Death, and Me, and Wasil P, and Chester Himes, and the Boy Whose name I Can’t Remember (It was Paul). And allowable illegibility.
It’s not fiction, where we depend on the oral cavity of the relater, the orb of the beholder, the kid with the ball. And it is, of course, relative: was there a moon? Hmmm? Full or half? Who says? Below what? Jugglers, stockbrokers, high wire acts, late night ‘Choppers’, ‘Juicers,’ and ‘Ab-Belts,’ we all agree, are tricky at best, smudgers and line blurrers.
“Trust Me,” some character says, when you know they’ll run a game on you, and before you can say, “Down is up?” you are out in the cold, my friend, looking in on your own life like the little fucking match girl saying, “Wuuuuuh happen?”
Well listen, sure, magnification has its place, and yes, facts can be embroidered, and yeah, why not? Souped-up sincerity has been known to work me, and work for me, on occasion, but not since Captain Kirk in his black boots has pure fiction done a thing for me.
I also like assemblies of moments that have truth to them, or half-truth to them, whatever, however they’re told, at least kind of facts. I like things that happen, have happened, things that are. I do not like: homilies, fairy stories, or folktales: Swallow a boy’s spit: and you’ll make a baby. Tan with your mouth open: and your teeth will whiten. Make every one smile: and you’ll be happy. Work hard: and the world will be your oyster. Act like a lady: and you’ll be treated that way. Ha! Don’t ever get married: and you won’t die inside. Huh? Stay with your own kind: and you’ll be ok! What?
These are the “inventions.” Pretend. Not good pretend, but bad pretend, the kind that doesn’t involve a dress-up box, the kind of hopeful sentiments that represent the lack of representation, if you get me.
Breathe. So yeah, death (and this is a fact) makes me horny.
It’s a body’s way of reminding one to be alive, the Frankensteinian bravado before it’s all over. Not an infinite condition, whereas death, is truly finite. Come on, if I stick to the facts, you know, this hanging on to being alive… Like my dad kicking the bucket so young, that threw me for a loop. Needle dropped, cyclone hit, and everything changed. So what I’m saying is, death, in almost any face or form, has a def-in-itively weird effect on me. Finite conditions, like facts, make you understand the world in a bracing way, a “take you by the shoulders and shake you” kind of way, life zeros in on the specifics, the details, and it makes you pay ‘attention’ kind of way.
Next time, imagine a seg-way here, but not today. It isn’t seamless and smooth, and why should it be? My dad died yeah, yeah, yeah, and Uncle Chester died yeah, yeah, yeah, and so will I, maybe, one day.
Ok so. Sosuperdoopercooooool. I remember him. Hyper-miester, Chester. He wore blue jeans, solid stiff denim, dark navy blue, scratch yer nails down the black board kinda stiff, ‘so you could feel the little grooves’ way.
I was fascinated so I observed. He was an adult but a mysterious one, like the moon, high above, only able to be seen from one angle at a time. Sometimes he was relaxed and laughing, you couldn’t imagine anything else, then others, like he never even passed the sun: gruff, angry, and explosive. Other times he was just distant, in his own head, but always kind to me. Daddio little beat-like beard and a black turtleneck. And when he talked, he talked in that grand old, grand old style, like the young cats with something to say that seemed to be 100 years old. You know what I mean, floating to heights above, looking down and back, so he talked with his right hand dissenting, always waving away from itself along with his words, like an insistent bat banging against the window let me-in-let-me-out-let-me-in-let-me-out style. You get the picture, just like him. He wanted both too, no?
Readers read him and think they know a thing or two, as we all do; but how do you own the idea of someone? Not through a book. Think about the idea of anyone we think we know and then obscure that by 200 pages? The author gave you a “map” of them? The inside of them? But it’s like the pirate map in the old movie, with skulls and cross bones and dotted lines to the treasure chest. Hmm who drew this and why? Is it just a decoy, like those ducks bobbing on the pond that get your ass shot off if you swoop on down,
“Come on in! The water is fiiine!” kind of ducks rhymes with, I have friends like that! Well, used to.
OK, it’s like this. When I was small, I’d read, so sweet and ashy blonde lazy eyed and Iceland-like calm, ahhhhh, that’s when I met him. Married to my “Aunt,” so blonde too, ooohhhh. Not so crazy as she looked, yahhhhh, a Pucci Lady in big-assed sunglasses. Hairdresser messy. Brave and Big and Beautiful, they were. Oh yeah. “Glamour” with a Capital G, before I knew what glamour was, but whatever it was, I knew right away “It sure takes the edge off.” Fiction-y fact, in its own way. See, I used to be a sucker for it! (Sure used to be, junkie-for-it me, walk straight, shoot H.) Clueless as to what chaos mixed with polish means. That’s rich. “Glamour,” it’s just “physical amplification!” Right? The flick of a cig, the cock of a head, you know? Pain is only a funny story that you skate bravely across on your way to the Next. Big. Thing.
Didn’t know what to do. A big girl now, big and horny but never corny, 5’4 and 7 stone, with 18 bumpy years under my black and yellow snake belt. Scared of men but not pretty boys, pretty enough, I hear you all saying, on top of it all, not too scared I guess. And that’s not a lie.
It hurt in an “old familiar melody” kind of way, you know?
You know the tune you can’t remember the words to, thumping on your backbone making breath tight, hard to catch up with myself and sing, talk, or even cough. My mother called me and said, “Well, Chester died.” Or did she write it in a letter? Or did she say, “I have bad news, darling.” I can’t remember. I didn’t have a phone back then, so maybe I called her from the stinking, piss and cigarette smoke smelling red phone box on the corner. The one they mug you in, if you’re not on your toes, and got some icicle chilly type O in your veins. Cold and broke with some pool table and beer money, tried to call Mum in Spain, dropped coins on the floor scraped up black gooey cigarette ash under my torn fingernails, trying to get it into the phone. Forgot to put on my coat, hands on arms hugging myself, legs blue-white map of blotches. Couldn’t talk to my mother. Felt All Alone. Chester, the only man left in our lives, family, Uncle Chester to me. This after our own man left us cold, so did the rest, aunties, uncles too. So Chester was ours, ours alone, and a man who was smart and strong and ours. So, ok, it was Truly. Awful.
When I got this news, it made me want to go and find someone with soft skin, a soft mouth, to kiss all up, until every trifling bit of softness was gone so I could get to the hard part. So I did, and yes I’m alive. Right? I knew I was still here. Looking for the dull queasy heat that made my stomach ache, and then I ate that up too.
French. Couldn’t speak to these grown ups.
English. Couldn’t speak to my mother.
We were in Paris. There were French windows but no French toast. Well, as you know, I am a fan of the absolute and we were absolutely there. So, well, good. But Paris was not glamorous or grand; it was a town that was gray and aloof and only vivid with Lesley and Chester. I would feel something thrilling, something different, with them. Like rules didn’t seem to apply. There was lots of laughing, lots of talking. Lots of chaos. Chester was hanging out with Leroi, Haynes not Jones, I think, and maybe a man who was called Melvin. We all ate at Mr. Haynes’s soul food restaurant near Place Pigall. He got me a Shirley Temple and life was sweet. Then I remember we all went shopping for a safari suit for Chester. The suits were hanging in rows from the tall ceiling, saluting us, above our heads. Each suit, sand colored soft material, with their flapped pockets and epaulets, all slightly different, little colonial ghosties of their former selves somewhere near the Luxembourg Gardens by way of Kenya? And I remember the hundreds of details, all so similar and all just a little bit different, with buttons and pleats for days. It was a very serious purchase, a decision taken with time. This is when I learned: and I must remember; details are important.
Uniforms-reinvented was the order of the day, don’t cha know. Che was a god, and Chester had just met with a man called Malcolm X in the Plaza Hotel. But was that the time in New York? Maybe? The times mix together, but I do know that his name rattled my mother. Negligence on her part to pay attention “to the details,” it occurs to me. Like those books she didn’t want me to read: Edna O’Brien, Chester’s books too. Too racy, too adult, too real? But I sneaked them. Pink Toes, a “Best seller in France,” someone said. Even at nine years old that impressed me, and confused me: why not a best seller in America or England? This was before I learnt about the French obsession with anything remotely African, colonized, exotique, and the American aversion to it. Jungle fever vs. what? Jungle Fear? Jungle Jim Brownskie, knock, knock on effect that is just an old unwavering stab of nothing different, nothing scary, nothing that turns over the rocks, letting unsaid things come out. All too close to home, oooo don’t let him in. Knock-knock-knock-knock. Now it’s all just all Disney-Eminem and Jay-oncé all the time, flattened out into ubiquity, with no understanding, booty jigglin’ bobble heads on our mantle piece, or on top of the TV, depending on your zip code.
The realer deal: I was 3 years old the first time when I met Chester. I can’t see him, I just feel myself looking up and feel him looking down, then him lifting me up, feeling safe with Lesley and Chester, scratchy beard, I remember that. The second time I was nine, the same age as Harriet the Spy. Something clicked inside my head. I felt smart and strong, just like Harriet. It was tricky for me knowing my (hilarious, beautiful, crazy, thrilling) Aunt Lesley, his wife! Glamorous and married, hmmm confusing. I felt them, murky, up ahead of my 9-year-old face. In afternoons when my mother was busy seeing her old time friends, we would sit at cafés on the Left Bank, and I would drink a lemon pressé, Lesley and Chester, something stronger. Chester would pretend not to understand the waiter, and I loved that. He said the French were rude, just like me pretending not to understand my mother’s complicated moves. So I also learned that from him, a lovely example of the truth of the untrue.
We just do what we do, as we do, as if we have “choices.”
And if you think about it, you know ideas are almost as solid as facts. And having ideas made me feel like an almost-person. Feeling poised around my almost-relations. Something added up. That is how it’s all remembered. My mother, my father, Lesley, Chester, showing me how to be grown; it is mixed up, you’re right. Then twelve, staying with them in Spain after daddy died.
“You’re a little fish! Swim under again, try the whole pool this time,” Chester chuckling, Lesley looking on, I remember them. I remember death, and I remember feeling sad and acting brave. I remember Chester lying out on the lounger, this time in red-and-white checked gingham trousers, laughing at me in the pool, trying to cheer me up, voice slurred more by his strokes than whiskey. Many days spent by the pool and in the village. His refuge.
Facts. What I remember is this: I remember the taste of sticky cool yellow and white beer, soapy in my mouth, soft going down, and finding a face that would (in fact) look a little like him. So he could be the other half of a perfect couple, like a Christmas tree ornament with snow inside and us frozen, just like that, holding hands forever and ever and ever, swirly in the snow.
“Ehy-ehy!” Then suddenly from across the room there he was! He smiled at me, pretending to take my picture, an intricate and persuasive introduction, if you know me. I made fun of him saying, “You don’t have any film in that camera,” and we were on.
We go to a house party on a street under a moon. Samuel Palmer kind of scene outside, the air is droplet smoky wet and cold, glossy silver light on a misty tarmac curving lane. I see our long shadows scatter and turn the corner, and behind the door, red dark carpets on the thick, slow moving floor and yellow paper lights and smooth purple music all up inside, dancing me around, “All around my belly, Like guava jelly.” Tart and sweet. Reet petite, swinging low in a blues, back room, shebeen style, sweet and vicious, I hear you say, hey, why not. It’s not a lie.
Dancing. Easy, silent feet on that thick, soft floor got something whispering in my ear and winding up my waist. That’s all a girl’ll need when all those unwelcome, bracing, finite facts come knocking at her door. Let’s make a little chaos please.
Only a little later. His room was dark and small, and he didn’t put on the light, frosted glass in the window, like a hospital with side-hinged windows, slim metal casings, cheap chilly thin glass it made a glow like snow light, ice windows. In the moment, pulls me to him, warm-strong-eager like. Stops, looks in my eyes and squints, a question mark in his leading eye, topple to mattress onto floor. Feel muscle curve, him. Feel smooth belly, me. Numb pain ebbs out as warm pain ebbs in. I see photos, black and white, thumb-tacked behind him, faces look at me and daytime scenes of known people, known to him, his family and friends? Reminding me that I’m the stranger in his room. Gentle. Skin smells of powder and smoke. Mouth as soft as I’d imagined and long eyelashes curled like a girl.
Later, hot, with lines and lines of spit and sweat. I let him. Lying in a bed with his saliva on my skin thinking about facts, like the bubbly glass in the windows, how it diffused the streetlights, and the dark eyes in his photos, and wondering how he got the scar on his shoulder, preoccupied with the irreversible fact of death. Still not mourning my father’s death, that pushed down so far that I could only feel Chester being gone. I feel his hands on me and still he was dead. I feel him biting my lower lip and still he was dead. I feel him hold my hips just so and Still He Was Dead. I telescope out of myself. Being “I” was unbearable and inside that “me” are little scraps of vinyl scratching out my throat, can’t talk. Fact not fiction, he was dead; I was not. So I felt teeth on my neck instead, a good sharp shiver like cats, hearing his breath in my ear. I can’t quite forget why I’m in this single bed. I’m staying awake and alive right? And here, here, like he wasn’t, just not here anymore, a dark thing to grasp, irrevocably gone. Tough, right? He probably thought I was holding onto him, as he was slipping through my fingers. But he did not slip, if you get me, he took my picture with his head. Of me and what? Am I now “known”? You know, a person now? Real and three-dimensions, full on? Am I a fact? I am pulled back to the “outside” of me by the fact of 98.6 degrees, of Flesh, Blood and, sounds like an old Motown tune. Moving in that universal movement, sticky, tidal-like all over again, comfort rocking me steady.
After, while he was sleeping, I was like a little girl playing vampire nurse, secretly curling my fingers around his wrist to feel out his pulse. I felt the velvet throb, tap-tap-tap, under his skin, spelling out:
Under my fingertips,
“I’m. Still. Here.”
“I’m. Still. Here.” And inside my head I tapped back quietly,
There we were, in an unfamiliar place, rocking the rock, they way one does. Doing the do, the way one do. Being alive, not dead, not right, not wrong. Infinite. Being infinite.
Sarah Pirozek wishes she was Christopher Hitchens, imbued with the spirit of ‘68. But she was born too late. She will settle for being Sarah Pirozek.