Sunday, October 26, 2014

Untidy and Poems

Volumes Collected and Unread

Risk by Tim Skeen and a Poem by Charles Baxter


Not this bad, but bad. I've been buying books for my retirement--infinitely distant--and now that I'm entirely off Amazon and using Half-Price Books, I'm finding great deals for pennies, and things are getting worse. Recently, for example, I've picked up half-a-dozen books by Terry Eagleton--hardbacks, unopened--for under two bucks a pop, and a small treasure-trove of books about Dante, books by Thomas Bernhard (the few I didn't already own, like Frost), Kate Brown's A Biography of No Place (about the Polish borderlands--kresy), the newish biography of Joyce by Jordan Bowker, and, what's holding my other reading up right now, Alan Ryan's On Politics.

I did manage to finish the new book of poems by Tim Skeen, Risk, the winner of White Pine's 19th book prize. Skeen is what I think of as a vernacular poet, meaning that he keeps his language simple, his images earthy, and his subject matter close to home...in other words a poet more akin to Jane Kenyon or Stanley Kunitz than to Richard Wilbur or Louise Gluck (all of whom I have been reading these last few months). Skeen is the sort of poet who must walk around muttering to himself--thinking in lines, or plotting them, or revising--working out the way that life and writing seem to overlap so that it's easy to lose oneself in one or the other:

To Failure

You and I are like a marriage of convenience
between two down-on-their-luck families,
the Eastmans and the Roebucks, or the Nixons
and the Goldwaters. We don't care for each other 
but I have a bottle of wine and you have a corkscrew.
I have a pack of cigarettes and you have a lighter.
We agree to sheathe our teeth, drink the wine,
smoke, kiss. A day becomes a night, one night
becomes two nights. I get out of bed, put on my boxers,
shorts, and a white T-shirt silk-screened with a photo
of construction workers eating lunch atop a skyscraper
in 1932. The sun is hot when I walk around the corner
to withdraw twenty dollars from a bank machine.
The dots of gum on the cement sidewalk look like
an exercise in a child's book. Connecting the dots
to see where they lead seems luckier than going back.

It's tempting to do unthinkable (though not unspeakable) things just to see how they'll turn out in a poem. I remember the first time--also the last--that I saw a cow slaughtered...

It'll Make You Strong

The cow's driven between metal chutes
through a garage door where Eugene,
my father's friend, stuns the animal
with a sledgehammer, trusses the hind legs
with a chain, raises it to the rafters, and it seems
at the same moment, slashes its neck with two strokes.
Eugene loads our truck with wholesale cuts:
chuck, rump, flank, round, shank, loin, plate, rib.
Each morning the image of that poor animal comes
to me in the powdered gelatin I stir into my cup
of grape juice. I flinch and pause at the smell
of hydrolyzed collagen, its hide and hair and hoof.
When my daughter asks, What does it taste like Dada?
what else can I say but what my father told me? 

Like Skeen, I remember how the butcher named the bloody muscle as he sheared it, effortlessly, from the bone and sinew; how the tangle of guts dropped onto the grated floor, the reek of dried blood, the billion flies. But it's the sort of thing you want to see once so you can write about it and tidy it up in the comfort of language. That seems to me to be Skeen's style, maybe the way of all poets who mine their lives for their material--what's the point of metaphor when one has the richness of living to draw on?  Skeen has had more than the life of an English prof (he now teaches at Fresno State). He's kicked around in the way Phil Levine and other blue collar poets have; brought up in the Midwest, a stint in the Army, the sorts of jobs that prepare one for the craft of poetry.  Skeen has the sort of commerce with high culture that leads one back to one's roots rather than away from them--what I mean is, he can bring in a literary or artistic reference where needed, but he subordinates his book learning to other, more worldly concerns ("Nativity Scene," "Cartier Bresson's Photo of Matisse"). This is something I admire in other poets as well--Albert Goldbarth comes to mind at once, though his rococo style is aeons away from Skeen's simplicity.

Speaking of poets: I hadn't realized until recently that my favorite short-story writer, Charles Baxter, published a book of poems back in 1989. I have a copy here, a nice Paris Review Edition--remember them?--and this mid-Western vernacular poem:

The One Who Didn't Drown

In the late summer sand by the dock
the grownups lean back
to let the mood of evening articulate
itself without anyone offering a comment.
while they watch the children splash and dive
and hold their shivering arms to their chests
as their skin prickles with cold water.

The amber sky dims, and moves back,
and someone has mentioned it,
but the grownups have passed on to talk
gently about a neighbor who was once alive
here in Minnesota, and the evening
almost floats like a bobber, held between
part of the day and the first few minutes of dark.

The parents laugh as if they were once
children and recognize every trick
the children try. A child notices a child is gone,
dives for him, pulls him up to the deck
where they all press their hands to his heart
and he opens his eyes and coughs, twice. 

Once in a while someone or other will ask me why I'm reading poems--waiting for my car a few weeks ago at Jiffy Lube was the most recent time--not in a rude way, more like, "So, you're reading a book of poems?" And it's half a question and half puzzlement, as in why aren't you easing your index finger down the screen of a handheld device? I just shrug, acknowledging that I'm hopeless--I don't mention, not wanting to seem insane, that I'm deviceless.  I might print up a bunch of Skeen and Baxter, simple verses from the land of no palm trees, and pass them out, without explanation, handbills that open one's eyes: "where they all press their hands to his heart/and he opens his eyes and coughs, twice."






Tim Skeen's Risk is available at White Pine Press; their web address is to the right.

George Ovitt (10/26/14)





Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Funhouse: A Eulogy





In Memoriam: 
D.F.N. (d. 2010)
D.D. (d. 2012)
R.F. (d. 2012)

“Amor condusse noi ad uni morte.”  Dante, Inferno, V, 106

December 6, 2000
1.

The week before Olson died—it would be the following Wednesday when he finally expired, the cancer having spread to his thoracic lymph nodes, to his lungs and liver, his throat and esophagus, anywhere an errant cell could find a hook on which to hang its hat it had done so, lured by the downward feedback loop of its own trajectory, weakness to toxicity, like the outward drift of spilled oil or the chaotic flow of wind and weather—Wednesday, always Olson’s least favorite day, not a day at all, an interlude, the little raft you clung to for a moment before turning back toward shore.  Olson had known it was coming.  He was often too tired to get out of bed; too tired to talk, too tired to even think about the things he needed to think about.  And he was angry at the cool breeze that blew through his window, at the lingering evening light, the two or three stars he could see in smoggy D.C. (they were actually Venus and Mars, ascendant that month, an inch apart in the western sky, one slightly brighter than the other, a benison, or a torment).  He was upset about dying, but had made his peace with the need for it years before.  He was angry that the Republicans were going to win another election and that the country he found exasperating and fascinating was going to be fucked over for another four years—he wouldn’t be able to stop it, or to tell anyone how he felt about the new Bush, or write a book that would in no way affect anything but which would keep Olson’s mind occupied during the next stage of the ruination of the Republic. When, in a week’s time, the farce of the 2000 election drew to a close, and the Court, just a stone’s throw away from Olson’s house on Third Street and Maryland Avenue on Capitol Hill, ruled that the Florida recount would be terminated or Mr. B would suffer an abridgment of his rights under the equal protection clause, Olson would be dead. 
Jesus Christ! Olson still had the energy for blasphemy—“The Fourteenth Amendment—defending these clowns!”  Now, the week before “the final indignity,” Olson was mumbling, only half lucidly, sedated on hydromorphone, a little crazy in any case,  worked up and depressed, in pain and beyond all feeling—who could blame him for being irate?  The millennium had arrived with a vengeance—Y2K, the Rapture, the Decline of the West.  The pundits had a field day those final months of ’99, no disaster was unthinkable, no scenario too absurd—the best seller lists were topped by books with titles that included the phrase “the end of”—history, literacy, physics, love—you name it, Americans wanted it to end so that something new—Jesus arriving on a surfboard, Elvis and Walt Disney and Billy Graham risen from the dead, if they were dead—could save them from the boredom of being rich and fat and stupid—this was Olson’s view of the matter, bitter—of course—but not unreasonable.  The sitting president—absurdly “Bill,” like Olson’s uncle who’d died in a bowling accident—now Bill would have to button up his fly and go back to the sticks and get busy making a bundle, which had been his plan all along.  How fortuitous that the millennium had come fast on the heels of a sex scandal—the self-righteous (everyone!) were beside themselves with indignation—a blowjob in the White House!  Cheat the taxpayers, screw the poor, order cruise missile attacks, but Jesus, don’t let an intern suck your dick!  At first Olson had found the farce of the past three years funny, but when he realized the moralizing was for real he grew melancholy. How could people be such schmucks?  Olson knew people who threw up their hands—“It’s tragic”, they said.  And, “Get me out of here!”  Olson had read stories in the Times about people who’d thrown in the towel, progressives and reactionaries, liberals and conservatives, all of whom had given up on the Republic—on the guns and crime and abortions, on the Jesus Freaks and robber barons, on the drugs and crappy schools and crooks in Congress—everyone had a gripe whose content and ferocity depended on their political views, on whether they followed Rush or Rachel, urban cosmopolitans and hicks from Iowa who’d decided to cast their lot with the Irish or Portuguese, to finish their lives in Dublin or Lisbon, Nogales or Tijuana, anyplace but the US of A with its unremitting spectacles.  Olson had thought about leaving himself, dreamed of finishing his life on the Costa Brava, but of course he was poor and, to be honest, he hadn’t wanted to miss what he called the “finale” of national decline. Dying now, Olson realized that some asshole from the Bible Belt would probably buy his little Capitol Hill townhouse and use it for screwing Congressional pages—Goddamn it.  

And: no more sex, or red wine, or dinners at Ruth Chris; no sunsets or dectective novels or movies starring Meryl Streep; no politics or sleeping in, no phone calls to his children, no fights with his ex-.  Never again.  That was the kicker—never would he move his hand up the inside of a woman’s thigh—he thought for a moment about women’s thighs, no one’s in particular, a Platonic thigh, detached from all women and floating in space with all the other abstractions—Beauty, Truth, Justice. He smiled at the thought, then lost it. He lingered in an erotic netherworld for some time, hoping for an erection, a final whacking of his member, but it was no good.  The truth was he’d been bored with sex for years, and he kept up a nominal interest only from a sense of responsibility.  He preferred women’s conversation; he had for some time. When he regarded a woman objectively these days—which only occurred when one he knew (he knew many) stopped by for a visit—he paid more attention to eyes and hair than to tits and asses.   One of the better things about dying, Olson believed, was that he had at long last outgrown his piggish male ego.  A brainy man, not bad looking, with charm to spare (he thought), Olson had loved seduction more than books or ideas or even his beloved political battles.  He flirted with his students when he was teaching, with the wives of colleagues, with strangers at parties. He’d been married twice and had considered a third Mrs. Olson until he was diagnosed with liver cancer the year before.  Inept in love, he said aloud, and thought: like my hero William Jennings Bryan, not really Olson’s hero, but an interesting specimen, a Bible-beating fool who thought a man could serve the people and maintain his principles, an orator, large and lachrymose, ambitious enough to  seek the presidency three times in order (Olson believed) to repair his soul.  Olson was himself unattached—detached—untethered like a balloon about to float away for good.  He had enjoyed deathbed (that ghastly term, whose deep meaning he finally perceived) meetings with both of his ex-wives and half-a-dozen of his female friends.   The wives—Barbara whom he met in grad school and been married to, on and off, for twenty years, and Bernice (Bernie) whom he had married and divorced in the time it took the previous president to get himself impeached by self-righteous Congressmen who did their  intramural screwing at the Hay-Adams or the Mayflower and not in the Oval Office. Bernie, the two-year wonder, had been good enough to drop by Olson’s little row house to ask after his health.  Two children with Barbara, no time for any with Bernie. Olson, never a dutiful husband or father, was now wistful about his children, his daughter and son, fully grown up, accomplished and normal—who knew how they’d done it?  An LA filmmaker and some kind of computer person in San Jose, handsome kids with lots of friends and probably many lovers.  As far away from their Old Man as they could get. Olson was proud that they seemed so much saner than he had ever been, less prone to obsession and not at all attracted to the darker side of things.  It wasn’t his doing; Barbara had a gift for living—if that’s what it was—he had lacked.  His almost third wife, what’s her name, had said that he was a child, a comment which struck Olson as dopey.  Childish, he had said, but not a child.  Big difference. 

Yes, he had behaved badly.  Was selfish, vain, unreliable, loquacious (vapidly so), thoughtless, monomaniacal, a bad listener and personally sloppy—but still.  There were the many good qualities, and as he lay on his bed—sore in his buttocks and legs and back from being flat for so long, mournful in the morning light. (He dreaded night and hoped he would ‘pass away’—he liked the phrase, suggesting as it did the turning of the leaves or the arrival of the New Year—during lunch time, which for Olson, with his workaholic habits, had always been the most pointless time of day.  He never ate lunch and hated not being able to get anyone on the phone for the two-hours that official Washington set aside for schmoozing.…..)
This was how it was going for Olson.  His mind would not settle.  He was thinking in parentheses. He was restless and unfocused and jittery.  His good qualities were as follows: funny and serious.  Maybe not as funny as he thought.  Serious then.  Which, in his cancer-addled mind was a redemptive quality, given the stupidity of the age.  Seventy-percent of Americans believed in heaven.  Sixty-percent denied evolution and almost that same number believed the Bible was literally true.  Eighty-percent thought they had a guardian angel! Under the circumstances a sense of humor helped. 
Yes, his brain now resembled one of those flighty warblers whose spring songs had thrilled Olson on cool summer mornings in Vermont.  He had loved waking up in his austere bedroom on the third floor of the falling-down farmhouse purchased with the advance for his second, his most successful book, a sensationalized history of the devastating strikes of labor’s formative period—Homestead, Pullman, and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877—a book he wasn’t proud of, a potboiler he had written because he was broke, saddled with child-care payments and a monstrous credit card nut occasioned by a spur-of-the-moment trip to India and Pakistan, a trip that nearly killed him but which led to his “conversion”—using the word loosely—to no-frills Theravada Buddhism, the only religion that had ever appealed to Olson, an agnostic who bitterly  denounced any faith that didn’t advance the interests of the working class.
“’The working class’—what a joke.” Olson spoke to himself--why not?
And, “Gott im Himmel.Mr. Samuels glanced over at Olson’s bedroom window and frowned. Mr. Samuels. Olson wasn’t sure what his first name was and never would have addressed him without the formal Mister in any case, this neighbor of many years, a man no older but far more active than Olson, a G-13 at Labor whose job apparently was managing the compilation of statistics for the Congressional Budget Office—a meta-job, Olson believed, which must have had the Zen quality of inducing boredom so intense as to either drive one mad or to take one, as it apparently had the benign Mr. Samuels, to a plane of Being equivalent to that of a Bodhisattva, a serenity derived from columns of numbers, percentages, growth factors, labor mobility vectors, potential employment indices, actuarial computational models—these were, Mr. Samuels had assured Olson,  important concepts, and he had often brought up the details of his job over the back fence on autumn Sunday afternoons right after the weekly Redskin’s loss had propelled him, Samuels, a still-rangy black man who had been a tight end on Dunbar’s 1969 City Championship team and who bled Redskin maroon, out into the cleansing light and crisp air to clear his head and curse the owners who had decimated a once-proud franchise—yes, Mr. Samuels, who now turned away from Olson’s window, accustomed as he was to outbursts originating from the crazy socialist who never mowed his lawn or shoveled his walk or decorated his porch for the holidays but who was, nonetheless, not a bad sort for a white man, not the kind of neighbor who made a big deal out of pioneering on an all-black block east of the Capitol, just a regular guy who kept to himself, mostly worked at home, and never borrowed tools that he didn’t return. That his neighbor was fatally ill was unknown to Mr. Samuels.  Had he known, he would have had Mrs. Samuels make a ham and potato casserole and he would have come to sit with Mr. Olson each evening to chat about sports and weather—not politics.  Mr. Samuels was an Eisenhower Republican and had no patience with his neighbor’s soft-hearted view of the world.  But he didn’t know of the cancer, and he wouldn’t until the following Wednesday when, returning from a day of meetings with the House Labor Subcommittee on Regulation, he saw the ambulance, fire truck, and two police cruisers parked next door.  Later on, a black family from Savannah would rent the house from the real estate company deputized by the executor of Olson’s will to discharge his obligations—the socialist had died insolvent, not that this surprised Mr. Samuels—and the man of the house, who came and went, was a Falcons fan with whom Mr. Samuels had a loud argument concerning reimbursement for the damage done by the branch of an oak tree that had crushed a section of his, Samuels’s, porch.  There came a day when Samuels would rue the passing of Olson, but such things, in the great skein of time, are of no importance.

Olson saw all of this clearly.  He found it remarkable that the future came to him admixed with the past. If time were compressed to a point, if all living things were God, if the world was existent all at once, if a man’s mind was made transparent by the act of dying—if these things were true, then Olson, the most cerebral of men, could see clearly into the future.  Mr. Samuels would miss him; his wives would not.  His daughter would mourn her father for many years, discovering his good qualities when it was too late; his son would not share his sister’s nostalgia for the past and would promptly forget the Old Man as he pursued his first ten million. Olson’s damaged ex-vet friend Wallace would become a writer, but would never publish anything.  His many friends would raise their glasses at Olson’s favorite watering-holes, toasting his memory, and then they would forgot why they had been fond of a man so self-absorbed; but, later on, they would remember that he had been witty and easy with cash, and so they would miss him for a while, with all the sincerity that anyone can muster for a ghost.  This is the way it goes with the dead.  They are useful as a means of bringing the living together, but otherwise forgotten. 

“Though a round portal I saw appear/Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears,/Where we emerged, and once more saw the stars.” 


Olson, always precocious, had read Dante when he was in ninth grade.  Only Hell.  His interest in Dante never waned. In college he’d learned Italian so he could read the great Florentine in the original. His master’s thesis was written on Dante’s politics, comparing Dante to Machiavelli, and later on, with much revision, the book had been picked up by a small Massachusetts publisher, but it never sold and wasn’t reviewed.  It was on the strength of this little book that Olson had secured his first teaching job at a second-tier liberal arts college in Vermont.  He’d hated teaching.  He disliked his students, found them dull and disinterested, too privileged to understand the value of an education.  And he’d been a terrible teacher.  On class days he would get headaches, and his vision would grow blurry in anticipation of the moment he had to walk into the seminar room with its buzzing florescent lights and smell of chalk dust and disinfectant to talk about pronouns and dependent clauses and the use of the comma.  He had no firm grasp of English.  He had majored in history in college and was close to finishing his degree, but the job market was saturated with academic job seekers, Sixties idealists who weren’t into money, at least not yet.  So he taught English composition for a few years and was unhappy but channeled his unhappiness into political work, writing mostly, with some forays into union organizing in the Burlington and Albany areas.  His doctoral dissertation at Amherst was on the repression of workers under Mussolini in the early years of fascism.  It took him years to finish—he was neither a methodical thinker nor an organized researcher. He collected thousands of note cards with quotations and citations, scattered them around his workroom, and then desperately scrambled to find what he needed as he wrote.  He was hopeless.  Barbara helped him finish—without her he never would have ordered his life at all—and when he was done with the dissertation, which was picked up by Columbia and won the Garibaldi Award in 1976, she was worn out and done with him. She left Olson for a colleague of hers, a fellow lawyer, but returned with only minimal recriminations (on both sides) after a few months.  It turned out that she loved her husband’s annoying and obsessive personality, his "maniac character," more than she’d known.  Or she didn’t enjoy Carson Welles—“the most boring man who’s ever lived”—as much as the idea of a “settled existence with a mature man.”  Olson was happy to have Barbara back. He loved her hard-assed way of dealing with the world, her red hair and freckles, the fact that she got what he was saying, even if, as was often the case, she disagreed with it.  “You’re against everything,” she’d informed Olson, “and I’m only against a few things, that’s the difference between us.”  This kind of talk irked Olson. In those days, the mid-70’s, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-prosperity, Olson was against everything.  He was “sick of the fucking fandango” that had unfolded since ’69, “the year the country went to shit.”  When he’d make those sorts of pronouncements, when he’d tell Barbara that he wanted to move to Canada to get away from the nut jobs in Washington, when he’d go so far as to apply for a Fulbright in Nigeria, he was in earnest, but a day or so later he’d think of some reason he couldn’t leave, some cause he had to address or some piece of work he had to do.  He loved the fray; enjoyed being pissed off at the stupidity of his fellow Americans, and not often, but sometimes, was touched by their generosity. 
When he thought about his life, drifting on his hospital bed ($200 per day, paid for with Medicare, God bless LBJ), watching with some sadness the progress of the day—Mr. Samuels was practicing the saxophone now, as he did each morning before work, Olson felt irked that he was dying.  Irked. He wasn’t bad, Art Pepper it sounded like, short bursts of ‘Straight Life,’ not exactly Pepper’s signature tune, but ironic and lovely—Mr. Samuels had taught Olson to appreciate jazz during the years of their distant acquaintanceship, especially, of course, the music of the great alto players—where was he? Oh yes, every book had cost him a wife or a girlfriend.  When he’d finally left Hutton College, left his cronies and girlfriends behind and been hired (after a bitter negotiation) at District University to teach history, he’d discovered he had a knack for exactly two things—writing books about politics and talking about politics.  At everything else in life, including friendship and love, Olson had to admit—and why not admit it, now that the game was up?—he was a flop.  When he was engaged in a project, writing about the Wobblies for example, a project that took him three years, or when he was traveling regularly from Washington to Detroit, putting together an oral history of the UAW with a couple of union guys, or when he was organizing the American Committee to Defend Universities—against corporate control, rapacious administrators, federal budget cuts, the Defense Department—Olson displayed his fundamental monomania, his resolute, single-minded selfishness—his best side.  But he also displayed indifference to everything  else.  Friends left him alone and then drifted away.  Girlfriends hung around his messy Capitol Hill townhouse, waiting for the phone to ring, and when it didn’t, they packed up and left.  Barbara, who had hung on, left him and returned half-a-dozen times, flew to Detroit or Chicago or St. Louis or wherever Olson was agitating, researching, or organizing, and tried to find a niche in his life, a fingerhold into which she might insinuate herself.  But it was no good.  He’d be upset rather than pleased to see her, wonder why she had left home to crash with him in a Motel 6 outside of Dallas when he was busy meeting with the Graduate Student Association of UT, persuading them to go one strike against the university for higher TA salaries or more comprehensive health care—demands that no university would ever meet since the pool of hungry grad students was as limitless as the ocean of the unemployed, especially as the country shed jobs in the name of “competitiveness.” Now, too late, Olson was embarrassed by his behavior, near tears as urine leaked into the adult diaper he had reluctantly begun to wear as he lost control of his bladder.  Losing control: that was the name of the game—his bladder, his hands, his thoughts—one by one the world he had carefully made and comfortably inhabited was lost.  Olson cried quietly for a few minutes—what the hell, he hadn’t cried when he’d been diagnosed, or, stoically, as he moved from an active life to being housebound to nearly bedridden—at each station of the cross Olson had remained dry-eyed, but now, a week out, he let himself weep.  He was helpless against the onslaught of the past, and while he had forgiven himself—had he not, like Dante, entered the circles of hell to be shriven?—he couldn’t forget.  He wept, and then he slept.

In his cancer sleep, the little buggers multiplying gleefully in Olson’s weary self—if he had a self and wasn’t a Cartesian robot, a ghost tucked away in his pineal gland, watching the ship of the body go down but confident of floating off into the sea of souls, perhaps to be given another ship to command (Olson, in his Buddhist moments, really did believe this)—as he sank deeply down intoweary self—if he had a self and wasn’t a Cartesian robot, a ghost tucked away in his pineal gland, watching the ship of the body go down but confident of floating off into the sea of souls, perhaps to be given another ship to command (Olson, in his Buddhist moments, really did believe this)—as he sank deeply down into addled dreams, Olson watched himself lying in bed, and decided, or so it seemed, to dream his childhood into being. 
What he wanted to dream was of mornings, the time he had loved the most through those early years of school and summers and holidays.  He remembered his mother coming in to wake him just as the sun was pushing up out of the Atlantic and the oaks that rimmed the yard had begun to lighten.  He would open his eyes and see his mother there, fully dressed—she had been up for an hour, packing lunches, setting out clothes, perhaps finishing the ironing from the night before—and although he would grumble about the time, he was happy to rise and wash and join her in the steaming kitchen for oatmeal and toast and milky-sweet coffee.  His mother insisted on coffee because it promoted “alertness,” a trait she valued among all others. To be “bright-eyed” was the sum of virtue. There was work to be done, a world to be conquered—the laggards would be left behind.  And then Olson, just plain David—never Dave or Davie—would dress in his school uniform and gather his books and walk with his mother to the bus stop.  What had they talked about on those mornings?  Olson, drifting up slowly from his nap, couldn’t recall.  (Should he let go now, or should he hang on?  He’d begun to feel that his departure was a matter of choice. No, not yet). 
“I want to see it, the past,” he said aloud, knowing as he said it that such a thing couldn’t be done.  You might recall a moment here and there, but no more.  Most people forgot their lives, or claimed to “live in the present.”  Instead, Olson wanted to enjoy the panorama of his existence, a wide-angled view of his time on earth, past and present and maybe the future.  That would be his peace.  The things he’d be leaving behind, including those winter mornings walking hand in hand with his mother to the bus, those things were gone forever, as extinct as democracy and good manners. 
Awake now, Olson passed from dream to consciousness without missing a beat.  She’s long dead, he thinks, and he remembered that he had held her hand as she died—the same one he’d held on the way to the bus, or as he walked, frightened, into the ocean, or that he’d held when he was in the hospital, many years before, half dead with pneumonia.   She was energetic and bright-eyed right up to the last week of her life—Olson was surprised at the depth of the void her passing left.  And now it was his turn, he had come to the head of the line, the great long line of the dying he had stood in for so many years. Olson smiled, thinking about how life was waiting for something you wanted never to happen. 

He’d been born in New Jersey.  Smack dab in the middle of the Garden State.  In Asbury Park, lovely when he was a boy, with its boardwalk and Casino, but as he grew up it had become an increasingly forlorn and seedy city. He was the spawn of what had come in the 90’s to be thought of—thanks to a movie and a book and the public’s yearning for something to grasp onto as the President went down in flames—as the “Greatest Generation,” a description which Olson considered laughable.  He’d written a book on The Overrated Generation, a tilt at windmills intended to show that people like his father (whom Olson had loved and despised in equal measure) and his mother (loved unconditionally) had been the beneficiaries of the self-sacrifice of a small percentage of the population of the United States—fewer than three hundred thousand American dead, which wasn’t nothing, but how did this compare to twenty million Russians, six million Jews, uncounted millions of Poles and Slovaks and Czechs?  Sixteen million Americans served—but neither of his parents had joined up.  Olson’s father had gotten out on his eyesight and the fact that he was the sole custodian of his demented mother.  The Overrated Generation asserted that the Depression/World War II generation had played its grasping hand skillfully and received far more in benefits than it had deserved.  Cheap houses, free university educations, jobs—actual jobs!—social programs that the ingrates had turned on once they had milked them dry, plus endless adulation, the icing on the cake.  Movies and books and parades and monuments filling the National Mall from end to end.  “Where,” Olson had written, knowing he was stepping in shit, “was the monument to the Freedom Riders, the pacifists, the union men and women who’d fought the real fight, the one for the crumbs left over once the ‘greatest generation’ had had its fill?”  And this: “Nowadays a Vietnam vet is more likely to blow his brains out than find work.  And it’s the dinosaurs praised by the faddists of ‘greatness’ who reap the benefits of the war and who keep on collecting, decade after decade.”  Yes, he was looking for trouble.  The Times, which had studiously ignored his other books, handed the review of The Overrated Generation to a hack from The New Republic, a professor of what Nietzsche had called ressentiment, whose version of red-baiting had been refined during the Nixon years.  The reviewer noted that “David Olsson [sic] was well-known for his perverse attacks on all conventions, liberal and conservative, and was a spokesman for those who blame America for all the ills of the present,” a comment that had nothing to do with what Olson had written but which achieved its intended purpose—Olson’s publisher cut him loose, citing poor sales.  That was to be expected.  In Eastern Europe in the 80’s he’d have been put in jail or worse.  Losing his publisher was one thing—he found another—but being accused of hating America—that pissed him off.  Olson loved the old bitch with the passion of a critic: “Lighting fireworks one day a year hardly makes you a patriot,” became a line he used often, in defense of his perverse brand of loyalty, if not to the actual government, at least to the ideals it professed. 
What had irked Olson was that this same generation—his old man—became the tax evaders, Proposition 13 supporters, the critics of Headstart, shills for Goldwater, Reagan lovers, Billy Graham revivalists, benign neglect theorists, trickle-down freaks.  His father had read a book by David Stockman—that fershtinkiner—maybe the only book his father had ever opened.  The book argued that giving money to the rich was the best thing for the country—the so-called producers—the same schmucks who came back to Uncle Sam year after year for bailouts and starter capital and tax breaks and who sat in the Congress and on the Court—Stockman wanted to give them more, those who had it all needed more of the hard-earned dollars of the union guys, the truckers, hotel maids, assembly-line workers (the few who were left), cops and firemen and teachers.  For Olson’s father there was one proposition in the catechism: Once you got your dough, no matter how, figure out how to keep it.  Olson remembered bitter arguments with his father over taxes: a duty, said Olson; socialism proclaimed his father.  “What do they do with it?” his old man asked, meaning, of course, the black people.  “They waste it on God knows what.”  Meanwhile Olson’s father hid his earnings by taking payment in cash when he could and spent it on Cadillacs, sport coats, and golf games.  How did this happen?  How had his father, a Methodist turned Roman Catholic—he’d converted to marry Olson’s mother—a man who had sat in the in the rococo cathedral of St. Mary’s to atone for his sins, who tithed the church and claimed to have read the Bible every day, a man who had adored FDR and Henry Wallace, voted for Stevenson twice, eventually became, through the alchemy of greed, a Goldwater Republican, a Nixon supporter (Olson shuddered to think of the signed photos of Nixon and Agnew—those crooks—in his father’s “library,” the room where the old man smoked cigars and flipped through Fortune), and finally, near the end of his life, a Reaganite.  Olson still couldn’t believe it—that his Papa, his good and decent father, the man who drove him to his Little League games and left work early for years to watch Olson sit on the bench during football and basketball season, his handsome and charming old man who smelled of Aqua Velva and Right Guard, who dressed like a mobster, that his father had become a bigot, a delegate to the 1984 Republican Convention.  It had broken Olson’s heart when his father, deep into his eighties, living on Social Security in a wretched Florida condo and sucking up millions in Medicare after his colon was removed, spent his final weeks on earth enthralled by Ken Starr’s attempt to destroy Clinton.   
How had his mother stood it?  His parents’ marriage hadn’t done much to prepare Olson for the relationships he’d stumbled into as an adult.  His mother had been unhappy—anyone but his father could have seen it—but she’d stuck it out for her kids’ sake.  Or was that  just Olson’s take on half-a-lifetime of devotion?  Maybe Ellen—he’d always called his mother by her first name—had adored her husband. Apparently the Old Man had been a handsome fellow in high school, a cheerleader and junior jock, too small to be a star, but with a competitive streak that could be cruel.  Well-dressed and groomed, a man who got his haircut every Saturday morning, who bought his suits at Robert Hall and wore Italian loafers he picked up on Madison Avenue each Christmas, a ladies man, a liar who’d claim to work late and showed up at three in the morning smelling like perfume and bourbon. He started life as a salesman, peddling fire and life policies, working door-to-door “among the coloreds”, a hard worker who eventually became a general agent, who had worked at Metropolitan Life in Newark as some sort of low-level VP, a commuter, photogenic (Olson had a box of pictures of his father, posing with gray-faced corporate executives, trucking association VIP’s, mobsters), a man with “prospects,” a fine catch (Olson imagined) in Ellen’s eyes, and a way to escape her own crazy family, her alcoholic father and depressive mother.  George Olson had been “good husband material,” the exact words his mother had used to describe her marriage that last weekend of her life, good raw material, but weak in character—“He didn’t pan out,” she had said, as if he were a household appliance or an investment, which, Olson supposed, was what he’d been.  On the other hand, Ellen hadn’t been easy to live with either: a perfectionist and neat-freak, loyal to her nutty mother, cold as ice if you crossed her—Olson could half-understand why his father had run around on her, why he stayed at the office as much as he could and grew fond  Olson knew that it takes two people to ruin a marriage, but he wasn’t about to put his mother through the pain of self-examination on her deathbed.  He let her go on about how George had ruined her life.  Maybe he had.  Or maybe they’d ruined each other’s lives, or maybe they were happy as clams all those years that they fought like feral dogs and then, for weeks at a time, never spoke a word to one another.  Who knew?  Olson’s own experiences with women were hardly a study in mental health or conjugal happiness.  He went out for coffee and donuts for his mother that last weekend, milky coffee she sipped throughout the day, and instead of confessions they reminisced about the good years—and there had been many back in the fifties and early sixties, before things had gotten too crazy.  Olson had played home movies for her—carefully threading the brittle film through her forty-year-old projector—films of family vacations in Florida in the days before there had anything to it aside from sand and ocean and a few cut-rate motels.  The ancient, yellowed 8mm film whirled through the reels and flickered on the bed sheet that Olson had spread across the living room.  His mother was propped up on the couch with her coffee and glazed donut, almost happy, relieved in any case to be getting it over with.  Olson’s father had died the year before and since then she had spoken more often of her own “departure.” Olson would have none of it—he reminded her that his father had been a smoker, a drinker, and someone who never exercised or “took care of himself.”  In fact, he’d treated his body as if it were disposable—bacon and eggs for breakfast every day, burgers for lunch, steak for dinner.  When Olson’s mother had served salads or pasta or chicken for dinner her husband had complained of being hungry—“Chicken is an appetizer”—he’d proclaim, and the minute he finished his meal he lit up a Tareyton, dumping the ashes on his plate and pushing the butt in his mashed potatoes.  He’d been a boorish man, yet, during that last weekend of her life, all Ellen could see was the nice-looking boy she’d fallen for, a good Catholic girl who’d won the Latin Prize at St. Rose, a virginal teenager who’d landed a war-time job a Ft. Monmouth as a telephone operator, lonely in the way everyone was in those days, friendly with boys but never  able to say what she needed from them, never expecting much more than a house and kids who would “fail to appreciate her,” this was what she told Olson—“no one appreciated me.” But it wasn’t true, Olson had adored her, all of them knew she was the source of whatever hope they had; she was the one who, in the midst of the arguments and petty cruelties that defined their family life had been willing to look for the means of recreating the sort of warmth that was the staple of 50’s mythology—“Father Knows Best.”  TV Mom in her high heels cooking and cleaning while the wise and kindhearted father brought home the bacon.  Little problems were solved by Mom, the tactician. The big questions, matters of strategy, were left for Pop, with his deeper experience of the world.  Trouble was, Pop wasn’t around all that much, and when he was home he preferred napping or smoking and reading the paper to dealing with his kids.  His family had seemed to be pulled apart by forces that operated in the way black holes pull all matter inward, toward some cold conflagration. There was never an explosion in the Olson house, but a continuous collapse of feeling.  At Ellen’s precipitous departure from the world—two weeks from the diagnosis of lymphoma to her lying immobile, staring at the off-white sheet her least favorite child had strung up in her bedroom, across which half-century-old images unfolded against the rattle of the ancient  projector—all this had been perfectly clear to Olson. 
 “That’s you, it must have been when I went to college, and there’s Pop all trim and tan, and you with your pearl sunglasses, always afraid of the sun, and I’m nervous here about meeting my roommate who turned out to be okay in his way, and….”  Olson had gone on and on that weekend, aghast at the fact of his mother’s dying—he’d never understood the privacy of death before—he babbled  as if he could stop time through will alone.
When he was little, Olson’s mother had walked him across the street from the boarding house to the Palace where she’d given him nickles to play Skeeball or to ride the Merry-Go-Round. The Palace was a drafty airport hanger of a  building, snot-green, with the grotesque face of “Tillie” stenciled on the outside.  As a child, Olson had nightmares full of  the clownish face of Tillie.  His bedroom window had faced the Palace and the Lyric Theater, both were brightly lit (on quiet nights Olson had been able to hear the neon tubes buzzing, an unearthly hum that had put him to sleep). The green and red lights pulsed against his ceiling, and if he looked through the curtains there was the demented grin of Tillie. A siren song, the vortex of the ninth circle, the end of the world.

Now, late in the game, Olson glimpsed the abyss. A blackness that approximated the silence at the beginning of time, as in the dioramas at the Hayden Planetarium, the dome filled with stars and planets, the dizzying feeling of leaving his body and traveling back to the beginning of time. He let himself dream, and he saw images that belonged to his past and to the future.  Why not?  Time wasn’t linear—it had taken Olson until now to understand that the world wasn’t moving through time but within it, that time was the origin of everything, the ether in which matter and mind were embedded.  He was time, and his mind contained it, and now, at last, he could see the source and ending of himself, of all things, as clearly as he saw the vanishing present. As a half-baked Buddhist, Olson was skeptical of the ego, and in his cancer mind he could clearly see that dissolving of the past into the future, proof that he was no one, and that his dying was no more meaningful than a sunset, and far less beautiful.

He thought, “I’ve become quite the philosopher,” and laughed at his spinning out of theories now, when it was too late.  A theory of life is valuable at the onset of adulthood, as a guide to making the most of one’s time, but it hardly mattered at this late date what anything meant—meaning had ended.  Here was Olson, addled with drugs, a sentimental cynic, wondering how it could have been that the smiling brunette dressed in a blue sailor suit—with great legs and a stunning figure—had become his mother, had carried him in her body, had suffered his birth, then had dragged herself through four tedious decades as a homemaker and wife to a flim-flam man, who had, in her late 60’s, at last found the courage to live alone, to push her children away so that she might finish her life as she wished—how could she be gone, vanished?  With both his parents dead,  with their bodies turned to dust and stored in marble lockers among the live oak and tupelo in separate south Florida towns, only now did Olson understand religious belief—at last he knew that not his immortality but theirs was the point.  William James was right: the “will to believe” could be conjured up out of grief or love.  But real belief was more akin to freckles or a clubfoot—a birthright.

He couldn't "spring to his feet," but Olson was momentarily wide awake.  There was work to be done.  He figured he might as well make a fool of himself one final time.  He pulled himself up and shuffled into the bathroom for a piss.  A few drops sputtered out, but Olson knew enough to wait--there it was--a simple pleasure, passing water, shaking carefully so he wouldn't soil himself.  Then a slow, exhausting push into his study.  This was Olson's favorite room, the place where he'd spent most of his life while working on his books and various causes.  His desk was a pine plank set on filing cabinets. He'd filled all four walls with book cases that weren't enough to hold his books and newspapers and journals.  He was a pack-rat, but of the type who only accumulated the written word, and that only for the pragmatic reason that his interests were too esoteric to be served by any library.  Olson eased himself into his chair and pulled open the top file drawer of his desk.  The manuscript of the book he would never finish was on top, but he had no interest in Double Truth and American Politics any longer.  What he wanted were the photographs he'd carried around for thirty years--pictures of his mother and father and wives and children.  But there were also a dozen or so photos of Olson alone, and those were the ones he needed to see now.  His mother had divested herself of the past when she turned eighty.  She had sent Olson thick envelopes of full of memorabilia, postcards that he had sent her from all over the world,  report cards from elementary school, college term papers ("Where did these come from," he'd wondered--"The Tragic Archetype in Rousseau" by David Olson, a long, poorly written seminar paper, full of spelling mistakes, that had earned Olson a B- in his first political science class—“adequate” the prof had scrawled), his draft notice--he'd gone in but hadn't been shot at--and the letters, hundreds of letters, he'd written to his mother from the time he went to college until she was in her mid-seventies and no longer interested in reading about the disasters of her son’s life. 
"Dear Mom," Olson read now, bending the yellowed paper toward the dim light of mid-morning, "you probably heard from Don," Don was Olson's younger brother, a moderately successful lawyer, the officious member of the family, "that I've been fired for 'insubordination.'  This is a load Mom.  What happened had nothing to do with what I said or didn't say to the Dean.  The truth is I was tired of teaching, and the college doesn't like its faculty to do much but stand in front of a bunch of disengaged boys and girls and try to get them to take an interest in something except sex and drugs.  I kid you not, this generation, compared to yours or even mine, knows nothing."  This was a theme in Olson's correspondence with his mother.  They shared few values--she was religious and he was not, she was a Republican, and he was something quite different; she was a defender of what had come to be known as "family values," mostly a visceral dislike of those who were a little too far outside the American middle class norm--but one thing they agreed on was that the world was devolving rapidly, people were stupider, more venal, less patriotic. He'd been sacked, given what was called a "terminal contract," and during his final, lame duck year at Hutton, he'd been ostracized by his colleagues, removed from committees, forced to teach at eight in the morning, the time of day when only the exploited teaching assistants were forced to be on campus.  No group of people on earth was more cowardly than academics.  For one thing, there was always a surplus of them--they were easily replaced.  Olson's one close friend, Ted Keith, had told Olson that, "unofficially, the college policy was to tread lightly with Olson, a known incendiary, a troublemaker, quote, unquote," said Ted.
"What about academic freedom?" Olson had thought he had protection, that nebulous cocoon of irresponsibility academics were so fond of invoking.
"Not when you take on the Israeli lobby, the CIA, and the college's Board of Directors.  Not when you demand an end to religious holidays, divestment from energy stocks, and a board of inquiry to look into the business dealings of the president.  Shit Dave, do you really think there's such a thing as free speech in a place like this?  We're just pieceworkers here, on the assembly line, and you know as well as anyone that our jobs are safe only as long as we go along with our ‘mission.’"  Ted had been a “realist” when it came to Hutton College—“here’s the way it is,” he’d tell Olson—and was still teaching there, four decades of mind-numbing work. Olson didn’t know whether to pity or to admire such fortitude.
Olson had used various arguments to excuse himself to his mother--he was “fighting against a corrupt institution, against the hypocrisy of higher education”--his mother hadn't gone to college and didn't trust educated people—not even her son.  But as Olson folded up the twenty-some-year-old letter and put it away he knew that his mother hadn't really cared whether he was standing up for principles or just being a pain in the ass.  She'd stopped caring long before--about him, about anything.  She had spent the last decades of her life alone in condo in St. Petersburg, watching reruns of "Barney Miller" and doing the Times crossword.  What she wanted was a rest.  What, Olson wondered, had engendered the romantic notion that everyone needed to be around a family, or, for that matter, around anyone?  His mother was relieved to live alone after a lifetime of taking care of other people. Most of the time Olson felt the same way.  Where was the charm in company?  He'd loved his wives and adored his children, but he never missed them when they weren't around. Even now, slumped at his desk, his mind slightly dulled by painkillers, Olson was glad to be alone.  If not now, when?  Dying took concentration.  He had no interest in small talk.  

But it was the pictures he was interested in now, not the letters. He assumed the letters and his other papers--book drafts, articles, notebooks, file folders stuffed with clippings from the Times and the Post--would all be tossed out after his death.  Reagan and G.H.W. Bush and Clinton had their presidential libraries to commemorate their crimes, but he didn't have a chance in hell of being remembered.  His ex-wives would occasionally bring him up in conversation with their new boyfriends and husbands, and his children would probably discuss his absurdities when they met at Thanksgiving or Christmas--that would be enough.  His oldest friends—both of them—were already gone. So the papers would go. But the pictures were something else.  He wanted to collect them in a single place so they could be given to his children.  He wanted them to see what their grandmother had looked like as a young woman, their grandfather as a dapper salesman in a three-piece suit accepting an award for selling a million dollars worth of life insurance, their mother as a young woman--Barbara had been a beautiful girl, stylish and athletic, with a slightly angular look that appeared to Olson not so much sexy as alluring.  Barbara had red hair and greenish blue eyes, long legs, and the kind of body that you enjoyed looking at whatever its posture or attire.  When she'd been pregnant, Barbara had grown a large, firm stomach but not put on weight otherwise. Her babies, Olson's children, had both been small, and within a few weeks Barbara had recovered her body entirely, effortlessly.  During their good years together Olson had been as happy as a man could be.  Barbara had a law degree and a Masters in French—she was smart and articulate and far too good for Olson—for a while there had been plenty of sex, travel, and intimacy of the sort that Olson had thought he craved.  But he hadn't wanted to be happy. Happiness was for everyone else, for the masses. Olson had wanted his life to be melancholy and profound: instead it had been shallow and sad.
"I was a fool," he said now, turning over dozens of pictures of himself with Barbara--in Paris and Rome, in Barcelona and Lisbon, in Dublin and Cork.  They'd backpacked around Europe right after they met--eleven countries in three months--and returned to France and Spain half-a-dozen times during the fifteen years they were together.  But he knew he was only saying the words—he’d never felt foolish about what he’d done.  He was a world-class rationalizer.  A schmuck. He had always believed that he had done the best he could, and while he'd made plenty of mistakes, he never held a grudge, at least against himself. 
Pictures of his children, a beautiful little boy and girl--Olson's eyes teared up and he pushed himself out of his desk chair for another trip to the bathroom.  He remembered every detail of their births, of Barbara's cheerful labor, her refusal to accept any anesthesia, the methodical way she'd pushed each of them into the world, little cylinders of flesh and blood, black hair, large eyes that began light blue and shifted, like the light of a winter afternoon, to hazel.  Neither his son nor his daughter had cried, at least he couldn't remember them crying.  They seemed to their father, befuddled and useless in the delivery room, surrounded by brisk nurses and competent doctors (all women), like creatures from some other realm, perfect.  And here he was now, on the verge of leaving the world, a sick, spindly, gray-haired oddball of a man, a "character" as he father would have said, his flesh loose and unfamiliar, his mind sharp enough--thank God--and what he understood was that Dante had been right, the number of souls was not to be measured, those undone by death were legion, and that as he rolled away from this world another billion would soon follow, children like his own, born in sterile hospitals, and children unlike his own, born in squalor.  Sitting down to piss, Olson closed his eyes and imagined the world’s children sliding into life from their mothers' bodies, a miracle. "Fuck knowledge,” Olson said aloud, helpless children pushed in one great final orgasmic yearning into life just so that, one day, they'd have to die alone.  He pissed and wept.  Tidied himself up and went back to bed.

 Later in the morning--if it was morning--he didn't own any clocks--he rose refreshed.  
“Up you bum,” Olson felt not bad.  This had been part of the disease; for a few hours each day his cancer took some time off from destroying him and had a party, planning their next assault--with the liver gone, the lungs, why not the stomach?  No need to be hasty: once he’d perished they'd be done for as well, perfectly honed engines in love with death, rather like the Republic, allowing another blow against a democracy which had never been much in the first place.  
 "We never believed in it," this made Olson sad, though he couldn't imagine that he had a single illusion left about his country.  He'd spent his life arguing in favor of something no one wanted--accountability.  The politicians weren't much for telling the truth or doing what was right, that was to be expected, but the people themselves--his neighbors--what had they been thinking these past four decades as they put one crook after another into power?  Not Jimmy--incompetence wasn't a crime--but the rest of them. And this time around was the worst of all.  A stolen election.  He'd seen it coming.  He'd written a piece for the Nation a few months before, his last journalistic effort, on how the election was too close too call not because Bush and Gore were equally liked or despised--Bush was a nonentity and Gore was stiff as a board--but because the minority party had figured out once and for all how to game the system, how to keep blacks and Hispanics from voting, how to divvy up the key states so that pluralities didn't matter.  Sure enough, here was a story in the Post, the last paper Olson would ever read, saying that the Court would decide whether or not to allow the recount to continue.  That did it.  Olson knew how the Court would vote--no doubt about it.  He could only imagine the arm twisting going on a couple of blocks from where he sat at his desk, flipping through old pictures.  Nine Justices, bought and sold.  How Olson would like to believe again!  He jotted a note to himself--"Call the kids...call Carl and Wallace. Will?"  He wrote, “It was a relief all those years to have faith.”  He'd believed in many things when he was young--in God, in his country's probity, in his fellow man. He could remember now, fingering a picture of himself as a high school freshman--tie and jacket, hair slicked back, slightly crooked teeth (his parents hadn't believed in orthodontics)--it was at fifteen that he'd renounced God in favor of reason, or now, “reason” since he'd given up on that as well. 
  
“It suffices to say that the issuance of the stay suggests that a majority of the Court, while not deciding the issues presented, believe that the petitioner has a substantial probability of success. The issue is not, as the dissent puts it, whether "[c]ounting every legally cast vote can constitute irreparable harm." One of the principal issues in the appeal we have accepted is precisely whether the votes that have been ordered to be counted are, under a reasonable interpretation of Florida law, "legally cast vote[s]." The counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm to petitioner Bush, and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election.”
It was scare-quotes “reason” that had allowed sophistry such as this to exist.  To the country?  Olson laughed when he read these words in the “National Section.”  Best to laugh. No, Olson had quit reason.  At fifteen he'd begun to devote himself to getting laid, to reading every book ever written, and to purging his soul of Catholicism.  Now he'd decided to devote himself to writing down what he did believe in, hoping there was something he could leave for his children, some evidence that he wasn't an a nihilist--far from it, he still believed in too many things for his own good. 
Here he was at his high school graduation.  Had he really worn a red cap and gown?  Recipient of three academic prizes.  He'd been a terrible student before high school. It had been Dante who had turned him around; the Inferno had showed him the way.  He'd taken the old Singleton translation out of the school library--Catholics pretended to love Dante but never read him, the irony was too rich--and poring over that musty book had turned Olson, at last, into a scholar.  Had saved his life.  Why not say so?  He'd been on a fast track to American oblivion--a job in retail or as a short-order cook, honest work to be sure, but he was capable of more and never knew it until he decided that books had something to say to him. But this was too simple. It couldn't have been a book that changed Olson's life--that was just how he preferred to mythologize his past. There had been other things--his parent's divorce, friends and girlfriends who believed in more things than Olson had, his evolving inner life, bits and pieces of which he could dimly recall.  And then there had been the age, the era itself.  He'd been born the year the War ended, grown up in the Eisenhower 50's, and matured during the convulsions of the 60's.  In other words, he couldn't have been luckier.  Aside from the usual--racism, gay-bashing, and misogyny, indelible features of American life, hatreds coded in the nation's DNA—aside from these things it had been a good time to be alive.  The corporate coup was two decades away, the religious zealots were waiting in the wings for the apocalypse, and Reagan was still a B-actor fingering commies in Hollywood.  Yes, Olson understood he'd been lucky--and a white male to boot!  A loving if dysfunctional family--what family wasn't dysfunctional in those days?—not athletic, unattractive, but not deformed, not bright but not stupid—he’d been a lucky man for fifty-some years until bad luck, the worst kind of bad luck, caught up with him.  Here he was at fifty-five, residing a couple of blocks from the Capitol, a dopey kid from Asbury Park, a kid who'd grown up across the street from the Funhouse, dying, half-a-century later, in a madhouse.  


                                                                        2.


Time to sort through the papers.  To write some notes. To impose order on what was chaotic—or to create chaos out of disorder. Ideas of order were always a cover-up, a way of hiding the truth.  He’d learned from reading serious books that the unvarnished truth was far more difficult to come by than riches or power or sex appeal.  “In case of doubt, let truth be told,” one of Olson’s authorities had written.  Then he reached for another of his authors, close by, well-thumbed: “The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,/Words of the fragrant portals, dimly starred,/And of ourselves and of our origins,/In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”  Olson remembered walking on the orange sand of Key West with Barbara a lifetime before—it had been early summer and the sweetness of hibiscus and bougainvillaea filled the air and the warmth of the ocean and its briny viscous rush across his feet and legs—how happy he had been at that moment, how little the world had weighed on them, no children yet, intense heat and the heavy feeling of mid-day when time stopped.  Olson closed his eyes and tipped back in his desk chair, focusing all of his diminished powers on the task of evoking that moment, pulling it up from the depths of memory as one might pull up an enormous fish, felt below the surface but invisible, brought to clarity after a struggle.  It was impossible.  He couldn’t keep his flighty mind on the task; the memory slipped away.  And then another thought came to him, less comforting.  He daydreamed a conversation among his children and wives, they were gathered in a nondescript room, framing their relief that he was gone at last.  A hard truth: they would be pleased to see him go.  
“Look around you fool, does the world seem any better for you being in it?” 
Maybe, Olson thought now, he’d made things worse. All that contention, the battles, the lawsuits, the arguments with colleagues—he’d been impossible to work with, opinionated, uncompromising.  He’d called decent people with whom he’d worked names—to their faces, behind their backs—“idiot, fascist, dope!” He tried his preferred terms of abuse out on himself.  It hurt to think now of how he’d behaved in the name of his beloved truth.  He’d been a bigot, a Puritan.  Oh, how good it felt now that it was too late to make amends, to sit at his desk, with a skim of light pushing the motes of dust around the room, and to beat himself up!  No cure for self-righteousness like guilt. He was still a Catholic at heart, or maybe he had a bit more of his father’s Calvinism in him than he’d realized.  He’d always thought of himself as an atheistic Jesuit—a solider of the Antichrist—wasn’t that what it meant to be a “sort-of-Marxist” as one reviewer of his first book had written, “Olson can’t make up his mind if he’s a Marxist or simply a malcontent,” his department chairman at District University had written during his tenure review, “maybe he’s both.”  And it was true: he’d always been of two minds, about everything. Divided, as his parents had been, by all the most important questions.
        



 He put a CD in his player, the Brahms B-Major Trio, and sat on the couch to listen to the Beaux Arts version, music he loved more than any other.  The music of the spheres—such a lovely notion, the universe, blank and black, suffused with Brahms as ordered by the fingers of Bernard Greenhouse which were in turn ordered by the harmonies of the world.  An unbreakable circle of beauty. Olson supposed that like Mann, or rather like Hans Castrop, “music moved him more deeply than anything else,” that it was his form of worship, and had been since he had first shut his mouth and opened his ears long enough to hear what he was listening to. He’d started with the easy stuff, with Chopin’s waltzes and polonaises and Beethoven’s symphonies, and then moved on to more demanding works by Schubert and Stravinsky, landing, for several years, in the ethereal realms of late works—Schubert's last songs, Beethoven’s last quartets, the haunting B major trio of Brahms.  The only reliable way for Olson to pull himself together—he was frazzled and wrapped up in memories—was to sit still and listen to these thirty minutes of transcendent beauty, so full of yearning (as it seemed to Olson), a negotiation among piano, cello, and violin over which of the three voices could fully approximate Beauty.  And what was that? Olson had spent his life as a pragmatist, a supporter of lost causes, a bad historian—too bent by prejudices to be a chronicler of the past—but in truth he preferred the restful cadences of poetry and music.  What was beauty? He had no idea.  There, that passage, the piano galloping along ahead of the others, the cellist answering back, the violin calming the other two—he wasn’t a music critic, but this was exquisite.  He felt calm—healthy.  Beauty, he supposed, was like this—a bargain or perhaps an argument, among creator, object, and consumer.  There could be no “theory” of beauty since theories assume a limited number of variables, or at least variables whose limits can be precisely described.  But with this Brahms there was much to consider aside from the genius of the composer, the talent of the performers, and the mood of a dying man.  What if Brahms had changed a single measure? He did in fact revise the work late in life, and it was the revision to which Olson was listening now.  Did this fact alter its aesthetics?  And if the performers were less talented, would that diminish the beauty of the piece?  Was there a calculus of such things, where any change could be plotted on a graph approaching zero aesthetic pleasure, and each incremental error in performance—a slip by the cellist, or a tempo slightly too fast (here) by the pianist—would detract in some small fashion from the integrity of what Brahms’s had envisioned way back in 1854?  These questions had puzzled Olson for years, ever since he began to listen to music “with both ears open.”  He had wondered what the camp inmates at Auschwitz had felt, aesthetically speaking, when the camp orchestra had been compelled to play Wagner at “concerts” organized by SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Hoss.  What “laws” of aesthetics applied then?  Was “beauty” what the orchestra created, or another form of terror?  Hoss, Olson knew, had been a Roman Catholic, a man obsessed not only with duty, but also with sin and penance.  He’d had an intense fixation on purity as a young man—the “sins of the flesh” had been especially troubling to him—perhaps he’d overseen the murder of a million people to cleanse himself of desire. The body, after all, was the source of all beauty for the Greeks and Romans; when the Christians came along with their mad ideas of other-worldliness those glorious male and female figures became diabolical, temptations to be destroyed through mortification.  Even nature lost its beauty in those early Christian centuries. The pastorals of Vergil and Theocritus became just another of God’s mysterious hieroglyphs—a texts to be deciphered rather than enjoyed.  Christianity insured that all pleasure became suspect, so that beauty was reduced to the single function of inducing transcendence, of lifting the mind upward to God.  Even the cathedrals, monuments to other-worldliness, were to be seen through rather than marveled at—they were, after all, stone and mortar, and, like flesh and blood could have no standing in a spiritualized world.  Olson had written all this out years before; now, listening to Brahms with tears in his eyes, he marveled again at the success of religion’s campaign to devalue all of the things that mattered most.  What was beauty?  The core of life, all of the things that had made Olson happy, the things which he had believed in, the things that he now yearned to hold on to for as long as possible.  Death was oblivion—he would cease to exist, it would be as if he never had lived—but for now, on this cloudy-bright day, this music cemented his bond to the earth, the only earth there was, the only place he would ever live.  Had lived.  Olson thought he might begin to refer to himself in the past tense, get used to his absence.  He was like this rest in the adagio, a meditative silence as the cello faded before the violin’s glissando.   Not quite a silence—a pause between passages—a shift from major to minor keys.  Had Brahms been embarrassed by the exuberance of this music written when he was twenty? Teary-eyed, Olson thought about this question. Though he was no artist—he had been on his best days no more than a polemicist, a man who, as one hostile reviewer had written, “a two-bit intellectual with a chip on his shoulder”—Olson had enough intelligence to recognize his own failings, and to be embarrassed by many of the things he had written and said over the years.  That he had, for example, engaged in a public dispute with the Smithsonian Institute for its self-censoring of the Enola Gay exhibit—a long, bitter argument that Olson had allowed to become a series of personal attacks on the Institute’s director, a man whom he liked and respected, and, still worse, the bitter invective he had directed at Tom O’Malley, the historian charged with revising the exhibit’s script, pabulum deemed too controversial by politicians hoping to score points with those who couldn’t imagine that dropping an nuclear bomb on civilians raised any moral questions. Olson shuddered to think of how badly he’d behaved over the years. He’d called O’Malley a coward in front of his wife at a Christmas party in Georgetown. A few weeks later he’d turned down the Kinzer Award for Journalism in the Public Interest because he thought the committee had slighted his campaign to “depoliticize”—the word now made him ill—public universities.  His attacks on his colleagues at two colleges, on Deans and university presidents—all mere functionaries doing nothing more harmful than trying (and failing) to keep their institutions solvent—had been overkill, but in the 90’s he’d tasted blood every day and had been eager to show the world that David Olson was right about everything.
Being right: this had been his great failing. Why not own up to it now, sitting here in his musty sweatpants, feeling less well by the minute—hungry, but with no energy to prepare any food—he’d always wanted to be the one who knew best, ever since he’d been a child he’d insisted that he was the authority on everything.  He’d been thought clever when he corrected his father, and then he began to correct his mother, his brother and sister, his friends and teachers.  He’d lectured everyone on every topic—from the cultural significance of Mad Magazine to the reason no real baseball fan could care for the Mets.  He had been, he knew now, a pedant, a bore, one of those tedious know-it-all’s who mistook certitude for knowledge. The truth was he’d been an average student and thinker and writer and teacher his whole life. He had to admit—and it felt good, he thought, to be ruthless with himself, now that ruthlessness made no difference—that his life had been, if not a failure, incomplete.  He’d been an indifferent son, an unmotivated student, an incompetent teacher, a shrill and inconsequential political journalist, a diffident husband, a disengaged father, a cynical citizen, and a poor excuse of a man. He was, he knew, at the end of the line, and what he had been, what he was, was what he would be from now until whatever proximate date he finally left this world.  And in a second of clarity, of selfless recognition, Olson realized that nothing he’d done wrong, or right, had made the slightest difference.
                                                            
When the Brahms ended, the CD player shifted to the next tray and Olson was surprised to hear Wagner—arias from Tristan und Isolde, performed by Deborah Voigt and Placido Domingo.  When had he listened to this?  He couldn’t recall putting this music on the player, so perhaps Manuel had done so, or one of his visitors, Barbara might have done so since she admired the great tenor and could still stomach Wagner.  Since he was too tired to get up, Olson closed his eyes and listened—this was music he knew well, romantic decadence he had once listened to avidly.

In dem wogenden Schwall, in dem tönenden Schall, in des Welt-Atems wehendem All ---ertrinken, versinken - unbewußt -höchste Lust!
           
When Olson took the time to think about it, he found such sentiments embarrassing.  Holy desire?  Really?  And those Wagnerian actors, poached in their costumes, rambling on for hours about feelings pitched to the highest octave of madness.  He'd enjoyed such romantic goings-on as a young man, but later on, when a bar of Wagner wafted into his sonic space, all Olson could think of was Hitler and Goebbels weeping at Bayreuth—Das Judebthum in der Musik—Aryans sailing to Valhalla over the corpses of millions. But sitting in his college philosophy class listening to his professor explain Freud's ideas, nineteen-year-old Olson had believed that all feelings could expand indefinitely.  Wasn’t this the point of feeling?  To focus on sexual desire—the sum of what Olson felt as a young man—until it consumed his consciousness, Isolde dying for Tristan—wasn’t this the idea?  Olson thought that nothing in his life had mattered so much as passion.  Not love necessarily, but a continually unfolding myopic fixation on the people that circumstance threw in his path.  He’d lived fully, no doubt about it, never held back his foolish “heart,” trusted it to people who had mostly treated it as a poor gift, who had other concerns and who had found other hearts more to their liking. Was he a romantic?  Trusting feeling over reason?  He thought not.  His method had always been to leaven his thoughts with feeling, not to go blindly into anything but, once he’d thought things through, to be passionate about them—he disliked the lukewarm in people, ironic detachment appeared to him to be a fear of life, hedging bets against an uncertain fate.  Olson took risks and he’d paid the price for doing so. But loss was the rule of things, wasn’t it?  Olson remembered how he had started to write things down, believing that by doing so the events of his life would be preserved forever—now, sunk into the silence of the morning, no one nearby to confide in, he saw the folly of his hope. 
      “Suppose,” he said aloud, “the word really was eternal, the alpha and omega.   
Then if you wrote out your life something would endure, something of you would live on.”   
And he’d written about his life for decades—he had boxes of notebooks full of the minutia of 
everyday life—but these transcribed events were lifeless, pointless. It was only in memory that 
David Olson had any reality—but then memory was notoriously unreliable. Olson had to 
smile, capitalism itself—social cancer—pushing the life from the body-politic one cell, 
job, family, community, at a time.  Fattening a few and starving everyone else; destroying in 
order to rebuild and destroy again.  Strip mall tumors poxed the landscape. 
Melanomas—Wal-Marts and K-Marts and Valu-Marts—boxy lesions full of festering junk, warehouses metastasizing across the world, all stuffed with the effluvia of greed—with shit. He was rolling now, thinking clearly, reciting the many ways in which the world was afflicted, in his element once more, polemicist to the masses who could care less, who only wanted bigger TV’s so they could watch porn and football while they ingested supersized burgers and cokes and fries that would, in their turn, produce cancers.  Would computers come to rule the world? Of course not, the world belonged to cancer. Cancer was the only God, now and forever, world without end, Amen. Olson was willing to concede that cancer was a pretty interesting example of human suffering, all things considered.  It made excellent metaphors, it killed through excess and indirection—here it was in the liver, and then it’s there, in the lungs—cancer reminded Olson (since he was, in the immediate warm aftermath of Placido’s  O wüßtest du, Lust der Welt,” not inclined to mince feelings) of politics, of how power killed with great delicacy and with gross brutality.  Power was the real cancer, or was it the other way around—had we had it backwards all this time?  Cancer was power—it made people rich, the giving of it and the “curing of it” and the writing about it, and the worry it caused.  Cancer was the urge to believe that ruling this world insulated one from death.  Or maybe this was too simple, maybe the elixir of power was more subtle, maybe the point of power was not to push back against the inevitable, but to embrace it, to go up in flames as Tristan and Isolde chose to do, to transcend by power by embracing it.  We needed cancer to remind us of death—“We might forget otherwise,” Olson sang in his own scratchy tenor—“We might forget we’re mortal,” a line for a duet. He saw himself on stage at the Met, dressed for Valhalla, his arm around the lovely Cecelia Bartoli, singing “Potremmo dimenticare siamo mortali,” Italian being the most operatic language. He sang it now, on his feet, his eyes closed, buffoonish, but happy—“Potremmo dimenticare siamo mortali.”   The opera—he would write the libretto—would be called Cancer.  The Times might rave: “We applaud the courage of Mr. Olson in staging a five-hour spectacle dedicated to the dreaded scourge of cancer: who has seen such a thing since Mimi expired (“Sono andante?”) or Isolde wept over the body of her beloved?”   Who could say?  It might be a hit. After all, soon everyone would be terminal, or in (temporary) remission. The few remaining cancer-free Americans might be appalled, but their turn would come—the opera would have legs, the CD’s would sell out—Mobile Oil could play it on Saturdays before college football.  Olson suddenly felt dizzy and sat down.  Maybe not.  Watching others burn up was its own reward, but reveling in disease was in bad taste.  And romanticism was dead.  All that had come of Olson’s own fling with romantic art and poetry, aside from the discovery of the universal impulse toward self-destruction and his fondness for oral sex was what he came to think of as he “turning toward the past,” toward the study of history.  Hegel replaced Wagner as his go-to German, and the idea that history had a purpose, and that the purpose had something to do with “freedom”—whatever that meant—began to take shape as a formative idea, a direction and purpose for a life that might otherwise drift out of control.  Not opera, but politics; not irony—he loathed it—but sincerity.  
When Olson was a young associate professor teaching history at Hutton he’d thought he might write a book about the American lust for power.  About how his countrymen had insisted since the “city upon a hill” that they were immune to the ravages of history—the beacon, after all, sits above the tumult engulfing everyone else. The oddball American mix of self-righteousness, senseless violence, and genuine decency, with our (Olson had to include himself here—why not?—he was as American as anyone else) tendency not to learn from the past but, perversely, to see if you could put your hand in the fire again and again without being burned.  Other Americans (not Olson, he was sure of this) had the alarming tendency to forget that they too were embedded in history—that what happens to one person someplace in the awful world eventually happens to everyone else.  Case in point.
Olson pushed his carcass—as he now referred to his body, which seemed an alien presence, unrecognizable, without muscle tone, splotchy, all the hair suddenly gone from his legs and arms, as if it too had read the writing on the wall and preferred the comfort of his bed linen, which was now thick with curly black follicles, to the coming fire. On his sheets, apart from spots of blood and piss stains, were what appeared to be flakes of white paint—actually bits of dry skin that were peeling from his torso like fish scales—he pushed himself up from the couch and slouched into the kitchen.  He was hungry. If he ate he’d throw up, but he had to take that chance.  He pulled two slices of white bread out of the bag (mouse droppings inside, no matter) and found a couple of plastic-wrapped pieces of American cheese in the fridge as well as a nearly-empty jar of Gulden’s Mustard—his favorite.  Nothing better, Olson knew, than a cheese sandwich on generic white bread.  The fetish for whole grains never made sense to Olson.  He ate a couple of bites of his sandwich and then gagged—the drugs had destroyed his sense of taste, part of the medical campaign to wean him from life.  He couldn’t drink anymore, or taste food, get an erection, or go for a walk—so what was the point?  Pachomius and the other Desert Fathers lived off locusts and scorpions, approximating death through starvation. They lived in dugouts in the hot sands of Ethiopia, batting away the devils that beleaguered them.  This sort of renunciation mystified Olson: if the taste of food or wine or the sweat on the woman’s neck were evil, why not just blow your brains out?  Well, of course, there were no firearms, so maybe Jerome would have had to jump into the sea, or into a pit of vipers, or have himself buried alive in the Sahara.  As long as you are renouncing, why not go all the way?  But that was wanhope, the deadliest sin of all, believing you were beyond saving—but saving from what?  From life.  None of this had ever made sense to Olson, even in his years of studying Dante, reading the Fathers, delving into the history of Dante’s religious beliefs. Olson had been high-minded when he was younger—a disciple of Rousseau and Marx and Saint-Simon and the other dreamers.  He’d lived for ideas and schemed at making the world a better place for the poor and downtrodden—for much of his life he’d believed in justice and peace and brotherly love.  Now, sitting at his kitchen table, he fought off the biliousness that came with ingesting his bland cheese sandwich—he could still sip a little bourbon each day, and now that his liver was shot he could do so with impunity, and he could sometime keep down a handful of rice, but that was all; he was an alcoholic Buddha, subsisting on Jim Beam and basmati, more than a grain a day, but still, not enough to keep a man alive. 
What had happened to him, to his noble dreams for mankind?  Must idealists grow cynical, give up on truth and justice, start reading Fortune instead of The Progressive, and obsess about the stock market and their fucking portfolios? Years before, he had wanted to move mankind along on the road to the terrestrial paradise, which he envisioned as a perpetual summer vacation, lounging on the beach, drinking good rum, screwing beautiful women, and reading novels.  He hadn’t ever worked out the details of supply and demand—he hadn’t a pragmatic bone in his body—but he wanted to try out direct involvement in the struggle (in those days he used no quotation marks around this word, and why should he? Was there not a struggle?), and so he flew off to Nicaragua for a year.  Right here above his stained Formica table, the one with red trim that he’d inherited from his mother, an old wreck of a table at which he’d eaten 20,000 meals, a relic of his boyhood that was still circled with brown lines of nicotine like flattened worms—where was he?—anyway, above it hung a photograph of boy named Edwin, twelve when the picture was taken in 1984, almost certainly dead now, a cadre in the FSLN army, a dark-haired kid carrying an AR-15 who’d told Olson that already he’d killed three contras and hoped to kill many more. Olson had met Edwin outside of Ocotal, a small pueblo in the northernmost part of Nicaragua. The Sandinistas were there to defend the provinces bordering Honduras against incursions by counterrevolutionaries—by thugs and bandits who raped and pillaged in the name of freedom, whose boots were made in San Diego and whose guns came from the Springfield Armory. Olson was with a group of Quakers, building a health clinic that would be destroyed within a few months of its completion. It didn’t matter; there were no doctors or medicine, so the clinic might as well have been a hotel. Sitting there, gagging on his sandwich, Olson could remember in stark detail the broiling hot sun, the stench of the open sewer that poured green down the hills toward the river, the shrieks of the grackles and the waves of parrots who rose as a green cloak from the acacia trees that encircled the pueblo. At sunset there was gunfire from west of the pueblo, occasionally a mortar round landed in the center of town, but the contras mostly remained on the Honduran side of the Rio Coco, enjoying the largesse of the CIA.  Olson knew he’d done little good for anyone that year, least of all for himself. That visit was the end of his illusions about power.  Olson left his sandwich on the table and put on the kettle for tea. Clio was looking out for him—she was pushing on without him. Fair enough. No point in wanting to be immortal—Olson was well-versed in the arguments in favor of dying, its metaphysical significance, its contributions to ethics, its central role in politics. Fichte. How it sharpened the will to live, or, in Olson’s case, illuminated the things that existed beyond his control.  This was what Olson believed—that events had careened past human imagining.  Since the modern era had arrived in the eighteenth century—since the serment de jeu de paume—from the insistence on bourgeois rights, the collapse of the Old Order (never mind that the ancien regime had returned, though as a shadow of its former self, diminished by successive revolutions), time had sped up past Olson’s ability to comprehend or control it, inevitability had replaced deliberation, the masses of men and women who were no longer invisible had no choice but to destroy everything that had come before—après nous, le deluge—none of the corrupt institutions of the past could be allowed to exist, and so history and its victims rushed forward into an unknowable  future. Olson, of course, wasn’t in the front of the pack, but he was there, limping among those least able to keep up. Enough.



                                                                       3.

David Olson slept deeply, on and off, all through that last Wednesday of his life.  If he’d been alive the following Wednesday he might have looked back in surprise at his long bouts of unconsciousness and at his confusions when he was awake.  It got worse all through that final week.  Never one to take naps, Olson now lay down every hour, sleeping sometimes for a few minutes and at others, well, at others he nearly left.  He felt exhausted; but worse than the condition of his ravaged body—weakened by cancer and the toxins that had held it briefly at bay, and by a lifetime of ingesting run-of-the-mill American poisons—was the condition of his soul.  His “soul,” as he was forced to think of it, despite wishing to end his life without irony.  Though he didn’t know this, Olson had been born on a Wednesday, fifty-five years before.  In Neptune, New Jersey—born in the early morning, a time of day he’d enjoyed throughout his life.  He’d always been an early riser, enjoying his coffee and the day’s bad news while watching the sun creep over the Chesapeake if he were in Washington or over the green hills that surrounded his house in Vermont.  His mother had said it was an easy birth, but she had been a stoic and wouldn’t have complained no matter how much she had suffered.  He was her third child, but the first to live; his older brother and sister, buried in a vast sea of gravestones just west of Asbury Park, survived a few hours—their lungs had been weak, their hearts frail.  Olson had weak lungs himself, prone to infections, to pneumonia, and now to cancer, but his heart was fine, his pulse was regular, his blood pressure on the low side but nothing to worry about. Dr. Reynolds, Olson’s friend since childhood and the last GP in America who made house calls, had joked that aside from metastasized lung cancer Olson was fit as a fiddle.  Anyway, mornings were when Olson’s brain had worked best; he did his serious thinking before noon and, if he weren’t teaching or saddled with some other job he would use the afternoons to take walks around the city or, if he were in Vermont, in the lush woods surrounding St. Johnsbury.  During the year he spent between jobs, Olson took his three-month’s severance and retired for a mini-sabbatical to his run-down house in the woods overlooking Crow Hill in northern Vermont. 
It was autumn when he arrived.
He’d bought the house with his only publishing windfall.  This was in the 70’s, just before he’d met Barbara, before he’d taken the job at Hutton, and his initial impulse had been to blow the money on a trip to Europe, but, in a rare moment of foresight, he decided to invest the entire sum in real estate, in land or a house, something he would have to fall back on when he needed to fall back.  He’d been to Vermont and liked it—the green loneliness of the northern part of the state especially. He knew a couple of people from graduate school who lived in Montpelier, a beautiful city not far from Lake Champlain. A real estate agent suggested Peacham, a village not far from St. Johnsbury, and eventually showed him a run-down turn-of-the-century farmhouse on five acres a dozen miles west of anything, “down a dirt road, down a four-wheel drive track, and then down a cow path,” was how Bud Black had described the property.  It wasn’t easy to get to, and it wouldn’t be a comfortable place to spend the winter—there was no heat, or running water, or electricity—but it was only $15,000 and had five bedrooms, and was on the edge of a swift-running stream, surrounded by maples and birch, tall grass and kind of stubby hills that gave Vermont its sense of isolation.  He couldn’t see a neighbor from anywhere on his property, though there were other houses and double-wide’s close by—so he could be alone but could borrow a cup of sugar if he needed to do so.  Since he was a city boy, Olson hesitated; but after he bought the place and spent a summer fixing it up—building an outhouse, patching up the broken windows, fixing the fireplace since even in August the nights were cold—he never wanted to be anyplace else. 
After the disaster at the Smithsonian, when, ordinarily, he would have stuck around to fight his firing, maybe wage a hopeless lawsuit for breach of contract, Olson decided to take the easy way out and go for a long vacation up north.  He’d never spent the autumn in Vermont, and his plan was to lease his house on Capitol Hill to an intern or visiting scholar working at the Folger Library, easy in those days—it must have been the Carter era since thinking about it now (Olson was in bed, staring at the ceiling) he recalled his tenant, a middle-aged lawyer from Georgia had come to Washington for a stint as a consultant at the Department of Education. Carl Something—there he was, projected onto the water-stained drywall above his bed, in the corner by the dead philodendron that hung out of its pot like the tentacles of a jellyfish.  Olson would have Manual toss the plant—it had hung in the corner of his bedroom, receiving minimal sunlight through the filthy north-facing windows for a decade.  Carl Something.  He’d been a pituitary case—six-seven, with a protruding Adam’s apple and enormous feet.  A pale Abe Lincoln, maybe also with Asperger’s, or maybe just a country boy who’d had too much protein or a Vitamin A deficiency.  Olson had every northerner’s prejudices—he hadn’t minded Carter (at first) aside from the aw shucks manner and the absurd religious beliefs.  But after Nixon and no-account Ford everybody wanted a competent choirboy in the Oval Office.  “’The city upon a hill’” Olson intoned, “’lest we lose God’s grace.’  What is it with us?”  Of the many paradoxes embraced unwittingly by his fellow countrymen, the most witless of all was the notion that an entire nation could be at one and the same time obsessed with money and beloved by God—and still maintain a presumption of innocence.  Carl Driscoll.  Or Bissell.  Not a bad sort for a southerner.  A small-town bumpkin who’d gone to Yale.  That was one problem with Olson’s mind—it was full of tidy boxes into which he had to jam everything and everybody.  It had been Bissell, “Damn it,” a memory glitch, and at once Olson feared he’d start forgetting everything.  “But it was, what, 1979?  Twenty-one years ago.”  Carl had paid Olson six months up-front—four grand in cash—and asked if Olson minded pets. “Dogs?”  No. Carl wasn’t a dog or a cat man; he’d had fish—tanks full of rare tropical fish—beautiful things—plecostomus, angels, corydoras, gars and lungfish—Olson still remembered them, their names, and it was easy to do so since Carl left the lot, the tanks, the pumps, the whole complex world of rare fish, right there in the living room along with a note apologizing for any inconvenience, but he, Carl Driscoll or Bissell, was off to London for a year and just couldn’t deal with it—the whole mess worth, he said, three grand—and he hoped Olson would find them as “rewarding and relaxing a pastime” as he had.  Which Olson did, for a few weeks, until the lovely blue and yellow and red tetras and mollies began to float, belly-up, to the top of the tank and, one by one, he netted them out and dropped them in the toilet.  Something about the pH of the water, or maybe he was feeding them too much.  Little fishy-smelling flakes, vile stuff, funny how the senses stay sharp, sense memory, he could still smell the water, tap water distilled or softened so it wasn’t deadly to the fish, but then it hadn’t mattered.  Their connection to life that seemed ephemeral, tiny hearts and a tube that ran from mouth to anus that you could see in the lighter angels, the black speck of the brain, no larger than the point of a pen, nothing stored there but instincts dating back to the watery Devonian.  The brain in us—Olson thought—not much more than a larger, newer bundle of instincts, but not so different from that which drove the pretty tetras toward the surface to gobble little bits of fish meal and corn and minerals, the stew that kept them swirling through the murky water for a few weeks until, one by one, they expired.  Anyway, after a month Olson had been stuck with three large tanks full of fishy-smelling water, slimy sunken ships, and blackened sea plants.  He’d sold the equipment for fifty bucks to a kid he knew from AU—Carl Bristol.  “Bastard.”
Those months, that summer, autumn and winter, up to mid-March, the mud season in Vermont, had been among the best of Olson’s life.  He was on his own, except for a week-long visit by his friend Wallace and two days spent with the woman who tended bar at Jake’s in St. Johnsbury. Most of the time he was alone.  The house was silent and empty and, beginning in mid-September, very cold.  He had to spend a part of each day doing chores—chopping wood, bringing water up from the creek and boiling it, stoking the fires for cooking and heating, dealing with the stench from the outhouse, sealing the unaccountably large windows that did nothing to keep out the cold air, patching a leak in one of the dormers, cleaning up rat pellets that filled each room and imparted an acrid smell of paraffin to the house.  It snowed heavily in early October, catching Olson by surprise. He had to force his way through snowdrifts in his low-slung sedan to lay in supplies—rice and beans, cans of soup and vegetables, oil and coffee and sugar and beer. He dropped two hundred dollars at the Safeway, filling the trunk and backseat of his ancient Skylark and guaranteeing that he wouldn’t make it back home without running off the road into a ditch—he’d nearly gotten frostbite walking back to town to hire a tow truck.  His thumb hadn’t fallen off, but it might have—“Me without a thumb!”  Olson wondered what he would have done if he’d lost his fingers, or if he’d passed out in the cold that dark frozen Thursday before Halloween, trudging through thigh-high drifts to get Mel Cummings to drag his overladen car out of the ditch across from the round barn.  After this episode he stayed put.  From October until February he hardly ventured past his front yard, taking long walks on clear days (when the temperature would fall to 20 below), wondering how anyone could endure living under these conditions year after year.  He read a lot that winter—there was no TV or radio or other entertainment—no telephone—so Olson read Dickens and plowed through Capital—dull reading—and reread his favorite books by John McDonald and Zane Grey—he wasn’t a snob—and practiced the recorder for hour each day. Olson hadn’t planned on six months of snow and was ill equipped for the siege of storms that blasted through New England that winter.  The snow covered half of his living room windows by Christmas, a day he celebrated with a bottle of wine and a can of corn-beef hash.  He did some serious thinking during those months, writing out what he later referred to as his “prison notebooks” on legal pads for later transcription (he never looked at them again, and now, twenty years later, they were still in Vermont, someplace in the house, and would be discovered by Barbara as she cleaned the place up prior to selling it.  She read some of what her ex-husband had written all those years before, but most of it wasn’t compelling or legible).  Mornings he’d been awakened by howling winds. On clear mornings the bedroom would be so cold the insides of the windows would be thick with ice.  Olson would wrap up in his ancient woolen bathrobe and trot downstairs to relight the fires in the kitchen and living room—the rest of the downstairs was blocked off with sheets of polyurethane—and while he waited for the water to boil and the rooms to warm he’d put on his battery-powered radio to listen to Morning Pro Musica out of Boston.  Once he had his coffee Olson set about filling his day. Looking back on those months, Olson had to admit that he hadn’t realized how lucky he was, how happy.  Not quite Thoreau—he couldn’t walk to town to have supper with his mother—but in his Emersonian mode, self-reliant, untethered.  At first he missed the newspapers, but that feeling passed. Conversation was more difficult to give up, but he found the sound of his own voice comfort enough.  He got into the habit of reading his books aloud, and of arguing with himself, dissecting his character.  “I’m rebuilding,” he would announce, “making myself a new man.”  Each day he’d “venture forth like Shackleton,” into the sub-zero afternoon, the light dimming early, the firs and spruces bent double under the accumulation of snow—a hundred inches by early February—crossbills and juncos and white-crowned sparrows the only birds, and of course the ravens, big flocks of the socialist birds stoically perched high atop the oaks that edged his property—Olson had marveled at the ravens’ ability to endure blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, and snow-covered landscape (what did they eat?).   He’d set off, “bundled up” as his mother once said, snow to his waist, to his sternum, over his head in places.  His creek—he called it Slow Creek—was iced over but he could see the slow seething of water beneath the ice, red maple leaves frozen an inch below the surface, probably trout suspended in mid-thrust, and he’d crunch up the creek to the property next to his, half-a-mile north, the Rupert’s place, a gray double-wide with an enormous satellite dish out front, ruined trucks pillaged for parts scattered around the front, three chimneys burning hardwood full time.  Tim Rupert liked the cold, snow-shoed up the hill to poach deer and jackrabbit, but his wife Eunice was cold averse, “a Florida girl” and had to have the place well heated.  Tim went through five, six cords in a winter and collecting that much wood kept him busy.  He was a mechanic, a hunter, a fisherman, father of four, all six of the Rupert’s cozy in their sheet metal home on the banks of Slow Creek, eight miles from town.  Olson’s love of man, his belief in the wisdom of the volk, his Rousseauian belief in the “common man” were all fulfilled through his idealization of Tim Rupert.  But what was common about Tim Rupert?  A Vietnam vet, a man who had “looked death in the face” (Olson’s description of Tim to his city friends), a hardy woodsman who, to Olson’s disgust, was a steadfast Republican, gentle with his children but roughhewn, Rupert gradually persuaded Olson that his learned stereotype of the common man was bunk.  In retrospect, or in the clarity of his dying, Olson understood how many times he’d missed the essential person, missed what he could have seen had he not been so eager to reduce the world to categories—the great failing of intellectuals, Olson knew.  And he could see in Tim and in his other misanthropic neighbors—the one’s with tall fences and Doberman’s who lived down the road from Olson, people already unfindable who felt they needed more insulation from the rest of humanity—what it was the Founders had been so afraid of, what they had needed to shut out—the “common man,” the truly self-reliant, the man who needed no slaves, whose market was his neighborhood, who owed no one money and did business, what business he did, in cash.  The deified authors of the Constitution—their massive biographies filled the bookstores even in the 70’s, now, with the Constitution shredded, in this year of the stolen election, the mythical “Founders” were on everyone’s mind—what would George Washington have done? Jefferson?  Tiny James Madison, autocratic Hamilton?  Nobody cared.  No one read the biographies, but they looked good on the coffee table. No one really knew what those enigmatic slave-owning elitists really thought. Reading their letters, as Olson had done for a solid year in preparing his third book, his study of The Real Democracy, revealed nothing much about their inner lives, their hopes for the nation.  They wanted order above all, and commerce.  Did they imagine immigrants? Free black people?  Women with independent lives?  As Olson trudged through the deep snow that winter—all alone, disconnected from the world—it came to him as a kind of revelation (angels with golden tablets) that his country was nothing but land, vast expanses of hills and snow and plains stretching west beyond imagining—there was no country.  Tocqueville was right—the thing was impossible to imagine.  Olson saw his neighbors as separate nations, disunited and opposed both to one another (and especially to him, the seasonal interloper), and lacking the means or inclination to act civilly, aside, of course, for their occasional vote.  But the Founders—those phonies—had insured that voting would merely confirm the status quo.  It had bothered Olson a little that his idyll in the Northern Kingdom had merely confirmed his city cynicism, but what could he do?  The truth was plain to see, especially in the emptiness of a January in Peacham.  By Presidents Day Olson had gone around the bend.  He talked to himself all day long, and had started to spend days in St. Johnsbury prowling the bars, the lone bookstore, the diner, yearning for company or at least for the sound of human voices.  At the end of the month, during a brief thaw, he’d had enough. His plan had been to remain in his house until May, but in March he drove south on I-91, through a tunnel of snow, down through Amherst and Springfield and Hartford, coming to rest, temporarily, in a hotel in mid-town Manhattan.  From his bucolic retreat in Vermont to Tenth Avenue, the Buckingham Hotel on 47th, a warren of tiny rooms with a view of an airshaft, a place Olson usually stayed when he was in New York, not cheap, and not comfortable or altogether safe, but it would do for a week or two while he regained his equilibrium.  The months he’d spent in his house had been unsettling; he’d lost his city chops, the feeling of comfort he’d long enjoyed in crowds of his fellow Americans.  He walked through Times Square, jostled by the crowds.  His mission in the city was connected to his firing from the Smithsonian—he needed money, and that meant he had to talk to his editors, “his” was wishful thinking—he’d been out of touch for a few years and was never highly regarded in any case.  Olson hadn’t been much of a journalist. He liked to stretch his legs, take the long view; his articles had always come in way over budget, five thousand words meant nothing to Olson, he had a story to tell, too much research to squeeze into a paltry three pages; he gave his editors hell if they tried to edit him. Progressive journals paid nothing anyway. Five cents a word?  Olson had shaken his head in disbelief when a twenty-five-year-old Harvard kid at The Nation offered him two hundred bucks for a “short piece” on SALT II.  What could you say about nuclear disarmament in five hundred words?  He couldn’t write another book, not now, and he wasn’t going to make a living writing for the three magazines that were inclined to publish his stuff, so instead of looking for work he spent his two weeks sitting in the 42nd Street library and in Met looking at art.  He had a vacation from his Vermont sabbatical, “came back down to earth,” read the Times every morning, ate eggs and bacon “at a dive on 52nd Street,” then walked to the main reading room where he read at random—the history of the Ottomans, novels by John Williams, poetry magazines, back issues of The New Yorker.  And he’d walked the streets—what was better than walking in New York City?  From Riverside Park to Battery Park was nothing for Olson—he’d always been an epic walker, a hiker in the hills of Vermont, a trekker down Broadway from Harlem to Washington Square and the Strand.  He’d played chess in the parks—Bryant was his favorite—and had beer in half-a-dozen watering holes he knew from earlier visits.  He loved the city all right; even late at night, sipping Jim Beam or ice tea in his hotel room he’d felt comforted by the teeming millions outside his dirty windows—the copulations going on around him, the meals being consumed—life.
Olson had an impulse to rise up—life!—and went into the bathroom to look in the mirror. Was he still here?  His face was the one he’d always had; of course it was worn, frayed at the edges, deeply lined around the eyes and mouth, but his twice broken nose was recognizably the one he’d had as teenager—a fall from a bike and a ground ball had zigzagged his already “ponderous proboscis”—as his son had called it, not affectionately—and his eyes, well, they were identical to those he recalled from his childhood, murky and unwilling to be either blue or brown, not soft, but not hard either, perhaps, undefined, unfinished. There was no mistaking his pallor, the unnatural sagging of his face, as if it were melting.  Olson peered into his eyes, tried to penetrate through the iris and lenses and vitreous fluids—he was looking for his soul.  It had to be in there, if it were anywhere at all.  He’d lived at times as though his soul were in his guts or his cock, lived crudely, justifying his appetites with the excuse that the day would come when he would no longer have them, or, if they hung on, he would be incapable of doing anything about them.  But he’d always known the soul was in his head, right behind his eyes, in that exact spot where he’d looked to for the words that would describe how he felt or what he wanted. Copious hairs grew from his ears and nose and above his eyes—he had a startled looked that he didn’t care for so he opened the cabinet above the sink and took out a pair of scissors so he could chop away at his eyebrows.  “This is folly.” What was the point?  Soon the annoying hairs would be burned up in the fire—it was all arranged—Olson had the foresight to have his corpse incinerated down the block at French’s Mortuary, the ashes given to his ex-wife for scattering on the Potomac near the boathouses on Rock Creek Parkway a few steps from the Kennedy Center.  Everything was arranged, and as he looked into his eyes now—flecks of brown danced on the mirror—Olson felt nostalgic for his body, sorry that it would soon be reduced to ashes.  He’d enjoyed being David Olson, enjoyed the farce of being someone with his name and history, but in truth he was just a body that looked like this, and a mind that had these thoughts—an English-speaking myopic white male born right after World War II who had lived a life not unusual for his type.  Who would care about his story?  If he were the subject of a biography, who would read it?  The world had moved on. Those who’d been ignored were now, at last, getting their due. Bush and Gore were dinosaurs—what did it matter which one of them was anointed to run the country?  The old bitch was dead—Olson smiled at this and noticed that his teeth were coated with pink blood—the future belonged to those who’d been screwed by the White Races—Olson washed his mouth out with Listerine; his spit was bloody—the European imperialists were reaping the whirlwind for their arrogant conquest of Africa and Asia—their once lily-white capitals were now full of Nigerians and Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans and Vietnamese and Muslims who made their women wear black burkas and high-cast Hindi’s who worked harder than whites and would soon dominate the economies of northern Europe.  Served them right. Olson thought of flossing, but it hated the way the taut string cut into his mouth, so he gargled again and then shaved his sad chin with his old Norelco electric.  He was a tidy man, one who had always gone off to his jobs in clean clothes and polished shoes. He liked cologne and hair gel, a monthly trim at Korey’s on Georgia Avenue, starched shirts and underwear without holes.  His father had admonished him to dress well—“clothes make the man”—and while Olson had scoffed at the crudity of this formulation, he’d believed it, and had always sought to “look his best,” to make good impressions on his friends and to avoid giving his enemies reason to mock him as a typical slovenly leftist.  He needed to call the Veterans so they could pick his clothes and furniture—he’d already distributed his liquid assets to his favorite charities—to Martha’s Table and the Sierra Club—and his books would go to the DC public library, and his house, well, that would be the bank’s. And his face and bleeding gums and sagging gut would end up a vapor.  He’d read in Raul Hillberg or someplace else that it took the Nazi’s 30 minutes to kill 2000 Jews with Zyklon B in the fake showers at Auschwitz and then another half hour to reduce the body to ashes in the crematoria. Near the end, with the Red Army only miles away, the SS maniacs had sped up the killing of Hungarian Jews, burning the bodies in pits piled high with trunks of oak and ash cut from the nearby forests of Silesia. He couldn’t look at himself any longer.  In a moment of rage—at dying, or at his memory—Olson smashed his ancient metal Norelco against the mirror, shattering it and cutting his hand. Fragments of glass filled the sink and flew into the shower and onto the floor.  “Fuck it,” Olson shouted, “fuck them,” whoever they were.  He wasn’t sure why he was angry or whose faces he wished to smash—Nazi thugs certainly, but it occurred to him that there was no end to thugs.  Maybe it was best to lash out against death, and against the impossibility of understanding how dying could be at once horrifying and comforting.  He was angry because he wasn’t angry enough—he felt so little that he thought he might already be dead. 



                                                            4.

His Salvadorian nurse arrived at noon.  Manuel, with whom Olson spoke Spanish, gave him a bath, and listened to the chero go on about the Phillies.  Olson was passionate about baseball, and like most lovers of the game, his admiration was really nostalgia for the past, for baseball, of all games, was the most intimately connected to memory, to its own history.  Those who dislike it, like Manuel, thought of it was slow, unaware that each game unfolded with the pace of ordinary life, and not with the periodic frenzy of lesser sports like football, or the pointlessness of soccer, with its third world stagnation, pushing a ball back and forth for half-a-day only to end the thing in the final golpe of the tie-breaker.  So Olson nattered on about the trades the Phillies had made that month, wondering if the team would gel—“chemistry being more important than talent.” Manuel could have cared less—he had four children and three jobs—but he liked that he old gringo spoke Spanish well enough to be understood and felt sorry for him.  Olson liked showing off the little bit of Spanish he’d picked up during the year spent in Nicaragua—it was a beautiful language, full of colorful slang and capable of expressing crudities an English speaker couldn’t even imagine. And it was the language of Vallejo and Neruda.
The old man could go on though, and Manuel only half listened as he made Olson’s lunch.
“They call it the ‘death gene,’ a nucleotide that effects our waking time or sleeping time, like if you go to bed at midnight and wake up at 7 that’s programmed, it’s your circadian rhythm.  You’ve heard of that,” Olson was sitting up, temporarily lively after his third nap of the morning, stimulated by Manuel’s genial presence. No, Manuel hadn’t heard of his circadian rhythm or of nucleotides and wasn’t entirely sure what a gene might be, but Olson didn’t care, “and so you know that now scientists can predict the time of day you’ll die based on this gene, and by extension approximately when, all things considered, not if you get hit by a bus or end up like me, but if you die of ‘natural causes,’ there’s  a point beyond which your organism cannot continue.  And what I begin to wonder about is what’s left, what’s under our power?  When you come right down to it there isn’t any individual will.  We’re stuck between genetic determinism and history—all of its decided for us, and if you believe in God,” Manuel did, fervently, but had lost the thread of his patient’s chatter, “then there’s that to consider as well.  God knows everything, is the force behind everything, so how can you have free will?  I know, this is an old problem, solved centuries ago by Augustine and Aquinas, but still, saying there’s a difference between time and eternity doesn’t seem to me to let God off the hook, or us. And you have to see things from the point of view of DNA and bacteria.  Mostly that’s what you are Manuel, you’ve got like eight bacteria, bacterium, per cell, and then there’s these things called prions which are untethered proteins—and they kill you as well—and you’re coded for diseases like diabetes,” Manuel had diabetes, the kind where you have to inject yourself with insulin three times a day, and he didn’t  like the word “coded,” which he had immediately translated (as he did with the Old Gringo, simultaneously moving from English to Spanish, or, if the old man spoke to him in bad Spanish, Manuel had to fix the words so he could make sense of them), as contraseña which didn’t make a lot of sense, “and,” Olson continued, “there’s everything around us—the GMO corn the FDA lets Monsanto serve up, the hormone-infected beef, second-hand smoke, CO and sulfur dioxide from the power-plants—you name it.  We ate boiled peas and margarine when I was a kid, packaged bologna, white bread with mayo slathered on it, blue Italian ice and a thousand pizzas.  My father smoked two packs a day in the house.  What chance did I have Manuel?  I’m reaping what was sown years ago. . .”
 Olson ran out of gas.  His conversational riffs erupted spontaneously—it didn’t matter if there was an audience or not. Olson had always talked to himself as he thought about something or when he writing—monologue or dialogue, it made no difference. His brain was busy shutting down his somatic systems like one of those cinematic submarine captains who issued dozens of orders to get the damn ship to dive just as the enemy torpedoes sped toward the half-submerged hulk—in Olson’s case the toes appeared to be going first, icy oblivion creeping up his wasted limbs toward his vital parts—balls and heart (Olson’s own hierarchy) until, six days, five hours, and thirteen minutes from the moment he remembered (inaccurately) the death gene, he would “pass away,” at five o’clock on the dot, one further bit of nasty irony as 5 p.m. had been, nearly all his life, the moment he opened a beer or a bottle of wine and (temporarily) relaxed. He’d been born at 6:01, but in July, during daylight savings, and, not being one for coincidences, if he’d known that fact he would have shaken his head in disbelief.
“Do you need to crap?”  Manuel knew that Olson’s bowels had been jammed closed by the pills he was taking; he’d give the old man an enema if he had to, but there was still hope for a natural elimination.
“Not a chance.”  Olson had enjoyed a lifetime of regularity and hated being constipated.  All of his life he’d pushed out finely sculpted turds no more than five minutes after his first sips of coffee; now he was chewing stool softeners and sitting on the toilet until his legs went numb.
“Tomorrow we can fix that.”  Olson shuddered.  He didn’t mind Manuel’s moving him around the bed or pushing him into the backyard in his wheelchair for a bit of sun, or even giving him a bath, but the humiliation of having this kindhearted man from San Salvador unplugging his ass was more than Olson could contemplate.  He’d figure out a way to go on his own today.

            The body and the mind.  Olson had Manuel push him down the newly constructed ramp (paid for with public dollars) that joined his kitchen with the tiny rectangle of packed dirt and dead roses that constituted his backyard.  Not one to spend hours growing grass or flowers, Olson had “let his yard go,” an understatement, and his neighbors on both sides who took pride in their thickly groomed lawns, azaleas, and cultivated beds of roses, gladiolas, daisies, and various annuals, regarded with ill-concealed contempt the assault on property values that Olson’s house and yard represented.  He’d grown up in a kind of city-suburb, right on the edge of Asbury Park, and his father had expended minimal effort cultivating his “little piece of paradise,” which was what the family called the crappy thirtieth of an acre they owned on Fourth Avenue, a bit of sandy ground that was too shady to grow much but impatiens. The Old Man had loved his hard-won speck of the American Dream, the Jeffersonian yeoman’s parcel of the New World, but what could he do with it?  His father’s refusal to grovel in the dirt in the name of bourgeois respectability had been internalized by Olson—that and a basic laziness that made it difficult for a man whose concerns were mostly intellectual, or at least who thought of himself as having important ideas to ponder and to share with the world—a joke—so Olson never even watered the plants he’d inherited with the house; the roses wilted and died and Olson didn’t notice.  He was no farmer.  He was a writer, an agitator, a debtor, an intellectual—a seducer and a drinker and a dreamer.  So: the yard was dust.
            But a nice place to sit on a surprisingly bright D.C. afternoon.  Olson was a weather person, meaning he paid attention to it, knew the barometric pressure, and scanned the horizon for Sirius clouds that presaged a cold front, turned to the weather map in the Times right after reading the day’s (dismal) headlines.  He would miss sunshine when he was dead.  And baseball, cold beers on hot days (warm beers on cold days), sex of course, books of all kinds, long conversations with ex-wives and current friends, writing, dreaming about trips to places he’d now never see (Coimbra, Milan, Budapest), and, he was embarrassed to say, his own company.  Then again he thought of the things he would be glad to be done with: bigots and fools above all, money in all of its forms, holidays with their enforced rituals and false pleasures, and, most of all, his own company—the voices in his head. 
            Manuel would be back in an hour to wheel Olson inside and back to bed.  The taciturn Salvadorian had another “client” down the road, off North Capitol, a woman with diabetes and incipient kidney failure named Emma Johnson whom Olson knew in passing from the block association, a black woman whose grandmother had been a slave on a plantation outside of Norfolk. Olson was a grassroots man, always had been.  The block association had organized to persuade the City Council to repair the basketball court in Gleason Park, the only place local kids could stretch their legs after school.  That battle took a year.  Money was tight in D.C., not because there wasn’t money but because the wealthier Northwestern section of the city along Rock Creek Park got most of it.  Just before his diagnosis the Capitol Hill Association (of which Olson was Secretary) had collected four hundred signatures in opposition to the closing of the Senior Center.  That one would be tougher to win as a big-shot developer had his eye on the property for upscale condos. The neighborhood was changing; young white staffers who worked on the Hill were buying the row houses, pushing up real estate values.  Olson hated gentrification; better for a neighborhood to be run down than for the residents to be run out—that was a slogan he’d come up with for a campaign he’d hope to run—Defending Our Neighborhoods.  Democracy begins on your block, in your corner of the city.  That sort of thing.  Olson believed it. He loved the ramshackle look of eastern cities and loathed the new and trendy.  In this, as in so much else, he was better off dead—nothing was going to stop the sharks from transforming the old cities into enclaves for the rich.  And the residents—black and poor, Manuel and his family, those with the misfortune to have just arrived in the land of missed opportunity—would be shunted off to nursing homes and prison and sleazy exurbs out beyond the jobs and pleasures of the city.  “So it goes,” said Olson aloud. It was the downside of living more than half a century—things dropped away, change uprooted what you had grown used to, and you found yourself submerged in nostalgia, a feeling Olson recognized had replaced many of his other feelings, as if he himself were a patch of one of the old cities he loved, now run-down and ripe for remodeling.   “A man should learn to detect and watch the gleam of light that flashes across his mind from within…” Emerson, that old pisser, had been right about that. As Olson basked in the warming light, finally wide-awake, he flipped through his diminishing inner light for shards of memory that would be pleasing and would lift him out of his funk.  He wasn’t going to die with a smile on his face, but he wouldn’t bitch and moan either. 
            Just then the sun burned through the thin clouds and touched Olson’s face.  The pressure of heat and light brought tears to his eyes. It was difficult not to see this as a sign, ninety-six million miles was a long way, a shaft—“Roy G Biv”, came to mind from someplace—touching his forehead and cheeks—a blessing.  Vade in pace,” Olson recalled, the priest turning at last—having tidied up the altar and put the chalices in the gold box, what was it? The ciborium—the moment when the sanctified hand that had turned bread to flesh and wine to blood was raised from the ghostly robes for the final blessing, go in peace, and Olson had, clear-headed and chastened but relieved to be out of the stuffy church, back to the world, the one where the sun struck one’s face with the force of blow.  Olson realized that he had been neglecting simple pleasures for weeks, so enthralled had he been with his own dying.  He hadn’t sat in the yard since Election Day.  Hadn’t allowed his mind to drift with quite the freedom that it required.  He’d voted early at the Sherwood Rec Center and driven to the newsstand on Connecticut to buy half-a-dozen newspapers and magazines.  He was sick, but he’d gone for coffee and read Le Monde and The Guardian, speculated about the outcome of the election with the regulars.  He was terminal, but had been feeling well enough to get on with his life.  He wasn’t teaching—he’d taken a leave of absence—and the days had started to seem almost hopeful.  Though Olson wouldn’t have said so, all through late summer he had believed that he was in remission, that the latest, horrible six weeks of chemo had cured him. 

Olson found a comfortable spot between dreaming and waking, a shadowy realm in which he seemed to float a few feet above his body.  He belched to ease the pressure in his chest and then gagged on a mouthful of bile.  When he’d first set eyes on Washington, his adopted city, Olson threw up.  He was in the back seat of his father’s Ford, bilious from long drive down 301 from New Jersey.  His father thought that his son faked carsickness for sympathy, but the combination of claustrophobia, cigarette smoke, and bumpy roads—this was the era before Interstates—made David nauseous, as did his attempts to read in the overheated backseat.  Olson, now pleasantly chilled by the December breeze, laughed as he remembered the look on his father’s face as bits of cheeseburger splashed against the red leather seats of the family’s prized ’56 sedan—the Crown Victoria, with whitewalls, V-8 engine, push-button AM/FM radio, and lots of chrome.  His father had loved that car more than his family. Too bad, really, that there was no afterlife: he had some scores to settle.

            He was too weak to move the chair more than a few feet, but he wanted to turn toward his neighbor on the east side, facing the back porch of Ivana Janko, the latest arrival to the neighborhood.   Ivana—maybe forties, a translator at the State Department, a refugee from Milosz’s Serbia, vivacious and sexy, fleshy in the way Olson had always preferred women to be—heroin chic, or New York Times Style-Section homage to the misogyny of haut couture, had never appealed to him—Ivana had cascades of black hair pinned in an elaborate architecture that threatened to topple at any moment.  Would that it toppled in Olson’s presence. He could only imagine (and that barely) the pleasure of running his fingers through Ivana’s tresses—nothing more than dead follicles, coated in summer, he knew, with a sheen of oil from Ivana’s scalp, perhaps some flaking skin, who knew what else.  He couldn’t help it: since his cancer Olson saw mostly the flaws in bodies.  Every beautiful face—including those of his ex-wives and two children—was a skull, mortised bones carrying about a few pounds of vital tissue.  Olson had read a great deal about the death cults of the Middle Ages, the Dance of Death, the push and pull of living and dying at a time when plague and famine were the norm. He’d done the reading out of curiosity and as part of one of his projects, but until now he hadn’t understood the burden of the body in the way almost all pre-modern people had understood it.  He was rotting—that’s what it felt like—and Ivana’s hair and neck and breasts (unconstrained, he was certain, as he watched her standing on her back porch, smoking) were a momentary reprieve from that fact.  Standing there puffing on her Gitanes (yes, Olson knew the aroma, no doubt about it), looking unfocused in her privacy, Ivana appeared to be a figure from Sargent, an artist well represented just down the road in the National Gallery. Ivana now retired into her kitchen, pretending, Olson believed, not to have seen him, preparing her evening meal of pasulj, beans in sauce, a dish she had cooked for Olson each time (of two) he had been invited to her home for a meal.  Her house was tidy and, Olson thought, feminine, filled with books and newspapers written in Cyrillic script (thus: Serbian), with thick drapes covering the windows and coverlets—duvets?—thickly piled on the couches and chairs, paintings of Balkan peasants hoeing turnips or drinking Rijeka, fruity booze that had once caused Olson to experience his worst hangover.  Ivana had served tiny glasses of the poison in her smoky kitchen—Olson, familiar with its toxic properties, took demure sips and poured it down the sink when Ivan turned her back.  Both dinners had occurred two years before, within a week of one another.  Olson believed at the time that he was being auditioned for the role of lover or boyfriend. He must have failed whatever test Ivana had set for him because aside from a chaste kiss nothing came of their lingering conversation over krempita and strong coffee—maybe she was repulsed by Olson’s admission of multiple marriages, or his political views. It appeared Ivana, newly arrived from a nation where children had been bayoneted and old Albanian men and women had been tossed into shallow graves by Serbian teenagers, beautiful, sensual Ivanaita (as Olson called her in an excess of unreciprocated affection), was a fan of law and order, of “unlimiting executive powers,” of Reagan and Bush but not of Clinton and Gore—and who could blame her?  It was Ivana who introduced Olson to the Jasenovac concentration camp and who related to him the story of Croatian atrocities against Serbians. For his part, and as a guest, he kept his mouth shut about Sarajevo—this was 1998 and war criminals from Ivana’s country were still be rounded up and sent to the Hague—it was, Olson knew, bad taste to start comparing atrocities.          

Waiting impatiently for the return of Manuel, ready to go inside and lie on his bed, maybe take a pain pill or toke his medical marijuana before the evening news—he’d need something to prepare himself for the latest from Florida, the shenanigans coming out of Pensacola, tales of chads and dimples that had allowed the Sectarian Court to award the country to the bubble-head from Texas, but he’d watch as he had his entire life, wherever he was, Walter Cronkite, now Dan Rather, the sober reading of the news which Olson could no more ignore then he could ignore the beating of his own heart. Even as a young man, obsessed with sex and literature, Olson had found himself curious about what went on in the world.  Later on it was power that intrigued him—how it was procured and how it was used. After 1970 and the horrors of Vietnam, Olson’s obsession was propaganda, with the conspiracy that was government, the myth of democracy and justice belied by the reality of corruption.  The stinkers!  Dying didn’t matter.  Olson’s anger would outlive him.  Though he aspired to Buddhist calm and stoical acceptance of fate, the truth was Olson’s soul was toxic with rage at the crimes he’d witnessed.  How must God feel looking down on these gonifs who were stealing the country? 
 To calm himself, Olson changed directions, back to Sargent, and thought for nearly five minutes about the art that was on display down the hill—the Rembrandt portraits, the Eakins’ picture of a boy playing his banjo, Gilbert Stuart’s iconic Founders arrayed on one wall of a single room—a shrine to the mythic American past.  Adams next to Jefferson, that odd couple, reconciled as old men, full of gripes about Monroe and Adams and the upstart Jackson, dead on the same day, the Fourth, fifty years after publishing those immortal if disingenuous words—inalienable rights—The Founders still made Olson bilious. On the other hand, the paintings, monuments, equestrian statutes (Bolivar!)  and marble palaces that lined L’Enfant’s imperial boulevards still roused him—he was a patriot in his own way, an odd duck who hated what he loved and loved what he hated. Dripping with sweat on a June Saturday, between marriages or girlfriends or resolutely alone, the hale and energetic Olson would march from Third Street down Capitol Hill (admiring bronze Liberty atop the Latrobe’s Capital building) and head for the National Gallery or the East Wing, sidestepping tourists who would be rank with in the humid air—whatever state or nation they had arrived from the visitors would be unready for the murky swamp atop which America’s capital had been built—on the confluence of the Potomac and the Anacostia, so ripe with black flies and mosquitoes that the wealthy built summer homes a few miles north in Chevy Chase or Bethesda.  Nobody remained in town during August even in Olson’s day—except Olson himself.   He’d always loved the city in summer, the surreal feeling of living in a sweltering southern town that had somehow become the nexus of the world.  And now, coming on Christmas, the national tree set to be illuminated in two days, balmy for mid-December, a few scraps of snow in his backyard from a Thanksgiving storm, his final run up to the holidays.
Here was Manuel.  Olson hadn’t noticed his coming.  The sun was setting, blurred orange against the commuter smog and low-hanging clouds.  The nurse was saying something, but Olson wasn’t listening.  It had come to him a few moments ago, as he watched Ivana toss her cigarette into the backyard, open her door and disappear into her house—just then Olson understood how little time he had left.  A wave—it felt like a wave—of fatigue washed over him, fatigue and grief and relief as well.  Whatever remained to be done needed to be done soon.  But what was there to do?  Olson, a man who had spent his life engaged, active with causes and busy with work, now had nothing on his schedule. His will had been written—there was no money to disperse so it was a document that could only bestow affection on the people he cared for—his bills were paid, his goodbyes offered to his friends and colleagues.  He was free now, at last, to do nothing but think—to settle his accounts.  As Manuel, mumbling into cell phone in Spanish, wheeled him up the makeshift ramp into the kitchen, Olson wondered if he had lived a decent life. He had longed to know the answer to this question, but as he watched the sun plow into the Potomac, he realized he no longer was interested—what I’ve done is irredeemably lost, he thought.  Perhaps he should ask for forgiveness.  And if within a few days he disappeared, so be it.  He was close to feeling sorry for himself, but what was the point?   

In the middle of the night—it was 2 a.m.—Olson was asleep and dreaming of something unimportant, dreaming that he was waiting for a bus with a hundred people he’d never met, or running for a train, or sitting in an airport in an exotic city that he’d only imagined he’d ever visited, when half-a-mile west, between the Supreme Court and the Capitol, not far from where the slave market was once located, where kidnapped men, women, and children were shackled in fetid cells waiting for transport south to the cotton lands of Georgia and Alabama, there was another gathering, not in Olson’s dreams and not a delusion or one of those metaphors of which writers and politicians are so fond, but the real thing, the nightly gathering of the ghosts of the city, the shades of the dead who assembled precisely at 2 am to consider the condition of their city and of the country it governed.  Ghosts aren’t bursts of cold wind or flickering lights or the cause of the hair rising on the back of one’s head. They don’t haunt houses or the Capitol rotunda and they certainly aren’t undulations arising in any of the hundred graveyards scattered throughout the city.  The ghosts of Washington are real, of course, but because they are ghosts and therefore have no existence palpable to the living, it is pointless to imbue them with form or meaning: let’s just say that the ghosts who gather nightly not far from where David Olson is snoring and wheezing (he has developed apnea in recent weeks) are what is left of dead persons when the body—that absurdity—has been laid aside.  No need to visualize a little angel escaping from our nostrils or flying out of our mouths as we “give up the ghost;” the fact is, we don’t “give the ghost up,” it gives up on us.  Surprised by our inability to continue living, the self bids us adieu (temporarily), and then, for want of employment, lingers with others of its kind until reassigned.  
Drawing a circle with Olson—feverish, turning onto his back, slipping up toward wakefulness but then dragged back into sleep—at its center, a circle with a radius of a thousand meters, taking in the heart of Capitol Hill, the observer would note that Olson is not alone in dying: Mrs. Pauline Gable, aged sixty-four, will die of breast cancer before the sun rises—she and Olson aren’t acquainted, though they have stood in line together at the Grubb’s Pharmacy for their assorted meds—and on the far eastern edge of the city, by  remarkable coincidence, an African-American man named James Olson has just had a stroke which will kill him by mid-morning on a gurney in the ER at Anacostia Hospital—apparently there was some problem with Mr. Olson’s insurance that delayed his admission, though the delay wouldn’t have altered the outcome.  The republic of the dead grows each day. A small city like Washington sees twenty to thirty deaths every twenty-four hours, so that our Olson’s passing is in no way notable, though his is the only consciousness to which we have full access and so it is his story we have told. 
The souls gathered within the imaginary circle are, of course, incorporeal, and therefore do not converse, though they do acknowledge one another’s non-existence, and pass fragments of thought indiscriminately into the ether they occupy.  The thinking of the dead is far clearer—perhaps we should say less cluttered—than that of the living.  There would, for example, be no point in the dead feeling pride or narcissism, vanity or greed. Much of what they think about has the clarity of innocence.  When, in less than a week, David Olson joins the dead of Capitol Hill, he will be pleasantly surprised by the lack of cant among his new associates.  None of them, for example, would be able to think, “The object of economics is to change the soul.”  Souls understand that they exist beyond accumulation, scarcity, and redistribution.  Thus Olson will be far more likely to float—metaphorically—through the warm sea of the dead and listen to the silence of their regret.  For the dead share one thing with the living—a yearning for life.  That life has ended makes no difference.  It appears—all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding—that attachment to life endures, indeed that it blossoms, and that while there is neither heaven nor hell, there is a middle ground—a limbo—of disappointment that life has, at least for the moment, come to an end.   Souls are remnants—they aren’t angels—not by a long shot.  Angels are a form of wishful thinking.  Young, sexless beings sheathed in white nightgowns, with long blond hair and enormous wings—imagine the absurd musculature under the drapery—Gabriel scaring the Virgin in Fra Angelico, or the cowering maiden in Rossetti’s version.  The ghosts of Capitol Hill are hardly angels—and they’re not clothed or winged or blond or white—they’re without form and are the color of slightly muddy water.  There are a lot of ghosts in Washington, and seeing them, or rather feeling their presence, puts one in mind of Dante’s first view of the crossing over from this world to the next.  Because death is the only democracy, there’s no way of telling Frederick Douglas, the great voice of abolition, from Callie Douglas, a nine-year-old girl killed in a drive-by shooting in 1986.   Having shed the flesh, ghosts come at once to a far deeper understanding of what endures and what dissolves than the living—they acquire the insight Plato described in his various Socratic discussions, the insight that there are two worlds, that one, the higher, is embedded in the lower, not as a means of elevating one or degrading the other, but because everything is alive, imbued with soul, and thus mixed up with material things. I know, this sounds like spiritualist crap or Gnosticism, a form of illusion or heresy depending on what you believe.  But I have no control over how things sound, or whether or not they seem plausible.  Olson was fond of saying that the truth is never easy to accept, that we are so riven by falsehoods and propaganda that we actually come to hate the truth. But he didn’t know what he was saying.  The truth isn’t difficult or discomfiting: the truth is impossible for us to grasp—it’s just the way we’ve been designed.  The ghosts who slosh through the night of December 7th in the vicinity of David Olson’s narrow three-story house on Maryland Avenue are as real as the people who live in the houses around Olson’s, as real as the men and women who work down the hill in the Capitol, perhaps more real than the ghostly figures who fill the hundred thousand cubicles in the hundred blocky office buildings arrayed on both sides of the Mall—“fascist modalities” was how Olson referred to these monoliths in his Nation article  “Is the United States Government Destroying American Democracy?”   Soon Olson’s opinions will melt into air and he will join the ghosts of Capitol Hill.  At first, like all of the newly dead, Olson will be surprised, but he was always a quick study and will find his place among the legions of the dead, perhaps even locate a colleague or two, an enemy—he had many of these—in any case he will soon feel at home since it’s dying that is natural, not living.  The amount of energy Olson has consumed staying alive—the worry, the visits to the clinic, the medicines, the pain endured—all of this clinging to life will seem absurd once the moment of departure has come.  He will be relieved to go.  And as he leaves the world—just a few days from now—the last thing he will imagine—the last image he will see, the one of which he is dreaming even now—will be the leering face of Tille, gleeful madness set in cracked paint on the side of an abandoned building in a dying city. All this time, all these years, he’s known this face—it was burned into him as a boy—this grinning image of all that he was, all that we once were. 

George Ovitt, (October 20, 2014)
goovitt48@gmail.com