July 3, 1947 — May 30, 2017
July 3, 1947 — May 30, 2017
Last night I brought my new license plates to bed with me, and I admit I felt pretty pleased with life. It has taken me more than two years to finish replanting myself and to grow some shoots after a long period of defoliation, so there was cause for delight. During the time of my walkabout, I had no permanent address — not that any address is permanent in the grand design — because I had sold my condo, which would have floated down river had it been any more under water, and had set out to find my future.
To begin the adventure I slept for several months on a friend’s scratchy couch; by my choosing, we are no longer friends. I stayed with my daughter under a few roofs, and we soldiered on, but barely. I lived for a good stretch in a sad hotel with a kitchen, and I almost got used to the brown carpet and the plastic plates. Finally, I ended up in a boarding house for the unhinged, where even the cats had lost their minds, and I knew then that my wandering days were coming to a merciful close.
I wouldn’t recommend dislocation to most people since human animals typically tend toward amassment and above all seek comfort and safety, but I can say to those who have an interest that my experience taught me to loosen my grip on all things earthly, except for Keurig’s Dark Magic coffee, and to seek a higher, more ethereal location. Still, as I looked at those license plates resting where another might find her lover, I understood that they were an emblem of my transfiguration, and I was more than a little pleased to share a bed with them.
When she was 49, my brother’s first wife—a blonde-haired, green-eyed, freckled beauty—drove her car off a Los Angeles cliff. When she was young, her father Jack was the one to find his wife, her mother, who had also killed herself, and during the years I knew Carmen she more than once wondered aloud if that would be her own fate.
I have held onto a few things that help me remember the kind of person she was: a cookbook with a bright pink cover, which had been one of her favorites, and two papier-mâché containers decorated with a jungle theme, where I keep paper clips and push pins.
Sometimes when I am sitting very still, I find myself thinking about Carmen’s last moments, right when her car went over the edge and there would have been no turning back. I try to imagine myself flying through the air with her just long enough to be assured that she did not suffer. But I am never able to stay in the front seat with her for more than a few seconds before my psyche recoils.
My gentle niece, who was young herself when her mother took her own life, has been left to imagine and grieve that terrible death for the rest of her days, and I cannot think that anything would diminish the pain of her loss, not even time or love.
It is as if you had arrived in a brown basket on a porch near St. Paul, a piece of bonnet poking out the one side and a wintry mix coming down. You couldn’t help but look up, mouth an O, but all you could see were four sets of dark eyes staring back down, blinking. Or more like a great tumbledown from a brilliant sun to a duller one, the fall through space across a frigid crosshatching of having-all-but-given-up-on-yourself and for what: a guest room with a busted lock and a Princess phone?
I have been thinking about my father, who died when I was 20. Nothing that has happened in my life from his death until now can compare with the terrible sorrow I felt, although certainly there have been competing blows.
Back then, though, before I had thickened with callus, it swallowed me whole, that grief, and there was no one in the extended family, not any soul, who even took notice of it much less tried to salve it. I was the frailest of ghosts in a collective of vapors.
Rita, my mother, divorced my father when I was six, presumably because of his philandering. I remember just a very few fragments from that story, which came to me through her. Since she lied more often than not, I do not know for certain what is true here: 1) He had been doing his big-breasted secretary on the west coast while she had been setting up a new house for him some 3,000 miles away, her addled children in tow. 2) She had listened nonstop to Ritchie Valens’s “Donna” and had wailed all the livelong day. 3) He had thrown a heavy glass ashtray at her when the children were sleeping.
I knew my father for just a handful of years—from zero to six, say. After that he was out the door with another secretary, whom he met at a New York City cosmetics company while an advertising executive there. She had recently arrived from England; was some twenty years younger than he was; had become a bottle redhead, like my mother; and was more an athlete than an intellectual. Soon enough they married, and off they flew to Southern California—ostensibly to rid themselves of his verbally violent, alcoholic ex-wife but also, I think, to offload the two children: one an odd and lonely kid who cried all the time; the other her older brother, who by then had become a real rotter.
Through middle and high school, during my winter and summer vacations, I would visit my father and his young bride. I confess to having worshipped her then, and for many years after, though it turns out this devotion was undeserved. Although I have relatively few memories from that time, I can call up several stray fragments from the earlier years. Perhaps they, too, are part fabrication:
1) At a weekend party of adults, except for me, I am sitting at a round table next to my father. Several other grownups are at the table with us. My father has been drinking heavily, and I lean over to tell him he should go easy on the booze. Laughing and glassy-eyed, he turns to me and says, “I can drink you under the table.” I am ten.
2) I am in the bedroom of the party-givers, alone and rifling through a night table drawer. I find a small comic book and discover it is porn: Inside the booklet a hand-drawn couple is going at it in a car parked at an overlook. A police officer shines a flashlight in on them and sees the man’s outsized penis. I see the outsized penis, also. “We’re just necking,” says the man. “Well, put your neck back in your pants and go on home,” the officer tells him. I continue to be ten.
3) I am in a room with one of my only friends. We have come from New York to spend the summer in California with my father and stepmother. We are smoking, and my stepmother walks in on us. “Smoking!” she exclaims—then turns and leaves. I am thirteen, as is my friend, but by then I had already been smoking for four years.
I will tell you about the naked oak in our yard and about
my dead robin, June, who couldn’t fly south for winter
and about the Cooper’s hawk that swooped down to eat
the poor thing, pecking first at a dull eye, while close by
two cracked eggs, each the size of a large jelly bean,
lay oozing yolk and about the cold sky pulled thin and
plumed across my low horizon and about Hyena, with
his pail full of silver buckshot, who shouted from across
the avenue, “Wanna lick my lollipop, pancake tits?”
while behind him two fat boys cackled, with Br’er
Rabbit, the older by some years, in Daddy’s pink shirt
and about mother leaving for the City, her thin
lips painted plump, and about my gray lunch
congealing in a tin pan that sat on the top rack of a
cold oven and about the canned peaches she dumped
into a tea cup and placed on a shelf in her
refrigerator. But not yet and not here