I billed last month’s installment of Robert Day’s novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love as the “penultimate,” but in the interim Day wrote an extra chapter, thus turning the novel into a real, seat-of-the-pants, written-while-you-wait serial novel, an evolving text, with a surprising life of its own. This time we have the seventh part (of what the author now says will be an eight-part novel — only next month will tell).
But the novel is trending toward a close. It exudes that pleasant feeling of convergence, of things from early on re-appearing, people dying and taking their subplots with them, themes being touted openly and revelations, increasingly, driving the hero into a corner (will he act, or won’t he?). In the present plot, in Kansas City, our hero’s unrequited love, the famous painter Beth Brookings, is about to arrive, to re-appear. Once (we find out) she predicted she would love him in her forties or fifties (but not just then, while she was sleeping with his best friend Hazen). The hero’s sister Elaine confronts him with the charming emptiness of his current mode of life. She calls him out, calls him ”A man in love…Who has wasted his life not admitting it.” Then we find out Elaine’s life hasn’t been so hot either: she slept with the hero’s Berkeley friend Hazen and married a man she didn’t love. Back in Berkeley (remember how the novel weaves back and forth between the present and the Berkeley past), Aunt Lillian and the hero get caught in a madcap anti-vivisection demonstration. Pretending to be a doctor, he tries to save a dying baby trapped in a stalled ambulance in the midst of the crowd (I won’t tell you how it turns out). The novel, yes, moves into new territory even as it ties its loose ends. The reader already feels wistful that this wistful novel is almost done, but the reader also thrills to the convergence of vectors, the solving of mysteries and the climax on its way. You can read the entire novel to date here (instead of clicking back and forth between issues). Stay tuned for the next installment.
spaceOh, Please Open the Door so I can See that I’ve Gotten You Right
The Naked Man Handbook for Agitators
One morning during the spring semester Aunt Lillian gave me a ride to the lab. She was taking Uncle Conroy something he had forgotten, and thoughtfully called to ask if I was working. I waited for her on Derby in my scrubs. My surgical mask was in my pocket.
—What’s this? she said.
We were on Grove about a block from the hospital. There was a crowd of kids in the street and a platform in Mel’s parking lot.
In those days, demonstrations were a mixture of high earnestness and low-to-medium drug consumption. You’d catch a whiff of pot and sometimes you could see who was doing it. Once I was standing next to a guy who offered me a hit, then realizing I was not who he thought I was, he walked away.
If the feds were around, you could spot them by their skimpy brim hats, ponchos, and wing tip shoes. Sometimes they’d pull out a small camera from underneath their poncho and snap a picture. My impression was they were more interested in catching you committing free speech than smoking dope.
By now, I had seen plenty of these demonstrations, sometimes on my way to class or waiting to catch a bus to work. Most students at these rallies were as much audience as participants—if such a distinction could be made, and increasingly it could not. It was night-and-day street theater and there was a rambunctious air to it, even given the most serious causes. Even Vietnam.
Also, there seemed to be a relationship between the tables where you signed the petitions against Castro or for him, or against the House Un-American Activities Committee (no one demonstrated for the House Un-American Activities Committee), or against the use of animals in the Berkeley labs (again, no one was for it), or against Johnson and the War—and the timing of the demonstration. It was as if the petitions became a playbook for street theater, complete with the dramatis personae. Get enough actors signed up and you staged a “Happening.”
I was not cynical about any of this then, nor am I now. However, I was not passionate about any causes: I was in favor at times; not sure at other times; opposed; ignorant. If you don’t know the meaning of provincial you don’t know if you should support Che Guevera’s revolution in Bolivia.
The demonstration in front of my uncle’s lab was protesting our use of animals. I could see Jo and Amy standing on top of a platform by Mel’s. Jo had a bullhorn. Amy was waving the flag sheet. There must have been two hundred kids in the street and the parking lot.
The cops had arrived. In the beginning of these demonstrations, they usually played a benign role; they knew that sooner or later— usually sooner— the demonstration would end and the traffic would flow again. How and why this changed after I left Berkeley, I don’t know.
—Stop, I said to my aunt. Stop!
Even though she had become alarmed, she was easing the Cadillac into the crowd, tapping first the brakes, then the horn, and then the accelerator.
—Hey bitch, someone yelled as we bumped him.
I reached over and put the car in neutral. We were deep into the crowd and on the wrong side of Grove—not that it made any difference. At least we had stopped. I turned off the engine. Ahead, Jo was talking into her bullhorn.
A tall, hairy guy wearing very short, frayed jean cutoffs and a T-shirt that had the arms cut out of it climbed on the hood of the Cadillac and sat down. Kids around us peered inside. The guy on the hood stood up. One of his testicles slipped out of his cutoffs.
—Oh dear, said my aunt. You should always wear briefs.
She tapped the windshield, and when the man looked around, my aunt made her “naughty-naughty” finger sign.
—You’re exposed, Aunt Lillian said.
—I don’t think he can hear you, I said.
There was a loud cheer, after which the guy with his testicle hanging out walked the hood (denting it) toward us and sat down on the roof so that his legs were in the windshield. He was wearing Jesus slippers. He did a sort of back flip, the roof creaked and his legs and feet disappeared. When they returned, his right foot broke the windshield wiper. His shorts sailed into the crowd in front of us. I lowered my window down and stuck my head out.
—Off, I yelled. Off!
I was about to open the door, but a man came to my side of the car and said, “Stay inside.” He pressed himself against the door and flashed a badge.
—Roll up your windows and lock the doors, he said before he moved into the crowd.
I put my window back up, but in her confusion, my aunt put hers down. The man on top jumped off on Aunt Lillian’s side.
—What we got here? he said, standing by my aunt’s open window, wearing only his T-shirt.
He was looking at the official decal my uncle had on the Cadillac: “Hansen Research Lab, Number One.”
All this time, Aunt Lillian had been calm. But I could tell she was worried.
—Would you like to drive? she said even though I had turned off the engine and there was no place to go.
—What have we here? said the naked guy again. “Hansen Research lab. Number One.” Number One! He yelled in the direction of Jo and Amy. We got a Number One.
He jumped on the hood of the Cadillac, and from there, on to the top —Why isn’t he wearing his clothes? said my Aunt. It is not decent to go around without your clothes.
—Off! I yelled. I got out.
—We got a Number One animal killer right here, he yelled. Numero Uno!
I looked for the guy who had shown me his badge, but couldn’t find him. Most of the crowd was still listening to Jo, but some of the kids around us were starting to look in our direction. Aunt Lillian said something I couldn’t hear.
—We got the number one animal killer. Don’t you fucking understand? Right the fuck here!
I got back in.
—Such vile language, my aunt said. That’s what happens when you take off your clothes in public.
She was trying to start the car.
—We need to change places, I said. I’ll drive.
—Bless you, she said. Such language. I hope Conroy is all right. Such language.
By now most of the crowd had turned away from Jo and were looking at us. Jo was looking as well. She crouched down so she could get a better view.
She saw who I was.
Bottle James: The Revival
He has been back a month acting his various parts, but in recent days he was no one in particular. Not Doctor Welby. Not a waiter. Nor a rancher. Not a clock.
This change happened just as I began keeping track of his costumes to see if there were a pattern: the days of the week or the phases of the moon.
I am designing an appointment book for the year after next and need copy, so I began using Bottle James: Monday, April 24th, 10 am: B. J. as waiter. Tuesday, April 25th, 2p.m. B.J. as rancher. . .
But before I could discern a pattern, he stopped changing costumes. I thought it might be the weather as it has turned cool in recent days, but on Sunday it was bright and warm and still he came out of the creek wearing nothing special: jeans, a pale blue shirt, tennis shoes. It has been a week with no costumes. He is on the streets more, and in daylight more. No bottle protrudes.
The appointment book is for cat lovers. The beginning of each month has a cat or kitten repeated in a smaller pointillist design in the lower right-hand corner of the verso, so that when you turn to the following week, it is as if the cat is leading you to do so. I am including “cat text” for each month; September is Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats. For a watermark I’ll use cat paw prints, but subliminally, as if they are little feet in a fog.
—Why don’t you follow him? my sister asked. She has stopped by before we go to Meiner’s for lunch. I have heard the Art Institute cheerleaders are going there to cheer Ben Franklin.
—I rather like seeing him as I do, I said. Call Doctor Serendipity.
—Doctor who? asked my sister.
—A joke Hazen used to make whenever there was a fortuitous coincidence, I said. Only it is not just a matter of coincidence. And it is not one Doctor but three. There were camels involved. Possible jail time. A kind of desert scientific method.
—You don’t use Google. How do you find these things?
— I want what I know to find me.
—Are you superstitious? she asked. I think you are.
—I’m cautious about disturbing the universe, I said.
—Have you ever seen Bottle James go into a store on the Plaza?
—I have not, I said.
—I have, she said. Do you want me to tell you about it?
—If you meet, are you going to speak to him?
—What will you say?
—“Bottle James?” “Yes?” ”Remember me?” “Never, five times never.”
I paused. My sister was looking around the apartment for evidence of one of my wives. When I know she is going to stop by, I leave something out, usually a gift that has not migrated to the Blank Apartment. Today, I’ve put out a tin of foie gras.
—Are you going to tell him who you are? Asked my sister. What is this?
—“I’m your ex-roommate,” I’ll say. “ The one who can’t act. The one who got Tina pregnant.” “I thought I got Tina pregnant,” he’ll say. “Maybe,” I’ll say “but according to Tina it was my fault.” ”She was nuts, man. I’m telling you that’s one cherry I wish I hadn’t busted.” “Are you homeless?” I’ll ask.
—What do you have him say to that? my sister said as she studied the foie gras.
—“Bong, Bong,” five times Bong.
—But of course he’s homeless, she said. What is this again?
— French goose liver.
My sister brought the tin over to where I was sitting and put it on the coffee table next to the Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid.
—What’s this about you getting Tina pregnant?
—She said it was my fault even if it wasn’t my sperm.
—She said that?
—A college yearbook of mine, I said.
The Lab Under Siege
Before my aunt and I could swap places, the naked man bent down at the front wheel where, first by trying to use his thumbnail, and then borrowing a hair pin from a girl in the crowd, he started to let the air out of the Cadillac’s tire.
—That’s not fair, Aunt Lillian said. That’s just not fair.
—Trade places with me, I said again.
—Bless you, she said.
Amid all the chaos—Jo’s bullhorn, the chanting mob, the blocked street, the police and their off-again-on-again sirens, the slow burn of tear gas that was being released on the edges of the crowd to the south of us as a kind of protective ring around the lab itself, Amy waving her flag—amid all this, my aunt’s observation of what was not fair must have struck the naked man letting air out of her tires as somehow sensible. Maybe he was stoned.
—You’re right, lady, he said, and stood up.
Naked, he faced us. Saluted. Bowed. He returned the hairpin to the girl from whom he had borrowed it and wandered into the crowd toward Jo. He was very hairy and very well endowed.
—You see, said Aunt Lillian, as she slid over while I climbed first into the back seat and then into the front, if you just remind them of what is fair and what is not fair, good manners resurface. That is the value of good manners. They are always with you, and you can count on them coming to the surface when they are most needed. However, I do think his mother would not be pleased that he’s taken off his clothes. I hope he hasn’t lost them. Or that they get dirty. Somebody had to pay for them in the first place. Probably through hard work.
About this time, a uniformed policeman came up.
—We should get you out of here, Doctor he said, looking at the sticker on the windshield—then at me.
—My husband is in the lab, my aunt said.
—You need to back up, said the policeman looking at the tightly packed crowd in front of us.
Then we heard a siren near the lab.
Muff: Act One, Scene Two
There is a national election coming to the Plaza. I am as political now as I was then; how to describe it: “bemused, concerned, involved, detachment.”
I see myself at Sather Gate, watching: I am more interested in the spectacle of politics than in the politics. Pretty is on a leash sitting beside me. A student named DeSalvio wants us to do something about Ronald Reagan. Neither Pretty nor I know much about Ronald Reagan, but probably something should be done about him. If we don’t watch out, sooner or later he’s going to spray tear gas on the students in Sproul Hall.
—Nail me hide to the shed, Fred, said the guy who thinks I’m Larry.
He came up behind us.
—Where’s Ginsberg? I said.
—Lost, the guy said. My little pledge brother seems to have forgotten his little pledge duty. So we’ll zap the snake on him tonight. In the meantime I’m looking for our doggie woggie. And putting up pictures.
—You’ll find him, I said.
—Do you know there’s a poet who has the same name as Ginsberg? he said.
—He’s right there, I said.
I pointed to Allen Ginsberg.
—No shit, shineola, the guy said. Sort of looks like our Ginsberg.
—If you say so.
Off he walked, calling here Ginsberg, here Ginsberg—and once when he said it loudly, Allen Ginsberg looked away from DeSalvio talking about Ronald Reaganbday2.
—I have decided not to talk to Bottle James, I said to Muff La Rue.
This was the Wednesday after Elaine and I had been at Meiner’s for lunch and heard the Art Institute cheerleaders cheer Ben Franklin: “Rah! rah! At night all cats are gray. Rah, rah!”
Muff has brought daisies. It will be awhile before she trusts herself to buy more expensive gifts. Toward the end, I get champagne. By now there is a mixed case down the hall.
—Who is Bottle James? she said. This is very good wine. Wine has four qualities. Taste, color, smell. I can’t remember the fourth, she said and put a drop on my wrist and leaned across the table and kissed it off. Very good wine, she said.
—He’s my ex-roommate, I said.
—You’ve become a very attractive man, she said. I have been thinking of you ever since last time. It’s not that I do this kind of thing, she said. But I find it very thrilling to be here.
—Like skinny dipping? I said.
—Very much so. She put down her glass, then picked it up again and held it to the light.
When she had arrived, she went into my hallway bathroom and took off her bra so that as she sits with me, I can see the shape of her breasts against what I judge to be a very expensive green silk blouse. Others have done the same thing; one lover left her bra in the bathroom and I put it back the Wednesday she returned. She took it, but said nothing. I liked her silence. Women not only have the most secrets, but the most curious ones.
—Perfume, Muff said as she put a drop of wine in the cleavage of her breasts, mingles with the fragrance of your body, so that every perfume is different because every woman is different. I learned that from a book. I wonder if it is true of wine as well.
—You can learn a lot from books, I said.
—Will you? she said, and put another drop of wine between her breasts, now undoing a button and puckering her lips.
—I’d be delighted.
—Drop by drop.
—I’d be delighted.
—Off my back?
—Who is Bottle James? she said again as she was dressing.
—I wish I knew, I said.
—You’re very. . .
Muff knows the word, and is amused.
Instruction Manual for a Riot
An ambulance was stuck in the crowd. The policeman pushed his way through the demonstrators. We followed slowly in the Cadillac. There were kids shouting and giving him the finger. Somebody threw a book and it hit him on the head, but he kept moving.
—That poor man, my aunt said. I do hope that wasn’t a schoolbook. Some things you should not throw.
A space cleared in front of us as the crowd moved in the direction of the ambulance. Jo was still on the platform. I drove into the opening.
—Be careful not to hit anyone, my aunt said.
I went about twenty yards to a car trapped heading our way; in it was a young couple, their tires flat and the roof and the hood were dented. The woman was hysterical. Her husband—a man about Hazen’s age—was trying to stay calm.
—It’s our baby back there, he said and pointed to the ambulance stopped in front of Mel’s. We are trying to get to the hospital.
I got out and climbed onto the hood of the Cadillac.
—I’ll see if I can get through, I said.
—Oh please, Doctor, yelled the mother. Please don’t let her die. Please Doctor.
—You two get in our car, I said.
I opened the door, putting the mother in the back seat.
—Get behind the wheel, I told the father, and keep inching forward. Follow me.
—Doctor here, I shouted as I start into the crowd. I’m a doctor. Someone up there needs a doctor. Let me through! Doctor here.
I took out my surgical mask and swung it above my head.
—Let him through, people began shouting. Let the doctor through.
—You a doctor, man? said the naked guy. Far out. I’ll fucking get you through. Clear the way. We fucking got ourselves a wow, man, doctor here, he yelled. Clear the way! Doctor here! Doctor here! Really, man!
—I’m a doctor. Let me through.
I had a phalanx of people around me trying to clear a path. The naked man was in the lead. I looked over my shoulder: Jo had gotten off the platform and was coming our way. As was the Cadillac.
—We got a doctor here, said the naked man when we finally arrived at the ambulance.
The driver rolled down the passenger’s side window; there was a nurse. In the rear was a small stretcher.
—Get in, she said and opened the door.
—Go to the back of the ambulance, I told the naked man.
—Can do. Really. Can do. Back door ambulance can do.
—I flooded it, the driver said. Then the sirens ran the battery down. We’re dead meat here.
I climbed between the seats into the back. The baby was blue, but breathing. The nurse said something technical. She put her ear to the baby’s chest. I tell her I’m not a doctor, but that I can get us in the lab where there is one.
—We need to hurry, she said.
I picked up the baby and jumped out the back. The nurse followed me.
— We got a doctor here, said the naked man. We got a doctor with a sick kid. Which way, man? Which way?
—There, I said, nodding toward the front door of the lab.
It was about twenty yards away and ringed by protesters. I looked to see if the hospital would be easier but the crowd was about as thick and it was a hundred yards away.
—That’s enemy territory, said the naked man when he realized I was heading toward the lab. You can’t go in there.
—I can if I want to save this baby’s life, I said.
—I don’t know, man.
—This child’s dying, said the nurse from behind us.
—Out of the way! We got a doctor here, yelled the naked man. Out of the way, and he began to jump up and down. Out of the way! Out of the way!
Ten yards before the door we were stuck. The naked man jumped on the back of some guy in front of us and rode him through the crowd, yelling: Giddy up, man. Giddy up. Coming through with a doctor here. Clear the way! Clear the way! Go horse, go. Fucking go!
The guy who was being ridden got into it and began to snort and whinny. The nurse put one hand through the back of my belt to stay close. When we got to the lab’s door, I pounded on it.
—You work here? said the naked man as he dropped to the ground.
—No use, man, said the guy who was the horse. The pigs got it shut tight. Nobody’s fucking home.
I handed the baby to the nurse and fished in my pocket for my keys. The nurse said something I couldn’t hear. I turned the key, but the deadbolt was locked. I tried Hazen’s Dragnet knock. I turned my key back and forth. Then I did the Dragnet knock again.
—That’s fucking Joe Friday, said the naked man.
The crowd was pushing in on us.
—Stand back, said the naked man. We got a doctor here. Joe Friday the doctor.
—He’s no doctor, Jo yelled from behind. He’s an animal killer!
Hazen opened the door and the nurse with the baby, the naked man, and I pushed through. Hazen slammed it shut and turned the deadbolt.
The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid: Redux
On page twenty-seven of The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid is the chapter: “Pronouncements of the Council of Flaymen.” On the verso is a drawing of the three of us at a golden table; the painting has limited perspective, but a modest three-dimensional quality in imitation of Giotto.
On the table is a straw Chianti bottle. The background is red lettered with the half phrases of song lyrics: “I Don’t Like Anybody Very Much” runs off to one side so that “much” has only its M. A bong is in the upper left hand corner. Hazen is to the right of Beth (who is in the middle), and he is taller than she, and his eyebrows are finely made, as is his nose; he seems to be looking at her, at least obliquely. I am not so detailed, but I am my tall self. I seem to be wearing the same jacket I am wearing when I cross paths with Elaine Robinson. I look like Bill Holden in Sunset Boulevard.
The first sub-section of the “Pronouncement of the Council of Flaymen” is titled “The Mystery of the Dual Nature of Ta-Bid.” Underneath, in Beth’s hand, is written:
It shall be, however, forever established that Ta and Bid were and are and shall forever be a Duality; one of them more or less woman; one of them more or less man; and both of them more or less God. It shall not be permitted to put an s on God.
On the next page, Beth bordered the text with a series of overlapping animals, arranged as if they were in an invisible tree. At the bottom of the tree Pretty is barking. The text reads:
The Wrath of Ta-Bid
There shall be three essential mysteries to Ta-Bid. One: which sex is Ta (more or less) and thus it follows: which sex is Bid, (more or less)? Two: where are Ta and Bid? and Three: if Ta and Bid have sex again, will they turn themselves right side out, and will the world disappear in a torrent of sucked up belly button ganiff? These Mysteries shall be never spoken of by Ta-Bidites or the wrath of Ta-Bid shall be invoked; and that wrath shall be considered the Great Unnumbered Mystery, and also shall not be spoken of—nor could it be. Ever. And Ever.
—Don’t forget semicolons, and colons, Hazen would say when he’d find me typing in my uncle’s office. You can’t have a Bible without semicolons and colons.
—You’ll get your semicolons and colons, I’d say.
—We need irony, too, said Hazen. We can’t have Ta-Bid without irony. That’s when you say something you don’t mean.
In Ta-Bid, it is the semicolon and colon that are the sacred punctuation marks; and it is irony, not parable, that is the emblem of the text.
Professor Gabin observed that we had a number of “internal inconsistencies,” and she wondered if they were intended as “imitations of other religions” or just “carelessness.”
For instance, she observed that Ta-Bid seemed to be a peaceful religion, along the lines of Far Eastern religions, but there was that admonition “do not go in peace”—next to which Professor Gabin had written: “irony?/parody?” She was confused about Ta and Bid turning themselves inside out or outside in, and that “we seemed to be confused as well.” However: “That the world might ‘disappear in a torrent of sucked-up belly-button ganiff’ is tres amusant.” And she liked the way we had divided the sections and subsections of the text with headings instead of numbers. Also, tres amusant.
We got an A for Ta-Bid. Ours was the religion that Professor Gabin copied for the class. She did us the honor of reading parts of it aloud, then asking us questions, questions unlike the ones I get from my Wednesday wives.
—Is it Middle Eastern, this Ta-Bid?
Rachel had stopped by for morning coffee. She is not on today’s list. Her claim was that she wanted to bring by a very fine wine for our “rendezvous de la apres-midi” on “Mercredi.” She has learned that fine wine needs to stand up for “deux jours apres moi visite a toi.”
By then, perhaps she will have learned a bit better French
—Assez-vous she said, as she put the wine bottle on my sideboard.
—And you as well, I said.
Being polite is the best inoculation against other people being hell.
—Ta-Bid is Trans Middle West Coastal, I said.
—How interesting, she said. I have a friend who is into religions. She has five. I don’t remember them all, but she is Christian and Hindu and Buddhist and New Wave. I guess that would be four. Maybe “U-Pan-A-Shad.” I think that’s how you say it. Anyway, I asked her if she was all of these at once because, if you became Hindu, would that mean you couldn’t be Christian? and she said, no, she just adds religions. Is Ta-Bid the religion where they have “auras?”
—No Trans Middle West Coastal religion has auras.
—I didn’t know that, she said. I’m Episcopalian. King James Bible and all. I like the songs.
It will come to pass that the following Wednesday will be our final assignation. We drink her wine—a very fine Bordeaux from a very good year. She emerges from my bedroom with her red boa entangled around her in a very provocative fashion. She has her pleasures with herself that she cannot have with her husband. And it will come to pass that I shall take my pleasures, which in turn will excite her greatly, and lo!, there will be great sighs. However, when we look around, we are both right side out.
I need to find a replacement. Or, more probably, one needs to find me. In the meantime, I can always visit the local university medical center as Mr. Reynard, a man in desire of pro bono treatment.
In my mail today were the keys to Austen. No return address.
Beth: Then, Now, and in the Future
I have had in recent days, a feeling that, one evening, while walking through the Plaza looking for Bottle James, I will see Beth. I have had the feeling repeatedly, as if a small il penso is playing over and over again, refusing to move toward the allegro and the audience’s withheld applause. Her show opens at the Nelson soon.
—I think I will love you when I am forty, Beth said. Maybe it will take until my fifties. Even later.
We were in her apartment. She was sitting in the yellow chair with her sketchbook open. Pretty was with us, sleeping under the table.
—I have kept your letter, I said.
She has been with Hazen and I know it; I saw him in Austen heading up Grove toward the campus as I came down on the 51 bus. This was after Beth put Earl in the hospital, and after we had driven to the Livermore Clinic to see him and there was a blank look in his eyes. He can’t stop a twitch that jerks his head to one side. Then both hands come up in front of him and quiver. I will see that look on the face of Randal McMurphy. It is not indexed in Harrison’s.
—You must think I am very bad treating you like this, Beth said. And very bad not to be loyal to Earl, when you think about all that he has given me. This apartment.
—I didn’t know about the apartment.
—He pays for it, she said. It’s his mother’s money. I’m living here on his mother’s money and balling, as you boys say, Hazen, and treating you badly even talking about it—all on Earl’s mother’s money, and I couldn’t even keep him from getting fucked up. Now what do you think of me?
She was sketching, looking at me, then down at her pad.
—I can’t stay away from you no matter what I think of you.
—That’s not a compliment.
—It turns me into somebody like Jo. I don’t want to be like that to you. I don’t want you to remember me the way you think of me now. That’s the way I think of Hazen now. I want to get over him. I know you can’t understand why any woman would fall for a guy like Hazen. But now that you know about me, how can I understand why you still feel the way you do?
—Love isn’t reasonable. It’s like faith.
—Yes. Yes. I know all that. But I want you and me to be different. Even now I want that. I know I can’t have it, but I want it. Why can’t I have what I can’t have? And don’t tell me sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. I’m not joking here. This is not Ta-Bid. This is me and you. How one day I’ll love you. But now you think I’m a whore. Where will you be?
—Maybe we will never see each other again.
—We will, she said.
—Hazen’s just left?
—I like him too.
She looked up at me, then back down at her sketch pad.
—Someday, she said, I’ll have to fight a crowd of women for you. You’ll be single and stealing wives out from under the noses of dull husbands. I’ll find you in Kansas City or Los Angeles or in New York where you’ll be a famous surgeon, and I’ll knock on your door and I’ll hear a squeal and feet pattering until you peer through one of those tiny glass holes they have back East.
—Will I know who it is?
—Yes. You’ll know. There will be a feeling that I am coming your way. There will be signs. High signs. Back and forth between us over the years. They will gather speed. The speed of light for all I know about such things. I’ll send you a special one to say I’m coming your way. You’ll know it. Give me one back. Tell me how it’s turned out. Tell me all about us. Tell me about yourself before we met. I don’t want to imagine we are lost lovers. Don’t embellish.
—Just the facts? I could tell she was about to smile but she didn’t.
—Yes, she said.
—Words make a life, my mother used to say.
—Then make our life, she said. Do it for me in spite of who I am now. She looked up and held me steady with her gaze. I could not turn away.
—I’ll watch for your sign, I said.
—This is how you’ll look, she said, and held up her sketchpad. Oh, please open the door so I can see that I’ve gotten you right.
A packet of surgical equipment wrapped in scrubs. The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid, The Last Supper Table Cloth and the John the Baptist Walking, Talking Doll, the keys to Austen, but no portrait of myself Beth made then that is how I look now.
The Secret History of Tina
—Do you know what has happened to Tina? my sister asked.
It has been warm enough in recent days for them to slide the windows of ReVerse open. The reception for Beth’s show at the Nelson might be outside.
— I bought her that bus ticket from Oakland to Emporia.
—I mean after she got back? my sister said.
— She returned to her mother’s house, as did I. She had a baby, a girl, named after me.
—I did not know that, Elaine said.
—She’s probably living on the Plaza. Everybody else seems to be.
—Feeling a bit claustrophobic?
Elaine understands—I suspect as well as I do—that my past and my present and my future are not a continuum. The young man my uncle admired in California cannot be paginated in the same gathering with the man of a certain age I am now. In the language of editors, I do not “follow on.” I am Cut and Paste. Redundancy without a motif.
—Do you think I failed to become something I should have become? I asked.
—Uncle Conroy’s son? she said. A medical man for all seasons? Now collecting the honors for a lifetime of work dedicated to the betterment of mankind? Famous among lab coats and nurses? Very famous among nurses. Not wasting your life with Wednesday wives?
—You mean, she said, how is that a young man with such promise, with gifted kindness—yes. . .with. . .well, why not flatter you? But that is the question, isn’t it? How is it that you failed to fulfill your “youthful promise?” How is that you turned out not to be what others wanted you to be. That you are now “arch.” But that then you always—well, almost always—did the right thing. That now. . .
—Something like that, I said. Do you think I have turned out…
—“Lamentable?” she said
She understands I am curious, not vain.
—Yes, I said, thinking of the time my mother used the world in context.
—We all fail to be what we could have been, she said. We all waste our lives and even if we waste only part of it, you get to thinking it was the best part, and if it was the best part then it was all of it. The trick is. . .
—You sound like me talking to myself, I said.
—I’ll tell you something: the reason you’re successful with these women is because they think they’ve failed at something. At marriage. At work. At being a mother. Or not being a mother. At being themselves. That’s what makes them annoyed with their husbands for sitting in the convertible with a bandage on his eye. The Graduate was on HBO the other night. You know how Dustin Hoffman asks Mrs. Robinson to talk about art history and how she keeps saying “what could it possibly matter? What could it possibly matter?” Well, that’s who you’re sleeping with. Women who think even their failures don’t matter.
—I thought I was sleeping with the Elaine Robinsons of the world, now that they are finally bored with the Benjamin Bradocks of the world.
—That too, my sister said.
We were quiet for a moment. I think she is wondering who she is, now that she is wondering who I am.
—And you? Is it fair to ask?
—I have no lovers, she said.
—Not Hazen? She looked around the way she did when Bottle James had passed by. But there were only shoppers.
—In a way, yes. Yes.
She seemed startled at my question. Together we are trying to fill in pages in each other’s blank. I suspect she will change the subject. I would.
—You know what? she said. I think you could live in the house on Lowell, glass globe, Thor and all.
—I doubt it.
—So do I, my sister said. Now that I’ve said it. But that’s why you bought the house. To see if it was possible. To live in the past. Rosetta tells me you’re going to medical school.
—Maybe I want to be a doctor.
—Do you? I’ve been thinking about how you’re not like anyone you admired. Uncle Conroy. Hazen. Beth. Even our parents.
—Who am I? I asked.
—A man in love, my sister said. Who has wasted his life not admitting it.
—Nothing is that simple.
—You’ve made your life here on the Plaza the way you make books. The right detail here. The right motif—is that the word?
—It will do.
—Just the right motif and typeface and paper and binding. Book after book. That’s your life. All motif. No text. Every thing vicarious, now that I looked it up. If you could, you’d probably slip into your book-printing Thor and have a copy made of yourself.
—What’s wrong with that? I said.
—Are you asking because you don’t know, or because you want to know?
—Fair enough, she said. You’ve made a life. That’s different from living one. The man who was in love with Beth Brookings in Berkeley was living a life. Maybe not as a doctor. Maybe not as Beth’s lover. But living it. The man who is still in love with Beth Brookings here on the Plaza has made a life so he won’t have to think about her. What do you suppose all these woman are about? Did you ever make love with Beth? No. And you’re not going to be able to make love with her through your wife-a-week-humping society. Get over it. Not Beth. Don’t get over Beth. In your case, that’s what “getting over it” means: Don’t get over it. Let her be part of you. Lillian has this expression from college: “Don’t go there.” Well, for you, it’s wrong: Go there. Are you “going, going, going” to her show?
—Did you learn all this from afternoon television? I said.
—Now listen here, Mr. Emporia State graduate. Just because I didn’t finish college doesn’t mean I can’t have some thoughts of my own. No, I did not learn this from Television. I am teaching it to myself right now on your behalf. You asked me. . .Oh, never mind.
—I’m sorry, I said.
—I know you are, she said.
—I got the keys to Austen the other day, I said.
—The car we shared, I said.
—Who sent them?
—There was no return address, I said. I thought you might know.
—Maybe Beth, my sister said. Maybe Hazen.
— Or you. Or me.
—In The Graduate there is some kind of car that Dustin Hoffman keeps driving up and down the California coast, she said
—A red Alpha, I said.
—You have a good memory for it, my sister said.
There was silence between us as a waiter came to clear some plates and ask us about dessert.
—I wonder, she said, if you drove Austen around the Berkeley Hills, you could find what has become of you.
—Better our father’s Studebaker around Merriam, I said.
Ginsberg: Not the Poet
—This one’s got to belong to somebody, said the guy who has taken Pistol’s place.
—They all belong to somebody, Hazen said. I gave him to some frat boys last year. I thought they’d take better care of him.
—I can’t understand why nobody came by the pound, the guy said. Usually with these big breeds, the owner will show up.
We put Ginsberg next to Pretty. Even though she wasn’t yet in heat, Ginsberg howled and bayed and scratched the side of the cage between them. The next morning I walked over to the fraternity house.
—I have your dog, I said to the guy who was in American Literature with me.
—Ginsberg? Tie me hide to the shed, Fred. Where?
He called inside to his buddies.
—At the lab where I work, I said. The pound picked him up and delivered him yesterday.
— I knew we should have gone to the pound, he said. All we did was snake my pledge. What the fuck good did that do?
He looked at the guys now standing on the stairs.
—I’ll bring him here later this afternoon, I said.
When I got to the lab, Ursula had Ginsberg on the table with a sodium pentothal needle into his leg. Hazen had walked in with me.
—You both are late, she said. I am vexed.
—I know who owns that dog, I said. The fraternity next to me has his picture up all over the place. See.
I had taken one off the lamppost. I got it out of my jean pocket. Ursula looked at it, then at Ginsberg with his head down and his tongue out because the sodium pentathlon was beginning to work.
—Nothing we can do, Ursula said.
—The fuck there isn’t, said Hazen and pulled the needle out of Ginsberg’s leg.
— Give me that, said Ursula. You with your nasty mouth.
—Call Doctor Kafka, Hazen said as he picked up Ginsberg and hoisted him across his shoulder so his butt was pointed at Ursula.
—You want this dog, said Hazen. You stick your head up his ass and wear him for a hat.
— I am vexed! I am vexed! Ursula screamed as she stalked out of the room.
—Maybe you better let him wake up before you take him to the fraternity, Hazen said handing me Ginsberg
I put him into his kennel next to Pretty. She had come to her door and was looking out. I called her name. She cocked her head.
—At least she can’t get you fired, I said to Hazen when I returned to the OR where he was cleaning the table.
— That’s why I’m going to quit.
—Your dad will protect you.
—Fair should be fair, said Hazen.
—Not always, I said.
—If you can make it so, you ought to. She can’t fire me, so I’ve got to quit.
—Maybe I should call Doctor Freud, I say, trying to lighten the moment.
—Get that little dog of yours out of there, he said. Ursula is on the prowl for trouble, and when I’m gone, you’re trouble. At least your dog is.
That afternoon I took Ginsberg to the fraternity boys. That night I took Pretty to my room. It won’t be long before she goes into heat.
The Way We Are: Wednesday
Elaine has stopped by late afternoon.
—Did I see a Red Boa coming out of the elevator?
—I thought not. Stripper…
—I thought so.
She looked around, then busied herself putting away wine glasses and dishes. There were flowers to rearrange. She looked at her self in the mirror of my television. Then:
—What’s this book you’re writing for “a friend.”
—I wondered when you’d get around to that. And I didn’t say “writing.” I said “designing.”
—On your list the other day it said something about the Blank of Our Book. What’s that?
—You got me.
—Are you writing about her?
—Her, her. You know who I mean. Are you writing a book about Beth?
Elaine went to the table where I keep my list. She studied Wednesday for a moment. Then she unfolded it to see the full week where it said at the bottom: “Finish LUILO.” She refolded the list and sat down at the table.
—You are, she said. You’re writing a book about Beth. About us. About me. About all of us for all I know. Aunt Lillian. Hazen. And if you are there is something you need to know about yourself.
—You’re Robert Redford when he’s Hubble Gardner and has become a writer.
—Not William Holden giving orgasms to Fay Dunaway?
—Have you seen The Way We Were? Probably not. I think it’s too sentimental for you.
—I play it now and then.
—I thought not. But you should. There is scene where Streisand tells Redford that what’s wrong with his novel is that he is too detached from his characters. That he stands back and watches them. That’s what you do. You stand back. You study us.
—You crossed the street to tell me that?
Elaine studied me.
—You’ve seen it, she said.
— “One sip of beer.” “Go get them, Katie.” “You never give up do you? Only when I’m forced to.” See ya, Katie.” “See ya, Hubble.”
Elaine fingered my list.
—Say something more, she said.
—I like the movie the way I like the Plaza. The way I like Picnic even if I am in it. They way I like my books. There is a pleasing…
—Even the book you’re writing?
—I get nowhere with you, she said, and handed me my list. I’ll wash the dishes. But don’t just watch me, you can dry.
The Naked Man Inside My Uncle’s Lab
—Give that man a lab coat, said my uncle.
—Far out, man, said the naked man.
—Are you a doctor? said the nurse to my uncle.
The nurse handed him the baby.
—Get my medical bag, my uncle said to me as they went down the hall to the OR.
There was fierce pounding on the door.
—See who it is, I told Hazen.
—Let her in, I said.
—You’re nuts, said Hazen.
—That way, she won’t stop Aunt Lillian, I said.
By the time I came out of my uncle’s office with his bag, Hazen had opened the door enough to let in Jo.
—Far out man, the naked man said.
—Watch for Aunt Lillian, I said to Hazen as I ran down the hall.
Ursula had put towels on the table where we bleed the dogs. My uncle laid the baby on its back. I handed him his bag. The child was making a rasping noise. With his fingers my uncle probed its mouth. He pumped its chest. Slowly, and with great care. He put his stethoscope on the child’s chest and frowned. He told the nurse where to find an oxygen bottle, and at the same time he asked Ursula to get the laryngoscope one of the doctors used in experiments.
— Go back to my office, my uncle said to me, and if the mother and father come in, keep them there.
—Should I tell them anything?
— Tell them I am a doctor.
When I got up front, the naked man had on a lab coat and was sitting in the lounge with Jo.
—You wouldn’t have any Mary Jane would you? the naked man asked me.
—Any sign of Aunt Lillian? I asked Hazen.
He was standing by the door, and every once in a while he’d open the curtains on the side windows to have a look. You could smell the tear gas, but without Jo at the bullhorn it seemed less like a riot.
—Here they come, said Hazen.
When he opened the door, I could see that the crowd was drifting away. The ambulance was still parked where it had stalled. The father had driven the Cadillac into the lab’s parking lot. He was holding his wife by her arm. Once, she tripped as they came along, but her husband held her tightly. My aunt was close behind. Hazen held the door open for them.
—Doctor, said the young mother. Please.
—Come in, I said.
I showed them into my uncle’s office, passing through the lounge where the naked man and Jo were sitting.
—You wouldn’t have any Mary Jane? said the naked man.
—Where’s Earl when we need him? he said to Jo.
The only place for me to sit was my uncle’s chair.
—Your baby’s with Doctor Watkins, I said.
—What does that mean? said the father.
His wife was looking at me.
—You’re not a doctor. My God, you’re not a doctor.
—No, I said. But you’re child is with a doctor.
—Where? asked her husband.
—In the lab, I said.
In the background we could hear the dogs howling.
—Where are we? the mother said. My god, where are we?
—You’re safe, said Aunt Lillian. And your baby is safe.
She had gotten up and was sitting on the arm of the couch by the mother. Aunt Lillian put her hand on the woman’s shoulder.
— It is true my nephew is not a doctor, she said. But my husband is. He’s one of the finest pediatricians in the world.
Jo was standing in the doorway. She looked first at the husband, then at his wife.
—Where are we? said the husband.
The dogs were starting to calm down and that might have prompted him to ask his question a second time.
—You’re in my husband’s research lab, Aunt Lillian said.
—This is not a hospital? said the mother. I want to see my baby.
—This is not the hospital, said my Aunt. But my husband is a very fine doctor and if need be, he will arrange to have your baby taken over to the hospital. It is just across the parking lot.
—This is a place where they torture animals, said Jo from the doorway.
She bumped into my uncle as she turned to walk out of his office.
Beth’s curator called to say the van transporting The Painter’s Room has arrived. She would like me to come over while they set it up. Her suspicion of me and its subsequent intrigue has gotten the best of her. We are to meet in her office to study the diagrams and photographs, then go to where The Room will be displayed. She has also told me how much she likes the post card series and the poster.
—The signed posters have come back, she said as we were sitting in her office.
—I have forgotten about the signed ones, I said. Remind me.
—The numbered limited edition we had printed. Letterpress. The rights were in your contract. You used the extra off-cuts for the. . .
—Yes, I said.
—We had Ms. Brookings sign them. Except for number one, which we are giving the patron of the show and forty-four, which I am keeping for myself, you may have any number you wish. There are one hundred.
—Let me think about it, I said.
I resisted the temptation to ask after number forty-four, although among recent temptations, this one was compelling. As was the woman. Her age?
Twice during the week that Elaine was in California we went to Beth’s apartment, once for dinner with Hazen—after which the three of them went off together and left me at the lab until very late—and once without Hazen, and I left Beth and Elaine together while I met Hazen at the lab. Other times I would take Elaine with me to classes—or to the lab. Another time the three of us, Hazen, Elaine, and I drove to Half Moon Bay. Once we went to the No Name Bar; that time was with Beth and not Hazen. The three of them went to San Francisco to see the seals around Fisherman’s Wharf and ride the trolley cars. Before Elaine flew home, the triangle among us had become an interlocking geometric painting. And Jo had gotten her abortion, and I had paid the bill.
—Did you arrange it? Elaine said to me as I was taking her to the airport.
She turned her head toward the window on her side of the car. It was the Cadillac.
—I’m going to marry Gerhard, she said.
—Do you want me to come to the wedding?
—There will be no wedding. Just a marriage. I’ll write everyone afterwards.
—Will you write me? I said.
—For the fun of it, yes. I’ll send it to that bookstore.
She did not answer.
—What men don’t understand, my sister said as we were standing in line for her to board the airplane, is that women can be in love with a man and not like him the way you like friends. Gerhard will make a good father. Hazen would have been…
—You don’t love Gerhard?
—My hope is that not loving him all my life will not keep me from liking him all my life. Beth and I have talked about Hazen and we understand.
My sister did not answer.
A few weeks later at the City Lights Bookstore, I got the following letter from Elaine, reproduced on what must have been an early Xerox machine. My copy had the IBM typewriter pica font smeared in a number of places, as if someone had tried to pull the paper through before it was ready.
I’m married. I know! I know! It is a surprise even to me. But when love strikes you gotta strike back. His name is Gerhard Muir and no, he is not German. He’s American like Apple Pie. He wants to be in Business and he says we can live anywhere I want to. As he graduates this spring we’ll come back to Kansas and meet everyone. He’s from Boston.
At the bottom of my copy my sister had written in hand: Sent one of these to Beth. Don’t you just love her apartment?
It was on this trip to the bookstore that I found an envelope addressed to: “The Doctor of City Lights,” and inside was a signed holograph of “America.”
Have you seen it? My sister said. She has gotten the announcement of Beth’s show, a booklet of a flyer they send to patrons. This one is especially well designed, using for the cover the off-cuts of the poster so that, while no two covers are alike, all are alike because they show some part of Beth’s apartment.
—Have you seen her room?
Inside are listed the events to which my sister and Gerhard have been invited, including a “ pre-viewing” of The Room, into which the patrons—but not the general public, it is understood—will be allowed. Had I seen the text before it went to press I would have pointed out that “viewing” was a bit funereal.
—I have been invited to have a look, I said.
—For once I believe you. Why not?
I had no answer.
—Do you want to see her Room? the curator had asked.
—Thank you, I said. Some other time if you don’t mind.
—Would you like to join me for lunch? Do you know ReVerse?
—How about I fix us lunch at my apartment? Wednesday?
After I said it, it didn’t sound like me.
An Epistolary of Life and Death
Uncle Conroy died on my birthday. Aunt Lillian wrote with the details:
“Your uncle was stricken with a heart attack and we could not get him down the hill because the great rains we have had flooded the roads with the water running everywhere and I could not get out because of it and the ambulance could not get in so we carried him down the hill on a gurney, which is like a stretcher. There was some misunderstanding and they took him to the Children’s Hospital instead of the regular hospital and your friend Harold saw him there in the hallway of the emergency room while they were trying to get him help, either by taking him where he should have gone in the first place or to get his friend Doctor Reed to come over. You remember Doctor Reed? He was the one we had dinner for when he won the Nobel Prize and you made that joke about sometimes Kansas is something and sometimes it isn’t, but I can’t remember now what it was that is or isn’t.
Anyway, what a good friend Doctor Reed has been all these years to us and now to me, and his wife as well, although I think she is a little odd, don’t you think so? Conroy died at the Children’s Hospital before anyone could do anything about it. I was with him. He would have wanted it that way. He told me maybe an hour before he died as we were taking him down the hill (that would have been more than an hour now that I think of it), that he felt you would have made a very good doctor. But that he was not disappointed in you for not being a doctor. He didn’t say that part about not being disappointed as we were carrying him down the hill. I added that on my own because that’s how I know he felt about you because we talked about it several times. He liked you and so do I.
I am sorry he died on your birthday because I know how much you liked him and now every birthday will not be the same. He was cremated and we had no service for him except at the lab where Harold has some experiments because he is next door at the Hospital as the chief of surgery. There was also that girl you dated once, the one with the lovely face with freckles that has that wonderful smile, not the one who caused so much trouble. Harold’s father told me she is a painter and a famous one. I have Conroy’s ashes.”
Two years later Aunt Lillian died, but not before being admitted to the clinic in Livermore, California, down the Bay from San Francisco. Ursula had called because Aunt Lillian had not been seen for days and they were afraid. When I tried to call her myself, I got no answer. I knew where she hid the key, so I asked Ursula if she’d check to see what had happened.
Aunt Lillian had been drinking steadily and was in a stupor, wandering around the house. Ursula drove her to Livermore the next day. When I got there, Aunt Lillian said:
—They told me I am not crazy because crazy people are happy and I am unhappy. I said they would be unhappy too if their husband had been Conroy Watkins and he had died. I would rather be crazy than unhappy. If I die you may have the Cadillac. I’ve put Conroy’s ashes in the trunk. His medical bag too. Take it with you now. And the big red medical book he wanted you to have.
My aunt and I were sitting on a bench in the front yard of the clinic. It was cool and dry, and there was that scent of eucalyptus. It would be a good day to dive for abalone.
—What nice friends you had when you were here, my aunt said. Even if some of them were hippies. I suppose there were lots of hippies among the young in those days. And agitators. My, how many agitators we had in Berkeley. Remember that naked man who danced on the Cadillac and put dents in the hood?
—And we couldn’t get the insurance company to pay for it because Conroy insisted on telling the truth, and the insurance man said he could not pay for damage that was done in a riot, but if Conroy would just say a vandal did it or a hail storm did it even if we didn’t have any hail like you do in Kansas, then the insurance would cover it. But Conroy wouldn’t lie. Did you know about that?
—I did not.
—So many were drug addicts, Aunt Lillian said and looked into the trees where a pair of doves had settled.
—I was not one of them.
—I am glad you told me, she said. Have you seen that lady friend of yours?
—She’s not the one who started the riot. Not her. I’m sure she’s sweet in her own way. But the other one. Your friend’s girlfriend.
—I thought she was Beverly.
—Have you seen her?
—Somebody told me she paints these murals you see on the sides of buildings.
—Conroy told me she painted that one of the little sports car you see when you come into the ChildrenHospital. The driver looks like you.
—I always liked that painting. That wall used to be blank, and I thought it would be nice if there could be something there. Not something medical. Or even flowers. But something about getting out of the hospital. When I saw that little sports car with those three young people driving by the ocean, it made me happy, and I knew it would make other people happy, too. Although I don’t think it’s very safe to have one of those young people sitting up on the back like he is in the painting. But maybe that can be changed now that we have a law about safety belts.
A nurse came into the yard and I understood we should go inside. When Aunt Lillian and I were in the hallway, she got confused and said goodbye to me using my uncle’s name, then corrected herself without embarrassment. The nurse looked familiar.
—On Conroy’s desk is a small book he wanted you to have, Aunt Lillian said by way of parting. It is from when he practiced in Galveston. I should have mailed it to you before.
—I saw it, I said.
—Please take it with you.
Ever since my uncle’s death, I had been managing my aunt’s affairs, and so I stopped by the clinic’s business office to assure them that the bills would be paid and that I would make the arrangements for my aunt’s care after she was released. As I was about to leave the nurse who had taken my aunt to her room met me in the hall and we walked along toward the front door.
—Was your aunt’s husband Conroy Watkins, the doctor? she asked.
I could not place her.
—You wouldn’t know this but your uncle saved my daughter’s life.
I realized who she was.
—He just did, she said.
—His research saved many lives.
—Take care of my aunt, I said.
—What became of your daughter?
—She died for other reasons. An accident. Not really.
From outside I heard a horn honk in a familiar pattern, then someone calling my name. I looked at the nurse to see if she had recognized me. Apparently not.
—I’m sorry, I said.
—I’ll take care of your aunt, she said.
I opened the door and she went into the sunshine. I walked back down the hall and out into the lot where I had parked the Cadillac.
When I left California I took my uncle’s medical bag on the airplane with Harrison’s inside. I mailed his notebook to myself, thinking it would be pleasing to get a package from my past. It arrived a few days after I got back. There was no return address.
Principles of Medicine
—I like it, Hazen said. I like it when they think I’m an intern at Mel’s just because I’m wearing scrubs and a surgical mask. I’ll like it even more when I’m the real thing. In my mind, I’m a doctor.
We were in my uncle’s office one Saturday. All morning, we had bled dogs.
—You’re pretending, I said. Those clothes are a costume. My roommate in Kansas used to wear the costumes of the plays he worked on. But that didn’t make him a salesman. Or a king. You’re pretending to be a doctor. So am I. When I think about it, I’m embarrassed.
—You become what you pretend to be, said Hazen. If you don’t pretend, you don’t become. Do we really need to call Doctors Camus and Sartre to get a diagnosis? Comprenez vous?
—No, I said.
Hazen looked at me. This wasn’t the first time since the incident at my uncle’s house that I’d made a point of not knowing what he was talking about. But it might have been the first time I’d had enough nerve to challenge his assertions.
—You don’t like it, do you? he said.
—I don’t know, I said.
—What’s the problem? he said.
—Then it follows as night follows day that you should like medicine, Hazen says. Death concentrates the mind. Call Doctor Johnson.
—Can you tell me the breeds of dogs we killed today? Even their markings? I said.
—Cages fifty one, fifty two, fifty three, and fifty five, says Hazen. Fifty-four growled at me.
—How about the beagles?
—What about them?
—We’re starving them. At least fifty-one through fifty-five minus fifty-four are going quickly. We’re starving the beagles.
—Yes, said Hazen.
—Aren’t you going to tell me it’s for the ultimate benefit of mankind?
—Because I don’t like clichés. Alliteration, yes. Semicolons, colons; mais oui.
—Tell me something…
—That the unexamined life is worth living, he said.
—What does that mean? I said.
—Look, he said. We’re not a bunch of hoods here. We’re not wearing leather coats and riding motorcycles and burning rubber in drag races. We’re not James Dean. We’re not Earl with his bong. We’re not doing Love-Ins in People’s Park. We like poetry and balling and beers, sure. But we’re not fucked up so we’re not fucked.
—Was Jo wrong?
—That she balls everybody and his sister? No. About the riot? Yes.
—Because I’m right. Somebody’s got to be right. We’re right. We’re in “good-guy” costumes, he said and pulled the lapel of his lab coat. We’re White-Hat cowboys. Look around. See all these books in your uncle’s office? See these plaques? Those are White-Hat walls. That’s a White-Hat desk. And down the hall is a White-Hat lab and on either side are White-Hat dogs doing White-Hat work by getting bled to death. Even Ursula is a White-Hat. She may have a black heart, but she’s wearing a White-Hat.
—I thought you didn’t like her.
—I don’t, but what she’s doing trumps who she is. We’re all in a good-guy medical movie. It runs ninety minutes and I’m thirty minutes into it. Get yourself a movie. This isn’t Ta-Bid. This is life. If it feels good driving a bus, then get the uniform out of the costume closet. If it feels good reading a dictionary and writing Ta-Bid, then you don’t need a costume. But you still need an act. Me, I like my white coat.
—I thought you were not going to tell me that starving the beagles. . . .
—How am I to know what’s for the “betterment of mankind?” Maybe one day Doctor Cody will find a cure for infant intestinal blockage and she’ll save the life of some nut who takes a Thompson sub machine gun out of an Al Capone movie and shoots a bunch of kids in a school yard. Or maybe my father’s experiments will lead to prolonging the life of a woman who is carrying a mutant gene that turns you blind, and every child she gives birth to will pass it on, and we’ll have blindness all over the Western Hemisphere. Too many for even Jesus to cure. But while he was at it, why didn’t he just cure blindness and put ophthalmologists out of business? What do I know?
—I tend my own garden. I look at the world up close and personal: I see us testing hairspray. Your uncle working on nutrition experiments. Ursula checking on us. Bleeding numbers 51 through 55, minus 54, so we can get a decent heart-lung machine for kids. My father getting the Nobel Prize. My mother and your aunt raising money for the art museum and the symphony. Two White-Hat girls in Two Women for the Arts, a film about not taking the last cucumber sandwich off the plate. Beth making paintings. The three of us in Austen. The No Name Bar. Tom Lehrer. Joan Baez. It doesn’t get any better. This is the best of all possible worlds because it is the only possible world.
—But. . .
—Yes, yes, yes, Hazen went on before I could object. We’re not supposed to think that way. Not our generation. Not with Castro. Nixon. Not with Vietnam. Johnson. MacBird. Reagan. Not with Jo jumping up and down about my father because he killed ten million bunny rabbits or whatever she claims. Not with pigs with guns and tear gas and everybody over thirty an asshole. Not with history. All of history to hear my European History Professor tell it. Not with Allen Ginsberg and the best minds of his generation gone mad. But let me tell you something: Ginsberg is a White-Hat poet because he’s better than what he sees. What he sees doesn’t drag him down. He’s got his act. His shtick. And it’s not somebody else’s shtick. I want to be the Allen Ginsberg of doctors. I want to believe in myself the way he believes in himself. And I’m getting there.
Hazen looked into his coffee cup.
—The No Name Bar, he says. White-Hat Bar. Mort Sahl. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Allen Ginsberg. Doctor Doyle. Me. You.
—Don’t you have second thoughts?
—I’ve got my lines memorized, said Hazen. Your problem is you don’t have a sticht. Tres mal. The curtain is going up. And someday, down.
Our Blank de Blanche: Design Proposal of The Penultimate
Title: Oh, Please Open the Door So I can See that I’ve Gotten You Right
A. Folio. Gravure.
B. Text: A Serendipitous arrangement of cut and pasted epistolary texts with photographs (e.g. Turtle on the Way, Ginsberg, Ferlenghetti, DeSalvo, Nixon et. al.), paintings, and illustrations from Ta-Bid note books.
C. Type Face: IBM pica typewriter ball.
D. Cover: Leather with two recessed squares for “Of a Certain Age” embossed portraits.
F. Two copies.
— 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.