On this late Sunday night, halfway through July, I listen to the wood thrush outside our kitchen window. His song’s upward curl fills the back garden two stories below, butts against the humid air, and makes all of Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill his sound. Behind me, in our bedroom, the man I’ve loved for 15 years sleeps with the AC droning on high, preparing for a dreamed apocalypse with moans and grunts that rise from the sheets like sonic spume. We’ve been watching Fortitude, a British-backed/Icelandic series involving a town on the edge of that glacier that’s melting to a sped up tempo. A young girl and boy find a wooly mammoth’s carcass, whose tusks shoot up from the almost slush. They touch the point of each spear, and everything goes aslant: all their neighbors, overtaken by a virus older than prehistory, ruin those they love the best, the lovers, the husbands, the wives, the children running red amid the ice-melt, as if this ancient, taken thing could only scourge the ones who thieved what ice should never have given back. I’m leaning into a beyond kilter world, misordered by a rhythm I don’t yet know how to see, thinking of that man who wheeled his truck down the promenade in Nice and pulped 84 bodies for nothing I can recognize, while fireworks still flurried in the sky that went on, above. I’m thinking of American guns that hypnotize their owners, of bullet sprays flashing in an Orlando club, through the policed streets, for nothing I’m willing to consent to, of brown bodies that can’t stand up from what put them down. I’m on the verge of 60, if 60 has a verge, an age I never thought to live to, stalked, like so many, by a virus whose push through the 1980s made every stretch of land a gravestone for the lives of Luiz, Douglas, Stuart, Patrick, Walter, Chris, men I seem to see at moments before our bedroom windows, as if my longing could hold them up. I close in on the palsy that can ride over the heart, if you let it, if you don’t know how saying no to it must be possible, that pumping stopped, stilled, just before making contact with the outside you live in. In a worry at what it means to deny the palsied heart, stoppered by too much feeling and not enough feeling and a terror of feeling’s keenness blunted over time, I meet the image of George Whitman.
I’d come to Paris in 1983 with a stash of bills saved from jobs I hated, selling overpriced art supplies in Boston, overpriced clothes in Greenwich Village, trading on the shaping wonders of Bach and Satie with students who yearned to get each note into every finger, so that music might beat in a haven there, an exchange I hated less because what we traded cost so much more than my fees for teaching it. George, in my first view of him, stood astride the front door of Shakespeare and Company as if he were a gate, locking out any person likely to stir a grumble, growled at someone who, George knew, couldn’t care enough for the practice of bringing the mind to settle in words on the printed page. I saw his brown corduroy jacket three times weekly for four years. Elbow-patched, salt/shiny, it was as under-cleaned as the store behind him, a ziggurat of books lacking a temple at the top, unless George’s apartment just under the sky served that purpose. He’d owned the place for more than 30 years. He’d cleared 70, hired me to work at inventory, to run the cash-desk, to hand-pick with his approval who would read poetry or prose on Monday nights. His gaze on the street hung over its twelfth century origins, the logs trundled in from Normandy and unbound by the brownish river, a little later, the butcher-meats spoiled beyond selling, tossed to men and women somehow their equal, what would never be bought tugged by hands that could do anything but pay. I thought, often, that this history of spoilage, this diminishment of trees and flesh, hexed the place that George called his own. Yet Sylvia appeared and reminded me that it’s the business of stories to change.
All of us in the bookshop had the tale of Sylvia and her genesis, or we mistook that sequence for the girl who must have sprung from it. Felicity, her mother, began in the Highlands, in a craggy castle whose windows rattled their melodies in wind that never stopped. And stopping became a theme: her father, the marquess, berated Felicity for that camera around her neck, for how she’d vanish among the grasses while photographing the crofters with their sheep, in their dim rooms, by the lake that ate the sun when it was low and fat and sinking. Refusing to be stopped, to plant herself at the appointed time, in the right room, before the right man whom her father was hustling her to marry, she arrived in Paris and discovered something else. She saw a George in need of tidying. She saw the nearly 50 years between them and that he wouldn’t force her to stay his junior. She could clean the floors of books and brutalize the bedbugs in the upstairs reading room with aerosol and craft a kitchen for George in his apartment, where a hotplate stood, by a window so smeared with time that nothing glinted through it. But Felicity confused the man who quivered at the sight of her with the George who never happily quivered for very long. There was always another door to yank from its hinges, so that his top floor would be one widening place, a series of thresholds giving out to signed first editions available to every hungry hand at every weekly party. After marrying George, after birthing Sylvia, Felicity left her to the dirt. Yes, 6 years later, she pulled her daughter from the chaos that trumped her plans to order it. Yes, at 22 and London-schooled, Sylvia returned to a father, now 90, who conceded that she should remake what Felicity had failed to. But during my time among the books, Sylvia carried bits of the world in her hair, plane tree twigs, mud scooped from the Seine on the Quai’s other side, a smile at her mouth like a light, rimmed by the chocolate there. At a moment in this family drama, George noticed my dread of what it covered over. He liked my horror, he said, but get below it. Get under it. That’s where the unsticking starts.
The quest to unstick joined me at one of our storemates’ parties in the Marais, where the marsh was gone too long, though its ghost wobbled air into waves. Mathius, Adik, Dominique, Simon, and I: we left 4 continents behind us for the honor of moving through the gateway into George’s domain, proceeding as if the past could be bundled, abandoned, as if the past didn’t have legs. We were going to henna each other’s hair in a townhouse owned by a count on vacation with the wife and 2 daughters he couldn’t talk himself into wanting. The count belonged to Simon’s dalliances, as he called them, coupled with for the moments it took to swap a sufficient pile of francs to cover the rent that lay beyond Simon’s ability to manage it. With eggs and lemon and henna on our heads, a martini in every right hand, I noticed Sonya. She was closer to the ground than she liked, had Louise Brooks bangs and pink shoes with silver buckles on her feet. Simon admired Sonya for what she trailed with her. She had an army of tiny metal men in her bag, dressed in Austrian uniforms from the 1840s. We stood in one of the count’s corridors that curved like an arm, the bubble glass windows forming a pattern of raindrops paused on each rectangular ledge. As she told me that Belgrade was the home she’d run from, that her country would blow higher than any cloud in the 1990s because of the lives that balked at neighboring one another, she began her display. Sonya arranged her men in war-ready stances, cannons poised, guns lifted, death encircling all the buttoned torsos. She played at the future desolation that was her terror, with old toys whose prophecy would be proved. Later, the lights clicked off, we frisked at hide and seek throughout the count’s rooms, and Sonya discovered a closet stuffed with sex dolls, inflated boys led by trunk-long cocks, each eye painted a faded blue, staring, as if alarmed by prickly lashes. We were in what Simon clung to as our mid-ish twenties, the dark around us, afraid of being found. Flying back a week later to that America whose noise I didn’t know how to hear, the listening was what I’d try for.
The last bookstore reading that George and I agreed on was Lawrence Durrell’s night, set for a Sunday due to the rigor of his travel plans and because he was 75, belly-stooped, yet game for some of George’s stew. That concoction pooled together the week’s leavings, browned turnips, carrots gone elastic and so shaved, a few wrinkled peas, the leather-colored liquid they were doomed to live in frothing over the hotplate in a battle to get out. Durrell read to a crowd spreading across the first 2 floors, clustering on the stairs. He hit each word hard, new ones about Gnostic plots and conspiracies so delectable that you could taste them, their pieces, as they fit, outlining solutions delayed, always further on. It was important, he told me upstairs, after surviving the stew and when the dark stretched closer to morning, that his listeners not think of him as a mausoleum, the tomb out of which Justine and The Alexandria Quartet walked, that woman who wildfired his name through the forest of the world but who wouldn’t die, who fed him when the books that followed her undersold and who, akin to the Kabbalah, adhered to the tradition to be read again, to be read under, like the surface she toiled at burnishing. We guided him to his cab, George and I, braced by our arms for the steep tread down. And by the fountain outside the shop’s front windows, George raised a finger at swallows wedging wings into air, imprinting their shapes in it before whirring on, as if another world abided inside this one, was enfolded inside this one, whose briefness could be sighted if you squeezed up your eyes. I left him that evening for the country whose need to be read under I’d work at loving, Justine somehow in the seat beside me, like a thought.
Years after George’s slide at 98 into that near but other world, I’m on my way to our bedroom. My long-loved man is about to shout at the vision of primordial ice, at its slosh into an ocean that can’t decline the gift. Waking him after a few minutes, I’ll say that we must make ourselves the caretakers of nightmares, all of us who suffer and sometimes stand up from them. We should watch over the monsters assembled by our fear, assume the fortitude to guard against their power to savage this green ground whose harborage lies beyond dreaming. I know that the labor of watching over our internal and external ghouls won’t stave off trucks careening down promenades to flatten the human life there, won’t urge spent bullets to go back, to retreat into the gun that was their host, won’t collect the slop of glacial waters and restore them to their once frozen source. Any upright vigil can be attended by the mess that takes time to read. But, like those messes that flourished in George’s wake, we’ll have to share them. I’ll thump out the shaking of my heart when the wood thrush flexes his voice up through the trees. I’ll see sunlight as a translucent bowl overturned on the garden, primed for the offspring of the day.
Bruce Bromley teaches writing at New York University, where he won the Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence. Able Muse Review nominated his fiction for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. His poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in Out Magazine; Gargoyle Magazine; the Journal of Speculative Philosophy; 3:AM Magazine;Environmental Philosophy; Cleaver Magazine; Fogged Clarity; and in The Nervous Breakdown, among other journals. Dalkey Archive Press published his book Making Figures: Reimagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us in 2014.