With birthdays but a year and a day apart, and she the elder and young for her age, and he the younger whose turns of phrase grow frankly repetitive, they’d eaten beef in the early days of their joint celebration and across sinewy time, when bodies gray with food beliefs greening, of the baby spinach and veggie lasagna they swore up and down to savor, they left bites on their plates and their stomachs a quarter empty in an inner and outer show of moderation. Pressing her cheek to his to blow out candles one day in their fifties, she wished to herself to feel happy and fulfilled at the time of her death. Like planning a wedding, she arranged the flowers in her head and the ones before them that make the best centerpieces for birthday dinners. He wished that the movie they were seeing later that night would be at least a little entertaining. It was to be a hundred-minute car chase broken up by scenes from the childhoods of the chasers and those chased, as if so many turning points from the deep pasts of so many passengers could justify such a hair-raising event as two cars careening down the highway with little regard for the safety of others. It was after all a hot day and the gist of the chase, like an old-time feud, involved an ancient wound, an insult like a family heirloom, about somebody’s mother that cut to the core of a man’s need to strut his stuff with his chest thrust forward and balls of fist hung like unused mallets. Childhoods aside, the funny part of the chase was the fact that every time the chased sped up, the chaser sped up, and every time the chased slowed down, the chaser slowed down, so that the distance between them remained constant. As you may have guessed, you must suspend your disbelief when it comes to the guzzling of gas. Chalk it up to that six-shooter that in the movies shoots a hundred rounds or more. No one is stopping to reload and underneath it all everyone cares about everyone immensely.
for Phil Doub
If roses won’t prove fatal to write about, wilt they must with pleadings set with idyllic settings. You can’t always see this coming, a biochemical response beyond naming, a nameless byproduct characterized by falling up and swooning. It’s not like it kicks up any dust or anything, or sounds an alarm like a panicked conversation might, arriving both early and often to drive the unsentimental crazy.
I may not be as practical as I sound. Yesterday I went looking for the answer to a question I couldn’t formulate. It went something like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ In contrast, today is the day of days, the most wonderful I’ve ever lived through. It’s been a long time since I worked with my shirt off in the hot sun. I’m planting dwarf roses around stone walkways. Climbing ones over trellised arches. Note the care I take to prune back the element that makes a comedy romantic. It’s worth it even if all romance is hilarious. If my aversion here makes me giggle condescendingly, let me at least informally acknowledge your love of sap as an incredible source of power. But this is about science, man, and the Old Enologists who for centuries now have lived and worked up the road from here. Everyone knows the trick they play, for me a perpetual revelation: In fashioning an early warning system against sharpshooters and bunch rot, encircle your grapevines with ever-blooming roses of the same pH and watch for critters getting after them.
See this rose here. It’s yours for a dollar. You may ask, ‘Why would I pay a perfect stranger a dollar for a rose growing in my own garden?’ See that one there, the one spilling into the one you have your eye on? Before I knocked on your door, I plucked an even prettier one and sold it to your neighbor for a fiver. You get the discount for owning the bushes in the first place. You may ask, ‘Why would my neighbor give a perfect stranger five dollars for a rose out of my garden?’ One, these are beautiful flowers and, like a game of hide and go seek, it is the nature of things. Two, their scents, nasturtium, orrisroot, apple, clove, lemon, are things out of nature. Three, in our love of reds, pinks, and yellows, some splotched ones occur naturally in the wild. Four, what appear to us as our reds, pinks, and yellows may look different to their pollinators. Five is my hunch that, with the obvious exception of the sky, blue doesn’t happen as naturally in the wild as other hues do. Six, nowhere in the Bible, the Rig Veda, the Zend Avesta, or the Homeric poems is the sky called blue or its color even noted. One wonders if they ever looked up or, if they did, what color they saw. Seven, it’s a hot enough day for sweat to soak through from our armpits. Eight, kids are playing air hockey in the air-conditioned basement and roller hockey on the hot asphalt one street over. Nine: smell of grass clippings. Ten: chit-chit-chit of an old-time sprinkler system. Eleven: rubber of cars rolling over pea gravel. Twelve: wind shishing in treetops. Thirteen, the sky is blue and cloudless.
Our early warning system reminds one of the Old Miners’ trick of hanging canaries in their cages in the old mines they dug. Guinea pigs running headlong into waves of carbon monoxide may give us a sense of meaning in our own lives, when April showers once brought Mayflowers and roses fail for phylloxera’s arrival. If ever more sensitive birds get sick before men do, any sentinel species, honey bee, bat, crayfish, swallow, may inform our Climate Change Thinking. The grand dame of resistance writing, Muriel Rukeyser made it more urgent in U.S. 1, her poems from ’38, when she drove to West Virginia to record a wife saying: ‘I first discovered what was killing these men.’ Their labor was subterranean whose reverse alchemy took them away from gold into the business of carbon. Said the doctors at the time, ‘Miner’s phthisis, fibroid phthisis, / grinder’s rot, potter’s rot, / whatever it used to be called, / these men did not want to die.’ So we must answer yes to the question of whether or not silicosis is an occupational disease or a hazard.
The Old Enologists arrived here from Transcaucasia and Asia Minor with pit stops at the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Delta. ‘Hello Franschhoek,’ they said. And ‘Howdy’ to Kakheti, Istria, Valle de Guadalupe, Sherry Triangle, and Colchagua. And ‘Hi’ to Alsace. And ‘How do you do, Porto?’ They soon had everyone driving pests away from their vines and flavoring the wines of a not-so-distant future by amassing clumps of rosemary and lavender around the shanks of rosebushes. This was about the time I found a faience cup in the California loam with a chip like a bite taken out of it. It beamed not the name of a pharaoh but that of a far distant rancher.
‘The unfortunate need of words,’ I tried explaining to everyone. My most obvious emendations were the addition of words, half a dozen big ones plunked down in the middle of a plainspoken elegy, to arrest the attention of the departing dead, John Rutherford, in case he clung to his love of stilted language throughout his transition to the afterlife. In case he clung to sarcasm, I put that in, too. Insult? One or two searing ones. Wordplay? The best I could manage. Practical jokes? I couldn’t think of one in time. Like Shakespeare’s least famous fools, he never caught his own malapropisms, when opinioned is pinioned, odorous is odious, and vigitant is vigilant, so I packed my speech with them, that he might hear his own flawless diction one more time. Though he was never a churchgoer he believed in the function of God in his increasingly secular community. Explain that one to me. In any event, I can see him now, carried up the hill head-up by celestial children. Soon after their departure, the roses in his garden surrendered to convolvuluses.
Finally, the story I was meant to tell could be the trailer of a feature length movie. As sick to my stomach as it makes me to say this, for the best effect, read by rose-light from the penumbra of high personal pathos: He loved her even after she left with that man of hers. He loved her today. He loved her yesterday. He would always love her. When that man of hers died, he cried for her, and he cried. A different she loved a different he, even after he left with that woman of his. She loved him today. She loved him yesterday. She would love him forever. When his woman died, she cried for him, and she cried. They’ve known each other for a few weeks now. They remind each other of the men and women they didn’t go with. They make love in the afternoon, at lunchtime, when their spouses are away and the house is filled with daylight. There are funny parts, too. The funny parts come later. They bring us into a time when everyone looks visibly older.
[Reading Shakespeare while sheltering in place]
Saturday noon finds eight friends gathered virtually for a read-around of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am one of them. I’m always one. This circle is the one I’ve belonged to the longest. At sixty, our host Alan is ten years older than I am and taking our sheltering period to grow the long free beard he’d craved wearing as a child. He strokes it. He sits beside his wife Rachel in their loveseat flanked by antique lampshades. It’s good to see them. It’s good to see everybody—Stacy, Pauline, Ransom, Mel, Jay, Bernard, Erica, and Sandy— looking so healthy. We live in California, North Carolina, Chicago, Albuquerque, and London. Masks may hang from our necks but again we are healthy. Everyone’s hair is longer. Looking past their smiling faces on my computer screen, I’m drawn to incidentals:
..spines of books about anthropology, cooking, umbrella handle, tidiness, a painting of a squirrel in a tree of Chinese lettering, weariness, chaos, autumnal colors red and golden, minimalist, business as usual, shabby chic, framed certificates of achievement, framed elders, children, transitional look, mad scientist, a pot of ivy hanging in macrame, rustic, clay figurine silhouetted in bright window, industrial look, a cat walks across a keyboard, Frank sets his laptop on his piano, contemporary, Jay’s wife poking her head in to say hi, mid century modern; a stray toddler (Little Gregory) for cooing as he passes….
We curate our frames. Everyone wants us to see something. An object. A quality. My guitar hangs on the wall behind me. I have placed such worn titles as Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody in plain view for anyone who’s looking.
Drawing my name from a hat, Alan assigns me the roles of Theseus, the Duke Athens, and Oberon, King of the Fairies. They’re both men, though Shakespeare’s fairies are hermaphrodites in my memory of them. Both lead their minions, an earthly troop in chain mail and swordplay on one hand and, on the other, a band of spirits, Peasblossom, Moth, and Cobweb among them. I want to say that Theseus is doctrinaire, bound up with fear, and that Oberon is a noble and supportive guy who will nevertheless drug his wife with magic to steal the changeling. This is comedy.
Playing the parts of Helena and Hermia, our London friends Stacy and Pauline reintroduce us to their eleven-and-a-half-year-old daughter Caitlin. In her pajamas, she’s dragged her blanket into the frame on her way to beddy-bye. I met her once when she was an infant and again a year ago. She’d recently heard that old-fashioned phrase, ‘If such-and-such happens, I’ll eat my hat. It was like a song stuck in her head that she kept singing: ‘If Mom’s on time, I’ll eat my hat.’ ‘I’ll eat my hat if there aren’t a million people already waiting.’ ‘I’ll eat my hat if I need my dumb coat after all.’ I remember feeling charmed by this, and also a little jealous. To be in the newness of it all! I told a story called ‘The Hat Eaters’ in her honor. It was about all of us. It was roundly panned by everyone as satire that was less a piece of social commentary and more a laundry list of my own personal grievances. I’ve always felt this was an overreaction. But that’s not important either. What’s important is that we all have our parts to play. If I know this crowd, and I do, we will read loudly and softly and with gusto. We will modulate our voices.
My copy of A Midsummer’s Night Dream comes from an anthology published in Cleveland in 1925 by the World Syndicate Company. It belonged to my late grandmother on my father’s side and includes all the Bard’s comedies. Its faux leather cover hangs by a thread. The printers have included the phrase ‘A triumph was a public show’ in a distinct font in the bottom margin of the first page of the play. These words are not part of the script. Appearing nowhere else in the volume, they feel more poignant than practical. The more times I read them the more they sound like an incantation. And why the past tense? But this too is beside the point. We’re all online together, and it’s time to start. I clear my throat and say to my friends in a fairly flat voice, ‘Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace….’ This is my Theseus. This is my Oberon.
A boy walks in waist-high water parting and swirling back together behind him. Water gives off lapping noises when he dips his hands and raises them again like tilted ladles. Water makes going slow across an endless ocean.
Too bright to see, the distant horizon is a smattering of yellowy copper, and orange I see, with a kind of blue splashing upward. The variegated sky is as endless as the ocean. A few clouds pass over.
With an ocean coming and going at his waist, a boy walks into a sun both blinding and warm. His skin and hair are brined. He shades his eyes with hands pruning. His face catches light and his torso, catching light, flickers like a candle floating ceremoniously at daybreak.
Neither his legs nor his intellect drive him to where he’s going. The water is too deep for his feet to touch bottom. Too deep for thought. Once asleep and now awakened by the sensation of being carried, he rides a submerged animal like adventurous boys with hair swept back and their own oceans’ horses. In a rare moment of joy [as if the mucus collecting in his lungs could drain away once and for all and all by itself] he crosses into the rising sun straddling a hippopotamus.
How many times have I ashed a shoe or smoked a poem or talked loudly on the other shoe on a crowded bus at noon, as if what I had to say was everyone’s primary interest? I’m sorry. I thank you for your own discretion. You are my role model of the public sphere. I’m not being sarcastic when I say this, even if my tone of voice tells a different story.
I want to do a still life of a poet, an ashtray, and a woman’s tennis shoe, but it’s the same every time. The poet can’t sit still for the picture. His curiosity about who the shoe belongs to leads him around the room when the name of the game is stillness. So no still life for the time being, unless I alter my vision to exclude the poet. The problem is that he’s my best friend in the city and near the top of my list for all times and places.
A tennis shoe is a wonderful thing to wear on and off the court. It makes me feel nimble. Quick like the player I was once when I was twenty. Then I was a smoker for twenty years, and the very thought of a full-length match took my breath away. I smoked to be in the image of a poet. One day the greatest poet I personally know asked me to please stop smoking. ‘But you smoke,’ I reminded him. ‘Kind of a double standard, don’t you think?’ ‘I’d like you to be around,’ he blew out, ‘for as long as possible.’
This morning I bought an ashtray for a poet friend of mine. The irony of the object lay in its shape of a tennis shoe. It sits before me now, beside a flowerpot and an apple. It’s ironic because our lungs, his and mine together, now that we’re both ex-smokers, are as pink as they’ll ever be. Before meeting him to hand off his present, I do as he would do and stop to write a poem. It’s a love poem about First Love. Because it must accomplish a lot to mean much to someone who doesn’t know me, it sets me up for failure. In it, I must do the following:
A sixth-grader asks her teacher is it okay to have a good day while others are suffering. Before he can answer, her peers shout into mics like shouts in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Their faces light up his viewscreen. Voices draw down the tedium of sheltering. ‘Be happy about your happiness,’ they try to tell each other, ‘cognizant of the world happening around you.’ He doesn’t change the subject so much as its direction, when he asks, ‘What’s one thing you’d like to do when life returns to normal?’ The lists they make start small and grow increasingly unrealistic.
What is equivalent to a surprise party (for you!) attended by your best friends from each of your phases and a beam of light emanating from god knows where to sweep dark water, windows and crags of rock?
I don’t want to run into anyone who I hadn’t heard had remained behind. I wouldn’t want to run into anyone who hadn’t heard I’d stayed. May I not run into anyone in the darkness?
A neighbor recounts having survived a home invasion. The perps broke an arm and a leg, and they gave him a severe concussion. This was no movie. Their masks weren’t of celebrity politicians. He realized they were wearing masks only after he understood each downcast face to replicate the other.
To write the story of the murder of a neighbor, she will interview a man who, complicit if not guilty, is on his way over. She must abdicate the knowledge that makes her our author. She must play it cool, beginning right now by not jumping every time headlights sweep the window.
See gore at its most vicious. The setting, a city block. The perp, an incel. The victims, call girls, miss their mothers’ milk. “Extreme violence,” argues the director, “bespeaks the brokenness of a community.” Public outcry for moderation gives the picture its retro coloration.