Read See What Can Be Done page 25 online free by Lorrie Moore (2024)

Shakespeare’s London was one of the great cities of Europe, though smaller than Madison, Wisconsin, is today. It was also rife with the religious bloodshed of modern Belfast or Baghdad. When Shakespeare arrived in London as a young man, he would have passed, impaled on the famous bridge into town, the skull of a distant cousin, killed for being a Catholic. How could this fail to leave an impression?

He filled his early plays, written in his new home, with violent young men and angry mobs. When he left, rich and successful, it was to die (at fifty-two) of what doctors today have speculated was a rare cancer of the tear duct—an illness as cruelly ironic as Puccini’s cancer of the throat. His beloved Globe Theatre had burned down. He could not have been happy.

But he did not know that his work would survive forever not just onstage but in book, screen, and musical form—no one at that time could have. Or that his words would inspire their own honoring thefts: Joni Mitchell took a glittering simile of his for “That Song About the Midway”; West Side Story and She’s the Man borrowed his plots.

Washington, Dickens, Puccini, and Tim Burton somehow merged into one: there’s your genius. Or the bare bard bones of him.

Add a dash—of Ogden Nash.

(2006)

One Hot Summer, or a Brief History of Time

A bride on her summer honeymoon—what could be more beguiling?

Well, a younger bride, to begin with. One less destined to wear an off-white suit at the ceremony. (And what’s with that, anyway? The advertising of a lady’s past, the beige and ivory taint of autobiography dyed like a scarlet A into the very threads of her dress. Why not say it another way and wear yellow, black, or green? Why not horizontal stripes? Chinese brides wore red, as did Jane Austen’s mother, who later cut up her attire for outfits for the kids. Who wouldn’t want something actually bright and cuttable?)

* * *

I had always had a little trouble with anything called an institution. I was thirty-four, and had been seeing the same man for four consecutive years and living with him for two—not a record for anyone (except for him). We spent the spring fretting: Should we get married? He felt we should, in this moving-through-life way. It was what came next. (Which would in turn, of course, quickly introduce the idea of divorce; we all are fiends for narrative, plot, rising action.) I wondered whether our marrying should really be this notch in the belt of time. Shouldn’t it be, rather, an emotional and spiritual referendum on us? If we needed an event, we could, say, break up. Get married or break up: that’s pretty much what it came down to. Love? Love went without saying, so we didn’t say it. Perhaps we were a little bored. Something, we both seemed to agree, should probably occur. Though, looking back, I’m not sure why. It was just motion. Momentum.

But with the tulips up, the air warming, and then suddenly the tulips down, petal-less, buglike, and leaning, still we remained undecided. We both understood I would not change my name to his, but privately I felt this might not augur well for the success of our union. I suspected, quite correctly I think now, that those women who changed their names to match their husbands’ understood something about marriage that I was in the dark about.

My boyfriend was of the school of thought that marriage—like a house or a car—was a necessary accoutrement of adulthood. I was resistant to that school of thought, and wasn’t really in any school of thought at all—not a certified one, not in a matriculated way. To quote Daniel Handler’s Adverbs, I was letting my thoughts “run around the yard rather than reporting inside.” Or to quote from Richard Yates’s “The Best of Everything,” “a familiar little panic gripped her: she couldn’t marry him—she hardly even knew him. Sometimes it occurred to her differently, that she couldn’t marry him because she knew him too well, and either way it left her badly shaken.”

* * *

Summer was approaching, so all right, we would at least begin the process. Otherwise, I hardly needed reminding, I was risking the possibility of a life where in the “In Case of Emergency Contact” space, I would repeatedly be writing “Me.” One noon hour after lunch in a nearby fish place, we strolled over to the county courthouse; there we filled out the application for a marriage license. This license was simply a permission slip, like a hunting license. It gave us forty-five days to do the deed. In that time period one could “dear-hunt,” using the language of this state, although, also in the language of this state, what most hunters looked for, frankly, was a nice “rack,” which may have accounted for my new fiancé’s sudden clutching. Of his stomach. The clerk behind her desk raised her eyebrows.

“I’m feeling some horrible pain,” said the masculine owner of this new license, looking faintly green.

“Seen it before,” said the clerk, “but not usually this fast.”

“This was all his idea,” I said. “Or, mostly.”

“I think it was the fish,” moaned you-know-who, whose name, we’ll say, was Mike.

“I ate the same fish,” I said. “I feel fine.”

“You see?” said the clerk.

Mike was bent over in his chair, clutching his stomach. But he did not excuse himself to go anywhere else. And so this is what makes marriage possible: no one actually getting up and running away.

* * *

Although a few unmarried weeks followed in which some discussion ensued, I don’t really recall any of it. The next thing I do recall is getting up and dressing in an I’ll-be-damned cream-colored suit. We were on our way to the county courthouse to get married that morning, with one friend and one clerk as witnesses, and then we would be getting on a plane, flying to Seattle, and renting a car so we could drive down the small Pacific coast highway to Los Angeles. This would be our honeymoon.

Outside in the judge’s office, where we were to be married, a camera crew had assembled, all sitting wearily on the corridor floor with their equipment. They were from 60 Minutes and were apparently waiting for us. “I didn’t know your short stories were that well known,” exclaimed Mike, looking proud and amazed.

“Yes…well…,” I said, not wanting to disappoint him so soon. What could these people want?

“We were here earlier in the week to do a story on the governor’s Wedfare program,” they announced. “But we left without getting footage of an actual welfare couple getting married. We just need some footage, so we had to fly back last night; we heard a marriage was scheduled for this morning.”

“Us?” I asked. “But we’re not on welfare.”

“That part doesn’t matter. No one will know that. We just have to film two people getting married in this building.”

This particular parsing of reality troubled me. If they were going to pretend any couple was a welfare couple, marrying to increase state benefits to themselves, as per the governor’s murky thinking on the matter (thinking that, briefly, went national), why not also save on airfare and pretend any building was this building? It was a generic municipal building. For ten seconds of footage, they didn’t need this one. If something was already half a lie, then it was really a whole lie. So make it a whole one.

The crew looked bleary, as if having just concluded a blistering gig with National Geographic. My new soon-to-be-husband’s face brightened: “We’d get to be on TV,” he said to me, clearly game for this. That he was capable of being game for most anything, I realized, was the reason we were getting married—and the reason we would be divorced ten years later. But it could not be a reason for our being on 60 Minutes as an ersatz welfare couple.

“God no,” I said. The crew looked devastated.

The judge’s clerk shrugged. And my husband-to-be then tried this angle: “It would be funny!”

“It could be,” said the head of the crew, hopefully.

Although Mike would have donned a big rubber suit to play a betrothing walrus on Wild Kingdom—because

it would be funny—I could not participate. “It would be bad luck,” I said. “No.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“She says no,” said Mike.

“She says no,” said the clerk to the camera crew who sat there, grumbling and tired.

“The bride says no,” said the judge himself, standing in the doorway. And that is how my marriage began.

* * *

The signing of papers and saying of vows was very officey and took place under bright lights with no big city. A sweet little orchid was placed into my hand by someone. A picture I still have shows me with my hair clipped up, a way I almost never wore it unless cleaning something. Soon we were on a plane, where we were very quiet, not knowing what precisely we had done. We stared out different windows and took our respective naps, awaking to the same new fact of our lives. I thought of the James Taylor song “There We Are.” (“Here we are like children forever, taking care of one another.” I had just gotten married with no music at all.) I then thought of the Dorothy Parker story “Here We Are.”

“So how does it feel to be an old married lady?” says the brand-new husband in that story.

“Oh, it’s too soon to ask me that,” says his new bride. “Well, I mean, goodness, we’ve only been married about three hours, haven’t we?”

And here the husband studies his wristwatch “as if he were just acquiring the knack of reading time.”

“We have been married…exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes,” he announces.

“My,” she says. “It seems like longer.”

When we landed at the Seattle airport, the first thing I noticed were the signs and public address system announcements in Japanese—which seemed to me another clue that marriage might involve a language I didn’t actually speak. I sort of noticed my new husband looking around at all the blondes (Wisconsin had once been very blonde but was less so now, and perhaps Seattle seemed a blast from the Scandinavian-American past—and his own), but that hankering outward was perhaps a necessary gesture, a final wave farewell to all the others. Why else do so many honeymooners head for beaches? We rented a car, stayed at a nice hotel, ate soft-shell crab, and phoned our parents.

“You eloped!” exclaimed my mother, as if she were impressed. I guess we had eloped—though I didn’t really understand that then. There’d been no ladder up to the window, no dashing off into the night. I hadn’t really thought deeply from the parental angle about our getting married this way, and now I regretted not having given it a longer, harder contemplation. I told my father about the 60 Minutes thing, thinking he would find it amusing.

“You should have gone on TV! Then at least I could have seen you,” he said. “Since I didn’t get a chance to give you away.” He didn’t sound angry, or even all that sad, just sort of practical.

“But we would have been posing as a welfare couple,” I said. I thought I’d been saving him money not having a real wedding.

“It might have helped the sales of your books,” he said, a situation he always inquired about worriedly.

“We’ll have a fancy party of some sort when we get back and invite everyone,” I said. (Which we did, during which my husband never put on shoes, just wandered around in his socks, drinking beer.)

The next morning we had breakfast, took some sarcastic photos of the bed (unmade and strewn with the morning’s Post-Intelligencer, a newspaper whose very name seemed hopelessly indicative of the occasion), and when we checked out we bought the bathrobes as souvenirs. (Good for giving away to Goodwill a decade later.) We rode some ferries, on which I grew woozy, drove around the rain forest, which was a mossy, magical land containing every possible hue of green. Although it was a National Forest, Japanese companies were already logging in it. We would hike and drive and stumble upon denuded patches full of sunlight and machinery and noise.

Then we headed south, keeping the ocean (which we never got to see in Wisconsin) in sight on our right, visiting otters and seals and dune buggy gatherings along the Oregon beaches. We stayed at bed-and-breakfasts that were once churches (this to compensate for having married at the county courthouse?) and in general tried not to quarrel. It was a road trip, and we had brought two tapes: Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and another one called Jazz Wolf, which featured an actual howling wolf accompanied by some alternately plaintive and jaunty jazz. We’d drive along, wordlessly, listening to the howling of that lonely wolf—its own brief history of time. The Stephen Hawking we could only understand for about five-minute stretches, and then we’d have to rewind to listen to it over again. At this rate, the history of time would not only be far from brief, it would be a never-ending driving hazard. But I didn’t want to proceed through the tape uncomprehendingly, so there was much rewinding and then ultimately the frustrated substitution of Jazz Wolf. “Oh, let’s just put on Jazz Wolf” became a kind of refrain for our stupidity—something we carried into the future with us. Every marriage needs a refrain.

We drove down the winding Highway 1, which vertiginously hugged the California coast, producing more wooziness in me, despite the great beauty of everything. Beauty, after a while, you just don’t see anymore—if you’re immersed in it constantly. The worry of car sickness replaced it, and I didn’t know whether we should be driving slower, or faster to get it all over with. Marriage!

Following our guidebook, we drove through that giant redwood tree you can drive through, and in other parts of the woods we got out. Our photo album shows me hugging the trees and my husband urinating near them. Which should tell you something, but I’m not sure what. In Mendocino, we stopped and had lunch and bought souvenirs, though the whole place seemed preserved in time in an artificial way, the charming potheads still roamed the village streets, while the actual makers of the gift shop ceramics remained hidden to avoid possible detection and derision—crockery mockery. Still, I thought I saw a whale. Which is the kind of thing you hope for your first summer as a married woman.

Eventually, after a cool, breezy day and night in San Francisco—the original shining city on a hill—where we lit a gas stove in our room and spoke incessantly of earthquakes (failing to leave our hearts or wear flowers in our hair), we turned inland and drove across the desert, which was eerily lunar day or night. Beneath the pitch-black sky, covering us like an iron skillet lid punctured by BBs, I swore I saw UFOs (perhaps near one of the several military sites sitting spookily out there in the sand). In the daytime, litter blew apocalyptically among the cactuses. My husband wanted to go to Las Vegas—and I kept making hooker jokes, which weren’t really very funny. We passed signs for Death Valley, signs for the Funeral Mountains, signs for a town called Needles, and one sign that read “ZZYX RD,” which I think led to Needles, and we stopped so I could take a picture of that.

Once we were in Las Vegas, in an absurdly cheap room (the city was not yet the opulent place it has become), I remained upstairs reading while the mister went downstairs to gamble in the casino. No more hooker jokes. “Let’s get out of here,” I said in the morning, and we drove the next day to Los Angeles and ate Italian-Greek fusion dishes with artichokes and goat cheese in them in a hip, bright place—it seemed the beginning of a kind of food I’d not experienced before, cooking that was over-the-top and unnecessarily delicious. We roamed the streets of West Hollywood and tanned our arms in the sun.

And then we flew back home, to the Midwest, to our little blue house, where we’d lived for years, and would live for a few more, and where our cat was waiting and happy to see us.

The honeymoon was over.

But that was okay.

(2006)

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd

Stephen Sondheim’s great musical Sweeney Todd is an American Rigoletto. Both share a tone that ascends to frolic and then falls back to deepest dirge without ever losing a fine, bleak creepiness. Musical themes

attach to particular characters and are replayed in both works in rousing, climactic quartets. For plot, each turns on a desire for revenge upon the powerful, which backfires and costs the title characters—wronged fathers both—the deaths of loved ones. These deaths are murders for which these once innocent baritones, in their careless vengeance, are responsible, and when their shocked, remorseful tears are shed at the end, the eyes of the audience may stay dry and unsurprised: what is mourned is lamentable inevitability more than an actual person. In both Verdi and Sondheim the human devil triumphs. The cruelty of men is indeed as “wondrous as Peru.” In both tales virtuous women are inconvenienced by their own attractiveness and seized by men of means (a duke, a judge, each with his sinister revelers and toadies) from men of no means (a jester, a barber). The corruption, power, and greed that produce self-defeating madness in their victims are shown in both stories to be institutional, societal, political. Garden-variety cleverness is no match and is transformed by the end into the romping vanity of fools.

How interesting, then, that despite all its operatic affinity and Grand Guignol predilections, Sweeney Todd played on Broadway this past year as a stripped-down chamber concert. In this rendition, gone are the looming sets of the 1979 Harold Prince production, which sent large wooden and mechanical platforms and beams out past the proscenium of the stage—this to suggest the industrial upheaval of nineteenth-century London. Gone is Bryn Terfel of the 2002 Chicago Lyric production—one does not need the world’s greatest living baritone for this role—as well as the thrilling if deafening chorus (how chorus-driven a score Sondheim has written is best discerned by a chorus of this magnitude and beauty; no humming hoofers they). And gone is the expert San Francisco Symphony, whose recent contribution staged the cast ingeniously around the orchestra and created a concert version far more theatrical than the one this year at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

Read See What Can Be Done page 25 online free by Lorrie Moore (2024)

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