August 7, 2022

Church Picnic

          The first glimpse of the bay from the car is an excitement that cannot be explained.
          Ahead, framed by the pines that line the beach road like a tunnel, the water and the sky are indistinguishable, cocked at an oblique angle to the narrow road like driving down the capital letter V into a sort of shimmering, aquamarine eternity. 
          The ocean, still a mile ahead, is the end of the world.
          But by the time you start looking for parking the illusion has passed. The briquette smoke and screaming children restore the earth's perspective—flatten it again.
          A malevolent stretch of arid, sun-baked weeks had left New England sticky and argumentative. The cumulous clouds floated, each day, rather insipidly in a blue sky that never darkened, never jostled the leaves that, this August, have started falling early.
          No matter how low I get, I always attend the church picnic. And this hangover—still going strong at 1:00defined low. In my wide-brimmed straw hat and chic sunglasses, I looked like Norma Desmond with distention. I am a bad person, and several people at this picnic know it pretty well.
          I am here to swim.
          The minister, with a scorecard of forgivenesses well concealed behind her eyes, hugged me genuinely. She approaches her profession like an instrumentalist, spending hours in detailed, technical practice but making the recital—this church picnic—appear effortless. No person went unspoken to, knowledgeable questions were asked, and a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries was offered to each pale set of arms and legs hobbled into its brightly colored folding chair sinking, as the small talk wore on, crookedly into the sand.
          Already, Gary was gone, but the awkwardness of the situation—surrounded even in this tiny circle by a few people I've drunkenly maligned or inexplicably dropped—seemed to propel conversation, like survivors in a lifeboat. I'd been missing from this crowd long enough that my shenanigans were outdated, and the faint aroma of scandal I gave off worked in my favor, made me a sort of Nixon. 
          Nevertheless, I always come to the picnic.
          And I am one of a handful of the same people, year after year, who brave the icy bay water, dipping under and screaming, young and very old, slender and fat. The salty baptism is perennial and deeply healing, and I come out of the water a hero for another year—cleansed, ready for another hot dog.
          The capacity of humans for forgiveness seems a learned trait, and few attempt it. My immolations had been largely self-lit, having like an iceberg the larger circumference of its mass hidden from sight. 
          But I had never before hurt a child. And there, alone, seated on a towel in the sand, separate from her parents, picking at her cole slaw, willowy as a branch of lilac, frowningly intelligent and just on the younger side of heartbreaking beauty, was an 11-year-old girl who unwisely, wholeheartedly adored me for my status—in her mind an erudite and geeky glory—as the president of a tiny, fiscally hopeless local historical society.
          Only two days ago I had resigned after a flurry of drunken emails aimed at the manipulative, narrow-minded former presidentwho had upstaged and frustrated me from the very beginning of my work—had alarmed and, finally, disgusted the Board of Directors. Maeve had spent over a year of Thursday afternoons with us at the museum going through World War I uniforms, old lumber mill ledgers, glass plate negatives, 19th century diaries and letters, and seaman's scrapbooks. 
          She loves horses and history.
          I will never see her again.
          I had walked past her toward the picnic table with the buns, salads, and condiments before I realized that she had seated herself in our little circle, with no possibility of entertaining conversation, probably to listen to me, to attempt to understand my decisionand I had failed to speak to her at all.
          Frankly, I was testing the waters with everybody. Only as little as two weeks ago, Gary and I had reached some sort of cease fire.
          I am on the edge of having no one, of drinking very, very much alone, like Lee Remick at that motel in the last scene of "Days of Wine and Roses." I balance myself in a permeable canoe, cutting the ropes that moor me to responsibility, to other people.
          When I returned with my hamburger I was finally able to talk to her. I drew her in by telling the person seated next to me the story of how I cut my thumb and had to have 22 stitches—one of Maeve's favorites, as she was there that afternoon they held my arm high above my head, waiting for Gary to take me to the emergency room. She chimed in with little details, delivered with the mock exasperation I have, throughout my time with her, come to require no less than a dog needs his head scratched.
          Forgiveness is a learned trait. Few attempt it. It is a promising trait.

July 25, 2022

Summer Baking

          My grandmother's pies were balanced on her kitchen window sills like peach and apricot see-saws. But no cool air was coming in on those July afternoons, in the Pennsylvania of my childhood, with the red brick schoolhouse just across the yard, its old-fashioned bell silent by the time I came along, its gothic windows blocked or foreshortened, its tiny kitchen used for storage.
          Aunt Ada made blueberry pies, Aunt Mame made cherry, but my grandmother only made peach—or a blissfully tart peach and apricot. As I got into my teens, the crusts were always burned and the bottoms sticky and raw. But when I was a child, the extra dough was baked with a little raspberry jam on top. Nothing in my adult life has given me as much pleasure as those fragile, fragrant disks that burned the roof of my mouth because I could not wait.
          My mother was glad to get rid of me in June, and I didn't see her again until August.
          Round steel tins covered in decoupage were stuffed full of icebox cookiessugar cookies made from refrigerated dough sliced paper thin—and sugar cakes with three raisins ritualistically placed on top that were like biting sand.
          So that I can't separate hot weather from the oven's bounty. I bake involuntarily, compulsively—therapeutically. I'm quite good at it.
          There were no air conditioners or electric fans or smoke alarms in my grandmother's tall house. Gallon glass bottles of milk were left in a dewy silver box at the foot of the back steps, and crusty tablets of bread came out of a truck that idled in the alley. After dark, the farmer's wife delivered butter the color of daffodils—Mrs. Calhoun: why did she always come at night?
          This simpler way of life is layered over the present like a subconscious dress pattern, and its agents are these loaves of bread I put on wire racks to cool. 
          The piano lessons and roadside fruit stands and after-church pot roasts of my childhood summers gather momentum in my memory as I head toward my birthday (I always requested orange sponge cake)late July, the peonies and iris burned off and nothing but the hardy lilies and milkweed pointing their fingers toward the changeable sky.
          I can hear the low thunder of a storm approaching. The sudden rain spits against the metal shutters but then stops—leaving us with the oppressive heat.
          I punch down a dough that will make good sandwiches by lunchtime.

July 8, 2022

A Summer of Rain

          I.
          My coffee experiments have led me to the conclusion that the best-tasting coffee is the one you are used to. 
          All the fuss with the French press—warming the carafe, setting my timer for four minutes, depressing the plunger slowly—has suddenly made the K cup taste superficial, its brew a mere electrical function.
          Robot coffee.
          The best life is the one you are used to.
          The life I knew is suddenly gone. A fatality of those clipped living room conversations, brief games of checkers at five o'clock—all my round pieces stacked up beside Gary's lovely wrist. 
          His is narrower than mine, and he would always demonstrate this by wrapping his thumb and forefinger around it. Taller than me, smaller at the waist, he is a man of better proportions. Even after 31 years, his bracelets put me into an agony of desire.
          Christmas after Christmas, my lust was my only gift.
          Now my midnight emails and posts have created a rubble that—when the smoke of morning coffee clears—looks like those old aerial photographs of Main Street after the 1933 fire. I inhabit this devastation with a sort of plucky self-pity: being disliked is what I am used to.
          I recall my mother's battered face, sitting across the table in a diner somewhere on the way home from Delaware, the black and blue marks extending below the lenses of her sunglassesher silence, dragging on her cigarette and sipping her coffee, determined not to let me see her cry. It was supposed to be a vacation, and Gordon beat her with a particular savagery that only long chaise lounge afternoons and restaurant gin and tonics could provoke. 
          Relegated to the sleeping porch, I was reading a paperback book by Billy Graham when their fight came through the length of the house from the bedroom like a malevolent locomotive, my mother already in her driving jacket, clutching her Samsonite overnight case. The porch door was one of those midcentury glass louvers operated by a metal crank, and when she opened it he must have pushed her. She fell head first down the steps with her legs and bottom still in the door frame. He pushed her with his foot then started closing the door on her body—now curled into fetal position, still clutching the luggage—repeatedly until the hinges nearly bent.
          When the awful dawn finally came, my mother had passed out in the front seat of her landau Chevelle, all her clothes in a pile next to her. 
          She married him anyway, locking in another year or two of private horror.
          No one knows this woman of whom I am the productwhose cavalier, wounded personality molded mine, whose voice lies just beneath my breath like the pedals of an organ, out of sight, operated by muscle memory, powerful and deep.
          I am the reupholstered, redacted, gentrified version of the life I survived.
          I have seen some bad nights, and terror and jealousy and a bad habit of seeing something for exactly what it is are a psychological inheritance I withhold from friends and lovers.
          The pantomime of alcohol is never truth as we expect it but rather the desire to be honest. The inevitability of a long night of drinking—its denouement—is a terrible craving simply to be heard. 
          Last Saturday night, by the time Marie called, I was beyond speech. Sitting in her living room at 2:00, there were no particular words to say, only an expression—formulated of arms and tender smiles—of tacit agreement, of solidarity for somebody who bottomed out too late in his life for it to be fashionable.

II.
          It was raining again the day Jose was in town. They made it down to the island in sunshine, but by the time they pulled into our driveway it was coming down cats and dogs.
          We would have lost touch for good but one night—quite drunk—I messaged Magali and she must have scolded him into writing. The craving to be heard.
         Here, in my driveway, was the boy who made single-serving meals for my grandmother when she was delirious from blood pressure medication and tranquilizers and froze them so she wouldn't have to cook. Moving into the back seat, now, was the boy who ran up to the gate in Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires and, throwing his arms around me, said You are my life.
          His nickname for me was "Chu-chi."
          We had lunch. After hearing about his new work and various properties, they were off to their motel room for phone calls and emails. It was still coming down in sheets when they dropped us off.
          Time itself seems to be the central character in all of this, making absolute liars of our youthful photos, toying with our posture, bringing things back around to some ironic coda with a black humor that seems calculated and cruel.
          I accept the consequences of my mistakes perhaps too obsequiously. Blaming myself is its own comfort, like an old baggy sweater, orbetter stilllike a good piece of Samsonite you hold on to when things get rough.

March 27, 2022

A Short Hike

 Everything comes gradually, at its appointed hour.
Ovid

          It was 10:30 and high tide was at 2:30. Marie said "If we're off the island by 1:00 we should be OK."
          It turns out she was wrong, and as we crossed the bar back to Bridge Street at noon there was barely a couple of yards of dry gravel and sand between a vastness of water shimmering and bleeding together like the rusty greens and blues of Raku pottery. 
          I screamed into the water eroding our path with the excitement of a boy on a roller coaster. It was a moment of complete abandonment, a pulling off of adulthood like an itchy sweater, and I think Marie approved of it.
          I kept thinking of Rhinehardt Pavilion. It was one of Deale's carefully identified pleasures, in a life of pleasures that included just about everything except reciprocated love—global travel during the young, luxurious era of jets; British spinster penpals; painting classes; cupboards full of Royal Doulton china; and the wealthy, mysterious Vera, of whom I know nothing except that she had a log cabin right on the Union River banks and a persistent, proprietary claim on my uncle that, of course, could not be resolved in any bed.
          The octagonal Madmen-era restaurant was built into the side of what, I suppose, became—further back and higher upthe foot of Cadillac Mountain. Its uninterrupted bank of east-facing windows looked down on the Porcupine Islands and the bar that gave the name to Bar Harbor.
          I can still hear the plates clatter. 
          It would be mid-September, 28 years ago, and I would have had a mattress of blueberry pancakes with—so defining in my life—extra butter. I had only an accordion-folded, Scotch-taped trail map to guide me on my hikes up Sargent Mountain when I was 35. Deale was always photographing me, and now when I look at the pictures they are a museum of my different sneakers and backpacks. Elf slim, I was still living within the envious attention of the older generation, which was to be discontinued, surreptitiously as dropping a magazine subscription, sometime in the charmless uncertainty and puffiness of my late 40s.
          At the summit, I pointed across the bay to the hill. I couldn't see anything, but I knew where it was. Marie said "Oh, I do see a round building! Want to go see it?!" But we didn't.
          I had returned to Maine at 58 to live after my family were all dead. It felt like putting on a dead person's glasses: I walked the same streets, talked to the same people, climbed the same mountains, but everything looked somehow different. I could never decide if the surprising turn of events that brought me back here was fate, or just a gathering of stars in an anonymous constellation.
          When Deale died suddenly in the summer of 2017, I thought my hiking days were through. I put my old maps away with all the brochures—one of them for the Rhinehardt Pavilion—he was constantly handing me. We cleaned out his house and I wept in the car as it headed south, the white pines and little tucked-away lakes blurring by in the passenger door window.
          Maine was a gift life gave back to me, like a benevolent refund, an acknowledgment of the pleasure I took in its coniferous, granite emptiness. Yet even the sweetest relationship diffuses in the airlessness of the present—the vicissitude of a morning after hard drinking, the tiny frowns of disapproval that aggregate in the subconscious, the daily relinquishments of age. The play, even if well-written, seems to drag on.
          We passed no one going back down, as if the small island was ours. Jack Perkins owned it in the 1980s and supposedly found God through simple living—one and a quarter miles from some of the most unaffordable seafood restaurants, day spas, and resorts in the state. The lights alone must have ruined the night sky.
          Our hair whipped as we crossed over, the poolscloser and deeper on either side than half an hour agolike shellac over the speckled, ovoid granite. 
          And I had my scream—into the jade and cerulean, ineluctable tide.         

March 4, 2022

The Kitchen on a March Morning

           Outside, the morning sun falls across the driveway in striations of coral on the light blue snow. Inside, the cat is on high alert, staring at a cabinet door. 
          Absurdly loud in the silent house, the tsk! tsk! of the regulator clock measures the heartbeat of a brand new Friday. Everyone is asleep but me.
          And I wonder about the case of my self: was I really extraordinary? Or the opposite: impulsive and selfishsmall.
          Mine is a world of superlatives: coffee in the morning and wine at night, concentration and irresponsibility, the sun's warmth on another two inches of snow that fell during the night.
          I work so hard, and then I just don't give a damn.
          So we beat on, boats against the current, and then suddenly with it—a fist clenched then slackened as the blood is drawn. I form resentments then melt them, mourning a mother I despised as a child.
          What other pottery is there to break and repair?my life a kintsugi of abuses and profligate affections. My heart was always in it until ... it wasn't.
          The kitchen smells like coffee and sleeping dogs.
          I line up my pens and ruler and magnifying glass in a squad across the table. What shall we take the measure of this day? I never struggled with boredom—only control. I contort my handwriting into 90-degree angles and straight lines because my curves are so ugly. The brittle marks please me, marching across the paper like a navy blue hieroglyph.
          Presence and absence, fondness and disregard, the dishes form a strata on the countertop: fossilized mashed potatoes, the purple crust at the bottom of a wine glass, a wooden spoon pointing straight up from the basin like a soldier shot in a trench. 
         Everything is motionless except the sun, high above the garage now, eradicating the shadows. The neighbor's car door verifies that another day is underway.

February 11, 2022

The Obituary of No One In Particular

          While he was alive, there was always fresh mint and parsley in the house.
          There was tea at 4:00 in tiny blue and white porcelain cups as thin as stationery.
          Little arrangements of shells and pine cones sat here and there. The kitchen sink was below a window that looked out into eternity—as all kitchen windows do.
          The clock was wound when its tenor chime became too melancholy, and in the afternoon he sat on the floor with his dog, trying to learn a few words of its language, never quite finding the right touch.
          His mind had room for a single passion only, so that when he drew, he did not play pianothe beautiful instrument would sit, a silent coffin, for months at a time. So, too, it was with people: he clung to only one at a time, breathing in their self-confidence, believing in them absolutely, as he had believed in God when he was a child. The unbearableness of being a casual friend held no charm for him. Every interaction had to be singular and intimate as a prayer.
          His vices distorted him as a photograph is ruined by sunlight. Something deadlier than age sat below his jawline and behind his eyes. He rose up each morning poisoned by the night before. Sleepless and shaken, he crawled toward the golden light of late afternoon, when the lines began again to rhyme.
          His hands and arms and legs were smaller by a percentage that seemed deliberate, as if he were hobbled together from the pie dough trimmed from around the edges of the pan. His voice was music.
          He cursed God at the drop of a pencil yet always stopped to smell beach roses as if for the first time. He made a caricature of others—rapid and accurate—but could not hold his own in serious conversation.
          Vapid but eloquent, we loved the sob just on the other side of his words.

December 19, 2021

A Christmas Memory

          I.
          
          The Social Security Death Index only says "Dec 1971." 
          I remember it so vividly that the abbreviated date seems vaguely insulting.  
          There was no snow on the ground, and I was walking home from school on Starr Street, which stretched from our apartment complex, past the Acme, all the way to the steel factory like a spool of satin ribbon fallen from a table.
          The walk seemed endless.
          I often took it with my friend Everett Ashenfelter. At 12, he was already fat. But he was kind; meaning, that he spoke to me rather than taunted me.
          On this particular day I was alone. Quite likely, I was wearing the black, sherpa-lined boots my mother bought for me that slipped on and off so easily, and perhaps even the ridiculous faux fur coat that made me look like a pre-pubescent Tallulah Bankhead.
          My mother was also fond of dickies, the tightly collared sheaths that fit under V-neck sweaters—functionless and abbreviated, not unlike "Dec 1971."
          That day, I might have been carrying my plastic Bundy clarinet in its black velour-lined case, double latched, indestructible as a Kelly green tank. My reeds—I had two—slipped into a tangerine paper folder with the name of the music store on Bridge Street rather carelessly rubber stamped onto each side.
          Perhaps my mother had called the school. I might have been dismissed early and told, without explanation, to return straight home. Today, I can look at a map online and determine, with the accuracy of nostalgia, that it must have been at about house number 759 that my mother's white Ford Mustang passed me, then turned into the Acme parking lot and stopped.          
          I got into the car. 
          Brian was in the front passenger seat looking frightened and sullen.
          No one said anything.