An Examination of Love, Death, the Pursuit of Happiness, the Ineffable Construct of the Self, and Undelivered Mail.
By Mark Fenton
Published February 11, 2009
Some days I have people to meet with at our head office. I usually get there first thing in the morning, often before the people I'm meeting with have arrived. This can be a good thing as it gives me time to collect myself and see to basic needs.
After that there's an employee lounge which I've assumed I'm allowed to sit in while I wait (although I've never seen anyone in it) There's a Foosball table which once I amused myself by setting up shots on and passing staff gave me looks from the hall as though it was maybe supposed to be purely decorative.
There's also a rotating book stand. It's mostly novels and nearly all the novels take romance and marriage as their subject. On first glance there was only one book I recognized
and so there was lots left for me to read. On the morning in question I helped myself to this volume by Julia James.
The back jacket copy intrigued me.
It's not so bad. I like how even though they all have Greek names Ms. James has managed to embed the word "mistress" into Contstantia Dimistris
in a bilingual flourish worthy of James Joyce.
Speaking of whom-- Turns out the book stand contains a copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
And in what is becoming a morning orgy of J-names I swap Julia James for James Joyce.
Haven't looked at the book in years. Bad idea. I promise you there's no better way to confront your paltriness as a writer than to read anything by Joyce before breakfast on a day when you have a magazine deadline. I flip quickly to the last page and reread words I already know by heart.
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
Doesn't sit well. In 2009 I'm pretty sure the conscience of my race will crack quickly under interrogation. As for the reality of experience, it's been beaten out of recognition by For Pleasure...Or Marriage, and the dozen of similar and nearly indistinguishable volumes on the rack. (Yes, Irish modernists of staggering literary magnitude are an anomaly on this shelf.)
I am in the habit of stuffing mail from home into my briefcase and dealing with it at work when I have a minute. I decide this would be a good time to do that.
Here's the deal. Ever since I first heard these lines in a Prince song:
What's the matter with your life?
Poverty Getting U down?
Mail man jerking U round?
Put that million dollar cheque in someone else's box?
I've had a whole new attitude to mail.
It had never occurred to me before. I might go to the mailbox to discover a random benevolent soul or entity or institution has decided to give me a financial boost!
Not that I have anything to complain about financially. Still. A friend who's doing just a bit better than me might decide to send a cheque. Or better still an anonymous money order, so that I can't return it even if I feel unworthy!
And I don't get a lot of snail mail. (No surprise. I don't send any.) But imagine my excitement when I do and see.
"M. Fenton" handwritten. So I know it isn't a bill or junkmail. The words of Prince
sizzling in my head I rip it open without even noting the return address.
It is a sympathy card.
Presumably a loved one close to me has recently died and I just haven't been reading my e-mail or checking voice messages. (I'm never home.)
In a panic I open it to discover that I am being consoled by four people E--,C--,V--, and B--,who now address the recipient as "Mark" (so my haste in opening it based on the ambiguity of M. is a non-issue). I'm told that thoughts are with me and that "G-- is now with his precious I-- and at peace."
I know none of these people. No doubt I have been confused with another Mark Fenton. Since they got my address without contacting me I'm guessing they don't have a close relationship with The Other Mark Fenton. That the connection, or degree of separation between E--,C--,V--, and B-- and The Other Mark Fenton is obviously G -- and I--. This is confusing so I'll graph it. (see Figure 1.0.)
Inside the card there is a bit of stationary factory-cut to delineate things in the illustrated header which portrays a winter scene and a person of indeterminate sex and age flogging a Christmas tree.
(See. I don't make this stuff up.)
In this document they invite TOMF to visit if he is ever "out our way." Significantly they don't leave an address, so if the letter ever reaches TOMF--as I promise I intend it to--he will have as much luck finding the correct E--,C--,V--, and B--, as E--,C--,V--, and B--, have had in finding the correct OMF.
I suspect the discussion around the passing of G-- went down something like this. Probably at dinner.
E--: I can't believe G-- is gone. I wish there was more I could do.
C--: Mmmm...when's the funeral again?
E--: Thursday afternoon.
C--: I think that's when I'm having those tests done. Pretty sure I won't be able to make it.
E--: I feel so bad for Mark. G-- so adored him.
V--: Adored who? Who's Mark...?
E--: He's the son of I--'s cousin--or is it maybe second cousin--? L--.
B--: Who's L--?
E-- :Oh, for godsakes. Does everyone else just go into a COMA for family events!
V--: No doubt--
E--: They were at K-- and N--'s wedding.
V--: K-- dead? He's not much older than me?
E-- No. MARK'S dead--URGGGGHHH. I mean G--'S dead!
C--: Just what I need. A room full of dead people when I'm going in for tests.
[General laughter around the table except for E--who is visibly enraged]
E--: FINE. I'LL get a sympathy card AND write the note AND sign everyone's name AND lookup wherever the hell Mark lives in his happy single-guy-no-kids LIFE--which incidentally I COVET at the moment--and I'LL send the gawdamn thing. LIKE I always do!
C--: Sorry... but, I mean, it IS kind of funny.
But there's no getting E-- to see it that way and E-- is mute and seething for the duration of dinner and the rest of the family are sorry and a bit scared and make bland and cautious small talk for the duration of dinner as a kind of demonstration of shame. You've been there.
This is all part of an ongoing drama I've had with the other Mark Fenton for over a decade. Mail and phone calls for TOMF have been coming to me for years.
Once I had a business meeting with a woman at the head office I mentioned at the beginning of this essay and reception buzzed her and when she burst vibrantly yet professionally through the door--I'm sure she'd just fixed her hair--she was the kind of young woman who if you were a heterosexual male in his dating years and she approached you that way you'd want to ask out.
I've always thought the cliché "his/her face fell" was hyperbolic, but a face really can. Hers did. You've probably seen it. It's like a whole network of muscle groups from the eyebrows to the neck gets sucker-punched and all of the person's DNA goes flying and evaporates into the ether.
She only lost it for a moment, but long enough for me to notice. She regained her composure and by the time she'd reached me to shake hands she'd affected a low-level professional smile.
"I actually know a Mark Fenton, who lives here in Burlington."
"When I heard your name I thought maybe you were him."
Once I got two in one week. First, I got a letter, hand-addressed to TOMF inviting TOMF to a wedding. Complete with a map to the reception. In the woods.
Not being in any mood to return it to sender (at that time I was working out of the house and had two infants to look after and redirecting mail to TOMF was low on my to-do list) I put it on the shelf.
Two days later I was at work in my office when the phone rang.
--It's me. Samantha.
--You know. From the bar. On Saturday?
--Um...I'm sorry...I think you have the wrong Mark Fenton.
Because I was at a stage in my life where I probably hadn't been in a bar in over a year, and there was absolutely no WAY I'd written an illegible or deliberately "wrong" phone number on a matchbook and given it to someone called Samantha.
After I hung up I paused for a moment and re-imagined the conversation going down like this.
--It's me. Samantha.
--You know. From the bar. On Saturday?
--Oh...right...right...It's great to hear from you...I realized later that I might have given you my old number.
--No prob. You were in the book.
(Here's where I look around the office as we all do in these situations. As though the room will contain a cue for what to say next. And for once, as my eyes fall on the invitation on the bookshelf next to my copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,
--Say, listen, this might sound kind of weird, but...would you like to go to a wedding?
--Oh yeah? [chuckle]...Um...OK...sure...why not.
On my way to pick her up I cunningly plan how best to crash this event. We'll stay around the edges of the crowd and I'll simply introduce us as Mark and Samantha and keep it vague in case I meet someone who KNOWS the other Mark Fenton. I never returned the invitation to the sender so there's a fair chance TOMF won't be there.
When Samantha answers the door I'm thrilled. She'll blend perfectly as a member of the wedding. Indeed as the member of any wedding. I'm momentarily envious that TOMF can walk into a bar meet a woman this stylish and beautiful, and even have her PURSUE HIM undeterred by a bad phone number.
But she is not pleased to see me.
--WHO THE HELL ARE YOU!
--Um [offering my hand] Mark Fenton...we spoke...on the phone. About going to a wedding...?
--You're NOT Mark Fenton.
--Um...I actually think I AM...(reaching as casually as possible for ID) if you'll allow me.
--OMFG! I can't believe you're the WRONG Mark Fenton and actually took advantage of an honest mistake when I called the WRONG number and tried to FAKE IT. IS THIS A SICK JOKE OR ARE YOU SOME KIND OF PERVERT.
--Um...well, the answer to the first question is an unequivocal ‘NO.' The second is, I suppose, a matter of perspective, best judged...I'd say...by an impartial third party. I WOULD like to remind you that in fact it was YOU who called ME.
--[VOICE FROM UPSTAIRS WHICH IS RESOUNDINGLY MALE AND AUTHORITATIVE]: Is everything OK down there?
--OMIGOD! [Samantha has placed the tips of her fingers above and to the side of each eye and is staring vaguely downwards at nothing] I can't BELIEVE this is HAPPENING. I'm going to scream and Scream and SCREAM and SCREAM and SCREAM!
--Please don't...maybe I should just...
Her roommate rushes downstairs and overpowers me. He is a young police officer who will I'm sure someday marry Samantha when finally their obvious attraction for one another overcomes the reserve and decorum they've maintained for being roommates and wise enough to know that romance would complicate what was gone into purely as an economic living arrangement.
Perhaps my interjection into the drama of their life is what finally breaks the levee of contained passion and washes them helplessly into one another's arms. All that adrenaline from the threat of a deranged intruder. Really, this gives my position a positive spin which I think I might mention during the trial. I wish them every happiness.
Anyway I'm brought into police custody--less impartial a third party than I'd hoped--and after The Finest THOROUGHLY search me and my ride they find the wedding invitation and check THAT out and...you get the idea. It ends badly.
Often in dreams I will confront the other Mark Fenton. He lives in a penthouse in Burlington, near the water. In dreams it is always Sunday morning. Church time, but TOMF never goes to church. Why would he need to? I have forced myself somehow into his penthouse and see them outside, by the pool. TOMF and Samantha (in my highly developed fantasy world the romance between TOMF and Samantha is revived sporadically even after her marriage to the police officer during those not infrequent doldrums so many couple experience down the long walk of their vows).
TOMF is dressed in a black silk robe, and despite the casualness of the hour his jet black hair is neatly combed, and he has a small black moustache. I sense we are exactly the same age, and though he is far more suave than I am, I am encouraged by the puffiness around his eyes brought on by the years of hedonism and dissipation. He only vaguely looks up from the chess problem he is working on in the Times.
Samantha, her fine but firm ivory hands cradling a café-au-lait in a huge turquoise ceramic mug is wearing nothing but one of his very expensive silk shirts, large and loose on her petit body, which she pulls closed and buttons as she sees me.
In my dream I loudly exclaim my infinite hatred for TOMF hurling at him epithets like SPINELESS WEASEL and DISSOLUTE RAKE, words which seem wrong and ineffective as soon as they're uttered. In delayed dreamtime it is many minutes before he is annoyed enough to make eye contact. When he finally does they remind me of Proust's.
Eyes of a man who finds little worthy of this time.
How I fare in my ensuing combat with TOMF could be read as an index of my self-image on that day. Or that's what I believe a therapist would say.
There is an essay by Jorge-Luis Borges, called "Borges and I." He experiences a problem similar to that of TOMF and myself. But here the situation is reversed. It is the grounded, living-in-the-now Borges who must come to terms with his doppelgänger who is a writer, an inventor of reality. It is The Other Borges who observes and creates a version of reality, rather than simply living that reality.
I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.
Perhaps somewhere not that many kms away TOMF is thinking similar thoughts about me as he goes to his mailbox hoping for the million dollar cheque and instead opens invitations to weddings and funerals that are intended for ME, weddings and funerals that I would rather drift around the edges of than fully engage with. Or better still let my imagination create and not attend at all. Or perhaps TOMF and I ARE the same person. I may have only myself to blame for the strife between us. For the Borges essay ends thus:
I do not know which of us has written this page.
If TOMF and I ever do meet it may not be a battle for dominance but rather, as in Paul Klee's "Two Men Meet, Each Believing The Other Of Higher Rank," an encounter in which each of us feels subservient.
Paul Klee. Two Men Meet, Each Believeing the Other of Higher Rank (Zwei Männer, einander in höherer Stellung vermutend, begegnen sich). 1903
But let's crank it down now. Down to the world in which people who are flesh and blood grieve for those who were, until recently, flesh and blood. I have still not redirected the funeral invitation intended for TOMF and mean to as soon as this essay is done. I am concerned about the care that E--,C--,V--, and B--, have obviously put into it the sympathy card.
And I'm touched by it. Despite not knowing anyone involved in the loss, it nevertheless elicits thoughts of mortality and loss in me. For, as John Donne tells us, "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind" [male-centric language duly noted: Can't edit the dead but feel free to mentally swap "wo/man's" for "man's" and "humankind" for "mankind"]
As a response to thinking these thoughts, I chose to walk the family dog through the York Boulevard cemetery.
Our family recently decided to foster dogs from an organization named Barley's Angels (no doubt named to pun on a popular 1970s TV drama.
) an excellent organization run by dedicated dog lovers and with their support we've learned much about caring for dogs and of their quirks (The dog's; not the Barlee's Angel's staff's. [Sorry for the multiple and ungraceful possessives here; couldn't think of any other way to do it.])
The first dog who came to us was a despondent beagle crossed with something indeterminate, and he arrived with the name Carson, a mnemonic for whom I had no trouble, as his sad brown eyes
mirrored the sad brown eyes in photos of Carson McCullers.
(Alright, fine, but I see a resemblance.)
Carson has moved on to another home by now. (Carson the dog. If you believe in an afterlife and want to call it a "home," so has Carson McCullers, R.I.P.) Dogs, like most things in our lives, are transient and we wonder why we come to have particular ones, and then when we no longer have them how jarring we find lost connections with an entity that never spoke a word to us.
Borges was blind. There is an etching of him by the German artist Jan Peter Tripp.
The picture makes me think of Borges and The Other Borges advancing from opposite directions on a street in Buenos Aries. Late Afternoon. Long shadows. They come to a stop so as not to collide. Each reflected unseen in the other's eyes. Then each taps around the other and moves forward. Neither ever knowing.
But my favourite metaphor for missed connections is the ending to Herman Melville's story "Bartleby the Scrivener." The time is the 1850s. The place is Wall Street. Bartleby is a scrivener (duh!). We don't have them anymore but this is a guy who copies out business communications and whose skill-set has since been made redundant a million times over by Microsoft Word. (Today Bartleby would be an office temp sent out to data entry jobs at minimum wage)
The story is narrated by his employer. One day Bartleby is asked to perform a task and answers bafflingly and boldly yet without apparent motive, "I would prefer not to." To every request thereafter he answers with this same work-to-rule mantra yet continues to arrive at work each day and to sit and stare at out at the window at the brick wall opposite.
The employer is at a loss as to what he should do with Bartleby, so bizarre is the behaviour. He's like the PC that refuses to load and just shows you the endless rotating hourglass icon, and you're reluctant to throw the thing out in case by some miracle it finally loads and anyway it contains information and applications you've invested some time in. Bartleby's downward progression is systematic and bleak.
The story ends with the narrator curious to learn what caused Bartleby's breakdown. He hears a rumour that Bartelby's prior employment was as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington.
Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:--the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave...
Ah yes. "G--is now with his precious I--and at peace." Their corporeal remains dwindling by day, leaving only their rings, and here is as good a place as any to insert the saddest image I've captured from the York Boulevard cemetery. Tombstone ruble dumped and crumbling by a waste container.
Not even our final markers are lasting.
I am currently in possession of two articles of mail that will, without my best efforts, become dead letters. One is the sympathy note for G--. The other has no connection with TOMF. It is an item sold on e-Bay by the friend of a friend of a friend yet never mailed. It came into my possession through circumstances too elaborate for this coda not to become more unwieldy than it already has.
But it has fallen to me to deal with it. I am told it is a signed publicity poster for Teenage Head. Lately, in my last moments before sleep I imagine Mr. Yamada coming home from work to his shared apartment. Glancing hopefully, as he has every day for years, at the mailbox. But still no poster. He conceals his disappointment.
Naohiro is a man who tackles every task with a smile, who maintains his optimism whatever cards fate deals him. Or anyhow this is the way his roommates describe him. Who knows why our peers characterize us the way they do? Whatever the reasons we're then expected to live up to their image of us.
So. Naohiro greets his roommates with a smile and prepares himself a humble but nourishing meal of vegetables and fish as he spins his vintage vinyl--he owns everything this band has released--ordered at great expense from across the Pacific. Naohiro watches the pink sunset filtered through Tokyo haze. A horizon of high-rises devour the dying light like rows of strange square teeth.
Much has happened since Mr. Yamada sent his money order-- to Naohiro and to the world. Since he sent his money order Yuriko, the love of his life, has left him to marry an ambitious Toshiba salaryman. Since he sent his money order Frankie Venom has departed what reality we know for we know not what, and still the package has not come.
Mr. Yamada, if you're reading, I promise you: It is on its way.