By Paul Perilli
Last month, back from Portugal two days, I went to see a client and after that I hailed a taxi on lower Broadway to take me back to Brooklyn. My driver, I saw from the backseat, was near my age. His thinning hair was silver and black. He was unshaven. Through the thick protective glass I gave him my address and once the traffic cleared we were on our way. All that morning my mind might still have been in Lisbon strolling on tree-lined Avenue da Liberdade. It might have been taking in the view of Coimbra’s hilly medieval city lit up at night from the rooftop bar of my hotel. In any case, all that was erased as my taxi approached the Williamsburg Bridge and I began to feel an unusual connection to a time thirty years earlier. Maybe I thought it was one of those sudden flashbacks I’d been having more often now that I was in my fifties. But soon I recognized it was more than that. I closed my eyes. I opened them to the realization a mystery was resolving itself. In the mirror I looked at the driver and I was sure it was Jonathan Bliss even if it was hard to make out the younger man. He had gained weight. His eyes were darker. Where once he was the absolute ruler over a vast empire of enthusiasm he seemed subdued. Or that was my perception of him in the moment. But I was sure that person was still in there and it brought forward a Saturday afternoon when I went to an apartment at the request of its owner and was asked to decide what to do with the possessions of its missing occupant. “He hasn’t been here for a while,” I was told. “Maybe he’s not coming back?” After that I was left alone with the old furniture, the rank odor, the color photos clipped to a wire strung along a wall. With the dirt and grime I don’t think Jonathan Bliss ever saw. “Excuse me,” I leaned forward, “is your name Jonathan? Did you once live in Cambridge?” Without saying a word the driver pointed to the Medallion Driver License attached to the dashboard. It hadn’t occurred to me to look for it. I glanced at the picture, then at the name: Thomas Weston. In those past days Jonathan Bliss had other names too. It wasn’t a secret. Jonathan Bliss was a contrivance. Was Thomas Weston the name he’d made up for this latest role? Or was it his real one? Across the bridge we were on the onramp to the BQE and then in a race to get ahead of the traffic coming from the right. That was the only way to make it to the McGuiness Boulevard exit from the left lane entry. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I thought you were someone I knew from a previous life.” But I was just saying that. I was sure I was talking to Jonathan Bliss. I was just as sure he was aware who his passenger was. That like me he was transported back to that year in Cambridge we knew each other.
Cambridge in those days wasn’t the Cambridge I’d walked through a few years ago. It had a funk to it then. A down-to-earth vibe. There were still plenty of hippies and buskers. It was possible to live for cheap if that was what you were looking for. There were a dozen top quality bookstores and lots more art galleries. The old bars, clubs and eating joints were still around: Plough & Stars, The Tasty, Casablanca, Passim, Le Patisserie. It was at another of those long-gone establishments I hung out in that I met Jonathan Bliss.
Petrushka was a popular spot two blocks from Harvard Square, named after the Stravinsky ballet by its immigrant German owners. They, the owners, had wanted it to be a place for cultural types to feel comfortable in. Where they would talk and read and buzz out on espresso. Where they would eat a meat-and-cheese sandwich, a Greek salad or slice of Black Forest cake. I was among the artists, writers, professors and students who spent time in the big open space talking and reading and making the acquaintance of like-minded folks with similar interests and ambitions. During the day classical music played: Beethoven, Wagner, Handel. In the evenings John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Muddy Waters mixed it up with Mozart and Debussy. We were young then, although not that young. The world around us was moving along as always while some of us were still hoping to find that one thing we could do to save us from a lifetime of mediocrity. Petrushka was a good spot to spend time in while that process was in progress. Or until it came time to commit to something for the long haul ahead.
How Jonathan Bliss arrived at that place and time was somewhat unclear. It was said, by him, he’d come down from Maine where he’d lived off the grid and read a book a day and sustained himself on brown rice, lentils and root vegetables. That was after he finished a degree in Philosophy out in Albuquerque. Which was before he lived in Mexico where he and an ex took part in an unspecified political uprising. Somewhere between those he’d lived in Chicago where he supported himself working as a photo journalist. From wherever and however. It didn’t matter to us, our main group that included Eugene, Lilly, Samuel, James, Mai and Sarah. Jonathan Bliss showed up one day. He was a photographer. He did photo work to support himself. He brought a new energy and outlook we welcomed without judgement.
Thudding down the ramp to McGuinnes Boulevard my inward gaze reached back to the first time I met him at Petrushka. I was reading and drinking a cup of French roast. At the next table Jonathan Bliss sketched in a spiral pad. A camera was strapped over the back of his chair. He had the wide-eyed look of a recent convert and I tended to shy away from those types. But Jonathan Bliss was difficult to ignore. At some point I felt him staring. Something was building, I knew. And what followed was the conversation I’d wanted to avoid. He said, “That’s a great novel.” I lifted my head and caught his eyes, but only for a moment. I didn’t want to encourage him. He said, “A huge, huge book.” I caught his eyes again, and said, “You read it?” “No, but I know something about the author and know it’s great.” “How can you say that? I’m still forming an opinion. You see I’m only halfway through.” “I know it took her years. Every day she put her best effort into it. Thought about it. Wrote and wrote some more. You try doing that. Just go home and type all the pages and see how long that takes. And while you’re doing that put yourself in her mind so you can see how brilliant her effort was.” “It’s an excellent point. I’m not a very good typist so that would take a while. But I’m entitled to my personal critical analysis of what I read.” “If you want to like it you will. You’re more likely to see it for what it is. Nothing can penetrate a closed mind. Not even love. And that’s what creativity is, love. The achievement of truth.”
I was too much of skeptic to accept his pop psychology. If a woman or man wrote a book did I have to feel something for it that might be false? “What if I tell you I like it but really don’t? That would be a lie. Is that love too?” “You’re missing my point, and proving it at the same time.” The smile I thought had swelled his face as much as it could grew some more. He went back to his spiral pad and didn’t say another word to me until the next time I talked to him and realized I had nothing to fear. Jonathan Bliss was different. He was upbeat. Intense. He had his own point of view based on his own experiences. A point of view I would see more of a few weeks later when he invited me to his place to check out his photos.
I got there at noon with the six-pack I’d promised to bring. Noon was our arranged time but it took Jonathan Bliss a few minutes to respond to the bell. He greeted me at the door with a towel wrapped around his waist and a smile on his lips. He looked hungover. “I’m sorry,” I said, “did I wake you up?” “You did no such thing.” He scratched his chest, turned to look behind him and in a high voice, he said, “It’s a friend with some beer so I’m letting him in.” If someone was with him, I didn’t want to interrupt. I told him, “Take this, I’ll come back another time.” He said, “No need to do that. I’ll be out in a while. Make yourself at home.” It was against my better judgment but I followed him into an unkempt room that smelled of weed and unwashed dishes. He went into the bedroom and shut the door. From behind it the sounds of shuffling and a woman’s voice started up in a whisper that was audible but indistinguishable. I put the beer in the fridge and looked around. Clothes were strewn about the furniture and floor. Two styrofoam food containers with ketchup stains and uneaten lettuce and empty beer bottles covered a table. Unopened mail was piled on a desk. An abstract painting centered on a wall suggested the turmoil of a large city and was signed Peach in the lower right corner. I was scrutinizing that when from behind the door the thump of box springs started up and ascended to a faster, more insistent pace. My only other distractions were the photos on the wire hanging across the wall. In one, a stranger in profile was reflected in the window of Harvard Bookstore. In another a flattened rat lay in a pool of light in the middle of a street. Next to that a woman in blue jeans and a tank top sat on the edge of an unmade bed. The images were clear and sharp. They had an intensity that drew your focus. I turned my eyes to the next one as labored sighs finished off what had been going on in the bedroom. I waited them out without moving, an erotic moment even if I didn’t get any satisfaction from it. Minutes later a woman in tan pants and a white blouse came out of the bedroom. Her brown hair was tousled. She was the woman in the tank top in the photo on the wire. She was smiling, but not at me. In blue jeans, a filtered cigarette between his lips in need of a flame, Jonathan Bliss said, “Paula, Bobby, Bobby, Paula.”
That was Jonathan Bliss. I never knew what to expect when I was with him. He might read a few pages from Pedro Paramo or show me a pamphlet of sculptures of a new artist he was into. Or he might tell me an improbable story about someone he’d met at one of the places he frequented on a regular basis. Or he might set me up with a date and later on at his place he would want to take photos of us having sex. It wasn’t just me he was like that with. Eugene, Sarah and those others I knew had their own likewise involvements with Jonathan Bliss. He could be outrageous and he was unapologetic about it.
When he stopped showing up at Petrushka we took it to mean he was bored and off on a new adventure, maybe with someone as inspired and wild as he was. Then we thought he might be out West on the independent photo project he’d talked about going on. Wherever he was for whatever reason wasn’t any concern of mine until his landlord started calling me.
He was gone six weeks the first time I talked to him. “What do you want?” I asked. “He said if anything goes wrong I am to call you. This is something wrong. You answered. I need you to tell me when he’s coming back? I have to take care of my property.” “How would I know where he is? Why wouldn’t he come back? You think he left without taking his things with him?” “It’s not for me to decide that. I don’t have rent and he already owes me two months.” “What do you want to hear? How do you think I can help you? I haven’t known him that long. We’re friends, that’s all. Not best friends. Not family.” His next call brought word of a health code violation in Jonathan Bliss’ apartment he had to take care of. The call after that came with an ultimatum. “I will get rid of it all if you don’t do something.”
That Saturday I had a to-go cup of coffee in my hand when I met him on the steps of his building. He was heavy around the torso and had thick legs. His name was Carl and I followed him inside and down the hallway to the door with the Notice of Eviction posted on it. In the apartment the rooms were semi dark. A warm, rotting odor mixed with the smell of bug spray. “I like him,” he said, “but I need to get someone in here who pays rent and keeps it clean.” “Can’t you give him more time? Even a week? Doesn’t he have a lease?” “There’s no lease. No deposit. I don’t have anything from him that will cover moving all this.” He swept an arm out away from us. I tried to look at it as he did, as a landlord concerned for his property. I couldn’t blame him and I didn’t put up much of a fight when he refused my asking for extra time to make plans. After that his mood changed. He was a man relieved of a burden that wouldn’t cost him too much more. “God,” he said in a more conversational tone, “I didn’t know he was this bad off? What goes on inside that makes him want to live like this?” I followed his gaze to the photos on the wire. That was when I remembered Jonathan Bliss had referred to his work as “The Big Project.” In most cases I would have attributed the description to some inane ambition but I had no doubt his intention was genuine. “What can you do with all of it? He has no one else, I know. That I know of. Do you?” I shook my head. “No, I don’t.” “There has to be someone he stays in touch with.” “I’ll find a cheap storage unit.” “You’re a good man take care of this. I know he loves taking photos.” He was still looking across the room. “Those are nice ones.”
I offered to get everything out by Monday night. Then I said: “Can you give me a few more days?” He agreed without having to. I’d hoped by then Jonathan Bliss would be back to claim his place and possessions. He said, “I’ll pay a hundred dollars. That’s all.” He gave me two keys and a business card with a number and address for Cantab Plumbing. It was his way of settling with himself on evicting a tenant, something that seemed so distasteful to him I was sure he’d never done it before.
He left me alone in the silence. With the foul odors. With the photos clipped to the wire. With the old furniture Jonathan Bliss had dragged in from the street. With the responsibility to do something with the contents of the rooms that always made me uncomfortable. Much of the furniture and other worthless things could be thrown away and when I realized that I felt better. I’d hold the painting by Peach of a city in turmoil. There was a Yellow Pages in the kitchen. I located the number of a nearby warehouse and that was when I made the discovery the black rotary wall phone was dead. Not even static came through the line. Maybe it had been like that a while? I was sure of one thing, Jonathan Bliss and public utilities would always be at odds over the cost of service.
Back there Wednesday evening I bagged clothes and boxed books and photo equipment. I stuffed other worthless odds and ends into the two metal barrels Carl had left inside the door. I gathered the hundreds of photos stuffed in drawers and envelopes and musty albums in the closets. Altogether they took up a sizable area of floor space. Looking through them I recognized the milieu and multitudes of Cambridge. Every corner and crack, every storefront and sidewalk, every face and façade, every visible characteristic of the local habitat we shared. I saw Jonathan Bliss trying out various themes. There might be a stack of portraits taken in Petrushka. He took many rolls along the Charles River. In a series of shots Lily was in her bra and panties and used a banana to suggest intercourse five different ways. There were three of Mai and me naked on the couch with my head between her legs. I set those and others I was in off to the side. All the rest I put in boxes I taped shut. At the end of that I had no doubt Jonathan Bliss would be back to finish what he’d started. I didn’t think he’d abandon his project.
“You’re almost done.” The door had been ajar and Carl stood in the entrance. “See, I knew he left for a long time.” I knew that too, I told him and didn’t know why I said it. Carl thanked me. He was satisfied, I could tell. I left him moving the boxes and bags closer to the door. Eugene and I would be in over the weekend to fill my car and take everything to the small space I’d reserved for twenty-five dollars a month. I’d give Carl’s name as the contact. What happened after that would be up to him. I’d done enough.
On the street the night air was warm. I was in no hurry to get back to my apartment and I walked to Davis Square to get a beer. On the way there all the big and small details of Cambridge street life appeared just as Jonathan Bliss had photographed them. When we came to the end of my block I wanted to tell the driver how impressed I’d been with his work in hopes it might start a conversation. I didn’t think it would be wrong to do that even if by then I was less sure he was Jonathan Bliss. “Right here is good,” I said. He came to a stop as I slipped thirty dollars in the slot. When he turned back to take it I stared into his eyes and saw him wondering what else I wanted? I gave my head the slightest shake to let him know. “Keep the change,” I said. I opened the door and got out. There was no need to pressure him. No need to mention the painting by Peach had a current value of $200,000.
About the Author:
Paul Perilli lives in Brooklyn, NY. He has published fiction and nonfiction in places such as The European, Baltimore Magazine, New Observations Magazine and Poets & Writers Magazine, and recently in The Transnational, Thema, Numero Cinq and a dozen others. His speculative fiction ‘Summary Report to the Committee’ appears in Overland’s False Documents issue. His story ‘Orwell’s Year’ appears as a chapbook from Blue Cubicle Press. His nonfiction travel piece ‘Prices of Translation’ appears in Wanderlust Journal’s 2019 print anthology from Wild Dog Press.