…is a story of mine that appeared 12/9/10 on Metazen, but those archives have died. So here it is.
I DON’T TRASH MY OWN LIFE
My friend Bertie goes
My friend Marlene goes on and on about tragedy and catastrophe and how “profoundly essential” it is to appreciate and maintain the distinction between them.
My Friend Marlene
The Fisherman’s Wife
She comes over in the evenings when Dave’s on duty at the Arco and sits out on the porch with one bent leg propped up against the railing and all the time she talks, in this awful new ironic voice, I watch that deliberate, showoffy twitch of the big muscle above her knee. “There’s nothing at all heroic about me,” she says, and I couldn’t agree more.
I’m this terrifically observant character with a pretty good vocabulary considering how salt-of-the-earth and Arcoish I am. I’m supposed to give this interesting resonance to the story of the much more complex (and named against type!) Marlene, although how the hell I’m going to resonate when I’m much too common-sense to be sympathetic to
first p. Marlene??
“The mental breakdown,” I told the psychiatrist, with a ghastly smile
Martini, if that really was his name
Martell was one of those hit-the-ground-running “eclectic” young shrinks. “I’ll go with Freud, I’ll try conditioning, hypnosis, drugs, heck, I’ll do an Indian rain dance—just kidding!—but here’s the point: [his face suddenly lost five years it could ill afford as he became intensely serious, pounding the desk with his fist on every other word] we’ve got to get you out of this depression…and we’ll do it any way we can.”
I gave him my best shot.
“The mental breakdown,” I said, with what felt like a ghastly smile, “has taken the place of death in the modern imagination. The Romance of the Crackup. Some day, assuming there really is a future—which is, of course, the subject of our present disagreement—[here I zapped him and myself with a witchy cackle horrible smile smile even more hideous than the other one some visible flinch-inducing tic] everybody will look back on all these lushly detailed nervous collapses and goggle at our sentimentality. They’ll seem just as ludicrous as the death of Little Nell.”
“Marlene,” said Martell
“Joanna,” said Martell
“Marlene,” said Weatherwax, “stop it.”
“You know the kind I mean,” I said. “Somebody slashes his wrists or goes into rehab or takes off his clothes in a Starbucks. Sobs at a board meeting. Smashes glass. They carry him away and he’s ranting or he’s just totally vacant and everybody else, all the mourners, stand around chanting, “He couldn’t cope! He couldn’t cope!”
“What’s so fascinating about going nuts? Nothing! Not a goddamn thing! As the subject of a novel, it’s just as engaging as curvature of the
Marlene knew the difference between tragedy and catastrophe. Tragedy involved a fatal flaw in character leading inexorably to personal destruction. Tragedy was fascinating and instructive and at its center were heroes. Catastrophe stuck blindly and without regard to personal merit, creating victims, not heroes, all of whom had legitimate cause to whine Why me? Caravaggio’s poor old humiliated St. Peter, upside down on the cross, ignored and terrified, was the victim of catastrophe.
Marlene composed these thoughts in the examination room recently abandoned by her gynecologist, Dr. Martini. Muzak invaded even this airless place, oozing in under the door like some noxious gas, needling her to tears with its idiot irony. She wept with her head tilted back so that most of the tears evaporated, and flipped away with the tips of her index fingers the little pools collecting beneath her eyes, as though, with measured dignity, flinging off the remains of a shaving cream pie.
She and Angler would never have children. She would never have any man’s child. The thing wrong with her—immunity to sperm—was so sinister and absurd
1. Barrenness as metaphor
2. P.O.V. avoid third p
3. Tone—for god’s sake
Do you know what it’s like to be barren in this country in this century? It’s like being dyslexic in Southern California illiterate in the deep South nobody notices waking up with two heads on a planet where everybody’s got two heads being anorexic anywhere in the United States being a fish and somebody steals your bicycle
Do you know what it’s like to be barren in this country in this century? It’s like nothing else in the world SO METAPHOR FOR WHAT???
I let people think I divorced Marlene because she couldn’t give me any kids. Some spasm of gallantry, I guess. Or laziness, because the truth is too complicated.
At first I admired her anger, the toughness, the bitterness of her immediate response. This was the first time she had ever gotten really bad news, but she scrambled to her feet and started right in counterpunching. Only she never stopped. She just got better at it. She told the story to anyone who would listen, and again at first I didn’t mind, but one night at a dinner party I watched her rein in the conversation and lead it into the old barn, and she was enjoying herself. She seemed to believe that bad luck gave her some kind of natural authority. My wife was a fool. She felt real pain all right, but she paraded it too. She even made a farce out of her own suicide attempt. She used everything. It was sicken
It occurs to me now that the old distinctions between tragedy and catastrophe don’t hold up. I mean, if mortality isn’t a fatal flaw, I don’t know what is. Everybody’s a hero, in my book. Even me, despite appearances, what with all this gauze on my wrists and everything
Marlene does give birth to something (self, messiah, monstrous herald of the apocalypse)—final image of her prone on the earth eating dirt:
There wasn’t enough of anything in the world to fill her up.
I had this friend. I’ll call her Marlene. What with one thing and another she’d had a pretty hard time, for a white person. She and her husband wanted kids real bad, only there was something wrong, some pitiful thing that nobody knew what it even meant, and then her husband left her. She said it was her fault and I believe it. Then she cracked up.
I got to know her because she was in the hospital bed next to my stepchild JoAnn, who claimed she drank a whole quart of Fantastik when that fool Martell ran off with her money. (I told that doctor “You try and drink a quart of Fantastick. She’s just putting on a show.” He said it didn’t matter, that it was a cry for help. I said give me five minutes alone with that girl and she’ll cry for help.) Anyway, JoAnn and Marlene got friendly in the hospital, and then somehow I got stuck with her, Marlene, when JoAnn moved to Knoxville.
We got pretty close, considering we weren’t on the same level. I liked her fine, but she needed the friendship more than I did. I’ve got enough children of my own. Sometimes, when she wasn’t talking about herself, she’d get me to tell about the old farm, or my first marriage, or my Sarah that died, or my brother’s troubles. She was always saying I ought to write it down. When I had my hysterectomy she came over every night and fed my family. They made a big joke out of her cooking, but she was a pretty good friend.
Summer evenings when Franklin was at the Arco we’d sit out on the porch and drink beer and play cribbage or gin. She could really handle the cards. Even when she was drunk those cards just flew too fast to keep count, and she fanned them up and down when she shuffled, and cut one-handed, like a magician. She had what my Daddy called smart hands. It’s funny what you remember about people. I can’t see her face any more or hear her voice, but I can still picture those smart white hands. She couldn’t play worth a damn though.
She moved away, finally, to the city. She said she needed to get some perspective on things and only distance would do it. Once in a while she writes, and sends me funny pictures of herself. I miss her a little, but it’s just like Marlene not to stand up to the camera like an ordinary human being. There’ll be a big group of people and you can just make her out on the end with somebody’s arm in front of her mouth. Or “A Candid Shot At Work” and it’s just an apartment building with an arrow drawn in pointing to one of the windows. Or Marlene by herself, but it’s so out of focus you wouldn’t know her. This one’s just a flat out picture of a pile of junk on the sidewalk, an old couch with a lot of boxes and lamps and things and a busted TV on top of it, only if you look hard you see her little old foot sticking out behind on the right side. I showed the picture to Franklin, and all he’d say was, she never looked better
All right, here it is. Number one, I’m not even a woman. Surprised? Of course you are. The naive reader would be. Number two, there’s nothing wrong with me or my wife. We’ve got three kids, and there’s nothing wrong with them. I don’t even know anybody who can’t have kids. The guy two houses down and his wife, Grace, don’t have kids, but that’s not the same thing, and neither of them has that Secret Sorrow look. As a matter of fact they look pretty smug.
All I did was, I read this article online a month or so ago, about these women who had “sperm immunity,” and it stuck in my mind, because it’s zeitgeisty. It’s a gift. It’s got everything—comic horror, absurdity, implicit reference to the nuclear threat, metaphysics (tragedy = catastrophe), plus the woman thing. Womanwise it’s better than breast cancer, and that’s been done to death already.
I know it’s going to go. I just have to freewrite into it. The point is, I’m a writer, I make things up. I don’t trash my own life. That’s not writing. I take a little seed, like that online thing, and nurture it, and maybe it grows and maybe it doesn’t, but the point is: I’m a storyteller, a fictionist, a fabricator, a fabulist. Who knows why some little thing will catch my eye? It’s all in the myth-making subconscious. The true writer learns to let his subconscious out. It’s like taking the leash off a bulldog; and if that bulldog sees something he wants, like the rolled up newspaper on the porch next door, then you have to let him just grab it in his teeth and run with it. Actually it’s the guy next door who has the bulldog. I have to start watching for the paper girl about 3:00 in the afternoon so that I can read my own newspaper without the A section chewed up and black with drool. I hate that goddamn dog. But the point is: