The Apostrophe Blog
Photo by Wolfgang Sauber
In December 2004, I was awarded an Oregon Literary Fellowship—specifically, the Leslie Bradshaw Fellowship for Literary Nonfiction. What an honor! Several months later, the 2004 class of recipients was fêted at a lovely ceremony at the Wieden + Kennedy offices in Northwest Portland.
Oregon Literary Fellowships are administered by Literary Arts, “a community-based nonprofit with a mission to engage readers, support writers, and inspire the next generation with great literature.” Awarded since 1988, these fellowships are intended “to help Oregon writers at all stages of their career initiate, develop, or complete literary projects in poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, drama, and young readers’ literature. Fellowships are also awarded to support Oregon’s independent publishers and small presses that demonstrate a commitment to literary publishing.”
Within one year of receiving the fellowship, I had to submit a brief report detailing how I had used the award funds. In addition, recipients are asked to acknowledge Literary Arts in any publications which fellowship funds helped make happen. Unfortunately, my original files of the 2005 report I wrote about my project, The Muse of Hanging, were lost in a hard disk failure several years back.
Below is the original essay I submitted as part of my application for the fellowship. I’d originally hoped to focus on creative nonfiction for this project. But, after eighteen months of reaching out, I was unable to locate enough “primary sources” to fill in the factual and contextual gaps about my late friend’s life all those years we were estranged. That’s when I realized I could literally take poetic license and use poetry to sketch out content that I would never be able to verify.
Broken, Irreparable, Warranty Expired
I begin with what was always gone.
I found out by accident in November, six months after the fact. There under death notices in the alumni magazine, class of 1975, eight lines of finality and at the top in bold, his name and that he died at home, May 23, 2003.
We’d been, as they say, “estranged.”
In the days that followed, I crawled inside the word bereft. Rain pelted the kitchen skylights; gusts whipped the blue plastic tarp covering the pile of firewood on the side of the house.
I listened to music—Allegri Miserere, Eric Clapton, the Aimee Mann songs that are in a suicide note I didn’t even know about yet. My pen channeled memories: middle-of-the-night scrambled eggs with caraway in the Harkness kitchen after too much Jack Daniels in an Oberlin ditch. A 4th of July running down the West Side Highway in Manhattan, chasing fireworks instead of a cab. That sunny Monday morning on a single futon in a house in the middle of a cornfield in upstate New York when, after eighteen years of courtship, we finally met inside.
The chain that closes the black suction cup to let water flow back into the tank of the upstairs toilet kept tangling up; I had to remove the lid, jiggle the chain, the only way to fix it, a dozen times each day. One night, I stormed and raged. Drank, cursed, howled at the missing moon, at you/him/you—gone, gone, gone.
I’ve since read a copy of the note. It’s typed, has a title—Broken, Irreparable, Warranty Expired—a header and footer on every page, song lyrics, poetry, a bibliography of movies and books. There’s a list of options—slit wrists, hanging, overdose, drowning in the Sound—each accompanied by a short exegesis of its pros and cons. Created on 4/21/2003, last updated 5/20/03, and signed in his familiar southpaw scrawl, 7:37 p.m.
That day, 250 miles south down Interstate 5 in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range, I sat in tall trees high above the world and listened to a military helicopter flying overhead. The clouds were a plowed field, perfect rows of cotton. Lupines, callas, and poppies bloomed in the garden we’d claimed from blackberries the week before. My black T-shirt from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland soaked sun from the back of a metal patio chair. I breathed in gorgeousness and light, breathed out gratitude and heat. Later, at sunset, I changed one verb in a poem.
New Year’s Eve, I dream he’s on a couch in the house where we live in Ithaca, or where he lives in Fairbanks. He is dying, he wants to die. He’s taken an overdose, I think. He clearly wants this and I’m tired of fighting. I’m probably mad at him or sick of him. So I go about my business and soon he is dead. I tell myself I should do something, have someone come get his body, have him cremated. But all I do is touch his eyes, lower their thin blue lids.
Rescuers arrive, EMTs who pound on his chest, somehow bring him back and there he is again, eyes open, back from the dead. He’s not angry anymore. He’s sweet and benign and he no longer hates me. In fact, he’s forgiven me because I couldn’t love him, couldn’t save him from his adjectives—bisexual bipolar manic-depressive alcoholic—this time or any of the others, nine years before.
Through mutual friends, I learn it was death by hanging. He hung himself from the tree behind his house, one that jutted from a cliff above the deck. A neighbor walking his dog discovered him. The note mentioned he’d tried this twice before. The first time? Saved by well-meaning friends. The second time, gripped with fear on the way down, he pulled himself back up, the severed rope left behind, a memento mori, three long years.
When I can let myself imagine the scene, I make it night and warm like it was in my part of the Pacific Northwest that perfect spring day. I leave a lamp with a stained-glass shade lit on a table in the living room to make it look like someone is home. But no one else is there. And no one yet knows: this is the moment, the chosen moment, the might-as-well-be-now moment.
If I were writing this in French, I’d use the pronoun tu.
You open the door. You close the door. You leave the door open. You won’t be going back in. You’re wearing sneakers, you’re barefoot. You’re wearing jeans and your R.E.M. T-shirt, you’re wearing a brown and blue silk kimono sashed at the waist, you’re wearing nothing. You’re drunk, you’ve taken Xanax or benzodiazepine, you’re sober because you have to be strong enough to scale the cliff. You carry the rope, the rope’s knotted, the rope’s around your neck, the rope’s already in place.
It’s late, it’s closer to morning. The sound of the Sound is your ears as you climb, your brain recites poetry—once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary—your heart beats in your neck, your cock gets hard. You’re too blasted drunk to get hard, you don’t hear or say or feel anything. You feel everything. You take one last look, you remember, you forget.
Warranty expired: the shelf life of one human.
Maybe leaving this life is a flutter, the wind sidling down my box canyon in the Coast Range that jewel of a morning, May 23rd, when I sat in my patio chair and watched the tops of 100-foot Douglas-firs bend more than you’d think such tall trees could.
Maybe it’s falling asleep. And the world of heaven and hell is story after story, scene after scene, and none of them make sense, all the memories you have of someone you loved and hated, hated and loved are words written then immediately crossed out.
Maybe it’s the sound of one bone snapping, a broken neck.
He left adamant instructions—no ceremony, cremation, ashes thrown into the Sound off the Picnic Point Park beach after mixing them with the remains of his two beloved dogs whose names were the Pali words for mindfulness and a heart full of love.
If I’d been there, if there’d been a ceremony, I would have read Walt Whitman:
This is thy hour O soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing,
pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
Broken, Irreparable, Warranty Expired. And below that, a subtitle in brackets: A Suicide Note and Attempt at Explanation. “Enough of complaining. All my fault. Off to the light or darkness”—his last written words?
That was thy hour O soul, thy free flight into the world-less.
I don’t know how to end this.
The refrain of a song by the Incredible String Band that we listened to when we lived in the same room at college drifts into my head: May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you, guide your way on. I heard it for the first time in thirty years this past October at a Big Sur writing retreat. I remember I packed several of their records in the box I shipped to Oregon from my parents’ house in Pennsylvania when I was visiting over Thanksgiving. I head downstairs to pore through the four albums that made it here. I want to be sure I’m remembering the words right.
It’s been so long since I listened to this music, I don’t know which song is which anymore. I try a few and they aren’t the one I’m looking for. I’m about to give up—I figure I’ll make a research project out of it another day when I have more time—when I pick up one last record and pull it out of its yellowed sleeve. I center the record on the turntable and drop the needle at random into the grooves of the last cut on side one, not far from the song’s end. There’s a moment of silence, followed by a bongo and harpsichord intro, then this is what plays, over and over, I start counting—thirteen times: May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you, guide your way on.
The name of the album is The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.
The lyric quoted in the final paragraphs of this piece are from Mike Heron’s masterpiece, “A Very Cellular Song,” a 13-minute reflection on life, love, and amoebas, whose complex structure incorporates the Bahamian spiritual, “I Bid You Goodnight,” originally recorded by the Pinder Family.