Below are extracts from Imperfect Solo, Entanglement and Stepping Out.
This realisation has come to me slowly, because dread creeps – it does not announce. Different from fear, which is sharp and pointed, and generally shrieks a lot. Dread is dull and grey and cold and nebulous. It’s not depression either. I am a smiley sort, given to exuberance and inappropriate optimism. Which, surprisingly, coexists quite nicely with dread. A sort of a Yin-Yang balance, or something.
Van, who has been filled with dread since he was born about 40 years ago, is unimpressed.
‘Fuck your dread, you newbie. Don’t come crawling to me – you who have demeaned and insulted me all these years. I own all the dread in the world. You are stealing from me. There is not enough space for both of us.’
Bit harsh, I thought. He’s my best friend, after all. Male friendships are entirely about insult and one-upmanship, as long as there is unstinting loyalty somewhere in there. But really, that was an overreaction. Morose shit.
He’s right, though; an attitude of blackness and despair cloaks him constantly, and has carried him quite nicely through life. Particularly on those days when we sought nothing more than uncomplicated sex with some accommodating lass. My approach would be pure charm, deep intellect, humour, virtuoso displays of arcane knowledge, generosity, politeness, interest. My success rate was, well, best described as piddling. Van simply sat silently and looked gloomy as he got progressively drunker. Then he went home with the girl.
Of course, we are all grown up now. Sort of.
Los Angeles is a good place to feel dread. It is not a dreadful place at all – that is a non sequitur – it is simply a place where dread can exist without being harassed. It is warm in LA, there is a seaside, it can be pretty if you know where to look, there is a fantastic tiny Mexican restaurant in the run-down part of Hollywood owned by a grumpy Chinese couple who can speak neither English nor Spanish. After the burritos and refried beans they bring those little Chinese White Rabbit sweets with the cheque. I once tried to engage the owner in conversation, asking how a Chinese man got to own a Mexican restaurant. He looked at me as though I was loco. The food is stupidly inexpensive. There are only five tables, which rock alarmingly on unbalanced legs.
I am terrifed the place will shut down. It increases my dread load. Along with the certainty that my house will burn down during one of those periodic brush fires in Beachwood Canyon. Where I was stupid enough to buy a house when real estate was a steal. So that I could stare at the Hollywood sign and have deep thoughts about the transient nature of celebrity and combustible woodframed construction materials.
Krystal, my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, says I swear too much. Although that is not the reason I expect her to be an ex-girlfriend. She is leaving me because she considers me insufficiently ambitious. Which is a fucking lie. The problem is that my ambitions and hers have nothing in common. For instance, I have an ambition to play better saxophone. I play reasonably good saxophone. Some people think I play great sax. Charlie Parker and Michael Brecker and David Sanborn would beg to differ. What I would like is for Michael Brecker to come into the bar and listen to a solo of mine, and walk up to the stage during the break and say – damn, that was pretty. Michael Brecker died a few years ago. So he is not coming in. Neither is Sanborn, although he is very much alive and plays in a totally different genre from Brecker. It’s just a matter of the odds. I am a great student of the odds. I was a math major at college. The whole damn universe serves the odds. From quantum mechanics and the chances that some little particle is here or there, or moving this fast or that fast, all the way up to the chances of us getting whumped by a meteor, to the chances that Sanborn will come to the restaurant one sunny Saturday, and say – damn, that was pretty, to the chances that Krystal will stay. Which are apparently zero. She is right, though. I swear too much.
Krystal is confused about the sax thing. She thinks I want to become a star. Which I don’t. At least not any more. Any musician who is over 40 and still wants to become a star is touched. A sad victim of not understanding the odds. I don’t want to become a star. I simply want to play a sax solo well enough that the guys who are never going to come and hear would be moved to come up and say – damn, that was pretty.
Besides, I am not even a proper musician. I play at a bar on weekends. That’s as far as this is ever going to go, after some promising moments in front of stadium crowds some decades ago. My real job is as a computer programmer. Software developer, if you will. I work at a big company that makes stuff. I write code that helps them make and market and sell and ship and track the stuff they make. I am a great software developer. Write code in my sleep. Symphonies of computer-linguistic elegance. Here is where Krystal and I clash again.
‘If you’re so good, why don’t you write an iPhone app or something? We could be rich.’
‘Firstly, I don’t want to write an iPhone app – the odds of a winner are terrible. Secondly, I would get rich, not you. Thirdly, I earn an excellent salary; don’t need to get rich. Fourthly, why do you want me to get rich?’
And, in addition to the whole ambition mismatch, I also tend to piss her o#. For instance, she thinks I am too argumentative. She doesn’t understand the difference between argument and reasoned debate. Even when it is carried out in a loud voice. Some years ago I accused Isobel, my precocious daughter who was 11 at the time, of being argumentative.
‘I am not argumentative. I am right.’
I know what she means. Isobel is now 14. She spends every second weekend at my house. She likes Krystal. They gang up on me. Go shopping. Talk about young boy TV stars whose names I barely know. Take opposing positions against anything I say. Laugh at jokes I haven’t heard, or don’t understand. Female bonding. They probably have their periods in sync. Although Isobel thinks I play great sax. Krystal, on the other hand, is tone deaf.
‘How can you like that song?’ I shriek at Krystal as she turns up the radio in the car. ‘The singer is off key, and the song has only two chords. It is fucking blasphemy. You can’t be serious.’
‘It speaks to me,’ she answers. ‘In a way that you don’t understand. And you swear too much.’
Maybe she should move out. I cannot live with a tone-deaf person. I could live with a fire-breathing Republican, an idiot brain-dead liberal, even an anti-Semite – and I am Jewish – if her anti-Semitism was just occasional. And benign. And goodnatured.
But I can’t live with a tone-deaf person.
Jared is distracted. Yet another address to a group of graduating college students is not a prospect that fills him with much passion. Perhaps long ago, but not any more.
There was a time when he would scan the flushed and eager faces of his incoming students to try and identify the one winner who would supply him with the intellectual raw material to allow him to sculpt and mould in his academic image, but he never got it right, and ended up expending energy on no-hopers and sloths, before recognising the unlikely kid on the fringes who was actually going to get it, perhaps, one day. He has come to recognise that his patience for teaching has become threadbare, and he now suffers classes heroically, if only for the requirements of his good academic standing.
Not that he cares enough to have actually turned down this commencement address. It is what it is, this world. Illogic, chaos and superstition reign, and these students, fresh-faced and pregnant with the excitement of degrees conferred, will, with few exceptions, soon seep into the conformity of the great bell curve. Frankly, he would rather be in his office across the quadrangle, alone, feet on desk, surrounded by the comforting smells of ageing books and academia, and reading a physics journal, or a novel, or the sports page, or even a comic book, for god’s sake. Anything, rather than this, really.
As he waits for the dean to wind up his opening address, he looks down at his notes again. His speech will be for himself – no one out there really gives a shit, and he questions the extent to which that includes him.
He wonders when he became such a grouchy malcontent. Not as in ill-tempered, irascible, friendless, bitter and isolated (he is none of those, he congratulates himself). But rather as in disinterested in much beyond his own comforts and peculiarities. Which, he muses optimistically, are broad, deep, and spread thick with gravitas, but probably not of much interest to these students, whose naiveté and undirected energy disincline them to grapple with weight of any kind.
He wonders, too, whether this attitude that he now often catches himself carrying is noticeable to Katherine. Must be, he concludes. Observing human behaviour is her job. She’ll never comment on it, because they both know he doesn’t flex easily, and it’s probably not worth the effort. Ah well, as long as she still loves him, of which he is reasonably sure.
He glances down at the audience at the thought of her, and seeks her out. She is seated amongst the academics and guests in the third row. She is looking hard at him, a half grin sloping up from the side of her mouth. It’s a good look, critical but affectionate, a specialty. He must be more attentive to her, he resolves, without much commitment.
He smiles back, and gives a tiny little wave. She winks and directs her attention back at the dean, still winding down, relentlessly.
She is pretty, he realises again, as he does daily. He considers this for a moment, framing her amongst the surrounding faces and comparing her features with others. Nothing obvious, just the directness of the stare from pale blue eyes, a startling smile, the sudden animation of eyebrows into surprise, or disapproval, or mirth, or some internal mechanism more complex. And, of course, a lithe body of which he has never tired. Got lucky this time, he thinks, as he has often over the past 7 years. Don’t fuck it up.
Jared considers himself. Handsome in a world-weary, don’t-give-a-shit sort of way. Fit and healthy, at least for his mid-forties.Theoretical physicist of some reasonable repute, but well past the sort of mental gymnastics that would propel him into the brave new world of scientific celebrity, which he views occasionally from afar, not without a dark twinge of jealousy. Tenure. Financial security, but not great wealth, which suits him, given his distinct lack of interest in the temptations of discretionary income. Great group of friends, with enough intellect to engage, humour and infuriate him, with their certainties and grandiloquent opining.
What the fuck am I so grumpy about? He is about to consider this when he becomes aware of 500 people staring at him. He realises that he has been introduced. He gathers his notes and walks over to the podium, shaking the stiffened hand of the relic dean on his way.
He stands at the podium, and looks out. He has done this many times, graced as he is with sonorous voice, operatic projection, and the ability to drop long weighty pauses at exactly the intervals that are required to raise or release tension and expectation. He has often thought that he could have been an actor, a thought that always fizzles out with the realisation that a life spent trying on other personalities probably diminishes one’s own.
He looks at his notes and sighs. He puts them in his pocket.
‘I had a lovely long speech planned. Brimming with clichés about the responsibilities of a privileged education, your role in the future of the planet, the good that can be harvested, and so on.’
Jared looks up, shakes his head and smiles grimly.
‘But I think I can make it much shorter, so as to hasten the celebrations that you all must be anxious to start.’
He glances at Katherine, whose eyebrows are now up in a bemused attitude of uh-oh.
‘The world is full of fools. Brimming with fools. Up to its eyebrows in fools. Dictators, drunk drivers, genocidalists, tyrants, liars, useful idiots, fakirs, conspiracy theorists, homeopaths, wife abusers, child neglecters, supernaturalists, UFO-believers, card cheats, identity thieves, religious fundamentalists, white supremacists, movie queue jumpers, soothsayers, astrologists, robber barons, creationists and intelligent designers, rapists, history revisionists, and so on.
‘Grandiose fools, little fools, dangerous fools, harmless fools.
‘A bloated spectrum of foolishness, boorishness, cruelty and ignorance. Our species. Our fools.
‘A lovely thought, I am aware, as you leave here and head out into this world after your years here, trying, as you did, with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm, to uncover some small kernel of wisdom.
‘The award-winning biologist E.O. Wilson said “people would rather believe than know”.
‘Well this institution now commits you to live amongst those people, and the whole stinking morass of human foolishness, where we gamely hope that what you have learned here will be in some way a bulwark against the tide, and offer the small life raft of critical thinking skills and knowledge with which to make this world, on average, a little less foolish.
‘I will certainly be accused by some of you, and some of my colleagues – silently or with loud insult – to have been negative, pessimistic and, well, just a downer, on what should be a happy day for the young student heading out there to join the real world.
‘Perhaps you will be right. Perhaps every new piece of human brutishness showing its ugly face to us on a daily basis has simply worn me down to a desiccated husk of negativism.
‘But perhaps not. Perhaps with this address, some of you will not simply be absorbed into mediocrity and worse, perhaps some of you will rise above, and fight the foolishness, and in the famous words of Howard Beale, even though you are still young and full of wonder, declare – “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take it any more.”
‘I am Jared Borowitz and I thank you for your time.’
Another death. It doesn’t surprise him much any more, his reaction amounting to no more than a dull recognition, an echo of the previous one, and the one before. Deaths like these are more frequent now, at his age, where friends and acquaintances find themselves undone by obstructions, occlusions, mutations, rents, tears and entanglements – the demolition devices of spent bodies.
He optimistically hopes for more urgent circumstances for these endings. A fiery crash in an expensive sports car, perhaps. A final quivering wheeze in the arms of a teenage Venezuelan hooker. An innocent bystander in a terrorist bomb in some Third World airport, shredded by shrapnel.
But these are older people. His generation. They fade from sight. They leave no comet trails. There is no majesty in their deaths.
Even so, he allows some small rejoicing at each one, because he is still here, the end surely in sight somewhere on the horizon, but still here for now. His back remains erect, his skin is not yet hanging despairingly off atrophied muscles, his faculties are intact and organs still gravely battling on unbowed. In an optimistic moment he will catch sight of his reflection in a window and glimpse a hint
of the handsome, athletic man he once was. He even allows himself the conceit that a young woman somewhere may glance at him and think, what a strong-looking older man, a kind man, a provider, perhaps even with a gentle hint of sex appeal still clinging like an echo. But he catches himself, always. And remonstrates gently: you old fool.
The news of this death though, by way of Facebook (mastered via pure naked curiosity, rather than a need to join the teeming digital proletariat), is slightly more interesting.
It has come to him via a grieving wife, who has tracked him down on the site, to inform him of the passing of her husband and to ask for a few words of remembrance, a eulogy of sorts, requested specifically in the deceased’s will. Harold is surprised, their friendship now long consigned to threadbare memories. But it was a heady time back then, a time without borders. Perhaps he wished to be remembered thus.
The reason for the death is as pedestrian as always, some biological failing or other, politely enquired after, and immediately forgotten. The age of the departed is not inappropriate – they are both of similar vintage. But this death is more interesting, he supposes, because he must get on a plane, and travel to a strange city, and talk about the man who has died, to an audience whom he does not know, and who does not know him.
He is not sure what he will say. Eulogies are, at best, puffery, and at worst, lies. Honest recollections of a life’s tapestry should include the poorly matched colours, the dropped stitches, the truth in all its messy human glory. But that is not the way it works, is it? The eulogy is not a testament of veracity, but rather for the loved ones left behind, a swathe of cream-coloured lies to salve the loss.
And he has never met any of these people.
And so he now sits in the cabin, long legs uncomfortably bent against the constraints of economy class, nursing a Coke. What to say, what to say. He decides that he cannot honestly reflect on a man with whom he lost contact so long ago. And so he can go no further than to talk about the man he knew back then.
While his own nearly lived life looms accusingly in his face.
He will eulogise himself.
The chapel is small, further diminished by the oppressive weight of a dark and oily sky. He stands uncertainly at the entrance. He is late and the sad smattering of congregants, mostly of a certain age, are spread unevenly among the pews. He slips unobtrusively into a seat at the back.
A woman sits in the front pew, the wife. He knows her name, but her sombre dress and veil say nothing of her, save for sadness and age, made obvious by her attitude of surrender, shoulders shrunken and stooped.
He is approached by a man he does not recognise, who slides in besides him, whispering.
— Are you Harold Cummings?
— Yes, sorry I’m late.
— No problem. I’m Victor’s brother-in-law. He talked a lot about you towards the end.
— Really? I haven’t spoken to him much in years.
— Said you were his rock, his conscience, at college.
— Strange, I don’t remember it that way at all. He was completely self-sufficient.
— Thanks for coming anyway. He would have been pleased.
A man of the cloth waxes religious about this life and the next, cliché after cliché stumbling over each other in a numbing parody of small-mindedness. Then a speaker rises, a man in the cloying grip of mid-adulthood, to say a few words about his father. The words are kind and gentle, but without commitment. He is a child clearly long distanced from the family bosom.
The son finishes, Harold’s name is called. He walks uncertainly to the podium and looks out on strange faces projecting expressions like question marks.
He pulls out a page of sparse scribblings and smoothes it on the wooden surface.
‘My name is Harold Cummings. The family has asked me to say a few words about Victor. Most of you have never heard of me, and that is because while I was Vic’s best friend at school and college, I have lived far away from him for many years. My contact with Vic has been almost exclusively via telephone over the last few decades.
‘So from that perspective I am sure that you know him better than I do. But my memory of him is uncoloured by the ageing process that would have surely started to take hold of him, although, I suspect, less harshly than for many of us. He was always, quite simply, larger than life for me.
‘I remember this giant personality – the most popular boy, the smartest kid in class, most successful with the girls, a prankster, a wit, an adventurer, a sportsman, a raconteur and a risk-taker.’
He pauses, looks at the ceiling, closes his eyes, trying to capture the time. He looks out at the audience again.
‘I went through school and college in a state of some disbelief and gratitude that he had chosen me as his best friend – because everything he was, I was not. I was the dull and conservative foil to his continual risk-taking, and I mean that not unkindly, because even after ignoring my many imprecations to restrain himself, he was always happy to let me bask in the warm slipstream of his fabulous experiences, which were too many to mention.
‘Then we were separated, parted by geography and circumstance, and we managed, at first, to talk often, and then later, as these things go, less frequently. But as each conversation ended, I was always left with this – Vic was the person I have always wanted to be. A vital, unrestrained, impulsive, brave and explosive human being for whom life had no boundaries. As I knew him then, it was a life combustively lived, in every sense of the word.’
He picks up his notes, and slips them into his pocket. He closes his eyes and exhales sadly.
‘Vic, you were the person I always wanted to be. I still do.
‘I still do.’
“I hope you have enjoyed reading these extracts from my books. If you would like to buy a copy of Imperfect Solo, Entanglement or Stepping Out, click HERE to go to my ‘Buy – Book’ page for a few suggestions of where you can purchase it in bricks-and-mortar bookshops.” STEVEN BOYKEY SIDLEY
Extracts courtesy of Picador Africa (www.panmacmillan.co.za).