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A Rude Awakening

Paris, 1967
I had my schedule, meant to keep some balance. The garbage men came. Five floors down before first light, they heaved the empty metal pails back onto the pavement. The day began.

No zip-a-dee-doo-dah here but instead the searching painfully in the dark for the switch. No instant hot spray here. A trickle of tepid. No sling pack either. Only a thin slip of plastic with the name of the charcuterie stenciled in black. Into which I put my cotton trunks.

It was several levels below the pavement. It was the familiar large clock with the sweeping black hand, still over green water and chlorine gasses. Over 20 meters with several of them circling in each lane. I was always on someone’s kick or passing into oncoming traffic.

The goggles leaked and needed emptying at the ends. By the time I was done the body felt as if it had been dipped in a corrosive. Every pore scoured. I turned in my towel at the cage and went back out into the dark. There were rainbows around the streetlamps. This was the best of the day. Zip-a-dee-do-dah. My muscles feeding, my mind bright. I had two shots of Turkish and the day’s first drag on a Gauloise. Anything was possible. And of course, no food for the drag it would put on the Turkish.

I sat before the dead man’s desk and looked down on the synagogue where the children had been slaughtered. Day had arrived. I had heavy furniture from the thirties. It had been a pleasant little agent. He called his wife mon chou. He had broken the red wax seal three weeks ago. The man had been dead for weeks before he had been found. There were only the bed, a chest, and the desk, all of which I had bought. The deceased had been careless about the pigeons living in the vent to the toilet.

I did love the furrow of the ballpoint on the soft bond, the indigo on the cream. The rainbow around the bulb and the muscles feeding. As I said, I had my schedule. I was taking a second or two off the swim each successive day. They served the Turkish as I came to the door. I had the pen resting in the bond ready to move as the Turkish kicked in, captivated by the rainbow around the bulb.

It had been a couple of weeks earlier that I had begun again. I had my scribbling from some school papers, the piece from the cafe in Cala Ratjada and a large manila envelope stuffed with scraps of paper on which I had jotted good words or important advice.

Unlike before I was not now engaged formally to other objectives – neither graduation nor romance. Two weeks ago when I had sat in the corner of the nearly empty room with a blanket and two pillows, with Cowley’s “Exiles” and my writing box, I knew I had scant reason to hope; that I had laid little down from which to take off. Equally, there was nothing left after this. Without, that is, becoming what I had hated almost since birth and which I did believe was worse than death.

Cowley helped. In a way, it was a godsend. It presented company, albeit mythical and legendary, but still some secret colleagues again. And that, with time, Thank God, would put me on a first tear. At the onset, however, I didn’t yet live with the pen. Instead, I chose to ruminate; read some of the notorious books from school over again. But this time as a solitary man in a do or die situation. No doubt, some of it was procrastination – getting as psyched as possible before hitting the water.

I had realized years earlier that I could be intimidated by the technicians. The graduates of the writing courses. Still, I had copied an author’s address at Shakespeare and Co. and had found his home. Like those pedants who could jerk me off my occasional spree at college with their stank for stunk… This man – who by day was handing his pages out on street corners while his wife clerked to bring in the rent – took to curling up on his divan while I searched for metaphors that would please him. Yet, still and all, I needed to believe I was more desperate, had greater dreams. Back down the stairs as I had in the past, I reminded myself that he had not slid, bloodied, through the mud to head it into the net late in the season.

I got stuck on words. One took you through to another. I enjoyed taking a word through its varieties of meanings and sounds. I was picking my way through the sentences. Making the slow tails of the y’s and g’s, spending an hour on the etymology of the word above nympholepsy. Throwing, it seemed, thousands of strings over what the Turkish couldn’t spark. Nothing lovely, nothing dispassionate.

There was depression at the trifle. I stuck my hand out the window and pulled at my container. They sold sparrows at the charcuterie with green cherries in their beaks. I ate cheese and cold cuts and drank instant thick as porridge. My folklore was replete with them. They had never studied in little leagues. They had pitched at a tire behind the barn till their father’s whistle brought them in… Till 60,000 stood as one, as men like Cy Young left the last batter in the top of the ninth swinging at air. Phenomes. How had the writers been? Was there a bit of that in me?

I was a cold war baby. Fat on the bone. Singing sweet nothings with Phyllis, sticking my big toe across the States and then ever so briefly into the Pacific, writing WHY on public buildings. I would write of the forces that conspired to rob me of myth and of being mythical. The leveling of prosperity, the birth of suburbia, the end of great hardship and yearning. Comfort as the scourge of heroes. The future in the hands of technicians. The way the world came through to the pale boy long ago from the Scottish borders. Mysteries receding. Proust dead.

The end of the millenniums of hardship for the Ayrians. The sucking of blood in the hold of a Japanese tanker. The years of awful winnowing. The heavy hand, the thick wrist, the hairy bodies. The blank faces on the daguerreotypes of children in mining camps, on the plains, on deck, was gone. Mental illness up. Slow dancing under the hydrogen lantern. Sweets for the sweet. Less flesh on flesh, bone to bone. Nature slipping beyond the pale. Technology as the great Homogene. Climate control. Festering discontent in the sunbelt. Dying inside. Cold-war baby. Winterborn. Kicking and poking, it sees the light after difficult times. It cozies its cover-up next to the masterpiece on the shelf.

And further, is it, – rubbing my eyeballs, scratching, the particles of dandruff floating down onto the pad – the defiance despite the evidence, the fantasy of being Shaman, myth-maker? Describer of truth as myth. From truth as what is hollered on the street corner – Extra, Extra – to truth as what gets a publisher’s jacket. The great love of Bosco Depasquale and Serafina Scaramuzza. Bringing the guest before the crackling fire. Standing on the crate in Jamal Ifna and competing with snake charmers for an ear. The drop of virulence slid down one-course hair and amidst the upheaval, and the uproar dropped unseen in the darkness of sheets and dresses into the yawning appetite…

But how was what furrowed the forehead not to be confused by piddling technicians? Like old medieval women who spent a lifetime on ambitious weaves. Who weighed every letter in each word, each word in every sentence, for weight and sound and symbol. Empirical wonder words. Three and seven as most favored numbers. But who turned the pages on such tricky matters?

No.No. It should rather be…Nature almost beyond the pale. The first sounds. The first sounds. Wolfe’s forgotten language. Wind and sea. Echoes from the beginning. The stories around the fire. The charcoal on the walls of the cave.

What life. The sun leaves my window, and I’m writing in a cold room. Writing on speed. On my cup of soupy instant. Coming down at night on booze. The rush between shots to jot it down. Tequila combusting inside. In a chair with a regimen. Pulling up on doors, pushing off from floors. Scrubbing the bowl, washing the horse mackerel from my new moustache. Garbage. Like hunting chickadees as a child with B.B. guns. I left for a long walk, down the hill.

So then the cliché bobbed to the surface. You are what you do. No high-minded contemplation would be the building block. Write. Like push-ups. Do 2000 words a day. Crap or not. The clerk who does ledger entries is more the writer than the pontificate. So I pushed off. Rolled over the cloth. Left, out of necessity, the world of careful construct – The monks laboring for a month on the vines for the A. – and pushed forward as if writing to a missed friend. Covered the paper and once or twice toward the end made a nice pitch. Never of wrestlers pitted in each other’s grip. Rather, thoroughly picaresque. Advancing through the funhouse, the house of horrors, as cut-out pop-ups suddenly appear. Colorfully presented. No past or future. All of them Hawthorne, Dickie, Big Bob, Anne of Westphalia, Lennie, etc. swinging into view and then disappearing. The book does not keep the reader by calling the shots at ringside but rather by trailing behind and chronicling the adventures of the road.

My room was large enough to pace, but that didn’t get the weight off. Those eight black fifties on the stainless steel bar gleaming in the prison yard became the molding on the entrance to the toilet whereby mid-afternoon my body needed to be used. Staring at Phyllis, hair disheveled, lip rouge on her teeth, I hung from the ledge and lifted, pulled my chin over the top, many times till the veins had become swollen and ready to burst.

Eventually, another shot of soupy coffee didn’t help enough. The pen would get stuck. I took more long walks, aimless, often down the hill to the river. I liked the warrior queens at Luxembourg. Gaul’s stock, the good benches around Ugolino, a chair at the zoological gardens. Snooping, rewriting, words jotted on scraps. Seeing the world fresh, I was coming down from ten days writing. A baguette, a glass of wine in some unknown neighborhood. Miles, I would travel as the observer. Inevitably past bookstores. I still loved the feel of them, to my fingers in the shop and in my arms as I carried them home. The gift of a distant unknown’s creative thinking. Private thinking. Which eventually got my knees up against my chest on the mattress at night, back propped against the wall with Shakespeare in my lap. A deep draw on my Gauloise and some piping instant and I would read till sleep overtook me. Not a word it had been to anyone all day long save the bonjour and the merci to the man who served me my first Turkish and the practical exchanges with the waiters and clerks at the shops.

The tourists came. In droves. Banks of busses were everywhere. I walked farther afield to avoid this indignity. Absolutely no redeeming value, I accused, to bringing a busload of flapping suburbanites to ooh and aah at Notre Dame, scramble to memorialize the moment with a pic, and raise Holy Hell over the lack of comforts. “Did you see that bathroom, dear?” America will surely be paid back one day for this invasion, I thought. This disgusting indignity. I sat on benches at Butte Chaumont and watched the poorer mothers wheel their babies by the water. In the background there were peeling aspic colored buildings… with George Marchais posters slapped upon them and what must have been commie cafes down on the corner.

My back went. I was pushing hard against the big hand at the pool and something snapped or froze. I went to the American Hospital in the sixteenth. These were shaded grounds. The swish of muslin in quiet corridors. A robed man in the courtyard learning to walk – a nurse by his side. Ernest convalescing, I thought. The doctor gave me an old world syringe. Cortisone in the back.

Back at the apartment, I brought my pads off the desk and into the bedroom and there I began to drift. The wake-up was gone. At first, the bed was better. Allowed me, that is, to be transported more easily. Even get a couple of early images of life. I scribbled away frantically. Night and day were confused. I went in and out of dreams and Shakespeare and writing till I could not think outside of Iambic pentameter. Through the histories into vivid dreams and back to writing as I had not done since the clock at school had incited me to dash across pages in a mad scrawl to get it all in before the prof lifted the paper. I finished dreams with my pen. Re-created on the pot with the pigeons warbling in my ear. The exhilaration was such that I wouldn’t have pulled back for the world. Dust balls shifted like tumbleweeds across the floor.

Shadows loomed like the Phantom. My back was slow to heal. I was reading a history a day and filling a dozen pages. At the end of a week, grudgingly, I went down at dusk and bought enough tinned mackerel and Shakespeare for a month. I locked myself in. Twice I froze at persistent knocking. I had gotten to the point where I could not manage discussion. There was some swearing, and they left. I was at my best. Digging into the mind, ambitious to see as clearly as primitive man. But of course, as forewarned, such glimpses are not rare for nothing. They, like everything else, carry with them their own destruction. Spoil sets in. Brown soft spots. Something caught the corner of my eye. The tail disappearing under the plinth, if you will. A plate drops and you realize how taut you’re drawn. A dust ball now scurries. I pulled the sheet up to shield my face. Made a fist around my pen. More Turkish for fewer pages. More Tequila to go to sleep. Puking in the bowl. The exercise on the molding dwindles then stops.

There is no end to the questions. Each one turns out upon another. Everything is involved. Everything is in question. It is, I had read, The Great Midway. The initial inspiration often gone. The cheers, as you pushed off, out of earshot. Adrift, becalmed. What had begun as a thirty-page survey is now, can be, 100 pages of discourse on the yellow of my toenail. I hid from more knocks on the door. I who strode through dark neighborhoods. Hawkeye vanishes along with his puzzlements. The upending of his enemy’s canoe. I dreamt of the farm girl, swinging on that gate I had passed in Kansas now in lavender floating up before my face, smiling. My boyhood orangutan is slamming around in a cage. There came an insidious inclination to lay on my back and silently hate Phyllis, word by word, blow by blow, killing her in every conceivable way for presenting me one hopeful night with Fleurs du Mal only to allow her presumed assimilist father in Brooklyn, days later, to separate us so seamlessly. Grasping for a way out. Time to put bread on the table. But, seemingly, too trapped to move.

I thrashed down the stairs. I grabbed a note from the concierge and left before she could commit me to further inquiry. And so I walked down the hill blinking incessantly. A mad exile for the tourists. I’d walk it to death. Same as I had done on the soccer field with the deceit of Phyllis. Exhaust the wherewithal for destruction. Two hours at top speed around the Tuileries in the noonday sun before I was able to sit by the pool and watch the children sail their boats. I was pale as chalk and had a scraggly orange beard like the hair under my father’s arms. A woman seated across the water smiled at me lovingly. I must have blushed and looked away. Unless she had picked me up in her arms and carried me to her home, it was no use. By the time I looked up again she was leaving. Others were packing up for the day.

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