—Sadness, that’s normal, it goes with the territory, but becoming bitter, bitterness is to be avoided, he said.
—Be a saint instead, she said.
Instead, he’d live from the largesse of a common madness, not just his own, not just from his sadness, he’d lament and move on, lament and move on.
My lament, can’t do it, my way.
Clay wouldn’t ever want to relinquish internal rhyme, rhyming was a mnemonic device, too, and venerable for a reason, and, along with that, he relied on the beautiful histories meshed inside the roots of words.
—We don’t determine what words mean, they determine what we mean, Clay said, later. We don’t determine much.
Cornelia was a film editor and also translated documents and titles for a movie company, she also plied her insightful eye as a photo researcher and archivist for a wealthy eccentric, who never left his house and liked to know what was going on, but only in pictures. The eccentric hated to read.
—It would be great if pictures told a story, Cornelia said, but they don’t. They tell too many, or they don’t tell any.
—Words, also, he said.
—Images are easier to misread, she said.
—I don’t know.
Subtitles crowded the image, she explained more than once, they changed the picture, even dominated it, and besides, reading words on a screen disrupted the cinematic ﬂow. He wasn’t sure that was all bad, but then he was suspicious of images, which he didn’t make. He
was wary of words, too, which he used and tried to remake, so he had reason for anxiety. In her business, they talked about “getting a read on” a script, on meaning, sort of instantaneously.
A place for words, orphaned, wayward, no words,
no images, what then.
The lovers argued about the small things, about cleaning up after themselves in their apartment, as responsible adults do, supposedly, and petty problems, at work and with relative strangers, and also the large things, love, politics, history, friendship, art, poetry, which he wrote, when inevitably inconsiderate matter that had earlier settled in words and sentences extruded layers of their pasts, lived together and separately.
Code, just for now, when you mean its opposite,
bright lust of sullen night.
He’d been stunned by an obituary: “To my dear friends and chums, It has been wonderful and at times it had been grand and for me, now, it has been enough.” The man—it was signed “Michael”—had had the presence of mind to write and place his own death notice, it resonated a unique thoughtfulness, sad and mad, was he a suicide? And, on TV, a Fuji commercial declaimed a new longing for the fast-escaping present: “Because life won’t stay still while you go home and get your camera.”
Writing death, perpetual, language like a
house, an asylum, an orphanage. In a dream I
wasn’t, argued with someone or myself, so lost.
Perpetual death of words, writing.
He wasn’t his dream’s hero, but there are no heroes, just cops. Clay stopped to watch two beat cops, surreptitiously he hoped, while they canvassed the street for errant civilians, ordinary or unusual, and the cops, they’re ordinary and they’re not, and out of uniform they’re nothing, or they’re nothing just like him, dumb mortals compelled by ignorant, invisible forces, which happened to be, in their case, part of the job. A police car sped by, like a siren, in time or too late to stop it, the robbery, murder, the robber, murderer. He asked the butcher for stew meat but studied another butcher at the bloodstained chopping block who expertly sliced off a layer of fat, thick and marbled, from a porterhouse. Fat enriches the meat’s taste, his mother taught him, and also she warned, it’s better to be dead and buried than frank and honest. She said she knew things he didn’t that she hoped he’d never know, it was the part of her past she wouldn’t tell him.
—At the end of the day, everyone wants someone to cook for them, a woman, who was probably waiting for the porterhouse, announced to a man by her side.
The man appeared to understand and nodded his head, a gesture that presumed a semblance of understanding. Clay wondered if giving the appearance of understanding was actually understanding, in some sense, and if duplicity of this sort was necessary for a society’s existence, maybe even at its basis or center, and not the ancient totem Émile Durkheim theorized. People regularly don’t understand each other, but if that were constantly apparent, rather than gestures of tacit agreement and recognition, a stasis, punctuated by violent acts everywhere, would stall everyone for eternity.
“Security has now been doubled at the stadium, but people’s enjoyment won’t be hampered, officials say.” The radio announcer’s voice sounded out of place in the warm, yeasty bakery, where he now was, doing errands like a responsible mate. The baker tuned the radio to a station that gave bulletins every few minutes, which some people listened to all day long, so they knew the news word by word, and Clay imagined they could recite it like a poem.
An epic, way to remember. A gesture, song, war,
a homecoming. Fighting writing my death,
persistent oxymoron. Perpetrator. Victim.
Terror to fight terror. Fire or an argument with
fire. Firefight. Spitfire. Lawless, Eliot Ness,
childhood. Fighting against or for terror, lies
in mouth. Can’t leave home without it. Get a
People expected the unexpected, unnatural and natural disasters, a jet crashing in the ocean, all lost, hurricanes beating down towns, all lost, bombs doing their dirty work, lives lost and shattered, houses destroyed, and attentive listeners needed to know, instantly, for a sense of control or protection, and for the inevitable shock of recognition: I’m still alive.
The baker’s son Joey, dressed in white like a surgeon, the skin on his florid cheeks dusted with flour, asked him what he wanted, then bantered with him as he always did.
—Sun, Clay, ever see it? You’re pasty-faced.
—You’re flour-faced. I want a sourdough loaf, and the recipe.
—Forget about it, Joey the baker’s son said. Family secret for five generations.
—I’ll get it.
—You’re just like your mother, Joey said.
His mother had played the violin, and when he couldn’t sleep at night, to quiet him after a bad dream, she’d stand in the doorway to his bedroom and pluck each string with adoring concentration. A lullaby, maybe, some song that consoled him for having to leave consciousness at all. He was attached to her concentration, like the strings to her instrument, and this speciﬁc image of her, mother violinist bent and absorbed, resisted passing time’s arbitrariness, its uneven dissipations. Her face, for a long time now, rested only against walls or stood upright on tables in framed photographs, and he scarcely remembered a conversation they had, just a sentence or two.
Here, waiting. Can’t leave home, without a
horse. Get a read on. Long ago, here, a drama
with teeth, reneging, nagging. Cracked plates,
baseball bats, stains on home room ﬂoor, same
as before, stains like Shroud of Turin.
Jesus bled, writing death, ﬁghting terror.
He hadn’t moved away from the old neighborhood, waiting for something, teaching English and American literature at the high school he attended, while he grew older in the same place, without stopping time, though he found his illusions encouraged and indemniﬁed by traces of the past, like the indentations in the gym’s ﬂoor, and, more than traces, bodies, like the baker’s and the butcher’s, and their children, who would replace them, and stand in their places, in a continuity Clay wouldn’t keep up, even by staying in the neighborhood.
Cornelia believed the cult around the Shroud of Turin demonstrated that people do appreciate abstraction, an image instead of a body, though it wasn’t exactly an abstraction but close enough. Even if the cloth had once rested on a body, theirs was a reverence for an impression, drawn from but not the same as the body—even if the body wasn’t Christ’s, since scientists carbon-dated the cloth much later than his death. The cloth was just matter, material separate from and attached to history.
Not the thing, the stain, palimpsest of pain.
Life served with death a sanction.
Sometimes Joey the baker’s son let him go into the back of the store to watch other white-coated men knead dough, their faces also dusted in white, their concentration, like his mother’s on her violin, complete, and he viewed them as content, absorbed in good work. Their hands knew exactly how much to slap and pound, when to stop—every movement was essential. Then Clay ruminated, the way he always did in the bakery, about being a baker; in the butcher shop, he thought about being a butcher. He wanted to be like Joey, they’d gone to school together. If he were, he’d know simple limits, why an action was right or wrong, because the consequences would be immediate, and as usual he rebuked himself for romanticizing their labor and imagining an idyllic life for, say, the old baker and the baker’s son he’d known since he was a child, with a life better than his, because, he told Cornelia that night, their work was what it was, nothing else, its routine might be comforting, his wasn’t. In the moment, as he watched their hands and smelled baking bread’s inimitable aroma, he also felt that the bakers dwelled, as he did, in fantasy, that it enveloped them daily, and that what they did might be something else for them, too. Joey thought he was funny, but Clay loved the way Joey treated him, he felt Joey appreciated him in ways no one else did.
—The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, Cornelia teased.
—Cut it out, Clay said.
—Your heroes might surprise you someday, she said.
—I’d like that, Clay said.
—I bet you wouldn’t, Cornelia said.
He told her about a distressed woman in the news who had found out she’d been adopted when she was twenty-one, which made sense to her, she was even glad, because she had never felt close to her parents, who were like aliens to her, and then the woman spent years searching for her birth parents. When she was fifty, she found her mother, who’d given her up for adoption because she’d been unmarried and only fifteen. But the mother she unearthed wasn’t the mother she expected or wanted, so the woman was very disappointed. Also, her birth father was disreputable and long dead.
—Do you think people have the right to know? Clay asked.
—A constitutional right, Cornelia said.
—What about the right to privacy?
—Maybe some rights kill others.
If Clay turned violent, deranged, on the street, the cops would subdue and cuff him, take him in, interrogate him, or they might just shoot him on the spot, if he charged them menacingly, resisted them, or appeared to be carrying. The cops waited to arrest him and others from doing things they didn’t know they could do or felt they had to do or did because inside them lurked instinctual monsters. He didn’t know what he had in him, but he knew restraint, and he recognized, as Max Weber wrote early in the twentieth century, that only the state had the right to kill, no one else, and that fact alone defined the state. But where he lived everyone had the right to bear arms, to answer and resist the state’s monopoly on power. That was the original idea, anyway, but if Clay carried a gun, he might use it, because he didn’t know what he had in him.
Better to be dead and buried than frank and honest, his mother had said. His father ghosted their dining room table, his tales gone to the grave with him and now to his wife’s grave also. One night his father hadn’t come home from work the way he always did, Clay was seven, and his mother’s face never regained its usual smile. She smiled, but not the way she once had. When little Clay walked into the butcher shop or the bakery, he felt the white-clothed men looking sympathetically at him, prying into him for feelings he hadn’t yet experienced. The fatherly baker gave him an extra cookie or two, and in school, even on the baseball field, Joey the baker’s son didn’t call him names anymore, even when he struck out. But his mother
clutched his little hand more tightly on the streets, and he learned there was something to fear about just being alive. He learned his father was dead, but it didn’t mean much to him, death didn’t then, and soon it became everything.
—It’s why you’re a depressive, Cornelia said. Losing a parent at that age.
—I guess, he said.
—It’s why you hold on to everything.
Clay didn’t throw out much, like matchbooks and coasters from old restaurants and bars that had closed, outdated business cards, and with this ephemera he first kept his father with him. There was dust at the back of his father’s big desk that he let stay there. There was hair in his father’s comb, which had been pushed to the back of the bathroom cabinet, so Clay collected the evidence in an envelope, and wondered later if he should have the DNA tested. What if his father wasn’t his father? Maybe there was someone alive out there for him, a father, but his mother disabused him of the possibility, and played the violin so consolingly that Morpheus himself bothered to carry him off to a better life. Now, scratches on a mahogany table that once nestled close to his father’s side of the bed and his mother’s yellowing music books, her sewing cushion with its needles tidily stuck where she’d pushed them last, marked matter-of-fact episodes and incidents in their lives, when accidents occurred or things happened haphazardly, causing nicks and dents, before death recast them as shrines.
How long has this scrap been in the corner of a bureau drawer, he might ask himself, did it have a history. He could read clues incorrectly, though it didn’t matter to him if his interpretations were wrong, because there was no way to know, and it wasn’t a crime, he wasn’t killing anyone. Cornelia’s habits were different, heuristically trained and developed in the editing room, where she let go of dialogue and images, thousands of words and pictures every day, where she abandoned, shaped, or controlled objects more than he felt he could, ever.
At last. To last. Last remains. What lasts
remains. What, last. Shroud of Turin, Torino
mio, home to Primo, Levi knew the shroud.
In Clay’s sophomore English classes, in which the students read George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, his charges contested the rules for punctuation and grammar and argued for spellings and neologisms they used on the Internet and in text messaging. They preferred shorthand, acronyms, to regular English, they wanted speed. He argued for communication, commonality, and clarity, the three C’s, for knowing rules and then breaking them consciously, even conscientiously. He attempted to engage them, as he was engaged, in the beauties and mysteries of the history that lives in all languages. It’s present, it’s still available, he’d say. And, by tracing the root of a word to its origin in Latin,
Greek, or Sanskrit, and then by delving into its etymology, they could ﬁnd how meanings had shifted over the years through usage. A few students caught his fervor, he thought, and who knew what would happen to them as they grew up, maybe they’d discover that love, that attachment. Curiously, there were many more new words each year, an explosion added to recent editions of dictionaries, more proportionately than had previously entered editions of the tomes he revered, and yet he remembered, always, what the words once meant, their ﬁrst meanings. Cornelia told him it was another way he hung on to the past, and grammar countered his internal mess.
The problem is proportion, Clay thought, how to live proportionately. He passed the bakery on his way home, maybe he’d buy cinnamon buns for him and Cornelia for breakfast, and with an image of the pastries and her at the table, so that he could already taste morning in his mouth, he entered the store. It was busy as usual, and Clay waited on line, listening for the casual banter of the bakers, and when he drew nearer to the long counter, he overheard Joey the baker’s son.
—I’d kill all of them, nuke ’em, torture’s too good for them.
Clay continued to wait, suspended in place, breathing in the bakery’s perfume, when finally he reached the front of the line, where the baker’s son smiled warmly, the way he always did.
—I got you the recipe, you pasty-faced poet, Joey said.
He always teased him, ever since they were kids. Clay thanked him, smiled, and asked for two cinnamon buns, and then Joey handed him the famous recipe for sourdough bread, which in their family’s version was littered with salty olive pieces. The cinnamon buns were still hot, fragrant. Fresh, Clay thought, fresh is a hard word to use, fresh or refreshed. There were suggestions, associations, and connotations always to words, he should stress this more to his students, because the connotations of a word often meant as much as its denotation, sometimes more, and there was ambiguity, ambiguity thrives, because words were the same as life.
Traces, stains, call it noir, in the shadows,
torture for us. And the child, the hooded
childhood. Fresh ambiguity to contradict
what remains somewhere else.
The beat cops stationed themselves on the same corner, at the same time, so in a way they made themselves targets or spectacles, Clay thought, or even, by their presence, drew enraged, desperate civilians to them, like a recipe for disaster.
Walking home, mostly oblivious to the familiar streets, Clay looked over the ingredients. A teaspoon of balsamic vinegar, that may have been the secret the baker’s family treasured for generations. Or the molasses and tablespoon of rum, that might have been their innovation. Cornelia wasn’t in the apartment when he arrived home, she was the one who wanted the recipe, and the rooms felt emptier than usual.
He boiled water, brewed tea, opened the newspaper, couldn’t look at the pictures or read the words, stared at the cabinets, they needed fresh paint. He’d cook tonight, a beef stew, because at the end of the day, he remembered the woman saying, everyone wants someone to cook for them. He stood up and, without really thinking, opened a kitchen drawer and tossed the recipe in the back.