The Found Text feature in this issue is a never-before-published, full-length play by Tennessee Williams, Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? It seems especially appropriate for The Missouri Review to be publishing a Williams play, since, while Williams was born in Mississippi, he was raised partly in Missouri and served much of his literary apprenticeship here. He even came to the University of Missouri in the early ’30s — and stayed long enough to develop a solid dislike for journalism (it didn’t let him write enough) and to fail ROTC not one but three times.
Produced once but never published, Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? is more artful than forceful; yet it has the appeal of being pure Williams and the added interest, for those of us at The Missouri Review, of local allusions. LIghts above the thrust stage spell out “Tiger Town,” a seedy district where one of the minor characters hangs out. And in Act I, Scene V, there’s a mention of the Hinkson Creek (Williams calls it Hinksons), which winds through Columbia, and for which a street is also named.
Williams’ first major success would not come until 1944, with The Glass Menagerie. Nostalgic and undisguisedly autobiographical, it is the play, along with A Streetcar Named Desire, for which Williams is best known. But these two masterpieces represent only a tiny fraction of the author’s work. In a career that spanned almost forty years, Williams wrote scores of plays and published numerous nondramatic works: short stories; two poetry collctions; two novellas; a novel, and finally, in 1975, his memoirs. His output was prodigious. Still, it’s his plays that have really counted. Of the three playwrights who did the most to advance American drama, Aruthur Miller was the dramatist of passions, expanding the emotional range of the theatre in plays as tender as The Glass Menagerie, as steamy as Streetcar and as violently gothic as Suddenly Last Summer and Sweet Bird of Youth.
Drama is descended from ritual, of course: ancient fertility rites and Dionysian rites of life and death, and Medieval ones of Christ’s birth and resurrection. The first plays were intended to help people make sense of their morality and celebrate life in the face of it, and to let them grasp the full meaning of their fallen but redeemable condition. I’ve been thinking about the ways in which ritual continues to serve as both a crutch and a floodlight, letting us hobble along and illuminating the dark corners of things. Some time ago, passing a public garden here, I spotted a wedding in progress and it seemed to me one of the best kinds of ritual. It was the wedding of a black couple, on Emancipation Day. I was awed by the doubly rich meaning of such an event, and by the arresting visuals of the scene: the very dark bride, in pure white, waiting to walk through a wrought-iron gate into a garden of flowers.
But there’s an ominous side to ritual as well. It’s the way we deal with our fear and pain, the way we try to control our future. Individually, in families and as a nation, we lean on our rituals to accept and comprehend what has happened or is happening or may be about to happen to us. But when the ceremony is misguided, or when its “priest” is deranged, the result is dysfunction at best, and often outright tragedy: a gentle cult like Heaven’s Gate can turn to shocking mass suicide.
No one knew better than Tennessee Williams how the small, private rituals of self and family can disintegrate into damaging obsession. Williams’ greatest devotion, other than to his writing, was to his mother, Edwina, who lived in a fantasy world of Southern gentility that she never relinquished, and to his sister, Rose, whom he watched slip from strangeness into full-blown schizophrenia. He dramatized the tragedy of perverted rituals in some of his most serious plays. We see them, too, in the comic Mr. Merriewether. It’s a play about two lonely widows, next door neighbors, who cope with their loss and loneliness by the curious rite of “receiving” apparitions of the dead.
You’ll find rituals, curious and common, in much of the other work in this issue. Nick Hershenow’s story of an American official in Africa is set during a night of mourning for a dead African child. In William Herman’s fascinating allegory, “Pain,” a disturbed patient is engaged in a ritualistic attempt to discover the source of a physical pain that is actually not organic, but psychic. Michael Byers’ story treats the theater itself, with all its attendant rituals. The young protagonist of “Bactine” engages in a frightening, obsessive self-punishment that reminds us of how dark and scary childhood can be. On a more positive note, David Kirby’s and Jesse Lee Kercheval’s essays both describe some of the pleasant rites of childhood. Kirby writes of how children use the reading and re-reading of fairy tales and other stories to come to terms with their own conflicts. Kerchevall recalls the traditions of a Girl Scout camp, in the context of the first moon walk and Civil Rights movement.
Finally, in our ritual of sadness and remembrance, we dedicate this issue to Edward Fogarty, who died early last spring, at the age of twenty. Ed, a University of Missouri sophomore, was a staff member during the 1995-96 school year. His contribution to the magazine was invaluable, and his presence boosted our spirits. We genuinely miss him.
Across the river the chef de poste turns up his boom box, and frantic and repetitive music crosses the water. A noise to shatter the serenity of the tropical evening, except we’re already plenty agitated, all of us: the insects buzzing and shrieking and clicking in the strip of forest by the river, the bats scuffling and snarling in our attic, the mourners chanting to drumbeats in a clearing in the camp. And the Consultant standing on his porch looking out on the night, rocking and swaying to that radio music.
The first time I heard it I thought this music might eventually make me insane, but I have since learned how to channel it, along with a lot of other noxious stimuli, into passive background regions of my subconscious. This is not easy, since music here is always played at the highest possible volume, emphasizing distortion and accelerating speaker damage. But I watch the chef de poste and try to listen to music like he does: to take it in with my entire body, and not filter it through any analytical brain tissue. When I do this right the music longer bothers me, and sometimes I even start dancing myself. People laugh and stare, but this inhibits me less than I’d expect—they laugh and stare anyway, no matter what I do. I may as well make a spectacle of myself by dancing, since I achieve the same effect by reading a book or tying my shoes.
Placide didn’t laugh the first time he saw me dance. He came close to me and watched, a look of wonder on his face. I smiled, but he didn’t smile back.
“I’ve seen this before,” he said, when the music ended.
“I saw it often in the capital, when the whites danced. Le Jerk. It must be a very difficult dance, monsieur.”
He spoke gravely, and did not respond to my laughter. But I think he must have been kidding me. It’s hard to tell with Placide. He comes up with outrageous statements, devotes his life to an absurd duty, and yet comports himself always with serious and measured dignity. Night watchmen are an uncanny breed, they say, and tiny Placide, who spends most of his waking hours padding around our compound with his bow and arrow at his side, peering into the nighttime shadows, is perhaps even more mysterious than most.
He’s out there somewhere in the darkness now, patrolling the compound. Two or three times I’ve seen his flashlight come on for a second, but otherwise I never know where he is; he walks silently, on bare feet that are cushioned with callouses like the paws of a cat. He’s small and dark and quick, with an affinity for shadows, and is capable of remaining very still for a long time. On a moonless night like this I won’t see him, until he appears to warm himself by his fire.
A wind comes up, fanning the coals in his brazier down by the cook shed, sending a few sparks skittering across the garden and carrying the smell of the fire up to the porch. It is a strange, sweet smell, the burning charcoal of a tropical wood, a smell unknown in higher latitudes. The glow of the fire illuminates the corrugated tin siding at the corner of the cook shed, and in the faint reflected light I can make out a couple of scraggly goat-eaten tomato plants in my vegetable garden. But away from that glow the night is completely dark, and its sounds—drums and thunder, insects, boom box music—come to me across invisible spaces.
Like me, Placide stands in the shadows and looks out on those spaces. The difference is he can see something. I’m sure he can see me jittering up here on the porch, dancing my inscrutable Jerk. I stop myself. Placide doesn’t care, or at least his sense of professionalism prevents him from passing judgment; but I guess I’m not yet entirely free of self-consciousness. And Placide’s dignity inspires me. I’d like to learn to move through the night with a hint of his grace and stealth, and these convulsive responses to music are not compatible with that goal.
So I still my quivering muscles, though the radio music is really wild now, accelerating as if to a climax. But in fact these hysterical and redundant riffs are not going to stop anytime soon. These songs go on and on, and they’re never formally concluded. After countless repetitions each song is finally just chopped off, which makes me wonder what actually happened in the studio or bar where the song was recorded—beyond the patience of the sound technician had there at last been a conclusive ending, or had the musicians played on and on until they collapsed, one by one, in exhaustion and madness?
There is a sudden commotion over my head in the attic, some pushing, and the indignant squeal of a bat. I hear flapping and snarling, and then silence again as the bats drift back into a resentful sleep. Out of the darkness at the foot of the porch steps comes Placide’s quiet voice, startling me as always. How does he come so close, so silently?
“Placide. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Peaceful. Will Madame Kate be home soon?”
“Maybe. She went to the funeral dance with some other women. I imagine it will be over soon.”
“The women will dance all night, monsieur. Our child died today. She was sick, and then she died.”
“Yes. It’s sad. I don’t think I knew that little girl.”
“You knew her, monsieur. You shook her hand, many times.”
There is an accusatory tone underlying Placide’s flat statement, as if he is suggesting that the repeated touch of my hand was somehow linked to the child’s death. Or that I should have somehow intervened to prevent her death. Or that I wrong the dead by not remembering her. But how am I supposed to remember her? There are a thousand children up there, all of them grimy and undernourished, feverish and afflicted, thrusting their filthy hands at us every time Kate and I venture into the camp.
“I’ve got crickets to burn,” says Placide.
“Good.” My response is automatic. I have no idea what he means. Probably he didn’t say he had crickets to burn at all. My mastery of Kituba is still shaky, creating plenty of opportunity for miscommunication. On the other hand people do some remarkable things. Possibly cricket burning has something to do with the performance of Placide’s duties, which I understand only vaguely.
The little girl, five years old, had come into the dispensary a couple of days earlier. She had a fever and some sores on her leg. The nurse treated her, and two days later she was dead.
“Why did that little girl die, Placide?” There is no answer. Placide is gone, having vanished as silently as he appeared. It is a wonderful thing to see, or rather to not see: a nocturnal man, blending so artfully with the night. But his talent seems wasted here, watching our little house night after uneventful night. He should have been something else—a hunter, a guerrilla warrior, a spy, a thief.
The fire flares a little and a shower of sparks goes up, though there is no wind. Placide is hunkered down, poking at his coals with a stick. In the glow I can see his face. He stirs the coals, and stares into the fire. I’m the silent one now, the invisible watcher, trying to comprehend a waking life centered on a small fire in an iron pan, with a great darkness over half the world.
That is Placide by night. By day he doesn’t seem like much, a small polite man, a little shabby. But people are afraid of him. Maybe they see a man who has spent too much of his life in the world of spirits. Maybe they are afraid of what he has seen peering into the shadows every night, or what he has imagined.
At first Kate and I were merely amused by Placide. We thought he was cute, I suppose because he is short, because he has a pug nose and an implacable deadpan and he wears a watch cap, and tattered overcoat in the tropical night. Because he has a hoarse piping voice and speaks a light and syncopated language that sounds charming to us, accustomed as we are to the guttural rumbling tones of English.
Such attributes create a facade of cuteness, a sentimental illusion obscuring an uncute reality. It took only a few sleepless nights inside our claustrophobic house, with Placide skulking around the compound, to shatter that illusion. Now I don’t know which is more unnerving: to see him huddled in his overcoat by the fire, casting a flickering and deceptively large shadow against the cook shed; or to not see him yet know he is there, peering from the night at my pale and nervous face. What is he doing out there all night? What’s the point of it? How does he even keep himself awake all night, with no danger to ward off and scarcely a passerby to challenge?
Next to his small fire he has a cement block to sit on, and inside the cook shed he keeps a pile of old cardboard, which on cool nights he sometimes drags out beside the fire and crawls beneath for warmth. But he doesn’t fall asleep, or if he does it’s a vigilant sleep, because he instantly emerges, bow and arrow in hand, at the slightest sound.
Now he sits on his cement block, hunched by the fire with his back to me. I might almost imagine that he’s dozing, but when I step off the porch he is on his feet and looking towards me. He waits calmly as I approach. But how does he know for certain that it’s me? Can he really see through this heavy darkness, or distinguish the sound of my footsteps from any others?
“You’re not sleeping, monsieur?”
“Not yet. What time is it?”
He pulls back his sleeve and stares at the glowing numerals on his digital watch. Crunching something in his mouth, he shows me the watch. Twelve seventeen.
“What are you eating, Placide?”
“Cricket.” He holds up half the charred body of a cricket. Of course. That’s what he said he was going to do—roast, not burn, crickets. As usual, my translation was flawed.
“Would you like one, monsieur?” He hands me a cricket, still warm from the coals. He pops the other half of his cricket into his mouth, and I slip mine into my shirt pocket. I have yet to eat a cricket, though Placide, who stalks them by night and tosses them live onto his coals to roast, sometimes gives them to me, ever since he got the idea from one of our garbled conversations that I consider them a great delicacy.
“Madame Kate is out late,” he comments between crunches.
She is. The distant thunder rumbles and the drumbeats roll on, as monotonous and repetitive as the clicking and buzzing of insects. But the chef de poste’s radio, I realize suddenly, is silent. How long has it been off, and how did it go off without my noticing it? How can that intrusive noise be assimilated so easily into the soundscape of the night? Insects and water, thunder and drums, the occasional soft calling of women’s voices. And the chef’s radio going silent, as unremarked as a night breeze dying out in the leaves of the palms.
“I’m going for a walk.”
Placide stares at me, uncomprehending. Maybe I used the wrong word. Maybe there is no way to express the idea of ‘going for a walk’ in his language. It’s too frivolous a concept, I think, a pointless squandering of limited energy, especially at this hour. The spontaneity, the carelessness, the pure nuttiness of going for a walk at night—Placide can hardly respond to this.
“I’ll check on Kate,” I add. Now Placide nods gravely, and squats in the glow of his coals to decapitate another cricket with his careful little fingers.
I go out the gate with my flashlight in hand, but switched off. Lately I’ve been purposely walking around at night without using a flashlight. This started on moonlit nights, when I realized the light was superfluous at best, but recently I’ve even tried it on dark nights like this. What I’ve been thinking is that the flashlight doesn’t illuminate the night so much as create an artificial day. The beam lights up a cone of space but changes everything that occupies that space. I suspect some night objects of becoming invisible when the beam hits them and outside the beam the night becomes entirely opaque.
Without a flashlight I have begun to penetrate the actual night. I have found that my eyes physically adjust to darkness, that my brain can learn to decipher night shapes. And I’m learning to use other senses as well, and to move with more confidence even when I can’t see, which is not necessarily a good idea. Scrambling confidently up the path, I lose my footing on the wet clay and slide heavily into the narrow ditch that runs above our house, soaking a boot and a leg in muddy water, and slightly twisting my ankle.
“Monsieur!” Placide is already at the gate, heading up the path.
“It’s okay. I just slipped into the water a little.”
“You should turn on your flashlight, monsieur.”
“I don’t like my flashlight. It keeps me from seeing the night.”
“Oui, monsieur. But it helps you to see the ditch.”
This advice is irritating, coming as it does from Placide, who never turns on his flashlight to see the ditch. But I say nothing; I just flick on my flashlight and follow the beam into the camp.
Away from the river the night is hotter, and there is no breeze at all. I hear distant thunder, and see the flicker of lightning through the trees, still too far away to illuminate the night. But entering the camp I risk turning off the flashlight again, and become aware of the vast number of stars above me: so many sources of light in the sky, and the land is so dark.
In a circle on the edge of a fire the women dance, swaying, their arms around each other’s hips. The sweat glistens on their arms and faces. Their eyes are closed, or unfocused. They sing, a murmured chant in the language of the village, incomprehensible to me. They lean on each other as they dance, and the circle ripples but never tears. No one stumbles, though they must have been dancing for hours.
Only one man is drumming, and the drums and the chanting are the only music. The drummer is in the shadows on the edge of the circle of dim light; his eyes shimmer, his sweat glints, the palms of his hands flash with his intricate beat. A few men stand near him, watching the dancers and talking quietly. Here and there is another small cluster of people, and others are lying on mats in the clearing, or in the doorways of huts. The fire and a few candles and palm oil lamps give off a dim flickering light. People duck into a hut, there is conversation, even laughter, and several men greet me as I approach the outskirts of the gathering, though I don’t know how they see me in the darkness. I stand stiffly, my ankle throbbing a little, my pant leg wet and clammy.
It’s the chef de poste’s secretary, Mukatalika or something like that, I can never remember his exact name.
“Secretary.” This is a neat trick I have recently learned. A title can be used in place of a name. People are flattered, and it makes me feel colloquial, as though I’ve lived here a long while.
“Are you looking for your wife, monsieur?”
“Yes. I don’t see her here.”
“She was here earlier. She danced with the women.”
“I wish I’d seen that.”
“She dances well, Consultant! Different than you. Much better than you.”
“Really? That’s interesting, Secretary. Do you know where she is now?”
“She left a while ago, with her friend the nurse. I’ll ask where they went.”
I stay on the outskirts while the secretary makes his inquiries. I want to avoid the commotion my presence always creates, to observe for a moment but not intrude. I’ve never been to a child’s funeral before, and I didn’t really give this one any thought before I showed up. Of course I was listening to the drumbeats and the women’s voices, but these were just sounds of the night, like insects and thunder and radio music, part of what keeps me out on my porch in the night.
But now I see sweat-streaked, tear-streaked faces in the orange light, people wrapped in their pagnes lying on the hard ground, and the circle of women swaying deeply, holding each other up. The dance is simple and monotonous, yet hard to follow. Each individual woman seems to be going down, but the circle remains erect. They yield to pull of gravity without falling, and somehow their dance helps everyone bear the sorrow of putting a small body into the ground.
I ask a man what the child died of. He shrugs. A change in atmosphere, another man says. The rains have been hard, and she was not a strong girl. The men nod. The girl’s father had an argument with her uncle, one says. The uncle hired a fetisher, and the fetisher killed her. The men nod again.
The secretary is at my side again. I decline his offer to take me to the nurse’s house at the far end of the camp, where Kate may have gone.
“It’s okay. She’ll probably be back here soon, or at home.”
The secretary rocks and sways too, leaning toward me; I smell the sour palm wine on his breath. We stand together for a couple of minutes, swaying, but we keep bumping shoulders and knocking each other off balance. Is the secretary drunk, or am I having my usual problems with the rhythm? But I feel this drum music, it’s coming through to my bones, I even feel the grief it conveys, in some way that is not entirely abstract. I want to sway like the women, smelling the woodsmoke, with sweat on my neck and the dim orange light of fire and lamps falling on my closed eyelids. But again we bump shoulders and though my eyes are closed I can sense the secretary looking at me. I pretend I was nudging him.
“I’m going home now, Secretary. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Consultant.” The secretary stops swaying to shake hand, and I turn away into the darkness and follow the tunneling beam of my flashlight home.
“I see you’ve got your flashlight on, monsieur. Very intelligent.”
It’s impossible to tell how much irony, if any, is implied in Placide’s compliment. In some ways Placide must think I’m pretty dumb, for example in my inability to handle a flashlight, but in other ways I know that he thinks I’m extremely intelligent, for example in my ability to build a jet airplane. He said as much to me once, that jet airplanes were proof of how much smarter I was than him or any of his countrymen.
“What are you talking about, Placide? I don’t have any idea how those things work.”
“But you build it, monsieur. It flies.”
“Look, I didn’t build it. I couldn’t build a plane any more than you could.”
I saw that he didn’t believe me and tried to explain with an analogy. “It’s like in the village. Somebody knows the best wood for making a boat, the best way to make it. Nobody else has this knowledge—you just go to him if you want a boat made. Or maybe some old woman knows the plants in the forest that cure a fever. Other people have no idea, so they go to her when they’re sick. It’s the same with us and airplanes—a few people understand how they work, how to build them. If the rest of us want an airplane built, we go to them.”
Placide shook his head. “In the camp we eat the plants the old woman gives us, but the fevers keep killing us. As for you, your airplanes fly.”
“I don’t have anything to do with those planes, Placide. ”
“You belong to the knowledge, monsieur.” How could such a high popping voice sound so somber? And why do conversations like this always leave me feeling naive and foolish, while Placide turns away with his dignity intact?
But the question for Placide is how do you deal with somebody who knows how to make airplanes but doesn’t have the sense to turn on a flashlight in the dark. You might speak ironically to him and you might not. You might find him ridiculous and you might find him awe-inspiring. So I never know how Placide is taking me, how straight he’s playing me.
Now he huddles by his fire and gives me a sidelong look. I can’t quite make out what he’s asking me. Did I or do I like something? The funeral dance, maybe? My walk? His uncharacteristic grin and enthusiasm indicate that he expects me to say yes. Okay, I liked it, I say politely, and his grin broadens, his head bobs.
“It was good, Placide.” This is a safe elaboration that should not betray my incomprehension.
Try what again? A different adjective, maybe? But I know so few. “Beautiful, Placide. It was beautiful.”
“Oh beautiful, monsieur, yes!” Placide is actually laughing. “Tasty, eh?”
I nod and break away, heading for the porch. Tasty? It must not have been the dance or my walk he was asking about. I sit in my rocker trying to figure out what Placide and I have just said to each other. Again we have bumbled our way through a conversation that began with an unintelligible premise. But we both know it wouldn’t do any good to stop and try to clarify what we are saying, since with Placide and me clarification is just another means for further muddling the sense of things. Anyway, clarity is only one of many possible attributes of conversation. We also value mystery, allusion, tone, momentum, and the camaraderie we are building—all things which can’t withstand the interruptions required by a dogmatic insistence that we understand what we are talking about.
And in fact Placide and I, with our brief and inconclusive exchanges throughout the long nights, have forged a kind of bond, transcending our difficulties with the language and the less-than-solid ground on which we encounter one another: he the Night Watchman who guards against nonexistent terrors; I the Consultant who transfers the intangible knowledge. Together we smell the smoke of his fire, watch the flicker of lightning and hear the thunder roll down off the savanna, and listen for the smaller sounds behind the thunder and drums and insects—the river, the wind in the palms, the soft songs of grief in the camp. I believe that Placide is a man at some peace with his place in the world, and when I sit on my porch and watch him hunkered on his little stool before his coals I feel something of his love and fear of the night. When he slips off to stalk crickets or make his rounds he teaches me the theory, if not the practice, of moving in the dark, and when he stops and bends his head, I listen with him and learn to make some sense of the racket I hear each night, to focus with him on distinct sounds, isolating the paddle in the water, the frog in the ditch, the footstep on the path, the cricket on the leaf.
The cricket, again. That’s what he was asking. He wanted to know I liked the roast cricket he had given me earlier, which is still in my pocket, intact and untasted. And I told him yes, it was good, it was beautiful, and yes, tasty.
Well. Perhaps I should taste it then, if for no other reason than so I can retract my statement before he stuffs my pockets with barbecued crickets. I pull the cricket out. It’s squished a little, and damp with sweat. I run my fingers over it, feeling its burnt little legs, its carapace, antennae, thorax. These are not body parts I’m accustomed to eating. But I know it’s just another arthropod, it might as well be a shrimp or a crayfish, and I’ve peeled the little boiled legs off many a shrimp without a second thought. And so, thinking of shrimp, thinking Arthropoda rather than Insecta, I put the cricket into my mouth.
It’s delicious. The flavor reminds me of shrimp, really. Shrimp, only with terrestrial overtones—the smoke of Placide’s fire, the forest leaf the cricket was wrapped in, the wet grass where it hid and sang, the night wind that blew off the river and carried its song up to Placide. I thought I would have to choke it down, but instead I chew slowly, savouring the texture and flavor, the unexpected pleasure. There’s something uplifting in the taste of this cricket, euphoric, and yes, even beautiful. At the same time an involuntary shiver goes down my spine and into my stomach, because after all it isn’t a simple business, eating my first cricket and contemplating the beauty and dread of the equatorial night, where a little girl is freshly buried, where my wife has once again vanished.
The thunder rumbles, leaves rustle, a warm damp breeze rises—too warm, too damp. Suffocating, actually, and carrying out of the forest the smell of rot and putrefaction. The half-swallowed cricket suddenly gags me, as if those jointed legs have snagged in my throat, as if a prejudice rooted deep in my guts now overrules the spontaneity of my taste buds. I stumble inside for a drink of water and end up lying on the couch, breathing fast, pulse racing, cold sweat on my skin.
Thunder and lightning crack together, and while the house is still rattling, the rain comes. I get off the couch and step out on the porch, where Placide stands on the steps in his overcoat, in the shelter of the eaves. On the tin roof the rain booms. Placide looks up at me, but it’s too dark to see his face, and the rain is too loud for talk. I go to the edge of the porch and urinate into the torrent. Thunder cracks and rolls, over and over, and lightning imprints the scene on my brain and gives it a visual resonance, so that even after I go back inside, undress, blow out the lamp, and lie in bed beneath the mosquito netting, listening to the diminishing rain and the roar of the flooding creek, I continue to see Placide’s small huddled figure, and behind him rainwater streaming off the corrugated roof, trees bending, leaves tossing, and water running in sheets and rivulets through the yard and down the hill to the swollen and rain-blurred river.
But the rain has taken the heat and energy from the night. I even seem to hear Kate breathing, deep and rhythmic as if she were stretched out beside me, but I know that’s only some distant or imaginary sound on the border of sleep. I know that Kate is crouched somewhere in the darkness, dodging leaks in a crowded hut, shrugging off the discomfort, secure in the company of women who still sweat and sway from a night of dancing, women who sing now in soft hoarse voices, urging babies wakened by thunder to return to sleep.
The World Conceived in Black and White
This poem is not currently available online.
You could tell the Players Theater in Eugene had been a glamorous place in its prime, maybe back in the thirties—the chandeliers still spun in the lobby, and the big ornate balcony still swept across the back of the hall, but somewhere along the line things had gone sour, the neighborhood had gone to hell, and when I got there we couldn’t turn on the furnace except during performances, and the red velvet seats were torn and patched—we took turns sewing seats—and the water in the toilets, when there was any, was always rusty. Across the street there was a big Ryder rental yard and a liquor store, and people were always creeping around in the parking lot at night and setting off car alarms. But I enjoyed being there: I liked the cold and the penury, taking them as signs of our virtue and cultivation, and I loved the back crannies, too, the deep basement prop rooms where the old painted stage sets leaned against the walls like ruins, the cardboard bricks light as air when you leaned to move them. You got the sense that you were doing something dutiful and good, putting on plays, giving people a good time, and really you had to feel that way; there wasn’t any money in it. One way or another all of us wanted a better life, but the whole thing wasn’t bad, as a stopgap.
I did what you’d call assistant directing, probably, but really I did everything that needed doing: I worked as a lighting man for a while, climbing around in the rafters with my leather gloves, and above me the ceiling opened and opened, forty feet at least of darkness, into which I could see the shapes of ladders and ropes disappearing, and if I climbed up toward the ceiling I could hear the rain hammering on the old tile roof and then running down the gutters into the alley. Often we had a certain amount of smoke to contend with during rehearsals, especially if the play called for gunshots—so by the third act we’d get a big rolling smoke cloud collected up there above the stage, wispy, moving with the slow grace of an underwater animal, extending a long limb hesitantly, then pulling it back again, as though it were mulling something over. I could watch it for hours, and usually it was a lot more interesting than what was on stage: two chairs, a man in black, a woman playing Death for a change. It was that sort of theater.
I’d been working on a play about Thomas Edison for a long time, a thing I started in college and just kept banging away on, and one summer around this time I finished it; in the fall season we produced it. A week into the casting a guy named Howard Turner walked in holding his raincoat over his arm, looking curiously around the theater as though he were thinking of buying the place. He was a high school chemistry teacher, forty years old, and he read more or less naturally, leaning to one side with his hand on his belly, his eyebrows lifting now and then as he stood in the yellow light. He had a big black smudge on his white shirt and he was tall, and a little fat, and his hair was matted and greasy around his hatline. We signed him up.
We rehearsed four nights a week for six weeks or so, and sometimes when rehearsals were over Turner pulled on his black raincoat and shambled down the street with me to a shitty little tavern where he played Pik-A-Winner scratch cards and drank Henry Weinhard’s from the bottle. He shelled peanuts with one hand and farted by leaning to one side. “The one-cheek sneak,” he said, grinning across the table. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but I put on appearances, in part because drinking with him made me feel older or, I guess, made me feel as though I were in a more advanced state of decline, which is how age appeared to me then. We were there, ostensibly, to work out the few remaining kinks in the script, but we never looked at the script. We drank, and Turner talked, accepting me, generously, as a peer, though I was far younger and had to strain to appear tired of the workings of life. “You divorced?” he asked me. I was twenty-six.
“Do I look divorced?”
He turned his bottle, peering at it. “What, gay?”
“No, just single.”
“What do you think of Janine?”
“She’s nice,” I said.
“She’s a good-looking woman. Wouldn’t mind expanding my role a little bit.”
“I bet you wouldn’t,” I said. Janine Richardson played Mary Stilwell, Edison s wife.
“A little nudie scene’d be nice,” he said.
“Fifty bucks and I’ll think about it.”
Turner said, “You know the story about her ex-husband?”
I said I didn’t.
Turner shifted his big ass in his chair. “Guy named Ray Lunk, worked for the school district. Years ago, before your time. He was a dumb fuck.”
He scratched a card with a nickel and, after examining it momentarily, threw the card to the floor. “Skimmed some money off the school district somehow and bought himself a Cadillac, this big old gigantic white car, used to see him driving it around town. They nail him for embezzlement and she divorced him. Sort of a big story around here.”
Turner played a few more cards, throwing them all away. Then said, “But you know, I don’t think she was totally happy about it. I think she had some mixed feelings.”
“About the divorce.”
“Yeah. You notice she won’t talk to me offstage.”
“I noticed that.”
“I think she associates me with her past,” he said. “Those public school days. She sees me, she sees Ray Lunk. I guess I make her feel bad.”
“Makes sense to me,” I said.
“I guess it does.” He sighed again and put his bottle down on the script. “Just one naked scene would really mean a lot to me.”
“She’d kick my ass.”
He smirked. “I bet she would.”
He held up his hands. “All right,” he said. “Never mind.”
Janine Richardson, the woman playing Mary Stilwell, was a drama teacher from the University of Oregon. In her bursting leather satchel she carried little dialogs written by her students:
A: (pleedingly) Take me away from here.
B: (happily) Oh yes my darling this is why I came to your house today.
A: You are my sole mate.
She was maybe in her middle thirties, though of course I never asked, and she actually looked a little like Mary Stilwell, with her long dark hair and broad, pretty face. I told her this once and she rolled her eyes, so I learned not to compliment her. We saw in each other a sort of kindred cynicism—or, maybe closer to the truth, I wished I were cynical as she, so I admired her. She wore black turtlenecks and tight black jeans, and from the depths of her satchel she took lipstick and gum and her cigarettes, all of them linty and damaged.
She and I went out for coffee a few times after rehearsal. In the bright student cafe I saw the wiggly red threads in her eyes and the pink tinge around the rims of her nostrils. I didn’t ask her about Ray Lunk, or his long white car; I was afraid to. She ordered coffee and no food, and she watched me eat my french fries, one after the other. She smoked constantly. She had no children and didn’t want them. “Kids give me the willies,” she said. Her voice was husky. “I guess you’re nuts about them. Teacher.”
“It’s just a job.” I was a substitute teacher. “And besides, what are you?”
“Teaching college is different,” she said. “Most of the time.”
“But that must be the worst job in the world. Substitute.” She peered at me, blowing smoke to the side. “The kids ever hit you?”
“No,” I said. “They usually don’t pay me any attention at all.”
“Ever fear for your life?”
“No. They’re just kids.”
“It must be very rewarding,” she said.
“It is, sometimes,” I said. And then, venturing, I said, “But most of them are dummies.”
“Oh, don’t,” she said. “You’re too young to talk that way. It’s ugly.”
I didn’t say anything.
“It’s their fucking parents’ fault,” she said, sullenly. “Turn on the tube and go out boozing, come home and beat each other up.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Now I can talk that way,” she said, scowling. “But I’m an old lady.”
I wanted to invite her back to my place, but I had the idea that if she came home with me I’d speak her name rapturously, or I’d look secretly at her with love and get caught—that somehow I’d end up showing her how uncynical and hopeful I really was, and that she would despise me for it, or think me too young and innocent, unsuitable. This was all stupid, it turned out, but in the beginning I didn’t know much about her, or what she might find attractive. I wanted to tell her about Mary Stilwell’s young curls, and her final brutal fever, but I was afraid I’d speak of Mary with too much love, and Janine would become suspicious. “What the hell is this place? Whose books are these?” she might say, stepping critically through my house, her arms folded. We always ended up walking the rainy nighttime streets of Eugene, I back to my car, she back to hers.
Before she married Thomas Edison, Mary Stilwell worked in his laboratory, just another girl doing the usual sort of dreary work, but her letters, written in her tiny, intelligent hand, show that she liked being there. A certain glamour attached itself to anything having to do with Edison; even then he was famous for his new kind of magic, for conjuring voices from a silver cylinder, and in various circles the phonograph was thought to be a literal miracle, the herald of a coming miraculous age—and what, really, is this day but that? It’s easy to see what they meant, anyway.
Mary caught glimpses of Edison as he careened through rooms, smoky and rumpled, his knuckles big as walnuts. He smoothed his awful hair with his great greasy hand, he screamed at people, he rammed his fists into the walls, he popped buttons off his vest, he disappeared for days. From somewhere in the building came mysterious bangs and booms, never explained. Like all the girls, Mary was suspicious of the big magnetized dynamo in the corner, which pulled out her hairpins and tugged at her buttons, playing at undressing her. Strange acrid fogs drifted through the lab, burning her eyes. In a letter to her sister she described Edison’s filthy hands and sculpted hair and the gloomy shadows like hammocks under his eyes, but we are given to understand that she was drawn to this man’s power and mystery, and who wouldn’t have been? She must have imagined certain scenarios—the late night alone in the laboratory, the darkened room, the smoky sky outside, the hand on her cheek, just mild though keep herself entertained.
Then, and we don’t know why, exactly, Edison began to court her. In the laboratory he appeared behind her, smelly and unkempt, while she punched holes in telegraph tape, her long fingers depressing one mechanical key after another. They walked the fields together, they drove carriages through the countryside. When he proposed to her, by a pond, she looked down at her folded fingers, embarrassed, in a demure gesture common to the times. During their engagement he taught her Morse code, and when they were together in company he spoke to her secretly by tapping a coin on her palm.
The play ended, more or less, when Mary died suddenly of typhoid in the summer of 1884. In thirteen years she’d had three children, and Edison had to wake them all in the night and tell them their mother was dead. The biographies reveal no great history of feeling for her, at least after the marriage, but he is described as shaking and crying at her death; he could hardly talk. We can imagine him wandering through the wide halls of his house in Menlo Park, sad and disoriented, coming as if by accident to his children’s bedroom doors. Do they hear him approach? The shuffle of his feet, his sobs? Some nights in that cold, empty theater, I know, I imagined him coming up the carpeted aisle in his black boots, stepping heavily, mourning, inexorable in his approach, hoping somehow things would return, magically, to their rational course.
One day I ended up at Lewis and Clark High School subbing for a chemistry teacher who’d almost drowned over the weekend. There’d been a storm and he’d been out fishing and got himself washed over the side of his little boat, and I came in wearing my tie and good shoes. Howard Turner, it turned out, had the classroom across the hall. Early in the morning he looked unexpectedly neat—shirt pressed, hair slicked and precise. He unlocked his door carrying a plastic coffee mug. There was a bright sparkle in his eye. “Fancy meeting you,” he said.
“Back me up,” I said. “I’m sending my evil-doers across the hall.”
But it was an uneventful day. I passed out the dittos and the students filled them out uncomplainingly, like job-hunters. There is often a certain careless joy to substituting, something you might not expect. Usually there’s a stool to sit on, and your day is planned for you: hand this out, read these pages. There are no real responsibilities, and the classroom door is open to the hall, so from other parts of the school come the sounds of real labor: teachers and students talking, buses pulling up and leaving, the big doors slamming shut in the gymnasium.
That afternoon I heard Turner across the hall, talking to his class. Then came a pause, and, unexpectedly, a flash of light and a sudden sharp cracking sound, then a yelp of pleasure and an excited babble. Then Turner’s voice, dry and serious: “Don’t go trying this at home.” My own students looked up sluggishly from their desks, like cattle noticing the rain.
The director was Don Hamand. Don, who was thirty, was a bearded John Lennon type who made his own ice cream and brought it to rehearsal in stainless steel buckets. He was married, and occasionally his wife came by wearing their baby on her back. She made suggestions now and then in a high, child’s voice, the voice of a cartoon. Don sat far away, in the back row, in the dark, and shouted out directions. From the stage he was invisible. “Hey! I can’t hearyou!” he’d say. “You’re supposed to step forward, goddammit!Forward!” You’d look around and there’d be nobody.
When I wasn’t climbing around in the rafters I spent a lot of time sitting in the back with Don, holding his clipboard and taking notes for him. “My wife and I are having another baby,” he said one night, watching the stage.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not making any money.” He sighed. “I need another job.”
“You’ve got that d.j. job still.”
“Yeah. I hate it.”
“Keeps me up all night.”
I said, “Turner wants me to write in a nude scene.”
“You know anything about her husband?”
“Janine?” Don winced and shifted in his seat. “Yeah, Ray Lunk. They should have sent him up the river, that guy. She’s embarrassed about it, I think.”
“She’s a pill, you know. But terrific. Beautiful.”
“Hell, yes,” Don said. “Look at her.”
She stood in blue light on stage. Her black ringlets fell over her face.
He said, “I mean, I love my wife, I don’t want to say anything. But you can’t deny it.”
“Another baby.” He sighed again. “You can’t imagine what this is like for me,” he said.
I lived on the coast, about an hour’s drive from Eugene. I paid rent, because the house belonged to my aunt Petta, who had moved to Jamaica. I’m having a tropical crisis! Petta said, and off she went. I didn’t know her well; I remembered her from childhood as a well-dressed woman who wore wide-brimmed hats and sat in an iron chair on our lawn. She was rich through marriage, had worked for a famous auction house and had seen marvelous things pass through her office.Well, she would say. Let’s just say I could tell you some things about the Rijksmuseum. Don’t tell me you don’t know about the new Caillebotte, she once said, a hand on my arm.
She asked me to look after her house—I was living in Eugene, teaching, when she left the country—and I moved in my few little things. It was a huge cedar-shake house on a cliff above the ocean. Moss grew on the roof, and fir trees dripped and scraped against the windows. I didn’t use much of the house, and there was the vaguely uneasy sense of having more room than I needed: unseen rooms full of dark coastal furniture, the old Nooksak blankets heavy on the walls, a big stone fireplace. At night the house buffeted in the coastal winds, groaning and shaking. A wooden stairway went down to the beach, which was rocky and unpromising, and always windy, but away in a little grotto I found Petta’s ratty old towels, a rusty aluminum chair, an empty wine bottle.
Janine Richardson called me at home a week before opening night. She said, “You’re not busy?”
“Well, I’m in a strange mood,” she said, flatly. “I’m all antsy. I get this way before an opening. You ever get superstitious?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, hell, I am. That makes us incompatible.”
“No, come on out,” I said. It was late, and foggy, and I didn’t expect anything. “If you want. It’s nice
out here tonight.”
“All right,” she said. “That sounds nice. Give me some directions,” she said, and an hour later she pulled her Citröen up the driveway. It was ten o’clock, and the junipers in the yard were filled with mist. She looked nervously one way, then the other, before coming up the stairs. “You look tired,” she said, stomping in, past me. She was wearing a brown dress that went only to her knees.
“Sure you have.” She put her satchel down, then changed her mind and picked it up again, slung it over her shoulder. “I might need this,” she said. She clasped it to her. She wore a dusty, noncommittal perfume.
She followed me into the living room, where a long polished table sat like a reflecting pool. On the walls were photographs of Petta’s father in his goggles, driving. Janine cruised past the pictures, then walked to the windows and peered out at the dark yard.
“This isn’t your house,” she said.
“It’s my aunt’s.”
“Where’s your aunt?” She turned to me.
“Jamaica,” I said. I explained the rest.
“Very nice arrangement.”
I followed her into the dining room. From behind she seemed foreign and unapproachable, a prospective buyer. Her neck was long and little wisps of her hair clung to it. I showed her the dining room table, where I kept my typewriter and papers—papers stacked in piles, some math tests I’d just finished grading, empty beer bottles, my books about Edison.
“Ah-ha,” she said. “You used all these books?”
She rummaged through the biographies, letting her satchel swing free. There was a section of photographs, and she pored over these for a while. Then she said, “These are his kids?”
I looked over her shoulder. Mary Stilwell stood there in a flowery bonnet. Janine touched her hair, tucked it behind her ear.
“Well, would you look at me,” she said.
Her daughter Dot was lithe and cottony and stood in the garden with her hands shading her eyes, looking as if she could slide effortlessly out of the frame, like a swan, and her sons, William and Thomas, were more staid and fearful and looked at the camera respectfully, their arms hanging stiff at their sides; but Mary, their mother, was the dark grave beauty of the picture. With a little age she was becoming larger, assuming a sort of matronly width and complacence.
“You were very pretty.”
“Oh, in my day.” She laughed, a lovely sound, lovely in the way she was on stage: generous, unquestioning.
“Something to drink?”
“Beer. I just got out of class.”
“Teacher,” I said.
“Yeah, well.” She lit a cigarette and said, “You don’t mind?”
I gave her a bottle of Henry’s.
“You didn’t put the kids in the play.”
“Child actors,” I said.
“Fuff.” She drank her beer and smoked her cigarette. “You know I was married before.”
“Turner told me.”
“What’d he say?”
I told her the story he’d told me. She smoked and stared out the dark window, watching herself reflected there. When I was done, she said, “Well, yeah, that’s pretty accurate.” She tipped her ashes onto my math tests. “Except it was a Lincoln. The Lunk,” she said, grimly. “I married him in high school. He was handsome. How was I supposed to know he’d be a criminal?”
“How many years did he get?”
She glared at me. “It’s really none of your business.”
I said, “Turner thinks you don’t like him.”
“Oh, no, he’s okay.” She finished her cigarette. “He’s just lonely and it worries me. I see myself ending up that way, you know? Old and sloppy.” She looked down at herself and brushed the ashes from her lap with the side of her hand. She considered her dress. “This is the best I can do these days, you know. This little thing.”
“I used to do better.”
“Let me show you the house,” I said.
“Deal,” she said, and stood up.
I took her upstairs; I could feel her behind me, watching me as I walked ahead of her. In the big hallway we stopped, and she looked from side to side, like someone coming up from a subway entrance. “Lordy,” she said. “This place goes on, doesn’t it.”
“Six bedrooms up here,” I said.
“You rotate?” she said. She flicked her eyebrows up, saucily. “One a day? Rest on Sundays?”
“I haven’t had sex in so long,” I said.
“Oh, my God. Don’t tell me these things.” She looked a little alarmed, and I wondered if I’d said the wrong thing. The door to the attic was ajar. She went to the door and opened it and peered up the rickety stairs. She held her satchel against her hip. “What’s up there?”
“Where’s your bedroom?”
“Down there.” I pointed.
“When’s your aunt coming back?”
“Probably not today.”
We walked down the hall, into my bedroom. From the windows during the day you could see the beach; the lighthouse on the headland to the north winked around and around. There was a good wind blowing, and the glass in the windows shivered and bowed.
She plopped down on my bed. “Nice quilt.”
“Thanks,” I said. I walked to the windows, nervously. Her dress had hiked itself up her thighs. Her legs were smooth and pale. I pointed at the ceiling. “At night I hear people walking back and forth up there,” I said, lying. “Doors close by themselves. Sometimes I hear two women talking up there, but there’s no one around. It gets a little creepy.”
“You’re so full of shit.”
“Seriously,” I said.
She stood up and walked to the window, her flat shoes scuffing the floor. Her dress settled back to her knees. She was standing next to me. “I was wondering if you’d write me a different ending,” she said, pushing her hair back.
“Oh,” I said. “This is about that?”
“For some reason I don’t like the idea of dying. That’s what I mean when I say I’m superstitious. I don’t like dying on stage.” She pushed her hair back again, more forcefully this time.
“But she died.”
“I know,” she said. “This is totally unprofessional of me.”
“There’s only a week left.”
“I know. Just a tiny little scene. Five minutes,” she said. “It’s bad luck to die on stage. I already talked to Don about it, it’s okay with him. He said you might make me a ghost.”
“All right,” I said.
“Or something. Or just write me out entirely, I don’t know. Just at the end, I mean, not the whole thing.” She gritted her teeth and seemed to smile.
“Sure. I promise.”
“If you don’t,” she said, “I’m thinking of quitting.” She kissed my cheek, a brief hard peck, and left, rattling her way back down the stairs and outside. From the window I watched her car make the road, the headlights bob away.
After rehearsal Monday night I was out drinking with Turner again. We were both a little drunk. That afternoon after school we’d been out stapling flyers to telephone poles and passing out posters in the grocery stores. The posters showed Edison leaning over a worktable, a halo of light above him. Mary stood off to the side, looking away, off the page. Hello, darling, Turner’d said, bowing to the shoppers. He’d been in costume, and tapped his shiny shoe on the grocery store linoleum. He’d frosted his hair, and stray gray dots speckled his forehead. People took the flyers anyway.
Now we were on our fifth round. Turner hadn’t changed clothes.
“Mr. Edison,” I said.
“Yessir,” he said.
“The governor of mysterious invisible forces.”
“Hell yes.” He picked at his lip.
“You’re not married, are you.”
“Me? Nah. Not in real life.”
“No. Well, yeah, once. Long, long time ago.” He puffed out his cheeks. “Big mistake.”
“Why’s that,” I said.
“Too young.” He was peering at his beer again. “There’s this woman I’m seeing now, though,” he said, squinting. “Nobody knows but you. And her, of course. And me. We’re keeping it a secret.” He spun the bottle on its base. “You know why it’s a secret?”
He stared at me, drunk. “Because she’s sixty years old.” He held the stare. “She’s a young sixty, I mean. But she’s way the fuck older than me.”
“Where’d you meet her?”
“I met her on vacation when I was in Costa Rica,” he said. Then he leaned toward me and whispered: “She’s from Portland. Also, she’s still married. But she’s getting divorced. Her husband doesn’t know.”
“No shit.” Turner nodded, gravely.
“The husband’s an asshole,” I said.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Turner said. “She gives me her side of the story, I know there’s another side, this poor guy working all day, his wife going off on vacation by herself. No, I do feel a little bit bad.” He cleared his throat. “But I’ve got to take what I can get, at this point.”
He was still wearing his striped vest, and watch chain, and dirty white spats over his shoes. His greasy hair stood up in front. I had stolen Janine’s black nylon choker and wore it doubled around my wrist like a rubber band.
“The hell is that,” he said.
“Janine’s,” I said. “I stole it.”
He reached for my wrist. “Let me smell it I’ll buy another round.”
“I’ve got to get up in the morning,” I said.
“Please.” He reached for it again.
“I’m teaching gym somewhere.”
“One more,” he said. He grabbed me now and smelled my wrist, his big hand holding mine.
We had long dress rehearsals that last week, staying until well after midnight. We practiced the new ending until we were all in terrible moods; we began to pick on one another. Don had hemorrhoids and had to sit on a padded cushion-ring, and offstage Janine treated Turner terribly, as I remembered treating outcasts in high school, turning blithely away when he spoke, rolling her eyes. He looked even more haggard than usual: v-neck sweaters with no undershirt, his neck thick and greasy.
When things got especially bad, I made for the rafters. Below me, on stage, Mary touched Edison’s arm and leaned deferentially toward him in a perfect simulation of adoration. She followed him across the stage, time after time, finding the right blue light to stop in; she spoke calmly to reporters, nodding and biting her lips with pride. Then she’d go stomping off the stage and put on her overcoat again and smoke sullenly in the front row. Her ashes marked the red carpet like erasures.
“Looking good,” I called down to her.
She smirked up at me, still wearing her bonnet and high black boots. “Forget it,” she said.
On Tuesday night the weather had turned crappy again, raining and blowing all day, the streetlights swinging over the intersections downtown. I met Janine outside the theater, and we came in together. I turned on a few lights and plugged in the coffee pot. We sat together in the front row, waiting. From somewhere we heard a heavy rumbling that could have been thunder, or maybe a train, or maybe the old building grumbling at us, settling onto its haunches.
She said, “I like the new ending. I’ve never played a ghost before. It’s a very powerful feeling.” She put her hand on my arm. “Let me see if I can describe it to you.”
I heard a door slam somewhere in the basement.
“Someone’s here,” I said.
“It’s very liberating,” she said. She licked her lips, thoughtfully, looking over my shoulder. “Not in the usual sense.”
Someone came walking upstairs, banging heavy shoes.
She leaned closer to me. “It’s actually a little exciting, if you know what I mean.” She shrugged slowly inside her coat, rolling her shoulders again. “I like coming up behind him like that. That’s what it is. It’s secret power. That’s what I like about it. Nobody knows who you are.”
A door opened in the back of the auditorium.
“I want to see you tonight,” she said.
I shivered. “All right.”
“I’m coming out to your place.” Her hand was on my forearm now, steadily. She gave me a squeeze. “After rehearsal tonight?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ll bring you a little surprise.”
Turner clomped down the aisle, singing, already in costume. We watched him pour a cup of coffee, his big wide butt toward us. “Evening,” he said, happily.
Turner motioned to me, waved me over.
“What,” I said.
“Come here,” Turner said, and I walked toward him. The coffee machine hissed and popped. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, a big meaty hand on my cheek: “She did it,” he said. “She’s divorcing the guy.” He was grinning like a fool, and he lifted his cup and toasted himself. “How’s that,” he said.
One of Edison’s rivals, an insane inventor named Nikola Tesla, once said that had it not been for Mary Stilwell’s constant attention, Edison would have died of neglect—that he didn’t eat, didn’t wash, couldn’t keep himself in new clothes. But every Fourth of July Edison woke his family by throwing firecrackers into a barrel on the lawn, and in rainy weather he put coins on the tops of metal poles and urged his boys to shinny up. He blew water on his children’s faces from a tiny glass swan. We imagine him insistent and artless in love, but what about the notes to himself in his notebooks? My wife Popsy-Wopsy can’t invent, he wrote. He bought her long trailing satin dresses, which she quickly outgrew as she fattened. True, he read the Police Gazette at the dinner table, and he was disappointed in his sons, who were weaklings, and he often slept in the laboratory. But after Mary died, not yet thirty, he avoided Menlo Park, and when, years later, he married again, he married only for station and elegance, his knuckles clean, his hair well tended. Who’s to say he loved badly, or ungratefully? How can we forget the first time our souls are lit with this mysterious flame?
Janine followed me home that night, her headlights caught in my rear view mirror all the way out to the coast. We parked in the driveway and went down the wooden staircase to the beach. A terrific wind was blowing, plastering my shirt to my chest, and Janine held her coat closed and shielded her eyes. We walked along the beach, on the rocks, picking our way through the driftwood, until we came to Petta’s little grotto, where we could talk without hollering. Janine sat in one of the lawn chairs and I sat in the other. The black ceiling arched over us, wet and dripping. A black pool of seawater sat in front of us, and from far away we could hear the waves banging in and out of some other hole in the rock, hollow-barrel sounds.
“This is a good place,” she said. “Come here often?”
“No,” I said. “Only once, actually.”
“Good except for this being empty,” she said, and rolled the wine bottle toward me.
We sat quietly for a while, listening to the wind. I told Janine what happened after she died: she was buried beneath a tree in Menlo Park, I said, and her picture ran front page in the papers. The laboratory shut down, and black bunting hung from the windows. “Oh, that’s sad,” she said, absently. She patted my arm as if it were the most natural thing. She watched the surf tumbling over itself up the beach. Far out we saw the orange lights of a freighter.
“I hope you understand why I didn’t want to do that,” she said, abruptly. “I know it’s stupid, but somehow that seems like it’s just asking for trouble.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said.
“It’s superstitious and juvenile.” She kicked the bottle into the water, then leaned forward and plucked it out again. “It is.”
“I guess it is,” I said. “I think it turned out fine.”
“You’re sweet to say so.” She sighed. “You know that Lunk guy did me in for a long time. We both used to drive around in that thing, you know? Just sitting there riding along in this car and it was supposed to be somebody’s lunches or something. I still feel like a shitheel for that.”
“Yes.” She stretched her legs in front of her and regarded them in the dark.
“Edison remarried,” I said. “Had some more kids. Two, I think.”
“No, no, no. He was lonely,” I said, though of course that wasn’t quite it.
The wind was cool and fishy. The waves bonked around in the back of the grotto.
“I brought that bonnet with me,” she said.
“You did not.”
“I did. That’s the surprise.” She faced me now, almost entirely invisible in the dark. “That’s it.”
“I knew you liked it, you sleazeball,” she said. “I saw you staring at me.”
“I was enthralled with your acting.”
“Ha,” she said. She turned away again. “I brought one of those dresses, too.”
“You like those, too,” she said.
“You know me too well.”
“And I brought you a little vest I found. I thought you might be interested.”
I leaned over the aluminum arm of my chair and tried to kiss her, but she leaned away. “Huh. Fat chance,” she said. She took my hand and walked us back up the beach, the sand wet and firm under our feet.
“I don’t have any spats,” I said.
“Always be prepared,” she said. She ran up the wooden stairs, taking two steps at a time, her hair wild in the wind. I walked slowly after her. “Weakling,” she said, at the top. She was gasping.
The house stood empty above us, two rooms lit up. The light spilled onto the gravel driveway.
“That’s a big place,” she said. She put her hands on her hips and stared up at it, as she might stare at an office building. Then she went to her Citröen, which sat like a bug in the driveway, and opened the trunk. She took out a blue dress with a black bow, then a pair of long, floppy lace-up boots. The boots were black, and the laces dangled over the bumper. “You like?” she asked. She stared angrily at me.
She draped the dress over her arm. “Here’s your vest,” she said. She handed me a striped, satiny vest with small black buttons.
I slipped into it and buttoned it in front. It hung on me like a shawl.
“Oh,” she said. “You look terrible.” She peered at me, then into the trunk of the car. “That’s all I have,” she said.
I shoved out my stomach. “How about this.”
Suddenly she laughed, that beautiful, clear sound. “Cut it out,” she said.
I led her to the porch and inside. The light in the front hall was bright and frank. I hung my coat on a porcelain hook.
“Just a minute,” she said. She took the clothes and disappeared into the bathroom.
In the kitchen I found a styrofoam cup, split it in half and fitted one half over each of my shoes.
They squeaked. I marched from one end of the house to the other, up and down in front of the windows.
“Spats,” I said, when she came out.
“Good.” She had her hair bundled on top of her head. She was lovely. She had somehow darkened her eyes, and her dress fit her wonderfully, tight at her waist. She spun to show me the laces in back. “Lace me up.”
“I don’t think that’s the idea.”
She shook her shoulders at me. “Do it.”
I laced her up. “This is a shoelace,” I said.
“I couldn’t find anything else. It’s two shoelaces tied together.”
I tied the strings in a bow. She drew in her stomach and turned around. Strands of her dark hair waved in the air like antennae. She smiled and tipped her head back, showing her throat. In her antique dress she was smooth and mannerly.
I took the choker from my pocket. “Put this on,” I said.
“Ah-ha. You psycho.” She snapped it into place. “Like my boots?” she asked, holding out one foot. She grasped my shoulder for balance, and I put my hand on her hand: it was cool and bony and studded with rings.
She clomped to the window. “Show me your books again,” she said
“All right.” I led her through the bright rooms to the dining room.
“Sit down,” she said. “Pretend you don’t see me. Pretend to work.”
I looked at her reflection in the windows. She stood behind me hands on her hips, the way I looked at students, I suppose, waiting for misbehavior, not really minding if it occurred.
“You can’t look at me,” she said. “Study. Pretend you’re working. It’s important.”
“All right.” I opened my books, one after the other, and she left the room. I heard her walk away, into the kitchen. I tapped a pencil. I heard her slam a door, walk further away into the living room, then the dining room, then far away, into the hallway; then I couldn’t hear her anymore.
I stayed sitting. I looked at the pictures. Here was Edison, grumpy and sleepless at his phonograph, his cuffs black and torn; here he was on the lawn, in the sun, reading a book in a chair; here he was in the machine shop, hunched and glowering at his workers; here he was climbing a ladder to retrieve a jar; here he was sitting at his desk, looking at books. His big, weathered head, sitting like a stone in its starchy collar; his wide, ungainly rear; his white hat, sitting on his desk like plate, while he shows a movie, leaning forward into the projector, his eye aligned with something out of the frame. She breathed on my neck.
“Is this what you like?” she asked.
Here she stood under a tree, holding a parasol; here, in bright sunlight, she sat in the stem of a rowboat, holding the sides firmly; here she gazed curiously into a book, holding her two sons on her lap. Here she stood and looked placidly out at me. She raised her chin.
“Do you like this?” She put her nose on my collar. “Where is your soul?” she asked. “Is it here?” She breathed into my ear. I kept my eyes down. She touched my cheek, the corner of my lips. She ran her finger over my chin. “Is it here?” A dark red curtain rising in my mind. She lifted her arms to me, an apparition. “Is it here?”
Space, July 1969
This essay is not currently available online.
When I was growing up, I lived next door to Cape Kennedy, in Cocoa, Florida, a town built for tired aerospace engineers to spend quiet nights with their families. In Cocoa, the race for the moon was everything.
The Old Bear
Nelson Candy says he saw him cross the snowmobile trail
which divides the field he recently hayed.
“A white nose like an old dog’s,” he insists.
They were hauling in strawberries, his wife and him.
“Must be an old male—a mother would be busy with cubs
this time of year.” Nelson points toward the woods
the bear took refuge in, woods I walked in
earlier in the day, woods which like a vision
never appear the same. Soft-dappled by summer light,
they are a shifting luxury and I chill at the thought
of encountering bear upon its deserted trails.
“Knocked down Johnny Sawyer’s cow fence
just last week,” Nelson adds. I describe the claw marks
gouged beneath my son’s window a year ago—
could be the same bear, or the one I spied
at Sweet Water Farm, stripping trees of winter apples.
But Nelson is onto other things—the property he caretakes
is up for sale. The price is too high, but still,
at 70, it’s tough for he and Eileen not to know
where they might be. I turn to take my leave—
there’s supper to make and my own young son
to care for. By bedtime, I’ve all but forgotten the old bear
and how he might lurch through jewelweed
to the compost pile where I tossed peaches
top-dressed with mold and pears dimpled with decay.
I kiss my son good night, then cover him
with the cowboy bedspread that covered his father as a boy.
The background mountain ranges are faint,
but the red shirt of the wrangler and the red flowers
on the cacti remain blood bright,
even in the low glow of the night-light.
The horse the cowboy rides is a gray ghost—
likewise, his kerchief and the face of the brown steer
who’s just been rustled to the ground.
Lowell’s remark about poetry—meat hooked
from the living steer—comes to mind,
but my pen feels like a blade of grass
I might lay, in inky darkness, upon the rock
that forms the cornerstone of my garden.
In bed, I read soft words calcified upon the page
while moths congregate at the window screen,
thrumming the dust from their skittish wings
as though it were a sleeping powder.
I’m soon washed over by dream and drift
through the hollows of space while my unconscious inflates
like a blow-up angel who redeems, compels
and magnifies the soul in its sumptuous waste.
I dream the elephantine beauty of private experience.
I dream, in fluent wonder, of the organs in my body,
soft as fetal heads, and of the old bear clawing me open
as though I were a trench deep with the darkest honey.
Drugged by sleep, I succumb to the bear
when he lowers his head to devour
my womb’s dark nimbus. I wake,
shuddering, as if in the throes of childbirth,
then stagger into my son’s room where the windows,
like books of moonlight, illumine the mysteries which fall,
soft as unshod breezes, upon his sleeping face.
No bear has been here, but I climb into bed anyway.
My son’s head smells malty, like dead-headed flowers,
just as it did the moment when more than he was born—
although the ancients say we have two souls,
the physical spark and the dream wanderer,
I birthed in that hospital room, a third, to forever
ghost and guide my soft, romantic child.
I now summon forth this trinity of souls
until dense with their sensuous presences—
they move like nurse maids, about the bed
and sing in fairy-like voices until my son
rolls into me, like a log on a fire, safe
beneath his dreamcatcher which promises to ensnare
in the bright abacus of its leather web
the stately and doomed spirit of the bear
as though it were the ruined side of ourselves
which, in its hunger to be whole, brutally guts
the beautiful worth inside us.
The Great Panjandrum of Confinement
This poem is not currently available online.
[This text is also available online as part of our TextBox anthology.]
MY LOVER IS experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month, and now he’s a sea turtle.
I keep him on the counter, in a baking pan filled with saltwater. “Ben,” I say to his small protruding head, “can you understand me?” and he stares with eyes like little droplets of tar and I drip tears into the pan, a sea of me.
He is shedding a million years a day. I am no scientist, but this is roughly what I figured out. I went to the old biology teacher at the community college and asked him for an approximate timeline of our evolution. He was irritated at first—he wanted money. I told him I’d be happy to pay and then he cheered up quite a bit. I can hardly read his timeline, he should’ve typed it, and it turns out to be wrong. According to him, the whole process should take about a year, but from the way things are going, I think we have less than a month left.
At first, people called on the phone and asked me where was Ben. Why wasn’t he at work? Why did he miss his lunch date with those clients? His out-of-print special-ordered book on civilization had arrived at the bookstore, would he please pick it up? I told them he was sick, a strange sickness, and to please stop calling. The odd thing was, they did. They stopped calling. After a week the phone was silent and Ben, the baboon, sat in a corner by the window, wrapped up in a drapery, chattering to himself.
Last day I saw him human, he was sad about the world.
This was not unusual. He was always sad about the world. It was a large reason why I loved him. We’d sit together and be sad and think about being sad and sometimes discuss sadness.
On his last human day, he said, “Annie, don’t you see? We’re all getting too smart. Our brains are just getting bigger and bigger, and the world dries up and dies when there’s too much thought and not enough heart.”
He looked at me pointedly, blue eyes unwavering. “Like us, Annie,” he said. “We think far too much.”
I sat down. I remembered how the first time we had sex, I left the lights on, kept my eyes wide open and concentrated really hard on letting go; then I noticed that his eyes were open too and in the middle of taking off my clothes we sat down on the floor and had an hour-long conversation about poetry. It was all very peculiar. It was all very familiar.
Another time he woke me up in the middle of the night, lifted me off the pale blue sheets, led me outside to the stars and whispered: Look, Annie, look—there is no space for anything but dreaming. I listened, sleepily, wandered back to bed and found myself wide awake, staring at the ceiling, unable to dream at all. Ben fell asleep right away, but I crept back outside. I tried to dream up to the stars, but I didn’t know how to do that. I tried to find a star no one in all of history had ever wished on before, and wondered what would happen if I did.
On his last human day, he put his head in his hands and sighed and I stood up and kissed the entire back of his neck, covered that flesh, made wishes there because I knew no woman had ever been so thorough, had ever kissed his every inch of skin. I coated him. What did I wish for? I wished for good. That’s all. Just good. My wishes became generalized long ago, in childhood; I learned quick the consequence of wishing specific.
I took him in my arms and made love to him, my sad man. See, we’re not thinking, I whispered into his ear while he kissed my neck, we’re not thinking at all and he pressed his head into my shoulder and held me tighter. Afterwards, we went outside again; there was no moon and the night was dark. He said he hated talking and just wanted to look into my eyes and tell me things that way. I let him and it made my skin lift, the things in his look. Then he told me he wanted to sleep outside for some reason, and in the morning when I woke up in bed, I looked out to the patio and there was an ape sprawled on the cement, great furry arms covering his head to block out the glare of the sun.
Even before I saw the eyes, I knew it was him. And once we were face to face, he gave me his same sad look and I hugged those enormous shoulders. I didn’t even really care, then, not at first; I didn’t panic and call 911. I sat with him outside and smoothed the fur on the back of his hand. When he reached for me, I said No, loudly, and he seemed to understand and pulled back. I have limits here.
We sat on the lawn together and ripped up the grass. I didn’t miss human Ben right away, I wanted to meet the ape too, to take care of my lover like a son, a pet; I wanted to know him every possible way but I didn’t realize he wasn’t coming back.
Now I come home from work and look for his regular-size shape walking and worrying and realize, over and over, that he’s gone. I pace the halls. I chew whole packs of gum in mere minutes. I review my memories and make sure they’re still intact because if he’s not here, then it is my job to remember. I think of the way he wrapped his arms around my back and held me so tight it made me nervous and the way his breath felt in my ear: right.
When I go to the kitchen, I peer in the pan and see he’s some kind of salamander now. He’s small.
“Ben,” I whisper, “do you remember me? Do you remember?”
His eyes roll up in his head and I dribble honey into the water. He used to love honey. He licks at it and then swims to the other end of the pan.
This is the limit of my limits: here it is. You don’t ever know for sure where it is and then you bump against it and bam, you’re there. Because I cannot bear to look down into the water and not be able to find him at all, to search the tiny waves with a microscope lens and to locate my lover, the one-celled wonder, bloated and blind, brainless, benign, heading clear and small, like an eye-floater into nothingness.
I put him in the passenger seat of the car, and drive him to the beach. Walking down the sand, I nod at people on towels, laying their bodies out to the sun and wishing. At the water’s edge, I stoop down and place the whole pan on the tip of a baby wave. It floats well, a cooking boat, for someone to find washed up on shore and to make cookies in, a lucky catch for a poor soul with all the ingredients but no container.
Ben the salamander swims out. I wave to the water with both arms, big enough for him to see if he looks back.
I turn around and walk back to the car.
Sometimes I think he’ll wash up on shore. A naked man with a startled look who has been to history and back. I keep my eyes on the newspaper. I make sure my phone number is listed. I walk around the block at night in case he doesn’t quite remember which house it is. I feed the birds outside and sometimes before I put my one self to bed, I place my hands around my skull to see if it’s growing, and wonder what, of any use, would fill it if it did.
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It was her skin that she loved the most. It was clear, even-toned, dewy! She would stroke it, knead it, pull a pinch away from her face and let it snap back; With Oil of Olay, I get the fine, light protection that’s never greasy, she’d whisper, then press up to the mirror with an open mouth, licking the cool glass in circles with her tongue.
That Lamoka Lake Feeling
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My mother carried huge pocketbooks with everything in the world in them but money. When she got a new pocketbook it was a bright new day, cleared up for ship sightings. The old pocketbooks she’d leave stuffed to the hilt just as they were, and they’d wind up somewhere on the floor of the hall closet with the other vinyl and plastic residue of our skinflinted lives.