Today, Part Six, the penultimate installment of Robert Day’s serial novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love, which, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is about love. We have two narrative poles: the narrator as a young man in Berkeley in the 1960s and the narrator now, as a desperately ennui-ridden middleaged book designer, frittering away his life with bon mots and his Plaza wives. His stoic endurance sometimes looks heroic and sometimes looks a little stalled.
I tend to tend my own garden even though I don’t have one. Add that to my interest in Titian’s live nudes, and you have a concoction of disbelief that the world exists beyond my imagination, which leads to a bad case of non-vicarious solipsism. Maybe that’s why I have freeze-framed myself. I am there; therefore, I am here. In plasma. In electronic formaldehyde.
His sister Elaine has his number. “Being right about yourself doesn’t mean you’ll do anything about it,” she tells him. But if he won’t do anything for himself, the past is busy organizing something for him to do. Someone is sending those mysterious packages. The local art institute is hosting an exhibition of work by his old Berkeley flame Beth, the unavailable one. And in the past, in that Berkeley period, we have a gorgeous precursor-scene when Elaine (the sister), Tina (the old girlfriend from Emporia) and Jo (the woman who has been bonking him secretly as an “extracurricular” sport) all show up at his doorstep pregnant.
Ennui vs. Angst
Currier But Not Ives: A Family Christmas
—Are you going into “hibernation”? Elaine has asked.
Sometimes in December we get warm sunny days, as if a jigsaw puzzle piece of Indian summer found a serendipitous fit in a “Winter Wonderland” scene.
My sister and I were outside on my balcony. The sun was falling toward the house on Lowell. From below, we hear music of the outdoor speakers: “Sleigh Ride.”
Our father would leave us for Christmas: working late in the garage, puttering with his Studebaker, working early the next morning, not talking, skipping lunch, coming back past nine for suppers of leftovers, working on Christmas day. New Year’s as well.
Then one day he would return, saying to me: “The radio is calling for snow,” which meant: would I help him at the shop put on tire chains for his customers, a service for which he did not charge?
—His family was poor when he was your age, said my mother. As was mine. Meager.
—Do you know why he went into hiding over Christmas? said Elaine.
—Are you asking why I do?
—To honor him. In my case, instead of working on the Studebaker, I’ll test run my new book printer.
—Lillian will be home. She is bringing her boyfriend. I think he is black.
—What are you going to do?
—I can’t make him white. Or do you mean about Gerhard?
—About the sleeping arrangements.
—Ah, she said. Now that’s a question without yet an answer.
—What makes you think he’s black?
—Lillian said he was different. What do you think?
—Let’s go back to sleeping arrangements.
—Gerhard wants to put them into two rooms. I say let’s put them in the master guest room because it has its own bath, but Gerhard says that room has a queen-sized bed and you know what that means!
—What it meant was Gerhard, Jr.
—I thought to say that, she said.
—But did not?
—I suggested we move out the queen bed and put in two single beds.
—The craft of marriage is the art of arbitration, I said.
Melinda walked by. Alone. Heading toward Barnes and Noble. A last minute Christmas present? For a friend?
—“Atonement,” Elaine said.
—Do you know the story about mother and her words?
—I knew they were too poor to send her to college. Everything they had went to Uncle Conroy. She didn’t finish high school.
—There’s something more to it than that, Elaine said.
—Do you know?
—I do not. Even after father died, she’d say her words out loud to nobody but herself. Atonement. I was too stubborn to look them up.
—It was what she was saying that first Christmas after father died. Gerhard and I had just moved back.
—Do you know what it means?
—I do now.
—Before I go into my cave, how about I walk you half way to your house?
—To Married Love?
—I was hoping you’d ask.
The early evening was still a puzzle of warm weather.
—Want to come for a meal?
— “A Guest Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
—It might be playing soon at a house near you, Elaine said.
We stood to watch the western sky burn red along a line above the black land. The Plaza lights were coming on. Our father is in his garage.
—See you in a month of Sundays, Elaine said.
Your Photo Album
All that fall my mother had been mailing me Care packages.
—What have we here? said Hazen.
What I had was a small box in which my mother had put a stick of deodorant; two pairs of jockey underwear (sale price still on them); three boxes of Jell-O (with instructions from my mother to make with sliced bananas); one of my father’s discarded doubled-edged Gillette razors (complete with a half-used pack of Blue Blades); two pairs of white socks (mine; I had left them behind); and a picture of me standing next to my father beside the glass globe in the yard the summer before I left for California.
Such packages would arrive every two or three weeks, sometimes with cookies or brownies that I’d share with Beth and Hazen. Sometimes with clothing. Always with a picture of me. I got younger as the fall semester progressed, so that by Christmas break I am standing beside Uncle Conroy on a beach in Galveston, Texas. “Turtle on its way,” somebody had written on the back of the snapshot.
Neither Elaine nor Steve made it back for Christmas. Our mother had not told them the seriousness of our father’s illness; they didn’t return until the following summer.
I cashed the check my mother sent for a plane ticket and took the bus. I gave her the difference. I didn’t tell Tina I was coming home. I asked Hazen to look after Pretty who was still in the lab, but got weekend passes at Beth’s. My father worked as he could at his garage.
—Were you with him when he died? Elaine asked me one day on our way to Lowell.
—No, I said. He was in the hospital and Mother and I were home. I was in the basement and heard the phone ring. “He’s gone,” is what Mother said when I came up.
—I don’t know what I feel about not being there, my sister said.
—Good for you, I said.
—What do you mean?
She had turned down Lowell.
—It’s better that you don’t understand your feelings than you borrow generic ones.
—Like “I feel so guilty?”
—I was with Gerhard. We went to Maine. I never told Mother. I told her I had to stay for summer school because I had an Incomplete.
—I had an Incomplete that is still incomplete.
—They can stay that way forever, I said. Consider it a metaphor for life.
—What did Steve say?
—More or less the same thing.
We were about to pass the house. Elaine was slowing down, tapping the brakes the way Aunt Lillian did when she wasn’t sure if she wanted to stop at a green light or not. The transmigration of “perched and alert.”
Before I returned to California for the second semester my mother gave me four Care packages: two for me, and one each for my friends, Howard and Beverly, as she understood them to be.
—Is Beverly your girlfriend? my father had asked Christmas evening when he came home early from the garage.
—Are you doing your dictionary words? asked my mother.
—Why do we have to tell Tina that you are not here? asked my father.
Going back, the Trailways took the northern route toward Denver. It was snowing when I left and it became worse as we went west. I got as far as Atwood on Highway 36 before the bus pulled into a motel where I was stuck for two days. The only café in town was closed, so I ate the brownies out of one of my Care packages. After Denver we headed south through New Mexico, then up through Carson City and finally into Berkeley. It wasn’t a bad trip. To this day I like buses.
—What have we here? said Hazen when the three of us met again.
—Care packages for Howard and Beverly, I said.
—I think this one must be yours, said Beth to Hazen. It has Gillette Blue Blades in it.
—And what’s this? Hazen said as Beth brought The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid from her bedroom to the table.
It’s About Time
—I used to hate my room, said Elaine. And the house.
—Because other girls had better rooms and better houses?
—You know how in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter the girl Mick wants to have a party?
—She has it.
—But I couldn’t because I thought that’s what it would be like. All the rich girls coming from nice houses in Leawood and seeing ours. Then back in school, they wouldn’t talk to me because they had found out who I was.
—Would you let Lillian go to a party at our house on Lowell?
—Because I don’t want her to become the snob I am.
We were sitting in Elaine’s living room. Lillian was upstairs with-or-without Sidney Poitier. I don’t ask. It is my first day back from putting chains on my book even though there has been no snow on the radio.
—I didn’t know you’d read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
—I just read it now. Lillian brought it home from college. I rented the movie. I felt the way Mick feels without knowing other people felt that way.
—Carson McCullers is what Kim Novak’s sister is reading in Picnic to get herself out of Hutchinson because she’s too young for William Holden, I said.
—I didn’t know that either, my sister said.
We are quiet together, and into that silence I find myself thinking: What else to do with your memories except to let them inhabit you? The furniture of our lives: Merriam and Berkeley. The Plaza and Berkeley. Melinda. Muff. Furniture that has been around the Horn in the same room with aluminum folding chairs. The glass globe of my father’s death. The boy I saved off the deep end one summer.
We hear someone stir upstairs and I wonder if my sister’s silence means she is reading my silence:
I am here as well as there. My lists of weeks. Nurse Barkley. The clock of Brush Creek. My Wednesday seminar students. We too are family. You are what becomes you: The Plaza boutiques moving their soaps and pressed flowers and spinach pastas and Sardinia grappa into the magazine homes of my sister—or into an apartment down the hall, owned by—but not occupied by—a man of a certain age. The migration of affluence.
Would it help to admit I like the insistent tasteful tastelessness of it: The philistine vulgarity. Why would l like that? For the same reasons my best books are unused? For the same reasons I won’t marry? For the same reasons I am looking through Harrisons? For what? An aversion therapy? Even before I diagnose my phobia? Call Doctor Percy. My questions are beginning to concentrate my mind.
—What keeps you here? Elaine asked.
—My questions are beginning to concentrate my mind, I said.
—I’m serious, my sister said.
—You, I said.
—You’re getting a bit . . .I don’t know what. . . living here.
—“Arch?” I said.
—What does that mean? she said.
—Witty. With an edge.
— I don’t think living on the Plaza where you can look down on us is doing you any good. And those wives. You don’t like them, they are just. . .
—Coffee table books.
—Being right about yourself doesn’t mean you’ll do anything about it.
—What’s to do?
—You have the money. You could live anywhere. You’ve never been to Europe. Why not go to Paris? You’ve done books on it. Why not go yourself?
—Every time I want to go someplace, I do a book about it. That cures me.
—I’m being serious, said my sister.
—I have never been more serious.
—Have you ever done a book on the Plaza? she asked.
—That would leave me with a cure, but no place to be other than where I am.
—What’s the matter with that?
—You’ve been reading my mind, I said.
More than two feet seem to moving above us. There is talk.
—It’s about time, Elaine said.
I am struck by how much of what we say has meaning beyond what we intend.
An Agenda: The Brookings Show
The Nelson-Atkins Art Gallery has a decent collection of Oriental work, but not much Spanish—which is curious, given the Plaza’s connection to Seville. Across the street to the west from the Nelson is the Kansas City Art Institute whose most famous painters were Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. My sister says there is a home in the area that claims the fireplace into which Mr. Pollock took a piss during a dinner party. Other fireplaces and other dinner parties make the same claim. Pollock would probably not have believed the pissing had he done it himself.
Over the years, I have had design work for both the Nelson and the Kansas City Art Institute: student manuals and benefactor gift calendars for the Art Institute; exhibition catalogues and (very pleasing) postcards and posters for the Nelson. I did not get the contract for the Thomas Hart Benton retrospective a number of years ago, but the woman who did produced a fine book. The exhibition was brutalized by a hash of hay bales and two-by-four fencing arranged in the rooms where Benton’s Midwestern Mythic paintings hung. I understand it was a New York “art consulting” firm that inflicted its provinciality on Kansas City. It was not necessary.
It is the Art Institute students who made the busts that look over the Plaza and down at Ben Franklin. And it is the Art Institute’s women who have recently formed the cheerleading squad that is out and about rah rah-rahing everything from fountains to traffic signals to Winstead’s to Winnie and Clementine. Up and down the Plaza they go, one part high hoke, one part low camp. “Hip” or “Hip-Not,” I don’t know. Elaine tells me Steve knows and “we” cannot know. Not even The Shadow knows.
My present Nelson project is an Agenda for the Beth Brookings exhibition to open this spring. There is a catalogue (that I did not design, even if I am not credited) that comes with the painting part of the exhibition, a traveling one, originating in San Francisco and now in Santa Fe. Those paintings are a selection of twenty-four by thirty inch “Set Ins or Reverses made from her early murals, the ones that made her a break out painter—to quote the catalogue. Along the edges of some of these paintings, and on some of the murals as well, are snippets of hand-written text: Bye-bye Mussolini, From One Girl to Another, Ganiff..
Added together, these paintings (all acrylic) cannot be assembled into any one of the murals from which they are taken. I suspect this is by design, but by what design I am happy not to know. I like the studied incompleteness of it, but not for what the catalogue writer calls “. . .the compelling nature of the missing links of the pictorial narrative, as if Ms. Brookings has a story to tell that she alone knows (the painter’s dramatic irony is at work here!), and that can only be told by visiting the sites (all across America!) where that story is self-evident, and to which we are asked by implication to migrate.” It is a sentence Chekhov would have someone else write.
There is also A Painter’s Room of My Own, the well-reviewed coffee table book. I have not seen the final version, but I expect it is well designed: Tailored and elegant. Then there is an exhibition of The Room: furniture, books, platters, early paintings, cupboards, and a bong. Painted doors leading to a bedroom and bathroom. Mirrors. Bandanas. It is as if A Painter’s Room of My Own had emptied itself while keeping itself in tack. I know the feeling. The Room is to be arranged at the Nelson according the artist’s instructions. I wonder what will replace a record player with its speaker in the lid.
In connection with the exhibition, the Nelson has published my Agenda using the “Set Ins,” as well as post cards and a poster from A Painter’s Room of My Own.
At a meeting I attended, the Agenda won over a cookbook that would have featured recipes of the Mrs. Bridges who give money to the Nelson. I favored the cookbook for reasons that had to do with nepotism. Also, it would have made a fine abecedarian: B is for Brownies. M is for meatloaf. N is for Nonsuch. R is for Risotto.
My proofs for the Agenda, the post cards and the poster have come and gone, but today the finished Agenda arrived; somebody at the Nelson assumed there must be a mistake in my request not to claim the designer’s copy. Shortly after the package came (Earl calls you when you have something too big for your mailbox), I brought it upstairs and put in on my coffee table; I have not opened it.
It is a Monday. My week’s octavo is on my dining room table, oddly blank from cover to cover. I am noir on the wall. Tomorrow Rosetta comes. Wednesday will be the penultimate visit of the wife who has found her niche among my Nudes in Painting. She bought me a copy (on sale at Barnes and Noble, I noticed) and told me I may choose any pose I want. Perhaps I should have asked one of the art students to paint a backdrop of a large seashell—even though this particular wife is a brunette. The Rubens will have to do. There was a Poussin I liked, but it needs two lustful Satyrs and I am only one.
America the Plum Blossoms are Falling
—“America free Tom Mooney. America save the Spanish Loyalists. America this is quite serious.”
Hazen had bits and pieces of Ginsberg’s “America” memorized. Until I got my own copy of Howl I thought it was a madness he shared with King Lear.
—“I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations,” he said one day upside down in his Tall Tugger. “I’m obsessed by Time Magazine. / I read it every week. / Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candy store. / I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.”
—Tomorrow’s the day, he continued. We’re going to the Berkeley Public Library and you’re going to read “America” and I’m going to read Time Magazine.
—It’s the anniversary of the day he wrote it. January 17, 1956.
I had come to realize I had lost Beth to Hazen. “Lost” was not the right word. No word was. But I had not lost Hazen. There was something in his loyalty to my feelings about Beth that kept us friends. He never bragged that he was “balling” her. I never knew from him (or her) when they had been together. After our conversation that day when we were driving to Half Moon Bay to dive for abalone, Hazen didn’t talk about Beth in any way that made it painful for me. Not that it wasn’t. It just turned out we were not your usual triangle, more a three-character play where one of the actors is sent off stage now and then. Why I was faithful to my lines I do not understand. Why Beth was I never understood as well. How a woman could fall for a man like Hazen was in those days I don’t understand to this day. But then I never understood why Kim Novak would get on a bus to Tulsa for the likes of me.
On January 17th we drove Austen to the Berkeley Public Library. True to Ginsberg’s poem, the periodical section was in the basement. I had my copy of Howl in the back pocket of my jeans. Hazen got Time Magazine from a rack and both of us sat at one of the reading tables. There were a dozen or so people in the library basement that morning.
—You begin, said Hazen.
All along, I had thought he meant I was to read “America” out loud. It would be our two-person Happening with “America” as our manifesto. I had my two dollars and change. I stood up, Howl in my hand.
— “America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing,” I read, much to the astonishment of those in the room—and, as it turned out, to Hazen as well who I later learned just thought we’d read the poem to ourselves. “America, two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17th, 1956.”
I reached into my jacket pocket and put two dollars and twenty-seven cents on the table. The quarter rolled around before it settled, heads up. Hazen looked at it, then at me.
—“I can’t stand my own mind,” I continued. “America when will we end the human war?”
— “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb,” said Hazen as he stood up.
When we finished, our small audience applauded. Hazen waved the copy of Time Magazine. I took a bow.
The Conflicted Book of Medical Ethics
I would look at the dogs in their cages, and after awhile I could not look at them if they looked at me. There were dogs we were bleeding then dumping into the incinerator; there were dogs that we killed in the surgical experiments to develop the heart-lung machine that would save lives in the hospital across the parking lot; there were pregnant dogs whose unborn puppies were being implanted with an intestinal blockage—again, to save lives in the hospital across the parking lot. And all those dogs, along with their unborn puppies, got “Cook Timed.” You could get through a day bleeding dogs if you thought about the children. Or at least I could. And couldn’t.
From the beginning, Uncle Conroy would take Hazen and me on weekly tours of the hospital. He introduced us to the staff; he arranged for us to go on rounds with the doctors; he even arranged for us to scrub and stand against the wall of the OR while the surgeons worked. Once, a surgeon sent a nurse over to bring us closer to the table. It was heart surgery.
The doctor talked to us as he cut and clipped, the hemostats clamping the bleeders. Through his mask he explained what he was doing, what he was cutting. He said that ten years ago, this child would have died because they did not have the skills or the knowledge to save it. Now, they would be able to give her a new life, albeit (I remember he used one of my mother’s words) a limited life. Perhaps by the time the two of us became doctors, we would be able to return such a child to perfect health. He looked at us over his surgical mask.
—What Conroy Watkins is doing is very good work. You boys help him. It is very good work. Kelly, please.
My uncle understood I was concerned about the Blood Factory dogs—as well as the other animals that were dying a variety of deaths at a variety of rates for either a variety of reasons or for one reason, depending upon how you looked at it. Driving home with him after I had bled five dogs, he asked me:
—What do you think of your studies so far?
My uncle always called our work in the lab “studies.”
—Fine, I said.
We were going up Grove. Austen was parked at Beth’s. I almost asked my uncle to stop and let me off. But I had reading to do and my books were at the Derby room, so I said nothing.
—I once practiced medicine, my uncle said. Private practice, I mean.
—What? I said.
—Not long after Lillian and I were married, I had a practice for two years. In Galveston. It was just after the war. About the time we sent your turtle to Oakland. I felt we needed to buy a house but not have a mortgage so I could continue my research.
Many of the conversations adults have with the young are confusing to both because whole premises are missing: the details of domestic lives. My uncle wanted to own a house free and clear for Aunt Lillian so that he could return to his less-than-lucrative calling as a research-university doctor, as opposed to the substantial wealth of one in private practice. With these facts new to me, I didn’t know what to say. And my uncle had grown quiet on his side of the car.
—Do you think you might want to be a doctor? he said.
—Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, I said.
—From the dinner with Hazen’s father? My uncle said, and laughed.
We drove on.
—I want to tell you something about my medical practice in Texas, my uncle said. He had forgotten he was to take me to Derby and turned into the Berkeley Hills. At times I would go home to dinner with him, but that was not the plan tonight. I decided not to interrupt.
—I had a patient from “down island,” as they used to say in Galveston. Shrimpers, I think. A pro bono patient. Do you know what pro bono means?
—No, I said.
—I did not charge a fee, said my uncle. The mother came into the office with the child. Four years old. Female. She had a rash on her back. Slight fever. A non-specific macular rash. Nothing else. A mild viral infection, I thought. I got a sample of salve from my cupboards and gave it to the mother. I didn’t see her again until the hospital called. She was probably too ashamed at not being able to pay me, so didn’t come back when the rash turned purple. By then I knew what it was. Any doctor would.
My uncle made another wrong turn. A bad one, because while we were still going into the hills behind the Claremont Hotel, we were not on any road that would cut through. We would have to go all the way up to the top and take a crossroad and come back down. I didn’t say anything.
Nor did my uncle. I waited. He drove into the hills. He seemed to concentrate on the windshield. Finally.
—You know my medical bag? he said.
—The black one in your office?
—In it are the instruments I used in those days. And a pad on which I recorded the symptoms of my patients and the prescriptions I wrote, and the effect my treatment had. Two years’ worth of notes about what kind of doctor I had been.
—I didn’t know that, I said.
—If you want to know who you are, he said, read what you write about what you do.
We have gotten to the top of the hill from where we could see downtown Oakland. To the right was the Berkeley campus. Sather Gate. Durant. Down Grove, I could see the parking lot between the lab and the hospital. Below us was my uncle’s house. “Paid for” I couldn’t help thinking.
—I feel bad about killing the dogs, I said.
—I know you do, said my uncle. I have felt worse about other deaths.
A Political Guide to Sather Gate
There was usually something of a circus around Sather Gate, and later, when the University officials cracked down, along Telegraph and Bancroft. You could find tables with petitions to sign and flyers handed out by intense political radicals. Amid the bright sunshine, the eucalyptus trees, the fountains, the cafes, the spacious walkways, the sports cars and cars with surfboards on them, the deeply tanned Katherine Rosses and the young men of families whose furniture had come around the Cape, it was nearly impossible to believe anyone cared what happened elsewhere in the world. Many did not.
—What’s the deal with Cuba? I asked Hazen.
—What do you mean, what’s the deal with Cuba?
—I got a flyer to free Cuba and I got one to get the CIA out of Guatemala.
—Cuba’s communist, which is good or bad depending upon what you think of capitalism. The CIA is probably bad no matter what you think.
My politics in those days were mild to middling. Maybe it was growing up in Kansas City with a William Allen White father; maybe it was just being more interested in Muff LaRue skinning dipping than in Stevenson or Ike. Probably it was being who I was, and still am. I tend to tend my own garden even though I don’t have one. Add that to my interest in Titian’s live nudes, and you have a concoction of disbelief that the world exists beyond my imagination, which leads to a bad case of non-vicarious solipsism. Maybe that’s why I have freeze-framed myself. I am there; therefore, I am here. In plasma. In electronic formaldehyde.
As I was coming from class one day I saw Juliet at a table along Bancroft. It had been two or three weeks since she had been to my room in the middle of the night to have her “sex fix.” After that, she could not be found.
Our romance had little to do with me. We never had a “date.” I did not call her. She showed up. Sometimes, I’d spot her on campus with another man, but if she saw me she’d wave me off, her hand making something like a flip of the wrist ball throw. When she came to my room we did not talk. Not about art. Not about cars. She never said: “What could it possibly matter?” But then neither did I.
—Hello, I said as I came to the table.
There were photographs taped along the front, and a signboard propped to one side.
Jo was by herself. Usually these tables had two or three people, one to take your signature, the others to tell you something about the protest: what the group represents and when the next meeting was going to be. She had seen me coming. She had not flipped her wrist.
Looking back, we did not have much in common. In today’s language, she was jerking my chain. Or jerking me around and pulling my chain. Something to do with toilets. I’ll have to check with my sister who will check with Lillian.
—Hi, Jo said.
—Busy? I said.
—Sometimes, she said.
—I didn’t mean about us, I said.
—There is no us, she said.
Another girl arrived and put her purse in a vacant chair. She was carrying a large roll of canvas tied with twine.
—I’m Amy. Has Jo signed you up?
—No, I said.
I stepped back and looked at the photographs taped to the front of the table, and then at the poster board. The pictures were of hamsters and rabbits and guinea pigs—diseased or malformed. There were photographs of dogs in cages. The shots of the dogs had been enlarged. There was a photograph of Pistol unloading dogs from the back of her truck into a lab. Not our lab. But it was Pistol. She was wearing bib overalls. Her gloves.
—We’re ARN, said Jo, pointing to a button she was wearing. “Animal Rights Now.”
—Did you know, said Amy, that all over Cal-B there are labs filled with dogs like this (and here she pointed to a H-57) that are being starved so some professor can get a publication? So he can get a promotion. Or tenure. So he can live in the Berkeley Hills and have dinner parties with other professors who are also starving animals so they can get a publication and a promotion. The professors get the promotions; the dogs get fucked.
By this time Jo had helped Amy untie the canvas. Then the two of them opened it: “Professors Publish. Animals Perish.”
The letters were in red. Inside the first “O” of ‘Professor’ was the face of a hamster. The second “O” had blood dripping from it.
—Jo’s boyfriend is a painter, said Amy. He made it for us. He’s making another one on a sheet we can use as a flag.
Jo was peering over the top of the banner.
—You want me to hold it? I said. So you can have a good look.
—Thanks, Jo said.
I took Jo’s end and Amy and I walked across Bancroft.
—Do you know her boyfriend? Amy said.
—I don’t think so, I said.
—Are you one of her extracurricular?
—I guess so.
—So am I, said Amy.
We stretched the canvas out full-length. Jo nodded yes and put two thumbs in the air.
—You want to sign up? Jo said as we came back to the table.
—I don’t think so.
A Hi Sign: Not of My Own Making
—Are you going to Beth’s show? my sister said.
The Nelson’s quarterly calendar (which Elaine takes and I designed) has finally listed it, which means my sister can confront me with what she has known all along.
—Yes, I said.
—I don’t believe you.
—I wouldn’t, I said.
—Then you are not going? she said.
—I have a sign, I said.
— You and your signs. You’re just telling me you don’t believe it even if you see it.
—I did some designs for show.
—Does that mean you did? Or that you did not? she said.
It has been our good luck as brother and sister to live among our various selves with a companionable deja vu: much about what we have done, did do, will do, are doing, comes as a delight. It is as if we have been there before. And for my part, it is not so much that I can read her mind (and she mine) as that at moments I am her mind. I am told twins feel something of the same thing.
—That I did some designs? I said. Are you surprised?
—Not at all, now that you mention it, she said. Did they know?
—Did the Nelson know about you and Beth?
—Not even Beth and I knew about Beth and me, I said.
—I get nowhere with you, Elaine said and looked out her side of the car window to hide a smile. We were on our way to Merriam.
—Maybe there is nowhere to go, I said.
—That too, she said, turning back to watch the road.
I am curious to see if Waldo has been at the house. I have sworn both him and Rosetta to secrecy.
— Look! Elaine said as we turned down Lowell. The grass is cut; maybe somebody bought it.
—It’s still vacant, I said.
Elaine tapped the breaks as if to think.
—You bought it! she said, and almost ran into the ditch.
—Would you believe me if I said yes?
—No, she said, wobbling us back onto the straight and narrow.
—If I said no.
—Are you surprised?
—Either that I bought it or that I did not buy it? I said.
Instead of stopping she picked up speed and turned the corner at 52nd Place.
—I’m not surprised at you even when I am, she said, as she went past the memory of the burning building that was our father’s filling station, and how we came out of high school one afternoon to see him with his garden hose trying put out the flames, and how we could hear the sirens in the distance.
And this memory as well: both of us standing there, not immediately going to help him because he was a mechanic who ran a filling station, just as our mother was a clerk at the county water department. All around us were our classmates who, for a moment, were not getting in their cars and driving to the suburbs where there would be no glass globe in their yards, no Thor in their kitchen, no living in the basement with heating ducts for an intercom. We all stood there watching a man’s filling station on fire. Then Elaine and I dashed out of the crowd, me to grab another hose, and Elaine running to the county office down the road to get our mother and come back with her just as the fire department had doused the flames before much damage had been done.
On our return to the Plaza, Elaine and I talked about whether I had bought 505 Lowell or not, and if I had, what I should do with it, and if I had not, whether I should—both scenarios amounting to the same thing. And why Elaine had not stopped but had gone faster.
—I’ll find a glass globe, she said. And lawn chairs.
—I’ll find a Thor.
—Try e-Bay, my sister said. Or Google.
—I don’t use e-Bay or Google, I said.
—Why doesn’t that surprise me?
In fact I have found a Thor through a local appliance dealer who probably did use e-Bay. It is in the kitchen. I have not seen it, but I have paid the bill and the trucking charge. Some reality is better imagined which is why I don’t use Google. And why I don’t go to Paris, not even to see my books in stalls along the Seine. If they are there, am I not there?
An Abridged Encyclopedia of Pregnant Women: Volume One
—Elaine is coming, said Aunt Lillian.
I was standing in the hallway of my rooming house where the phone is located. Dustin Hoffman’s landlord was also in the hallway; he listens to our conversations to see if we are saying anything Un-American.
—Today. Your uncle is meeting the plane. It is all very sudden. I think something is amiss. She took the night flight. There must be something amiss. Do you know what it is?
—No, I said. Has Uncle Conroy left for the airport?
—Yes. But I will come and get you so you can be here when Elaine arrives. She says she wants to see you right away.
—I have to go to the lab. I’ll meet you there in an hour.
—Something is amiss, said my aunt again. And we are about to leave town.
This was the second phone call I have gotten this morning; the first was from Tina. She and Bottle James are in Reno. She has been trying to call me for two days. Where have I been? She will be here tomorrow. All she has is the address of a bookstore in San Francisco. Where is she supposed to go? Where will she stay? Why didn’t I call before she left? Bottle James is going to Los Angeles at the end of the week and not coming back. What is she supposed to do? I gave Tina the address of my uncle’s house and some rough directions. My landlord listened.
—You can’t have women here, he said as I got off the phone from my aunt. No women. No dogs. Goldfish only. No cats. No birds. I said that to you in the beginning. No women. I know about that nuts woman who’s been here in the night. That agitator. No women.
All spring, Tina and I have been getting her clothes off. It was slow going because I had “neglected her” over Christmas. There are days when I can see her, and there are days when she is nothing but a voice. But as her body is fading from focus at my end of the conversation, at her end, she is becoming more and more exotic.
—Some hormonal switch has been thrown in her, said Hazen. And you, dumb fuck, threw it.
In recent calls Tina has put the phone on her desk and talked to it from wherever she is in her room. It gives her more freedom, she says. At my end of the line she sounds like she’s in a cave.
—I love doing this for you, she said. I am soooooo happy. I am turning around so you can see me. There.
I am trying to see her. I close my eyes. I see Beth in her yellow chair. I see the sunlight bouncing off San Francisco Bay. I see Allen Ginsberg reading Howl. I see myself standing in Tina’s room at Hulga’s house in Emporia, Kansas—but it is dark and I cannot see Tina. I see Hazen because he is standing at the door to my uncle’s office where I have placed the WATS call.
—Next time I will light a candle, said Tina. I promise. I promise. I will light a candle. I feel so happy when I am with you like this. Bottle James says to say hello. I feel very sexy when I am with you like this. Tell me how you feel. Tell me a story. I am coming toward the phone. Can you see me? Talk to me.
—I have to go, I said.
—Oh no, she says. Please don’t. Not yet. Please don’t go. Not yet.
—A doctor has just come in. He needs me.
—Call me, Tina said.
—Goodbye, I said.
I hung up.
— Kansas Naked lady? said Hazen.
—You’re weird. Call the brothers Menninger. Is she coming here?
—Not mellow. Pas bitchin. Tres mal-bad. Tres mal-pas bitchin. We got two more dogs to drain. I got one going but he’s big and I need you hoisting and squeezing.
Elaine is pregnant. Uncle Conroy and Aunt Lillian have left to attend a medical meeting in San Francisco. When they do that, they stay with Hazen’s parents for a few days, and I house-sit. In this case, after the meeting, they are all going to Mexico. The place is mine for a week. My aunt has fixed me Nonsuch.
—Who is he? I asked.
We were in the living room. Below us are the lights of Berkeley. There had been a brief shower that afternoon and clouds are still over the Bay. From time to time, they cross the sky, like sails; San Francisco gets blotted out for a moment. Then the lights come on again. My sister is mesmerized by the scene. She does not answer.
—A friend, she said finally.
—Did you tell Uncle Conroy?
—Did you come here because you think he can arrange an abortion?
—Have you told Aunt Lillian?
—Just before they left.
—What did she say?
—That we could not tell Uncle Conroy.
—That I should have the baby and that we should tell the family I have been secretly married for a year and that my husband is in the military and that he went to Vietnam where he was killed. She even has a married name for me. Devine. I am Mrs. Elaine Devine. My husband is Lt. Peter John Devine. He was a Blue Beret and he died in combat. I had to tell Aunt Lillian they were Green Berets. She thanked me. She’s been very sweet.
—She said all that?
— I think she made this plan because she knew something was the matter.
—“Amiss,” I said.
—Yes, says my sister and smiles. How are you? You seem different.
—What do you think I should do?
—Do you like the guy?
—He says we’d make a great team.
—He said that?
—I said it to see what you’d say. It’s a place to start. Marry him.
My sister and I were quiet.
—Are you going to be a doctor? she said.
She was looking at me as if for the first time. The lights from a car are coming down the driveway. They flash into the living room.
—Is somebody here? she said.
—Probably a friend and a girlfriend of mine from Kansas, I said.
But it was not.
Chekhov: A Study Guide
In Chekhov, the women get pregnant at the end of chapters. If the pregnancies are legitimate, the babies die at the end of a following chapter. If they are illegitimate, the babies live past the end of the story. More or less.
—What would you say if I told you I am pregnant, Art Book Alice said to me. We were having espresso before she leaves.
—Am I the father? I said.
—You would be, she said. Now what do you say?
—That I don’t believe you, I said.
—But what would you do about it?
We had our pose before lunch. She got herself started with a glass of white wine and a few “nibblets,” slipped into my bedroom and returned to her entrance. In the past she would half sing, half rap “naughty ditties.” Today there had been no ditties, only a subdued “Little Fur.”
—Why do you ask?
—I was once pregnant, she said.
—You have a son, I said. I have seen you with him.
—Not him, she said.
—Do you want me to ask any other questions? I asked.
—No, she said.
I liked her more for this.
—Am I the father? I said to Jo that night in my uncle’s driveway, Elaine inside, Bottle James and Tina still prowling the East Bay in an old Hudson.
I was rather surprised at what I have said. It was not in the context of those times for a young man—and a jejune one—to have such nerve. At least not so quickly. I caught Jo by surprise.
—What do you mean? she said and stomped her foot. I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant! And you’ve been fucking me. Without a rubber. You’ve been fucking me without a rubber!
My sister came to the door.
—Who’s she? said Jo.
—My sister, I said. She’s pregnant too.
There was silence. Then:
—My name’s Jo. It’s short for Juliet. Your brother’s been fucking me without a rubber and now I’m pregnant.
Elaine later told me that was the first time she had ever heard a woman say either “rubber” or “fucking.” She wasn’t so much shocked as impressed.
—Come in, Elaine said.
—Nice pad, Jo said.
It is what Bottle James will say an hour later when he arrives with Tina, who is also pregnant, but doesn’t know it.
For a test run of my new book printer I am composing a Study Guide to Chekhov. I have typed in bits and pieces of a number of his stories. They are cut and pasted together so that a woman wearing a beret in Yalta has left her dog with a drunken schoolteacher whose young daughter has been married off for to a rich government official of fifty-two. There are other such ensembles that create a single not-so-short Chekhov story that Chekhov did not write. I have titled it Not My Life. At the end I have written “topics for discussion”:
1. What makes the women happy?
2. Is there anything bad that has happened to a woman that is not the fault of a man?
3. What do you think of the compelling nature of the missing links of the narrative?
4. Discuss the following passage:
“You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit too strong!”
These words, so ordinary, for some reason moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for card playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life groveling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.
Gurov did not sleep all night. . .
The Angel Connection
A badly designed flyer showed up on the table in the lobby. It was from a group called “Angel Connection Training” that are conducting sessions at Unity Temple on 47th street.
For a “Love Donation of $25.00 or more” I can learn how to “Ground and Prepare to Connect,” “Release Barriers to Connection,” “Align with Angel Vibration,” “Converse with My Angel,” and “Enjoy and Utilize my Angel Connection.” I am also asked—as a “precursor” to making my “Love Donation”. . . to search my heart.” “Are you ready to learn more about how to use our love and healing light? Are you open to considering the gifts we can give?”
I have put the Angel Connection Training flyer, along with two tens, into the envelope for Bottle James. There have been recent reports of a clock bonging near “Married Love.” My gift seems not so much a considered act as a predestined one. Maybe if he “aligned with an angel vibration,” he’d get one of the jobs he pretends to have. In a few days I will return his black cape.
—“You cannot see your way,” Bottle James said with a flourish as he came into the garage apartment.
—Who are you now? I asked.
—“Madman and beggar too. Look there, look there.”
—Wear it to be somebody you’re not, he said, and tossed me the cape.
I had asked Elaine to store it when we cleaned out the house after mother died. It was then she agreed to keep Pretty.
—I don’t think I have it, she said the other day when she stopped by before we went to lunch But I’ll look. Why do you want it?
—To give to Bottle James, I said.
—Has he returned? asked my sister.
—I’ve heard that he has.
—What’s this? asked my sister.
—A package. I said. It came the other day.
—Why don’t you open it?
—I’ve been waiting for my birthday.
She was turning it over to find a return address.
—There is none, I said. I’ve gotten others.
—Let’s open it, she said.
Inside were Kelly clamps, a hemostat, a surgical mask, all wrapped in a set of green scrubs.
—Who do you think sent it?
—Either you did or I did, I said.
Thor: Owner’s Manual Update
—Remember when Thor attacked us? Elaine said.
Thor had valves to turn and racks to remove and dividers to install and large square buttons to push in a complicated sequence. Get them wrong, my brother had observed in his cryptic way, and you would start a nuclear war.
—It was what I was going to add this trip, I said.
—Then you can have it, she said as she turned down Lowell.
—Let’s share, I said.
It was a warm and splendid early spring day. The lawn has been mowed a second time. Elaine has, I see, found a globe and a set of webbed aluminum lawn chairs. Flags are coming up. Waldo has put out planters with impatiens in them. My mother liked the early blooming flowers above all others. Next week, I’ll get Rosetta to clean the house.
We parked in the driveway.
—Shall we? I said.
—Sure, my sister said.
We sat in the lawn chairs, me on my father’s side of his glass globe and Elaine on the other side and, passing the text of Thor back and forth as if turning pages, told each other how one Saturday when our father was at the garage and we were having lunch, our mother started Thor to do laundry, but in the spin cycle the vacuum cleaner portal began to suck air.
Steve plugged the hole with a garden tomato that was pulverized. Then Thor jerked himself toward the kitchen table leaving thick black marks on the floor. Our mother attacked him with a broom.
—The broom breaks, I said.
Thor marched to the end of his cord and unplugged himself.
—For weeks he smelled like ketchup, said my sister. Or did you want to say that?
—You can have it, I said.
My guess is we are thinking the same thing: that we have not gone into the house.
—Want to go in? she said.
— Do you?
—Let’s wait for a signal, she said.
—A cosmic Hi-Sign? I said.
—Let me look for it, she said. Between watching for Beth and Bottle James, you’ve got enough on your sensory plate.
—“Sensory plate?” Doctor Pill? Oprah?
—Muff LaRue. That’s what she says about you these days.
It was during the ride back that my sister told me again that she knew about me and Muff La Rue and asked again if I had “done anything about her.” Her car CD was playing Streisand’s “Sweet Inspiration.” For my part, I talked about how our mother would call down to us through the heating ducts, and how we all claimed the forty-five record player, and how Steve didn’t want his part to smell like pot.
—Do you still have it? I said coming along Brush Creek with Bottle James in front of us.
—It’s in the attic along with your record collection. Do you see him?
—Yes you do. Up ahead. On my side the creek. And I’ve found the cape.
Tina and Bottle James: A Travel Memoir
It was four in the morning when Tina and Bottle James found my uncle’s house. He had called from a pay phone in East Oakland an hour before. They were badly lost and Bottle James wanted to check into a motel. I could hear Tina crying.
—Want a pull? he said when he got out of the car, a vodka quart in his hand. It was the Blue Hudson. I didn’t think it would make it. Tina sat there and stared at the dashboard. She looked like a chewed toothpick.
—No thanks, I said. We’ve been doing six packs half the night.
—Can we crash here? said Bottle James. Nice pad.
—Sure. My aunt and uncle get back at the end of next week. We all have to be out of here by then. I’ll need a day to clean up.
—Who’s all? said Bottle James.
—My sister. A girlfriend.
—A girlfriend of yours? A girlfriend not her?
Bottle James looked at Tina.
—You got trouble. I’m here to tell you, you got trouble.
—More trouble than I know about?
—She’ll tell you, so I will. Popped her cherry. Carson City, Nevada.
—Somebody had to.
—You’re not pissed? he said. She’s pissed. Not that I know what about. Once she did it, I couldn’t keep her off me. A real bunny, you got there. Sure you don’t want a pull?
—Go in, I said. I’ll stay here.
—Come on Stella, get out, said Bottle James.
The Better Sex Book of Wednesdays
—Why so many in your life?
—Not so many, I said.
Elaine has found the red boa. Rosetta left it out; there is a conspiracy between them. She’s also gone into my office where the book printer is set up.
—Two, I said. Down from four. Three if you count Nurse Barkley, but she is not a Wednesday Wife.
—Red Boa Rachel. Stripper Suzie.
—There was Art Book Alice, I said.
—I didn’t know about her.
— She didn’t make it through the book. I was hoping she’d get to Bonnard’s Woman with Black Stockings.
—What are you talking about?
—I’m not going to tell you.
—Yes? That’s three then, said my sister.
She knows about these women and has given them their names, because when she questioned me about my lovers, I’ve told her: Yes, I am having an affair with a woman who likes to take off her clothes—or at least some of them—on the apartment balcony. And a Red Boa is after all a Red Boa. The art books and the women in them are of my own design. As to their given names my sister, like Hazen, has affection for alliteration. I’ll be curious to know who Muff turns into.
—I’m glad about Muff.
—I lied about Muff.
—That means . . .
—Aren’t you a bit old for all this? Elaine said.
—Are you asking if you’re a bit old for the way you feel about Hazen?
—That as well, she said. But you first.
—Let’s call it a tie and either flip for it or not talk about it, I said.
—Hazen was always flipping imaginary coins, she said. And after she said that we didn’t talk about it.
I came to like my sister in the way I like her now as we were sitting in Uncle Conroy’s house that night she told me she was pregnant. And in the week that followed when she hung around the lab with me and Hazen and Beth.
I have never had the kind of woman in my life that Elaine wants me to have. It turns out my brother has that kind of man in his life, and he seems pleased with the arrangement. My sister has the kind of husband my Wednesday wives have, and has survived it.
—Not that I think you should get married, Elaine said. But don’t you think we could find you a woman who would bring more to your life than sex? A woman who you could let us meet? Somebody to go to the movies with? Somebody we could invite to spend a week or so at Uncle Conroy’s place in Mexico? Who are these women, anyway? I take it they are all married. Who are they?
—Art Pose Alice, Stripper Suzie, Red Boa…
—Oh, never mind, my sister said and pushed her smile into her eyes. Why only married women? Is Muff still married?
She had gone into the kitchen where she was making lunch. It was Sunday. A solid warm spring day.
—Because I don’t want to be married, I said. There are other reasons as well.
—What makes you think one of them won’t leave her husband and show up on your doorstep? Then what would you do?
—That happened in a Chekhov story. Chekhov handled it well; the man in question did not.
—What other reasons? my sister asked.
I had thought she had forgotten that part of my answer.
—Have some Navarra, I said as I poured her a glass.
—Is it from one of your lovers?
—What other reasons?
—Married women make better lovers, I said.
—They do? she said. Why?
—Because of their husbands, I said.
—What about their husbands? she said. I have a husband.
—Because they are no longer free with them. If they are not angry, they have become embarrassed. They do not want to be excessive. Or depraved. They do not want their husbands to know about the excitement they feel for the forbidden. They must have a secret from him, and I am it. Not me personally; I have no doubt about that. Just me. . . .
—If you wish.
— No. They must go elsewhere for that. I just let them dance whatever dance they want to dance, which is exactly the dance they do not want to do with their husbands.
—And when they go back to their husbands, are they better with them? Is that what you think?
—I doubt their husbands can tell the difference.
—And when you are tired of them? my sister asked.
—They get tired of me.
— One day they cannot make the date and the next time they do not call, or they blow me a kiss as they get on the elevator. Or they bring up some reference to their husbands, or suggest how we might “better our relationship.” That, too, is a way of being tired of me. Sometimes I see them on the Plaza and we nod. I spot them from my balcony. Once in a while they call, but it is usually after months; one called after more than a year. They come back for the memory of it. There is usually sex. But we know it will not continue. By then, I have replaced them. They must come on a Friday or a Monday. Some never return.
—I see, my sister said.
I think my sister is trying to decide if she wants to say something about Hazen. She has been trying to decide this for a number of weeks now; sometimes she gets close; sometimes it is a passing thought. Today she is close.
—Do you…? I asked.
—No. But tell me about that printer in your office.
—It’s a Thor for books. Or a gun over the fireplace for what I’m designing these days.
—You’re being some e-word our mother used, she said.
A Broadside of Talk
Between the time Jo arrived and Bottle James and Tina showed up, Jo stopped standing in the driveway saying I’d fucked her without a rubber and came into the house where she sat down with my sister. After a few beers, the two of them started talking about how they were both pregnant. They talked as if I were not in the room. I had been there before. I don’t remember saying much for two hours.
—Just raise the kid yourself, Jo said at one point after my sister had explained Aunt Lillian’s plan. You need a dead husband like you need a live one.
—I don’t have the nerve, my sister said. I couldn’t. What are you going to do?
—Abortion, said Jo. I just want your brother to pay for it. Even if it isn’t his. Somebody’s got to pay and it’s not going to be me. Men are the fuckers, but I don’t have to be the fuckee.
—But that’s a life, my sister said. Why not raise the child like you’re telling me to?
—I don’t want to, Jo said. The reason I’m telling you to is because you want to. I’m saying you can have the child, but you don’t need the man. I can tell you don’t want the man.
—How can you tell that? my sister said.
My sister hesitated.
—That’s how, Jo said.
—But what about the baby? Your baby, said Elaine. Don’t you want it?
—You want me to give birth so you can take care of it? Is that what you’re saying?
—I’m not saying that. Not that at all. It’s just that abortion is. . .
—Illegal, said Jo.
—For you. Not for me. Do you want me to tell you what’s wrong and right for you?
I see myself high in the Berkeley Hills with the wealth of the Bay below: I am a bump on a couch with a beer in my fist, listening to two women talk about themselves, about the lives growing in their wombs, about their choices, about the men in their lives, about men. That’s when I hear the horn of the Hudson.
—You coming in? I said to Tina.
—I know about you and Bottle James, I said.
—No you don’t.
—What do you mean?
—It’s not like you think. It’s not his fault.
—Whose fault is it?
—I want to go home. I should have never come here. I should have never let you talk to me that way on the phone. I should have never never ever ever let you talk to me that way over the phone.
—Why don’t you come in? I said. Get some sleep and we can deal with all this later.
—Where are you going to sleep?
—In the car.
And she did.
The Book of Rosetta
—What do you want me to do?
—Give the place a good scrubbing. Two days’ worth, I said. I’ll pay you double your wage.
—You pay me well enough, she said. When I’m not paid right, I’ll let you know and I’m not letting you know. Me and the Lord keep track of my wages.
—Go slow, make it sparkle, I said.
—Waldo says the place is low rent. What do you want with a low-rent place when you live high in the sky here? And you got that apartment next door doing nothing. I don’t ever see that anybody’s been there. You’d be better off doing your hanky-panky down that hallway and leaving this place clean for Jesus.
—So you don’t soil your own nest, she said. Even a snake don’t soil its own nest. There’s two kinds of dirt and Jesus doesn’t like either one of them. Inside and outside dirt. You can be slick as a snake but you’ll get the nasties with all these woman coming in here Wednesdays. And not just where the doctor can cure you.
—I thought you didn’t like snakes, I said.
—You right about that, said Rosetta as she stopped dusting the plasma screen. They may be clean on the outside but they are full of cooties on the inside. That’s why God made them.
—To fool a body. Just like you are fooling yourself with these women. They may be slick and shiny with perfume, but they are nasty for being here, and the Lord won’t have them in his heaven come the end. Which is just about near as far as I can tell with all those art kids running up and down the Plaza half naked half the time cheering in front of poor old Mister Franklin.
—What happened to ticks? I thought I was slick as a fat tick.
—What you do with them women I know, she said ignoring me. If you keep doing it the cooties on your insides will come out to your outsides and you’ll look like that bum on the creek thinking he’s a clock Or that bum you had a picture of on this here wall television.
In her dusting Rosetta takes special care with the television, studying the screen for streaks. Once I saw her looking at her reflection.
—And if you think these women are going to peel off their expensive undies in that low-rent house, you are running the train of your brain on the wrong track.
—Do you think cleanliness is next to godliness? I asked.
—We are all going to be dirt and worms, soon enough, so you got to get right with the Lord and that means you got to be clean inside and out for Jesus. It’s the dirt of your body you leave for the worms, so Jesus can have the clean sheet of your soul.
—Rosetta has done a good job, my sister said. Did you tell her to “make is sparkle.”
We were standing in the kitchen. Thor is there.
—Flags, she called them, I said to my sister looking out the window at the Iris. I always wondered why she used that word.
—And shears for scissors, my sister said.
—How she always told us to leave something on our plates for the kitty. And we never had a cat, and every other mother was telling her kids to clean their plates because there were starving children in Korea.
I plugged in Thor. A series of lights came on. I opened the lid. Elaine turned away from the window. There is something she wants to say, but this time I don’t know what it is. Some cosmic vibration between us has been interrupted. Then:
—I have heard from Hazen, she said.
We walked to the end of the lot where Pretty’s grave is marked by a stone onto which Elaine had affixed her nametag.
—Here, she said getting a bandana out of her purse. I saved it for you. A little worse for wear, but I thought you might like it. I washed it after she died. “From two girls to you,” is what I am supposed to say. Will it do for a Hi Sign?
—Yes, I said.
It occurs to me that our lives—at least the story of our lives—has as much to do with others as with our parents. My sister knows my silences. She thinks I’m going to ask about Beth.
—I named Pretty for a girl I met at Uncle Conroy’s lab, I said.
—I’m not sure how I’d feel about getting a dog named for me. Did she know?
—I never told her. Like you, she was in love with Hazen.
We walked up the slight hill of the lot to the house. Inside we went our separate ways: me to my room in the basement, my sister to her room above me.
—Are you there? she said, her voice bouncing through the heating ducts so that by the time it gets to me it has something of our mother’s voice.
—More or less, I said.
Before we leave, I unplugged Thor. A series of lights go off. On our drive back we don’t talk until we get to the Plaza.
—How about dinner? Elaine said.
—Thank you, I said.
—That means no?
—Is it because of. . .
—Does that mean yes?
—Has Rosetta been talking to you about the end of the world? my sister asked.
—And the return of clocks, I said.
Then, just as we get to Ben Franklin:
—Lillian is pregnant, Elaine said.
We both know this is not “added.” But not subtracted either.
—Does Gerhard know?
—I’ll walk over for a drink later, I said.
Beth Brookings: The Curator
During a meeting at the Nelson, the curator of Beth’s show asked if it was true I had been at Berkeley in the sixties.
I thought she was about to ask me if I had known Beth Brookings, but she did not. Nor did anyone ask if I was familiar with Beth’s work. In business—even the artistic business—you proceed along non-expository lines: the missing links of our pictorial narrative: the designer’s dramatic irony at work.
We were studying the prints of the show’s canvases. Before they had traveled to Santa Fe there had been a small debate about flying to San Francisco to look at the paintings themselves in order to judge the quality of the reproductions, but most thought it was not the kind of expense the museum business office would approve. However, the curator had suggested I could amend my contract and include a trip for myself, and by this device it might be approved. I understood that she would be pleased to accompany me.
—I noticed two paintings are called “Doctors at Mels,” she said.
—Yes, I said.
—But there are no figures in them. Just coffee cups and a counter. A Hopper counter. With a Bonnard background. No doctors. And the cups are all on curiously large, colored pottery plates. Dinner plates I would have thought them to be. With numbers beside each plate where a napkin might go. And the frames are the backside of the stretchers with Omega workshop-like drawings on them. And text: Ne pas bitching on one. Giniff on another. Curious.
—That’s true, I said.
—Do you think we have the wrong title for this series? Maybe it goes with another series she has not sent us. Or maybe the doctors are in the rest of a mural.
I like it when someone other than my sister thinks I am hiding something. The Curator is lovely. Thin lipped. Some cosmic vibration tells me she likes good jazz. I am told she is an expert on Benton.
—Maybe I should call Ms. Brookings before I make the page designs for this section, I said. Do you have a phone number in California? Or an e-mail address?
— I’ll get them for you before you go.
The rest of the meeting concerned the instructions for setting up A Painter’s Room of My Own.
I placed the card on which Beth’s phone number, e-mail address, and Berkeley street address had been written in an envelope and mailed it to myself at the City Lights Bookstore. On it I wrote: “Please Hold”. Before I sent it I did not read its contents. I put no return address. Its absence from my apartment is yet another sign.
In today’s mail came a poster tube with a letter rolled inside. There was a return address: Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas, xxxxxx
No Mail, No Turtle: A Self-Help Religion
One day I drove to the City Lights Bookstore to see if I had any mail. I did not.
—Hey, said Lawrence Ferlenghetti. You’re the doctor man. You still have the book I gave you?
—Yes. Right here.
I took it out of my back blue jean pocket.
—I told you it would be a fit, he said.
— A friend of mine and I read “America” in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
—That’s the place to read it.
— My friend says you’re a poet.
—Your friend is good to say so.
—Published? I asked.
—Self published, he said. You want my poems? I give you my poems.
He went behind the counter and got a small black-and-white book off the shelf.
—Will you sign it?
—Sure. “The Doctor of City Lights” How’s that?
—Thank you, I said.
—Next time you come over, he said, look for an envelope addressed to “The Doctor of City Lights.”
—Yes. You’ll see. From a friend of mine.
I drove Austen to the bench at the old Oakland Naval Yard where I had stopped with Beth. There I read Coney Island of the Mind. No turtle passed by.
—What is this? said Red Boa Rachel.
—A book of poetry, I said. She opened it.
—Are you a doctor? I thought you were a writer or something like that.
We were having coffee; soon she will pick up her son at his day school. She does not want to be late.
—I write medical books, I said.
—I don’t “get” poetry, she said. Only that it is prose that doesn’t go all the way across the page. That’s what my English teacher taught us. And this?
—A religious book.
—Ta-Bid, I’ve never heard of it. Is it a self-help religion?
—And written by hand. Is it a copy? But of course it must be a copy.
—It is the original, I said.
She was thumbing through it. When I said it was the original, she stopped.
—The original, she said. From when?
—The sixties, I said.
She was trying to guess which sixties: the first sixties? She is the kind of woman who, when puzzled, moves on.
—Next week, I cannot come, she said getting up, her coffee cup in hand. But the week after, I could come later in the afternoon and we could have dinner, and I can stay the night because I am supposed to be out of town for the Arts Council meeting and I don’t really have to be in St. Louis until noon the next day.
—I am sorry, I said, but that is the night the Society of Ta-Bid meets, and since I have the original I am obliged to attend.
She looked at the book. She turned to look at herself in the mirror behind the couch. She is a stylish woman: tall, dark-red hair. Green eyes. She has made herself out of Town and Country. An accidental retro. She probably doesn’t think she can do better for a lover. She can. I hope soon she will.
—I’ll see you the week after that, then, she said. I’ll bring some wine from the Better Cheddar. A friend of mine says they have a new Italian champagne.
—Yes, I said.
My guess is she will call to cancel and, save for now and then when she is walking on the Plaza, I will not see her again. If she doesn’t cancel, I will. Besides, she’s picked the wrong Wednesday.
—Goodbye, she said.
—Goodbye, I said.
She blew me a kiss from the elevator as the doors closed.
After she left, I paged through The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid and read:
And They Shall Not Go In Peace
There shall NOT be prohibited by the Flaymen speculation about the dual nature of Ta-Bid. Especially allowed shall be the question of the hyphen; and sects that dispense with the hyphen are encouraged to develop; as are those who run the names together, as in “Tabid;” or sects that separate the names by a comma, as in “Ta,Bid;” or those that make a capital for both names; or for one. Let a myriad sects of Ta-Bid, Ta,Bid, tabid, TaBid flourish in the name of Ta-Bid, and be in conflict over it if it shall come to pass that the members of the Ta-Bid stray from the original orgasmic message of Ta-Bid and begin persecuting one another in every fashion that can be learned by consulting the texts of other religions. In this way, an Anti Ta-Bid shall flourish and be in brotherhood with fellow religions of the world. And they shall NOT go in peace.
In some of this I recognized my “embellishments.”
A Letter from the Present
“Dear Mr. _________,
My mother died last year of ovarian cancer, number four. I live in the house where you and your roommate lived when my mother was alive. Which is where she lived when she was alive. My father died in the Vietnam War and I never met him. I live in my mother’s old room and I do not rent the others, except the garage where you and your roommate lived, I was told. After she died, I was cleaning out her house and found the enclosed certificate.
My mother said she liked you a lot, but that she didn’t much like your roommate who was always drunk. I work at the college in the Alumni Office where you are not listed, except in a computer file labeled To Be Found. If you want me to change that to Found, it will then be moved to the SAL (Standard Alumni List) after it is confirmed that you are you. Then you will get our mailings about reunions, weddings, death and births, and other bonding events. Unless you don’t want to.
I have not been over to the History Department to see if your name is on the Humbolt plaque but I called Linda the secretary there and she said it is. That was a long time ago. Congratulations!
If you want to know more, write me back and I will tell you. I hope you are who I think you are otherwise none of this will make any sense and in that case would you send the award back? Thank you.
Concentrating the Mind
—I know this “concentrating the mind” business means death, my sister said. It’s a famous saying from someplace.
—We’re all dying, I said.
—That’s not what you meant, she said.
—Suppose I told you I have the same disease that father did.
—Do you? she said.
—Would you tell me? she said.
—Then why tell me anything at all? she said. What’s the point? Just to pass the time of day before you go back to whichever wife it is today?
—O.K. Tomorrow. Who is it?
—If I told you, would you believe me?
—No, she said.
—So, here we are, my very distinguished movie star looking and helpful brother, the man who has seen me through all kinds of crises from my illegitimate pregnancy complete with a legitimate birth, to my daughter’s illegitimate pregnancy with a pending legitimate abortion—seen me through all this and more with nothing but the finest and most patient counsel and now, sitting here in the reVerse on a non-wife Tuesday, I am told he is either dying or not dying and that he is either having or not having an affair with my new best friend. Have I got the soap opera right? Maybe we should call doctor Jo.
—I’m dying of ennui, I said. And I am your best friend. New or old.
—You don’t study “ennui” the first two years at Vassar. How do you get it?
—Don’t be enigmatic just because you read books all the time and looked up our mother’s words, my sister said. Now tell me in plain Country Club Plaza lunch language, what is ennui?
—It’s the opposite of angst. I said.
—Now we’re getting somewhere. I know about angst. Muff LaRue, who is not my new best friend, and who you are not seeing tomorrow—or maybe you are—is all the time talking about angst. She has angst over her husband. She has angst over her flower garden. She has angst over Charles—that’s her oldest son—who she thinks is gay. She has angst over politics. She has angst over angst. What should I tell her?
—Tell her you don’t have angst “over” something, not even angst. Tell her that if you have angst, angst has you. If she doesn’t understand, she doesn’t have angst and is probably not very interesting. If she smiles, tell her I have tomorrow free into which she may or may not already be scheduled.
—How about we return to the question of your death and dying? Elaine said. There was a course in it at Vassar. But it seemed to me they had it backwards. Shouldn’t it be dying and death?
—It’s a matter of the verbal rhythm, I said. If you have angst, death comes before dying.
—And you’re going to tell me that if you have ennui, dying comes before death.
—More or less at the same time, I said.
—I don’t believe you.
Behind her passed Muff LaRue. She saw me but did not stop.
—Bottle James again? said my sister.
—Yes, I said.
—I don’t believe you, she said and turned around to look.
But Muff was gone.
—I saw you yesterday with Elaine, said Muff when she finally settled down.
The day had begun with sunshine but turned cold and windy. When Muff came in she had a blossom in her hair, toward the back on the right side.
—I saw you as well, I said. You should have stopped.
She was reconsidering our afternoon; probably she has been reconsidering it for some time and thought about calling me to say she would not be here today. She has taken off her coat; it is resting on her lap.
— You two seemed in deep conversation, she said. I have gotten a bottle of wine and two glasses. Muff has brought me nothing: no flowers, nothing from the Better Cheddar—no soap from the French shop down the street.
I imagine two of my wives standing at the counter, one with Marius Fabre Lavande, the other with two blue boxes of Floris “Rose Geranium.” They smile. “Gifts?” says one. “Yes. And you?” “Yes,” she says. “I have a friend who likes soap,” she says. “Me, too, the other one says. They both understand the word “friend.” “Cleanliness is next to. . .” they say in unison, and laugh at themselves. One day, between their Wednesdays, they will lunch together.
—My sister and I were talking about angst, I said.
—What? Muff said.
She was fiddling with her coat.
—My sister and I were talking about angst, I said again, pouring her a glass of wine as I passed behind her, tempted, but not yielding, to remove the blossom from her hair.
—I have it, you know, she said. I’ve told her about it. I have a bit of it now, she said. I’m not sure I should . . . I don’t really quite know what I’m doing here. When did we first meet again? Last fall? I’ve been thinking about you ever since. Maybe I shouldn’t have called.
Obvious exposition is an early symptom of angst.
—I have ennui, I said.
—What’s that? she said.
—It’s a French malady.
—I’ve heard of it, she said. Is it like depression?
Her angst was fading.
—Not at all, I said. More an amusing boredom.
—You don’t seem sick, she said, looking at me while taking a sip of wine. In fact I was thinking just yesterday when I saw you at the reVerse how healthy you look. Has anyone ever told you that you look like a movie star? I think he’s dead.
—No, I said.
—Where may I put this? she said moving her coat off her lap.
—I’ll hang it up for you, I said.
—Tell me about ennui—is that how you pronounce it? And I’ll tell you about angst and we’ll have a good time. What’s this? she said.
—A blossom, I said. It has been in your hair. From a dogwood, I think.
—All this time?
— And you didn’t tell me?
—That’s ennui for you, I said. It doesn’t want to contribute to angst.
When she laughs, a deep throaty laugh, she climbs out of the pool, golden in the light of an elegant moon.
Our Blank de Blanche Design Proposal: Six of X
1. Title: Ennui vs. Angst
A. Single sheet of unnumbered 8/12 x 11 typewriter paper.
B. Typeface for text: Currier
C. Half-Title Page: Humbolt Award.
D. Front Piece: America
C. Text as follows:
“Dear Mr. ___________,
My mother died last year of ovarian cancer, number four.
— Robert Day
Robert Day’s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”
The novel banners at top and bottom are by Bruce Hiscock.