I know how I
want you to say goodbye:
by the circus tent with a big trapeze.
Tell me on a Sunday please.
-- The Mountain Goats, “Tell Me On A Sunday Please”
Tell me on a Sunday how, when you were a boy, the crushed cigarette packs in your bedroom drawer possessed the same earthy bitterness and bile as the sweet stink of skunk rising from a highway in June.
Tell me on a Sunday how one summer – how old could you have been? – you marveled at the ordinary miracle of an avocado growing with virile ferocity beyond the back door, understanding nothing about earth or seed or sun, while the hedges out front were kept trimmed with the same precise severity as your father’s hair, a geometry of rectitude and vigilance, the mulched earth below marred only by unwithering succulents and spiny yellow-tongued ornamental grasses, a single Japanese plum offering fruit so sour it hung there until it rotted.
Tell me on a Sunday how you rode your bike home from Ronnie’s Records with a teenager’s desolate joy, Catch Bull at Four or Desperado or Close to the Edge or Selling England By the Pound cradled beneath one arm, the exact same route each time because otherwise superstition wired your legs and arms with the pulse of an electric current, the metallic sting of a transistor radio’s nine-volt battery affixed to your tongue, the same route you’d take to the Crown Drugs and the 7-11 and to Clifton L. Ganus, the Church of Christ school you attended, where the parking lot was paved with chalky clam shells bleached so white that, when the sun was out, you had to shield your eyes against the glare.
Tell me on a Sunday how you and your little brother, when your great uncle moved in, slept on a sofa-bed in a room filled with shelves of Catholic self-help books and James Michener novels and National Geographic and the philosophical musings of Thomas Merton, Hans Küng, and Teilhard de Chardin, how one wall of the room was red brick because that room and the two above had been added on to the original house and you would wake up more mornings than not to a lizard scuttling diagonally brick-to-brick, floor-to-ceiling, or sometimes standing stock-still and staring, red throat obscenely swollen.
Tell me on a Sunday of your own geometry, not of vigilance but of shadow and erasure, of hesitation and desire, of your father’s photography manuals and magazines stacked and sprawled in the Helping Hands room, named for the tiny Catholic relief agency your mother invented as if from air, collecting and distributing clothes to Cuban refugees fleeing Castro, shirts and pants and dresses spilling from cardboard boxes beneath the shelves lined with medical tomes and ever more of Michener’s novels – The Fires of Spring, Sayonara, Hawaii – and with slide carousels in yellow and black boxes and the cameras your father collected, Leicas and Nikons and Hasselblads, and in velvet-lined black cases dozens of lenses powerful enough all told, you imagined, to photograph the most distant of stars or planets or constellations – or, as your father did, the smallest leaves, buds, and blossoms on the African violets arrayed on the dining room table, these squat plants with their hairy stems and smudged gray-green leaves as inexplicable a subject for art as the splayed wings of cockroaches or overcooked roast beef dryly perched beneath a blanket of aluminum foil or the dingy bathroom in the laundry room reserved for the colored maid, hardly worth a moment’s notice much less the scrutiny your father bestowed upon these flowers those ungodly silent pre-dawn hours he claimed for himself, drinking instant coffee and smoking Chesterfield Kings before heading off for the business of repairing broken bones and stitching torn tendons.
Tell me on a Sunday how the glossy pages of those photography magazines, with their psychedelic bursts of color and their decorous nudes, all line and curve and silhouette, the model’s faces turned away or shadowed or shrouded, skin as smooth and pristinely lifeless as glass or adorned in surreal double-exposures – sensuous lips hovering in the sky above a barren field, a pubis imbedded in the blunt base of a just-fired bullet – with portfolios of earnest portraits of debutantes or coal miners or sublime landscapes of silver-etched clouds above triumphant mountain peaks and pristine icy streams – tell me how these pages, endlessly flipped through, imprinted themselves again and again against your eye or in your brain, or whatever it is that makes of lens and retina, of synapse and nerve and cell, of the tips of your fingers and whatever other secret pathways you possess, an invitation to a particular sort of immensity and daring, a declaration that not simply beauty and desire but something more complete was to be found there, something that might save you from everything you suspected you needed saving from: sorrow and loneliness and longing and, well, you know, yourself.
Tell me on a Sunday, please, what you imagined all those years, how you tried to find solace when no solace was forthcoming, the Walt Whitman you carried one summer in your back blue jeans pocket, the wildflowers you collected and dried in a matchbox, the birds that followed you one tree to the next -- to herald your presence? to warn you from their nests? – as you walked along the London Avenue canal. What kind of triumphs did you imagine? What further greater losses?
Tell me on a Sunday, please, and not just on any Sunday but on one when the dogwoods and azaleas are in bloom, when the trees are unfurling their translucent watery leaves, when indescribably small and sweet white and purple and yellow and blue flowers blossom in the grass beneath your feet, why it is that you remain haunted by this single dark notion: that once, when you were young, perhaps still a child, you accidentally killed someone – a girl, perhaps – but have forgotten what happened, have made yourself forget, as one would do, of course, to escape such a horror, the burden of it, the impossibility of carrying on in the wake of such a monstrous act.
Tell me how that smoke used to feel in your lungs, inside your chest, the warmth of it. Tell me on a Sunday when all that remains for you, for me, is a final breath.