I saw a policeman on the bus today. He had a puppet with him. They sat together in one of the side-facing seats toward the back, having a quiet conversation. The puppet appeared to be made of wood. He wore a policeman’s uniform with a little policeman’s hat. When he talked, his mouth opened very far. I noticed that his lips, which were bright red, had been painted on his face.
At first I couldn’t hear what the policeman and the puppet were saying, so I moved to a seat across from them and pretended to be reading a book. It turned out that they were discussing a little boy who had gotten lost at a party. In the middle of the party the boy’s parents realized that they hadn’t seen the boy in some time. They looked everywhere and called his name over and over, but the boy didn’t appear. Soon all their friends joined in, but they couldn’t find the boy either, so eventually the parents were forced to call the police. The officer who came was the puppet. He told the policeman that he felt bad for the family, who were terribly upset about their missing boy. Everyone was. He said that there was a chocolate cake on the table that looked delicious but that no one was eating any because of how upset they were.
At this the policeman shook his head and said that everyone probably wanted to eat the cake even more than usual but were stopping themselves because of the boy’s disappearance. “It would have looked like they were celebrating,” he said.
“Oh, shit, you’re right,” cried the puppet, who then smacked himself on the side of his head, knocking off his little policeman’s hat.
There was once a boy — me, in fact — who had an inflatable grandmother. She wasn’t my real grandmother. My real grandmother was a regular, non-inflatable person who got cancer and died. And then my grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s, came to believe that his wife had run away with another man in the building, who also got cancer and died.
I’m not sure if I’m explaining this right. The other man really did die from cancer, just like my grandmother, and no one ran away with anyone. But for some reason my grandfather believed otherwise, and it broke his heart. My father tried to convince him of the truth, but he wouldn’t listen. So it was then that my father came up with the idea to replace my grandmother with an inflatable doll.
Of course I didn’t understand any of this at the time because I was just a boy. Instead I pieced it together later, and my father filled in the gaps. All I knew at the time was that whenever we visited my grandfather, there would be an inflatable doll sitting on the couch and that I was supposed to call the doll Bubbie.
K: Was it a fuck doll?
M: Well, yes, only I didn’t understand that because I didn’t know what those things were. But, yes, it was an inflatable doll that you have sex with.
Anyway, my father or my grandfather, I don’t know which one, dressed up the doll to look like my grandmother. It had makeup on and wore the same clothes my grandmother wore.
I remember sitting in my father’s car in the parking lot of my grandfather’s building and having my father explain that Pop-Pop was really confused and that he missed Bubbie so much that he now had a doll that he thought of as her. He asked me to play along and say hello to the doll and call her Bubbie, and I said I would. After that we had a regular visit. We sat around eating danish like we always did, and talking about whatever we talked about, and sometimes my grandfather would direct comments to the doll, so we all turned to the doll to see what it would say, but of course it never said anything.
We had about a half dozen visits like this, and then one time we came and my grandmother… I mean the doll… wasn’t there. She was usually propped up on the couch. So I said, “Where’s Bubbie?” and my grandfather said she wasn’t feeling well and was still in bed. So I went to the bedroom to say hello, like I was supposed to do, and there I saw this terrible thing. She, it, was in bed, on her side of the bed, completely deflated.
K: Was she dead?
M: Well, she wasn’t dead because she had never been alive, but I knew she was broken.
K: How old were you?
M: About six. Anyway, it’s weird because it was actually kind of upsetting. I had come to think of the doll as my grandmother. I knew it wasn’t a living thing, and I knew that my grandfather was crazy, but I had gotten used to the doll being in the place of my grandmother, who I missed terribly, and now the doll was deflated. I didn’t know if she, it, the doll had a tear that could be repaired, or if her… what do you call it? The place where you blow her up?
K: The blow hole.
M. I didn’t know if that rubber cap thing had come off, and I didn’t think it was proper to look, the same way that I never would have looked under my real grandmother’s garments. I wouldn’t have done that even if I had found her dead. It was really strange because as I stood there, I was hit with this wave of pretend sadness. Or maybe it was real sadness. Anyway, I didn’t tell anybody what I’d seen, and then we left, and then my grandfather was put in a nursing home for people with dementia. The end.
K: This is another story that makes me want to fucking kill myself.
There once was a helicopter who was different from all the other helicopters. Unlike the others, he wasn’t conscious when he was on.
The moment the other helicopters were turned on, it was as though they would wake from hibernation, from oblivion. Then when they were turned off, they would enter a state of zero consciousness, as though they had died.
But this particular helicopter had no awareness of being turned on, of his propellers spinning, of rising through the air and flying over the city. Instead he would come to life the moment he was turned off.
So he would be, say, on top of some building, doing nothing, just sitting there, and then someone would climb inside him and suddenly everything would go blank, and then, in what seemed like the next moment, he would be in a completely different place, with no idea how he had gotten there. Because of course he had no way of knowing that he was a helicopter and that he could fly and that he did fly, and that this was how he had come to be wherever he would find himself.
K has a stuffed animal, a monkey, named Seymour. K’s mother gave her Seymour when K was eight, which makes him at least thirty-three now.
K sleeps with Seymour almost every night. She leans into him, wedging him into the crook of her arm and resting her chin on top of his head. If Seymour were a real monkey he would quickly suffocate from this. Indeed there’s no better way to suffocate a monkey than what K does to Seymour.
Seymour’s head is bigger than the rest of him. Wrapped in finely-woven terry cloth, it’s firm without being too firm to sleep on. Miraculously (a word I do not use lightly) Seymour’s head doesn’t smell. None of him does, although he has spent more than ten thousand nights (I did the math) jammed into K’s armpit and has never been washed. It’s like the miracle of Hanukkah but applied to stuffed monkeys.
The only time K sleeps without Seymour is when she’s away. She says she does this because he’s too big to bring anywhere, but I don’t think that’s the real reason. I think it’s embarrassment. I think it’s the idea of a forty-two year-old woman who can’t sleep a single night without her stuffed monkey.
On the other hand, K did bring Seymour to college. However, as she explains it, most of her college roommates had some ridiculous thing like Seymour, so it didn’t really matter.
After college K lived for a year in Israel, on a kibbutz, during which time Seymour remained at home (in a box!), I suspect because K didn’t want to be ridiculed by the hardcore kibbutzniks — no-nonsense types trained in the use of automatic weapons.
A confession: Sometimes, when K is away, I sleep with Seymour. I use the same method as K. It’s a nearly prone position, which normally hurts my back, but with Seymour’s head propping me up, I wake without pain.
Also, when K’s at home and I happen to get into bed before her, I sometimes hide Seymour under my body. Often K doesn’t realize he’s missing until she’s about to turn off the light, at which point she’ll sidle up to me in a manner indicating affection, or perhaps even desire, but then suddenly go for the monkey, crying, “Seymour is mine! My mommy gave him to me!”
When I asked K what people should know about Seymour, she said, “That I love him.” I love him too, in my way. He’s a survivor.
Although Seymour was made with great care, his manufacturer had no way of knowing that he would be suffocated all night, nearly every night, for thirty-three years. Because of this, and because time is kind to no one and nothing, Seymour is falling apart: his ears are split open; the paint of his pupils is chipping away; his goofy smile, a modest red thread, has been sewn to his face to prevent it from breaking (K: “I can’t make him frown anymore”); and he has dozens of small tears, many of which K’s mother repaired long ago with dental floss.
His paw pads are the worst. Seymour’s brand name was Corky, doubtless because his hind legs are stuffed with tiny bits of cork. Unfortunately his hind paw pads are prone to small tears through which the cork slowly leaks. In recent years K switched from dental floss to duct tape and then finally gave up and wrapped Seymour’s leakier paw in a piece of fabric cut from an old sheet. The paw still leaks but the fabric contains the cork. Eventually K intends to cut open Seymour’s paw pads and remove all the cork. This will solve the problem but at the price of eliminating the squishy crunchiness of Seymour’s hind legs.
Such is life, I suppose. You do what you can, until you can do no more. And in the best case, you succeed in bringing some comfort and joy to others, even if your own smile is permanently sewn to your face.
Recently I’ve been having experiences I think of as blanks. Yesterday, for example, I stood outside our apartment waiting for K to join me, and while waiting I realized that I couldn’t remember leaving the apartment. I could remembered being about to leave, but I couldn’t remember leaving. Nonetheless I must have left, I thought, because here I am at the top of the stairs. How else could I have gotten here if not by leaving?
It’s like the way films are cut. In one shot a woman gets into a car; in the next shot, the next moment, she arrives at her destination. We’re not shown what happened between the two shots because it’s obvious. Films are constructed so that everything obvious is left out. The viewer fills in the blanks.
Stories are the same. Even music. It’s all a collection of artfully arranged blanks.
But my blanks are neither artful nor arranged. They’re just blanks.
It’s the middle of the night and K is making whimpering sounds. I’m lying on my side and she’s behind me, spooning me. I don’t know how long she’s been doing this, but what finally wakes me is the way she’s shaking. I turn to hold her.
“You had a bad dream,” I say. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not okay.”
“It was a dream, sweetheart.”
“It was real.”
She’s sobbing now. I ask her to tell me what happened. She says that her father came to visit and that we were sitting in the living room talking and having a nice time, when suddenly he said he had to go. “You mean back home,” she said, and he said, “No, dear, I have to go back underground.”
“He’s never coming back,” she says now. “He’s underground and he’s gone forever.”
“No, he’s here in your heart,” I say. It’s the only thing I can think to say.
This prompts more crying, and I hold her. In time she turns for a tissue, saying, “I’m getting better at this,” meaning better at blowing her nose when she cries. Nose blowing is my influence.
Later she gets up to pee. When she returns she says she feels better and can go back to sleep.
I ask her to tell me more about her father. “He’s always welcome at our table,” I say.
In the morning I mistakenly believe I dreamt it all, but K sets me straight.
“I blew my nose,” she says. “I never do that in dreams.”
I sometimes think it all still lives in me, everything I’ve seen and experienced. When I think this way, I see myself as a field in which things grow and die, each taking root in soil fed by what came before. In this way everything connects back to the first thing, which in a sense still remains. It remains in what remains.
Other times – most times – I see myself as a turnstile: each thing passes through me and is gone.
Sometimes I watch my fingers as I type. They seem to move on their own. It happens faster than I can will it. For some time now, they’ve been still. It’s as though they’re thinking. They think and act, think and act. I sit and watch and wait. Then, suddenly, a burst of activity. They have things to do, places to be, such busyness. This is followed by stillness. A long stillness this time. A still more considered stillness. Drawn out. It’s a kind of brooding. I lift my fingers from the keys. For a sentence they move without me.
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in Brooklyn and I’m sitting on the bench outside Guerrilla Coffee, drinking tea. Across the street a mailbox is on fire.
For the last five minutes I’ve been looking at the clouds. I can never remember the names of clouds, but these are the high, wispy kind, the kind that resemble vapors. Yesterday B stood at my window and said that the clouds (the big fluffy kind) looked like the clouds on the Simpsons. I’ve been sitting here considering B’s remark. It seemed very telling when she said it, but now I don’t think so. Nature is a mirror for our minds, the same as everything else, and B’s mind is immersed in popular culture. It would be silly to expect her to look at the clouds and see buffalos, or whatever people saw in the clouds ten thousand years ago.
Also I was wrong to say that the mailbox is on fire. What’s on fire, rather, are its contents. I know this because smoke is spewing out of the mail slot. Just now a woman came out of the beauty parlor and poured a small jar of water through the slot. This didn’t appear to have any effect, most likely because the act of opening and closing the mail slot fanned the flames inside. Now she’s run back into the beauty parlor, presumably to get more water.
Ah, and now a small crowd has gathered around the smoking mailbox. They’re talking intently and shaking their heads. One man just pointed down 5th Avenue. At the culprit? Did he see who did this? I’m tempted to go over and ask, but I’d rather not give up my seat on the bench, which is comfortable and sunny.
Several times a woman has come out of Guerrilla Coffee to remark on what’s happening across the street. She’s terribly affected and keeps saying that this is a violation of our social contract. It’s true enough but it doesn’t become more true through repetition. I sense she needs an audience for her anguish. She stands in the middle of the sidewalk and looks at the sky (is she addressing the clouds?), saying what a sin this is and how only a psychopath could, etc. Then she retreats into the coffee shop.
Meanwhile, as I sit here drinking my tea, I keeping picturing all the mail at the bottom of that mailbox, all those rent checks and love letters, burning.
People say it’s different when the child is yours. But if what this isn’t true in my case? Certainly that must happen. Lisa was convinced I would love having a cellphone, and then I finally got one, in no small part because of Lisa’s conviction, and immediately hated the thing, and hate it still. What if I react like this to my child? Most times I leave my cellphone at home because I don’t want to put up with answering it. You cannot do this with a child. A child cannot be left at home, cannot be set to vibrate, cannot be upgraded to a model with improved reception and a built-in camera.
People say everything changes in a way you can’t imagine, so I try to imagine what that must be like, but of course I can’t because you can’t imagine what you can’t imagine. You have to take the thing on faith. You have to trust that when you look into the eyes of your child, everything will change and you will change and nothing will ever be the same.
But what if that doesn’t happen? What if I look and all I see are my child’s eyes looking back at me, and nothing changes except that here is my child and here I am and nothing is changing?