Believe this. In the bed is a man. Frail, white, diaphanous skin shows through the purple of blood vessels that map his arm lying bare on the sheet. Jaws work soundlessly. He is thinking. The past slowly draws forward from far away and the present fades, becomes wispy and fades away, and this means he is dying. He can feel this, something solid and definite down by his feet maybe — he slides them back and forth to feel the cool — or at the base of his spine, red and hurting. The past encroaches. Once, in a petulant fit, a childhood pique, the bathroom door thrown closed, he grabbed the first thing, a toothpaste tube, and squeezed. The soft metal buckled and creased, this was good, the paste glopped onto his hands and a string launched and fell to the brown tiles. Blind rage with little-boy fists bending and twisting in the middle, gripping and twisting, here was power to move, here was power to shape the future, like the snapping of a pencil or breaking of a stick fat as your wrist or the slamming of something down. Looking up into the big mirror, always surprised at the face, his own face, as if he were a stranger, always this was so. He does not know which child would enter the room should he cry out, he does not know the day, but these other things, these other things have weight, a stately progression, small not grand they come, so he retreats, sliding into vivid pieces of this until he is consumed, until all that remains are the branching veins in his arm and the coolness of the sheets and the air billowing the curtains, and this is a matter of time, it is sure.
Sculling on a lake in New Hampshire, rhythm, pulling chest to knees, arms extending, fists clenched around the shafts of the oars and then lifting up, catching the water clean on each side and pulling, pulling with thighs and stomach and arms and shoulders — an effort that left room for nothing else, a cleansing wash of strain — and feeling the thin shell accelerate underneath him like paper. Like a leaf. He remembers this sensation, the powerful notion that he himself, his own muscle and bone, was causing this to happen, slicing through the flat of the lake. But what he remembers most clearly is not the pleasure of transferring the small motions of his body into the long, straight traverse of the lake, nor the satisfying sight of his thin, trailing wake and the slight, precise disturbances on each side where blades enter and exit, nor the burning in his muscles, past the point where it hurt, through the time when it felt rhythmic and timeless and good, to the point where his muscles would burn and falter — these things he remembers, but in the bed, eyes open staring up, what he sees are the simple leather foot straps. This is queer, he knows this is queer, but this is what he can see. They are an inch and a half wide and almost a quarter-inch thick, and each pivoting foot stop has two straps spaced mid-foot and toe and a cupped backstop for the heel. The straps are yellowed and cracked from water and sun, and their edges, soft and unfinished, are frayed, a hairy fringe of red-gray fibers. Large brass buckles are fastened to them, and their well-made simplicity speaks of a different ethic.
He thinks that this was during a summer he spent on the lake with his second wife. He tries to remember — it seems important but it is not — if this was before or after his son was killed and decides that it must have been after, two or three years after. He bought the shell and every day, usually at dawn, he would take it out, disappearing into the mist, pulling through it, his space defined by the length of the shell and the small circle of visibility. He would row across and then he would turn about and row back. He would go out blind and return blind, but after, gliding back into the dock with a final pull, spent, he would ship oars, slide forward a final time, unbuckle the leather straps, and climb to the solidity of the dock. For this moment he would be clean and solid like morning.
But then this is gone, ushered off by a stab of pain or the entrance of someone into the room, his bedroom, the great bed oversized and central, something more and less no matter how they try to disguise it, no matter how they revive and revise it — opening white muslin curtains to quicken the air, playing high, light sonatas, or, the most misplaced of efforts, decorating the dresser and bureau and table with offerings, flowers and cards (what shit, he spits out, shit shit shit, but this is lost), items palely evoking uselessness and futility. Crowded in, pushed forward by things of no worth. The room hangs heavy, still, maudlin, and full with the too-large bed not full with him, breathing methodically and studied, looking up, blinking.
Handball. He remembers this. His mother had left, and he and his father lived alone in the house. This house, which had been built piecemeal by the father over the course of three decades, fell into greater and greater disrepair, its descent toward dilapidation accelerating without the cohesive presence of the mother. This exacerbated by the fact that when she left she took the furniture, leaving the rooms bluntly open, stark, empty spaces that made no pretext of disguising the voids where the sofa or the hutch or the dining room table had been, openly decrying failure.
In the central room of the house, the one from which the additions had sprouted and that had been the dining room, he and his father closed all the doors and, against the wall where once had stood the china cabinet with the prized collection of Wedgwood and Waterford crystal, they played handball. It was not much of a handball court. Doorjambs and doorknobs deflected the ball at unpredictable angles, in which case they would either play the point through or not. If it was night they would snake a table lamp into the room, offering light and a shadow of protection for the father’s bottle of beer. This was the south and summer, and a great swarm of moths and gnats would soon be whorling about the lamp, which would occasionally suffer a direct hit and tip over.
He remembers the terrazzo floor and the position of the outlets on the walls. For the first time, there in the bed six decades later, he sees that the playing of handball in the vacated house had been fun: jockeying for position, queer shadows cast by the lamp on the floor, and the thwacking of the tennis ball with their open hands, trying to send it cunningly into corners or up toward the sloping ceiling, where paths were hard to judge. He doesn’t remember how long this went on, but he thinks he must have been thirteen or fourteen, and he remembers the bugs and the lamp and the noise of the old refrigerator and the unfashionable, dirty, knee-length shorts his father was wont to wear. And he remembers that they were both glad in a small way, in spite of the void, for the respite from his father’s scattering of the crockery in drunken rages and his mother’s seemingly unending ability to absorb and continue, overlooking any injustice and calamity. Only rarely did she fight back, letting some small, sarcastic, and caustic remark slip. The both of them, mother and father, had run up against their own borders years earlier, and until she left they had coasted on dead and shamed inertia. And in handball father and son acknowledged loss, sharing and communicating in a way they were never to duplicate.
Oh, this is fine. There is meaning here, he knows this. There is import. It is certainly germane. It is not for nothing, not for the torment of a skinny, old man. He skips off to fathom it, to delve into it, scraping about for signs and clues. Then he ignores it, wonders at the air pressing down upon him (had this caused his lungs to shrivel, his eyeballs to sink?) and so approaches obliquely, as one remembers a tune only when the effort to recall it has been abandoned. There is something to garner from this. Something to taste. To smell, a whiff, a slight whiff like, he thinks to himself and then says out loud to the room, the perfume of the year’s first peach. Like that. Mirrors face each other, bowing at their middles with a regal air, the glass magically bending. The ends of straight lines meet and through the glass birth and death are separated by only an instant, but just before he sees this the pain comes out of nowhere and settles like a pressing, weighty blanket, like the lead-laced blankets they use to protect him. It has no definite location (this is maybe not so bad, he thinks) but it hurts. Bone deep and everywhere it hurts and he moans and a tear slides down his face (and this is maybe not so bad, he thinks, enjoying the attention it requires, the obliteration of choice and freedom). There is nothing to do but endure this until he, the shriveled, old man in bed, implodes, falling in on himself until he is only a single point, a tiny point of red. He calls out and there is an injection he does not feel and it fades. It comes all at once but leaves only in pieces, and he falls asleep thinking that this is hardly fair at all.
He wakes fuzzily, staring again at the ceiling, blinks, uncomprehending. The air quivers, lines waver. The very stuff of space trembles. He works at knitting together the comings-apart as fast as they appear, works to regain himself, to see what it is that he has been reduced to. It is a pointless reduction. It is not retribution. It is not payment due. It is not fair at all, he thinks again, and again falls asleep.
He fell in love. (Here was a possibility warranting exploration.) It was the way she flipped back her hair, it was her dark and foreign eyes. It was how, when she would casually toss her coat onto the chair, it would always land in such a way as to embody a kind of grace, a perfect expression of angle and form. He would find himself wanting to take a photograph of this coat or, better, wishing he could paint it. He was young then, and things such as this held power. Here was the art of living. And what’s more, she liked him, a trait he found very attractive then, along with her short, deliberate steps when she had too much sake, her laugh, her faults, her small hands.
They would ride about the city on his motorcycle, she clutching him fiercely from behind. He never knew whether it was fear or affection, but she held him with an inordinate tightness, her head turned to the side, laid against the back of his neck, her arms encircling him. He was acutely aware of the pressure of her against his back, of her weight and warmth. The more quickly he would accelerate, the tighter she would hold him, from fear, he wondered, although sometimes she would slip her hands inside his shirt and caress his chest, so he didn’t know. This mingling of affection, trust, and exhilaration, this giving up of herself, was all the more potent for him because of her fierce independence. She had left her father’s home at sixteen, and this had inculcated in her a dogged determination and an intolerance for the whimsy and farce of her peers. She was beautiful and she had style.
A fine thing about her city was that it had expanded only to the edge of the ring of mountains that surrounded it, and so twenty-five minutes in any direction put them away from the downtown and onto mountainsides or the sparsely populated coastline.
Not long after they first met they packed a basket, strapped it onto the back of the bike, and rode south without destination or plan. They parked the bike by the side of a two-lane arterial road at a place where the mountains met the sea. They followed a promising path through the bushes and scrub, not knowing what lay ahead, until the path narrowed and turned and abruptly opened onto a wide, grassy knoll. It was covered with fine, tight grass, as if tended — although it seemed untraveled and unknown — and it sloped mildly and then stopped all at once at an unfenced lip that dropped precipitously a hundred meters to the sea. They delicately peered over the edge, she more daringly than he, to the waves, which broke and turned into a confusion of foam on the boulders and slag that littered the water below. They felt this place was theirs alone. It was dangerous and beautiful and it offered a sense of possibility that a tamed place would not have. They retreated up the slope and made their picnic.
She had astounding eyelashes. They leapt out from her eyelids, and these too he was in love with. He tried to tell her this in her own language, but he bungled it. Having mispronounced what he thought was beautiful, he told her that her eyelashes were toilet bowls. She laughed, and the more he demanded to know why, the harder she laughed — at his mistake, but also at the quaintness of it, at the sincerity with which he tried to deliver his compliment. It was a bad line inadvertently made good. Still she refused to explain, and so he dripped a little of his wine onto her bare foot, and then they tussled on the grassy hillock, she chattering in her language faster than he could ever hope to understand. He tried to hold her wrist and she tried to poke him in the sides, but it turned into a kiss. She kissed him and he kissed back, the taste sweet from wine, and for the first and only time, pleasantly drunk, under a great, open, blue sky on the grass, not far from a yawning drop to the sea, they gave no thought to their actions and no heed to their reservations. Only afterward did either of them think about what such a thing might mean, or where it might lead, or what burdens they would now find between them.
He was a young man then, still a boy really, and this glimpse frightened him. She too approached and retreated, and they both grudgingly admitted how mighty what lay before them appeared to be. It seemed as if they had tacitly agreed to guard some secret from all others, something profound that only they knew. This binding complicity made for an ease, so that when standing on a crowded subway together, rocking and swaying with its passage, they would catch each other’s glance and for a moment revel in the certainty that each knew the other’s thoughts.
Then he went back to his country, to see again the culture and the society he had left behind, to get his bearings and to ground himself more fully. Then he could return without reservations. But this he never did, and sometimes, triggered by something on the street or in the air, he would wonder of her, feel again the pang of loss and resignation, and confront again the uncertainty, never to know if the futures he had traded in would have amounted to more than the one that became his past.
He supposes this is youth, when the future is all the more a matter of caprice, and the vagaries of a given day carry hidden and profound import. Here any action or decision gave substance to a possibility, to the exclusion of an infinite number of alternatives, and for what was, there was much more of what might have been. And yet the gravity of this was lost on him, and only later, when it did not matter so much, did he learn to take care.
This discrete parade begs assessment. (Did he excel?) Weightless moments, leather straps. (Did he brush with excellence?) Table lamps glaring on the floor in the corner of an empty house. (Was he kind when it was not easy to be so?) All this must be ascribed merit. His grip falters, lines waver (or is it just water in his eyes?), he is no longer sure who is who, if the man pulling across the lake is the boy slapping at tennis balls. But in his uncertainty lies sweeping movement, or some small theme, or even a measure of certainty or solemnity or just comfort to come away with, just ease.
There was a second day with a bright, high sky and wispy clouds. But this was years later and on the other side of the world. A July Sunday, and he and Julie had taken the girls to the springs. Emerald green, they bubbled forth from their source in the middle of the forest and spilled over into a wide basin, clear and chill. An area had been roped off with netting and buoys and declared safe for swimming. Along the shore the grounds were kept, and the area was spotted with pavilions and picnic tables and litter bins. As they carried their provisions, he with a plastic cooler full of food and drink and Julie with a basket of linens and utensils and a bottle of red wine, the girls scampered ahead. They saw a woman walking about the tables and shrubbery, on the edge of alarm, calling out a name pleadingly. Soon she was yelling in earnest, and everyone gathered and helped her look, and after some minutes a man asked reluctantly if anyone had searched the water. Everyone formed a line, spacing themselves the distance of their outstretched arms. Julie too, after extolling the girls not to move an inch from the picnic table where they had deposited their things, joined the grim line. The swimming area was clear and empty but to either side, along the shore past the line of buoys, were patches of rushes and grasses. He was at the far end of the line, where his height would serve him in the deeper water, but they found the boy near the shore, three or four people down from where Julie had been slogging through the grasses in water to her knees. The boy was purple and limp and he was dead, he would not be saved. The mother, who had refused to entertain the possibility that the water was a valid place to search, had continued to look around the picnic area, renewed terror in her calls as she noticed the line of people walking methodically through the grasses. When she saw the boy being carried back, she howled, a piercing, primal howl that cut through all things. No matter the time passed, or the memories that faded or were displaced, or the distance traveled, the sound of that woman was locked in place. Afterward he could think of it only as immensely honest, and wonder at the oddity of this impression. For that moment all was immobilized, and then the woman dropped to her knees, and what he saw was that she had become her scream, cause and effect inverted, and the horrible sound gave form to this woman, gave her shape and substance. Confronted with this terror he knew it to be something of note, although the meaning of the observation was lost on him for years.
They did not speak of this on the way home, nor for the rest of the day, which they spent puttering about the house, even the girls quietly occupied. But the morning left a pall hanging in the air that affected even April, though she was too young truly to comprehend what had happened. At dusk they all climbed into the big bed, huddling under the sheets as if against cold, though it was July. He thought at the time that he should do or say something to offer comfort, but then saw that he gave comfort as he received it, and safety and love too he gave and received in equal measure. They stayed in this communion through the evening and through the night, covered by white cotton sheets and bound by an unspoken understanding that for that moment, and no more, they were as safe as they could be.
Waking up he asks the nurse if she will die with him. Love and death: how, he thinks, can he stray? She is thrown for a moment but just that. She leans forward and scrubs his back with the warm, wet towel and explains that no, she cannot die with him because she is young and has many things she wants to do yet. She is humoring him, placating him, and this is more than he can bear. But this was earlier, in the hospital. Now he is cared for by his daughters, who take turns. Yet he had asked the nurse in the hospital if she would die with him, some twenty-two-year-old nurse come to clean him. How could he have done this, so thoroughly lost sight of himself? He shivers with embarrassment, he does not accept, not at all, that he is an old fool, but there it is, falling away again, there it is.
Had he managed to lift himself beyond particulars? Had he merely compiled a catalog of honest moments? But this is celebratory. The deeper and more profound the empty loss, the ineffable sadness, the more perfectly right, insufferably right, to revel in it.
He cries out — sings out — a line from a song his father taught him. It is uproariously funny, and he laughs and sings it out again. He has the giggles and this absorbs him, his laughter is convulsive, coming from nowhere, he is having a very good time and he observes this and reflects upon it. (Dad?) He is giggling and chortling. It is Heather, inquisitive (the love for a child is all-consuming, all-demanding, but it is also the cleanest, the purest), patiently smiling. It is Heather, his daughter, a perfect baby, smiling and inquisitive, now grounded and solid, with her own children. “Dad,” she says, laughing a little along with him though she does not get it. She is five years old. She is four years old. In the grocery store, where they’ve stopped on the way home to pick up some vegetables and rice and fruit for dessert, and she is holding his hand. Holding his hand she won’t let go. In the back of the store, remodeling or fixing a broken water pipe, they are tearing up the floor. There is a jackhammer and it is loud, and he wonders why they don’t do that after hours. Heather endures it as long as she is able, holding his hand securely and resolutely she finally says, almost in tears, Daddy, I don’t love that noise — and here he stops laughing, he sobers quickly — Daddy, I don’t love that sound. Good god, he thinks, she does not understand hate, it’s not part of her vocabulary, not of the world, she can only not-love. The little girl sitting by his bed stroking his bent and spotted hand and smiling gently.
Years transpose this way. Villages become cities before their time, old men and young men trade skins, immensely unimportant things — the failure of a cotter pin, the careless repacking of a bearing — cause boys to die. Impossible things become common.
He remembers his first peppermint in autumn that tasted like Christmas, the photos of relatives, unknown or forgotten, looking forward through time, the ticking of an engine cooling in the sudden dark, the raw, damp, honest smell of earth in a summer greenhouse, the network of cracks in dried roadside clay, the quick, isolated twitch of a horse’s tail, the feel of sea salt on skin, the tantric chant of Tibetan monks, the plainsong of choirboys, the empty and suspended release that punctuates life.
But then words fall away, go wrong. Words take on funny shapes (is this why his lips tremble so?), and it is clear, if nothing else, that they are void of meaning, that what meaning they are ascribed is a matter of conviction, of conspiracy, perpetrated on the old by the young, who offer them direction and comfort, turning away when they stumble, feigning deafness when they are called home.
At the edge of his vision he sees the cracks again. They are indistinct, meandering, and fuzzy like the fracture lines in an ice cube. He snaps his head around, an effort, and they disappear. But he is lucid, and he knows there was a crack or a line or something. He turns his head the other way, thinking that it is a game and that it will flit from side to side just ahead of him, but there is nothing and there is nothing until the moment he abandons his attempts to see it, and then it lands above him plain. Unfoldings like the undulating lips of an orchid, like a birthing, an offering, and he wonders if he will rise into it (if he will ascend) or if it will lower to engulf, if it is a smile or a frown, if his fingers have become ten angels who will answer questions put to them (and if so will they be truthful?). But it only widens such that he can see, can receive, a glimpse of all things.
Children holding hands and singing skip around a multicolored mandala; rustling lace casts interplaying shadows of dark and light; stones are polished smooth by the sea and only then deposited amid the wrack for a young girl to find; a man walks through a young stand of bare winter beeches, smoking a cigarette and looking about; records and books accumulate in odd angles and piles on rickety shelves; hounds nuzzle you under the chin, fishing for love and attention; an old stone threshold opens out onto a descending field; a farm machine hums softly in the distance; the sun sets forever, hard, all around the world; a young boy flips his collar up against the cold and trudges through the wet streets; a winter storm knocks a dead branch from a tree, and somewhere else a drop of water echoes and resounds in a grotto; a woman practices her flute cross-legged on her bed; a receptionist waits for five o’clock; the moon wanes, traditions are upheld, memories fade, bonds are formed slowly and broken quickly, and people fall over and die and this too is proper.
All these things he knows. All these things are knowable.
He hears horses. They are galloping. There is no question, he should alert Heather. There should not be horses in the house.
And then he sees that the thing is this: he cannot suffer the weight, the weight of the blankets, of the air, of the vacuum beyond the air, of the pure distance and dimension, of all the actions and successes and failures, he cannot suffer the weight of what has already been done and what has already been said.