LIFE’S A LOUSY DEAL. Like I’m at a card table in a casino and some guy with dead eyes and elastic bands on his sleeves just dealt me the shittiest hand that’s ever been dealt, and like a man I acknowledge it. I smoke my last cigarette and tie on the blindfold myself because c’est la vie, right? You only go around once in life and you might as well buck up and take your lumps.
They come bobbing up like lifebuoys: take it like a man; keep a stiff upper lip. I can only think in poker-faced clichés.
We’ve been falling apart since our cat died. An insignificant event in the grand scheme of things: somebody just detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon. It’s just a cat, go get a new one next week and he’ll rub up against your leg when he wants some of your tuna sandwich just like the other one did, and life will go on as it always has. It’s a shame that he was so young, though. A freakishly large tabby, he was only a year and eight months old when he succumbed to an incurable disease and we had to put him down. His name was Chief Brody, after Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic police chief in Jaws (we’d blurted out all the ridiculous names we could think of and that one stuck.) He was a funny character, always zipping around like a madman, staring you down for your yogurt, the sort of minutiae that breaks your heart, and it all seems incredibly unfair.
I am in the middle of writing, or near completing, three different essays that are about murder or death in one form or another. One is an article on True Crime that has bloated to ten-thousand words and meanders and rambles and name-drops killers and crimes, one is an attempted humor piece about negotiating a less awful death, suggesting that we actually have some say about what happens to us after we die (instead of rotting, what if we reduced into a delicious jam, instead?) and another one about idolizing dead celebrities. All of which now seem to me stupid, cynical, and awful.
When your cat dies you realize—watching The Walking Dead, or The Quick and the Dead, or The Day of the Dead—just how obsessed with death we are in our culture. It’s no big news, it’s a truism. After we buried Chief Brody out in the country on Monday, we came back and tried to watch some TV, just to forget about everything for a while. We immediately witnessed several brutal murders occurring in rapid succession. Changing the channel, we saw a period drama where animals were being sacrificed to haunting music, on another we saw stories about the bombings at the Boston marathon. On Facebook people were debating whether or not the man who had his legs blown off looked like he was a paid actor or not.
We all know we’re obsessed by it, but we like our shows, and anyway death is usually just narrative shorthand for Obstacle Dealt With. Some guy gets in the way of the goal and the hero of the show dispatches him. We aren’t supposed to consider how the man’s mother might have felt about her son (We’re so proud of him! Henchman to an evil genius! But does he call?). He was just an obstacle that briefly grappled with the hero and then fell into the muck of history with all the dinosaur bones and broken-down church walls. But losing that cat, knowing the little guy was never coming back, it made it all seem so much more awful, how casual we are about it.
A deceased literary icon famously criticized the hip cynicism inherent in the post-modernist worldview. I’ve never read his great big doorstop, because I’m lazy, and it scares the shit out of me (what if I never do anything worthwhile? This guy is already dead and he was smarter than I’ll ever be. Will I never achieve anything? Will I be able to retire, and have that orchard full of fruit trees—the vague idea I have for old age is that I live in a Mediterranean country, or someplace warm anyway, surrounded by people who speak a language I’m not fluent in, and I walk down cobbled lanes with loaves of bread and bottles of wine, and I sit in the orchard and write things. I go on book tour occasionally and this keeps me feeling young and connected to the world, but mostly I just sit in the orchard under the fruit trees. I will have achieved something in life, and have plenty of fruit.)
But right now I look and see what I consider hip cynicism everywhere. And I look at everything I’ve done, and the essays I’ve been struggling with, and see what a pile of shit it all is—untrue, unreal, self-aggrandizing bullshit. Like I’ve got an angle on death, when all I really want to do is say dark poetic-sounding crap and have people think I’m cool. And then one day I’ll go into the dirt like everybody does and the sun will spin through the sky until it burns out, and every day until the end of time I will be dead.
I’m an atheist, and I do not believe in the immortal soul, feline or human. This is not to say that religion doesn’t fascinate me. But when it comes down to it, the idea that when the silver cord snaps I will pass through shades and trials to arrive at The Happy Hunting Grounds, or The Elysian Fields, or ascending through the Heavenly Spheres I will arrive at the Milky Way, where I am awaited by family and friends who have gone before, or even that I might remain an earthbound spirit, helping some dead little girl find her doll (she won’t stop haunting the conservatory until she finds that fucking doll!) and the only break in the routine comes from crashing séances, making people cold, or turning the paranormal investigator’s flashlight on and off, or if—against all odds—I make it to the Christian heaven, and I get to hang out in some marbled amphitheater and eat shrimp cocktail with Tammy Faye, is about as comforting as “keep a stiff upper lip.” It’s not useful information. It’s fairy tales.
But one needs comfort.
My father was an alcoholic FBI agent who divorced my mother when I was still a baby, visited only sporadically after that, and then died when I was eleven. He worked in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for the feds when that town was a gambling community and the mob ran the place. He hung out in bars under an alias and acted like a playboy, drinking and smoking and gambling, occasionally jotting notes in a little pad, sometimes going out to make a phone call. He was a spy. His young death (from cirrhosis, he was forty) has been the leitmotif of my existence. I have always felt that death itself was somehow bred into me because of his early passing. As a youth I developed an intense cynicism and I romanticized death; I thought it was cool. In the days of death rock I wore little pointed black boots and a belt with skulls on it and I hung out in cemeteries. I listened to Nick Cave and painted my fingernails black. I drank red wine because it reminded me of blood and communion; I had an idea that I was romantic, old world, and dark. I lived in an eternal winter of storm-driven broodings. I told the boy there, “Stable my horse. And I want a private room. And absinthe, bring me absinthe!”
In Berlin in the nineties I started going to a shrink. I was still busking on the U-Bahn for money, so I didn’t have the sort of funds you needed to pay a therapist, and my attendance was sporadic. But it gave me a good feeling to go when I did, to talk to somebody. Her office was a big, long, cream-colored room with tall open windows framed by fluttering yellow drapes, drooping ferns in hammered brass pots, a chair and a sofa—it was minimalist, clean. I told her about how my father had been a spy, about how he had died, my mythic image of him. She thought it was telling that I too lived on the fringes of society—not having a straight job, living in a squat, playing music on the subway (which was a dark underground place, a symbolic hell or something—the underworld.) She suggested that my father was my “indirect unconscious guide to the underworld.”
So I walked around with that concept sinking into me: indirect unconscious guide to the underworld. I thought it was a cool way of looking at it. It felt like I’d been handed the keys to hell.
To get over the cat, and to get out of the house for a little while, we drove up to a Japanese-themed spa in the mountains. They have hot tub baths in private enclosures divided by wooden slat walls and shoji screens. It was late afternoon when we went, and the sun glowed purple-crimson through the leaves of the Japanese maples planted around the grounds, and a cool breeze blew through the low-gonging wind chimes that seemed to be everywhere. We had gotten to the point of being aggressively cheerful and not talking about the cat, even though every time one of those wind chimes gonged it sounded funereal, and it was hard not to think of him. He was buried just a few miles away, under that same sky, that same light filtering through the branches of the trees that overhung his grave.
There was a little lizard, a salamander I guess, a newt maybe. He was one of those lizards that live in the woods by creeks, but he’d made his home inside the wooden walls of the hot tub enclosure. He came flinching out of a crack in the wall and skittered over to where a great big drop of water had gathered on the wooden decking by the edge of the tub, and he lolled his black forked tongue out and licked at the drop, eyeing us warily. He had a funny character and a comical jerky walk, and a fantasy took over: what if there was such a thing as soul-transference? What if Chief Brody’s soul had somehow entered the body of this little lizard? Or what if the lizard was a messenger, and he was trying to give us hope, telling us not to be sad? The wind chimes gonged inconclusive answers. Maybe I could whisper into the lizard’s ear hole, and tell him to go and find Brody’s soul, and to whisper to him: we love you, we love you still, very much. Please get up now and let death be just a concept.
But whatever games I play in my mind—indirect unconscious guide to the underworld, soul-transference, reincarnation, Happy Hunting Grounds, fucking angels with swords enveloped by flaming nimbi—it’s all just another way of romanticizing death, of pretending to have an angle on it. Trying to be somebody who sounds like he knows something about something he knows nothing about.
My heart is in the ground now with that cat, who had a disease I’ve never even heard of, that I was never even aware existed, as it wormed its way into his guts, and dimmed his eyes and transformed his once fun-loving character into the gray thing he became at the end, when, if he did focus on you, you couldn’t even tell if he was seeing you or not. And later, when I looked it up on Wikipedia—Feline Infectious Peritonitis—I saw that the vet had been right, there really was nothing we could have done.
The disease kills cats; they don’t recover. But it didn’t make me feel any better. For a while we might thrive, we might grow old in a garden. But we all die. We have no control over it.
One day at the end of a session on the subject of my father and the mysteries of life and death, my psychiatrist was going through her day-planner (this was back when you jotted down your appointments in a little book) checking when she had an opening for our next meeting. The day planner was a little leather-bound book in an Asian motif, Chinese maybe, and the pages had odd little images in the margins, a series of pictograms. I asked her about it.
“Oh this? It was gift. The symbols tell you when to water your plants, by the cycles of the moon. It’s supposed to be a better way, more in rhythm with nature.” She said all this with a sly half-smile and a reverential tone in her voice, a parody of a believer.
“Did you try it?”
“Did I water my plants by the cycles of the moon? Yes. I did.”
“Well. How did it work?”
She considered for a moment.
“Some thrived. Some died.”
She started laughing, and then I started laughing. Somehow everything we’d been talking about was suddenly rendered absurd. Mortality wasn’t complicated, it wasn’t mystical. It was simple. Sitting there in the middle of the afternoon, with all the midday sounds going on outside the windows—trucks and cars passing by, kids playing hopscotch, the random tumult of life—we laughed like maniacs.