These episodes from a Brooklyn long gone astonish with their penetrating, subtle detail.
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By GILBERT SORRENTINO
COFFEE HOUSE PRESSCopyright © 2002 Gilbert Sorrentino
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe imprint of death
People enter and then inhabit, helplessly, periods of their lives during which they look as if death has spoken to them, or, even more eerily, as if they themselves are companions to death. It is not usual for others to notice this in daily intercourse, but the look is manifest in photographs taken during these periods.
He and his wife stand side by side in casual summer clothes, comfortable, and, as they say, contemporary, but in no other way remarkable. Behind them is a cluttered, even messy kitchen table, in the center of which, curiously, a tangerine sits atop a coffee mug, and on the wall behind that is a very poorly done pencil drawing made by a neighbor's daughter, a senior at the High School of Music and Art. Such infirm productions attest to the inevitable errors of talent selection. In the man's face we can see, clearly, the imprint of death left there years ago by the deaths of his mother and father, who died less than a year apart. They died badly, as do many people, gasping, fighting, twitching, their staring eyes registering amazement at how their bodies were impatiently closing themselves down, literally getting rid of themselves. Enough! Enough!
And then they were gone, they passed away. His wife's face has,uncannily, borrowed the subtly peaked, grayish blandness of his own, and so she, too, looks as if she has to do with the other side.
But here is another photograph of a middle-aged man, let's say he's the wife's brother, whose eyes, in a placid, contented, almost smug face, have the half-mad, glazed expression which used to be known, among infantrymen, as a thousand-yard stare. Precisely at the spot at which those thousand yards end, or, perhaps, begin, is the more precise word, stands death itself, in mundane disguise, of course, looking like James Stewart in one of his honest-friend roles. The face of the man in the photograph is unsettling, since its peaceful demeanor belies the crazed eyes, which reveal the dark truth. Death, as James Stewart, may have even been approaching when the photograph was taken. Which would go a long way toward explaining the ocular terror.
And here is a group of eight or nine children in a Brooklyn playground in 1959. There are four boys and two girls and they are smiling and mugging with their gap-toothed mouths, their shirts and shorts soaked from the sprinklers whose gossamer spray can be seen in the background. They are enough to break your heart. One of them, a sweet girl with straight black hair, cut short, and with a tiny Miraculous Medal on a chain around her neck, has her hands crossed on her chest. It is this pose which somehow allows access to the expression beneath the sweetness of her lovely face. The occulted expression is the one that can be seen on prisoners in Auschwitz, although this little girl knows nothing of Auschwitz. He puts the photograph down, he hides the photograph, but has no true idea why. Yet the message has been delivered, oh yes. It is at such times that we are brought to consider how completely strange death is, how remote from us, how foreign, how impenetrable, how unfriendly. In its ineradicable distance from our entire experience, it is inhuman.
* * *
Or: "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death." (6.4311)
Click. Now you see us; now you don't.
Many people cannot understand why certain religions do not allow animals to enter heaven. Well, we know that they have no souls, but many people wonder about that, too. Do they? When the Rapture snatches Joe Bob Joe outen his Ford pickup, it'll be tough on Mr. Joe to leave Rend and Tear, his "really gentle" Rottweilers, behind.
"Let him change his religion and truly be saved!" Bob Joe Bob says, perhaps irrelevantly.
May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen. Which implies, maybe, that if God does not wish, in, of course, selected cases, to be merciful, these faithful departed may not rest in peace.
Tangerine was, indeed, all they claimed, but she's been dead for about 50 years. Bob Eberle knew her well, and even, so they say, had an amour with her. He may be dead by now as well.
Of what is't fools make such vain keeping? Sin their conception, their birth weeping, Their life a general mist of error, Their death a hideous storm of terror.
John Webster was, clearly, unfamiliar with the rhetoric of grief counseling.
I once heard Ray Eberle, Bob's brother, at the end of his rather undistinguished career, sing in a Brooklyn saloon named Henry's. His backup band was a disastrous trio, piano, accordion, and drums, but he was game. He bummed a cigarette from me at the bar. I was going to tell him that I'd seen him at the Paramount with Glenn Miller, but what was the point?
Chapter TwoThe chums of 6B4
Mario wore rubbers to school every day, for the uppers of his shoes were cracked and split, and the soles worn all the way through. He could have chosen not to wear rubbers, of course, for this was, even in the thirties, America, and freedom, enough to choke a horse, was in the unfailing ascendant. An unkind youth with a belief in his own superiority once thought to bait him about these rubbers, industrial rubbers, as they surely were, slaughterhouse rubbers, with their unmistakable thick red soles. The rage that he saw within Mario's tautly held body dissuaded him, however, and warned him away. A lot of the boys in class, knowing of his plans, were disappointed, because they hoped that maybe Mario would, in the parlance of the day, clean the little bastard's fucking clock. Maybe, God willing, even kill him. Nobody would miss him, least of all the chums of 6B4.
* * *
"I wish that all the pain that ________ is feeling could be visited, in spades, on my worst enemy," is a refreshing phrase. If one can't wish one's enemies misery or death, what is the use of sin and redemption?
Follow the leader: Mario, after his bitter childhood years of poverty, which he shared with his older brother, Mike, followed Mike and Mike's wife, Connie, to Trenton, NJ, for God knows what reason. They may still live there, doing the Jersey bounce.
It is generally agreed, or so I understand, that the word "chum" is no longer in general use, save for ironic or parodic affect. It functions, that is, much like the well-made short story.
"Of which we've read, ah, plenty."
Excerpted from Little Casino by GILBERT SORRENTINO Copyright © 2002 by Gilbert Sorrentino
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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