Most of Henry James's afterlife happens elsewhere, in rooms with patterned carpets where ghosts with cavernous eyes hover over dusty tables, aware, even in death, of the chains securing them to their narrow destinies. Most of his afterlife boils free in a blur of flickering pages sent tumbling from some magic mountain; some river snaking through crooked letters; old stories scrimshawed into the lace of brokenhearted brides aflame and brittle. Our Henry, the brother forever younger, reaches for bold William, for the madness of his art again and again and again. Most of this happens elsewhere, as do the afterlives of more common minds, where a mournful morning fog billows by his woolen wing-backed chair, curling over his worn, sturdy shoes, stiff cuffs, and suspenders sustaining a weighty dignity. Most of his afterlife is spent lurking near the edges, in the swirl of creamed tea or shadowing the bust of our great bard, where he is unmoved by the madding and shrieking crowds, but hardly distant, nor obscure. But in odd bright moments that unfold like the final phrases of a catacombic sentence, Henry James's afterlife does not happen elsewhere; he joins us, in our dining rooms and breakfast nooks, upturning tables and scattering golden flatware across the marble tiles, fork tines ever upward, a minefield of petite rakes; spoons teeter on their gleaming bowls as we lean forward to find our distorted features awash in brackish tides, and James, nervous, muttering mutters apologies as he sweeps away shards of shattered stemware.
It is a small comfortable room, always new—her skin soft, transparent, all Life—and Death, her lover, now tamed—blossoming in a rich tincture of peony and sparrow's tuft—frost glistens on the stones piled and stacked in the corners of this lodging, this apartment of a Nominated Heart, where the dim light of Moon—Lo', wrinkling the landscape—and Joyous Dawn warm the Sweet Mountains anon and seen only through glass Rippled and Cross-stitched with Age—Fie!, that Foe—and only in specific amounts and at specific times, when the Eyes have not failed nor the other Senses, the gifts that balance upright the physical body and tremor-filled Soul. She laughs often and heartily at her old self, a Laugh so unexpected that passersby on the street stop and gaze into the window and laugh with her, lost in Mirth—that old self caught up in the Battle, floorboards counted and paced and chair-back gripped and chair adjusted and so too the dresser and bed and the measurements of the room ingrained, the Soles of her feet buffing clean the clutter of Dust and the clattering of her silly lines! The pen is still upright, the inkwell brimming, but the papers now lay flat, smoothed every so often as she leans against warm memories. But to organize a poem? How tedious! Besides, she cannot pick up the pen—her fingers pass through its casing and the words dormant in the ink are alive in her, pulsing through her veins, the Blood of Hallowed names—but she would not write even if she could. Amazing, she thinks, how long I labored to script the sounds, a lifetime moiled in my own dusky stanzas, devoted to the Outside. Here, at last, all the words are present, all Ordered without Order, and I their gentle container.
Everyday, the man is glorious in the arena. He is never old or tired. His muscles are strong. Each movement or action is purposeful. He flexes his legs and swirls the toe of his shoe against the dirt. The bull appears, glorious, nostrils flaring. Domes of dust envelop each hoof as the beast stalks forward. The man's suerte de capote, a flash, a taunt, an advance, draws them together. Heat flows from the bull to the man and from the man to the bull, each more complete here, in this first intersection, than ever before, both unflinchingly alive as their bodies nearly collide, as the cape flutters between them, above the beast's back, a collection of butterflies knit into a single shroud, acting as a fiber between hide and skin, the bull knowing the man's heart, his fearlessness, his fear, his need for adulation, and the man knowing the bull's heart, his narrow focus, the wordless pull toward a place he indentifies as home, and together they understand, pity, and love the other and commit to their fatal dance. Each knows the routine, but never tires. In each veronica the man admires equally the majesty of his own wrist, how it flicks and how the cape responds, the fabric shimmering and lucid as water, and the majesty of the bull's momentum, the miracle of its dense and dim fury. The bull charges straight through the cape and the man spins away, offering only his back to his adversary. He walks toward the crowd and they cheer. The sun is high. The clouds have not yet come. He cannot see the bull. Later, there will be wine and a woman and he will bring to those things the same intensity of action the beast requires, but he does not think of this now. He thinks only of his heart and his blood and the heart of the bull and the blood of the bull. Their breathing is synchronized. The man turns to continue the ballet. He flicks his wrist, inviting.
This space is damp and she's always weighed down although the smooth and heavy stones are no longer with her and she's certainly not doomed to haunting the murky bed of the Ouse. Still, the world glides above, the hull of a boat painted and barnacled, the soles of thousands of shoes and the cracking, unlevel cobblestoned walking paths and the roots of the flowers and trees and shrubs and hedges tangled and stitched together, little knots of life growing deeper, but always above, twisting through the soils, the streams, the sands, the fishtails glinting in murky sunlight, eyes big as pie plates, swimming toward some nightingale song. On occasion, she steps onto the banks, but even then does she study that which is caught below—scrap paper caught at the table-leg or windswept from baseboard to baseboard, dust gathered beneath the stove or coating the undersides of saucers, an unknowable sadness etched into mirrors by downcast eyes. Upwards, she notes ceilings that reveal secrets ill-concealed by those dwelling in successive stories, the bellies of birds, feathers taut against the wind, burnished and billowing clouds, the immense and brilliant blanket of the Milky Way, nothing if not the underside of the universe.
The women have big tits. There's always beer and if there isn't beer, or tits, that's okay, too. In his lap or in the crook of his arm, he keeps a ruined, majestic Persian cat with frostbitten ears and three legs. There's a three legged stool on which he furrows his brow and asks for more beer, and sometimes, whiskey, but he likes to think about how he toned things down towards the end, how he finally had that nice car and some coin for his pocket and women who had all their teeth. Peanut shells on the floor here, too, and buckets of oysters and horseradish filling the table in the anteroom, and a sign over the door that says, This Mess is Mine. Did you bring beer? he says to newcomers and visitors, and if they say yes, he is glad and the room glows with the tarnished radiance of his heart, and if they say no, he says come in anyway, there's room for you too, and the light fluctuates somewhere between pale green and twilight. Around the table are folks Bukowski likes, or people he can stand, people that don't get in his way when he needs to take a shit or tap out poems or whisper love-songs to Cornelius, the cat, the ruined, the bent, with his matted fur and okra-green eyes. He was Skid Row's bard in his old life, but here, he dismisses any such titles. He flashes his snaggle-toothed grin and raises his glass when there is beer and quotes Stendal and Lorca, who rarely visit, mired as they are in their own swampy camps, but whose words stoke the fire. He loves tits, still, and beer, and his cat. A different ruined cat every day. And there's time for everything now, time for beauty and revision and Cezanne and Celine, but it's so hard to rise from this stool, to open the door and pass through the other rooms and find an exit and brave the wind, so he mostly stays put and waits for those things he loves the most to come to him. And if they don't come? He shrugs his shoulders, strokes the cat, and tells another story about the trumpet of possible victory piercing the void.
This is very confusing. Seriously, what's going on? Toaster in the morning how lovely to slice and slip and pop and knife and crunch and off to shaving through a rivulet streaming past the banks of each second filled and dense with here is the footstep and the light and the cross and the hand and the faintly falling and young man Furey and the old man fury and goodly and greatly how it all rushes together. It can't be contained within its own cosmos, let alone its own sentence! He is wiping clean his glasses yet again, his thumb and forefinger holding gently that pale sacrament. There comes a singularity once each epoch in which he almost grasps the illusive connectedness but loses it time and time and time before the battlements of twilight. And night? Who dares enter Joyce's dream as he leans into the indomitable wind chin and nose sharp as pikes to steer aright his ship and bend the bent compass needle homeward North home here home there home slipping by and home slowing down he sees the table and the bowl and the shaving brush and the hair falling obliquely in the dim candlelight and the snip snicker snak of the scissors and the hand holding the scissors and the hand that forged the steel and sank the rivet and the hands that would hold the scissors including his own and then not his own oh Holy of the Holies he swoons in the dream a raft a letter a page another page another page and blank pages grown full and the terrible steepness of the ground rising to the arbor above the fields grown dusty with the dusting of snow and the waves silver bright in the morning coming through the dream so welcome and forever flowing away and back but the dream and the night only leads to the day and its tumbling shining mottled faces and the hands leaning forward to offer either sacrament or knowledge, the apple a most scintillating bold and bright red window opening onto what he longs to see.
Are all gathered together in a close, hot room. Stove pulsing in the corner. In the middle of the room is a table at which they all crowd, shoulder to shoulder, sweating, urgent, their pipes glowing, smoke billowing up in waves so thick they are blind to each other's faces, a few glasses tipped over, a few more full, a Bible, empty bowls, a wind howling from far away rattling the windows. Have they been sent to hell? Only the hell requested. For how else might they order the chaos? Raising a hand, calling for more drink, for more bread to soak up the drink, for more wheat to be milled into bread, for more muscle, for steel, for the feet that tramp the ground both peasant and noble! Mother Russia provides, brother, provides for all the exact remedy for each war, for each peace, for related crimes, faiths, redemptive sicknesses, for fathers and sons, and young women with dogs. They all come here eventually, the door is always open and the room is always dense and fat with tears. The men closest to the table laugh themselves into despair and fall away to rest at the feet of those most recently arrived. After rest, they return, their ancient greatcoats greasy and tattered, their bodies wracked with consumption, their livers ripe with ancestral alchemy, and their minds firing and swirling and desperate for whatever temptation, whatever futile charge the world demands of them. Despite unlimited dolor and certain defeat and the looming void that none can fully stave or fill, all the world gathers at the window of this old room, longing to join the calliope of the dead, to relish in its undiminished flare.
David Foster Wallace
There is no room; the room is not important.*
* There will be many rooms; all will be important.
A breeze caresses his skin. His wife and daughter are by his side and beyond them a blur of faces. Names are merely mist. A lush field rolls toward a distant wall lined with doors. He is not afraid. He barely remembers pen or paper. He is both observer and participant, subject and creator. Together, they choose a door. There are no tables, no chairs, no lamps, no food. There is nothing to see, nor touch, nor taste, nor hear. But hasn't he been touching the doors? Looking at them? Hearing the rustling of their footsteps? Perhaps not. If pressed, he couldn't describe the doors or the fields. The doors are no longer doors. The space is no longer space. But this, of course, is a long time from now, and there is still so much to do.