The Duchess of Doggerel

On the week after his thirtieth birthday at the onset of the Great Recession in June of 2008, the day after his girlfriend of two years had dumped him, Bennington A. Rhodes IV lost his job at Citigroup.

On that Thursday at her condo in the early evening, Amy had lowered the axe, explaining that their relationship had “plateaued upon a plain.”

“So being with me,” Bennington had asked, “is, like, a long, boring stretch of Kansas Interstate?”

Amy, a slender, doe-eyed only child with a tiny mouth and incredibly meticulous handwriting, was going places, and Bennington had liked to imagine that he’d be tagging along.  He meekly stormed out of her building (an emphatic door shut, carpeted condo stomp) and headed downtown to drown his sorrows in a tsunami of single malts.  (After unwadding the $68 bar tab the next day, he came close to weeping when he saw the $32 tip).

When Zaubi called him into his office at five the next afternoon, Bennington was still feeling terrible, suffering the worst hangover since Kappa Alpha.  As Zaubi’s soothing baritone – the voice of reason – clicked off the numbers, Bennington sat there across the desk dumb. It wasn’t as if getting laid off was such a shock – he was the most recent hire – but psychologically the timing couldn’t have been worse.  It seemed like a curse.

Axed, and then, axed, whack, whack.

Amy had assured him that there was no one else in the picture and perhaps their relationship might resume somehow in the vague future, but that had been four months ago, and he’d only seen her once since, at Rue de Jean’s among a too loud table enjoying a late lunch that had stretched to four on a Friday afternoon.  Sitting at the bar nursing a Miller, Bennington glanced over to his left to try to catch Amy’s eye, but every time it seemed her head was tilted back in open-mouthed laughter. The table was raucous – there were nine of them – ricocheting guffaws off the dark brick walls of the converted warehouse.  Bennington, pointing to the table with his thumb, asked the bartender Smoak if he had a taser he could borrow, and Smoak said he’d put on music to create some background noise.  Somehow, when Bennington was in the toilet, Amy had disappeared.  He was running out of money. The economy was tanking, He was heartsick.

Saturdays had become especially grim.  No longer able to afford the sports bars, he sat alone in his mortgaged condo in front of his no-money-down flat screen TV watching SEC football, pulling for his alma mater Vanderbilt, whose games were virtually never broadcast in the Charleston market.  He watched whatever SEC game was on, keeping a vigil to catch the current Vandy score that periodically crawled across the bottom of the screen.  Today’s CBS broadcast, Georgia vs. LSU, was a blowout.  However, if Vandy could beat lowly Duke this afternoon, the Commodores would become bowl eligible for the first time since 1982 – since Ronald Reagan. The bad news, though, was that they were down early, so Bennington sat on a beanbag chair munching Cheese Nips, keeping an eye peeled for the score.  How he used to look forward to Saturdays, furloughs from panicky investors and irksome emails; now he dreaded Saturdays the way he once had dreaded Mondays.

The final score crawled across the screen:  Duke 10 Vandy 7.

He had to get out.  To rent a DVD from the library, to read a good biography, to somehow shake off the lethargy. With gas prices soaring, he thought about walking to the Library on Calhoun, but it was too far, especially round trip, so he drove instead, crossing the bridge with the top down, the wind ruffling his hair,  a month past its usual close-cropping.  Parking was free under the library building if you got your ticket stamped, but as it turned out, traffic was light, so he snatched an open space on the street.

Once inside, Bennington decided to scan new book releases before heading to biographies and then the DVD section.  This new library, open and airy, was so unlike the old one on King Street with its dusty stacks and down-and-out warmth-seekers.  Here, high school students paraded past t-ball moms laden with stacks of books while retirees stared into computer monitors.  In the new releases section, Bennington toyed with picking up Hot, Flat, and Crowded, hoping that the imminent destruction of the planet and all its life forms might put his own puny problems into better perspective, but he left it there and made his way upstairs to check out the biographies.

On his way through the stacks, walking slowly, he ran his finger across spines of volumes of poetry making a soft rat-a-tat when one of the titles caught his eye: From the Green Horseshoe: The Poetry of James Dickey’s Students.  Marisa, a summer Vandy fling, had been one of the last of Dickey’s students.  Maybe one of her poems had made it into the anthology.  He removed the volume and opened it, rifling the pages, looking for her name.

Whoa!  Wait a minute!  What was that?  He thumbed through more slowly, and it was there, a  $100 bill.  Excited, he flipped the note over to assure himself it was legal tender.  Someone had written something above the trees and steeple of Independence Hall.  A message?

Hi, poetry lover. It’s your lucky day. Let me know how you like the poem on page 137. 843-
402-2342. D.D.

Bennington pocketed the bill and read the poem:

From the Porch of Her Glass House, the Duchess of Doggerel Chunks Rocks at the Grave of Joyce Kilmer

                                                                                  By Delaney Dodd

The metronomic tick-tock of his maudlin verse

is like Chinese water torture, only worse.

Worse, because his sugary singsong strut

goosesteps across your forehead, then stomps down your gut.

And those monosyllabic Dollar Tree words!

Plopping in sequence like marshmallow turds!

Sure, Joyce, trees are worthy of our veneration,

even if they’re the products of random mutation.

But, dude, it’s great poetry, like Milton’s, that a-stone-ishes me,

not the prosaic process that produces a tree.

Bennington wasn’t a fan of poetry.  He had often wondered in school why they made you read it all the time.  At least this poem rhymed.  But it didn’t flow right.   Should he call this woman?  He was guessing it was a woman. Would she want the hundred back?  She had to be crazy.  Desperate for attention.

Really, really, lonely.

Her answering machine engaged:  “Leave a message.”

Beep.

“Uh, Delaney. I found your note and the money in the book.”

Click.

“Hello.”  Her voice was breathy.  “What’s your name?”

“Uh, Bennington Rhodes.”

“I see. A man of truth.”

“Huh?”

“Like, it says on my Caller I.D. ‘Bennington Rhodes.’  You’d be surprised how many Bobs claim to be Antoines.”

He wondered how many c-notes she had distributed in libraries. “Really?  Why?”

“To cop a cool vibe from a new name.  Like, Bennington, your name screams Republican, municipal bonds, bow ties.  You might think, ‘I’ll punk this chick by copping the name Slade Rucker.’  Now what kind of vibe do you get from Slade Rucker?”

“Sounds like a cross between a private eye and some sort of industrial machinery.”

She laughed. “Bingo!  Look, Benny, I hear you’ve come into some cash.  How bout buying me a drink?”

“When?”

“Now.”

“Right now?”

“Where are you, Benny?”

“Downtown.”

“Great, I’m just around the corner on Heart Attack and Vine.  Say fifteen minutes at The Roof Top Bar on Vendue?”

“But how will I know you are you?”

“Don’t worry.  I’m me.”

***

On the short drive to Vendue, Bennington suffered a pang of buyer’s remorse.  He’d read about people hooking up on-line with imposters, sultry-sounding sirens who were actually hairy-backed bald-guys in wifebeaters. This woman sounded young, but she could be in her fifties for all he knew.  Though he didn’t hang with artistic types, his poet friend Marisa had been stuck on herself, as if her tendency to see dewdrops on eucalyptus leaves as symbols made her somehow precious.

The bar was on top of the Vendue Inn, a quaint hotel with dark pine floors and Oriental runners. In a narrow hall, he waited for a tiny elevator, the kind you might find in a European hotel.  As the elevator door opened, an attractive twenty-something blonde in jeans and a black turtleneck hurried through the lobby, so Bennington pressed the open-door button to wait for her.  Could this actually be Delaney?  No way his luck could be this good.

“Thanks,” she said, as the elevator jerked into motion.

“Read any good poetry lately?”

“Can’t say that I have,” she said coldly, staring at her toe cleavage.

The bar was nearly empty. Bennington ordered a Yuengling and sat at a table outside on the uncovered terrace.  The first beer disappeared, and he wondered if she might not show.  Poets who put $100 bills in library books were probably not the most dependable people.  He walked back to the bar and ordered another Yuengling.  He’d down that, and then, if she didn’t show, he was out of there.

Leaning over the bar, he felt someone touch his shoulder.

Jumping back, he said, “Damn, Amy!”

“C’mon, what kind of greeting is that?”  She was smiling, those big brown eyes wide open.

“Hey, I heard about you getting laid off.  Sorry.”

“Who’d you hear it from?”

“Phil.  I keep up with you through Phil, though he says he hasn’t seen you lately.”

 He hoped to God that she wasn’t seeing Phil.

“Well, you could have called. I would have told you how I was doing.”

“I thought it might be awkward, you know.”

A tall woman in black slacks and a black vest and sporting a backwards tweed Irish cap stepped up from the elevator pit and strolled across to the bar.  A long black scarf dangled from her neck.

“Well,” Bennington said.  “I think I see my date.  So long, Amy.”

He left her standing there and approached the woman, who was somewhat older, well a lot older now that he got a closer look at her, in her forties with salt and pepper shoulder length hair.  She was attractive, what his mother would call dark Irish, with very brown eyes and a small upturned nose.

He gave it another try.  “Read any good poetry lately?”

“You must be Ben-ning-ton.”

“And you must be Delaney.”

“My friends call me the Duchess.”

“The Duchess, huh?”

 “Just Duchess will do.”

 “What are you drinking, Duchess?”

“Vodka martinis.”

He glanced over his shoulder.  I thought it would be awkward, you know.

“Somebody tailing you, Bennington? A stalker?”

“Naw, just Ol’ Man Trouble.”

“Benny, I like you already.  You in the mood to hear my life story?”

“Does it rhyme?”

She hacked a smoker’s laugh. “Tell me something.”

“Okay.”

“How’s Ol’ Man Trouble been messing with you?”

“Stole my job and my girl.”

“Look on the bright side.”

“The bright side?”

“Today’s your lucky day.”

Bennington wasn’t too sure about that, but at least he wasn’t sitting at home watching two Big Ten teams clash.  Though this tough talk Bogey and Bacall business would probably get old soon, he did have the feeling that his luck might be changing.

I thought it would be awkward, you know.

The martini and the Yuengling arrived.

The Duchess tapped his glass.  “To the New World Order of Obamarama,” she said.  “The times they are a-changin’.”

He raised his bottle and managed a smile.

“How’s that beer, Benny?”

 “Okay.  How’s the martini?

 “Mos scocious.”

 “I take it that means good.”

 “Better than good.  But hey, tell me about the poem.  Did you dig the poem?”

“Yeah, sort of.  I’m not going to lie.  Poetry’s not my thing.”

“I, too, dislike it.”

“Huh?”

“Benny boy, you got a lot to learn, but, like I said, this is your lucky day.”

“Who’s your favorite poet?”  he asked.

 “You mean besides me?”

 “Besides you.”

She clinked her glass with his bottle again and took another sip of her martini. “Not Joyce Kilmer,” she said.

 “Hey, you want to go sit out there on the terrace?”

She led the way, not exactly swaggering but sort of stalking, thrusting one foot in front of the other as if she were headed up the aisle to receive her Oscar.  She chose a table in the corner at one juncture of the wrought iron railings that wrapped around the terrace to keep people from wandering too close to the edge.

She sat facing the harbor and he just around the corner to her right.  Scraping her chair closer to the table, she looked at Bennington. “Hey, Benny – I hope you don’t mind me calling you Benny-“

“Not unless you mind me calling you Dutch.”

She smiled.  “Well, then Bennington,” she said in a mock patrician voice, “I have a question for you.”

“Okay.”

“If poetry’s not your ‘thing,’ how come you’re checking out poetry anthologies?”

He smiled sheepishly, scratching the label of his beer with his thumb.  “Well, I happened to be passing by and noticed the name James Dickey.  I had a friend, Marissa, who studied under Dickey. She was a poet, and I thought she might have a poem in there.”

“And it might have been about you?”

 “No, not at all.”

 “What was Marisa’s last name?”

 Bennington started.  “How did you know her name was Marisa?”

 “I’m clairvoyant,” she deadpanned.

 He leaned back slightly in his chair.

Again, she gently touched his arm.  “Bennington, earlier you said her name, Marisa.  Look, I’m going up to the bar and grab us another round. Before a waitress intrudes herself.”

“Put it on my tab,” he said.

While she was away, Bennington looked around.  The Roof Top was becoming more crowded.   Two couples and a triple had grabbed tables on the terrace, and the bar was about full.  This Delaney woman was intriguing, entertaining, though full of it.  Her rough words didn’t match her light touch.  She talked like a toughie, but when she leaned over and touched your arm, it was almost maternal, then again, not at all maternal.

She returned with a new martini and yet another Yuengling.

“Now, it’s my turn for a question,” Bennington said,  “Why in the world did you put a hundred dollar bill in that book?  How long has it been there?”

“Let’s see.  The first question’s easier.  I did it on a bet, a bet with my Ex.  She bet me that no one would ever check out that book, in other words, that no one would ever read my poem, and I bet her a hundred dollars someone would.”

Bennington was disappointed.  Why was she flirting with him if her ex wasn’t a he?  There went one of his more hopeful scenarios.

“So how long did it take?”  he asked.  “I mean, for me to find your message.”

“Let’s see,” she hummed.  “A decade give or take.”

“Man.”

“And let me tell you, something, Benn-ing-ton, a hundred dollars was real money way back then in the last mil-len-ni-um.” She huffed it out like a hip-hop artist.

“Well,” he said.  “Are you still in touch?  Can you collect?”

“Not yet.”

“Why not?”

“Not only does someone have to read the poem, but I have to write a short story about them, about you as it turns out, about you finding the poem and me meeting you.”

“A story about meeting me?”

“Exactly.”

“What would you write?”

“More or less the truth.  You call me.  We meet here at the Roof Top. The autumn sun’s melting like butterscotch.  Having you unemployed and heartbroken is a plus.  I wasn’t counting on being so lucky – no offense.”

“My turn to fetch the libations,” he said and noticed Amy leaving with her sister Jill.

When he returned, Delaney had an unlit cigarette in her hand, holding it between her fingers as if she were smoking it.

“Anyway,” he said, glancing at the cigarette and then away.  “How does it end?  The story, I mean.”

For the first time, she seemed entirely sincere.  “Don’t ask me if you don’t really want to know.”

He waited for a smile.

No smile.

“No, really, I want to know.”

“Bennington, here’s where fiction is much better than real life.  By meeting me, the Duchess of Doggerel, you realize that being a Republican ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be, that the system’s played you for chump.  Thanks to unregulated markets, you’re out of a job – I’m guessing insurance, something like that – and that you own a condo whose equity has deflated in this housing meltdown like a post parade Macy’s Day Snoopy.  And, look, don’t take this personally – I see your ex as a – forgive me – as a vapid, spoiled woman who color codes her to-do list.  In other words, boring.  You realize after our chance meeting that there’s more to life, that ultimately your ex is small-minded, materialistic, so you end up being a so-called developing character, which makes the story much cooler.”

“Damn,” Bennington said smiling goofily, “You’re good.  You about got Amy nailed.”

“But seriously, Bennington, that’s not how real life works.  It’s too big of a change in too short of a time.  Even the Duchess’s charismatic personality can’t undo a quarter century of Republicanism in twenty minutes.”

“Wait,” Bennington said.  “How did you know I was a Republican?  I’m thinking seriously about voting for Obama.”

“What’s this?  The end of Perry Mason?  Look, Bennington, puh-lease. You winced when I toasted Obama; your name is Bennington; you don’t like to be called Benny; and you’re wearing a polo shirt and khakis for godssake.  Case closed.   But, let’s forget all of this mumbo jumbo and go out and have a good time, okay?  You up for an early dinner?  My treat. Look, I like you Benny.  If I didn’t, I’d drop you like a bank stock.”

Bennington looked out beyond the steeples at the river and remembered that daylight savings time was over tonight, that tonight he could turn back the hands of time. A whole extra hour and then the Sabbath to recover and nowhere to go Monday except maybe up to the mountains to see his good friend John Woodmansee.

“Hey Dutch, I like you, too.  You’re a character.”

“No, Benny, you’re the character, remember, and don’t hand me any static.  We’re going to have us a little denouement tonight.  How does Snapper Jack’s sound?”

“Sounds good.”

She downed what was left of her martini.  Pushing her chair back from the table, she stood, flicking her hair away from her eyes and throwing her scarf over her shoulder.  Bennington followed her out into the night.  It wasn’t until they rounded the corner of Vendue and East Bay that he realized that they hadn’t paid.

In the Days Before Digitalization

In the days before digitalization, people looked straight ahead when they walked, sometimes making eye contact. In the summers, it was hot at night (earth air temperature has risen only .5 degrees since Eisenhower), so people without air-conditioners sat on stoops or porches and conversed with passersby and neighbors.

If a disagreement arose, say, over how many strikeouts Lefty Gomez amassed in his career, precise information was difficult to come by. Unless someone could produce an almanac or up-to-date encyclopedia, the disagreement couldn’t be settled until later. Sometimes people called librarians to look up the answers to their questions, though, of course, libraries weren’t open at night. On some nights you might hear people raising their voices in disagreement over Gomez’s strikeouts or the name of the last Triple Crown winner.

However, in the daytime, most librarians would cheerfully agree to research your questions. In those days, most white workingwomen wore flesh-colored hose, which they attached to undergarments called garter belts, elastic contraptions worn around the waist that had metal clasps dangling around the garter belts’ circumferences. Women (and a few men known as transvestites) attached the top of their hose (also called stockings) to the clasps of the garter belts.

Most librarians were female in the days before digitalization. To find the answer to the riddle of the number of strikeouts, they left their stations behind a desk and walked to retrieve the information from a reference volume classified by the Dewey Decimal System. If the librarian were plump, the chafing of her hose would produce a swish-swish sound.

When she called to inform the questioner that Lefty Gomez had struck out 1,468 in his major league career, she had to dial the questioner’s number, each digit clicking clockwise downward to engage. Depending on the size of the community, telephone numbers might consist of as few as four digits. However, it took longer to dial four digits then than it does to punch in ten digits today. Before the 1960’s, all telephones were black.

In the days before digitalization, people were thinner (average female waist circumference 1950: 71.2 cm; circumference today: 91.44 cm). Rather than dieting or joining a gym, a librarian might wear a girdle, a constricting undergarment creating the illusion of a flat abdomen. These armor-like undergarments restricted movement. When a girdled librarian approached a talker with her forefinger pressed to her lips to issue a shushing sibilant, she could appear militaristic in her carriage.  Libraries were as quiet as mausoleums. They housed only books, magazines, and phonographic records.

In those days, dairies delivered milk to people’s porches on weekdays. Virtually all milk delivers were male.  Milkmen worked early hours and drove UPS-like trucks with open doors. They had daily routes, like paperboys, who rode bicycles.  Because of their recurrent journeys around the grids of city streets, milkmen got the reputation of producing children out-of-wedlock. In the days before digitalization, condoms were about the only mechanical means of birth control.

While he was at work using company time to call a librarian regarding Gomez’s strikeouts, a man’s wife could be going through the time-consuming activity of undressing in preparation for a tryst with a milkman. For each digit her husband dialed, she could unclasp on average two garter connections, completely disengaging the hose before the first grating sound simulating the distant phone’s ringing.

In movies, women called this process “slipping into something more comfortable.” Because of the conspicuousness of a milk truck parked on the curb outside a house, these sexual unions were completed rapidly. They took place in less time than it took the librarian to receive the call, research the question, and return the cuckold’s call.

If someone’s child had red hair in an otherwise dark-haired family, the jovial answer to the question “where did you get that red-hair” was “from the milkman.”

In fact, people still us this phrase even though milkmen have gone the way of hardbound encyclopedias, ink stamps, and ox ploughs.

 

Grief Counseling Noir

Five weeks ago my wife Ellie died of pancreatic cancer. We did the hospice thing, and the dying went fairly smoothly, thanks to the morphine. There were no eyes popping open and arms reaching upwards to invisible loved ones hovering around the bed, just a slow diminishing of breathing in the midst of a coma-like unconsciousness. She, unlike Dylan Thomas, went gently into that good night, which suited the both of us.

Our two girls are grown, 25 and 26, both in med school, so they were there with us, but now they’re back doing their residencies, one in DC, the other in Chicago. They both insisted I get some grief counseling, but I was resistant, that is, until about a week ago.

I had my reasons for not wanting to go to grief counseling. For one thing, I hate group activities. I’d rather watch 96 hours of consecutive Brady Bunch reruns than experience again that Lamaze class we went to when Ellie was pregnant with Lillian.

The girls informed me that you didn’t have to go group; you could go one-on-one.

I told them I didn’t want to go one-on-one either. “Look”, I said, “I’m a literature professor. My master’s thesis was Death and Dying in Yoknapatawpha County: Faulkner and that Undiscovered Country. I know all about death and dying. I was right there with Emma Bovary when she passed, right there with Lear as he carried dead Cordelia in his arms.”

“Plus, your mother was a psychologist,” I added. “Believe me, I know the drill. I’ve read pro Kubler-Ross and anti-Kubler-Ross. “

I did, though, promise that if I thought I needed help, I’d seek it.

Once the girls left and I was all-alone in the house with Ellie’s tops and skirts hanging in our walk-in closet, her jewelry in a jumble on her dresser, I started feeling more down than I had. Waves of sorrow would sometimes wash over me, and I would occasionally weep out loud with sobs that sounded like sardonic laughing. Right after one of those episodes when I was washing my face and lamenting the revival that my long-gone adolescent acne was restaging on the ruined contours of my already pocked-marked face, the phone rang.

It was a woman from the hospice following up to see how I was doing. Talking to her, my voice went wobbly, like a retiring coach’s voice as he blinks back tears in an interview after his final game. She mentioned that they offered grief counseling, but I resisted offering a less arrogant and pretentious reprise I had given my daughters.

I told her I had a lot of support from friends, colleagues, and former students, which was true.

She said, “Okay, bye sweetie.”

That sealed the deal. I wasn’t going with anyone who called me sweetie, anyone who was going to infantilize my suffering. So I went on google to check out counselors in the area and frankly didn’t like what I saw, mostly younger, attractive women with bleached teeth who “empower” and “help resolve” a laundry list of personal issues like anxiety, self-esteem, family issues, and grief.

Then I ran across this ad.

 

I did some snooping on my own with Marlowe.  His degree was legit, but he had been fired from MUSC after only two years for insubordination.  He had lost his wife Linda Loring early in his marriage (steeple chase, broken neck) so he’s been around grief’s mournful block of consignment shops, hole-in-the-wall bars, pawnshops, and laundromats. His office/apartment is located on Folly Beach over an outdoor bar called Chico Feo on the corner of Second Street and Ashley, you know, right across from that mural of the pirate painted on the side of Berts.  I went ahead and made the appointment.  A secretary with one of those irritating interrogative lilting voices hit me up for Friday at 11:30.

You go up some rickety outdoor stairs to get up to his office. Two beautifully hand-painted signs hang next to the door. The top one reads: “Philip Marlowe, Psy.D.” The one below: “Yes, smoking, a lot of smoking in here, unfiltered Pell Mells. If you don’t like cigarette smoke, turn around. I wish you the best of luck. Otherwise, come on in.”

The door has a small set of wind chimes attached that tinkle/jingle. Inside there’s an old oak desk in desperate need of refinishing with a neat stack of forms on top, a jar with a variety of pens and pencils, and an ashtray in bad need of emptying.  Behind the desk a wooden slatted office chair on rollers.

On the other side of the room a green corduroy sofa and two chairs around a coffee table.  On that table a neat stack of New Yorkers diagonally situated in its center. No framed diplomas on the wall, only a strange, amateurishish painting (pictured below). A black curtain whose rod runs along the length of the room separates this office space from the living quarters. In a word, this joint is seedy and reeks of stale smoke.[1]

 

When I entered, there was no sign of Marlowe. I went back to the door, opened it, and waggled it back and forth creating a tintinnabulation. Marlowe’s head appeared between the curtains. An ocean breeze billowing them in and out. “McNully, right? I’ll be right with you. Grab one of the forms on the desk, a pencil, and have a seat. My girl called in sick with a hangover.”

The head disappeared but reappeared. “By the way, nice fedora.”

I sat down in one of the chairs, picked up a New Yorker to to support the form.  What you would expect.  Date of birth.  Date and cause of death.  Occupations.  Your medical history.

In three or four minutes, Marlowe returned dressed in a retro double-breasted coat and tie. The picture on the ad wasn’t current.  He’d aged since then. Here’s what he looks like today:

He grabbed the ashtray, emptied it in the metal trashcan next to his desk, and placed it on the coffee table next to me. After shaking my hand, he plopped down on the sofa, offered me a Pell Mell from his pack. “No thanks,” I said.

He placed a cigarette directly from the pack to his lips, retrieved a box of matches, and lit one from the bottom of his shoe.  He ignited the cig, took a deep drag, tilted his head back, and then expelled the smoke through his nostrils as he dropped the match into the ashtray..

“How about a drink?” he said. “A shot of rye? I could make a new pot of coffee.”

“No thanks, a little early for whiskey and a little late for coffee.”

A tic messed with his mouth. “Mind if I do?”

“Help yourself,” I said.

He produced a pint bottle from his side coat pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a long slug. Then a short one. Then another long one.

He screwed the top back on and placed the bottle on the table. The label read “Templeton Rye, aged 4 years.”  He then picked up the form I filled out and gave it a cursory once over.

“Mr. McNully, sorry about your loss. I read your wife’s obituary. Remarkable woman. Even though now you feel like shit, you’re a lucky man, if you know what I mean.“

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean. I feel the same way, sort of.”

“Some days you feel okay; some days you feel like, Niobe, all tears, right?

He paused to cough, a dry hoarse smoker’s cough.

“Not so much the latter,”  I said when he had finished,  “But feeling ‘like shit is fairly accurate.’”

“You’re an English teacher, right.”

‘A professor,”  I said.

“Then you know different people are going to react differently to grief. Faulkner’s Caroline Compson isn’t Hemingway’s Frederick Henry. On one extreme, you got your Niobes, your Caroline Compsons, your basketcases, weeping unceasingly or taking to bed, doping up with camphor, and on the other extreme you got your tough cookies like Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms. You’ve read that, right.”

“Coincidentally, I did my thesis on Faulkner, on death and dying in Faulkner,”  I threw in, rather awkwardly, which seemed to throw his rhythm off a tad.

“A hopeless rummy.  Anyway, you know Hemingway?”

“Better than most,”  I said, almost wishing I had opted for the hospice counselor.

Remember the ending of A Farewell to Arms?”

“Yeah, the nurse dies in childbirth.”

“Here’s the last paragraph. I’ve memorized it:

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

“Yipes. I’d forgotten that.”

“I’m guessing you fall somewhere in between Niobe and ol’ Frederick. Am I right?”

“Happy to say, closer to Fred than Ny.”

“Okay, Prof, I want you to study that painting over there on that wall. It’s an allegory of grieving.”

I thought but managed not to say, “You gotta to be kidding me,” but instead “Okay?” in that tone my students use when trying to express incredulity.

I stood up, walked over, and looked at the painting, which I only had glanced coming in. I stared at it for about a minute. “You say it’s an allegory on grieving?”

“Look, Prof, I’m going to save you some money, cut to the chase and explain the symbolism rather than pulling it out of you with Socratic questions.”

“Suits me.” We hadn’t discussed remuneration, but I assumed it charged by the half-hour.

Now he was standing next to me, pointing with his cigarette. “Okay, the Lighthouse represents the earth’s axis; it’s centered, phallic, pointing upwards. The ocean represents the female, suffering, the unconscious, you name it.”

I inwardly rolled my eyes.  This was simplistic, sophomoric analysis.

“You see those whitecaps; the ocean is rough. Did you notice those legs sticking out of the water?”

“What legs? Where?”

He pointed. “Those are Icarus’s legs from the Breughel painting.”

“You mean Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the painting Auden alludes to in his poem,”  I said as if I were a character in a B movie.

He was supposed to say “precisely,” but instead,  replied, “You got it, prof.”

 

 

Cupping the cigarette in his hand, he took one last drag, leaned over, and crushed it into the ashtray.

”Okay, follow the diagonal line from Icarus’s legs, to the man battling the rabid weasel, up to the dame running towards shore, to the mermaid sitting on the rocks.

“Yes?”

“That’s grief’s progression, simplified.  It immerses you; eventually you stick your head out of the water, only to be attacked by whatever you want those weasels to stand for, guilt, depression, numbness.  But note he’s battling those weasels.  Has one by the tail.  Soon as he dispatches that one, he’ll reach for the one gnawing on his neck.  He’s gonna have scars, for sure, but scars heal and eventually fade, even though, they never really go away.”

He reached for another cig and offered the pack almost reflexively.

“No thanks.  But I have a question.  I’m assuming the woman on shore is part of the progression.”

“Right.”

“Why not make her a man and the mermaid a merman?

“I’ve got female clients, too. It doesn’t mean that grief makes you change genders, though it might make you take on some of the traits of the other gender.  Of course, you got grief going with sons and dads, moms and daughters, queer couples.  As it turns out, most of my clients are queer.”

He rubbed his hand across his chin.

“So, you probably realize that it’s not linear like this, but it’s eventually the progression.  What you’ll become with time is the mermaid on the rock – or, in your case, a merman on the rocks — a creature of both worlds.  Note her expression of detached interest.”

“I see,”  I said.

“Good, That’s it. I could waste your time and money by going on about this shit, but this is really all you need to know.”  Once again his tic jerked the corner of his mouth.

“That’s it?

“That’s it.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Fifty bucks.”

“Do you take credit cards?”

“No but Charlie or Hank can accept on my behalf at the bar below. Seems like nobody carries cash or checks nowadays.”

“I could write a check.”

“Perfect.”

As I descended the steps, I looked over my shoulder at the ocean across the street. It was gray with a nasty riptide. It occurred to me that Marlowe wasn’t exactly the perfect role model for recovery.

It was noon, so I went over to the bar and sat down on a stool and grabbed a menu, ordered a Pabst on draft and a Mahi taco. The lager and taco were good, as Hemingway might say. I asked the bartender, a thirty-something sporting a lumberjack’s beard and a shaved head, the scoop on Marlowe. He rolled his eyes. “He’s okay when he’s sober but a pain in the ass when he’s drunk. He can be a mean drunk.”

“Does he get drunk a lot?

“The bartender grinned. “Is the pope a commie from Argentina?”

“Yes, I reckon he is,” I said.

“Hey,”  he said.  “Sorry about your loss.  I lost my brother in Afghanistan.  I’m still not over it. ”

As I left, I glanced up at the porch, and there sat Marlowe with his coat off, his pants supported by suspenders, his retro 40’s tie loosened at the collar. Smoking one of his Pell Mells, he was staring out at the ocean, his eyes hidden by wrap around shades.


[1] Marlowe would probably point out that’s six words.

 

 

The End of Irony

 

canopy-bed

Old habits die hard. On the morning Irony plans to commit suicide, he puts a ridiculously upbeat polka record on the crank-up gramophone that shares a bedside table with bottle of multi-vitamins and a half-liter of Jameson’s. As always, he rattles two of the tablets into his palm, pops them in his mouth, uncorks the adjacent bottle of Jameson’s, takes a slug, and washes the vitamins down  – all to the oom-pah of manic tubas, trombones, trumpets, and accordions.

The décor of his windowless room: an eclectic mixture of elegance and shabbiness. Maxwell Parrish’s Daybreak hangs on the one wall not lined with bookshelves. Hanging next to the Parish poster a black-and-white photograph of a pyramid of human skulls courtesy of Pol Pot. Both clash with the overly florid Victorian wallpaper. A chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling; a lava lamp pulsates atop one of the bookshelves.

parrish

Day Break by Maxwell Parrish

Irony remembers an old New Yorker cartoon featuring a firing squad posed to shoot a prisoner who refuses the offer of one last cigarette. The caption: “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.”

The needle of the gramophone slides across the 78 record’s end.

Thump thump, thump thump.

He carefully lifts the tone arm of the gramophone, gently replaces it in its cradle, removes the record, using two hands, careful not to smear the shellac resin with his finger prints. He slides the disc into its plastic sleeve and then into the cardboard cover. He removes a lighter from the pocket of his bathrobe and tries to light the corner of the album cover. It doesn’t ignite, so he places the record back into its rightful place in the rack.

weiners-001

He shuffles out onto the hall to retrieve the paper, its headline announcing the President’s bestowing Medals of Freedom to David Allan Coe, David Duke, Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, Steven Segal, and Vladimir Putin.

In dressing for his suicide, Irony’s as meticulous as Quentin Compson, though, of course, Irony is no gentleman, far from it. He prepares his own shaving lather, applies it with a brush, and whips out his straight razor.

Why not just end it right here with one deft swipe across the jugular? No, too melodramatic. Plus, he’s already bought the rope. That would be a waste.  Instead, he applies his pancake makeup and then riffles through his costumes.

Irony lives in the Tower of Song, and although he’s been around for a long time (he can count Aristophanes and Voltaire as fans), nothing lasts forever. Nowadays, when he goes out on the boulevard, even in his polka-dotted shirt and checkered pants, virtually no one recognizes him.   He’s a has been. When General Petraeus is confirmed as Secretary of State via unanimous Republican support, including Representative Trey Gowdy and the rest of the Benghazi committee, it’s time to call it a career.

He pulls out a suitcase from underneath his four-poster canopied bed, heaves it up on the mattress, and snaps it open. The rope he retrieves from the wardrobe, the noose already fashioned. Even though it’s not uncommon now to see pedestrians with assault rifles slung over their shoulders or with holstered six-shooters dangling from their hips, Irony doesn’t want to be seen on the sidewalk carrying a rope.  After placing it in the suitcase, he gently closes the lid, snaps it shut.

The elevator man in the Tower of Song is Eddie Rochester Anderson.

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson

“How you doin’ today, Mr. Irony,” he says as Irony steps into the elevator.

“Fine and dandy — except I’ve lost the will to live.”

Rochester cackles. “You sure are a card. Yes sir-ree. Looks like you headed on a trip. Where you goin’?

Staring up at the descending lighted numbers of floors, Irony says, “I’m headed to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.”

“Sounds like a real vacation.”

The elevator clunks to a stop, and Rochester slides open the cage before the big door opens up into the lobby.

“Catch you on the flip side,” he says. “Bon voyage.”

Irony is displeased to discover that the day is not bright and sunny; rather, it looks as if Ingmar Bergman might have had a hand in casting the weather – a dark, miasmic day beneath leaden skies guaranteeing rain.

He hails a cab, gives the driver the address of Big Dick’s Halfway Inn, Home of the Original Minnow Shot. Looking out of the window, he sees a bus of about-to-be deported immigrants thundering past.

Irony removes his IOS device, inserts his ear buds, scans iTunes for the “Up With People” theme song, and hits play.

 

 

 

The Journal of a Sojourn in the Realm of Hyperliteracy

Introduction

My girlfriend and I have recently booked an all-inclusive vacation package to the Realm of Hyperliteracy.

She’s 47 – hardly a girl – but she is not, strictly speaking, my partner because we do not cohabitate, and certainly the descriptor paramour stresses too much the sexual component, which though important, is not the central focus of our relationship.

I wish I could call her my fiancée, but the truth of the matter is that she is a widow twelve years my senior, and remarrying would not be financially prudent because of certain stipulations in her insanely possessive late husband’s will.

Perhaps, in the Realm of Hyperliteracy, I shall discover the perfect word to describe an exclusive sexual partner with whom one does not reside. In this case, one envies the German language’s facility to create multiple compounds. In German, one can have a steadysexmatewhodwellsapart, but in contemporary American English, one is stuck with inaccuracies like “girlfriend,” or worse, vulgarities like “main squeeze.”

As you may know, the Realm of Hyperliteracy is the brainchild of Sir Oglethorpe FitzSybil, who in the foothills of the Austrian Alps has established the perfect vacation spot for extroverted bibliophiles who crave conversational partners who express themselves precisely, men and women who recognize that singular antecedents demand singular pronouns, men and women with whom one can communicate without fear of their not knowing the definition of agitprop or schadenfreude, men and women who have read Flaubert’s Salammbô as well as his Madame Bovary.

In short, men and women who find the splitting of infinitives infinitely irritating.

The brochures have made it exceedingly clear that each visitor has been carefully screened – and endured a comprehensive exam – to insure that he (forgive the colloquialism) passes muster.

Felicity (not her real name) is taking me to Realm of Hyperliteracy to celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday. As you remember, it was exactly at three-score-and-five that Dante Alighieri awakened in that dark wood and began his journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise. Although rarely celebrated as a significant birthday in the States — one never hears “Sakes, sakes alive/ Reginald is turning thirty-five” — one could argue that since it’s half of the biblical allotment of seventy years, the thirty-fifth anniversary of one’s nativity is truly a momentous milestone.

I’ve decided in the tradition of Boswell and Johnson to keep a journal of my travels so that in my later years I can recall accurately the events. Photographic equipment of all types, even cellular telephones, is strictly forbidden. Visitors are limited to one carry-on sized bag. When one books, he provides his measurements, and the wardrobes of rooms are stocked with clothing that patrons are required to wear during their stay. Need I mention that computers are verboten as well?

Day 1

airport-security-9ebce93935a10c96I wish I could say that our grand launch is going smoothly, but alas, that would be a prevarication. The passage through security was especially vexing because I had not been informed that the TSA had relaxed their security guidelines; therefore, I had unnecessarily segregated my liquids into plastic bags, and when I began removing my belt and shoes, a very unpleasant man in a uniform who was a dead ringer for Oskar Dirlewanger growled menacingly at me. He projected a heightened sense of expediency, which turned out to be completely unnecessary because we ended up sitting in the plane for a seeming eternity before our taking off.

More vexing is– I use the appellation loosely – the gentleman sitting to my left (I have ceded the window seat to Felicity). Before I feigned a nap, this contemporary Kowalski jabbered non-stop for hours detailing his numerous trips abroad, a monologue rife with indelicacies of phraseology. No, I have never visited a “tittie bar” in Amsterdam nor “had me a wheat beer in Dusseldorf.” If I had a Euro for every time he has punctuated his sentences with “you know,” I could have flown first class instead.

Even more vexing still, I’ve made the mistake of sharing with Felicity the introduction reproduced above, and she erroneously argues that the verb in the second sentence of the last paragraph should be are instead of is, i.e., the sentence should read, according to her, “Photographic equipment of all types, even cellular telephones, are strictly forbidden.” Despite that “equipment” is obviously the subject — no one says the “the equipment are in working order“– she argues that the aggregate of plurals after the subject, “types” and “telephones,” supersedes the singular subject and poetic license demands the less sonically jarring plural “are.”

“But I am not a poet,” I said somewhat hotly.

Unfortunately, she kept on, and I regrettably ejaculated in frustration the interjection “balderdash” at which she turned her head to the window and cried herself to sleep.

As I record these words in my journal, the gentleman to my left is snoring like a draft horse.

Day 2

realm of hyperliteracyPerhaps, it is the jet lag or a hangover from the malodorous mood of the flight over, but I find the gated grounds and cluster of buildings of the Realm of Hyperliteracy to be less grand than the photographs of the brochures suggested. “Potemkin village” is perhaps hyperbolic in its censure; however, there is something, let us say, Disneyesque about the ersatz bricks that form the manor’s façade.

Furthermore, even though the hotel boasts fifty rooms, very few people – a mere nine, including yours truly and his companion – are staying here. Except for a young bohemian, whose profusion of tattoos would be the envy of Flannery O’Connor’s O.E. Parker and the bohemian’s paramour, a gum-smacker who looks as if she selected the shade of blue of her dyed hair from a Sherwin-Williams paint palette, the rest of the hotel patrons have reached, at the very least, their eighth decade.

It’s as if they’ve been bused in from that depressing poem of Philip Larkin’s.

Furthermore, we’re not allowed to leave the grounds, meaning that all meals must be taken at the hotel.

However, there is something about which to look forward. During the evening cocktail party – attendance mandatory – they’re going to stock our closets with clothes, now that the one or two outfits we packed in our carry-ons have been, shall we say, exhausted.

Well, we’re off to the cocktail party. I shan’t go into the so-called “make-up sex” Felicity and I facilitated, but let us merely convey that it was very satisfactory.

Day 3

What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

I fear that anyone reading my depiction in this journal of the events of last night will dismiss them as the ravings of a madman or consider them the product of some gothic fiction writer’s over-stimulated imagination, some imitator of Poe’s lurid attempt to out-Monk-Lewis Monk Lewis.

It began with the cocktail party, hosted by none other than Oglethorpe himself. He looks as if he’s stepped right out of, as they say, central casting, a pudgier cross between Christopher Lee and Basil Rathbone; in other words, he’s tall with slicked-back hair, a patrician English accent, and a hawkish nose.

One of the lamentable aspects of extreme old age is that the process seems to efface the individuality of its victim.   I could hardly distinguish the two women and the two men from each another. They, to-a-thing, each had white hair, or some white hair and age-spotted scalps, wrinkled faces, necks, hands. Even more vexing, they all were as deaf as cinder blocks. Indeed, I couldn’t believe they had passed the perquisite exam that lies at the heart of Realm of Hyperliteracy’s application process. The multiple-choice section was exhaustive and the free response essay questions ridiculously esoteric.

So Felicity and I found ourselves forced to chat with the Bohemian and his consort who claim their names are Ataturk and Absinthe, obvious noms-de-guerre.

Both also claim to be on a tenure track at NYU. In their speech, they attempt to approximate the patois of the so-called Beat Poets, whom they revere. In other words, they consider themselves “hep cats” who find “strict grammatical formalism a mere product of class bias,” and when I admitted that I could not share his and her enthusiasm for Ginsberg and his ilk, Absinthe traced in the air with her fingers the geometric outline of a square.

After a couple of watery scotches, Oglethorpe instructed that we return to our rooms and dress for dinner.

Indeed, the closets had been stocked, and indeed the garments fit well – my tuxedo was Orlon but sufficiently tailored – but whoever provided our attire had failed to provide undergarments, and when Felicity went to retrieve a brassiere and the lower undergarment from the bag she had packed, we discovered a note on the dresser informing our clothes have been removed to the laundry.

Every single gown was diaphanous, as sheer as a provocative negligee, and I prayed to that non-presence that Emily Dickinson described in her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson as “a vacancy” that the two crones with whom we must dine that evening had been provided with less revealing attire.

Of course, not attending dinner was not an option. As soon as the bell chimed to come downstairs, the listening devices I had not noticed turned into speakers blasting Barry Manilow at ear-piercing decibels.

But, no, the crones, they too! They too were dressed diaphanously!

croneWhen we gathered at the table, I glanced at the female octogenarians the way one feels impelled to glance at highway carnage but quickly glanced away. Suddenly, for the first time I could truly appreciate the “Wife of Bath’s Tale.” On the other hand, there were Felicity and Absinthe, leaving not nearly enough to the imagination. It occurred to me that younger women did enjoy certain advantages that age had robbed their older sisters of. [Note to self, recast sentence without offending ending preposition].

I was seated next to Ataturk, who winked at me and said, “Oglethorpe” with the initial O vowel shortened to an “ah”

“Yes? Oglethorpe.”

“Ogle – Thorpe. O-g-l-e-thorpe.”

I felt like a fool for not thinking of it myself.

I’ve always preferred Henry James to Hemingway, but I’m finding that the latter’s stripped down style might be preferable here for the sake of journalistic expediency. I have clandestinely composed these notes in the wee hours. I must manage to get to sleep. After breakfast there’s a reading . . .

Day 4

An all day reading in German of Kafka’s The Kastle with surtitles projected in English on a sheet hung from the ceiling.

Day 5

I’m at the end of my rope. Rope! A rope, my kingdom for a rope! Certainly, Solzhenitsyn could not have endured this! That hook-nosed son-of-a-bitch! I’m gonna kills his ass. None of the maids speak English. There’s gotta be a way out. Tunneling? Maybe Ataturk will join my cabal, a cabal of two, tea for two, and two for tea.

Day 6

Ata sez the gates are electrificated. Saw a bird fly into it and get fried. Felicity has abandoned me and sleeps now with Oglethorpe. Same deal with Abby and Ata. The old folks have died off, one a day. Ata sez we be good as dead. No way we getting outta here to write reviews of this horrorshow holiday.

Day 7

A carrier pigeon has landed on the sill of my barred window. Is it a vision or a waking dream?

06-06 Racing pigeon

Our Own Little Worlds

Although Daddy had nothing but contempt for ”bluebloods,” Mama was ambitious for me, a shy and anxious only child, so she immediately accepted Mrs. Tillyard’s invitation to come and play with Lawson at their home.

Situated on a hill, it was an impressive two-story clapboard house with white square columns, high ceilings, faded oriental rugs, and a strange odor – musty, sweet, sad. Pathologically shy, I hadn’t wanted to come, and this strange boy was so pale that you could see blue veins running like rivers underneath his skin. He had long, curly red hair, big blue eyes, and a tiny girlish mouth. He spoke formally, like a character in a book or in an old movie. After shaking my hand, he said, “Shall we go upstairs so I can show you my toys?”

mural     I followed him, glancing back down at Mama and Mrs. Tillyard, who stood stiff-backed and whose hair was already white. I wanted to kiss Mama goodbye, but now she was out-of-sight as I followed Lawson to the end of the hall. Walking on tiptoes, leaning forward at an awkward angle, he opened the door to a room like I’d never seen before. Someone – a skilled artist – had painted on its walls a vista looking out from the battlements of a castle. Silver armored knights on horseback jousted in the distance. Across rolling green hills were dragons, fairies, faraway castles, and a forest. Puffy white clouds floated in the blue sky of the ceiling,

Lawson said matter-of-factly, “Welcome to my own little world.” Then he added, “Close the door. Quickly.”

I obeyed.

“I know they call you Trey,” he said, “but what is your Christian name?”

“Christian name?”

“Your real first name.”

“It’s John.”

“I shall call you John then. I detest nicknames. By the way, I play with dolls.”

This admission didn’t shock me. He wasn’t the first boy I’d met who played with dolls. He opened one of the hatches of a built-in cabinet that ran the length of the wall and beckoned me to look. His dolls weren’t baby dolls but miniature people, male and female, dressed in costumes from various countries – a Japanese woman, a Scotsman with kilts and a bagpipe, a dark skinned boy with a turban. They were standing in a row, about ten of them, facing sideways in the same direction as if they were waiting in line.

He reached in and retrieved a blonde pigtailed girl in a alpine outfit who had been unprofessionally painted brown. “This is my lady in waiting. Her name is Octavia.”

“Who painted her/”

“I did.”

“Why?”

“Because the real Octavia is brown.”

Just then the door opened, and Mrs. Tillyard and Mama stepped in. I was afraid that they would see the doll and frown, but they didn’t seem to notice. “My word,” Mama said, “this room is like a wonderland!”

“Lawson’s idea,” Mrs. Tillyard said proudly. “He’s very much the bookworm, very enamored of the Middle Ages.”

Mama smiled weakly, said goodbye and that she’d pick me up at four. I sat there, next to the longest toy chest in the world, and waved goodbye.   I felt more at ease, as if I might have fun playing with Lawson. This was a new world, a lavish world.

He asked what I liked to do, and I said to play checkers, but he suggested Parcheesi instead. He went over to a different compartment of the cabinet and brought out the game, carefully unpacking it. He plinked a pair of dice into one of the four cardboard canisters and handed it to me.

“Pick whatever color you like and go first.”

“Don’t you want to roll for it?”

“No, you’re my guest. You go first.”

So we played Parcheesi, emphatically counting out the steps of the men, tapping them in the spaces: one-two-three; one-two-three-four.

“I’m afraid I’ve gotten myself into a tragic love affair,” Lawson suddenly said. I glanced up from the board. He was sitting with his legs crossed in front of him while leaning on his right arm.

“I met her at Spells Grocery Store. Have you been to Spells? It’s a dusty, dark, old country store loaded with Mary Janes, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Tootsie Rolls. It’s there I met Octavia. Love at first sight,but I can tell you right now it’s doomed.”

Although I secretly liked girls, you were supposed to pretend you hated them.

“Octavia is a funny name,” I said.

She’s colored. That’s not an unusual colored name. They seem to especially like old Roman names.”

“Colored?”

“Colored as in Alston Elementary School.”

Though I didn’t look up, I could tell he was staring at me. “You shouldn’t kid like that,” I finally said.

“I’m not kidding. She’s the most beautiful girl in the entire world.”

“That’s impossible,” I said.

“Why do you say that?”

I could see that he wasn’t kidding

“Colored people aren’t allowed to be beautiful.”

“Who says?”

“Everybody.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

I rattled the dice and cast them.   My stomach was tightening, beginning to cramp. Although you were supposed to be nice to colored people, loving them was unthinkable, far worse than playing with dolls. I wanted to call Mama, but I was scared to because she wouldn’t believe that my stomach really hurt. “I’m tired of playing this,” Lawton said. “Do you want to see my very favorite toy? What’s the matter with you? Are you crying?”

“I got a stomach ache,” I said. “It really, really hurts.”

“Perhaps, it is something that you ate,” he suggested. “It’ll go away.”

“I need to call my mama to come get me,” I said.

“He suddenly looked terribly concerned. “Very well, stay here. I’ll inform Mother if you make me a solemn promise.”

“What’s that?”

“That you promise to come see me again when you’re better. You’re not stupid like the boys Mother calls and brings around here. And I haven’t shown you my model castle or toy knights and damsels and dragons and ogres. Do you promise? I mean to come again? Give me your word of honor.”

“I promise,’ I said.

“Word of honor.”

“Word of honor.”

 

I never did go visit Lawton again. On the way home in the car, I told Mama when she started fussing how Lawson liked to play with dolls and that he was in love with a colored girl. When Mrs. Tillyard later called to invite me over, I heard Mama whisper a lie into the telephone receiver. I hadn’t known my mother was capable of lying. Eventually, Mrs. Tillyard quit calling, and after Lawson left for boarding school up north, my memory of him and his own little world faded.

On weeknights, Daddy would come home from the Shipyard, turn on the Walter Cronkite, and we would watch in black and white the belligerent Mississippi sheriffs, the policemen with fire hoses, the snarling German shepherds. Then one day, I found myself in Spells Grocery, and I remembered Lawson and Octavia, and I think I might have seen her counting out pennies on the counter, a tall, graceful, barefooted girl with cornrows and a calico dress.

Half a Sin

Bells toll inside my head as I reach for my Alfred Lord Tennyson outfit. It’s Victorian black with matching cravat, mourning cape, matching hat. There’s even a beard, luxuriant and curling, that came with the costume, but I can’t find the whiskers anywhere. Been three years since I’ve donned this get-up, a Halloween present from sweet deceased Adelaide, who passed away in a Hampton’s Inn all alone in the not-so-new millennium.  Actually, she made the costume and bought the beard from Hocus Pocus.

I’m getting into character, reading “In Memoriam”:

I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel;

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.

I’ve taken to panhandling.

No, it’s not a lifestyle choice, but part of my thesis, a paper I’m writing on selling-and-psychology, a study in which I report on my experimentation with different modes of panhandling, comparing the hourly wage of me playing a wheel-chair bound Iraqi war veteran ($12.34) with the hourly wage of me playing a shyster hipster holding a sign that reads “Haven’t been high in two days ($4.56).[1]  I’m hoping to shed some light on what makes people part with their money in situations of charity, combining my love of acting, my interest in marketing, and my curiosity about how the human mind works.  So today I’m going out begging in the guise of Alfred Lord Tennyson.  It’s a dreary, leaden day, very Tennysonian.

I consider brain chemistry to be sort of like weather – sunny, rainy, partly cloudy, partly sunny.  Part of it, of course, is genetics — look at the Hemingways — but life events can affect brain weather, too.  Maybe if Tennyson’s best friend Arthur Henry Hallam hadn’t dropped dead Tennyson might have been a cheerier poet, like EE Cummings or Maya Angelou.  Who knows?

happyperson copy wilburlowell1 copy

 

 

 

I’ve decided to set up shop, so to speak, North of Calhoun in the bar district, which you might think is unsafe, but I’ve never had a problem, and anyway, I’m packing a Smith & Wesson. 22 LR Rimfire, not gun enough to kill someone but big enough to chase off a knife wielder or unarmed thug.

alfred-tennyson

The one thing that’s bothering me, though, is the lack of a beard. I’m only 26 years old, and a beard would help. Of course, I wear make-up. Thanks to the College’s Theater Department’s make-up department, I’ll be sporting a gray complexion and those woeful looking, sympathy-spawning bags under my eyes that made Tennyson look like the saddest creature that ever crawled across the face of the earth:

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!”


[1] The minimum wage in South Carolina is $7.25


It was through theater I first met Adelaide, a student production of Chekov’s Three Sisters.  She played Irina, I Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony.  It wasn’t bad as student productions go.  The only problem, though, is I had this thing for Adelaide/Irina, but she had a boyfriend, a spoiled preppy entitled piece of shit, so I didn’t make it verbally known to Adelaide that I had this thing for her, though from what others tell

Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris

me it was as obvious as Cyrano’s nose or Chuck Norris’s toupee. I kept waiting for her to make the first move, but she never did.  It goes without saying neither did I.

Kristopher my make-up man has done his magic, including providing me with a real enough looking beard, so I’m walking rather self-consciously from the parking garage to King with a folding lawn chair strapped to my back, a bucket for the proceeds, a book of Tennyson’s poems, and a sign that simply says “alms.”

I find a spot on the corner of King and Morris, put my sign out and start to read Tennyson, finding snatches of verse ripe for memorization, little ditties like

Me rather all that bowery loneliness,
The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring,

and try to ignore the occasional rude comment about beggars and street performers.  Of course, I could whip out the Rimfire and cap one of them, taking my performance art to a new level, but that’s not, as Adelaide used to say, the Buddha way.

Finally, after 4 minutes and 32 seconds, I get my first score, two single dollar bills dropped.  I say,

And if ever I should forget

That I owe this debt to you

And I for your sweet sake to yours,

O, then, what shall I say? —

If ever I should forget,

May God make me more wretched

Than ever I have been yet!

At the one hour mark, I start reciting Tennyson as I see people approaching, though I avoid eye contact.

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, not as one that weeps

I come once more: the city sleeps;

I smell the meadow in the street.

At the two hour mark, I start making eye contact before chanting the quote, straining to counterfeit that stare dogs give when they think you might have a treat for them.

Since we deserved the name of friends

And thine effect so lives in me,

A part of mine may live in thee

And move thee on the noble ends.

So here I sit in this Halloween costume, chanting Tennyson in the name of soft science.  My thoughts return to that Halloween party three years ago.  Adelaide dressed up like Emily Dickinson, hair parted in the middle, a white dress, for she was the Empress of Calvary.  No one got the joke, two depressive poets on a date.  Perhaps she should have worn black because that’s what people picture when they imagine Emily Dickinson.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

Ring out the old and all that jazz.  Adelaide OD-ed in a Hampton Inn in Conyers, Georgia, and that’s about as unromantic as it gets.

It’s time for me to move on, I guess.

Good, God, now I’m even starting to think in slant rhymes.  I get up, abandoning the role, take off the itchy beard, and look for some ragged someone I can pass the cash off to.

$14. 75.

Alfred_Tennyson,_1st_Baron_Tennyson_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17768