Read an Excerpt
Section I of III
Palpable darkness pervades the room,
surrounding, infusing, permeating
every nook and cranny of the study.
Through the windows no light shines, no trace
of lingering twilight or approaching dawn.
Only suffocating pitch-black ebony hours,
hours past midnight,
hours long before predawn half-light.
Partially drawn, the curtains
shroud the windows; half-recognized,
the couch in between overflows with books,
papers, manuscripts thrown aside in haste,
disgust, ennui, acedia, despair.
Randomly piled stacks of books obstruct
the floor; papers collect dust and mites;
along two walls row on row of books
slouch haphazardly or are crammed onto
shelves designed to hold half as many.
No order but disarray cloaked in darkness.
As chaotic as the rest of the room,
the desk holds heaps of material,
half-digested, then set aside,
piled willy-nilly around and on
the computer, paperclips, scissors,
tape, discarded envelopes bearing
half an address, a half-used ream of paper,
paraphernalia of a mind searching for form,
struggling to arrest chaos itself.
On a stand next to the couch a lexicon
lies closed, repository of a language
that once signified, referred, meant something
beyond the infinite play of facile wit,
the seductive flow of consciousness
streaming from one diversion to another,
distracting itself with one curio,
momentarily, before bounding back
to the ocean of flux, sensation,
instinct, where all that sails on that sea
stands level with every other ship,
lost, seeking no port of call, no shore,
no destination but the dark horizon
of one floundering at sea.
On the brown carpet of moderate pile,
flat on his back, gazing up into the dark room,
stretched out like a corpse, lay Peter Marsh.
For three days since the murder of his wife,
he had slept very little and had spent
each night alone on the rack of the floor
of his study. More than thirty years of marriage
kept going over and over in his mind,
now replaced with scraps of conversation
from earlier that evening with David Emerson.
I know Peter nothing I can ever say
can make up for the loss you feel.
Mary was a real princess, a real princess.
I've always thought that, Peter,
even years ago when I first met her.
I'm sorry as hell, Pete. You know that.
Peter stared up at the ceiling or where
in the dark he knew the ceiling should be.
David and he had always kept in touch
since high school and their friendship
meant a lot to him though their lives
had taken very different paths,
as different as could be. Peter had wanted
to enter Saint Thomas Seminary but felt
something had happened to Christianity,
so instead studied philosophy and literature.
David became a fairly successful businessman,
starting out as a traveling salesman,
selling vacuum cleaners door to door,
and then baby furniture. Old boy,
the world always needs more baby furniture,
Peter recalled his saying. Peter strained
in the dark to make out what he knew
was the light fixture several feet above him.
It was a ridiculous design for a study.
A gift from his daughter Jane, years ago.
David walked around to Peter's side
of the table and carefully poured him
a cup of coffee from the carafe.
I made it on the weak side, old man.
I don't want to keep us up all night now, you know.
Oh it won't bother me, David.
I've lived on coffee for years. After a pause,
thinking of the viewing, he added,
she looked peaceful tonight, don't you think?
Yeah. Yeah, she did. I wish I could have
got here right away Peter, but . . .
No, don't now. There's no need. I understand.
Besides, Jane and Ted have been here, and
there have been so many details and questions.
I haven't had a moment free.
You came as soon as possible and that's
what counts. He reached for the cream
and slowly poured some into his own cup.
I don't think I could make it through
the funeral tomorrow without you, David,
his face hardened as he finished.
Peter looked toward his heavy oak desk
where he had abandoned his manuscript
overturning analytical philosophy.
He couldn't even see the desk clearly.
Peter, I don't want to sound like an ass,
but you just got to bear up under this
for a few more days and get through it.
She'd want you to, Pete. After Priscilla walked
out on me . . . well, there's no comparison,
and maybe I'm just a dumb lug for
even bringing it up, but after that,
man, I thought it was all over.
I gave her eight years of my life
and then she ran off like that to
Jerusalem with that damn engineer.
I guess what I'm trying to say is
that the first few days are the hardest.
We'll make it together, don't you worry.
Peter looked at him without blinking an eye.
He understood David and was not surprised.
David had been disenchanted long ago.
David quickly began to feel uneasy
trying to broach such subjects and turned
to safer ones. Hey, I still feel like
a louse for driving out the kids tonight.
They didn't have to go to Mary's sister's.
I think it just got to be too much
for them, David. For years now
they really haven't been able to take me.
I'm afraid they see me as a silent
reproach of everything they've done.
Oh, come on. They ain't such bad kids.
No, they're not. And I don't really think
they are. But between Mary and me,
they always felt more at ease with her.
She was alive and spontaneous
and not always wrestling with
everything under the sun. Oh she'd
make them tow the line, but,
in all honesty, without much seriousness.
Well, what are they into now? I haven't
really had a chance to talk to them.
It's been years since I seen them.
Peter again strained to see the frosted
light fixture. He thought he could detect
one delicate petal curving around
the center globe over the bulb.
Jane had been so proud to give it to him.
Just before that birthday of his,
she had had an illegal abortion.
Ted had taken her to demonstrate at
the 1968 Democratic convention,
along with some of his SDS friends,
before returning to Columbia in the fall.
Jane has been out in California for some time,
working for one radical cause or another,
a sort of publicity agent, you might say.
Ted, he's still in New York, trading
on the stock exchange. They're okay.
Listen, you should be proud of them.
They're both making good money, ain't they?
David, I think we've had that discussion,
haven't we? Let's not go into it again.
Peter reflected on the shame he felt
when David asked about the kids.
Had he heard on TV about Ted's arrest
for selling cocaine to his Wall Street
customers? He couldn't have known
Jane had had a third abortion.
He himself had found out only by accident.
Somewhere in the rubble of Mary's books
were copies of Freud, D. H. Lawrence,
Margaret Mead, and Betty Friedan.
Mary had zealously read them all
to instruct Jane in the latest rites
of freedom and feminist womanhood.
Mary was that way. She wanted to do
things right and felt she had to master
all the up-to-date ideas herself,
at times not merely vicariously,
so that her children would have the best
the modern world had to offer.
Peter complained it came from her days as
an early red-diaper baby--all those
summer camps in the thirties and forties,
resisting bourgeois America, swallowing
her parents' cheap progressivism.
The kids got what the modern world has to offer.
Looking at them Peter recognized all
the suppurating diseases of the
twentieth century, mental and physical,
personified in his own children.
He could swear they both had been high
at the viewing that evening.
He hoped they'd have the decency
to stay straight for the funeral.
David gestured with the carafe,
reaching across the table to pour it,
thinking of keeping David's mind off Mary.
Still, you got kids you can be proud of.
Now if me and that Jewish whore had had kids,
who knows what would have come of that.
Every time I think about it I'm glad
I never got her knocked up. You know,
my mother liked that Jezebel
just because she was a Jew,
though it didn't matter to me,
or, for that matter, to Priscilla.
All that old crap stinks as far as I'm
concerned. You know, she was good in bed.
That's all. I'm no philosopher like you.
Don't give me that. You loved her, David.
I remember. You just said you almost
fell apart when she left. You nailed
the mezuzah to the doorpost, didn't you?
Okay, don't throw that shit in my face.
Sure, I was more or less raised a Jew,
even if my old man wasn't one.
Well, all that stuff is gone now,
and how you know better than I do.
They had both instinctively looked away,
not wanting to tread where pain already ruled.
David, always the joker, attempted to change
the subject. Hey, I saw a bumper sticker on
the way down here that sums up all our woes.
At times like these we've got to grope
for solace wherever we can.
Brace yourself for the latest proclamation
from America's heartland--
"Life's a bitch, and then you die."
They laughed, though grimly, Peter grimacing.
Actually, David, that's pretty advanced
stuff you've got there. Many a Ph.D.
trades on that kind of thing these days.
Oh, they soup it up a bit, but it's the same.
Huh, what do you know. See, you academics
think us businessmen are a bunch of jerks,
but we know what life's about.
They both laughed again, knowingly.
David poured Peter another cup of coffee.
For a moment the old bond of friendship
united them once more, relieved the
separate ache each felt for himself,
for the pain of the other that neither
would ever transgress. They had returned
late from the final viewing
and had now been at the table for hours,
neither wanting to part from the other.
Oh gees! I haven't told you about my trip.
I didn't sell much but did I ever have
a good time. Them Japs are a great bunch.
Peter pictured him slapping people on
the back. Now how long were you there?
Just for two weeks, but it was great,
once I got used to raw fish.
To be honest, I usually ate at
McDonald's or the Colonel's.
But listen, the bar girls were great,
and I traveled all over the place.
Oh, I had a little trouble, but I
got on. The company picked up the tab,
and man did I ever drop some dough
in the snack bars over there.
That's what they call their bars. Cute, eh?
Well, I suppose it's Japanese English.
All countries give English their own flavor,
Peter tried to explain. Yeah, David broke in,
half the time I couldn't understand them.
Peter suppressed the urge to ask about his Japanese.
Hey, I got down to the shrines in Kyoto too.
I spent a weekend there with a young lady
who was kind enough to show me around,
if you get my drift, he laughed,
his eyes widening. A lot of holy shrines
in that city. I've never seen so many,
he chortled, about to drink down his coffee.
Oh I can just imagine, Peter retorted.
Seriously though David, I've read they're
supported by the state. Great for tourism.
You didn't see any pilgrims, did you?
Naw hell, they were all like me.
Gawking at everything, taking pictures,
you know, the usual stuff. Souvenirs
and so on. I had the time of my life!
So much for the mystic East, eh,
Peter needled him, sniggering. Well,
they're a modern country just like us.
Yeah. That's it. You got it.
Buddha's deader than a doornail.
But really, the temples are something to see.
If you ever get the chance . . .
Did you get to Nara? Peter interrupted.
No, but my friend wanted me to go there.
That's another city full of temples, right?
Right. Actually it's where Buddhism
had its start in Japan, at the royal court.
A prince named Shotoku was its first
prominent supporter and champion.
He established a lot of temples,
even some in Kyoto. Many still regard him
as the crucial figure in Japanese history,
a benchmark of change, if nothing else.
He set the tenor of thought for centuries.
As he put it, "The world is empty and false,
only the Buddha is true." Not exactly
the ethos of the snack bar, is it?
No, guffawed David. But Pete, people got
to live their lives and get on, you know.
They got things to do. They can't spend
their time on their knees chanting prayers.
No, of course not, Peter smiled.
Say, did you happen to see in Kyoto
a garden called "The Floating Bridge of Dreams"?
It's from Japanese mythology and an old novel,
The Tale of Genji, written just before
the collapse of the late Heian court.
No, I don't remember it, Pete.
I had only a weekend, you know.
Besides, I was pretty busy, he grinned.
I spent half the night on the train to make
it back to Tokyo for a sales pitch.
I didn't know you cared so much about Japan.
You been reading a lot, eh?
Not too much really. But there are some
people in the department who have been
over there. A couple of Zen nuts.
I've been fascinated by a few classical writers,
Zeami and Basho, especially Basho.
He's really the last pure expression
of the sensibility of Shotoku.
He died not too long after Milton, if you . . .
well, anyway, he's on the periphery now.
David carried on for more than an hour
about Japan, while Peter listened intently,
interrupting him at intervals to ask
questions that seemed to have peculiar
importance to him. Eventually David
noticed all the coffee was gone and felt
self-conscious for running on so long
about himself at such a time.
Peter, how about some more coffee?
I could make another weak pot.
No thanks. I've had too much already.
Sounds as though you had a marvelous trip.
Someday I'll have to get over there too.
I know from living in Europe nothing
can compare with observing a country firsthand.
Every minute detail came back, blended,
at times, with the events of the last three days.
It was still dark in the room and Peter
could not clearly see anything,
just the silhouettes of furniture.
He rolled over on his stomach,
folding his arms under his chin.
Peter, you look a little tired, man.
Maybe all this shootin'-the-breeze is
wearing you out. We should call it a night.
A little rest would . . .
Yeah, maybe you're right. We probably should.
David, I appreciate everything, I really do.
You know how much it means to me
to have you here. I can't thank you enough.
Don't be an ass, Pete. We're not high school
kids any more. There isn't anything
I wouldn't do for you. You know that.
Yeah, I know, but thanks. Enough of that now.
Jane said the spare room is all set.
If there's anything you need, just holler.
No problem, David replied, as they both
stood up and edged slowly toward the stairs.
Pete, get some sleep now. Don't wear yourself out
and don't get any silly ideas in your head.
Shaking Peter's shoulder, he added, G'night chum.
Good night David, Peter returned,
as he laboriously went up the stairs.
He reached the top and walked down the hallway
to the left, past one of his filing cabinets,
and then, instead of into his bedroom,
turned through the doorway of his study.
Mary had always called it his gate of ivory,
he his gate of horn. Without clicking on
the light, he made his way around familiar
obstacles, lay on the carpet, closed his
eyes for a moment, tried to gain some kind
of control over everything since Mary's death.
An image of her lying on top of a garbage heap,
stripped of her shoes and socks, spine sliced
at the back of her neck, covered with a raincoat,
bereft of life, thrust itself upon him, merged
with her laid out in the coffin, surrounded by
flowers and mute family members,
devastated by the transformation that had
taken place in one they had loved
for her boundless vivacity and optimism.
If anyone lived life as though death
had no dominion, it was Mary Marsh.
Not that she was religious. She had always
claimed Peter was the religious one.
She never believed in God and maintained
religion was just a childish illusion.
The Enlightenment swept away all that rubbish,
she used to say. We're on our own.
Peter looked under a table at a pile
of books. Somewhere under there was
his King James, near the couch, where he could
reach it when he needed it, to check
a reference or something. Immortality,
he gasped, and said it again just for the
sheer novelty of the word, immortality.
No immortality for Mary, he thought.
Even if there were a God, would He grant
it to one who believed everything permissible?
Like most decent people, Mary never
went out of her way to be sinful.
Along with God and immortality
she couldn't take any religious idea
seriously. She just went about life
and did whatever she wanted.
It had been years since she had discussed
with Peter anything remotely approaching
what preoccupied him.
He was the specialist in the family.
At times she would joke that he was the last
person in the Western world to think about
all that "old theological rigamarole."
She poked at him that it was because he felt
guilty for never entering the seminary.
He again saw her encased in roses,
lilies, and, her favorite, daffodils--
unconventional, but so was she,
and she loved their ephemeral beauty.
He winced in the dark at the memory.
Enkidu, where are you? Where are you, Enkidu?
He had risen quietly from the front row seat
and walked up to the open coffin.
As he forced himself to kiss her one last time,
unconcerned about the presence of others,
he knew it would soon close forever.
He had immediately dismissed the objections
to tomorrow's service. He had seen friends
summarily dumped into the ground
without the slightest vestige of hope,
and he refused Mary's ending that way.
Their friends could say whatever they wanted.
No so-called humanist funeral for her.
Besides, most of her leftist friends
wouldn't even have enough guts or decency
to attend her funeral. Death and murder
were too much for them. It hadn't been melodrama,
he told himself. She was my wife. . . .
He had been dumbfounded when Ted and Jane
had told him they and some of Mary's friends
insisted there be no service.
Insisted. How dare they use such a word.
What kind of people have we become?
In the end Jane gave in and told Ted
in the other room, where she thought
she couldn't be overheard, Oh let Daddy have
his little sermon. What difference does it make?
Do you want him to crack up now?
So they all went along with it.
Fifty-four, he said, was too young to die.
He had repeated it countless times already
during the last three days. Everyone agreed.
No one could think of a motive.
Even her purse was under the rain coat.
Damn it! Damn it! he cursed into the dark.
He lay there mourning for Mary, groping
for some way to understand the sense of
loss and despair that had taken her place.
He had always been susceptible to
the pull of the dread weight of inertia.
Mary had claimed it came from reading
all those "morbid" books. He had to confess
they had something to do with it,
yet helped him to understand the modern age.
How she would knowingly smile,
as though none of it really mattered.
Sunk beneath the wat'ry floor, he rolled
the syllables off his tongue.
Gone are those days of unabashed affirmation.
Tennyson hit the right note:
"So runs my dream: but what am I?
an infant crying in the night,
an infant crying for the light,
and with no language but a cry."
He turned over and stared up at the lily.
Even though his eyes had adjusted to
the dark, the curtains were closed too far
to allow the normal darkness in.
He thought he could see it but wasn't sure.
The larger hope has been gone for a long time,
he mused. Who the hell am I kidding?
Even she would have scorned me to my face.
"Not the porch of spirits lingering"
but "the grave of Jesus, where he lay,"
and that's all she ever expected.
Maybe she's right. It's all an illusion.
Freud has proven that, she used to say.
He shuddered as he thought of her cold flesh
under his trembling lips that evening,
the stab wound at the back of her neck,
hidden by a white silk scarf.
She's dead and our children are drug users--
one a lesbian infected with AIDS--
shallow, greedy, licentious filth.
Copyright © 2002 Frederick Glaysher