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.
[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.
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.
I’m in a writing group called The Drunken Goats. But I don’t drink, and I haven’t seen any of my peers get too drunk. No, that’s not true. I did watch one of us get pretty fucked up at our holiday party a few years ago. He grew very affectionate with everyone, and he passed out early, with his head in someone’s lap. Before he went, though, he’d become obsessed with this sentence, the source of which no one has discovered:
The general known for sending his troops into the fray knowing full well that he would lose more of his own but with fewer overall casualties was a controversial warlord.
He must have said it a hundred times, varying the diction and syntax with each articulation, his final utterances incomprehensible because he was slurring:
Understand, you, that she will lose women of her own but not those women she doesn’t know to send into a fray anyway, before someone brands her Controversial Warlord.
And now that I’m thinking about it, it wasn’t a he-goat (Paulo, who is a loudmouthed drunk), but a she (Maggie, who is not). And she, for her love of fine art and prosodies marked by repetition and theme & variation, and for her performance that night, called to my mind Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). Put another way: The goat who drank the most was like a High Modernist.
Wandering amid the women in his life, a once-lonely man with a wry sense of humor found love simply by persisting in telling the same dumb jokes over and over again—and listening for laughter. Lifting her veil, he now tried to speak, but found himself speechless in the eyes the wisest comedienne he’d ever witnessed.
American comic Gilda Radner (1946-1989) wore many faces. One she called Roseanne Roseannadanna. She played other characters with names like Brungilda, Emily Litella, Candy Slice, and Judy Miller.
Donning a huge head of tight curls, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, was a fake and movingly puerile consumer-affairs reporter on the mock news broadcast on the late-night variety show Saturday Night—first airing in the early 1970s.
Brash and tactless, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, was quick to savage colleagues and viewers alike—anyone who got in the way of what she was saying—before digressing into something bodily, something scatological, like her own flatulence or the status of one of her nose hairs.
She, Roseanne Roseannadanna, dropped names so that in one moment she was reading a letter from a viewer, usually one Mister Feder of Fort Lee, New Jersey, asking about quitting smoking or how breast feeding a baby works in practice, and in the next she was going on about her supposed run-in with Princess Grace of Monaco.
Maniacal, sarcastic, insistent, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, marked my earliest exposure to this kind of playacting. As a form of insistence, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, chronically referred to herself by her full name. Save for the emphatic I, she favored fewer pronouns for herself when speaking about herself, of whom she spoke admiringly.
Though she, Ms. Radner, was a master of sketch comedy, none of the teenagers in my life have ever heard of her. This makes sense. It would be like my reciting from Lucille Ball when I was their age or a teenager forty years hence laughing at the antics of I don’t know who or what in our present moment.
Once Ms. Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she famously said, “Having cancer gave me membership In an elite club I’d rather not belong to.”
Upon her death, her husband, also a famous comic, helped to found Gilda’s Club, an international organization created to support people living with cancer.
Having sworn off marriage after the death of his wife Gilda Radner, the widower did eventually remarry. Sometime after that—or was it sometime before?—he sought therapy. For what specifically, I don’t know. Loneliness? Anger? Depression? Impulsivity? He said to his shrink something like, Hey Doc, I have the urge to give away all my money. Well, replied the therapist, how much money do you have? Me? he said, I owe $300.
One day I was walking down Division Street in Nashville when I happened upon a red brick building—home to one the chapters of Gilda’s Club. So read the bronze plaque on the facade on such a bright and muggy day. The parking lot was empty. The windows were dark. Cupping my hands about my face to peer through the glass, I got the sense of a clock ticking. Dust motes. Empty chairs. Dusky silence. A card table stood strewn with magazines. A turntable sat beside a stack of records. Beyond bookshelves, a view to a kitchen and, everywhere, jutting shadows. Suddenly overwhelmed by a sense not so much of time passing as of time having passed—of not so much death as the insignificance of a single life in the context of the sheer number of individuals who have entreated youth to linger—I backed away from the window and, looking around to see if my nosiness had raised eyebrows, I buried my hands in my pockets and, with a down-turned gaze, continued my walk as if nothing had happened.
Is this a replay of the ‘if it’s mine it can’t be worth much’ gambit? That gambit I so often deploy against myself, out of a suspicion that my experience of things is compromised by some original and inexplicable flaw[?] —Harry Mathews
One sacred pedestrian says to another, “I know you don’t like me, I hear it in your voice, see it in your nuanced body. I am intolerable.” How embarrassing, when someone we despise appeals to our face against the sentence handed down them.