My mother, Louanne Antrim, died on a fine Saturday morning in the month of August, in the year 2000. She was lying in new purple sheets on a hospital-style bed rolled up next to the green oxygen tanks set against a wall in what was more or less the living room of her oddly decorated, dark and claustrophobic house, down near the bottom of a drive that wound like a rut past a muddy construction site and backyards bordered with chain-link fence, coming to an end in the parking lot that served the cheerless duck pond at the center of the town in which she had lived the last five years of her life, Black Mountain, North Carolina. The occasion for my mother's move to North Carolina from Florida had been the death of her father, Don Self, from a heart attack, in 1995. Don Self's widow, my mother's mother, Roxanne, was at that time beginning her fall into senility, and was, in any case, unequipped to manage the small estate that my grandfather had left in her name. What I mean to say is that my grandmother, who came of age in the Great Depression and who brought away from that era almost no concept of money beyond the idea that it is not good to give too much of it to one's children, was unlikely to continue her husband's tradition of making large monthly transfers into my mother's bank account. Don Self had kept hisdaughter afloat for a long while--ever since she'd got sober, thirteen years before, and decided that she was an artist and a visionary, ahead of her time--and now, suddenly, it was incumbent on my mother to seize power of attorney over her mother and take control of the portfolio, a coup she might have accomplished from Miami but was better able to arrange through what in the espionage community is known as closework.
Four years later, Roxanne Self passed away. The funeral was held at the Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in September of 1999. A week after that, my mother--barely days after having got, as I heard her proclaim more than once, "free of that woman, now I'm going to go somewhere I want to go and live my life"--went into the hospital with a lung infection and learned that she, too, would shortly be dead.
She was sixty-five and had coughed and coughed for years and years. There had never been any talking to her about her smoking. The news that she had cancer came as no surprise. It had grown in her bronchi and was inoperable. Radiation was held out as a palliative--it might (and briefly did) shrink the tumor enough to allow air into the congested lung--but my mother was not considered a candidate for chemotherapy. She had, during the course of forty years of, as they say, hard living, progressively and inexorably deteriorated. The story of my mother's lifelong deterioration is, in some respects, the story of her life. The story of my life is bound up in this story, the story of her deterioration. It is the story that is always central to the ways in which I perceive myself and others in the world. It is the story, or at any rate it is my role in the story, that allows me never to lose my mother.
With this in mind--the story of my mother and me, my mother in me--I will try to tell another story, the story of my attempt, during the weeks and months following her death, to buy a bed.
I should say to keep a bed. I bought several. The first was a big fat Stearns & Foster queen from Bloomingdale's at Fiftyninth Street and Lexington Avenue, in New York City. My then girlfriend, R., came along to the store, and together we lay down and compared. Shifman? Sealy? Stearns & Foster? Soft? Firm? Pillow top? I watched R. crawl across a mattress; she bounced up and down with her ass in the air, and I found myself thinking, delusionally, about myself in relation to my mother, who had died the week before, At last, I'm free of that woman! Now I'm going to buy a great bed and do some fucking and live my life.
Two thousand dollars.
Three thousand dollars would have got me a bigger, fatter Stearns & Foster (and, by extension, a bigger, fatter amount of comfort, leading to more contented sleeping, a finer state of love, and, in general, a happier, more productive life) or a nearly top-of-the-line Shifman. The Shifmans were appealing, thanks to the company's advertisements describing traditional (anachronistic?) manufacturing details such as the eight-way, hand-tied box spring; and to its preference for natural fibers (compressed cotton and wool) over synthetic foams.
"What do you think, hon? Do you like the pillow top?"
"The big one over there?"
"That one's great."
"How long will one of these things last? Did the guy say?"
"Donald, get the bed that feels best. You'll be able to buy other beds later."
"Later? What do you mean, later? Later in life?"
"If you get a bed and you don't like it you can send it back. Look. You have thirty days. People send beds back all the time. That's what department stores are for."
"Donald, this is something to be excited about! You're buying a great bed for yourself. You deserve it! We should celebrate."
"Are you okay?"
"Do you want to try them one more time?"
Which is what we--and, increasingly, I, alone--did. I bought bed no. 1 using my debit card in early September 2000, went home, called the store, and refused to have it delivered, then went back and upgraded, in late September, to another and more expensive bed (the pillow top), and refused to have that one delivered, after which I set out on what amounted, in retrospect, to a kind of quest, or even, one might say, a pilgrimage, to many stores, where I tossed and turned and held repetitive, obsessive conversations with professionals and, whenever possible, patient, accompanying friends, my lay public, about beds. Three months passed, during which time I came to learn more than I ever thought I would about mattresses and about the mattress industry in general--not only about how and where the beds are made but about how they are marketed and sold, and to whom--and, as it happened, Ilearned about other things besides actual beds. I am referring to blankets, pillows, and sheets.
It might be helpful at this point to say that, during this time that was described and possibly defined by compulsive consumerism, I had a keen sense of myself as a matricide. I felt, in some substantive yet elusive way, that I had had a hand in killing my mother. And so the search for a bed became a search for sanctuary, which is to say that the search for a bed became the search for a place; and of course by place I mean space, the sort of approximate, indeterminate space one might refer to when one says to another person, "I need some space"; and the fact that space in this context generally consists of feelings did not prevent me from imagining that the space--considered, against all reason, as a viable location; namely, my bedroom--could be filled, pretty much perfectly, by a luxury queen-size bed draped in gray-and-white-striped, masculine-looking sheets, with maybe a slightly and appropriately feminine ruffled bed skirt stretched about the box spring. And I imagined, quite logically, considering my grief over my mother's passing and over my participation, not only in the event of her death that August morning but, as a child and as a man, in the larger narrative of her lifelong self-obliteration through alcoholism and alcoholism's chief symptom and legacy, rage--I imagined, or fantasized, that, once cozy and secure in the space filled by the bed, lying alone or with R. atop pillows stacked high like the pillows on beds photographed for home-decorating magazines, I might discover who I would be and how I would carry on without my mother, a woman who had died in a dreary house, in an uncomfortable bed.
There was not much that anybody could do. My mother inthe final years of her life had become drastically paranoid. She cultivated or was the victim of episodes in which she conversed with figures from mythology and religion, including the Virgin Mary. Trained as a tailor and costumer, she crafted bizarre, well-made garments that resembled and were meant to be worn as vestments in spiritual ceremonies the purpose of which remained unclear. Everything about these garments--the winglike adornments festooning the back panels, the little baubles and totem objects depending from the sleeves or the lapels, the discordant color palettes displayed in fabric pieces stitched one atop the other like elements in a strange collage--spoke to a symbolism that was deeply private. Worn in public, these robes and gowns were guaranteed to cause unease among people accustomed to functioning in society at large. If my mother wore, to an Asheville concert or museum opening, a dark-purple jacket fastened with clown-size buttons and adorned on the front and sides with crisscrossing strips of Thai silk in tropical pastels, a jacket emblazoned on the back with an enormous white medallion topped with gold cloth gathered and bunched to resemble a floral cake decoration, then finished with more strips of colored silk tied off and hung with drapery tassels descending to varying lengths beneath the hemline, she was not merely acting as a free spirit and doing her thing; she was repudiating the patriarchy and proclaiming herself an artist.
Her power to drive people away was staggering. She behaved spitefully and was divisive in her short-lived relationships with the similarly disenfranchised people who became her friends. Her laughter was abrasive, sometimes even frightening. She chewed with her mouth open, often spilling food down her front. Her hair looked at times as if she had cut it herself, inthe dark. You were either with her or against her. She believed that her father was not her real father; that her mother had tried to drown her in a pond when she was a child; that her pulmonary specialist wanted to have sex with her; that in death she would be met by Carl Jung, the Virgin Mary, and Merlin the Magician; that she had done her work on earth and that her work was good; that she was one of those who had been chosen to herald the coming new order of beautiful humanity; that in a former life she had died a watery death as a Roman galley slave, shackled to the oars; that men were shits and her children were hostile; that her smoking was her business, so mind your own fucking business; that her son was an artist just like she was; that she and I should go into therapy together.
She was, for anyone close to her, and especially for those depending on her competency, a threatening person. She had, in fact, lived much of her adult life in a blackout, dreamlessly "sleeping" three hours or less most nights. The loss of REM sleep must have had devastating consequences on her body and mind. She went on screaming campaigns that lasted into the wee hours. A few times, I remember, I found her lying on the floor in the living room, early in the morning before dawn.
Perhaps her mother had tried to drown her in a pond. The truth may have been as bad as that, or worse. My mother may have been a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a perversion of caretaking in which a child is subjected to unwarranted medical interventions, even surgeries. It was suspected by her physicians in North Carolina, as well as by members of our family, that my mother's mother had had a curious habit of taking her only child to the doctor. This is not something I can comment on extensively; I wasn't there. And yet I can imaginemy grandmother Roxanne, in the late 1940s or thereabouts, leading my mother by the hand down some country hospital's white aisles, or sitting with her in the waiting room in a Florida doctor's office. I remember that my mother told stories, when I was young, of operations. What exactly these operations were meant to achieve is a bit of a mystery. One, it seems to me, had to do with the removal of a rib. And there was a famous story that had my mother "waking up" as her doctors pronounced her dead on the table. By the time I was born, Roxanne had become a radical nutritionist, intent on controlling her family's diets and moods; she handed out vitamins and advice to cancer patients who learned about her on the Florida cancer grapevine; she prescribed foods whose effectiveness in some cases (broccoli, kale) was later confirmed by the national health industry. I believe she saw herself as a folk heroine. It is possible to imagine my mother's death trip as an internalized, masochistically directed act of hatred against her own mother, who used health to suppress everyone around her; and against her father, who, in any number of conceivable scenarios, had been unable to acknowledge how things were for his daughter, or to act as her advocate, in her childhood.
When young, my mother had been popular and a beauty. She was a girl in Tennessee and a teenager in Sarasota, Florida, where she met my father. Together, my parents were, as far as I can tell from their yearbooks, one of those successful, envied high school couples. A friend of theirs, a man who was in love with my mother in college and had never fallen out of love, once described her to me in terms that revealed the force of her sexuality and personality in those days. Because she had no siblings, I have no maternal aunts or uncles who can accuratelyremember her as a girl. And testimony from my parents' old crowd about later years--after she'd left home, married my father, had her children, and settled down as a wife and mother in graduate school housing--is hard to come by, as are memories of my own, memories of the sort that add up to form a coherent ... what? Picture? Impression? Narrative? I was four, five, six years old. My sister, Terry, was three, four, five. It was the early sixties, the last years--as I think of that era now, almost forty years after our father fell in love with another woman, and our family began coming apart--of southern intellectualism in the style of the Agrarians, when the newly married Episcopalian children of Presbyterians were reading Finnegans Wake, escaping into Ph.D. programs, drinking bourbon, martinis, and bargain beer, and staying up all night quarreling and having affairs and finding out about the affairs, then tossing their children into the backseats of VW bugs and driving by night up or down the coast. To this day, I remain unable to reliably document the progress of my parents' migrations and relocations, the betrayals and reconciliations, the reunions, separations, re-relocations, hospitalizations. Suffice it to say that there is no end to the crazy stories, many of which I have already used too many times as opening gambits on dates.
But what about the bed? In December, I allowed delivery of the pillow top. The Bloomingdale's deliverymen carried it up the stairs, and I dressed it with the sheets and pillows that I had collected for this occasion. The bed, in comparison with the futon I had been sleeping on, seemed gigantic. It was gigantic; not only broad but tall, it overpowered the bedroom. Its phallic implications were evident in my invitations to R. to "come over and see it." Things should have ended there, withsome promising rambunctiousness with R. and a gradual acceptance of a new order in my house. But that would have required me to be a different person and much farther removed in time from my mother's death. It would've required, as well, that I had never heard anything about Dux.
Dux is one of those companies that produce esoteric, expensive products scientifically engineered to transform your life. When you buy a Dux bed, you gain membership in a community of people who have bought and believe in Dux beds. A Dux bed at first seems peculiarly soft; if you stay on one for a while, you may experience yourself as "relaxed" in a way that can actually be alarming. The initial impression is of settling onto a well-calibrated water bed--on a Dux, you really climb into bed. The company promises a variety of health benefits, some postural, some having to do with increased deep sleep, all having to do with natural latex and with the myriad coils described in the Dux literature as a "system" that allows the bed to shape itself gently to the body, reducing pressure points and therefore the number of times a sleeping person will shift or move about to get comfortable during the night. "Do you have a Dux?" I have heard the cognoscenti say. Dux beds come with a twenty-year warranty--I seem to remember "The Last Bed You'll Ever Buy" as one of the promotional slogans. The beds are manufactured in Sweden, advertised on classical-music radio stations, sold in company-owned stores that look like spas, and never, ever go on sale.
I don't know how many times, during the early winter of the year my mother died, I marched--typically by myself, though whenever possible with R. or one of those other aforementioned friends--into the Duxiana store on East Fifty-eighthStreet (conveniently adjacent to Bloomingdale's), where I pulled off my shoes and hopped from bed to bed and read and reread the brochures and harassed Pamela, the manager, with every kind of question about this model versus that. I arranged the goose-down pillows. I settled in. I turned onto my side. I turned onto my other side. Wonderful. You could choose mahogany or metallic legs that would elevate the bed to a great height, or you could leave the bed low to the floor, in the manner of beds in sleek European hotels. You could tuck the sheets in this way, drape them that way. Cotton top pad? Or latex? I began to sense, during afternoons reclining at the Dux store, that all the decisions I might make from here on out could flow naturally from the purchase of the right bed. Though I already had my new (returnable) bed in my bedroom, I didn't especially like it. I lacked sufficient desire to like the bed. It is true that the bed was large, but in every other respect I found it pedestrian and a letdown, because it was not saving my relationship with R. It was not making my apartment feel like home. It was not writing my book. Worst of all--and this was the failing that hurt the most--it was not allowing me to carry on indefinitely in my search for a bed.
How badly did I want a Dux? I wanted one in exactly the manner and proportion that was appropriate with regard to the product.
I wanted one enough to want to buy one.
It was in this way that a novelist with literary-level sales and a talent for remorse came to lay out close to seven thousand dollars for a mattress.
In the year preceding my mother's death, a year that wascharacterized by the kind of mood oscillations that accompany the routine progress toward failure of medical therapeutic interventions in advanced cancer cases--the tidal-seeming, almost manic rising and falling, with every piece of news, every stressed-out conversation with Mom or her doctors, of hope and depression, hope and depression, hope and renewed hope and more hope, followed by distracted euphoria and a deeper despair and the weird, impulsive anger that can be directed at practically anybody at any time, the continuum of fear and volatility that is familiar in some form or another to just about anyone who has watched a parent or a child, or a husband or a wife or a lover or a friend, get a little better, then a little worse, then a little better, dying according to the program, as it were--during this year, I more or less stopped working, and I stopped exercising. I read less, went out for dinner with friends less, made love less. I am a cyclist, and for years have had a routine of riding training laps around the park near where I live. My body has been accustomed to this regimen in which a great amount of physical information is available to me, information in the form of sensations that come with deep inhalations and exhalations as I walk down the street or, while riding, stand in the pedals to climb a hill; or in the awareness I might have of a gain or a loss in my weight; or in the excitement I can feel when touching another person, or when being touched; information in the form of, I suppose, myself, proprioceptively living in space. Little by little, that information disappeared. In the dull absence of myself, I did what my mother had done throughout her life. I sat up nights in my kitchen, smoking.
People are fond of saying that the truth will make you free. But what happens when the truth is not one simple, brutalthing? I could not imagine life without my mother. And it was true as well that only without her would I feel able to live. I had had enough of Louanne Antrim and was ready for her to be gone. I wanted her dead, and I knew that, in the year of her dying, I would neglect her.
I would and I did. In this, at least, I can claim I was faithful to her--to us. I was, after all, her man. It had been my impossible and defining task to be both like and unlike all other men--more specifically, like and unlike her father and her errant, excommunicated ex-husband, my father. What does this mean? I'm not sure I can clearly say. I was, I suppose, never to leave her for another woman. I was never to lie to or deceive her. When I first began to write and publish novels, it was understood by my mother, and hence unwittingly by me, that I was exhibiting, in whatever could be called my artistic accomplishments, her creative agency, her gifts.
"I'll come down soon and stay a few days, Mom."
"You don't have to come."
"I want to come."
"I'm not expecting you."
"Don't if you don't want to."
"Don't wait too long. I'm going to die soon."
"How do you know?"
"Dr. McCarrick is trying to kill me."
"He won't take my calls."
"He's a doctor."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. It's a joke. Sort of. He's busy. Doctors are busy. Never mind."
"Everyone is against me. You're against me."
"Mom, he's not trying to kill you. No one is trying to kill you. No one wants to kill you."
I put off the visit. I put it off. A dog in the apartment next to mine started barking, and for a while I lost my mind. Then the dog stopped barking and a year had passed and my sister and I were boarding flights from opposite ends of the country to stand beside my mother's bed in the little house near the bottom of the hill that pitched down to the parking lot beside the town lake. It was our practice, my sister's and mine, to fly into Charlotte, rendezvous at the airport car-rental desk, get the car, stop off at Bridges, in Shelby, North Carolina, for barbecue, then head west over the mountains, past Chimney Rock, up around Old Fort, and down into Black Mountain. The drive took three hours. We could have flown to Asheville, thirty minutes from our mother's house, but Terry and I traveled this roundabout way, I think, in order to give ourselves time to prepare for the ordeal of being--for one last time, in this case--Louanne's children in Louanne's house. That day, we managed to be in a hurry and to drive slowly at the same time. Terry talked about her children and about a neighbor who, like our mother, had refused nutrition in the final stages of a terminal illness. It was late on a late-summer afternoon. The farms and weathered churches alongside the two-lane highway had never seemed to me so lonely or so lovely, so beckoning, as they did that afternoon. This was our grandfather's country; and it was his father's, and his father's father's; and it was our mother's and, for that brief time--looking outthe car windows at the sights along the way, at touristy Lake Lure and the rocky stream descending the grade in low waterfalls beside the road; at the forlorn houses surrounded by irregularly shaped fields planted with corn and beans; at the kudzu that devours more and more of the South, forest and field, every year--it was ours, too. I remember thinking that, after she died, there would be no one left to bind me to this part of the world, and I wondered what might lead me, in the future, ever to return.
At the house, we found our mother on the hospital bed in the living room. Beside the bed stood the enormous wooden table on which she had measured and scissored fabrics. Bolts of silk leaned in a corner. Bookshelves held paperbacks about Carl Jung and healing. The day nurse left Terry and me alone. Our mother was on her way to dying. She had informed us, earlier in the summer, that sometime before too long, probably before her birthday in September, she would, as she had put it, "take matters into my own hands," but she had not told us exactly when; there were celestial and astrological considerations that needed factoring, and she was waiting for the right moment. Now the moment had come. Gazing at her emaciated face in the evening light, I discovered something that Terry had known and I hadn't, which was that our mother used dentures. These had been taken out. Her mouth was collapsed. She made noises and sounds that could not be interpreted as sentences, or even words. Morphine, dropped off earlier by the Hospice workers, waited, sealed, in a bottle in the kitchen. No one, not even the nurse, seemed to know precisely when to begin feeding it to her. So, like the morphine in the bottle in the kitchen, we waited, and the next day my mother "woke"--as the dyingsometimes will, briefly--and spoke relatively straightforwardly, if disjointedly, about her past. She called up names of people from Charlottesville and Kingsport and Miami, from Knoxville and Gainesville, Johnson City and Sarasota and Tallahassee. We felt her feet; her feet were warm. My sister gave her a sponge bath and changed her clothes, and we arranged the pillows beneath her head, and the nurse put her teeth in, and my mother asked us, in her broken voice, if we would mind, please, bringing her a martini.
Playing the role of guardian, playing at being powerful, I asked if she thought a martini a good idea, and she answered, quite sensibly, "What harm could it do now?"
Had there been gin and vermouth in the house, I would surely have mixed her a cocktail. Or maybe I wouldn't have. Did I offer her a taste of beer? I don't remember. Was she still taking oxygen? I can't remember that, either. Green tanks and plastic hoses were everywhere. The part-time nurse practitioner, a sweet and competent, though hardly medically knowledgeable, hard-line Christian fundamentalist, and my mother's two female friends, pagan Wiccans as far as I could make out, were in a battle over my mother's soul. It was a minor flare-up of social conflicts in the New South of the old Appalachias--the Christers versus the Shamans--staged over the proxy that was Louanne Antrim's wasted body. Back and forth it went, in whispered private conferences, little peace talks out in the yard:
"They're saying occult things. They're going to hand her over to the Devil. I've got three churches praying for your mom to rise into Jesus' arms."
"That Pentecostal girl's trying to convert Louanne toChrist. Your mother left organized religion behind a long time ago. It's not what she wants."
"Every time I pray for your mom, they come in and they stop me. I'm just worried sick over your mom."
In the end, it fell to me to administer the morphine. I should say that I decided, as the man on the scene, to be the one to give the morphine. Every four hours, I pressed a lorazepam tablet to powder in a spoon, introduced into this powder a small measure of the liquid morphine, drew the solution into an oral syringe, and squirted the drug into my mother's partly open mouth. I was careful to squirt toward the side of her mouth. My sister and I swabbed her dry lips with sponges. On the third night her death rattle began. I put on Mozart piano sonatas, but after a while, getting into the spirit of things, I switched to Miles Davis. At some point before dawn, my mother's face relaxed and her skin cleared, and, though her throat and chest still rattled terribly, she smiled. It was a broad, unambiguous smile. Terry said to me, "Look, she's getting younger." It was true. In the hours before she died, Louanne began to resemble herself as the young woman we had seen in photographs taken before we were born--full of radiance and with her future and whatever crazed or credible hopes she had ahead of her. Amazingly, this effect occurred in spite of the absence of teeth. I sat in a chair beside the bed and read to her from The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor, which she did not seem to appreciate at all--her smile vanished and she actually scowled at the opening to "A Wife of Nashville"--and, though I like Peter Taylor well enough, I felt in that instant real camaraderie with my mother. I left off reading and told herthat she had been a good mother, a good artist; that Terry and I loved her and were grateful to her for her care; that those years in Tallahassee, in particular, had been pretty good years; that both of us, both her children, however much we might miss her, had a great deal to live for; that we would be all right without her. The sun came up. Terry drove back to the hotel for a shower and a nap. The New Agers and the kind Christian were away somewhere; and I held my mother's hand and told her that the house was empty except for the two of us, it was just her and me in the house, and it was a nice day outside the windows, birds were in the trees, a breeze blew the leaves, clouds crossed the sky, and if she wanted to she could go ahead and die, which she promptly did.
From 1966 until the summer of 1968, my sister and I lived with our mother in Tallahassee, Florida. Across the street from us was a church whose steeple had been removed and laid on its side to peel and rust in the yard beside the church. At the top of the street was a gas station where Apalachicola oysters could be bought for five dollars a bushel. Our father was teaching in Virginia; though our parents' first divorce was either final or on the way to being so, he visited monthly, pulling up in his black Volkswagen Beetle, parking in the driveway made of seashells and sand--the cue for Terry and me to rush from the house screaming with excitement. Often, the first evening of his visit we would spend as a family, sitting on the concrete-and-brick porch, shucking and eating dozens of oysters and looking out at the church with its decapitated, useless steeple. My sister and I conspire to remember these as good years, primarily because there was sparingly little head-to-head conflict between our parents, given that they were infrequently together;but also because the three of us, Terry, my mother, and I, became a family of our own, a family that existed in the absence of the family we wished we could be. Terry and I did fine in school; we rode our bikes, built forts using lawn furniture, played with friends from across the street. I joined the Cub Scouts; she was a Brownie. Occasionally, our mother allowed us to stay home from school, and our party of three became a tea party in the living room. There was something approaching normalcy in our lives. In retrospect, I would say that it was a forced normalcy. Our happy family was a worrisomely happy performance of family.
This calls to mind a particular event. When I was nine, I got to play the part of Young Macduff in a Florida State University production of Macbeth. My mother worked as an assistant costumer in the theater department. It was she who would eventually make my costume, a yellow-orange tunic with a sash for a belt. The tunic, despite repeated washing, became bloodier and bloodier with each performance. Here are some lines from act IV, scene 2, spoken by Lady Macduff and her son, before they are murdered by Macbeth's henchmen:
L. MACD.: Sirrah, your father's dead,
And what will you do now? How will you live?
SON: As birds do, mother.
L. MACD.: What, with worms and flies?
SON: With what I get, I mean; and so do they.
L. MACD.: Poor bird! thou'dst never fear the net nor lime,
The pitfall nor the gin.
SON: Why should I, mother? Poor birds they are not set for.
My father is not dead, for all your saying.
L. MACD.: Yes, he is dead. How wilt thou do for a father?
SON: Nay, how will you do for a husband?
SON: Was my father a traitor, mother?
L. MACD.: Ay, that he was.
SON: What is a traitor?
L. MACD.: Why, one that swears and lies.
SON: And be all traitors that do so?
L. MACD.: Every one that does so is a traitor, and must be hang'd.
It is but a moment before the killers enter. The stage directions call for Young Macduff to be murdered first, crying out, "He has kill'd me, mother: Run away, I pray you!" and for her to flee into the wings, crying "Murther!" In our production, both deaths occurred onstage. First I went down, stabbed in the back and in the stomach. My pretend mother ran to my side and knelt beside me. Then she was killed. She fell across me and lay dead (though breathing heavily). It was in this way that I came to fall in love with Lady Macduff. I mean that I fell in love with Janice, the college girl playing Lady Macduff. The lights dimmed to end the scene. Each night, I watched from beneath my mother who was not my mother, as the lights' filaments faded; and, when the stage fell dark, I whispered in Janice's ear, which was practically in my mouth, "Okay, get up," because the smell of her, and her hair falling across my face, and her ear in my mouth, and the pressure and heat of her body pressing down on mine became too intense to bear.
It seems to me that some of the archetypes for my adult life were introduced during the period of the play: the man who appears and withdraws, appears and withdraws; the woman who is both my mother and a girl on whom I have a crush; and the real mother, who dies for want of the love and protection of a man, her husband. These are rudimentary formulations; nevertheless, they point to a fact of large consequence, the fact of my precarious victory over my father and my attainment of my mother. Like Young Macduff in the moments before death, I became my mother's confidant. In doing so, I became her true husband, the man both like and unlike other men. And, in becoming these things, I became sick.
My main ailment was a debilitating asthma that required trips to hospitals and doctors' offices. I swallowed drugs that kept me awake nights, struggling to breathe mist from an atomizer that hummed away on the table next to my bed, while my mother sat at my side. She had a way of sitting beside me on the bed--at a certain angle, leaning over, maybe touching my forehead or holding my hand, perched the way mothers everywhere perch on beds beside sick children--that I will never forget. This was our intimacy. In later years, after she and my father had remarried, and her alcoholic deterioration had begun in earnest, the image of her in the Tallahassee days, serving tea in china cups, or sitting up nights with me on the edge of my bed in the little house on Eighth Street, would be supplanted by the more violent image of the increasingly damaged Lady Macbeth she was to become. When we say about something or someone that we are dying for that thing, that person, we may miss the more literal meaning hidden in the metaphor. I was a boy dying for his mother, angrily, stubbornly doing herwork of dying, the work she had begun before I was born. In this version of the story of my illness--the story of our collusion in illness--I was not merely bringing my mother to my bedside, not simply bringing her close. Rather, I was marrying myself to her, learning to speak the language of her unconscious, which, as time would bear out, was a language of suffocation and death. In sickness, we were joined: she was I and I was she.
I bought the Dux. Of course I bought top of the line. If you're going to buy a brand-new rest of your life, why go halfway? The guys who brought it in and set it up were not only deliverymen; they were true believers, real aficionados. One of the men was large, the other less large. The large man did the talking.
"This is the bed I sleep on."
"Best bed I ever slept on. I've slept on every kind of bed. Take a look at me. I'm a big guy. Most beds, I'd get two, three years and the things wear out. Not this bed."
"I'm telling you. I sleep on this bed. My mother sleeps on this bed. My sister has one of these beds. My mother's sister sleeps on this bed."
"Sleep like a baby."
Like a baby? What if I wanted to sleep like a man? It didn't much matter either way, because I wasn't going to get any sleep at all. Not that night. Not the following night. Not the night after that.
"Hey, come over. I got the bed."
"Yeah. It's here."
"I can't believe you got the bed."
"I got the bed. It's here."
"Have you gotten on it?"
"Have you put the sheets on it?"
"Is my pillow on it?"
"Is it as tall as the other bed?"
"You got the bed!"
"I got the bed!"
Talk about up all night--however, not for reasons one would anticipate or wish. It was a bad night on many counts. In the first place, the bed felt too soft. In the second place, it was too springy In the third place, it seemed too transmissive of vibrations caused by movement. In the fourth place, it was too final. It represented the end of the quest for itself. And now, here it was. The bed was mine. It would be the place not of love and rest but of deprivation and loneliness. All during that first night, I lay awake and felt the bed. I felt myself sinking into it. I felt, sinking into the bed, the absence of familiar pressures against my shoulders and hips; and, without those familiar pressures, I felt adrift. If R. moved even an inch, I felt that. If she turned over, the effect was catastrophic. In the morning I was wrung out, and so was R.
What followed over the next few days was a workshop in hysteria. I called the store. I phoned other stores, in otherstates. I wanted to know from the Dux community what I could do to join in, to make myself on my bed feel the way they said they felt on theirs. Pamela, the manager of the store on East Fifty-eighth Street, lost patience eventually and told me that she would take the bed back--immediately! Against company policy! She'd make an exception in my case! Though not for a full refund! Did I want the bed? Did I want the bed or not? Alone at night, I sank into the bed and tried to want it. And the farther I sank into it the closer I came to knowing what the bed was. It was the last bed I would ever buy. It was the bed that would deliver me into my fate. It was the bed that would marry me again to my mother, the bed Louanne and I would share. When I moved, the bed moved, talking back to me through the echoing of coiled springs, telling me that there would be no rest for me. The bed was alive. It was alive with my mother. I sank into the bed, and it was as if I were sinking down into her arms. She was not beside me on the bed, she was inside the bed, and I was inside the bed; and she was pulling me down into the bed to die with her. It was my deathbed. It was a coffin. It was a sarcophagus. I didn't want to die. Did I? If only I could get the bed to stay still. Why wouldn't the bed leave me alone? Why wouldn't the bed be my bed?
In the daytime I worked the phones. A woman in a southern state referred me to a man in the same southern state who had sold these beds for twenty years. This man knew everything about the beds.
"What kind of floor is your bed on? Is it a wood floor?"
"Yes, it is a wood floor."
"There's your problem."
"How do you mean?"
"Sometimes on a wood floor these beds can be very reverberant. Do you have carpet under the bed?"
"You need carpet under the bed. That'll damp the springs."
"I don't have any carpet."
"Go out and get yourself a set of those felt-and-rubber furniture coasters. You'll need six, because on a queen-size bed there are those extra legs supporting the middle of the bed."
Coasters? It was too late for coasters. The bed had to go back to the warehouse! It had to go back the next morning! The large man and the less large man were coming to haul away the bed that I both wanted and did not want, that I both needed and did not need in order to continue being a man who was both better and worse than other men. I ran out, minutes before the stores closed, bought the coasters, ran back home, and shoved them under the legs of the bed. I bounced on the bed. I hadn't slept in days. Nights. And on and on the night went: My mother. The bed. My mother. The bed. Morphine. The bed. I'd failed her by living. I'd killed her with negligence. Comfort was forbidden. Except in death. In the morning, the men were coming to cart away our bed. I pulled up the covers and sank into the bed and drifted restlessly in that half-awake dream world where I could live and die with and without my dead mother, and I waited for the men.
Then it was morning and the light through the windows was hurting my eyes and I had a cigarette of my own going, and the buzzer rang and they tromped up the stairs and began packing the bed. They took off the legs and broke it down and wrapped it up, and just like that the bedroom was empty, and my mind without sleep was suddenly empty, too.
"This isn't right!"
"What's not right?"
"Everything! All of it!"
I told them the story of the bouncy, springy bed. All that sleeplessness. All those phone calls. The store managers, the furniture coasters. It all poured out. Not about my mother, though. Nothing about Louanne. The men stood in my empty bedroom, listening, paying attention. The large man, who had, I think, a firm grasp of reality, said, "I see that there is a problem. But I have to tell you, I'm just the driver."
I went to the telephone. I called the number for the Swedish president of Dux Interiors in North America. What in the world was I going to say to him? What did I want from him?
"Hello. Is this Mr. Gustafsson?"
"Hi. My name is Donald. I'm a customer? I have a bed that's being picked up and returned."
"You don't like the bed?"
"I like the bed. I like the bed. It's just that there are problems."
The large man stepped forward. He took control. He said to me, "Let me talk to Bo."
I gave the large man the phone. He stood in my ravaged,empty bedroom and did the talking. He talked for a long time. When he was finished speaking with the president, he passed me my phone. He told me, "Bo wants to talk to you."
"Hello. Is it Donald? Hello. Let me ask you something. What size bed do you have?"
"Ah. And you say it is too bouncy?"
"That's part of it."
"I mean you can feel everything. When you're on the bed. When you're in bed. You feel too much. I feel too much."
"Well. I don't know what to tell you. There are many springs in that bed. That is how it works. All the springs work together. There is going to be some movement. Maybe to get a good night's rest you need your own sleeping area. Maybe you need the king."
"I don't have room for a king."
"I don't know what to tell you. You have to decide if you want to keep the bed or not. I cannot decide for you."
"The bed is a good bed. I am sure that if you keep it you will get used to it. These beds take some getting used to."
I hung up the phone. I saw the men standing in my house. I saw the crated bed by the door. I saw the sunlight coming through the windows. I saw myself standing there seeing thesethings. I was a man whose need for love and sympathy had led him to telephone a Swedish executive in the middle of the morning. Perhaps, at some point, the story of my mother and the bed becomes the story of my mother and father, the story that remains to be told, the story, you could say, of the queen versus the king.
The bed went away. I let it go. R. was right. I could get another bed later. I stood in my empty room. In place of the bed was--shame? In place of the bed was a question, a question that is at once too simple and too complicated to answer.
For a time when I was a boy, my father's brother, my uncle Eldridge--a man, as I think of him now, both like and unlike other men--became my friend and companion. Today I cannot think of my uncle without remembering his car and the things he carried in it. In the backseat he kept a bicycle with the front wheel removed. I never saw him put the wheel on and ride. Next to the bicycle was a golf bag holding woods and irons, balls, tees, pencils for scoring, golf gloves, a visor. Adjacent to the clubs were a couple of beach chairs folded and jammed between the car's front and backseats, and wedged on the seat were towels and a cooler chest, into which he loaded, every day or two, ice, beer, and strawberry, grape, and orange sodas. In the car's trunk, as I remember it, were his tennis racquets with their protective covers zippered on, and a tennis bag like those the pros carry onto the court, stuffed with balls in cans, cotton sweatbands, shorts, shirts, tennis shoes, socks, and a hat. There was a football for playing catch at the beach, and a pump for pumping up the ball. There were baseball mitts and a baseball; and there was fishing gear--a takedown rod stored in its elegant cylindrical case, and a small tackle kit packed with hooks, lures, and line--and there was swimming and, sometimes, I recall, scuba equipment, including a mask, fins, asnorkel, a dive knife, a depth gauge, a regulator, a buoyancy vest, a weight belt, and, shoved up into the back of the trunk--though in order to make space for it, he might have been forced, in a gesture of triage, to sacrifice other items--a small tank that actually belonged to me. In the event that he had occasion to dress nicely on land, he had what was minimally required. Pressed trousers. A clean shirt. A tie, rolled up. Changes of underwear. Thin socks. A belt. Black shoes with shoe trees inserted in them. Shoe polish. A rag for polishing. There was a shaving kit holding a razor and soap, shampoo, talcum powder, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a hairbrush and a comb, and plenty of the English Leather cologne he splashed on at intervals throughout his day. There was a battery-operated portable record player, and Everly Brothers, Clancy Brothers, and Smothers Brothers records to play on it. For reading, he carried a collection of hunting, tennis, golf, and archery magazines, Playboy and Penthouse, and books by D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell. For shooting, he kept, in a space near the tire well, a .22 pistol in a leather case; and sometimes there was a double-barreled shotgun; and, when he had the shotgun packed in the car and planned to do some shooting with it, there might also be a cardboard box containing clay pigeons, many of which I threw for him, using a spring-loaded contraption designed for manually launching the fragile yellow disks. There was no shortage of ammo. And there were many things relating to the maintenance of the car in specific and to safe travel in general: spark plugs, antifreeze in a jug, motor oil in a can, socket wrenches, jumper cables, sulfur flares. There was tanning lotion; and there were Band-Aids and other medical supplies, including an Ace bandage; and writing materialsand postage stamps; and, tucked here and there in nooks and crannies, golf shoes, an umbrella, a rain poncho, a thermos, a Swiss Army knife, bottle and can openers, a pair of binoculars, a Frisbee.
On days off from his job, loading Canada Dry delivery trucks at a warehouse near the airport in Sarasota, Florida, he used to golf or lie on the beach or play tennis at the municipal courts with his friends from work, and sometimes he'd drive to a secluded place in the woods, where he would set up one of the folding beach chairs, place beside it the cooler and a handful of his books and magazines, put a record on the record player, and sit listening to folk music, flipping through the magazines, looking at the world through his binoculars, sipping beer, and, every now and then, shooting pistol rounds at empty cans he'd propped on tree branches or rotting fence posts in the distance. One day, according to my mother, state and federal agents surrounded him, then handcuffed him and took him into custody, because he had been spotted by surveillance teams sent in advance of President Nixon, who was about to land in Sarasota on Air Force One. When the agents took him to the local police station, the chief of police told them, "Oh, that's just Bob Antrim, he doesn't mean a bit of harm," which was true enough; and so they promptly let him go.
His name was Robert Eldridge Antrim. He was known in his family as Eldridge to distinguish him from his father, also Robert, and among his friends as Bob, but he was also occasionally called Sam. The name Sam in relation to my uncle first appeared in the mid-fifties, in the sports pages of a Sarasota newspaper, in an article glorifying the Sarasota High School golf team, for which Eldridge was a star player. In fact, it wasEldridge who had reported his name as Sam, presumably because he had grown tired of Eldridge. It was a joke; and the joke stuck, though by the end of his life the only person still calling him Sam was my mother, who was with him at the Sarasota Memorial Hospital when he died, in 1992, of acute alcohol poisoning. When I was young, I knew my uncle as Eldridge. For a few years, when I was a teenager, he was a hero to me. Today, when I think of him, he is Bob, and I think this transformation from Eldridge to Bob by way of Sam has something to do with the effect he had on my life, in particular the effect of a single incident that took place when I was fourteen years old.
We were living in Miami, my mother, my father, my sister, our absurd cats--Zelda Fitzgerald and the neurologically impaired Siamese, Justine--and I. Eldridge, during those years, the early seventies, lived up the Gulf Coast in Sarasota, in a suburban tract house he shared with his mother, my grandmother Eliza. The story of Eliza's life is, in some ways, unusual for a woman of her time. She grew up during the early years of the twentieth century, in Richmond, Virginia, in what was, according to my father, a strict Episcopalian home ruled by a patriarch who was stern with his sons and possessively doting toward his only daughter, who nevertheless managed to escape to nearby Randolph-Macon Woman's College, and then to Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree in Spanish. During her years away at school, a medical student from San Juan, Puerto Rico, took up residence--I don't know the particulars of the arrangement--in her father's house. Over the course of her vacations at home, Eliza fell in love with this man, and even went so far as to board ship and sail with him toPuerto Rico to visit his home. Rafael was, according to family lore, the love of my grandmother's life. I imagine him as a person formed in a certain European mold: erudite and very likely soft-spoken, a man wearing clothes made to draw attention away from his physique, from, as it were, his person--not in order to obscure the fact that he is, in my mental picture of him, neither tall nor fit but, rather, to hide, out of sheer politeness, his intrinsic attractiveness, which is to say his unsuitability as a life partner for a young woman brought up in an essentially Victorian household. About matters so far removed in time and sensibility from one's own, one can only guess. My father told me that when Rafael's stay in America ended he begged Eliza to marry him. She made it clear that she loved him but could never marry a Catholic. And that, apparently, was that. Her lover went home without her. They saw each other once or twice again over the years. And then, when she was very old and in failing health, as if bearing out the eroticism inherent in loving a person one cannot bring oneself to marry, she did something surprising and beautiful. She bought a plane ticket for San Juan. She did not tell anyone her intentions. She appears to have had no specific intentions. Alone in Puerto Rico, she visited the places she remembered from her time there with Rafael, who had died a year or two earlier.
Eliza's life, it seems to me, turned out quite differently from whatever she might have hoped for when she was a woman in her twenties, taking flight, however incompletely or abortively, from her father's house. It is my understanding that after she returned home from New York she lived for a time in a sort of domestic captivity, like a Virginian Elizabeth Barrett Browning, until it was arranged that she would marry a distant cousin,Robert Antrim, a man older than she, a man she likely did not love passionately. Robert Antrim was in those years the manager of the Blandy Experimental Farm, now the Virginia State Arboretum, a University of Virginia teaching farm near Winchester. He was taciturn and hardworking, and he and Eliza had two sons. Then one day Robert Antrim took it into his head that it was his destiny to raise gladioli in Florida. He and his brother, Frank, had for some time been going on annual car trips together--speechless two-week-long excursions to central Florida and back. They had an old Ford, and were known for driving slowly.
I can remember, from my childhood, my father's father's slow driving. Many years after Robert and his brother took their first trips down the Atlantic seaboard, and long after Robert Antrim had settled his family in Sarasota, near the end of his life, when my sister and I were young, he used to drive us, in his blue Mercedes diesel sedan, to the Ringling Museum of the Circus, part of the grandiose folly of an estate left by the great John Ringling after he fell into debt and, in 1936, the same year my father was born, died of pneumonia. The Ringling complex is located on Sarasota Bay, and includes John and Mable Ringling's enormous and weirdly decorated winter residence, Cà d'Zan; and the Ringling Art Museum filled with minor Old Masters and Baroque paintings and tapestries; and a theater in the Italian Baroque style, the Asolo; and the Museum of the Circus, all originally constructed using buildings and parts of buildings painstakingly disassembled, crated up, and shipped from northern Italy to Florida in the 1920s and early thirties. Attached to the painting galleries is a library in which my father, in his free time as a young museum guide workingafternoons after school and over summer vacations, read art history. It was here, according to my mother, that Sir Anthony Blunt, the infamous spy and historian of Renaissance and Baroque art, upon finishing a tour of the museum's collections, invited my father, who had conducted the tour, to attend the Courtauld Institute in London. This took place before Blunt was exposed as a Russian agent and stripped of his knighthood. I sometimes wonder how things might have gone in our family had my father accepted Sir Anthony's offer. In the event, things were as they were, which meant that my sister and I, when children in Sarasota, were unfailingly greeted, at the entrance to the Museum of the Circus, by Cookie, a midget wearing an ornate red coat. Cookie was famous as the Munchkin who, in the Munchkinland sequence in The Wizard of Oz, presents Dorothy with a bouquet.
Anyway, I remember from those trips that my grandfather never drove his Mercedes at a speed greater than twenty-five or thirty miles an hour--in contrast to my other grandfather, Don Self, who kept in his carport Oldsmobiles and Buicks of the massive sort that easily handled ninety miles per hour on the interstate--and I remember, in some way that is as much emotional as pictorial, the scenery that characterized that part of Florida in the years before the Gulf Coast became the densely populated, semiurban landscape it is now.
Coastal Florida at that time was much as one might have imagined it, and, I suspect, much as people would have liked it--people who, like my father's family from Virginia and my mother's from Tennessee, moved south to get in on one of the miniature economic booms, which, during the forties, fifties, and sixties, spurred growth and brought jobs to the developingseaside sprawl. Florida in those long-gone days was, as I remember it, a realm of tannin-black rivers and crystal springs; of live, unpolluted oyster beds two feet under the shallow bay and estuary waters; of red tile roofs showing here and there above the royal palms and the mangrove thickets that opened onto white beaches accessible by humpbacked bridges that were always crowded, in the magic hours before sundown, with fishermen reeling in grouper, snapper, and snook. What I remember most from my early childhood in Florida is an intensity of color both in and above the water, as clouds swept eastward over the ocean, bringing afternoon showers that could begin with a few drops carried on the wind, then abruptly open up and rain down, flooding the streets, the sidewalks, the lawns and tennis courts, the entire world it seemed to me, before eventually, after little more than an hour or two, blowing inland. Often, during storms, a greenish cast of light filled the subtropical sky over Siesta Key, infusing the palm fronds and the leaves of the trees with an even brighter green, yet turning the gulf and the bay, into whose low swells gulls and pelicans were forever diving, a deep, almost olive shade that I have never seen in water anywhere else.
But what about my taciturn grandfather and his taciturn brother? Legend has it that, on a certain slow pilgrimage to Titusville or Arcadia, they pulled into one of the ubiquitous roadside places where plaster birdbaths and imitation Greek and Roman statuary got sold to migrants and retirees with delusions of grandeur. Using as few words as possible, the brothers asked the owner what he thought his inventory might be worth in cash. The owner told them that he imagined the entire stock might be worth about forty dollars. Without anotherword, the brothers produced the forty dollars, a twenty-dollar bill apiece, a grand amount for workingmen in the years immediately following the Second World War. They started the car and drove wordlessly down the road about a quarter mile--I don't know which of them, Robert or Frank, was at the wheel--then turned the car around, motored back up the highway, steered into the entrance to the lot, and plowed through the statues at some remarkably low velocity, destroying every one. It is hard to know how to judge this story, particularly given that neither brother was much of a talker; and so I wonder who first told about the roadside stand and their fraternal telepathy and the pulverized birdbaths, and to whom. I find the tale pleasing.
All things considered, it seems that Bob--or, I should say, Eldridge--never had optimum chances for success in life. In addition to the difficulties imposed by an eccentric father and an imperious mother, he had to contend with his older brother, my father. In stories my mother told about him, my father as a young man comes off as an intimidatingly popular and accomplished student, clearly in the most-likely-to-succeed category, and much doted on by his mother, who, removed at last to Florida, had become the Sarasota High School Latin teacher, known to her students as Old Caesar. And, in fact, Eliza Antrim had in good measure the kind of sober reserve with which urbane people carry themselves when living in environments that are essentially colonial. The same could probably have been said for Julius Caesar, keeping order by the sword in the barbarous reaches of the empire. Unlike the historical Caesar's imperial subjects, though, my grandmother's students eventually moved on in life, escaping her rule. Even my father,who, by becoming a professor, a professional intellectual, fulfilled in part her dreams for him, was able to marry, have children, and build a life separate from his mother. My uncle remained her vassal for life.
Here's some of what I know. In 1958, at the age of eighteen, Eldridge left home to study literature and art at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. He painted and made drawings, but none of his work survives from this period, or from any other in his life. After college, he moved north to New York City, where he settled into an apartment in the East Seventies and enrolled in the Manufacturers Hanover Trust executive-training program. It is unlikely that he had plans to support himself as an artist by becoming a bank vice-president. Apparently, he accumulated debts, spent evenings in the bars along Second and Third avenues, and either failed or simply dropped out of the training program, though not before meeting, in his classes on retail and commercial banking, the love of his life. M. was--and is--a beautiful and intelligent woman who remained until recently a successful banker. The fact that my uncle became, subsequent to his rapid exit from corporate culture, a cabdriver and an Upper East Side doorman did not deter M., who undoubtedly saw, as people will when profoundly attached to lovers on their way to falling through the cracks, some version of him that would forever exist as Potential.
I remember M. from a trip my family took to New York when I was ten and my sister nine; and I remember my uncle in his apartment, a place I thought of frequently when I found myself living in New York, in my own small, sparsely furnished walk-up only blocks away from where he'd lived twenty yearsbefore. The highlight of that trip was an afternoon at FAO Schwarz, the world's greatest toy store, gift certificates--presents from Uncle Eldridge--clutched in our hands. I chose, after much exploring and considering (and perhaps in awareness that it was my uncle's dream to get his pilot's license and fly jumbo jets), one of those plastic planes driven by a loud, buzzing engine in circular orbit around the "pilot." It was a cheap toy airplane destined to crash and break apart when, as soon as my father got it in the air (I never flew the thing), the handheld control lines became tangled and useless, causing the plane to jerk downward and nose-dive into the ground.
At any rate, M. was very much on the scene at that time, and my sister and I pestered her and Eldridge mercilessly about their getting married--why weren't they married?--much as we would hound them about this in the years to come, even after our uncle had given up on New York and drifted down the coast, finally returning to Florida to live in his parents' house, in a tiny wood-paneled room crammed with guns and ammunition, British novels, all manner of sporting gear, antique toy soldiers displayed on dusty shelves, a short and narrow bed with a tartan blanket, and, stacked within easy reach of the bed, back issues of the same kinds of magazines he kept in the trunk of his car--automobile, airplane, scuba, golf, tennis, rifle, archery, and Playboy.
It may have been his room that attracted me, when I was a teenager in Miami, to my uncle's way of life. Everything about it seemed desirable to me, because it was his, I suppose, and because everything he did spoke to adolescent pleasures.
He created the illusion that he was his own man, and free.
I was thirteen when I started riding the bus across the Evergladesto visit him. I used to sit by the window and watch for alligators in the black canals beside the highway, as, in the far distance, fires lit by heat lightning burned off the dry grass and the stunted pines that grew in clusters like innumerable tiny islands rising from the shallow waters south of Naples. By this time, around 1972, my grandfather Robert Antrim had died, and my uncle had more or less abandoned any dreams he might have had of a life somewhere removed from his mother's house. My own mother's drinking had reached a level best described as operatically suicidal, and she and my father--married, divorced, then remarried to each other--waged their war nightly. My sister had got busy saving herself through academics. I'd got busy flunking out. Our Siamese had eaten a poisonous South American toad and was afflicted with seizures that caused her to fall down and twitch violently. The other cat had reached the age at which vomiting was chronic.
And when in the deep of the night my mother came into my room swaying, half conscious and with gray smoke from her cigarette wreathing her face, shattered by bourbon and white wine; and when she raised her hand to strike, and I easily batted her arm back, then stepped forward and quickly steadied her before she tipped; when, holding my mother upright, I looked past her to see my father watching us from the shadows outside my room, whispering that he was sorry for everything--when these things happened, there eventually came a point at which feeling, or whatever it is we call feeling, broke apart in me. And though it's true that I felt anger and shame and fear--emotions that I live with still, more than thirty years after my solitary pilgrimages to the playtime world of Uncle Bob--it was also true that I felt nothing at all. And inorder to share this feeling that was not a feeling, in order to be with another person, a man, as I realize now, who was like the man I might one day become, a man drained of feeling, I boarded a bus.
The bus carried me past Frog City and the Miccosukee Indian settlements, all those alligator-wrestling parks and airboat-rental outposts. At Naples, the scenery changed, and the bus took a right turn and headed up the suburban Gulf Coast, stopping in Fort Myers, Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, and other centerless non-towns I can't remember the names of, continuing north toward Venice, the home of retired circus performers, crossing one bridge after another and another, over narrow inlets and motorboats moored by the hundreds, before finally arriving, after what seems in memory an endless journey, in Sarasota, the town where I was born, and where my uncle, sunburned and smelling of English Leather and the beer he'd drunk the night before, waited to greet me at the station with the one question I have been trying to answer for myself ever since: "What do you want to do?"
We got in the car. We rolled down the windows. We turned on the radio. We began to drive. After a moment, I asked him the question I always looked forward to asking upon seeing him for the first time in a long time.
"Eldridge, what are you eating?"
"How're you fixing them?"
"I'm broiling them."
"What are you having with them?"
It worked out, he would explain--and my uncle was forced to explain this again and again, because people loved hearing it--that, over the course of a year, eating a menu that consisted of one entree per month (scallops in March; spaghetti in April; flounder in May), he got a balanced diet.
It is easy, looking back on all this now, to appreciate the despair and the terror inherent in my uncle's preoccupations with self-sufficiency and preparedness, at home and in his car--particularly in the car, a four-door gas guzzler not unlike a rent-a-wreck version of the cars my mother's father drove, a car different in every respect from the one that had, at a certain moment in my uncle's youth, defined his enthusiasm for life. That car was a sexy, cherry-red Triumph TR3 with a walnut steering wheel and a rusted-out hole in the passenger-side floor--a casualty of salt air and the Florida weather--which forced the passenger to position himself extremely carefully, especially since the Triumph's chassis rode quite low to the road. I was only seven or eight years old when Eldridge took me for drives in that car. As he accelerated and the RPM needle flickered on the dash, I would lean carefully forward and to the left, reaching, at my uncle's invitation, to take hold of the wheel and guide the car along a straight path down the Sarasota streets.
But back to the story of Eldridge and his things. Each morning, he went to the carport and opened the trunk of thecar. He stood before the items stowed there, moving and shifting his gear, replacing sweaty tennis clothes with clean ones, improving the overall packing dynamics, while, inside the house his white-haired mother, who often stayed up all night pacing, padded from bedroom to living room to porch to kitchen, worrying whether her son and grandson might eat a little breakfast before abandoning her for a day of horsing around and playing tennis and shooting pool with the friends from the Canada Dry loading dock out by the airport.
Once he'd established that everything was in order, that we had whatever we might need if, say, the world were to blow up and all life outside our car were to be catastrophically extinguished, we were off and running. Of what were our days together made? Looking back, I would say that our days were made of desire. We had structured activities, like tennis--I had not yet wrecked my shoulder with my high-toss, low-percentage, erratic yet explosive service, the theatrical serve of a flailing boy--and less formal pastimes, like wandering into convenience stores for supplies, crossing one of the crowded bridges leading to Siesta Key and the beach, driving north and dropping in at Joel's house, stopping over afterward at Roger's. There always came that point in tennis when the black clouds appeared from the gulf, and the rain came down, and everyone bolted off the courts and drank water. Then, just as suddenly, the sky would clear, and the world would become loud with the sounds of seagulls calling and smaller birds chattering. The sun would emerge, and we'd pick up mid-game, aiming to avoid puddles. After the game, we would walk out to the parking lot and my uncle would open the trunk of his car.
The trunk, as I see it now, was a physical repository, a formof warehouse or armory, in which my uncle secreted aspects of himself that would become, as the years went by, forbidden, denied, historical, forgotten. The things in the trunk were symbols of whatever in our lives--his and mine--might one day be taken away, totems representing sex and sport, music and work, eating and drinking, even talking and laughing. Together, my uncle and I stood in the parking lot with our hands in our pockets, staring at the pieces of the life we desired; and occasionally I would reach in and remove something, an article of clothing, for instance, or Eldridge's disassembled fishing rod in its case. I might hold and admire the object, then put it back in its place, after which Eldridge would close the trunk and we would walk around to the sides of the car, open the doors, and get in. Our conversations were perfect. Whenever I said to him, in language sometimes having to do with home, sometimes with school, that I wanted to escape my situation, he nodded and suggested that we drive out to Siesta Key and have a swim at the beach before the sun went down.
The last day I ever spent with him, we played doubles with Roger and Joel. From the courts we could see Sarasota Bay and, lit violet against the red sunset, the shell-shaped roof of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, known because of its paint job as the Purple Cow. After the game, my uncle and I walked to the car. As usual, we peered into, rummaged through, and slammed shut the trunk. Possibly I asked Eldridge about M. Had she been to visit? Was she coming? Did he love her? Did she love him? Would they ever get married? Why not? Then we drove to Joel's house, in a development near Bradenton. Immediately after we'd walked in the front door, the telephone rang. Joel's wife answered, put the phonedown on a counter, and said, "Bob, it's your mother. She's been calling."
It happened frequently. Within a few hours of our leaving the house, his mother began dialing numbers for bars, restaurants, people's homes, wherever he might be found. She wanted to know when he planned to return to her. She wanted to know if he was drinking beer. She wanted to know if he would be out late. She wanted to know if he was telling her the truth. I could hear him speaking into the phone in Joel's kitchen, answering her: "Yes, Don's here. Yes, he's having a good time. No, I'm not letting him drink any beer. Yes, he's had something to eat. No, I'm not driving fast. No, we won't be out late." So it went. When we left Joel's and drove with Roger and Joel and Joel's wife in a caravan to shoot pool on the enormous pool table that happened to be pretty much the only item of furniture in Roger's living room--in Roger's entire house, as far as I could make out--the telephone rang and again I heard my uncle speaking to my grandmother:
"Yes, we're playing pool. No, we're not betting any money. Don't worry, I won't let him drink any beer. Yes, we'll be home soon."
It was around this time that I was learning, in imitation of my uncle's adult friends, to call Eldridge Bob.
"Bob, what are we eating?" I asked him when, later that night, after tennis and billiards, after we'd driven out Fruitville Road to the house, parked in the carport, and checked the trunk one last time, we left the world of the car and entered the realm of Eldridge and his mother.
The stove lights were on in the kitchen. On the other side of the house my grandmother moved about. I could see her inthe shadows. She was a pale shadow in her blue housedress in her dark bedroom, behind sliding glass doors that opened through curtains onto the porch, where I slept on a sofa bed.
"What are we having with them?"
"All right. Is it time for Johnny Carson?"
"Should I turn on the TV?"
"Turn it on," he said. He was cooking, using the broiler and a fork. I sat in his room, where the TV was, staring at his magazines. My uncle, I remember, always had in his room a certain game for one player, Labyrinth, basically a wooden box fitted with a pivoting top, on which was fashioned a kind of maze through which the player maneuvered a steel ball. My uncle could turn the knobs and guide the ball safely through. I drank a soda and played the game for a while, and my uncle opened another beer for himself.
Eldridge was a tall and beautiful-looking man. He tanned in the sun to a reddish shade characteristic among people of Scottish descent. His forehead had a scar from the time he'd walked straight into a forklift blade. His beer gut did not detract from his appeal. He wore a gold chain. He looked as if he'd be right at home at the Playboy Mansion pool parties pictured in the magazines beside the bed.
Johnny Carson came on the television. We ate with our plates balanced on our laps. My uncle blanketed his pork chops beneath a layer of pepper. I did the same. The pork chops were dry and hard, and the pepper bounced off them. The television's reception was fuzzy; its antenna had to be adjusted periodically.I was aware that I wanted to be like my uncle, aware as well that I wasn't so sure about that. I complained to him about my father, who had begun to worry absurdly over my prospects, if I kept going the way I was going, for graduate school. Sometimes, when I complained, Bob taunted me for not having the courage to drop out of school altogether. I must have felt, somehow, that my uncle and his brother had, throughout their lives, been at odds with each other. Bob and I watched Carson host guest after guest. In my memory, this was the night that the comedian Steve Martin came on and stole the show with a cheap prop arrow sticking through his head. Or was it the night that Martin came out and did the half-a-beard routine?
I put my plate down, got up, and walked through the open glass doors to the sunporch. I heard Bob in his room, undressing. After a moment he came out and stood beside my sofa bed. He was wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt, and he was making fun of me, but the joking had now passed the point at which it was pleasurable, because he had drunk so much.
I was standing beside the bed. He was standing beside me. He pushed me gently, and suddenly we were falling. We were wrestling on the bed. He climbed on top of me, and I squirmed beneath him. I was on my stomach and my uncle was on my back. He had my arms pinned. His movements were sluggish. We were wrestling, and then we were no longer wrestling. He forced me to stay still and be quiet. I could smell the salty, burned scent of his skin; and I could smell the warm beer on his breath as he exhaled against the side of my face. He stopped moving, and I stopped moving.
He was spread across me. His chest pressed me down into the bed. His face was next to mine.
How long did we stay like that, breathing together on the folded-out sofa? The moment did not last long. The time that elapsed was the time it took for our friendship to end. Had he passed out? Was he waiting for me to speak? Was it safe to move? I felt the dead weight of him on me, and my feelings about him, and about his way of life, changed. I perceived that this man on top of me was a drunk in his underwear, a man who ate the same food night after night in a room in his mother's house, and I was terrified.
"Get up," I told him. He lifted himself. He got off me. I watched him rise and walk unsteadily in bare feet to his room. The lights in his room went dark. I heard the springs squeaking inside his little bed; and I thought I saw, in the hours before I fell asleep, his mother, my grandmother, pacing behind the curtains drawn behind the glass doors leading to her room at the far end of the house. There had been a time, when I was little, that I had slept in her bed with her. But the far end of the house seemed to me, that night, after Eldridge had gone to bed, like a truly faraway place.
The next morning I told my uncle I had to leave Sarasota. I didn't say why, and I don't know whether he, in some way, understood. I just told him I had to go. He drove me to the station. He put me on a bus, and I rode the bus down the Tamiami Trail, stopping at the towns along the way, traveling south past Naples, southeast across the Everglades. After a long ride I saw, through the bus windows on the right, the enormouscement factory that, in those days, marked the end of the journey home.
When I was sixteen, I left Miami for boarding school in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Two years after that, I went north to college, and four years later I moved to New York, where I still live. During these years I saw my uncle only a handful of times. My mother, in the decade after she got sober, in 1983, made an effort to stay in touch with him. At some point, he and my grandmother moved from their house to a small apartment. It was in this apartment that Eliza died, and he was left alone. For years, he worked as a prep cook in a restaurant on Siesta Key. He used to go in late, after the restaurant had closed, and work until dawn, preparing and organizing food for the cooks who came in mornings to make lunch. My uncle liked this routine, because it protected him from ever having to see or talk to another person. He told my mother that he didn't think he could go to AA and stop drinking, because he was afraid that his anger, were he not medicated by alcohol, might cause him to harm someone.
At the age of fifty-two, he died. My mother told me later that his weight had dropped precipitously, that he'd turned yellow, that, at the end, he'd bled through his skin. And she told me a story about the last year of his life, a story about a woman no one in our family had known a thing about.
Back when he was a boy, back in that ancient time when Robert Antrim was driving over birdbaths and urns, Eldridge had known a girl who lived on a farm that neighbored his mother's brother Tom's property on the James River, near Amherst, Virginia. My uncle and this girl had ridden horses together.The girl fell in love with Eldridge, and she never forgot him. Like Eldridge, she grew up to live a difficult life in which she became an alcoholic and found herself alone in the world. In the year before he died, she somehow tracked him down. She came to Sarasota to be with him for whatever time they had left. She tried to get him to eat, and she measured out what he could drink. She was dying herself, of a brain tumor. She was there--ensconced in the apartment my uncle had shared with his mother--when, in 1992, my mother drove to Sarasota to say good-bye to her ex-husband's brother, whom she liked to refer to, in the spirit of the old days, as Sam. The story goes that, at the moment Sam died, this woman none of us knew, who was alone in the apartment, saw--so she later reported to my mother, an ideal audience--bloody footprints walk across the living-room floor.
I never know what to make of these kinds of stories, or of the people who tell them. The truth of the matter is that I neither believe nor wholly discount the tale of the bloody footprints, in part because I think Eldridge should be allowed a memorable parting gesture, a gesture of--what? Loneliness? The woman from Virginia became the custodian of his ashes, which she carried home to Virginia with her. Shortly after that, she, too, died. My mother told me, years later, that this woman from the farm on the river in the foothills of the Blue Ridge had had a brother, a man who lived deep in the woods, and who was rumored to be a violent person. My mother supposed that Eldridge's ashes might have fallen into the hands of this man.
After his brother's death, my father drove up the Tamiami Trail to Sarasota and cleared out the apartment. There was nofuneral. I asked my father what had become of Eldridge's rifles and his records, his scuba and golf and tennis gear, and he told me that these things had been replaced by high-caliber handguns and case after unopened case of small-arms ammunition, which he, my father, had dug out of the bedroom closet and hauled back to the gun shop, where he'd convinced the owner to buy them back.
Copyright © 2006 by Donald Antrim