“And we went on living it, like a wave, that doesn’t know it is at every moment different water.” —Alan Williamson, from “A Childhood Around 1950”
In 1967 I almost drowned when I wandered from a sandbar and dropped into a deep cleft. That particular summer on the Jersey Shore, my older sisters had taken to riding what seemed to be kind, propellant waves with the rafts our mother had rented near the boardwalk, the industrial canvas sort you couldn’t buy in a store. I wasn’t a confident swimmer yet, so my mother wouldn’t even let me near one, which made no sense; the rafts were oversized life preservers, after all.
There is one story that has always held a strange allure for me. It appears in Genesis 25:19 to 28:9 and is about Jacob’s theft of Esau’s birthright. Every time I read it, I feel haunted. In old age, a blind Isaac asks Esau, his oldest son, to visit him. He makes it understood that the end is near and asks Esau to gather food from the field and bring it back so he might be able to bless him.
It was unlikely that Betty and Jeannie would end up in the country. They’d always moved within cities—Wichita, Chicago, Denver, Dallas—and neighboring small towns. And it was unlikely they’d stay for long. They first hit the road when Betty was a teenager and Jeannie a baby, and by the time Jeannie was in high school they’d changed addresses forty-eight times. In the late 1970s, though, they landed for a good while on a Kansas farm.
In a photograph Robert Adams took northeast of Riverside, California, in 1982, serpentine paths lead toward the horizon line; it’s not easy to discern whether these are creeks, dirt trails, or roads. Human presence takes the form of wooden poles carrying electric wires, which stride diagonally from the bottom left of the composition toward the distance at right.
Early that morning his telephone had begun ringing nonstop, and he found himself thanking directors, casting directors, producers, actors, and all the members of the Actors Studio. He’d seen many of his actors receive Oscar nominations, but when he heard his name among the 1974 nominees for The Godfather: Part II, Lee Strasberg was astounded. The callers told him he’d been a master actor on the set; he had blown away his own pupils (“They were wonderful, but nothing compared to you”); he’d been able to humanize and at the same time portray the horror that was Hyman Roth; he must have awed even Francis Ford Coppola.
Papi say we goin on a real vacation and Milky say Vegas and me, Tippy, I say Disney and then Carlo say Nueva York but no, say Papi, we gots to go to Acapulco. I say you mean Mexico and he say sí, cabrón, like I’m a dumbass. Carlo crackin up.
They start drinking three hours before the funeral. Tequila, mostly. A bottle and a half later, their heads are buzzing on some private wavelength. Hazy shapes slither in front of their eyes. Words sound furry in their ears.
It’s easy to forget you once had control. That you stopped making decisions for yourself. Part of that’s getting older, and I’ve gotten older—not much, but some. It’s what comes with settling down and making some sort of life and having children. And that’s something. We all know that. But then there’s the bad part of it, when you speak up just to realize that you haven’t got any say, that your words stay lodged in your mind, stuck in your throat. That they are altogether gone, like birds migrated for the winter and never come back. Worse than that, you wake up and find out that somebody else was forming your words for you all along. That was me for the longest of times. My best years that I lost when I was silent and tepid and living in the woods. I want to tell of how I got out of that forest. I want to tell about how I came to the clearing whole and intact and feeling good.