Sometimes there are things that need to be put down before a person can accept what has happened and get it all clear in their mind again.
Last November, Herman Danzig, my senile grandfather and the former pastor of our church, suffered a paralyzing stroke. He pleaded with his browbeaten son (who was also my father, the late great Sugar Bear Danzig) to put an end to his suffering. After four weeks of agonizing over his father’s wish-demands (which were kept well-hidden from the rest of the family) Sugar Bear decided to remove the life-support tubes and allow his father a peaceful demise. Alerted to the happening by my despondent mother, I rushed back to the hospital and replaced the equipment before the sleeping nurse woke to make her obligatory rounds prior to the dayshift coming on. Awakening to drift through the sick rooms in her still somewhat somniac state, she found my very dead grandfather with all of his tubes in place and functioning, even though he himself had long since met up with his maker. The hospital ruled that Herman Danzig had died a natural death and the case was closed without suspicion.
At the time I felt great animosity toward my mother, a stranger to me who had moved back into our house as well as our lives. But the passing of more than two decades since she first deserted her family and the deaths of my father and grandfather have served to soften my anger.
It was after seeing everyone though the funerals that I decided I was sure to be the third in line to die unless I could take an extended trip in a vain attempt to tap back into the intuitive process that had been so hard at work on a new story before this latest catastrophe shot it all to hell. My wife’s tolerance for impulsivity is limited in matters like splitting on the spur of the moment by her position on the faculty at the university but fortunately she is a woman of great empathy and insight, at least in relation to her neurotic husband. Assuring me that she could manage our house and son as well as her students in my absence, I set off to see the western half of the country with a pack strapped on my back like some eighteen year old kid leaving home for the first time. True to form, I called home collect every night to report on my activities and make sure everyone was still there until Sarah threatened to break my only good arm for running up the phone bill that she had to pay since I was in absentia. She has a way of nipping things in the bud with me.
When the course of my travels brought me east again this summer, I accepted a friend’s invitation to stay on in New York as a means of maintaining distance for as long as possible from the emotional devastation those events of last November had wrought. It was also a chance to have Sarah join me so that we could be alone for the first time in almost four years. My mother and I, equally astute at avoiding direct confrontation with the reality of our feelings about one another, both silently welcomed the invitation which provided a way for us to remain apart. I guess being a thirty-six year old asshole who couldn’t deal with talking to his own mother wasn’t doing much for the tainted image I had of myself so I chose to prolong the unavoidable encounter by stopping off in New York to see Jake.
I have realized for a very long time that Jake Somers, while my closest friend, is a man who possesses a large number of idiosyncratic habits, one of which is that he insists on spending every summer in Manhattan. At a time when anyone with brains or money is heading in the opposite direction, he comes to stay in an apartment on West Eleventh street that belongs to some distant rich relative of his, an uncle so distant that he has never surfaced once during the fourteen years of our friendship, although I’m assured that he really does exist. Jake says the old man hardly ever uses the place since he winters in Costa Rica and summers in the Alps. Nice, if you can afford it. Of course, you can never really be sure what part of the things Jake tells you are true.
It was in Saigon, sometime during the midst of the mud paddy fiasco, while I was trying to coax my punchy brain into relaxing and at the same time lure my wilted whanger back into action that I first met up with Jake. The seeds of our friendship were firmly planted in those mudblood fields of Vietnam. We fought together and buried our buddies together. One arm, many months, and virtually all of our nerves later, we managed to crawl shakily home to begin the task of helping one another put back together the slivers that remained of our lives. In time, Jake’s nerves healed. The ones in my arm never will. Nam turned out to be only the first of many crises we would survive.
A shot rang out in the distance. His head jerked in the direction of the sound, waiting for what would follow. Nothing came. Bloodshot eyes narrowed to a squint, closing in on the abstraction of masks grinding by in slow motion (the inanition of a burned-out society painted on pallid faces) that passed the café seeming not to have heard. Perhaps he was reacting from too many years at the front. Or maybe it wasn’t a shot at all but only some unruly engine backfiring. Anything was possible. His nerves were shot.
He slid his pen between the folds of his notebook and closed it gently. It was August and New York sweltered in August. It was as bad as Paris except that in Paris the people were sane. They packed up and headed south to the sea while in New York they were completely off their nuts, choosing by the millions to stay packed like a bunch of sardines among boiling buildings and cement streets. It was no joke that you could fry an egg on those streets. He had seen it done. Not that he would have eaten the damn thing afterwards, but it sure as hell had cooked right through. Jake said that he should have eaten it since he’d paid Billy Donegean two bucks by betting that it wouldn’t cook but the thing looked pretty pathetic lying there all shriveled up on Forty-second street on a steamy August afternoon. If it had been Fifth Avenue and Central Park, he might have been tempted, but Forty-second and Broadway was a definite turn-off.
The colors made a difference, too. Paris was enveloped by a hazy yellowpink glow that took your breath away with its loveliness no matter how damn hot it got. New York was plain dirty gray. His eyes shifted across Sixth Avenue to a small playground forsaken by the local kids in the sizzling heat. Even the playground was devoid of life. No trees. No grass. Just cement. Hot in the summer, icy in winter and always lifeless. Paris got hot too, but somehow you could forgive a lot when something was so beautiful. His lips curled softly under the thought and his mind drifted off with it.
A pain in his backside shot up through his spine and disappeared into his nerveless right shoulder, whipping him back into the present. He lifted his glass to signal the waiter through the window for another drink and shifted to the other buttock. Throughout the afternoon, he had been watching people walk by, turning away only long enough to write inside the notebook lying closed on the table in front of him. The sun was setting and he had grown mellow from the liquor. He leaned back and breathed in deeply. A soft breeze had sprung up, bringing with it a promised coolness for the evening at hand.
The waiter returned with another vodka. He could not remember if this would be the fifth or sixth. Either way, it was a lot of liquor to consume before the sun went down. He raised a finger to catch the man’s attention before he walked away.
Better bring me a coffee to go with this, he nodded. Espresso, if you have it.
The waiter smiled knowingly and nodded as he tucked the little brown tray he carried under his arm, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe the sweat from his face. God, this heat is just awful, he whined, stuffing the cloth back inside of his jacket.
He glanced toward the sound, making a mental note that all waiters in New York were either actors or fags. Sometimes both. Leaning back in the chair without returning the attempt at conversation, his eyes fell on a young woman approaching the cafe from the street side. She glanced about through strands of dirty blond hair that fell across her eyes, taking in the rows of little tables and the two men occupying them. Hesitating, as though some decision of great importance were about to be made, she looked back and forth between the two many times before choosing a seat facing the old man who was asleep in his chair.
She began to dig through an oversized canvas bag, pulling out a myriad of items that spilled off of the table onto the ground. At last, having procured those necessary for whatever it was that she endeavored to pursue, the young woman stuffed the remainder back inside the bag and settled her opulent bottom into the chair.
He was caught in the complexity of her involvement, noting how the thick bottom lip of her large mouth hung limply to one side, as if the energy needed to hold it in place had been channeled out of the flesh and into the project before her. She opened what appeared to be a new drawing pad to the first page and selected a pencil from the row she had carefully lined up on the table. He watched her studying the old man’s face and thought that, beset as it was with the deep lines and toothless hollows of age, it must have presented a formidable task for one looking upon it for the first time, as she faced a blank sheet of paper with pencil in hand.
But then, he shrugged, was it any different when he sat down each day in front of his typewriter with perspiring hands shaking over the keys, facing that white paper like a condemned man waiting for the words to come from who knows where. Sometimes they flowed and he did not ask from what inner oubliette they came, but let it all pour out as though some thought might plug the defile between his brain’s straining lobes. At other times nothing came, no matter how long he sat staring at the whiteness so that all he had to show for his trembling, sweating, frustrating effort was the pain stabbing inside his head and a virgin piece of paper still unpenetrated by his mind.
He had never had this problem while working as a journalist covering events from the jungles of South America to the deserts of the mid-East. But then life had been easy to cover back then. All he had to do was watch and listen. Everything happened without having to lift a finger, bombs dropped, guns went off, bodies blew apart while the earth turned red with blood. It all came so easily, the words to describe the atrocities that men reaped on one another, while he earned his bread and butter by being flown around the world to transcribe in ink the bloodwords that would appear the following week in the world’s news magazines. He had been in great demand for his cool head and acerbic tongue, his ability to cut right through the bullshit to the heart of the matter without getting tied up in the emotionality of the situation. Or the humanity. It all had to be depersonalized. Feelings got in the way because they destroyed objectivity and colored the reader’s point of view. Leave it to the politicians to worry about the economic ramifications, to the families to mourn over dead bodies or to the church to pray for souls. His sole purpose was to record in words the factual events. Nothing more.
And then one day his system had clogged like some constipated machine that could no longer function until it had been cleared of the bile that blocked its channels. Nothing short of bodily torture could have persuaded him to step foot onto one more plane taking off to one more war-torn country and gaze unemotionally upon the death and gore being unleashed on the unsuspecting victims of modern politics.
That was when he had turned his back forever on reporting to the world and returned home to the world of his parents.
At first nothing worked. Words would not come into his head. His penis adamantly refused to hold an erection. His good hand shook and circles grew under his eyes from the insomnia that had become a constant in his life. Throughout the long winter months he haunted the small university town looking for all the world like a zombie escaped from the land of the living dead.
It was only after he met the woman who was later to become his wife that the physical symptoms began to dissipate. Like some stray dog saved from the harsh realities of the outside world, he fed hungrily off of the emotional nourishment she offered. In time the caving in on himself halted and he began to grow again. Notebook after notebook was filled with words that intruded on the blankness of his stagnant brain. He began to toy with the idea of writing a novel. Three or four were started and as many thrown away. Maybe short stories were more suited to his style. Nothing worked. The words came without form like water flowing with no banks to give it shape. It was those white sheets of paper staring back that drove him crazy.
The symptoms began to reappear and so he moved in with her. Each morning she kissed him goodbye as she left the house to teach classes at the university. Each night when she returned he screamed in frustration that he had accomplished nothing. She smiled quietly and said that he had to keep on trying. Trying what? Trying to tap all those emotions he had so brilliantly managed to keep subjugated through years of journalism. His best tool had now become his worst enemy. Try to open the clogged valves she told him and let the unconscious forces seep through into the work. It went against everything he knew and so he fought it and yet, because he had come to love and trust her, another part of his self began to fight toward it. He was exhausted from the battle that raged inside and frustrated at having nothing to show for it.
And then the baby came and he had to earn a living. He took a part-time job tending bar and slowly the pieces of his life began to fall into place. He found a great security in the daily rituals of caring for his son while his wife was at work. On the weekends, he hid in the room they made for him above the garage where he could write without interruption.
During this period of family expansion, he maintained his friendship with Jake via the U.S. Postal Service. His friend had continued to spend his life reporting on events of the world. Some people have thicker skins, he thought. Or perhaps they just see things differently.
He gleaned his sights back onto the young woman who sat before her still blank pad, chewing on her fat lower lip, studying the sleeping old man who, in his somnolent state, did nothing by way of movement to add to her frustration. He knew too well the humiliation of that impotent state when nothing would come, no matter how long you forced yourself to sit there. Curse, swear, cry. Nothing helps. Might as well pack it in, kid. If you haven’t learned that yet, you sure as hell have a long way to go. Lesson number one in the artist’s survival manual: when nothing comes out you had better pack it in or else next time it will be twice as hard, and pretty soon you’ll get so spooky that you’ll start anticipating the blankness before you even start and then everything goes dead. He’d seen it happen. Like the egg on the street, the old brain burned out the instant the eyeball touched the paper and then it was of no value to anyone. It happened a lot to the guys who had daily deadlines to meet and quotas to fill. They couldn’t afford to stop and give the old noggin a rest so they pushed and pushed till it was all burned out with nothing left to give and then they were finished. Some came back later to do a bit of work here and there, but most of it was meaningless stuff thrown their way by friends in the business for old times sake. Little of what they wrote after those burnout periods ever appeared in ink and none of it ever had any life.
He knew what was happening to him when the blank periods started. At first he thought it was the material he was working on but then the insomnia began to set in and pretty soon the old hands started to shake before he even got to the typewriter. That was when he decided he had he had better pack it in himself as he had sworn he would every time he saw one of the guys fighting and losing that inner battle.
Like a soldier who had been on the front too long, he had gotten punchy, seeing things in the shadows, hearing noises where there were none. Battle fatigue, they had called it in Nam. Take a pass to Saigon, boy. Go get laid. Tie a good one on. Get it all out of your system and you’ll come back as good as new. And you always did.
Except how do you take a vacation from your life? No one had ever told him that one. Jake was one of the lucky ones, one of the few who had never succumbed to the consequences of his work. Or maybe his time just hadn’t come yet. Everybody’s time comes at some point.
When he looked up again the young woman with the sketchpad was gone. All that remained was a piece of white paper crumpled on the ground. His curiosity was augmented by the camaraderie he had projected. He rose unsteadily from the chair and tottered toward the evidence of his theory. Grasping a table to steady himself until the reeling in his head stopped, he stooped slowly to retrieve the white ball. The old man’s sleeping eyes opened on him, intent as though suddenly jarred back from the dead, he had focused on some strange aberration. He smiled into the old man’s gaze and turned away toward his table. Drunk as shit, he heard the slur of his own voice as he stumbled back and lowered his carcass into the chair.
There he untangled the crumpled trophy of his endeavor and studied it closely for a long moment before a wide grin spread across his face. But for one thick charcoal line slashing diagonally across its surface, the paper was blank.