News came—Bruce had died. It was not shocking news. He had battled Big Death in his bones for the last three years, come out victorious in that fragile way a war survivor emerges with radiant clarity and eyes that glow. No fooling around anymore, not that he was a fool around type. He was a shaggy-headed Bostonian with a big Irish laugh and jazz love and basketball handler’s hands and an ivy league memory. Stories of scholarship rides and semi-pro days. But he knew and we all knew he’d entered the land of borrowed time. But happy. Outwardly. Hit by occasional, weird side-effects and glancing blows: thyroid went out, he lost much weight, a snap of the femur. He rolled around in a wheelchair for a while. But happy at least to be in the world. His favorite riddle: “What do you get when you throw a piano down a mineshaft?” He was even still ambitious to go up the administrative stream. A good soul, if anyone can judge.
A heart attack. That was it. Magnificent. Just allow that for a moment. If you think about it—the prospects? We never spoke of the possibilities, but I imagine and imagine I’m pretty close that he’d had a few dread dark nights looking down the barrel of his own imagination at tubes and hospital bed and withering limbs and fading air and languishing nightmare—but instead, heart attack. I thought he’d hit the lottery. I envied him. What a death!
Still, there were those of us who were stunned to get the news. Death, even most inevitable, still comes as a surprise to some people.
Testimonials at the funeral captured bits and pieces of the man. But how dead the room was even full of people. The green carpet of the foyer as some kind of cold pastoral. The perfect blond wood of the chairs. The purple upholstery of the benches—a space so generically non-denominational, hinting in its tilted way towards church synagogue and maybe mosque—floor to ceiling windows along one wall and a Zen garden on the other side with koi pond and stone pedestals and paperbark maples dripping with rain. Up front the casket with body, and I caught the glimpse of his profile there.
Here are my colleagues, Bruce’s friends and family. I took a spot in the back near esoteric Steve with his phlegmatic heavy brow and eyes of authorial intent. I placed my hands on my knees. The speaking began.
Those labels hit the air, coming like cartoon anime arrows through a buzzing fly-cloud of miasmatic black stuff. Somewhere, it slipped into a talk-show routine, microphone going around to sincere leaden student remembrances saying how much they learned from him, tears whipped away with the edge of a finger. Family members, gratitude, moments caught in flight. I was pretty sure I’d never draw a crowd this big.
I was slipping into a different space—rain drops out the window were bouncing on the pond—one two three—boom!—diminishing with each landing and leaving their reverberations on the surface—wonder. How had I missed that before?
…I remember working at the radio station with him and he was always smiling and I thought he was interested but he never asked me out until I took another job…
Then I was looking down at my feet as more memory unspooled itself. What is an eggshell doing here on the ground near my toe? Who put that there? How does it arrive?
…Jokes, more jokes, he could list them off alphabetically, and operas and TV shows…
The eggshell—I picked it up. It was just big enough to fit on the tip of my finger like a little helmet. And look, you, see how its smooth white surface is really quite rough, how going deeper reveals it’s really a lace of spongy ropes like a ball of rubber bands—rich and strange.
…and my favorite…Beethoven’s last movement…
And the minister said in his sanguine voice: a man known for his humor, his generosity, his dedication to teaching…
All true. You can say just about anything about a person and it’s true. At some point—some point—everyone shows humor, generosity—and their opposites. But to be known for one particular aspect? How much did you have to have to be known for it? Where is my heart in all of this? In us. Of us. Maybe I’m only talking about myself—there is no progression without contraries.
I see it as that light in the basement of my grandmother’s house. She’s been gone a long time. She straddled three centuries. Family from the old country. They had tickets on a great liner that went down, but they missed it. Missed it! Those tickets hung around in hope chests for years like entry to a theater of ghosts. The next ship carried them and they plucked the survivors out of the constellation of bloated white bodies floating in the void. And it hung around her—that sense, that feeling that disaster averted had disaster to pay. And after that everyone around her died: both parents when she was young—mother by a miss-filled prescription, father nobly in a streetcar accident stepping back to allow two ladies to board before him, though he was known as a con man, brilliant but devious and always on the run from the police…stepmother who hanged herself in madness, goiter bulging from her neck…first husband drowned…she wondered if there was some kind of curse. Who wouldn’t be superstitious about that? You could see it in her eyes for years and years she made herself iron hard working nights as a nurse to take care of her two children—add into that my drunken Irish grandfather she married thinking the children needed a father, who was a dashing man at the time with well-healed family—he owned a warehouse at the city market that carried produce and was making money hand over fist as they said then—then she had my mother—and he slipped or revealed his weakness for drink and came home nights falling blind drunk in the yard broke-broken after a few years—so my sister was her favorite was herself carbon copy sent down the line of life, you see how it works?—she had shot her choleric energetic epigram deep into my sister’s code and I could see it unfolding year after year as she violently staco-stabbed at perfection on her violin playing and triumphed in school mathematics and athletics—that iron will directly transferred through some hidden intent—my uncle and his first son my cousin were two fragments of her beloved first husband—and I—I was a fragment of the lout the ne’er-do-well drunk fool evil loser and her glare let me know it at every thanksgiving dinner as I watched The Wizard of Oz looking back and forth between the wicked witch of the west and her and knowing my grandmother was far more scary—then—the—you see because she outlived herself she outlived those patterns—lived long enough to lose its visceral meaning and become like the cards she played solitaire with so worn you couldn’t see the numbers those years we played double solitaire and on the few occasions I won she’d say no one likes a cheater—then—the—she looked blinking and smiling into the dusty rays of afternoon light while she swept her sidewalk those memories still there but hollowed out like shadows so far away her heart was pure if you can believe it and her spirit was clean and fresh inside the husk of the old body and occasionally some mad person from the neighborhood—we never discovered who—descended on her in her near deaf blindness and slapped her hard and set her ear bleeding and screamed at her—die you old crone die!
…a man known for his intelligence and wit…
I see that light in her basement and I avoid the basement and that energy balled up like rotgut anger and fear and poisonous ether stuff it’s like even going near it sets my nervous system in grind and yet and yet I know I have to do it and so I go right into it right into the heart of it yes I do yes and ah really truly ah it just flat-out evaporates like a melancholy exhale and is gone and I am standing there in nothing now because what it was is just an echo and a ball of psychic laundry left behind gone now and good and she was gone before that anyway so maybe it was just my own.
Anything you say about a person is true. Just as anything we don’t say about a person is true. Who said I contain multitudes? Who said I am legion? Who said therefore I contradict myself?
And now the service was over. So much easier to be among you all in a ritual, a ceremony, however broken sterile packaged, rather than mill about trying to think of something to say.
And I hugged my friend Phebe. Gave that sad smile to Roger. Stood among the colleageus.
We getting together at Lilla’s?
Who’s going to head up to Marianne’s next week to help with the yard?
Yeah, meet at Lilla’s.
I know…I know…it’s going to be rough for a while…
I don’t know, we’ll have to talk about that later…
Who needs a ride?
Roger with his porkpie hat, bird-furtive Cindy, rock of all ages Jed, Midwest solid and practical Sheri. Why was Karen glaring at me? Why does that look say she wishes I were dead?
I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get out of these dead rooms. That casket over there with Bruce’s gray face—God, the weight of that space, that black hole gravity—he’s gone and in his leaving is a vortex like a sinking ship taking those free-floating bodies down with it—goodbye sad prince.
I made it to my vehicle and immediately took several blasts to get my balance. The gray world of the gray day. Light rain gray on my windshield. People filing out and driving away. Cherry blossoms plucked from the trees and wet-pressed like little flat faces on the glass. And as I leaned back, I could see the innumerable great black carbon bowling balls of infinite space all lined up in the sky above and hanging in the elastic steel threads of the vast spider web—raindrops bouncing and diminishing, bouncing and diminishing—sound waves moving on.
Part Two: Lila’s Bar and Grille
Lila’s is a great place for enlightenment, because if you can’t escape the dream, go deeper into it.
Harold and Edgar are going head to head on the issue of time.
Edgar: Einstein said you can only go back, never forward.
Harold: The other way around.
Edgar: I’m pretty certain about that.
Harold: Even so, if you can break the time barrier at all, why would there be any limitations?
Edgar: Mathematics, man. It’s gotta work out in the math, or it won’t hold.
Harold: Math is just a symbol set, too.
Edgar: Combined with the scientific method, though, it’s pretty sound.
Harold: The finger pointing at the moon…
Nothing as it seems…the taxidermied fox, the Jesus with eyes that follow you. Even those shuffleboard players are phantom shadows—out back a secret courtyard in the rain where the dead congress like golfers in the lounge after the eighteenth hole to boast about handicaps and lie about the score. Hey, Bruce—I knew you; I didn’t know you. Did you have a good world when you died? Enough to base a movie on?
Marcia—hey, Marcia, I said. She gave me that big body embrace. What a warm soul. I think that, at least. What do I know? She’s the head of the philosophy department. She knows. She knows how to deconstruct those assumptions!
Good to see you, she said, and sad, though…sad.
I was having a hard time locating my emotion on this. So I said, I know. Ironic, isn’t it?
I hardly see you anymore, she said.
Well, you escaped to the Fine Arts building. Who do you see?
And you teach mostly afternoons, right?
I didn’t mean to interrogate her. It sounded like an interrogation as I replayed it in my head. How often was I playing a role no one recognized? I thought it was all pretty obvious kabuki. Or No.
Old people. We sound like old people, now. Ah, Marcia…you’re looking older, grayer, heavier with time and gravity. I have no idea what to make of it. Where is the moon?
You know, I said, I often think of that weekend we stayed with you out at Ragsdale’s place…
He loved you guys.
He was amazing. What a life. And what a place!
That was in another country, and besides…another life! Another marriage. My young son. What a crazy, ramshackle place old Rags had made—out of driftwood, scrap wood, found pieces, woodstove, collectables he’d accumulated, not one straight line, not one square angle, ramps up to loft rooms, ratty wood-bare out-cabins on sticks over the water—his stories of the news days, covering political upheavals, changing of the guard, regimes shuffling, waves of change, celebrities, world beat, madness, truth beauty—old school newsman (look up the old footage and you’ll see him there in the background, taking it all down) then in his Xanadu compound of piece by piece castle domain on the island shore—Marcia’s old friend, she brought us into the fold, my ex, my son and me—a lifetime ago, another name, another reality—Marcia, my old friend, here and now, fading as we go, Ragsdale out on the secret patio with the lords, the ghost crew—
Another whiskey, please…
God, the server’s arm is smooth and those tattoos—a line for every lover, a star for every year in recovery. Did I linger too long in my admiration? Did I fall in love and lose my way?
Nash, there, moving in slow motion. He’s got a time-frame of his own. We’re surrounded by things we can’t see, he sees. He sees grass lifting leaves. He sees ivy slithering up a tree. He sees the fried rose and the slime molds on the move—decades of dates logged in for your perusal.
Why is Karen glaring at me and looking down at her machine?
Whatcha doin? I said across the universe.
I didn’t know ignoring could be so violent.
Jeb appears—hey, he said, how are you doing? I don’t know why he looked so worried.
I live in the slime and the muck of the dark age, I said. He laughed. Jeb always laughs. My good friend, my colleague, maybe the only one who still gets the sacred geometry:
You okay, he said. You look a little…
Ah, I said, to all my friends… And I lifted a glass to no one in particular, then leaned into him and said, by cock’s crow thrice will you deny me…
He laughed. He always laughs.
I’m just trying on reality, I said.
You might want to be careful…
What? Now? Now? I’m burning off the deception!
You’re not planning on driving, are you?
And I thought, oh…it’s come to this? So, I thought, then said, Only bison over the cliff.
And ignorance, materialism, hypocrisy, the black fog—vas is los? Look you— And I pointed to old Phil who most mornings could be found at the Bauhaus composing notes in his leather ledger of cosmic music for his self-made instrument that resembled a parchment. There he was now walking—I saw him once at the Good Shepard Center performing his compositions so complex and cascading they seemed simple and I’m not sure I could really hear them as much as—out there now in the rain, lotus flowers springing up from every step.
Seriously, are you okay?
Wine is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.
My colleagues there, the remaining few, spread out at the table like the disciples at the last supper, and me—I’m no Jesus, nor was meant to be—But I’m entering the resurrection just the same, here at Lila’s, where the old men sitting in the periphery look out through their eyes and the spiders spin their webs from elbow to hand and back again, those sinister little gods!