Tag: love

Uncle Manny Takes the Wave

 

 

Uncle Manny Takes the Wave

 

My Uncle Manny once told me over a wickedly scrumptious Bear Claw and coffee at a country restaurant run by a religious cult that his secret goal was to be able to stand in front of his own mirror and point to his mat of white chest hair and say, “I’m the surfer. I’m the surfer. I’m the real thing.” He was already sixty, so I was careful to keep my reaction to a supportive nod that would hide any trace of doubt.

 

When Uncle Manny got to the beach, he found his former student Holly with three of her friends pulling on their wet wetsuits. It was February, eight o’clock in the morning, gray and cold and a light sprinkle falling and little hope of any sunlight that day.

 

Holly was glad to see him. He was her former professor in a section of the War & Peace Lecture Series, where he had also been a lecturer and had given talks on genocide Guatemala, Mexico, and Chechnya.

 

She wanted to know what he was doing there.

 

“Jogging, getting some air,” he said. “And you? Surfing? So early in the morning and in weather like this?” The truth was, he knew she often surfed there weekend mornings and had hoped to run into her.

 

“We had a sleep-over,” she said, “and we’re going to do a little surfing now and let the water wake us up.”

 

She was pulling on the top of her suit. She wore a sweatshirt but had extracted her arms from its sleeves and was working herself into the top of the wetsuit without revealing anything. Once suited, she hopped around on the balls of her bare feet, getting her board out of the car, waxing the top and cracking the windows on the old Toyota Four Runner for her dogs

 

“Want to come?”

 

I could, he thought. He had the new wet suit in the back of his truck. He had his  stately ten-foot longboard, which he had never tried to use, and he found Holly attractive.

 

“I’ve actually been thinking of taking lessons.”

 

“You got a wet suit with you?”

 

“I do…”

 

“Well, then, come on out with us!” she said, gathering her ankle leash in one hand and the board in the other.

 

“I’d be embarrassed,” he said, making a clever joke out of the truth.

 

“Have you used it yet?” she asked, smiling and with no trace of mockery.

 

He hadn’t. He’d only tried it on in the shop’s dressing room. It still had the tags on it. And that had been three weeks ago.

“I’m backing into it slowly.”

Holly’s smile was friendly, maybe even a bit more than friendly. Or was it also partly puzzlement over his phrasing “backing into it,” one more bit of irony she half expected from him and never quite got? Was she pondering these things, he wondered, or was it just him?

It was darker overhead and raining a little stronger.

“Come on with us!” she said, in a voice that was clearly an invitation, possibly on more than one level.

He knew he was too old. On more than one level.

Then she introduced him to her friends as one of her favorite professors. Her friends were Heather, Annie and Willow. Names like that. Friendly, warm, interested faces. No judgment. In their minds, perhaps a few unformed questions about the matter of his age.

“We just go out and have fun,” Holly said, over her shoulder. “See you!” and he watched them trotting over the gray beach, like otters approaching a stream. Holly skipping sometimes, her little frame, her neoprene-covered bow sprit, maidenhead breasts heading seaward, her rounded aboriginal bottom moving above her strong, youthful legs. A delightful sisterhood of young working women, carrying their hand-me-down boards that they’d inherited from their boyfriends present and past. He watched as they trotted then, full of confidence, bent over to wrap their leashes around their tanned ankles. Then he watched as they walked deeper into the waves. toward the spot where the lagoon emptied into the surf as a tidal river and where, he knew, Great White shark were known to feed.

The next time he looked, Holly was up on a three-foot wave, turning and twisting like the very best of them. They were, he decided in that moment, the real thing, and he was not.

He watched them for a while, standing in his black rain-proof running pants, his windbreaker, in his Gortex running shoes. He recalled a story his priest had told him. How the priest had an assistant for a while, a big Irishman with a mop of red hair, big workingman’s hands, a broad smile and a kind heart. And how for some reason everyone began referring to the likeable assistant as “The Priest.” And how he, the smaller man, the real priest, would go home at night, look at himself in the mirror and say, “I’m the priest, damn it– I’m the one who’s the priest!” That is what Manny wanted to say one someday. “Damnit, I’m the one who’s the surfer.”

We know this little secret this from Uncle Manny’s diary, from a passage that Aunt Stella had forgotten to purge with her black magic marker—the last entry before he finally left for Hawaii to take surfing lessons.

God only knows how his mind was working. We learned from his short, barrel-chested instructor Brent McNab—the Hawaiian great-great-grandson of Episcopalian autocrats who had ruled Hawaii and suppressed Hawaiian culture and independence—whom we were  later able to track down at Waikiki Beach, that Uncle Manny had done extremely well for a man his age. He had learned to leap into a surfer’s crouch almost immediately, had figured out the timing required to catch and take a wave, to stand up, balance and choose a path right or left away from the part that that was beginning to break. More astonishing was his seemingly instinctual ability to slant down across a wave’s face and then shoot up again and escape over the crest just before then wave broke. Casual observers, as well as Manny himself, agreed that he was well on his way to being the real thing.

But we also learned that on his sixth day as a surfer, he entered a Z.A. – a zone of arrogance, as Brent Macnab put it. Brent had told him not to surf in waves so large that he would not be able to hold his breath for the time they broke and held him down. On this occasion, he had also overlooked the lesson about applying only certain kinds of wax on the top of the board and only in certain amounts. It appeared in hindsight Manny’s talent for quick learning had not extended to attentive listening, for he had not internalized Bret’s two warnings.

On the day my Uncle Manny actually did become the real thing, Shinsaku Umahashi, a Japanese  camera man for The Japan Times with a new extra-powerful telescopic lens had set up his tripod on Diamond Head, a volcanic formation a good mile and a half from Waikiki Beach and happened to focus on one particular wave because of its size. He could make out the man sitting on his longboard in front of the rogue wave. He noticed the shock of gray hair and concluded it indicated he was observing a surfer of much experience who would put on a worthy display before the might of the enormous wave. Then he noticed the dark shadow in the water between the wave and the surfer and how it approacing with about the same speed as the wave. Both the wave and the shadow had almost arrived when he started filming.

In the water, Uncle Manny lept up as the wave lifted him, then found himself sloping along the face of something that was simply too big. Some said it had been easily twenty feet high from trough to crest, and poorly shaped, as they say in the parlance. Too steep and too unstable—impatient, as it were, to avalanche forward and unfurl all its tons of water not in sequence but all at once, in a thundering, frothing, churning, downward explosion.

Well, the long and the short of it was—according to Brent Macnab, who was watching him through binoculars—that Uncle Manny saw the problem and, for all his inexperience, realized that he had to leave his board and get in the water right then and there and disengage from the wave. But because of the matt of white hair on his chest, McNab thought, he found himself wedded to the over-waxed top of his rented Waikiki long board and therefore had to hurtle forward with it, until he was airborne, tumbling end over end through the air in front of the monster wave before he disappeared beneath it and the board came up broken in half, still overly waxed, with much of Uncle Manny’s white chest hair. But without Uncle Manny.

Instructor Macnab, the Honolulu Metropolitan Police Department, and the US Army, whose park-base the Fort DeRussy Military Reservation all this had happened in front of, all had their different theories, but in the end settled on the version that a large shark must have been in the wave with Uncle Manny and had taken him out to sea for a snack and then dropped him somewhere farther out beyond any ZA, where what was left of him – whatever part of him that had escaped sharp teeth, must have been nibbled into extinction by lesser fish and crabs as it drifted away and eventually sank, without Uncle Manny ever wearing his wet suit, the one he’d left in Northern California, and without ever returning to the frigid waters where he could have frolicked with Holly and her young feminist working class otter sisters, or even stand in front of his own mirror and point to his matt of white chest hair and say, “I’m the surfer. I’m the surfer. I’m the real thing.” That is, until editors at The Japan Times shared a film clip of the Waikiki incident where “an older experienced surfer” had met with a double nemesis, an event they gave the ghoulish title 本物だった The Real Thing. With most of the emphasis laid on the size of the wave, the age of the surfer and the fact that he was most likely eaten by the very large shark that had been in the wave with him. When the clip played on American channels, Holly and her friends discussed it in solemn voices, while Holly wept.

 

 

The Correct Position

 

The Correct Position

Even as a pre-kindergardner I was aware that girls had private areas. And I say areas because I really didn’t know how many of them there were. Or exactly what they were. And once I knew, and that ocean of complexity lay before me, my focus first changed to my place in that complexity and then to everyone else’s. And it has been that way ever since.

My Uncle Albert weighed just over three hundred pounds and stood some six feet five inches and limped, staggered really, when he walked, shuffled in a ponderous forward crab-like strut. In short, he was out of alignment, heeling over before burdens and forces I could not see. My father said he was one of the kindest men he had ever known. And that he was deeply private.

 

He married Aunt Sally when he was almost fifty and she just a few days over forty. She stood no more than a few inches above five feet and also limped and was unable to maintain a true course, angling her diminutive torso first right, then the left, driven by her own little pendulum of awkwardness and later, pain, as her joints froze, at first slowly, and then more rapidly, until their walks together were limited solely to the hottest days of July, August and September. Even then with her piggybacked up behind him.

Uncle Albert taught school, and was beloved by his sixth graders, who – parents complained – would not leave at the end of the school day, begging him to tell them one more story about this legend or that carefully concealed and controversial lesson in history, biology and Inca astronomy. The last straw was when he began teaching them rudimentary Latin so they could one day read the love poems by the Roman poet Catullus. At the school board hearing held to consider his case and his future, an Episcopalian with knife-sharp creases in his trousers and indignation in his voice, got up and read a poem from a dusty translation in which one object of the poet’s romantic interest, a young woman, on being approached by the poet, trembled like a fawn on a mountainside.

I had been one of his former six graders and was now an eighth grader. I sat beside my father at the hearing, who had come to assure himself that his brother would receive justice. My father was a fearless if slow public speaker when he stood up, took off his felt hat and began to speak at our town’s town hall meetings. There he was known for his furious defense of the beavers that swam submerged and blocked the culverts that, left unattended, flooded the town’s woods and marshes, making them breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

“The woods and marshes become a haven for fish and wildlife when there is water,” my father’s voice boomed out over the graying heads. “It’s a natural rhythm. Flood and bounty, flood and bounty. It only takes a few minutes now and then to break up the beavers’ dam building in the culverts. We can hire a college student for that. The beavers bring a richness to the county, fishing for everyone, a biology lab for our children, interesting hiking grounds for our scouts, and protection for our deer, raccoons and wildcats. Let me remind you that before the arrival of culverts and dirt roads the area was called Wildcat. As for mosquitoes, it costs very little to pour barrels of mosquito fish into the water where they will breed on into the future. That is a far better solution than the present one which is to fly C47s low over the town, spraying tons of DDT on all of us.” This was the kind of talk that came out of the mild, quiet man who was my father.

“As for my brother, he is, as you all know, a brilliant teacher for our children who are reluctant to leave the classroom at the end of the day because of the interest and enthusiasm he kindles in them. I sincerely doubt that my brother made any reference to romantic activity when he described a young woman trembling like a doe on the mountainside. I even went to the extent of asking him this question to which he replied he had not and would not ever. So, good citizens, it is not as if he were reading to his 6th graders from the secret sex diary of a reprobate. What he is in fact doing is showing them that there are other languages and that they carry our history of literature in themselves. What he has done is elicit curiosity and the desire to learn in our students, not just in language but also in biology, history and even mathematics. My brother invites you to visit his class, with permission from the principal, of course, to see for yourselves how lucky we are to have a man of this stature and devotion.

No one spoke after my father. People looked at each other as if to say, “Who left the door open? or “Why are we even sitting here?”

And that was the end of it.

I saw other things as I grew up. How each day Aunt Sally waited for his huge frame to come in sight at the corner of Pitnam Ave. and Curtis Place, when Uncle Albert rocked and swayed and elephanted his way home, always with a thin bouquet of poppies, rock roses or Shasta daisies, which he plucked from this or that forgotten bloom between the sidewalk and the street on his path home.

Once I watched him pass by our wooden porch, and then saw Aunt Sally waddle toward d him, rolling from side to side from their house, which was next door to ours. Saw this from the window of my bedroom when I had just gotten up from a nap. They were smiling and wiping tears from their eyes as they came and then held each other in a delicate, tender long embrace, where his massive arms held her head against his stomach, at a level not much above his belt, even when he was leaning forward to accommodate the difference in their size.

When I grew a little older and a little meaner, I found myself preoccupied pretty much with one question, and that had to do with the act. The way it was clearly done according to the movies I saw, where the male held his doe-eyed love below his muscles and bounced around on top of her while she sighed as if she were just short of fainting.

Then my Uncle Albert choked to death on his own saliva during my freshman year in college when a nasty flu  brought the city to its knees. Then something happened that made my father very angry. At first I thought it had something to do with me and my attitude. But that wasn’t it. My mother told me to listen carefully, as she rushed to finish a flower arrangement for the funeral. It was during the war, she said. The Navy rejected Uncle Albert because of the way he walked, but then inducted him because of the way he swam. They trained him in demolitions and appointed him the leader of a squad of some forty other men who together with my Uncle Albert arrived at Utah beach, Normandy, dropped off by submarine, long before the great armada and in silence and predawn darkness blew up steel landing boat traps and obstacles, clearing routes for the Allied invaders, and who only faded away, mostly submerged, when the German defenders, boys themselves, raked the beach with searchlights and M60 machine gun fire, killing all but Uncle Albert and three others. “But why is my father angry?” I asked. “Because somebody said again that Albert had died because he had drunk too much water staying submerged and hidden from the German machine guns—a stupid cruel joke that we’ve heard before. In fact, he received some sort of distinguished service cross for towing the three wounded survivors all the way back to the distant half submerged submarine when he was badly wounded himself.”

Aunt Sally lay beside him for two days, refusing to release her grip on the man she loved so much, and only let go when our doctor decided her own health was in crisis and slipped a handkerchief laced with chloroform over her nose and laid her unconscious into a waiting stretcher. A special coffin had to be built, and a truck with a crane swung it up onto the back of a second truck and after the trip to the cemetery they unloaded the box beside an oversized grave.

In the space of a few days, Aunt Sally found time to make several quick arrangements, one of which was a note for my father saying she was too distraught to attend the service, that she would contact him about other matters later, and then she dropped out of sight completely.

When the crane was about to lower Uncle Albert’s huge box at the end of its greased cable, and we bowed our heads and tried to weep for the sadness of it all, a dark van drew alongside, stopped, and two men, not quite dressed as funeral directors, carried a small pomice-whitened box to the edge of our circle of mourners and stood back. In a voice that was deeper and stronger than usual, my father asked the mourners to come away from Uncle Albert’s grave, to ask no questions and to face away in the opposite direction. Which the mourners did, murmuring and mildly miffed, but complying. Thinking, I suppose, my mother and father needed a moment to kiss the coffin or something. Though I was too old for it, my father took my hand and led me back to the grave.

Following someone’s instructions, probably my father’s, one of the new coffin bearers raised a hinged window of old beveled glass, and we saw our Aunt Sally looking up at us, but not really looking because her eyes were shut, sad, and serene.  She held a very familiar looking bouquet of flowers, the kind of flowers you could not find between the street and the sidewalk, and very much unlike the kind Uncle Albert had liked to pick.

The new funeral directors, who seemed more relaxed and pleasanter than real ones, turned some wooden latches on Uncle Albert’s coffin and removed the lid. My uncle lay face down. I expected an awful commotion, like the one I was feeling myself, part shock, part horror, part sadness and anger. But the mourners continued facing away. With my father’s help, the two men placed the flower arrangement in Uncle Albert’s coffin and Aunt Sally herself on top of him, higher up in what you would have to call a piggyback position – not the one I would have chosen if I had done the planning. Because it could not have been the position they chose for themselves in the private moments of their strange and unbalanced relationship. Plus, it was all a little ghoulish, I thought, to have moved her even stiffer limbs so that her hands wrapped over his shoulders as if she were hanging on.

After the coffin crunched down on the bottom of the hole and the cable snaked back up and the truck left us standing in diesel fumes, my father handed me a shovel and together we set to work on the great mound of excavated earth, rattling it down over his brother and Aunt Sally. We did not talk. At times, when I glanced over at him, his eyes were red and filled with tears. Then, when we were finished and the mourners had left, a few of them Navy veterans, he turned to me, laid his hand on the back of my neck, held me for a moment and said, “Now you know.”

  I learned that Aunt Sally had taken sleeping pills. But for a long time I did not really understand what my father had meant by his comment, and then he himself was gone before I was old enough, mature enough, and kind enough to ask him.

 

Foreground

Foreground

The first two weeks of June in Paris were so cold and rainy that I had to go to the flea market at the Place d’Aligre in the 12th Arrondissement to replace the short-sleeved high-desert shirts I had brought with me from Mexico. I paid two Euros for a heavy cream-colored wool sweater that zipped down to my solar plexus and made me look like a small-boat captain at the evacuation of Dunkirk exactly seventy years earlier. I bought a faded green Levi jacket stiff with mildew, which – from too much Marais district Orthodox strudel – barely buttoned over my English sweater. Thus equipped, I went to the Seine to paint. I wanted to see which part of the mystique of Paris I could be part of, to see what lay below the surface of things French.
I had been to the top floor of the Orsay and seen the exhibit of P. H. Emerson, who drew with ink pen over original Heliographic negatives in the 1890s. The ink additions were hard to distinguish from the ghostly landscape backgrounds, especially in my favorite: “Marsh Leaves, Feuilles des marais,” London, 1895. I found it mildly disturbing, this process of super-imposing new representations on older ones, with a different medium.
There is more information you need to know. My great great-grandfather was born in Rouen, in the Haute Normandie. One recent Sunday morning, I had begun chatting with a woman sitting next to me at the Turenne Café, near the Place Des Voges. She was taking her café au lait with a group of neighborhood friends. The conversation turned to where I was from. I said I was from Mexico. But where are you from? they asked. Well, before that, California. But before that? I realized this was a question of origins. Perhaps my flea market sweater was showing and that was a clue. And so I told them about my great great-grandfather being born in Rouen.
“Then you are French,” they exclaimed, in unison. And then in fun: “Champaign all around!” And when I left, one of them pointed to the west and enjoined: “Be French!”
At a certain bench, beside the Seine, on the Ile Saint-Louise, I moistened my squares of color and considered what I saw before me. A dredger, its filling barge and a tug sat under the Pont Louis Philippe, the bridge that crosses to Ile de Cité at the Notre Dame. The dredge itself was what we used to call a steam shovel. This one was diesel, orange, and sat on rubber wheels, on top of it own barge. Six hydraulic arms bent down to the top of the barge to give the machine stability. From the barge, two massive black stilts extended down into the river bottom, to hold the whole floating assemblage in place: the dredge barge, the filling barge, and the tug – the vessel closest to me.
Before I go on, I should mention that I took my friends at the Turenne Café seriously and decided to know more about being French. I went to Rouen in search of Edouard Dupré and stayed a week. I made many phone calls. I knocked on doors. I walked through graveyards and looked at church records. I spent many hours at the Internet site Cercle Généalogique Rouen Seine Maritime.
George Edward Dupré was born in Rouen, France in 1798. He emigrated to Kentucky and owned fifty slaves. He chartered schooners and traded his goods in the Caribbean for tree crotches of sandalwood and mahogany for ship’s knees. On his third voyage, in 1838, his ship, ravaged by a great storm, broke its back against a reef on the coast of Florida. While most of the crew drowned, he and his idiot cabin boy clung to wreckage and drifted ashore, where they were killed by Seminole Indians. He was survived by my great-grandmother Sarah.
He had a brother Clément who stayed in France and produced generations of Cléments, the last of which fought the Germans in Normandy with the Communist branch of the French Resistance: The Front National. French Gestapo agents, a group called the Bonny-LaFont, arrested his love Marie Lambourne and said they would execute her if Clément did not give himself up. An exchange was arranged. Marie went free. Clément was tortured in the basement of 93 Rue Lauriston in the 16th Arrondissement, along with countless others. He gave up no information. Depressed, broken, and alone – with the image of Marie the last thing he saw behind his closed lids – he was guillotined one winter dawn in the building’s courtyard.
I found Marie in Rue Francs Bourgeois, in the Marais, near the Picasso Museum. She was 87 years old, five years older than me. She has a daughter and a granddaughter. Both of them are called Clémentia. I showed her all of my notes. She taught French to foreigners at the Sorbonne for many years. She spoke slowly and clearly, so I could understand. She was gracious and warm. The second bottle of wine – a Mosel – was covered in dust. She said we would not wash it because we were dealing with all aspects of the past. She brought out sheep’s cheese and three-quarters of a prodigious baguette she had purchased in that morning. She said we were cousins of some sort, and she would tell me anything I wanted to know.
I asked her about Clément. He was brave. And very funny, she said. He could blow up trains. He could also make up riddles, if we woke up anxious and afraid, early in the morning. We had a brass bed. She looked me straight in the eye, as she continued.
“There were four things then. Him, me, the brass bed, and the wonderful love we made in it.” I felt I should look away when she said this. But I didn’t.
She paused. Night had fallen. It was cool in the room. She got up slowly and turned on the electric wall heater. Then she sat down at the table again. She poured the last of the dusty wine into our glasses.
“This is the best wine I have ever tasted,” she said. “And I know it is because you have come to hear my story.” I took a sip and put the glass down.
“You probably want to know what happened to the bed,” she said. I said I hadn’t really thought about it. What I had thought about was a young woman with her eyes, together with a young Frenchman who might have looked a little like me, naked and clasped in love.
“When he died, I could not bear to lie in it alone,” she said. “I gave away the springs, and even the mattress. Then I enlisted a friend to carry the brass head frame to the river. I went with him. The Bonny-Lafont never gave me his body. The agent I dealt with said I should look for it in the Seine. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Sometimes the bodies of resistance fighters turned up in the river. So did the bodies of German soldiers.”
She stopped. She took her glass and poured the last inch of her wine into my glass. She smiled, with a face full of a joy I didn’t understand. “I can’t drink anymore,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. She got up. She said she was very tired. She kissed me on both cheeks. She said we were family. She said I was indeed French and that I should take that very seriously. She said she would call me soon.
Two days later, a letter arrived. “I know you are wondering – if you are who I think you are – what we did with the bed. We walked out onto the Pont d’Acole, I think it was, and threw it into the river. Very, very early in the morning when it was still dark. I cannot explain exactly why but it made great sense to me then. Remember we are family. Come visit me soon.”
I know I have kept you sitting, for too long, on the stone bench beside the Seine, waiting to see what I would paint. Also, let me defend myself by telling you that I do not believe in straight connections. It was cold. But I had my Dunkirk sweater and my Levi jacket. The dredge worked under the Pont Louis Philippe. Its steel bucket had four large teeth for rooting and tearing on the river bottom. Over and over, it swiveled and dumped the captured silt into the filling barge along side, swiveled back, dipped in again, like a great mechanical swan feeding on the bottom, and this time – jammed in its teeth – brought up the metal head frame of a bed. The machine swiveled. It shook the bucket over the filling barge like an angry animal, and the bed fell down out of sight into the collected silt.
I know what you are thinking. And I agree with you. It was not the right bridge. The river bottom had been dredged for seventy years. Most of us are not big on miracles. Jung would have called it synchronicity – two events connected by an overly attentive mind, but not connected in actual fact.
At the same time, the main barge – the dredger – raised its two black stilts, and everything drifted twenty feet closer, with the current.
I held my brush in midair. The matter of P.H. Emerson’s heliograph negatives was coming up. The barge drifted toward me, intruding into the foreground I had constructed on my painting. It brought the mud-blackened bed frame closer. And I began to wonder who or what was becoming the dark ink accent on a ghostly Emersonian background.
I could not believe it was Marie and Clément’s bed. But I did have to believe it had been someone’s bed. The same kind of question drifted closer: Who had thrown it from the bridge, and why? What blurred negative lay behind?
When I got back to my apartment – the size of a matchbox – I found another letter from Marie, the handwriting shakier.
“I believe it was the Pont d’Arcole. Very, very early in the morning – when it was still dark. I thought the bed would find him and give him comfort.”
Below these few lines there was a different handwriting.
I am a friend of Marie’s. I do not know what these words mean, but she had already addressed the envelope, and they lay next to each other on her desk. I am assuming they are connected. Marie died peacefully in her chair with a book of war-time photographs on her lap. I am including my phone number, if you would like to know more. Sincerely…
And then there was a name and the date, from two days earlier. I called the phone number, and Clémentia, Marie’s daughter answered. When I told her who I was, she said she already knew and she would like it very much if I would come to her mother’s memorial service; that she knew quiet clearly it would have been her mother’s wish.
At the service, I was warmly received in both word and gesture. Two weeks later, I sent the daughter a narrative similar to the one I’ve just told you, describing everything – except for P.H. Emerson. Two days later, she phoned and asked if I would do her a favor. She said she wanted to see the spot where the dredge had brought up the bed. I reminded her that her mother thought the spot was below the Pont d’Arcole. She said she had already made a decision. And so we met at three in the morning at the north end of the Pont Louis Philippe, where the dredge had been positioned. With the Notre Dame as ghostly background, Clémentia poured her mother’s ashes into the Seine. She held the empty urn – an old tea tin – in her right hand, slack at her side. The other hand, the one nearest me, held the tin’s lid. On an impulse, I put my arm around her waist. She put her lid hand around my waist, and I held her close against me as she sobbed.

Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory

“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dish washing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do. Continue reading “Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory”

Sudden Naps

“The blank page is the mirror image of my brain.” My friend said this and then went out in his orchard, looked for buds on his favorite Gravensteins, maybe for meaning in general, then went to the pump house and blew his brains out with the .357 Magnum he’d kept hidden there, wrapped in an oily rag. Next to the well, open like a man hole.

His wife had gone for a walk. When she got back, she ran the washing machine so she’d have some nice things to wear that evening for him—for them both. She couldn’t account for his absence till she drew hot water before starting the dishwasher. If you got the water hot, then the dishwasher didn’t have to run its electrical element to heat the water, thereby saving energy and money.

She noticed the reddish hew of rust in the water, then went through the house looking for him. He would be able to fix it. “Are you in here?” she asked, knocking once on his door, stepping into his room, expecting to see him bent over his computer, typing furiously with two fingers, focused intensely on some plot, some story that would make people laugh or cry or gasp. But he wasn’t there. She went to the stairs, said fairly softly, “Dear?”—then ascended, crossed the Delft blue wooden floor to the far end, bent to look through the finger hole in the simple door, looked through to see if he was sleeping.

This was a man who took sudden naps after asking, “Where will you be for the next half hour? Are you going to be telephoning? If so, could you do it away from the bedroom window?” He always said this with a wry smile, a look of incredulity, a look that said “I know it’s going to be hard for you to remember but I would sure love it if you’d try.”

But he wasn’t there either. The tractor was standing with its mower in the field, with no husband near it. She went around to the shop, looked in, chirped “Jim?” and kept going toward the pond. He wasn’t on the granit bench beside the pond, thinking, watching for the big bass.

She kept going up the hill. He wasn’t in the upper garden, wasn’t weeding his onions and garlic there. She went along the Cypress, checking the aluminum chaise-longue, but it was empty. She came down the hill through the field of North Coast Dry Pasture Mix he would mow again later in the summer when the grass was dry and the thistles were getting ready to give up their seeds to the wind.

He wasn’t in the orchard. She checked his car to see if he was lying with the seat back, listening to a book on tape. She crossed the road, picked her way down the path through the Eucalyptus, edging by strands of poison oak, to his writing cabin. The aluminum and green cloth cot was propped against the wall. He wasn’t there.

He must have gone for a walk—a walk that could last no longer than an hour. Back in the house, she checked the bikes. All three of them were in place. She drew drinking water from the swinging glass carboy, put the kettle on the gas flame, and looked out the kitchen window to see if she could see the blue birds—see whether they had decided to use the birdhouse Jim had put up.

She marveled at the places she had been to find him. He was a hard man to keep track of, so many interests, so many projects: writing, gardening, language learning, cabinet-making, dreaming, thinking, boats, musical instruments, and endless short stories.

She remembered the dishwasher and ran the water to get it hot. It grew warmer and warmer and, at the same time, redder and redder. Then she remembered why she had looked for him in the first place. She felt the warmth on her hands. She thought about the color. And as the water got hotter, a thought came to her and she turned the faucet to stop it, and watched until the last of the water swirled and disappeared clockwise into the drain—leaving the sink white again.

The Men’s Writing Group

They approach the house in one’s and two’s. Some of them have been coming for fifteen years or more. Still there is fear, the urge to pee. But instead they reach down, gather up the strands of their intestines, the pieces they have dragged along behind them for years–the results of encounters with other men. They draw in deep breaths to ease the tension. They smooth a hand over the place on their stomachs, just below the umbilical wound, just above the pleasure wound, now shriveled and apprehensive. They knock, open the door, and stamp their feet to shake off the rain that has not clung to them. Like small boys, they have wide alert eyes and hope for the best. They step forward gingerly. Most of all they want to feel affection directed at them from other men. But they are not accustomed to offering affection in return—and therefore pitifully little of it is shared. They do not know whether to shake hands, whether to stand up for the greeting, or proffer a hug, and if so with what intensity, and for how long, and how close to bring their heads, or their stricken stomachs where there is no feeling now because there is something profoundly off-putting about a gathering of men. And how is it even possible to gauge the possibility of reciprocated openness if we have not mastered the art of it, not in the course of thirty, forty, fifty or two million years?

And why should we really, when we sense–just beyond–the hidden carcass that one of us may have placed in a cave or the crook of tree or under a heavy rock, before entering the house? And isn’t that the smell of woman—whose woman?—that someone has carried in on his clothing, an odor that narrows pupils and asks the question: Exactly in what place have I left my sling and stones, my obsidian knife, my Colt, and am I sure that all seven chambers are oiled, and primed with cap and ball?

We ease ourselves into chairs. The smiles are inviting, there’s a tendency to over-compensate. At intervals, there is wheezing, laughter, snorts, sweet moments of more than a little letting down. The boundary between concerned inquiry and irony is thin. We can mistake openness for blood and start to peck at the sacrificial runt. Like turtles, we retract our necks and paws, our kindred feeling. And so, little is said and little is risked.

We write. We read aloud. We discuss. Carefully. We dissect without picking up the instruments, without incisions. And when we trundle home and crawl into our dark warm beds and meet our women’s questions, we are often at a loss to explain how our male companions were that night. Was so and so healthy? they ask. Did he mention his woman friend? Did you talk about hope, dreams, fears, illness, death, sexual tenderness, the miracle of touching, success or failure in being close with this or that companion, lover or wife?

And then, on hearing little, our mate begins her deep breathing–the soft engine re-starting at our side. We lie awake and run through the evening again, like old bears who have come back from lumbering through cold forests, where we smelled scat and scent, and anguished over the scratch marks of rivals on fifty trees, if even one, and pondered the prints and tracks and tail sweeps of countless threats–earlier prowlers passing over the snow and through the dampness of hollow, draw, ridge, and swale.

We retrace the path of gestures, tones and glances. We squint out into the bedroom’s darkness. We re-measure the temperature, flavor, brightness or sudden movement, implications, signals and intent of everything we have taken in. It is a long chronicle, accurately kept and true, recorded carefully, in essence complete.

We see that we have noted exhaustion, boredom, vulnerability, pinched souls, even a lover’s bloom. The whole time as we watched on this evening the males in our group, we saw far behind them their dogs, leashed, but showing a curled lip and a yellowed warning tooth. Their eyes, the men, I mean, were soft with fear, their writing hands longing, generous perhaps–the pulse of their hearts beating out–each in a different rhythm–what remained of the five billion heart beats each of us is granted.

As we write, at the men’s group, perhaps we forget for a while the meat, the scent of carcass, the stiffening kill, which would belong to the strongest of us in the end. But I have to say it–what I am thinking. I do not trust these men. We hunt momentarily together, as if in a truce required by nature–so that we don’t die of loneliness, but always at the risk of a blow of  irony that comes too quick and is hard like steel and cold.

Perhaps if the conditions were right, and if we were fishermen and our steel boat was sinking, I ask, would I give up my survival suit for any of them? Or they for me? I would for either of my children. I would give it up for my mate–the one who sleeps on, leaving behind for the moment her amazement at how little men know about each other.

Or would I give it to one of them as well? Since each one may be as kind as he is dangerous, as generous as he is treacherous, as much soft as competitive. Then the steel plates pop, in the middle of the icy night and sixty tons of boat roars and moans and plunges out of sight, nearly sucking me and one other man along with it. This happens in less than ninety seconds and in the numbing water you have one immersion suit between the two of you, and you say to your companion: No, you take it, your children are young. And he says: No, you take it, you are older than I am and not as strong.

And in the end, one of us holds the other in his arms, and when he can almost no longer keep his gaze on you, and begins to slip away, you hold his face close to yours, and you say what has to be said, what it is you feel and what is true. O my dear friend, I love you. I love you. I have always loved you.

Love Patagonia Style

Dear Martha,

Thank you for returning my clothes and my jackknife. It is not easy to understand what has happened. You are in your new warm home, with bright windows and skylights, clean wide Persian carpets. You have the privacy and sense of home you’ve always yearned for. How silly of me to have worried about theft. It wasn’t high school boys, it was you all along, teaching me, I suppose, about the absurdity of possessions during a time when you had to live in a slanty old farm house with a backdoor made of plastic sheeting with an inch of straight daylight showing underneath—and skunks fighting under the un-insulated floor.
One blue Patagonia jacket, one pair of running shoes, my soccer uniform, and my Swiss army knife—gone from the seat of my Toyota pickup truck, now mysteriously appearing in a paper bag on the truck’s hood. No mystery left. No questions. Except for one. Why did you bother to tell me after these six months? Why not right away, or in a year? Or not at all?

Dear Nick,

I am sorry I took the clothes and the knife. Such an indirect message, such a strange way to say good-bye. I hid them under the bed during our final month together—during the hours you spent fuming and pouting, in bed, turned away from me, and only two and a half feet above the missing items. That thought provided me with a malicious satisfaction, a delicious revenge against a man who read L. L. Bean catalogs during his treasured private moments in the bathroom while I sat in the living room beside the ridiculous stove, seeing my own breath—warmed only by my reading of feminist politics and social psychology .

But now you have your things and I derive some satisfaction knowing your world is complete again, even though I am gone.

Dear Martha,

Thank you for your letter. Yesterday, I went up onto the hill and cut a dead tree, which was as thick as the distance from the tip of my middle finger to my elbow. I always get nervous around tree cutting because of all the weight and forces involved. I miscalculated, and the top of the tree I was felling got tangled in the branches of the tree next to it and would not fall all the way down.

It is better in such cases to hire a tree expert. But you know me. Instead, I thought and thought, and looked for a place to make the critical cut, in such a way that all the forces contained in the caught tree would neutralize each other, and the tree would continue its fall without incident.

Instead, the enormous weight and the hidden tensions unleashed an explosion and splintering, such that a piece of wood about the size of a man shot past me. It caught my Patagonia jacket at a spot between my shoulder blades and tore it nearly in two, barely jiggling me in the process—and left me in a cold sweat and with some nausea. It is not easy to hang on to a tree, hold a running chain saw, and throw up, all at the same time.

When I stopped shaking, I thought of you and realized how pleased you would be, knowing I had probably been given a lesson in what is valuable, and what is not.

Dear Nick,

I am glad you survived. I am not glad you have finally lost your Patagonia jacket. I have changed my mind about the symbolism carried in your jacket. I am glad instead you are still climbing trees, still make wood to heat to the old house. There was some bit of warmth–in another sense–in those fires. I can even say I miss them now. Somewhat.

Dear Martha,

I am sending you the halved Patagonia jacket. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what it means. Perhaps as a final gesture of our relationship. You can toss it, if you like, or hide it under your new bed. I have become superstitious about Patagonia jackets and have decided–in my new relationship–to no longer to wear them.

Dear Nick,

Here is your jacket back. I don’t need it. I also have a new relationship. To soften the sting of this news, one last communication from me: Hank insists we each wear pink Patagonia jackets when we go out.

Take care.

Dear Martha,

You might be amused to hear I finished the back door after all this time. The house is insulated now, and painted, too. And I have begun tunneling underneath the house as part of the first step in bringing up a foundation and driving the skunks out forever.

This morning I was vacuuming under the bed, and thought of you. I looked around, found the old torn Patagonia jacket, and spent the rest of the morning sewing it back together. After all, we do still talk.

Dear Nick,

Forgive me for sticking this note under your windshield wiper. I had the chance, so I thought I’d do it. A friend of mine said she saw you at the American Peace Test action at the Nevada nuclear test site last April—handcuffed and in the men’s cage. I think it’s wonderful you were there.

Dear Martha,

It was good to see you at the play last Saturday. I liked your friend. She was very funny, and you looked better than I have ever seen you—with your wit, your warmth, the irony in the turned up corner of your mouth.

This is an odd world. Yesterday I noticed my hand-sewn Patagonia jacket was missing from the front seat of my Passant. I hope whoever got it is warmer now and appreciates its long history.

Fondly, Nick

Dear Nick,

I have your jacket and, after a great deal of thought, I’ve decided it’s not going to be enough, and I want what comes in it.

Love, Martha