From Green Mountains Review, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Spring 2009
Understand that it can drink till it is sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.
— From Frank Bidart, “The Third Hour of the Night”
It is three months since my sister Ilse died, and what I recall of last night is drinking lots of
whiskey and reciting poetry. Loudly, I think. Bly, I think.
It was a company celebration, and I was talking to Lydia when I realized, my god, I’ve been nodding, chortling, delivering clipped greetings to passersby, and feigning attention forever. First pause, I dashed for a refill, and here I am now, asking myself—again—how could I ever have slept with that woman?
Bly? Yes, once I got to the bar, something came over me, and out flew “The Teeth Mother.” “Tell me,” I cried, “about the dust that falls from the yellow daffodil shaken in the restless wind! ... Don’t tell me about ‘the frightening laborers who do not read books’!” Jason Beemer, just then, little prick, flashed that pathetic smirk of his and strode off.
And now it’s the morning after, and I’m in my library, which is really just the unused bedroom in my little pillbox of a house, and I’m glancing into my poetry books, sipping a little something, and my poor sister Ilse is dead.
Where did I put that drink?
Only a year since Mother died, and then, three months ago, the breast cancer gets Ilse. Charlotte, Ilse’s daughter, my niece, handed me that stupid teddy bear, just a little thing, just a cheer-up I’d brought, her eyes locked on it as she handed it over. I guess that’s how it works: Ilse’s gone now, so you get your cheer-up back. Who knew.
But these Lydias and these Jason Beemers, these colleagues, they’re inexplicable to me. In my workaday, they bombard me with e-mails, phone calls, text messages, cubicle entry pop-ins. They wear perfect trouser creases or those baffling exposed brassiere straps. Black. Red. Teal. Why? And the raised brows, the grinning whispers, it all clogs my veins until something, anything—where did I put that?—can be administered to dilute it all, decelerate the day, slacken things. And sometimes I recite Bly, or someone, loudly.
And then the next day, today, I imagine the onlookers—those same colleagues this time—dropping cufflinks into dresser drawers or yanking nylons down damp aching legs and saying, “Did Karl have a system crash, or what?” or “Looks like Karl needs a cold reboot.”
I settle, silent and somber, into a visceral desert, a chestweight of memory: They turn, look at me, avert their eyes quickly. How could I have landed in this MP3 world of images too small and music imprisoned in tiny plastic boxes.
That is so profound, it makes me want to puke.
What I do instead is—ah, there it is—I stand here in the “library,” drink from my...champagne...and pick up books of poetry. “Oh I know it must feel / Measureful / To be the river... / How few of us ever / Make it down / These mountain peaks.”
I put on Coltrane, the soft stuff: “Soul Eyes,” “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).”
The room around me is small, but the house is an Eichler, the wall across from me, floor-to-ceiling glass. I look out on a pleasant courtyard, a rock garden with a small yucca plant in the center. I look into other rooms through their own glass walls, and I imagine shards flying as I run through them. Out of this room—crash!—across the courtyard, then into the living room—crash! Eichlers are small, delicate houses with low roofs, vulnerable to flame. I settle into the chair. There is a run in the fabric, and its lightly stained wooden frame is chipped and unsteady.
I read a poem of Orpheus and Eurydice. On the bookmark there, orange hearts and blue dots, a title in caps, “HUGS,” and a little verse: “It’s wondrous what a hug can do / A hug can cheer you when you’re blue / A hug can say, ‘I love you so’ / or, ‘Gee, I hate to see you go.’” Now I am going to puke.
I go in, vomit bitter and dilute, rinse with tap water, spit brownish fluid into the basin. The scratch of the puke assaults the back of my throat, but no more comes. I return to the library.
On the back of the bookmark: “To: KM From: Sylvie.” A faint image, the pocked road surface of my face, looks back at me in the wall glass. It blurs. It’s my thirty-fifth birthday, the pool at her complex, Sylvie glistening in a bikini, a highball next to her, alone together for the first time. Drinks, grilled chicken, hours of magnificent sex, perfectly round freckles around the nape of her neck as I rub in the oil. Five years later, facial lines, body lines, the sex raging on, and the highballs, morning light dancing off the ice, right there alongside our coffee cups. Until she says one night, “It would just be better, you know, if you’re going to keep pissing me off like this. It would just be better, okay.” And yet, I still see Sylvie’s eyes painted calm, surrounded by the bronze of the Northern California sun as she says, “Please, Karl, just a bit longer. Let’s lie here just a bit longer.”
How the hell did champagne get into the house? I drain the flute. A bit flat. Mimosas, I think, was the idea. Just a little light something in the morning was the idea, wasn’t it. Bloody Christ. The orange juice, of course, sits untouched in the refrigerator door.
An old paperback of early Margaret Atwood poems lies on the table in front of me. The bookmark, a printed card Charlotte distributed at Ilse’s funeral. Unable to paint Ilse in full face, she’d done a profile, Ilse’s head upright and strong, her countenance serene. I hold her between my two fingers, and my hand is steady.
The poem is a simple piece—primitive country life as metaphor for broken love—but then the final lines: “Kill what you can’t save / what you can’t eat throw out / what you can’t throw out bury / What you can’t bury give away / what you can’t give away you must carry with you, / it is always heavier than you thought.”
I have no courage for guns or poisons, only courage for poetry. Self-flagellation with words.
I reach for another volume, Philip Booth, the surface of icy New England waters, dark and cool and silent: “I sit facing backward / pulling myself slowly / toward the life I’m still trying to get at.” A business card from a restaurant is tucked in: The Hearth of Stone. Ilse and I had lunch there on my release from in-patient. You should have seen her. She was so hopeful. Heavier than you thought. “I’ll have that wonderful strawberry lemonade,” she said to the waiter. “It’s really wonderful, Karl,” she said. “You should try it.” And I did: sweet and smooth, but somehow bracing. We joked about Mother. “It’s no wonder you ended up in there, Karl. The woman’s crazy.” She said it fleetingly, with no weight, my treatment and Mother’s eccentricities resting on the same casual plane. And the strawberry lemonade, the light lunch we ate, it all reaffirmed my great blunder: to never include Ilse in Step Nine. It’s from the AA program, Step Nine: make amends, apologize to all the persons we have harmed. Heavier than you thought.
But I looked at Ilse, chomping romaine lettuce and laughing at Mother’s two-dollar donations to Jimmy Carter, and I thought, no need now, certainly not now, to tell her I’m sorry, that I know how betrayed she must feel by my off-color toast at her wedding, by my defaulting on the loans, by my cracking up the car.
The doorbell rings. “Hey, Steve.” His eyes go directly to the empty flute.
“Dude,” he says, “getting started a little early?” I set the flute on the counter, invite him in, offer him coffee. He accepts.
“So,” he says. “I saw that acquisition announcement.” After a pause, he says, “You didn’t know that was coming, did you?”
On first meeting with Steve I painted myself as a real geek. I let on that I was high up in the company, savvy, in the know. So he goes off and buys a thousand of our shares. Then he starts scratching away at me for inside information. I try to come clean as the lazy, indifferent, bit player that I am, but he persists.
“I didn’t know about it,” I say. “They did a nice job of keeping it secret.”
“Too bad. Nice bump in the share price yesterday.” I look him in the eye, saying nothing as I hand him his coffee. He drinks immediately, then sits at the kitchen table.
“Hey dude, haven’t seen that Lydia in a while.”
“We decided to break it off.” Lydia, stunning in her designer suit, had said simply, “Too bad, Karl. Could’ve been a nice time.”
“Whoa, bummer. Girl was hot.” He looks at his coffee cup, drinks again.
“Give me a babe like that, only interests I would have would be those tits, and that ass, and—”
“If you don’t mind, Steve.”
He shuts up, looks me in the eye, drinks again, stares across the table.
“What’s this incompatible interests, Karl? I talked to that girl for, like, half an hour at your last barbeque. She was all over it, man. She was cool.”
I rub my forehead. “I guess that’s because that’s you, Steve, not me.”
He goes to the refrigerator and pulls out the open bottle. “Okay, Karl,” he says. “I’ll leave you to this.” He sets the bottle next to me on the counter. “I’m off to shoot some golf. Back nine at Crystal Springs makes for a nice afternoon, you know. You should take me up on it sometime.”
He ambles down the driveway with his lilting, boyish stride, and I set to refilling the flute. The bubbles clear. I fill it completely, watching the brim closely, not spilling a drop, my nerves teetering again toward calm. Nice that just two glasses moves me from a painful and confused emptiness to a more promising one, one with a chance of being filled in; pleasant to be passing from an episode of the mind into one solely of the heart, to be in this time before I leave this sane and hopeful place, this place I want to stay in, to live in. But as I drink from the flute, feeling the champagne’s mousse explode on my tongue, I know there is always whiskey later, music, dancing maybe, maybe even a broken lamp.
I resume the wobbly chair. There are scraps of pocket trash—future bookmarks—among the books on the table. One is a tatter of dull white, flimsy paper, a coffee shop receipt cleaned from my wallet, its edges having crumbled in just a few months. I remember the coffee shop, one of those colorless chain shops, each so exactly like the others. Charlotte sitting across from me in this one, there at the drab, stained wood table, the weight of my mood reflected back at me off the bustling people rushing in, some with cell phones pressed to their ears, waiting impatiently, then seizing paper cups and rushing out. Such purpose in these ‘frightening laborers.’ But Charlotte was none of these things. She reflected back at me something deeper: my own weakness.
A sharp pain rises at my right temple.
“Are you drinking again, Karl?” she said. “Why do you ask?” “You seem a bit on edge is all.” “I’ve been tipping a bit, I’m afraid.”
The pain is sharper now, in my temple. That’s how they dreamt up those lobotomies, is what I’m thinking. All those doctors, drinkers, projecting their own pain off onto those helpless schizophrenics. What they really wanted was what I want: to take a spike to these bloody temples before they really get to throbbing, sending me running for the hidden whiskey.
“If you’re doing it because of Mom,” Charlotte said, “It won’t help.” No pandering here. No enabling here. “I’m here if you ever need me, Karl. Really, just call any time.” And then, without another word, she took her bag and walked out of the shop, leaving me with a tepid half-cup of coffee in front of me and a pack of Silicon Valley wolves surrounding me. But these wolves wouldn’t bother with me. I’m not a lamb, just a sad, tired, exceedingly poor excuse for a wolf, my teeth falling out, my claws dull, my hind legs lame. They had long ago moved on without me.
Work Monday. Christ. Only two days away. I drink again. Three glasses down. The Atwood collection lays open in front of me, Ilse’s quiet eyes fixed on the pages as though she were reading the poems, considering them, finding herself moved by them. Mother is dying, Ilse is getting sicker, and Charlotte will be left behind to tend to the drifting addict. Cancer is metastasizing, Ilse is slipping away, and I’m at her bedside, and that is the time I choose for Step Nine. And at first she just looks back at me in shock, a completely shocked look in her eyes, not unlike Mother’s eyes when she realized it was the end. But Ilse was young. She was forty-three. Shit. And I tell her I’m sorry. I tell her I’m sorry about the car, and I’m sorry about the wedding, and I’m sorry about the money, and I don’t make any excuses, and I hold myself accountable, because after all, I’m still sober. I’m sober as a surgeon. “I chose the booze, Sis,” I say. “That’s the reality of it, and I have to face it. I chose it over you, Mother, Charlotte, Hank, everyone.” And, lying on her back, pain throbbing with more force than her fading pulse, the morphine dialed back so she can see, hear, communicate with all of us, does she say, “I forgive you, Karl. I forgive you and I love you”? No. She says instead, “Kally, don’t worry about that now. You’re fine now.” Kally. My childhood nickname. Fine now. Fine.
My eyelids are ablaze, the red-eyed Karl staring back at me in the wall glass. Ilse’s birth year was 1954. Her baby photo is there on the shelf, she in a navy blue dress with large white buttons and lace trim. Against the photo frame on the shelf is a pink Maxine Kumin volume. I read “History Lesson:” a Korean orphan is born to a prostitute in 1954 and taken from his mother to a place of “...stale clothes...Lysol washrooms and tin-tray suppers.” And the lines I love most: “That a man may be free of his ghosts / he must return to them like a garden. / He must put his hands in the sweet rot / uprooting the turnips, washing them / tying them into bundles / and shouldering the whole load to market.” It is ten-thirty a.m., and I am heavy and exhausted, tasting the saline surface of my lips. How to stop wallowing in the sweet rot? How to see turnips instead of a rancid, decomposed mass? How to make the trek to market, to the final transaction?
I think about Kumin, the poet, a prolific artist, a contemporary of Plath’s and a friend to her as well. Ariel sits on the shelf. My real crime against Ilse had been to use her death as an excuse to take up the drink again; to walk into a cheerful little bottle shop on the boulevard, the one with the good stuff, the twenty-year-old Irish stuff. I can afford it now, oddly enough. The work, a fucking cakewalk now; and a constant flow of fucking money. And in the evenings, and on these weekend mornings, I rediscover solitude, rekindle my love of poetry, reach an accommodation with my descents, with the swerving sensations and sentiments, with the wound-convulse-settle, wound-convulse-settle that my memories have become.
The bell rings again, and I am lifted up. I rise from the rickety chair and go to the door. Opening it, I see Ilse’s eyes looking back at me, a youthful smile, a tall and resplendent woman. I forget about Monday, Lydia, Beemer, ‘frightening laborers,’ and I balance panic with hope.
“Charlotte,” I say, “thank you so much for coming.”
Copyright © 2009–2015, Bruce Overby