For the last six months of his life Sal stayed up late every night, drinking and playing a game using a set of figures he kept on a shelf, called Shimmer. The figures were adapted from old Christmas ornaments, pipe cleaners, used corks, bottle caps, anything that came to hand. Sal’s hand met Sal’s brain, and the new entrant took its place in a world of three inch tall heroes. That’s how it was. With a quiet laugh Sal would reach for the glass of port, muttering into his beard, and turn back to arranging the lighting, moving the players back and forth, and altering the positions of everyone on the three foot shelf of his world. There was about one scene a night, all of it improvised on the spot.
Sal’s old lady, Rachel, would pause on her way into the bedroom, check the stage of the Shimmer shelf, and ask what was happening now? But toward the end of his life Sal’s comments became increasingly cryptic, spoken in a gravelly voice that nevertheless flew along in a scattered assemblage of details. Rachel was usually left with only a patchy sense of what he was doing with his project. Recently in the collective entanglements of the characters, there had been a three-way romantic connection between a drifter named Ted, Alice, an aspiring actress, who also happened to be of independent means, and an academic, Simon, who besides being a full professor and occasional music critic, also found himself trapped in a loveless marriage of his own design. Sal referred to his characters as caravan slaves, addicts of a social disorder where the members punish each other for the slightest signs of good will. As far as Rachel could make out, caravan slaves were people who enjoyed mixing pleasure with terror. They drove each other along, with the heat of an inner fury— where the inner fury was coming from in Sal she wasn’t able to ascertain. Pressed, he became bear-ish and silent, so Rachel would leave him to it, go undress and slip between the covers. She would invariably have fallen asleep by the time he stumbled in, at what time she never bothered to check.
Clearly enough, the characters Ted and Alice were having an affair. At least twice a week Ted and Alice would be laying with their bare shoulders joined after making love, staring into the dark ceiling, and speculating about their friend Simon, who always seemed to be suffering unending nastiness at the hands of his spiteful in-laws. Simon was brash, especially in the presence of his mother-in-law. Ted character wondered aloud to Alice character in their post coital moments, if Simon was the product of an unfortunate mindset stemming from the ghetto out of which he had struggled. From what Rachel gathered, these gossipy moments were a welcome diversion for Ted character, who had his own worries; he was forced to fall back on his credit cards each month, and couldn’t afford to treat Alice in the style to which she was accustomed. Alice suffered from a low self-esteem problem, and on her nights out with Ted was constantly fretting about being fat. She expected Ted to cheat on her one of these days— he spoke of leaving for Tulsa, Tulsa being the place of mythic happiness to him, Tulsa of the endless open space, Tulsa of the clean dry air, Tulsa of big unsentimental landscape, Tulsa of Cadillac dreams. One night Ted was working on a V8 engine and Alice went into a bar and allowed herself to be picked up by one of Simon’s academic friends. To her it was the only way to force the issue before Ted left her weeping in Oakland with her cats, an act of pre-emptive revenge.
According to Rachel, this particular episode occurred in the last weeks of Sal’s life. His energy was already extremely poor. He was unable to summon up the reserves for any social life. The theatrical experience of Shimmer provided him with the best substitute for outside involvements that he could manage without leaving home. She would sit with him— not drinking port, which was too sweet for her, but cognac— and ask what was going on now? Sal would stroke his beard hesitantly, before telling her— that crazed figure Simon, the academic, was pressing ahead with his plans for a divorce. There were interminable accusations back and forth, their twelve year old daughter got all mixed up in the metaphoric dust-up, and meanwhile Simon told Ted that Alice had gone off with his friend that night in the bar. In the wake of this revelation, there was a maudlin scene in a Chinese supermarket, complete with rain storm and Alice tears spilled out over the pungent rot of wet ginger bins on San Pablo Avenue, a scene of careful break up. Simon then initiated an affair with Alice, at the same time that he began a willful slide into booze. He realized that wanting Alice was more exciting than having Alice, but there was no going back to his wife by that point.
Rachel listened as Sal drew out the situation. Sal continued to arrange the lighting and the props on his little stage, continued to laugh into his beard, but it wasn’t a joyful sound anymore. Secretly, she felt him slipping away from her. The next day he was in such physical discomfort that she drove him to the hospital and they kept him overnight in a desperate attempt to purify his blood, using a dialysis technique. It added a little color to his cheeks for a day or two, but when he got home Sal went back to spending the nights at Shimmer: Simon now regaling Ted that he had always envied his life so full of travel, so rich in glamour if not actual wealth; that if only Simon could get out of his professional duties he might at last be a free man…
Oddly enough, this scene coincided with Sal’s condition deteriorating rapidly. One night Rachel heard Sal land with more than the usual crashing force in the bed next to her, and in the morning she found him already cold at her side. For several minutes, she comforted herself with his body, whispering into his dead ear that they had always loved each other. At least he had died at home. Then she closed his eyes. He had always been a generous supporter of his friends. He would be missed by his people. She studied his face for a long time, thinking he wasn’t very old, but at least he looked at peace. Then she wept into her hands.
The life of an artist, she decided, boils down to one question. Returning to the house with the cremated remains of Sal in a marble box, Rachel found a need to dispose of his possessions as soon as possible. She started with his clothes, and called the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The man who came by wanted to know if the clothes had been cleaned already. Rachel wanted to remember Sal’s brusque laugh, thinking how it would have sounded in the room right then to relieve the tension. After the St. Vincent de Paul Society man, Rachel called Sal’s brother, Drew. Drew took her out for a large green salad, and looked through the mementos Sal had left— but only on the condition that Rachel promise to eat at least one meal a day. She hadn’t realized it, but she was rapidly losing weight. Most probably she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Quietly she requested permission to take a month off from work. It was for her own piece of mind. The fact was, Rachel had no idea of what to do with herself.
For days she sat in the room with Sal’s ashes in front of her on the table. She let the cats in and out. She watched spiders crawling around the corners of the room. A silence hovered nearby. She decided it was the unspoken burden of Sal’s work, and what to do with it, his five decades of making art materials, slides, picture frames, and composing music, that weighed on her. There was so much to do, yet she couldn’t budge from her seat. Sal was as present as he’d ever been, in the projection equipment and old props that covered his studio in the barn. The clarity and the silence resembled him. She went out to look at his saxophone resting across a stool as if he had stepped out a minute ago, his tables littered with umpteen pages of recent thought. He might have gone down the road for some sax reeds, to return in five minutes, the next music already composed in his head. Rachel stared at a sheet of music— this was her work now. The bars scribbled over with his notes, and on a nearby table a number of dog-eared scripts by Strindberg and Ibsen, all of which reminded Rachel of his final burst of the creative projects, Shimmer. It sat in a hastily assembled last scene on the shelf, as if the mind of Sal had already been struggling to get over the loss of his physical self.
It was the wrong time of year to take a vacation. So Rachel decided to call people and tell them how Sal had spent his final days. Sal Greenway— had they read it in the newspaper? She called everyone she could think of. Sal Greenway, fifty-nine years old, had an impact on writers actors and painters of his generation… It was all in the obituary— Rachel felt grateful when she got an answering machine and could simply read off the text. So much easier talking into a machine. Her voice cracked up on the one phrase, however— ruinously generous. These were her words, what popped into her mind when the obituary writer had asked her for a description. Still, she persevered through the entire list, and then only the theater he used to own and run was left.
That number he’d blacked out in his little book; only later, slashing away at some potato skins with a fish knife, she decided that it would bother her until she went in person to deliver them the news.
So the next day she drove into the city, parked and walked up to the closed theater entrance. She didn’t want to ring the bell. She was just going to slip a note under the crack in the door. Then someone stepped out. It was the woman Sal had lived with before Rachel. This woman had long dark hair and tight jeans and was young. They shared an odd moment of sympathy, just watching each other for several minutes, like the thing you always wait to happen in someone else’s face was about to happen now. Then Rachel found herself being invited inside. The theater was dark. A broad empty stage with ropes hanging like tropical vines off the ceiling above. The woman kept explaining where she and Sal had lived as if that’s what Rachel wanted to know. Oddly enough, the place reminded Rachel of the last scene from Shimmer, which had not been a happy one. As this woman was telling Rachel how she always had regretted throwing Sal out on a Thanksgiving weekend, Rachel flashed back to the shock of what she had found in the crowded little room on the shelf— Simon character dangling from the end of an electric cord. He’d hung himself! The cord looked exactly like one of those tropical vines above the stage. As the woman revealed how she had driven away, and how Sal had chased the car, screaming down the middle of the street, the last time they ever failed to talk, Rachel thought she was going to be sick. She nodded, her head ablaze, excused herself and stumbled outside.
After driving home, Rachel took several aspirin and lay down. But about an hour later she snuck out to the barn for a last look. No, it was okay— the last frame of Shimmer was improved. Now Ted was following Alice up a flight of stairs— they were together again, reunited and happy. Simon was pretending to read a news magazine on the couch, slowly coming to an awareness of his erroneous ways. Belatedly, it seems, Simon had discovered that he loved his wife, and had given up on the divorce solution. So much for the last ditch efforts of caravan slaves…
Wasn’t this really the point that Sal had been trying to get to? Rachel observed the calm and silence and in Sal’s mind’s eye saw him agreeing to her little changes; it was their last act of collaboration together. Their relationship had simply survived a little beyond the end, that’s all. Wherever he was now, Sal would lift his port, and toast her infectious point on this. Maybe he had even known she would do this. Rachel pulled a camera from her dress, took a final picture, Shimmer for posterity, then swept the entire mosaic, cast, props and all, into a large cardboard box.
As she left Rachel remembered to switch off the light. She traced a crooked line up the dark lawn. She had always believed in Sal. She had always known that, of all his friends, only she had really understood what he was trying to say.
David Lincoln’s first novel, Mobility Lounge, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil. He lives in Brooklyn.