David L. Ulin: “August”

For Sophie


every time I drive down

to the Cape

from Boston,

Route 3 reminds

me of Babe Ruth,

even though the Red Sox

sold him to

the Yankees before

players ever wore

numbers on

their backs.

Ruth, I want to say,

lived around here,

this line of towns

skirting the South Shore —



Weymouth —

but his Home Plate Farm

was in Sudbury, twenty miles

to the west. Once,

or so the story goes,

he pushed a piano

into a pond, the end of

a wild night. But

as with every story

about the Bambino,

it’s hard to know

what really happened,

to parse the

legend from

the truth.



my parents





I am confronted

by how old they are.

Not decrepit — not

yet —

but faltering, bowed

and slowing, an illusion

of themselves

at half-speed.

My father,

yesterday morning,

dressed in loafers, khakis, and

a button-down,

on his way to New York:

an echo of hundreds,

thousands, of Cape Cod Sundays

stretching back over

four decades.

And yet,

at the proper angle,

he looks like my


not his father, but

my mother’s, sideburns

inching down his cheek

not by intention but neglect,

on his chin a patch of pale fur

he missed while shaving,

on his scalp white flakes

of peeling skin.

In Hyannis,

we sit together at

the bus station and

I watch him flex his fingers,

those once precised and tapered digits

thick now

beneath the gold band


of his wedding ring.


on Bank Street today

a mother and daughter,

late thirties and mid-teens,

the cut of their hair,

the curve of their necks,

their calves,

the same as

when I was seventeen.

They walk,

identical in shorts

and tanktops,

sneakers and white

ankle socks, like

two sides of a

relection in

the funhouse mirror

of my eyes.


it would have been

the daughter who

compelled me;

now it’s the other

way around.

Nonetheless, the

feeling lingers:

a longing

that does not

quite narrow

the distance

to desire.


my father’s hands

do not linger.

They thicken and

grow clumsy.

They are my hands.

I recall the calm

precision of his movements,

see in them

the man

I sought to be.

Not trying to be

sentimental —

the danger of this

kind of thinking, of

coming to the same

place, the same house,

forty-two years.

Yet despite our

issues, our

dissatisfactions, the

misunderstandings I’ve

learned to put behind me,

it all comes back

to these

hands, both

as they are and

as I remember,

the stillness to which

I once aspired.

My father, too, once

stood at such a distance;

even when he was there

he was not really there.

More elusive than solid,

a fluid presence

only available

in ghost traces:

a touch, the flexing

of his fingers

against the surface

of a bus station



ghost traces, yes, for

he is gone now,

has been

for the last few days.

Yesterday, my birthday

(yes, my birthday:


overlooked here,

a reminder

of the ticking

that does not


he barely found

a minute

to talk to me, and

although I am too old

to be hurt by this,

I was.

I was planning to call

you later, he said, and

I will …

but he didn’t,

leaving me both

disappointed and relieved.

Yes, and something

else: let’s say revealed.

For I have done the same

with my kids:

reaching out sporadically

when we are not together,

letting the distance


Last week, Sophie

here alone

with her grandparents,

I never spoke with her,

relying on Facebook, texts,

relishing (say it, say it)

the distance from

my child.


another Bank Street morning:

running into Small while walking;

we talk, briefly, and she tells me

I look the same.

She hasn’t seen me, I don’t think,

since college, and my hair

was not nearly

this gray.

Again, the things that

change and the things that

don’t; to her,

former professor,

I will always be a kid.

And yet, here too, the

conundrum of this place, of

all this history,

the way it keeps us

from getting out from

underneath the past.

What keeps me young?

(if anything …)

That I don’t live here, that

I have left my history



what keeps me young:


living with Rae,

love and lust,

a direct line back

to our beginnings,

the image of her

hovering above me

as she lets go and

the armature of her

desire explodes …

this, this endless writing,

this succession of

notebooks, stretching

back: all those years, as

long as I’ve been coming to

this Cape house, sitting

in this chair, at this

table, scratching out

black lines of

words …

the fear of death, of time,

awareness of moment,

the sense that it doesn’t

matter, that it has never


and yet

it matters so much.

The idea that the future,

the real future, is

an emptiness,

unimaginable, not

slumber but cessation,

a source of terror,

not relief …

my children, whom I love,

whom I long to be with …

even when I don’t.


and there it is, the

contradiction: What keeps

me young is history.

And there it is, the

contradiction: We can

never lose our history.

Our history loses us.

That mother and daughter,

walking Bank Street?

Fifty years from now,

they will still be here,

and I … I

will be gone.


Wednesday night,

at Fenway Park,

Sophie and I sit with Steve

in his seats

and watch the Red Sox


That satisfaction is

another constant, although

my daughter sees it differently

in her Red Sox sweatshirt,

purchased just prior to game time

on Yawkey Way.

It’s been a great day with her,

the two of us and my old friend

wandering the streets

outside the ballpark,

visiting the ancient

brick, the Monster, the

Bleacher Bar. When

Steve asks why she

likes the Red Sox, I

say because she knows

I hate them, and

she laughs and nods.

This is the moment:

leaning out from the second deck

over the visitor’s dugout,

suspended loose as time,

the summer evening,

Prudential Building

lit up green and red.

I explain the dropped third strike

rule when Dustin Pedroia

gets on base, remember

another friend

whose grandfather

came here to watch

Tris Speaker play.

Babe Ruth pitched the Sox

to two World Series titles

on this field, around the time

he bought that farm in Sudbury,

ninety years, a century —

it is the hundredth anniversary of

Fenway — like an evening

at the park.

Baseball is a game of inches, yes,

but it is also a game of generations,

although in the end what may define it

most is a peculiar sense of time.

How many ballparks have I sat in,

how many games, how

many pitches, how many

players, how many friends and

relatives and loved ones, and

what can any of it mean?

Nothing, except for the chance

to sit here with my daughter

as time collapses and all

those games, those moments

condense into this one:

me and this coltish thirteen-year-old

grinning in her braces

as my heart implodes.


and does that sound like

another contradiction? No,

a complication, a struggle

to make

the world cohere.

I want to be alone and I

don’t want to be alone, to be

apart and be a part.

Today, in the car, I was explaining

to Noah about my father’s father:

the rages, the depressions,

the sitting in dark rooms.

Poppy decided he would never

be that way, I said, and

just like that, I saw

his reticence as an

act of will.

And did it serve him?

Yes, it served him. Let

him frame his own


And did it hurt him?

Yes, it hurt him. Kept

him at a distance from

his desire.


Friday afternoon,

sitting on the back porch,

Noah reading Ask the Dust,

my father, back from New York,

in his corner chair.

Quiet as a church or a

library, the sound of

construction in the distance,

an earth mover and

the click of staple guns.

We leave tomorrow,

back to Boston in the

rental car, up Route 3,

flight of the Bambino,

through the Ted Williams

Tunnel, another baseball

reference, another token

of what lingers and what

doesn’t linger, another token

of our faith.


the other afternoon in Brookline,

talking to Steve in his backyard

while Sophie looked at

online shopping sites, I said I was

a Taoist if I were anything at all.

So you believe in God? Steve asked,

but that’s not it,

at least not in any comforting sense.

I believe that when I die

my consciousness will

dissipate, that, God or no God, I

as a distinct and differentiated


will cease.

It was late in the day, trees

in full green of August, sky

high and blue, pocked with

rough ellipses of clouds.

The stillest and most calm

of moments,

and even so, beneath it,

time relentless, ticking

forward notch by notch.

There is no time, the Buddhists

say, but we are

condemned to live in it.

Which is why I draw

no lasting solace

from the constancy of place,

this summer silence, nor

from these ink-scratched

scrawlings either, although it

is the only lasting solace

that I know.


today, we marked off

the last few items on our checklist:

Brewster General Store and

Chatham, streets a mirror of

every other summer that I’ve

been here, a dopplered reflection

of the future and the past.

I no longer want,

as I once did, to

outlive the others,

just to leave this record

of my leavings, knowing

it will disappear.

There is no meaning, nothing


One day, Sophie will

look at my hands as I

look at my father’s,

remember our

trip to Fenway

as a distant island, or

not remember it at all.

One day, that Bank Street

daughter will be a mother,

walking with her daughter,

or she won’t have a daughter,

or she won’t be alive.

One day, none of this

will matter, just as

it doesn’t matter now.

One day, I will watch

my father turn to dust,

and then I will turn to dust,

without ever having

said out loud the words

that are required, the flawed

and temporary consolations

that are all we can bestow.


and so tonight,

I watch my father’s hands,

watch as he flexes them

against the table top.

I watch my daughter smile

as she talks to her cousins,

mouth a crust of silver,

braces glinting in the lamplight.

I watch myelf, caught in

the middle, neither

there nor here.

I watch and try to

hold us and to keep us, not

the memory so much

as the essence,

the essence of

who we were.

Harwichport, Massachusetts

August 19-25, 2012

DAVID L. ULIN is the author, most recently, of the novella Labyrinth. His other books include The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. He is book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

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