Stop the biscuits from dancing

Alone in his cell, Vito read the letter from his wife’s seventeen-year-old niece. One paragraph in particular amused him:

“I’ve always thought of you as someone who is living on the edge. I’ll never forget when you were living in Gore Bay and we were all eating dinner and you threw your plate against the wall. It was so goddamn shocking it was perfect. Keep in touch.”

He had emphasized to the prosecutor that it was his wife’s niece, that is to say, his niece-in-law, thus hoping to dispel the taint of imagined incest. (He would grant a tinge, but not a taint.)

The case involved Vito, his wife Helen and their six-year-old son Willy, when they were living in a rented house in northern Ontario. Vito was twenty-seven and beginning a career as a freelance writer. With few savings and a wife who in those days was referred to as a homemaker the pressure was already getting to him. He was into Xanax, washed down with gin and tonics.

They were to have a visitor that summer. She was coming from a troubled home in the city. The girl’s mother had phoned Helen, her sister, and asked if she could take the girl off her hands for a while. And so she came.

ENTER THE NIECE

Vito picked her up at seven o’clock in the evening at the Greyhound bus station. He hadn’t seen her for several years. She was probably around his son’s age when he last saw her. Now, getting off the bus was a young woman, almost his height. The only real indications of a teenage girl were the halter top and cutoff blue jeans.

Her hair was the richest brown and as long as her finely grooved back, which, at the beginning of summer, was already perfectly tanned, save for a single bikini-string line of white just below her shoulder blades.

She walked toward him with a confident bearing. Her legs were long and slim, although keenly muscled in the thigh and calf—pillars of perfect youth and evenly tanned to her toes. Her feet were elegantly slender. She wore wedgies.

“So you’re the famous uncle.”

Her eyes were extraordinary—dark brown, and by some quirk of nature that no one in the family could explain since her parents were pure Caucasian, unmistakably oriental—almond shaped and beautiful beyond her age and parentage.

“Julie?” he said. “I wouldn’t have known you.”

“Not the same little girl who used to sit on your lap, huh?”

Vito picked up her suitcase the bus driver had unloaded and they walked to the parking lot. He put the suitcase in the trunk of his car and opened the passenger door for her. He went around and got in behind the wheel.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?” she said.

“Of course. Why would you say that?”

“You’re so quiet.”

He didn’t answer and they drove through tall white pines and warm evening air to a ranch style house at the end of a dirt road. Behind the house could be heard the rocky rush a rapidly flowing river.

They went inside the house.

IN THE SHOWER

She showered a lot that summer. That was the sound he heard most. The shower, with Julie inside it. He was in his study trying to write. He wrote, but not what he had intended to write. He wrote about a disturbingly Beautiful girl in his shower.

The story got away from him. The language and the imagery became alarmingly explicit and the characterization absurdly transparent, but he regarded it as a good deal above trash. It seemed to him to be a powerful novel. His wife had no knowledge of it. She thought he was writing the article he had been writing before her niece arrived.

“How’s the story coming?” his wife asked.

“Fine,” he replied.

“Good. I’ll get dinner.”

The condemned man ate a hearty meal.

Canada Day came around. Vito had planned a steak and chicken barbecue down by the river, but it rained furiously all day. Helen said she would cook everything on the stove. The four of them sat down to eat. Helen was a rotten cook. The steak and chicken were overdone and dry, the corn on the cob was mushy and the biscuits she served on the side were as hard as rocks. Vito sought solace and nourishment in red wine and after several glasses became quite jolly.

THE FAILED NUN

He was cracking jokes all over the place. Some of them (he learned later, when he was sober) were at the expense of his wife. She had spent her late teenage years as a novitiate in a convent. She wanted to be a nun. She knelt on stone floors at dawn and prayed to God. She wasn’t a strong woman. Many mornings she couldn’t get up at dawn and kneel on stone floors. She prayed to God for strength. It didn’t work. Finally, she left the convent. She left as she had entered: a virgin with dark hair and good breasts. She got a job in the library of the local university. Vito was a student at the university, in his final year.

When he met her she still had sore knees. After she finished work in the library, they would walk across campus to a bar, all the time talking about writers and poets and living in a lighthouse. He told her he felt like a seahorse trapped in a hole, which he thought was a quote from García Lorca. One Saturday, he sent a telegram to her room. Lean out of the window, Goldenhair, he wrote on the cable blank, which he thought was a quote from James Joyce. He did not want to sign the telegram, trusting she would know it was from him.

“What’s the signature on this?” the man in the telegraph office asked.

“There’s no signature,” Vito told him.

When she got the telegram, it read: LEAN OUT OF THE WINDOW, GOLDENHAIR. NOSIG. She didn’t know who Nosig was, but she leaned out of the window. He was standing below in a street of madness. He was twenty years old. She was twenty-four. They were married in a hail of hope and delusion.

MOTHER INFERIOR

Seven years later, at the Canada Day table, Vito recounted to Julie his wife’s time in the convent and her fervent desire to be a nun, referring to her at one point as Mother Inferior. (He couldn’t remember saying that, but say it he did.) Julie laughed out loud. Inspired by her laughter, Vito launched into an amusing tale (to Julie, anyway) lampooning habit-wearing nuns.

His son, capitalizing on the giddy moment, took a couple of biscuits from his plate and made like they were dancing on the table. Vito continued his drunken jesting, Julie kept laughing and his son kept the biscuits dancing on the table like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Helen, getting redder by the second, raised her hand as though to strike the boy, or, at least, (and this was undoubtedly the real reason) to still his frenetic hands.

She screamed at him: “Stop the biscuits from dancing!”

Vito grabbed his wife’s hand and said, “What the hell are you doing?”

“Trying to enjoy my meal,” she yelled back.

“That, madam,” he informed her calmly, “would be an impossibility.”

That’s when he did it. He lifted his plate and threw it against the wall. Everyone looked at the broken, dripping mess in horror, especially Vito. He turned to his wife but she jumped up from the table, ran into the bedroom and slammed the door.

Vito looked at Willy and Julie in hopeless regret. They just shrugged, got up from the table and went into the living room to watch TV. Vito knocked on the bedroom door, but he knew it was a lost cause. He cleaned up the mess of food and broken china on the wall and the floor and fell into a deep sleep on the sofa in his study.

The next day he was so hungover he didn’t care that his wife avoided him. He stayed in his study.

MONSTROUS TALE

Normally, what he was writing would stay where it belonged, in the study, until the time came to mail it off. But this monstrous tale seeped under the door and down the hallway like a secretion of pure menace. He couldn’t remember exactly how Helen managed to read the manuscript, but read it she did, and she was appalled. Her intellect was devastated, her sensibilities betrayed and outraged. She thought she had married a romantic sensitive guy, a writer and a poet, and here was the filth of a maniac.

When she confronted him with it, he told her it was just a book. Fiction. None of it actually happened.

“The desire happened!” she cried.

She had him there.

“So?” he said. “Is that a crime?”

“When it’s my sixteen-year-old niece, you bet it’s a crime.”

The girl was sent home. Vito threw the offending manuscript in the garbage, gave up the house in the woods and they moved back to an apartment in Toronto.

Helen began staying out late at night, riding the subway, trying to figure out what was happening—to her, to him, to their marriage. He was waiting for her when she came home from one of her midnight rides.

She told him right out. “I was with this guy. Incredible, isn’t it?”

She went into the bedroom. He followed her.

“What happened?” he asked.

“The unthinkable,” she said.

She lay down on the bed.

He lay down next to her in the darkness.

◼️

I’ll be on my way

The young man was determined not to fail this time.

At noon on Friday, October 28, he left the community college early and returned to Recovery House.

Recovery House was a drug and mental health rehabilitation residence. The young man, whose name was Kit, was in the first week of a three-month treatment program. Taking courses at the community college was part of the program.

Kit was nineteen years old and had no known family

He arrived at Recovery House just after 1 p.m. During the week, residents are not supposed to return from school until 3 p.m., but that previous night, Kit had asked Jeff B., his personal counselor, if he could have permission to go away for the weekend. He had been at Recovery for ten days and weekend passes were not allowed for the first month, unless for a “very good reason.” Kit told Jeff that his best friend was going to Europe and this would be their last chance to be together. Jeff decided that was a good reason and gave him a weekend pass.

Kit did not check himself back in—by moving a red tag next to his name on a board in the lobby from OUT to IN—but went directly to the dining room, where Susan M., the head of counseling, and two other staff members were having lunch. He handed Susan his school counselor’s business card as she had requested they day before. He then said to her, “Well, if it’s okay with you, I’ll go upstairs and get my things and be on my way.”

“He gave me a little smile,” Susan said later. “I had a good feeling about Kit. He was like a model resident. I remember telling Jeff: ‘Gee, I wish we had more people like Kit.’”

ENTER SABATINI

The best friend Kit had told Jeff about was an older man named Sabatini. Like Kit, he had no family. They had met two years earlier in the Greyhound bus station in Seattle. Sabatini was sitting in a booth waiting to board a bus for Los Angeles. Kit came loping over with a large fries and a Coke. There were no other booths available.

They were total strangers but Kit sat down opposite Sabatini and greeted him in a way that never changed. He was always this six-foot-two-inch slouching mass of intellect and talent with a super-serious expression and the ever-anxious greeting, “How’s it goin’?”

“Where you headed?” Sabatini asked.

“Wherever the next bus is going.”

“What do you do?”

“Write poetry.”

“Is that it?”

“That’s it.”

Sabatini held out his hand. “Sabatini.”

Kit took the hand. “Kit.”

“I’m taking the bus to L.A.,” Sabatini said. “You want to travel together?”

“Okay.”

LOS ANGELES

They took the bus down the coast to L. A. and walked around downtown.

“What do you think? said Sabatini.

“Nothing for the soul,” Kit said.

They took a local bus up Highway 101 and got off at Topanga Beach. Sabatini had saved some money from working in a bookstore in Seattle. Kit said he was tapped out. Sabatini rented a one-room cabin in a weekly rate motel on the Pacific Coast Highway. The cabin had two single beds, a small kitchen table and four chairs, a microwave oven, and a tiny bathroom.

The rear window of the cabin looked down a ravine to the ‘Snake Pit,’ a derelict community of tarpaper shacks and broken trailers inhabited by drunks, drug addicts, thieves and probably murderers. The front window of the cabin had a view of the beach parking lot on the other side of PCH, and, beyond that, the beach and the ocean.

Many of the vehicles in the parking lot were homes to losers, people on the lam and families down on their luck. Two laid-off auto workers from Detroit, and their dog, lived in their beat-up Chevy in the parking lot. They bathed every morning in the Pacific Ocean.

Kit went down to the beach every morning when it was still deserted and the Pacific Coast Highway behind him was a solid stream of southbound traffic. Sabatini stayed in the cabin, writing his endless novel. When the beach started to fill up with people Kit came back to the cabin to write and Sabatini went down to the beach. That way they gave each other room. Sometimes they were on the beach together, admiring the sandpipers and the bikinied women and all of God’s creatures.

COCKTAIL HOUR

They lived simply—poor boy subs for lunch and microwaved burritos for dinner. There was always beer in a fridge in the cabin. Sabatini managed to pay the rent but there were many days when they only had a few bucks between them. At cocktail hour in the cabin (a 12-pack of Bud and Doritos) they shared reflective moments.

Sabatini said, “Do you have any family?” When Kit didn’t say anything, Sabatini said, “Your parents—what about them?”

Kit lit a cigarette and looked out the window at the sun going down behind the ocean. He said, “Well, I’ll tell you… my mother’s in an asylum for the incurably insane—”

“Jesus Christ,” said Sabatini.

“Yeah, that’s something, huh?”

“Do you ever see her?”

“No.” He looked at Sabatini and added with a slight smile, “But every year I send her a get-well card.”

Sabatini didn’t return the smile. He said, “And your father?”

Kit kept looking out the window in the grey light. After a while he said, “He was a reporter. War correspondent.” He paused and then he said, “He was killed in the war.”

“What war was that?”

“They’re all the same.”

Sabatini didn’t know whether to believe Kit’s account of his parents or not.

As the light continued to fade, Kit became sullen. Sabatini lit a cigarette. He asked Kit if he would read one of his poems. Kit said he didn’t want to do that. His surliness was sometimes insurmountable, but it was honest. Sabatini understood. Others recoiled. And then in the next moment, Kit had a sweetness that would break your heart.

DREAMERS AND SCREAMERS

From then on they tramped around North America. “Dreamers and screamers,” Kit called them. They travelled by Greyhound bus and walked the streets of cities and towns. Any job would do.

Kit somewhere in America

In Toronto, Kit found work as a laborer in a bakery, scrubbing out pots big enough to sit in. Sabatini worked in a bar at the Edgewater Hotel. They shared a room upstairs.

Walking the streets one evening, they passed the lighted window of a basement apartment. Inside a young man and woman were sitting down to dinner. There was a bottle of red wine on the table. Kit stopped to look. He said to Sabatini, “I could live like that.” — Knowing he never would.

Sabatini said nothing.

They walked on into the night.

When they weren’t working they drank beer and smoked pot and Kit wrote his poetry. Poetry he hoped would make sense the next morning.

SOME TWENTY-FOUR HOURS OF AUTUMN

1. Night

Again a year, an Autumn night

Another parting, one more parting

Stars that rise

For the eternal

And leaves that float

For the earth

And entwined in the shadows

That grow from the trees

A forgotten number of lives

Never joined

By the return of a King

But always

A remembrance for the Autumn

2. Morning

A solitude was waiting here

For a peace to meet your fear

Close your eyes and see the sight

A glowing red as deep as night

A hand that cups your face in light

Open softly, still, your eyes

Upon a web erected

Sun reflected

Hold your gaze

Upon a maze

Colors branching for the skies

Sun filtered as tears for your eyes


SIGNALS FROM SPACE

Sometimes they went separate ways. Sabatini took a bus to another town and Kit hung around the bus station, now crowded with loneliness.

One time when they weren’t together Kit called Sabatini with wild stories that people were reading his mind. He said he was receiving signals from space. He said they were driving him crazy. Sabatini thought he was stoned and did not analyze it. He didn’t know Kit was on a wilder trip than weed.

Back together, in New York City, standing outside the Dakota apartment building on 72nd Street where John Lennon used to live, Kit said, “The Beatles were great, by the way.”

“So I heard.”

“That fucking madman.”

“Chapman?”

“Don’t even say his name. The name we must never mention, as Paul McCartney said.”

Then Kit said, “He should have killed himself instead.”

THE SUPERNATURAL

At Seneca Community College on the morning of October 28, Kit handed his teacher, Mr. Bloom, an essay that had been assigned to students as a homework the previous Monday entitled, “The Supernatural: Does It Exist?” Bloom handed it back to him and said that all students would get to read their essays at the next class, Monday, October 31—Halloween. The essay had been assigned as a Halloween-type piece.

Bloom later described Kit’s appearance and attitude that morning: “He was fine. He had just gotten back the use of his right arm and he seemed to be quite up and in good spirits.”

The class talked about the supernatural and one student spoke on death and dying. “Kit then contributed a statement, a very erudite one, I thought,” Bloom recalled. “Kit referred to Nietzsche and his endless cycle of time, that all events in the present would be repeated and repeated and repeated. That is, the cycles of time are repetitious.”

Kit’s essay, along with some poems he had written were found on top of the chest of drawers in his room at Recovery House.

“The Supernatural: Does It Exist? Does the supernatural exist? To begin with, the word supernatural suggests a concept that is basically unsound: the idea that anything which we perceive could be more or less than “natural”: that anything in existence could be other than natural is obviously a pointless proposition. What we term natural is nothing but the whole of existence: the only context for anything that manifests itself, through whatever set of dynamics. We are natural beings and anything that our senses perceive or that our feelings and thinking can relate itself to can only be also natural. It is an old and common mistake to blame our own inability to supply an explanation for something on some imagined area of reality where that explanation is withheld and something exists only “in itself.” Such a vacuum of unreality has nothing to do with a rational perspective. There is no “other side” to reality but madness or nothingness. There is also an almost limitless amount of the human experience that remains unexplained and unresolved. What some call the supernatural shouldn’t be allowed to suggest to us “another reality” colliding with “our own.” The so-called supernatural should only remind us of how much we still have left to discover about the internal dynamics and the rational meaning of all things.”

LOCKED DOOR 

Kit climbed the stairs to the second floor of Recovery House and walked to the end of the hallway where his room was. He went into a bathroom across from the room, removed a Styrofoam cup from a dispenser and filled it with water. He went into his room with the cup of water and locked the door from the inside.

He put something in his mouth and drank the water. He took a pillow and a blanket from the bed and opened the door to a walk-in closet. He stepped inside and lay the blanket and pillow on the floor. He closed the door of the closet. In the almost total darkness he lay down on the blanket and rested his head on the pillow. He was lying on his right side facing the wall. He closed his eyes and let the overdose do its stuff.

IN THE FLOW

No sense, no gravity

Every sense seduced by weight

Just sight and voices left free

No blood, no air, no way to circulate

Another night in numb grips

Unloving fingertips

Go over the ground

Trace the known its only way around

I grapple in wound and surgery

Opened staring and woven plea

All the nervous faces

Averted gazes

Each day is glazed

Shelter down to the skins is razed

The only way anyone ever died was alone

Shelter in numbers builds a home

Even carried in constant movement

In pain

I’m alone

Dying for a leap

Backward for the rush

It’s better than the blindness

Of the root, the first

Always sunk in a hold, and

Being taken


BARBITURATES

The autopsy showed he had taken enough barbiturates to kill himself three times over. He wanted to make sure this time. The first time had not been successful.

After the first attempt Sabatini stood next to the hospital bed in the psychiatric ward and said, “I hope you don’t try this again, man, because I don’t know if I can survive another one—and I’m into survival.”

Kit’s sparse response was, “It’s good you know that about yourself.”

Sabatini did survive. The novel he had been writing for the past ten or twenty years finally found a publisher. Across Many a Bad Night came out to fair reviews and modest sales. The title was taken from a quote by Nietzsche. “The thought of suicide is a great source of comfort: with it a calm passage is to be made across many a bad night.

Sabatini lives alone by the sea. He misses Kit. It’s been several years but Kit’s death is always with him. He retraces Kit’s steps up the staircase to the second floor of Recovery House. “If it okay with you I’ll go upstairs…”  And down the hallway to his room.  “…and get my things…”  Sabatini’s thoughts are locked inside that room. “…and be on my way.” Sabatini’s thoughts are forever in that closet.

He is tormented by questions. Could he have saved his friend? He should have seen the warning signs—the voices, the signals from space, the personality changes, what Kit said outside John Lennon’s apartment that day in New York. He should have been more aware.

Sabatini thinks about Kit’s thoughts the night before as he lay in bed planning his own death. Was he hearing the voices? Was he thinking about the madman who killed John Lennon?  Had he decided to take his own life before he possibly took someone else’s? That last night haunts Sabatini. Was Kit overwhelmed with loneliness? Or did he lie there perfectly calm, resolved, happy even, with his decision?

When Sabatini saw Kit’s body in the coffin he tapped his friend’s chest. It was as hard and hollow as a barrel. “This is not Kit,” he said to the funeral director. “I don’t know where he is, but this is not him.” The funeral director nodded politely and walked away.

Sabatini’s guru believes in an afterlife. “Don’t worry about your friend, man, he’s all right.” He told Sabatini he will see Kit again. “Imagine both of you walking along together, totally happy, knowing and seeing all, and that walk will last five minutes or five thousand years.” Sabatini didn’t understand the last part of that and the guru couldn’t explain it any better, but as usual, with the guru’s outlook on life and death, Sabatini loved the idea.

Sabatini wants to take that walk with Kit. A psychiatric nurse told him after Kit’s death that a suicide in a relationship sets up an alternative. He doesn’t know why she said it but Sabatini thinks about that. What are the possibilities? Would it speed him to his friend so they can take that walk. Or would nothingness result?

He waits every day for a signal from space.


[The two poems and the essay on the supernatural were written by Kit.]

The sun is fading away

That’s the end of the day

As the light turns to moonlight

I’ll be on my way

— The Beatles, I’ll Be On My Way

Kit (foreground) and Sabatini on the Oregon coast