Once Is Forever
I used to wonder about that, too, when I was a kid and our swimming pools still weren't integrated. At the beginning of the season, lots and lots of bathers would jump out of the water as soon as I arrived and would just stand there glowering at me like somebody who'd just used their recreation area for a toilet.
It was in the Manayunk Library that I found out what was what: "Spain sent its Armada Invencible and close to 10,000 sailors to England in 1588 and very few of them ever got back to the Peninsula. Some were killed outright, but the majority of them got ashore in Ireland where they found refuge from their own fanatical king, Philip II, and from their English pursuers." That's what I told my grandfather: "All of us, the Stones: we're the Black Irish."
"If you weren't so young, Peter, I'd say you've been swimming in our Irish sorrow already," he answered. "Otherwise, I have to say you been kissing the Blarney Stone instead of all the pretty Colleens around here."
Back then in the early 50s, nobody with carrying cash in their pocket was ever too young to buy a six-pack of beer in just about any one of the ethnic bars in Manayunk that, back then, were as many as four at each intersection. And I wasn't going to tell Grandpa Patrick, either, about other grown-up services I was already getting: Millie Mullens and Mary Ann Moffit with whom, simultaneously, I was getting much more than lip service.
"Wanna know what the real reason is?" Grandpa asked, and I knew from experience of my sixteen years that about 99% of whatever it was he was going to say would be hokum. It always turned out to be that way when, in the past, I'd pass on to somebody else what he'd taught me and everybody would just laugh and laugh. "He was jawing out of his Jameson," they'd say. And most of the time, for sure, they were right.
Grandpa's black eyes seemed to sink in their sockets and wrinkles began waking around them as the tip of his bloodshot nose lit up red like a warning light at the entrance to forbidden territory. "You really wanna know why so many of us Irish are so dark?" he asked.
I'd already looked it up in the library where you always find facts, as I've just said, and books always tell the truth unless you purposely go looking for something in the fiction section where, paradoxically, some of the things you read were truer than the truth. Accordingly, I just stood there waiting.
"The real reason some of us are so dark--me and you, for instance, but not your brother and sister--is because our souls are too big for our bodies. The two of them don't fit together and the one's always trying to toss out the other. Fightin', fightin', fightin'. Bruisin' and bruisin'. That's what they're doing all the time."
Grandpa looked me straight in the eyes and the glow in his nose now seemed to have lit up the sod-like cinders in his sockets. "Our hearts are bleeding all the time, Peter, and what we're seeing every time we look at ourselves in a mirror are the bumps and the bruises."
Nobody visiting in my study really wanted to talk, though. As a matter of fact, my ex-colleagues at Penn seemed embarrassed to be there saying "Hello! How're you feeling?" and then just sitting there expecting me to keep up the rest of the conversation. For thirty-some years I tried getting somebody to listen, to hear what I had to say about how all of Education's been turned into nothing but still another business, and no sooner would I start when all I'd see was the back of everybody's bulging butts.
If any of those faculty members said anything at all, it was always the same thing: "To Hell with ideas and ideals, Peter. Nothing's ever gonna change, can't you see? Everything's politics and power. Don't you ever get it?"
Stranger, still, were the students who came. All of them seemed to be about the same age, twenty, twenty-one, maybe. Most of them were smiling, trying to cheer me up, I guess, but almost every evening there'd be at least one or two of them who would be smirking. They're probably the ones who got something less than an A or B, and this at a time when a B was the absolute lowest grade anybody could give without the Chair climbing down the teacher's throat, the point below which the students initiate a Grade Appeal and then you have to explain your grading system to a group of your department peers whose one and only goal seems to be the retention of students so as to keep the Treasurer issuing checks with their names to be signed on the bottom line. These students didn't say a thing, didn't apologize for having wasted my time and theirs, didn't even do the courtesy of asking how I was. Nothing of the sort! They just sat there staring at me like funeral directors knowing that the faster they get me sorrying in the sod, the sooner the green grass in their pay-back accounts will grow.
On the other hand, I'd be looking one moment at Davie Dipshit, or whatever his real name might be, and in the very next, the whole room would light up and a blonde or a brunette-semi-open-blousie'd be sitting there wrapped in the siren sounds of a foreign language--one I know I knew--but by the time I'd lean forward and ask her to repeat what she'd just said, it was already too late. Adam Administrator or Davie Dipshit was back again and all of us were just sitting there waiting for the other guy's heart to be the first one to blink.
It's so common and trite as almost to be a cliché among literary people to claim that we all die alone, but now that I've been there, I have to agree. Maybe not all the way, but certainly far enough in that direction to warrant at least an A-. And that's when Lizzi and our daughters came in.
"And you," I'd whisper. "I love you, too." And I do. I really do! Lizzi and the girls, Cathy and Colleen, were always there for me: the rafts I knew I could cling to whenever my blood pressure, my lipid level, or my rotting liver was telling me that my booze boat was seriously sinking under the increasing weight of my alcoholic bloat.
And, so, the inevitable and the inescapable finally came to be.
I remember seeing the Hospice Helper with the morphine muzzle staring at me with a semblance of tears in her eyes and I remember her saying: "This's the very last time I'm gonna hurt you . . . the very last time anything or anybody's gonna hurt you."
Still again, I heard "I love you." It could have been Lizzi. It could have been the girls. It could have been one or all of the untouched lovelies of my life with their blonde or brunette tresses trailing toward their titties . . . siren sounds twirling on their tongues. It could have been The Hospice Helper herself, maybe.
Problem is that none of us really knew what was really what.
After that, nothing at all seemed to happen because I was sleeping or something. The whole thing was like being in the middle of nowhere without a clue as to where the way out was; no idea of what to say if somebody were ever to come along because, even without looking, I knew I was naked.
But there was hope: veteran actors don't give even a second thought about improvising when the "proper" script isn't scrolling in their skulls. I felt I could have gone either left or right--turned around, maybe--but the more I thought about getting off the downward-tilting trail I seemed to be moving on, the more I thought about Calderón's La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream), that's been performed, read and taught millions of times over. And since the whole thing's been around for more than five hundred years and can't be changed, the very last thing you wanna do is ruin somebody's role by sitting up in your coffin and scaring the bejesus out of everybody, as happened in The Shipping News.
So, silently, on and on I went.
Living Wills aren't for everybody, I'm sure, but for me that last document I signed in Admissions at RMH was the best thing I ever did. (Or, at least, I thought so, at first.) Not only do you get to say when enough's enough and that you wanna die, but you can also stipulate how and where it's gonna happen.
"In my study at home," I'd stated, but Lizzi kept shaking her head from side to side.
"It's too small," she whispered to the lady from the funeral parlor. "There's no way we could ever have a wake there."
It was already at that point I realized it was now or never to make a stand or I'd become a making of the monkeys in the mortuaries: a perfectly-at-peace-presence in a beautiful box without even the possibility of a whisper of my lifelong wailing being heard even at my own wake.
My grandparent's house, a couple of blocks away up on Monastery Avenue, was always the place where everybody in our family got laid out. From as way back as I can remember, it was always the same way: you'd come in the front door into the living room and there, up against the wall on the right, would be the coffin and a kneeling bench.
Back then during the War in the early 40s there were still enough old timers left who sounded like they just got off the boat. Uncle, aunt, or just a friend of the family--it didn't matter who was in the coffin because most of the mourners would kneel down and, with their eyes closed so as not to see their own inevitable fate, would say the same thing with a brogue so thick you had to listen hard--real hard--to separate the syllables on their lips from the sobbing of their sorrow. Male or female, then, it was always the same litany: "Oh, dear Jesus, Patrick! Now look'it the box you've gotten yourself into this time, eh?"
And then with a very shortened signing of the cross, with just gesturing from the forehead to the chest, and then stealth flying from the left shoulder to the right--something like a baseball player going immediately from first to third and then home again--the mourner would head for the basement because that's where the booze and the bread--what many of them had really come for--were always laid out and were constantly being refreshed.
"Up against the wall-to-wall bookcase in my study," I insisted.
And I got my way.
It's reversing roles, I know, for the dead to be commenting about the living, but I know I can't go on without having something to say about my wake in the first-floor room of our century-old rowhouse that I'd always used as a study.
Li's Funeral Parlor hated the fact that they were going to lose a third of their fees by allowing the wake to be somewhere other than on their own premises. But I'd insisted, and since Lizzi wasn't about to deny me the very last thing I ever asked of her--to allow me to be looking one last time at the books that'd been the making of my mind . . .
It was back in St. John's High when I first started reading books that were on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer being my favorites. Ma read True Detective and, secretly, borrowed paperback novels, women with bulging bosoms and men with longing loins adorning their covers. She was a high school graduate, but back then in the 1930s when she was student, there was a stock market crash and a depression going on, so buying books of any kind was a luxury for the rich only. Starting then, both her emotional life and her vicarious one, I guess, became second hand because Dad, working as an electrician in Philadelphia's subway system at night and as a "helper" in an oil burner concern during the day . . . Hell! Who's got the time? And except when HE wanted it, they never had any sexual time together.
In any case, anything so time-consuming as foreplay was completely unknown to him. Left, then was only a potential, never-realized wet dream for her.
Somehow, though, Ma found out about the books I was checking out of the Manayunk or the Wissahickon libraries, and that was the end of that. Somebody put her on to who was who and what was what, and next thing I knew the paperback editions of Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil that my paper route and job as an usher at the Roxy allowed me to buy wound up in a bonfire in the back yard. (It wasn't until much latter, in Graduate School, that I found out the same thing had happened to Don Quixote: having all of his favorite books burned so as to help out with his sanity that was increasingly being sanitized by simpletons.)
"This's to keep your soul from burning up the same way," was all Ma said when I showed up unexpectedly and she, with both hands, was squirting lighter fluid on my books that previously had been living and breathing perfectly well under my bed. The whole thing burned blue and gold, like the promises of the Heaven I now know for sure none of us is ever going to.
"It's done," was all Ma had to say after the flames stopped feeding greedily on the paper and then turned back on each other like the soon-to-be starved people a century or so ago at Donner Pass, people whose presence she never knew about and, possibly, never would've cared about because they weren't Catholics.
"Never again, I pray, will I ever be held so accountable" were her last words.
Calderón, Cervantes, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and even Niebuhr were there in the bookcase as a backdrop for my wake. But nobody seemed to pay any attention to them at all. That's when I first found out there's really a difference between being alive or dead. Somebody who looked like Davie Dipshit or one of the Dipettes, his brothers in the band of bunglers, hovered over me a moment, and I felt for sure he was going to up-chuck something burning in his belly, that he was going to spew all over me. Automatically, I flinched . . . did anything and everything you usually do in the presence of somebody about to get sick on you. And it was then it happened: Davie Dipshit turned away at the last moment and then got sick in front of the four or five people who, unfortunately at the moment, "fit" in my study. But me . . . I wasn't in any harm at all. To the contrary, my body was still lying in the coffin but I . . . I was about six feet in the air and dangling upside down above the whole thing.
I reached out toward the ceiling for a better sense of balance and watched in amazement as my outstretched hand disappeared right through it. Right through the peeling plaster and completely out of sight! I looked down again at my body in its bronzed box and then wondered what would happen if I tried to go all the way. Just like that, then, I was there: upstairs in the alcove paralleling the staircase with my other desk and my other computer, a couple of books off to the side, and, best of all, a bottle of Gilbeys hidden in the bottom drawer.
A little swig or two . . . what difference will it make now?
The Livingstons weren't happy with my Living Will thing, as I've already said, but I still thought Lizzi was getting ripped off by the way they were treating me behind her back. Admittedly, I wasn't altogether there during the embalming process, but I do remember bits and parts of it.
"Reeks a booze!" somebody or another commented as soon as they got me in the belly of their abode and slammed tight the door against the living world outside.
"Gettin' what he deserves," still another voice commented from above my head and out of sight from the tilting, metal embalming bed.
I was gonna say something, ask about getting a second opinion as you always hear about in the medical programs on TV, but almost immediately a high-pitched rotor started doing its rooting, and that was the end of that.
I lay there feeling more and more drained by the minute, but for the life of me, I couldn't seem to get all of the right words lined up on my tongue so that, together, they wouldn't sound like bellowing beeps from the top of the Tower of Babel. So, of course, I wound up not saying a thing.
Isn't it strange about linguists? Either we say something completely right, fearful of stumbling over pebbles, or we don't say anything at all.
Even in death, I was finding out you never get your dying wish.
"Cremated," I'd insisted in my Living Will that was given orally. "And I want the ashes dropped in Devil's Pool in Cresham Creek right before it dies in the Wissahickon; before the Wissahickon drowns in the upstate dredge of the Schuylkill and before that cesspool tastes the salted and oil-slickened tides of the Delaware; before . . . before finally coming to rest on the other side of the Gulf Stream in the middle of the Atlantic where all movement finally comes to an end . . . where coming and going no longer exist . . . where everything just IS."
But the Livingston Boys were still sticking in their needles and were still sumping me of all sensibility. And Lizzi, poor Lizzi, Lizzi was beside herself, wasn't thinking at all.
"You just go with the flow," somebody or another whispered in her ear right after the ghouls had made their "professional" proposal that a "proper" burial was the only thing--on the sober side of sobriety, of course--any of us would ever really want.
So there I was! It was either the worms getting fatter or me getting skinner. So that's the way I went: easing out and hovering above the contoured box they'd assigned me to as the Livingston Boys slipped my body into a grave out at Consolation Gardens in Conshohocken where their wallets were whispered on for each planking.
But that's another problem I feel I should be telling you about: what do you do when everybody's thinking they know where you are, and you're really somewhere else?
Lizzi and the girls used to think about me at times like somebody far, far away, not knowing that I was right there at their side. But times change. And then even the memories start disappearing, something like a process that would turn a photo into its original negative imprint. And all of us on both sides of the divide felt we we're doing the right thing, I guess. But let's face it: where do you go and what do you do after you've done the first thing a couple of times and nothing's different one way or the other?
Strange thing, though! At first I was never "away from home" for more than a day or two, three or four, maybe; I told myself I was going away just to enjoy the experience of flying, of being in a situation where my willing and wanting were immediately gratified as I'd soar first this direction and then the other.
It was during those first trips "away," though, that it first struck me that something was wrong, that there's more to being dead than anybody ever tells us. I didn't go to either Heaven or Hell . . . promises and threats made by the priests from St. John's that Lizzi, completely against my will, got in touch with as soon as I got home from RMH. Nothing like that at all! None of that bothered me and the truth of the matter is that it's been so long ago as in high school that I've put any faith at all in that kind of pap. But something else, something much more important was wrong--I could do this, do that, do just about anything I wanted; but it turns out I'm always doing it by myself, COMPLETELY ALONE.
I was really hoping to run into Grandpa Patrick because since we're so much alike, I felt for sure we'd wind up in the same place. But it never happened.
I kept thinking I was wrong, that I was flying blind or something and that all I had to do was open my eyes and see the light. So that's what I did! First it was a whole week away. And then two, three, and four. And still no sign of my grandfather, no sign of anybody at all.
But when I came "home" the last time . . .
You got it! Nobody at all had missed me because, as I just said, they'd no idea that, mostly, I'd always been right there at their side. And then one day when I finally got back from an extended flight, the whole house on Manayunk Avenue was filled with people I'd never seen before: a mother and father, two grade-school daughters, a dog, a cat, and two rabbits in cages out in the back yard.
I sat down in a strange chair in the study where I'd worked all my life and where I'd been laid out, but everything was so changed! Gone was the bookcase. Gone, too, was my wooden desk with the computer at its center. Gone, additionally, the rattan chair I used to sit in late at night, with the lights out, trying to think about what I could've done, should've done during the day to make the whole thing, whatever it was, perfect.
Now I know what a waste all of it had been. I spent a lifetime learning and teaching languages, but communication doesn't work here precisely for the reason that there's absolutely nobody else around. Nobody.
Under the circumstances, then, I don't think there's anything else worthwhile saying right now--Is there anybody out there even hearing me?--because I'm about to make the big move, just fly away, making a full trip around the world, above it . . . under it. And then I'll just keep on going.
Maybe . . . maybe if I'm really lucky, I'll wind up at the same place where Grandpa Patrick is and then we'll hug and hold each other and, finally, sitting down together--him with his Jameson and me with my Gilbys--we'll skål one final time to our freedom from the wrong world we'd been born into.
And salute, perhaps, the luminous one we'll forever be heading for at the bottom of our bottles.
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