When I was mustering out—
Whoa! I’m not talking anything as intrepid as Ranger Company for Field Force II. No, no, the Peace Corps is all. Uganda. Y’know, Idi Amin, “Big Daddy”— “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”? Right, right, the guy who liked to feed his enemies to the Owens Falls alligators, unlike Robert McNamara, who with but one title likely killed more innocents than “Big Daddy” ever did. . . .
Voltaire was right, wasn’t he: “All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”?
I was about to say that my Peace Corps termination just happened to coincide with Carol’s wedding is all. But it bears on something that my brother’s email has exhumed from my dissipated memory. Oh, right, the email:
“George—Sorry, bad news. Carol passed. Been ill with stomach cancer. Last few weeks turned for worst. . . . Particulars of funeral. . . .”
Terse. Yes, he is that, my brother, and not just with words. . . . I hear from him only when there’s a death in the family. . . . Me? I have no deaths to report.
He’s like the father in that way—curt, blunt, . . .
The father took his rest in the clay, as he’d say, not long after my mother. Not that it matters. I guess the email just set me to thinking ’bout him is all. . . .
Notice, by the way, I didn’t say, “along with,” lest you think they lie eternally together, père and mère. No, no more in death than in life. She rests in Holy Name Cemetery—in Jersey City, I think. I can’t say for sure ’cuz I haven’t been there since the funeral, which was ages ago, and I was very young, and, frankly, I am not at all certain I was even there, or even that God has a little acre hidden behind so-called America’s Golden Door. But for certain, for his part, “the father of eternal silence and infinite spaces,” as memory clutches daidi, resides, per his wish, among the little people in that “right good place for those who are asleep”— his words, spoken with a trace of a brogue.Which is to say he sleeps a whispering sea away, in the arms of the life-restoring soil of Newcastle West, Ireland, though stateside it was where darkness veiled his bone-rimmed eyes. Perhaps I should have been there for death or dirge, but wasn’t. Or maybe I was. I don’t—.
Clearly I’m on the hop between memory and conscience. . . . or, perhaps, I am coming down with what my wife’s got— fever, chills, cough. . . . “Same difference,” as boss-eyed Wortman would say.
Wortman did security at the community college where I used to teach an American lit class once a week until— well, Wortman knew his stuff. He worked at Kmart for years before they went bankrupt. We did the night shift, y’cud say, Wortman and me. Wortman was with me the night I called it a day.
I’d summoned Wortman earlier, y’see, when a student, well, not just any student, my nightsider I called her, the gaunt and haunted Elsie, middled-aged and brainsick, suddenly stood like one of The Shining’s Grady sisters in the oblong of yellow lamplight dropping across the threshold of my office, in just enough of it, the light, she stood, to expose—what was it in her boney unringed hand? A purse, a smartphone, a pocket pistol? Something small and grey like a mouse, something that made my blood run slow and chill with fear. ’S why I called Wortman.
Frankly, I don’t know why all this comes back to mind or why I’m recounting it—could be Little Jimmy or “Big Blue”— but, in any event, after I fobbed her off, I said—I thought to myself—, “Thank God the crazy bitch is gone!”. . .
She must have been hovering in the hall ’cuz she stormed back in like frenzied Brunnhilde and caused a terrible row. Just terrible. Of course, I told her she was hearing things, lied that I’d never call her crazy, or was it “bitch”? ’Bout then ’s when I called over to Wortman.
By the time he arrived Brunny had cooled down and left.
I made sure, I can tell ya, not to mutter anything after she went, though I could have kicked myself for not realizing earlier that she’d be lurking about after class, as was her wont—to skulk and lie in wait in a convenient shadow, then pounce, as she had done that night, after my lecture on the “jingle man.” E. A. Poe, “Imp of the Perverse.” Next up next time: Emerson.
“’S what they do,” Wortman told me later, of stalkers, with a grunt of laughter over beers up at Teddy’s Top o’ the Hill, the local watering hole. “They lurk.” I nodded like a corrected schoolboy when he then cast off raspingly with flat colored eyes, “Don’t you know that?”
What could I say? Nothing except, quoting to myself I thought, thinking of Elsie—or was it of Wortman?— “White like a washline and an empty head.” Then, as if he’d heard, Wortman’s good eye—or was it his bad?—fixed me like the narrator in “The Black Cat,” and he said, with the darkened mind of a soothsayer, “Same difference.”
I finished my drink and, just like that, never went back to orate on Waldo’s “Fate.”
“Go up to the clinic,” I urge my wife from behind my mask, which shows Putin with a Trump puppet perched on his knee, both wearing red bow ties. She waves me off with a stuttering bark, “I-have-no-underlying-condition,” and adjusts her own black-on-white “Grab Him By The Ballot” face covering that hides a sick pallor. Political—our masks? Oh, certainly. But more tenacious than that, metaphorical. Y’know, the unquenchable human need to communicate behind the masks we wear? . . .
No matter, back to Little Jimmy Scott’s high, sensitive contralto I go, and a shot or two of SKYY blue, to bring my restless nerves to heel, don’tcha nu? “Dont’cha nu”? ’S a verbal tic I picked up as a child from the—oh, there’s another one, article for adjective, definite for possessive, “the” for “my,”—the father, my father, who, I guess, caught it in the old country and passed it on before passing on. It breaks out every so often, kinda like oral herpes, linguistically speaking. Pay it no mind. . . .
Once steadied I’ll turn to Sam Cooke to stir my soul. . . .
But I stray. What was I saying? Hmm, father, mother. . . sister, brother. . . stalker, crosstalker— oh, oh, I do feel I have strayed, drawing new mischief on by mourning mischief past and gone, to give the Duke his due, though that said, let’s cue the Count No ’Count, who knew: “The past is never past. It’s not even dead.”. . .
Oh, wait, wait— freedom! . . .
I was about to tell, yes, I was about to tell you how my brother’s email has led me willy-nilly into-into—what? well, a briar-patch really— the paradoxical problem of freedom. Let me explain. It won’t take but a —.
Take me, for example. I feel I am free to answer my brother’s email or not, to go back east or not. But am I? Or will antecedent events dictate what I will do? Y’see what I mean? The paradox of freedom? . . .
When I was mustering out, my sister’s—oh, I said that. Anyway, I had a decision to make. Not a momentous decision, just, well, an accept or not to accept decision. Her invitation, I mean, to be an usher at her wedding.
Now, frankly, I viewed the proffered role as a tad above being a factotum in a rented, ill-fitting tux and bow tie. But—and here’s the thing— the centrifugal force that is to all of us second nature— custom and convention—pulled me otherwise. I went back. Did I choose the straight line? Or was the straight line a “respectable optical illusion”? Thus, the paradoxical problem of freedom. See what I mean? . . .
I had no way of knowing, of course, it would be the last time I saw Carol alive. . . . Ever, actually, come to think of it, it will have been, if I don’t go back now. Or is it, really, to see yet again, if in an open casket, her face? . . .
Of anything else, back there, back then, I don’t—oh, wait, wait, yes, I do recall—but I’m not sure I want to go—okay, okay, for what it’s worth. . . .
In my role of stuffed dogsbody, I do recall amidst a late night interlarding table talk with Sam, my brother’s wife, verklempt and Cape Codded, an affair he was having with someone at work. A dispatcher, I think Samantha called her. He was a cop, y’see, my brother was, as the father before him. . . . I listened a lot, said little.
They divorced . . .
The dispatcher? I can’t say for sure he married her. But I doubt it. Married men, de rigueur, never marry their mistresses, “N’est-ce pas vrai no?. . . Mais oui.”
Sam—oh Sam I lost track of, naturally. . . . Well, “naturally” for the—well, my family. For us divorce is for the ex, y’know, the kiss of death. Il bacio della. Not so for my wife’s. Y’cud say they shrive, we rive. But I don’t want to get into—okay, okay. . . .
Take my wife’s ex-sisters-in-law, Fran and Alyce— “with-a-y,” as she unremittingly reminds us.
We know, for example, that after her divorce Alyce with-a-y, who, btw, lives on popcorn and champagne, took up with some ragtail bobtail candy man before rehabbing and settling down with—well, some ragtail bobtail pharmaceutical vendor she actually calls—well, called— “Candyman.” . . .
But you see what I mean? I don’t even know if Sam’s alive, but I do know Candyman isn’t. . . . Thus the difference between my family and my wife’s. They stay connected. . . .
As for Fran, the other ex—well, Fran has some blood disease and, I venture, won’t survive the tumid and pestilent blundering and writhing of our darkly crooked-minded, verbigerating President Bandersnatch’s super-charged, kakistocratic plague. Why? Well, for one thing, she keeps emailing exclamatory stuff on the cause of COVID-19. “5G Networks!” For another, well—enough said. . . . ’Cept that Alyce, dear Alyce with-a-y, makes me curiouser and curiouser about “the six impossible things I believe before breakfast,” which somehow are helping her deal with the passing of Candyman. . . .
They used to love visiting Italy, y’see, Alyce with-a-y and Candyman did. Assisi, it was.
“The birthplace of the Sun,” she still softly apposes nostalgically, as if entreating the palladium of Apollo.
She hasn’t been back since half-way up Etna for the umpteenth time, Candyman’s heart gave out. . . .
You see what I mean, though? I know all of this about Fran and Alyce with-a-y, but-but I don’t even know if Sam is living. I mean I even know what Alyce with-a-y said at Candyman’s funeral.
“We just wanted to peer into the crater,” is what she said, teary-eyed, over and over, like a child caught acting out, . . . or a daughter slipping and falling to her death under Arches’ Delicate Arch because, in words last spoken, she just wanted to get a good picture of a flinty pinnacle—or was it a fin? or a giant balanced red rock?—whatever, at dawn’s first trembling light. . . . I said, didn’t I, that-that I didn’t want to go there— where fate leaked in? Didn’t I? . . .
“‘It is misleading to compare the size of these craters with larger, more famous volcanoes,’” Bryoni informs me from a leaflet she picked up at the lodge. “‘Explosion craters,’” she continues in her clipped British way, “‘did not pile debris around their vents to build impressive cones but instead hurled vast quantities of ash and rock far and wide.’”
“Who woulda thought?” I interpose before she continues, “‘The Katwe craters buried an area far larger than that inundated by Vesuvius around Pompeii in AD79, reducing Lake Edward to a soup of toxic ash.’”
There, in the hazy hodgepodge of memory, we stand, peering under a vast, high-cobalt sky, a couple of “gapeseeds,” she calls us, poised to see as with one eye in mind’s eye the beginning of the beginning, the saffron-robed twilight of Aurora, rising fast at a straight angle to the horizon, from the bed of old Tithonus.
“Kara” I used to call Bryony, because of where she’d taught before landing in Uganda. Ankara.
She liked that, my calling her Kara, and my liking Little Jimmy Scott’s Falling in Love Is Wonderful, which we wore out, though why it smote me she never asked. One thing about Kara—she was never “nosy,” as Mrs. McGrue would say. A woman could be worse, that too. . . .
Murchison Falls gets fast-moving and rumbling as it plunges from cliff through narrow gorge—like brute, blunt words said through closed lips. Like “abortion.” Brute and blunt. Like that, spoken through closed red lips.
Did Kara say she had . . . had had . . . was going to have?
The simple past? the past perfect? The future? . . . Ankara? Jinja? . . .
Tchah, does it really matter in the end, the wheres the whens—the should haves, the could haves, the would haves, the modals of lost opportunity? I mean we all know, do we not, that the past is neither simple nor perfect, that, as Thomas Lanier reminds us, it just “keeps getting bigger and bigger at the future’s expense”? Pixilated? Oh, I agree, Tennessee was that. Still, seems to me, with apologies to the “vulgar Cockney poetaster,” that’s all we know or need to know. No? . . .
But of a sudden they do matter, tenses, and of late, for whatever reason,—Little Jimmy? “Big Blue”?— prepositions, too. “Of” in particular. That wee relationship signifier I once addressed under duress, as in of the father of eternal silence of infinite spaces, of gnome-guarded graves ’cross mutinous waves, of stalkers of same differences, of slips and falls and words last spoken, of fevers and coughs that won’t break off, and, of course, of course, of the steady state of the underlying condition. . . . Is, I sometimes wonder, of the pitiless line of the father’s thinlips, is it, are they, like mine, still forming interred words unspoken? . . . And, of course, of abortion, and of how now it’s but an enigma variation of the lost but unforgotten past. . . .
Still, if you’ll permit an Elizabethan waxing: “Though it be in the pale light of memory a stubbornly persistent illusion, it nonetheless does not appease the conscience of one making the crowd believe astonishing things.” Thank you. . . .
Not that I, mind you, ever was a priest, but I once aspired to become one. But let’s not go—
I prefer to revisit a typical musty evening in Jinja.
We are at the time, Kara and I, in the grey convent on the hill, “sitting about,” as it were,“on divans, in pigtails, smoking opium and seeing visions.” Only sans pigtails and Gordon’s Dry Gin for opium. . . .
Why they left, the nuns, I don’t know, anymore than why anyone leaves. But Gordon’s visions always elevated their whereabouts to a question of great moment for me. Why, as of so many things, I couldn’t say.
“What happened to the nuns, what happened to the nuns?” I go, in the vapor of the night.
“The nuns?” Kara laughs back, in the cool surface airs, dropping Sportsman smoke rings into the murky mixture of memories.
“Yes,” I persist, dropping to my knees, knuckling the hard floors, “the nuns, the nuns, who once knelt on these motus animi continuus,—” “‘Motus’ what?” Bry—I mean Kara— breaks in—“atoning for thousands of blasphemies!” I finish, loud and brawling like—well, like writer-rock star Norman Mailer, I’d say, ’cept of course I don’t write or strum. Then I fall silent as a grave, before softly, prayerfully musing, “Where have they gone?”
Kara holds her cigarette in arching fingers for a marked beat, then goes, “Might as well, mightn’t you, love, ask of the whereabouts of the missing strawb’rries?”
We used to exchange paperbacks, Kara and I. Penguins. Mine from the Peace Corps provided book locker. Couples, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,The Naked and the Dead, Herzog, The Caine Mutiny,and such. Kara’s—I don’t know where she acquired them, though now and again she allowed, “Oh, a duka in Jinja . . . or Kampala . . . or Masaka,” as we sat about seeing aforesaid visions, and, oh yes, passing time improvising lyrics to well known songs. She, not me. Such as?. . . . Well, f’rinstance. . . .
“What about,” I go,—see, that was my part, cuing Kara as if she were Etta James— as we’re slugging gin and labeling the sand-colored geckos scrambling on the walls— “‘Isn’t It Romantic?’” “Rodgers and Hart?” she returns, not a bit nonplussed, quick as a pulsebeat, “You mean, don’t you, ‘Isn’t It Semantic?’” Then, with a playful afflatus, soto voce, she sings:
“Isn’t it semantic?
Muted in a moonbeam, a word that can’t be heard
Isn’t it semantic?
Murmuring under stardust the oldest magic word
I hear the dry grass stirring under trees above
While all the world is mulling what is meant by love
Isn’t it semantic?
Oh to be unstrung on such a night as this
Isn’t it semantic?
Each locution parsed is like a lover’s kiss
Sweet symbols in the moonlight
Do they mean fall in or out, to know I’m frantic
Isn’t it semantic?”
—well, alright, alright, if I had to go there, but, frankly, it’s like asking Josef K.
what he’s been accused of. But, okay, I’d say—what? how about a bad case of acne vulgaris? Yes, yes, why not that antecedent event? Who is to say it was not a bad case of acne vulgaris that hurtled me into a seminary? Certainly not I. Escape as vocation? Yes, you could say that. A common enough theme, after all.
Why I left I couldn’t tell you, any more than why. . . . Let’s just say—what? when my face cleared up my “calling” cleared out, and leave it at that. . . .
But of this I am certain: With the Selective Service sighting another conscript for Nam, I bolted—or-or was I propelled?— like a scared—or sacred?— white tail at the crack of a “thuddy-thuddy,” intothe shrubs and prickles of footnotes and C’s for F’s —graduate school.
That was—when?—oh, the fall of ’63? Yes, I remember ’cuz shortly thereafter I went into Kennedy’s Kiddie Korps. Why? Well, that’s somethin’ else I’m not entirely clear about. But I do remember the precipitate: that paper I wrote under duress— on Henry James’s use of the preposition of in The Ambassadors.
Professor-Professor— ah! Clegg-Nuttal was his name— Professor Marius Clegg-Nuttal. He gushed orgasmically, he did, “Polish this and it’s publishable!” To which Jett retorted when I told him, “Better to perish.”
Jett McGrue—’s long as we’re along into this— was the landlady’s son. In graduate school I rented his mother’s basement apartment in the Bronx.
Jett prided himself on being “quite regularly gay,” at a time, mind you, before “out” was “in.” I mean well before the Stonewall Riots, and just a couple of years before “Operation Starlite,” which they call, y’know, the first “truly American” assault on the Viet Cong. Yay! we won 614 to 45! . . . Jett was one of the 45 “losers” and “suckers,” as the “great leader” would call him. . . .
“I am here and I am queer!”
Jett. A real trailblazer, you could call him. A man could be worse.
For a sawbuck I used to sublet his mother’s basement to Jett for his assignations. . . .
Then the assassination.
I learned of it mid-Friday afternoon from Cronkite, on the 12-inch portable Sylvania Dualette I’d picked up in some joint or other up on the Concourse.
I am not ashamed to admit I cried— unlike today, honestly, if the entire Trump clan were Romanovved, I, unapologetically, wouldn’t care a tinker’s dam,— as landlady McGrue, bless her soul, I’m sure would allow, had she not been brought down on that very Sunday next that Ruby plugged Oswald, which Jett and I witnessed live, upstairs, on the console Magnavox with cherry cabinet and radio, while Mother— bless her soul!— was out gettin’ “Somethin’ speshal for breakfast,” up at Sutter’s of course, on the Concourse, and bein’ crushed for us under a bus — Bx 1 or 2, I couldn’t tell ya. . . . just a bus, crushed, for us.
How, after all this time, do I remember the TV and its cherry cabinet and radio? Good question. A very good question. A detective’s question.
Because of Bry, a softly-belted Polish girl of very fair hair and smoky blue eyes of whom, of late, late night megrims and schawarmerei ignite a beerdrunk despair, always in block letters spelling out the father’s “Plymouth”—well, the top bar of its grille, curved to follow its cavity down to front gravel shield between emblem and hood— under a depth of night that withholds an old devil moon.
’S why she’s still, after all these years, my płomień, my flame, albeit one, for all I know, long since extinguished. . . .
Her father, y’see, would go on and on about how he acquired a diamond tip stylus 365DS73 for the exact model, and shrill, “Two, I’ve ordered!” as if the stylus were going out of style. That’s how. . . .
But only, of course, of Little Jimmy Scott and dancing, could we, Bry and me, amid a gramarye of apples and pears and gold-painted cones, could we, Bry and me, of sweets in red paper with bright colored ribbons, could we, Bry and me, all hung without lights or tinsel or bunting from the upside-down Christmas tree Poles call choinka, could we, Bry and me, could we….
Funny the things that stick….
Even now, amid soul’s sad lucidity, I wonder what she thinks, my płomień, if still aflicker? I know, how foolish after all these years. . . . like-like, well, the fat, middle-aged George Bowling of the once deeply feminine Elsie, with whom he was once “living in sin.” . . . ’Cept, of course, I am rather thin, though not gaunt and haunted as my Elsie had been.
But still, that-that—what? long ago antecedent event? It is beginning to seep in, yes it is, into whether to go back east or not— to Lower Binfield, so to speak. I can feel it, y’see, I can feel it, the eejitthat I am, the father would say, the ghosting old flame, old desire, the pulse bumping in the wrist, oh yes, I can feel it, the ever so softly heart beating under the Plymouth’s floorboards, as I tap, tap, tap at the bedroom door and, oh yes, hear return with lightspeed from I know not where: “Behold!” or is it “Be bold!”? No matter, no matter, I can feel it, yes I can, the eejit that I am.
’S why, don’tcha know, I can open the other side of my fear. Yes I can, yes I can, ’cause the King, not the Queen, minja, or the Godfather, but the King of Soul has told me so: “A change gon’ come, oh yes, it will.” He’s told me so. Yes he has.
“Brother,” he’s told me, the King, “you have somethin’ to report.”
After retiring from a career teaching philosophy, Vincent Barry returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad, including: The Saint Ann’s Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, The Broken City, Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Kairos, Terror House, Caveat Lector, The Fem, BlogNostics, The Writing Disorder, whimperbang, The Disappointed Housewife, The Collidescope, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Beakful. Barry lives in Santa Barbara, California.