I know there is a reference here. Perhaps Houdini?
Maybe not, and it’s just a well-dressed man leaning over the Moyka. I’ll walk along that river someday, if I haven’t already in another time or dimension.
Just now I picked up one of my older publishing failures and randomly opened to a story about that man on a bridge and a historical account of Saint Petersburg. From 1999, when the world was supposed to end…
A Thursday Afternoon
This is a perfect day! The town is erupting with fall color. Kevin came to my door—not Jeff, although Jeff came later, at the moment I turned to Rose and said, “I hate my life.” But Kevin came first. He peeked his head in the doorway and swore, pretending to be Jeff. We went out to breakfast at Joe’s dirty diner and filled up on bacon omelets and bread soaked in butter. I cannot successfully relate to you the actual, incredible horror of Wade’s Diner in Oswego. If you could stand five minutes of the pent-up aching misery showing on the faces of its clientele, or swallow your food with ease after speaking to one of God’s cruelest earth creatures (the American diner waitress); if you could stand the nicotine-stained floral pattern on the wall, just talking and chewing for five minutes and not be moved by the hideousness, chances are that you don’t read anything outside the celebrity sex chronicles in the aisle of the supermarket anyway, and therefore my little book does not exist for you. Chances are that you are one of these zombies terrifying me today. If so, then the chance is great that a pig is luckier than you.
When I am bitter I can paint quite a sour portrait of Oswego. When I am bitter, which is often, I upbraid this truck stop of a country of pot-bellied, middle-aged, dangerously educated cowards. Then, when I am happy, any moment can be the start of a perfect day. I feel smart to myself and overwhelmingly secure and fizzing inside. At these moments of clarity there are two of me; one is constantly skipping, punching at the air and singing, while the other pretends not to notice and thinks only of how to subdue his friend, the incorrigible opposite. Today there are two of me walking, and there is Kevin. I have fixed the holes in the ceiling, smoothed joint cement over the cracks, and said the word “Dostoevsky” to myself three times, which repeated just twice on a fall day becomes an incantation. Blue sky, white clouds, St. Petersburg in 1865. Dostoevsky. Next to you stands a constant reminder of death. Your sister is white with the cholera. You shit in a box, and the richest gentleman on the street walks with a cane and dresses smart, but smells like an outhouse. The middle class of Dostoevsky’s neighborhood are intelligent enough to seize the opportunity to read and practice their signatures, while in the most ironic juxtaposition, the little sillies of today, have blocked their intelligence to such a degree that it can be read like a book painfully and laboriously written by a thirty-one year old insurance agent, a man who reads the Sunday paper and watches professional wrestling on TV.
Dostoevsky. Are there any words richer than this one? Or more terrifying? Does anyone feel ashamed to hear it? I do. But to myself, not to men. Kevin is here, and we will drive to breakfast… Stop.
In St. Petersburg there aren’t any buildings taller than these.
Horses, kalomp, kalomp, clippety-clop, walking and trotting, whips, black carriages, dung, urine, and top hats. Kevin locks the door to his boardinghouse and whistles down the steps onto the busy street. The sun is bright. The air is brisk. The morning is noisy with the sound of human traffic. Walkers are dressed to their class, their caste. No free state. No free men. Just rich and poor people. Human walkers and horse stompers, carts, carriages, kings and crooked constables. He walks and tips his hat to the ladies. He says, “Good morning gentlemen,” to gentle men discussing business. Can Kevin see their breath? Yes. He passes by. One man grunts. He hears the grunt loud and clear. Pigeons coo at his feet. Geese fly overhead. The clouds are miraculous. The morning is so agonizingly alive. Thank God he doesn’t have rabies! He walks along feeling the way an iris feels the many moods of spring. He is affected, to say the least.
Kevin is here and I am already up at my writing desk. There is wood in the stove and the coffee is hot. My boots are old leather. I offer him the chair. He throws me my cloak and laughs, “The day is new,” he says. “Why do you want to ruin it?”
So we take our poetry outside onto the street. There is nothing in store for either of us. We are two poor enthusiastic idiots.
September. Vladimir. Plague. Landlord. Horse and Buggy. The Laundry Girl. Green Grass. Clean Sky. The First Time in Man’s Murder and Death History That Love is Intangible. These are words and it is words that keep the young men occupied on the first park bench planted in St. Petersburg. We share a loaf of fresh baked bread. We hold the warm crust between our fingers. We are dreaming out loud of things to come. Man’s accomplishments are prodigious. We are affected, alive, and always despairing because it’s St. Petersburg, 1865. God’s bells are ringing from the churches, but there is a pile of
human waste in the church puddle. There’s an orphan selling pencils, and a cart full of corpses riding by. Our laughter is a hearty kind, its like unheard of today. A hard laugh is frightening because it bursts forth from a mouth that knows better.
“Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sun-rise would kill me
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.”
Dostoevsky is only a word, yet it is a kind of word that sustains me. Beside mankind’s hero worship and death history there are books of words he has invented to record his good deeds. Words upon words upon words, ad infinitum. It began innocently enough. The wonder of a word might be expressed by a bourgeois’ gratitude. He might have it inscribed on a gold plate below the gazelle head in the parlor. It might be “paradise,” and it makes the simple boob dream of America and the Wild West while his wife and their servant girl wash dishes in green putrid water. Their wonder may one day make them rich enough to bend over and kiss the Czar’s hand. “Hope” is a hard word that back in a hopeless time was the living word day after day. I would guess that for more people than not, just to be alive was fortunate, or lucky, or divine. To have life with a national currency… To buy an ottoman and a train ticket south to the palm trees when the wife was pale again and coughing blood… Oh my God the happy wonder of the Nineteenth Century! For once in human history some content fool could look up at the sky and shout out an ecstatic “Yes!” Back in America Walt Whitman was giving our relatives these joyous revelations, although some of these relatives were still raping brown women in a wood shed. Some were beating up their wives with a coal shovel, or sneaking guzzles of whiskey in the cow barn to push life’s misery out of their minds. Not Mr. Whitman. “Wow, I have a body. She has a body. My voice is my voice. I can stand here for five minutes and not starve to death. What the hell am I doing here? I can jump up and down on that rooftop and yawp yawp about anything which pleases me.”
Today I am Walt Whitman yawping. There is so much to yawp about on a Thursday afternoon, even if one is down on his ass in a dirty diner. I tell Kevin these thoughts and I try to get him to yawp, like I try to get Rose to yawp. I would try to get the waitress to yawp if she had just a breath of life in her. But she wouldn’t change her approach to the table if the sun just blew out and the coffee turned to ice. I am reading a free weekly newspaper entitled The Oswego Shopper. In times past I brought Hamsun, Thoreau, or Giono into diners for breakfast. Now I carry “The Shopper.”
1999. Mankind as seen by the editors of a free weekly newspaper. One, sometimes two, is dropped at every doorstep in Oswego. “Don’t Be cruel To Your Domestic Pets”—the title to a weekly column. There’s a picture of the author hugging a poodle that she loves more than her dead husband. That’s okay. I don’t love her dead husband either. A picture of four local business people holding golf clubs between their legs. A benefit. A birthday party. The Oswego Shopper puts out the same continuous stream of unbelievable crap when earthquakes swallow up Turkish cities. They have printers employed there. They are well paid and always ready to eat. They are disproportionate. Fat and short, or long and fat. The boys wear baseball caps and the women… Well, it doesn’t matter what they wear because physically they are en route to ruin and will never be pretty again, inside or out. They ride around with their moronic husbands in big trucks. They don’t cry. They say “minga”, which according to the FDRA means either “dick” or “hey” in Italian. The Future Dumb Rapists of America sat next to Rose and I at the movie theater. I wanted to stand up and murder each one of them, and cut them, and cook them, and feed them to their parents. Obviously the next course will be their mothers and fathers. I will feed them to the dogs. Rapists aren’t born, they are nurtured. Mom and dad have a hand in every rape that has happened. I promise.
I have this “society” paper in my hands and I am perusing the want ads. “Perusing” is a word 18 year old girls use when attending a poetry reading and paying for their coffee with a signed check.
Frankly I am not too interested in finding a job. I listen to Kevin. He tells me to slow down. I eat too fast. All of our lives we have waited patiently for this. One Christmas Eve I didn’t care if the world exploded, as long as my wonderful Santa came. He came and he came, year after year, and then all of a sudden… nothing. No more. Jesus! That’s the sorrow of it! But I will keep eating my omelets fast, vacuum the floor fast; I’ll talk fast, drive fast to some place, any place that is always in a minute, just a second, by 9 o’clock, and I will start to hunch over slightly, just enough to notice my belly-button becoming more elliptical. “I’m turning into one of them,” I’ll say. Rose will say “Nonsense,” and “I love you.” So I am bound to forget that I am a man, eventually… But not now. There is still some fight left in me on this perfect day.
Yellow leaves on a Thursday afternoon. They remind me of shiny yellow lemons. You know, I can throw one a hundred yards. Let me explain…
Four years ago on a rainy September night I borrowed Scott’s car because I was poor and extremely happy, but tired of making Rose think she was doomed to walking an entire life time with me. I was going to surprise her with a fresh baked quiche, a bottle of wine and a car for the night. Scott had a Trans Am which made me feel very sinewy behind the wheel. I knew that Rose knew it was a big fake-out. She understood I had nothing but my daughter. Wonderful! The night was going perfectly. We set up our picnic at Rice Creek. We drank the wine, ate the quiche, and rushed home to make love. Afterwards she walked around topless in jeans, which was quite nice because it was the first time any woman did that for me. What joy! We listened to “Mozambique,” and “Black Diamond Bay,” and with the rain, the rain smells, and the wet, taillight traffic shining out the window, I decided to drive back out into the night and do something special for her. We drove to the market, bought six lemons, and then rode over to the high school football field. A very wet and dark night. I sent her to the opposite goal post. I could barely make out her yellow raincoat while I launched all six lemons in her direction. She was supposed to mark where each fell. She claimed that she did just that, and I threw one over 100 yards. “Really?”
“Yes, and one bounced even further.”
That was my success, and I bragged about it often to Kevin and Joe. Neither believed me. Joe said if such were true, then I would be pitching in the major leagues. Then I guess it wouldn’t matter if I pitched the ball over the upper deck or over the plate. I am a distance thrower, and far from accurate.
Anyway, last spring I took Rose and Rachelle out to the field again. This time on a windlass, sunny evening. I could throw the lemon a measly 85 yards. That was it! Oh how terrible getting old and set in my ways. Then Rose admitted that maybe she was counting bounces on that fateful night back in ‘95.
I was crushed.
Today I am happy. When one is happy, he tends to ignore the past. Also, the king shouldn’t care if his loyal subjects stretch the truth for him. Everyone fires at the same target, but I am told it was my shot that killed the deer. Rose loved her king. She was acting on my favor. I will throw one of these lemons the length of the field. Kevin will be shocked. I will be as calm as can be, for I believe in the unbelievable easily, without much reason or intelligence. When the sun shines stark and brilliant and the air is cool enough for a wool shirt, then I become very mentally retarded, and accomplish the impossible with ease.
92 yards. I say 94, but Kevin says 92. That is good enough for me. Plus, I have the excuse of a very heavy bacon and cheese omelet weighing in my stomach. Next time there won’t be any excuse.
So on a Thursday afternoon at the dawn of the 21st century, what can I believe?
I can believe that The Eternal Husband was in my hand once when I was desperate and spending lonely nights on the streets of New York. I can believe that I never finished The Idiot because during that early autumn of several years’ past there was a stream of glorious white cloud and blue sky days. So instead, I walked about town in sneakers and stopped to write about wonder in my journal. I believe that one extremely cold and snowy winter I brought Crime and Punishment into a myriad of hot baths and then into my bed by the bay window and the howling wind. I believe that is all the Dostoevsky I have read. That is enough if one has an imagination. One doesn’t need to read past the point of realization. That would be overkill.
All that a fool has to do is think about what is wrong, to know it is wrong, and to want to do right. Modern life is a horrifying series of juxtaposition and irony to the sensitive man. 1865 Russia. 1999 America. Neither of the two are right, but one is better. If only one Thursday afternoon in my lifetime allows me to see this, then that is enough. I hope.