On the same day that Gerri is having half her liver removed and my twenty-year friendship with Goli is coming to an end, Caroline gives birth to a girl; to Gigi.
At Stockton I run into a former student. He says, “I heard Gerri was sick,” and I explain. He does not look at me while I am relating the prognosis and explaining the course of treatment (surgery; six weeks for the liver to regenerate; six months of chemo); he looks sideways and down at the ground. “She’ll be ok,” I tell him. Joni calls later to report that the surgery had gone better than expected; that Gerri might be released on Saturday and not next Tuesday as was first thought.
Joni says: that what they took from Gerri was the size of a nectarine; a deadly nectarine. Like defusing a bomb, they took it carefully from my friend, and patted themselves on the back when the work was done.
And then: this thing with Gol happened. I write to Linda: Tonight, Goli and I had a falling out. I fear it is irreparable, perhaps. Perhaps she has become a toxic asset herself [as she used to manage]. We just have different ideas about the world: we look outside and see different worlds. I am disgusted by what she sees, and I think she must think what I see is a naive version of things (too idealistic, perhaps). So I just –– told her that, so I didn’t end up hating her, I couldn’t talk to her for awhile. This has been building for several years now: ever since she “retired” to sit around on her gold investments, savagely protecting her way of life by shoving the weak on to the pyre in her place, I think. So I told her I didn’t think I could talk to her for awhile: for a few months or a few years. Maybe forever.
(“So that I don’t end up hating you, you see: and so, goodbye.”)
The doctors grab onto the tumor and wrest it from the host. Is that tumor a part of us, then (homegrown), or just a foreign entity that takes up unlawful residence? (And when did this thing inside me turn into something else, into something hostile? Was it insidious, always there; or were there environmental factors that triggered its malignant genesis? –– the recession maybe; when you left the hedgefund after the economy had collapsed?) But what is done must be done: it is survival. And when it is done, we are weak; exhausted.
Caroline texts early in the morning to tell me the news: Will save you the horror story details! I have been in the hosp. since monday. @ 11:07 tonight, gigi katherine l–– was a successful vaginal birth! she’s perfect!
I call her and she says they were about to perform a c-section when Gigi, determined, pressed her head out into the world, and the midwife said, “Are you ready to push?” and Caroline pushed. And then it was done. And she was here. And she was perfect.
To Linda: I’ve been thinking about Caroline and the new baby and have been overwhelmed with a happiness –– I don’t even know why (the world seems so wicked anymore); somehow, though, a new baby still seems to offer up a hope for something, for something greater than ourselves even…
And Linda, she writes, Mary Oliver says it best in her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
…you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
My sister has moved to Stabbytown, I remember writing to Elizabeth. She has taken two small rooms in a row house on Christian Street. She is living with musicians. My mother prays for her daily.
That same year, my sister came to visit me in London, where I was studying. She assured me that the crack addicts only shoot at each other and you just needed to know which streets to walk down and which ones to avoid. “I love Philly,” she admitted. “Tell mom not to worry. You will tell mom not to worry, won’t you?”
And I did. But two years later my sister was moving out to L.A., and I was telling our mother, Pray harder, mother.
IN LONDON (August 11, 2011)
This week, the week the riots erupted, I can’t stop singing The Smiths.
Panic on the streets of London,
Panic of the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself…
My friends in Hackney send out flares on Facebook. My friend’s husband calls for the GMQ hoodie mobs to disperse, insisting ––
This is terrorism. This is war. If you are wearing a hoodie out there tonight you are a target, let’s just hope you find that bullet with your name on it.
This is not the London I knew.
The London I knew was always like an old man: an old man constantly trying on new ways. I would sit, in my tiny room at Langton Close, and read and write and go out with my Hackney friend to the corner pub. It was all so quiet and civilized. There is, for everyone, as someone once said, a city which represents one’s interior state. I thought for me that, that place was London –– just as for my sister it must be Philly.
But now the rioters erupt inside of him like a cancer. They burn down his organs and blush the broken capillaries of his usually stolid countenance. How long had it been growing, this disease inside of him? Had it been there even the year I was living there, while I was laughing it up in the pub? (Yes, I’m sure of it now.) “There’s going to be riots, there’ll be riots,” said one man after the youth club closures, a week before. Austerity measures –– you understand.
Now horders smash into an affluent restaurant in Notting Hill and rob the patrons.
A Victorian furniture store in South London is burned.
At a different time and in a different city, a woman once said: Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop. (As written by a man living in the Capital.)
Baseball bats are selling out on Amazon UK as the citizens arm themselves. How strange, I think; baseball bats.
Could life ever be sane again?
IN PHILADELPHIA (August 9, 2011)
Karen and I travel through violent rain up the Expressway. Her cousin has just returned from South Africa. We are going out. It’s a Tuesday in the summer. We’re going out. “I hope we don’t encounter any flash mobs,” I say, lightly. We drive through flash floods to get to Philly, my sister’s City of Brotherly Love. My sister always did choose boyfriends who were mangy and somewhat troubled. Still, unlike her ex-boyfriends, I now see what she sees in this place. She is up in the Hudson Valley but still keeps a room for herself in a house in West Philly, “the Cambridge of Eastern Pennsylvania.” I see it now, little sister, though it took awhile… As Karen and I sit at St. Stephen’s Green, sipping pints. The weather, after the deluge, is so clean.
The weekend before, of the flash mobs, the Mayor had said: “They’re lawless. They act with ignorance. They don’t care about anybody else, and their behavior is outrageous. Well, we’re not going to tolerate that.” Curfews have gone into effect. Freud reminds us: “When individuals come together in a group all their individual inhibitions fall away and all the cruel, brutal and destructive instincts, which lie dormant in individuals as relics of a primitive epoch, are stirred up to find free gratification.”
The rain returns. There will be no flash mobs, only flash flooding, tonight. Karen and I rush from Spring Garden Street to The Dandelion, an Englishy pub on 18th and Sampson. There, Karen’s cousin meets us, and we have shandies & such. There is some talk of the violence, both here and abroad. Everyone in the world, it would seem, is angry. Even the earth itself is angry, and two weeks later will send earthquake, hurricane, and mudslides to try to destroy us. No such luck, and after the hurricane: So much for that!
One rioter reports: “No one has ever given me a chance. I am just angry at how the whole system works.”
We don’t need Mommy Earth. We don’t need mere Mommy. We will buy our bats and tear each other apart ourselves: we will do it ourselves.
In Los Angeles, in 1965, following five days of rioting in the Watts neighborhood, a commission formed to investigate the disturbance published a report, insisting at one point, “It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens.”
So much for that.
Dad says: the jerks next door moved out. They left their junk on the curb.
I look at the barricade: evicted mattresses piled up, getting wet in the rain; mattresses stained with summer sweat and suntan oils where the surfer boys would pass out after endless days spent at the beach and half-naked nights spent on the porch drinking, when they would scream to people on the street, “I take it up the ass!” Furniture: high chairs with palm tree patterns, a bureau; home appliances: a vacuum cleaner. How often did the surfer boys keep house, I wonder. I imagine the little blond one in a moment of domestic servitude, vacuuming in his slouchy board shorts, unsure about what he is doing even. Turn it on. Turn it on and it goes. Just pass it over the dirt. Over the spilled spliff. Over the cereal bobs. Suck it up. Suck it up and see.
The porch, which once was a mess with a big gas grill and dead beer bottles and surf/skate boards and towels and cast-off clothes, now is nothing. It looks so clean; so clean and peaceful. So empty and clean. The end of their endless summer. The sense of an ending. And where did they end up, I wonder. Where: like convicts taking off one afternoon (they would have slept in, after all; never get up before noon, unless it was to get in a quick surf, and then go back to bed), just throwing everything out the window, off the porch, getting into one of their trucks blinded with the Billabong stickers in the rear windshield, and then gone. The surfer boys, who must now have to return to the world of shoes and shirts (maybe late for their Return), now do they enter the world that I know. Sometimes I would see them on the porch and think, “That was never my life,” and “I was never that young,” and not in a regretful way, just in a way that made me realize, “I was always too old to play as kids play. To party like that. To have that life. To want it, even.”
One imagines, though, seeing all of the exfoliated refuse shed like an itchy skin, sloughed off onto the sidewalk, about their life; about their inner lives. There must have been something more beating beneath the taut, tanned torsos next door. There must have been some fleshier truth there. One looks at the chairs and the mattresses and the vacuum cleaner. One looks closer. Squinting a bit.
One imagines and…
On Monday mom goes in for what I refer to as her “boob job.” The next day she gets a call back: something suspicious with her Mommyography. This causes much concern for the family. Mom is unable to sleep the night before her second appointment, which is on a Friday.
Meanwhile, the debt crisis is –– well, catastrophe is averted! for now. (“Wake me when we are all finally bankrupt.”) Aunt Margy will get her social security check. She will be able to eat, at least this week. How many more weeks of food will there be?
Life becomes more and more desperate for the living. The images of starvation on t.v. ––
(Amanda texts: “I’m engaged! Call u soon!”)
“Where is the honest to god rock bottom?” one must wonder. “How can anyone not be made with desperation?” What is there left but to –– run away and start a new life? Maybe that is just what Caroline is doing: starting a new life inside of her, fostering in her womb a new world in a child. What is it that will be my child? I wonder; knowing, I know. So why not just do it already?
(And Amanda –– starting a new life, too.)
On Friday, the doctor reveals the confusion: calcium deposits! Mom nearly collapses with relief. She dodged another bullet, she says. This one more time. But how many more times can we just dodge the bullet –– when the gun is already loaded and cannot be unloaded? Eventually it must fire. Eventually.
And on that day children…
At first one just sees one ant; but then another; and another.
It is the same with the zombies. There is no one else around, outside on the streets, which is how I know they have been taken. But how bad is it? Is it like the ants which, sometimes, when ignored, seem to just go away?
A zombie is on the back porch. I must change into sensible shoes before making my escape. I lock the bedroom door, which I am happy has a lock. It takes me quite a long time to decide on the right shoes. By now, the zombie is right outside the door.
I open up the window. I climb onto the roof.
Up here, one can see –– the entire red bloodred sky a mess of tornout viscera, hanging above the world: a patient eviscerated upon a table.
Eliot. Elllliott. Eliot-el-elliott.
I run across rooftops in the zombie playground. I take the high road. Everyone else is left low. So lifeless and low.
The last in the Grace Kelly-Hitchcock series at the Arts Center is Dial M for Murder. Thirty minutes in, Caroline slides in next to me, just come from her latest doctor’s appointment, while the two men are plotting the wife’s murder: how it must be done and why. She has appointments all the time now (Caroline). After class and before yet another, she stops into the law office on Friday to see me, to have lunch, and to complain about how her body is not her own anymore. It has been rented out to a noisy tenant, like those surfer boys next door. She can’t wait for the end of the summer: for the eviction. “I fart all the time,” she limns. “I never used to fart before. I used to pride myself on my not-farting.”
The boys next door hang out half-naked on the downstairs porch after spending all their days surfing, and all their nights drinking. A fussy old lady comes into the law office before Caroline, to bitch. “Has anyone else complained about them?” she wants to know. “They’ve been vomiting into my yard. My husband –– he’s just had surgery. I can’t sleep. I’ve called the rental agency, but they won’t call me back.” I tell the woman I will make a note that she has called. A few hours later, through the blinds I can see them emerge, all glistening flesh like the vampires in the Twilight movies…
On Friday night, after locking up the office (all of the lawyers are away: my mom and dad in Hudson visiting my sister; his partner off on a spa afternoon with a state judge), I take my mom’s convertible over the bridge to Somers Point to attend a gallery reception. I think of Anne: in June, I drove to New Haven, and then with her up to Boston for a wedding. (With the top down, the whole world is yours, to be played with and tossed aside.) At the gallery, the porch is overflowing with mismatched characters from many of the stages of my life. I find Joni and Gerri on the patio. “I’m just going inside a moment,” I explain. The gallery itself is a furnace, all the artwork thrown into this kiln to be melted down (one might think), to meld together into some new life risen like a savior’s bread when the buzzer sounds; devoured by dogs. Some friends of mine (of my parents) are welcome distractions from the temperature, but after talking a few minutes, I escape back outside, where there is a coy yet sometimes willing breeze.
The reading of four poets commences. I stare at my friend Gerri standing on the porch, her gray hair pulled back into calculated serenity, and smile. Afterwards, we go to Joni’s condo that overlooks the water, where there are boats. We drink wine and talk about literature and college. The next day, I think of this year at school, and recommend to myself a new course. This year will be a vengeance, I have decided. I will strap myself to the college, but. When I go this time, I am gone, and I will not (will never) come back again. (I want them to hear this. I want them to know this and to be ashamed.)
For when the heat breaks, there is usually a terrific thunder. This is how it shall come to pass.
I am feeling angry, so go over to my parents’ house yesterday morning. After venting, my mom looks out the window at her garden. “I’ve decided I’m going to let it all die,” she says, with sweet bitters in her mouth. “I water. I’m sick of watering. It’s just too hot. If these plants don’t have the gumption to survive, then let them die. The basil looks like it’s surviving. Everything else… And the grass. I want to just get brick everywhere. Everywhere brick. We can’t afford to waste water on this anymore.”
Yes; let us pave over everything that dies; everything that cannot handle the heat. Let us pave it all over into something clean and dead. One feels this way in the heat. In the heat, at the end of July.
Caroline and I catch To Catch a Thief on Monday at the Arts Center. “My grandmother used to say, ‘Grace Kelly is someone who doesn’t sweat,'” Caroline says. We are not yet sweating ourselves (…though we will be by Thursday). On Tuesday, we meet Karen for lunch at Mosaic. Karen is taking a pottery class. She comes to lunch speckled in the day’s clay. Her teacher says: “The clay doesn’t care about you. But you must control the clay and not allow the clay to control you.” We eat jerk chicken and rice & peas and sweet plantains and cool, unsweetened iced tea. These are the last cool days ever. On Wednesday, as Karen and I drive to the Union game in her Jeep Wrangler, with all the windows open, we can sense that It is coming. The heat doesn’t care about you. We stand in the parking lot drinking Anchor Steam and Summerfest beers, long after the official start of the match against Everton, and leave the stadium not too long after the half. There is still no score when we leave, but later we find out that the Union has won (the Union have won). On Friday, after work, dad and I drive down to Avalon to pick up his pants from the haberdashery there. The heat index is 115-120°. We are in the oven now, thrown into the kiln (the kiln doesn’t care about you) being cooked, and who knows what we will look like when this is all over. “Sea Isle is a strange town,” my father says as we drive down through the shore towns; I am wont to agree with him. Norway is struck by a bombing and mass shooting; we listen on the radio as Obama announces that the debt talks have broken down. “How can anyone support the Republican party?” my dad says. My Libertarian friends on Facebook rile me up again. (I find Libertarians insufferable: I’m sorry but I do.) By Saturday I have had enough of It all: of the heat, of the news, of Libertarians, of the tourists, of my car as the air conditioning compressor breaks again. I want to just leave my hot car in the middle of the street and walk away.
I want to just walk away from it all.
My ears have filled up with wax to drown out the sirens’ song (it often happens in the heat). Plug your oarsmen’s ears with beeswax kneaded soft; none of the rest should hear that song. But what song am I so afraid of, sailor? I dig at the wax with my nail but make no progress. I am deaf. I am the walking drowned.
One spring, I got a ringing in my right ear so intense, I thought: “This must surely be a brain tumor.” I was young then, and a beautiful fool. I decided I would, after seeing the doctor and touching upon the diagnosis, go into my class of beautiful, young things, tell them I was dying, that I was quitting teaching to travel the world before the Silence fell. How would they feel? I would tell them not to cry for me. (But in the phantasy I imagined them crying for me.)
The doctor said, “Not a brain tumor. Wax. Big ol’ ball of it. Ye’ll need ta soften it up first before we can extract it proper. Use these drops. Come back in a few days.”
But wax? But from where? Have I flown too close to the sun again, father?
A few days later I returned to the office, held a cup up to my ear as the gruff doctor squirted warm water into the canal. The wax ball dislodged, dropped into the basin like a piece of waxen ear-fruit (kerplop!).
He smiled: “Yer can keep it if ya like. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!“