Sorrow: II. Mick
The last time I spoke to Mick, he asked me what it was like to take insulin. He had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a disease as fast and deadly as my own is languid and livable. His doctors discovered it in midsummer a year ago, just after I had left Ithaca. By the time I made it back in late August, his voice had grown hoarse and his face was lean, leaner than I remembered.
It was winter when he called for advice. I was standing at a stove, worrying over more pots and pans than the four burners could accommodate. An experimental treatment, he told me. A slim chance. It might save his life; it would certainly destroy his pancreas. He wanted to prepare himself for life without it. Was it difficult to count carbs? Would the needles hurt? I thought about how little fat was left on his frame, how much more it hurts to shoot into muscle. Something was smoking on the stove. Could I call back later? No hesitation. Sure thing. Time enough for talk.
When our dogs were still young, they would sometimes play together, rushing from Mick’s unfenced yard to mine and back again. Presto, the more agile of the two, would sometimes go low and slip between Bags’ legs, only to stand unexpectedly, flipping him onto his back. At this, Mick would always grumble, and soon enough he would call Bags home. Years passed and the dogs grew calmer. Bags would stroll over at night, standing quietly atop the hill at the back of my lawn like a vigilant wolf as Presto dozed lazily below. Sometimes Mick would follow, glass of wine in hand, to look askance at whatever I had on the grill. This was how we became friends: Introduced by dogs.
In the mornings, we would walk through the woods, following worn trails down into the gorge as the dogs romped in fallen leaves. Mick had been a graduate student, though he was a carpenter by the time we met. He still read, more and more widely than I did, even when I was in the thick of my coursework. Out in the woods, he would sometimes chastise me for not having made it through this or that volume of Bataille or Marion. He would lend it to me, he said, but only if I returned it. Would he have noticed if I didn’t? The metal shop shelves that filled his house were heavy with everything I should have been reading, everything I wish I had read.
When I first arrived in Ithaca there seemed to be a bookshop on every corner. Occasionally, the philosophy or literary criticism section of one would fill up suddenly, abruptly flush with every volume my friends and I had been coveting. We would descend like vultures, each of us taking our share and then fighting over the scraps. It was only much later that I realized we really were picking corpses clean. This is how we bury our dead in college towns: We spread their libraries on a hillside and let doctoral candidates carry them to the winds.
Months after the novelist David Markson died of cancer, his books began to turn up on the shelves of the Strand, a store at which he had purchased many of them in the first place. Nothing special in and of itself – there were few rarities and even the signed volumes were cluttered with marginalia – this collection was mixed in with the rest of the inventory, announced only by Markson’s book plates. Few as they were devoted, Markson’s admirers gathered online to catalog their finds. Unready to mourn their master, they attempted to rebuild his textual body, one obsessively annotated work at a time.
In February, Mick’s partner Sandy wrote to tell me that he had died unexpectedly. There were two memorial ceremonies, but I made it to neither of them. If I had, I might have told a story about the first time we walked through the gorge together. Did I ever tell you, Mick asked, that I was a foundling? He hadn’t. What exactly did that mean? He did not smile but his tone was wry. I was found – but not born – in a hospital. I might have told this story, might have struggled to say why. I might have told it, but I wasn’t there. I haven’t been back to Ithaca since.
I never asked what happened to Mick’s library. What will I do if I come across his books when I return? I would want to gather them up. I would want to gather them up and take them home.
Come, says Shakespeare’s Titus, take choice of all my library. And so beguile thy sorrows.