Authors: Harold Brodkey
“I forget if there are large numbers on the touch-tone phone or small ones.”
“Are they stubborn or easy?”
“Then if you dialed and didn’t bleed all over the phone you’re probably O.K.”
“Would you say you were showing sympathy?”
“You may quiver with madness and shock at my saying this, but I promise that if you stay overnight at the hospital I will bring you volumes of Kundera, Solzhenitsyn, Havel, so you can see what horror and suffering truly are.”
“On the other hand, our Maltese doorman’s sister-in-law died of sepsis after a knife cut in her hand which she got chopping beets when she was visiting her mother-in-law in Valletta. Wait for me. I’m coming home.”
My wife is a Spring Goddess. A Nietzschean Nightingale (Florence). “Here,” she says. “Let me look.… A kiss won’t make that well. Let’s go.” A kiss or two later, as we pass a homeless guy who at first I think is me in the third person hailing a taxi, and as my shock begins to lift, I say to her, sadly, “When I was a child, I had a Swiss barometer with a wooden house on it. The house had two doors. Out of one came a boy in shorts and with a Tyrolean hat on, and I think a girl in a dirndl came out of the other. They went inside if it was going to rain.” Nowadays I suppose you might have a homeless person carved in wood and sleeping on a subway grating to indicate good weather and going into an arcade or a subway to indicate rain.
Some prose written after the third kiss from her (and after the doctor took three stitches in my thumb). I sit at her desk in her office looking out her large window: Give me the huge actual clouds of the Republic and not the meager udders of water vapor painted on the old backdrops the Republic Studios used in John Wayne’s day. We like the actual big baggy clouds of a New York spring. One doesn’t want to flog a transiting cloud to death, but if we are to have sentimental light, let us have it at least in its obvious local form—dry, white, sere, and, I guess, provincial. The spiritual splendor of our drizzly and slaphappy spring weather, our streets jammed with sneezing pedestrians, our skies loony with bluster are our local equivalents of lilac hedges and meadows.
Blustery, raw, and rare—and more wind-of-the-sea-scoured than half-melted St. Petersburg. Yuck to cities that have an immersed-in-swamp-and-lagoon moist-air light. They are for watercolorists. Where water laps at the edges of the stones and bricks of somewhat wavery real estate is not home. Home is New York, stony and tall: its real estate is real.
So is its spring.
At dawn, in the suffusion of light and return of visibility, in the woods where I camped out on my red-and-blue air mattress in a nylon shed-tent, open in front and partly at the sides and with a now luminous rooflet tied overhead to two guardian trees, I woke. The light and mist among the tree trunks, the near silence of the birds, the biological, organic clutter around me on the ground softened my mood.
I have a streak of biological piety. These are my woods, set high in the northern Catskill Mountains, not very high mountains. They are not very old woods, any more than are the woods in the adjacent state park. All this territory was lumbered over twice in the last two hundred years. In this glade, only two trees are particularly large, and one is a sycamore planted a hundred years ago and one is a pine about the same age.
The light makes the blue nylon a holy color, like a tone in a Bellini painting, like the color of a cloak of the Madonna; it is a glowing, Bellini blue, and it fills me with awe. The side of the mountain that descends, that falls, is on my right. Behind the descending columns of trunks of trees—saplings, and older, bigger trees—is a vast space of now luminous, as-if-new air.… In a harsh world, this silent, glowing beauty, this ordinary, momentary prettiness, is, as I said, a speechless, pagan piety.
Suddenly fully wakeful, straightening my clothes, lighting my spirit stove, I contemplate my situation. I light a cigarette; I am a dying man. I have an inoperable brain tumor. The process of finding this out took nearly two months. And I am being let go at work, in a harsh process—the company has been sold and is losing money or not making enough; the errors have been those of top management, some of whom are being let go as well. I am one step down from top management, and my work on this level has been successful—in the general debacle this has aroused jealousy, rage really, even hatred. I may have been too distracted by the headaches I was having to handle things well. Was I arrogant? No. I was rather meek and apologetic. But I went on being right, and lo, a vicious war.
I am thirty-five years old, divorced, not estranged from my children, but they are turning into people very like my wife, whom I don’t miss. It is a kind of programmatic, thought-out, mind-filled selfishness, a self-willed sort, not shallow, not stupid, not even cold: more like an intelligent Episcopalian tantrum among theories of selflessness and God knows what all. I mean it is this in my ex-wife and children that isolates me.
I don’t know how bad any of this makes me feel. I have a brain tumor. I have sliding films of headache and sporadic interferences with vision. I suppose I have despised my bosses for a long time now, thought them amateur and self-loving, hardly honest in relation to the work of running a large company. I suppose I have despised—and forgiven—my ex-wife for as long. I don’t think I have been disloyal to any of them, not very much, not very often. But I’m not on the whole a careful man, and I become frantic inwardly—it is a moral uproar—when I am, I suppose, conceitedly convinced that I can see the wastage, the extent of the bad decisions, the crude wrecking of lives and possibilities in others—which they are egoistically, obstinately set on causing … that corporate and
I am said to be lucky, but the work I do—product design, but at the point where such design is redone to become industrially and commercially practicable—and its quality, the things I’m after, are insulting to some people.… Or perhaps it’s just competition. I have been aware of this, told about this since college. And in college. And long before that, in grade school. I have been able to adjust and to protect myself to some extent until now, but last year I began to slip. The tumor. Destiny melting my mind, maybe. Probably.
Anyway, I am being treated shabbily, filthily by former allies and colleagues. They sweat and tremble, but they say, “We want you to leave.… We don’t think this last idea of yours is any good.” Then they take it back and say, “It’s good, but you’ll have to work with Martin.…” I have never worked with Martin Jones: he’s an ambitious little madman, a cheap thief—of ideas, of office supplies, of money, when he can manage it. He’s the keeper of the little escort book—he’s the upper-echelon pimp. With the bribes he offers and the inside information he gets and his tirelessness and the pity he purposefully arouses—he is always either ill or suffering a domestic tragedy—he is irresistible on a certain level. He is pudgy and pretentious, clever and whiny, repulsive, even loathsome. But he makes even that work in his favor. He himself boasts that he is tirelessly rotten—violent.… That’s his way of saying:
Everyone in the office does fear him except for the two operating officers at the top. Martin became obsessed with me just before the collapse of profits. He is determined to gain control of my working life—this is the man I have to deal with now. Surely they know this is forcing me out. Does everyone eat shit who earns a salary? Does everyone who eats shit insist that everyone else eat more shit?
Little Phil Moore, the short one, the coked-up one, at one time a friend—I brought him to these woods—he is working with Martin, the horror Pimp, co-opted or willingly. He came to my office and said, “You worked us over.… You’re putting us through hoops.… You don’t like us: you want to leave.” Claiming innocence for him and Martin. He’s just doing his job. And he’s working out his ego in putting the squeeze on me. Well, he’s partly right. I
to leave. But I didn’t initiate my leaving. They have to give me severance.
They are half afraid of me—of the stink I might cause. I am half enraged. Tired. But they are not afraid enough of me, and the negotiation over severance pay has been difficult verging on nightmare. Martin, the horror Pimp, has no fear of lying; he lies to any extent. He farts and talks stupidly and calls me at four in the morning to say he has a discarded memo of mine speaking of my resignation. He speaks in a false voice. He uses being disgusting—and silly—to drive someone like me out of a fight. I lose my will to fight Mr. Protozoan Slime. It is not like tussling with Achilles; there is no honor anywhere in the moments of such a struggle. And he is proud of himself.
He has asked me to give in because we are both Presbyterian. He’s said, “We stick together, don’t we, we white men?” The issue is whether I’ll take less money and vamoose and let him win. Or try to work with him in the time I have left. Or I can sell these woods and hire a severance negotiator. But I don’t want to sell these woods, these moments of light. Ah, Christ.
I actually feel a little rested, refreshed, prepared physically for the day, for anything that happens, for everything that is existent, including death. I feel I understand the violence of the world.
Egos are involved
… what a dread phrase
… in the procedures of unreason.
I’ve lived a long time in relation to the weird unreason of others. But this moment is colored by the softness of the morning air, wilderness air, and mountain light, and the odor of trees and rock. I have the energy to be
unserious … savagely indignant
…. The energy, the clearheadedness … In the office, as in any sport, I have to be like
, the opponents, in order to do battle or to deal with them, in order to come up with useful tactics and the requisite language noises.
God, office politics. They have eaten up my life. My chief strength in the world (such as it has been until now) is to be snotty and airy toward ugliness, is to skate right by it. It is treacherous toward democracy for me to be snotty and airy about it in relation to my colleagues, although it is patriotic to find America beautiful after all, or before all. Treacherous to my colleagues, whom I despise. I don’t give a fuck about anything they give a fuck about. Except perhaps money.
I am between marriages. I suppose I should think about my two children. I come to the woods in order not to think about them. I don’t know how much of my death I want to share with my children. I don’t like to hide things from them. But I do cold-bloodedly think of and warm-bloodedly feel the massive, tantrum-y selfishness my ex-wife has encouraged in them. Actually, she told me she would do that if I did not return to her.
What do I care about them? You know how selfish I am, Hank
, she said. Do you suppose she would want me now, on the skids and tumorous? I don’t want to die with her. I can teach charitably or I can charitably empty bedpans for the short rest of my life, if I get enough money from the firm. The life I have left will be better if I accept the need to be sly steadily, with daily regularity:
Dearest, tell me, do I look blankly friendly? Can you tell me if I give off a hint of menacing slyness? Do I appear to be a good citizen?
My life would go better, but I would sicken and die even faster than I am sickening and dying now, and doesn’t dying free you from the need to accept the world any longer?
I went to a country wedding once—a Methodist minister’s son married a pretty girl in an agonizingly pretentious stone chapel upstate. Built on the shore of a lake in a grove of birches, the chapel was pretty in a horrendously striving, American way—self-consciously Christian, trying for tradition. It had some architectural quality but not a quality of spiritual exercise and no aura from generations of belief. It was not pure with the hope of God, like the wooden churches visible across the lake from it. The morning had been rainy. The rain stopped just as we settled ourselves in church; the sun came out; the turn-of-the-century stained-glass windows began to glow effulgently in a kind of harsh American glory of light.
The first bridesmaid down the aisle had a two-year-old child who would not leave her or let her march without him, and so the woman marched carrying a bouquet in one hand with a child balanced on her hip and held by her other hand—a different bouquet. She marched with a curiously mild, unassertive, consciously lovely, almost sated-but-frantic air down the aisle in the overwhelming light.
Is it a fate to have been happy?
Here is another definition of a life I have not lived. At a night club upstate that wedding weekend, an oldish and overweight, gray-haired woman with an obvious paunch and a white violin and a back-up band sang and fiddled a song that she had written. She sang and chanted that she could get everyone to dance: “I’ll make you wild.…” She sang and chanted it. She had set her amplifiers at some high register and everything she did was loudly amplified, a bit thunderous and a bit shrill with electronic treble, electronic tremble. She was loud, hypnotic, gifted, and her insistence was inspired in its way, that she could make us wild.… Dionysiac. And people did begin to dance. The woman became more and more suggestive, dirty, and commanding, in a somehow Scotch-Irish way that was
and irresistible. It was also part of the American backwoods, the camp meetings, the harvest festivals.