Sunday, November 04, 2007

Mark Jacobs, "My Letter to Sandy"

Mark Jacobs

My Letter to Sandy

So here it finally is, that letter I never got around to writing you. I’m thinking it to you, word by word, all the way to Buffalo. Because of my current and probably future situation, thinking is all I can manage. Though even if I could get to a computer, which I can’t, I don’t trust email. Somebody with evil intentions and unlimited memory is recording all the keystrokes. Take it from me, Sandy. Keep your important thoughts analogue.

I have this feeling the letter won’t get to you unless you’re at home. What happens if you left the apartment, or you left Buffalo altogether? Where would you go? You’re urban and traditional, and I don’t see you being happy anywhere but Black Rock. But I can’t think about that right now. I’m assuming you’re still in the same place on Creeley Street, and the landlord never fixed the windowsills so they’re still warped and flaking blue paint, and every morning you still put out hunks of bread soaked in milk for that yellow cat with the bad tail and the battered psyche.

Here’s the headline you’re probably waiting for: I’ll never get out of Turkey. Türkiye, the Turks call it. Just so you understand where I’m coming from. Going from, I guess I should say.

There’s a limit to the kindness of strangers, and I’m over it. These people are poor, but it’s not the small money to keep me that bothers them. The husband sharpens knives, he has a place in the market. The wife sews stuff. The old folks do other things, not sure what. The kids sell these brown baked items that look like swollen pretzels. They get by. But it’s not the money, it’s me being sick and foreign that’s getting to them.

At this point I need your help with a word. It has to do with what they lay over dead people, and sometimes it hangs over cities. It’s not a riddle, I just can’t come up with the word.

You used to tell me I had a hawk mind, and I felt flattered. Once you said it was a lizard mind, and I didn’t mind that, either, although I knew it was not exactly a compliment, or not the kind of candy compliment the smiley people give each other. All that’s gone. My strong mind, I mean. You’re thinking it must be the drugs but it’s not. In my opinion it’s mostly the sickness, something like ninety percent.

I would like to say a few things about dying, but first I need to talk about this smoke. The town, I can’t pronounce the name, sits in a bowl, and there’s been no wind for a week. So the gunk goes nowhere. It gets in my ears and eyes and nose, which I can handle. What I can’t take is the dirty feeling it gives me when I suck smoke down my throat. That’s partly why I’m sick, or why I don’t get any better. This is only December. Evidently the worst is still to come. January is the killer month, and February. If I could get past February, I’d have a chance.

I’m not into pretending anymore.

Here are three things I hope you will remember. One, people are kind, more than they aren’t. Two, I never stole anything. I only starting borrowing when I decided to go back home and needed cash, and I only borrowed from people it didn’t hurt. Three, I used to have a hawk mind, a lizard mind, a bad cat mind. With occasional gusts of insight.

Contrary to your predictions, I never got into the hard and heavy shit. Never found the need to. Smoke enough dope for long enough, hang out in some miserable mountain fantasy land, and you get the same results. Although like I say, in my opinion it’s mostly the sickness that’s fuzzing my brain, not drug residue in my system.

You should know that since leaving the shores of Babylon my eyes have witnessed several flashes of aggravated reality. I’m talking about moments that people might give twenty years of their life for. Anyway they would if their souls had eyes and ears and a mouth the way I think they must.

A Catholic school story I am moved to tell you. Just before Thomas Aquinas died he had a vision. The vision convinced him everything he’d done, written, amounted to nothing. So much thin straw in a high wind. When I left, I remember this argument we had where you told me I was wrong about America being the world’s imperial Babylon, and I told you how it might take a thousand years but a genuine people’s revolution was going to remake the world in the image of justice, and meantime I was going to take my stand with the oppressed, not the oppressors. All that. At the time, you thought I was posing, but I wasn’t. I believed what I said. Now, I hope you’ll take it in the right spirit when I admit that the actual real reason I left was to hunt me up a vision like St. Tom’s.

The world needs fewer agonized Catholics, is my contention and prayer.

This morning the family called in a kid who spoke some English to suggest politely that I get in touch with this American teacher who supposedly might help me. He teaches at some school on the other side of the city, I think. I went by the place once, when I was still mobile. The kids wear uniforms and sing songs. I say, fuck that noise. At some point my death in this house will become a gem, a blood-red ruby of inestimable value. The family will tell the story of my demise more often than I deserve. Once the inconvenience wears off, people like remembering the sort of sad and unfixable thing I seem to them to be.

Besides, if I got a little better, I could hustle enough cash to move west, towards Istanbul. From where I’m lying now, Istanbul is next door to Buffalo. First thing, I’d soak some bread in milk and put it out for the cat. Only cat I ever saw with fur the color of a battleship. But I can’t get all worked up about future plans.

Saying west makes me think of The Journey to the East. A high-risk book if ever I read one, and I can prove it. In India I met a girl who later killed herself because tongues of fire didn’t flash in her consciousness like they did for Buddha Hermann. I told her there was nothing wrong with her journey or her motives, she was just born in the wrong generation. The one time we went to bed there were fleas in the blanket. When I picked one from her head and threw it into a candle flame, she cried. To her credit, no? You were the one who said we have to resist the dark pleasure of inflicting pain (I give you credit for the quote when I think about such matters). But then Ruth, her name I’m almost positive was Ruth, kept kicking herself for what she called excessive moral compunction over the killing of an insect. Are fleas insects, I wonder?

My head used to be a bird of prey. That was one of the features about me that attracted you. You admitted it the same night we saw shooting stars out over Lake Erie.

Right now, you’re stuffing dirty clothes into a duffel bag. Not because you’re leaving home. You’re only going to the laundromat, the one with the Salvadoran manager who was always watching you fold your underwear until you told him to cast his lecherous eyes elsewhere. Although it’s possible he got another job by now. His name may have been Luis. One thing is certain. Sunlight through the kitchen window makes bright butterflies of your hands while you’re stuffing the duffel.

People are kind. When I told these people I didn’t want help from the teacher at the school, where they have trees on both sides of the drive going up to a big white building, they accepted it gracefully. They are fatalists. Also, kind as they are, they’re interested in the process. How long can it be before I die?

I’m pretty sure I don’t have hepatitis, but maybe I do. Have it.

One other thing worth mentioning. In fourth grade, the nun told our class when we died we would all get together in one big room in Heaven and watch movies of the lives of every single individual who ever lived. Since we would already be in eternity, there would be no hurry. Her idea was to worry us into behaving, so that the movies they ran of us in Heaven would not embarrass our family or reflect poorly on her teaching. But I never got past the thought of how long it would take to show all those movies. The idea of so much time infinitely spooling time appalled me. At the same time I assumed it would be a sin to be bored by so much film.

If it happens, if the nun was right after all, my idea is to jump up when the big argument with my father comes on the screen and distract everybody. I can’t remember what we argued over, but it probably had something to do with Latin, which I don’t remember if you knew he taught forever. He had this complicated thing going on in his head all the time about cultures degenerating. It could make him cry. You should have known my old man. I should have, too.

Pretty soon now, things will come to a head. The whole family has gathered around me. The father has brought home his knives. I can hear that slippery scraping sharpness of blades on the whetstone. The mother is probably sewing, she always is. I have a hunch she’s sewing something to bury me in. The old folks are fussing with bread and something to drink. Tea, maybe. The Turks drink a lot of tea. The kids are trying to be quiet but can’t be. Things are coming to a head. I can never tell if it’s day or night any more because of the smoke, not what’s outside so much as the stuff on the inside.

Pall. That’s the word I couldn’t come up with. Here it is, Sandy. Spread it gently over the body.

I haven’t talked about pain because you never liked melodrama, which I respected about you. Anyway most of the time I’m hanging around on this weird threshold between befuddlement and sleep, so it doesn’t hurt as much as it could.

I want to think this is how it was for St. Thomas. He expected a spangled flaming God, and all he saw was a handful of people worrying him, being kind. Enough. I never stole, I borrowed. Long term. I don’t believe they really show movies in Heaven. The smoke is awful, especially on the inside. I appreciate how the family is watching me, thinking about me. It’s not that they wish I would die. I’m a windfall for them. I’m entertainment. I hate the smoke inside as much as I hate that scraping-on-the-whetstone sound.

If you get this, I hereby bequeath everything I ever thought to you.

How could you not get it?

Tell me I’m right, this is the way it was for St. Thomas. The vision doesn’t come in the colors you expected. But I agree with him. Straw in the wind. You can’t help but notice that people are kind, pretty much. I’m almost certain the mother is sewing something to bury me in. That is what I want to keep in a quiet spot in my darker mind, that people are kind.

Mark Jacobs has published over 70 stories in commercial and literary magazines including The Atlantic Monthly and The Iowa Review. His most recent book is A Handful of Kings, from Simon and Schuster. He plays lead guitar in The Double Crossed Band

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To "mi Gran amigo Marquitos", as Reinaldo Godoy said that weekend we played baseball with the families in SJN.
Remember the lefty who played inspired guitar on one that was strung for right-handed musicians?
I read this, and saw "The Constant Gardener" during the past twenty-four hours.
My youngest daughter told us of her plans to marry in the same timespace.
You're right - it's all straw.