Oct 3, 2006

Last Lite

Eventually, the city appeared through clouds and dark. Tankers moored in the roadstead stood out like diamond pins on a black mourning dress. The plane finally got down and to the gate. They were all techies in first class and took their sweet time disembarking. One was a dwarf, another laughed to herself hysterically.

Before that, flying out of Missoula to Seattle, in the proverbial gloaming, she appeared out the window, like a Matisse brush stroke. I was listening to the Bill Evans trio and between her waving like mad and the music I had a few seconds of euhporia.

Before that, before the drive from Cranbrook to Kalispell, we all stood outside the creamtorium, a little cinderblock Auschwitz, no bigger than a one car garage, but dour and dark, with a white garage door and then a dark green door through which the took her. Behind the green door, I thought. We didn't stay for the smoke or the ashes. I went to each person in turn and said goodbye. SN seemed suddenly distant. I sensed she was glad it was done and that I was going.

Before that, when we first arrived at the chapel she lay in the casket under a white veil, with little gold stars. She looked like an Indian princess — Indian-indian not like a dowage, like some old crone. I could make out the outline of her nose; that's how I knew it was her. I couldn't see eyes and I wondered if they'd been redacted for some reason.

Altogether, she seemed impossibly small, about the size of a ventriloquist's dummy. But still beautiful of course and for a moment I imagined pulling off the veil and she would open her eyes and say something like, "Wish I was dead? Well, I'm not. Thought you were gonna get rich, well you're not. And if you've got any spare change I need a drink, bad." And I would say, 'I'll bet you do, Tallulah, but you never looked better.' And she would laugh and pee in her pants. And I'd tell her I had some scotch in the car. 'Hallelujah.' And we'd do a riff on Hallelujah Tallulah. Then we would go out to the car and get smashed and talk 'black' and pretend she was a poor slave and I was the wealthy landowner. She'd get into her Butterfly McQueen act and we were going, going, Gone With the Wind.

The last time we did that was on the drive between Rabat and Casablanca in June 2005. She'd been quiet up 'til that point and then I suppose she realized I wasn't going to kill her after all, so she lightened up and went through all of her old routines and we laughed and laughed just the way we always did.

Before the funeral, that morning, we sat in that urt like temple they have. There's a photo of the maitre, looking very distinguished, more like a famous character actor than a genuine master. The long white hair, the white suit. White on white, the way masseurs used to dress at the Palm Springs Racquet Club.

The photo hangs in the window facing east. It's a sun cult after all. Below the photo there's a table with white lace down to the floor and on the table crystal oblisks and other chachkas, globes and hearts and little flying dragons. There's a bouquet of wheat and a pot of pink flowers. Off to one side a ball spins in a water sculpture.

The night before they had 'Ann night.' People read poems; a girl played the violin; the choir sang and they can really sing. And then SN asked if I wouldn't say something. So I did and told about that time she came to visit us in Miami and got out on the court in middle of the condo complex, this was on Brickell Avenue in Miami, a little like East Germany but the weather was great. She had me hit her some balls at the net. I hit her some and she said, 'no, hit 'em. C'mon whata ya think this? Hit 'em.' There were people up in the balconies looking down and you could hear them saying to each other, "hey, Art you gotta come out and see this. Looks like Little Mo at Forest Hills, don't it? What year was that? 1938?"

It seems as long ago as the late 14th Century, but there she was with no shoes vollying just like at the Racquet Club or the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club and probably Tony Trabert's bed and some other beds too. She was the true antidote to death and despair in those days....

After the presentation, all the brothers and sisters went downstairs where there was a table with her picture, a little candle, and pictures of her family. SN asked me to identify the people in the photos. Her mother, I suppose, her brother. But I wasn't sure. She'd never told me those things. The truth is, I knew very little, other than what she'd told me in Morocco and some of that seemed speculative. She, herself, didn't seem sure.

But as we stood looking at the photos people began asking questions and telling stories. One woman told about the time she offered Ann a room in her apartment, in New York, and how she was the ideal guest for the first two weeks but then things changed. And when she told Ann she needed to leave, things went bad in earnest. Another woman told a story about the time Ann hit her and this woman hit back. The exact parallel of my own fight with her on the onramp to the Sawmill River Parkway in 1966. To hear these stories you'd think, 'well, but how did you put up with her for all these years?' People explained that, how they were able to see through her, how you could draw her out with a joke, about the time no long before she died, while walking ever so slowly to the dininghall, she told the person whose arm she was holding on to, "Are we going slowly enough for you?"

In the end, she may be remembered because she was a character and because it was always clear where she stood, and in her immovableness, appeared perhaps stronger than she was.

One person who knew her particularly well, and who endless enjoyed her grace, a man of course, told me, "I could see her suffering, I could see that underneath she was terrified. But I just let her go through that and wait 'til she got to the other side of it.'

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