I read a lot, maybe too much. Reading has certainly made me book smart, but it has also broken my heart and maybe held my attention too long when I should have been focused on living. How many times have I quoted the good doctor of Rutherford, New Jersey, his poem "Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," those lines that read --
I have learned much in my life / from books / and out of them / about love.sometimes sober, sometimes high, sometimes to someone I loved, as a profession of that love, sometimes in regret? And then a little voice -- that little voice that accompanies me everywhere -- says, "Don't be such a self-regarding arsehole. You are who you are. Live with it." Followed by an image from childhood, Wallace Beery as Long John Silver with an angry Captain Flint on his shoulder looming over a cowering Jim Hawkins. My father and me. And the parrot perched on his shoulder, destined to live a hundred or more years. A cliché but not an empty one.
But that's not why I'm confused, I don't think. The voice in my head, the parrot on my shoulder, the sound of a spade hitting the buried treasure chest, finding the chest empty, and being sentenced to death anyway -- it seems like a dream to me now, as Rhymin' Simon might've put it.
Another image from childhood. I'm with the twins, next door neighbors, a couple of years older than me, and we're digging a foxhole in an empty lot down the block. We're using folding army shovels, the kind our dads had used in the war, cocked as picks. I'm wearing a baseball cap. With a mighty swing the cap falls off my head and into the hole. I jump in after it at the same time one of the twins swings his shovel down. His blade catches me on the back of the head. I feel a terrible shock of pain as I fall forward, face-first, into the dirt. I gag on the taste and smell of it as bright red blood starts pouring out of the wound. The twins immediately go quiet. Still as statues, they're scared shitless as I lay there crying. Head wounds are awfully bloody.
There must've been some other kids nearby, because someone ran to get my mother who, despite being small and squeamish, carried me home and put a towel wrapped around ice cubes to the wound. Though woozy and in pain, I was the center of attention and too young to think about all the bad things that such an injury might entail. Seeing stars (it's true, I did see stars), I let myself go limp. I could hear some of my friends standing outside our kitchen door murmuring. My mom was in a tizzy. But, for some reason, my dad showed up just then -- maybe it was a weekend. There was a short loud debate about whether or not I should be taken to Franklin General Hospital, a five minute drive away. Mom was for it, dad against.
Dad prevailed. He usually did. Ice and pressure had staunched the bleeding. He went and got the hair-clippers. (Yes, he used to cut my brother's and my hair at home. He wasn't the only father back then who did.) He cut a big bald patch all around the wound, cleaned it out with hydrogen peroxide (still the only thing I use to wash out wounds to this day -- effin imprinting), determined that it was only a scalp wound (I don't know how, or even whether it was true or not), and stitched it up. I remember my mother standing by the stove heating something up, afraid to look at my head. I forget if he or she did the bandaging -- a thick wad of gauze taped to the bald patch. I remember smelling the adhesive. I was given aspirin and told to sit straight, to keep my head up.
The stove, the sink, the icebox, Stubby at my feet, a good dog, a beagle, the runt of the litter, my mother holding me, patting my back, the sounds of summertime outside and the little crowd of neighborhood kids (and some parents) dispersing -- and an overwhelming feeling of fatigue, almost as though I'd had a fever. Later, the twins' father coming over and asking how I was and how sorry he was.
I remember how hard it was to wash up without getting my head wet in the aftermath of the injury. And the headaches that came and went in waves. And the wariness I had when playing with the twins. And how nice they were to me, for a while.
Years later, when we were all smoking dope and drinking and doing dangerous things without knowing it, I would sometimes black out or feel the ground slip away. Or I would get lost in a piece of music, something like Oliver Nelson's "The Meetin'," thinking -- if you could call it thinking, those acts of unconscious apprehension, I wouldn't go so far as to call them Joycean epiphanies -- about the blues, its progressions and pain. Imagine a group of jejune white kids growing up in a Plasticville neighborhood singing to each other, "You got to suffer if you wanna sing the blues." And believing it.
Some days I want to jump off a bridge I'm so confused. And it's no longer brought on by pain in my head nor by the things I read. It's watching this life slip through my fingers moment after moment, day after day, just as I'm about to find out something important, or come upon the answer to some big mystery I didn't even know I was meant to solve.