My boss, the Executive Director, would practice, in the men’s room, talking to the Board of Directors. Occasionally he addressed the entire Board, but usually it was the Executive Committee or individual members of that committee, most often the chairman. I could always tell, based on what he was saying, who he was talking to.
It was painful. He sounded exactly like he sounded outside the men’s room: like a person trying and failing to seem natural.
My desk was only about forty feet from the men’s room, which was how I knew. Didn’t he realize I could hear him? If it had been me, I would have run the faucet to drown out the sound.
When I was a child and something upsetting came on TV, I would hide behind the television. I didn’t so much mind violence, because I knew it wasn’t real, but I couldn’t bear to see people humiliated, even when it was pretend humiliation. Whenever it would start to happen, I would turn off the sound, wheel the set away from the wall, crawl behind it, and crouch amid the wires.
This is how I felt whenever I heard my boss’s voice issue from the men’s room: like I wanted a television set to hide behind.
I believe his name was Roger. A name like Roger. He was handsome, as I remember him, and short. Exactly how short I cannot say, because I never saw him stand.
Has he ever stood, I wonder.
When I held him (this was while swinging him into position), he was a full head shorter than me, although some of the difference was due to the maneuver, which required him to bend, or for me to bend him, at the knees.
He was persistent in the way certain men are persistent. Having never been this way myself, nor having witnessed it so intimately, I didn’t know how to respond. I tried to laugh it off, to pretend it wasn’t happening, but this failed to deter him. If anything he redoubled his efforts, seeing hope in my passivity.
I don’t recall the specifics of what he proposed to do to me, or vice versa, but whatever it was, it excited him, for his penis rose up and lengthened, settling at a perpendicular angle to his groin.
I found it oddly comical, and sad.
Of course it helped that he was on the toilet at the time and would remain on the toilet until I agreed to transfer him back to his wheelchair and continue our work that morning – our last together, for obvious reasons.
Mostly I remember the tuna fish sandwich my aunt made for lunch. It included slivers of celery and was cut diagonally. I had never seen, and had certainly never eaten, a diagonally-cut sandwich.
My aunt was nice. Many years later her daughter was in a car accident that left her disfigured. Before that her son took drugs that were supposed to make him taller but instead screwed up his digestive system so much that he had to have a colostomy.
It was my job to mow the lawn. I don’t know why my cousin (the boy cousin) wasn’t doing this. Maybe he wasn’t old enough yet. Or maybe my uncle took pity on me because of my “situation” at home. Anyway I can still see the shape of the lawn, the way it wrapped around the side of the house.
About halfway through, my aunt came out and asked if I wanted lunch. Various people hated my aunt for supposedly turning my uncle against his mother (my grandmother), but to me she always seemed nice.
After lunch I ran over the lawn mower cord. I mean, with the lawn mower. Unfortunately it was the actual lawn mower cord and not the extension cord. I say this because otherwise I may have found a way to finish mowing.
Instead I wheeled the lawn mower back to the garage and left the severed cord on the engine. Then I went and told my aunt that I was done.
My aunt gave me money and drove me home. The next time I saw her, or anyone in her family, was at my sister’s wedding twenty years later. No one brought up the cord.
My grandfather didn’t want me to see the magazine. He said, “I don’t think you’re old enough.”
He worked the front register; I dusted. He said, “If you see it, you’re going to have nightmares.”
I had no way of understanding this at the time, but my grandfather must have been doing very badly to have to work on Sundays in his son-in-law’s pharmacy.
“Michael,” he said, “I want you to trust me.”
As much as I loved him, I couldn’t accept this, and in the end he was forced to relent, recognizing, as I imagine it now, that he couldn’t protect me from anything, as much as he wanted.
The magazine was a tabloid. It had a cover story about a dog that had attacked a baby. There was an enormous photo of the baby and its mostly-eaten arm.
I’ve forgotten the rest: what I thought about it, what we said.
My memory ends with the arm.
It was my job to sort the mail into cubbies and then periodically deliver it to the people on my floor. At least ten other employees did the same thing in the same room, and each had their own floor.
After my first delivery, I returned to an empty mail room. This seemed bizarre, particularly since everyone had left at the same time as me, with more or less the same amount of mail to deliver. When the same thing happened after my second delivery, I realized that you weren’t supposed to return right away but rather waste time elsewhere in the building. It was crazy how much time you were supposed to waste, but I understood that if I came back too soon, I made everyone else look bad, which I didn’t want to do since I was a temp and everyone else was permanent.
I made a similar mistake that first day by sorting the mail as soon as it arrived from the post office. No one else did this, because there wasn’t much mail to sort. Basically you had to make the sorting last about five times longer than necessary or else it looked like you weren’t doing anything. Everyone, including the boss, understood this, since everyone including the boss was doing as little as you were, while pretending to do five times as much. Suffice it to say, no one was allowed to do anything that made this state of affairs too obvious.
That was the only rule.
Somewhere near the top of Maxwell Street, a man in a car stopped and asked if I lived nearby. I said I did, and he offered me a job. I believe I started the next morning. I remember meeting him on a certain corner. A shopping cart full of newspapers was involved, and folding. Folding was the best part.
The worst part was collecting. A lot of people on my route never paid me, and some even hid when I came to collect. Since I had to pay in advance for the papers, I never made a penny from delivering newspapers and quit after less than a month.
I don’t remember much else – not delivering the papers, nor getting up early, nor the man’s reaction when I quit. The only other thing that remains is the vague memory of standing in a sad man’s sad apartment, waiting for him to get the money he owed me.
Often after reading a newspaper, I fold it the way I was taught to, in thirds, tucking it into itself.
Walking home from the grocery, I did an inventory of all the things I own. There isn’t much, as things, for me, take up a lot of psychic space. The fewer things I own, the more room I have for my thoughts.
Of all the things in my studio apartment – a bed, a desk, two chairs, two computers, a printer, scanner, and maybe twenty books – which actually matter to me? None, really. What about the files – is there anything there that matters? Yes, some photos, although not to the point I would mourn their loss: photos are a crude stand-in for memory.
Oblivio matters to me, not so much because of the pieces I’ve written but the possibility it represents. If it were taken from me, I’d be crushed. Which is interesting because the only significant possession I could think of was me, Michael Barrish. But then I wondered if it would be possible to start again – as a different person, in a sense – for it struck me that I have no obligation to this Michael Barrish person.
I recently watched a videotaped interview of a therapist who continually referred to unseemly or undesirable actions as patterns, as in, “Our patterns make us reach for the Nutella.” The implication was that such patterns are invaders who make us act in ways we otherwise wouldn’t. In other words, they’re much like the devil – little devils you might say. I found myself cursing at the screen. I cursed because the desire for Nutella is real. We can ignore it or suppress it, but we cannot place it outside ourselves.
Years ago, my then girlfriend would often refer to a character she called “Bad Michael.” Bad Michael was responsible for all the things she didn’t like about me. More than once she spoke of surgically removing Bad Michael, leaving Good Michael behind.
Assuming such a thing were possible, the man who would emerge from surgery might look like me and might even talk like me, but he wouldn’t be me. I am Bad Michael as much as I am Good Michael and all the Michaels in between.
I mention Bad Michael and the little devils because the thought of abandoning myself is a lie. One’s self is the one thing one cannot abandon.
Samuel Beckett’s trilogy of post-World War II novels, the first book of which, Molloy, is one of my favorites, ends with these seven words – a distillation, in a sense, of all he wrote – “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (Similarly the bible, I’ve heard said, can be reduced in a pinch to a single two-word verse: “Jesus wept.”)
Recently I’ve taken to extending Beckett’s ending slightly. Three examples follow, with commentary.
I can’t go on. I’ll go on. Whatever.
We persist despite our avowed inability to do so. Why is this? Why do we say one thing, believe one thing, and do another? Who knows and who cares.
I can’t go on. I’ll go on. What’s up with that?
I can’t go on. I’ll go on. Deal with it.
My notes read, “Confronting the external critic,” but rather than expound on that, I’ll share some Beckett trivia.
What sport did Beckett love to watch on television? Rugby.
What did Beckett say on his deathbed when asked what he had found valuable in life? “Precious little.”
I just finished reading Cemetery Nights, a collection of poems by Stephen Dobyns.
A long time ago Stephen Dobyns had sex in a cabin with a woman (I’ll call her Nina) with whom I had sex some years later. Dobyns was twice Nina’s age at the time and possibly married. I’ve never had sex with someone so much younger than myself, nor would I ever do so, feeling it wrong. Stephen Dobyns doubtless felt differently, or made an exception for Nina, who told me this story so long ago that I’ve forgotten where the cabin was.
I do remember that Stephen Dobyns asked first, outside the cabin. I confess I’ve never done that, although I can see doing it if the woman is as young as Nina was and I am as old as Stephen Dobyns was (which as it happens, I now am). In lieu of asking I simply do what feels right and see what happens. It’s a more subtle approach, although far be it for me to criticize Stephen Dobyns for asking, particularly in a case in which you are (I only just remembered this) the young woman’s poetry teacher at a summer workshop.
Cemetery Nights was published in 1987. Stephen Dobyns slept with Nina sometime around 1977; I slept with her in 1981. I believe I had difficulty maintaining an erection.
A few years later Nina won an Academy Award as a co-producer of something. By chance I visited her soon after, and she brought out the statuette. It looked exactly like an Academy Award statuette. Mila asked if I wanted to hold it, and I said that I did not. By this point I had stopped liking her very much, for reasons I only dimly recall and which in any case no longer matter.
The main reason I read Cemetery Nights was to see if Stephen Dobyns mentions any cabins. He doesn’t.