My Girls: A Memoir

August Kleinzahler

There’s a window, 36 hours or so, not even, after travelling by air between places, places where you’ve lived for a long time. When you’ve landed and into the next day, perhaps the evening – then you begin to lose it. It goes very quickly, decaying like a tone in the air. But for a while, inside that window, you’re hyper-awake. I’m talking about light, scale, smell, all of it familiar, but for that short while extending beyond the common registers of the familiar until the buildings, river light, the smell of benzene and tidal flats, what have you, become almost stereoscopic, carrying a taste of the unreal – as if the world had been passed through a solution, cleansed.

I take much pleasure in these hours, perhaps too much. I anticipate them. I savour them afterwards and even try to put them to use. I plan my time and movements for when I’ll be inside this window. The degree and nature of intensity is not always the same. Even the duration will vary. Like a drug, it can be overpowering, even unpleasant. The heat of combustion depends on atmospheric conditions, internal and external.

Rain is good. It was raining when I took the ferry to Jersey that Sunday afternoon. It’s not a long ride, only twelve minutes or so. Heading into New York City in daylight, I enjoy the dense, vertical chiaroscuro in front of me, looming larger and larger; and as the ferry closes on it, the sense of sliding into its great maw, of the city pushing in on me. But I like best leaving the city by ferry at night, heading toward the cliffs of Weehawken and the desultory sprays of light. The great lit towers of midtown rearing up behind as the ferry moves away never fail to move me.

Places are conditions of mind. They’re places, to be sure, but after that initial phase of entry, or re-entry, when you’re awake to change and the attendant little spasms of memory and the senses, you’re soon anaesthetised. You wake up in the place as if you’d never left. It’s like visiting your family and almost immediately turning back into the child you were.

The Passaic River drops with considerable force and spectacle some seventy feet at the Great Falls of Paterson. There’s a nice picture of it on the cover of William Carlos Williams’s book-length poem Paterson. The river makes its way through traprock and sandstone to the level plain of the city, continues north to Hawthorne, then doubles back on itself and begins its southerly flow to Newark Bay, about twenty-five miles through manufacturing and industrial towns and suburbs, places like Garfield, Lyndhurst, Kearny and Harrison, where it hooks east, then south again under the Pulaski Skyway and into Newark Bay.

These are working towns, low-lying, all dirty brick and clapboard, drab little shopping strips and VFWs and Little League fields: nothing remarkable about them except the cancer rates. You see them as you fly in and out of Newark Airport. And the river flowing through them, picking up effluents from service stations, slaughterhouses, tanneries, chemical plants. People used to drink from the Passaic. In 1881 the Newark Aqueduct Board noted: ‘Instead of sweet-tasting limpid water, we have a bluish red liquid, disgusting to the taste and smell.’ And always to the east, the towers of Manhattan across the meadows, partially hidden by the hump of the Palisades, an eroded cross-section of a diabase sill hundreds of feet thick and dipping gradually north-westwards.

The New Jersey character – at least this part of Jersey – is straightforward, plain-spoken to the point of bluntness, though not at all unfriendly. The humour is deadpan, ironical, playfully deprecating. It’s a beer-and-a-bump kind of place. Affectation is quickly and viscerally registered. There’s a swagger, a bluff air of menace that many of the males wear. Sinatra is a caricature of it. Once, after leaving a restaurant in North Beach, here in San Francisco, I gave a panhandler a dollar, a middle-aged black guy with some amusing riff or other.

‘Thanks, Jersey,’ he said, to the great amusement of my companions.

‘How did you know I was from Jersey?’ I asked.

‘Are you kidding?’ he said.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flown in and out of Newark Airport over the past thirty years. Over the Goethal’s Bridge and the Kill Van Kull, where Newark Bay feeds into the Narrows of New York Harbor, the ‘windowed cliffs’ of lower Manhattan brilliantly alight when you bank west on the approach to Newark at night. During the day you can see the cloverleafs, storage tanks and freight yards, the shopping centres and clusters of homes. Heading over the western edge of Jersey, you pass over the Great Swamp and the headwaters of the Passaic. We are now at our cruising altitude of 33,000 feet. You are free to unfasten your seat belts and move around as you wish.

I remember one night I was flying into Newark from the West Coast. It’s always night when I land at Newark. I still had that sickness in me from when she left. It seemed to go on for years. The first wave of it nearly did me in.

I don’t know how long it had been. I do know we’d already stopped getting together when I came to New York. What a fucking disaster that was. I’d be haemorrhaging up and down Second Avenue as I walked from Astor Place to 12th Street. There I’d be at her door with a bottle of vinho verde and blood pouring down my trouser leg. There she’d be, mop in one hand and a pail of disinfectant in the other, like an apprehensive young wife in a 1950s Spic ‘n’ Span commercial.

That particular evening, the plane made this steep bank towards Jersey, with lower Manhattan, the Trade Towers and the rest all lit up, and falling away at about a 60° angle; and this horrible sensation passed through me, just horrible – not nausea or any other sort of pain or discomfort with which I was familiar, not even the love agony I’d felt after she went. It was worse than that. I couldn’t breathe. I would have groaned or cried out, but nothing was coming out of me. Nothing. There was nothing left in there to come out; that was the problem. When the plane began its steep turn, whatever was holding me together had disappeared out my mouth, like they say your soul does – a little invisible bird fluttering off – when you die.

I had the cab let me off at the foot of the block. I wanted to slow things down a bit, take in the neighbourhood. It had been a few years. There were some new, outsize homes built over two lots and extending out to the sidewalk: Graeco-Roman fortresses, my father called them. But it was the same sleepy place, only the sound of the rain falling on the canopy of leaves belonging to the maples that lined the street.

There’s a very particular afternoon rain light you get in the summer here, that and the smell of the grass and wet pavement. It came over me like a powerful narcotic. I knew it would. Being back after so long away, especially this time of year . . . I was being played like a pipe organ, and with all the stops pulled out: Cor de nuit, Hautbois, Voix humaine.

The back door was open. I walked in. Nothing had really changed. I felt like one of those characters in a Dutch painting, ‘the old burgher’s son’, returning to the canvas out of which I’d strayed for a time, having lost my way.

My parents were in the living-room, entertaining. Some out of town relations, a retired professor and his wife, had come by to say hello. In truth, they were there to say goodbye. There were copies of my books and publications spread across the coffee table, along with pastries. My father and mother embraced me, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary for me to turn up after four years. The cousins glowered, clearly having been brought up to date on the prodigal’s unspeakable behaviour. I did my best to be cordial, even charming, in an attempt to dispel their low opinion of me. I don’t know why I bothered, really. Habit, some vestigial notion of courtesy . . .

As little of my mother as there was left, she looked very nice, almost pretty, a bit like the more elegantly dressed old Chinese women I see in San Francisco from time to time. She’d got a touch of Tartar in the eyes, and in her older age seemed to favour a vaguely Oriental look: quilted jackets and what looked to be black silk pants.

Even this close to death she remained a clothes-horse. This was even remarked on in her high school yearbook. I told her that her hair looked nice. She apologised. She said she couldn’t make it to the beauty parlour this week. That was one way I knew she was dying. And she was crying. She wasn’t crying because she was glad to see me. She was glad, in her way. She misses me if she can’t have a look at me every year or so.

I could only remember my mother crying on two occasions: when the dog died and when they found my brother dead. I remembered both times vividly. With the dog it was a gentle, almost girlish sobbing, rather endearing. With my brother it was something else. She was like a gored beast.

My father was sitting at the dining-room table where he always sits. I was sitting where I always sit. He looked me squarely in the eyes and said nothing. The look was a soft command: see what time and illness have done to me. See what’s become of me, and what will become of you.

There’s a moment of despair I experience returning to San Francisco after a visit East. It usually comes as the taxi is about to cross Haight Street, headed up the hill from the Panhandle. I’m not sure why it always hits me at that particular point. The ride in from the airport is sufficiently dreary to provoke such feelings as you head north along the western shore of the Bay with its billboards, warehouses, commercial buildings; then you make that turn and you’re suddenly back in Oz.

It always seems to be early evening. Haight Street can be desolate, even repulsive, to be sure. But it’s familiar to me after so many years, and I sometimes even like it, especially looking west to the park when the sky’s doing something interesting. It all just feels so hopelessly nowhere at that particular moment, like this is really the end of the line. Like if you got on the 72 bus and took it another three miles west you’d fall off the earth. Then it passes, even as the cab heads up the hill to Frederick and turns right. Like a brief bout of nausea.

Mother and Father would come to visit, at least during my first few years out here. Father liked the idea of the place. As a boy he’d been mad for Jack London and that author’s many youthful adventures here by the Bay. Mother hated it. Also, it upset her to be more than ten miles (or beyond toll-free telephone range) from her two sisters and Nanny Farbisseneh, who was now so old and so small that it was difficult to find her and ascertain that she was still breathing. I remember Mother sitting in this very room, right on the couch over there, in fact, with her head in her hands, muttering: ‘I can’t believe any human being actually lives like this.’

I ran with a pack of cartoonists when I first arrived here. Mother didn’t care for Petunia, my cartoonist girlfriend. We got through dinner at the Golden Dragon without incident, but when I saw Mother the next day she asked me if: 1) Petunia had had her ‘craniofacial deformity since birth’; and 2) if said deformity was the chief factor in her being a moron.

I never tire of the fog. It doesn’t sit on the place, it moves through it, agitating the trees and other vegetation. If I look out the window, I can see the bamboos and the tulip tree alive in it, likewise the morning glory that has climbed the palmetto, wrapping itself round as it goes. Nor is it quiet: the wind carrying the fog in has a very distant, sustained roar, especially at night. It serves as a ground bass in the summer music of the place.

I find it consoling, like the rain. It is another layer between me and the world. The light is softer. Sounds are muffled. It pushes one inwards, like the rain.

The day she left wasn’t at all foggy. It was brilliantly clear and warm, as it often is here in late autumn. She was frightened, weeping – as well she might have been, still only a girl really, going off to live in New York on her own.

I don’t suppose she would have stayed, even if I’d asked her to. She had to go: she was long gone in her own head and we’d been miserable for months. I wanted her gone; I knew what it would do to me when she left.

It was difficult sitting there on the couch with her, waiting for the taxi to the airport that was taking for ever. I went out into the backyard to get some air. The cat was chilling on the fence behind the peach tree and when he saw me sauntered along in my direction, arching his back and lifting his tail to be stroked. ‘O Christ, Patty,’ I remember saying, ‘this is going to be rough.’ He stared at me in that dispassionate, cross-eyed way of his, at once quizzical and mildly contemptuous. ‘You stupid sorry motherfucker,’ he seemed to be saying.

I don’t know that Patty ever really got over the earthquake, the big one in ‘89. It’s not as if he hadn’t been through earthquakes before. I remember one time I saw him through the window, out in the backyard, with his head bobbing frantically while he went digging around the base of the peach tree for some roots to get hold of. But the ‘89 quake was something else. You don’t soon forget one like that. I was at the back of the healthfood store round the corner buying some arugula when the floor and shelves started trembling. Pretty soon the soba noodles and apricot-flavoured, wholewheat PowerBars were falling round my head and shoulders.

Most earthquakes seem to begin as if a big truck, an 18-wheeler carrying refrigerators or steel safes, is rumbling by just outside the door. Then everything quiets down after a few seconds. But if things don’t quiet down and the shaking and rumbling keep on, that’s when you run into some drama. Well, this one went on for about fifteen seconds, which doesn’t seem like a long time unless you’re in the middle of an earthquake. Time slows way down and the shaking seems to double, triple, quadruple in force every few seconds, heading for a crescendo you know not how far down the road.

So there I am, trying to pay for my arugula and get the hell out of there before I’m conked on the head by an economy-sized bottle of Westbrae Tamari Sauce, when all of the shoppers in the place decide to migrate to the same doorframe at once, weeping and screaming and pushing each other out of the way because they have read that being in a doorframe is going to save them. I’m looking at some very poor behaviour by twenty or so people in Birkenstocks.

Meanwhile, the clerk behind the counter is weeping uncontrollably and about to collapse, and the registers are down because there’s no power. I make off with my arugula like the lowest sort of sneakthief and head back to the ranch, check out the damage. Well, there is no damage to speak of: a mirror fell over and cracked, a stack of Rubbermaid containers in the pantry collapsed and scattered. I got off easy. But there’s the cat, on top of the mantelpiece in the living-room, giving me this look like: ‘Now what have you gone and done?’ I attempt to reason with him. That doesn’t work. I try the tender-concerned routine. That doesn’t work either. I tickle him under the chin, behind the ear, beseech him to come down and enjoy a few Fishtabits. No dice. Patty’s staying right where he is, and he’s going to be staying there for the indeterminate future, no need for further discussion, none. I make like I’m going to pick him up when he gives me his ugliest tomcat look, as if to say: ‘Stay away from me, you sick, crazy fuck.’

Truth be told, I enjoyed the earthquake of ‘89; that is, until Dan Rather turned up with his camouflage costume and moue of concern. There was no power. The telephones weren’t working. That first night the city was dark except for the candles. It was a warm night, Indian summer. The whole city seemed to be out of doors. It was like an enormous block party, all the neighbours sitting out on their stoops, drinking beer, listening to their radios.

San Francisco is an unfriendly city. Snooty. Cool, like its weather. The natty little old Slav three doors down could be a war criminal, for all I know. Once, his motor scooter, his pride and joy, tipped over and I helped him pick it up. He nearly wept with gratitude, but has never said hello or even acknowledged my existence, not before or since. But that night was different. People I’d seen around nearly every day for ten years who never uttered a single word or salutation were suddenly all over me like cheap carpets, introducing themselves, telling me where they were when the quake struck, asking if I’d lost anything. ‘My cat lost his mind, that’s about it,’ I told them.

One set of neighbours decided, for reasons of their own, that my name was Dominic. Many new friendships were made that night. Many babies were born precisely nine months later. To this day all sorts of people in the neighbourhood call me Dominic and, to a one, ask after my cat and want to know if he ever did come down from the mantelpiece.

Watching New York from the Palisades – well, that’s the condition of living on the opposite shore: you watch. You watch the cars at night stream in and out of the city on the bridge and across the West Side Highway. The city trembles; it is a living thing, a kind of cell with nutrients and waste streaming in and out through its membrane, its vast mitochondria feeding deep inside of it, the whole thing throbbing with light.

New Jersey people who live along this stretch of the Hudson, directly across from the towers of Manhattan – I’m speaking here of the Volk, not the riff-raff and carpet-baggers from somewhere else – believe they are getting the best of both worlds: the thrill and spectacle without the filth, expense, creeps, hustlers and crap-artists, which in the collective mind of New Jerseyites constitute the fabric of the great metropolis across the river.

New York is a thrilling city, not a pretty one, but from the Jersey side, Manhattan at night is among the most beautiful and dramatic spectacles on earth. Nothing I have ever seen in nature begins to match it, with the possible exception of the Grand Canyon.

Mother did not care for Melodia either. Many who come to San Francisco from other parts of the country take on new, fantasy identities after arriving here. Melodia chose to be an English duchess, or what she imagined an English duchess to be like from assorted films and novels.

Melodia was several years older than me and had been married and divorced at least twice. She retained the surname of one of her former husbands, a Quebecois by the name of Gueule. This, presumably, made her Anglo-French. Melodia was very sophisticated. She spent all her money on Ferragamo shoes and made sensational pasta dishes, airy and complex. She was cultivated, too, and felt about J.S. Bach as Mother felt about Shakespeare. ‘Oh, the Partita 3 in A minor,’ she would shiver as it came on the radio, lightly drumming the lace fringe along the top of her bodice.

But what really drew me to Melodia, and encouraged my looking past her more outlandish affectations, was her taste for being tied up and sodomised, all the while muttering prayers in Latin that she had apparently been forced to commit to memory in the Midwest by the good Sisters who presided over her parochial school education.

The meeting of Mother and Melodia, if inevitable, was not promising, and that should have occurred to me. But Melodia and her shenanigans induced in me something akin to a sleep of reason, one that extended for the entire term of our relations.

It was at a Mexican restaurant, a swank affair at the foot of North Beach where you find many of the city’s law and architectural concerns. Mother didn’t like the restaurant. Mother didn’t like San Francisco. Mother was in poor humour at the outset.

I had held out some small hope that Mother and Melodia might get along. After all, they were both of them big on couture, and both insufferably vain. Melodia, for her part, was really decked out that evening, which is not to say that Mother’s and Melodia’s notion of ‘decked out’ would have coincided: Melodia was given to plunging necklines, skirts with hems that rode perilously close to the curve of her delicious ass, ostentatious jewellery, this sort of thing. Melodia was, finally, an ignorant, trashy girl, which is why I adored her.

Around the time she stopped drinking Scotch, Mother had decided that she was royalty. Her immediate antecedents, risen from a Ukrainian bog, seemed barely human to me, more like throwbacks to an earlier lifeform, something amphibian but with the capacity for limited speech. Regardless, Mother now wore the mien of one to the manner born.

I suppose it was too much to hope that Melodia, with her English countess routine, and Mother, with her royal demeanour, would get along. There were problems. First, Melodia was stupid, Mother was not. Which is not to say that Mother’s intelligence could be characterised as far-ranging or inclusive, but the old girl did get it, I’ll give her that. And one of the things she would have immediately got was that Melodia had designs on me, for marriage. You see, marriage for Melodia was what it must have been for Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Hutton, no big thing; and in Melodia’s case, a natural consequence of sodomy and prayer.

Mother sat between Melodia and me, with Father across the table, scowling at the prices on the dinner menu. I know what he was thinking: how can they get away with this mark-up when you’re talking cornmeal and beans. Oblivious to it all, Melodia chattered away in her ditzy duchess way, saying nothing but filling the air with what she imagined to be the ambient noise of the British upper classes at play. Mother just sat there impassively with hooded eyes, coiled like a rattler. I should have been more alert, but thanks to the advice of the maître d’ – an unctuous, mustachioed character who could have passed for a croupier or high-level diplomat – I had made the acquaintance of upmarket tequila, a golden ambrosial fluid, potent yet kind, and quite unlike the clear jet fuel to which I had been accustomed.

‘O, Mrs Klankensfelter, your son is the sweetest man in the world, and I simply have to tell you so, teeheeheee.’

There was an extended, ominous pause, and from Mother’s lips came the word ‘dear’. Father’s head snapped up from the menu. The curtains came abruptly down on my own little reverie. The word ‘dear’, as Father and I knew only too well, coming out of Mother’s mouth and directed at another female, meant that launch mode was locked in and underway. There would be no turning back. Father began waving spasmodically for the waiter, but he had disappeared long before, mistakenly believing, in his silly Latin way, that the four of us were there to enjoy a long, leisurely evening of dining and pleasant conversation.

‘Dear,’ Mother repeated, turning slowly towards Melodia and fastening her with a gaze I’ve only ever seen once before, at the weigh-in before the first title fight in September 1962 when Sonny Liston turned towards poor, doomed Floyd Patterson and gave him that look.

‘Dear,’ Mother repeated, a third and final time, ‘he’s not sweet,’ nodding in my direction. ‘I’m not sweet,’ emphasising that last word both by slowness of delivery and uncomfortably thorough elocution, then landing on the ‘t’ with both heels. ‘And do you see that old man seated across the table?’ pointing to Father and then looking at Melodia, who had taken on the aspect of a stunned mullet: ‘He’s not sweet either.’

My father is poking me in the arm, the shoulder, provocatively, and to the anxiety of the guests. They know of our difficult relationship, probably of my father’s unpredictable and violent nature. But this is a game we have been playing for nearly fifty years, alarming guests in this manner. He shoves; I take it impassively, pretending it’s not happening. In fact, my father can barely contain his pleasure in seeing me, that he has always taken in seeing me. Hitting me playfully in the arm is how he expresses his affection. Playing my role is how I reciprocate this affection. ‘Do you see the way that lunatic abuses the child and the child says nothing, pretends it isn’t even happening?’ This was our shared joke on the outside world.

He thinks I’ve come to the rescue, that I’m going to stick around and look after them both. He’s so grateful and relieved; he’s been at his wits’ end; now everything will be all right. They’re neither of them complainers, quite the opposite. They’re freakishly dogged souls. They’ve got that old Jersey City steel and stoicism running through them. I’ve got a little of it myself, which has proved over the course of my life to be both too much and not quite enough.

You go to the movies, put down your money and get to watch a tearful reconciliation between father and son, mother and daughter, Paul and Yoko, whatever’s going on that particular Saturday night. But it doesn’t play like that back out in the world, on the sidewalk, opening your umbrella as you walk out from under the shelter of the marquee.

I’m staying at a hotel in the Village, the West Village, the same place I always stay. The years go by and the old Jamaican porter still recognises me.

New York is shit above 14th Street. I’d as soon be in St Paul or Tulsa. One does, of course, need to go uptown for museums, dinner parties, the rest, but it’s a trial, especially the Upper East Side. How do they stand it? The same way they stand East Bollocksville, I suppose.

She lives in the Village. Of course she does. Sensible girl. Not a girl any more. A woman. Busiest woman in New York. The last time I saw Melisande I felt like an astronaut going through one of those face-stretching, bone-rattling, g-force episodes. But it went OK. Ten years. A cup of tea. OK. Now it’s a breeze.

Strange not to experience that overpowering, almost sickening surge of desire any more. Strange to be with her, chatting, having coffee, outside that atmosphere. Makes her familiar and strange to me, being with her without all that. She’s not easy to read. Never was. Wary, appraising. How are the folks? Dying, actually. Oh . . .

‘Have you ever loved anyone since as passionately as you loved me?’ she asks.

Mother didn’t quite know what to make of this one. She wouldn’t have done, would she? Of course, Melisande was very young, alarmingly so in relation to me. That alone would have fetched mother’s gimlet eye. But Melisande would have been a most unusual quantity for Mother, not least in her English parentage and upbringing. Mother knew from public television that being English and not of the servant class meant good breeding, perhaps even royal blood somewhere along the line. As royalty herself, Mother felt obliged to soften whatever disapproval she felt and, however reluctantly, to welcome young Melisande into her home.

Melisande herself, difficult to read even then and pleasantly demure in social situations like the one in which she found herself, where any sure footing would have been a dangerous illusion, for years afterwards performed a cruelly accurate impersonation of Mother for all manner of dinner and party guests. Though my own relations with Mother were not the best, these performances were delivered with such relish and near perfect pitch that I confess now to having found them unsettling.

But what most forcefully claimed Mother’s attention that warm October evening was my black eye. It was an inauspicious time to have a black eye, because the next day was the celebration of Mother and Father’s 50th wedding anniversary. Mother took such occasions with the utmost seriousness, for they allowed her to exercise her full, and not inconsiderable, skills of generalship, skills she took great pride in and executed with imperious efficiency.

‘What’s with the shiner?’

I explained to Mother that that afternoon at a poetry reading in the city I went to the restroom and the prior occupant opened the door in my face.

‘Poetry reading? Who do you think you’re trying to kid?’ Her contempt for the lamest, most pathetic bit of dissembling she had ever heard, ever, could not have been any less disguised. But what I told Mother was largely true. I had received my black eye at a poetry reading, but not exactly in the manner I described.

You see, Melisande was quite mad for poetry, at least in those days. Me, I’d rather be in a dentist’s chair than go to one of those things where the lady poet whispers in her breathless little lady-poet voice about how come she’s so out of sorts and about granny’s mouldering petticoat in the attic, this sort of drivel. But the poet-boy, he’s worse still, striking this earnest pose – probably thinks it’ll get him laid – and giving forth in these little pellets about going fishing with the old man, getting things straight between them.

Well, that was one sort of poetry reading Melisande dragged me to, and that was wretched enough, but the one she took me to this particular Saturday afternoon at some gin-mill way the hell downtown and west of Hudson Street, almost on the river, this one was something else. It seemed this dump had poetry readings on Saturday afternoons, ‘a long-running and distinguished series’. The management turned off the ballgame and the resident drunks all went to huddle in the far corner to make room for the poetry crowd, who, as far as I could tell, consisted exclusively of friends of the poet.

That afternoon the reader was an anorexic woman of indeterminate age wearing a crew cut. Her followers were a grim lot, with closely cropped hair and looking extremely concerned about the business at hand, as if attending a meeting of the IMF or the Atomic Energy Commission about to address a grave, perhaps ominous development on the Korean peninsula or Indian Subcontinent.

With all of the affect of a dosed salamander the poet picked up a thick sheaf of papers and announced: ‘I intend to read from my work-in-progress that many here will be familiar with [an appreciative hum in the audience] entitled "Cnidaria". For those of you who may be unfamiliar with my project, the long poem is entitled "Cnidaria” because it is based on this particular phylum of aquatic invertebrates (better known as coelenterates) that includes Hydra, jellyfish, sea anemones and corals. What specifically interests me about Cnidaria is its dioplastic body, with two cell layers of the body wall separated by mesoglea, which contain cells that have migrated from the two cell layers, but these cells do not form tissues or organs [more appreciative humming from the crowd, this last bit having touched a nerve among the gathered]. The body cavity is sac-shaped, with one opening acting as both mouth and anus [more appreciative humming]. The subject of my poem is not the Cnidaria as a living, functioning organism per se. What I have done is to borrow its structure, not least its radial symmetry, for the structure of my poem, which has a quite different subject, if the term subject is at all relevant here [more humming]. The subject of "Cnidaria” is language [more appreciative humming].’

‘Melisande . . .’

‘Shut up and pay attention.’

I would not have understood what the poet was going on about even had she spoken slowly and in complete sentences. But she scrambled the syntax to such an extent as to make it incomprehensible and roared through her text at a rate designed to jam the signal of even the most ardent and devout among the semioticians and post-structuralists in the audience.

‘Melisande . . .’

‘Shut up.’

I was most of the way through my fourth bourbon, rocks, when one of the house drunks, positioned sullenly in the corner, began his impersonation of the reader, quite a clever one I thought, something like a Bulgarian tractor manual read at 78 rpm in a remorseless monotone. But Melisande was not amused, and, on realising that her evil looks did nothing to shame or deter him, delivered a powerfully pneumatic ‘shhhhoosh’. This only had the effect of provoking him further still, like pouring gasoline or, in this instance, alcohol on a fire. The gents were now beside themselves and the perturbation in the back of the bar was beginning to register among the poetry-lovers at the front. Melisande’s eyes narrowed. Though usually contained in public, like the proper English young woman she was, Melisande did have a temper, and it was now being brought to bear: ‘Hey, scumbag, button it!’ This delivered in a very broad, unladylike Oxfordshire accent.

‘Fuck you, bitch,’ came the response from the corner.

Well, you will understand my dilemma.

Father, unlike Mother, was thrilled with my black eye. An avid student and practitioner of the sweet science since boyhood, he wanted to see my knuckles in order to calculate what retribution I had brought down upon my antagonist(s). Father was thrilled with Melisande, and, after fixing her a large drink, dragged her into the living-room to show off his latest crop of bodhisattvas.

All the next day, throughout their 50th anniversary celebration – which must have seemed to Melisande as his first Kwakiutl potlatch seemed to Franz Boas – Father paraded Melisande and me among the guests, principally his male friends. It was as if, in middle age, I had finally done something right, something worthy of a good son: turned up on the old man’s doorstep with a teenage girlfriend and a great big shiner.

The morning of 11 September I went off to shoot baskets over the hill. I certainly wasn’t going to turn on the TV. I know what sort of obscenities America commits on itself with television during and after these things. It’s a lovely walk to the courts. As lovely a walk in town as any I can imagine. I walk to the top of Stanyan, the last stretch absurdly steep for a residential street, and head up to Tank Hill.

San Francisco is beautiful. Whatever else it is or isn’t, it is that. Especially from Tank Hill, where, on a clear day as this one was, you can see a filmy blue band of the Pacific in the west, and then tracking east, over Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, the Marin Headlands and Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay and the towers of downtown, the Bay Bridge, Oakland Hills, the Castro and Mission sprawling at your feet, and a fair way south along the Bay. It is a gift and a joy to live in such a place. And if the population is so narcissistically invested in this beauty as to be paralysed by it, caught in a stupor, I find the vantages no less stirring on account of it.

From Tank Hill I make my way down towards the courts along a network of hidden staircases between streets flanked by homes built close together on the sides of the steep hills, their gardens and the green public spaces the city looks after carefully planted with brodiaea, acanthus, lily of the Nile. On the narrower stairs, like the Saturn Steps, the vegetation presses in on you. You could be anywhere: Umbria, the South of France. The world goes on about its business and horror elsewhere.

Out on the streets, life went on as normal that morning: young mothers or Spanish nursemaids pushing strollers, trucks making deliveries. A group of Latino workmen clustered round a radio, taking in the extraordinary events. Then I was back in the world of the stairs, the purple flowers of the tibouchina, poppies and valerian, the only sound that of birdsong.

The rains begin here around Halloween, the same time the clocks get put back an hour. All of a sudden it’s dark. I always seem to be surprised and jarred by the abruptness of it. Overnight the place seems to shed its silliness, its pastel atmosphere of make-believe. It becomes not only a more real place but a dark one: northern, more like Seattle or Vancouver than California. The darkness suits it. With the tourists long gone and countless hotel rooms empty, the place takes on its truer character: a windy, rain-lashed outpost on the edge of nowhere, just a big ol’ frontier town with pretensions and fancified, East Coast ways. It’s the only time I feel rooted and at home here.

‘Home is where you get across.’ This is the title of a song by the Houston-born singer and songwriter Chris Whitley, who has moved around a lot in his life and, at last word, lives in Dresden. It was a musician friend in New York who put me on to Whitley, a neighbourhood friend from Jersey whom I’ve known for over forty years. Kenny called me the other day on his cell phone, a filthy summer day in New York, you know the kind: not a breath of air, 90°, 90 per cent humidity, truck exhaust, the elderly and infirm dropping like bowling pins.

‘A Hungarian workman outside my building, says to me, says: "Sure is human out.” "Sure is,” I tell him.’

Here, on this end of the line, it was one of those summer days where the fog bank just sits offshore waiting for the signal to come in and the signal never arrives: clear, blue skies, the air delicious, a hint of coolness in the sea breeze.

‘I guess it’s perfect out there, huh,’ Kenny says.

‘Yeah, as a matter of fact.’

I find it so easy to talk with him. The inflections, the way sentences begin, suddenly stop or detour. There are all manner of unconscious codes embedded in this talk and I know them all, intimately, as I know my coffee mug or thumb. Huge blocks of information are conveyed in only a few words. Any more words would be not only unnecessary but a crudity, bad manners, an unwitting slight. Even words are bypassed at certain junctures, replaced by a pause or half-breathed silent laugh, the suspiration of assent. In person, words between us are barely necessary.

He is from the neighbourhood, a place that no longer exists except in memory. Those of us from the neighbourhood pass among others in this world, like the mendicants who carried with them the record of classical learning through the drear, cobbled passageways of the Dark Ages. Even if we don’t remember one another or recognise the face, we are able to spot one another, at cross-walks, shopping plazas, train platforms. A look suffices. Nothing needs to be spoken.

I had promised myself. I had gone through it in my head well in advance, several times. I was simply not going to get into it. This would probably be our final few hours together. I was going to pull myself together. Restrain myself. Not go there. But there we were – there I was – having the same old political argument, in the same old way, across the dining-room table. Only the principals had changed. But I couldn’t restrain myself. How could he be that irresponsible, that selfish, that obtuse . . . And I suddenly realised my father couldn’t hear a goddamn word I was saying. He was stone deaf. But there we were, locked into our old postures of confrontation, arms raised in the same gestures of exasperation and defiance, stylised as a couple of Kabuki actors performing a scene for the thousandth time. And there my mother was, what was left of her, in the kitchen doorway, expressionless, taking it all in – the three of us having somehow managed to find ourselves back in the same old tableau.

The morning’s first streetcar comes out of the tunnel before dawn, about 5 a.m. It nearly passes under my backyard. Throughout the day into the late evening, passing in and out of the tunnel every twenty minutes or so, it punctuates my waking hours, as well as announcing their beginning and end, with its rattling, squeals and groans. This is my rough carillon.

I find it pleasant, reassuring, rather as I found living only a few blocks from the amusement park when I was a child. Over the course of the day, depending on the breeze, you could hear the muffled thunder of the celebrated, ‘gravity-defying’ rides: the Cyclone, Twister, Caterpillar, Whip. And in counterpoint, the shrieks of the patrons as they spun, plunged and were turned upside down.

These sounds would continue well into the night, like the streetcar, and change in character over the course of the day, depending on the wind and weather. At night they would seem more distant, and sometimes disappear altogether for hours on end, only to return when you’d forgotten all about them. There was music, too: popular tunes broadcast over the loudspeakers. And at weekends, live talent, chartbusting new stars like Fabian, Little Anthony, Bobby Rydell.

One summer my older sister worked at the amusement park, and it was her job, every evening, to announce over the public address system that the fun was over and it was time for everybody to go home. I used to try to stay awake until I could hear my sister say goodbye to the customers, wish them well, and, at the conclusion, her voice distorted by the speaker system and barely audible through the night air: ‘Thank you, good night.’

The rain was easing up a bit. It was late afternoon. My father was dozing off, my mother weeping fitfully.

‘What’s wrong, Ma?’

‘Oh, nothing. I get the blues this time of day, is all. Normally, I’d have a drink around now but I can’t seem to be able to drink any more for some reason. I don’t know why.’

It was time to go, let them have a rest. They’d had their look at me. There was nothing more I could do for them – take out the garbage, put the dishes in the dishwasher. Let them be. I phoned for a cab. There weren’t any available. Maybe the weather. Who knows? I had to get out of there. Borrow an umbrella and walk to the bridge. It was only a couple of miles, not even. I’d done it a thousand times.

My mother walked in. ‘I’ll take you,’ she said. I protested chivalrously. Don’t trouble yourself. I’ll steal an umbrella. You must have an extra one knocking around. But she was keen to drive me to the ferry. Said she had to get out of the house or she’d go crazy. Sitting in her driver’s seat was the only time her back didn’t hurt.

I wanted to oblige her. She was so miserable and in so much discomfort. But she was horribly frail; I don’t know how she managed to keep herself upright. And then there was the weeping. I was frightened about getting into a car with her behind the wheel. ‘Don’t be frightened,’ she said, reading my mind. ‘I can drive.’

And she could, much to my surprise. With my father slumped in the back seat, very quiet, we drove the five or six miles to the Weehawken ferry with no problems. Sunday, late afternoon, not much traffic.

The rain had begun falling lightly again as we pulled into the drop-off area. I could smell the river. You could barely make out the city across the way, its greys and charcoals having blended into the mist, like one of Monet’s blurry Paris cityscapes.

‘It was good to see you, Ma.’

‘Oh, it really was terrific seeing you, Augie,’ she said. ‘It was a thrill for me, it really was.’ And she meant it. I could tell she did. She had no need or particular desire to see me again in this life, but it really did seem to nourish her, having me around to look at for a couple of hours.

I kissed her on the cheek and turned to say goodbye to my father. He was huddled in the corner of the back seat looking glum and rather cold. He couldn’t seem to keep warm, no matter how high the heating was turned up or how much clothing he put on. I’m not sure what was going through his head. I tried my best to lean over the back of the seat and kiss him goodbye, but it was awkward. I couldn’t reach very far. He leaned towards me half-heartedly. I suppose I could have got out, opened the back door and given him a proper kiss and hug, but he wasn’t looking as if it would have made his day. I squeezed his hand gently and told him it had been good to see him.

And that’s when it came out of me, in this half-strangled sob. (I still cringe to think of it.) ‘I’ll try to be a better son.’ But it didn’t matter. He couldn’t hear me anyway.