Thirteen Ways of Looking
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
The first is hidden high in a mahogany bookcase. It shows the full expanse of room where he lies sleeping on a queensize bed among a heap of pillows.
The headboard is intricately carved. The bedframe, sleigh-shaped. The duvet, Amish-patterned. An urn sits on the left bedside table, a stack of books on the right. An antique lantern clock with exposed weights and pulleys is hung on the wall near a long silver mirror, freckled and browned with age. Beneath the mirror, tucked in a corner, almost hidden from view, is a small oxygen tank.
Half a dozen pillows are placed in the armchair, away from the bed. Several cushions rest on an oak chair with leather armrests.
The writing table sits near the doorway, with a number of papers neatly towered, a silver letter opener, a seal embosser, an open laptop. There is a pipe on the desk but no tobacco box, matches, or ashtray.
The artwork is contemporary: three urban landscapes, sharp lines and blocks, and a small abstract seascape on the wall by the bathroom door.
Amid it all, he lies lumpen in the bed, a blanket-shape, his head little more than a blur.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
I was born in the middle of my very first argument. He should rise, find a notebook, scribble the phrase down, but it’s frigid in the room and the heating hasn’t yet kicked on, so he’d rather not move. But at least the sheets are tight and warm. Perhaps Sally came in to re-tuck him, since he seems, now, to remember the journey, or the several journeys, or—more to the point—the endless voyages to the bathroom. I was born in the middle of my last epic voyage. Above him, the ceiling fan turns. The handymen have reversed its usual spin. But how is it that a reverse-spinning fan creates warmth? Something to do with the updraft of air and the way a current flows. If only we could catch the draft, reverse our spin. I was born in the middle of my first jury argument. Strange to rethink the memoirs at this age, but what else is there to do? It was a surprise that the original book didn’t sell well, back in the eighties, nicely published, nicely packaged, nicely edited. All the niceties. Even with a modesty pill he would have thought it would sell a few copies here and there, but it ended up, after three months, on the remainder tables. I was born in the middle of my first public failure. But when was it really, truly? I was born the first time I made love to Eileen. I was born when I touched the hand of my baby son Elliot. I was born when I sat in the cockpit of a Curtiss SOC-3. Oh, bullshit really. Bullshit with two capital L’s. Truthfully he was born in the middle of that first case when he stood in front of the Brooklyn court, a fresh-plucked assistant DA, and he shaped the words exactly the way he had dreamed, and they entered the air, and he could feel the way they fluttered, and what they did to the faces of all the all-male jury, and what they did, also, to the sympathetic judge who beamed with something akin to pride. A very solid argument, Mr. Mendelssohn. He knew right then he would never turn away. The law was what he was made for. How many eons ago now? He should write it down. But that’s the problem with age, isn’t it? You have the feeling, but not the dates. Find the dates, you lose the feeling.
A pencil and some paper, Sally, my dear, is that too much to ask? I was born in the middle of my very first memory loss. Why, oh, why is there is never any paper by the bedside? Maybe I should use a tape recorder? One of those little digital marvels. Perhaps there’s one on my BlackBerry—it has, after all, everything else. He has taken, recently, to tucking it into his pajama pocket where it remains during the night, the little red light pulsing. A wondrous machine, it brings news of all the latest triumphs and terrors while he dozes and snores. Coups and wars and revolutions and rebellions and other sundry sadnesses all plotting their escape from the comfort of his bed.
Interesting that. They design the pajamas so the pocket sits on the left-hand side, over the heart. Something medical perhaps? A little compartment for the doctor to search. Somewhere to hold the stents and tubes and pills in case of attack. The accoutrements of age. He should ask his old friend Dr. Marion. Why is the pocket over the heart, Jim? Maybe it’s just a tic of fashion. Who in the world invented pockets for pajamas anyway? And for what purpose? A place for a little extra bread or cracker or toast in case we get hungry during the night? A spot for the love letters from long ago? A slipcase for the alter ego, waiting, out there, in the wings?
Oh, the mind is wandering, plotting its escape: out the frosted window and away. And who was it, anyway, invented the cool side of the pillow?
He moves his toes a little in the sheets, rubs them together slowly, lets the warmth crawl up through him. He has never understood the heating systems in New York. All these underground steam pipes and oil trucks and board meetings about boilers, and Nobel-winning engineers, and smarty-pants architects, and global-heating specialists, a veritable brain trust, geniuses every one, and still all you get is a terrible clack clack clack in the morning. Dante in the basement, trying to prime the pipes. Good God, you’d think that in the twenty-first century they’d be able to solve the mystery of the fucking heating, excuse my French, my Polish, my Lithuanian, but no, they can’t, they won’t, never have, possibly never will. They don’t turn the boiler on until five in the morning unless it’s eastern Siberia outside. The building’s superintendent is a chess master, hails from Sarajevo, once played against Spassky, boasts about his brain capacity, says he’s a member of Mensa, but even he can’t get the goddamn heating going?
He grabs the BlackBerry, keys it alive. Twenty-two minutes still before the pipes kick on properly. He is tempted to break his ritual, do an early check of the news and his e-mail, but he slides the BlackBerry back into his pajama pocket. I was born in the middle of my first jury argument and I came out onto Court Street with a spring in my step. Not quite true. There was never much of a spring in my step, even in those days. Always lagging a pace behind. Not quite Joe DiMaggio or Jesse Owens or Wilt Chamberlain or anyone else for that matter. The spring was kept coiled, instead, in the language, the intonation, the shape of his words. He sometimes stayed up all night at the mahogany desk, crafting lines. He had wanted, when younger, to be a writer. The fountain of Helicon. I was born in the middle of my first contradiction. Great arguments had nothing to do with substance. It was all about style. The right word at the right time. All fools know that a touch of fancy language can make any stupidity shine. In court he would study the jury’s faces to see what fine words he might slip under their skin. The grace of an orator and the shape of a snake, said a colleague once, or was it the shape of an orator and the grace of a snake? A compliment anyway. Even a snake has its sibilant slither.
Eileen loved reading his judgments, especially in the later years, after he was promoted to the Kings County Supreme Court, when one newspaper or the other was always out to get him, The Village Voice, The New York Times, that chip-choppity New Amsterdam rag, what was it called? Not the Brooklyn Eagle, that’s dead long ago. They cartooned him once as a praying mantis. He hated the face they gave him, the pouchy cheeks, the spectacles perched on his nose, the little round sling of belly as he chomped away on another praying mantis. Fools. They got it wrong. Only the female eats the male, after a bout of love. Still and all, it was hardly complimentary.
And why was it that they always portrayed judges as portly mountains of flesh? He was always as skinny as they came. A beanpole. A scarecrow. More fat, said Eileen, on a butcher’s knife. But the cartoonists and even the courtroom artists insisted on giving him a bit of jowl, or a touch of paunch. It annoyed Eileen no end. She even started cutting back on the calories until he could hardly see himself sideways in the mirror. He used to think that the great grace of old age would be the giving up of vanity, but it is apparent even more these days: the sag of skin, the wrinkles, the eyes surprised by the sight of himself. He caught a glimpse in the mirror the other day, and how in tarnation did I acquire the face of my father’s father? The years don’t so much arrive, they gatecrash, they breeze through the door and leave their devastation, all the empty crockery, the broken veins, sunken eyepools, aching gums, but who is he to complain, he’s had plenty of years to get used to it, he was hardly a handsome Harry in the first place, and anyway he got the girl, he bowled her over, he won her heart, snagged her, yes, I was born in the middle of my first great love.
He lets his arm fall over to the other side of the bed. Saudade. A good word that. Portuguese. Get you close, Eileen. Come snuggle in here beside me. Never a truer word. The longing for what has become absent.
She always said that his early court performances in Brooklyn were full of patience, guile, and cunning. A literary reference somehow—she was a fan of Joyce. Silence and exile. At home every morning she ironed his shirts and starched his collars and, with each case he won, she bought him a volume of poetry and a brand-new tie from the shop on Montague Street. He could have strung them from here to the Asian sweatshop: the ties, that is, not the poems. Eileen must have kept the Gucci factory girls alive, the number of cravats he had hanging in his closet, perfectly arranged, neatly coded and layered. Her dark hair, her pert little nose, the single mole on the rim of her cheek. She was lovely once and always, like the girl from the song. Lovely once and always, moonlight in her hair. There are times he still spritzes a tiny bit of perfume in her pillow, just to inhale and pretend she’s still there. Sentimental, of course, but what’s life without sentiment? And let’s face it, when is the last time he had a bout of good old-fashioned lust?
Consult the BlackBerry, it will know. It does, after all, seem to know everything else: wayward sons, broken-hearted daughters, another spill in the Gulf.
He can hear Sally, already up and at it in the kitchen. The rattle of the spoons. The slide of the saucer. The touch of the teacup. The ping of the orange glass. The juicer being yanked from the cupboard. The soft sigh of the fridge’s rubber tubing. The creak of the bottom drawer. The carrots coming out, the strawberries, the pineapple, the oranges, and then a serious clank of ice. The juice. Sally says he should call it a smoothie, but he doesn’t like the word, simple as that, nothing smooth about it. He was on a shuffle in the park the other day—no other word, every day a shuffle now—and he saw a young woman at the park benches near the reservoir with the word Juicy scrawled in pink across her rear end, and he had to admit, even at his age, that it wasn’t far from the truth. With all apologies to Eileen, of course, and Sally too, and Rachel, and Riva, and Denise, and MaryBeth, and Ava, no doubt, and Oprah, and Brigitte, and even Simone de Beauvoir, why not, and all the other women of the world, sorry all, but it was indeed rather juicy, the way it bounced, with the little boundary of dark skin above, and the territory of shake below, and there was a time, long ago, when he could’ve squeezed a thing or two out of that, oh don’t talk to me of smoothies. He had a reputation, but it was nothing but harmless fun. He never strayed, though he had to admit he leaned a little. Sorry, Eileen, I leaned, I leaned, I leaned. It was his more conservative colleagues in the court who gave him the evil eye. A bunch of shriveled-up prunes, or prudes, or both—how in the world, beyond party politics, did they ever get elected? What did they think, that a man must hide his life in the judge’s shroud? That he has to pop the errant head back under the shell? That the only noise he’d make was the gavel? No, no, no, it was all about taking the rind of life. Extract the liquid. Forget the pulp. Juice it up. The Jew’s Juice. A smoothie.
Oh, the whirl of the mind. Sorry, Eileen. I was passionate once, and that’s the word. Flirtatious maybe even. Nothing more. Never one to harass. That was something he passed on to young Elliot instead. More’s the pity. Look at that poor boy now. But enough of all that. It’s no way to start the day, with his errant son, his wandering eyes, hands, ears, throat, wallet.
He can hear the faint ticking begi. Come, heat, hurry. Rise up the pipes.
Why is it that New York never produced some boy genius to solve the heating problem? You’d think that with all the children born in this thumping metropolis that at least one of them would get miffed about the clank of pipes and the hiss of steam? That they’d solve their everyday dilemma? But no, no, no. Off they go and make their millions on Wall Street and Broadway and in Palo Alto and Los Alamos and wherever else, and still they come home to an apartment designed for cavemen.
What is this godforsaken apartment worth anyway? Half a million twenty-seven years ago. Sold the brownstone on Willow Street and made the trek to the Upper East Side. All to make Eileen happy. She loved strolling by the Great Lawn, taking her ease around the reservoir, going on jaunts down to Greenberg’s bakery. She even put a mezuzah by the front door. To protect the investment as much as anything else. Two million dollars now, they say, two point two maybe, two point four, but they can’t get the heating on before five in the morning? We can put a black man in the White House but we still can’t get toasty? We can send a mission to Mars but we have to freeze a good man’s cojones off on East Eighty-sixth Street? We can fit our BlackBerrys into our heart-side pajama pockets, but we can’t guide the steam up through the walls without a racket?
Copyright © 2015 by Colum McCann. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.