Authors: Roger Rosenblatt
For Alan and Arlene
HAVE I TOLD YOU
about this? The day they dropped the giant turf? It never happened, of course, but it was something. The sky was packed with balloonish clouds as dark as the turf itself. When we looked up, turf and sky were seamless, and it appeared that everything hanging over us, the entire universe, in fact, was turf. Only when the planes flew at a lower altitude of a few hundred feet could we distinguish the substance from the sky whence it descended. Even Mickey Kelleher, who was never impressed by anything, including The Great Houdini, had to admit it was worth looking atâthe great brown grassy mass in the shape of a humongous brick, at least three and a half miles long and nearly as wide, suspended over the island and held in place by four hovering World War II B-24 Liberator bombers. The noise from the engines was dreadful. Thick wire cables extended from each of the huge planes to a sort of hammock on which the turf rested. At the scheduled moment, the planes would release the four cables, and the vast turf brick would drop on Inishmaan like a fallen star.
It was a gift from Dublin, we were told. Or was it Brazil? Sean Cafferty thought Korea, but Cafferty was always thinking that Aran and Korea had a mystical relationship. Whatever its provenance, the turf was supposed to have represented a generous gesture from the outside world to our people, a one-year supply of the most important thing in our lives. And it was true, at least from the viewpoint of us kids, that turf was the only thing the grown-ups ever talked about, when they weren't talking about dogs, pigs, horses, cows, and the size of Jocko Flaherty's head. And even when they were on other topics, turf always seeped into their conversations. So, naturally, everyone was excited as hell to look up at the big suspended beauty. The trouble was that the immense size of the thing, as long and wide as the island itself, made it impossible to find a place to stand where the turf would not drop straight on you.
So the entire population of the island, all 160 of us, including many of the dogs, pigs, horses, and cows, waded out to Galway Bay to the north, and into the Atlantic to the west, to watch for the big moment. Donkeys brayed. Babies murmured in their mothers' arms. As it happened, however, the turf was even bigger than we had estimated. When it finally dropped, as if from a massive celestial trapdoor, everyone on Inishmaan, and I mean every living thingâpeople, dogs, pigs, horses, and cowsâwere covered in the stuff. Turf filled our mouths, nostrils, ears, asses, and all the slots, holes, and open
ings of every man, woman, and beast. This took some getting used to, I don't mind telling you. But after a few minutes of standing there stunned, like pieces of sod ourselves, Casey Carey, I think it was, yelled, “Don't we smell good!” And the grown-ups looked around at one another and agreed. And instead of wailing and bemoaning the fact that everyone stank like shit, they carped the diem, and sang and danced and laughed, making a goddam festival of the moment. And no one took a bath for a week. Make that forever.
A POET I
uses flammable ink. No sooner do his poems hit the paper than they burst into flame. How can one be consoled by your work? I asked him. You have to be quick, he said.
THE POINT IS
(do you want a point?). The point is, you never crash if you go full tilt. Only the boyos whose feet tremble over the brakes veer off the road and go down in flames. Like those murders in the noir movies of the 1940s where some poor sap, doused in bourbon, is propped behind the steering wheel, with a cinder block laid on the accelerator, and the dark coupe, released toward the guardrail, flips headlights over taillights and slams into the cliff wall before plunging in the sea. You
say that's different. That sucker was set up. But I say, no more so than the guy who drives his own car and slams on his own brakes just when he should gun it. Real fire comes from gunning it, with the curl of a grin on your ecstatic face, and the demarcations in the road shooting past, clickclickclick. The guardrail remains intact. Onlookers gasp, he'll kill himself at that speed. But you know better. You were never safer.
Only, who knows what it means to gun it at this age? And where to do the gunning? How to use the time. Understand? What, in the stages of final ambling, should be one'sâwhat is the termâprincipal occupation? One's song. “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” That grand old courting tune. Do you know it?
Meanwhile, one by one, the loves of your life bite the dust through no fault of their own. Oona goes. Greenberg goes. In the white hospitals, in the green hospices, they stir from sleep and wanly smile or tell a joke or blow a kiss. Will I do likewise? Or, one blazing afternoon, on my seventy-third birthday, say, will I collapse in front of Rite Aid without ceremony, and lavish my attention on the sidewalk?
Bring it, Mr. Death, with your boney jaw and creepy cloak and outdated farming tools. Jeez. He looks like Wallace Stevens. Not that I don't love Wallace Stevens. What poet does not love Wallace Stevens. But that efficient look of hisâthe factual demeanor, competent eyes, combed-
back white hair, not too long not too short, the jowls and fleshy cheeks, and the tweed sport coat, striped shirt, and black necktie, neat as a bird. A boyo you haven't seen since college, the class secretary who sang in an a cappella group and who now shills for the alumni association and sells insurance in Connecticut. Death. Am I right? Wallace Stevens with a scythe?
Oh, what the hell. Behold old Murph, anyway. The singing fool. Strong as a moth wing, a feather, a sheet of the thinnest vellum. I am resolute, needy, on my own, protected, protecting. Atomized. Unionized. A flivver, a toaster, a spore. So gorgeous I could drown in my reflection in the pool. So hideous I shrink from the bathroom mirror like a mollusk to its shell. I am like no one else, except that on occasion I resemble meâhysterical (both ways), Nazi, Jew, hit and miss, petal and ash. I celebrate myself and sing myself. I cannot bear myself, or my clumsy, inspired piano playing, or my scratchy, heavenly baritone belting out the great old tunes, or my sea-blue eyes, blameless as sunlight, guilty as sin. The creek and the stone and the tupelo tree. All that, and less, more or less. Give or take. Smart as a whip. Dumb as a post. Tumultuous, I sleep like a baby. Frail as pebbles.
IN THE HAYLOFT
at Montgomery's barn, I fuck Cait. We are sixteen, and have just retreated from the pebbled
beach at the cold edge of the ocean. Cait is not afraid of anything. She is beautiful in the way a red cart is beautiful, or rocks in a field. I do not love her, and she does not love me. But we've been companions since we were little, thrown together as kids are in the loneliness of the island, and now we've decided it's time to fuck. As for the Church, says Cait, the Church can go fuck
. My kind of girl.
Around us in the hayloft lie things discarded by the Montgomerys that we brush aside to make room for our bodiesâa handless alarm clock, picture magazines from Galway and Dublin, a locked steamer trunk bearing labels from Norway, Spain, and Turkey, a mirror in a rusted frame, a chalk drawing of the King of Somewhere seated on a tall throne with a yellow crown on his head and a scepter in his right hand.
We undress, Cait neatly arranging her skirt and sweater and underthings on a footstool, I tossing my stuff wherever. There's the narcotic smell of fresh paint from the main house, and the ever-present turf smoke rippling. We face each other on our knees. Cait takes my cock in her hands, and at once I grow hard. I reach between her legs. It takes a minute or so to get her wet. Then I am on top of her, about to brace my arms on either side of her shoulders, when my left hand comes down with all my weight on an inverted bottle cap that cuts deep in my palm. I glance at the blood, but am too worked up to stop. I fuck her and come right away. She lies there looking half asleep.
Her green eyes narrow as she gazes down her body at the trickle of blood on her thighs. She rolls away from me, and wipes off the blood with her hands. She dresses quickly. We do not speak. I have forgotten about my bloody palm until I snatch my clothing. Blood stains my skivvies, my shirt and socks. Cait laughs. You bleed too? she says. Well, I say, smiling at last, it is my first time.
SO NOW IT'S
a thousand winters away from all that, and I'm sitting at my usual place in At Swim-Two-Birds, missing Oona, missing Greenberg, nursing four fingers of Jameson, and wondering how to weasel out of an appointment with the brain doctor my avid MÃ¡ire has cornered me intoâhave I told you about this?âwhen a square-shouldered bruiser twice my size and half my age calls to me at the far end of the bar, and asks if I am who I am. I tell him I am, and ask if he knows me because he reads my poems. Never read a poem in my life, he says. Not even Yeets, he says (I didn't bother), and slides down to occupy the stool next to mine. No, he says. I recognized you from your picture in the papers last week, after you won some prize. You look older in person, he says. Just what I longed to hear. I figured you must be pretty good, he says. I could use a good poet.
That's a new one on me, I tell him. I never heard of anyone who could use a poet, good or bad. I can, he
says. I'm dying. Cancer of the colon. He pokes himself in the belly. I learned the very day I saw your picture in the papers, he says, so I thought it must be providence. The doc says I've got three months at the outs. Sorry to hear it, I tell him. But what does your dying have to do with needing a poet? To help me tell my wife, he says. I don't have the guts to do it myself. Or the brains, when it comes to that. My wife is very sensitive, Mr. Murphy. A flower, really. It takes a lighter hand than mine, he says. I'm too ham-fisted. She needs to feel something more than shock. She needs to feel how much I love her. I tell him, You just said it all. No poet could put it better. Yeah, he says. I'm good enough in a bar, with a couple of shots in me, and talking to another guy. But with Sarah, I get tongue-tied, especially in matters of the heart. Even after eight years. I don't have the words, Mr. Murphy. I need a poet. I need you.
I wished him well, but I had to say no. It didn't seem right to speak to his wife about something that was personal business between the two of them. And, at any rate I didn't want to involve myself in a stranger's life. But you do it all the time, he says, looking more pained than argumentative. He had a wide face and a ton of black hair, thick as sedge, and the blue eyes of a child. How's that? I say. He says, You ask the guy who delivers the groceries how he's doing. How's his family. His kids. You ask the guy in the garage if his backache is better. See what I
mean? Everyone involves himself in some stranger's life, a little. It's normal. This would just mean doing it a bit more. And you wouldn't be involving yourself for more than an hour, Mr. Murphy. Add another hour to get to and from our place in Queens. Four stops on the F train. You'd go home with me. I'd introduce you to Sarah, and I'd leave the room. He considers. No, I'd stay with you. Yeah. That would be better. That way, I could hold her when she began to cry.
Look, I say. What's your name? John, he says. Everyone calls me Jack. Look, Jack. And everyone calls me Murph. Look, Jack. Can't you see that the matter of your dying is something that only you and Sarah ought to talk about? It's not for me to stick my nose in. This isn't like Cyrano de Bergerac. You know who that was? The guy with the nose? Your nose isn't all that big, he says, laughing, and thumps me on the back. Well, I say, what you're asking of me is much harder than someone voicing his passion for someone else. In a way, it's the same thing, he says. Only more urgent. Have another? Jimmy reaches across the bar and tops off my Jameson. You won't get me drunk to have your way with me, I tell my companion. He chuckles. Mud in your eye, he says. Listen to me, Jack. This may seem like a good idea right now, especially when you're upset, as you should be. But the matter of your dying is too intimate for anyone but the two of you.
The thing is, he says, I was hoping that a poet could
be intimate even if he doesn't know the person he's being intimate with, because that's what a poet does. Right? He's intimate without being intimate, if you see what I mean. I tell him he had something there, but my decision stood. It just didn't feel right. To be sure, the guy seemed sincere and smart and I liked what I saw of him. And he had a plight, I guess, apart from his dying, I mean. But Irish or not, I'm hardly the most gregarious fellow in the world, and anyway, I had things to do. All right, I didn't have things to do, except to try to avoid the brain doctor. I just didn't want to do this. Go home and tell your Sarah your own way, Jack. It'll be fine. He goes silent a moment. She's blind, he says. Sarah's blind. Then I go silent, too. WellâI turn to face himâshe will be able to hear something more meaningful in your voice, the voice she loves, than in mine. I slide off the stool, shake his great hand, in which mine is lost, and say good night. Think about it, Murph? he says. I drain my glass. All right, I lie, and plough into the cold.
GET THIS, OONA.
I'm in the Belnord elevator the other day with two assistant-vice-president-looking guys in their forties. One says to the other, I heard his mother died. The other says, yes, but she was ninety-four. Then they both nod like Chinese sages, as if the old dame's age made her death more acceptable. So, she was ninety-
four, I say to the assistant vice presidents. That makes her death less noteworthy? Makes it okay? Because she was an old bag? The two of them start to say something, but I go on, calm as you please. An old bat? I say. A bat? Maybe we can chop up her bat carcass, stick the pieces in a grinder, and use her as bat guano, to fertilize your gardens, guys. Ninety-four! For Chrissake, you should have bumped her off a long time ago, to decrease the surplus population, as Scrooge said. You guys know Scrooge? You should have knocked off the old crow with a Glock, a Glock-knock, or stuck a shiv in her shriveled wrinkled belly, or choked her till her bleary blue eyes popped out of their sockets, like St. Lucy, or given her paper-thin skin forty whacks with an axe, like Lizzie Borden. You guys know Lucy? You guys know Lizzie? By now, my two corporate buddies are backing themselves into a corner of the elevator. But I'm on a roll. I sing it: Will you still need me, or will you bleed me, when I'm ninety-four? Nah. You guys had it right. When you gotta go, you gotta go, but ninety-four is pushing it. Excessive. Over-the-top. Tasteless. I for one am glad the wicked witch is dead. Good riddance, I say. Tell you what. Let's the three of us make a lawânobody lives past seventy-two. That way we won't ever have to honor the aged, or waste our sorrow or respect on some old broad who had the effrontery to hang on. What do you say, guys? Deal? Would you believe it, Oona? They looked at me like I was nuts.