V, p.34

V., page 34

 

V.
 



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  In answer to which Schoenmaker rolled over and stared at the floor; and wondered aloud if he would ever understand women.

  Eigenvalue the soul-dentist had even given Schoenmaker counsel. Schoenmaker was not a colleague, but as if Stencil’s notion of an inner circle were correct after all, things got around. “Dudley, fella,” he told himself, “you’ve got no business with any of these people.”

  But then, he did. He gave cut rates on cleaning, drilling and root-canal jobs for members of the Crew. Why? If they were all bums but still providing society with valuable art and thought, why that would be fine. If that were the case then someday, possibly in the next rising period of history, when this Decadence was past and the planets were being colonized and the world at peace, a dental historian would mention Eigenvalue in a footnote as Patron of the Arts, discreet physician to the neo-Jacobean school.

  But they produced nothing but talk and at that not very good talk. A few like Slab actually did what they professed; turned out a tangible product. But again, what? Cheese Danishes. Or this technique for the sake of technique—Catatonic Expressionism. Or parodies on what someone else had already done.

  So much for Art. What of Thought? The Crew had developed a kind of shorthand whereby they could set forth any visions that might come their way. Conversations at the Spoon had become little more than proper nouns, literary allusions, critical or philosophical terms linked in certain ways. Depending on how you arranged the building blocks at your disposal, you were smart or stupid. Depending on how others reacted they were In or Out. The number of blocks, however, was finite.

  “Mathematically, boy,” he told himself, “if nobody else original comes along, they’re bound to run out of arrangements someday. What then?” What indeed. This sort of arranging and rearranging was Decadence, but the exhaustion of all possible permutations and combinations was death.

  It scared Eigenvalue, sometimes. He would go in back and look at the set of dentures. Teeth and metals endure.

  V

  McClintic, back for a weekend from Lenox, found August in Nueva York bad as he’d expected. Buzzing close to sundown through Central Park in the Triumph he saw all manner of symptoms: girls on the grass, sweating all over in thin (vulnerable) summer dresses; groups of boys prowling off on the horizon, twitchless, sure, waiting for night; cops and solid citizens, all nervous (maybe only in a business way; but the cops’ business had to do with these boys and the coming of night).

  He’d come back to see Ruby. Faithful, he’d sent her postcards showing different views of Tanglewood and the Berkshires once a week; cards she never answered. But he’d called long-distance once or twice and she was still there close to home.

  For some reason one night he’d dashed lengthwise across the state (a tiny state considering the Triumph’s speed), McClintic and the bass player; nearly missed Cape Cod and driven into the sea. But sheer momentum carried them up that croissant of land and out to a settlement called French Town, a resort.

  Out in front of a seafood place on the main and only drag, they found two more musicians playing mumbledy-peg with clam knives. They were en route to a party. “O yes,” they cried in unison. One climbed in the Triumph’s trunk, the other, who had a bottle—rum, 150 proof—and a pineapple, sat on the hood. At 80 mph over roads which are ill-lit and near-unusable by the end of the season, this happy hood-ornament cut open the fruit with a clam knife and built rum-and-pineapple-juices in paper cups which McClintic’s bass handed him over the windscreen.

  At the party McClintic’s eye was taken by a little girl in dungarees, who sat in the kitchen entertaining a progress of summer types.

  “Give me back my eye,” said McClintic.

  “I haven’t got your eye.”

  “Later.” He was one of those who can be infected by the drunkenness of others. He was juiced five minutes after they climbed in the window to the party.

  Bass was outside, in the tree, with a girl. “You got eyes for the kitchen,” he called down, waggish. McClintic went out and sat down under the tree. The two above him were singing:

  Have you heard, baby did you know:

  There ain’t no dope in Lenox. . . .

  Fireflies surrounded McClintic, inquisitive. Somewhere you could hear waves crashing. The party inside was quiet, though the house was crowded. The girl appeared at a kitchen window. McClintic closed his eyes, rolled over and pushed his face into the grass.

  Along came Harvey Fazzo, a piano player. “Eunice wants to know,” he told McClintic, “if possibly she could see you alone.” Eunice was the girl in the kitchen.

  “No,” McClintic said. There was movement in the tree over him.

  “You got a wife in New York?” Harvey asked, sympathetic.

  “Something like that.”

  Not long after along came Eunice. “I have a bottle of gin,” she coaxed him.

  “You will have to do better,” said McClintic.

  He hadn’t brought any horn. He let them have their inevitable session inside. He couldn’t ever see that kind of session: his own kind of session didn’t belong here, wasn’t so frantic, was in fact one of the only good results of the cool scene after the war: this easy knowledge on both ends of the instrument of what exactly is there, this quiet feeling-together. Like kissing a girl’s ear: mouth is one person’s, ear is another, but both of you know. He stayed out under the tree. When the bass and his girl descended McClintic got a soft stocking-foot in the small of the back, which woke him up. Leaving (nearly dawn) Eunice, entirely plastered, scowled at him horribly, mouthing curses.

  Time was McClintic wouldn’t have thought twice. Wife in New York? Ha, ho.

  She was there when he reached Matilda’s; but only just. Packing a good-size suitcase; quarter of an hour the wrong way and he’d have missed.

  Ruby started bawling the minute he showed in the doorway. She threw a slip at him which gave up halfway across the room and floated to the bare floor, peach-colored and sad. It passed through the slant-rays of the sun almost down. They both watched it settle.

  “Don’t worry,” she finally said. “I made a bet with myself.”

  Started unpacking the suitcase then, tears still falling promiscuous on her silk, rayon, cotton; linen sheets.

  “Stupid,” McClintic yelled. “God, that’s stupid.” He had to yell at something. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in telepathic flashes.

  “What is there to talk about,” she said a little later, the suitcase like a ticking time-bomb shoved back, empty, under the bed.

  When had it become a matter of having her or losing her?

  Charisma and Fu crashed into the room, drunk and singing English vaudeville songs. With them was a Saint Bernard they had found in the street drooling and sick. Evenings were hot, this August.

  “Oh God,” Profane said into the phone: “the roaring boys are back.”

  Through an open door, on a bed there, an itinerant race-driver named Murray Sable sweated and snored. The girl with him rolled away. On her back began half a dream-dialogue. Down on the Drive sat somebody atop a ’56 Lincoln’s hood, singing to himself:

  Oh man,

  I want some young blood,

  Drink it, gargle it, use it for a moufwash.

  Hey, young blood, what’s happening tonight. . . .

  Werewolf season: August.

  Rachel kissed the mouthpiece on her end. How could you kiss an object?

  The dog staggered away into the kitchen and fell with a crash among two hundred or so of Charisma’s empty beer bottles. Charisma sang on.

  “I find one,” Fu screamed from the kitchen. “One bucket, hey.”

  “Fill it wiv beer,” from Charisma, still a Cockney.

  “He look pretty sick.”

  “Beer is the best thing for him. Hair of the dog.” Charisma began to laugh. Fu a
fter a moment joined in bubbling, hysterical, a hundred geishas all set going at once.

  “It’s hot,” Rachel said.

  “It will be cool. Rachel—” But their timing was off: his “I want—” and her “Please—” collided somewhere underground in mid-circuit, came out mostly noise. Neither spoke. The room was dark: out the window across the Hudson, heat lightning walked sneaky-Pete over Jersey.

  Soon Murray Sable stopped snoring, the girl fell quiet: everything a sudden hush for the moment except the dog’s beer sloshing into its bucket and an almost inaudible hiss. The air mattress Profane slept on had a slow leak. He reinflated it once a week with a bicycle pump Winsome kept in the closet.

  “Have you been talking,” he said.

  “No . . .”

  “All right. But what goes on underground. Do we I wonder come out the same people at the other end?”

  “There are things under the city,” she admitted.

  Alligators, daft priests, bums in subways. He thought of the night she’d called him at the Norfolk bus station. Who’d monitored then? Did she really want him back then or was it all maybe a troll’s idea of fun?

  “I have to sleep. I have the second shift. Call me at midnight?”

  “Of course.”

  “I mean I broke the electric alarm clock here.”

  “Schlemihl. They hate you.”

  “They’ve declared war on me,” said Profane.

  Wars begin in August. In the temperate zone and twentieth century we have this tradition. Not only seasonal Augusts; nor only public wars.

  Hung up the phone now looked evil, as if it schemed in secret. Profane flopped on the air mattress. In the kitchen the Saint Bernard began to lap beer.

  “Hey, he going to puke?”

  The dog puked, loud and horrible. Winsome came charging in from a remote room.

  “I broke your alarm clock,” Profane said into the mattress.

  “What, what,” Winsome was saying. Next to Murray Sable a girl-voice began talking drowsy in no language known to a waking world. “Where have you guys been.” Winsome ran straight at the espresso machine; broke stride at the last moment, jumped on top of it and sat manipulating the taps with his toes. He had a direct view into the kitchen. “Oh, ha, ho,” he said, sounding as if he’d been stabbed. “Oh, mi casa, su casa, you guys. Where is it you’ve been.”

  Charisma, head hanging, shuffled around in a greenish pool of vomit. The Saint Bernard was sleeping among the beer bottles. “Where else,” he said.

  “Out rollicking,” said Fu. The dog began to scream at humid nightmare-shapes.

  Back in August 1956, rollicking was the Whole Sick Crew’s favorite pastime, in- or outdoor. One of the frequent forms it took was yo-yoing. Though probably not inspired by Profane’s peregrinations along the East Coast, the Crew did undertake something similar on a city-scale. Rule: you had to be genuinely drunk. Certain of the theater crowd inhabiting the Spoon had had fantastic yo-yo records invalidated because it was discovered later they’d been sober all along: “Quarterdeck drunkards,” Pig called them scornfully. Rule: you had to wake up at least once on each transit. Otherwise there’d only be a time gap, and that you could have spent on a bench in the subway station. Rule: it had to be a subway line running up- and downtown, because this is the way a yo-yo goes. In the early days of yo-yoing certain false “champions” had admitted shamefaced to racking up scores on the Forty-second Street shuttle, which was looked on now as something of a scandal in yo-yo circles.

  Slab was king; after a memorable party a year ago at Raoul, his and Melvin’s, a night he and Esther broke up, he’d spent a weekend on the West Side express, making sixty-nine complete cycles. At the end of it, starved, he stumbled out near Fulton Street on the way uptown again and ate a dozen cheese Danishes; got sick and was taken in for vagrancy and puking in the street.

  Stencil thought it all nonsense.

  “Get in there at rush hour,” said Slab. “There are nine million yo-yos in this town.”

  Stencil took this advice one evening after five, came out with one rib to his umbrella broken and a vow never to do it again. Vertical corpses, eyes with no life, crowded loins, buttocks and hip-points together. Little sound except for the racketing of the subway, echoes in the tunnels. Violence (seeking exit): some of them carried out two stops before their time and unable to go upstream, get back in. All wordless. Was it the Dance of Death brought up to date?

  Trauma: possibly only remembering his last shock under ground, he headed for Rachel’s, found her out to dinner with Profane (Profane?) but Paola, whom he had been trying to avoid, pinned him between the black fireplace and a print of di Chirico’s street.

  “You ought to see this.” Handing him a small packet of typewritten pages.

  Confessions, the title. Confessions of Fausto Maijstral.

  “I ought to go back,” she said.

  “Stencil has stayed off Malta.” As if she’d asked him to go.

  “Read,” she said, “and see.”

  “His father died in Valletta.”

  “Is that all?”

  Was that all? Did she really intend to go? Oh, God. Did he?

  Phone rang, mercifully. It was Slab, who was holding a party over the weekend. “Of course,” she said; and Stencil echoed of course, silent.

  chapter eleven

  Confessions of Fausto

  Maijstral

  V

  It takes, unhappily, no more than a desk and writing supplies to turn any room into a confessional. This may have nothing to do with the acts we have committed, or the humors we do go in and out of. It may be only the room—a cube—having no persuasive powers of its own. The room simply is. To occupy it, and find a metaphor there for memory, is our own fault.

  Let me describe the room. The room measures 17 by 11½ by 7 feet. The walls are lath and plaster, and painted the same shade of gray as were the decks of His Majesty’s corvettes during the war. The room is oriented so that its diagonals fall NNE/SSW, and NW/SE. Thus any observer may see, from the window and balcony on the NNW side (a short side), the city Valletta.

  One enters from the WSW, by a door midway in a long wall of the room. Standing just inside the door and turning clockwise one sees a portable wood stove in the NNE corner, surrounded by boxes, bowls, sacks containing food; the mattress, located halfway along the long ENE wall; a slop bucket in the SE corner; a washbasin in the SSW corner; a window facing the Dockyard; the door one has just entered; and finally in the NW corner, a small writing table and chair. The chair faces the WSW wall; so that the head must be turned 135 degrees to the rear in order to have a line-of-sight with the city. The walls are unadorned, the floor is carpetless. A dark gray stain is located on the ceiling directly over the stove.

  That is the room. To say the mattress was begged from the Navy B.O.Q. here in Valletta shortly after the war, the stove and food supplied by CARE, or the table from a house now rubble and covered by earth; what have these to do with the room? The facts are history, and only men have histories. The facts call up emotional responses, which no inert room has ever showed us.

  The room is in a building which had nine such rooms before the war. Now there are three. The building is on an escarpment above the Dockyard. The room is stacked atop two others—the other two-thirds of the building were removed by the bombing, sometime during the winter of 1942–43.

  Fausto himself may be defined in only three ways. As a relationship: your father. As a given name. Most important, as an occupant. Since shortly after you left, an occupant of the room.

  Why? Why use the room as introduction to an apologia? Because the room, though windowless and cold at night, is a hothouse. Because the room is the past, though it has no history of its own. Because, as the physical being-there of a bed or horizontal plane determines wha
t we call love; as a high place must exist before God’s word can come to a flock and any sort of religion begin; so must there be a room, sealed against the present, before we can make any attempt to deal with the past.

  In the University, before the war, before I had married your poor mother, I felt as do many young men a sure wind of Greatness flowing over my shoulders like an invisible cape. Maratt, Dnubietna and I were to be the cadre for a grand School of Anglo-Maltese Poetry—the Generation of ’37. This undergraduate certainty of success gives rise to anxieties, foremost being the autobiography or apologia pro vita sua the poet someday has to write. How, the reasoning goes: how can a man write his life unless he is virtually certain of the hour of his death? A harrowing question. Who knows what Herculean poetic feats might be left to him in perhaps the score of years between a premature apologia and death? Achievements so great as to cancel out the effect of the apologia itself. And if on the other hand nothing at all is accomplished in twenty or thirty stagnant years—how distasteful is anticlimax to the young!

  Time of course has showed the question up in all its young illogic. We can justify any apologia simply by calling life a successive rejection of personalities. No apologia is any more than a romance—half a fiction—in which all the successive identities taken on and rejected by the writer as a function of linear time are treated as separate characters. The writing itself even constitutes another rejection, another “character” added to the past. So we do sell our souls: paying them away to history in little installments. It isn’t so much to pay for eyes clear enough to see past the fiction of continuity, the fiction of cause and effect, the fiction of a humanized history endowed with “reason.”

  Before 1938, then, came Fausto Maijstral the First. A young sovereign, dithering between Caesar and God. Maratt was going into politics; Dnubietna would be an engineer; I was slated to be the priest. Thus among us all major areas of human struggle would come under the scrutiny of the Generation of ’37.

 

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