg?”

“You hurt your leg. Remember? We’ve been to the doctor three times this week.”

“Why, no.” She experimentally lifted her left leg in the confined space under the dash. So she did know at least which leg they were discussing. There were times when Shea wondered briefly if all her bewildered pronouncements were a semi-masterful charade meant to drive him mad. “What’d I do?”

“Who knows?” Shea shrugged elaborately, but then felt awful. “Mom, you don’t remember. Many many people have asked you that very question. ‘What happened, Eleanor? What happened to your leg?’”

“And what do I tell them,” she asked wryly, the whole patterned and repeated exchange taking on the nuances of choreography.

“You tell them you don’t know.” The quiet again.

“Well, I don’t.”

“I know.”

“What do we think happened?”

“Uh, you may have fallen down outside. Yesterday you seemed to remember briefly that you had taken a spill while out on your walk. So that may have been it. But, uh, it’s not clear what sort of fall could’ve hurt just your shin like that.” She looked down again and with some effort pulled up her pant leg.

“It’s swollen.”

“Yeah.”

“There’s a sore.”

“You barked your shin on something. Hard.”

“Well, what happened?”

“Nobody knows.”

“Well, what might’ve happened?

“You probably fell down. But nobody knows.”

“I don’t even know.”

“Yep.”

They drove on. The sky was truly and literally cloudless; a dumb, depthless loudmouthed blue. As they drove past the park a teeming crowd of children in the company of a single beleaguered adult, probably a teacher, wheeled through the crosswalk ahead like a flock of earthbound birds, laughing with uncontained energy. Shea flashed on the cracked sepia photo of his mom on the fridge at home, her unscathed, smooth, beautiful little face peeking out shyly from beneath an old-fashioned knit cap, canted on her head in the manner of most such photos from that period. She can’t have known at the moment the picture was taken that her distant future lay in wait, the swollen leg and whiskered visage, her shuffling walk and cryptic, not entirely unpleasant odor, the long lamplit days and nights, the long stretching clockless hours of being attended to and ministered to and patronized and gathered up.

What child can guess at this stuff? No child can. That’s mercy. It’s impossible to foresee. And so we gather laughing on the playground at recess and daydream aloud about getting married and being men and ladies and getting jobs and getting houses, abuzz with the Future, a cartoonish and harmless entertainment, a fantasia. It’s often not till deep into middle age that the long-running grin of expectation falls a little, Shea thought, and then the second fantasia of the autumn years looms up like a vaguely familiar uninvited guest, wearing your favorite coat, the one you thought you’d lost. Give me back my coat. Shea often realized with almost physical pain that this was where his mother found herself, in her intermittent moments of actual self-reflection. She recognized she was missing her coat and that a stranger could be seen in the middle distance boldly walking around with it, the asshole. Give me back my coat. My mother’s coat, though, is not coming back into her possession, Shea thought. It’s draped over a sunstruck rock on the beach below the Officer’s Club at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico, hung on the back fence behind quarters 4G on Wheelus AFB in Libya, tossed carelessly onto the sun porch floor in Cheyenne. That was Warren AFB. A missile base. Shea’s fondest and most dreamlike childhood memories were of places built around ballistics and defensive aeronautics; fighter jets and parade grounds and ossified cannonade with plaques and salutes and dad in his peaked major’s cap lifting him up in the blanched sun of a wintry day, hidden silos and Military Police in crazy white helmets smiling sidewise at Shea while saluting his father, and sir and ma’am and the intense amber glow of the darkened Officer’s Club  bar backlighting what looked like hundreds of gemlike bottles of booze, a tall highball glass of Coke with a cherry nestled atop the ice cubes, Eleanor on the next stool sipping a Grasshopper and languidly scissoring her legs.

“There doesn’t seem to be any injury to the bone or anything like that,” Dr. Fleming explained, his forelock and stethoscope dangling. Looking on from his seat in the corner of the shadowless office, Shea wondered for the umpteenth time at the phenomenon he had come to call “Doctor Hair”. It seemed that doctors, be they surgeons, specialists, or general practitioners, were either neatly, cinematically bald or possessed of Vince Edwards hair, or Richard Chamberlain hair. He’d yet to meet a tonsorially careless doctor, he’d never seen a doctor with mousy or nondescript hair. Shea had long since decided that patterns were afoot in this finding. Did a thickly-forested scalp connote in-built determination, fortitude? You would need the sort of hair that could be tossed aside with a head-flip if you were to successfully march through the horrors of med school and residency. Did a powerful and frank pattern baldness signal these same qualities?

“Is it getting better?” Shea asked.

“Hm. Yes,” Fleming equivocated. “You see this area around the wound.” He gestured with a tongue depressor. “The skin shows edema. You see how it’s stretched here. There is fluid under there. But the wound itself is closed, it’s stopped weeping. Possibly it drained enough to relieve some of the pressure and the tap’s closed.” Shea’s mother broke in impatiently and with an air of being perturbed.

“Well. What happened to my leg?”

Fleming looked up wearily from his lowered position. “You tell us.”

Eleanor gathered herself. “…I’m sure I don’t know.” But she sounded uncertain, and a neat, hot little blade slipped into the sac around Shea’s fluttering heart. Fleming turned to him now. “The swelling has gone down but the area surrounding the former wound is embarrassed,” he said, then added, “That’s a medical term. We call this being embarrassed.” He gestured again with the tongue depressor. “There is activity here, subcutaneous, and the surface shows it. See the angry pink.”

“Interesting term.”

“Has she been elevating it?”

“Elevating her leg?”

“Yes.”

Shea wanted to bark out with laughter, grab Fleming’s stethoscope and pull him close; Bogart upbraiding a lackey. “I doubt it very much.”

“Well,” Fleming said, sinking back onto his stool in an attitude of resignation, “She has to elevate it. Right?” He glared wearily and accusingly through his forelock. “Three times a day for an hour each time. Uh, the leg has to be higher than her heart. Sitting and watching t.v. with it propped up won’t work.”

“I know,” Shea said, eyeing the stethoscope. He realized anew that despite, or maybe because of, the crazy rigors of their years-long training, these doctors knew not how the daily world worked, knew not how their pronouncements and half-wit instructions clanged in the ears. Three times a day? Can he know how idiotic that sounds? Yes, Dr. Fleming, you’ve guessed correctly. I neither spin nor toil. I can spend hour upon waking hour sitting at the foot of my mother’s bed, seeing to it that her goddamned leg is correctly propped up so that the fluids flow back to the heart and are properly dispersed. I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to oblige us both in this, you over-educated moron. “I’ll see to it,” Shea said flatly, glancing at his mother and meeting her unexpected gaze. In that glimpse he saw her expression of consternation flash quickly into a grin, radiant and unconditional.

As promised, Shea’s older brother Carl arrived in mid-February. From the moment they met at the airport their mother took up the space between them and crowded out any of the banal and difficult subject matter that might otherwise have preoccupied them.

“I’ll be interested to hear what you think. How she seems,” Shea said, heaving Carl’s suitcase into the trunk.

“Well, we’re grateful. I want you to know we’re very grateful for what you and Marie are doing. I hope you know that. You guys are doing a super job.”

“No need to thank.”

It’d been ten years since Shea and his indomitably cheery, supportive wife had driven out to Tucson, packed up the family homestead and moved Eleanor to Shea’s hometown in sunny California. When the last box had been maneuvered into the UHaul Shea had walked though the saddened, empty shell of the house for a final goodbye, his sense of forever, of things that quietly and dully go away forever, as acute as a toothache. Full sun poured perversely through the uncurtained windows and the aged carpet bore, like tribal scarring, the precise imprints of where the furniture had stood all those years, all those nights of watching t.v. with his parents, his girlfriends, or marching through on Saturday afternoons with his pals from school. “Here come the bad guys!” Eleanor could always be counted on to holler when his high school posse arrived, and they would duck their heads and laugh politely, hearing it for the thousandth time. Where did those afternoons go? Why hadn’t he seen the gold leaf? Why are we so stripped of our senses while in the moment? Does the natural mechanism know that full-bore Presence is insupportable? Shea walked into his former high school bedroom and looking quickly around for witnesses closed and locked the door, his former Maginot Line. He touched all the walls, lay his palms against them, then pressed the sides of his face against the walls, too. Finally he got down onto the floor of his former sanctuary, found a passably clean section and licked the carpet. The moment demanded it. Allowing this Forever Farewell to simply seep osmotically through the cheap and unreliable scrim of the senses was never enough. Never.  There wasn’t enough sight and sound to carry out of there. He wanted to physically contain the house, what it had been for him, those years, that epoch, the long evenings doing homework to the helpful white noise of his cheap Zenith tuner behind his locked bedroom door, his girlfriends, his living, breathing father in baggy boxer shorts. He wanted to hold these things as more than insubstantial neural filigree. He wanted it in his tissues.

Prior to the move, and in the years after Shea’s father’s death, Eleanor’s creeping loneliness had become increasingly evident. Over time Shea had pressed Carl to help with a move of some kind, either to Carl’s town or Shea’s town, but these entreaties had been rebuffed. The conversations took on a pattern, and in one of the last before the move Shea had nearly pleaded.

“She doesn’t really have any friends any more. When dad died they sort of stopped calling.”

“I know.”

“Well, the thought of her out there with nothing going on, nobody to talk to, it makes me a little crazy. She doesn’t have a single friend now!”

“Whose fault is that?” Carl had asked more than once, without rancor, and Shea was obliged to concede the logic in the question. Then one morning at work Shea had received the phone call whose effect would be that of tectonic plates shifting, not to devastate, but anyway to dramatically rearrange.

“Mom called, crying,” Carl had said. “Something’s happened. Her money is gone.”

“—her money—“

“It’s all gone, she says. I think someone has taken advantage.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” Carl had said, with inappropriate impatience. “I wonder if you and Marie can maybe go out there and move her. I think it’s time for this to happen. Sorry to have to ask. It sounds like her money is gone”

“Move her? Someone took her money?”

“I think so,” Carl had sighed, almost longingly, or in surrender. “It is time.”

Now he and Carl were sitting beneath a lamp with Eleanor, flipping through a photo album Carl had brought in his suitcase, had pointedly assembled at his home 1800 miles away. Shea pictured him doing it, alone at his sumptuous dining room table in Virginia, brow furrowed, occasionally smiling at a particularly good find, and felt a pang of love. The photos were of a mélange of periods, some predating Shea’s birth. In the week of this visit Carl had acquitted himself with the usual fervor. He’d punctiliously seen to all manner of things in his practical, unhurried, unstoppable manner, taking their mother to expensive lunches, seeing to her domestic needs, buying her new magnifiers in tortoise-shell to replace her most recently misplaced pair.  There was a businesslike bustle about it all, and Shea knew this was partly his brother’s uncorked can-do positivism, and partly the unacknowledged fact that she would be taken from them at an hour and moment of God’s choosing; or Merlin’s; or at the whim of the mischief-making ether.

Now in Shea’s lamplit apartment in the evening, they thumbed through the album, a crazy non-sequential hodgepodge that jumped around unpredictably between family epochs and geographies, whose design and purpose was to jar in Eleanor some animating little flame, the crazy-quilt selection thought more likely to produce some useful traction on her irrecoverably smoothing consciousness.  The room was hushed at Carl’s unpracticed and unknowing insistence. He saw this photo album ceremony as a sort of liturgical episode, the atmosphere pregnant with awaited comment, revelation, spoken memory. They stopped at a photo that featured Eleanor, young, aglow, in a sparkling 60’s-era ball gown, her dark luxuriant hair a jiffy-pop poof with a flip. Hugely grinning, she held a full highball glass and was toasting the photographer. The bedecked wall behind her was hung with garland and baubles; a Christmas party, then. In the corner of the photo, half out of frame, a mounted USAF insignia on an easel, lest the revelers forget under whose paternal auspices they celebrated. It was an Officer’s Club somewhere. Eleanor placed her open hand, it’s blue hydraulic veins and papery skin, flat on the photo.

“Where was that taken, mom?” Carl asked. “Florida? Puerto Rico?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said dismissively with some heat, the question boldly idiotic. Her eyes remained fixed on the photo. Shea and Carl exchanged glances behind her inclined head. After a moment of consensual silence she murmured “That was the happiest day of my life.”

The phone rang in Shea’s fabric-covered cubicle. It rarely summoned him and he picked it up warily.

“University Admissions, this is Alan.”

“Alan Shea?”

“Yes.” He hunched slightly. The identifying second beat of the conversation already bore the hallmark of an emergency.

“Hello, Alan. I’m-calling-from-Valley-hospital-your-mother-has-had-an-accident-and-we-found-your-card-in-her-fanny-pack.” The noun “fanny pack” rang crazily in the suddenly vivid Threat Moment.

“What happened?”

“Her arm is broken in three places.”

Good God. “What happened? How did it happen?”

“She fell,” the caller professionally understated.

“Where – is she all right?”

“She’s been moved out of ICU.”

“Intensive Care,” Shea said. “For a broken arm. Is she all right?” The leg had just begun to bounce back, the wound had closed. The swelling had subsided. Of course Eleanor had quickly dismissed the expensive support brace and circulation-encouraging wraps the doctor had finally recommended for her injured leg, and which Shea had purchased immediately on leaving the appointment. She’d immediately disappeared the devices, like an impatient South American despot. She had disappeared many necessary things in the ten years since she’d moved to town. Shea continued to provide her with the gadgets and salves the healers numbingly insisted upon, and often on leaving her apartment he would cast a sort of saddened lover’s glance at some pricey, already vestigial remedy resting in imagined panic on her coffee table, some gizmo Shea knew he would never ever see again. He sometimes anthropomorphized the disappeared items into a chatting gang of Eleanor’s cast-offs in the town’s landfill. Now that the leg, on which his life had pivoted these several weeks, was finally in a state of quiescence and repair, she had severely broken her arm?

“She’s – she’s not responding well. She’s asking for you,” the caller said. “We could use your help.”  Could use his help? This was a new rhythm, and drew a rush of warm blood to Shea’s head. But the incident otherwise fit neatly into the now familiar pattern. Shea would go to her, in the middle of his workday, as he had many times before. He wouldn’t make it back to the office. His supervisor’s patience had long since been tested and found tensile, his unlikely job security a harbor of calm in Shea’s whirling milieu of spontaneous inconvenience and trial. The world of Ongoing Medical Emergency heeded no schedule. Clocks stopped, institutions capitulated, work-flow was dammed in these instances. It turned out that all of teeming, productive Life, all the urgent doing and achieving, all the scrambling attainments were a thin little charade that could, without harm, be set instantly aside in the event of a loved one’s downfall.

In the hospital lobby he saw a man who looked to be in his seventies walking some paces ahead of his own very decrepit father, the gray son affecting with some embarrassed effort a studied insouciance that nevertheless did not disguise his discomfort at being in the company of this elaborately bent and aged person; his father. The older gentleman was so old his head was completely bare, even the pattern-baldness fringe having long-since made its exit.  Shea saw through it, of  course. He knew the ancient guy had been dancing and screwing and fighting, given his generation’s habits and their deployment over the Earth’s face for this or that reason. At what point do these familiar lovers, our parents, become removed from us, become affronting strangers? It’s as if in the autumn years we become yet again as embarrassed by our parents as teens.

Shea made it up to the third floor nurse’s station where a small cluster of medical personnel in their pastel baggies exchanged gossip and pleasantries amid the computer screens and life-monitoring readouts. Immediately on seeing him a young man broke away from the small group and came to him with a tattooed extended forearm.

“Hi! I’m Paul.”

Shea took the outstretched hand. “Alan. My mother is here. I got a call. Eleanor Shea.”

“Room 314,” the young man told him immediately. “She’s a spirited lady.” He was a long-haired, pony-tailed handsome youth with a wry and excitable way of speaking. One of the mistakenly self-assured. Shea was taken aback and felt an odd umbrage. Paul’s glad, snappy assessment was a splash of cold water, his dumb summation of Eleanor an affront. What did Paul know about Eleanor? Nothing.

Shea padded cautiously down the hall, preparing himself as he had many times before. He couldn’t help but glance sidewise into the other rooms as he passed, the door-framed tableaux of shock and mild misery, family members convoking by garish hospital lamplight, talking with forced buoyancy and clutching hands, the helpless beloved in repose under screwed-up blankets, the tray gantry shoved aside with it’s light purple water pitcher and plastic glass with straw, gelatinous dinner discarded and sparkling under blanched fluorescence. Stunned mortals in a scene which after these eons should not be so unfamiliar or frightening or dismaying. Why is all this so foreign to us? What about our neural wiring hasn’t yet been able to adapt to and accept the inevitable? Is this truly not supposed to happen? Is Genesis right? Is all of mortal death an unwanted accident that wasn’t in the original plan?

Shea stuck his head into Eleanor’s room in the manner of all hospital visitors, angled it in so that only head and shoulder appeared at first, a Three Stooges entry.

“Hey, mom.” She looked up and seeing him did not beam as she usually did, but regarded him angrily, as though he’d done something to her.

“Oh, hi,” She said distractedly. She was sitting up in bed, her left arm in a black complicated-looking sling of some kind. Shea knew that her world would be in a state of confusion, and as he sometimes did he thought he would defuse her bewilderment with his good nature, which really never failed to work, to his constant relief. She shared the room with another patient, now but for a pair of feet peaking the bedsheets anonymously hidden behind the thin opaque curtain that divided the small room. The curtain slid along a shiny but otherwise common-looking pipe, hung by the metal rings one sees in a shower stall. Shea had been struck many times at the incongruity of having to suffer the humiliations of illness and injury and life ebbing in the company of similarly discomfited but otherwise unfamiliar bedfellows; the little curtains, ceiling-mounted t.v. sets and atmosphere of professional concern always unnerving. It was checking into a factory to say goodbye, sometimes temporarily, sometimes not, to the world and all of love; so long to the platinum-limned daily minutiae we previously took for granted receding from us without enough warning, longed-for treasures stored in some location outside the hospital environs, our jarringly final anguishes taking place in sudden dormitories, in the company of strangers and oddballs. The famous conceit is of course that modern medicine and it’s life-giving but soul-stripping appliances belittle us just when we ought to be exalted. But is writhing in a mud hut surrounded by hollering village elders exalting? Shea often mused on these visits that the bronze-age totems of dignity whose death ceremonies we venerate are likely just as enraged at the last, and are covered with filth into the bargain. Despite the poets’ entreaties there isn’t any good way. Again, despite the eons!

“What in the hell happened to you?”

“I don’t know.” She sounded alarmed this time, and not just annoyed.

“You fell and broke your arm. You broke it in two places. No, three places.” He made a comic show of counting the breaks on his fingers. “They think you’ll probably need an operation.”

“What’s happened to me?” She was very suddenly beseeching. The utterly unfamiliar tone startled Shea, and the room seemed to grow minutely darker. It was then he noticed the straps that held her to the bed.

“Mom!” He took a step closer. His mother was strapped down like a prisoner, the incongruity of it filled him with a feral determination, anger blossomed in him and spread like a cold fire. He bent down and began fumbling with the buckles and got them undone in a fury of yanking and twisting, his heart hammering. Did Paul do this?  He turned on his heel and strode quickly out to the nurses station. “Hello!” he said to the chatting gang in their baggies, waving his hands like a diner trying to get the waiter’s attention. He saw Paul leaning over a console of some kind and called out to him, his voice rasping. “Paul!”

The young man looked up from the console and then immediately past Shea. “Alan, no!” Shea jerked his head around to follow Paul’s alarm and saw Eleanor tottering uncertainly out of her room like the dreaded Golem in a horror movie, one arm outstretched, the other in its complicated-looking black sling. She steadied herself on the doorjamb, looked at Shea with a moment’s deep confusion then broke into an almost weeping smile of recognition. She released her hold on the doorjamb and seemed about to run to Shea when the group from the nurse’s station flowed past him from behind, flowed to either side of him and rushed to Eleanor, gently capturing her as two cupped hands  capture a moth. They clustered around his fragile mother and just as in a nightmare he saw her eyes, the lifelong-familiar eyes of his perfectly familiar and uncomplicated mom, searching for and finding him through a breach in the throng of rescuers.

“Alan!”

He’d never heard her call out to him that way, never in his life. The shock of her cry startled and stunned him, the young people surrounding her seemed to him figures from a dark reverie. They bore her back into the room, she fluttering in their midst, and Shea leaped forward, charging into the room after them, and they already had her down on the bed again, and they were applying the straps, Paul shooting Shea a dark look in the midst of the melee, and suddenly one of them produced a hypodermic and they administered the serum as Eleanor, with unexpected vigor, tried to writhe away. The straps held her.

“Jesus Christ!” Shea shoved his way to the bed and the youngsters parted like chaff, and Eleanor turned her wild eyes to him, but the spark was going out, her eyelids went quickly to half-mast even as she yearned and yearned to reach for him, he could see it in her failing posture, in her faint struggle to free herself from  the straps that held her. Shea briefly grappled with the straps again but the edges of his vision began to darken, and to his own astonishment and relief he went down on his knees beside the bed. “Mom!” he cried, and took her twisting hand where it danced on the sheet, in order to still it. The healers looked away, but not with alarm or embarrassment. This was a timeworn template. They filed out into the hallway, Paul looking back, once, meeting Shea’s eyes, and to Shea he looked suddenly worn, broken, and the young man cast his eyes down and drew the door shut.  Shea turned back to Eleanor, registered very briefly the mild buzzing of the little t.v. set on its bracket near the ceiling, and to his own surprise cried out again. “Mom!” his voice breaking, ringing in his own ears, the shock of hearing from afar his own sound, a little boy sound but basso profundo, fluids rushing, eyes bulging, all the blood on the move, capillaries hurriedly dilating to give the man his space. “Mom!” Shea grasped her bony, paper-covered little paw and pressed it to his forehead, the lightweight bird-bones popping lightly as he squeezed.

He stared at a full length bathroom mirror. He was in decent shape though his thorax sagged perceptibly under the incessant pull of gravity, a force still largely couched in mystery but whose central feature is nevertheless our cosmetic and actual undoing, a quantum conundrum which starts out serving a function essential to life but then morphs into a killing millstone. He pulled his pajama shirt back on and returned to his brother and sister-in-law on the couch. They were flipping through Eleanor’s photo albums. That journey, these changes, all the places she’d been, her denoument. Powerfully impossible, in every sense but the literal.

And here was a curling picture of Crashboat Beach, in Puerto Rico, 1956, at the foot of Ramey Air Force Base, that particular stretch of sand and surf a scene of so many storied parties and languorous afternoons drinking and talking and laughing with Air Force chums and wives, a rough circle of lawn chairs, the men leering comically at the camera and hoisting cans of Falstaff beer, Shea’s laughing father there with a can in each hand, his smile-worn dimple catching the late afternoon shadowfall just so, his black curly hair already hinting at the premature gray that would soon compel comparisons to the actor Jeff Chandler. In the fading picture the women are wearing scarves over their hair, and capri pants, beautiful bug-eyed sunglasses. Their legs are crossed, they’re all laughing with their lady heads thrown back, yaps open forever. The men and women and the kids present are all turned toward the camera in some attitude of hilarity (one! two! THREE!), my brother, too, his grin guileless and toothy, his right arm flexing to show the nascent little bicep of a nine-year old. Over the sea, in the sky behind the party, a single towering cumulonimbus cloud boils straight up into the sepia sky with frozen, explosive force, and Eleanor has her feet up on the lawn chair and is hugging her knees. Though her face is turned away the flesh is seen to follow the smooth cornice of her jawbone where it meets her neck, cleaves as snugly as the velour skin of a new love seat. She’s looking away from the camera and out to sea.

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A Starlight Manifesto

bird plane object d'art

“I can’t believe there’s a Houston.”
“You. What?”
“As we lay here, I can’t believe there’s a Houston.”
“Why? Why not?”
“No.”  She reached, somewhat laboriously, to her left; that gesture you see in movies. The arm very awkwardly crosses the body to bring the bedside lamp to life in the wee hours. There is a small grunting or wheezing from the actor, a smallish effort to sit upright, and a notable absence of expensively written dialogue for several seconds. Dead air. The darkened screen is momentarily preoccupied with only this silent gesture and so the viewer knows, and sees, that this dead screen time portends something. The lamp blazes and in the sudden blare of light we see her with her hand under the shade. She fluffs and then reclines against her pillow
“I can’t believe there’s a Houston. It’s not solipsism, or whatever.”
“It sure sounds like it,” I said. “I think it is that. Isn’t that solipsism?”

Signs and portents, of course. Tooled metal things, not quite machines, falling out of the sky but not catching fire, which is troubling. You found that thing in the garden after a freaked night of whistling crashes and tearing sounds and bright lights and hot fog. That tearing sound, oh god. That was the worst. What did you find, what is it? Bigger than a breadbox? Machined metal, possibly of mysterious provenance, but we don’t know from machined stuff, so who can say? Some of it looks quite…domestic. Building pieces? Bits of fans and things. But a built thing fallen into the garden from the sky is news. We were sure we were dead. The next morning at dawn that thing with the little flame. I guess it doesn’t have to mean anything.

A cataclysm unfolding in pieces, or acts. Is that what this is? Are we gonna be forced into a corner and made to burn with Auden’s affirming flame? No, I hope. But. We can bet there will be velocities and powers of ten and all the numbing awfulness of macro-scale inertia at its most terrible. Worlds in space are only rocks, but they bend the space around them and when they lean in to kiss there is much preparatory mayhem. In that case let’s hunker down. Think of a movie spool for the last 50 minutes of this epoch. Draw the curtains. There will be both Mickey Rooney and Howard Keel. Freddy Bartholomew and Russ Tamblyn. Yes, and Deanna Durbin. Tony Bennett will reach that inappropriate hollering high note and Ella Fitzgerald will sweat through her cocktail dress. Edith Piaf will gesture with her little upraised hands in a damning follow-spot, frozen sparrow smile beseeching. Yes, now’s the time for that.

Meanwhile the birds flutter in from parts on high, from somewhere generally overhead, from space. In the moments before the ghoulish Accident (as much one of mathematics as of any failure of endeavor or faith), all is calm, all is bright.  An outsized string section sweeps along like gently eddying, jasmine-scented smoke; Mancini’s unspeakably lush Lujon at high volume. Turn it up, WAY up. It won’t hurt.  Sunshine dumps down in a single shining sheet through a cloudless and hospitable firmament, glinting off the moving river of glassy colored metal, a state freeway lined with smoke-offended trees and shrubs. Like garden-variety idiots the birds do indeed come spinning down from the dumb blue dome to alight on buildings and street signs and highway overpasses, to flutter and swarm and undulate in flocks, flirting shamelessly with the inanimate and animate alike, everywhere caressing cornices, flattering high voltage lines with their attentions. Why do we venerate these dimwits? These most enviable of the Nobles don’t know a twig from an aerial. And yet their grouped and anxious travel suggests purpose and music, compels revery. Poets are mad for these fools. In real time they spatter us with their crap and eat worms without irony, as do most of our muses on closer inspection. Some of us know better.

The accident itself will be quick. A car wreck, say, but such a car wreck as made the oceans. And it is a car wreck that will herald the explosive ruin of this epoch and the burnt basement that will begin the next. It’s unavoidable, both in the realm of physics, I suppose, and in the realm of evolutionary biology. Jefferson’s recommended Occasional Overthrow. And what good are we? The eternal question.

Our skeletons are uselessly in-built, the hardened and strangely resilient, ostentatiously jointed bones exist only as a stupidly fancy framework on which to hang our defenseless pulpy guts, if you can imagine. The life force is in the guts, but in the event of an attack the primary guts are standing more or less in front of or alongside the skeletal fortress and not behind it. In a machined calamity or industrial accident (never mind a world-wrecking cataclysm) that doesn’t even pretend to make sense. Clearly the startled natural mechanism that decides how best to adapt us to our environment didn’t foresee this post-industrial miasma of death options, so that simple and low-speed car collisions and bicycle mishaps wreak absolute havoc on our softened, old-fashioned little bodies. Surely after several hundred millennia of driving cars and crashing, the glacially sluggish Inventor of physical expedience will see fit to give us exoskeletons, the better to protect us in the inevitable dashing of bodies against runaway machinery. But these things take time. The Mechanism in its torpor will just begin to rouse to the need some several hundred thousand years after the last freeway disaster. The human culture has advanced to the point that our technological stupidities outstrip God’s ability to protect us from them. So here comes another little smudge now. Something like this:

In the morning after a hurried breakfast something was falling from the sky and we saw it there and it filled us with an indescribable dread, and we jumped in the car, didn’t we? I was watching it, you were driving, I and thousands of others craning necks to look up though filthy windshields at this dawdling and horrific little harbinger.  We were all watching it then, all of us on the freeway,  the busy interstate became a parking lot as this thing captured the collective attention and imagination and all eyes looked up.  We’re always looking up! Even in the end! People were in flight, driving away from the city in planless droves. We deserve this, driving in panic away from our big dumb cities.  We collectively sensed an end. How?

The thing anyway wasn’t burning or glowing or incandescing in that vaguely familiar space-age turbulence we’ve come to associate with brief news clips of things tearing loose and falling from low earth orbit, those killing chunks of progress fallen down, our shuttles being picked apart, a burnt helmet half-filled with highly trained human tissue found in a field in Texas.. This falling thing was not exhibiting the characteristics of a low orbit plummeter. It wasn’t even falling. That became sickeningly evident. Like, right away.  It was a coldish object not falling but drifting, lifting, soundlessly, through scudding balls of cotton. I almost couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Vanity rears its head and empires go jitterbugging into oblivion, alongside personal histories and love stories and the smaller emotional architectures. This Drifting Thing, though, is not the proximate cause of the harum-skarum ruin that is soon to announce itself. It adds a note of flavor, though. It’s a small effect.

All this movement. From low earth orbit the movement is Brownian, or bacterial. Swarming specks, indistinct, vibrating, the nonsensical convocation of anxious and purposeless mineral life. Each utterly nondescript speck, though, (and here’s the thing) is possessed of its own heraldry, just as invisible in close-up, actually, as from this orbital distance; its own parentage, bloodline, favorite films, culinary distastes, and fear of being a speck. We are mostly joined at the speck terror. Catastrophe strikes invisibly, and of course sometimes very visibly.

Again, Mancini’s Lujon. Turn it up, I say. It’s the soundtrack of the end of the species, all species. Dear Hank wouldn’t have guessed that while composing it. He and Mercer put together Moon River in a hotel ballroom in the space of an hour and likely didn’t know Audrey would be felled by wildly multiplying cell armies, that Peppard would later star in The A Team. We can’t anticipate tragedy, its hidden omnipresence seems only to compel us to more beautiful music.

The speck ahead of me in traffic, in close-up an articulated dreamer with all the qualifications of the Living and Dear, whose bones will momentarily be partially reduced to wet, course powder, is named Sven, though I can’t know that. His parents are John and Susan, and I can’t know that either. They named him Sven in the glow of a late-sixties bonhomie that might more likely have conferred Starlite or Wowie upon him, but Sven is a character from the Flintstones episode John and Susan were delighted to have found a common childhood memory when first they met, a stone-aged house painter with a Swedish name and outrageous sing-song accent.

Ahead of me, the Porsche Carrera’s driver sideview mirror frames Sven. In my purposeful and generally wounded view, he is at this moment a giddy jackass holding court. Sven. I can see the Raybanned head jerking fitfully and enthusiastically about, showily wearing that strenuous grimace that passes for a smile with this gang. Sven is a-jitter with the exuberance and wisdom of the tanned eternals, his audience the stitched, leather-bound dashboard he probably haggled expertly to have thrown in for a song.  This is the much-vaunted ‘secret to success’. Not talent. Nor intelligence, eloquence, emotional nuance, or even ambition as it is commonly defined; but a tanned and clean- shaven jawbone, flapping, flapping, yammering excitedly to no-one, an expensively-coiffed head tossing about, typifying the awful inertia of self-congratulation that for many of our number is sufficient to propel one into the higher reaches of prestige and liquidity; the monied stratum to which everyone ostensibly attains, but which only bewilders and destroys, one hopes. It’s the same numb initiative that obliges an unlovely weed to push through a sidewalk with evident explosive force, crumbs of wrecked cement surrounding the plucky little stem. It doesn’t know it is pushing but simply obeys a code that commands Reach! Reach! Reach! Tora! Tora! Tora! Reach with all your will, you sonofabitch! No real cognition or pleasure attends this race to the heights. It’s a deliciously blank-eyed religion, a religion of only Reaching. Its acolytes, novices, proselytizers and Keepers of the Flame are not preachers, but Reachers. The devotees just climb. That’s it. This is galling to those of us who do not, or will not, Reach, who believe that career immobility, beautiful thinking and a deep-field appreciation of the commonplace should be rewarded with fetes, parades and silent awed respect; our heart-wounding belief that spiritual prescience and workaday warmth should be the coin of the realm. Such is not the case. Sven, then.

In the seconds before the appearance of the drifting thing and the planet-ending embrace it heralds one wonders, adrift; the synapses bonfire around set pieces and warming rushes of idea and sudden scalp-prickling emotion. One sees what one wants to see; those things that have energized and refreshed us in these darkling days. You think of Steve Lawrence, for instance, perched on a prop ladder in some black and white t.v. variety show, of that era when the commercials were dancers dressed as tubes of toothpaste. Lawrence is warbling in that slightly scratchy tenor. He’s wearing a v-neck sweater and stove pipe trousers and smiling while he sings, emoting through those Kennedeyesque jowls of his. And now he can been seen or imagined shuffling uncertainly around some trophy room in the Nevada desert,  as I’ve said, alone amidst his framed accolades, Edyie in another part of the house. Edyie Gorme! Dead! While for us Lawrence appears only now and again like the bobbing plastic truth teller in an upturned eight ball, now emerging from the murk, now gone, the fact is he has lived all the minutes and hours of his life, whether or not we’ve been thinking of him. For all these decades he has bought groceries and made love and visited the dentist and gone for walks. And now he nears the end of something, this sweatered statue, and is doddering around his trophy room in Nevada or Arizona, desert sun pouring in, orange and full of meaning, pouring in at a meaningful angle at dusk. Steve Lawrence at Dusk! This informs our theme. Now, the curtain.

The birds have landed. Not the dimwits I just disparaged, a more stately and quiescent group. Not the iconic Movie Birds, squatting and barking and preening filthily on telephone wires, but white and gray city birds in now decorous flocks. The catastrophe has brought them to ground and there are tens of thousands of birds sitting atop our parked cars, as far as the eye can see, as they say. They anticipate earthquakes with a flocked, frenzied leave-taking but this brings them in for a massive landing. Very awful and as heart-seizing as the drifting thing.  We’re not going to feel this. The assembled End-Birds are as gray and black as a beautiful monochrome vision of nuns in excited conference, as multi-colored as a kid’s bag of marbles, they’re for once intermingling; finches and robins and swallows, gulls in from the coast to share the moment. Crows. For once not yelling. All the birds wheeling downward in bleached sunlight, slanting downward into the steeples and towers and complicated glassware of this very large, sprawling and inconceivably various city, down onto our cars, covering the shoulder of the freeway like a gaudy moving carpet. wtf.

The tippity-tops of cityscapes are a steepled riot of spires and poles and lime-encrusted metal boxes, and all sorts of interesting and often unrecognizable structures, and these are lifting away without difficulty from their bolted seats. They don’t lavish the same care on the roof of a skyscraper as they do on its main entry. In its junk-heap glory up there the contrast seems such that the dichotomy is architecturally deliberate. These neglected skyscraping rooftops are the first to yield up their glories, and the nondescript machined bits float upward, like carbonation, all over the city, a city otherwise anchored by untold tons of ugly bolted metal drilled down into bedrock. Our touching gesture of permanence, these embarrassed bolts.

Stop the car. Let’s run home. Back to the garden, ha!

“Get out of your car!” I yell at the nameless Sven before you yank my hand and we’re off. The poor Success Story jerks his head around and it’s stirring to see a suggestion of water falling down his face from behind his shades.

It’s a half-mile back to the house and we sprint without tiring, the parked freeway cars a final cinema show as we run past, hand in hand. In the garden, of one mind, we squat behind the rose terrace. Fight or flight. Neither. This is the anthropology-trumping end of the line. Is this what the dinosaurs saw? They didn’t have the wherewithal to hide behind a rose terrace. We’ll show them.

The sky is filled with floating junk,  it’s a moving sight. We’ve always been moved by things, sentiment and happenstance. What good was it? Light on a window, light on water. Light floating upward like a vapor from the many-terraced city at night, backlit living room curtains billowing gently out from open arcadia doors, out into the darkness of an evening, all these evenings. All these evenings!

Hold my hand as tightly as you can, hold my hands as tightly as you can, both now, please please please don’t let go of my hand. Please please please, I don’t want to hurt, I don’t want to feel this, I don’t want to feel this, I don’t want to hurt, please hold onto my hand. I’ll hold onto your hand, both hands I promise. I don’t want Sven to feel this. The surface of the world is delaminating, the dome of Heaven is filling up with 7 billion years worth of junk. Thornton Wilder, guide us through this! Goodbye Marlon Brando in your t-shirt at the bottom of the stairs, goodbye cups of coffee, Eva Marie Saint, number two pencils and Cat jumping into Audrey’s arms. Oh god how that always killed me. Maybe we had something after all. In my quickened mind’s eye a steaming sunlit sidewalk in a light rain. What a place this has been. Whoa! Did you–? Hold my hand hold my hand harder harder harder! Here it comes, a sound like wind but it’s not a wind. Do not let go of my hand.

Ursa Major

Image

My Aunt Bernadette thought everything was cute, and I do mean everything.  She was very vocal about it, and it was very strange.  It amounted to a mild form of madness, I’m pretty sure, though it was never actually diagnosed.  Cookie jars, the homeless.  Bolts of lightning.  Paint.  It endeared people to her, those on the periphery not personally afflicted by Bernadette’s chronic and obsessive vision of Life as something to ferociously nuzzle.  To us she was just an oddball, not entirely unpleasant, to whom our blood had chained us; a widow, a compulsive enthusiast, a gusher.  A hell-hound hyphenate, excuse me.  One couldn’t shut her up sometimes.  It’s fair to say that she had a lot of love to give, and at times one could not shut her up.

On a camping trip once, she made as if to caress a cute bear that had ambled into camp in search of something to eat, a hind legged T.V. walkabout bear with cuddly ears, buttons for eyes and a cute false looking nose like wet black velvet.  Bernadette approached the bear, I screamed momentously, and with one elegant swipe the bear moved her entire face, intact, to a different part of her head.  In the film I can’t stop running she falls slowly backward, one hand raised, as in a swoon.  And she’s laughing gently.  She sounds amused.  Everybody screamed, but I screamed first.  I haven’t forgotten.

Now she’s on her way over for the Brunch.  I am freaking petrified, per the norm.  This is a ritual.  Tribal, inescapable.  Not exactly archetypal, as it involves an affronted brown bear and a spinster in high tops.  But it is destiny being spun out in its nattiest, most household form.  The lifeline and loveline stymied, finally, by a callus.  My disfigured aunt with her nightmare face, her terse demands, her impeccable aura of doom is coming to order us around, compound our misgivings, crystallize our regret into guilt.  It will work, as always, like a charm.  Contrition so thick you could hang a coat on it.  My mother’s sister has been ruined by a bear, and she hates us for it.  Me in particular.

Dear God, why did I have to scream like that?  An eight-year-old screaming bloody murder at the sight of his mother’s sun-dappled older sister in a fragrant clearing of pines.  That’s it.  An eight-year-old boy, already aware enough to know the lethal distinction between a wild bear and its zippered Saturday morning counterpart, the difference between a cartoon and a contusion.  And there is the eight-year-old’s funny, dandified aunt in her lumberjack shirt, new dark blue jeans, brilliant white sneakers; a city slicker in neon.  And there is the bear, lumbering, dusty, blank of expression but certainly not smiling.  A hungry bear, a sad looking older woman with hair in a ragged bun.  Snow white tennis shoes.

Surgeries. One of the more awkward plurals in our language.  That single unadorned  word connotes such misery; endless antiseptic hours and days of soaking red gauze, sterile rags and steel, hinges, tubules, pinging robots. In the surgical aftermath of this gruesome bear hug gone wrong, Bernadette began, apropos of nothing but her own hunger for a design in all this, herself to point the finger of blame at her sister, my mother, for reasons neither we nor a cadre of increasingly pricey professionals could ever quite ascertain. And so once the half-baked therapeutic decision was taken, mom quickly and agreeably gathered around her trembling shoulders the thorny shawl of a tactical penitence that would rewrite our history, take the edge off the frank horror of it by putting us in approximate possession of the storyline. Mom thus draped herself in the fact of her own involvement in Bernadette’s physical and, it must be noted, spiritual ruin; for what faith in the loveliness of the tactile world can survive a mauling? Our bewildered, grieving mother adopted and lived this role with the zeal of a hopeful Hollywood starlet until after some time she began to shrink into it. When after two scarifying years of this her battered id showed signs of architectural collapse, it was suggested that a transference (if not an outright transplant) was needed in order to save mom. The blame-laying would be removed from my mother like the infected lobe of an offending toxic organ and bequeathed to one whose spiritual elasticity would more successfully tolerate the howling and unquenchable umbrage of our Bernadette.

She’s deranged. Yes. And who but a dimwit would try to hug a wild bear? But more to the point, one does not suffer lightly the scraping of one’s countenance nearly halfway round the head. Bernadette’s ongoing confusion of cause with effect has become the deal breaker of late, and for twenty years my boyish resilience has been put to the test. Now Bernadette hears a scream, the girlish piercing scream of an eight-year-old boy, she lands on her ass and life will never be the same.

Whew!

The last Sunday of every month she strides in with the picnic basket, the hair in the bun, the sneakers, the jeans, the face like a big budget special effect –

Here she comes now.  Hear that?  Wait.  Hear it?  I can just hear the whistling; a velvet-capped dwarf homeward bound after a day in the mines.  Listen to that!  Hearing that gay and lilting melody you form a picture.  Well, don’t bother.

“Paul, here comes Bernadette.”

“You don’t say.”

“Don’t start in, Paulie,”

Penance.  Stage penance, the sourest kind.  I hear the whistle and don the gaudy garb of the penitent.  Always the whistling first, though.  It’s like the old radio show.  The Whistler?  Who Knows What Evil etc.  Bernadette is changing me, and not for the better.

Oh, we all have our parts to play.  Mom is the heartbroken little tagalong who will never escape the fact of her older sister’s mauling and her tacit responsibility for it.  Had mom not invoked the velveteen huggability of the natural world in her pitch to pry her eccentric and creepingly agoraphobic sibling out of the lavishly appointed hothouse of her studio apartment in town, we wouldn’t be trapped in this meat grinder today. Yep. Dad is the catskillian wiseacre from hell, spewing his litany of ostensible tension-busters; Faust meets Henny Youngman.  Stephanie, my kid sister, a finger-popping brick-wall poet and dime store nihilist becomes uncharacteristically quiescent in the presence of the shocking Bernadette; Stephanie of the jauntily cocked black beanie, rebellious black bangs and angry coffee-house ennui, her hunched little wall-eyed Frenchman whispering his bleak encouragements in her ear. Even Sartre’s trash-talking carp mouth would fall open at the sight of Bernadette. Stephanie senses this.

We can’t upset Poor Bernadette, no no no no no.  Upset Bernadette?  Huh uh.  The poor woman has suffered enough.  She’s not so far gone she doesn’t suffer, not so far gone she can’t dispense suffering.  She is not in a vegetative state.  No, Bernadette distributes angst freely, incautiously.  She sprays angst.  She is a Rainbird Sprinkler of angst.

“Paulie, answer the door.”

“Ma, no.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but it’s time.  I mean it.”

“Oh, you mean it, you mean it.  I know you mean it.  For God’s sake, ma, what can you threaten me with?”  She looks away, shamefaced.  The script is getting dog-eared.

Twenty years.  Every last Sunday, a lifetime of Sundays, my entire adult life a corruption of the Sabbath.  A bandage, they called it at first.  Let her lay blame, it’ll help assuage her sense of despair.  Make it clear to the boy – what’s his name?

paul

– Make it clear to Paul it’s a game, that’s all.  There is no real blame.  By pretending, he can help his aunt.  He can help her.  This will all be over before it can hurt little Paul.  You like games, don’t you, Paulie?

yeah

Well, play this one for a while.  It’ll help your Aunt Bernadette.  It’ll help your Aunt Bernadette.  It’ll help –

HOW LONG?  HOW LONG?  TWENTY YEARS?  I’M INNOCENT!  INNOCENT!  I’D GIVE ANYTHING JUST TO HAVE DONE SOMETHING TO DESERVE THIS!  BETTER GUILT THAN THIS.  BETTER ANYTHING THAN THIS!

“The door, Paulie,” Stephanie says, turning somber.  The three of them are all somber now, hands folded in front, heads bent.  The curtain’s about to rise.

What a pleasant surprise.  A sixty year old woman in button fly jeans and SWEET JESUS, HER FACE IS ON THE SIDE OF HER HEAD spanking clean sneakers, perfectly laced THE FACE, THE FACE, THE FACE and unnaturally spotless.  Hmm, hmm, she’s got her hair in a bun, now that’s a switch.  What a lovely hairpin.  God help me, I’m seeing right angles.

“Paulie prepared brunch today, Bernadette,” mom warbles to her monstrous sister.  I’m grinning like a statue of an idiot.  We all are now.  We can’t help but be stunned by the scene as it starts to play out; the B-horror epiphany which features, again and again, the putrid Family Shame, the hairy rag-swaddled secret torn loose from its shackles to descend the attic stairs and shock the screaming daylights out of the dinner guests.  The kind of revelation that can spoil dessert absolutely, and for all time.

“Bernadette, Paulie’s prepared something special.”

“I made enchiladas,” I inform genially.  Aunt Bernadette turns away to regard me with The Face.  What a treat.  She’s not happy.  My scalp twiddles and I nearly blanch.

“Enchiladas for brunch,” the cockeyed mouth repeats, the vibrantly lipsticked yap slipping outlandishly around crowned molars.

“We’re going south of the border,” I nod.  I show her my lowered palms in a kind of supplication.  The Face curls up.  She’s smiling.

“Give us a kiss,” she says.

***

Lunch is all over the table.  It’s a Mexican jamboree.  Lots of orange and earth tones, plenty of gray paste.  Arms ratchet in quiet confusion over the runny foodstuffs.  According to tradition I prepare Bernadette’s plate.  I always prepare her plate, whether she brings the food or we cook at home.  This is but a tawdry fragment of the atonement I play out once a month.  There is much forgiving to be done.  I serve the enchilada and bow in retreat.

“There you are,” I sing.  An enchilada, rice, pasty beans.  By now I can almost imagine myself guilty of something.  That’s the nature of the song and dance.  Aunt Bernadette aims her head at the hallway and faces the plate before her.  Stephanie gasps.  Will we ever get used to this?

“Water,” Bernadette says.

In the kitchen, knives and grand looking pronged things glitter invitingly, all parallel and held conveniently fast by magnet.  I fill a glass with tap water and return to the others.

“Lukewarm,” Bernadette says.

“Get your aunt a cold glass of water and make it snappy,” mom says with nary a wink of secret conciliation.  I take up the glass and head back to the kitchen.  Behind me, I can hear Bernadette berating.

“You people twist my face and break my goddamned heart, and still you refuse to teach that bear-loving nitwit son of yours the simplest tenets of courtesy.  Tap water, for God’s sake!”

She then calls out to me.

“Say, kiddo,” she barks in an endearing Bette Davis staccato, “this food looks like an injury; your Mexican feast looks like something burst from a wound.”  I scarcely break stride. I pour out the offending water and fill the glass to the brim with dad’s vodka.

“You’d better hurry, son,” dad calls from the next room.

“My friggin’ mouth is on fire!” Bernadette concurs with a ranchera sauce-muffled shriek.  I count ten and hurriedly reenter the dining room.  Everyone is alarmed at my tardiness.  Bernadette grabs the glass before I can hand it to her, guzzling the vodka; an eight ounce glass of vodka and she gulps it down like spring water on a hot day, she throws the vodka back with urgency, throat pulsating, eyes closed, the very picture of refreshment.  Only when the glass is completely drained do alarms appear to go off.

She sets the glass down, carefully, and presses her palms flat against the table top.  Her head cocks back, her lips and jaw working, eyeballs dancing an Eddie Cantor jig, her immediate response positively vaudevillian; Jerry Lewis tasting caviar.  Then suddenly the Face becomes ingenious, gear-driven, prosthetic.  It metamorphically wads itself into contortions I would not have thought possible, as if the sutures of her skull are pulling apart to set the cranial components adrift.  The eyebrows begin a palsic rollick of their own.  Her neck flushes the color of sprayed blood.

“Assholes,” Bernadette rasps in a strangled whisper reminiscent of small-budget exorcism.  Family is stunned, and gaping.  Bernadette, her hands still flat on the table at either side of her plate, throws her head back in a twitching arc, a roaring stegosaurus in a late night claymation epic, gagging, gurgling.  “Assholes.  You’re all… assholes.”  She makes fists and bangs the table, Soviet Premier style, sputtering, choking, eyes running like taps.  The scene, as it is playing out, is hideous to behold.  I notice dad’s nose working the air.  He smells the vodka.

“Good Christ, Paul!”

But I see the mirth.  He’s hopeful.  And as my own respondent hope begins to unfold in kind, Bernadette brings her hands to her ‘cheeks‘ and launches a brilliant jet of vomit which leaps like a solid tentacle across the table to smite dad’s off-white Nicklaus V-neck square in the sternum.  The figure and ground contrast is electrifying.  Dad’s jaw clenches.  There is the sudden and spectacular odor of vodka enchilada.

“Assholes!” Bernadette gasps, wiping her mouth, reaching out instinctively, bunching my shirt-front in her shaking fist.  “Your little JOKE.  No RESPECT,” she hisses at the lot of us.  “And you,” she breathes all over my face, the unholy stink a damburst of sensate misery, “You are no doubt the perpetrator, you little shit.”  She grasps my ears with both hands and pulls.  “WHEN-WILL-YOU-STOP-HURTING-ME?  WHEN?  WHEN?”  She jerks my head around, I think she may tear my ears off.  Nobody moves, nobody speaks.  My own arms are slack.

Oh, look what’s coming over the levee.

The E string snaps with a cochlea-rending shriek.  The screaming bridge cracks explosively down the middle and spills traffic into the turgid river below.  The camel brays in a final blood-seizing malediction as the last blade of hay settles into place and heartily rips his spine.  My inhibitors give like so many tissue paper bulwarks before an onrush of superheated steam.

“Hands off,” I hazard in a HAL 9000 monotone. “Off, off, off.”

“Guy walks into a shrink’s office, says, ‘Doc, nobody talks to me.’  Shrink says, ‘NEXT!'”

“No, dad!”

“Guy walks into a nunnery in an ape suit -”

Bernadette rises from her chair, yanking my ears.  I’ve got her by the wrists, trying to pry her loose, and in this manner we waltz about the room like epileptic prizefighters in a technically baffling clinch.

“This guy!” dad barks, wild eyed, thinning hair flung akimbo, newly vivid sweater dripping, arms launching like peacekeepers as he rises from his seat in haste.  “THIS GUY, THIS GUY!”

“No, THIS guy,” I rant, hurling Bernadette away, changing the emphasis, all righteous theater now.  “THIS guy, goddammit.”

Mom is fixated on the plate under her chin, she’s inspecting the food there in a clinical fashion.  Stephanie cowers behind her bangs. Dad has cut himself off mid-punchline, which in itself is somewhat momentous.  My glasses are on the floor.  I believe I’ve stepped on them.  My hair is splayed all over my face, and I push it back in a gesture of restraint.  I feel like Bob DeNiro.  Bernadette is breathing hard.

In the den I retrieve the bearskin rug we group-ditched all those years ago, a very expensive item given as a gift to my parents the day they married.  It’s bunched up in the closet behind two sets of golf clubs, a mouldering box of lawn darts, various photo albums stacked as high as a four year old child, mom’s wedding dress.  The rug is crammed into the corner, I can just see it in the dimness, feel it with my groping hand, all that luxuriant fur, wadded up like some cheap souvenir.  We are all held prisoner to a wholly fabricated shame while our mementos of love rot in the dark.

UNH!  Heavy.  Jesus, what a smell!!  God knows how many mites and their ilk are crawling happily onto my scalp right now.  Let’s have a look in the mirror. Oh.  Wow.

“Grrrrr!  Grrrrr!  Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”

Lurching, head bobbing.  I have to lean forward to keep the flea-bitten thing from sliding off my back.  I can just barely see through the teeth, a certifiably bizarre domestic scene framed by long dead canines; a Picasso-face in vibrant denim, a shivering former nihilist in Grace Slick bangs, a vomit covered golf enthusiast, a sacrificial lamb.  The Picasso is massaging her throat.  In the midst of all this some two dozen glittering enchiladas.  The scene comes slowly alive.  Those seated rise, but very slowly.  Bernadette has yet to take notice.

I scoot into the room a little more without growling, feeling marginally silly already, the original adrenal impulse now a memory, a faint buzz.  When dad hisses, “Mother of God!”, I see that I’m quite alone in this.  There’s none of the mild celebratory chuckling I’d counted on as my reward, none of the keen camaraderie of close knit family members guffawing in the face of rude tragedy.  It seems, of a sudden, I stand alone.  In a rancid bearskin rug.

Bernadette sees me, rushes to and flattens herself against the wall.  Her jaw cranks open in a silent scream, and the silence hushes the room. I can see her now like a framed portrait, shoulder raised, screaming mouth.  Her position in the corner prevents her from averting her eyes.  She turns her head away and all she can see is me.

My mother takes her seat and passes a hand over her face, shoulders shaking.  Laughter?  She rises, walks over. Her eyes are bloody red, her face is wet all over.  If one didn’t know these things, it would be hard to say where all that water came from, her face is so wet.  My bear head nods, I don’t know what to do with my paws, but I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to do something.  Her shoulders slump, her left eyebrow arches and I gasp. My grin blossoms like a spasm within the gutless, donned head of this former animal.  Mom is very small, diminished but aflame, sighing, and in a gust of admiration I love her with all my sinking heart.  She launches her veiny little fist through the taxidermist’s generous gape.

God bless us, every one.

Alchemy

Alchemy Crucible

That morning I drank for about an hour and a half and thought about Brenda; the manner of her death, or the moment of her death. I would put it all in a box. It would need to be light enough for me to lift. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Joel’s knockout of a wife had been clubbed like a ham hock and thrown thirty yards by a refrigerated produce truck sliding through a yellow.

The broad bug-flecked plane of the grillwork saw to it that she would neither roll nor sidle past nor sashay around the frank inertial cruelties that wreak such easy havoc in these settings.  Witnesses describe the contact as hammer-blow-like.  Brenda arced obediently through shrieking summer air, following the famous immutable laws.  She would have been, by then, a worthless husk.  Witnesses describe a flapping rag doll the size of a human being.  She hit the asphalt half a block away and rolled like a stunt dummy.  The Bible says not to expect thanks for doing what’s expected of us anyway, but sometimes the brute ingratitude from on high is too much for the rational heart to want to bear.  There may be a dark and bemused comic mind somewhere, perhaps just drifting, like Donovan’s Brain, in a puff of ether.  It can conjure a plague of frogs and can execute a man’s wife by seeing her tossed like garbage, powerfully, into a row of decorative roadside bushes. Brenda negotiates a horizontal flapping pirouette, quite violently, into the bank of dirty pfitzers. Again again again. That’s the picture I see.

She was somewhat hastily buried two days later, on Saturday, but first the coroner had fixed the cause of death, which was one or another kind of trauma.  The funeral had been brief, nearly perfunctory, in accordance with what Joel assured us would have been Brenda’s wishes in this contingency. Almost exactly halfway through the ceremony, Joel fell down in complete silence, sprawled, like a vaudeville drunk. Those who rushed to help him found Joel’s expression blank, though not slack. The muscles of his face were prone, his mouth was agape slightly, his eyes were aimed skyward and dry.  He seemed about to say something. But the face didn’t move, and was mask-like, something to me at that moment as disorienting as the focused, intense stare of the dead. Trying to get Joel on his feet was like trying to hoist a corpse, or, again, a stunt dummy.  So we just held him where he lay on the wet ground, three of us on our haunches.

The following Wednesday morning at around nine I sat at my kitchen table.  I’d had a shot of scotch and was preparing to have another.  My kitchen serves as a dining area as well, and there are two enormous windows. My smallish back yard and patio were beautiful to see. Sun fell all over the place. The oak shivered restlessly in early breezes. Two red birds the size of flashlight batteries stair-stepped down from somewhere overhead in a controlled flutter-and-drop descent and alighted on the brickwork. I dribbled another shot into the glass.  The phone yelped like a Tourette’s patient and I banged the shot glass against my teeth. It was Joel.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one!” he managed through a kind of ongoing guffaw. It sounded like he might be laughing with food in his mouth. What could this mean? Why did it have to mean anything? I flashed on a snapshot-like image of myself sitting almost forlornly under a demure little reading lamp with a book on my lap, and I thought for that instant I might burst into true hysteria.

“Joel.”

“’I’ll never dance with another’. Here’s a kid writing a line like that. But he did dance with another.”

“I know.”

“He went on to dance with another.”

“I know it.”

“Aren’t you something. My wife was butchered in traffic, you know. Remember Brenda? Remember her? Her body did not come apart, so there is that to be grateful for.”

“Well, ” I murmured experimentally, the booze encouraging forays into terra incognita I hoped might yield some traction, something to arrest the helpless sliding and careering. “This life is a kaleidoscope. You always said so.”

“Yes, yes. The box of chocolates. A dimwit in a crew cut selecting chocolates from a box.”

I reconnoitered. “Why don’t you come over here and have a drink with me?”

“And if I accept?” he replied with the sudden and disorienting air of a dilettante shooting his lace cuffs.

“I’m asking you to accept.”

He seemed to think about that. Then,  “No. I’ll see you Monday.”

“Monday –“

“At work?” he yelled.

“You’re going to back to work? You…you can’t. Not yet.”

“Man lives by bread alone,” he managed, through what sounded like a yapful of bread.

#

We’re slapped into stunned tears by startling and unearned cancer diagnoses, see our loved ones raped and murdered, lose limbs and senses in horrific leisure time accidents involving hammocks, oars, mowers, kitchen utensils, sporting goods. We bear personal witness to spirit-breaking tortures and massacres and mop up the viscera with both hands. An hour or a day later we are immersed, impossibly, in the full-bore asininity of the workaday. The limned fluorescence of the ordinary seems almost to holler. The clock on the office wall ticks like a rude farting idiot, ergonomically calibrated office chairs reach out with their thalidomide arms, promising comfort. Our little fabric cubicles assume the aspect of veal stalls; they are tenderizing us by preventing any meaningful movement. Staple removers begin to enrage the senses and one is tempted to gales of laughter at the sight of an office colleague standing expectantly before a fax machine, arms slack. The small trash cans yawn extravagantly and everything thrums with the unstoppable and banal energies of the river we are all famously borne down.

No one was more terrified than I when Joel entered the 10 o’clock Bettany triage . The recent and reportedly irreparable travails of the Bettany account were shining Grail-like at the far end of the small conference room; Stone’s laudable PowerPoint presentation of everything the team was dismantling through its ineptitude. When Joel entered unceremoniously and without a knock, a kind of suggested gasp befell the room. He was clean-shaven and hustled by with the ordinary alacrity of a well-rested but tardy office drone. He was wearing an unfamiliar necktie whose motif was visible even in the near darkness. As he made for his seat at the long long table crowded with suddenly bowing heads, I saw in a cinematic flash the timeworn and culturally predictable drama about to play out; the newly minted existentialist waving his arms, gesturing grandly, if crazily, at the explosive lack of meaning we marinate in daily. The stupid glowing PowerPoint and its pitiable suggestion of technology’s triumph of over whatever vagaries haunt us, the perfumed carcasses in their carefully chosen shirts and blouses. What a fat slow moving target is a marketing meeting to a newly minted existentialist! Fish in a barrel are more elusive than the ghastly nebulae of emptiness that sink down around the heads of assembled marketers in a meeting whose sole aim is to conjure the means to move unneeded product; a sleight of hand whose terminus is dust. Look at these heads, these sideburns, breasts, earrings, pearls, shoe tassels, wristwatches, collarbones, etc. See the swollen eyes and cleft chins, all the phantoms killing time as the river bears them away and away.

But Joel took his seat without fanfare and aimed his face at Stone’s glowing cartoon. A stylized seismographic line reached a summit then headed back down to earth, and Stone, after a pin-drop pause at Joel’s entrance, indicated this uninspired symbol of failure with his laser pen.

“Here. The drop is precipitous,” Stone breathed with stagy disappointment, tracing the jagged nosedive with his little red beam, clearly enjoying his moment. And why all the sneaking embarrassed glances, tipping and bowing and peeking over at Joel in the darkness, dipping their dumb little heads to sneak a look? What do they hope to see? What suggestion of the Next New World do they hope to glimpse in the person of this bereaved tick-tock man, my Joel?  Isn’t there something that ought to be said by someone in the room? Something on this occasion that might trump even Stone’s laser? But there is no right way to acknowledge this stuff, no standard way to die or to remark on death, no template for tactfully leaving this plane, or for referencing absent acquaintances who have done so. All these accidents and murders and so forth, in all the world! All the throbbing clocks that are suddenly or slowly made to stop ticking, in the cities and villages, in beds and forests, out on the open sea, on carpeted living room floors and in the monoxide midst of traffic. Living people are as various as the accidental and premeditated acts of physical congress that produce them, but the dead are all the same. There is a kind of magic in that transubstantiation. Is that why we imagine the dead as roaming phantoms? Transluscent ectoplasmic tatters of visible energy gracefully negotiating the winds between the stars? Supernature has its allure, but it’s been all but proven that there is no wind up there but solar wind, which blows everything away from the sun and its light.

“Joel, your comments,” Stone was saying, and at that I felt my complexion flare. I imagined Joel driving downtown alone in the after-work dusk, windows down, his thinning hair blowing. He is looking for something or someone, a friend, two friends; driving among and past the alleyways and shadowy declivities of the city, the shop fronts and hanging electric works of the place, civic light fixtures designed with love and a sense of grandeur, I imagined, by excitable men and women with pencils behind their ears. And for what? But a moment in the sun is no less enjoyable for being merely a moment, as they say. Joel took Stone’s gauntlet without pause.

“The ROI on the Bettany debacle is a stinker,” he said evenly, not looking up from the table where he had flattened his palms, as if in the throes of analysis. “Largely because we failed to speak to the target in any comprehensible language. If we refuse to talk to our constituencies in the vernacular they use in addressing each other, we’re climbing up our own asses.”

“Our own asses,” Stone mused, thoughtfully. He cocked his head in a gesture of frank reproof. “Joel, I admire your coming here today, but it’s too soon, I think. If I may say so. You need to be here, but now is not the time. You are jumping the gun.”

“Why.”  Joel’s response was absent the interrogative lilt that would have indicated actual interest in what Stone had to say. “Why jumping the gun.”

“Because I say so,” Stone offered without pause, in his own haste to have done with this episode retreating to the humdrum hierarchies of the office. “You’ll break yourself this way.”

Joel looked up at Stone and squinted appraisingly. “Because you say so?”

“Joel – “

“Your say-so, Stone.”

Then he turned to me to speak, and I recoiled. “She loves you. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

And at that Joel sprang noisily out of his seat, and he is hanging there still, his necktie a crenellated ribbon frozen in time, forearms reaching out of rolled-back shirtsleeves; strictly business. And the stars wheel and the solar winds gust and eddy through the firmament and the angels, all of them, are blown to heck by the tumult.