Bee Geezus II

BeeJeezus

Mention the Bee Gees and time stops. Your suddenly chagrined companion will pause to reflect. The reverie is typically an unpleasant one; gold chains nestled in Barry Gibbs’ chest hair, three unsmiling grown men with their arms crossed, standing back to back in satin like Charlie’s Angels, lapels that could lift a fighter jet, and John Travolta strutting cockily down a Brooklyn street in white, jewel-crushing bellbottoms, aiming his dumb dimple and triumphalist double-wide yap at passerby. This is upsetting. The Bee Gees are not “Stayin’ Alive”. The Bee Gees are not “If I Can’t Have You”. These three doomed faux-Aussies are emphatically not “You Should Be Dancin’ (yet another bullet from the Bee Gees Nadir Period whose suffix-apostrophe illustrates how far they had fallen by the mid-seventies). Song titles that drop their final ‘g’ in a gambit for insouciance have always inspired contempt in me, as they should in you. Just sayin’. What the Bee Gees ARE is ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?’, ‘Massachussetts’, and the jarringly unhip “I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You’, wherein a man on death row both pays penance and says goodbye to his love in a weirdly heartbreaking paean to loss and earthly regret. The brothers’ wordless start-and-stop harmonizing on that one should be enshrined in the Louvre. “Message” was a global radio hit; this in 1968, the year after the Youth Revolution’s high watermark had been codified by the tie-dyed nihilism and public screwing of the Summer of Love. The Brothers Gibb were the nerds at that party, eschewing shiny marching band regalia and the Billy Shears Mystery Tour at a time when psychedelia and stoned self-importance ruled.

They were often accused of riding on the coat tails of the Beatles, but their life-informed balladry was always of an entirely different species both in approach, and in the glorious femininity of its floral compositional style (he blathered unwisely). If there is a Beatles song like “Run To Me” I haven’t heard it, and it’s unlikely it would have occurred to the Fab Four (whom I adore) to pen a tune about a mine cave-in, as did the Bee Gees in the very un-sixties, starkly beautiful “New York Mining disaster, 1941”. The last gasp of the Old Bee Gees Order can be heard in the evanescent (and nowadays reflexively derided) “How Deep is Your Love”, also from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, but a gorgeous filigreed ghost of what was.

The brothers stumbled tragically into disco at the mercantile behest of producer Robert Stigwood, who was bankrolling a movie based on what turned out to be a largely invented New Yorker article about Brooklyn’s very real 70s underground dance culture. For that film, fellow Aussie and longtime producing partner Stigwood asked his boys for more of the ‘R & B’ the guys had featured haltingly on their recent “Main Course” album (listen to “Edge of the Universe” from that record. I beg thee, listen to “Baby As You Turn Away” as Barry tastefully explores, in a melodic swoon, his newfound falsetto. If you’ve a lick of sense, skip the risible “Jive Talkin'”, whose street-cred-seeking apostrophe foreshadows the coming sorrow). The boys obliged Stigwood, and were themselves as freaked as the rest of the world when the shoestring-budgeted little movie took off like a ballistic mirror ball.

The accompanying mayhem and largesse rang down a curtain, as often happens. Inevitably, disco fell out; lavishly and with much ado. The torch-carrying mob rose up to murder its emissaries and the Bee Gees were first in line to the gallows. They are hanging there still. Later, impish little brother Andy would come over to the states and make pop waves and grace the cover of Tiger Beat Magazine before sampling a little powdered sugar and taking it to heart, in fairly short order passing away in hospital at the age of 30, almost before his broken mother’s eyes. Bee Gee Maurice would die suddenly of a knotted intestine some years later and the grief would stun the surviving brothers into what would turn out to be an unbroken silence.

In a documentary made just before the very end, Barry and Robin, looking weathered and defeated, vow before the camera that they really want to get back into the studio, come in from the wilderness. The unintentionally elegiac documentary ends with Barry and a gaunt, bewigged Robin obliging the videographer with a couple roughly harmonized lines of old school, Pre Fall Bee Gees, looking at each other across the ages and smiling tiredly. Soon thereafter, dulcet-voiced twin Robin would slowly succumb to cancer, joining Maurice somewhere, it’s nice to think, though evidence is scant.

Now big brother Barry, 66 at this writing, is left to recollect. When the Brothers Gibb were wearing button-down shirts and blue jeans, singing songs like “To Love Somebody” and smiling unguardedly at the camera, Robin cupping his ear in performance to capture that inimitable harmony, they might not have guessed at the steamroller they would become, and how the later Disco Big Bang would poison their legacy. For some of us who know the boys by their gorgeous earlier efforts, the question still remains, and we can assume Barry asks it of himself every day on waking; how CAN you mend a broken heart?

what if he’d known

crespuscular Gotham

He struck out in the direction of home
the hushed scuffed aisles of the grocery store
first he pulled his red car out of his colorless garage
the grey junk hung and jumbled there
said he was going for cereal and a razor
there is no depth to plumb nor glyph to puzzle over
he really was going there for cereal and a razor
Raisin Bran Crunch and a Schick with aloe
he started up his dumb red car and sailed away
heart-racing, unbridled, stars a-twinkle
and switched on the little radio

How to explain and why to explain
it’s been years since he needed the company of men, or man
years uncounted (about 20) since he could endure
the vibrant chatter, the cutting blank
the bright self-ignorant line right down the middle of everything
commercial jingles and artistic gestures
Lichtenstein-dumb and warm with the glow
of puny self-satisfaction, an ossified frieze
ecclesiastical complaining gets one nowhere fast
that there is nothing new under the sun goes unmentioned
he just wants the puppets to see the strings
and say a word or two not hauled up from a khaki past

One afternoon he stares through a streaked windshield
and longs. California sun strikes the glass like a match.
wind-blown families people a littered seaside lawn
mingle easily as phantoms, and as without form
picnic tables, happy summer sun, bovine cliques and claques
a beachfront birthday party for another tween
his untenable terror of the other grown-ups there
roots him to the bucket seat
all this tired glow, all this roseate gift, the dizzying chances lost
look at the fools, what news can they bring
professional guys with graying temples drape their arms and laugh
seen through an arc of wiper smear opaque and bright as frost.

Fitty Sense

Tim Jeff Leslee (1980)
a few characters who have appeared, through no real choice of their own, in my novel

“Although Ebenezer stirred uneasily at these words, remembering his state of mind at Magdalene College and in his room in Pudding Lane, he nevertheless reaffirmed his belief in the value of human time, arguing from the analogy of precious stones and metals that the value of commodities increases inversely with their supply where demand is constant, and with demand where supply is constant, so that mortal time, being infinitesimal in supply and virtually infinite in demand, was therefore infinitely precious to mortal men.” (John Barth – The Sot Weed Factor – p. 568)

There went my birthday, past tense. 55! Impossible, like so much else we (I) take for granted and barely have the wherewithal to acknowledge in our (my) blurred comings and goings. And look at that grand old photo! Tim! Leslee! The Buick! ASU! Once upon a time! Me clutching a baseball glove! How can a day or a minute be ‘infinitely precious’ according to the intuitive laws of scarcity when the only mechanism we’re given to apprehend All This doesn’t mark the singular seconds with anything at all? Shouldn’t something as irretrievable as a Living Second have something like a cosmic cowbell appended to it? Oughtn’t we be allowed (or made) to know the passing of the seconds? Though each individual second be as unknowably dull as off-brand jell-o, in the aggregate they are a marauding, killing swarm. You want to talk about viral this? Viral that? Is there anything more ruinously viral than a lone second edging its way past the distracted sentry tower to join its secret idiot army? And whence dignity, he stated. This morning at work I glance down at my trousers and because I eat lunch in the haute couture manner of a doddering simp and swap my trousers infrequently, my corduroys are covered with a constellation of little white stains, as if a congested and overpraised Peter Dinklage stood before me and had a sneezing fit, or a single bold sneeze or whatever. I pour water from a plastic jug into a bunched coffee filter and thoroughly soak the stain field, the effect an oblong patch of dark wet that infers incontinence from an impressively dangling dispenser. This doesn’t fool anybody.

Juudje
my unfailing furnace, a smile like a supernova
Glad Sam
the artist as a young thang. here content

Time is like a river, but without the pastoral setting, murmur of water, leaping rainbow-tinted fish; without the birdsong or polished pebbles, without the grazing moose and striding, indistinct Sasquatch; a river without a larger osmotic body into which gravity or some other impenetrable force obliges it to empty.  If you’re not within earshot of a cheap wall clock with a cardboard face (talking about the clock’s face here) ticking away on battery power, the seconds move by unremarked.  The precious seconds. My mother is recently gone. My father is gone. I have a dreamlike memory, I always consider it my earliest, of riding a hobby horse down a steep staircase and landing like wounded laundry at the bottom, a crash attended by much abstract and imperfectly reconstructed commotion. I also recall being held by my father and throwing up demurely on the shoulder of his gray and white and red sweater. That doesn’t seem terribly long ago, and now this? Am I the same person? The Same Thing? I measure my Self against the scar on my knee. I had my knee sliced open in 1968, 2o yards off the coast of Treasure Island, FL. A gentle, tourist-friendly swell in the crystalline Gulf of Mexico nudged me playfully into a breakwater whose barnacles constituted a many-faceted razor and my knee came open like an unzipped costume. The emergency room doctor I tried to talk my mom out of taking me to gave me a warning before the deadening syringe was jabbed brutally into the open, vaguely vaginal rip in my knee. I have always remembered his tryptich of pain, as he described what I could expect.

“This is gonna hurt, an’ this is gonna burn, an’ this is gonna sting”, he said to me levelly, eye to eye, in the pleasant burr of the deep south’s professional class, and through frightening Buddy Holly glasses.

Hurt, burn, sting. I have never forgotten that. You’ll notice it handily covers, like the quickly drawn da Vinci circle, an essential truth.  He was right. I also have a ragged scar on my left thumb which I only rediscovered five or so years ago, confirming, as do the startled pilgrims in Hitchcock movies, that what I had thought was an antediluvian shadow-scrap of dream was in fact a happenstance; a car door slammed by myself on my own fool toddler thumb, so hurried was I to join a little schoolfriend I’d suddenly spied on the playground. On her tricycle. I remember that. My mom shouting at me, a psycho puddle of vivid blood. The scar records it. I’m looking at it now. Call it The Dumb Mystery of the Changing Vessel. Get as old and crazy as you want. Throw up on the caregiver, lavishly crap your diaper, horrify the busboy with a napkin-ruffling gust of methane you don’t even know you’ve loosed, walk slowly out of The Home naked from the waist down, hollering. Any close (and likely frightened) inspection will reveal that scar on your left thumb from the time you wanted to run on unskinned knees to your little friend on her trike. The event seems in remembering to be at the other end of a darkling tunnel, but it’s right next to you in plain sunlight. That is You. You hurt your thumb approximately yesterday. Someone tell the teenagers. You got to make the morning last.

Now I’ve grown. On this special day I picture myself running after the bus with my laptop case and little polka-dot lunch box swinging madly from their straps. I’m trailing multi-colored balloons in various deflated states.

Stella Sparkling
a face that throws light! and a haircut she has come to appreciate

Entropy is all. It’s a vicious word, too, because it presents first as slightly floral, or to do with butterflies?  A closer look throws a klieg light on the real message inherent in the thing. That message is not death, which we can helpfully obscure through mysticism and chit chat (yes, you can chit-chat death to death). The Entropy message is dissolution, a scattering of the parts, an occupation of the vast cold spaces around us with our components. This horrifies. It is not an end but a reduced continuation, unto forever. We deserve better. We’re insipid and pitiable and hopeful and we love each other and deserve much better. Or a little better, anyway.

Discouraged Sam - 5th Grade
here reconsidering

Ok. Where once I was able to run and turn and dodge like quicksilver on the middle school P.E. pitch, so lightning fast the principal of my middle school asked me to join the football team, I now walk with a spring in my step, the rust-mottled spring of a ’59 jalopy up on cinder blocks. I found myself trotting lightly up the driveway two days ago and noted that my previous ‘run’ was beyond my ability to recall. My bald spot has expanded such that from certain sunlit angles I am the tonsorial equivalent of a medieval friar, with a ring of desperately clinging hair marking the spot atop my bent head upon which G*d’s menagerie of flying things may freely unload their disease-teeming semi-solids.

How easily people fall into disrepair, and not for want of goodness. On a city bus the withered 30-something woman to my right, bleary and dessicated and missing her top teeth, surely just took a wrong fork in the road. She was once a sparkler, like my Stella. We all fall down. Ashes, ashes. But the wounded carry in their furtive eyes, in their reticence to look up at their fellows, the scarlet letter of their cognition. They’ve fallen and don’t exactly want to get up. And so this is the Time of their Time. That can break your heart, can make you misty on a day like that day.  My birthday.

Juud en Jeff- an hour before wedding
morning of our big day, Amsterdam, 1988. The La Boheme. my little apple-headed child bride!

 

Duckface Empire

Duckface Empire

 

Dear diary: I’ve been reborn. J3ff’s the name, yo. With a backward 3. Well, the 3 is forwards, but looks a little like an ‘e’. Yo. I mean to infiltrate the Youth Culture and see what makes it tick. I’m a man of a certain age but have sufficient verve and vigor that I believe I can pass myself off as a hipster, as they call themselves nowadays. Turn the collar up on my Izod, tear the sleeves off, dog collar around my neck; like that. J3ff. Double-agent. Chameleon. Will report on progress from Inside.

Day 1: Went to first rave tonight. Pretty wild. 8,000 maddened children, 6 stages, 5 hours of noise and not one note of music. A couple of the acts were an underfed little cave fish named Shrillex, who really lived up to his stage name, and another emaciated man-child named DeadMouseHead. Kid had on a giant mouse head! Started laughing my ass off and couldn’t stop. Had my hand to my mouth like some high school girl. I mean, I couldn’t breathe for laughing. Thought I was gonna give up the game the first night. My mascara ran till I looked like Tammy Faye, or Alice Cooper. No one noticed. The place was pure bedlam, kids were in orbit, waving their arms like hydras and swaying in the crazy lights, eyes closed. Like…. a trance I guess. Speaker towers throwing out these 1000 decibel beats, my guts jumping like shocked jelly. Meanwhile the guys onstage, the ‘talent’, are just sort of milling around their machines, pumping their frail little arms once in a while. Damndest thing. Sad, really. Give me Ozzy in The Day biting the head off a live bat. Where has all the music gone?

Day 2:  Chilling with the posse. God, just saying that makes me feel like a cowboy in Alaska. But  I’m so in with these guys. They don’t have a clue I’m a middle-aged adman in a dog collar. So cool! And I’m adopting the lingo quite naturally. It’s like stenography, or code or something. Everything’s shorthand. When something is funny they just, you know, laugh. But if they’re reading something that is only mildly funny they laugh in writing; LOL. Which means Lil Ol’ Laugh. Kind of cute. That’s just one example.

Day 3; Went to another rave. Dropped ecstacy. While crawling around on the floor looking for it some punk-ass in purple platform jackboots kicked me in the Shins t-shirt, which is to say, my ribs. This compelled more crawling, now accompanied by moaning. On the other hand I found two ibuprofen down there. Score!

Day 8: How long can I do this? These kids got nothing going on. They sort of lounge around their computers and watch these little movies. Or they look at these stupid pictures, some with captions, some not. They call them ‘means’. Not sure why. But they look at these things over and over. Just..batshit crazy, I don’t get it. ‘Dramatic Chipmunk’ is one of these so-called ‘means’; three minutes of a chipmunk looking at you. Really? How unfair for these poor little bastards. We get Knievel in extreme, loving slo-mo going over the handlebars at Caesar’s Palace, hitting the pavement, sliding. That’s a video. I’ve watched that thing maybe 3000 times. Them? Dramatic Chipmunk. Hoo boy.

Day 15: Nearing the end of my rope. Another day, another rave. Just one act this time, a couple of French do-nothings in robot helmets, standing around under a neon pyramid. Daffy Duck — no…Daffy Punk. Crowd went into that trance, waving around like Bible Belt snake handlers. I’d been noticing that a lot of the kids at these things had pacifiers in their mouths, I swear to God. So I picked one up at Babies R Us in the afternoon and made a big show of jamming it in my yap outside the club that evening, so the bouncers and other trip-hip-hopper cognescenti could see I was in the groove, you know. I got a really good one with a little tinkling bell on it, and a little velveteen ribbon of deepest blue. Oh, they looked, all right. You coulda heard a pin drop. What you heard instead was the little bell on my righteous pacifier. Hey, there’s a spy in the house of love! This agent is all in, yo. But it’s a le Carre hall of mirrors. I mean, sometimes I wonder if J3ff is taking over. Then I see myself in the club’s filthy men’s room mirror with a tinkling little pacifier in my gob, a dog collar chafing my fat neck and my teal liptick a smeared slash across my mouth. Then I think, nah, J3ff’s probably not going to take over.

Day 21: I’m introduced to the Duckface phenomenon. omg. Duckface? It’s that omnipresent, deadpan pursing of the lips used by young girls in online snapshots to express either a kind of bored street-insouciance or the terrible ruin done by a gang of earwig larvae meandering from one side of the skull to the other through the middle of the brain. The Duckface phenomenon generates many gobbabytes of impassioned conversation on the www. Yes. Duckface. It’s worse than I’d feared. These things are viral, all right; crushing the culture’s outer cell wall and injecting a slow-motion pillow fight into the mitochondrial nexus. Soon enough the Zeitgeist develops a runny nose, itchy eyes and cascading organ-failure.

Day 28: Oh God oh God! Can we go outside guys? Shoot a little hoop? Catch a movie? Oh..we’re chillin…yeah. I’m down. OH NO! OH NO! I WON’T WATCH DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK AGAIN! NO! GUYS? NO! NO STAR WARS KID, EITHER. I — DON’T PLAY DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK OR STAR WARS KID AGAIN!  DON’T YOU DARE PLAY DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK!

Day 40: I think maybe my Dramatic Chipmunk breakdown 12 days ago was a mistake. When a grown man really gets to crying even the uninformed can see it for exactly what it is; a balding office worker in a frayed dog collar and carefully tattered post-irony Herman’s Hermits tube top, laying prostrate on the floor and weeping like the damned. The morning after my collapse I awoke to find my posse had Superglued my Sidney Vicious Clip-On Safety Pins to my earlobes. I tore them off in anger and there went part of my right earlobe. Still I maintained. Soon their fey passive aggressive taunting broke me. I flung the remains of my dog collar to the floor and with some quite awkward difficulty managed to peel off my bindi. “There. Now you see me as I really am!” I shouted, my floral leggings and aviator goggles already forgotten in the melee. If they would out me as a middle class bore whose ill-fitting Guy Fawkes mask would cause him to walk blindly into rush-hour traffic, I would out them as morons. This Establishment Grup would lift the veil on their almost explosive cultural ignorance. So began our hellish minuet.

“Taj Mahal!” I cried.

“It’s a kind of seizure, The worst kind.”

“Albert Einstein!”

“Monster with neck bolts.”

“Heisenberg’s Principle!”

“Don’t Ride in Giant Flammable Balloons.”

I paused.

“van Gogh!”

“An express car wash.”

“No, but not bad.”

At the end of the subterfuge, we made our peace, me and the Dramatic Chipmunk monks. We went our separate ways, with maybe a little more understanding of each other’s worlds; I grokked the hermetically sealed electronic cocoon that comprises their apprehension of the cartwheeling universe in all its multiplicity, they shrank even further from the soulless 8-5 fabric-covered cubicle in which I bake my daily bread. Two worlds that will never collide. It was a month later I noticed the tattoo. Somehow they’d punctured and painted the back of my neck, a miniscule little bit of clear blue script in an attractive and unassuming font. How had they done this? It says much about my largely unsuccessful attempts to weather their KitKat-fueled all-nighters. At first I thought it was a bruise of some kind, craning my stiff neck to see it in the mirror.

14AA41.

Soliloquy on the 11

Napolean's Death Mask_In a Bus Essay
This is Napoleon’s Death Mask

The driver today is Nick. His wrinkled ‘At Your Service’ piece of paper, above the driver’s seat and to the right in an inexplicably battered black frame, says so; a gesture of civic mercy seeking to ameliorate the anonymity of someone whose daily work it is to just drive us around, drop us off, and pick us up again later. Cabbies have a similar nameplate affixed to the dashboards of their little ships.  The nameplate speaks to the centrality of the professional rideshare’s role in the larger progress of the Anthill,  a humanizing device that stills and fixes the blurred driver for the moment it takes him to get you to your destination.  I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name. The paper in its scuffed frame is just to the right of the blinking arcade of nonsensical green and red lights, square little lights; the wide NASA-like panel with switches, above the driver’s head, that I’ve long suspected is just a phony sideshow placed there to remind the benumbed passengers that the Secret Underside to Everything also holds sway on a city bus, as of course it does, and with much more of the swagger than is found in places more conspicuous as temples and places of self-important congress. They always place the switches in these machines above the drivers – airplane cockpits, space shuttles, ocean liners. You always see these Argonauts reaching up to flick some switch or genteely turn a knob above their heads. This arm-raising confers a Pilot Importance to the proceedings. Han Solo, Luke. Chewy. And what was that thing Darth kept screwing down in the final Death Star scenes? He’s closing in on Luke and the other rebel flyboys as they attempt to loose a nuke into the anal pore of the Empire’s pride and joy, some of the good guys sporting double chins and conspicuous 70s mustaches as they zip around, dodging Establishment torpedoes. When Lucas cuts to Vader in his black space-bullet, he seems to be continually screwing the lid onto a jar of peanut butter or something.

This morning Nick is holding forth in a stream-of-blather at the top of his lungs, the whole way in to campus. The oblong concavity of the windshield  amplifies the shouting and sends it rolling in a crisp mid-range wave down the aisle of the bus. Like drivers everywhere, but most familiarly those on t.v. and in the movies, he’s looking straight ahead and yelling at the windshield while he talks. It’s as if he’s talking to the air, or to His Time, and maybe that’s also an intended or unintended effect of the yammering driver/philosopher, a worn and condescension-gathering trope. We’re charmed by these philosophers the way Rousseau is charmed but have no intention of being swayed or moved. But this guys is a moving speaker. I can feel that his blabbing is the wallpaper covering his room, his happy motif, his pleasure in the sharing of this and that, and then this again. The simple fact of a man happily shouting detailed, harmless, personal information into the air in a confined space? It’s upsetting to people, the Everyday people (not the Sly Stone kind). The bus passengers clear their throats and avert their eyes, or in plain vanilla fear zero in on their little hand-things and glare intently at them. As his shouting continues I look around to poll my fellows on the bus. One or two of them meet my eyes with Mona Lisa grins, concurring with what they believe is my projected opinion that the driver is a funny embarrassment and an anomaly and a sufferably bad deal, a regrettable entertainment. That is not my opinion, you bore.

But Nick? He’s loudly alive. Yeah, he knows it, which is sort of disappointing. But he’s still a hothouse orchid. He may be proselytizing, saying nothing of import but this: ‘Hey, morons! You can shout if you want, no one gets hurt. You can sing in public, feign a seizure, skip a rock on a pond, do a fucking jig in the funeral parlor, talk loudly to a stranger. This is all a lucid dream. How many times you gotta have that shown to you?’ Every minute or so he shoots a glance at the long mirror installed by the manufacturers, a rear-view mirror whose only contained ‘rear view’ subject is Us. When he can see us, we can see him; such is the nature of the aimed mirror. He flashes his dark, laughing, beetle-browed eyes at us through the mirror, just his eyes, that’s what we see. He’s checking his captives and shouts through what could be an approaching fit of laughter. Behind me a woman is talking into her cell phone.

“Pierre Cardin,” she says, then more plaintively, “Pierre Cardin!”

“I went to El Monte High School, in L.A.!” Nick shouts, really seeming almost to laugh. Is that how I write that? “I remember our young handsome substitute teacher, in 1966! On June 6; 6-6-66! You see? He told us — ” and here I think Nick is going to say the thing about the three sixes being the Number of the Beast and so on, the mark found under the hairline of the sleeping boy when Gregory Peck or Lee Remick go in to check. But Nick says something more interesting than that – something, though, that is also vaguely related to the End of the World. ” — he told us we’d need to wait 11 years for this to happen again!” He laughs like a bad actor in a movie. Though the laugh is unforced and genuine, it has that loudness of a half-performance. I’m alive and a hothouse orchid! “Then we’d have to wait for another 11 years for it to happen again! You know? July 7, 1977! My school was just a few blocks from the Ambassador hotel –” here I look up from my laptop. The Ambassador —

“That’s where Bobby Kennedy was shot,” a withered and toothless guy in the seat behind me says through his gums, and I nod to him, once, and murmur agreement with a half-smile, and the withered guy looks at me with a slow aiming of his head that yet manages to convey a surprising gratitude.  The fanning creases at each of his mouth corners are an Egyptian delta clogged and crusted with what look like the stains of crystallized tobacco juice or something. The crusted scum there exaggerates the downward turn of his lips, which are themselves supple and not cracked, just bracketed by this awful scum. His eyes widen briefly at my remark, I suppose, his sunglasses pronouncing the arch of his eyebrows above the frames.  He briefly radiates a fascinated gratitude.

“Sirhan Sirhan shot him!” Nick shouts with a strange joy, voice fraying with near laughter. “That busboy helped him! Remember? That busboy bent down and helped Bobby! Remember? Remember the picture?” I remember learning as a pre-teen that the photo of Juan Romero in his busboy-whites tending to the calmly staring Bobby K was not a strange studio composite or other trick, as its nightmarish perfection had always made me suppose, but a captured moment; Kennedy looking past Juan with a bored expression, the crazy mannequin sprawl of his body beatified in the corona of light on the wet floor, an unexplained clip-on necktie on the floor there with him. “They got John in November, 1963!” Nick continues, almost laughing again. “They let us out of school early! I had to walk 18 blocks to get home! I shoulda taken a cab!”

 

they got the littlest Gist. It took them nearly 91 years

Aloha Jeanette Bill Gist and friends circa 1930

Is there a Thermodynamics-like, mathematically inflexible truth that applies to this? Following all the days, all the afternoons, the various carpeted rooms we gather in over time; beads on a plain tattered string.  So blase in our carefully chosen shirts and pants and socks and so on, we can only faintly apprehend the turning of that gear. In the room with my mother as she ‘passed’ it was clearly impossible that all those years and ‘qualia’, her girlhood spent amiably graying her parents’ hair, her Marching Majorette period, her leaving for Panama with her mother from the thronged docks of Manhattan and being interviewed by a new-fangled t.v. reporter there, her date at a Glenn Miller dance with a sweet guy named Wayne, whose Miller fandom planted him firmly before the Great Man’s bandstand where he gawped for hours while teen Aloha glowered on the periphery (are we gonna dance or what, Wayne?), her 1942 job plane-spotting for the Defense Department, her chance meeting with grinning, irrepressible Bob at a USO dance that year, their Officer’s Clubs, scotches-and-waters, sun-drenched days drinking beer and wine with friends in Puerto Rico, the hurricane parties, the love and loss and open sobbing and breathless laughter, the loss of dear Jeanette, the loss of Chipper during Jeanette’s interment, parent-teacher conferences and homework help, her run-in with Muammar Gaddafi, her late-period competitive swimming, my little brother’s harrowing, defining accident; all winnowed down to this quiet little curtained cul-de-sac, a door off a polished, carefully appointed hallway in this celebrated hospice facility. I know all that experiential platinum isn’t actual matter, but one still intuitively gawps and wonders where it goes on these occasions, this immense quantity of brutally real stuff. This particular wild occasion is the death of my mother. Or my mom, rather. What are the secret movements and quantum dissipations of a human lifetime of stored ‘feeling’? No, it’s not a chimera that is sealed into nothingness when our dumb, quivering little machines switch off.

At the beginning she was a rosy-cheeked little chipmunk who, as soon as she could connive, wink, and shimmy through an open window, began to wear the glimmer in the eye she so shamelessly displays in the photo above. That’s her in the front center, next to the kid who looks like an Our Gang extra. This is like wildlife photography, to be able to capture that elusive moment when Aloha can be seen actually concocting plans to disrupt, surprise, and frustrate. These are qualities she evidenced to the last, and her mischief remained as purist and transparent as that nascent plan clearly being hatched in the rare image that fronts this essay.  Aloha Gist 1930sA massive stoke, like a hammer, tore away her speech and her senses 9 days ago, the bleeding in her previously plan-crammed head ruining everything, shoving aside her power, her laughter, her outstretched arms, clouding and then closing those baby blue hi-beams that greeted every sparkling day for nine decades. The injury did not staunch her singing, though. As if to mock the complaining Exec Director of her last independent living apartment, she sang. The director’s slack-jawed concurrence with the whining nabobs around Aloha’s dinner table, they who complained of her singing at dinner, obliged her second-to-last move; from her favorite spot by the front window to a table in the dead center of the dining commons.

Now I awaken for the first time in my life without my mom on the planet. How long, on waking, does it take me to remember that? Sometimes a couple minutes. She is ‘gone’. Impossible. But that’s been said by my vagrant predecessors and there is no novelty in it. We lament our vanishing mothers. If you believe the poet Philip Larkin, she isn’t here and she isn’t anywhere else, either. I can almost believe it. She was as cold as a bowling ball by the end of the day today, very very very gone. A twenty-something young lady with cute eyeglasses and a charming lisp and a slightly stammering presentation of the Eternal said we could come in and watch her heft my mom’s stiffening shell, and we declined. She entered the room and, we’re told, gently wrapped mom in a sheet, lifting her with a practiced movement of arms and legs that is unique to the business of moving our dead from one gurney to another and thence to a ceremonial hole or fire. Aloha was no slender reed by the end of her journey, and I imagined the candy-striper losing her balance with her outstretched arms filled with Aloha, staggering out the open terrace door, over the decorative flagstone wall and seven-hundred feet down the ivy-covered, nearly vertical hill. That would’ve been just the ticket.

**

Aloha and Jean Gist 1936
Youngest and oldest sisters chatting cinematically about the arc, each one individual, they will follow. Jean will find Mike, and Aloha her Bob. There was no greater luck.

Not truly believable.  That explains some things just now. Until 5:16 that morning she was everywhere. When I came-to in 1959, she was here already. She’s always been here. Before Jeff was, Aloha Am. She has been the overarching inhabitant of my reality, of my bread and butter life, as common as the motes of dust. Yeah yeah yeah, mom mom mom. These fugue states are among the most familiar in our written record. I mean, the first shelter we apprehend is mom. You wake up inside her, for chrissakes. When it gets more primal than that summon the waiter. Does an Aloha pass away and not leave a trace? Can anyone do that? A fire without smoke? The thought is literal nonsense but is the cornerstone of our rational discourse. But when she left the room earlier tonight she was as cold as a telephone, as they say. So where’d she go? It’s been my wild privilege to spend the past fourteen years with her as her primary companion and caregiver and overseer. In truth I’ve been a first rate companion and a second rate caregiver. When my father died she carried on for 7 more years and then we thought it best she move out heAloha Wing with Jill 3712 Horatio Tampa 1949re. She rented an apartment, swam every day at the YMCA next door, pedaled for an hour a day on a recumbent bike, took daily walks around the car dealerships that ruled her mid-town street, walked over to the mall next door. And eventually began leaving the stove burners on through the day, so that I’d show up at night for a visit and could feel the heat radiating all the way from the font door. Or the stove clock timer would be going off, that droning little buzzer that is activated by the little black plastic dial on stove timers of a 70s and 80s vintage. I’d come in and it would just be buzzing, and sometimes I wouldn’t even notice the buzzing till a minute or so had passed. One night this struck me as very curious, as if the constancy of the drone in my absence had infected the apartment, had somehow worked its way into the sonic environment. I had the sense that the buzzing had so ensconced itself in the very theme of my mom’s apartment that it was not as immediately detectable as it might have been the first day it went off. Is that thinking ‘crazy’?

Bob & Jeff & Aloha 1972
the river quietly overruns its banks, to devastating effect

That morning I was sleeping next to her bed on a cot-like thing that folded out of an easy chair in the beautifully appointed hospice room. It must be said they lavish much more attention on the dying than on the visiting living in those places. It seems churlish to complain. But the hide-a-thing had that omnipresent cross-bar that bites into the area just below the scapula, plural. I’d been sleeping fitfully next to my dying mom. I’d grown accustomed to the mission. My mother was in this room to pass away and I was, when everyone had gone home, alone with her to travel through that process with her.  I would awaken periodically throughout the night since she was snoring like a lumberjack (“she’s snoring like a lumberjack!” I’d exclaimed to the grief counselor when she introduced herself, to which remark she blinked rapidly) and remember without alarm that I was lying next to my dying mom, dying after all this time, all those houses and kitchens and back yards and so on. I was sanguine, in a strange way. The previous two days had been such that this denouement was almost relaxing. Then I woke up in early morning twilight, raised myself on my left elbow. The night nurse cut an indistinct silhouette on the other side of my mom’s bed in the half-light. She was checking mom’s breathing. They’d been giving her something called atropine through the day, to reduce the secretions in her lungs, to ease the labor of her rattling intakes of air.

everything is shapes
everything is shapes

I’ve learned since that Atropine is a derivative of the Deadly Nightshade plant, and is named after Atropos, one of the Three Fates in Greek mythology. She’s the one who decides the exact manner of every individual death. The nurse found nothing amiss, she told me later, and left the room to get some more atropine. When she left the room I saw, still propped on my left elbow on the adjacent cot, that my mom’s breathing was slow, so slow. While I peered through the slowly increasing light she exhaled and was still for maybe 30 seconds. The breathing had stopped. I jumped up and leaned over the bed like a nervous orderly, I touched her hair. She took in a relieving, rattling breath, shallow, and I released my own breath. Then she exhaled slowly slowly slowly and was still. That was it. A vanishing act. Then, changing perspectives, you cry in lurching heaves and then it passes somewhat, and you climb in and lay next to your mother and even through your shock you feel the heat leaving her, and it seems in no particular hurry to leave her, no drama. But it is 90 years of 98.6 taking its final leave, and that’s a privilege to feel.  Then later, two days later, at the bus stop, you stare up at the blue morning sky, and see yourself staring up at the sky and there is a vain, pleasing sense of piety. But why do we think our loved ones are up there? I don’t think that. Up there in the sky? And anyway it isn’t really ‘up’.  It’s out.

Mom. Enough. Goodbye! Goodbye.

The House We Lived In

In this 10 minute 1945 Public Service Announcement, Frankie is enlisted to school a gang of nascent Bowery Bigots on the keynote of the American Experiment.

By 1945 the world had been hammered flat and smeared with offal. Our guys, our kids, had sprinted up beaches and into a spirit-breaking enfilade of artillery and machine-gun fire, ducked behind the toppled smoldering ruins of smashed European capitals, crept in abject, piss-yourself terror through cratered S. Pacific jungles, and fallen screaming from skies pockmarked with flak. Our Flying Fortresses were riveted together by our wives and girlfriends. It was a time. Kids from farms and towns and cities were hastily trained and awoke to find themselves running through flame. Major players of the period included Judy Garland, Erwin Rommel, Greer Garson, Tojo, Audie Murphy, Fred Astaire. All that instructive madness has long-since been shellacked in numbing amber. That WWII really happened, and just day before yesterday, is completely batshit, but not so’s you’d notice. Our public schools, per the contract, have sufficiently pasteurized the subject to transfigure it into lecture pablum delivered half-heartedly at a chalkboard, the dazed descendants of our once and future crusaders struggling to stay awake for the telling, doodling in their notebooks as the Normandy Invasion is sleepily explicated in the minutes before recess and the excited iPhone-comparing ritual.

WWII was also a refiner’s fire that resulted in the inadvertent shedding of Our National Shyness and lifted us to the largely unpopular pinnacle of power on Earth, to the utter chagrin of most, including our present allies. William Manchester, in his haunting and poetic memoir Goodbye Darkness, writes painfully and movingly of the way his terrified final wartime ascent up the blasted slope of Okinawa’s Sugar Loaf Hill is entangled inextricably with his own elegiac farewell to a U.S. he’d known as a kid, and which somehow the War put to bed for good.

Needless to say, all that fighting and confusion bred a jingoism here at home that spread like a toxic rash. Sinatra, 4F’d out of war service by dint of his forceps-torn eardrum and thus often greeted in his performances of the time by flying vegetables and invective, was advised to perform in an ameliorating Public Service Announcement wherein he schools a gang of Jew-hating bowery boys on the finer points of the American Mission Statement. It’s a scripted, otherwise exalting soliloquy on inclusivity and the Brotherhood of Man in which Frank yet manages to villify ‘Japs’ , setting them aside for the moment from the aforementioned Brotherhood and lauding them instead as targets of our airborne ire. It’s as sloppy a hymn to Freedom as one expects from a lumbering, puppy-crushing Lenny like the U.S. and our beloved blue-eyed bipolar jackass and National Symbol. Frank. A name and, from sea to shining sea, our collective adjective. I am powerfully endeared to the idea of the United States as a well-meaning, often murderous moron. Some of my friends blanch at this. Understandably.

I’ve always said that the penultimate wordless portrait of the USA is Gene Kelly’s swinging, choreography-free spin with the umbrella in Singin’ in the Rain. This flawed Sinatra PSA is of a like species. The picture above links to the vid. It’s a handful.

 

Big Deal

Liz-1953

Okay, so the autumn sidewalks are littered with the crispy husks of the dead, these dumb survivalist earthworms. Darwin’s champions. They lay around like the fallen, as if there’s been a desperate and cinematic battle of some kind. In fact they were caught out in the sun. With the rain they came out to revel, and were trapped on the sidewalk when the cloudburst passed. These things that have survived every extinction event the exhausted cosmos could throw at them don’t have the sense to go home when the rain stops. There is clearly a mechanistic virtue in stupidity and self-abnegation. These guys preceded the dinosaurs and handily survived the Flood despite having not been invited aboard Noah’s Yacht. It would have taken them another three years just to make it up the gangplank, drowning everyone.  Our temporary perch atop the food chain is clearly more Sears-Roebuck than ‘what a piece of work is a man!’  If these crispy idiot worms can both precede and follow us, what good are we. Period.

On the bus the older woman regards with furtive, fleeting, desperately curious glances the baggy pants teen drooped like a weakened sunflower over his phone, his neck parallel with the floor as he smiles thinly at something on the little screen. We lavishly imagined but do not have rocket cars, nor moon bases. There was one jet pack at the LA Olympics. This is the actual future. We have supernaturally fabulous telephones. This says what needs to be said about us. What would moon bases have said? ‘Escape! Explore! Live! Climb You Sonofabitch!’ Our pouring the intellectual magic and firepower of the race into telephones says ‘Enough, already. We’re not going anywhere’.

Liz Taylor acted her ass off in Butterfield 8 and the Albee movie, a couple of for instances. In the end (in the middle, actually) she couldn’t act her way out of a moist paper bag and embarrassed us with her perfume commercial.  She doesn’t owe us anything and g*d rest her. But that heavily painted moment at the very end of National Velvet? When she catches up to Mickey Rooney and stands alongside him in that garish sunset? The long shot? The music blares shamelessly. That is what they should have sent on the now-interstellar Pioneer, our metalloid message in a bottle. Heartbreak should have been the keynote of that message. Not a golden LP with Brahms or whatever. Barely sufferable bittersweetness and heartbreak. Liz and Mickey, kids at sunset. And the horsey.

Sea birds drift with casual purpose above a dawnstruck ocean, like bugs. More languid, though. They screw and they eat. These are the kingdoms, animal and plant.  From dandelions to squid, we’re not the serfs, we’re the kings, all of us.  But let’s not wave our scepters too grandly. Screw and eat. It’s still glory.

An office complex is festooned with pink ribbons. Cancer Research Supported Here. The ribbons are our testimony.  Why do we cling? This eyeblink hardly merits all this art and chatter. This is likely only a staging area. We awaken, see that we’re awake, and are shown the door. The door is set in the ground. Then some time later we’re adrift in ancient space and maybe later still reconstituted into extragalactic flowers or monsters or bacteria. We’ll see each other again under another sun and not realize it.  As explained with heartbreak and gusto by Frankie in the Rodgers and Hart resurrection tune Where or When.

Diana Ross? What happened? Why did she sing Upside Down? Whence her mojo? ‘I Hear A Symphony’? ‘Where Did Our Love Go’? What the hell happened? In her disco period she couldn’t even keep time. Did we do this to her?  Her and Liz? Or was she all along riding on the wings of song with not much of her own to offer? When the songs died out from under her she fell, Icarus with big staring eyes. Do you know where you’re going to? Wasn’t it me who said nothing good’s gonna last forever?

Mooi. Gezellig. Prachtig. Beetje Gek.

tulips_photo by Normann Szkop
The big screen and its cheery hieroglyph at the front of my section of seats shows the little airplane icon on a happy, secure and predictable downslope. The awful roaring contrail is replaced in this illustration with a fat dotted line, the kind you see on a cereal box.  Explosive decompression, stripped jackscrews, knife-wielding hijackers and other such mortality-trivia are safely hidden behind a cartoon. Throughout the longish flight over iceberg-littered glacial bays and rolling open ocean I feverishly remind myself that all is well, that the suspension of 90 tons of metal and wires and seat bolts and stiffening chicken piccata 6 miles up in the empty air is a physical inevitability and not a fragile miracle. As long as the plane keeps charging forward it is lifted on velocity itself, it doesn’t have time to fall. Unfortunately this inviolable rule of airfoil technology depends on crazily enormous steel wings that bounce and wobble like sonsabitches in the azure vacuum over Greenland. But the screen up front assuages and soothes, the funny dotted line and inert little airplane glyph a blankie of familiarity in the long tube of concussive, horror-dealing plausibilities.
Now the dotted line slopes downward in a cozy parabola of life and warmth.  The familiar and deeply beloved Earth is rising slowly to greet our machine. We’re headed in for a happy landing, in Holland of all places. A new life awaits,  The boiling English Channel is behind us and we’re coming in fast over a green, steeple-punctuated landscape as flat as a tabletop and peopled with flight-path cows that don’t even glance up as the screaming spaceship overhead applies air brakes and lurches uncomfortably into landing speed. It would seem we’re going to actually land in a cow paddy but the tarmac suddeny appears and we’re on the ground with a happy if unnerving jolt and the mantra ‘I’ll never fly again’ briefly reasserts its primacy in the promises-to-be-broken category.Then the thronged cavern of Customs, an Ellis Island mockup where hundreds of confused passengers are herded through rope mazes and a few young Dutch officials with badges and comically stern faces glare down unconvincingly from atop raised pedestals, a pouting gang of Benetton models. This one looks at my face, then the passpot, face-passport, face-passport, face-passport, the old trick, until I’m sure some little European guy in a Gendarme cap is going to appear and whisk me away. Passport is scrutinized and stamped and relief floods in.
 I and the other passengers herd-shuffle into the big brightly lit room with the baggage carousels, and then my retrieved suitcase is vivisected by more Dutch models, blush-cheeked and businesslike, then the mock-Samonsite is slammed shut with my underwear sticking out like a tongue. And there a wall of glass gives onto a crowd of waiting people and my new family are there, two of them, Karin and Marcel, and my adorable new girlfriend is there waving madly and through the surreal fog of jet lag I realize that’s Judie who I met in the club that night and I’m in her world now, I’m in Holland, this is her home and her world and I’m seeing her as if for the first time and her mad waving and jumping looks like nothing I’ve ever seen or imagined, like nothing I’ve ever felt.
 All the planning and daydreaming, the angst and sorrow of leaving my friends and quitting the band and bidding my family farewell in the carport in Phoenix, my saddened quiet little brother suddenly turning and running back into the house for reasons unknown. Goodbye, Patrick; goodbye! Now I see my Dutch love through the glass and the blood hurriedly rushes upward into my teetering, overburdened imagination, I lumber forward with my dumb suitcase and two-ton electronic typewriter, the ceremonially weighted glass door is pushed open with some effort and in the crowded concourse I set down my suitcase but keep a grip on the typewriter, dazedly grab my new girlfriend and touching her after all these hours of reality-tempering travel is a crazy workaday miracle. Can this be happening? Then the three Dutch kisses; not the two cheek-pecks of the exotic French which we’ve come to know from the movies, but three. They want to better the French. You get two pecks and think giddily ‘holy crap, this is real’ and then the third little peck, just to throw you off your pins, and you know you’re in for it.
On the drive home, in the back seat, 19-year-old Judie is leaning heavily against me, her arm intertwined in mine, head on my shoulder, the radio blaring strange pop music. I can’t stop looking at her and staring out the windows at a landscape that is a living daydream, vivid green and furry and flat to the horizon, the windmills near and far with their heroic vanes slanting in the light, amazing to see, steepled Olde World townscapes like movie paintings poking up in the near and middle and remote distance beneath an enormous blue verticality decorated with puff-ball clouds. Can an airplane do all this? Yes.  And the terror of the flight is commensurate with this bombast and wonder, the Wright Brothers my new best friends.  All the insane rocketry we strap ourselves to and pretend to trust – this is what all the fuss is about, these changeling moments of stunned dislocation. Spires and towers and high peaked roofs in mid-day silhouette decorate these receding fields and meadows, the little towns are cheek-by-jowl and are nearly joined, the flatiron landscape means you can take them all in at a glance, but what you see are steeples. You can bike from one town to the next with little effort and you will do so often, sometimes in freezing squalls of rain. Today the sun shines down with a forceful message, the boundless green dotted with cows, heads down.
Then off the A4 and onto the surface roads, lined with greenhouses, fluffy fields, occasional homes with penned goats and sheep, then the outsized Kweker houses with their acres of entrepreneurial glass behind them where are grown everything from petunias to palm trees, the region’s kingpins and employers. This is het Westland, agricultural nexus of Holland. Close your eyes and throw a rock and you will likely put a hole in a greenhouse. My bro-in-law Marcel is driving now in what I would come to know as typical Dutch fashion, negotiating the narrow little inter-town roads like the car’s ass is on fire, and only as we enter the neighborhoods do I come down somewhat from my reverie and realize I’m being threatened anew with explosive death and maiming. Then a quick right followed by a quick sharp left onto Wassenaarstraat, a screeching halt in front of Judie’s house, two and half floors tall, red brick and narrow. Through the large square huiskamer window an indistinct figure spins quickly away into the shadows and then out runs Riekie through the front door in an excited half-jog, my beautiful heartfelt future Dutch mom whom I am meeting for the first time, and she is wildly grinning and her arms are outstretched in a guileless loving welcome and she enfolds me like a long lost son, then holds me out from her to look at my face and her sunny expression, to my surprise, is ecstatic and teary, and I tear up and then a few others are gathering around me and I’m dazed and happy and already feeling the love of my new home, my new household, and I look down the row of houses and a few smiling neighbors have come to their doorsteps and are smiling grandly, one with her hands clasped. I look over and there is Judie again, like that night in the club, the serene, green-eyed beatific smile, a settled smile of contentment to match my own.

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.