The Monster in My Id

wedding day
two bedazzled lovebirds embrace in a cheap hotel room in Amsterdam on the Big Morning

By the age of 26 I had a beautiful teak rolltop desk full of weighty documentation, having parlayed my university experience, considerable native intellect and ruthless drive to succeed into a position of

By my mid-twenties I had resoundingly fulfilled and then surpassed my early promise. My 75th floor office gave onto a skyscraping eyrie at whose filigreed iron railing I regularly took in the view of Gotham, the teeming city/state I’d conquered with such aplomb and daring as is only dreamed of in the pages of Fortu

As Grails go this gig is definitely the battered cup of a carpenter and not the kingly, jewel-encrusted decoy that caused that guy to melt in the third Indiana Jones movie. Rocky’s is not the Hollywood Bowl, but it is a club in Santa Barbara; or FREAKING SANTA BARBARA as I called it then. We’re jumping around like shameless asses a block from the long-sought Pacific, and we are being paid. The dance floor is packed with beach-scented revelers. As recent arrivistes from the powdery Sonoran desert sprawl of Phoenix and its black-painted, fishnet-gloves-and-clove-cigarettes club scene, we are in thrall to our sunshiney good fortune. True, the pay is such that, back at the band house/rehearsal studio, we are surviving on baked potatoes and pilfered frat house boxed wine. Show Biz Glamor is keeping her distance. Actually, she took the first red-eye to Timbuktoo and imperiously asked us to drop her a line when we began to gain a little traction. That would never happen. A freckled sunburst Yoko would presently shamble into the club with her friends and utterly guileless 1000 kilowatt smile, inadvertently laying waste to our china shop and turning my page so quickly it would effectively be torn from the book. Today the sun would begin setting on our years-long band and songwriting project, Spin Cycle. Elsewhere songbirds would begin quietly announcing the roseate onset of an extravagant new dawn; a dawn often viewed through slanting arctic rainfall on a Vermeer landscape, but a spirit-seizing, heart-renewing Dawn nonetheless. Juud!

My beer-dappled Converse® high-tops are being put through their paces. I’ve descended from my gosh-like position on Rocky Galenti’s Mainstage (or as we used to call it, the stage) and am mingling frenetically on the dancefloor with the thrashing throng of thought-free thoroughbreds, my unwieldy 60 foot mic cord allowing me the freedom to be publicly asinine in a setting where Asininity is King. The band churns buoyantly away behind me as I weave between the swingers. I’ve made good use of my late-breaking leave-taking of the Wallflower Club, whose charter membership I once wore like a badge of quietude in h.s. and college. I and my like-minded stagemates are well-matched. As a band we are part circus, part pop roadshow, part inexplicable performance piece.

I’ve stood atop our equipment truck at midnight of a starlit evening and serenaded a writhing mob in the street outside the club as our music poured out of the open stage door. I routinely take my leave of the dance floor in the middle of a song, and, mic in hand, climb atop the drink-littered bar in the front room and do the Vegas Catwalk, affronting the patrons in the main lounge who’d thought they’d successfully steered clear of this malarkey. I’ve sung hanging from rafters, have shouted off-pitch into the mic from the reverb-blessed confines of a club restroom, and once managed to warble while laying supine on a dance floor with a weighty patron in failing halter top perched on my chest. Which is all to say, ‘look how cool I was, and understand in part why nobody ever really realized I couldn’t sing’. Our between-song stage patter would frequently baffle our audiences, and in the middle of a song Leslee, our resident ‘foxy chick singer’, would more often than not flop off the stage like a maddened marionette  to join me on the dance floor in a fit of high octane idiocy, bewildering the pogo-ing patrons with what looked like a grand mal dance seizure.  We were full of surprises, misfires and dayglo laissez-faire. The songs, though, always came first. Eddie and I had been writing together since high school, he a post-modern Richard Rodgers who even as a 17 year old could spin a gorgeous, genre-crossing melody as you or I would open a can of soup; me a willowy, nominally quiet word-fan with one lazy eye and a nose made crooked by the Toyota Corolla that smacked me when I was 14. Rodgers and Frankenstein?

Today is The Day. Juudje, Carola and Renate are en route. It is 1986. We are, I think, three sets in on a sunstruck Sunday afternoon at Rocky’s, our favorite regular gig and the one that speaks most loudly to our having successfully made the move to California. Summer beach light pours onto the dance floor through the arched northerly club windows. The tanned, sandy throng gyrates in bikini and board shorts, pleasantly dizzy and pumping their fists in the ambient summer glow, as the pleasantly dizzy will do when unable to otherwise articulate their inner joy and wholeness. How many more sets this afternoon? Two? Three? One? Soon it would hardly matter. I believe I’m singing the epileptic Devo ballad ‘That’s Good’, leaping like a fool on coals and occasionally landing atop a fleetingly disgruntled mosher. I can actually smell the beach here in the club. We are expertly blaring a colorful mix of our own original tunes and covers by the likes of Talking Heads, Howard Jones, Divinyls, Our Daughter’s Wedding, and so on. Everything is going according to plan!

Eddie and I step outside for our customary Carleton between sets, a pitiable ‘low tar’ ciggy whose pathetic, pleading ad campaign at the time (IF YOU SMOKE, PLEASE TRY CARLETON!) is just amusing enough to make us fans. We reenter the club and spend the few remaining minutes before taking the stage in chit chat.

In walks Juud, in the company of her two beautiful friends and fellow-travelers Renate and Carola. I didn’t see them come in that afternoon, though one would think the hollering, frantically waving cherubim and seraphim would have tipped me off. As often happens, the heavenly chorus was drowned out by the din of happy drinkers ringingly in love with their own collective Moment. It wasn’t till Judie approached me between sets that the angelic loud-mouths gave their full-throated endorsement. I only remember someone speaking and me turning to regard a glowingly adorable post-punk ragamuffin redhead in a Cure t-shirt, and the warmest, happiest green eyes I’d ever seen. She was saying something unintelligible through the riot of club noise. She seemed to have some sort of speech impediment.

“Oh, hi…what?”

“I lijk ye bent.”

“um…..What?

“I LIJK YE BENT.”

“…..What?”

“I LIJK YE BENT.”

“You like the band?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks.” Her towsled strawberry blonde mop, purple tube skirt, off-brand sneakers and immediately kissable face were not the standard uniform. My head swam, a little. Later it would swim a lot. Her striking pals Carola and Renate were behind her, mingling a little, watching over Juud a little. The three of them looked like radiant refugees from a Benetton shoot, high latitude blondes who carried themselves like self-possessed creatures of another culture, as indeed they were. They introduced themselves and explained that they were from Holland, a smallish town there called Monster.

“Muenster?” I blathered

“MONSTER!” Judie corrected, then raised her arms above her adorable apple head and made claws. “Like a monster! Raarrrgh!”

“Oh. It’s…the town is called Monster?” The three of them laughed disarmingly.

“Yeah!”

I wanted suddenly to wrap my arms around the one with the freckles and heartbeat-accelerating grin and warm green eyes. Keep your hands at your sides, you fool! You don’t know what is considered acceptable in Denmark or wherever!

Later that afternoon I would glance over through the madding crowd and see Juud standing in the middle of the blur, looking straight at me, her gentle, clock-stopping smile a still-point, a quasar, the gently buffeting breeze from an 80 kiloton explosion. I remember it with crystal clarity; that smile at that moment. I looked over and there she was, looking over. It almost sat me down, right there on the floor of the club. Good Heavens. That smile, that smile! Juud is the most beautiful, sensitive, life-loving and desirable creature on Earth, and an ongoing knee-weakener. Things happen to me when she enters a room, not all of them suitable for discussion in mixed company.

That Sunday in 1986 a corner turned, though I wouldn’t know it for some weeks. We fell hard and spent many an hour in my room at the band house, listening to music, talking about everything, partaking sickeningly of Little Caesar’s two-for-one deal. Soon it would develop that Judie had to go home, her visa expiring. I would labor over and then make an odd and slightly macabre decision, one whose effect on my dear friends I barely paused to consider, it must be said. Without the requisite inner turmoil (it would come later), I put my immediate past aside and stared fixedly at a previously unforeseen and deliciously unforeseeable future in another country.

I imagined the ineptly dubbed afterschool specials of my youth; rural European kids on tractors wearing alien-looking overalls, their words and mouth movements marvelously unrelated, cars with strange license plates, windmills, canals, those van Gogh stacks of threshed wheat; a half-accurate and delirious premonition. In brutish short order my emotional life would soon be overwhelmed anew as I informed my beloved bandmates and pals that our longstanding gig was up. All those endless muse-chasing days and nights, going right back to the egg; Eddie’s and my musical convocations and discoveries and initially accidental collaborations in the orchestra pit in our high school auditorium while crewing for that season’s musical, then the practice rooms in the music building at NAU with Paul.

And then the band years in carpeted living rooms and garages, clubs and bars and Fraternity bacchanals and university courtyards and city park bandstands, hotel ballrooms and yard parties; growing the band, growing each other. Everything for the music, for the imperfect, mildly self-mocking pursuit of Art. All the stories, the personalities – Monica, Tooth Sue, Plum Crazy the Gentleman Pirate, who could slurringly recite any Baudelaire you’d care to request, and who would travel with us to our Ventura gigs in the back of our enclosed equipment truck, sitting in the dark back there and emerging with a laugh when we arrived — I hadn’t a clue how tough this chapter-closing would be. I vividly remember my complete surprise at breaking down in the middle of the street downtown as I told our drummer, Cary, and him putting his arm around me like a consoling big brother. Cary; the comparative youngster we called The Kid.

Then there would be passport complications, more tears, some unnerving final gigs, a horrified last-minute, morning-of-my-departure pursuit of Leslee’s escaped cat (Commander Salamander RIP), me boarding a jumbo jet with one large suitcase and a Brother electronic typewriter as heavy as an anvil. “Okay, here I go!” I chirped confusedly to Leslee at LAX when boarding was called. “Don’t be glib,” she said levelly, through tears. “This is it,” the flight attendant said to me with meaning, looking me straight in the eye as I boarded; a strangely apt remark I still wonder at.

Then a peaked attic bedroom at the tippity top of a flight of narrow spiral stairs, a bedroom through whose canted ceiling window one could stare straight up at the enormous black birds endlessly battling the Dutch gale, their desperate caws sounding like cries for help. Then nuptials in Amsterdam, much horizontal rain, long nights drinking in Naaldwijk with Juud and Marcel, then biking back to Monster through the Dutch countryside in the whisperingly silent wee hours under scudding moonlit clouds. Freaking magic. And a whole new, deeply beloved family in a cozy little seaside town, nestled against the dunes on the Dutch channel coast; my second home and the Monster in my id. Oh, wat ben ik gelukkig. Thanks for coming to the club that night, Judie!

song for us

pugmug

When he boarded he saw in his familiar annoyed periphery the Beautiful Teenage Typical, already looking off with her studied thousand-yard stare, her paralytic nonchalance. ‘Yeah, I’m Beautiful. It is my misfortune and I can’t unlearn it now. I have seen it in the helpless puppy eyes of the boys since fourth grade recess, where it startled me at first.  I’ll have nothing to do with you now but a masked drinking in of your helplessly flung gamma.’ But he brought his iceberg zeal to the demonstration, as he had done for a lifetime, since Lisa devastated Tony. He took his seat and opened his book without looking up. If you are beautiful you have been furtively glanced at enough already. This will be for your own good. I can see it on your expression of studied indifference. Rewarding you with even a glimpse would be pouring gin down the neck of a furniture-smashing golem. Awkward girls and boys with dated hairbands and tucked-in shirts bought off the wrong rack, they are the prize, you are the wallpaper. Your carefully arranged, traditionally attractive sphinx-face is as thrilling as a spiral notebook. I’m still on fire, still on fire, I believe you broke me that day, and in the many days after that day. In Mrs. Petrie’s third grade lunch line at Clark Elementary in Cheyenne we waited in blanched sunlight and you told my penurious friend Tony, my quiet buddy with the always-mussed hair and worried expression, the farm kid, you said that of all the ink-clumped mimeographed recipes shared through our weekend assignment, his was the worst. ‘We tried your Breakfast Cookies and they were awful.’ Tony looked down and away, horrified. He’d worn the same checkered shirt all the previous week, the hem shiny and frayed with wear. Your macabre attack was an air horn in a stilled chapel. My scalding blood sprayed into my head and I saw stars. What did she say? Someone can say that? I looked sideways at Tony, his eyes brimming, and I crushed my beige circular milk ticket in my shaking right hand oh god! oh god I could have killed you, Lisa! I could have maimed you! In too many dreams that year I lunged at you, madly clawed your beribboned hair, your self-satisfied little face, your beautiful little ferret face with its cheekbones and haughty forehead. If you’d taken a shot at my mom’s Angel Food Cake recipe at that moment I might have torn you like a phone book. Rage at all the well-built assholes who criticize our Breakfast Cookies! ‘Well-Lisa-we-tried-your-cake-and-it-was-terrible!’ I bleated in cracking girl-voice, a Tourette’s attack that seemed to gush from someone else before I knew I was saying it, I could not believe these goings on. And you said ‘Ha ha! My recipe wasn’t for cake, liar.’

The Wonderful World of Dizzy

Thoughtful Woodland Sprite - Tomorrow Awaits

On the drive into camp Stella was buoyant. So was I. The impossible ocean rustled and shone in the near distance, a scratched azure slate the color of a pastille; something to put in your mouth. A certain university campus loomed on its bluff to the right, fake-stately and blank-faced in the sun, the dumb buildings and plazas and towers and self-regarding architectural flourishes as muted as the gestures of an embarrassed arriviste. The helpless minutes are pouring by. In time the mighty university library will be a fallen H.G. Wells ruin of lost provenance, even the far-flung disabled Eloi no longer around to play stupidly amid the disintegrating books. The sea will still be turning there, throwing itself at the denuded shore, the sun not our sun but a swollen dying furnace near the end of its epoch. Stella will be gone by then, me too. Gone. So absolutely gone we will not even be forgotten. It’ll be as if neither I nor my sunburned, radiantly alive little girl were ever here at all. This stupidity pierces me, the bland cosmological fact of our nearly virtual transience. Look at her aimlessly grinning profile, her camp baseball cap, her sun-streaked hair. We aren’t here. My girl my girl my girl my girl o my little girl o my unknowing little girl with the sparkling v-shaped smile and barking laugh and nascent hourglass figure, I love you too too much. Why do we have to go?  Where are we? Where are we going? What have we been before? Where were we? How did we luck into this incandescence? Look how our paths crossed, Stel. Wherever we were 10,000,000,000 years ago, this morning we’ve arrived, two pinpricks of fleeting thought and laughter only momentarily suspended in a ray of sun. We’ll always be Stella and Dad, we’ll never be Stella and Dad again.

‘When is that guy you like coming back from his vacation?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said, shrugging lightly with an almost convincing nonchalance..

“You excited to see him?’

‘He has a girlfriend,’ she said without ceremony.

‘…he has a girlfriend?’

‘Yeah. But…I don’t care,’ she said, shrugging again, more emphatically. She angled her face away from mine. I glanced. She was staring at the dashboard, her little jaw set in an unmistakable attitude of resignation. My throat seized. O my little girl! This is the stuff! Here comes the flood tide! It’s what people are for.

Stel, your mortal life awaits like an unlit movie set. When the movie is over you’ll join the ether. It’s that simple. For now you’re almost ready for your closeup, sweetheart. You can’t know this yet. It’s a short feature. Look around the sound stage. It’s littered with glory.  The Battle of Thermopylae, Debbie Reynolds singing ‘Tammy’, Groucho, Neil Armstrong flubbing his line and hopping like a bunny, da Vinci, Peter Gabriel, Judy Garland hunched in form-fitting black, spotlit, cropped black hair throwing sweat as she reaches for the note, inoperable cancers, the middle east, the far east, Clint Eastwood in ‘Two Mules for Sister Sarah’, Sam Peckinpah, the last afternoon of the last Neanderthal, Thomas McGuane, the Fall of Rome, the Cambrian Explosion, Johnny Mercer, the Impact Event, Harold Lloyd, Sartre, Ava Gardner, Saul Bellow, Anthony Newley, Bob Mould, Neil Aspinall, Stu Sutcliffe, Henry Mancini. The world is huge and doesn’t pause. Imagine what you will. Expansive fields of waving grasses and dark-skinned strangers walking there, absolutely unaware of you, people sitting down to eat all over the world, children pushing toys under beds, then naked children sprinting down sun-dappled forest paths; Hawk faced George Gershwin massaging a Steinway and glancing coyly over his shoulder – the grand, straight unbrowed nose, the slight underbite. Enola Gay, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Nouakchott and Wilmington kiss in the night, Henry Fonda, the Marianas Trench, Steve McQueen, Dana Andrews. Jimmy Stewart collapsing atop a paper-strewn table and sliding to the floor. Noel Coward, Glen Matlock, Isaac Newton, Andy Partridge, the Magna Carta, the first bird, the first fish, Gene Kelly, the hasty burial of Pompeii, Dodge City, Verdun, Auschwitz, Cary Grant walking off into a snow-filled evening, Caligula, Captain Kangaroo, Franco Nero as Lance, Dresden on fire, Gene Kelly again, Nelson Mandela, and a distinguished pack of tuxedoed figures standing around a brilliantly underlit emerald swimming pool in the dead of a desert night, pinching martini glasses and tossing heads back congenially, in laughter, free hands in pockets, backs arched, knees bent slightly; the orgasmic synchronous bomburst of everything happening, and having happened, everywhere, every second, even as our dear tormented rock pirouettes lazily through an empty living room.  In the company of all this gorgeous mayhem, a dumb little kiss, your very first, Stel. It will infinitesimally slow the stirring of the stars. I believe this. I BELIEVE IT.

Stel, we’re 2 molecular swerves, two frequencies made flesh, anomalous waveforms, Fancy Children of Christ, bumps in the night. We’re the same age, the same dust and water. We’ll very soon return to the mix. You, my temporary angel. I don’t like to think about it. The day is not long enough. This time I’m your dad and you’re my adored, adorable Stella. Next time, who knows? I can’t hug and kiss you enough. We’re alive we’re alive we’re alive we’re alive we’re alive, honeybun. Small matters of the heart will outlast us and the galaxies. That’s not made up. What we Feel is as large as all of outer space, Stellie, all this black velvet jewel box is a boring hole in time compared to a kid’s awakening heart, compared to you and me in this car under this sun. We look at each other and laugh. That’s no illusion. We’re stardust. We’re elementals. Just forget that two-timing 6th grade lothario, sweetie.

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!”

 

habitable region around a dwarf star

habitable region around a dwarf star
you may approach a dwarf star, but what’d be the point

Is it the dwarf star that collapses in on itself, the Mysterio inner forces dragging the sun-spotted skin and corona inexorably (always inexorably) downward into what we are assured is the uncomfortably warm nuclear ‘furnace’ (o’ make it homely and domestic that we may understand its incomprehensible anger) such that the gathering densities aggregate into a very tiny embarrassed ball of light whose spoonfuls famously weigh tons? Tons we can understand. Here I am, a Susan Polis Schutz (nee Schultz) poster, and I am that dwarf star or maybe it’s a neutron star I’m imagining. An inward collapse, a weakening carapace gone translucent with the desire to vanish, an upbraiding of passerby be they friend or foe. What is this thing called love. A furnace of incalculable energy that some would yet reduce to the status of a toaster. A half-light hell. Well it’s much more than a toaster or anyway is meant to be. So I’ve always supposed. Time will tell.

The Opus in Gethsemane

Easter Sunday 2014 (‘…in three days I will raise him up…’) my mom walked cheerily out of her independent living apartment for the last time. She’d stopped whistling several months before or she surely would have been whistling as we left, as she had been whistling every day of our lives as far back as I can remember. I have her by the arm now. This particular Sunday (he shifts into full-frontal present tense) we walk arm in arm like a couple of pals going out for a stroll, her thrice-broken left linked trustingly to my right. She is wearing her familiar black puffy vest and red sweater. Her apartment is the usual mild mess with small stacks of newspapers and books everywhere, her bed hastily made.

“You like the way I make my bed?” Umpteenth.

“Yeah, where does one find a blind butler these days?” Umpteenth.

Today, with no preamble and no ceremony, we just walk out. Goodbye, apartment. And something irretrievable just…ends. All brouhaha to the contrary, when stuff ends in this life it just ends. Your dad dies forever and you drive home from the hospital and sit on your dumb familiar couch with your mom and sister and little brother and the cheap wall clock in the kitchen seems not to know that some big fucking thing just happened in the universe, the biggest thing so far. My father died about 2 miles from here, in a hospital bed! My big sister was with him when it happened! I was driving my mom home so she could get some rest and he passed while I was driving back to him! I found my sister crying and rushed in and kissed his cooling forehead, inadvertently trapping the startled nurse by the stilled machines so that she had to stand there jammed in the corner and look away while I kissed my dad’s face! O ticktockticktocktick. Now some 20 years later, my mom and I walk out of apt. 206.

Her Door, her Life Door? It’s beginning to close, and it’s an enormous Door, so large that its swinging massively on its hinge produces a movement like that of the moon across the sky, or distant mountains on a cross-country road trip with the family. There is movement, but it’s imperceptible. Imperceptible but by the fucked and very very useless gift of hindsight. But this hasty afternoon Aloha is going down and down and down to the dungeon of her last days on Earth. I’m taking her there with our arms linked. The import of this day must not mean much to me as we leave the apartment, because on the way over to lead my poor mother to slaughter I have done a work errand, dropping off some documents with an architect. ‘I’ll just work this into the morning on my way over to move my mom to the slaughterhouse’. She has her questions, once I’ve reminded her again that today is ‘moving day’.

“Why am I moving?”

“Remember? The management here says, and they regret it, because everyone loves you here, they say you have to move. Because your memory is getting dangerously bad.”

“My memory!” she galumphs and hangs her head like Walter Matthau. “What’s that got to do with anything!”  I’d been explaining to mom, sometimes 6 or 7 times in a 10  minute period, that her increasingly (if still mildly) erratic behaviors had obliged the management to ask her to leave the apartment she had lived in for 10 years. She would be moving into a place (I was careful not to use familiar, horrifying bromides euphemizing safety or security – buzzwords to failing seniors that only say Incarceration and Death) where a nice couple would be able to watch over her; benign caretakers who would make sure she didn’t fall. Of all the useless things to avoid, to take such lavish steps to avoid. FALLING!? Falling on an unattended walk is the finest champagne, ambrosia –  the delicious afterglow of a dream she wakes from every daybreak.

I explain again now to my mom, in telegraph; I’m tired of explaining this! Her behavior at the senior independent living apartment house had changed a little recently, her demeanor had begun to change a very little. She had yelled at a dining companion who had complained about her constantly singing at table (always ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ or ‘Two Sleepy People’), and then mom had lost her prize seating by the front window and been moved to a table in the center of the dining commons. The next day the lackluster and frankly inept manager of the facility complained to me that Aloha could not remember to go to the new table. Then she’d walked out of the front door at 2am in her nightclothes, made her way down to State Street and been gently returned by two good Samaritans and the police. This late-night episode of ‘wandering and elopement’ (episodic dementia terminology that is cruelly ironic in its seeming reference to marital joy) had been boldly marked on the indemnifying mimeograph the slack-faced building manager had asked me to sign a couple days later. The form protected the apartment owners from legal action should my mom walk into traffic or simply walk away.

At the obligatory doctor’s appointment mom was asked a series of questions in my presence; had to know the date (nope), the year (nope), what city she was in (nope), what a pen was (got it), what a ring was (got it), had do redraw a Venn Diagram right next to the original drawing (strangely, no), had to spell world backwards (she got as far as d and l). She did get three things right and was amusing besides, for which they give no extra credit.

When the doctor asked her height mom said ‘5 foot 5 1/2. And that half inch means a lot to me! ‘ During the cognitive test the nurse asked her ‘what State are you in?’ ‘October‘, says mom. The nurse and I exchanged glances. ‘No, what STATE are you in? Are you in Wisconsin, Florida? Maine?’ “Ooh, what STATE,’ mom says, and thinks about it. ‘August.’ she says. Then she starts laughing. Then, resigned; ‘I don’t know what state I’m in.’ A couple weeks before, mom and I had been about to enter a watch store to get her watchband resized. As we approached the door she pulled back on my arm and said ‘I can’t go in there.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. She pointed to a sign in the bottom of the window. No Bags Allowed.

Today, though, the Move. All the cascading elements have been leading to this. She is copacetic

“Oh well, whatever. I have to move, right? So let’s do it. I don’t mind moving.” The stiffened girlish shrug. Even then, I felt relief and not sorrow, despite knowing full well she would very soon now find herself enclosed and confused and frightened and without a single scrap of the hope that had, for some years, been dwindling in concert with the square footage of her shrinking domiciles.

“Yeah, you like to move, right? Born into the Army, married into the Air Force,” I said. She laughed.

“That right!”

So anyway we close her apartment door. “Take a good look!” I say enthusiastically, but feel the first mild sinking. She looks briefly around and nudges me playfully.

“Let’s go!” o god o god o god if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew

We walk downstairs. When we pass through the hallway behind the reception desk, by the mailboxes and sign-up clipboards, she completely surprises me by saying ruminatively ‘I’ll never see this place again’. Some of her friends and acquaintances there haltingly sense something and gather. Where is Jeff taking her? A couple of them look at us with troubled expressions, not sure how to process this. But they know, with whatever increasingly fine-tuned avian sense these fragile wraiths develop as they move forward into their own winnowing-down, they know that what is happening is The Thing. It is The Thing. The Thing That Happens. As if in the increasing fineness of the structural physical body there is more resonance, a heightened sensitivity to changes in timbre. They know. And now the group of glorious, chummy oldsters, they who have so lovingly seen my mom through these 10 years of falling action, they are murmuring the dreaded ‘goodbye’ – another one of their friends being weeded out, like  a soldier in a battle of attrition, or a siege. And now we’re just heading out the front door of the place. Just like that.

“Goodbye!” I say, as much to prompt my mom’s awareness as to actually, really say goodbye. I’ll be back to clear out the apartment, explain to everyone what has happened, apologize for the abrupt departure. I’ll be back. “Goodbye, goodbye.”

“Wait!”

Lupe, a longtime Aloha booster, comes hustling out from behind the reception desk. “I can’t let you go without a hug!” she says, hurrying to my startled mom and throwing her arms around her in a very demonstrative and unquestionably final hug of farewell. This is a Last Time Forever. Aloha doesn’t raise her arms at first, but then she does, hesitantly. When Lupe pulls away tearily my mom turns to the door and she has a furrowed brow and water falling out of her eyes and an expression that says “Why am I crying?

I’m not a liar, I’m a traitor.  For Aloha this is the end of the day. The day I was born she would not have guessed that I would be the bailiff ushering her to a lasting confinement. Through an unremarkable little gate. Let’s keep up the cheery chatter, the terrified chatter, because what am I doing to my mother right now in full sunlight? I’m giving her a drink of poison, a long slaking draught of poison, not from a chalice but from a fucking jelly jar.

We walk the sidewalks of the City College campus, look appreciatively at the striking Pacific Ocean and while away the minutes, a little delaying tactic, and as the minutes pass I see a black mountain looming, just up ahead there. An hour? A friend of Sam’s walks by and says hello. Aloha seems mildly embarrassed to be seen, but as always she is suddenly not 90 but 40.

“Hey, nice to meet you!” she says with that trailing laugh I’ve known forever.

An hour later we pull up to her new House, the couple who run the place come to the gate to greet us, the gate is swung open, and with my splayed hand on mom’s back…my mom just walks right through the gate. And that is the end of that. We walk into the house. A speechless crone with long gray hair sits in a wheelchair at a lovely dining room table working her jaw and my mom looks at her with horror. Frank, the burly husband of the two who run the place says to Aloha –

“You like apple?” He puts his arm across my mom’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” she says cautiously.

“I’ll cut it up for you!” he says and strides off. My mom sits down, and I sit down with her at the dining room table. The crone is bobbing her long face and her long stringy gray hair, she’s babbling – a crazy old ghoul from Central Casting. When my mom can take her eyes off her she looks at me. The little light flickers on.

“Let’s go. Let’s go home.”

Here it is.

“Mom – this is home. You’ve moved here.” Of course she looks at me blankly for 5 seconds – and then her face, very very suddenly, you would say ‘spontaneously’, her face folds into a grimace of horror and her very blue eyes are aswim in sudden water.

“Oh, no!”

Clench your fist under the table, asshole. This is what you get, asshole. Keep it together.

“Mom – ”

“Oh, no, let’s get out of here! Oh, no, Jeff.”

“Where do you want to go?” I ask stupidly, my blood on the run, heart slamming.

“Let’s go, oh, please – let’s just go! I don’t care where! Let’s get out of here!”  Never seen her like this, not since Pat’s accident. And her blue eyes are full of water but it won’t fall down her face. The fullness of the trap makes itself known, it’s slammed shut already. When I watched her walk blithely through that gate in the driveway, I should’ve grabbed her. NO! Let’s go, mom! Forgive me! It’s a trap, a trick! But now 20 years of sickened anticipation is over, the surreal is real, and the gate is shut. This is that moment. She knows it. It has struck her like a wave. She raises her hands –  her arms –  raises her arms up as if to fend something off and lightly brushes her temples with her fingertips, a horror actress about to push her hands through her hair.

“Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

“Mom …let’s walk to the back. C’mon.” I adopt the ameliorating tone of a confidant. “C’mon, let’s walk to the back.” This is what ‘unbearable’ means. This is what that means. I can’t bear it. Just walk and hold her. There is a long driveway, it bends to the left as you walk to the back of the property and there is a sitting area with an umbrella. We sit down, but I don’t remember what was said, because within a half-minute Frank comes walking boldly toward us. My rescuer.

“Heeey! Let’s eat!” he says, Telly Savalas announcing supper. Slavika is with him in her apron; a nice, humor-filled Croatian couple. Been doing this for 30 years. Highly regarded, fully licensed, seen it all. Done it all. They shower their stupefied residents while wearing surgical gloves. Aloha, my mother, looks at me and grabs my forearm. I can’t. I CAN’T!! Frank looks at me conspiratorially as he says –

“Come on, we got dinner.” He face is motioning to me – Now is Your Chance, she just needs to acclimate, it’s better this way. Aloha gets the whole routine, though, and she looks at me. THAT look. And she just takes her hand off my forearm. And now I can see her door closing and the moon sweeping across the sky and all the bullshit gears working their phony magic. Frank gets on one side, Slavika on the other, they’re very gentle, they coax her to her feet and she rises from the cushioned lawn chair with difficulty.

“Come on, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Slavika assures in the singsong mantra of a caregiver. My mom, to my surprise, seems relaxed, her posture has loosened. But then I see it’s a striking surrender. Frank looks down at her and speaks very gently.

“You like potato salad?” My mom, while I watch, looks up at him with a sort of doomed leer, a gallows smile. WTF is that? I’ve never seen that expression. Has she ever used it before? She looks up at him and smiles, a ‘sad’ smile, a smile of saddened new ‘hello’. She is more alive and aware and aflame than anyone else in the scene. She looks right at his eyes.

“Yeah. I like potato salad,” she says with disgust, smiling. The white flag.

She lowers her face, she lets herself be escorted down the driveway. Am I seeing this? Frank and Slavika make faces and gestures – you can take this time to leave – it’s the perfect time. It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay! Go to your car, she’s fine. I’m afraid, though. My mom’s going to look over and see me leaving, Judas slipping between the guards. But she just walks between them without looking back. What is this? She puts her left hand on her hip as she walks between them, a gesture of fortitude, of putting her back into something. To my puzzlement, she doesn’t even look back toward me, doesn’t look back at all!  The goddamndest thing. Ever. EVER. I didn’t picture this. Her rounded shoulders obscured by her new keepers, she shuffles up onto the porch and through the open door. And that is how I killed my mother.

Your Femur In the Next New World

Femur Fever
we shall continue to strive

Cosmologists, physicists and math wizards assure us we shouldn’t be here.  We so shouldn’t be here it can almost be persuasively argued that we aren’t here, that we are, in effect, virtual. And our brief, present reign is characterized by ingenious and puzzling bits of joinery.  Our touching terror of loose ends has us piecemealing all kinds of things so that no awkward termini need affront of discomfit us.  Sidewalks meet streets, travel for blocks and then stop, or as we say, end. But where a sidewalk ends you will likely find some bit of machined urban planning, some formed appurtenance, a thing.  The thing has a design function; it is to mitigate the ending of another thing of purpose. Walls meet floors, buildings conjoin, and the seam-centric work of human planners bespeaks a generalized belief that we have arrived and are determined to capably glue the parts together into a familiar whole.

Quantum Field Theory features, among other mild insanities, the snap-crackle-pop appearance of ‘virtual particles’ that appear very briefly and then annihilate. We are that, in our shirts, blouses and tasseled dress shoes, in our hats and coats and shorts and unembarrassed corduroy ensembles. The insensate scalability of Time makes our duration as individual Things infinitesimally, improbably brief. And yet we are materially indefatigable. The Law of the Conservation of Mass says that the quantity of matter is unchanging through all space and time; matter cannot be created or destroyed, only moved around; horses become apples, become clouds and comets, become wondrous drifting interstellar smoke. This means, among many other things, that the bone running down the middle of either of your thighs will specifically inhabit the roiling undercrusts of the Earth in eons to come, and thereafter the silent bell jar of deepest space and time. Sentence fragment. Your leg bone and Jayne Mansfield’s head will survive every cataclysm, every Big Bang yet to come. Hers is not such a special head but for the lore it wears like an especially difficult hat. It’s no more or less momentous than your leg bone. Your femur.

You will leave your consciousness behind. Strike that; reverse it. It will fly quietly out of your cooling carapace at the moment of your heat death, a warm tiny vapor gone to some unrealized quantum brane or maybe to the clear air over your living room carpet and the startled bridge players there. But your lovingly machined parts, in describable pieces or in atomized clouds of Stuff, will inhabit this Place. In 600,000 years your femur will be someplace on earth. Know. Is it true that infinite time naturally yields the realization of every single possibility? Intuitively it seems so. Given the fullness of time, then, you can stare up at the Crab Nebula, or cast your gaping glance to the general vicinity of idiotically distant z8_GND_5296, and know you are there in a thrilling present tense.

Gawp all you want at the Hubble Deep Field. * (sighs distractedly with something like frustration while biting a burnt veggie burger) * We awaken only very very very briefly and then are cast out into Everywhen. Why do we awaken? There are no purposeless moving parts in this machine. What is this for, cognition? The other animals procreate and eat and flee their adversaries without it. Why do we need it? Why awaken at all?  Is our immeasurable little snap of wakefulness the door we have to hurry through? I think it is.

What Is This Earth Kiss?

man madness

I

Presumed innocent, we combed and showered fools
and our famous twig-twisting thumbs
begin another day,
for the 840 millionth time
awaken to our bag of stupid tools.
The pitiful ribbon of smoke rises again
from the dried leaves and hammered clay.
By late morning (it should be noted)
we are not entirely surprised
to be slapped blind, deaf, broken and dumb;
two flashes of orange, the usual ragged consequences,
a vanished child,
a bath of cooling blood,
the plodding search for comfort,
beyond the firelight’s phony, oversold defenses.
This wild ruin no longer has the effect
of removing the scales from our eyes.
The Road to Damascus is a Hope and Crosby cul-de-sac.
Stop the presses: we have wasted what was meant to be
a scouring do-over; we’ve squandered our only Flood.

II

Networked to hell and back, HDTV,
a silver car on Mars;
there is much gloating to do
and not much leisure time in which to do it,
you won’t have all afternoon
to patch the roof, weed the yard.
For all that we have reached this happy zenith now,
pleased as punch with our stripes and bright stars
one angry synaptic misfire + a credit card
gifts us the fleeting strength to see right through it.
Even then, it’s not as if the lesson is ours.
It’s not a truth we have the means to own,
not the narrative our forebears chose.
Despite our best efforts, our hand-holding,
our blue-helmeted peacekeeping, Audrey Hepburn,
UNICEF, NATO and Jonas Salk,
the species is a bland corpse,
a doomed ninny in bland repose
on a burned-out street, roughly outlined
with the coroner’s dime-store chalk.

III

A Starship Captain on a starship’s bridge,
his sleeveless metal tunic
reflecting sparks, machinery aflame,
amid a chaos of warning strobes and crashing starship alarms,
(a hopeless fantasy of what we could have been),
takes a green space babe in his soot-streaked arms.
Her tungsten tiara is askew, yes;
the hieroglyph in flamelit bas-relief.
There is cinematic fire dancing
all along the edges of the expensively appointed set,
a scene that begs a more authentic show of grief.
This ship plows down
through killing atmospheres, the hull yields
and folds and breaches, an inrush of poisoned air; and then
intercut with tragic blinking frames
of extinct fauna prancing
in overpainted, childishly rendered Elysian Fields,
the Captain’s handsome face stirs
and in a desperate attempt to touch before the crash
he fastens his Starship Captain’s mouth on hers.
She looks into his eyes. Of course.
“What is this…Earth Kiss?” she asks,
but has the wherewithal to shed a bewildered tear.
The bulkheads crack, light screams in,
heat and death flow around them like water.
“We wonder,” he says. “And the wondering has cost us dear”.

The Greatest Discovery

E and B groter
clueless glory-teens stumble onto ark of the covenant. Bernie’s haircut notwithstanding.

G*d have mercy on me. Among the unlikeliest of songs in the rock n’ roll canon is a hair-raising little tune called The Greatest Discovery. One gets a throat cramp knowing that this scraggly early triumph preceded world domination, then reportedly a darkling period that featured a lot of John and Taupin crawling around on shag carpets sniffing pitifully for the leftover dregs of various coke bacchanals; stardom wiped its feet on the fledglings and they foundered willingly into the pit, for a while.  But the first meetings? Their mutual awakening to the power of songwriting? Jesus. This very early Elton song clenches my fists and inclines my head, sums up perfectly why Bernie Taupin is a teenage idyll, a marble statue of a Kid Before the Fall sitting in a desk chair by a tensor lamp.  Like all Taupin’s very early stuff this small, adolescent bit of dumb puffery reads like it was scribbled in a spiral notebook between math homework and parental orders to brush teeth and get jammies on.  The devastating, high schoolish little verse isn’t much to look at, really shouldn’t have been married to a chord progression, doesn’t properly earn the right to a melodic treatment, staggers forward ineptly with accidental rhymes, slant rhymes, sophomoric bits of Yeatsian pretension and all the clunkiness one gets from a hunched teen with a Ticonderoga # 2 behind a closed bedroom door. It is a detonation, though. A marvel of reaching, halting boyhood, this cloying Mother’s Day paean to a new life in the house, as explosive as Brian Wilson’s wrenchingly autobiographical primal scream ‘In My Room’, in it’s way. Elton J has spoken in interviews of why the early and mid-period John/Taupin songs sound the way they do. Taupin didn’t know meter from Peter. His unrestrained, heartfelt teen verse most often took the form of a-metrical narrative lines or hurried couplets meant to capture a feeling. Read the lyics to Grey Seal and know that Elton is the hardworking Lord of supple melodic reverse engineering. The Greatest Discovery seizes me every time I listen to it, heralding the early union of these two misfits and their powerful willingness to be uncool. There’s a great vid in studio of the song being performed on BBC in 1970, linked to the photo above, though E’s apparently nervous producer Paul Buckmaster hits some painful bum notes on the cello opening. if you can find the original track from the eponymous ‘Elton John’ album, that’s the one. This and many many other imperfectly articulated tunes from earlier epochs are an antidote to these end times of tinfoil pop tarts stamped out of metal like license plates.

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.