Because We Know the German Word for Panicking at the Closing of the Gates
Here’s a sentence I’ve never thought,
though I should have: We leave only what we make.
Our narratives aren’t ours, no matter how much we claim them,
although that’s a decent name for what we’re about
with these status updates and FYIs and even the small talk
at the gym or the free concert or while walking the dog:
Here’s what I’ve been up to, here’s where I’ve been
since last we talked. Here are my breadcrumbs
for you to work with. But what we can’t engender
is the desire—for someone else to need
to tell that story, to make the breadcrumbs
into some fried mozzarella that everyone agrees
is worth the wait. I’ve been going to these funerals
where there’s a who-wants-to-say-something-now MO,
which is lovely in the abstract,
a Quaker meeting, a circle of pre-schoolers
with a “talking stick.” Practically, though,
it’s the burden
of who wants
to do some extemporaneous public speaking,
for the living, about the dead.
Which brings me to Alain Locke.
He did something when his mom died,
where he sort of propped her up
on the couch
instead of having her lay in the coffin.
So those who paid their respects or just showed up
they had to make a decision. Decision made,
there they were,
sitting next to a dead woman
dressed up in her finest clothes—
and now their posture’s that
of chatting with someone
and she fell asleep? Like what they’d say next might be,
“Let’s get you home.” I know
what I’d do, I really do: I’d stand in the foyer
for a few minutes, showing my Funeral Face
to people, and then, I wouldn’t say goodbye
though maybe I’d touch at least one woman
on the arm, if she was near enough, and then I’d go.
I like to do that before I leave a place, touch a woman
on the arm. Then I would breathe in and out
in the open air. I would consciously consider my breathing.
I may even say some words out loud: “I am glad
I’m not dead. And I’m glad I’m not the guy
whose mom just died and who no one wants
to talk to right now, because of the whole
propping business.” There’s another thing I know
about Alain Locke, and it’s about sex.
Or not. Really it’s about how we only leave
what we make. And the thing
this one young fellow made and left, the only thing
that gets his name mentioned in books and articles
a hundred years down, is this note
he wrote to Alain Locke—about how fooling around
with Alain had been truly repulsive and how even the thought
of being intimate with him again was revolting
and how he’d gotten so bone-hollowing sick
after the first time. Even if there are piles of anything,
someone else will make an accounting, or, worse, I guess,
they won’t. So I hope
my children have decent material for the eulogy
but not the memoir. That they’ll have decided
of a few words, written out, and not just an open-call
for anyone to mutter, “I guess he did OK. He was pretty
nice sometimes.” My wife might forget the crueler parts
or misremember me as charming and funny,
in the way of those who’ve only known me
a week or so. What does it mean
to not want to share elbow-room
in a kitchen? To not want to sit near
on the couch, even when alive? Maybe I’ve unhooked
the sentence. Maybe it’s not We leave only what we make
but We’re leaving as we make. Because there’s some leaving
every time, some little parts of self
that flake into the flake-bowl,
which is just another name
for a canvas or a poem or a self
or a note intended to say goodbye
or I couldn’t be what you need
or any other thing
and missing the mark.
What might it feel like, I wonder,
to want to be near the people who want
to be near me? I think there’d be a hum,
I truly do, if finally I sat near you on a couch,
just once, and neither of us had died.
Or maybe the hum is in the note I want to write:
what I’ve been up to lately, since last we talked.
That’s a sound that never happens, you know?
It’s weird how a life can be arranged
so that humming sound never really happens.