As drink gave way to drink, the slow
Unfathomable voices of luncheon made
A window of ultraviolet light in the mind,
Through which one at last saw the skeleton
Of everything . . .
— Denis Johnson, “The Veil”
Mr. N stares at the door that he once had a key for before the locks were changed. He sways a little. His face feels raw from shaving with cold water and a Bic in a gas station bathroom. He’s still holding the decaying flowers up by his chest. He looks down at them and notices that he’s buttoned his shirt wrong. His fingers are shaking. He can smell his own sweat. He starts thinking about where he can get a quart of vodka. He’s looking down at the carpet the flowers will soon fall to. He says “please” one more time, but softly.
Though I wasn’t there to witness this moment, which I believe to have happened in 1975, I have decided that I know this man, having had repeated interactions with him years later, throughout the early- to mid-1990s. He was a man known to me and my fellow employees at 8th Street Wine and Liquor as Mr. Nikoff, so named by us for his consistent and prodigious consumption of Nikoff Vodka, the cheapest brand we sold in the liter and half-gallon size. He didn’t seem to have very good hearing, but even so we didn’t want him to know that he had been named after his booze. It’s possible, though I can’t recall for sure, that we referred to him at times as Mr. N for short and by way of a code while he was in the store.
Through the doors of that store shuffled a steady string of the alcohol-destroyed, dirty-faced men who signaled their desire for a 9 A.M. half-pint of blackberry brandy or vodka with voices like metal scraping on stone, who paid with sticky, greasy nickels tapped out onto the counter from a styrofoam cup, who exited mumbling or cackling or cursing, who left livid ghosts of stink in their wake. But among this parade of ruination Mr. N stood out as the man who had not only fallen most completely into putrefaction but who had also fallen from the greatest height. Though you could barely understand what he was saying through his rotted teeth and tangled beard and through the tears in your own eyes that his piercingly awful stench produced, you knew that he was intelligent and educated, or he had been at one time. Sometimes all we could do after he staggered away with the help of a metal cane, his new liter of vodka secreted in his filthy trench coat, was repeatedly wave the door open and closed, spray the entire place with Lysol, breathe through our mouths, and gasp obscenities. But sometimes after all this we also wondered how he’d gotten to his current state. He knew arcane facts about the history of the labor movement, had informed opinions on the mayoral record of Abe Beame, lauded the abilities of the Gashouse Gang, seemed at times to speak with the trace of an English accent, even hinted once or twice that he’d been involved in some significant way with the University of Chicago. And he smelled like the aftermath of a funeral home fire extinguished with urine. And his fingers shook so badly that even on the days when he said nothing it took him several minutes to complete a transaction that took even our second-most ruined client a half a minute at most.
For the last few days I have been thinking about Mr. N as I knew him and Mr. N as I imagine him as a younger man, outside the slammed door of his former one and only. With the help of this 1975 Cecil Upshaw card, which I have been looking at for days, studying it on the commuter train to work, on my lunch breaks, on the train ride back home, and during commercial breaks in my evening ingestions of foodstuff and television, I have also begun trying to imagine Mr. N’s last perfect moment, long before I ever knew him but not that long before he stood staring down at the hallway carpet holding flowers and whispering the word please.
If I was a religious person, I might define a perfect moment as one in which the individual is in total harmony with the divine. So let’s say the Cardboard Gods comprise my religion. Let’s say this photograph of Cecil Upshaw was taken before the doctoring of Rudy May’s card from the same year, and let’s say the much more graceful N and the Y on Cecil Upshaw’s dark cap are Mr. N and his beloved dancing together in an unlit room in the middle of the night. It’s a few weeks before Mr. N will have the door slammed in his face.
The room is not lit because earlier that day the electric company shut off the power. Mr. N’s beloved was first to discover that the electricity had been shut off and she took the flicking of the impotent light switch as a sign, even decided that she would end things with Mr. N, that it was just too hard, that it seemed too often that she was carrying him, dragging him, rather than that they were walking together. But he had come home that day with news of a new job, only temporary but with possibilities to become more than that. He was substitute teaching, a high school English class, and the regular teacher would be out for a while, so he would, he explained with his contagious excitement, not merely be babysitting but would actually be teaching great books. Mr. N’s beloved, who had earlier resolved to tell him it was over, softened not at the news that he would finally once again have an income but with the light in his eyes, the optimism, the hope. Before long he would be discovered at the school with alcohol on his breath and be dismissed. He just had a little, he explained to his beloved, to calm his nerves before facing those animals. I can’t, Mr. N’s beloved said to herself. I just can’t anymore. But before that there was this one perfect night, when both of them believed for the last time in a future together, and so their dark room changed from a curse to a blessing, for it showed that the light in the world came from the two of them together, dancing, in love, not even any music, and fuck everything else.
In a perfect moment you won’t even know the divine except to sense that beneath you and above you and all around you is an invisible world of infinite wonder and absurdity. You won’t know the pinched bespectacled expression of the fading god of decent to mediocre relief pitching below you, nor the harmonious union of his tired arms above you in a gesture that paradoxically seems at once one of victory and surrender. You will not know that the intimations of triumph embedded in the uniform he wears will elude him, his time with the most successful branch of the Cardboard Gods brief and forgettable, nor will you know that the enmity-provoking aspects of this uniform are at this time dormant, the Yankees just another team to any creator of the divine under the age of 11 in 1975, your moment bathed in an innocence before hate. You will sense that there are worlds within worlds, that everything is connected and so everything is divine, but you won’t know the particulars, such as, as the back of this Cecil Upshaw card states, the faltering pitcher pictured here, who will pitch just one more year, and not for the team named in this card, is the cousin of another faltering pitcher, George Stone, who is also on the cusp of his last go-round. You won’t know that Cecil Upshaw came to the Yankees for, among others, the visionary alternative marriage experimenter Fritz Peterson, nor that Cecil Upshaw would leave the Yankees in a straight-up one-for-one trade for the most inspiringly accessible Cardboard God of them all, Eddie Leon.
Or maybe you will know, but it will be beyond words. Beyond saving. As Denis Johnson puts it in “The Veil”:
. . . you’d know. You would know goddamn it. And never be able to say.