by John Kendall Hawkins
You could be forgiven (but what’s the fun in that), if you were to think. Looking at Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical painting The Death of Socrates, you could believe you’re seeing Socrates giving the bird to democracy and demanding that Crito give him the goddamned chalice full of hemlock, and get out of the way. There are different versions of what Socrates’ last words were. I thought I heard, “Tell my neighbor, Asclepius, he’s a cock, and I owe him one.” But I’d just come off reading The Clouds, Aristophanes’ take-down of Socrates, so I could be wrong. All we know is that he was in a foul mood.
And he had a right to be. All those Ralph Nader-like years of public service, including a distinguished stint as a soldier during the Peloponnesian War, only to be told, like most any vet, that things had changed since his return from his tour of duty. The Thirty Tyrants banned him from speaking in public — his dialectics had a tendency to undermine their reign of terror. He never spoke out against the oligarchy directly, but he did continue to be a “gadfly” for every horse’s arse who came his way: encouraging each to think for himself. When democracy was restored, his influence was not forgotten by governmental leaders.
Socrates famously quipped, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates’ Golden Rule is built into the foundation of American democracy. A life that is not examined is one controlled by the thoughts of others — open to deception, propaganda, and subterfuge. An examined life is built into Thomas Jefferson’s notion of a “well-informed public.” Augmented by the mission of the Fourth Estate, which is to keep the citizenry informed and the Bastards Honest, well-informed, self-examining people are in control of their representative government. Ideally. But there are a lot of Ee-yores, assorted horses arses, and serial ignoramuses out there. Even a Ralph Nader can only do so much.
Ultimately, Socrates was convicted on charges of impiety and corruption of youth. Only the latter really matters (nobody really gave a good goddamn about the other one). At the core of his dialectical philosophy was the directive: Question Authority. He demonstrated his method daily, followed around Athens by youthful acolytes, as he took the mickey out of the Know-It-Alls in power. Even in the heyday of democracy, the vested interests wanted none of that. They laughed at Aristophenes’ parody of Socrates and his tactics as a form of sophistry allowing sleaze-balls to weasel out of debts and obligations by making language itself a series of loopholes without end. Creating lawyers who could con Jesus off the cross. Denny Crane! “Never lost a case.”
Socrates might have gone into exile, but, he argued, it would have been the same thing all over again — his dialectics pissing people off. An endless vista of Apologies opened up. So, he talked himself into the death penalty (which came in record time, BTW). He said, according to the Benjamin Jowett translation, “I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.” Then Socrates was handed the chalice of hemlock. Some say that that was the day the music died for Athens’ exceptional democracy, and by the time it got handed down to we moderns it was already more sound and fury than substance.
And yet, here we are some 2500 years later, historically slap-happy, still trying to work out the broad strokes and nuances of our own Exceptional democracy — like kids playing with dynamite, as Mose Allison might say. There’s something Belén Fernández wrote in her new book Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World that sticks with me, something about patriotism, guarding the O Say Can You See against foreign and domestic usurpers, defending the fatherland (patri) you believe in (ism) no matter how abusive and alcoholic he’s become, until you can’t take anymore. As Fernández observes, you can “ start to view the state itself as public enemy number one,” and you know something’s been lost when you start seeing your country as a “state.” Like Socrates.
And that got me thinking about childhood, and homeroom, and our placing our hands over our hearts and pledging our allegiance to all them stars and stripes, earnestly but mechanically. And at lunchtime, all the goombahs extorting lunches and test answers from the weaklings and nerds in that long lead-up to their grown up years of thuggery and politics, now seen as the first wake-up call in the game called Hide Your Twinkies.
And after lunch, we’re taking turns reading aloud Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man Without A Country,” gasping as Philip Nolan exclaims, at the end of a trial for some unknown treason, “To hell with America,” or something like that. And he gets sent ‘up the river’ for 56 years (gulp) for saying something I’ve felt mosta my life — and I’m a true patriot. No, really.
But then, at recess, as the goombahs started selling ‘insurance policies’, I hung out in the toilet and got to thinking, started examining myself (mentally, I mean), and began to wonder what did Nolan actually do wrong? The story doesn’t really say. Miss Johnson (at least that’s how I remember her name) just said it was a parable about patriotism. But what had he done? My little mind worked and worked to know. Had he done some illicit machine-gunning? Was he a serial philanderer? Had he tried to kill John Lennon and all his love? 56 years! No one once asked him if he’d changed his mind, offered him some fucking parole? I discovered myself without toilet paper. Wrote on the wall: Phillip Nolan was here.
Years later, as I was growing up (still am), I discovered that Nolan’s tale was loosely based on an incident that happened to Peace Democrat congressman Clement Vallandigham in 1863, who, mid-war, openly called for peace; who didn’t believe the battle to end slavery was worth the price of a divided white nation. A draft had been called by Republican president Abraham Lincoln; New York’s white underclass erupted in rage when it was discovered that rich people could buy their way out of serving or find a proxy, and that their jobs refining slave-labor crops (cotton and sugar) could be lost, if the Union won. Vallandigham’s exhortations were regarded as treason — he was court-martialed and sent into exile. Why, Nolan was a patsy!
Many self-examinations later, I thought: Only a Republican would send a man up for 56 years without a chance for parole and call it a parable, while only a Democrat would sue soulfully for peace, but not give a damn about the injustice of slavery or, later, what became known as “economic inequality.” I didn’t know what to think. Toilet stalls don’t grow on trees, and I had nowhere to hide. And it all reminded me an awful lot of the Clinton years, back when Is was Is.
It’s only gotten worse since Socrates and Nolan, IMO — democracy and patriotism, I mean. Some would argue that they are long gone, like a turkey through the corn. 9 Eleven, that was our house of cards, two decks down, freefallin’ at the same time, ‘oh, the humanity’, and like little children who’ve spent all morning building and balancing our catastrophe-in-the-making we raged at physics, as if it were a demon, and looked with extreme prejudice for goats trying to escape.
As Pavlov dingled his bell, and we all broke out in a lip-doodling frenzy of ‘patriotism,’ Susan Sontag seemed to be the only one in the elephant room big enough to call the response for what it was: “The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing…[and] well, unworthy of a mature democracy.” Sontag saw no need to apologize and took her hemlock exile courageously. One day we’ll find the patsy in all this — probably while shaving.
Socrates died in 399 BC — but one could picture, almost 2500 years later, that Democracy has overshot its trajectory, and that Capitalism, not Asclepius, is due a salute. We have our own Cloud issues now; way more than Thirty Tyrants; our hearts and minds still filled with the soothing beats of war drums we’ve heard all our lives (from Korea to the ‘Ghan); thinkers pilloried; a press that mocks and squawks; and instead of a well-oiled Grecian democracy ready to wrassle with Killer “Climate Change” Kowalski, we got us a 1963 Rambler needing a new transmission. Personally, I think that future pledges of allegiance should require not the hand over the heart (that’s got other things to do: why burden it with the gravitas of false patriotism), but a nice big juicy middle finger that says Question Authority. That’s what a mature democracy requires.
Think about it.
“What our age lacks, however, is not reflection but passion. Hence in a sense our age is too tenacious of life to die, for dying is one of the most remarkable leaps, and a little verse of a poet has always attracted me much, because, after having expressed prettily and simply in five or six preceding lines his wish for good things in life, he concludes thus: Ein selige Sprung in die Ewigkeit.”
-Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
“If the flow is slow enough and you have a good bicycle, or a horse, it is possible to bathe twice (or even three times, should your personal hygiene require) in the same river”
The chauffeur creeps through his petty paces on a guardrail of the bridge high above the Mystic River. Poised like a tightrope walker, he resists the temptations of vertigo and the bully push of animate winds. Oh, he wants to jump, don’t you worry, but all in his own good time. Decked out in his driver’s uniform, including patent leather shoes that reflect the crescent moon, black leather gloves, his cap and dark glasses, he could be mistaken for Hamlet before the treachery and treason, or the Maltese Falcon after all is said and done and dreams are dashed. He pauses now, chin out, like Byron’s Manfred looking o’er an endless chain of snow-capped mountains toward the fjords of Beauty, then struts across his blustery stage, the unrequited lover of Being, one step beyond: the monster void. He thinks, I am the Knight of Infinite Resignation. He performs a kind of bourée and stops, index finger pointing skyward. He thinks, Ein Selige Sprung in die Ewigkeit. He steps, he stops, he gazes down from his cantilever perch, like Septus the river god, or some Cathedral anime, as if to see if there is anyone down there, out there who understands, who seeks. He lets rip a monologue:
Artists, like dreamers, share a humbling illiteracy before
their creations. They blaze across the star-splashed night
in chaotic flights of inspiration only to drop like a stone
into the blinking day, where poetry expires with the dawn.
Perhaps he has stared too long into the abyss and now the abyss is staring back into him?
But he has no time to solve this riddle: A siren is heard, urgent and nearing. He turns briefly toward the traffic moving in the fog like the forlorn eyes of ghosts, as it seems to him, slowing now at the toll booths to toss their tithes into the hungry wishing well before disappearing again into the forgetfulness of the urban Purgatoire.
Suddenly there is a chopper overhead and a spotlight. Cops arrive, but hang back, their bubblegum blue lights blazing. Gregory Milano, a local paramedic and sometimes opera buff, appears out of the headlighted mist. The ghosts come to a stop and apprehend.
“What’s up, bro? Wutchoo doin’ up here all alone on Christmas Eve?” begins the paramedic with studied cool, trying to sound all whiteboy hiphop, a regular Dylan Screed.
For a moment, the chauffeur recalls a Philip Roth story he’d read as a kid, “The Conversion of the Jews.” In it, the teenaged Ozzie Freeman, rebelling against the unanswered questions of orthodox Jewry, locks himself on the roof of a synagogue and torments his rescuers below by sprinting left, then right across the edge of the roof, the rescue blanket moving in slapstick panic to keep up. But the chauffeur was no Jew and this was no conversion. And there was nothing funny, in his mind, about the plight of artists, all the shooting stars of unrequited love.
“You got a name, guy?”
It was easy for Kierkegaard to take the leap of faith, he thinks, after all, his first name was Sören. He chuckles at his own pun.
“You wanna share the joke? I like a laugh,” says Gregory, trying to connect, as they trained him, inching toward his desperado.
Sören wasn’t standing on a bridge overlooking the Oily, he says to himself, referring to the local nickname for the Mystic River, which was heavily polluted with untreated sewerage, shopping carts, sludge from the nearby oil refineries, and, some said, assorted mobster body parts. Whatever you found on the bottom of the Oily it sure as fuck wasn’t going to be faith. The chauffeur turns and looks down at the water below. Feteo, ergo sum.
“Don’t do it, buddy. We’ve all been there,” the paramedic continues, almost able to reach out and nab his hovering darkclad nutjob and send him on his way to the Cha-Cha Hall, as he likes to call the public psychiatric facility, overcrowded, underfunded and corporatized by Big Pharma.
Below, the roiling waters of shit, lit up by the chopper’s beam, seem to smile up at him—the ripples forming kisses: inviting, voracious, and forever becoming and disappearing, like hope. Heraclitus may not have been able to step into the same river twice, he muses, but he wouldn’t have stepped into the Oily even once.
A young state trooper in gallant riding boots is just about to ratchet up the tentative hold he has on the chauffeur’s legs when old Aeolus, seemingly tired of the teetering and the tottering, comes along and gives the chauffeur a swift kick in the tookus, lifting him up out of the heavily-armed Samaritan’s hold and into a grand jete – up, up into the wilderness of the night, toward the spraypainted spiral of the Milky Way, up past the endless glowy cluster clouds of dialectical material (O, atoms in the eve!), to the very grasp of the Singularity, and then, suddenly, the forceful yank back down by the ankles, the headlong hurtle into the abyss, toward the stretched out arms of Mickey Sullivan, the snitch, rooted to the river bed, swaying like a colon polyp that’s been strangled.
“Name of God,” spouts the paramedic, and double crosses himself.
Siamo contenti? Son dio, ho fatto questa caricatura, laughs the fallen one.
But Gregory Milano hears instead the closing line of the opera Pagliacci, “La commedia é finita!” and sees a Fellini moment in the leaper’s shades, wherein he seems to watch himself recede and fall with the stranger, an eyeball tarantella, a mise en abyme.
The paramedic pulls back, nods knowingly at the dopplered exclamation from the poet, falling like a star toward the dark suck-swirl of filth and water, toward the interpenetration of being and nothingness, and the final submersion he so seemingly desires. Gregory feels a non so più rising up from his solar plexus, but by the time he turns to face the ghosts and his partner, Tracy, the vibe is gone; he shrugs and simply says, “Shit, we lost another one.” And the toll baskets start their gurgle again.
In my end is my beginning. Right?
When news broke that a maxim-making chauffeur had thrown himself off the Tobin Bridge, the Triad knew and came together, as soon as Mrs. Steele had gone to work, to commiserate and remember him, Felix A. Culp. The Triad consisted of two 16 year old boys, Jim B. Crowe (JB) and Richy Steele, and the latter’s 16 year old half-sister, Cindy. They all had known Felix in their several ways and drew on memories now assisted by the romance of sorrow. The heat pipes in the living room of the housing project apartment clanged and hissed and radiated so fiercely that the Triad often hung around in just their underwear and kept the windows open, even, as now, in winter. This proved extremely stressful most times for JB, who had a major crush on Cindy, and spent their sessions with a couch cushion crushed into his lap. He avoided gazing, as she lounged loosely in a stuffed chair opposite him, her black frilly underwear and bra and red lipstick making his metabolism gallop, a proverbial horse hot to trot, but even looking away he had pornographic flashes that made him want to do some serious populating. If Richy knew of the sexual tension between the two, he didn’t write it to his face to read.
Richy: I first met Felix up by the Bunker Hill Monument, where he used to live before they chased him out. I used to help the milkman deliver milk in those glass jars door to door. It was my first job. I would love the way, in the right light, the milk would seem to glimmer and glow, and it was always so quiet that early in the morning, all those parallel dreams at work. One morning I came upon the bare-chested Felix gleaming in the morning sun, washing his Lincoln limo, pressing his pecs against the glass like the boobilacious Lucille in Cool Hand Luke (nobody can eat 50 eggs), all suds and sinfulness. He had wild blond hair (a classic Teuton bob) and blue eyes and his car, his ve-hi-cool, was so black. I yearned. He waved. We exchanged numbers.
JB: The first time I ever saw Felix was when he pulled up in front of the high school and you, Richy, powered down the window and said, Get in, and Felix got out of the car, looking at that time, as I recall, like Bruce Lee from The Green Hornet; and he opened the back door of the limo, and stood there smiling, you know, in an Oriental ‘welcome’ way that said, ‘Here, have some dim sum, but don’t you fuck with me.‘ I said, Hi, and he said, Hiyeeee. School had just been let out for the day and students were teeming from the factory. And when they saw you and they saw Felix and they saw the limo, and me heading for it, they started in with the catcalls and japes, like a prison yard full of sharks and snakes. Richy Steele, someone yelled to jeers, we always knew you were a faggot. And look at BJ Crowe. And homo eructum in black. You guys a ménage a trois? And then some mothers took note, alarmed, writing down his plate number, exchanging actionable glances, thumb texting madly like kalimbas de chora. And our classmates taunted us with salty chanson:
Chauffeur, the gofer with limousine
Buggering wiggly boys with Vaseline.
And I got into the car—now I had to get away—and we drove off, and Cato looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked through designer shades, JB, have you ever been to Avalon?
Cindy: Actually, Richy, your memory fails you. I was in the back of the limo that day, watching Felix wash the car, saw you with the milk and the look of desire, but there was no exchange of eyebeams or numbers betwixt you. That was wishful thinking. But I determined that you should meet him; I could see a mutual attraction you might share. Right after you left, he got into the back of the limo with me, all wet and dripping black, like the Inkman Cometh. I pointed out the window and said, Look, the Monument looks like a giant white cock. Yes, he laughed, the British probably dropped their muskets and ran for the harbor when they saw this new Master Narrative extended 200 feet into the clouds. I believe it’s made of marble. Oh, he says, I guess I just took it for granite. And we sat in the 9 O’Cock shadow of the Master Narrative, me giving the master’s narrative a handjob, while he read Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères in passionate French cadenzas, which I did not understand, although I was inspired by its strident musicality, the same way Brecht can get up your spine. As I ducked away from his bliss blast, I mentioned you, Richy, and how you should hook up, and he said I should bring you by the bus station, where he usually picked up boys, and so we set a date. Then he told me to get dressed and sent me on my way, handing me a Simone de Beauvoir tome to read, and saying, You mustn’t fuck and suck your way to the top. You must take a rock to that glass ceiling. And just then, I shit you not, the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” came on the radio. Trippy synchronicity. But I forgot my bra and my breasts did the mambo all day.
Felix: Well, I’m not ‘there’ to challenge or clarify, but because their separate accounts are not entirely accurate or reliable, I sit there in their minds, as all falsity must, in the form of self-doubt, a logical rather than moral itch. It is a fact that I did not meet Cindy until many years later. She had given up her university teaching position (literary studies) after radical feminists rose to power in the School and turned post-modernism studies into a misanthropy crusade. PMS has taken hold, she said. So, she started a literary magazine, or rather she re-vamped Fuck You magazine (calling it Fuck You II), a Sixties lit sheet full of collages and cubes and psilocybin-influenced polemics—in short, all the fun stuff she claimed was there in post-modernism before the feminists hijacquelined the engine. Yes, we did meet briefly in the back of my limo one time, where she interviewed me: Expound on new epistemologies and the tyranny of all texts, she said, and so I did. But no handjobs or advice or monuments (does she not realize the monuments came many years after the British stopped polishing each others’ helmets and were rebuffed, not before?). And while it’s true that I met Richy for the first time, not with Donne-like visual dialectics in the shadow of the stiffy obelisk, but at the Greyhound bus station, where he came on his own initiative, like all the boys, all the little hustlers looking to roll a fag for his money or get a free blowjob. What JB says is largely true: I met him for the first time in front of his school, and my arrival was met with the jeers and derisions of guttersnipes forming gauntlets. Hiyeeee.
Where I live, in a one square mile tract of land, in the shadow of the Tobin Bridge, along the Mystic River, we are ruled by the parochial and small. Where I live, Catholic self-righteousness marries hypocrisy and engenders vigilantism. Where I live, young men jump into the Oily to prove their manhood. Where I live, ‘faggots’ and ‘niggers’ and ‘uppity bitches’ are not tolerated. Where I live, we dream of doing violence to our heteroglossic neighbours. Where I live, we make shit up and then the Other disappears. Where I live, we teach our children to jeer and hate at an early age and turn them into lifelong moral retards. Where I live, we hurl red bricks at yellow buses full of black kids, then wave green shamrocks. Where I live, love is tied to control and submission. Where I live, people mistake democracy for liberty and slander for free speech. Where they live, chauffeurs who pick up kids with long black limousines are paedophiles needing to be whacked like on the Sopranos. [All together, in the style of Brecht]: Where we live, we die early and live long late lives of longevity.
Scene: [A toilet stall in the Greyhound bus station. Richy has arranged to meet the chauffeur here, after his sister’s urging, and sits with pants down to his ankles waiting for a signal that the chauffeur has arrived.] I’m sitting there thinking that someone should do a graphological study of public toilet postings. All those telephone numbers and promises; all the political invective and personal libel; the various sketches of circumcised penises and clammy vaginas circumscribing the walls of the tiny cubicle; the fonts and colors and symbols; all the degrees and kinds of urgency expressed; and when I saw “Nietzsche is peachy” crossed out and replaced with “Nietzsche is Lychee” and “the little poet opens the shutters of his hairy heart”—well, I knew some crafty post-modernist had been here positing (was the lack of toilet paper indicative?). When you closed the door to a public toilet cubicle you were locking yourself into an interactive fart gallery. I pondered contributing my own aphorism, my bum puffing up like Satchmo’s cheeks before the trumpet blast (I remember my Grandpa would fart, then say: ‘but don’t quote me’), when I heard tapping and tapping and looked down and could see a black patent leather shoe next door going up and down in time. The shoe might have been tapping out the Ninth’s “Ode to Joy” or it could have been “Rock the Casbah,” but before I could figure it out a voice said, Are you ready, my little hustler? And I said back, My sister said you’d take me there. Meet me out front in 5, the black limo, and then he flushes and leaves, and I pull up, praying I’ve caught no germs, note a caricature cock shooting pinyin hyperbole, flush and follow, self-conscious, pre-ashamed, the loudspeaker calling out departures, Chicago Gate 5, everyone looking at me leave, thinking, I’m sure, the little perv. But don’t quote me.
Scene: [Inside the chauffeur’s Lincoln limo. The driver sits with Richy in the back of the limo, seated beside him, legs spread wide, hands across his crotch, rap gangster style. But it’s clear he’s just being ironic.] Do you always wear shades in the privacy of your own car? The better to see you with. Nevertheless, I’d like to see your eyes, gaze into them, and maybe get a sense. [Felix removes his cap and sun glasses to reveal a long mane of honey hair and lapis lazuli eyes] My god, I’m startled cream. You are so beautiful to look at: Adonis, McConaughey, Brad Pitt as Achilles, but more than all that, you’re David Bowie singing “Blue Jeans” or all-so-soulful in The Man Who Fell to Earth, oh-h-h. How much will you pay me to have your way? That depends. [Richy swoons] Where is the there you’ll take me to? Why Avalon, of course. Can we bring my friend JB? He likes adventures. Sure, but the woods are dark and deep. I promise to keep it to myself, don’t worry. [Felix puts his shades and cap back on, exits back of limo, moments later his face shows up in the rear view mirror, eyes two Rayban abymes ] Now which high school was that? I’ll plug the coordinates into my trusty GPS.
Scene: [Out front of Charlestown High as school is getting out for the day. Out of the streams of anarchy and noise Richy spots his friend, JB, powers down his tinted window and calls out. ] Yo, JB! Come for a ride. Don’t look so surprised. Hop in. Don’t mind those jeers. Pass through that gauntlet and come. See, the chauffeur opens the door for you. Come for a ride. [JB climbs into the limo, as the window powers up and shuts out someone shouting, “Get on, you fags. Bring your ménage trois somewhere else.” The chauffeur addresses the boys through the rear view mirror.] So you are JB. Richy’s told me so little about you. Right, and you must be The Chauffeur: the whole community’s told me about you. You’re a—JB, have you ever been in the woods, lost? The snowy evening ones or the Red Riding ones? Oh, I do like the way you think. Well, JB, that’s for you to decide. Are you ready? Where are we going? He’s to take us to Avalon? Avalon? Why then we’re off!
If you drive up on the expressway to the Tobin Bridge you climb past the U.S.S. Constitution in dry dock, climb over the lower end of Charlestown, over the public housing project, over the Oily, over the Navy shipyard, over the Exxon refinery and distribution center, over the Chelsea Yacht Club, and climb up the four-lane Route 1, past the garden supply outlets, past the batting cages, past the soft serve joints, past the assorted steakhouses and saloons and strip malls and ATMs, past all the motels with names like Shangri-La, Erewon, Utopia Village, New Horizon, until you come to the turn-off for Avalon. Situated in 10 acres of wooded area, Avalon is a motel complex that features simulacra cabins spread out ‘in the woods’ to effect ‘privacy’. If you wanted to, you could tune out the screams of children in Cabin 5 and the women wailing in Cabins 7 and 31, ignore the general squalor, the out of town plates, the drug dealing out behind cabin 26, the general pervasive threat of malignant dark forces at work. Ignore them all, and they would return the favour.
And so the sheeny shimmy limn-o-scene pulls up blithely in front of Avalon cabin number 38 late of an August day, the tired air conditioner emitting a little clack as the motor thrums off. (Was that a whippoorwill?) The trio emerges from the limo, the chauffeur expressionless, goes right to the door, unlocks it, ushers in the boys—the one with a look of airy anticipation, the other with a look of foreboding, feeling for his pocket knife, thumbing its rose-leaf escutcheon. Inside, the door snugly shut, the room is lit, a yellow wan, and reveals a one-room tableau, with bathroom. It is old, with a faded red carpet, old TV chained to the wall, generic dresser, kitchenette, pine chairs, small square table and assorted brickabrackery. And an ancient queen-sized bed with a synthetic cover spread, design from the Seventies. The chauffeur plops on it, lays his cap aside, shades off, long blond strands roll down his shoulders, like the first dawn on the river Jordan, Richy thinks. You want to see something? He drops a quarter in a bedside box and the bed begins to shake, rattle and roll. He thwacks the spot next to him. Ho-kay. Who’s on first? He looks left, right, stops and stares at Richy. Oh, you didn’t tell him what we came here for, did you? JB stares, too, at Richy, who turns red as the last dawn on the river Jordan, as JB sees it. Never mind. You go in there, JB, and wait. Here, you’ll probably want something to read. The Chauffeur thrusts a book into JB’s hands and nudges him into the bathroom and closes the door with a click. JB turns on the light. Looking in the mirror he sees he is afraid and then he sees himself seeing himself afraid, and on and on it goes. He looks at the book. It is Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation. He puts it in the sink and turns on the faucet (cold) as if to drown the World. There is a long stretch of silence outside the bathroom. JB turns off the tap and picks up the wet book with his thumb and index, then opens it at a random page, and reads:
Truth is no prostitute, that throws herself away upon those who
do not desire her; she is rather so coy a beauty that he who sacri-
fices everything to her cannot even then be sure of her favour.
He puts the book back in the sink. Richy, you alright? He goes to open the door. You stay in there. A snarl. JB hears whispering, doesn’t like it, turns off the bathroom light, opens the door a crack, and sniffs. The room is lit only by a tiny red night light near the bed. JB makes out two amorphous figures, and, as his eyes adjust, he sees the chauffeur sitting at the end of the bed, legs spread wide, Richy on his knees before him. But then JB sees the chauffeur’s black net stockings and red lipstick that transfix him. His mind swirls; he retreats, pulls the sink plug. And then it’s over. The chauffeur calls him out, hands JB a $5 note and a $10 note to Richy. They’re back in the limo, driving out of the dark, screaming woods, heading home. The chauffeur seems ebullient, luck struck. Moons at the boys through the mirror, the three of them squeezed together in the frame as in some Erich Heckel portrait.
My little Dionysius and junior Apollo. [He pauses, smiles like Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick.] So then, what was your take on Schopenhauer, JB?
Well, I’m still trying to process what happened back there. But you know…What did you say your name was?
Culp. Felix A. Culp. Call me Felix.
It struck me, Felix, that Truth seems to be pictured as a femme fatale an awful lot of the time.
Indeed, but what is a femme fatale, JB, if not a siren to our deepest desires?
Yes, but I suspect the lady doth protest too little.
Nonsense. Ravish the little lady and she’ll sing all the truth you’ll ever want to hear. Right, Felicity?
They exchange looks.
Anybody got a piece of gum?
The chauffeur smiles back. Doublemint or Juicy Fruit, Richy Rich?
And so it began that summer. After picking up his “rich and powerful” clients and shuffling them back and forth between the airport and their brokering places and hotels, the chauffeur picked up his two ‘unwashed’ boys, two or three times a week all that summer. We waited for him on a park bench near the Boston Common, the tourists snapping digital pics of the famous duck boats, all daffy with forced delight. I would be reading some tome Felix had loaned me (forced on me, really), and Richy would keep an eye out for vice cops, and wave to the ones he knew. Then Felix would pull up curb-side on Arlington St. and beckon us to the limo, and in we’d hop, and off we’d go to Avalon. And a few hours later, after all was done and said, we’d come south again, over the bridge, through the tolls, and Felix would drop us off at the edge of the Town and we’d walk home, stopping off at the convenience store with our new funds to buy Twinkies or Fritos and a couple of cans of Coke, the booty of our lust and learning.
The rides up over the bridge were always the most exciting. Always Felix was provocative, titillating, original. One time he’d dress up like a handsome Cossack, but made up like Edgar Allan Poe in black, then say, My name is Ivan Nevermoresky, and we’d spend the next couple of hours comparing Dostoyevsky’s tortured Underground Man to the tortures of the Pit and the Pendulum, and, of course, Das Kapital would raise its ugly head, so off it had to go. Or another time he’d leer at us, decked out as Batman, and have us play out how the role might develop in a Michael Haneke version of the caped crusader. With tight shorts. Another time he came costumed like Darth Vader, breathing heavy behind the mask, lay on the back seat between us, the back of his head in my lap, and assign us the roles of Freud and Jung–Analyze me, he’d say, and Richy would put a cigar out in my face, figuratively speaking, and I would crown him back with a barbed archetype that wiped away his superior smile. Or the chauffeur’d come all Vincent Price-like, Dr. Phibes, and tell us he was the Mainstream Media and ask us to consider how truth could be dangerous and propaganda useful, then had us write a faux piece for the New York Times and defend its value to the public. Pretend I’m a potential subscriber, he’d say. One time we spent an hour considering Heraclitus’ famous fragment about not entering the same river twice, and then, when we seemed sufficiently perplexed, he’d read a passage from Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, wherein the young river boat pilot, having spent an exhausting nerve-wracked day learning the language of the river, discovers he must begin his learning of the ever-changing river anew the next day and every day, forever, like some Sisyphus of the tides. O, Route 1 was our river! (With tight shorts.)
Then we’d arrive in Avalon at the cabin, and I’d sit in the back of the limo, while Richy and the chauffeur went inside and enacted their love—albeit for cash. The ride home was always quiet, serene, each of us pensive, self-absorbed, original. Though none of us smoked, the limo always seemed to be filled with unctuous French clouds gesturing upward in complex undulations, cigareuse. Richy clearly got more of what he needed out of Felix through their mutual physicality, while I preferred the stimulus of his stellar intellect; he was brilliant, and I Ioved him. I don’t know what Felix got from us, save, perhaps, the freedom of molding new ideas each day—we, his turning clay–, or like some visionary artist throwing himself at the blank canvas, knowing the energy is fleeting, the result always ultimately false, that it’s not really about representation but about being. But don’t quote me.
Then JB decided to bang my sister.
I did not bang your sister. Or rather, I did, but it wasn’t as crude as that.
Man, you were up to your sinuses in quim jam. You positively reeked of her. Not crude? OPEC wants to talk terms with you.
When you went off to the store to buy some Twinkies, she came out of her room in that black silk dress looking like a Chivas Regal ad. She had nothing on underneath but fish net stockings and she wore that violent red lipstick. I’m thinking: Liza Minnelli, Cabaret. And then she jumped me. It was all I could do, and so on. We stayed friends and smile.
And then one day Charles Stuart was being chased by the police and jumped from the Tobin Bridge to escape them, and then Felix came one last time as The Knight of Infinite Resignation, dressed in tight shorts, as I recall, and then disappeared until Christmas Eve, when we heard on the news that a man fitting his description had jumped from the Tobin Bridge spouting the final lines from Pagliacci. And then we grieved and went our separate ways, toward Fuck You magazines, Genet-ic theatre and post-modern Academe. But the river, the Oily, remains the same.
A voice calls him back from the edge of the universe, where he’d gone to look for a window into other realms or possibilities; slowly he zooms out, returns to a consciousness of the present, as in that first episode of Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, which rapidly compresses time, from the Big Bang to the Now of 1974, in a matter of minutes. He’s got the news on in his dim-lit room and the female impersonator of public virtues is telling her viewers:
StillnosignofabodyafteramanleapedfromtheTobinBridgeonChristmasEveanddisappearedintothefrigidwatersoftheMysticRiver.JimO’BrienisstandingliveonthesouthbounddeckoftheTobinBridge.Jim,what’sthelatest?Well,Pam,policestillhavenotidentifiedtheman.Theysaythemanwasdroppedoffbyalimousinedrivenby whatsomewitnessesdescribeasawomanwithlipstick.Policearereviewingvideofootage,but,Pam,theysayitwasextremelyfoggyChristmasEveandtheydoubtthetapeswillrevealanythingnew.Theysaytheonlycluetheyhavetotheman’sidentityarethecrypticwordsheshoutedataparamedicashewasfalling.Telluswhathesaid,Jim.Well,Pam,itwassomethinginItalian:“Lacommediaéfinita!”IhopeourItalian-Americanviewerswillforgivemybadpronunciation [he and Pam pretend to laugh]. Anyway,apparentlyitisalinefrom theoperaPagliacci,andmeans:Thecomedyisover.Isthattheonewiththeclowns,Jim?Well,Idon’tknow,Pam,haha,I’mnotanoperafan.Oh,Jim,you’reblushing–butpolicesaytheyarehopingthewords mightprovideavaluableclue.SoessentiallypolicearelookingforanyonemissinganItalianoperalovinglovedonewhomighthavehad theholidaybluesandhasn’tbeenheardfromsinceChristmasEve?Is thataboutright,Jim?That’saboutit,Pam.Andsofar,ifyou’llexcuse thepun,noonehasforwardtosing.Here’sanumbertocallifanymemberofthepublichasifanyonecanhelpussolvethemysteryoftheleapingchauffeur. [a telephone number glows seriously] Sosad, isn’t,Jim?almostanironictakeonIt’sAWonderfulLife.Yes,Pam,weliveinironicaltimesforsure.MakesyouwonderwhatJimmyStewartwouldmakeofallthis,ifhewerealive.Verysad.Alright,we’llhavetoleaveitthere.Thankyou,Jim.Youbet,Pam.100101110110110001100100111000111101101110101000110101010100001….
Felix sits up in his bed. No, no, no, it wasn’t Pagliacci, you clown. I said: ‘Siamo contenti? Son dio, ho fatto questa caricature.’ Nietzsche, not Pagliacci. But he waved it off. It was inconsequential. His muse was summoning him and he must not keep her waiting. And besides, there were new boys waiting, waiting to come back to the woods–not to Avalon now, but Camelot.
Outside the Camelot Office he drops his postcard in the box. It is addressed to the Triad. It has a picture of a tightrope walker and a stamp with “Love” and pink hearts. On the card he has penned: Versteh’? Or have I come too soon again? And, below, his signature: a graffiti-like falling star.
In my beginning is my end. Left?