- The Poet Dines Alone
Excerpt: SNEAKY PEOPLE, unpublished novella.
Okay, this is a story about me. It’s my diary, so I can write about anything I want – even things I wouldn’t tell other people (especially other men). I’m a sneaky person. I come from a long line of sneaky people – really sneaky people. We’re part of the anonymous swarm that comes out like rats – day or night – picking off top or bottom of the midden heap (depending upon status in the pack) – seeking sustenance while awaiting the ever-approaching End of the World.
Which is pretty much occurring every day. The End of the World is both cumulative and individual specific. On the upper end of the End of the World Scale is Climate Change, which promises wholesale extinction (and, some bitch winters and summers between now and then); and, on the other is the latest starving Somali, homeless person, or helpless geriatric. Somebody’s pretty much meeting the End of the World every single second.
I was born in San Francisco a bit before the mid-point of the Twentieth Century. My parents were apprehensive about the spreading World War of that time and, I believe, my arrival was an oasis of joy for them – odd as that seems to me now. My birth was an opportunity for them to hold the rest of the insane world temporarily at bay, basking in the momentary glow of life’s continuity. Like all young people, they huddled secretly under the covers with their arms around each other, whispering about futures and possibilities – hopes.
My presence – miniscule and infantile – was accepted as God’s reassurance that all of us – each one: Dad, Mom, and Jr. – would come out all right. In the end, the enemy would be defeated and the world brought majestically into the bright, painless peace of Forever After and the New Deal (which sounds like a rock group and if someone cops the name, I’ll sue).
However, my parents honestly felt that they were finishing the “undone business of World War I” – there were still German vermin to exterminate and, unexpectedly, the sudden need to fumigate Italy and delouse Japan.
Shortly after I was born, father was sent to the war by our beleaguered government and mother moved in with his mother – grandma – and three maiden aunts who were all destined to have affairs with transient servicemen who “might be killed in a matter of weeks,” and were. None of my aunts’ fellahs made it back. One aunt went bonkers, one married a dull-witted postman, and the third wed a fat automobile dealer and got a divorce from the rest of us.
Anyway, we waited at grandma’s for dad to come home.
He arrived late at night three years later. He was flown into San Francisco International and taxied seventeen miles to his mother’s Oceanside home – to his wife and growing son. I looked up at him as he stood over my bed.
“Did you fly home?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said with a pleased laugh. “Do you remember me?”
“I have your picture,” I replied, pointing to his image on my dresser.
He looked at himself in the photograph for a long time, silent and withdrawn. The day the photo had been taken, he had been a young soldier, vibrant, self-assured, and alive. His face now was subtly different from the one in the photograph mounted between fifty-caliber machinegun rounds. In the picture he was young and proud with new sergeant’s stripes on his Eighth Army Air Force uniform. Standing there looking at himself, he was weary and grim. A trace of the young man remained – a hint of optimism, which fired his eyes.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said at last, hardly believing that this would and could be so, that the bombs were left far behind, and gratefully forgetful that half the world’s population was still awakening in a world of ruins – picking hungrily through the rubble, hunting rats for nourishment.
I learned that he’d been in photo reconnaissance. I liked the sound. The French word “reconnaissance” had a lean mean underground battlefield resonance. I was a romantic kid. (That drove Dad nuts – among other things). I learned, too, one evening when he was drinking, something he did more and more, that he had helped empty a rocket-hit orphanage one night in downtown London, carrying out its dead and dying children and their bloody parts.
He saw and lived with death as a routine for three years. His photograph war souvenir album had pictures of massive bombers dumping lethal rain on Dresden, Berlin, German gun emplacements in Normandy, French coastal towns, war ships and hospitals, trains, cars, horses, wagons, canals and villages. Now, home, he attacked normal civilian life as if it was the new enemy. He had lost time to make up, things to do, family to feed and a top to possibly find.
In his free time, he watched boxing on the new-fangled television, tense with pleasure waiting for the knockouts, heavy K. O. punches, and T. K. O. s swimming in blood. He watched the gymnastic exhibitions of professional wrestling until he realized that the mayhem wasn’t real. He watched John Wayne repeatedly and successfully storm Iwo Jima. He saw Errol Flynn shoot his way single-handedly through the entire Japanese Army in Burma. He observed as Jeff Chandler really died of pleurisy while filming a mediocre account of Merrill’s Marauders on location in Imperial Indochina. Pa’s latent violence had to translate into real life.
He punched Ma. He punched me. He drank himself finally and completely to death. In his scarred wake, he left two sons, one daughter, and his frightened, yet indefatigable wife. He also left behind the lingering echoes of Henry David Thoreau, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Father was a desperate man.
I’ve thought since that he was born in belief, raised in faith, condemned to hell, pardoned to purgatory, and eventually dispatched to…wherever he went.
Mother always said, “The War changed him.” This is certainly so – I’ve seen other young men come back from Korea and Viet Nam. They all have Dad’s eyes. The men who fought at Salamis probably looked that way too. Bloody fields and death process slowly.
Because of all this, justifications of violence appall me. Its price is too high. Brought home in the eyes of our young men, violence compounds as it seeks its vent. Within the peacetime marketplace it ripples out on a high, spreading across the schoolyards, streaming into ghetto back alleys, finding its way into the boardroom. Man against man, clan against clan. So it goes, as Vonnegut says, and I? I go on, watching to left and right, mindful of the dangers on the street, wary in my sleep – as restless as I was at the mouth of my cave one million years ago.
The history of mankind is a dry narration of famous battles, famous generals and famous kings, interspersed with profiles of failed political, social, economic and religious systems, which all rose and fell on the profit line. The chronicle of anything else is incidental, a coffee table book. Art, music, literature, dance, theater, magic are a sideshow to the main show. Those things are the province of dreamers, romantics and fools. For, if anyone is able to live a placid life, outside the maniacal slashing and hacking of whole peoples intent on the obliteration of other whole peoples, then one is, indeed, fortunate.
Life is a series of accidents. Chance, not choice, governs (although, why we are in one spot at a particular time and not in another may be divinely inspired). However, I doubt there is a Master Plan. Master plans and master crimes require cumbersome plotting. One can, or should be able to see their patterns, but impulse fires most of us. We deal with consequences afterward, which is when they should properly be dealt with, I guess.
I’d like to do something to help my fellow human beings, but I don’t know what. Everybody’s fighting and clawing, biting and scratching. I’m hiding. Scared to death. Who wants to attract attention? The threat to life may be worldwide conflagration, or in the mouth of some filthy city alley, with a knife wielding, coked-up assailant standing over one’s punctured corpse. “Neither a peacekeeper, nor a lender be.” It’s too painful, too expensive, and too dangerous. Experience is a great teacher; if we survive the lesson, but we’re still not gonna get out of this alive.
I wish I could stop the clock. Turn back time until I’m just short of the primordial ooze – watch by degrees the slow progression of life. See just how long it takes to make a human being out of all that gloop. Think about just how quickly that complex organism can cancel itself out with a single bullet.
The universe is infinite. I don’t really understand what that means, and it’s expanding, but into what? It’s cosmic and vast and when you think about it, without the artificial augmentation of religious zealotry, perhaps meaningless. Even so, this ship was pilotless before we knew that it had no pilot and continues so and nothing changes that. Either way, I don’t expect the Creator to wash my dirty laundry or lift my heavy load. It’s clear I gotta hoe my own corn.
I am alive, well, and living past the immoral end of the Twentieth Century and on the ignorant cusp of the early Twenty-first – unhappily still under threat of the nuclear-bomb, dismayed by Russians and Chinese, the System and the decay of the World, as ever. “Is it just for the moment we live?” You betcha. What’s it all about, Alfie? The End of the World is only a heartbeat away. Whether one is one of a half million blown away at Hiroshima, drowning alone in the pool of a cliffside villa in Monterey, or choking in the arms of a lover on a sunny Egyptian Sunday.
Well, Diary, that’s my Summer Vacation. I’m going home now. Wonder what I’ll find? It’s still the End of the World and Sissy Wagner doesn’t love me anymore. Who’s going to do my laundry?
— JL:PDX, 8-09
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