Cunt

“If you don’t like it, why did you order it?”

“Who said I didn’t like it?”

“You don’t like it. I’m looking right at you. I can tell.”

“Jesus, Jeremy.”

“If you don’t like, just say you don’t like it. Hell; I’ll eat it.”

“Listen, Jeremy. I ordered the Codfish, and I’ll eat the Codfish. They put some kind of sauce on it or something. Doesn’t taste like the way I’m used to.”

“What did you say?”

“I said their codfish doesn’t taste the way I expected. But it’s fine, baby. Jesus, I’m eating it.”

“Codfish? Baby, that’s not codfish, it’s catfish. You ordered the catfish, not the codfish. Listen. It’s an easy mistake. You want me to eat it?”

“Jesus, Jeremy. I’m eating it already. Will you let me alone?”

“Fine.”

“Anyway, look. Look! Right here, on the menu, it says clear as day, codfish in wine sauce.”

“You just have to be right, don’t you?”

Jeremy looked away from Lucy, and out through the large rectangular windows to his left. The snow was coming down a little harder, and blowing in wide circles. “Listen,” he said after a while. “This is a stupid argument. Let’s get out of here. Mine isn’t that good either.”

“If you don’t like it, why did you order it?”

“Jesus, Lucy, let’s not start this again, okay?”

Lucy didn’t say anything.

“What?”

Lucy looked away from the table and frowned.

“Fine.” Jeremy stood up, and his napkin tumbled from his lap onto the red tablecloth. He put down a credit card. “I’m going. Go ahead and pay with that. I’ll catch up with you back at the apartment.”

“Where are you going?”

“For a walk.”

“Jesus, Jeremy, what do you mean you’re going for a walk? It’s twenty degrees out there, and look at it. It’s snowing like crazy.”

“I like the snow.”

“No you don’t. You’ve never liked the snow.”

“I do now.”

&

Outside, the snow came down in wet drifts, and stuck against Jeremy’s coat. He walked all the way down Park Avenue from 62nd street to where Park met Union Square. By the time he got downtown he was warm, if wet, and he even felt happy; the little bit of wine he’d had with dinner made the streetlights glow warm with the shoplights. The feeling made him want another drink, a brandy or cognac, so he ducked into a café off 12th Street.

It was quiet and empty in the café. There were several marble tables spread around, orange lights decorating the walls, and a Bach fugue playing low in the background. Jeremy sat down, and when the waitress came to the table he ordered a snifter of Remy-Martin along with the day’s paper. He looked outside at the snow, and thought about Lucy.

“Here’s your paper, sir. I hope the Times is okay.”

“The Times is just fine, thanks,” Jeremy said, turning from the window, and looking at the waitress. She was tall, dark haired. She had green eyes, a kind of exotic look. She looked like she might be Mediterranean. “Any articles you recommend? I haven’t had a chance to look at the paper today.”

“Well, I don’t know what your interests are…”

Jeremy smiled at her, a warm, sly smile. “The same as yours,” he said.

The waitress laughed, and took the paper back. She opened it. “Well,” she said, “if you’re into books and all that-,”

“I’m a writer.”

“You’re a writer? Really?”

“Pulp novels.”

“Oh.”

“Well, when you say it like that, you make me feel self-conscious about it.”

“You don’t write great literature?”

Jeremy laughed. “Sure I do! And you?”

“Well, I like to read.” She handed the paper back to Jeremy, opened to the book section. “There’s a great review of Kimble’s new novel.”

Jeremy winced a little. Fucking Kimble. “No kidding? What’s the review say?”

“Well if I told you, I’d spoil the fun of you reading it for yourself. Have you heard of him?”

Yeah, Jeremy had heard of Martin Kimble all right. He’d even met him one night, at a book release party for another author. Jeremy had always been sort of ambivalent about Kimble’s writing. Great character writer, but his plots felt contrived. Wasn’t that the problem with lots of literary fiction? How to write great characters, a gripping plot, and keep your book literary, for whatever that meant. At the book release party Kimble was wildly drunk, and Jeremy caught up to him in a staircase. Kimble was smoking a joint. When he brought up his concerns with Kimble that night in the stairwell, Kimble frowned a bloated, ugly frown. Kimble was a big man, with a fat frame, and a fat face to match. Balding brown splotches of hair on his head, and clear indications in the lines of his face that all the years of hard drinking had taken their toll. His eyes were sharp, but dead. The guy looked jaded. And then he frowned that bloated, ugly frown and his face went into all sorts of contortions, like he was working something out in his head.

“Aren’t you Jeremy Cole?”

“You’ve heard of me? You even recognize me? Well, shit. Wonders never cease!” Jeremy had intended this to be a friendly way of beginning shop talk with Kimble, but Kimble’s frown just deepened, and he said:

“My plots feel contrived?”

“I didn’t mean it like that; I was just asking -,”

“And this from a writer of Pulp Mysteries or whatever the hell you write?”

“Jesus, Mr. Kimble, I was just saying –,”

“You’re a fucking hack. And you’re telling me how to write literary fiction? Hey, I don’t judge you for what you do. Whatever sells your writing, I guess. But don’t come to me, a fucking Pulp writer, and tell me I can’t write a decent fucking plot. The audacity of you fucking people.”

And that was that. Kimble had sauntered off, throwing down the roach of his joint, and walked back out into the ballroom, leaving Jeremy standing there a little embarrassed, ashamed, and angry. He slipped out into the ballroom, grabbed his coat from the coat check desk, and hailed a cab on West Houston. When he got home, he told Lucy about it, and she said, “Well, you can see why he’d be upset.”

&

“Yeah, I’ve heard of him,” Jeremy told the waitress. “A good writer. Writes exceptional characters.”

“I think so too,” she said.

“Good review?”

“Like I said, go on and read it.”

Jeremy looked down at the paper. He’d heard about Kimble’s new novel. He hadn’t read any reviews of it yet, and he certainly hadn’t read the book itself, or anything about it; he’d been ignoring the book. “Reaching the Ideal through the Vulgar” He looked up from the paper. The waitress was standing over him, bent slightly forward at the waist, eyes focused on the paper.

“You have read the article, haven’t you?” Jeremy asked her. “I don’t want to take your copy of the paper if you were reading it.”

“Oh, I’ve read it a bunch of times,” she said. “I think it’s fascinating.”

Jeremy looked back at the paper, and kept reading. He was skimming mostly. The first paragraph was a quick description of Kimble’s previous work, the second a three sentence summary of the book’s plot – just tell me if you think it’s good or not, Jeremy thought, impatient flying down the page. Nothing committal. The review seemed kind of mixed.

He’d read it a little later.

“Have you read the book?” he asked, looking back up at the waitress.

“Sure I have,” she said, and her voice changed perceptibly, like she was talking very low to someone very far away, and she lost focus of the paper and smiled. “I’ve read everything by Martin Kimble.”

“You must be quite a fan!”

“Well, naturally,” she said. “I’m his fiancé.”

II

When Jeremy returned to the apartment, slightly drunk, a little happy, a little melancholy, and with a definite lurch to his step, Lucy was still up. She was sitting in bed reading. He came into the bedroom, and she looked up with a weary displeased grimace. Jeremy said as jovially as he could, “What’cha reading?”

Lucy closed the book, and put it down. “Naturally, you’ve been out drinking.”

“Do you know,” said Jeremy, kicking off his shoes by the heels without untying them, “who I met tonight?”

“Jeremy, you haven’t been yourself lately. Do you even realize how rude it was to walk out on me at dinner tonight? How embarrassing in front of all those people. The waitress looked at me like I was breaking her heart. She gave me a ridiculous discount and everything, she felt so bad for me. And then that sympathetic look. Oh God, how humiliating, like the girl stuck in the bad relationship everyone has to feel sorry for. I can just hear her now to her friends! Oh this poor woman. She really needs to get some self-esteem and leave him. Ugh!”

“Who is ever themselves?” Jeremy mused, coming over and sitting next to Lucy on the bed. He brushed back her hair. “After all, I left you my American Express. It’s everywhere you want to be.”

Lucy smacked him with a pillow. “You’re lucky I didn’t just take that card and fly to the Bahamas or something.”

Jeremy laughed. “Besides, never mind waitresses. You can’t stay mad at me, can you? Listen, Lucy. You remember that night I met Martin Kimble.”

Lucy laughed a smack of a “Ha!” and said, “How can I forget? Your great humiliation!”

Jeremy frowned and straightened up. “Well, I met his fiancé tonight.”

“Oh, really?” said Lucy. “How does she look?”

“She’s pretty. Not much my type, but she’s pretty.”

“Prettier than me? He didn’t one up you there too, did he?”

Jeremy eyes went dark, and he muttered, “Apparently I’m not the only one who’s been drinking tonight.”

“What do you expect me to do when I’m sitting here all night wondering where you went? Where did you go?”

“I went to this café downtown. The waitress was all about Martin Kimble. In the end it turns out she’s his fiancé.”

“Small world.”

“It really is. She’s a lot more pleasant than he is, I can tell you that. And his new book…”

Lucy laughed. “You mean, CUNT?”

Jeremy smiled back at her. “Yeah, CUNT. Actually the review in the Times seemed sort of mixed. They did say it’s his best work in a while.”

“They always say that. Personally, I can’t stand the title alone. Makes me not want to read it.”

“Well, I’m glad we’re finally back on the same side.”

“Who said I was on your side? It’s a nasty little title. I don’t know why men write books at all. Men are too crude, stupid and insensitive to write books. If only women wrote books, there would be a lot more quality literature out there. I’ll tell you that much.”

“So why don’t you write a book?”

“What do I know about writing a book? I’d have to study it and all that. Besides, words are so… so imprecise. I work with numbers; I’ll stick to numbers thank you very much. They have their own music.”

Lucy was a statistician. It was the best way to describe her. Jeremy met her six years before at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. He’d been in the café doing research on a crime novel, and he ended up staying there the whole day, from morning ‘til night. Right up by the giant bay windows, with the sun coming in on a cold November morning, made warmer with his coffee, the café and the sun covering him in a lazy blanket. It was something he did often while doing research for a new novel; he’d spend all day at the café, come home, look over his notes, and then spend the evening at home writing. In the morning the place was pretty empty and quiet, and this was the best time of day to be there. By noon, the daytime crowds and NYU students began to fill up the place; by late afternoon, the entire Barnes & Noble was loud and crowded, and there was no way to be left alone at his prized bay window table. Once all the tables were filled up, people would sit across from other patrons at the same table. Sometimes people would sit at the bay window table with him even if there were other open available tables in the café, but there was too much good research material to do the work anywhere else.

On this particular November day, Jeremy was taking a break from his research to read through the paper. It was around one in the afternoon, and there were surprisingly, a couple tables still open. The sun was starting to brighten through the large bay windows; usually it hit full force around 2 or 2:30 this time of year. He was in the middle of an article about a kid who had been shot the night before in Brooklyn when a young, slightly plump woman in a purple shirt sat down across from him. She had a light copper complexion; he thought she might be Hispanic, maybe Arabic. He screwed up his face, annoyed, and then scanned the café, confirming to himself that she’d sat down at his table when there were other open tables available.

“I hope you don’t mind if I sit down for a minute,” she said. “It’s just for a minute. I’m on my break from lunch, and I wanted to sit and read this article. I come here sometimes to do that.”

Jeremy shrugged and looked back down at his paper. The girl moved her plate in front of her, and picked up what looked like a turkey sandwich. She took a bite, took a drink of juice, and darted her eyes quickly up and then quickly down. She repeated this a couple times. After a number of times, Jeremy looked up at the jerk of her chin, and their eyes met. A long, awkward, annoyed moment passed, and then she said:

“Are you reading about the boy who got shot last night in Brooklyn?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

There was another long silence, and now the awkwardness of it was a tangible presence at the table, almost like another person. He continued reading, but every word stuck to the page, and lost its life. He couldn’t concentrate.

He looked back up at her. Her eyes hadn’t left his forehead. “Why? Did you know him?”

“No,” she said. “But I heard about him.” Pause. “Did you know that last year there were six hundred sixty four murders in New York City?”

“I did not.”

“Six hundred sixty four. Can you imagine that? That’s fifty-five point three three three three three three murders every month.”

“Terrible.”

“But -!” she said triumphantly, “compare that number to ten years earlier: Two thousand two hundred and forty-five murders. All in the one year! Unthinkable. Do you know how many murders that is a month?”

“No, not off the top of-,”

“That’s one hundred and eighty-seven murders every month. It’s like genocide!”

“It sounds like a lot.”

“Well, that’s the record. For all time. It never got worse than that, but still.”

“But still. Indeed.” Pause. “Isn’t all this just a little but morbid?”

The girl shrugged. “I’m not the one reading an article about a kid that got shot in Brooklyn.”

Jeremy laughed. “Is that how you always begin your conversations?”

“It’s an icebreaker.” Pause. “Of sorts.” Pause. “Hi. My name is Lucy.” She stuck out her hand. Jeremy looked at her, with her hand outstretched, and her smooth pretty face, hickory eyes, and cool smile. He liked her.

“Jeremy,” he said, taking her hand. “Jeremy Cole.”

“That’s what I thought.” She blushed. “I mean, that’s partly why I sat here, I hope you don’t mind. I thought you looked like him, but then celebrities never look like they do in their photographs.”

“Celebrities?” Jeremy smiled, and did a wide glance around the café. “Where? Who?”

“Oh, don’t be modest. I love your books.”

“To be honest, I didn’t know I had any other readers than me and my mother.”

Lucy laughed so suddenly that she hiccoughed on her juice. “Don’t be silly.”

“If you saw my sales…”

“I’d like to,” she said. “I mean, it’s not that I’m crazy; statistics. That’s what I do.”

“No kidding.”

“Crime statistics for the Bureau of Justice.”

“Now that could be interesting.”

“It is. It really is.”

“How did you get into that?”

“It’s a long story. I’ve always been fascinated by this stuff. By books like you write, too. All of it.”

“You work near here?”

“Flatiron.”

“No kidding. Why don’t you let me buy you a drink after you get off work? You can tell me all about it.”

“You’ll still be here?”

Jeremy smiled at her. “Yeah. I’ll still be here. Meet me right back here. I’ll save your spot.”

&

“Well, you used to like my books,” Jeremy said. “Anyway, I’m sorry about tonight. I’m sorry I stormed out.”

“Here’s your card,” she said. She leaned over to the night table, and gave him his American Express card. “You’re a bastard thinking leaving that with me made everything all right.”

“Well, I didn’t think that. But you needed to pay for dinner, and money to get home, and listen: can’t I just say I’m sorry.”

“Yes; apology accepted.”

Jeremy paused. He didn’t know how to word the next question without it coming off as crass:     “You didn’t make any extra purchases did you? Not that I care if you did, you know. Just to balance my books is all.”

“As a matter of fact, I did.” Pause. She smiled. “You don’t deserve one, but I bought you a gift.”

“Oh, Lucy. You shouldn’t have. After I behaved so badly. You didn’t need to do that.”

“Oh, yes I did.” She picked up the book she’d been reading from the other side of the bed. It was a brand new hardback copy of CUNT.

III

Cunt, indeed.

When Jeremy was thirty years old, he wrote a crime novel called Trumped. He’d written several long novels before that; literary novels, he supposed, but they felt stodgy to him. He let them sit. He spent the two years prior to writing Trumped depressed, unable to do much of anything. He flitted from one temp job to another. He wrote a couple short stories. He drank too much. On his thirtieth birthday, he decided to give up writing. It demanded too much of him, and besides, what was the point? Entertainment? His novels weren’t entertaining; not really; not like a good thriller. To enlighten and instruct? Why not just write essays? What was the point of writing fiction? A man who couldn’t talk straight wasn’t much of a man, anyway; if you had something to say, by God, say it. And then he’d find himself concocting plots to fit into ideas; it felt silly. There was no money to be made writing; it didn’t help him to meet people, oddly enough, it sort of had the opposite effect. Ultimately, the whole experience was a bloodletting. You spent time and energy writing, got giddy and lightheaded in the process, and when it was all over, you got nothing but a feeling of being tapped and drained of your physical and emotional resources.

But one night, coming home on the subway he overheard a couple kids on the train talking about the circumstances surrounding a murder. Each person was telling the story in a different kind of way – each of them jumping in over the other, and the story developed a kind of untellable layered mystery. So that when Jeremy got home that night, he sat down and started writing the story of a kid shot over a dice game in Brooklyn. It was told from multiple perspectives, but with a tight, fast, gripping pace. He finished the novel in three months easy, and at the end of those three months, he had Trumped. He sent it off to a publisher, and they accepted it right away.

Jeremy Cole had found his calling.

Cunt, indeed.

&

The next night Jeremy went back to the café where he’d met Kimble’s fiancé. It was cold, and yesterday’s heavy snow lay thick on the city in large black hills of ice and weeping white trees. He had his copy of CUNT with him. He tried to get out before Lucy came home from work, but she walked in just as he was throwing on his coat.

“Where are you going?”

Looking around, Jeremy grabbed Kimble’s book from the night table, and said, “I’m going to go start reading this thing. Figure I’ll duck in somewhere for a drink, and see if this guy’s all he thinks himself to be.”

“Will you be long?”

“That all depends on Kimble,” Jeremy said, smiling, and giving Lucy a light kiss. “I don’t know. You were reading it last night. What did you think?”

“You know my taste,” she said. “The guy bores me to death. I hate these pretentious literary authors.”

It was cold all right, but Jeremy found some warmth in those words of hers, as he walked the long way from the Upper East Side downtown through the slick slush of New York sidewalks. And the warmth and encouragement he got from those six simple words of hers – I hate these pretentious literary authors – made him feel guilty that he was going to see another girl.

Going to see another girl. Now that was an interesting way of thinking about it. Why, exactly was he going back to see this girl, whose name he didn’t even know, a girl engaged to a rival author who didn’t think of Jeremy Cole as anything but a hack pulp novelist, let alone a rival. What was it about her? Maybe that exotic, Mediterranean look. He’d always been attracted to dark exotic girls. It was the same thing with Lucy. There was something mysterious about an exotic looking girl, and smiling, there was nothing he liked more than a good mystery.

“You’re back,” said the waitress as he walked into the cozy little café.

Jeremy took off his coat and draped it over the chair. He flashed the book. “Figured I’d do a little reading.”

“Oh, no kidding!” she said. She took the book from him and turned it over in her hands a couple times. “You’re gonna love this thing, I promise.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“You said you were a writer too, didn’t you?”

“Pulp novels.”

“That’s right.”

Jeremy forced a laugh. “Not great literature.”

“Well, have I heard of you?”

Jeremy hesitated. Had she? It was a good question. Kimble had heard of him. Certainly it was possible his fiancé had too. Especially since she was a reader. For the moment, he knew more about her than she knew about him, and that was an advantage. Giving away his name might change all that. Still…

“Jeremy Cole.”

The waitress paused, thought for a moment, then shook her head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.” She frowned. “I’m sorry. There are so many writers, and -,”

“Please, don’t apologize. Very few people have heard of me. I don’t take it personally at all.”

“Well, Mr. Jeremy Cole,” she said, holding out her hand. “My name is Maria.”

“Pleased to get to know you, Maria.”

“Likewise.” She handed the book back to Jeremy.

“Is this your favorite?”

“Of course. Everything new he does is my favorite. You know, they say a writer is only as good as his last book.”

“Is that what they say?”

“Are you working on anything now?” she asked.

This was a sore point for Jeremy. He hadn’t been at work on anything for a while. He’d hit a writers block that set in early the year before, and had lasted all the way through the year, dragged on through the holiday season, persisted through the new year, and left him here, in mid January, more than a year later, still with nothing to say. He’d tried everything he could think of to break the spell, but nothing worked: he read crime and pulp novels voraciously; he read the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Daily News, even the New York Press almost entirely, looking for ideas that might inspire him. Nothing. The problem was, as best he could assess it, the mystery had gone out of it. When he started writing Trumped, the act of writing had been as much a mystery as the story itself. Now everything seemed so easy, so technical, like a job you’re just by nature good at. He didn’t want to say formulaic. Forty-two years old, and he was finished! Dante started the Comedy at forty-two. What had he done, but write a handful of pulp novels, and find himself stuck dead in the Second Circle of Hell?

“Yes, actually I am.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Oh, well… you must know how writers are about works in progress.”

Maria smiled. “Yeah, yeah. Martin’s the same way. I never get to know anything about what he’s writing until he’s finished. Where do you write? At home?”

“Cafes, usually.”

“Do you have a favorite?”

“Barnes & Noble. Union Square.”

“Well, that’s nice.”

“Where does Martin go to write?”

“He writes in his study.”

“Ah; lucky enough to have a study in New York City!”

“Why don’t you do your writing here?” asked Maria.

“And abandon the old B&N?”

“Every writer needs a change from time to time. You know, keep the inspiration fresh. When you need a break you can talk to me.”

“Well, maybe you have something there.” Pause. “I kind of like this place. It’s quieter here too.”

“Well, then, there you go. Besides, I want to know what you think of Martin’s book. You can keep me updated.”

IV

Jeremy found that spending his days at the café with Maria brightened his life considerably. For one thing he was finding it easier to write. For another, it gave him something to look forward to in the daytimes, with Lucy out at work. He would write a little, chat with Maria some, read a little, and continue writing. It was much nicer than writing at Barnes & Noble, where he would inevitably end up sharing a table with a stranger, and where he had the distraction of the growing crowds as the mornings became afternoons, and the afternoons evenings.

He was even enjoying Kimble’s novel. Sure, it was a little too literary, too many references, and asides into highfaluting ideas, but all in all it wasn’t such a bad read. Mostly, he tried to see what about Kimble as a writer impressed Maria so much.

After a week of going to the café every day, he came in one morning, sat down and Maria greeted him beaming.

“Hello, Mister Writer. Guess what?” she said.

“Oh, I don’t know. What?”

“I bought one of your books.”

“No kidding? Which one?”

“It’s called Trumped.”

“My virgin.” Jeremy smiled. “Have you started it?”

“I have,” she said, “and I don’t know why you said you don’t write great literature. I knew you were just being modest. That’s why I went out and bought it.”

Trumped? Great literature? You’d be the first person to say so.”

“Oh, I doubt that. When I’m finished with it, I’m going to have Martin read it. You’ll see.”

Jeremy coughed.

“I bet you he’ll like it.”

“Have you… have you mentioned to him that you met me? That I’ve been coming to the café every day for the past week?”

Something sad and strange flashed in Maria’s eyes. Then she smiled. “I don’t tell Martin everything, you know.” Pause. “Listen. I should get back to work. Talk to you in a bit.”

Jeremy tried to say something as she turned to go, but his mouth went dry. What exactly did she mean? He felt a sense of relief she hadn’t mentioned him to Martin, but at the same time, a sense of dread that she eventually would. His head felt light. It’s not like there was anything going on between him and Maria. They’d just met a week ago. What – a man can’t come to the same spot to read and write everyday? He can’t develop a harmless friendship with his waitress? So why did he feel guilty, and why did he feel this sense of dread? He picked up his copy of CUNT, and looked at Martin’s picture on the inside jacket. That smug fuck. There he sat, in a loose jacket, a striped button down shirt, top couple buttons opened, and that same fat face, smiling back at Jeremy, as if to say: You will never have my life.

What would Martin say, when Maria mentioned she’d picked up a copy of Trumped? He could hear Kimble now, “By Jeremy Cole? What – that hack? He couldn’t write his way out of a brown paper bag. Matter of fact, I met him once, and you know what he had the audacity to say to me…?”

He closed the cunt, and put him down. He took out his notebook, and read through the last few paragraphs he’d written. Then he opened Kimble’s book again, and read a couple paragraphs at random. Certainly different styles; but then, both paragraphs were out of context. He couldn’t compare them. He went back and read the first paragraph of his draft, and then the first paragraph of Kimble’s book. He reread them. Kimble’s prose felt lighter. He read over his own first paragraph again. Maybe he was just too used to his own style. He read Kimble’s first paragraph. Fuck Kimble. His was a draft – a first one at that. Kimble’s was a finished product.

“What are you up to now?” said Maria, swinging back by his table.

Jeremy looked up at her, and said: “just writing.”

“Well, don’t let me interrupt.”

“No – not at all. You’re not interrupting. As a matter of fact, I’m glad you’re here. I wanted to reread the first paragraph of Trumped. Do you mind?”

“What an odd thing to ask. Do you know that Martin memorizes the first paragraphs of all his stories? He even has entire short stories of his memorized.”

“No kidding.”

“No kidding. Anyway, hold on. I’ll be right back with it.”

Fuck Kimble. Entire short stories memorized. Well, what’s the point of that? He could memorize entire stories if he wanted, but who could bear to walk around with their own expired voice constantly in their head? It was enough to remember short passages, phrases, worse yet reading old material. Maybe he should have stuck with his literary writing. He gave up on it so young; too soon. He suddenly had a desperate desire to pull out one of his old literary manuscripts, and read it over.

Maria came back with Trumped.

“I love how you begin this book,” she said, as she handed it to him. “It’s a beautiful paragraph. Martin would say the same. I know what he likes.”

A feeble smile. “That means a lot coming from you.”

“Do you want me to leave you with it for a little?”

“Thanks, Maria. If you don’t mind too much, that would be great.”

Jeremy watched Maria as she turned and walked to the back. You will never have my life.

He turned Trumped over, read the blurb on the back, read a couple review blurbs, all pretty good. People really connected with this book. No one ever connected to one of his books again like they had Trumped. It really was an inspired work. He opened it up, and looked at the picture of him, ten years younger, smiling, idealistic, happy. He flipped past the opening pages to the first chapter. Reading the first paragraph again, he was impressed. It was pretty good. He put it down, and reread Kimble’s first paragraph. Sure, Kimble was a more mature writer, but Trumped was written by a thirty year old man. Kimble hadn’t even been published yet. Jeremy chuckled. He put Kimble’s book to the side, and moved Trumped to the side, and he opened his notebook. Maria was inspiration. After six years with Lucy, tired and bored of his life, tired and bored of his own writing, and battling age and a growing inferiority complex, along came Maria, and changed everything. He tested out a couple sentences. He could feel the clarity in his head again; the words were coming naturally. Sentences appeared like incantations. Paragraphs. There was magic to literature, and he’d recaptured it.

V

For the next several weeks Jeremy went to the café daily. He spent the evenings and weekends with Lucy, but every weekday he spent all his time with Maria. It was the only time he was happy. The rest of the time he felt like he wasn’t even living his life. Like he was living a past life, one that he needed to shake off completely. Things hadn’t been well between him and Lucy for a while, but now they were getting worse.

“Jeremy, are you having an affair?” she’d ask, again and again, usually after lovemaking.

“An affair? What an imagination you have. And I’m supposed to be the writer.”

Then he’d turn over and go to sleep, dreaming of morning, when he’d be able to walk down to the café in the cold February wind, and see Maria again.

“What are we going to do on Valentines Day?” Lucy asked him one night, as they were lying in bed.

Valentines Day! It had completely slipped his mind.

“What’s today?”

“Jesus, Jeremy. It’s the ninth. If you had a job, you’d know these kinds of things.”

“A job! I have a job, Lucy, I’m a writer.”

“How has that been coming anyway? Any better?”

“Actually it has.”

“Really?”

“In the last three weeks I think I’ve written almost thirty-five thousand words. It’s coming along incredibly well. I’ve been getting a lot of reading done too.”

“Oh yeah? What’re you reading?”

“I’m reading that book you gave me by that bore of an author.”

Lucy laughed. “Kimble’s book? You are still reading Martin Kimble’s latest novel?”

“Well, why not? You bought it for me.”

“Why not! Why not, indeed.” Pause. “So, what do you think?”

“It’s not bad, actually. I’d even go so far as to say it’s pretty good.”

“I never thought I’d live to see the day.”

“I might not much care for the man, but I’d like to think that as a reader, I’m pretty good about being objective.”

“Whatever you say. That’s not the Jeremy Cole I know.”

“Well maybe you don’t know Jeremy Cole.”

It was the wrong thing to say. This was the first real conversation they’d had together since he started going to the café, and as soon as he said the words, he regretted it. He watched the lines in her face harden, and her expression sink, and her dark eyes sink into her cheeks, and she was trying very hard not to cry.

“I’m only joking of course,” he said.

“Yes, of course.”

&

On Valentines Day, Jeremy arranged for a bouquet of roses to be sent to Lucy at her work, even though he’d never done so before, and had even had talks with her about how tacky a practice he thought it was. He remembered his days back when he was temping, and he remembered how unoriginal and uninspired it seemed when women received these silly bouquets at the office. He remembered all the pettiness, and flat congratulations from the single women in the office, and it just made him wince to think back to the life of office politics.But, he sent Lucy roses all the same.

Valentines Day was a bright, crisp, cold sunny day, and just like every other day, he walked his way down to the café. The whole way there his heart raced. He would be spending Valentines Day with Maria! You will never live my life. Yeah, Kimble, fuck you too.

When he got to the café, he took his usual seat, and looked around. Something was wrong: Maria was usually waiting for him; she’d greet him at his seat, with, “Hello Mister Writer.” But today he didn’t see Maria anywhere. After sitting for a couple minutes, a young man, probably in his mid twenties came up to the table, and said: “May I take your order, sir?”

Jeremy looked around, flustered.

“Is there a problem, sir?”

“I’m – I’m a regular here. You must be new. I’ve never seen you before.”

“No, I just usually work weekend shifts. Been here a little while actually. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Where’s Maria?”

“Excuse me?”

“Maria. The girl who works here on the weekdays?” Pause. And then it occurred to him: Of course, Valentines Day. Why would Maria spend Valentines Day anywhere but with Kimble? “Listen, I’m sorry. It’s nothing. I – I was just expecting Maria. That’s all.”

“Oh, her.” The waiter laughed. “What a flake!”

“Huh?”

“Maria quit this morning.”

Maria quit this morning?

“What do you mean she quit?”

“She just up and quit. She didn’t come in or anything. The manager said she called here this morning in all sorts of hysterics. He could barely make out what the hell she was talking about; but that’s that. She said she quit and would never come back to the café again. Boyfriend trouble, maybe. Fucking Valentines Day, man.”

“Maria quit this morning?”

“So, can I get you anything?”

Jeremy felt dizzy. “A whisky. A whisky, and a copy of today’s paper.”

“Right away.”

What happened? Had Kimble broken things off with her? Another woman, maybe? These things always happened on Valentines Day… Should he try to get her phone number from the waiter? His thoughts were going faster than he could catch them. Slow down. Think this through. It had to be Kimble broke it off. Just like that scumbag. On Valentines Day, too, of all days. Maybe it was unavoidable; maybe the other woman showed up unexpectedly; maybe Maria showed up unexpectedly somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be. Whatever it was he’d find out. He’d get Maria’s number from the waiter, and he’d call her, and they’d go somewhere and have a drink, and he’d make sure she was taken care of, and he’d leave Lucy if he had to and be with Maria and they could spend afternoons at some other café together, where he could write and where she could read, and –

“You know what,” the waiter said, coming back to the table. “I’d bet my bottom dollar it has something to do with this.”

He threw down a copy of the New York Times, opened to the Entertainment section. The caption read, “AWARD WINNING AUTHOR MARTIN KIMBLE ANNOUNCES ENGAGEMENT TO ACTRESS.”

Jeremy looked back up at the waiter. “I didn’t know Maria was an actress.”

“Maria? An actress?” The waiter looked confused. “I don’t think Maria was an actress. What – you didn’t think -?” and then he started laughing.

“What? What in God’s name is so funny?”

“Oh, no no no no no. Maria was batty about this guy. Just adored him. In a creepy kind of way even. All she ever talked about was Martin Kimble this, Martin Kimble that. I’m sure she dreamt one day she’d marry him, but it’s not like she ever even met the guy. I’m sure this must’ve crushed her. Like I said, she was sort of flaky.” Pause. “You all set here? Can I get you anything else?”

“No. No. Just the check.”

As Jeremy collected his things, he thought about the long cold walk back uptown, and the long day ahead of him. He couldn’t write; he couldn’t think; he couldn’t do much of anything, but wait. He flipped the page, and saw a photograph of Kimble hand in hand with his fiancé. You’ll never have my life – and Jeremy realized that all along he’d been in love with a chimera; in fact, like Maria, he always had been, his whole life long. And there was nothing left now but to go home and wait for Lucy.

 

-Whit Frazier, 2007

Are Donald Trump Supporters Racist?

Everyone knows that you’re supposed to avoid the political talk during Thanksgiving. It’s that awkward holiday when the young people come back home from big, cosmopolitan cities to middle America, and as the stereotype goes, inevitably end up in loud arguments with the highly conservative uncle who still works a blue-collar job back home. It’s a helpful stereotype only for the reason that it helps us look at the way our country is divided between blue and red states, between urban and rural areas, and between wealthier and poorer communities. The unfortunate way that America relies on only two major political parties generally ends up splitting our country into two factions, even though everyone knows there is plenty of room for a much wider spectrum of political thought. Very few of us are 100% Democrat or 100% Republican. Obama, recognizing this in 2008, promised to be the president of change; the president who could bridge the gap between these two worlds, and find common ground for all Americans.

Unfortunately, Obama did not become the president of all Americans. Very much a product of the wealthy, elite blue-state mentality, he easily fell into the traditional center-left political thinking that is pretty much Bill Clinton’s legacy. Admittedly, he also had the additional problem that the Republicans in Washington vowed to say an emphatic “no” to everything that he proposed. Campaign promises that Obama made, such as a healthcare package with no obligatory mandate quickly turned into Hilary Clinton’s healthcare proposal, one with an obligatory mandate, an argument that had been of great contention between them in the primaries; although Obama did much to save the economy in the wake of the economic crash he inherited, the trade agreements put in place by the Clintons, like the 1994 NAFTA agreement, agreements which left many American communities behind, were left unchallenged by an Obama administration. On foreign policy, drone bombings and NSA wiretapping did little to make Obama seem more than anything other than another establishment president, one whose calls for change had been nothing more than a campaign swindle.

So much has been made about how many of Trump’s supporters were responding to these conditions when they cast their votes earlier this month. But there is still the racist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign; there is the history of racism in Donald Trump’s behavior, from denying housing to African Americans to the racist birther attacks of 2008; there was the refusal to denounce David Duke during the campaign; there is the predictable spike in hate crimes since his election; there is his cabinet, which looks something like a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. So can we say unequivocally that everyone who voted for Trump, given all this much documented information, is racist? Even though many of these people voted for Obama in 2008? Even though many of these people have friends who are minorities, and some of them are even minorities themselves? How do we understand this paradox?

I think the question has to be restructured. The essential thing is how much someone is willing to tolerate, even in the promotion of what they consider to be (erroneously, in this case) their own best interest. And a lot of Americans said at the polls, that they would be able to tolerate this kind of blatant racism from the White House, if there was hope that conditions in their lives might improve. It is not so much that they themselves are necessarily white nationalists (although we’ve seen that, predictably, a lot of white nationalists did vote for Trump), but that they simply are willing to accept a certain amount of racism from their government. Which is to say that racism is not an either/or phenomenon. One isn’t either racist or not racist, rather there are gradations of how much negativity against another group one will accept, and many of Trump’s supporters fall somewhere on the scale where they are perfectly willing to accept the racist rhetoric and racist actions of a Donald Trump. This makes them “indifferent honest.” We have seen this argument already from Hannah Arendt, when she argues for the banality of evil. As Arendt tells us, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” They simply react to what they believe to be in their best interest at the time, no matter how much evil their reaction creates.

This is a problem which I think liberals and progressives will have to address when mobilizing for the future, something we desperately need to do, and indeed have been doing, after the election of Donald Trump. Yes, Trump’s supporters supported racism with their votes, even if they many of them didn’t intend the act to be a racist act in itself; they never actually made up their minds about how they feel about the evils of racism; they haven’t investigated their own feelings about minorities deeply enough to know their own true feelings about racism. So, while they may give lip service that, in principle, they are against racism, they allow themselves to be asleep to its reality. And that makes them complicit in racism by default.

 

-Whit Frazier, November 25, 2016

Untitled

These days I spend most of my life in books. Not novels or histories or biographies, but autobiographies, journals from the past. Maybe I’m just waiting to die, trying to relive my life as many times as possible before I can’t relive it anymore. Maybe this is what they mean when they talk about eternal recurrence; reliving life over and over. Because when life comes to a close, you relive it over and over one way or another, whether it’s in journals or memories or maybe even make believe.

The journals turn my life into fragments. I kept them sporadically; nostalgically. Times when I thought I would have experiences worth remembering. This one right here I’ve been reading and re-reading for the past few nights. It’s turned my present into the presence of a prescient past. It covers a period of three months, it’s the three months I spent studying Steiner in Stuttgart. It was supposed to be three years, but things didn’t quite work out the way they – what does Ray Bradbury say ? – life gets in the way. The notebook begins with impressions; I was an impressionistic writer in my youth, but these days I find I’m more contemplative, I write:

Spring, Stuttgart, small town, long rolling hills, stairs winding through the city, walking downtown and through the west part of town, walking north up the hill, lonely as a cloud through the park.

I don’t remember these things now, or if I remember them, I remember them narratively, or not so much impressionistically.

The institute was in the north part of the city, in a large building on a hill overlooking the town. From the top of the building you could see those rolling hills of the city roll down into the valley where the city stills, and then rolls back up again into vineyards surrounded by sun. The sun comes pale through the clouds and then sifts through the fog hanging over the city, and I spent a lot of time in that room talking to S. about Steiner’s ideas, about ideas of eternal recurrence, about ideas of spiritual enlightenment, waking up, and waking up in order not to die.

“I’ve died many times,” S. would say, “and I’ve been back again many times, and it took me a long time to learn that the way not to die was to close my eyes.”

“What do you mean close your eyes?”

“When you’re ready.”

When you’re ready. This was what S. would always say. I didn’t know what that meant, and I loved the feeling of not knowing what it meant, wondering when I would be ready. I would walk down the hill into the city. I didn’t speak any German, but it didn’t matter; everyone spoke English. Whenever I tried my German on the people in the city, they would switch to English, and then my ego would get in the way, and it made it very hard to make close friendships. Nothing isolates like language. Or maybe nothing brings people together like a common language, and so language and thinking must have some sort of relationship like lovers.

The notebooks have some of my early clumsy attempts at writing in German. It makes me wince to read them now. Not that my German is any better, if anything it’s worse, because I haven’t been back since, but I continued to study it over the years, and if I’m not able anymore to converse with any fluency, I can spot mistakes much more easily; living through books has its advantages and disadvantages; it’s knowledge; it’s life even; but it’s also illusion.

When you’re ready. I studied Steiner nightly. I tried to read him in the original. I think I liked reading him in the original because it felt like decoding a text, and made the text feel more sacred in that sense. I also think I liked not really knowing what he was saying, because some of the things he says are pretty awful, and maybe that’s what S. meant when he said — when you’re ready. Because sometimes being ready means being gullible enough not to be ready to set your defenses, and defenses are those sleepy senses that keep you from being ready to be duped.

There was an African film director I met there; although he grew up in Lyons, and was born in Nigeria. He’d been in Germany for 20 years, had come with his parents and had never left again. Was just as much German as French as African I guess; he had gone through all those stages, and he would talk about France And Nigeria in this wistful far away kind of way like he was conjuring past lives. His film were always impressionistic. Films about migrancy, displacement, estrangement, always evoked through setting:

Spring, Stuttgart, small town, long rolling hills, stairs winding through the city, walking downtown and through the west part of town, walking north up the hill, lonely as a cloud through the park.

When you’re ready.

One morning S. and I sat looking over Stuttgart in that top floor room on that building on that hill, and he looked over at me, and he said, “I think you’re ready.”

Defenses are those sleepy senses that keep you from being ready to be duped. I sat there in that room looking over the city of Stuttgart, listening to S. explicate Steiner’s ideas of eternal recurrence, talking about his previous lives, about his life as an African, his life as an Asian, his life as a German, his life now, beyond all those stages, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and I think I understood something pretty awful about what he meant about being ready, and suddenly I realized I would never be ready, because I was not yet ready to be duped.

I stood up slow, waked over to the window. Nothing isolates like language, or maybe nothing brings people together like a shared language. The fog over the city settled, the sun sifting through the thick, I wandered lonely as a cloud. I closed my eyes, and I realized it was time for me to go home. I had only been there three months, and it was already time to go home. I thought about New York; the — what do we say? — the hustle the bustle – the hustle the hustle — and I thought about how long and lonely life is, even around those that share your language; especially around those that share your language, and I reminisced about a time when I would be old, when I would be old and ready and could reminisce back on my life in the quiet cadences of death’s unlonely, lovely language. As always. As now.

-Whit Frazier, September 2016

 

Countee Cullen and the Culture Wars (a ramble)

I

In his famous Countee Cullen smackdown in the Nation magazine, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain“, (which was cleverly disguised as a George Schuyler smackdown), Langston Hughes slyly signifies on his friend, confidante and fellow Harlem Renaissance luminary by opening with the following condemnation:

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.

It just goes to show how much Cullen suffered for his peculiar vision: Cullen, the “Black Keats” wrote traditional sonnets loaded with Greek and Roman allusions, never aspiring to the newer modernist models that attracted his peers. Indeed, the other young black poets Cullen associated with were more aligned with the downtown Modernists – Hart Crane, Waldo Frank, Jean Toomer – than with Cullen’s Victorian verse, and they thought Cullen’s traditional verse showed too much deference to older European forms. Hughes, Hurston and others were unapologetic Modernists: they rejected the bourgeois ideals of the older generation, and were interested in erecting something new and uniquely American in its place.

On the other hand, the older guard of activists and artists loved Cullen. Cullen even married (disastrously, as it turns out) W.E.B. DuBois‘ daughter Yolande. Cullen, more than just proving that black poets could write verse as strong as white poets, showed that he could write verse that surpassed most of the poetry published by white authors. After all, the only traditional lyric poet writing at that time at the level of Cullen was Edna St. Vincent Millay. (It’s curious that the two most adept traditional poets would be a black poet and a bisexual female poet; which just goes to show that sometimes those most disenfranchised are also those most fluent in the system which disenfranchises them.)

But Cullen’s understated, distanced and sly way of writing about race seems to me to be a result of his bifurcated place among the old guard and the new writers. Being a few months younger than Langston, and part of the Bohemian group of writers who published the subversive magazine FIre!!, he really did belong to the their clique; but as something of a literary relic, and only a halfway rebel, he was never an easy fit. And in his personal life, he also had an uneasy bifurcated relationship with his own identity.

II

Cullen’s birth is a mystery. No one knows the exact day of his birth, no one knows the exact spot; no one knows his exact parents or his original birth name; no one knows much of anything about his early life. He was both an orphan and (once adopted) the son of a successful Harlem preacher. As such, Cullen felt like a pagan – a motherless child, a mystery man, and a trickster, as well as a child of God. Stories he told about his early life were as likely to be true as they were to be false, and almost through no fault of his own. The concept of identity for Cullen was particularly complicated. So while most of the Harlem Renaissance authors were looking to history, to Africa, to ancient culture and myth to rediscover their literary identities, Cullen couldn’t even place his literary identity in his native American soil, let alone in African culture. In his poem Heritage, he writes:

“What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

Africa, for Cullen, is a fiction. An unreal, imagined land of exotic sights and peoples. He ends the poem by concluding:

“Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.”

Cullen is Western through and through, even if he tries to deny it. What use trying to fit classical African models onto his art, when classical European models were a more comfortable fit? Or this seems to be his argument, at least.

What’s missing is why Cullen seems to have been passed over by modernism, while all his peers were compelled by it. In my opinion, Cullen’s appreciation of traditional verse results from his father’s preaching, and his schooling. His father’s preaching would have attuned his ear to Biblical language. His teachers were all enthusiasts of the Romantics. Cullen sounds tame to us now, and he could even sound tame (sometimes) in his day, but for Cullen, the Romantics would have been subversive, extremely so, as Cullen’s relationship to poetry prior to his exposure to them would have been almost strictly Biblical. Keats, Byron, Shelley must have come like a revelation.

III

More importantly, I think he felt a special affinity with the Romantics, one that he felt even more deeply than he felt the strictures of modern society. Countee Cullen is in many ways Byron’s wandering Childe Harold: a wandering poet, fallen from grace. So when Hughes writes, “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself,” the question of self was a more complicated one for Cullen than for Hughes. Langston Hughes’ concept of self was developed through his interaction with lower middle class black life in Kansas and Cleveland, and later, when Hughes visited his father in Mexico, a renunciation of his father’s racism and self-hate. Cullen came to an understanding of himself through the church, and through school. His self is a problematic mix of church, culture, and the impossible position of being a very dark, gay black man in America in the early 20th Century. “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: /To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” Radicalism in poetry for Cullen was the use of older (white) literary forms to create a black poetic aesthetic. When Claude McKay wrote sonnets, he wrote them as weapons: they were angry, socialistic and black nationalistic, as in the famous “If We Must Die

“If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

When Cullen wrote sonnets, his temperament was not that of the angry black man. He wanted to be a poet first, black man second; and as such, if he were to write as a black poet, he would write as a satirist – trickster – Eiron, the black poet who could whip the white poets at their own game, and in the process demonstrate the absurdity of racialist thinking.

It’s fair to say that many of the younger Harlem Renaissance writers(with the powerful exceptions of Hughes, Hurston, McKay and Sterling Brown) were striving to be post-racial writers in a way the writers of the 60’s Black Art Movements (and older writers like WEB DuBois) were decidedly not . The tensions arose from how the writers thought best to achieve this. George Schuyler and Countee Cullen considered blacks “lamp-blacked Anglo-Saxons” – with no other differences whatsoever. Fair enough. This went right along with the new anthropological work being done by Franz Boas and other leaders of the field, which was rapidly proving there were indeed no biological differences between the races, and that the concept of race was a social construction. Nevertheless, the history and culture of an oppressed people was not a fiction, and writers like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay saw no way of engaging literature honestly without writing as outspoken members of this community. Jean Toomer thought of the American as a new race altogether – if a term as outmoded as race was to be used at all. What all the writers seemed to agree on, though (at least for a time, Toomer’s a more complicated case), was the necessity of a black cultural arts and letters movement.

IV

This cultural inferiority complex was not limited to Black America. As late as 1920, the cultural critic HL Mencken writes, “America has not produced any writer worthy of the name of second-rater.” Americans looked to Europe for examples of truly exceptional art and culture. Countee Cullen was no exception, and so his decision to base his poetry on European models is understandable. It was simply an American response. In many cases, (as in that of Edgar Allen Poe) it would take a European artist to give the thumbs up on an artist before Americans even had the confidence to accept the artist as important. Here we have the beginnings of what we call today The Culture Wars. Was there a purely American art – and if so what was it, beyond the crass, superficiality of America’s money driven, more and more pop-culture driven economy – or had Europe already set the standard for high art? Similarly, Black Americans asked themselves, was there a Black American art – and if so what was it – and what was its place within the context of a larger American art – if such a thing even existed?

Furthermore, American art has always distrusted its own popular culture because American culture is so heavily inflected with African American culture, and America was built on the idea that African Americans were not even human. But American culture cannot be separated from Black culture. No other country has such a troubled relationship with its own folk culture.

As we are all well aware, the Culture Wars are still with us today. The Great Depression put a choke hold on the activities of many of the Harlem Renaissance writers (as well as white writers) and in the wake of the Renaissance, came social realism. Social Realism gave way to the sixties, Black arts, and Black power, and the idea of a black writer trying to be post-racial at that point was not really feasible. This in part hurt the career of a writer as illustrious as Ralph Ellison, who was not sure how to respond in fiction to the 1960’s. The Black Arts Movement ravaged the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Critics like Houston Baker, Harold Cruse and Irving Huggins blamed the failure of the Harlem Renaissance on white patronage.

While white (and black) patronage, did hurt (and help) some of the Renaissance writers, the conclusion of the sixties critics is too reactionary, although many of the questions the Black Arts and Black Power Movements asked were never satisfactorily answered. For example, how does a minority community assimilate comfortably into a culture built off of systemic racism?

I’ve been using the term “post-racial,” but as far as I know, that term was never once used by any of the Harlem Renaissance writers. I’ve been using it because I want this post to have a resonance for our own times, where, after Obama’s election, we often heard talk about a post-racial America; a fantasy obviously dismissed in the wake of this bleak election of Donald Trump. So much for the myth of progress.

Now that is not to dismiss the importance of the first black president, or even to say that there has been no great progress since the 1960’s; that would be an absurd claim. I do think, however, that we’ll be stuck with the Culture Wars for a while – basically a cultural civil war – that began with the end of Reconstruction and hasn’t left us since; the very real concerns of the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement were never fully addressed; and they must be forcefully addressed if we are to survive as a country. Nothing makes this more obvious than Trump’s election.

Countee Cullen was onto something with his uneasiness about taking on the folk modernism of Hughes, Hurston and Brown. After all, DuBois’ idea was that a Talented Tenth of Black Americans were meant to speak for the entirety of black people. This kind of elitism was not an easy fit with the poetry Hughes was writing, or with his elevated place in society – and even though Hughes always tried to remain a champion of the everyman, the institutional place he increasingly occupied in the culture elevated him well beyond the position of the common man. Cullen on the other hand wrote poetry that would be more in line with a so-called Talented Tenth. The populism of Hughes and Brown (and to a less extent Hurston) was an illusion which had the deadly possibility of turning into opportunism.

Similarly, the populism we see today is a reaction against the elitism that the Democratic and Republican parties have created – a system where money determines elections, and where large corporations have more rights than individual citizens. On the other hand, the real successes of black artists and politicians threaten those white Americans who feel pushed out by the elitist establishment. The Culture Wars today are like the embodiment of Cullen’s poetry: Americans are fueled by the desire to sing and soar, with an attachment to the high culture values of the past; and yet we know that we are essentially other – that we are multicultural, multiracial, that we were not born into the elite, and that is the reason for much of our bifurcated schizophrenia; that is the reason a large number of people could vote for Barack Obama in 2008, and then vote for a virulent racist like Donald Trump in 2016.

The Culture Wars are political wars and the political wars are cultural wars. Countee Cullen was a black man who could not come to terms with his blackness; he never learned fully to appreciate, understand or investigate it. Similarly the United States is a black country that has not yet come to terms with its blackness. With a setback like Donald Trump, it will not be an easy journey; but America must not be afraid to be its(black)self.

-Whit Frazier, 2010 (Updated November 20, 2016)

Negative Time

I

When Samuel Wentworth heard that Arnold Rump was nominated, along with himself, for the Academy Award, he put down his morning coffee, looked out the window at the long stretch of buildings beneath his Manhattan penthouse, and wondered if his whole life had been a series of mistakes.

Wentworth was a well-respected documentarian. For the last 15 years he’d been arguably the best living documentarian alive. He’d already won three Academy Awards for his work, revolutionized the art with his neoclassical decadence, and worked from the same basic premise for the last thirty three years: documentary was simply a high art form of propaganda. And the further he’d taken this premise toward its logical extremes, the more successful his work had become. But this morning, over coffee, a newspaper, and a fine cigar all of that was about to be challenged by Arnold Rump.

II

Arnold Rump was born on June 16th, 1971, son of Gordon and Samantha Rump. They were a modest family living just North of Boston, in the suburbs of Malden, Massachusetts. Arnold’s father was carpenter, and Arnold’s mother was a nurse. Arnold was an only child. They weren’t wealthy, but they were happy, spending cozy evenings together in their cramped little apartment. Arnold’s father was always building new furniture around the house, and Arnold’s mother was always reading to him as a child. Later, growing up, Arnold’s mother would sit with him in the evenings in front of the television, and they would discuss the programs they watched. From an early age Arnold was fascinated with television. More than anything though, he was fascinated by documentaries. His mother would find him up all hours of the night watching PBS, documentary after documentary.

III

Samuel Wentworth was born on August 23rd, 1941 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The son of two New York socialites, Wentworth grew up among well-known artists and celebrities. From an early age, Wentworth showed a talent for reading and writing. It was only when he reached his college years, however, that he began to pursue a career in film. His then college sweetheart, later to become his lifelong companion, Sheila Maxim, a talented young photographer convinced him he should try his hand at making documentaries. Wentworth, who believed in doing everything to the full, dived into the art with fervor. He studied the history of the documentary, spending days and nights watching film after film, taking notes, and in the meantime, writing a dissertation on the theory of the documentary. His dissertation,“Documentary and Propaganda: A study of the History of Filmmaking”, was published in 1965. It was greeted with much critical acclaim, and a few years later, Wentworth produced his first full-length documentary on the 60’s youth culture.

IV

By the time he was in high school, Arnold was filming his own documentaries. All his teachers said he had a wonderful eye, and a wonderful gift for telling a story. His journalism teacher said he was a natural. His photography teacher said he was the real deal. Arnold just said he was pursuing his passion.

Arnold would go on to receive a full scholarship to the New School in New York City, where he continued to follow his passion. Two years into his college career, he shot a documentary on the history of the East Village. This documentary premiered at a small film festival in the city, and caught the attention of documentarian giant Samuel Wentworth. After seeing the film, Wentworth arranged for a meeting with Rump, saying: “this kid Rump may very well be the future of the documentary.”

V

By the mid Seventies Wentworth was already a household name. His neoclassical, black & white documentaries were meant to strike an emotional chord with his viewers. He almost always hit the mark, winning him his first Academy Award for best documentary in 1978. When accepting the award, the host smiled, shook his hand, and said: “Wentworth, you know, you may very well be the future of the documentary.”

VI

One afternoon Wentworth took a car out to meet his agent. His agent confirmed the rumor. “They say this kid Rump really is onto something. He’s challenging everything you built. Call me paranoid, but I say this kid is gunning for you. He’s not just after your spot; he’s after your vision.”

His agent pulled out a copy of the Daily News. “You see what he says right there? -‘The documentarian who views documentary as propaganda is not an artist. He’s a dishonest journalist. If he’s any kind of artist at all, it’s nothing more than a con artist.’”

“Well…” said Wentworth

“Oh, it goes on. Look: – ‘Any true artist is dedicated to the truth. The documentarian bears the burden of relating history to the generations. A propagandist is a liar after the public’s reality. Such a man is no artist at all.’”

Wentworth’s agent looked up. “There’s more, too. See:”

“I’ve heard enough.”

VII

From the very beginning Wentworth and Rump had differences, but Rump was learning a lot from his mentor. He was the most talented person Wentworth had ever had the pleasure of tutoring. Rump caught onto the nuances of the craft like he was born knowing them. “Like he just had to recollect them,” Wentworth said of his protégé.

VIII

The first time Rump shot a documentary in color, Wentworth was upset. “Color upsets the balance. It lets the viewer see things that you as the director might not see. Documentary, more than any other film is about holding your viewer hostage. You have a perspective you’re coming from, and you cannot leave anything up to the viewer. It is a dictatorship, a documentary.”

IX

In 1999, Wentworth and Rump had a public falling out. Wentworth called Rump, “an arrogant young upstart.” Rump said Wentworth was, “a dinosaur in the industry. One that needed to die off so younger artists could breathe.” Each announced they were at work on a documentary of the other.

X

When Arnold Rump heard that Samuel Wentworth was nominated, along with himself, for the Academy Award, he put down his morning coffee, looked out the window at the long stretch of buildings beneath his Manhattan penthouse, and wondered if his whole life had been a series of mistakes.

 

-Whit Frazier, 2005

Scratch Dancing on Your Grave

and I was reading a book that was also on television at the same time. The story was about two old men who lived in apartments facing each other in a building with no other tenants. The hallways were long and gray, and wound around a square of empty rooms. Age is a cycle, you are born a fool, and you grow old into a fool, and these two fools lived off supplies in the empty building; five flights of empty rooms.

A wave came through the curtains at night, once two years back, and flooded and floated dead bodies into the ocean leaving only the two old men. These men had never liked each other, and seldom spoke pleasantries to or about each other even though they’d lived across from each other for fortysome odd years. They watched each other grow up, and grow old, and suffered alternate joys and failures and disappointments, and before long they began to see each other in the other’s face.

Each man was a hermit in his own way, and they disliked other people, horribly, the television pictured them in hazy scenes from blue tint in the beginning, grudging smiles at strangers and each other, to yellow tint ten years or so later, two middle aged men, one scene one man opens his door, hears the other turning his lock, and slams his door closed quick and frowns. A gray tint flashes through a scene of two old men, each alone in an empty apartment talking to walls and not talking to each other as they pass in the halls; finally the film tints white with sharp black outlines defining the old men passing in the halls one day and each stopping, surveying. Finally one of the men, the man who lives behind the red door, sticks out his hand and says flat: “My name is Turner.” The man who lives behind the black door takes Turner’s hand, half frowns and half grins, so his lip line looks like a breaking rollercoaster ride, and says, “Philip.”

The book has no chapters and no dividing sections, but the film chapters here into a black screen, “Two Weeks Later” in white letters; blue tint, the building flooding with the waves from the flood, washing people out of windows, screaming; the building shudders and totters like the leaning tower. Loud sound. Blackout. “Two Years Later”: white letters. Blackout.

Turner and Philip are friends, or at least as much as they can muster. Philip comes over to Turner’s apartment, enters without knocking, sits down and says: “Turner, do you live off the stuff in the rooms left by other people like I do? If so, you can tell me. We need to come up with a plan, divide the territory. Lately I’ve noticed stuff disappearing. Stuff I’d sort of planted in rooms. That worries me.”

“What kinds of stuff.”

“Nevermind that.”

“Very well. I will have the first three floors, and you will have the top two.”

“How is that fair? We should divide one floor in half, and then it is equal and fair.”

“But it is fair. Since we live on the top floor, you have the prime real estate. You’re on the fifth floor already, and the fourth is only one floor down.” Turner frowns. “I have to go all the way to the third floor for my supplies.”

“What happens when I run out?”

“We will share.”

“Now that sounds fair.”

For a while Turner and Philip live in peace. They pass in the halls, half-smile and nod. They live quiet, mysterious lives. No one ever comes by the building. The film is punctuated by long scenes of the hallways, silent, climbing around corners, and the clod, clod, clod quietly in stereo as it passes the red and black doors. The story is written in short staccato sentences. The pace slows down. Two ghosts climbing around corners; clod clod clod. Or something like that.

The film segues into scenes of the old man behind the red door, Philip, pacing the apartment one night when he hears Turner’s door close. He knows Turner went out for supplies just that afternoon. Why would he be going again, and if he’s not going for supplies, why would he be leaving his apartment? Where does he have to go? Philip leans close to his own door, and listens. A moment later he puts on a pair of soft slippers he found on the third floor, waits to hear Turner’s footsteps fall down the hall, and then he follows him out.

He follows Turner around two corners, when he sees Turner turn one way, then the other. Philip falls back into the shadow of the corner. Turner, satisfied he’s not being observed, turns back to the door, and quietly, deftly even, opens it and slips inside.

Philip can’t believe his eyes. A little moonlight is coming through cracks in the ceiling, gray rusted steel and concrete, turning the moonlight ash yellow, and pale, and seeps Turner in an eerie glow; close up on Philips’s face; eyes wide, mouth drawn back; yellow teeth in slowly browning moonlight.

Philip’s first thought, wrapped in wrath, is to storm into the room, grab the first blunt object he sees, and strike Turner dead on the spot. He moves forward, mumbling death threats to himself, when suddenly something really troubling occurs to him.

No one ever goes into the straight jacket nicely. In the film, flashback sequence, Philip struggles against three thin men in white coats, as they fit him nicely into a backwards white jacket. Blackout.

The year is fifty five years ago, and Philip is on a ship at sea. Blue tint, sky blue sky, waves like the flood through the windows, which hasn’t happened yet. In the belly of the boat there are rows of hallways winding around corners where doors lean into the walls. Behind each door there is a living quarter, small room, a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a couple sea scattered chairs. Philip sits smoking in his room, a much younger man. His eyes are whitish green; in the film he looks out a porthole onto the sea, and can almost see the waves reflecting back a long lost stare that goes all the way back where there’s a quick cut flashback of Brooklyn streets. Gray and red buildings, black asphalt, children playing while a fire hydrant showers a sidewalk. Back to Philip’s face, looking back at the ocean looking back at him.

The book tells the story of Philip’s childhood in Brooklyn; talks about his mother. He even had friends. The film focuses on Philip’s face: his eyes and the way the wrinkles on his cheeks meet the teeth of his frown, but it gives no more backstory. Philip is alone on the sea, Childe Harold, says the author, and Philip’s face sings a lonely song on film.

Something strange is happening on the boat. Passengers disappear and reappear. Sometimes they reappear as other people. One man disappears and comes back as two: Oscar and Gary, completing each other’s sentences, complementing each other’s thoughts, sometimes getting in loud angry irrational shouting matches back and forth no one else can follow. No one else can follow: Philip tries explaining the disappearances to other people. Passengers at first. Just the quick comment over dinner: “Did Daniel disappear?”

“No. He’s right over there -,” Where Daniel would be sitting, eating dinner, only as another person.

“Is that Daniel?”

“That’s him all right. Just look at how he moves.”

&

Later on he decides to keep a notebook of disappearances. As passengers disappear, he notes the name and date. On their reappearance, he notes the date, and renames the person appropriately, as suits the person’s new demeanor: “Daniel Damien.” Or some such. It seems there is a constant rotation of seven people missing at any given time. Sometimes two people count as one, as in Oscar and Gary. There is at least one disappearance every two days. It can take from a day to a week before the reappearance as someone else. Victims have no knowledge of their disappearance. Philip deliberates this for a few days. Finally he decides to take his findings to the crew; even to the captain himself.

No one ever goes into the straight jacket nicely. We’re back to where we were before: in the film, flashback to flashback sequence, Philip struggling against three thin men in white coats, the sea blue sea and sky blue sky pan out in a view as the doctors fit him nicely into a backwards white jacket; screaming across the waves. Philips body surges like the rolling sea. Next paragraph.

Cut back to Philip, dark around the corner watching Turner go into the room. He realizes that he’s afraid to walk into the room and find Turner missing. There is a shot colored in imagination sick green, Philip walking into the room like in the green glare of night goggles, and finding it empty. No sign of Turner no where. The artifacts stuck in corners. Another man missing.

The artifacts stuck in corners compels him out of the corner, up to the door, opens it. Inside Turner turns from where he’s crouched in the corner. He’s holding one of Philip’s notebooks. He looks at Philip in a way that is both alarming and familiar. “What the hell is this?”

“Nevermind that,” says Philip. “What are you doing going into one of my rooms?”

Turner ignores the question. “What does this mean?” he demands. “Turner disappeared a few days ago, and has come back as someone else I’ve named Turner Sheisty? Who are these people disappearing in an already empty building? Who are you?”

And then something unexpected happened. Philip himself disappeared. On the screen he simply flick off the scene. For a minute there’s Turner, wide eyed in the corner, and the room sinking into imagination sick green tint, and then a loud sound. Blackout. The book is more ambiguous: “And then something unexpected happened. Philip himself disappeared. The End.”

A wash like the waves through the windows woke me up in a dark blue room, dark blue sky, five in the morning. The feeling, sitting up in bed was like I shed years with each increasingly acute angle. Ninety degrees in the bed, arms propped back, sweating. For a minute I didn’t know who I was. The room was unfamiliar; I had no immediate frame of reference. Running through my memory, trying to remember why I might be waking up in an unfamiliar room, I got caught in a loop in the dream: something absolutely vital to the life of the story, what it was trying to tell me. Somewhere between Philip looking out the porthole and people disappearing. And the more I tried to remember what it was, the more it disappeared. Age is a cycle, you are born a fool, and you grow old into a fool. Somewhere in those minutes of limbo, between losing my dream and groping for my memory I felt like I was losing something metaphysically essential to myself on the other side. Supposing I believed in such things. Supposing I didn’t. Supposing both at the same time.

Whit Frazier, 2007

The Automobile

The automobile, propelling toward its destination, is an extension of his thoughts. It is four in the morning, and the moon is falling asleep behind brightening clouds. One hand is holding onto the wheel of the vehicle, between the fingers resting a marijuana cigarette, he hasn’t smoked a marijuana cigarette in seven years. The other hand holds onto a Berretta tucked next to him on the car seat. The automobile is flying forward, and possibly, driving him backward. His thoughts have turned backward, and fly forward, and then return to this moment. They fly backward and drive forward again. He is thinking about the night before, with his sister, his mother, his father and his aunt, and he is thinking about his uncle molesting his sister, and he is thinking about drinking all that night, and waking up the next morning on his bedroom floor, the fan burned out, and the morning heat sweating through the window.

Downstairs he can smell the smell of his mother’s cooking. She is making bacon and eggs, and he feels sick, wondering how she can get up and cook and eat like any other morning. He comes downstairs, and the whole family is there: mother, father, sister, aunt. They are sitting around the dining room table, frozen like mannequins. He walks over and sits down. His mother says: “Don’t sit down at the table without washing your hands. And put something on your feet.” She pauses. “In fact, shower up. You smell like a brewery. If you’re going to behave this way at twenty-eight, you could at least get your own place.”

He doesn’t say anything. He turns around and heads back up the stairs to take a shower. There is a feeling of impotence – and anger. He takes a shower. When he is finished and clean, and dressed in clean clothes he comes back downstairs, and they are sitting there just like before: the party of mannequins. He takes his place with them. Nobody is speaking. He looks over at his sister, and her face is blank. What could she be thinking about? He looks over to his aunt, and her face is blank. What about her? What is she thinking about her husband? Why is everyone here so complacent? When his mother comes back in with breakfast, he says: “So, dad, what should we do?”

His father looks up from his plate with the same blank face. “Son, there is nothing to do. It happened a long time ago, and the man is sick anyway. He will be dead in a year or two. God takes his Justice. It is not our place.”

“I want to kill the sonofabitch,” he tells his father. Does he mean it? He doesn’t know; after all, it is what someone would say in the movies. It is the right thing to say in this situation.

“There is nothing noble or good in taking revenge,” his father disagrees. “Right now we just need to be here for your sister. That’s the important thing. I don’t want to put your sister through a trial, and there will be no vigilante justice in this family. We are a good, Christian family, and it is God’s place to judge. Not ours.”

“I hope he howls,” his sister says; and his sister’s tone brings tears to his eyes. He says to her: “I will make things right again.”

After breakfast he goes upstairs and sits on his bed, and thinks. He wonders did he really mean it. A real man would go and do something. He thinks about the breakfast table again, all the blank faces, the family of defeated individuals, the defeated family; is he happy to be like this? He is impotent – impotent! Not a real man at all – a phony, like his father, sitting petrified at the dining room table, waiting for someone else to take charge. He looks in face of his father, going back into a memory of the morning, and he sees himself in it. It will not be long before he and his father are one and the same. Bad enough he was always waiting around corners for himself. Worse yet, here he was life half gone and still at home.

Somewhere in the early afternoon he goes out for a drive. He ends up at Stephanie’s house. She answers the door in a light green summer dress, and her hair runs bright, scented, all down her neck. He smiles, and she smiles and she says come in. He sits down, and when she looks at him a little closer, she says: “What’s wrong?” He folds his hands in his lap, and doesn’t say anything. She repeats the question, and he asks for a drink. She comes back with a bottle of white wine. She pours them both a glass.

“I learned something pretty disturbing last night,” he tells her. “It’s about my sister.” Stephanie doesn’t say anything. She knows he wants to tell her and she waits, because he will say it in time. He sits and looks down, then looks back up at her. “It involves my uncle,” he says. Stephanie sits and listens and looks serious through the whole thing. “Nothing like that ever happened to you, did it?” she asks quiet after he’s finished.

His face flushes and his eyes go deep. “No! Of course not! For Christ’s sake, I’m not my sister!” Stephanie’s face is slack and kind and sympathetic. “It’s just that you must be the most repressed person I’ve ever met,” she says. He stands up and paces a couple paces and turns to her and says: “And just what the hell do you mean by that?” Stephanie shrugs and her face is blank. “I didn’t mean to say anything to offend you.” He sits back down. His mind is racing, he doesn’t know what to say. He looks back up at Stephanie, and says: “Anyway, I’ve decided I’m going to kill the sonofabitch.” Stephanie says, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“And why not? No one else is gonna do anything? What kind of world do we live in where people just get away with this kind of thing? My mother and father want to believe Jesus will serve justice in the end, but I don’t believe in Jesus. Someone has to stand up and be a man.”

“I think you should think about what your sister needs,” Stephanie says.

Well to hell what Stephanie says, he thinks, back in his car, and not sure where he’s driving to. To hell with Stephanie all around. He’s a little bit tipsy, and he’s thinking about the light green sundress Stephanie was wearing and in the early evening sun, he is remembering the way that she smelled, and he is thinking about her posture, and poise and prettiness when she says: “It’s just that you must be the most repressed person I’ve ever met.”

He picks up a six-pack before going home, and decides not to go home. He parks the car off on a quiet road by the side of great rolling long fields, where twilight’s orange sun spills like pale blood on the grassy fingers. He drinks, and smokes cigarettes and thinks about what he should do. He pulls open his glove compartment and looks at the joint Stephanie gave him earlier. He hasn’t smoked reefer in seven years. If he is going to do what he thinks he is going to do he is going to have to smoke this thing first, he tells himself.

The sound of the crickets comes through with the setting night. He has been sitting out here for hours, trying to determine what he is going to do. He turns around in his car and goes home. The family of mannequins has shifted to the living room, blank faces all, sitting quiet on the couch when he walks in the door. His father asks him: “Where were you?”

“I went to Stephanie’s house,” he says. And then he goes upstairs without saying anything else. Upstairs he lets himself into his mother and father’s bedroom. He opens the drawer on the night table and takes out his father’s Beretta. He checks it for ammo, and makes sure the safety is on, and then he tucks it in the small of his back. He goes back downstairs to where the family looks up at him coming down the stairs, still blankfaced, all.

“I need to go for a drive,” he tells them.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” says his sister.

He stops at a bar he knows along the way to his Uncle’s house. It is a depressing dive bar where old men sit with one shot and one beer and repeat this concoction for an eight hour workday. He drinks fast and hard. He will need the fuel in him before he smokes the reefer. He remembers that he used to feel like he was dreaming whenever he did that.

Around four in the morning he feels like he is dreaming. The present is the sum of the past. The automobile, propelling towards its destination, is an extension of his thoughts.

-Whit Frazier, 2005

Faith

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. The intersection sat broken buildings, cracked sidewalks and glass, and one or two stray cats came to and fro, from into and out of the earth.

In the morning she asked him to leave. He sat down and looked out at the wall and the calligraphy and he didn’t see any new patterns. Brenda said: I mean now. He stood up and walked over to the window. It isn’t cold outside anymore, he explained to her. She didn’t say anything. When he turned around there was no Brenda; only a wall.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. He’d heard about it since he was a child, when his mother and father would tuck him into bed and tell him about the strange wall on Concourse and Mezzanine where strangers came and strangers went and all of them went away changed. One day, his father used to tell him, there will be a man who will stop her, but until then she writes day and night and it always stays winter. He would argue with his father: but that doesn’t make any sense. How can that be true? His father smiled, and his mother, she would always cry and leave the room. One night he asked his father, why does it make mother cry?

Father told him how mother’s father was an ambitious man, and how he had always heard about the wall. That one day someone would stop Brenda, and that mother’s father had thought he was that man. And father said: maybe he was, but if he was then the wall stopped him. Mother’s father was an alcoholic, a failed poet, a wreck of a man who worked day in day out and never had an extra penny to spend on himself. The police found him one morning, hanging. His father paced the story slow, so he knew his son could get every nuance. Hanging. They said it was a suicide. Hanging from the wall.

“Mother’s mother never recovered. She had a nervous breakdown one afternoon in a taxicab home. Mother had to stay with her grandmother who was a mean old lady named Brenda. It haunted her. And she never likes to talk about it; but she told me when we got married, that when we had children, we would have to tell our children every night about Brenda and her terrible calligraphy.”

And father smiled. And it dawned on him that evening that father never believed mother. It also dawned on him that evening that he hated father. Hated him. And that if mother had given him this strange birthright, then he must be the man who was to stop Brenda. And what’s more that it would have to be over his father’s dead body.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. The night mother was committed he sat with father in the living room, each across from the other. The curtains tugged from into and out of the window, and father couldn’t look at him and he stared at father. In the background father had put on something demonic and classical. Probably Stravinsky. Father said, without looking up: I know you’re old enough now to understand. Yes, father, he said. And he felt like Damian.

The sterile cell that kept mother locked up, locked him up inside her head, but he was a young man now, and yes, mother, of course she was crazy. He saw her everyday. He hated to go see her, and she just sat there looking at him, desperate, sad and insane. Mother, he would say, there is no Brenda. Brenda is the name of your grandmother, and your grandmother was fond of calligraphy. Please recognize this, so you can come back to us. And his mother would tell him: You have been talking with your father. He loved me enough to play along, you know. But he never respected me. And he never believed me. He has never even been to the corner of Concourse and Mezzanine.

Of course there was no corner of Concourse and Mezzanine. He had known this a long time, so of course father had never been there, but that’s all mother would say. Mother, please. And she would be silent. At school the word got out. Why is your mother crazy? children asked him. She had a rough childhood, he would say, and she lost both her parents. And when that happens sometimes you go crazy. And he would stare right at the other students and say, I can see it in your soul that it would drive you crazy, but it would make no difference to me.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. His father dies when he’s twenty years old. His father was found hanging. And slowly too, so he could capture every nuance. Hanging at the corner of Concourse and Mezzanine. The police judged it a suicide. What else could it be? He stopped visiting mother. She was crazy, and to go mad was a weakness, and he had no place for weakness. He had only one weakness. Her name was Brenda. Brenda passed him daily on the stairs at the University. He smiled and she smiled, but they never said a word. Sometimes he would catch the scent of her hair in class. He loved her, but he was onto her and he knew what he had to do. He was never worried, because he knew how things worked out. He’d known the story since he was a child, and probably, so had she.

The day after he found out about his father’s death he invited Brenda to the funeral. She smiled and blushed and said she’d love to go. Great, he told her. He would pick her up at nine. She should wear her best dress. He would wear his best suit. When they lowered father into the ground he smiled. He took Brenda home, and kissed her. He told her he’d had a wonderful time, and they should see each other again. She said, yes, that was very true. He pointed across the street where the sun stopped shining and fell just short of where a kitten lurched limping across the broken glass. That’s where father hanged himself. Yes, she said. I know. I was the one who found him. The corner of Concourse and Mezzanine. Where you can find all my calligraphy.

The summer after graduation Brenda agreed to marry him. We will live in my house, she said, and you will be able to look at the wall all the time. He couldn’t get enough of the wall. The wall, where even in the summer, it was still winter. He took pictures and put them up in his house. He sat in front of it for hours and stared. Patterns developed and changed. People came and people went. Stray cats came from into and out of the earth. The patterns changed and the people changed, though he never changed and Brenda never changed, and everything stayed the same. The calligraphy was what awed him. And what awed everyone. And all the lovers Brenda took, and all the children that stopped by to play, and all the people that went away changed or hanging, and Brenda stayed and he stayed, and he knew he was going to stop her one day.

&

The day Brenda got married he went out with friends, and they all got drunk. They laughed at him and they laughed with him and they said: we told you that girl would never marry you. Look how many men came and went, and what made you think you were special? So that he smiled and laughed and said: Brenda’s calligraphy stops strangers at the wall. His friends said: you’ve had too much, and now you’re not making sense. It’s time for you to go to bed. He pushed them all off him, and he looked at them like he was in the living room alone with his father, with Stravinsky, Damian, with the curtains pulling from into and out of the window, and he said: you are all the same. Every one of you, and not one of you believes, and that’s why I’ll see you all hang at the wall.

In the morning he tore up all his phone numbers, and he walked over to Brenda’s house where he found her new husband hanging on the wall. The patterns changed, and he sat there all day and he sat there all night, and the next morning Brenda came outside and asked him did he want to come inside? He said, yes, he’d like very much to come inside, and they went in and he asked her, what happened to your husband? She told him, that’s how things happen around here, and I have nothing to do with the wall. He walked over to the window and looked out at the wall. The patterns on the wall had changed, and her husband wasn’t there anymore, there were more images, and he said: you have everything to do with that wall Brenda. Why didn’t you marry me? And Brenda said: you know why.

He didn’t say anything. He walked over to where she was standing, and he touched her lip. He put his other hand on the nape of her neck. He could feel the patterns changing on the wall behind him outside, where years ago his father had died. She slipped, catlike from underneath him, but he pushed her up against the wall, and slid up against her. He kissed her. She led him to her bed. She rolled him around and climbed on top of him. She slid her hands up his chest, and whispered hot in his ear: “Is this what you wanted? You wanted to fuck me?” He lay still and silent and sleeping, like his father.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. When he was a child he used to visit his grandmother, and she would tell him stories. They would sit in her dusty old den where she’d hunch over her desk and write the names of their ancestry in snakes of calligraphy that changed into patterns of pictures while she told him stories about each name. The patterns of the calligraphy and the stories of the names weaved together into a strange picture, and Brenda kept a long roll of paper where she kept writing names over and over and coming up with new names and she said she traced her lineage all the way back to the story of Job.

Sometimes mother would come into the den while she was talking and writing and he was listening and watching, and mother would scream and say, Brenda you stay away from my child, stay away from my child, he’s already not well, you hear me? I won’t have you doing to him what you did. And she never finished the sentence, while snaking patterns of calligraphy and stories cobwebbed inside his head, so that each new visit to his grandmother became necessary to spin new webs.

Brenda was found dead one morning sitting at her desk rotting. She’d died alone in her study, the calligraphy pen still in her hand, and her head resting against the long roll of paper that ran snaking calligraphies of names and stories. No one had known she was dead for weeks. One day someone walked by and smelled something horrible. The police had to break into the house.

For years after she died, he used to sneak away from home in the middle of the night and creep into the old house where Brenda died. He would sit in the den and dream up the desk and the roll of paper and the strange names of ancient relatives and all the old stories. He liked to make up stories of his own in that dark little den, where all he had were murky memories of ancestors. He could try to trace them all the way back to Job.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. The intersection sat broken buildings, cracked sidewalks and glass, and one or two stray cats came to and fro, from into and out of the earth.

In the morning she asked him to leave. He sat down and looked out at the wall and the calligraphy and he didn’t see any new patterns. Brenda said: I mean now. He stood up and walked over to the window. It isn’t cold outside anymore, he explained to her. She didn’t say anything. When he turned around there was no Brenda; only a wall.

&

The last time he was there he had been sitting mumbling thinking scribbling for hours, and when his mother found him in the morning, pale and shaking she started to cry. Have you been here all night? she screamed. You had us worried sick! His father stormed up and down the room furious. He didn’t know what to tell them: Don’t cry, mother; father, please don’t be angry. You were right all along Mother. I always believed you. Except I was your father, and I am your son, and I was always destined to stop her. And though it cost me my life once, you can see now that she is gone.

The Sensualist

Around 1:30 Sunday afternoon, Simon Dimple came out of the little shop a block down the street from his apartment with a whole, fresh trout wrapped up in a brown paper package. The package was cold and heavy and wet, and so was the day, a couple hours after a pleasant autumn rain. The leaves were colorfully wet dead stains on the cozy gray sidewalks, and clouds passed and looked like warm smoke from cozier chimneys and comfortable homes in good old Strawberry, Simon Dimple’s favorite town, no questions, no doubts.

It was a fine day all around for Simon Dimple, a fine day looking forward to a fine evening spent enjoying one of the finest operas of all time, La Boheme, a masterpiece that appealed to cabdrivers and classicists alike, and Simon walked home singing sad romantic arias in his head and thinking about his darling Clementime.

Clementine was a fine young lady who lived in New York, but grew up in Strawberry. As children, he and Clementine had lived on the same block and gone to the same schools, though for the longest time Clementine paid him no mind. He, on the other hand, felt like he’d remembered Clementine for as long as he could remember, and when he was in Junior High School he would walk out to the docks in Southport, look across the water and recite Annabel Lee while skipping stones. One afternoon in his first year of High School he got bold, because she was in his English class. They were reciting famous poems, and when it came his turn to recite, he went to the front of the class, said loud and brave: “This poem is for Clementine!” and recited Annabel Lee, right there in front of Clementine, their classmates and everybody; he was nervous and excited, and he could barely even finish the poem, what with everyone laughing and such – (everyone, that is, except for Clementine, who fled the room, and the teacher, who was looking very pale and concerned, and couldn’t stop staring at him like he was crazy) – but laugh, stare or flee, after that things changed.

It had rained earlier, sure, but now the sun was starting to peek out just a little bit – orange on the orange trees, and the hearty smell of the trout mixed with the scent from the cider vendors on the corners, and they mixed with all the pumpkin vendors, and Simon Dimple decided there could be nothing finer than a pleasant stroll through Strawberry on a fine autumn afternoon. When he got to his apartment, he turned around to look one last time. It inspired him so much that he sat straight down on the damp sidewalk and admired his little town and all the people that populated it. Clementine, she loved New York, and sure, he could understand that, but there was nothing in the world like Strawberry.

After a while, he turned around and headed upstairs to his apartment. He put the trout away in the refrigerator, took a hot shower, changed clothes and helped himself to a snifter of brandy. His back patio looked out on a little park, so he stepped out there and breathed in the air with the flavor of the brandy; he watched the women and children and said, she was a child, and I was a child in this Kingdom by the Sea. Then he went back inside and helped himself to another small snifter of brandy.

Simon Dimple went from the kitchen back to the living room, a tidy square room with blue curtains and blue carpets, and large bay windows looking out onto the street. His patio was connected to the living room too, and even though it was a little bit chilly with the patio doors open, he liked the autumn wind blowing into his living room, and sometimes a stray wet leaf would come waltzing colorfully into the room, which delighted him. He turned on his stereo, and put on one of his old vinyl recordings of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It was a children’s piece, but a piece he considered to be his theme song whenever he was in the sort of happy, playful mood he was in this afternoon. The melody moved him to finish his snifter of brandy, head back to the kitchen and pour himself another.

Once he was in the kitchen, Simon began basic preparations for the fish. He diced up onions, celery and various other vegetables. Then he moved onto various herbs, chopping coriander, mint, basil and tarragon. Once he’d chopped the herbs and the vegetables, he set them aside on the chopping board and put half a stick of butter in a small saucepan. He decided to help himself to another snifter of brandy.

Simon Dimple took a sip of the brandy, set it down and walked back across the kitchen to where the butter was now fairly well melted in the saucepan. He slowly, little by little, began to mix first the chopped vegetables, and then the chopped herbs into the melted butter in the small saucepan, and reduced the heat. He watched the whole mixture simmer, and his head started to feel light. He walked over to where his snifter of brandy sat, sniffed the brandy, and hopped seated atop his kitchen counter. Through the adjacent living room the cool autumn afterrain crept the corner and stirred up the scents of the vegetables and herbs simmering in butter, the warm, rich, sweet aroma of the brandy and the smoky autumn opulence, while the Prokofiev piece whistled Simon and Peter’s theme song with a laughing little flute so that when Simon Dimple finished his next snifter of brandy, he decided he must most certainly have at least one more.

The next task at hand was to clean and bone the trout. Simon opened the refrigerator, pulled out the cold, damp package, placed it in the sink and unwrapped it with a certain amount of reverence. Once the package was unwrapped he lifted the fish and turned it over several times. The fish was sleek and wet and a little slick to the touch. He ran his fingers over it. The eyes looked like they were looking up at him, like a dog or a cat when you pet it, and except for the stupid terror in the eyes, Simon Dimple decided there was something decidedly noble about those eyes. The body was slender and blue-green, and a radiant pink-red line ran down the trout’s midline. Turning the fish over, the body changed from blue-green to silver, and then faded into a dirty snow white. He turned the fish over again. It was a beautiful trout. The most beautiful thing he’d seen in his life. He laid the fish carefully back in the sink and went to change the record. He put on some Chopin, because nothing else seemed delicate enough to match the beauty of the fish. When he re-entered the kitchen, he decided he and the fish should have one last glass of brandy before he chopped it up.

He had been very deliberate about playing Chopin’s Trauermarsch to accompany the occasion, so when he poured out the two snifters of brandy, he did so solemnly. “A toast to your beauty,” he told the trout, brandishing a snifter. He lifted the fish from the sink, opened its mouth, and emptied the contents inside. Then he lifted his own glass, clinked it against the empty glass, and quaffed his own snifter empty in one gulp. “And now,” he said, “the time has come. For all beauty is the beginning of a terror we are just able to endure, and which awes us only because it so serenely disdains to destroy us.”

With that much said, Simon Dimple opened his cupboard, picked up his kitchen knife, placed it just where the head began, and lovingly positioned his hands across the knife, looking for the cleanest, most humane cut he could possibly inflict. It was just at that moment that the telephone rang.

Simon had been expecting a call that afternoon. Clementine was supposed to call him once she got settled into her hotel so that they could make definite plans for the evening. He put the trout back into the sink, placed the knife next to it, and walked into the living room where the closest telephone was located. He turned the Chopin down. “Hello?”

“Simon. How are you?”

“Clementine! Are you in town?”

“Yes, I’m at some dreadful hotel off Strawberry Circle. King Strawberry Inn or something like that. Oh, Simon, this town just has to get over itself.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be so harsh on it. You did grow up here, you know.”

“That’s exactly why I can be so harsh, Simon darling. Really. When will you ever move out of this dump?”

“Now, Clementine. That’s not fair. You know how I feel about this town.”

“Yes. Yes, I do. You’re stubbornly sentimental. That’s how you feel. Well, I’ll tell you this, Simon Dimple: Strawberry is no New York City, and I should know. What could you possibly know about anything spending all your time here?”

Simon didn’t say anything.

“Anyway,” Clementine went on, “at least Strawberry can put on a decent Opera. Aren’t you just thrilled to see Puccini tonight?”

“As a matter of fact, I am,” Simon said, perking up a bit.

“I’m glad to see this town hasn’t completely destroyed your sense of culture.”

“Well, on the contrary,” said Simon. “I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading. I go to the theatre a couple times a month, when I can afford to, and you know how I love my music. I’ve even learned to cook a bit. I was thinking, if you were up to it, I picked up the most succulent looking rainbow trout this afternoon at the market, and I’ve been preparing it all afternoon. I was thinking, if you were up to it, that maybe after the opera I could whip up a dish of herb baked trout. Splendid stuff. I had it at a restaurant the other night, and I managed to find a recipe for it online that sounds absolutely delicious.”

“Oh, Simon, you do need to move out of this horrendous dockside town.”

“You don’t like rainbow trout?”

“Ugh! Fish! Disgusting, Simon, utterly revolting! They’re slimy, and – and fish, and they stink to high heaven. Really, Simon. To eat such stupid, revolting creatures as a grown man. As a cultured grown man. Besides, darling, I thought you knew that I’m a vegetarian.”

“Oh.”

“Well, don’t start sounding all long faced about it, love. We’ll just go out to eat somewhere. That way we can both get something we like. Though if you get some horrible gaping fish, I may just have to walk out on you.” She laughed.

Simon didn’t say anything.

“Anyway, how have you been, dear?”

“I don’t know. Okay, I guess,” Simon said. “I suppose we haven’t talked in a rather long time. I haven’t done a whole lot of anything. Like I said, I enjoy the theatre; and my music of course. Sometimes I like to go on walks. I don’t know all that many people these days, you know. Most everyone we grew up with left Strawberry.”

“Well, you can’t blame them.”

“What about you? How is New York?”

“Oh, darling, if you only knew. The theatre there is just tremendous. And then there’s Broadway, and the museums and art galleries; Soho is like a giant art-gallery in and of itself. It would amaze you.”

“I’d like to see New York someday.”

“Well you’ll die never having lived if you don’t. There are all the cute punk rock kids in the east village, and there’s Central Park – darling, you always loved the fall. You would adore Central Park in the fall. It’s like nothing in the world.”

“I’d like to see it.”

“And then the men, oh the men just knock you out, Simon. They’re so cultured and intelligent. Not like the men you meet in Strawberry. Not you I mean, Simon, you’re different of course; but I mean in general. And then they’re so handsome. I met my ex-husband at an art-gallery opening. He was the most charming man on the planet. A bastard, as it turns out, but he was so cute and smart and funny.”

“I never knew you got married,” Simon said, heading towards the kitchen, where he decided both he and his insulted friend were in need of another glass of brandy.

“Wow, Simon, it really has been a long time, hasn’t it? We were married for a year. We got divorced in June.”

“I’m – I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Well, don’t be. The last thing I need is someone’s pity. Just like a man, he was seeing some little trick he met at some club downtown. What a man like that was even doing at a club downtown, I can hardly fathom, but boys will be boys.”

“It doesn’t sound like he was right for you,” Simon said, filling up the two snifters, and clinking them together.

“Well, it seems like no one ever is.”

“True.”

“Remember the time you read that poem dedicated to me, all the way back in High School?” Clementine laughed.

Simon laughed too, while the trout gulped down its second glass of brandy. “Of course.”

“God, that was humiliating.”

“Yes. I guess I was a little silly back then. “

“Oh, Simon, you’ve always been silly.”

“Well.”

“I should’ve just married you, I think. You should move to New York, Simon Dimple, and we’ll get married straightaway.”

“You mean it?”

“Of course, darling. Why wouldn’t we? We’re both single, responsible adults!” She laughed. “We could sit by the fire at night and read each other Annabel Lee.

Chopin’s final heavy movement came slumping through the kitchen doorway. Simon took a sip of his brandy and headed back to the living room.

“Well maybe I’ll do that.”

“Oh, you should darling, you absolutely should. Anyway, listen. Why don’t you meet me at the theatre just after quarter past six? That way we can get good seats and maybe even have time for a cocktail at the bar before the show starts. How does that sound?”

“That sounds great, Clementine.”

“Well, then, it’s a date.”

“It’s a date. You know, Clementine, it’s great to hear your voice again.”

“Oh, darling, I just adore you,” Clementine said. “See you then.”

Simon Dimple hung up the phone. He looked at his watch. It was just going on four o’ clock. If he took a cab around six he could be at the theatre in fifteen minutes, though on a day like this, and with this much brandy in him, he preferred to walk. He walked into the kitchen and looked at the trout lying in the sink. A thin line of brandy was dribbling from its mouth. Simon gathered up the fish, careful to keep it settled on the unwrapped package beneath it, and brought it into the living room. He set it down on the couch and went back into the kitchen. In his kitchen cupboard he found a large bowl and along with it, he grabbed the bottle of brandy.

Once he was back in the living room Simon put the fish in the bowl and filled his snifter. Chopin’s Trauermarsch had finished, so he went and changed the music to something a little lighter. A little Bach, for culture. The Goldberg Variations. Exquisite. Glen Gould recording of course. Civilized music for civilized discussion. He sat down on the couch next to the fish.

“So,” he said. “We are all insulted tonight. You, me and the whole wretched town of Strawberry.”

The trout didn’t say anything.

“Yes,” Simon agreed, “it’s hard to know what to say. A little speechless myself, and I’m not the type of fellow usually at a loss for words. It has been a long time, though. How is she supposed to understand how we feel about things? She’s out there in New York, and here we are in Strawberry. You’ve seen other places, other cities. Perhaps you’ve even been to New York yourself; but I’ve spent my whole life in Strawberry, and how am I supposed to know where she’s coming from after all these years? Three years, and I’m expecting… To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting. What say you, brother fish?”

The smell of the sizzling butter made Simon jump up and head back to the kitchen. The butter had burned, along with the vegetables, into the pan. Simon turned off the heat and let the pan sit. “Just as well,” he said, “dinner’s off anyway. Besides, the fish and I have become friends.” He headed back into the living room for another glass of brandy.

“Well, brother fish,” he said, sitting back on the couch. “Another for you too, then?”

This time, pouring the brandy into the fish’s mouth, he got a little sloppy and some of the brandy spilled onto the couch. Instead of cleaning it immediately up, as would have been his normal course of action, he let it sit and drank his own glass. The wind coming through the open patio door was getting wild and colder, but the brandy was making him feel warm. He looked over at the rainbow trout with red and orange leaves blowing across the blue rugs, Bach on the radio and said, “Brother fish, I believe, we both of us have had quite enough.”

&

When Simon Dimple woke up it was about a quarter to six. His head was pounding, and he felt disoriented, but when he looked down at his watch, he lurched himself forward off the couch and stumbled towards his bedroom. No time to take a shower, he would have to go to the opera stinking of brandy, but that was okay. He washed his face in the sink to refresh himself, before sloppily changing into his eveningwear. Outside the day had gotten a lot colder, and the little bit of sunlight that had been there in the afternoon was gone. The sky was gray, and the wind whipped the little leaves around the sidewalks, and Simon Dimple stood by the side of the road shivering and perplexed, waiting for the cab he’d called.

He arrived at the theatre just a little after a quarter after. Clementine was waiting for him in the lobby. “Simon, darling!” she cried. “Late as always. How many years has it been? And you look… well, why, Simon, you look as if life has giving you a rather sound beating over the years.”

“Well,” Simon said, “you look lovely as ever Clementine.”

Clementine had been a skinny tall girl, with braided black hair and glasses, and a lot of boys made fun of her when she was young, and a lot of girls too; but a lot of boys also fell in love with her. As an adult she was still a tall, skinny young woman, but her hair was pulled up in a bun, and she wore black-rimmed glasses that were an oval kind of shape and had gold-rimmed interiors and were made by Dolce & Gabana or somesuch. As an adult lots of women made lots of fun of her when she wasn’t around, but men were always falling in love with her. Simon always figured she made other women jealous. Clementine loved to have men in love with her, and Simon loved to be in love with her, and so they loved each other very much.

Clementine was wearing a dark red coat, and a black evening dress. Simon thought she looked stunning, but he still couldn’t help stifle a yawn. And the yawns kept coming all night. All throughout his favorite opera of all time Simon Dimple couldn’t help but yawn. Nothing seemed to be comfortable enough: for one, the seats were too far away, and the opera glasses just made his eyes tired; secondly, once his eyes were sufficiently tired, he had trouble keeping up with the score, so that he constantly lost pace with the music and/or the story and found himself straining more just to figure out what was going on than enjoying the evening, and finally, what with everything tiring poor Simon Dimple out so much, and what with Clementine’s deep sensual perfume, Simon found his tired eyes occasionally gave up altogether and closed for whole scenes at a time.

Dinner was worse. Clementine dragged him to her favorite restaurant in Strawberry – a place known, idiotically enough – as Strawberry, where Clementine dined on eggplant parmesan and topped dinner off with a desert of chocolate covered strawberries. Simon was too confused and sleepy and stupefied to know what to order, so he just followed suit with the eggplant parmesan, and drank a great deal of brandy, which, ultimately, did nothing to help his perplexed state of mind.

“Simon really, how this town has jaded you!” Clementine said as they left the restaurant.

“Oh, Clementine, would you really marry me if I moved to New York?”

“Darling, how could you possible believe any different?”

Simon Dimple returned to his apartment a little after midnight on Monday morning. When he walked in the first thing he smelled was rotting fish. The apartment felt like a freezer, what with the balcony door wide open and leaves fluttering all over the blue rugs. When he turned on the light, he saw the mess in all its glory: with the fish on the couch, and the bowl collapsed in a heap of water and brandy on the floor, the rugs blown around the room, the invading fall leaves, the brandy spilled all over the couch, and the flies buzzing from the living room over the dead fish and the rancid butter. The stench and the mess and the brandy and his head and the eggplant parmesan and Clementine made him sick – sick to his stomach, and he threw up right there on his beautiful blue rugs. And then Simon Dimple dropped onto his couch, right next to the rotten fish, and couldn’t help but cry.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, November 2003)

 

 

Ode on Solitude

There is sometimes a mythology
Beneath the small blue stars.
Obscure sounds thrum an ancient rhythm
And each step reopens the world,
Like a lost and happy child keeping pace
With the cool and wandering night.

The vastness of eveything when we are alone!
Even beneath the electric glare of the city,
We can slip between the people
Into those places
Where the world of our dreams
Hangs as sacred as sleep.

-Whit Frazier

(From Strawberry Press Magazine, November 2003)