October 31, 2014KR BlogReadingRemembrances

Mouth, Part 2

Of my pleasures, the sweetest might be waking with my children. When I was maybe 21, I read The Clown, by Heinrich Boll. For a long time, I kept a copy of it. When my then-wife broke things off and took up with another, I went hard at the book with a red pen, underlining and circling and exclamation-pointing what I thought were relevant passages, passages, really, in my distress, I knew were meant for me. (Books could overwhelm me then.) I haven’t read The Clown since and don’t recall the specifics of what I marked-up, but I do recall that the hero’s girl had left him for a more proper soul and so the hero was distraught and confused and angry. So I splashed the relevant passages with red ink and mailed the book to my ex. And then I think I forgot about it because I remember being startled, some time after we’d reconciled, when she said, half-jokingly, that what I’d done was the act of a lunatic. What must I have been thinking, she wondered, to do such a thing? No matter that the act was actually rather tame, in comparison anyway to a thousand other acts I’d committed or would commit, but the answer, of course, was that I wasn’t thinking at all: I was feeling and I was acting. My twenties were spent that way, almost exclusively. But what I remember most about Boll’s book now, what has remained with me, oddly, over several decades, has nothing to do with humiliating, inexplicable loss. Rather, what I remember is a description of a small sleeping child’s breath as being “sweet.”

At some point in my early twenties I bragged to a roomful of people at a party that I hadn’t brushed my teeth in a year. An artist asked a few minutes later if I would pose as David. He’d won a commission, he said, to paint the slaying of Goliath on the ceiling of some church on the Lower East Side. He’d pay $10 an hour and feed me. A week or so later, there I was in the artist’s Brooklyn apartment, naked, doing slow motion somersaults on a blue gymnastics mat he’d unrolled in his front room. He stood a few feet away, sketching what he saw by the light from a small desk lamp. From what looked to me like a large, stand-up toolbox, he’d opened, earlier, when I’d first arrived, a couple drawers and removed from them dozens of sketches, many of which he spread on the floor. They were sketches of bodies in motion. He was proving his bona fides to me, me, who knew nothing of art. The sketches reminded me of DaVinci drawings I’d seen in textbooks. After tumbling a while, I stopped for dinner. He’d made macaroni and cheese. I warned him that my belly distended when I ate, that, after eating, I’d look a little less like David. I don’t remember if I ate in the nude or whether I sat or stood, and I don’t remember the plate I ate off or the cup I drank from. Surely I washed the mac and cheese down with something. Then, after eating, I went back to my slo-mo tumbling.

Later that night, on the platform at 59th street, waiting for the local, I was frisked by a pair of cops who said I looked just like a guy they were looking for. As they were frisking me, a woman came running down the steps screaming that someone was getting beat upstairs. One of the officers told me to stay put until they got back. They were big New York cops. One of them waved a big fat finger at me. Then they went lumbering up the stairs. After a couple minutes, the local came and I was on my way again. I saw the artist at another party some time later and when he tried to speak to me I pretended I didn’t know him. I’d started brushing my teeth again, which may have been why he didn’t press it. I kept up the brushing, too, regularly, until some next catastrophe struck. By thirty-three, I was brushing two, three times a day, no matter what. I was a real go-getter. By 40, I was full on into the floss.

My companion is not romantic about the morning breath of our children. She prides herself on calling a spade a spade.

“They stink,” she says, of all three of them. “Their mouths stink. Their asses stink.”

Me, I like to crawl into bed with them in the early morning. I snuggle my nose up as close as possible to their little mouths. They are seven, five, and five. Sometimes, if one of them is still sleeping soundly, I’ll rest my hand on their chest and feel, simultaneously, their heartbeat and their breath. I just read a Cortazar story in which it’s difficult to tell the past from the future, the real from a dream. Who knows why we remember what we do?