This is the entire third chapter, now on Kindle Vella as well.
A year earlier. . . 1974
My name is Martin and I live in a Jersey suburban home on a road down from a nine-hole golf course where the working class plays the wealthy’s game. In a haze of beer and pills, I walk my dog in the shredded grass of the right-of-way. I know that if I trip and fall, the neighbors will let me lie by the side of the road. They might call 911 to complain, but no one will come to my aid.
A girl yells out the window of a passing car, “Which one is the dog?”
I’m young and skinny and sometimes I look defeated. Sometimes I shine. Both men and women have come on to me.
I hardly flinch. Insults are common parlance.
I am the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. I am the rivers drifting and the big fat sea. I have my own world and many, many visions. I want to fly and learn physics and have a book published and travel. I believe life – Life – is complicated, with uncertainties and changes in perspective. I want to drown in it, rather than walk about on the surface. Not to be a trendy “celebrity” saying foolish things, superficial things. Where I can’t be a total person. As if I’d ever be a celebrity. I’d rather be anonymous in the midsection of American life, flowing with the blood, losing, winning, decaying, renewing.
What I’m searching for is communal and infinite. Like on a crisp clear night when you see the stars above the golf course. In daytime, it’s something less. You can’t get a hold of anything. It’s not like being underwater where it’s peaceful, quiet, a continual world. Everything is linked together. On the surface, people in their boats with beer cans, things are not connected.
I must learn to cope with the disconnected, the abrasive. When I close my eyes, it’s dark, peaceful, eternal, infinite. Opening my eyes, I will have my own perception. I will. Can’t let anyone or anything knock away my vision. Lose so much. If people come up to me and ask: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Or a homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual? Or a commie or a cappie? Or a socialist or a socialite? Does your
detective debutante know what you want? It’s all so stupid.
I take my dog home, watch him curl up and close his eyes, to sleep, to dream dog dreams. At least, this.
I dream I’m playing baseball in a field and look up to see an eagle circling above. The huge bird plunges to earth and recruits the kids, who pull out snub-nosed revolvers and start to chase me. I dodge and hide among the half-constructed buildings near the field. The kids, and men and women among them, apparently cannot harm me. They melt away. I look up to see the eagle hovering, talons unsheathed. They’ve run from the menace. The eagle lands on the other side of the wall, but my perspective has changed, I can see it’s turned into a person about my size. He comes around a corner with a knife. I knock it out of his hand, take it.
Not a man, a beautiful woman.
I feel no pain. Or pleasure. I am a dull, grey person floating away from a dull, grey planet. I don’t care about anything. I don’t care about the birds that flash before my eyes. I don’t care about the trees or the grass or the blue sky or the big fat sea. I don’t care about the feel of the earth against my feet, the swirl of water, the living texture of a tree, or sex or the best sex in the world or beds or twilight. I don’t care about the fear I feel at the top of a tall building. I don’t care about my parents, my friends or airplanes or the stars or books or films or children of my own. But so what? Don’t read no poetry at me. I don’t care about truth, beauty or justice or Washington or spring or chocolate milk shakes or the wise men of the East or being wise which I’ll never be. I don’t care about the highways, the patterns, the order, the noise of the city or the high I get from drinking too much. (If it doesn’t mean anything to you – I know. It very seldom means anything to me – all this not caring. But tonight, bless me, I feel no pain. My brain is sanitized, everything gently eased away. I am left with a proud child: isolation. And to me—the terrible thing is I had this thing right in my head, but I can’t remember it now. Can’t remember the things I don’t care about, and the right sequence. Color. The color of something. Rainbows? The planets in space. My bones beneath the skin.)
During this inner monologue, I drive to the store for groceries. I drive all over town, delivering my community paper with its theater and music reviews and poems, stop by to talk with my old guidance counselor at the high school.
The counselor is a libertarian. He ran for “ungovernor” of the state. We have wild and exciting talks. Flareups of substance. He told me about Kurt Vonnegut, recommending Cat’s Cradle. After that, I read, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Told the counselor he reminded me of him. “I’m not Mr. Rosewater,” he (almost) barked in his affected William Buckley style. And I laughed. At his discomfort. At the realness of the moment.
He’s like Mr. Rosewater to me because he distributes his wealth – in his case, of knowledge, and his insistence that people live well.
I take the train to New York City looking for a job, fill out applications for copy editor at Scribner’s and Macmillan, leave resumé at Random House. No openings anywhere. I hope they notice the minor in English.
What am I to do with my college degree?
I’m writing, thinking of writing something rambunctious, flashy, to break into a career. Ah @*!
I know I am going to get old, and I won’t even care about my dreams. I’ll never get the chance to do a film, probably never a book and so on. It’s depressing to waste, if I may say so, talent, ideas, energy. It won’t matter in the universal plan, but I and many others, man, we haven’t got a chance.
I feel like chiseling a design in the walls of my room. A Design for Myself.
Redesign. Redesignation. Martin is my second name, the first is Avery. Sometimes I feel like Avery. I think it was part of the name of a steamship my great-grandfather skippered. My grandfather remembers his father taking him out on his boat in New York Harbor to witness the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. Avery fell by the wayside before I was three because my sister couldn’t pronounce it. She said, Vree. I like Vree, it sounds like verity. Authentic, real. And free.
Snowstorm. Winter in NJ.
Writing a new thing, to pass the time, about death.
Should I take the job delivering news? Old news? Ripostes of revenge?
I help make dinner. Throw in mung sprouts I’ve grown in a glass jar on the windowsill. Not bad. This bean growing is the result of a Simon and Schuster salesman sending me three books: Journey to Ixtlan, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and The Beansprout Book.
All because I print a hundred copies of a community rag with book, theater and music reviews and poems on a mimeograph machine in the basement. I’ve also been trying to help publicize the works of an elderly artist who lives nearby. Emmy was born in Moravia, studied in Vienna, and had to flee that city with her husband when the Nazis came in. They went to Russia, and then to India, where they lived during World War 2. While there, she was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi. After some gentle and persistent efforts, he allowed her to do life sketches and from them she created a life-sized painting. She learned the Old Master style in Vienna, but also does modern Expressionist work.
With my friend Sally, my only friend besides Robbie who lives on my street, I go to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, then to their house to look at her boyfriend’s paintings. I don’t know what to expect, happy his stuff isn’t terrible.
I take him to Emmy the artist’s house, and he goes crazy over her Gandhi painting. Very excited, which makes me happy (I was afraid he wouldn’t be impressed). He keeps saying, “I don’t believe I’m here. I don’t believe I’m actually here” when he’s looking at the Gandhi. Practically floats out of the house.
That experience, that high, even if things fade later, is priceless.
Sally is writing plays. One about people dropping out of the sky. Idea from painting of a woman lying in a desert with no footprints around. So, people drop from sky, don’t know what to do, start hand-signing then reach out and touch each other and so on. About what are we doing on earth. There’s more, but I’m tired. A little nauseous.
I haven’t touched another person in months. Except for Robbie. A hug around the shoulders now and then, a squeeze of affection, or more I don’t know.
No job. No money in the bank account. I feel the losses. I feel the doors shutting.
I am twenty-three and living with my parents. He is twenty-one and living with his parents. He is the crazy one. Everyone says.
My sister has a job and her own apartment. Our parents helped her finance a car since she’s working. Getting to use the family car depends on my parents. My mother says it can be used for work, but not frivolous activities. I’ve joined a theater group for the company of human beings. To be around creative people. I bought tickets to see “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well” at the playhouse. My sister says she’ll go with me.
I wish I could throw my words up like a rope on the walls of this prison and climb over them.
Emmy, the elderly artist, is in the hospital. I visit her, frail and pert by the window as she presides in bed telling me stories from her childhood about 1900. About her sailor hat blown off by a gust of wind and flying into the horses’ hooves on a wide cobblestone avenue. Bright, breezy stories.
My writing needs inspiration, to breathe in, to be breezy, light, cheerful as her laugh. She’s disappointed I don’t laugh more at her stories. She shows delight in my ability to read German. Haltingly I read her letters from a friend in the old country. Remembering Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. I read it in the original German, never thought that language could be beautiful until I read that book. This is one of the gifts of a college education.
Emmy was apparently a member of the privileged class. That was long ago. Still, she smiles, and she means it, she’s one of the survivors.
The newspaper lists more jobs now for people with Psych degrees and I’m optimistic that I can get one. My former psychotherapist, Dr. Laura Walker, is sending a plethora of bills, but I have no money, so that’s that. I wonder if I can claim bankruptcy.
My Psych friends did get jobs with the Probation and Parole departments. One closest to me, whose intelligence is greater than mine, with a stable temperament and good humor, has taken a job as a parole officer. I think his gifts will be wasted in that job. Maybe not, as he can help people in situations where they are usually abandoned or pushed down even more. And he might rise in the department or find a better job. Some of my classmates have gone on to graduate school, often working full or part-time.
I hear from child protection services that I’ve been scheduled for a job interview.
As I walk into the government building, I hear weeping. Office doors are open but there’s no other sound. I slow my walk, disconcerted, checking the address, then move ahead and find the office number I’ve been given.
A man rises from a desk in a dark office, a large polished wooden desk, two sturdy chairs in front, curtains drawn. Lighting seems a secondary concern.
He asks why I’m interested in this job. I can’t tell him of my own experience of abuse. I make it seem as if I’m concerned and want to help. My memory of the child psychology course I took is marred by the professor’s response to my thesis that fathers are just as important to children as mothers. No! he’d written across the top of the first page, they’re not. Mothers are most important! No grey areas, no discussion of time, that mothers in infancy might be more important, but as we grow, fathers can be as important. And mothers can turn on you.
The interviewer paints a scenario, painted words with blood on the walls, across my temporal lobe, of a mother scalding a child with a hot iron.
“What would you do about it?”
I said, call the police, remove the child.
“No, you can’t do that.”
He explained child services workers had no authority to do anything other than observe and talk to the abusers.
“Do you think you can do the job?”
Given my history, I doubt it. I want to lash out at that parent. To get that child away from her. How can I forget my asking a teacher when I was twelve, can you adopt me?
I think so, I say, as my uncertainty mutes my voice.
“You hear that down the hall? That young man crying?”
“He thought he could do it.”
In my dad’s white Corvair before I pick him up from work, I drive the streets black and white. The radio plays Curtis Mayfield’s “Keep On Keeping On.” I want to believe in what he’s singing. My little town is a mostly white, working- and middle-class suburb. My blue eyes behind sunglasses, I cross the line a few blocks from home into one of New Jersey’s oldest cities. The city’s population is changing from white to black. I drive past stately homes once belonging to the city’s white elite and now black families live in them, I see their children playing in the yards. A woman who works with my father has invited us to a party at her home. It’s one of the gracefully aged mansions. Her blonde hair is streaked with grey. She is generous, intelligent, with minimal makeup, and not moving. Her garden is tended with love. The teacups are translucent. And her garden party is a blip on the screen as the frames change.
I’m back in the shade of lilacs. A hedge grows between our home and our neighbors. Azaleas bloom by the living room’s picture window.
It’s an early August morning. A knock on the door at 7:30 a.m. I open it and see a man and woman who are friends of Emmy on the doorstep. Classic messengers, timeless.
“Emmy died last night.”
Oh. The breath goes out of me, gently, slowly. I feel myself fade slightly. But I’m very much here. Reality is a weight in my hands.
“We’d like you to write her obituary for the local paper.”
Yes, I say, I will, feeling inadequate to the job. It’s a special trust, of course, so I must.
I run the obit into the paper’s office before noon.
In the world? News bulletin. President Nixon is close to resigning.
Watching TV. Watergate hearings. Cast of characters, vivid personalities, allegiances, betrayals. Nixon is raging in the halls of power.
Watching TV. Excellent PBS shows. “Anna Karenina” and other BBC productions with Simone, a beautiful British actress.
The way she moves her hands, the inflection of her voice, I am captured between the two. I follow her movements in time and space, cues and clues that I can feel. Like a hunger that has always existed, as though waiting for this moment.
She seems to me to be the woman, the man, the mother, the father, the lover I have always wanted. I conceive of her as sassy and sensitive, and watch her eyes half closed, suggesting, thinking, caring, misunderstood, misunderstanding, and understanding too much. I turn on the television and see my sister stare back at me. She reminds me of her smart-mouthed, wide-eyed face. Simone’s teen girl look, the bad boy look, which in swift combination falls between —–:
charms me and threatens to end my ambivalence toward women. I stare at her as if we are alone in the same room. She is self-effacing and immodest at the same time. She vaporizes the world in acts of idealism and bravado. I laugh, in welcome at the feeling. I accept her happily, some harmless fantasy, someone I will never meet.
I write about it in what I call Celebrations (I don’t want to use that word too much, as though it’s sacred).
What is your favorite Civil Rights song?
What is your favorite Kurt Vonnegut book?