The poet Guglielmo Michelini became old, it seems overnight. He remembers being in his forties for quite a long time and in his fifties for a somewhat shorter 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.
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.
Harry’s wife was gravely ill. Harry put his work aside and devoted all his time and energy to helping her get better. She was in and out of New York City hospitals for two years. One operation after another. Twice she nearly died. When she was finally released from hospital and allowed to come home, still quite ill and facing a dire prognosis, Harry looked after her around the clock, changing the dressing on her surgical wounds, bathing her, feeding her, nursing her back to health, pushing himself to a punishing degree. He was not a young man.
Gradually, against the odds, Harry’s wife began to get better. Almost immediately, Harry got sick and was hospitalized with pneumonia. The doctors found cancer in his lungs. Harry phoned his younger brother, Bill, who lived upstate, and said, “We can’t seem to catch a break.” Bill said their situation reminded him of something the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote more than 1,800 years ago: Living is more like wrestling than dancing. To which Harry replied, “Most of the time we were dancing.”
Harry was given just weeks to live. He chose to die in his own home. Bill moved from upstate to the New York area and rented an apartment near his brother’s house. In those final days the cancer raced through Harry’s body and mind and he slipped in and out of consciousness. When he was conscious he could only speak in an inaudible whisper. He couldn’t eat. He was deathly thin and couldn’t raise his arms.
On a Friday evening, Bill stood by his brother’s bedside. Harry was trying to say something, but Bill couldn’t hear the words, The younger brother was getting ready to leave. He took Harry’s hand in his in an attempt to shake it and said to him, “I’m leaving now. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Harry was still trying to say something but the words would not come out. All he could do was nod his head.
Their eyes locked on each other. And then Harry tightened his grip around his younger brother’s hand. He held it so firmly that Bill was taken aback. Harry summoned up a last ounce of strength and held Bill’s hand in that strong grip for three or four seconds. Three or four seconds is a long time when you have nothing left.
Bill went back to his apartment and was still asleep early next morning when the phone rang. It was Harry’s wife. She said Harry had died an hour ago. Bill said he would come over to her house to be with other members of the family as they congregated there throughout the day. He then phoned a friend, Bob Baxter, a poet and author who lives in Niagara Falls, New York, and told him that his brother had died. And then he told him about the extraordinarily strong handshake his brother had given him the night before, even though he had been so thin and weak he couldn’t raise his arms and the poet said, “Your brother put everything he wanted to say to you into that handshake.”
That was the best thing anyone could have said about Harry and his death and the younger brother’s sense of loss.