03 July 2011


Yet another agent rejection of EULOGY. Not that it was unexpected. Alas. Therefore, out of spite, here's the next chapter. Lambaste away, knaves, you can't hurt me. Happy Fourth.


The thick, floral-print draperies in the cramped room my parents shared were drawn against the crisp afternoon. A small lamp, crafted from a poorly painted porcelain Chinese figurine my father had picked up in the service, shed a dim bubble of light in one corner. The air was stifling, as though they were trying to keep the last of the sun's failing heat from escaping. Their room smelled of stale camphor and soiled clothing. The carpet felt moldy slick under my feet.

My mother's frail body reclined on the rented hospital bed, her head and legs elevated slightly, a tube of clear liquid shunted into her arm, a smaller hissing tube hung just below her nostrils. Machinery hummed in the corner. She was dressed in a flimsy, tangerine gown from another era—the sort of burnoose she had worn her whole life. A pair of tidy, colorless mules waited futilely on the small oval rug at her bedside for her feet to slip again into them. Her eyes were closed, her face at peace.

"Mother?" A beat passed. Another. Around her there was an absence of human smell as if her pores had clamped down to trap her perspiration—her vitality—inside her skin. The bed around her body felt cool. The muscles beneath her papery skin tensed, her thin lips dissolved into a grimace, and with what seemed like enormous strain she pried apart her eyelids. I remembered her eyes as a warm hazel, but now they appeared dull, soupy, nearly consumed by her graying pupils. I lowered my face into what I thought was her field of vision. "Hello, Mother. It's me, Josh." Her lips retracted, and she gritted her small, filmy teeth in a sort of smile. Her stomach contracted with the effort. Her weak breaths were odorless.

"Joshua, dear. It's been so long. We've always been so proud of you." She stopped, the effort clearly immense. Her tongue poked around in the cavern of her mouth. I felt a slight twitching in her hand. I took it in mine. It was rubbery, neutral. "Listen to your father. Do what he says." She parceled her words out carefully. "It will be hard for you," she quivered with the strain, "but it's even harder for him."

"What are you talking about?"

"And promise me you'll find something good to say about me." She collapsed back into her pillow the fraction of an inch the tension in her stomach muscles had lifted her and exhaled audibly. "I'm tired. Give Nina my love." Her eyes shuttered and it was like she had fallen a great, great distance.

I squeezed her hand and felt the bones crackle under my grip. "Mother? What do you want from me?" A clicking sound came from her other hand. "Tell me."

"Why don't you read to her?" My father's voice startled me from my contemplation of my mother's inarticulate pain as she lay motionless in the stultifying room she shared with him. She was rotting from the inside out.




"She always loves the Bible. The Psalms. Ecclesiastes. The Sermon on the Mount. Or you could try Shakespeare. There on her table beside the bed. She likes to hear the sonnets."

I riffled the worn, gilt edges of my mother's blue, leather-bound collected Shakespeare.

"You know, when she was growing up, these were the only books her parents had in the house. She was very bright. She learned to read from them."

"Do you think she can hear me?"

"She'll know the sound of your voice. And maybe the rhythms of the words as well. It will be comfort enough for her." The book flopped open and my eye lighted on the first line of one of the poems.

"I'll give it a shot."

"That time of year thou mayst in me behold…"

"Yes, that one," he said. "It's one of her favorites."

I began again:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. …

"Bare ruined choirs... ." Indeed. I looked up from the text and saw my father, a white handkerchief in his hand, leaning over her body, dabbing at what might have been a drop of moisture glistening in the corner of her eye, and read on.



Randal Graves said...

Shouldn't, but I always have the natural reaction of dammit when another poem gets a 'thanks but no thanks' but that's just one or two pieces, you've seemingly been busting your balls on this.

Really dig the bit about the pores clamping down. Scenes like this are tough to hew out, now more than ever given our cultural jadedness, that anything emotional that's not dressed in jargon or askew wordplay is labeled maudlin.

Frances Madeson said...

...which is a nice way of saying the piece is maudlin. But I couldn't disagree more. Chapter Two was maudlin, this one's lachrymose. Let's not enable each other, there's no more time for that, and Jim is too gifted.

To the extent the mission of the writer is to keep our amazing language alive, thank you for "burnoose" and for the Shakespeare. Sonnet 73 is nothing if not "askew wordplay", and thank heavens for that. Knowing Jim as I do, I suspect this whole book will prove to be an illumination of that "second self". But Jim, cleverness, even the most brilliant cleverness possible, will not carry this heavy load. It's not just the pores that have clamped down, the curtains are drawn, mother's eyes are shuttered, mother's words are stopped. The whole thing (not the mood, the very writing itself) is airless, "Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd". You see, Randall, Jim has deliberately (and in my opinion well-intentionedly but misguidedly) put that very lack in lachrymose.

I would venture (because I know that world inside and out)that it's the reformer in him who is trying to live and raise his beautiful children in a world where the fish are drowning in the ocean, the philosopher lawyer who had to content himself with the knowledge that he was smarter, way smarter, than all of his colleagues and bosses put together, and play possum to get along to meet his grave responsibilities, fold no matter what cards he was holding because to play them was too provoking in that fetid atmosphere.

And I would challenge Jim to reconsider the value of the very notion of reform, and leave Third Avenue behind in the filthily spewing bus fumes. It has so little reality once one steps outide the bubble. To put it another way, without I hope too fine a point on the quill--Stop being a believer in the Oxford comma.

Jim H. said...

My head is spinning. Maudlin, jadedness, askew wordplay, lachrymose, airless... How to handle it all? How to absorb it?

The story question, though, is how does that one guy handle that one situation and absorb its very specific consequences in the context of his own life.

The situation is the situation—and has nothing to do with the Jersey Shore or with me. I want to know how he deals.

The rules apply. Then they don't. Then they do again. Then we're not sure. Whence then?

Thanks for the notes! More will follow.

Frances Madeson said...

You mean something like the sequence of Newton's law of gravitation, then the Lorentz transformation, then Einstein's Laws of Relativity, and...? Oh yeah, come to think of it, was it in Bertrand Russell's The Art of Philosophizing or ABC of Relativity when he references Biblical Joshua stopping the sun? I like this quote a lot about interval zero:

"When the time between the two events is exactly equal to the time taken by light to travel from one to the other, the interval is zero; the two events are then situated on one part of the light-ray, unless no light happens to be passing that way."

Jim H. said...

...spukhafte Fernwirkung or spooky action at a distance.


"unless no light happens to be passing that way"—wouldn't that be a grand title (theme) for a story/novel.


Sing, Oh Muse...