Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy

BOOK: Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy
10.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Beautiful Soul
An American Elegy

Joshua Carey

Spuyten Duyvil

Henceforth and forever I am
my own mother.

Roland Barthes,
Mourning Diary

Film for the New Reader

Black screen.
The letter:

In the heart of the night the new reader lies awake with the lights
turned off listening to the rain tapping on the skylight. If she opened her
eyes she would see the darkness of the ceiling and a differing quality of
darkness above her, a rectangle gradually reorganizing itself into a gray filmy
gleam, glassy surface blistered by streetlamps, and the little shudders of
water whose shadows she can feel moving across the bedspread, her husband’s sleeping
body, her own face. Like hieroglyphics or Hebrew letters they form and squiggle
and dissolve almost legibly before her closed eyes. The letters are falling on
her roof and the roofs of her neighbors: they fall invisibly into Lake
Michigan, that vast unplacid text, and coat metal and glass and asphalt from
Waukegan down to the Indiana border. Others too are awake reading the weather,
establishing degrees of correspondence between internal and external states of
being, between the past and the present, what they expect from the day and what
they are incapable of anticipating. She thinks of other bedrooms, other
couples, men and women lying awake while their partners, women and men, sleep
Alone, straining after significance, for signs and
portents, reading clockfaces, windows, glowing screens, magazines, books.
Her book is on the night table where she left it, face down, straining the
binding: she reaches with her hand and feels the rough skin of the spine, its
slightly crumpled edge like a lip, and then the pages dividing reluctantly
under the gentle pressure of her fingertips. Under the covers, the pages
marching together, many folds, many pages, the words she has read and the words
she has yet to read. The book is mine while I read it, for as long as I keep
turning the pages, and once I am finished it dies to me but lives in the hands
of other readers, and we might meet in a cafe or the supermarket or on a bus or
in a hospital waiting room and discover, without title, that we share the same
blind insatiable need for print, ants at the picnic, words printed on the
insides and outsides of our eyelids, passwords, like canceled checks bearing
signatures negated by the loss of value, the transfer of energy from beginning
to end, unceasing until the book drops from my hand, I close my eyes, the rain
spools, lurches, stops. Let me live here ever. She is dropping to sleep, a few
hours from dawn and the baby’s cry, as her husband breathes evenly, wordlessly.
The rain carries on past consciousness. The bed is a boat for strangers.

Sleepwalking she might arise and dress and drive in the dark to a
wedge-shaped building in the heart of the city.
In simple
gray slacks and a white blouse under a tan raincoat, watching the elevator
needle swing.
And find herself in a granite hallway, in the loud hush of
the janitor’s floor-polisher, knocking on the pebbled glass window of an office
door with letters on it: S. Lamb, LLC.

Sit down.

He does and does not look the part, as she, dreamer, puckering crimson
lipstick beneath a black bob, fails to resemble her limp-haired daytime self.
The office is small, with a metal partition separating out the heavy desk and
file cabinet from a waiting area with sofa and armchair and a table with
magazines (a yellowing assortment of copies of 
interlaced with 
& Ammo
, an issue of 
& Stream 
poking out from underneath a
stack of 
Psychology Todays
and a water-cooler gurgling discontentedly to itself. With the side lamp and
the magazines and the unopened box of tissues it could be the therapist’s
office it so exactly resembles: the office of Rita Rattman, MSW, where Ruth and
Ben spent one awkward evening per week for three months before Lucy was born.
Rita Rattman, MSW had long curly fraying hair and an oblong horsey face and
sandals that slipped distractingly on and then off her long-toed feet as she
curled in the armchair across from the sofa where the three of them sat: Ben
and Ruth and Ruth’s belly, the future made flesh, taut as a drum if drums
swallowed sound, swallowed inchoate possibilities of the life that Ruth had
imagined before the morning she’d opened her eyes knowing she was pregnant, the
evening before she’d peed on a stick, the sleepless night turning beside Ben
waiting for the right moment. It came or failed to come in the small hours,
perhaps three in the morning, to shake her boyfriend awake and say the words to
him, studying his sleep-smeared face for the least hesitation, the slightest
sign of doubt, horror even, all reactions she would have taken for signs of
intelligence, would have let her release a little breath, feeling herself for
one moment to be less alone. But the insensitive bastard had only smiled
beatifically into his pillow and reached out a hand to caress her belly, for
the first but not last time touching not herself but past her, like one who
pushes a revolving door and travels with it for only so long as it takes to
pass in or out, to where you were really going. Her knuckles whiten. The tears

How can I help

Watching, in three-quarter profile, profile, waning, turned entirely
A mass of black hair, too vivid to be natural,
tentacular, gone.

Did she speak? Has she spoken? Did she hand over, across the featureless
surface of the table, the manila folder he now leafs through, with its
documents, letters,
? Where did it come
from? Is he repeating back to her what she told him?

The photos.

He pushes the magazines aside and lays them out on the coffee table, one
next to the other. Three women, or three photos of the same woman, or two
photos of the same woman and the photo of a different woman, or one photo of a
woman and two photos of a woman trying to look like the first woman, or two
photos of different women and one photo of a woman trying to look the platonic
ideal of the woman the first two only resemble. The possibilities are not

The same woman.
Not the same woman.

One of the photos is black and white, one is in color, and one had once
been in color but has faded. The black and white photo shows a slender young
woman with long dark hair looking full at the camera, features placid, but
there is something of an angle, a subtle arch to her eyebrow, that creates the
impression of barely suppressed laughter. It has the dimensions of a passport
photo but is about twice as large. She wears a plain blouse of a pale wheatlike
color, almost no color at all, and no visible jewelry. If there were a hand,
for instance, wearing a ring, it does not stray into the territory that the
photo so sharply delineates.
For identification purposes

The color photo shows a slightly less young woman with dark hair, cut
shorter than the hair of the black-and-white woman, in profile, bare of arm
with pink palpable flesh, leaning her elbows on a railing looking down at
water. The landscape bends behind her, raises obscure buildings: a river or a
canal, a palace or a church. The profile is pensive, but the presence of the
first photo on the table sets up a sort of vibration, a call and response. The
lip of the profile the color photo doesn’t show might be quirked upward, as the
eyebrow of the woman in the black and white photo suggests a bitter hilarity.
Her hands are folded in front of her over the railing over the water. If she’s
wearing a ring the ring is hidden.

The faded photo, a Polaroid, shows a woman older and heavier than the
others, with dark shoulder-length hair. This is a candid shot, whereas the
others are manifestly posed. She is sitting laughing on a blanket in what looks
like a park or meadow. There is a basket, there are plates,
is a bottle of wine and a plastic cup in her left hand. A plain metal band—the
fading makes it impossible to say whether it is silver or gold—adorns the
fourth finger of that hand. The other hand reaches down around the shoulders of
a small girl, perhaps three or four years old. She is dark-haired like the
woman and her eyes are squinted shut and her mouth is round in an O. She could
be yawning or yelling. She is certainly not laughing like the woman who holds
her lightly, laughing hard, doubled over slightly, as though she has just been
tickled or poked. The image is poorly framed, for it shows most of the head and
body of the woman but the girl’s body is cut off. She is a yelling or yawning
head with a single disembodied hand outstretched in protest toward the sky.

The man rearranges the photos in reverse order. He stacks them in a
pyramid. He puts them in a line again and flips them over and studies their
backs. One photograph’s back is blank. One has the words “Venice 1972” in
blocky print along the bottom. One has an indecipherable scribble. He flips
them back over one by one arranging the faces side by side, crossing their

“The skill of police artists is to make the living appear dead.”

He looks at
we see her face as though over
his shoulder: the dark circles and fierce beak, full lips stained bright and

You want to know something more about her: what she ate, what makes her
smile, what she is looking at in the photograph in the white dress like a
bride’s, in three-quarter profile looking at a river you can’t place—the
Hudson, the Thames, the Seine, the Po, the Danube. Your question is always the
brute one, the necessary one: Did she love you? Whatever the answer, you will
not be satisfied with it. Whatever the answer she will elude you, as water
eludes, flowing through her memory that can never be yours.

My mother is dead.


But she sends me letters. I have them here.
the manila envelope sticking out of the top of her purse.
Didn’t she
already hand it to him?

Legs curled under her on the sofa. When did she take her shoes off? They
lie discarded like patient animals under the plain pine table with its

The therapist sat with her legs pulled under her in the armchair across
from the couple on the couch, shielded by the low table, by the box of tissues,
by an expanse of cream-colored carpet. These were night sessions, and the room
was inadequately lit by a single lamp in the corner opposite where the
therapist’s armchair was. A bright lamp in a dark room makes strong shadows. It
lit one half of Ruth where she always sat, her right arm and right earring, if
she wore them, sparkled and reflected in the dark window opposite.
Ben at his ease in the fuller dark, right ankle on left knee, his
wristwatch and glasses glinting whenever he moved or spoke, which was not
The therapist sat cross-legged in her chair making sudden
grotesque gestures with her large ringed hands, subsiding, looking up at the
ceiling with the whites of her protuberant eyes showing while she gathered her
thoughts, or fixing Ruth orbicularly and nodding with exaggerated attention.
Ruth, hands folded on her belly, swelled up with right words that did not come.
The words that did make an appearance were stupid and obvious. The therapist
gestured for Ruth and Ben to face each other, for one to speak and the other to
listen and to repeat what she or he heard. Some words went unspoken that were
neither wrong nor right:
job, jealousy, abortion
Ben said something about Ruth’s mother and she heard herself say, like a
character on TV, Leave my mother out of this. But that hadn’t been what he’d
said at all. You’ll be a wonderful mother said the therapist, referee,
recording secretary. Not her words, not Ben’s. But she’d been looking right at
his mouth. She knew what she’d heard.

The listening man is dressed neatly, monochromatically, in dark suit,
white shirt, and dark tie. But where are his shoes? She tries not to stare at
the mobile toes in thin black dress socks, kneading the carpet.

Answering a question.
She hoped she hadn’t misheard. Almost three years.

And no contact since then?

Except for the letters.

When did they begin to arrive?

Three months ago.

Real letters?

On paper, yes.


Some are typed.

You mean printed?

I mean typed.

Stamped? Postmarked from where?

Different cities in Europe.


BOOK: Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy
10.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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