Journals from the Cafe at Light
Spring Journal (1)
It is spring. Contours of events — no detail anymore — alone tell that she and I took the cliff walk at Newport. Martha, Danielle. A roomful of oscilloscopes — one cannot play favorites and survive. It is late July: the poincianas drop red petals to the asphalt. That little girl, that bruised knee, that khaki shirt smelling of sweat. The lawn to be cut, and the clippings raked into a pile and carried to the open land. (Danielle is underfoot.) The cups turn brown at the soft edges.
And Charles, next to the blue curtains in Danielle’s living room, gestures to make his point emphatic. A motorcycle padlocked to the fence above the trash dump. Danielle’s brown quilt. A caryatid or vase. Impressions that lead us nowhere: so long ago. Thick fever grass hiding holes, tentacled vermin, sharp rusty sheet-iron, etc. Only then does thought of hazard reach up and pinch the nerves. A tangle of words, or coat hangers. Morning glories open up purple streaked with white: a drift of the observation post, back and forth.
Hibiscus plants shield the untended ground of the open land. The daughters had grown into women. But earlier they would come out to the fence at my scream, short brown hair on the youngest, a pale face, like her father the old Mr Levine, retired now dead, on the middle daughter. (Danielle allowed me to pull her closer.) The father wore field shorts and boots at the end of an old man’s legs. A younger girl kissed me to feel her way. It was uncomfortable but she didn’t sob. There was the gully, once edges had been defined: fluid passage distinct from stationary sides, child from dirty water below, here and now ramparts from a litter of chronology. She got fed up.
Words into the mouth piece. Static moment similar to alcohol running low and night stalling in the midst of a crowded party. Things that were said. The stones cut right through the piano room where we spent most of our time in the first few years. Then, out into Brooklyn (when Tanya moved from the West Side with her English husband) and into Manhattan when they took the Chelsea apartment. The stones come from behind and whenever one looks back, they cease. Fog. Caught in mid-reflection, at the crossing point, what else to look for. It could go in so many directions. The several features join up in the end. Do they now. At any given point, the story begins to wash down the culvert. At any given point, it scampers past zinc and bamboo shacks propped near to flood waters; these shacks do not survive the rainy season. Residents rebuild them from pieces of wood washed down the gully and deposited in the mud after the waters drain off. A roof beam, a plank with plank with plank, makes a door. Beyond any given door, the stucco homes begin again until the residential district runs into the common open land of the Common; and after, the road rises or has been rising all along, for to the left is the deep valley of the Yallas River.
Unless one knows of it before hand, Escarpment Road, half naked youths chase dogs, one another, matchbox houses of the village inside the fold of the Warika Hills. Someone comes to the gate. Younger brothers and sisters go to the shop for tins of condensed milk. The bar shouts reggae music at 1:30, the sun beats down and beats the asphalt and beats the weeds and dirt. Trees like orphans. Broken glass on the road or the sidewalk. Electric poles stand out in the sun-glare. Line joins line. Line joins house. The cars, some extravagant, balloon in the heat.
Elms glitter over here on the other side of the plate glass. The library cools down in the spring. The leaves have that iridescent green typical of April, as one goes back to the swirl of letters and book jackets for more news. A peach moment returns to a peach basket. Ostrich plume ginger, the sculpture garden at Devon House, a white colonial mansion by the stoplight, select their own stage and so compose whatever stage they see fit. One boy meets another in the housing development just outside Paris. Bicycles in tandem along the airport road wheel into the haze. The cool pebbles of the stream lie untouched. Not by chance did the children decide to pack up and go, but the photographs, which turned up in the move, make plain the ones who saw the sun rise at Papine. That was the starting point for all trips to Cockpit Country, Newcastle, Mavis Bank, Blue Mountain Peak, name it. Knapsacks of chicken and corned beef sandwiches. The girls, because no hike can prosper without them, not in uniforms but in frocks, like the foliage. Up on the trail, we veer off to a knoll and sit for a while and sun breaks in on us. The valley spreads out below. Then back into the rooms.
Spring Journal (3)
The light persists, the noise persists, the isolated room where I sit writing these notes has an orange diffusion but whether of light or of sound — the distinction does not matter. Something ties me to these birds and to the life that they clamor about, in several tones, the different densities of chirping, from left to right. I stopped to listen to them, but how could I put a stop to restlessness as completely as their singing stops all questions of ontology? — part of an old discussion (“young men grappling with inexact terminology”) that I used to have with Charles. The palpable sweetness, the confusion in the evening, my exhausting reflections on personality and on Danielle left me open to the music, but only to a point, only so far as I disappeared and entered, having been caught off guard. Now, trying to read in the after-wash of their discord, I am pulled back from the middle of the choir, and back from any tranquility that might have flowed from them. I am of two hearts about the songbirds: one is with them and of the same throat, the other makes notes quietly and listens, but listens too attentively to hear what the innocent hear, a glass oblivion.
Destabilization suddenly coming on, the fear of thinking, of being beset by thoughts without possible concord or terminus, Danielle’s madness and my volatility, joined together in wedlock: the teeth to keep calm, to gather self into a dignity and to palm sweetness or surcease and to go on living the subsiding daylight into dusk and into tomorrow morning, where will this come from? The birds have gone in — how quiet it is! Thoughts out of control: Danielle tearing off her blouse in the street, thumping at me, changed into a beast of herself, the impossibility of calming her down: I hate you, me. We go through the Arab quarter at a trot, Danielle’s blouse is torn, my face burning, she heaves, grows quiet, there is nothing to say and both of us dread going back to our rented room on the third floor.
Spring Journal (5)
To say it all at once: past the row of hibiscus, the untended ground of the open land in front of the gully. Once inside this area, trousers tied at the cuff because of scorpions and beetles amid the long weeds, return to the clipped lawn was hazardous. The excitement of an outbound trip counters the fear of what lies to either side of the highway, just underfoot, as it were, and this explains how only in the midst of junk, thick fever grass hiding holes, vermin, sharp rusty sheet-iron, etc., did thought of hazard reach up and pinch our nerves. The gully itself, a graveyard for upcountry refuse — caravels of zinc and wood, tree limbs like torsos, old crates — in truth was no more than a widening gash at the outer limit of the property. The chasm grew more precipitous with each arrival of the rainy season until the footholds disappeared and the open land shrank. What made it family, also made it dangerous, because though one could slide to the bottom intact, getting out again was slippery business. The engineers came and filled in the eroded parts. They put up stone walls and paved the ground to improve drainage. Henceforth, things flowed, edges had been defined. It was safe to go out once the rains had stopped, to inspect the damage and to pay one’s respects to them. (The hero’s head sang even then of his love.)
Looking over the gully to the asphalt on the far side where the buses make slow passage full to the top, with market produce and tins, animals in cages, meant for the market at Cross Roads. Saturdays again found them squeezing pears and choosing yams from the crocus-bag tarpaulins spread before the stalls. Nor at this juncture, with its own point of view, could Danielle occupy the Claremont apartment, since only one episode, and this one alone, can come forward at a pop. The blue curtains have not yet been sewn by Tanya; the toy motorcyclist, a clown’s head and grimace, has not yet arrived from the West Coast. The amusing ornament collected by Danielle — such as, but they have disappeared — I climbed into her bed with my winter coat on. Earlier that evening: Charles gesturing in the living room (where the curtains hang) to make his point unmistakable; two French women French kissing after M*A*S*H; Tanya’s brown quilt and Tanya herself, foggy, boulder-shaped, and evil, countering the point. And even earlier: how rocks thrown across the channel fled through the bus windows lumbering up Old Hope Road; how pebbles from a sling-shot dug up the earth just short of ground doves (stupid, common). Bigger game, such as white wings and pea doves, nested up higher, and drew the boys to the foot of the hill, where bramble and stories begin. (Indifference to long nail-sharp spikes did not of course guarantee that one returned with a pullet.) White wings and pea doves were the first real prize we had.
One sees Norsemen through the pages of type as if through serial horizons, they multiply up and down, they cut across the line of sight. Similarly, names come back charred upon the spits of things. Customs were picked up overseas, assimilated, and applied to the vernacular. A noh musik dat. There were the girls: Michelle who had a small face, and Elaine, a smaller version of Danielle, and Sandra whose height grew to be more than her age, and Grace. And there were teachers, pock-marked and smelly, brown as the grass, the uniforms that the boys wore, plump tamarinds from a limb before a stone cracks into them. They break and jerk loose; and they fall to the floor of the common. Division takes place in the schoolroom and on the playing field. The parting from the womb stayed with them like a congenital tear in the eye, that growing up could succor and did not.
Turning to one cameo, several cameos jump forward demanding to be heard. Like monitoring a roomful of oscilloscopes against the cessation of the blip, one cannot play favorites and survive. Peels of reference, chips in a wash, in a catalogue of drift. A white powder settles. Contours of events — no detail anymore — alone tell that she and I took the cliff walk at Newport. Martha, and Martha. Horizontal not deep moments, a transformation of three dimensions into two. Wires connect the arms to several bells and to reach forward rings them arbitrarily. The tablecloth hides each piece of furniture secure in chaotic play.
The floors back then had just been redone and the piano stood in the bright light of the bay window, where her bed stands now. People with and without names watched the television. Girls became women, boys became. Everyone got married and moved to farms and gave birth to twins. The motorcycle is still tied to the fence above the trash dump but the girl herself, and her professional camera, grew apart from everyone and left. She might have crossed the Hudson River later in life, to get at the cheaper rents. But then again.