Fragile Thread of Human Involvement

Chapter 5

Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

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Rogue and I celebrated PJ’s birthday in Washington Square Park. PJ was festive in burnt sienna pants, a white somewhat stained Arrow shirt and a red scarf around his neck. His daughter, who looked like him in a sleeker version, joined us, bringing homemade ratatouille.

“The fragile thread of human involvement,” PJ observed, “is actually very strong. It’s impossible to break it, consciously. No one human being can break it.”

In his garret later, while Rogue was running an errand, PJ asked why I never came to see him alone. He wanted me to come see him, “Not because you’re Rogue’s friend, and only if I am of value to you.”

I sensed the ultimatum in his words. How could I say what value he was to me? I enjoyed his company and was willing to help him with his work, his writing, and compiling his papers for the New York Public Library. I told Rogue about this.

“PJ told me he feels paranoid about you,” he said.

“What do you mean? Does he think I’m going to use him in some way?”

“No,” Rogue, said, “he’s paranoid about using you. He felt guilty about asking you to help him and taking away time from your own work. If you do it because you underrate yourself and overrate him, you may start to feel hostile toward him in the future. He’s afraid he’ll become dependent on you and the resentment you might have.”

I was alarmed by PJ’s insistence that he and I forge our own relationship. I worried that I would come between Rogue and PJ. Perhaps it was my own form of paranoia, but it seemed to me PJ was bending the thread with Rogue, trying to break our threesome apart. I was hoping he could not.

PJ asked me to help him organize his writing and publish booklets of his work. It would be a challenge to unravel his mysterious typo-filled pages and recreate them to make sense. At times, the ribbon was so light I could barely discern the letters; I used a pencil to bring them up. Other times his hand settled on the wrong row on the keyboard and I sat by my typewriter comparing the letters on his manuscript to the corresponding keys on the row above. After making corrections, assembling sentences and finding the general drift of the piece I re-typed it for him and brought it back to read to him.

“You’re the old man’s eyes and ears,” he said. “You give him a future; you give him a reason to live.”

When Rogue joined us, PJ proposed that he, Rogue and I form a group to turn his “million dollars worth of work into capital.” We would be his agents and split the money three ways. “Let’s form a company,” he said. “Publish The Writer before he croaks.”

Although I had only a few ideas how to promote his writing and his art, I said I would do what I could to help.

PJ wanted to call the company, Words.

Rogue gave us both a sardonic smile. I knew he had a bleak view of the world and an ideal vision of it. It made sense that he, a young artist, would keep a dying artist company.

PJ saw the smile. After Rogue left, he remarked, “Rogue likes to show off his association with me. It’s like knowing one of the street people.”

It was obvious to me that Rogue saw PJ as a father figure and needed his approval for his risky, bohemian way of life. What is, and has been going on between them before I came into their lives?

PJ insisted on feeding me when he realized that I had very little money. Going through his writings with him after dinner, I felt that we had accomplished a great deal.

“Erin, you take such small satisfactions from life,” PJ said. “Every day as you go through life. I couldn’t do that.”

Would he ever have that big satisfaction? As I walked back up Eighth Avenue I began to worry that it was all futile. He was almost 80. He did not have a chance of being published. What happened to all those years?

***
Rogue, PJ and I padded around the streets, especially in the early evening. In one square, a tall man with a few white hairs on his head, stood on the curb, a hat beside him, staring at the ground, his head bowed. When we passed by, I heard him singing. He sang the whole song sweetly, and so softly people did not hear him until they reached him. His voice was undistinguished but haunting and happy.

“Fleetwood,” PJ said. “He told me he was in Germany during the war and in a hospital for a long time afterward.”

Rogue said the only time Fleetwood was happy was when he sang.

As if he was supposed to be happy when he sang, was how he sounded to me.

One evening, a Spanish woman street singer appeared in the square. Fleetwood was standing in a trance nearby, listening to her playing the guitar and singing vivaciously in Spanish.

PJ, as we passed, said, “Fleetwood’s in love.”

I looked back at him. He looked the same, no discernible expression on his face. But I noticed after that wherever she was, Fleetwood was near, until finally he was standing next to her. Then one day they both disappeared.

As we walked by the ground floor restaurant, its windows reflected Village tourists and starving artists. I glanced at our three slim fluid images in the frame with established faces behind looking back at us.

PJ labored up the stairs, one large sandaled foot at a time. His building’s brick walls were pockmarked with windows, each one with small glass squares in weathered wood frames. These frames afforded snapshots of the Village: squalls of tourists on a crowded street, free-wheeling lives across the way, rooftops crenellated with water-towers and Speedo-clad sunbathers, an Art Deco bar, and the Jefferson Market Library.

PJ encouraged me to talk about myself. “You’re an enigma,” he said.

It was true I could not talk about myself. I had no identity with others, or I refused those identities. How do you identify yourself?

In a fifteen page booklet I combined fact and fantasy and printed it on plain white paper with a typed title, Mona Lisa’s Secret, on the cover. I made less than 20 copies and gave some to friends; the others were for the Small Press Book Fair.

The afternoon I went to Jake’s bookstore to give him one, he was out and the door locked. I slipped a copy through the mail slot. A week later I went back. He was huddled like a bear behind a stack of manuscripts and new books. He said he read it and liked it very much and wanted to publish it as a special issue of his little magazine. He hoped to have it out in time for the Book Fair.

PJ asked me to read it to him, but I said it was too personal. It was an erotic prose poem, after all. I suggested he ask Rogue to read it to him, and he did one evening when I was not there.

The next time Rogue and I visited him, PJ said, “How did we have this intellectual among us and not know it for so long?”

And he had written a blurb I could send to publishers, which I decoded this way:

Now you have read the words and semantics of a brilliant female writer. Erin Yes emerged into a (word indecipherable). She is, in earth years, mature, with an exceptional perception of the world she grew to, yet sensibly, a baby, a girl child, a young woman who has adjusted herself to living in a time of madness and existence in death of the women of the world. She accepts herself as neither male nor female, and knows what no person can admit to herself/himself, the forbidden sensibility to incestuous fantasy. She is the first female writer to tap the universal stream of consciousness and contemplate the wonder of living alive. She has discovered and discloses to readers in the world the experiences of the new world beginning. Here is the opening, the first piece of her work in progress.

“This is all very good,” Jake said. “But there’s not a word of truth to it.”

PJ gave me monogrammed letterhead. He had cut out the letters “EYES” and pasted them up. The letters were neat, elegant.

“Like you,” PJ said.

Rogue smiled, saying PJ had worked hard on it and taken it to the copy shop himself. There were 1000 sheets. It was an extravagant gift from someone as poor as PJ.

“It’s for The Company,” Rogue said. He called PJ’s proposal “The Company.”

We were going to work together to promote the work of all three of us.

I took the paper home, with a strong aversion to being known as “EYES.”

PJ was trying to change my identity. I recognized that Rogue’s using the letters of his first, middle and last name as almost another name had come from PJ’s influence. PJ, meanwhile, had started calling his corporate self, Words.

“The old man,” PJ said, “hopes to relieve his poverty and Rogue the prospect of poverty for the rest of his life.”

***
The next weekend, Rogue and PJ flew to Boston to see a nutrition expert, a doctor, to try to find a way to restore PJ’s sight or halt its degeneration. The day after they returned, PJ stocked up on bottles of minerals, herbs and vitamin pills he could not afford to buy more than once.

Rogue left to visit a relative and PJ and I were completely alone for the first time. I was not sure if PJ had asked Rogue to engineer this or if Rogue had his own reasons.

PJ and I walked to Washington Square Park. I was nervous. What was I going to say to him?

PJ was obviously pleased and said that Rogue’s “intuition” in leaving us alone was “very strong.” In the park he said his first impression of me was that I had been able to remain innocent, not an easy thing to do in this world, and that fascinated him.

“You know when you meet someone, you make an instantaneous decision. It may be a pleasant experience, but if you don’t get anything of value out of it, and that’s an unconscious evaluation for most people, you never find the time to meet with them again.” He spoke more softly, “Those offers and promises of lunch, coffee, a movie, somehow never happen.”

I nodded, yes. I had experienced this. I had always thought warmly of the person, but in fact, the connection never developed. Consciously, I would not admit that I had determined there was not enough worth knowing in the other person to incorporate them into my life, and vice versa. I recognized the truth in what he was saying. What was my value to PJ? To be seen with a young woman? To bolster his ego, or to assuage his loneliness?

Over dinner in his cramped kitchen, he confided, “In losing my wife, I lost the female half of myself. After the hospital, I existed completely male in the body of a skeleton.” With a bohemian leer, he added, “And no place to hide my embarrassment.”

“But don’t you have a female side as well?”

He shook his head, no, he did not have that. He needed a woman in his life or he was only half alive. “And of course, I had no recourse to the intellectual collaboration which two perspectives make possible.”

And so, over the years, when there was no woman in PJ’s life, he created female personalities, wrote under their names, wrote twenty page letters to them each day, created life stories for them and carried on the collaboration.

“Pearl Joying and Justine Paris. What a pair of gals they were.” He began to hum a “little ditty” from his childhood.

The women he knew in fact and in theory were essential to his ideas.

“When I look back on it and appreciate my wife was one person and I another, I realize she and I were so intuitively together that six years after the split, we got together again for a year and everybody knew, just seeing us together, that we were a man and a woman in love. That was the intuitive thing that sometimes a couple goes on for maybe a year or a year and a half before they begin to get suspicious and start quarreling, start raising issues.”

PJ pulled a box from a shelf beneath a street window and pointed to nine or ten others along the long outer wall. All had the name “Document” hand-printed on them.

“It’s not like any other diary ever written before,” he suggested in an explanatory way as though to persuade me. “This is a study, a documentation, of one’s man’s stream of consciousness, written daily for over thirty years.”

“Every day?”

He nodded yes. “But not compulsively. If it had been compulsive, I’d suspect that it was written as a substitute for being with a woman in love.”

“After your divorce.”

“After the hospital. The Document begins with an account of the paranoia in the hospital. It’s about papa’s death and rebirth in a wasted body at forty years of age. Then he was deserted by his wife.”

“What do you mean? I thought you left her, or it was mutual.”

“I became conscious and saw her blood flowing to me. Then I passed out. When I woke again, she was not there. She never came to see me again. I was lost until the writer identified the emaciated remains as the ghost of his wife’s husband.”

“It’s stream of consciousness?” All of it? It seemed exhausting, overwhelming.

“It didn’t start out that way.” He opened a box and showed me onion-skin pages inside, thousands of them. “The first two or three years, it was garbled and confused. Because I was writing to justify myself. I was rationalizing all my actions and my motivations.”

At the time he was working as a book designer at a press in Greenwich Village. In the mornings, he would do his work and leave the information for his assistant, then spend the afternoons at the Museum of Modern Art. Besides the art and relaxing ambience, it was a good place to meet intelligent and interesting women.

One afternoon he met a woman in the penthouse restaurant.

“I was telling her about everything that was wrong with my life, about my illness and recovery, about my divorce and my low salary as a book designer.”

She listened quietly until the end and then she said, “You seem to have things pretty much as you want them.”

He shook his head. “And I thought, my God, maybe I do have everything as I want it. I thought, maybe I’m not right about this. I began to investigate my thoughts, as they occurred before, during and after situations.”

I sat in MOMA and let the flow of my consciousness go by. I could feel,” he said, his fingers responding to tactile memory, “its ripple. Do you know what Walt Whitman said about idleness? ‘I loaf and let the world in.’ This is what I did.”

Ladders of Flame

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen
Copyright 2014 by Mary Clark
All rights reserved. For permission to use any portion or all of this document or photographs, please contact me at my Facebook Author page:
https://www.facebook.com/maryclarkbooks

Excerpt from
Chapter 2 Ladders of Flame

Upstairs in St. Clement’s sanctuary’s vast open space, rows of tall arched windows resembled trees, and their stained glass mosaics formed branches, flowers and leaves. The peaked roof with hewn beams two stories high was Noah’s Ark come to rest upside down on Manhattan Island, filled with seminal winds and sounds of the flood.

A red carpet on the stairs and in the offices was worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics. These mosaics were not primary colors and depictions of saints or scenes from the Bible, but Longfellow’s forest primeval—lichen green on fallen trees, earthy orange, and clouds streaking into blue.

Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers, said, “Oh, they’re actually not stained glass. They’re leaded glass.”

“There’s beauty under the grime.”

Watty Strouss 1981

“We’d like to restore them, but it’s very expensive. Each piece needs to be cleaned and re-set with new binding.”

A heavy wire mesh covered all the street-front windows, crisscrossing the muted mosaics. The protective mesh made the church look almost medieval.

“Oh,” Watty said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings like the Chinese language. “Someone didn’t like our being an anti-war church and threw a Molotov cocktail through an upstairs window.”

In the 1960s, he told me, Joan Baez was married in the church. Later she referred to it as “that funky little peace church on the West Side.” Watty sighed. “She couldn’t remember our name.”

The upstairs space was both the Sanctuary where services were held and a theater. In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the basement of a high-rise on West 46th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, another Theater at St. Clement’s was born. That incarnation had a good run, but collapsed amid questions of missing funds. The current Theater at St. Clement’s started in the early 1970s and operated in the downstairs space, which was also called the downstairs theater.

The church’s main income came from renting the Upstairs Space to outside theater groups. Every Sunday church services were held onstage, making use of the current play’s set to match the sermon’s theme. Vestry members with corduroy jeans beneath their robes rolled out altar and pulpit and lowered a large crystal cross from its station in the light grid high in the beams.

So, the Upstairs Space had several names as well, depending on its current use and who was using it: the Upstairs Space, the Sanctuary, and the Upstairs Theater.

Alone at the massive gray metal desk in the front office I heard sounds in the church: voices, stories, pieces of song, wind in the sanctuary, birds in the oak tree, the organist practicing hymns, tales of the flower fund and the trust for burying the poor.

From where I stood on the church steps, I could see lines of tenements come riding out of the setting sun, full-tilt railroad flats roaring toward midtown Manhattan. Skyscrapers rose in Pyrrhic tower after tower, the Hudson River sang through the streets of its power; scarlet mist filled the air, diffusing over playgrounds and bars, vacant lots, delis, schools and cars.

Fire escapes flared the red of steel mill fires, and flames slashed across tenement faces.

I walked into the street: This is the fire, this is the glow as flames rise in the core, heat rises ethereal, takes on new forms, almost human, they flow along fire escapes: angels, angels walking on ladders of flame.

Death and Renascence

Chapter 4

Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

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PJ described the hours and days that followed. “There was a terrible clacking noise beating on his eardrums. Loud. Sharp. Penetrating, like metal against metal, woke him. When it moved away it came back again, stronger, louder, more tortuous than before. How could he bear it? He cried out, ‘What is that noise? I can’t stand it. Can’t someone stop it?’”

A nurse answered, “It’s only a power mower. Someone outside is mowing the lawn.”

“Make them stop it,” he pleaded. “I can’t take it.” But already he could begin to take it. After all, it was only a power mower, a man mowing the grass. The sound became normal.

“What is this?” he cried out. “Where am I? What am I doing here? Who are you?”

With her calm and matter-of-fact voice, the nurse answered, “You were out yesterday for a long time, out cold. Now you’ve had three blood transfusions and you are alive again. Take it easy. Don’t worry, just rest.”

He thought, “How awful. Yesterday I was dead. My God, what a silly sentimental speech I made.” When he woke up and saw that he was alive, it repulsed him. “Why couldn’t they have left him alone? Why couldn’t they have let him remain dead?”

He wrote:

There was really no place in the world for him now. He was not a newborn baby. He had a man’s body, a man’s consciousness, a man’s load of experience, memory. How could he accept life?

He had died and those damned doctors were probably patting themselves on the back, bragging about how they had saved him.

Damn them. Why didn’t they let him die?

He hated with all his strength the life he would now have to begin to live. He turned his face to the wall. He was horribly shattered that he had to live again. His family could have taken more easily the consequences of his death. Now, he, himself, would have to live with them, while they lived with a man who was no longer a husband and a father, but a specter returned to harass them. He buried his face in the pillow. He did not weep, or mourn for himself, dead or alive.

“The Father and Husband died on the operating table forty years ago. I could not continue my former life, could not be the man I was before my death.”

“You said you’d lived past your destiny.”

“Yes. But I had to accept that I could not regain my death any more than deny myself alive.” He was a skeleton, but he was alive. “I had to learn to live again, and find new reasons to live.”

In “Tender Branch,” he quoted the Book of Job:

“For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down,
that it will sprout again,
and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.”

“So when I physically died on the operating table, I was reborn, innocent as a newborn baby, but with the memory of a grown man. But death had taken away all my guilt and replaced it with innocence.”

After that, I began helping him write out his paranoia. He poured it into his letters. It helped me connect with the passionate crisis of “Tender Branch.”

But what was this admixture of feeling and intellect?

When I asked PJ about the intense affection he had for Rogue, and for his wife in “Tender Branch,” he said these experiences differed from emotion. He acted as though emotion did not exist and I was deluded to think so.

PJ wrote to me:

The old man is scheduled to go into the hospital, clean sheets, careless nurses. Indifferent doctors, and Rogue worries that he will lose a relationship. The Old Man wants the writer’s book, “Tender Branch,” printed, bound and mailed before the hospital visit. The first few copies were mailed; the next day Rogue was upset at the prospect of the old man’s death in the hospital. Not much more than that (but not emotionally) was the old man.

Yet he was encouraged that the book had been completed, and when Rogue intimated that he would miss the old man, if he didn’t come back, the old man said: I’d miss you too. They laughed at this.

But the old man wrote a letter to his daughter. That was the sole last letter and it was not sentimental, not emotional, with not a word of apprehension. Then the writer began typing. Pages and pages of work. The old man was reminded of Hemingway’s Snows of Kilminjaro, for he would miss Rogue very much if he didn’t survive. He’d miss the young man’s presence, interest and attention. He’d miss the young man’s separation from him, to work elsewhere, seeing him develop into an artist (already distinguished) and the future they had to live for.

***

Rogue and I were repelled by the ruins of PJ’s garret and arranged to have our dinners outside by his downstairs door. The corner restaurant had tables on the sidewalk. We set up ours as the last in the row. The restaurant owner saw us, then PJ, and smiled and nodded, so we proceeded to load the table with chicken and potato salad, vegetables, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, coffee or soda, and dessert. PJ had either made the main dish or bought it at the Jefferson Market. We were an odd triumvirate, talking of morality and mortality with the flaking paint of generations creating an Escher wall behind us.

Even so, at times, PJ’s wistful smile suggested he felt left out. One day, he wrote to me, “Rogue had mentioned marriage to Erin and she had responded with a little warmth that she had thought of it.”

Marriage? What? I tried to recall the conversation. We had talked about marriage, but not marriage to each other. At least, that was the way I remembered it.

Late that night on a Village street, Rogue asked me to stay with him, as if it were a matter of course. There was a passion burning just beneath the surface that I could glimpse, but I could not be sure, sure enough.

I said, no, I’d better go home. In my veiled consciousness, I knew or thought I would be just another of his conquests.

***

PJ, in yellow cut off shorts and ravaged wicker sandals, was sitting on the corner by the restaurant with his Fair Weather Gallery. People passed by and I heard one of them say, “Look, the Old Man of the Village.”

He would not put a price on the drawings and designs.

“Art is priceless,” he said. People failed to understand that when they took or received a piece of art they were supposed to offer a contribution to the artist, so the artist could keep on working. PJ continued to be mystified by people who took a piece of work and simply walked away.

I sat down on a folding chair next to him, picking up one of his paintings and resting it against my legs. Across Greenwich Avenue, where the Women’s House of Detention once stood, a garden was in full throttle. “I didn’t know if you’d be here,” I said. “I took a chance.”

“The fragile thread is woven from these intuitive acts,” PJ commented.

People sat at the sidewalk café. Again, the owner waved to PJ, who smiled back.

“Intuition is the motivating force behind our actions. It’s natural to respond and act intuitively, and unnatural to think about acting.”

PJ evoked many different responses on the street. Some people thought he was a bum, some thought he was crazy. But others, artists, printers and writers, Village residents, would stop to chat, recognizing him.

“I wanted to talk to you about The Document.”

“Do you want to ask me questions about The Document?”

“Is it a journal? What kind of thing is it, exactly?”

“The Document was begun one year and two months after he split with his wife. The purpose was to identify the ghost of Vivian’s husband because he had been reborn and didn’t have an identity. So the documentary writer decided to take this new born, fully grown baby and ‘make a man out of him.’”

“How do you identify yourself?”

“The first thing was that Vivi’s husband had an idea of one man and one woman. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of love with Vivi and he had just had a hot love affair with JJ and she had rejected him. The whole thing was a terrible mess.”

“You had an affair?”

“It was a big whoop-dee-doo affair that was supposed to take the place of losing Vivian. What it led to was a big deception on my part and on JJ’s part, too. She deceived herself that it was love and that I would marry her and things like that. The affair lasted a year and she decided she would reject me and give it up, it was a sudden thing. This was a tremendous blow to my ego. So that was when the document writer picked up and began trying to get me ordered in a line. He wrote for the ghost to read, that after all, a man could love as many women as he wanted to, as would let him and it didn’t have to mean sex in every case. That was the birth of the great lover.”

Over the years, he had created new identities, new reasons to live. He recorded all his “deaths and renascences.” Some identities were sequential and others simultaneous. Several of these identities were female. The most constant, perhaps continually renewed, were The Writer, The Artist, and the Professor of Love.

“You can die of an overload of guilt and hostility,” he summarized. “I died of an overload of guilt many times and was reborn with the innocence of a baby.”

“Didn’t N.O. Brown say something like that? About a new man, reborn into a second innocence?”

Yes, he nodded. “As one identity succumbs, a new one has to be created.”

In The Document he sought his motivations and evaluated the use of his time and the consequences of his behavior. “And in those early years I lived my life intuitively,” he said, “although I did not know it then, making choices which were completely unconscious, but which all together moved my life in a certain direction. We may not know it, but we make decisions based on what is valuable to us, and these small unconscious decisions cause us to go in one direction or another.”

Tender Branch

TenderBranch_Cover

Chapter 3 Tally: An Intuitive Life

Tender Branch

Rogue and I toured the narrow winding Village streets, as if on the canals of Venice, floating on poetry’s noble craft. Everyone who saw us thought we were together. I told him in confidence about my on and off again boyfriend, an affair that was not going anywhere.

Rogue had a romantic style that enticed many women. I began to notice him flirting with me, but never thought he was serious. He meshed his seduction into the flow of things, playing hide and seek.

To my distress, Rogue told PJ that I was in a dispirited relationship with a man who did not deserve me. PJ forged ahead as soon as he saw me. “Don’t waste your time with someone who is of no value to you.”

With this tension between us, Rogue and I traveled to Woodstock in late summer. Rogue drove all the way there. In the town, it seemed to me the people were walking dead, in slow motion, eternally young but no longer alive.

I felt a momentary thrill when I saw PJ’s papers in the library. At the same time, in this place, PJ was dead.

We walked down a road from the center of town toward Overlook Mountain, passing a boarded up meeting house. At a fork in the road we stopped at an old, unfenced cemetery on a hillside, with a view of time shaved in the form of mountains and a long valley. I knew Rogue was looking for a connection, a perspective on PJ, but it felt to me we were walking on PJ’s future grave, or the grave of his past.

I told Rogue how I felt, and he quoted a line from Peggy Bacon, a poet PJ published: “A goose is walking on your grave.”

We moved down to a spot by an unpaved road for a picnic, overlooking a muted and subtle tapestry of farms and forest in the valley.

Rogue observed, “This would be a great location for poetry readings.”

Back in the city, Rogue read from PJ’s novel, Tender Branch, written after his divorce and subsequent hospitalization.

PJ decided to publish a chapter. It would be a chapbook. A local shop had a color copier that PJ had experimented with in reproducing his textile designs.

Rogue and I spent the weekend typing it. PJ came to Rogue’s apartment and helped Rogue sew up the binding of some of Rogue’s chapbooks while we worked. Afterwards, we ambled to outdoor cafés for ice cream, in the deep space of our own world.

“I sought death,” PJ said, “by unintentional injury—not so unintentional, of course. I was hospitalized and spent weeks in hysteria and paranoia. In my own life I have been far from conventionally pure but even in my excesses, I was always innocent. And yet my guilt came out in the paranoia in the hospital. That was all my lifetime of guilt that I had so carefully put away. Oh God, the paranoia. I remember asking my wife: what have the investigators found out about me? My secrets? Did she know? Did they tell her anything?”

Tender Branch opened with a hallucino-dream in the hospital.

“It was a far more vivid experience than the consciousness that was my life. It was a kind of super-consciousness.” He remembered sitting with his back to a wall and in front of him nothing but distance. “Behind the wall, an inclined space. There was brilliant light and to his left, several feet away, naked, sat his wife with her back to the wall.

“She was as silent as he. A voice said: ‘Shut your eyes. The first one who opens them will die.’ For a long time he sat there with his eyes tightly shut, for he did not want to die, and he hoped his wife would keep her eyes shut, for he did not want her to die.

When he could not bear it any longer, he let one eye open, then both. “He turned his head to look. His wife was not there. Surely she was not dead—and he would not die.”

He knew that this was not an episode in his life, although it was certainly a conscious experience. In this new and fantastic aspect of consciousness he understood more clearly the situation he was in.

After signing a paper he was too ill to read, everything changed. “Sometimes briefly he would see at his bedside one of those out to destroy him. Hysteria, hallucinations and dark humor prevailed. He knew he was one of a dozen who were to be the doctors’ victims. They would be used as long as they could be, in the machinations of the programs for the amusement and indulgence of the rich patrons and eventually, when they were no longer useful, they would be murdered.”

He asked his former wife if she were one of them and she said yes. “But he could not believe it. He loved his wife. Even though he knew she would leave him and he would die because he could not live without loving her.”

The major torment the doctors devised was to “open all the shut and locked doors in his mind and transmit his secret thoughts to people in the next room. Film projectors had been set up in concealed places and he could look nowhere without seeing the lurid, erotic, unimaginable images as they danced, pranced, rolling and tossing beautiful color, with the sounds of voices, hysterical laughter, musical voices making disgraceful proposals, and participants freely acting them out, no matter what sex, what age, what combinations.”

He lamented, “Not one of his most secret and buried fantasies or memories could be concealed. Now all these people knew his deepest guilt. How could he continue to live?”

“What was it like to die?”

“Nothing dramatic about it. I welcomed death as a solution of all my conflicts. I would avoid the viciousness of a life without her. She would be free to pursue her own interests.”

“Free to create her destiny.”

He smiled, his eyes winking, piercing blue. “At the same time, I welcomed death as the fulfillment of a very great life. I was content. In fact, nothing could be more right. I had the wonder of living in love with my wife. Surely, few men had ever had it so good.”

“You were aware of what was going on?”

“For a few moments I experienced an exceptional clarity. I felt no sentiment or emotion, no regret or grief. I told my wife, ‘All the happiness I’ve had in my life was due to you, recognizing you, loving you and living with you.’”

He wrote this about dying:

Death enfolded him before he could say more. Death. Silence. Absolutely nothing, if not deep unconscious peace. That is what death is. Release from all consciousness, from all guilt, from all threats of poverty or torture of riches. The dead have no responsibility. There is no ego to establish and maintain at the cost of one’s self and cruelty to others. Peace. The apotheosis of peace, of quietness, of no emotional or physical pain, no wish or seeking for praise.

But suddenly my sublime peace was disturbed. I could not move but I felt. Cold, then warm. A flow of warmth began to trickle in. What is this? The warmth moved at a snail’s pace across a line marking half a body, seeking a place where it could break through. The point was found and with the same languid force the warmth broke through until I felt every part of myself, still inert, immobile, but an eyelid, one and then the other, opened. Without interest I saw my wife sitting in a chair beside my bed, watching me with intense anxiety. From her arm extended a tube to my arm, and then I knew that the warmth I felt was her blood, her life, giving life to my body.

He fell asleep soon after. His last conscious thought was this: She is giving birth to me.

Tally: An Intuitive Life, published by All Things That Matter Press, is available in print and ebook formats.

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A Perceptive Review of Tally: An Intuitive Life

These words are from a review of Tally: An Intuitive Life by Marylee MacDonald, author of Montpelier Tomorrow.

When a young poet stumbles into the life of a Greenwich Village recluse, she meets a bearded old man living in a garret. Surrounded by manuscripts in which he has attempted to comprehend the meaning of life, PJ has entered a time of failing eyesight, physical frailty, and economic uncertainty. Quiet and observant, the young poet Erin, or “Eyes” as PJ soon calls her, begins to help him put his life in order.

“No one is ever conscious of what he is doing or why he is doing it,” PJ said, “even a person who is aware of everything he is doing and after pondering it, can perceive the reason or motivation for it.”

The above is just one of many sentences I underlined last February while I was doing a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center for the Arts. Anyone who makes her or his life in the arts risks winding up like PJ, which is to say not wealthy, except in matters of the spirit.

“PJ’s long bony fingers swept over drifting stacks of books, papers, paintings, typewriter ribbons, photographs and found objets, all jumbled together, everything melting into some other form…’Dali would have had an idea of the melodramatic squalor in which I live,'” PJ told her.

PJ’s intellect and humor makes him an utterly fascinating subject. Some of his musings are brilliant; others, wildly off-the-wall.

To read the entire review, please click here.

Tally: An Intuitive Life, by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press, 2013.

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Deep Winter

Excerpt from Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, 2013

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A month of deep winter, near zero weather, and PJ in his cold Village garret was sick. I brought him a foot warmer. The nurse heaped blankets on his bed and set up a space heater.

“What are you doing here?” PJ looked up from his bed. “It’s four degrees outside.”

One evening I became ill, and by morning was struggling to breathe, painfully, as the congestion deepened into my lungs. For three days, I was in bed, getting up to change sweat-soaked clothes and to attempt to eat. By the third day, I was hallucinating. I seemed to be two people, one sick and the other well: the sick body and the rebellious mind?

I had a muddled sense of this and the split was not exactly clear, but one part of me was holding a conversation with another part. I dreamed of fire, then of a building on fire. I was on the top floor with my brother. My paternal grandparents, both actually now dead, were on the sidewalk below waiting for me. I had promised to go to the zoo with them, but first asked them to wait a minute because I had to go to the store, vaguely like Jake’s bookstore, and take something upstairs. So I did and when I was up there, I heard fire engines and people shouting. My brother and I looked out to see people pointing up at us and smoke pouring from one of the floors below.

I went to the door and started to step out, but the stairs had been burnt away, all the way down. Someone on a floor below opened their door and I shouted to them not to go out, the stairs were gone. No one came out and I began to devise schemes for our escape, when the phone rang.

I picked it up and someone said, “Hi, it’s me.”

“Who is this?” I asked.

“I’m the one who never calls anybody.”

“Who?”

“Jake. It’s me, Jake,” said Jake.

“Jake who?”

“Oh my God,” he said, “I can’t believe this. Jake who. My store just burned down and I call my best friend for sympathy and she doesn’t know me.”

Jake told me that there had been a fire on the second floor of the building his store is in. It started in the apartment above his store and there had been some smoke and water damage, ruining most of his books.

I passed away from life again into a delirious state, becoming more dissociated from myself. I thought I was three people, each one belonging to a different part of my face. One part belonged to one nostril and one to the other nostril and another to my mouth. Only the mouth was working. I kept asking, why have they abandoned me? Why don’t they work?

I felt myself floating down a river, and this went on for a long time, inexorably to its end, which I became slowly and in some pinpoint sense keenly aware of, but still I let myself go with the gentle but insistent flow. At last I felt myself buoying up, resisting the flow, and coming to a greater awareness.

Rising, I recovered enough to go to the hospital and be given medicine my mother later told me was used to treat Legionnaire’s disease.

Jake and I shared a laugh about my delirium when I was sick. “I knew you, but not exactly,” I said. “One part of me was telling me who you were and would have been able to talk to you, but I was almost unconscious. Everything was jumbled up. I also thought you were my Uncle Jake calling to tell me my parents’ plane had crashed.”

“Wow.”

“They were fine.”

“But my store did burn down.”

Together we moved through the water-soaked remains of his books and magazines. “I’ll get it going again,” Jake said.

During my illness, I experienced the hysteria and helplessness that PJ must live through daily. It was more than physical suffering and damage to the body. I realized that the mental aberrations and changes in consciousness caused by physical illness could become permanent. That would explain PJ’s “disintegration” and intensified “multiphrenia” and paranoia.

“You cannot experience my descriptions of my sickness with immunity,” PJ said. “You fell sick in a paroxysm of empathy.”

I had fallen beneath the weight of his narrative of despair, pain and helplessness. After this, I knew I could not witness his constant talk of pain and illness. I resolved to distance myself more from PJ. Suddenly, I wanted to find a way to be independent of everyone.

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A Greenwich Village Christmas Story

Excerpt from Tally: An Intuitive Life, the story of Paul Johnston (PJ), a Village artist and writer, and his young friend Erin Yes, All Things That Matter Press, 2013.

We argued over this, and finally he said, “It’s a good thing our friendship doesn’t depend on mutual agreement.”

Finally, I was able to go about his place freely, pick up anything, move it, throw it away, read it or take it home with me. I put his papers in files I had set up in his garret.

He insisted we were together in love, in amiable affection, as we worked on a piece of graphic art for one of his booklets.

“In the gloaming,” PJ sang, “oh my darling, when the lights are dim and low.”

I shook my head, confused at the note of happiness in his voice, on guard against any dip into despair.

“In the gloaming, oh, my darling. Think not bitterly of me.”

Before I left to visit my parents for Christmas, I stopped by PJ’s. He was smiling broadly, and after a cup of hot cider and cookies, he handed me an envelope. I opened it and there was five dollars.

“I had gone to the hospital to try to get some relief,” he told me. “And on the way back, turning onto Greenwich Avenue, there she was, walking toward me, arms outstretched. The old man tried to see her, but could not clearly, except to see a form tall and plain with an eager expression on her face. May I offer you some Christmas cheer? Oh yes, the old man said, of course, I need it and am grateful.”

“Are you giving me all of it? You need it, too.”

“The Third Party, God or whatever it is that arranges things,” he said, “sent this gift to me to give to you.

As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a Christmas present for you.”

And of course he had to write a letter with it, only one page with his monogram on it. Across the top he had typed, “Vanish gloom and melancholy, Tra lala, la, lala la la …” At the end he concluded, “The old man is strictly a catalyst in this deal. Last Christmas he did not know you. This Christmas he was grateful that he has met you. Thank you, Third Party.”

Tally is available on:

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