The Monologist (novella)

Patrick Keppel

To be that sad man on the street, whom everyone notices as they pass—and yet, not to know you are that man!

–Milosz, A Box of Paradox

Ah, dearest Jacqueline!  To be truthful (and you know what great value I place upon the truth!) I was thinking of you—well, let me be doubly honest then:  I was talking to you, Jacqueline, contentedly engaged in one of the many delightful conversations I’ve had with your graceful image, since we parted, in the spacious green grounds surrounding the art museum, and thus wallowing, as you say, in my precious solitude—when I first saw, or I suppose, thought I saw . . .

But you see I’m breathless, getting ahead of myself already.  Let me start again:  It was a perfectly drowsy spring day.  The maples were bursting into the season, the young and old alike garishly arrayed in their woolly yellowgreen sleeves, as if, drunk with sap, they simply couldn’t help themselves.  Dewdrenched spiderwebs lay nestled in the bushes like lace handkerchiefs carelessly tossed the night before; and there hung in the sky, besides the usual clouds, a rippling expanse of transparent wisps, which seemed to fade in and out of the visible like the hazy ribs of a chest x-ray.  For a while we lay quietly, you and I, listening to he glad sounds of the season:  the spitting squirrels—rats we tolerate only because of their marvelous tails and their almost desperate work ethic, you always said (or was it I?)—hopping from branch to branch, from tree to tree, like thoughts; the ridiculous geese and children by the pond; all those dizzy spring birds; and the incessant chatter of the happy pairs or groups of successful young people enjoying this delightful pastoral moment away from their various studies and jobs.  Every few moments, like clockwork, all of these sounds would gradually recede under the methodical rolling thunder of a jet soaring off into the distance, and then one by one return, adding on like instruments, until the whole ensemble was blaring its sweet music even stronger than before.

At last, perhaps influenced by the pleasant societies of young people all around us, you broke our silence with a long critical assessment of my current situation, the gist of which was all the usual nonsense:  that really I must know that I was an extraordinarily gifted, complex young man (I recall you forced me to admit this, though deep down I know the truth of the matter:  I have but one facet); that really my prospects here in the city, where opportunities for such as myself quite obviously abounded, should be as a result quite a lot better than they were; and that in fact it seemed clear I hadn’t sincerely tried to find an appropriate situation at all!  Yes, yes I know.  We’ve had this conversation countless times before—oh, if I could only focus!—and as always your deep disappointment at last turned my laughter to heavy sighs.  This time, however, I felt more disconcerted than usual; I felt I could make no answer, no excuse—and you know the rarity of that, dearest Jacqueline!

In short, your triumph was complete.  I turned from your image in the pond and sat there dumbly, looking out at all the successes strewn about the grounds in remarkably regular twenty-foot intervals.  Could it really be so, I wondered, that I had not tried to join them?  My gaze fell hard on every happy group, until in time I found myself imaginatively among each of them, lying in the sunny grass, discussing our offices, our ridiculous tight-fisted bosses; our subjects at school, our orthopedics, our torts, our pre-Columbian vases, our American Renaissance; our weekends (Let’s go in together on a beach house this summer, us four—oh and Jack too of course, though we’d have to get it in writing, and what if he tried to bring that awful woman D. again?); our relationships (I was inquisitive, but reticent myself; probably they thought me a casualty of love—oh, let them!); and our things, of course, at all times our marvelous things, our cars, our, fashions, our computers, our sound equipment, our art . . .

Enough of your laughter, Jacqueline!  (I’m glad to see I still amuse you).  Of course I realize I pretend like this all the time, and perhaps it is one of the ways I have of ensuring that I never actually take my rightful place among these successful little crowds.  Well, if you can imagine the conversations, why actually have them? I could see this little irony forming on your lips then, even as I’m quite certain I do now.  So I was preparing my inevitable retort, some humorous deflection, perhaps a sham apology for the sublime powers of the imagination, when just then, just behind you, a sudden stirring in the pond, I saw him—the monologist, I mean.

Only you, dearest Jacqueline, would not be surprised that it took me so long to notice a figure lying not one body length away from me (though you would tease me mercilessly about it, me and my “powers of concentration!”).  And really I cannot explain why of all the hundreds of these desperately lonely souls wandering the streets of this wretched city, I noticed this particular one, on this particular day—especially since it’s more than likely I’d seen him countless times before.  Perhaps it was simply that he provided such a stark contrast to my previous imaginings.   Indeed, how remarkably different he was from the lithe, youthful bodies I’d been lying with only moments before!  How solitary, how uneducated, how poor by comparison.  And how free! I added, almost as an afterthought.  (Yes!  Hear me out, Jackie!).  I suppose we all felt we were really letting our hair down out there in the rolling green the city had so thoughtfully provided for us, drinking in and so fully believing in this illusion of open space.  But the chaotic sprawl of this dirty bearded man in the pond put us all to shame; by contrast, we seemed as rigid as Marines!

Curious, but not wanting to stare (as if that would have mattered to him!), I kept my eye fixed on his image in the pond as, muscle by muscle, dead sleep unbound him.  His body was contorted for maximum comfort, his face and palms pressed flat against the soft grass, his right knee thrust up to the level of his waist.  I tell you he looked like a murdered corpse just waiting to be outlined in chalk; or else like one of those science fiction heroes (or villains) who boldly transport their molecules across seventy-seven million star systems, acquire the human form by passing through our rich atmosphere, and materialize in the middle of another typical day in the metropolis suffering from an understandably immense, perhaps “galactic” fatigue.  I remember you laughed at this latter idea, and as ever were quick to point out a further irony:  No doubt a great deal of time and effort and perhaps even money had been spent back home making sure the traveler would blend in here (since if we discovered his secret we’d surely kill him)—and yet even so the poor soul didn’t even know how to lie down properly!

These were your last words for a while.  Your image before me gradually faded as I instead turned my attention wholly to this “alien,” who did indeed seem as if he didn’t quite know where or even who he was.  He was a haggard, bearded  man, about my size and probably, behind all that wear, about my age.  He was wearing blackened jeans stuffed into weary old army boots and a greenish black blazer, underneath which was a stained and tattered blue t-shirt, which may at one time have featured an advertisement of some kind, but which had now been reduced to a singled word:  AUTO.  On his head were a thick set of bright yellow headphones (not connected to any player I could see), and on his hands were a pair of dirty gray garden gloves.  Poking through the hairy leather mask that was his face was a large bump of a nose and two small black eyes that nearly merged into one over the bridge.  With a remarkable, almost enviable, absent quality, he began to rub the corner of the right eye (or the right side of the one, if  you prefer) until even I could hear it crackling.   He stopped in vague alarm—where was that crackling coming from?  Then, no doubt as our imagined alien would as well, he touched every major part of his body as if to make certain it was all there, pausing in apparent delight when his hand happened upon a cloth satchel slung over his right shoulder.  The bag was literally bursting with papers of various sizes and shapes.

Now, although this man’s lips began to move the very second I noticed him and rarely stopped through all his gestures, I did not at first understand the extent to which this characteristic defined him.  Who was he talking to? I wondered.  Could he possibly be talking to me?  I admit at first I turned away, just as you would have, dearest Jacqueline, pretending I hadn’t heard.  We walked in such vastly different circles, why embarrass us both by engaging in a dialogue which, however brief, would invariably make this painfully clear?

But perhaps at bottom I’m somewhat more empathetic than you, or at least more curious about my fellow man.  “Pardon me?” I said, without looking over at him—I suppose I had to maintain at least some distance.  But as often happens when one is suddenly addressed by a stranger, I spoke in a voice directly imitative of his and thus no more audible.   Of course, I could not then know that he was incapable of hearing me, or at least not in any conventional way, so absorbed was he in the endless twists and turns of his own monologue.  But at the time I could only assume he hadn’t, so at last I turned toward him and repeated my inquiry.

Oh, dearest Jacqueline!  What an uncanny sensation to find him gone, vanished!  My words tumbled into the vacant space and were carried off by the next breeze.  Baffled, I looked all around until I spotted a figure half-buried in a trash can about thirty meters away.  Naturally I doubted it was him; unless he really were an alien, it was impossible for him to have rematerialized at such a distance.  And besides, not only had he for some reason (as if he needed a reason!) removed his yellow headphones, but his frame seemed overall larger and more powerful than before, his hair and beard even longer.   However, since there was not another person even remotely like him nearby, at last I just blamed these discrepancies on the distortion in the pond.  At which point you chimed in, dearest Jacqueline, that even more likely I’d simply had yet another of those “blank spells” you complain so often about—really I am listening at these times, dear; I just find there’s so much to consider before one commits to a response.  But fine, you caught me; I’ll admit such a spell was at least possible—in addition to the distortion, of course.

Whatever the case, these mysterious circumstances only intensified my curiosity, because at once I took off after this figure, trailing him around the pond.  Out of the corner of my eye (I always feared he’d suddenly turn and confront me), I watched him make the rounds of the park’s trash cans, plunging half his body within for almost a minute before at last emerging with one or two samples of the precious unredeemed aluminum dangling from his fingers.   After cramming these into a plastic bag (whither the satchel?), off he’d go to another, and another.  It was only after I’d drawn a little closer that I heard a low murmuring just beneath his efforts; apparently he could make no movement without discussing it with some imaginary interlocutor.

Because I had only moments before been reclining in those charmed circles of youth strewn about the lawn, I was particularly curious to observe the ripple of disruption that would pass over each group as he jangled and jabbered on by.  Oh, dearest Jacqueline!  How alternately kind and cruel people are.  Not a single group seemed unwilling to listen to what he had to say, perhaps even to help if they could, help him find his way, for instance.  And yet not one of them could restrain their laughter or snide remarks or even their expressions of disgust when they realized this passing individual spoke not to them but to the invisible.  One young man seemed at first unaffected by the man, but then allowed himself to mutter, in a kind of light-hearted yet I thought very sincere despair, that if he ever became such a monologist, they (his friends there gathered) should take him out and shoot him—which produced a hearty burst of laughter all around.

A laughter you join even now, dearest Jacqueline:  Oh really, a “monologist”—so that’s where you picked up this term.  Astonishing the marvels you are discovering these days! Well, I’m glad to see I still amuse you anyway.  But if you must know, yes, I found the term somehow . . .inspiring.  That is, I suddenly felt genuine compassion for this person, this monologist; I wanted to understand him fully, I wanted to see the world from his point of view.  What exactly was he saying?  I asked myself.  Were his incessant effusions mere commentary on actual images or occurrences there in front of him, or something more coherent and self-contained, a developing theory or philosophy, or else a story, the story of his life repeated endlessly to the end?  And how had he become reduced to this extreme of solitude?  Did he hear us?  Could we participate in the telling, change the theory, alter the story’s unique course of events?

Then suddenly you, dearest Jacqueline, reappeared in front of me, wearing that little smirk that creases your delicate face whenever I’ve fallen into one of your traps—trapped myself, you always say, and I won’t deny it—and suddenly my profound interest in this monologist became quite clear.  Isn’t this, after all, precisely why I had to leave? Of course, you wouldn’t have said this (that would have been far too cruel); but you’d have thought it, no?  Oh, I don’t want to get into all that.  You yourself realized that considering my past struggles I was doing the best I could; in fact, when you left I was almost there, almost a whole person, an individual—three years away at the most.

I digress, I know, but well you know, Jacqueline, such is my nature.  If I fight it at all it’s only because I have a complementary interest as well in order and completeness.  You may scoff at this if you like, but I assure you it’s the truth; in fact, I might further argue that it’s just this desire for order and completeness which produces the digressions, no matter how apparently random they seem to you.  Of course I’m always building to a point, but a structure does not necessarily prove the weaker for its many flourishes.  But now I’m merely repeating myself, and that’s another matter altogether.

Anyway, you smirked, I was trapped.  You nodded in triumph and would hear none of my weak objections—though even now I would insist that we weren’t nearly so audible, dear—and at last I surrendered.  How true, how true, how true it was.  I was far too alone in the world.  Bidding you a hasty farewell, I promised I would try harder to find my place among the successes; I believe I even boasted I would assume it that very afternoon.   But really I did promise sincerely.  I felt at least that much shame.

Of course, I forgot all about the monologist, who in the meantime had wandered off to another, more fruitful, grove, I hoped.  In a way I still wished to see him again, if only to recall the part he’d played in my morning’s reflections, which at the time I felt certain were the most important I’d had in years.  Circling the park with light steps, for joy I almost sat down right there and then with a couple of the happiest, brightest, the most exclusive little coteries to show my good faith.  If I declined it was only because I felt it satisfactory merely to have had the revelation at all.  How marvelous they are, those very rare moments when with great suddenness all becomes electric and meaningful and you truly know yourself better:  Finally, a day salvaged from the scrap heap of the mundane!  Oh, but Jacqueline—would that the day had ended right then!

Filled with such noble ambitions, but not as yet with the material substance necessary to realize them, I proceeded first to my usual café, an untidy little establishment which was located on a side street on the extreme edge of downtown but which proudly called itself Central Lunch nonetheless.  Oh, I hear you groan at this: What on earth were you doing at such a place?  Suppose I were to come to visit—would you really presume to take me there? Certainly not, dearest Jacqueline.  For you I’d find the coziest nook in town where we could drink tea brewed with a dozen spices and steal glances at ourselves in the table tops.  But allow me to say a few words on behalf of this humble eatery—alas, gone from me now.

Central Lunch stood on a block the developers had as yet overlooked in their mad rush to demolish or refurbish, right next to a defunct business called Kennedy Hearing Aids, which had in its window some grayish cardboard ears standing around a photograph of JFK delivering his famous speech at the Berlin Wall.  More than likely these two establishments were once joined as a pharmacy owned by these poorer relations of the Camelotians; Central Lunch probably stood on the site of its soda bar, magazine rack, and candy stand.  In any case it seemed less like a café than a room where one could just happen to get something to eat, and a very tiny room at that.  It had only twelve small wooden tables, six on either side of a path leading from the entrance to the front counter, but a three-foot-high mirror lining the walls all around made it appear much larger, infinitely larger.   A confusing array of decorations were hanging all around the room.  Some perpetually celebrated the various holidays of the year—an innocent bear staring blankly at a mostly deflated heart-shaped balloon (its cheery “Be mine” constricted to “Be me”); a fiercely determined jack o’lantern and a skeleton with movable joints (his bony hands gripping his chest cavity); and a daggerlike star of Bethlehem forever evading its stumbling pursuers (the eldest had fallen and was blocking the way)—which overall suggested not that these holidays would come round again, but that they’d all come and gone for good.  Scattered in among these were scattered photographs of someone’s yellowing grandchildren, a strangely identical bride and groom baring their teeth at one another, and a far too young serviceman, his chubby, forlorn image retreating into an ice-blue haze, a dusty dime store flag dropping from his frame.  There were also some curious works of art:  an oil portrait of Jesus of Saxony; a papier-mâché giraffe from hanging from a light bulb; Picasso’s melting vision of Don Quixote and Sancho; a silkscreen of a panther pouncing out of a psychedelic urban jungle; and an embroidered unicorn, its solitary horn pointing to a rainbow underneath which was stitched the following aphorism, the veracity of which you and I have disputed over coffee a number of times:

 

A House Divided

Cannot Stand

Not surprisingly Central Lunch never attracted much of a crowd.  A few people ducked in briefly, took one look around, and wisely rushed out again with coffee to go.  Occasionally some individuals (no one ever came to Central Lunch in pairs), finding themselves in the area with an hour to kill while they waited for surgery to be completed on their cars or loved ones, would actually sit down in front of a plate of eggs or a greasy grilled cheese sandwich.  They chewed and chewed, their eyes drifting helplessly around the indigestible décor, until at last they’d happen upon their many selves in the strip of mirror and turn away at once to the relative reassurance of either their food or the sticky red cement under their shoes.  In twelve minutes, finished or not, they’d pull away from their tables with a loud scrape, drop some coins out of their pockets and flee the scene in a great hurry.  What a mistake!  A pleasure ruined!  Precious leisure time wasted!  No doubt it would take hours for them to get the taste of Central Lunch out of their mouths; only much later, when properly returned to their comfortable homes, could they afford to laugh it away.  “Oh!” they’d exclaim, turning suddenly from their desk or television set to whomever was nearest, or even merely to themselves, “I ate at the most awful place today!”

So the café had only three regular patrons:  a very old, raggedy-suited man who had a cough so deep it no longer reached his mouth for expulsion, but instead just rolled around his gently quaking body like a roll of distant thunder; a rugged middle aged man with long hair and beard, a construction worker by trade, though out of work now for some time; and yours truly of course.  We all sat at a distance from one another, myself and the consumptive old man by the corners closest to the door, and the (ex)laborer  between us but further back near the counter.  We never would have dreamed of speaking aloud but for the harmonizing efforts of the old woman who ran the establishment, our cook, Anna Welk.  Anna had owned and operated Central Lunch for twelve years, ever since the demise of her husband (Lawrence, believe it or not).  She had no children but boasted of having many close friends all over the city.  We never saw the slightest evidence of a single one of them, however, and after a while I began to suspect she’d made them all up; perhaps even Lawrence was not merely a coincidence but a simulation, a dream, some hybrid of fiction and fat.  She was certainly the type.  She lived just upstairs but prided herself on spending every waking hour in the café—could she help it that she loved to cook, that she loved the smell of food?  This I couldn’t possibly doubt; Anna was immensely fat and seemed if possible to be growing larger every week.  Quite often she’d tease the three of us about our comparatively small appetites, then turn her bulk toward one of the mirrors in which a great crowd of Annas were filing in and out.  “Oh, look at me!” she’d exclaim, as if she too were surprised at the great wobbly slabs of flesh spilling out from her dress at every opening.  “I’m still my best customer!”

Anna was exceedingly cheerful and friendly to her patrons, or at least she was to those she allowed in.  As bad as business was, she was oddly selective as to her clientele.  Of course, who could blame her if she was quick to bark away the real estate developers who periodically dropped by to see if she was ready yet to sell, or else to die?  Not that they cared about the rude treatment; in fact, they seemed to find her amusing, since even in her most extreme eruptions she could never really sound that mean.  Anna had one of those weak, high-pitched voices that originated in the far back corner of her throat and rolled its way up and out, as if the word “strudel” were tumbling about behind everything she said.  The contrast with her physical immensity and her fierce scowl was jarring, and these realtors, these traders in reality, couldn’t suppress a broad smile at her outbursts.  Of course, one had to admire Anna’s pride in rejecting their business:  They all had somewhere else to go, somewhere better—well, let them go to it then!  However, Anna was even more intolerant of those whose destinations were severely limited—drunks and vagrants who had deeply disturbing affects they couldn’t conceal because they were unaware of them.  Every two weeks a short, stocky bloodfaced man burst through the door, spread his legs far apart, and shouted with great urgency, “How many miles to strawberries?! How many miles to strawberries?!”  After a few times I could tell he just wanted to be invited in, to begin conversation with the rest of us, but Anna would have no part of him.  “Ninety-nine,” she’d snap, “Go drink yourself a quart!”

It was quite unsettling—who knew why Anna was so vehemently opposed to such people.  Only one such individual got past her threshold and even spent thirty minutes in the sanctum sanctorum of Central Lunch.  One autumn day around noon, a gaunt, quiet-looking man wearing a disheveled postman’s uniform came in, sat down at the far end of the counter, and after politely ordering a cup of coffee, began reading a few letters from a stack neatly tied with a black rubber band.  Anna was very friendly to him at first—now here was a regular customer, the most regular of all.  However, after she refilled his cup a few times, Anna began to realize he wasn’t a postman at all, that in fact he was reading other people’s junk mail which he’d found discarded on the steps of nearby apartment buildings.  Well, Anna blew up:  “Get out, you, you faker!  Or I’ll call the police!”  The poor man was stunned.  He tried to stammer something in his own defense (“Th-they didn’t want them!”), but when Anna took a few heavy steps around the edge of the counter as if fixing to throw him out, he hastily gathered up his “mail” and ran out the door.

He hadn’t done anything illegal, of course, though it is unsettling, don’t you think?  Real postmen are disturbing enough, every day making their relentlessly regular rounds—who will receive the death letter today?  But after all we’ve created them for just this purpose:  death, yes, but only in the abstract, only at a certain time, on certain days, painless and fair—a clean contest, the rules for which we all know well and accept.  And so we grow accustomed to these symbols of our inevitable demise, even wait by the door in glad anticipation of their familiar rustlings, or boldly surprise them in the act and engage them in small talk.  But this gentle fellow who had wandered into Central Lunch, this postman poseur, broke that trust, smashed the myth; in truth, it was the others who wore the disguise.  He was the fallen angel, the true agent of death, a death as random and careless as the sweepstakes entries he was poring over—untimely, violent, pointless.  Oh, no doubt he was lonely like the rest of us, yearning for connection, however slight and artificial, to a confusing, hostile world, but I was with Anna all the way.  How much more terrible truth could a place like Central Lunch stand?

You certainly have your head in you hands by now, dearest Jacqueline, your mind reeling with my contradictions, which I know you always pitied.  Go ahead, sing it (you have such a pretty voice):  You say you value the truth only to run from it; you build up Central Lunch only to tear it down! Very well, I contradict myself; I never got the hang of making  them seem rational, as you always could.  Let me add another while I’m at it:  Yes, I supported the banishment of the postman poseur—I even held the door for him as he flew by—but these episodes, especially this one, always left me numb with fear.  Really there was no reason to assume that Anna wouldn’t someday turn on any one of us.  Certainly we all had our eccentricities—where exactly was the line at which point Anna would no longer welcome us like beloved family, but would instead give us the broad back of her hand?  When exactly would we become too strange for her company, “fakers” bent on deceiving her?

In a way it was a kind of trap.  From the first time each of us entered her establishment, Anna tested us, determined our deepest desires (our delusions, you might say), and every day thereafter handed them back to us, verifying them as the most cheery realities.  It worked like this:  For a long while we’d simply listen to her long monologue, which consisted mostly of a confusing series of anecdotes about her many friends and Lawrence, punctuated by little pronouncements on the most mundane matters, such as the weather (“The cold makes you feel like such a prisoner!”) or the business of running Central Lunch (“I bought two towels yesterday.  Everything runs out.  (Long pause, heavy sigh.) You always need something.”).  Then all of a sudden she’d break off, and like a schoolteacher trying to wake a daydreamer, she’d direct all her attention to one of us.

“Mr. Harrah, how’s your wife?” she’d demand of the consumptive old man, and after a few body quakes, his back still turned to us, he’d mumble a long tale about a woman whose name would change as many as three or four times per story.  The stories varied greatly, but every three weeks or so he’d reprise a variation of the one about how Doris (or Deborah or Delilah) had had a birthday last Saturday (or Sunday), and soon a small intimate gathering at their home on Apple/Blueberry/Cherry Street had become a great crowd of her co-workers from “the hotel,” “the sweatshop,” or “the railroad.”  Something would happen—two men would get in a fight over a woman, the police would come, everybody would be slipping and sliding on the ice (or mud) outside, then at last the two parties would have a good laugh, cigars, liquor, etc.  Doris (et al.) was now 133 years old, one year more than Mr. Harrah—the only fact he ever revealed about himself.

There was no way of telling how much of his stories were true.  At times I was certain he had been married, and then unhappily deserted or widowed, a personal travail from which he’d never recovered.   Other times I was convinced he hadn’t been married at all, that out of his solitude he was merely inventing what he’d missed—or else he was in the fight himself, say, or just in the crowd.  Or maybe the stories belonged to someone else entirely, maybe he’d read them in the newspaper one time, or seen them in the movies.  It was impossible to say.

However, our host Anna never made the slightest effort to correct his “errors”; on the contrary, she always nodded her head in apparent belief and often expressed surprise (“My word!” she’d say) at some sketchy detail we’d all heard numerous times before.  At first I gave her credit for playing along, for humoring the old man, but never once did she wink at the rest of us nor avert her eyes to show the proper duplicity.  Rather, she listened to the stories wide-eyed, spellbound, engaged; her many questions and interruptions never served to qualify the tales, to check their veracity, but rather to assist in their formation.  It was as if she were entering deeply into the tales themselves, perhaps even absorbing them into her being—as if when Mr. Harrah had at last gone from Central Lunch (and really that couldn’t be too long), his stories would become hers.

I mean in a sense they were hers to begin with, as indeed everything about Mr. Harrah was, even his name.  For there were no formal introductions at Central Lunch; you came in as nameless as the day you were born and waited.  One day Anna called you something, and from then on you never failed to respond to it.

Well, of course! you laugh, You dared not correct her, lest you’d go the way of the postman poseur! Very well, I admit it feely—but it was so much more than that.  The longer we stayed on, the more enmeshed we became in the stories she’d woven around us—but happily so.  Even the laborer gave in to her, wrapped himself in the comforting fabric of her imagination.  Unlike Mr. Harrah and myself, he was not a man of many words, but rather of hard, silent reflection.  How often I used to sit and wonder what philosophy of personal freedom, what harsh challenge to the status quo, was passing through his mind as he stared into the deep black well of his coffee.  Most people are in some way intimidated by such fierce independence; either they angrily dismiss these dark, distant types as conceited or mean, or (as in my case) feel somewhat small and vacuous in comparison and so leave them in peace.

But Anna never flinched.  “So, John, John,” she’d say—don’t ask me how she saw fit to pin this name to such a man—“What job are you going to look at today?”  And “John John” would sigh, look away, shrug, and then barely mutter something under his breath—maybe something in an auto shop, a paper mill, public works.  It wasn’t much, but it was more than enough for Anna.  In no time she had him working all over town:  “How’s the shop?” she’d say, or “Do you make this flour bag at your plant?”  I admit I was surprised at first when he didn’t correct her—oh, he wasn’t afraid, or maybe he was, in his way.  Sometimes one couldn’t help but smell the stale odor of alcohol on his person; as fierce and rugged as he was, he stood exposed to the cold world outside and would die of it sure, in good time.  But here was Anna, building a kind of shelter all around him—naturally, not by any “design,” which he would surely have rejected—using the bricks of his own character and the mortar of hers, so that before he knew it he found himself inside—secure, comfortable, alive.

As for myself, well, as you can imagine, dearest Jacqueline, I was a much easier project for her.  I’ll never forget my elation when, after setting down before me my breakfast—eggs always so neatly paired in the center of the plate that they seemed to stare back like bulging, weepy (yet friendly) orange eyes—Anna paused and cast her giant shadow over the many scraps of paper I had scattered all over the table.  Yes, I’m still making my notes, “the very picture of my distraction” as you so lovingly called them—more of them than ever, in fact.  A terrible waste of time, I know, but under Anna’s transformative gaze, they coalesced at once.  They became important, even exciting; in an instant, they were bound in leather and placed high up on the shelf of essential volumes.

“My word, Professor Racecar!” she said sweetly, “you’re writing a book!”  That strudel voice!  It slid all over you like warm butter over pancakes until you too felt coated with your dreams.  Certainly “Professor Racecar” (How do you like my new name?  Actually, I prefer a more eastern European spelling, Raszgar, or something) was writing a book; Professor Raszgar was writing ten thousand books!  Philosophies, histories, biographies, novels, epic poems, sketchbooks—you name it, in the weeks that followed I was writing them all—or rather, Anna and I were writing them together.  Everything I had been thinking or mumbling to myself for years at last received full voice, because only Anna could hear them as they longed to be heard.  Oh, I was hopelessly trapped; there was no way out of Anna’s labyrinth, her hall of mirrors.  But I tell you truly, dearest Jacqueline, I never once considered making an escape.  Within the walls of Anna’s remarkable prison, the possibilities for discovering new rooms seemed endless—just as it did, at one time, in yours.

But now—Oh, Jackie!—it’s all gone.  Will I never hear that voice again, except in cold memory?  That’s right, once again I’m banished, alone – and all because of that monologist I saw by the pond!

In a way I knew the game was up the instant I walked through the door.  As you recall I was elated by our conversation—oh, but I was!  Really I did feel that I’d broken through, that at last I would begin to find my way into one if not more of those magic circles we’d seen on the museum lawn.  By the time I’d reached Central Lunch that afternoon, I even felt I would no longer need the comfortable illusions it afforded.  Not that I now repudiated the place—it had certainly served its purpose—but without question this was to be my last appearance.  Professor Raszgar had an announcement to make; he’d finished his books, and now it was time to move on to other challenges.  He would never forget them, however; he would periodically come to visit, write postcards, etc:  God bless you all!  Farewell!

Indeed I was mumbling this speech to myself as I banged open the screen door.  However, instead of the usual loud, cheery greeting from Anna, I received only a hard, blank stare.  I froze in my tracks; everything seemed stopped yet intensely active too, held in dazzling suspension, like the stars.  Was there something wrong with me? I wondered.  Was it my broad smile?  Then on instinct I whirled to my left.  Mr. Harrah’s place was vacant.  I turned back to Anna and John John for an explanation, but both of them had already averted their eyes.  In a daze I walked over to my usual spot and spread out my things, my papers, as I always did.  And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the greenblack blazer, the stained blue t-shirt, the yellow headphones…

Impossible, but true!  It was the monologist, my monologist, just to my left.  At once I suspected that he was another reason for the tension in the place, besides Mr. Harrah’s absence; perhaps Anna and John John felt they couldn’t talk of private matters, the old man’s death or banishment, in front of this stranger.  But these were my last thoughts about Central Lunch for a while.  From then on I was so rapt with this monologist that I neglected even to see Anna when she came by with my coffee.  Oh, dearest Jacqueline!  If only you could have seen him, even you would have had to admit he was fascinating.  His lips were moving rapidly, as if in fervent prayer, but every once in a while he suddenly stopped and listened for a moment in great concentration, as if straining to pick up a faint signal coming to him from a distance.  Then all at once he’d crack his mouth wide open, nod appreciatively, and pick up from the table a small plastic pouch crammed with crumpled notes and yellowed scraps of newspaper clippings, on top of which was a fading magazine photo of Jackie Kennedy (or Onassis; I could never distinguish between the two).  For an instant he’d hold it before him like a hand mirror, then at last, for a good five seconds, gently press it against his lips in a rapturous kiss.

Imagine my joy, dearest Jacqueline, at this remarkable coincidence, this wonderful evidence of the unique bond (sealed with a kiss!) that existed between myself and this total stranger, as if somehow he’d been sent to me by some unknown power. . . Oh, but now I’ve done it, haven’t I?  You’re speechless, you can’t even smirk:  Don’t tell me that’s what all this nonsense is about—not that ridiculous old notion that somehow you of all people bear a “charmed life”? I’m afraid so, dearest Jacqueline—would you have me lie?  I know you must find it pitiful, even disgusting, that I could even dream that it might be so, that something about me somehow made me special, in tune with mysterious forces beyond rational comprehension.  I could argue that everyone feels this way to a certain extent Yes, but such childish fantasies one must surmount, not indulge! even you, I dare say.  Anyway, you certainly did your part to cure me of this idea, you and your (supposedly) rational, calculated acts of “pure will.”  Oh, I needn’t be reminded how far from “charmed” I really am, but such ideas about oneself die hard, if at all—presuming they should die—especially when one needs them to survive.

But let’s not fuss.  Forget I even mentioned it; I’m merely trying to explain, for better or for worse, why I became so enthralled by this monologist.  Immediately after he’d kiss his little icon—forgive me if I admit I’ve done the same with your image—he’d begin to write, as if inspired by his muse, harnessing his thoughts on paper in a series of circles bouncing up and down the page, connected by arrows.  When he’d crammed one circle with writing he’d move on to the next, creating a sort of flow chart of ideas, a diagram of his mind.  For instance, just after the first time he interrupted himself, listened, and kissed Jackie, he wrote the following:

NOW I

UNDERSTAND

CLEARLY THE MID

1800’S TYPE ENVIRON

MENT FROM WHICH

HENRY DAVID

THOREAU

WITHDREW

IN ORDER TO

CREATE A SPIRITU

ALLY CONSTRUCTIVE

REALITY ALL HIS

OWN AT WAL

DEN POND

Oh, how I strained to record every word!  For once again, I could never bring myself to look directly at him, but rather kept my head still and pulled my eyes to the left as far as they could go.  But what was he saying?  Very gradually I leaned my body to the left as far as I could, and as I did so he seemed to lean as well and raised his voice ever so slightly, as if to meet me halfway.  His voice, his tone, surprised me; it was much less refined than his written thoughts had led me to expect, though more appropriate to his costume—more working class, if you will, rough and distant.  Perhaps you’ll recognize certain aspects of his story as I did.  Something very much like it happened about seven years ago, right around the time we met—or was that when we parted?  I’m sure I still have the newspaper clipping of it somewhere; at one time I’d thought it perhaps useful to include in one of my many books.

But enough of my blathering.  Here is the monologist’s story in his own words, exactly as I heard, or at some moments, saw them.  Let us call it:

The Billboard

People, they wonder what I do for food, and what I do for water.  For some reason they don’t think of rain as water, or snow and how if you melt it down . . . ‘course it doesn’t taste too good, almost like a bitter syrup, something like the yellow smoke in the air, I guess.  It doesn’t matter to me; by now I’m probably covered with the stuff.  But up here taste doesn’t matter anyway, not like it does to people down below.  Which is why I wouldn’t tell them about the pigeons even if they asked, which they don’t, not any more, not even the papers.  People can eat pigeons, and I suppose if it was in a restaurant it would be fine, but they don’t like to think about the dirty places things come from.  I got a trap set up, which I guess I could describe, but it’s not all that interesting.  Besides, most times I don’t even bother with it.

What people wonder about most, though, is how I can stand it, how I can stand living on a billboard ledge that’s only 44 feet long and 8 feet wide, 50 feet above a highway cutting through the ugliest part of the city, without even a single person to keep me company.  But I figure if they have to ask, I could never explain it well enough for them to understand.  So I just say, “Cause it’s free,” and that usually satisfies them.  Then it’s just as they expected.

The people from the radio station are the worst, though.  They think I have something personal against them, and I suppose I did at one time, but it was never just them, and now it’s nobody.  They come by every once in a while just to tell me they don’t care how long I stay up here; no doubt when their lease on this billboard runs out at the end of this year, I’ll be brought down by force.  In the meantime, my little protest is having no effect, they say, ratings are better than ever.  And don’t think that they’re liable for any injuries sustained, they’re not, and never have been—I can die up here for all they care.

They don’t say it exactly like that, but that’s the gist.  Oh, but they cared an awful lot about me at the start.  I remember when they first called to tell me I’d been one of the three guys chosen for their promotion, it was like I was supposed to be the luckiest man on earth or something.  When I told the marketing guy who called that I was unemployed, that I’d got laid off at the foundry a few years before, he could barely hold in his glee; he didn’t even try.  “Really?  That’s perfect,” he said, “So you really need this mobile home, then.”  I said I supposed I did.  “Great!” he said and laughed.  He was just bubbling over; maybe the whole thing was his idea or something—nobody ever listened to WEW.  “Well, between you and me, Jack, you’re a lock,” he said.  “I give the other two guys a month, two months tops.”  He told me he’d see me at the sign above Rte. 33 on April 1 at 6AM sharp, then gave another nervous laugh; I think he was waiting for me to thank him, so finally he just did it himself:   “What a country, huh?” he said.

So they had it all figured out from the start, putting me right smack in the middle of the billboard, so it would look better when the other two dropped away and there I was, front and center—the survivor, the loser who won.  But I sure gave them a jolt when they first led me up to it and saw the giant silver blue Eagle Supreme RV from Faust Motors rolling in from the lower right hand corner with those huge red letters and our names beneath:

WEW Record Breaking Hits presents

THE GREAT KING OF THE ROAD ENDURANCE TEST!

Harry                                                       Jack                                                    Otto Jack                                                    Otto

I stopped cold; I looked back at them like they were crazy.  “I can’t do this,” I said.

I guess I scared them, but they tried not to let on.  “Sure you can,” the marketing guy said, Rich I think it was, and then laughed and mumbled about how it wasn’t as high as he’d thought, but still, what a hell of a time they were having setting up for the remote they were going to do in twenty minutes, we’d better get moving.  He put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a gentle push toward the ladder.  I stiffened for a second, then just gave in.  There was no way out, not really—I had to go up there.  I took a deep breath and climbed the ladder real fast, so I wouldn’t be tempted to look down.

Evidently most everybody else down below thought I’d win too.  People’ll bet on anything; I was the clear favorite at 5-7.  I guess they just looked us over once and decided Harry was too old to stand it and that Otto was too young, that sooner or later he’d get restless.  Meanwhile, I had that mean, desperate look—though that could mean I didn’t give a fuck either way.  I mean I’d have never bet on me.  At first I was sure Otto was going to win, because of all of us he was the only one who had something to do up here.  Otto was an artist, a painter, and he had this idea to make the mobile home into what he called The Moving Studio Medicine Show.  He planned to paint the side of it just like the billboard and travel all around the country with a few other people who would do a kind of play with music about what happened up here.  Inside, he’d have a gallery with all the paintings and sketches he did while he was up  here, as well as those he was working on during his travels.

He seemed very excited about “the Project,” as he always called it; it was practically all he talked about.  The idea behind it, he said, was that while everyone likes to think they’re free, it really wasn’t so easy as all that.  What makes people free is how they can imagine things out of nothing, but instead of organizing everything around this, they just keep on living and dying within their one mean way of doing things, until after a while they really think there’s no other way, no other choice.

“Amen,” I said, and his eyes lit up—it was like they were feeding on my attention.  “People are like paintings, Jack,” he said with deep seriousness.  “No matter how alive they seem, they never live beyond their frames.”

But not if Otto had his way.  His Moving Studio Medicine Show was going to smash those frames, he said; it was going to make people stop and think about what it means to be in prison and what it means to be free—to be stuck somewhere without choices and to move all around just as you please.  They’d be surrounded by all kinds of images suggesting both ideas at once, and somehow this was supposed to give them a life-changing jolt.  At bottom, the Moving Studio would be a mockery of the whole promotion here, which was itself a mockery of how people live; both showed how people in general were just humiliating themselves without even thinking about it.

“Look how they’re using us, Jack!” he said, spreading his arms out wide against the billboard.  “This way I turn it all inside out, so people can see it for what it really is!”

To tell the truth, I sort of liked the idea.  Anyway, it seemed as good a use for the mobile home as anything else.  I liked Otto too, I really did—which was fortunate, because I could tell he wanted me to, badly.  One of the first things he told me was that he was born premature when his mother happened to be struck by an arrow shot by one of the two men who were fighting over her.  He showed me the newspaper clipping and birth certificate to prove it.  He was very proud of the story, like in a way that was all you needed to know about him.  Maybe that explained why he was such a funny-looking guy.  He was fairly well-built but short, so it seemed like he was a bigger  man who had been shrunk.  He had narrow eyes, one of which always seemed to stare past you to a point just over your head, or up and just to the left, and one of these perfect brown beards that are so well-trimmed they seem like they never grow, like artificial turf.  He was about twenty-three, but for all his big talk I could tell that he wasn’t entirely sure of himself.  I mean, “Prison,” “Freedom,” he knew about all that just fine, but you know he hadn’t really seen either one.

And it made me angry, if you want to know the truth.  I mean I liked Otto, and I even sort of wanted him to win—who knows, maybe he’d have taken me along on his crazy trip as a real-life prop!  But people like Otto, they can make you so mad, because they just sit there and calmly tell you why your life is so miserable; they carve you up like a cadaver and show the class—“See his lungs?  That’s what happens when you work in a foundry.”  Even if they’re dead right, it’s humiliating to be the poor sucker who’s been trapped by a lie, who’s trapped himself; in some ways it’s just as bad as being on a billboard.  But I have to say too, because I see it now, that just as much the anger is because of envy and regrets.  I mean, how come it was so easy for Otto to do what he was doing?  I don’t mean his talent at drawing, a lot of people can draw a little.  What I mean is, if it’s so important, why didn’t I know about art?  I’ve seen plenty of pictures, and I always knew there was something to it, but what?  How come I grew up without knowing what art was for?

So that’s what I said to Otto after he finished his long description of the Moving Studio:  “What for?”

“What for?” he repeated weakly.  “Well, so people can see—”

“Yeah, but what for?” I said louder and gave a shrug.  “How’s that going to help people?”

Otto tried to mumble something about, well maybe if one person sees the truth, and all that, but he knew it wasn’t so.  Then he started to think out loud—maybe that was a good idea, to make the Moving Studio like a soup kitchen too—and when I laughed out loud, he finally just threw up his hands and told the truth.  “Well, I have to say something,” he said softly, “and this is all I know.”

I smiled and nodded, which I could tell made him feel a little better.  And maybe the soup kitchen wasn’t such a bad idea.  “I do like the pictures,” I said, and he lit back up to full brightness—it was almost funny how little it took.  But it’s true, I really did like them.  Maybe it was because of his narrow eyes, but it was amazing what happened to the view from our balcony whenever he put it on canvas.  For some pictures he soaked a wide brush in these sickly bright colors, awful pinks and greens and bloody reds, and then everything—the streetlights, or the highway signs, or the tall signs for gas and motels, or the factory smokestacks, or the collapsing row houses—looked almost alive in a scary way, like aliens on some kind of search and destroy!  For a long time I wondered how he made it so everything seemed to be drifting or else blowing by real fast like the wind or the cars and trucks rumbling down 33 just beneath us, and then I noticed one day that it was because he never had things touch the ground; I mean, in his paintings there was no ground.  Sometimes he’d just do the whole thing in a wash of blue or gray, but other times, especially as the summer dragged on, he’d just use thick squiggles of black, so that everything looked burned to a crisp.  Like most everyone else I guess, I was always partial to paintings that pretty much made things look like they are, but after watching Otto do these for a while, I began to think that maybe I was the one not seeing things right.  Sometimes I’d look real hard until my eyes hurt trying to see what he saw, and for a second or two I think I did.  Anyway, I certainly saw it that way in my dreams.  But for the life of me I could never figure out how he could paint the ones of the three of us on the billboard, as though he were sitting on another one across the highway.

Otto did one of me and him in the black squiggles melting under the sun, and then in late July, one of just me.  One morning I noticed he was looking at me for a long time, then he finally came up to me and said real fast, like he always did when he had an idea, “Excuse me, I just have to say, you have incredible presence.  It’s not strength exactly, or determination—but it’s something.  It may be that I’d just never noticed, or it may be that it’s just happening to you since you’ve been up here.  Which would make sense.”

Then he asked me politely if he could paint my portrait.  I thought it over for a minute, then figured what the heck, it would kill some time—not nearly enough, but some.  So he did this painting of me, which I still have in my tent.  I’m standing up on the billboard in my dirty army jacket with my hands gripping the railing real hard, the name Jack just behind my stringy head of hair.  Since I wasn’t shaving, I didn’t have any mirrors up here, so that was the first time I’d seen myself in three months.  I think Otto was right; I’d already changed into what I am now.  And he was right, it wasn’t strength at all; it was more like satisfaction, like I was in exactly the right spot at the right time.  I mean, I didn’t know that yet myself, but somewhere in my mind I did.  I was starting to see things, and know things in a way I never had, like everything was becoming clear and meaningful and true.

It was just the opposite for Otto.  As good as he could see things to paint, he couldn’t see things going on right in front of him.  For instance, there was what happened with the girl who used to bring us our meals every day, Annie.  She was a husky girl with dark circles under her eyes and a pile of dark hair that looked like a wig.  She always wore the same pink-striped uniform of the hospital where she worked nearby, but you could tell she wasn’t all there herself.  She had this cheerful, giggly sort of voice, and she was always smiling and asking questions—she was thrilled to be the one who got to feed us every day, and fetch us cigarettes when we ran out.  But all of a sudden if you asked her a question or else said something she didn’t understand, she’d think you were making fun of her and start to throw a terrible tantrum, like she was three years old.  I saw this right away and was careful from then on, but Otto seemed not to notice at all and was always teasing her, telling tall tales about our  “magic billboard,” like how each of us had a little man to talk to us when we got lonely.  For a while it worked.  “You lie!” she’d always laugh, but she believed it some; in any case she loved all the attention.

But then one fine day in June, instead of waiting for one of us to come and get the food from her like always, she insisted on bringing it up the ladder herself.  It wasn’t dangerous or anything, but I knew Annie wouldn’t be able to take it.  About halfway up she stopped laughing and started to look down.  Well, that should have been the end of that, but instead of trying to calm her, Otto just kept cheering her on.  “Don’t quit, Annie!” he kept shouting, “You’ll make it!  Wait ‘til you see how far you can see up here!”  I think he really thought he was helping her.  Finally after a few more rungs, Annie dropped the food, hugged the ladder tight and started screaming bloody murder.  I went down to meet her, but it took about an hour to get her to see that she wasn’t stuck for all eternity, that she could just go back down one rung at a time.  From that day on she never said another word, just left the food at the bottom of the ladder and hurried off.  She still sneaks over every once in a while to bring me scraps from the hospital; I always take them, for her sake.

The point is, Otto was like Annie in many ways, like a child, I mean.   He always said he’d had almost no love in his life when he was young, but I could have guessed that anyway.  For all his talent and his “Projects,” I could see he was the type that needed to be taken care of.  When he wasn’t talking about his art he was talking about his “muse,” this woman named Jackie he’d been living with for a couple of years.  She was an artist, too, an actress.  Of course, she was going to play a big part in the Moving Studio—in fact, the whole thing was mostly her idea, he said.  Oh, she was a major talent, a real star, everybody thought so.  The truth was, he was nothing compared to her, he said; without her belief in him, he didn’t know what he’d do.

That kind of talk made me suspicious to begin with, but then after I saw this Jackie a couple of times, I knew Otto was right, and that as a result he was going to get burned.  She was a tall, dark beauty who wore shades to cover the dark circles under her eyes, or else to draw attention to them.  I can easily see how someone like Otto had fallen for her; she had that air about her that if you let her she’d solve all your problems for you.  What Otto didn’t know was that it didn’t have to be him in particular who she was helping, but just anybody.  The moment she was done with him, she’d just move on.  Maybe she didn’t plan it this way, but in a way it was a kind of trap.  She’d made Otto totally dependent on her for everything, even his work, and now all of a sudden—well, for instance she wouldn’t play any of his games, not really.  Being up here on the billboard was Otto’s big thing, but she was always quiet and distant about it—she could take it or leave it—and I could tell this made him feel small.  By August, even Otto started to sense that something was wrong.  He got more and more nervous whenever she came by, and quieter in between.

Oh, I’d seen it all before.   Me personally, I’ve been on both sides of it.  The last time I got caught up in pretending was the biggest disaster of my life.  At twenty-two I decided I’d be good, I’d get married and settle down like everyone else I knew had.  Somehow I convinced this young girl just coming out of high school, Delores, that I’d take care of her, get her anything she wanted – a big house with not just one but two stories, cars, you name it.  The funny thing is, I believed it too.  I really thought all you needed was a job at a foundry, and then you’d just save up for a couple of years, and before you knew it, there you were, living in your dream house, like it was a reward, something they owed you for breaking your back like you did.  Anyway, as far back as I can remember that’s how people made it sound.  Then we started having kids, and even though I was working sometimes sixty hours a week we could never get out of the hole we’d dug.  I had to hide it even from myself that the house just wasn’t going to happen; my method was drinking, but there are plenty others.  Delores, though, it took her a lot longer to figure out.  Every month it was the same old thing—when were we going to get out of the dump we were renting?  Why didn’t I just go get a raise?  But I kept telling her it would be all right, and somehow she always believed me.  She probably felt she had no other choice.

When I got laid off finally, it was kind of a relief.  By then it had been about seven years, and Delores knew she’d been trapped. We both felt like fools.  There was never any love between us; it had been just what was nearest and easiest, what was next in line.  So was this ending, I guess.  It wasn’t so bad for me—I didn’t care what I had or didn’t have—but Delores was crushed; she felt like her whole life was wrecked, wasted.  What the hell was she supposed to do now?  She wasn’t pretty any more, and she certainly couldn’t work; the kids were already a lot of trouble, more than she’d expected.  She took it out on me by having an affair with an older guy who managed a Rite-Aid, and I guess after all that she got most everything she wanted.  She moved way out of town and wouldn’t let me see the kids—said I was a bad influence, because of the drinking, which I’d more or less stopped even then, and now don’t do at all.  But I probably was a bad influence; I certainly wouldn’t have wanted anybody to look up to me.

I bet when she first heard I was up here on the billboard she laughed out loud.  Wasn’t it just typical of that lazy bastard who couldn’t even buy a house to try to get one for nothing?  And you know, I wouldn’t necessarily say that wasn’t a reason for me being up here, I mean as a matter of dumb pride; I said I’d get a house, and well, here it is!  But really from the start I had no idea what I’d do with a mobile home, except just sit in it somewhere.  I suppose I thought it might be some kind of new start for me, but deep down I knew it was a lie.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a new start?  I’m only thirty-three years old, but the way things have gone I feel more like fifty-three.  That’s what I meant before when I said I’d never have bet on me.  I just didn’t care enough to win, though in the end, none of us did.

Truth is, by the end of the summer I was sure it would be old Harry.  From the start he was the only one of us who acted like it was a competition; not once did he come out and sit or talk with us, so I never really knew his story.  But one sunny afternoon I watched him lie down for a nap in front of his tent, and I thought sure I knew him.  He put his shaggy gray head gently down on a rolled up mat and sprawled out flat on the soft boards of our platform, but then the moment he started to fall asleep, all at once every muscle in his leathery face simply let go, gave up; any hint of the smile he’d been wearing just dropped off his face.  His jaw fell open into a pitch black cave – a dead man’s mouth.

I shook my head in disbelief, then looked away and back.  I’m still not sure I was right, because I never asked him straight, but from then on I always thought of Harry as this guy who worked in the foundry when I first started there, back when I was just a kid.  Everyone called him “Half-day,” because that was his schedule.  Every morning he’d come in right on time, and while the rest of us were putting off starting as long as possible, he’d set to filling the molds or breaking slag with a vengeance.  I mean he worked hard without saying a word to anybody, right through breaktime.  But come noon, he’d hear a whistle no one else could, and that would be it for him for the day.  He’d spend an hour or so hidden away in a corner reading the paper, eating his lunch, smoking endless cigarettes.  Meanwhile, we’d all be at the trough breaking slag, the most hell-like part of working in that hell—smashing up all the leftover metal that had cooled into this glossy black rock, then carting away the chunks for God knows what reason.  Then all of a sudden you’d hit a pocket of the rosy molten metal underneath and stop just for a second or to smear the black sweat across your eyelids, and there standing almost right on top of you was Half-day, smoking cigarettes and screaming some crazy story over the blasts of the jackhammers.  Half-day’s stories were always long and involved, usually something to do with some member of his family, which was as far as I could tell the whole human race, there were so many of them.  Some were so unbelievable, I figured he must’ve been taking them right out of the newspaper he was reading before he’d come over.  Like the one about his uncle Red who ate only fresh strawberries and so almost died every year when they weren’t in season; or his cousin who went around impersonating security guards at museums and banks (he just wanted to help, he said); or his sister Dee who had twice worked it so that two men ended up fighting a real-live duel over her and was now setting up the third.  Sometimes these people would meet up with one another, and it was like a battle as to who the story was really about.

It would go on and on like this for the rest of the day with only a few interruptions.  Half-day must have had a keen eye or nose for when the supervisor was about to come by, because all of a sudden he’d stop in mid-sentence and say “Watch me now!” and get to work like everyone else.  Then as soon as the supervisor went on his way, Half-day would let the shovel drop from his shoulder and pick up his story and his cigarette exactly where he’d left off.  Every once and a while somebody would get mad and say ”Come on Half-day, grab yourself a hammer,” but no one ever pushed it too far.  For one thing, everyone knew he’d already done the work of any two of us who worked a whole day, but for another—and I think this was the main thing—while he was there telling stories, we could forget what awful hot boring work we were doing.   Every once in a while we’d interrupt with questions, which never tripped him up but made the story take a whole new turn.  Before we knew it, the day would be over, and those of us trying to get overtime would try to convince him to stay on.  But he never did.

“Don’t be a fool,” he’d say, “don’t you have nothing better to do?”  Really, old Half-day was the best storyteller I’d ever heard.  It was clearly what he was best at, and I always thought it was too bad there was no job for it.

Anyway, this went on for the whole first year I was there, just as it had for the ten years before that, but it came to a quick end when Jimmy Fern got to be the supervisor.  At first we were all happy about that, because Jimmy Fern was one of us— but you know how these things are.  One of the first things he did to show us that he was the big boss now was to try to get Half-day to straighten up; either he worked a full day like everyone else, or he was out the door.  Well, Half-day wasn’t about to change for nobody—not out of stubbornness, but because he just couldn’t.  The way he did things, that was part of him—it was his name!  Of course, he learned Jimmy Fern’s ways, as he had the other guy’s, and he was never caught.  But Jimmy Fern had been there, he knew what Half-day was doing, and not being able to catch him at it made him feel stupid – more like one of us.  So one day out of the blue, right at one o’clock, the word came down from above.  Half-day was stunned; his mouth dropped open, but he couldn’t speak.  It was a terrible thing to happen, an awful injustice—the first I’d seen at the foundry, though of course there’d be plenty more.  It was stupid besides.  We didn’t do near the work we did while Half-day was there, and you’ll probably be glad to know that Jimmy was handed his ass the following year.

Of course, in time like everyone I just forgot about Half-day; when someone got laid off at the foundry, it was like they’d died.  You’d never see them anymore, and after a while stopped wondering about them.  The last time I thought about him was five years ago when I got my walking papers along with half the other people at the foundry.  It’s funny, but breaking slag all day, even though you’re like a slave or a prisoner, after a while makes you start to feel powerful, like nobody can break you no matter what.  But then, all of a sudden, it turns out you’re just like so much dust, and you get swept out the door like nothing.  Sure some guys get themselves pieced back together somehow, especially if you’re lucky enough to know somebody somewhere, but for what?  Just to get used up all over again?  Sure I tried to find something else, but what else is there really?  The longer you go without everyday work, the more you realize how much better you feel not getting pounded on every day of your life, for eight full hours, maybe twelve if you’re desperate enough.  You just have to wonder who made up these rules, how it all got locked up this way.  Look at Half-day.  What the hell’s the matter with four hours?  Is that really too much to ask?  Would the whole goddamn country collapse if everyone just worked four hours a day?  I don’t think so, but even if it did, you have to think it would be better off in the long run.

So ever since then I’ve wondered a lot about Half-day; I’ve looked for him everywhere, seen his face in every bar, on every sidewalk grate.  That’s probably why Harry became Half-day for me when all of a sudden his mouth dropped open in falling asleep as I described.  It was how I remembered Half-day most of all—not the stories, but that awful silence at the end.  Ah!

 

THE HAR                                                                                   NO!

DEST TASK WE                                                                       THE ONLY

FACE IS TO DISC                                                              WAY THAT IS OURS

OVER OUR WAY INTO                                                      IS THE ONE WE CREA

THIS WORLD NOT                                                               TE EACH OF US

OUR MASTERS                                                                     OF OUR OWN

WAY                                                                                     POWER

SLAVERY

NOR EVEN THE

WAYS OF THE PROP

HETS OR PHILOSOPH

ERS HOWEVER HU

MANE THEY

SEEM.

So in a way I wanted old Harry to win, even though if he really was Half-day, he was changed.  Maybe people like Jimmy Fern finally broke him down, because now he was cold and silent; if he had any stories to tell he was keeping them to himself.  And since I could see that Otto wasn’t going to be up to the test he was about face, I was sure Harry was going to win.  But then came October, our seventh month up there, and suddenly I knew it was going to be me.

Otto got the pink slip on the first of the month.  Jackie hadn’t come by in a couple of weeks, and as soon as she appeared down below you could tell it was a done deal.  Otto asked her what was wrong, and she sort of shrugged and said she was undecided about the Moving Studio trip; she was going to get her own place somewhere, she needed time alone to sort things out.  It was a terrible thing to watch; it was like she was doing a newscast.  Otto was stunned speechless, then finally he broke.

“No!” he shouted so loud you could hear the echo off the billboard.  “What do you mean ‘undecided’?  What are you saying?  I’m coming down!”  He took a few steps to the ladder; Harry poked his head out of his tent.  But Jackie held up her hand, and Otto stopped dead.  It wouldn’t do any good, she said coolly, that was just the kind of pressure she was trying to avoid.  Then she acted surprised by his reaction; after all, she’d never said she was going with him for sure—didn’t he remember that conversation?  Obviously Otto needed time away from her too, she said, he was much better off where he was.  It would be a shame if gave up his Project now, just because of her.

Otto listened quietly as she spoke, then shook his head and began to sputter: “But I need you!” he said.  “I can’t do anything without you.  I’ll be alone!”

Well, Jackie shrugged that off as ridiculous, and it was, but on the other hand she wasn’t being entirely straight with Otto.  Maybe she just couldn’t face what she was doing to him, but she just kept emphasizing that it wasn’t necessarily over between them, she just needed time to think about it.  Who knows, she said, maybe she would end up on the tour after all; it was just at this particular moment she couldn’t say she was very hopeful.  Well, as bad as this looked and sounded, it was all Otto needed to keep his hopes alive; but then a week later a friend of his dropped by, and she let slip the truth that there was somebody else involved, somebody Otto knew.  Otto felt like a fool; everyone else knew but him!  And that was the end of Otto’s “purpose.”  From then on, as he saw it, there was nothing for him in the world down below but loneliness and humiliation, just like his paintings said.  After all that, his worst fears had come true; Otto was stuck up here on this billboard like the rest of us.

Otto couldn’t paint any more; he didn’t even like the things he’d done up here any more—they were all so flawed, he said, he was such an amateur.  So he stayed quiet most of the time and hung around me a lot.  Then the endless rumbling of the highway started to get to him, so he took to wearing these headphones they’d given us to shut out the noise so we could sleep.  I put on mine too, to cheer him up, I guess, or just to be with him, and he seemed to like that so I kept them on.  The funny thing was that it was only then that I first noticed Harry’s deep coughs; it’s like the headphones filtered out everything but.  Even if he weren’t really Half-day, that cough placed him in the foundry for sure.  We all had it from breathing ash all day long.  If you could ever get any of it up, it was like black pearl, but most of the time it just rolled around your chest like a heavy cloud—but hot, like from a fire.

But I could tell Harry’s was worse.  He was older that me anyhow by about fifteen years, though he looked like he was about 60—which was another fringe benefit of working at the foundry.  And as the nights started to get cold, Harry’s cough grew worse and worse.  Meanwhile, a big debate started to rage down below.  For some reason, nobody ever dreamed we’d last this long up here, through all the rain and wind and hot sun, and never getting to bathe properly, and kids throwing stones and cans at us at night, and just the sheer boredom of it all.  But people always underestimate other people’s desperation.  Anyway, people started calling in to the radio station about whether they should call the contest off now that the cold weather was coming on, or if they kept it going, whether or not they should give us heaters.  Some people said if we didn’t get heaters we were liable to freeze to death up here, which would be a national disgrace.  But other people said no way, that the contest was only now getting interesting.  It was survival of the fittest; let nature decide, they said.

No one ever got around to asking us what we thought should happen.  I think WEW had been looking for a way out of this thing since September, but all this uproar made them see there was still something to milk out of it.  So they gave us the heaters, though the day they brought them up I could hear through my tent that Harry of all people was raising a fuss.  “But it’s almost over!” he kept saying.  He might have been right; I’d already decided that as soon as Otto went down, I’d go too.  On the other hand, the state Otto was in, I started to think it might be up to me to lead him down.  But then too there was Harry’s cough, which despite the heaters just got worse and worse.  I told him we should get a doctor up here to look at that, but he just scowled and said mind my own business.  I tell you, I was all confused what to do, but not in the way which got me up on the billboard in the first place.  This time I knew I’d have a part to play, a part for me alone; even if I didn’t know what it was yet, I knew I would when the time came, I was positive of that.

So it got cold all right, cold and wet in the way that goes right through you so that you start to feel divided into two, your mind drifting apart from your body until you find you can only use one or the other at a time.  But like anything you get used to it, and after a while none of us was even using the heaters at all.  Christmas Eve was the worst day of all; everything was gray and blurry and seemed to be floating somewhere over the layer of snow on the ground, like in one of Otto’s paintings.  Some guy from the newspaper came up to take a picture of us looking out over the balcony at the star of Bethlehem decoration the city puts up on the Kennedy Central Building every year.  “The Three Wise Men,” he laughed as he snapped his camera.

Without even thinking I took a couple of steps toward him, as if fixing to push him over the side—really I did, and that surprised me.  It wasn’t because he was making fools of us—I’d got used to that idea right from the start.  No, it was because somehow I’d got to the point that I didn’t want anybody who wasn’t one of us to come anywhere near the billboard.  It was like an invasion.  I couldn’t just walk into his house and stand him up against a wall and say hold this and bam! Merry Christmas, motherfucker, you know?  Wasn’t there anything about this whole deal that was our own, besides the mobile home none of us cared about any more and two of us would never even see?  If I didn’t toss the jackass over, it was only because at the same time I still felt the idea of protecting what we had up there was just too ridiculous.  But for a second I sure put the fear of God into him—and Otto and Harry too, I think.  Then I just gave a short laugh and turned around toward my tent, trailing steam over my shoulder:  “Well, you’d better tell them not to wait up this time,” I said, “because these wise men aren’t going anywhere.”

I stayed in my tent for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, just staring up at the canvas, feeling powerless and mean.  Then about three o’clock Otto poked his head in.  I cleared a space for him like always, but he just shook his head and crawled back out.  That was how we communicated after a while, in just a few words and signs.  It was a strange situation.  While on the one side, what with his cough, Harry seemed to be aging like the devil, Otto seemed to be going in the opposite direction, getting even younger.  By this time he was like a four-year-old; or at least he acted like my youngest son did the last time I saw him, tugging me by the sleeve and not letting go.

So he didn’t say, but I could tell Otto wanted to show me something he’d seen outside, and I crawled out after him.  Somehow all the gray had cleared off, and the sky was a bright blue.  The snow was colored slightly golden by the sun and had melted evenly on top of the cars in the lot below into perfect soft chunks that were sliding off the roofs like butter on pancakes—or that’s what Otto said when he pointed them out to me, murmuring through my headphones, “Like butter on pancakes.”  We sat there for hours, and every once in a while Otto would break the cold silence between us with something like that.  He pointed to the streetlight poles, which were blotched in spots with frozen dark patches.  “Giraffe necks,” he said.  At dusk, he pointed to the sunset, a bloody red eye squinting at us through the strip of yellow brown haze on the horizon.  “The Spanish sun,” he said.  Night fell, and all of a sudden two stars flashed in the sky: “Panther’s eyes!”  When the chimes rang at midnight, he had his head on my shoulder, and I could feel his teeth chattering through my coat.  It was bitter cold, but there wasn’t any wind at all.  Everything was still and quiet; all you could hear was Harry’s constant hacking over there in his tent.  All of a sudden Otto raised his head and pointed to the distance.  “The rainbow!” he said excitedly “Half a man!”  I asked him what he’d seen because I couldn’t find it, but he’d already buried his face in the wool of my jacket, fast asleep—dreaming, I imagined.

This went on for the next two weeks, the coldest, windiest, darkest days of the year.  I didn’t even notice when the new year came in, except for some car horns way in the distance that honked for a few minutes and then just faded away into the black night.  Other years, even when I was most miserable, usually I felt something the moment the new year came in – some sudden charge, a feeling of being in between things, a wondering about what’s happened and what’s coming next, though never in any particular way, not in detail, I mean.  It’s just a sudden jolt, like a backfiring, or a record skipping, something that makes you notice yourself—a feeling that whether you like it or not, you’re alive.  But this time even after I’d heard the car horns and so realized it was the new year, this time I didn’t feel anything at all.  And I knew exactly what the reason was.  This thing happening to people down below, sweeping across the country like a great shadow, this wasn’t my New Year’s, not anymore.  New Year’s Day for me would come on April the First, one full year from when I first came up here.  If I ever wondered whether I’d changed at all during this time, then there at last was my proof.  And what’s more, I didn’t mind the difference, not in the slightest.  Oh, I saw it all clearly now.  I knew exactly what was going to happen, and what I’d have to do.

And I didn’t have to wait long.  Five days later, just like that, it was all over.  You’ve probably read all about this already; I’ve told it over and over – to the police, the radio station, the newspapers, even Annie and Jackie, anyone who asked.  It was a bitter night, zero degrees I think.  Otto and me were in my tent, not sleeping but just listening quietly to the howling wind.  I remember wishing it would start to snow so that then we could build a wall against the tent that would break the wind.  Then I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember was the silence.  I stared up at the dome of my tent and listened, then took off my headphones to be sure—no wind, no cars, nothing at all!  It was time, though to tell you the truth I didn’t think about it that way.  Like in a dream, I just got up and crawled out of my tent.

What a beautiful sight!  I’d got my wish; it was snowing, but the flakes were drifting down to earth so very slowly they seemed pinned against the black sky like a whole galaxy of stars.  I stood there with my mouth open for a while, getting quietly covered with the hush, like everything else.  The whole picture seemed frozen, like the whole world was standing still.  I don’t remember when I was ever so happy as right then.  Finally I shook the snow off my beard and turned to go wake Otto, just so I could hear what he’d see in all this, and that’s when I saw it, that low mound of white near the railing in front of Harry’s tent.

It was like a deer kill, lying in a silent heap by the side of the road.  I took a few steps, and then a few more, my boots not making any sound at all in the snow on the platform, until finally I was there, and I bent over it.  “Harry?” I whispered, and then when that didn’t work, “Half-day?”  It was no use; there might have been something they could have done at one time, but it was too late now.  I knew exactly how it happened, I’d heard about it at the foundry so many times before.  All of a sudden, you stopped coughing, and your body filled to the kin with hot ash, with that rosy metal at the heart of the slag.  Harry was probably trying to get down, though not as the people at the inquest decided, down the ladder to get help, to wave down a car to take him to the hospital.  I think it was the way I saw it, that he was going over the quickest way he could, and that’s why I did what I did, because it was like his last request.  He’d almost made it on his own; I just helped him out the last twenty-two feet.

After I’d done it, I turned around, and there was Otto, his eyes wide.  He started to back away slowly, slowly, and then he turned and ran, slid down the ladder like it was a pole, and disappeared into the night, like a jackrabbit.   I miss him, of course, but I’m glad he woke up, at least for the moment.  There was no point in having the same thing happen to him.  I hope he’s all right wherever he is, but I know there’s no guarantee of that.

The next day dawned clear and bright, the sky a pale blue except for a vapor trail that had spread out wide and just hung there like the x-ray of a leg.  At eight o’clock Annie came by as usual with our breakfast – some oranges, bread, coffee.  She saw the body right away and dropped the food deep into the snow, then looked up at me, curious.  “Are you alone. Jack?” she asked, and I nodded.  “You’ve won!” she giggled.

I smiled at her.  “Better go tell them,” I said, and she hurried off, yelling the news at everyone she happened to see along the way.

In an hour, of course, a great crowd had assembled at the foot of the billboard.  The whole town was upset at this terrible tragedy, and everybody blamed the radio station.  They were quick top cover their ass with my story, claiming that they could hardly be responsible if a man doesn’t seek proper medical care when he has a terminal condition, as the autopsy showed.  Finally, one of them—it must have been the jackass who called me up in the first place—came over to me and sighed.  He gave me a card for Faust motors and muttered that I could pick up my prize there whenever I wanted, though he hoped I understood that under the circumstances they couldn’t have a big unveiling ceremony like they’d planned.  I didn’t say a word, just stared at a point just somewhere over his head, and finally he just turned in disgust and walked away.

Let’s see, that was almost a year ago.  I’ve been up here exactly one year and seven months; down below, they aren’t even counting this as a world record any more.  I don’t suppose you can even read the billboard too good any more, it’s fading and peeling so bad.  Every so often a big strip of letters tears loose and dives and swoops like a giant red and white bird that has been wounded, fighting its way through the treetops and telephone wires, sometimes tearing itself to pieces, before it finally falls in a heap on the pavement, or else on real windy days, just rolls on toward the horizon.  At this rate it won’t be too long before the ad is completely gone, but underneath there’s another one, something for whiskey, I think, and then another and another.

Like I said, except for the radio station guys, no one ever really notices me up here any more, though every once in a while somebody in a beat up car will honk at me as they pass and raise their fists, which always cracks me up.  Of course, for a while people tried to get me down in all kinds of ways.  The radio station tried to offer me not only a mobile home, but a car too, and a television set, and a stereo system, but I just laughed at every offer.  What did I need all those things for up here?  Other people got mad and said I should be removed by force, that I was an eyesore, which is hilarious.  Just take a good look around, I say, and if your eyes aren’t sore when you’re through, then I guess I’m not so bad either.  Other people said that it hurt them to see me still up here, that it was sad that I was so beaten down and humiliated that I’d just given up.  It was like a suicide, they said; surely I should come down and get well and try to make a new start.

Well, maybe it sounds to you like their hearts are in the right place, but by now I’m pretty tired of talk like that.  Oh, I’ve already explained about suicide; suicide is breaking slag and breathing ash in a foundry every day of your life just because somebody expects you to.  Maybe I have gone crazy, or else maybe I’ve gone sane, did you ever think of that?  Make a new start?  That’s just it, this is my new start.  It’s not a pretty life in the woods or anything, but it is as isolated.  I’ve got the three tents hooked up as one now, so I feel like I’m living like a king—three whole rooms, one for every time of day, if I want.  In one I’ve got all the paintings and sketches that Otto left behind, like in a gallery.  I’ve looked at them so much by now, I’ve tried a few myself, just to see.

But look, most important, this here billboard, its mine.  I figured this life out myself; if I’m an eyesore, or an example, or a hero to the rest of you down there below, that’s just fine.  But after all I been through figuring out how to live life in just this way, I don’t see me coming down, not for any reason, not until the very end—do you?…

*

The monologist paused, and instead of reaching for the picture of Jackie as it seemed he was about to, looked right at me.  He seemed anxious for a response, hungry for it.

“No I don’t,” I said.  “Pardon me for interrupting—am I interrupting?—but I must confess I’ve been listening to what you’ve been saying just now, every word.  Oh, I completely understand what you mean.  It’s an incredible story—different from the one I’d read about.  I don’t recall there being a death, and I believe it ended with a mobile home and a car for the two who were left.  Oh, I have the clipping somewhere in this mess.  Never mind.  I completely agree with you, in principle.  Who would dare not respect your home?  But I admit I have a few questions about this, if you don’t mind.  Why are you down here now?  Did they finally bring you down by force?  Or are you Otto?  I admit I suspected that early on, from your shirt, that is…”

Oh, dearest Jacqueline!  How excited I was at that moment.  I was speaking so rapidly I didn’t even think what I might sound like.  Finally I noticed his lips were trembling, fluttering, and I stopped, aghast at the monologist’s face.  His narrow eyes were opened as far as they could go; his lips stopped trembling and hung there parted, as if in mid-word.  He was terrified—of me!  I suppose I should have known he would be, but that just shows you how completely I had been convinced by the power of his voice, by its total conviction.  No doubt he hadn’t spoken to anyone in years, not really, I mean.  The shock must have been horrible, though wonderful too, I would guess, since at last his dream had come true:  Someone had heard him, someone had understood.  I knew already that I’d never leave him alone again.

“It’s all right,” I said soothingly, “I’m a friend.  Let’s go outside, shall we?  Back to the pond—I saw you there, did you see me?—we can talk there in peace.”

I quickly gathered up my papers, scraped away from my table and hurried over to the counter to settle up with Anna.  I was smiling broadly, but as soon as I saw her, my mouth dropped.  Anna was waiting for me, her fists jammed into her hips.  She was furious, no doubt at having been circumvented, usurped; at Central Lunch, all stories had to pass through her and her alone.  “Well, you two have certainly been chatting it up over there,” she snapped.

The moment I heard the way she said “you two” I knew it was all over.  But I had to try, if only to spare the monologist the usual ugly scene.  “Anna, please,” I whispered on his behalf, “Please don’t throw him out.  He’s been through so much already, he needs a place like this.  He’s new, Anna, he doesn’t know our ways, but he’ll catch on, I’m certain he will.”

Well, the fat on Anna’s brow contracted into the meanest looking scowl imaginable.   I took a few steps back to brace myself against the storm that was coming.  “Throw who out?” she strudeled.  “Our ways?  What ways?  What are you?  Get out! … Both of you!”

I stood there for a moment, stunned and sad.  Anna Welk was coarse, vulgar—oh, you would have been embarrassed even to be in her presence—but I loved her nonetheless, loved her perhaps as much as I did you, dearest Jacqueline, even while she, like you, was unjustly banishing me from her life.  But it was no use arguing, pleading.  I turned around for support, but Mr. Harrah was still missing, poor soul, and John John was staring absently into his coffee.  I didn’t blame him for not rushing to my defense; he couldn’t have saved me if he’d tried.  At last I sighed and turned to go.  I tried to put on a sheepish grin to share with the monologist, to put him at ease, you know.  Oh, I’d explain it all later; not to worry, we’d find somewhere else in the wide world to sit and talk, somewhere just as good.  But then I gasped, my hands flew up to my face.  Oh dearest Jacqueline!  Why did I take my eye off him, even for an instant?  The monologist was gone!

I started for the door, then noticed the monologist had dropped his garden gloves near our table.  I quickly snatched these up and ran out of Central Lunch—was this really the end?—never to return.  But I wasn’t thinking about that.  If I could only find the monologist, it wouldn’t matter.  Outside night was already threatening to fall, and fast.  Oh, dearest Jacqueline, I’ve seen many empty streets in the days since we parted, but never any as empty as these.  I’ve crisscrossed the city like a rat in a labyrinth, scanning the faceless crowds for a flash of yellow, all the while reciting in my head what I would say to him when I found him, mumbling it on my lips:  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry for everything.  Please come back and let’s start again.  I need you!”

Sorry for what? you say, and rightly so.  I didn’t do anything wrong, he’s the one who left me.  I was only trying to help the best I could.  And as for needing him, what for? Obviously you haven’t learned much since I left.  You shouldn’t ‘need’ anybody.

Oh, please, Jackie, not that again.  I’m not in the mood for your traps.  I can’t help it, my head hurts, just let me be.  Besides, if the monologist comes back here to the pond, then I certainly won’t need you any more . . . Oh, forgive me—it’s midnight, or something like that, and I’m terribly alone, as I always am at this time.  Every day it’s the same story:  I rise filled with new possibilities, then just before dusk sink back down to despair, a solitude so deep and pervasive that I always end up fearing that at last even this, my usual cycle, has come to an end.  But maybe this time it really has.  I’m dead tired, but I dare not sleep, for what if the monologist should return while I was lying here dreaming?  Or maybe that’s all that’s left me, memory and dream, an eternal present; maybe there is the only place I’ll find him, just as it’s now the only place I really find you.  I hope you’ll not be so cross when you meet him, dearest Jacqueline, I hope you’ll smile and give him a try.  He’s had so little love, he needs a place to rest, someone to listen to him—who doesn’t?  He doesn’t know our ways, but just be patient, give him time.  Listen to him, believe him.  Perhaps he’ll surprise you, even you.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: