The Incomplete Book of Dogs
—Will someone please do something about that noise? Said Professor J. Ronald Schwartz, stopping in the middle of a rhetorical digression about King Lear and how at one time they changed the ending so it would be happy. And how William Inge had done the same thing with Picnic. But what did we think about the ending of Martin Eden? Was it happy or unhappy? Or orderly? That’s when Ginsberg began howling. Nobody moved.
—Then I will.
He walked up the aisle and opened the door.
In bounded Ginsberg, howling, drooling, his nose in the air, looking for Pretty, at least for the essence of Pretty which was to be found on the clothes where she had been sleeping the night before now in Row R, seat 11, to the left of two Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority girls.
— Get off. Get off, screamed one of the Kappas. Nasty! Nasty!
—Go away! Go away! Screamed the other.
—He’s icky, screamed the first one as I carried Ginsberg past them, his ample penis protruding.
Outside, Ginsberg followed me across the campus. Not much further down the reel Benjamin Braddock will board a bus with Elaine Robinson on her way to the zoo, arriving at the monkey cage about the same time I climb the steps to my apartment.
—Ginsberg, get your nose out of Larry’s ass, said the fraternity guy who thinks I’m Larry.
More than One Page Blank: Ursula
—Why are you here so late? Ursula asked me one night.
This was after she had gotten angry with Hazen over morte Eddie and he got angry with her over Ginsberg—all of it settled by my uncle one day in his office while I listened in the third person.
I was there to meet the pound truck, and after it was gone I stayed to study. I liked the quiet of the lab at night, and my uncle had said I could use his office. When I wanted to pull an all-nighter, I would go over to Mel’s for coffee.
I had not heard Ursula come in because she used the back door. I wondered if she was checking on me.
—Studying, I said.
She stood in the doorway.
—Religions of the World, I said.
—This week I’m reading about the Jews.
—And last week?
—Protestant Christians. For two weeks going back. Martin Luther.
—In the same book? They won’t like that.
She seemed to want to say something, but did not. I was sitting in a brown-leather reading chair my uncle used when not behind his desk. I thought maybe I should get up and offer it to her, but her look fixed me.
Earlier that day she had come into the OR as I was going to sew up a gash above the eye on one of the dogs that had arrived the night before. I had not noticed it at first and it had festered badly. I was doing my best to open the wound and clean it before I sutured it shut, but the dog—even under a mild dose of sodium pentothal—was making it difficult.
Ursula watched me; then, she took over and cleaned the gash and stitched it shut with ease. Her speed, her precision and the concern with which she did it were impressive. None of the vets where Hazen and I had practiced over the summer had exhibited such skill; the doctors we observed at the hospital were as quick and sure, but not more so. It had made me wonder.
—Are you a doctor? I asked from my uncle’s chair.
It was a way to break the silence.
—I have a Ph.D. in biology, she said, not looking away. From the University of Texas.
—Are you a doctor like my uncle?
Her look was steady.
—I was an apprentice surgeon in Poland at the end of the war, she said. Doctor Watkins does not know this.
—Why are you telling me?
I could not look at her the way she looked at me, so I would look down at my World Religions book. When I looked up she was still looking at me.
—There were in those days experiments, medical experiments. I was young. Not all is known by the history. There are secrets in the graves.
—Did you do the experiments?
For some reason, a dog in the kennel began to howl. Ursula waited for it to stop, then said:
—No. It was not known among them who I was. I was to them like you.
At night, as we are here now, I would come back to help those who could be helped without it being discovered what had been done. Most could not be helped. The next day I would say some had died and had been removed. What we now write as DOA. I saved my husband.
—You were married?
—He died later.
—In the war?
—Not in the fighting.
I sound to myself now more certain of my questions than I was. Between each, I would look at my World Religions book as if to find something there that would give me the nerve to go on, but in fact I could read nothing as intense as Ursula’s stare. But it is also true that I asked the questions, and that she answered them—and with the precision I had seen her suture the dog.
When I looked up one last time she was gone. I waited to hear the back door open and close. I wanted its sound to reassure me that she had been standing in the doorway, and that all she had said, and all that I had said, was not imagined.
I did not hear the back door open or close. When I left later that night I looked throughout the lab and into the dog room, but could find no one.
Last fall, before I began getting packages without return addresses, I received a letter from Hazen saying that Ursula had died and that her will stipulated that all the funds from her estate were to be used to establish internships at the lab in my uncle’s name, Hazen’s, and mine. This does not seem imagined.
The Small Book of Prattle
—Do you have a favorite?
It was late one Sunday morning. My sister had come to my apartment because she wanted to talk about Lillian. And about what was said by Gerhard the night I stopped over for a drink. And by me. This is the third time Elaine has tried to have this conversation, but each time she cannot find what she wants to say. In the meantime she is looking at me on my plasma television.
—That would not be fair, I said, turning myself off.
—Do I know any of this spring’s. . .
—“Group” will do.
—Has Laura made it?
—She’s not married.
—How about Melinda? She’s married. I see her on the Plaza.
—She is from my past, I said. I want wives from my future. I want it to be morning in America.
—And when you have a history with them, you drop them.
—Do you want to talk about Hazen? I said.
—About what Gerhard had to say?
—Yes and no. Maybe.
—To Hazen as well as Gerhard?
We began one of our silences into which I am remembering:
—We don’t prattle in this family, our mother would say. We talk. Even your father talks, just not much. Except to himself.
It was one of the words for which she provided a context. Otherwise, she would recite the three words she’d bring home from her job that day with no definition, nor any connection to what she would be doing after work: cleaning garden radishes while saying discern, fortuitous, lamentable, using her dictionary in the (not quite) random way she had advised us to do. It was a five-day-a-week course in which Elaine and Steve were also enrolled, but they cut all the classes. Erudition, penultimate, multitude, and then as she’d put her Mogen David back in the ice box: enigmatic, phalanx, aphorism.
—They will be sorry, my mother would say. The more words you know, the less you prattle. And the less you prattle the. . .
But she never finished the sentence, not that I know of anyway. And over the years it became a mantra to gently mock her.
—Would it have been “. . .the more you. . .,” I said to Elaine, or “. . .the less you. . .?” One of us had to break our silence.
She looked puzzled.
—Prattle, she said.
—How about we prattle on about Lillian and Gerhard—and even Hazen?
—I’d be delighted, she said.
The Death of Ears
And it came to pass that I explode a heart.
—Cover for me Saturday, said Hazen. I’ve got a bitchin’ date.
All that spring we had been practicing with the pediatric heart-lung machine. Usually, both of us were there to hook up the dog (Doctor Evans did the final attachment of the tubing to the heart), turn valves, read gauges, and throw switches. However, Hazen had done it by himself a few times, and so had I. If you planned ahead, it was easy.
—Doctor Norman Shumway will be arriving tomorrow morning, said my uncle on Friday. He’s the Stanford surgeon who might be the first to do a heart transplant.
From time to time we had had celebrated physicians and scientists stop by the lab to observe us, not for experiments like the hamster/hair spray project, but for the heart-lung machine and the intestinal blockage experiments. Also, we had doctors visit us from the granting agencies with whom my uncle worked. As far as I could tell, they were impressed with our efforts. My uncle was considered a leader in the field of pediatric medicine, and he had gathered around him research scientists of national and international stature. It never occurred to me that in the eyes of our distinguished visitors Hazen and I were lumped among the elite. My uncle and Doctor Reed must have picked the finest premed prospects from around the nation to begin their apprenticeship program with the University of California.
—Will you be going into pediatric surgery yourself? Doctor Shumay asked me when he came into the lab that Saturday morning. He was early. My uncle had not arrived, and I had just opened the lab. I needed to bleed one more dog to have a double reserve of blood for the test run.
—I’m not sure, I said.
I had gotten skilled enough with the techniques and implements of surgery to work quickly. Doctor Shumway might have mistaken me for a student already in medical school. They, too, would come by the lab from time to time, forming a phalanx behind their professors.
—I will be joined today by four of my students, said Doctor Shumway. I would like you to meet them. Your uncle has told me about you. I understand you are from the Midwest. One of my students, Doctor Bacon, is also from the Midwest. The University of Chicago. She will do well. The others are also going to be very fine surgeons. Maybe we could all have lunch afterwards. I suppose you understand what great contributions your uncle has made to pediatric medicine over the years. You could not do better in your life than to emulate him.
I sensed that perhaps my uncle had told Doctor Shumway of my hesitation when it came to committing to a medical career and that Doctor Shumway thought he might do my uncle a favor by including me among his surgical residents. For all he knew, I, too, had a fine education from the University of Chicago and could not make up my mind between being a world-class biochemist or a celebrated pediatric surgeon.
—You have met? said my uncle when he arrived. Dr. Evans was behind him.
—We have, Conroy. Your nephew has gifted hands and long fingers. He ties his knots with great skill. If he must choose between Chopin or being a surgeon, I am not sure which I would choose for him. I like Chopin very much. That’s the Polish in me.
—Is Hazen here? asked my uncle.
—He’s off today, I said.
My uncle frowned.
—Is there a problem?
—Not at all, said my uncle. There is usually another lab assistant here, but we can run the demonstration without him.
—We’ve done it before, I said.
My uncle and Doctor Shumway went into his office. When I finished bleeding the dog, I carried it over to the incinerator. Then I got the dog we’d be using for the test run. I selected a good-sized mixed breed, part lab, part something-else. The part something-else had given it huge, floppy ears.
It is clichéd language that allows you to hide yourself from the parts of yourself you don’t like. I did not know that then. I had not grown “callous.” I was not “hardened;” I had not “come to grips” with the “reality of the situation;” I did not know about “the moment of truth.” What you grow over time is a protective coating of aphorisms and weary triteness. A patina of self-corruption. It works. At least it sells. I should know. Language is the best way to lie to yourself.
When I picked a dog for the Blood Factory or heart-lung experiment I was careful with it. I would pat it as I put it under. At the end, and just before it would go out, I would give it a name. It’s OK Amos, I would say, and rub the dog on the top of its head. It’s OK Buster. It’s OK Jackson. It’s OK Ears, which was the name I gave the half lab that morning.
At first it was not a considered procedure, nor a sentimental one. Had Hazen been able to read my mind, he would not have wanted to call Doctor Disney or Doctor Keane, although he once asked me about it.
—How do you know that’s the dog’s name? he said.
He looked at me. Then he looked at the dog. For a moment he didn’t say anything, then:
—How many bags?
By the time I got Ears on the table, a number of young doctors had come into the OR. A couple of them were examining the heart-lung machine. Like Doctor Shumway, they took me to be more important than I was, and asked me technical questions about the oxygenation of the blood and the flow rates. The flow rates I knew because I had heard Doctor Evans talk about them, but in answers to other questions, these doctors got a version of “sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.”
—Ready? Said Doctor Evans as he came into the OR with my uncle and Doctor Shumway.
—Yes, I said.
I had opened the chest cavity. Since these procedures resulted in the death of the dog, there was no need to perform them in sterile conditions. I was wearing lab clothes; everyone else was dressed in sports coats and slacks. The woman from the University of Chicago was wearing a gray pants suit and pearls: tall, tailored and elegant.
There was a small set of risers arranged opposite the surgical table where some of the doctors were standing; others were beside the table. The doctor from Chicago was next to the heart lung-machine studying the gauges. She had a small notebook—perhaps a duodecimo, now that I think of it—into which she made entries.
After Doctor Evans hooked the tubes into Ears, I also moved behind the heart-lung machine: There were switches to throw and valves to turn and specific pressures to be achieved. There was a temperature gauge to check. A heart-lung machine is a contraption of plumbing, a medical version of Thor. In spite of its name, it is designed to keep blood from flowing into the heart or lungs during surgery.
Arteries and Veins. Red valves for arteries, blue valves for veins. Arteries and veins. Red and blue. One of the first things Hazen and I had learned was that the vein brings the blood to the heart, the artery takes it away from the heart. We had to learn this distinction, not only because we used arteries to bleed the dogs, but because when we turned on the heart-lung machine, the blood had to circulate through it the same way it circulated through the dog. One lever to open the valves for the veins (blue), one lever to open the valves on the arteries (red). Like battery terminals, they were clearly labeled—in fact, I had put a red plus on the artery lever and a black negative on the vein one.
I did not confuse the red lever with the blue lever when Doctor Evans told me the pressure was high enough and the reservoir of blood warm enough to start the procedure: The mistake I made was to turn the levers in such a way that the blood was being pumped from the reservoir into the dog through both the vein and the artery tubes.
The pressure gauges were not sensitive enough to immediately show the problem—although I could hear the pump straining. I looked at the gages; beside me the doctor from Chicago was taking notes. I looked into the cavity of the dog. Doctor Evans was saying we should watch the heart as the new blood passed around it from the reservoir.
Everyone leaned forward. The dog looked puffy. Behind me I heard the pump shudder. Ears exploded. Two plastic tubes whipped around like loose garden hoses. I grabbed one just as it swept past Doctor Shumway. The elegant doctor from Chicago pulled the plug.
Beth’s show opens in six days. There is a private reception next Saturday night. This week’s list, like last week, is a folded blank. However, in my newly concentrated mind I know that between now and Beth’s show I have: Rosetta; a curator for lunch; a medical test to pass; and a trip to Lowell with my sister. In order to lighten my load, I have turned myself off on the wall and stopped reading Chekhov.
—What have you bought? I asked.
Elaine has found me in Barnes and Noble. It is open Sundays after ten. Melinda has not been in, but her friend has. Elaine has met me there by accident, saying as she sat down: do you come here often?
—The Book of Literary Angels, she said. Half price. Did you do it?
—I thought so. Have you seen my daughter? She was to meet me here. I am late.
—I have not. Should I leave?
—Better that you stay. I was going to bring her by later, but now that your God of Chance—what’s his name?—has smiled on us. . . .
—Has she had her abortion?
—You can be very direct, can’t you?
—I need to know my role, I said.
—She is going to keep the child. The sonogram shows a girl.
—And a name?
—Not yet. Any suggestions?
—“Daisy,” I said. “Sarah.” “Anna.”
—There are reasons, aren’t there? Elaine said.
—I thought so.
—Will she marry?
—That is to be decided.
—Is she in love?
—That, too, is to be decided.
My sister went for her coffee. In the meantime, I spotted Lillian in the travel section.
—To share, Elaine said as she came back with a latte, two chocolate biscotti and a brioche.
—Lillian is here, I said.
—She will find us, my sister said. But first I want to know why you don’t think I’m the one who has been sending you these mysterious packages.
On a recent drive to Lowell Elaine had tried to convince me that one of two people was sending me the paraphernalia of my past: Either Hazen or Beth. On our way back she added herself. When I got out at Ben Franklin, I added myself.
—Name the “stuff,” I said.
—Is this a test?
—The keys to the car.
—The Book of Ta-Bid.
—The John the Baptist wind-up doll. How am I doing?
— You have a spy in Rosetta, I said. I still think I’m the one.
—I forgot the Harrison Award.
—OK, you’re the one. But it was Humbolt, not Harrison. And it had a return address.
—Now I think you are, my sister said. You’ve collected it all over the years and you’re mailing it to yourself because you don’t have anyone who will send you Care packages.
—You could have done the same, I said.
—Would you tell me if I asked you?
—No. Maybe. Yes. Why don’t you ask me? she said.
—Perhaps they are Cosmic Hi-Signs from Beth, I said.
—Is it spelled Hi or High? I’d like to know after all this talk about them. What are they?
—Smoke signals between imagined lost lovers, I said. Spelled either way. Cosmic knowing.
—Then it’s Beth, said Elaine. Which means you’ll go to the reception.
—I didn’t think so.
In a moment Lillian will join us and we will talk about whether she should buy my Bike Trips in the Dordogne (on sale and so long out of print I am surprised it is still around), or Private Rooms of Rome (which I also did long ago). I advise Lillian to buy the latter. Elaine now suspects I did the Bike Trips and says so: Then, while we finish our coffee, the two biscotti and one brioche, Lillian gets to hear her mother and her uncle prattle on the way we do. I don’t think she was impressed.
As I stand to leave, I observe that Marie Antoinette never said let them eat cake.
Tina and Pretty in Kansas
It was early summer when Pretty and I returned to Lowell. My father was sicker and my mother grim. Every week we took him to the hospital at the University Medical Center for treatment.
I got a day job at Hallmark sorting mail and by night ran the movie projector for Al Roster. We sold the garage to Bob Snow, but didn’t tell my father; we needed the money for medical bills. The deal was that Bob Snow could not do anything until after my father died.
Some evenings we’d take him to his shop and he’d sit among his tools and work benches. Other times we put him in the front yard by his globe.
—When I planted that tree, he said, pointing to the Christmas tree, it was Elaine’s height.
My father died the same week Pretty gave birth. She had four puppies, I gave one (a girl) to my sister as a wedding present, one to Bob Snow to hang around the garage, and two were adopted by neighbors. My sister’s looked like Pretty; the rest looked like Ginsberg. As does Precious.
At the end of the summer I put my mother’s affairs in order and drove to Emporia to finish college. As my mother liked Pretty, I left her for company. I drove home every weekend.
When I got to Emporia, I stopped by Hulga’s to see if Bottle James and Tina were there, and to see if I could get a room. I figured it would take two years to finish college. I’d study history. Real American History.
Hulga wasn’t happy to see me because of what had gone on between Tina and me, but she was too worldly and practical not rent me a room. Bottle James was not coming back; the garage apartment was mine. I put my dictionary in the same place: albeit, patina, denouement.
—Bottle James left these for you, Hulga said.
It was John the Baptist and the Last Supper tablecloth.
Emporia seemed much the same. It should have been drab compared to the sunshine and vistas of the Berkeley Hills and the rambunctious aura of San Francisco. There was no one in Emporia for me like Hazen or Beth—or my uncle. No City Lights Bookstore. No famous poet to think I am going to be a doctor. No Sather Gate. No great bay sparkling from one horizon to another. The bars in Emporia had names like: Dew Drop Inn. The Pool Room Tavern. The Golden Cue. But it wasn’t all bad. There is a painterly light in Kansas that has its beauty. In the fall and winter, especially.
—I want you to make love to me, said Tina when we finally met.
We were sitting in her room; her mother had gone out. The other boarders had not yet returned for the semester. She was on her bed. I was in a chair.
—Are you pregnant?
—Yes, she said. I want the child to be yours.
—It doesn’t work like that. Trust me, even if I’m not going to be a doctor.
She was lovely in a way I had not thought of her before. Taller than I remembered. There was something to her breathing—deep and regular—that was compelling.
—I’m not angry with you any more, she said. I’ve gotten over that. I’m not angry with Bottle. I’m not angry with myself. I’ve gotten over everything. I want to keep my baby. I’ve told my mother. I’ve told her it is not yours. I will raise it. I want it to be yours. And I want you to make love to me.
—I don’t understand.
—You don’t understand how to make love? she said, and smiled. I will teach you. You won’t have to go to the garage and call me.
—In what way will your child be mine?
She leaned toward me. She put her hand on my knee. I wonder if I could have loved her if we had not been who we had been before this moment. I remember thinking she had leaped beyond me. Her past had become a part of her the way mine had not. Like my sister she was ahead of me. It was more than the fullness of her beauty that I saw, although I saw that. She got up.
—I will give the child your name, she said. If she is a girl, it will take one form; if a boy, he will have your first name as a middle name.
She undid the buttons of her blouse. She took it off and put it on the chair by her desk. She sat on my lap.
—I will come to your room at night when I am lonely. Sometimes I will want to make love. Sometimes not. I will decide. Do you understand?
—I have a grandmother in Atwood and I will have my baby there. If Bottle comes back he is not to know where I am. My child and I will live in Western Kansas until she is old enough to go to college. Do you understand?
I could not think of anything except her beauty. She was unbuttoning my shirt. She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead.
—You are not to come and see me. Even when I return here. Do you understand?
She had gotten off my lap and was standing in front of me. The late afternoon sun was coming through her window. She pulled the shade diffusing the light. She undressed, and as she did, she did an imitation of how I had talked to her on the phone, making an imaginary handset with her thumb and little finger.
—Now, she said, unzip your jeans and slip them down over your hips. Are they down over your hips? They are? Now push them down to your knees. What color are your panties?
Her child (my child) must wonder at her name.
Monday: A Sestina of Stanzas
I have been to my Blank apartment. Usually, I stay only long enough to place a gift from the previous Wednesday. Today I stay and look: Bottles of wine. Small Greek Vases. A Portuguese pitcher. Shelves of Better Cheddar. Coffee table books and their tables. Motifs to be photographed. Add five more such apartments and mine becomes its own chapter in A Sestina of Stanzas: Small Apartments and the Poetry of Living. The buyers would become erudite learning the Italian of the title. Molto bene.
There is a curious feeling standing in a room designed to be lived in but is not. Yes, yes—a tomb of one’s own, as if the slipcovers from my mother’s davenports had metamorphosed over the entire room. But there is something else: A silence not like others. The absence of the past. The absence of all the tenses, of all the ways time is cut and pasted and shuffled. No clock bongs. I stood there thinking I am not.
A One-Page Blank: The Studebaker
It was maroon. Two door. There was joke in those days that you could not tell if a Studebaker was going forward or backward because the front and the rear were streamlined. It was still in the garage when my father died.
—We had to sell it to get you out of the hospital, my mother said.
—I thought it was Steve.
—That’s right. Steve. We came home from the University Medical Center with him on the bus. Your father walked to the garage until he made a deal with Bob Snow on a car. I never told him about the money.
My mother repeated words but not stories.
—Conroy sent me money.
—To pay bills?
—For the car.
—No. That was gone. We’d see it driving around with the top down and I got so I couldn’t look when it passed by. Your father courted me in that car. He was so pleased when he bought it back and rebuilt it. But. . .
My mother seems to have lost track of what she was going to say. She went over to my father’s workbench and looked at his tools, touching some of them. We had sold Bob Snow everything. The Studebaker included. She got a work rag and tried to rub out a burned place on the wooden back plate of the bench. She went over to the Studebaker and dusted the hood.
—What car? I asked.
—I thought that was a trade. Something about work he was doing for Bob Snow.
—It wasn’t enough to pay for the Ford, she said. I put in a hundred from Conroy.
—And when he bought back the Studebaker?
—That too. Only then it was money I’d saved.
—Coins in the Mogen David Jars?
—Did he. . .?
—Both times he thought he’d gotten a good deal. Why not let a man think that? Good deals are important to men.
When my mother turned to look at me, I would see that look later in the portrait I gave Elaine that had been hanging in the hallway to her bedroom.
—It runs, I said, going over to the Studebaker.
Its top was up. I unhooked the latches and pulled it back. I opened the passenger-side door.
—I don’t want to, my mother said.
—You sure? I can take you for a drive.
—I’ve been sitting in it now and then. I’d rather leave it at that.
By the time my father had finished refurbishing the Studebaker, he was too weak to drive. One day after work that summer I stopped by the shop, parked my Ford, and drove the Studebaker the rest of the way home, honking as I came down Lowell. My father was sitting by his globe. My mother came out of the kitchen, wiping her hand in a dishtowel. We helped my father get in front and she got in back. I drove down 52nd, then up Newton past where Bones McCall and I shot baskets and where Elaine and I had stood watching the garage on fire. I took a left toward the Plaza and drove all the way up one side of Brush Creek and back down the other side. As we got close to home, my father said.
I pulled into the high school parking lot and got out. I helped him around to the driver’s side. I got my mother out of the back and she sat beside him in front. The top was down. Off they went. My mother waved her hand in the air.
I walked home.
I have called Rosetta and asked her come on Wednesday, providing she can swap with my sister. I did not call my sister to make those arrangements.
—Rosetta says you want to swap. Fine by me. No Wednesday wife?
—I’m going to stand her up, I said.
—Better to call and cancel, she says. Especially if it’s Muff.
—I don’t call, I said. Beside it’s my motif to walk away. How about we go to Lowell instead?
—If you promise you’ll see Beth.
—I’ve been seeing her every day for years.
—That’s not what I’m talking about, she said. That’s not real.
—It is to me.
In today’s mail there came, on a single sheet of paper, an addendum in a Medieval Script an addendum to The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid, to wit:
The Voices of Tom Lehrer and Allen Ginsberg
And who so ever shall cometh to the No Name Bar through the suspensions of the Golden Gate Bridge seeking a cure for the phobias of Guilt Days, the Tyranny of forks, the plethora of Keane paintings, and the Muzak of Montovani shall drink the waters of Olympia beer and be cured of whatever fucking ales them. And the voices of Tom Lehrer and Allen Ginsberg shall be heard throughout the land.
There was a return address.
Topics and Questions for Discussion:
1. What was said when Uncle Conroy met with Ursula and Hazen?
2. Will the Studebaker be parked in the driveway when Elaine and I drive to Lowell? Will Beth be with us?
3. What have Elaine and Hazen been e-mailing about? Why don’t I ask? Should I?
4. What did I say to Lillian and Gerhard about Sidney Poitier, marriage, love, and friendship?
5. Were our parents in love like:
A. Hazen and Beth.
B. Gerhard and Elaine
C. Elaine and Hazen
D. Aunt Lillian and Uncle Conroy
E. Fill in the blank:_________________________
F. None of the above.
6. Will I go to the reception? Or have I already been?
Conroy Watkins, MD
The landlord thought I was going to run out on the rent, so he was standing at the door the morning I was leaving.
Before that Pretty had jumped on my bed and barked out the window at you walking down Durant in painting smock and Jeans. Clodhoppers, as you called your shoes. The bandana ribbon was yellow. When Pretty barked, you looked up and stopped.
—You go someplace else and cause trouble, the landlord said. And take the rest of these hippies with you. And that dog. I’ve had enough of that dog. And the other one, too. Dogs fucking in my building. I won’t have it.
I had given up keeping Pretty and Ginsberg apart and they had “hooked up” in the hallway outside my door.
—Here’s your money, I said.
He looked at it; I had given him two-weeks’ worth which was a week more than he was due, but I figured because I was leaving before the end of semester it was not going to be easy to rent the room.
—Maybe you’re not a bad sort after all, he said. Let me check the room.
—Sure, I said.
I knew he had been in it before. The place was clean, and the only thing that I did that was against his rules was run my hot plate to warm up soup my aunt would give me. That, and keeping Pretty. Well, there was Jo.
—Maybe you’re not so bad, he said again as he came out.
When I went downstairs you were still there. I had Pretty on her leash. Ginsberg was howling from the steps of the fraternity house where he was being held by Elaine Robinson’s look-alike husband-not-to-be. I knew you wanted to say something but did not. I walked away because I understood there was nothing I could say into your silence. You must have noticed I did not look back.
Pretty and I caught the bus to the lab. Because she was wearing her red bandana she was something to look at. When we got settled in the backbench seat, she barked once and sat down.
—I’m ready, I said to my Uncle when we got to the lab.
I had told him I would be leaving. Over the year I had paid off Hazen for Austen and saved enough money for a plane fare home. The flight left from San Francisco, but for an extra ten dollars, I could catch a commuter connection out of the Oakland airport, and that way I wouldn’t trouble my uncle. He reached over and patted Pretty.
—She’s one of ours, I hear.
—So was Pounce, he said.
—I learned that, I said.
—I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you, my uncle says. It might work out for Edmond. I think he’s made up with Ursula.
—Yes, I said.
—You would have been the better medical man, my uncle said.
—You’re better at tending to people. Edmond will be better at taking care of the machines that take care of the people and that is probably the wave of the future, but you’re better with people. I can see that.
—Except for cars, I guess I’m not good with machines, I said.
—Don’t worry about it, my uncle said. Medicine’s an art. I’ve made it my life to use various sciences in my research, but all I want my fellow doctors to do with my work is to use it in the practice of their art. Like a painter will use different techniques. Like that girlfriend of yours. Did I tell you…
—She’s Edmond’s girlfriend.
—I didn’t know, my uncle said. I thought. . .
—You were about to say, I said.
—Yes. We’ve decided to let her do a mural for the wall where you come into the hospital.
—She’ll do a good job for you.
— You know where I mean? That blank wall just as you come in.
There was something more my uncle wanted to say but did not. I looked at him. It occurs to me now that he was to me someone we may not have in our lives anymore: part tribal chief, part friend, part deeply aged grandfather who does not even know the nature of the relative to whom he is speaking. It was not because of my uncle’s great fame that I always felt as if I were in the presence of a great man. But I cannot name what there was about him that made me feel that way. Even in his hesitancy, I did not feel him lacking. He could not fail, not because of what he had accomplished, but because of who he was. There is no costume for that.
—We should leave, he said.
He went into the hall and asked Ursula for a portable dog cage.
—What time do you have to be at the airport?
—By six. There is plenty of time. It’s the Oakland airport, you know. Not San Francisco.
—We would have taken you over, he said.
—I know, but this is simple.
—Lillian would like to see you off. I’ll call her so she can meet us there.
—Fine, I said. May I keep the dog in your office a few minutes? I want to say good-bye to somebody, and I’d rather not put her back in the kennels.
—Stay, I said to Pretty, who sat down and barked once.
I didn’t have anyone to say goodbye to. I might have gone to Mel’s for a cup of coffee. Or I might have gone into the hospital and told a few people there that I was leaving. But they weren’t friends. I just wanted to get out of my uncle’s office; maybe if I gave him some “space” he would be able to tell me what he wanted to.
I walked across the parking lot. Austen was there. By now Beth was in class. Hazen had come and gone from work. I hadn’t told him I was leaving. It seemed more melodrama than I wanted.
I went into the hospital. Without my lab clothes, nobody recognized me. I stood for a moment in front of the blank wall.
Then I walked back across the parking lot to the lab. The sun was out and it was bright and cool. You knew somewhere there was music in the air. I stopped at Austen. I fished in my pocket for my set of keys. I got in and started the car. No bad values. I moved the steering wheel back and forth. A pretty girl sees a young doctor and his assistant. There is something Hazen says I do not hear and it is better that way. Stripers are in the trunk. I double park to get my mail. You drive home and I catch the bus. We take Earl to the hospital in the rain.
A guy on a Cushman Eagle circled me once, let go of the handle bars and put his thumbs up. I am on the Golden Gate Bridge heading to the Shrine of Ta-Bid. I put my thumbs up as well. “Help Me Make It Through the Night” is playing on the radio. Take a ribbon from my hair. I turned off the engine, got out, touched Austen on the hood, put the keys in my pocket and walked over to the lab. When I got there, Ursula had the kennel for Pretty and my uncle was putting her in it.
—Goodbye, I said to Ursula. I don’t think you liked me but you were fair to me.
She smiled. My uncle looked up. I hoped my honesty hadn’t disturbed him.
—She’s been with me since Galveston, he said. She’s the one who brought the turtle to you.
—I didn’t know that.
—You would have made a fine doctor, she said.
—So much for sentimental good byes, said my uncle. He shook his head.
—When a woman comes for me today, I said to Rosetta, tell her I had to go the medical center. And that I’ll meet her at her office later about the Painter’s Room. She’ll know what I mean.
—You going with your sister to that old house of yours, said Rosetta. Why you think I need to lie about that, I don’t know. And what if this woman that comes here is one I clean for. What am I going to say then? You should not live such a mixed-up life. Your sister tells me you know that bum that’s a fireman in the creek. What kind of a life did you live to know somebody like that? You get straight with the Lord on your way out the door. That way you’ll be straight with Him if you have a wreck. The way your sister drives, it’s a wonder half the Plaza isn’t dead.
Rosetta is right about my sister’s driving. I was thinking about aunt Lillian and being “squished like a beetle” as we were leaving the environs of Rio Rosette and I must have a grin on my face because Elaine said:
—I can’t tell you. But I want to know something.
—You and Hazen. That week when you were in California.
—We didn’t, she said. But I wanted to. Did you know I asked him to marry me?
—I did not.
—Just like that. In less than a week. Beth and I talked about it while you guys were at work. She was trying to get over him and told me to ask him to marry me. If he would, that would make it easier for her. And for me. I know things about her you don’t, about her brother. She showed me her portrait of you she was working on. It’s the way you look now. I wonder what became of it.
—Did you tell him you were pregnant?
—What’d he say?
—Ne pas bitchin, she said. I had to ask Beth for a translation.
She stopped for the green light at Rainbow.
—Do brothers feel jealousy? she asked.
—Yes. Do sisters?
—Sometimes. But not over the Beths of the world. You know what I think? she said. I think that when you stood up your Wednesday wife today that means you’ll go to Beth’s show. Am I right?
—In a way.
—What will you say to her when you meet her?
—“You must be the Arch Flayman of the Mediterranean.”
—Since you asked, here’s how it’s turned out.
Words Make a Mother
After I graduated from Emporia, Pretty and I lived with my mother. I took my old room in the basement. I got a job at Hallmark’s doing general office work which lead to design work. My future was cast among greeting cards and books of lists.
One evening after supper, I went to a movie at Al Roper’s theater. He saw me come in and invited me to join him in the projection booth. Al had indeed expanded and now owned five theaters. He needed a manager, and the job was mine. He did not make binoculars of his fists. His wife had left him. If I wanted a place to live, he had a spare room. The movie was Pillow Talk.
When I came home my mother was sitting in the front lawn by my father’s globe. Both chairs were out. Pretty greeted me.
—I talk to him, my mother said.
We sat in silence. I patted Pretty. The evening was summer in that fullness that says there is no other season.
—He talked to himself, I said.
—Go East, she said.
—Yes. And “I’m talking to a smart man when I’m talking to me-self.”
—Yes, she said and when I looked over she was smiling.
Again we were quiet. Then:
—Is Steve. . .? she asked.
—Was Elaine…? Did she have to…?
This time the silence between us was longer.
—I’m not going to tell him, my mother said.
—Did you ever tell mother I was pregnant when I got married?
First, Do No Harm
On the way to the Oakland airport we found ourselves in the traffic behind Aunt Lillian. She was in the wrong lane—her blinker going one direction then the other—driving very slowly. People were passing her on both sides in exasperation. My uncle slipped in front of her, turned on his blinker in hopes of getting her to move over, which she did, but so far to the right that she took the wrong exit, going down an off ramp behind us and into West Oakland. Not that she had seen us.
—First, do no harm, my uncle said as he drove on. I should have known.
—She’ll find her way, I said.
—She always has.
Then there was that silence that was in my uncle’s office. The silence I knew he wanted to fill. But he did not. Not then. Not later at the airport while we waited for Aunt Lillian. Not when we took Pretty out of her cage and I walked her in a small park on one side of the parking lot. Not when we had a moment together as Aunt Lillian visited the ladies room. Not as I got on the plane and he waved his hand in front of his head as a way of saying goodbye.
It is into that silence, among others, that I am writing these words: No design proposal comes to mind.
I have taken the 39 bus to the medical center. I have passed an hour-long test. The doctor can see me at three. I have had lunch at Hannah’s. You are getting older and more beautiful across the top of her poster. Mr. Reynard does not keep his appointment. On the bus back, the driver wants to know if it is true what they say about prostates in men who sit all day. It is.
— May I have a key?
—To the building?
Beth’s curator and I were standing by the reflecting pool in front of the museum. I caught her just as she was leaving.
—Yes, I said. I am sorry about Wednesday.
–I hope it was nothing serious.
—Just a chronic condition that no longer needs treatment.
—You want to see the room?
—May I ask why?
—I knew her in California, I said. I have been in that room.
—Why are you telling me this now?
—To confirm what you had guessed.
She smiled and took out keys from her purse and handed me one.
—This will get you in the back door on the east side. The gray metal door.
I can tell she wants me to say something else, but I don’t so she does:
—Were you. . .
—I was about to say “friends.”
—When was the last time you were together?
—The first heart transplant had not been done.
She smiled, and when she did I liked her immensely.
—I would hope. . . she said, but nothing more and stood back as if to look me over.
What a strange heart I have to like these women who like me, but not love them.
I don’t go into the room but instead walk back to the Plaza, then up Bush Creek toward the Kansas line. On the other side, coming my way, I see Bottle James. He is wearing the cape. I wave. He waves. Neither of us cross the creek. When I get to Rio Rosette I change sides and walk back toward Winstead’s. I saw Elaine and Lillian on the Warnell Road Bridge. They do not see me.
At Winstead’s I ordered a double cheeseburger and a frosty. I nursed the Frosty until light gathering time. Then I walked to the Nelson and went to the gray metal door. A watchman pulled it open for me. I showed him the key and told him where I got it.
The Ghost Light
The Room has been set up on the ground floor. There is no door to it, only a red felt rope strung across the entrance, which I put aside. There is a ghost light; otherwise, the hallway and the room are dark.
It is exactly as it was, therefore, not as it was: Nothing is lost; everything changes.
I sit in your chair. The record player is there. The lid is raised. The bong is on the table. Plates from private collections. Set-ins set about. I speak our lines for us both:
—You must be the arch-Flayman of the Mediterranean.
—You came, you say, and when you do I am myself the day of Nothing very bad hurts much at the start, after which we hear the dragnet beep of a horn.
—Yes, I say, and when I do, I am reading your letter by the light coming into a medical bookstore. I told you it would come true, you say.
The record player works. The theme from Picnic. We dance. I am as shy about it as I was standing in the corner of my sister’s prom. I glide and guide us around and along the table, the yellow chair, the bookcases, the books on the floor, past the window that looks out over Grove, by Duchamp and rows of bandanas and my brother waiting to leave. “Here,” you say “from one girl to another.”
I see my portrait on the wall even in the ghost light it looks like…
—What you doing?
It was the watchman.
Elaine: Saturday Noon. Barnes and Noble
—I saw the record player.
—I thought you weren’t going.
—I went last night.
—And I went in the afternoon, Elaine said. I told them who I was. And to keep it a secret. Was that you on the wall? It looks like you.
The blond checkout woman comes to our table. The one who sells me my books. She had nodded when I passed by.
—Would you sign this for me? she said and hands me a tiny autograph book.
—Is my brother that famous? Elaine said.
—If he is who I think he is. Does he visit you often?
—And who would that be? I asked.
And what she whispers in my ear is not who I am when I sign her book.
—Thank you, she said. And touches my shoulder before she walks away.
—I designed that book, I said to my sister. It is among my favorites. That girl thinks I’m William Holden.
—He’s dead. Is that what you signed?
—I thought not, she said. Good for you.
—I need a favor,” I said.
—You? Elaine said. That’s a first.
—Stop by before you go to Beth’s show. I’ll have something for her.
—Why not give it to her yourself?
—It is myself.
—My book has made me as much as I’ve made my book, I said.
—You’re being enigmatic, Elaine said, and because she could not suppress her smile I wondered if, by some cosmic vibration, he had divined the plot to its conclusion.
Saturday, Early evening, The Light is Gathering
I have turned myself off even while Professor J. Roland Schwartz is no doubt saying that there should be “. . . unexplained events that create a sense of mystery, and that you should be able to predict what the main character will do beyond the end.”
I take the DVD of myself out and fling it off my balcony. It becomes a tiny Frisbee as it sails into the street below. Melinda’s friend is walking her two-bag tube dog. As the DVD goes by she looks up. She seems not amused. Elaine is behind her. There is a third woman behind Elaine. My sister sees me and waves. For a moment I think the woman behind Elaine is you, but she is not, and she goes past the entrance to my building as my sister turns in. I watch the woman I thought was you walk away from me, and wonder if her not being you is our final Hi-Sign.
So many signs all these years.
—Here, I say: From one lover of a certain age to another with hopes there is a plethora of us to go beyond the end.
— Robert Day
The novel banners at top and bottom are by Bruce Hiscock.