Steve Martin's nonfiction

Among the stickers affixed to the BART ticket machines in the Embarcadero are those that warn 'Soft, old bills JAM!' They bring to mind, always, a group of flabbying middle-aged guys, all conveniently named Bill, gathering in one of their garages to play a few tunes.

On an unrelated note, the New Yorker's summer fiction issue this year gets off to something of a grim note, with a number of pieces (which, now that I think of it, are not actually fictional) about the deaths of family members. To my mind, the most striking memoir is Steve Martin's, in which he writes about his disapproving and fairly cold shouldered father. Rather than attempting to dig into the words and analyze how they come together in such a way that poignancy and pathos seem present in equal measure, I offer up an excerpt:

'I walked into the bedroom where he lay, his mind alert but his body failing. He said, almost buoyantly, "I'm ready now." I understood that his intensifying rage of the last few years had been against death, and now his resistance was abating. I stood at the end of the bed, and we looked into each other's eyes for a long, unbroken time. At last he said, "You did everything I wanted to do."

I said, "I did it because of you." It was the truth. Looking back, I'm sure that we both had different interpretations of what I meant.

I sat on the edge of the bed. Another silence fell over us. Then he said, "I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry."

At first, I took this as a comment on his plight but am forever thankful that I pushed on. "What do you want to cry about?" I finally said.

"For all the love I received and couldn't return."

He had kept this secret, his desire to love his family, from me and from my mother his entire life. It was as though an early misstep had kept us forever out of stride. Now, two days from his death, our pace was aligning, and we were able to speak.'

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