Conversion in Connecticutby Martha King
It was only eleven in the morning, and it was a school day, but there were groups of high school kids at the bay beach. With cans of beer, with tape decks and car radios turned up loud; with pimples on their mouths, and expensive cars, and the drifting intermittent scent of reefer. It was only May but the day was hot enough to foreshadow the summer, and it was all old hat to the kids—the dust, the sun, the little waves quietly crunching last summer’s beach glass, even the hallucinatory towers of New York City in the distance across the water. This was a town of power boats and private docks, houses with live-in maids and glassed-in patios. The kids were leaning or sitting on their cars, covertly watching us. Their faces proffered boredom, exclusion, and scorn.
The water was blue but what lapped on the shore was soiled and laced with bits of trash. Still, off shore it was very blue and glittering, and a few people already had their sailboats out. Despite the stale smell of the water and the thump-thump music from the parked cars, Bergman and I were feeling all the fine things cooped-in city dwellers feel on the first really warm day of the year when you’re magically out of town.
We had parked near a jetty built of red rocks; Berg said the stones were native to the mountains of New Hampshire. Mike walked out and picked one up for us.
I’ll clue you in: I don’t always get it. That’s being as fair as a rattlesnake. When I’m the reader, I don’t like having someone who doesn’t know me lying in wait. Some damn writer who pulled the rug out from under me two pages earlier and I didn’t get it. I offer my heart, damn it. I always start reading without suspicion; I expect to be told the whole story, and a subsequent discovery otherwise is just too much like real life. Reading isn’t real life. The writer’s figuring this out and telling you, and the writer is always the one who has the most time.
Mike, Bergman, Mike’s wife Roxanne, and I were in Mike’s car. It was a lot older than anything those kids were driving and had something wrong inside that made it sound like a washing machine. Mike talked about how terrific it was to live out here in this clean, well-cared-for suburb. On the way to the bay, he had driven us to see a grotesque imitation English country house. It had seven chimneys, a four-car garage, and stood on a hill with a golf-course perfect sweep of lawn running down to the road. I thought it looked like a Publishers’ Clearinghouse sweepstake prize.
“Isn’t that a house, man? Whaja think?” Mike had nudged Roxanne. “If we score with the new book, should we go for it?” He wasn’t kidding, and she looked thrilled.
Mike had lately joined A.A., the latest in a lifetime of cures. He was here after many years in Los Angeles. Roxanne, also an A.A. member, was very concerned about the kids’ beer. “Fairfield County has more alcoholics per square foot than any place else in the world,” she said, glaring back at the sullen looks she was getting.
Her daughter Tessie, who was not Mike’s daughter, was the same age as these kids. Tessie was going out with a boy who drives his own Lincoln Continental, Roxanne told us.
“What will come from giving a car like that to a drunken boy?” Her voice rose and her face was pink as she said this, but earlier her tone had been unnervingly calm as she informed Bergman and me that her daughter was twenty pounds overweight, had a liver infection, probably drug-related, and carried a bottle of mint-flavored vodka in her school bag. Tessie’s problems were Tessie’s to contend with, she had said.
“Does she have any idea what she wants to do after high school?” I had asked.
“Act. She wants to be an actress. I’m afraid she thinks she can make a life for herself by having people admire her.” Again, Roxanne’s tone was matter of fact. She and Mike would not be able to send Tessie to college. Money was far too tight. But that wasn’t a problem because, at this point, Tessie could hardly be expected to get into a college, her grades were so poor. So she, Tessie, would just have to “work it out.”
She and I had this part of the conversation in Roxanne’s kitchen, away from the men. I was drinking coffee, which she made for me. She had cured herself of a fifteen-cup-a-day habit, she said as she handed me the cup. Coffee was just one more item on the long list of things she had had to learn to do without. “I’m a classic addict,” she said. “Soon, I’ll have to do something about my eating. That’s really hard.”
Roxanne was not overweight. She was huge. She rolled as she moved under her tent-like dress. Her wrists were creased like a baby’s, her face was encircled in excess, her eyes forced into a squint by the size of her cheeks. Still I could make out even features, a classic nose, and delicately curved eyebrows. There was another woman inside. Her rapid-fire deadpan personal revelations made me a little queasy. I had met her for the first time at ten-thirty that morning.
I first met Mike, which is not his name, years before. He was married to another woman then, but she had left him and I never saw her or the two kids. I heard they lived somewhere in New Jersey. In those days, the world beyond lower Manhattan hardly seemed to exist for us.
Bergman and I still live together on the Lower East Side. Bergman is still writing, I still teach, and we still don’t have much money, but almost everything else about us is different these days. Not that we’ve turned peaceful exactly, but we’re purposeful. The neighborhood has changed too. People now pay thousands to live in those dumbell tenements, which actually became smaller once the bathtub wasn’t in the kitchen. N.Y.U. has taken over most of the larger buildings along Second Avenue, and the tastes of college students now mold the shops and eateries.
Back then, when Mike had a railroad flat on Sixth, green trees were rarities and bright colors were confined to an occasional neon sign. Going up to Mike’s place with him was an ordeal. It was five flights, six if you counted the flight of steps up the stoop, and Mike talked as he climbed. His wheezing would get louder and his talk crazier as he went. No, resting was not the way he did things. “Rest! You wanna kill me?” By the time we were on the risers between the fourth and fifth floors, I’d be shaking with fear and he’d be screaming and wheezing. Then he’d undo the locks on his apartment door and disappear into the bathroom.
“I sent a lotta money up my arm in those days.” He smiled peacefully at Berg and me. “Almost everything I made from my first book. You know, heroin has a wonderfully organizing effect on your life. Ya never without something to do. You’re as single-minded as a monk.” He was wistfully lyric. “Lovely,” he said, “Deep blue calm.” Heroin was easy on the body, he maintained. “Horse won’t give you ulcers, heart strain, vitamin deficiencies,” he said. “I owe what’s left of my fuckin’ liver to being a junkie, praise Jesus. You think I’a survived this long if I’d been boozing the whole time?” He wheezed a little as he laughed in his Fairfield County living room.
These days, Mike’s publisher has stopped putting new photographs on the backs of his books. They use the old one. His books are all variations on the same theme, which is not an artistic fault the way I think about it, but he’s not the darling of the people who write criticism for the New York Review of Books any more. There is now a sense of routine—another novel, the same photograph, quotations on the cover from the old rave reviews. The cover always says “Author of…” under or over his name.
Out in the rest of the world, beyond America, he’s still a culture hero. Mike showed us a shelf crammed full of his foreign editions, all his books, not just his first one—and not just Italian, French, or German editions. He was gleeful: Polish, Japanese, Indian, Croatian! Some were modest paperbacks, but many had fancy jackets with ghoulish full-color cover art. I was shocked at the comic-book violence. But I’ve already warned you about my naive views.
“Yeah, well mosta the money from these things goes to the publisher,” Mike said. “No matter what I do, I don’t seem to get on top of those contracts. There’s always a new day, though. Praise Jesus.”
A fall like Mike’s is a well-worn cliche in American intellectual life. A lot of critical ink is spilled on why, usually some long disquisition on the psychic assault of success, losing touch with one’s roots, blah, blah, blah. For Mike, at any rate, the critics could be advised instead to analyze the aesthetic and practical problems of managing ecstasy, but most critics prefer ironic detachment anyway. They see disengagement as minimalism—and minimalism as the glory of our day. Sometimes I wonder if the motive isn’t practical, if it isn’t, at bottom, commercial. Writers who avoid passionate engagement never risk disappointing an audience hot for a bigger thrill the next go-round. The naive narrator strategy could be called good risk management. Flat affect easily makes the sentimental and nostalgic appear sophisticated and ironic. Well, there was never anything sentimental about Mike’s writing.
Mike and Roxanne told us they married ten years ago in a Las Vegas wedding chapel, a week after they met. He’d just picked up a $50,000 movie option for one of his books, and he was partying nonstop in anticipation of the sweet life to come. But the studio never made the movie.
“That’s when I found out they buy things just to lock ’em up. Just in case somebody else might be crazy enough to want ’em. They think I’m nuts! I been living on money I get for selling stuff that’s lying in vaults just so nobody else can get at it.”
He wasn’t laughing as he said this. His voice resonated with passion, but he was smiling benignly, his eyes as deep blue as a prairie sky. “It’s all part of God’s plan,” he said.
Bergman and I had lost touch with Mike months before he left the Lower East Side for Hollywood. As it looks now, he was at the height of his fame then, in those first years after his first book had been published. As the money rolled in and the phone rang and rang, he was spending his time with April, a high-school girl he’d picked up somewhere. She was too awed and too slow and too stoned to have any idea what was happening to her as Mike relentlessly switched from egging her on to humiliating her. One night Berg and I had a screaming fight with Mike and severed our ties.
Was this one of those art world fights? Was Mike shucking us off so he could move on to the big time? Were Berg and I so righteous about April because we were too jealous to keep Mike in our lives? He took her with him to such uptown literary parties as he was willing to attend—not us. Were we ticked off? The truth isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. I really don’t really know the truth. I do remember how glad I was it was over and I wouldn’t have to see April scratching her track scabs and Mike eying her like a snake does a bird.
“This is one of Mike’s good days,” Roxanne told me in the kitchen. My offer to help her with lunch was declined. There were procedures that had to be followed precisely because of Mike’s multiple allergies.
“He’s been eating and writing, praise Jesus. There are days when he can’t tolerate food and he writes anyway,” she said. “The drain on his energy is so devastating, he goes into terrible rages. Mike is even worse on the days when he doesn’t eat and doesn’t write. Then he just lies wherever he is. And he’s cold.”
“Do you have a good doctor here?” I asked.
“Doctors don’t know why he isn’t dead,” she said. “Take fillings. Do they listen?”
“Fillings?” I said.
“It’s just a question of time before the mercury leaks out. You don’t know about that!”
Tessie and a girlfriend wandered in through the kitchen door. They were acknowledged with a kind of nod by Roxanne. The telephone rang. Roxanne had an enormously long corkscrew extension cord which followed her as she walked around the kitchen, gathering lunch plates, glasses, silverware. Talking, she carried them through to the big dinner table at the back of the living room. Bergman and Mike looked up. Still holding the receiver wedged into her fleshy chin, she deftly set the table, mouthing the name “Barbara” to Mike. It was an A.A. call.
Back in the kitchen, she listened while she chopped. She chopped peppers, cabbage, zucchini, yellow squash, green beans, bean sprouts, peanuts, celery, endive, walnuts, and eye-watering amounts of fresh ginger. Everything was rinsed in filtered water and drained in a stainless steel colander. She chopped methodically until she had filled an enormous china basin with dense, finely shredded multicolored stuff.
On the other end of the phone a woman was crying. After a bit Roxanne told her that some things are just too strong, too hard for any one person and that no one can get through things like that alone. It was wrong of her to think she was supposed to.
I wondered if the woman on the phone would mind if she knew that Roxanne considered her misery so normal that she could listen without missing a beat in her lunch chores? Dancers and athletes grow casual to the point of indifference about being naked in company, I thought.
“We’ll just keep talking no matter how long it takes,” Roxanne told her gently.
I went into the bathroom. If was full of back issues of Prevention and comic books about the life of Christ. Mike had always been a Christian, of his own particular sort. I thought he took malicious, very unchristian comfort from his faith that god was going to sizzle all the slobs and assholes who crowd the world. He used to say he was so pleased at the prospect of apocalypse that he didn’t give a tinker’s damn that he would be one of the fried. Mike knows the bible as only a regular bible reader can, and sometimes quotes it prodigiously.
In this house, he and Roxanne praised Jesus as routinely as other people say hi or thanks. At lunch, he began with a grace. “Holy father, divine mother, universal friend” he said. He asked a special blessing on “this gathering of friends.” Tessie and her girlfriend were not among us. They had disappeared into another room,taking their aura of discontent and defensiveness with them.
Mike stopped his grace just short of giving Bergman a personal blessing. All of us could see from Berg’s neck that—as Mike and Roxanne might have put it—he just wasn’t in the right place for it. Of course that was okay. Because everything was okay, no problem, praise Jesus.
Okay. Bergman laughed. It was good to see Mike again. It was good to melt down the estranged stiffness that had clogged up the place where an old, old friendship had once been. The atmosphere of mutual forgiveness was so comforting that Roxanne’s cold vegetables went down like souffle. While we ate, Mike spoke about how anger and bitterness have to be avoided. “They create negative energy,” he said with an air of cheerful right reason.
Bromides like this suck up my oxygen, and I began to argue on behalf of the devil: “Mike, don’t you believe there’s a real world out there, a world beyond personal self?” I asked. “It’s not just a question of anger being useful personally. Which it certainly is. But, damn it, unless you refuse to look at the world or you murder your feelings about it, anger is just plain unavoidable. The world’s real and it’s a fucked up mess!”
“Oh, there’s something beyond self,” Mike agreed. He began talking about the source of energy he has learned to lean on. How it, and it alone, had helped him transmute his rage into forgiveness.
“You don’t have to call this process prayer if you don’t want to. But believe me, you can tap into it.” His eyes were like blue sparklers on the Fourth of July. Devilishly merry.
Mike looked clear and energetic—ravaged face and caved-in chest notwithstanding. Compared to the old days, he hardly wheezed. In fact, I thought, he wasn’t nearly as thin as he had been when he lived on dope, cigarettes, and junk food. If vegetables, and twelve steps, and Jesus Christ can keep him this way, well, what, except for the grating praise-Jesus stuff, is so objectionable? He probably would be dead in a reasonable world.
Money not health seemed to be Mike and Roxanne’s most pressing problem. I couldn’t stop myself from ticking up their expenses and wondering what their income was. The house they had rented was luxury property, all cedar and polished brick, with window walls cantilevered over a woodland stream. The muted furniture had the kind of solidity that only money buys. None of it was theirs. Their belongings—except for Mike’s books—were in cartons stacked up in the garage. Mike said they hadn’t unpacked because they were going to move again, “When I have time to buy a house.” Roxanne said they hadn’t unpacked because their things were mostly shitty anyhow. Their talk was packed with allusions to a coming change. Money was out there somewhere, gathering itself, due to arrive.
Tessie and her friend came out of her bedroom and said they had to go. After the front door closed Mike said, “She going back to school?” This was the first interest in her he’d displayed. Roxanne didn’t reply. It seemed unlikely. I could see the two of them out on the grass near the sidewalk going through their shoulder bags. They were comparing something. Both girls wore deeply scuffed espadrilles tied up their bare legs and long tent-like tee shirts, under which their haunches moved in tick-tock, fuck-you rhythm as they moved off down the street together.
“I wouldn’t be alive now if I hadn’t been so sick,” Mike was telling Berg when I plopped into the oversized sofa next to him. It was a familiar story. Mike had always been sick. He used to brag about the number of times a priest had been sent for, “to get me when I couldn’t defend myself.” His first serious illness had earned him his very first shot of morphine. “They say it doesn’t make ya high when ya get it for pain, but, man, I had that first rush and I knew this is for me!”
“I was dying last winter,” he said. “There’s nothing like a crisis to teach you time. You don’t own it, you can’t keep it, it carries you like a cork on a wave. Nothing mystical about it, Berg. You could say that it’s time that connects you to everything. That being so, it’s my convenience to call it grace. I feel that way.”
Bergman had a look on his face that I knew meant he was dying for a cigarette. We had promised Roxanne not to smoke even outside in the yard. A single whiff could trigger Mike into allergic shock, she’d warned. Roxanne leaned against the wall near the kitchen entrance, resting her shoulders and smiling.
“Negative ions,” she said. “They’re killers. Another few months of California, and we might have lost him!”
Then two of them began telling “my bad life” stories—laughing about car wrecks, apartment fires, midnight move-outs to duck bill collectors and repo men. The high point was a tale in which they were both so drunk they forgot Christmas day and woke to watch eight-year-old Tessie in tears searching the house for gifts. “We felt so fuckin bad, we got drunk again,” Mike said.
People in Mike’s books torture cats, murder prostitutes, thrash their kids with belt buckles, then weep and dream of the power their cruelty never gives them. People in Mike’s books are loved by their author. By Mike. It’s his love that infuses the rank unsparing language. Have I made it clear that Mike is an artist?
Roxanne went back into the kitchen and I followed.
“I’ve got to get his supplement together,” she said, peeling apples swiftly and expertly. “The regime works best if he gets it every three hours.”
“But you haven’t sat down.”
“It’s the only thing keeps him alive. This food and the healer up in Stockbridge. Wonderful woman. Praise Jesus.” She began feeding apple pieces into her electric juice extractor. The back of the counter and the underside of the overhanging cabinet were crusty with spattered food pulp.The phone rang.Soon she was detailing her earlier phone call.
“I shop every day,” she told me as she replaced the receiver. “It’s the only way to be sure I get him food that’s truly fresh.” The only organic supplier she trusted was thirty miles away. She was going again, later this afternoon,
It had taken me till now to see how wired she was. She’d eaten no lunch; she hadn’t stopped kitchen work for two hours. The phone rang again. This time it seemed to be something about the bank. She said, “No problem. I’ll deal with it later.” “I’ll deal with it later,” she repeated firmly. “It’s in the hands of a higher power,” she said to me.
I got Berg and me out of there by quarter past two; his energy runs out, I told Berg on the quiet; Roxanne will absolutely bug out if she thinks he overdoing.
We’ve kept the red rock Mike took from the bay; it’s on the kitchen table. Roxanne sent us a card with flowers and leaves twining around the word “Peace.” Inside, she told us what a blessing our visit had been and how we must come again soon and that Mike loved us both very much.
I meant to phone her but couldn’t make myself.
Two months later another card arrived. This one was embossed “Bless Our House” and carried a return address in the poor northwestern corner of Connecticut. This one said it was wonderful to get Mike away from that high-pressured Fairfield County town. Here, life was simpler. The neighbors were “real people.” Mike was deep into a new book. Praise Jesus.
A few weeks later, Bergman rang the phone number Roxanne had enclosed, but it had been disconnected.
Mike’s new book had come and gone; I had glimpsed the paperback on a stand at LaGuardia when I was catching a plane for a conference. I was running for the gate and hadn’t had time to stop. The neighborhood bookstores never had a copy. We never saw a review. Like a wink or a shadow, it was gone. To the Croats? to the publishers of the Tamil translation? To the 99-cent bins in suburban discount stores?
So what’s happened here? A man who has lived disastrously, a gifted man—who is as busy as I am at making a story out of himself and changing every one around him to fit the needs of his words—after binges, bloody hemorrhages, midnight arrests, after jars too numerous to list, turns to Alcoholics Anonymous and Jesus. Is there a point in this?
After our visit, Berg and I talked about our own anxieties, and we again remade some of our own history. Why we live as we do. The wreck of our socialist dreams and our mutal pledge to retain humor, without blindness.
I also learned from Berg that Mike hadn’t brought his troubled family to live in one of the city’s most expensive suburbs on pure faith alone. He had persuaded his eighty-five-year-old mother to sign her insurance policy over to him. That was what funded their half year stay in that cantilevered house.
“I wish you’d told me,” the naive narrator complained.
“So you could look shocked, the way you do now? So you could say, oh no, you must be wrong?”
I didn’t answer.
“Don’t you know Mike yet?”
“But the food allergies! All that stuff Roxanne had to do everyday.”
Berg just looked at me.
“Things that are too much for you are too much for you, and that’s the very thing folks like us refuse to believe,” Mike said that day. “We’re always rejecting what we know. You can’t do it alone. Accepting that’s not so bad. It’s just bein’ like everyone else on earth.”
“How can you say that? All artists work alone. That’s so very not like everyone else,” said naive narrator.
Benevolent Buddha was twinkly clear. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he lied, smiling that loving smile of his.
Six months later we got a postcard from Los Angeles. It said, “My heart is broken.” It said, “I’m in a furnished room and Tessie is pregnant. We are happy, praise Jesus, except for bastard welfare paperwork. Neither of us can ever forgive that bitch Roxanne. Warning, if you see her: protect yourself. She is evil. Blessings.” There was no signature, no return address.
The card came three years ago, but it’s finally clear the story isn’t written yet. Think of the changes in a Mozart symphony. Think of the displacements in Beckett. The conversions of van Gogh. These are not very nice people, these great lovers. To move on, they will always mean never what they say.