Swados said, You want to be the town drunk? You’re on your way. Out of class. Bette came to Harvey’s weekly political-novel seminar to hear me expatiate on Che and Fidel and the revolution’s seed in Toussaint Louverture and images in the back of my head from Breughel the elder, Hieronymous Bosch, and Goya while reading Alejo Carpentier opening El Siglo de las luces, The Century of light, translated Explosion in the Cathedral, with its sequestered guillotine beheld in the dark by the eyes of a child. I was drunk, of course. I kept shifting between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries and by the end of the night I was ready to get me to Haiti and incite revolution against Papa Doc Duvalier. I went home and slept off the long night made even longer by the day beforehand. At least I did not stutter as long as I was drinking. That was a month before Swados had a brain hemorrhage and died while changing a light fixture in the bathroom standing on a stool. In the packed house following the funeral, Bette Swados listened closely to Diane Diamond talking about Malraux’s La Condition humaine, finding now this late American’s heart within that novel of the Chinese Revolution, and I can tell you, I listened too. Diane was the brightest student in the UMass graduate school. She knew what she knew from her fingertips. She came by it from birth, her solidarity with the coming triumph of justice.
That was a moment from the two years I lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, and was the town drunk, though I wrote a decent poem and with a bottle of Jose Cuervo read like an angel from Hicksville. The rest is history, the well known, inexpungeable kind. Cathleen was preparing to write her own Leftover Life to Kill. But her name would never be Caitlin. Now she seems happy enough growing old with me and I revel in her happiness every time I remember what she endured to be with me, even though she was unprepared to bear such uncertainty longer than one season at a time, and there were always four. First thing I saw driving our loaded International Carry-All into town was the Irish cop on the corner of Pleasant and Amity twirling his billy with two fingers. Last thing before leaving was Nixon on TV waving to his well-wishers from the helicopter before its departure for the Western White House outside San Diego, that city where I had been on the eve of leaving California. I drank more then than now, I told myself as I drove away. San Diego was where I damn near died and not solely from drink. There was a gang of hooligans I went up against and backed down from when the other face in my face wore brass knuckles on both hands and had taken the plate from his mouth and handed it off to be held while he would whip my ass and all the others behind him would clean up the alley for Labor Day. As I say, I walked away. I found a Free Clinic and got some pills to stanch the pain of my tooth, abscessing, cut out once I was back in San Francisco and sleeping in Marin.
We never went back to Amherst. I had friends would like to have seen me hoping what they’d heard was true, that I’d changed. Or not changed. They didn’t know I believed I was nobody at all when I was cold sober and once drunk, everyone I idolized in history. Most of my friends had either left or, even then, had died. One who is like a brother quit drinking like me. When I stopped smoking cigarettes I felt like I’d been locked in a room sweating out the poison among pills and needles, but I kept driving east, where anywhere like home resembled what we’d left, the cities Seattle, San Francisco. We got as far across Canada as Ontario, but not Toronto, before dropping south through Sault Sainte Marie, having had a near head-on collision after staying the night in a huge hotel off the highway while our loaded van was being repaired; eating, drinking, and feeding the jukebox to hear, time after time, Kris Kristofferson singing, He’s a pilgrim, he’s a prophet, and as I was wont to add, he’s anybody he wants to be . . .
I always stayed open to change. I was the ultimate soothsayer, whatever I said of myself I lived up to. Cathleen is still letting that happen here. Dios mio, it’s been a lifetime, you will say when in company and to those likely to remember why they would believe you now . . . I was so much older then, I am younger than that now . . . No one had heard I was still walking around a small town sporting a cut lily terrifying the local notary with the prospect of a flower’s blow to one ear: only talk of course, but what a pedigree that poet bequeathed. Neftali Reyes, I liked to say, not Pablo Neruda. Walking Around his only poem christened with its title originally English. That’s what I first remembered one day winter was coming on, I was alone and between verses, gazing through the window at the long, wide sweep of lawn from the house to Mill River and its fallen sycamore, when the coup in Santiago came over the radio, I don’t know why it was on. I was writing something about helicopters overhead while down here I was whisking off to work in full stride, with attache case full of papers and a pint of Haig & Haig. Neruda died, Victor Jara died–thousands died or were disappeared–the hush lasted how many years? I remember only the date September 11, 1973.
Now I can go on and tell you the rest. I sit too much too, walk too little, when I go up or down stairs I’m very careful. I feel brittle, but not all the time. Moments like these I go back into the fray and fight with pencils sharpened and erasers ready to wipe clean the past, but I can’t, I refuse, someday the light will go out in the midst of a meteor that you know very well is nothing but a black hole and everyone you loved is still alive, they’re making the best of their time here before they’re loaded on the wheel and samsara’d back to karma. If I could believe that I would have toughed it out in that southern heat to which I am accustomed from birth, but always kept going away and, once over the border south, breathed more easily, knowing life in Mexico was always more precious than in estados unidos, you could feel the temperature change as you crossed back over, driving north and missing what you would never know, you were so happy to be alive and away from one side of the Arkansas River or the other . . . everywhere then was American.
(17 February 2013)
copyright 2013 by Floyce Alexander