Preparing for the Storm
Weather the storm that you can’t avoid, the old sailors’ proverb advises, and avoid the storm that you cannot weather. No way our waterside neighborhood can avoid this character; for days now she’s been on our “event horizon”: a one-eyed giantess lumbering first more or less our way, then more and more our way, now unequivocally our way. Unless her track unexpectedly changes, Hurricane Dashika will juggernaut in from our literal horizon at this story’s end, and no doubt end this story.
In time past, such seasonal slam-bangers took all but the canniest by surprise and exacted a toll undiminished by their victims’ preparation. Nowadays the new technology gives all hands ample, anyhow reasonable, notice. There are, of course, surprises still, such as the rare blaster of such intensity as to overwhelm any amount of accurate forecasting and prudent preparation. In the face of those (which we hereabouts have so far been spared), some throw up their hands and make no preparation whatever; they only wait, stoically or otherwise, for the worst. Wiser hands, however, do their best even in such desperate circumstances, mercifully not knowing in advance that their best will prove futile—for who’s to say, before the fact, that it will?—and meanwhile taking some comfort in having done everything they could. Contrariwise, there is undeniably a “Cry Wolf” effect, especially late in the season after a number of false alarms (a misnomer: The alarms aren’t invalidated by the fact that more often than not the worst doesn’t happen). Reluctant to address yet again the labors of preparation and subsequent “de-preparation,” some wait too long in hopes that this latest alarm will also prove “false”; they begin their precautionary work too late if at all and consequently suffer, anyhow risk suffering, what sensible preparation would have spared them.
Sensible preparation, yes: neither on the one hand paranoiacally (and counterproductively) taking the most extreme defensive measures at the least alarm, nor on the other underprepping for the storm’s most probable maximum intensity, time of arrival, and duration—that is the Reasonable Waterside Dweller’s objective. Not surprisingly, RWDs of comparable experience and judgment may disagree on what constitutes the appropriate response to a given stage of a given storm’s predicted approach. Indeed, such neighborly disagreements—serious but typically good-humored when the consequences of one’s “judgment call” redound upon the caller only, not upon his or her neighbors—are a feature of life hereabouts in storm season: Not one of us but keeps a weather eye out, so to speak, on our neighbors’ preparations or nonpreparations as we go about our own.
In this respect, my situation is fortunate: I’m flanked on my upshore side by old “Better-Safe-Than-Sorry” Bowman, typically the first of us to double up his dock lines, board his windows, and the rest, and on my downshore side by young Ms. “Take-a-Chance” Tyler, typically the last. Both are seasoned, prudent hands—as am I, in my judgment. Neither neighbor, in my judgment, is either decidedly reckless or decidedly overcautious (although each teases the other with the appropriate adjective)—nor, in my judgment, am I. When therefore old Bowman sets about plywooding his glass or shifting his vintage fishing-skiff from dock to more sheltered mooring, I take due note but may or may not take similar action just yet with my little daysailer; should it happen that Tyler initiates such measures before I do, however, I lose no time in following suit. Contrariwise, the circumstance that Tyler hasn’t yet stowed her pool-deck furniture or literally battened the hatches of her salty cruising sailboat doesn’t mean that I won’t stow and batten mine—but I can scarcely imagine doing so if even Bowman hasn’t bothered. All in all, thus far the three of us have managed well enough.
Our current season’s box score happens to be exemplary. Hurricane Abdullah (the Weather Service has gone multicultural in recent years, as well as both-sexual) suckered all of us, though not simultaneously, into full Stage Three, Red-Alert preparation, even unto the checklist’s final item—shutting off our main power and gas lines, locking all doors, and retreating inland—and then unaccountably hung a hard right at our virtual threshold, roared out to sea, and scarcely raised the local breeze enough to dry our late-July sweat as we undid our mighty preparations. Tropical Storms Bonnie and Clyde, the tandem toughs of August, distributed their punishments complementarily: Predicted merely to brush by us, Bonnie took a surprise last-minute swing our way and made Tyler scramble in her bikini from Green Alert (Stage One, which we had all routinely mounted: the minimum Get-Readys for even a Severe Thunderstorm warning) up through Yellow (where I myself had seen fit to stop under the circumstances) to Red, while long-since-battened-down Bowman fished and chuckled from his dock—just long enough to make his point before lending her a hand, as did I when I finished my Stage Three catch-up. From Bonnie we all took hits, none major: an unstowed lawn chair through Tyler’s porch screen; gelcoat scratches on my daysailer, which I ought to’ve hauled out before it scraped the dock-piles; a big sycamore limb down in Bowman’s side yard (“Not a dead one, though,” old Better-Safe was quick to point out, who in Tyler’s view prunes his deadwood before it’s rightly sick). No sooner had we re-de-prepped than on Bonnie’s heels came Clyde, a clear Stage Two-er by my assessment, Stage Three again by B.S.T.S. Bowman’s, Stage One once more by T.A.C. Tyler’s. Clyde thundered erratically up the coast just far enough offshore to justify all three scenarios and then “did an Abdullah,” leaving Bowman to prep down laboriously all day from Red Alert and me all morning from Yellow, while Tyler sunbathed triumphantly out on her dock, belly-down on a beach towel, headphones on and bikini-top off—just long enough to make her point before she pulled on a T-shirt and pitched in to return our earlier favor, first helping me Doppler-Shift from Yellow back through Green and then (with me) helping Bowman do likewise, who had already by that time Yellowed down from Full Red.
So here now at peak season, September’s ides, comes dreadsome Dashika, straight over from West Africa and up from the Horse Latitudes, glaring her baleful, unblinking eye our way. She has spared the Caribbean (already battered by Abdullah) but has ravaged the eastmost Virgin Islands, flattened a Bahama or two, and then swung due north, avoiding Florida and the Gulf Coast (both still staggered from last year’s hits) and tracking usward as if on rails, straight up the meridian of our longitude. As of this time yesterday, only the Carolina Capes stood between Dashika and ourselves.
“Poor bastards,” commiserated Tyler as the first damage reports came in. Time to think Stage Two, she supposed, if not quite yet actually to set about it; Capes Fear and Hatteras, after all, are veteran storm-deflectors and shock absorbers that not infrequently, to their cost, de-energize hurricanes into tropical storms and veer them out to sea.
“Better them than us,” for his part growled Bowman, as well as one can growl through a mouthful of nails, and hammered on from Yellow Alert up toward Red.
I myself was standing pat at Stage Two but more or less preparing to prepare for Three, as was Tyler vis-à-vis Two—meanwhile listening to the pair of them trade precedents and counterprecedents from seasons past, like knowledgeable sports fans. I had already disconnected my TV antenna, unplugged various electronics, readied flashlights and kerosene lamps, lowered flags, stowed boat gear, checked dock lines, snugged lawn chairs and other outdoor blowaways, and secured loose items on my water-facing porch: Green Alert. While Dashika chewed up the Outer Banks, I doubled those dock lines, filled jerry cans and laundry tubs with reserve water, loaded extra ice-blocks into the freezer against extended power outage, checked my food and cash reserves, and taped the larger windows against shattering: Yellow Alert, well into last night.
This morning scarcely dawned at all, only lightened to an ugly gray. The broad river out front is as hostile-looking as the sky. Damage and casualty reports from Hatteras to the Virginia Capes are sobering indeed, and while Dashika has lost some strength from landfall, she remains a Class Three hurricane vectored straight at us. Moreover, her forward velocity has slowed: We’ve a bit more grace to prepare (in Bowman’s case to wait, as his prepping’s done), but our time under fire will be similarly extended. Already the wind is rising; what’s worse, it’s southerly, our most exposed quarter and the longest wave-fetch on our particular estuary. In consequence, last night’s high tide scarcely ebbed, and this morning’s low tide wasn’t. This afternoon’s high bids to put our docks under and the front half of Tyler’s lawn as well, right up to her pool deck (my ground’s higher, Bowman’s higher yet). If there’s a real storm surge to boot, I’ll have water in my basement and the river’s edge almost to my porch; Tyler’s pool—to which I have a generous standing invitation, although I prefer the natural element, and which she herself enjoys uninhibitedly at all hours, skinnying out of her bikini as soon as she hits the water—Tyler’s pool will be submerged entirely, quite as Bowman the hydrophobe has direly long foretold, and her one-story “bachelor girl” cottage may well be flooded too.
A-prepping we’ve therefore gone, separately, she and I. While Better-Safe potters in his garden and angles from his dock with conspicuous nonchalance, savoring his evidently vindicated foresight and justifiably not coming to our aid until the eleventh hour, I’ve ratcheted up to Full Red: trailered and garaged my boat, shut off power and water to my dock, taped the rest of my windows (never yet having lost one, I’m not a boarder-upper; Tyler won’t even tape), boxed my most valuable valuables, even packed a cut-and-run suitcase. Nothing left to do, really, except shift what’s shiftable from first floor up to second (two schools of thought hereabouts on that last-ditch measure, as you might expect: Bowman’s for it, although even he has never yet gone so far; Tyler’s of the opinion that in a bona fide hurricane we’re as likely to lose the roof and rain-soak the attic as to take in water downstairs), and get the hell out. Ms. Take-a-Chance is still hard at it: an orange blur, you might say, as she does her Yellow- and Red-Alert preps simultaneously. It’s a treat to watch her, too, now that I myself am as Redded up as I want to be for the present and am catching my breath before I lend her a hand. Too proud to ask for help, is T.A.C.T.—as am I, come to that, especially vis-à-vis old Bowman—but not too proud to accept it gratefully when it’s offered in extremis, and that particular sidelong “Owe you one” look that she flashes me at such times is a debt-absolver in itself. Under her loose sweatshirt and cut-off jeans is the trademark string bikini, you can bet; Tyler’s been known to break for a dip in the teeth of a thirty-knot gale. And under the bikini—well, she doesn’t exactly hide what that item doesn’t much cover anyhow, especially when B.S.T.S.B. is off somewhere and it’s just her in her pool and me doing my yard work or whatever. We’re good neighbors of some years’ standing, Tyler and I, no more than that, and loners both, basically, as for that matter is old Bowman: “Independent as three hogs on ice,” is how T. describes us. Chez moi, at least, that hasn’t always been the case—but never mind. And I don’t mind saying (and just might get it said to her this time, when I sashay down there shortly to help shift Slippery, that nifty cutter of hers, out to its heavy-weather mooring before the seas get high) that should a certain trim and able neighbor-lady find the tidewater invading her ground-floor bedroom, there’s a king-size second-floor one right next door, high and dry and never intended for one person.
No time for such hog-dreams now, though. It’s getting black off to southward there, Dashikaward; if we don’t soon slip Ms. Slippery out of her slip, there’ll be no unslipping her. What I’ve been waiting for is a certain over-the-shoulder glance from my busy friend wrestling spring-lines down there on her dock, where her cutter’s bucking like a wild young mare: a look that says “Don’t think I need you, neighbor, but”—and there it is, and down I hustle, just as old Bowman looks set to amble my way after I glance himward, merely checking to see whether he’s there and up to what. A bit of jogging gets me aboard milady’s pitching vessel, as I’d hoped, before B’s half across my lawn; by the time he has cocked his critical eye at my own preparations and made his way out onto Tyler’s dock, she and I have got Slippery’s auxiliary diesel idling and her tender secured astern to ferry us back ashore when our job’s done.
“Need another hand?” It’s me he calls to, not Tyler—let’s say because I’m in Slippery’s bobbing, shoreward-facing bow, unhitching dock lines while T. stands by at the helm, and there’s wind-noise in the cutter’s rigging along with the diesel-chug—but his ate-the-canary tone includes us both. Bowman’s of the age and category that wears workshirt and long khakis in the hottest weather, plus cleat-soled leather shoes and black socks (I’m in T-shirt, frayed jeans, and sockless deck-mocs; Tyler’s barefoot in those aforenoted tight cut-offs).
“Ask the skipper,” I call back pointedly, and when I see B. wince at the way we’re pitching already in the slip, I can’t help adding “Maybe she wants somebody up the mast.”
He humphs and shuffles on out toward the cutter’s cockpit, shielding his face from the wind with one hand to let us know we should’ve done this business earlier (I agree) and getting his pants-legs wet with spray from the waves banging under Slippery’s transom.
“Just stow these lines, Fred, if you will,” Tyler tells him pertly; “thanks a bunch.” She has strolled forward as if to greet him; now she tosses him a midships spring line and returns aft to do likewise with the stern line—just to be nice by making the old guy feel useful, in my opinion, because she is nice: tough and lively and nobody’s fool, but essentially nice, unlike some I’ve done time with. So what if she’s feeding B’s wiser-than-thouhood; we’re good neighbors all, each independent as a hog on ice but the three of us on the same ice, finally, when cometh push to shove.
Only two of us in the same boat, however. Tyler casts off her stern line and I the remaining bow line; she hops smartly to the helm, calls “Astern we go!” and backs Slippery down into full reverse. When Bowman warns me from the dock “Mind your bowsprit as she swings, or you’re in trouble,” I’m pleased to say back to him—loud enough for her to hear, I hope—”Some folks know how to swing without making trouble.” Lost on him, no doubt, but maybe not on her.
Out we go then into the whitecaps to make the short run to her mooring, where Slippery can swing indeed: full circle to the wind, if necessary, instead of thrashing about in her slip and maybe chafing through her lines and smashing against dock piles. I go aft to confer on our approach-and-pickup procedure with Ms. Helmsperson, who’s steering with her bare brown toes in the wheel’s lower spokes while she tucks a loose sunbleached lock up under her headband. Raising her arms like that does nice things with Tyler’s breasts, even under a sweatshirt; she looks as easy at the helm as if we’re heading out for a sail on the bay instead of Red-Alerting for a killer storm. When she smiles and flashes the old “Owe you one,” I find myself half wishing that we really were heading out together, my neighbor-lady and I, not for a daysail but for a real blue-water passage: hang a left at the lastmost lighthouse, say, and lay our course for the Caribbean, properties and storm-preparations be damned. Single-handing hath its pleasures, for sure, but they’re not the only pleasures in the book.
Storm-time, however, is storm-time, a pickup’s a pickup, and both of us know the routine. It’s just a matter of confirming, once we’ve circled the mooring buoy and swung up to windward, that she’ll leave it close on our starboard bow, following my hand-signals on final approach. T. swears she can do the job herself, and so she can in ordinary weathers, as I know from applauding her often enough from dock or porch when she comes in from a solo cruise, kills the cutter’s headway at exactly the right moment, and scrambles forward just in time to flatten herself in the bow, reach down for the mast of the pickup float, and drop the eye of her mooring line over a bow cleat before Slippery slips away. In present conditions, it’s another story; anyhow, once I’m positioned on the foredeck she has to follow my signals will-she nill-she, as I’ll be blocking her view of the target. Make of that circumstance what you will; I myself mean to make of it what I can. Looks as if we’re thinking in synch, too, T. and I, for now she says “I’ll bring us up dead slow; final approach is your call, okay?”
Aye aye, ma’am. That wind really pipes now in Slippery’s rigging as I make my way forward, handing myself from lifelines to shrouds and up to the bow pulpit while we bang into a two-foot chop and send the spray flying. My heart’s whistling a bit, too. Easy does it, I remind myself: Not too fast, not too slow; neither too much nor too little. That pickup float has become a bobbing metaphor: Don’t blow it, I warn me as we close the last ten yards, me kneeling on the foredeck as if in prayer and hand-signaling Just a touch portward, Skipper-Babe; now a touch starboard. Just a touch … Then I’m prone on her slick wet foredeck, arm and shoulder out under bow rail, timing my grab to synchronize Slippery’s hobbyhorsing with the bob of the float and the waggle of its pickup mast—and by golly, I’ve got her!
Got it; I’ve by-golly got it, and I haul it up smartly before the next wave knocks us aside, and with my free hand I snatch the mooring eye and snug it over the bow cleat in the nick of time, just as six tons of leeway-making sailboat yank up the slack.
“Good show!” cheers Tyler, and in fact it was. From the helm she salutes me with her hands clasped over her head (that nice raised-arm effect again) and I both acknowledge and return the compliment with a fist in the air, for her boat-handling was flawless. By when I’m back in the cockpit, she’s all business, fetching out chafe-gear to protect the mooring line where it leads through a chock to its cleat and asking would I mind going forward one last time to apply that gear while she secures things down below, and then we’re out of here. But unless I’m hearing things in the wind, there’s a warmth in her voice just a touch beyond the old “Owe you one.”
No problem, neighbor. I do that little chore for her in the rain that sweeps off the bay now and up our wide river, whose farther shore has disappeared from sight. It takes some doing to fit a rubber collar over a heavy mooring line exactly where it lies in its chock on a pitching, rain-strafed foredeck without losing that line on the one hand or a couple of fingers on the other, so to speak; we’re dealing with large forces here, pumped up larger yet by Ms. Dashika yonder. But I do it, all right, seizing moments of slack between waves and wind-gusts to make my moves, working with and around those forces more than against them. When I come aft again, I call down the cabin companionway that if she loses her investment, it won’t be because her chafe-gear wasn’t in place.
“Poor thing, you’re soaked!” Tyler calls back up. “Come out of the wet till I’m done, and then we’ll run for it.”
When I look downriver at what’s working its way our way, I think we ought to hightail it for shore right now. But I am indeed soaked, and chilling fast in the wind; what’s more, my friend’s on her knees down there on one of the settee berths, securing stuff on the shelf behind it and looking about as perky and fetching as I’ve ever seen her look, which is saying much. And despite the wind-shrieks and the rain-rattle and the pitching, or maybe because of them, Slippery’s no-frills cabin, once I’m down in it, is about as cozy a shelter as a fellow could wish for, with just the two of us at home. Concerned as I am that if we don’t scram out of there pronto, there’ll be no getting ashore for us (already the chop’s too steep and the wind too strong to row the dinghy to windward; luckily, our docks are dead downwind, a dozen boat-lengths astern), I’m pleased to come indoors. I stand half beside and half behind her, holding onto an overhead grab rail like a rush-hour subway commuter, and ask What else can I do for you, Skip?
She cuts me her “Owe you one,” does Ms. Take-a-Chance—maybe even “Owe you two or three”—and says “Make yourself at home, neighbor; I’m just about ready.”
Yes, well, say I to myself: Likewise, mate; like-wise. Seems to me that what she’s busy with there on her knees isn’t all that high-priority, but it sure makes for an admirable view. Instead of admiring it from the settee opposite, I take a seat beside her, well within arm’s reach.
Arm’s reach, however, isn’t necessarily easy reach, at least not for some of us. When I think about Take-a-Chance Tyler or watch her at her work and play, as has lately become my habit, I remind myself that I wouldn’t want anything Established and Regular, if you know what I mean. I’ve had Established, I’ve had Regular, and I still carry the scars to prove it. No more E&R for this taxpayer, thank you kindly. On the other hand, though I’m getting no younger, I’m no B.S.T.S. Bowman yet, getting my jollies from a veggie-garden and tucking up in bed with my weather radio. As the saying goes, if I’m not as good as once I was, I’m still as good once as I was—or so I was last time I had a chance to check. Life hereabouts doesn’t shower such chances upon us loners, particularly if, like me, you’re a tad shy of strangers and happen to like liking the lady you lay. There ought to be some middle ground, says I, between Established and Regular on the one hand and Zilch on the other: a middle road that stays middle down the road. Haven’t found it yet myself, but now I’m thinking maybe here it perches on its bare brown knees right beside me, within arm’s reach, fiddling with tide tables and nautical charts and for all I know just waiting for my arm to reach.
Look before you leap, proverbial wisdom recommends—while also warning that he who hesitates is lost. In Tyler’s case, I’m a paid-up looker and hesitator both. To be or not to be, then? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I tell myself, and plop my hand palm-down on her near bare calf.
“I know,” frets Take-a-Chance, not even turning her pretty head: “Time to clear our butts out of here before we’re blown away. Better safe than sorry, right?”
Dashika howls at that, and the rain downpours like loud applause. In one easy smiling motion then, Tyler’s off the settee with my business hand in hers, leading me to go first up the companionway.
Which I do.
Well. So. I could’ve stood my ground, I guess—sat my ground, on that settee—and held onto that hand of hers and said Let’s ride ‘er out right here, okay? Or, after that wild dinghy-trip back to shore, I could’ve put my arm around her as we ran through the rain toward shelter, the pair of us soaked right through, exhilarated by the crazy surf we’d ridden home on and breathing hard from hauling the tender out and up into the lee of her carport. I could’ve given her a good-luck kiss there in that shelter, to see whether it might lead to something more (nobody to see us, as Bowman appears to’ve cleared out already) instead of merely saying Well, so: Take care, friend, and good luck to both of us. At very least I could’ve asked Shall we watch old Dashika from your place or mine?, or at very very least How about a beer for Slippery’s crew? But I guess I figured it was Tyler’s turn: I’d made my move; the ball was in her court; if she wasn’t having it, amen.
So take care now, is what I said. Good luck to all hands. I’ll keep an eye out.
Whereat quoth T.A.C.T., “Thanks a bunch, nabe. Owe you one.” And that was that.
So an eye out I’ve kept since, and keep on keeping as Dashika roars in, although there’s little to be seen through that wall of rain out there, and nothing to be heard over this freight-train wind. Power’s out, phones are out, walls and windows are shaking like King Kong’s cage; can’t see whether Slippery’s still bucking and rearing on her tether or has bolted her mooring and sailed through Tyler’s picture window. All three docks are under; the surge is partway up my lawn already and must be into Tyler’s pool. Can’t tell whether that lady herself has cut and run for high ground, but I know for a fact she hasn’t run to this particular medium-high patch thereof.
I ought to cut and run myself, while I still can. Ms. T’s her own woman; let her be her own woman, if she’s even still over there. But hell with it. I moved a couple things upstairs and then said hell with that, too, and just opened me a cold one while there’s still one cold to be opened and sat me down here all by my lonesome to watch Dashika do her stuff.
I’m as prepared as I want be.
Hell with it.
Let her come.
And Then One Day
Her professional knack and penchant for storytelling, Elizabeth liked to believe, had descended to her from her father, an inveterate raconteur who even in the terminal delirium of old age and uremic poisoning had entertained his hospital-bedside audience with detailed anecdotes of bygone days. The decade of his dying had been the century’s next-to-last; in his mind, however, the year was often mid-1930ish, and the anecdotes themselves might be from the century’s teens and twenties, which had been his own. The bedside audience was principally Elizabeth herself (or, sometimes, the night-shift nurse), although the anecdotist mistook her variously for her long-dead mother and for sundry women-friends of his youth and middle age, whereto deliriant memory from time to time returned him.
“Shirley?” he would say (or “Helen?” “Irma?” “Jane?”), with the half-rising inflection that signals impending narrative: “D’you remember that Saturday morning five years back—no, six, it was: summer before the Black Friday crash—when I borrowed Lee Bowman’s saddle-brown Bearcat to drive you and Eileen Fenster down to Dorset Station, and just as we were crossing the old Town Creek drawbridge …”Or, “Run these damn affidavits over to Amos Creighton ‘fore the courthouse closes, Frieda honey, or there’ll be no trial till after Armistice Day. Young Lucille Creighton told me once …” What his actual last words were, Elizabeth didn’t know; her father had died at night, in the county hospital, while she was in a distant city promoting her latest novel. The proximate cause of his death had been a fall in the corridor whereinto he’d managed deliriously to wander (despite his doctor’s orders for bed-restraints when the patient was unattended), believing himself en route down High Street to fetch certain files from his little law office on Courthouse Row—which had in fact been torched during the black civil-rights ruckus of the 1960s. The final cause, however, was general systems wear-out in the ninth decade of a prevailingly healthy life, and so his daughter and sole heir had chosen not to press the matter of that possibly negligent nonrestraint. The last words that she herself had heard him speak he had addressed to an imagined listener (Frieda again, his devoted secretary through most of Elizabeth’s childhood) the day before the night of his fatal fall, just as Elizabeth, relieved by the hired nurse, was leaving his hospital-room at the close of afternoon visiting hours to drive to the airport across the Bay. Once again back in the Prohibition era, he had been retailing to long-deceased Frieda the escapades of a legendary moonshiner down in the marshes of Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, whose whiskey-still successfully evaded detection by one federal “revenuer” after another. “And then one day,” she’d heard her father’s voice declare from the bed now behind her as she stepped out into the tiled hallway …
And then he was beyond her hearing range, and not long thereafter she likewise his, alas, forever.
Retrospectively, it struck her that those words were (strictly speaking, would have been) an altogether apt though paradoxical exit line for a born storyteller like her dad—as also, come to that, for herself, somewhere down the road: the story just kicking into gear as the teller kicks the bucket (she didn’t know, in fact, whether her father had tripped over something in that hallway or slipped on the polished tiles or merely collapsed). At his funeral services—well attended, as he had been something of a civic leader and a popular “character” in their little hometown—she had told “the anecdote of the anecdote,” as she called it, and it had been appreciatively received. No surprise: She was, after all, a professional. To friends and well-wishers over in the city, where she kept a small apartment, she found herself retelling it from time to time thereafter, no doubt sprucing it up a bit for narrative effectiveness as I’ve done here (her dad would understand): Who could know, e.g., where the old ex-counselor had imagined himself to be as he wandered unattended down that fell hallway, or whether he’d even been delirious?
One of those city-friends happened to be not only a fellow wordsmith but a professor of wordsmithery at Elizabeth’s graduate-school alma mater and, in fact, the coach of her advanced literary apprenticeship some years since. Over lunch at his faculty club, he remarked to his star ex-coachee that in the jargon of narrative theory, as opposed to the hunch-and-feel of actual storymaking, the formulation and then one day, or any of its numerous equivalents, has a characteristic function, aptly suggested by her phrase “the story just kicking into gear”: It marks the crucial shift from the generalized, “customary” time of the dramaturgical “ground situation” to the focused, dramatized time of the story’s “present” action, and thus in effect ends the plot’s beginning and begins its middle.
“We’re back in school! Come again, please?”
He topped off her Chardonnay (he himself preferred a simple dry Chablis) and reminded her, between wedges of club sandwich, that every conventional story-plot comprises what she ought to remember his calling a Ground Situation and a Dramatic Vehicle. The GS is some state of affairs pre-existing the story’s present action and marked by an overt or latent dramatic voltage, like an electrical potential: Once upon a time there was a beautiful young princess, the crown jewel of the realm, who however for some mysterious reason would neither speak nor laugh, et cetera. In the language of systems analysis (if Elizabeth could stomach yet more jargon), this state of affairs constitutes an “unstable homeostatic system,” which may be elaborated at some length before the story’s real action gets under way: The king and queen try every expedient that they can come up with; likewise their ministers, lords and ladies, physicians, and court jesters, as well as sages summoned from the farthest reaches of the realm—all to no avail, et cetera.
He cited other examples, from Elizabeth’s own published work.
“I remember, I remember. But for years now I’ve just written the damn stuff, you know?”
You have indeed. Anyhow, this princess is as gracious and accomplished as she is comely, wouldn’t you agree? A model daughter as well as a knockout heir to the throne—but nothing can induce her to so much as crack a smile or make a peep. In royal-parental desperation, her father proclaims that any man who—
“Always a man.”
Not infrequently a man, especially in the case of problem princesses. Any man who can dispel the spell that the king is convinced has been laid on his daughter by some antiroyalist witch can have half the kingdom and the young lady’s hand in marriage. If the guy tries and fails, however …
“No free lunch.”
And mind you, this is still just the Ground Situation. Many are the gallants who rally to the king’s challenge; likewise wizards of repute, renownéd fools, and assorted creeps and nobodies. The princess attends their stunts and stratagems with mien complaisant—
Complaisant. But be damned if she’ll either laugh or speak. And so it goes, Zapsville for all contenders, year after year, and the story proper hasn’t even started yet. You’re not enthralled, Liz.
“Enough that she is. I can’t stop thinking of poor Dad, that last night in the hospital, while I was off book-touring in Atlanta. Where was the goddamn nurse?”
And then one day …
“The handsome stranger. What else is new?”
Well. Sometimes it’s the lad next door, whom the princess had never thought of in those terms. In any case, it’s the screw-turning interloper in his saddle-brown Stutz Bearcat of a Dramatic Vehicle, come to precipitate a story out of the Ground Situation. The Beginning has ended, dear Liz; the Middle’s begun.
“Maybe, maybe not. Thanks for lunch, anyhow.”
Disinclined as she was to theorizing, once her erstwhile teacher and subsequent friend had glossed her late sire’s “last words” in that particular way, Elizabeth came increasingly to regard them as talismanic. She remained appreciative of her father’s role as her narrative model (narrational would be the more accurate adjective, in my opinion, but it smacks of the jargon that our protagonist disdains)—perhaps even more appreciative than before, as those incantatory words resonated through her sensibility. As time went by, however, she found herself rethinking not only the origins of her vocation but indeed the story of her life in the light of that fateful formulation.
For some months immediately following her mother’s early death, for example, young Elizabeth and her elderly father had continued the family’s agreeable custom of Wednesday-night movies at the town’s one theater. Thirty years later, the successful novelist still remembered clearly her pleasure in the idyllic state of affairs established in the opening sequences of many of those old films (although she’d quite forgotten the “ground situations” themselves and was less than certain that they had inevitably been marked by some “overt or latent dramatic voltage”): a pleasure doubtless sharpened by her unarticulated foreknowledge that trouble must ensue—otherwise, no story.
In our actual lives, of course, she recognized (then or now?), there is no “and then one day”—although in the stories of our lives there may very well be; indeed, there must be, she supposed (now or then?) … otherwise, no story. The story of her life as a storyteller, e.g., she could now imagine as having begun not with the more or less enthralled osmosis of her father’s anecdotes (which, it belatedly occurred to her, had been merely that: anecdotes, not stories), but rather with her apprehensive recognition, in those childhood Wednesday-night movies, of the necessary impending disruption of those so-idyllic opening scenes.
In the draft of an extended thank-you note to her friend somewhile after their “end-of-the-Beginning” lunch, she wrote experimentally: Since time out of mind I’d been absorbing stories—told and read to me by Mom and Dad (Mom especially: Dad told anecdotes about down-county moonshiners and his courthouse cronies); read for myself in storybooks; witnessed in Stein’s Avalon Theater, which we-all attended en famille on Wednesday nights more faithfully than church on Sundays. And then one day—watching some now-nameless G-rated production that happened to open with a particularly engaging family scene shot in Glorious Technicolor, as they still called it in the late Fifties (this will have been while Mom was sick in Dorset General, I suddenly remember, but hadn’t died yet, and so I’d’ve been about 10—and thou, dear friend, wert 30-something already, long married, with a kid my age …), I see upon the screen a pair of handsome, good-humored, obviously loving parents; two or three appealing youngsters of appropriately distributed age and sex; no doubt a pet dog, mischievous or soul-eyed or both, gamboling about the sunny ménage.... Note how I draw this introductory construction out, not wanting to come to its closing dash and the sentence proper—and then one day, with a vividness that still impresses me three decades later, I understood that that “unstable homeostatic system” must be disrupted—for the worse, in this instance if not in all such instances, as it could not imaginably be made happier than it was—must be disrupted for the worse, and very soon at that, or there’d be no story, and we’d all start to fidget, bored and baffled, and presently make catcalls at the screen or the projection booth and even leave the theater, feeling as cheated of our 25 cents as if nothing had appeared onscreen at all—since from thedramaturgical point of view (as some people I care about would put it) nothing did.
How’s that for a Faulknersworth of syntax, Coach-o’-my-heart, and an Emily Dickinsonsworth of dashes from your quondam protégée?
In fact, of course [she went on, as much to herself as to him], the unconsciously anticipated threat (never again unconsciously for this member of the audience) duly materialized: The family’s happiness was, if not shattered, properly jeopardized by some Screw-Turning Interloper or Ante-Raising Happenstance—the MGM equivalent of Mom’s galloping cancer—that potentiated the conflict already latent if not overt in the Ground Situation, then escalated that conflict through the rising action of the plot to some exciting climax, and ultimately restored the familial harmony in some significantly and permanently (however subtly) altered wise, if I’ve got your seminary lingo right. It was exactly to spectate and share this disruption and its sea-changed resolution that we’d coughed up our quarters and set aside our two hours; I understood that, consciously now, and understood further (though not yet quite consciously) that what I was understanding was one difference between life and art, or between our lives and the stories of our lives.
For the language wherewith to conceptualize and reflect upon that understanding, friend, deponent ‘umbly thanketh her ex-and-ongoing master. Her turn to take him to lunch, next time she’s in town, and to discuss, maybe, Middles? Wednesday next?
And then one day (it occurred to her just after she redrafted and mailed a much-abridged version of this missive)—one Wednesday P.M., it was, to be precise, maybe half a year after her mother’s death—her father had restored their cozy Avalon twosome to a threesome by including in it faithful Frieda. Not long thereafter, Elizabeth had returned it to a twosome by deciding that she preferred Saturday matinees with her junior-high girlfriends to Wednesday evenings en famille, if that term still applied. In the jargon of systems analysis [word came back promptly from across the Bay], the unstable homeostatic system is incrementally perturbed by the you-know-whom and anon catastrophically restored to a complexified, negentropic equilibrium. Next Wed’s bespoke, dear L, but Thurs’s clear, tête-à-têtewise.
Very well, Miz Liz, said she to herself: You’re not his only star ex-coachee, and/or he’s not as ready to do Middles as you mistakenly inferred him to be—at least not in your story. And so with a professionally calibrated mix of mild disappointment, continuing interest, cordial affection, and ultimate shrug-shoulderedness, she replied that Thursday next, alas, was bespoken for her, but that either the Wednesday or the Thursday following was (currently) free.
How things went or did not go with this pair, Middlewise, we’ll consider presently. In the interim, Elizabeth found herself ever more intrigued, preoccupied, very nearly possessed by the paradigmatic aspect of her father’s “exit line” (the line his, in the first instance, the exit hers, from his hospital room; then the exit his, from her life and his own, the line hers to ponder) and of the sundry Ground Situations in her life—sorry: in her life-story—that that line could be said to have ended, for better or worse. She had innocently audited a thousand stories—and then one day in Stein’s Avalon she had experienced what amounted to an enlightenment as to the nature of dramatic narrative (and this first had led to others, concerning e.g. the necessary invulnerability of heroes at least up to the climax of their stories, and the contrary foredoomedness of certain accessory characters), and after certain other crucial corner-turnings she had matured into a successful working novelist. Her girlhood had been prevailingly sunny and lovingly parented—she had come late and welcomely into her parents’ lives—and then one day her mother manifested alarming symptoms, and was shockingly soon after dead. Father and daughter had proceeded as best they could with their life together and its attendant rituals—not unsuccessfully, in her young judgment—and then one (Wednes)day there sat plump Frieda at her dad’s other side (Elizabeth’s mother had been slender even before her illness, as was her healthy daughter now approaching middle age), and after Frieda Shirley, or was it Irma, and after Irma et cetera; and far be it from Elizabeth to begrudge her father, either at the time or in retrospect, consolatory adult female company in his bereavement, but she and he had never thereafter been as close as she felt them to have been theretofore. Through her subsequent small-town public school years she had been increasingly restless and irritable, though not truly unhappy—and then one day (thanks to the joint beneficence of her father and a childless aunt) she had been offered matriculation at a first-rate private girls’ boarding school across the Bay for the last three of her high-school years, and that splendid institution had transformed her—had anyhow guided and abetted her transformation—from one more amorphous and unsophisticated though not unintelligent American teenage mediocrity into a really quite poised, knowledgeable, firm-principled and self-possessed young woman, if she did say so herself, looking forward eagerly to the increased responsibilities, challenges, and freedoms of college undergraduate life—in particular to the serious study of great literature, which she had come ardently to love, and the serious pursuit of “creative writing,” for which she had discovered herself blessed with an undeniable flair and, just possibly, a genuine talent.
I am sorry to report that her baccalaureate years proved a time of pedagogical disappointment and considerable personal disorientation—all later turned to good account in Elizabeth’s fiction, but scarifying to work through. Short of funds (that beneficent aunt had believed secondary education more crucial than undergraduate education, a proposition that I myself neither affirm nor contest), she attended a not-bad university on scholarship and found her underclass “professors”—many of them first-time teaching assistants only perfunctorily supervised—almost uniformly inferior to her experienced, knowledgeable, demanding, and enormously attentive prep-school teachers. The time here will have been the early 1970s: The grade inflation and à la carte curricula of the countercultural Sixties had made a near-mockery of academic standards on many American campuses, including Elizabeth’s, at least in the liberal arts. LSD, marijuana, and hashish (but not yet cocaine and “designer drugs”) were in almost as common use as alcohol; sexual promiscuity, like a straight-A average, had become so nearly the norm as to lose its meaning. For two years, to her own dismay, this promising young woman goofed off, slept around, abused substances and herself, managed a B average that she and her former high-school advisor agreed should have been a D at best, scarcely communicated with her father, very nearly lost her scholarship (which she knew she no longer deserved), likewise her life (stoned passenger in a car piled up by a stoned roommate who had introduced but not converted her to lesbian sex) and all sense of herself—not to mention of her notional vocation.
And then one day—one semester, actually, the second of her junior year—she found herself, in at least two senses of that phrase, in a fiction-writing “workshop” presided over by a visiting “writer in residence”: a mid-thirtyish short-storier of modest fame, leather-jacketed charisma, and a truculent intensity that numerous apprentices, Elizabeth included, found appealing. Preoccupied with his own writing and career ambitions, to his and the university’s shame (say I) he paid scant attention to his students’ manuscripts but considerable attention to the authors themselves, in particular the two or three who happened to be physically attractive as well as somewhat talented young women. Of these, our Elizabeth was easily the most of both. Although the campus disruptions by anti-Vietnam-war protesters in the preceding decade had frightened U.S. college administrators into shortening the academic semester from its traditional fifteen weeks down to thirteen, in that abbreviated period this writer-in-residence managed serial “skin tutorials,” as he frankly called them, with all three of his talented/attractive protégées as well as with another rather less so but jealous of her classmates’ special coaching. In short, of the seven female students in his workshop he bedded four, and in those sexually unpolitical though luxuriant days the only protest (made petulantly to the writer himself) came from a fifth who felt herself pedagogically short-changed.
Among these four, unsurprisingly, his favorite and the most frequently thus tutored was Elizabeth; and it must be said for the unprincipled bastard that while he was an aggressive sexual imperialist, a shameless exploiter of the student/teacher relationship (which ought ever to be inviolate), an indifferent coach who did no line-editing whatever of his apprentices’ manuscripts, and in my judgment not even a particularly gifted writer himself, he nevertheless knew a bright turn of phrase when he saw one, a false note when he heard one, a praiseworthy plot-foreshadowing or blameworthy red herring when one swam into his ken. What’s more, in the perspiratory intervals between skin-tutorials he did not scruple to remark such of those as he recollected from his tutees’ prose. A genuine artist-in-the-making, if I may so put it, recognizes and takes to heart such nuggets of authentic professional feedback, praise and blame alike, regardless of the circumstances of their proffering; if it can be argued that a talent like Elizabeth’s would have found its voice sooner or later in any case from accumulated practice and experience of literature, of the world, and of herself, it can also be argued that she found hers rather sooner thanks to the intercopulatory editorializings of her first real writer/coach—whose literary reputation her own would far outshine by when she reached his then age.
Now: The muses, it goes without saying, care nothing for university degrees or such distinctions as graduate versus undergraduate students, only for transcendent gifts disciplined anyhow into mastery. Our institutions being organized as they are, however, and our Elizabeth knowing, upon receipt of her baccalaureate, that she was possessed of ability and ambition but not of means to support herself through the next stage of her apprenticeship (commonly the most serious, arduous, and discouraging), she applied to several of the more prestigious of our republic’s abundant graduate writing programs, was accepted at two of them, and chose the one that offered the larger stipend plus tuition-waiver. (It was also rumored that her erstwhile “skin-tutor,” an academic gypsy, was scheduled to visit the other program, and the memory of her exploitation of him, as she had had almost come to think of it, embarrassed her. She had been, she told herself, no starry-eyed naïf, but an unformed talent craving professional direction the way a wintertime raccoon craves salt and determined to take it wherever she could find it.) In that new venue she had the good fortune to practice intensely for the next two years in the company of similarly able and ambitious peers, with and against whom to hone her skills under the benevolent supervision of a writer/coach more accomplished in both areas than had been his forerunner in her apprenticeship. This one kept his hands scrupulously off his charges—indeed, he had less social connection with them than in my opinion such coaches ideally should have—but very much on their manuscripts, which he took time to read more than once, to line-edit judiciously, and to review with their authors both in conference and in seminar. So did the young woman’s art flourish in these circumstances (and her physical and moral well-being likewise, for she had exchanged substance abuse for a glass of table wine with dinner and perhaps an after-class beer with her comrades-in-arms, and sexual promiscuity for near-abstinence until, as soon enough happened, she found a coeval lover suited to her maturing tastes), by MFA-time she had placed short stories in three respectable literary periodicals and had sufficiently impressed her mentor with her maiden novel-in-progress that he felt he could show it to his own agent without compromising his credibility.
And then one day, therefore, she found herself possessed of a better-than-entry-level book contract, and some months thereafter of a favorable front-page notice in the New York Times Book Review—shared, to be sure, with a brace of other promising first-novelists (that had been the reviewer’s handle), but hers the most glowingly praised. Her debut paid out its advance on royalties and earned its publisher a modest profit as well as enjoying a succès d’estime, with the consequence that for its sequel her agent negotiated a handsome contract indeed, given that Elizabeth was and remains an essentially “literary” author. By age thirty-five, after a brief and unsatisfying marriage, she was supporting herself comfortably on her royalty income alone.
No, dear Liz (her ex-second coach, ongoing friend, and still-occasional mentor will object if she reviews her life-story with him in these terms, as I rather fancy her doing at their next lunchtime get-together): Those book contracts and that Times review don’t qualify as Screw-Turning, Ante-Raising Interlopers on the order of Plump Frieda and Comrade Leatherjacket.
“May herpes simplex rot his predatory crotch. But he did call a spade a spade, you know, when he bothered to call anything at all. Why don’t they qualify, prithee?”
You tell me.
Because, she would suppose (then or now?), she has uncharacteristically lost track of precisely which story-of-her-life she’s in the process of telling, and a fortiori of what constitutes its GS as distinct from its DV, or its Beginning from its Middle. In the story of her literary apprenticeship (one story of it, anyhow, she imagines her friend mildly correcting her), those egregious skin-tutorials had most certainly been an eye-opener, let’s say, that initiated her serious application to the craft of fiction. “Viewed another way, however, that clown was just one more court jester, right? An unusually aggressive one, coming closer than most to getting a rise out of Princess Pokerface but still not succeeding, so off to Zapsville he goes, and good riddance. It was you who made the difference, dear friend.”
No plausible tribute declined by the management. We both suspect, however, that what “made the difference”—as in most such real-life processes, if not in fiction—was some small quantitative increment precipitating a significant qualitative change. The girl sits through ninety-seven Hollywood movies in Stein’s Avalon, and then one day, in midst of the ninety-eighth, she rather suddenly grasps some things about basic dramaturgy. So she writes ten yearsworth of practice-fiction without making noteworthy progress except in language-mechanics and the range of her vocabulary, meanwhile accumulating mileage on her experiential odometer, and then one day …
“Or it happens,” Elizabeth hears herself declaring as if to her Chardonnay, “that two people who first knew each other in some uneven professional connection, like lawyer/client or doctor/patient, maintain a more or less attenuated friendship when that connection has run its course. They’re still not quite peers, but their paths cross from time to time on officially equal footing at campus arts festivals or over lunch maybe once per season, with occasional letters or phone talks between, usually one of them congratulating the other on some new publication....”
Very literary lawyers, these guys.
“Very. This goes on for years and years, while their professional lives exfoliate more or less in parallel and their personal lives turn whatever separate corners they turn.”
Objection, counselor: In the matter of their personal lives you’ve got it right, but the curve of her career is steadily upward (as was his at her age), while his, as is to be expected, has leveled off and even begun its decline, fortunately gentle.
“So he declares.”
Likewise, N.B., his physical capacities.
“So he sees fit to declare. In any event, almost without their noticing it—”
They notice it. But they both have good reasons for not acknowledging it.
“Excellent reasons. All the same, little by little, with neither of them especially leading it, or maybe each half-consciously leading it more or less by turns, their cordial and sporadic connection subtly changes character.”
At least it pleases them to believe that the change has been subtle.
“Each has a failed marriage under his/her belt by this time, no? Hers of short duration, to a fellow former coachee of Sir Leatherjacket, as it happens, of whom she came to suspect her spouse terminally jealous. Anyhow, on the basis of considerable experience she’d begun to infer that she didn’t particularly like men her own age. An ill-starred match, this one, but the split was prevailingly amicable.”
I had gathered as much, Liz, but am gratified to hear it said. Not likewise in her friend’s case, alas: a well-starred match, whereof the end was sore indeed. More community property to hassle over, for one thing, plus a few decadesworth of shared history, plus that daughter somewhere aforementioned....
“A daughter her age, which datum gives the woman of this pair due pause. The mildly troubling truth appears to be that just as she seems most naturally attracted, other things equal, to men nearly old enough to be her father, he seems most drawn, in an egregious male-stereotypical way, to women nearly young enough et cetera.”
Not bloody often, as Apollo is his witness. And when are things ever equal?
“Things never are. On with the story?”
On with it, by all means: This pair lunches it up here and there from time to time for years and years, while the plate tectonics of their Ground Situation goes about its virtually imperceptible though nonetheless seismic business.
“And then one day …?”
If any such conversation actually took place between these two, we may be confident that it was by no means so narratively tidy as the foregoing. In fact, however, no such conversation did take place, and even had it so taken—untidily, inefficiently, marked by blurts, irrelevancies, unstrategic hesitations—it would not likely have led to anything of dramaturgical interest, inasmuch as the “senior” conversant had long since remarried and was not about to jeopardize that happy connection with infidelity; and the “junior” conversant, truth to tell—having grown up as a motherless only child and been taught emotional self-reliance both by life and by that excellent girls’ boarding school—was disinclined to grand passions, to sustained intimacy, even for that matter to an unselfishly shared life, though not to the occasional adventure. After the amicable dissolution of her short-lived marriage, Elizabeth had moved back across the Bay into her father’s house to oversee his last age; when upon his death that house became hers, she continued to live and work therein contentedly (between her frequent travels) with a large black Labrador retriever as her chief companion: a more than ordinarily handsome, talented, and successful woman with numerous friends, infrequent casual lovers, no further interest in marriage and none in motherhood, and for that matter no very considerable sexual appetite—although she quite enjoyed occasional lovemaking the way she enjoyed the occasional lobster-feast, gallery opening, or night at the opera.
But even if their situations and temperaments had been otherwise, such that their affectionate casual friendship developed into an amitié amoureuse and thence one day or year into a full-scale May/September love affair (June/October, I suppose, even July/November, given their unhurried pace thus far), with whatever consequences to their lives and careers—so what? Reinvigorated by his new “young” companion (although in fact he hadn’t been feeling devigorated as things stood), the aging wordsmith closes out his oeuvre with a sprightly final item or two before ill health or senility caps his pen for keeps; alternatively, he so loses himself in the distractions of a new life at his age that he writes nothing further of more than clinical or biographical interest; or an automobile crash, whether his fault or the other driver’s, kills him before either of those scenarios can unfold. Inspired by the first truly mature sexual/emotional relationship of her life, Elizabeth in her forties develops from a quite successful though not extraordinary novelist into one of the memorable voices of her generation; her works are everywhere acclaimed by that minuscule fraction of Earth’s human population who take pleasure in the art of written literature, and although death claims her mentor/lover all too soon, she manages to remain vigorously productive even after receipt of her Nobel prize. Or it turns out that their connection doesn’t turn out; both parties soon enough recognize (he the more painfully, his misstep being irreversible) that things between them had better remained at the amitié amoureuse stage, better yet at the cordial occasional-lunch stage. Or it does work out, anyhow looks to be working out, when alas the MD-80 ferrying them to St. Bart’s on holiday is blown out of the Caribbean sky by Islamic-fundamentalist terrorists; or perhaps Elizabeth, attending to some urban business, is shot dead by an irked carjacker when she resists his heist of her saddle-brown Jaguar.
In each and any case, so what? One more short or not-so-short story of bourgeois romance, domestic tribulation, personal and vocational fulfillment or frustration, while the world grinds on. Even were it one more narrative of aspiration and struggle in some worthy, impersonal cause, perhaps of fundamental decency versus self-deception, the seductions of language, and the human inclination to see our lives as stories—so what?
The world grinds on; the world grinds on.
That’s a mighty so what, she imagines her friend responding with some concern. Does Miz Liz not remember his distinguishing, back in her advanced-apprentice days, between the readerly reactions So what? and Ah, so!—the former indicating that the author’s narrative/dramatic bills remain unpaid, the latter that her dramaturgical bookkeeping is in good order?
“Sure she remembers, now that he mentions it. Okay, so she remembers: So what, when all’s said and done?”
Ah, so: Our Elizabeth appears to have written herself into a proper corner. She has understood all along, more or less, that neither her life nor her father’s nor any soul else’s is a story, while at the same time wryly viewing and reviewing hers, at least, as if it were. And then one day, some imperceptible “quantitative incrementation” …
On this particular telling, the story of her life thus far (more accurately, I must point out, the story thus far of her life)—its four decadesworth of sundry ups and downs, consequential waypoints and corner-turnings—amounts after all not to a Middle-in-progress, as she has habitually supposed; nor (on this telling) will it so amount four further decades hence, should she live so long, quite regardless of how things go. On this telling she imagines herself then, an old woman at a writing-table in her father’s house or some other, having in the course of her long and by-no-means-uneventful life done this and this and this but not that, or that and that but never this, with such-and-such consequences—the whole catalogue of actions, reactions, and happenstances amounting to no more than an interminable Beginning: a procession of jester/gallants acting out before a complaisant-miened but ultimately impassive princess.
At her feet, her loll-tongued, saddle-brown-curled Chesapeake Bay retriever stirs, makes a small deep wuffing sound, and without lifting his great head from his forepaws, opens his pink-white eyes and shifts his muzzle half-interestedly doorward, as if perhaps sensing something therebeyond, perhaps not. Elizabeth registers subliminally the animal’s tentative curiosity but is, as usual, preoccupied with, even lost in, her story-in-progress, if that adjective can be said to apply:
And then one day …
Good-bye to the Fruits
I agreed to die, stipulating only that I first be permitted to rebehold and bid good-bye to those of Earth’s fruits that I had particularly enjoyed in my not-extraordinary lifetime.
What I had in mind, in the first instance, was such literal items as apples and oranges. Of the former, the variety called Golden Delicious had long been my favorite, especially those with a blush of rose on their fetchingly speckled yellow-green cheeks. Of the latter—but then, there’s no comparing apples to oranges, is there, nor either of those to black plums: truly incomparable, in my opinion, on the rare occasions when one found them neither under- nor overripe. Good-bye to all three, alas; likewise to bananas, whether sliced transversely atop unsweetened breakfast cereal, split longitudinally under scoops of frozen yogurt, barbecued in foil with chutney, or blended with lime juice, rum, and Cointreau into frozen daiquiris on a Chesapeake August late afternoon.
Lime juice, yes: Farewell, dear zesty limes, squeezed into gins-and-tonics before stirring and over bluefish filets before grilling; adieu too to your citric cousins the lemons, particularly those with the thinnest of skins, always the most juiceful, without whose piquance one could scarcely imagine fresh seafood, and whose literal zest was such a challenge for us kitchen-copilots to scrape a half-tablespoonsworth of without getting the bitter white underpeel as well. Adieu to black seedless grapes for eating with ripe cheeses and to all the nobler stocks for vinting, except maybe Chardonnay. I happened not to share the American yuppie thirst for Chardonnay; too over-flavored for my palate. Give me a plain light dry Chablis any time instead of Chardonnay, if you can find so simple a thing on our restaurant wine-lists these days. And whatever happened to soft dry reds that don’t cost an arm and a leg on the one hand, so to speak, or, on the other, taste of iron and acetic acid? But this was no time for such cavils: Good-bye, blessed fruit of the vineyard, a dinner without which was like a day without et cetera. Good-bye to the fruits of those other vines, in particular the strawberry, if berries are properly to be called fruits, the tomato, and the only melon I would really miss, our local cantaloupe. Good-bye to that most sexual of fruits, the guava; to peaches, plantains (fried), pomegranates, and papayas; to the fruits of pineapple field and coconut tree, if nuts are fruits and coconuts nuts, and of whatever it is that kiwis grow on. As for pears, I had always thought them better canned than fresh, as Hemingway’s Nick Adams says of apricots in the story “Big Two-Hearted River”—but I couldn’t see kissing a can good-bye, so I guessed that just about did the fruits (I myself preferred my apricots sun-dried rather than either fresh or canned).
The literal fruits, I meant, of course. But surely it wouldn’t overstretch either the term or anyone’s patience to include in my terminal bye-byes such other edibles of the vegetable kingdom as parboiled fresh asparagus served cold with sesame oil and soy sauce, sorely to be missed in the afterlife if there were one and food-consumption were a feature of it; likewise tossed salads of most sorts except fruit salads, which for some reason never appealed to me and to whose principal ingredients I have severally made my good-byes already, Q.E.D. Also pasta, if pasta’s a vegetable; I had long been a fan of pasta in all its protean forms including the non-Italian, such as Japanese “cellophane” noodles, which I presumed to be some sort of pasta despite their transparency, and German Spätzel. Morever, if I remained untouched by the popularity of Chardonnay among my countrymen, I was a charter member of the Yankee pesto-lovers association. Addio, then, pasta con pesto! Faithful to my homely origins, however, I insisted on equal farewell-time for the simple potato, whether boiled, baked, mashed, or French-fried with unhealthy but delicious salt and vinegar—no ketchup, please—and the inelegant Fordhook lima bean, which, out of some childhood impulse to diversify my mother’s simple cookery, I used to stir into my creamed chipped beef or mix with my mashed white potatoes and pan-gravy on the plate beside my southern-fried chicken: culinary items to which I had bidden good-bye decades ago and so needn’t clutter my present agenda with. Friendly and nutritious veggies, hale! Although I never quite achieved vegetarianism and to this ultimate or all-but-ultimate hour continued to regard you essentially as the garnish to my dinner entrée, you are a garnish that I would miss almost as much as table wine if missing things were posthumously possible. Good-bye, garnis.
Moving nearer the center of life’s plate, as it were, with only a bit more stretching of the parameters (if parameters can be said to be stretched at all by centripetal motion), might we not add—must we not add—to our hail-and-farewell list the fruits of the sea, succulent in all languages but to my ear especially so in those of the Romance family: fruits de mer, frutti di mare, frutas de mar, and however it goes in sensual Portuguese. I could, reluctantly, get by without red meat (grilled lamb chops, especially, it pained me to contemplate giving up, seasoned with salt, pepper, crushed garlic, and ground cumin), and only a tad less reluctantly without the flesh of light-fleshed fowl, in particular the breast-meat of turkeys, chickens, and barbecued Cornish hens. But finfish and shellfish of all varieties had for so long been at the center of my diet, it was scarcely an exaggeration to say that my flesh, by the time I tell of, was largely composed of theirs. If one had been permitted to slip in a request among one’s farewells, mine would have been that my remains be somehow returned uncombusted to my home waters, there to be recycled to the fauna whereupon I had so thrived and thence on out into the general marine food-chain. Rockfish, bluefish, sea-trout, shad; blue crabs, oysters, scallops, mussels, clams; billfish, tuna, and other steakfish; octopus and squid, in particular the stuffed baby Spanish variety called chiperones; sushi and sashimi of every sort; and, last because first among equals, that king of crustaceans, the New England lobster, Homarus americanus, whose spiny Caribbean cousin was in my estimation but an overrated poor relative, though undeniably handsome. Adieu to you, noble down-East lobster, all-too-rare-because-so-damned-expensive treat, that shouldst be steamed not a minute longer than half the time recommended by James Beard and most other seafood-cookbook authors. Ten minutes tops for a less-than-two-pounder, mark my parting words, or the animal has suffered and died in vain. “A quick death, God help us all,” declares the character Belacqua in Samuel Beckett’s story “Dante and the Lobster” (to which the story’s narrator replies, in propria persona, It is not).
But as the true soul-food is beauty, who could leave this vale of delights without farewelling at least a few representative examples of those flora and fauna that one eats only with one’s eyes, and in some instances one’s ears and nose? I meant, e.g., the very nearly overgorgeous fish and shellfish of saltwater aquarium and coral reef, whether viewed firsthand or on public-television nature shows and National Geographic photo-spreads; the astonishing birds of tropical latitudes and the butterflies of even our temperate zone, particularly the Monarchs hanging in migratory clusters from California eucalyptus between November and March; the unabashed sexuality of flowers and the patient dignity of trees, large trees especially; certain landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes, cityscapes, desert- and marshscapes—in particular, I supposed, for myself, if I had been obliged as perhaps I was to choose only one of the above to pay final respects to, the vast tide marshes of my natal county: marshes which, while considerably less vast than they had been even in my childhood, remained still reasonably vast as of this valediction—always assuming that one was permitted to valedict. Nursery of the Chesapeake and, by semicoincidence, of their present valedictorian (“semi” in that it might be presumed to have been unpredestined that I be born and raised in or near the marshlands of Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, but it was no coincidence that, I having been therein born and raised, those home marshes loomed so large in my imagination, if a marsh can properly be said to loom. For the sake of variety and euphony, I had been going to say “home bogs” just then instead of “home marshes,” but it suddenly occurred to me for the first time, surprisingly enough at my age and stage, what the difference is between bog and marsh, particularly tide marsh. As between marsh and swamp, I confess, the geological distinction eludes me still, although their connotations surely differ) …
Marshes, I was saying; saying good-bye, good-bye, good-bye to. Good-bye, still-considerable and fecund wetlands, at once fragile and resilient, neither land nor sea, symbolic equally of death and of regeneration, your boundaries ever changing, undefined, negotiable, your horizontality as ubiquitous as your horizon is horizontal, etc., etc.—and withal so eloquently sung, in your East Anglican manifestation, by the novelist Graham Swift in his novel Waterlands (not to mention by the novelist Charles Dickens in such of his novels as Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations), that one would scarcely have presumed to do more than refer the attender of these farewells to those novelists’ novels, pardon my syntax, were it not that as between East Anglia and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the differences are at least as noteworthy, even unto their fenlands, as are any similarities. To “my” dear spooky, mudflat-fragrant marshes, then, a cross-fingered fare thee well.
But I could not leave the subject of marshes (hard enough to leave the marshes themselves) without a word of concern for the Marsh Arabs: the Madan people, I meant, whose fortune it had been for four thousand years to inhabit the marshes at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in southern Iraq, and whose current misfortune it was to have been, for the past few hundred of those four thousand years, at least nominally Shiite Muslims who—self-reliant and wary of outsiders, like most marsh-dwellers—resisted the despotic Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and were therefore, as I prepared to make these rhetorical farewells, being systematically exterminated by that regime both directly (by means including poison gas, it was alleged but not yet proved, which Saddam had ruthlessly employed against the Madans’ northern counterparts, the Kurds) and indirectly, via the dreadful expedient of drying up their marshes by diverting the inflow of those primordial, civilization-cradling rivers: an ecological atrocity on a par with the Iraquis’ firing of the Kuwaiti oil fields. Good-bye indeed, one feared and fears, to the oldest continuous culture on the planet, numerous of whose communities have lived generation after generation on floating islands of spartina, continually replenishing them with fresh layers of reed on top as the bottom layers decompose and recycle; good-bye, poor hapless Marsh Arabs about to be destroyed in an eyeblink of time while still believing, after four millennia of harmlessly habitating your marshes, that somewhere in their labyrinthine fastness lies the Arabian Nights-like island of Hufaidh, complete with enchanted palaces of gold and crystal, Edenic gardens, and the Sindbaddish aspect of transforming into babbling lunatics any marshfarers who stumble upon it. May all destroyers of marshes serendipitously so stumble! Nothing quite like Hufaidh, I suppose, in the solitudinous wetlands of my home county (only the odd goose blind, muskrat house, and, within living memory, moonshiner’s still), though there is an uncanniness about even their low-lying, uninhabited islands—to which I truly now bade good-bye and better luck than the Madans’.
No marsh, however, one might say (paraphrasing John Donne), is an island. Indeed, in Nature’s seamless web, if one might be permitted to mix metaphors so late in the day, no island is an island: When we lose the enchanted isle of Hufaidh by losing the marshes that sustained the culture whose imagination sustained that realm, we lose an item from the general cultural store and thus, figuratively at least, lose a part of ourselves—just as, literally, when we lose Poplar Island, say, in the upper Chesapeake, to the less malign forces of natural erosion (as happened to be happening apace even as I bade these good-byes), we increase the exposure of Tilghman Island, just behind Poplar, to those same forces, et cetera if not ad infinitum anyhow to the end of the chapter, as Cervantes’s Sancho Panza puts it from time to time in Don Quixote: the geological chapter of Chesapeake Bay As We’ve Known It Since the Last Ice Age, continuously being reconfigured not only over millennia but over the span of a single lifetime (Where now is Sharp’s Island, e.g., which I well remember at the mouth of the Great Choptank River in my boyhood?), whereto—I meant equally that island, that river, that bay, and that lifetime—I now bade good-bye.
In the calm urgency of farewell, I hereabouts noticed, I had inadvertently changed the thrust of this valediction by conflating, in the passage above, the callous despoliation of the natural environment by Saddam Hussein’s Baathists (and, Stateside, by the likes of real-estate developers, clear-cutting timberfolk, and toxic dumpers, in which last category our military-industrial complex stood out as a particularly egregious offender)—conflating these, I say, with such “natural” rearrangers of that environ as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and suchlike forces, ranging from Earth-destroying asteroidal impact on the scale’s high end to the gentle, continuous attrition, on its low, of the mildest rain shower, the softest breeze, mere cellular decay—the inexorable rub of time.
Time, yes, there was the rub: Barely mortal time enough to kiss earth’s fruits hello before we’re kissing them good-bye, and there I had so lost myself in the marshes, as it were, hoping perhaps to stumble upon my personal Hufaidh (if I have not stumbled itupon already: See how I babble!), that I’d not even gotten around yet to earth’s salt, so to speak—nor, for that matter, even to animals other than human, except en passant in their aspect as table-meat. Fellow humans! I did not mean, yet, the nearest and dearest of those; they went without saying, although most assuredly not without saying good-bye to, if that unimaginable prospect could be imagined. No: I meant, in the first instance (which is to say the last, in order of importance), those anonymous others just enough of whom kept a restaurant, say, or a street or town or planet, from being unbearably lonely. Good-bye, insignificant others, if I might so put it without offense, understanding that I helped play that background role in your life-narrative as did you in mine; would that your numbers were not so burgeoning—by runaway population-growth in some places, demographic shifts in others—as to threaten the biosphere in general and countless particular environs, not excluding my beloved Chesapeake estuarine system.
Farewell next to such only slightly less anonymous but considerably more significant others as … oh, trash collectors, for example: Never, at any of a lifetimesworth of urban, suburban, and rural addresses, had I had reason to complain of the efficiency of the collection of my trash, both recyclable and non—-no small tribute from one whose profession was the written word. Same went, except for the odd and usually inconsequential glitch, for the several mail carriers and deliverers of daily and Sunday newspapers to my serial places of residence over the decades. What a quiet, civilized pleasure, to step outdoors of a morning in any season, sometimes before first light, and to find one’s refuse collected for disposal, one’s morning newspaper snugly folded in that way that newspapers are folded for tossing into driveways or tucking into newspaper-boxes, and moreover bagged in (recyclable) plastic if the weather even looked to be inclement—and then, somewhat or much later in the day, depending on where one’s address happened to fall on one’s postperson’s route, to find one’s outgoing mail duly picked up and incoming mail delivered. I shall miss that, chaps and ladies so approximately faithful to the motto of your service—or, rather, should miss it, if etc. Good-bye and thanks, and may neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night et cetera. How fortunate it is, Aldous Huxley somewhere remarks, that the world includes people pleased to devote their mortal span to the manufacture and sale of sausages, for example, so that those of us with no interest in that pursuit may nevertheless have our cake and eat it too, if you follow my meaning and possess wherewithal to purchase what, after all, those folk don’t give away free.
People, people, people: builders of roadways, tunnels, and bridges, and of reasonably reliable vehicles to drive thereupon, therethrough, thereover; designers and fabricators too of such spirit-lifting artifacts as great art, to be sure, but also for example of jet aircraft in flight—particularly, to my eye, those now-classic sweptwinged, rear-engined jetliners viewed passing overhead—likewise of most but not all sailing vessels under sail, of Krups coffeemakers, of Swiss Army knives in the middle range of complexity, of steel-shafted hammers with cushioned grips—in short, of all well-made things both functional and handsome, as agreeable to regard and to handle as to use.
Supreme in this category of human constructions to be farewelled—so much so, to this fareweller, as to be virtually a category in itself—was that most supple, versatile, and ubiquitous of humanisms, language: that tool that deconstructs and reconstructs its own constructions; that uses and builds its users and builders as they use, build, and build with it. Ta-ta, language, la la language, the very diction of veridiction in this valley valedictory. Adieu, addio, adiós, et cetera und so weiter; I could no more bear to say good-bye to you than so to say to those nearest dearest, in particular the nearest-dearest, so to say, themof: I meant the without-whom-nothing for me to bid farewell to whom must strain the sine qua non of language even unto sinequanonsense. Impossible to do, unthinkable to leave undone, and yet the mere prospect did undo me. Back to the apples! Back to the oranges! I’d say good-bye sooner to myself (I said), and soon enough would, than say it to—
But it went without saying that I had been assuming not that I might say without going, so to say, but say before going: say goodbye to the fruits, et cetera. Permission granted, surely?