Moments before my mother died—her face suddenly angelic and bright—she spoke to me about my work, told me she was proud of it, and then her voice grew soft, just a brush of air over her lips, barely audible as I leaned close, tilting my head and looking out the window at the sky, which at that time of morning was a dull blue you see only in the Midwest, tapering off into a flat horizon, and she was whispering the title of my newest book, but it wasn’t the right title, it was the title of a play by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, and rather than correcting her—which would’ve gone against something, eaten up too much time, because there was a rattle in her throat that my sister, who’d been through this before with my father, told me meant the end was near—I simply nodded and said, Yes, Mom, the book’s coming out, and let it sit between us, and then she passed a few minutes later, and we were there holding her hand and feeling the entire world suck into that instant—I mean it was purely physical and actual, that sensation of everything rushing into that space, into the room—and then she was gone, and you could see it somehow in the radiance of her face and the placidity and empty gesture of her mouth around her teeth, and she left this world, I realized then, believing that I had dreamed up Willy Loman, had offered the universe that piece of theater, which, later, when I tried to sort through how it felt to be the author of that great work for all eternity, floating into the ether of the idea of heaven, made complete sense to me because I’d always thought that one scene in the play—when Charley says to Willy that what he did to create a son, Bernard, who was a successful lawyer arguing a case before the Supreme Court, was to not care too much, to not care the way Willy cared—mirrored how I sometimes perceived my parents in a certain respect, because they let the facts of their tragic kids eat away at them, something like that, but the important thing is that my mom went off thinking that I was someone I am not, and so, to some small extent, I, too, created Willy Loman and set him into the turmoil of his family and imbued him with that desire to be well-liked and to sell his wares by one means or another, until he was too tired and burned out to keep going, and the bright, bright light of the oncoming car tore into him forever just as the light left my mom’s eyes that morning while I stood over her in tears.
My father had congestive heart failure and was in the hospital for days while the drugs he took purged him of water so that he’d get up again and again in the night to pee, grunting himself awake while I sat in a chair with my legs extended into darkness. He was a man unhappy, naturally, with the possibility of death, and all grace—such as it is—had fallen to the wayside as he’d curse and then even explain his cursing, saying things like: That’s just my way of expressing myself in this situation. A man of God, a former minister, he voided God from his talk, and never once, as I imagine he had before becoming ill, prayed or spoke of the power of prayer. God was reserved as a simple, blunt profanity as he stood over the toilet and dribbled into the bowl. Five days, my sister and I spotted each other by his bedside until finally, on that bright summer morning, he was discharged, after a long, painful process of getting dressed, pulling on his pants—with my help, and a groan—and then standing up and flopping down into the wheelchair. There was something incredibly lonely inside that moment—the squeak of the wheels on the waxed floor, the feeling of resistance as I pushed him along the hallway, the sad, isolated slippers resting on the metal footplates. We both knew that this was only a temporary reprieve, that his condition would, in time, return us here. I pulled the car around and put him inside and, as we set out, felt terror. He wobbled next to me. I drove carefully—slowly but not too slowly, sticking to the speed limit, experiencing intensely the sensation of my teenage self under the scrutiny of his gaze, though his eyes, rheumy with medication, were fixed on the road ahead, flat and wide under a Midwestern sky. All around, the small city: cars moving aggressively, the one behind tailgating. In the rearview, a young woman’s face, tight, angry, and when she swung past, she turned, raised her middle finger, shook it at me, never knowing that I’d just spent five sleepless days with a man struggling to live, blaspheming the world, my own father, who by then was talking about onion soup, saying he’d like some despite the fact that he needed to reduce his sodium input, asking if we might stop to pick up a carton. Her new lane was empty, and had been empty, so her gesture was something else, as if she intuited that I was just as angry as she, her finger affirming some shared sadness in our lives, some bond in loss.
Sometimes when I leave the work behind to use the bathroom, I climb the stairs with my headphones on, and as I reach a certain point just a few feet short of the toilet, the music sizzles and stutters, and I lean slightly, trying to keep within the zone of reception—for lack of a better way to put it—and doing this reminds me of some inducible weakness in my soul: I’m the type who’d actually reposition myself—while taking a piss, and at the risk of splattering, of making a mess—in order to hear music, a fact that struck me this afternoon with a new resonance, because for the last few weeks I’ve been tending a family member who’s elderly—a word that doesn’t do justice to his wisdom, his tender dignity—and who struggles to hit the bowl and now has to seat himself, which is something he resists doing, when he urinates.
He didn’t believe in working like a magpie, collecting scraps of reality and building a nest of them in his fiction. Sure, he had a daughter and a son, but he didn’t mine them for material because, he assured himself, he had imagination; if there happened to be a daughter or a son or a wife in his work, they weren’t his, and any similarities—small details—were simply happenstance. I’m not authentic, he sometimes thought as he went over a manuscript. I’ve never been divorced, never renewed my vows, never lived in a big house along the Hudson River, or under an overpass in Nebraska. Never slept huddled beneath a blue plastic tarp while the rain pattered down, or sat around a campfire—at least not that campfire—with a bunch of drifters talking up a storm and then growing silent to hear the river flowing down the hill through the trees as they passed a bottle from face to face. Never lost my so-called Obama phone on the train—he thinks, referring to the cheap phones they got when they were homeless, calling them Obama phones though the man was long out of office, honoring him for starting the program that provided them a lifeline—and I’ve never had one stolen, not on a train to Far Rockaway at any rate, late at night, after nodding off to the roar and the rock. I’ve never used—he often reminded himself, as an example—the image of Stan dancing alone out front of the train station in Kalamazoo, high as hell with his tattoos and his manic energy, while we hung back in the shadows where the buses pulled in, getting a kick out of him and the whole scene, or the times we sold our blood at Plasma Palace, down the street from the station, and, when we were lucky, staggered around with cash spilling from our pockets searching for Stan, because all we ever seemed to be doing back then was searching for him, tracking him down, or the way Stan liked to show his arms—marked with tracks, bruised with knife scars—and say he had a rap sheet as long, and his arms were certainly long, hanging way below his waist, or that one time he went into a ramble about catching a bench warrant for something back when he was in New York, and then getting caught and taken in and tried and made to collect garbage along the West Side Highway with a crew of fuckups, and then the nurse, coming back with his results, rejected him because he had both hepatitis and AIDS, which we all knew because he’d told us the prescribed meds were too strong for his liking, telling us this as he baked up a spoon and inhaled the vapors. Just as I won’t use Lurk, a guy I met out there in Michigan, wandering around, who one evening as we sat on a bluff over the lake feeding twigs to a fire—keeping it as small as possible but also as hot as possible, because it was late fall and we were hanging on before the snow came—began talking, as he often did, recalling his days as a student in Chicago, and explaining that all this adventure, doing drugs and fucking about, lost and yet not really lost, not if you were with us in the moment, not if you considered how in some strange sense, for a few minutes every night, we cared for each other, held each other up, all this was a way of trying—Lurk was saying—to find something mythic, to locate discovery—he mentioned Odysseus striking out from Ithaca—in a world that was flat and dull and mapped out from one end to another, a world without mystery, where the only exploration left was inside, in the drift of the mind, and in the feeling-good while doing it, for fuck’s sake, and I’ll never forget the dead glint in his eyes, reflecting the fire back at me, and how when the wind came in off the water, gusting, the flames went into a panic, struggling to live beneath the shelter of our hands, all of our hands rubbing together and held out. I’ll never use that, because who would believe me, really? Who would believe that a soul like Lurk was anything but artifice?
She didn’t live far—in a house down the river a couple of miles—and you were always aware of her presence, and occasionally you bumped into her in town and exchanged a few pleasantries, a word or two about the work, and she offered encouragement but also indicated—or you thought she indicated—that the discussion would go only so far, glancing along the street to where the river was barely visible over the building everyone called the Pink Elephant, blocking the view. Around that time, you both had stories in an anthology, and you prepared—feeling silly, but doing it still—what you might say if you saw her again, mentioning the book and how proud you were for your work to be in it with her work, something like that, and then you decided that you’d mention something, instead, about how you were both from the Midwest, a small icebreaker, you thought, that might lead to a more casual discussion that might lead to something deeper between you, while you also understood, in a clear-cut way, that nothing of the kind would ever, ever happen, not really, and that nothing was shared between you—a young man who wrote from within his world, and a woman of grand stature who wrote about the world—that would allow a friendship, a true friendship, to bloom, even as—if you were to be honest—you’d allow that this was bullshit, and that between you there must be, presumably, enough mutual emotions and stories—about the Midwest, Ohio, working-class towns, steel mills, all that—to build a bridge, and yet you were simply too insecure, too full of self-doubt and shame, and so you drove periodically—with the kids in the back seat—past her house on the river, heading to the video store in Piermont, or the little park they loved, and you looked for her car in the driveway, a sign of her proximity, feeling bereft and lonely, saying things to yourself like: Let her come to me when she’s ready. She’ll reach out when she’s touched by my work again. Because she did nominate you for something at some point, and again, in the course of your occasional interactions, she’d encouraged you. Then the house burned down, and you gazed over the charred hulk of it and wondered where she was, how much had been lost. A few years later, at the Louvre in Paris, you saw her again—her face displayed on banners inside the front lobby, or whatever they call it—and you felt the enormity of her, not just in your own life, on the streets of your town, but in the world. And years later still, after she’s passed away, you’re on the bench erected in her honor, in the park overlooking the river. It’s a beautiful day in early summer; and down the hill, kids are skating—you can hear the rattle of their boards over concrete and, beyond that, the mumble of a train across the river, or a boat maybe; and alongside you on the bench, she’s talking softly, her voice melodious, thoughtful, and you’re afraid to turn, to look, and so you just listen as she relates the feeling she had, as a young woman, staring at the Midwestern sky, hued soft with the smoke of the mills—lavender air, she calls it—of being in the middle of the country, the silence in the streets when folks were inside for dinner, the beautiful, shrill music when they were outside, and then she pauses, and you sense she’s waiting for you—to fill in your side of the conversation, to talk a bit—and there is, in this pause, the shared mutuality of two who are in love with words, and a perception of her holding on and waiting generously, openly, to hear what you might or might not say next, as you sit together in that sweet air—scented slightly with the river, because the tide is running in—and all you can do to keep from turning is to look as far as you can across the water, resting your eyes out there as you frame your thoughts and remember those early days, because you are aware that the appearance of a ghost—at least of her ghost—occurs inside the presumption of the imagination; everything around you must be presumed from the agency of your will and love, you think, glancing to your side and seeing only the pine trees on the verge that descends to the little creek; and that very creek, you know, was part of the Underground Railroad, guiding passengers to a safe house up the street, to a kind and brave soul. I am not that soul, you whisper to her, and a voice comes back as the breeze lifts, ruffling the little waves on the river—you can see the wind approaching from far off, sheeting the water in white curves, changing it before it arrives.
Two Old People
By that point, they were finishing each other’s sentences, cutting each other off in the middle of arguments that seemed remnants of larger fights from days long gone, battles that had once consumed entire weeks, years, decades. Now the quibbles (that’s how I thought of them: quibbles) seem like the splash and gurgle after a wave has struck, the tendrils of water wending through rock out to sea. My mother has a walker that must be folded up carefully, the metal bar in the center pushed in at exactly the right spot. When it’s unfolded and the wheels are locked, it becomes sturdy and tight, a chair, at the perfect height for me to sit and relieve my feet of the burden that comes from tending my parents, because all day they remain seated and ask me to do one task after another, ordering me around in an absentminded, tart, obscure manner that appears to reveal, again and again, the fact that they’re not truly aware of my physical presence. Or at least that they’re willing to ignore my physical presence owing to their own infirmities—consumed by the bitter fact that their joints and tendons and bones have deteriorated in such a way, so utterly, that their will is often refuted by their flesh. I sit in the walker and hold the handles and lean slightly forward and look at them as they slouch and sleep with mouths open wide and heads at odd angles. They take comfort in sleep that is near death. It seizes swiftly, catching them in poses that would prove terribly uncomfortable to me, to my somewhat younger body, and I sit and try to locate the paradox in this fact, but exhaustion smothers my ability to think, and, like them, I am lost to the oblivion.
Geneve was driving, both hands up on the wheel, looking ahead, and I began thinking about the town behind us, Brattleboro, with the river alongside it—a flat and calm, almost glossy flow that absorbed the trees and flaming leaves and cast the images back in precise replication—and about how looking down the streets, the little alleyways, you saw the flat side of the mountain, unavoidable somehow, even when you were looking away, the gravity of the formation—stately and eternal—in juxtaposition to the movement of folks from shop to shop. Perhaps that was love—the looming shadow of beauty against everyday life, while all around the edges fizzed the suspicion or awareness that somewhere upstream an earthen dam was waiting to break with a fast surge and flood the whole thing. We were in the car together, gathering a circumspect silence around our own lonely ideas, readying to speak again as we had on a million occasions before, with the urgency of two bonded by time and circumstance and commitment and adoration.