This is how you check for a pulse . . . Place two fingers, preferably the middle and index finger, on the carotid artery. I had seen it done many times in movies and on television. Police detectives did it, and doctors, murderers, and loved ones. Now I did it. I placed two fingers on my mother’s carotid artery. Her death rattle had ceased, but the throes had taken so long it was hard to tell if her dying was truly over. And my psyche is waiting for the next thing and cannot quite come to terms with permanent cessation, with an ending. My mother’s face is frozen, the eyes fixed in a surprised gorgon’s glare. Check . . . two fingers . . . is there a pulse? Check again, to be certain . . . yes, there is no pulse . . . the energy, the life force, spirit or soul has dispersed, vacated, flown off somewhere, leaving a husk. The body is now much like an abandoned dwelling. “The Remains” takes on a double meaning. There is a palpable sense, and perhaps a vague but mildly guilty relief, of having nothing more to do. The pulse stopped beating only moments ago, belonged to the person who’d made my life possible 56 years ago. I would not be here if it had not been for her, and now she’s not here, and I think of holding each of my children seconds after they were born, and there are no words that adequately limn these passages into and out of being—into here and gone. This is the mirrored other end. That much is clear.

Back on the web site on Spaceship Thanatos®, I discover more of Bud Wood’s creative thoughts, and mine too, kind of like rummaging around in a flea market. Some thoughts flash up from the depths momentarily and allow themselves to be weighed, pondered, contemplated, examined while being rotated under brighter light, the light of plausibility, and they will then be dismissed with further analysis and scrutiny, many simply unworthy of jotting down in a notebook to be filed for future reference. This process usually takes no more than several seconds, occasionally a little longer. There are too many of them to enumerate. Then there are the thoughts that are possibly seeds or kernels of something grand and larger, and they compete with others and demand more of your attention. These thoughts are not blown away like so much chaff scattered across the golden prairie because they are not permitted to escape, though many unfortunately still do, usually because the process needed to nurture them beyond the initial burst is interrupted in a social setting or through some other distraction like work or paying bills or having to drive kids to the dentist or a little league game. These grains, these germs of something more important, are truly meant to be seized, pinned down like a butterfly on a sheet of foam core, and in the giant flea market of our browsing we will encounter them often, possibly written down and filed and periodically revisited to be mulled over, perhaps more than a note, maybe with a sketch or two—a mental fragment, a scene or character, some dialogue . . . and most of these are also never realized, they are lightly toyed with and then forgotten, left in gestation, permanent fetuses never aborted, or embryos or stem cells. We file, we forget, we work on something else, but we also know that some of these embryos are worthy of more development and maybe of being born. A few will be delivered, or at least delivery will be attempted, and the selection of which ones to bring into the world is often torturous and elusive, but not always. Even when engaged in a single creation for a long time, a creation that consumes you and requires slavish devotion, you may still look back at some of these ideas with regret that you had never tried them, and you vow to spend time on one of them as soon as you finish what you’re currently working on—that is if you ever finish what you are currently working on. But then the selection process can be much simpler when one of these seeds persists, will not settle for being an idea in a notebook, but instead new and wonderfully strange rings or layers will begin to form around it, bringing early mass or shape or a rich and varied tapestry that will start to slowly weave itself from a random thread or two, and you will follow, at first intrigued or merely amused at the new life blossoming inside your skull, but then becoming obsessed with this life, with this world, agonizing over it, and perhaps ultimately confronting the monster head-on in the forge of creation. And sometimes the work, however completed in the mind will never emerge to fuse with the real world, to be judged, praised, adored, mocked and laughed at, dismissed, reviled, banned, or any combination of these, or hopefully a lasting magnum opus whose bones are picked over for years to come and provide material for countless theses . . . but without skill the most compelling ideas may wind up feces.

The day of the surgery to remove half his lung, I drive my father to University of Pennsylvania Hospital. It’s a Thursday and Thursdays are heavily scheduled for lung surgeries, a kind of lung surgery factory—albeit in a highly reputable university hospital. As I am leaving the hospital that morning, the nursing staff informs me that I’ll contacted when my father is out of surgery, probably around dinner time. But I don’t receive telling me he’s out of surgery until around until around 9:00 PM. It is mid-June. I drive back to the hospital and step into a scene of human wreckage where patients have undergone major surgery to possibly extend their lives. I see good being done here, lives being saved, but at what cost? Movable beds and gurney, IVs’, chrome and stainless steel, lines, but I am most stunned by the smell and especially the sounds: groans and pleas and anger and shock and fear and talk thick with morphine and the big hum and bleeps of monitors and saline solution drips. (He’s not coming back. I’m not coming back. None of us will ever come back).

He recognizes me and I’m not sure if anyone in my life had ever been so glad to see me in that moment, and he’s my father, and it’s good to see him in post-op recovery, but he is also wiped out, exhausted, and drained in a way that’s unsettling. As fraught with relief and a guarded optimism that this moment has to offer I realize his death in the same moment. He’d been careless with his body, indulging a tobacco habit that would ultimately kill him, aided by the toxic environment of paper mills where he’d worked since his late teens up until a few years ago. Forty years in paper mills and smoking for close to half a century. He is 61. Seeing him here, groggy, disoriented, bantering with the black nurse and trying to make light of having just lost half a lung (his pact for two or three extra years), will be the official start of him dying. And I need to be here for him . . . I need to witness and understand.

I had a dream a week after he died. In the dream he was driving a black hearse and pulled along the curb on the side of our house, and ushered me in. I was ordered to sit in the back seat directly behind him, staring at the back of his head the entire time we drove. I never once saw his face. I looked at the rear-view mirror where I knew his face should be, but it was empty, no reflection. I felt shame and foreboding staring at the back of his head. The dream imagery was reminiscent (or influenced by?) a scene out of Cocteau’s Orphee’ where the chauffeur, Heurtebise, summons Orpheus into the hearse and they drive past a checkpoint at the entrance to Hades, and once in Hades the black-and-white film appears in reverse and the car radio emits cryptic repetitious messages in tones sounding like civil defense warnings.

I was glad to have taken care of my will sometime last November with my attorney Lee Oswald. In the will my literary estate was to be decided upon by four people: My wife Claudia, another writer friend and collaborator, my oldest son Roc Borja, and my brother. Not only did each one of them bring to this decision process a unique esthetic and critical bias regarding my writing and decades of friendship, familial ties and intimacy, each one also had a stake in my legacy, not that there would be any big money involved from the sale of a work, but one never knows—Life (and the afterlife) are full of strange surprises. My will contained a clause stipulating the fate of any work would require a 3-to-1 majority among the four people chosen. And there would be four possible outcomes or fates for a given work:
1. Try to publish the work posthumously
2. Save the work unpublished as a family curiosity—an “heirloom.”
3. Use the work as basis for a film or TV or internet project.
4. Trash or burn the work because it is so embarrassingly and egregiously bad that it should never see the light of day, and I would have trashed given work myself but unfortunately did not get to it in time.
A 3-to-1 ruling struck me as ideal. It would override any question of a 2-2 split, and a 2-1 majority among 3 trustees I thought a little tenuous. I also favored the idea of using those works that appear finished but may not have been publishable as a basis for film or TV, and one of these trustees was a filmmaker too. So Option 1 required line editing for publication and Option 2 may or not be edited at the discretion of the trustees and their decision as to who would salvage said work. Option 3 required something more than manuscript editing as said work would be entirely made over to suit an electronic medium, and Option 4 would only require a working shredder. The will also contained what I considered a “sentimental” clause where, if it were obvious that one of my works had been dedicated to, or written for, one of the literary trustees, then ownership of said work would by default inhere to said trustee and the 3-to-1 majority rendered null and void in that single instance of extenuation. The “sentimental” clause may understandably create a certain amount of conflict among the trustees given their interpretation or deconstruction of said text, and again the will provided a sub-clause, more loosely worded and construed than the “sentimental” clause that under no means would a trustee immediately take ownership of a work unless it was unanimously agreed upon by all trustees that said work was written for or about said trustee.

Early evenings are usually her best time. After dinner she watches TV and I watch TV with her. It is June, already too warm and muggy, especially in the high-rise apartment that lacks any window except in the single bedroom. The main room has a sliding glass door with a screen but most of the time now my mother wants the door closed because of the noise outside. When the room begins feeling too claustrophobic and I need air, I step through the sliding door and stand on a small balcony. The building is on Prospect Avenue, one of the most elevated streets in Hackensack where the Piedmont fall line runs through, and the view up here at night is impressive, maybe beautiful, with the plain of glittering lights and the illuminated bridges that press against the wall of the Manhattan skyline. But there is also a touch of alienation in the anonymous lights, a sterile loneliness not unlike the made bed in her bedroom where I will sleep because my mother has to sleep in the living room on a hospital bed. I am less than 10 feet from her the whole time, but she seems miles away, asleep mostly. The myriad lights of Hackensack, Teaneck, Fort Lee pulse and sparkle. My mother calls my name. She needs me to lift her onto the portable toilet.

In the morning I wake her and lift her near weightless body into the wheelchair and move the chair as close to our breakfast table as possible. A TV morning news show might be on in the background, or maybe not. We drink cups of weak chock-full-o-nuts coffee with whole milk and glance at the newspaper headlines and talk. Less interested in the coffee, my mother has orange juice and a piece of toast. She inhales from a small purple disk labeled “Advair.” There are pill bottles and other medications arrayed along the table. There is the wheelchair and the gurney, and linens and the bed pan. A patch of sun spills through the balcony French doors and makes a pale block on the taupe living room carpet . . . this is what the end of a life looks like . . . sometimes . . . much of the time. . .

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Sad Laura may have been my best worker at the Brainchild Scientific warehouse store, but in the three years I’d been working with her I knew little about her, about what she did with her free time besides reading, and I mostly couldn’t talk to her. I understood Sad Laura’s need and craving for solitude because I had it myself. That part of me which always sought time alone with my telescopes was not unlike Laura’s breaks in the lunchroom, or outside at the picnic table, with a novel of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy; perhaps Hawthorne, Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Dumas. Although I hardly knew her, I knew that Laura and I had in common this desire for privacy, to close ourselves off from everyone and concentrate on feeding the mind and spirit. I was a big reader too, though much of my reading tended toward applied science and modern history, science fiction, Carlos Castaneda, and some Beat Literature. The difference between us was that I enjoyed socializing and being in the world, whereas Laura retreated from the world out of shyness, extreme introversion and a pathological avoidance of other people, especially people in groups. She had black hair cut in bangs and blue eyes. She was thin and by no means unattractive, and she was kind and intelligent. But I occasionally wondered how Sad Laura would ever meet anyone if she couldn’t open her mouth or talk about herself, show a little ego. The very traits that made her likable—reticence, unselfish, an absence of obnoxious behavior—also worked against her at times.

I did know one other thing about Sad Laura: she occasionally expressed a romantic nostalgia regarding The Past, particularly the Middle Ages and 19th Century America—both epochs of rampant disease and high mortality rates—and she believed that we were living in the “end times” and that the world would cease to exist (or mankind would) before the year 2000. When Kyle played his radio in the lunchroom, I would hear a song, “Rock and Roll Radio” by this band The Ramones, and was struck by the lyrics: “It’s the end, the end of the 70s; it’s the end, the end of the century.”

One day in the lunchroom Laura and I discussed the coming apocalypse.

“Are you a born-again?”

“Of course not,” she said emphatically.

“Have you ever read ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’?”

“No, can’t say that I have.”

“Heard of it?”

“I am not born again.

I poured some coffee, stirred in powdered creamer, and sat across the table from her.

“Then why do you believe these are the last days?”

“Just take a look around you,” Laura said, her tone a bit louder, slightly angered and impassioned. “Can’t you see that the world or the entire human race is sinking? Acid rain? Cambodia? Hostages in Iran?”

“Things have always been bad,” I reminded her. “Poverty, starvation, wars and plagues. Why are these times any different?”

“I’ll tell you why. They’re different because of our so-called good intentions to eliminate war and disease, and to rape and spoil the planet, to control human behavior, to control nature.”
“My belief in intelligent life on other planets makes me more optimistic about the fate of our own world,” I said a bit pompously.

Sad Laura frowned.

“Right, so we’ll just leave Earth and head out into space to foul up some other world. That is definitely how we do things.”

I would not see Beatrice again for two and a half weeks, and though I was grateful for our nativity and moments of transcendence, I could not understand the void of contact that followed. The week after Christmas was ecstasy and torture. I went through the motions of work and home and star watching but mostly lived with this insanely potent memory of her and of the two of us. I had no idea what she thought of me, and what she’d thought of Christmas Eve, and if she even bothered to think of me at all. I wondered how Beatrice might be spending her time over Christmas break, and most importantly why she hadn’t bothered to stop by the store to see me. I couldn’t call her—we had forgotten to exchange phone numbers! I was probably too old for her anyway. I considered driving to her house but always resisted because I didn’t want to appear as if I were stalking her. I realized with some pain and disappointment that if Beatrice wanted to see me she could have easily driven to Brainchild Scientific. She knew where to find me if she needed to find me. And she loved the store.

In the waning days of the year I spent time each morning at dawn observing Venus. I could see the phases clearly in my Cassegrain Reflector. Venus is brightest during crescent phase, and at maximum elongation from the sun it is a platinum coal. I find it hard to imagine the mythological connection with Love or Eros to this planet of extreme heat, volcanoes, and greenhouse gases (an atmosphere 96% carbon dioxide), unless you imagine love as always hot, sultry and suffocating. Astrologically, Venus in relation to medicine, to healing, possesses the attributes of warm and moist, which is sexy. . . . In these early morning observations of Venus I was trying to understand the planet metaphorically, wishing for a revelation on romance and sex and a nascent relationship. I thought about the transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event last seen in 1882 that would occur again in 2004, 25 years from now, and I hoped
I would be alive to see it. I have this capacity for waiting when it comes to stars and love.

The third sphere was Venus. Venus, who “rayed down love madness, leaving men distraught.”

From her with whom my song began just now
They took the name of the star that woos the Sun,
Now shining at its nape, now at its brow.

I reached it unaware of my ascent,
But my lady made me certain I was there
Because I saw her grow more radiant.*

And I thought of Beatrice every day as I watched the morning star and she became more radiant in my mind’s eye, in the wake of our night following winter solstice, in those first days of waxing sunlight and the promise of spring and early planting. Her absence alone swelled her radiance, like a bulging supernova, that whenever I saw her next I believed she would simply burst with light. With Christmas I’d traversed from one fire to another, from the craving for sex, communion and intimacy, to the lust for more, and yet my love for Beatrice superseded the bluntly carnal, ascended to the realm of caritas and the eternal seraphim, the Souls of the Amorous. In the sleepy solstice dawn the Souls of the Amorous were radiant and Beatrice was radiant. Everywhere I looked I saw boundless love and radiance.

On New Year’s Eve I drank with a neighbor couple at the Starlight Tavern. I had no idea where Gladys had disappeared to, and I’d left her a note asking her to join me at the Starlight along with Frank and Claudia. The three of us had a low-key celebration and I left the tavern an hour before midnight. I entered the house slightly drunk, and found Gladys slightly drunk too, standing and leaning against the living room archway. Something felt out of place. Normally Gladys would be asleep by now, even if it was New Year’s Eve, but she was quite awake and in her panties, knee socks and sweat shirt. She was wearing eyeliner and lipstick and her aura emanated a desire and passion that I had not seen from her in well over a decade. It was as if Gladys had somehow held secret commerce with Beatrice, in which Beatrice had touched Gladys, and I briefly dreamt the two of them enmeshed in a series of erotic poses. What was going on?

“Happy New Year,” I muttered, slurring the word “year.”

Gladys didn’t return my greeting, an unfamiliar alien heat in her eyes. Her hands were behind her lower back, pressed to the wall, and she soon used them to push off the wall, propelling her towards me with a graceful and gliding step despite her intoxication. Did she conceal a knife again behind her back? A little Happy New Year surprise? But no, she reached out and held both my arms, searched my eyes and smiled.

“I want you,” was all she said.

Ten days later a heavy snow storm descended on our region. I decided to close the store early, about an hour-and-a-half before dark. Kyle jokingly called it a “brain drain” as all store and warehouse employees hurried out the doors and began turning on their car engines and scraping windshields. I stayed behind to work on closing out the registers and resetting the alarm system. I owned a Chevy pickup which I often drove to the store to use as an alternate vehicle, and I was glad that I’d brought the pickup today. Although the radio weather reports were predictably dire and sensational, I didn’t need to hear them, I had proof enough. The view from Brainchild’s front window was of an ash colored sky with ice and snow racing and gusting into the glass.

I thought everyone had left when Sad Laura approached me and asked for a ride home. It was already dusk and the street lamps had just come on, eddies of spinning snowflakes in cones of fluorescent light. Sad Laura’s car was at her house with a dead battery. She had gotten a ride to work that morning from a friend but the friend wouldn’t be able to pick her up now because of the snow. I agreed to drive Laura home. I didn’t think the snow would be a problem for my pickup. I knew the direction to Laura’s house because I’d given her a ride once a couple years ago, but when I began taking that route, she corrected me.

“When did you move?” I asked her.

“About a year ago.”

“To where?”

“Take Somerset Road. You’ll see.”

The streets were blanketed in moguls. People dressed in parkas and winter coats were shoveling ahead of the storm’s end so they’d have less to shovel later. Leaving town I drove the county roads and then turned onto more quiet residential streets, a feeling of creeping dread, uneasy with the route we now followed. Sad Laura talked out of necessity to give me directions. She appeared relieved not to be driving in this weather.

“Make a left at the next street,” she said.

“Still reading Thomas Hardy?”

She nodded.

“Do you ever read any contemporary or ‘living’ authors? You know, best sellers? Popular novels?”

“Rita-Mae Brown”

“Don’t know who that is,” I said.

“I didn’t think you would . . . make one more left and then a sharp right.”

I knew these streets; the route seemed more than a coincidence. The snow fell harder, nebula bursts in the keening wind. Porch and front lawn lights were haloed globes in the January darkness. And yet I was certain of where we were, there was no getting around it. I had been here before . . . and not that long ago.

“Next house on the right,” Sad Laura pointed, but I’d already
started easing the pickup into her driveway.

“Are you psychic? How did you know I lived here?”

Two cars were parked in the driveway ahead of me. The Impala-6 with the dead battery was Laura’s. The other was a red Honda Civic.

There were layers between us—car, snow, house, nightfall. Her figure stood behind the bay window, the curtains slightly drawn and parted, her oval face lovely, ethereal in shining glass. Against the house a wedge of new snow glittered in the pickup’s headlight beams and crystals fastened on the windshield between rhythmic sweeps of the wiper blades. The figure in the window waited.

Sad Laura sensed my sudden agitation. She was hesitant, uncertain, and a bit afraid of me in the moment.

“Thank you so much,” she said warily, not fully comprehending.

“Don’t mention it, any time. . .”

“Would you like to come in for a hot drink?”

With my hand clenched on the steering wheel, I turned and stared at her.

“Does Beatrice live here?”

The question sounded like an accusation.

“Yes, she does,” Laura said, as stunned and confused as me. “This is our house. We live here together,” she added, nearly whispered.

The figure in the window still waited for us, a warm beacon in the snow and winter light, as if Laura and I were sailors coming into harbor.

“Ah, I see . . . are you two friends? Housemates?” I tried sounding casual and politely inquisitive, but my voice quavered and cracked, skidding off the normal baritone.

Sad Laura watched me and said nothing for close to a minute. I didn’t know her really. She wasn’t one of the squeaky wheels at Brainchild forever brown-nosing or whining to get my attention. She simply did her job and did it well and read her musty old novels and enjoyed her privacy and solitude. I had largely ignored her for the past three years, and it had been a pure, unwitting ignorance on my part, completely unlike the deliberate ignorance I had needed and adopted in order to navigate living with Gladys. Who was this woman? I knew she would answer my question honestly. A kindred and mysterious compassion swept over us as our suspended stares dissolved into one another. The snow continued to fall and Beatrice waited at the window.

“More than friends,” she said.

End of First Draft Part I
*The Paradiso, Dante’s Divine Comedy
translated by John Ciardi