Memories of the Future
Years ago I left the wide, flat fields of rural Minnesota for the island of Manhattan to find the hero of my first novel. When I arrived in August of 1978, he was not a character so much as a rhythmic possibility, an embryonic creature of my imagination, which I felt as a series of metrical beats that quickened and slowed with my steps as I navigated the streets of the city. I think I was hoping to discover myself in him, to prove that he and I were worthy of whatever story came our way. I wasn’t looking for happiness or comfort in New York City. I was looking for adventure, and I knew the adventurer must suffer before he arrives home after countless trials on land and sea or is finally snuffed out by the gods. I didn’t know then what I know now: As I wrote, I was also being written. The book had been started long before I left the plains. Multiple drafts of a mystery had already been inscribed in my brain, but that didn’t mean I knew how it would turn out. My unformed hero and I were headed for a place that was little more than a gleaming fiction: the future.
I had given myself exactly twelve months to write the novel. If at the end of the following summer, my hero was stillborn or died
in infancy or turned out to be such a dullard that his life deserved no comment, in other words, if he was not a hero after all, I would leave him and his novel behind me and throw myself into the study of my dead (or failed) boy’s ancestors, the denizens of the volumes that fill the phantom cities we call libraries. I had accepted a fellowship in comparative literature at Columbia University and, when I asked if I could defer my admission until the following year, the invisible authorities had sent me a long-winded letter agreeing to my request.
A dark room with a kitchenette, an even darker bedroom, a tiny black-and-white-tiled bathroom, and a closet with a bulging plaster ceiling at 309 West 109th Street cost me two hundred and ten dollars a month. It was a grim apartment in a scraped, chipped, battered building, and had I been just a little different, a bit more worldly or a touch less well read, its sour green paint and its views of two dirty brick walls in the stinking summer heat would have wilted me and my ambitions, but the degree of difference that was required, however infinitesimal, did not exist at the time. Ugly was beautiful. I decorated the rented rooms with the charmed sentences and paragraphs I lifted at will from the many volumes I kept in my head.
He had filled his imagination with everything that he had read, with enchantments, knightly encounters, battles, challenges, wounds, with tales of love and its torments, and all sorts of impossible things, and as a result had come to believe that all these fictitious happenings were true; they were more real to him than anything else in the world.
My first moments in my first apartment have a radiant quality in memory that have nothing to do with sunlight. They are illuminated by an idea. Security deposit down, first month’s rent paid, door closed on my squat, grinning super, Mr. Rosales, sweat soaking the underarms of my T-shirt, I hopped about on the floorboards in what I believed to be a jig and threw out my arms in triumph.
I was twenty-three years old with a BA in philosophy and English from St. Magnus College (a small liberal arts institution in Minnesota founded by Norwegian immigrants); five thousand dollars in the bank, a wad of dough I had saved while I worked as a bartender in my hometown of Webster for a year after graduation and bunked at home for free; a Smith Corona typewriter, a tool kit, cooking equipment donated by my mother, and six boxes of books. I built a desk with two-by-fours and a plywood sheet. I bought two plates, two cups, two glasses, two forks, two knives, and two spoons in anticipation of the future lover (or series of lovers) with whom, after a night of delirious banging, I planned to eat a breakfast of toast and eggs, which, because I had no table and no chairs, would be consumed on the floor.
I remember the door closing on Mr. Rosales, and I remember my jubilation. I remember the two rooms of the old apartment, and I can walk from one to the other in my mind. I can still see the space, but if I am honest, I cannot describe the precise configurations of the cracks in the bedroom ceiling, the lumpy lines and delicate flowerings I know were there because I studied them, nor am I absolutely certain about the dimensions of the refrigerator, for example, which I believe to have been smallish. I’m quite sure it was white and it may have been round at its corners, not square. The more I focus on remembering, the more details I am likely to provide, but those particulars may well be invented. And so, I will not expound on the appearance, for example, of the potatoes that lay on the plates in front of me thirty-eight years ago. I will not tell you whether they were pale and boiled or sautéed lightly or au gratin or fried because I do not remember them. If you are one of those readers who relishes memoirs filled with impossibly specific memories, I have this to say: those authors who claim perfect recall of their hash browns decades later are not to be trusted.
And so, I arrive in the city I have dreamed about since I was eight years old but do not know from Adam (as a child, I thought the
expression was “from atom” and that it bore some relation to the terrifying physics of the bomb).
And so, I arrive in the city I have seen in films and have read about in books, which is New York City but also other cities, Paris and London and St. Petersburg, the city of the hero’s fortunes and misfortunes, a real city that is also an imaginary city.
I remember the eerie illumination that came through the broken blinds the first night I slept in apartment 2B on August 25. I told myself I needed a new shade or it would never be truly dark in the room. The hot air didn’t move. My sweat turned the sheets damp, and my dreams were harsh and vivid, but by the time I had made coffee and taken the cup back to my foam mattress to drink it the following morning, I had forgotten what I dreamt. During my first week in New York, I wrote in the mornings and traveled on the subway in the afternoons. I had no destination in mind, but I know that as the train rumbled through the bowels of the city, my heart beat more quickly, and my newfound freedom seemed nearly impossible. A token cost fifty cents, and as long as I didn’t take an exit and climb the stairs, I could change from one train to another without paying another fare. I chugged uptown and downtown on the IRT, and flew express on the A, and I crossed from the West Side to the East on the Shuttle and investigated the curious route of the L, and when the F rose up into daylight at Smith and Ninth Street and I had a sudden view of steaming Brooklyn with its jazz of jutting cement blocks, warehouses, and billboards, I found myself smiling out the window. As I sat or stood in one of the cars, jostled and jolted by its stops and starts, I paid homage to the ubiquitous graffiti, not for its beauty but for its insurrectionist spirit, one I hoped to imbibe and emulate for my own artistic purposes. I rejoiced in the screeching trains and in the voice of the man whose announcements turned to an unintelligible but sonorous scratch over the loudspeaker. I celebrated the press of the crowd as I
was pushed out the door in a collective swell of movement, and I recited Whitman’s lines “myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme.” I wanted to be part of the scheme. I wanted to be everyone. I listened to all the languages spoken, some of them recognizable—Spanish, Mandarin, German, Russian, Polish, French, Portuguese—and some that I had never heard before. I reveled in the varieties of skin color near me, having been sated in Webster, Minnesota, by enough Lutheran pallor and its inflamed shades of pink to red to burnt farmer brown to last me a lifetime.
I studied the bums and panhandlers and bag ladies at various stages of descent into the indignities of the street. Years before my arrival in New York City, the powers-that-were-at-the-time had opened the doors of psychiatric wards and released their patients into a dubious freedom. Mad people skulked on the platforms, picking at their sores. Some shouted verses. Some sang or whined or preached about Jesus coming or Jehovah’s wrath, and some sat silently in black corners, reduced to husks of despair. I inhaled the stench of their unwashed bodies, an odor wholly new to me, and held my breath.
The rhyme and reason of Manhattan’s streets would have to wait. How one neighborhood related to another could be traced on the map I carried around with me, but it still had no carnal logic. When I leapt up the steps into the sun and the crowds, and my shoes hit the baked asphalt and melting tar, and I heard through the talk and traffic and general roar the cacophony of music from boom boxes hoisted on shoulders or swinging at thighs like suitcases, my skin bristled, my head felt light, and I prepared for the coming sensual assault. I remember my first walk down pushy, pungent Canal Street, the bronzed ducks that hung by their feet through greasy glass, the tubs of shining whole fishes, the baskets and cardboard boxes laden with grains and vegetables, and the fruits I would only later learn to name: star fruit, mangosteen, breadfruit, and longan.
There were the squalid pleasures of walks through Times Square—the signs that lured patrons with X and XX and XXX and burlesque,
also spelled burlesk and bur_esk (due to fallen l), peep shows and the Paradise Playhouse and Filthy’s and Circus Circus with live girls onstage for just a quarter and “$10 dollars complete,” and the silhouettes of naked women with jutting breasts and long legs above the marquees, and views of pizza parlors and game rooms and grim little laundry shops with brown paper packages tied with string piled high and the litter that leapt and twirled when the wind blew and three-card monte cheats who set up on the sidewalk to scam the suckers and the men with their shirtsleeves rolled to their elbows in the hot air who paused on the sidewalk, held captive for a moment by the promise of jiggling flesh and speedy relief, before they either walked inside to get some satisfaction or turned left or right and went on their way.
I trekked to Greenwich Village for its Bohemian mythology in search of Dada’s brilliant company. I was looking for Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp, for Berenice Abbott, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Claude McKay, for Emmanuel Radnitzky, alias Man Ray. I was looking for William Carlos Williams and Jane Heap, for Francis Picabia and Arthur Craven, and the astounding character who had popped up in my Dada research, a woman I had chased to the archives of the University of Maryland, where for three days I had laboriously copied out in pencil her mostly unpublished poems: the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, née Elsa Hildegard Plötz, artist as proto-punk, fuck-you riot, who struck poses with birdcages on her head and headlights at her hips and wrote poems like howls or burps that came from deep in the diaphragm.
“No one asks for these papers,” the archivist told me before she hauled out the boxes. I’m No One then, I thought. The Baroness’s papers arrived in Maryland in 1970 because Djuna Barnes, author of the intoxicating novel Nightwood, had saved her dead friend’s letters and manuscripts and drawings and stored them in her New York apartment. When the university acquired the Barnes papers, the Baroness came along for the ride. Hour after hour, I sat with Elsa’s
yellowing papers, lined and unlined, studying one draft after another of a single poem until I became confused and my eyes hurt. After the day was over, I sat on my bed in my room at the Holiday Inn to read over what I had recorded and to feel the percussive jolts and jerks of the Baroness rock my body. She lived in the pages I took with me to New York, but there was no trace of her downtown. She wasn’t even a ghost. There was nothing left of her in the narrow, off-kilter byways of the Village.
Christopher Street was vibrant then, an open-air theater I liked to walk down incognito and peek in windows at erotic paraphernalia and costumes of a sort I had vaguely known existed but had never seen, and I wondered what my old friend Pastor Weeks would have thought of it all and what he might have said if he had been walking beside me, and I answered in the words he would have chosen: “We are all sisters and brothers in the Lord.” I admired the proud couples that resembled twins, lean and trim in matching blue jeans and fitted T-shirts and perfect posture with a little sway in their hips and maybe a dog on a leash between them as they strolled to show off their perfect beauty, and I liked the tall girls in plumes and heels, and I tried not to stare at the men I silently referred to as “leather threats,” the big muscle boys in black regalia with silver studs and spikes and intense expressions that made me look down at the sidewalk.
I loitered in bookstores, in the Coliseum and Gotham Book Mart and Books and Company and the Strand. In the Eighth Street Bookshop, I bought Some Trees by John Ashbery, and I read it on the train and then aloud in the apartment over and over again. And I discovered the National Bookstore on Astor Place, jammed with tantalizing scholarly books wrapped in plastic to prevent fingerly invasions from people like me, overseen by a tyrant with white hair who kept time with his tapping pencil and barked if you lingered too long over a volume, and I had to save my money, so I usually left empty-handed, but old man Salter, not so friendly himself, let me sit on the floor of his bookstore back in my own neighborhood just across the street from
Columbia, and I would lean against a shelf and read until I knew I truly wanted this book or that one, mostly poets new to me, but before the year was over, I had bought the whole New York School and beyond, more Ashbery, as well as Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett and James Schuyler and Barbara Guest and Frank O’Hara, the latter killed by a dune buggy on Fire Island twelve years before I arrived. And I still remember Guest’s words, the ones that prompted me to buy her book: “Understanding the distance between characters.” I am still trying to understand that.
And when I wanted the city to stop, I bounded up the steps between the stone lions and passed through the doors of the New York Public Library and walked swiftly to the grand reading room, fit for kings, and I seated myself at one of the long wooden tables under the vast vaulted ceiling with a chandelier dangling high above my head, and I ordered a book as the silent daylight from the great windows fell upon me, and I read for hours and felt as if I had become a being of pure potential, a body transformed into an enchanted space of infinite expansion, and as I sat and read to the dull sound of pages turning and to coughs and sniffs and footsteps that echoed in the immense room and the occasional rude whisper, I found refuge in the cadences of whichever mind I was borrowing for the duration, immersed in sentences I couldn’t have written or imagined and, even when the text was abstruse or gnarled or beyond me, and there were many of those, I persevered and took notes and understood that my mission was one of years, not months. If I could fill my head with the wisdom and art of the ages, I would over time augment myself, volume by volume, into the giant I wanted to be. Although reading required concentration, its demands were not those of the streets, and I relaxed in the reading room. I breathed evenly. My shoulders fell from their hunched position, and I often allowed my thoughts to play in reverie over a single phrase, “The irrationality of a thing is no argument against its existence, rather a condition of it.” In the library I had wings.
Before I left the building, I would always stop by the Slavic Reading Room, open the door, and peek in at the old men who resembled ivory carvings of themselves, their skin the color of gray-tinted eggshells and their long beards a paler shade of the same color. They dressed in black and at first appeared motionless as they sat over the old books. Only their long forefingers moved with deliberation as they turned the pages, a uniform gesture that proved to me the statues were alive. The old men must be long dead now, and the Slavic Reading Room is no more, but I never failed to look in on them and inhale that special dry odor of aged scholar and precious paper, which together seemed to me to carry a faint whiff of smoking incense and the mystical philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov before the revolution. I never dared cross the threshold.
The library is an American palace, built by Lenox and Astor money to show snooty European money that it had nothing on us. But I can say this: no one measured me up and down or gave me an intelligence test or checked my bank account before I walked through the door. In Webster, Minnesota, there were no truly rich people. We counted a few turkey farmers and store owners as wealthy, and doctors, dentists, lawyers, and professors, however modest their means, were given a class bounce by their years in school and were often resented by the poor farmers and mechanics and myriad others in and around town who had no letters after their names. But in New York, money was there to gawk at, money the likes of which I had never seen. It strolled down Fifth and Park Avenues, alone or in pairs, and it laughed and conversed behind the windows of restaurants at tables with wine bottles and pressed white linen napkins and low candles. It stepped out of taxis in shoes with soles that appeared never to have touched a sidewalk, and it slumped gracefully in the backseat of chauffeured limousines. It sparkled in displays of watches and earrings and scarves in stores I was too shy to enter. And I couldn’t help but think of Jay Gatsby’s beautiful shirts in many colors and stupid, empty Daisy, and the sad green light. And I thought of Balzac, too,
how could one not, of the grubby, glittering human comedy and of Proust dining at the Ritz with the friends he robbed of their traits with such terrifying exactitude, and of Odette’s “smart set,” which is not so smart at all, vulgar, in fact, and I struggled to feel beyond it all, to be my own character, that noble, young if poor person with high, refined literary and philosophical tastes, but there was power in the money I saw, a brute force that frightened me and which I envied because it made me smaller and more pathetic to myself.
I am still in New York, but the city I lived in then is not the city I inhabit now. Money remains ascendant, but its glow has spread across the borough of Manhattan. The faded signs, tattered awnings, peeling posters, and filthy bricks that gave the streets of my old Upper West Side neighborhood a generally jumbled and bleary look have disappeared. When I find myself in the old haunts now, my eyes are met with the tightened outlines of bourgeois improvement. Legible signage and clean, clear colors have replaced the former visual murk. And the streets have lost their menace, that ubiquitous if invisible threat that violence might erupt at any instant and that a defensive posture and determined walk were not optional but necessary. In other parts of the city in 1978, one could adopt the ambling gait of the flaneur, but not there. Within a week, my senses had gained an acuity they had never needed before. I was ever alert to the sudden creak or whine or crack, to the abrupt gesture, unsteady walk, or leering expression of an approaching stranger, to an indefinable odor of something-not-quite-right that wafted here and there and made me hasten my steps or dodge into a bodega or Korean grocery.
I kept a journal that year. I found my hero in it, the homunculus of my traveling thoughts, and I tried out passages for his novel in the notebook. I doodled and drew and recorded at least some of my comings and goings and my conversations with others and with myself, but the black-and-white Mead composition book with its account of my former self disappeared not long after I had filled its pages. And then,
three months ago, I found it packed neatly in a box of miscellany my mother had saved. I must have started another journal and left the old one behind me after a visit to my parents in the summer of 1979. When I spotted the slightly creased-at-one-corner notebook beneath a box of loose photographs with the absurd title My New Life handwritten on the cover, I greeted it as if it were a beloved relative I had given up for dead: first the gasp of recognition, then the embrace. Not until hours later did the image of myself clasping a notebook to my breast take on the ridiculous appearance it surely deserves. And yet, the little book of two hundred pages has been invaluable for the simple reason that it has brought back, to one degree or another, what I couldn’t remember or had misremembered in a voice that is at once mine and not quite mine anymore. It’s funny. I thought I had begun every entry with “Dear Page,” an invocation I found witty at the time, but, in fact, I called my imaginary interlocutor by a couple of names and sometimes by no name at all.
My sister and I were going through every object that belonged to our mother because she was leaving the five-room independent-living apartment that had been hers for almost a decade after our father died. Her destination was a single room in the assisted-living wing of the same retirement complex, which meant we had to travel yards not miles, but the move required that our mother’s possessions be drastically pruned. While not a joyous event, the change was less painful than it might have been because in between her nine and a half years of “independence” and her new location that required “assistance,” our ninety-two-year-old mother had been the frail, recumbent resident of the third wing on the same property known as the “Care Unit.” Ten months earlier, the medical man on my mother’s case had declared her nearly dead, without using those words, of course. Dr. Gabriel had told us to prepare for her demise, without choosing that word either. Instead, in early October of last year, he had pointedly asked us to consider an “early Christmas,” Christmas in late October or early November, the implication being that our
mother was unlikely to find herself anywhere in December, so if she was to suck some small pleasure from her favorite holiday we had better hurry it up.
Although neither of us said anything to him in response, my sister and I found the suggestion that we finagle the calendar year to accommodate our mother’s probable death preposterous. The months follow each other one after the other, and if she died in October or November, we weren’t going to pretend Halloween or Thanksgiving was Christmas, and, although our mother had become confused about time in general and had forgotten the series of health emergencies—the broken foot, the broken arm, the congestive heart failure, the pseudo-gout that bloated her thin legs into excruciating red logs, and finally, the infection that entered her bloodstream and caused her to hallucinate dead friends, children’s choirs, and elves with top hats that waved at her from outside the window—she would have strongly disapproved of us tampering with the seasons. She has always regarded herself as “philosophical.” My mother’s idiosyncratic definition of the word is the following: we all suffer and we all die. “Never, ever,” my mother said to me when I was eleven, “say ‘pass away’ for ‘to die.’ People die. They don’t evaporate.”
Our mother lived through Halloween and she lived through Thanksgiving and she lived through Christmas and she lived through Easter and by the time summer had come and gone and the leaves of the trees beyond the Care Unit had begun to rust, she was no longer dying, and because she had pulled herself back from the ultimate threshold and the administrators of the Care Unit needed her bed for a person who truly stood, or rather lay, “at death’s door” (words also never spoken aloud), they bumped her up to assisted living but did not approve a return to her old independent quarters, which precipitated the move, my discovery of the notebook, and the writing of this book.
My mother is now well settled in her new room, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she lives another decade, but she forgets. She forgets
what I have just said to her on the telephone. She forgets who it was that just entered her room with a pill or glass of water or raisin toast. She forgets that she has taken the pill for her arthritic pain and she forgets whether she has had any visitors, and she speaks to me instead about the orchids on her windowsill. She describes their colors and the number of blooms that remain on individual stalks and how the light hits them, “some clouds today, so the light is even.” She is articulate, and she remembers much about her life, especially her early life, and these days she likes to revisit the old stories. Yesterday, she told me one of my favorites, a tale I asked her to tell me again and again when I was a child. She and her brother had seen Eva Harstad’s face in the second-floor window of the house at the end of Maple Street in Blooming Field where she grew up. “Oscar and I were walking home at sunset. There were pink streaks in the sky and a strange light. We both saw her in the window. Impossible, you know, because she had hanged herself the year before, poor Eva. We didn’t know her well. There was a baby on the way, you see. No one ever found out who the father was. Her death saddened everyone in town who wasn’t mean-spirited, sanctimonious, or hypocritical, but there she was, her long blond hair hanging around her face. I know I’ve told you this many times before, but there was something wrong with her lips. She was moving them crazily, the way some singers warm up their mouths to get them ready to sing the song, but nothing came out. We didn’t run, but our hearts froze, if you know what I mean. We walked fast. Oscar never liked to be reminded of it. I think it scared him more than it did me. I should ask him. Shouldn’t I? Now, where is Oscar?” Uncle Oscar died in 2009. My mother is aware of this fact on some days but not on others.
The past is fragile, as fragile as bones grown brittle with age, as fragile as ghosts seen in windows or the dreams that fall apart upon waking and leave nothing behind them but a feeling of unease or distress or, more rarely, a kind of eerie satisfaction.
September 2, 1978
My dear Page,
I have waited for this now, the now that will disappear if I don’t seize it, shake it, and drain it of its bursting presence.
My heroic boy has become more than an itch in just a few days! He has a shape—tall and thin—and a permanent location—Marginal to the Concerns of Most People. So we are alike, he and I. Ian Feathers. His initials: I.F., as in “if” . . . a subjunctive character of wings and flight, of quills and pens and typewriters. My own Midwestern knight, addled by mystery stories and the seductions of logic.
And something strange: My next-door neighbor chants every evening. She may be a Hari Krishna or belong to the cult of that foolish-looking fat boy maharaja whose picture I’ve seen around. She says amsah, amsah, amsah, over and over and over. Yesterday, she paused from moaning amsah and said loudly, “They wanted someone else.” The misery in her voice closed my own throat for an instant. I couldn’t help but wonder who “they” were, and the sentence hasn’t left me. It’s as if it has some special and terrible meaning. I think she may have yelped and gasped in the middle of the night, too, but I was not awake enough to monitor the sounds.
Chapter 1. Ian Is Born Between the Covers
Ian Feathers read so much detective fiction as a boy that his mother worried his eyes would be strained to blindness and his sunless limbs would wither from inactivity. Mr. and Mrs. Feathers, as the Greeks before them, believed in “moderation in all things.” The American version of this ancient adage was “well rounded.” The Feathers’ loved their tall, skinny, smart, near-sighted, hyperlexic boy, but they worked hard to file him down and round him off—for his own good. They knew, as all God-fearing Midwesterners knew, that the ideal, well-rounded boy was never too much of anything. He did well in school but not so well that he could
be accused of freakish brilliance. He strayed into trouble now and again (to demonstrate he had pluck), but the trouble he found himself in was never dire and usually involved fisticuffs with a less-than-ideally well-rounded boy. His moral compass was set due north but wavered periodically because no one likes a prig. He was modest, of course, benevolent to his many inferiors, and rather tall, but not too tall. On Ian’s part of the plains and America in general during the middle of the twentieth century, it went without saying that the ideal well-rounded boy was Caucasian (although he tanned nicely in the summer), was non-fanatically Christian, and, as presented in the popular literature, anyway, had sandy hair and 20/20 vision. If the ideal boy were to be assigned a temperature, it would be lukewarm. In fact, there was only one arena of extremity open to that paragon of mediocrity, one the Greeks themselves would have approved of: sports.
Although Ian aspired to a pleasant roundness or at least the appearance of it from time to time to please his parents, his passion for mysterious circumstances, unsolved crimes, theft, larceny, and murder, especially murder, fell into that un-American category of the too much. Ian’s “real” life was lived in books, not out of them. And yet, the border between inside the covers and outside the covers was not decisive. Murders were rare in the Feathers’ hometown of Verbum, Minnesota, but Ian trained rigorously for the future case. He studied lint and wrinkle formations on jacket sleeves and trouser legs and noted the cat and dog hairs that clung to pet owners. He stared at the soles of shoes (on and off potential suspects) for soil and debris and chewing gum and recorded their color, consistency, and humidity. He noted the varying degrees of human perspiration and its effects on the underarms of shirts. He spent hours memorizing tire tracks from bicycles, tow trucks, station wagons, and pickups. He began to induce personality traits from cigarette butts, those that were smashed in half, for example, as opposed to those left in an ashtray to drift to nothing. The boy lived in a world built entirely of clues.
Over the years, Ian graciously accepted his parents’ birthday and Christmas gifts that were intended to redirect his fanaticism—the
basketball (for which they had high hopes on account of their offspring’s looming stature), the baseball and bat; their later offerings of tennis racket, skis, swimming trunks and goggles; and their final pitch in the direction of the Someone Else they hoped he might become—a badminton net and birdies—but Ian not only refused to take up sports, he did not even like them. If he had been a geometrical figure rather than a boy, he would have been a great cubicoboctahedron with multiple protruding points, points he had been sharpening ever since he discovered his calling in life through that inimitable genius of analysis and logic, the splendid S.H.: Sherlock Holmes.
For many years, I recalled my initial weeks in New York City as the Period of Nobody Real. I knew I had spoken to the flesh-and-blood Mr. Rosales, of course, whom I always greeted with a hello, but whenever I talked to him, his eyes darted in all directions and then moved to the floor. I think he was worried I would ask him for repairs. I read poems and novels and books of philosophy, all of which had people in one form or another inside them, and my hero slowly began to find himself, as did his all-important confidante, his Sancho, his Watson: Isadora Simon, I.S., initials of being—present tense. I roamed Manhattan, but I had no friends or acquaintances. When I told the story of my urban initiation, I would always say, “I must have been one of the few people who moved to New York and didn’t know a soul.” This is true. No friends, no friends of friends, no third cousins twice removed and therefore no telephone number to call. Then I would add for poignant effect, “For the first three weeks I spoke to no one.” This turns out to have been a blatant falsehood, although I had never intended to lie.
September 3, 1978
This afternoon I returned to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, my new hangout. Read for two hours over one coffee with refills. Smoked too
much. Book: Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Took notes, and then started conversation with girl named Wanda—large eyes, small mouth, dark blond hair, studying Russian history at Columbia. We discussed Symbolism. I talked a lot, gesticulated, blurted out pent-up thoughts. Days of solitude have made me garrulous. Symbolism led to dinner at the Ideal (Cuban-Chinese on the corner of 107th and Broadway). I asked her about Gogol’s Dead Souls and parataxis, told her I wished I had studied Russian, and then I asked her about herself and, after some preliminaries, she told me her mother had had a stroke last year. The left side of her face drooped and she dragged her arm and leg on the same side. “Just cut me in half and talk to the good side,” she told her daughter, but she slurred the words. A second stroke killed her. Dry, blank, and stiff, Wanda told me the story in a voice that had no feeling at all, but I noticed she addressed the wall behind me, not me, which I guessed was a way to avoid the sympathy that must have shown on my face. It was awkward, and I think she regretted telling me. When she finished the story, she flushed. She had to leave right away. I felt the urge to kiss her goodbye on both cheeks, but when I saw her lips pressed tightly together, I withdrew and didn’t get my face anywhere near hers. We shook hands and exchanged numbers.
I have no memory of Wanda.
I remember Ian Feathers, and I remain fond of him to this day as an invention I hoped would soar beyond me and into the world, whereas Wanda isn’t even a vague mental image, and, believe me, I have tried to summon her large eyes and small mouth and dark blond hair, but the student of Russian history is beyond my recollection. How many other people, events, conversations, and stories of dead parents have I forgotten? How many Wandas are there? Hundreds, I would guess. Memory is not only unreliable; it is porous. For all I can recall, a stranger might have written those words about
Wanda or my former self might have made up the whole story. The latter is doubtful. I remember my young self well enough to know that, despite my ripening sense of irony, on the subject of dead mothers I remained sincere.
I hover above the self that met and then wrote about Wanda. I am somewhere near the cracked ceiling of the shabby, nearly empty apartment, the sprite of what-will-be who looks down with a mixture of wonder and pity on the young person hunched over the notebook. The journal passages remind me that I smoked then—I add a cigarette to my mental scenery and watch the smoke drift upward from the white weed held between her two fingers. A young woman sits and smokes and produces page after page of prose, some good, some bad, but soon finds herself lost in a labyrinth of her own making, although she had some help from Feathers, who wasn’t sure where he was headed either.
The story goes on.
According to my journal, on September 5, two days after I met Wanda, I understood that my neighbor was not a member of an Eastern cult. I wasn’t sleeping well. Although the worst of the heat was over, the apartment’s rooms were not yet cool, and my nights were alive with the city’s noises, a clamor that took some getting used to because I had grown up with such different sounds. In summer at home, a single plaintive mosquito hovering by my ear at night could keep me awake, but I liked to listen to the cricket choruses at dusk and the katydids that sang into the small hours. I slept to their songs and to the winds of varying magnitudes that crackled tree branches and shushed the long grasses outside the house. When the June storms came, it thundered up close and it thundered far away and my heart beat with excitement as the sky dropped rushing water onto the roof, and in winter when a blizzard hit, I would listen to its hoarse roar and intermittent wails and then to the near silence
that followed it—a paralysis of sun and snow. I hear nostalgia in my description, but I was not nostalgic at twenty-three. I embraced the urban din. My neighbor ceased to drone at around ten, but the elevator opened and shut at all hours and sirens blasted from Broadway. I listened to other voices carry through windows that had been left ajar across the airshaft. My neighbors’ televisions talked and wept and sang jingles. Drunken shouts arrived from the street and the muted guttural rumble of garbage trucks woke me at about five in the morning. I would hear the engines idling and then the sound of metal cans as they rattled to the sidewalk. One morning, I heard a woman scream and, still in a state of half sleep, I bolted upright in bed to listen. Not until the next morning did I wonder if it was the person next door. In my notebook, I described the shriek as “a harbinger of terror and glee.” Below this Romantic twaddle, I jotted down a line from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal: “Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l’incendie . . .”
On the evening I have been making my way round to, I sat at my desk, stared at the page in front of me, and pondered the fourteen-year-old Ian and the mystery he intends to solve: the frequent sightings of Frieda Frail’s face in the window of the house where she had died of an epileptic seizure a year before. My note to myself in the composition book: “Ian’s Sherlock worship leads him straight into the world of propositional logic and valid and invalid inference. Our not-so-ideal boy lives for cleaving true from false and busies himself with p’s and q’s and r’s as well as with the signs for not [¬], and [?], or [?], if then [?], and if and only if [?]. He proceeds step by step. His reasoning is perfect, but our hero will be misled by his deductions. Isadora Simon, Ian’s Watson, will take another more effective route.”
While thinking about Ian and Isadora and the symbolic logic I had studied in college, I heard my neighbor start up her chant again, amsah, amsah, amsah. Her intonation had a dirgelike quality, and I
realized that her sorry repetitions had begun to work on me. They slowed my thoughts and turned them in an unhappy, wounded direction, as if someone had taken to methodically rubbing my chest with sandpaper. I walked to the wall, pressed my ear against it, wished I had the old stethoscope my father had given me when I was ten that lay in the top drawer of my dresser at home, and I listened, my strained body alert to the incantation. “Amsah, amsah, I’m sad, I’m sad, I’m sad, I’m sad.” And on it went with a single variation, “Lucy’s sad, she’s sad, I’m sad, I’m sad, I’m sad.” This was worse than a mantra. I was living next to a woman so sad she proclaimed her sadness aloud every night. I could almost see her rocking back and forth in her room. In the notebook, I wrote, “I have to block her out. I’ve decided to buy a cheap radio and turn it on in the evenings. I know if she keeps it up, I’ll go insane. I stuck toilet paper in my ears and hit the foam.”
“Hit the foam” was code for self-induced rumpty-rumpty.
I did a lot of masturbating in those days, but I was discreet then and reluctant to commit my onanistic fantasies to paper. That modesty has vanished. I would lie back on the foam mattress that sat on top of the platform bed I had devised from discarded orange crates I found on the street and another cut-specifically-to-your-measurements piece of plywood and generate a lover as my hand became his hand or her hand, depending on my predilection of the moment, and I twisted and turned and panted in the sheets my mother had bought for me at Sears as a stranger with black hair that fell onto his forehead and extremely narrow hips and a nice round butt entered the sleeping compartment of a train on its way from Berlin to Paris and undressed on the floor below me and crawled into my upper bunk and pressed my shoulders against the hard pallet, and as he regarded me intently, I noticed the shine on his upper lip because it was warm in the train, and he turned me over abruptly and fucked me from behind, and I
loved it, or a blond girl that resembled Marilyn Monroe mounted me in that same compartment and slowly unbuttoned her blouse as the car we were in rocked on the tracks and the whistle sounded, and then I pushed her onto her stomach and pulled down her panties and took in the beauty of her wondrous ass and, in one position or another, I fingered her clit until she came and I came—we all came—sometimes the three of us came together as a chorus when I had decided on a trio. I took every part. I was man and I was woman. I was woman with man and sometimes the man with the woman and then again the woman with the woman. I have no problem recalling my masturbatory fantasies today because they are oddly fixed. The rest of me has matured and changed. I am a wise old bird now, leavened by the pains and understandings that arrive over the years, but the erotic gymnastics that took place in my head then and the ones that play out now are remarkably alike. Sexual fantasy is a machine, not an organism. I continue to have a weakness for sex on trains. It must be their rhythms.
“To write a book is for all the world like humming a song—be but in tune with yourself, Madam, ’tis no matter how high or low you take it.” I kept the quotation from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by the Reverend Laurence Sterne taped to the wall above my desk as inspiration and a pointed reminder that novels did not come in a single variety. As my great-aunt Irma used to say, “It takes all kinds.”
When I looked at the mailbox for 2C in the small entryway to the building, I found the single name L. Brite. Surely L stood for Lucy: Lucy Brite. It was a pretty name that might belong to a pretty woman, if a sad one. Brite generated associations, brightness as in the sun, but also the so-brilliant-I-have-to-blink smiles of advertisements for toothpaste, exactly the opposite of what my neighbor was communicating through the wall. There is metaphorical brightness, too, as
in a person’s intellectual shininess or momentary great idea, made concrete by the image of a lightbulb above that someone’s head with little lines emanating from it that onlookers were meant to read as rays. The name inspired me, and I made a little drawing of an imaginary Lucy glowing in the darkness of her sorrow. I had forgotten the drawing, too, until I came across it in my old composition book.
During the day, my neighbor did not sing out her sadness. She tapped and pounded on what I guessed was a small carpentry project and, while she worked on it, she whistled. Lucy Brite whistled well, a gift that reminded me of my father, who had sung tonelessly but whistled in perfect tune, something that had always astonished me as a child. How was it that in church my father moaned out hymns in a voice so flat I had to stop myself from grimacing, but he could whistle like a messenger from heaven? Whistling from my father was a declaration of high mood, a sign that for the moment, anyway, life was good for him, which made it good for us, his children, the two girls who listened to wordless renditions of “Camptown Races” or “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” or “There Is Power in a Union” from the backseat of the car, which is why I associate whistling with a picture of my father from behind—the rim of dark hair beneath his bald pate and his ears “that lay nice and flat against his head,” the only way ears should lie, according to our mother.
We liked it when he whistled and drove the first family car I can remember, Clunky, a brown-and-white 1959 Chevy with a dent in the fender that was never fixed because “it in no way interfered with a smoothly running engine.” My father viewed the slightly squashed metal from a purely utilitarian perspective, a view my mother did not and still does not share. She would glance at Clunky’s flank in dismay before a car trip but remain silent about the affront to her aesthetic values out of respect for the patriarch, who had priority when it came to all things out-of-doors, a border that began with the garage (paradoxically, since it technically constitutes a kind of indoors), the car it sheltered, the many tools hanging from its walls, and emanated outward to the road and the mailbox in the direction of town and beyond. The single exception to the outdoor rule were the flower beds of marigolds, zinnias, and roses that hugged the side of the house and belonged exclusively to our mother.
As a child, I thought the entire world was organized in this fashion, with mothers mostly inside and fathers mostly outside, but I was
never quite sure how I fit into that scheme of things or how my sister, Kari, born two years after me, fit into it either because Kari was a cartwheeling, fence-hopping, tree-climbing, horse-loving girl who, when it was necessary, could defend the family honor. I can still see Daryl Stankey’s face as he pushed himself onto his elbows and stared up at us from the gravel of Old Dutch Road where Kari’s punch had landed him. I can see his grubby cheeks striped clean by tears and the pale green blob of snot just below his left nostril. I was so proud. Although all the credit belongs to my sister, the image of the defeated, blubbering Daryl inspires me to this day. It inspires me as much as Shandy’s digressions, as much as Marilyn Monroe, as much as the mordant prose of the seventeenth-century philosopher Anne Conway, whom I have been reading lately. Kari’s fist met Daryl’s chin because he had called our physician father “a quack.”
In my memory, those days of paternal whistling are warm, not cold, and the car windows are rolled all the way down, and the wind rushes in on me and Kari, and I allow only my nose to cross the threshold, careful not to “stick my head out,” knowing it could end in decapitation. I repeatedly imagined losing my head to a speeding truck coming in the opposite direction. I would watch my head fly onto the road after it had parted company with my neck, now a bloody stump attached to a pathetic little girl’s body fallen over onto the backseat never to stir again, and the anguished pity I felt for Kari and my father and my mother who were left with the dead me in two ghoulish parts caused spasms in my stomach and a feeling of faintness and nausea so intense I would have to lean forward in the seat, close my eyes, and breathe deeply to recover. The drafty delights of being blown like crazy at sixty miles an hour competed with my imagination, which raced ahead of me into possible horrors. I firmly controlled my urge for momentary gratification—my head stayed in the car. Over my fantasies, on the other hand, I exercised little or no governance.
It would be false to say that I was reminded of my father as I sat
at my desk on 109th Street smoking cigarettes and trying to write my Quixotic story. I have no memory of thinking of my father then, and I wrote very little about either of my parents in the journal. The whistling connection between the first man in my life and my invisible neighbor occurs to me only now. My father has been dead for twelve years, but in 1978 he was still vigorous, still practicing medicine, still disgusted by Republicans. His whistling was welcome because my father was subject to what his aunt Irma called “black moods,” during which he seemed to disappear. At these regular junctures he neither saw nor heard any of us. It seemed to me that he roiled with unspoken torments and that they might blast out of him, that my father might spew lava, but he never did.
Exactly what he thought about the daughter who had left home on a literary mission remains his secret and is buried with him, along with countless other secrets, in the cemetery of St. Paul’s Church in Webster, but I suspect that he disapproved of my writing year without ever uttering a word about it. The son of a country doctor who had gone from house to house by car in summer and by horse and sleigh in winter when the roads were blocked by snow, my father had clung tightly to rural truths, as opposed to urban truths, to the idea of neighborliness without fences, to Depression-style frugality and a suspicion of wealth, to farmers and workers (and the occasional doctor) in cahoots to build a better world, more socialist than capitalist, to collective labor of all kinds, including family weeding of the vegetable garden, and to an eternal idea of a useful life. Art for art’s sake made no sense to my father.
Lucy Brite was partial to whistling Irish ballads, which are usually sad, some of which I recognized. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” was one. Her songs drooled with melodic sentimentality and, despite the absence of lyrics, made me think of bonny lads and drowned darlings and missed assignations and winding roads in that greenest of green countries that were never taken or taken but reached a dead end in noble rebellion and tragedy because when the young
die, whether to lost love or political turmoil, it is awful, and these unspoken, but melancholic subjects augmented the ache just beneath my rib cage I carried around with me everywhere, although I never knew what had caused it—a physical reminder of my vulnerability and never-ending guilt, I suppose, a physically implanted token of innumerable nameless hurts inflicted on me in the past and which I had inflicted on others, hurts that would surely return in the future. There is a false idea abroad in the West that the human being is an isolate who decides on his or her path and presses forward alone. In fact, we are always somewhere and that somewhere is always in us. Listening to Lucy’s repetition of “I’m sad” over and over was bad enough, but listening to music, even the thin clear sounds of a whistler, goes deeper. Music penetrates skin and muscle and finally settles in the bones. It can sway a mood from optimism to gloom and nudge a thought from airy contemplation to hip-jiggling, sweaty lust. In this, music is like the weather—sunlight buoys the soul, and days of rain beleaguer it with gathering thoughts of dejection. When it comes to music, human beings are helpless, rocked and rolled and lifted up and pressed down and turned around in dizzy confusion. It all depends on the melody.
If Lucy Brite had, in fact, been someone else and had selected less mournful songs to whistle, I might not have been overcome by feelings that bled into Feathers’ story and the vivid dreams that began to muddle his logic. I wasn’t sure where in the story the dream would go, but I composed it for him anyway and put it in the notebook.
Ian Feathers opens a door in his dream and finds himself in Frieda Frail’s bedroom at night. How he knows this room belongs to the dead woman is the dream’s secret. He does know it, however, and he surveys the room with the cold detachment of an experienced detective and searches for clues. The single bed, the night table, the lamp, and the rag rug on the floor are imbued with a quality that disturbs him. “Too perfect,” he thinks. They have the unreal smoothness of a picture of a room in an
advertisement. Ian walks to the window to look outside at the lawn and the sidewalk and notices a key lying on the sill. As he looks at it, the key shudders slightly, as if it is alive. He slaps his hand over it, feels a tremor under his palm, but closes his fist tightly around it. When he turns around, he discovers a door that had not been there earlier, opens it with the living key, and sees a girl with a cardboard sign on her back that says I.F.F. The sign confuses him, and from it he suddenly understands that he has committed a crime and is seized by a terrible sense of guilt. But what crime? What have I done? he thinks. The girl leaps up a staircase four steps at a time, and with each flying hop her dress blows over her head, and he glimpses her naked body beneath. He has an erection. The dream becomes a wet dream, and Ian Feathers wakes up.
Lucy didn’t pipe “lone lorn” ballads every day. Thank God. On the evening of September 6, her “I’m sads” were interrupted by a sudden outburst I recorded in the composition book as I stood at the wall. She seemed to be talking to someone in a loud, angry growl, and I wondered if she might be on the phone, but when she had finished her brief accusation, I did not hear her put down a receiver. “You thought you had the right, the right, the right to hurt me. You thought I was your bitch to kick. I thought so, too. I didn’t say a word. It’s back at night. You’re back. It happens again. I can’t breathe! And Lindy’s dead. The window. I see the fall.” I do not need the notebook to remember what I heard or felt. My body stiffened against the wall. And then Lucy said in a loud, emphatic voice, “Are you listening?” I jumped away from my post. I was listening, and, as her listener, the sentence coursed through me as if it were an electric shock.