Only the dead know how to live;
Only the poor know what to give
Only lovers pray for rain;
Only dreamers strive for pain.
Jean More committed suicide on 21 May 1977. She exited life via a dozen Quaaludes and a pint of hobo wine. Jean was thirty-seven; her final action made an orphan of her seventeen-year-old son, Holliday.
Holly’s father pulled the tired but ever-effective “Goin’ to the Little Store for a Pack of Smokes” routine in 1967. Plainly put, no one looked all that hard for Ed More. The only anxiety associated with his departure was a vague worry that he might return–as he had after brief hospitalizations for the DT’s several times in the past. Ed really wasn’t a bad sort–just useless. Rumor placed him in Alaska. The rumor gave birth to what would become a running joke between Holly and Jean: “I’m off to the gold fields, Mom,”; “Bring me home a rich Eskimo, boy,” is a fair example of the running joke. It even appeared in Jean’s suicide note: Sorry kid, but I hear the call of the Yukon.
Tag-along happenings–the smaller occurrences that had immediately followed Jean’s death have stuck better to Holly’s memory than the sight of his mother’s lifeless body lying on the sofa: Harry Shelby absently blowing smoke rings while she was on the phone with the undertaker, which was accompanied by the fanciful notion that the rings were angel halos for people who had died from lung cancer. The Primitif perfume on “Aunt” Fran’s neck when she held him in her arms on the day of Mom’s funeral, and feeling ashamed that her kindness had given him an erection. And although he has been best friends with Harry’s daughter, Bethlehem, for over half a century, the gathering in Harry’s apartment after the funeral remains the only time he has ever seen Beth operate a stove. She made cinnamon rolls–big, gooey, utterly flavorless.
Alaska became the 49th U.S. state on 3 January 1959; Holly was born on 3 January 1960. Whenever possible he adds the missing year to his age in an obscure effort at symmetry.
This is one of the fuzzier items in the long list of Holliday More’s eccentricities. To be fair, not a single one of his peculiarities is affected, nor does there seem to be a hidden purpose behind any of them. As Beth has often observed, “Some people are weirdos.”
Holly never speaks on Thursday, for reasons he’d gladly divulge on Thursday if it wasn’t for the ban. He wears his socks inside out because it cuts down on ‘toe aspic” More than one waiter has been informed that Holly won’t eat anything that clashes with the color of the plate it is served on, nor will he ever use a spork–” Spoons and forks are faithful; sporks fuck anything.” Speaking of such, during an epic party, which began sometime during the Jimmy Carter Administration and did not end until a couple of years ago, Holly had had the sexual nonchalance he now attributes to sporks. Yet here there had been a strangely capricious yet careful enough attitude shared by all the participants, even in the age of AIDS. And it was perhaps the benevolence of Oracle that no children were born from these plentiful dalliances, nor were (although he seemed to be begging for such) any afflictions passed to and fro in a society that what was essentially an STD swap meet.
Holly is a trained actor (who currently expresses himself through poetry because he had read that more people write poetry than read it; thus poets are “lucky”). Otherwise a lackluster student, he had excelled in the arts and humanities and had won a scholarship to the prestigious Cornish Institute in Seattle. He had been a beautiful young man, who moved on the balls of his feet like a dancer, and had developed a voice which got to “the back row” without losing nuance. For a while there it looked as though he’d make a mark in the theatre. Yet in a profession in which substance abuse is commonly overlooked, Holly had taken it too far. He was drunk and coked-up and in love with co-stars nearly all the time. Once he got fired from the Seattle Rep after the opening night of Hamlet. Holly had recited Guildenstern’s lines to perfection, trouble was, he had been assigned the role of Rosencrantz. A long, albeit interesting slide into oblivion began around then. Yet through it all, no matter what has been lost or recklessly thrown away, there has always been Bethlehem.
It’s the evening of Holly’s fifty-eighth birthday (or fifty-ninth, according to no less an authority than the Torqwamni County drunk tank), he’s at Bethlehem’s house on Torqwamni Hill. Everything has been right with the evening. They went to dinner and a movie and have returned to her place to silently read at the crackling hearth. An intermittent wind, whose deranged moods vary from deathbed murmurs on up to an inarticulate, gibbering fury, alternately clutches its rosary and then assaults Torqwamni Hill. Like most successful long-term couples (and they are indeed a couple, right on down to the never having sex part of that common equation), they seldom speak to one another when everything’s right. When they do, it’s in their own secret language, which is best described as a competitive, ironic verbal melee in which all is fair, and lachrymose sentiments, such as endearments and apologies, are only allowed oxygen as to fatten them for the fire.
Suddenly irked, Beth closes her book with a loud snap and brings a kitchen match off the coffee table and lights a cigarette. She’s a small, trim woman physically arranged much younger than someone who’d turned a legit fifty-nine on Christmas Day. She crosses her arms and legs and focuses her incredibly large, intelligent and expressive eyes on Holly, who, of course, and as always, is the cause of the irk.
Oh, he knows that she’s glaring at him with those twin lighthouses in her head, but over the years the winner of most moments between them has been the one to hold his or her tongue the longest. At seven, Beth had set a state scholastic record (which still stands) for the highest confirmed IQ. Her genius is fairly widespread, yet she excels most in pattern recognition, problem solving, and the resurrection of eidetic memories. The first two items had made her a natural when it came to writing computer script, the third is a camera obscura of the mind. Beth became very wealthy when she was very young. She knows that the key element in problem solving is the ability to do so in the fewest steps possible; yet one needn’t an IQ of over 200 to do this. Alexander the Great may not have been a candidate for Mensa, but he knew how to undo the Gordian knot.
It’s evident that “Sir Hollyhock” had something “deep” to share, but, as always, instead of getting after it plainly he has opted to skillessly nudge whatever’s on his microscopic brain toward her attention. This is a sub-moronic pattern typical of the Subject’s deficient thinking processes. Beth sees it as a simple problem–easily solved by any one of many solutions of the same color:
Problem: Subject began annoying the hell out of me about twenty minutes ago via a series of mournful sighs and fabricated sinus disturbances in an obvious effort to win my attention and then seek good advice he will not use. Subject has employed this substandard method of communication since the second half of the 20th century. If God were to put the Saints and Angels on why the Subject does this, Heaven would fall by the weekend.
Solution: Small display of violence. Endless choices. Only difficulty is the abundance of satisfactory options.
With a sudden thrust of her right leg that Bruce Lee would have been proud of, Beth kicks the book out of Holly’s hands. It goes straight up and lands with a heavy thud on the carpet. And in an act of equally quick dexterity, she returns to her cross-legged sitting position, draws heavily off her cigarette, and resumes glaring at Holly.
Holly has been expecting this sort of thing, but is nevertheless impressed. He smiles, which causes an unwanted bloom of poignancy in Beth’s heart. Holly had been so damn pretty for so long, yet even though he gave up the bottle, decades of dissipation have etched deep furrows in his once handsome face. He looks like a grinning iguana.
Holly considers playing dumb, but that ship has already sunk. “Do you recall the wild heart rose of Alaska?” he says with a sigh.
His statement does something to Beth’s face. A lot of stuff happens there all at once, making it impossible to describe.
“Why ‘the wild heart rose of Alaska’?” she says with the Marlboro purr she uses only on Holly. “Why must you always be disruptive at quiet time? Why must every moment of happiness be paid with an hour of self-flagellation? Why must everything suck?”
“The wild heart rose of Alaska doesn’t suck–”
“No, no, nope. Trust me, It does–”
“It’s a lucky thing, really,” he says. “It keeps the sorrow up.”
“That’s probably about all you can keep up nowadays,” Beth says. “Sometimes I miss your wickedness. I’ve always liked Falstaff better than Hal, and a damn sight better than Henry.
Old men get nasty cases of memoryitis; they lay down and let the sins they had outrun for so long stomp all over them as though the old men were grapes and the sins barefooted maids. Got a flash for you, Sir Hollyhock, I’ll guzzle goat piss before I’ll sip your wine.”
“I think you’ve mulched your metaphor.”
“I’ll cornhole my figures of speech with broomsticks in the prison shower if it pleases me to do so,” She leans forward and snaps her fingers under his nose. “Then I’ll crack their necks just like that when I’m good and ready.”
In his best stage voice, Holly says:
“There once was a maid named Bethlehem
Who did her best for the impotent gentleman
With a wave of her hand
She struck up the band.
‘Maybe it’ll stand for the national anthem.’”
A droll, perhaps affectionate expression briefly flickers in Beth’s eyes. But she quickly torches it at the stake. “Since you’re all about the dying, has it ever occurred in your tiny, poetic, sorrowful brain to have a go at murder/suicide? Being that it’s your birthday, let me be the triggerman. Shakespeare died on his birthday, you know? Could be that Anne had made a similar offer between reading the ‘second best bed’ part in his will and laying the pillow over his face.”
“Interesting proposal. But how can I trust you to do yourself in afterwards?”
“It hurts just knowing you think that,” she purrs. “Tell you what, I promise to get right on my half of the deal–after a suitable interval of peace and quiet passes, of course. Might be an interval as short as thirty years–forty, tops. Not that it would matter to you down there in the fifty-five-gallon drum of hydrochloric acid,” she adds with a wave toward the basement.
“You’re the soul of hospitality, Bethlehem.”
She blows a series of smoke rings and asks, “Do you still see angel halos for lung cancer victims in those? Do you still think about getting a boner because Franny held you in her arms on the day we laid your mother in her grave? Do you ever wonder if your father is still alive way up north in some geezer lush-sanitarium, and that if he is, does he ever think about you? And do you ever stop to think that none of that means anything to anybody anymore except that deep-seated demon of yours who feeds on pain?”
“And is there anything in this wide world that I can tell you that you don’t already know?”
“Yes,” he says, “the wild heart rose–”
“Of Alaska,” she finishes. Beth kills her cigarette then gazes deeply into Holly’s eyes. I love you too much to ever let you die, she thinks. This is a hurtful thought because she has been able to absorb the losses of so many people whom she loved and still move on, but if–when–he goes, so will life, with all its gargantuan tragedies and miniscule victories; love and hope.
Holly seldom asks Beth for anything, but she knows that for reasons born in guilt and self-immolation, he wants her to shine her amazing power of recall on that day in 1977 when he came home from school and found Jean dead on the sofa. She has done this for him before, but only with the best of intentions. Like so many children of suicide, Holly luxuriates in a self-made fallacy in which he had been somehow responsible for his mother’s death and could and should have done something about it, but he had “ignored the signs” –which, apparently by magic, appeared in his mind a couple of years down the road. Every time they get after the memory he gets a little better about it. The key is to tell the truth, never inject opinion. Beth realizes that she is practicing psychology without a license–but since Holly is the kind of person who would attempt to sew on a severed limb before going to a doctor, and since “Worrying about making you crazier is the same as fretting over spilling salt into the ocean,” and since she isn’t paid to care, she does this without reservation.
At just eighteen, Beth had been home from grad-school that afternoon. Harry was at work, and as it was her custom, Beth had kept an eye out for Holly around his usual time–which has been always much wider a span than the “usual time” observed by the average person, who is not nearly as easily diverted as Sir Hollyhock has always been–but there he was. It had been one of those late May Northwest days in which runty popcorn clouds populated the creamsicle sky, and the burgeoning flora was overly pink and smelled and tasted fulsome and as sticky oversweet as Easter candy.
Looking back, Beth hadn’t thought of Jean once that day. Even though Beth and Harry, Jean and
Holly, and Fran and her tabby cat Chubbier Checker (aka, Fatter Domino, Porkier Pig) all lived in the same 19th century grand house that had been divided into apartments for the working class, and all were constantly in and out of each other’s places, Jean had been quiet that day, and Beth would have assumed that she was out, if she had thought of her at all.
They were going to listen to a Warren Zevon album Holly had mail ordered for after hearing it on the late night Weird Radio. Beth remembers the innocent look of surprize in his face when he found the door locked. She remembers the sudden fear that came into it when he discovered that the chain was set when he unlocked the door. This, of course, meant she was home, yet unresponsive to his knocks and increasingly louder calls. Before Beth could stop him, Holly shouldered open the door and broke off the chain.
There Jean was. All gone Beth recalls every last detail as though forty years haven’t passed. Fifty-nine-year-old Beth refuses to allow retroactively writ theories and suppositions on the last days of Jean More’s behavior to enter her narrative. But deep within she recalls the sudden departure Jean had had from a long-term depression that had cost her her job and had landed her on Welfare. She had been bright and happy during those last days, as though a great weight had been lifted. If Beth did let these things up for air, she would have to admit that Jean had never once spoke of the future during this final Indian Summer of her soul.
Then something so obvious occurs to Beth that she wonders if they had gotten her IQ wrong.
Holly being Holly, has always referred to his mother’s suicide as the Wild Heart Rose of Alaska. He does stuff like that, and that’s about as far as Beth has ever followed it. But tonight, she has made a connection that she would have made long ago if she had pursued the subject a little further. Or so her ego would like to think. It’s a nothing, really, a meaningless detail; yet in Holly’s way of looking at things it will be a great gift.
“What is the wild heart rose, minus the Alaska part?” she asks. “I’ve heard you say it maybe five-hundred times over the last forty years, and yet not until just now have I ever thought that it is a subconscious rattling of yours of whose source is obscure to you.”
“I don’t get you” Holly says, using a phrase that has been a staple between them ever since the dawn of memory. Then he thinks it over. “You know, it’s just something that popped up. No reason, really.”
“Maybe it’s because you hate wine,” she says. “Bring on the beer and the whisky, but like Dracula you never drank wine.”
“I don’t get you…” then he brightens and the years (well, some of them) fall away from his very used face in the light of this Eureka! moment. “The pint?”
Beth lights a cigarette and nods yes. In her mind, and on the More’s 1977 coffee table. lay a tumble of unnecessary Quaaludes and an empty pint of Wild Heart Rose hobo wine.
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