Soliloquy 28


It is spring and all around me my good neighbours are tending to their lawns and gardens and have begun repairs to their homes. My lawn still has last year's autumn leaves strewn about, the bushes reaching out in a ragged manner, and the grass growing in uneven clumps among varieties of moss. The paint is peeling from my garage doors and the naked wood is cracking and rotting. The driveway is crumbling away at the edges, has developed depressions and crevices through which weeds grow. Actually, I find the depressions convenient, as I can park my car's wheels in the hollow and the car doesn't roll down the steep incline of my driveway. Still, I am embarrassed, ashamed, that our house is an eyesore.

My neighbours actually seem to enjoy working with their hands, making improvements to their homes in their spare time. Some are retired and have plenty of time, but even those who are obligated with careers find time on the weekends to do maintenance and make repairs. And at night you can see in which rooms my neighbours are watching television, for the windows light up with a bluish glimmer like one has from an aquarium. It is just not what I want to do with my free time. My wife and I don't want to own a house. If our dog, Boris, wasn't so old and arthritic, we'd be trying to move out.

The book says that the Newfoundland dog weighs 150 pounds and lives eight to ten years. Boris, who has always been contrary, weighs more than 180 pounds and is halfway between twelve and thirteen years. His arthritis is so bad, his paws have grown distorted. He understandably refuses any offer to go for a stroll. He has tremendous difficulties just getting up and either waits for my assistance, or drags his rump across the tiled foyer until he reaches the traction of the living room carpeting. He prefers to sleep with his backside pressed against the front door, enjoying the draft that slips underneath. At this stage of his life, sleeping is about all he wants to do. My wife and I, coming home from an outing, have to carefully and slowly shoulder the door open, because Boris sleeps on the other side and cannot be bothered with getting out of the way. So it is we continue to reside in the Philadelphia suburb of Levittown, Pennsylvania, with our house decaying about us and our lawn returning to wilderness.

Instead of sanding the garage doors and applying new paint, instead of seeding and mowing the lawn or trimming the bushes, I want to be reading or writing.

In my house there is one room reserved exclusively for me, my lovely study. Three of the four walls are paneled, the wood mahogany stained. The windows are at shoulder height and run nearly the length of two of those walls. The fourth wall is painted a pale blue, the ceiling to match. The study contains my desk with swivel chair, also a wing chair in one corner for reading, and a recliner at the other end of the room for napping. Here also are my books arranged on four stand-alone bookcases of pecan wood seven feet high. They are crammed with books. I've also many books in piles, growing from the furniture and floor like stalagmites. Most are fine press books, often illustrated, for I am infatuated with the art of typography, of papermaking, of binding, of illustrating, in addition to a passion for literature. And my anguish is for not yet having read most of them.

This is my sanctuary, my sanctum sanctorum - a Latin name for the most holy of holies, a place deep inside the ancient temple of the Jews, where once a year a high priest might risk a vis-à-vis encounter with God. In my study there is no personal computer. I append my diary and I compose my correspondences with pen and ink on paper. In this room I often invent new poems, stories, and essays, their first drafts. I open the shutters that conceal the windows and my view is of the bushes and trees that shield me from the monotonous view of like suburban homes. I can imagine my room to be anywhere. With the door to the room closed, I can even forget the rest of the house. The room is best when my wife comes in and sets up her easel to keep me company while she is refining a painting.

The room nourishes me even when I am depressed. At such times as when my thoughts are morbid, I might sit in my study without lights and reevaluate my priorities. But my study can also oppress me. It is the cliché, "so many books, so little time." All too often I finally reach my study after a long day. Unable to sleep because I detest seeing my day conclude without having accomplished something of personal value, I find the book I was last reading. I take up the book again, but within a page or two, I fall asleep.

I was not in my study when I began writing this essay. I was in a small coffee shop in Princeton, New Jersey. It was a rainy afternoon and I was treating myself to a cappuccino and New York style cheesecake. My wife and I want to live in Princeton. If we did live there, the grocery, the movie house, the library, the theater and several auditoriums, could be reached without a car. We could even walk to the train station and be carried away to spend the afternoon in either New York City or Philadelphia. We love Princeton, its focus on books and culture. It is the spiritual presence of the University that makes it so, and we imagine moving there when Boris dies.

And I am not in my study now as I put the final polish to this essay. I am using a free moment and the personal computer where I am employed by AT&T. I work the graveyard shift, midnight to eight o'clock in the morning. I must work every other weekend, which has included this one with Good Friday and Easter, so it is quiet here at the office. I am obliged to write in places other than my study.

Last Sunday, I discovered what appeared to be sawdust at the base of one paneled wall. It is the wall on the opposite side of the room from my desk. On that wall hang alternating paintings by my wife. And there, next to where my jacket and hat hang from a brass hook, I observed strange mud tubes, similar to that made by wasps. When I broke them open, I discovered termites. I was disheartened watching those translucent grubs, having taken on the colour of the wood they had digested, panic in the unexpected light. For several days, I felt quite bleak from having made this awful discovery. I was sure, now, that the house was ruined; furthermore, I was convinced we would never be able to sell it. I morbidly dwelled on the expense of ridding my house of the pests and repairing the damage they have done. And for the last week I have avoided my study. Obsessed with the creatures infecting my study, how could I write there, and how could I write about anything else than this matter that obsessed me? My precious study has been invaded, spoilt, de-sanctified. Besides the upsetting sight of termites, my wife has sprayed a termite poison to at least hold them at bay and the stink alone is enough to make me avoid the room.

We've since had exterminators visit and provide estimates. I've also spoken with neighours to learn it seems everybody else has already had termites. It is remarkable that we've been spared for so long. I am calmer now, and the awful odor of the insecticide my wife had sprayed has almost completely dissipated. I have considered how it is better to have termites for a pest than as the only nutrition in my diet. Entering my study again of mostly unread books, it is like rediscovering a long lost genizah - a Hebrew name for hiding place, a repository for sacred manuscripts that have become worn out, spent. The caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found were such a place. I began to feel good, again. This evening I sat in my study at my desk a few minutes before departing for the office. My books are not worn out, and the pleasures they contain are not yet spent.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.