Ferry Me Across the Water
This is what it was like to be inside my head on 27 September 2007.
"You've thrilled me with this opera," Speight had said a few hours earlier. After having pushed with nearly desperate intensity for the past nine months to compose it, I had just finished playing and singing through Amelia's completed vocal score for him. He had green-lit the project. Amelia would take flight. It was a good day. I was relieved, proud, and happy. I strolled from Seattle Opera's rehearsal studios and shops to the Colman Dock, boarded the Bainbridge Ferry.
Mother inspired me to embrace the examined life. Tomchek showed me how deeply committed an artist had to be. Ned taught me by example the personal toll that remaking one's life as fiction levies. Doerf it was who encouraged my already obsessive-compulsive habit of "looping back," of conjoining every experience in real-time to memories, literature, and poetic correlatives.
Consequently, arms draped over the ferry's railing, a rolled-up copy of the vocal score of Amelia in my hand, I was not surprised when the memories and free-associations began. A voice sang to the tune of my own setting of Christina Rossetti's words,
Ferry me across the water, Do, boatman, do.
The boat, engines churning, backed away from the pier, shuddering. Roethke's great villanelle-the one Ned had set and assigned to us to set. The one Norman had set which I had woven into my memorial symphony for him, the one that had over the years become talismanic for me-drifted into my mind. Norman had ended his voyage at the end of a noose.
I looked down at the aquamarine wash. The ferry nosed into the bay. I reached into my pocket and drew out a penny. "For you, Charon," I said, dropping it over the side for remembrance and luck. As the coin fell, the breeze caught it and it seemed for a moment to hang in the air. Father's voice as a young man sang,
If you've a penny in your purse, I'll ferry you,
I pictured him carrying sleepy me over his shoulder to bed and tenderly tucking me in. I thought of him after a few drinks-seething with frustration, looking for someone to belt. So. Angry.
A seagull shot past. I thought of the elegant little birds that dance in the air above the Ravenna-Bellagio ferry. Two trips: the first, like a negative, slogging in 1994 through marriage with Donna; second, vibrant and colorful, happy at last, a decade later, Gilda's intelligent face alight with pleasure as the sycamores flanking the ferry dock blossomed with flocks of startled golden birds when the boat met the pier. This time I heard Mother's voice, singing,
I have a penny in my purse. And my eyes are blue....
You and Father loved one another, I know it, I thought. I don't idealize you, Mother; I don't demonize you, Father. You're both just lost to me.
The waves began to chop. The ferry surged into the middle of Elliott Bay. As a freshly minted New Yorker during the early 80s, I rode the ferry to Staten Island and back every couple of weeks to rekindle my romance with Gotham. Then lunatics brought the Towers down. I stopped riding the ferry. The skyline no longer fed me. It had come to signify the presence that absence makes. An incomplete middle-aged man, I thought, sadly, I just cannot manage to let go of my dead. I haven't finished mourning them.
"How are you, Grandma?" I remembered asking, insipid with wine, from a bar in Marseilles, Christmas Eve 1989. I had run away to Europe for what I thought was forever, but I was still lonesome. "I live in a nursing home. I eat through a tube in my stomach. How do you think I am?" she replied, sensibly. Beat. "I'm living in Europe now," I said, proudly. "Do you think Mama would have liked that?" There was a burst of spooky crackling on the transatlantic line. "I never understood what the two of you saw in living abroad," she sniffed. I tried another tack, reported brightly, "Common Ground is going to be played by the New York Philharmonic." I sensed her bewilderment. "That's nice, honey," she replied. "When are you going to get a job?"The wind stiffened. Shivering, I stepped inside the cabin. It hadn't been Grandma's voice; it had been M's, singing,
So ferry me across the water,
Do, boatman, do!
Letting go with a sigh, I recalled the feeling, just before dawn in Venice, in December 1989, of being lost in Dante's "dark wood." Left to my own devices, bereft of guidance, I had spent hours walking in circles. I was hopelessly lost. Finally, I dropped lire into the mouth of a broken payphone. She had left me, but she was still my heroin, and I needed to hear her voice. My shoes sloshed in the icy Aqua Alta. The heavy lire fell.
I heard a whirr, a click, and then a connection. Someone spoke French. It was her new lover. Disgusted, I threw the receiver at the phone as hard as I could and turned away. More stumbling around in the darkness, soul-sick. More crossing my own path, bathed in cold sweat. I was in withdrawal from her! At last, I made the Fondamente Nuove. I slipped on the stone pier and landed on my hands and knees in the water. The wind off the Adriatic slapped seawater on my face. I shook my head and opened my eyes, wide. Rainbows suddenly haloed the harbor lights. I saw stars. Quickly, I closed my eyes and rubbed the saltwater out of them, hands cold. When I opened them, I looked up, and again saw stars, but this time strewn crazily across the sky, making up the diadem of the Milky Way. It felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach, hard. Suddenly, I heard nothing, and couldn't breathe. My ears began to buzz. I looked down at the stones of Venice. Breathe! I thought. Why not just crawl, right now, into the sea? Do I even have the courage to pull it off? Hell, I already feel like I'm drowning. A strange voice sang,
Step into my ferry boat, be they black or blue....
I blacked out for a moment, but my diaphragm bucked like a startled horse and I suddenly heard the keening of the wind, the slapping of the waves, the sound of a harbor bell, crazy, bouncing across the water. I exhaled. I dragged air in, whether I wanted to or not. I got to my knees. I screamed. My diaphragm reflexively clawed another breath. My head pounded. I got to my feet, fell back against the wall, and looked north: there was San Cristoforo. Christ, it looks like the Canaletto, only with no lights on. I heard myself giggle weirdly and realized that my teeth were chattering. Enough, Goddammit, I swore. I curled my fingers into claws and shook them, then wrung them, and then shook them as fists, growling with frustration, anger, sadness, futility, and loneliness. So much so, I thought. I sang,
And for the penny in your purse...
The moment passed. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and found ₤7000-about five bucks-enough for two shots of cheap rye at an all-Nite bar. I drank, and then put my head down on the bar and slept there for a while.
When I woke up, the sputtering fluorescent lights on the floating dock outside the bar buzzed B-flat as I boarded the first vaporetto of the day. I rode free, was ferried around Venice for a couple of hours in my sleep. In time, after the sun had risen and the seats were needed, the captain who had been watching over me awakened me at the Venezia Santa Lucia. I boarded the first train to Vienna, and began what would become the twenty-five-year-long journey back from the furthest I probably ever got from home.
And for the penny in your purse...
I sang, disembarking at Bainbridge and boarding the ferryboat back to Seattle. Wanting alcohol, instead I bought a cup of coffee-one of those blue ones with the Greek lettering on it; one like the one I had been given by the stray girl years before when I, stretched to my limit, had thrown up into the fountain at Lincoln Center. The liquid was the color of skin, I thought, blowing on it. I stood in the bow and leaned into the wind. Soon, the Seattle skyline slid into view.
I remembered watching James Holmes die. I remembered watching Mother die. I remembered saying goodbye to Britt on the telephone knowing that within hours he would be dead. I remembered cradling Norman's head as he screamed, "For Christ's sake my head will just not stop hurting." I remembered Father reaching tenderly into Uncle Keith's casket to cover his eyes with coins. My brothers Kevin and Britt sang, in thirds,
And for the penny in your purse...
Rossetti's poem is about Charon, but it must be the Acheron, not the Styx-yes? And is the other character Euridice? "Drunken Noonan as Amelia Earhart's Charon," I mused. "Or James at Yaddo, ferrying Yaddo guests in the company station wagon from the Saratoga train station to the Otherworld-."
A drink would do nicely, right about now, I thought; as I sipped my coffee, the Seattle skyline, beautifully, spread its wings before me.
The tempo of my thoughts accelerated again as it arranged and rearranged mental correlatives: " -Charon as train conductor, checking Euridice Eva Marie Saint's ticket in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Cary Grant unknowingly beginning his hero's adventure up the Hudson concealed in the compartment above her." I recalled seeing the film for the first time as a teenager at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee -.
Enough, I protested. I was powerless to slow or mute my thoughts. The music roared.
"-Or Charon as the solitary commuter I recognized but to whom I never spoke every week for a decade as I sped north to teach at Bard on the same train as Hitchcock's lovers. -Or Charon as bartender, serving a drink to The Hero with a Thousand Faces as he begins his Campbellian journey in the cantina scene of Star Wars. -Or as Bobby in Sondheim's Company, stalled halfway between verses of Corinthians. -Or as the stewardesses (charming Charons-all) on the planes hurtling towards the Towers in the unwritten sequel to Vera of Las Vegas-." Enormously loud, from inside my skull, a three hundred-voice choir belted,
And for the penny in your purse...
It felt like a hot piece of metal behind my eyes. "Enough," I heard myself say, aloud, exhausted, a little scared. "Oh, for God's sake, enough now." A drink will stop it. If I were high, my brain would still race, but I wouldn't care. No. No booze today, I thought. I want to be here.
I pressed my thumbs hard into my eye sockets and concentrated on the sound of the water sliding alongside. I heard the ferry slap, and then embrace Pier 52. When I opened my eyes, through the "stars" I less "saw" than "felt" in my peripheral vision a deliriously happy boy with golden ringlets of no more than three years streak across the deck, trailed by his joyful, loving, and exhausted parents. I remembered another peripheral vision-the evening in summer 1984 at Yaddo when I met the shade of Katrina Trask.
"I will not drink today," I heard myself say aloud.
Nadia Boulanger's dying words are supposed to have been, "J'ecoute la musique sans commencement ni fine." What difference does it make whether that music was happy or sad, or even understood? Like life, it is always both, its meaning mostly sensed-we don't really know much about it, we admit, but we know what we like.
The music in my head began to fade. The craving for booze moved offstage, and to the left. I disembarked the ferry and looked around. Gilda sang, sotto voce, with infinite tenderness, to her pregnant belly,
And for the penny in your purse, I'll ferry you.
It began to drizzle. I concentrated on listening to the sound of the rain. The effort resulted in slowing my pulse. The tempo of my thoughts slowed; the volume of them subsided. The sound of the rain gave way to the characters in Blitzstein's Regina singing "Consider the Rain," and then to a vivid recollection of smoking a cigar, years ago, on the second floor screen porch of the Yaddo mansion, during a summer downpour so heavy that the air was gray. "It's called 'liquid smoke,' Steven Burke had explained as I held the Cuban's heavy smoke in my mouth. Then, the memory of Britt and Mother smoking and talking together on the back porch of the Big Cedar House on a warm summer night: she loved him best, because he needed it the most.
I've been told by people who said that they loved me that love isn't enough, but I know that it is. Like music, love streams endlessly on whether we partake of it or not. One hopes, I suppose, that the music of our lives will be, as Mother once hoped mine would be, "mostly happy." In any event, I thought, only life ends; the music never stops.
I looked into the Seattle sky, opened my mouth, and felt the raindrops fall on my tongue. One last memory came: "Strong, or weak?" gurgled Madame de Lancie as she peered up at me with her sweet, slightly stoned eyes from behind the steaming samovar. "Not so strong," I'd tell her, smiling kindly in return, looking around at the talented children around me in the genteel, slightly threadbare Common Room of the Curtis Institute, and feeling out of place.
The rain tasted sweet. My suit was already completely soaked. There was no point in seeking shelter. It was a good rain. It was a good day. I didn't feel cold. I looked at the spiral bound vocal score of Amelia curled up into a telescope in my hand. Already the rain had caused the notes to run and blur. So it goes, I thought. I couldn't help but smile.
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