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Song for My Father

ISSUE:  Winter 2004
You must release as much of this hoard
as you can, little by little, in perfect time,
as the work of the body becomes a body of work.

—William Matthews, “Mingus in Diaspora”

It’s easy to see why the jazz saxophonist Lester Young was one of my father’s heroes. “The Pres,” as he was affectionately dubbed by Billie Holiday, was an intensely private man, a lover of a well-turned phrase, a natty dresser. His style of play was characterized by its light, swinging sound and by the way it drifted over the ground beat of the rhythm section. As my father put it in one of his essays, Young “played with an unmatched tenderness, as if suffering and pleasure were impossible without each other.” All this could be said about William Matthews and his poetry.

It goes further. Both men died young after struggling with substance abuse; both were melancholic, loved by women, witty, pacifists at heart. These are, of course, surface similarities: Young was a black man, a musician, a heroin addict; my father white, a poet, a drinker and smoker. Their eras, their milieux, were radically different. My father was never in the service, for instance, or dishonorably discharged, or ever the target of an overt, pervasive racism as was Young; and the Pres, to the best of my knowledge, never went to a prep school in Massachusetts, nor did he translate Horace, or shoot 100 foul shots every afternoon for a summer.
Nevertheless, since we are chosen as much by our early heroes as we choose them,

it is easy to imagine my father as a teenager picking up the saxophone for the first time and right away tilting the horn sideways in Pres’ signature, off-kilter manner.

There’s a poem my father wrote about Young. He was in his early thirties when he wrote it, but it could easily be read as prophetic of his own life, and death. The opening lines read:

It’s 1958. Lester Young minces
out, spraddle-legged as if pain
were something he could step over
by raising his groin, and begins
to play. Soon he’ll be dead.

I’ve seen my father walk out to give a reading like that. Longtime friends gasping at the sight of his bloated face, or quietly taking in his new limp, would search me out later at the reception to ask about his health. They’d ask, “Is he smoking too much?” They’d say, “He looks so old,” worry composing their faces. But I knew they were also seeing their own mortality in his crumbling health, and so I kept my speculations to myself.

The poem goes on to describe Young’s deteriorating playing as “all tone now and tone / slurring toward the center of each note.” The more ruinous Young became, the more ruinous his playing. Which isn’t always true for the poet. (For maybe one of the more salient distinctions to make between two such men concerns their relation to their instrument and to the breath it requires to both maintain and free it.) You see, my father’s tone never diminished or blurred, never caved in on itself or grew thick in the fingers. It only got honed. Cruelly, he died at the height of his powers.

There’s an argument that the later Young recordings, though technically flawed—skill and verve gummed up by heroin—were more powerful by their being more lived-in. Something about the downfall of a man turned alchemically into the blues. The same thing was said about the downward arc of Billie Holiday’s voice. My father would have fought the temptation to side with this sentiment. He would have said something intelligent about why such an idea was half right, and then he’d put on an old Teddy Wilson recording with Lady Day and the Pres sitting in-some number like “I Can’t Get Started” or “Miss Brown to You,” one of those shiny blue locomotives of sound-and sit there tapping his foot, eyes half closed, letting the joyous music prove just how wrong you were.

The reason my father could write so well about jazz was that he had led the working poet’s life so fully-the reading tours, the visiting poet gigs, the conferences-and this kind of artist-for-hire approach afforded him knowledge about some of the essential aspects of jazz life: the glamour (the tedium) of travel, the companionship of comrades, nights in hotels and long rides to shabby rooms, late hours, fans who loved you or wanted a piece of you mostly for all the wrong reasons. The rest he learned from books.

And let’s not pass over his ability to listen closely to a record. Or his going to countless live performances, sitting in on the sets both as eager young man and knowing middle-aged gentleman with the graying mustache and the money for a good bottle of wine (say, the ‘89 Pinot Noir right here at the bottom of the list); or his knowing something about that strange, bitter stalemate that gets called race relations in this country, and his having the courage to say something about it.

Where did he get the nerve to do that? Maybe it’s from the hours he spent playing league ball, the only white guy on the team; or growing up in Cincinnati, one of those strange half-southern, half-midwestern cities where the racial divide is as narrow as a single street and, at the same time, as wide as the Mississippi. Of course, that’s not enough to warrant any white man putting on blackface. So maybe, most importantly, it’s his poet’s imagination-a little empathy, an intuitive sympathy bordering on thievery-tuned so often, and so earnestly, to the black man’s experience that, though it may not speak directly for anything but his own sense of things-or any white man’s alienation from his black brethren-nevertheless had an authentic ring to it. He wasn’t pretending to be black-no more than Gerry Mulligan was when he stepped up to his solo beside Coleman Hawkins-just allowing some of the history and truth and energy of that great musical legacy to flow through him.

My father wrote well about jazz because he had taken what he had learned from its masters-Louis, Duke, Bird, Prez, Coltrane, Mingus, Miles-much of what he knew as cool. And he had a good enough ear to approximate its rhythms in his own verse. And, damn it, because he had soul.

In one of his several Mingus poems, my father writes about seeing the great bassist and bandleader at the Showplace. It’s 1960 and he’s only eighteen, coming into New York City weekends to watch the Master rule over his Jazz Workshop. In an interview for the first issue of Brilliant Corners, he describes those performances as “not nightclub ‘entertainment,’ but more like a master class at Juilliard.” In the poem “Mingus at the Showplace,” Mingus stops the band in mid-number to fire the pianist. He turns to the audience and informs them: “We have suffered a diminuendo in personnel.” Later, after the first set maybe, the young, big-eared poet is up at the bar and hands the great musician and composer one of his own poems. After reading it, Mingus says, “There’s a lot of that going around.”

I never could tell if this encounter actually took place, or if it was only half true. (Say they sat beside each other at the bar once, the way Kerouac brags of grabbing a beer over the head of Charlie Parker in a San Francisco juke joint.) But the myth of it feels right. My father says in that interview, “I knew in some visceral way I was witnessing a genius at work.” Did I know those late nights that I was witnessing a genius at work? I am not sure. But I do know, for sure, and with that artificial clarity that hindsight affords, that I, too, was that big-eared kid-like father, like son-summoning up his nerve to publish his own paltry attempts at art-making to an audience of one.

For all these reasons, and for a few private, complicated ones of my own, I knew what music had to be played at my father’s funeral. Charlie Mingus’ haunting elegy for Pres would be mine to my father. “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” had to be his send-off.

My father writes that in the blues, and in life, pain and joy eat off each other’s plates. This is why I chose a second funeral song, Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” to counterbalance Mingus’ wrenching elegy for Lester Young. By playing a joyous song following a sad one, I hoped to lift the gathering, if only for a minute, out of its collective grief. But what I hear now when I play these songs back-to-back is how each holds some of the other’s essence in its heart.

On the version of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” off Ah-Um, Mingus highlights two saxophonists, Booker Ervin and John Handy, and throughout the song their complementary tones harmonize the somber melody. It opens and closes with earthbound trudging-as if the musicians were following a casket down a street. There’s reverence in the song, for sure, but there’s yearning, too. The song’s cup is mostly filled with blue notes and solemnity.

In the middle of the song, however, Handy’s saxophone breaks free from this procession and lifts up and away to soar awhile in the clouds. It’s as if he has become the reincarnated spirit of Young, let loose after a hard life and a bitter battle with drugs. Eventually he comes back down, rejoining the band to moan out the song’s final, descending dirge-like cry. Handy’s voice is immediately subsumed in the band’s song, which in turn has become infused by his bird-like soaring. What starts off as sad, blue yearning winds up threaded through with joy and hope.

On the contrary, “Song for My Father” is infectiousness embodied. Right from the start, the song breaks into the giddy running-skip of a young boy let out of school early. The trumpet and saxophone are out front here (Carmell Jones and Joe Henderson, respectively), plaintive and jaunty, propelled by the bossa nova-inflected cadences of Silver’s piano. Their two voices meld into one joyous call. Soon Silver takes the solo lead, moving ahead in light, playful runs that glide over a bluesy, soulful bounce. When Henderson takes the baton back from Silver, he breaks into a trot, swinging loose and free. After the solo, the band comes back around to the song’s melody and rides it out for a few choruses while Silver dances around the walked dog of the bass line. Then, gradually winding down, the song comes to the softest hard stop imaginable. A book closing.

Listening to this song is like thinking back on happy childhood days. (Silver himself makes this connection in the album’s liner notes.) Like sitting on a sunny porch with time to kill and a cool drink at hand. The subject here is happiness but the vehicle is memory and so the tone gets shot through with wistfulness, with some of the “ruinous nostalgia” the poet Weldon Kees talks about. The exuberance of youth reflected upon from the vantage point of middle age. A blue bossa nova.

When the recording of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” ended, the room full of mourners-friends and family, students and colleagues-sat in silence. Then “Song for My Father” came on and, I tell you, for a moment there we were all walked out the door and shown the wide green world, the sun out and the day open. I was sadder than I had ever been before, but at the same time-and this is the part my father would have understood the most-I was also happy, alive with little pinpricks of excitement and expectation.

* * *

Those first few weeks after the funeral, our friends in Ann Arbor stopped by to make sure we were doing okay. They asked after our health, brought us food, invited us to Thanksgiving dinner. The weeks clicked past, and we did whatever it took to get through-letting bills go unpaid, dishes unwashed. Slept a lot.

As I went about my numb routine, I couldn’t help revisiting that string of surreal days after my father’s death. I kept flashing back on the long afternoon we spent at the funeral home-making arrangements, deciding on the coffin, picking flowers, choosing the room for the service. How the Times obit guy tracked us down for more biographical data. The way the innocuous “grieving rooms” were tactfully situated, maze-like, around the funeral home’s lobby, making the place feel like a somber brothel or a swanky massage parlor. The inconspicuous men standing around looking like neutered FBI flunkies. Then there was the comment the courteous mortician made as we first shook hands: “I am so sorry to have to meet you.” A phrase my father would have relished and, later (as now), skewered to the page.

I remembered, too, the strange moment near the end of the funeral service: how, at Celia’s request, we played a recording of the scena penultima in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Russell Banks had tried to dissuade her from this choice, concerned that Don Giovanni’s descent into hell might be inappropriate for the occasion. But Celia said it had been the last music she and Bill had listened to together. So we went ahead. I watched the crowd as Giovanni’s strong baritone rose in defiance against the Stone Guest, refusing, as he was dying, to repent for a life of infidelities and excess. A few heads lifted in disbelief; a look of amusement passed over one mourner’s carefully composed face. Could this be? Yes, indeed. A perversely perfect irony befitting my father’s sense of humor, his life and loves.

We were all doing our best to get things worked out, taking turns playing the front man. I remember that first evening in the City, how lost Ali and I felt at not being able to stay in my dad’s apartment. How broken up and inconsolable Celia was. How devastated Susan and Mary both were, both trying to hunker down into the grief and stay balanced. When my mother made it in after a day of hard travel, Ali finally broke down. She told me later that she felt as though an adult had finally showed up. That she could be the kid.

My brother flew in the next day with his wife, Rochelle. Charter arrived later that night. Everyone met at Susan’s apartment in the Village, then went out for drinks at the White Horse Tavern, joined by Dad’s old friends Russ and Chase. We were an odd assortment, a gathering my Dad would never have chosen, but a family nonetheless.

Only once during those hectic days in New York did Ali and I manage to be alone. We went out for dinner, deciding on the Chinese place near Lincoln Center that Dad had introduced us to the year before. He had urged us to try their lemon chicken, assuring us of a pleasurable experience. He wasn’t wrong (he was rarely, if ever, wrong about matters of cuisine). We ordered the dish again that night and, even though the management had changed in the meantime, it was just as good. We ate in embarrassing haste, discovering with each bite just how famished we were. The waiters averted their eyes as they passed.

And then Ali and I still had to face the sobering task of closing up my dad’s affairs. The semester had come to a close; when else would we have such a long string of days to get the work done? So we flew into Newark and caught a shuttle into the city, this time with a key to the place and no police escort. My father’s lonely apartment, covered in a fine layer of dust, and the difficult task of cleanup awaited us.

We decided to begin with his daily life. I returned a month’s accumulation of phone calls while Ali attacked the mail, which had grown into a mammoth pile overflowing the coffee table onto the floor. It quickly became apparent that the daily “goings-on” of my father’s life were still moving forward. There were unanswered calls, broken appointments, letters and bills. Dinner reservations left dangling. Opera tickets in his wallet. And the phone continued to ring. Old friends, students I’ve never heard of, from twenty years back, were in town and wanted to come over for the famous talk and the equally famous bottle of wine. At each call, I had to keep telling people the news. No, my father is not here, I’d have to say. This is his son. I am sorry to have to tell you. All of a sudden, I was the cop in the strange man’s apartment, answering the phone to disbelief and rage and shock, doing my best to console. Trying my best at this odd job of managing a death.

Just when Ali and I were about to lose it, my brother flew in for a few days. It was time to divvy up my dad’s things. Susan joined us for an afternoon, coming up from the West Village to sort through her brother’s books, looking for keepsakes for herself and her mother. She let us decide on the big stuff. Luckily, Bill and I were in agreement; we wanted to make sure things went smoothly. The oriental rugs, surprisingly, were the hardest decisions. The artwork painted by old friends.

Maybe it was too early to be making those decisions. Celia couldn’t bring herself to come to the apartment, never mind choose objects she wanted to keep. Her shock and loss were too great to allow her any sober decisions. For my part, I wanted to come back someday-in a year or two maybe-and deal with it all then. But we had begun the process; we did the best we could under the circumstances.

Much of our energy was spent resolving the private matters of a man who felt he had bought himself another ten years by giving up smoking. The unsigned will, the recently completed manuscript of poems, a house deal in the works, a box of unread student manuscripts.

One of the ways we discovered to pay tribute and do some housecleaning at the same time was to give away my father’s possessions to friends and organizations. Poet’s House in Manhattan received most of his poetry books. His old prep school received the lion’s share of his fiction and biography collection. One of his favorite students from City College inherited his entire jazz collection on cassette. I made sure Russ received Dad’s vast tie collection, for he had mentioned at the memorial how the ties served to illustrate the man-elegant, colorful, abundant, a little worn at the edges.

By New Year’s, most of Dad’s furniture had been crated off; only books and records were left, arbitrary piles of clothes and cookware. We slept on a futon in the corner. Mornings we’d wake up and continue taking down his carefully constructed world of things postcard by postcard, CD by CD, dismantling a life silently like workmen set to a task. The hardest thing about this whole closing-up-shop process was how it got in the way of moving through the grief. Once again, I was getting things done, doing the right thing, when what I really wanted was some time away, a little room to take in this drastic newness.

There were two memorial readings in New York City: one by my father’s former students, the other by friends and colleagues. More than a dozen tribute poems appeared in literary journals and anthologies, along with reminiscences and a growing number of critical pieces that attempted to sum up my father’s body of work.

At the tribute held at the New School in Manhattan, many of my father’s friends and colleagues showed up to read from his work, to say something about him, or to recount a story. Gerald Stern called him “our soul.” Richard Tillinghast remembered him sartorially. “You can always tell a gentleman by his shoes,” his mother once told him. “Bill’s shoes were elegant and expensive and also very comfortable.”

His oldest friends remembered him through his loves. Russell Banks talked of his love of jazz and basketball. Daniel Halpern spoke of his love of cooking. And his old friend Stanley Plumly started his reading by saying, “He saved my life many times.” When it was my turn, I stood up and read a list of the “favorite things” my dad passed down to my brother and me-from The Marx Brothers to Bob Marley, Travis McGee to Muhammad Ali, Coltrane to Dylan, Easy Rawlins to Rigoletto.

The night ended with a tape of my father reading a few of his poems. The first poem was one of my favorites, “Mood Indigo.” Hearing his voice broadcast throughout the auditorium was eerie, made even more so by the poor quality of the recording. It was speeded up, making his voice sound higher and more nasal than it actually was. I wanted to stand up and say, “That’s not my father’s voice.”

There’s a poem in Time & Money entitled “Bob Marley’s Hair.” It’s set on a plane heading for Kingston, and Marley’s cancer-riddled body lies in a coffin in the plane’s cargo hold:

In the cabin on the same flight
Marley’s mother kept the dreadlocks
like a folded flag, or dog tags,
on her lap in a box.

For me, my father’s voice symbolizes his life. Like Marley’s dreads, the voice embodies the spirit of the man. Now, as a way to remember him, to recapture a little of his essence, I play one of the tapes I have of him reading. His deep, sonorous voice with the slight lisp at the frayed edges of syllables ambles into the room; and, for a moment, I am back in the presence of my father.

To many of his students and colleagues, I imagine, my father was considered an easy touch. He wanted to please too much, was so compelled to be a good citizen of the arts, that he couldn’t turn down the endless requests for recommendations, blurbs, and manuscript readings. A softie maybe, but not a pushover. Here’s a telling story. A friend of his who owned a goat asked if my father would like to milk her. My dad was game to try but the goat only went into its stall three-quarters of the way. The friend, sensing my father’s frustration said, “You can push her, it’s part of her manners.” Later, back in the city, Dad observed, “New York manners are a lot like that goat’s.” He said it with admiration in his voice. A midwesterner by birth, my father liked the push.

My father was a quietly formal man; his need for privacy bordered on secrecy. It wasn’t just about good manners, or simply a matter of breeding-that he came from an upper-middle-class, midwestern family or attended boarding school-no, he was one of those shy children who behind closed doors had mastered inadequacy by willfully ordering his life. He moved elegantly through a shifting landscape of indiscretions.

The affairs, of course. But he kept his money matters close to his chest, too. Bill and I were told conflicting stories about family money, inheritance. As part of a pact, my father burned the letters received from his mother and asked her to do the same for him. Like a spy, my father compartmentalized his life, keeping large parts of himself separate from the others. You could say he chose a life that allowed him to be in more than one place at a time. He put on masks, played roles. But do we really choose our lifestyle, or does it instead form itself to us, taking shape in our habits, our words, our private thoughts? And how much do we inherit?

As a poet, a self-confessed hoarder of words, such privacies went with the territory. But I was more than a little surprised to discover that at least half of the letters in his literary estate-more than two decades’ worth-were missing. Either he deliberately threw them away-which he swore to a close friend that he did-or he lost track of them during that desperate string of moves in the ’80s. He also threw away drafts of his poems, not interested in the idea of some future scholar retracing his poetic steps to discover a pearl of insight. He wanted you to read the finished poems. (“Literary criticism is easy to judge, after all,” he writes in an essay. “It either leads you usefully into a given text or not.”)

It’s not surprising that my father’s poetry is crowded with this awkward humanity-with loners, young lovers, animals, street people, children, young men darting across Broadway at night. “Fellow oddballs,” as he toasts in a poem by that name: “Here’s to us, / morose at dances and giggly in committee… .” In one of his poems my father calls his own father “a mild, democratic man.” The same could be said about him. And not because he was any great populist-he wasn’t-but because he insisted on numbering himself one of the crowd.

My father never felt comfortable talking about himself. At parties, he’d turn the tables on the questioner or dive into a discourse on one of his many pet subjects-the Knicks, opera, jazz, cooking, wine, Horace, truffle pigs. He didn’t mind the attention; he simply didn’t like divulging too much of his private life. (Though often an autobiographical poet, he was never merely confessional.)

Then again, he liked to show off. He probably wouldn’t have seen it that way, but he did. I think he got caught up in the pageantry of his loves. For instance, at dinners he would make sure his guests heard the whole story of each course, inviting them in to witness the little flourishes required to complete each stage of preparation. He didn’t expect you to applaud, but it wouldn’t have been out of place either. We were all part of the studio audience for the Bill Matthews cooking show.

I remember one time Ali and I were helping with dessert for that night’s dinner. Ali’s job was to pit the cherries. My father proudly fished out his special cherry pitter, handing it to Ali with a flourish, casually informing us that the instrument made “an excellent stocking stuffer.” Later, leafing through one of his many cookbooks, I came upon something that made me laugh out loud. I pulled Ali aside and pointed out the passage. “This unique cherry pitter,” the official banter read, “makes an excellent stocking stuffer.”

* * *

Once we decided to sell it, my dad’s apartment went quickly. The deal was completed within a month, the papers signed in March of 1998. Our lawyer even arranged it so I didn’t have to be present at the signing. At first I appreciated this gesture, but as the day for turning over the property came near I became more and more agitated. I didn’t want to give up the apartment, I realized, without going back one last time. It was hard not to see our emptying my father’s apartment only a month after his death as a kind of theft. And though I kept telling myself that this evacuation had been somehow necessary, it still felt as though we had defiled my father’s inner sanctum.

So, the April following his death, I was walking up Broadway again. It was one of those perfect spring days in the city, the sun out in full force and a light breeze passing up from Riverside Park. People were lit up in the sunlight, their dresses and coat jackets lifted lightly in the wind. I felt like a walk-on in one of Woody Allen’s Manhattan valentines.

Luckily, the key was waiting for me at the desk. (The new owners of the apartment generously allowing me the whole afternoon alone.) The young guy behind the counter recognized me and arranged his face to approximate a sympathetic understanding of grief. I smiled at the guy. A jazz bassist studying the philosophy of science, he was always one of my father’s favorites.

Since the elevator had been replaced, and there was no longer a need for a doorman to operate it, I decided to take the stairs. I enjoyed passing up through the shafts of light; there were paintings in the stairwell, abstract watercolors and oil portraits painted years ago by one of the doormen. The old National Rifle Association sticker was still stuck to my father’s door. It had been his idea of theft deterrence, I guess-the poet’s alarm system. But the lock was new, and the old welcome mat gone. There was even a blank space on the door where the Attencion: Chat Lunatique sign used to be.
After I inserted the key into the new lock and stepped inside, I was surprised to find boxes in the hall and an odd pile of books in my dad’s study. Hadn’t we clear everything out? I spent the next couple of hours trying to connect with my father’s spirit, trying to find a way to say goodbye. But there was nothing tangible to hold onto. It was as though he had “stepped into the quicksilver of a mirror,” as Lawrence Durrell describes a character’s sudden death in Justine. I simply sat in a corner and let myself feel exhaustion settle over my body. I wanted to cry but felt too self-conscious. So I sat there, eyes closed, and then I remembered an afternoon from that last trip to Seattle with Dad.

We had all gone out to Vashon Island, driving our cars into one of the famous ferries, sitting up on the observation deck for bad coffee and idle talk. There were long walks around the little tourist town at the north end of the island, then a few hours on the beach, the sky shutting itself in with the gray insulation of clouds, the wind picking up and spraying surf and the first drops of a rainstorm. Dad, possibly a bit winded from the day’s walking, waited in the car as we wound our way down the windy beach. I headed back before the rest, expecting to find my father grumpy and taciturn. Instead, I found him in the front seat of the midsize rental, contentedly listening to a Chopin nocturne on the radio. I slid in beside him, joining him in his silence, and together we looked out on the beachhead as the encroaching storm opened the clouds and transformed the sky into a dazzling light show.

Before leaving the apartment, I went through the pile of books still in the study. They were mostly old travel books and restaurant guides, but two books jumped out at me. One was a yellowed paperback copy of the Kama Sutra (the Burton translation), the other a small hardcover edition of Holbein’s The Dance of Death, a series of 16th-century wood engravings depicting various ways Death came for his victims. I slipped the two paperbacks into my backpack.

Back outside in the winter chill, I knew I had to pay a visit to the Cathedral of St. John of the Divine. It had always been my retreat, my own private getaway when I came into the city. Since it was midday and midweek, the place was almost empty. The cavernous main hall was dark, and dusty prisms of sunlight fell from the huge stained-glass windows. I walked alongside the pews, past the AIDS memorial and the Poet’s Corner, into the semicircle of small chapels. Though not an overtly religious person, I often came to these fenced-in rooms to sit at their altars. They were possibly the quietest, most meditative places I knew in the city.

But this time, in the only chapel open there was some sort of video art project on display. I leaned in to see what it was about and discovered three column-like movie screens lined up at the altar. They spanned from floor to ceiling. The middle screen was filled with what appeared to be an angelic form floating in water. Ambient music drifted out of hidden speakers. The screen on the left showed a woman giving birth. Squatting in a chair with her husband holding her from behind, she rode through waves of contractions. Her moans blended into the ambient soundtrack. On the right screen, an old man lay in a hospital bed dying, his breathing shallow and erratic; the machines he was hooked up to blinked and blipped in the half darkness of the chapel.

It took about an hour for the woman to give birth and for the old man to die. First the old man’s breath stopped, then soon the baby’s wails rose up and filled the room. The mother sighing and laughing in relief. Then long moments of stillness, silence. When I looked up, I saw that I had been joined by at least a dozen other people, though I had not seen or heard them come in. Overwhelmed, I went back outside and, after buying a coffee-to-go at the Hungarian Bakery (Blakean paintings of angels on the walls!), headed for the airport.

In the terminal I pulled out the books from my father’s apartment and leafed through them. The Kama Sutra instructed me on the different ways of kissing a woman, on the ways of lying, and on the different kinds of love. The Dance of Death showed me all the different deaths I might face. I looked for a woodcut that depicted my dad’s death but couldn’t find one. There was one for the judge and the priest, for the rich man and the merchant, but not for the poet.

At the end of the book there was an illustration entitled “The Fool” that depicted a man dancing with the skeleton of Death. The Fool was looking over at Death, who played the bagpipes with a quizzical, amused expression. The Fool seemed to be trying to come up with the appropriate witticism for the moment. A caption described the scene:

“The Fool holds his bladder in his hand and seems about to strike
Death with it. He has put one finger in his mouth with a roguish
gesture. Death is also in a gay mood; he is kicking the Fool, holding
up his garment with his hand, and dancing a sprightly measure to the
music of the bagpipes. The Fool is thinking out his last poor witticism
before he can jest no more. Death appears to enjoy the joke.”

That’s how I pictured my father: sprawled out in his tub, dressed for the opera. Cufflinks in place. He was dying so fast-was dead, in fact-he didn’t have time to come up with the mot juste.


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