Fragments

May 10, 2016

The Butterfly Nebula has been on leave, or hiatus, so until there are new chapters to post, I’m filling in with some fiction or memoir scribbling as they occur.  ~seh

 

From a Family Memoir (also a separate blog to be accompanied with photographs).

In his later years he lived with my grandmother on Central Avenue in Ridgefield Park. Their small apartment was behind a store and the only way to reach the apartment was through an alley. My father would take me there for family visits when I was a boy. The alley had a slate walkway flanked by cracked concrete gutters. Sunlight barely penetrated the cavernous alley and it always felt damp and cool back there. There was curled and broken shingle siding splotched with moss. In that period of time—the 1950s and early 1960s—the neighborhood would have been characterized as lower middle class, but my father grew up somewhat closer to poverty. There were years when his sole Christmas gift had been a comic book.

I never saw a street entrance to the place—probably would have been physically impossible. The alley provided a front and back entrance that opened into a tightly crammed mud room packed with junk. We were normally greeted by Ichabod, my grandparents’ beagle mutt who was notorious for his goat-like appetite. The mud room joined the kitchen: an old aluminum-legged table stood immediately on the left as you entered; the Formica counter and sink were on the right and the stove directly ahead. Two doorways led you out of the kitchen: one into a hallway that terminated in a bedroom on one side and a bathroom on the other; the second doorway was to the living room that had only two windows facing the alley. These rooms and a closet or two made up the alley. From what I’d known, my father had lived here for over ten years with his two brothers, his mother and father and a maiden aunt. No wonder he’d left as soon as possible. During the war the number of occupants was reduced by two because my grandfather was away at sea nearly all the time, and my uncle was fighting in Europe for one-to-two years.

What I remember most was a pervasive darkness, particularly in the bedroom and the living room where we sometimes gathered for tea and cookies. The objects in this space, though often difficult to discern and identify, had been brought back from my grandfather’s circumnavigations around the world while commanding ships for the merchant marine. There were paintings in umber lacquered tones badly in need of restoration, Wedgwood trays, exotic silk and ivory fans, tall porcelain vases from the Orient adorned with cherries and peacocks; ebony cabinets, gilt-edged, with bone and pearl inlay; large antique reading lamps; samovars and decanters; hand-blown paper weights; damask with tasseled fringe; a brass genie lamp with a turquoise stone; an ashtray coiled like a serpent with the head of a merchant from Turkey or North Africa, and those were only the objects I was able to see.

On Sunday night at 10:00 the adults watched black and white television shows and the one I recall most was, “What’s my Line?” Everyone from the host, John Daly, to the panelists, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf and Dorothy Kilgallen, were all dressed in formal evening attire with their black eye shades as though attending a masked ball, all quite charming and urbane as though they’d just stepped away momentarily from their columnist or editor’s desks at New York’s grand old newspapers and Random House by way of the Algonquin Hotel and strolled over to CBS studios for the live show to entertain and be entertained by the audience and mystery guests. To play was simple, a variation of “20 questions.” The mystery guest signed in so that only the audience could see who they were and then the blindfolded panelists attempted to guess the person’s occupation or “line” of work. If one of the panelists’ question was correct they received a small amount of money and then continued with their questions, and when their question was incorrect the questioning moved on to the next panelist. There were normal people with normal occupations but each show always had a celebrity guest. Cash prizes didn’t factor heavily into the game; it was more about celebrity and deductive reasoning, which like most problem solving used the left hemisphere of the brain to work through language and reasoning and then the right visual and intuitive hemisphere of the brain to “see” the answer, to see the person beyond the blindfold.

 

PARAGRAPH FROM A SHORT STORY DRAFT

Will was in third grade when they’d adopted Hermes, a four-month-old tuxedo kitten discovered along with his mom and siblings behind a gas station. Originally, the gas station owner had contacted the local ASPCA after his wife and kids shamed him into not drowning the mother and her litter (apparently he wasn’t much of an animal lover) and the family had wound up taking one of the kittens for themselves. The mother and three remaining kittens were then placed in foster care until Shannon adopted Hermes for Will. At the time Will was sad and Shannon believed it would be a good idea to have a new family member to replace the one who’d recently left. She thought the cat would be soft and gentle, loving and affectionate, and not abusive like the one who’d recently left, or the one she’d thrown out before him, neither of whom were Will’s father. Will’s father, Curt, had made his stunning exit one night in a near 100-mile-an-hour burst of speed, stoked up on bourbon and meth, his Harley mating with the rear end of an abruptly careless tractor trailer lurching onto the freeway. Will had turned two a week later.

 

 

 

 

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A mother and son were sitting in a delicatessen bagel shop. The mother drank coffee, and the son, who was about 12 or 13, sipped on a Sprite. Hot morning sunlight glazed the shop windows. The mother had an egg sandwich with sausage and the boy ate a doughnut, and the mother ate a doughnut too. The mother was overweight but not quite obese, and the son, too, was overweight, but also not obese except maybe by a classification of obesity for children. While they weren’t what you would call ‘happy’, they weren’t particularly sad either. They did not seem emotional or passionate and high and low moods rarely made up their respective temperaments.

“So what do we do now?” the son asked his mother.

His mother was more absorbed in her doughnut than short range plans.

“We wait a few hours and then drive over to our new place,” she said.

“But I don’t wanna move there. It stinks. The apartment is nowhere near as big as our house was.”

His mother stared at him, making an effort to be patient.

“Just because something is smaller, it doesn’t always mean that it’s worse.”

“Why can’t we go to the park?”

“No.”

“But why?”

“Because we can’t, that’s why.”

She washed down the squeezed stub of her doughnut with some burnt weak coffee and stared out the window. On the sidewalk a smartly dressed, slender and shapely woman in her late 20s passed by the delicatessen. She wore long graceful high heels that made a clicking rhythm against the cement. It was a hot day in mid-July and yet the young woman, in her makeup, tight skirt and stockings appeared remarkably cool, as if her body held an internal air conditioner . . . the air conditioner in the delicatessen didn’t work very well, and the mother felt runnels of perspiration on the underside of her arms just below her armpits. How could that girl not be sweating?

“I want to go to Game World,” the overweight boy whined.

“I said no.”

“But why?”

“Because we need to get some things at Walmarts before driving to our new place.”

The overweight boy who was not quite obese sighed and sulked.

“I don’t wanna go. Are you listening to me?”

Her sweat increased, freshets dampening her neglected body.

“Oh, you will go or I’ll beat your ass.”

“They’ll call me a pig at the new school. I’ll be teased and bullied.”

“You’re bigger than most of them and you won’t be alone. You’re not that fat. Try out for football. You’d make a good lineman.”

“I’m not going.”

“We’ll be living closer to Aunt Clara and Bobby. About a mile away.”

“I hate Aunt Clara and Bobby!”

Using her pinky finger the mother flattened the few remaining doughnut crumbs and lifted them to her mouth, a tongue the color of clay flicking.

“That’s too bad,” she said to her borderline obese son, “because you’ll be seeing a lot more of them. Probably a couple times a week.”

“I’m not going!”

“Stop arguing about it, please. This conversation is over.”

The boy excused himself to use the restroom, and with a precious minute or so to herself the mother, the woman, felt that she’d been conned or tricked in some vague but universal way having to do with her sex. She might have once been that slender creature who’d passed by earlier, but in truth she’d never been that pretty, more like a younger prettier version of her present self, believing back then she could get anything she wanted, including a husband and a fairly decent life.

*

Another Sketch from “The House of Tomorrow”

It was only after my mother died that I thought more about having a handicapped parent and being raised by a handicapped parent. My mother hadn’t been severely handicapped but enough that I had noticed a difference with other kids’ parents. For instance, when walking with her you needed to slow down and pace yourself to her gait, or stand on a chair to reach something in the cabinet or bend down to retrieve a fallen object if it had rolled into a hard-to-reach spot. You were enjoined to descend the wooden steps to the basement where a few laundry items may have been left, more often to bring back the pack of cigarettes she’d forgotten if there wasn’t a new pack in the house to open. And if at home, be ready to lift her off the floor from the occasional stumble and fall. There was the aforementioned positioning of the dead limb in the driver’s seat of the family car, and at times I would have to move and position the limb for her, or when in the house correctly place the limb on the couch or a hassock when it appeared in danger of sliding off. I slipped socks and shoes on and off her feet, tugging canvas across the chafed skin of her heel, yanking worsted side to side, up or down, and struggling to get it over the protruding fibula of her ankle.

*
Two sketches from the beginning of a short story

Fred Mole’s Saturdays began early, around 5:00 or 5:30, so he could get to his shop or stall at the flea market which opened at 7:00. Fred liked to give himself enough time to have two cups of coffee and two cigarettes before leaving the house. Some weeks he would stop to pick up merchandise from one of his wholesalers. His mother was asleep, and as he was leaving Fred would always step into the shadowed musty bedroom and kiss her on the forehead to say goodbye. Snoring in a thick gin-induced slumber, his mother rarely noticed the kiss, and if she felt the pressure of his lips at all it was filtered through her subconscious until her son’s lips became those of an old lover, or several lovers, all dead now. His mother’s hair sprouted from the crown and sides of her head like tufts of cotton. She’d given birth to him at the age of 30, almost as an afterthought, an advanced age for that time and their class. Fred was 45. His mother’s cheeks were plump but with a complexion like skim milk, even bluish in those places where the veins struggled. Her skin was a kind of living elastic marble.

It was going to be a blistering hot day.

Shannon opened her stall early and arranged the studded jeans and hippie blouses on the rack, the jeans with vents running the length of the seam, a bit suggestive by exposing lozenges of skin, light or dark, maybe a bit slutty or hip depending on your point of view. Shannon was wearing a pair herself and did not feel self-conscious when considering she might be too old (39) for this style of jeans. She was the mother of a 21-year-old soldier stationed in Kuwait. She was thin and proud of her long legs, and if her thighs had been of ample thickness and girth she might have chosen instead to wear a Mumu. Knowing how hot it could get in the stalls she had on a sleeveless white blouse, tightly pleated in front with rainbow colored embroidery in southwest Indian tribal motifs. The blouse was cut a few inches above her tanned navel, crimped with a silver piercing like a small unshelled escargot on a skewer. Shannon used her Bic disposable lighter to light a stick of incense and place it alongside a row of scented massage oils. Her DVD player sat behind the register alongside a batik hanging. Music played low as she sipped a large Dunkin Donuts coffee in anticipation of her first sale, the shimmering harmonies laving over her as she awakened to the morning and possibility.

Guinnevere had golden hair
       Like yours, mi’lady, like yours . . .

There’s an announcement when you arrive and an announcement when you depart, a life’s experience compressed into a brief understandable narrative. From one moment in time to another moment in time. The Nazi philosopher Heidegger defined ‘living’ or ‘existence’ as “presencing in Time.” Mark Twain was born and died in two passes or one cycle of Halley’s Comet, 76 years. An illustrious and adventurous life but also one of personal tragedy neatly enclosed by the parentheses of a recurring celestial event. Maybe the passage of Time is all we ever really do and the rest we make up, as difficult as that may be for some of us to accept.

After growing to adulthood, the body is always in the process of breaking down, but there comes a point at which you are “painfully” aware of it. You feel the body’s small failures: you have aches and pains; you grow tired more easily; you look in a full length mirror (or maybe not if you dread what you might find there). You’ve always been both tenant and caretaker of the dwelling known as your body, but over time the caretaker role becomes more prominent and busy so the dweller can continue to dwell. You avoid falls; you monitor your blood pressure and get annual flu shots; you eschew the vices altogether or cut down; you see doctors more often . . . these are all good things. When the dwelling is on the verge of abandonment, you may even try taking it back to church or accept the visitation and prayers of a clergyman at your hospital bedside, or finger a rosary or, eschewing Christian methods entirely, read aloud from the Bhagavad-Gita. In fact I will read from the Gita and finger the rosary, and read the Bible and the Quran, Jain texts and other sundry scripture, and allow a dozen holy men and women, mystics, and sages to occupy my bed before that terminal moment as a hedge on the afterlife. I need all the professional shamans I can possibly muster to bless and shepherd my spirit over the threshold to the other side, and I’ll take whatever they’re offering: wine and wafer, holy water, incense, lotus flowers, ashes, last rites, anything . . . it’s as if you’re climbing the first hill of an incredibly steep roller coaster and you kind of know but don’t know what’s coming so you hold on real tight to the bar, and once you have crested that hill the descent can be terrifying but by then you know everything will be alright for all eternity, so you loosen your grip a little on that bar and eventually you’re done with the ride altogether and no longer need to hold on

Michael and Walt

They were both 25 and unemployed and they’d reached the first destination on their pilgrimage: A bronze plaque in a big park. They’d come this far, a two-and-a-half hour drive, from Morristown, New Jersey, and they shivered in a cool morning late April breeze. In the distance a maintenance crew rode mowers and raked ochre-colored dirt and dropped white lime foul lines on a little league baseball diamond. The crew worked robotically in a shimmering pointillist haze of pollen and every few minutes wind and clouds dropped a veil of shadow upon them and they dimmed like lost souls in Hades.

Brian Farrell and Vince Strollo stared at the plaque, at the relieved bronze curls and smile of hammered metal. It wasn’t a compelling or precise representation but the face was recognizable to anyone who’d ever watched “Little House on the Prairie” or “Bonanza” or “Highway to Heaven” and “I was a Teenage Werewolf” all those years ago. “He” was no longer here of course. You would find him buried out in Hillside Cemetery in Southern California. “He” had forsaken his roots in 1956 after graduating from Collingswood High School where he’d shined as a javelin thrower on the track and field team, winning an athletic scholarship to USC. He was known as Eugene Orowitz back then.
The memorial plaque read:

A MAN WHO TOUCHED THE HEARTS OF SO MANY,
BY TEACHING US HOW TO LAUGH, CRY,
AND LOVE ONE ANOTHER —
AND WHOSE SPECIAL LOVE FOR CHILDREN AND
STRONG BELIEF IN FAMILY VALUES
TRANSCENDS FUTURE GENERATIONS

Brian’s gaze took in the level expanse of the park.

“Where are we? It’s so flat around here. Kind of depressing.”

“South Jersey, like the seashore, only inland,” Vince reminded him. “You don’t know your geography, do you? Ever been to Philadelphia? The birthplace of our nation?”

“Philadelphia’s in Pennsylvania. This is New Jersey.”

“But that’s not what I’m talking about. Philadelphia’s only a few miles away from here. Ever been to Cherry Hill Mall?”

“No”

“’Great Adventure’?”

“’Great Adventure is flat?”

“Jesus. . . .”

“Drove all the way here from Morristown because you watched a cable show on this guy. What was I thinking?”

“A prophet is never recognized in his home town,” Vince said in a tone of reverence. “On the documentary I watched with Andrea last night they talked about how Michael, or Eugene, had experienced anti-Semitism after his family had moved to South Jersey from Queens New York when he was four. His mother was Irish like you—a difficult woman, suicidal—but he also had that last name from his father and I guess he looked a little Jewish and that was a problem back then for small town America. He had an unhappy family life, and years later, though he’s rich and famous he still talks of those early days, and he talks about it publicly, on Carson and shit. He still carries with him that pain, that sense of being the outsider, the minority, the pariah, and he’s never quite experienced what it’s like to grow up in a place called home and that alienation is what drives him to create a family-values kind of entertainment, his own little house on the prairie, a pure fantasy of the good America. Michael was looking for that all his life, always carrying that pain inside him. He descended into alcoholism, smoked like a fiend, and his self-destruction ended in pancreatic cancer and death at age 54 . . . tragic . . . .”

“I’m hungry. Let’s go.”

“We should try and find the house.”

“Hey, didn’t Patti Smith grow up around here?”

“Think so. . .”

“Jack Nicholson?”

“The shore. I think in Spring Lake. We should try and find the house.”

“What are you talking about? What house?”

“The house where Michael Landon grew up. The Little House.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now. You got something better to do?”

“You obviously don’t. I could be checking in with the electricians union. See if anything’s opened up yet.”

“Maybe you should give up on that pipe dream.”

“Ha, that would be the plumber’s union, ‘pipe’ dream.”

“How lame.”

“And my uncle said I could be accepted any day now.”

“When’s the last time you delivered pizza?”

“I don’t know. A couple months?”

“You should have gone to college.”

“Like you, huh? And how long have you been looking for work?”

“A year and three months . . . At least I achieved something. I graduated. I have a bachelor’s degree in English. You went one semester to community. If you don’t get into the electrician’s union, you’ll be screwed for life.”

“Talk about screwed. I’m not 50,000 dollars in debt. How’s that bachelor’s degree working out for you? Where did all the time and money get you, huh? I’ll tell you where it got you. A mountain of debt and no job to help pay it off.”

“But when the economy eventually improves I’ll find work sooner than you will, and it will be a better job with better pay.”

“Right”

“It’s been statistically proven.”

“Fuck statistics.”

From the park Brian and Vince drove down several quiet streets of old houses built in the early decades of the 20th Century, not unlike sections of Morristown. The car followed a road along a town lake where residents fished and paddled kayaks and picnicked. The house where Michael, or Eugene, had grown up sat on a bluff and corner lot across from the lake. It was a brick rancher, mid-century, and part of a later development—a pleasant and near idyllic location that almost anyone in post-2008 America would have been more than glad to own.

“It was more than half a century ago,” Vince said, using that same reverent tone, “and I’ll bet the house or town hasn’t changed all that much from when he lived here . . . you’d kill to have a place like this now, and yet Michael, or Eugene, wasn’t happy here.”

Brian lit a cigarette. A sarcastic look.

“So where’s the prairie?”

“Please don’t do that in the car. You should quit. You’ve got no money for smokes anyway.”

“I know. You’re right.”

“I quit in my senior year, though I’ve been tempted to start again with all the stress lately finding work.”

“I’ll quit when I get into the union.”

“You mean when Hell freezes over.”

Brian flipped his cigarette out the window and winked at Vince.

“Michael Landon dropped out of college. He did well. He did very well.”

Vince ignored the comment, “There’s something idyllic about this setting. Something so American,” he said wistfully.

“Yeah, suburban.”

The morning was nearly over. Light kept shifting. Robins and other birds scavenged the banks of the sleepy town lake. Vince said: “Listen to me. Michael Landon was just an afterthought, serendipitous, because I saw the documentary. It is not our intended purpose. It is not what we’ve come all this way to do.”

“Are you kidding? I’m done with it.”

“Don’t you remember the real purpose of our pilgrimage? We are only a few miles down the road from Camden and the greatest American poet who ever lived is buried there.”

“Ezra Pound?”

“Please. Pound spent most of his life in exile. He was practically Italian.”

“Like you?”

“Not quite. Walt Whitman, you jerk!”

“What about Emily Dickinson? Wasn’t she a great poet?”

“Yes, but not as quintessentially American as Whitman.”

“’Quintessentially’ I see, teach . . . how about Allen Ginsberg?”

“A spiritual son of Whitman.”

“Where’s he buried?”

“Ginsberg?”

“No, Walt Whitman!”

“A place called Harleigh Cemetery,” Vince pondered the map, his finger resting near Route 130. “It’s only about a mile from here. Incredible! We’ve hit the jackpot this time, the friggin’ Daily Double.”

“Fuck poets. Can’t we just go see the Liberty Bell or the place where they signed the
Declaration of Independence?”

“No, we cannot do that, at least not yet, because I want to see Walt Whitman’s grave, and house, and you are whining which I don’t appreciate.”

They punched Harleigh Cemetery into the GPS and began following the route to the burial place of Walt Whitman, Great American Poet. Vince was quiet as he reflected a moment on their pilgrimage. Once he had a job, there would be no more days to do this sort of thing, with or without Brian.

“These two…” he began.

“Which two?”

Vince adopted a pontifical tone. “Michael Landon and Walt Whitman, “. . . who were symbols of America, though in different times . . . these two are buried or commemorated near or in Camden New Jersey, a giant sewer . . . One was a 19th century homosexual; the other a half-Jew and victim of anti-Semitism, shunned in his hometown. The irony of this country. Its prophets, its most lyrical and spiritual voices unappreciated and marginalized at the end . . . Kerouac, miserable and dying of drink in the factory town of Lowell Massachusetts . . . Woody Guthrie who crossed the entire land and memorialized it in song, winds up in some Newark VA hospital . . . Whitman, the visionary poet of the United States, planted somewhere among the factories and mills along the Delaware River in Camden.”

“That’s all well and fine, but what about us? We’re nobodies. We’ll never be famous.”

“You don’t know that.”

“We can’t even get a job. How long has it been now? A year and a half?”

“Stop being negative. It’s never been easy. Never. Do you know there were times these American legends were out of work too? Landon, or Orowitz, after dropping out of USC worked odd jobs. I hate the thought of a Kerouac, or Woody Guthrie, or Steinbeck, or Whitman for that matter scrounging around and taking any kind of labor—geniuses having to stoop to menial work so they could eat—but there it is. Maybe menial labor helped nurture their genius. I don’t know.”

“It won’t nurture our genius,” Brian said, “Because we don’t have any to nurture. We’re nobodies.”

“Hold your tongue.”

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. . .

“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”
– Khalil Gibran

I want to talk to about the creations we only dream of, the unrealized masterworks that take up permanent residence in our minds but for whatever reason never see the light of day.

I am talking to Bud Wood, a twenty-something version of me (he’s real, I am the wraith, or some unholy vapor) and we are traveling aboard the spaceship Thanatos® heading for b-Eartha, sometimes fondly called “Bertha.” The first three letters of Bertha are the same as my mother’s name, Beryl . . . I am not in Heaven, there is no such thing, but I am traveling at the speed of light, musing whether or not I am dead or alive (like one of those kitschy wild-west outlaw wanted posters). Anyway, the question is irrelevant and not suited to my purpose. I can’t help talking so I babble endlessly in search of the true words, the true work. I would like to keep on talking, keep on telling, until my time is up, but even that faint wish I’m unsure of.

The starship has changed trajectory and now plots a course toward Rigel-7. We are small barely distinguishable points of light and energy and Zero-G doesn’t matter to us, though we tend to stay in or near our seat like good passengers as Thanatos® slithers through hyper space.

Of course we have Internet on the spaceship, and at the moment I can download what I’ve been searching for. There is a menu or search bar to choose from. You click on “Authors” for instance and type in a name (we were all authors by now). When I type in “Bud Wood,” the app retrieves an extensive list of songs, poems, stories, paintings, film scripts; stuff that was out there, published, but also some unfinished works and projects, beginnings of things—scrawls, some rough lines, maybe a few notes. But most important of all were the works that had never left his head, even those dreams that might have contained a germ of a creation, a single image, a setting, perhaps a phrase overheard in a crowd, or a random string of words that sounded profound in the dream state and upon first waking, much in the same way I am dreaming Bud Wood now: his thoughts and dreams, his creations, sealed within my own.

I select an idea for a short story, and step inside his head in order to begin my critique, though it’s not really Bud’s “head” anymore, is it? What I meant to say was his “mind,” a similar entity akin to “inside the head,” not the physical brain but the energy of the brain which still exists in Endland. I look for his thoughts, his imagery, his musings, his dreams, but only those that belong to the creation, the thing he may have intended to share, or still intends to share, not the private world of cogitation with its miserable daily toil, its worries and fantasies, its false memory and monsters, its necessary but mostly harmless scheming. I’m in search of the finer stuff, the intricate weave of rich cloth, the mosaic of gold and emerald and lapis.

“Your work looks good,” I tell him. “You have that uncanny talent or ability of stating your idea in simple form without appearing trite. You often present complex themes with simplicity and elegance. Not an easy feat to pull off.”

Of course he doesn’t answer me. Not even a “thank you” if my criticism is favorable, or an “I’ll think about it,” or “I’ll work some more on that” if I happen to point out a flaw. My comments are immediately absorbed by him/her in the instant that I think of them—before they are hatched into words. In this way we share a telepathic conversation and understanding.

“But you need a little more detail. When you empty your mind completely you begin to gather in more detail. You notice the grains in wood and even metal, the architectural lines of buildings, the shapes of lawns and fences, the pores and veins on people’s skin. You remember people, don’t you?

“And you need to develop subtlety. You don’t want the media and others figuring you out too soon. Everyone is essentially a cop. You need to retain your inner core and an outward air of ambiguity and mystery. You don’t need an advanced degree, but on the other hand you can’t let it all hang out, because that’s a sign of limited education and breeding, a lack of refinement, a lack of sophistication. If people are able to read you in a matter of minutes they will quickly grow bored, they’ve already figured you out, and you don’t want that, do you? A lack of subtlety, of sophistication, will permanently consign you to the working and lower classes, and an obvious desperation in throwing yourself at other people—needing them too soon, needing them too much—is unattractive and distancing . . . Play it cool. Always play it cool.”

Her limb was always cold. The calf especially but the thigh too, which as a boy I would not be able to place my hand there very often if at all, possibly those times she was in a deep sleep. The entire leg was a chilled muscle-less tube of inert flesh and it needed to be borne along by the locomotion of the good leg and hip, as if it were some vagabond hitching a free ride . . . step forward, pull and drag, step forward, etc. . . . When sitting (and I observed this most when she was getting in the car) the dead leg was hoisted toward her with the hand beneath the crook of the knee, raised and then lowered into position parallel with the good leg. I may have written it about it before. I will have to find that sketch. Does it matter? Is it relevant? Is writing about your mother’s dead limb relevant? Does a dead limb have relevance?

There was always some kind of haze around cemeteries, or so it seemed, a hazy telephoto feeling like some movie cliché, a scrim overlaying the all too green grass hugging gravestones and the white of marble or pale gray of granite and distant black-clad figures — clergy, mortician, and mourners, their heads bowed, blots of color from the flowers that littered the coffin. Oddly, the haze may not have been subjective, may not have been induced by the general mood and activity of what typically takes place here but was more likely due to the summer heat and humidity. It seemed I was always here in the summer: June, July, August; father in June; maternal grandmother in July; mother in August, as though Death wanted to make a more poignant statement — no cold and barren landscapes for Him, he was all about equal opportunity regarding the seasons, as though Death would come a calling for my family (and who knows, maybe myself) in swim trunks, Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses.

In the August before we buried my mother, nearly one year to the day, I had driven her to the cemetery. Because of her limp from polio, she did not want to climb part way up the hill to the family plot, so I walked up, for her and for myself, to check on the graves. It was a warm August day but with a strong dry wind . . . I looked at the grave markers of my father, three of my grandparents, and a great aunt. There was only one unused grave left. I looked at the names on all the bronze plates and then the one plate that was nameless, and then I lifted my gaze and looked down the hill at my mother leaning against my car and felt an uneasy stirring over the certainty of her place in this ground. To me, my mother still seemed some years away from death, but one year later she would lie in this family burial site with the rest of them. She didn’t want to stick around. She had waited 11 long years. She wanted to be with my father.

My mother must have had the stirring herself, maybe anticipated the cancer that within a few months would begin shriveling her. She said it had been a great day, and I agreed, and when we returned to her apartment, she brought out from her papers a ruled yellow sheet with instructions for her service and burial. She wanted no viewing, no embalming, no special casket obviously. The cost of other funerals, including my father’s, had turned her against the death business, it didn’t make sense to her, spending all that money. We would simply meet at the undertakers on the day of burial, my brother and I would give readings and conduct prayers, we would buy our own flowers, and afterwards the mourners, if they chose to, could join us for lunch and then head back to their lives. The plans were simple, the way she liked things.

I landed in a basement corridor. I heard plastic trays sliding on metal racks, the clinking of dishes, plates and silverware, the voices of hospital kitchen workers who prepared the meals that were served in the cafeteria, and who also cleaned up the mess and emptied the garbage. Their presence was earthy and reassuring, life going on. Double doors swung open—a sharp bump, oiled hinges, and then slamming shut, though quietly, nothing too abrupt. I lingered here for some time, a cold dispassionate observer, before I noticed the elevator. The light above the doors was stuck on the number four, the fourth floor, but as the doors parted the light remained on number four. When I stepped from the elevator onto the fourth floor and looked both ways checking for patient room numbers, I realized I was 12 years younger than I’d been a few minutes earlier, and in a different hospital, which didn’t matter really: all hospitals feel the same at their core—the same starched staff, the same flowers and Mylar balloons, the same gurneys and IVs and surgery wings, the same TV’s flickering in patients’ rooms blocked by a half closed door, the same convalescing, the same dying, the same boredom . . . I didn’t need to check room numbers. I had been here many times already. I knew my way around and found the room. The door was shut most of the way, and I had to gently ease it open. I wasn’t sure if I would find my father or mother in there, lying there, but if I was really 12 years younger it would have had to have been my father . . . or maybe it would be me. I wasn’t sure.

My father was sleeping after one of the hospital’s many surgeries—futile intrusions upon a dying body to keep the machinery of modern medicine working and profitable. Father was on a morphine drip and unaware of my presence, the IV tree at his bedside like a sterile harbinger. There was a food tray with some uneaten applesauce. Racing cars circled endlessly on the television alongside his bed, a loud modulated drone, a swarm of bees with little change in motion, the same few cars in front, moving up, falling slightly behind. There were four camera angles: above from in front, on the ground at the mechanics pit, directly overhead and higher, and above and a little in back of the cars. Around and around they went with their incessant hum, with their constant looping speed and noise. There was something Zen-like in the televised drag race, and perhaps the monotony was helping to keep my father asleep which is where he needed to be at the moment. I was unable talk to him, there wouldn’t have been much point, he couldn’t hear me. The cars spun endlessly around the track. I finally turned off the television and let him rest.

I left his room and left the hospital. I approached a line of mourners across the street, and made my way to the head of the line where the pall bearers were loading the casket into the hearse. The undertaker recognized me and mentioned something about following him, about being the lead car. I saw that my car, at the front of the line, and the 20 other cars in the procession already had those orange signs with the word “Funeral” in bold black letters. Was I attending my burial? (I could have been in the casket, the casket was closed) Or more likely the burial of one of my parents, but which one?

God, the way they decorate these rooms. The placement of flower vases, of overstuffed armchairs and settees, all so artificial and bland, neutral, characterless, a staged representation of Life. They are called homes, but they’re not homes, homes are for living people, these places are theater sets for the dead. The living people, when they do gather here, are only gathered for the purpose of paying their final respects to the dead, and the rooms and furniture are so many props on a stage set. The bereaved and their guests greet one another and talk. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? How are you and how is so-and-so. The guests’ talk is predictably hushed, though a little hurried and tense too, a conversation to establish a secure wave of presence above the undertow of certain mortality. (“Hey, we’re still here, you and me. Have you heard the one about the duck who walks into a bar?”) Sometimes the gathering is large, like tonight, a room full of people, some finger pastries and coffee and the same level of sibilance and laughter as at a staid gala reception — well, not quite a gala reception — but the same aura of polite decorum.

When they are leaving you there isn’t much you can do except be there with them, a presence in their presence. They are often heavily drugged and asleep, and if not asleep and not eating, then possibly incoherent, far away. They may be aware of you but their speech is often desultory and fragmented, sometimes surreal and humorous. You help with whatever meagre skill you can marshal under the circumstances—possibly feed them or give them drink, reposition their body on the bed, procure more ice chips, find the TV remote and either turn the TV off or change the channel. You may stroke or kiss their brow, hold and squeeze their hands hoping for a reciprocal tension, a response, but you should not need a response, you should have no expectation of them acknowledging, or thanking for your care, don’t take it personally, it is not about you at all. They are simply leaving, their bodies slipping from your confused grasp. And it’s the idea of total release that seems hardest to wrap one’s mind around. I try to imagine total release from the body—the energy, the soul if you will, which has animated the body and quickened the flesh for decades, being cataclysmically dispersed and scattered into the larger or exterior world, or space for that matter. But space then takes on a double meaning. We have the “space” of “outer space”—the cosmos, the heavens arrayed beyond the window of Starship Thanatos—but then there’s the space immediately surrounding us, the air beyond the tips of our fingers, the crown of our head, the elastic curve of our skin. The two really aren’t different when you stop and think about it. Space is space. We are released into nothing. I try to conceive of nothing. I get a mental handle on merging with space and nothing, no separateness, no personal energy of one’s own, but simply rejoining the universe from whence we came. There is no longer harm or hurt to the volatile ego, or pain or shock to the flesh, nothing remotely threatening or horrifying; so why is it then that I’m still occasionally scared shitless by the thought of Death? I believe these memories and musings, random and disjointed as they may appear, will serve as a personal eschatological check list, the way my mother’s yellow notepad did.

The strange man in the white car had approached Neil Sutherland as he was walking home from school one autumn afternoon. Neil usually walked home with Glen and Robbie, but on that day, for a reason he couldn’t recall, they’d separated and he’d walked alone. The white car slowly followed him before pulling alongside the curb, and the man rolled down the window and offered him a ride. The strange man had thinning hair—he was almost bald—and his eyes protruded from a doughy asymmetrical skull. He’d placed a tweed jacket folded next to him on the front seat of his white car and a scented Christmas tree dangled from the radio knob. Neil had shaken his head—no, he didn’t want a ride—and his step quickened. The strange man had spoken to him nicely at first, polite and friendly, but then his tone had changed, sounding more desperate. He’d wheedled and coaxed and pleaded for Neil to hop in the car. Neil had then run up to the nearest house on the street and had rung the bell and banged on the door, and he’d watched as the strange man’s face flushed like some demon before raced off down the street. Neil’s heart pounded. No one had come to the door and he’d feared the strange man would circle around the block, so he’d cut through several backyards and taken a different route home.

Neil Sutherland was in the fourth grade. After the encounter with the strange man three weeks ago, he made it a point never to be walking home from school alone or to be anywhere alone if he could help it. He often played in the park after school, and the walk home was only a couple blocks. He figured the walk from the park would be the only exception to his rule because he could dash down the street to his own house if the strange man or a different stranger, ever returned to bother him.

Today is a warm November afternoon in 1963 and Neil plays in the park with his friends. They play football and wrestle and eventually stop to gather around a couple other boys who are flying a kite. The kite is a cheap conventional model that you might buy at a candy store or soda fountain. The kite flutters and dives and snaps in the wind, a ragged and hesitant ascent. The boys shout suggestions and offer different ways to make the kite fly higher and push one another to take turns holding the line, but soon the wind dies down, and the kite, a victim to flight by committee as much as the vagaries of the wind, twirls in demented dervish loops and hits the ground.

As the light wanes toward dusk, Neil and his friends disperse and head home for supper. Something feels different tonight. Neil walks alone but as he passes the elementary school he sees a line of cars parked in front of the doors and recognizes his parents’ car among them. Tonight is PTA night, a Thursday, and his mother must be dropping off a snack for the meeting, usually chocolate chip cookies or brownies of which she always saves a batch for him to eat later . . . after supper. . . . On impulse Neil tries the car door and finds it unlocked. He decides to play a practical joke on his mother and climbs into the car, lying down on the floor by the backseat, certain that his mother will see him when she leaves the school to drive home. And it will save him the two blocks walk back to his house.

But his mother doesn’t see him.

Instead she starts the car and it takes about half a minute before Neil realizes that the movement and direction of the car is unfamiliar. His mother is not driving back to their house. From the floor looking upward through the car window, he sees bare gaunt tree tops sliding past and power lines, like parallel elastic strings, rising and dipping with the swell of the road. This isn’t part of his plan and he’s impatient to sit up in the backseat and surprise his mother while the car is moving, but then thinks better of it. He fantasizes that he’s being kidnapped but not by the man in the white car, he has tried to shut that experience from his mind. The abductors he imagines are also men, but not some lone sick pervert, rather more like the gangsters he’s seen in old movies on television, the sort of guys who talk from the side of their mouth. Neil pretends he’s a detective and it’s a matter of life or death that he sharpens all his senses to find out the location of the gangster hideout where they’re taking him, bound and gagged, but as it turns out his mother has driven downtown, to the stores on Main Street. She parks in front of Moore’s Market, the local grocery store, and gets out of the car. Once again she doesn’t see him.

Neil understands that he’s done something seriously wrong, but isn’t quite sure how serious. He could leave the car and follow his mother into the store, then act surprised and greet her with the story that he’d been walking along Main Street, coming from Doyle’ s soda fountain and candy store, and happened to notice her car. This scenario—discovering his mother’s car on Main Street—has in fact happened to him a couple times before and seems plausible, but it would ruin his joke, though the joke is becoming less of a joke by now. He thought he might also sit up in the back seat and wait until his mother leaves the store, employing the same lie about finding her car downtown. Or he could simply get out of the car and walk the six or seven blocks back home (a longer walk now than from the school) and forget the joke had ever happened. But Neil continues to hide below the back seat, figuring that his mother will have to load groceries in the back of the car and certainly find him. She’ll be shocked, but her shock won’t be the heart-stopping screaming fear she would experience if he’d suddenly sat up while she was driving. And he would lie in order to mitigate the meanness of his dumb prank, explaining that he’d only discovered her car on Main Street a few minutes ago.

Something is wrong. The wait is painful, interminable, and he can’t stand it much longer. It’s rush hour, almost supper time. A lot of traffic and pedestrians are on Main Street and in front of Moore’s Market. Car engines, horns, doors opening and closing, people talking on the sidewalk, hailing one another, gossiping, laughing. Thursday evenings are busy, maybe the busiest night of the week because many people get their paychecks on Thursday, like his father, and the bank and stores stay open late. The weather is too warm for late November. Even in a light jacket Neil is hot on the floor of the car. His mother is taking longer than usual, but Time has tricked him this way before, when waiting for a friend or watching the school clock toward the end of the day, or trying to fall asleep. Where is she? If he sits up quickly to look then at least his curiosity is satisfied that his mother is still shopping and coming out soon, and if she happens to see him he could fall back on his Doyle’s soda fountain story. Neil cannot stand hiding another second. He sits up.

The street is mostly dark except for corner lamps and store window lights. His mother stands on the sidewalk in front of the grocery market, but she does not have any groceries in her arms. She’s been standing in front of the store the entire time talking to a strange man. His mother and the man are talking happily to one another and they appear to be good friends, though Neil doesn’t recall having ever seen this man before. His mother smiles a lot at the man and she laughs (he rarely sees her laugh) at something clever the man is saying, and sometimes they both laugh, enjoying that they’re making each other laugh. Before his mother and the man part, she holds his arm for several seconds asking him a question, and then they both nod and smile and say goodbye. Only then does his mother enter the grocery store.

He would not wait for his mother now. He doesn’t wish to play a prank on her anymore, and he knows the hiding game is no longer interesting and that his plan has long gone awry. He leaves the car and pushes his way down Main Street through the maze and jostle of shoppers in the gathering darkness. He moves fast to steer clear of the grocery market and his mother because he wants to be far away from her now. . . . There are more shoppers than usual tonight, a kind of frenzy at the stores due to the warm weather and the fact that Thanksgiving is next Thursday, one week from today. People coming and going, bigger, indifferent people ranging above him, bumping into him, oblivious to his presence, as if he were some bug on the sidewalk they might unwittingly squash. He doesn’t care to look at them and keeps his eyes on the sidewalk and the rhythmic progress of his sneakers. He hastens toward the end of the next block, near the end of Main Street where the stores aren’t as busy, and decides that he’ll turn there and run back home. The large bank up ahead on the corner displays the date and time on its granite façade: 5:30 November 21.

“Neil? Is that you?”

He looks up into the face of his third grade teacher.

“Hi”

“Hello. Don’t you recognize me?”

“Of course. You’re Mrs. Dunn.”

“It’s good to see you, Neil. Are you okay?”

“Yeah”

Mrs. Dunn is a plainly dressed, gray-haired woman in bifocals.

“Were you shopping?” she asks. “I hope you’re not wasting your hard-earned money on candy,” she jokingly scolds him, and he resents her comment a little, thinking it more fitting for a younger kid.

“No, I’m on my way home.”

“So how do you like fourth grade?”

He shrugs. “It’s okay.”

“Mrs. Lassiter tells me you’re a good student. An excellent student in fact. Second in your class.”

He shrugs again and Mrs. Dunn laughs. “Oh, don’t be so modest,” she says.

He feels trapped. Mrs. Dunn, his teacher from last year, from third grade, has become a stranger, and he wonders why. You see the teacher every day for an entire school year, but once school is out they quickly fade into memory because you no longer have to answer to them, or fear any punishment or verbal abuse from them, you’re out of their control, and their authority turns into a melting witch the moment you step out of that door and leave the class room in June, and then the cycle will start again with a new teacher in September. This odd woman, slightly wrinkled, blinking at him through her bifocals, appears so different out of school, out of the domain of her class room. She’s being nice to him, friendly even, but Neil is desperate to leave and get off Main Street.

“Would you like a ride home? I’ll only be in the drugstore a few minutes. Eye drops,” Mrs. Dunn says with an apologetic grin.

“No, that’s okay. I have to go.”

“Are you sure? You live near the school. I’m heading over to the PTA meeting soon . . . I’m a bit early. I can drop you off.”

“My mother’s shopping at Moore’s up the street. I’m going to get a ride with her.”

Mrs. Dunn stares at him, confused, and he regrets having to explain his movements to her. He knows was heading away from Moore’s Market when Mrs. Dunn saw him, not toward it, but he would now back track for a couple hundred feet until Mrs. Dunn was in the drugstore and then he’d veer off of Main Street and head home as originally planned.

“Well, all right,” Mrs. Dunn says, straightening her corseted torso, the way he’d often seen her do when she was at the blackboard, a perfect barrel of belt and blouse.

“Say hello to your mother for me, and you be good, Okay? And have a Happy Thanksgiving, Neil.”

Neil takes the streets back towards the school and park. Those streets would be slightly more traveled at this hour, and he also wants to retrace the route his mother took the whole time he was hiding on the backseat floor of her car. He doesn’t care if he gets home late and his mother punishes him, because his supper is cold—he’ll take his sweet time. Several blocks ahead shine the vapor lamps of the park’s football field and front entrance to the elementary school. There are a few more cars now for PTA night and he wishes he could rewind and erase the movie of this late afternoon and return safely to where it all began and not get in his mother’s car this time. . . . The lights of the school beam toward him like a hazy sanctuary, but for some reason he thinks he’d be a coward or a sissy to run and find refuge in the place he normally aches to escape each day.

A car approaches on his left, moving slowly, following him. A white car? He won’t turn his head to check but he feels certain it‘s the same car. The strange man, the creepy and dangerous man, has been watching his every move for days, waiting for the perfect moment to seize him, to kidnap, torture, and maybe even kill him. Where would he run to now? He’s walking past a vacant lot with the next house standing a couple hundred feet ahead. It is him, white car, the strange man! Does strange man know the other strange man? The one who’d been talking and laughing with his mother? His mother had softly held that man’s arm and smiled at him. Were the two men somehow plotting together? He only has to make it to the next house. He steps fast and breaks a sweat and the car stays with him, a small acceleration. He’ll dash to the nearest house again, just like last time. He can outrun a fat man, and he’ll scream loud enough so that everyone hears his scream for blocks. He runs and the car speeds up, but he freezes, thinking the car will fly past him, but the car doesn’t fly past him, it stops too, the horn honks, the window opens.

“Neil!”

Neil still stands frozen on the sidewalk.

“Get in the car this instant! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

He’s relieved and not relieved. He’d really wanted to make it home safely without seeing anyone. He reaches for the backseat door handle but his mother makes him sit in the front seat. She looks beautiful under the dome light and he notices her bright moist lipstick with a mingling of elation and pain. She was more beautiful somehow when talking to that man earlier in front of Moore’s Market. The smell of his mother’s perfume fills the car like some lethal gas.

“Why weren’t you home?” she nearly yells, her worried tears verging on rage. “What could you have possibly been doing out this late?”

He reads the fear and worry in his mother’s face and realizes he’d been wrong when he thought she no longer cared about him.

“I don’t know. I was playing in the park, and then I went to the stores, to Doyle’s, and I was on my way back.”

His mother draws a deep breath. “Don’t you know they’ve reported a sex pervert in town who’s been stalking young children? Your teacher or the police haven’t mentioned it?”

“No”

“A pedophile,” his mother says with disgust. “It makes me sick to say that word, no less think about a person like that—a sick, evil soul. You haven’t seen anyone, have you? A stranger in a car stopping to talk to kids?”

“No—”

“Offering them a ride?”

“NO!”

His mother winces at the outburst. He fears she might slap him across the face.

“Please don’t shout at me,” she says and releases a weary sob. “What is the matter with you?”

“Nothing is the matter. I haven’t seen anyone, okay?”

They’re only a block from the house, and Neil and his mother stop talking. He feels better about his mother, and he isn’t sure why he feels better, but he decides not to think about her anymore and what he’d seen on Main Street. Tomorrow is Friday, his favorite day of the week, and it’s still warm out. His class plays kickball in the schoolyard every Friday afternoon, weather permitting, and he will count the minutes until the three o’clock bell and end of school and he’ll play with Glen and Robbie all weekend except for when they have to be home for supper and stay in at night, but then he’ll still be able to watch television. There are marathon games of football to play, and maybe he and his friends will buy a kite of their own at Doyle’s soda fountain and practice flying it, and next week there’s only three days of school and then Thanksgiving. . . . He’ll forget what happened today, forget his mother and the strange man and the pedfile in the white car, forget kindly but pushy Mrs. Dunn and all the teachers in his school and the mindless shoppers bustling along Main Street. Yes, tomorrow and the weekend and Thanksgiving and Christmas and the days after Christmas down through the hopefully snowy end of the year . . . all those days are calling him now with a promise to play and forget.

Beatrice materialized around 10:00 that evening. She sat with our child in a corner of the glass room, in the chair next to where I keep a reading table and lamp. The opposite corner of the glass room has a table and strong fluorescent light under which my star charts and notebooks were spread, but I use the more private, meditative corner to sit and think about stars, often in the dark. . . Beatrice shone in the ring of muted lamplight, reading a bedtime story to the boy or girl (the child’s gender kept changing, simulacra of sexual dimorphism) who’d just drifted off to sleep, a few tangled locks of silky hair skewed across his/her slightly flushed forehead. Beatrice was clothed in a dark green dress, her hair gathered up and held with a pearl clip. Our sleeping son or daughter made a faint wheezing snore as Beatrice tented the book “Goodnight Moon” on her lap then folded and placed it on the reading table, the black crystal panes in back of her head trapping her face in haloed reflection, a more insubstantial image within the waking-dream. Beatrice stroked the sleeping child’s dampened brow and gazed out into the night with a serene and enchanted look on her face, a moment of perfect sweet reverie. She then turned her head and smiled at me without saying a word, and the touch of her magnificent aura surpassed anything I would ever experience on Earth.
***********************************************************
Gladys habitually left the TV on in the den, and sometimes I would stop in this room on my way to bed and silence the silver-blue chatter, leaving Gladys in her unaccustomed place of darkness. Often the TV would show Tom Snyder interviewing noteworthy guests like Charles Manson or the Sex Pistols, or the inter-racial couple who had published a book years before about being abducted by aliens. And Gladys would be asleep on the sofa bed, shimmering in a wrapper of pale violet luminescence as if she’d been abducted and taken on the space ship . . .

Tonight I stared at the Burns and Allen rerun for a few minutes, laughed at some of the jokes and Gracie’s absurd monologues and non-sequitur, and I pondered how much America and the world had changed socially in the last 25 or 30 years and juxtaposed the brilliant joyous marriage of these two showbiz personalities with the sadness of my own and that of the prone snoring figure lying on the sofa, a disk of amber residue in a tumbler of emptied Southern Comfort carelessly positioned on the end table near her lolling head.

Sketches From The Straits of Juan de Fuca
A Crime Novel/Memoir set in Portland Oregon

They had dumped the body in broad daylight about 15 feet from the Boa constrictor. It was in the Southwest park blocks, not far from the university, across from the Art Museum and Masonic temple, parallel with the back of the Paramount theatre. Hamburger Mary’s was in this neighborhood. There were film houses, antique shops, galleries and book stores. It wasn’t what you would call a crime district although I used to hear reports of rapes and muggings.

The sun was high and strong, and sweat dripped from the faces of the onlookers who’d gathered to gawk at the boa and the body, eagerly shifting from one attraction to the other the way juxtaposed sideshows will compete for your attention.

The boa was the first thing I’d noticed upon arriving, the body seemed like an afterthought. Long, bronze, and thicker than suspension bridge cable, the snake twitched and writhed in the park grass and I thought of Moses when he threw down the staff and the staff turned into a serpent, cobra probably. Sunlight gleamed and shimmered on its scales. It was fluid and always elongating and swelling in girth, with a head shaped like the stone in a tomahawk, a cold and formidable weapon. I felt a kind of sick thrill watching that snake. Most tame animals when uncaged afforded you a kind of Edenesque interaction, maybe even a small telepathic exchange. I wondered if there was any connection between the boa serpent and the dead body sprawled face down nearby.

The police had already managed to tape off the area, and were now dealing with the boa constrictor and its owner.

“Would you be polite and respectful, sir, and take your little circus over on to the next block. We have a murder to deal with here.”

“But don’t go too far. We have some questions for you.

I stepped over the yellow tape and approached a knot of policemen.

“Afternoon Juan.” That would be Lieutenant Porto in Homicide.

By now they had turned the body over and I had a good look at him. Adrenalin surged through my stomach and I tasted the bile rising in my throat. But I wasn’t going to puke. Not in front of this group.

“What happened?” I said. “Snake get ‘him?”

A detective named Nichols examined the body, ignoring my sarcasm.

“Doesn’t appear that way. The victim wasn’t crushed. Probably just a coincidence.”

“Or maybe not a coincidence,” said Detective Porto. “A few witnesses confirmed the snake showed up around the same time as the stiff so the snake’s owner could have been an accessory used to distract and confuse people so they wouldn’t be able to identify the killer. Or killers.”

“Kind of like the Grassy Knoll in Dallas,” I said.

“Yeah, a little like that . . .” Porto stared at me. “You okay, Juan? Is it the heat? I know you’ve seen your share of dead bodies before.”

“I’m fine.”

=====================================================================
*

I needed to look for a book on handmade papermaking and maybe one on boa constrictors, so I headed over to Powell’s Books on Burnside, running the gauntlet of winos, street walkers, panhandlers, and everyday grifters, and it was only 10:30 in the morning. The bookstore was a sanctuary. There were rows and rows of books and stacks well above your head so you could use a step ladder if you needed to. I figured if I couldn’t find what I was looking for at Powell’s then I wouldn’t find it anywhere.

I wandered the aisles a bit before narrowing my search and stumbled upon a truly sinister book cover. It was a book of poems, “Dinners and Nightmares” by the beat poet Diane DiPrima. A glossy white paperback. Front cover was a black and white photograph, possibly a movie still, of a man’s head, close shot, a trench coat collar turned up as the man lights a cigarette, his hands making a threatening parentheses around the match; greasy tousled hair, the face pallid, the eyes brightly evil and threatening, the entire image of his head and trench coat collar illuminated by the match in spectral whites and grays, a face right out of noir cinema. And yet I’d seen characters not unlike this guy in their lost migration paths through the streets and back alleys of the rainy city. I read a few poems and overheard a conversation about chakras and the third eye. Someone mentioned Gurdjieff. I thought it might turn out to be an interesting day, a day that could lead me to something big and important on the case. Storm clouds the color of steel wool, fast and roiling, had been gathering in the western hills beyond Burnside, behind Forest Park. Some early rain drops made a stencil pattern on the cracked sidewalk.

The female boa constrictor is on average larger than the male, in both length and weight. Boa constrictors possess sexual dimorphism in which the male is typically brighter or more colorful than the female. A female can grow to a length of 10 feet. Maybe that snake in the park blocks had been female, because she appeared to be about nine feet long, but I thought I heard the snake’s owner call it “Quentin.”

As I was checking out, two things happened in quick succession to ratchet up the day’s mystery. Taped to the register and pinned to a nearby corkboard was an array of business cards (astrologers, yogis, scientology, EST, herbal healing, astral projections, etc.) and also announcements for concerts, readings, food, live music, and lectures. My attention was riveted to a familiar flyer because of its ancient Celtic artwork and lettering, and especially the Old Norse image of a hero lifting the severed gored head of a slain monster.

In Performance 2 Nights Only
Poet, Thespian and Performer Uncial Runic
In a Dramatization of the Great Epic Poem “Beowulf”
In the Original Old English
Wednesday & Thursday August 1, 2 – 9:00PM
The Cthonic Tavern Northwest 21st Street

Something was uncanny about the photograph so I looked closer. That’s right, the photographed head of the hero had been cut and pasted on the body, and the head was presumably that of this guy Uncial Runic. But the severed head of Grendel (or was it Grendel’s mother?) was Uncial Runic too, a different shot—leering dead creature grimace. It was also uncanny that I’d been mailed the same flyer that morning with a note in cut-and-paste letters that Runic’s ambitious reading-performance may contain “a significant clue” to Lovejoy’s murder.

And the cashier who checked out my book said, “Do you own a boa constrictor?”

He had a brown beard and long hair tied in a pony tail. He was wearing jeans and a frayed black sweater. He’d been reading a book by Thomas Merton while working the register.

I told the cashier that I did not own a boa constrictor but I was interested in large snakes and thinking of buying one.

“Do you know Jacques?”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

“He comes by the store with his pet boa constrictor.”

“I might be interested in meeting him. Do you know Jacque’s last name?”

“Sorry,” the cashier uttered in a kind of bored neo-Marxist monotone. “But if you to want to meet him, he usually stops here on his way to or from the park blocks. Lives somewhere in the Northwest. He calls his boa ‘Quentin’.”

The cashier handed me my book and I left immediately.

Jacques and his snake Quentin. I was making some progress. As soon as I reached home, I called Anna Cortes and invited her to see this Uncial Runic character performing Beowulf. Anna is a linguistic and literary genius, and I thought she’d be able to parse the text for any double meanings, symbolism, allusions, or references that may touch upon the Lovejoy murder. Anna has helped me on several cases. Her main thing these days is semiotics, and something called “deconstructionism.” Like Melanie, Anna and I are lovers occasionally.

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked her.

“Watching Uncial Runic perform Beowulf at the Cthonic.”

“Ah, a woman after my own heart.”

“Really? I didn’t think you were a fan of Old English poetry Juan-O.”

“Well, I’m not a big fan, but I need your help. I’ll tell you why later.”

“The Lovejoy murder?”

“Yes… So is it a date?”

“You need to ask? Of course it’s a date. Pick me up around 8:30.”

“Have you ever seen a boa constrictor around town, goes by the name of Quentin?”

Anna burst out laughing.

“That’s quite a non-sequiter. I guess we’ve exhausted the date plans,” she said, and laughed some more. “What’s he look like, this boa constrictor named Quentin?”

“Average, I guess. About nine feet long, grayish-brown, or brownish-gray. Handsome . . . for a snake. Owner’s name is Jacques.”

“Of course. Jacques and Quentin . . . hmm . . . can’t say that I know either of them.”

“Do you know Uncial Runic?”

“I know of him. Ex-Reedy, now runs a quasi-mystical and antiquarian poetry society.”

“Sooner or later you know everyone in Portland if you stay long enough.”

“Or everyone worth knowing.”

Binaries and Heterochromia Iridium

I have long sought to discover a binary star system, and the moment I looked into Beatrice’s eyes on that rainy September morning I had begun to obsess over her crystalline piercing blue eye and her warm caressing brown eye. In astronomy language regarding binary systems, I would designate her blue eye as the primary and her brown eye as its companion, or comes, though brown eyes are more common, the blue-eyed gene being recessive. I wondered if I was being a bit Aryan in choosing blue as the primary, but I didn’t believe that was the reason. The blue eye was the first one you saw, you were drawn to its cool gleam, it was unavoidable. Eyes of the same color, too, often have different varying degrees of sightedness which is also like a binary system or double system. Our eyes, the slightly asymmetrical symmetry of our bodies, our handedness, the left and right side of our face, the hemispheres of our brains—so much of nature is based on a kind of complementary pairing with sides being not quite equal.

And I’d been dwelling on Beatrice’s eyes a great deal recently, hoping that Beatrice’s heterochromia iridium would somehow lead me to discovery if I meditated on them before falling asleep at night. I soon realized, however, that this sort of “focus exercise” assuming it had occasionally worked for Edison, wouldn’t trigger a discovery at all. No, I was already well on my way to a discovery (it was only a matter of when), and a blue eye and a brown eye may have been the catalyst, but the resulting whirlwind had more to do with my being slapped awake and had begun to see everything in my habitual surroundings with new eyes. I was born again with the appearance of Beatrice in my life. All the Brainchild merchandise—the Galileo thermometers, the astrolabes, the prisms, Fresnel Lenses, beakers and butterflies, optic wheels, dissection kits, and all the scopes of every size and shape and power, had assumed startling form in the presence of Beatrice, as if in her passing she’d sprinkled some magic sparkling stuff over the store items and shelves. After all, what were these things about anyway, these toys and kits we played with or used or studied, not in practical terms of how you would describe them, but stripped down to their material essence: metal alloys, steel, brass or lead, colored calibrated glass, perhaps some fluid or a fulcrum, string or wire. These objects had been designed for a scientific or education or hobby purpose, and if you happened to be ignorant of that purpose the objects would be unknowable and insignificant, mere apparatus. But after the initial sighting of Beatrice these objects had suddenly possessed a beauty and visual wonder in themselves that I hadn’t noticed in years. The vacuum of my marriage had unknowingly created other vacuums, even at Brainchild Scientific but in the early days of fall everything was transformed and infused with new life as if some gauzy veil had been lifted from my sight, and the store inventory assumed an intricate richly textured, colorful warp and woof. Brainchild had become my personal universe relative to Beatrice and the revelation that my eyes had been in sore need of calibrating, sharpening, honing. But ultimately it would take George and Gracie to get me to the discovery.