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by Chuck Holmes
The Sweeny’s bartender leaned across the bar to me and whispered: You know who that is over in the corner, don’t you?
Which corner? I countered. Because there’s lots of corners crammed into Sweeney’s. Or at least there were in those days.
That corner over there (!) he signaled with his bar rag.
Nonchalantly, I swiveled myself clockwise. There was a man in a corner by the fireplace. He was wearing a Payne’s gray sport jacket with a tie to match, and sporting a black Irish fisherman’s cap. I watched him writing intently in a notebook.
That’s August Wilson, the bartender hush/hush informed me. He’s writing a play about a blues singer. That’s probably some dialogue that he’s writing down right now.
Maybe something he overheard you say, I suggested to the bartender.
You got that right!
Are you still like … between rooms?
To will an idle coincidence into a state of being was one of Claire’s raison d’etre.
We were shambling along stout and stable Summit, the north side of the avenue this time, taking in the 500s, one odd numbered address after another. Out in front of 599, she called a halt to point at a handsomely appointed turret.
You know who used to live up in that room, don’t you?
Dylan? I guessed.
No, not Dylan. Positively absolutely not Dylan! A real Romantic wrote up there. Possibly the last authentic American Romantic. “So we beat on, boats against …”
“Borne back ceaselessly into …” a past that’s … not even … past yet …
He rewrote This Side of Paradise up in that little perch. Each chapter was pinned to a curtain. After it was accepted by Perkins at Scribner’s he ran out—
He could have gotten killed because—
No Gatsby if Fitz gets run down by—
No “In my younger and more vulnerable years …”
No Zelda to fall into the fountain with.
And no little Scottie to hold hands with.
So, Señor, can you tell me where are you sleeping tonight?
Wherever a couch catches me…
In St. Paul in the late fall, with the Great Communicator at the helm of the ship of state and the unemployment numbers rising higher than the High Bridge, I read in the Pioneer Press of a room for rent in a house on Portland near Dale. It was a slim ad in a slender paper, and when I called the number to find out more details, the owner invited me to come over and see this room for myself.
An hour or so later, and I’m standing on a buckled sidewalk in front of a sickly sided dwelling where—as if it had something sinister to conceal—every shade has been drawn to its sill. It’s anything but an uplifting sight, but there’s a room inside that rents by the week, and I have just enough cash to cover one week. I open the gate, mount the steps, ring the doorbell, and take half a step back.
A short man in a thick sweater opens the door. He’s in his wool socks, and he’s sporting a Cubs cap. He has been expecting me. He has been waiting for me. He wonders if I had any trouble finding the house. He asks me to make sure that my shoes are clean. I shuffle them vigorously across the rough rug in the hall. He insists on inspecting the under sole of each shoe. Is he trying to humiliate me? Desperately in need of a place to live, I hold on to the banister at the bottom of the stairs so that I can raise each sole for his close examination.
Why don’t you try wiping them one more time please.
I follow this man up the dimly lit stairs. Our footfalls are accompanied by the faint drone of an omnipresent radio talk show. The woodwork is impressive, but gritty to the touch. My grandmother would have said that it was thirsty, and could use some Murphy’s. I’m thankful that my grandmother can’t see where I am at the moment.
The upstairs hall is equally dusky. One bare light bulb slices the shadows. An odor of burned toast and canned spaghetti overwhelms the last clinging scent of a long ago amour.
At the end of the hall he opens the door to a room, and motions for me to step right in.
A forlorn single bed—its mussed cover revealing a stained hollow mattress— is pushed in the corner, as if being punished for some sexual indiscretion. The landlord opens the door of the rattling refrigerator as I inch past him to look out a cloudy side window.
I just defrosted it this morning! he enthuses.
He creaks open the oven door as I peer out the rear window. It’s then that I see that if I agree to take this room—and I’m sick of sleeping wherever the night catches me—I will be living directly across the alley from the famous turreted row house where you-know-who had written you-know-what. I visualize the brass plate above the front entrance on Summit, summarizing what had happened there once upon a time, as the landlord rattles off the house rules and regulations.
Let me show you the bathroom! he declaims, as if the bathroom is the highlight that he’s been saving for last.
The bathroom, of course, is down the hall, and features a grimy but immense claw foot bathtub that takes up half of the room.
You’ll share this bathroom with the other renters on the second floor, and the ones down below as well, if they want a bath instead of a shower.
We stand in this bathroom—the landlord and I—admiring the cracked linoleum, the chipped claws, yet another hanging bare light bulb, and a behemoth door bolt—to ensure privacy! There are additional rules and regulations concerning the use of this water closet, but as with those regarding the room, I daydream my way through them, preferring instead to concentrate on the one redeeming aspect of the situation that I find myself in: its proximity to the Fitzgerald house across the alley.
And now only the financial arrangements remain to wrap up. Back down the hall … back down the stairs … and into a large closet which I assume is an office. As he digs through a drawer for a rental agreement, I notice for the first time the woolly reindeers obscured by the lint on my latest landlord’s sweater. In the manner of an Austrian mountain guide, his camouflaged pants are cuffed at the ankles. Did I just complete a brief hike in the Alps—albeit a dank and musty Alps—without even realizing it?
Here comes the contract, sliding my way like an avalanche across a pockmarked landscape. On the line devoted to my previous address, I submit 599 Summit Ave., and bask in the brief burst of romanticism which enlivens the scene. I initial and autograph his declaration of my dependence on him, and he gives me a key. His key to my room.
For the time being, I am no longer <between rooms>.
After collecting my things from a bus station locker in the heart of the Bermuda Triangle that defines downtown St. Paul, I tramped up Cathedral Hill and traipsed through the neighborhoods, searching for a Northwest Passage to my room on the flip side. With little pomp and a bare minimum of circumstance, I summarily moved in, only to discover that the noisy refrigerator was blocking the unvarnished spectacle from the head of the bed. The two chairs—the ripped one for myself, the taped one for company—were immediately repositioned to where they would remain for the entire duration of my life in that room: directly in front of “the window”. Despite my numbing weariness—because being in a constant state of <between rooms> can really take it out of you—I set about memorizing this view by moonlight.
The B side of this side of paradise looked nothing like the A side. Even given the fact that houses put their best face forward in the front, the back still came as something of a surprise. I couldn’t see FSF spending too much time back there. But in the moonlight it looked prosaically lyrical, and I kept staring at the various components: fire escape clear of debris; tiled shingles nailed down for eternity; icicles hanging from a hanging gutter; the trash cans randomly arranged and obviously tipsy. There were no historical markers presiding over the rear end of paradise. But maybe there should have been.
It was a great feeling to be inside and warm on such a night, with the temperature in the teens, and the air sprinkled with snow flakes. Here was a place to start from again. A location with an address. A residence with my name on the mailbox. To create an alternate atmosphere, I cued up some improvisations on my music machine, and I lit a stick of incense from somewhere on the Subcontinent. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a cat running across the alley, just as an opossum was exiting a trash can. That cat became my vicarious unnamed pet, and a sign of all the possibilities and opossums lying in wait for me out there. I liked my chances this time around. All I had to do was get a good undisturbed night’s sleep.
It was a stubby bed in a stunted room, and to sleep comfortably we each had to sleep on our sides: she against the wall and me riding the outside edge.
Claire was not impressed by my new used room. The first time she saw it, late at night, she took a quick look around and then turned to me and asked: Is this it?
That was it, and yup, it wasn’t much.
She sought solace in a cigarette … while I made tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
The bathroom awed her even less than the room had.
She was a romantic in the Fitzgerald mould, a flapper like Zelda, but exiled from the appropriate Age. Because this wasn’t the Jazz Age, this was yet another Age: the Age of Mourning in America. Claire could care less about politics, unless it had a Latin American flavor. She loved soft imported skirts from Guatemala, and pinot noir from Chile, and guacamole and Spanish rice with a hot Mexican pepper spice. La Cucaracha was just around the corner and down Dale, but we couldn’t always afford to slide into a booth and honor the cockroach.
My then girlfriend was a short woman in her early twenties, with Ferris Wheels for eyes, and hips that swung to the tick of some inner metronome, along with a transcendent smile when she cared to flash it, and all topped off by light brown hair with a reddish tint, which she swept and re-swept across her forehead with fingers predestined for a piano.
Once when she came to stay with me, she was sick, and I took care of her, nursing her back to health in that most unsanitary of rooms.
We both knew the stories about Fitzgerald’s early life in St. Paul. We’d retraced a few of his footsteps, leaving the park on the bluff by the University Club to walk up Western and sink into an art deco chair beside a mirror in the bar of the Commodore, the only customers they had on a quiet fall afternoon. Scott and Zelda had awaited the birth of their one and only child in this very hotel. We told each other the old tales that were part of the local folklore: how Fitzgerald had worked on the railroad (briefly); how he’d run out of the house and stopped traffic on Summit after he got the telegram from Scribner’s saying that they’d publish Paradise.
And now I lived right across the alley from where he used to live, I bragged. But Claire wasn’t the least bit aroused by this piece of happenstance. I could see her little Ferris Wheels grinding to a halt, because she was doomed to go back to that room—for that night anyway—and I don’t think she found it even slightly enchanting.
By the time that I came to occupy the little flip side room, ten years had elapsed since my initial infatuation with Fitzgerald, and so his influence on me had waned, and his romanticism had paled, and his poetry had precipitously evaporated. That winter I was reading Bernhard’s Correction in translation, at times in the claw foot tub, with people banging on the door. Or on my bed, which was always empty now, except for me, and the streets full of rain or hail or snow, and the cold which demanded those long hot baths.
Claire was a spirited woman: intelligent, knowledgeable, brilliant even, and ten or eleven years younger than I was at the time. And she had much better prospects than I. She was going to the university; she would get her Masters; she would go on for her doctorate out West, and end up teaching at a private school in the East. And the cramped little bed that she slept in a few times, and where I took good care of her once? She’s forgotten about it—I know she has—because the indentations that those uneven bed springs made on her were ones that she wanted to erase from her memory as quickly as she could.
I tried to take Claire’s mind off the dilapidation by reading aloud an amusing selection of Beckett to her, and by playing Irish music on my tape player for her, and by telling her stories about my time in New Orleans, and cooking for her, and drawing a picture of her in charcoal and pastels, and by giving her an orgasm—anything to take her mind away from the bumpy bed in the shabby room. She screamed into the pillow. She got her pleasure, but then she was unhappy again. The room held no promise or hope for her. It was a room that could only be occupied by a contrarian who was on his way down. And although she fit most of the definitions of what a romantic actually was, and once read “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” in that cramped bed, her own particular brand of romanticism was less imaginary and more fact based: a sensory experience filled with pleasant smells and gypsy music and watercolors with soft edges.
Fitzgerald too would have been appalled by the seediness of the surroundings—and not just the rust on the refrigerator, but the cracks in the window glass and the squeaks in the bed springs and the dirty bathroom and the dark hall that you had to tiptoe down … because you were already in arrears with your rent …
And yet, once, when she was visiting me, the time when she was sick, I turned around to look at her as I was stirring croutons into the simmering chicken soup from a can, and her head was against the ugly yellow pillowcase, and she was lying against the green wall, her eyes closed, her hair covering half her face, a picture of sickness. But somehow she suffused the scene with her beauty. She had the power to do that, because of her personality, and especially her kindness, her thoughtfulness, her feeling for others, and her feeling for me. She breathed life into my room. She made it beat with her great heart, even in her state of illness. A Degas or a Whistler, a Singer Sargent or a Munch—those artists would have painted her on the spot, then and there. Especially Munch—I’m thinking of his Sick Child. They’d all taught me to see beauty, and so I recognized it right away when I turned around—after stirring the canned soup and flipping the grilled cheese—and saw her head against the pillow, and felt that the dingy little dump was being blessed by a great beauty.
The next day she felt better, and she left right after French toast to ride the bus across town to the university. She didn’t come back again for a long time. Maybe she never came back. As the winter dragged on, she stayed away. I called her from the pay phone in the rear of the drug store, and I would go to visit her occasionally—at her father’s when she was living with him, or at her apartment in Crocus Hill after she’d moved into it—but I always came home to my tiny room across the alley from the rump of the famed house on the acclaimed street, alone. It was a monk’s room after all.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the coffee house guitarist with the little cap and plaid shirt and worn jeans who was putting everything he had into singing and strumming and mouth harping this old folk tune.
The second he finished, I asked the short perky woman whistling and stamping her feet beside me if she knew the name of that last piece.
I sure do. That’s “The Man Who Wouldn’t Grow Corn”!
Her long silky hair was a cascading arrangement of red curls, with freckles sprinkled on her forehead and cheeks and chin.
And what’s the name of the guitarist? I wondered out loud.
You really don’t know who that is? Why, that’s Spider. Spider John Koerner!
My rent wasn’t much—not much at all—but I always had trouble coming up with it. Whenever I was more than a week behind, my landlord tiptoed up the stairs, rapped once on the door, instantly let himself in, and caustically pointed at my silver tea strainer and my Chinese tapestry. As I took the tapestry down from the wall, and rinsed the strainer of damp tea leaves, he stood in the doorway and asked me each time how it was that I had come into the possession of such valuable objects. My answer was always that the strainer had been a gift from my grandmother, a piece from a tea service given to her by Diamond Jim Brady, while the tapestry—a souvenir from the Pacific Theater—had been left to me by my father. I handed over these sentimental remembrances as ransom to my landlord, and as I listened to him take them away down the hall and steps and into his closet of an office for safekeeping, I chanted O saisons, O chateaux! over & over & over.
It was just after Christmas, and in the depth of a recession—an icy gift from the slack-jawed co-star of Bedtime for Bonzo—when the snow started to come down nonstop. All traffic came to a halt, including the buses. I was walking down the middle of Grand Avenue in sneakers when I spotted a snow shovel leaning against a row of garage doors behind an apartment house. I don’t like to steal stuff, so I only borrowed this shovel, and then went off in search of sidewalks and driveways south of Grand to scoop out. The big old houses were snowed in up to their posterns and porticos, and I found enough shoveling to keep me busy until after dark. I had a sore back, but I was back at it the next day, because it was still snowing and I had to make hay while the snow snowed. I took breaks to trudge back up to Grand and eat something quickly in one of those tasty but expensive restaurants along that “lonely avenue”.
After she brought me my check, I couldn’t resist asking the Esteban’s waitress who that had been in the booth right in front of me.
That was … let me think … let me think … That was … let me ask …
A woman (maybe my age, maybe a little bit older) had been sitting by herself, eating … eating and reading … but three or four times people came up to her … to congratulate her … a book of hers had evidently just been published … somebody had said I loved your descriptions of St. Paul … someone else complemented her on the cover: Was that a picture of Prague? I have to go there! Each time she was interrupted, she visited as if she really enjoyed hearing her reader’s comments regarding her work. An author and a professor … one former student came bearing her A Romantic Education … which she wrote a note for … and autographed … enthusiastically!
OK … Sorry it took me so long … That was Patricia Hampl … She teaches over at Mac maybe … or is it St. Kate’s … or possibly the U … She has a book out … A Sentimental Education? … A Poetic Education? ... something along that line … Say, are you shivering? Look at those shoes you’re wearing. Take them off! Socks too! We’ve got a dryer in the back. I’ll go warm them up for you. Do you always bring your snow shovel with you when you go out for lunch? That’s unique…
After my energy had been replenished, and my footwear warmed, I returned to scooping. My pants pockets were bulging in bills of several denominations. I paid my landlord some rent ahead for his scenic little living space … and I got my “sentimental objects” back …
The snow had saved me. I was in love with winter.
Sometimes I was invited to step inside the front foyer of a mansion whose sidewalk and driveway I had just cleared. Let me tell you that those foyers alone were three or four times roomier than my flip side of Paradise. As the owners were gathering up the cash to pay me, I would see what I could of the house within. I saw fireplaces with fires blazing, and I saw bookshelves filled with books, some of which I recognized. I saw Christmas trees still standing, with candy canes and multicolored bulbs and tinsel and fake candles. I saw paintings old and new, abstract and realistic. I saw boots and shoes, gloves and mittens, scarves and coats. I saw pets, friendly and unfriendly. There were birds in cages, cats on sofas, dogs on rugs, hamsters on wheels, and a rabbit in a box filled with shavings. I saw kids playing games, tossing balls, watching TV, throwing fits, laughing, crying, looking out the window, coloring. One little girl took a picture of me. She asked me if I knew that my cheeks were red. She said my cheeks were redder than a Santa Claus. She asked me if she could touch them. I bent down and felt her warm fingers against my cheeks…
Back out on the street, I went off to look for more jobs. An older lady stepped out of the door to her castle and waved to me from the bridge over her moat. She told me where and how much to shovel. Her instructions were precise and condescending. She watched me from her big front window. After I finished, she handed me a broom. I swept the snow until she could see the sidewalk. She wanted to be able to see the concrete, she said. After I’d finished she asked me to step in. How much do I owe you? she asked. I named my price. She said it was too much. She took a collection of tightly rolled bills from her apron pocket and handed it to me, saying: That’s all I have. I took it and counted it. It was a little more than half of what I’d asked for.
My back had become very sore. I didn’t want to shovel anymore. I walked back up to Grand and went into a bar, propping my shovel against the wall just inside the vestibule. McCafferty’s was a plush Irish pub—everything was in a green reminiscent of the old sod—so I ordered an Irish coffee. A bunch of guys shouted at the TV—a referee had made a poor call. It seemed ridiculous, and rather beside the point. Sitting on that barstool, I could feel my sore back getting sorer. The Irish whiskey relieved it somewhat, but only temporarily.
The Irish bartender bent over the bar to ask: You know who that is sitting over against the wall, don’t you?
Nope, I said, who is it?
That’s Eugene McCarthy, he said.
Eugene McCarthy … he looked distinguished, with his silver hair and his fiddle tie pin … more like a poet though, than the politician who had led the charge back in those Days of Rage … there was a crowd around him … they were listening to his every word…
Back outside in the wintry world, it had finally stopped snowing. Someone had borrowed from me the same shovel that I’d borrowed from someone else. I thought I’d left it in a safe place. I bought a bag of Idaho potatoes at Kowalski’s Red Owl and returned to my little room. As they boiled on the stove I stretched out on my bed and reread my favorite part of The Great Gatsby: the bit about the green light across the Long Island Sound. When the potatoes were done I ate some and then fell asleep.
I bought a brand new blue snow shovel and revisited many of my customers in the midst of some pretty skimpy snowfalls, but the skies remained dutifully clear for the most part, and my business fell off to the point where my best account became the older lady who lived in the castle, the one who had nicked me and who continued to underpay me. Still, she always seemed to be able to find little jobs inside and out for me to do.
In my off hours I wandered the old parts of town on foot, climbing up and down the stairs below the Hill Mansion, as well as all the other stairs, slippery in winter, that ascend and descend the limestone bluffs. Winter in St. Paul is not a sometime thing—it goes on and on, with little variation in the ice and chill. You wait for the first thaw; you look out the windows of libraries and galleries and cafes and bookstores, but the windows remain steamed or even frosted over, and you go back to the paper or letter or book you were reading…
On a tart winter evening I was browsing my way through Odegaard’s well-stocked bookstore at Grand and Victoria when I came upon Robert Walser’s The Walk, which I found so enchanting that I sat down to swoop into it.
As I was following Walser’s ramblings and meanderings, there was a poetry reading in progress. The reader’s voice was amplified, and as seducing in its own way as the prose in The Walk.
What could the processor of such a voice possibly look like? I kept asking myself.
When I could stand it no longer, I went to the front desk and asked the clerk the name of the woman who was giving the reading.
That’s the poet and novelist and short story writer Louise Erdrich. Isn’t she great? Are you ready to check out?
Ready to check out?
The book in your hand. Are you ready to purchase it?
I left off trying to explain to the clerk the impossibility my purchasing The Walk due to the lack of heavy snowfall. I simply backed away from the counter and turned my attention to the poet at the far end of the room. Captivating … the tone and timbre and resonance of her voice … I could hear it all the way home to the flip side …
The landlord of my diminutive room on Portland near Dale, in an effort to save money on his heating bill, covered the one window which faced Fitzgerald’s old place with a sheet of insulated plywood. I removed it whenever I was in the room. Once he knocked on the door and I let him in, forgetting that I’d removed the sheet. He wanted to know when I was going to pay my rent—I was several weeks behind again. The sight of the uncovered window made him furious. He left the room but quickly returned with a power drill to screw in the sheet to the frame. What an oppressive little man he was!
My room became even less attractive to me after this incident, and I began spending more and more time out of it. I often walked down the road at the end of Western Avenue, which skirted the bluff, eventually angling all the way down to Children’s Hospital, where in the first year of the next decade, my first son would be born under a full moon. I came to know this road very well. When I was walking along it I felt like I was out in the country, and therefore somewhat free.
Down below the bluff, in the West Seventh and Chestnut neighborhood, I began to frequent a used bookstore called Harper McKee’s. The front of the store was all windows, with a large reproduction of a painting by Maurice Utrillo in one of them. This painting set the tone for the whole store. It made me see the neighborhood—indeed the entire city of St. Paul—anew. The painting was technically about Paris, but it was actually about light. I began to realize that it was light that illuminates our lives, and that the candle and the lamp and the painting illumine all of what we cannot.
Ruth McKee was responsible for this sundry collection of the profound and the trivial. She often ensconced herself in a small office of the bookstore. Her two dogs were with her for protection and companionship. We visited; I bought a book—The Autumn of the Patriarch—after reading the first sentence, which goes on for years; and then, before I knew it, I was working at Harper McKee’s.
I began by taking her dogs for a walk. I let them yank and drag and pull me down to the fountain at Irving Park. We returned by way of the pungent plastics factory.
And then there were the boxes of books, stacks and stacks of them in the second floor storage room. They had to be lugged down the steep stairs in the back room, which was a fascinating space, given all the pictures and the posters of writers arranged high above the shelves. I remember W. B. Yeats staring severely down at me through his sky-blue monocle, at the same time that I was shelving his Vision.
There was a children’s corner back there too, and on many Saturday mornings a tall shy radio man and his even shyer gangly son could be seen perusing the kid’s books. And there was a mystery section as well, where a soon-to-be-well-compensated mystery author, who was writing at that time for the Pioneer Press, liked to come in and browse. In the middle of the back room, two cushioned couches from the Fifties faced each other, with an ornate table between them, always piled high with books. This is where Quentin, distinguished by his bow tie and umbrella and low blood pressure, often held court. He came in to read and converse and borrow money from Ruth, for he was always on his way by bus to the West Bank in Minneapolis, where he had another court to hold, this one at Palmer’s Bar—or The Palm Club as he called it.
This was in the early days of what was to become a long association with Ruth Harper McKee. Gradually it would evolve into endless discussions about books and music, cooking and religion, history and more history—above all else: history—both personal and impersonal. I didn’t realize it then, but my business—as well as my intellectual—relationship with Ruth, who was about the age of my mother, was my ticket out of that cramped and oppressive little room, where I had become quite familiar with the butt end of paradise: the one which Fitzgerald, despite all his poetic talent, had skipped over and ignored.
Kitty corner across West Seventh from the bookstore was McGovern’s, and oft were the occasions when we crossed the street after closing to sit in a booth over drinks and chat. A cigarette, eternally lit, spurred her on; puffs of nicotine caused her to careen from politics to culture, and from fond remembrances to trenchant observations, as if she were running through a vibrant spring garden where she had been asked to pick some flowers for a setting and—being unable to decide which ones to pick—she picked them all. Her mind at such times appeared to be everywhere—from St. Paul to Donegal to Independence Hall—flights of fancy so inspiring that you wanted to be swept along in the interest and enthusiasm which she felt for nearly every topic. She had an unsurpassable spirit of liveliness, and if you were with her you couldn’t help but be infected by it. It was life and life only, as the poet sang, and she was a singer if there ever was one, and the song she sang was all about experience: participatory observation gleaned from every corner, but especially a corner filled with books.
The seashell ashtray on the table between us was at high tide with butts. Along with the coffee and the bourbon press, they must have incited her mind into overdrive. The ribs had been ordered—they’d be out directly—but before they arrived there was still time for a story about Melvin McCosh and his legendary Dinkytown store filled with books and strange characters on winter evenings when it was dark by five and people went inside to gather around unstable stacks of books and discuss this or that philosophy, view, opinion, design, tale, jail, or books lost in the mail or under beds or in closets or behind doors or loaned out to unreliable folk singers who took off with them when they left for New York to sing their songs for a more appreciative audience and maybe get a lucrative record contract. Ruth had known such a person, indirectly, but then she had known a lot of people, and a lot of people had known her. And she took care of those closest to her, and they, in their turn, took care of her—that was the way it was, and that was the way it should be, she told me.
Ruth counseled me with a humorist’s touch concerning my dissolving bond with Claire, who seemed to have forgotten the way to the hermitage. She said that it was important to keep busy, to keep the mind occupied. She said that things changed, and that people changed, and that maybe I should find someone closer to my own age. She said that I should find another place to live, an apartment with lots of windows. She said that I should wash those windows the minute that I moved in, because there’s nothing like clean windows for fostering inspiration. She said that the sea is filled with fish, or used to be. She said that I should read the Germans and the Africans, the Canadians and the Chinese, the French and the South Americans, and then write your own books. In fact, she said that I should start writing right away, that I didn’t have to wait ‘til I read all those books, because she could see that I had something to say, and so I should start saying it.
That same night, in the wake of our memorable conversation, which appeared to find its theme with her admonition to me to don’t wait to start writing—advice which made me reach for my Jetstream pen in my shirt pocket—she stubbed out her final cigarette of the evening and ruefully confessed that she’d decided she would have to shutter her store because she just wasn’t making it.
Rather than worry about her future and her prospects and her finances, she had brushed all that aside to take an interest in my insignificant dilemmas?
As we parted on the sidewalk, she had to insist once again that You’ve got to find another place to live!
When you have very little money—when you’re living close to the bone—your senses are very much on alert—and you seem to notice everything.
After coming home late from McGovern’s that night, I’d re-Joyced to discover that my landlord had removed the plywood sheet from the window that faced Paradise. I’d reheated a pan of soup, and positioned my chair in the corner by the window so that I could look out and see the tip top of Fitzgerald’s turret—a symbol for me of hope and creativity—in the moonlight.
Later that same evening, enough sentences to constitute a respectable paragraph came to me on the wing, and I had to get out of bed to write them down.
The next morning, in the claw foot bathtub down the hall, more sentences appeared on my dilating horizon. I jumped out of the bathtub to hurry to my room to write them down, leaving behind me a watery trail. Leave it to my landlord to break the poetic spell. He banged on my door, and demanded that I wipe up this water! When I returned to my pen and paper, the rhythm had vanished and could not be recaptured. I put on some music, but it was a poor substitute for lost beats and mislaid stresses.
I took my short tale—which was about a Fun House clown who’s trapped in a tiny cage above the entrance to the Fun House—and I hurried down the Western Avenue extension to Harper McKee’s, anxious to show it to Ruth and explain to her where I wanted to go with it: how this clown used to play the piano with abandon, but for a long time, and for mysterious reasons, he’d been silent…
When I got to the bookstore, I found it engulfed by book dealers anxious for bargains on the first day of Harper McKee’s going out of business sale. They were like vultures—with that look in their eyes—and I had to hurry to keep the best books out of their hands, carting boxes back up the stairs to the attic, to wait for a better day and a much better price. I did this without Ruth’s knowledge, but with her best interests at heart, because I knew that she’d have another bookstore again someday.
Fitzgerald? Oh sure: that elegant novelist from the house across the alley. Authors of his ilk swam in fountains in formal attire, and dipped their freshly written pages in bubbly champagne, and hung up their soaked and dripping but still intact pages with clothespins, and wrote novels that even poets admired and attempted to emulate. After he died, his books lived on in used bookstores in old buildings with cats and plants in the windows. People who loved his books worked in these stores for next to nothing.
Fitzgerald was that brand of romantic who goes to Princeton and lives on Summit and sends his manuscripts to Max Perkins at Scribner’s. I was the neo-romantic underachiever type who lived in a walk-in closet in back of the row house with the high ceilings, but thought nothing of it as I wrote my amusement park stories which I kept in the same drawer as my socks and underwear because … ‘cause I didn’t know what else to do with them. I enjoyed working in used bookstores and selling second hand works by prominent romantics because their passion rubbed off like pixie dust emitted from the NSP smokestack and sprinkled over me and everyone else sauntering up the High Bridge over the Mississippi to get to Cherokee Heights and points beyond because we’re all after all so-called romantics, although I am beginning to tire of this word, but Webster’s New World Thesaurus is curiously devoid of plausible substitutes.
I went on to live in many more rooms. Yes, my life was to be a never ending procession of rooms painted in variations of the primary colors … until I came to in that last and final room, painted green, of course: that room with the view which slays you …
Do you know who that pair is over there … by the stairs?
After I gave my landlord my notice in writing to vacate his little second floor abode on Portland near Dale, I borrowed an unattached bicycle on Summit near Arundel and pedaled surreptitiously via the back streets to W. A. Frost’s at the junction of Selby and Western to celebrate in the spaciousness of that high ceilinged saloon.
Tommy leaned across the bar to discreetly murmur his question. In doing so he momentarily diverted my attention away from the wind-up political toy on the bar between us. Being the observant and considerate bartender that he was, he was seeking to redirect my orientation in the direction of the famous couple over by the stairs.
Initially, I felt a strong resistance to look. A quasi philosophical voice inside of me—one with a Danish accent—told me that I’d be better off in the long run if I didn’t look. All these famous men and women who were forever passing in and out of my line of sight were beginning to make me feel irascible. Let us leave off praising them, at least for the time being, or until they pass beyond that boundary after which we shall hear no more concerning them. Can we de-fund in advance our doomed-to-be-fatal preoccupation with celebrity? We in the upper Midwest are inhospitable to fame anyway, and the famous sense this, and soon depart, in the dead of night, for the West Coast or the East, depending on their fear of the cold.
I struggled against the urge to turn around and look—perhaps for the last time—at yet another glimpse of preeminence—and this one a duet. Taking into account the notion that the famed among us have no desire to be stared at, I wanted to grant them, in my benevolence, their privacy. And thus enhance my own dignity. And maybe elevate, however slightly, my own self esteem, while potentially lowering, however imperceptibly, their own self regard.
This notion of renown—with all of its attendant foibles—was nothing if not humorous to Tommy.
Check ‘em out! They’re holding hands!
Like Lot’s wife, I knew that I would have to look … eventually. But first I took a sip of my thick tasty Summit, and lifted my eyes up to the woman carved in oak—or maple—or mahogany—who, along with her twin down the bar, was holding up the mirror behind and above the whiskey and gin and cognac.
Then and only then did I consent to observe them, vicariously, as if they were cats in the moonlight, via their reflection in the fun house mirror held aloft by the two bare breasted wooden women.
Over by the stairs, the notable woman and the notorious man were holding hands across their tiny table top. But then, as if moving a chess piece, the notable woman withdrew one of her hands (the right one, I think) and put it in her lap. The notorious man clung to the one she’d left on the table ever more ardently. He fondled and caressed it with both his hands. When she tried to withdraw that hand as well, he wouldn’t let her at first, but eventually he relaxed his grip. Then it was his hands alone which remained as the table’s centerpiece. It was intriguing the way that he rubbed them together, as he appeared to appeal to her—in a radio voice, part basso, part baritone, amazingly audible amidst all the hubbub—to take some course of action which she was apparently dead set against.
They could have been my parents, or my grandparents—those two by the stairs.
Or they could have been stand-ins, a pair of actors from the Guthrie or the Southern, reciting their lines, performing their parts, playing Claire and I.
This illustrious couple—whoever they might or might not be—they were gradually losing their reflected celebrity right in front of my eyes, and becoming instead relatives or companions or neighbors or long lost friends…
Well … Tommy asked. Who are they?
I begged for a hint. Apparently off the top of his head, he gave me one:
What flowers in Cloquet goes to seed in Anoka…
I repeated his riddle, inadvertently substituting blooms for flowers and weed for seed. He didn’t bother to correct me. All he said was, I’m going on break, Carlos.
I was left to face my self by myself in the mirror behind the bar. At first I didn’t recognize my own reflection. It was the hat, of course. I’d found an old fedora in the street on my way to Frost’s. I’d almost run over it. The bike’s brakes had squeaked and squealed. I would have to oil them … before I returned it…
The wind-up political toy on the bar, in the meantime, had finally run out of steam.
And then Tommy reappeared on the scene, back from his break, refreshed and recharged, a bartender nonpareil, laughing at the immobilized toy, or at me and my hat, or at the once famous couple vanished without a trace except for their tip, or maybe at our suddenly spring-like weather—who knows? —something was always comical to Tommy.
So … did you ever figure out who that was over there?
Nope, I said. I never did. But they looked … they sure looked familiar …
And so if I have nowhere in particular to go I take the time to stop to pet stray cats and the odd dog lounging in the dying sun.