For Anne Sexton
This story ends with me still rowing.
Friday, October 4, 1974
Middleton, Wisconsin: I (8), walking home from school maybe with my brother (7), probably alone (eternally lonely). The air crisp, cool (not Indian summer like in Weston). The silver maples in the woods between here and there going yellow, orange, and red. Gray squirrels scavenging last acorns of the season getting ready for brutal Midwest winter, getting ready for sleep. Spaces between leaves where late afternoon light shone through, spaces summer’s heavy season covered not so long ago.
Weston, Massachusetts: you, Anne (45), getting home (Colonial-style variant) from lunch with Maxine Kumin after going over galleys for your latest book The Awful Rowing Toward God with publication date set for March 1975. The same month I’d fall in love with actress Margot Kidder’s (26) black and white spread in Playboy Magazine. Your book (The Awful Rowing Toward God) you’d insist be published after, after the attempts, the hospitalizations, the handfuls, the affairs, the electroshocks, the stirred not shaken, after the Indian summer and the brown-black oaks. As if the idea must be published post-mortem, must be published after, fixed itself so completely, forced your hand, rock and a hard place, back against the wall, until you saw no other option but to go horizontal, not vertical, not yet.
I probably had that boy (8) from school in my head as I walked—trying to forget my mathematical tables, my covert flirtations, my fury, my father’s demons, my shyness—that tall, dark-haired boy with doe eyes and soft smile. The one who I’d never get up the nerve to speak with, even as we grew older, the one I’d sometimes wonder about. The one who would end up drowning almost twenty-one years to that day (Friday, October 4, 1974) from a freak hunting accident in a marshy place when he was twenty-nine and still in his prime, still strikingly beautiful, doe-eyed, soft-smiled, still golden.
Were you calling to push back the time of your rendezvous with one of the men you’d been seeing, Anne? The one you had plans to meet with that evening (was he the one who found you)? Did you reschedule for an hour later or two? Was it going to be a romantic dinner with sunset view, followed by blazing fire and certain sweet somethings on lambskin rug? How was it that even the promise of his adoration, his hand up skirt, his breath on neck, his poetry, his liquid honey, wasn’t even enough to stop you?
I hated school already. The early morning wake up, the Pledge of Allegiance, the straight back chairs, the popular girls who lived in big houses on the hill (I was not their kind), the playground rivalries, the train-train. The boy crushes kept me buoyant, kept me afloat, light-headed, dizzy, drunk, distracted, butterfly stomached, dry-mouthed, weak-kneed, like seeing Margot Kidder in that March 1975 issue of Playboy Magazine for the first time, offering some hope of being noticed, consumed, fallen head over heels with, hands held and lips kissed (no tongue) nothing more, no Lolita, not yet anyway.
What time did you hang up the phone and find your mother’s (bless you darling) old fur coat? What kind of fur was it—mink, arctic fox, raccoon? Did she wear it on certain winter nights to the Boston Opera House with your perfectly fashioned father? Had she wrapped the coat around her in Newton, Massachusetts, when she was pregnant with you, Anne Gray Harvey Sexton? Your mother, gone fifteen years (cancer), her mouth, a whiskey flow, her teeth, rusted barbwire (like yours and later like mine).
I spilled out of the woods and into a grouping of ordinary-looking apartment buildings. Buildings built in lowlands, not far from Native American burial mounds, not far from where I would, ten years later, often ride my bike alone out Pheasant Branch Road (trying to outrun my own demons), past the ravine and dried up creek bed where my brother and I collected stripped dry deer bones and ceramic fragments thrown down by long-departed farm families. That city-suburb (Middleton) where I felt like an outsider, a misplaced New Englander, except for nature, and that rolling green-blue geography.
Were you taking off your rings now, Anne? Maybe your old wedding band (married at nineteen, divorced at forty-four)? The ring, the anticipation that marks the beginning of things, the hope in a fresh, a new, a singular, a my very own family, the raw animal, before the hurts piled up, before the toxic, before the manic. What other rings were there? Maybe a princess cut diamond from your aunt, the one who loved you with a fierce possessiveness? Maybe a ring you bought for yourself, an 18-karat gold eternity on the occasion of your fortieth birthday? Fingers denuded of armature, cast off panoplie (come hither).
I climbed the stairs to our second-floor apartment, unlocked the door. Tomorrow (Saturday) at this time (3:15 post-meridian) I’d find my father (46) slumped over (sleeping) in his favorite chair, cigarette butts overflowing in nearby ashtray, stained cup (coffee—black, two spoons of sugar), orange Bic pen with blue cap, and lined yellow notepad (filled with brilliant discourse and sometimes rhyme) arranged neatly on small table next to chair. My father: severely depressed, often suicidal, rarely smiling, going dark (existentially lonely), going down, diving deep into the nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno.
Were you pouring yourself a glass of vodka, Anne? Smirnoff, Finlandia, or Absolut? Was it chilled or room temperature? In a shot glass or a recycled jam jar? Did you sip it or throw it back? Could you have done what you were about to do without that cotton fluff, that liquid courage, that grinding incessant, that malevolent, that giant devil-hand clamped down on your head trying to squeeze out the voices? They said (literati) who are you? Who do you think you are, by what authority (put the drink down)?
I went to my bedroom and dropped my school bag on the bed. That small room, a carpeted cellule, a dreamer’s nightmare (especially at 3:15 ante-meridian) with its north-facing window. An absence of direct sunlight, an abundance of shadow killing spirit in winter bringing north wind (if you can survive that wind, buffalo soldier, you can survive anything). Playboy, Penthouse, new Hustler magazines my brother had begun scavenging from dumpsters, stuffed between my box spring and mattress. My brother, an aficionado at age seven, already (both of us) crossing into uncharted, motherlode, harakiri.
Were you walking into the garage now (with another glass of vodka), locking the door, and sliding into the driver’s seat of your red 1967 Mercury Cougar, Anne? 1967, when you were thirty-nine and past your prime. When you drove that red car loud and reckless with the windows down, radio on, your hair a beautiful bird’s nest, a cascading waterfall, your skin a shining moth wing. 1967, when you dreamed of making love in the backseat with a dark-haired, sweet-smiled, doe-eyed boy, still alive, still golden.
I went from bedroom to kitchen, poured a glass of milk and found the cookies (Fig Newton’s probably). My mother (28), two years older than Margot Kidder, didn’t keep sweets, didn’t keep a conventional sense but kept instead fruit and gentleness and just out of the oven warm buttered wheat bread. Our mother, not a keeper of fur coats or princess cut diamonds or vodka. Our mother, turning a blind eye, doing her best to navigate my father’s wilderness, without a plan, without a witness.
Were you trembling or subdued putting the car keys in the ignition, Anne? What music came on (I will die with this radio playing) when you started the engine? Was it Brahms Symphony No. 4? Billy Preston My Sweet Lord? John Coltrane Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye? How many songs before your nerve endings went fuzzy (come here, go away Love), before your head began to spin and your eyes got blurry? It’s said that peace comes from waking, not sleeping. Does it (dear God, what have I done)?
I close my eyes and open the garage door. I see the red 1967 Mercury Cougar and you, beautiful poet not ess, passed out at the wheel. I turn off the car and lift you up, little ghost girl, like a celestial mother, an angel of Light. I, Jody (8), give you, Anne (45), my loyalty, my hope, my hyperbaric chamber, my reason, in exchange for your glorious words. I swallow your vodka and put on your rings. I wrap myself in your mother’s fur coat and take your pain conceived in. Newton and reborn in Weston. This story ends with me still rowing.
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