Ken Sparling’s novel Dad Says He Saw You At The Mall opens with the lines “At night, I am home. And before I am even home, I am walking home.” At the outset the narrator establishes the shifting temporality and geography that are the hallmarks of his story; the novel is made up of hundreds of these digressions and fragments in which people and objects register on his senses, with the result that his awareness is not so much driven by purpose or enriched by meaning, but forever looking backward and bidding him to look outside of himself:
His hair was caught in the wind. The wind was making his hair into things his hair had never been. He thought he would just lean his head against the seat in front of him for a moment. He was riding the bus and the window was open and things were happening to his hair. He thought if he could just lean forward for a moment and put his head against the seat in front of him everything would be okay. Everything he had accomplished was coming out through his skin, as though his skin were stitched together loosely and everything was coming out.
As the narrator says of his wife, while watching her sleep in bed:
At night, when she was in bed, she fell into caverns. These were not dreams she was having. She was falling into her own history, now and then resurfacing long enough to catch her breath.
Trying to grasp what Sparling is saying here reminds me of some lines that many North American lit crit students had to read, once upon a time, lines written by Derrida about Heidegger: “man’s saying of Being can be accomplished only in metaphoric terms—hence we find “in Heidegger’s discourse, the dominance of an entire metaphorics of proximity, of simple and immediate presence, a metaphorics associating the proximity of Being with the values of neighboring, shelter, house, service, guard, voice, and listening” (Jacques Derrida, “The Ends of Man,” in Margins of Philosophy).
After you go out and do things, you get home from doing them and you go away from the people you did things with, back to the people you live with and the things you have done are done and they are nothing but memories of things that were done and where you are is at home with the people who have never done anything and you can try to remember the things you have done and tell the things you have done to the people who have never done anything – but what’s the point?
Again, Derrida: "Being is essentially farther than all beings and is yet nearer to man than every being,” or as Heidegger phrases it, “Being is the nearest."
Or maybe I just read too much into things?
When she was upstairs, Elliot took his shotgun and the whiskey into the dark living room and sat down in an armchair beside one of the lace-curtained windows. The powerful barn light illuminated the length of his driveway and the whole of the back yard. From the window at which he sat, he commanded a view of several miles in the direction of East Ilford. The two-lane blacktop road that ran there was the only one along which an enemy could pass.
He drank and watched the snow, toying with the safety of his 12-gauge Remington. He felt neither anxious nor angry now but only impatient to be done with whatever the night would bring. Drunkenness and the silent rhythm of the falling snow combined to make him feel outside of time and syntax.
Sitting in the dark room, he found himself confronting Blankenship’s dream. He saw the bunkers and wire of some long-lost perimeter. The rank smell of night came back to him, the dread evening and quick dusk, the mysteries of outer darkness: fear, combat and death. Enervated by liquor; he began to cry. Elliot was sympathetic with other people’s tears but ashamed of his own. He thought of his own tears as childish and excremental. He stifled whatever it was that had started them.
Now his whiskey tasted thin as water. Beyond the lightly frosted glass, illuminated snowflakes spun and settled sleepily on weighted pine boughs. He had found a life beyond the war after all, but in it he was still sitting in darkness, armed, enraged, waiting.
His eyes grew heavy as the snow came down. He felt as though he could be drawn up into the storm and he began to imagine that. He imagined his life with all its artifacts and appetites easing up the spout into white oblivion, everything obviated and foreclosed. He thought maybe he could go for that.
When he awakened, his left hand had gone numb against the trigger guard of his shotgun. The living room was full of pale, delicate light. He looked outside and saw that the storm was done with and the sky radiant and cloudless. The sun was still below the horizon.
Slowly Elliot got to his feet. The throbbing poison in his limbs served to remind him of the state of things. He finished the glass of whiskey on the windowsill beside his easy chair. Then he went to the hall closet to get a ski jacket, shouldered his shotgun and went outside.
There were two cleared acres behind his house; beyond them a trail descended into a hollow of pine forest and frozen swamp. Across the hollow, white pastures stretched to the ridge line, lambent under the lightening sky. A line of skeletal elms weighted with snow marked the course of frozen Shawmut Brook.
He found a pair of ski goggles in a jacket pocket and put them on and set out toward the tree line, gripping the shotgun, step by careful step in the knee-deep snow. Two raucous crows wheeled high overhead, their cries exploding the morning’s silence. When the sun came over the ridge, he stood where he was and took in a deep breath. The risen sun warmed his face and he closed his eyes. It was windless and very cold.
Only after he had stood there for a while did he realize how tired he had become. The weight of the gun taxed him. It seemed infinitely wearying to contemplate another single step in the snow. He opened his eyes and closed them again. With sunup the world had gone blazing blue and white, and even with his tinted goggles its whiteness dazzled him and made his head ache. Behind his eyes, the hypnagogic patterns formed a monsoon-heavy tropical sky. He yawned. More than anything, he wanted to lie down in the soft, pure snow. If he could do that, he was certain he could go to sleep at once.
He stood in the middle of the field and listened to the crows. Fear; anger and sleep were the three primary conditions of life. He had learned that over there. Once he had thought fear the worst, but he had learned that the worst was anger. Nothing could fix it, neither alcohol nor medicine. It was a worm. It left him no peace. Sleep was the best.
He opened his eyes and pushed on until he came to the brow that overlooked the swamp. Just below, gliding along among the frozen cattails and bare scrub maple, was a man on skis. Elliot stopped to watch the man approach.
The skier’s face was concealed by a red and blue ski mask. He wore snow goggles, a blue jumpsuit and a red woollen Norwegian hat. As he came, he leaned into the turns of the trail, moving silently and gracefully along. At the foot of the slope on which Elliot stood, the man looked up, saw him and slid to a halt. The man stood staring at him for a moment and then began to herringbone up the slope. In no time at all the skier stood no more than ten feet away, removing his goggles, and inside the woollen mask Elliot recognized the clear blue eyes of his neighbor, Professor Loyall Anderson. The shotgun Elliot was carrying seemed to grow heavier. He yawned and shook his head, trying unsuccessfully to clear it. The sight of Anderson’s eyes gave him a little thrill of revulsion.
“What are you after?” the young professor asked him, nodding toward the shotgun Elliot was cradling.
“Whatever there is,” Elliot said.
Anderson took a quick look at the distant pasture behind him and then turned back to Elliot. The mouth hole of the professor’s mask filled with teeth. Elliot thought that Anderson’s teeth were quite as he had imagined them earlier. “Well, Polonski’s cows are locked up,” the professor said. “So they at least are safe.”
Elliot realized that the professor had made a joke and was smiling. “Yes,” he agreed.
Professor Anderson and his wife had been the moving force behind an initiative to outlaw the discharge of firearms within the boundaries of East Ilford Township. The initiative had been defeated, because East Ilford was not that kind of town.
“I think I’ll go over by the river” Elliot said. He said it only to have something to say, to fill the silence before Anderson spoke again. He was afraid of what Anderson might say to him and of what might happen.
“You know,” Anderson said, “that’s all bird sanctuary over there now.”
“Sure,” Elliot agreed.
Outfitted as he was, the professor attracted Elliot’s anger in an elemental manner. The mask made him appear a kind of doll, a kachina figure or a marionette. His eyes and mouth, all on their own, were disagreeable.
Elliot began to wonder if Anderson could smell the whiskey on his breath. He pushed the little red bull’s-eye safety button on his gun to Off.
“Seriously,” Anderson said, “I’m always having to run hunters out of there. Some people don’t understand the word ‘posted.’”
“I would never do that,” Elliot said. “I would be afraid.”
Anderson nodded his head. He seemed to be laughing. “Would you?” he asked Elliot merrily.
In imagination, Elliot rested the tip of his shotgun barrel against Anderson’s smiling teeth. If he fired a load of deer shot into them, he thought, they might make a noise like broken china. “Yes,” Elliot said. “I wouldn’t know who they were or where they’d been. They might resent my being alive. Telling them where they could shoot and where not.”
Anderson’s teeth remained in place. “That’s pretty strange,” he said. “I mean, to talk about resenting someone for being alive.”
“It’s all relative,” Elliot said. “They might think, ‘Why should he be alive when some brother of mine isn’t?’ Or they might think, ‘Why should he be alive when I’m not?’”
“Oh,” Anderson said.
“You see?” Elliot said. Facing Anderson, he took a long step backward. “All relative.”
“Yes,” Anderson said.
“That’s so often true, isn’t it?” Elliot asked. “Values are often relative.”
“Yes,” Anderson said. Elliot was relieved to see that he had stopped smiling.
“I’ve hardly slept, you know,” Elliot told Professor Anderson. “Hardly at all. All night. I’ve been drinking.”
“Oh,” Anderson said. He licked his lips in the mouth of the mask. “You should get some rest.”
“You’re right,” Elliot said.
“Well,” Anderson said, “got to go now.”
Elliot thought he sounded a little thick in the tongue. A little slow in the jaw.
“It’s a nice day,” Elliot said, wanting now to be agreeable.
“It’s great,” Anderson said, shuffling on his skis.
“Have a nice day,” Elliot said.
“Yes,” Anderson said, and pushed off.
Elliot rested the shotgun across his shoulders and watched Anderson withdraw through the frozen swamp. It was in fact a nice day, but Elliot took no comfort in the weather. He missed night and the falling snow.
As he walked back toward his house, he realized that now there would be whole days to get through, running before the antic energy of whiskey. The whiskey would drive him until he dropped. He shook his head in regret. “It’s a revolution,” he said aloud. He imagined himself talking to his wife.
Getting drunk was an insurrection, a revolution—a bad one. There would be outsize bogus emotions. There would be petty moral blackmail and cheap remorse. He had said dreadful things to his wife. He had bullied Anderson with his violence and unhappiness, and Anderson would not forgive him. There would be damn little justice and no mercy.
Nearly to the house, he was startled by the desperate feathered drumming of a pheasant’s rush. He froze, and out of instinct brought the gun up in the direction of the sound. When he saw the bird break from its cover and take wing, he tracked it, took a breath and fired once. The bird was a little flash of opulent color against the bright blue sky. Elliot felt himself flying for a moment. The shot missed.
Lowering the gun, he remembered the deer shells he had loaded. A hit with the concentrated shot would have pulverized the bird, and he was glad he had missed. He wished no harm to any creature. Then he thought of himself wishing no harm to any creature and began to feel fond and sorry for himself. As soon as he grew aware of the emotion he was indulging, he suppressed it. Pissing and moaning, mourning and weeping, that was the nature of the drug.
The shot echoed from the distant hills. Smoke hung in the air. He turned and looked behind him and saw, far away across the pasture, the tiny blue and red figure of Professor Anderson motionless against the snow. Then Elliot turned again toward his house and took a few labored steps and looked up to see his wife at the bedroom window. She stood perfectly still, and the morning sun lit her nakedness. He stopped where he was. She had heard the shot and run to the window. What had she thought to see? Burnt rags and blood on the snow. How relieved was she now? How disappointed?
Elliot thought he could feel his wife trembling at the window. She was hugging herself. Her hands clasped her shoulders. Elliot took his snow goggles off and shaded his eyes with his hand. He stood in the field staring.
The length of the gun was between them, he thought. Somehow she had got out in front of it, to the wrong side of the wire. If he looked long enough he would find everything out there. He would find himself down the sight.
How beautiful she is, he thought. The effect was striking. The window was so clear because he had washed it himself, with vinegar. At the best of times he was a difficult, fussy man.
Elliot began to hope for forgiveness. He leaned the shotgun on his forearm and raised his left hand and waved to hen Show a hand, he thought. Please just show a hand.
He was cold, but it had got light. He wanted no more than the gesture. It seemed to him that he could build another day on it. Another day was all you needed. He raised his hand higher and waited.
For five minutes or so, Elliot sat in his car in the barn with the engine running and his Handel tape on full volume. He had driven over from East Ilford in a Baroque ecstasy, swinging and swaying and singing along. When the tape ended, he turned off the engine and poured some Scotch into an apple juice container to store providentially beneath the car seat. Then he took the tape and the Scotch into the house with him. He was lying on the sofa in the dark living room, listening to the Largo, when he heard his wife’s car in the driveway. By the time Grace had made her way up the icy back-porch steps, he was able to hide the Scotch and rinse his glass clean in the kitchen sink. The drinking life, he thought, was lived moment by moment.
Soon she was in the tiny cloakroom struggling off with her overcoat. In the process she knocked over a cross-country ski, which stood propped against the cloakroom wall. It had been more than a year since Elliot had used the skis.
She came into the kitchen and sat down at the table to take off her boots. Her lean, freckled face was flushed with the cold, but her eyes looked weary. “I wish you’d put those skis down in the barn,” she told him. “You never use them.”
“I always like to think,” Elliot said, “that I’ll start the morning off skiing.”
“Well, you never do,” she said. “How long have you been home?”
“Practically just walked in,” he said. Her pointing out that he no longer skied in the morning enraged him. “I stopped at the Conway Library to get the new Oxford Classical World.Candace ordered it.”
Her look grew troubled. She had caught something in his voice. With dread and bitter satisfaction, Elliot watched his wife detect the smell of whiskey.
“Oh God,” she said. “I don’t believe it.”
Let’s get it over with, he thought. Let’s have the song and dance.
She sat up straight in her chair and looked at him in fear.
“Oh, Chas,” she said, “how could you?”
For a moment he was tempted to try to explain it all.
“The fact is,” Elliot told his wife, “I hate people who start the day cross-country skiing.”
She shook her head in denial and leaned her forehead on her palm and cried.
He looked into the kitchen window and saw his own distorted image. “The fact is I think I’ll start tomorrow morning by stringing head-high razor wire across Anderson’s trail.”
The Andersons were the Elliots’ nearest neighbors. Loyall Anderson was a full professor of government at the state university, thirty miles away. Anderson and his wife were blond and both of them were over six feet tall. They had two blond children, who qualified for the gifted class in the local school but attended regular classes in token of the Andersons’ opposition to elitism.
“Sure,” Elliot said. “Stringing wire’s good exercise. It’s life-affirming in its own way.”
The Andersons started each and every day with a brisk morning glide along a trail that they partly maintained. They skied well and presented a pleasing, wholesome sight. If, in the course of their adventure, they encountered a snowmobile, Darlene Anderson would affect to choke and cough, indicating her displeasure. If the snowmobile approached them from behind and the trail was narrow, the Andersons would decline to let it pass, asserting their statutory right-of-way.
“I don’t want to hear your violent fantasies,” Grace said.
Elliot was picturing razor wire, the army kind. He was picturing the decapitated Andersons, their blood and jaunty ski caps bright on the white trail. He was picturing their severed heads, their earnest blue eyes and large white teeth reflecting the virginal morning snow. Although Elliot hated snowmobiles, he hated the Andersons far more.
He looked at his wife and saw that she had stopped crying. Her long, elegant face was rigid and lipless.
“Know what I mean? One string at mommy-and-daddy level for Loyall and Darlene. And a bitty wee string at kiddie level for Skippy and Samantha, those cunning little whizzes.”
“Stop it,” she said to him.
“Sorry,” Elliot told her.
Stiff with shame, he went and took his bottle out of the cabinet into which he had thrust it and poured a drink. He was aware of her eyes on him. As he drank, a fragment from old Music’s translation of Medea came into his mind. “Old friend, I have to weep. The gods and I went mad together and made things as they are.” It was such a waste; eighteen months of struggle thrown away. But there was no way to get the stuff back in the bottle.
“I’m very sorry,” he said. “You know I’m very sorry, don’t you, Grace?”
The delectable Handel arias spun on in the next room.
“You must stop,” she said. “You must make yourself stop before it takes over.”
“It’s out of my hands,” Elliot said. He showed her his empty hands. “It’s beyond me.”
“You’ll lose your job, Chas.” She stood up at the table and leaned on it, staring wide-eyed at him. Drunk as he was, the panic in her voice frightened him. “You’ll end up in jail again.”
“One engages,” Elliot said, “and then one sees.”
“How can you have done it?” she demanded. “You promised me.”
“First the promises,” Elliot said, “and then the rest.”
“Last time was supposed to be the last time,” she said.
“Yes,” he said, “I remember.”
“I can’t stand it,” she said. “You reduce me to hysterics.” She wrung her hands for him to see. “See? Here I am, I’m in hysterics.”
“What can I say?” Elliot asked. He went to the bottle and refilled his glass. “Maybe you shouldn’t watch.”
“You want me to be forbearing, Chas? I’m not going to be.”
“The last thing I want,” Elliot said, “is an argument.”
“I’ll give you a fucking argument. You didn’t have to drink. All you had to do was come home.”
“That must have been the problem,” he said.
Then he ducked, alert at the last possible second to the missile that came for him at hairline level. Covering up, he heard the shattering of glass, and a fine rain of crystals enveloped him. She had sailed the sugar bowl at him; it had smashed against the wall above his head and there was sugar and glass in his hair.
“You bastard!” she screamed. “You are undermining me!”
“You ought not to throw things at me,” Elliot said. “I don’t throw things at you.”
He left her frozen into her follow-through and went into the living room to turn the music off. When he returned she was leaning back against the wall, rubbing her right elbow with her left hand. Her eyes were bright. She had picked up one of her boots from the middle of the kitchen floor and stood holding it.
“What the hell do you mean, that must have been the problem?”
He set his glass on the edge of the sink with an unsteady hand and turned to her. “What do I mean? I mean that most of the time I’m putting one foot in front of the other like a good soldier and I’m out of it from the neck up. But there are times when I don’t think I will ever be dead enough—or dead long enough—to get the taste of this life off my teeth. That’s what I mean!”
She looked at him dry-eyed. “Poor fella,” she said.
“What you have to understand, Grace, is that this drink I’m having”—he raised the glass toward her in a gesture of salute—”is the only worthwhile thing I’ve done in the last year and a half. It’s the only thing in my life that means jack shit, the closest thing to satisfaction I’ve had. Now how can you begrudge me that? It’s the best I’m capable of.”
“You’ll go too far,” she said to him. “You’ll see.”
“What’s that, Grace? A threat to walk?” He was grinding his teeth. “Don’t make me laugh. You, walk? You, the friend of the unfortunate?”
“Don’t you hit me,” she said when she looked at his face. “Don’t you dare.”
“You, the Christian Queen of Calvary, walk? Why, I don’t believe that for a minute.”
She ran a hand through her hair and bit her lip. “No, we stay,” she said. Anger and distraction made her look young. Her cheeks blazed rosy against the general pallor of her skin. “In my family we stay until the fella dies. That’s the tradition. We stay and pour it for them and they die.”
He put his drink down and shook his head.
“I thought we’d come through,” Grace said. “I was sure.”
“No,” Elliot said. “Not altogether.”
They stood in silence for a minute. Elliot sat down at the oilcloth-covered table. Grace walked around it and poured herself a whiskey.
“You are undermining me, Chas. You are making things impossible for me and I just don’t know.” She drank and winced. “I’m not going to stay through another drunk. I’m telling you right now. I haven’t got it in me. I’ll die.”
He did not want to look at her. He watched the flakes settle against the glass of the kitchen door. “Do what you feel the need of,” he said.
“I just can’t take it,” she said. Her voice was not scolding but measured and reasonable. “It’s February. And I went to court this morning and lost Vopotik.”
Once again, he thought, my troubles are going to be obviated by those of the deserving poor. He said, “Which one was that?”
“Don’t you remember them? The three-year-old with the broken fingers?”
He shrugged. Grace sipped her whiskey.
“I told you. I said I had a three-year-old with broken fingers, and you said, ‘Maybe he owed somebody money.’”
“Yes,” he said, “I remember now.”
“You ought to see the Vopotiks, Chas. The woman is young and obese. She’s so young that for a while I thought I could get to her as a juvenile. The guy is a biker. They believe the kid came from another planet to control their lives. They believe this literally, both of them.”
“You shouldn’t get involved that way,” Elliot said. “You should leave it to the caseworkers.”
“They scared their first caseworker all the way to California. They were following me to work.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“Are you kidding?” she asked. “Of course I didn’t.” To Elliot’s surprise, his wife poured herself a second whiskey. “You know how they address the child? As ‘dude.’ She says to it, ‘Hey, dude.’” Grace shuddered with loathing. “You can’t imagine! The woman munching Twinkies. The kid smelling of shit. They’re high morning, noon and night, but you can’t get anybody for that these days.”
“People must really hate it,” Elliot said, “when somebody tells them they’re not treating their kids right.”
“They definitely don’t want to hear it,” Grace said. “You’re right.” She sat stirring her drink, frowning into the glass. “The Vopotik child will die, I think.”
“Surely not,” Elliot said.
“This one I think will die,” Grace said. She took a deep breath and puffed out her cheeks and looked at him forlornly. “The situation’s extreme. Of course, sometimes you wonder whether it makes any difference. That’s the big question, isn’t it?”
“I would think,” Elliot said, “that would be the one question you didn’t ask.”
“But you do,” she said. “You wonder: Ought they to live at all? To continue the cycle?” She put a hand to her hair and shook her head as if in confusion. “Some of these folks, my God, the poor things cannot put Wednesday on top of Tuesday to save their lives.”
“It’s a trick,” Elliot agreed, “a lot of them can’t manage.”
“And kids are small, they’re handy and underfoot. They make noise. They can’t hurt you back.”
“I suppose child abuse is something people can do together” Elliot said.
“Some kids are obnoxious. No question about it.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Elliot said.
“Maybe you should stop complaining. Maybe you’re better off. Maybe your kids are better off unborn.”
“Better off or not,” Elliot said, “it looks like they’ll stay that way.”
“I mean our kids, of course,” Grace said. “I’m not blaming you, understand? It’s just that here we are with you drunk again and me losing Vopotik, so I thought why not get into the big unaskable questions.” She got up and folded her arms and began to pace up and down the kitchen. “Oh,” she said when her eye fell upon the bottle, “that’s good stuff, Chas. You won’t mind if I have another? I’ll leave you enough to get loaded on.”
Elliot watched her pour. So much pain, he thought; such anger and confusion. He was tired of pain, anger and confusion; they were what had got him in trouble that very morning.
The liquor seemed to be giving him a perverse lucidity when all he now required was oblivion. His rage, especially, was intact in its salting of alcohol. Its contours were palpable and bleeding at the borders. Booze was good for rage. Booze could keep it burning through the darkest night.
“What happened in court?” he asked his wife.
She was leaning on one arm against the wall, her long, strong body flexed at the hip. Holding her glass, she stared angrily toward the invisible fields outside. “I lost the child,” she said.
Elliot thought that a peculiar way of putting it. He said nothing.
“The court convened in an atmosphere of high hilarity. It may be Hate Month around here but it was buddy-buddy over at Ilford Courthouse. The room was full of bikers and bikers’ lawyers. A colorful crowd. There was a lot of bonding.” She drank and shivered. “They didn’t think too well of me. They don’t think too well of broads as lawyers. Neither does the judge. The judge has the common touch. He’s one of the boys.”
“Which judge?” Elliot asked.
“Buckley. A man of about sixty. Know him? Lots of veins on his nose?”
“I thought I had done my homework,” Grace told him. “But suddenly I had nothing but paper. No witnesses. It was Margolis at Valley Hospital who spotted the radiator burns. He called us in the first place. Suddenly he’s got to keep his reservation for a campsite in St. John. So Buckley threw his deposition out.” She began to chew on a fingernail. “The caseworkers have vanished—one’s in L.A., the other’s in Nepal. I went in there and got run over. I lost the child.”
“It happens all the time,” Elliot said. “Doesn’t it?”
“This one shouldn’t have been lost, Chas. These people aren’t simply confused. They’re weird. They stink.”
“You go messing into anybody’s life,” Elliot said, “that’s what you’ll find.”
“If the child stays in that house,” she said, “he’s going to die.”
“You did your best,” he told his wife. “Forget it.”
She pushed the bottle away. She was holding a water glass that was almost a third full of whiskey.
“That’s what the commissioner said.”
Elliot was thinking of how she must have looked in court to the cherry-faced judge and the bikers and their lawyers. Like the schoolteachers who had tormented their childhoods, earnest and tight-assed, humorless and self-righteous. It was not surprising that things had gone against her.
He walked over to the window and faced his reflection again. “Your optimism always surprises me.”
“My optimism? Where I grew up our principal cultural expression was the funeral. Whatever keeps me going, it isn’t optimism.”
“No?” he asked. “What is it?”
“I forget,” she said.
“Maybe it’s your religious perspective. Your sense of the divine plan.”
She sighed in exasperation. “Look, I don’t think I want to fight anymore. I’m sorry I threw the sugar at you. I’m not your keeper. Pick on someone your own size.”
“Sometimes,” Elliot said, “I try to imagine what it’s like to believe that the sky is full of care and concern.”
“You want to take everything from me, do you?” She stood leaning against the back of her chair. “That you can’t take. It’s the only part of my life you can’t mess up.”
He was thinking that if it had not been for her he might not have survived. There could be no forgiveness for that. “Your life? You’ve got all this piety strung out between Monadnock and Central America. And look at yourself. Look at your life.”
“Yes,” she said, “look at it.”
“You should have been a nun. You don’t know how to live.”
“I know that,” she said. “That’s why I stopped doing counseling. Because I’d rather talk the law than life.” She turned to him. “You got everything I had, Chas. What’s left I absolutely require.”
“I swear I would rather be a drunk,” Elliot said, “than force myself to believe such trivial horseshit.”
“Well, you’re going to have to do it without a straight man,” she said, “because this time I’m not going to be here for you. Believe it or not.”
“I don’t believe it,” Elliot said. “Not my Grace.”
“You’re really good at this,” she told him. “You make me feel ashamed of my own name.”
“I love your name,” he said.
The telephone rang. They let it ring three times, and then Elliot went over and answered it.
“Hey, who’s that?” a good-humored voice on the phone demanded.
Elliot recited their phone number.
“Hey, I want to talk to your woman, man. Put her on.”
“I’ll give her a message,” Elliot said.
“You put your woman on, man. Run and get her.”
Elliot looked at the receiver. He shook his head. “Mr. Vopotik?”
“Never you fuckin’ mind, man. I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to the skinny bitch.”
Elliot hung up.
“Is it him?” she asked.
“I guess so.”
They waited for the phone to ring again and it shortly did.
“I’ll talk to him,” Grace said. But Elliot already had the phone.
“Who are you, asshole?” the voice inquired. “What’s your fuckin’ name, man?”
“Elliot,” Elliot said.
“Hey, don’t hang up on me, Elliot. I won’t put up with that. I told you go get that skinny bitch, man. You go do it.”
There were sounds of festivity in the background on the other end of the line—a stereo and drunken voices.
“Hey,” the voice declared. “Hey, don’t keep me waiting, man.”
“What do you want to say to her?” Elliot asked.
“That’s none of your fucking business, fool. Do what I told you.”
“My wife is resting,” Elliot said. “I’m taking her calls.”
He was answered by a shout of rage. He put the phone aside for a moment and finished his glass of whiskey. When he picked it up again the man on the line was screaming at him. “That bitch tried to break up my family, man! She almost got away with it. You know what kind of pain my wife went through?”
“What kind?” Elliot asked.
For a few seconds he heard only the noise of the party. “Hey, you’re not drunk, are you, fella?”
“Certainly not,” Elliot insisted.
“You tell that skinny bitch she’s gonna pay for what she did to my family, man. You tell her she can run but she can’t hide. I don’t care where you go—California, anywhere—I’ll get to you.”
“Now that I have you on the phone,” Elliot said, “I’d like to ask you a couple of questions. Promise you won’t get mad?”
“Stop it!” Grace said to him. She tried to wrench the phone from his grasp, but he clutched it to his chest.
“Do you keep a journal?” Elliot asked the man on the phone. “What’s your hat size?”
“Maybe you think I can’t get to you,” the man said. “But I can get to you, man. I don’t care who you are, I’ll get to you. The brothers will get to you.”
“Well, there’s no need to go to California. You know where we live.”
“For God’s sake,” Grace said.
“Fuckin’ right,” the man on the telephone said. “Fuckin’ right I know.”
“Come on over,” Elliot said.
“How’s that?” the man on the phone asked.
“I said come on over. We’ll talk about space travel. Comets and stuff. We’ll talk astral projection. The moons of Jupiter.”
“You’re making a mistake, fucker.”
“Come on over,” Elliot insisted. “Bring your fat wife and your beat-up kid. Don’t be embarrassed if your head’s a little small.”
The telephone was full of music and shouting. Elliot held it away from his ear.
“Good work,” Grace said to him when he had replaced the receiver.
“I hope he comes,” Elliot said. “I’ll pop him.”
He went carefully down the cellar stairs, switched on the overhead light and began searching among the spiderwebbed shadows and fouled fishing line for his shotgun. It took him fifteen minutes to find it and his cleaning case. While he was still downstairs, he heard the telephone ring again and his wife answer it. He came upstairs and spread his shooting gear across the kitchen table. “Was that him?”
She nodded wearily. “He called back to play us the chain saw.”
“I’ve heard that melody before,” Elliot said.
He assembled his cleaning rod and swabbed out the shotgun barrel. Grace watched him, a hand to her forehead. “God,” she said. “What have I done? I’m so drunk.”
“Most of the time,” Elliot said, sighting down the barrel, “I’m helpless in the face of human misery. Tonight I’m ready to reach out.”
“I’m finished,” Grace said. “I’m through, Chas. I mean it.”
Elliot rammed three red shells into the shotgun and pumped one forward into the breech with a satisfying report. “Me, I’m ready for some radical problem-solving. I’m going to spray that no-neck Slovak all over the yard.”
“He isn’t a Slovak,” Grace said. She stood in the middle of the kitchen with her eyes closed. Her face was chalk white.
“What do you mean?” Elliot demanded. “Certainly he’s a Slovak.”
“No he’s not,” Grace said.
“Fuck him anyway. I don’t care what he is. I’ll grease his ass.”
He took a handful of deer shells from the box and stuffed them in his jacket pockets.
“I’m not going to stay with you, Chas. Do you understand me?”
Elliot walked to the window and peered out at his driveway. “He won’t be alone. They travel in packs.”
“For God’s sake!” Grace cried, and in the next instant bolted for the downstairs bathroom. Elliot went out, turned off the porch light and switched on a spotlight over the barn door. Back inside, he could hear Grace in the toilet being sick. He turned off the light in the kitchen.
He was still standing by the window when she came up behind him. It seemed strange and fateful to be standing in the dark near her, holding the shotgun. He felt ready for anything.
“I can’t leave you alone down here drunk with a loaded shotgun,” she said. “How can I?”
“Go upstairs,” he said.
“If I went upstairs it would mean I didn’t care what happened. Do you understand? If I go it means I don’t care anymore. Understand?”
“Stop asking me if I understand,” Elliot said. “I understand fine.”
“I can’t think,” she said in a sick voice. “Maybe I don’t care. I don’t know. I’m going upstairs.”
“Good,” Elliot said.
Elliot went out through the automatic doors of the emergency bay and the cold closed over him. He walked across the hospital parking lot with his eyes on the pavement, his hands thrust deep in his overcoat pockets, skirting patches of shattered ice. There was no wind, but the motionless air stung; the metal frames of his glasses burned his skin. Curlicues of mud-brown ice coated the soiled snowbanks along the street. Although it was still afternoon, the street lights had come on.
The lock on his car door had frozen and he had to breathe on the keyhole to fit the key. When the engine turned over Jussi Bjorling’s recording of the Handel Largo filled the car interior. He snapped it off at once.
Halted at the first stoplight, he began to feel the want of a destination. The fear and impulse to flight that had got him out of the office faded, and he had no desire to go home. He was troubled by a peculiar impatience that might have been with time itself. It was as though he were waiting for something. The sensation made him feel anxious; it was unfamiliar but not altogether unpleasant. When the light changed he drove on, past the Gulf station and the firehouse and between the greens of Ilford Common. At the far end of the common he swung into the parking lot of the Packard Conway Library and stopped with the engine running. What he was experiencing, he thought, was the principle of possibility.
He turned off the engine and went out again into the cold. Behind the leaded library windows he could see the librarian pouring coffee in her tiny private office. The librarian was a Quaker of socialist convictions named Candace Music, who was Elliot’s cousin.
The Conway Library was all dark wood and etched mirrors, a Gothic saloon. Years before, out of work and booze-whipped, Elliot had gone to hide there. Because Candace was a classicist’s widow and knew some Greek, she was one of the few people in the valley with whom Elliot had cared to speak in those days. Eventually, it had seemed to him that all their conversations tended toward Vietnam, so he had gone less and less often. Elliot was the only Vietnam veteran Candace knew well enough to chat with, and he had come to suspect that he was being probed for the edification of the East Ilford Friends Meeting. At that time he had still pretended to talk easily about his war and had prepared little discourses and picaresque anecdotes to recite on demand. Earnest seekers like Candace had caused him great secret distress.
Candace came out of her office to find him at the checkout desk. He watched her brow furrow with concern as she composed a smile. “Chas, what a surprise. You haven’t been in for an age.”
“Sure I have, Candace. I went to all the Wednesday films last fall. I work just across the road.”
“I know, dear,” Candace said. “I always seem to miss you.”
A cozy fire burned in the hearth, an antique brass clock ticked along on the marble mantel above it. On a couch near the fireplace an old man sat upright, his mouth open, asleep among half a dozen soiled plastic bags. Two teenage girls whispered over their homework at a table under the largest window.
“Now that I’m here,” he said, laughing, “I can’t remember what I came to get.”
“Stay and get warm,” Candace told him. “Got a minute? Have a cup of coffee.”
Elliot had nothing but time, but he quickly realized that he did not want to stay and pass it with Candace. He had no clear idea of why he had come to the library. Standing at the checkout desk, he accepted coffee. She attended him with an air of benign supervision, as though he were a Chinese peasant and she a medical missionary, like her father. Candace was tall and plain, more handsome in her middle sixties than she had ever been.
“Why don’t we sit down?”
He allowed her to gentle him into a chair by the fire. They made a threesome with the sleeping old man.
“Have you given up translating, Chas? I hope not.”
“Not at all,” he said. Together they had once rendered a few fragments of Sophocles into verse. She was good at clever rhymes.
“You come in so rarely, Chas. Ted’s books go to waste.”
After her husband’s death, Candace had donated his books to the Conway, where they reposed in a reading room inscribed to his memory, untouched among foreign-language volumes, local genealogies and books in large type for the elderly.
“I have a study in the barn,” he told Candace. “I work there. When I have time.” The lie was absurd, but he felt the need of it.
“And you’re working with Vietnam veterans,” Candace declared.
“Supposedly,” Elliot said. He was growing impatient with her nodding solicitude.
“Actually,” he said, “I came in for the new Oxford Classical World. I thought you’d get it for the library and I could have a look before I spent my hard-earned cash.”
Candace beamed. “You’ve come to the right place, Chas, I’m happy to say.” He thought she looked disproportionately happy. “I have it.”
“Good,” Elliot said, standing. “I’ll just take it, then. I can’t really stay.”
Candace took his cup and saucer and stood as he did. When the library telephone rang, she ignored it, reluctant to let him go. “How’s Grace?” she asked.
“Fine,” Elliot said. “Grace is well.”
At the third ring she went to the desk. When her back was turned, he hesitated for a moment and then went outside.
The gray afternoon had softened into night, and it was snowing. The falling snow whirled like a furious mist in the headlight beams on Route 7 and settled implacably on Elliot’s cheeks and eyelids. His heart, for no good reason, leaped up in childlike expectation. He had run away from a dream and encountered possibility. He felt in possession of a promise. He began to walk toward the roadside lights.
Only gradually did he begin to understand what had brought him there and what the happy anticipation was that fluttered in his breast. Drinking, he had started his evenings from the Conway Library. He would arrive hung over in the early afternoon to browse and read. When the old pain rolled in with dusk, he would walk down to the Midway Tavern for a remedy. Standing in the snow outside the library, he realized that he had contrived to promise himself a drink.
Ahead, through the storm, he could see the beer signs in the Midway’s window warm and welcoming. Snowflakes spun around his head like an excitement.
Outside the Midway’s package store, he paused with his hand on the doorknob. There was an old man behind the counter whom Elliot remembered from his drinking days. When he was inside, he realized that the old man neither knew nor cared who he was. The package store was thick with dust; it was on the counter; the shelves, the bottles themselves. The old counterman looked dusty. Elliot bought a bottle of King William Scotch and put it in the Inside pocket of his overcoat.
Passing the windows of the Midway Tavern, Elliot could see the ranks of bottles aglow behind the bat The place was crowded with men leaving the afternoon shifts at the shoe and felt factories. No one turned to note him when he passed inside. There was a single stool vacant at the bar and he took it. His heart beat faster. Bruce Springsteen was on the jukebox.
The bartender was a club fighter from Pittsfield called Jackie G., with whom Elliot had often gossiped. Jackie G. greeted him as though he had been in the previous evening. “Say, babe?”
“How do,” Elliot said.
A couple of the men at the bar eyed his shirt and tie. Confronted with the bartender he felt impelled to explain his presence. “Just thought I’d stop by,” he told Jackie G. “Just thought I’d have one. Saw the light. The snow…” He chuckled expansively.
“Good move,” the bartender said. “Scotch?”
“Double,” Elliot said.
When he shoved two dollars forward along the bar Jackie G. pushed one of the bills back to him. “Happy hour babe.”
“Ah,” Elliot said. He watched Jackie pour the double. “Not a moment too soon.”
ONE GRAY November day, Elliot went to Boston for the afternoon. The wet streets seemed cold and lonely. He sensed a broken promise in the city’s elegance and verve. Old hopes tormented him like phantom limbs, but he did not drink. He had joined Alcoholics Anonymous fifteen months before.
Christmas came, childless, a festival of regret. His wife went to Mass and cooked a turkey. Sober, Elliot walked in the woods.
In January, blizzards swept down from the Arctic until the weather became too cold for snow. The Shawmut Valley grew quiet and crystalline. In the white silences, Elliot could hear the boards of his house contract and feel a shrinking in his bones. Each dusk, starveling deer came out of the wooded swamp behind the house to graze his orchard for whatever raccoons had uncovered and left behind. At night he lay beside his sleeping wife listening to the baying of dog packs running them down in the deep moon-shadowed snow.
Day in, day out, he was sober. At times it was almost stimulating. But he could not shake off the sensations he had felt in Boston. In his mind’s eye he could see dead leaves rattling along brick gutters and savor that day’s desperation. The brief outing had undermined him.
Sober, however, he remained, until the day a man named Blankenship came into his office at the state hospital for counseling. Blankenship had red hair, a brutal face and a sneaking manner. He was a sponger and petty thief whom Elliot had seen a number of times before.
“I been having this dream,” Blankenship announced loudly. His voice was not pleasant. His skin was unwholesome. Every time he got arrested the court sent him to the psychiatrists and the psychiatrists, who spoke little English, sent him to Elliot.
Blankenship had joined the army after his first burglary but had never served east of the Rhine. After a few months in Wiesbaden, he had been discharged for reasons of unsuitability, but he told everyone he was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He went about in a tiger suit. Elliot had had enough of him.
“Dreams are boring,” Elliot told him.
Blankenship was outraged. “Whaddaya mean?” he demanded.
During counseling sessions Elliot usually moved his chair into the middle of the room in order to seem accessible to his clients. Now he stayed securely behind his desk. He did not care to seem accessible to Blankenship, “What I said, Mr. Blankenship. Other people’s dreams are boring. Didn’t you ever hear that?”
“Boring?” Blankenship frowned. He seemed unable to imagine a meaning for the word.
Elliot picked up a pencil and set its point quivering on his desktop blotter. He gazed into his client’s slack-jawed face. The Blankenship family made their way through life as strolling litigants, and young Blankenship’s specialty was slipping on ice cubes. Hauled off the pavement, he would hassle the doctors in Emergency for pain pills and hurry to a law clinic. The Blankenships had threatened suit against half the property owners in the southern part of the state. What they could not extort at law they stole. But even the Blankenship family had abandoned Blankenship. His last visit to the hospital had been subsequent to an arrest for lifting a case of hot-dog rolls from Woolworth’s. He lived in a Goodwill depository bin in Wyndham.
“Now I suppose you want to tell me your dream. Is that right, Mr. Blankenship?”
Blankenship looked left and right like a dog surrendering eye contact. “Don’t you want to hear it?” he asked humbly.
Elliot was unmoved. “Tell me something, Blankenship. Was your dream about Vietnam?”
At the mention of the word “Vietnam,” Blankenship customarily broke into a broad smile. Now he looked guilty and guarded. He shrugged. “Ya.”
“How come you have dreams about that place, Blankenship? You were never there.”
“Whaddaya mean?” Blankenship began to say, but Elliot cut him off.
“You were never there, my man. You never saw the goddamn place. You have no business dreaming about it! You better cut it out!”
He had raised his voice to the extent that the secretary outside his open door paused at her computer.
“Lemme alone,” Blankenship said fearfully. “Some doctor you are.”
“It’s all right,” Elliot assured him. “I’m not a doctor.”
“Everybody’s on my case,” Blankenship said. His moods were volatile. He began to weep.
Elliot watched the tears roll down Blankenship’s chapped, pitted cheeks. He cleared his throat. “Look, fella…” he began. He felt at a loss. He felt like telling Blankenship that things were tough all over.
Blankenship sniffed and telescoped his neck and after a moment looked at Elliot. His look was disconcertingly trustful; he was used to being counseled.
“Really, you know, it’s ridiculous for you to tell me your problems have to do with Nam. You were never over there. It was me over there, Blankenship. Not you.”
Blankenship leaned forward and put his forehead on his knees.
“Your troubles have to do with here and now,” Elliot told his client. “Fantasies aren’t helpful.”
His voice sounded overripe and hypocritical in his own ears. What a dreadful business, he thought. What an awful job this is. Anger was driving him crazy.
Blankenship straightened up and spoke through his tears. “This dream…” he said. “I’m scared.”
Elliot felt ready to endure a great deal in order not to hear Blankenship’s dream.
“I’m not the one you see about that,” he said. In the end he knew his duty. He sighed. “OK. All right. Tell me about it.”
“Yeah?” Blankenship asked with leaden sarcasm. “Yeah? You think dreams are friggin’ boring!”
“No, no,” Elliot said. He offered Blankenship a tissue and Blankenship took one. “That was sort of off the top of my head. I didn’t really mean it.”
Blankenship fixed his eyes on dreaming distance. “There’s a feeling that goes with it. With the dream.” Then he shook his head in revulsion and looked at Elliot as though he had only just awakened. “So what do you think? You think it’s boring?”
“Of course not,” Elliot said. “A physical feeling?”
“Ya. It’s like I’m floating in rubber.”
He watched Elliot stealthily, aware of quickened attention. Elliot had caught dengue in Vietnam and during his weeks of delirium had felt vaguely as though he were floating in rubber.
“What are you seeing in this dream?”
Blankenship only shook his head. Elliot suffered a brief but intense attack of rage.
“Hey, Blankenship,” he said equably, “here I am, man. You can see I’m listening.”
“What I saw was black,” Blankenship said. He spoke in an odd tremolo. His behavior was quite different from anything Elliot had come to expect from him.
“Black? What was it?”
“Smoke. The sky maybe.”
“The sky?” Elliot asked.
“It was all black. I was scared.”
In a waking dream of his own, Elliot felt the muscles on his neck distend. He was looking up at a sky that was black, filled with smoke-swollen clouds, lit with fires, damped with blood and rain.
“What were you scared of?” he asked Blankenship.
“I don’t know,” Blankenship said.
Elliot could not drive the black sky from his inward eye. It was as though Blankenship’s dream had infected his own mind.
“You don’t know? You don’t know what you were scared of?”
Blankenship’s posture was rigid. Elliot, who knew the aspect of true fear, recognized it there in front of him.
“The Nam,” Blankenship said.
“You’re not even old enough,” Elliot told him.
Blankenship sat trembling with joined palms between his thighs. His face was flushed and not in the least ennobled by pain. He had trouble with alcohol and drugs. He had trouble with everything.
“So wherever your black sky is, it isn’t Vietnam.”
Things were so unfair Elliot thought. It was unfair of Blankenship to appropriate the condition of a Vietnam veteran. The trauma inducing his post-traumatic stress had been nothing more serious than his own birth, a routine procedure. Now, in addition to the poverty, anxiety and confusion that would always be his life’s lot, he had been visited with irony. It was all arbitrary and some people simply got elected. Everyone knew that who had been where Blankenship had not.
“Because, I assure you, Mr. Blankenship, you were never there.”
“Whaddaya mean?” Blankenship asked.
“Nobody wrote up that last patient,” he said. “I’m not supposed to see people without a diagnosis. The shrinks are just passing the buck.”
The secretary was a tall, solemn redhead with prominent front teeth and a slight speech disorder. “Dr. Sayyid will have kittens if he hears you call him a shrink, Chas. He’s already complained. He hates being called a shrink.”
“Then he came to the wrong country,” Elliot said. “He can go back to his own.”
The woman giggled. “He is the doctor; Chas.”
“Hates being called a shrink!” He threw the file on the secretary’s table and stormed back toward his office. “That fucking little zip couldn’t give you a decent haircut. He’s a prescription clerk.”
The secretary looked about her guiltily and shook her head. She was used to him.
Elliot succeeded in calming himself down after a while, but the image of black sky remained with him. At first he thought he would be able to shrug the whole thing off. After a few minutes, he picked up his phone and dialed Blankenship’s probation officer.
“The Vietnam thing is all he has,” the probation officer explained. “I guess he picked it up around.”
“His descriptions are vivid,” Elliot said.
“You mean they sound authentic?”
“I mean he had me going today. He was ringing my bells.”
“Good for Blanky. Think he believes it himself?”
“Yes,” Elliot said. “He believes it himself now.”
Elliot told the probation officer about Blankenship’s current arrest, which was for showering illegally at midnight in the Wyndham Regional High School. He asked what Probation knew about Blankenship’s present relationship with his family.
“You kiddin’?” the P.O. asked. “They’re all locked down. The whole family’s inside. The old man’s in Bridgewater. Little Donny’s in San Quentin or somewhere. Their dog’s in the pound.”
Elliot had lunch alone in the hospital staff cafeteria. On the far side of the double-glazed windows, the day was darkening as an expected snowstorm gathered. Along Route 7, ancient elms stood frozen against the gray sky. When he had finished his sandwich and coffee, he sat staring out at the winter afternoon. His anger had given way to an insistent anxiety.
On the way back to his office, he stopped at the hospital gift shop for a copy of Sports Illustrated and a candy bar. When he was inside again, he closed the door and put his feet up. It was Friday and he had no appointments for the remainder of the day, nothing to do but write a few letters and read the office mail.
Elliot’s cubicle in the social services department was windowless and lined with bookshelves. When he found himself unable to concentrate on the magazine and without any heart for his paperwork, he ran his eye over the row of books beside his chair. There were volumes by Heinrich Muller and Carlos Castaneda, Jones’s life of Freud and The Golden Bough. The books aroused a revulsion in Elliot. Their present uselessness repelled him.
Over and over again, detail by detail, he tried to recall his conversation with Blankenship.
“You were never there,” he heard himself explaining. He was trying to get the whole incident straightened out after the fact. Something was wrong. Dread crept over him like a paralysis. He ate his candy bar without tasting it. He knew that the craving for sweets was itself a bad sign.
Blankenship had misappropriated someone else’s dream and made it his own. It made no difference whether you had been there, after all. The dreams had crossed the ocean. They were in the air.
He took his glasses off and put them on his desk and sat with his arms folded, looking into the well of light from his desk lamp. There seemed to be nothing but whirl inside him. Unwelcome things came and went in his mind’s eye. His heart beat faster. He could not control the headlong promiscuity of his thoughts.
It was possible to imagine larval dreams traveling in suspended animation undetectable in a host brain. They could be divided and regenerate like flatworms, hide in seams and bedding, in war stories, laughter snapshots. They could rot your socks and turn your memory into a black and green blister. Green for the hills, black for the sky above. At daybreak they hung themselves up in rows like bats. At dusk they went out to look for dreamers.
Elliot put his jacket on and went into the outer office, where the secretary sat frowning into the measured sound and light of her machine. She must enjoy its sleekness and order he thought. She was divorced. Four red-headed kids between ten and seventeen lived with her in an unpainted house across from Stop & Shop. Elliot liked her and had come to find her attractive. He managed a smile for her.
“Ethel, I think I’m going to pack it in,” he declared. It seemed awkward to be leaving early without a reason.
“Jack wants to talk to you before you go, Chas.”
Elliot looked at her blankly.
Then his colleague, Jack Sprague, having heard his voice, called from the adjoining cubicle. “Chas, what about Sunday’s games? Shall I call you with the spread?”
“I don’t know,” Elliot said. “I’ll phone you tomorrow.”
“This is a big decision for him,” Jack Sprague told the secretary. “He might lose twenty-five bucks.”
At present, Elliot drew a slightly higher salary than Jack Sprague, although Jack had a Ph.D. and Elliot was only an M.S.W. Different branches of the state government employed them.
“Twenty-five bucks,” said the woman. “If you guys have no better use for twenty-five bucks, give it to me.”
“Where are you off to, by the way?” Sprague asked.
Elliot began to answer but for a moment no reply occurred to him. He shrugged. “I have to get back,” he finally stammered. “I promised Grace.”
“Was that Blankenship I saw leaving?”
“It’s February,” Jack said. “How come he’s not in Florida?”
“I don’t know,” Elliot said. He put on his coat and walked to the door. “I’ll see you.”
“Have a nice weekend,” the secretary said. She and Sprague looked after him indulgently as he walked toward the main corridor.
“Are Chas and Grace going out on the town?” she said to Sprague. “What do you think?”
“That would be the day,” Sprague said. “Tomorrow he’ll come back over here and read all day. He spends every weekend holed up in this goddamn office while she does something or other at the church.” He shook his head. “Every night he’s at A.A. and she’s home alone.”
Ethel savored her overbite. “Jack,” she said teasingly, “are you thinking what I think you’re thinking? Shame on you.”
“I’m thinking I’m glad I’m not him, that’s what I’m thinking. That’s as much as I’ll say.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t care,” Ethel said. “Two salaries and no kids, that’s the way to go, boy.”
By Guy Davenport
When, in the good September weather of 1580, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's medicine-and-book-laden coach set out for Rome by way of Austria and Switzerland and all the sights and spas along the road, Shakespeare was a loud sixteen (given to making speeches in a high style, Aubrey records) in the country town of Stratford, and Ben Jonson was a cunning little schoolboy of seven in London, learning Latin and Greek. Michelangelo had died the year Shakespeare was born. The springtime of the Renaissance was over. It was in its high summer, and its energies were moving outward from the Mediterranean. Raleigh and Drake were on the seas, copies of North's Plutarch on their cabin tables. Elizabeth, the Protestant queen of the English, who was the same age as Montaigne, had translated Boethius. A few months before his journey Montaigne had seen the first edition of the Essais through the press in Bordeaux.
With the Essais the Renaissance leaves its long period of fervent rediscovery and invention, and enters the moment when classical attitudes have become an habitual climate for the arts and education. Montaigne's first language was Latin. His mind was speculative in the manner of the Hellenistic age: eclectic in philosophy, skeptical in religion, Stoic in the conduct of life. Montaigne's emulator in the eighteenth century, the Danish humanist Ludvig Holberg, would write, "If a man learns theology before he learns to be a human being, he will never become a human being." In the travel journal we see Montaigne again and again trying to find the man beneath the theology, the human reality beneath the trappings of office and position. He admires the affable humility of an innkeeper who is also a town councilman and who abandons his civic duties to wait at table, while finding a grand duke a snob. In Ferrara he may have seen Tasso insane, and in the next edition of the Essais speculated on how ambition and genius can destroy the mind.
The account of a journey by a wide-awake traveller rarely fails to make good reading. In his ability to convey a sense of place with a few deft details (a topiary garden, an historical site, local anecdotes) Montaigne can be compared to Basho, whose Journey to the Far North is the ideal form of all journeys of passionate pilgrims to shrines and to places which they have already visited in their imagination. Other than the meditations of his contemporaries Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay on the ruins of Rome and the remoteness in time of the Golden Age, Montaigne had no Romanticism to color his response to Italy. His eye is practical, curious, ironic.
He is, in a surprisingly modern sense, a tourist, with a tourist's interest in the amenities of the table and the bedroom. He is also, as we are never allowed to forget, a man in pain looking for a cure. His body cannot use certain minerals, such as calcium, which accumulate as pellets in his kidneys and bladder. The pain of a kidney stone is fierce, and in a male can be comparable to a woman's labor. The frequent "colic" in this journal (assuming that to be Montaigne's word for an attack of the stone) is a severe nausea in combination with the feeling that one's back is broken and that one's bowels need to move. Montaigne was fortunate in being able to pass his kidney stones. Another sufferer, Sir Walter Scott, could not, and abided pain of excruciating intensity for as long as two weeks at a time, helplessly screaming and hearing the New Testament read to him. Montaigne's constant scrutiny of his urine in a chamber pot, his colics and dizzy spells, his ability to drink heroic amounts of hot sulfurous water, locate his journal in a time when the body was still part of personality. Later, it would disappear. Dicken’s characters, for instance, have no kidney stones because they have no kidneys. From Smollett to Ulysses, there is not a kidney in English literature.
With the occlusion of the body there is an anaesthesia of sensibilities. Montaigne's curiosity is omnidirectional. An aristocrat with inbred self-assurance, he is unhampered by the timidities that bedevil the modern tourist. With what cool aplomb does Montaigne arrange a beauty contest and a dance for young folk at a spa, inquire vigorously of Protestants their differences sect by sect, kiss the Pope's slipper, master the social ins and outs of the Roman ricorso, and talk with people in every level of society, from children to cardinals.
A lively conversation with a craftsman in Pisa causes an invisible event which we read over in innocence unless alerted to what's happening. When, on Saturday, 8 July 1581, Montaigne in Pisa learned "that all trees bear as many circles and rings as they have lasted years," he is recording that fact for the second time in history. Until recently, we thought it was the first time.
On this particular day he was, like any tourist, shopping for things he would probably have other thoughts about back in Bordeaux. He bought a little cask of tamarisk wood with silver hoops, a walking stick "from India," a small vase, a walnut goblet also "from India." The man who sold him these things made mathematical instruments and fine cabinets. He knew wood. We can imagine the conversation between the craftsman and the polite foreigner with such curiosity about everything. Did the French gentleman know that in a cross section of a tree trunk the number of concentric rings gives the age of the tree?
He did not, but was careful to make note of the fact. And there it is, in the essayist's journal, between a passage about a gift of fish to an acting company in Pisa and a passage about a laxative for his debilitating constipation, seemingly the first notation of a fact we might have supposed that everyone had always known. Historians of science used to assure us that until this nameless woodworker imparted the fact to Montaigne we had no evidence of it.
Ninety-two years afterwards, in one of those collisions that seem to plague scientific discoveries, the secretary of the Royal Society in London received two manuscripts of botanical studies. One was from the Italian anatomist and botanist Marcello Malpighi, the founder of modern physiology. The other was from an Englishman with the wonderful name of Nehemiah Grew. The advantage that these two Renaissance botanists had over the ancients was the microscope, and between them they added as much to information too minute for the eye as their contemporary wielders of the telescope added to information too remote. And in both their manuscripts was the fact that the rings of trees in a cross section of tree trunk tell us the tree's age.
Montaigne's recording of this fact would not be published until 1774, when the manuscript of the journal was found in a chest at the château. So Malpighi and Grew, neck and neck, beat Montaigne into print. Let's, briefly, follow this one detail of the journal into its reverberations, if only to show how Montaigne's acute and voracious attentiveness can steer us along a current of the times. Malpighi had been a professor at the University of Pisa, where he was a friend of the mathematician Giovanni Borelli. Now earlier in the century Borelli's professorship had been held by one Luca Pacioli (he invented double-entry bookkeeping, if you want something to remember him by), a friend and associate of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo drew the illustrations for Pacioli's geometric study De Divina Proportione. Leonardo's best-known drawing, that of a man with his arms and legs in two positions inside a circle and a square, derives from his work with Pacioli.
When, in 1771, subscribers to the first Encyclopaedia Britannica could read, in the article "Agriculture," that "annual rings, which are distinctly visible in most trees when cut through, serve as natural marks to distinguish their age," they were being given a fact culled from Nehemiah Grew's Anatomy of Plants, one of Johnson's authorities for the Dictionary. Only recently have scholars knuckled down to sorting out everything in Leonardo's extensive notebooks, new volumes of which keep turning up. The Italian scholar Antonio Baldacci noticed that Leonardo recorded, and most probably discovered, some eighty years before Montaigne had his conversation at Pisa with the maker of mathematical instruments, that a tree's age can be told from its annual rings. It would seem, as Pisa keeps bobbing up in the history of this fact, that Pacioli learned it from Leonardo, Borelli from Pacioli. Did Malpighi learn it at Pisa, or discover it on his own? Montaigne's woodworker would have learned it from one Pisan professor or another.
Thus we can trace Leonardo's "obstinate rigor of attention" (the phrase is Paul Valéry's) to one fine detail of nature as it caught the sharp eye of Montaigne. Just as we have to be alerted age after age by our own new concerns to go back to Leonardo to see if he wasn't there first, so must we reread Montaigne, the travel journal along with the inexhaustible Essays, with fresh eyes every generation. Fernand Braudel found a mine of information in the journal for his studies of everyday life in the sixteenth century. The historian of religion, of Renaissance Italy, of medicine, of economics—Montaigne's obstinate rigor of attention serves them all.
The emotional center of gravity of the journal is, I like to think, the day in the Vatican library when Montaigne, having gazed lovingly at a manuscript Vergil and other treasures, falls into a conversation with scholars and gentlemen about Plutarch. It was his opinion that Amyot's recent translation of the Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans (1559) and of the Moralia (1572) had "taught us all how to write." Plutarch had indeed taught Montaigne how to write. It is a common error to say that Montaigne invented the essay. Plutarch invented the essay, and wrote seventy-eight of them; Montaigne invented its name in French and English.
Renaissance, rebirth. But most of the rebirths were also transformations. Phidias is not reborn in Michelangelo, nor Ovid in Poliziano. For accuracy of regeneration we have to turn to Plutarch and Montaigne. There is an uncanny resemblance between the mayor of Chaeroneia in the first century and the mayor of Bordeaux in the sixteenth. Both retired early from public life after a thorough formal education and a taste of metropolitan business and court intrigue. In his life of Demosthenes, Plutarch notes that Greek opinion held that "the first requisite of a man's happiness is birth in a famous city." Virtue, however, can flourish anywhere, Plutarch says, and as for him, "I live in a small city, and I prefer to dwell there that it may not become smaller still." So the Lives and Moralia were written by a family man in a small town in Boeotia, and the Essays were written on a wine-growing estate outside Bordeaux, both by men of the most honest introspection in the history of letters, both skeptics with Stoic minds and well-tempered good natures. It has been said of Montaigne, and can be said of Plutarch, that in reading him we read ourselves.
We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself. The surest teachers of such reflection, certainly the wittiest and most forgiving, are Plutarch and Montaigne.
Montaigne's stately tomb (with effigy in marble, his Essays on his chest, and with the inscription in Greek, a Latin translation being provided beneath for the illiterate) is in the Municipal Building at the junction of the rue Pasteur and the cours Victor Hugo, in Bordeaux. Montaigne's even temperament and habitual affection for life in all its forms was shaped by the ancient, even prehistoric, spirit of Bordeaux, one of the most cultivated provincial towns of the Roman Empire. In its first distinguished literary figure, Ausonius (fourth century A.D.) we can make out affinities with Montaigne. He was half pagan, less than half Christian. He read everything, quoted everybody, and sported an erudition that clearly had for its message that although he lived at a great remove from Rome, Alexandria, and Athens, nevertheless we Bordelais are right up with everything. We read books. We have a university. We have travelled. We are witty and well-mannered.
Bordeaux is still a gracious, very beautiful provincial city, which has been chosen down through history to be the city to which the government in Paris retires in time of trouble. It therefore considers Paris imprudent and a bit vulgar, looking to London through ancient allegiances as its spiritual capital.
A Roman tombstone in the Museum of Aquitania states the persistent symbol of Bordeaux: a society of people and animals. This steleis a sculpture of a child holding a rooster whose tail a puppy is pulling. An hour's drive brings you to the prehistoric caves in the Val Dordogne with their murals of thousands of animals painted and engraved. A city bus takes you to Montaigne's château, where he wondered if he played with his cat or his cat with him. Bordeaux is the birthplace of Rosa Bonheur. Did she know that she was continuing the business of the painters of Lascaux? Goya died there, having restated in The Bulls of Bordeaux a subject native to the region for thirty thousand years. Every Bordelais has a dog for a companion. The local strays have evolved a breed over the years, the Bordeaux Dog, an affable boulevardier of considerable charm and friendliness. Every restaurant and café has its cat (even the bar at the Théâtre, where John Adams saw his first play). It is wonderful that Montaigne lies at the corner of the rue Pasteur (doctor of men and animals) and the cours Victor Hugo, whose favorite dog was named Senate. The nostalgia we feel in reading Montaigne, the sense that he was more comfortable in his world than we can ever be in ours, is in part that he knew without embarrassment the animal body in which the human spirit lives. In Switzerland we watch him listening to the doctrines of Zwingli as if he were a very intelligent horse, his common sense as unassailable by Zwingli as a mountain by a snowflake.
It is his poor animal body whose urine is full of painful sand that he takes from spa to spa on his journey. It is with a tame animal's willingness to play his master's games (sit up, roll over, heel) that he kisses the Pope's foot (thinking God knows what in the inviolable privacy of his mind). He thought for himself, Monsieur Montaigne of Bordeaux. And thought so well, so searchingly, with such wit and intelligence, that he remains for us the best example of the sane mind and liberal spirit.
—from Every Force Evolves A Form: Twenty Essays (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987)
In both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Butterfield 8, Taylor appears in a tight white slip that looks as if it were sewed onto her body. What a gorgeous object she is! Feminists are currently adither over woman’s status as sex object, but let them rave on in their little mental cells. For me, sexual objectification is a supreme human talent that is indistinguishable from the art impulse. Elizabeth Taylor, voluptuous in her sleek slip, stands like an ivory goddess, triumphantly alone. Her smooth shoulders and round curves, echoing those of mother earth, are beyond the reach of female impersonators. Butterfield 8, with its call-girl heroine working her way down the alphabet of men from Amherst to Yale, appeared at a very formative moment in my adolescence and impressed me forever with the persona of the prostitute, whom I continue to revere. The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw, who controls the sexual channels between nature and culture.
—Camille Paglia, Vamps and Tramps
Gertrude Stein, "Reflection on the Atomic Bomb" (1946)
They asked me what I thought of the atomic bomb. I said I had not been able to take any interest in it.
I like to read detective and mystery stories. I never get enough of them but whenever one of them is or was about death rays and atomic bombs I never could read them. What is the use, if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there nobody to be interested and nothing to be interested about. If they are not as destructive as all that then they are just a little more or less destructive than other things and that means that in spite of all destruction there are always lots left on this earth to be interested or to be willing and the thing that destroys is just one of the things that concerns the people inventing it or the people starting it off, but really nobody else can do anything about it so you have to just live along like always, so you see the atomic [bomb] is not at all interesting, not any more interesting than any other machine, and machines are only interesting in being invented or in what they do, so why be interested. I never could take any interest in the atomic bomb, I just couldn't any more than in everybody's secret weapon. That it has to be secret makes it dull and meaningless. Sure it will destroy a lot and kill a lot, but it's the living that are interesting not the way of killing them, because if there were not a lot left living how could there be any interest in destruction. Alright, that is the way I feel about it. They think they are interested about the atomic bomb but they really are not not any more than I am. Really not. They may be a little scared, I am not so scared, there is so much to be scared of so what is the use of bothering to be scared, and if you are not scared the atomic bomb is not interesting.
Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story.
—Gertrude Stein, Yale Poetry Review, December 1947