Van goghs room at arles, p.1
Van Gogh's Room at Arles, page 1
Van Gogh’s Room at Arles
Her Sense of Timing
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Van Gogh’s Room at Arles
A Biography of Stanley Elkin
Her Sense of Timing
“All I can say,” Schiff told Claire, “is you’ve got a hell of a sense of timing, a hell of a sense of timing. You’ve got a sense of timing on you like last year’s calendar.”
“Timing, Jack? Timing? Timing has nothing to do with it. Time maybe, that it’s run out. This has been coming for years.”
“You might have told a fella.”
“Oh, please,” Claire said.
“Oh yes, you might have prepared a chap.”
“I just did.”
“Given fair warning I mean. Not waited till the last minute.”
“Two weeks’ notice?”
“Ain’t that the law?”
“For the help.”
“You were the help, Claire.”
“I can’t afford to be single.”
“Tough,” she said.
“Tough,” Schiff said. “Tough, yeah, that should do me.”
“All you ever think you have to do is throw yourself on the mercy of the court.”
“Well, ain’t mercy of the court the law too?”
“For juveniles and first offenders. You’re close to sixty.”
“So are you.”
“I don’t talk about ‘fair.’”
“Very refined, very grown-up. Come on, Claire, put down the suitcases.”
“No. The others are all packed. I’ll send UPS for them when I’m settled.”
“I won’t let the bastards in. The door to this house is barred to the sons of bitches.”
“Oh, Jack,” Claire said, “the things you say. Stand up to delivery people? You? Painters and repairmen? But you’re such a coward. The man who comes to read the meter terrifies you. Tradesmen do, the kid who brings the pizza.”
“Why are they blue collar? This is America, Claire.”
“Is that my cab?” She looked down out their bedroom window and waved.
“This is really going to happen?”
“It’s happened,” she said, leaned over the bed to kiss her husband on the check, and just upped and walked out the door on their thirty-six-year marriage.
“Wait, hey wait,” Schiff called after her, taking up his walker and moving toward the window. By the time he got around the bed Claire was already handing the driver two big valises. Schiff, bracing his hands on the sill, stood before the window in his shorty pajamas. “Excuse me,” he called to the man. “Sir? Excuse me?” The fellow shaded his eyes and looked up. “Where are you taking her?”
The driver, a young man in his twenties, looked at Claire, who shook her head. “Sorry,” he said, “destinations between a fare and her cabbie are privileged information.”
Schiff held up his walker. “But I’m a cripple, I’m handicapped,” he said. “I’m close to sixty.”
“Sorry,” the man said, shut the trunk in which he’d put Claire’s suitcases, and got into his cab.
“That,” Schiff called after the taxi, “was no fare, that was my wife.”
And thought, Her sense of timing, her wonderful, world- class, championship sense of timing. Leaving me like that. Just like that. Just get up and go. Just got up and gone. Don’t tell me she forgot tomorrow’s the party.
Schiff’s annual party for his graduate students, though by no means a tradition —Schiff, who was a professor of Political Geography, had started it up only two or three years ago when, during a fit like some cocktail made of equal parts of sentimentality and pique, he realized that though it was barely a few years until retirement he had had only a stunningly scant handful of students who ever wrote him once they were done with their studies, let alone any who might regard him as a friend—had become, at least in Schiff’s diminishing circles, one of the hottest tickets in town. Admittedly, it was not like Creer’s annual anti- Thanksgiving Day bash, or one of Beverly Yaeger’s famous feminist dos in honor of the defeat anywhere of a piece of anti-abortion legislation, but unlike the old manitou he could not claim Indian blood or, unlike Ms. Yaeger, even the menstrual stuff. Unlike any of his fabulous colleagues he was axless, out of it, their long loop of rage, degrees below the kindling point of their engagement. Outside all the beltways of attention and the committed heart. In point of fact so uncommitted that one of the next things he would do, once he struggled back to bed, would be to call his guests and explain that his wife had left him suddenly, the party was off.
They’d understand. He did none of the work for it himself, never had—my handicap, my handicap and footicap, he liked to say—and would simply set forth for them the now impossible logistics, freely giving Claire the credit for the splendid spread they put out— not one but three roasts, rare through dark medium, turkey, sliced cheeses like slivery glints of precious metals, pâtés riddled with gemmy olives and crumbs of spice, breads and pastries, cakes and ale. Put out and gave away, in doggy bags and Care packages, Schiff—who addressed them in class as “Mister,” as “Miss”—avuncularizing at them and propped up in the doorway forcing the uneaten food on his departing, liquored-up guests like some hearty, generous Fezziwig. Schiff’s all-worked-and-played-out Bob Cratchits, his pretty young Xmas Carols. It was a strain. It was more. Not just another side but a complete counterfeit of his character and, while he generally enjoyed the masquerade, he couldn’t help but wonder what his students made of his impersonation. Many sent thank-you notes, of course—a form Schiff regarded as condescending—but few ever actually mentioned the parties to him because the only other times they saw each other were in class, where it was business as usual, where the smoking lamp was never lit, and it was Mister and Miss all over again.
What he feared for was his dignity, protecting that like some old-timey maiden her virginity. The annual party, to Schiff’s way of thinking, was pure ceremony, obligatory as hair let down for Mardi Gras, candy and trinkets tossed from the float, insignificant gelt on the anything-goes occasions. But only, they would surely see, voluntarily obligatory, obligatory for as long as his mood was up for it. This was what the great advantage of his age came down to. Added to the other great advantage of his disenabling condition, Schiff practically had it made. A cheerful, outgoing older man might have genuinely enjoyed it. Bargains struck with the Indians for Manhattan, a kind of openhanded heartiness done strictly on spec. Even—he’s thinking about his rough bluff brusqueness with them—the flirting—the men as well as the women—— Schiff’s sandpapery humours. (Well, it was in the nature of the profession to flirt, all profs engaged in some almost military hearts-and-minds thing.) Schiff would have enjoyed it. He had enjoyed it. In the days before he’d been struck down, when even at twenty- five, when even at forty and for a few years afterward, all this curmudgeon business had been merely a dodge, style posturing as temperament and all, he suspected (almost remembered) the customary mishmash of mush skin-deep beneath it. Because, again, the only thing that stood between him and his complete capitulation—he could not revert to what he had not really come from in the first place—to type, was that brittle dignity he had practically lain down his life for. Pretty ironic, he’d say, even in as ironic a world as this one, to have had stripped from him (and by mere pathology) the physical bulwark of his great protective formality and fastidiousness. (Completely toilet trained, according to family legend, at nine months.)
And now he has a choice to make: whether to wiggle- waggle on the walker (with no one in th
His head within striking distance of the head of the bed, Jack Schiff laid into gravity and fell back on the pillow, then, with his palms under his left thigh, he pulled his almost useless leg up after him. The right one still had some strength and he kicked it aboard, leaned over to open the door to the nightstand, and took out the green plastic basin and thin urinal, angled, tipped at its neck (always reminding Schiff somehow of a sort of shellfish, indeed actually smelling like one, of the shore, its filthy musks and salts and iodines, its mixed and complex seas gone off like sour soup). It’s into this, once he’s snapped back its plastic lid, Schiff must thread his penis, hold it in place, pushing up on the bottom of his abdomen, jabbing and jabbing with his thumb until he feels the burn. (Taking pleasure not just in the release of his water but in the muted, rain-on-the-roof sound it makes once it begins to come.) Only recently has he noticed the bruise on the skin of his lower stomach where he’s been punching himself silly. He examines it now, reading the yellowish black and blue like a fortune-teller. What, thought Schiff, a piece of work is man, and blotted at his pee with a Kleenex. Then he measured his output in cubic centimeters on the bas relief plastic numerals outside the urinal. His secret wish was to piss a liter, but the most he’s ever done was six hundred cubic centimeters. This time it’s under two hundred. Not even average, but he’s relieved because the fact is Schiff can’t stand even 75 cc of discomfort, not even fifty. For a man as generally incapacitated and uncomfortable as Schiff is he’s a sort of snob, but pissing is something he can do something about. Schiff is very conscientious about pissing.
And only now does his new situation have his full attention.
For the truth is Schiff has always been very organized. Even before he was a cripple he was organized. (Schiff believes in a sort of cripple’s code—that one must never do anything twice. It’s a conservation-of-energy thing, an anti- entropy thing, scientific, almost Newtonian, and now, in an age of raised environmental consciousness, recycling, of substitution and cut corners, the golden age, he supposes, of the stitch in time, of taken pains and being careful in the streets, he finds—for a cripple—he’s not only, given his gait, in step with his times but practically a metaphor for them. It’s a conservation-of-energy thing and a nine- months-of-toilet-training thing.)
Of course—he’s thinking of his new situation, he’s thinking of the carefully trained guns of his full attention, he’s thinking of the inescapable fallout of the world, he’s thinking of synergy, of the unavoidable garbage created not only out of every problem but out of each new solution—the pisser—he knew this going in, he couldn’t help himself, by nature he was a list maker—will have to be emptied, especially this particular pisser with its almost caramel-colored urine. (Schiff prefers a clearish urine, something in a dry white wine, and what, he wonders, is the liquid equivalent of anal retentive?) This had been—even with the handle of the urinal attached to the walker’s wide aluminum crossrail his wild limp would not have permitted him to take five steps without setting up the dancing waters, a rough churn of spilled piss—Claire’s job, and though he doesn’t really blame Claire for leaving him—had their roles been reversed, take away his nine-month toilet training and his incremental, almost exponential squeamishness, he’d have bugged out on her long ago—he understands that, should this thing stick, in the future he will have to think twice, three times, more, before using the urinal. (Or maybe, thinks the list maker, he can arrange for a case of urinals, keep them in the night- stand, turn it into a kind of wine cellar. Nah, he’s kidding. Well he is and he isn’t. It’s something to think about, another thing he’ll have to run past the cripple’s code, the garbage potential latent in all solutions.)
But he set all that aside for the moment and took up the phone to see if he could get some idea where he stood.
The dispatcher at the cab company—Schiff had made a mental note of the number on Claire’s taxi—said he’d like to help but the computer was down. (Schiff, who didn’t believe him, wondered what the fallout would come to from such solutions.) He checked with the airlines, but since he couldn’t give them Claire’s destination, let alone times or flight numbers, they couldn’t help him. (Couldn’t or wouldn’t. He insisted that even without the specifics they ought to be able to punch up her name on their computers. Claire Schiff, he said to one agent, how many Claire Schiffs could there be riding on their airplanes? She was his wife, for God’s sake, and he didn’t know of another Claire Schiff in all of America. Suppose this had been a real emergency. A real emergency? “Sure. If the plane went down, God forbid. If there’d been a hijacking.” “If the plane went down, if there’s been a hijacking?” the agent said slyly. “God forbid,” said Schiff. “She’s your wife,” another agent said, “and you don’t even have a destination for her?” “Well, my girl.” “Oh, now she’s your ‘girl.’” “My daughter,” he said, “we think she’s run off.” “Your daughter, is she?” the agent said. “Listen, you,” Schiff, getting defensive, said aggressively, “I happen to be a Frequent Flyer on this airline. I have your platinum card, more than a hundred thousand uncashed miles and enough bonus points to practically charter my own goddamn plane. Either look up Claire Schiff for me or let me speak to your supervisor.” The son of a bitch hung up on him. They’d whipped him. “I have to find her,” he told the very last agent he spoke to, “I’m disabled and we’re giving a party.”) He probably spent thirty or forty dollars on long-distance fishing expeditions. Their friends, proclaiming no knowledge of her plans, went on fishing expeditions of their own. “No,” he’d say, putting them off, “no trouble. As for myself, my condition’s pretty much unchanged, but I think Claire may be getting a little spooked. Well,” he said, still fairly truthfully, “we’re both getting on. Hell,” he said, “I’m close to sixty. So’s Claire, for that matter. Maybe she thinks she won’t be able to lift me much longer.” But finally as cavalier with the truth as he’d been with the airline son of a bitch who’d hung up on him. “She’s been depressed,” he said. “I’ve got her meeting with a psychiatrist three, sometimes four times a week. We’re starting to think about institutions. We’re starting to think, now they’ve got a lot of the kinks worked out, about electroshock therapy. Life’s a bitch, ain’t it? Yeah, well, if you should happen to hear anything, anything at all, you have my number, give me a ring. Dr. Greif and I want to get this thing settled as soon as we can. Tell Marge hi for me.”
No longer bothering to pick up the litter he left after these flights of fancy, no longer even thinking about it. Just working his new situation. And was still working his new situation when the idea came to him to call Harry Aid in Portland. Once he thought of it he didn’t screw around.
“Harry, it’s Jack. Is Claire with you?”
“With me? Why would she be with me?”
He recognized the tone in Harry’s voice. It could have been the tone in his own voice when he was handing out his God forbids to the airline agents and transforming his wife’s identity into his girlfriend’s and then declining that one into some daughter’s.
“Why? Well, for starters, I think she may still have a thing for you, you big lug.”
“Is she with you, Harry?”
“Jack, I swear on my life she isn’t.”
“Yeah, all right, it’s a four-hour plane ride to Portland. Is she on her way?”
“Honor bright, Jack, I’m telling you that as of this minute I have absolutely no idea where she is.”
So, Schiff thought, she’s run off to play out her life with her old sweetheart.
“Okay, Harry. Hang tough. Stonewall me. Just you remember. I’m a helpless old cripple with a degenerative neurological disease who has to be strapped into the chair when he goes down the stairs on his Stair-Glide.”
“Oh, Jack,” Harry said.
“Oh, Harry,” said Jack, and hung up.
It wasn’t that satisfactory but at least now he knew where he stood. (Well, he thought, stood.) What he’d told his wife had been true. He couldn’t afford to be single. Not at the rate his exacerbations had been coming. Only a little over a year ago he’d still been able to manage on a cane, he’d still been able to drive. He’d owned a walker—a gift from the Society—but hadn’t even taken it out of its box. Now they had to tote him around in a wheelchair he hadn’t enough strength in his left arm to propel by himself. Now he had to go up and down stairs in contraptions on tracks—— Schiff’s little choo-choo. Now he couldn’t stand in the shower, there were grab bars on the sides of his handicap toilet, a bath bench in his tub, he had to sit to pee, and couldn’t always pull the beltless, elastic-waistband pants he wore all the way up his hips and over his ass. (Now, for the same reason, he didn’t even wear underwear.) There were ramps at both the front and rear of the house. And every other month now there was some elaborate new piece of home health equipment in the house. Indeed, where once it had been a sort of soft entertainment for him to go into the malls and department stores, now it had become a treat to drop into one of the health supply shops and scope the prosthetics. On his wish list was the sort of motorized wheelchair you’d see paraplegics tear around in, a van with a hydraulic lift in which to put it, and one of those big easy chairs that raised you to a standing position. Also, although in his case it was still a little premature to think about just yet, he had his eye on this swell new electronic hospital bed. He found himself following ads for used hospital beds in the Society’s newsletter. (“Don’t kid yourself,” he told colleagues, “it takes dough to be crippled and still have a lifestyle.”)
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