CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
From Red Bird Most
Liza Birnbaum



Afternoon. No one knows what to say. I’m sorry or I’m sorry for your loss or It’s just terrible or He’s with God now or God works in mysterious ways or We’re praying for you or Your family’s in our prayers or How did you know him or How did you find out or Oh, and have you been to Montclair before or And it’s just so sweet of you kids to come and help out Gwen and Patrick or And how old are you or And did you go to school with him or And what is it that you do. What is it that you want to do, what will you do now. Politeness stifles, strangles almost every conversation. This is all before they sit, as they mill before the service starts. When they sit, it is silent except for the roar of the world that does not care for memorials: traffic far-off and someone hammering a house and nearer and ubiquitous the metal shrill of bugs singing unceasing song. They sit with their programs in hand and await the voices who knew him well.

      W.’s father stands upon the lawn in a suit too hot for the occasion. His hair is matted with sweat. He says what he can about his son, says simply—and his voice breaks—that it is a hard day for them, has been a month of hard days, and that he thanks them for being a part of this celebration of W.’s life. He sits back down and gulps his water, which will nearly boil in its plastic bottle before the service is done. Ari stands. This morning she and Lydia and Leigh have pulled the crumpled dresses out of their backpacks and duffels and stood with Gwen as she ironed their clothes. They have brushed their hair and scrutinized themselves in mirrors. As if we’re going to a party. As if he will be there waiting and grinning, half ashamed to be so celebrated. They have felt this all these days, half imagined it, and now it comes to them as impossible wish. They sit and fear the end of the service, when they will rise, when the fact that he is not there will have to be true because it will all reside in the past.

      Ari stands and reads:
There is a certain fertile sadness which I would not avoid, but rather earnestly seek. It is positively joyful to me. It saves my life from being trivial. My life flows with a deeper current, no longer as a shallow and brawling stream, parched and shrunken by the summer heats. My heart leaps into my mouth at the sound of the wind in the woods. I, whose life was but yesterday so desultory and shallow, suddenly recover my spirits, my spirituality, through my hearing. For joy I could embrace the earth; I shall delight to be buried in it.
And she has to pause a minute. She is crying now.
I sometimes feel as if I were rewarded merely for expecting better hours. I did not despair of worthier moods, and now I have occasion to be grateful for the flood of life that is flowing over me. I am not so poor: I can smell the ripening apples; the very rills are deep; the autumnal flowers, the Trichostema dichotomum,—not only its bright blue flower above the sand, but its strong wormwood scent which belongs to the season—feed my spirit, endear the earth to me, make me value myself and rejoice; the quivering of pigeons’ wings reminds me of the tough fiber of the air which they rend. I thank you, God. I do not deserve anything, I am unworthy of the least regard; and yet I am made to rejoice. I am impure and worthless, and yet the world is gilded for my delight and holidays are prepared for me, and my path is strewn with flowers. It seems to me that I am more rewarded for my expectations than for anything I do or can do.
She sits back down and Leigh puts her arm around her. Their faces in the heat are matching pale, incongruous, impervious to the sun’s flush. Rachel, W.’s girlfriend on and off, stands in her flowered dress and reads a recollection of meeting W., of their trips to the coast and the forests, his kindness and enduring resoluteness. “Also known as stubbornness,” she says, and makes the whole crowd laugh. Hal reads his letter from W. “You ask me what I’ve been dreaming of or thinking about on all these long walks I love to take. Well, what do you think? Half the time it’s painting and half the time it’s girls. No, actually, there’s a third thing. I think about you and everyone else I know, and sort of dream my way into what you all are doing, how everybody’s life is moving. I should probably just ask you all more often. But it’s a way of being where I am and where I’m not all at once, or of being nowhere fully, maybe, but spreading myself out. What have you been seeing up in the hills these days? Tell me so I can be there too …”

      The air is full of water. In the crowd between the speakers there is no sound, it seems to all their ears; the heat presses in. They sweat and cry and feel the two to be the same. W.’s mom sits weeping. She has warned them that this will happen; she won’t speak in front of the crowd because, she has said the night before, she knows that this is what will make it real for her. That she has touched the box of ashes that is or was her son, has opened it and countenanced the gray, the lumps that signal bone, but that only when she has summoned her friends, his friends—only when everyone is together and has come for this reason, only when it is outside herself—I can feel it coming, she says. I know I’ll get it then. It’s going to hurt.

      A friend of the family reads one more remembrance, a version of W. that none of his college friends recognize, and then it is Quentin’s turn to speak. He wears a blue button-down that is too wide for his frame. Quentin has stayed up all night working on what he will say, and he is tired, his face perilously open. He is the last before Lydia and Leigh explain the planting of the apple tree. At the podium he hunches forward, his hair in his face.

      “Thank you all for being here today,” he says. “It’s incredible, if not surprising, to see so many people here to celebrate W. and his life, and to grieve what we have lost. I’m Quentin. I went to school with W. and I considered him one of my best friends, along with others who are sitting here today, some of whom you’ve heard from. All of what’s been said today reminds me not only of the qualities I knew to be his strongest—his sense of adventure, his stubbornness that was also loyalty and dedication, the sense of humor that was always sure to prey first upon himself—but also of the breadth of his character. W. was someone who never seemed fickle or excessively ambivalent, but he encompassed a lot. You can see that in his life—how much literal ground he covered—and you can see it in the role he played in other people’s lives. He was serious and he was silly; he was a hard worker but also excellent at solitude and loafing. And he seemed always to be expanding his already expansive self.”

      He says what they have talked so much about in Esopus: that to describe W. fully is impossible, that where he lives now is in each person’s understanding of him, in their mind and in their actions. The people in the crowd lean forward toward this young man, his eloquent words, his carefully wrought ideas. Yes, he’s right. Yes. How beautiful. Quentin wipes his brow. “What I’d like to say a few words on now,” he says, “is the way I think his death will change things for me, and how we might—how I might—go on bravely, trying to be as much like him in this respect as our own makeup allows.

      “This year I’ve been living in my parents’ house in Nashville. I read a lot there, and what I’ve been reading recently is The Magic Mountain, the novel by Thomas Mann. The book is set at a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, and its hero, Hans Castorp, goes to visit his cousin there and ends up staying for seven years, a patient himself, though perhaps more out of inclination than actual need. I know all this sounds like a digression, like I am getting away from W. entirely. But bear with me. The mountain of the title is a place out of time, a place where things can change and yet remain the same. And though we as readers are meant to be skeptical of Hans Castorp’s desire to stay there, loafing and lazing, we also understand its appeal. It’s a place where nothing has to matter except in and of itself. And when you read a book like this, or at least when I do, I can’t stop myself from thinking, What is my magic mountain? What is it for me that has mattered this way?

      “Towards the end of the book, there was a line that made me realize what it was. In a section about the way time moves at the sanatorium, the narrator says, ‘What got mixed up so higgledy-piggledy in this grand confusion were those emotional concepts and states of consciousness that define “still” and “again”—which is one of the most bewildering, perplexing and bewitching experiences there is.’ There is also a confusion between ‘now’ and ‘always,’ the narrator tells us.”

      The people in the rows of chairs fidget, confused and halfway rankled by this speech’s length, its looping movement. But Leigh and Lydia and Hal and Ari look at their friend admiringly.

      “Well, when I read that, I knew exactly where it was that I had always wanted to stay. It was in my friendship with W., which existed in a web of other friendships from college, in Esopus, where we had all chosen to live. I’ve left there, as have most of us, but when I think of the thing that does not change; when I think of what I believe still endures and what I believe I’ll see again, it is the six of us in some way or another together, in a place real or imagined. This is the thing I have felt to be my heart’s desire and my home. And W., for all the things that I and others have already mentioned, for his excellent listening and insistence on exploring, but mostly just for being him, and for loving and receiving love as generously as he did—for all of that, he helped, still helps to build it.

      “The fact that he is gone—that makes it harder to believe that. I’m sure it makes some of what I’m saying sound foolish. And maybe it is foolish. Because we will never stand together in a room again, he and I, in Esopus or in any other place. But the now that was then—as well as the now in which I stand here before you—those are also my always. And in thinking about how to manage them, now that W. is gone and that ‘again’ can never fully come to pass, I’m reminded of something in another piece by Thomas Mann, the story “Tonio Kröger,” about the way in which its protagonist believes in finding solace. This is the quote I’m thinking of:
Often after that he stood thus, with burning cheeks, in lonely corners, whither the sound of music, the tinkling of glasses and fragrance of flowers came but faintly, and tried to distinguish the ringing tones of thy voice amid the distant happy din; stood suffering for thee—and still was happy! Often it angered him to think that he might talk with Magdalena Vermehren, who always fell down in the dance. She understood him, she laughed or was serious in the right places; while Inge the fair, let him sit never so near her, seemed remote and estranged, his speech not being her speech. And still—he was happy. For happiness, he told himself, is not in being loved—which is a satisfaction of the vanity and mingled with disgust. Happiness is in loving, and perhaps in snatching fugitive little approaches to the beloved object. And he took inward note of this thought, wrote it down in his mind; followed out all its implications and felt it to the depths of his soul.
Mann is talking about romantic love, but I believe what he says goes for friendship, too. Happiness is in loving, in whatever way we can afford to love. We are, all of us, going to be miserable for the loss of W., because he was a brilliant man, and because he, too, in all his ways, found happiness in loving, and now his happiness is gone. But I will continue to love W., even if I may never tell him that, or show him that, again. I’ll love him whenever I stop and look at a painting or a landscape; whenever I say a certain phrase I see as his; whenever I catch glimpse of him, as I have this weekend, in his family and his friends and in everyone who knew him.” He looks at Leigh. “It will take a long time for me to think of this feeling, or feel this feeling, as happiness. It’ll feel like grief. It does right now. But I believe that it is a kind of joy, and maybe the only one that triumphs over death. W. walked long roads. That’s something I’ve learned from him too. To walk along, to love without the need of seeing someone reflect it back—that is a long road. But I am glad to walk it, because I’ll be walking after W.”

      As Leigh and Lydia rise to tell the crowd about the apple tree, they look at Quentin and think, thank you. Thank you for being yourself, radiant, with your crooked collar and all your belief in feeling. They say their piece, explain the planting of the tree, and everyone rises, seat stains on their formal clothes, and moves to the back of the yard, where the hole is already dug. They will take turns with the shovel, heave earth onto the balled roots of the sapling tree; W.’s father will, trembling, hold the ashes of his son and let them sift from his fist to the trunk, all of the immolated what-was falling toward what will live, despite it all.


 



W.’s parents host the reception, and it stretches on well into evening. Leigh’s surprised to feel a kind of relief that edges into hilarity, or high-spiritedness; she sees it in everyone, except for Gwen. The relief is not at anything being finished, but rather that one thing has been accomplished. The memorial’s been held, and, as everyone has said to them, it was a beautiful thing, something it’s possible to imagine, only tonight, as having done some good in the world. The five friends stay close to one another, though they talk for a long time with several of W.’s relatives and friends, and sit on the porch for a long while with Rachel. In Rachel, Leigh sees something she has not seen in any of the others. It’s something Rachel tries to hide in a kind of cheerful effort, and the cheerful effort itself is what discloses it: as they talk about the last times each of them saw W., she says, her voice light, “Wow, that’s great that you saw him so recently, Hal. I hadn’t seen him—even talked to him—in over a year, I realized—I realized when this happened.”

      They talk politely, easily, about this fact, as if there is nothing about it to mourn or worry over, but Leigh wants to say to Rachel what others have said to her, what she has said to Lydia: W. loved you, you cannot stop believing that. But Rachel is a stranger, nearly, familiar only from stories W. told, and to tell her to have confidence would be a kind of usurpation. What right does she have to say that W. loved Rachel, who loved W. differently than all of them?

      They lean against the rail of the deck; they eat their food from paper plates; in low voices they contextualize their interlocutors for each other. By the time it is truly dark, Hal is stumbling. They’ve all been drinking steadily, but he has stuck to whiskey, and now he clings to the rail, speaking little but slurring everything he says. “Damn,” Quentin says. “Hallie. Why didn’t you quit while you were ahead?”

      “I didn’t feel like it,” Hal mumbles.

      Leigh steps forward. “Hal,” she says. “Here, give me your arm. I’m going to get him some water,” she says to the others.

      They thread their way through rooms where everyone turns to stop them, to tell them again how beautiful the service was, how kind it was for them to come and help. Hal perks up and lopes through charmingly, saying all the requisite thank yous and nice to meet yous and take cares, but when they reach the bathroom sink he says, “Oh, god. I feel terrible.”

      Leigh rinses out his whiskey glass and fills it with water. She hands it to him and he sips. “Leigh,” he says. “I didn’t understand what dead meant before.”

      The words wring strength out of her; she sits on the edge of the tub. “I didn’t either.”

      She waits for him to say more, but he only drinks his cup of water, his hand on the wall to steady himself.

      If only he would keep talking, she thinks. They have all struggled to know what to say, but Hal appears to be holding what he feels in his body, something about his stance rigid, his face set. They are all talkers, as Ari joked in college, but Hal isn’t talking now, not really, not even when he is. His eyes are closed, his hair damp on his brow as if he has a fever, and she wants to be the one to make him speak. “I think I need to lie down,” he says, reaching out a hand before his eyes open. She takes it and shivers. She knows what she feels, but she will not say it to herself.

      “Here,” she says. “I’ll help you get downstairs.” And they walk through the rooms again, to the staircase where she steadies him and into W.’s room. He flops down on the bed in a way that seems like a joke. “Here,” she says again, “take off your shoes.” She does it for him. Hands trembling, she unbuttons the top button of his collar. “Are you comfortable?” she says, and he nods. She draws the blanket up from the foot of the bed, but he swats at it.

      “Too hot,” he says, and she says:

      “Of course,” and pulls it away.

      “Leigh,” he says. He takes her hand again. He places it on his heart. “You’re my best friend now.”

      She can feel his heart under her hand and she can feel her own in her chest, his moving steadily and hers throbbing, each beat a pain in its strength. Thank god he cannot feel it, its assertions so audacious here. This is a memorial service, she says to herself, and her heart beats harder and her face burns.

      In this feeling, she has almost forgotten what Hal has said. She will think of it later, and it will hurt her like a splinter shoved deep, the flattery of it laced up with the loss. To be second-best and to long for it nonetheless.

      But now she says, “Thanks, Hal. I love you,” as she has said to him a thousand times before, and he mutters that he loves her too. His head is lolling. He’s almost asleep. “I’ll come back to check on you,” she says.

      It is as if she is drunk, too, as she walks back up the stairs: her face is hot and numb, there’s a sway in her step. She watches Gwen across the room, saying goodbye to a group of older women, tears on all of their cheeks, and she makes her way back to the deck, where her friends still stand.

      She looks at the fireflies now, as if in their faint tracings they could tell her the right things to say, how to mourn a friend and love the others within reason. They send their signal, move and try again. Behind their weaving is a tangled darkness, snarls of branch and fence shadowed against paler air. To the east the light from the city casts up, hangs in the sky like heat. They see it. Lydia puts her arm around Leigh; Leigh puts her arm around Ari. The fireflies swerve and the stars inch forward.



Liza Birnbaum is a founding editor of Big Big Wednesday. Her writing has appeared in Tammy, Open Letters Monthly, and Rain Taxi. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.