[dropcap]I[/dropcap] was in a city on a Sunday and all the passers-by seemed to have thin moustaches, wraparound sunglasses, and mossy army-surplus coats. Everybody wanted a cigarette. At this point I had very little to do; I had presented my paper at the symposium, received generous applause, and answered the questions in what I hoped were halfway-satisfactory ways. Professor Kobelski said I had a certain way of answering as though I had already anticipated every possible question, even when I hadn’t. I didn’t tell her why I suspected that this was the case, or what it said about me. They had introduced me as “by all accounts an exciting new voice in the study of Javanese art.” But I won’t breathe another word about what they said or how I felt about it. I’d rather tell you about the city that I still found myself in a day after the conference, foolishly having booked a late flight because I was foolishly trying to save money.
It was a mill town, sort of, but uncannily molting. Taking advantage of certain booms, building condos, changing the municipal font. The university had been around just long enough to have generated the good-will required for a fair-sized conference on world art history. I walked the January high street, looking into the windows of boutiques, mostly closed. Handicrafts, kitchenwear, knitware, vintage records, used clothing, bicycle design, graphic repair. Craft brewing even. But closed. It was me and the solitary smokers; I had no idea what other people did on a Sunday here but I suspected it involved a bigger city.
Eventually I found an outlet of that chain of art-supply stores that you have probably heard of. Known in bohemian districts but also provincial shopping centres with large parking lots. Still open inexplicably, and yes it’s true I sketch a little bit with pencil when I have the time. Electronic music, high synthesizer cascades in a key more “toying” than “playful.” I assembled the limbs of the little wooden man in a pose suggesting the Olympic high-dive. Then again the mother in the Pietá. Afterwards the son. Tried to remember The Dying Gaul but could only recall the wound. His marble blood, the least realistic part of the entire piece. They never did get the blood quite down. Wax of a used candle.
Somebody was watching me; I was the only customer in the store. Without looking up I said, “I think it was the ballistae. Archaeological or I suppose osteological evidence seems to confirm.”
A wooden voice: “In Spenser, Nature wears a veil.”
“What kind of fabric?”
“No, but I get it. A view of the present state.”
“I pay attention even though they don’t believe me. How many monographs?”
“One, and they love it. 356 pages. All on shadow puppets. This is true.”
“I believe it. Title?”
“Frames of Mastery: The Biopolitics of the Javanese Wayang Ku-lit. Working, you understand. Aphasia UP may push for a change.”
“J’avoue j’en ai bavé pas vous mon amour…”
“I would dance it.”
“Sure. Who wouldn’t? As a child I spent an unhealthy amount of time reading about the reproductive systems of non-mammals.”
“Did you envy them?”
“Some. The frog’s mouth, the seahorse barracks, the frequent manta ray. Something has a purse and I can’t remember if it is a shark. The purse shark? That seems wrong somehow.”
“Nature wears a veil but She is also a mile tall, not striding through the forest so much as knocking it over.”
“No, but I like the sentiment. Tapioca, manioc, maté, mescaline, peyote. Orange pekoe.”
“I’ll bring it to a boil.”
It was the full-sized, six-foot version of the miniature wooden man. Smooth, polished skull, absolutely no facial features, crudely carved pectorals, surprisingly realistic hands. Joints creaking like a rocking chair as he cocked his head a little. I had long aspired to meet a friend such as this.
“Shall we form a Covenant of Best Friendship?”
“Yes, I admire this proposition.”
“And now, immediately, let us part and be silent.”
“As the grave. But first you must buy those pencils. You were going to shoplift them but I saw you.”
“The first thing I shoplifted was The Nicomachean Ethics. The second thing was Augustine’s Confessions. I gave it to a pig.”
“Repent while you can.”
Outside again, the wind blew uncomfortably but failed to do anything exciting – like whip up little whirls of paper or whistle. It was one-thirty. I stuck to side-streets and let my mind wander to trapped places, double-binds. I vaguely remembered an Anabaptist whose pursuer fell through a frozen pond. True to his creed, he saved the drowning man – but was burned at the stake anyway. The soft, starving ice, so close in attitude to fire.
“Jesus coffee,” I said to myself. “I need a Christ.” When the ambulatory bog-body finally finds somewhere to sit with some coffee in an unknown city, it will not be a place with cracked formica tables, a sticky red racing stripe all along the wall, aluminum swivel-stools, and a lady behind the counter with a paper hat. Nor will it be somewhere where the undercutted baristas play weird, fuzzy No Wave while tables full of denim-jacketed ABD’s churn out tortuous theory-prose. Actually it will be an establishment that wipes away any trace of grease, puts in a fake stone floor, plays smooth jazz from a satellite radio station, and belongs to a sizeable regional chain. I warmed my hands at a gas fire with a fake log.
A painting on the wall: a woman with the very high forehead typical of European portraiture in the fifteenth century. Her exaggerated hands swirled around a coffee cup that produced effusive whorls of steam. The perspective caused her iron-latticed balcony and French windows to look flattened and far away. Something about it made me think of Nescafe jars or packages for hard cookies meant to resemble Danish pastries: lazy deep blue and pale grey pastels as a shorthand for Old World sophistication. Bastardly of a bridge and the Hudson never Lethed you, my Seine. What do you Le Havre in Stockholm? Oh, just a little something to München. I found a book in my bag, and read: Our investigations into the godhead have been conclusive. There is a tiny godhead by the sea. Auden spotted him and wrote a poem:
There is a tiny godhead by the sea:
He’s in the sand, and by the bloody sea.
A little statue gentleman, you know;
He’s madly there, but tiny, don’t you see.
I made a votive offering to him:
Just a few ciggies, boys, by the bloody sea.
The machine flange the machine flange the flare. Careful, the flare. The machine flange the machine flange the flare. Bandsaw bandsaw bandsaw bandsaw flare. And this – is a hand plane. Cut short early in life by unforeseen circumstances. This is a hand plane. This is a hand. 6X6 sheet aluminum 8X8 sheet plexiglass, plywood plywood plywood plywood stone. Ire of the neighbours. Ire of the taste. I have a mansion in my mouth.
I didn’t really know what the author was getting at, but I felt that it would be appropriate for me to feel unwell at this time.