December 29, 2019

The Text

          It came in with two others, and I almost overlooked it. No name, just the number.
          Merry Christmas Bill.
          I recognized the area code—Philadelphia, King of Prussia, Norristown. This person knew me, all right. I replied politely, a little delighted with the mystery. I was like Bette Davis on "This Is Your Life," listening to the voice but not guessing the right name.
          Three hours later, the reply confirmed the game:
          I think we should Keep it a secret for a little while. Life offers so little mystery these days.
          The capitalized "K" is an easy enough mistake on the phone, but the statement about life seemed a little flabby for anyone I really loved. If anything, life was more mysterious at our age.
          Still, I was excited. I texted back some names, even mentioning that it could be my dead mother. I said I missed Pennsylvania.
          A little over an hour later:
          Do you? And of that fine group of possible well wishers, who do you miss the most? Excluding mother of course.
          Then, immediately after:
          And don't forget the possibility of my having moved from a different state Or perhaps even a different country! Remember?
          I sent another name just before bed. The reply came in 15 minutes: Or perhaps...?

* * *

          When I woke up at 2:00, I thought about how quickly I was ready to forgive Bob or Sara, or Jose. All that work I had done to nullify the excitement of those names, my longing for them simply to remember—so that I could exist. To be forgotten is the cruelest fate, to be put aside like a bad wine. My only dignity was in recognizing—fully acceptingthat I was not the defining, blazing memory that they were for me. Such understanding seemed the accomplishment of my years, tinged with Buddhism.
          I had been a chocolate confection, tasted and put back in the wrapper without embarrassment. The stories of their lives had been recast, diverted around me like a traffic bypass. 
          Now the mystery texter was making an absolute fool of me. The size of my need for those old people—one wrinkled by too much sunny California tennis, the others consumed by their careers, tone-deaf and strident, wealthy and slim—is incalculable and beyond my manipulation. One word and my heart is back in the bucket.
          Such is the biography of lust, I guess. They listened, too, but not for long. By the time Gary came along, I had largely stopped talking—knowing, finally, that good sex just doesn't buy you all the pre-dawn conversations I needed. No one can make it better.
          The fact is there is plenty of mystery, and danger, and humiliation, left in life.
          And of that fine group of possible well wishers, who do you miss the most? 
          In the texter's question, the power is suddenly inverted. I am asked to choose from among old loves who would never choose me, faces that have peopled my dreams for 30 years. In every one, the behaviors and outcomes are the same, locked into place by memory, the subconscious heating up like a reel-to-reel film projector that stays depressingly on script.
          I can't read the boxes of old diaries I kept, filled with cards from bars and slips of paper with phone numbers and names I can't remember. I made lists of food, the money I spent, how many cigarettes I smoked, where I spent the night. It's too real.
          Perhaps I am a curator of stultified memories, like a person who hums a tune imperceptibly altered, remembered forever—incorrectly.
          This morning the texts have stopped. I looked up the number and found it's someone in Reading, PA.
          Just a wrong number.

November 10, 2019

New Kitten

Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
          In the dark room, a game commences. One sound is dull and brief: it is a book hitting the floor. A jug of lotion is louder, as it is (finally, successfully) toppled. Papers cascadelike a deck of cards being shuffledunder the pink pads of the kitten's paws as she grips some kind of starting line on the top of my desk. A couple of pieces of art deco pottery I somehow overlooked when I was taking everything out of the room yesterday have a sharp report as they are rearranged, in the darkness—and I am on my feet, cursing.
          Two tall, matching glass lamps on the nightstands will have to go.
          Twenty minutes later we are together with my book. She looks up at the pages approvingly from my armpit. Her purr is unexpectedly baritone for such a tiny creature, and it continues even when she sleeps—with her sturdy tail wound around her body like a spool, its dot of white paint at the very tip hidden beneath her.
          At feeding time I watch Gary's face as the kitten festinates about the room: he is in love. But I am not. Exactly two weeks ago I covered the space between my old cat's ears with kisses even after the injection had done its work. I left the room craning my head backward to the stainless steel table where she layin a strange blanket. I stepped outside into the lush fall morning and wailed into Gary's arms with a voice that didn't seem my own, despite all of my comic mimicry, my drunken singing in the kitchen. I had never heard my throat sound like that—as sudden and embarrassing as vomiting.
          That was love.
          This kitten is life, in all its abundant, metabolic banality.
          And now she is bouncing herself against the bedroom door like a calico tennis ball. She seems to have a bat's wings, when she appears from somewhere below the foot of the bed, her paws spread like a lab frog, her eyes like two olive-green saucers. Ten times a night I decline the offer of her butt, presented below a tail raised like a mainsail as she strolls between me and my book. No, thank you.
          The next day I scroll through my photos for the final picture I took of Bit. When I find it, I'm disappointed—she's just on one corner of the bed, cleaning herself. An excessively ordinary moment. I took photos of her every night, in DC, when she would stand like a striped amphora on my mother's dresser, clearly guarding me against bad dreams, leaving me water bugs and mice, teaching me self-respect. 
          That mesmerizing poise came at a high cost: she was too wild and frightened to be held, and her fear was bottomless and ugly when she'd dart in front of you, trying to escape but only becoming more entangled with your legs. Whatever early trauma she sufferedwhenever it occurred, defined her. Yet its temporary passing—moments of security when her neck was being held down and groomed by Frannie or Holden, or when she sat on the toilet lid on a sort of proud, preoccupied sentry duty as I took a bath—was as ravishing as the slow movements of old music.
          She didn't wear her heart on her sleeve, like this kitten—hardly the size of a paperback, already a competent snuggler.
          Bit accompanied mevery much my own cat, a true friend, as it turned outfrom my 46th year until my 60th. I am unexpectedly diminished without her silhouette on a piece of furniture, watching me like a soft grey bowling pin as I struggle to sleep.
          We sign our names again and again in the sand. Each morning requires of us some kind of unbiased, raw energy that becomes harder to muster. Memory is cheap.
          A vertical bar of light forms along the edge of the black-out shades. The kitten is still asleep, but the laces of all my shoes are frayed.

August 8, 2019

At the Optometrist’s

          I wrapped both pairs of my glasses up in a dirty blue bandanna. When I got down the hill to the optometrists office I just handed the bulky cloth to the lady.
          She relocated here from Washington, too. 
          What is your age?
          “Iamsixty.” I spaced the words out like the granite boulders along the carriage roads in the park.
          “I will be, too, next year!
          She seemed too old to be living with her parents. She was smiley but unstable—a cat on a bookshelf. I could picture her screaming, easily. But I liked how she said “I love the Maine winters.
          That's the thing nobody tells you about up hereit only gets better after the tourists leave. Winter is a hardship only in the sense that needlework, or Dostoevsky, is a hardship. Each storm is different from the last one, like the first page of a very good book.
          I was dilated and had to sit for 10 minutes. The doctor told me to relax. He said it twice, as if to make a point. I stared at the striped carpet squares, like giant Neapolitan coconut candies, each turned a different direction from its neighbor. The wall color was under-ripe banana, and the dark vinyl cove molding was like pen underlining done with a ruler. 
          The exam room door was open. I could hear the interviews.
          The first was a young male contact lens client. A lady told him only to wear them for four hours, to lubricate his eyes before a nap, not to shower with them in, never to sleep with them in, absolutely never to rub his eyes with them in (the lens will just absorb certain fats and solvents), and to call if his vision seems worse.
          I had stopped relaxing. I was physically cringing at what this boy would do not to be seen in glasses frames—such an aphrodisiac for me. The powerful eroticism of nerds! Gregory Peck in  “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Garys right index finger holding back the pages of a book.
          The next thing I heard was an older man interacting with the doctor.
           “Which is better: A ... or B?
          I recognized in his replies my own refusal to simplify. After all, my life hadn't been simple. Why should I serve up something cleansed of the difficulty of its birth, finally resolved—thoroughly comprehended, after such struggle, accepted—bluntly binary.
           “B is a little bit better than A, but I wouldnt say it’s a vast improvement.
          Good for you!faceless voice from the next room.
          This moment is now, this rectangular room with its soft yellow orbs of examination equipment lights, and I am the man bringing his glasses to the office in an old bandanna, my blood sugar eroding my retinas, my memories of my mother—younger than me, now.
          Life was a bell curve, and somewhere around 34 or 35—when I was still hiking the mountains in Acadia, still buying things because I was afraid I couldnt be myself without them, still smoking on the back porch—I started heading back to the x axis.
          It’s a lot of experience. But I’m afraid it doesnt do much good.
          The doctor came back into the room, and we talked about having my other eye done, and I said “Forget it.”
          “You're lucky its overcast—a good day to have your eyes dilated.”
          Jay-walking across Hancock and Elm Street I had to hurry to avoid a fast blue Subaru. I thought, God, it can't be Eleanor—but it was. She flew into her driveway, jumped out of the car and waved at me enthusiastically ... slim and tall like a model, her back still straight, the bones of her face perfect like Katharine Hepburns, and her silver hair carefully and tastefully arranged.
          Shes 94.
          I took Elm Street hill slowly. 
          I need to find an excuse to drop in on Eleanor again. She sees things quite clearly.

April 10, 2019

Night Drive

          When we left Robin's at 9:45 another couple of inches of snow had fallen.
          Earlier, she had looked out the window and said "Guys, I have a guest room upstairs!" We were finishing some peppermint tea, hypnotized by the lusty flames in her Jotul.
          Twice the plow passed in front of her house with its guttural run-on sentences—then disappeared. Her cats were asleep in individual foam beds.
          It would be a long, slow drive home, and leaving—putting our boots on, going out into the weird nighthad the quality of a big decision, like divorcing, or quitting a job.
          The last words Robin said, one arm raised and pointing, were "Go that way." But she was standing in front of the door's light and I couldn't make out which arm she had raised.
          I said "That way?" I knew she couldn't mean the shortcut.
          The falling snow was like a thousand muted voices screaming.
          "No!" Now we were like two people in a foreign country, without a common language. "Towardthepostoffice!"
          I couldn't recognize anything in the altered landscape, and we almost missed our turn.
          Out on Route 1, the snow-covered boughs of the Eastern White Pinescrowded up against the edge of the roadall pointed southwest, toward Ellsworth.
           An approaching car was like the flashlights of a couple of boy scouts exploring a mammoth cave, magnified by the corridor of pines, coming from around a bend in the road ahead. After it passed, the ghoulish light of snow was everywhere, coming from nowhere in particular.
          A single electric candle in the front window of a clapboard house threw an ocher rectangle on the lawn in front, and I could feel its sentiment like a single line of poetry, a sentence underlined in a book—a modest, perfectly-timed embrace.
          The sky was low, and the vacant distances, the long views out across the bay, were blue-black holes. The Atlantic ocean was on our left—a deduction, a mere factas we drove, on the coast of Maine, in early April.
* * *

          I had moved back to the land where my mother had grown up, and, three days before her birthday, again I tried to conjure her at 12. Her memories of Maine were a tiny part of her that hadn't been suffocated by Viceroys and Aqua Net. The nail of her right-hand ring finger, unpaintable, dullstill bore the marks of the apple press—or was it the root cellar door?—from when she was a girl, and there were stories of her father's pig that followed her around the door yard and the body they found under a dock up at Beech Hill Pond. There had been brown bread and finnan haddie and boiled dinner, and any lobster a restaurant dared serve my mother was "crayfish" compared to those of Maine.
          Thus the state entered my early consciousness.
          We made the long car trip up from Pennsylvania two or three times during my childhood, stopping over in Massachusetts for the night. My memories are dim.
          One night the adults left me in the care of my uncle "Fod." He took me in his pick-up down to the riverfront and parked. He pulled a bottle out from underneath the driver's seat and made me promise not to tell Aunt Leah.
          Now I know the woman who owns the big house across the river from that spot, but I didn't know anyone, then—fascinated by the cats that appeared and disappeared through tiny flapped doors in my aunt's kitchen wall, and the tales of my bachelor uncle who had been everywhere in the world. He watched me when I was 10, surmising how unhappy I would become as an adult.
          But now the public buildings of the town, the choked-off road out to an abandoned fairground, and the old houses that squat like piles of driftwood on their overgrown lots keep their secrets. My mother is not here. No one is here anymore. And like an old dinner plate or a keepsake afghan, objects transmogrify into the present, forgetting or denying the past.
          And I am myself, no longer my mother's child.
          A little out of place.

* * *

          It took us an hour to get home from Steuben, and as we walked the dogs the sky was low and opaque—Chekhovian. The trees, outlined in snow, and the tiny houses angled into the drifts composed a funny—but somehow ravishingdiorama. On the sidewalk ahead of me, Gary seemed far away, as if he had passed into another life, leaving me behind.
          Indignantly, I re-read all of Pine Tree Weather's posts to see just how adequately we'd been advised of this storm. The colored bands of the precipitation maps looked like a card of paint chips. 
          But halfway through the report, a couple of sentences struck me as oddly poetic.
Typical with spring along the 45° parallel, there is a constant battle between winter and spring in April, and this year is no different. There is still plenty of cold to the north that is slowly retreating. The higher sun angle and length of daylight will continue to erode at the cold over time. It appears that this will be a slow process.
          I hadn't expected the little shiver down the spine that comes in the presence of great art, and I sat quietly for a few moments in a sort of tribute to the forecaster-poet.
          I located the 45° parallel, tracing it with my eyes across central Maine, exiting just above Grand Manan into the Bay of Fundy.
          It has been a constant battle between winter and spring, between hoping and quitting, between obsession and lassitude. 
          And the snow that came late in the night—like a dreaded phone call, or a birthfell on the living and the dead alike.

February 25, 2019

The Shortest Month

          The landscape thaws and refreezes, immortalizing the mailman's boot prints like a snapshot.
          The ground's surface is a dirty meringue, a white sheet thrown over summer memories. We walk like penguins to the car and back. 
          The branches of the lilac quiver in the north wind. Snow tires pull into the driveway with explosions of ice that fail to break the ennui.
          Blinded by scarves, we walk the dogs down the treacherous street on a trickle of macadam. Salt can't touch this stuff, and the iron blade of the ice scraper bounces off it like a basketball.
          Everybody makes their meetings, and the potlucks are jammed. The ladies are playing bunco every week without breaks. All this will pull apart like the heel of a sock this summer, when the tourists come. Our winter empathy—the huddled town itself, the banks and furrows along her sidewalks, the lights in the windows of City Hall at five, the homes with their stacks of firewood peeking out from under cerulean tarps, all this cookie baking—will cool on the first warm weekend of May, and we will become independent again, a little embarrassed by our hardy fellowship, our stockinged feet held up against the J√łtul, the puddles from our boots ruining the hallway floor. 
          Winter is hard.
          And I wonder what will become of my own tenacity and resolve—when I can go outside in just a T-shirt.
          But that seems impossible, now.
          And there's all of March to get through, if only we could start it.

January 31, 2019

A Success Story

"The less said, the better."
—my mother, to me, September 1997          

          Success in life can be measured by an ability to make oneself important to others. In short, to be loved. As a lifelong outsider to this process, I've marveled at how counter-intuitive it is—you can't want it. In fact, the less we desire anothers' approval, the more it is bestowed. Or so I have observed.
          It's better to be sassy than nice, and if I had children I would encourage them to establish a strong personality and charm the world—be large—rather than long for it, or, worse, live in stunned resentment of its coldness.
          Yet, important things happen to people who are not important, and this is the essence of loneliness, the hardest part of it. To grasp the full force of this is to begin to develop compassion—the sort of compassion that, with time, includes one's own self. When this takes hold, however late in life, there is a thawing of frozen things.
          An important thing has happened to me, and I am feeling lonely because I'm not sure that anyone cares. No one cares because no one knows. No one knows because I am notespeciallyimportant. 
          I'm nice.
          I'm also a black-out alcoholic.

December 1, 2018

The Cook at the Bantam Cafe

Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul's
weather to all who can read it. 
Martha Graham

          The day before, I started thinking "They won't have the deviled eggs." They had felt like something capricious on the menu—somebody had simply bought too many eggs that first week of October. 
          My life has prepared me for disappointment, and I snuggle my face into it like a suffocating old sweater. I hypothesize that this gives me character.
          We dropped the dogs off and cantered two doors up to the tiny building, separated from a row of old, three-story brick storefronts and a third their heightlike a one-car garage with a gabled roof.
          They have them. 
          Gary said this to me as he might have said, just as gravely, The surgery went well.
          This time, I found myself in a seat facing the kitchen rather than Main Street. 
          We had crossed the frozen, yellow-white Penobscot on the new bridge and followed the marshes up through Frankfortits Congregational church, post office, and general store huddled together in the bright noontime cold—into Winterport, and the views out the car window not even Andy Wyeth's burnt umber and ultramarine could beautify. It was nothing but desolate, frozen mud along the banks, the dead grasses combed through by the retreating water like the hair of a corpse.