On Route

Peter Jacoby

G., an undertaker, told of the deceased’s wife who, paging through the sample book of fabrics for the burial shroud, on seeing the color, said, “Ooh, raspberry.” “Raspberry?” said G. “Well, I couldn’t get him to wear it when he was alive.”

 

When K. was sixteen she moved from Billings, Montana, to Salt Lake City to attend ballet conservatory. Her parents had opposed this, she said. “But after I begged for two years, they caved.” The conservatory was not a boarding school, so K.’s parents rented her a room in the house of a young married couple, John and Sharon. “This seemed like a perfect situation. Their place was down the street from the school. But eventually things became unclear with them, like what they were. Were they just my housemates or were they, like, parental authority figures? Everything was fine until I got injured. At first I had a curfew of ten-thirty, but then I stopped coming home Friday and Saturday nights. But it was also really great. I’d been a ballerina all my life, now I was finally going out, having fun. Drinking, meeting college boys. And I’m a really good actress; I’d get on the phone and tell my parents everything was fine. The idea was I’d hold out until I wasn’t injured, until I healed and everything went back to normal, but that never happened.”

 

Memory: The letter M. wrote me when we were in high school in which she noted how the train she was on, its vibration, manifested in her handwriting; she called it “a case of amtrackitis.” The poem she included in which she mentioned a Sunday spent looking in the mirror, smoking cigarettes, practicing her smile.

 

The spread of nuclear weapons, it’s said, was determined less by technological progress than by people and politics. Scientists with mixed sympathies, intentional leaks, efforts to balance power between rivals. Oppenheimer was wrong, then, when he said that once you know it can be done, doing it is easy. He overestimated the value of invention and underestimated that of labor. But work complete, bomb built, there was no advantage like the social one, so-called connections. For governments it’s apparently easier to learn through gossip than study. Theirs is a kind of budget in which laboratory hours may be counted more dearly than lives, and spies become cheap, disposable. Even if a country does manage to develop its own weapon, its leaders must then still worry about how theirs measures up, who’s got the 10 ½. “Being-with-one-another in the ‘they,'” writes Heidegger, “is by no means an indifferent side-by-sideness in which everything has been settled, but rather an intent, ambiguous watching of one another, a secret and reciprocal listening-in.”

 

The special assistant to the acting President of the occupied country. He co-wrote the new constitution; his favorite record is Huey Lewis’ Sports. At his usual bar in DC there’s an internet jukebox that he says he regularly feeds twenty bucks so he can hear the entire album, except when the bartender says, before taking his order, “No Huey today, OK?” He tells of the time he put it on and a man standing next to him poked him sharply in the arm and said, “I’m a black guy singing along to Huey Lewis and I ain’t got your attention?” Also of the trip to San Francisco when he visited the Sausalito bar featured on the cover.

Griffin says, “That’s some American Psycho shit.”

And Oscar: “In a democracy, anyone can be a snob.”

 

The barber said that the upstairs part of the shop closed more than four years ago, that he moved downstairs to the basement then, that the scene changed. “You don’t got windows, you can’t see outside. No sunlight. Most barbers moved downstairs, but a lot left. They didn’t like it. Some said, ‘From the street, people don’t know it’s a barbershop. They think it’s a way to the train.’ There used to be a hundred and forty people cutting hair here. That’s a lot of barbers.”

 

“You married?”

“No, thank God.”

“Now that’s smart. You know, I’ll tell you, it’s a second fucking job.”

 

A year ago a flu shot incapacitated A.’s father for weeks, threatening total paralysis and causing permanent nerve damage, decreased mobility, and pain, especially in the soles of his feet. Visiting A. and her husband a few weeks ago, he had been unable to climb out the window (they were going to take the fire escape to the roof) and later, one morning, about to go get the mail, he put on a pair of his son-in-law’s shoes that were by the door, but they had special insoles with bumps. “Nope, nope,” he said as soon as he stepped in, stepping out. “These aren’t going to work.”

 

The couple. Out together with his friends, she teases him about his smoking and drinking, his weight and cholesterol, how little he exercises, how much he sleeps, how nice an apartment he’s going to need to satisfy her, what kind of view. He smiles, enjoys the attention, but also something else. The prospect of breaking a rule and getting away with it? Small humiliations like a kind of soft slap? She fits him like a pair of jeans; at every turn she reminds him of his limits.

“Might it be that opposition and contradiction are in themselves meat and drink to her, and that she is comfortable enough provided she makes him uncomfortable?” (Montaigne)

“Criticism was my daily bread. But I was never bored, never lonely.” (Leonard Michaels)

 

C. talks to strangers, takes scenic routes and long-cuts, always gets sidetracked, is forever late. Wherever he goes he carries a bag containing extra layers, work gloves, water, snacks, who knows what else. Art supplies, pests. For him every trip, however simple or short, is a potential expedition. Rather than learn to stay on task, he learned how to pack.

 

B. sits at the head of the table and contradicts and corrects C., his grown son who is visiting for the holidays from across the country. B.’s impression is different, what he thinks C. means. When C. stands to leave (tonight, his last in town, he plans to stay at his mother’s), B. protests, “That’s it?” then counts aloud the number of days they’ve spent together, suggests tomorrow lunch.

“Goodbye for a year,” says C.

“Maybe forever,” says B.

“C’mon.”

“You never know. It’s life.”

C. begins to list the ways it’s difficult for him to visit: the cost of his flights, the price of the city, the days off work. It’s hard for him to get over the jetlag. “It’s an inconvenience to visit,” he says, insisting on the value of his time and complaining his way out the door.

 

“I’m allergic to cats,” said C.

“But you grew up with two?”

“Tells you something about the priorities in my house,” he replied, with ready bitterness.

 

“In New York,” said Saul, “empty space means money.” For instance: “The other night I was over at Mark’s, you would not believe the place. All he’s got in the living room is a painting and a couch.”

 

As we walked across the Manhattan Bridge, Saul told me that a few years ago, to bring the bridge up to code, its rivets had to be taken out, cleaned, and replaced, all by hand, same way they were put in. “One problem,” he said. “Fully assembled, the cables on which the road and subway tracks are slung block access to about half the rivets. What they eventually discovered was when the train comes, it pulls the cables taut and everything shifts. So the men on the crew timed their work accordingly. Hanging high above the river, they waited.”

 

The couple. Thoughtful and earnest as a priest, he ums and ahs and sighs his way through conversation. He doesn’t talk to find out what he thinks but weighs each word before he says it. Questions are for him calls to speech, requests for a statement, even simple, factual questions. You have to listen carefully to hear his emphasis; he punctuates less with his voice than with silence. He seems to have reservations about everything, including his name. She sits with her hands in her lap and resists the urge to rush in, to finish his sentence, to hurry him to the important part, to repeat the important part. She loves to listen to him so much it annoys her. It’s a lot of time for her to be rapt and bored at once.

 

Jimmy returns from his trip and, after two cryptic calls, each quick as a cough, we meet for dinner. Pho. He’s dressed almost handsomely. Good clothes, muted colors, but too many colors and nothing fits. His blond hair and olive complexion, his eyes, the city lights all conspire to create an illusion of sweat. When a police car pulls up on the other side of the restaurant’s window-wall, flashing red lights reflected in my soup, he asks, “What are they doing?” Like I know. Like Lear giving voice to the thought.

He repeatedly turns our talk to his sobriety. He’s clean. He’s so clean he can dabble. He used to think there was will and there was will, now he knows it’s truly a sickness. He goes to the bathroom several times during dinner. Afterward he asks, “How do you feel? Are you craving something sweet?”

When he can’t be present, he tries to make up for it, puts something in my hand, usually a book, a favorite passage to entertain me, or by way of apology, to hold me over. Among the ways it is hard for me is I feel I cannot show I accept him enough.

 

Rembrandt’s late self-portraits. Not just out-of-focus but presbyopia, the farsightedness of old age. Glaucomatic, dark. He painted his failing sight. Eyes emerge from faces, faces from the rest. Bodies are heavy shapes and sink. Into what? Night, I guess. Or paint. What little light there is springs from within to meet whatever light is without. Space, it seems, is like time: it’s porous, absorbent stuff. It seems matte; it seems unfinished. A seeming never-ending, but it ends, it seems.

 

She told me about her father, a philanderer and famous psychologist who “can’t take care of himself.” Minor squalor, bad diet—sex and success excepted, I imagine. “I just think people deserve more joy,” she said. “Ah,” I replied, and automatically, as though it were a kind of immune system, began to think of things I might say to discourage her.

 

“When the stripper becomes naked, the audience becomes her clothes.”

 

At the end of a night of drinking, Kim and Sasha, old friends, not that old, lie on the bed side by side, both facing the ceiling, eyes closed, talking—habit become instinct. They think out loud with fading voices and take turns calling one another back from the brink of sleep.

 

“The flash of sense in which the thing appears.” Often the more time you spend with someone, the less clearly you know him or her. I miss the face for its expressions. After his death Tolstoy’s wife said, “I never really found out what kind of man he was.” She lived with him forty-eight years and retyped War and Peace seven times; he was not inarticulate. My mother was appalled to learn only after eighteen years of marriage that my father liked key lime pie. Elaine said that every time she tells a new boyfriend the story of her life, it’s entirely different. I will gladly hear the story of your life if I don’t expect to see you again, and sometimes find myself guarding against it if I suspect we may become friends. In this way it seems to me people care for one another more with silence than with speech. There are truths only strangers can say, facts best learned from anonymous notes, and things so private you can only tell the world—that is, publish them. “Know thyself,” said the wise man. “Know your own damn self,” said his wife. On re-reading his journals and not recognizing his voice, Leonard Michaels was struck by the intuition he is more like other people than like himself.

 

P. said that over the course of New Year’s Eve Day he slept with three women, that this was the second time he’d accomplished as much. I joked, “That means it’s pathological.” He was exhausted, didn’t make a comeback. Instead my comment made him introspective and self-critical. “Well, I enjoyed it. But I guess that doesn’t mean it’s not—” Already I was laughing. “You enjoyed it?” Now we were both laughing. But the joke was on us.

 

A technological advance: He saw pictures of his ex-wife online, making familiar eyes at the camera, at the man behind it, her new husband. Intimacy’s limited vocabulary. What had driven him off was there, too; smiling come hither.

 

Oakland, January 25. Winter days here grow longer by two minutes each.

 

“As a kid I wrote letters all the time. Like, to friends from camp. And because I didn’t have any money to buy them gifts or anything, for their birthdays and Christmas, I wrote my parents letters. I’d thank them for being my parents and tell them what they did that I liked, and sometimes they’d cry. I remember later on I’d be writing one and I’d be like, ‘What can I say that’ll make Mom cry?'”

 

At twenty-two, a few months after graduating, I thought, “So, that was college.” And ten years later, at Page’s fortieth birthday party, I imagined someday thinking, “So, that was life.”

 

Writing is cross-sense coding, a kind of synesthesia. Thus a riddle: You can’t sense it until you see it, but when you see it, you hear it. A student of the musical language Solresol supposedly heard Beethoven’s Fifth and, effectively reading its leitmotif, wondered what the big deal about “Wednesday” was. Such false signals have been described as a flaw in Solresol, but something just as strange and arbitrary happens every time you pick up a novel or hear your name. Writing stories in Microsoft Word, James used to blow the view size up to five hundred percent, fascinated by the ts’ little hats.

 

The woman at the farmer’s market said that, leaving the house, when she told her four-year-old son it was time to go, he asked her to hold on a moment then turned back to finish talking to the cat.

 

What does not kill me may harm me so that what ordinarily might be no problem could now finish the job.

 

At the bar, C. tried to show us how deformed his vision is. He explained the kind of curve corneas are supposed to have, that it’s even, that his is more like a lowercase b. A weird, low bulge. He took off his glasses, leaned in close, and held his eye open wide, but we couldn’t see it.

 

N.’s mother went crazy for several months. It began with a worker’s comp claim. The investigator interviewed her family and friends. Was she being followed? The first night in the hospital, after she began medication, she was still hearing voices, they were coming from the vents, but she just turned up the TV.

 

L. invited me to church next week. Her choir would be singing and she had a solo. I said I didn’t know she went to church. She said she started going last year. “I would go sit in the pew and cry. That’s what got me to stop drinking. I cried until I decided to quit. Then I wanted to start playing music again, so I started taking voice lessons and joined the choir.”

 

Wheeling over the TV-VCR cart, the bailiff said, “Listen closely because the judge is serious about everyone knowing their rights,” then pressed play.

 

“How do you plead: Guilty or not guilty?”

“Well, shit. I don’t know. Yeah naw.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah naw,” he said, now with more confidence.

 

A column in Psychology concerning writer’s block advises trivializing the task. “The tight-rope walker who walked between World Trade Center buildings claims to have thought, ‘Death is very close.'” The article’s author says reminding herself of this helps put writing in perspective. Then she quotes Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace, suicides both, on the painful self-consciousness they felt about their work. People die of exposure, says Bruce Nauman.

 

The woman who drove the rental car shuttle that picked me up said that besides picking people up and dropping them off, she drives the cars between company offices, to and from the mechanic. “But picking people up is my favorite part. I’ve never lived anywhere else and I’m fascinated by what draws all these different people to Portland and what they think of it.”

 

Oakland. At the bar, D. the carpenter, originally from Pelham Park, “on the 6 train, in the Bronx,” said he never planned to come to California. “I went through a break-up and needed a change of pace so I got a car and just drove. Then, actually, I went back. But I stayed in touch with a couple of people and a couple years later a room opened up, so I came out. That was ’95. Then I met my wife and now I have a twelve-year-old daughter, the numbers just kind of add up. There’s not much space between them, you know?”

 

The mortuary sign with a clock on it.

 

K., who used to live next door, said she misses the garage, which had been her art studio. “If I had an idea in the middle of the night, I could walk downstairs in my slippers and robe.”

“Didn’t you have a garden going?”

“Tomatoes, roses, whole bunch of stuff. But when we were moving, everything I’d been through by then, I was so pissed I ripped it out. I didn’t want to leave it there. Not for someone else.”

 

E. arrived in the afternoon, I picked her up at her parents’, then we drove to visit M., who had overdosed a couple of times in the past week. “So she can have friends around,” said E. We watched M. be fucked up, try to cook and try to eat. Problems with the spatula, problems with her mouth. Then E. and I went swimming at the lake, just as it was beginning to dusk. I can still see her scrambling around the rocks. Naked, pale, and seamless, hugging herself, trying to find a good spot from which to jump.

“It’s not too cold,” she called, now treading water and bobbing lightly, her hair bound in wet locks. Then she announced she was going to pee to warm up. “Ah! I’m too clenched.”

We swam across. Fog rolled in and mist rose from the water around us. Ducks congregated in the official swim area, in the lanes formed by the floating ropes. The evening deepened like a bruise. Gray, purple, blue-black. We swam back, got out and toweled off in the cold, dry dark. Overhead passed a bat.

Later, at dinner in town, I stopped listening to E. for a moment and heard her instead. She was telling me about her move—new city, new job, the truck she bought, the loft she built, going back and forth up and down the coast. I felt bad not paying attention to her words. “Then I did this, then I went to, then, and then.” She recollected unselfconsciously, proud. Her body moved to reenact her exertions as she described them, momentarily resting her hands on an imaginary steering wheel. To remember a detail, she looked up and to the left, narrowed her eyes, then glanced right. All the way through she had a strange bluster, voice loud, as if anticipating resistance, as if she expected to not get, to have to take. Her face, evidently a muscle, tensed; then, at the end, it relaxed and brightened as if to say, “See!”

E. walked along the rocky path around the lake in the dark, raising her arms now and then for balance, and told me her friends’ situations one by one, how they’re doing, what they’re going through. Gossip. But also a kind of study, invocation, and prayer: comparing notes, conjuring, blessing. The phrase “sympathetic magic” comes to mind. Also, “blabbermouth.”

 

The cemetery uses a dumpster about a block down from its front gate, across the street from the chapel, next door to an insurance office. At night it’s filled with wreaths, most of them on stands; some upside down, their legs sticking out the bin’s open top, into the air; others left outside it, leaning against. Rings and rings of still lively-looking flowers.

 

The radio was receiving two signals at once: a song I was into and news of assisted suicide.

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