Friday, April 29, 2011
Gavin looked grave. He clamped his soft facial features into a single pucker, making his face seem as if it was momentarily drenched in heavy, filthy water. Something was bothering him. I could tell by the facial ticks that he habitually exhibited when agitated: his lower lip drooped on the right side. His top lip disappeared behind his pronounced incisors as he retracted them, as if he needed a small nosh, and half a lip would do.
A small star shaped dimple appeared and disappeared at the creases in the corner of his eyes. Taken all in all, once could trace the stars in the facial constellation, and, with the aid of this simple arithmetic, calculate the sum: an agitated Gavin Budge was unable to mutter simple truths because of his intractable Britishness, a disease that manifested itself by the translation of every unpleasant piece of life’s data below a varnish of obsolete manners and false courtesies.
I did not know why this particular cultural relic clung so tenaciously to this singularly dreary piece of English soil in the North Atlantic. Perhaps bald truthfulness about life would send too many English men and women screaming inconsolably into that black, drizzling night. A façade of gentle manners kept the dark outside intractably out.
“What’s wrong, Gavin?” I did, after all, have some American traits, no amount of cross breeding could alter that. What can be so bad that it can’t be discussed? Why can’t we just dump our disagreements on the conference room table and hash it out, sleeves rolled up, elbow grease applied?
Gavin twitched some more after my question, and then as if in the last throes of some spasm, completely relaxed and assumed a nominally soft, albeit somewhat concerned expression.
“Well, I’m a little worried about you, I must say. Its nothing extreme, mind you, you’ve been working hard lately. Well, by goodness, we’ve all had our noses to the old millstone of late, and its no wonder we’re getting a little daffy…” he looked at me with a curiously blank expression, as if he expected me to continue his chain of thought.
I was being unconscionably callous with poor Gavey. I just sat there like an impassive stone, dull and sullen, playing with the wide array of stamps lined up just beyond the perimeter of my olive green blotter. The rubber ends were each a pleasing nub, with a different geometric shape, perfect circles, tight equilateral triangles, and blocky rectangles.
Just to the right of this array was an impressive assortment of multi-colored ink stamps, sky blue, Valentine’s Day red, lily pad green, all arranged like colorful stepping stones along the central axis of one particularly impressive stamp, its bulbous business end laying face-ward, the embossed rubber head clearly displaying an inverse: DISAPPROVED. At this stage of the bureaucratic struggle, this stamp was working overtime, as already scarce resources were being stretched ever thinner, progressively tauter, across the forever expanding neck of the supply chain of being.
“Well, thanks for your patience, Gavin. I do appreciate it. I’ll try my best to not let my temper get the best of me,” I smiled broadly, what an old fraud I am! All pose and sleight of hand! I had manipulated reality so successfully that I had lost respect for my old adversary, the world.
And, for what seemed at this point to be eons (a geological and not human time span) we had both been engaged in such a pitched, clever battle of wills that we approached each other with the profound deferential respect that only enemies can truly possess. Every friend I have ever had had ultimately bankrupted themselves, both morally and physically, against the rocky shoals of my bewilderingly complex shadow obstacles. Anyone approaching me with the express intention of penetrating the elaborate sturdy screens I construct (to prevent that murky core from being breached, and my suffering irreparable harm thereby) will ultimately lose my respect. I have seen this pattern replicated repeatedly.
Gavin was fast approaching this churned up, over worked ground, and despite my better judgment I felt sorry for him. I liked Gavin, but notions of preference or personal affinity with one’s fellows was really irrelevant, not at all what was at stake in this little Punch and Judy show... no, what it was really about was martial values. What could be gained without suffering catastrophic losses? How to win the battle without having the victory cost the effort of the war?
Ultimately, one could not remain in a defensive posture indefinitely. One’s ear drums may be bleeding from our adversary’s constant, concussive bombardment, but eventually even the broadest, well planned and coordinated offensive sputters out and trails off. Eventually, one must raise one’s head from the trench line and once again peer over the parapet at our enemy, his eyes, gleaming, perhaps demonically in the inky black night.
Somewhere down the hall there was a perceptible shift in the wind currents. Papers on my desk blew in the new, prevailing direction of the breeze shift. The small hairs on the broad back of my neck stood up, giving the impression of a multitude of dull pin-pricks piercing my tough hide.
I could feel it displace air as it moved; this time it was less a shadow and more a slick, gelatinous, oily glacier in this avatar (for it shape shifts to suit the purpose of the day, black for a funeral and white for a wedding) it dripped and oozed down the tiled underground passage. No doubt it was hold up in some unused cul-de-sac, some blind alley way, where it was lurking, biding its time, plotting in its maniacal, idiosyncratic fashion (for it has time on its side, that is one thing it has, while I am en-fleshed, time-bounded!); it is always there, fashioning its infernal machines, attempting to impale me on its new, deceitful machinations.
I felt it was imperative to leave the room. A fresh geyser of water hit the overhead tarp, making a splattering nose that sounded suspiciously like hot steam spewing from a ruptured pipe. I smiled my broad, fraudulent smile at Gavin.
“Hey Gav, how about some of the Madagascar coffee you’ve been tempting me with these last few days?”
“A splendid idea, that. I could use a real break. Let me pop up to the office first and nail down a few things. You can shadow along, of course.”
We rose from our chairs, Gavin leisurely, me with some sense of dire urgency. The displacement of air was so severe that my eardrums were popping and clicking sporadically, spasmodically, as if some mischievous gremlin where tinkering with those ingeniously designed bones in my middle ear, or that taut, stretched, sensitive tympani that is the ear drum.
I could imagine, in my refracted mind’s eye, the entity that could create such an Aeolian disturbance, so I was in no less than a great hurry to exit the room. But Gavin, forever Gavin in his fussy, indomitable way, was busy adjusting the creases on his uniform slacks, pressing the tight royal blue jacket that snugged against his bird sized rib cage. I was forced to rudely seize him by his arms, my hand comfortably wrapping around the thickest span of his bicep. He was even lighter than I imagined. I hoisted him from the ground, his arms and legs stiff and immobile as if he were a small mannequin with a constricted range of motion.
“Langley! What on earth are you doing!” he then exhaled a substantial sigh, as if all the wind had been squeezed from his meager frame, and he gasped, machine like, sputtering, as I twisted him off the ground. I man handled him toward the stairs, and then bear hugged him about his waist to manipulate him to mount the step more quickly, with greater haste. I think I muttered something like, “For God’s sake man, stop struggling!” saying it through a clamped jaw as he tossed around in my arms like the insubstantial rag doll the he was.
“Langley!” he squeeked, as the darkness rumbled down the long hall, and attempted to mount the stairs in a rapid succession of waves just behind us. Just when I thought we were gonners it inexplicably stalled; its momentum strangely halted. Gavin and I stood panting and disheveled, face-to-face.
“What,” he said heavily, “what was all THAT about?” he seemed more concerned and perplexed than angry. He slipped his bird hands into his pants, trying to tuck in all of the folds of shirt that had leaked out . He pushed down his flaxen hair, which was standing up in two ridged columns, while my brain swam in small concentric circles for several interminable seconds groping for a plausible lie.
“I thought the air raid alarm sounded,” I was speaking with a pronounced lisp, it seemed I had bitten down on my thick tongue during our tussle.
“If it was an air raid alarm sounding, why, for pity’s sake, would we be going above ground?” he sputtered, now genuinely perturbed.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Like all essentially damaged people, I did what I could to patch up the cracks, to build a dam, to prevent the seemingly inevitable flow that was cascading in and around me.
Of course there was my damp cave. Suddenly, after a period or relative inactivity, when it appeared that I really served no actual, vital purpose to the mission of the Quartermaster, I was swamped with work. Things got so bad that I was assigned an aide de camp during a time of acute staffing shortages.
Arthur was just a boy. His cheeks were pocked with a red, raised field of fresh acne. Often, he would show up at my doorstep, and it was apparent from the red blotch on his cheeks (as if he had taken strawberry jam and gingerly smeared it in the sunken pits below his prominent cheek bones) that he had spent some time in the men’s washroom fastidiously removing his facial blemishes. It didn’t really work, but only called attention to the pronounced irregularities of his asymmetrical facial features.
At least the ache provided a gentle repose for the roving eye. He suffered a brutal, perpetual cold and kept a yellow snot rag stuffed up the left sleeve of his uniform. During my tenure at Quartermaster I never once saw him sit down, for I kept Arthur on his toes, sending him away from my overburdened desk with stacks of folders and files destined for other desks in all corners of our cavernous building.
“I’m sorry Arthur,” I would mutter in feeble apology from beneath a pile of growing papers and folder files. The constant hunching behind the midden of papers had put a crick in the small of my back. It was painful, as if someone had inserted a barbed metal rod between the disks of my spine. I could only sit erect in that traditional, hand on the small of my back posture, face twisted in agonizing pain expression on my bulky face, “there’s just so much to do. I’m not working you any harder than I’m working myself.”
“Oh, pay it no mind, Captain. Its really a genuine pleasure to work for an American. I’d always been told, well,” he smiled broadly, shyly, exposing his large teeth, discolored to a shade of pale gray, “that Americans don’t know how to buckle down and do some serious work. But that’s obviously false.”
I looked at the pile of folders beneath Arthur’s left armpit. The arm was twitching from the exertion of its load. One folder, a tan manila envelope, just peeking out from its multi-colored cousins, contained completed requisitions for rubber boots for troops stationed in northern Australia. The causal chain, running from a slim piece of paper on my desk to, ultimately, the shodding of Aussie feet in one of the Queen’s Lancer’s Division in the Northern Territories, poised to re-invade Borneo or Burma, Hong Kong or Indonesia, was a feat of imagination even beyond the pale of my super-activated mind.
It was far easier to conceive of a supernumerary God creating the world from nothing, than imagining that papers which recently sat inertly on my blotter, (and were now was pressed in the slim, perspiring crook of Arthur’s chicken wing arm), could actually transmute into a useable object in time and space.
Being a mere sliver in such a broad based pyramidal structure, one begins to loose track that one actually performs a useful function. The day is ruled by the ever present need of clearing your desk of paper, in order to make room for more paper. For somewhere down the hall, or above you, or down the street traveling toward your little bunker on a mail lorry, is more paper to replace the paper you have just sent on its merry way, more likely than not, to some poor sod’s desk, who he is encountering the same difficulties, trying to unclog the same paper log jams.
“Well, Arthur, I’m glad I’ve upset your notions about the American work ethic,” I said gruffly, not sure if I was annoyed or amused by this little ragamuffin’s insinuations about our national character. I could have crushed the emaciated waif like a worm.
What did he understand about the tenants of Americanism? His articles of faith were fossilized in a hybrid tradition of royalism and parliamentary procedures set in jerky motion by that watered down liberalization of feudalism know as the Magna Carta. A democracy requires a more solidified sacred text, one kept under glass like a holy relic, which is constantly scrutinized against the apparent orthodoxy or heterodoxy of its citizens. This sprawling British sense of Common Law legalism was utterly foreign to the workings of my mind, to my sense of historical pragmatism and down to frontier down-to-earthism.
“Oh, Captain, I meant nothing by that,” was he whimpering? His face turned so red I could not tell where his ache began and his skin ended.
“Why don’t you take those folders down to records,” I said in my best school master stern tone.
“Yes s-sir” he stammered, and as soon as his wire thin frame left the door I felt instantly guilty. I turned crimson with anger, and stared with a gaze of controlled rage at the particularly complicated form sitting on my crowded blotter. I grasped the stubby, soft, number one pencil that was my habitual writing utensil and began to ruthlessly scratch numbers into the blanks. The requisition was for bakery equipment, heading, swelteringly enough, for recently liberated Singapore. What they wanted with fresh baked goods in a tropical zone of occupation was anyone’s guess. We were out of bakery forms, so I was using a blank form for munitions. In the space that read ordinance, I scribbled in my precise hand, scones. Where it read magazine, I crossed it out and replaced it with the scrawl, bakery. Good God, I thought, things were getting slip shod.
I heard a spray of water piddle above me. In the last few weeks I had grown disgusted at being pelted with periodic geysers of water from heavenward, so I jerry-rigged a WWI surplus tarp above my head. The green canvas sheet slanted away from my desk and I had placed two empty jugs of tar at their two symmetrical creases. Every half day or so I would empty their brown, soupy contents into the lavatory sink.
I glanced over at the tar buckets. The portside container was near overflowing. I debated tramping it over the lavatory.
“You take the biscuit, old boy.” I glanced up from my desk. Angelic little Gavin, bathed in his white gauzy haze, stood in my threshold, literally poised between two mutually exclusive worlds, mine, a stark realm of black and whites, his an androgynous kingdom of the whimsy washy middle ground.
“What’s that Gavin?” I asked with a trace of testiness in my tone. Gavin seemed not to notice my irritation, for he just beamed, exposing his white ivory choopers, and sat, loose-limbed and diffuse, as if he were made of static, in my guest chair.
“What’s that Gavin,” he said in a row rumble, trying to imitate the flat nasal tones and clipped vowels of a Middle Atlantic accent, “I said,” he continued in a normal tone, “you take the biscuit. You’ve been snapping at your aid de camp again, old chap. Now don’t get me wrong, every now and then its important to chew out one’s inferiors, flex a little muscle and all that, but under the circumstances you might not want to saddle up Arthur and ride him so hard. After all, a good horseman knows when to use the whip and when to let the horse’s natural….”
“I’ve never ridden a horse,” I interrupted.
“Really?” Gavin was genuinely affronted, even shocked in a prissy way, as if he had misjudged my credentials as a gentleman.
“Well,” I sat back in my chair, folding my hands in my best conciliatory manner, “pony’s when I was a boy.” This appendix ratcheted his frown a notch further down. I decided to let the poor little cherub off the hook, “you’re right, of course, Gavin, I should lay off Arthur.”
Gavin shook his head vigorously, and I knew exactly what was happening. He was getting exactly what he wanted from me, and now had to make it seem like this really wasn’t his goal at all. “Please don’t get me wrong Langley. I’m not trying to tell you what you should do with your people…”
I held up the palm of my hand as if I were directing traffic. I wanted none of Gavin’s soft soap back pedaling.
“I understand, really Gav, I do.” I laid my massive paw over his fine, down covered hand, “I should have a gentler touch with poor Arthur. After all, he’s doing his best just like all of us. Everyone is overworked.”
Gavin smiled awkwardly. I removed my hand. I found myself, suddenly, as awkward as Gavin’s false smile, and I realized that I hadn’t a clue what I was doing or what I was saying. For a moment I viewed my situation like a general sitting in some situation room far from the front he was coordinating.
I am at my field desk, maps spread before me, battalions, units and field strength pictorially represented by stylized soldiers, green tanks, mobile rocket launchers. And I’m succeeding. I am getting hastily complied reports by my junior officers in the field of minimal resistance encountered, of startling advances far in excess of my wildest dreams.
The enemy is in a steady retreat. But then, after these massive gains, it begins to steadily rain. And quite unexpectedly the line halts. I did not give the order to stop the advance; and it seems, to my incredulous horror, that I do not have the full control over my troops that I once through I did. If I can not control their halt, than did I really ever control their advance? I was like a man who had been hiking over flat, monotonous terrain for weeks and weeks on end, without a single landmark to break the sheer monotony of the sweeping vista. And near the conclusion of the journey, encounters a gaping crack in the earth, as deep as it is wide, a chasm whose depth is concealed in an impenetrable shadow.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Outside a convoy of Canadians was clogging the narrow lane immediately in front of Clare’s flat. Caught off guard, we were pressed against the flecked chimney red brick of a street facing facade as it passed, one dull green truck melting into the next, the canvas coverings stiffly flapping across metal crossbeams. I pulled Clare close to the wall to protect her. I pushed her, her gray felt coat responding to the pressure of my hand.
“Careful Lang, you’re constricting my air a little,” she screamed above the engines.
“Sorry,” I screamed back.
The vehicle section of the convey ended; then a long row of troops, four abreast, followed; they kept us pinned to the wall as well, their fatigues were a dark olive green and their faces blacked out with dull black grease, while their helmets, wreathed with twigs and branches, gave them the appearance of so many forest dwelling Mercuries.
Down the alley a truck backfired. The noise reverberated in the street, rattling the windows as if a cannon had fired, a herald to announce some ill-tiding.
Clare leaned close, her peppermint essence enveloped me.
“I know your secret!”
“What is it?” I said, dangling my ear over her round, animated mouth.
Another backfire, and her words and the concussion meshed. But I heard them; I could see the form of what she said like a light outline etched in white on a black backround.
She broke free from my embrace. Her pale yellow eyes reflected the dull twilight of the blank London sky. I saw the sickly recognition of bifurcation in her pupils. The backfiring continued. I grasped her but she broke free from my arms again and smiled. The black-faced soldiers enveloped her; she disappeared in their ranks; row after row continued down the lane as one an endless stream. A single plane, its low hum merely a rattle in the sky, was the audible coda to my next stage.
Friday, April 22, 2011
It was in the air. One could feel it in London. It seemed to vibrate the telephone wires, rattle the panes of glass, pulsate and roll across the slate gray sky like Ezekiel’s celestial chariot.
If you motored to the south coast, which we often did, it was even more apparent. The incessant and ceaseless movement of men and machines along narrow wet roads. Identification numbers were blacked out and insignia carefully taped over. There were night maneuvers in full swing. Gavin and I pulled to the side of the road and allowed a convoy heading south to swing past us. Sometimes charcoal blacked out faces met us along twilight roads. Black, charcoaled faces are curiously and unsettling impassive. They are secret faces, reluctant to reveal the innermost heart of their warring souls, their placidity is an oddly inhuman thing. It is almost as if, gazing into one, you saw a caricature of an ideal of what a human face should resemble. And like all ideals, it was simply a distillation of our most common elements; part fraud and part truth.
I knew it was decidedly forbidden to spread rumors during wartime. It was well known that gossip literally sank ships. The propaganda posters of the day were perversely literalistic; they controlled the industrious wartime masses with such stark reminders of the individual’s power to destroy the war effort with such gems as this: an image of a sailor drowning in choppy, debris strewn waters; his hand outstretched in one last desperate attempt to stay afloat, his face twisted in agony, fear and despair. The caption below reads: “Someone spoke!”
Another poster plastered on walls and doors featured a stylish man in a fedora and pin stripe suit driving a convertible down a pleasant, tree lined two lane highway. In the passenger seat sits a rather grim and humorous black line outline of Adolph Hitler himself; the caption reads: “When you ride alone you ride with Hitler.”
And another: curled at the left-most top of a piece of cartoonishly styled paper, is an assemblage of everyday household items purposefully arranged to resemble a scowling, demonic Fuhrer, his nose a down turned stopper and an opposing brush from a rubber cement cap, the crease between his eyes a paper clip, a staple remover a satanically twisted over a metal washer eye, a rubber band standing in for a lower wrinkle and pins, arranged around his nose and mouth, the stress lines of an all too active mouth. Above it all reads the distressingly literal caption “Waste Helps the Enemy, Conserve Materials”.
Further down the wall is a poster with a hand, whose arm is off stage to the right, is holding a frying pan full of cooking oil. The vicious liquid falls with the force of gravity into a ball of incendiary matter, bright orange and yellow, and from that tumult emerge a host of moving ordinance, traveling toward the viewer. The caption, sandwiched between the pan and the snubbed torpedoes reads “Save Waste Fats for Explosives. Take them to your meat dealer.”
Some were of a more ominous character: a hooded Hun, bolts jutting out of his helmeted temples, bright slitted yellow eyes peering over a dull black wall, his noir penetrating pupils the very embodiment of a noxious evil that only Germany can produce in the eyes of its enemies. The caption, in white block letters against the black, featureless wall, reads: “He’s watching you,” the You twice the length of the ‘he’s watching’ segment, as if to prove that no one is immune from the Hun’s supernumerary skills.
Brown eyes gaze from a deceptively placid face whose malevolence is only revealed by an unkind slant of an upturned brow, and the subtle maniacal smile pressed, reluctant and duplicitous, from anemic white lips. Above, the disquieting caption is in newsprint black, capitalized like a scandalous headline in some yellow daily rag” “WANTED! For Murder: Her Careless Talk Costs Lives.”
It was a time when such unmediated and drastic events seemed all too probable. It was as if the laws of cause and effect were no longer fully functioning. One could speak to a neighbor about a ships movement in the North Atlantic and through a feat of mystical connection lead to its utter destruction
In such a supernatural environment of fabulous case and effect, it was best to keep one’s mouth firmly shut.
But the conclusions were there for the picking: this was the staging for the largest invasion in the history of humanity.
As if in a counter poise in my life, situations accelerated. A certain unwavering momentum had brought me to this dreadful moment.
Back in London again: I kissed Clare’s fleshy, salted lips. Her small quick tongue darted in and out of my mouth. She sat on my lap, her elongated fingers caressing my temples, stroking the hair on the back of my neck, brushing along my broad shoulders with her feathered finger tips. I pulled up her little blue and white fisherman’s jersey and followed the pleasing bulge of her smooth abdomen. She was panting with pleasure. Situations were accelerating. Suddenly, as she sat in my lap, lapping from my mouth, Clare spit the words out:
“You’re such a fraud,”
“What do you mean? There is nothing false about me at all. What you see is what you get.”
“I just don’t know,” she said, leaning her slim arm over my shoulder, running her spindly fingers through the short hairs of my neck. “Something about you just rings hollow, untrue. Despite your obvious presence here, there is a part of you that you’re holding back.”
“It’s all there for you to see, darling,” I said with duplicity.
“No. There are times when I get the fleeting impression that you are more than one chap. It happens more than you may suppose. When you’re not looking; when you’re turned around; when you’re guard is down; when you’re drunk, or when you too painfully sober…”
“What happens?” I asked with a noticeable tremor in my voice.
“A part of you detaches itself from the main bulk, I think, and takes on a life of its own…”
I prevented her from speaking any further. My tongue moved into the furthest recess of her mouth. I carried her to the bed; she wrapped the pale yellow high green downy forearms around my neck. She was all beneath me; slow, lugubrious, quiet, purposeful; a full fusion of Clare and us.
When we were through we lay still on the bed. Her soft hand was still wrapped around my head, cupping the lowest portion of my skull, at the bumpy protuberance where spine joins skull .
“You’re still a fraud,” she said, tickling the lobe of my ear.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Clare shimmered into hazy focus. She held her small pale hand’s close to her face, as if reading one of wayward Hume’s dispatches. Then, distinct:
“Then why,” Clare asked, poking me in the ribs, jarring me to answer, “if it was such a great experience, why didn’t you finish at the university?”
An excellent question. The tea cup resting on my palm was so tiny it seemed like it originated from a child’s tea set.
“I don’t know. Endings have always been difficult for me.”
“Not for me. When something is over, its bloody over. I just end it,” she said resolutely.
“Well you’re young, you’ll learn .” I answered sagaciously, “I just didn’t want to complete my studies. And I didn’t need a college degree to get into Johns Hopkins. I only needed to pass the medical boards… which I did with flying colors.”
“But you didn’t finish medical school either.”
“No. Again, endings are not my specialty. I would rather just fade away then end.”
“Why?” she asked, raising her brow in a V, which always signified a perplexed or stymied Clare Mumpy.
“It seems so artificial, to end.”
“What about death,” she said, “that is the ultimate end.”
“I don’t believe in death. At least not my own death. It seems empirically unsound. My own death is a completely meaningless concept to me. That I should cease to exist. It’s even absurd for me to say it. How could that be? It would be as if the world came to an end.”
“You have a rather high opinion of yourself, Langley.”
“It actually makes all the sense in the world. If I end then the world ends. I have no other point of reference but myself.”
“If you die Langley, rest assured, I’ll still be here. The world will still exist”
Situations, once so fluid and effortless, so banally and logically segregated and separated, were coming apart at their literal seams; they were becoming bogged down in a limitless practical and conceptual morass.
It all falls down… changing directions, sliding us to new, truer vistas, unable to hold up the pretense… of purposefulness, they flutter away…
One may as well begin here:
If there is a chink in the woodwork then one must peer through. The crooked boards, knotty and rotting, invite a peek. Take the roving lens: old furniture, broken, twisted, black with age, soot, and dust, piled to the ceiling of the parlor. Cushions, trailing behind a central mound of tangled featureless objects. There, if you push aside that old, detached radiator is Father’s desk. An old mahogany affair that has already been rifled through, all important documents stored in a strong box, with the exception of one, whose properties, I fear, not flat, featureless, formless, letters and words on paper like this feeble article you are reading, but all too three dimensional:
Dear Mr. Vandemark: We regret to inform you that your application for a combat position in the American Expeditionary Force has been denied…
In my hands, a document from 1917 has a strange animation, it pops into multi dimensions, like a collapsible diorama:
The trench was dug in a zig-zag pattern, so, if overrun, it was more defensible. I was moving along the line, giving my men words of encouragement before the show. They were scared, scraggly recruits from Lincolnshire, and I, a veteran of numerous battles: the Somme, Verdun, Pescadilly… somehow, miraculously, I had survived them all. I had a reputation as an Iron Man. I was not overly reckless, but not inordinately un-fond of risk taking. In a war where personal behavior accounts for nothing (it is a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time conflict) my luck is supernatural. A shell explodes in a spot on the line you just passed! But it is not bravery or foresight or advanced planning that led to such salvation, but that blind goddess Chance. She spins her wheel in the dark. She strikes the innocent and guilty with equal hailing barrage of blows.
I removed my cigarette case from my belt. I had engraved the name of each battle on its bulging bright surface. Three so far. Perhaps, when I blow the whistle and I must swing my body over the parapet and begin the laborious march across no-man’s land, the case will see its last engagement. After all, it is odds we are discussing here. The age of Determinism is upon us on a mass scale. All of these heart breaking, mind bending, and ruthlessly cruel engagements have proven that one must press forward blindly, atavistically….
But I have a secret. It is a small nugget that I keep imprinted between the sheets of my twin selves, and it has preserved me from harm. My secret is a maxim, a mantra that is unlikely to have a wider currency among the ranks of humanity because it is, like most profound ideas, astonishingly simple, yet painfully difficult to adopt: I do not care if I live or die.
Without that burden, when relieved of that fundamental drive, suddenly a wall cascaded down and I found myself sitting, serenely, placidly, like some orientalish totem, stripped of the of veil of existence finally, and irrevocably, seated lotus style in a wide empty room that lacks walls and a roof but contains, miraculously, marvelously, no sense of space, no depth, but a cushion of a static, sparkling whiteness…
Sitting on the lip of the parapet I checked my wrist watch: 06:00. The creeping barrage across no-man’s land commenced all along the three meter gap between us and the Hun trenches.
“Alright boys, God protect us all!” I yelled, clenching a whistle in my lips. To the left, one of the Lincolnshire lads poised a football in his outstretched arms. I nodded to him. He sculled the ball beautifully, flawlessly; it arched into the steel gray morning sky and disappeared into the yellow churn of the creeping barrage. I blew the whistle and swung myself over the parapet. Glancing to my left and right one hundred thousand men were advancing on a fifteen-mile front. The barrage was supposed to move forward, protecting us from German fire, we began to run… the run, a head long dash into our own fire; we had to stop, something had gone bloody wrong… the barrage was moving backward, knocking down row after row of Linconshire boys, whole villages of boys wiped out because of a miscalculation in someone’s mathematics…
The barrage ceased. All around me was a pocked, open brown broken landscape, lunar cratered, twisted blackened trees splintered and toppled.
Now, from the other direction a hails of shells. Gerry is firing on us. Shells fell around me in a random pattern. Parts, pieces, innards of Lincolnshire lads were spewed all about, as if tossed about by a random hand. Once every boy was dead and I stood alone, the shells poked holes in the ground, puncturing the dirt, revealing, exposing, the whiteness beneath…. and brilliant space!
And as more shells exploded more of the Western Front evaporated, and more of white light poked through, until a dizzying height revealed itself, and I began a fabulous free fall. The last shell hit, the last piece of brown oozing dirt cascaded into the snowy static abyss, as I fall, yet remain motionless, am in space, yet do not exist, like a gap, a space that is not ------
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Epistolary Bridge. My retainer’s letters.
August 23. 1932. New York.
Dear Mr. Vandemark:
It is with grievous trepidation that I write this letter. After several failed attempts to handle matters pertaining to your family on site, as it is, I have no other option but to send this letter with the express desire and heartfelt request that you write me forthwith, with specific instructions.
It is not my intention to be rude, or to in anyway impinge upon your character, Mr. Vandemark, but I believe that you misrepresented the scope and breath of the tasks that are daily before me. I cannot help but think, Mr. Vandemark, that you quite inadvertently failed to mention certain elements of my current position that seem, quite frankly, beyond the scope of my abilities and quite beyond the bounds of our verbal agreement.
I believe there must have been some crucial misunderstanding in our initial communications.
Your brother alone, Mr. Vandemark, would have been a sufficient handful dutiwise. But I’m afraid with the added responsibility of your Mother (whose infirmities, in some ways, surpass those of your brother Homer) my job is nearly impossible. I was led to believe that she was fully ambulatory, capable of taking her meals alone and unaided, and otherwise was fully cognizant. As you well know this is not the case. Unfortunately, I am unable to take care of both of them, it is with this in mind that I request the following…
He then made a series of demands on the second leaf of the letter, which has been lost to the vicissitudes of time. All of these demands I tried to fulfill with a full measure of effort, as circumstances permitted. But from the tone of the response, this was evidently not sufficient (I do not recall what I wrote, and of course all of my letters to my retainer are no longer extant).
September 1, 1932 New York
Dear Mr. Vandemark:
Unfortunately, your response to my letter dated August the 23rd is inadequate in a number of ways. The glib tone of the epistle alone is counter productive, but I will leave that alone. Once again I kindly ask for your assistance in a number of matters that are pressing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are urgent in a life and death sense, in so far that your Mother and Brother are quite incapable of attending to even the most elementary of matters pertaining to their daily lives without my scrupulous intervention
Take this one episode as an example. Your Mother, quite inexplicably, refuses to acknowledge your existence, or only does so after repeated proddings on my part. I tell her, on numerous occasions, that I am Horace Hume, and I have been hired by her son, Langley Vandemark, to look after the family affairs while he is at Harvard.
Again and again I am required to repeat this rather simple fact, but, and I do apologize for my strong language, your poor demented Mother seems incapable of understanding this. Just the other day she had the temerity to attack me with a broom, calling me by the name Edgar, chasing me out of the cul-de-sac of the house that she inhabits, all this despite my vociferous protests, as I screamed, quite literally Mr. Vandemark, that my name was Horace, and not Edgar. Horace, I screamed, again and again!
And then, Mr. Vandemark, there is the matter of your brother Homer. Homer is an entirely different case altogether. As you well know, he is polite, kind, affable, and despite his impaired eyesight, is fully ambulatory and quite capable of looking after himself. But this is only an appearance.
As you well know, your brother is subject to fits that resemble epileptic seizures. One grew so intense one evening that I called a physician, who was quite unable to find a physiological basis for these attacks. The physician suggests further tests, which your brother promptly refused. Your brother, like you Mother, does not recognize me despite my best efforts to educate him about me and my round of duties in your home. At first I was infinitely patient with your brother, due to his poor eyesight, but at this late date his problem seems to be an abnormality, really a pathology, and this pathology, unfortunately, seems congenitial…
But dear Mr. Vandemark, it is certainly not my place to critique your family. It is quite beyond the scope of my duties to attended to these matters; it is with this in mind that I ask for the following…
Unfortunately, a page is missing from this cache of letters. But it contains, if memory serves as an accurate guide, a number of unilateral demands that poor scattered Hume wished to impose upon me. I tried to satisfy his demands to the best of my ability from my academic exile, but I could not satisfy the old reprobate. For the following letter, hastily posted and scrawled with a lack of grace that was really quite unlike him, the fastidious prig, my erstwhile retainer, he explains:
September 17th, 1932
I hereby resign my position. I took personal offense to all the suggestions and admonishments of your last letter.
Monday, April 18, 2011
“Watch the turn!” I could hear, distorted and shimmery, as if the sound had to travel like a flat stone hurled over a mirror smooth surface of water, the hollow call of the coxswain as the scull reached a cylindrical pylon of the bridge. The water, lapping against the brown green stones that jutted, semi-circular around the concrete abutment, sounded out like a muffled bass drum struggling to rise above the clatter and din of the surrounding accompaniment.
And I looked further down at the scull, now significantly foreshortened by the shadows cast by the rising sun, as the oarsmen butted and bumped against the flat shelf of stones. One of the rowers unlocked his oat and used it to rudely push against the bridge, trying to dislodge the grounded boat.
“Hey, lookit that!” to my left, closer to the Boston side of the bridge, several urchins were clumped against the rail, peering over the edge, some so precariously bent that half their bodies hung over the water side, as if they were hinged just above the waist, an anatomical feat reserved for the young and subtle.
“That boat is snagged down there!” another one screamed.
I walked up the bridge toward the boys and the Boston side bank. As I approached the dull blur of urchin brown, tan and blackened boots and low slung filthy caps, one of them grasped my sleeve and gently tugged.
“Mister, those Harvard boys is stuck!” I peeped over the rail, and sure enough the scull was grounded on the overhanging shelf of stone. From this novel angle I could see the water over the stones was only inches deep. No wonder those poor wayward athletic boys, even with the aid of an ace coxswain, had become grounded. That troublesome little shelf was all but invisible until one was literally high and dry atop of it.
“Sure enough they are,” I said with puffed up enthusiasm.
“Hey mister, are you one of those Harvard boys?” one of the sooty faced urchins inquired, turning his dull ugly eyes on me, examining me like a shiny new marble.
“Yes, I suppose I am,” I said, surprised at my own answer.
“Hey Mister,” another one called, his pasty face punctured by two beady gray eyes, his nose two perfectly round simian nostrils, “you talk like a Negro, mister.”
Another boy, this one thinner and smaller than his cohorts with a sallow, yellow face, thrust his wedge shaped head out from the crowd and, standing firmly on his patch of ground, boldly pronounced, “you shouldn’t say that to a white man, you’re liable to get your block knocked off.”
“Awww,” the simian boy moaned, “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it
There was a touching tone of contrition in his voice, and the faux pas was enough to dissolve their little knot of concentrative effort on the stranded scull, and they disappeared, as if a chemical bond suddenly stripped of a key ion, toward the Cambridge side of the bridge.
I pointed myself Bostonward, toward the bouncing golden beams of sun that reflected off the Charles, and noted that the rowers had abandoned their craft, and were swimming, in an efficient single file, toward the Cambridgeside bank.
Friday, April 15, 2011
The Charles River was ruby red in the early morning sun light. A single beam of radiant sunshine cast a glow over the narrow bend of grass along the esplanade. A new start, a new day, never to return to the old worn fruitless grooves…
The genesis of the college semester is always late summer, and so, by necessity it has the penultimate sensation of the final gently curving spike before the precipitous fall of autumn. For the spasms of expansion are more severe just prior to the final expulsion than in the building of contractions. The strongest sensation comes just before the summit: just at the pleasant moment when the object, hurled rudely skyward, appears to stop just when it should be accelerating to a loftier altitude.
So the semester begins with a leafy bower of dusty oak leaves perched, cross hatched and intertwined, over the clipped ripe grass of Harvard Yard. The ivy, green, waxy and abundant, snakes up the marble facade of the Houghton Library, and the numerous portals of exit and egress to the yard, like wide open veins and arteries with no specialization of function.
And surrounding this garden of repose is Cambridge, like an American Athens, hemmed without concern, demarcated without conceit or desperation by the gentle, fluid curve of the Charles River. And in the pre-dawn hours, standing on its banks, where the concrete escarpment fades and cracks to a field of mud, and the mud, stirred and churned by the lapping water, blends into the brown green ebb of the river, a low hanging lacy mist dangles just above the lapping froth of the river water: and the smell, an odor that still makes incursions into my nostrils in an apish imitation of an actual perception, a legitimate sensation, that mingling of matter both fresh and the decaying.
But standing on the shore, it was easy to look beyond the specific and move to dazzlingly broad generalities, to the luminous ideal, to peer through the congenitally defective mists and to see, out there in the center currents, the slim, muscular biceps poking through the classically trim tee shirts and crew tops, the rounded tip most portions of well honed legs propped stiff against the transverse wooden struts of the scull, as oars, slim shinny sticks in the gathering morning light, break the smooth glassy surface.
And then the scull, like some magical soundless skiff across the translucent Charles, and I know, as sure as my lungs gulp another breath of frosty morning air, that each particle of water, each conjoined molecule of hydrogen and oxygen, is perfectly, immutably placed. It is unchallenged in its supremacy. Its hegemony is secure.
I lost the scull under the bridge, but it is replaced, in a moment of instantaneous transfer, by a column of sunshine, that rises above the humped skyline of Boston. And Cambridge, its academic towers and gables are suddenly not merely a conglomeration of stone, mortar and brick, but a splendid heap of organized flesh, a profusion of nubby forms, alive and pulsating, caressed to animation by the rosy fingers of dawn.
For all Vandemark men, the robust ones anyway, are the recipients of this transensual gift. It is a heightened anticipation of the possible connectivity of all the sinewy joints in the sub-lunar sphere. It is a knowledge brought not by the mind but the pulse of light, the vibratory undulations of sound, the damp molecules carried aloft by the summers high wind.
For what is a man but a sponge to the world? And what is a sensation if it is not drenched, if it fails to convey to us, in each wrenching moment, that we are but a link in a chain, a causal accident that can be easily replaced by some more convenient or readily accessible contingency. We can be replaced! It is the mechanism that is firmly in place: we just need the one tenth the gumption necessary to test the works, to jiggle the contraption to see if it collapses.
The Charles River water lapped at my new suede shoes. The dampening creases of water were spreading laterally around the aft portion of my feet until they were drenched. Someone behind me yelled, contritely:
“Hey, careful, it drops off steep there,” and moved on. I noticed, chuckling inwardly to myself, that I had begun to wade out into the stream. In the not so distant distance I could see three more sculls skim effortless through the water.
But I was much closer this time, and could see, with concave clarity, the young strong faces set with trim noses, sweaty flaxen hair and damp, perspiration smeared brows, the sheer exhilaration of the exertion of efficient bodies. For the generation of men are like the leaves on a tree. If the tree remains, it is a fortuitous calamity, for the leaves, by the very exertion of their existence, carry with them the stamp of their ultimate doom. For what do we care of other men? We care for the tree only because it nourishes us with a precious drop of sap, a mere speck from the reserve of the whole.
The entire river scene shimmered and shook as if the very exertion of stability was more than it could bear. It was blank, then full, a speeding rampage and a quiet, reserved river walk. The Vandemark curse (which is also the Vandemark boon) is to see the spindly web of connection arching across the world.
The peace descended. But then, the ruination. For the shadow presence was snaking along the river path. My old enemy, that dark brother, was making its hegemony known by rattling my cage in the only way it knows how, through a brute show of force. But is had only temporal powers, and quite limited at that.
Believing, quite erroneously, that IT has absolute mastery of my world, it began its little dance of unbridled frivolity: it capered and shimmied, all along hoping, through these showy displays, through these pantomimes of mock combat, that it could somehow kowtow me into meek submission. That is could (oh that double crossing semblance of a being, that shadow behemoth who thinks he has weight but is only a massive will-o-wisp) could brow beat me into coordination with its goals and designs just by casting its long shadow over my healthy body.
I stepped over, I ducked under, I bent from the waist down to the thin wedge of my shin bone, and, by torquing my body, gently but deftly to an unforeseen attitude, slipped away, once more, from my dastardly twin.
Take that, my proverbial second half! Stand down, for your hold is not as steely as you may believe!
For my brother is never self-depreciating. No, I’m afraid he holds to his precious piece of turf as if it were the entire span and width of the globe. He mistakes, in the classic form of all darker reflections, form from substance.
For where an outline will suffice why flesh out the body? And where a body is fleshed, why trouble yourself about the contours? The shadow self, that creature of accidents and misapprehensions does not set its intellect to discern the true from the false, the deep from the shallow. No, it piddles with trifles.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
A colored boy was shinning my shoes. I looked down at the top-most portion of his inclined, neatly shaved head. His tan colored rag was whipping across the tips of my snazzily pointed patent leather shoes, those black and white wing tipped shoes, recently purchased from Macy’s on 34th Street, shone back to me in a pleasing, yin-yang tension.
The massive wall clock, the guardian of Grand Central Station (the interlocking gear of the pendulum swing, the sand slide of the hourglass, the upright fin of a sun-dial) informed me I had less than fifteen minutes to board my train for Boston.
The crowds, sheets of bustling limbs, bobbing weaving heads, shifting sliding arms, moved from musty tracks to clogged ticket counters, ticket counters to multi-colored magazine stands, magazine stands to the copper plated bar, bar to frothy beer, beer to dark recessed mouth fringed with gleaning white teeth from this welter.
I picked a person at random from the bustle: a fat salesman in a Panama hat, jacket draped over his short sleeved puffy arm. His pleated pants were creased and scored by the friction of rounded thighs colliding from inadequate clearance, from one step to two and then three, I lost him for a moment in a gaggle of nuns in black habits and drooping white head gear, white flaps dangling down over their temples like horse blinders, all but concealing my man, my prosperous salesman.
But spy his tan briefcase: focus in on an embossed design, a fluttering American flag, the stars recessed, the bars protruding… the flag frozen in a moment of animated flutter. What do we see when we peer into his leather case? A book of color photographs of flags, flags on poles, flags dangling from railings, flags form fitted for a coffin? Too late to know for sure. The man descended trackside.
The black board destination sign suspended by two upturned hooks, dangling in the sway of rushing commuters, reads “Philadelphia”, a great American city to hawk flags. Even though the city is smothered with flags, like a piece of the true cross it could always use another, more primal flag --- one to approximate the essence of its mother --- not this rotting remembrance ---- a hollow crashing defeating dud. I take a step after step upon scuffed marble stairs as I descended to my train, as I sat, crossed legged and hollowly confident, in the plush cherry red seat of the chromatic Boston Express.
And the bustle, the track side expansion and contraction, pushing and heaving of baggage, men and women, lean and taut or rounded and sagging, became not a fixed point of observation, not a clinical view of detachment, but a giddily engrossing spectacle as I slide, quite effortlessly, from train cabin to trackside, and plant myself, firmly, rootedly, among that swirl of people.
They revolve around me, they rotate around the globe that is Langley Vandemark, then switch and swing, sway and detach to some other competing orbit. But when they are in my luminious sphere, I do believe that my impact is beneficial. I hold a loose confederation from fraying at the seams. My touch is mild, gentle.
The train swayed, then moved fluidly forward. The train lurched and then glided past the colorful suits and dresses until the dull gray-black wall of the tunnel replaced the animated platform. A jingling blue suited colored conductor was ambling down the center aisle. His moisture filled eyes scanned for tickets.
“You aint foolin no one boy,” he was suddenly upon me.
“What?” I asked, the incredulity palpable in my tone.
“You lucky this ain’t Dixie. In Dixie ain’t no one would put up wid your tom foolery.”
“I have no idea what you are alluding to.”
But he was past. Something, somewhere, sped up the action and the entire episode, already grainy and drained of its surface color, retreated to a cloudy corner – dim, dismal --- then was gone, just as New York was gone, just as we were speeding to the green hills of Connecticut…
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
What I did was an inherent risk of choice making. I hid Mother away. I knew, when I committed such an act, that vital elements that were endlessly at attention, forever ridged and waiting for their orders, had effectively been forever dismissed. I let them go and they would never return. I knew what I was doing. I blame no one but myself.
Four days before leaving for Harvard I broke through Mother’s sanctum sanctorum. I confidently strolled over the threshold of her self-imposed exile and confronted her.
In my youthful hubris, with my newly won rogue’s dash (I was eighteen, after all, and the center of the universe) --- I wanted to impose order on Mother. I felt like Tiberius brashly and unceremoniously tearing through the curtain separating the most holy precinct of the Temple from the profane counter-quarters, where the High Priest enters but once a year.
There was no ark in this temple, however. I found a disheveled and surly old woman stooping over some sowing, the only light filtered through some mangled Venetian blinds as if a creature with ragged claws had mangled them for no better reason than to see if he could. She looked up at me immediately. Of course I had seen her many times in the last six years, but never in her realm. A confrontation was long overdue.
I was leaving New York. This ludicrous Gothic game was over. I was beginning a fresh, wholesome start. Before I left I intended to leave a retainer in my place to manage Mother, Homer, and the servants that remained in our employ. I was here to impose a substrate on this infernal mess. She lowered her sowing and fixed her sloping, myopic eyes on me. I could see she was having problems focusing on me.
“Homer?” she asked.
“No, Mother, Langley,” I said. She wrinkled her nose and took up her sewing. “Why are you here Langley?’ she asked indifferently. Indifferently! And here I was working so hard to set right what had lain broken for so long!
“I’m leaving next week Mother and I wanted to discuss some arrangements I’ve made for you and Homer.”
“Where are you going?” she asked, squinting at a piece of cloth, holding it to the pale swatch of light filtering dustily through the blind. “To school mother, to Harvard. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh,” she said, suddenly rising, “that’s in Boston…” She left the Sitting Room and inexplicably entered the bedroom. Mother never obeyed stage directions.
The moldy chair that held my body creaked as I shifted my weight. Outside, the leaves of a Norway maple were wilting from the summer sunshine. Inside an air of expectation, a cool and damp counter-point to the stifling outside, clung drearily to the room.
I gazed to my left: a small bottle rested on a carved wooden niche. Holding it up to my face I blew the dust ceilingward and found it was what I thought it to be: the Bonhomme Richard carefully tucked into its bottle by Langley Vandemark, ten years before. The rigging was disintegrating, the hold was peppered with black soot, the masts carefully folded to fit the hull into the bottle and the raised in situ; the ship had become detached from its mooring and listed to the right. The ship was carefully laid out on a stylized blue-green ocean of molded rubber, and had shifted from the indentation where it had rested for years and was sliding across the surface anchored only by the bow, which, through some miracle, remained fixed with a pin point of adhesive glue.
“Mother!” I cried, rousing myself, for I had not yet begun to fight, “Mother, I’ve hired a man to look after the house, you and Homer when I’m at Cambridge.”
No answer. Silence. There was a racket of fumbling in the next room. The sound of Mother rifling through her cluttered possessions. I entered the bedroom. She was stooped over a large chest. Her long matted gray hair hung down over her forehead, concealing her face. Her skinny arms were surprisingly agile as she rolled a bolt of lime green fabric from the chest to the floor.
“I wish this didn’t happen,” she said witchily.
“What? What do you wish never happened?” I asked.
“I wish you boys didn’t come into this room and disturb my things. You know I don’t want you boys coming in here without my permission.”
“But we don’t Mother. No one comes in here but you,” I answered testily.
She looked at me with her gray-yellow eyes. Time stood still in those dim orb; dull orbs that hung down in the darkness.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
A possible genesis: from the murky vault of my memory I can produce an incident that could expose all my subsequent ills to the light of day, give them a pattern, a delicate explanatory weave we can lightly trace with the tip of the index finger like a finely wrought spider’s web.
What a fraud the world is! Can the etiology of my ills really be reduced to the following banal story of childhood? A cliche schoolyard tale that once revealed, is torn apart like a holiday turkey ceaselessly, monotonously, picked from the bone, in an annual orgy. Would it, could it be that simple? It all began with a gross overstatement, an amplification of a promise to promote security and confidence and trust, that backfired, producing the opposite character traits… that ended in…
Mother again. Sweet, beautiful, ruinous Mother. She is wearing a cotton summer dress with a floral pink pattern. As I walked beside her, her peppermint fragrance was my protective cloud. Her slim wrists and tiny hands were holding my miniature six year old hand. When I leaned far enough to the right, I could brush against her thigh, my hand could dangle against her firm calf. But she would constantly hoist me upright, lever my arm to get me to stand up straight and continue the march toward the nursery school.
The nursery school was a spatiophobic’s daymare. Everyday it swarmed with different mealy-mouthed children. There was no opportunity to develop respectable, repeatable patterns and rhythms. Everyday I was expected to change with the prevailing conditions. Even at so tender and unformed an age, the open-endedness of the nursery resounded hollow and dull in my cavernous head. Moving from table to table, activity to activity, each motion drenched with meaning and choice, made young Langley Vandemark freeze with decision dread.
My mother was sure to give me, everyday without fail, a wad of handkerchiefs for my perpetually runny noise. I packed the handkerchiefs in a tight bundle and bunched it in my pocket and pretended it was a turtle. It was my turtle, hidden away, given to me by my dear, sweet, trustful mother; a turtle, a creature that carries its simple home on its back was the fitting metaphor for my Vandemark microcosm.
I’m fussing. Mother tugged at me gently.
“Now Langley, you’re not to fuss.”
“But I don’t want to leave you Momma. I want to marry you. Are you really gonna wait outside for me?”
“Yes, Langley, I never go home. I always wait outside for you. And you can’t marry me I’m married already.”
I was in the big room, sitting at a table cutting large hearts from red construction paper. It was Valentine’s Day. It was for Mother. But the day outside was unseasonably warm. A bright sun, perfectly illuminating the world so that every absence could be noted (the perfect sun to illuminate a primal loss), blared down like house lights in a theatre.
We children were marshaled out into the cobbled schoolyard. The school yard was a featureless escarpment with unimpeded, views of the surrounding neighborhood for fantastic mile after fantastic mile. Young Langley squinted into that awful white illumination. Fearful Langley surveyed the scene as tears rolled down his puffy cheeks. She was not there. She was not by the lamppost. She was not standing on the trolley platform. She was not in the tobacco shop where she supposedly bought me chocolates. She was nowhere to be found. The street was empty.
Like all scenes of primal loss this moment was not without its mythological import. A creepy, uneven shadow crept across the uptown city-scape. What exactly was happening here? A presence seemed to leave the world, a presence largely benign. What replaced it was a shadow entity. An idea that perhaps there was more to my narrative self than I am revealing; a shadow entity lurking in the crevices, stoking me to the gills with pathologies that are not my birthright. A parallel track that is strangely akin to mine yet wholly divorced and alien. It crawls along at the margins and demands a portion of a patrimony that belongs to him and to him alone, the nasty fraud!
Eventually, Young Langley, reduced to near hysterics, is segregated from the other children. He was kept aside and monitored, with the hopes that he will calm down.
Eventually he did, of course, but a slight flutter was introduced into an otherwise simple system of checks and balances. Mother was no longer a unitary creature of unalloyed love and worthiness. From this conclusion a simple analogy was constructed: if mother is flickering and unstable then the world cannot exist on a solid foundation. If the world does not exist on a solid foundation then the world may not exist or may exist in several senses. The flickering life began.
“I was out buying you chocolates, Langley, that’s why I wasn’t there.”
Ah, yes, and it was true. Chocolates always awaited me when beautiful Mother, her pale blue eyes glistening with love and tender recognition as she picked me out of the crowd of pre-schoolers for the leisurely walk to the brownstone.
And then, once home, the handkerchief turtle became yet another square of white cloth again, and the world became a uniform, wonderfully bland globe of undifferentiated love, acceptance and deception. But the crack was there: focus in on young six year old Langley and you could see the fine fissure running from the small of his back up and around his waist until it halts somewhere near his sternum, that inadequate plate of bone that is supposed to protect the heart, which is erroneously described as the seat of emotions.
Monday, April 11, 2011
This scheme has worked against me as well.
Flip flop the roles and see how it works reversed:
“Why don’t we marry?” I asked Clare, lifting up my bulk on a ninety degree elbow and forearm, casting a critical glance at the gray-green haze that was Clare Mumpy.
“I don’t believe in marriage during war. People get married for the wrong reasons.”
“But you’ll become an American,” I told her.
“Why would I want to be an American,” she asked.
“Everyone wants to be an American.”
“That’s rot. I hate Americans. I want to stay single. I want to keep my options open. Why would I want to tie myself down?”
And she was right. I was galled because I was on the dirty end of the stick, but she understood, in excellent Vandemark fashion, that every choice, no matter how fabulously dense in its evocative hope, however expansive in rich glittering vistas of possibility, is a form of death.
For at the beginning of the race we stand naked and ready to face a world dense with sinuous branches. The hope, that hope, that we can be or do anything is only extinguished by forward momentum, by natural capacities tested or by concomitant failures acknowledged and abandoned, by circumstances or accidents beyond control, and by our own unfailing need to constantly make choices.
By exercising this doggedly persistent impulse we actually destroy the one mechanism we possess to guide our life. We chose our own deaths. We make a choice and guide ourselves down a path that narrows with each fork; and the forks, as we progress, become fewer and far between, until we reach the point of absolute nullity, that infernal spot with no choice inherent in it; a spot that no one can squirm out of…
But for young Langley Vandemark, hat perched jauntily on his broad forehead, wrinkled jacket rakishly thrown over his bulky shoulder, lightly skipping toward a Chock Full O' Nuts truck on the corner of Madison and 42nd, death had been given a decisive knock about the head and neck. And Clare, escaping from my rascally clutches, had shape shifted away from a possible world, and delayed, much to her credit and to my immeasurable shame ---- the impending tick-tock of the maw.
Friday, April 8, 2011
Or shift to the daylight realm and take Rhonda Boule a little before the war. I was twenty-five, she, a tender twenty-one or two. She was one of those marvelously adaptive young women one encountered before the war who does not get much press.
She emigrated from some grid-plan capital city of some spacious Midwestern state, settling down in New York for vague aesthetic and professional motivations. She lived alone, on her own income, frugally but with a certain flashy style.
She decorated her single room Murray Hill apartment with baubles won for her from brawny, brainless beaus on hot summer’s evenings at Coney Island amusement concessions. Stiff maroon animals stuffed with unpliable saw dust sat impassively on a small shelf; a marksmanship trophy stuffed with wax apples rested on the lip of the window sill; a diorama of a bowling alley, decorated with colorfully painted, minature bowlers, the paint, distractingly enough, unevenly applied and skewed during mass production: the bowler’s facial features dripping on a collar, or a flesh colored paint snaking up a sleeve.
Rhonda herself held her firm sturdy, corn fed body upright from mere youthfulness alone. Everything that would eventually sag from weight and persistent gravity was tight and round with a certain solid, symmetrical configuration. She had auburn hair with jet black roots, a shinning button nose that she constantly dulled with granulated white talcum powder. She rouged her half apple cheeks and applied bright primary colored lipstick to her broad honey sweet lips as if it was erotic war paint or she was eros’ medicine man.
Taking a mid-town subway on a summer night (for it was a summer romance, and so all the more heartbreaking in its pathos: it is speckled in my memory with late day hazy humid sunshine beneath the dusty Norway maples of Murry Hill. It is sound tracked by the sudden after work cessation of traffic of bustling mid-town; it is scented by the ozone humid detumesence that follows a brief summer shower.)
Take a look at strapping me in my white summer suit, some kind of profusion of posies in my mitts, striding up the subway steps two at a time, bright floral tie flapping out of my seersucker, light straw hat perched high on my oblong Vandemark pate, joyful because I’m at a fork and I haven’t chosen a path yet, gleeful because I can see my life cleaving in two, forming parallel paths after they separate from a single stubborn point… and I’m dawdling; I am savoring the sensation of my own lassitude.
If life wants to force me to show my hand (and it has that power, it reserves that right, of course), then I can be petulantly playful as I lower my cards. I can savor the dread as fate awaits even the slightest twitch of my globular hands.
She is unstrapping her garter belt and removing her stockings. She is folding her girdle neatly over a wooden chair. Her deflated dress dangles from a wire hanger just over her vanity mirror. She sits perched on her wicker stool, rounded buttocks spilling over the leather confines, forming pleasant roundlets, and brushing her hair repeatedly, fifty strokes for each side of her evenly parted straight hair.
Soon that hair will spread out in wild sprays on the pillow when we make love. I stand behind her running my hands over her pale shoulders, occasionally cupping her prodigious breasts. She squirms, letting out peels of girlish laughter. Her reflective, imitation, immature little girl blue green eyes sparkle at me from the mirror, approving and disapproving in gorgeous simultaneity all of my naughty forays.
I will marry this plump little girl. Her firm baby fat body will incubate as many robust Vandemark’s as eggs she posess and sperm I can implant. And I will don a suit, and ride the subway downtown. And in the gray-green twilight I descend in the elevator and ride the careening subway uptown. And mundanely, she will be there, baby-fat more mature, less firm, surrounded by a brood of children. I will eat and drink, urinate and defecate, age and work, reproduce myself and die.
I let my hand drop from Rhonda’s broad shoulder. It is late at night. I look out the window and see the line of cars stopped at a red light on Madison Avenue. The light turns and the cars surge ahead to the next set of lights that turn red almost immediately.
I finished. I lay on the bed exhausted. Rhonda snuggles up and kisses my lips. Her heavy breasts pressing against my forearm. I can feel dead-weight on my brain for the first time in my twenty-five years. I realized, as those soft hands gropped about my body, that possible worlds were a cruel lie and impossible duty for a man whose vision was not just a keen twenty-twenty, but supernaturally acute --- from that point on I would use all my weight to halt forward progress.
As I rode Rhonda’s elevator down and pushed the sliding door, its rotating plates of glass glittering in the morning sun and stepped heavy footed and certain unto the terra firma of Madison Avenue, I knew that I would never marry that plump, solid, loving, perfectly acceptable girl.
I would never look back (and I did not, until now). The garters would hang limply on the chair, the bra would be slung over the vanity mirror, but some other man would leave a depression in the bed next to Rhonda after he rose to go to work. Some other man would stand stiffly down the aisle as a veiled Rhonda, donned in virginal white, took the somber teary stroll on her father’s arm. She would lock in her future with a certitude I could never dream of; she would never balk at the crossroad when it came. She would make the ontologically sound choice. She was not, after all, a Vandemark.