An account of a conversation
Supposedly, the solar system is always about to fly apart. This is what scientists now like to say. The planets don’t orbit in stable circles. There never were, exactly, “circles.” Instead I’m told the planets aren’t so much “orbiting” as just habitually veering, and one might someday swing too near another and pull it off-course. Or actually sideswipe it. It’s happened before. Or, more likely, a certain enormous, mysterious outrider planet (which does exist!) could come back at last from its long oval and cause a smashup and scatter everything.
These aren’t fringe scientists, these are people who get major grants and prizes and have important ivy-league jobs. Just such a celebrity scientist has, during a long day, been informing me blandly about how unstable the universe is, and how disaster-prone. (For instance, a more accurate description of what a planet does is: Trying to hit the sun, but always just missing.) Scientists are peculiar, special people. They get so involved in their work, they can somehow forget the required scientific, meticulous tenderness and seem somehow brutal; or maybe just deeply naïve. There’s a “never-did-grow-up” quality. They’re able to make easy, gleeful conversation about the likelihood of a Neptune-Pluto collision that would bring “the End of the World,” as if with no thought of that event’s importance. That still-quite-mythological Doomsday blast, it lights up our lives. It lights up everything. From somewhere in the future, it shines on the icebergs at sea and the elephants on the savannah. It lights up Paris and London and the untracked snowy steppes. It shines on all history. It shines over the armies of Napoleon and the camps of the Third Reich, and Socrates’s quiet afternoon conversations in Athens. It shines over my own half-finished little redwood deck and the Japanese maple beside it, and on my wife in the evening when she’s knitting a little red scarf on the couch. It’s as fundamental as the ground we stand on. And it’s treated by boyish scientists as some kind of cool movie.
§ § §
There’s something called the Castlegate Prize. It’s a ten-year cash stipend given out once per decade to “a carefully chosen scientist or scholar.” It isn’t a well-known prize, it’s a specialized academic one, but it’s a rich one. In the award year 2019, the total amount of the gift consisted of $1,200,500.00 in principal. Which, capitalized over the award period, would pay out to the recipient $195,548.80/year, for ten years. In 2019, the winner of the Castlegate happened to be a Marin County man, an astrophysicist named Mark Perdue, who has taught for a long time at Berkeley, but whose home turns out to be nearby – in Terra Linda actually, in a slightly rundown, no-longer-new development called Cobblestone Hearth Village Estates.
According to the terms of the Castlegate, that regular amount – $195,548.80 – was to be electronically deposited every year to Professor Perdue’s personal bank account, an unrestricted gift he is to receive on an automatic basis each January during the ten-year period between 2019 and 2029. However, it seems that Mr. Perdue hadn’t been filing the Castlegate Foundation’s required documentation. Furthermore, he stopped sending any communications at all to the Foundation. Nor has he responded to telephone calls or letters. (This though the scheduled deposits to his bank account have gone on regularly.) Then at last, now three years into his award period, his home telephone number was reported as “no longer in service,” and the Foundation’s letters were coming back stamped undeliverable. Therefore, the Foundation – whose offices are in faraway Copenhagen, Denmark – obtained “audit authorizations” from banks and credit-card companies.
The records – (I can say this because I’ve got them in my den and I’ve been studying them) – reveal a pattern of spending that went quickly and widely out-of-bounds. The money was being spent not on “scientific and scholarly endeavors” but has been going to purchases like the following, as they appear on the MasterCard and Visa itemizations and Wells Fargo statements, whose pages presently are hanging up all over my bookshelves at home. (A minor orange-juice debacle this morning made it necessary for me to rinse all the pages under the tap. I’ve got them dangling by their pinched corners separately, so they can dry.) I provide here only a few off-the-top examples. These kinds of spending sprees have been going on nonstop during the whole award period:
Total Media, New York, NY (recurring/month): $4,330.00
Smith Kahn Derma, Cosmetic Surgery, Ojai, CA: $2,487.50
Raoul’s Inn, Salon and Spa, Beverly Hills, CA: $225.00
The Arhat Agency, Los Angeles, CA (15% commission): $10,400.00
The Girl Named Jealousy Store, San Francisco, CA: $1,243.22
SecureSystems, New York, NY: $4,750.00
For some of these businesses, the products and services are easy to guess. Others not. It looked, frankly, as if maybe a woman had gotten to him, and an ambitious one. Not to be sexist, but given the tendency of such evidence, it’s the first idea that suggests itself. These are all payments directly from the professor’s bank account and credit cards. So he must have been aware of these expenditures, which were made during the time he was declining to respond to Castlegate’s letters and phone calls.
I only got involved with this because I was asked as a personal favor. An acquaintance of mine, Rob Kasish, who took over my job as rector at my old parish in Sausalito, asked me. Rob, in the time since his Sausalito-priesthood stint, has been moving up the episcopacy ladder to a Chancellorship in Sacramento; and in that office, he fell into acting as liaison with the Castlegate people in Denmark.
I can tell from where I sit, neither Rob nor the diocese would have chosen to get involved with this. The Anglican Church, for certain good reasons of its own, wants not to have any official relationship with the Castlegate Prize Trust. And Rob, like me, had been only accidentally roped into these responsibilities. His job keeps him in Sacramento. (It’s where the diocese is seated.) And his reasoning was that, since I happen to be here in Marin and thus am virtually Professor Perdue’s neighbor, it should be easy for me to act as Castlegate’s deputy and at least look into this. At least maybe drop by the address of Perdue’s ostensible residence. Maybe settle this matter here. The job obviously wasn’t going to involve my usual skill set. It’s all too police-like, going out and knocking on people’s doors, making “inquiries.” I suppose my having once-upon-a-time been an Episcopal priest seems to qualify me for this, slightly. Or in any case, sufficiently.
§ § §
Here’s the kind of person I had to deal with. This was later that night when we were both sitting side by side under the stars. I’d merely said something harmless about the “exciting frontiers of space exploration,” the most benign, bland kind of general remark, and the ex-professor snaps, “Yeah. Two things there.”
He put his beer on the ground and he got up and went over into the dark to unzip his pants – evidently a customary spot, an area of tall Scotch broom where one wouldn’t be visible from the freeway or the frontage road – meanwhile talking over his shoulder to me, or else down at his draining belly:
…First of all, people say life on another planet doesn’t have to be carbon-based. It could be silicon-based someplace, this is what they think, because silicon has the right electrons, so you could have some kind of life.
Well, no. There’s a calculation people do. The calculation is named after this man Drake, who was at Cornell then. It’s an estimate. It estimates the probability. It calculates the likelihoodof intelligent life in the universe.
It goes: how many total stars are there everywhere; and for each star, how many planets, total, can be going around it; then for each possible planet, how many of those planets are the right distance so they can be warm enough, have water maybe. Have a decent axial tilt. And diurnal revolution. On and on. You multiply it out. All the conditions you need for life.
I’d said nothing about life on other planets, yet he was quarreling with me. He came back tucking his shirttails, facing up to the lawn chair and the lengthy process of reinstalling himself – climbing down, rolling and tacking, laying himself out, undulating, soon again reposing as if for a plaster body cast – to go back to complaining:
…So the result is – the result you get from the Drake Equation, which has been in existence since like 1960 and people have been fooling with it ever since – is that there’s nothing out there, statistically. Except us. Nothing habitable. Not in our Hubble sphere, this Hubble sphere, which is all we’ll ever know. The probability is basically zero. We’re it. We’re it, using any possible honest way you feed the equation. The probability is way against us. Against us being here. So—
End of speech. The perpetual empty beer can came up and its rim began again making taps along his upper lip. All I’d done was make an innocent, inoffensive (even almost content-free) remark about how exciting space exploration must be.
If there was some second point he meant to make, as he’d implied, he forgot about it. He wasn’t drunk. We’d been talking for hours and his beer consumption out there is very sparing.
§ § §
When Rob Kasish first reached me to make his proposal – that I should go a-gumshoeing in Cobblestone Hearth Village Estates, and flush out the squanderer of Castlegate’s money – my response was in the manner of Our Lord: Let this cup pass from me. I may owe Rob a favor; but I started right away to be wary, prudently, as soon as he faxed me the many financial records. The last item on that short list of credit charges (“SecureSystems”) turns out to be a New York agency that provides bodyguards and escorts; their website displays the SecureSystems corporate coat-of-arms badge, and the badge’s central device is a silhouette image of an automatic rifle. So that’s alarming. Why would a professor need bodyguards? Therefore my first worry, when I started snooping into Professor Perdue, was that there might be something against-the-law in here. If that were the case, I’d be the wrong man for this job. I’m a man not cut out to use force, or even forceful speech – I ordinarily never have commerce with anybody who is even impolite – working as I did for many years at Coldwell Banker in Marin real estate’s fortunate echelons, and nowadays as a charitable fundraiser. And earlier, of course, a priest. I should be the last man you’d want to send out to quarrel with real criminals. I don’t quarrel with anybody.
However, as I got only a little further into my investigations – (all from the comfort of my armchair here at home, because everything these days is discoverable on the Internet by search engine) – I was able to determine that Mr. Perdue wasn’t a criminal. He seemed, instead, to be spending all his prize money to promote himself in entertainment media. He had a new career. He no longer taught at Berkeley, he’d taken early-retirement from that. Now he was – evidently – planning on being some kind of television or entertainment personality, and he was spending his money preening and smartening himself up for that.
So apparently he was a scientist who’d hit a certain age and gone off. It seems like an improbable swerve – and frankly a bad idea – for a physicist, late in life, to start paying big money to plastic surgeons and publicists and Hollywood agents – especially since the Castlegate money is supposed to support scholarship and research. My first thought was, could such a man have a wife? I wasn’t sure I wanted the job of interviewing (or possibly prying into) a person who was making profoundly bad choices. Been there, done that: As a minister I’ve spent many an hour kneeling and inquiring, where mistakes have been made; I feel I’ve put in my time there at the bench of patience and counsel. It’s hard work, getting delinquent or mistaken – possibly even corrupt – people to account for themselves. Which is essentially, inevitably, what Rob Kasish is asking of me.
For example the Arhat Agency (priciest item on that list), turns out to be (it’s easily Googlable) a Los Angeles talent agency. A little bit of Internet research revealed that the high point of Mark Perdue’s career was when, at the tender age of twenty-two, he starred as host on a PBS television series about physics. So he had once been a minor celebrity, in that precocious form. But then over the years he had fallen in prestige, professionally, so that, according to the University of California’s website, he no longer taught in the physics department. He seems to have been let go from the department rather quietly, having been reduced over time to near nothing in his teaching responsibilities. One gets an impression of incompetence, or just inattention. I knew I would probably, now, have to meet Professor Perdue in person and I had to consider whether he might be imbalanced mentally. Looking at the record of how he’d been throwing around his Castlegate money, one couldn’t avoid concluding that he must be trying, in his late forties when a man still has a chance to reinvent himself – (after all, I reinvented myself pretty radically, moving from “priest” to “real estate salesman” without hitting a bad bump) – to revive his old youthful career as a media personality. The YouTube videos of his television shows from the 1990s – if out-of-date in their production values and their haircuts, their snug-fitting trousers and jackets – are still delightful to watch. He has a kind of comic genius. Just looking into the camera, he shows a goggle-eyed innocent amazement (about the behavior of atoms and quarks) which is completely winning. I’ve bookmarked the whole series for later watching. For example, he is hilariously funny, and really inimitably, unintentionally funny, when – outfitted in a deep-sea diver’s antique pressurized suit, his head inside an iron sphere with a bolted-down porthole encircling his face – he swims around inside a block of gravity-free space wielding a pair of tweezers, trying to trap an invisible particle, as if it were a gnat. He looks like a cutout doll, floundering against the sizzling background of a blue-screen projection, pinching at space with his tweezers.
§ § §
First I simply used the Internet. I thought I’d start by trying to track down the big item on that short list, the talent agency “Arhat.” Which gives its phone number in a fancy minimalist-looking website. I dialed the number, and somewhere in the 213 area code’s vast bleached-out fabric – (wealth and beauty and power, amber air, freeways and headaches, palm trees, envy, ropiest bikini thongs wringing rarest little hams, unfairness and indifference, the millions of possible incarnations, infinite second chances for everybody, miles of flat pebble-tarred roofs) – a young woman answered:
“Good morning. Debra Arhat.”
I asked if I were speaking to Ms. Arhat, but already I knew, this was a secretary. It was in her voice: an uncomplicated self-certainty greater than any inner-office boss’s. An inner-office boss, when you get to her, is a more vulnerable person.
“No, this is Courtenay. I’m Courtenay.”
I gave her my name and I told her I was calling to inquire about one of their clients.
Meanwhile on the desk before me in my “rectory” (it’s what I call my study, even after all these years of profane living), my computer mouse was gliding around on its mousepad, clicking, the arrow onscreen pecking and pecking at the elegant website of the Arhat Agency, opening lists of the big media stars who are represented by Arhat. Even I – who never look at the supermarket tabloids – found some of the names dimly iconic.
As to my inquiries, the secretary Courtenay first wanted to know if I were with the press. In asking, she let a certain drawl into her voice: it was as if she might be finding it delightful to converse with me, and even a little luscious – as if, perhaps, she and I had discovered each other now this morning in order to hatch some kind of wonderful plan together.
Maybe it was the whole 213 area, but I had no defenses against this, I was in love, at least for a minute. Courtenay, it was obvious, is a young woman of rare intelligence, and I was already flirting. This though I’m a happily married man (the feeling still is, a “newly” married man), and (even gladder) an expectant father, up here in the Bay Area in our split-level in Terra Linda, 1117 Vista Drive (cranberry-colored clapboard) in sunny San Rafael. My wife, Thalia, is the absolute ruler of my existence. When I made that (isn’t it oddly gangsterish-sounding?) claim back there I don’t quarrel with anyone, I have to admit, my wife came to mind, with a qualm. But then I thought immediately, no: her included: I don’t quarrel with Thalia, I simply do her bidding. She’s almost twenty years younger than me, but quickly over our few years so far, she has taken complete executive control of my every resolve, my every initiative. Late-rescued bachelor, I’m entirely pleased with conjugal subservience. Note to male readers: Have no fear of the henpecked state, the so-called pussy-whipped state. It’s the best. Just go along with it. It’s the valorous and courtly state, and you’ll live forever.
Indeed truthfully now, when I contemplate the Perdues’ marriage, and everything that went wrong in Mark’s life, I think that was the missing ingredient: his devotion as husband. It may have been a simple matter of failing to love enough. But how can you tell a man such a thing? In life, the greatest waste of all is to have loved too little. It’s the fundamental difference between Mark Perdue and a luckier man, like, for instance, me.
“—Because you know, Mr. Gegenuber,” Courtenay confided in me, “we don’t release any information about our clients.”
So she said. But in what sense could that could be true? For a talent agency not to release any information – information about their clients – it seemed an irrational policy. Probably the truth of the situation was, Courtenay could detect right away I wasn’t an entertainment-biz insider.
She did offer, “I could put you in touch with publicists. The Arhat Agency has relationships with publicists…?”
It was clearly Courtenay’s job to put up a wall and be, adroitly, non-helpful. Still, there was something coy. She’s a woman not only sharp and wise in her presumptions, but she had the easy ability (this is almost like a sort of I.Q. test I might apply) to pronounce my name back to me, perfectly on the first shot, as if she’d seen it everywhere on movie marquees.
I started explaining myself, beginning to feel however, for no good reason, like a fraud on the phone. I told her I was calling on behalf of an organization… That there was a prize… That I had reason to think possibly one of Arhat’s clients was a recipient of the prize…
“Of three-years-ago’s prize.”
“I see. Well, I’d be happy to tell Debra, if you’d like to leave your information. Remind me now, who exactly was it? Who received the prize?”
“May I speak to her? To Ms. Arhat? Or have her return my call?”
“Ah. She doesn’t return phone calls.” A little smile was audible,
That anyone might expect a Hollywood agent to return a call was a ludicrously naïve misunderstanding.
She added, “If you’d like to make some sort of ‘payment’ – like if there’s prize money, we don’t accept money, you know. Either. But I can put you in touch with our lawyer. Someone who handles the money.”
“The money’s already been disbursed. It’s a large prize, actually. It’s a considerable prize. It was awarded to a professor of physics at Berkeley – Professor Mark Perdue at Berkeley? – and I think possibly he’s one of your… people?”
I knew this could be all wrong. I might be simply mistaken in my surmises. A physics professor is not likely to have a Hollywood agent. More strange was what I’d just been told: If they don’t respond to inquiries or provide information, and don’t accept money, what does a Hollywood agent do?
“A professor,” she said in admiration. “Wow.”
That was sarcasm, the lightest-possible: she saw the very same absurdities as I, and I loved Courtenay all the more, a wonderful telephone flirt, quick to sass, answering all my telephone charisma. In person, I’m not very charismatic, but on the phone sometimes, I have a baritone that comes off a good solid floor, and I can sound so personable, occasionally on 800 numbers I think I’ve left operators thrilled and heart-warmed. I’m always polite and always perfectly decent, but still – (maybe for exactly such reasons) – I’ve sometimes been the nicest, most stimulating thing in some operator’s day.
I added, “The fact is, payments have been made, I’ve got records of it here in front of me, and I just need to know what it bought. Just in an ‘accountancy’ way. Just to account for all expenditures.”
Right here I started getting the feeling that a kind of lamp over me had changed. I was being looked upon as counterfeit. Inside the precincts of a Hollywood agency, probably there are “superstars” being protected, and I’m sure a certain underhanded kind of phone call comes in all the time, somebody inventing a pretext, some reporter or writer, some stalker, or just a fan. I was now implausible, and now Courtenay was going to make short work of me.
“I can’t think of a professor offhand, Mr. Gegenuber. But I’ll definitely pass this on to Debra.”
“May I leave my number then?”
“Oh yes, of course, yes,” she rejoiced. Leaving a phone number was a magnificent, if totally unprecedented, idea. I named my ten digits in my lackluster suburb in the cooler, dimmer 415 area, while she at least pretended to write them carefully down.
§ § §
So I got in my car. Aiming for a face-to-face meeting with the irresponsible/larcenous professor. Rob Kasish is a friend but I was a little grudging about this errand this morning, for the special reason that it meant I would be forsaking my redwood deck project. Hammer and T-square and Skilsaw and wineglass and snacks, everything is lying out in the morning sun just where I left it yesterday at quitting time. It’s true that I have plenty of work on my desk, but the thing I’m enjoying these days is going out when the dew is still on the lumber and – in the sunshine that comes beaming over the lilac hedges – hammering and sawing outside the French doors. The deck is my own design, always under revision while it grows, taking its shape from the accidents of its construction as I discover them. For I’m an inexperienced happy amateur. I love the coffee mug on the sawhorse as much as the clang of the Skilsaw or the marriage of the cut wood; thus the whole project is an inefficient, leisurely series of mistakes and do-overs. This morning I hated to be neglecting it, it’s such a comfortable mess. It isn’t just my dropped tools or sawn-off ends, or yesterday’s sandwich crust on a saucer, it’s wider-spread than that – for all around I’ve set up a ring of trashcans and a couple of upright vacuum cleaners and an ironing board, et cetera, all strung with loops of red ribbon, to create a fencelike barrier to ward off trespassers. (I’m concerned that my construction zone could be an “attractive nuisance” and endanger people.) The rest of my day-to-day existence – my professional existence – is always so tightly packaged inside icons on my laptop screen, it’s been wonderful how I’m enjoying this disorderly backyard workshop.
So I regretted now my promise to go out seeking a conversation with Rob Kasish’s sneaky physicist. I owe Kasish. He’s a friend from seminary originally. Which was long ago, of course. But when, years on, he reappeared in my life and came to take over my Sausalito parish for me – donning the old stole, lifting the old censer – he made my part of the move-out easy, and my shrugging out of the old pastoral ordinances easy. I was happy to be able to do this favor for him. But I wanted to finish it with dispatch. Like, with one car trip. The half-built deck is always calling, while also, more realistically, I have deadlines for several different funding applications on my desk, one of them for my wife’s nonprofit; and I have a board meeting coming up; and at board meetings I have to answer for my fundraising promises of the previous period. This desk work is all doable – even somewhat enjoyable, because I’m good at it – but it’s work, and it’s painstaking and time-consuming. Also, later in the day, Thalia and I had a date – at doctors’ offices, of all places – she for a sonogram (our third so far) and I for some routine tests, mainly my once-every-two-years cardiogram.
So I got in my car and headed – it’s one exit up – to Cobblestone Hearth Village Estates. From my years as a realtor, I of course know Cobblestone Hearth. There’s always a steady turnover in Cobblestone Hearth, always a property or two in escrow, a good place for young families, a middle-market (or honestly these days lower-middle-market) development from the eighties, of maybe 60 or 70 semidetached homes, covered in a vinyl “bat-and-board” siding that hasn’t aged well (in an unfortunate palette of vomity colors; I remember showing one of those units once, and the bathroom sink’s porcelain was taffy yellow; which alone killed the buyer’s interest), on curving streets, with small maples and poplars that, these days, are starting to look like not-such-adolescent little saplings anymore. In all my years, I never did preside over a sale there, but it’s a thriving little place. People prosper there. Nevertheless, it was slightly strange of Professor Perdue to be in Cobblestone. Cobblestone Hearth is really down-market for the family of a UC professor. And a double-income family to boot. (Mark Perdue’s ex-wife, I would learn, was a corporate lawyer for some years.) So they could have traded up and bought a place anywhere, within reason.
I learned all this background info from the talkative next-door neighbor beside the Perdue house in Cobblestone – because the Perdue house turned out to be deserted.
But there was the neighbor: a big sunburned man at a life-stage of, simultaneously, enlarging and hardening – (which was how I imagined the condition of his heart, after I’d gotten to know him a little) – who, in a bathing suit, was tending his backyard gardens. The Perdue house had obviously been empty for a long time. A Coldwell Banker-RE/MAX sign was posted on the forlorn lawn, and probably had been posted there for a year or more, in this still-sluggish market up here. While I stood on the cement doorstep – poking at the doorbell’s unresponsive dead dot, then knocking, making a mellow resonance on the polypropylene-woodgrain door – the neighbor in the bathing suit, who held up a garden hose from which water plopped and plopped, called helpfully, “Nobody home.”
Which could only signify that he meant to post himself here as a source: source of general information – but also perhaps to dispense lore and analysis more penetrating and more judicious. The whole personality type announced itself as clearly as if he were wearing a deputy-constable sash, though in fact he stood barebellied. In general I don’t worry about a Roger Hoberman. (Which is what his name turned out to be). Viewing a Roger Hoberman pastorally, within a minute of conversation I will have completed a kind of scan – of his “aura,” you might say, or just the complex moral scent a human being sheds and stands in the middle of. This Roger Hoberman, in bathing suit with garden hose, was instantly discernible as a soul at the life-stage Kierkegaard would call the ethical. He’ll be all right. Perhaps never again marry, unfortunately; perhaps have cholesterol and hypertension issues; perhaps be obnoxious in the neighborhood; but fine. His property, its backyard, was a masterpiece of flourishing chaos. Certainly the man would have been in violation of the Cobblestone Hearth covenants-and-restrictions bylaws. He kept chickens, I knew, because I could hear a rooster, and he raised rabbits in cages built onto his garage wall – (I could see the little furry lumps softly throbbing around inside there, hopelessly). Fenced gardens climbed and exploded with stalks and vines and crowns, all a tiny congested farm. I decided this man would be a great conversationalist. So I got off the cement stoop and came across the driveway and around to where he stood wearing only flip-flop sandals and swimming trunks, his hose freely unfolding water onto the ground, using wrist-flicks, aiming to soak barrels that were filled with dirt – planter barrels stood everywhere, all filled with dirt, all plastic, all overflowing with vines.
“Is that Mark Perdue’s place, though?”
“Was. You a friend?”
“No. Kind of. But yes. A friend of a friend. What happened to him? Where’d he go?”
Thus licensed, he began, “The bank took it,” and soon, with a few goads from me, he’d launched, as I knew he would, indiscreetly and with reckless prejudice, into the whole story of Mark Perdue: the divorce from his wife, the early (and ominous!) significance of the Perdues’ never, ever washing their car, the disorganized effort at selling the home, Mark’s inexplicable early retirement from teaching at Berkeley… the wife’s big-time legal career… her quitting her firm to become a carpenter with Habitat for Humanity… her apparently happy new relationship with an old jolly guy from Palo Alto who looked exactly like Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise – exactly! And that train-wreck of a daughter. And poor Mark’s present homelessness.
“Homeless,” I said. Mark Perdue’s tribulations had become the Book of Job. “You mean he’s homeless?”
“A bank got the house, so it was like an eviction. But no, I don’t mean he’s ‘homeless.’ That’s just a ridiculous word people use, isn’t it? Huh?” It was so ridiculous it caused a fond grunt, which was also a guffaw, causing a bounce in the suntanned bowling-ball in the bathing suit waistband, and even some swirly affectionate fingertip-stroking of that shiny brown built-in planet, while its possessor scanned out over the horizons, the world outside his backyard. He revised his view more fairly, “No, Mark’s great, Mark’s doing fine. Selling used paperbacks. Used books. Living at Burger King. He’s really smart, you know.” At this, he moved to glare at me, with a special dilation of one sharp eye, “Like smart.”
My new friend (he’d strangled the garden hose by forcing an easy fold in it with one hand, to stop the plop-sound) told me he was Roger, Roger Hoberman, and he’d lived right on this spot for twenty years, he said, right here in Cobblestone, from the first days when everything was only dirt. He said it was just him now, referring to his house. He used to be in pizza. But now he was in – well, chickens and rabbits, just for himself – he fixed his smile then, self-conscious against his riotous background, for he was a kind of nobleman standing in the place he’d pioneered. It was true, too, yeah, he had to admit, he was always in a constant battle with the crazy Neighborhood committee, over crazy CC&R rules. It was the kind of place, if you leave your garage door open, they send an infraction notice. If you hang your towel over the railing: infraction notice.
“You mentioned the daughter—”
“Wood-burning stove? Not allowed. Irrigating with gray-water? Not allowed. Whole-house swamp cooler system? Not allowed.”
“But you say the daughter is having problems.”
Now, I am never idly snoopy. Nor am I even interested in people’s small irregularities. But my intuition started fizzing even before I’d spoken. I’d hit on the missing piece to the Mark Perdue puzzle. The daughter, the train wreck.
“It’s the Internet that does it,” he grieved, jumping straight to diagnosis. “I don’t want to take anything away from her, she’s amazing. She’s truly amazing. Me, old fart like me, I actually used to follow her. Her whole platform.”
“In what sense is she a train wreck?”
“You don’t know. She’s got a concert tonight. Go on the Internet. She’s the one who’ll probably be paying her parents’ bills in old age.”
To be so tactless, it’s a kind of purity of heart. Though it did cross my mind you might not want him as a neighbor.
“Now she’s started her own production company. She was always the smart one, you could see it. Her father – you’d think because he’s the physicist, he should be the smart one. Mark and Audrey, they ought to still be married, they had their troubles, they’d gone through them, but this daughter! Especially the mother, Audrey, the media circus made her crazy. Ended with divorce. So I just hope Captain Kirk is good for her. Tonight’s a big Internet concert. Which I know because I still continue to get her blasts. You know, delete, delete.” He turned aside and took the kink out of his garden hose, again wagging it back and forth dropping hoops of water on sprouts.
“…delete, delete, delete, delete…”
“How old is…Carlotta now?”
All the while, I was changing gears – because I was already done with my job, meshing that satisfaction with the clockwork hours of the day, thanks to diligence and efficiency, those bringers of luck. All I had to do was call the Arhat Agency again and inquire about a Carlotta Perdue, not a Mark Perdue. And get confirmation. The spending was the daughter’s. Therefore, Professor Perdue – strangely depressed scientist, now operating a kind of “used bookstore,” while somehow “living at Burger King” – well, he would have his prize money taken away.
I could phone Rob Kasish with the solution. But I thought maybe I might have to go visit the professor’s bookstore – in fact, I was obliged by duty to go – because so far I’d only gotten rumor. Professor Perdue himself hadn’t been heard from. Also, more than that, I was curious. My funding applications at home weren’t all that urgent. By nature, but also by virtue of experience, I’m one who ordinarily never adds unnecessary side-excursions and curlicues to my path in life. Still, maybe from the physicist/father I might get some mitigating facts, just in case the situation wasn’t so simple as a neighbor’s gossip made it out to be.
§ § §
At one point much later that night, Mark and I were watching his daughter’s “live concert” on his laptop, and I’d been noticing earplugs in Lotta’s ears as she sang and paced onstage. I asked him why and he said, after a minute, “That has been explained to me.”
He didn’t elaborate. With an Abe Lincoln-like creakiness and tallness, he got himself up out of his chair and he went inside his shack. When he came back out he had corn chips. Then having choked the bag in the squeeze of both hands – so having popped the seam – he sat back down, took himself a few chips, handed the bag to me.
“You can’t see the wire. They’re made to look like they’re just earplugs.”
—They’re tiny headphones. Carlotta was getting the sound of her own voice, hearing it before the engineers put on the so-called pitch correction. Pitch correction is a computer program that electronically fixes her singing so it sounds like she’s hitting the notes.
“—Gotta have a monitor in the ear, though. Gotta hear her own voice. If she were hearing the pitch-corrected voice – which is what goes out over the speakers – she’d get confused. She would only be hearing the good stuff. In her ear she needs her own raw actual sound. Don’t sneer. Everybody does it. Absolutely everybody these days gets some kind of live pitch correction, the competition’s too tough, it’s an industry standard.”
In defense of pitch correction, he went on for some while. It’s not just the staying-in-tune – “It puts in a lot. It puts in tonal warmth, and something called harmonic depth, and it’ll put in reverb, a bit of kind of fuzziness, for what they call sweetness – bass-and-treble, compression – they’re all knobs you can adjust.” He glanced, seeing whether I was getting all this. “There’s literally a knob for sweetness. It’s how it comes. It’s rack-mounted. Like a knob labeled ‘Sweetness.’ And labeled ‘Warmth.’ Really, those are knobs. Don’t sneer, it’s just the music business.”
§ § §
Roger Hoberman hadn’t answered my question – (I’d inquired how old Carlotta Perdue was). And he obviously wasn’t going to get around to it. He was carrying on about the pernicious unreality of the Internet and “everything virtual.”
Then he trailed off when a cock-a-doodle-doo rose up, a wonderful sound. He quieted the garden hose, rekinking it, and he winked, “You have to have a rooster. That’s the thing. You don’t have a real going operation unless you’ve got the rooster thing going. And my guys are always real gentlemen.”
“What are all the…barrels, Mr. Hoberman?” Brown plastic barrels stood everywhere.
“It’s potatoes,” he snapped. Potatoes – like the neighborhood rooster, too – seemed a sore topic. “Potatoes are a perfect food. You could live on them. They’ve got more vitamin C than oranges.” Then with a knuckle-bump at my elbow, he added, frowning, “‘Roger,’ by the way.”
I said, “Wow. Lotsa potatoes.” In my own words, I could hear Courtenay’s tone. I’d been inoculated with new tone of sarcasm today from all the way down in Los Angeles. The barrels were vacuum-molded plastic, with staves textured in relief on their surfaces, 55-gallon size, dirt-filled, vine-topped. Holes had been drilled all over their walls to let irrigation water drain out.
“They’re my main crop. I’m off the grid and barrel-growing is crazy. Potatoes keep bubbling over. I can’t keep up. They’re infinite. Here, I could show you.”
“Speaking about Mark Perdue, though, where exactly is the ‘bookstore’?”
He was willing to change direction and put aside potatoes. “It’s his hideaway, I guess. It’s his ‘bachelor pad.’”
He found that observation funny. His eyes half-closed and again he caressed his sun-browned planetary belly with lingering swirling fingernails, lovingly, but also sadly, ruefully, as if truly thinking forward tenderly to his own personal death, yes death, the hard-won golden belly being what he would most regret to be parted from. This, of course, is my own dismal reflection, typical cleric’s morbid reflection – but an accurate reflection, too. His relationship with his exposed brown belly was obviously primal; the connection was (to reverse a metaphor) umbilical; the shoulders had shrunken scrawny, and the legs had thinned, while his belly ripened. It’s Roger Hoberman’s earthly endowment and estate and he knows it. Or anyway he, somewhere, assumes it.
“‘Bookstore’ is accurate, though. I mean it’s got books. I think people do come in and buy. So it’s a real bookstore. Anyway, it’s tolerated. I think it’s been going on for months.”
Tolerated was interesting.
I said, “It’s…?” wanting more explanation of tolerated.
“You know where the city maintenance yard is, for San Rafael? You keep on on the frontage road at the A&W Root Beer, like where you’re going out toward the cemetery-mortuary place?”
(It happens I do know that exit. It goes out to the San Rafael corporation yard; Thalia’s livelihood, running a horticultural clinic, sometimes takes us there.)
“Where that fruit-stand thing is, he’s got old books in there. In the fruit stand.”
“Fruit stand?” I’d never noticed a fruit stand.
“Well, the fruit guy, the fruit guy hasn’t been there for a long time. I guess he just lets him. Lets him put his books there. If you’re looking for Mark, look there, or look in the Burger King. That’s where he hangs out.”
“In what sense is he ‘kinda homeless’?”
“Hell, everybody’s got a ‘home,’ nobody’s ‘homeless.’” He focused a fresh look at me that was intended to cut through all the popular baloney of culture. “I’ve been homeless but I was never ‘homeless.’”
He was proud of that, and then embarrassed to be so proud. And he looked away again standing taller as if for admiration, for portraiture, once homeless, now in vigorous late middle age sun-burnished, displaying his entire potato-fed self standing in the scene, survivalist in the suburbs, an endangered species really, looking taxidermy-preserved in the diorama, plus kinked green rubber hose, a pioneer. It was the man’s peculiar conceit. I find it likable. I find it admirable. It’s actually the antique virtue self-reliance; and a local decency; rare-to-nonexistent anymore in these suburbs.
“Gee, maybe I’ll go out there,” I marveled, largely at how my day was going to take a turn.
“In the back of his fruit thing he’s got a place to sleep. And he’s fine. He’s great. Poor guy. You’ll see.”
He smiled hard then, biting this all off. End of interview. Turning a few degrees aside, he unkinked his rubber hose and let the bright apples of water slap the dust again.
§ § §
My next stop would be the used bookstore that was tolerated on San Juan Road. In a fruit stand I’d never noticed.
But today was going to be a slightly complicated day. It needed some forethought. I had my periodic heart checkup at three. The big item on the agenda was going to be the sonogram. “Clara Luce” is the name Thalia and I are speaking to each other, making it echo in the rooms of our house. Clara Luce Kunst-Gegenuber. When we see her in the sonogram’s black hocus-pocus, we’re seeing her only “through a glass darkly.” As darkly as we will in life, too. As when she’s living in our house. When she’s applying for colleges. When she’s taking forever in the bathroom. The glimpses of my daughter through belly-skin aren’t, in principle, much more darkly “through a glass” than, for instance, my view of the man I’d been standing face-to-face with in sunshine, Roger Hoberman, big doomed fetus in his garden. (Doomed and fetal as I myself, of course.) (Doomed and fetal as are we all, dear reader.)
About sonogram results, I abstain from worrying. These procedures are standard in mid-pregnancy. And Clara Luce’s 300-gram, ten-fingered, ten-toed, vertebrate, two-armed, two-legged person keeps swimming into view as “normal.” For an expectant father, it’s pointless to summon worries about abnormalities. So I don’t.
And in fact, in the end, after this complicated afternoon was over and the doctor visits were complete, when Thalia and I were home again in the evening at the kitchen table dining on my stir-fry, the unborn girl in the sonogram screen had again performed up-to-standard. She’d swum her tiny laps within the statistical norm’s prescribed oval. Femur length, humerus length, abdomen size (they take a measurement of the cross-section’s diameter), palate conformation of course, because, genetics-wise, Thalia and I both have a little history there, fetal heart rate, cranium circumference, and – I love this one – “crown-to-rump” length. What else, so far, do we need to know about her? Nothing! Lord be praised, nothing at all! She’s sufficient! Just like me! And sufficient just like Roger Hoberman – and Rob Kasish – and Courtenay in Los Angeles, too – all of us here, sufficient.
But first I had a practical consideration, and I got off at home, which was on the way, just to phone the Arhat agency and simply confirm that a “Carlotta Perdue,” though her name might not appear on the website, was a client of theirs.
And maybe contact one or two other places the misappropriated money went. The beauty salon, for example, the one called “Raoul’s”: that might be an easy confirmation. My cell phone wasn’t with me; it was at home in the hall closet in the depths of a coat pocket, where it mostly lives. (I often leave the phone behind, in general preferring the 20thcentury over the 21st.)
This time, when my friend Courtenay took my second call, she wasn’t so warm. She’d clearly decided I wasn’t a motion-picture studio head or a powerful record producer or a fellow agency. Or much of anybody. She’d decided that, whoever I was, I would have some squirrelly personal agenda, of which she wanted to know nothing, and in a brisker voice that half-disguised impatience, she told me that Debra had been told of my call – signifying that that was the limit of what I could expect, and the end of our relationship.
Still, I asked whether a “Carlotta Perdue” was on their books. She replied with the routine response for all snoops on the phone: that if I had a question or a proposal, I should go to their main page and click Contact Us. All mail is read with interest, though no response is promised; and meanwhile I might satisfy myself by checking out the website of the Carlotta fan club at www.lotta.com.
Well, morally, I was delighted by all this. The world around me, while I wasn’t paying attention, had as usual sprung open into the old eternal fiasco – avarice, vanity, concupiscence – and I went straight out onto the Internet, as Roger Hoberman suggested I do. I didn’t need anymore to phone the expensive plastic surgery clinic in Ojai, or Raoul at his spa. I had all the confirmation I could want. Then, after I’d had a talk with Professor Perdue I would know enough to settle this.
The Carlotta website comes up with a beautiful revolving montage of black-and-white photographs – they look like snapshots from a tour bus – and a musical score: her peculiar reinterpretation of the famous Beatles tune about all the world’s lonely people, the mystery of where they all come from, the problem of where they all do belong. (It’s a song that naturally always caught my attention. One of its verses describes an unmarried priest alone at night darning his own socks. And that used to be me exactly.) But Carlotta had orchestrated it very differently. Nowhere were the original arrangement’s violins’ hopping and stroking. Instead it was a single cello, a grinding, scratchy cello, lagging alongside a drum-set beat that was clattering and hellish. The drum set sounded phoned-in. Phoned-in from a pay phone in hell. The young woman, as she sang the famous lyrics, used a voice so breathy and intimate, so naked, lacking the usual lubricant recording-studio effects, neither echo nor reverb nor any of those other sauces they add, so that she sounded like she was your friend singing it right there in the room for you. Better, she sounded like she meant it. More than Paul McCartney. Whose song it originally was. The great Paul McCartney, by comparison, is slick and disingenuous, delivering the words he himself wrote.
I looked at her live concerts, briefly. On a small screen, I can take a minute or so of these things. Vast spaces filled by smoke bombs. Lasers’ purple urchin-spines bristling from everywhere. Carlotta tiny, and not really audible in a general cataclysm.
So, she was a great performer. I kept clicking on through, and there was a universe of Carlotta Perdue. It would have dwarfed the comparatively smaller online universe of, say, the physics-department web page at Berkeley. Or the Official Website of the Anglican Communion (USA). All the commercial music-downloading pages were giving Carlotta Perdue huge publicity, right alongside other towering holographic-projection titans of popular music. She was being accorded the kind of space – and the kind of imagery – that is regularly devoted to Tokyo-destroying dinosaurs, or tidal waves engulfing New York.
And I could see, maybe this – stardom – had been Mark Perdue’s real problem. His and his wife’s problem. Not just a “celebrity” problem, as is Roger Hoberman’s claim, but talent. Maybe they’d been having other difficulties, but maybe the big disaster was when their stable, peaceful, ordinary lives in Cobblestone Hearth were struck by lightning, centrally, in the form of talent, real talent, talent that can tear up infrastructure and uproot everything with its own emergencies and selfish exigencies. The live-concert videos weren’t correctly audible (to me, they’re all just thump-thump-thump). But the twisted Beatles song, combined with the montage of black-and-white photos, was desolate, and also dangerous – she’s an artist and it was all very moving.
§ § §
“This is Robert Kasish,” is how Rob answers his phone at the diocese nowadays, grimly businesslike. It’s amusing when your old schoolboy friends put on the accents and costumes of adults. We’re grown-ups now, at desks, in offices. Rob never did marry, and that circumstance, for him, has been an essential one – being unmarried, and more precisely, being homosexual – it has been central to the story of his life. My own celibacy of many years was a lot easier than Rob’s, celibacy being a circumstance more marginal to my life-story, celibacy being really just an ongoing muddled pessimism of mine, which was remedied when I met Thalia, in my forties. (I’ve extolled uxoriousness, for you male readers, and the henpecked state, calling it the way to live a long, happy life. But I should have added one little thing: you have to have gotten the right woman. Which means being fantastically lucky as well as a little bit discerning. So good luck on that. Not everybody gets a Thalia Kunst.)
Rob and I were never super-close friends in school, but we did have virginity in common, a defect uniting us and pairing us off together – because an amazing preponderance of seminarians are not virgins, not by a long shot. That Rob was an admirer of males was something everybody knew, back in those days before anybody talked so freely, and back when Rob himself was still keeping an open mind and dating girls and testing, and really sincerely hoping it weren’t a settled fact about himself. The old social code of silence surrounding homosexuality never was entirely censorious intolerance. Not, anyway, among ordinary sensitive people. Which is most people. Everybody is aware in his heart, the human soul is known to be so complex and worrisome and dark and sweet and unexplainable. There’s generally loads more goodwill in society than ill will. It’s just that the goodwill is a constant steady all-over pressure and you get benumbed to it, while ill will is spiky and puncturing. I believe Rob Kasish has never had any sexual relationships – at least ideally, i.e., in his best intentions. It’s possible that he might have had a few one-off encounters he’s ashamed of. But I could possibly doubt even that! I think he’s in torment. He himself in candid moments has told me he entered the Church in order to have a fortress he could lock himself inside of – against the world and against desire. He didn’t want to be gay, he didn’t like the idea, or celebrate the idea, or take a lot of “pride” in his desires, he’s such a conservative, he so despises the modern trend of freedom, which he once called “to flaunt and to flout,” so that way back in his first days when he arrived in seminary, he started practicing some of the alien Catholic customs to keep fencing himself in – praying at all the canonical hours during the day, even waking himself from sleep for appointed middle-of-the-night prayers – and recruiting a confessor for himself, Catholic-style, to whom he regularly confessed his, as he saw them, defects of soul and abnormal urges.
So, in talking to Rob – especially in recent years – I find I’m speaking, uncomfortably, from behind the white picket fence of my conjugal state. I happen to exist statistically in the trough of the “norm,” for better or worse. There’s even Thalia’s pregnancy now; she’s in her fifth month; and with Rob, I just don’t bring it up. He knows all about it, he has congratulated me, and he asks how she’s doing. But I don’t want to burden him with extra bulletins, or allude much to my happy domestic scene, in case the man might be afflicted with a tired old jealousy – one more sin for him to confess before he can take communion: envy of his old friend’s common lot.
I told him what I’d learned about the Perdues – their divorce, et cetera – and I told him I’d more or less solved the crime. (It’s the daughter.) But I let him know that, since all I’d gotten was hearsay, I planned on driving over to the so-called “bookstore” and getting Professor Perdue’s side of the story.
All the while, as I was talking, my original fax machine from Coldwell Banker days started grinding, lurching, causing a wobble in the little table it lives on. It was Rob sending me a document. He explained it was a Castlegate questionnaire, just one page, for the professor to fill out and sign. It was important. The professor had, in fact, been required to submit this form at the very inception of the award period. But he’d never done so. Submitting this form happens to be the one and only necessity of the whole Castlegate benefaction.
This, now, was my job: Get this one page signed. For which Rob would be eternally grateful and would buy me a bottle of ancient Scotch whisky, and maybe even say a whole novena for me. All I had to do was bring it with me when I visited the physicist and make sure he got it filled out, and then fax it back to Sacramento. Then everybody would be getting back on a solid legal footing. It’s possible this document puts Castlegate in a position to sue him and take away the money. I don’t want/need to know the specifics, I’m just the henchman. As to the question whether diverting the money to a daughter’s rock-star career constituted some sort of literal “crime,” like “embezzlement,” Rob didn’t have an opinion. He didn’t want to have an opinion, either. He would pass any information on, but he wasn’t in the position of judge.
It was still before noon. At three o’clock I was supposed to pick up Thalia for our clinic appointments. I didn’t mention that. I just told him this Castlegate job would take priority over everything, and I would fax the finished form soon, maybe even before lunchtime had come and gone. “What canonical hour is that? Matins? Nones? I forget all that wonderful junk of yours.”
“Noontime is sext. But you get a lot of boring puns.”
I told him I could see that.
“It’s awkward saying you have to go off by yourself in the lunch hour for sext.” He added, “Rather call it ‘blinks.’”
He was referring to an old joke. Which I couldn’t quite bring back. Something from school days.
“Matins. Vespers,” I said. “It’s all very pretty. It’s a nice little system. It’s kinda beautiful.”
It’s true, the canonical-hours routine is exactly the kind of lovely thing that could make a man long for the eleventh century, and certitude.
“Do you still keep all those offices?”
“Remember we used to call them funny names? There was blinks and blahs and rubbers. You’d say, ‘There goes Kasish, setting his alarm so he can be awake at midnight for rubbers.’”
Yes. blinks was the noontime observance. And the after-dinner prayer we called spots. Kasish used to withstand all dormitory mockery by putting on a doleful Basset-hound expression, a parody of long-suffering piety, he was always so generous, making a burlesque of his being the “picked-on” one. There is the man’s fortitude. Lacking, myself, any real tribulations, I can afford to be a frailer man. I will have gone through life as a man of easier faiths. Certainly I’ve had occasions for the luxury of self-pity, but I’ve never lived inside the bonfire of my own sin, not in the way Rob, in his celibacy, likes to writhe lifelong. Doubtless I’m like anybody else, napalmed all over with sin, I just manage to relax and enjoy it, being the sort of man, if I were gay, I’d cut myself plenty of slack. I cut everybody plenty of slack. In my own life, I happen to lie in the valley of the conventional, and all the conventional blessings rain gently down on me undeserved. At the ob-gyn’s office at 3:30 I would have a visit with my unborn Clara Luce, flickering on the screen in the sonogram’s black cone, a girl already registered on the waiting list (the incredibly long waiting list!) for YogaBaby classes in Mill Valley, a girl indeed signed up to start soon receiving in utero yoga adjustments from a masseuse, and already benefiting from daily Wonder Womb Tutorials. I got off the phone without mentioning anything of my afternoon’s happy expectations, telling him today was busy, but that, definitely, the top item on my list would be to meet up with the lapsed physicist. And get the form filled out. Have a little conversation in an abandoned fruit stand. It would be a simple job – a blessedly unambiguous job, to accomplish during a lunchtime hour – while a certain few others, the Church’s gentle supererogates, like Rob, in their chapels, accomplish something crucial, observing a canonical, sequestered hour on behalf of all sinners and skeptics and backsliders, even me.
§ § §
I mostly sat in my lawn chair. He in his. The freeway was right behind us, just up the slope, but its noise was mostly banished. Strange acoustic phenomenon. I suppose it was covered up by the interfering fruit-stand structure. So all that afternoon, he and I were hunkered down in a quiet serenity where everything felt like boyhood. (Boyhood being aimless, freely speculative, chafing, tedious.) A grasshopper clicked in the dry meadow.
We hardly stirred from our chairs all day. That whole raggedy undeveloped area off the San Juan Road exit – I’m speaking from the standpoint of a realtor over the years here – has always been an instance of the mysterious, capricious laws of property values, one of those open weedy areas that, for some reason, are cursed and will never firm up and knit into the surrounding healthy economic plaid. I’m oddly attracted to such places. I guess they’re zones of low standards, zones of remission, exemption, visits to childhood. And now for an afternoon I had a lawn chair of my own here. Maybe, in such unproductive little wastelands, it’s a microclimate issue, maybe downwind of a sometimes swampy smell – or something about the soil? – a flood liability? – these kinds of tracts can’t even host the typical junkyard, or one of those auto-mechanic/metalworking warrens, or even a Caltrans staging area for storing road-building materials. These places exist for the salvation of our souls.
“…But, you know, one isn’t worried.”
So remarked the professor, out of the blue, sitting beside me in his own broken-down (more broken-down than mine) lawn chair, where he had melted back almost to the point of lying down, so motionless, for a long while now, he seemed to be steeping there and distilling a personal sheen, a pop-top can mounted on his belly, eyes slitted as he looked out over the brown haze of the meadow behind the A&W Root Beer – it’s been a drought year, and all the slopes and meadows all over the county have turned hazy gold early. One fingernail picked idly at the beer can’s pop-top flange, making a marimba-tink. Then he went on to explain why, in general, there’s no cause for worry: “There’s all the time in the world.”
I waited for more. This topic (“worry”? “time”?) wasn’t relevant to anything. We’d been talking about the kinds of old paperbacks that tend to keep turning up when you’re in the used book business. Before that, it wasn’t anything pertinent, it was a long drawn-out dead end: I’d been trying to describe the Catholic idea, which I find interesting, that marriage is an ordination – like the way a priest or bishop is ordained – husband and wife are supposedly ordained by the marriage sacrament, to higher purposes, purposes to be fulfilled only by faith and in our blindness. I think it’s a charming old idea. (I even think it’s an instance of what’s lovable about the Catholic religion: how dead-seriously they take their mysticism.) But on that kind of talk, Mark wasn’t holding up his end. I guess I was thinking, who knows, he might someday marry again. Or even get back with his first wife. So why not put a little thought into what a marriage is? He didn’t even want to idly toy with the subject. Meanwhile, look at his life: he’s sitting in the dirt behind an abandoned roadside stand. Dining every day at a fast-food place.
Anyway I prompted him, “‘All the time in the world’ for…?”
I’m not a drinker of beer. Wine is my vice, not beer, and never anything at noon. But for once in my life, I wanted a beer, sitting alongside him in the less dilapidated of the two lawn chairs, watching the spectacle of the weedy meadow as if we were at the seaside. I was almost on the brink of tugging one off the six-pack. Fastidious me.
I asked again, “All the time for what?”
I thought maybe he might be, after all, coming around to the marriage topic. Or just the larger issue of his poor life choices, and how to correct them.
“Well, I’ll tell you. Here’s an illustration. I look at an atom going ten trillion times a second, you know, rrm, rrm, rrm, rrm.” – (This did pertain to something, but something he’d said much earlier.) “That’s fast. Don’t you think? Faster than we tend to go? Ten trillion wiggles in a second?
“And inside the nucleus there, actually in the proton, there’s something tinier. Which would be three little quarks, supposedly. And for every orbit, a quark goes round-and-round ten thousand times more. Quarks. You know. Quarks. So it adds up: things are going something approaching the speed of light in there.”
I was never able to follow any of this talk.
“And it just keeps going like that: inward, inward, inward. So with an infinite amount of that sort of interpolated time and, also, an infinite amount of extrapolated time – I mean in eternity – everything is pretty much inevitable.”
He was pleased with that conclusion: Everything is pretty much inevitable.
(That I have no basis for understanding wasn’t the slightest consideration with him, ever.)
“Just ’cause we go so slow…” He held up his palms as if to say, why cast unfair blame or even feel disappointed?
I tried to round this up in my mind. He seemed to be saying, literally, that everything is inevitable. That seemed to be the point. So it was a philosophical idea.
But in general, if “everything is inevitable” means what it obviously seems to mean, well then, you could answer, No, everything isn’t inevitable at all. In a way, nothing was ever “inevitable.” Think of anything. Was any of this “inevitable”? None of this needed to happen.
In saying so, I would have risked sounding like a theist. Which I’m not. But people are pretty simplistic. Most people like to think they’re “atheists.” Or “agnostic.” So you can get ruled out of a discussion if you say anything slightly complicated.
He said, “I’m talking about how much room there is inside a second. There’s an eternity scrunched up inside a second.”
I would agree that every minute is infinitely divisible. Milliseconds, nanoseconds, etc., on and on infinitely.
Apparently, to him, that led to the conclusion that “everything is inevitable.”
(Or, “everything is inevitable” if you also add the whole length of eternity.)
In illustration he flipped his hand happily all around at everything that was so inevitable: the sloping meadow landscape and the ice chest, the plastic arms of his chair, which he could gently pat, his own physical body. Abracadabra. Inevitable.
(All the while, anyway, I was reminded that I’d have to leave soon, to meet Thalia and keep our medical appointments. I still hadn’t gotten him to fill out the Castlegate form.)
“There’s just a lot of time in a universe to get something done, if you’re a universe and you want to get something done. Obviously, something is getting done.” He sneaked a look, as if to see whether I’d noticed a sleight of hand. Then he went back to watching out over the meadow. He seemed to have grown suddenly annoyed by his own idea, and he lamented, “If universes ‘get anything done.’”
§ § §
There is a reason why the Episcopal Church (and indeed the whole Anglican Communion) wants to keep its relationship with the so-called “Castlegate Foundation” strictly unofficial. And why this chore was quietly fobbed off on Rob Kasish, in his irrelevant bailiwick in Sacramento. Who then further fumbled it to me, who am not even affiliated with the Church anymore.
The reason the church objects to the prize is that it’s supposed to reward people who are reconciling science with religion. That’s a rough summary of the Castlegate organization’s mission, and such project is considered crackpot in serious places. Science should be pure, the church says. Science should have its own sovereign freedom. On this issue, as on many, Episcopalians fall on the liberal side.
The prize was created by an idealistic, rich Danish philanthropist and obstetrician and philosopher. A lot of charitable money is hobbled by cranky and even prejudiced restrictions (I can say this from my years as a professional fundraiser), and the Castlegate philanthropist left his fortune to “the encouragement of a legitimate spiritual dimension in the sciences.” The Episcopal Church will always see such a program as biased: Science should be free to reach any conclusions. Don’t reward scientists for ending up on something you happen to like.
The funny part here – the saving absurdity – is that the Castlegate committee was mistaken in choosing this California physicist Mark Perdue. I figured this out as the day went on. They’ve dumped their million dollars on the wrong person, based on their own stubborn misunderstanding of his scientific work. So, from the beginning, the award was a misjudgment. (Which Mark did make genuine efforts to rectify when he got it. However, the Castlegate people remained, as he says, “smug enough in their decision.” Once they’ve given an award, it’s a decision they treat as irrevocable.) Professor Mark Perdue’s work was never the slightest bit relevant to theology or anything vaguely supernatural. He’s a scientist, and he thinks of himself as objective, atheistic, and rational. He’s known all along he’s the wrong person for the prize, but at this point, he’s not going to try anymore to stop them. It’s a done deal, and he’s already four years into the award period.
When he first glimpsed the questionnaire page I was carrying, when I’d first arrived (out back behind the fruit shed, in his outdoor parlor of two lawn chairs with a lidded Coleman ice-chest cooler), he must have recognized the large Castlegate insignia on the letterhead, because for a second he almost stood up, but then said, “Oh. You people,” settling again in his chair, turning his back.
§ § §
There was one interesting, ongoing, odd phenomenon. After I’d started noticing it, it was partly what started making me want to stick around, just to get an explanation for.
It was that his cell phone, on his knee or on the Coleman cooler, kept making ping sounds and birr sounds and friendly clink-clanks – notice of an incoming text, a voicemail, an email, an Internet alert – all of which he ignored. Here was a man who had gone out to an extreme of obscurity in his life: why was he keeping in such constant touch with the outside world? Sometimes he might pick it up and check the screen, taking a brief sharp interest before putting it away again. But mostly he would pretend it wasn’t happening. The thing would sound its alarms and its notices, and he wouldn’t even look. Wasn’t even curious.
All of which made me antsy. Like watching a man being bitten by a mosquito but not brushing it off; or rather, sitting tranquilly in a whirring cloud of mosquitoes. What could all the messages be? I guess I thought, vaguely, maybe he was still involved with research and these could be messages involving experimental developments. That’s how far my imagination was running with this person. I hold physicists in a certain awe, even unemployed ones. I thought maybe it was some experimental atom-smasher somewhere, sending him results.
§ § §
At one point during that afternoon behind the fruit stand, I noticed he had a habit of closing one eye, shifting his head, as if he were sighting through a telescope or a surveyor’s transit – drifting, lining up some distant perspective. He might occasionally be interrupted; there were lots of interruptions – book customers would show up, so sometimes he might have to get out of his chair, it was surprising how often. People around Marin seem to know about this to-all-appearances temporary bookstore and patronize it. A car would pull up – and mostly he would ignore it and just let visitors alone, let them browse in the fruit stand. Then, if they came out holding something, he would have to get up out of his chair and start digging in his pants-pockets to make change. (I sat aside feeling embarrassed, or even guiltily complicit. This man counting nickels and pennies out of his palm was somebody with an average balance of $30,000 in his checking account.) Also, always, there was the frequent interruption of pulling out the phone to have a look at something. But then he would go back to leaning on one armrest or the other, aligning distant objects with his sharpshooter’s squint.
I asked him at last, “Is there something out there you’re keeping a watch on?”
He had an explanation ready because of course he knew I was noticing, obviously. Sitting beside him.
“You see that tire swing out there. Looks like it’s been there all these years? I’m kind of interested in its period. It has a harmonic period if you just be still and watch.”
In the distance, an old tire was hung from a tree branch by a rope. His index finger on the armrest lifted and made a swaying motion in illustration, his finger a small entranced python.
Then, by an adaptation of the head, he re-angled his view. “It’s just interesting.”
§ § §
The kinds of things you learn, whiling away an afternoon and an evening with an astrophysicist:
- Pluto is a planet. It’s ridiculous – it’s intolerable – that a committee of know-nothings at the IAU took away its planet status. Pluto is a wonderful planet. It’s far and away the most wonderful. The IAU will only end up causing people’s funding to be pulled.
- It snows on Mars. Snow piles up in drifts especially at the north and south poles. But on Mars it’s carbon-dioxide snow, not water snow.
- Pluto’s biggest moon is so big, it throws Pluto off-balance as it goes around. Way off-balance. So Pluto and its moon are a pair of rocks orbiting an empty center-point. Like a dumbbell in space, spinning.
- In that way, Pluto is really more of a “binary” planet.
- The “whole entire solar system” is somewhat similar. The sun doesn’t exactly “stand still” in the middle, the sun grinds around the center-point, pulling back on Jupiter’s swinging mass.
- In fact, to be accurate, Pluto has five moons – irregular-shaped, tumbling – and all six rocks are swarming around each other like six gnats. It’s just a mess. The pattern never repeats. It could fall apart any time (or a collision could reconfigure it).
§ § §
There’s one particular scientific matter Mark is wrong about. Of course he’s brilliant, and of course science is his field, not mine, but there is one area where anyone could see he’s prejudiced. He’s wrong when he says that the rest of the universe is uninhabitable and will never be colonized by humans.
He tried to show me websites on his phone. But of course, it’s well known, one picks and chooses one’s websites according to one’s preferences and biases. He seems totally unaware of all the new excitement around the search for livable planets, and the plans to colonize Mars. I told him about the detection of water-moisture on the moon; and about the possibility that water once existed on Mars. He didn’t even want to hear about it. He’s crotchety. This sort of crotchety thinking would be why they let him go at Berkeley.
In fact, it’s a pernicious kind of mischief for a scientist to be sitting around saying science and technology are futile. Especially in these days when we particularly need science’s creativity. There’s something insulting about it, something arrogant; in a scientist it’s weirdly fatheaded, and an excellent warrant for Berkeley to have let him go. Back home at the end of the day, I actually couldn’t get to sleep, thinking of arguments/evidence I might have brought up.
§ § §
“I don’t have to fill that out,” he’d said when I first arrived. Sitting in his chair with his back turned.
It didn’t impress him when I explained I wasn’t with Castlegate; that I was here only as a favor to a friend. “I just happen to live around here.”
He thought of me as a threat anyway. At first, in greeting, he had almost half-stood but then he’d turned back and resettled.
“You can just leave it. Leave it. They’re used to me not responding.”
“They only want you to sign this one thing. You’re on a research grant, no?”
I was using my meekest, sorriest tones. – Because I was intruding. I had let myself be put in this odd position.
I added, “It’s only one page.”
The one page was simple, too. Beneath lines for name and date, grant number and award inception date, it consisted of two open-ended questions, with room for subjective responses. One asked how the grantee’s work “interrogates the sciences for their spiritual dimension (please list and provide links to any relevant publications, performances, press, curricula, exhibitions, et cetera)”; and the other asked whether the grantee’s notions about such subjects might be expected to change or evolve during the award period.
That was all it asked. He could fill the thing out as vaguely as he might like. I was standing there on the little dirt backyard. The man in his chair wasn’t speaking, his back turned, just waiting for me to go away. His aluminum lawn chair was so old, the seat looked about to burst, its plaited broad straps fraying in hairy fibers. He was held up by threads.
Then he did speak. “The Castlegate is an unrestricted gift. They don’t have any say.”
I was only a messenger here. But the word “unrestricted” can’t apply so literally. The Castlegate Foundation isn’t going to put up with people’s children spending the award money in spas and boutiques. Or on amplifiers and personal bodyguards and tour bus rentals.
In the role of moral policeman I’m not eager, or wholehearted. I learned this about myself as a priest. A parish priest, counselor to parishioners, is always at risk of becoming a mere busybody, and I’m sure, in my role, I’ve personally meddled in plenty of sinners’ lives only to mess them up worse. A policy of benign, watchful non-interference carries right over, too, to the realtor’s practices – standing back in the open front door, letting people dreamwalk ahead into empty rooms and fall in love with what they think they want. Nolite iudicare, it’s written.
Still, I’d been asked me to accomplish this one little thing, by my old friend. I was obliged by loyalty and duty to show a little stubbornness. I held my piece of paper, not going away.
“Anyway,” I said. “I see you’ve got a bookstore. How’s it working? Not much regular foot-traffic, I suppose.”
He lifted and dropped two fingers on the armrest. That was his whole answer.
He was gazing out over the meadow.
He meant to go on ignoring me until I gave up and left. I edged around to see through the door into the wooden shack, which was once a fruit stand.
There were books all right. Shelves. Table-like expanses that once would have held tomatoes or oranges: now books. On the walls, computer-drawn diagrams had been tacked up: they were mostly circles, centered on the crosshairs of an X-axis and a Y-axis. Geometry of some sort. And on another page, on a horizontal line, an S-curve was stretched out: it made the regular shape of a jump rope being twitched in a wiggle. In another, a curve climbed up the central axis, then swerved out to the right.
So, he liked to put up geometry diagrams, to make himself feel at home.
It would be obvious, in peeking, I was trying to detect whether he was crazy. He checked over his shoulder to see if I was still there. Then he turned back to look out over the meadow.
Then he unweighted, and kicked his own chair leg to jar it around a little in my direction, “Really Mr. …?”
“The Castlegate Foundation is not allowed to pry into my activities. That is how the thing reads. They have their own agenda, you know. Who is this ‘friend’ who asked you to bring this to me?”
He didn’t recognize the name. It was new to him. Also, it was uninteresting to him.
“Is he in Denmark?”
“He’s with the Episcopal Church organization here in California. They’re trying to do some of the administration of the prize, I guess.”
“Well, there you are.” He had already turned away again, looking out to the meadow, settling back in.
We were at a fixed impasse: I was here to say the people in Denmark were entitled to know how their money was spent; he believed they weren’t. So I was simply differently informed than he was. No point in going on with that. The Castlegate organization, if they wanted this straightened out, ought to send out a lawyer. Or at least somebody who knows the contractual terms. Not just a friend of a friend.
“Really, Mr. Gegenuber—” He was facing out over his meadow, so I came around somewhat. “Take my word for it. There are people who got the Castlegate who went on to do all kinds of things, and even loopy things.” He looked up at me from his chair, where now he sat with palms pressed flat together as if in prayer at his chin, elbows on armrests. “You’re being very nice to your friend—”
I was still holding my one page.
The implication was, my niceness to my friend must be evidence of some pitiable lack in my own life. Here it was a weekday, and I was a grown man, presumably a productive member of society. But I was out on this little job.
My cell phone didn’t happen to be with me or I would have called Rob Kasish, to ask how I should proceed.
“May I inquire,” he said, looking up at me from his chair, his palms at his breast still together in the holy namaskar greeting, “why the church here is now involved?”
I told him about Rob, and obliquely about the uneasy connection between Castlegate and the Anglicans. I also told him I would have to go home and phone Rob and get the contractual facts. And then I’d probably have to drive all the way back out again, “to serve you with this thing,” I said, using a legalism that amused him, just a slight puffy bit. This meant I had to explain, too, my old association with the Church, my having had a ministry of my own in Sausalito long ago. And I think, all the while, he was adjusting his view of me. It was the same squint as in aligning the far-off tire swing. People tend to think ecclesiastic folk are, at least, harmless; and especially Episcopalians get off light.
He said, “Here, I have a cell phone. Use my cell phone. Call him.”
I pointed out I didn’t know my friend’s number in Sacramento at the church offices.
“You can get it in the Internet,” he answered while offering up the little glass panel, from his bedridden position low in the ruined chair, “You can get anything now on a phone.” He gestured opulently around at his little encampment, an example, apparently, of how well you can furnish an entire life, just out of a cell phone.
§ § §
It turned out Rob wasn’t available. But the secretary would have him call. All I needed, I told her, was a bit of information.
So I was handing the phone back, when it scared me, buzzing in my hand like a rattlesnake, lighting up, displaying an electronic message:
“WholeLottaLove BULLETIN.” On the small screen was an image of Carlotta Perdue kneeling, wearing nothing but one of those things involving zigzag laces for cinching it tight. She sat up kneeling with bare thighs parted, her wrists bound behind her back. A red telephone cord – the old-fashioned curly kind – was wrapped around and around to gag her mouth.
Mark pretended it hadn’t happened. He glimpsed what it was, but then the cell phone went back on his knee face-down, and he folded his arms and seemed, again, to sunbathe in his chair.
“So,” I said.
Meaning: I guess we have to wait. Wait, that is, for an answer from Sacramento. He’d been able to hear my side of the conversation, and my being thwarted at the diocesan office.
The image of Carlotta bound and gagged was clearly an ad. In the caramel-vanilla lighting, there was the usual commercial succulence. And on the white floor, no shadows. This would be publicity for a new album of songs. Or for the concert Roger Hoberman mentioned. Her father knew I’d seen, and he’d gotten a good look at specifically what I’d seen. But he didn’t want to go into it, obviously. He just looked out over the meadow. It seemed like we were going to be stuck together, at least for a while. And my imagination was so blocked in making any other plan, I joined him looking out at the meadow, as if the meadow was going to be the only spectacle for us, at least until Rob called.
It was alive with bees. I’m unfortunately not much of a naturalist – neither birdwatcher nor botanist, nor observer of insects either – but I could see here, on a noon in September, this was the great heyday of honeybees’ lives, the late summer of their wonderful, maybe-once-in-a-lifetime cotillion; and I let my whole consciousness go into the vacancy of a long stare – so many bees were at work – if I let my eyes unfocus, my whole field of vision could see that the view sparkled everywhere, it was like static on a TV screen, particles in motion, moving from weed to weed. Unparking from one grass top, a bee moved over and parked on a new one. Each grass bunch’s long solitary central stem was topped by a single dowdy burr-like bloom – or seed-pod or something, which would be the plant’s fuzzy brown reproductive gem. There were other things than grass – there were old dandelions, a thistle far off – but mostly it was this bunchgrass that conquered the hard dust, clump by isolated clump, each clump sending up its central stem, with a pod-flower thing on top. These honeybees were the little brown kind, the kind you seldom interact with, or even notice, except when they’re underfoot doing their multitudinous work and you happen to look down. The larger black weaponized wasps, or the little yellowjackets at a picnic trying to get onto your corncob, or the velvet balls with their touch of sulfur – those are the conspicuous ones. These little humble ones you’re almost never made aware of. From where I stood, I could see three wooden boxes – they looked like chests of drawers out at the horizon of the meadow – and I asked (still, mostly, as a form of diversion, covering up the embarrassment of his daughter’s lewd advertisement; the young woman’s haunch was exposed enough to make one think she wore nothing else, other than the girdle thing), “Are those beehives? Out there?”
He was watching the tire swing. After a minute he said, “You want some honey?”
“Are they yours? Are you the beekeeper?”
“Those don’t seem to be anybody’s. The beekeeper either died or stopped caring about them. All three apiaries have swarmed. I don’t know what bees do – I think they go and set up new hives. New colonies. You know, elsewhere. One of those boxes – the one on the left – is abandoned. I suppose the queen died. If it swarmed and recolonized, and if there was a left-behind queen, I don’t know. It’s why I think ‘dead.’ No bees anymore. Just a lot of old honey.”
“Shouldn’t somebody go get the honey? How long has it been like that?”
He didn’t answer, because his phone made the noise of another message arriving.
He checked the lit-up screen, guarding it from me like a poker player, and then put it back, darkening the screen with a button-click, face down.
“I mean, won’t the honey rot? Or go bad?”
That question seemed to strike him as amusing, but ruefully. “Nope. Honey doesn’t rot. Never rots.”
§ § §
At the very end of this long day – this long, wasted, ridiculous, vexatious, misspent day – Thalia and I were in the den on the couch watching an episode of that old sit-com “The Honeymooners.” My midnight snack of anchovies and cheese, the nearness of Thalia’s thigh to mine, my bedtime glass of wine, I richly deserved it all. The old TV show, too, served up a gratifying instance of a certain longstanding announced philosophy of mine: that all middle-class art is about marriage, basically. All middle-class society is structured to be one big sit-com. Or, one big “rom-com.”
Picture the suburbs. Mile upon mile. The happy ending (which consists in sex and reproduction) is what’s at stake in art, in government, in literature. In almost everything we watch on TV or check out of the library or sing along with on the radio, we’re educating ourselves about the love project. Which as a priest was my favorite project. Marriage is of course an artificial institution, and it’s somewhat oppressive of human nature. But it is really a most wonderful invention of society; for it’s a conventional device that licenses and regulates lust, and then enjoins childcare obligations on even the most feckless. I exclude here the extreme “upper” and extreme “lower” classes, who can spurn marriage, its boredom, its sham. Since marriage is a largely economic invention, it’s for us. Us in the middle class.
But it doesn’t come naturally. We need to be constantly schooled in it. In this episode of “The Honeymooners,” the marriage of Ralph and Alice Kramden was endangered by a silly sexual misunderstanding. It lasted only for about fifteen seconds of screen time; but for fifteen seconds, the serious possibility of Ralph Kramden’s adultery with the neighbor (“Trixie,” wife of “Ed Norton”) was bounced in our faces.
Though the misunderstanding was quickly cleared up, for a minute Trixie looked pretty good to me, too! I, in my kingly leisure in my den beside my wife, sitting safely in my own corduroy couch, I actually felt desire stir for an imaginary person, a television actress in her cotton frock.
§ § §
The kinds of titles that keep popping up when you’re in used books:
The Kama Sutra
Revised Official SAT Study Guide
Great Walks to Take in CHICAGO!
The Literary Marketplace, in outdated editions
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Ulysses, by James Joyce
anything on the order of Algebra and Analysis, Fifth Edition
The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
everything by Stephen King or one of his noms de plume
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn
Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill
Mastering MS DOS
Best American Short Stories
§ § §
The six-pack of beer in the cooler wasn’t disappearing fast, I noticed. Professor Perdue seemed customarily to have just one noontime beer and, by taking little sips, make it last all afternoon.
At some point during the hour, I’d lost my footing and gone ahead and taken a beer for myself. Beer isn’t an unpleasant drink. Bitterness itself is oddly quenching. I’ll never be a convert, I’ll always be a deep-dyed drinker of wine, and I might live for another couple of decades without another occasion for drinking a beer; but I think I was enjoying my mirror-imitation of Mark’s habit. The cylinder in hand. Its dew.
“Ordinarily, Mark, you know, people are comfortable with metaphors,” I rather wailed almost, launching into something. It was a response to a comment he’d made some time back. “Why not ‘God’? What has to be so literal about ‘God”?”
I suppose I was making a general, scattershot response to the default atheism. It’s everywhere these days, everywhere palpable as a felt kind of indifference – vapid, cheerful, supercilious, bland – to be felt even radiating off good kids these days – the intelligent amiable guy at the record-store counter (I still buy vinyl), the young interns at Thalia’s office, the smart Wellesley-bound girl at the club who hands across the tennis court key. They’ve all got the “default atheism” thing lighting them up. But they’re so smart! It’s frustrating.
I thought I might try to go into this, because Mark is somebody who would get it. Also – this is what’s relevant – it’s what the Castlegate people thought his research was about: “God.”
“Everybody ought to know God is just a very sophisticated metaphor. God is actually a completely indispensable metaphor. Or anybody with any smarts or any critical ability. I’m not talking about the mass of people who don’t think. Who’re just, like, watching cartoons on TV.” (This was at a point pretty far along in the afternoon. Also, I confess I do like to aim for this kind of talk. Which can get to be a lot freer now, a lot less mincing and less cautious, since my vocation as an identified rector has slipped further away into ancient history. A civilian – i.e., me – is allowed to sound off, and more unguardedly.) “Why are people so uncomfortable with that one? ‘God’ is a metaphor for something. For something literally everybody’s got.”
I was able to answer my own question: “Well, people are uncomfortable with that one metaphor because of the problem of everybody abusing it.” I drank my beer. “God: that most-abused metaphor.” Upon thinking I added, “That always-abused metaphor. The never–unabused metaphor.”
I checked on him and he seemed to be listening without impatience – or even much expectation – head pillowed on a forearm. I knew he would be open to this kind of talk, because I’d seen some bits of his old YouTube videos.
I went on, “Scientists use metaphors. All the time. Don’t they? The ‘quark.’ ‘Up,’ ‘down,’ ‘charmed.’ Gravity is a metaphor, it’s a picture, it’s a picture of an invisible ‘force,’ like gravity is this magical thing happening. Happening between the earth and the moon. Or between the earth and the apple. Which, nobody really knows what that is. Even Isaac Newton. With the apple. The word gravity is a metaphor where you’re talking about something too huge and weird for human conception. So you invent this word.” I looked at him.
“You want to get a hamburger?”
“Sure, yes. But listen. ‘Gravity’ – nobody knows what it is. While being unable to conceive it, they feel it, they feel it in their bones. And they live on it, and in it. And talk about it as if it were something – with this word.”
“It’s past lunchtime. Let’s just go.”
I looked at him, his supine profile with eyes slitted. He was regular-featured except that, perhaps as a natural acquisition of middle age, his nose had acquired a sharpened ridge I associate with aggressive burrowing animals, and his eyes were crowding in around that. He was sunburned from his weeks or months out here with his bookstore.
I’d had a little bit of beer, and I asked, recklessly, “You know something? Why are you out here? Why not be back in Cobblestone Hearth? Couldn’t you be back there more easily?”
Elbows outsprung, he began trying to lift himself up, by the motions of a daddy-long-legs freeing himself from the trap that was his broken-down chair. He was really only thinking about a hamburger, now.
He said, “Oof. Cobblestone. We don’t own that.”
I got the feeling, on reflection, that maybe what I’d said about “gravity” might be mistaken, wrong in some technical, scientific way. Still, the general point holds. About metaphor.
He stood with both hands pressing the small of his back, distorted by the chair. “The lender owns the house now. Before the Castlegate came along with all the money, a whole major change happened with us. We were behind on our payments, and my wife and I were both actually literally unemployed. And then we got divorced. So it was all impossible. Plus, this is easy out here.” His fingers sprinkled over the scene, “Food, shelter, clothing. Walk to my bank. The Portuguese are glad I’m here.”
He was referring to the family that, according to him, still own the fruit stand. It’s true, much of this area off this exit is, in fact, old Portuguese ranch land.
“It’s easy out here. And I’m studying.” He waggled his upheld cell phone, evidence of his studies. “So that keeps me busy. It’s a good place to be, as long as the weather is good.”
§ § §
What was he studying? What can a person “study” on his cell phone at the roadside? I had to keep bearing in mind, obviously, he might be a little bit delusional. The likeliest thing was that he was only “studying” his daughter’s music career. That seemed to be what was coming in mostly. I was getting the impression that he’d subscribed to every possible newsfeed and fan site and Google Alert pertaining to Carlotta Perdue. They were the constant pinging and buzzing. So possibly the father was a fan; or else, more likely, he was keeping track of her exploits in a fatherly – a judgmental – kind of surveillance. It’s possible that the phone alarms weren’t all bulletins for Lotta fans. But at least they weren’t news from the Stanford Linear Accelerator or someplace.
As the afternoon went on, I began to understand that this was an especially big day for Lotta followers, because the WholeLottaLove network was alive and aflicker with rumors of a concert, this very night. Mark, in dribs and drabs, had been filling in a picture of the daughter; the phone kept pinging; also the neighbor in Cobblestone, Roger, had mentioned a concert.
Then when Mark and I were in the Burger King – (Mark biting down on his Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger; I with something called a Ranch Crispy Chicken Wrap, inedible, malodorous, smelling in fact like upwelled gastric juices; like vomit; it truly did; those sauces actually do smell already, beforehand, like regurgitation) – the telephone lying between us buzzed against the tabletop. It wasn’t the return call from Rob at the diocese. It lit up with a “WholeLottaLove BULLETIN.” This time the image in the phone was of Carlotta wearing only a small (really too short) thin slip. She was on her hands and knees, on a floor of inlaid parquet so fine it looked like something in a French palace, while around her stood three or four men in a close ring. Only the men’s feet were visible, shod in the heavy brogans of businessmen, their trousers’ cuffs looking expensive and well-tailored.
He pulled the phone in and flipped it face-down and didn’t remark about it.
Then – with the migraine of it all – he did lay down his drippy burger and stared at it for a minute on the open wrapper half-undressed of its foil and its sopping inner napkin. Then he picked it up to eat again. “My daughter,” he said, and he took a bite and chewed. “She’s a musician.”
§ § §
So far, vis-á-vis the Castlegate “embezzlement” situation, I hadn’t done anything that could be considered illegal; or even irresponsible. I wasn’t conspiring in any malfeasance of the funds. I hadn’t lied to him about anything. All I’d done – and all I intended to do – was converse with this interesting person, admittedly a confused person, a blocked person, going through an awkward transition period in his life.
But as the day went on, I found that, against my better judgment, I would have liked to contrive on Mark’s behalf somehow, somehow to preserve the money in his bank account, money that was being spent by his child on beauty treatments and self-promotion. Certainly it was always in Mark’s power just to cut her off: cancel the cards: close the bank account.
Because the money was in danger. He was wrong in thinking Castlegate doesn’t care where the money goes. I would get confirmation as soon as Rob Kasish could return my call. They’d find out the money was being misused and they would take it away.
After empathy, comes complicity. In that sense, I already felt mixed up in something. I thought I might try to, maybe, cajole the unhappy professor into taking better charge of his wealth. Though I had no idea exactly specifically how. Anyway in the end I never did.
§ § §
Mark said, lifting his same-old beer can out toward the meadow’s distance, “You know, whatever kid used to swing there. On that tire swing out there. He’s all grown up. Long gone.”
“You knew him? You mean to say you knew the child?”
“No, me? I have no idea, I don’t know anybody. I assume it was a Silveira boy, but who knows?” The Silveiras are the family that, according to him, still own the property.
The hanging automobile tire, a rubber donut at the end of its frizzy old rope, was hanging motionless straight plumb. (It points down at the exact center of the earth, geometrically. That is what a physicist would say. I find myself taking these analytic views, having spent this day sitting beside a physicist, hearing about everything’s cross-section diagram.)
At my feet, in the meadow’s near shallows, where noonday sun made the weedy earth look bald, one tall stem was alighted upon, by a bee. The brassy, tarnished, vibrating thing docked on the blossom pod, and it ceased then to vibrate, making the whole stem bow under its weight, springily. Plainly the bee, with a pole-vaulter’s aplomb, was relaxed having its support bend.
“Or married,” Mark went on. “Graduated from college. Paying his college loans somewhere. Or on drugs somewhere. Maybe forgot all about his old tire swing. Moved far away. Just paying his mortgage every month. Or dead, too, maybe. Do you have children?”
“Me? Well, I’m about to. My wife is five months pregnant right now.”
He rotated his head periscope-like and looked at me, contemplating what I was in for – and doubtless remotely envying me, as if I might represent a kind of second chance he’d never have, to redo everything he’d gotten wrong with his own child. Then looked back out over the meadow.
§ § §
When we were sitting in the ob-gyn reception area, Thalia noticed I’d brought my portable computer pad. Until that point, I’d succeeded in hiding it from her, keeping it always tucked on my far side. And when she saw it she said, “Oh no, darling.”
I told her it wouldn’t be a big deal, she should just humor me.
Which I knew she would have to do, because it was too late, I’d already smuggled it in. A sonogram identifies eighteen separate quantifiable criteria of a fetus’s health and I like to keep a record.
Part of the fun is, when you enter the data, the computer-pad screen translates the numbers into a graph, so I can observe the rising line of Clara Luce’s prosperity over the months. I can see how her progress stays within the upsloping green band representing the statistical norm. In the exam room then, after we’d located the girl on the sonogram screen and gotten her vital numbers, I had the nurse freeze the screen, so I could enter all eighteen data points. The two women waited, in a courteous silence. It was broken only after a long while, by Thalia’s quiet, explanatory remark to the nurse, “He’ll be a wonderful father.”
The nurse agreed with no pause at all, “Yes. Definitely. Wonderful father. Lucky little girl.”
Then they went on waiting, being very patient, my wife lying on the table, the nurse sitting by the machine – the computer pad is getting slow lately – it can take a long time getting the numerical fields to fill – and while they waited, the nurse traded another little sympathetic smile with my wife.
§ § §
“What is it about that tire swing?” I asked, after I’d let some time pass, till I could identify a friendly lull when I wouldn’t seem to be prying into his sanity. “You said it has a harmonic vibration? Or something?”
“A vibration, no. I wouldn’t have said that, exactly.”
(Prying into his sanity was what I was doing, of course. And he might have been getting that feeling.)
He was in the midst of sorting a pile of books. A woman in a car had pulled off the road to drop off a boxful at the fruit stand, and Mark had gone over to accept the box and describe the terms of consignment, then when she’d gone, he brought it over to his lawn chair. He was sorting them into different stacks in the dust, making some kind of judgment calls.
“It’s not exactly a vibration, but it has a harmonic period. It’s very slowly oscillating, how it twists. If you look, the tire kinda looks like an oval. Watch it for a while. I mean the profile, if you look at it – the way it’s hanging there, ’cause you’re not looking at it straight-on. The tire isn’t circle-shape from here. It’s an oval how it’s hanging, sideways-on. But then, notice very slowly…”
He dropped back in his chair and narrowed his eyes, and he lifted his hand, aiming a very slow karate-chop at the distant tire – an arrested, frozen karate-chop, straight out at it.
“…very slowly, the oval seems to look rounder, then skinnier, then rounder, then skinnier. On its axis. It’s kind of doing it now. There’s no detectable wind, but it’s aware of steady air motion. It would be a little anabatic flow of air, with the whole hillside. Warm air. So the whole system is like a lyre, like a guitar string, kind of, but in ultra-slow motion. So you could call it a kind of vibration.”
After a while, in the suck of his trance, having watched it long enough, he hoicked himself forward again, over the stacks of books at his feet, and started again picking through them, judging them.
“It’s like, do you remember that famous old film clip of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge? In like the nineteen-forties? It fell apart? It fell apart because it hit its harmonic. It was in a steady breeze just like this. It was a brand-new bridge. It was full of steel. But it was behaving like a ribbon. It had a steady wind comin’ downstream. Steady breeze, steady breeze. And after a while, in nothing more than a fixed breeze, the whole roadway span was undulating and flapping, like flapping, like whap, whap, whap.”
§ § §
I warned him that my wife and I had an appointment, “If my friend Rob doesn’t call soon, I’m going to have to go. Then maybe come back and get it.” (Meaning the Castlegate form.) “If he hasn’t called by then.”
Mark was tapping and stroking his phone’s little glass pane. There was some series of websites he was flying through. Often he was on encyclopedia sites that looked to be made entirely of mathematical formulas and tables of numbers. He had a way of getting caught up in his phone while I just sat there being ignored.
“My friend Rob,” I said, “is going to agree with me. Castlegate has the ability to take away your prize.”
Yet I’d started to get a sense that he’s a singular kind of person. Even the most disastrous bank-account subtraction wouldn’t affect him, not deeply. He seemed like an inert substance. Non-reactive substance. Take away the money and it basically wouldn’t change him.
It would affect his daughter Lotta, though, definitely. Mark still had no idea I knew everything. That is, everything about the daughter’s spending and ambitions. I’d told him nothing.
Nevertheless he ought to have reckoned that people would look into his accounts eventually and find out about the daughter.
I said, “Who knows, maybe they can rescind the whole prize and take back any portions they’ve already given you. That is probably what would happen. You’d have to come up with money that may have already been spent.”
“When’s your appointment you have to get to?”
“I have to pick up my wife first. In San Rafael. Both of us have to be there by three.”
“You know, if your friend calls when you’re not here? I’m not answering.”
§ § §
He was fundamentally rational. That is, maybe he was going through a wobbly period (unemployed, unhoused, divorced), but I continued to think he wasn’t “crazy.”
Still – probing anyway – I went ahead and inquired, like an innocent tourist, about the diagrams he’d pinned to the wall inside. I asked whether for a scientist they might serve as mandalas for contemplation, symbolizing some kind of mathematical thinking. A circle centered on an axis. A squiggly line. Or, maybe they weren’t “mandalas,” maybe they were more like trophies, trophies of concepts mastered. Those same kinds of crossed-circle diagrams popped up on his phone from time to time, when he poked through cyberspace. His tweezing fingers would spread them to make them legible. That activity (him sitting there ignoring me) seemed to be his plan for spending the time while we waited for Rob to call back.
About the diagrams on the walls, he did have a lucid, sane, creditable explanation.
“I used to be a physicist, as you know, but I hated math. Lotta physicists hate the math. Actually, what I hated was calculations. Now, nowadays I happen to love it. Isn’t that funny? Now that I’m out of it, I can slow down,” he held out the comb-like fingers of both hands: all his time unraveling in skeins. “Those diagrams in there, I just enjoy. They’re just a mental game. Old rudimentary things. Certain things called imaginary numbers.”
I told him I could recognize, from high school, an x-axis and a y-axis.
“Yeah, no. Those are the ‘real axis’ going sideways – and the ‘imaginary axis’ going up and down. It isn’t the usual two-dimensional space. It’s imaginary numbers. Imaginary numbers are mystical; they’ve got an actual imaginary dimension. So nobody knows what that is. When it’s ‘imaginary,’ everything is multiplied by the square root of negative one. That makes it ‘imaginary.’ You see, that’s impossible: ‘square-root-of-negative-one’ doesn’t exist. It’s why they’re called imaginary numbers, they’re impossible. So they have to exist only in an impossible-to-imagine space. They shouldn’t call them ‘imaginary,’ they should call them ‘unimaginable’ numbers or ‘impossible’ numbers. That graph: they should call the graph a ‘nobody-will-ever-picture-it’ space.
“What’s important about them is that every little particle needs the square root of negative one. To be describable, to be intelligible, like to exist. Every subatomic…” At his armrest, his thumb and forefinger rubbed air’s fabric. “Like, every particle has an impossible-to-conceive existence. Like part of it is going on in some other world. Apparently. It’s in a ‘square-root-of-negative-one’ world.” He turned his periscope again, and across the gap separating us – four or five feet – he sent his “bafflement” expression straight at me while impossible particles fizzed in air between us – all too clownish seeing each other through such ginger ale – and he looked away again.
“Anyway, that’s how I horse around. It’s rather interesting that I can’t picture it. It’s really basic, basic math, and now I can slow down and do calculations and just look at them. Slowing down is the annoying little trick for math, you know: you have to slow down, like reading poetry, you have to be like a spider traveling. Or a little bug, and not try to get the big picture. That’s how I’ve always thought of it, spidery, going from grain to grain. I got my spider-attention after I quit teaching. But it’s how I can be out here nowadays. Because nowadays everything is on this.” He was petting the phone on his knee, or rather just the phone’s aura. “All the journals publish here, and you can subscribe and put in your MasterCard. I can get anything. The latest, old stuff, new stuff. It’s all here. It’s all gettable. Amazing new world. Everything is gettable now, out here.”
§ § §
I continued to hold my tongue and not tell him I knew about his daughter and the money. In that way, I was being dishonest, sitting beside him in the second lawn chair he had. The mushroom-cloud “Carlotta Perdue” loomed high over us both: silent Technicolor blast, unmentioned, a holographic projection, towering among the other superstars in modern media; there’s always a handful of these kids each season that inflate to outsize proportions and end up as constellations. Carlotta, in the world, was perhaps virtually an idol, and we were two guys in lawn chairs in a low spot off a frontage road, pretending she wasn’t there. With the money, she was building the kind of Internet presence that requires an army of PR people and managers, producers, people with clipboards and headsets, teamsters, musicians. I had the evidence of it at home on my desk. So I was a snoop, a creep, a sneak. All afternoon I sat there not knowing how to bring any of it up.
§ § §
Late that night, we were watching his daughter’s concert on the laptop’s little window, and he eventually commented, from deep in his chair, with a toss of his pinky finger, “This is the medium she made her mark.”
By not responding, I left open space.
“The small screen. That’s her discovery. These kinds of virtual events, people are vulnerable in much larger markets.”
In an instrumental passage, the camera pulled back from the stage, while she seemed to stride in big figure eights.
“It turned out she was right. She was defying big powerful people in the industry and she was right.” His head listed to one side. “People watch this on their phones. People in third-world countries. On their phones.”
Seeing her rule the stage – (she paced, then stopped and loitered, then swung, to directly face the camera, which had crept up from below) – I was reminded of something fundamental: how holy and terrible is a girl. As never since adolescence, I was put in my place. She was so indifferent in glance, while in hip-swell so imperative, so petal-symmetrical in face – or else she’d been sculpted as a supernatural beauty by the technologies and techniques of photographers and costume designers and cosmetologists – (which perhaps amounts to the very same thing as beauty? could that sometimes be?) – so that I was powerless, a boy-child led before her oracles and magic portals. A boy-child, I should add, who, before minor corrective surgery, spent decades of his life with an extremely minor facial blemish that kept him away from love.
To my male readers, I have already addressed a little homily or two. Let me say something to the gentler sex, especially as I think I’ve reached a great age of detachment and neutrality, neutered partly by my priesthood, but also by the lucky uxoriousness I describe, quite well-put-away at 1117 Vista Drive. – Let us agree, first, that woman’s universal vexation and hardship is men. Men are far, far more vexatious to women, I think, than women are to men. This goes back even to earliest days of grade-school pestering/harassment when a boy first sees a girl taking her power. What I want to convey is something a woman may already be aware of: how much abject fear is an element in male adulation and male obnoxiousness. Fear – that is, an inner experience of helpless weakness – is at the very basis of men’s intractability, and here is why. Your beauty (this part of my sermon you already find tiresome) gets a grasp, it gets a firm, resistless grasp, on wheels and sprockets and levers below intelligence and below wisdom, in a place where you exert torque that is complete and total. Torque that flips. Men are not un-intelligent, nor necessarily ignoble, nor always unwise; they can have high notions and insights and preoccupations and plans; and they are instantly aware that you have control over certain wonderful forces that are the most powerful and stupidest in themselves. There’s a whipcrack effect, which you will have noticed: a mere careless twitch at one end of the line will cause a terrible dragon’s-flourish at the other end.
Somewhere in there in that transaction, the weed misogyny may sprout; and misogyny is of course not limited to men. One might as well try to be clear about our assumptions. For the supply of male obnoxiousness promises to be boundless and inexhaustible and undivertable. The gentle reader, she may agree with some of what I’m saying but will want to demur: she thinks she is not one those with beauty’s responsibilities; all that is for other women. Well, her own particular special personal inadequacy seems to be each woman’s conviction and axiom. You may go so far as to enter under various kinds of chador, the grimy sweatshirt, or even total burqa. But experience shows, hiding doesn’t stop the problem. Forgive me for belaboring the obvious, it’s what philosophers do. I actually feel I’m addressing myself (from this pulpit) not to grown women but to the little girls who are Lotta’s target market. (82% of ticket sales, music downloads, streaming views.) To such children’s dawning awareness, these gender secrets – these unfairnesses – are just beginning to be vaguely suffered and wielded. The young ladies in the audience are the ones I thought of when Lotta clapped one hand over her own crotch, bucking her hips and closing her eyes and smiling. (Or of any chaperoning moms or dads – what they might think their own responsibility was, here.)
I remember in the nineties when I was a new priest, weekly so-called “Family Dynamics Workshops” (i.e., just basic sex ed) had a short-lived vogue in the Anglican Church out here. These workshops never attracted the “underserved” populations they were aimed at (which populations do exist in Marin); instead we got the usual middle class. And in those weeknight meetings in a bright basement classroom in San Rafael, it was all mothers and their daughters; not a single man showed up, not one male, not ever; though the class was offered in three consecutive seasons and was widely advertised, no man or boy ever darkened our doorway. Consider men’s obnoxiousness in general. If you pay any attention to the news of the world, men’s brutality sometimes seems an almost ubiquitous kind of code. Or at least it can seem too commonplace not to add up to something. Society’s most improbable work (and ideally, finally, a priest’s job) is to lead men and women into “marriage.”
For many years, with my office door discreetly shut, I conferred with unhappy couples who were puzzling out their compatibility. Two mornings a week. The church secretary in the outer office made a custom of protecting everybody’s privacy by playing radio music on her favorite soft-rock station, which called itself “The Quiet Storm” – and she and I scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday mornings as my “Divorce Court.” That was our dark little nickname for them. Then also, later, our “Quiet Storm days.”
So I’ve presided over a few breakups; and maybe I’ve helped keep a few marriages together. (For better or, indeed, for worse). Finally after some years I had to admit, as a priest, I might be able to do the all-important sacramental part, but as for the pastoral part, I wasn’t competent. Often I was counseling couples older than I, and I think wiser. Still, I warmly offered platitudes. They would listen closely, too, with hopefulness. A marriage, where love moves and acts, is mysterious beyond reckoning. None of us (not even a man and woman of many years’ intimacy and habituation) has any complete idea what happens inside the white picket fence. Or behind the handsome, solidly closed front door of any 2BR/2BA which I may have, later as a realtor, sold to a young couple.
For, having left the priesthood, then as a realtor, I was still, just as much, a broker of marriages. It’s a sacrament to buy a house together, in these more pagan times. It’s sacramental to sign the paper committing to the thirty-year mortgage. Thirty years is an eternity. An agent might be putting a young couple in a remote, woodsy fixer-upper project, whose sharing will, oddly, keep them safely apart from each other; or a highly-leveraged condo with a dazzling “million-dollar view” and, importantly, no extra BR to grow into; or a Victorian three-story dollhouse on a corner lot, theatre-like, where adulterousness will be the least liability. I’m out of the business now but I actually keep an eye on my houses. I watch them as they stay off-market. If one of those houses turns up again on Multiple Listings, I actually have a qualm as if my ministry might’ve failed. (Especially during a slow season, when, rather than just a trade-up in an opportune market, it might signify divorce.) It is “complicated” inside there, within those walls, and, if I may get to the point, I despair of whether males – not just the famous villains, I mean the whole herd of them – could ever be reformed, in the way the best feminism hopes. What doesn’t help is little audacious artistic outrages like Carlotta’s vignettes in her negligee: that’s the other sort of thing which there seems to be a boundless, inexhaustible supply of. It’s worrisome. Carlotta’s fan base is little girls. Boys at that age can’t even look. But the little girls must be studying the images. Furthermore, if Carlotta is so well globally marketed, won’t there be children in Malaysia and Pakistan and everywhere? There could be little pious Muslim girls poring over this. Or boys. Maybe boys raised devoutly in sharia will take an even sharper interest. Those images are a scandal.
Original meaning of that word scandal. A scandal isn’t just a nice juicy sin; the point of a “scandal” is that it instructs others in sin. The New Testament word skandalon actually translates as “stumbling block.” So a scandal isn’t about merely doing something egregious. It’s about advertising something egregious – something that maybe hadn’t been thought of yet, generally. A scandal – i.e., a stumbling block – is about putting snares out for the innocent.
§ § §
For a while during that afternoon I formed a plan: Mark and I might go into the city and find the concert, wherever it was, and buy tickets and attend. Not that we’d enjoy the music. (Carlotta’s performances are, indeed, for preadolescents; they don’t aim to be “musical” so much as spectacular.) But rather because, afterward, we might go backstage. Somehow there would be a father-daughter encounter. He and I would have to break through the formation of loyal retainers guarding her. As Mark describes it, she keeps an entourage of three particular friends, who are ever-present, and who form a “flying wedge” defense around her at all times. Plus, there might be concert security people. (And bodyguards, too, the ones whose heraldic escutcheon includes an automatic rifle.) Still, by some means, I thought I might penetrate all her defenses and at least lay the groundwork for a reconciliation. Somehow they’d been staying out of communication (the daughter out of shame, I think, plus possibly egoistic self-absorption; and the father for reasons that are exactly, surprisingly similar). I thought it would require a face-to-face meeting to break through.
But I began to see it was unrealistic. When I started putting out hints, Mark’s fixed response was that watching the Internet-streaming broadcast, right here on his laptop in the fresh night air, would be a better way to take it in.
And he turned out to be right. Not only was it obvious, in the broadcast, that Carlotta was well-defended by the flying wedge, but just as he promised, the Internet version was better as a spectator experience than being out on the floor could ever have been.
This is a strange wonderful fact of our times. It’s irksome and expensive to be there – to get in a car and literally go (to an auditorium, to a stadium, to a downtown theatre) and find a parking place and file in and find your seat, to be physically present, where the acoustics aren’t necessarily guaranteed to be perfect and the seating might be cramped. When I’m in my own home, in my pivoting leather armchair (plus leather footrest, plus wineglass at my elbow, plus fridge nearby), my TV screen can summon an event much more closely and brightly and critically, in sharper clearer images, than if I sat, for instance, on a hard bench in a huge echoing stadium. Or in a steep-raked balcony in an opera house, high up near the ceiling.
§ § §
“So that’s what you’re ‘doing’ then,” I said. I was filling a lull that had gone on for a while. “…out here.”
I hadn’t drunk a second beer, just the one. But it would soon be time to leave for the doctor appointment and I’d started plunging along as uncarefully as if I’d been drinking, stoned on the sheer boredom of this derelict afternoon in the sunshine on a slope below 101.
“What’s what I’m doing?” It perplexed him. It aggravated him, groggily.
“Well, you’ve got the bookstore thing. But you’re doing mathematical calculations. That’s what you’re up to these days.”
His gaze drifted, blanching, wall-eyed.
“You’re asking on behalf of Castlegate.”
“No, not at all. Not at all. It’s just interesting. I actually happen to be very interested in math and physics.”
– It was amazing how insincere that sounded. And in fact was. The motive for asking was that I was always on the lookout for a sign he might be crazy. Or if not crazy, just non compos mentis in some way that might disqualify him for the money. (Out here solving the riddles of the universe. Internet-searching for abstruse things in his phone.) On the issue of his complete sanity, I was prudently staying open-minded, and alert.
“The imaginary numbers,” he said, “are strictly a pastime. I’m not going to add anything to that field.”
“But you’re sorta cracking a mystery there. If only just personally. You’re ‘getting to the bottom’ of something.”
“No,” he said.
His palms were, again, pressed together at his breast in prayer while he gazed, heavy-lidded, out over the field, legs stretched far forth, ankles crossed at a distance. Some people have the metabolism for inactivity – for repose. I don’t. I need to jump up and do things. But Mark Perdue was capable of sitting motionless at great length.
“Imaginary numbers do sound like a mystery to crack.”
“Yeah, no. Uncrackable mystery. Imaginary numbers are just old algebra I’m revisiting. They’re an idle curiosity.”
So he said. But a grown man doesn’t devote his days to an idle curiosity. He went on looking out over the meadow where the bees were working collecting pollen, creating honey in the old wooden cabinets on the horizon, in the drawers accumulating it in such excesses that entire hives of golden syrup could be left behind and forgotten, more honey than those bees would ever need, stored in waxen hexagons where it would never decay. It seems to me I read somewhere recently about archaeologists who came across two-thousand-year-old honey, still intact, maybe even still edible, from back in Egypt or Babylon or someplace.
“You know what I’m doing out here? Nothing,” he declared, turning to me, but looking pleased with the idea. As if nothing were something.
§ § §
A typical car would pull over, sleek and heavy – (this county is reputed to be rich, and it’s largely true, it’s getting worse all the time) – and the hatchback or trunk would be popped to reveal a few boxes of books.
Which their donors seemed to expect little for, in return. Mark, as proprietor, provided a receipt and explained the consignment agreement, but they seemed to go away not really caring about getting repaid any percentage. They were all just doing some housecleaning and didn’t want perfectly good paperbacks and hardcovers to land in the garbage pail at home.
But there came a car that – (I alone perceived this, empathic spy) – may change Professor Perdue’s fate a little bit.
It was a big blue Chevy Suburban, and its rear doors opened to reveal a trove of the highest-quality junk. Mark Perdue, former physicist, was in the book business, not the miscellaneous junk business. But here it all was. An English-style saddle, its leather still supple, with “Concours d’Ardennes, 1891” tooled into its side, and the manufacturer “Hermes et fils” on the tongue of a strap. A beautifully tarnished saxophone lying in its carrying case’s midnight-blue fleece. A very old, large, floor-standing celestial globe, displaying the night sky’s constellations in rich ghostly illustrations, labeled in French, the whole sphere embraced by wooden hoops that were populated with tiny carven angels who caressed and fondled the curve of the globe. An old portable lawn-croquet set, in calfskin, manufactured by, again, the French leather-goods company Hermes et fils.
There were other such treasures. An ancient guitar in a square wooden coffin-style case. Two cathedral radios. However, there were also less extraordinary objects, old household stuff, dirty and broken, which Mark was just as impressed by. Or was more impressed by. Fatally impressed by, because these were things that fell into the category “Still Perfect!” – though objectively it was landfill junk: a wooden lamp base with a snipped-off cord, a collapsible plastic diaper-changing table, half-used tubes of caulk plus a caulking gun, a metal enamel colander that was disfigured by a dent. “Somebody could use this,” Mark said of the colander. “This is still perfect!” He picked up the diaper-changing table, ugly and plastic and dirty. “This is great. And you and your wife are expecting. Couldn’t you have something like this?”
I didn’t want it, and I said so, creating thus an ill omen, which made Mark take second thoughts – and turn to the man and confess, “I’m really just in used books.”
The donor sympathized, a serene man so affable that he was really only half-present the whole time, sunnily. He shrugged, willing to wait, while Mark as proprietor resolved his inner conflict – he was picking over the merchandise with an unwillingness to let it get away.
“Is the caulk in there still good?”
“Far as I know,” said the owner. “But probably not. I doubt it.” He knew nothing about that caulk, nor cared. He was a prosperous kind of older gent, with a gymnast’s habit of bouncing on the toes of his tennis shoes, wearing a fresh new billed cap, a yoga-improved-looking man who (it would be my guess) had been cleaning out his house in Tiburon, Tiburon’s sunny slope over the Bay. A nice modest 3BR-2BA for such a fellow, maybe a lap pool, kitchen with work island, wet-bar in the den: a home for a well-to-do divorcé: that was my sense. He seemed divorced. These Marin towns have, each, their own distinguishing types and styles. A realtor in particular starts to discern and can make a game of guessing the residence, roughly the ZIP code, from sunny flat 94903 to deep-defended 94941 and 94916, whether cashmere camel’s-hair or black leather, whether in Volvo or Jaguar or Toyota hybrid, whether Adidas running shoes or Birkenstock sandals or Italian pumps – the folk of sleek Tiburon or Sausalito, or slightly frizzier Mill Valley, or Fairfax, or even my own lowly Terra Linda. Even as they appear, say, coming through a coffee-shop doorway or entering an AA meeting or sidling up to a bank’s ATM machine, each declares, by his style, precisely where he ungaraged his car that morning. About the tube of caulk, he said, “If you pinch ’em you can see if they’re soft inside. I don’t guarantee it, but hell, the caulking-gun is worth something.” The man then smiled at me, twinkling over Mark’s head. We were both being patient with him.
Mark himself wasn’t consciously sensing the momentousness. But he was feeling the pull of this stuff. He had come to a crossroads now, in his relatively new career as operator of a temporary, unlicensed roadside stand – after his UC-system professorship, after his era of homeowning fatherhood in Cobblestone, long past his little time of youthful stardom (i.e., as a science-show host). So far, he’d sold only books. Now he was tempted to get into used merchandise of all varieties, while still squatting in this spot of his, where there wasn’t going to be much future. Thus the decision had larger implications, bearing upon his mysterious reasons for being here at all, bearing on his loyalty to this roadside spot, his dead-end meditative pastimes with his cell phone. At his age, ordinarily, a man ought to be engaged actively with the world – he was too young for this loitering – and, in a surge, I could sympathize with the wife and daughter who were staying out of touch with him. He, sincerely, was beguiled less by the elegant stuff than by the dented colander or the plastic baby-table – and also a crummy 3X5 carpet, fake Persian, mass-produced, in all-wrong Easter egg colors. Which he rolled out on the dirt for inspection. He stepped onto the carpet and stood on it, as if to ascertain, and demonstrate, it worked great. He said again, bouncing the colander’s weight in hand, “Somebody could use this. This is still perfect.”
The tone was of complaint, as of an injustice. And he directed it to me standing there, witness of a wrong to be righted.
Anyway he was hooked, and he did go ahead, he turned and started explaining his commission-percentage policy – “consignment” vs. “sale” – it had always worked for used books; now he would apply it to other merchandise. So the man, with his own rebound of adaptability, got to work dragging out what remained in his car, first of all, for instance, a crappy one-drawer bedside table with a woodgrain veneer that had been factory-dyed Kryptonite green. Its backside fiberboard panel had popped from its staples and was hanging off – and Mark started realigning it, tapping it, pressing it. “This is an easy repair. This is great.”
Soon, the man had driven away in his empty Chevy Suburban carrying a freshly inscribed little Wells Fargo check folded in his breast pocket. We, with our new fate, were standing amidst our small yard sale.
“These people who own the fruit stand. Are they letting you stay here on a kind of undefined indefinite… basis?”
He bent over, harvesting his junk. First, he picked up the lamp base and started rolling the severed electrical cord around it.
“I’ve been looking at that, yeah,” was his response.
He was going to pull all his merchandise in from the roadside’s glittering dirt, and I thought I should help. So I did, a little bit.
For example the unhappy little Persian carpet. That it might smell of marijuana was a moral sensation I got from it (if not a literal olfactory sensation), as, in putting it away, I raised a cloud of old dust, from all the TV-screen-lit afternoons and mornings of the family or families whose twilight lives it had furnished. Second-hand stuff depresses me. A church man will have presided over a few basement rummage sales (or at least passed through the room, proprietarily), and it always did depress me, the smell alone, the smell particularly.
He added, “As I say, they like it that I’m here.” He was talking about the landowners, the Silveiras. “So maybe I’ll start paying them a few dollars a month.”
§ § §
Interesting fact about how the universe is expanding and thinning (I learned about this later when the stars were out): The rate at which the stars and galaxies are moving away from us is something like 70 kilometers per second.
Which strikes me as incredibly fast, for things to be running away. Per-second is what makes it fast. There was some math, which I didn’t follow, but the basic fact is: 70 km/second. Per second! At that speed, shouldn’t everything in the sky be going out of sight, maybe not in my lifetime, but soon? 70 km at every tick of the clock? I’m not practiced with “kilometers,” so I asked for a translation into miles. And not per-second, but miles-per-hour. Which I can picture.
He came up (after some inward zigzagging) with 150,000 mph. “Roughly. A little more. But, you know, it increases. There’s an increase, where it goes faster for every mile of distance you go out, until it’s really zooming. 150,000 miles per hour isn’t fast, compared to how things are zooming when you get far out.”
I was already aware of this in a basic way: Expanding Universe. But as Mark explains it, it’s more picturesque: everything is going away from everything else, but meanwhile each thing stays the center: each thing is its own personal middle-of-universe. If you went out to some most distant planet, at the extreme extent of anything, that place would be the central spot being deserted. Everything is running away from wherever you happen to be. Everyplace is the center. And everyplace is the forsaken center.
§ § §
“How did you get into books? I mean selling them. I mean in the first place.”
We were settling back in our chairs, picking up our beers that had grown warm in the sun. Warmish beer must be the standard out there at the Perdue bivouac, because it took him forever to drink a single can. I finished faster than he, and then I just kept hanging out with my empty. I kept tilting back the same imaginary rolling drop, nonexistent, yet still vaguely quenching.
I clarified, “I mean, why books?”
“Yeah. Now you’re sounding like my wife.”
This interesting response made me just hold my peace. And press no further. Seeing it as a gain. As forward progress.
For, a snappish retort was more than a simple incivility. It was a door opening. In his surly way, he was showing a willingness to open up.
§ § §
But of course! Child abuse! Stupid me, it didn’t hit me till that night when I was back home; I’d spent the whole afternoon with him and it never once crossed my mind. It struck me like a bolt of lightning when I was eating dinner, and all my old family-intervention education lit up. Of course, look at her. She displays certain classic misbehavior. Plus, in the songs, her lyrics circle around the image of the mean-spirited little nuclear family, how oppressive it is, the cruelty in it. She has a popular song called “Lambsie Divey” that hints at some sort of early, original, domestic source of low self-esteem, which led on to degrading teenage sexual adventures. So at a certain point I started to wonder, maybe my real espionage had only just begun.
I could see I did need to go back out there after dinner. I’d been unenthusiastic about it. Now there was a reason. I searched a little online, and the few specific accusations she’s ever made, which I was able to find, boil down to these three:
(1) that her mother once locked her in a closet for an entire day (or, in another version, for an entire hour) because she’d eaten too many cupcakes; or, in another version, because she’d been caught reading a book too racy for her;
(2) that her parents abandoned her in a gas station on a road trip and then, at length, came back to get her, all because they wanted to give her a scare and teach her a lesson;
(3) that she was forced to immerse herself in icy cold baths where her head was pushed under.
Those may not seem like smoking guns. But who knows, she could be keeping the worst things to herself. Bitterness against parents provides dramatic material for more than one of the songs. There’s another about a third-person fictional character’s imprisonment by her vindictive parents in a big-city apartment; and one about running away from home; and another about the sordid life of the urban runaway. After dinner I’d really felt more like staying home with Thalia, watching television, neglecting my duty to Castlegate and Rob Kasish; but now I didn’t even mention my new suspicion to Thalia. I went back out with a resolve to turn on my X-ray vision better. Sometimes there is something. Parental neglect or malevolence would furnish the sort of childhood wound that will make an artist. And Lotta is definitely an artist.
§ § §
I did have one small nagging anxiety all day. At home in the backyard I’d left a row of redwood planks stood-up on end – 2X6s of various lengths, they were leaning up against the garage door. So I’d begun to worry that, if Thalia by any chance were to stop by the house and activate the pushbutton garage-door opener, all those long boards would collapse clanging on the concrete floor.
These planks had briefly been – and soon again will be – the floor of my redwood deck. I’d had to detach them from the supports underneath (correcting an earlier, impetuous miscalculation of my own). But then, because I wasn’t thinking, I’d piled them higgledy-piggledy together without sorting them for length.
They’re different sizes. I’ve cut them in precisely graduated lengths, because this deck floor isn’t going to be a rectangle. It’s going to be a trapezoid. That is, one edge will slant at an arbitrary angle. Therefore, the floorboards are graduated: one is ten feet long, its neighbor a bit shorter, the next one another bit shorter, and so forth. In this way, they range (by little increments) from ten feet down to eight feet.
So it had taken some time and deliberation, in the morning, to sort the higgledy-piggledy pile into a graded row. What I did was, I leaned them up against the door vertically in order to get a visual impression of their descending lengths, from tallest to shortest, so I’ve ended up with a standing xylophone of 2X6s – all of which are ready to fall inward if the automatic door were raised. And maybe wreck something inside.
What’s immediately inside: little clay sculptures. We keep a long folding table in there, permanently set up. On one end of it, I’m organizing tax documents and files these days (pertaining to a home-loan refinance). All the rest of the table is taken up, at the moment, with about two dozen kiln-fired clay figurines and pinch pots, which are the handicraft of Thalia’s adult clients at Green Thumbs. Most of whom probably wouldn’t care (or even notice) if their artifacts never got restored to them. However, a certain few would be heartbroken.
If the automatic door were raised and the whole xylophone fell in, some number of glazed ceramic four-leggeds, or an ashtray, or a pinched Tyrannosaurus rex, would surely be shattered by the longer planks. Or, at least there’d be an ungodly clanging on the cement floor. I didn’t want to bother with asking Mark for his cell phone, but if I had had my own phone I would have called Thalia to give her a heads-up: In case she did happen to drop by the house, she mustn’t touch the garage door opener.
§ § §
“If you want to go Number Two, now would be the moment.”
Mark and I were standing in line at the cash register in the gas station with beer and chips. And a bag of herbed popcorn he favors.
“Oh.” I hadn’t given any thought to his plumbing arrangements. “What do you do?”
“This is open twenty-four hours. It’s always got clean bathrooms. And there’s A&W and Burger King. And I’ve got running water. There’s already water out there from the old fruit stand. You haven’t seen my entire little kitchen I’ve rigged in the back. It’s just a hose, but I’ve got it all rigged up. It’s nice, for as long as I’m there.”
That last little clause – (for as long as I’m there) – was one more indication he was always doing a bit of thinking about the future.
§ § §
Another remark along those same lines:
We were back at camp eating and he mentioned he was living “admittedly, in kind of an unrealistic way here.” He said somebody was liable anytime to come along and force him “to, for instance, start dealing with sales tax. The County or something. And then all the rest of it. Like a ‘business license’ and so on. Inconceivable.”
He flapped his hand around the place, “Bringing things up to code. Building codes. Showing some kind of formal ‘lease’ or something.”
It was all too discouraging to think about and he was grinding himself down deeper in his lawn chair, having set his heels far out at their greatest distance.
§ § §
We were moving the more valuable new merchandise into the fruit shed (saxophone, celestial globe), when it happened that a San Rafael police cruiser went by giving us a look. This was reality, and suddenly our roadside operation felt homeless and larcenous. But Mark flipped a hand up at the two in the car; and the one at the wheel responded with the small chin-lift. It was the greeting that, in constables’ solemn protocol, is a salute of respect and even confederacy.
He could see I’d seen. “The family,” he shrugged toward the owners somewhere, “has talked to them. County regulations still have this on record as a fruit stand. A real fruit stand would be ‘Transient Retail,’ that’s what it’s called. But I don’t fit in with that. The police pretend they don’t know. While I’m here for a while, I’m great. They actually like it. Before me, there’d been a certain kind of teenage hijinks. Seductions, cigarettes, graffiti, horsing around.”
Then without prelude or hesitancy – because I would eventually have to be brave and go into this – I threw all my weight into a breezy new topic. “Tell me about your daughter, though. She’s got this career!” I was standing around uselessly, having given up helping.
Meanwhile he carried a cardboard box of old video-game cassettes and their joystick. After he’d laid it down inside, he straightened up, clapped dust off his hands, and went back out for more.
Then, when he came back in, he answered the question about his daughter, “Well, there’s no culture anymore, you know. There’s only markets.”
He didn’t look for my reaction, he went out to get more of his new loot. “Culture” vs. “markets.” This was some kind of social-criticism remark.
Two garbage bags were the last to be brought in. He looked in and stirred around inside. I could predict what would be in those bags, having over the years given plenty of church rummage-sale merchandise a proprietary fluffing-up and flopping-around on open tables. There would be button-down shirts with permanent sweat in the collars, a suede jacket in some garish regrettable color, crushed shoes, the inevitable “Hard Rock Café” T-shirt. Inside both bags, he poked and poked, seeing a future for it all. Then he squashed them away and kicked them away – under the book-display table.
So we were going to retire again to our lawn chairs out in the sun. Rob in Sacramento hadn’t called. In only about a half hour I would have to pick up Thalia. Before I could get him started again explaining his daughter, I warned him, “I have to leave soon. Then I guess I’ll have to come back later. This is if Kasish hasn’t yet called back. Maybe I should try reaching him again.”
“Here’s what to do,” he said. “I’ll just sign it and leave the rest blank. All the questions blank. But with my signature. That’ll be enough to satisfy the people in Copenhagen. A signed blank form.”
So he said. It was almost a plausible, happy idea. But it didn’t stand up to a single moment’s consideration. You have to sign something, not just an empty document with your name at the top. He would know that, too.
“Mark. You understand they will shut down your bank account. In one instant, with one phone call, they will do that: freeze the account. They’ll simply take away the money.”
That was a direct attack. Mark, sitting in his chair, stared off into the distances as if I might be right. Still, he kept his arms folded high in a manner of obstinacy.
I’ve wondered, was he cagey enough to think Castlegate was already planning on taking the money back? And that this document might give them the legal permission? I myself (lacking in caginess) didn’t think of it till later. All during this long afternoon, he might have somehow guessed I held his fate in my hands. He was behaving as if there were nothing strange about my spending an entire day out there, just chatting. He would have seen me for what I, in fact, was: an errand boy.
§ § §
“It’s all clackers and bots,” he was saying: his fingers made icky motions of distaste over his cell phone: the clackers and bots teemed inside that instrument.
“Everything in the world is rumors and innuendo and unconfirmed reports and buzz and trending. There’s a whole office somewhere with a whole crew of full-time clackers online spreading rumors about Lotta Perdue.” He looked at me to see if I was getting this. “Clackers: a clacker is somebody who feeds fake commentary to the media and the Internet. And enthusiasm. They pump up the enthusiasm and they’re expensive. Because they’re human. They draw a paycheck. They’re not bots. Bots, you know, kids are so savvy, they can tell it’s a bot when they get a bot message. These clackers, they keep the buzz level up. They’ve got click farms in places like Bangladesh, acres of people, windowless rooms. Who don’t even speak English. They just have to click on things. They sit there all day and night clicking on things. You know what ‘buzz’ is.”
He would rather assume I did.
Because he was suddenly tired of this. He drank from his empty beer can. He’d been going on for a while. This seemed a routine grumble of his, to complain about a commercial culture that no longer loves beauty or knowledge, or whatever art is supposed to bring. It only “manipulates preferences.” It was a critique he extended outside the music business, too, into cinema and fashion. (And – I personally would add – even art-museum curatorship. In this, my own observations agree exactly.) The whole culture was profit-driven and it was all upside-down.
None of this is an original argument. The professor has a certain naïve innocency there – for it’s rather a traditional, even a time-honored way of talking – at least to me – I’ve always been somewhat liberal-artsy, compared to a scientist. I, here in the North Bay suburbs, have been swimming around semi-comfortably in the semi-highbrow shallow end. I subscribe to “The New York Review of Books,” “The Economist,” “Scientific American.” For movies, we mostly go to little art houses. But Mark – he’s a scientist and hasn’t spent much time in the liberal-artsy wading pool with the rest of us complaining about mass culture. For him this kind of critical talk was probably new and subversive.
He added, “It provides fan sites with something to write about. Make her seem like she matters. Fan sites which are run by publicists, not fans. Are you aware? How people’s careers are made?”
In commiseration I was hanging my woeful head (Lament for Western Civilization). What was interesting, though, was that his attitudes weren’t adding up. He seemed to deplore his daughter’s celebrity – but he was paying for it. He was bankrolling the whole thing. And, moreover, bankrolling an artist whose public drama depends, at least partly, on pitch-correction for her off-key singing voice.
I offered in response to all his complaints. “She’s got a concert tonight? From what I understand?” At this point in the day, I hadn’t revealed what I knew about her.
He gazed out over the field. “Sit-and-spin. They call it a sit-and-spin. It’s a concert at some floating location. Secret place. Undisclosed location. An hour before it begins, all the fans get a ping to tell them where to go. But nobody is actually there, except virtually.”
I didn’t understand.
Lying in his lawn chair, he looked like a paralytic.
“‘Sit-and-spin’—,” I said.
He didn’t feel like answering for a while. One hand came up and scratched his neck.
“That’s what they call it in the industry. The kids don’t call it that. The point is, they can control the location. So these concerts stream well. It’s all streaming. The whole performance is streaming.”
A breath made his chest rise and fall, within the iron-lung apparatus that is the world.
“Editors at video terminals narrate it. It has to narrate. Nobody needs the actual event, actual events are too much trouble. It’s about the narration. And you know, narration is a lot easier without an actual event.”
§ § §
According to Mark, the occupation of selling used books “kinda sneaked up” on him. In the last months of his marriage, he was doing so much reading – whole days reading; and reading outside his field, in history and philosophy and even fiction – and moreover, he’d developed an overambitious habit of sending away for books he might never have the time to read. So he was developing an unrealistic library. During his last year in Cobblestone Hearth, all the stacks of books – on the guest-bed in a heap, outside on the back stoop, in kitchen and bedroom, in the carport under a tarp – were accumulating as berms around his about-to-be-sacked home. It got worse in the period when the “early-retirement option” at Berkeley was starting to look unavoidable. His wife’s desertion of the situation, too, was becoming inevitable. Her name is Audrey, and Audrey’s orbit began to get wider and more eccentric while his own existence was shrinking back to a central hub. This is the era when, I think, he lost touch completely with the daughter he’d already misunderstood for years.
Mark’s story is, she became a very angry young lady during high school, ostensibly because all her friends seemed to have advantages that she lacked – cute cars of their very own, boyfriends, vacations in exotic places, two-hundred-dollar jeans. (It’s Marin.) When, later, the house was on the market and both her parents were officially unemployed, the daughter was ashamed. The parents’ poverty was inexcusable. By the time she graduated, according to Mark, she was the school’s only virgin and sluttiest dresser.
He made a little grimace, dismayed by his own words. He hadn’t meant to go so far in his personal story, and he pulled his outstretched legs back in, tucking his feet under his lawn chair. Personally, I tend to think (according to my version of human nature) that the young woman’s feelings would have been more complicated than he makes them out. I.e., involving more than merely materialistic envy. She might have been justified in some of her feelings. Her parents had somehow lost their way and fallen under some kind of enchantment. It looked like a form of self-absorption not recommended for grown-up parents. The evidence is, little Lotta was reaching out, trying to make a life. She was hard at work building a career, online, specifically a music career, while her parents weren’t paying attention. Kids who grow up with irresponsible adults develop their own kind of integrity early. Or at least autonomy.
“Anyway, there I was with all these books and I had to get out of the Cobblestone house. So on a single night, I just did this move. Out here. Sell ’em by the roadside. I planned for it to be temporary, but in my first few days I had hundreds of dollars. And people were dropping off more books. Isn’t that funny? The Silveiras didn’t mind, they said go ahead. It was supposed to be temporary.”
§ § §
“You say scientists use ‘metaphors,’ John,” he said, having put his beer on the ground, as if to get it out of the way for this. “Quarks, whatever. And everything is a metaphor? And God’s a metaphor? So everybody should be friendly with God because he’s just a big metaphor?”
Most of the time he slumped in the chair, but now he was trying to bring into view a big nebulous idea, and he sat up straight, his hands gripping the armrests, steering his lawn chair through hyperspace. “For scientists, there’s nothing sacred about the ‘quark’ metaphor. They know it’s just a metaphor. If something else comes along, like if a ‘string’ answers the numbers better than the quark, then throw out the quark. Throw it out. Make it a string. They’re not married to a metaphor eternally, like you Christians are. So yes. Science is all made out of metaphors. Okay. But don’t marry your one metaphor and try to stay married to it forever. The metaphors aren’t the destination. They’re just a vehicle.”
Satisfied with his formulation, he made gentle fists and softly drummed on the plastic arms of his chair. “You can’t compare the kind of assertions scientists make with the assertions religious people make.”
§ § §
I didn’t respond right away. But I came up with something later, actually hours later, when we were sitting in the dark and the concert on the laptop was over.
“With their metaphors? Between the scientist and the priest, it’s similar but quite different. The priest never thinks his metaphor will ever fit. The priest knows he’s always stuck with an inaccurate metaphor. Meaning ‘God.’ God is the one huge inaccurate metaphor, and everybody knows there’s no end to that road, this one particular road we’re all on. Whereas you guys are trying to achieve accuracy. You scientists. You believe there’s an end to your road, where you’ll reach real ‘reality.’”
I checked on him. There wasn’t much light to see by. We lacked a campfire and the Coleman lantern was shut down. By starlight, he looked receptive enough. (Or at least he was caught off guard). So I went on.
“The priest, with the ultimate reality – meaning God – the priest just sits there saying, Yes, religion’s just a metaphor, it ain’t like a quark, it’s not ‘revisable’ to be more ‘accurate’. It’s never gonna be anything better than a big metaphoric, cartoony thing. All I’m ever going to have of “God” is the cartoony thing. Meaning only the mere metaphor. So, see? It’s like religion is a purer agnosticism! A purer agnosticism than science! You think you’re agnostic. You still have faith. Physicists and scientists, they go on believing and believing they’ll actually understand everything one day.” I made a shrug. “So. Good for scientists. Maybe they will! Maybe someday they’ll look at a ‘tree’ and they’ll totally get it. Totally. Down to the particles. No more mystery anywhere. Out to every little root and twig and chemical, they’ll totally understand a tree. But me? I’m not even sure what ‘understanding’ is. Frankly. Honestly. What that means: to ‘understand’ something and have no mystery anymore. To ‘understand’ a tree. What is that? To look at a tree and think, Oh, chlorophyll, oh, roots and branches, oh, sap flowing, oh cellulose and carbon dioxide. Truly, in a way, I think that’s all just more faith-and-love. You never get away from that – from faith-and-love. You can get down to carbon, oxygen, carbon dioxide, photosynthesis. And you can say C6H12O6, or whatever” – (I’m sure I put that in to advertise that I did have high school science, and I do make some headway in Scientific American; and, also, that I am basically, largely, on his side!) – “and making sugar molecules in the leaves; but that’s just more cartoons and faith. ‘Understanding’ doesn’t arrive at any stopping point. All the way down in, it’s love and just sketches. I’m really talking ‘epistemology.’ It’s faith and love, everything, all the way down in. Everything’s faith and love.”
He was patiently soaking this up, not arguing, lightly tapping the rim of his aluminum can on his lip, scanning the stars overhead.
§ § §
Earlier in the day, I had asked him what he’d published that the Castlegate people so approved of. Because, even early on, it seemed obvious the judges had made a mistake: Mark Perdue could never have committed himself to a viewpoint that any true theist could like.
So I asked what his big publication was. But he wouldn’t say. His only response a wince of annoyance/disgust. So I thought I’d leave it alone. I decided I could ask Rob Kasish later.
§ § §
When I was able to ask Rob, it was back home on the regular phone in my rectory. The first thing I did, when we got back after Thalia’s clinic visit and mine, was call him at the diocese.
(It turned out he’d never gotten the complete message. During the afternoon he’d been leaving voice messages for me on my home phone.)
For one thing, I wanted to ask whether, in fact, Castlegate could possibly have no say-so over how their money is spent (as Mark claims).
But first I wanted to know what his achievement was. What he got the prize for.
“He proved the existence of God,” Rob said. Tone: weary sarcasm.
On these topics Rob and I both are entitled to sound weary and sarcastic, a pair of old seminarians. In fact, the question of whether God exists is a demonstrably meaningless one, as we both know, we’ve had so much theology together – we’ve actually sat in the same classrooms under the same professors – questions like Does God Exist are like old discarded underwear or field hockey jerseys left on some dorm-room floor decades ago, never thought of since, never laundered, never again wanted or sought. Only once, long ago, in certain callow summers of mental boyhood, did establishing or disestablishing “God’s existence” seem an urgent game to throw all your weight into.
I said, by way of understatement, “Perdue doesn’t seem like the type.”
My level pitch of absurdity wasn’t correctly audible over the phone, so I added what came out as my little snort. My little snort, unfortunately, I think sometimes conveys not so much merriment as derision, like just sheer snottiness. “What was it?” I said. “First Cause argument? The ‘ontological argument’?”
It came back to me that Rob has always did have a humorless side.
He said, “It seems he argued that math existed before the Big Bang. Math existed before anything else. So he was just accidentally being philosophical. Talking pre-Big Bang.”
“Before the Big Bang, how can anybody know? Math is one of the things that… didn’t exist before the Big Bang.”
“The law existed. According to your friend, ‘Two-Plus-Two-Equals-Four’ was already a law before there existed anything to count. It was a law hanging out there without anything physical. In the total void. Before there were any things to add. Or things to subtract. Or multiply. In other words, it was already true that two and two are four.”
I’m no real philosopher, but if that was Mark’s idea, it seems unsound. “Back when – if, at a time when nothing existed yet…” I was being inarticulate, trying to think out loud. “At that time, an ‘idea’ of a law would have been just one more nonexistent thing.”
“Still, though. ‘Two-and-Two-is-Four’ would’ve still been true before the Big Bang. And therefore, all the other truths: trigonometry and calculus and everything, including all possible conceivable theorems people haven’t yet figured out. All those laws were hanging out, before anything ever existed. You see. Before anything, ‘2+2=4’ was already automatically true.”
“Mm-hm, so that’s ‘God,’” I said, sharpening sarcasm almost to sing-song to make it unmistakable – for it was coming back to me, how Rob can have no idea when people are joking. At least it’s how he likes to act. The truth is, he knows when people are joking, he just doesn’t think anything is funny. Ever. In seminary he used to have the most plodding methodical ways, and I remember how vulnerable and blinkered it could make him. In his humorlessness, he was like a big beetle guys could tip over. Or, with a tap, re-aim in its progress. Rob knew all this mockery was happening, and he just phlegmatically forgave people.
He concluded, “Anyway, so the Castlegate committee got it wrong.” (Meaning, wrong in their choice of a winner.) “It helps that the whole Castlegate idea is prejudiced and tendentious. I haven’t read this man’s essay, John, and I’m not going to read it. It’s not my job. Remember Sister Abraham?”
Sister Abraham with the tender almond eyelids. And the dark downy suggestion of sideburns at her wimple’s pure bandage-windings. She was our professor for our big survey course in theology, two semesters, an entire school year, in a classroom overheated by steam-filled iron radiators.
He said, “Everybody’s been logical-positivist since the nineteen-forties, John. Me too. I’m still in Sister Abraham’s little universe.”
So am I, in fact. So are we all, dear reader. Logical positivists are philosophers whose decree would be, All statements about God are, by nature, nonsense. It’s pretty much the dominant view and has been, in fact, for a century or so. And it’s more or less undeniable, there’s no gainsaying logical positivism. You can even be an ardent believer – you can be a never-for-a-moment-doubter, or a firsthand blissed-out mystic, you can be an archbishop or an Incarnation of the Buddha – and still agree: all human statements about God are, necessarily, nonsense.
Anyway,I could hear Thalia snacking in the kitchen, and I wanted to get off the phone. The crackle of the Wheat Thins’ inner waxed paper, the rattle of the louvered pantry shutters, the asterisk of her soda’s pop-top. She was satisfying her pregnancy cravings and I wanted to join her and get started on wine.
As to my other question, Rob believed that, yes, probably Castlegate could sue to get back misspent money. It was too late in the day to be phoning Denmark but, in principle, he definitely had the feeling they could take back the money, if it were being spent to finance “scandal.” (He liked the word, too, and we went riffing on it, and it was like being back in the Student Lounge in Gaskell Hall, all night bullshitting with Cherry Cokes and Pringles by the light of Monty Python reruns, because, the fact was, neither of us could get a date.)
I was looking across at my rectory bookshelves. Two exits up the freeway, there was a grown man living in a roadside fruit stand. All over my shelves, still, his Visa and MasterCard pages were hanging by their corners. They were dry now, slightly corrugated from this morning’s faucet-water rinsing (post orange-juice catastrophe). I could look across now and see, for instance, a charge credited to “Monster Logistics.” Which, on first examination, I’d found obscure. Now I had a picture: big black trucks carrying big black guitar amplifiers, driven by union teamsters, probably costing hundreds or, who knows, thousands of dollars a day.
But I wanted to start dinner. Before hanging up, I did get one useful, practical surmise from Rob: He admitted the Castlegate Foundation might actually be satisfied with an unfilled-out form, if it were only signed. Maybe the signature alone would be enough. He thought at least it was worth a try. “As you know, John, this whole thing isn’t my cup of tea. Or anybody-here’s cup of tea.”
I could see (knowing Church politics as I do) that Rob had been stuck with a miscellaneous chore that was demeaning to his new stature there, as a fresh Chancellor for the diocese, and he would like it if the whole thing were conveniently strangled offstage.
Which I was happy to accomplish for him – largely because now I’d gotten interested in Mark Perdue. He isn’t crazy. He’s probably always been like this. I felt privileged to have met him. Funny to say, I was actually looking forward to getting back out there. He’s a remarkable person. If weirdly at sixes and sevens.
So, as soon as I hung up the phone, I decided I’d make quick work of dinner. I’ve got a stir-fry that is tasty and dependable and fast. Also, I was looking forward to spinning out more of this tale for Thalia, getting her views on the events of my day, which I’d told her some of already. So I went in the kitchen and got out my pots, and I found the rice bag – going first, however, for the bottle of cabernet, topping up my special goblet, the only goblet remaining from an old set, with a fluted, faceted stem, its vertical pleats against the pad of fat on my thumb, a spindle, as I revolve it, on into the evenings, an axis, even an axis mundi, it’s a wineglass that has survived the years without breaking, and I always reshelve it from the dishwasher at the very back of the glassware cabinet, for safety. Later on, I would have to get in the car and drive, so I knew I mustn’t drink too much. Out there in the low spot off the freeway, behind his shed, there was only canned beer. So, thinking ahead, I reckoned I might get as deep into the wine bottle as I, prudently, now could.
§ § §
“Something about Mark Perdue I noticed? I think he’s OCD. Obsessive compulsive. A little bit.”
Thalia, at the kitchen table, was eyeing my cookery, and she said, “Oh, please don’t put that in.”
I’d been trying to slip a bouillon cube into the pan.
– So it was back to plain salt, and I wrapped the sticky ingot back up in its small foil.
“What are his obsessive compulsions?” she said.
“Well, with his fingers – after a while I was noticing something going on. There’s a lot going on all the time, like the four fingers kept touching the armrests in a pattern. Kind of like typing. Like he’s always typing. Symmetrically. And there’s something going on with his tongue. And his lip. He’s always got an empty beer can. The edge of the beer can touches four spots on the upper lip. Then the tongue comes out and touches those same four spots. Then the edge of the can touches the same four spots on the lower lip, and the tongue has to go over those four spots. It’s like it has to.”
“Sign of intelligence,” Thalia opined.
It’s the sort of remark, around here, that might be true (she’s the psych major and this is her field), or might be just some subjective quirky notion she’s throwing out. She took a sip from her green can of soda pop and gazed out through the French doors. It was a subjective quirky notion, I decided.
She mused, “Maybe he’s living alone because he has to do his compulsions. That’s a thing, you know. Some people are so obsessed, it’s their job, it’s all they do. It’s a thing.”
“He’s weird. I almost kind of doubt his expertise as a physicist, because he doesn’t talk like that. He talks in sloppy ways, when he’s talking about physics, not in the precise way a physicist would. He often uses just normal-ignoramus words.”
(Like bazillion. Later that night, when I was back out at his campsite, he was describing the Big Bang and he talked about a million-bazillionth of a second. Either he was dumbing down the information for a layman or else he just has slovenly language habits. Slovenly language habits wouldn’t have helped him at Berkeley.)
She took another swallow. She loves this old soft drink Vernors, lately. It’s one of her pregnancy cravings. Her belly in recent days has started to take the correct single-scoop-of-ice-cream shape – it really emerges whenever she sits down and relaxes and puts up her bare feet on an opposite chair.
She answered, “I know that neurologists – like when we need diagnosticians – some neurologists use only technical jargon. But some just go blah-blah-blahing along like anybody. You kind of trust the blah-blah ones more, though. Interestingly.”
She was scanning idly over the label on the soft drink in her hand. Customarily at this time of the evening she would be joining me for at least one glass. Invariably Chardonnay. Now that she’s got somebody trusting inside, she’s off the wine and, instead, on this canned drink from her childhood.
So. Having assembled some vegetables on the chopping block, I asked her how work was today.
§ § §
Asking Thalia at eventide how work was, on a day – like the first whiff of fermented purple Sonoma when the sun has slipped below the porch railing, like leaving my shoes on the doormat to go sock-footed indoors, like hauling out the rice bag and my pots and turning on the 5:00-8:00 broadcast of quiet baroque on the kitchen radio, like standing sock-footed while hoisting to my face my personal wineglass, in my silent ceremony of daily thanksgiving – ceremony of self-congratulation, ceremony of another day’s simple survivorship – (in fact, I almost, but don’t really, mumble a little bit of Baruch atah adonai eloheinu, my favorite all-purpose thanksgiving) – so it is: when I ask Thalia how work was, it’s one of several toggle-switches I flip off. Or flip on. Whatever. During the next thirty minutes after I’ve inquired about work, I won’t have to speak at all if I don’t feel like it. I chop vegetables. She’ll have plenty to say. She’ll have marvelous tales of the world. Best of all, I get a thirty-minute vacation from myself, my all-important self, my petty, fatuous, vain, corrupt, trivial self, I’ve been with myself all day, and now I can enter a world – Thalia’s – that is so much more dramatic, so much more instant, so much more directly plugged into love itself, just listening to her stories, it redeems my defeated afternoons. (“Defeat” being a decent man’s baseline existential condition.) The one especially redeeming thing in my professional life is Thalia’s nonprofit – Green Thumbs – which my fundraising efforts help to float. Green Thumbs, of course, is my favorite account. The operation over the next ten years will be expanding and it’s going to be needing big infusions of liquid money.
Green Thumbs is an agency of hers that employs retarded adults – that is, more correctly, “developmentally disabled” adults – as landscape gardening crews. Picture about a half-dozen individuals, of both sexes, some of them well into middle-age, in various shapes and sizes, each carrying his/her own peculiar sloth or nagging anxiety or edginess or pessimism – or (most commonly) patient tolerant mellowness – all outdoors wielding rakes and trowels, in the shade of eucalyptus or oak or palm or willow, in a San Rafael municipal park or on some institution’s broad lawns, all wearing safety vests of bright reflective plastic. In effect Green Thumbs provides, simultaneously, adult daycare and “horticultural therapy.” The clients, as they’re called, really do like the work. They like taking it seriously, and they like being good at something. The whole thing is wonderful. It’s also a demanding business to run. Thalia, as CEO of a nonprofit, is fantastically underpaid for all her long hours and her valiant ingenuity. And it’s growing. Under her directorship, now there are three Green Thumbs storefronts: the original one here in San Rafael, one in Corte Madera, and a new one in Santa Rosa. She used to spend all her days out in the sun on job sites, wearing canvas gloves, raking or weeding alongside her crew of irregulars, sporting an impossibly cute brimmed sunhat of floppy terrycloth. Now mostly she’s in the new office on Mission Street, handling the business side. She no longer gets to witness and govern at the scenes (out in the sunshine or in the Fourth Street dayrooms) of high drama and moral conflict and general folderol, among staff as much as clients. Still, the daily news from the Green Thumbs precincts does make its way into her office. And the little moral tales are always a delight – their story-lines, their ongoing character issues. All I do is chop vegetables. Maybe lend one ear to Bach on the radio. Let the solvent wine start taking me down. For a half hour, while I hold my peace, a white apron is freedom and amnesty: it’s like the acolyte’s loose bib at the altar, conferring simplicity, conferring maybe even “humility” (or at least humility’s sufficient simulation). You tie those white apron-strings in the evening of the day, you enter the guarantee. This particular cabernet, which I found a few cases of at a bargain, has a fragrant ghost of fennel (I finally identified that faint licorice within), as if, up in Sonoma, fennel were the roadside weed from the hot summer of its grapes’ darkening and sweetening. Those summer days, too, were days the Lord made.
On this occasion, however, she didn’t launch off into anything dramatic. Not much came to mind, actually.
She came up with, “Well, Pammy is off Rich.”
“What does that mean? ‘Off Rich.’”
“She doesn’t think Rich is so great anymore. It’s not a Big Love anymore.”
“Can she hear us? Where is she right now?”
Pammy, one of the developmentally disabled adults from Green Thumbs, was at that moment somewhere around our house, carrying her feather duster and spray bottle and rag. As one of the highest-functioning clients, she will probably one day be gainfully employed and live independently, and she is being trained for jobs other than the landscaping routines. As part of this accelerated program, she comes once a week to our house, where, for an hour or two, she serves as a largely ineffectual (but highly paid!) housekeeper, randomly dabbing at surfaces. She doesn’t stay for dinner with us, because she has dietary restrictions. But Pammy’s mother would arrive soon to pick her up. We eat after she’s gone.
“She’s in the garage, she can’t hear. I saw her go in there.”
“She mustn’t overhear you if you’re talking about her love life.”
“She’s in there. I can see her right now. She’s futzing around with something.”
Pammy is so high-functioning she even helps with office work. In the Mission Street premises she does filing and photocopying and so on, as well as answering the phone. Her conversation and (a bit of therapy jargon here) her “affect” are cheerful, direct, reasonable. Favoring her as I do, I’m rather illicitly prejudiced in Pammy’s case. In fact, I fought a wide campaign for a while, trying to get everybody to call her Pamela – or Pam – something better befitting her maturity; but it was a battle I lost, especially since Pammy herself really prefers the diminutive name. (This she finally confessed to me, sorrily.) Meeting her, you’d notice only after a while, she has a flat-footed way of standing, and a funny-shaped midsection; and along with the flat-footedness, an unwillingness to take initiatives or risks. Pammy’s unfortunate fate is that she’s just above a certain threshold, so that she’s smart enough to know she’s not up to par. She knows, too, she is a slight burden to people. Her sense of her own defectiveness is, remotely, a religious condition. In that way, she’s one of us. I’m not making a mere conceit: in Kierkegaard’s categories, Pammy has attained to the “ethical” level, the second-story level, above pure amoral innocence. She really is one of us, morally. (Some of them aren’t. Some of them are at pure amoral innocence. I’ve seen it in action. Some of these clients can be governed by shame, but not by – the higher thing – guilt.)
“Rich started wearing bags on his hands again,” said Thalia. “She’s so disappointed. She’s not ‘severe’ like Rich. And it’s just a comedown for her. This has been a major infatuation, at her age.”
“Does Rich’s sister let him do that?”
I’d been under the impression that an older sister was policing all Rich’s irrational compulsions. Supposedly the sister was now making a routine inspection of his whole person, including his backpack, every morning at the bus pick-up before letting him get on. Rich has an obsession – which seems to come and go – with sanitation and personal sterility.
Rich is also smart. He’s even above Pammy’s level, intelligence-wise. But he has other problems. He is almost fifty (while Pammy is in her thirties), and he’s tall and good-looking, but he’s a brain-trauma client. So he’s cognitively all right – indeed, he’s a great reader and kind of a pedant – but he’s impulsive, deeply lazy and careless, a nonstop bullshitter, and sometimes stubbornly delusional. He lives with his sister in San Rafael in a good neighborhood.
“I thought the sister confiscates the plastic bags before pick-up?”
“He sneaks them to school somehow. Or, he gets hold of them after he’s in school. Also, he’s got masking-tape now, to keep them on his wrists. He’s got this roll of it. It’s blue masking-tape. It’s better than the rubber bands, but it’s worse, too, because of the bright blue. It’s like he’s a spaceman going around. Nobody staff is willing to argue with him. He’s – he can be very, you know, sure of himself. So Pammy is giving up on him. She’s just embarrassed.”
By this point, I had the zucchini cut into pale wet strips, the mushrooms brushed clean and halved, my eggplant sliced and leaching its bitterness into a crust of salt. Still to come were scallions and garlic; and from the farmer’s market, the tomatoes of September, to go with the lettuce and the perfect avocado. If you don’t pause, then the moment passes. I picked up my wineglass again, to get the old reek from its surface, a man in a well-lit kitchen, a man staying out of trouble, being seen in a good light, unlike Rich, for instance. And unlike, say, Mark Perdue, too, out in his gulch. Who somehow botched things completely. Bit by bit, piece by piece, screwed it up. Living at Burger King, as Roger said.
You have to work at getting lost like that. Or at least be incredibly consistent with your shtick. A man gets his special shtick, his God-given parlor trick, or talent or destiny or special cowlick or charisma, even if it’s only some crazy form of plastic-bags-on-hands delusional shtick. And you just keep pushing it. And eventually it’ll make you a “poet” or a “carpenter,” a “brainy scientific expert” or “charming wastrel” or “policeman” or “politician” or even a “priest.” And usually – usually – society will let you have some kind of place. Friendless homelessness, like Mark Perdue’s, doesn’t happen by accident. It’s hard work, to somehow slip around past society’s every last fence and safety-guard and trellis and paling and rope-and-post stanchion and barricade and admonitory signpost.
§ § §
I had already told Thalia a little bit about Mark, and how my afternoon had gone off – but I found the predicament hard to characterize. That whole situation in the low spot behind the fruit stand is loaded with personality issues and ethical assumptions peculiar to Mark Perdue; the story didn’t make clear angles or straight lines outside his domain. Anyway, I thought I’d try going into it, and I said, “Rob Kasish just told me something on the phone. Do you want to hear what Mark Perdue’s academic achievement was? The work the Castlegate committee liked? It’s kind of funny…”
“Something’s going on with Pammy.”
From her place at the table, Thalia was watching through the French doors, where she could see into the garage. I went over and, in my apron, spied through the panes.
(Those redwood planks were lying now safely in a neat stack. Of course, the first thing I did when we got home from the doctor was go out to my standing wooden xylophone and – gently, one by one – lay out all sixteen boards on the level paving.)
Pammy, viewed from within our French doors, was deep in the garage. She seemed to be pausing in thought, steadying herself with one hand on a shelf, letting her head droop in some kind of fretfulness, the other hand holding her cheek.
Thalia was on her feet, already on the job, leaving behind her can of Vernors to go out and have a talk. Using the French doors is forbidden until further notice, while the deck project is in turnaround. I’ve actually locked the doors and put up a sign. (I was misled by a YouTube video on deck construction, and right now it’s unsafe to set foot on it, or even be near it, because temporarily the whole deck-structure is sprung under tension like an immense mousetrap, or you might say catapult.) So Thalia had to go around by the side door. The new weight in her pelvis doesn’t seem to slow her down or make her cautious. She’s still perfectly light on her feet.
I stayed inside and watched. In the garage, when confronted, Pammy lifted her head a little. She did have the surrendering look of somebody found in need of comfort. Really, you wouldn’t guess Pammy is intellectually compromised, except for the stance, and her uncared-for hair vitamin-deficient-looking, which her mother clamps back in a barrette with a typical ungentle jerk. Pammy’s responses to the world are convivial and relevant and usually cheerful. I’ve seen her being endlessly patient with a new summer intern who didn’t know how to operate a coffee maker. He needed to be shown. This was a Stanford University boy who had reached the age of nineteen, a sophomore, and didn’t know how to make coffee – and Pammy was quietly, warmly amused by his incompetence while also steadfast as a teacher, dealing with a boy who was her superior at work.
I should confess I have a particular, personal love for Pammy – it’s actually an attraction, which is deep, but it’s squashed over in some other hidden dimension (like maybe my passion lives in that fourth-dimension where everything is multiplied by “√-1”?) – a love as painful as if my stars were cousins to her stars, or our chromosomes twinkled in communication. Isn’t the organism strange! An attraction across the huge gap in IQ! It’s also an attraction largely innocent of conventional beauty considerations, though she’s quite regular-featured and pretty. I think of my love for her, ideally, as what the old theologians would call storge – like the love of father for child, or brother for sister. (Greek word.) But it really does, in my case, enter as almost illicit. It’s not desire. But it’s also definitely physical, definitely that old-fashioned dire kind of love, a sharp anxiety irrelevant to the world. As I spied through the French doors, I could see she was up against a worry that was extraordinary. I could see it was a matter of emotion for her. It would probably be something pertaining to Rich.
But then, as I watched, I thought not. No mere romance could cause this panicky balking. This was something worse. The old middle-aged admirer, spying through the kitchen French doors, is almost perversely glad to see helplessness in the beloved: It could mean he might be needed or useful. She stood still, one hand frozen knocking against her cheek as if she were holding a phone there. Lank hair hid her expression. The hair also hid her mouth, so I couldn’t tell whether she was saying anything. My wife, I could see, was speaking and then letting her eyes wander in thought, and then speaking some more. Pammy moved not at all. Just held those fingertips to her cheek.
§ § §
“She got the idea she’s pregnant.”
I had the wok roaring. The two women had taken so long in the garage, the garlic was halfway golden in the pan and I’d added all the other vegetables – (and, while she was gone, I’d dropped in a bouillon cube; it’s a secret of good stir-fry) – and I remarked while I stirred, “She has that stomach.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the gluten.”
“When does her mother get here?”
“John, she might be. She might be pregnant. She might have good reason to believe so. I mean I think she is. She’s pregnant.”
I looked at her. I’d thought she meant pregnancy was just a cute misbelief.
“It’s Rich,” I said.
This was disturbing, not to say flabbergasting, and naturally it raises issues about how well clients’ behavior is governed, day to day. Which Thalia answered, “Don’t react like a board member, will you please?”
“Where is there a place they’re not supervised?”
She sighed, “Love will find a way.”
“This isn’t funny, Thale. This is like what’s-her-name from the other year.”
“Would you not react like a board member?”
I took my wineglass and went to sit at the head of the table. Green Thumbs happens now to be financially overextended, with the two new locations. And we’ve got, frankly, too much financial aid promised at the new locations. So we’re not exactly solvent. Or, that is, we’re solvent but we’re not exactly comfortable. Furthermore, we’re just in the process of applying for a big grant with the SF Foundation that would entail a thoroughgoing (nitpicking) inspection of our operations. This would be the third such pregnancy incident at Green Thumbs in the last few years. It’s getting to be as if, among Bay Area adult daycare facilities, Green Thumbs is the anything-goes, Free-Love option.
Thalia wondered out loud, “I’m trying to decide if this is a good thing.”
This could not be a good thing.
Pammy should have been on birth control.
“She should have been on birth control,” I said, but Thalia was lost in thought. “All right. When does Cathy Gainsborough get here?”
“Any minute. But, oh no, John. We’re not telling her mother. Not right away. Let me just think about this for a little while.”
“We have to tell the mother. Are you saying the mother doesn’t already know?”
“The Gainsboroughs are a can of worms.”
Pammy’s mother, Cathy Gainsborough, is an unreasonable woman. It’s rumored – and the rumors seem a bit credible – that Mrs. Gainsborough has been angry enough to be physically rough on her daughter. Not “violent,” just physically impolite. The woman is smaller than her grown-up girl, but she concentrates a lot of energy. It is at least substantially clear that she speaks cruelly and is often impatient with her. Everybody has witnessed that.
Still, as a matter of principle, the mother should be told. Green Thumbs’ reputation is always on the line. The SF Foundation is very exacting. A pregnancy is scandalous. Thalia and I together went through one client pregnancy that was particularly embarrassing. The fact is, romantic enchantments are almost a daily nuisance. They’re only natural. If we were a residential facility, we’d have a different legal status and the clients would all be “conserved” – that seems to be the legal word – and we could just put everybody on birth control. But in a day facility, at the very least, they should never be able to sneak off for unsupervised episodes.
“Thalia, let me just say, nobody likes abortion as an option. The whole idea. But this is precisely the kind of circumstance. This is precisely what it’s meant for. As an option. I’m only saying that being pregnant and actually going to term is… It’s such a spectacle.”
“Can we just wait a minute before jumping to ideas on anything?”
“I’ll talk to them. I’ll do it.”
“No you won’t, John. You’re not the director. You don’t have to answer for these things. I’m the director. I’m answerable.”
“I’ve got the ‘imprimatur.’” I was referring to a recent conversation we’d had about birth control: My imprimatur consists in the fact that people know I was a priest, so I can use the word abortion with a perceived moderation, or even authority.
“Well, darling?” she said, “Some people might consider it unfair to the mother and the mother’s rights. It’s not exactly like sterilizing them. It’s not like eugenics. But it’s choosing. It’s choosing who gets to reproduce and be a mother. People anymore can’t just decide on who doesn’t get to have offspring.”
“There has to be some kind of action. Straight off, the first thing is to inform the parents.”
“If we do talk to them, I’ll be the one, John. You’d probably say something.”
“Can we not go into that?”
She tends to memorialize a certain perceived gaffe of mine, which in fact wasn’t a gaffe at all. I sometimes use the word “retarded” – but with full intention, not mistakenly – because, I would argue, it’s a much sweeter, more loving old-fashioned word than these days’ prescribed legalistic (in effect damning) euphemisms.
She swung away and picked up her can and took a drink. I was back at the wok, and I thought I’d give it a stir. On reflection, something else started to sink in: how unkind it was of her, to class me with people like fascists who want to sterilize the unfit.
“Thalia?” I said. “Maybe you’re director. And I know you see a cosmetic, social aspect to this.” (Her face, as she looked at me, was shrinking, going into the distance.) “And I know you want to be tactful—”
“A ‘cosmetic social aspect’? John, what is that?”
I was aware that I was stirring the wok in a punitive sort of way, and I was aware that Thalia was watching me do so. I said, “‘Retarded’ is an excellent word.”
“You just asked ‘Can we not get into that.’”
“All right, when I say ‘cosmetic social aspect,’ I mean like a PR aspect. It might not look good, to admit honestly there’s been hanky-panky. It’s natural to want to sit on that information for a while. But you have to look forward, also, to what will end up as the good ethical choice.”
“What are you talking about? Ethics? You’re telling me about?”
“It’s their daughter.”
“John, your attitude – your attitudes – you know, I’m not sure if I’m going be able to take it when you get like this. I’m in that office every day. I’m in there.”
Suddenly this had gone straight up to insult and threat, here in this room where we’ve been married three years now. I was completely innocent of any unhelpful intentions. I was simply suggesting we face the facts.
Which is supposed to be helpful, not offensive. “I’m not saying anything objectionable. Or that could be construed as objectionable. I’m trying to point out what might be the right thing. And be responsible. Can we just talk about it that way?”
“Your assumption… Nobody would suspect I’m so dumb and, as you imply, so superficial, or so unethical. Not until you come along.”
“I don’t think you’re superficial. Or you’re unethical. I didn’t say ‘superficial,’ I said ‘cosmetic.’ I’m just trying to suggest a course of action.”
“Yes, because the whole rest of the world is incompetent.”
“It always goes from zero to sixty like this. And it’s always about what personality problems I have. I’m always the first problem to get into, as fast as possible. All I’m trying to do is discuss this, this situation. Can we keep ‘me’ irrelevant?”
“You should keep your voice down,” she said.
“She can’t hear. This isn’t loud. I’m just saying if we ever had a real difficulty? Would you do this? If something came along and there was some real difficulty?”
This has been consistently true. If we were on a sinking boat she would turn and start remarking on me, rather than the hole in the boat. A sinking boat would be a fresh occasion to start discussing my pattern of failings.
So I asked. I asked what exactly did she mean by my “attitudes.” And what did she mean by saying she wasn’t sure she’d “be able to take it.” Because, with that, she’d gone straight to some kind of threat, while carrying our baby in her womb, here in a kitchen we’ve furnished together so beautifully over the years, the deck half-constructed outside the French doors. I suppose I wanted to point out the absurdity and the scariness of a remark like that.
“It just means that I am the founder and the CEO. I handle things. You don’t. You really haven’t the faintest idea.”
“That’s not what I mean,” I said.
But I’d hit a point of not wanting to explain what I meant anymore. Nor learn what she’d meant, really. Because that remark of hers, back there, was an obliterating bomb she’d set on the table and I didn’t want to touch it. Or ask her, either, to start dismantling it. A marriage can go on by not defining positions with perfect clarity, and not bringing back up the actual facts for a little improved precision – but instead by a forgetfulness, knitting constantly toward amnesty.
I frequently used to counsel unhappy couples to just stop talking. Stop the clarifying and the explaining. And don’t worry about airing everything out. To some, that advice might seem a willed mutual indifference, a willed ignorance of each other, as if a married couple were in fact only knitting toward the coming hard-of-hearing days. But really, it’s just habituation we want, muffling, healing, forgiving habituation, not “facing the facts,” not going back to get better clarity on old remarks. I seriously mean that. The great marriages are, at least partly, zones of forgetfulness and inattention. And I could see Thalia was going to collaborate with me in this, for she was averting her eyes. Drinking her drink.
Then, fortunately for us, Cathy Gainsborough’s big minivan came up the drive – taking the turn too fast, as usual – and as usual, making a bang that jarred the whole vehicle when she hit the concrete’s sharp boost from street to driveway – a bump characteristic of all Vista Drive, and indeed the whole subdivision’s curbside driveway paving – so we would have to stifle the quarrel. And pass off Pammy to her mom without mentioning anything. And maybe now distraction, that form of forgiveness, would take over – the stir-fry in the wok needing pokes with my wooden spoon, and Thalia’s table-setting occupation, and hunting up the chopsticks in the napkin drawer, followed by the essentially humbling shared abasement of carrying food from bowl to mouth.
§ § §
At a certain point that night, I was sitting in Mark’s spare lawn chair looking at the stars – (the last bit of the Big Dipper was going down behind Mount Tam; Mark was carrying on about a particular reddish star on Scorpio’s claw) – and while he was talking, I recalled something I’d read about husband/wife quarrels.
This was in a Presbyterian publication I had to review because Episcopalians were adopting it for an in-service program – a big workbook called “Counseling, Mediation, Intervention.” Most of these publications are pablum but this had an interesting thing to say about the different durations of married people’s arguments. In the more successful, sturdier marriages, couples go into a quarrel and then straight out the other end with a kind of a speedy efficiency. Like ideally in less than a few minutes. Or, for the real vets, under a minute. It’s as if, even while quarreling, a pair of organisms in a team will practice a kind of energy conservation together. By contrast, fated-to-divorce couples have a tendency – it’s an essentially artistic, inventive tendency, a high-intelligence tendency – to bring up afterthoughts and clever addenda and fresh reinforcements, expending lots of energy on getting it right. The happier ones can get in and out of an argument in just a few minutes, and not dwell on having been wrong or right. And then in the way that bicyclists keep their balance, they reenter their shared amnesia, just moving around the house, as if the shared amnesia is the mysterious thing “forgiveness” – hauling out the recycling while the pledge break on the radio blathers on, squeezing the sponge tight so the next person won’t find it sopping.
§ § §
All “retarded” means is “slow.” (Latin, tardare: to delay, to slacken.) Playing a piano piece ritardando means just lingering, savoring the phrases, rather than rushing through in a show of brilliance. Everybody nowadays is supposed to say “developmentally disabled” (an expression that insults and even condemns people), because nobody is attentive to words’ real meanings and nuances. Pammy Gainsborough is a slower-than-usual person, but she will have a life far fuller than a lot of the average vapid, high-pressurized people walking around in the so-called normal range. I’ve actually begun picturing her as a mother, and she’ll be perfect. Ever since Thalia made that odd wistful remark (“I’m trying to decide if this is a good thing”), it flipped a switch in me and I find myself imagining: If Pammy kept the baby, for one thing, she would be really good with the lullabies. And the nursery songs. Her singing voice is right on pitch. I picture her kneeling or sitting cross-legged on the old castoff rug from the Green Thumbs dayroom (it’s an oval rug illustrated by a large Snoopy-Snoozing-on-Doghouse-Roof cartoon; at this moment it happens to be taking up space in our garage, rolled-up; she always liked it, and the Gainsboroughs ought to use it, to furnish a nursery), rocking the infant in her arms, humming where she kneels. There would be nursery rhymes and folk songs, and there would be pop tunes to sing – pop tunes for the little babe – because Pammy loves all the new music, and she owns one of those personal players with wired buds in her ears, and she’s a voracious downloader of new songs from the computerized universe of music. Pammy knows how to do all such downloading. I myself (IQ 112) can’t do any of that. The pure tenderness-and-patience part of motherhood, the early part, would be the easy part. She has life skills, she can do basic cookery (omelets her specialty, gluten-free French toast her favorite, beef stew her piece de résistance). She has passed every test on the THRIVE (it’s an acronym) list of independent-living skills. Things wouldn’t always be perfect. She wouldn’t be much help with schoolwork like algebra or writing an essay. She’s painfully aware of her cognitive deficiencies in the world.
But the tenderness-and-patience part is the important thing. Plenty of people aren’t good with algebra. Not every “normal” mom who happens to score in the comfy middle of the Bell curve is, necessarily, going to be a big help with homework. Pammy can drive a car – she’s had a driver’s license for ten years and she has never had an accident, or even the slightest fender-scrape. She handles money. She shops sensibly in grocery stores. Her hygiene is up to par. Her “impulse control” is way up above par. In fact, she’s so scrupulous about everything, she tends to over-obsess about mistakes or imperfections, and one wishes she could relax sometimes. Be a little less fretful.
§ § §
After Burger King we were back in our lawn chairs and I turned to Mark, thinking I might work my way back to the topic of his marriage and daughter. So (since the disquisition on the star in Scorpio’s claw seemed to have dribbled away, and since I didn’t have much to contribute on the topic of red giants’ internal temperature) I started prying in a very general way (this was always roundabout; roundabout is my strategy): “Tell me, though. Somehow you got committed and you decided a second-hand bookstore was a business model. And set up this consignment policy and everything. I mean, this is really sort of a success! You say you had all these books piling up around the house?”
He thought for a minute, as if he were picturing the books piling up. Or just picturing his whole life back in Cobblestone. Then, heavily, with a creak, he listed over on his armrest toward me and said, “You know, though?”
He was considering how – or whether – to embark on something. Having glanced, and having sized me up for this, he dropped back. He lifted a finger, stirring it in an upward circle. “This is largely a function of how infinitesimally short our lives are. And our planet’s little observation timespan.”
I reached for another beer.
And couldn’t help noticing that this was strange new version of myself: having a third beer and feeling somehow I was, in this way, making progress.
Because wouldn’t a third beer – and yet another of Mark’s cosmological lectures – constitute more of a setback than progress?
§ § §
I did have a responsibility here. I had power over whether he could keep the money. I was able to report back on any “malfeasance” I observed. Plus, there was, in fact, “malfeasance.”
But the more I thought about it, it seemed at least as important, also, to listen for hints of child abuse. It’s a morbid suspicion, and, for me at this point, it’s actually a somewhat drudging suspicion, while a gruesome one. But what if it’s warranted by what’s right under everybody’s nose? “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” says the good book. “Do men gather grapes from thorns? Or figs from thistles?” Well, look at what Carlotta is up to. Repetitious public enactments of copulation. Which would be in keeping with the whole tiresome Freudian diagram of personality.
(Carlotta’s performances wouldn’t add up to be so pornographic if the music were better. When she performs live, the music is just a regular thump. Any objective lover of music would agree. Throughout the show, not even pausing between songs, from beginning to end, the music is just a single sustained, unstoppable, relentless, uninterruptible, discotheque thump. The thump is there to provide a pretext as she goes about onstage finding people and things to rub against.)
One of her songs, for example, is called “Lambsie Divey,” and uses the third-person pronoun “she” to tell the tale of a childhood in an ordinary suburban home where something indulgent or degrading or oppressive was inflicted. The lyrics connive by vague metaphors, but it’s supposed to narrate the original vampire taint, a young girl’s education in her own debasement. In YouTubes of it, the dance section involves a long interlude of masturbation mimed and choreographed, and way overextended, so that I start fast-forwarding. “Lambsie Divey” seems to have been her first and biggest hit. The old children’s ditty about lambs eating ivy – and about baby goats’ (kids’) willingness to eat ivy, in the same way that a mare or a doe will feed on oats – takes on inexplicit shadowy meanings.
Personally, I’ve never intervened in any really heinous family situations. During my Sausalito time, in-service trainings were being offered ecumenically all over the Bay Area. I always hated in-services. Still, I attended all the sessions, and I did all the reading. Also, there were pastoral occasions when I happened to meet up with perpetrators – (nice people! middle-class! attractive!) – so I know how iniquity can thrive in the homes that, to all appearances, represent ordinariness.
I knew, therefore, that there could be perversion in the man who’d been sitting right at my elbow all night. Without overthinking any kind of “strategy,” I made my opening attack on a kind of diagonal: “Well, your daughter’s a lucky girl. Seems to me she had every advantage. Loving parents. Solid home. An only child, like me. I’ve always thought it an advantage, being an only child.”
He was setting up the laptop to stream the concert. He said, “No, we spoiled her. We were compensating.”
He went inside the shed, needing something for the laptop.
Sitting where I was, I raised my voice, “‘Compensating’—?”
He came back with a power cord and an extension, and knelt.
“Imagine spending $190 on a pair of sunglasses. For a sixteen-year-old. Which, on that same day, get left behind on a tray at a fast-food restaurant. This was an Arby’s way the hell in Rohnert Park. Left ’em on a tray. Dumped the tray. No more sunglasses.”
I recognized a certain fatherly tone that combines a complaint with a proud boast. Myself, I wonder if I’ll have the wisdom to resist such tones. Typical father stuff: a certain self-aggrandizing while whining.
“Then imagine driving back into town that same day and spending another $190 to buy replacement sunglasses, because Dad doesn’t want to go all the way up there and climb around inside the dumpster behind the Arby’s in Rohnert Park. The whole afternoon picking through a dumpster.”
“Compensating for, though?”
He did say compensating. Compensating for what? It was a trace I had to follow, though I know a real sin isn’t going to be revealed casually.
“What happened was, we were all kind of broken-hearted. She almost had a little brother. We had to have an abortion. It was medically necessary. Late-term. It was the event of our lives.”
So that path of inquiry didn’t lead straight to child abuse, but this doesn’t rule it out.
“After he was lost, after the boy was lost, that put a responsibility on her forever after.”
“A responsibility on Lotta? A responsibility to, kind of, take the place of an unborn child?”
“Just to be beloved, super-beloved. It’s a weight, being loved. It’s a burden. You should have seen Christmases.”
Most people don’t find it a burden to be loved.
I said, “Why? What were the Christmases?”
“She had to learn to get to be really good at being beloved, being thought about, being cared about, being on people’s radar. Which she did learn. She’s mighty good at it now.”
According to him, they heaped things on her, lessons of all sorts, fancy programs, tutors and specialists, expensive haircuts, clothes. The Perdues don’t seem ever to have been wealthy, but I think some kind of small inheritance came along at some point, right around the time of the late-term abortion – after which they fell into investing in the daughter, doting over her talent, constantly shampooing her for a presumed eventual stardom.
“And you know, this being Marin County, she had to have a little German car. Even if it’s embarrassing second-hand with mismatched fender paint. And a student parking permit that was so expensive, it cost literally as much as the car. Literally actually more than the car. The student parking permit. That’s Marin. It’s cheap to get a second-hand BMW, but when it comes to a high school parking permit, these kids can afford to buy one like it isn’t going to put them in the poorhouse.”
“How did she make this huge jump?” I pointed at the laptop, where the concert would soon get going. I was trying to stay on the investigation. Because what he describes as “excess belovedness” could have crossed over a certain line.
“Constantly at war,” he said, “with the socio-economic norm.”
His story was going to carry on at its own pace. He pointed out he’d been letting the physics department reduce his schedule; and that Lotta’s mother’s way of grieving the loss of the baby was to quit her law-firm job and start volunteering, unpaid, for Habitat for Humanity. The one person who really did care about the onset of poverty (poverty by local standards, here) was Lotta. She seemed to have no friends at school and, every day at home, she started conquering the Internet. Behind her closed bedroom door, she built elaborate social-media identities. She created several such online identities, experimenting with a kind of marketing.
Having no true friends can be a game-changing superpower. She accumulated hundreds and hundreds of pixel-constituted “friends” all over the world who felt privileged to be acquainted with a talented budding celebrity. They loved her songs. They loved her plight. She got a stylist for her personal photographs. She published her lyrics on websites. They loved particularly the courage she was showing, in surviving a stultifying suburban home.
Some of these new acquaintances happened to be around the entertainment business. Then when she made application to so-called “writers conferences,” she got endorsements from them. She was admitted, at 18, to a songwriting workshop, a summertime week-long festival away from home. To the workshop, she brought her poems, all about an unspecified girl’s precocity and loneliness, and – (some of this information I get from Mark, but I’m filling in blank spaces, with inferences I make from fan sites’ biographical material, adding, I admit, also my own obvious fatigue and cynicism and general disappointment, including my wariness of the Internet’s fantastic village bonfire) – and how that unspecified young girl’s loneliness drove her to ever more dangerous sexual adventures – and how, inevitably, poor self-esteem can lead to the very lowest indulgences in degradation. Before the week at the writing conference was over, she had made the acquaintance of an industry person who had the sagacity to see a product for the entertainment markets. She was going to get management. Then, within a month, she fired that management and hired different management. And then stopped wanting any management at all. Fired everybody. She now has her own production company. I think having your own production company is like having your own record label. I have to picture her getting off at the end of a concert tour, still wearing the reptile body stocking from onstage, and striding into an executive office and sitting down at a vast desk.
The mother Audrey didn’t, herself, care about getting into the Castlegate money. She’s fine in Palo Alto. At this point she has cut off contact with Carlotta. She finds the daughter unimprovable and thinks total ostracism is the best medicine. According to Mark, she briefly considered bringing a legal suit against her own daughter after the release of Got Girlsterous – a suit not to penalize her but to possibly chasten her, and also to restore the parents’ own reputation. A legal suit within a family is drastic: somebody must have been really driven to extremity. Anyway, people talked her out of it. As husband, Mark has continued to keep the door open for communication. When he and Audrey do talk, they must surely have discussed the idea of cutting off Carlotta’s access to the money. But it’s Mark’s money. And he remains a doting father, in all his ambivalence. That’s the central knotty complication: He seems proud of his vain, ambitious, scandalous (in some societies, you’d say “depraved”) girl.
There’s the problem. A consistent wishy-washiness. It’s not just with the daughter, it’s wishy-washiness about everything. Wishy-washiness, I think, is the whole reason he’s in this last-ditch situation, literally living in an abandoned fruit stand.
Or else – (this is what Thalia suggests, in all seriousness) – taking up the fruit-stand life might have been a purely stagecraft decision. It might be a kind of wiliness in the man, choosing an old roadside stand for his imitation of Job-on-the-Dung-Heap. If you really intend to put in time on that dung heap, you hide away, you go off over the hill somewhere, you don’t set up shop next to a frontage road, near home, in full view to raise your banner announcing misery. So, in Thalia’s view, this entire public roadside breakdown is an advertisement, aimed at his two women.
She could be right. There could be an ingredient of that. But I think my own verdict is more to the point: he’s a highly intelligent man who, however, lacks a gene for decisiveness.
And what is wishy-washiness, essentially? Wishy-washiness is just lovelessness. Self-absorbed, lazy, narcissistic lovelessness. Which would be hard to live with. Hard to grow up in the midst of.
I interrupted his account with a helpful idea, “Your daughter illustrates something I’ve always said.”
I described how my own daughter, Clara Luce as she grows up, will receive only a very stingy old-fashioned weekly allowance, no matter how she may compare herself to her rich girlfriends at school. It might make me look like the Bad Guy, but she’ll develop some character. Keeping the allowance small is just one instance. A consistent policy of non-coddling will produce a young woman with good values.
He would have seen I was right, because he had no comeback. At some point he’d dragged the laptop onto his knee and started working on something.
§ § §
“What I’m saying is—” He was pressing his beer can to his sternum.
He hadn’t, in fact, said anything for some while, not since a long, rambling report on a star called Antares. Whenever he got talkative about astronomy, he left my understanding far behind. Hydrogen, helium, lithium: I have no basis for caring.
“What I’m saying about time is: if you look at that distribution of galaxies, it’s very even. The entire thing up there is evenly distributed. See, look. It isn’t clumped over onto one side. Or other side. Eeeeeven. Eeeeeeven.” (Slowly, his uplifted arm was squeegeeing over the whole night sky.) “All that distribution of galaxies? Here’s what that is. That’s a photograph of the birth of time. We’re actually getting it, seeing the Big Bang, like the Big Bang isn’t only a ‘theory’: we’re always seeing it, up there in real time. So, for a skeptic, the beginning of this universe is coming into your eyes right now, because,” his hand was strewing, sowing, “in the first millionth of a second, everything had to move apart faster than the speed of light. It had to go from the size of a speck to the size of, say, a shoebox. About shoebox-size, the universe was. I’m talking about the post-Big Bang. The first million-bazillion-bajillionth of a second. When it was coming apart faster than light, everything got frozen. Frozen by excess speed. Frozen into this Hubble sphere. It’s a photo. It’s a photo of back-then.”
He glanced, and saw my despair of ever following. He saw my perfectly comfortable, perfectly contented resignation.
“See, so that’s the shoebox. Right up there. All that. If a whole new universe can get its complete structure in a million-bazillionth of a second, then a universe can do a lot. It’s got fourteen billion years. There’s all this time inside time.”
Me, deep in my chair, I did make an effort sometimes. There were moments I’d find myself lying literally rigid, making such an attempt of absorption. But honestly, everything slid off. I would get stuck on a notion like “frozen by excess speed.” What can that possibly mean? Something moves so fast it freezes? And that is the universe?
At base, this all has to do with the universe’s getting along fine without a God. That was always operating in the background. He was educating me, putting up barriers.
“We, us, as observers,” he was patting his chair’s armrests, “we’re all built-in. Because this universe is about cognition. It’s why we are the built-in element. We’re built in observing it. The universe is all made of information, you know.” He looked at me, in a way so it was just the two of us, God excluded, now it was just him and me. “You know that.”
§ § §
His cell phone never went for long without a ping, or a clink-clank, and at last it lit up with the news that the WholeLottaLove Tour was announcing the secret location of the concert.
He picked it up and read it off. It would be on a barge moored at a San Francisco pier, in a dark industrial district called China Basin south of downtown. Carlotta fans were supposed to converge on the place.
But I had a serious criticism, having to do with the Big Bang, and the daughter was actually less interesting. He’d said something that seemed mistaken. It’s a well-known fact that nothing can go faster than light. It’s a universal rule, and I pointed that out. He had implied that, somewhere in the Big Bang, things were going faster than light. Which is supposed to be impossible.
“Ah-ha, yes, they were moving almost the speed of light, but moving away from each other. Mutually moving away. So the mutual gap is opening faster than light. One part this way, another part the other direction. It adds up to mutual motion faster than light. See, so they blink out from each other: they vanish from each other’s universes. The light can’t catch up. Forever! Never to be recovered! This was happening while the whole place was still shoebox-sized.”
His hand patted at the Milky Way. “That up there is stuck. All that got stuck in observability. It’s observable. It’s stuck inside lightspeed. Anything out beyond, it’s going away faster than light – we can’t see that anymore.”
Suddenly I was in despair at the thought of more astrophysics. I pointed to the cell phone, “Do you want to go to the concert?”
“You may not realize. The further out you look, the faster the expansion is getting away. Fourteen billion light years out, it’s the edge of the known universe, and everything there is shooting out so fast, it reaches a going-away speed faster than light. The light of everything out there can’t get back to us. It can’t catch up against the getaway speed. The light is fighting the flowing-away speed.” (I’d heard of this particular phenomenon, well-informed as I am.) “So, out at the extreme edge, a star just winks out. At least for us. Edge of universe, for us. Never to return. Never to be seen again. Never to be known of. Or thought about or guessed about. Also, fourteen billion in that direction, and in that direction, and that direction – in all directions, the universe is inside a lot of darkness, a sphere of darkness, it’s actually a sphere of ignorance that’s soaking everything up. All our stars are spreading away into it.”
“But Mark, really. Let’s get in my car and just go to Lotta’s concert.”
I had no desire to be at any rock concert. I’d seen enough of her on Internet clips. I only thought Mark ought to take a first step. It would be a step toward getting back in touch with his family, and possibly even getting out of this period of his life.
It took a minute – he lifted his beer can and with its rim he started stroking the long facets of his nose.
I had a dreadful, realistic thought. He might agree to go to the show.
If he did, I’d have to reverse direction and wriggle out, because in truth, the last thing I wanted was to stay up late at a loud concert. It wasn’t likely he and she they might meet in that setting. I’d changed my mind. Now I could only hope he wouldn’t agree, because if he did, I’d have to swing around and start discouraging this.
“There is no concert, you know,” he said. “It’s possible there’s no such barge, if you went looking for it. It’s a virtual concert.” He stopped combing the beer can rim down the slopes of his nose, and glanced to me. “If that address does exist, there might be a few kids they’ll deal with. But the event is Internet-streaming. If anything, it’s clackers. It’s shills. That’s what the event is.”
“A ‘virtual’ concert?”
He laid his head back again. “Virtual concert. Virtual fans. It’s the sort of thing they’re doing with her, to improve her so-called edge rank.”
“What is ‘edge rank’?”
“You don’t want to know. It’s not interesting, all the marketing.”
§ § §
The pages of that Family Ministry workbook from my “outreach” days were illustrated by occasional Charles Schultz cartoons, in which Peanuts characters (Linus, Snoopy, et alia) enacted their vignettes, instancing universal anxieties and tribulations.
In one cartoon, the little piano player, sitting at his toy piano, had been interrupted by the bossy girl, the one named Lucy. The implication was, he had been happily pounding out his Beethoven, but Lucy had come and she’d put a stop to it, so she could say something critical, something more reality-based than music, something scolding, her big forearms folded over her little chest. (None of these had any captions. The original captions had been excised.) The piano-playing boy had turned full-face to stare bleakly out of the cartoon-frame, eyes in parentheses, gazing into the real world, this world, the world where we loom and bulk and murmur and mystically radiate: he was searching outside his frame for sympathy, and even possibly justice.
The point is, one of the women attending Family Dynamics filled in that workbook page’s blank lines with a wonderful subversive critique, not of the cartoon, but all about Charles Schultz himself, and it was quite persuasive – about how certain misogynist assumptions are dyed deep in our culture, and even the charming popular Charles Schultz spreads it around. Lucy was an insensitive battle-axe, and the best recourse for the talented pianist – (I think the boy’s name is Schroeder) – would be to take his toy piano elsewhere. Anywhere she wasn’t. According to this recent divorcée (whose three teenage children ignored/derided her authority), women were saddled with the cultural role of the more superficial gender, the ultimately less sensitive gender. Or if women did have sensitivities, they were supposed to be more trivial and men were the sensitive ones. I was thinking of Mark’s relationship with his wife Audrey. I was thinking of his public display of forlornness as a kind of large-scale Schroeder cartoon. (Living in an abandoned fruit stand right near home, keeping a cell phone on his knee, stargazing, living on junk food.)
So I was thinking, really, of his dishonesty – of which the wishy-washiness is part and parcel – and how it might be remedied – and I thought I might edge back to the general subject of his divorce, and I turned to him and reopened one of the fumbled topics from earlier, “Yeah. I was never very smooth or suave. Or debonair or what-have-you. It’s been my special advantage,” I said. “Advantage with women. Being clumsy and awkward: it’s been my form of luckiness with women.”
He was deep into one of his usual occupations: one finger strumming his phone’s glass to flip webpages.
“Luckiness in marriage,” I said, “but also with women generally. I have reason to believe I always register with women as ‘Nothin’ Special,’ which is like I’m ‘The Real Plain Authentic Thing.’ I’m ‘The Real Deal.’ Dull as that might seem? Given the fact that the world of guys, for a single woman, might be just chock-full of deadbeats and phonies and power-trip guys and all kinds of trouble. I mean really, truthfully. It’s how I come across. They think I’m The Real Deal strictly because I’m inept. It’s my market position.”
He didn’t have any response to that. With such topics, I kept encroaching on the man’s peculiar personal soreness, but via a sneaking motion, by traveling always sideways, spiraling inward.
I added, “Which maybe I kind of am. ‘Real deal.’”
My tone was genuinely doleful, in fact.
Presently he grumbled, “Yeah, I’m a big success with women.”
“It’s like, with my wife,” I said, “I basically do whatever she says. It’s my policy. I go to her and ask what to do next, basically. Or I would if she weren’t already stacking things up.”
I drank my beer anyway. “At this point, it’s how I am.”
I was hoping he might enlarge on a particular interesting complaint of his own, which he’d mentioned earlier in the evening: he’d said that he realized at some point, he never did know what was going on in the mind or heart of his wife. He’d said the original basis of their relationship was, simply, that she was uncommonly great-looking. She fit the description drop-dead gorgeous. And, in their innocence, they both kinda shared that assumption: what an amazing gift her beauty was, and how wonderful that must be for him. He seemed to be saying it was a poor basis.
And then, his mind did go pecking in exactly the direction where I’d been sprinkling. He said after a minute, “It certainly was a mystery what she ever saw in me.”
“You should make her get back in touch with her,” I pointed at the cell phone, making this forward jump. “Girls need a motherly influence, don’t they?”
He didn’t answer.
He never did seem offended by my sitting there kibitzing. Strange. Almost as if he expected it. As if this was an agreed-upon assumption, that my reason for being there, all night, was to give unasked-for opinions about his life.
The empty beer came up to his lip, and he stretched his feet out at their furthest reach away from the chair – and commenced a new form of rhythm: touching the can’s rim to the tip of his nose first, then to his chin. Then left mouth-corner. Then right mouth-corner. And repeat.
§ § §
During the earlier, sunny part of that day, I was watching yet another bee land on a grass-stem’s soft burr head, seeing yet another stem make a deep pole-vault bend, creating the same shape as all the other stems’ bends when bee-burdened.
And as if I were actually a physicist, I could see the math. It’s all math. It’s calculus graphs. The weight of a bee, the flex of a grass-stem, gravity’s constant influence, multitudinous bees’ random statistical distribution evenly over the whole field, the whole meadow prickling with stems’ low bows.
Everything is math, yes, I can assent to that. I can get a general feeling of what it means when somebody says the universe is all “made of information.” But yet, also, what a limited way to look at the world! It’s like scientists see only through insects’ faceted eyes, wherein the most wonderful beings will register only as infrared-heat shapes.
To me, a tire swing isn’t only a diagram, it’s where a boy once played. And where a boy loved something, and where he felt assurance. And where, with that assurance, he may have once felt brave, and been brave. For me, a tire swing is fuzzy all over.
§ § §
Having said all that, I must add something about the “God-LITERALLY-IS-MATHEMATICS” idea.
It’s a version of “God”=“Natural Law.” Which seems to be the misunderstanding Castlegate reached, regarding Mark’s work.
That God “is” the clockwork of natural law is a charming idea, and a popular one. It’s hardly new. It’s an idea that has probably popped into, and then soon right out of, the mind of every high schooler. It seems to present itself as a “scientific theology.” Or a rational theology.
But it won’t do. I frankly can’t claim I’m a “theist” (not without certain fatal qualms, involving the impreciseness of language), but I do know that a real theist (if one can possibly exist) needs a much darker deeper weirder God. Mathematics may look as endless as God. And as “final.” Math also looks to be infallible. (Which would be divine). But math, even at its highest and most symphonic, isn’t much better than stocks and stones, not out at the ends of the universe, which is where things start to matter. The god-is-natural-law formula is very attractive, but it’s not going to free anybody from all this guessing and pining.
§ § §
We were talking about the Castlegate committee’s mistake in choosing him, and Mark asked, “Are there people these days who prove God’s existence?”
He seemed to find the idea freshly peculiar. I found I was able to answer simply, “No.”
What a delight, to be able to answer simply and accurately, both.
Mark, anyhow, wasn’t surprised by this news from the embattled front lines of theology. On the cylinder of his beer can, he was, according to some secret pattern, peacefully exerting all ten of his fingers, like a sax player.
“Well,” he said, shutting his eyes and oddly scrunching them tight, “I do gain a great deal of perspective by the picture that I’m dead already, I gotta admit. Already dead, like I’m history. And I can look at the history.”
I realized – and it was endearing – that he was offering his own version of spirituality.
“It’s interesting to live in that viewpoint: the viewpoint of my life being over. I’m not talking about ‘suicidal.’ It’s just, that’s a tremendous constant vantage point, being dead.”
As a matter of fact, it’s a traditional old thing. Living as if already post-obituary. It puts you beyond all earthly care. In fact, it’s a well-known pious rule. Formula for an unselfish life, an efficacious life. In Christianity and elsewhere.
He glanced over and he gestured around at his little empire – the lawn chairs, the fruit stand, the dusty backpack, the ice chest, everything his I’m-already-dead philosophy had built so far.
§ § §
“So tell me,” I began. – I’d been briefly out in the tall weeds micturating in the dark. (The protocol I’d inaugurated for myself was to travel across to an opposite edge of the campsite, 90º from Mark’s regular spot.) And I was getting back in my chair.
That chair. Whenever I lowered my weight onto it, a couple more threads snapped and made popping sounds. The noise was so plain, he remarked on it. “We had these all my marriage. This patio furniture was one of the first things we bought. Newlyweds. There used to be the hardware store by the Shakey’s Pizza.”
I remembered that hardware store. And I told him so. It was a good store, owned by a local family, not a big chain. I remembered the old Shakey’s Pizza, too, next door.
He said, “These same old chairs lasted pretty well for just crappy basic.”
“But tell me. How does your daughter fit into that viewpoint you were saying? I mean Lotta. You were saying you’re viewing your life from the afterlife.”
At this point, he had a new repair project. The plastic diaper-changing table was on his lap upside-down, legs in the air. The legs of this thing were supposed to be foldable – but they were dysfunctional on one side, and he was swinging them open and shut, open and shut, to try to figure out what had gone wrong.
It was an unfair question I’d asked. It was an ambush. At last in response he admonished me, “I’m telling you, it’ll all be clackers, no actual music fans.” Meaning, at Lotta’s concert.
So he was ignoring the question. In him, that wasn’t consciously an evasion. He simply has a mind that tends to travel sideways. His mind is stereophonic. There’s always another track playing alongside.
“There will be lots of video and sound equipment. There’ll be a certain amount more equipment than there’ll be actual authentic listeners. The sound from the stage won’t even be decent, because the final sound gets mixed by engineers for the Clearasil feed.” He looked up at me from his work. “The people will be clackers. Her true fan base it’s past their bedtime.”
He was giving me an owlish look as if peering over reading-glasses. Then he went back to the repair project on his lap.
“Then anyhow, they’ll edit the video to make it look like lots of people. And it goes out to the website as feed, so kids all over the world, when they subscribe, they think they’re spying in on a rock concert. That’s the point. You subscribe online, and you’re ‘virtually’ at an exciting concert. Even though in fact you’re just sitting at home, in wherever, you know, snacking or whatever.
“And she wouldn’t want me there. Wrong place for me. What do you picture? Us lurking at the back of the room? Old males? She thinks I’m angry like the way Audrey is. Audrey is angry. Audrey’s angry at her for changing up the story of our lives in this public way, so she can have a narrative. In marketing, it’s a whole science, and in marketing, the first thing is, you have to have a narrative.”
This topic now, as he kept working on the plastic table on his lap, had suddenly made him too weary to go on. “And she’s got one.”
§ § §
When he first acquired the plastic table, he used the word bassinet, and I thought he wouldn’t mind being corrected. I told him it should probably be called a diaper-changing table. “Or you could call it a bed. – Or a ‘crib’ if it had railings. It’s not a bassinet.”
He paused, but seemed blank. He cared so little, he couldn’t even focus and went back to what he was doing: stowing the fresh-arrived junk in the shed, where it would be out of the way.
“A bassinet,” I added, “is something completely different.”
He said “You’ll see, when you’ve got one of your own. They’re just bassinets.”
He has experience as a father but he’s mistaken about the word. I explained if it were a “bassinet,” it would have a “basin,” that is, for bathing. It’s got the word basin in there, etymologically. I figured it’s probably French.
“We can look it up,” he already had his phone out. He was tapping the screen while heading out to his chair, shambling as he typed.
“I bet you’ll find it’s French. Find the etymology. Find a dictionary that gives derivations.”
He read off his phone, “‘Bassinet: An oblong basketlike bed for an infant,’” then he kept tapping to find other instances.
“But find the etymological derivation. A bassinet has to be a bath.”
“‘Bassinet: a baby’s wicker or stretched fabric cradle, usually with a hood.’” He went on poking for more. I was getting a glimpse of a certain fundamental Mark Perdue, the arrogant, condescending know-it-all.
“Don’t they give the origins? I’m telling you it’s French.”
“Here,” he held up the phone to show me. “I Google-Imaged it.”
Lots of thumbnail photos of so-called “bassinets” filled the small screen, and they all seemed to agree with Mark’s erroneous idea. The modern misconception of a bassinet is like a crib.
“Well, they’re just wrong. It’s got to have a basin to be a bassinet.”
He was pecking in the screen.
I told him, “Go back to the dictionaries. Find other definitions. Somebody’s got to be out there saying it’s got a basin.”
“It does say, ‘diminutive of bassin,’ which meant basin. Which was French. But nowadays. Nowadays.”
“‘Nowadays’ is wrong. ‘Nowadays’ is frequently wrong.”
He handed me the phone so I could look. “Everybody’s wrong but you,” he said, “in the whole world.”
I went back to the page of Google Images. As I flipped and flipped, scores and scores of cradles, beds, crèches rolled by, and even car-seats, even prams on wheels, even photographs of celebrities, all under the banner BASSINET. Nothing in there had a basin for bathing.
I gave him back his phone and told him, equably, “Everybody is wrong but me, at least about this. The whole twentieth century is wrong. It’s often the case. The whole of America can be wrong about something, or the entire Northern Hemisphere can be wrong, during an entire century of being wrong – or an entire millennium of being wrong about some thing. Except for a select few people, like me. That’s really sometimes the case.”
I happened to dread this particular diaper-changing table. Because I knew – I just had a feeling – that he was going to insist I take it home. For Clara Luce. Which would be thoughtful of him, but the object itself is a squalid-looking instance of American manufacture, of old molded plastic radiating an acrid spit-up atmosphere. It had some kind of old decal stuck on it representing an obviously deranged cartoon character, who would be recognizable to somebody who watches daytime television.
I can be content not to know anything about this bassinet and to have a blind-spot where the entire modern American misconception of a “bassinet” has come to abide. I’m planning on raising my own daughter without plastic dirty things. He had pocketed his phone and folded his arms and sat back in the chair getting comfortable again, pinning his eyebrows up, in resignation, tolerant acceptance, ceding me my point about the word bassinet, granting me the tiny empire over which I am indeed, yes, absolute ruler.
§ § §
As for Mark’s philosophy that you should live as if you were already dead, I recognized the whole general thing. It is a whole general thing. In fact, I’ve long admired it. I consider myself a kindred spirit. I’d be living more in the already-dead style, if I could ever be the slightest bit saintly.
I told him, “You know, that’s very much in all the religious traditions.”
He wanted to know what is. I had to remind him of his announced philosophy, because some time had passed.
His response – (after I’d taken him on the quick thirty-second survey, of saints and bodhisattvas, Gandhi and Mandela and King, martyrs and champions, reformers and heroes, all living out their lives as if already installed safely, invulnerably in the afterlife looking down) – his response was “We’re out of beer. You could tell me on the way.” He sat forward. The beer was at the gas-station on the frontage road.
But I wasn’t going anywhere for a minute. I first had to explain that there’s an extensive, coherent philosophy around this, in Buddhism, in Islam, in Christianity. “St. Paul has this view, that if you’ve been, quote, redeemed by Christ, unquote, then you are already in heaven, you’re dead. He says that: All you Christians, you’re dead. You’re already sitting up there. Your life is over the minute you say ‘I believe.’ So thereafter, you’re free on earth, you’re fearless, you’re dead, you’re totally liberated for whatever. In Christian mysticism there’s a word. Oh heck, what is it? It’s a Greek word. Goddamn it.”
Mark was standing up, waiting, but I was staying in my chair for this.
“It’s right on the tip of my tongue. It should be permanently in my memory. Goddamn it.”
I couldn’t think of it, and I still can’t. And, on principle, I refuse to degrade my powers of memory by going to the nearest “device” and looking things up. It’s just a simple Greek word. It’s one of my favorite concepts from graduate school and in all my study since then. I come across it continually in my reading, I talk about it all the time – it’s a three-syllable word starting with K, or maybe with D. I was writing about it only last month, in my Internet listserv. I used to give entire sermons about it – about this one fascinating concept – but on this night, it was completely irrecoverable.
“It’s a technical word theologians have, and it just means emptiness-of-the-self. It means emptying yourself out and being blank, not being a ‘self’ anymore. Having no self. So you’re nobody, so you’re hollow. Which then, of course, fills you up! – with purpose and meaning and awe and gratitude and bliss and love and wisdom—”
In such sing-song pissed-off tones I batted down that list, meanwhile getting up out of my chair, to join him on the hike toward a six-pack of beer, disgusted with myself for having lost this wonderful Greek word.
§ § §
So we both were up and stretching, and we kicked around in the open space, and we headed out. Up the slope for the road.
Warm night of September. Crickets in the roadside. Headlights from the freeway beside the frontage road. The feeling of boyhood again, freedom-plus-inconsequentiality. Wherever I am, I’m right at home. The universally welcoming nonjudgmental California suburb: it’s my “medium” (as an artist might say, or as a fish might say). Mark had started patting his pockets, when we got up onto level pavement. I said I had some money. I’d buy.
In any suburban night sky, there rises eventually always, from some direction, a gas station/convenience store’s luminosity, like an all-nite emergency clinic. There, inside in the inner brilliance and the indiscriminate welcome, will be the glass doors of refrigeration, the tall mosaic of candy bars and breath mints, lottery tickets’ tawdry allure, the smell of coffee and donuts. That was where we were headed, the heat of the day still coming up off the road, civilization’s erotic aroma, Kentucky Fried Chicken and car exhaust, subliminal cologne of the oil stain in the asphalt parking place. I love such times. Such times make me want to live forever. It’s a good thing for me I’ve been a realtor, loving a territory as I do, in my case from about the Lucas Valley Drive exit down to the Strawberry Shopping Center and west all the way to White’s Hill. It seems my destiny.
§ § §
He had a way of trampling over my remarks with little or no recognition that I was speaking. In fact, often he seemed to talk only for his own hearing. So sometimes all I could do was exercise patience. I’d shown up here only impartially, impersonally, only as an errand boy, bringing a form for him to fill out, at this point in the evening only a lingerer, by coincidence a fellow middle-aged citizen of Terra Linda. Mark and I happen not only to exist at about the same station in life, and roughly the same (middling) social class. I am, in addition, a man educated enough to actually somewhat comprehend a little bit of the ideas and thoughts he kicks around in his head. So I was the rare passerby who might, at least, have a capacity to listen.
Which I would do – listen – since, anyway, early in the day, I’d given up on getting back to my computer, or my redwood deck.
And meanwhile, await my chance to bring up the daughter’s regular embezzlements. And possibly get him to look at his own life and, as the saying goes, get off the dime.
Because you’re seldom faced with “your fellow man” like this. This person, a former professor, was living in an abandoned fruit stand. He wasn’t by nature a self-revelatory man – or a congenial man, or even a very sociable man. I began to realize, his awkward method of making friends tonight was to open up and gab, uncharacteristically, and reveal some rather personal history (to a relative stranger, moreover), and then move on to a lot of random notions about physics, thinking up things to tell me – about stars and the Big Bang – offering me beer. Which all had a sad aspect. None of this came naturally to him, and he wasn’t good at it.
§ § §
“Honestly, you know what, Mark?” I was resettling myself in my plastic-and-aluminum throne. “If ‘imaginary numbers’ are so pointless, why are you bothering? Really.”
After a certain amount of evasion, one wants to come down to brass tacks. I didn’t care much anymore, frankly, about my supposed role in “law enforcement” here, I was just getting exasperated with the shambles he’d made of his life. It started to matter to me, exactly who I was going to inform on.
“Did I say imaginary numbers are pointless? All I said was, I’m not going to sit here adding anything new. The field of imaginary numbers is pretty much complete.”
“Okay then, if there are no more mysteries to solve, then—” with both hands I made forward-roll motions.
He wouldn’t have anything to say to that right away. We were back after the beer errand and I was waiting while he was having no success scratching his way, with a fingernail, into the twelve-pack’s cardboard packaging.
I held my tongue then, rather than adding anything. Just let the silence eat at him. It’s understandable that a man might need a little recovery period, a little period of awkwardness – if you’ve lost your home – and your wife and your job, too, all at the same time – there might be a kind of period of convalescence. That’s what this whole show looked like: convalescence. But then eventually, there should come a time for simply getting up out of your chair. He’s got all this money. He’s got resources. There’s a time for grief and feeling disoriented, but then you needn’t let sheer inertia carry you into this kind of inattention to everything. And then let yourself drift into embezzlement. Or, into actual accidie.
A sin more wicked than mere embezzlement: Accidie is the proper Catholic word for the seventh (“sloth”) of the deadly sins. But accidie isn’t just laziness. Laziness is the least of it. Accidie is indifference, complete indifference.
He started musing, “There are things that don’t really verbalize well.”
He’d gotten the twelve-pack open, and handed across my beer. I was going to just let him drift. He unloaded the twelve-pack on the ground beside him. Slouched back as usual with his own can.
“I think putting things into words closes out possibilities if you still don’t know what you think. I mean, if you don’t really have a thought. It’s kind of a patience. And it’s boring, admitting to yourself that you don’t have a thought, of any kind.”
He was dodging my direct ultimatum. He was unaware of any ultimatum. I’d thrown a glaring light on the lack of integrity here and it just bounced off. Instead he was wandering into analysis of (or rather admiration of) his own mental habits. About how he is able to live with a certain empty-headedness. Then he popped his beer and drank, smugly. So he’d headed off any idea that he was wasting his life here.
Much later he came back to the subject. Long intervals had intervened. Other topics had intervened. There’d been lapses while he was engaged in his usual thing, scrolling privately in his phone, bending over its fine print. Finally he put it away, set it facedown, and made an elaborate, slow gesture of leaning over hard on his armrest and pouring out one hand in an invitation, which referred unmistakably to the discussion long past.
“For instance, there’s something I used to tell my students.”
I knew this was back on the subject of lacking words for thoughts – because he’d taken up a particular whining exactly continuous with his remarks of before.
“Like, look here. My hand is casting a shadow right now.” He lowered a hand so it hovered above the ground. “You can’t see it,” he said. “It’s a shadow from the actual light of the Big Bang. It’s arriving right here after fourteen billion years. You can’t see the shadow because your eyes can’t see light at this wavelength. But it’s light, regular light, coming from fourteen billion years ago. It’s light that got pushed down in microwave frequencies, and it’s just the old flash, arriving right here. So, we can watch it in real time.”
“I wonder…” I went into this because I’m a responsive listener and I happen to be conversant with the sciences, “I wonder if insects can see it. Or other animals can see that kind of light. That wavelength. Like dogs and cats.”
“But, see, what it says about the distribution of time all over space. The Big Bang shines on this planet, from way back fourteen billion years.”
I’m one who gets a thrill of teleology. If not exactly “divine,” it’s at least teleological – that the first instants of time look down upon the future. And always did illuminate the deep future, and always will. That’s some kind of proof of something.
But Mark receives it as a muscle pain. “And I can’t help but feel like it has something to do with ‘the square root of negative one.’”
His eye made a motion to indicate the circle diagrams he’d pinned up in the fruit stand. Which also had something to do with √-1.
An evident miracle is just a thorn in his side. He can’t simply love something. He has to see it as a problem.
§ § §
All along, the agenda there is to eliminate God. In the equation, God is a numerator/denominator that can be crossed out.
I do believe what science decrees. That is, I believe the dawn of time can literally shine in our old sky. That’s wonderful. But science doesn’t threaten the sovereignty of my Lord and Creator. My God dwells far above all this. I in my lawn chair, I am able to repose unembarrassed by any of a scientist’s wonder-working. Mark is a veteran performer for freshmen and sophomores and juniors; and he’s an old explainer/entertainer from PBS shows; which programs were kind of a vaudevillian version of science. He may be good at producing amazements out of his hat, nature being replete with amazements. But my Creator is metaphysical. My Creator, into the unthinkable nothingness, introduced “possibility.” “Possibility” itself. It’s the gesture of omnipotence. It’s why my God is transcendent, incomprehensible.
And yet before that, my God had already done something even more basic and more original. The divine Entity somehow first conceived the possibility of “possibility.”
And that – that! – the possibility of possibility! – was the innovation in the void. No one will ever understand it. I’d been awarded a fresh beer and I popped it for myself, as in confidence, and even defiance, and even complacency, and I pushed back in my chair and threw both feet far out ahead, the way Mark does, crossed at the ankles, though I’m not as lanky as he is. And so I abided. And wouldn’t bother, for the moment, to communicate all these assurances to my scientist friend. Who, as I’ve remarked, is not a very receptive listener.
§ § §
Pammy’s paramour Rich would make a terrible father. I picture him as being, in the role of father, slapdash and preoccupied and bizarre. Which Pammy would never be. Pammy is the opposite. Pammy, as a mother, would be extremely attentive, and normative, normative to her heart’s content.
Before dinner, Thalia and I had been discussing it in rather sharp tones. Rather disagreeable tones. But then, after Cathy Gainsborough had come and gone, I found I’d forgotten to put the rice in – and we would have to wait for it to cook – so we filled the time by going around picking up after Pammy. It’s our routine. Pammy has the best intentions, but invariably it turns out she’s gone into a few unpredictable enterprises of her own – reshelving things wrongly, leaving spray-bottles or buckets around in odd places, etc. One time she got the idea of washing the inside of the freezer, and soapy water froze in there. (We didn’t tell her about that, we just cleaned it up; she would have been too mortified.) So it happened tonight that, while the rice was cooking, we went out and found that, in the garage, my books and my videotapes had been disarranged.
I have shelves in the garage for library spillover; and the particularly acute tragedy for me, on this day, was that she’d taken down some old sets of “The Great Courses” videotapes, and she’d set most of them in a shallow pan of water where I germinate organic wheatgrass seeds. During the 1990’s, a mail-order outfit called “The Great Courses” marketed a series of excellent lectures on religion. University professors appeared in hundreds of hours of video classroom talks – there was “Sources of Early Christianity,” “The Treasures of Nag Hammadi,” lots more.
Which they no longer offer. And which are, at this point, irreplaceable. Mine are in the old VCR format, and even though I believe we might no longer own a videocassette player, nevertheless, on principle, I had intended to take good care of them; because I’ve naturally forgotten some of it and I would perhaps like to go back someday. But apparently Pammy got the idea that she should dust that area, and she took everything off the shelves and stacked it all higgledy-piggledy on the workbench, where the videotapes ended up in the tray of wheatgrass-germination water.
I don’t throw tantrums, but I have a way of becoming pessimistic and short-spoken, and possibly a little brisk. When Thalia started trying to make out that the tapes could be dried out, I shut down the idea as a typical misunderstanding of the video medium, and even an ignorant undervaluation of the tapes’ rarity and the depth of the insights and information conveyed by the lecturers. But Thalia was patient and (as a rebuke to me) just quietly went to work, patting them dry, shaking them out, setting them out where air could get to them, while I sulked – and so I had to admit at least inwardly, she could be right, I was being defeatist: maybe it’s possible to simply leave the cassettes out and not touch them for a long time – for weeks if necessary – and they’d be fine! It’s only water. I think my holding my tongue, and in effect admitting I was being churlish, was the beginning of the general restoration of peace after our scary quarrel earlier when she’d said she wasn’t sure she could tolerate my “attitudes”; because by the time everything was replaced on the shelves and the rice was ready, we were discussing Pammy, this time amiably – and I was seeing she could be right about her. Pammy does have the wherewithal to be a mother. Motherhood would be great for Pammy. And it would be great for any little baby, to have a mother so attentive. Maybe it would even be great for Cathy Gainsborough. To be a grandmother! Chuck Gainsborough is a good fellow, a big harmless roly-poly peacemaker, and both the Gainsboroughs are young enough, and there’s plenty of money. Pammy’s baby can grow up and go to Yale if it wants. It’s Chuck Gainsborough’s old school, so maybe the grandchild would have an in.
§ § §
In Carlotta Perdue’s onstage dancing during concerts, where the camera pokes and lunges close-in at her intimate person, and her intimate person is clothed only by (or rather, pried delicately asunder in the grip of) the thinnest elastic fabric that chemists can ever contrive – well, those images are scrutinized by little girls, the core demographic, 8-to-14-year-olds, still clutching their plush unicorns at home while they watch. The big dance productions, with their mimed sexual innovations, will be an object of fascination and study for an audience of girls at a stage of life when they’re trying to get a handle on boys.
The original moral failure, here, isn’t Carlotta Perdue’s, it’s Mark’s. He hasn’t been doing the work. That was the real issue, it was a dereliction of Mark’s, which I happened to be in a position to get him to maybe rectify. I walked along beside him on the freeway frontage road, toward beer, harboring in myself this subversive vague intention, somehow to suggest that maybe it was time to act decisively and rechannel the money – rechannel it away from his daughter – but feeling myself a duplicitous wraith on the road walking beside him, because really none of this was any of my business. It’s an underlying fundamental axiom here: None of this is my business. But yet here I was anyway.
He was saying, “You’ll see. I’ll power up my laptop and we can watch the concert onscreen. Get beer and popcorn re-upped. Bring up the Clearasil page and stream it like all the other teeny-boppers in the world who think it’s a real concert.”
§ § §
The image of my own unborn human babe in the sonogram: I’m always reminded of the primordial bug-creatures in the ocean, those first-evolved specks, rudimentary shrimp-insects in the brine, the ones who are so delicate they’re still see-through.
The nurse’s hand in blue disposable glove slathers around the slick jelly – maybe it’s Vaseline – and then the gadget like a computer mouse starts skating around all over the big taut hill of skin, and we – all three heads – are turned to the video. The black apron on the screen.
When she surfaces into view, the instant specific association is with the water bugs. Nowadays while she’s tiny, she moves in twitching kicks just like the white pond daphnia that, small as crumbs, throve in the puddles of my childhood. (Childhood: on my knees poring over a mud-puddle in the sun.) Those daphnia in puddles moved around by using the exact same kicks and swats as my own floating embryonic girl. And in between, the white specks in puddles used to rest, and drift, just as she does.
§ § §
When Thalia and I were supping in the kitchen on my stir-fry, the sound of a metallic clank-clank-clank began to reach us, coming from the bottle-and-can recycling bin on the side porch. It was the characteristic noise of the neighbor’s cocker spaniel when her tongue is poking into tin cans and slapping around. She’s an old dog and she’s blind, but her nose leads her to our recycling bin.
Neither of us said anything about the sound, because this was a small victory of Thalia’s, in an ongoing disagreement. On the day after we married, we pulled our wheeled suitcases, side by side, onto the airport’s mile-long conveyor belt through the futuristic tunnel, and we stood together on it – (oddly purgatorial, those tunnel conveyor belts; or heavenly; anyhow oddly afterworldly) – the long shining rubber bannister keeping up, right alongside us, riding toward our honeymoon airplane’s departure gate. And on the opposite belt, coming back from the same direction we were going, a young couple quietly quarreled. After they’d gone floating by, Thalia said, “We’ll never do that, will we. Let’s never be bickerers.”
I easily agreed, it seemed ridiculous, we were sophisticated, sensitive, articulate people. Those other people weren’t. We were types incapable of “bickering.”
But what else is a marriage made of? The decades are chockablock full of so much irresistible bickering, it’s the workbench we labor at. Thalia’s contention is, if we leave the recycling bin outside, the dog will get into it, so it ought to live indoors, in the coat closet. It was an argument I’d won, though. So the bin was outside on the porch. In the midst of the clank-clank-clank tonight, I just sat without commenting, from my dinner-bowl trying to tweeze up tofu’s jelly in my chopsticks, while the dog’s tongue kept delving with increasing passion. The rhythm of the dog’s ardor was alarming, it kept mounting higher, delving and clanking. Still we didn’t get out of our chairs and do anything about it. Or say anything about it.
It’s just that I think a recycling bin belongs outside in the fresh air, where that stale eggy smell will disperse, while she has always maintained that the dog will get into it when it’s on the porch. In this moment of being proved right, she kept deploying her own chopsticks and saying nothing, letting the clank get faster and louder.
§ § §
In the first moments after I’d arrived that day and was trying to make Mark’s acquaintance – when the sun was high in the noonday sky and, in the vacant lot’s hellish inferno, the far-off maple blazed unreal, spastic, condemned – I hadn’t yet sat in the second lawn chair. I was just standing. And as a way of establishing something we might have in common, I mentioned his ex-neighbor Roger. I said Roger Hoberman had given me the tip that the old fruit stand was where I could find him.
At this, the face of the reclusive professor did soften a little bit. He was, even then, keeping a steady bead on the tire swing’s oval. At the mention of the neighbor who was backyard-homesteading stubbornly in the old cul-de-sac, he said, “Roger, yeah,” evaluative and fond, speaking as if he were seeing his annoying neighbor already from a certain more elevated viewpoint, from that posthumous seat of contemplation, in an afterlife he’d already moved into, lock-stock-and-barrel out here.
§ § §
The production designers of the WholeLottaLove Tour have chosen a visual motif to run consistently through every dance and every stage design: heart-shaped candies. Images of the old chalky Valentine’s Day tablets are strewn through all her online publicity and all the official videos, as well as the live performances, pastel pinks and greens and yellows, bearing messages like “BE MINE” and “HEY CUTIE” and “CRAZY 4 U” and (the only remotely lewd one) “DO IT.” A costumed dance-troupe of these candies, human-sized, appears onstage with her, a line of boxy heart-suits with the long, shapely, professional legs of Radio City Music Hall dancers, kicking, bouncing, tipping, crowding, whirling, an elect few to receive the personal attentions of Lotta’s mimed lovemaking. (They are the actual terpsichoreans; Lotta doesn’t do anything but grind. She does sometimes send out an occasional miscellaneous slug or kick but mostly it’s grinding and a kind of added hiccup her hips keep experiencing.)
He got his laptop set up on the Coleman cooler. We’d removed in advance any beer we might eventually want. And he got the satellite connection and found the Concert Series. For a while the screen showed only a still photograph of a perfect teen with a healthy glowing complexion she owed to skin-care products.
When the concert got going, it was the same kind of thing I’d seen at home online. I can only think Mark watches these events in the spirit of a kind of proprietorship. Even if you do like Lotta’s music, laptop speakers aren’t great. He must monitor her shows just to assure himself that they’re coming off without a hitch and that his daughter’s career is moving along.
If the crowd in the room was “simulated” (as Mark continued to insist), it was well simulated. The camera never quite panned out over the whole room; but its closer views showed knots of kids excited and squashed together in a way that could only be possible in a jam-packed throng. One rather implausible – and rather suspicious – blessing enjoyed by everyone in attendance was that they were mostly uniformly beautiful. Everybody the camera landed on was so healthy, and so athletic and stylish and sexually straightforward, they did look a bit hired, or cherry-picked. So, maybe they were a species of “clackers.”
Anyway the focus was on Lotta. She came out, with gusts of smoke, in her salamandrine body stocking, the same costume as in the Internet clips I’d found (of course, there’s more than just one body stocking; she probably has wardrobes of identical body stockings, just for this tour), with its tattoo-cling so demonstrative of modern textile science’s ingenuity, which, in laboratories, can formulate tissues unearthly and slick and durable, iridescent, clinging thin as soap film. For a minute, at first, while the music roared, she simply ran in great ovals in the big stage area, carrying her cordless mic.
This girl’s father was sitting beside me. What a world! We were two loiterers in a roadside camp, not altogether uncontented, two guys in lawn chairs watching the screen of a laptop that had been set up on the cooler, drinking minimart Budweiser under the stars and watching his daughter make her bid for celebrity.
I turned to him. With my beer I toasted the screen, and said, “Wow.”
He only sighed and burrowed back a little tighter in his chair. Which was his form of assent to that remark.
§ § §
Interesting fact about the star Vega: It spins. And it’s spinning incredibly fast.
Vega is the really bright one: it’s the brightest one in the sky, I believe. On this particular September night, it was mostly straight up overhead. But, I’d had no idea: it’s spinning at the rate of 270 kilometers per second. This is at the star’s equator. If you could hover right above it, at its equator, you’d see 270 kilometers of the flaming surface go past in a heartbeat.
§ § §
Another beer. That bleary, companionable high. The whole time, I would have liked steering the conversation around to the rather fun rumor that he’d “proved” God’s existence. But he had shown himself testy about that. Anyway, the whole topic of “God” lives and bides in an irrelevance. Generally, I can soften people up for such colloquy when they become aware I was an Episcopalian. Not, for example, a Catholic. People see the Episcopalians as humanistic, liberal, friendlier to science, more “rational,” whereas the truth is – (I explained this to Mark, though he resisted hearing it) – even the old Catholic Church accepts the Big Bang – the very same Big Bang we were keeping an eye on all night. And Darwinian evolution, too. The Vatican loves evolution. They approved it officially long ago; but even before that, they always took an interest in it. Evolution is in the catechism, and if it’s in the catechism, it’s something every believer has to go along with.
Mark, when we talked, was pretty sure I might be misinformed. But I’m obviously a fan of Catholics; I make a study of them; and the fact is, the Vatican never in its history said anything to directly, officially oppose evolution. When Charles Darwin started publishing, people in the Vatican were ahead of everybody else’s curve, they were naturally fascinated. Same goes for the Big Bang. Those people are of course university-educated, they’re hardly naïve, or ignorant, inside there in those plush apartments in Rome. But you can’t talk about this with people. They don’t want to hear it. Religion is really one of the pharmakoi. (Greek word, pharmakon; meaning both “medicine” and “poison.”)
§ § §
At dinner, Thalia was hungry and happy and talkative, and the chopsticks kept making trips between bowl and mouth, while she remarked on the subject of Mark Perdue, “It’s amazing, though, how people stay civil.”
I didn’t see how that pertained. An amazing civility isn’t exactly one of Mark’s distinctions.
She said, “I mean people stay polite. While their ship is sinking and actually going down, they smile and offer people a chair. Even if it’s just an old patio chair. This man sounds like he’s at the end of his rope. It would be surprising if you could know—”
“Yeah. End of his rope with a million dollars.”
“—But it would be surprising if you could know how many people in the suburbs are desperate but putting a good face on it. I think lots.” She was stabbing around happily in her stir-fry bowl. “Your professor isn’t necessarily an example. But a surprising number of people are in the after-the-end-of-their-rope part, but they’re hiding it. Like a single mom could be living in her car but still wearing the Nordstrom clothes, you know – walking down Fourth Street looking like anybody else. Like she used to own a house in Mill Valley. Now she’s sleeping at a friend’s house. Or people just using a mailing address so their child can finish high school at Tam. Your professor is obviously a different category, but I think there’s a lot of that around here.”
Of this general trend of conversation now (sympathy for Mark Perdue in his fruit stand), I wanted to be a little discouraging. Because at that particular point, at the end of dinner, I wasn’t feeling like going out anymore. Thalia loved the idea of my going out again, in the dark to reconvene with my new scientist friend. But it’s not so comfortable out there, in Mark’s gully in an aluminum-frame folding chair. And at home it was warm, well lit, and the talk is always good. I had hit the bottom of my own bowl of stir-fry. Just about at that time in the evening, I would be topping up my wineglass and heading for the den, leading the way there, where our TV is packed in among bookshelves. These days, a big variety of stuff on television is not stupid. I would never have predicted this entertainment trend. People like us, a more discerning older crowd, have a wide choice among smart little comedies and interesting dramas, documentaries, things coming by satellite or streamable online, old favorites and new discoveries, all under the thumb as it wanders and reads the little grid of clickable blisters.
She said, “What will he do when the rains come? He’s got the money. What can he be thinking? You should go. Go out there. This man gives you a chance to do your pastoral thing.”
She was coming down to the end her own stir-fry. It always gets better at the bottom of the bowl.
“My pastoral thing.”
Regarding religion, Thalia always says she’s “not a believer” and “more of a rationalist.” Which are the superficial assessments most people make of themselves. Most people think they have no particular assumptions. People also have a belief that they themselves are “logical,” and “realistic.” I think she sees my having given up the priesthood as a kind of reformation I accomplished – as if I’d somehow seen the light – as if I’d realized the folly of superstitious thinking and become enlightened.
I don’t try to add complexity to that view. My behavior does tend to corroborate it. Also, I’m one of the rare ex-priests who went totally cold turkey. Most lapsed Fidos and Rovers (seminary-school tags for the two personality-types of priests, deriving from the dog-collar echo at the throat; I happen to be a Fido) tend to go on staying in the orbit of their parish after they’ve put off the garments. All their friends and connections are there. Charitable work is still there for them. The weekly services are a habit. It’s weirdly dislocating, how derelict one can feel, when, at exactly nine o’clock on a Sunday morning, one finds oneself in, say, a hardware store looking at gallon buckets of weatherproofing exterior wood stain, while knowing that somewhere a pipe organ is getting a start on the introit. And that somewhere, sunlight with stains of ruby and emerald is resting on carpet. Somewhere is the rustle of twenty people in the choir loft getting to their feet, hymnals cloven open in hand. To be standing in a hardware store aisle, it can be a bland kind of perdition: maybe you’re not exactly “panicky,” but you’re at least lost. In my particular case, however, I went straight into real estate’s distractions – they can be turbulent distractions – and I made an important scruple of ceasing all Sunday visits to any chapel, cold-turkey. Which is radical! (It helped, too, that I made some good new friends at Coldwell Banker.) There was no dramatic subversive change in my views. Nor any animosity toward the church that might have made going cold turkey easier. It was also good that, after the Sausalito rectory, I moved all the way up-county here.
“You can have another beer with him. Check out whether he’s taking care of himself. Let him confide. Honey, you know, with that alienated daughter-and-wife arrangement, he’s got some heartbreak around that. So, you just listen to his story. It’s good to let people tell their story. You said he seems sane. Sane people, if they just can tell their story, it can help them clear up their attitudes. And their plans. Just by telling it.”
I thought of what the neighbor Roger Hoberman said about him – He’s really smart, he’d said, but as if, in Mark’s case, “smart” were a chronic debility.
In truth I think it’s possible he isn’t so much smart as just self-absorbed. By which I mean, frankly, plain selfish. “Selfish” and “smart” can look the same. And be confusable. That’s one of the ways “selfish” can prosper in the world, getting results exactly like “smart.” Mark could be a perfect instance.
Anyway I said, “Yup, he’s sane, all right.” I’d gotten down to grumbling. “He’s perfectly sane.”
“But his plans. Like what is he thinking of? He’s got some heartbreak apropos of the wife and daughter. I think he’d like his women to come back. That’s what’s going on. He’s hanging out. He’s staging this. This is all theater to get noticed.”
“Well, he’s acting crazy, but, if so, I think he could be ‘crazy-like-a-fox.’”
“Oh? He’s got some scheme?”
“No, no, he’s not calculating, I don’t mean that. He’s got a complete one-track mind. I’m only saying he could be the kind of ‘crazy’ where he sorta knows what effect he’s having. Just exactly as you suggest.”
I was reminded again, though, how interesting the man is, Professor Perdue, the ups and downs of his life. A remarkable person in a remarkable situation.
So I’d convinced myself (or Thalia had perhaps cleverly induced the idea in me) that Mark Perdue’s acquaintance was kind of a rare opportunity, and it would be stupid of me not to go back out.
And forsake home and comfort. This despite the mad pleasure, right then, of having reached the thick broth at the bottom of the bowl (it’s a diminishing-returns kind of pleasure), dipping into the puddle with the paired tips of chopsticks, scribbling around in it, then sucking the garlicky sweet stuff off the tips – then going for another dip-and-scribble, and then again, another dip-and-scribble-and-suck.
§ § §
According to Mark, the star Vega is spinning so fast it’s oblate. Oblate is not a word I tend to have at my immediate disposal, but he made taffy-pulling gestures: the fireball, as it whirls, is pulled out wider at the equator. And flattened at its poles. It’s like a whirling wad of pizza dough.
I was the one who brought it up, because I wanted another translation from kilometers to miles. Always nibbling my way into his world, I may have struck him sometimes as a pest, but I was persevering. “How fast is Vega spinning when it isn’t in metric?”
“A lot of stuff out there is spinning. Actually, everything is.”
The bassinet project was on his lap. He sat back from it and set it aside, then picked up his beer can. This is a pattern: ask him something specific, he strikes off on a diagonal, as if purposely to bamboozle people.
“When gravity starts naturally pulling things together, it’ll start each ensemble just naturally turning. Loose things will naturally clump together – move together – and the whole inertial system starts,” fingers lifted and stirred. “So each thing up there is a vortex, like when you see a water-down-the-drain vortex, when stuff crowds together. Which is how each body – each ensemble – originally started revolving. It’s gravity and it crowds together, and it gets the first little angular momentum and it has to start turning. And then, eventually, there is a drain-suck in the center. A galaxy will have a black hole in the center. So yeah. Everything up there is going fwish.”
Feeling oddly uncomfortable with the news that everything up there is going fwish, I had my own beer can to bring to my lips. I’m so peculiar, so spiritually frail, I can actually feel a little physically sick, it’s a despair so perfect: If everything up there is a vortex, it renders the sky as that Van Gogh painting Starry Night.
Which is a nauseous painting. That’s the truth about it. This isn’t the popular way to feel about that painting, everybody is supposed to see that image as shiny and cute, but I think about what the artist himself must have seen. And I’ve always found it seasick, glitter-and-glue, garish, it’s comfortless. It’s cold. It’s evidence of the poor red-bearded, blue-eyed Dutchman’s helplessness. Imagine being sensitive to the tilting and the churning. Of course, it’s reproduced everywhere, but twice in my life I’ve stood in front of the original in New York, and I find it hard to confine the problem inside the frame. He was a great artist. But I think great art isn’t always what you “want.” Maybe great art is mostly not what people ever want. What you want, genuinely, is sometimes just reruns of “The Honeymooners,” like Thalia and me, later that night at home, when finally I was able to relax and put this day away.
§ § §
At bedtime finally, at the end of the night, I hadn’t yet brushed my teeth and I sneaked up on Thalia – (I suppose I was feeling ebullient about having rid myself, once and for all, of the waste of time that is Mark Perdue) – and at the staircase, I attacked her from behind with my anchovy-camembert breath and my Hasidic version of immanence: “If He is in the heavens, then He is in the hog’s whisker, too.” (Courtesy: one of the Breslov tzaddiks, I forget who.)
My poor wife, I do like to keep annoying her with my mystical matters. She’s my wife, after all, I’m her husband, and these things will doubtless always be important to me. After my fish-and-cheese snack, it had become a running joke, that if He permeates everything, THE LORD must dwell even in my halitosis, but I think maybe the joke was getting tired, at this point, and she escaped my hug fast, by way of the juddering shiver and the scamper up the stairs.
I’m aware of course, my “atheistic” wife is never going to succumb to my endorsements of mysticism. She knows perfectly well, the truth is: I may like to announce that “mysticism” is the only legitimate excuse for any religion, but I, personally, am not a mystic. The opposite. I’ve never in my life had a single extraordinary experience. But I feel like, if I keep hitting her with regular blasts of this kind of extreme theology, she’ll at least get softened to the idea of the man she’s married to. She thinks of herself as a rationalist and a realist, and surely, for her, this could be like being married to a man with a chronic thing, like a club foot. Or anemia, or some kind of incurable exotic stomach parasite. I realize that.
§ § §
Professor Perdue’s one-time use of a profanity:
Of particular fascination to him, out in his camp (and particular loathing), is the Toyota dealership that was built a few years ago beside 101. It’s far away, over the hill, a couple of exits up. Everybody in the county is used to it, it’s so radiant, all through the night, when you come upon it, it looks like they’re filming a movie. Or it looks like a NASA lunar-colony installation, beside the freeway the acres of new cars freshly basted-looking and gleaming under strings of pennants. All night the amazing glare. I think the one and only vulgarity Mark uttered during that night was on account of the car dealership (“…Fucking Toyota dealership,” he murmured while scanning the sky with his cell phone), because the light-pollution glare was covering up the declining Pleiades.
§ § §
The money issue was of course my whole point in being there. Inevitably he will have to give it all back. But the issue is tangled up with Mark’s more fundamental problem: his personal plans: how much longer does he intend to go on sitting in a low stretch of ground off the frontage road, selling second-hand things out of a disused fruit stand. He’s a former Berkeley professor, he isn’t disabled, he’s sound in body and mind. Forty-seven is young.
As a way of bringing all this up, I began again in a very sidelong manner, asking about his birthplace, his parents, etc.
Parents both dead. He an only child. Back east. Been out here twenty-some years.
I said, “Oh, you’re from back east!”
That was an invitation for him to elaborate, but he didn’t. He was sitting in his chair writing out price stickers for the newly acquired merchandise. This was early in the evening when the Coleman lamp was on its brighter setting, and he was writing on blue sticky-dots with a paper backing. “25¢,” “$2.00,” “75¢.” Which then he would peel off and press onto things. An electric steam iron. A coffee mug with some remark printed on the side.
I kept trying, though. I asked what his father’s livelihood was.
This he did answer. “Math. Mathematician. Isn’t that funny? He was a teacher.”
He stood up with his armload of freshly priced junk, to go inside for more, and when he got back, he said, “Taught high school math all his life. So he never went very far with it.”
“Unlike you,” I said. “The son has exceeded the father.”
“Me? No, I’m just like him. For thirty years he taught the same old geometry and the same old algebra, semester after semester, and he loved it, over and over again, year after year. I’m the identical way. For me it’s never been about forward progress, it’s about playing the same tune over and over. That’s what I now think. I never did publish a whole lot.”
The fresh armload he’d brought out was mostly the old cheap merchandise, the kind he was always more interested in. But also in this batch was the antique leather croquet set from France – and he hoisted it up to his knee lamenting, “How am I supposed to price this? For Christ’s sake. Maybe I ought to just price it competitive with any other regular croquet set.”
He looked over appealing to my judgment. It seemed more than a question of retailing, it was a moral question, possibly a social justice question. He explained in a scolding kind of way, “I am not going into the antique business.”
“With a valuable old thing, maybe you should take it to somebody. Some dealer. Maybe they should be taken care of – some of these things.”
He was picking at its buckles. It had compartments holding bottles and cups, all for the tippling croquet player of a hundred years ago. A silver flask. Highball glasses with brassy rims. A crystal wand, which was for stirring.
“Nope,” he mused. “My father was a happy man.” Then, in his father’s point-of-view, he exulted softly, “‘Geometry!’”
He buckled back together the croquet kit’s pouches.
“But you are working on this imaginary-number study?”
It wasn’t very subtle, the way I kept guiding things in the direction of his own life choices.
“Study? No. There’s an equation mathematicians love.” He picked up his smartphone. “It’s got all the basic mystery numbers. It’s got pi, and the log of e, and i. And it’s got the mysterious ‘unit,’ which is one.”
He tapped something on his phone. Evidently this was always loaded-and-ready, because it swelled up instantly, a simple equation. Just a few numbers and letters, it filled the little screen. A caption called it Euler’s Equation.
He glanced, to see if I liked it.
To me, all math equations are unmilled seeds. I’m the wrong species to digest hard uncooked seeds. I look at an equation and don’t even want to touch it.
“Well, take my word for it, John. You’re not into this, but take my word. It’s a thing of beauty. This is the knot that holds everything together. It’s amazing. It’s really an amazing coincidence that we can live in a universe where such a thing is possible.”
It was only a short collision of four or five symbols. An equals sign in it. – If this was the knot holding time-and-space together, it was a simple granny knot.
“It,” he said, “is the thing I can just stare at. Like it is a mandala, as you were saying, or like a mantra, but it’ll never pop open, not for anybody. But it is a very bizarre bunch of cosmic coincidences, bringing all those functions together. This,” – his finger came close to touching it – “is where atoms and particles and quanta exist. It makes all the universe’s kind of random parameters interlock together even though they do, still, seem totally random.” He made one of his moments of eye contact, chin tucked down, as if peering above the frames of reading-glasses. “Which is why one gets the feeling this universe is all about cognition.”
For some while already, during this whole day, I’d been seeing where he was going, philosophically: in a mostly Eastern-religion direction, a Transcendental kind of direction, a dreary direction.
I said, “Yeah, is ‘cognition’ God?”
With the jump to that insight, he didn’t seem surprised, or amused. He may have even felt vaguely insulted, by my ability to package him up so well so easily. Because now he didn’t want to go into it any further. He just moved his attention back to the leather croquet set on his knee, and he peeled up a fresh price sticker. He’d somehow, without my help, come to some idea of how to price it, and at the center of his own personal universe he bent embryonically close, in the Coleman light, and wrote a figure on a sticky-dot.
§ § §
Sometime much later that night – (it was during a long tiresome section of Lotta’s concert where all the two-legged heart-shaped candies onstage poured in together in a melee and Lotta just got out of the way) – I caught him hunched over his cell phone on his lap, the cool phonelight cupping his face. And there was Euler’s little equation brimming in the panel. He’d brought it up just to privately moon over it. I watched him for a minute.
“Mark.” With my toe I tapped the leg of his chair. “You’re like gloating over it.”
As an admission that his behavior was amusing, he made a level grunt, then he put the phone away from himself – in its usual place on the cooler – but he didn’t kill the luminous image of the equation, he went on keeping an eye on it over there for the few seconds before it winked out.
He confessed, “It is like that. It’s like I’m ‘proud’ of it. Isn’t that funny? I didn’t invent it. Or ‘discover’ it. It’s hardly ‘mine’ to be proud of.”
He was still keeping a fond eye on the phone screen, dark, where the image had vanished.
§ § §
He said later on, “I have to say, I do grant you the same reality as I grant myself.”
I tried rephrasing for him, helpfully. All this kind of thinking goes to my education, more than his. “In other words, you think I exist. You think my mind exists.”
“You’ll be glad to hear.”
“So you’re not a solipsist,” I said.
He let his head decline a little, seeming to mistrust that word. “I believe my own consciousness exists,” he declared with deliberation, as if that were a high-risk, potentially regrettable position to have reached. “However, here’s what I think, about consciousness. I think it exists but I also think consciousness isn’t just one organism, it’s groups of organisms. Consciousness a congregant phenomenon, it’s not just individuals. Like, you don’t have consciousness all by yourself. Nobody thinks this about consciousness, but this is something I think. Consciousness requires a whole bunch of separate bags of skin. And brains and minds. It’s a group. It’s a social, congregant, linguistic thing, and a historically developing thing. It needs language: that’s what consciousness is. It’s in the language and the group – and in other mammals, too, because they’re like us. And who knows what else. And consciousness is in history. History collectively. It’s impossible for consciousness to be in just one individual. And yeah. In that sense, yeah, you can assert you exist. I’d say ‘your mind’ exists, yes. There y’are. You exist.”
He waved me off, “So yeah, have another beer.”
§ § §
Talk dwindled but I kept on staying, and at one point (this wasn’t a spectacle for my entertainment – he was just following some interest of his own) he held his cell phone up to the night sky, pressing it, tilting it. A noise started to grow, and I realized the phone itself was – softly at first, then louder – playing the opening orchestral chords from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” First one trumpet, then another joining it, then another, swelling, all in the phone’s tinny little speaker, climaxing with timpani bangs that stomped around.
“—The music comes with it. It comes when you download the application.”
His finger on the glass steered the phone through a miniature version of space. Wherever he pointed the device, a map of the stars in that direction appeared. The Space Odyssey trumpets started again growing from nothing – darkly, radiantly, to be then again beaten about by tympani blows. Then it rose to a new key and climbed the new staircase, and it broke into the rejoicing chords: music for the dawn of some new sun above the rim of an unknown moon. Whatever he was scanning for, it wasn’t up for conversation.
Unless I inquired.
At which point he would have ignored the question, routinely.
§ § §
An intermission in the Lotta concert. On the stalled laptop screen, a fanned-out array of Clearasil products. Our camp wasn’t exactly silent, because, faintly, a pop tune was emitted by the Clearasil homepage. Mark was consulting in his phone, and I’d been largely busy with the herbed popcorn.
After a while, I spoke up. “I suppose eventually all the stars will be gone.”
He’s right about herbed popcorn, it’s addictive. Back home I’ll make sure never to let any into the house.
That observation of mine sounded gloomy. I added, “I mean if everything in the universe is flying away – if everything is ‘expanding’ away – they’ll get fainter and fainter, and eventually you’ll end up with an empty sky.”
For much of that day and night, it was as if I were interviewing him. At the start of this adventure I’d feared I would find myself using the tones of a visiting social worker (namby-pamby, reproving). Instead, more and more, he was an oracle and I was a pilgrim who’d come.
No need for him to ponder. He answered this time right away.
“No, those stars will stay up. Those are the Milky Way, they’re ours, they’re right near. We’ll stick together because there’s a black hole in the middle. It’s massive. It’s sucking everything in.”
“Middle of what?”
I’d never heard of a black hole in the middle – middle of the universe?
He didn’t respond. He had his phone out. The fanfare of trumpets was starting up. He remarked, as if annoyed, “You know I’ve gotta say, astronomy is not my field.”
Most of that night I drank from an empty can, inhaling vanished beer in the aluminum. It’s what we were both doing. So I did it again. Tilted it way back. Same old nothing.
I said again, “Middle of what?”
“I’m finding it,” he said.
His steering finger swung the image of the sky. Spreading two caliper fingertips on the glass, he zoomed in through stars.
“And there it is.” He indicated a circular yellow navel, among points of light. “Center of galaxy. Big black hole lives right there between Scorpio and Sagittarius. This is our black hole. Center of Milky Way. It’s a supermassive. It’s a Dispose-All in there.”
This was news to me. I’d never heard we had a local black hole.
I said, “…But it’s not a problem. It’s not a danger.”
He killed the phone and lay back.
“It won’t eat us,” I insisted by way of inquiry.
“The material in the accretion disk is—” he was heading to his lecture mode. “At the so-called ‘event horizon’ of the hole – which, it’s where things go disappearing inside forever – at that outer surface, it’s spectacular, the material is going in almost lightspeed.”
(Anyway, to my anxiety about Earth’s falling into our local black hole, his answer was in his attitude: total limp serenity in a lawn chair, hands buckled over belly.)
“Eighty-five percent of lightspeed it’s coming in, coming in at an angle. It’s a disaster. So yeah, our home galaxy does have that Dispose-All constantly going. It’s what holds the galaxy together. If that wasn’t in the middle, everything would fly off at angles.”
It was quiet. It was peaceful. Here on this planet, as the night had deepened, the crickets had been getting rowdier, and also more weirdly harmonious. Where there had been separate choirs, now they’d united, and from all directions a storm of song roiled near and far. It was creating a kind of new topography around us in the night. As the night went on, it was so loud, it was distracting.
§ § §
Second visit to Burger King!
I’ve always thought myself superior to fast-food places, their smell of mayonnaise rubbery with something disturbingly like formaldehyde. I’ve always driven right past. Of course, real estate has hectic busy periods, and plenty of realtors under pressure are driving around Marin with a burger on the knee, afterwards to check their lip in the rear-view – needing to look okay for the buyer, a title officer, a county inspector. Not I. All during my Coldwell Banker years, I kept a mental map of delicatessens where I could get real food, relatively fast enough.
But now it was time for another fast-food meal with Mark. And somehow, this time, everything was different, I was already a convert, upon this my second entry to Professor Perdue’s Burger King – or even before entry – even approaching from afar the aluminum threshold – where, taped to the glass door, this month’s bargain meal is pictured in a corporate poster, the patty glistening under studio lights, the rich red lip of a tomato, the wisp of steam from the sentinel fries in the background. Entering that doorway from the darkness of the frontage road and the wince of orbiting headlights, bathed anew in the homey (the homey!) light of America’s glassed-in refectory of washable surfaces, I was already a one-man procession into the general paradise, my special chosenness consisting exactly in my commonness. And consisting, too, in personal hunger. For in this place, hunger is pure entitlement. Hunger is citizenship. Was it just because I’d sat long enough in the cold night air? What had suddenly changed? All my old balking, all my virginal pickiness and my distaste, all that was behind me, and I was cherished in the light. This time I wanted the cheeseburger with bacon. It’s an amazing thing, the culinary contraption that is a Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger. If you can get the object when it’s been newly made by the young, constant-turnover-hire fresh kids in their smocks – (instead of a burger that’s been lying dead under a red lamp somewhere) – then you get one where a toast surface encounters the sugary red sauce without yet giving in, where the bacon strips are salty and tough, the lettuce of California’s valley not thin or limp or warm. I was completely devoted to that sandwich for the few minutes it was on my hands. And when it was over I wanted another, the second in my life, immediately. I didn’t get up and buy another one, I waited for digestion to take its course. I do have at least a little discretion. I think the only way I might have gotten seconds was if Mark had wanted seconds for himself, too, companionably.
But I’m not a hustling realtor, not anymore, and won’t again have any occasions to be in fast-food places. Now that I’ve once experienced being totally eclipsed by a mere hamburger, the experience will probably never be repeated. Gluttony will always have been one of my favorite sins, but after tonight, I will be able to revert to the old familiar, slower self-muffling process by red wine every night. My belief is that all gluttony (this is why gluttony qualifies as a capital sin) contains the death wish: gluttony is the struggle toward a killing of all desire. Gluttony is not union with the Divine Will, but rather a wish to be extinguished far from that Will, to be snuffed, far from God to be interred without publicity and without expectation. That’s what gluttony is.
Me, I’ll soon be restored again to my Caesar salads and avocado sandwiches. Those are the straight and narrow path. No more temptations by hamburger. I’m aware that I’m a man who – (and maybe all humanity is like this) – is held together largely by the thin glue of pretensions and affectations, plus a few wardrobe choices, a few philosophies I like to announce, a few taste preferences (meaning, i.e., a few consumer purchases). That’s me. All habit and pretension. If a man can be compromised by one sweet, greasy cheeseburger – and like it! – then the easy way down can look inviting: that is, the way to a more general forgiving degeneracy. I think I could be homeless. That is, if I could be freed from my ambitions and my suburban habits and my consumer choices, I think maybe I might be saintly enough, to be able to be indigent. I could put up with it well enough. I really think that’s possible.
Of course, it will never happen, I’ll never be homeless, but keeping in mind such a resort, of cold and solitude and comfortlessness, it’s an odd kind of comfort.
§ § §
Mark’s offhand complaint You know, astronomy is not my field explained a certain amount. He was always a particle physicist, so probably the study of astronomy is somewhat new to him. Maybe it’s like a “hobby” he’s taken up. Which would explain why he was so avid, so gee-whiz about it: all this was fresh. His true field, all his training, was probably limited to atoms and particles. In the stars he was still a newcomer. Maybe that makes it easier to exist out here with a cell phone alone, because he could be a student of something new.
§ § §
The idea of driving into the city to watch the concert – it was all a plan I stopped trying to push. Even less the idea of staging a father-daughter reunion. None of that would have worked.
Also, it turned out Mark was right. The sheer portrait of a concert as it came over the Internet was better than any possible reality. Like those French or Italian operas that are better on a big screen with close-up cameras and Dolby surround-sound (than when you see them from a steep upper opera-house balcony, the stage a distant little furnace-door emitting old record player sounds), Lotta’s performance was filmed from dozens of clever camera angles, each with its own special excitement or poignancy or worship.
Furthermore, if we’d gone, there would have been no chance of making contact with her. Lotta would never have known that there were two grown-up men lurking at the show – because a great fuss was made of her arrival (much-delayed) and then she was bundled in onstage still basically giftwrapped, and at the end she was going to be swept off the scene just as fast.
Also, it’s possible that there was no true event. As far as I could tell, it might have been a kind of fake “concert.” It could have been all a soundstage, filled not with crowds but with video cables and cameras and extras and reflectors and an on-site editing booth and (according to Mark) a remote sound board, which itself was not even there at the concert, it was off-site, in faraway Burbank, California. Burbank is hundreds of miles away. It was in Burbank, supposedly, that the effects of applause and crowd-noise were pumped in – with a swell that (if you listened closely) had mostly the same, consistent rising curve. The camera kept focusing in on small knots of spectators, young people who, it began to seem, might just as well be models in ads about the joys of chewing a certain brand of gum, or the glamour of a certain soda pop, or an aerosol deodorant-spray that was keeping everybody at the show so indiscriminately friendly. At the end of every song, the camera made one pan over the whole dark space, atwinkle with the pops of photo-flashes, and a thousand phone screens’ steady blue candles – but the whole room in those few swings of the camera had an oddly estranged character, a new infrared, the taint of a different film-stock.
The part that made the concert rewarding, watching it in this package, was the segments during breaks, all on the subject of Carlotta Perdue’s personal life and reflections and art. How she chooses her clothes each morning. How she takes walks alone on the beach on cloudy days. The ostensible “loft” she has in Los Angeles. The indoor trampoline where she gets her ideas for songs. Her charity work and her “lifestyle” in general. Whenever Carlotta herself spoke onscreen, she was charming. She seemed genuine and spontaneous, and also intelligent. Always, the same trio of companions (“the flying wedge”) were packed around her – a similar-age girl of great height who always wears a track suit; a slender fastidious Japanese man; and a young black woman with an efficient executive air. “Those are her droogs,” Mark said, low in his chair. “She goes nowhere without them.”
It was true. In all the biographical interludes, the three friends were always present. They got out of a limousine with her on a city sidewalk. They sat in the stands with her at a Knicks game. When she was interviewed, they jammed close around her on the couch. They were the only ones who truly, deeply understood her. In the morning in “her loft” – (Mark said the loft didn’t belong to Lotta; that they had borrowed it for the shoot) – while Lotta was waking up, her favorite breakfast was cooked by the Japanese man and the track-suited young woman.
Mark said, “They’re her pals. They’re part of the whole,” he sighed, “thing.”
In his lawn chair, stretched out as he was, he made uncomfortable chrysalis-shrugging motions, hands-in-pockets.
“They’re really just camouflage. Whenever you talk to her – if I? or anybody? talks to her? – they’re right there always with her. So she’s always totally accessible and open, but her friends drag her away ’cause she’s supposedly gotta be somewhere.”
Carlotta, her earnest face in the computer window, was responding to an interview question, the three friends built-in on the couch sitting around her – and she did have a way of withdrawing centrally in the framework they provided. But her remarks had real insight, they weren’t merely the usual vapid “charm-and-intelligence” chirp which, these days on TV, serves as the perfect, nonrefundable replica. Her remarks implied a certain social decency, or political decency, and a warmth, and a kind of natural knowledge of deep tones and notes in the human soul. In fact, while I watched, I fell trivially in love, as a matter of course, and I was even succumbing to the fairy-tale feeling that I was acquainted with her, or that she was my potential friend, simply because she was so knowable. And then, wakening to the truth that she and I had never even met, I felt gypped and lost. I was a complete unknown in her universe. Some people just have charisma. It was what Mark had been dealing with.
§ § §
I still had the Castlegate form, still blank. Obviously I might have had him sign it (even if blank) and then, thanking him, simply gone away. That I was hanging around to watch the broadcast of a concert was, in a priestly kind of way, creepy. I’m aware of this. The question in the air would obviously be, Didn’t Mr. Gegenuber have anything better to do? Doesn’t he have a life of his own, somewhere?
Back in Sausalito when I had a parish and made informal visits, the predatory creep of a clergyman with his agenda was treated as tolerable, anciently throughout the village. Also, I got good at social encounters. I’m fundamentally so shy. To have any social skills goes against my nature. As a professional I learned I need to deploy my dazzling delightfulness robotically, observing myself by periscope from the safety of an inner niche – that is, the safety of a more objective, realistic doomed fatalism.
The brave reckless robot version of myself developed a noisy bon vivant approach: a trick of taking a swirling, angular attack. Jokes. Easy palaver. I can recover the knack any time. That angular approach, acquired in ministry, has been useful in other contexts: selling houses, raising charitable funds, even on my first dates with Thalia. The actually sincere application of a little blarney is a working paradox. Everybody forgives, and even expects, the application of a little bit of spin, the firm pressure of an “ulterior motive.”
Surely, Mark must have been sensing an ulterior motive. He might seem so self-absorbed, so oblivious. But, for instance, there was something defensive about his astronomy lectures all evening, something tactical. With them, he was jamming the airwaves, leaving little space for me where I might’ve gotten down to brass tacks. (Blah blah blah, neutron stars, the distance from Earth to moon, the temperature of the Big Bang.)
Nevertheless, I, personally, did find all that stuff fascinating, and I went on sitting in his spare lawn chair biding my time. In fact, I was interested. I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. Objectively, I had plenty of time. The Big Bang is wonderful.
§ § §
For instance, earlier he’d said that a beam of light – or rather, a flying “photon” particle of light – zooms along without any passage of time. Photons don’t have time. They travel at lightspeed where time doesn’t exist. So, for a photon, the “farthest edge of the universe” and “here” are the same place. Because no time elapses, in its beeline flight a photon instantly condenses a billion-mile intergalactic journey to, basically, an asterisk.
I couldn’t picture that, of course. How can way-over-there be the same place as here? And, the same place simultaneously? How can you imagine the space-distortion? (Except in the form of a bad cartoon – for instance, a far-distant planet’s round surface somehow touches an observer’s eyeball. Or, a flying photon pokes a deep, deep dimple into space. A yawning “gulf” of space takes the form of a “kiss.”) There’s no way to imagine something traveling a billion miles while it’s already at its destination.
So I thought I’d risk seeming stupid and ask – and I went into it, but before I could make my point, he launched straight into something. “Okay, there are these certain particles. They only live for a microsecond. They’re up in the upper atmosphere. They’re called muons…”
He was always swinging up a buffer like that. A wall.
§ § §
I did have one interesting insight into astronomy. A kind of late-in-life “epiphany.”
As the night went on, I started actually seeing – that is, detecting – the slow east-to-west procession of the constellations, and I could see they’re not traveling across in a straight-line path!
If you watch long enough you can see this. The celestial display isn’t dragged slowly past left-to-right like a blanket. It’s really a whirl. The southerly stars make a little leap above the horizon, then they dive back down, a dolphin-jump. On the other side, the northerly stars never set! They stay up, milling around the one fixed bright spot. (North Star.) You don’t realize this unless you spend some time out in the dark watching. The whole thing does exist on a tilted spindle, a shell revolving. I always used to think of it as a simple left-to-right linear parade. But we’re really inside something.
§ § §
“What do they mean when they say ‘estates’? You’re a realtor.”
“Did it ever mean something? It calls itself ‘Estates’ up there in Cobblestone.”
He was hunkering back in his chair, having gone into his shed for a ZipLoc Baggie of almonds, which, however, he didn’t open, he just tossed on the ice-chest lid.
I didn’t see what he was asking. I said, “‘Estates’?”
“I’ve never known what an estate is. ‘Cobblestone Hearth Village Estates.’ It’s an old legal thing, an old English thing: estate.”
Out in the night meadow, the cricket chorus over the hours had risen to a torrent, if you paid attention. The din really does get to be orgiastic. I think if you’re a cricket and bent on romance and reproducing, it must be a matter of delirious lust, all night long – while for a human, cricket-song is mostly just something to ignore. Tonight I was lulled by it, while tickled by it, finding it felt secure, it felt safe, to be obscured from the world by this racket, mounds of insect-song all around, hiding us from the freeway. I hardly wanted to move a muscle. After a while, in my lawn chair, I could hardly summon the audacity to lift my voice against the – more than “mounds” – the rising basilica of choral sound. At last I said, “Probably just somebody’s pasture once.”
– Meaning Cobblestone Hearth Village Estates.
“Long ago it was Spanish-land-grant,” Mark said. “Like everything else in Marin.”
“Mm-hm,” I said. “No estate.” And I added, “No cobblestones either.”
He conceded, “No cobblestones.”
“Real estate is very big on the baloney words.”
(I was complaining, but languidly. I actually miss real estate.)
“Like the word ‘executive.’ I sure got to hate that word. Everything was ‘executive.’ Now it’s en suite. Everybody says en suite. Guy’s got an ‘en suite garage.’”
“No village either,” Mark added. “You know? A village is supposed to be a village. But there was no village. Little ping pong table with a Coke machine: that’s not a village.”
“Oh? Does Cobblestone have a clubhouse?”
I’d never known that. All the years I was showing units there, it might’ve been a selling point. It’s only another bit of realtor baloney, but even just a ping pong table counts as a clubhouse.
Mark was dragging his beer can rim down his chin in slow strokes. As if he were shaving. He said, “Or any hearths either.”
“At Cobblestone Hearth, no. No hearths,” I said. “All those were built when everybody thought there’d be a fireplace moratorium, so…”
“No hearths. No cobblestones. No estate.” The beer can rim was combing down his upper lip – and he fell silent, without putting in the last subtraction: the “village.” Which he seemed to be gazing at. It was out there erected in the night before him in the middle distance, the place where he’d spent a couple of decades of his life. He was seeing everything that wasn’t in Cobblestone. Everything that was advertised but missing. But he seemed to look fondly at all that mistakenness.
§ § §
Mark’s account of his marriage with Audrey seems to be: that it began as an erotic attraction but then never grew to be much more. Or enough more. She was, according to Mark, “super-intelligent” as well as responsible, hard-working, talented, all the good qualities; however, with Audrey, the original foundation was that she was alarmingly beautiful. (Personally, having seen some photographs on his phone, I have to say I don’t see the supernatural gorgeousness he complains of. However, I have to say she’s perfectly conventional-looking.) He said at last, as he gazed out into the night, seeing before him the old mirage of Cobblestone Hearth and appraising it, “Twenty-one is too young. Twenty-one is too young for the mate-for-life deal, for homo sapiens now. Now, you and your wife, you’re great, you got married after. After mellowness came along. Being-complicated came along. So you know who each other is. You both are somebody particular, at your ages. Audrey and I weren’t anybody particular yet, when we married.”
Not a clear distinction. At twenty-one Mark and his wife were of course already “particular people.” They weren’t like blanks. Which is how he seems to view the marriage. I refrained from telling him about the peculiar circumstance – a medical circumstance – that sealed Thalia and me together when we met. It’s funny to think: a pair of undistinguished “nobodies-in-particular” was precisely what she and I longed to be, all our lives; and “nobodies-in-particular” was what we, just then, had been gratefully transformed into, via plastic surgery. We’d erased our distinguishing marks. Which freed us to love and be loved. We met in a clinic where we were both patients of the same plastic surgeon. We happened, both, to have been born with a similar odd lip configuration that needed correction – a minor but noticeable, common, unpleasant blemish. So for years beforehand, we both had borne up through limited love lives and been lonely and perhaps – yes, as Mark says – had already become “complicated,” each separately on his own. In the clinic of transformations, then – (the weekly circle of Recovery Group meetings, post-op, was where we got acquainted) – there was an uncanny twinned quality to our being reborn together as newly eligible.
Therefore, however, what Thalia and I have always had in common is an ancient familiarity with hurt feelings, an elect sovereignty of self-sufficiency. Such permanent old wounds – (in the long run, they’re fortifying wounds, for a couple) – come easily to mind whenever one of us, as Thalia did tonight, takes a quarrel from zero to sixty and points at the existence of the red button “annihilation.” Of course, if I ever do treat Thalia as uninsightful – (the words she used tonight were: Nobody would suspect I’m so dumb. Not until you come along) – or if I do ever talk down to her patronizingly, she ought to see it as my defect, my pomposity, my weak, cold, slimy pomposity. I really wanted to get back home to her, for much of that night. For much of that night, half of me was ready at any moment to spring out of my chair. (Nice talking to you, anyway, Mark. Nice to meet you. Best of luck.)
§ § §
Pre-concert, we were waiting for his laptop to wake up. Which was going to take a minute, and he remarked, in the dark:
“Lots o’ chard out there”
His mind seemed to graze miscellaneously free of relevancies, free of timeframes. It was too dark to see any chard. He’d pointed it out in my first hour there. Chard seems to volunteer wild in that field. Clumps of green. Thick red veins swollen stiff against whatever breeze might be troubling the tire swing.
“You could harvest it,” he continued. “You could live on chard and old excess bee-honey and, you know, excess everything.” He looked at me. “We’re the era of excess-everything, John.”
It was a sign of progress, whenever he got started confiding a few ideas of his own.
“Biologically excess, but also just the economy. Excess food in agriculture, plenty of waste, excess time for humans in this ecological situation, so there’s all this leisure, the huge wealth of carbon in the biosphere, airplanes and Disneyland and whatever. Biologically an amazing, lucky planet. All the dirt and oxygen on this planet.”
(And of course, water, too. In any planet, if you want to have a habitable environment, abundant water is supposed to be the first thing.)
Then, in a sudden, inward blast of melancholy, Satan put his hand on me, briefly. For planet Earth’s affluence (wanton careless affluence) put me in mind of Thalia, and my old notion that beauty is promiscuity, beauty is infidelity, beauty is negotiability and even meaningless interchangeability, it’s a thought to even give a married man a stab of a superfluous, aimless erection, like later that night at home, when the old “Honeymooners” sit-com exposed the licentious availability of Ed Norton’s lovely wife Trixie. All beauty made for heartbreak. The laptop on the Coleman cooler in the dark was taking forever to light up and I wanted to be where I belonged, back home near the belly-skin’s taut mound.
Anyway I summoned a little response to his proposal of living, like a biblical saint, on a diet of honey and wild chard. I pointed my beer can out into the dark – i.e., into the whole nutrient-rich natural environment. “Get you off the Bacon Cheeseburgers.”
He didn’t get it.
Or, that is, he knew what I meant but he didn’t see it as a joke. He instead seemed to be weighing it as a serious suggestion – perhaps problematic, but definitely a rather interesting insight. He said, “Hm, true!”
So I tried going into sharper comedy, “You know, one single Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger is gonna have a monster carbon footprint.”
Again, a judicious nod. Conceding I’d made an unusually provocative point.
§ § §
On his “too-much-of-everything” subject, he had a lot to say all night. He kept reverting to it. This is the only planet with rich soft soil. In space, the natural condition is desolate scarcity, or more accurately sterility, even toxicity. He seems to think about it a lot. It seems the “fad” for finding livable planets is “totally unrealistic,” “popular,” “overfunded.” He says the aerospace industry is smart and they’re all perfectly aware their schemes are a fiction – outer-space cities under domes, with farms. He says it’s all propaganda and they know it. It’s just useful in getting funding.
The scientific consensus (or the picture he prefers) is that our home planet is unique. A few bacteria evolved once here, and so Earth within a few billion years has clogged up suddenly, with filth, with life, with mud, behaving like the kind of pond that gets too many nutrients – so he says – until it gets swampy and chokes up with algae and weeds, and at last fills with muck and finally comes to repose, in the form of flat dirt, all in one explosive swoosh of prosperity. We conscious, ethical life-forms on the planet, we happen to have been born where we can ride this one wave of teeming yeast.
§ § §
“In the universe, it’s seldom you get a big atom like carbon. All you’ve got everywhere is hydrogen and helium. It takes huge events like big supernovas to make carbon.
“And on up: nickel, magnesium, iron – you’ve got to ruin a lot of stars. The big atoms, to get created, they need those furnaces. Stars, you know, they’re like furnaces. They’re like blast furnaces, like big smelting-things. The ring on your finger there: that one little gold ring: this is why gold is rare in the universe. Like, think how big a star had to evolve and collapse and explode – maybe some good-sized whole systems in a billion years had to be destroyed, to make – what is that – a few grams of gold?”
My ring illustrated an important scientific – maybe evolutionary – principle, but I hadn’t been following. I didn’t see what this had to do with extraterrestrial life. I just felt only slightly guilty, if entire galaxies had to be smelted and refined to make my one ring.
“Mm-hm.” I was able to come up with a witticism and seem to have been paying attention. “The indication would be that matrimony, also, is just as rare throughout the known universe.”
Watching the dark over the meadow, he veered to his walleyed look.
§ § §
Interesting fact: he never takes money out of his stupendous Wells Fargo account. He only puts money in. That entire life of his at the roadside is irrigated by cash. By pocket change.
When he’d been saying how convenient this situation is – (the bank within walking distance, the Burger King, the all-nite market) – I responded, “Nice. Every week or so, hike over to the ATM and get a little allowance for yourself.”
He let that pass – yes, it was nice – but after a minute he added that he, surprisingly, only put money in. The business of selling second-hand books kept him in a flow that exceeded his needs. There were definitely expenses. Plenty. Life was more than just canned beer and hamburgers. The satellite internet alone! There were a number of accounts he’d had to set up, for making automatic payments. And he had an enormous number of subscriptions to things online, everything payable electronically.
For instance – this is funny – he has a laundry service. Once a week a panel truck pulls off on the gravel shoulder. I suppose folded bundles wrapped in blue paper are delivered.
All told, though, the bookstore operation has more income than outgo. He’s mostly always adding a little bit to the Castlegate treasure. While I suppose Carlotta scoops out her own portions.
§ § §
As for me and my afternoon’s cardiogram appointment, there was never any suspense about that. Everything turned out – (everything always does turn out, unfailingly, in my charmed ordinary life on this rich dirty planet where, as Mark points out, the whole biosphere is so gratuitously lavishly benign) – every measure in the panel of tests turned out to be just as “routine” as I’d envisioned.
In the medical examination room with the door closed, where I lay down on my back on the high table, my nurse was a musical, dark, Caribbean-accented woman, and when I’d been wired up with sticky dots, she stood far back, with folded hands, and smiled gently down at her own feet, waiting for the electricity to pass through me. I wanted to be acceptable to the machine and lay very still. As I imagined it, a moving scroll, while it inched past, was receiving scratches from quivering needles. The process took less than a minute, lying on the high table with electrodes taped in my graying chest hair, wires convening at the EKG machine on a wheeled cart beside me, my chest exposed to the ceiling of acoustic tiles and the forgiving, averted regard of my nurse, my ring finger naked, as naked as it will someday be when I’m alone on the cold slab. (The ring spend the duration on the counter across the room, where its metal wouldn’t interrupt the electrical current.)
It turns out the machine doesn’t involve inky needles on paper. When the test was finished, I went over and looked, and the whole thing is digital: the screen-display, the wireless transmission to the printer, everything these days is digital. The one actual physical page, when it emerged from the printer, was laid away in a manila folder by the hands of my nurse – who pretended to be innocent of any interpretive insights – but within a half-hour the cardiologist in his office told me I was normal. The word he used was boring. You’re boring, John, congratulations. We don’t want to see you in here for another two years.
§ § §
“So, here’s what it is about muons. They’re average particles. They’re born in the upper atmosphere when sunlight hits—”
Physics is important, and profound, but I was distracted instead by the spectacle of the person himself, holding up a Dorito but not biting it, the professor in his lawn chair trying to educate a passing stranger. Sometimes in his ardor he seemed to have lost any idea of who exactly I was, this person sitting with him. Or he just habitually didn’t care.
“So that’s weird,” he finished.
“And then if you go ’round and look from the muon’s point of view, the muon looks down, sixty kilometers actually, it looks down to earth, and it appears like the earth surface is only a few feet away. It’s traveling so fast, it’s looking through that lens. Like a lens. Not a light-bending lens but a space-bending lens.”
Excused/exempted from any effort of comprehension, I rolled my head against the chair-back, the aluminum tube in there, as a sort of neck massage. The big antique globe was on my mind because the night damp might get to it, and I said, “Mark, maybe you should cover the celestial globe. The paper skin is parchmenty. The damp could maybe ruin it even if it’s inside the shed.”
He seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. The globe was beautiful and unique, and with Mark, it wasn’t necessarily in good hands. After the Chevy Suburban had dumped off all the old merchandise and gone, he had stood in the midst of it all as if he were puzzled by it, suddenly ambivalent about it, now that he owned it.
He’d said, “…Do you want any of this?”
I definitely didn’t want any of it, and said so. I didn’t think the offer was serious.
But then during the day I found myself thinking about the globe. It was about as big as, say, a typical under-the-counter dishwasher. The whole thing rolled on iron casters with decorative wrought iron vines. The sphere was embraced by three hoops, acting as equator and meridian and a diagonal “great circle” – narrow wooden bands, carved intricately. It was a globe depicting the night sky. All the constellations in colored inks had been hand-drawn on dark wallpaper stuff, glued down under the sort of shiny (egg-yolk? or albumen?) glaze that would have been the Varathane of another century, the stars indicated by tiny copper nail-heads. Orion was a hairy, blubbery, yellow archer in bearskins, followed by his loyal dog, a lavender English spaniel who was himself a constellation. The enthroned, swirly harp-player tumbled toward the south pole outfitted in a toga. The rampant bear. The widespread snake, its scales like purple lancet-points.
I thought, metaphysical as it was, it would have made a wonderful souvenir of our long, if ultimately pointless, conversation one night in his roadside squat – (our extremely astronomical conversation!) – and it would have fit nicely in my rectory at home. But to bring it up again would have seemed greedy. Actually it would have been greedy. And anyway, the moment had passed.
Mark said, “The point is, everything is something we can’t imagine.” He was probably still on the topic of muons. “All we see is,” he shrugged in the disappointment of it, “‘space and time.’”
§ § §
For any spectator, the elastic body stocking onstage is anxious-making, but also – (this is a miscalculation on the producers’ part) – it’s creates an all-too-interesting distraction. This is on account of the sheer mystery of its fabric design. It somehow clings so close, lavender and brown markings like a newt’s, it’s as if it had been applied with felt pens. The distraction is in the textile technology itself, impossible not to speculate about. Designers would use a cross-biased weave for stretchiness, but they must have, also, pulled certain stresses into it along certain meridians by crimps and clever occult stitches. Popular art has always, always recruited scandal to get attention. From the louche jazz of the nineteen-twenties to the rock-and-roll of the fifties and later rock lyrics endorsing drug abuse, from the illicit love poetry of Augustan Rome to the paintings of the French neo-classicists – and of course in every era, novels endorsing adultery among the sophisticated classes – popular art has always advertised fresh forms of low misbehavior. The kind of misbehavior Carlotta was teaching onscreen was a sort that isn’t exactly new. The ancient Latin poets had certain vile verbs, which in English don’t even have translations, which would describe the kinds of acts that were happening onstage between Lotta and a submissive heart-candy, verbs that make gourmet ancient-Roman distinctions that our worst modern slang is too innocent for. As these things go, today’s lowest depravity will soon be little children’s banal commonplaces.
Sitting beside the young woman’s father watching the show on the laptop screen (the little translucent Clearasil fiche stuck always in the lower right-hand corner like a seal of approval), I basically blurted out, “She should get into some kind of relationship with her mother again, don’t you think? Poor girl. Or with you! With somebody. Mark, look at her. She’s doing things people didn’t know existed.”
That was of course a rash, tactless thing to say.
I believe history can be intervened in. That is, I think that there is such a thing as “history” – for example world history, or universal history – with a starting point and a kind of sequence of events running along in a line, a “timeline,” and that it seems to be going somewhere, headed in some direction, good or bad, upward or downward. (This view is actually controversial.)
The faith that there’s such a thing as history can also imply a possibility of “forward” motion. Or what you might call progress. Which would be an upward direction. Against the arguments of pessimists I submit our recent African-American president as evidence: evidence of some sort of progressive, sequential advance in moral history, i.e., “progress” on this planet.
And finally, in history, a kind of implied end, presumably. Of some sort. Bang or whimper. Most think whimper. “Whimper” would seem to be an astrophysicist’s version. An astrophysicist foresees expansion, thinning, the universe making a final tired exhale.
People who do believe in “history” like to think that history’s end will have something to do with the initial reasons for its all getting started. All the world’s sequence of events will be strung together by “causes,” and “causation.” Between beginning and end, there will have been some kind of connection, if only circumstantial, or only mechanical. In other words, the whole spectacle from start to finish will have “fit together,” in some manner logically. So it won’t be all a mishmash of blips and random, uncaused, inconsequential events.
It is very Judeo-Islamo-Christian of me, to propose that there’s such a thing as this kind of history that hopefully makes progress. From Mark Perdue, while we sat side by side, all that afternoon and evening, I was absorbing the sense that he took the more Eastern-religion view: that the whole universe happens without “beginning” or “end,” unimportantly. Here it came out in the open: he said after a long silence, by way of dredging up an earnest response to my opinion (that the daughter should be befriended by an adult – like, for instance, a parent – and maybe then naturally ease up on the ambitious sexy dancing): “Well, you know, nothing matters, John.”
The thing is, he’d turned and he was almost smiling. He seemed to mean this as good news. That “nothing matters” was a consolation and a liberation; and he was imparting this secret of the dharma with a companionable warmth. – Could he possibly mean, sincerely, that his daughter’s immorality didn’t matter?
§ § §
So I said exactly that. I didn’t want a bizarre statement to slip away unchallenged so I didn’t let any time go by, I tilted my can at the screen and said, “Look how she is. There’s got to be more to her than this. There is more. Of course! There will be more. Than all the hey-boys-check-out-my-privates. This just leads to unhappiness. Unhappiness all around.”
So there I’d trespassed deeply. I had no right to an opinion. Now that I consider it, it’s strange how he submitted to my invasion all that day and evening. I was only a meddlesome passerby. In one run, there, I’d sacked his little fort. Still, he seemed to give fair consideration to my assault. His brows were raised defenselessly.
Well, I was licensed with a certain power of impoliteness here, because it was my job, my duty, to report back to the Castlegate administrators in the end. I could influence the fate of his million dollars. The daughter was spending the money, and that’s very much like “embezzling.” Or it’s literally embezzling. “Mark? Carlotta’s not the named beneficiary of the money.”
It was my first unmistakable indication that I knew all about the legal reality and the whole muddle.
He kept watching, while, onstage, Carlotta pushed another Valentine candy down on her back.
Then he let out a long breath, and he said, “You say un-happy,” looking at his daughter on the small screen. “Well, the experience un-happiness is – you know, it’s unavoidably gonna be part of a great, full, creative life. You know, John, people aren’t… ‘happy.’”
Great, full, creative life. The implication is, if you’re an “artist,” you’re special and your own unhappiness is redeemed by a higher purpose. And there’s a higher purpose, too, to the misery you cause everybody else, including a million little girls.
He added, “John, you’re a student of the human soul. You know this. Who cares about happiness?”
We both watched Carlotta onscreen. It wasn’t art. This kind of dancing wasn’t going to bring anybody any light – or whatever art is supposed to bring – comfort? wisdom? Her art was in promising people the endless wheel of insufficiency and, in Buddhism, samsara: wheel of desire and envy and anguish, futile wheel of orgasms. That endless wheel is the center of Mark’s “nothing-matters” philosophy, the endless inescapable round of death agonies and ejaculations. A sexy dancing girl isn’t art, it’s just attention-getting. People confuse art with attention-getting, that’s my view, and I said so.
“You know, people confuse art with attention-getting. They really do.”
But Mark would go on believing his daughter was an artist. He said, “If you’re trying to be ‘happy,’ John – well, of course you’re sunk. Like, woe betide you. You know? If happiness is the whole point? Nobody’s ‘happy.’”
Onscreen, Lotta happened to be sucking her finger, her eyes melting around it, and then she let the finger fall out and trickle down her neck along the meridian where the heart is, and drop below the navel, where, with parted thighs, her surprising pelvis was always ladling up what she’s got.
Mark was complacent though. “Just inevitably woe betide you, if you think happiness is the whole point. Recipe for disaster. Of course she’s not happy. Neither am I happy. Neither are you, John. So ‘more power to ya.’”
§ § §
I’m thinking my wife’s analysis is right: that maybe Perdue’s life is in this mess because it’s like a skit he’s putting on, waiting for his women to notice him. Yet I was thinking there might be a very different possibility, too, and it might be rather terrible: despair: the man might feel, and with good reason, that he himself has no reason for existing. He’d somehow lost his way. Lost his way in his profession. Lost his way with his family. They’d made themselves remote from him, each for her own reasons. And they were both staying away from him. I thought possibly he was at risk of despair, or in despair, just being stiff-upper-lip.
When the night was over, I proposed the idea to Thalia – “You know, sweetie, I’m thinking he could be in despair.”
This was still before midnight, when I’d come home for good, and, with a fresh-opened bottle of that same Sonoma red, I’d glup-glup-glupped my wineglass in a merry churning splash, and, carrying it, I’d come to join her in the den, where she was reading one of her magazines. A Wonder Womb Tutorial was playing for Clara, this episode the “Circle of Fifths,” with a full orchestra. The circle of fifths – (in its endless loop, it soon starts to sound like Pachelbel’s Canon in G) – was playing softly on the special speakers that come with the Wonder Womb. They’re called “parabolic.” They somehow send out a frequency that will pierce through to the baby without needing loud volumes. The speakers were set out on the floor as obstacles, and I had to step nimbly to pilot the sailing, brimming wineglass above them.
“Dread of meaninglessness. Dread of the void,” I said, and I plopped down beside her, not spilling a drop.
In her magazine, she’d started to skim, flipping through fast, to get it over with, because now I was there.
She said, “Well, I wonder why his people from Berkeley don’t come out and visit and rescue him. There must be other professors, people he knew.”
It hadn’t occurred to me. Maybe one reason old colleagues don’t come and “rescue” him is that (I’ve somehow gotten this general impression) academic life is perhaps not so collegial and convivial as people tend to think. Along the corridor of a high-powered physics department, it’s not that anyone is antisocial, or uncharitable, or has any ill will, they’re just extremely busy, as well as important.
I told her, “The funny thing is, he doesn’t seem miserable. He does his bookstore thing. He’s got satellite reception and he studies things on his phone. And he’s on his laptop.”
“So he’s got electricity.”
“He’s got everything. He’s got a microwave. It looks like now he’s selling second-hand furniture, instead of just old books. Honestly, I train my scrutiny-beam on him, I put my empathy-beam on high power, looking for how he might be miserable – and he just seems somewhat content. At least it’s how he can seem. It’s like, at his young age, he’s retired! Or kind of lobotomized, in a way. He seems to enjoy the retail part. He likes putting prices on things and seeing them get bought. Having been a big-deal sort of renowned physicist.”
It’s true, the word “despair” probably isn’t exactly right. He appears to have shrunken his aperture of vision to encircle only the trifling and the trivial (a bassinet, an old Boy Scout Handbook and a colander, a favorite basic math equation). His smartphone sky maps are just arrays of little points, nameless but for their 6-digit “catalogue numbers,” a dead braille that isn’t going to yield up any new contributions in his field. Especially not out in the remote trench he’s sitting in. Unmistakably, the man was radiating a kind of assurance that was specifically soteriological, when he leaned over and told me nothing matters.
§ § §
Before the night was out, I said to him, “You could still do a lot with the money, Mark. It’s still a lot of money. You could do anything.”
He was sorting and pricing books, a stack on his knee. “You’re saying? John, I never even cared about getting collider time.” (This was a reference to an earlier conversation about departmental politics at Berkeley.) “What people want – what people are supposed to want, John? – is a big house and an expensive car.” (This goad of mine had set him off.) “And a barge-cruise up a French river, or hundred-dollar dinners in restaurants. And a little castle. And make it a castle in Scotland, and get into buying things for it, furnishing it. Like that’s what you think you want, a castle, so you get it, you can get ’em cheap there, and suppose you do buy a castle in Scotland. So then, there you are. There you are in Scotland.”
He held up a book, “Now this. This is the old edition of The Boy Scout Handbook. Were you a Boy Scout? I was a Boy Scout. Somebody’s going to love this.”
Wielding his pencil, he started considering the book’s price. “Somebody’s going to love this.”
He was personally upbraiding me, scolding me, that is, instructing/enlightening a former priest on an ethical point: that an old Boy Scout Handbook is a better investment. Of course, yes, in principle, but it avoids the issue. I’d asked a vital, practical, existential question. Using his pencil, he wrote lightly, erasably, on the inside cover’s corner, some figure of a few cents, and he put it on the stack beside his chair. A man who never comes down on anything. A man who stays up in the air. It’s what would have driven his wife crazy.
§ § §
Here is an amazement I had, though – and this kind of thing almost somewhat redeems a professor’s entire sunken, idling existence off the San Juan Road exit. It’s the sort of realization you’d have only if you’ve spent some time out there, and I envied him his constant nearness to such a steady fact as this: The stars don’t ever really move! This strikes me now at age 52 as a revelation. What I mean is, they’re motionless if you subtract the obvious whirling of Earth. Minus that whirl, the constellations will still be displaying in the exact same shapes when I – (at maybe age eighty-something?) – vanish from the race of star-watchers on this hump of soil. I’ll be gone. They’ll be the same. They’ll be the same for Clara Luce, too.
It might seem like a dopey realization to exult over. But all my life whenever I’ve watched the night sky, I’ve had a kind of abiding background sensation that, vaguely, some event might be occurring up there, even if too far-off to see, or too slow-happening to see. A stargazer’s expectancy (or maybe in mortals it’s just a kind of “impatience”) isn’t a conscious thing – nor is it the slightest bit rational. It must be a sensation I get simply because I’m watching. You feel vaguely like, if you’re watching, you must be watching something.
There do exist, occasionally, events and changes – a planet’s shift to a new spot from the previous night; the moon’s debut; maybe a falling rock catching fire. But the stars, no. The same “Orion” will be striking the same pose long after I’m gone; it’s the same pose cavemen saw; it’s the same pose since the time of volcanic steamy deserts, when nothing conscious was here to see it, not even a germ. Orion, in that sterile time, was standing up there: sword in scabbard, arms uplifted, the three-star belt smartly tilted. (The Book of Job, in fact, mentions Orion, and old Job’s Orion would have looked exactly, exactly the same.)
I suppose the stars’ fixedness seems so amazing in light of what Mark was saying about the universe’s coming apart: i.e., the outward flight of everything at 70 kilometers per second.
“Yeah, well, not only that,” he said when I mentioned it. “It’s all in motion. At something like four hundred kilometers a second, our whole galaxy is falling into Leo.”
§ § §
When I mentioned to Thalia I was worried he might be “in despair,” she seemed not to listen. But then a little later she came up with something.
We’d been letting the “Circle of Fifths” rule the room. (This is part of a series of audio tutorials that get the education process started in utero, even while the little nervous system is still condensing; Thalia is openly skeptical of the program’s promises; she says, too, that it grates on her nerves; but we’ve made the investment and she’s being a good sport about it.) So she had picked up her knitting again and I’d gone for a wineglass refill, and when I came back, she said, while watching her own hands knitting, “John, the state of ‘despair’ and the state of ‘faith,’ they’re just the same thing. They’re the same state.”
Despair and faith the same thing. – I wasn’t sure I was going to go along, especially as it was coming from my “agnostic” wife. I’m the one who used to be an official shaman, ordained and beneficed on my sunny Sausalito hillside. It’s a fascinating remark (Faith=Despair!) but I thought maybe we’d save it for another time, feeling now too tired and happy to be serious about anything anymore. I’d had a long day.
She went on, though, “When somebody is in some kind of extremity, like some kind of awful situation? Totally? At that point ‘faith’ and ‘despair’ are just words. Two different words. You know, for the same whatever-it-is. Sometimes people are in total free-fall. They just pick a word for that. Call it faith. It’s just a word.”
This is another of the many ways she’s perfect: she’s philosophical! Such an inroad of hers can be a first foray in an ongoing, perennial, ever-blooming disagreement: plenty of time to come up with a response, months, years if I like. For the moment, I got down on my knees on the floor in front of the seated knitting woman and parted her thighs and said, “Turn off the music, will you? I want to bink-a-bonk the girl.”
This is an additional element in Clara’s pre-birth education, a regimen I’ve devised myself. “Bink,” I’ll speak into one side of Thalia’s belly, bowing over, bringing my mouth down close. Then, “a-bonk,” I’ll speak into the other side of her belly. East, then west, I have to sway and peck, side to side, kneeling. The bink and the bonk are two different tones, hi and lo, alternating: bink BONK bink BONK, left and right, left and right.
They’re more than two different noises. They’re linguistic education, fundamentally. In this way, Clara Luce Kunst-Gegenuber – (her inner-ear system already coming into good working order, coiled up in her little extraterrestrial-shaped head) – will be getting the hang of the crucial difference between “this” and “that,” between left and right. (Or between north and south, or east and west, depending on how her little gyroscope had been revolving lately inside the womb’s dark socket). This exercise is my own invention. Essentially it just teaches the idea of “difference,” the idea of “alternatives,” the first distinction in Aristotelian logic, the basic building-block for consciousness, on-off, yes-no, here-there, true-false. What I’m providing is the earliest-possible language. The exercise is, for me, always slightly aerobic; and it’s a bit of a back-muscle builder, because kneeling before my wife’s open lap, I have to make deep pecking motions to left and to right.
I began by looming in close over the girl’s hideout and intoning, “Claaarra…” The voice of Dad. Coming from far outside her planet. “Cllaaaaaa-rraaa…”
“Could we not, John? Could we not bink-a-bonk?”
She was lifting her knitting and resettling it so it was going to bristle in my face – and in any case, with the stomach getting so big now, she likes having her feet up. And I knew what she would want to do. She would want to watch any one of the TV shows we like. The shows get captured by a little box on our TV set, and the old episodes pile up in there.
Also, we’d already done a session of bink-a-bonking today in the morning before she left for work. I was perfectly happy to watch television at her side – not in my Eames chair but on the corduroy couch beside her – and perhaps put my mind to work contemplating inwardly her interesting challenge: about despair being the same thing as faith. It probably isn’t a proposition she really cares about running to ground, herself. She’s not a huge self-identified philosophy type. (Whenever argumentation becomes rigorous, she likes to opt out, saying, “John, I’m just a member of the laity.”) But it’s the kind of thing I will want to run to ground. It’s somewhat arresting if you think about it. “Despair” = “Faith.”
§ § §
“What are you doing when the rainy season comes?”
On his phone screen he was stroking upward, scrolling through one of his miniature websites. It was a website devoted to that equation he finds so enthralling. I could tell because a certain graph kept coming up that was always associated with that equation: a pair of x- and y-axes, with a red line climbing up the central pole from below, then swerving right and climbing away sideways into infinity. He’d displayed that shape for me earlier (when he still thought I might be educable) on a wonderful, expensive calculator he owns: it’s a calculator with an electronic window showing graphs. New graphs would snap into fresh shapes while he entered numbers.
About the rainy season, he answered, “The Silveiras when they had the fruit stand, they brought in power.”
He meant the meter. I’d already noticed it, the usual PG&E dial in a steel-rimmed glass jar. It was fixed to a standing board by the road.
“So I’ve got power.”
“So,” I said. “Space heaters.”
“Maybe I’ll hate it in the rain. Maybe I’ll have to get a place.” He tapped the phone and put it away. “Ah, but my ‘customers’!” He smirked a little. Because he does have some perspective on his situation. He obviously does see the absurdity. “What would my customers do?”
So I have to think: if he’s so capable of seeing the preposterous absurdity of his life choices – and maybe the rather histrionic quality, too – and if he’s capable of joking and winking about it! – why am I bothering with him?
§ § §
“If I do move in winter, you understand, the problem with this fruit stand is – if I’m going to start selling old furniture and whatnot, steam irons for ten cents – well, these people are all affluent. I mean the people who come by here, they’re all affluent, and affluent people don’t want an old steam iron or something. Poor don’t come here. I’d have to open a place in the Canal District. Be where the working people are.”
– The vision of a Canal District storefront plunged him in a study so deep, the beer can came back up, its rim touching the four stations (upper lip, chin, cheek, and cheek, over and over) while he kept an eye on the dark meadow. I could see, in that moment an actual storefront might be shaping up in his mind – and might be looking somewhat interesting to him, while he affected to half-deplore the idea.
I think that point, right there, might have been the point where I started thinking concretely about giving up on him – him and his implausible roadside show – the perhaps-merely-maudlin roadside show. Which he might give up on, if he had no audience. Audience in the form of a well-intentioned visitor like me, for example. Or his wife and his daughter, for example. He’s too smart for this. The winter rains are going to come. Or, before that, the county could shut him down. He’s too intelligent for what he’s doing.
§ § §
Thalia did want to watch one of her TV shows – but first she had some news.
She’d taken action. She’d called the Gainsboroughs to talk about Pammy’s pregnancy.
“After you’re gone, when you’re not in the house I can think for a minute – so I went ahead and phoned. I figured they couldn’t not be told.”
She’d had a long conversation with them, and the Gainsboroughs had taken roles exactly opposite to the expected ones. Cathy was the one who was able to see the young woman as a mother; she was even overjoyed. Chuck was the one who was reacting badly. He was acting the Enraged Father.
I said, “I’ve been thinking. I confess I’ve been thinking about Pammy in the role of mother. It might be fine!”
“First of all, they already knew. Of course.”
Of course, yes, it would make sense. They’ve got parents’ intuition. Maybe they even sensed it before Pammy knew.
“But Chuck says he’s thinking of actually suing!” My wonderful wife couldn’t help but snicker in the thrill of this information. “I mean, suing Green Thumbs.” The snicker was to neutralize the threat. Which it did. For my wife’s laughter is invincible. In any arena, in any court of law, or on any field of battle, Thalia’s open enjoyment will carry the standard and sweep the field.
Anyway I assured her, “He can’t do that.”
In fact, one doesn’t worry about Chuck. Chuck is no problem. His wife, Cathy, she’s got personal power. She’s capable of creating trouble. But Chuck, no. I was still kneeling in front of Thalia between her knees, and we were reflecting back and forth the same totally unwarranted, silly joyfulness in discovering this new wrinkle. What I did was, I clambered up over her knitting, and I awarded her a big kiss at the center of her face, right on her nose, her cute, shiny, bell-pepper-nostriled, oily little nose. “They can’t sue. They signed the waiver like everybody.”
“All the other clients,” she rejoiced, “are gonna freak.”
“Well, nice going. Good call. This will be interesting, Thale.”
Chuck and Cathy will be grandparents. Pammy herself will enter a new phase of her own life. The mystical reward in bringing a baby into the world is this: that the fresh-born person is us. Mystically, it’s us literally. The SF Foundation committee will just have to sympathize: if they want to withhold grant money, we’ll get along without it. Pammy, of course, will have to be an unwed, single mother, because the boyfriend Rich is out of the question. But the Gainsboroughs have plenty of money.
“Anyway,” Thalia said. “I’m just going to ask Victor.” Victor is the wonderful pro-bono lawyer.
“We’ll give a shower, though, Thale.”
“Just ’cause I want to be sure we’re on some kind of legal ground.”
“But we’ll have a shower. We can have it at Fourth Street. Tiny socks. Tiny shoes. Beanies! Lots of little beanies!”
(Knitting beanies has been one of the most successful exercises ever tried at Green Thumbs. It’s a practice we adopted from the detention center at Marin Juvenile Hall, where they’ve got the teenage criminals knitting beanies for infants, and it’s improving all the inmates’ attitudes, even real hardcore punks’ and gangsters’ attitudes, all knitting beanies. For our dayroom clients now, it’s become a regular thing: to spend a part of a morning knitting. They’re told that the heaps of beanies they produce are being “donated to needy children.” Which is what they tell the inmates at Juvie, too.)
§ § §
She had said something troubling, even though she was mostly joking. She’d said, in passing, that she could reach a clear-headed decision better when I’m not around. I have to think it must be an instance of a kind of oppressiveness of mine. If she’s going to do some free thinking – for instance about phoning the Gainsboroughs – she has to wait until I’m out of the house.
Then, too, I noticed that when I arrived back home, the first thing she did was to banish her Us magazine article – which was so engrossing she’d been bending over it closely while her hands worked the knitting needles. This is one of those magazines consisting largely of the kinds of photos that are taken by photographers who lurk in hedgerows of restaurants – actors and celebrities paired in fresh romantic combinations. I know she goes through a lot of these magazines but she makes a point of not leaving them lying openly around the house. Tonight after I’d entered, she put it aside, flipped the thing face-down, then slid it farther off.
Do I seem censorious? Do I seem to disapprove of any fun in the room? Of course she’s much smarter than the stupid magazines she reads. That’s a given. She runs a business. She’s got thirteen employees. Which I could never do. Regarding her few middlebrow entertainment choices, she is always superbly unashamed. She’s witty about them. The fun part is watching her sparkling, effervescent mind dissolve and digest the few gaudy bits we allow into the house.
I’ve always thought it’s an important part of our particular magical combination together: how unselfconscious we can be about the mismatch in our backgrounds. She’s from Montana, from its really big-sky tracts and its state university system. She’d never heard a live symphony orchestra, for instance. Nor read much outside the bestseller shelf. The whole class difference (or, what shall I call it? sophistication difference? snob factor?) was something I slightly worried about before we were married – but it turns out to be just what the doctor ordered. I think it really makes the marriage. Every day we keep learning from each other. And it’s wonderful for me, that I can be allowed a vacation from the – (you name it) – German poetry or atonal music or Japanese films, my whole inveterate snob regimen. Which is really like a monastic rule sometimes.
It’s unhealthy for a man to live in that perpetual baccalaureate condition. I say let there be Us magazines in the house, as well as People magazines. Let there be cable TV. I think I use every opportunity to filter genially back away from overbearing judgments and discriminations. I find that filtering genially back comes naturally. It’s a relief. I find it to be liberating at my age, of course especially with the wine, so I never get impatient. This is something a man can, wisely, hand over to his woman: how our evenings will be spent. If I were still a bachelor left to my own devices, I might spend the evenings with something like Schoenberg quartets: something nerve-wracking and ulcerogenic and (worst of all!) forgettable. In this new life, I’m honestly bored with Schoenberg, I’m on Hollywood movies now, and I’m making no complaints about romantic comedies’ mediocrity. I recognize such complaints as, if not fascism, just the old oligarchy. I can’t imagine how I could be doing a better job of the “filtering genially back” that really is a middle-aged man’s job. Is it possible that I seem to disapprove of things? Just by my presence? When I come idly poking around? Do I glower? Is it my bad habit of jingling loose change in my pocket? I could stop that in a minute if I had to.
§ § §
When I was carrying my EKG printout down the clinic’s corridor, I opened the folder and I stopped for a second just to admire the repetitious sharp personal signature of my heart. At the bottom of the page, below my bouncing heartline, was a ruled staff, almost like a musical clef staff, with big dots. The dots represented some kind of interpretation of the up-and-down wave above it. It was indeed just like a musical score describing a melody: the ruled lines, the beats marked by black pea-sized spots, each spot sporting a little stick, each stick flying a pennant, the pennants slanting differently, according to some code cardiologists have.
I learned from the doctor it’s called a ladder diagram and it was the handiwork of my nurse the dark smiling EKG technician. She had sat down and devised the little notes, choosing their flags, identifying the characteristic bumps of my heart, before clicking on “print” and receiving the page. So she had probably already discerned – and she had already picked out – a fate for me, before the doctor saw it and made his own agreeable confirmation: that I could be pronounced boring and sent away.
§ § §
The Clearasil concert had switched away to another biographical segment. Carlotta was being filmed at home in her loft. She was in her walk-in closet climbing into an athletic costume. Because it was time for trampoline.
Carlotta’s intimate murmur explained (this was voice-over narration that had been recorded in an interview), “Sometimes, though, I need my alone-time.” By this she meant contemplative time, creative time, even sad time. When she left the bedroom, the camera lagged behind and followed her at a distance with a handheld jiggle in soft pursuit – the camera was a fan, the camera was a voyeur, letting Carlotta get far ahead, down a corridor, to the high-ceilinged space where the circular trampoline resided. The voice of the male assistant added, whispering low:
“…This is where she creates. It’s where she gets inspiration.”
While she shed her warm-up jacket, and while she climbed on and started bouncing, building a little altitude, the camera stayed back out of the room, peeking around a doorframe, spying, then gradually pulling back entirely, to leave the bouncing girl in her creative privacy. Soon it would switch to a moment of Carlotta walking alone on the drizzly beach, gulls wheeling high overhead.
Lit by the computer-glow, Mark in his chair lay essentially motionless. He has an amazing capacity for inertia: not just when he has a concert to amuse him but always, an alliance with earth’s entire bulk, his whole metabolism slowed to a warm sand-heap. I had to keep edging around it all day. So it came to pass finally, as all day his weird sheen seemed to bounce away any serious interrogations, finally I got impatient and popped out and asked, “Mark,” with acid sarcasm, “when did she start showing all this amazing talent?”— because the screen had switched back to the concert, and she was standing over a candy heart dancer, straddling her where she’d fallen. The straddling star was lowering herself over the laid-out dancer, while able herself always to maintain that pelvic scoop, never stopping the scoop, riding it, her free arm waving rodeo-style while clapping a hand over herself in a jock-strap grip, pulling.
He sighed, “I know. ‘Skank,’ whatever.”
That particular word was sharp. It was unlike him. Earlier, too, he’d used the word slut. Maybe he used such words in quotation marks citing society’s stupid trash talk, not his own feelings. Or – it was almost as if he were quoting a brand, a product for the entertainment business.
Holding my tongue then for a while, and thinking about it – and considering that his daughter is a grown-up – I reckoned it isn’t horrifying, that a father could make such a reference. The word, in fact, fit what was happening onscreen, onstage all night in various ways, the young woman’s enactment of reproductive behavior, its dependable old clichés. He’d spoken his verdict musingly and calmly. It felt oddly like a rebuke of me. Of my judgmental prudishness sitting there beside him.
§ § §
Worse, it didn’t take much reflection to see, the sarcasm (“Skank,” whatever) was more than just a mild rebuke: it was point-blank hostility. It was mockery. It was cold sarcasm directed at me.
You’d think that irrational thought processes would be a bad thing for a professional scientist. I believe “cognitive dissonance” is, in fact, what this is diagnostically called, a kind of maladjustment when you let contradictory ideas coexist, side by side, on and on, indefinitely. A poor habit for a scientist. The pattern in Mark’s life seems to be: never to come down on anything.
The result is the daughter. Washing my hands of Mark Perdue, as others unfortunately have done, goes against my nature. But it seems still to be the right medicine. On this, I was able to reach peace with myself by the end of the day.
§ § §
He said something else, too, which, I didn’t realize till later, was meant as an all-inclusive put-down of just about everything I’d been saying all night.
It didn’t cross my mind until much later back home at bedtime. Thalia and I had turned out the bedside lamps and we’d pulled up the covers. I hadn’t yet assumed my invitation-to-sleep position, I’d only just worked my head into the pillow and begun to go over the events of my day, something I customarily do. (For example, one great thing that happened today was that Pammy would be a mother. Another was that a bee’s weight had bent a grass-stem. We’d had a good stir-fry. The redwood boards hadn’t fallen in on the garage floor. Things like that. I like to tally up the day. It’s a way of practicing gratitude.)
Then I remembered that, at a moment when I was coaching him about certain shared activities that can keep a marriage fresh, he interrupted me, saying, “So you think – you think a ‘failed’ marriage is one that ends in divorce. Whereas a ‘success’ is a marriage that’s still going on.”
The subversive intent was clear. He was making the (obvious) point that an intact marriage might yet be a failure. An ‘intact’ marriage could be merely an endless, undying quarrelsome failure.
It’s a common kind of quibble. But the real aim was to attack me personally, to point at a kind of incompetence or obtuseness in me. Which was a challenge I had to answer right away.
“Mark, listen. If there’s love, then nothing can go wrong. And it would have been your responsibility to bring the love.”
That was too sharp an accusation. Because he did fail to bring love. It was a defect that now couldn’t be remedied.
So I had to backpedal and soften that, so I started telling him about my own marriage, how Thalia and I now are at a point in our personal maturity where things simply can’t go wrong anymore. And for once in that whole night, he seemed to listen with respect. After I’d spoken, he kept looking at me – as if mists had parted – or as if I were a newcomer just arrived in the chair. Never again, during that whole night, did he seem to visually see me so clearly.
He said, “If you’ve got that, then that’s good. That’s really good for you.” This was a tone I’d never heard. “Keep that. That’s really wonderful for you.” He was speaking with admiration. Way beyond mere envy, he was sharing open celebration. For a minute, a window had opened and he was seeing someone who was getting it right.
But people have their intractable, basic nature, which will always be resurgent. Before long, he’d clammed up again, and gone back to the habitual passivity, as if barely listening.
§ § §
“I never got through to him,” I announced to Thalia from the kitchen, first thing, when I got home. The room was still ringing from the back-door slam.
She was around the corner with her knitting, but she would be getting my sufficient greeting by the sounds. (The corkscrew drawer, the wine bottle, the popping of the anchovies’ tin so they’d have some time to breathe.)
I said, sinking the corkscrew, “He’s not going to do anything. Take any action. Not with Castlegate, and not with the daughter. He has a sort of passivity. It’s not that he’s spineless. It’s not that he’s weak. He’s got this policy, policy of non-interference, like fatalism, like he won’t even lift a finger, because he’s just sitting there watching the dharma. Watching it unfold.” The cork came out silently. “You know, ‘the dharma.’
“Or—” I went on, “the more accurate description could be, he is kinda ‘spineless’ but only in the one special case of his daughter.”
“Will they let him keep it?”
“The money? I think, if I had to guess, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me, if they ever once step in and try to control how their gifts get spent, they will’ve set a precedent. So therefore, they will be constrained to just leave their people alone. Let ’em spend it however they want.”
Even as I spoke, the opposite certainty was weighing in my heart. It weighed in my heart just as it always had from the beginning. The Castlegate Foundation will take away the money. They’ll possibly also demand a repayment of everything he’s gotten so far. Channeling the money to a sexy singing daughter – a daughter with, moreover, a career that seems to be confected largely out of Internet smoke-and-mirrors – it’s too flagrant a misuse.
§ § §
I actually find my wife’s philosophy appealing: her offhand remark that faith and despair are the same thing. There’s a serious Dark Night of the Soul in that way of thinking. It makes an interesting mental picture.
I definitely made a note. But tonight, no such further heavy-duty deliberations would happen. Not between Thalia and me. Because we (along with Clara Luce Kunst-Gegenuber, the girl yet unseen, still unseeing, but already listening) were going to relax and enjoy some nice unchallenging television. By the time of the second wineglass, Thalia had shut down the “Circle of Fifths” and she was, remote in hand, sorting through the channels looking for our comedies. (The circle of fifths does eventually become a tiresome merry-go-round.)
I thought I might toast some bread meanwhile. I’ve usually got some stale sourdough, which I save just for this purpose – to create a few of my special “loathsome little pizzas.” On each triangle of toast, I squash out an anchovy, then squash down a layer of runny cheese, of some semi-smelly variety, and the whole thing goes in the toaster-oven for a minute. (Never microwave. Toaster-oven only.) I like to use a soft brie so it doesn’t just melt: the cheese altogether vanishes glistening, chrism for the unfortunate fish. In this case, tonight, a camembert. This all happens toward bedtime along with the last little overindulgences in wine. Snacking is one of the many practices by which, personally, I repel the Lord’s terrible presence. Before Thalia, when I was alone, I used to be a more self-indulgent sinner especially with the wine. Nowadays, against true full-blown “alcoholism” I’m still fighting the usual tedious trench-warfare every night.
But before Thalia I was bad. I used to kill every evening by swimming all the way out, face-down in the ancient maroon swamp. This is why gluttony is called a sin. Many are the forms of anesthesia, by which to protect ourselves from the Lord. With me it’s a panoply of small things, little routines, it’s my loathsome snacks at bedtime, my wine of course, and of course trying new restaurants on Friday nights; staying current with our “art appreciation lessons”; my relapses sometimes into mindless incantation, subvocally in Hebrew fragments or Latin. Or bits of Cranmer’s good English.
For some it’s narcotics, for some just cigarettes, for some it’s playing solitaire every morning plus cigarettes, or reading crime novels in a series, downloading entire seasons of television shows, plus ice cream. It’s in religious practices, too; for religions’ liturgy and ceremony are a shield and a buckler against the Lord. And of course for everybody there’s the wonderful pursuit of love, I mean especially in its erotic form, and especially if it’s unwise love, because love provides so much distracting drama, of the plot-and-characterization sort. There’s also buying things extravagant enough you’ll need to go into debt for them. There are so many ways, ways of avoiding life – trick mirrors, trapdoors into chutes, plywood monsters that swing out on hinges, incredible shrinking rooms.
But all of this foolishness is in the Lord’s dispensation. None of it is a waste, or a shame. It’s Providential. For Providence doesn’t require us to be saints and mystics and bodhisattvas, not at all, far from it, Providence intends for the millionaire to have his enviable car, and for the entrepreneur to gain all the advantages, the gossip to exert his power, the masturbator to have his secret library all to himself, the brute his rage, the miser to be putting one over on everybody. Without all our sins, the Lord Himself would naturally pour right in. And put an instant stop to all this. Without all our sins we’d go instantly to Heaven. Game Over. When my little-bitty toasts had melted, I arranged the six of them on a plate in daisy-petal fashion, the six headless, skin-flayed fellows converging nose-together, tails radiating outward, on the plate arranged clockwise, (this is important) in exactly the same chronological sequence as they’d come out of the toaster, because you want to, then, consume them clockwise, in order to be, as much as possible, catching each one when the toast, still, hasn’t been saturated by the cheese-oil, or by the fish’s essence – then, having chewed, to take a very small purple sip that will perfectly thwart the greasiness of the fish – and I carried the plate out to the den, where Thalia had found the channel called Classic Comedy and she’d settled in on a selection of old “Honeymooners” shows.
§ § §
Interesting name for the old show. Which I suppose depicts the perpetual “honeymoon” in that bleak kitchen of the struggling, really rather older (aren’t they? come think of it?) childless couple. Who communicate so badly, and mostly with weary threats. The actor Jackie Gleason in his bus-driver’s uniform, his wife Alice in her limp apron, they drag around that room in defeat and recrimination, and a kind of hopelessness, hopelessness in every direction, an implied economic depression over their entire borough. What was the Kramdens’ future supposed to be? They don’t seem to be planning on children – so one does wonder, by the way, if that was a matter of choice? Involving temperament? Well, possibly – but a likely factor, too, would be financial limitations; the apartment looks like a one-bedroom. Getting into a larger place might be unaffordable. It’s evident, anyway, that the kitchen furnishings are sparse and frugal, when they sit at that bare central table. “Pow, Alice,” Ralph threatens his wife, making his fat hand into a fist.
§ § §
The two families in “The Honeymooners” – the Kramdens in their kitchen; the Nortons from the apartment upstairs – seem to have, over time, formed their friendship across a slight inequality in class status: an inequality slight but noticeable. Ralph Kramden drove a prestigious city bus for a living and wore a smart uniform, a uniform slimming for an overweight man, military in its capacity, by tailoring alone, to box up a rather spreading personality and provide some emotional organization.
But his best friend, from upstairs, wore a T-shirt and vest and a squashed fedora, and his job was in the sewers. “Ed Norton”: the thin fabric of that name hangs on the clavicles and scapulae of a wonderful actor whose real name, I think, was Art Carney. His wife, “Trixie,” was great-looking; and I guess I’ve always supposed that Trixie had somehow settled, marrying Ed Norton, because she might have done better. But she had a wonderful disposition and didn’t complain. Maybe the mitigating fact was, we were supposed to think Trixie wasn’t very bright. And maybe her not being bright protected her from restlessness or ambition. Or even from temptation, if that makes any sense.
What did the two men share? Besides just being neighbors? They seemed to share a kind of patience with their station in life, their being stuck on life’s journey together. Indignities and inadequacies and shame – those are universal vexations for mortals, but if either of those two men ever felt any deep, true resentment of his own lot in life, it was disallowed. At least in that visible kitchen, it was ruled offstage. And ruled outside the thirty-minute timeframe. Instead, Jackie Gleason enacted his little misdirected rages. Those were his specialty. The rage-plus-humiliation combination is always delightful, hilarious, ridiculous, bug-eyed – (this is as old as the farces of Plautus or Aristophanes: the buffoonery of the doomed classes; Aristotle would confirm the social-class distinction: that in the dramatic arts, nobles don’t have comical troubles, nobles have tragedies; only the vulgar classes’ problems are comedy) – whereas Ed Norton’s resentments in life were far milder than his bus-driving friend’s – far milder, far better restrained – and so his mildness made him the “beta” male. Jackie Gleason was the alpha because he could be unpredictable and violent.
What outlet was there, other than the threat of wife-beating? Outside the kitchen, in the world (you had to make this surmise just from the limited view out their one window), in the Kramdens’ presumable city, there was nothing but bricks and pavement and a dim monotony, down at the floor of the economy, far below the ebb and flow, the profit and loss, the crashing of fortunes’ reach and fall. Down here, nothing would change. The TV stage-set room where their lives transpired had three portals: a window and two doors. The central door implied a public hallway, and a stairwell, and from there on out, a city of the same gray as the kitchen. Ralph and Ed were never going to move on and get new jobs, out there.
The other exit to outdoors was the window: it had a view of an opposing building’s wall and fire escapes. Really, the only purpose of this window was to summon the neighbor Ed Norton, by the method of flinging up the sash, thrusting a head out, and bellowing upward. The window’s downward possibility, a leap, was never thought of, and was naturally the farthest thing from anyone’s thoughts. Then lastly the other door, at stage left, would lead to the bedroom, the conjugal bed the viewer never saw, where presumably the Jackie Gleason character could embrace his Alice, if she let him.
§ § §
If the audience of the 1950s thought it funny when a man threatens to punch his wife, well, it’s probably not as deeply wicked as – these days – the popular hilarity of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” where everybody’s favorite clips are of actual human beings (not actors) riding motorcycles straight into walls, falling backwards into drained swimming pools, being kicked in the groin by mules, etc. It’s the great Catholic insight, really – that mortals swim in sin, and inhale sin and exhale sin.
In the case of honeymooner Ralph’s kind of sin, the staunch opposition is Alice. Alice is a pillar. When faced with her husband’s boasts of violence, her scorn is so calm it has the faintest warmth of love – is that what’s visible? – or maybe it’s just patience, patience that strange, complicated ingredient in the Lord’s plan. Among the four, Alice is the strongest, tiredest person in the room; and it must be because of love; love and the sacrament of course. When I had my parish in rich, classy Sausalito, there wasn’t much of domestic brutality in the neighborhood – or any violence, really, that I ever saw – or even raised voices – but I had to suppose brutality was all around, everywhere, right alongside its tireless collaborators faith and hope.
§ § §
At a certain slow moment during the WholeLottaLove feed, Mark had asked, “What do you… do with your wife?”
He meant how do we spend time. But more than that, he meant how do she and I make a life together. We’d been talking on-and-off about his marriage troubles, in a roundabout way – and it came to me: he was asking now, almost childishly, for the magic secret.
It was one of the interludes when the Clearasil feed had switched to a series of snatched interviews of fans, and Mark and I were both lying low in our chairs. With concert noise in the background, a series of half-minute interviews of fans succeeded each other, all on the topic of “healthy lifestyle” – how do you avoid fatty foods, what’s your favorite way of getting physical exercise, do you have any fun methods of cooking vegetables – all pertaining cunningly to Clearasil products and radiant healthy complexions.
When Mark asked what Thalia and I “do,” I knew what he meant and I was able to go right in.
“One thing we do is we’ve subscribed to ‘art appreciation lessons,’ as we call them. That’s something. Before we married, she hadn’t been around art much. So I started her out and I got her a set of video lectures about Impressionism. Not to start her out middle-brow, but Impressionism is a good initial doorway. It’s an easy place to start. I’m not going to scare her right away with the Dutch.
“What I did was, I subscribed her to weekly lessons from ‘The Great Courses,’ and now I sit down and watch right alongside her! Are you aware of ‘The Great Courses’? They’re a wonderful resource for autodidacts, so, at least for a start, she’ll be able to tell a Manet from a Monet.”
He didn’t care. He wasn’t listening. The beer can standing on his belly rose and fell.
“So, that’s something we do. We call them our ‘art lessons.’ Every Thursday night after dinner.”
My eye then caught a funny thing. On the laptop, one fan was finishing her short interview about healthy lifestyle – and then, before turning back to the (supposedly) throbbing mass of fans, she looked into the camera for a second, and she actually made her eyes cross.
The video feed is so well “line-delay” edited, according to Mark; somebody should have caught it and taken it out. This was the cross-eyed exhaustion of a young woman who’d been faking enthusiasm too long. It was such a genuine human expression – for a disturbing instant I thought the young woman was annoyed with me, a funny error of overlapping perceptions.
“Anyway, we love it. I guess if we were wealthy, we’d be collecting art. And then we’d have that. But I don’t know, we also love restaurants. That’s something we do. We go out a lot. Not to extravagant places, just mid-price places on weeknights when they won’t be crowded. We’re like restaurant reviewers. We kinda pretend we are restaurant reviewers. Actually, we do pretend that. Just for each other. We pretend we’re restaurant reviewers. It’s crazy, it’s fun. I guess we’re weird.”
Mark’s attention was on the concert. But after a while he made an agreeable whimper – “…Hhn” – his elbows propped, his palms pressed together before his face.
§ § §
In the entire day it was one of the few direct questions he asked – what to do with a wife – and I’d done it justice. I’d given him a rather detailed answer and I’d supplied personal, specific instances. Each of which implied a lot about a married couple’s dedication to each other, and the conjugal resolve to take joy in each other, and the steadfast work that is sometimes required in sustaining the joy. And, all of which might lead a thoughtful man to reflect on the marital institution’s more profound aspects in general. And on his own marriage in particular. (E.g., what might have gone wrong in his own case. Where he himself might have been remiss. Even how he might get back with Audrey, possibly.) But he seems to have a built-in default setting that turns off the listening circuitry. It happens after about a minute. You can actually catch it in his eyes the instant his mind flips to random static. His gaze, while it stays locked straight on you, switches to “scan.”
§ § §
The neighborhood I guess I’ve always assumed for the Kramdens isn’t exactly “poor,” but it exists in an eternal economic slowdown, blocks and blocks for miles in that era’s prevailing Nagasaki monochrome. If there happen to be any shops, like out on the Kramdens’ street, or around the corner on the avenue, they won’t exactly be bustling with carefree extravagant customers. The little bell on a shop door won’t often ting-a-ling; the stuff on the shelves will be stale and scant; and when the shopkeeper does make change, it will be with deliberation, from the cash drawer. “Affluence,” in that decade, was still far down the road. Indeed unimaginable.
In bed later, I had a dream. I stood behind the counter in that shop, wearing the shopkeeper’s apron, and from the cash-register drawer I pinched up the remaining coin. A pair of hands, on the other side of the counter, were cupped together to receive the coin and (this is the fragment I recall) I laid the coin down in those radiant palms.
I woke under a load of guilt. What could be the Lord’s plan for the Kramdens? That is, for such as them?
Evidently, not much is going to change in these people’s lives. Everything these lives will ever “amount to” seems to be in plain sight already.
To go specifically to the most existential event, in what order will each individual finish? And how? Say Trixie is the first to go: she’s snatched away by a flu, or hit by a trolley car. (It is just the kind of tribulation Providence reaches down to inflict: start with the selfless loving beautiful one: deprive the world of her.) As a widower then, “Ed Norton” would probably lack the resources (mental and spiritual) to recover and stabilize. He’d be unlikely to remarry at his age, judging by what we can know of him. And, probably lacking the ingredients for suicide, Ed upstairs would decline over a period of years, a burden to his friends the Kramdens, increasingly an asshole (no kidding; the incipient signs are there, though not visible on the surface), eventually to die of sheer pointlessness and flaccidity in the apartment above – a widower’s apartment, which my imagination dares not enter. We all, inevitably, come to ungainly periods in our lives, especially toward the end.
Next in sequence to depart, however, after Trixie, would be Ralph, of course. (Massive heart attack seems right. No instant of repentance for him. Or even an instant of self-knowledge.) Then finally, if this were the order of things, Alice would be left, the last of the old quartet. Alice could go on for decades, she seems so tough and fibrous. Surely there would be an old-folks’ home only a few blocks away up the main avenue: it would have the very same neighborhood soot on its window sills as at home in their old apartment. All around her, the iridescent sixties would go past, and the seventies would go past, and the Reagan-lit eighties would loom up, while old Mrs. Kramden would notice less and less the passing parade. Seldom would she leave the convalescent home. Alice as she aged would stay beautiful as ever, if increasingly a bit hunchbacked, a bit pot-bellied. In my experience, people go into their declining years with pretty much the same-equipped soul they’d always had. They really don’t open up to great reformations or epiphanies or become wise and mellow and drop their grudges. They shrink finally back to their original star. Or if they do have epiphanies, they’re the same epiphanies they’ve been having on a regular basis since adolescence.
Which would imply that Ralph and Alice, all their lives, will be speaking to each other in the same tones up until the end. And getting the same results out of life as they’re getting right now in these half-hour episodes. There are people like the Kramdens. Such lives aren’t limited to working-class situations, either. Contrary to Aristotle’s prejudices, it isn’t a lower-class thing at all. Kramdens and Nortons exist in Marin, too, if with better furniture. Kramdens exist in Sausalito and Mill Valley and even in exalted Belvedere and Ross. Here at relatively humble 1117 Vista Drive, in our own case it’s just our sheer luck – (or maybe a bit of the mysterious “luck-plus-skill” combination) – that lifts Thalia and me (and Clara Luce!) into a comparatively full light, with, for instance, books on the shelves and music on the radio and a fridge full of a variety of nutritious, mostly organic foods, art appreciation lessons, my providential bink-a-bonking. The Wonder Womb tutorials. And of course, above all, the privilege of accomplishing some good in the world.
§ § §
I finally said to Mark, “You know, but honestly I haven’t the faintest idea.”
(What my marriage’s essential success consists in. What Thalia and I do.)
“I’ll tell you, though.” I thought I’d launch into something interesting that might be instructive – and I struggled forward for another beer and dropped back and popped it – “As far as a wife’s happiness in the situation goes, I think a man thinks he’s important and central, but I think the female’s actual story is completely inaccessible to him. Her happiness, you know? You think you’re central, but the fact is, you haven’t the faintest idea how peripheral you are, because her life is like its own huge river, going on according to ideas and plans, in some kind of long-term way. That is, it’s not as if she’s got some kind of elaborate ‘strategy,’ or ‘agenda,’ necessarily—
“But the husband, nope. Even in the best relationship, the guy is, largely, just this guy on one side. Nominally in the center maybe. I’m talking about a mature lasting marriage. I mean, she loves him. He’s not useless. He’s not like a nonentity. They can understand and respect each other deeply, and he’s getting everything he wants. But I’m talking about a woman’s core happiness in her life: totally inaccessible to him. You’ll never have the whole picture. This is true even in the greatest, truest love. There especially!”
I could see Mark making an effort to frame up that story around his Audrey. Their twenty years together. Their Cobblestone Hearth semidetached.
“Like, my wife thinks it’s fine I’m doing fundraising for a living. But she’d let me go back into real estate if I want; or even, God forbid, get back in the church again if I wanted. Or just be a day-trader and fart around with discussion groups all day on the World Wide Web. All the while in the meantime, her thing with Green Thumbs is huge for her. Do you want a beer? We got this whole twelve-pack and it seems like I’m the only one taking advantage of it.”
“Or it’s just like – to apply it to your situation – maybe your wife, maybe she thought it was perfectly fine if you did physics, and do physics, and great if you love that. But, according to my theory of wife psychology, it would be fine also, with her, if you wanted to be… like even this! A book seller! Or whatever, just so long as you’re still you. And so long as a ‘certain something else’ is there. I don’t know what that is. Something she finds admirable maybe. The ability to discuss things maybe. Openness. But not necessarily that alone. I don’t know. Something. Something else that’s completely beyond whatever people ‘do.’ You asked about what we ‘do.’”
So – since he did ask – I thought that ended up as pretty good advice, and there was really no reason for him to go on sitting there looking all the more morose.
§ § §
One puzzle-piece falls into place: a possible chronic disease.
When he went to fetch the Doritos from the fruit stand, he got up out of his chair but then sat right back down again. Foot-sole pain.
He naturally had to explain, and it seems many years ago he’d had a case of Lyme disease! Which was cured, but still, sometimes his feet hurt.
Having plopped down, he stood right back up again, with a bit more care at first. Then, with a proper normal spring in his step, he went inside for the Doritos.
I don’t happen to know much about Lyme disease. Mark seems mostly to be in great health and is a vigorous walker. On our trips out to the frontage road (hamburgers and whatever), he strode at such a good clip, he tended to stay a little ahead of me, so that I even feared he was getting out of earshot and couldn’t hear me, so that I’d almost be chasing him raising my voice.
Still, I understand Lyme Disease can be debilitating. Some sort of chronic infirmity could be an important, possibly incalculable element in the Mark Perdue mysticism-in-a-lawn-chair. Or the Mark Perdue chronic depression. Or the Mark Perdue self-absorbed dramatizing. The Mark Perdue wily, passive-aggressive laziness. Whatever it is.
§ § §
The signed-and-dated Castlegate page was on my knee – I’d gotten him to put his signature on it eventually after dinner. So at that point I might have considered myself to be off the hook with my responsibility to Rob Kasish, and I might have stood up and gone home anytime. Late-night freeway traffic had dwindled to a trickle. Two guys in lawn chairs.
On the laptop concert, we’d reduced the volume to almost nothing. (It was supposed to be a “commercial-free” concert. Yet the Clearasil logo was a constant translucent decal in the lower corner of the screen.) I’d decided I was staying only to finish out the concert. Boring as it had become. Occasionally I brought up physics questions an average person might wonder about. In fact, I was sincerely interested. It seemed a waste to leave without getting a little exposure to the science this man had been at the cutting edge of.
It was hard to follow, generally. I’ve always been curious about the weird idea (so important these days in talking about particles of matter) that things only happen when they’re observed. Somehow an event only “exists” when it gets seen. Or when it gets measured or something. For a hundred years in physics, this has been acknowledged to be in the weird-but-true category.
His explanation went straight to jargon and I didn’t follow. Also the concert on the laptop became briefly distracting, because a fan from the audience (a perfectly normal-looking male, perhaps a bit old to be a Lotta fan) got past the barriers and climbed up onstage. And then, incredulous that he was living the dream and actually standing before his idol, he couldn’t think of anything to do. Except dance. So, facing her, and then drifting off, he gyrated and made little soft punching motions, and copulating motions, until security people came and led him away. But then he’d started a fad. Other crazy fans started getting past the barrier, all girls now. They mostly just hugged their Lotta tight, until security led them willingly away. Or they stood staring around in beatific happiness in the spotlights, embarrassed.
Mark said, “This is on the assumption there was infinite time, to keep trying making infinite billions and billions of random different universes.”
He turned to check on me, and he added, “There have been infinite billions of random universes.”
So, this was Hinduism again. Much of the day, I’d been following at least well enough to have a vaguely evaluative understanding; and this, here, is where Mark Perdue’s thought processes become unsound. Modern physics seems to offer an array of potential versions of reality, and the one he has glommed onto is that the entire universe is an event that couldn’t happen unless it was observed. That’s the gist of it. In other words, the Big Bang and the whole universe are only happening because we humans are here observing it, directly or indirectly. If we weren’t here looking at it, it would never have existed.
I’m tempted to think that physicists should just stay away from philosophy. His kind of argument seems to say our consciousness caused the Big Bang. If this is what he’s saying, he’s got the cause-result relationship backwards. Or, he’s got causation going backwards-in-time: he’s claiming the reason the universe exists is because we evolved in it and we started looking around at it. So we caused the universe, retroactively.
His eyes were on the screen while he went on talking, going back now, once more, to his other favorite obsession, the uninhabitable sterility of any possible “exoplanets” in our Hubble sphere. (I was never clear on what a Hubble sphere is.)
Whatever a Hubble sphere is, it was less interesting to me, right at that moment, than the spectacle of one delirious girl fan who had clambered up onstage to do some miscellaneous dancing but then, unable to produce any other response to her idol’s presence, began making humping motions against Lotta’s hip while Lotta was trying to sing, until the security guards could pull her away. The peculiar random, intermittent way the idolaters now were storming the stage, it made me think the concert maybe wasn’t faked. They looked plausibly hysterical. The humping confused girl was tearful being led away, but led away willingly, as if gratefully.
“All the limestone is where the carbon is. The real, true carbon cycle, it’s a tectonic cycle, geologically, atmospherically. Carbon’s the whole story. Carbon is the entire whole story here. So that’s like a responsibility,” he fairly yelped, looking at me, gesturing around at all the carbon, all around this freeway exit.
This could be the trait the wife Audrey got tired of – his way of sounding off at length about abstruse things he alone cared about. But then I thought, no, the marriage lasted twenty years. His wife, at some point, must have liked the self-absorption. The preoccupation. Or at least seen it as essential to the whole man she’d married. It’s clear he’s always been like this. His daughter Lotta, too, growing up in the Perdue home in Cobblestone – (I watched her onscreen: she was starry-eyed, looking up into the lights while she hit a note, in the prime of her life, her microphone a goblet she was tilting all the way back) – she must have learned to be patient with a father like this.
I’d stopped listening but he seemed, suddenly, to have climaxed his speech and I’d missed it.
His finishing remark had been, “Of all the other possible universes, their only problem was, they all failed to have you.” – So he was looking at me expecting some kind of response.
§ § §
Whether we might end up spooning, or canoodling, or anything else – tonight or any other night – these possibilities shrink from consideration now that Thalia is getting into her fifth month. When I sit beside her these days – (on the couch tonight I noticed this distinctly) – she has started to have a different way of possessing space. No longer the lithe, mobile animal, more like an entire tent pitched beside me, she’s staking out a bigger, permanent territory that will be dramatic in other ways (scary ways; intimidating ways) so the little Boy Scout can’t possibly waken. Can’t even think of wakening. (Thalia’s amusing euphemism: Boy Scout. Which she derives from I know not where. Somewhere in Montana.)
However, this is odd. Tonight the Boy Scout began to stir because of something on “The Honeymooners.” Such is the damage art inflicts on nature. And so wonderfully corrupt is nature. My own impolite thoughts were stirred because of a pair of fictitious TV-screen characters, Mrs. Kramden and Mrs. Norton. Who exist only as figments in black-and-white. And who, moreover, are married women.
The Jackie Gleason character, Ralph, had received a letter, and he tore it open, standing in his kitchen in his bus-driver’s uniform. This was when he’d just come home from work and plunked his lunchbox down on the table, his cap still on. And the letter revealed to him that he might be descended from aristocracy. This was according to a lady genealogist in England. The Kramdens were an ancient family. He might be the descendant of a duke. There was no great fortune involved with this connection – but Ralph now knew he came from superior people.
He took off his bus driver’s cap. With the heel of his palm, vindictively, he smoothed his shiny black hair. This was going to change everyone’s life. Once he’d learned he was blue-blooded, nobody could treat him the same. Sir Ralph, after this, tended to stay seated now, centrally, and people had to bring him things. His friend Ed Norton came in the door, unceremoniously as usual, greeting him, “Hiya, Ralphie,” and he was cut down and he cringed. From now on, Ralph was to be addressed as Lord Kramden. His wife, Alice, was the sole skeptical one. In her apron, she stood off looking sideways at the scene, her forearms across her chest two rolling pins, as always. Alice was the lamp unto every episode, even when I was a little boy watching the show, getting my first lessons in human nature.
But Trixie, Ed Norton’s pretty wife, showed a sudden new flirtatiousness. Trixie had never been near aristocracy, and in her fresh new fealty, there was something wanton, a real pulse at the hip, it thumped through the thin common gentility of women’s comportment in the 1950s – it was unmistakable, the actress playing Trixie put an unmistakable offer in her hip, when she came up to simper at the new Lord Kramden. In the slightest leverage, right there, a certain actual know-how was evident. This show is from the fifties, but obscene implications are possible in any era.
A wife’s infidelity to her skinny, commoner husband – (and all the possibilities of chaos to ensue, actual promiscuity within the society of their tenement, all so explosive) – it all reminded the well-stashed-away Boy Scout that we don’t live forever, and I would have perhaps shifted over and started, tentatively, annoying Thalia, if not for the five-months’ tautness between us that grows harder and rounder with every passing day. On that couch, while we watched the TV screen, there was telepathic communication between Thalia’s shoulder and mine. If ever by chance the Boy Scout wakened, well, the Boy Scout’s comeback was forbidden.
§ § §
I’m definitely an oddball, but, to me, the most suggestive, arousing expression in the language is egregious. And egregious definitely describes this actress’s moment of spontaneity on the television screen. It’s Latin, it means “outside the flock.” Grex, gregis is “flock”; so an egregious lamb is one who has been straying outside the group. My wonderful wife for instance knows if she ever wants to bring up the Boy Scout, she only has to tell me she’s feeling a little egregious.
So I was sitting on the couch beside her, while, at the same moment, I was watching the woman whose hip, its mysterious fulcrum, showed such savoir faire. I found myself thinking of the actor herself – her day-to-day life in the TV industry in the fifties, with probably an apartment somewhere in LA, in her closet a thrifty but smart wardrobe, framed photos on the wall of her self in various productions, a small social circle, mostly LA actors, probably a boyfriend, or a husband. She’d shown up for work on that day and put on the flimsy dress provided by the costume department and simply done her job, as on every other day, but yet eternally she was the same temple goddess as Carlotta Purdue. Carlotta, toward the end of the concert, sang her “Lambsie Divey” song, whose refrain suggests that baby goats (kids) are willing to eat ivy, and also admits that anybody would find ivy tempting. The onstage lightshow had gone dark. It had dwindled to low lights behind the musicians and amplifiers. Eventually she reaches a point of imploring the audience wouldn’t they eat ivy? Wouldn’t they? The line gets repeated a number of times, and as she pleaded, the music sank to a grind and her voice shrank to a whine as if she were asking in the circle of a spotlight for a certain worse satisfaction than eating ivy, and her eyes blended together and her jaw went slack because something about the inward picture in her mind (eating ivy) was so distracting, her thigh making a suppressed twining, the obvious emotional truth being that she was confessing to a deep-kindled old flicker whose any dowsing would only incite a worse flare, as if any man’s bestowal of the few sorry spits to be wrung out of him, his only gift in nature, couldn’t relieve anything there. Still, that baroque show of eroticism was nothing compared to what had come so naturally to Trixie in the nineteen-fifties. Now, “sin” is something a man of the cloth can have a perfectly rewarding personal relationship with. Once I’d seen Trixie confide herself that way naturally to the stupid duke (and especially since my wife is somewhat forbidden right now), I couldn’t help but start reverting to memory’s film clip of it, to go on replaying those two televised seconds, studying Trixie for the amazing innocence-plus-wisdom quality, while I was sitting right beside my Thalia, my knitting pregnant Thalia on the corduroy couch, the cabernet’s lifted-up hoop covering my face, my lap strewn with breadcrumbs from my loathsome pizzas, and spots where anchovy oil had dripped, or maybe it was cheese oil, my spine slouchy, unhealthily, because I’d neglected to find a throw-pillow to put behind me as a back support.
§ § §
However, the Honeymooners took a plot turn. It put an end to all the lechery, but then it demeaned the characters in other ways.
These kinds of half-hour sitcoms get cooked up by not-very-thoughtful scriptwriters with not much care for human nature. I picture them as a handful of men (it would have been all men in those days) in Los Angeles in some kind of office environment, sitting routinely around a conference table throwing out ideas. (Let’s have Ralph think he’s a duke.) Writers with their feet up on the table.
Because what happened was, Ralph’s wife became a convert. Alice moved over to join the crowd. That is, she joined Lord Kramden’s sycophants. Alice, till then, had been off to one side. She’d been the outpost of common sense while everybody else was fawning over Lord Kramden holding court at the kitchen table.
So the plot turned to a female-competition issue. She’d seen that her husband’s claim to be a nobleman had put a truly vulgar magnetism into the body of the adoring friend: the wife’s sharp eye went right there, and jealousy overtook her. First the bamboozled look, then the incredulity, then the flare in her nostril, then the haughty new resolve. It wasn’t Alice! This must have been solely the writers’ idea, because that wonderful actress (Audrey Meadows was her name) would never have let her “Alice” get so out-of-character. She came slowly swaggering across the floor and elbowed her competition aside. All sense of character-consistency was lost. The two women were now vying, inanely. The audience loved it, the audience was going wild. Meanwhile, the excess husband, Ed Norton, had been transformed into some kind of obsequious butler, robot-like, mechanical-jointed. The Kramden home was a moral nightmare, it was the tyranny of perverted values, and – (I know I shouldn’t take a TV show so seriously; I realize these things were not meant to be closely watched, way out in the 21st century; and not by old moralizing oversensitive types) – I was actually angry and hurt because of the fall of Alice. We had all depended on Alice. The beast ruled now. This typical working-class apartment building had always held together a society of some civility, not perfect but at least sufficient civility. And peace and justice, finally. But no longer. Now (to use technical terms from Hobbesian social-contract theory) the biggest asshole was getting all the pussy. I said as much to Thalia: “She wouldn’t do that.”
“Who? Who are you talking about?”
“She wouldn’t do that.”
Thalia made her sour frown.
“The Jane Meadows character. She wouldn’t grovel and, in that way, simper. She’s the smart one. It’s like they released some gas in that room that made everybody giddy and kind of immoral.” Maybe I’d had a couple glasses of wine but my interpretation was on target and the feelings were justified. “This is some idea the scriptwriters had. The actual character – Alice – is not going to pretend to fall for this. I’m just asking for a little character consistency.”
“John. You’re indignant!” Thalia was delighted. She’d leaned away from me with the cracked grin. “All the girls want him now, of course, they think he’s a duke!”
I know this is peculiar of me, but it was lonely being the only viewer in all of TelevisionLand – (a faithless mass which included even my wife, Thalia) – the sole witness who cared. Who cared when a heart had been hardened. It’s only a TV show, but hearts do actually get hardened. In reality, in life, it’s the worst thing that can happen, hearts get hardened all the time, in our homes and in our streets; and this was a portrait of one of the common ways the world grows colder; and it was supposed to be funny. The way the two women were mobbing him simultaneously, smearing themselves on him simultaneously, while he gloated and let his tongue travel around his lips, it was embarrassing to watch. It was unbecoming to those four people. Whom one had come to know better. And it included my own Thalia, too: I knew she was only teasing, but she did say it, and she must have kind of meant it – all the girls want him now, of course – and I suppose I was jealous automatically. She was teasing but I’d seen that eye smiling, I’d seen the tough inner fabric. My girl from Montana really did – even if only in jest – know about that common kind of “default” coarseness. It existed even in my own Thalia. If the time ever does come when trust goes out the window, the sudden cabin-depressurization would be crippling, at least to me. I actually wanted to be back outside in a lawn chair with my friend out under the stars. What a strange idea! The motto of all despair is: Fuck ’em. And Hell with ’em. If I were like Mark, living in an abandoned fruit stand out under the stars, I’d be giving up a lot: I’d be giving up my nice backroom rectory, I’d be giving up my “cellar” of mid-price wines (which is not a cellar at all, it’s just a couple of cardboard boxes in the broom closet), giving up my place on the corduroy couch, or on the leather Eames chair with footstool, TV remote in hand. I’d be giving up my sleepy, solitary, morningtime nest before the computer, soggy Raisin Bran at my elbow, the Wall Street Journal homepage soaking up my attention. I’d be giving up the encounter with my daughter Clara, as well as giving up Thalia, and all love and work. All love and work.
So of course it was an impossible passing notion; but that little fraternity of the roadside lawn chairs is so much more straightforward – it was even an element of the Tom-and-Huck vision that I pictured myself as barefoot. Afternoons sitting in the lawn chair, feet in the dust.
§ § §
There is a solid bit of universal truth in the Mark Perdue maxim (and it’s not his idea alone): “Nothing Really Matters.”
It must be a commonplace sort of insight that homeless “down-and-out” types hit up against: that nothing really matters, especially, say, at a rare moment when – warm sun on shoulder, snack in hand – a homeless person finds himself feeling briefly happy. Happy with no possessions. For fate is arbitrary, and there does exist an interchangeability in all fates, corduroy-couch or no-corduroy-couch. Eames-chair or no-Eames-chair. Rich or poor. Better or worse. Wineglass or no wineglass. I guess I’m talking about a kind of objective even-temperedness, or detachment, maybe a sort of indifference, a sort of stoicism. If “nothing matters,” the idea amounts to a kind of blessing. It’s liberating. Which would be, for Mark, part of the appeal.
Mark Perdue, of course, is hardly a down-and-outer, but he does manage to represent a suburban replica of it, for a while. Probably anybody is capable of getting down to the point of admitting that, just as the “rich/poor” happenstance is only an inessential accident – and just as the “corduroy-couch/no-corduroy-couch” happenstance is an inessential accident – so even the “love/lovelessness” happenstance is an accident. Some people have love. Some don’t.
Which is where the “nothing-matters” motto might apply. – Of course, the truth is, things do matter. But for the unlucky among us, maybe there’s dose of plain daylight in discovering an indifference, and discovering a kind of amnesty that’s the real thing.
Ultimately, even the “existence/nonexistence” happenstance is a wash. That’s the highest sense in which, possibly, nothing might matter – the random coin-flip between “being” and “nonbeing.” An interesting event that supposedly took place long ago (according to Mark’s version of the cosmos) is a certain thing that happened during the universe’s first instant, the time when everything was pulling apart “faster” than light:
“During, roughly, a little bit of a second, the entire universe was about the size of a germ. Then in four picoseconds it blew up as big as a shoebox. That’s when the structure of the universe was printed. Right then absolutely everything was ordained.”
I happened to be looking up at the existing photograph of it right overhead. The word ordained was interesting, but he’s misusing it. “Ordaining” is something only a conscious entity can do. Nothing in that shoebox was conscious, it was just some kind of boiled-thin mist thickening up. My “theism” doesn’t require divine workmanship in every tiny little thing, necessarily. But I like the verb printed: the universe was printed. I wonder where he got that, or if it’s just standard jargon.
§ § §
Without trying to enlighten my wife back home comprehensively and in detail about Mark’s fruit stand predicament – honestly lacking the narrative energy for the whole portrait – I told her in summary, “He’s just a very fascinating person, at a fascinating juncture of his life.”
This summary also seemed to function backwards (though I hadn’t meant this) as a way to start minimizing the fact that I’d failed to fix or improve anything there.
The TV show was over and it was time for bed. Thalia, at my side, watched her knitting needles, her eyelashes alighted on her cheeks’ slope. She never changes her hairstyle, it’s the same as when we first dated, a short bob with curled-under points that tap her jaw. I hope she never changes it. She said, “What will you tell your friend?” She meant Rob Kasish.
I supposed I would tell Rob the same thing he’d known from the start – that the credit card statements are (yes, obviously) evidence of misspending.
“I did get him to sign the form. The form is blank, you know. He signed a blank form.”
I think that’s amusing, but Thalia’s typical show of amusement is just to keep her mouth a slot. She’s my Alice Kramden. She was sustaining her attention on her knitting.
“So, who knows,” I said, “maybe that’ll be enough. Blank form.”
She has taken up knitting rather belatedly now in this trimester. Rather belatedly in life. She’d literally never tried it until now. This red scarf for Clara is her first essay, and she keeps dropping stitches, and then she has to go back and pull out rows, so at the rate she’s going, she’ll hardly have time to complete even this one small experiment before Clara arrives to wear it.
The TV had reverted to its menu screen. The episode of “The Honeymooners” had come to an end.
Still we sat there knitting. I had started more or less engulfing her, but in a comic way without any ambition to seduce, while she kept her eyes on the fine-yarned, soft, scarlet scarf, taking shape ex nihilo from a location in thin air where her two needles clash.
The thing about knitting: if you sit and watch it, it always just looks like zero progress.
She whispered, “Oh my god, the anchovy snacks are disgusting.”
“Are you talking about my breath?” I breathed upon her.
“Your Hasidic thing doesn’t work everywhere. There is one place.”
– It’s my other favorite line from Hasidism, and I regurgitated it now intimately for her, “There is no place absent of Him.”
“Is there a place that knoweth Him not?”
“Get away. If I breathe it in, maybe it goes in my system, John. Maybe it’s toxic for her. What about that? Eh? Mister Wonder Womb?”
§ § §
Vis-á-vis Mark’s wife Audrey: I do detect in myself a certain prejudice against her.
As Mark describes her, she seems to check all the boxes. She’s intelligent and honest. She’s financially secure, for she’s not only a career lawyer, she seems, also, to have gotten a small family inheritance. And she graduated from an Ivy League school, and, according to him, she’s movie-star gorgeous. So I think: in one single woman, what a panoply! Yet she’d picked a kind of fuzzy, preoccupied man, a kind of perpetually bewildered man. And then, betimes, she stopped trying with him.
Now, it’s obvious Mark is a grouch and a philosopher and a certain kind of incompetent. She will have seen all that. She will have known it when she married him.
This is surely unfair of me – because I’ve never met her – but I’d begun to disapprove of this Audrey who was able to move on to a fresh life with the Starship Enterprise captain and desert the little family in its disorder, all the while ignoring her own daughter’s moral divagation. (At least according to Mark’s version of things.)
It’s an important knack of the unbiased confessor/counselor: Don’t ever speak your prejudices aloud but do, definitely, announce them inwardly to yourself with great clarity, the better to keep a handle on them. Prejudices have a life of their own. You have to haul them up into view. I’d begun to see the wife as, perhaps, unappreciative of her husband’s impractical moping, or even impatient with it, a woman protected by her own cooler, zestier efficiency. Which might be ambitious selfishness.
This was a bias of mine I would neutralize, however, by keeping an eye on it, keeping it in the light, keeping it always visible.
§ § §
I asked why, at Berkeley, he’d decided to “go for early retirement.” (Using there the most compassionate euphemism I could think of.)
His answer, after some rumination, was only: “Yeahp.”
He’d been sorting books. He finished and moved the stack off his lap to put it with others on the ground. Then, having lowered himself deep in his chair, as if it were a bathtub, prickling around, he said, with remote amusement, “Yeah, I must have been pretty hard to tolerate.”
I got the sense he was going to launch into the whole arc of his teaching career. But he didn’t. That, there, was the sum of his retirement story. During most of that day and evening, he lay deep in the chair, elbows on armrests just rescuing him from slipping away. Two steepled fingers, which he would’ve had to speak through, were shushing his lip.
I’ve always been a student of human nature, and of the foundations of character. And I really think that, in character formation, the one huge underestimated factor isn’t circumstances like upbringing or education. Or money. Or society. It’s body-type. And Mark Perdue’s fate was, simply, to have all his thoughts and feelings formed in a body-type lanky and stretchy and indolent, a body physiologically capable of perpetual non-commitment, inertia, indecision, floating, his long-legged repose in a lawn chair, his entire soul a cobweb well-anchored to span any gap in easy laxity, whatever the breezes, whatever the ruffling and flipping.
§ § §
It’s in this light that I see the differences in character-construction between (for example) a Ralph Kramden and an Ed Norton.
Take Ralph as a body-type. His sheer bulk, of course, will have always burdened him with authority in any room, but also with weaknesses and liabilities. The flesh there – the spine’s cartilage and the knee-gristle, kidney and bowel and merciful gall bladder and tired feet – Ralph Kramden’s body is the birthplace, too, of his wiliness and cowardice, his fidelity to his job and to his bus route, his occasional rages, as well as the man’s dependence on a good woman, his centrality everywhere and his charisma, as grand in his own kitchen as in the driver’s seat of a bus. Those are his gifts. All originating in, or depending on, the body he got. And Ed Norton? Inherent and inborn in the man’s skinny body is all his joy, the bounce in his step when he enters saying, “Hiya, Ralphie” – but also his way of flinching, when Ralph (“Lord Kramden”) thunders at him for such an impertinent address. Inborn in the Ed Norton physique is courtesy, too, and an ability to listen (and therein, paradoxically, high self-esteem! which might seem ironic in such a humble, jittery man). In the body and metabolism of Ed Norton is an empathy for others. And a secret instinct of self-assessment. And self-knowledge. None of the other three characters have these cultivated traits. Not even Alice has it. Ed is somewhat special in that group.
Actually, if I can be forgiven for considering those four totally imaginary television characters in a pastoral light, I’d have to say I wouldn’t have any worries about the other three. I don’t worry about a Ralph, or a Trixie. Those two, both, are fulfilling their highest vocation. Ralph and Trixie are two people who will live and die without experiencing a bad crash, and without doing much harm in the world, either. And Ralph’s wife, Alice, she’s at the other end of the scale: Alice Kramden seems (I’m not kidding about this) spiritually accomplished. That’s really how that character feels to me. Somehow, somewhere, she got a great foundation. She will always face life with the same asperity and stoicism she displays in every episode. In another era, she could be running a corporation. Or legislating in government. With an Alice, it’s a matter of love. That’s the deep, old foundation with her.
But Ed Norton. There’s something more complicated there. He’s an unfinished person. For one thing, he’s smarter than he pretends. Watch his expression coming in the door, his eyes’ quick reconnoitering, his gait so fancy, so pickpocket, so light-fingered – all a kind of disguise and distraction. Ed has some unfulfilled potential. He’s hiding something. Something from childhood. Something repressed.
He got hurt somewhere. That’s my feeling about Ed. He somehow got censored long ago as a child, or punished, if not necessarily physically. His flinch: it’s not exactly a child’s “don’t-hit-me” flinch, it’s more the “don’t-make-fun-of-me” flinch. Now, in his adulthood, it’s a “don’t-ever-depend-on-me” flinch.
And this is an old truism: when repressed potential is continually pushed back down and forbidden, it reemerges in one of two ways: either anger or depression. I can picture both, with Ed Norton. At home in the Nortons’ upstairs apartment, I can actually picture tantrums, terrible ones. (I’m saying, if these were real-life human beings, of course.) And I can also picture long afternoons of dogged despair, as years go on. It will have been up to the wife, poor Trixie, to deal with the “don’t-ever-depend-on-me” shtick, especially as it evolves over the years. I could see a man like Ed as an actual wife abuser. Yes, that bouncing, cheery little bantamweight, I can imagine that little man, in one rush, delivering on some threat. It’s visible in his body. (Ironically, I don’t picture any such thing for Ralph, notwithstanding all Ralph’s bluster. Whenever Ralph brandishes a fat fist, the man’s eyes, feminine and pretty, seem almost coquettish, averted.) And I can picture Ed Norton at home depressed. With, for example, a liquor problem, which would be essentially death-seeking. No kidding. Alcoholism and self-elimination are both right there in the cheerful, spring-in-the-step demeanor.
And poor Trixie, it’s obvious, you can see it happening in the room: a wise Trixie would have the public role of ditzy tap-dancing, keeping things superficial, keeping things kinda stupid, keeping things okay. If that sit-com marriage ever did end in divorce, I think it would happen through Trixie’s initiative! Not Ed’s. Ed never. I’ve mentioned that she seems a bit too classy for a sewer worker who pretends, all his life, to be a loser. She might begin to feel the steady truth of her own power, strictly looks-wise but also, more importantly, the greater breadth of all her own effective possibilities. Even in that era (the fifties) of more general marital fidelity, she might meet up with a situation where there was genuine love; a solid good man; and even the most conscientious woman could succumb to the allure of “marrying up,” divorcing Ed. It would be understandable. A remarriage wouldn’t necessarily be a bad-values choice, on her part.
I realize I’m carrying on as if these were real people, rather than accidental Hollywood effigies. But I have to think that an actual “Ed Norton,” in the real world, would be capable of having a brilliant, large life – he’s got the potential – if he could somehow survive the Eisenhower-Nixon epoch, and if he could somehow, necessarily, be a single man again (and maybe if he moved away, disconnecting himself from his old friends the Kramdens) – he might enter into the changing world of the 1960s. Where he’d fit better. He has untapped resources. Ed Norton is really a half-emerged, half-educated creature needing special watching, special hoping.
I hasten to repeat, all these “Kramdens” and “Nortons” are not real people, and I’m definitely happy they’re not my parishioners in some little congregation. However, if they were, “Ed” is someone I might like to invite out for coffee. Or bump into around town. Take an interest in. See if, in case he did need deliverance from that marriage (and Trixie deliverance from him, too), the transition might not be too painful. The marriage institution is – (it’s very much like religion, this way) – a pharmakon.
§ § §
Mark said at last, through his steepled fingers, “Yeah,” somewhat hopelessly, “they were all serious experimentalists and mathematicians.” He meant at Berkeley.
So he was on the subject of his early retirement.
He added, “And I was kind of a good hire, for a while.”
(That remark was as close as he ever came to mentioning his short career as a popular science explainer on TV.)
He went on, “‘Oughta be in the philosophy department’ was a complaint. They were right, too. I always said the same.”
Such lucid, objective self-appraisals are a reason why I’m not going to be bothered anymore, with him. He’ll do fine. He wasn’t speaking in self-criticism there. Not at all. It was really more like fond nostalgia, for the good old days, when he was always hard to tolerate. He’ll probably go on indefinitely, in this way, being hard to tolerate, though financially that’s about to get instantly harder for him to afford, if he doesn’t face up to the Castlegate people. Or, really fundamentally, face up to his daughter.
“I was pretty innocent, compared with a lot of them, career-wise. My one big paper was when I was a post-doc. It was what made me so desirable for a little while to these big schools like Berkeley, and the whole paper was about… linguistics!”
I wasn’t going to understand. It would be something abstruse. But he found the idea “physics-plus-linguistics” to be, now, a lamentable mash-up.
“… And it had its vogue.”
§ § §
The Lotta concert was over, and he was still tinkering with the broken bassinet. The screen had frozen silent. Then after a minute, the concert website defaulted to a page displaying skincare products on a sky-blue background – but he just kept on working on his repair project, ignoring me.
His protocol of licensed discourtesy. I really didn’t mind it. All that evening, it was refreshing in its artlessness, it was liberating, rejuvenating, restoring carelessness to the world. I was in some way a guest but he felt himself under no obligation to amuse me: I could just sit there, or get up and wander, or do whatever I pleased, while he merely worked on the bassinet, or entered numbers sometimes in his graphing calculator; or via his phone visited weather-analysis sites. That was another big interest: weather: especially as the night went on. Something in the atmosphere called “the marine layer” was absolutely fascinating this week. He said he was thinking of applying to the National Weather Service to see if his little outpost might qualify to become a reporting station – feeding them data like barometric pressure, I suppose. And wind direction and so forth.
(Privately I wondered. That might not go over well here with the police and the neighbors. If he declared himself to be a weather station and a wind-gauge’s cups on spokes twirled above his fruit stand, it might be the last straw, making him officially an eyesore. That he happens to have no immediate residential neighbors in sight is surely an important reason his squat has been, as Roger Hoberman says, tolerated so far.)
Meanwhile, however, the evening was going to end – we were lit up by Clearasil’s product display page – and again, I simply said without prologue (each time, when I came back to this, I rammed a little bit harder), “Mark, you know, you ought to reel your daughter back in. You can always cut off the money supply. This form of success – which she’s able to create for herself – it just leads people down a nowhere road. You remember Pope Benedict? Pope Benedict said something.”
Telling him You can always cut off the money supply was my second sharp indication that I knew all about Lotta’s funding sources. I thought this time he might be indignant, justifiably; but he kept working on his bassinet and seemed willing to go on listening.
“Pope Benedict was tough, you know. He was a toughie. I didn’t like him. I think nobody did. People rarely say that about a pope, I mean a sitting pope. But literally everybody was, at best, trying to just see the bright side with him – but he said one thing I thought was really splendid. He was speaking at some youth rally, something someplace in Europe. It was a big youth festival for religious Catholic kids. And he was talking about modern media. And what he said was, kids have to resist the media barrage because the whole commercial media establishment is sending out ‘the tedious, incessant invitation to die of selfishness.’ Those were his words.”
I let that soak in. Soak in the direction of the laptop concert. In the direction of Carlotta Perdue.
I added, “I mean, I’m far from being a Catholic or any such thing. But—”
No response. He kept on working. The bassinet’s legs were supposed to be foldable, two on one side swinging as a single unit, the pair on the other side operating also as a unit. The problem was, on one of the two sides, whenever the legs were swung out and snapped into the stand-up position, the lock didn’t work. The little tab-mechanism that should lock it in place had lost its bite: it always popped and the thing collapsed.
A diaper-changing table whose legs could betray you would be an evil device. The lock mechanism involved a kind of flexible stiff prong of plastic. (The whole dreadful thing was plastic, originally mayonnaise-colored but baked by time’s passage.) This prong on the underside was supposed to catch and lock against a metal bump, a cleat, which was supposed get a solid bite when the legs were swung open in their stand-up position. But that metal part (“cheap zinc alloy,” he said) had been squished. It was basically flat, so it wasn’t a cleat anymore, and the plastic prong had nowhere to snap in place. He was deeply involved in grinding it, and prying it, his only tool a sharp piece of gravel.
“‘Tedious’ is splendid. Isn’t it? I mean, ‘die of selfishness’ is nice because that’s what people do. Typical Catholic doctrine. But the part I really like is ‘tedious and incessant’ – because he’s obviously been watching television! Obviously. The pope. How else would he know? Watching it a lot! Or at least enough to know. And he’s been watching all the usual awful junk, because he thinks it’s ‘tedious’! He’s been sitting around in the papal apartments. He’s got his feet up on the upholstered footrest: his little soft pope slippers: watching things like – all the worst garbage, probably. And so-called reality shows and so forth. About all these dismal people. He’s been channel-surfing. Watching ‘Desperate Housewives of Orange County’ or whatever. The Pope in the Vatican!”
I was trying too hard. All mirth seemed inappropriate in the presence of a broken-legged bassinet that was just on the brink of having a new life. He stopped screwing his pebble in the metal cleat and lifted the whole thing closer to his eye – tilting it in the starlight, catching some illumination from the laptop screen. He swabbed a fingertip around in the opening he’d widened. Then he bent over to pick up (his other tool) a larger, round rock – with which to tap at the lip of his open notch.
§ § §
Then just as I’d spoken, immediately a deplorable kind of picture was developing in the shared dark between us. It was clear I was passing the sentence Death by Selfishness on his daughter. I’d labeled his daughter as one of the dying – and Mark, after a minute, put down the rock and gave up and lay pooling back deeper in the chair. Pooling back seemed to be his defense posture, in his life here behind his fruit-stand bunker. What I’d said was obnoxious. It came into focus, in the silence. I had long since established myself as a prude and a meddler here, and now I was vindictive, too, decreeing people’s deaths.
“Well, she’s a catastrophe,” he said. His hands above his chest were slowly and pleasurably washing each other, then clasping each other. “But I’ll tell you. The philosophy you come to – if you watch the world long enough, John – is that everybody’s catastrophes have their creative uses and outcomes, and one person’s ‘catastrophe’ can be another – lots o’ people’s – big boon. Lucky break. Manna from heaven. One catastrophe, over here, can be everybody else’s great good luck someplace else. You can’t know. Also, a person’s catastrophe can be their own lucky break. Their own way into the future. You just don’t know. You don’t know.”
§ § §
The story of Lotta’s mistreatment in childhood forms a deep-background basis for most of the songs on the first album. When I did succeed in bringing the talk around in that direction, Mark said yes, with emphasis, yessiree, all during her girlhood there would have been unpleasant disciplinary encounters.
In the songs it’s mostly insinuations and hints. Outside the songs, in the online Lotta literature I’d found three specific atrocities she’d disclosed in interviews: that she’d been left behind at a gas station; that she’d been locked in a closet for eating too many cupcakes; and that she was forced to immerse herself in ice-cold baths where her head was pushed underwater.
According to Mark, the last of the three did have a factual basis he could recall. He didn’t remember any gas station abandonments or any lockings in closets; but the Perdue family did once go skiing when she was an adolescent; and in the resort village, they’d visited a spa where a “cold plunge” was part of the regimen of saunas. Carlotta was going to miss the full experience because she was unwilling to jump in the cold bath. A teenager, she preferred not to ski, and instead her favorite occupation during the week was bringing herself to a dizzy pallor with saunas and high-temperature soaks. The cold plunge was outside her comfort zone. Her mother finally had to raise her voice sharply – (Your father did it. I did it) – commanding her with maternal authority to dunk herself at least for a second wholly in the frigid oaken tub, or else she’d be missing out on what a spa was. And she’d pushed the girl’s head altogether under, to complete the dunk. (Having first warned her to hold her breath and pinch her nostrils.)
So that happened. After which, according to Mark, for the rest of the day a number of caramel-mocha Frappuccinos were necessary in repairing the wounded dignity of a fifteen-year-old, as well as a purchase of knee socks and mittens with Cat-in-the-Hat stripes, and a reprieve from any pressure to go skiing the next day; and the boutique gift of a clever “Crayola” set that contained not crayons but rows of waxen lip balms in different fruit flavors paper-skinned exactly like real Crayolas, and, that evening, chocolate tiramisu on a room-service cart, and rentals of in-room video games which were of a more “popular” caliber than would usually, or ever, be allowed at home. My own daughter will be luckier. She won’t be prepared for life by learning to tyrannize her own family. However, I kept that observation to myself.
§ § §
The concert had finished and gone away, and we were alone in our gulch. The laptop had been displaying a silent array of squeeze-tubes and jars, applicator pads, body wash gels and cleansers and lotions and muds and spritzes – then the screen dimmed down, on its energy-saving cycle, and a minute later went totally black.
We just had starlight after that. The far-away maple against the sky grew more visible blotting out the bright freckles. Behind and above us, on 101, the occasional whir of a passing vehicle. Traffic at this hour had fallen to the home-comers from movies or from bars, kids on dates, kids without dates, the lonely quest for sin, there’s always a few taillights, headed somewhere.
He was deep in his tiny cellphone screen. It looked like an online encyclopedia page or a downloaded technical paper.
Such reading is the kind of thing he did a lot, even while being spoken to. And it’s the kind of discourtesy that, finally, makes one take an uncharitable view of Mark’s entire little roadside skit.
I don’t really have a “boil-over” point. But at this juncture I took the initiative. I sat forward in my chair, prelude to standing up and stretching my spine, saying, “Well…”
He didn’t even pull his eyes up out of his phone. “Yeah but I don’t want you to get away without taking something home.” He then did put down the phone. “For you and your wife. A little gift. From out of my wonderful store.”
§ § §
A self-mocking expression there – my wonderful store – was an instance of the occasional glimmer of objectivity. Such indications are what make me think he could be in the “crazy-like-a-fox” category, as Thalia suspects.
“I’ve got just the thing for you,” he said, but he wasn’t moving out of his chair, he was just twiddling his thumbs, smiling up at me where I stood.
I thought he might mean the celestial globe. Because it was perfect. It was a thing of beauty, and it would have gone well in my office at home, where there’s a good place for it.
But no, of course, what he wanted to give me – lifting it up off the dirt beside his chair, then standing up at full height formally, facing me – was the bassinet. Or rather, diaper-changing table, properly so-called. Which he’d repaired so its legs were solid. He’d done a lot of experimenting, snapping the legs into position and then roughly wrestling around with it, trying to make it collapse – and it was solid as a rock.
About this gift, he had no ironic detachment. He clearly thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world. Standing up, he held it out to me with both hands, almost gloating, as if to say, You guys are going to have the time of your lives.
§ § §
Thalia’s response to the diaper-changing table was predictable. When I got home, I more or less smuggled it into the kitchen – I was able to lean it in a corner, in a place where the counter stuck out in front of it, and I didn’t bother to mention it.
Then at bedtime, when our big antiquated television had been plunged into its old green blindness (and the TV tube’s terrible penetrating high-frequency ear-ringing had been silenced in the house) – and when, in the new stillness, the empty glasses were upended inside the dishwasher on the top rack, and the anchovies and the cheese were lidded and wrapped and refrigerated and it was time to turn out the kitchen lights – I heard her in the kitchen corner saying, “Oh, John, this thing is filthy.”
I was in the den turning off lamps.
“Where did this come from?” she complained, though of course she would know.
Then she said, in a different way, “Oh.” – She came to the den doorway. She was making a tired, worried face, “So is he crazy?”
§ § §
Naked but for her big underpants’ silly hug around the middle, and the incongruously lacy bra, she is unmistakably bulging now this month and I can start to see the whole pitcher shape arriving. As the swell comes on, the waistband prints a red tape in flesh. We in this house pretend that not-much-special is going on. While I picked at my shoelace knots, the sacred and terrible pitcher shape was making its appearance in the bathroom’s full-length mirror, and in her hands she weighed each breast, each slung in its separate nylon hammock. She said, “You’re awfully sanguine now about the Pammy kerfluffle.”
“Oh, the Gainsboroughs, no, yeah. Chuck can’t sue. I’m not worried.”
I always have to keep turning away from the sight of her, and I was emptying my pockets. The only thing was the Mini-Mart receipt for the twelve-pack of beer.
“Today at dinner you were livid about it.”
“Yeah, I got a different philosophy now,” I said. “A Thumber pregnancy is a catastrophe, but catastrophes are good. This is this funny attitude-thing I get from my new professor friend. Catastrophes are good.”
“I’m going to start on pistachios. Feeding her pistachios. Then move up to peanuts. Rosenberg says you start allergenic things in little doses, so they develop a natural tolerance. Pistachios supposedly are the mildest, to start with. Through the placental barrier.”
“And the daughter, Lotta, she is a catastrophe. Mark’s daughter. She is. Which he admits. He literally says it. I didn’t really tell you about the whole concert we watched. I’ll tell you about it.”
Having referred to him in that ironic way as my new professor friend, it seemed to start relocating Mark at a better distance.
What will happen, in any case, is that he’ll be evicted. It’ll probably happen even before any winter rains might come and make him move on. Some county agency will make him move. That’s an inevitable determinant of his future. He’s in violation of a number of zoning laws and health codes and so forth.
“Why are catastrophes good?”
“Why are catastrophes good: I guess nature adapts. There’s a landslide but then nature adapts. Forest fires are good because they’re good for the ecosystem in the long run. You know. Like that. His daughter is a forest fire.”
§ § §
I did ask him, at a certain point eventually, about Lotta’s measurable “success.” Because it ought to be an important, practical question. How have the self-promotion and the viral-marketing campaigns been working out? To what extent could you say Carlotta Perdue was “famous”? Mark’s head fell to one side and he scanned the sky. This topic was, like my science questions, more recondite than I could’ve known.
“Marketing people. One thing they’ve got has three components: ‘reach,’ ‘access,’ and ‘recency.’ It’s enormous data harvesting. ‘Reach,’ ‘access,’ and ‘recency,’ are mostly about getting clicks. Clicks per day. Clicks per minute.”
On his knee, he had a shallow cardboard tray of used kitchen-drawer tools, mostly obsolete. Old egg beater, slotted spoon, can opener, etc., all needing to be fairly priced.
“On one measure I know, one component of ‘reach’ is Proper Name Frequency. On Proper Name Frequency, she’s moved up, from below the twenty-thousand mark to above the twenty-thousand mark. It’s a ranking. It ranks who’s mentioned most often on the Internet. So there’s an objective datum for you.”
If I understood correctly, this means that there are 20,000 names that come up more frequently. There are 20,000 people more famous than Carlotta Perdue. It seemed a disappointing number. I pointed out that she’d had huge promotion campaigns. And do there even exist twenty thousand celebrities, to exceed her in fame?
“The data field isn’t just persons, it’s all proper nouns, ever in history. Lotta’s name isn’t as recognizable as, for instance, ‘Daffy Duck.’”
For clarity, I restated, “Daffy Duck is above her.”
“Or ‘Julius Caesar” or ‘Dial Soap,’ ‘the Brooklyn Bridge’ – you name it – ‘France.’ Think of all the proper nouns. They all have higher name recognition, They’re gonna be mentioned more frequently. So she’s doing pretty well. ‘The Civil War,’ ‘Milwaukee,’ ‘Beethoven’s Ninth.’”
He bit off a Dorito chip in his characteristic dainty way snapping the edge off with his front teeth.
“‘Oscar Mayer Wieners,’” he added.
§ § §
All night in the face of “default atheism” – so sure of itself, so sophisticated and serene – I was able to keep my own perfect self-assurance because I have my own actual, literal Proof of God’s Existence. Which I kept to myself all night. But which, all night, was like a smooth pebble in my pocket. Of course, a “proof” of an ostensible God depends entirely on your definition, what sort of “god” you think you’re proving, but mine is a proof of the actual god. It has two simple parts, which function together as axioms. Now, this is not “faith,” it’s strictly logic:
1) First, that before all Time, and before Mark’s Big Bang, in the void, before “possibility” came to exist, “the possibility of possibility” was somehow established. This was before solid matter was born. This is before the infinite trillions of arising-and-perishing universes or multiverses started to foam up. Before any such things, the possibility of possibility had to exist. It was the first thing. It’s the metaphysical thing. It’s the unimaginable mysterious divine thing: the possibility of possibility.
2) Second, there’s a moral aspect to possibility’s beading up out of nothing: that it was a “positive” event, to go from nothing to something. The debut of “possibility” doesn’t negate anything, nor is it in any way negative. Rather, existence was posited, in the void. Not being a negation, it’s a position. It takes a position. Literally it indeed creates “position” in the sense of location. Thus it’s (and this isn’t just wordplay) positive. It’s an “improvement” on nonbeing. It’s a value-judgment: Being is held to be “better than” nonbeing. This would be where the “love” business enters in – “love” being the frail human word for this magnificent new position.
I’ve had insomniac periods in my life, when, in order to fall asleep, I’ve been able to rehearse my two-part metaphysic (see above, “§1” and “§2”) endlessly, over and over in my mind. When the lights are out and I’ve been left behind even by Thalia as she sleeps, and when all my vain hectic thinking has gone too far (for example, if I were to lie on the mattress examining Thalia’s strange new offhand idea that “faith” and “despair” are the same thing!), my two-part formula functions like an incantation. Thalia used the expression free-fall for faith. When it gets bad, usually I can feel better by sitting up, sitting on the bed-edge and putting my feet on the floor, as if sitting up drains an oversaturation that is smothering and swelling. But sometimes I can’t get up. I’m too much held down under the weight of vanity.
At the end of this day at last, when Thalia did fall asleep beside me, I lay in bed with the two foolproof axioms, and nothing but to rub them together. And I soon found myself imagining a scene in which Mark, the roadside deceiver, was actually for once listening to what I was saying. This was pre-sleep daydreaming. I imagined myself standing over him decreeing the two axioms §1 and §2, lecture-style, my voice pitched to break through the man’s complacency, his nonchalant complacency, his really stuporous-looking complacency, his relaxed, his self-assured, his calm, his effectively larcenous (literally larcenous) complacency. I’m standing over him, and he’s sitting in his old folding lawn chair, and I fire my two axioms at him point-blank – (the possibility of possibility once did, mysteriously, come into being; and it was a position, not a negation). And in my fantasy, Mark is at a loss for any reply and is sore ashamed.
§ § §
In the end, when I look at the muddle Mark has worked himself into there at the roadside, I tend to go along with Thalia’s analysis: it’s a well-staged muddle. He really might be just waiting for his women to notice. This would be a form of a male romanticism, and knight-errantry, all the stargazing, the curatorship of the world’s rejected paperback books and other misunderstood treasure, the stupid low-grade diet and the general lonely difficulty of life there, it would all be a lot of self-dramatizing sideshow, according to this view of him.
Also, Mark Perdue is in a “dire” situation only if you forget that we’re all incredibly affluent, not just in Marin but everywhere. Safety nets are everywhere. Especially him. He, in particular, has other options. All the roadside indolence is a charade – and his inaction about his daughter, too – the whole thing is simply a craven unwillingness to take a stand, an unwillingness (a sneaky, strategic unwillingness) to come down to a certainty.
And possibly a spineless father’s fear of alienating the daughter, whom he’s losing anyway.
A person can reach full manhood and have all the knowledge and intelligence of an accomplished scientist, yet be a little boy ethically. It might look like passivity but he’s really practicing a kind of active mischief, to be letting the world crash. Or even helping it crash, financing the crash. While saying “nothing really matters.”
So in the end, the Castlegate organization will take action and restore the natural balance. A million-some dollars to be sucked back up out of the world. Because money – it, too – is one of the pharmakoi. Poison or medicine depending on the dose.
§ § §
He’s just wrong when he insists it will be impossible ever to colonize other planets. Of course we’ll colonize other planets. That’s not science, it’s excuse-making. It’s a defeatist’s path to despair, and despair is the thing that lets a man off the hook.
How can he ignore the steady flow of news? They’re finding conceivably-habitable planets all the time. Only recently I saw in the San Francisco Chronicle that they discovered a new clutch of tender-looking planets that are likely candidates for an Earthly kind of homesteading, out circling some dim star. The artist’s-conception pictures showed a misty lavender dell, implying the existence of mosses and lichens, toothy purple rocks protruding, in the sky a beneficent golden aureole. Maybe that particular conception sounds a little perfumed-looking, but the artist’s choices will have been informed by objective science. And anyway, the point of the illustration is that, inevitably, something like it must be out there somewhere.
Counterarguments always occur to me too late. Mark’s belief that we’ll never live on other planets seems to be mostly an economic pessimism. Too much investment will be needed setting up outer-space farms and factories, and too much fuel will be needed in getting there: those seem to be the main biases of the Internet articles he was trying to urge on me. He thinks, for example, getting metal-ore mining machinery up to a distant planet by spaceship – and constant fuel to run the mining machinery, too – would be too costly. Meaning Earth doesn’t have enough total resources. We’d have to mine Earth all to depletion, just to get one mining operation going on some other planet.
Well, what he forgets is how tireless human inventiveness is. I think one day we’ll invent spaceships that can get a person there within the time of one single lifespan. I know lightspeed is supposed to be impossible, but one day we’ll overcome that barrier. By inventing whole new medium of travel, we’ll snuff the entire journey to an instant. A weightless instant. For example, we could, in some sense, fax ourselves across the abyss. Three-dimensional printers already exist. I don’t know how they work, but they do exist. We and our mining machinery could travel by 3-D printer. So at least we could be traveling at lightspeed. So the whole trip could happen inside a ten- or fifteen-year interval.
All these more interesting, compelling arguments came to me where I lay in bed beside Thalia, when it was too late to use them on Mark. I can vow that I, personally, would be willing to feed myself to a three-dimensional printer and reduce myself to a stream of data and, essentially, fax myself across the lightyears. That is precisely the kind of technology we’ll need, to send civilization out to barren places. – But as I say, the muse of rebuttal always visits me too late.
§ § §
Principle of human nature: pessimism arises from fundamental low self-esteem.
Then, consequently, low esteem for others. Low expectations generally – laziness and fear, and maybe old hurt feelings from way back – all this keeps him down in his lawn chair, where he looks up at the starry sky.
At a certain point I tried to make another utterly harmless offhand remark. A kind of cheerful remark. I said since all the celestial bodies and planets are out there spinning so hummingly, it’s nice to reflect that they’ll go on spinning forever, because it’s an eternal vacuum. There’s no drag on them. Celestial bodies are perpetual motion machines.
But no, he had to contradict me, at length.
It seems the Earth is slowing down. We used to spin faster and, in fact, the whole solar system used to be wilder, swervier, than the orderly, concentric “planetarium” models of my beloved 20thcentury. The opportunity to freshly disillusion me made him sit up a little straighter.
“The moon is the drag. Earth used to spin four times faster. Imagine. The Earth had a six-hour day. That’s how fast we were turning. So it was a three-hour daylight time, back in the beginning. It was spinning so fast, you could’ve probably almost seen the sun kind of moving, going by in the sky, still back then.
“And the moon, too, was still close. It had only just broken out, so the moon was fifteen or twenty times closer, right above. It must’ve been immense-looking. It took a long, long, long time to work its way out to where it is. Large irregular rock, big-in-the-sky. The moon wasn’t round at first. So it was weird. It was weird back then. This was long before animals or anything. This was Precambrian.”
The calculator came out again, the fancy one, from the dusty backpack, and he powered it up and started typing in it. He said he wanted to see how huge, exactly, the moon would have looked in the sky when it was fifteen or twenty times closer. Figuring it out, it was going to involve trigonometry – which he claims he hates – so he shrank into those calculations, and then he never bothered coming out again.
It was tiresome, the way he could throw up distractions and barriers. A new, unopened Doritos bag lay beside me. I ripped it all the way open and held it out, offering him some. He looked up – and he did try to focus on it, but he behaved as if the sight of it was actually bewildering – and he went back to the calculator.
The psychology was obvious. He was excited whenever he was producing evidence that the universe is not benign. He was showing me how alarming things really always have been. He was showing me how futile is any effort. That’s what was going on the whole time.
§ § §
In addition to the two-part syllogism proving God’s existence, I’ve got my deck-construction project. I close my eyes and breathe deep and relax even my toes, and I lead my thoughts to wander out over it, and I dwell on its easy construction problems, its practical solutions, its details. The human organism loves a manageable project. A redwood deck (ten-by-eight floor; three feet off the ground) is an endeavor much more manageable than, for example, any of the grant-writing files on my computer desktop. Which, clicked-on each morning, burst open to release the world’s everyday pandemonium.
The deck happens to be at an engrossing, dicey stage right now, because I’ve had to go back and dismantle some of my work. I’m learning as I go, and, for example, nobody told me how important it is that the planks in a deck floor be separated by narrow gaps. I didn’t know it mattered, and I simply laid down my floorboards without any gaps, clapped solidly together. Only later did somebody point out, the structure can’t “breathe” without the gaps, so it will rot the faster. Or in the rainy season, the planks will soak up water and swell up together and the whole thing will start to buckle from the pressure – so I had to pull them up and nail them back down again, but with the separations.
Then, however, yet another entire remove-and-reattach operation became necessary. Somehow I’d been creating inconsistent gaps. They all looked, to the eye, like uniform quarter-inch separations. I’d thought I was being very careful. I’d used a wooden pencil to establish a standard gap-width: I’d pinched the pencil between the two boards as I laid each new one down. Which should have made the gaps uniform. Yet somehow by the time I was reaching the edge, the last plank was lying biased, misaligned with the framework by a slant of one or two degrees. It’s a good thing I’m an easygoing amateur, doing this more for pleasure, and for the learning experience. I can afford to be not-so-result-oriented.
The latest snag in the design, now, is more a perilous one; I’ve had to create a protective safety-barrier around the whole thing, using a cordon of ribbon strung up on trashcans and two old upright vacuum cleaners, plus other things – the ironing board, a kitchen chair, etc. – all in a ring, like Stonehenge, all to keep anybody from coming near the project, because it’s temporarily dangerous. Also, I’ve locked the French doors leading out to it.
The problem is, I was misled by the YouTube video I’ve been following. The video was made by a well-intentioned fellow who calls himself Stan the Ketchikan Man, who has uploaded a whole series of instructional videos, all about the rudiments of home improvement. Stan is a very painstaking, conscientious sort of person, and very deliberate; I’ve come to admire him. He takes things very seriously; he has no sense of humor about imprecision or sloppiness. (I wonder if he’s married. He must be. I hope so, for his sake. He seems to live up in Alaska.) His heavy mouth-breathing noises on the microphone, while he works, make him sound like an avid child.
However, in his video he advises his audience to begin the deck by first sinking posts into the ground. (These posts will be the supporting legs of the deck.) Only lately, it was pointed out to me that the wood will quickly rot if it’s just poked into the soil; I should have mounted the supports in concrete. I should have mixed up some bags of cement and founded my pillars on that footing.
So presently it’s unsafe, because I actually removed the two supporting legs. What’s holding the deck up now is a pair of long fulcrum-and-lever devices. They’re like seesaws, lifting it up against gravity. They’re necessary because it turned out to require a bit of superhuman strength to lift the weight of the deck off the legs, in order to saw them off. For one fulcrum, I used a stack of automobile wheel-rims. For the other fulcrum, I dragged out the heavy rear-bench seat from the Green Thumbs van, which is stored in our garage; and for levers, I’m using two 12-foot boards which will eventually be the railing.
So, in effect, I’ve got one seesaw whose high end supports one corner of the deck; and another seesaw supporting the other corner. It’s perfectly safe for me to be working around all this stored recoil-energy, but I don’t want anyone else coming around who could accidentally knock my seesaws. The counterweights, standing upon the far end of each plank, are just stacks of loose cinderblocks. They might easily be bumped off. Which would release a lot of stored energy, each seesaw a sprung mousetrap. Thus the need for a safety-cordon of red ribbon.
Still, to contemplate the whole sunny enterprise, in the depth of the night, it’s an unfailingly consoling pastime to bring on sleep. For all its inefficiency, a small-scale construction project (plus my excellent little radio, plus coffee cup, plus the sun-on-shoulder sensation) furnishes the best contemplation and sedative: a purely practical optimism about a fresh, untried, on the whole goofproof undertaking. Dealing with Professor Perdue all day did keep me away from my desk; but it’s a greater regret that it kept me away from my work in the sun.
§ § §
One of Mark’s fateful defects – a “capital” defect, you might say – is that he is too restless ever to really listen. Instant-onset boredom: When you see it come over him, it looks physiological. Impatience, there, could be one of those traits built into the flesh, conferred upon the man’s metabolism when he was still in the womb taking shape.
Because listening is a bodily skill. Your entire physical person has to go still, and serene, and you have to open up the whole world for potential revision. One of the great mystics says, “Humility is attentive patience.” Also she said, “Attention is the purest form of generosity.” But I swear, all night while I was imparting some of my choicest advice about being married and staying married, and about taking authority as a father – because I’m someone who’s had better luck in love, and there are certain reasons why things have not been working out for him – still, he just kept slipping back into his walleyed look, plus head-tilt, as if to convey, “I’m not here right now. I’m off in the Spiral Nebula right now.” Or, “I’m aiming all my attention at a tire-swing out there.” So, for people who resolutely refuse to listen, maybe they deserve what’s coming to them.
§ § §
(Strange thought. – Though it’s too late to ask him about it now. – I wonder if, back a billion years ago when the newborn planet was whirling so fast, things on the ground would have been lighter? The centrifugal force might have tempted things to want to start lifting off. I mean if the Earth was spinning four times faster! – you might risk feeling like you’re floating. As if you might be spun right off. Or in any case, people might have weighed an few ounces less. It’s interesting but, as I say, it’s too late to ask him.)
§ § §
If he does get out of there and open a storefront in the Canal District, he won’t be able to see the stars. Everything else would suit him, in a thrift-store-proprietor existence; but it would keep him indoors; and he finds the sight of the stars to be a necessity. Also, the Canal District is too light-polluted. It’s virtually central San Rafael down there. The galaxies will be blotted out by the glare of the old prostitute motels and the row of car dealerships – and the new big-box stores presently heaving into view across the freeway.
However, he’d have his phone, and the star map works indoors. So says Mark. Phones can see through ceilings. He’ll be able to sit inside with his phone and get the same displays, his favored stars nameless but for a many-digit number, and the voracious black hole at the center he likes to contemplate. Certainly (and for a philosopher especially) a “virtual” view of the stars is as good as the immediate live spectacle.
On the whole, I’m not going to fret about him. I won’t be stopping by the fruit stand again. Maybe just glance in passing when I drive by, just to check for any evidence he’s moved on. Send the Castlegate form back to Rob Kasish, incomplete but signed, for what it’s worth. Turn my attention to Green Thumbs and my other clients – and, of course, Clara Luce Kunst-Gegenuber.
§ § §
I couldn’t fall asleep but Thalia did, with routine efficiency. We’ve got a king-size mattress, and she’d pitched her tent at a distance that seemed to rule out any idea of reaching over. Alone then, I couldn’t help but come back, among other things, to the way she called me “Mister Wonder Womb.” (As I’ve said, she is my Alice Kramden.) A man can recognize sarcasm, and knows when he’s being seen as slightly ridiculous, and a fellow can of course take some ribbing. A grown man’s central, essential ridiculousness – (a “priest” or a “professor”; a suburban “homesteader” like Roger Hoberman, a “purveyor/curator of fine vinyl” like the guy I buy records from; I’m talking about a man’s distinguishing ridiculousness) – is always sticking out: it sticks out for the whole world to see. And a wife, for that very reason, ought to handle it with some care. The Wonder Womb program hasn’t yet been given a fair trial, and I continue to think, since Thalia and I are going to be parents, there’s no harm in trying to provide our daughter with a head start.
By the same token, if it was so laughable for me to get alarmed in believing maybe noxious anchovy-essences could get through the placental barrier (because, in fact, who knows what toxins they might use when they’re curing those little fish?) – well, she herself was the one who brought up the idea without making any sign she was kidding.
The fact is, scientific studies indicate that fetuses start showing taste preferences at some point in some later trimester. I have no idea how they measure that, but they do. So it wasn’t far-fetched to think anchovy/camembert fumes, coming out of my own mouth, might affect an unborn baby inside. It’s a not-totally-unreasonable idea and I didn’t think she was joking. I lay unsleeping but reminding myself that a sarcastic Thalia is not the true, abiding Thalia. Calling me Mister Wonder Womb – it’s a droll nickname and I can laugh along with it. But the true Thalia is the Thalia who is mostly prejudiced in my favor, and grants me her confidence. She does see the sound reasoning behind pre-natal education. And she does continue to let the Wonder Womb recordings ring through the house for the prescribed minimum of three hours a day.
§ § §
To counsel despair is a sin. That’s old dogma. (According to dogma, all despair is a sin. Which makes perfect sense if you’re somebody who believes in a God.) Mark is working mischief there at the roadside, promulgating a certain hopeless version of life in the universe. You might say a “scandalous” version.
The truth is, the general consensus is, most scientists are exceedingly optimistic about the preservation of the human race by way of colonizing other planets, so even if this Earth does meet some bad end – either by our own ruining it or by some trauma that comes from outside – it won’t matter to us, we’ll be out in new worlds, we’ll be leapfrogging to fresh planets. And, yes, living under domes. Why not? Human beings are resilient. Human beings always find a way.
The whole reason for pessimism is to justify sloth and vanity. His defenses are built up in such a tight circle, they’re impregnable now. Before the night was out, I tried granting him the following harmless tribute:
“The marvelous aspect, though, about all these new discoveries? They remind us we’re just one little speck in a great vast universe. You know? We’re not so unique in the universe, as we like to think.”
To which he grumbled before I’d even quite finished, No, we’re unique.
§ § §
The response No, we’re unique was low and dark, for, obviously, being unique wasn’t a good thing at all. Being unique was the bad part.
Still (while I was painfully aware, always, of sounding Pollyanna), I was going to insist. “But it’s kinda humbling, don’t you think—?” At the very bottom of the Doritos bag, in its seams, I was pinching together crumbs, and a savory salt dust, lifting pinches of it to my open mouth. “Makes you realize we’re not the only thing going on in the universe.”
“We’re the only thing.”
The insolence was what made conversing with him so much work, trying to keep the tone of things normally civil. “How can you say that? How can anybody be sure?”
He didn’t seem to feel like answering.
I said, “Oh, the knowable universe. You’re saying the knowable universe.”
I was making a valid point. Because what about the infinite number of un-knowable universes?
He rolled his head toward me on his chair back. “The million things you need for life.”
He started struggling, then, to raise himself in his chair. “You know why this planet Earth has a magnetic field around it? Which protects it? We’ve got a magnetic field because all the molten rock in the middle isn’t cold yet and it happens to be churning. It’s churning in a certain pattern, it’s still molten, its ferrous, which means it’s iron, and it happens to be churning in a particular pattern. That is what causes the magnetic field. And if the magnetic field didn’t exist around the Earth, radiation would come in from space and burn off all the plant life and animal life. The atmosphere would actually get torn off pretty fast, by the solar wind. That’s what did happen to Mars. The atmosphere on Mars was torn off just naturally. Mars has no vulcanism inside.
“So. A million little happenstances like that. Molten iron inside. The presence of water. Perfect distance from a stable star, in the perfect temperature between water-freezing and water-steaming-away, which is a small, small window. Perfect tectonic carbon cycle. The reason we’ve got a carbon cycle is because we’ve still got volcanoes. Up there on some planet, there’s gonna be no carbon cycle. Just getting soil right. Getting the recipe right. Like supposedly they say we’re going to really bring soil to Mars. Mars is a toxic planet, it’s not going to happen. Soil has unbelievable enzymes and fungus and bacteria and rhizomes and what-all. Ninety percent of what’s in soil, we can’t isolate it. Ninety percent we have no idea. Ninety percent of dirt is magic, to us. It’s just magic. It’ll go sour somehow, within a few Martian years. In a single Martian season. Or out on some exoplanet. We’re gonna be unique.”
All of this is something he can sit alone and think about when he’s got his store in the Canal District, and inflict it on the occasional visitor. How unique we are. Or will have been. He’ll probably bring the same lawn chair with him. I can picture that, as a matter of fact. The lawn chair. It’s precisely what’s going to happen: the lawn chair under a fluorescent light in a Canal District storefront.
§ § §
“The poor girl, though,” I remarked to Thalia. I was turning down the bedcovers, exposing the cleft of linen.
“You mean minus the money,” Thalia said. And she concluded (rather coldly), “Well, she’ll have to get a life now.”
In the bathroom she was unbuttoning her pajama shirt. She’d sorted out a Q-tip and taken out the isopropyl alcohol. Lately she’s taken to swabbing out her navel every bedtime, in the belief that there’s a new uncleanness problem there that came with pregnancy. It’s not irrational – I’ve looked it up and bellybutton irregularities do happen in pregnancy.
She said, “Someday Carlotta can be a Real Girl, like how Pinocchio got to be a real boy.”
“She already does have a life.”
Thalia was being unkind; she hadn’t seen how talented Carlotta is, how she can rule a stage. “I know what you mean, of course. But she’s a real girl.”
“No she isn’t.”
This was a mercilessly judgmental mood. So, hearing it herself, she added as a kind of softening, “Not from what you tell me.”
“You should see her,” I said. “You have to see her.”
“Well, do you think she’s got what it takes? Really, I’m asking. As a professional entertainer, is she going to last? Do you think she even exists?”
Honestly, my first thought was: Carlotta Perdue exists as a filmy 3-D effigy that dances and gestures within a column of light; and when the beam is turned off, the cylinder of light will collapse. She’ll have an “edge rank” in the world only as long as – and only while – people are paying attention. I guess an edge rank can sink fast and crash, when the clicks-per-minute rate falls off – and who knows, maybe just during the time since I’d come home and enjoyed a single “Honeymooners” episode, Carlotta Perdue’s edge rank could have fallen off steeply, lacking clicks.
§ § §
Mark likes to say “we’re it,” in the universe. But it’s hardly a new idea. It’s a very old idea. It’s something a monk in the Middle Ages would have gone along with. A medieval monk would have rejoiced in the idea. He would have taken comfort in our being the only ones.
Speaking for myself, I would be willing live under a Plexiglas dome. I’d be able to get on a spaceship and never come back. It’s not a burning question, because at my age, I personally won’t need to face that dilemma. I’ll be able to finish out my time here with my wine of purple Sonoma-roadside grapes and my deck made out of hewn, milled wood from rainy Oregon – but I’m able to imagine how strange it would feel living under a dome. I could adapt. I would seriously live under a dome, with, outside, a white ammonia sky, and a maroon desert or whatever, even if the exterior is 200 degrees below zero (or whatever), and eat food in different-colored cubical portions. Or whatever! People can adapt to anything. Also, contra Professor Perdue, I have faith scientists can figure out how to make soil that doesn’t go bad. And air that doesn’t go bad, inside the dome.
Probably Clara Luce’s generation, too, will never have to face the challenge of getting on a spaceship. That’s a long way off. Still, the human race is infinitely adaptable. Especially when it’s a matter of life-and-death survival. I can affirm positively that, if I needed to, I could live under a glass dome.
§ § §
Serious problem with redwood deck.
I’d been bringing on sleep, letting my thoughts rove over some of the interesting design puzzles – how the railing posts might be fastened to the deck floor and not be wobbly. Et cetera. (All interesting, soluble problems. All to be elucidated, in good time, by Stan the Ketchikan Man.)
But I realized I’d created a danger. The neighbor’s old cocker spaniel – the one who raids our recycling bin – might wander into my danger area. The loops of red ribbon wouldn’t keep out a blind dog.
The danger is the seesaws. The two makeshift seesaw-levers are weighted down at their ends by stacked, heavy cinderblocks. Now, for me, that’s no danger. I’m not going to accidentally bump them. But if this dog – her name is Spinach, and she’s a very elderly dog, pained in the hip joints, blundering, with a trickle of black wax at each bloodshot eye, and a trusting way of leaning against a person’s shin, once she’s found a person – if she were to set foot on the counterweighted end of a seesaw plank, she might bump the weights off. I actually pictured this. The dog could be flipped by the hard slap of the springing seesaw plank; she could be catapulted. She could land on the roof of my house. Land on the deck floor. She could land twirling end-over-end in the lilac hedges. Where I lay in bed I was clammy and mortified as if my seesaw had already backfired in exactly the way I was imagining. I could see it as inevitable: wandering blind dog; booby-trap. Spinach could stray easily through a barrier of trashcans and upright vacuum cleaners.
Therefore, I decided to redesign the whole system, ASAP. Dismantle the whole seesaw arrangement and, instead, support the deck’s weight with blocks stacked in solid towers. Then, in the end, after I’d finished pouring proper concrete footings, I could briefly reinstate the lever-and-fulcrum contraptions, during the time of removing the block towers. Then lower the whole thing back down onto its permanent legs.
It wasn’t going to be necessary right at that minute to get out of bed (and put on slippers and go out in the night to relieve the tension). I don’t have enough cinderblocks on hand – I’ll first need to make a trip to the hardware store. And Spinach doesn’t wander in the nighttime. She sleeps indoors. During the day, the sun’s warmth and blaze will penetrate her little vinegary fog and lure her outside; but in the night, she’s disoriented and loves only to lie in contact with her sleeping people.
§ § §
Scientists can be peculiarly limited human beings. Sometimes I think there’s virtually an almost cretinous quality. An obliviousness to principle. The mental image I will retain, of Mark, is of him sitting back deep in his lawn chair almost leering as he lifts a hand to, demonstratively, stir the black Dispose-All on high. He seems to love the idea that Jupiter, long ago, swung in too close to the sun and struck Earth and tossed the moon up in the sky like a divot. That’s the theory. Or, it may have been done by a wandering asteroid.
Back in the twentieth century, people had planetariums, which in their desktop version were called orreries. I actually owned a toy one of these, as a child. Nine bronze knobs would glide in circular slots; or else they’d go ticking past each other on long spokes. The new picture, these days, is that the solar “system” is merely a fiasco, merely rocks hooked while swinging but with no guarantee of permanency. They don’t even go in circles; the circles are a storybook version; they’ve fallen into paths that are oval, like cams, ready anytime to knuckle each other out of orbit; or collide. The orbits do now trespass sometimes. According to him, one of the planets – maybe it’s Neptune – already sometimes crosses over its neighbor’s path.
Insomnia at its most shimmering, windy heights makes me think always of the mountaintop rock that Prometheus was exposed on. Thalia was breathing evenly, incubator that she is. Her going to sleep feels regularly like an infidelity, or just an amazing selfishness of hers. But it’s a selfishness that, of course, no human can be blamed for, the insufficiency of human love being a bedrock existential condition. If that’s so – that is, if it’s the case that all our love is deficient – then we are all “in sin,” and we’re all led naturally to religion, as if there were some remedy there. That would be the “free fall” my wife seems so knowledgeable about, and so blandly conversant with. For all I know, it’s possible that the “insufficiency of love” is the deep-buried, fundamental assumption everywhere, which all citizens walk around with every day. Basis of society. Basis of an efficient economy.
§ § §
Then, by accident or happenstance, all my persevering was rewarded.
She seemed to become half-aware of me, for she heaved and rolled herself – her big unpredictable pregnant self – and she slipped a bare arm over me, wriggling up higher toward the headboard, somehow stowing her new moon between us, her arm lying across my nightgowned chest slantwise from shoulder to hip, making the stripe of a seatbelt. Or the sash of a diplomat. Anyway, making me statuesque where I lay.
Her thigh was thrown over me, and my head was in the hollow of her throat. She knows I sometimes don’t sleep, and she murmured, “Think about your deck, darling.” (I’ve told her about my methods of relaxation.) She added then, knowing how I worry, “You’re so good, you’ll fall asleep.”
She lay half over me, heavy as lava, my wife, then eventually, soon enough, she sighed and heaved and rolled away and forgot. So that was that. The Boy Scout all evening was ruled out of the question. So I lay beside her with that random adulterousness, too, in the semi-darkness of the room.
My only job was to lie still, and feed my whole self to the great common absorption. We fax ourselves into the void. Beyond the window, the hum of my neighbor’s hot tub kicked in, on its self-cleaning cycle, a low rumble. I was confident that the dog wouldn’t go wandering into my construction zone. Relieving the tension on the seesaws could wait until tomorrow. If I were to try going out there in bedroom slippers in the moonless night, I’d be risking a trip-and-fall accident. For urogenital health I sleep in a full-length cotton gown. It would make an ungainly, danger-prone costume for hauling around lumber and heavy cinderblocks at night.
I lay in my customary form. My customary form is: flat on my back, feet leaning together, crossed at the toes, my wrists crossed together over my chest.
Which (it occurred to me) can be a little bit like a cadaver – like a medieval-knight cadaver – the one interred with helmet and broadsword under an abbey’s flagstone floor, flat as a stencil-rubbing, lying beside the image of his similar lady.
I’d never noticed that, all these years. I’d never thought of it.
So I uncrossed my wrists. I thought I should try a new form. I laid my arms down at my sides. And I unpigeon-toed my feet and set them upright parallel, little tent poles under the sheets poking up.
Now no longer a cadaver, instead I was an electrocardiogram patient again, on the tall Naugahyde altar in the clinic, about to be assured by the doctor that I was boring and could come back in five years. Five years really is an eternity.
That exam room’s ceiling, in the corner, had a brown leak stain, which I noticed while I was being taped with electrodes. I closed my eyes during the actual minute of electrical flow. That interval was a kiln but I did come out the other side, lying and facing the ceiling on the high table. To think I might never see the lovely EKG technician again after today – I don’t know why it so saddened me. But in that moment, she was the most important person in the world, the most important person in all the universe, making her one-time-only appearance in my life. My only job was to lie still, waiting for the electricity, paper coins pasted all over me, wedding ring across the room on the rim of the sink, where I would be able to get back to it when the electricity was done. The ring was almost impossible to get off past the one big knuckle, and for a while, the situation got to be embarrassing. It got to be weirdly serious and it stopped being amusing. There are times, she said, when they have to snip off a ring, with special pincers. A knucklebone evidently can grow bigger in just a few years. I do recall, on the day I first put that ring on, even then it was a tight fit.
With the nurse there watching, it got awkward for both of us. Knuckle skin bunched ahead of the band’s annular blade. It hurt a lot. This got all the more embarrassing especially as she so sympathized. But I twisted and pulled – finally hard enough – and it came.
I’d caused some abrasion to the skin, but I managed the manly display of scorning pain. And I lay down to endure the application of current, my old chest mounded up. The skin was chilled where the ring used to be. It lay across the room in a glistening dab of suds because we’d used a squirt of hand soap to lubricate it. The nurse backed away from the high slab until she was standing against the wall, to wait for the voltage, bowing her head, as if this, while I wore no ring, were some kind of solemnizing ceremony, smiling gently, folding her hands.