Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream. —Euripides
One of the best Christmas dinners I ever had was sharing a turkey sandwich at the hospital bedside of my wife in the intensive care unit. She was alive!
We raised our glasses of cranberry juice in a toast to a new year of hope and healing.
The following Christmas, she had been reduced to ashes, currently contained in a heavy metal urn in the living room (irony intended), and I was alone.
At that moment you give up on life and think about the best way to end your own. If not to be with her again in some unknown dimension, cosmic phenomenon, an as-yet undiscovered wave-length, whatever — as one impossibly hopes — then to end your own unbearable pain without the love of your life.
As far as I know, it all comes down to whether she is in that unknown dimension — and being a woman of faith, she believed she would be, or in such a place whereof we know — or if she is in a black void of oblivion and we will never be united again.
The young poet changed his name to Stephen Sutcliffe. He took the Stephen from James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Sutcliffe from Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatles’ original bassist who died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962 at the age of twenty-one.
“It seems weird calling you Stephen,” his father said as they drove down Highway 101 through Big Sur in a black-over-yellow Cadillac. When his son didn’t say anything his father said, “When you were born I wanted to call you Ringo, but your mother wouldn’t have it.”
“You should have anyway,” his son said. He stared out the passenger window as the California coast rushed by. And then he said, “The Beatles were great, by the way.”
“So I heard.”
“John Lennon,” the young man said.
“Yeah,” his father said.
“That fucking madman.”
The son turned toward his father. “Don’t even say the name. The name we must never mention, as Paul McCartney said.”
His son turned back to the road that lay ahead. After a while he said, “He should have killed himself instead.”
The young man now known as Stephen Sutcliffe who was heading down the California coast in an old Caddy with his father would have other names, like the Mad Prophet of Ward 3C and Horatio Windsock.
As the latter he planned to start his own nation with the wild horses on Sable Island, an uninhabited slip of sand dunes off the coast of Nova Scotia. He would be the poet laureate and appoint his father Minister of External Affairs, just in case they had to conduct negotiations with the Canary Islands.
He wrote to his father about his plans. His father was in L.A. researching a story for California Magazine and his son was in Toronto planning to hitch a ride on a Nova Scotia government boat that made the fourteen-hour trip to Sable Island four times a year to service the two lighthouses on the island, the West Light Main Station and the East Light.
“Where will you live?” his father wrote back. His son didn’t have a telephone. His son said in his next letter that he would doss on one of the bunks in the main lighthouse until he built his own shack out of driftwood. The island was known for its shipwrecks. And then he added: “I’m taking the next boat. I know you’re busy out there right now so I thought you could come on the boat after that. I’ll be settled in by then. I’ll send you a timetable.”
His father was writing a letter in reply when his ex-wife phoned from Toronto and said, “Brace yourself for a shock.”
Their son had taken enough barbiturates to kill himself three times over. He wanted to make sure this time. His previous attempt had failed and he had woken up in Intensive Care. From IC he went to Ward 3C and from the psycho ward to a halfway house, halfway between madness and death.
The doctors had their own name for his condition but the young man called it a babbling hell of confusing signals from space. They put him on chlorpromazine and a few other mind buckers but he was determined to have the final say.
At one o’clock in the afternoon, in his room on the second floor of the halfway house, he lay down on the bed and let the barbiturates do their stuff. He was twenty-three years old.
Spinning toward oblivion he thought about the wild horses on Sable Island, ponies really, running free on what is little more than a windswept sandbank, twenty-three miles long and barely a mile wide, with a powerful surf, seals and seabirds, no trees but lush grass and wildflowers in the gullies and wild strawberries…
The poet Guglielmo Michelini became old, it seems overnight. He remembers being in his forties for a long time and in his fifties for a fairly long time and in his sixties for a much shorter time. The next thing he knows he’s seventy. And his wife is seventy-four. They have been married for fifty years.
When he was a young man the idea of marrying an older woman was wonderfully seductive. He loved women. The architecture of their bodies, the audacity of their breasts, the arc of the waist, the anticipation of the vulva, the slender ankles, the arch of the foot.
He loved this older woman, Suzanne Marrôn. They met in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. She was a poet lover with perfect arches. They were married in a hail of hope and illusion.
It amazes him that they are still together. Sometimes he cannot believe it and thinks he is dead.
They are reading in bed. He looks at her. She has a dignity and a vulnerability grown more fragile with age. She looks like a photo of his mother. He is in bed with his mother.
She looks at him looking at her. She puts down her book. She says, “You never touch me anymore.”
He doesn’t know how to answer that. He sees her eyes moisten. They look at each other for four seconds. Four seconds is a long time when your heart is dying for a leap backward.
Sometimes I think I see my father. In crowded places. Grand Central Station. Port Authority. Belmont Park Racetrack. I hurry through the crowd to where I think I see him, but he’s not there.
He was a regular at the track. Brown fedora, binoculars bumping on a barrel chest, getting the bookie’s eye, a nod is all it took, five hundred on the nose of a long shot, not a chance, said the odds. Damned if it didn’t win.
He drove a silver Jaguar Mark VII. Mahogany dash, red leather interior, jaguar emblem leaping from the hood. He was always speeding. Racing time. I was the little boy sitting next to him.
Thirty-seven years is all he had. My mother’s brown eyes cried with the rain. The casket was lowered into the earth. I was nine years old. Standing on the edge. Looking down.
Hah! That’s when it hit me. My father was not down there! I don’t know how he did it but at some point in the dreary proceedings he had given oblivion the slip.
This was funnier than hell. My mother was crying and I was laughing. “What’s the matter with you?” she said.
“Daddy’s not down there,” I told her. I couldn’t stop laughing.
She knelt down and put her arms around me. I inhaled the aroma of wet wool. “You’ll be all right, darling. We’ll be all right. We’ll muddle through.”
I muddled through elementary school and the bullying, and through high school and the bullying, and through two years of college to make my mother proud. Then a car crash ended her life at forty-five and I said Fuckit.
I wandered away. No fixed address. I kept a suitcase in a locker at Grand Central Station before all the lockers were ripped out because of terrorism. I showered in the men’s room in the basement of Grand Central. Fifty cents in the turnstile for a torn towel and a piece of soap with hair on it. A procession of hapless men, washing away misery, trying to clean up their lives. Didn’t bother me. It was all life and I was alive.
When the lockers were removed, I adapted. My safety net was a limited legacy from my father. If you were to see me then, you’d see a clean, groomed guy in a designer suit. The best dressed bum in town.
I’m back in New York now, walking east on 42nd Street. I amble with the ease of a carefree man into the main concourse of Grand Central Station. I look all around. I love this place. People with destinations, hurrying to the ticket windows, the information booth, the balcony bars and restaurants, the bookstores, the trains.
Commuters and tourists and students and young and old, waiting for friends and family beneath the astronomical mural of the cathedral ceiling. Humanity coming together. Hugging in reunion. This is the center of the universe.
I look all around. I do a classic double-take. Holy Christ! Sitting at the bar in Cipriani Dolci’s on the west balcony. It’s him! Astride a stool with a drink in his hand. Nothing like a shot of bourbon, he used to say.
My heart speeds up. I walk across the terminal, keeping my eyes on the balcony bar. I climb the stairs slowly. My heart is racing.
In reply to an email from K: I’ve never watched and hadn’t even heard of the TV show ‘The Orville’ until I looked it up. No comedies for me. Since Susan’s death I’m exclusively into violent crime movies, e.g.:
Movies Susan didn’t like to watch because of the violence and bloodshed. But that’s the fare I seek out now, alone in the house we shared. So negatory on the silly comedies, pal, I don’t see anything funny about life anymore. All I see and feel is a wasteland of loneliness and despair.