The other day I began by writing Dear Alba at the top, but it was impossible. As a matter of fact, I can’t write you if I use stationery, which is why I’ve been using notepaper. All I want to say is they are re-doing Nadeau’s Grocery. They’ve pushed out the back wall so it’s bigger inside and they’re putting in a new tile floor and bright lights everywhere. It looks a lot brighter. I know this is trivial and stupid, but I kept thinking Oh, I should tell Alba about this. Now I’m back from Nadeau’s so I’m writing you this note. Don’t worry, I know this is crazy.
Scott phoned and asked did I want to have lunch someday this week. We ate at the Kitchen Table Restaurant, and when the waitress took our orders she told me, rather crisply, “Maybe you can finish your sandwich this time. You need to eat more.” She was the thin one, middle-aged, named Lilian. I ordered only a half-sandwich, anyway. After she left, Scott asked me, “You come here often?”
“Not really,” I said.
“She’s right, you should eat more.”
“I’m never hungry.”
Scott hesitated, seemed about to speak, but didn’t say anything. I told him, “You can’t make up your mind whether to be sympathetic or critical.”
“I think I’ll change the subject,” he said. “What do you want to talk about — sports, politics, philosophy, war, peace, the economy? How about the economy? What happened to money?”
“I haven’t been keeping up with anything.”
Scott sat back in his chair and studied me a moment. “How have you been?” he asked.
“I’m OK, I’m getting by. What about yourself ?”
“Me?” He looked surprised. “I’m all right. My ankles were getting swollen, but my doctor reduced my blood-pressure medication and I’m fine now.”
We talked about our blood-pressure medication until our waitress arrived with Scott’s bratwurst and potato pancakes, and my half-sandwich which they’d purposely overstuffed. I remembered he had attended a conference in Boston a week ago, so I asked him about that. He made a brisk, dismissive gesture, as if brushing something away. “Papers and discussion groups on artificial intelligence, computers and thinking machines,” he said. “Philosophers and mathematicians, mostly.”
His career began in philosophy and took a turn into symbolic logic, and from there it branched into mathematics, thence computers and artificial intelligence. Now Scott, being Scott, quickly become bored by the conference discussion groups, so he went out to visit the neighborhood where he had grown up. That was Mattapan, which I should tell you is as far down the map as you can go and still be in Boston.
“I hadn’t been down Blue Hill Avenue for fifty years,” he told me. “And I knew I shouldn’t go, but I was curious so I went. After the exodus, you know, the blacks moved in. African Americans, I mean. And Caribbeans.” He paused and thought a moment. “It was a wonderful place to grow up in, years ago. And the street was lined with interesting stores and little shops. Sort of urban, but haimish. The past is memories,” he decided.
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him otherwise, but I said, “What did you do at the conference. You gave a talk, right? So how did it go?”
“Went well, I’m told.” He shrugged. “Big discussion on free will. My point was that we don’t have free will and if we ever get around to building a machine that thinks, it won’t have free will, either.”
“Are grown-up philosophers still arguing about free will? We did that in high school. No wonder you got bored. — By the way, I have free will unless someone puts a gun to my head.”
“We disagree about that. — But the important thing is that I visited the scenes of my childhood. My past is intact. I have memories.”
“Well-meaning people tell me I have memories of Alba. They think that’s a comfort to me. They don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”
“You have —” he began.
I cut him off. “If I didn’t have children, I wouldn’t believe I’d ever met her.”
He looked at me. “I won’t argue with your feelings,” he said.
“But you were married to a brilliant woman for —”
“The past doesn’t exist, Scott.”
“Time goes by fast, much too fast. I understand that. But it was at least fifty years and you know those were good years.”
“The past doesn’t exist. Haven’t you noticed? It’s gone. That’s why we call it the past. It’s not real anymore.”
“What you had with Alba —”
“It has no more reality than a wish,” I told him. “It’s a romantic fiction.”
He started to speak but changed his mind, shutting his mouth so abruptly I heard his teeth snap together. Looking back, I see that Scott was remarkably patient with me, for he believed wholly in reason and I was clearly mindless. His father had been a linotype operator for a Boston newspaper, his mother a Trotskyite and later a worker for the Democratic Party, and Scott had grown up a secular humanist — “a tribe without a God,” he liked to say. Scott was a good guy.
It was strange to live alone, to embrace no one and to have no one put her arms around me, and sometimes it felt like my nerves were on the outside, aching to be soothed, or inside like it was thirst. But it wasn’t thirst or pain, it was loneliness. Lucy Dolan who had done babysitting for us was now in her mid-fifties but still slender and straight, and at Vanderzee’s exhibit she had given me a tight warm hug that lingered, the way vibrations linger after you strike the nerve strings.
I liked Shannon. I’d buy a cup of coffee, then stand under the leaky awning to watch the cars going by in the rain and talk with her between customers. She showed me she had moved her wedding ring to her right hand. “Because if I keep it where it was, people will think I’m married to Fitz and I don’t want anybody to think that. I wanted to keep wearing it on my left hand at least, but it only fits my ring finger, so I had to move it to my other hand.”
I told her I never had a wedding ring, but hers was beautiful, I said.
“Yeah, I know,” Shannon said. “I told him not to waste the money but he insisted. The emeralds make it different.”
“My wife’s ring is in a little velvet bag on her bureau. I never knew her fingers were so slender. It’s a small plain gold ring. That’s all. With our initials inside.”
“I have a friend whose husband died last year and she wears his ring on a necklace chain,” Shannon said.
“It hangs down, you know, so it’s over her heart.”
When I got home I looked through Alba’s jewelry and found a silver chain and put her ring on the chain and wore it. It hangs down to my breastbone. It’s comforting and whenever I want I can touch it.
Before sunset I always go for a walk the way we used to at that gentle hour. It’s a roundabout walk and halfway along it crosses through a field with a creek and a margin of tall grass where redwing blackbirds nest and wild flowers grow, and eventually the path goes beside Franklin’s Four Seasons, the flower nursery. Alba always took an interest in what was blossoming in the greenhouses. Then the path rises up a little slope to where we would have to lift the branches of a birch and duck under to go out the street and so to the road where we lived. Now I would remember how sometimes her hair would catch on those branches and I tried to recall just how her dress would swing as she stepped ahead. If she was here with me on these walks, all those times — and she was, she was — then I don’t understand how she cannot be. You cannot be at one moment and then not be at the next.
Q. What is man?
A. Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.
Q. Is this likeness in the body or in the soul?
A. This likeness is chiefly in the soul.
Q. How is the soul like to God?
A. The soul is like to God because it is a spirit that will never die, and has understanding and free will.
I understood all that. I knew what my body was and what my mind was and my personality and my character, but I didn’t know what my soul was and I began to wonder about that. One day I was watching my father work on a grave marker, a rare artistic job that only he and none of the two or three workers he hired could do, because it had a butterfly carved at the top and a border of pomegranates to the left and right of the inscription, old symbols of resurrection. After a while, I asked him what the soul was. He removed his safety glasses and rubbed the two pink indents that the glasses had pinched on the bridge of his nose. He smiled a bit. “I think that’s a question for your mother.” I told him I had already asked her. He hesitated, then said, “Well, there’s your uncle Zitti. He talks about his soul as easily as other men talk about their digestion.” He put on his safety glasses and took up the chisel again, then turned to me. “Or you could ask your uncle Nicolo,” he added. “He has opinions about the soul, too.”
Uncle Nicolo had a big book with illustrations by Gustave Doré which Nick and I used to take from the bookcase and open on the floor to look at — dark and frightening scenes, like those naked men trapped in the ice of a frozen lake, one man gnawing on the bald head of another, or that naked woman who was twisted around, pulling out her own hair. Those were the damned being tortured forever in Hell, which was the first part of Dante’s long poem. The second part was Purgatory where people got horribly punished, but after doing penance for their sins they were admitted into Paradise, which was the third part of the poem. The pictures of Hell were the ones we looked at most, because they were so gruesome and because everyone was naked there, unlike in Paradise where the souls wore clothes. The souls were really souls and not bodies, but Gustave Doré drew the bodies to show how the souls in Hell felt horrible pain forever, which Nick and I thought was terribly unfair of God, because forever was way too long a time even if they had sinned when they had been alive, but it did give you an idea of how cruel God could be when he wanted.
A few years later, Nick said he didn’t believe in souls. We were walking with Veronica, coming back from the field where Sandro used to fly his hawk and where Dante and Mercurio used to shoot, but now uncle Nicolo had a Victory Garden there because of the war. We were crossing the old burying ground when Nick announced, “Frankly, I don’t believe in souls.” Maybe that was because his father was an aeronautical engineer at MIT and didn’t believe much in religion. But Veronica said she was sure we had souls. “We have understanding and free will, which is what the soul has, and the part of us that has understanding and free will, that’s the soul part.” She smiled, waiting for us to see how clear and obvious it was, but I still wasn’t sure if I believed in souls or not.
Nick said, “Oh, no. Because if you believe in a soul you have to believe in heaven and hell, and maybe heaven is all right, but what about hell? Do you really truly believe in hell?”
Veronica didn’t answer and we walked along and climbed over the low stone wall into the backyard. “So what if there’s a hell,” she said lightly. “Nobody actually goes there anymore.”
Some days when Shannon wasn’t at the Barista stand I’d swing around to the Daily Grind to see Gordon and we’d talk about the strangeness of life or what was wrong with politicians or the Red Sox, but today he talked mostly about whether he should look for a shop with more floor space. He missed the old place in Boston, which was larger, but he liked Lexington “because this town is full of intellectuals who drink coffee all day.” Here he was on the main street, but if he moved to a bigger place it would be farther from the center of town. On the other hand, if he had more floor space he could serve more people and sell more Rancilio espresso machines — but there was a lot to be said for staying in the same place, because the Daily Grind, having been here ten years, “now these fussy people know where to come to buy Hawaiian Kona or Monsoon Malabar.” So Gordon went from this side to that side, debating with himself while we worked on the ancient coffee roaster, until eventually it was fixed and I held the fancy front end while he bolted it back into place. We must have talked an hour, and all that time I was able to forget who I was.
It betrays Alba to say she has died or she is dead and I say it only because that’s what people can understand. I believe Alba will never die, that she has understanding and free will, and that she knows me. I would like to die and be united with her forever, the way we were. I don’t know what I believe.
I drove to La Pâtisserie and bought two plain croissants, just so I could have twelve minutes of bright chat at the pastry case with Katelin (twenty-five, welcoming smile, warm white arms, and a flower in her hair), but she could not rescue me so I drove away, ashamed of myself, to Café Mondello to buy a latte so I could chat up Felicia (twenty-one, blue jeans and a tight white top with a blue dab of shadow under each nipple), after which I drove home, horribly alone and feeling like shit. I do things like that every day.
One time I was having lunch with Scott and he asked what I was doing these days, and I said, “Not much, really.”
“Have you been painting?”
“No. No painting.”
He nodded, as if in agreement with me. “It’s too early. You need more time. A little more time.”
“What’s the point?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I mean, what’s the purpose of all this — all this living, this going on? I really don’t understand. I’m serious. What’s the point?”
“That’s a rather large question. Whole philosophies have been built —”
I cut him off. “It’s not a philosophical question for me. It’s in my guts. I don’t understand what the fuck I’m doing here. Why am I doing whatever I do? I ask myself that every shitty day. What’s the goddamn point? ”
Scott shifted uneasily in his chair, then he looks at me a moment and says, “Did you enjoy your sandwich? Your half-sandwich, I mean.”
“I guess so, yes.”
“Were you enjoying our conversation?”
“That’s the point.”
“That’s the point?”
I drifted from room to room (nothing out of place, the books in a row, the pillows smooth, the empty chairs at a conversational angle) and I realized I’m the ghost haunting this house — I’m dead and Alba is alive and this world is an illusion I have because I’m dead.
Danae and Chiara will be away at college soon, so before they go they came here to be with their grandfather for the day — you’re right, Alba, we’re fortunate to have such grandchildren. We were driving on Great Meadow Road after a shower when we saw a big rainbow and of course they wanted to take pictures of it, so I pulled into the parking lot at the playing fields and they took phone photos. The rainbow was large and seemed to hang in the air above the faraway soccer fields and I kept wishing I had my camera so I could send you a photo of it. That’s what I mean by crazy.
It’s a privilege to love someone and I loved Alba. “I’m so happy you found me,” she used to say. I was handsome, her man from the sea, and the one she loved best in the whole world. She’s gone, so I’m not handsome anymore. I’m an old man driving home with a pizza and I’m sobbing because some cheerful asshole is singing on the radio about his love who is gone beyond the sea and the moon and stars, but she’s waiting and watching for him, and someday he’ll find her there on the shore and they’ll be together and he’ll embrace her, just as he did before. When the song was over I stopped sniveling, blew my nose, drove back onto the road and got home in one piece.
Can you follow this goddamn story? I know it’s a jumbled mess but it’s what I can recall, and also some notes I wrote to Alba, plus unconnected pieces. Parts are missing and some of them may be important, but they’re missing because I don’t remember, or because I do remember and don’t want to. I want to write about that first year, though I don’t know why I want to do even that much. I’m blundering ahead, like our moronic blundering Creator.