So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and
what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one's
purest memories and ambitions; and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in
midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past
the seven views of Rome-up two steps and down three-one entered the library, where all the books
were in order, the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in
a cabinet with a veneer like tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is
art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant
exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the
danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing.
We admire decency and we despise death but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of a night and
perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely
woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingales's cage.
Just let me give you one example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and
see if you can't find a comparable experience.
On Saturday the doctor told me to stop smoking and drinking and I did. I won't go into the commonplace
symptoms of withdrawal but I would like to point out that, standing at my window in the evening,
watching the brilliant afterlight and the spread of darkness, I felt, through the lack of these humble
stimulants, the force of some primitive memory in which the coming of night with its stars and its moon
was apocalyptic. I thought suddenly of the neglected graves of my three brothers on the mountainside and
that death is a loneliness much crueler than any loneliness hinted at in life. The soul (I thought) does not
leave the body but lingers with it through every degrading stage of decomposition and neglect, through
heat, through cold, through the long winter nights when no one comes with a wreath or a plant and no
one says a prayer. This unpleasant premonition was followed by anxiety. We were going out for dinner
and I thought that the oil burner would explode in our absence and burn the house. The cook would get
drunk and attack my daughter with a carving knife or my wife and I would be killed in a collision on the
main highway, leaving our children bewildered orphans with nothing in life to look forward to but
sadness. I was able to observe, along with these foolish and terrifying anxieties, a definite impairment of
my discretionary poles. I felt as if I were being lowered by ropes into the atmosphere of my childhood. I
told my wife-when she passed through the living room-that I had stopped smoking and drinking but
she didn't seem to care and who would reward me for my privations? Who cared about the bitter taste in
my mouth and that my head seemed to be leaving my shoulders? It seemed to me that men had honored
one another with medals, statuary, and cups for much less and that abstinence is a social matter. When I
abstain from sin it is more often a fear of scandal than a private resolve to improve on the purity of my
heart, but here was a call for abstinence without the worldly enforcement of society, and death is not the
threat that scandal is. When it was time for us to go out I was so light-headed that I had to ask my wife
to drive the car. On Sunday I sneaked seven cigarettes in various hiding places and drank two Martinis in
the downstairs coat closet. At breakfast on Monday my English muffin stared up at me from the plate. I
mean I saw a face there in the rough, toasted surface. The moment of recognition was fleeting, but it was
deep, and I wondered who it had been. Was it a friend, and aunt, a sailor, a ski instructor, a bartender, or
a conductor on a train? The smile faded off the muffin but it had been there for a second-the sense of a
person, a life, a pure force of gentleness and censure-and I am convinced that the muffin had contained
the presence of some spirit. As you can see, I was nervous.
On Monday my wife's old cousin, Justina, came to visit her. Justina was a lively guest although she must
have been crowding eighty. On Tuesday my wife gave her a lunch party. The last guest left at three and a
few minutes later Cousin Justina, sitting on the living-room sofa with a glass of good brandy, breathed her
last. My wife called me at the office and I said that I would be right out. I was clearing my desk when my
boss, MacPherson, came in.
"Spare me a minute," he asked. "I've been bird-dogging all over the place, trying to track you down.
Pierce had to leave early and I want you to write the last Elixircol commercial."
"Oh, I can't, Mac," I said. "My wife just called. Cousin Justina is dead."
"You write that commercial," he said. His smile was satanic. "Pierce had to leave early because his
grandmother fell off a stepladder."
Now, I don't like fictional accounts of office life. It seems to me that if you're going to write fiction you
should write about mountain climbing and tempests at sea, and I will go over my predicament with
MacPherson briefly, aggravated as it was by his refusal to respect and honor the death of dear old Justina.
It was like MacPherson. It was a good example of the way I've been treated. He is, I might say, a tall,
splendidly groomed man of about sixty who changes his shirt three times a day, romances his secretary
every afternoon between two and two-thirty, and makes the habit of continuously chewing gum seem
hygienic and elegant. I write his speeches for him and it has not been a happy arrangement for me. If the
speeches are successful MacPherson takes all the credit. I can see that his presence, his tailor, and his fine
voice are all a part of the performance but it makes me angry never to be given credit for what was said.
On the other hand, if the speeches are unsuccessful-if his presence and his voice can't carry the hour-
his threatening and sarcastic manner is surgical and I am obliged to contain myself in the role of a man
who can do no good in spite of the piles of congratulatory mail that me eloquence sometimes brings in. I
must pretend-I must, like an actor, study and improve on my pretension-to have nothing to do with his
triumphs, and I must bow my head gracefully in shame when we have both failed. I am forced to appear
grateful for injuries, to lie, to smile falsely, and to play out a role as inane and as unrelated to the facts as a
minor prince in an operetta, but if I speak the truth it will be my wife and my children who will pay in
hardships for my outspokenness. Now he refused to respect or even to admit the solemn fact of a death in
our family and if I couldn't rebel it seemed as if I could at least hint at it.
The commercial he wanted me to write was for a tonic called Elixircol and was to be spoken on television
by and actress who was neither young nor beautiful but who had an appearance of ready abandon and who
was anyhow the mistress of one of the sponsor's uncles. Are you growing old? I wrote. Are you falling
out of love with your image in the looking glass? Does your face in the morning seem rucked and seamed
with alcoholic and sexual excesses and does the rest of you appear to be a grayish-pink lump, covered all
over with brindle hair? Walking in the autumn woods do you feel that a subtle distance has come
between you and the smell of wood smoke? Have you drafted your obituary? Are you easily winded? Do
you wear a girdle? Is your sense of smell fading, is your interest in gardening waning, is your fear of
heights increasing, and are your sexual drives as ravening and intense as ever and does your wife look
more and more to you like a stranger with sunken cheeks who has wandered into your bedroom by
mistake? If this or any of this is true you need Elixircol, the true juice of youth. The small economy size
(business with the bottle) costs seventy-five dollars and the giant family bottle comes at two hundred and
fifty. It's a lot of scratch, God knows, but these are inflationary times and who can put a price on youth?
If you don't have the cash borrow it from your neighborhood loan shark or hold up a local bank. The
odds are three to one that with a ten-cent water pistol and a slip of paper you can shake ten thousand out
of any fainthearted teller. Everybody's doing it. (Music up and out.) I sent this in to MacPherson via
Ralphie, the messenger boy, and took the 4:16 home, traveling through a landscape of utter desolation.
Now, my journey is a digression and has no real connection to Justina's death but what followed could
only have happened in my country and in my time and since I was an American traveling across an
American landscape the trip may be part of the sum. There are some Americans who although their
fathers emigrated from the Old World three centuries ago, never seem to have quite completed the voyage
and I am one of these. I stand, figuratively, with one wet foot on Plymouth Rock, looking with some
delicacy, not into a formidable and challenging wilderness but onto a half-finished civilization embracing
glass towers, oil derricks, suburban continents, and abandoned movie houses and wondering why, in this
most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world-where even the cleaning women practice the
Chopin preludes in their spare time-everyone should seem to be disappointed.
At Proxmire Manor I was the only passenger to get off the random, meandering, and profitless local that
carried its shabby lights off into the dusk like some game-legged watchman or beadle making his
appointed rounds. I went around to the front of the station to wait for my wife and to enjoy the traveler's
fine sense of crisis. Above me on the hill were my home and the homes of my friends, all lighted and
smelling of fragrant wood smoke like the temples in a sacred grove, dedicated to monogamy, feckless
childhood, and domestic bliss but so like a dream that I felt the lack of viscera with much more than
poignance-the absence of that inner dynamism we respond to in some European landscapes. In short, I
was disappointed. It was my country, my beloved country, and there have been mornings when I could
have kissed the earth that covers its many provinces and states. There was a hint of bliss; romantic and
domestic bliss. I seemed to hear the jinglebells of the sleigh that would carry me to Grandmother's house
although in fact Grandmother spent the last years of her life working as a hostess on an ocean liner and
was lost in the tragic sinking of the S.S. Lorelei and I was responding to a memory that I had not
experienced. But the hill of light rose like an answer to some primitive dream of homecoming. On one of
the highest lawns I saw the remains of a snowman who still smoked a pipe and wore a scarf and a cap but
whose form was wasting away and whose anthracite eyes stared out at the view with terrifying bitterness.
I sensed some disappointing greenness of spirit in the scene although I knew in my bones, no less, how
like yesterday it was that my father left the Old World to found a new; and I thought of the forces that had
brought stamina to the image: the cruel towns of Calabria and their cruel princes, the badlands northwest
of Dublin, ghettos, despots, whorehouses, bread lines, the graves of children, intolerable hunger,
corruption, persecution, and despair had generated these faint and mellow lights and wasn't it all a part of
the great migration that is the life of man?
My wife's cheeks were wet with tears when I kissed her. She was distressed, of course, and really quite
sad. She had been attached to Justina. She drove me home, where Justina was still sitting on the sofa. I
would like to spare you the unpleasant details but I will say the both her mouth and her eyes were wide
open. I went into the pantry to telephone Dr. Hunter. His line was busy. I poured myself a drink-the
first since Sunday-and lighted a cigarette. When I called the doctor again he answered and I told him
what had happened. "Well, I'm awfully sorry to hear about it, Moses," he said. "I can't get over until after
six and there isn't much that I can do. This sort of thing has come up before and I'll tell you all I know.
You see, you live in Zone B-two-acre lots, no commercial enterprises and so forth. A couple of years
ago some stranger bought the old Plewett mansion and it turned out that he was planning to operate it as a
funeral home. We didn't have any zoning provision at the time that would protect us and one was rushed
through the Village council at midnight and they overdid it. It seems that you not only can't have a
funeral home in Zone B-you can't bury anything there and you can't die there. Of course it's absurd, but
we all make mistakes, don't we? Now there are two things you can do. I've had to deal with this before.
You can take the old lady and put her into the car and drive her over to Chestnut Street, where Zone C
begins. The boundary is just beyond the traffic light by the high school. As soon as you get her over to
Zone C, it's all right. You can just say she died in the car. You can do that or if this seems distasteful
you can call the Mayor and ask him to make an exception to the zoning laws. But I can't write you out a
death certificate until you get her out of that neighborhood and of course no undertaker will touch her
until you get a death certificate."
"I don't understand," I said, and I didn't, but then the possibility that there was some truth in what he had
just told me broke against me or over me like a wave, exciting mostly indignation, "I've never heard such
a lot of damned foolishness in my life," I said. "Do you mean to tell me that I can't die in one
neighborhood and that I can't fall in love in another and that I can't eat."
"Listen, Calm down, Moses. I'm not telling you anything but the facts and I have a lot of patients
waiting. I don't have the time to listen to you fulminate. If you want to move her, call me as soon as you
get her over to the traffic light. Otherwise, I'd advise you to get in touch with the Mayor or someone on
the Village Council." He cut the connection. I was outraged but this did not change the fact that Justina
was still sitting on the sofa. I poured a fresh drink and lit another cigarette.
Justina seemed to be waiting for me and to be changing from an inert into a demanding figure. I tried to
imagine carrying her out to the station wagon but I couldn't complete the task in my imagination and I
was sure that I couldn't complete it in fact. I then called the Mayor but this position in our village is
mostly honorary and as I might have known he was in his New York law office and was not expected
home until seven. I could cover her, I thought, that would be a decent thing to do, and I went up the back
stairs to the linen closet and got a sheet. It was getting dark when I came back into the living room but
this was no merciful twilight. Dusk seemed to be playing directly into her hands and she gained power
and stature with the dark. I covered her with a sheet and turned on a lamp at the other end of the room
but the rectitude of the place with its old furniture, flowers, paintings, etc., was demolished by her
monumental shape. The next thing to worry about was the children, who would be home in a few
minutes. Their knowledge of death, excepting their dreams and intuitions of which I know nothing, is
zero and the bold figure in the parlor was bound to be traumatic. When I heard them coming up the walk
I went out and told them what had happened and sent them up to their rooms. At seven I drove over to
He had not come home but he was expected at any minute and I talked with his wife. She gave me a
drink. By this time I was chain-smoking. When the Mayor came in we went into a little office or library,
where he took up a position behind a desk, putting me in the low chair of a supplicant. "Of course I
sympathize with you, Moses," he said, "it's an awful thing to have happened, but the trouble is that we
can't give you a zoning exception without a majority vote of the Village Council and all the members of
the Council happen to be out of town. Pete's in California and Jack's in Paris and Larry won't be back
from Stowe until the end of the week."
I was sarcastic. "then I suppose Cousin Justina will have to gracefully decompose in my parlor until Jack
comes back from Paris."
"Oh no," he said, "oh no. Jack won't be back from Paris for another month but I think you might wait
until Larry comes from Stowe. Then we'd have a majority, assuming of course that they would agree to
"For Christ's sake," I snarled.
"Yes, yes," he said, "it is difficult, but after all you must realize that this is the world you live in and the
importance of zoning can't be overestimated. Why if a single member of the Council could give out
zoning exceptions, I could give you permission right now to open a saloon in your garage, put up neon
lights, hire an orchestra, and destroy the neighborhood and all the human and commercial values we've
worked so hard to protect."
"I don't want t open a saloon in my garage," I howled. "I don't want to hire an orchestra. I just want to
"I know, Moses, I know," he said. "I understand that. But it's just that it happened in the wrong zone
and if I make an exception for you I'll have to make an exception for everyone and this kind of morbidity,
when it gets out of hand, can be very depressing. People don't like to live in a neighborhood where this
sort of thing goes on all the time."
"Listen to me," I said. "You give me and exception and you give it to me now or I'm going home and dig
a hole in my garden and bury Justina myself."
"But you can't do that, Moses. You can't bury anything in Zone B. You can't even bury a cat."
"You're mistaken," I said. "I can and I will. I can't function as a doctor and I can't function as an
undertaker, but I can dig a hole in the ground and if you don't give me my exception, that's what I'm
going to do."
"Come back, Moses, come back," he said. "Please come back. Look, I'll give you an exception if you'll
promise not to tell anyone. It's breaking the law, it's a forgery but I'll do it if you promise to keep it a
I promised to keep it a secret, he gave me the documents, and I used his telephone to make the
arrangements. Justina was removed a few minutes after I got home but that night I had the strangest
dream. I dreamed that I was in a crowded supermarket. It must have been night because the windows
were dark. The ceiling was paved with fluorescent light-brilliant, cheerful but, considering our
prehistoric memories, a harsh link in the chain of light that binds us to the past. Music was playing and
there must have been at least a thousand shoppers pushing their wagons among the long corridors of
comestibles and victuals. Now is there-or isn't there-something about the posture we assume when we
push a wagon the unsexes us? Can it be done with gallantry? I bring this up because the multitude of
shoppers seemed that evening, as they pushed their wagons, penitential and unsexed. There were all
kinds, this being my beloved country. There were Italians, Finns, Jews, Negroes, Shropshiremen,
Cubans-anyone who had heeded the voice of liberty-and they were dressed with that sumptuary
abandon that European caricaturists record with such bitter disgust. Yes, there were grandmothers in
shorts, big-butted women in knitted pants, and men wearing such an assortment of clothing that it looked
as if they had dressed hurriedly in a burning building. But this as I say, is my own country and in my
opinion the caricaturist who vilifies the old lady in shorts vilifies himself. I am a native and I was
wearing buckskin jump boots, chino pants cut so tight that my sexual organs were discernible, and a
rayon-acetate pajama top printed with representations of the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria in full
sail. The scene was strange-the strangeness of a dream where we see familiar objects in an unfamiliar
light-but as I looked more closely I saw that there were some irregularities. Nothing was labeled.
Nothing was identified or known. The cans and boxes were all bare. The frozen-food bins were full of
brown parcels but they were such odd shapes that you couldn't tell if they contained a frozen turkey or a
Chinese dinner. All the goods at the vegetable and the bakery counters were concealed in brown bags and
even the books for sale had no titles. In spite of the fact that the contents of nothing was known, my
companions of the dream-my thousands of bizarrely dressed compatriots-were deliberating gravely
over these mysterious containers as if the choices they made were critical. Like any dreamer, I was
omniscient, I was with them and I was withdrawn, and stepping above the scene for a minute I noticed the
men at the check-out counters. They were brutes. Now, sometimes in a crowd, in a bar or a street, you
will see a face so full-blown in its obdurate resistance to the appeals of love, reason, and decency so lewd,
so brutish and unregenerate, that you turn away. Men like these were stationed at the only way out and as
the shoppers approached them they tore their packages open-I still couldn't see what they contained-
but in every case the customer, at the sight of what he had chosen, showed all the symptoms of the deepest
guilt; that force that brings us to our knees. Once their choice had been opened to their shame they were
pushed-in some cases kicked-toward the door and beyond the door I saw dark water and heard a
terrible noise of moaning and crying in the air. They waited at the door in groups to be taken away in
some conveyance that I couldn't see. As I watched, thousands and thousands pushed their wagons
through the market, made their careful and mysterious choices, and were reviled and taken away. What
could be the meaning of this?
We buried Justina in the rain the next afternoon. The dead are not, God knows, a minority, but in
Proximire Manor their unexalted kingdom is on the outskirts, rather like a dump, where they are
transported furtively as knaves and scoundrels and where they lie in an atmosphere of perfect neglect.
Justina's life had been exemplary, but by ending it she seemed to have disgraced us all. The priest was a
friend and a cheerful sight, but the undertaker and his helpers, hiding behind their limousines, were not;
and aren't they at the root of most of our troubles, with their claim that death is a violet-flavored kiss?
How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the
I went from the cemetery back to my office. The commercial was on my desk and MacPherson had
written across it in grease pencil: Very funny, you broke-down bore. Do again. I was tired but
unrepentant and didn't seem able to force my self into a practical posture of usefulness and obedience. I
did another commercial. Don't lose your loved ones, I wrote, because of excessive radioactivity. Don't
be a wallflower at the dance because of strontium 90 in your bones. Don't be a victim of fallout. When
the tart on Thirty-sixth Street gives you the big eye does your body stride off in one direction and your
imagination in another? Does your mind follow her up the stairs and taste her wares in revolting detail
while your flesh goes off to Brooks Brothers or the foreign exchange desk of the Chase Manhattan Bank?
Haven't you noticed the size of the ferns, the lushness of the grass, the bitterness of the string beans, and
the brilliant makings on the new breeds of butterflies? You have been inhaling lethal atomic waste for the
last twenty-five years and only Elixircol can save you. I gave this to Ralphie and waited perhaps ten
minutes, when it was returned, marked again with grease pencil. Do, he wrote, or you'll be dead. I felt
very tired. I put another piece of paper into the machine and wrote: The Lord is my shepherd; therefore
can I lack nothing. He shall feed me in a green pasture and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.
He shall convert my soul and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for his Name's sake. Yea,
though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod
and thy staff comfort me. Thou shalt prepare a table before me in the presence of them that trouble me;
thou hast anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full. Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall
follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. I gave this to Ralphie
and went home.
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