The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
One afternoon, years ago when I was maybe nine or ten, my uncle Bill held a funeral downstairs while my brother and I watched Heckle and Jeckle cartoons, with the sound turned off, upstairs. Uncle Bill’s funeral home stood just three blocks from Asbury Park’s alluring boardwalk. Trips down to the shore from our house near Trenton marked the high points of our New Jersey summers. The funeral home itself took up the whole first floor of a massive stucco building on Third Avenue. Uncle Bill, Auntie Mil (my dad’s sister), and my cousin Bill (who played football for Asbury Park’s Blue Bishops and would take over his dad’s business) lived on the second. Their third floor accommodated family and other visitors down its long hallway of otherwise empty rooms and closets.
The payoff of a walk on the boardwalk with pockets full of change beckoned so strongly that we could certainly put up with an occasional hour of silence. We sat absolutely still on a couch in the room just above the services. We laughed into dusty pillows as the cartoon magpies made life miserable for brutish dogs and ditzy cats, all in silence, until muffled voices below let us know the funeral was over. At that point, we improvised our own slow-motion cartoon and skated on stocking feet across the floor to a window where we looked down on Uncle Bill’s helpers, who rolled the casket gingerly along a gray ramp to the hearse. A second black funeral car, filled with owers pressed like children’s faces to its windows, pulled in right behind the first. When car doors slammed shut, the black hearse, the black flower car, and assorted other vehicles following with family and friends arced gracefully through the narrow parking lot and drove out of sight to one of the Jersey shore cemeteries. That big house burned down in 1997, leaving a vacant lot on the broad avenue of once grand summer homes. But the day of that funeral stuck in my mind, and the magpie, even in its black-and-white cartoon version, has stood for me ever since as an audacious witness, a trickster of sorts, poised on the divide between living and dying.
The Heckle and Jeckle Cartoon Show from the late ’50s and early ̓60s begins with those oval-headed magpies running full-tilt from a loose-jowled dog. At the last possible moment, the birds leap safely away through holes in a hollow tree. As the dog lunges after them, one of the two (I never knew which was Heckle and which Jeckle) quickly pulls up the lower hole, in a cartoon twist on material reality, just in time for the dog to slam accordion-like into the trunk. There’s a quick cut to magpies and dog, who now stand together laughing behind the reflections show’s opening titles, and then, even more surrealistically, a lion chases the cartoon birds through mouths of alligators snapping shut and into a hallway where they all scurry in and out of doors remarkably like the third floor of my uncle’s funeral home. My brother and I slept many humid nights up there as creaks and groans, ghostly, we thought, rose through the immense house, while just up the street the gray waves of the Atlantic broke ceaselessly over the shore.
We knew that my uncle and aunt’s house housed the dead. That was their job. But even with all our visits to Asbury Park, I never saw a dead body at Uncle Bill’s. Death, for me, was abstract and held loosely together by working terms—the body, embalming, casket, viewing, funeral, hearse, vault, and the family—all floating freely around Auntie Mil’s big kitchen table. And even though I spent days and nights knowing that there was at least one dead body somewhere in the rooms below, it would be years before I saw my first dead man, in a funeral home not unlike Uncle Bill’s but on the opposite coast.
Stephen Crane, our great realist who cast his own cold eye frequently on death, spent some of his early years on the New Jersey shore, first with his parents as part of the vast Methodist camp meetings in Ocean Grove and later as a reporter from Asbury Park for the New York Tribune. In fact, one of his residences there, Arbutus Cottage, still stands on Fourth Avenue, one block northwest of Uncle Bill’s. Somewhere along the stretch of beach joining Ocean Grove and Asbury Park, a place where I often played in the sand, Crane imagined black riders on black horses galloping at him, hooves pounding and splashing out of the surf. As a tiny boy, he woke again and again gripped by the terror of that vision. He called his first volume of poetry The Black Riders and Other Lines and used that image in his book’s opening poem:
Black riders came from the sea.
There was clang and clang of spear and shield,
And clash and clash of hoof and heal,
Wild shouts and the wave of hair
In the rush upon the wind:
Thus the ride of sin.
In The Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s hero, the youth Henry Fleming, sees the terror of war in gures similar to that shoreline vision: Staring once at the red eyes across the river, he conceived them to be growing larger . . . At last he heard from along the road at the foot of the hill the clatter of a horse’s galloping hoofs. And later . . . he saw dark waves of men come sweeping out of the woods and down through the fields . . . the woods again began to pour forth the dark hued masses of the enemy . . . These parts of the opposing armies were two long waves that pitched upon each other, and, at the novel’s climax, when Henry charges to gain the enemy’s flag, He plunged like a mad horse at it.
As an older boy, while riding his pony, Pudgy, somewhere in the vicinity of Asbury Park, Crane witnessed a young girl being stabbed by her lover. Crane grew away from the pious stance of his Methodist parents; he wanted his daily bread coarse and immediate and literal. He drew his figures at the edge of our existence: a soldier coming on a uniformed corpse in a chapel of trees, a girl without hope descending to the river down New York’s night streets, mules deep in a Scranton coal mine stabled away from the light of day, a creature in a desert eating his own bitter heart.
His reports on Asbury Park for the Tribune began to take on the tone of social criticism, in particular his piece called “Parades and Entertainments,” which caused an uproar among its readers and may have led to his dismissal. Asbury Park’s single mile of boardwalk was typified in his time by the scandalous bathing suit, and Crane documented the various types of people who frequented this vacationland, which is still one of the places people go to reveal their fuller nature through play. The deeper existential draw of that edge between land and sea, however, would always pull him in. His story “The Open Boat” ends with a mysterious figure trying to rescue survivors of a shipwreck, a savior running up and down a beach. One of the survivors looks out from the tumult of waves: Then he saw the man who had been running and undressing, and undressing and running, come bounding into the water . . . He was naked, naked as a tree in winter, but a halo was about his head, and he shone like a saint.
People are so often drawn to what seems like the ultimate edge. We love to dance and play defiantly on the divide. As a visitor to Asbury Park’s shoreline when I was a little boy, I loved most the glass-fronted casino with its sunburst pavilion that spanned the boardwalk’s south end. Doors open wide to summer nights, it housed a glorious merry-go-round. Stallions glistened dappled and gray, brown and white, yellow and red. Their prancing hooves, thick necks, and streaming manes swept swiftly round in swirls of light and mirrors. Glass eyes of horses, shining like giant shooter marbles, were lit like coals from a fire deep inside. And oh, the music! The quick beat of mechanical drums and cymbals, the joyous reach of tiny pipes and horns!
One evening, my brother and I strolled with our mother north along the boardwalk through the cavernous brick convention hall that jutted on pilings out over the waves. The Three Stooges’ new movie had just opened in the Paramount Theater there, Have Rocket—Will Travel. Auntie Mil read in the newspaper that the Stooges themselves would be at the showings, but my parents didn’t want to waste their money. That night on our walk, though, I spotted Larry Fine with his bushy hair slicked back and tamed as he leaned against the ticket booth chatting with the ticket seller. Larry was the middle Stooge between Moe and Curly. He turned from the ticket window just as we passed and wandered, hands in his pockets, back outside into the cool twilight.
I wanted his autograph, but my mother said I’d have to get it myself. I watched him walk over to the edge of the boardwalk above the empty beach. He rested his elbows on the iron rail and looked out toward the horizon. The rides and marquee lights shimmered over the back of Larry’s white shirt in snaky greens, blues, and reds. We made our way toward the rail through unoccupied benches and stood near him. Hurrying us along, my mother whispered, Make up your mind, will you. But when Larry glanced my way, his eyes passed mine without really seeing me. His look of weariness and age startled me, so much so that I decided not to bother him, this clown of my childhood—this trickster, this Hollywood Koshare, one of the clan of coyote or rabbit or magpie, tricking death by letting himself be slapped silly from one-reelers to feature lms.
Four of us, our faces masked with shadow, looked across the sand to waves cresting on the edge between ocean night and the boardwalk’s gaudy lights. White lines of surf swelled high before spilling over and spreading their lacey shrouds delicately inland. With the lights and music of Asbury Park at our backs, my mother, brother, Larry, and I leaned on the rail and watched night deepen. For several minutes, we stood silently together on the boardwalk, that edge that really is an edge—between continent and ocean, life and death, what’s funny and what’s not—all compacted into that remarkable place of childhood memory, Asbury Park’s wooden mile, what Stephen Crane called what the world calls the world.
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
Shock of white breast and scapular, long tail, deceiving black: magpies swooped into the locust trees, windbreaks outlining my in-laws’ farm along the Columbia River, on the Oregon side near Umatilla. That’s where I first saw the bird itself and matched it to its name. This was my first trip to my wife’s home in the Northwest, where clouds and sun mix in endless shifts of color, and where I saw that magpies aren’t simply black and white. They flaunt wild iridescence. One quick plunge to a melon patch or to a roadkill will disclose fern greens and teals and silver threads. Audubon’s Black Billed Magpie dives down the white page like the descending dove of the Holy Spirit, nothing like Heckle and Jeckle, rather a glorious scavenger burning into life with hints of deep red cresting the upper edges of tail feathers.
Sunlight fell into the yard through the twisted, witch-like arms of locust trees. My wife and I, young lovers, strolled the riverbank long into twilight, watching barges churn up and down the river, slowing for the locks at McNary Dam. We lay in the sand, felt the diesel engines reverberate through our bodies, and listened to bits of conversation wafting over from flat-bottomed boats where fishermen cast for cat fish, walleye, salmon, and deep-current sturgeon.
Our first day on the farm, my father-in-law, Willard, and I cut one of the locusts out of the windbreak for stove wood. After felling the tree, Willard handed me his chainsaw in what seemed a ritual of masculine challenge. It was only our second meeting. He gave brief instructions and marked places where he wanted sections cut. Down on the ground, the tree suddenly looked so much smaller than when standing with others. A magpie nest held tightly to one of the limbs. Its globe of twigs, like a dried Medusa head, lay broken open and scattered over the ground. I thought of how each of those glorious birds had hatched out of similar twiggy nests. We cut and stacked the rewood and burned the remaining brush.
So different from the vulture with its searching glide, or the power flight of the hawk, magpies dance and skate through sky to ground. They toss into shallow swoops, seemingly with glee, even in their search through the world’s foulest leavings. On his trip along the Missouri, Audubon noted: Buffaloes become so very poor during hard winters, when the snows cover the ground to the depth of two or three feet, that they lose their hair, become covered with scabs, on which the Magpies feed.
Thirty years after that first visit, Willard died in our house east of Cody, Wyoming. He’d lived with Alzheimer’s for several years. My study opened off a hallway next to his bedroom. My shelves stood cluttered, a magpie’s gathering of books, some from as long ago as high school. Occasionally, late at night, Willard would walk into my room as I worked. He never said anything, language was gone for him, but he’d survey the spines of my books, finger some, and wander back to bed.
Alzheimer’s never dimmed his curiosity about the world around him. He’d sit for hours, in all lights and seasons, gazing over the land around our house. I never knew what he thought of Wyoming, our expanse without border trees or river or irrigated melon fields, just sage and distant mountain rims around the Big Horn Basin, so unlike the small truck farm he made for himself and his family along the Columbia. Summer afternoons, he’d rest on our patio and watch horses on low hills south of the house. He’d try to track sudden flights of birds or turn to spot the source of a sweet voice—meadowlark in spring or red-tailed hawks high in the late summer sky. He could usually locate the magpie with its guttural gheeg-gheeg-gheeg. Those birds, their long black tails trailing, would perch briefly in a Russian olive, then dance down the yard to him, insisting on their place in his emptying mind and striding up to his chair as if to say, Remember us?
The Cornice in the Ground—
The speed limit is sixty-five past the KOA campground on the Greybull Highway east of Cody. This morning as I drove that stretch of road just after sunrise, I swerved instinctively toward the centerline as a magpie burst out from under the curve of an antelope’s neck where the animal lay dead on the road’s shoulder. I glimpsed the antelope’s eye protruding from its skull as if stunned still by the headlights of some predawn semi. The eye, fixed blindly open, gathered sunlight as day swept over the Big Horns. The broken body of exquisite tans, browns, and bold white blazed as if alive under day’s approach.
The proper name is pronghorn though most locals still call them antelope. My field guide says the pronghorn is the fastest animal in the Western Hemisphere . . . neither goat nor antelope . . . sole remnant of an ancient family that dates back 20 million years.
In strict perspective, emphasized by highway lines converging back into Wyoming space, I watched the drama over the pronghorn’s body diminish in the little rectangle of my rearview mirror. Other magpies quickly swooped in and closed their wings over and, at times, seemingly inside the dead animal. They had no interest in taxonomy. They looked like morning laborers arriving at a job, working on a new addition to the ever-growing, never finished house of the dead.
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads—
When my doctor called me from his exam table into the hall to see my chest x-ray, he said more or less what my mother’s doctor had said to her fifteen years before: I don’t like the look of this. My mother died two months later of lung cancer. She’d smoked for close to sixty years. When I remember her, I most often see her sitting on the porch, watching birds, and smoking.
My doctor circled with his finger just off the film what looked like a dead octopus, limp in the x-ray’s murky light, a tide pool at low tide. I thought the worst. The doctor insisted on immediate tests, especially given my family history. That evening I taught a literature class. We discussed The Merchant of Venice. All I could think about was my own pound of flesh right where Shylock would have inserted his knife. I had to wait until the next day to learn that what my doctor saw was simply a nest of oddly placed veins and their shadows.
My mother, Miriam, had an identical twin, Naomi, who died suddenly, also of cancer, in the early 1960s. Fear of a similar death haunted my mother for the rest of her life. The twins had an older sister, Charlotte or Chottie. Only a year apart, they dressed like triplets. Their father, William Thomas Strang, died of a brain tumor when the girls were little. Their mother, Pearla, raised her three daughters through the Great Depression and World War II. She died just before I was born. Aunt Chottie never married and never moved from Bordentown, New Jersey. She outlived them all, went to all of the funerals.
On September 30, 1988, my wife and I drove Aunt Chottie to Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico for the feast day of San Geronimo, St. Jerome, doctor of the church and patron saint of that northernmost pueblo. From Santa Fe, we turned off onto the old road at Pojoaque. Sunlight spread gloriously over stands of aspen turning from green to gold all along the western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as we skirted them up through Nambe, Chimayo, Truchas, Trampas, Peñasco, and Ranchos de Taos.
My aunt was well-traveled, but she remained steadfastly rooted in Bordentown. For her, everything was measured by middle New Jersey standards. A lifelong Methodist, she’d served as a Navy nurse on Guam in World War II, caring for critically injured service men brought to her from around the Pacific. Of all my relatives, Aunt Chottie had seen the ravages of war the closest. After the war, she worked for nearly forty years in the maternity ward in Trenton’s Mercer Hospital. When I was a child, she took me to sunrise service each Easter and to cemeteries in late spring to place flags for Memorial Day.
When we reached the pueblo, Aunt Chottie, out of breath in the high mountains, wanted only to sit with me along Red Willow Creek, which falls down from sacred Blue Lake and flows gently through the pueblo separating the multi-storied North House from the more sprawling South House. We watched as visitors like ourselves packed the plaza for the celebration. The day grew hot as people wandered around buying bread and jewelry and pottery. Everyone kept their distance from the high pole in the northwest corner, where a dead sheep and bags of food hung suspended from the top. My aunt rested and watched guardedly.
Late in the afternoon she spotted, as if she’d been looking for them, several black and white figures on the roof of the North House. These ceremonial clowns, Black Eyes, wore nothing but loin cloths and corn stalks tied to their heads, with the rest of their bodies painted in stark horizontals of black and white. My aunt tugged my shoulder and pointed. She couldn’t keep her eyes off them. For several minutes, these figures stood boldly at the top of the building against the late September sky. Finally, announcing themselves with shrill laughter, defiant gestures, and loud mocking to all of us below, they began slowly climbing down the sun-blazed face of the adobe house. These clowns with bare, spindly legs and large black and white bellies, chided and joked among themselves all the way to the ground. People in the plaza tried to ignore them. Two of the clowns snuck up behind an unsuspecting tourist walking along while reading a map. They began circling closer until suddenly they swooped in and pulled off his hat, ruffng up his hair in an excellent Three Stooges move. One clown removed the man’s dark glasses and tried them on while the other cooed and mirrored his partner’s newfound style. Another grabbed a little girl by the arm and led her off through the crowd toward the creek. A Taos woman next to us whispered to my wife that the girl would be dipped in the water but warned us not to follow or even watch. Don’t look them in the eye, she warned.
The mood of the plaza changed abruptly when the Black Eyes spied the hanging sheep and began at once to shinny up the pole, thicker and taller than a telephone pole, to claim the animal as theirs—climb and fall, climb and tumble, all in profound slapstick, until they finally reached the animal and bags of food in the low afternoon sun.
Shortly after returning to New Jersey, my aunt sent a drawing she’d done in colored pencil. It is a condensed visual record, seeming to float across a single page, of all she witnessed that feast day. I’ve never seen anything else my aunt drew. In her rendering, she placed herself out of the picture as a viewer high over the plaza. She altered the space into a grand bowl rimmed at the top with high adobes and along the base with women seated on blankets next to exaggerated pottery vessels. Her people, faceless for the most part, are large and out of scale with the buildings. Dominating her picture, the slaughtered sheep hangs high from the pole just as the Black Eyes appear over the roofline. The slain sheep and sacks of food reach rainbow-like out over the great round of day. She recorded on paper all the commerce of the Feast of San Geronimo as she saw it, an afternoon like no other, opening before her in ready embrace as she neared the end of her life.
A couple of years later, I flew back to New Jersey to help Aunt Chottie, by then in her eighties, move into assisted living. My cousin, his wife, and I cleaned out the tiny apartment in Bordentown where she’d lived on her own for so many years. She had her Navy uniform and boxes of canceled checks dating back to 1962. We moved her just before Christmas, and the last time I saw her, she and other residents of her new home were loading onto buses to tour the holiday lights around the suburbs of Philadelphia.
The young Saint Jerome, weary of books and troubled in a miserable body which is already ablaze with the allure of sensual pleasure, wandered the catacombs of Rome. He breathed in the darkness and silence of that house of the dead as his faith struggled for direction and meaning. Fifteen hundred years after his death, those figures in Taos, black and white and corn-crested, embodied Jerome’s feast, though they remained outside the walls of his church. For an afternoon, the Black Eyes engaged the imagination of my Methodist aunt from New Jersey. With shrill voices and nearly naked bodies, they came down over the house and moved freely around the plaza on that last day of September in the turn to autumn. Bold, brash, high-pitched, and loud, much like the magpies who are always with us, sailing in, perching briefly, chatting and clowning, intent in their work on the rim of all of our lives.
Over the last week or so, a blind magpie has been hanging around my son’s shed and tack room on Owl Creek in Wyoming. Thin and worn, the old magpie flies out from under eaves and flops to a landing in the dirt. Days have been hot. I’ve walked around the corner of the shed to find him standing silently before me with open beak in the dry calm of morning. I’ve tried placing handfuls of grain or chicken pellets in his way, an action that only frightens him off into a halting flight from which he crash-lands and turns, silently demanding something more between us. I can’t catch him. He’s hungry and thirsty yet vanishes before me deep into high grass. My granddaughter says he’s living off dog food that’s left out in bowls. He’s even flown into her a couple of times, on accident, she says. One side of his head is severely damaged, swollen gray and scaly, no eye visible. Probably a tumor. The other side is similarly damaged, though I can see a glint of eye. Why does he drop out from under the eaves and slam to such a humiliating pratfall in the dusty yard? But here he is: Tiresias dying of hunger and thirst. The all-knowing flying helplessly blind each day before me. Prophet of the obvious, our shared mortality, he acts, even in his dying, his trickster part. He skirts his palpable, though unannounced, end and offers his own blind stand in the dust as if to say, Friend, this will be you too. Nothing to be done. I can’t see you, but you see me. Here I am.