I don’t like flying and I never ask my wife where or how or when we have to fly, but I found myself on a plane fromProvidence headed for Brazil. I always ask how long the flight will be, and this one was a long one, from Providence to Atlanta and from Atlanta to Rio. Nine hours she kept saying. And my kids repeated in a dour chorus, nine hours.
But that was from Atlanta, not from Providence.
I have a habit of wearing a watch my brother-in-law gave me years ago. A broad-faced, sports watch with various modes. Two versions of date and time for those who travel to different time zones and a chronometer for those who like to time things (I always think of timing a sprint, but I have never sprinted since acquiring this watch).
Three days in Rio, we were to spend, and then a cruise ship from Rio to the Amazon, Salvador de Bahia, Devil’s Island and Florida.
For years, I’ve taken this watch with me. I set the chronometer as soon as the whine of the engine announces the thunderous all-or-nothing race down the runway and the crescendo relieved, the wheels leave the ground and gravity tugs and pushes us in our seats.
When we level off, I check my watch. Numbers shooting upwards in hundredths of a seconds, an hourglass running sand.
Three minutes, twenty-seven seconds and a racing number of parts of a second.
Time passes by, measured, in a semblance of controlling the uncontrollable.
I am five years old. It is Christmas Eve. I still believe in Santa Claus. I am sitting on my couch, reading to my older cousin Joanie and her boyfriend Bobby, whose greased-back hair is like a shiny, black flame.
How smart cousin Vincent is, they say. And I read the words and come to the word “than”.
“Then,” I say.
“Than,” Bobby says.
The word gets stuck. It doesn’t belong. It makes me feel strange, as if something is unfinished.
After everyone leaves, I am sent to bed.
Lying in bed, I wait for Santa Claus. The night is dark. I can’t sleep. The door is open and the kitchen light keeps the door jamb lit up. Waiting, I think I hear Santa, then a shadow flicks silently from left to right across the doorway.
I close my eyes. And squeeze them so tight so there is no doubt I am sleeping.
Rio de Janeiro. It is hot. We are standing in the cruise terminal. An arcade, tiled floors, something of a greenhouse housing, a feeling of tropical ennui, and you can feel the submission to nature, the sea.
We meet a woman standing in line in front of us. She has dredlocks, big brown eyes, red, full lips, a beautiful big face. She has an urbane and tropical look. Her name is Marcia and she’s from New York City. When she talks, she is as cool as they come. The time passes quickly talking to her. Even my kids listen and decide not to insult one another for a while. I enjoy the truce. We must pass under one of two security devices, like doorless doorways. Funny, the authorities don’t notice those who happen to slip around them, boldly walking right down the middle.
We are thinking about the two twin towers which were destroyed.
Nice security, my wife mumbles, I guess we’re in Brazil.
We climb the gangplank slowly.
On board, we are greeted by another world of uniformed young men and women bearing trays crowned with glasses of champagne.
This is another world. Another time zone.
I am in my bed. My cousin Maureen is lying next to me in the dark. I am five years old, and for some reason, I am uneasy about what I’ve heard.
I was showing off to Maureen, counting beyond one hundred. She tells me that numbers keep going on and on, and there is no end to it. Infinity, she calls it.
What do you mean?
Yeah, it never ends.
What do you mean?
It goes on and on. It never ends.
And I start to count. One, two, three, up to and past one hundred and I get tired and out of breath from counting. It’s useless.
I give up. Maureen is so pretty. She is like my sister. She seems like Shirley Temple. She is always older than me. And she always knows more than me.
To myself, I think, what is this infinity and I count silently.
I am asleep before I know it, not ever having heard that people count sheep before they go to sleep.
We are on an English ship. You can tell right away. It is not flashy like most of the other ships I’ve been on. This is cushy, implied elegance, implied by the very fact that it is English. But they can’t disguise the frayed edges. The ship is old. There are plenty of posters from years and years ago on the walls showing what these ships used to look like. Ships sailing into New York harbor. Into Le Havre. The carpets are bit spongy and there is that close-your-eyes taste in color.
I see the tradition that a haughty culture that dominated the world for years makes you endure. The passengers are older than us, much older. In fact, the more I see, the more I will say, we are on a floating nursing home.
An old man, well dressed, turns to my son and whispers to him, Young man, you’ve just decreased the average age on this ship to ninety-two. He laughs.
My daughter is mortified. No young people, she says.
I suffer from love-hate for the English. One must accept bad taste de rigueur.
Tradition protects those who enforce it.
On one end of the ship, there is an alcove where I am waiting to talk to the cruise director. Display cases line the walls housing relics of those who traveled before on these ships. There are the pictures of the two predecessors of our ship bearing the same name. I look at the souvenirs, from the teens, the 20's and 30's, tickets, travel books, photos, postcards, tennis rackets, photos of the well known who traveled on this ship. They are at their tables, at the bar, raising their glasses, on deck sunning themselves with a sun now sixty years older. Now everything is sepia toned, old and wrinkled. Eerie, how these objects are arranged, like the bones of saints collected in the churches in Italy.
It is quiet. No one seems to come here, this chapel to the past.
My son appears and tells me to get ready for dinner.
I’m lying in bed. It is dark. I am five years old. I am alone.
My parents were talking before I went to bed. Our neighbor’s husband died. I used to see him sitting alone on the porch. He was sick, they said. I don’t know his name.
I can picture him sitting on the porch next door, just looking at the street. His clothes were loose around him and he wore a hat. I feel so sad I begin to cry for him. I feel as if I know him very well and now something is missing.
I wonder what it was like being dead. I am scared. My back and arms and hands feel numb. My breath goes cold in my nostrils. The walls get closer.
I will beat this, I think. I will try it out. Infinity. I hold my breath. I clasp my hands over my eyes. With one shoulder and the other hand, I plug my ears.
Minutes go by. But I can still hear the television in the next room.
So this is what it’s like.
I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.
Formal night on the ship. Men in tuxedos, black and white, the women in a quodlibet of color and design. A string quartet is playing. Clinking of glasses. We are all dressed up. I feel special. Up to this point, I feel that I have not existed. Dressed in tight bow tie, black and white, with all of the lights on.
My son looks so handsome, my daughter, so beautiful and my wife elegant. How did the kids get to be so grown up? We sit by ourselves at the table. We talk to an older couple at the next table, a retired doctor and his wife who seems so much like a grandmother to the kids. My husband used to treat lepers in Africa, she explains.
This night, and for the sixteen nights on the ship, dinner begins promptly. The menu in front of you. The wine steward, towering over me like a giant in the clouds, suggests an Australian wine. Then, as this and every night, the fixed progression of appetizer, salad, entree, dessert. Towards the end of supper comes the cavalcade of guests walking by our table to the exit. Every night they will walk by our table. They will walk by us and say good night, The man who never smiles. The little woman with a fresh flower in her grey, grey hair. The couple who made money in real estate. The tanned woman lawyer with short dark hair who drinks too much and will get into a fight. For sixteen nights in a row, they will walk by us and by the strange man sitting alone next to the exit door in a chaise lounge, looking up at us like a quizzical, wingless, bird with short white hair.
The last night on board we will all kiss and hug and exchange addresses.
But that hasn’t happened yet.
After dinner, we find a lounge where a small combo plays music from the 30's and 40's. I love the pianist’s tone. He can sing with his fingers. When they finish, I get up to thank him. He thanks me as he smiles as he puts away the music. He has a thick Polish accent. All of a sudden, a tall guy dressed in white with a squint under his dark eyebrows, a brushy moustache and black hair, walks up to us. He’s great, I say to him referring to the Polish pianist but he says, Yeah, well, stick around. I’m next. Just wait till you hear me! he says.
The Polish pianist nods. But, there is something in his look when he says,
Yes. He’s the man you want to hear.
It is 1961. I am in second grade. Miss O’Sullivan is my teacher and we are standing in front of the calendar which the class has made. She is telling us how special it is, these numbers, because you can turn the calendar upside down and the numbers will still read 1961. What a trick! I think.
She tells us that this will not happen again until the year 6009. I calculate, how many years will that be from now? Will I be alive? I think. I am remembering the life span chart I saw in the Golden Book Encyclopedia which shows the life span of different animals and of a man. I think and hope, thinking of the iron lung, of the cure for polio, of canned fruit and science, that it might happen. We might be the first people to live forever, I think. If I can just wait that long.
I turn to face Debbie. I like her. She gives me a big smile with her dimpled cheeks and freckles. I get to see her face just a second, smiling back to her when I feel a stinging whack. Miss O’Sullivan, who is almost an old lady, has slapped me. She turns red, on her grey, wrinkled face.
I remember it. Time stopped for a minute.
I remember, the next day, Miss O’Sullivan hugged me.
Hi, my name is Botts, the guy says dressed in a white suit sitting at the piano keyboard. He plays like a magician. Yes, he is great. He was right. He creates a small riot of notes. He makes swarms of notes come out of the piano all over, scattering them, sweeping them off the tessitura in little swirling clouds. He has a left hand for bass notes which is crazy, jumping over the keys like a genius tarantula. He sings and then the spell is broken. His voice is like a radio announcer trying to sing. He fakes it. He talks a good song, a funky sprechstimme, with a Canadian accent, but it is not singing. He talks between numbers. And the more he talks, the more I sense there is something off, something wacky about him.
He says, My next set of songs were written by this professor from Boston who wrote songs who...
An old woman sitting next to me blurts out, Oh I hope he doesn’t sing about the poor birds again!
The old woman is breathing hard. She is afraid. She heard him many times before. Botts knows everyone in the audience by name. By now, most of these people have been on this ship for fifty-six days. Fifty-six days with the same people.
Oh, I hope he doesn’t sing that song about the poor birds again, the old woman says again. She looks lost and afraid.
Botts introduces song after song, written by “this intellectual from Harvard.” And then, he sings the inevitable, inescapable song about the bird.
Oh no! he’s singing it! the old woman says, grabbing my arm.
I don’t like Tom Lehrer’s songs, I say to myself as Botts sings them.
After the set, Botts comes over to us and sits down.
He talks and talks. I tell him that I was a musician.
Wow, he says.
He keeps talking.
I think I have a new friend.
I am in bed. I am five and a half. I know it because my new brother is in a crib next to me. He is like a loaf of living bread who smells like baby powder. I can see him expand when he breathes. His name is Richard. There is a presence in the room now. The television is on out there. The Nixon Kennedy debate is going on. I want Nixon to win because he has my brother’s first name. Besides, I like Nixon. He has black hair.
I go to sleep, worried.
Who will win?
From the deck, my son and I look at what we see of Rio. It’s one o’clock in the morning. We are the only people on the upper decks. My son is wacking golf balls into a net. The violence of his swings breaks the spell of silence. When he stops, I can hear the water and the sound of the engine. It’s strange. We were supposed to leave by now. Below, a small group of passengers, still in evening dress are standing and talking near the railing. They are in their postprandial poses of tuxedo, drink in hand, cigarette between finger, hand on hip. I sense something is wrong. There is too much commotion around us. It feels lonely and foreboding as if we should not be here. A small boat comes towards us shining a search light on the water. It is loaded with men in special suits. It cuts the dark. There, off the starboard, I see it, a film floating on the water, like a map, shifting, with the tide. I smell oil. The bright lights from the boat are too loud for the night. Look! my sons says. Off there, over the city, in the sky, we see the big Jesus, floating in an aura of light, diffused and ghostly. Jesus is another moon. The clouds make him disappear like a moon. Amazing, my son says, as we watch Jesus, hover, disappear and reappear, his arms outstretched.
He is flying through the sky.
The men in the boat alongside let out a long, fat, floating cable. It looks like a serpent.
Look! I say to my son. We’ve spilled oil.
We’re not leaving tomorrow, you watch, I say.
Botts is everywhere it seems. He tells us his life story whenever he has a break, or when we see him in the corridor. He tells us his past and his future. His present seems to be a scratchy, inconvenient purgatory, a waste of time. He can’t wait to get off the ship. Botts plays for High Tea. He plays for cocktails. He plays in the lounge. He plays Chopin, Gershwin, Tea for Two, Starry Starry Night and Claire de Lune. In the observation deck lounge which always seems too cold, High Tea begins at four, punctually. The trays of delights and tea are wheeled to each table by short Filipino men wearing white gloves and white jackets. At the bow, the panorama windows stretch around the room like a mouth of a huge creature. Botts serenades us with his fingers. He sees me when I come in. He looks for me. Today, when he is done, precisely at five, he comes up to me as if he has important business. He tells me how he is recording an album on board. How it’s going to be great.
Can I say somethin’? he asks.
He tells me, You’re one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. You and this other guy on this ship. You’re one of the two most intelligent people on this ship. You have to meet him. There’s something special about him.
He looks as if he is going to give me a quiz, or is about to play a game.
He thinks. He’s considering something.
Finally, he says, What do you think about time?
Time? I say.
I think I should give him an answer that is as intelligent as he says I am. I think about my answer, but I don’t have to think too long because I have thought these things before. I have read things about time.
I look up and search my memory. I remember things that I had read and had thought. I don’t know if it’s linear, I said. If it moves in a straight line, or if it is our consciousness, which is limited, which perceives it that way. Perhaps it’s a spiral, where you can see part of it from where you are relative to it, the present the future, as if you were coming down a spiral staircase. Maybe it encompasses another dimension in which we are trapped because of our limited consciousness. Or, perhaps the past, the future, the present move like contrapuntal streams not in lines, but askew, sometimes intersecting. How else can you explain it? We are talking right now, right here and now. And a minute from now this will be the past. Twenty years from now. Or a minute from now. It will be the past. I talk about memory. The point at which we are conscious, calling it now. I talk and talk, making a kind of sense. I go on saying How else can one person who can predict the future see the future if it already hasn’t happened. If time is linear, then there are some people who can see down the road, far down the road. Or maybe it’s as if they are seeing it looking down from a great height. But then, if they can see it, it will already have happened, yes? Maybe. Perhaps that is the part of the brain we do not use, to perceive. Then, that brings in predestination. So, the past, the present, the future...
I speak as if I am searching then and there.
But Botts has this strange smile on his face. The more I talk, the more his eyes smile, the broader and tighter his lips become. He looks closer and closer. He seems really satisfied, as if I am answering a trick question correctly. As if now I can be inducted.
I stop. He says, I want you to read something this guy on board has written. Thirteen pages. These thirteen pages have changed my life. You definitely have to read what this man has written. I can’t tell you about it. You have to read it. I will copy them for you. You definitely have to read it. I don’t think he will mind. You definitely have to meet him. Not now, but when he’s ready.
When he’s ready? I say.
Yes, he says. He’s not that kind of guy you can just go up to. He is very special. He has a very, very special ability. I’ll introduce you. When he’s ready.
When I leave him, I feel strange.
When he is ready?
At sea, on the way to Bahia. On board, everyone talks about how wonderful the Italian restaurant is. It is so small and intimate, you need reservations well in advance. My wife speaks with the maitre d’ and we have a reservation right away. I can’t wait. One morning an envelope with a formal invitation arrives at our cabin with our names on it. The restaurant is at the stern of the ship. To get there, you have to climb a spiral staircase. There are pictures on the wall, prints of Italy, Sorrento, ancient Rome. White tablecloths cover the ten or so tables. We are near the balcony overlooking the lounge below where the Polish combo and Botts play every night.
The place is quiet. A tenor voice sings in the distance from the sound system. In the corner, sitting in a lounge chair which he carries around with him wherever he goes is the strange man who always sits near the exit in the dining room who looks like a wingless bird. Other than him, who looks up at us between mouthfuls, we have the place to ourselves.
The maitre d’ is a short man, slightly bald, trim, full of energy. His name is Felice and he moves as if he is a captain of this small vessel. Felice means Happy, but he seems happy only some of the time when everything is under control. Nothing seems to miss his eye. A fork missing at a place setting. A guest waiting to be seated. He moves with authority and grace as he sings along with the opera recording.
We speak Italian to Felice. He tells us that his father was the first tenor of the chorus of La Scala.
His mother was from Sorrento, his father from Milan. Ha! I think, Now there’s organization blended with fun. There’s the Southern happy with the Northern order.
Another couple comes in. An older man, tall, with the body of a swimmer. He has white hair shorn close, with blue eyes and a gold earring which makes his eyes look stunning. He is with a woman short, dark, attractive with long, dark hair. They do not make an impression on me at this moment. I could not describe them until I would meet them days later. The guy sitting in the chaise lounge like an old baby, he listens to us. I can tell by his eyes. We speak Italian most of the time.
Opera, song, wine and food, the evening, good company. Is there anything else you could ask for here in this little restaurant off the coast of South America? We spend the night talking, eating, drinking, as Felice comes by to sing the words to songs and arias.
He spends most of the night talking and singing to us. He gives his head a circular swagger and his hands another circle and we sing songs together, songs by Carosone, Puccini, Neapolitan songs. We talk about Verdi and Puccini and then he says something I want to remember. Something his father had said to him.
“Verdi ha scritto per il cervello e per il cuore, ma Puccini ha scritto per l’anima.”
He says, Verdi wrote for the brain and the heart, but Puccini wrote for the soul.
He touches his heart when he says “l’anima.” And somehow there is an agreement. It is heart over head. Love over knowledge. Sorrento over Milan.
The couple from the other side of the room, like ghosts for the entire evening, gracefully say good night as they pass our table. They are speaking Italian. The man looks at us and smiles.
We four and Felice are the only ones left.
Felice turns off the sound system.
From downstairs, music comes up over the balcony. The combo from Poland begins to play songs from the 1940's.
Moon Indigo! I yell down to them.
The time passed so quickly.
New Years Eve. It is 1960 something. We are at my aunt’s. Waiting in the suspense before midnight. What is going to happen? This interim between years. It is something invisible. We hold our breaths, waiting for the clock to hit twelve. Does the clock hit a mechanism? Can you hear the year falling?
I watch the clock. The minute hand turning. It is almost eleven-thirty.
Let’s go home, my father says.
I’m confused. It’s not even midnight, I say.
He doesn’t answer me.
It’s not even midnight, I say again.
He tells my mother to get her coat. She dresses my brother. But I’m angry.
What the hell kind of a New Year is this?! I say again. What the hell kind of New Year is this to remember?!
His hand comes out of nowhere. A swat to my face, so quick, like a swift bird colliding with my temple.
There, he says. Now you’ll remember it!
He’s right. I am remembering it, right now.
On board, we run into Marcia all the time. She is the antidote to the exotic. She is like being at home. We see her for lunch or in the bar for a drink. We spend a lot of time with her. I must tell you that Marcia is so cool. She is one of the few people on board who seems awake. She makes me laugh and smile. You stand near her and you feel more alive. Marcia is like living with your eyes wide open and she wears these tropical colors. She is a writer and she has lived in Jamaica. She knows how to enjoy herself, traveling alone on this ship, with no one in tow. I see her in the lounge, on the deck for lunch. There is this connection. On ships, you make connections. You meet people you have never known before but you meet them as if you are seeing them again and you don’t need the preludes and introductions and curriculum vitae you get with the first drink. Marcia loves a cocktail and I see her as I’m rushing upstairs, sitting back on a cushy chair, her head back, just so, her body just tilted, a cigarette having a love affair with her lips, a slow and easy lushlife look and that wisp trail right above her. She is leaning back in her chair and behind her are these older people, tense and huddled together and looking the opposite of Marcia. Their backs are stiff and they are whispering.
I see it now: Marcia in her chair, puffing that cigarette in slow, suave arcs, just loving it.
You look like a picture I say to her.
You look perfect, I say.
You are being here now.
You betcha, honey she says.
(Later, she will tell me at this very moment, caught in that pose that says a lifetime, she was eavesdropping).
You know, about that scene. About me getting slapped.
I can tell you, right now, about all the slaps I’ve gotten in my life. I remember each one of them. Each slap freezes a second of time, stuns it, knocks it out of its inexorable wack. It is as if I were sleeping and I was slapped awake. I can tell you where I was and what I was doing. I told you about Miss O’Sullivan, in 1961. But I haven’t told you about the others. There was Helen. She slapped me in the dark. In Junior High School. The lights went out on stage during a play rehearsal and everyone was fumbling in the dark trying to find their way. I ran into her. But she thought I was trying to grab her and she gave me a stinging slap. That was in the seventh grade. Then there was the time at Jungle Land in front of the monkey cage. My father told me not to touch them. They’re dirty, he said. He walked away and I just had to touch this cute little chimp, just with the tip of my finger. I did. A split second later, I saw stars. His hand whipped me right on the cheek. Then, there was that moment at the kitchen table which I didn’t remember until this very moment. I was in high school and my father kept ribbing me. He kept making remarks about how smart some people thought they were. And I knew by “some people” that he meant me. We were having meat and mashed potatoes. I had the habit of playing with my mashed potatoes, imagining that the scoop was small mountain. I would take my fork and dig a crater into the top, put a slab of margarine in it and watch it melt. I would cut sluices down its sides and watch the yellow lava run, like a volcano. That night my father went on about how some people thought they were just too smart and some people this and that and I know he meant me. So I answered, Yes, but some of us don’t have to worry about that, do we? Then again, it happened, that fast, unbelievably fast slap. I didn’t move. I was aware of myself, my face, where I was, the plate, the silence, the table, as if time and I were stunned. Nobody moved. The blood began to trickle down from one nostril and right onto my mashed potatoes. I didn’t flinch. I just looked at him. The blood, instead of margarine, running down the sides of the mashed potatoes.
My little brother, his eyes wide, just looked at me.
Oh, yes, I remember.
On the ship, I am now Botts’s best friend. Botts is Mercury with a mouth. He is loaded up with stuff which he doles out to us, spoonful by spoonful. He knows I’m a musician. He is like a magician, he really is, conjuring up bass lines and colonies of notes. He knows his power at the keyboard. He tells me that he learned to play when he was in his twenties and that seems to me incredible. He is always talking about himself, about how he hates his job, how he hates stupid people, how he can’t wait to get off the ship. He tells us how much he hates working on board.
And every time we see him, even before he says hello, he gives us his countdown.
He says, Twelve more days, thirteen hours to go, and I’m otta here.
He talks as if he is the only person in the world, this Botts.
He has a gawky Canadian accent.
He is a child looking for caretakers, I think. Wherever we are, Botts is looking for us. We stop, talk, shake hands, listen to him.
The next afternoon my wife and I are walking on deck.
There he is, he sees us! she says.
Eleven more days ten hours to go, he says.
My wife says, Please stop that. I don’t want to think of how much time we have left.
Just let me enjoy the moment, she says.
Yes, yes, I hate countdowns.
We meet the couple who greeted us in the Italian restaurant, the “other people”, as Felice referred to them that night. The man with the earring says, I heard you speaking Italian and I was hoping to meet you. My name is Gennaro. This is my wife, Marilda, he says. I repeat her name until I get it right. They live in Rio but he was born in Rome. He is older. His skin looks as if he lives on the beach, dark, rich, tan, set with shining blue eyes. A gold earring looks even more golden against his skin. His hair is white, buzzed short like a colonel. He looks like a slim turtle without a shell facing life square in the face, but I will tell you about that later. Gennaro speaks Italian with a soft accent, softened like a wet bread. So many years mixed with Portugese. I can still hear him saying my name, Vin-cen-zo with a lingering stress on the second vowel. I can see his lips, hear his voice as he says, Tijuca, like a sound like from a succulent fruit.
These memories as you will see, are all I have left of my friend Gennaro.
Tijuca is a suburb of Rio where he lives. He tells me that all of his life he has been around the sea, surfing, spear fishing, swimming. He tells me that he introduced spear fishing as a sport to Brazil in the 1950's and traveled to France to buy air tanks directly from Jacques Cousteau. They were very big and very heavy back then, he says. He has an earring and wears a tee-shirt that says Harley Davidson.
Yes, I still have a Harley, he tells us.
He takes it out every day, says his wife.
Marilda speaks English and Italian, but she slips into her Brazilian which invade her sentences.
She has long, dark hair, dark eyebrows, dark eyes. She looks like a Moorish princess.
We spend time with them. He is always relaxed. Taking it all in as it comes. I always see him at one tempo, like the sea.
When we spend time together it is special, as if we have known them a long time.
Time stops. You sip it when you are with him. It is not like a pail, kicked over and leaking.
We are on the back deck. It is late in the afternoon and I see him sitting at a table, alone.
You’re taking the sun so late? he asks.
Yes, I answer.
I think, we are almost at the equator. I don’t know what season it is, what year it is.
Marilda is down there, he says. He points to her. She is always in the sun, he says. Like a rotisserie. She bakes on one side, then when she’s done she turns over. Me, I’ve had too much.
He looks at his arm. I’ve taken a lot of sun in my day, he says. No more. My skin is becoming leather.
I try to stay out of the sun, I say. Even though my skin tans at the sight of it.
We talk and talk. We talk about his life. We are old friends. He thinks I am much younger than I am, and when I tell him I am forty-eight, he looks surprised.
You look good, he says. Me, Caro mio, I am finishing my seventy-ninth year.
I look at him. He is smiling as if everything is all right with everything everywhere.
He looks at me as if I were his son.
My wife tells me that she has met this man Botts has been talking about.
She says, He’s a handsome, older, English guy, with white hair and piercing blue eyes. It was quite disturbing, she says. Botts was talking about you to him, going on and on how great you were but this guy kept his eyes on me all the time Botts was talking about you. Then, he asked me, And what do you think of your husband? Do you agree? I told him, Yes, that what Botts said was pretty accurate. That you were kind, a nice guy. But he just looked at me. Studying me. He had these penetrating eyes...
I think, now I definitely have to meet him. Botts has made such a prelude for this guy, who seems to be at the other end of a seesaw of which Botts is the fulcrum, and I am at the other end, hanging in the air.
I’m about eight or nine years old. I am in a drive-in with my father and mother. I love drive-ins. The whole sky is a picture. I can’t remember what the movie was but I will always remember the preview. The Radium Lady, or maybe it was the Uranium Lady. A woman from outer space whose mere touch can kill.
Scene after scene, you see an outstretched hand and hear this scary space music. An image, so quick, just the hand touching the doorknob, turning it slightly. My father looks at his watch. He says, Let’s get out of the car. We do, and he starts searching the sky. Look! he says, There it is! I look up but all I see is a salad of stars and I can’t make it out, whatever he is talking about. Look! See it? It’s moving! he says and he presses my head against his outstretched arm lining up his pointing finger with my eye. He moves my face with the other hand. His fingers smell of tobacco. Look! There it is!
Now I see it. Ever so slowly, across the other stars which cannot move, one that does, one closer to us, ever so slowly, across the horizon. He explains, That’s a balloon which we let up in space. It’s part of our space program.
I’m excited because my father is. We look at it, the two of us in front of the sky and the screen.
When I go home, I’m afraid to sleep.
She’s coming, I know it. Every doorknob is an enemy.
The Radium Lady.
One evening, before dinner, Botts comes to our table. The dining room seems to be off limits to entertainers, but he makes an entrance, forcing an foreign organism into the room.
He knows exactly where to find me. He hands me a large, manila envelope, with Vinny written on it.
Here it is, he says. The thirteen pages. I had them copied.
I take the envelope.
Now that he knows you have this, he says, he’ll come looking for you.
Why don’t you set something up, I say.
No. He’ll let you know when he’s ready, he says.
He leaves and my family look at me. I don’t know what to do with the envelope. I put it on the floor and lean it against the leg of a chair.
Dad, what’s in the envelope, my son asks.
Dad, come on, tell us, my daughter says.
The eyes of the wine steward, looking down at me from beyond six feet, are saying something, something on the verge of humoring me.
With an inexorable tide, the evening dinner progresses, course by course.
I remember talking to myself, pumping up the stairs, arguing with myself saying who the hell does he think he is, this guy?! I have to go request an audience? I don’t like this, this rude intrusion into my conscious thoughts, this domination. What the hell am I doing, in the thrall of this guy, this haughty, superb self-important jerk? I feel that invisible struggle of psyche and projected wills. I tell myself that I am allowing this presence to affect me by my very aversion to it. But I am a searcher. In my journals, I write about “clues”, as if all of this mystery is being unraveled to those who search. I have been searching for a key to all of this all my life, connecting the dots, following the clues left or dropped, non-coincidences, synchronicities. Confirmations that all of this is not random. This was another dot to connect in this search. I felt it. This was another trace and perhaps this was the one.
One o’clock in the morning, still dressed in a tuxedo, I go into the library and sit. I am alone.
I feel that cold, burning feeling of anxiety. That serpent of air. Of nerves. I hear that dead feeling of after-hours, when the good are in bed, and the wastrels and the unrequited are wandering in deserted places. I don’t really think these words but I feel them. I open the envelope and read the title:
“An Attempt to Reconcile Time”..
I read the first paragraphs. Dry, arid cogitations, I think. I read quotations lifted from this one and that one, from these nigh scientist-philosophers. I recognize one of the names from the books of Colin Wilson. And the concepts. I hear these ideas so much in New Age parlance, the attempt to marry heartless science of the mind with the heart of spiritual nourishment.
I read these first pages and consider them a cultivated reminiscence peppered with new found ideas, new for him, that is. Written as a hobby work, this arid response to Time, atoms, the observer changing the observed by observing it. A bagful of clichés, I think. I’m bored, disappointed that this clue led me to a dead end. So far, it is a pinky finger raised stiff in the air, a tea cup dissertation.
I read on, through the quotations, then towards the very end, I read things which make me come alive. About the time when he almost died on the operating table years ago. The sensations, the experience he had, on the way out of his consciousness, on the verge of something else.
How in minutes he relived every minute in his life, reliving the good, the bad he wished he had never seen again, and how he had the ability to stop and ponder and review each moment he lived, at will. How he could spend as much time as he wished lingering in any chosen moment.
How he felt all knowledge.
How he saw the tunnel, the light, the love. How when he recovered he was so disturbed that he questioned his sanity and didn’t tell a word of what he had seen to anyone, not even his wife, for years, until through coincidence, he was included in one of the first books written in England on what is called NDE, or Near Death Experience.
How time, for him, does not exist. How God, for him, does not exist. How through dreams we remember the future.
As I read, I no longer feel that this is a pompous hobbyist. This was a man who had been a RAF pilot, who before these experiences were well documented, lived with these experiences in silence for ten years.
This is no wimp. This is no silly memoire.
I am moved by this man. I am moved by what he has gone through.
I read to the end, but by his notes, this is a work that is to be finished. There are notes to himself in parentheses reminding him to include topics on Buddhism.
Alone, in the library, too well lit and abandoned, I put the manuscript in the envelope and go to my cabin.
I feel that feeling again. Of Infinity.
I have my clue.
Gennaro invites us to the Italian restaurant. We are to be his guests. But as a guest, I worry about whether I will be allowed to order the wine I prefer, or if I will have to sit politely and graciously accept what may come. He turns to his wife. She would like white wine, and he orders red, too. For me. I am relieved. I am amazed how petty I am, how pampered. My kids like Gennaro and Marilda. We toast to one another, to a safe trip home, to new friends and to health. I take out my video camera. This tape will remember for me, I think. I videotape everything and when I am not doing that I am taking pictures and I am keeping a journal. I am capturing this.
There is something about the way Gennaro looks at us. Calm and warm. Paternal. He puts down his knife and fork and looks at me. He smiles. He looks at me.
This is like a family dinner. We feel glad to have one another around us.
He sits there like a father happy to have his family around him. He is not perturbed. He seems happy to be there.
Gennaro like a tide, coming in and going out.
Botts tells me, Tonight you meet him. I’ll introduce you to him. I’ll be at your table at seven-thirty.
Botts shows up right on time. I am to have my audience. Botts, the matchmaker. He leads me across the dining room to another section where we rarely go, behind poles, past wait stations.
I am well dressed. Wearing blue and khaki and looking sharp.
We turn a corner and we are there standing in front of them.
So-and-so, this is Vincent, Botts says.
And this is his lovely wife, So-and-So, he says.
A striking couple. But he is much older than I imagined. This is not the man I feel when my wife describes him. He has white hair. Slender. Blue eyes and with a martini glass, there at the table, this magician. I’m standing. But more striking is his wife. She is the special one, with those eyes, that white skin. I think of the word, welkin.
I recognize her, something old, very old and very deep.
But now, this is the audience. He turns his head and asks me simply, So, what do you want to do with your life?
There are no how-do-you do’s. No polite small talk.
I stand there, like a peasant taking my tithe to him, my basket of mirth.
He puts me on the spot. This is my judgement. I feel cold and alone in front of this Osiris holding a martini glass.
Now I know it. I recognize that feeling of an unexpected slap. The quiet, of a room full of jumbled voices, clinking silverware, all part of a sonic salad.
What do I want? I repeat. I start to say something, to think on my feet, protecting myself, but turning inward to my nerve endings. I feel every weakness, every criticism, every shoddy, frayed part of me is there, every dead end, every shinola from shit, before this judge.
I started to stammer coherently. I position my voice in my throat.
I say, I want to separate what is real...
He gives me a look which cuts across my sentence as it is coming out of my mouth. The look, if it were a word, of the nuance between “Oh, really” and “Aren’t we evasive?”
I throw down the towel.
Fuck you. I don’t know, I think. Scarecrow is going home. No play game no more.
But I say, gently and politely, You are at supper. This is not appropriate for me to be here. I should let you finish. Bon appetit.
His wife, her name was...
She looks at me. She knows. I can see it. She is the one who knows what is going on. She just allows everyone to have his drama. Wide, observant eyes, eyebrows, white, smooth skin, she is a fairy, a witch. She is not of this world. She is supernatural. I know and feel what she is. I shake her hand. She holds it for a long, long, time.
Hand in warm hand. I am being absorbed into the warm. No words now. But I understand.
She is a very, very old soul.
Let’s meet in the lounge, he says. At seven, he says. We are there, every night. I have my two martinis and then we go to dinner.
I go back to my table. So, I am not complete. So, there is my judgement.
I come back to my family, and sit down.
Their father, defeated in battle.
His sword stolen.
My uncle Junior is always in the army. He is always going away. To Fort Dix. To Fort Bragg.
This time he is going away and he says he will bring me a set of army fatigues. In sixteen days.
Sixteen days. That seems like a long time.
Before he leaves he leaves me cans of K-rations. I like the ones with the crackers. But some of the other ones, the ones with meat, smell funny.
My mother and I walk everywhere. She takes me around the neighborhood. To her aunts. To the post office, to the grocery store.
We walk together. I love to run into the hardware store and stick my hands into the box of nails.
They wake up my hands with their prickly points.
Sixteen days and I start the countdown. I can’t wait. I say to myself I will not think about it. But the days don’t pass at all. At night, in bed, I think about me being in the army. Or I think how long it will be until Roger Williams Park opens. But the sixteen days seem so heavy. Time does not pass at all. I get really tired, just thinking about it. I can’t think about it. It takes so long.
One day, my uncle comes home. He brings me a box. I open it. And there they are, the khaki fatigues, the jacket, the pants, the coffee can hat. I put it on. I feel different, as if I am seen by the whole world.
My mother and I take a walk. Down Smith Street again, past the grocery store, past the hardware store.
The owner sees me and salutes me. And I feel so proud, but I won’t show it.
In front of the post office, a man stops and talks to us. He knows my mother.
He looks like Castro, he says, looking at me.
But Castro has a beard, I think.
I don’t know what he means by that. Is he making fun of me?
I still remember those sixteen days. They weighed more than the whole world.
We are in Salvador de Bahia. Now, it is really hot. This is black Brazil, the guide tell us. We take the tour bus because it’s faster and it’s air conditioned. The guide is good. He talks about the African influence there. How most people are Mulatto.
How do you spell that? asks one man with a Midwestern accent.
The bus slows down at panoramic sights. The sea and the waves pound against a fortress. The place looks poor and hot. In the museum, we see display cases of ornate jewelry worn by slave women. To show off the wealth of their owners, the guide says.
In a square, we visit churches. There are so many churches, the guide says. One for every day of the week. But there is also the religion from Africa. Candomblé. It is a mixture of the religion of the slaves with the Catholic church in which African gods have now become saints, he says. We walk in a square, a plaza, and stop in front of a statue of a bishop. He was eaten by his subjects, the guide says and he says clearly and slowly, They say that it was the first blending of European cuisine with native cuisine.
In front of one of the churches, vendors swarm around, looking for tourists. They don’t seem to understand the word “no” and keep offering us crosses, rosary beads, necklaces and figures made from Brazilwood. One, a man with a kind face comes to me and says, No, you don’t have to buy, this is a gift. He ties a ribbon around my wrist, deftly, one, two, three times and says as he ties a knot, Three times, Three wishes. When this falls off, your wishes they will come true. After many, many showers, he says. He laughs and gives me a bouquet of these ribbons, all different colors. They represent the saint gods. The Orishas. Which one is mine? I ask. He thinks. He asks another vendor. The other vendor looks up in the air and says, Chango. I feel as if I should buy something, and I do.
In the church, the guide points out the angels, the figures carved on the walls, the benches, the altar. Notice that some have the faces of animals he says, and notice, too, that they have been given genitals, swollen, misshapen. This is the work of the slaves who resented their masters. They got revenge on them by carving their own gods into the ones of the church, he says.
In an arcade, I buy the whole set of these saint gods. These Orishas. The vendor shows me which one represents the ribbon on my wrist. Chango? I say but he shakes his head. He says another name which I try to write down. This one, he says, picking out a card.
I make three wishes. I will keep this ribbon on until it falls off, I think.
At dinner, everyone looks fresh and cool and well dressed. Many people have ribbons on their wrist. There are tickles of color in the room.
Marcia waves hers at me.
After a week, our ribbons look ragged, soggy, and sad. I know this material. I used it as a telltale on my sailboat mast. They never, never go away. One by one, people cut off their ribbons. But I am determined to let mine fall off.
I wait and wait.
Do you really believe in that? some people ask me.
It’s not just voodoo, I say. It’s remembering. It’s like tying a string around your finger.
Months after the cruise, my ribbon will be a skimpy, ratty, scraggily, thread tenacious around my wrist.
One day, I will cut it off. With a vengeance.
Now that I have met him, I see him on the ship, the man who almost died. I run into him everywhere. I see him taking his power walk around the deck with his wife, wearing a white, sailing cap. I don’t know at this moment that he is seventy-five years old.
I am sitting on a deck chair, writing in my journal, far away from the forward and rear decks where the crowds are.
The walkers use this deck. They come out in flocks. He, the man who almost died, and his wife walk past me. The first revolution, as they pass, they are swinging their arms, pumping their bodies forward, the way walkers do on cruise ships to enforce health upon themselves, so they can go back to drinking and eating without guilt. On the ship, I see people hit the gym the minute they get on, or they do their determined walking around the ship, calculating calories in a cycle of gluttony and caloric atonement.
As he passes, his eyebrows shoot up, he waves, in a friendly, almost uncharacteristic way, making wide arcs with his hand.
The second revolution, he smiles.
I’m thinking, here’s a rare person, out of millions, who has visited the landscapes of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, yet he’s conforming to martinis and power walking.
By the next revolution, they do not look at me. They are talking about something. About me, I think. I am not here anymore. The arc of their arms become less wide. Their pace slows down. Their mouths are slightly open. Each time they pass I go back to my journal. It is a journal a friend gave me for Christmas, the title on the cover says Le Livre d’Amour de l’Orient.
I don’t know what to write about now. I am adrift.
A couple from New York, sporting the most obvious Long Island accents and mannerisms, stop in front of me. She is Shecky Greene, Shelley Winters, Tody Fields all rolled up into one garrulous yenta-ball.
Thanks to her, the spell is broken.
I am to meet him. Yes, the man who almost died.
At seven o’clock.
Santa Claus is coming to the State House! He is coming in a helicopter. And we are standing in a big crowd, like an animal that goes back and forth all together as the policemen shoo us with their arms. I am with my cousin Carole who keeps me close to her side. I can’t see anything, I am so little. The helicopter hovers above us, making noise and wind and pushing down on our hair and the grass. Santa! Coming in a helicopter to visit us. The crowd shoves us back, I feel the warmth of corduroy, the smell of leather. I am getting squashed by a wall of warm bodies.
Get your ass out of my cousin’s face! my cousin Carole yells.
At least two evenings a week, there is a classical concert in the main lounge. A trio of young musicians from the British Isles grace us with programs which are usually pleasant and light, the kind of music composers would not lose their minds composing. The three players are young, in their early twenties. The violinist, as I have come to observe, has bright, greenish eyes with a hint of grey to them. I see her walking around the ship always carrying a book, the same book, and listening to a walkman. On deck, she wears a bikini on deck knowing that she possess this light in the penumbra of the old. She loves to drink beer and caparinhas. I check out her book. A play by Shakespeare. My daughter notices that she carries it everywhere, but she never reads it. A prop, my daughter explains. The pianist is a short, taciturn and tough girl. She is the salt of the earth. She likes her sweet drinks with whipped cream. She plays like an angel and doesn’t talk very much. The tall, curly haired cellist is kind and pleasant. He likes to hang around with my kids.
Tonight is a formal night and we are in our tuxedos.
The program features works by Elgar and Walton.
I find a seat in the back of the room. I see Gennaro and Marilda, sitting closer to the front. I am thinking of sitting next to them, but suddenly the lights go off and I don’t want to move. I watch Gennaro as he listens. He face never changes. It is like a calm sea.
My wife is late. The concert is over. I go over to talk to Gennaro. I have the habit of introducing people who approach me when I am engaged in talking to someone else. This tall, big man from Australia says hello to me and I introduce him to Gennaro and to Marilda.
Oh, I know them, he says, in a peevish voice. They were rude during the performance. They were talking!
Gennaro puts out his hand to the man.
Oh no, I will not shake your hand! the man says.
The man turns red, red behind his white beard and white hair and glasses.
I will not talk to him, Vinny. I don’t like people like them, he says.
He leans over right into Gennaro’s face. I expect a fight. To my surprise, Gennaro just observes, the same, calm smile, as if he has seen everything before.
But the Australian tall man doesn’t let it go.
I don’t like people like this at all! he hisses.
He sticks his finger in Gennaro’s face. I am amazed and sick to watch the veneer of Victorian aloofness crack and rip in front of me. I am sick to see Gennaro being yelled at like that.
Just a minute, I say...
Please Vinny, this is none of your business! the man says.
And he goes back to the finger, now inches from Gennaro’s face and glasses. And he points it like a stick.
I don’t like you! he says to Gennaro.
When he is done pointing and menacing, he straightens himself up. He pulls his tuxedo jacket and says, I’m sorry, Vinny, that was not directed at you. These people are extremely rude.
With that, he turns and walks away.
I am stunned. I tingle all over. What happened?
But Gennaro’s face doesn’t change. He taps the side of his temple with his index finger.
Pazzo, he says. During the performance, I turned to Marilda and I said something to her. Just a sentence. Pazzo, he says. Crazy. I just turned to my wife and whispered to her, he says. Just a few words. And this guy turns to me and tells me to be quiet. He gives me this look and I went like this.
Gennaro makes a gesture with his hand as if he’s shooing away a fly.
Then, he went crazy, he says.
He can stick it up his ass, he says.
Why them? I think. Gennaro and Marilda are so nice. But they are from Brazil. Maybe that’s it, I think.
The English, as I discover, drop their veneer of proper-and-shoulds when the lights go out.
I remember, in the laundry room on board, I saw what some people are really like reduced to themselves without a gown or a tuxedo. I remember, as I was waiting for the washer or the dryer, the tension and the dirty looks some people were giving and one American lady saying to me, Here is the underbelly of the cruise world. Now, there’s a story for someone to write!
I’m in our cabin. My daughter comes in. She looks concerned and says with a calm urgency, Dad, you have to go right now to the front desk. Your friends... From Brazil...Gennaro...
I am afraid. I think, What, a heart attack?
Did something happen? I say.
No, they have to get off the ship, she says. They’re leaving right now. They’re waiting to say goodbye to you downstairs. She forgot her visa. They won’t let her stay on.
I run downstairs. I see them, their luggage packed, standing there in the lobby. The floor looks like a sea, their luggage like flotsam. It is a lonely scene.
They are standing there dressed, waiting for me. They are about to be marooned.
Gennaro looks up.
He has that same look. A sea inside his eyes that remain calm, despite winds and tempests. That’s it, I think, remembering that he is a diver. For him life is underwater. He is underwater and storms above do not affect him.
He says, almost matter of fact, Ah, my wife forgot to pack the visas. They are letting us off.
No, we cannot stay on, his wife says.
Will you be okay? I ask.
Don’t worry, he says. We’ll spend a couple of days in a hotel. Then we’ll go back.
For some reason, I feel unraveled. They’re being taken away. So quickly.
Don’t worry, Gennaro says.
I ask about their bags. I am angry. These phony regulations. If they were English, or American I think, this would not be happening.
A member of the crew overhears me.
He says, No, sir, the bags are taken care of. We will take them to a hotel.
I look at Gennaro, standing, solo. We hug. They hug my kids.
Don’t worry, he says. We will talk soon. He hands me their address, written on a white piece of paper.
I see the gangplank. The lights outside. The car waiting.
Back in my cabin, I don’t know why, but I copy the address, carefully writing it on another piece of paper, keeping it separate from the original. I don’t want to lose it.
Baja de Tijuca, I write down the address still hearing his voice saying those words.
Not wanting ever to lose this address.
We have discovered a new society on board. It’s called the wine club. The club consists of the same two men (the founders of the club), a bottle of wine, and whomever they invite on any given day. These two guys from Massachusetts are the physical activities coordinators for the cruiseline who just sail and sail around the world throughout the year teaching golf and volleyball.
Each afternoon, like clockwork, they work out in the gym. They take a sauna and a shower, then emerge to take a table on the back deck for their daily meeting of the wine club. From there, where I had sat with Gennaro just the day before, you can see the whole back of the ship and the horizon in the distance and the hissing wake of this swift ship. We are the apex of a triangle of white trailing the stern, at first defined, then dissipating behind us. It is hot on deck. We are still near the equator. I run into my cabin and run the water down the sink to see if water does run counterclockwise and it does. It is summer here when it is winter back at home.
Time is at opposite ends.
The waiters come out of the door behind us which leads into the lounge. When they open the door, you can feel how cold it is in there with the air conditioning. People are getting sick on board. It’s a floating nursing home here, I say. But the members of the wine club drink on. They share their bottle with us and then we order more drinks. Tomorrow night, behind the door, I must meet him.
At seven o’clock sharp.
I walk along the ship. I am dressed in a blue sports jacket and tan pants. I tell myself, this is not a judgement, this is a meeting. Will this be the secret to life? Will this be a large piece of this puzzle which will make everything make sense? I go outside to where the wine club is breaking up. Sit down and have a glass, they say, but it is too muggy outside. No, thanks, I say. I think I have to stay cool for my meeting.
Seven o’clock. I’m in the lounge.
I sit at a table and there I am, alone, waiting, trying not to appear that I am waiting, and they come in, tan, with a fresh looking glow to their faces. I stand up and greet them.
They order martinis and after the first sip, he says.
So, what do you want to talk about?
Well, we could talk about the usual bullshit, I say.
He puts down his glass and says, I am not in the habit of bullshit.
I shift myself to face him square. I lean towards him. There is no strategy in me and I am unarmed.
I was very moved, I said, by what you wrote. Especially by your own experiences. To tell you the truth, the fact that you were a pilot mattered a lot to me.
He sipped his martini.
What I wrote, is true, he said. All of it.
He is changing in front of me. The steel of his eyes turn to water. His voice firm and taut as a knife, now shakes as he whispers, I have always had this ability to just look at someone and be able to tell them all about themselves. I was cocky with this ability when I was young. I would go into a bar and get drunk and take somebody aside and tell them what their name was, when they were born, all about them, just to see the look on their face. I’ve always had that ability and it was painful at times. After what happened to me, it took me years to tell anyone about it. At first, I thought I was crazy. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my wife. If I talk about what I saw, right now, right here, I would be quivering mass of jelly, right there, right on the floor. I can’t talk about it without becoming distraught.
But I can tell you this: that time means nothing. Time does not exist. Like they say of drowning men, that your whole life passes in front of you. It is true. It does. And when I was seeing it, the curious thing was that I could stop at any moment and relive it. For as long as I wanted.
There is no time. One way to discover this is through dreams...You must read this book...
When he is talking, his wife is looking at me. She does not seem to be of this world. She watches and observes, but she there is trace of smile in her eyes as if she can see what is really going on. Now, I think, this is the Belle Dame Sans Merci. She is his faithful companion, or she is his guide from another world.
He goes on saying, I don’t believe in God, you know. I am God. We are God. What I saw made me not want to come back, you know. Really, I didn’t want to come back. I was frightened, yes, but I can tell you as I’m sitting here, I’m not afraid of dying.
People talk about Hell. He tapped his chair. He waved his hand. This, he said, is Hell.
I tell him about my search. I tell him about my mother, how she died, about how free I was to explore things which had frightened me before. I tell him that if our life is tallied up at the end like a bill, I want to decrease my debit as a jerk.
Just then, my daughter comes to say hello.
She leaves and he looks at me. He says, with glistening eyes, Take care of her. She needs you.
Then, he talks about Botts. Poor Botts, he says, he needs a little help along the way.
He tells me to get a certain book. About the subject of time and of dreams.
Finally he gives me my sentence. His voice is caring.
He says, You are just at the beginning. You’ll get there. You’ll be alright.
Time is running out...he says.
I must have looked upset, because he says quickly,
No, for me, not for you. Don’t worry. You’ll be alright.
Botts shows up, to shoo away whatever spirits were summoned and whatever furniture was levitating at that moment, fell to earth. The spell was broken, Botts is Botts, and that is that.
Botts stands there and says loudly, See, I told you you guys should get together!
I look at the man. I feel this door which was open inside of me, between us, he must close it now to go about the business of being among people on a ship off the coast of Brazil.
We shake hands.
I will never talk to him again I think. I will never be the same I feel.
I wish him well.
We arrive home. It’s past midnight. We barge into the house carrying our bags. The dogs are popping off the floor, jumping, the clicks of their paws against the tiled floor. The phone is ringing. I barely get to smell the familiarity of our home, our smells.
Who the hell is this? I say. At this hour!
I pick up the receiver.
It is Gennaro.
Vincenzo.....just to make sure that you made it home..
We just walked in at this every moment, I say.
In my bedroom, I empty my pockets, put receipts, change, my watch on the bureau.
The chronometer is still running.
Months go by.
You see, this is a convention.
I say, Months go by. And you’re supposed to read this, accepting this as a connector from that moment to the next. You fill in the blanks as you imagine.
You don’t know what happened during those Months go by. You only know the two points before and after and that is what time is. It happens that way when you talk to old friends, once, twice a year, or longer.
Months go by, you say.
Yesterday. Twenty years ago. A minute ago.
And it is moment to moment. Connecting those two moments, in a string of conversations as if it always continues, and if you see your friends, still holding that strand of sentence from years ago, and you might measure the progress of time by observing wrinkles, the change of hair, crows feet. To observe one another like dogs, sniffing, coldly observing the effects not of time, but of aging.
During those months, I call Gennaro a few times. I call Marcia. We visit Marcia in the city and two months later she comes to our home.
Gennaro sends me a box of ten compact discs of choros and sambas.
He sends us an article he found in o Globo written about my kids with their picture.
Some weeks later, I call him to let him know that we might be coming down there again, in a few months.
He says, Let me know. We’ll take the cruise with you. There are so many cruise boats that make their crossings at that time. That is the season.
I tell him I will call you tomorrow. But I get caught up. I get hypnotized again by things, by my list of things I think I must do, by my obsessions, by home schooling my kid, by eating dinner with friends just about every night, by returning phone calls, by writing in my journal, feeding the dogs, drinking like a sailor climbing the rigging, by so many things, and one day, when I’m on the phone, on hold with a bank, I decide to pick up the other line and call Gennaro. I let the phone ring that oval, overseas ring, a hollow, international mooing. A voice answers. It sounds like Marilda.
I say, It’s me, Vincenzo.
She says something in Portugese. Her voice quick, trembling, but polite.
Who is this? she asks.
This is Vincenzo. A friend, I repeat, but I think, Is this the maid with Marilda’s voice?
She speaks broken Italian.
No, they are not here, she says. They are....
Muertu, muertu...she says.
I understand what she is saying but hope that I do not understand. She repeats, clearly, unmistakably,
They died on Saturday...a plane...four friends...so sad...so sad....
I feel everything sinking. What...an accident?.
An accident...so sad..I am the sister of Marilda. I am her twin...Yes, they spoke so much about you, all the time...Vincenzo....
I think absurd things, how I must take a plane next month, the odds of an accident, how if lightning has struck, then it decreases the chances for me. I think, how can I show pain in my voice, I think, but after a while I am not thinking. I am running up a hole, as the dirt is caving in, on me, I am trying not to fall in...
I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it, I say.
I know, she says. For me, I come to take care of the apartment. To water the plants...so sad...
My only consolation is...
She says something I don’t understand. About a son, a cat, a dog...I don’t know.
We had a service for them, she says. They cremated the bodies on Tuesday.
But you can visit us. Please do...Vincenzo....when you come to Rio.
I tell my kids. I tell my wife. I call Marcia. I call my friends. I am lost. My daughter says, That is so weird about Gennaro and Marilda. I hide in my studio. I think of my friend and say, I’m going to write about you and I start to write, but it sounds like writing, and I hate that so I just talk to him with my typing. I type on the screen. And then I see the deck of tarot cards on the desk. I am tempted. I draw a card. Of all the cards in the seventy-eight card deck, I get The Tower, lightning striking a tower and two people, a king and a queen, dazed and falling to earth.
I am crumbling inside. I think over and over again, now I can understand the words, Niobe, all tears.
My son walks in. He says, Dad, you can’t be depressed all the time. You have to get over it.
My daughter is two years old. Every night we listen to music. Tonight it is Erik Satie, Le Fils des Etoiles.
We talk about everything, it seems. I put her on the radiator cover which is so warm. She talks and all of a sudden, she mentions something about when she was dead.
What, I say, startled.
Were you dead?
Yes, she says.
How was it?
Her little eyes are not twinkling. She looks straight ahead, fixed into memory.
It is late. Past two o’clock. My kids to go to bed whenever they want. They are night owls. My son says, Dad, sleep with me. I crawl into bed with him. We talk, as we always do, about things, those things you talk about at night, looking at the ceiling, in the dark, the rigidity of everyday attention softening, giving way...
Dad, do you remember that guy on the ship? That weird guy you went to talk to?
No. I don’t. No. I really don’t know who he is talking about.
What weird guy? I say.
Then, I do. I remember.
How could I, and I use this word as if it is an ironic barb, forget? Yes. Him. On the ship. About time. About time. That guy. I hadn’t thought of him in months. But now I remember him. Now I see him. Now I understand why, before I had gone to bed, I had written one word on a blank piece of paper: time. I was going to begin a story, about time, remembering being with my son years ago standing on the lawn watching a comet that wouldn’t come again for thousands of years. Now he is asking me about time, and I tell him, in bed, in the dark, what I thought I remembered of that conversation months ago, about time being linear, like a road, and how I had contradicted myself, how certain people could see down that road, things which had not yet happened, or did they, and he says, Maybe it’s destiny and I feel a love for him and for mine and for Gennaro and all those who are not here anymore, or are they? Did the man who almost died see Gennaro on the ship? Did he know what was going to happen? What else did he see? But I don’t think these things until weeks later when I begin to write about all I was thinking about, and do now, about when I was with my son, under the sky, years ago, pointing at a newly discovered comet, saddened that he wouldn’t be there for its next return, and of my friends, Bill and Alfred. Yes, I would write that story and would end it, telling you of how they called me, at one o’clock in the morning, and said that they were coming over, that night, at four thirty, to see the Pleiades shower, the one that wouldn’t happen again for another thirty thousand years. How I set my grandmother’s alarm clock, but woke up before it went off, went downstairs, past the dogs who just opened an eye and went right back to sleep, and opened the door, and went into the cold night, looking for my friends’ car, No, it’s not there, they crapped out I think, and then heard, Hey, Vincenzo, out of the darkness, from a dense, round form. It’s Alfred with a hat and Zack wrapped in an alpaca wrap. Bill’s on the lawn, he said and I saw my friend Bill, in his sixties, doctor and pianist, lying on his back on the cold ground looking up at the sky. They’ve started, Alfred says, and yes, they had, I could see them, sparks, slow moving, celestial fireflies, cendrillions, I thought, tinkerbells, zipping across the sky, fiercely, then gracefully, across the sky, falling stars, a herd of them, a visitation, make so many wishes now, I saw them, you could almost touch them, they moved so slowly and not a sound. Time stopped. The magic, the power, and not a sound. Now I know, I think, how fairies came to be, how man witnessed this, thousands of years ago, and I see the magic of things appearing from the sky, silent, separated from us in that silence as if from another world, where we don’t know that language. It’s cold as hell, they say, so I light a fire in the brazier on the patio and we watch the meteorites, flocks of them. Stand next to the fire, I say, and Alfred, heavy, almost sixty himself stands there with a stupid hat pulled over his big head. He is a great artist and chef and he says, Let’s go to Johnny B’s for breakfast, and I say, No, let’s stay here. I’ll make pancakes, he says and he does. Then he says, Let’s have a drink. Got anything good? A drink? Something special, I think. I am not thinking about Brazil at that moment, of the man who almost died, and how he thinks he can run through time like running through raindrops without getting wet and how we can remember the future in dreams. I am not thinking about anything except what I am doing. I go downstairs to fetch a bottle of port, a special one I carried back from Madeira, and now the fireplace is going, Alfred’s at the stove, my family is asleep and we have fallen through the cracks, through the walls, here, in the early morning, when even the earth takes a snooze and are we are eating, sitting next to the fire, drinking a ten year-old port under a million, billion, trillion year old sky.