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The Bell

There were four of us then. That winter we moved to a house half-buried in the deep snow of a Twin Cities suburb; the last move we’d make together, the fourth state in eight years. Running up the Midwestern corridor from Oklahoma to Missouri to Wisconsin till the last stop, where we broke stride and the thing we were running from caught up.

We came in February of 1979, when I was eight, our new backyard hidden under a record amount of unspoiled snow, the branches of the oak tree stark against the milk of the sky. The shingles of our house were the color of French’s mustard dried at the bottle’s spout. I can never picture all of us together. I focus, casting light back over the past, hoping to catch us, but there is always someone missing. My mother, maybe, in the bathtub, a damp mystery novel curled in her grip. My father in the office upstairs, printing careful digits in his checkbook. My younger brother sitting too close to the television, one leg tucked beneath him, blue light playing along the edges of his silhouette. Like a staged farce one of us slips from the room as others enter. Mother, stage right. Exit father.

We come together, finally, through sound. My parents’ voices struggling through a hymn, the sound parting the shadowed curtains: A wooden church pew. They stood on either side of me, each with a red hymnal, my mother holding hers low, near my chin. The too-sweet smell of her perfumed wrist. Mark was four. He sat back against the pew, too young for the hymn, an action figure clutched in each fist. Yoda and Princess Leia kissed passionately for a few seconds then took turns swinging at each other. My mother turned her head sharply at the sound of Leia’s tears and Mark clamped his mouth shut. She turned back to the hymnal and ran her finger down the page till she found her place. I was old enough to read, but the strange words of Oh, and Hosanna, and Thy lent an impenetrable gravity to the others. My parents’ voices, lacking melody, dragged each note down, turning the hymn into a dirge. Their voices together created a meager song, a muddy stream trickling over a creek bed. I fared no better, stuck between them, my voice shifting pitch to first match her flattened alto then plunging to follow his low, mournful tone. Her fingertip returned to the top of the page for the final verse. The words ran along the edge of her clear nail until I glanced up, caught hold by a woman’s high, radiant voice. It came from some row ahead, a light, powerful mezzo drifting up towards the bright sanctuary’s vaulted ceiling. The rustling forest of rayon blouses and plaid sport coats parted briefly, and I caught sight of the voice’s owner, a woman with a blonde Dorothy Hamill, standing tall and thin in a beige suit, a single gold chain glittering at the nape of her neck. Her voice pierced the dirge and I strained forward, trying to keep hold of it. I wondered briefly how her voice might sound if I stood at her side. The congregation held one long note, the woman’s voice riding lightly over the pipe organ’s shudder, and the song was over. My mother closed the hymnal and the pews popped and groaned as the congregation sat. Several hundred hymnals slid back into their wooden slots.

It was December of 1979 and the sanctuary of Centennial Methodist Church was lined with poinsettias. My brother and I wore matching velveteen jackets, rubbed thin at the elbows. Beside me my father’s thin leg jittered. My mother glanced down and smoothed out her wool skirt, shifting her thighs against the hard pew. Mark leaned forward, watching as the collection plate passed from hand to hand in the row ahead. A halo of light shone like copper on his head. When the plate passed him he dropped the tiny manila envelope our father had handed him earlier. A couple of bright, salutary notes burst from the pipe organ and the children in the congregation stirred. We were cut loose before the sermon. Downstairs in their classrooms our Sunday School teachers were setting out packs of crayons and construction paper. When my mother nodded I took my brother’s hand and joined the rush up the aisle. I gazed down benevolently at Mark as we passed the pews full of smiling parents, conscious of the image we made, two scrawny boys in matching jackets and spread collars. Outside the sanctuary I dropped his hand. We clambered down the stairs after the other kids and Mark stumbled, catching himself on the railing, his action figures flying down the steps. “C’mon,” I groaned.

Mark was old enough to see how quickly my patience ran dry when our parents weren’t around. “Shut up,” he said, bending down to grab Yoda. He pushed past me down the last few steps. Angered by his new streak of independence, I chased him down the long hallway, the other children dispersing into classrooms, each doorway a bright flash of color and Christmas decorations. The young preschool teacher stood holding open the door, and Mark ducked past her, robbing me of the smile of approval she’d have offered me had I chaperoned him all the way.

But back in the stairwell I was thrilled to find Princess Leia lying abandoned on the bottom step. I had recently declared to Mark my total disinterest in action figures, but secretly I coveted the white-robed figure of Leia. I shoved her in my pocket, glancing around at the empty hallway before running off to my classroom.

That Sunday was the Christmas potluck and I was to be part of the entertainment, joining the Genesis Ringers, Centennial’s beginning level hand bell choir. Rumor had it that the Praise Ringers, the intermediate level ensemble, went on tour to local nursing homes, but we had to start small. After Sunday School, I hurried down to the meeting hall, a large, fluorescent-lit room of pale yellow walls and gray linoleum. Gray-haired women chattered together, arranging rows of glass baking pans and dessert plates on the long tables set up at the edges of the room, peeling back tin foil and gazing down with veiled criticism at the contents. The thick smell of gravy, ham, and green bean casserole – what Minnesotans called a “hot dish” – filled the hall.

I wandered distractedly around the tables, fantasizing how I’d stand with the others in the center of the hall, a bell in each hand, demonstrating, as I had in rehearsals, my unerring sense of melody, each of my notes striking its rightful place throughout the afternoon’s selection; “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Upstairs the pipe organ rumbled through the closing benediction, followed by the distant cacophony of voices emerging from the sanctuary. My apprehension mounted as I heard the congregation descend the stairs, loafers scraping, heels clicking down the hallway.

As the parishioners spilled into the room I scanned faces till I found my parents. They had paused near the dessert table, standing together but turned slightly outwards, each of them involved in separate conversations. My father stood stiffly, dark and thin in his navy blazer, his narrow smile held tight while the man in the bad toupee beside him gestured through a story. The man laughed, throwing his head back, one hand resting against his tie – red with green stripes – the other landing for a moment on my father’s shoulder. My father never moved, his half-smile fixed, his eyes locked unblinking on the man. He said something in his soft voice and the man leaned forward, cupping his ear. I could see a flicker of irritation cross my father’s expression as he repeated himself, his eyebrows raised in effort.

He’d never had the natural ease of other men, moving as though his body was forever on loan. Did I worry then if I’d turn out the same? I know that there was already something standing between us then, some transparent pane whose nature I didn’t yet understand. Watching from across the hall, I merely took note of him, my eyes moving to whom they always sought out.

My mother ran a hand through her loose brown curls, scanning the room till she found me. I raised my hand but the woman beside her- taller, thinner, blonde hair brushing past her shoulders – said something, a question maybe, my mother turning back to her, nodding, glancing down, then answering, the woman tucking a blonde lock behind her ear, a large gold hoop catching the light. My mother, in her ruffled blouse, looked a little ridiculous beside her, pretty maybe but not beautiful. As she talked her eyes scanned the woman’s face, and with near imperceptible movements she straightened her posture, her smile growing in slight degrees till it matched the woman’s smile. She seemed, somehow, more refined than the moment before. Her smile, self-conscious, brought something pure into the room and I measured her transformation with a strange satisfaction. I set my compass by that smile and began crossing the room.

///

Later I stood with the hand bell choir before our audience. They turned to us expectantly, hushing each other till the only noise was an enormous coffee urn percolating at the back of the hall. I held each bell tipped upwards towards the ceiling, rims resting lightly against the hammering rhythm of my chest. Mrs. Olafson, dressed in a reindeer sweater, arranged herself before us, her back to the audience. Her arms came up, and as one hand descended the girl beside me dipped her bell, flicking her wrist till it rang out golden, and the song had begun. It ran through us, each bell a separate note, the melody reaching me as I dipped the C bell, my little note in its place. A moment later I tipped the G, but something was wrong. It sounded off. Out of tune. Each flick of my right wrist spoiling the song. Mrs. Olafson’s brows creased together as her arms swept the air. Later I’d realize my mistake; I’d grabbed the wrong bell, the note etched on its side was G sharp. But there was no stopping. I could only soldier on, ringing the false note, my eyes desperately searching the crowd, finding my father’s awkward smile, my mother’s face flushed red as mine.

///

Our maroon Cutlass looked nearly gray in the church parking lot, covered in a film of winter dirt and salt. Mark and I climbed in the back seat, too worn to argue. He rested his head against the window, hair mussed, mouth open, his lower lip smearing the glass, his breath leaving small, diminishing clouds. My father drove, eyes on the road. He pressed, with growing impatience, the buttons on the dashboard radio, skipping past the commercials, coming to rest on KS95, easy listening, the moony voice of a man singing about sailing taking him away. My mother, hands curled in her lap, kept glancing over at him, searching his profile. Her chin lifted, a sign I knew.
“What was that?” she asked.
“What?”
“That sigh.”
“Nothing.”
She turned forward, her mouth tightening.
“Just tired,” he said.
“I see.”
“Susan…”
“Well?” A note of frustrated entreaty. I know I’m being ridiculous, it said. But still.

The after-church arguments were becoming as predictable as Sunday itself. They flared up from minor irritations; a forgotten errand, slow traffic, ice on the road. She was the instigator, prodding him, wanting something. A reaction? An answer? To me the arguments took place in another language. The words said one thing but stood for something else, the meaning hidden from me. Her eyes darted between him and the road, reading him, measuring the damage she inflicted, calculating the moment of retreat should she cut too deep, but never giving up. His voice couldn’t match hers. Within a few minutes, his powers of reason exhausted, it strained, gaining more tension than volume. My interest in the scenery suddenly increased. We passed the miniature golf course, shut for the season, enormous painted farm animals standing at each hole; pigs and cows and roosters, twenty feet high, their hooves and claws covered in a blanket of snow. Long, flat acres of crops owned by the U of M. Squat brick apartment buildings and strip malls. I had time to wonder, again, what “One Hour Martinizing” meant before we turned onto Pascal Street, the neighbors’ driveways flanked by enormous snowdrifts.

Mark and I lagged behind on the narrow path from the garage. My father unlocked the back door and pushed through. The door banged against the wall and nearly closed again. She followed him and they stalled in the kitchen, squaring off. Mark and I slid past, heading towards our separate rooms at either end of the hallway. I turned to shut the door behind me and we glanced at each other; his expression, in the moment before he closed the door, was strangely serene. In my room I found Grover, my cat, cleaning himself on the bed. A cupboard in the kitchen banged shut. His pupils widened. He stared up at me between outstretched legs, as if I’d caught him in the act of something terrible. Two seconds later he was under the bed. Footsteps stormed from the kitchen and the bathroom door slammed shut. Compelled into action, I began cleaning my room. Bending, grabbing a blanket crumpled at the foot of the bed, I felt the hard lump of Princess Leia in my pocket, and it sickened me.

They reached the crescendo in their bedroom upstairs. My father’s thin voice, hoarse, pleading, Leave me alone. He continued his retreat, slamming doors in his wake, my mother pursuing him through the house.

I wish now that I had gone to Mark. Kept him company. I could have stolen down the hall, slipped into his room, and pulled Princess Leia from my pocket. “I’m back from the dead!” she’d have cried, my voice climbing octaves till he smiled in spite of himself. In my hands she’d have raised her fist, triumphant, demanding the green head of her lover and foe.

Snow Through Street Grates

What I meant to say, when I took a cheap shot at young creatives, is only this; that I have dreamed of this city for so long – sixteen years – that I may never grow immune to its charms, nor feel quite worthy of my place here, despite moments, many, where I am lugging groceries up Broadway, or emerging from the subway on West 23rd, or throwing my bag over my shoulder outside the barber shop on East 9th, when I realize that for several minutes, or an hour, I have forgotten the lovely, anxious thought – I live here. And it’s that thought that I’m inclined to conceal from others, as if it’s the very thing that will dispel the dream. As if to admit to this thought is to admit to an unflattering earnestness. As if earnestness were a liability, which, on the Internet, is sometimes true.

I feel, in my university-owned studio, like I’ve been granted a reprieve, one that will come to an end, at which point I either will or won’t land on my feet, here, and that it will depend on a combination of resilience and luck that today remains incalculable. I’m trying to describe this strange dream to you, seeing or studying with people who wrote books that have stood on my shelves for years. Or meeting someone who appeared in a movie that I saw when I was sixteen, or twenty-three. Or sitting in a restaurant, at a long table cluttered with dessert plates, silverware, and cocktail glasses, with people who are seated at places I’ve long coveted, and I want them to talk forever, in hopes that their combination of resilience and luck could be learned, which it can’t. All of us have been granted a reprieve, a temporary pass.

And I misread others, that they don’t feel the same, when maybe they do.

He says, defensively. I admit to defensiveness, I admit to a life-long habit of it. And when one is in grad school, having one’s work dissected on a regular basis, one may feel just the slightest urge to withdraw, which may explain my postings as of late. Or maybe it’s just that my current activities lack a narrative arc: Watch him open his laptop! Watch him reheat a half-pot of coffee! Watch his iPod battery die! I do hope that, eventually, I will redeem myself with this memoir, if I do it justice.

What I meant to say was this: I’m a very lucky man. I still, for instance, love the subway. Which is easy to say when you don’t ride during rush hour. I love the descent down poorly-lit fluorescent steps, my hand reaching for my wallet, opening it, plucking out the MetroCard, running it through the sensor – the digital screen displaying my depleting balance – my hip pushing through the turnstile, hand returning card to wallet, wallet to pocket; one fluid, efficient motion.

I love that after two weeks I knew which side of the train the doors would open on at 72nd and 96th Streets. After two months I figured which end of the train would get me closer to the steps at 42nd and 14th Streets. After six months I realized, by looking at the scuff marks on the yellow line, where to wait on the platform so that, when the train pulled into the station, I’d be standing at a door.

It’s this reclusive existence – watch him read four books a week! – that gives each trip downtown a certain thrill. Standing on the platform, watching a column of snow falling through the street grates onto the tracks below. The restless motions of commuters pacing the edge of the platform, peering down the tunnel for the train’s lights, the train pushing a bank of cold air through the station. And in each train, each car, potential stories. Never knowing what will be inside. A man with dirty fingernails scratching through a stack of lotto cards. A young woman knitting, the latin boy across from her watching the needles flick back and forth. A man with no teeth, empty cup in hand, telling bad Michael Jackson jokes. A straight couple, sitting close, bent over a copy of Scientific American. A family of four, theater programs curled in their fists. Matthew Broderick. And the doors open, at 14th St, and I walk to the end of the platform, up the stairs, arranging myself, anticipation, defense; above me the sidewalks teeming, anxious, and sublime.

Trail Growing Dark

I carry a little notebook in my back pocket now. Every time a vivid childhood memory or interesting quote comes to me, I fish out the notebook, flip it open (with one hand: my journalist imitation, works well on subways, a legend in my own mind) and jot it down. For someone writing a memoir I have a particularly bad memory and need all the help I can get. I’m on my second notebook now, neither of which would make any sense to anyone else. But they do their trick for me:

Diane’s farm (almost moved there)
kerosene lamps
salamanders
Nilla wafers
Chekhov: “the voice of wisdom is boring”
Mark (?) Duran Duran – check 7th grade yearbook; wrist, lunchroom

I’m also taking a research seminar this semester and am learning new methods and resources, including what my professor calls “the deep internet”, which includes galaxies beyond Google. I love research, could spend my whole life on it. The best part of research is that you’re never done. You can put off the actual writing until you’re done, which is never.

I keep uncovering intriguing details, such as a supposed sexual assault that occurred against a member of my family on this date, February 10th, thirty-one years ago. Through my investigative-reporter antics I tracked down a newspaper article about the supposed crime, and today exchanged information with both the hospital and police department where the crime took place in hopes that they can dig up records of the event. As I’m doing this, though, I always think of the intro to Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, where she describes her own feelings about research:

“What else is there to tell? I am bad at interviewing people. I avoid situations in which I have to talk to anyone’s press agent. (This precludes doing pieces on most actors, a bonus in itself.) I do not like to make telephone calls, and would not like to count the mornings I have sat on some Best Western motel bed somewhere and tried to force myself to put through the call to the assistant district attorney. My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. This is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

I’m researching Catholicism. My mother was raised Catholic but fled the Church, much to her parents’ chagrin, when she married my father. So I was never raised Catholic and know practically nothing about the Church that you can’t pick up from movies, books, and television. I’m particularly interested in what it was like to grow up as a Catholic girl in post-war Midwest America, since I’m pretty sure she ran away for a reason, and not just the obvious one. So I’ve been spending a few hours lately combing through the stacks of Butler Library on campus.

Butler Library is an imposing structure of stone pillars and gleaming marble. But the stacks themselves are like another world. They sit within the center of Butler, enclosed by hallways and reading rooms that run the perimeter of the building. There are, according to a rather confusing model in a display case, fifteen floors of stacks in a nine-story building. Each stack floor is barely eight feet tall, so they’re squeezed in between the nine stories, and crammed tight with shelves that run floor-to-ceiling, each aisle of books on the windowless floor lit by a single button at the end of the row that flicks on a harsh fluorescent light for exactly fifteen minutes. During slow hours you can be the only person on a floor, squeezing down silent aisles, your trail growing dark as the lights flick off behind you. Holding a few books on Catholic girls, I suddenly remembered a book, “Nocturnes for the King of Naples,” by Edmund White, which I once read at college while in the process of coming out, the memory of which gave me a sudden ache of nostalgia. Figuring it might help trigger more memories, I hunted it down. Columbia, like many libraries, binds its paperbacks in its own nondescript hardcovers, the title and call number printed by some machine. So looking for a familiar spine on the shelves wouldn’t help. I flicked on the light at the end of the very last row of books on the tenth floor, scanning through the W’s, Wendall, Wexner, Whitaker, White, and there it was, my old favorite, the title swimming out from the gloom, striking me in a second as somehow off, and what it said was Nocturnes for the Kong of Naples.

Hayseed in Manhattan

I’d managed, for six months, to live in New York without seeing any celebrities. Of course there aren’t that many this far uptown on the west side. And even though I like to look down on the whole celebrity-worship thing (“Brad and Jen: our Tsunami”) it still took me by surprise when Matthew Broderick ran onto the 1 train at Penn Station just before the doors slid closed. He’s much cuter in real life; that pale, sickly aura he often projects on screen was missing. He had on herringbone pants, a newspaper-boy cap, and a black quilted bomber with faded “Sex in the City” patches on the arm. I looked around at all of the New Yorkers studiously pretending not to notice him. The only other person looking at him was the mildly retarded man who sat across the aisle from me, and who said something to Matthew which I didn’t hear because of my iPod. Matthew sort of gave him a strange look and nodded, slightly, and I’ve decided the man asked him, “Are you Ferris Bueller?”

I figured that a celebrity sighting on the subway was worth extra points, and when I got off the train at W 23rd St I rehearsed how I would casually mention to friends at the book signing at the Chelsea Barnes and Noble how I’d seen a celebrity on the subway. Nobody was very interested, however, or if they were, they had long ago perfected that indifference necessary to young creatives in the city. Later there was dinner at the Viceroy for the author, his friends, and various hanger-ons (like myself) where I was seated across the table from the author’s agent. Wanting, naturally, to make a good impression, I dropped my celebrity sighting and the agent said, “Oh, you can’t swing a dead cat in the Village without hitting him and Sarah.”

Having learned my lesson, I was at a gallery party this weekend for the closing of a show curated by Choire and featuring the lovely, sad, funny work of Jennie. When a famous young novelist and retired-hatchet-job-book-reviewer walked in and kissed Jennie on the cheek, I pretended not to even notice him. I also did not stare across the gallery at him every five seconds thinking that, like Matthew, he looked better in real life. Since I wasn’t looking over there every five seconds I know I looked much cooler than I did just last week at the Viceroy. Coolness, however, comes in degrees, and I’m afraid that my humble Midwestern upbringing won’t allow me to reach its upper echelons. There’s always a bit of hayseed stuck in my hair, and I suppose I’ve accepted that as a badge of honor by now.