"Eats with Ozick and Lentricchia" by Gordon Lish

I am writing this the night of 30 January 1994.

Barbara is in the next room.

She is being fed by two nurses. On spoons the soupy food onto Barbara's tongue, the other promptly pushes between Barbara's teeth the canula that carries what Barbara cannot swallow down into the canister where what is suctioned out of the contents into the bedroom toilet so that the procedure might be continued without spillover or mechanical breakdown.

Barbara will be fed, in this manner, all night, which means, as a rule—all night, that is—until about four in the morning, at which time Barbara will be prepared for bed, and then finally laid down onto it at about six-thirty. She will be gotten up from bed and positioned back into her chair at about nine-thirty, whereupon the feeding will begin against throughout the day and the night again, this in the care of three shifts of a pair of nurses who come to us as Mercy Persons—until about four in the morning of 31 January—if, in fact, there is going to be a 31 January this year.

I don't know.

I turn sixty in February.

I mention these matters not to press you with the force of conditions now in sway in Barbara's life but instead to create the context for the one literary memoir—if this is what it might be claimed this recollection of mine is—I am ever likely to impart to print.

It concerns the critic Frank Lentricchia and the novelist Cynthia Ozick.

It concerns eating.

It concerns an item that belonged to Barbara but which I took from Barbara—actually, from the chifforobe in the room Barbara now sits in now being fed in as I now sit writing in this one—the evening last July that Ozick and Lentricchia asked me to come out to dinner with them.

It was, the item, vintage spectacles that pinch the nose to keep themselves stationed at their post and that have a ribbon that, looped through an eyelet formed from the frame, goes over the head and takes purchase around the neck and hangs down.

Pince-nez, yes?

Barbara never wore them.

The glass in them was plain glass.

I had picked up this novelty for Barbara from some sort of fashion emporium back when we were first setting up housekeeping together.

The pince-nez were like so many of the things I was then snatching from everywhere for Barbara—notions I had, frenzied notions, of ornamenting her, of delineating her, in her beauty.

Barbara was a very beautiful woman.

Barbara is still, inexpressibly, incredibly—reduced to a depletion more sever than anything I would have imagined possibly without death present in complete dominion—a very beautiful woman. You can see thism Barbara's authority in this category, registering in the styles of approach made to her by the women who come to nurse Barbara—a sort of recognition, I think it is, a sort of satisfied acknowledgement of the insult nature reserves—justly!—for the very beautiful.

Barbara is regnant in there in our bedroom with two such nurses right now. They feed her, or struggle to feed her, as Barbara, for her part, struggles to swallow little sips of what was yesterday cooked and pureed for her, everybody in there, none more blindingly than Barbara herself, getting a good look at what most of us never see: the work that can be done to the body by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Lou Gehrig's disease.

But what I want to tell you about is about another experience in eating and about other persons—and about, please remember, the pince-nez.

Which last I had taken from the top drawer of Barbara's chifforobe in order that I might feel I was in prospect of holding my own—as a full-fledged participant—in the company of Lentricchia and Ozick the night of the dinner I am remarking.

I took them with me, the pince-nez, for just that reason—or for no reason that I can honorably say.

I don't know.

Say that I had been in all day, been in for days, had not been out of the house—not at night, anyway—for weeks and weeks—and had certainly not been out for anything social in months, months, months.

Lentricchia and Ozick, Ozick and Lentricchia.

They—one or the other of them—phoned, said come out to dinner with us, said come meet us in an hour at The Grand Ticino, said come look for it just north of Bleecker on Thompson.

I said yes, yes, oh yes, hun up the phone, went with tears in my eyes—it's crazy—to the bedroom, to the chifforobe, took out the pince-nez, got my shoes trapped under one of the canulas or catheters or electric cords everywhere underfoot, got the shoe loose, went to the bookshelves, took down Ozick's Bloodshed, took down Lentricchia's Ariel and the Police, went to the kitchen, made out a note for the nurses then on duty and for those to come on at ten, said I'd be back no later than eleven, added the telephone number where I could be reached, and went, left, fled, took myself out into the street in the temper of one released.

Now to the little joke in this.

What I know I called a memoir but can now see will never accumulate itself into anything so grand, and God knows into nothing anywhere on speaking terms with something traveling under papers as a literary one.

It's just a bit.

I can tell it to you, the whole bit, in no time flat.

They were late.

I sat there being exasperated with them.

Why were they late?

Wasn't I on time? What right did they have to be late when there I was—right when they said I should be—right on fucking time. And what right did they have to make it up between them that we, that the three of us, would come eat at The Grand Ticino when—fuck, fuck!—doors away, also just north on Thompson off Bleecker, was Porto Bellow—where with Bloom, with Donoghue, where with Ozick and Lentricchia—where all the years with Barbara, goddamn it!—I had had such good times, such happinesses—releases to, not releases from.

I tried thinking of topics.

Then I was glad of it, glad for it—glad the dirty fucking rats, the bums, were late.

Because I did not have anything to talk with them about—no topics, not a topic—did not have anything to say for myself, did not feel anything in me sufficient in worth to swap for the gift of anyone's time with me—except to hand these people my tears again in thanks again for their thinking again to ask me to come out with them for eats again.

I had one topic.


Barbara dying.

So I sat there being exasperated a little bit, and weeping a little bit, and being pleased with myself for the pince-nez hanging zanily from my neck and for the copy of Bloodshed and for the copy of Ariel and the Police I had thought to pack along with me for no motive I could state to you with any more good sense backing it up than I could summon in defense of myself for my getting myself primped up with the pince-nez.

I thought: Tell them I'd just made up my mind my favorite sentence is Edward Loomis' "Mary Rollins was born in a high white frame house shaded by elms."

I thought: Tell them I am getting ready to make my second-favorite sentence "The icepack has melted, and the American River is running fast."

I thought: Do I tell them it's mine, this sentence—ah, shit, compound sentence!—or tell them instead that all I really did was steal it from where it was scribbled up on some wall somewhere?

I thought: Tell them I've got money in my pocket and I'm going to get bad drunk and then get on a bus, get on any bus, so long as it's going away.

I thought: Tell them I'm pretty damn burnt-up they didn't deal me in when they didn't settle on good old Porto Bello.

I thought: Tell them they're my first- and second-best friends?

I sat there thinking.

I say there thinking, sat there waiting, sat there making believe I was actually reading the books I had laid out in my lap when I had pushed back my chair back away from the table when the waiter had come and had put a cup of espresso in front of me and had filled the bread basket with some great-looking bread in it for me and had poured out for me a little dish of olive oil for me, and had, in every ordinary thing the fellow had done for me, in every conventional ministration the waiter had enacted for me, that the man had—the strictness, the covenant with protocol—got the tear to come from me again, carried me into a sort of small weeping again—so that, sure, sure, sure I guess I could not actually have sat there reading anything even if I had actually been trying to.

I sat there thinking: Hey, what do they make of me, the other people back behind me in this place, me, this pose-taker I am, this show-person sitting here, the ridiculous specs stuck to the nose, the broad black gosgrain ribbon swagged martially across the chest, the legs arranged at an important three-quarter torque,the auspicious-looking books laid out in the lap, the chair shoved back away from the table in an exhibition of a sort of magisterial, expansive remove?

I sat there thinking: Where the piss are they, the dirty stinking rats, not to be here now, not for them to see me looking like this now, not for them to be right this instant coming up on me from the back of me seeing me looking like this now?

I'm ready! Please see me now—I'm ready!

But are the bastardos here and ready for them to do the fucking viewing?

I sat thinking: Tell them about how on my way downtown I spotted on Broadway between Twenty-second and Twenty-first a store called "GORDON" with a sign saying something like, wasn't it, Sells Tricks, Sells Novelties, Sells Disguises?

I thought: Tell them they made me cry?

I thought: Tell them everything makes me cry?

I thought: Tell them I put on a dirty movie when Barbara was sleeping or when I thought Barbara was sleeping and there was a girl in it getting it from all sides in it but who never once looked at any of the ones giving it to her in it but who instead was only always looking off somewhere away from where everything was going on in the holes in her as if—in a gaze, in a gaze!—where she looked off to was paradise?

I thought: Tell them, of the three chairs, that of the three chairs, that I, Gordon, was the first one here first but that I, Gordon, took the one chair facing to the kitchen because what wouldn't I, Gordon, not do for my two first-best friends if not eat shit for them, if not face the kitchen doing it for them?

I thought: Tell them I took the pince-nez when Barbara wasn't looking, tell them I never told Barbara I was taking them, tell them I couldn't really read with theme, tell them I wasn't really reading with them, tell them they didn't have anything but just plain glass in them, tell them I am not going to be ashamed of any of this, tell them I am not going to be ashamed of anything anywhere to do with any of this, tell them no, no, not if at least, not if I, Gordon, can at least be somewhere on time at least when I am goddamn told to be at least and they—the bastardos!—can't!

In the midst of which consideration I take up a big piece of bread up from the bread basket and tear off a little piece of it from the big piece and put the little piece down into the little dish of olive oil and soak the little piece of bread with olive oil and then take up the salt shaker and salt the oiled bread with salt and put the little piece of salted, oiled bread into my mouth and start chewing and keep chewing and then take up the cup of espresso and take a sip from the cup of espresso and sit chewing and sit posing and sit making believe I am sitting reading but sit really actually just thinking—fuck, fuck—this fucking bread here is pretty fucking good bread here, this bread here at The Grand Ticino is pretty fucking good bread here—and just getting more bread, getting it all salted, getting it all oiled, getting more of the coffee into my mouth, getting the whole glob of it all good and chewed and soaked and mashed, thinking: Tell the bastardos what, what?

I think: Tell them there are Mercy Persons coming to us from Saint Firmus, tell them there are Mercy Persons coming to us from Saint Eustatius.

I think: Tell them there is no person merciful enough coming to anyone from anywhere.

I think: Proust! I think: That's it, Proust!

What a topic, Proust—the bum, the bum, the stinking dirty rat, forgetting the cookie, and whose damn cookie is it but the braggart's own damn cookie!

Tell them the filth can't even remember to remember his own damn cookie, can't even damn remember to remember not even three little pages hence concerning naught but remembering, can't even, goddamn it, remember it's the two of them, that it's the totality of the two of them, that it is the totalitarian unicity of the blend of the savors of the two fucking two of them that authorizes the emancipation of anything, that it's the tea and the cookie, that it's the tea now and now the cookie now, that it's the both of them now, this reciprocation goddamn it!

Tell them I think.

Tell them the instant they show up that I think.

And then I think Holy God Jesus, how about asphyxiation for a topic!

Because it is all of a sudden fucking occurring to me I am fucking sitting here in fucking The Grand Ticino fucking strangling!

I mean it, I mean it!—I have gone and got a lump of oily salty coffee'd-up mush that's gone and got itself caught halfway down and will not go anymore down than halfway down anymore because there is laid out beneath it this swag of big broad black grosgrain ribbon I somehow got caught in under the bread when I was sticking the fucking bread in my mouth and then got the ribbon halfway swallowed down under the bread and it's hung up on me halfway down, like this bundle of it, like this terrible bag of it, and it won't, the whole killing sack of it, it will not come back up because it has gone to far down for it to come back up and it won't go all of the way down because my neck has got it by a rock and won't let go.

And I think: Idiot, idiot, quick quick!—act fast before you have actually suffocated yourself!—either give it a yank and rip out your teeth or see if you can swallow your head!

That's the thought I thought.

I don't know for how long.

All I know is, hey, Barbara knows.

Legs still crossed in imperious pose, books—books!—still exhibited upon my person—while death hurries to do an honest job of it from the props bullshitting has furnished.

Okay, so that's the literary part.

The memoir part is did I or didn't I sit here and not forget that it was all of them, all?

Coffee, salt, oil, ribbon, bread.

Six, actually—actually the components constituting the effect, don't they all come, all in all, to six?

And what about eyelet?

And vanity?

And canula?

But it is swell by me if you and the critic and if you and the novelist want to take the list anywhere off into your first-best schemes and rhymes and figures and portents.

I mean, hey, as the fella says, reim dich oder ich fress dich, you got it or you got it?

Except just don't go accusing anybody of ever pulling anything too Prousty on you, deal?

I said it, my darling—didn't I?

Didn't I just—him, your husband—just say deal?