Mind you, sometimes the angels smoke, hiding it with their sleeves, and when the archangel comes, they throw he cigarettes away: that’s when you get shooting stars.
I spent late Christmas day and the next morning with Lucia Berlin. Greg made a present of her recently published memoir, Welcome Home, and I picked it up immediately. As I read the book not once but twice, Lucia’s voice came back to me–earthy and rich, but delicate, pure, plainly beautiful, like the thinnest of glass. In the passages describing the places on the map of her peripatetic childhood, especially the dark list “The Trouble With All the Houses I’ve Lived In,” what I heard was Lucia’s wicked laugh, a deep bubbling sound that could be described only as naughty.
Reading Lucia was fraught. I missed her, of course. And I wanted a do-over. I didn’t have much contact with her at the end, convinced that she never really liked me much or my writing, even though she’d directed my thesis and been a favorite dinner guest. She’d read my palm and my cards dozens of times, and we used to share a forbidden smoke—she a cigarette and me a clove—back when she was on oxygen and had to turn off her machine, so we could light up. The pleasure was not in the smoking but in the transgression. Then we’d gossip and tell stories and laugh and laugh.
In the years of our friendship, I wouldn’t hold onto these moments as much as I’d hold on to the pointed things she said to me: Once it was “This isn’t a story,” when I handed her a piece that had been published and later placed in a fiction contest. “Well, there you go,” she said, shrugging. It was true that I was pursuing poetry at the time and not calling myself a fiction writer, but I thought inexplicably, Shouldn’t she love everything I did? Another time it was “What did you expect?” when I complained loudly about a cleaning job I’d taken because I’d desperately needed the money only to spend so many hours on it that my pay was minuscule and then, the client, a friend of a friend, complained I’d done a shitty job. “Never work for people you know,” she said. Now it seems like good advice, but back then, I was stung that she didn’t share my outrage. I know Lucia had been poor like me in her life and I expected her to sympathize with my rock and a hard place plight.
But Lucia never indulged such things. Life was hard and lonely and brutal, and you just got on with it. If you were lucky, you could tell a story that made others laugh, not in a slapstick kind of way but in the “Death is often the point of life’s joke” way of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark. At the time, I pretended to be so tough, nothing touched me. But Lucia could.
The last time I saw her, she’d moved to a tiny trailer in Boulder and had to give up her beloved white cat, Cosmo, because the park didn’t allow outside pets. I was on my way to grad school again—this time a PhD in fiction and I was saying goodbye. I had Elvis in tow, a dog I’d had difficulty naming until Lucia said, “Wait for him to smile when you call him, like the Eskimos do with babies, then you will know that’s his name.” I’d spent the day in her yard on Mapleton Hill calling the dog, “Loki” and “Sailor” and “Levi.” Weeks later, I hit on Elvis when I was listening to The Sun Sessions in my Gold Hill house, the dog dancing around with me as I crooned along to Elvis’ freakish rendition of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Visiting Lucia in the trailer park was sad; it was depressing to see her there in such a small, inelegant place. She couldn’t afford Boulder rents, even on her teaching salary, and her health was in decline. Still, we smoked, and Lucia read my cards and then she handed me a beautiful wood Missoni bowl, a possession of hers I’d long admired, along with a note: “For your Wisconsin dinner parties, darling. Love, L”
Lucia was no saint, but now I see that I let the belief that I was unlovable get in the way of understanding that Lucia actually saw me. She encouraged me through all those long conversations—gossip and lunches, cigarettes and breakfast–to mine the pit fires of my own life for stories. You can do better, she was saying. She was trying to tell me to be more true with my work at a time when I wanted to be anything but myself. I wish I could go back and say, “Thank you.” I wish we could talk about “looking for home” –the current that runs through both of our lives–a revelation that struck me for the first time as I read her memoir. I wish I could say “I know how hard it’s been for you, too.”
I first fell in love with Lucia when I heard her read “Melina.” The story is about a lonely wife who meets a her “first beatnik,” Beau, and their friendship revolves around stories about a bohemian woman named Melina who “covered all the rooms in the apartment with fabric” and transformed them with exotic canopies. The stories of Melina enchant the narrator, and her conversations with Beau bring light and revelation to the routine of her life. When Beau leaves, she says,
“I was sorry…. He was like an angel in my life…When he was gone I realized how little Rex [her husband] ever talked to me…I felt so lonely I even thought about turning our rooms into tents.”
“Aw” I cried out loud when Lucia read the last line. And the room of faculty members and earnest grad students erupted in laughter. But it didn’t matter, I had fallen under the same spell of story. I’d been transported too.
I think we can’t help but have fraught relationships with our mentors. We expect so much—unconditional love and praise, all the right advice, and of course divinity. In my case, I was also seeking mothering. It is as natural as it is ridiculous that we expect so much. I was too busy with whether Lucia loved me to see what she was teaching me. What she taught me. And it’s taken me all these years to put it into place in the story I tell about my life.
I recently ran into an ex-student. I am embarrassed to say I would not have recognized him if he hadn’t introduced himself. “I want to shake your hand,” he said, “you changed my life.” I asked his name and he referenced a story he’d written and still the memory was vague. He was so happy to see me. “Thank you, thank you,” he said.
In the same way, on this first day of the new year, I’m lighting a candle in thanks for all the dirty, rambunctious, naughty moments I shared with Lucia while I imagine her like Nabokov’s Margot, “supine, smoking lustily,” in the dark of the afterlife and laughing and laughing.