Because even in the deep neighborhoods of Queens, Jonathan Franzen
can find a houndshark, the smooth dogfish splayed beneath the bench
of an N train, rotting out, promising an empty car on a Wednesday night
in August, the worst heat of the summer, though some will mind an awful
smell to pose the dead with props—a cigarette, a MetroCard, an open can
of Red Bull—the images posted to Instagram before a transit officer
can carry out the shark in a garbage bag. But, Jonathan, this isn’t figurative.
The dead dogfish is not a metaphor for the end of the social novel. And on
streets where Hindi, Russian, Korean, and Colombian Spanish, by which
you must mean Jackson Heights, are spoken in equal measure, though
you’ll cut Colombian in revision, even here where in 1991 ugly news
could still reach you, no one speaks the dark and vegetating language
of shark. Why bother? Because the first word my niece spoke with proficiency
was goodbye. Goodbye, park. Bye-bye, trees. Goodbye, Uncle Ryan.
There, there now. Goodbye. I’d read on trains that stitched the borough like a syntax
how an elegist submits to the ineffectual, that language is an equation
of the dissimilar, undone as easily as Penelope’s loom. Gone, we say,
and ask something of permanence, an exchange, but the elegist,
inheriting a chorus, sings in half-forgotten grief, and the dead are made to rise
from the churchyard of poems to a votive of April stars. Goodbye, Mommy.
Goodbye, Da-da. Think of my sister, collapsed at the foot of her bed, an artery
hemorrhaging in the frontal lobe of her brain. Think of the EMT who radioed
overdose to Queens East, cardiac dysrhythmia, then held my sister’s head
to the side to draw out vomit with a gloved hand. At the hospital, it took
three men to sedate her, her body decoding each signal as threat, and when
her husband called there was no news—no planned surgery, no tomograph—
so he repeated her name for its simple truth, like an apostrophe, or like a child
learning their way into the new world. Six years from holding his only daughter.
And if grief’s a republic of worthless currency, make it prose, just once. Give it
consequence. Or let him be lonely.