READING LIES DREAMING
I left home early, without waking Dawn. I was on my way to Kutztown to meet with James Carroll. We were planning on making selections from a series of monotypes I had done for his New Arts Editions. The series of prints by contemporary artists contains several works Keith executed in Kutztown."
This morning though, I am distracted by the disturbing memory of last nightís dream. It was emotionally upsetting and it prodded me into the realization of having dreamed the same dream for months, perhaps years, without even a glimmer of recall.
I approach the gallery preoccupied with this unresolved mental material. It wonít do me much good trying to keep it from James. He knows me well enough to know when my mind is not on my work. Nevertheless, I decide not to mention it.
Problematically, entering the gallery necessitates stepping on Keithís painted images covering the entire floor.
James is standing on the head of one of Keithís cartoon figures. Heís in the back room, sorting slides.
"Hey, Art. You donít look so hot--up too late last night?"
"Not really. Just up too early today is all. Can we get to the portfolio? Iíd like to be home before noon."
"Do you mind if we walk over to the Fancy Pantry first?" he says. "Itís my Saturday morning ritual. I donít do anything constructive until Iíve had coffee and donuts."
"Could we drive to the Airport Diner instead? The Fancy Pantry is too local-yokel for me."
"Iíve had breakfast with some of the best minds in our generation, Art--right there in the Fancy Pantry."
"I know, James. OK, letís go."
James is nearing sixty--and looks it. He doesnít just look old. He looks ancient. His full beard is mostly gray. His glasses are held together by yellowed Scotch tape. And no one, except perhaps his wife, has ever seen him without the dilapidated canvas cap he wears pulled tightly over his forehead. For that matter, Iíve never seen him without the same pair of faded blue-jeans and gray sweatshirt heís wearing today. As I gaze at him, bent over a light box, sorting through at least five-hundred slides that have been on the same table for years, I silently acknowledge his vitality and enthusiasm. Perhaps "ancient" is too strong a word. Dawn always refers to him as "timeless."
Indeed, James has been an icon at the university for decades. Heís past due for retirement but he will probably hang on forever. He has created a contemporary art world here in the middle of nowhere. The procession of significant artists who have participated in the his program is legendary.
James is also a personal link to Keith. His presence was formative in the development of Keithís awareness of the world of contemporary art, and more specifically, the New York art scene. James is as responsible for bridging the gap between here and there as the Beaver Bus Line linking the hundred miles of farmland separating Kutztown from New York.
We leave the gallery by the back door and walk over to the Fancy Pantry. Inside, a rosy-cheeked waitress smiles and hands James the morning paper.
"There you go, Art--service and a smile."
James personally greets each waitress and bus boy and the cook and the owner. He also introduces them to me--even though he has done this three or four times already over the past ten years.
Standing at the counter, he making infinitesimally small talk and contemplates just which donut will make his day. I find an empty booth. Three farmers across from me are talking about hunting, talking about their guns, talking about the "communists at the college." (It will never be "the university" to the townsfolk.)
I light a cigarette and try to look manly--since now theyíre talking about the "faggots at the college."
Of course, James is blithely unaware of all this as he comes strolling over with his copy of the Saturday Reading Times and his donut. I guess thatís how he survives and prospers here. Heís in his own world.
"Are you sure you feel all right, Art? When you walked into the gallery, you looked like youíd seen a ghost."
"I feel all right. I see ghosts all the time," I say. "You know James, it always amazes me to think of this town as the place where Keith grew up."
"Yep. He had a hard time here. People thought he was just crazy. He did installations, outdoor pieces, street art, graffiti, everything he was reading about in the art magazines."
"He often spoke about how closed-minded and conservative the people around here are," I say. "ďHe showed me an article once in which the writer had tried to make a link between Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Art and his work. He said it was total nonsense and the only influence this town had on him was that he was driven to escape all the narrow-minded thinking."
"Now his sculpture is in the park and heís a local hero," says James.
"Hypocrites, man. Donít get me started,Ē I say."
I order a bagel. James wants another donut.
"Do you want to go over the entire edition?" he says. "I was thinking that we could just divide it in half. Iíd keep half of them for the series and you could have the rest."
"Thatís fine with me." Iím glad to get this over with. "Why donít you choose the ones you want. I can pick mine up on Tuesday. I have to come back here for a meeting. Just leave me one of the black-and-white ones, Okay?"
"Sure, Art. Thereís a collector whoís coming by to look at John Cageís monoprints. Iíll show him your license-plate rubbings. The whole series is going to travel around the country, as soon as I can afford the insurance."
Iím impatient to leave. I pick up my lighter and cigarettes and set my crumpled napkin down on the table. But I know itís not that easy to get away from James when heís talking about art.
"So what are you working on lately?" he asks.
"Everything on track?" he counters.
Iíve done several TV shows with him. He always follows my laconic communication with jokes. No matter how I alter the subject, heís following and smiling underneath his hat."
"Actually, Iíve been trying to decide whether my dreams are real and this is a dream, or the other way around," I say, more honestly than he knows.
"I like that about you, Art. Youíre a dreamer; but youíre also a realist. Your work looks impossible, but when you push a button--it works."
"Thatís the problem with life, James."
"What do you mean?"
"No button... "
"Canít turn it on?"
"Canít turn it off."
"Sounds morbid, Art. Do you mind if I change the subject?"
"No, but Iím out of here in a few minutes."
"I was just wondering if youíre still working on the Keith project? Itís been years and every time a new book about him comes out, people ask about yours."
"I never said it was a book. Keith died in the middle of our collaboration. We never really decided what the final form would be."
Actually, Iím glad to be talking about this. Itís always on my mind but I forget other people are still curious about it."
"The reason Iím bringing it up is because I was talking to Keithís sister, Kay, the other day. Have you met her?" he asks.
"Over the years, I was introduced to family members. I met his sisters, but I donít remember which was which.
"Kay is the closest to Keith in age," James says. "Anyway, Kay and her new husband are looking for a house. Dawnís has been for sale since her divorce, right?
"It was, but we bought it from Will. Itís back on the market again, though. Weíre moving to Reading."
"Iím glad I asked you, then. You donít volunteer much information, you know. When I mentioned you to Kay, she asked me about your work. She knows of your relationship with Keith and she had heard you were still working on a project you and Keith had started together. It would be very interesting if Keithís sister ended up in your house."
"I guess itís a small world."
"A miniature working model, isnít it, Art?"
"Sometimes it works," I say, as I slide out of the red leatherette booth. "Most of the time, it just sits there waiting for someone to push the button."
"Who would that be beside you?" he asks as he sets down a few dollars for the bill.
"It could be any living person, I guess."We are on the sidewalk, out in the sun. The streets are filled with the usual Saturday morning small-town crowd.
"Why be so exclusive? Some of our best friends are dead"Ē he says.
I could cry. Instead I look up at the empty sky.
Driving home. The illusion of distance. The relativity of time. It is less than 30 miles from Kutztown to Reading. These miles and ten years separated me from Keith during our childhood. The years have vaporized now along with my friend. The distance remains. This dust on this road is eternal.
Francesco breathed this air, trod this earth. For a brief moment, my heroes lived here in this world. Now I am in it without them. What hole in me is filled by their memory?
I remember the installation and performance I did in the gallery at Albright College. My trains were spinning through their endless circuits, through worlds of history and fantasy, other worlds, mushroom worlds, childhood worlds, worlds of sadness and joy, all centered upon a purgatorial recreation of our Pennsylvania homeland.
The performance was complex. I had assembled a battery of synthesizers, tape machines, amplifiers, speakers surrounding the space. It was the first time I dedicated my work to both Keith and my grandfather. I played tapes of both of them, their voices filled the room simultaneously. I declared them my heroes, spoke about the need for dreams, about a larger purpose for an artistís work than egoism, fame, or fortune. I uttered the lessons I had learned from both men: that fame and fortune were empty, useless, meaningless, what mattered was a dedication to others and a larger vision for oneís life. I almost lost control of the mix at one point. No one left. In fact no one moved until well after the last sound.
Afterward, I asked Dawn how it went.
She said, ďWhen you spoke about Keith and your grandfather, you had the whole room on your side. You could have done anything after that.
Itís something about the dead, I think. Since then, Iíve tried to dedicate each day to the memory of what is now a longer list of dead heroes, friends, and lovers.
Death obliterates but leaves something in its wake: the imponderable journey from nowhere to fetal life, months in utero, recapitulating the million mutations of animal ancestry, brilliant consciousness, fathomless dreams, sharp sensations of self and other, self and family, self and society, the rise of sex and strength, hormone surge of adolescence, years of senseless risk... then the circular routines of adulthood, establishing rank, predictable patterns of behavior, reinforced roles of dominance and submission, while the timeless world spinning transformative surrounds us, dragging down the tilted frame of old age, holding out against the fear of an inevitable annihilation. Instantaneous, unearthly, alien, death unhinges us with utter unconcern. What remains?
Somewhere between Crystal Cave and Temple Cave, I take a turn off the highway to thread my way through the hills. I know the old sold farm lies back here, just about halfway between the underground vaults of my childhood. The two caves are as different as good and evil; and similar also as good and evil are similar.
At the southern end of Keithís hometown, Crystal Cave is spectacular enough to have become a legend, a commercial stop for tourists--popular, like Keith--a fabulous dreamland of towering stalagmites and gravity-defying tons of ancient limestone hanging like flesh-toned icicles. I have dreamed of its cathedral interior since my fifth birthday, when I first encountered it.
Temple Cave is nothing like that. Old mossy rocks block its dark entranceway to anything larger than a dog. On our knees, my teenage chums--local hoodlums--and I would assume canine postures, enter it at high noon, and plunge into its blacker than midnight world of bats, cold boulders and soundless wind.
Sliding through the dank mineral tunnels was dangerous and delicious. We would tell each other tales of townsfolk who had died there, until we could no longer stand the fear. Then weíd slither out with the exhilaration of escape. It too is inside me now, an old memory and a timeless dreamscape.
Itís time to choose between roads. One will take me up a hill and past the farm, the other swings further on toward Mt. Penn. I havenít been back there in more than two years. Iíve been avoiding it, protesting, or perhaps denying its continued existence in the possession of another Italian family.
I left behind boxes of my possessions piled high in the old apartment, rolled-up paintings and sculpture in the garage, even Dawnís early drawings that sheíd stored there, under the bed. On my last day there, I looked at a mound of tools, pots and pans, mirrors, books, and clothing and I just turned and left and never looked back.
This morning though, I take the turn toward Hilltop Road. Iím thinking instead of feeling invincible, I feel vulnerable. Am I setting myself up for sadness?
I walked these hills with Francesco. He moved slowly. I was always satisfied with his pace. I remember thinking each step for him took more effort, was more meaningful than mine. After his death, I walked alone for years. One day, Dawn began walking here with me. This scene of my memories is now the setting for my dreams.
Slowing down. It all looks different, of course. Theyíve lopped off the curving rooflines and replaced each one with an angular affair. Scanning down the rows of identical growing rooms renders an unfamiliar sensation of private property, someone elseís responsibilities, another manís legacy--a distant cousin. Might as well be anyoneís. Itís not mine anymore.
I speed up unconsciously. I know these roads. I take one that sends me downhill, back to the highway. A solitary hawk hovers overhead in a cloudless sky. Below it, gray geese are leaving the cooling countryside in tight vee formations.
Iíll be home soon. As I exit the bypass, a sudden insight connects the caves, the farm, my ideas of life and death. I see them as one--not out there, in the world, but within me--in my dreams, at the center of my mind.
Turning off River Road and into our rocky driveway, I note the absence of Dawnís silver Probe, bury my thoughts and slam the car door shut.
I saw the first note immediately but I did not pick it up. She had placed it in the exact center of the kitchen table. The entire message was printed in her firm, steady style. So composed, it was eminently legible. I could read the first sentence from the sink, where I stopped to wash the dust of autumn from my face.
"My Dearest...(she used my name)"
"Iím afraid I must tell you I have decided to leave. I can no longer hold up my end of our relationship. I wish I could explain. I hope someday to return to you, wherever you may be. My leaving has nothing to do with externals, but with something going on inside of me, in my dreams and in my nightmares. I want to share these things with you, but I know--right now--I canít"
"My things will be a burden for you. Iím sorry. Our plans also, for a future together, are dissolving at this moment. Iím sorry... I still love you."
"My mother will execute power of attorney for me. She will always know where I am and can mediate messages between us. I have secured her promise not to reveal my location or my situation to you. Please... donít pressure her."
"I know you will understand--eventually. Eventually, anything can happen. I know that. I do hope for us to be able to reunite. But I know what Iím doing now makes that seem very remote."
"I love you,"
After I read the note, I walked around downstairs for an hour. I donít recall anything more about that experience -- other than feeling completely numbed by the resolve of her decision and the utter lack of an explanation of her reasons for leaving.
Another shock was waiting for me in the bedroom. There, in the exact center of the bed, was a second note. In some ways, it repeated the message. In other ways it was very different.
I am leaving. I am afraid of you. All these months, I have not told you the most disturbing aspects of my recurrent nightmares. I have had neither the courage nor the heart to tell you."
"Last night, I had another dream--different enough from the others that it has given me the strength to do what I must do. And the strength to tell you why....
"The monster of my dreams is you, Art. Constantly, you pursue me through every dreamworld. You are murderous, evil, and cruel to me every night. For a long time, I tried telling myself there was nothing to these frightening nightmares. I thought they would stop. They have not stopped."
"I believe there is something within you that causes people to fear you. I have thought a long time about this. Other people have said as much for years. People from your past have all revealed this, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly--there is something in common in their recollection of you--something ominous and frightening. Now it has happened between us."
"Last night, I dreamed you were pursuing not me, but Keith. I saw you chase him to New York. He was in a cab. You were in a black pick-up truck. You sped through the Holland Tunnel, causing an accident. A tractor-trailer truck flipped over and almost hit my car."
"I followed you into the city. You went to Keithís studio. He ran out, got on his bike and you were flying after him... trying to kill him."
"I followed you to a house, I looked in the window. I could see your reflections in a mirror. You turned to him and... you killed him, Art. His blood was clear, like water, like rain."
"When I awoke, you were gone. I intended to talk to you about this but it is almost noon and I canít stay here any longer."
"I must make my own way. Iím sorry to leave things this way. Take care of yourself. Take care of Hamlet."
"Good bye, Art."