A tape plays. It is the sound of an audience talking quietly before
a performance. A reading, perhaps. This goes for a few minutes, stopping
at the precise moment the lights go up. When they do, it is with a hard,
white jolt. The stage is crowded with a small mob of puppets, as many
and varied as possible, from the comic to the grotesque. The audience
is allowed to look at them in silence for a few moments before a young
man enters from SR and wanders carefully, without visible reaction, to
the front of the stage. He is wearing a dark T-shirt and jeans. He is
thin and his dark hair is worn long. He is carrying a well-dressed ventriloquists
dummy. The dummy is wearing a gray suit, white shirt, black bow tie, and
shiny black shoes. The young man sits on a stool, center stage, and adjusts
a stand up microphone. In time, he will remove the microphone from the
stand and walk about speaking into it like a singer or a televangelist.
When he does this, he will place the dummy on a stool to the left of the
microphone stand. Before he begins speaking a black and white photograph
of Denver, circa 1960, comes into focus on the wall behind him. When he
speaks it is with the authority of someone used to performing: the audience
is his to do with as he pleases.
Anyway, we made a ragged tour across America that autumn, spending a
couple quiet days in Colorado ... when I went to bed in Denver, the Presidency
still hung in the balance. When I awoke, early, Richards broad back
blocked the television. Your friend, Kennedy, is in the White House,
he said without turning. During the rest of November, we cris-crossed
Texas, and then found our way into Los Angeles, where we bunked down for
a weekend in a Chinese motel. Having no interest in LA, I went out only
once to go to Mass. It was as if I needed to look one last time at the
religion of my childhood. I got directions from the Chinese dude at the
desk and walked to church alone. The church couldnt have been more
than five or six years old; designed I was sure, by Protestant architects,
the low-ceilinged yellow room resembled a stick of margarine. The priest,
a thin guy with a very small head, was named Father Mircaba. His sermon
about obligation and responsibility was only partially audible to me.
From the rear of the church, he appeared featureless, without substance.
When people began to line up for communion, I slipped out. The city was
skyless. When I got back to the motel, Richard, as if hed known
the exact run of my thoughts, had already packed. We checked out quickly,
like a couple of Flannery OConnors Bible salesmen, and headed
north with diligence. Its funny what stands out in the memory. While
stopped at a red light, a block from the motel, Don Gibsons "Sea
of Heartbreak" came on the radio ... (The song plays quietly
behind him; he cocks his head to listen. He speaks before it ends.)
A song too emotional, too delicate, for Los Angeles ... I listened in
awe ... Id loved the song, and had forgotten it ... Such songs
no longer play on American radio. (It stops unfinished.) From the
middle of December until the Inaugural, we rented a one room stone cottage
in Big Sur, where we finalized my plan ... We would walk downhill from
the cottage to the highway, cross Route 1 to the shore, and wander aimlessly
on the rocks, pausing- sometimes alone, sometimes as a trio, to watch
the winter ocean ... . Id grown up with Richard, and yet Id
never felt closer to him than I did when hed walk away with Lear
protected in the crook of his arm ... The three of us became so close
at Big Sur that if one of us couldnt sleep, the other two knew it ... If
I got out of bed in the middle of the night, my feet would hardly hit
the floor and Richard would have a jacket across my shoulders, a knit
cap on my head. Once, when he woke at dawn, Lear and I followed him down
to the water. We stood facing the ocean for a time and then Lear asked
Richard if he believed in god ... Of course, said Richard. Go further,
said Lear. Richard said nothing at first and when he did he was barely
audible above the wind and the water. I believe in a heartbroken god who
has lost all influence on a world that he made only in part ... In part?
No one, working alone, made this universe ... Below us, the ocean made
a sound consisting only of consonants; mist flattened our hair and ate
through our clothing ... I closed my jacket around Lear, zipping it to
his chin, and then asked: The hardest thing ever asked of a human? Why
forgiveness, said Richard. I reached over, placing a hand on his shoulder
and said: Thank you for worrying about me, Richard. Im not the
only one who worries about you, you know. I said I did and knew that
it was time to talk to my parents ... . Richard dialed while Lear and
I watched ... It was painful ... Sitting there with my arms around Lear,
I remembered all the times that Richard stepped in to save me from my
parents wrath ... and this was worse than ever ... Richards
responses, completely free of inflection, told me nothing ... . He might
have been talking to the cops. Just once did he allow himself a chuckle,
and then, as if to reestablish his balance, he silently reset his features ... It
was then I decided my mother was on the other end ... Yes, of course,
he said, and then silence, followed by another yes, followed by an indeed
and two more yess, capped with a final: Here he is. The receiver
was as cold and empty in my hand as an automatic pistol. I said hello
to my mother and she started talking: You should know from the outset,
Thomas, that Richard has kept us informed of your whereabouts ... I
looked at him over the top of the phone and he averted his eyes How
long will you stay on the West Coast, Thomas? Until I make it, or
until I give up on comedy. What would make you give up on comedy?
Something monumental. (surprising himself) Something that made
me think that being funny no longer mattered. Be careful, Thomas ...
And then we said we loved each other and I put down the phone. There are
moments, Richard, when the weave of my life leaves me speechless. Anything
but that. Well, I was enough of a weakling to let Richard find a place
for me to live ... and enough of a phony to let my parents pay for it ... I
was done washing dishes ... All we did was drive around San Francisco
until Richard found a building to his liking: an ornate, peach-colored
Victorian covered in vines ... It was still easy to find a place in The
Haight in 1961 ... Richard moved us in and stayed for three or four days,
until I was settled or he couldnt take it any longer. Youre
preoccupied, I said, and he apologized. Youve done all you can.
Its time you got back. I know, but I feel uneasy. Dont.
Well be fine. Look at it this way: Mother has come around in the
hope that Ill get turned down enough to give up. That I wont
be able to blame her when the comedy fails. Comedy? What do you call
the parts when no one laughs? Youre a wicked old man, and its
time for you to go back to work. You remember work, the part where
no one laughs, said Lear.
Thomas leans forward, his head bowed in silence.
I said goodbye to Richard on a cool March morning in 1961 ... and it
would be quite awhile before Id see him again in the flesh ... He
would look much older by the early winter of 1963 ... By then, Id
had some success, but hardly enough to cushion me from the collision of
forces set off in the center of our shallow, yet unknowable, culture ... a
culture that would come to seem barbaric to anyone who believed we were
born with a purpose. And we are born, I am here to tell you, with just
Thomas stands up and raises the microphone so he can work standing.
Stronger now, happier.
I started out working at open mics at half a dozen coffee houses and
two or three rooms that could honestly be called clubs, the Bucket OYuks
and the Blah Blah Club being the best ... It was at the Blah that I met
Marty. Martin Mallinson was one of those guys you loved on sight: in those
days, tall and angular, his hair combed back, he looked like an underfed
Phil Ochs, but a Phil Ochs with a demonic glint in his eye. When he came
up to me after a gig at the Blah, he was wearing an enormous sport jacket
that covered most of his hands, a dark woolen shirt, and a lovely printed
bow-tie. The kind you actually tied yourself. I dig your stuff. (looking
around like afraid hes going to be busted) Thank you. You
remind me of Mort. A little bit of Lenny, but a lot of Mort. I love Mort.
Have you met Lenny yet? No, I havent. Ill introduce
you to him. I understood by the way he said it that Martin and I were
going to be seeing a lot of each other ... He shook my hand then and
I was surprised at how gentle his shake was, as if we werent quite
in the same dimension.
A series of images, both paintings and photographs, play out behind
Thomas: comics in clubs, Combat Zone cheap to Vegas overkill, full rooms
roaring, sparse groups waiting for strippers. Everything, even ventriloquists,
famous and unknown. Thomas allows it to play out behind his back, as if
he cannot stand to be reminded of show business. The series stops and
holds on a black and white photograph of a stage.
Martin turned out to be the best possible guide to the city. He knew
everyone and had access to every club, pad, agent, and babe in San Francisco ... He
was too kind and unaffected to deny ... With Martin working as my unnamed
agent- point man on a recon group- I started getting gigs that paid ... in
fact so well that I finally stopped taking money from home ... I was
even included on an LP of San Francisco comics ... I got a couple of
hundred bucks and no royalties, but it didnt matter: I was working ...
(the upstage wall goes black and then there is a black out. When a
spotlight picks him up his arms are folded across his chest and his head
is tipped to the right. He sighs loudly before speaking.) I went up
and down, mostly on the fringes, for nearly three years, working as far
away as LA a couple of times and several times in Seattle and Portland ...
(he trails off and as if searching for the answer to something, he
looks into his open palms for a few seconds.) It felt, somehow, like
it happened offstage, in another dimension, a place lacking all morality
and logic ... Everyone alive knew it before I did ... I was the very
last person on the planet to learn that the President of the United States,
a man Id twice spoken with, was dead ... I never saw another human
being hear the news for the first time ... I saw film of people finding
out hed died but it was hours old at best ... A chorus of ghosts
had interrupted my moment on stage: bursting in hysterically, their voices
muffled behind damp, gray rags, they denied me an audience ...
The light becomes very bright.
Id played an early set the night before, woke up feeling rested,
and went out to eat at a new place called Knuckles, a Sandwich shop. The
streets looked the way they did in the Gregory Peck movie, on the Beach.
The atom bombs been dropped and Peck is alive only because hes
on a submarine. In one scene he docks to check out San Francisco. The
streets are clean and fine and black and white and everyone is gone. Not
a soul outside. No one double-parked. The spotless buildings gleamed,
filled, for sure, with neatly stacked, well-dressed bodies. I think Peck
left someone behind in the city. Ava Gardner or Fred Astaire or some actor
Ive forgotten, but Gregory headed for Australia, the last spot on
earth to be reached by radiation. I dont know why no one bothered
to bomb Australia, but walking to Knuckles that day I felt a lot like
Fred Astaire: elegant, lightweight, alone. Everyone in Knuckles was crying ... there
were two women behind the counter: one was bent forward, her head buried
in her hands, the other woman stood perfectly still, her head thrown back,
her arms at her side, tears washing in broad rivulets down her rough,
flushed cheeks ... Time stopped completely, she was Saint Sebastian without
the arrows ... Several people sat at tables, desolate, stationary, as
isolated as broken absinthe drinkers ... A television, its sound off,
loomed above us like a lurid oracle ... When I looked up into it, I could
feel the plates beneath the city shift: my knees buckled ... On the screen,
an obviously distraught man spoke into a microphone, only to be replaced
by another distraught man, wearing a herringbone jacket ... the man removed
his glasses, wiped his eyes, and then, after a fadeout, a standard, routine
portrait of John Kennedy filled the screen ... the pose that would become
as familiar as the Mona Lisas ... beneath his face, as if we still
needed to identify him, was his name in block letters ... beneath that
were the dates: 1917-1963 ... (a long pause) Elsewhere, Aldous
Huxleys spirit, freed from its body, awash in the heated riptide
of lysergic acid, spun effortlessly ... soundlessly ... even joyously ... through
the endless alleys of black space. (another long pause) So started a new
national relationship ... we would learn, that weekend, where to go when
the world went mad ... Stare long enough into the glass eye of Yamantaka
and all things make sense.
The light lowers, becoming quite soft.
I left the apartment only once to go for a walk, and ended up playing
some two on two basketball with some kids I didnt know. When I got
home, my mind empty of everything but the sound of our sneakers on the
blacktop, I discovered that some guy wearing a hat had killed the little
ferret whod shot the President. I understood how the guy in the
hat felt, but I remember thinking: This isnt good. Its a trend.
The rest of 63 and the start of 64 were not good months for
comedy. So I stayed out of the clubs. What kind of political comedy could
I make? Who could I make fun of? Nixon? No one cared. Johnson? No one
dared. In all truthfulness, I lived, day to day, on the good graces of
my father and mother. Once again, they paid my bills. When I finally went
back to work, I was a different comic: I worked less and less with Lear ...
(Long pause) ... I was less and less funny ... (Long pause) ...
In fact, I'd very nearly talked my way out of show biz when Martin Mallinson
introduced me to January's Song ... (Shrug, hands out) Its
what he called himself ... When I tried to shake his hand, he made a curious
set of intimate rubbings that ended with our thumbs in a knotted embrace ... long
haired and sharp-eyed, Song was my first hippy ... hell, he was probably
America's first hippy ... Martin was there from the very beginning: He was
the first person I knew who dropped acid ... regularly! ... He was the first
guy to hook up with a band ... the way that people joined the Peace Corps! ... Anyway,
January opened with: Martin tells me you're interested in tripping ... Really?
He did, did he? I wasn't sure of any of this, so I went to the heart of
it ... How scary is this stuff? Oh, it can be scary, he said,
a lilt to his voice, a gleam in his eye, but the terror doesn't last ... Fear
always borders the sublime ... Let's go outside, I said. We need to
talk ... Tell me how it begins, and how long it will last ... It will
begin slowly. You will feel nothing, and then you will feel and see a
great deal, and then for a time you will feel and see too much. Old knots
will be untied; new ones will be tied. It will last less than eight hours,
perhaps as few as six, but you will never again be the same. That's
the part I don't like. Have no fear. If you are lucky enough, and brave
enough, you will bring back a knowledge that will stay with you forever.
This was awful: He was starting to sound like Ernest Hemingway, only he
wasn't talking about fishing ... or war for that matter. Every spiritual
impulse I'd ever felt seemed to be sending me in January's direction,
but the gamble felt out of balance: I was putting up too much to gain
too little ... or so I feared. I looked hard into his gleaming ferret eyes
and wondered: Do I want to end up like this guy? Wearing bells on my ankles ... announcing
myself like a cat collar? The harder I looked at him, the broader he smiled ... Until
I went over. How much does it cost? I asked. Two dollars, and he
opened his palm to reveal a small packet of aluminum foil ... Two bucks
for a ticket to enlightenment! How could I say no? I paid him the two
bucks and closed my fist around the sliver package ... Good luck, and
good tripping, he said ... and he followed it with one of those smiles
you'd see on the priest's face in posters for Boy's Town. Martin was living
at the time with G.E. Bently of The Shriners. G.E. was one of those musicians
who could drink prodigious amounts of beer and who, like jockies, would
never gain weight ... He wore a multi-colored, stripped poncho, day or night,
in all weather, and his dark brown hair curled in flawlessly at both sides
of his chin ... He acknowledged us by raising a can of Falstaff in our direction.
I bowed and Martin clapped. Bently played lead and a shadowy dude called
Tony B. played second guitar ... The Shriner's drummer, a cat named Biff
DeBosco, lost his right hand in a tragic logging accident in Portland,
where he eventually met Tony. The bass player, the stoic of the band,
was a kid named Felix Culpa, the married heart throb; his wife, Mia, never
spoke unless it was to ask for something to smoke ... Anyway, when I showed
my silver cube to Bently, he said: Wicked excellent ... A joint
was produced, and passed around ... History tells me that the LSD I consumed
that evening came in the form of a sugar cube, yet I'm sure that what
I unwrapped and swallowed was round, blue, and double the size of an aspirin ... There
is no wait in life quite like the wait of a first time acid drop. Have
I made the mistake of a lifetime? Will I meet God and never come back?
Hell, I said out loud, if Cary Grant can handle this stuff, so can I!
The light comes up in intensity.
It started gently, in waves that seemed to originate at the top of my
spinal column. A palpable wave, energy in a curl, lifted at the base of
the brain, and then broke at the roots of the eyes. I felt white light
leave through the crown of my head, a solid white shaft, and I was, on
the spot, as happy as I'd ever been. What was odd, in retrospect, was
the deep belief that such happiness had always been available, that I,
we, protect ourselves from it. Behind the heads of my friends, ivy on
the walls deepened, becoming a luxurious green-black; in the middle ground,
just behind them, light wavered, heavy enough to hold. The hair on Martin's
head was a priceless fur! Unable to speak or sit, I jumped suddenly to
my feet! As if in on the joke, G.E. and Martin roared approval. True to
form, the first word I managed to articulate, my voice a cracked whisper,
was: God. This, too, delighted my friends. "Yes! Yes!"
howled G.E. Bently, "Of course!" The bottles on the table,
the single apple, at first a still life by Cezanne, cubed, splintered,
cubed again, became a Braque. The apple responded to my touch with the
elasticity of flesh; light made an extraordinary nimbus, a Byzantine halo,
around what had been, until then, a mere beer bottle. I'd been let loose
in a museum without rules or law. A tour was in order. Martin led the
way. "Take a good look at the garden," he said, "I
don't think you've seen it before". He was Vergil to my Dante,
and I was thankful to follow him. A few steps into our tour of the yard
he stopped and parted the ivy so that I might see the surface of the wall.
The sculptured stone head of a Green Man was mounted on a stone disc;
his leaf-formed hair and beard heavy with carved fruit. It was as if Mallinson
had planted it there and then waited for the perfect moment to show it
to me. Breathing deeply, I stood still and stared. He shook his hairy
skull and rays of green energy shot out; he was a wet dog, shaking himself
dry. A powerful intelligence lived within him. I put my hand on his cheek
and felt flesh; his eyes darkened and his lips parted; his teeth were
polished, luminous, but his tongue was a black thing with the texture
of a water snake. Gasping, I pulled my hand away and stepped back. "Easy,"
said Mallinson, "it's only a stone. Nothing more." I
tried to thank him but finding I was voiceless, I settled for telepathy.
I watched my words enter him through his right temple. An inner light
coagulated, sealing the slice. I thought it best not to mention it. Martin
let the ivy drop back over the Green Man. Quietly, we continued to make
the loop. While we were circling counter clockwise to our right, E.G.
Bently moved out to the left, rounding the courtyard on his knee. I was
deep enough into the first period of the trip to feel the initial wisps
of a dark cosmic horror. If the innocuous could sparkle, why couldn't
the commonplace be suddenly malignant? E.G. Bently, moving quickly on
his knees, his hair covering most of his face, was a madman on a mission.
Somehow knowing that I needed him, Martin whispered in my ear: "It's
just Bently." "I can see that," I said, "but why
is he on his knees?" My voice, at least to my ear, started out a
Scottish burr, shifted to a brogue, and settled, none too soon, for the
honeyed tones of the American south. I wasn't brave enough to ask Martin
if he'd heard what I'd heard. Nope. The ivy reached out for me, but I
slipped safely by. E.G. Bently stopped about ten feet from us and rocked
back on his heels; he then put one hand on the ground for balance and
with the other began feeding clumps of earth into his mouth. "This
isn't fair," I said in my own voice. LSD operates in the mind on
two primary levels. At the same time that one is seeing extraordinary,
impossible things, the back room of the mind, the room where identity
has gone to hide, tells one, with varying degrees of success, that what
one is seeing is but the product of a drug, that it will wear off, that
one isn't, after all, crazy. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn't.
Staring horrified at E.G. Bently, I couldn't tell if he was actually feeding
himself raw earth or not. As if cooking it would help. Oblivious to my
terror, or perhaps supportive of it, he put enough dirt in his cheeks
to fill a shoebox. And he did this without once bothering to smile. Calling
the dregs of my courage, I addressed him. "Bently ... Why are you
eating dirt?" When he tipped his head back so as to look at me, his
eyes were the deep, unlighted pits of the dead. Something cold gripped
my heart. With a wave of his fingers, he motioned me down to his level.
His voice, after working its way around a small mound of earth,
was surprisingly clear. Lord Krishna ate dirt as a child. Oh. This
made mother unhappy. Who could blame her? Maybe thats why
he was so blue. When she asked him to stop, he smiled and opened his mouth
so she could see in it. This seemed to satisfy Bently because he stopped
talking. I took a chance on a comment. But youre not Krishna, I
said, trying hard to sound kind.
Are you sure Im not Krishna? Im not sure of who I
am, I said, an awful quaver in my voice. Look in.
pause/change of backdrop
I took the stairs with great burned out deliberation ... When I got
home that morning, the light in my room, not checked by drapes, was a
gentler gray-yellow-like in a Vermeer; but in front of me, instead of
a proper Dutch cleaning girl was a polished wooden boy. Lear, sweet Lear,
didnt know me. How could he? Id changed, as January said I
would, and Id left the part of me that worked with Lear behind.
I was no longer Thomas OConnor. (long pause) ... I might
be wrong, but it strikes me now that we were too self-obsessed a generation ... Phantoms
dancing in the rubble ... We made contact, or didnt ... slept
with each other, or didnt ... We left each other behind the same
way that we left jobs: one day we just failed to show up ... For all
the talk, love was an echo in a field ... ... I left one woman for
another woman who left me for someone she didnt stay with ... Echoes
in a field ... (Thomas pauses a long time; when he at last speaks,
his voice is dull with a hangover.) The guy who told me about Robert
Kennedy was a skinny little dude about sixteen with a head the size of
a melon ... He called himself Dr. Strange ... He said his straight up
hair turned white in the middle of an entry-level hyper-dimensional ceremony ... He
was wearing a Confederate jacket with a picture of Aleister Crowley stitched
on the back. He had a tiny, hairless dog named Checkmate, and his eyes
were wobbling like theyd come unmoored ... They got Kennedy,
he said. This got me up ... I was lying on my back in Golden Gate Park ... What
are you talking about? They shot Kennedy in L.A. Hes dead ...
Roberts dead, I said, and a line of pure pain ran from my belly
to the base of my throat ... Our last possible leader was dead and I
knew it as well as I knew that Dr. Strange would never find meaningful
employment, or that I would ever again care or vote ... America was a
haunted cheese factory, and I thought for the first time in eight years
that it was time for me to go home ... I put my arm around Dr. Strange
and said: It is time to go to the hills, companero. The city is in flames.
Let "do what thou wilt" be the law of the land, said Dr.
Strange, and I waited to see if hed explain, but he seemed to be
talking to his dog.
Pause and a slide of Washington Square appears.
Well, I hitch hiked back to New York. My fathers apartment was
located in the southeast corner of the 21st floor; from our parlor window,
one could draw a line across the monument into the sepia-gray blocks of
the lower east side. All the psychedelic joys of the Haight aside, I was
happy to be back in black and white New York ... I could feel the apartment
yield to me when I entered ... I went from room to room, reconstructing
my childhood: I read art books that I hadnt looked at in years:
Pre-Raphelites ... Blake ... Chagall. A History of Comics; Beardsley;
Grosz. I went all the way back: My parents apartment, bought years
after my father sold his fathers building to NYU, was in the same
building where Buddy Holly lived ... I always loved the fact that Buddy
Holly lived so close to Washington Square: It was a very hip move for
a homely little dude from Texas ... Anyway, I was on Spring Break and
Richard seemed happy to be out of New Hampshire ... He wanted to show
me a shop near the Strand, one of his favorite hangouts ... The place
was called Wittgensteins! ... For two years in the sixties, it
would call itself Wittgensteins Passive Illusions, before reverting
back to its original, simpler, name. To a kid with a mind like mine, Witts
was a small corner of heaven ... It was owned and run by a guy named
Herbert Senica- hey, assume he read Wittgenstein! ... a furtive, "Notes
From Underground " kind of guy ... He knew Richard on sight and
shook hands without making eye contact ... I was introduced and set loose
while they talked ... Only now would I think to ask Richard why Wittgensteins?
Did he plan it? Then, I was only too happy to wander, open to anything,
through the dusty shafts of light that entered through the high, unopened
windows of Senicas warehouse ... I moved quickly through the first
room, filled for the most part with books and magazines, and then slowed
down to inspect the larger, darker room ... It was filled with the most
extraordinary collection of props: unicycles were tied together in pairs
by colored ribbon; a dozen sets of stilts rose up out of a mound of derbies;
discarded zoot suits were stacked like burlap sacks. Pie plates were filled
with watch chains, knives, keys, marbles, cufflinks, monocles, wigs, snow
globes, reproductions of The Last Supper, campaign buttons, solid silver
Stetsons the size of nickels, spurs, a dozen blood red fez, firkins, coonskins
caps, loincloths, green metal Lucky Strike tins, wooden cheese boxes,
unworn spats, metal hands, glass eyes and dentures, one hundred bocce
balls, solid black clothing irons, random feathers, small stone figures
of headless, big-assed droopy breasted matriarchs, joy buzzers, decoder
rings, stethoscopes, ray guns, zlotys, bullet casings, spent shells, German
grenades, rubber ears, seltzer bottles, cloth cat corpses, balsa wood
planes, landmines, yellow shoes the size of hay bails, and a crate of
puppets, whole and in part.
When I stood over them to take inspection, no single puppet stood out.
What hit me with force were the unlimited possibilities of wooden children:
from within a chest high bin, a dozen faces stared back at me, perhaps
half of them female. This gave me pause. Would my act be even cooler if
I worked with a wooden girl? Nah. I moved the thought aside and began
separating the puppets from the pile. One face was golden and black, another
white with a look of sadness about it, as if its family had suffered great
hardship, or as if he had been taken from his parents. A polished wooden
arm would appear, as horrible as the real thing; one puppet would loom
up, moronic in huge pants, another burdened with a wooden fright wig.
And then I cleared the space that allowed me to see Lear for the first
time. I knew him on sight. His face gleamed; it was as if the normal laws
of dust and time didnt apply to him. He was bright, with the touch
of caustic to his half smile; and he was fully, properly, dressed with
a dark jacket ... bow-tie and terrific, shined wing-tips. Many of the
puppets looked worn, discarded by some kid, somewhere, whod not
been very successful and had moved on to the violin. The female puppets
were even worse: strands of hair had been ripped from some; eyelashes
snapped. One, missing an entire eyelid, looked as if she were forever
confronting an attacker, a look of horror in her huge eye. I went back
out front carrying Lear in the crook of my left arm, his legs dangling
sweetly down. Richard, turning away from the owner of the shop to take
us in, knew on sight that Id found who I was looking for. I dont
remember what we paid for him, or for that matter if we even paid for
him, but I do remember how happy I felt walking back to the apartment,
my puppet visible to the world. Now, I suppose, you could get killed for
strolling around with a puppet, but in those days men still wore shirts
and ties to baseball games and women didnt smoke on the street.
Now that I think of it, its no wonder people thought Lenny Bruce
was dirty. He was.
Richard had aged well. But it was obvious from across the room that hed
aged ... He was heavier ... Whats more, he knew immediately that
something was wrong ... Wheres Lear? In your bedroom? Its
been a long time since I worked with Lear, I said ... and when he said
nothing in return, I added: I seem to have lost touch with the part of
me that created Lear ... Lets go out for a beer, he said,
you can tell me about San Francisco ... tell me if all the horrible
things I read in the papers are true or not ... Of course its
all true, I said, or it wouldnt be in the papers, would it? Everyone
in Washington Square was waiting for the sun to set ... even the dogs.
We went down Thompson to Bleeker and slipped into the back Fence Bar ...
The Fence has always been one of my favorite places: the bar closest to
our apartment, I drank my first legal beer there ... And it had a wonderful
jukebox in those days: All Dylan, Spoons, Rascals, Billie, New York jukebox.
"4th Street" was playing when we entered and I was right where
I wanted to be: 3000 miles from the Bay Area. We took a table near the
window, my back to the stage ... I drank two beers before I said anything
and then I started ... I told Richard about Della Tone and Margo Rose
and Martin Mallinson and E. G. Bentley and how Id heard that Januarys
Song had come to a bad end in Mexico, that hed turned up dead in
an old pick-up truck owned by a farmer he didnt know, and how Margo
Rose turned to junk and broke her neck falling down a flight of stairs
in Oakland and how Buffet had gone through the windshield of a stolen
Hudson, beheading him, and I told him about the OCoughlin brothers,
twins who worked in the same after-hours joint, how the older one shot
his lover between the shoulder blades and how the younger one died when
his boyfriend lost control of his motorcycle on a rain slick road in Marin,
and then I told him about Colonel Wolf, the Fabulous King Arnie, and Lenny ...
I then told him about the worlds Id glimpsed, different dimensions-and
I told him about how Della and I learned that Martin King was dead, and
after I told him about Doctor Strange waking me up in the park, I skipped
everything else and went straight to meeting him in the apartment ...
We each put away another beer in silence before Richard resumed the conversation:
So what do we have? ... I knew by the way he said it that he meant the
last 14 years, so I took my time before answering ... A few great records
and a lot of killings?
Darkness settles slowly, by degrees, over the stage; Thomas sits hunch
forward, chin in hands, eyes down. When the light comes up again, it does
so slowly, never reaching full clarity. The rear wall now holds a reproduction
of Isle Of The Dead ... Resigned, Thomas finally speaks:
A little more. One more sequence ... By 74 I was back in New Hampshire
and settled on a farm in Warner with a married couple who, out of the
kindness of their hearts, treated me like family ... You could still
do that in those days ... I was in the barn when Richard pulled in_ Wed
stayed in touch- Weathered and gray, he looked exhausted- Your father
has arranged for your mother to be home ... And then as if there
were no other way to tell me: One of us is always with her. Unable
to say anything, I climbed silently, one more time, into the car ... In
the last two years my mothers health had gone radically wrong ... so
that in the end she hardly ate ... bled internally ... lost the ability
to withstand anything ... so Ill not put too fine a title on what
killed her ...
Understand, then, that she was down to a third of her normal size ... Theyd
set up camp in the great room; stripped of nearly everything but Dads
sofa, Mothers bed, and the television, Father and Richard watched
while Elinor slept. The room took on the hushed dignity of a cathedral,
the circle of light around the bed the perfect center of a mandala ... the
whole point of my life had come down to this joke/this manipulation ... I
took in the room before she saw me: Dad sat, hands folded, attentive on
the end of his sofa- the television out of his line of sight, his eyes
never straying from my mother ... (long pause; Thomas hides his face
in his hands for a moment, and then:) Propped up in her bridal bed- the
bed of my conception, shed become an El Greco ... There is a room
in the mind where one stores paintings, photographs, and films ... Part
queen, part ghost, Elinor filled that space ... So I watched from the
doorway as my mother turned to essence ... I was in no hurry to go to
her: I wanted her to live as long as possible ... And then she turned to
look at me ... and as if she knew Id be there, she simply smiled ... No,
she raised an eyebrow the way she did on those rare occasions when we
were in on the same joke ... I patted my fathers head in passing
and knelt beside her ... Her hand, cool and delicate, was without strength ... When
I kissed her, she was the mother I missed, the mother I would love forever ...
I think it was our third or fourth morning together- it couldnt
have been more- when she called me to watch TV with her: Come watch
with me. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Mystified, I
sat down on the edge of her bed. Nixons gone. Theyve
misplaced him? Not quite. Hes resigned. Were all resigned
to Nixon. Thomas, hes stepping down. Its over. Hes
history. Do you understand?
Until then, I hadnt ... Too much had gone wrong with my own
life for me to be paying attention to Richard Nixons ... In truth,
I paid more attention to the hearings in "On The Waterfront"
then I did Watergate ... Neither hearings were real to me ... Nothing
of substance would ever change: Nixon-or some form of Nixon-was President
for Life ... He would never go away-or die ... Simon would grow up,
cut his hair, work on Wall Street and vote for the son of a bitch ...
Sitting there next to my mother-Richard had come in and was sitting on
the sofa-it hit me that I hadnt watched television with anything
that amounted to full attention since my days in the Haight, when of course
everything televised was funny. Should we smoke a joint, Richard? I
dont have one. Do you? No. Too bad, said Elinor from
the safety of her bed.
pause ... Thomas needs to reconstruct what happened before speaking ... backdrop
of Dan Rather/ Nixon and family/ Hannah Nixon etc.
We watched together as gloomy, slightly sweaty guys talked solemnly into
microphones ... Dan Rather was one (odd name that) and he seemed sad
for some reason ... Beats me why ... Uniforms and suits mingled in
the middle ground; after what I felt was too much of this tuff, the coverage,
as if by magic or divine overview, went inside the White House. This was
an improvement ... I had no way of measuring the crowd: it was as if
theyd come to witness the retirement of a famous cripple or a defrocked
bishop. Women who looked like theyd never really danced stood next
to guys who looked like they wished theyd stayed in insurance. Here
and there, a hangover (I knew the signs!) cabinet member rubbed his eyes.
Richard Nixon and his family were on the stage and Nixon was talking ... .
I watched the people around him: Mrs. Nixon seemed to have turned her
eyes imploringly towards the heavens ... That blonde guy who married
Tricia looked like hed wandered into the wrong graduation ceremony,
while Julie looked like she was ready to arm wrestle Frank Sinatra ... .
And win! Nixons language washed over me: phrases struggled for meaning:
"Last night while I was reading TR, when he lost his wife, the
light went out of his life ... There wont be any books written about
Hanna Nixon, but she was a saint ... " and the camera pulled away
from Nixons broken face to scan the crowd- history was closing the
door on a cipher - two hundred people mentally rewriting their resumes.
" No one will leave here any richer than when they came in,"
The camera settled on Nixon. His face, always so obvious to me, became
unreadable in shock ... Misery and disbelief caused his cheeks to sag.
He was doing the unthinkable: in a crowded room, before the eyes of the
world, he was resigning ... . Quitting ... going on the lam ... .getting
out of town while the getting was good ... and then the camera swept
back over the crowd.
Standing in the door of the helicopter, Nixon waved goodbye like hed
just remembered something wonderful ... Gerald Ford, everyones
favorite uncle, looked as expressive as a Labrador retriever in a suit.
And then suddenly it was over, and we were sitting there like stoned fools
trying to figure out what happened ... Elinors voice came in gentle,
ageless: if one didnt turn to look at her, she might have been a
teenager by the sound of her voice: Dont waste your time with
politics Thomas. Say what? History is an illusion. There is no
such thing. Now you tell me, I said.
The rest of the day passed in a blur of golden light and dust motes ...
I was alone with her when she finally spoke: Take me outside Thomas.
One last time. Elinors dry voice was barely audible ... When
I leaned in to kiss her, the air in her mouth was the breath of a newborn,
sour milk and fruit. Of course, I said, and then I wrapped her in the
pastel cowboy blankets she saved from my childhood and carried her out
of the house into the moonlight ... Less than half her normal size,
she was like carrying an eagle.
Careful not to jar her, I moved as slowly up the path to the hillside
as I could ... The grass, each blade a separate identity, whispered
against my legs ... a murmur arose from my mothers lips ... When I
stopped at the woodline, she opened her eyes: they were dull now and I
could no longer tell if she knew me. I spoke quietly, my lips against
her ear: your body has betrayed you Elinor. You can let it go now. What
you are lives in me, and through me in Simon ... She repeated my sons
name, her voice a long sigh of happiness, her eyes closed in the joy of
her last word to the world ... I carried her into the clearing, her
face the color of moonlight. She was shaking and I could do nothing about
Image of Shiva on the wall.
In the deep, cool center of my mothers mind, as clear a spot now
as that of a winter stage in a Baltic city, theater walls torn down by
war, a four- armed figure pivots in his dance ... My mothers breath,
raw against my face, turns to light ... The dancer, alone in the rubble,
makes a soundless circle on the boards; and then, timed to the exhalation
of my mothers final breath, Shivas foot touches earth, the
dance ended at last.
I brought her home and sat beside her until Richard found us just before
dawn. Not until Id told my father she was gone, did I try to rest.
(Shiva image disappears from back wall)