Sunday, September 23, 2012


Well folks, this is it: the last full day of the Bear Cave. The belongings are stuffed into bags and boxes, ready to be stashed in a secure location. It’s mildly startling to see how little really does remain from the halcyon days of the height of empire. Six small boxes of books, three large garbage bags of clothes, a box of photographs (mostly of my daughter), a duffel bag’s worth of shoes and assorted nonsense (water bottle, coffee cup, blank CDs, a Red Sox Magic 8-Ball, the chili pepper lights that died but which I won’t leave behind because they were a present from my daughter the first Christmas after her mother and I split up), a shoebox of knickknacks, a sorely lacking tool tote, two cigar boxes I’m not going to look in until I have a home again, half a dozen jackets (one, the down jacket I would be wearing this winter, with a broken zipper), a printer, an iMac, a desk, a mattress, a fifty-foot extension cord, two power strips, a tote containing a remarkably strange assortment of bathroom items, two blankets, two pillows, and the backpack I carry pretty much everywhere. I can practically throw the entire mess right on my back.

I’ve spent so many nights the last thirteen months, as I attempted sleep, reflecting on what I came to call the “things that were lost in the fire.” Some of what stayed behind I never think much about: the two TVs and affiliated DVD players, the three fairly nice suits, an array of kitchen items that might reasonably suggest that I actually can cook, couches and chairs, desks and tables, bookcases. The scattered last days I found myself in that building, well into a genuinely cold winter, it wasn’t the fact that there was no heat, no lights, no running water that compelled me to skirt past all those items without even for an instant caring whether I ever saw them again. Other things I did intend to salvage but ultimately failed. Every pair of shorts I owned. A handful of impressive gargoyle statues. My daughter’s guitar. Dozens of quality pens. Hundreds of books of all sorts. The stamp collection my grandfather gave me when I was eight. Every time I walked into that house during the winter of 2010-11, it was like being under water. I grabbed what I could carry before my breath gave out, and then I made a desperate lunge for the surface. Weeks after the last dive, the bank took the house, and though there was never any real fire, what was left was consumed nonetheless in the flames of two years very badly spent.

Now just what’s on my desk remains to be packed. Five pens. Two not quite dead lighters. A cup of water. And dozens of index cards. I’m a notorious note taker. Anyone who’s ever seen me pull one of my ubiquitous black notebooks from my pocket to scribble a line or two in the midst of a conversation can attest to that. The card on the top of the pile is a timeline of my school days from kindergarten to twelfth grade, listing the years and my age in each grade. On the back of that card is a list of my homeroom teachers, as best I can remember them. I was trying to recall a particular teacher, the one who compelled me to master my mother tongue. Another card notes the date of death of the grandfather I never knew, the one who blew his own brains out three and a half years before I was born. There are quotes from people I admire, song lyrics, brief descriptions of ideas for essays and stories. I wrote the opening paragraph of an essay eviscerating the dimwitted Jennifer Weiner for her comments about Esquire magazine publishing men’s fiction. I jotted a quick description of a once beautiful woman I used to admire: “. . . now she has the sunken cheeks and bulging eyes and gaping mouth full of over-large teeth of a Tim Burton character.”

It’s true, she does look like a Tim Burton character. She was much more attractive, at least physically, back in November 2010 when I took another sort of inventory: I wandered around what was then my house and gathered up everything she’d left there, threw it all in a bag, left it in my hallway and told her to please pick it up by the next day or it was going in the trash. She picked it up, and if she ever bothered to look inside, here’s what she found:

one surf clam shell
(left to be found)
one snail shell
(just left)
one piece mica
one pair grey wool socks
one chemistry textbook
(won in a card game)
one pair fake pearl earrings
(lost in a card game)
one can Alpo Prime Cuts dog food
(for the three-legged dog)
one pouch loose-leaf green tea
(for the girl)
one paper plate
(suggestive birthday art)
three short stories written by her in college
(her only copies)
one precocious child’s self-published school newsletter, No Recess Anonymous
(wrapped in an issue of the New Yorker)
one mix CD
(18 songs)
one St. Christopher medal
(found on the street)

And now she looks like a Tim Burton character. Who would have guessed.

The one thing I inadvertently kept from those days was a dried aster she left in my mailbox three years ago, back when she was failing miserably at being entirely faithful to her then boyfriend, the beloved Farmer. I had propped it in the funky piece of sculpture that used to hang on the doorframe in my former kitchen, functional art from which my keys dangled. When I deserted that house, the goofy sculpture came with me, hanging from two nails tapped into the doorframe in the Bear Cave. The aster sat on my desk that entire time. I was a little amazed it didn’t crumble and fall apart somewhere along the way. Pale and innocuous, I rarely noticed it was there. But packing and sorting, especially this brand of packing and sorting, leaves me feeling bitterly sentimental, and bitter sentiments usually lead to unequivocal gestures. The aster, the last dry reminder of days dark with longing and misguided purpose, floated briefly, then swirled swiftly in that tempest in a toilet bowl, descended into the muddy maelstrom, and disappeared. And good fucking riddance.

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