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Matthew Neill Null: Wanting to Die

Finding life in death on the edge of the Atlantic.

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by Matthew Neill Null

At Race Point, geology breaks the ocean and water comes ripping from Cape Cod Bay to the Atlantic, defying the typical motion, if for a tide. A river of live water beats in the ocean. Acres of sand eels – slender fish that pulse below, looking for the world like blue cigars – draw the striped bass, the seals, the whales, the giant tuna. Birds crash the pot-line and come up with jerking mouthfuls. Great whites make long, elliptical swims, trying for the seals. I’ve not seen them, but one bumped another kayak fisherman, turning on him with deadened eyes.

I once had a harbor seal ghost alongside me for a long stretch, like the memory of a lost friend. Other fishermen hate the seals – one told me, “I’d like to get out a .22 and just lay them out” – but I’ve never minded them. Their bad habits are charmingly human. They gather in lazy piles, make noise, and would rather steal a fish off your line than get their own. They’ll swarm you.

Later in the season, bluefish rip through the schools and fill the world with a metallic smell that coats the palate: the broken bodies of oily herring. I’ve learned to follow that smell along the beach when I fish at night. Come morning, they lay dead in the tide-line for a hundred yards, a darkish ribbon.

Friends visiting town expect me to catch them fish, and I’m happy to oblige. Everywhere I go, beyond a good library, this has been my greatest consolation, to learn the water and the ground and glean something from it, to take what doesn’t come shrink-wrapped from the market.

The fishing’s best at a certain hour. Today the wind is down, the wind is right. In the silver false dawn of 4:30 am, I will kayak out and fish the lobster pot-line, anywhere from a quarter-mile to a half-mile out in the open ocean. From there, the beach is just a strip of sand and broken asphalt; you have to watch yourself, as the tide will pull you one way or another.

I’m going out to meet the men I know but don’t know, beyond the narrow discipline of fishing. All my great friendships have been with women. But sometimes it’s good to be out there with the men, who speak of nothing but the matter closest to hand. We know nothing of each other besides habits, a few jokes, maybe an idea of economic station by our good equipment or lack thereof. The others work on the road crew or in the building trades, mostly. On our insipid shingles of fiberglass, we will wave and float alongside one another in the sun and pass word of bass, the workingman’s fish – what we’ve caught, where P. is off to this time, where live mackerel can be found in the Rip. I can never seem to find them.

So I stand and wait for enough light to see the line of buoys like pearls on a string. Then I’ll go. I’ve promised my family I’ll keep myself safe, but I don’t really care.

The others have over-sand permits to drive to the lighthouse, but I don’t want to spend the money (or have it, really), so today I stop at the ruined parking lot and drag my old kayak over a beach that will fill with tourists, especially the poor Quebecois who have the delusion that our water is warm. I stand on the water’s edge at Herring Cove and rub warmth into my hands. A mile’s paddle to where we meet, often against wind and tide, and I will hit the waves head-on to cut them. The water will drop from ten feet deep to fifty to one-hundred and fifty, stinging cold even in June. My wife hates that I go, that my phone has no reception, that the boat-drivers are reckless and fly flat-out even at this hour, with the casual bellicosity I associate with Massachusetts. I find myself hoping that one hits a buoy or a bar, but it never happens. At times when the wind and the tides were in conflict, I’ve been caught in a hole for ten minutes at a time, paddling dumbly, trying to dig out, going nowhere, watching all landmarks hold still, feeling the lactic acid burn, convincing myself I’ll die out here.

So I stand and wait for enough light to see the line of buoys like pearls on a string. Then I’ll go. I’ve promised my family I’ll keep myself safe, but I don’t really care. My eyes are dull. Waves hit the beach with a grinding sound. The cold drops hardly register.

*                      *                     *

I’ve never felt safe out there. My second time out, a hard wave took me over and crashed me on the sand near Race Point. I was shaking. I almost left for home, but I could see striped bass – up to 48” long – boiling out there, a sheet of life, and I wanted to kill one. I went back out and pulled one from the blitz. This moment, tethered with another life at the end of your line – there’s nothing quite like it. I tightened the drag. The fish pulled me around until it was exhausted, then I bled its gills, paddled to my car, brought it home, emptied it of guts, filleted it, cut out the cheeks and the bishop’s collars, put them aside, and vacuum-sealed and froze the rest. The entire day was a ritual of preparing the body. Each flick of the knife important. I gave enough for a meal to the stressed neighbors with a kid. I tried not to waste. I tossed the rack and the skin over the hill for the raccoons, annoying my condo association, but critters must eat too.

Yes, there is a cruelty to it, but at least it’s real – I’m not Ortega y Gasset, I cannot justify it on the intellectual level. In winter I dig clams and rip mussels and oysters from the rocks, dodging the toothy Norway rats that forage there also; in high summer I jig for squid off the pier among the working-class Vietnamese and the drunken, druggy louts, and fill a five-gallon bucket with their ghostly substance, faintly red and phosphorescent. The gritty ink coats my hands – it feels like nothing else on earth – and I cut out the parrot’s beak and extract the cuttlebone that looks like a plastic feather. My clothes are ruined. The fluted outlines of cephalopods take months to fade from my porch, printed in their own ink. You begin at the pond a barefoot West Virginia boy, casting cork poppers to bluegills no bigger than your palm; you end up on the open ocean, drifting live American eels on fifty-pound monofilament. The eels are slippery, writhing, Oedipal, and you have a square of burlap to hold them still. You thread the Octopus hook under the jaw and out below the eye, taking care not to puncture the brain. I do it, but I loathe it, the touching, the puncturing. The cow bass will strike an eel like nothing else; I’m told this isn’t for sustenance, but because eels prey on their eggs. Hard to know. I’ve seen animals kill out of malice. A mink rolling in a hen’s hot blood and not even bothering to eat her.

My friends have warned me off going too far out into the Rip alone – the current is strong and unpredictable, and if you’re tired you could be shot out into the shipping lanes, among car-carriers bound for Boston. Maybe they were fucking with me? But I’ve found myself dreaming of all that strong water. It wouldn’t be so bad to paddle out some morning, some evening, and never come back.

This is the other version of myself that has walked beside me always, watching me sleep, watching me laugh, watching me smile at women and men.

*                      *                     *

November 2008. I’ve no memory of writing this, but it was to my closest college friend, from whom I’d grown estranged. She doesn’t seem to have responded. (To be fair, we may have talked on the phone.)

E,
I’m doing pretty good I guess…writing a lot, etc., that’s about it. I had a plath style breakdown (ugh) last winter and ended up in a hospital, but they fed me brain drugs until I regained my senses. Things are better now. I don’t remember very much of it, which is really a damn shame. How many opportunities do you have like that in a lifetime? One? Several? We shall see… Iowa City’s ok. It’s like a flatter Charlottesville, it also has a strange pedestrian mall where the tourists and the mentally unstable eye one another. I teach a sophomore lit class three hours a week. There are some lowdown bars by my house. I saw a drunk on crutches try to pick a fight with a healthy man. I saw a man ride into a bar on rollerblades, pulled by a German shepherd on a leash. I saw a man with his tie draped soaking in his mug of beer.

*                      *                     *

The painter Chaim Soutine said, “I want to show Paris in the carcass of an ox.” He’s known for rich and glistening works of thick impasto, so admired by Francis Bacon and de Kooning, these distorted landscapes of Casges and Céret, these faces of men and women on the verge of melting, and, above all, dead animals. He had come of age in a shtetl in Belarus. The complexities of food, the ritualized slaughter, the tangled ethics. “Once,” he told a friend, “I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat…This cry, I always feel it there. When, as a I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.” In Paris, Soutine would spend his little money on a whole ox, hanging it from chains in his studio for days and days as he painted. It was so grisly a scene that, on encountering blood outside the door, the visiting Chagall supposedly wailed that Soutine was dead! Murdered! But no, that would come later, in 1943, when the destitute Soutine escaped Nazi-occupied Paris in a desperate bid for medical attention, to treat the perforated ulcer that killed him. These vague ends: Chaim Soutine, Walter Benjamin, Primo Levi. But while he painted Carcasse de Boeuf and others in that series, the flies and the ripeness drove his neighbors to call the police. They brought a cart. Soutine lectured them on the importance of his work over mere sanitation. He was right, of course; his work was worth their discomfort. They let him keep the ox. Empty, the cart rolled away. He must have been charming or disturbed beyond the common run.

*                      *                     *

Years ago, about the time these sudden panics began to come over me, I was reading Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities in an empty classroom. After an hour of that, I put on headphones and stared at the computer screen. A friend had sent me videos of prominent American poets – Berryman, O’Hara, Charles Olson – reading their work, and they moved me, but then Anne Sexton materialized on the screen. “Since you ask, most days I cannot remember./I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.” “Wanting to Die” was a poem I had read without much interest, but listening to her speak it, in that patrician tongue, made my heart beat. I had to go outside and sit on the grass. An acquaintance tried to speak to me and I couldn’t form the words. She looked at me with confusion and left me behind.

What I had left unsaid all my life was this creeping desire. If nothing else pans out, I can always do this. In Imagined Communities , Anderson writes,

In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love…The cultural products of nationalism—poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts—show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles.

On a city bus, or in a crowd of five hundred, the schizophrenic finds me, just as the tourist will always ask me to take her picture in front of the monument. I used to think it’s because I’m friendly, with bland decent looks and a smiling face, but I suspect the mad sense I’m somewhere on their register. They approach me, bright-eyed, to tell me their visions, compulsions, fears. They have sex and machinery on their minds. (At my work, we joke how the crazies always enter through my external door, though it’s unlit and unmarked, rather than the obvious official entrance. They seem to know. They’ve tried to smoke, standing in my narrow office.) But they aren’t my nation, not really. My nation is that country to which the dead have gone. Like many writers, I return to the past, darning that stitch again and again as if it can save me. I feel an affinity with the gone, just as Anderson yearned for his lost home in Indonesia, to which he eventually returned when the dictator Suharto fell. His book was splayed in front of me. I thought of that bright country where the dead are.

I will be found among bridge pilings, my dreams tell me. The pull of the moon.

It was hard turning away from the video. Sexton took relish in these lines in particular: “But suicides have a special language./Like carpenters they want to know which tools./They never ask why build.” As a child of the country, I have used guns all my life – they carry no malice, no magic, no more than a claw-hammer. I have shot the deer for the freezer, racked the shotgun at a strange noise (or strange man?) that moved through the yard, blown like a candle the life out of the rabid animal. But no. My characters, my avatars, dream of water, are drawn to its edge – it is their leitmotif, what they stare at and consider. I will drown someday – this thought chases me. Thirteen years old, on the Elk River near Monterville, wading further on the sand-bar, casting flies to the rising trout before the dark fell and sent me home. Just a few feet more. The bar gave beneath me and I was in to my neck and a quarter mile downriver. My boots filled, heavy as ingots. Then I was there in the shallows, coughing water, checking to see what I’d lost. My hands bled. I walked dripping back to the truck. But it was real. I will be found among bridge pilings, my dreams tell me. The pull of the moon.

*                      *                     *

My dad says that a relative of ours, decades ago, went to a family reunion, got fed up, walked into the pond, and drowned herself in the middle of the festivities. Talk about a showstopper!

The dark and the absurd are twinned. My great-grandfather hangs on my wall: his campaign poster, 1932. He was a New Deal politician, with five sons, a cheerful, funny, and politically-engaged wife, a long family history in that place, and a thriving oil and gas business. After an episode of personal indiscretion and embarrassment, he hanged himself in a jail cell in Moundsville, West Virginia, a good-sized town he once represented in the state legislature. And yet, even when I was a child, the old people would praise him to me; through the Depression, his business wrecked, he distributed jobs and groceries he could not afford, but he found a way. His once-nice home on Rock Camp Run slipped from the family; it’s directly across from our farm; I’ve driven past it a thousand times, but I’ve never been inside. Yet it follows me. When the house was gutted, the local mortician got his hands on the frosted glass doors with scenes of fighting stags and installed them at his place of business. Every time someone leaves this small place, I go to Tennant Funeral Home to pay my respects, and he always tells their provenance to me and everyone assembled about me. No one seems to notice my obvious, cringing discomfort. I’ve done this scene a dozen times. My lungs are full.

I’ve never spoken of the single most important and embarrassing aspect of my life. My thirty-two years have been an act of resistance against desire – but why so resistant? I remember thinking of suicide when I was eight or nine years old. I can’t think this is normal. I’m unsure. My life has not been poor. I’ve laughed easily. I’ve had good sex, read books, worked hard, been praised. Again and again, these last seven years, I’ve been given the gift of time to do my work. That’s more than enough for anyone. I’ve had no great trauma.

When my son was born, I thought these feelings would be cured. No. There still are weeks when the food in my mouth is so much wet grinding ash, I shed weight, my limbs are heavy, my eyes are dull, my teeth are dull. I play with him. I love him. But it frightens me when relatives say he’s just like I was. His face is alert, intelligent. His eyes are huge, dark, all-seeing. He’s laughing. He’s healthy, always hungry, growing. But I fear I’ve embedded this sliver of bad metal inside him, that it will cycle forward someday and pierce his brain. That I’ve been careless.

*                      *                     *

Water slides up my bare legs. Faintly the pot-line appears out of the false dawn. I untie the rudder and launch. Waves slap the hull. My heart beats in that odd silver light. Once I no longer see eel-grass beds below, I know I’m past the shelf, in deep water. As if on cue a porpoise shows itself exactly once. Birds screaming. I toss out my lures and paddle towards them. The acre of sand-eels is exactly where it was the week before. I’ll begin here and fish my way out to the Rip, where the others gather. I’m always first.

The guys told me that years ago, the Portuguese lobster-divers got together, quietly went out at night, and dumped a half-acre of old toilets out here in Federal waters, to make habitat for the “bugs.” I love the thought of that. I bet the bugs are grateful. I recall the time M., a painter slowed now by a stroke, called me over, opened his fridge, and pointed to the crisper. A dozen one-armed lobsters waved at me. In his slurred tongue, M. told me to take as many as I wanted – a young friend had hit the mother lode. These were the culls.

In the water below, the forms of life are ripping it out of one another. The birds dive into the water, again, again. There is no judgment, no message, no mercy. Each life is much like another, except in duration.

I drift my hand. In the water below, the forms of life are ripping it out of one another. The birds dive into the water, again, again. There is no judgment, no message, no mercy. Each life is much like another, except in duration. For some reason I recall an episode when a snapper blue cut my finger so cleanly I didn’t notice it until I was walking home and a woman gasped at the amount of dried blood all down my jeans. I had to probe to find the wound.

I wonder about all this life, super-concentrated in the Rip, a false vision perhaps. Yeats wrote of “the mackerel-crowded seas,” which are not so crowded anymore, except for plastic bits and gyres of trash, a naturalist tells me. I stop paddling for a moment to change lures. The commercial fishery has collapsed; the pier is quiet, night and day, except for a few scallop-draggers, the scallops in their trays popping like dumb mouths in a way that alarms me. When Thoreau visited Provincetown, people were drying whole cod on every surface, even their lawns, like so much cordwood. I used to know Yeats, even his 1925 speech in defense of divorce to the Oireachtas, words that moved me in their doomed plea for freedom and private judgment. I’m so still a tern lights on the bow. I can’t recall a line. Medication has dulled me, despite promises otherwise. That night I will throw the bottles out.

I never make it to my friends. The drag sings behind me. There on the pot-line, I hook a fish of impossible size that drags me back and forth, and I have to take care not to roll the boat or wrap the line on a buoy. It just won’t tire. For half an hour we do this. The fish is so large I grab it by the gills, clutch it to my chest, and let it perform the slow, strong process of thrashing the life out of itself. I’ve torn it from its world and into the dry. The treble hooks flail at my legs. The scales of its lateral line cut me; for days my knuckles burn where the gill-rakers scraped them nearly to the bone, driving me crazy. Salt burns – I feel a crackling. I don’t realize how large the bass is until a gruff, bearded Russian, whom I’ve never heard speak, says while paddling by in his all-weather gear, “That’s a big fucking fish.” Suddenly I’m afraid. But the fish is dead now, and I go back to my home, where I take pictures before I render its body down to something I can eat.

Matthew Neill Null is a writer from West Virginia, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a winner of the O. Henry Award, the Mary McCarthy Prize, and the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is author of the novel Honey from the Lion (Lookout Books) and the recently-released story collection Allegheny Front (Sarabande). Next year he’ll be in residence at the American Academy in Rome.

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