I have been anticipating the release of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks for months. Anticipating, Tweeting about it, discussing it, behaving in much the manner of a teen-fan about the release of herhis favorite group’s new song.
Well, hmph. It’s The Bone Clocks release day and all I’ve got is a bone to pick with Random House which neglected to send ANY copies to my favorite bookstore. Now what? Well, I’ve a few pages left in a few books I’m already reading and then I will just have to take up another in the TBR stack. It’s a toss-up between Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, Will Chancellor’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, and John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.
I wonder if any of you have been equally disappointed by the non-arrival of The Bone Clocks? Well, if you’re reading this I am assuming you are either the kind of person who also has rather a large TBR Stack (although, how many of you have storage units?) or the kind of person who checks my blog to see if I’ve given in to my baser instincts and started libeling all those people from my life who so richly deserve it. I’m no fool. I’ll wait until you’re dead. Or, I am. It’s all already written and when I go, Cody, my literary executor (and henchman, and, conveniently, soon to be attorney) knows where to find it and what to do with it.
Until then: if you’re missing your copy of The Bone Clocks and need a snack prior to taking up a huge literary meal, here’s another piece of Chapter 1 of my unpublished (so far-give me time) novel: Libertytown.
Libertytown; The Novel – Chapter One (continued)
All of which is why I have not gone back, and cannot sleep. For years now I have slept only four to six hours – on a good night. Those hours are most often interrupted by frequent tossing wakings, trips to the bathroom, a need for water, or one or another of my recurring dreams, not one of which is interesting enough to require a Freudian to decipher.
The greatest hit, most often re-run: I am driving. Sometimes my car, more often, a bus. The weather is threatening, the sky gray, and usually snow has begun to fall. Reports say the precipitation should be minor, little accumulation, but as I make my way, the brakes malfunction, or, I can’t reach the pedal. However it transpires, I cannot stop the bus. I cannot even slow it down. So I am forced to hurtle through stop signs, dodging and swerving to avoid pedestrians and other vehicles, and in doing so, taking one after another wrong turn onto roads going places with which I am unfamiliar. Soon, I am not only piloting an out of control vehicle, but I am lost as well. And that snow that was to amount to nothing is piling and drifting on these strange roads and I am slipping and sliding and careening but slowing down not at all, in fact, I am picking up speed, and despite the height of the snow and the presence everywhere of bulldozers and road crews trying to clear lanes, I am virtually flying along these roads, unable to stop, unable to slow, unable to turn around, completely lost, headed for certain disaster or death until, finally, I waken.
This dream goes on, it seems, for hours, but when I open my eyes the oversized numbers on the digital clock I purchased so I’d not have to put my glasses on to see the time reveal that I have been asleep for less than an hour, and morning, that time when I might be able to get out of bed and give up the effort, is still hours away. I will have to stay in bed.
This feeling, I remember it beginning as a very young child, the anger and frustration I would experience when my mother announced nap time. My turmoil began as lunch commenced, a lunch which my memory insists always consisted of the tomato soup my little sister, Bex, loved.
“Are we having tomato soup?”
“Yes,” said Mommy, in my memory dressed always in some semi-transparent half nightgown, hidden beneath cornflower patterned housecoat, stained with years of having too many children to raise alone and not enough hope to see the point, holding a cigarette in her hand and there, in her eyes, hidden behind a veil of tears I never saw fall, those tears I knew she cried while locked away again for the days or weeks of hiding in her room while the older sisters, martyr-like, cared for me and Bex and warned us to stay quiet so as not to upset Mommy, those tears I should be careful not to cause and so knew I should not argue when she continued,“You love tomato soup.”
“Bex does.” I was saintly, a miraculously Catholic child, born without tears, predicted to be the first American Pope, and it would not then have occurred to me that she could know and remember I hated tomato soup – though I would never have used the word hate – and simply found it cheap and expedient to feed it to me anyway since there were so few foods Bex could eat without becoming ill, vomiting, or crying, while I, already in training in the trait of family martyrdom, sacrificed the truth of my needs and desires to the needs and desires of others, would eat whatever was put before me with no more complaint than “Are we having …?”
I would eat. Like a good boy. “Parker is such a good boy.” And I would smile and hint at how awake I felt, prove how little did I need to “go down,” all to no avail. Mommy was not about to surrender the little precious solitude she had when soon enough those four older children would be home from school, children who stayed up until all hours and filled the house with six people needing her to be in charge, awake, aware, attentive. She needed nap time, even if I did not.
I would lie in my bed, my prison; a single mattress with an arced black wrought iron headboard and seven supporting poles. I would turn onto my stomach and stare through the bars, holding on, waiting for reprieve. Waiting, awake, fighting the desire to whisper-call, “Can I get up now?” Doing so too quickly infuriated her and extended the nap time, and too, each plea ran the risk of waking Bex who loved her naptimes and who “really needs her rest Parker, you know how she gets sick when she doesn’t get her rest. Please be quiet.” Bex loved sleep. It was pleasure, not torture for her. She’d rest her head on the shoulder of whoever had won the right to hold her, or on her pillow, anywhere at all, close her eyes, and off she’d go into sleep with the same ease and accommodation with which she’d later accomplish school, friendship, popularity, love, employment, marriage, career, and parenthood.
Evening bedtime was much the same. Since Bex and I were only nineteen months apart in age, any privilege I won, she won, and any privilege she was denied, was denied to me. Our bedtime was early to insure she was well rested, for if not, beneath her eyes would bloom bruises of bluish-black into which her eyes would disappear, and with the bruises would come her easy tears for which whoever was closest would be blamed. The summers were particularly bad when I’d be forced into my cell even as the sun still shone. Never did I ever fall asleep until well after dark and what rest I got seems now – trick of memory?- to have been undone by the hours of wakeful resentment I felt at the injustice of it all.
Injustice I rarely mentioned. I hid it away. I was constantly told what a happy, well adjusted, abnormally prescient and mature child I was. Not by my mother, but by others. My mother, instead of praise, chose to mention my behavior or gifts only when I didn’t use them. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you acting like this? It’s not like you.” It was only through her scolding that I garnered any hint at all there was something about me that was right, that was good. That was my norm, and for her, norms were important. One must conform, one must not rock any boats, draw attention, or in any way expect special treatment or even, a break.
On those few occasions I would ask to stay up, those times when I had spent hours awake and was in tears, those times when I thought I could no longer bear it and surely she would be able to see how very much I needed to be up, she would answer, “Just close your eyes and go to sleep,” in an imploring tone, the implication being that sleep was something I could achieve if only I’d try just a little. That I could not – did not – sleep as much as common wisdom said a child ought, she never considered as evidence I was special, but, instead, flawed. She considered throughout my childhood and adolescence all the “differences” and “difficulties” that began to come to light as deliberate acts of defiance. When I’d come home from school crying about my lack of friends, the names I’d been called, the toilets into which I’d been dunked, she’d answer, “Can’t you just try to be more like all the other boys?”
Those answers to questions I’m still asking, tears I’m still crying all these ridiculous was, is, and should be years later, here, tonight, unable to sleep from all these stories: “Just close your eyes and try; try to be more like all the others.”
Never achieved it. Still haven’t.
Ironically, it was Sissie, for whom I am now so often someone else, who never asked me to be anyone but myself. It was Sissie who raised me. It was Sissie who told me, often, and as if it were the highest compliment, that I, of all my brother and sisters, was most like my father. A father of whom I had no memory. However, the more I learned of my father, the more I promised myself I would not be like him, but now, come to realize in the middle of another fearful night, that the same detachment he pursued through his endless six packs has transmogrified in me to my addiction to words. My endless reading and scribbling these thousands of pages has carried me no closer to dealing with the truth of what I’m feeling and who I am than his alcoholism carried him. I have just chosen a different form of anesthetization.
I have carried all these books and journals and letters here in my two-hundred and ninety-seven boxes, scattered throughout these sixteen – no, fifteen – for one of the usurpers demolished the summer kitchen through which the house was meant to be entered, a door to which I keep wanting to go, a door which no longer exists – and refilled this Libertytown I once helped to empty.
It is Sissie for whom I’ve bought this house, though she will never visit it since she does not leave Record Street. Often, in her mind, she is already here, or, rather, there, what and where this here of mine once was. Bringing her here would only confuse her, and, no doubt, disappoint me. She is another someone I have not managed to save. Still, this, that, is what I want. Oh these inveterate longings for those prizes I will never win, and the equally obdurate refusal to let go of the belief I ought to win them, or begin to deserve them, have resulted in my desultory passion for acquisition. This week, all the books ever written on Leopold and Loeb and three editions of Henry James PORTRAIT OF A LADY to compare, and last month, every color available size nine and one half Converse low tops, and briefly last year, all the seasons of shows I wished I’d seen – starting with PEYTON PLACE when Mia and Ryan were young and beautiful and sane, and the blank journals, fountain pens, religious statuary, rosaries, and icons, and the Christmas cards I buy in bulk each December 26 and never send, and framed portraits of people I‘ve never known, and antique metal food tins, and lamps, God, the lamps and bookshelves and furniture to hold it all and … Jesus, all the rest, the rest of this obsessive acquiring meant to result in a desuetude of yearning: When will I STOP feeling so much? So many of these achings hungerings cravings and this relentless desiring, all this wanting I should surely, by now, have outgrown?
But I just keep accumulating, and the aggregation of my dissatisfied longings has landed me here, the sixteen rooms of my youth, one now only memory, entry missing, and wait – two others have been joined to make the kitchen – I can‘t even get an accurate count of the rooms of the youth I’ve bought back and into which I’ve shoved the two-hundred and ninety seven boxes for which I paid price and a half to have moved on a holiday, and all of it still tightly taped shut, waiting for me to uncrate and put away, stack, hang, fold, arrange, and make into a home, a life, an order that makes sense for me, that is rewarding for me and about my needs and wants in a way Sissie never managed to achieve.
It is three a.m. now on this my fifth night, and still nothing is unpacked, and still I’ve made no decisions, hell, not even contemplated what needs to be done to this home, and I have a client I have to see in the morning, Vincent, so I won’t even begin – not that I know where that beginning might be – to contemplate the fixing-up that needs to be done. And by fixing up I mean to this house, not me.
Well, maybe, both.
But I have to sleep. After Vincent, I am booked throughout the day, back to back massages – as we like to say with a chuckle, as if using “back to back” makes us clever. I have seen most of these clients before, my regulars at Healing Embrace. They walk into my treatment room and they tell me their troubles. Sometimes these are strictly physical, confined to one or another region; my lower back, my shoulders, my arms; but more and more often the complaints are amorphous emotional achings, vaguely defined physical discomforts which result from trying to navigate the conflicts, losses, failures, compromises, disappointments and stresses that comprise modern life which seems for these clients to be a chronically disabling condition. They are not looking so much for cure as for respite. I listen and nod and offer words of encouragement, then leave them to undress and climb, naked, onto my table where they gladly open themselves to my touch, hoping I will knead, stretch, stroke and release them – however briefly – from the tangled, twisted torpor of the panicky gasping of their days, enable for them one deep breath amidst the staggering, grasping moments of their busy lives, these lives that move so fast we cannot seem anymore to find anything worth stopping for, worth keeping.
It is all so much, too much, for them and for me. My partner in Embrace, Therie, grew so weary of listening to peoples’ sad stories at the hourly massage rate, she became a Licensed Clinical Social Worker so she could charge more and avoid the physical strain of lifting the pain from other’s bodies. I inherited many of her clients, and now, I can barely keep up. It isn’t just the people and their aches, it is the onus of the finances, the licensing, the practical day to day maintenance of cleaning, laundry, supplies, trash emptying, inventory control, sales, staffing issues, the need to expand, the wish to contract, and all of it – the onus of all the details which allow the door to open – have fallen on me.
Therie has her counseling and her art shows and she somehow feels that what she does, who she is, takes precedence over maintaining the foundation that allows her to be those things.
I would like to be queen as well, but there can be only one, and when she invited me into this business it was smaller and I had fewer clients and more time to run everything. Now, it has all become so repetitive as to be meaningless, almost mindless. No matter how much I do, how many hours I spend there, I am never caught up. I fall further and further behind in the bills and the taxes and the ordering and the everything and as Therie floats through in her Laura Ashley prints and natural fibers, busying herself with the million distractions that are her life, we both pretend everything is okay, having somewhere crossed the line between positive thinking and delusion.
She imagines she is successfully juggling these myriad fire batons of her pursuits while I walk around behind her with a fire extinguisher, putting out the infernos she leaves behind, clearing the scorched earth.
And so, another reason, I cannot sleep.
I could take something. Somewhere in a box is some sort of sleep aid. There have been periods during which I tried various remedies, prescription, over the counter, behavioral; Xanax, the various pain reliever PM formulas, wine, melatonin, meditation, masturbation; but mostly, I have read.
In these later years, now, as my days have become increasingly filled with things I wished to escape, I have begun to look forward to the evenings. Instead of fearing bed, I long for the moment when I can decently retreat there, propped on my nine carefully arranged pillows, and disappear into whatever and whoever’s world I’ve chosen. I read somewhere between two and five books a week, always a few at a time. The line-up consists of a current novel, something the New York Times, Washington Post, New York Magazine, or New Yorker recommended; a biography of a writer, actor, director, or artist of one kind or another or too, a famous homosexual, or if possible (and it often is) both combined; a collection of correspondence or a diary; a non-fiction sociological tome concerning some zeitgeist-y trendy cultural phenomenon; and finally one of the myriad self-help/inspirational/spiritual tracts in which I’m ever hopeful of finding some way to make my way. Sometimes, in addition to these, I toss in a classic novel or re-read one of my favorites: Joan Didion, Helene Hanff, Truman Capote, Renata Adler, Roald Dahl, Edmund White, Evelyn Waugh, any of the Mitford sisters, the correspondence of George Bernard Shaw and Ellen Terry, and too, one of the books I’ve collected about various regions of Italy and peoples’ lives there, Venice in particular, feeding that fantasy that someday I will live there to which end I’ve bought the Rosetta Stone Language course which sits, unopened, in another of these boxes I cannot face.
Lately, guilt has been rearing its ugly, jealous head and I have begun amassing multiple versions of Proust’s IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, or, in earlier incarnations, REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST. I’ve both the Moncreif and the new Viking hardback, boxed set overseen by Christopher Prendergast which I had shipped from Amazon:UK to go with the version which sat unread on Sissie’s shelves and now smells of mildew, its pages browned. I’ve also collected biographies of Proust and reading guides, and with the exception of Edmund White’s brief life of Proust, I have completed none of these either.
But, the thing is, here’s what makes me Parker: I don’t know anyone who’s read Proust, or owns Proust, or even, knows who Proust is or what he represents. So why do I feel that my not having read Proust is a failure? What am I hoping to accomplish? I could say I’ve read it and most of the people with whom I converse wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about, wouldn’t care what I was talking about, or if they did, they’d be in no position nor of an inclination to question the claim, “I‘ve read Proust.”
Well, technically, I have. The first two hundred pages. Repeatedly. I’ve read Proust, just never finished Proust. Yet, something about those three thousand pages seems to me like the Ganesh I would have on my mantle could I just find the energy required to locate the damn box in which I packed it: Proust/Ganesh equals Talisman/Charm. Proust/Ganesh; things to see and touch and point to which, somehow, through some incantatory process of belief in which I speak about these things; “Oh I’ve read Proust” or “Yes, I touch my Ganesh every day to clear karmic obstacles!” through the doing and the saying of these things, some cosmological magic will be accomplished and things will get “better.”
I will sleep.
I will be more like all the other boys.
I will, some day, meet the someone to whom it does matter that I’ve read Proust and if, by then, I haven’t – you see – I will have failed.
And that’s where I live. There, where I haven’t read it and it matters and I’ve failed. Anticipatory “not good enough-ness” is my specialty.
So, I promise myself – in addition to eating right and exercising and budgeting and returning to visiting Sissie every Sunday and catching up at Healing Embrace and being there for Therie and Vincent and unpacking these damned two-hundred and ninety seven boxes, I will also meditate to my Ganesh every day and I will read ALL of Proust.
Which I don’t.
I’ve tried. I’ve followed the dictates of doctrines and pathways meant to insure a better life, through Catholic dogma that gave way to agnostic doubt which transmuted into a pose of atheism which gave way to a belief in a complicated cosmology of layers of reality and reincarnation inspired by Jane Robert’s The Seth Material and all its sequels with a soupcon of Messages from Michael thrown in which developed into a flirtation with The Course In Miracles and a slavish devotion to the writings and lecture tapes of Marianne Williamson which somehow resulted in a heavily Buddhist phase from which I emerged a member of a denomination of faith entirely self-created, impossible to fully explain, and based mostly in a belief summed up as “everything you think and do shapes your reality, for which you are responsible, but there is a higher power of which you are part and it’s complicated beyond the boundaries of language based in linear thought and outside of time and it all exists at once and we are just a tiny part of it and sooner or later we will grasp its entirety but it’s available to us now because all time is illusion and all exists at once and we are all one so watch your damn step and anything is possible so why the fuck don’t you feel better?”
Through it all, I have not been happy.
And I cannot sleep.
And I have not read Proust.
A director of a publishing house to which Proust submitted In Search of Lost Time said, “I may be narrow-minded but I can’t understand how a gentleman uses thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before falling asleep.” My bathetic ramblings, the onanistic, navel gazing whine of these words, don’t compare, but still, all this circumlocution about boxes and Sissie and bedtimes and bad dreams to reach the point, “I am not happy.”
I must have been so as a child. In all the pictures I am smiling. It can’t all have been the terrors and the wanting and the waiting I now recall. There I am wearing a Huckleberry Hound head, beaming with an unself-conscious grin, completely natural with none of the strain of forced frivolity, that begrudging resigned energy of “if I must smile” that shows up in pictures of me from adolescence onward. There I am splashing in a tub with Bex in the bathroom my mother added to the house with the life-insurance payout from my father’s death, my father who had insisted the outhouse was good enough. That child wore an expression in which there is no irony, no rueful resentment. He didn’t know that his father had had to die so he could take a bath in a heated room. He felt no guilt about enjoying that luxury. He was not waiting for things to get better. He was happy.
I can’t remember how that feels. Not to wait. Not to feel as if there are a million things I ought to do, haven’t done, will never be able to do.
I feel failed, day after day after day, at not being enough, and so I have bought this house to add to that list. I have bought this house where it all started. I have bought this house and moved in on a September forty-one years after that September when that father who died so I could have a hot bath and pee indoors drove into that telephone pole. And now I am going to force myself down onto this mattress on the floor in this room that was Sissie’s and I am going to just close my eyes and be like all the others and stop obsessing on these boxes and all the misplaced and unfinished things – the bolts to hold the bed together, the un-read Proust, Sissie’s memory of me, my happiness – and I am going to sleep.
And somewhere in these two-hundred and ninety seven boxes, along with a four pack of Pacquins and two hundred Playbills and souvenir programs including the first of my collection from IRENE signed by Miss Debbie Reynolds, and more than a thousand books and forty years worth of journals and seventy-two pair of boxers and six rosaries and my dead father’s reading glasses and poems Sissie wrote before she gave up her dream of being a writer and Scott’s Liquid Gold which she used once a year to polish this furniture some relative whose name I’ve lost or never really knew made and too, the ashes of this life I happened into rather than planned, is the Ziploc bag containing the hardware to hold up my lonely bed.
But I am just too fucking tired to dig through one more of these stories tonight to find it.