Diary – September 1, 2015
I have been familiar with this building for as long as I can remember. When I think about this structure, I can’t imagine its exterior. Perhaps, the structure has all exterior and is all inside.
The part of the building best known to me is its lobby. This is dark and glistening space, a vault hemmed-in with polished dark granite in which are embedded reddish porphyry pilasters. The vault is lit indirectly by very dim light bulbs concealed in the walls and ceiling. Across from the elevators, a niche opens onto a faceted wall, a ramp of smooth stone inclined upward at 45 degrees toward the heavy black onyx ceiling. The ramp of smooth stone is perforated with oval terraces on which there are placed figurines of the most amazing kind, little statuettes about the size of a man’s hand. The more you look at this stone ramp, an incline that would be called a talud in Meso-American architecture, the more pedestals and little figures you see.
My youngest son’s 23rd birthday was on Tuesday, September 1. He is hospitalized. My wife, Julie, Angelica, my daughter, and I drove to Minneapolis to visit him. It was a very hot and humid day, 88 degrees with humidity to match. I brought him two books that I had purchased at his request, Eugenio Montale’s collected verse as translated by William Arrowsmith and Mark Strand’s valedictory volume of collected poems. Jack also asked me for two novels but didn’t specify what he wanted to read. I brought him Carlos Fuentes’ A Campaign and Andrei Bitov’s Prisoner of the Caucasus.
In the back of the car, we had 24 cupcakes with chocolate and caramel frosting. Linda Mullenbach, a renowned local chef, had made the cupcakes with sour cream in their icing and tinted them with sea salt. They looked beautiful, although we were afraid that they would wilt in the hot weather.
We stopped at the rest stop just south of Northfield. It’s always advisable to use the toilet before venturing into the Cities, particularly at rush hour. The heat outside the car was dense, pungent with rot, ominous.
Traffic was manageable in the outer ring suburbs. I took 35E to Cedar Avenue and, then, drove down to the university on that road – great lines of cars opposed us in the oncoming lane, but it was free sailing northbound to the West Bank and Cedar Riverside.
We passed across Franklin Avenue and, then, I drove down Riverside. Columns of cars were emerging from the parking lots at the University of Minnesota and traffic was stalled – I had to take pains not to find myself stranded at the center of an intersection when the light changed. We passed the hospital where Jack was confined but it was still early, only 5:15 and visitors were not allowed before 7:00 pm. The pressure of rush-hour made reversing direction impossible and so I followed stream of cars into the Seward neighborhood and, then, across the bridge on the Mississippi to the Grand Rounds intersection. The river made a menacing corridor between wooded cliffs misty with humidity, a bright swollen arrow pointing toward other bridges heavily laden with columns of cars. Kids on bicycles were gathered in crowds at the intersection and construction workers behind flimsy orange barricades were jackhammering concrete so that a cloud of gritty dust rose into the air. I turned left and drove the roadway on the riverbank toward the hospitals and University. Students were moving into apartments and vans blocked lanes and, then, among the dormitories packs of young people were strolling among the big brick buildings radiating heat like ovens.
I found my way a half-dozen blocks through Stadium Village, the big bowl of seats overlooking the football field hovering overhead like a crescent-shaped thunderstorm. I said we would eat supper at the Tea House, a Chinese restaurant on University in front of the Days Inn. Groups of five or six Chinese students in flip-flops and tee-shirts were waiting by the door, but there was a table for three open and so we were immediately seated.
I ordered a 22 ounce Sapporo beer with scallion pancake appetizers. My main dish was fish of some unnamed species served in black bean sauce. Different cuisines emphasize different aspects of the experience of eating. Mexican food and much American cuisine is meant to be tasted, and enjoyed by the tongue – the flavors are, often, sharp, piquant, and well-defined: it is a linear sort of eating in which the tongue defines the experience. An ancient Greek glutton once said that he wished that he had the throat of a crane or an ibis so that he could better savor (and prolong) the feeling of swallowing his food. This is an aspect of eating, pleasure localized in the esophagus, that seems alien to the way most of us experience food. In Chinese cooking, texture often assumes paramount importance. The Tea House offers "rural" dishes from China and must be highly authentic – with the exception of two somewhat baffled-looking coeds, Julie and I and Angelica were the only non-Asian customers in the restaurant. Although Chinese food can be aggressively spiced, most of the dishes on the menu seemed to offer an experience focusing principally on the texture of the food – soft and only semi-cooked shrimp were served in a crust of batter, sow belly was gelatinous, edged with sharp and crunchy bacon, and my fish had the consistency of scrambled eggs, a kind of pillowy and insubstantial flesh, white as marshmallow, soaked in a very subtle black bean sauce – the gustatory experience was primarily based on the melt-in-your-mouth texture of the fish, it’s weirdly intangible flavor creating an absence or vacuum to emphasize the soft, cloudlike tastelessness of the fish. The bean sauce was just slightly acrid, a hint of garlic, and the beans themselves had no taste that I could discern. Similarly, the Peking duck served to an adjacent table seemed to be a combination of a brittle, almost leathery baked skin contrasting with bland, mostly flavorless white meat, also moist and crumbling when cut.
The fish in black bean sauce was served with broccoli and brown rice and I ate about two-thirds of the food in the big, blue bowl. It was time to venture into the traffic again to visit Jack. I asked for doggie bag so that I could bring the remnants of my rice and the strange, tasteless fish in their strange, tasteless sauce home for Frieda, my labrador retriever. I was concerned about the dog that I had left in my fenced backyard, sitting on the stoop. The air seemed charged with energy and I could see columns of water condensing in the hot air west of the city, big storm clouds tremulous with lightning. I hoped that there wouldn’t be frightening wind and rain storm in Austin, a hundred miles south, with my poor dog sitting unsheltered on the house’s back step.
We went to the hospital and parked in the stifling concrete lot. The hike to Jack’s ward was long, through many hallways and intersections with other corridors, up and down elevators, and through lobbies and tumultuous emergency rooms. The kingdom of the sick and diseased and injured is vast and each day it grows larger.
Jack had finished reading Antoine Sainte-Exupery’s Wind, Sand, Stars. He handed me the book and took the volumes of poetry and the novels that I had brought him. Around 8:00, we walked back to the hot parking lot and departed for Austin. Julie’s mother has cancer in her colon and had met with the surgeon on that afternoon and so, Julie, spent most of the two-hour drive back to Austin talking on the phone. Between phone calls, Julie cried. Angelica listened to Rammstein on her portable CD player – she was wearing a Rammstein tee-shirt showing the members of the band perched on surf boards; on the back of her tee-shirt there was a California license plate with vanity letters: MEINLAND. I drove fast through the hot night. Everyone was driving fast, 80 or 85. Heat lightning flashed in the sky. I felt faint with exhaustion.
At home, I fed the dog the leftovers from the Chinese restaurant. The dog wolfed down the remnants of the fish. Julie set the remaining cupcakes in the center of the dining room table. Angelica set aside her headphones and her portable CD player and turned on the TV to watch a show about a haunted asylum or golf course.
My law partner, David Hoversten and I were trying a case involving corruption at City Hall. The stakes were high – the case involved bid-rigging on a big contract let by the municipality. The case was going well. We had the scoundrels on the run.
On the evening of the third or fourth day of the jury trial, we returned home to find that someone had killed our children’s pets. David Hoversten’s daughters own a shetland pony and the little animal was crumpled on his driveway, crying children surrounding the dead horse. My dog’s throat had been slit. It was clear that there would be reprisals for our courageous litigation of the corruption claims.
The next day, it was evident that someone was following us as we walked through the city streets for lunch. After the court recessed mid-afternoon, David Hoversten packed a valise with important documents, not yet offered into evidence. We loitered under the Doric columns of the courthouse waiting for the shadowy person who was tailing us to appear. When the man showed up, face turned away from us across the street, and pretending to look at magazines at newstand, we looked the other direction and, then, strode purposefully to a convenience store a block away. There was a fax machine in the store and David Hoversten carefully set the documents on machine’s tray to send them. The man following us entered the store and stood among the bags of potato chips, watching us from the corner of his eye. "We must send these documents," David told me in a loud voice. "That way if anything happens to us, the authorities will have this proof." Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the man among the potato chips had paused and cocked his ear to listen. Hoversten repeated his words.
But the telefax machine was broken and wouldn’t work. Fortunately, Hoversten had ball-bearings in his pocket and a plastic tray. Covertly, he put the ball-bearings in the tray and, then, rattled them to simulate the sound of the telefax transmitting the documents. I made a hissing sound with my lips to augment the impression that the machine was working. "Do you have some more quarters?" Hoversten asked. "We want to make sure every single document is transmitted." I told me that I had more than enough quarters.
We stood by the broken fax machine pretending to feed coins into it for about twenty minutes. Then, we scooped up the documents and slid them back into the valise. We went outside. Across the street, the man following us pretended to look at the schedule of musical appearances at the big theater overshadowing the sidewalk. He took a cell-phone from his breast pocket and made a call.
"There," David Hoversten said. "He is telling the bad guys that we’ve sent the proof."
"Are we safe?"
"Reasonably," Hoversten told me.
"I wish I could be as ingenious as you," I told Hoversten. "The way you contrived sounds to simulate the operation of the telefax – that was just amazing."
"Necessity is the mother of invention," Hoversten told me.
We went back to our law office. In the corner of the dark marble lobby, there was a photocopy machine with fax capabilities. "Do you think we should really send the documents?" I asked Hoversten.
"It probably wouldn’t hurt," he said.
He opened his valise and took out the incriminating evidence. I had used up all my coins in the broken machine in the convenience store. But Hoversten had the law firm credit card and the machine had a card-reader and so we were able to complete the telefax.
I noticed that the lobby of the building where our law firm was located had a curious double aspect. From one perspective, the lobby was austere, a dark space glistening with polished grey and green marble. Big columns entrapped in the marble as fluted pilasters rose to an onyx ceiling by the elevators. When I looked at the register of tenants, white letters in a dark field, somethng was wrong with my eyes and couldn’t read the words.
From another perspective, the lobby revealed itself as wonderfully adorned with slanting stone surfaces, perforated with stone oval shells on which there were the most marvelous figurines, small statuettes the size of my fist. The little figures were bejeweled and they sparkled like gems in the faint rays cast by concealed light bulbs. The most wonderful statues stood in a forest ornamenting a granite pier sloped like the side of a prism, a ramp of stone polished to the texture of an agate and extending at a 45 degree angle to the ceiling. I pointed out to Hoversten, Vulpia in her amethyst grotto. In front of the statue of Vulpia, a fan-shaped half-shell encrusted with emeralds rose from a stone nook, flapping up and down like the tail of a mermaid. It was almost too beautiful to behold. We went outside to see if the building had an exterior.
The structure stood at an intersection in a windswept half-built part of the suburbs. The terrain was completely flat and treeless and a combination of blowing dust and sleet blurred the contours of the building. I could see that the structure was built in a grim Egyptian revival style, a bunker-like mastaba surrounded by a smashed peristyle of fat columns with capitals carved to resemble papyrus bundles. The open prairie was perilous. It was cold and snipers could be lurking anywhere.
Hoversten and I returned to the building’s lobby. He showed me a narrow flight of stone steps descending through a fissure in the wall. Below, it was much more brightly lit and I could see frescos on the walls like those in Knossos – stylized wave patterns illuminating a dark blue sea in which dolphins were frolicking. From the first landing on the steps, I could see to my right a very narrow passage between a brightly painted pillar and the mural, some more steps descending down to a pavement under the fresco. The passage to the left was broader but more dark.
A man who has been dead for many years was speaking to David Hoversten. I caught only a fragment of what he said: "They were so wretchedly poor that they couldn’t afford fish for their soup." I decided to venture into the darker, but more commodious left passage. It brought me to the mural on the wall, so brightly lit that it seemed that the sun was shining down on a wide and blue Aegean sea. I walked on the sidewalk next to the fresco of the joyous dolphins, making a transit of the underground chamber until I reached the narrow steps leading to the right, a squeeze-space between the brightly painted pillar and mural. This time I went in that direction, finding that passage through the tight space was easily accomplished. Then, I wandered for a long time and saw many things too beautiful for words.
I had to urinate but the visions were so exquisite and compelling that I couldn’t bring myself to open my eyes and get out of bed to go to the toilet. I waited as long as possible and, then, thought to myself that the beautiful dream would have to yield to practical reality and that I should get up and attend to the call of nature, but still I wandered in the corridors of the underworld hesitant to leave this place and everything that offered itself to my eyes was intricate, gorgeous, made with a magical craftsmanship possible only in fantasy. I stood up and opened my eyes and saw the darkness gathered around me, but the shadows seemed luminous with the pressure of the dream, fabric swelling as if the vision were poised to burst through my prosaic surroundings. At any moment, I thought that the seams of reality would tear and the dream herniate through into the bedroom and the toilet. I went back to bed and set my head on the pillow and, no sooner did I close my eyes, then the hallucinations began again, a vivid panorama unscrolling in my imagination laced with bright colors and great cloudy depths. I was now fully awake, but still within the dream, moving along its contours the way that a person might walk uphill in the high mountains, cutting diagonally across slopes otherwise too steep to traverse. Hours passed as I wandered the bright corridors of the dream, completely aware that I was dreaming, and, in fact, able to start and stop the reverie simply by opening my eyes to the grey, desolate darkness around me. But as soon as my eyelids closed, the dream ignited my imagination, a series of images saturated with color, visions that I experienced as something midway between memory and present reality.
The hallucinations continued until dawn and, then, I rose light-headed and punch-drunk from my exertions in the dream. Something wet was pressed against me. I looked down and saw my dog. Her fur was moist. Outside, it was drizzling and the rain was hot and the windows obscure with steamy droplets.
My wife told me that the dog had peed all over the floor. This was something that had not happened for four years.
"It’s the fish," I said. "What?" she asked. "The fish makes you hallucinate," I told her.
She looked at me skeptically. "Are you okay now?"
"Yes," I said. "I’m fine."
I let the dog out into the backyard. I walked with her over the mulch and wet stones heaped around the edges of the grass to crush down the weeds.
I saw a toad the size of a small cat. The dog and I both stared at the toad. The huge toad opened its maw and said something in Hebrew. I looked at the rock heaped along the edge of the garage. The stones spelled out strange incantations, white pebbles among the dark arranged to write words. Thunder sounded in the distance and the rain was hot and smelled like blood. The odor was not a hallucination. When there is high humidity in Austin, the smell of the slaughterhouse comes close to the residential neighborhoods and reminds us of its presence.