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The Barge

Stephen Dixon

She receives a letter from a friend in Paris. He won't beat about the bush by saying how is she he is fine. He's dying of a most aggressive cancer. His medical men say he has a couple of months max. He wanted to tell his dearest friends this. He feels they have a right to know now rather than find out he's dead two months later. He doesn't want them to be sad. Please don't be sad. This is what happens also in life. How's that for an instance of original wisdom and great sentence structure? The drugs and rays haven't made him any sharper which is why he's going cold turkey starting tonight. That ought to liven up his life and he sort of looks forward to the fight. It should be better than just lying or laying here doped up. But he realizes a certain sadness is inescapable from his dearest friends. What's not for him is death by this illness. And what a time for it to happen. He finally has the most adoring beautiful child any father could hope for. And he's so deeply in love with his wife. Words can't convey how much. Or should he have said "the depth"? He'll go through another kind of deepness pretty soon. Actually he won't. His time-for-humor line backfired on him. Because he's already made plans to go up in smoke and be sowed over the Gobi. No Gobi. He only wrote that because to his hollow ears it sounded good and he thought she might appreciate it. All those ohs. But his ashes to be left "in the very best" instead of stinking up the landscape. Let the owners of that contraption hose them out or sell them as fertilizer. And he probably didn't have to put quote marks there but somebody else close who doesn't know French might be reading this. But then she'd explain about the crem de la crem. Oh he's so funny these days. It perhaps takes an overnight stay in the death house to get that way. But only to her and his wife. Well his wife he's not writing to but to everyone else who might possibly take it the wrong way he's starkly serieux. And just days before the fatal prognosis he decided after 30 years of dabbling what to do with his wife. He of course means "life." That slip had no conscious intention behind it. And he could have moused out the "w" and inserted the "l" but he wants here to be completely honest when he isn't trying to be humorous. To sell the barge and apartment and buy a farm on the Marne. That's true about the Marne. He didn't decide to settle there and do his life's final hard work just because of the rhyme. To go back to what he did as a kid with his Minnesota grandfolks. Did she know his dad died of the same disease? Or did till he put a bullet up his nose. Oh the ohs. And he would have written that as "ose" but her eyes might have mispronounced it. How could she have known? It was his family's deepest secret and dirtiest shame. The disease and the rhinocide. But there are no more controls. He doesn't quite know why he said that but to her it'll be clear. She was always so bright. He's a naked baby in the North woods. It's winter and he's wailing and his grandfolks are dead and his mother's helpless and he wants to be held and saved. But God is also what they say and miracles don't exist and science is all he's afraid. It is what he always believed in so why now misgive? But he shouldn't try to get poetical. He never liked poems much or understood what most of them meant. Even Richard Cory if that was his name. Is he underscored or quoted? But he asks if it's possible that loving and understanding and even quoting poetry could have prevented his disease? His dad only read the Bible and socialist newspapers and auto mechanic magazines. His mother died a diseaseless death and just did farm chores for her in-laws and babbled on zigzaggedly since his birth. But he'd like to think that about poetry because it'll mean she'll live healthfully and long. Now he'll try to be tout à fait serious. What she meant to him then and since. If there's one beside the one he hates parting from she's it. This can't come as a surprise. She must have seen it in his worshipful silence. No one could have been finer and softer and more intelligent to look at and beautiful to talk to. Permit him this trip through memory's enclosures. He loathes that line and most of the afore. But time is tight so too late to take them back or change them even with an automatic switch. This all spills out topsy-turvy unrehearsed. Bike tour through the Loire with her with little picnics of the proverbial off the road. Picking grapes alongside other Beaujolais guest harvesters and for their wages after three days a bottle of champagne and six of nouveau. She saw the beauty and exuberance in it while he mostly felt swindled and the sweat. Goading him to climb Montaigne's tower in Castillon when he wasn't inclined to schlepping up anymore steps. That he got that word from her, schlep. And of course his barge through the Seine and Saône canals. She was such a great first mate. Teasing him into riding to the top of the Tour Awful. Ten years here and too disdainful to do it till she pressed. To act like a tourist? Her body. Her breasts. To hold them from behind at night till he slept. Is he being inordinately mortifying and naughty? Excuse him and for the rest but it's a last man's request. Her light hair against the bright and other sights? If he only had it in him to creatively say the old things a new way. His letter's getting druggy from the dope. He should have written when he was limpid and the disease wasn't evident yet. Isn't it intriguing how the most devastating effects often lie in repose? It corporealized in a month and won't be around in three. But he thinks he said that so this will have to do it. The keyboard suddenly looks green and the mouse seems to be eating cheese. So much for his serioso attempts. Is that how to spell it and should he have italicized? Who's got the time. Should he have used there a question mark? And it was she who truly introduced him to music and its vocabulary. He doubts he'll be answer to able her if she writes back. That slip was unwitting and does she think it portends anything ulterior? His energy's receding and his hair and flesh have waxed and waned. He'll have to spend most of his time left duking it out with the pain. So sorry to end on that dopey note. So many apologies and so's but he's sure she understands. Now if it's all right he'll say goodbye. If he hasn't made it see-through how he feels then he deserves to die tonight. So long. "So what do you think," she says, "but first while it's still in my head, do you know what limpid means?" "Nothing to do with 'limp.' That's the mistake I used to make. 'Lucid' and 'intelligible' and words of that order I finally remembered after about five or six times looking it up." "Never saw or heard it before. But what do you think about the letter?" "What is it about your breasts that men want to hold them from behind while they sleep?" "Who else but you two? And you about fifteen more years than Jock. And I don't really recall him ever doing it, though since he said he did I guess I have to believe it." "I like to because it means I can squeeze into you barefront from behind, smell your hair, put my mouth against your neck, fiddle with your nipples till they're erect, though not in a way where I'm keeping you from sleep. And I'm also warmer in bed in that position and seem to dream better and clearer and a lot more often about sex." "You didn't much care for the letter then." "It's sad and I'm extremely sorry for the guy, of course. It's horrible, what he's going through and still has to face. And his kid and wife and plans and to be cut down at that age and everything, but what else? Things he said about you and the way he said them?" "Your disapproving expression and shaking your head and shutting your eyes as if you couldn't stomach much of what you were reading." "I did that?" "You did." "Okay, I was just a bit discomforted the way he waxed so womantically and all those sentence rhymes and that unpunctuated, except for the period and I think a hyphen in there, short line-at-a-time business. Once he got on that streak did he feel he had to complete it? So I thought it curious, that's all, to dabble in these mannerisms in his farewell address. But that's petty of me--and I wasn't being cynical, or didn't intend to be, with that 'farewell address' remark. He could have written it that clipped-line way--this must be the reason; the rhymes might've come naturally--because it was physically easier and he was weak." "You're holding back." "Why would I? I've nothing against the guy. Time I met him here and when we stayed on his barge I liked and admired him and could see why you would've been attracted to him and so forth. A six-foot-two rugged and musclebound galoot and world adventurer, unlike me and most people I know. The barge near the Place de la Concorde, canal trips on it, West Point, holy hell Tet Offensive experience, living with New Guinean aborigines on the beach, then with hippies in caves in Crete. I don't know; am I putting together right the people and places and residences? But a multitude of exploits, one dealing with camels in deserts, another for a dolphin and porpoise show, lobster boats in Maine and logging and bear wrestling in Washington, before giving up stateside forever for the untried France. Who doesn't think about tossing it all overboard, but few have the guts to. And he didn't come from contacts or money; did it all himself by working hard. Comes to Paris sou-less and in a year he's got a barge and made a killing. He was a gentle rough guy, right?--man's man, that sort of stuff, loved sports and a big drinker but so what. And that mop of competing blond, and so full, though now, poor guy, he says it's falling out from the treatments. Sunny face, great looks, blue eyes that reminded me of a movie star's, and he liked to read and sculpt and cook sea urchins and things, and what else? I don't know why you didn't hook up with him longer, get hitched, have kids and so on." "He got pissy when he drank too much, and was often too moody and drew away. Too many times I knocked on his door when he was on a bender and he told me to get lost. In the end he simply wasn't right, and in many ways we were too different. Our backgrounds--his for three generations was army and Wisconsin and no rabbis in the family, mine for the same amount of time running away from or getting murdered by Cossacks, Nazis and Poles. And his love for lit was mainly genre and the good books in old-school translations. But I never appreciated him more than in that letter, though you could be asking me now why I showed you it." "I'm not, I'm not, for why wouldn't you? I'm your husband and I knew all of it and it was way before my time, so who cares?" "I also thought it was brave of him to say what he did and put his language and lyricism out on the limb like that. 'Out on the limb'? What am I referring to here, a scribbling squirrel? Anyway, maybe it was something else that annoyed you. Not so much that once, for a few months, we actually loved each other--Jock and I--but that he reflected so tenderly and touchingly on it." "Tenderly and touchingly? 'What about bombastically, turgidly, ponderously, longwindedly and unlimpidly? Let's face it, sick as he is, and I swear I feel nothing but the deepest sympathy for him--compassion, horror, the rest of it--did he have to resort to such flatulent phrasing and in such excess? You want to tell someone how much she meant to you and that you still care for her a great deal--I mean, those were great times, and this, as he suggests, is probably his last letter to you--than you do so without using such hyped-up overripe language. Because that was supposed to be poetry? Because that's what he was trying to do, you know: a sort of last-pitch winning you over once more in the kind of writing he knows you love best--the form; whatever the all-embracing word for poetry is." "You're way off on this, Gould, way way off." "You think so? then let me run through it again. 'Dopey note.' That one I know by heart. Oh the ohs indeed. 'Slip was unwitting and did it portend' --portend?--'something untitting?'" "He didn't say 'untitting'. And a perfectly useful and unarchaic word, 'portend.' You're being a stinker and very crude." "But you get my point. So he didn't say 'untitting.' But why 'corporealized' instead of 'materialized'? That's what he meant. Or even something simpler. But fancier the schmancier it seemed." "'Corp' is the body and 'material' isn't or not as much. And he was stressing the body, wasn't he?--my breasts, the rest, and his own body failing him. I forget where he used it or how but that could have been it." "Maybe. Okay. You're much better at figuring out literary meanings than I am. 'Keyboard suddenly looks green' isn't egregious. Same with the mouse eating the cheese. In fact they're good imagery and sound for someone getting nauseated or nauseous or just stomach-sick and dizzy. But the 'limpid'. And I'm not going to work entirely backwards here or include everything he wrote, I want you to know." "That's a big relief. Let me celebrate by going into the kitchen and drinking a glass of water." "But you yourself had problems with the 'limpid.'" "You letting me get by or do I have to inadvertently, which I'd never do, run over you?" "By, by," stepping aside, and follows her as she wheels into the kitchen. "Need any help with the water?" "You've done enough, thank you. I'll manage." "Listen, all I was saying before was couldn't he--even just to avoid giving the impression he was trying to--impress you--said 'clearer' for 'limpid'? That way you wouldn't and he knows most people would do this, if they were interested or intellectually or linguistically curious, as you'd certainly be--wouldn't have had to ask what it meant or go to the dictionary if no one was around who knew it." "It's conceivable he thought I knew." "Then it was to impress you that he did too, or is that too far off base? And believe me, it was only by chance I'd seen the word in a few places, and through some kind of tenacity or just that it finally sunk into that ooze of a brain of mine, that I remembered what it meant. Otherwise, I bet right now you'd be looking it up." "Look, when you're being a bastard, self-deprecation doesn't work to reverse or temper it; nor, from before--that 'as you'd certainly be'--flattery. And if you have seen the word so much, then it must be in plenty of books, and I'm talking of contemporary ones, and even newspapers and magazines, nullifying your argument that it's so archaic a word." "Maybe that's true. Maybe you're right. Anyway, to get on with my examples, or whatever they are or I'm trying to do here--and I'm not trying to be funny now-- 'So much for serioso attempts.' I changed it from the original just a touch, but let's look at that one. I can see it's a play on what he previously wrote about wanting to be starkly serious and seriously stark and so on, but why'd he suddenly venture into music? Spreading his artistic wings because he knows bringing in music and with an Italian term would also appeal to you?" "So he brings in music, so he brings up poetry, so it's Italian, so he includes a little French. The French, of course, because he knows I speak it and will catch how he intentionally mangled it and he's lived there for more than twenty years, so it's sunk into his ooze, and Italian music directions because most of them are in that language." "It's also another oh." "So? What do you have against them? And he called attention to his self-conscious use of them, so I doubt he was furtively alluding to, with so many ohs, and which you might be accusing him of, anything orgasmic. And the music? I did, through my appreciation of it and because I also once studied piano seriously and usually when I found an available piano in Paris I practiced on it, get him interested in more serious music than what he liked till then, country and blues and jazz. Same with poetry--my love for it. Though he was less willing to take it in, even if for a while--and not just for my sake--he read it voraciously and in several languages." "Okay, I've nothing to argue on that, though I still see the poetry and music references as enticements to you of sorts. As for the orgasmic allusion, it never entered my head. But that's what I meant about your being--and I'm not trying to flatter you--a much better reader than I. But this line I liked a lot--the getting druggy from the dope. It cleverly undercuts the seriousness of the painkillers, and it was forcefully put. But 'The most devastating effects often lie in repose'? That true or only in there because he thought it sounded philosophically smart? But moving on--and I'm skipping a lot I could as easily go into--'Your light hair against the bright and other sights'? What happened to heights and slights and rights is mights and tights blights bites and other kites? And while we're talking about poetry--" "Give me back my letter please?" "First let me go over--" "I said to give it back," and she grabs for it and he pulls it away and when she looks startled, hands it to her. "What is it with you? I don't see what you have to be so threatened or envious of. Nor do I see why you couldn't have unobjectionally accepted this last man's dying request, as he said." "I remember that one; near the beginning, I think. It wasn't the line I was about to comment on, but I'm sure I would have got to it eventually." "But why, that's what I'm asking? He's dying and you're healthy. He's probably in terrific pain right now, maybe worse than when he wrote the letter, and you're not: you're feeling good and healthy. He has one child and is wretchedly sick and you have two kids and are very much alive and healthy. You have a good job, retirement if you want in ten years and you're healthy and active and will no doubt be then, the way you take care of yourself, and he's dying. I've got my own disease to deal with and that surely doesn't help you. But I'm not dying, it's not life-threatening, I can still take care of myself mostly so it's not going to do you in or sap that much of your time and physical energy, and soon he'll have no wife and child in any medical condition because he'll be dead. Am I making myself clear? Why don't you try examining why you sniped at almost everything he put in that letter?" "What's to examine, in that sense? I feel terribly sorry for Jock. I know I said that and by repeating it it might seem I don't mean it, but I do and that's the truth, but I was just going over his letter as a psychotherapist might go over his patient's thoughts, line by line. That's not an accurate analogy, since you never asked me to dig into his letter so thoroughly. Then what then? Just that I saw in a single reading, and perhaps incorrectly, what I thought he was getting at in certain places and found that curious and commented on it, that's all, which was no doubt insensitive of me and of that I apologize." "That's bullshit, or only half of it, but you go figure out which half. Meanwhile, no letter, and I mean never, not for me to read or you to pick apart again," and she rips it in two and those pieces in two and a couple of those pieces into more pieces and when he says "What are you doing? And look at the mess you're making," tries ripping up some of the smallest pieces but can't. "Listen, you're going to tear something up, at least keep all of it in your hands before you throw it away." "Now what's that, disapproval now of my inability to tear something up nimbly because of my unsteady hands? Are you insane?" "No, to both," picking the pieces of paper up off the floor. "But you only hurt yourself--you know that--because I'm sure you wanted to read it again." "You mean I didn't hurt you?" "No, I didn't mean that. Want these?" She shakes her head and he drops the pieces into the trash can. The rest are on the kitchen counter and in her hands. "Some advice. What you should have done if you didn't like anything in the letter was just silently shut up. Now I can never forget how you acted and your mean-spiritedness to Jock and me." "Okay, I should have and you're mad and don't want to talk about it anymore, so I'm going for a walk. To the store, really." "I wish I could do that, just say so long and slam the door in your face. But I can't, so go, nobody here will stop you." "If it's the kids you think one of us should be home for, I'll stay and you can get in your cart and scoot out." "What's that supposed to mean, another crack?" "No, it meant--forget it; everything I say gets misconstrued. And you can only go out certain times, after certain preparations--I realize that now, so I'm sorry. So I'll see you." "As I said," and she turns away. Should he go? Go. Right now nothing he can do or say if he stays. He goes. While he's walking to the store he thinks it'll soon blow over, two days, three. Tonight in bed she'll put one of her two pillows between them, if she doesn't sleep in her studio, and if he asks what's the pillow supposed to mean--to her sleeping in the studio he won't have to say anything because she won't come into their bedroom--she'll say, as she's said before when something like this has happened, it's more comfortable for her back, and he'll say "Oh yeah," and she'll say nothing to that and probably nothing to him after, no matter what he says, except maybe "If you don't be quiet I'm going to sleep in the studio." If he tries to hold her breasts from behind in bed--well, he won't try because he knows she'll take his hand away. But after the two to three days she'll start acting normally to him again--he'll never have stopped acting as if just about nothing had happened--and he'll say he wishes, and maybe this was the problem as she said, that over the last thirty to forty years he'd had some of Jock's confidence and derring-do and so on, made greater changes in the direction of his life a number of times, did this, risked that, gone to West Point, even, or Annapolis or at least into the service instead of doing all he could to stay out of it, when he was a student hitched from Cairo to Capetown as he'd planned to with this South African girl he'd met in Europe, and later on France for a few years as he'd intended to rather than the few months and then back home the moment a good fellowship came through which he didn't expect to get, hippies in caves only maybe, beach life on sunny Crete he'd like, for months down to nothing but shorts and crummy sandals and T-shirts, aborigines in New Guinea--he doesn't think so if it meant they had bones through their noses and treated diseases with things like bark and leaves, but would she believe he'd actually, when he was around thirty-five, thought of living in the capital of Papua for a year to write and be far away from the States but someplace exotic nobody he knew had been to and few had even heard of. He doesn't think he ever told her that last thing about himself, one of the few things he hasn't--the research he did for the trip and shots he'd started taking for it. But now he's in late middle age and even if he didn't have the responsibilities he has at home, adventurousness like that would be so transparent and he'd even feel like more of an outsider in one of those places than he would have then. So that's what prompted his attacks, and maybe something to do with her illness: that Jock only knew her when she was completely free of it and also much younger. He gets a few things at the store, nothing they really need but just to make his excuse for leaving the house more believable, and in case she hasn't noticed--he won't say this but maybe she'll pick it up--he's the one who shops, cleans, cooks, provides, gets the kids off in the morning and to their music lessons at night and so on, comes home and says "The girls back?" "Look at your watch; it isn't even three yet." "Then I wasn't gone as long as I thought I'd be; I didn't really get anything. Listen, I'm sorry, very sorry for what I said; it was all the awful things you said it was, so will you forgive me?" "No, nor myself for giving in to the emotion of the argument and tearing up the letter so you wouldn't quote from it anymore. You showed yourself so ugly. I don't care if you were jealous of Jock with me or of the life he led or whatever caused it, even what I think is his damn good writing. At any age, what you did was a disgrace. To resume anything resembling even dreary living with you will take I can't say how long, not because you're dull but your attitudes and responses and what you find funny sometimes and free to be cavalier and blunt about are so insensitive and passé." "Excuse me, but does everything you say correspond?" "What do you mean now?" "Nothing. I got it wrong. But you sure got me, baby, you got me good." "You've done that routine before at least a dozen times." "Then whew, is what I really wanted to say; and no routine, swear nothing like that. You let me have it and right on the pupik and deservedly so, besides covering everything I thought of saying to you while I was coming back from the store." "Yeah, whew, Mr. You-know-what Artist," and goes into her studio and shuts the door. He goes to their bedroom, time to lie down, he thinks, and lies on the bed and shuts his eyes, maybe a quick nap will help him see the whole thing better, hears his oldest daughter come home and yell out "Is anybody around?" and his wife say I'm in here, darling; I'll be right out," thinks Was he, as she said, in addition to everything else, envious a little of Jock's writing? Truth is, some of the lines weren't that bad. Too late to retrieve them from the original but let's see if any--this will also be a test of his memory and the staying power of the words--comes back. Richard Cory? Surely he knew that was his name. But the "diseaseless death." And "died of a diseaseless death" it was, which had a nice rhythm to it or whatever it had that made it stick and sound good, "Naked babe in the North woods"? That was sweet and again nice rhythm. One understood right away what he meant and pictured it immediately. And the stuff with the mother holding him or he wanting to be held was touching and could have been more if he wasn't so critical at the time and he knew that when he read it. But not the "wax and wane," though maybe he's missing the boat there, since Jock was referring to his flesh and hair. But he definitely liked the "swindle and sweat." And that it rhymed on the next line with "slept." And other things-- "farm on the Marne," which actually sounds too much like "Spam in a can," and "what he did as a kid with his Minnesota grandfolks." So the letter was strong, he has to admit, for the most part evocative and strong, particularly the quick autobiographical reminisce and his trip through memory's enclosures. Nice job, Gould, well done. So he was wrong, he was wrong, he was wrong, he'll have to tell her but not today and that perhaps it was the good writing coupled with the intensity of Jock's memories about her that set him off, besides the guy's great life till this horrid thing hit him. So why didn't they stay together longer? His other daughter comes home; he hopes she doesn't barge in here, as right after going over this he wants to nap. Couldn't have been just the drinking and Jew and Gentile, could it? Maybe he was also a stinking lover or had some sexual problem or dysfunction. He'd never ask her. He wouldn't know how to put it. And if he did find a way, she'd say "At one time I would have told you, though only if you had asked first. But now, after what happened, I can't, and I'm not saying by that that he did or didn't or was or wasn't. It just isn't something I ever want to tell you." He'd leave it at that, never bring it up again, not even years later when this whole incident will have just about been forgotten by her.

Originally published in the February/ March 1998 issue of Boston Review

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