Archives for the month of: January, 2013

I seem to have lain about on and perambulated here and there across the top floor of a place — a house — for quite some time without coming in or out by any door. There’s a breath on the window, a wind, like the sky’s breathing down the room’s neck, raising its hackles, and there’s a creaking from low down, way under the basement, an elevator winching up a few stories per day, some patient passenger waiting his turn to appear in our midst, like that guy flying overhead for all that time to gun down that other guy, if memory serves, in Pale Fire or one of those books.

 

No one prevents me going down the hall to the bathroom to wash my face and neck. When I lie back down, my eyes fall to the window, where I tend to see what looks like a cannonball rising from a cannon on the neighbor’s lawn, flying in a trajectory right over the house, so I go under the covers and brace for its impact, hear and almost feel it crashing through the roof and floor after floor, tearing a hole in our center. In hiding, I fall asleep and wake up at another time of day.

 

I come and go, sniffling something sour down from my sinuses into my throat, like maybe, tastes like, I’m sick. Some interest in recuperation notwithstanding, the days in this sickbed multiply.

 

Then, on one of my walks down the hall, I run into an orderly or intern. He’s a caterer, according to him, and informs me that the house has been rented out for a private function, and that I’ll need to make myself scarce. “Just picture it like the adults are watching The Firm after your bedtime, and you can peek and listen from the top of the stairs so long as you don’t get caught, so long as you remain technically asleep.”

 

“So I can sleepwalk?” I ask.

 

He gives me a look to the effect of, “Don’t get funny with me here.”

 

I ask him for whom the private function is, and he replies that he doesn’t know but there’s an entourage. I almost ask, “Is the guest of honor arriving by elevator?”

 

“Are you laying out finger food?” I ask.

 

He gives me a look to the effect of, “Not for you, friend.”

 

*****

On the night of the private function, I hear voices downstairs and my first thought is, So My Nightmare Has Come True. I creep to the top of the stairs, in my pajamas, embossed with the logo of this place, or of the place that made them. I sit on the top step, my nails dug deep between the floorboards.

 

From downstairs, smelling of finger food, Russian sentences issue up in thick gouts. One voice, soft and low, makes a space around itself in the center of the other voices, by which I mean that when it talks the others do not. This is not a voice whose fate is to be underfoot.

 

It is the voice of Vladimir Sorokin.

 

I can’t pick out much of what it’s saying, by there’s no question that the conversation is coming into orbit around the universe-anchoring Name of Tarkovsky, as conversations will.

 

I creep a couple of stairs further down, hoping to avoid that caterer while getting close enough to see. I achieve an angle whereby some of what’s up down there reaches me up here.

 

Everyone with their wine and toast-morsels has formed a circle around Sorokin in the living room, and he’s whispering in that way of his while standing in front of a silk curtain.

 

After a round of applause, he calls for a volunteer from the audience, magician style, and a Slavic-Studies-professor-looking person stands up. Together they yank down the silk sheet.

 

There stands a large painted wooden icon, surrounded by all the usual Orthodox cryptography. In the center is a very old, grave, subtly, almost secretly, smiling man, with a huge gray beard.

 

My eyes are riveted to it, as are all those downstairs. A voice begins to whisper paraphrased translations in my ear. I don’t how long the person to whom this voice belongs has been sitting here beside me, and I don’t turn to look at it now.

 

“Sorokin’s explaining how he came to paint his Tarkovsky Icon,” says the voice. “How he reached a point in his creative life, after all those years of Ice, when he needed to give flesh to the supreme work that had been slumbering in his … I don’t know, it’s an organ you don’t have in English, I don’t believe. Anyway, he says now that he was called to do for Tarkovsky what Tarkovsky himself was called to do for Andrei Rublev, in the interzone between the mortal and the divine, where resides …”

 

“He says also,” says the voice, skipping ahead to stay current, “that this Icon represents the apotheosis of his life as an artist, in all mediums, and that he is now officially retired.”

At one and the same moment, the crowd downstairs lets out a groan of disbelief and begins cutting and dishing out a giant Retirement Cake.

 

The Icon, to me, looks a lot more like Father Zossima than like any Tarkovsky I’ve managed to imagine, but I keep my opinion to myself.

 

I’m downstairs among them all now, against medical orders, staring into its eyes and beard, the sound of cake eaters all around me. There’s something afoot in the beard, it looks like, a swirl of figures, ghosts of some sort, miniature entities painted into the ground of the Icon, almost intangible in the whiteness of the paint, but they’re all I can focus on. They appear to stare back at me, with eyes far more alert than the eyes of the Icon’s human figure, which are painted more with an amateur’s enthusiasm than with a Rublev’s mastery. Sometimes they look sly, with that grin that sly ghosts adopt to show what kind they are, and sometimes they look dead serious.

 

A whisper at my shoulder and I turn and there’s Sorokin. Before I can explain that I belong upstairs, he says, in English, “I’ve grown tired of my Icon, so soon. We are going to the movies. I think it will be cold there.”

 

*****

Bundled in several jackets and britches over my base pajama layer, and a pair of boots from some closet, I clomp along in the Russian delegation to the movie theater downtown, the wind on Main as relentless as if we’d been sitting naked on naked prairie, not even a stump or a trampled patch of grass to mark our forefathers’ attempt to build a habitable town.

 

On the cinema marquee are several options, servicing all price brackets, in an attempt to turn no one away. Essentially, you pay per character you want to see. If you only want to see the lead or hero of the film, you pay next to nothing. If you want the hero and the villain, you pay a little more, and if you want the whole supporting ensemble, with all its red herrings and romantic side-alleys, you pay full price.

 

The film playing is, of course, Andrei Rublev.

 

Sorokin and his entourage pay full price and disappear.

 

I, digging a couple of coins from the pocket of the jacket that was put on me, ask if I can see it with no one in it, not even the actor who plays Rublev. “Just show me mist,” I request, “heavy skies, a tract of land, some moving or standing water, that’ll be plenty. All those horses — I can make do without them. And I certainly don’t need sound.”

 

The ticket salesperson shrugs, doesn’t see why not, takes my coins to contribute to the cinematography costs, and hands me a flimsy, oil-soaked corner of a sheet of paper, as my ticket, and points to my theater.

 

Inside, the screen is a wash of medium gray and light gray, a milky texture with a little densening of white in one part that might be a winter sky with its sun. There are some dark areas too, lower down, ground of some kind surely.

 

The soundtrack still seeps in here and there, slowed and pared down to the point where it sounds like an intermixture of growling and shivering. From the corners, I can hear teeth rattle, some of them my own.

 

As I watch, I start to suspect that those ghosts from the Icon’s beard are recurring in the wash of the screen: some of the thick spots of white and off-white, curls and twists of light, tend toward the bodily.

 

A little scared now maybe, I look away from the screen, which has begun to bleet and hoot. In the theater, my attention settles like a tossed rope onto the shoulders of the dark-cloaked man in the front row.

 

He looks up at the screen, and, though I can’t see his face or anything much about him, I become stubbornly certain of his identity: it is, has got to be, Gary Lutz.

 

His attention on the screen is unbroken, or he’s fast asleep. There’s only one other person in the theater, and though I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman, I can tell she or he is looking at the figure in the front row as well, thinking exactly the same thing.

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The Wayfarer’s Tavern has looked better. I’ve seen it, looking better.

 

But that must have been last year. I’ve been away, am only now getting back. The place isn’t exactly full, but, insofar as it isn’t empty, it’s full of old people with beer- or potbellies, their heads on their chests, lips turned mostly to spittle, mumbling, “But, sure, but just think where we were this time last year. Compared to that, we’re … ” Some of them are resting their hands in bowls of bar nuts, very still, like they’ve forgotten them there.

 

I must have come in on the last bus, and now we’re all in here waiting for the next. Everyone must have gone away, for the holidays and all, and now they’re all coming back. I kind of think that the next bus has already arrived, and here everyone is, trudging into the Tavern with their bags and suitcases, kicking snow off their boots, and yet we’re still waiting for them, like the fact of their having arrived has spurred us to start rather than to stop waiting.

 

Fair enough. It couldn’t be much more than 6 a.m. No one exactly picks their heads up off their chests, but when the TV up by the ceiling comes on, they tilt their eyes upward so’s to see what little they can, like checking on the sun to see if it’s eclipsed enough to be safe to look at yet, or not.

 

No reason not to kill a little time while we’re waiting, would be my guess as to the general thought in here at the moment, though lord knows I could be almost infinitely far off base.

 

Some images of morbidly obese people flash around the screen, and I hear a teapot in the back of the bar starting to boil, and then the usual show comes on: it was once, I gather, called Bargain Basement Kafka, but, as if the words were painted on the wall of some shed by the side of some road somewhere, the letters in the title have corroded over the years, so now only some of them appear on the screen. After the title appears the familiar situation: someone is standing by the side of the road on a frigid winter day, breathing awful gusts of steam and dancing on her tiptoes. She wears a thin, clearly inadequate, coat, a light hat, tennis shoes, and no mittens. It’s clear she didn’t expect to be out this long.

 

She tries to light a — I suppose a cigarette, but she can’t even get what it is out of her pocket, so she just stands there flicking her lighter, which, scowling, she eventually tosses into the snow.

 

Someone in the bar’s hand rattles in its bath of nuts and I picture salt and oil shifting position amongst knuckles.

 

On the TV, she’s still standing there, alone on the street except for a single parked car, near her, which, the camera now shows, has someone inside, also breathing steam and looking uncomfortable. We understand the situation: she’s there waiting for her ride, freezing and waiting.

 

She keeps going up to the car and staring at the driver, who stares back, like she’s checking if he’s here to pick her up, and he keeps checking her, asking himself the other part of the same question.

 

Each time they check each other they retreat in disappointment, but then, a moment later, she comes back to the window and checks again. No other cars pass by. She starts to look incredulous, like, “Am I really failing to recognize this person I know so well, who’s come all this way to pick me up and take me indoors, where it will be warm and there will be coffee?”

 

The driver wonders the same, like, “Should I open the door for her? For whom?”

 

Neither speaks.

 

This is where I always nod off, weakened, as I am, by the weight of my rearrival, the long bus journey through uncertain climes.

 

Whenever I nod off like this, the words “Baby Market Kafka” occur to me, and I’m put in mind (or put by mind into) a kind of incubation room of tiny humanoid creatures, somewhere between fetuses and babies, in warm broths, trying to breathe under the tremendous attention of Kafka far overhead, looking in perhaps via (sorry to say via so much, the new George Saunders book is new) a microscope, choosing which one to pluck and draw up, up, up, to Attain-to-Life Through Kafka, in the very particular way that only such entities, once chosen, can, and must.

 

Watching him watch them, it’s only a matter of moments until I’m imitating them, lying down on the floor under my table in my coat, whispering “pick me, pick me,” dreaming of the shed by the road with those peeling letters on its cement flank, inside which Kafka is perhaps prodding a fire, or trying to work a microwave.

 

*****

In my dream, or when I wake (I’m tempted to say: when that bus we’ve been waiting for finally arrives), we’re all out in the center of town, where the Molloy-spouting Bull has been interred in the ground, and gone to sleep for the past month, safe and scary as a dormant volcano.

 

It was the Mayor’s idea to send us all home to get our teenage skin mags from our drawers, and backs of shelves and under out mattresses and rugs, and in our chests, the ones we haven’t looked at for years if not decades, and feed them to the beast, which hasn’t woken but has, of late, begun grumbling with supposed hunger in its sleep.

 

So here we all are, gathered around the volcano (which, this last month, has taken on the dimensions of a town park), each of us with a pile of mags in front of us. All of the images in those mags, we’ve just now discovered, have atrophied and decayed — not just yellowed and wrinkled, and not just ceased to arouse or amuse, but gone sour, the bodies more than the pages having shriveled biologically, like the tips of bowels that have poked through a hernia and, in the outside liquid, given in to rot.

 

There is a smell.

 

It puts me in the mood of a mass pet funeral, all of us here burying our dearly departed parakeets and guinea pigs in the back yard, the Bull down there simply an embodiment of the usually diffuse agents of decomposition forever awaiting any pet carcass you care to feed them.

 

We consign our mags one by one (one person by one person, I mean, each of us has many, like they are our children, taken sadly by plague), and then we step back, heads down, while the next of us steps forward.

 

When they’re all in there, the Preacher says his piece, consigning them to their fate down below. Then he asks, “Would anyone care to add anything at this time?”

 

There’s a silence, then Big Pharmakos steps forward, but then, before he can speak, the Bull starts to eat, shifting the scene’s genre to become a big old Book Burning, and out run the vendors and clowns, tripping over their foam rubber shoes.