A COUPLE OF SEASONS AT THE CENTURY’S END
I wrote this towards the end of the 1990's, a long time ago. Never been published, and it seems to me, as this summer comes gasping to an end, like the right time to put it out there.
The tree in the backyard of my apartment building is sick, and must be removed. The trunk is decaying, unstable, and could collapse at any time. This tree contains wood, sap, rings of memory. It will soon be a memory itself. Chop it down and it will hold nothing, except within my mind, unstable even without strong winds and weather. I will have this memory to myself, to move and change however I please. I don’t know how many of my neighbors are caught up in its branches, twined into its bark; I am thinking mostly of myself and my loss. Chopping the tree down will release a history that has been idling, particular images that sank into the roots or were caught up in the branches. Those roots have spread, and memories from neighboring soil will sprout up when the chainsaw rips, won’t they? Will this quiet the fishmonger voice of the long-dead landlady, Mrs. Betty Wild, next door? Will it age the decade-old image of a naked young man (young as I was, but much more naked), the window frame jealously masking his crotch, leaning out of the window across the yard, his early morning survey of a world made so much more delightful by his presence? Did he know I was watching? Fantasies were written all over that stranger’s body by me, his unseen and unknown partner, staring across the yard. What has happened to the sharply yapping dog, pet of the people with the plashing fountain on the other side of the fence by the dying tree? When did the barking stop? How long until that particular silence, or any silence, was noted in this place where the threshold of noise is assumed to be so high? What has happened to the two men who replaced the naked man in the window? Where have they taken their intimacy, their jointly prepared meals and Christmas tree, full of lights for months after the holiday? My images of them were always edited by the tree, masking them with its leaves, and slowly revealed through Fall. This is part of the decay that will be chopped into small bits and removed. Such images are unstable, and now they will come crashing down or fragment into snow. I want to pick them up now and hold them. They melt, they fall.
Nature must be tamed, its phenomena bow to the human hand. Upstate, where I go to escape the very memories I am trying to recall, an industrious friend hires someone to clean up his property, to vacuum the forest surrounding his ordered and meticulous house. He is intent on purification, arranged chaos. Our own garden is plagued by a marauding woodchuck, so it must be captured and killed. Our unity with the great outdoors will be on our terms, properly equipped with safety first. It is not an unconditional love. I loved this tree, but it became corrupted. It is sick and weak and has to be removed. My view will be clearer, but I will not be able to hide behind the tree’s protection. Its absence will let in more light, and the small tree next to it will be able to grow. So says the tree man. So says the parent. I am not sure. I like the old thing, even with its decay it is more reliable than a new tree. I know how it has grown. After all, we grew up here together. Was the tree watching me? Am I now the survivor?
Parents age and die. Their age is not noticed by us until we are too old ourselves. Lungs and heart are imploding, while oxygen is pulled out of them and into us. We feel guilty, like thieves. We don’t like the smell of decay, and hold our breath. The slow saunter of my father's cancer breaks into a gallop; this cancer that followed rules, responded to harsh chemicals and paused in its assault, is once again trampling a body I loved and that loved me. I do not know how to behave, and so mime good behavior as if across the footlights of a chilly theater. We, the family, the grove, are standing at the bedside like standing at a grave. Later, I am watching an old movie, Double Indemnity. A man is dying, gasping for breath. “You’re not going to make it, Wally” his friend says, looking down at him. The dying man wants to make it to Mexico, but won’t even make it to the elevator. My father’s name is Wally. I know he will not make it. I knew it before, but the movie makes it certain.
A celebrity I have no particular feeling for sags and declines into bad taste and foolish career choices. She disappears to appear again with a new face, but is still not really her. This transformation makes everyone uncomfortable, but no one says a word. Skin is stretched to the breaking point around the same old bones, as the idea of perfection masks the reality of corruption. She is rotting, she is radiant. She is a star. We are bitter but admiring. Her face is viewed by her audience with a sense that something is not right. The rest of us peddle our stationary bicycles or climb stairs that lead to no new heights, no undiscovered vistas beyond the other bodies in what we hopefully dub a “health club.” Our decline is mapped and predictable, even as age is pushed away, with each disease delayed by promises of perfection. Keep pedaling, keep pushing. We can live unto eternity; be healthy, beautiful, and desirable forever and ever, amen. We force that promise to be made, secretly hoping it will be broken, like the tape on the finish line. But we know; these vehicles we have strapped ourselves into will never take us that far.
A fabulously wealthy entrepreneur builds the perfect house. We bought his products, his attempts to seduce our very brain with a digital imitation, and now he has built a temple. To us? The temple is a dream house, a picture of perfection costing millions of dollars. Tours and magazine profiles open the house to the masses. This act, this prize, is too perfect, too deliberate. Everything has been thought out and all needs predicted.
Another city, older, has a new nerve laid across it. The city of my birth optomistically imposes a skein of commuter trains on its surface. Years ago there were similar trains, but only those who have been there a very long time remember them. That system of circulation became a phantom, yet now tracks have reappeared. Drivers view from their cars, looking at half empty trains coming into stations in places they do not want to stop. Will this new synapse work, can such deliberate gestures revitalize this place? This is not how we are used to seeing this city, shared from a subway car on a fixed route. We want it to fail, as we do not want our memory or system of understanding contradicted. This program conflicts with the operating system. Keep this mess just as it was. I choose to exit the new freeway which cuts through South Central, cuts through to the airport and escape. The unfamiliar street, Slauson, slouches its unremarkable way across the city. Tune-up shops, liquor stores, warehouses, unspectacular shopping malls. I make my way slowly across the city, back to my parents’ house in the hills, in the suburbs. I am collecting vague memories along the way, wishing they were stronger, more obvious and meaningful. I wish I were stronger. I find this bleakness beautiful, but I don’t live in it. This is the same body, but it has changed.
In the city where I live now, Forty Second Street and Times Square are chosen for a make over. Memory and history will be of only commercial use here, as new dreams will have to be manufactured from an approved script, written by developers and financial planners. Inside the offices of The New 42ndStreet Inc., all is bright and the wallpaper is a collage of the street’s glory days. The brochure lists the principles of the renovation, the first of which is that “42ndStreet must be returned to its former status as New York’s premier destination for popular art and entertainment”. That pornography and peep shows have been a very popular form of entertainment here is not remarked upon. The block is to be “marketed” and “umbrella management” used to “prevent recurrence of inactivity, abandonment, and blight.” No more corpse to feed on. Leave nothing to chance, the vagaries of human desire, or pure beauty. Rid the civic body of all chaos, all corruption. Our stated needs are coded and catered to, but not our unspoken ones, our hidden places. Should we submit ourselves and our cities to this new sensory system, this bright and airless plan, rewire ourselves for a future too impatient even for those who will inhabit it? Will we remember anything without a protective sheath of sentimentality? Along 42ndstreet the storefronts are boarded up yet newly painted, a look strangely reminiscent of Disneyland’s “Main Street”; there is nothing behind the facade. Once, this “Main Street” look was a nostalgic feature in an amusement park, buried in the suburbs. Now the amusement park is taking over entire civic spaces, swallowing and regurgitating their history to make something we will think we recognize, though we never really saw it.
But I like the ruin of the bad places, the streets with no definition, the rows of empty warehouses. This is the vacuum, the blasted land where thoughts rush in to fill the void. In this wreckage can be found the fragments, the slivers to build ideas, musings with no marketable value. I am reassured by aging, by the slow decline, the neighborhood with no center, no clearly defined identity. These cities, these wrecked and beloved bodies, are spread over the earth. I wander through them, soaking up fluids and sticky things. Eventually, I can go home, shower off the corrupted emptiness and plug into a newer world. Such an ending is easy.
The beautiful and young sicken and die, their mobility, their potency crippled. Carried by hands that do not carry them the way they wished. Their future has sprinted away, clutching grand plans in arthritic fingers. Death is linked once again to youth and beauty, as it was in the days of tubercular heroines and fever crazed youths, expiring heroically in best-loved books. The exclusive franchise possessed by the old is ended. It was brief. The old are not so unique. They are not even old any more. Not like they used to be.
The tree, the beloved parent, sickens and begins to fade. Death and ending is anticipated but not announced, except in hushed tones in private places. We don’t want to be awake when that destination is reached. We will refuse to recognize it; we like the buildings, the old compartments, old comforts and certain quirks and idiosyncrasies. We can bring them back as appropriately sentimentalized memories, even as they fade in front of us. Family members urge each other to “Look, look out the window!” while turning their own heads away. It is easier to look at photographs, or talk about an old joke or incident. We can remodel, renovate. Anything to keep in motion. The road will not end, and we will always be able to rearrange the signs. We are floating towards deathlessness.
My escape is another place, a drive away, inside the nerve system of a great city, a new body, a new image. Beautiful things kept in cool and airy places, with preserved artifacts assuring us of the existence of beauty, of perfection. What is important is to get there, to drive across the mess of the urban sprawl or the desert to find this ideal place. I go to an art gallery, a quiet serene space made possible by cleanly discreet money. Inside one are slabs of marble, video images of bodies suspended in water projected on them. Naked bodies, with their sex tangible yet not touchable. Serenity eases desire out of these pictures. They remain flat, cool. I think of my dying father. I came here in order to not think about that, or to think about it abstractly, without the evidence in front of me. I wanted to think about it, of course, it is all I really want to think about, but I want to think differently, further. I want another nerve system through which I can be inside something I cannot see from the outside.
Make-overs. Promises. These pictures replace the body with products, poses, a commodity we can purchase but never be. Intimacy is a transaction honored best in the breach. We are born with this body, yet as soon as we see it, we know it must be changed. We have to make this corruption pure. We can move beyond it, leave our litter behind, the products we cannot sell or place conveniently. All our homes are mobile, all our bodies are temporary. When we leave the cocoon and metamorphose, the decay of our former shell will not be noticed. It will be an artifact, and then it will be nothing. We are dreaming
We dream, we drive. We can go to another place, a place where we are not responsible. The vacancy of vacation. We can always go to Las Vegas. Biology is suspended, laughing, over the canyon of excess. This is fun. We look down only for the thrill, glorying in the isolation of a landlocked island of heat and light. The sound of coins and laughter is reassuring, there are so many others who are escaping too. We have nothing in common except our desire not to rot, to decay. No one can chop us down. Not here.
At home the trunk, the limbs have been burned up. Only a wedding ring or sawdust remains to be swept and discarded. There is little left even for the worms. I wish I had a tape of my father’s voice, I wish I had climbed that tree. I was waiting for the branches to swoop down and embrace me, I was waiting to be picked up; afraid of falling, of hearing my breath merge with my father’s, with the tree’s final exhalation, reminding me of the earth, far closer than I want to know. The ground has not moved, not at all. But I am falling toward it , face first, breathing deep.
2. A FIFTH OF JULY
It's the day after. The bombs bursting in airs and arias, firecrackers, hot dogs ("Not Dogs" for the friends of fauna), pulsating heat. We had our usual party, old friends from the city, new friends from the country. Every year a core group returns, bringing their friends, their dogs (real ones), their varying culinary skills and commitments. It is less a party than a bed and breakfast open house, with clumps of people migrating from the table to the dock to the water to the boat to the car to the store to the kitchen to the backyard to the table, always the table. Some are friends I seldom see during the year, people with whom my career converged at one time. Now, that career is careening off in some other direction, not yet clearly determined, and we collide at this intersection once a year. Those that couldn't come, call; one from Berlin where it must be four o'clock in the morning and we are all thinking how far away she is, and "Is her work really working this time?", and "Is she drinking again?", and "If she isn't, she probably wouldn't be up this late." The call from the absent guest always places the present in a sort of existential agony; is this the best place for me to be, should I have been somewhere else? We try not to think these thoughts. This is The Fourth of July, a patriotic holiday in a country that has never been too fond of deep thought without a price tag or pop song attached. I would like to write that pop song. So would several of us.
We change, changes that these annual events suggest we acknowledge. Every year the yard games become a little more listless, a bit more sedentary, or is this just early middle-age anxiety over aging? Is it true that we aren't quite as hysterical this year, not quite as loud, not really as much in love with our youth and bodies as before, not as sure of success, but more determined that happiness must be what we aredoing and not what we willdo? And perhaps a little bit less willing to run off with a friend-of- a-friend’s lover, who looks especially compelling wet and in the water; let's just sit and talk about real estate and weather and practical choices made practically without lust. There is the man (how exactly did we meet?) whose illness deepens each year, and whose attitude seems to be sunnier and our inability to deal with his decline more and more obvious. There are the friends with matching dogs and intermingling personalities. There are the children of the woman whose ex-boyfriends still adore her, and whose children are beautiful and enchanting and make everyone into honorary aunts and uncles with just one glance (is the fact the parents are not American the reason the kids seem so American?) Like our parents, we talk about those dogs, those kids, while skirting around more uncomfortable issues, occasionally bumbling through to something less visible. Such as: the friend who calmly relays, during a game of badminton, the story of his decade-long addiction to drugs, and the significance that this week marks his first year of sobriety; no more scoring. Few people knew, and I feel pleased for him and his triumph over this hidden thing, yet guilty for being so clueless. I think of my family, my nephews who are not visiting this year, and of another year passing in which I am not a father, remaining childless and dog-less. I am also not married (or heterosexual), or financially stable, exchanging those belt-loops of maturity for a looser, more casual fit that is increasingly uncomfortable. Nor am I addicted to anything stronger than these gatherings, and their ability to both calm and excite me.
I run down to the lake to see the raft, tethered securely to the dock since we bought the place five years ago, set free by our friends, who are waving and shouting while floating down the lake like Tom, Huck and Becky (there is no Jim). I don't recognize them for a moment, they are in the middle of the lake and I am waving from the shore, like someone’s fretting mother, worried that this is irregular, this is out of the pattern. I am the host, and the guests (and my co-host) are beyond my reach.
Each passing year rides on a current of anxiety; a suspended sense not of what has happened to us, but what hasn't. Still no record contract, still no movie script sold, still no new job, still waiting tables, still waiting. This is what I am thinking. It is not necessarily what my friends are thinking, which is one of the reasons I love them. They seem happier with the actualities of their lives, even while floating into mine so full on the surface of things. After all, this is my place we are all gathered at; mine and my partner's, and I want to tell them of my anxiety over this partnership, squeezed between class allegiances. My life is split as I take the train from my small apartment in the Lower East Side to this lakeside home owned, spiritually if not financially, by the two of us. I spread my good fortune around, open up the house to friends some of whose own unions have left them with far less.
I slip upstairs to write something down that makes just a bit more sense of this, something that frames and arranges the day. I am not satisfied that the day just happened, that I was a part of it, and have to stand apart and work it like a piece of wood. The guests climb the stairs to the bathroom and pass me, supportive but concerned, aware that this is also out of the accepted pattern for a holiday. I feel like the reclusive uncle, the disconsolate host hiding something from the guests. But we are all hiding something, and it is that something that floats unmoored among us. These holidays festoon our yawning entropy as we battle with restless youth (who can only get older). The evanescent melancholy of summer is briefly beautiful, illuminating this house of ours. I take the buzzing and hissing of summer insects, summer heat, and summer hope and preserve them in the still flowing languor of life among friends, setting the present and past "together again for the first time."
We fuss around cooking and cleaning and trying to make the place appealing; full of activity and pleasure to stave off the creeping sense of loss growing inside moments of stillness. Perhaps this will be the last year; the neighborhood is changing for the worse, and we are thinking of selling. Our relationship is changing for the worse and we are thinking of...we don't know what we are thinking of. It's the day after, and now the well has run dry. No water. We cannot even clean up our mess, and only the lake can cool and clean us now.
These holidays are not nirvana, and I can never quite lose myself in the dream of summer. Happiness holds its breath in anticipation, and is disappointed when things seem a bit off, a bit deflated; "remember last year when..." In sensing the temporary joy, our dissatisfaction becomes more noticeable, more a spreading stain on last year's new carpet (was it there a year ago?). Our expectations expect too much, and we are falling too tired into bed each night, not from what we have done, but what from what we thought, what we wished, what we wanted to do. And here, again, is summer, the slow deep inhale into the chest before the solar plexus kick of winter (I am not forgetting autumn; autumn forgets itself, only to remind us that change, like melancholy, is always in the air). Something, like the dread of September in the school child, is always sucking the breath out of our lungs, even as we lie on the hammock or loll in the lake. We can't stop thinking, and we can't stop wanting, and we can't stop stopping-up all the joy inside us. We try to give full recognizance to the dread that marches humming in the grass; yes, we have seen it before, but can't place just where or when.
People visit, people stay, people vanish at the end of the driveway with waves and the conflicting regrets of departure. You wanted them to leave, wanted to have some time alone and now you are lonely. Your hope and excitement was sustained by their presence, even as it rubbed against the burr of impatience and the limitations of any human interaction. All year, or some fraction of it, you longed for this time, these times, and now they are behind and not in front. Did you blink? Did you forget something, someone, some essential ingredient and now everyone has eaten and run? A couple of doors close and the Summer has turned the corner.
It is the morning after, and I go down to the lake with the deflated lake toys and beer spillings. It looks scummy and unappealing, a film of tiny white flecks I assume to be pollen coating the surface. I look closer and find they are insects, millions of tiny dead flies we had seen swarming last night, and had battled on the back porch with cans of spray, citronella candles, and long pants. Now they are dead, all of them, and I dive through their lifeless crusts into the water where I drowned the rampaging woodchucks (five of them), and caught the inedible fish, and splashed about with old friends, and the year begins again; diving through the dead bodies and dead memories and dead friendships to wash myself clean in the lake, the opaque pool of the possible yet not probable.
©1998 & 2015 Jeff McMahon