Excerpt from 'Am I Alone Here?'
Am I Alone Here?
Notes On Living to Read and Reading to Live
By Peter Orner, Eric Orner
All rights reserved.
1. Sometimes I Believe We Are Being Tested,
Chekhov's Way of Dying,
A Bachelor Uncle,
Winter in September,
The Lonely Voice,
Stray Thoughts on Kafka,
Eudora Welty, Badass,
Walser on Mission Street,
On the Beauty of Not Writing or An Unnecessary Homage to Juan Rulfo,
2. Let Me Cook You an Egg,
Upper Moose Lake, 1990,
My Father's Gloves,
While Reading Imre Kertész,
Under All This Noise,
Hit and Run,
Carter on Borden,
The Infinite Passion of Gina Berriault,
Since the Beginning of Time,
Surviving the Lives We Have,
Every Grief-Soaked Word,
A Black Boy, a White Boy,
A Small Note from Haiti,
3. And Here You Are Climbing Trees,
Mad Passionate True Love,
Frederick the Great,
An American Writer: Victor Martinez,
Cheever in Albania,
All Lives Are Interesting,
Sisters and Brothers,
What Feels Like the World,
Virgie Walking Away,
Early Morning Thoughts on Ahab,
All Fathers Are Fictional,
Ronald A. Orner,
Letter from New Melleray, Iowa,
A Palm-of-the-Hand Story,
Night Train to Split,
Father's Death: The Final Version,
Sources and Notes on the Notes,
Free eBook Companion,
SOMETIMES I BELIEVE WE ARE BEING TESTED
Hadn't my own experience taught me that no word can say as much as silence?
— Yasunari Kawabata, "Silence"
CHEKHOV'S WAY OF DYING
I'm in the cafeteria of San Francisco General Hospital. I come here once in a while. It's a nice place to be distracted. I've been thinking about Chekhov, or trying to. I keep getting distracted. I have also come here today because I'm following up on a notion that in a hospital I'm closer to death than when I sit distracted in other places. I've seen no death today in this cafeteria. I've seen salads. Pudding. One of the doctors across the table from me is eating a bowl of strawberries while she tells another doctor about a third doctor's relationship with, it seems, a fourth doctor. Married, kids.
"She's so hard to talk to sometimes because her logic is so flawed. The crap she puts up with boggles the mind."
"Where's he based, this promiscuous pediatrician?"
"Apollo on his mountain. Should have guessed. Prick. Comes down and slums it at General."
Some patients down at the other end of the table keep high-fiving each other. I can't make out what they're celebrating. There — they did it again. High-five! There's also a man doing laps around the cafeteria, shouting into a cell phone. I've seen him here before. "I'm telling you," he shouts, "it's the military industrial prison complex. Eisenhower warned us of this in his final State of the Union. Ike, who would have thought he'd be the one ..."
Chekhov is sometimes called with, to my ear, a tinge of dismissal a "realistic" writer. As if Chekhov was merely the sort of writer, a realistic sort of writer, who merely records what he sees. He does it pretty well — if you like that sort of thing. Realism (or realisticism?) is what is, plain and simple. I wonder if this idea doesn't give short shrift to experience itself by suggesting that there is some kind of objective reality that is the same for everybody.
And I don't just mean the guy talking about President Eisenhower. Another lap. Here he comes again. No, wait. Now he's talking to Eisenhower. No, sir, they didn't heed you, sir. Not Lockheed Martin, not McDonnell Douglas, not Congress, nobody; they took your prophecy and stuffed it down the throats of we the people, plunked down another $3.5 million for a fighter jet — how many meatballs is that? Johnson said guns and butter, but he lied, while you, sir, you had the courage to call a spade a spade and nobody ever gave you a speck of credit because of course you helped create the mess in the first place, but at least you spelled it ... No, sir, please, no false modesty, it was you ...
His reality (though pretty lucid, seems to me) is clearly different, somewhere far away, and though I would love to hear the grandfatherly voice he's communing with on the other end of that long-dead cell phone, what I'm trying to say is that your way of experiencing the world is subtly and vastly different from mine or the strawberry-eating doctor's or the high-fivers', and that these alternate realities — the world seen through the muck of billions of different brains — encompass much of the wonder and freakishness of being alive.
Chekhov is as realistic a writer as Kafka, and vice versa. I read "The Metamorphosis" not as an allegory but as a rough morning. Gregor Samsa, you might want to call in sick today. Yet Chekhov, in his unobtrusive way, is often gloriously weirder. It's all in the things he notices about human beings, and there is nothing Chekhov does not notice. Few writers in history have been as gifted a noticer.
In 1890, Chekhov traveled to Siberia to examine and document conditions in the vast prison archipelago. It was a trip that biographers argue was terrible for his shaky health. The thirty-year-old Chekhov was already suffering from tuberculosis. Most likely nobody knew this better than Chekhov the doctor, but Chekhov the writer, Chekhov the citizen, was determined to observe firsthand the largest prison ever created. He'd go to Siberia if it killed him. The book-length investigation that resulted, Sakhalin Island, disappointed contemporary critics because it wasn't "Chekhovian" enough. But here, too, the man's eye is peerless.
Traveling with me on the anchor steamer to Sakhalin was a convict in leg irons who murdered his wife. His daughter, a motherless little girl, aged six, was with him. I watched him when he came down from the upper deck to the WC, the little girl and the soldier with his rifle waited outside the door. When the convict climbed back up again, the girl clambered up behind him, hanging on to his fetters.
Chekhov is on a stated mission. Still, what rivets his attention is this tiny drama — tiny, but monumental — a little girl waiting outside the bathroom door for her father, a man who killed her mother. Chekhov makes no judgment about this moment, and we never meet these two again, and yet here they are, for all time, a prisoner and his little daughter.
The range and depth of this allegedly realistic writer is so vast, and so unprecedented, that if you feel as though by reading a bit of Chekhov you get the idea, you are missing out on a universe. It's like reading the first few lines of Genesis and thinking, Yeah, yeah, Eve eats an apple and all hell breaks loose for mankind, I think I got it. I'm no maverick. Who doesn't love Chekhov? Woody Allen once said:
I'm crazy about Chekhov. I never knew anybody that wasn't! People may not like Tolstoy. There are some people I know that don't like Dostoevsky, don't like Proust or Kafka or Joyce or T. S. Eliot. But I've never met anybody that didn't adore Chekhov.
But isn't there something inherently suspect about being the writer everybody professes to admire? My theory is this: Easy to love from afar. Chekhov would be considerably less beloved if he wasn't so underread. You can't read "Lady with the Pet Dog" and call it a day. I'm thinking about the stories, the hundreds of lesser-known stories — not the five plays — and specifically of his incomparable late stories, when his work became considerably denser, often more sober, never without humor, yet wider in scope. It was as though, in his few remaining years, style itself became less and less important to him. These last stories seem, at first, almost to plod forward, until you realize — I'm not sure how to describe this exactly — that the pacing of the story has begun to match the cadence of your own breathing.
In 1902, the year Chekhov finished his second-to-last story, "The Bishop," He wrote to his wife, the actress Olga Knipper:
There's a frenzied wind blowing. I can't work. The weather has worn me out. I'm ready to lie down and bite my pillow.
He was forty-one. He had three years left.
As in many stories I can't live without, on the surface at least, not all that much happens. An important man — a bishop — reunites with his old mother, whom he hasn't seen in many years. Soon, as the reader knows from practically the first sentence, the bishop will die, and when he does, he passes without commotion in the course of an ordinary day. We'll all go the same way. You and me and the strawberry-eating doctor and the guy on the dead cell phone will die on a day when other people who haven't died will spend the morning answering a few e-mails before brushing the hair out of their eyes and thinking, Damn, it's already time for a haircut? I just had one the other —
So no, nothing earth-shattering occurs in "The Bishop," except that another human being leaves the scene of his life.
Dying, as opposed to death, you don't need me to tell you, is an isolating experience. It will separate us from those we love and those who love us. Nothing like a hospital visit to a dying parent to illustrate the demarcation line from those on the way out and those still here.
And when I think of my own death, I think of the people I'll leave behind, but I also mourn the impending loss of my routines. What struck me most today when I reread "The Bishop" was all the inconsequential things I won't do after I am gone. I won't wander the Mission District and rant stupidly, in my own head, about gentrification. The horrors never cease. The techies reap destruction. What? Roosevelt Tamale Parlor is gone? It's over. San Francisco is over. I won't sleepwalk into the kitchen for a Granny Smith in the middle of the night, and then eat it in bed, listening to the loudness of my own crunchings. I won't scratch the dog's pink belly and watch her go, erotically, apeshit. And this is the most tender and sorrowful aspect of "The Bishop." I would like to say terrifying also, but the bishop's dying days aren't scary, nor are they especially calm. They're plain normal. On Holy Thursday he officiates at church. He reads the gospels. He participates in the washing of the feet. He visits the widow of a general. He is driven in a carriage back home to the monastery. He drinks tea. He answers mail. He resolves a couple of petty disputes. He looks over some other documents. What documents they were! They came to him by the hundreds, thousands. He takes to his bed. He dies.
Next day was Easter Sunday. There were forty-two churches and six monasteries in the town; the sonorous, joyful clang of the bells hung over the town from morning till night unceasingly, setting the spring air aquiver; the birds were singing, the sun was shining brightly. The big market square was noisy, swings were going, barrel organs were playing, accordions were squeaking, drunken voices were shouting.
But let's back up a little and linger longer with the man while he's still with us. And let's not be so deferential, either. If there is tension in this story, it's the fact that everyone, including his old mother (whom he has not seen in eight years), kisses the bishop's ass. Nobody will just talk to him like a regular guy. He wants a mother, not another fawning congregant.
His mood suddenly changed. He looked at his mother and could not understand how she had come by that respectfulness, that timid expression on her face: what was it for?
The only people who treat him like an ordinary person are old Father Sisoi, a man the bishop appreciates but at the same time dismisses as tedious and nonsensical, and his young niece, Katya. It's Katya who finally levels with him about why his mother has shown up out of the blue like this after all this time. The family back home needs his support. She's come for cash.
"Your holiness," she said in a shrill voice, by now weeping bitterly, "Uncle, Mother and all of us are left very wretched ... Give us a little money ... do be kind ... Uncle darling ..."
The kid's candor deeply moves the bishop and he agrees to help. After Easter, he says, we'll talk about it, child. The present action of the story revolves around the last mortal days of the bishop. But what makes this story so vivid, so alive, so celebratory, aren't the things the bishop does but the things he remembers.
I'll give a single minor, yet remarkable example, and then I'm leaving. I've had enough of hospitals for today. While lying in bed, the bishop has begun to retreat to the safety of his childhood back home in the village. But not in a way that you might imagine. Chekhov knows how this actually works, that what we remember is often as much an invention as any story we make up out of whole cloth.
He remembered the priest of Lesopolye, Father Simeon — mild, gentle, kindly; he was a lean little man, while his son, a divinity student, was a huge fellow and talked in a roaring bass voice. The priest's son had flown into a rage with the cook and abused her. "Ah, you Jehud's ass!" and Father Simeon, overhearing it, said not a word, and was only ashamed because he could not remember where such an ass was mentioned in the Bible ...
Hold it, that's not so strange. On first glance, maybe not. Would you take another look, though? This is a dying man, remember, and he's recalling an old priest from back home in his village and his oafish pig of a son, a divinity student who once — eons ago now — yelled at the cook. This is not epic deathbed stuff. These are peripheral characters that the bishop encountered early in his long and consequential life. These are the people who steal his attention in his last hours? And how does the bishop know that the upshot of that incident was not that Father Simeon defended the cook from his son but the comedy of the priest kicking himself for not remembering where in the Bible Jehud's ass appeared? Maybe Father Simeon once told the bishop this? I doubt it. Besides, the story marches on. Father Simeon is never mentioned again. A forgotten priest's brief shame over a detail he doesn't remember from the Bible is simply a part of another man's parade of memories. Two sentences and Father Simeon is retired from literature forever. I've spent more time on him than Chekhov does. I pause at the moment because I believe the bishop invented the detail, beautifully, out of whole cloth. Like his creator, the bishop himself is a fiction writer to the end. Even his own final memories have more to do with other people than himself.
Imagine yourself in the hospital. Maybe it's this crowded, noisy, fascinating mayhem of a city hospital. You've got plastic oxygen tubes stuck in your nose. You're wearing a catheter. Your family, at least those members of it that are still speaking to you, have solemnly gathered. With the drugs they've got you on, you hardly have the strength to open your eyes. Imagine you reach back, way back, and think about someone you hardly knew, an old neighbor — say, Mr. Chevy Millard, who lived down the block, a man you haven't thought about since 1977. Now say you dive into this Mr. Millard's head and give voice to one of his passing thoughts. Something like: "The sad truth is, if I hadn't inherited so much money, I might have followed my dream of becoming of a pianist like my idol Oscar Peterson."
See what I mean? Isn't this a bizarre thing to think about when you yourself are leaving the scene for good? But this is what happens in this story about a dying man — written by a dying man.
Tolstoy, who (generally) adored Chekhov, once inferred that he might have been an even better writer if he had not been so dedicated a doctor. With all respect, Count, that's bullshit. Chekhov's being a doctor may well have been the key to how well he understood the connection between our ailing bodies and our ailing minds. To concern yourself with the hidden lives of others, including the long dead, especially at a time when you are trying to endure your own pain — is there a more generous act in life, in literature?
The night my grandmother died in a hospital in Chicago, she kept asking for someone named Jed. For hours it was: Jed, Jed, Jed. My mother finally figured out that Jed was a childhood neighbor in Taunton, Massachusetts, who died of hemophilia in 1918. It comes down to this. When we die, not only will our bodies be gone, but so will the people we remember. We live in the world, and we recall the world, and one day we won't do either anymore. The church bells will ring and the drunks will drink. A mother will bring her cow to pasture and tell the other women that she once had a son who was a bishop. She'll say this timidly, afraid that she may not be believed.
And indeed there were some who did not believe her.
As I've been taking these notes, the two gossiping doctors have been replaced by a couple of much quieter nurses. One is reading the San Francisco Examiner. A moment ago, she began to read to her friend from the obituaries. "Glenda Hildebidle was ninety-seven. It says her parents preceded her in death. You think!"
"There must have been no next of kin. They had to write something."
"Right, no husband, kids, et cetera."
"The obit writer figured Glenda must have had parents."
"Stands to reason."
"Does, doesn't it? And now look, they've made the paper."
A BACHELOR UNCLE
Call this a Chicago story. It's true, though I've never understood why this matters so much. It seems a cheap way of looking at a story, to judge it by whether or not it actually happened. For me, all stories are fiction. The only question is: Does it rattle the soul or not?
We had a bachelor uncle, Uncle Harry, and my brother and I loved him. He wasn't really our uncle. He was my grandmother's first cousin. She always said she'd never had much use for the man herself, but, my grandmother said, we were the only family Harry had. He'd materialize sometimes, with much fanfare, on holidays.
I think of Uncle Harry bursting through the back door of my grandparents' house on Pine Point Drive (nobody ever used the back door of that house; nobody even knew where it was beneath all that ivy) in a wet trench coat, rain pouring down from the brim of his hat to the kitchen floor, shouting, "Hallo! Hallo! Anybody ashore?" My brother and I would sprint to the kitchen, and Uncle Harry would kneel down and offer up his nose. "Honk the schnozz, go ahead and honk it!" A monster of a nose, flabby and riddled with poppy seeds, and when we squeezed his nostrils together, he'd honk like a frantic goose. I've heard geese since who had nothing on Harry.
Excerpted from Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner, Eric Orner. Copyright © 2016 Peter Orner. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.
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