“You take such smug pleasure in it, sitting there, sipping your tea after a swim in the cold lake, as if you were snuggling up to existence itself, the whole horizon of the world apparent before you in the smell of the—what the hell is that, ginger or lavender—and as if you were being whispered to by the wind in the trees like some damn nineteenth-century Concord hanger-on, and you can take that all and stuff it, just stuff it and stuff yourself in with the whole package of bull cause you are just what they are selling, you’ve bought it and become it, and we are three thousand dollars the worse for it…”
“I’m not sipping my tea now, am I? Listening to you rant, again, like you always do, because you decided too late that we couldn’t afford it, after we both looked at the reviews and talked to people and Phillip said what we were getting into…”
“Yes because Phillip told us to come, and we are both so enamored by him—but wait, I’m not enamored and you are, by what, his three divorces and his time whale-watching in Alaska, and his going door-to-door in that delusional campaign that we all thought was in the bag?”
“You were encouraging him to stay for another drink! We wouldn’t have even had to listen to the story about the whales if you hadn’t needed your third whiskey, and anyway, why does it matter, what does it matter if he has good stories and actually is willing to experience the world rather than to save, and save, and save, and fret about retirement and sit inside and work through another series on Netflix, they’re all the same—there is something outside, and I didn’t realize I had to sit the way you wanted, to adopt a pose of studied cynicism the way you to towards everything, and yeah, it is sort of fun to indulge you, to pretend it’s something that makes me feel better about myself, and to sneer at people in the mall, but it doesn’t have to happen all the time—and also, you were the one who wanted to get the bumper sticker and I talked you out of it, because the Prius, which was also your idea, doesn’t need more to advertise itself to the world, and that’s the problem. You want it both ways, don’t you? You needed to pretend to Phillip that we would come here, and then actually do it, and you need to make a show of the right causes and getting out and wanting to learn to rock climb, but when it actually comes down to it, in private, when you are alone, you puff yourself up with feeling better than it all, and it’s all, it’s all just such demented self-loathing…self-loathing feeding on itself.”
“You say that but you don’t even have the courage to say how boring this is, you are so willing to lie yourself out of three thousand dollars. That meal tonight was absolute garbage and everyone was retired for at least fifteen years, and I’m about to have an existential crisis because we are already here, this is it, this is where we have decided to go this year…”
“What brought this on, do you know what brought this on—and that is the dumbest part of it—you saw that cat, and it made you sad and when I asked you about it, you couldn’t take it, in front of everyone, and they knew you were upset, Christ it’s not like they haven’t lost a pet, they have lost things too, they’ve been upset too, you know?”
“That is—it wasn’t that you asked, it was that you reached across the table and you do it all the time, the patronizing tug at my chin, and then you tell me not to care about the money, but you are the one who gets a week off each year, you are the one without vacation time, and yeah, I know you make plenty, but it’s three thousand and a week each year and you want everyone to know, don’t you—so you baby me, and you babied me about…about the cat and they all looked at it and saw and thought what the hell is going on there, and people from that generation, those men, they have no idea why that would happen, they probably think I’m here recovering from some breakdown and that you’re my nurse or that… but you don’t get to…”
“Fine—it’s not the most exciting vacation, but I need this, a break, and I need time to just sit and stare off and sip my tea, and I need to do it without your telling a story of what’s happening in my head, like you have any idea—and you, guess what, no surprise, you don’t—you don’t understand even small things I do, like reaching across the table because, even if I hadn’t they all would have noticed you were upset, that’s why Susan was being so nice to you about the pie, trying to let you have the biggest piece, but you didn’t let her and came across like a jerk”
“You say they understand but what sort of warped view do you have? They have lost children, and parents and they probably don’t even remember the pets. I also wasn’t upset—you assumed it, and then you reached off and that’s what make me mad, so I probably was a jerk god I hope Susan understands, she won’t remember me tomorrow most likely, but I hope she forgives me for not taking the big piece of pie, might have been the highlight of the week, did Phillip come here on his third honeymoon or second or did he take someone from the graphics department at work last year, or just come alone to see if the old women would fawn over his stories, and yeah, I needed whisky to get me through that night, he wasn’t going to stop, the story was coming at us, but you might not have noticed time passing, it was torture sitting there, I mean— where are you?”
“Just, space—and just”
Her footfall faded into the woods, down a path they had not yet explored, and he followed after her, unable to see her but walking with long strides. When he found her, several minutes later, she was standing looking into a lake, shaking, and he moved unevenly towards her, raising one hand half aloft toward her shoulder, very softly reaching it. She did not turn, but braced, then another hand and she softened and spoke
The voice trailed off, but the silence did not resume its course; now, instead, a groaning came from the high reeds on the shore. He swatted at a bug on his neck and squinted into the darkness.
He sighed into her arms and pulled her backwards, then more urgently again. Something slapped the water, a sound that might have been muttering drifted towards them, though no words were distinct; a shadow rose and their breathing grew intense as a figure stood, slowly stumbling onto the banks. It crouched, weakly took a few steps, then on all fours crawled a bit forward and stopped. She coughed, and then again, and he spoke out:
What must have been a head jerked upright; it was perfectly ovular, and as it crawled forward, some dent in the foliage must have let in moonlight because it glistened. He walked forward, into the underbrush:
She followed a half step and then caught him:
“The ticks—be careful—but ok, go, yes”
“Are you alright?”
The figure remained still, head glistening in the light. It did not respond.
“I’m staying here at the camp, and I can get help if you”
The voice ran out, viscous and feminine, and old.
“I…if you could…I’m having some trouble”
He approached and saw a woman, a swim cap on her head, crouched beneath him. Her swimsuit covered her thighs and upper arms.
“Let me give you a hand…”
“Oh god, Susan, it’s…are you alright? What are you doing here?”
“Don’t worry, we are staying nearby, let me help you out of the brush. Do you want to borrow my…or to carry you?”
“Oh, this is just so silly, no no, of course not, I’ll make my way”
“Yes, it’s Susan”
“Oh god! What happ…I mean, are you alright?”
“I am, and was, it hasn’t happened before. I go for evening swims, when it’s getting dark, in the lake and tonight I lost track of where I was, my mind started wandering and soon I was turned round in the lake couldn’t see the dock at all, and I was tired and knew I could make my way back on shore somehow, so came in and that’s when you found me in the damn reeds, trying to get back to some solid ground, probably covered in leeches”
“You can check back at our cabin. We can call…your husband? Is he staying here with you?”
“Philip, yes, he is, he’ll want to hear from me”
He did not answer the phone in their cabin. Susan suggested that they try the lodge, which they did. The manager on call promised to call back once they found him. In the meantime, Susan sat with a towel and sipped the tea that had been offered to her.
“It’s your first time here—however did you find out about it?”
“One of my colleagues, a boss really, had come here…his name is Phil—”
“Phillip! Of course—lovely man, lovely man, and you must tell him, or no”
“You know Phillip?”
“Well, Phil, for the sake of keeping things straight with him and my husband”
The phone rang.
“It’s Philip calling back. They found him in the lodge”
“Yes…no, it was…I know you…we will talk about it later…I’m with the two from dinner…yes, the one who…pleasant enough yes…and yes, they can I’m sure.”
“He is going to finish up his round and then said he would drive here, so it will be a half hour, I imagine. Phil, though, yes, I know him well, and have, he always comes for meetings here, and we usually do too, but this year we wanted something quiet also, and so we didn’t…”
“Yes, the meetings, or the gatherings, or whatnot—thirty years now, so he found us, or one of us found him, when he was in his twenties and starting out, just “coming up,” and we all saw…we didn’t all see eye to eye, how could we, but we cared about the same arguments, the same disagreements, and the same politics.”
“Phil, yes. Who probably would not be eager to have me telling you this if he didn’t himself, but. But the poor man, so meek about his work, even in the gatherings, I don’t mind telling you that he is deserving of attention, whatever it can get, the writing. We have met here for more than fifty years, the ones who are still alive. We never wanted to give a name to ourselves and so we didn’t do the obvious thing and put together an anthology, and what did you study in college, or do either of you read poetry on your own?”
“Sometimes, in The New Yorker or”
“English, actually, but not much into contemporary poetry—some Yeats and Auden in a great class, taught by this…”
“Right, so I don’t feel bruised by your neglect, and I am not bruised by neglect. If you are ever interested, you could at least find some of my collections second-hand, and that would give you some idea of what we were trying to do. We never wanted it to be confused with the California movements, or the New York schools, Snyder or Ashbery or O’Hara and Lorine we invited but she wasn’t interested in this sort of thing at that age or ever maybe, so we met and what we wanted was a renovation of the public most of all. But the 70s happened and—the country is a mess right now but it’s easy to forget, even easy for me to forget what the 70s felt like, just all of the fallings off, the futility and wondering what could happen next—computers, and so much money and better computers and so much more money, and the poetry and during all of that is when Phil, your Phillip, came here for the first time. God, I am becoming digressive like a novelist now. He startled some of us, and scared some of us too, because he was from all that, the money and the public shine, the public shine that has been away from most poets for so long, and we invited him into our circle here, and he willingly accepted, which just didn’t make sense and still doesn’t—maybe makes less sense now, and Philip will tell you if he wants to talk about it sometime—but don’t ask him tonight, I can tell he is not in the mood to talk about it tonight—just why it doesn’t any of it make sense now, but I…”
“I’m sorry, I was just looking for a tissue—the pollen in those woods”
“No, that’s alright, it’s not even interesting to me to think about it”
“But Phillip—Phil—writes poetry?”
“Well, yes! That’s the point—or he did until this last spring. That’s what confuses me. For years, he had come here and he read and we read, and the thought we all had was that we were doing something whether or not anyone approved. Phil always spoke so beautifully about why we were doing it—because we are in a delusional democracy, he said, and in any democracy at all, the expert scientists are distrusted and the expert artists are disdained—and thank god for that because in a totalitarian state, he said, and he was so passionate always, you probably know, the artists are threatened and suppressed and the sciences are put in the factories—and in either, the weak ones, the cowards, succumb to whoever in power tries to coopt them—we were always together here trying not to do that, a sort of fool’s errand of holding out by just being a certain way, sometimes just sitting together and staring at the lake’s edge, but usually nothing so zen, and more about listening, trying to listen. There’s no way to explain it, but some of what Phil wrote was always the most moving of all, and I think, well, I had my success, and I never wanted to do, never wanted to carry the metaphors and the gravitas as far as Phil did, but Philip resented it, and wasn’t alone.
That’s probably shocking for me to say about Philip, but he wrote some of his best poetry out of that envy—the schlock about poetry needing to come from love is probably true, but envy and love are not always opposed, and Philip loved Phil and loved the poetry but so much that he wanted to be those things, “impinged by the nerves of someone else,” a line of his, that says it I think…it was easy to resent, Phil making the money he made and the wives, and always such success with women and sometimes men, even here at the gatherings, and he was generous, to a fault really, because some abused it, but he would rent the lodge for all of us for a weekend, ten thousand or more, and that matters now, because we are here, enjoying the summer nights, me swimming into reeds and, there’s a poem there, I just don’t know if I can chase it anymore, but the reeds, but not like Yeats would have done it, my apologies to your brilliant professor, and it being this—I feel, do you mind if I say something that will possibly make you bristle or throw up just a little bit in your mouth?”
“No, of course”
“It being this swimming lost into those reeds and having to be helped up that has become my being helped up to hear—I can hear my own voice right now, again—god it has been so long, I think, or maybe that is just what it feels like in this mood, but it is how the gatherings once were, we would walk along the lake, different groups of us, and somehow we would turn, and it would be cool spring night air, so we would be awake not like the hot summer evening, and suddenly that person next to you would be able to understand what you wanted to write a poem about as you described it and tried out phrases so that it didn’t even matter if you actually wrote it—so thank you…it’s a lovely cabin here…lovely view…”
“And Phil? What happened?”
“I’ll say nothing at work—I am just…what did you mean when you said something about him not writing anymore?”
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me that he told you about this place now—it must not mean the same to him that it did. It wasn’t enough, he said. This was the last gathering, maybe it will be the last of the gatherings in fact…He had read on the third night and it was the second to last night and he volunteered to read again, but this time something he had been working on here, which wasn’t so unusual. On the third night he had read poems that, I don’t think he was quite satisfied with them, he wanted there to be whales and…it’s neither here or there really, but the whales didn’t spout, so to speak. That’s what Philip had said after he read, and Phil didn’t want to hear it and grimaced but managed to laugh. Then it was the second to last night. We have all been tired this year, and even before this year, and it’s easier and harder to care as we get older, I guess—easier to care about this because so much of what and how people care is false, just patently, rotted-out false, and harder to care about writing and saying the words and hearing the words come alive without the people there to say them for you, and that weird sense of hearing the lungs and ventricles inside of words and phrases…
because they aren’t alive…we had talked about it and argued about it and you will think it so foolish, almost senile, to argue about whether words give depth or find depth or retrieve depth or measure depth to the life of things, or whether…the debates are so damn tired, and I just wanted to hear words that live and to alive with other people while they were still alive, so to be honest I did not listen too much, but stared off, at the lake and sipped my tea. That second night though when Phil read things really flew out of control. You remember those words about why we should write, because we live in a delusional democracy. Phil didn’t just say that once of course, it came out more than once and more often recently, expressed with small variations, but not many, like a melody he could improve on and return to. You know, he really clung to that, and what he had started talking about more often was the delusional democracy, the people, even the most educated and thoughtful in this country thinking themselves silly and being mostly wrong, and—none of this was new to us, nothing is at our age, but especially not this, our having spent our lives doing what we have done, fighting against the people we’ve fought against, but for Phil maybe it was somehow new, and felt new maybe because of what he had done with at least part of his life, working for those lies, and on those lies—
I’m sorry, I know that you work for him, and you are young, and I am not judging you personally, but to come here and be at the gatherings and then to go back there, that split in who Phil was, or was trying to be, it drew him into himself more and more recently, more and more this past year. That second to last night, Phil read again and we should have known something was wrong with how he started—the words were, I am nearly sure I have them by heart, “I dedicate this poem to the folly of the elderly, the wealth of the young, and the compromises of everyone in between.” But we weren’t that sort of audience, and we heard what Phil was saying in how he said it, and we didn’t like it—the provocateur grandstanding, presumption, the pretension of it, but we could laugh because we thought maybe there was irony or I don’t know if irony is exactly the word, but something that would be redressed in the words. I don’t remember the words of the poem, but I couldn’t have because it wasn’t a poem at all. It was some sort of performance piece…bear in mind that we have been friends here, and respected each other, and colleagues for thirty, forty, fifty years some of us, and one of us is going to perform for us, to give us that sort of cheap east village budget theater thrill to make us think that we have had the experience we paid for, and I’m sorry, that wasn’t the worst part, it was what he read aloud.
I knew he had done investments for a few people in the group, and others knew too, and he had helped out Phillip and I with some of our money since we’ve had trouble over the years, but I couldn’t believe how much he knew—where money was saved, how much money was owed, whose grandchildren or children asked for help and received help, where we had donated, and the worth—the “net worth” that was what he said of each of us—but he had it all, and he, well, he stood there and he read aloud what it was, and what those other figures were, one by one, so that some were glowing red by the end of the evening, the sheer stupidity of it, and what point he was trying to make with that crass demonstration, I knew well what some of the critics would have said and how they would defend it and justify it for…oh the words that they can abuse when they praise, but this was, and Phillip stood and he gritted his teeth and I didn’t know if he would try to punch Phil for what he had done, what he had made us out to be, and he asked him what do you make us out to be, and what do you make us out to be doing here, and then muttering he said “at least the whales sang,” and Phil didn’t even try to defend himself but left and the next morning appeared at breakfast but didn’t say much until that last evening when I walked next to the lake with him, and didn’t say much myself but thought he might talk if I was just there, walking slowly, and looking out, and he eventually did. He said “I can’t delude myself anymore” and the word “delude” took all of the force, he struck at it, and then he said that the gatherings felt so delusional to him, that he couldn’t go on, and, I don’t know maybe, has he been different to you at work in these past few months?”
“I…I think maybe…I’m not…yes, some days more than others.”
“But that makes sense—he wouldn’t carry it over. It’s like none of this existed to him, so he could give it to you, stop caring the way he had, and yes, well, let’s just be fortunate that you have it now, just be glad that you are here to look across the lake. My god, I know the shape of it, where the trees rise up, where the hill indents the sky with something even darker, so well, and have you, well, if you haven’t, you should walk up beyond the canoe station, and it looks like a road that’s closed off, but if you keep going it turns into a small field, a meadow, I think—meadows are wonderfully beautiful, and unusual in happening as they do.”