Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Student's Tale

Just seven miles away from Harvard, the renown home of American academic thought, there was a large auditorium. It was in a hall made of marble—white, flawless marble. At the front of the building—which was built to resemble the Parthenon—there were gigantic columns, a large set of stone steps, and, at the top of the building, reliefs of scholars from throughout the ages. Walking up the steps and into the building, there was a horde of men and women—largely from their late 30s to their 60s—dressed in dark clothes, like a religious cult going to make their sacrifices in the temple.
They congregated within a great room, a vestibule of white marble, ferns and even trees potted in large, brown, earthen urns. The mass conversed, though one could not pick out individual conversations. Language was lost in this place; its high marble ceilings and walls created the perfect anonymity for those who should want it. Lights hung in chandeliers, bulbs incandescent and burning with electricity—for the owner of this construction could not stand the thought of wax dripping on to the carefully preserved marble, bought and shipped from all over the world and, supposedly, only coming from ancient pagan temples.
The lights dimmed. Conversation stopped. A few seconds later, the lights went back to their normal volume. Conversation remained halted as a dark-skinned man walked from a door on the second floor balcony holding a gong. The mass turned to the man. The man, holding a percussion hammer, bowed to the mass and then struck the gong. Once. Twice. Thrice. The low tones cascaded around the antechamber. The great doors towards which all of the people in black faced swung open. The great oak creaked against the giant brass hinges as the doors took their journey. Slowly, calmly, the mass filed through the doors.
The next room was an auditorium. The carpeting, seats, and walls were all of a deep, rich crimson. The seat-backs and the stage up front were all of the same dark oak of the now closing doors. As the mass took their seats in the auditorium—tonight, the boxes were left empty save for a group of five people sitting in one—as the great crimson curtains drew back, revealing a podium made of black-finished wood, thin, with a top positioned at just the slightest angle, and a microphone coming out from the surface. A man in a well-tailored black suit walked from stage right and stood behind the podium.
Silence fell across the auditorium as the man began to speak in a deep, sonorous voice. He greeted the audience, told them that he was very pleased to be speaking in front of a group of such distinguished peers such as they. He told them that he was to be discussing the use of the obscene in James Joyce’s ouvre (and yes, he used that word; and yes, the throng lapped it up). He outlined his forty-five minute speech, his own meager attempt to probe the mind of a genius—as he put it—and then began.
It seemed a very well-worked thesis, that idea of his. He spoke to the silent, watching audience, looking on as if they were children around a campfire listening to a ghost story right before bedtime. Such a display of oratory on such a mundane subject they had not seen before. The man, it seemed, legitimately cared about what he was saying, believed that what he had written was, if not the Gospel on the obscene of Joyce, something that came close to getting at the Truth of the Matter.
After the forty-five minutes was up, and the man closed on his topic with a sentence that, honestly, only half of the audience understood (and only a quarter of the remaining half even thought about), he folded the stack of papers from which he had been reading and placed them in his jacket. He gazed out at the crowd, gave them a minute to think about all that he had said, left them wondering if, since he wasn’t saying anything, he had a final thought, a final joke, a final something to take the edge off of the unbearable silence. After a minute, he asked, “Are there any questions?”
A bearded man stood up towards the back of the auditorium. He wore a black sweater, a black beret, black glasses that had frames in the Golden Ratio, and wore a black goatee that came down to a point. He cleared his throat and asked, “Do you expect the erudite among us—and I trust that we are in fact present tonight—”
The crowd laughed for a moment.
“Do you expect us to accept this load of tripe you have said? Do you believe that we are so naïve to accept everything, especially your tenuous position?”
The speaker fidgeted. In his practice runs, no one had said that he was being trite, or that he was expounding doggerel, which, it seemed, was what this man was saying. “I think,” he started.
The interjector cut him off with a howl of rage that bordered on the inhuman. It cut through the air and caused all those in the auditorium to blanche. “You think?” he shouted. “Boy, you do not think a conclusion! You do not think a defense! You take a stance! When you think something, or posit something, or—or—or…” Language failed him. He was reduced to a primitive state, some ancestral memory from the primeval past swept through his mind, and he knew what he had to do. He unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his trousers, stuck his hand down the back of his pants, and, judging from what happened immediately afterwards, shat in his hands. Screaming like a mad ape, the man flung his feces through the air with such force and such accuracy that the speaker was hit full-on by the load of dung, directly in his face. He had no reaction.
The audience did nothing for a full three minutes, until another man stood up and faced the man who had flung feces at the speaker. “You call that a criticism?” the new man shouted. “Why, throwing fecal matter at someone is not what we do at this University! That is the sort of behavior one would expect from a college in the SEC, or the Mid-West, but not this place. This is—this is a place of—of…” words failed him. Primordial visions of long-dead ancestors evolved just beyond apes passed before his eyes. In the jungle, there was a dispute over a banana. The new man saw what he had to do. He unbuttoned his trousers, defecated into his hands, and flung his dung at the first interjector.
This set off a tidal wave of fresh bodily waste. All of those in attendance at the symposium stood as one, defecated, and threw feces at each other. The people in the sole-occupied box took advantage of their leverage and, screaming about the proper methods of deconstruction—which, they claimed, the speaker had clearly and wisely utilized in his defense of his thesis—began urinating on the crowd below them. After five minutes, the pretense of language was mutually abandoned by all those in attendance, and the crowd began screaming and howling like animals at a zoo. They scratched, they leapt, and, above all, they continued flinging crap.
When all was said and done, the only thing the janitorial staff could agree upon, the only bit of good news they all shared, was that at least none of the academics had a case of diarrhea that night.

While this happened, across the street, in a dimly lit bar called The Pen and Paper, there was a small group of about twenty men and women reclining in leather chairs, clutching glasses of scotch, beer, and other tipples. In the corner of the bar, mounted on the wall, there was a television showing baseball scores. The Red Sox had lost to the Yankees in the final game of the ALCS—again. “Damn Yankees,” said a man sporting a large, fluffy brown beard.
The entirety of the bar’s custom raised their glasses and echoed the man’s toast.
“I’m not sure about my eighth chapter,” said one man, sitting across from an older woman with her gray hair pulled back into a pony tale, “in which Richard leaves the nursing home. I feel there should be a stand-off with one of the orderlies. Instead, he—”
A younger woman, curvaceous and attractive, sitting at the bar tapped her glass on the countertop and said, “Please, Don, don’t talk about work at night.”
“Agreed,” said another man sitting a few stools down from her, who, until then, had been glaring at his reflection in the mirror over six consecutive whiskeys. “We spend so much time in the morning and afternoon thinking about our false realities, putting them into computers, or notebooks, or whatever. So much time confined to the same spot every day, the same time every day, all so that we can continue writing word, after word, after word, just so the stories won’t play themselves over and over again in our heads and drive us mad. In the evening, let it drop. Dull the mind a little bit. Watch some baseball.”
A highlight of the game showed Stephen King sitting in a seat on the first base line, wearing a Boston Red Sox slicker and clutching a notebook and pencil in his hands. “Stephen King works at night,” said the man at the table.
The door opened and Stephen King walked into the bar. “What about Stephen King?” he asked. He walked to the bar and ordered a juice—after all, he hadn’t been drinking in years. (Good for him.)
The bar grumbled in response.
“The squares,” said a woman by one of the windows facing the street, “are throwing their shit around, again.”
“How can you tell?” asked the woman at the bar.
“Spilled out onto the street.” A splatter hit the window. “They need to work on their aim some more.”
The door swung open and an apparition entered. It closed the door behind it and spoke in a British accent, “Evening, all.”
A man sitting alone at a table reading by candlelight looked up, saw the ghost, and stood. He threw the book at the specter—the book, of course, passed right through it and hit the door—and shouted, “Get the fuck out of here, Dickens! No one wants you here! Go back to London and haunt your own God-damned people, you windbag fuck!”
The ghost of Charles Dickens looked at the man and said, “Vulgar language—”
“Is absolutely necessary! We don’t want you here, with your Chuzzlewits, and Cratchets, and motherfucking Twists. Go back to that racist shitbag, Kipling! I spit on you, and put a black year on your head!”
Dickens disappeared, and the man apologized to the bar, then sat back down. A good portion of the rest of the night was spent with a few of the bar-goers playing darts or pool. Occasionally, someone would make a comment about how evil and corruption was destined to take over the world, and King would retort that that was unnecessarily bleak and that maybe they should count their blessings (after all, they weren’t having their spines sucked out by aliens, or being turned into mindless zombies by aliens, or didn’t live in a haunted hotel, or etc. etc.), prompting a grumble from the more morose writers in the bar.
Outside, in the street, the academics kicked each other into the dirt and called each other imbeciles who had received their PhDs from diploma mills. By this time, thankfully, most of them had run out of shit to throw, and resorted to simple, old-fashioned name-calling.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Prologue to The Student's Tale

Time passed. Aside from my meeting with the Master and a couple victories at pub quizzes, nothing of note happened. (These wins were a rare occurrence, as every subsequent time we came in near to the bottom of the rankings—this may have been because The Drunkard started coming along, shooting vodka and whiskey, insulting the landlord, and getting us kicked out halfway through.) I went to courses, went on a date—incredibly unsuccessful, she found out that I was Jewish and spent the time asking me if I felt put upon in this country and if she had offended me in asking the question in the first place—all in all, a thoroughly normal week. Oh yes, and, every morning, The Drunkard and I collected The Stalker and formed a sort of military march down towards the humane shelter. By the weekend, he had served five days of his sentence.
Saturday rolled around, and in the afternoon, we all met at The Sub-Pope’s Flock for our weekly story session. I saw that The Stalker had taken up his usual seat in the back corner, and The Traveler was sitting there with him, doing his best to strike up conversation. I could hear The Stalker’s exaggerated slurps from the entrance, and I knew that, try as he might, The Traveler would get no real response from The Stalker. I bought my beer and sat down at the table. “Heya, Traveler,” I said.
“Afternoon, Narrator. How’s things?”
“Things are things,” I said. It was a response I’d perfected over the years and, more often than not, people thought I was just being a smartass instead of answering their question. While that was often true, it was also true that I was simply trying to make a statement that things were the way they were and could not be any other way. (In my opinion, it was a brilliant philosophical statement that went over most people’s heads.) “The Drunkard and I have been taking The Stalker along to volunteering jobs at the RSPCA shelter in town.”
The Traveler nodded. “That’s what he told me.”
“Apparently,” I said, “he gets on fantastically with the dogs there.”
“Dogs are simple,” said The Stalker. “Once you know how to get them to like you, then you control them.”
That was one of his responses that, while true, still had the effect of sending a mind-numbing chill down one’s spine. I still often wonder if he practiced his tone of voice in front of a mirror, just to get the proper cadence right before he went out talking to people and scaring the crap out of them.
“Hey, Narrator,” said The Traveler. “Let’s go outside for a sec, I have to ask you something.”
“Secrets,” said The Stalker, “don’t make friends, Traveler. They don’t make friends at all.”
The Traveler put on the epitome of an innocent smile, the sort that said, “Why would you say that? Why in this, the best of all possible worlds, would I have an ulterior motive,” and meant it. “Hah, no secret here, my friend. I just thought that you were enjoying your cider so much it’d be a shame to break you away from it.”
The Stalker nodded.
The Traveler and I stood up and walked outside.
The square was full of people clutching shopping bags. Most of them looked around them like they were lost, while a few loitered around not really moving with any sort of purpose. It was the first legitimately sunny day I’d seen that week, and though it was still chilly outside—about 50 degrees Fahrenheit—it was better than it had been in the morning. The Traveler rolled a cigarette, and offered me the tobacco and paper to make my own.
“No thanks,” I said, “I don’t smoke.”
“Good call. Terrible for your health. For example, I can no longer run marathons.”
“You used to run marathons?”
The Traveler grinned. “No, but I know that the option has been ripped away from me. So, what I asked you out here for was to see if you heard what The Stalker did to the rabbit.”
I nodded. “Indeed I had.”
“What do you think should be done?”
“Well, we’re already punishing him, in a way. And, if what The Drunkard said about the French almost decapitating him was true, then I’m certain The Stalker ise scared off from doing anything like that again. After all, if you were taken from your home by a couple of angry Frenchman, what would you do?”
The Traveler thought for a moment. “Declare war on them. That’d scare em away.”
We burst into laughter, causing quite the scene in the tranquil square across from the Cathedral.
The Writer walked up in his usual corduroy jacket and flat cap ensemble, saw the cigarette in The Traveler’s hand, and said, “Ah, Traveler, do you mind if I join you in a smoke?”
“G’head,” said The Traveler.
The Writer then pulled from one of his inner jacket pockets a corn-cob pipe, packed it, and lit it. I thought about asking him why he had chosen to smoke from a corn-cob pipe instead of something a bit more conventional in the UK, but I figured that The Writer would get defensive, and I wasn’t feeling up to the aftermath.
“Anyway,” The Traveler said, finishing his cigarette, “I was thinking that, this Wednesday, we could all go up to London and hit up a couple of the galleries or museums. It hit me yesterday that we hadn’t actually done anything as a group of mates beyond sit around the pub and attempt to tell stories; and if you ask me, that’s a damn shame.”
“I say, that’s a great idea,” I said. “A day trip to London might be just the thing a few of us need to break the monotony of going to courses, wandering around town, and knocking back beer to kill the time. What do you say, Writer?”
The Writer snorted. “I say that galleries are a waste of time, but, as I haven’t any plans for Wednesday, I might as well come.”
“Glad to have such an enthusiastic member on the expedition,” The Traveler said. “I believe that The Narrator and I shall head back inside and await the other members of our group. See you in a few.”
The Writer nodded and turned towards the Cathedral, affecting a pose that I’m sure he thought was erudite.
We walked back in the pub and sat at the table with The Stalker, still contentedly watching life drift by through the front windows. After a minute, The Writer walked in with The Student. They were chatting about different translations of Madame Bovary—a book which I had to read twice for two of my classes in undergrad, a requirement that led me to wish for sweet death both times. “And I say,” said The Student, “that it stands as a solid piece of literature. Maybe not the best, as you put it, but definitely solid.”
“You fool,” exclaimed The Writer, taking his drink from the bar to our table. “Just look at the emotional anguish felt in the story. The anguish! No one’s done that like Flaubert did.”
We were spared from further commentary by the arrival of The Drunkard, who stumbled in through the front door and ordered a whiskey. He joined us at the table, wearing clothes that looked like they hadn’t been changed in a few days, blinked his bloodshot eyes, and said, “Hi there.”
“What’s up, Drunkard?” asked The Student.
“Drank three bottles of wine last night. Still drunk when I woke up this morning, figured could keep on going.” He took a drink and hiccupped.
“Well,” said The Traveler, “before we begin our tale for the day, I thought I’d broach the subject of going to London on Wednesday so that we could all hit up a few galleries or museums or whatever, as a group.”
“Hit up some bitches!” shouted The Drunkard.
“Well, yes, if you want to. Anyway, who’s next?”
The Student cleared his throat. “I’ll go.”
“Yay,” we all said. It was one of those moments where a group of minds synchs up and, in doing so, sends a shiver down everyone’s spine.
“I should first apologize for my actions the past couple of days. I’ve been going through a rough time lately, and I sought solace at the bottom of the bottle.” He wrinkled up his nose and cleared his throat. “I found that once pink bits started appearing in my vomit, I should probably stop for a while. You see, literary criticism is a soul-crushing business, and having to read a significant amount of it over the course of a couple of days tends to lead one into either alcoholism or madness.”
Ah, well, I guess I was wrong about his troubles with women.
“At any rate,” he continued, “I was inspired to create the following story after thinking a little bit about what goes on in academic discourse, as a rule. It is, you see, a fictionalization of what I believe to be the method of having a discussion about any subject in the ivory tower.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I Meet the Master

The day after, I received a phone call from the College reception on behalf of the College Master. There was the possibility of the University taking disciplinary action against me, and the Master was to speak to me in order to attempt to either implement or block the action. I was to meet her in half an hour in her office, and bring my student ID card. This was a bit of a shock to me. I had no idea what this could be about, as I had managed to kick the habit of downloading a gigabyte of music a day, had never downloaded a movie to my hard drive and, unless I was doing it in my sleep, had not taken any action in my courses that would have damned me in an academic sense.
Nevertheless, I made it to my appointment on time and entered the Master’s office. It was minimally decorated. There was a large gray desk on the top of which sat a black desk lamp, a white MacBook, and a framed portrait of a happy family. The Master wasn’t in the picture, so I assumed they were her brother’s or sister’s happy family. The bookshelves were only about a quarter of the way full—all of Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and historical novels about swashbuckling members of the Royal Navy—and I got the general impression that the Master spent the bare minimum amount of required time in her office.
The Master herself was a middle aged woman with blonde, yet slightly graying, hair, and gray glasses. She wore a black pantsuit and looked more like a businesswoman than an academic in charge of administrating a postgraduate college. She stood as I entered and said, “Ah, Mr. Narrator, there you are. Er, I am pronouncing that right, am I?”
I nodded. “Yes ma’am, just like the literary term.”
She smiled and waved at a chair. I sat across from her desk and she opened up a folder. “Mr. Narrator, I suppose you know why you’re here today.”
“Actually I don’t. It was quite a shock to get the phone call on such short notice.”
“Well, we didn’t have much of a choice in terms of timing, as the University just alerted us to the possibility of the lawsuit today.”
Lawsuit? “Excuse me, ma’am? Did you just say lawsuit?”
“Oh yes, dreadfully serious, I’m afraid. Assault and battery. You seemed to scare the hell out of that bartender.”
Ah-ha! So that’s what this was about. Well, fair’s fair and I did almost choke the man to death. “In my defense, he didn’t know where the red wine was kept, and, really, as a man working in a bar, I find that he should have known that.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m not certain that such a defense would fly in court. Luckily, though,” she turned a page in the folder, checked something, nodded and said, “yes, the possibility of lawsuit has been dropped. I can assure you, I was quite puzzled as to why it was; if I were attacked, I would want to press charges.”
“I, uh, have a bit of a short fuse, ma’am. He was chatting up this woman who, clearly, had no business being in the University, judging from her butchering of the language.”
“Mmm.” She said. It was the first time I’d been studied by another person, and being in the cold gaze of the College Master, I didn’t really want to be studied again. I knew that they were going to give me some sort of punishment. Probably a large one due to the near-death of another student. I started sweating as the punishments flitted through my mind. Would the expel me? I couldn’t blame them if they did; after all, I wouldn’t want a murderer next door to me. Worse, would they decide that I was too dangerous to be even alive and decapitate me? If the French had a guillotine, what would the English have?
“Yes, Mr. Narrator,” said the Master, “I’m afraid there will have to be some sort of punishment. Quite a severe one. After all, you did nearly kill a man, you understand.”
I nodded.
“Then I’m afraid,” she said, taking on a solemn voice, “that we shall have to take the measure of revoking your privilege to use the student sports grounds. I know, it may seem vastly unjust, but you’re actually getting off easy: you could be barred from all athletic facilities on campus.”
What? This was their severe punishment? This country was fantastic! It was like living in the 50s, when people still thought the best of one another! I wasn’t even going to use the athletic facilities when I was allowed to, the shlemiels. Still, had to appear calm, even hurt a little bit. I slumped in my chair and covered my face with my hands. “O! Woebegone man I am! What sort of cruel mistress Fate is, to take away mine own vitality, the health of youth stricken from me by mine own folly! Accursed, accursed emotion, anger is.”
“Chin up, Mr. Narrator. We’ll see if we can get the sentence to only this term instead of the year.”
“Would that you could,” I said, dropping to my knees on the floor. “I would forever be in thine debt.”
She stood, I stood. She offered her hand for me to shake, and I did. “Good luck with your studies, Mr. Narrator, and please do try to contain your emotions. This is, after all, Britain, and one simply must be stoic in certain times.”
“I understand,” I said, taking a deep breath and puffing out my chest. “And now, madame, I must leave this place and take up my studies and attempt to put this dirty business behind me.”
Leaving the administrative offices, I chuckled to myself. “Heh,” I thought. “Schmucks.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Stalker's Punishment

The next day, after The Drunkard called me into the courtyard at nine in the morning and told me the story, he called The Stalker outside for his punishment. I was hung over from drinking a bottle and a half of red wine during my Risk game, but still, one has duties as a friend. “What did you decide on?” I asked.
The Drunkard took a sip of coffee from his travel mug. “There’s an animal shelter in town. Chretien and I decided that the best way for him to make amends for his actions would be for The Stalker to volunteer at the shelter for the week.”
I nodded. It seemed like a just plan. Though the animals in the shelter probably weren’t rabbits, they were still animals that needed a break and a helping hand—definitely more than the rabbits on campus, at any rate. So, in a way, by helping the injured and abandoned animals, The Stalker might be seen as coming out on top. “Why am I around?”
“You’re here in case The Stalker decides that maybe he doesn’t want to come along and help the abandoned kitties and puppies of Canterbury. Congrats, Narrator,” he said, “you’re the muscle in this operation.”
The idea of me being the muscle in any sort of operation scared the hell out of me, for it implied that there was literally no one else insane enough to go along.
“Don’t worry, though,” continued The Drunkard, stretching after another sip. “I don’t think Stalker’ll do anything to make it harder on himself. After all, the bastard came one step away from being decapitated by a Frenchman last night, and that’s enough to shake even the hardest of hardasses among us.”
“Speaking of the guillotine,” I said, sitting down on one of the benches, “what happened to it?”
“After I made sure that The Stalker got back up to his room without being hurt, I convinced Matthieu to dismantle it out into the woods out back.” The Drunkard shook his head. “I can’t believe the crazy bastard had a fucking guillotine in his room. The space it must have taken up alone is enough to make you think that the guy’s certifiable.”
“You think that’s bad?” I asked. “You should see the iron maiden I keep in my closet. I barely have space to put in any of my clothes.”
“I know you’re joking,” said The Drunkard, “but after seeing all that went down last night, I honestly wouldn’t put it past anyone to have a torture device in their rooms.”
The Stalker stepped through the frame of what was previously a door. Like every other time I’d seen him, he wore his black hoodie, black jeans, and black contacts. What with my white Dickens College hoodie (which had a picture of the author on the back) and The Drunkard’s brown leather jacket and fedora (it actually looked pretty good on him), we made quite the trio. “Hello, Narrator,” said The Stalker, “I wasn’t aware that you were going to be joining us on this day of repentance.”
“Week of repentance,” corrected The Drunkard.
“Whatever,” The Stalker said, not moving his eyes off of me. I wondered what the man did to make it through British Customs a few weeks ago. “Either way, the more’s the merrier. As they say.”
The man’s monotone voice was starting to grate on my nerves. Just for a moment, I wished that I had been there when he faced Madame Guillotine, so that I could have seen that The Stalker was capable of instilling some emotion other than terror. (I still wasn’t convinced that everything had happened like The Drunkard told me it did, and it wouldn’t be until he took me into the woods and showed me the giant steel blade that was the heart of the guillotine that I believed him. Even then, though, I doubted that Julie had behaved like a leading lady in an Indiana Jones movie.)
“Wrong again,” said The Drunkard. “You’re the only one who’s going to be doing any of the volunteering. We’re just along to make sure that you go to the shelter and start on your work.”
“I see. And where will you be while I am in thrall to the RSPCA?”
“Don’t know. Reckon we can grab a drink or something for a couple of hours.”
I checked my watch. “It’s half-past nine.”
The Drunkard shrugged. “Fine, coffee then. I don’t understand this aversion to drinking before noon that you guys have. You haven’t experienced the day until you’ve had a Guinness to start off the morning. Now,” he said to The Stalker, “here’s how this is going to work: You’re going to walk in front of us and we will be on either side of you. We will walk—”
“You’re treating me like a prisoner,” said The Stalker. It was true. I thought that The Drunkard’s method of getting The Stalker to the shelter was a bit unorthodox.
“No,” said The Drunkard. “I just don’t trust you standing behind me, and I’d rather have someone else here in case you mistake me for a rabbit and try to take a knife to me.”
The Stalker responded in his usual way: he stared at The Drunkard for a few seconds—eyes blank, like a shark’s—and then went on his way. We followed and, thankfully, made it down the University Foot Path without incident.

The shelter was a large building—for England; in the States, it would have been on par with a stand-alone McDonald’s—with a small reception lobby in the front. The lobby was clean with tile floors, potted plants, and posters of sad looking animals on them, with text asking people to donate to the RSPCA. I started feeling sad that I didn’t have my dog around—a big golden retriever named Mr. Floppy—so I put a ten pound note in one of the donation jars. From the back of the building, we could hear dogs barking, cats meowing, and some birds chirping. It sounded like any vet’s office I’d been in.
The Drunkard walked up to the desk and rang the silver bell. A middle-aged woman in white scrubs on which cartoon dog bones had been stitched opened a door behind the reception area. “Help you?” she asked, sitting down at the chair.
“Yes, ma’am,” said The Drunkard. “My friend here,” he said, indicating The Stalker, who was glowering from a corner, “wants to help you guys out for a week. See, he’s really missing his dog back home—Snuffles, he calls her—and this is about the best way he can get to feeling like she’s right here with him.”
The woman smiled. “Well isn’t that just sweet?” She stood up and waved The Stalker over. “Come on, love. I’m sure we can find something for you to do.”
“Fantastic,” said The Drunkard. “The only thing is, he’s got some things planned during the afternoons, so he’ll only be able to help out for a few hours a day. We’ll be back to collect him around half past noon.”
The woman said that was just fine, they could use whatever help they could get, and she’d see us in a couple of hours.

We went to the French café on the High Street to pass the time. It was getting to be that the mornings were, as a rule, cool and crisp. I preferred to think of the temperature as needlessly cold at a needless hour, but The Drunkard insisted that it was merely crisp. I bought an espresso, thinking that the heat of the beverage on top of the energy it produced would help keep my mind off the weather, at least until I got used to it. The Drunkard ordered a large glass of red wine.
I checked my watch, saw that it was twenty past ten, and said, “You sure about that?”
The Drunkard looked at me, arched an eyebrow, and took a sip from his wine.
“You know,” I said, “I’m just saying that cause it’s half past ten in the morning and, generally speaking, drinking before noon is a sign of some problems.”
The Drunkard took another sip from his wine.
“I’m not trying to say that you have problems, you know. I’m just saying that, you know, the passerby might look at you and think, ‘Wow, that guy there, he’s got some weird stuff going on with him. Why else would he be drinking wine at half past ten in the morning?’”
The Drunkard looked at my steaming espresso and took another sip of his wine.
“Course, what do passersby know? There’s a reas—”
“Shut up.”
I nodded.
“Thanks for the concern, Pops,” he continued, “but I’m fine. It’s even recommended that you drink a glass of red wine a day. I’m just getting a head start. Besides—” A woman about our age walked by our table wearing tight jeans, long black boots, a black t-shirt, and a leather jacket. The Drunkard watched her until she turned into an alley. “Besides, if you’re worried about someone going past their limit, you should be worried about The Student. No way that guy’s been drinking enough to handle the sorts of volume I’ve seen him put away over the past couple of days.”
“Nah,” I said. “I wouldn’t worry about him.”
“And why not?”
“He’s the sort of person who drinks like that because he thinks it’ll stop him from thinking about something. Now, there are two reasons why he’ll stop drinking so much: The first, because he finds out that alcohol forces him to concentrate on whatever he’s thinking about—just happens like that, doesn’t it? The second, because he’ll wake up with such a disgusting hangover that, when he looks into the toilet and sees bits of matter colored in ways he wouldn’t have thought possible, he’ll stop drinking to such excess.”
The Drunkard nodded. “Yeah, he does strike me as that type.”
“And you? Why do you drink like you do?”
The Drunkard grunted. He took a chair from the table next to us, brought it over, and propped his legs up on it. “Would ‘it’s something to do’ be too trite an answer for you?”
“Worse, it’d be a nonanswer.”
“True.” He took a drink from the glass. “I’ll think about it, get you an answer in a way that tries to make some sense in terms of logic and coherence. How’s that sound?”
“Works for me.”
We sat and people watched for a while longer. The Drunkard finished off two glasses of wine while I put an Americano on top of the espresso and thus ensured that I would be extremely alert for about two hours before dropping nearly dead in the middle of my seminar at one. After, we collected The Stalker and went our separate ways.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Drunkard and the French, Part Two

The Drunkard’s night, though, ended up being much more interesting than mine. I should note that, due to my impromptu game of Risk, the following narrative is based solely on his telling of events. As such, what happens may be skewed towards the more unhinged by his outlook on life, as well as the copious amounts of wine consumed at the bar.
When he and the French returned to the flat, they noticed an odd smell pervading the air, as if they had left a few pounds of raw meat in the open. They checked the corridor, noticed nothing, and opened the door into the kitchen. There, hanging from a hook that had been hammered into the ceiling, was a skinned rabbit with a note stapled onto its chest. The note read, in shaky block letters: Never Criticize My Work Again.
The Drunkard, being a man of well above-average intellect, even while drunk, immediately knew who committed this act of vengeance. While Julie and another one of the French fled the room with hands to their mouths and a green tint over their faces, The Drunkard, Matthieu, and Chretien (the Existentialist who originally told The Drunkard that he could have the world, for it was shit) unhooked the rabbit and put it in the trash. Chretien tied the bag and took it to the woods behind the college. The Drunkard sat on the kitchen couch and poured a glass of whiskey. (Most of the following conversation was in French. The Drunkard translated it for my benefit.)
“Who would do such a thing?” asked Matthieu. As it turned out, the Existentialists were all pacifists, having come to the conclusion that, unless someone directly attacked them, it would be worthless to hurt another being—for doing so would unnecessarily prolong and increase suffering on the planet.
The Drunkard sat Indian style on the couch and took a drink. “A man of extremely loose morals, who has no compunction about crossing societal taboos if someone or something crosses him. A man who, put blatantly, may be the most pants-shitting terrifying man in this University.”
Matthieu stood next to the window and stared out at the night. Wind blew the trees at a nearly horizontal angle. “He killed a rabbit.”
Oui, Matthieu. He killed a rabbit,” said The Drunkard.
Matthieu paced over towards the wall. He shook his head. “He killed a rabbit!” he shouted, punching the wall and leaving a dent. “Un innocent! Un petit lapin!
The other Existentialists rushed into the kitchen upon hearing the raised voice and exclamation. “What is it, Matthieu?” asked Julie.
Matthieu spun on his heels and addressed Julie and the others (Chretien had returned by now). “My friends,” he said, taking on the air of someone addressing not soldiers in an army, not underlings, but fellow citizens in a People’s Army. “My friends, we are faced with an evil so decadent, so base, that it would lash out against an incontrovertible symbol of good in this world. It would lash out and kill a rabbit, that—”
“Ah,” said Philippe, the other Existentialist. “But, to the farmer, is the rabbit not evil for uprooting crops, for eating the foundation of his livelihood?”
“Now is not the time for philosophical debate,” said Matthieu. “We are not farmers, we are students. We are the intellectual class. For us, a rabbit, though a rodent, is a symbol of quick wits, the necessary reaction against that which would destroy it. The rabbit does not use force against a threat, it uses its wits to escape danger,” he began pacing, taking on the air of an ancient Roman orator, gesturing with his outstretched index finger and with waves of his hands. “It is that which we aspire to be. It takes what it needs to live, and depends on its reflexes to survive.
“This beast, the rabbit-murderer, has decided that, instead of attacking that which he is afraid of—or hates—he should attack a thing of beauty. A process of evolution so progressed that, even with the world’s most destructive hunter—”
“The fox?” asked Philippe.
Mattieu took a wine glass from the countertop and hurled it at Philippe, who dodged. The glass shattered on the wall behind him. “No, you fool! Man! Man is the world’s most destructive hunter.”
“Ah. Oui. D’accord.
“Even with the world’s most destructive hunter, the rabbit has managed to survive. And this wretch has killed an innocent member of the species. American Drunkard,” he said, turning towards The Drunkard.
“Ayup,” said The Drunkard.
“You know who this person is?”
“Ayup. Goes by the name of The Stalker. Lives in E Block.”
Magnifique! Then you shall bear witness to what the French can do when roused. Chretien, bring the guillotine. We shall end this man tonight. Go, Drunkard, wait outside and we shall join you momentarily. Think about which room he is in and then you can lead us.”
The Drunkard, even when he stood outside, huddled in his pea coat, didn’t think the French Existentialists would actually bring out a guillotine. Surely that was a metaphor for their sharp wit—for The Drunkard had gained a respect for the Existentialists once they stopped harassing him on account of his nationality—and not a legitimate guillotine. I believe that there is a certain part of the brain, which I call the Justification Realm, that has the purpose of making outside stimuli make sense in relation to what we hold to be true in the world. I believe that, when The Drunkard saw the Existentialists walk out of the front of his block carrying a guillotine—a giant wooden one with a sharp, steel blade positioned at the top—The Drunkard’s Justification Realm went into overdrive. “So they have a guillotine,” the portion of his brain must have said to another part of his brain. “Surely they wouldn’t actually use it. These people aren’t barbarians, after all. They aren’t storming the Bastille. They’re just going to scare The Stalker. People who read Camus and Beckett don’t go around chopping off the heads of people who go around killing rabbits. They go around drinking wine and talking about Camus and Beckett.”
“Drunkard,” said Matthieu, “it is time. Lead us to the offender.”
The Drunkard cocked an eyebrow. The Justification Realm had won him over, and, leading the Existentialists towards the window he believed to belong to The Stalker, he still didn’t believe that they were going to hurt anyone. “That’s the one,” he said, pointing to a window on the first floor.
Chretien and Philippe took a handful of rocks from the garden and began hurling them—overhand and with all the speed of a seasoned Major League pitcher—at the window. After a few minutes, The Stalker opened the curtains and peeked out. “There he is!” shouted Chretien.
The Drunkard could see The Stalker glare in the light of the lights in the courtyard. He retreated into his room.
“My friends,” said Matthieu, “the offender will not come outside of his own accord—it is time that we force him out. Philippe and I shall bring him out here to make the acquaintance of Madame Guillotine.”
Even as the two Existentialists broke their way into the block—smashing the glass door and roaring “La Marseillaise”—The Drunkard’s Justification Realm told him that, really, the Existentialists weren’t going in to bring The Stalker out to his death. They were just going in to give him a little scare. Maybe mess up his room a little bit, sort of like what The Drunkard himself did to the gubernatorial candidate in Nashville. People who read Camus and Beckett might very well haul out a guillotine and chuck rocks at people’s windows, but they didn’t actually bring them outside to meet Madame Guillotine. 
The Drunkard turned to Julie. “So what’s next? They upset The Stalker’s room? Maybe rip up the curtains, steal a few books?”
A wolfish, predatory grin took over Julie’s soft face. Surely, the Justification Realm said, girls like Julie who looked like they should be painting Impressionist portraits of the Champs Elysees didn’t yearn to see blood stream forth from a decapitated head. “And now, we see how a man meets his death.” Ah, said the Realm, that must be an example of French black humor.
Now the glass pane next to the door shattered outwards, with the Frenchmen still shouting the lyrics to La Marseille. This time, though, they had The Stalker in tow, a length of rope tying his hands behind his back. The man looked like a captured animal making its way from the wild to a cage in a zoo. His hair was ruffled, and his eyes (the natural color, brown—it would appear that he didn’t have time to put his black contacts in) jumping around in his skull. He grunted, and The Drunkard could make out obscenities in the guttural noises that came from The Stalker. Then, suddenly, the two fellows made eye contact. The Stalker straightened and became silent. He gained a sense of dignity that, until then, The Drunkard would not have imagined The Stalker possessed.
Okay, said the Realm, they may very well bring the man outside to meet Madame Guillotine, but there was no chance that they would actually decapitate The Stalker. After all, these were people who read Camus and Beckett, and people who read Camus and Beckett never kill people. They may scare the living daylights out of them, but not kill them.
Matthieu came to a halt and moved to stand in front of The Stalker. “Killer of un petit lapin, we, the citizens of Dickens College, find you guilty for the destruction of an innocent being in order to make a passive-aggressive attack at our flatmate, The Drunkard. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”
The Stalker straightened up. His chest jutted out, his chin took on definition, his eyes had a spark of courage that he previously lacked. One could have mistaken him for a freedom fighter facing the firing squad of an unjust ruler. The Stalker looked at his accusers and settled on The Drunkard. “I have no regrets,” said The Stalker. “All that I have done, I have done because it was what I had to do.” The Drunkard admitted that, had this been a completely different situation and not one in which The Stalker had flayed a rabbit, the man’s words would have had a certain respectability in them.
Matthieu and Philippe led The Stalker towards the guillotine, forced him to bend down, and stuck his head through the hole in the bottom. This time, The Drunkard’s Justification Realm stayed mercifully silent. “Now hold the fuck on a second,” said The Drunkard.
Mattieu and Philippe looked at The Drunkard in shock.
“This is getting a little nuts,” he said.
“But Drunkard,” said Chretien from behind The Drunkard, “this man killed a rabbit!”
“Yes!” said Julie. “Because of this…this demon, a little, innocent rabbit is dead.”
The Drunkard nodded. “Yes, of course, but don’t you think that this isn’t the right way to approach the situation? Sure, you may get a certain amount of joy from seeing The Stalker’s head roll, and God knows that there are probably a lot of people back in the States who would as well, but that doesn’t make it right.”
“What do you mean?” asked Matthieu, releasing his grip on The Stalker.
The Stalker shot The Drunkard a surprisingly warm grin.
“Citizens,” corrected Matthieu.
“Citizens,” continued The Drunkard, “does taking a life bring back a life? Of course not; it only perpetuates the myth that murder is a form of justice. If we are doing this because of the creation of suffering, or the taking of a life, then it stands to reason that we are opposed to the act that brought us here in the first place, yes?”
“Of course,” said Philippe.
“Then why should we, as the people who are trying to correct the ills of society, perpetuate murder in the name of justice? No, fellow citizens, that would be senseless. What we must do is find a way for this man to work off his crime. We must consider all options that would replace the murder of a rabbit, and then put him to task on the best one. So, please, citizens, remove him from Madame Guillotine, in the name of Justice.”
Matthieu and Philippe looked at each other. Mattiheu nodded. “He is right,” he said. They pulled The Stalker’s head from the hole and stood him up.
Julie spun The Drunkard around and said to him, “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m trying to keep us from becoming that which we despise.”
Julie’s face burned a deep red. “Because of your actions today, another innocent rabbit may die.”
“If that happens, then I am just as responsible as the murderer, and I shall gladly face the consequences. However, babe, people can change.”
Julie slapped him in his face and kissed him. She broke away with tears in her eyes and ran back into the block.

“You’re putting me on,” I said at that point.
The Drunkard held up his hand and held up his index and middle fingers. “Scout’s Honor, that’s what happened.”

The Drunkard looked on, stars in his eyes. Matthieu walked up to him. “She cannot abide rabbit murderers. Her father, who was a drunk and a scoundrel, killed rabbits.”
“People can change,” said The Drunkard. He looked into the sky. Somewhere in his ancestral memory, one of his progenitors told him that the proper way to feel after saving someone from Mme. Guillotine—for, it turns out, one of The Drunkard’s ancestors was a French Jew who was instrumental in storming the Bastille and then making a case for saving some royal fiend’s life—was to feel as if a castle were burning at your back, and the only place you could look was to the horizon—away from the burning and destructive past and into a future that, for the moment was filled with hope.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Drunkard and The French, Part One

When we arrived at the bar, we ordered our drinks and took a seat outside. The sky had cleared on our trip back to campus and, surprisingly, most of the water had evaporated from the tables. A quick brush of the hand cleared off most of the stubborn drops that clung on for dear life. At the table next to us, a couple of Chinese students chattered away in Mandarin and one of them looked at The Drunkard with a look that I might call coy.
The Drunkard gave her a winning grin and said, “Howdy ma’am, fine day today, isn’t it?”
She responded in English, but with such a thick accent I could not understand what she said.
The Drunkard gave it a couple seconds’ thought, tipped his cap that wasn’t there, and said, “Have a good one,” and turned back to me. “You get what she said?”
He shrugged. “Oh well.”
“You know,” I said, “I haven’t heard about your French flatmates for a while. What’s been going on with them?”
The Drunkard sighed and shook his head. “Well, a couple of them went back to Paris to attend a rally—they were striking about something, probably for a raise of a couple of cents. The girl—Julie, who, when she’s not dressed up like some fucking existentialist nightmare, is pretty hot—hung around the flat for the weekend and acted like a normal human being.”
“You hook up?”
“Well I’m going to have to try now, aren’t I? Anyway, they all got back in-country on Monday and the flat returned to normal. Woke up this morning to find forty used copies of Camus’s The Plague stacked in front of my door.”
“That is—”
“Fucked up, yeah. I don’t get it, man,” he said, taking a drink from his beer. “The U.S. is supposed to be the country that sends a giant ‘fuck you!’ to everyone else in the world, isn’t it?”
“Then why is it that anyone in Europe with half a brain starts implying that we’re responsible for the global recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, corruption in the third world, and automatically assumes that we want Israel to scalp all the Palestinians—all right when they find out we’re Americans?”
The thought had crossed my mind a few times. There were a few of my British colleagues who sure as hell acted like we were responsible for all of that, and they were all, otherwise, extremely sane and intelligent people. God forbid they found out I was Jewish, or they might start refusing to take out money in my presence for fear that I’d lunge at it. Now, granted, most of the Brits were people like anyone else who were just happy that there was a new perspective on the table—and could tell the distinction between a government’s actions and the beliefs of the people—but there were a few (shall we call them the rotten apples?) who seemed hell-bent on taking America down a peg, starting from the individual level.
The thing I really liked about the Greeks—and, to my initial surprise, all of the Middle Eastern people I’d met so far… and Indians, to add to the list—was that they really didn’t care. Booze was the common unifier with the Greeks, and I could get on board with that.
“I don’t know,” I said. “The Traveler might know.”
The Drunkard nodded. “I’ll have to ask him when we next meet up.”
At this point, I noticed that, out of the corner of my eye, five slim and tall figures dressed in black sweaters, trousers, and berets filed through the door to the patio. They spoke in rapid, animated French, and a couple of them held copies of books. I tried to glimpse the titles, and, though my French was rusty, I thought I could see that they were clutching copies of Endgame and Waiting for Godot. “Oh Christ,” I said. “French existentialists gripping Beckett.”
As they made their way closer to where we sat, they spotted The Drunkard and I and fell silent. They filed into a straight line and we stared at each other. I looked over at The Drunkard and saw an expression of exasperation and fatigue. I looked at the French man in the center and saw basically the same look. Suddenly, I knew what had to be done. I could patch this bridge, but it would take a masterstroke of planning and execution—one that I was probably incapable of delivering. However, I knew what was at stake. I’d lived in a situation where no one got along with each other, and it was no way to spend one’s life. After all, with all of the problems one has to deal with in life, why should we spend our leisure feeling miserable at home?
I got off my stool, walked inside and to the bartender at one end of the bar, who was chatting up a beautiful blonde girl. “Sorry to bother you,” I said, “but—”
“Fuck off,” said the bartender.
I could see flashes of Brooklyn pass through my vision, but I kept it down. Now was not the time to Hulk out. “Excuse me,” I said, putting a two-pound coin on the bar. That got his attention. “You can keep that,” I said, pointing to the coin, “if you listen to me and help me with a volatile situation.
“Outside,” I said, “there is a group of French Existentialists squaring off like a band of banditos against my fellow American. They don’t get along in politics, cleanliness, or literature. The way I see it, the only option left to exercise is music. Do you have any Bob Dylan that you can play?”
The bartender snorted. “Course we fuckin do. What do you think this is, some chav bar? Want Blood on the Tracks? Highway 51 Revisited?”
I scratched my head. Blood on the Tracks was typically seen as one of Dylan’s best works, but I wasn’t sure about it. It was accepted in the mainstream, and the Existentialists might just turn up their noses while The Drunkard and I howled along with “Tangled Up In Blue.” Highway 51 Revisited was equally thin ice. Being the album in which Dylan switched to electric guitar, it was exactly the sort of fodder the Existentialists might use to try and point out the Americans’ lack of taste in music.
“Tell you what,” I said. “Play a few tracks from Freewhelin’ if you have it, then go with the big ones from Blood on the Tracks.”
The bartender nodded. “Anything I can do to ease international tensions.”
The music stopped playing as I walked back to the table, and “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” took its place. I sat. The Existentialists looked up at the speakers, exchanged looks, and, just for a second, smiled. Just then, I knew it was going to be all right. I waved them over to our table with a gregarious grin on my face. “Bonjour, mes amies,” I said. “Comment-allez vous? Bien?”
They nodded, looking me up and down.
I leaned to The Drunkard and said in a whisper, “I’m going to get them to sit down, and then I’m going to go get a couple bottles of red wine.”
“What? Why?”
“Because you’re living with these people for a full year, and you cannot spend that time dangling them out of your windows. While I’m gone, you are to discuss music and music only. They seem to like Bob Dylan, so that’s a start. I’d guess that since they’re here, they’re not averse to rock.” I patted The Drunkard on his shoulder. “Tread lightly, my friend.”
I turned back to the French. “Sorry, but I’ve exhausted my French for the moment—haven’t practiced in a while, you see. Please, have a seat. I shall return momentarily.”
A slight breeze passed by, and we could hear ducks quacking on the other side of the building. The Existentialists looked at each other and made their way to the table. Now was my time to go and get the wine.
At first, the bartender didn’t believe me when I said that the bar had a stock of wine. “This is a rock bar, mate. Not some sort of fancy wine bar where you can get a spaghetti a la Bolognese.” The girl he had previously been chatting up giggled, and I realized that my task would be made infinitely harder.
“Sir,” I said, “there is some sort of miscommunication between us. I hold in my hand a menu that—”
“The only miscommunication,” he said, “is that, apparently, when the bouncer was told to keep the prats out, he mistook Americans for human beings.”
The title song to Welcome Back Kotter played through my head, complete with shots of alleys and streets. I saw roving gangs in leather jackets speaking in thick accents. I twisted my head to the side, cracked my knuckles. “There is no bouncer. Now, listen, friend,” I said, “this is a drinks menu. On this menu there is, clearly, a listing for red wine. I just want—”
“You can stop talking is what you want.”
I leapt over the counter before I could stop myself. I took the bartender by his neck at the collarbone and dragged him to the ground. I moved in real close to his ear and said, “Listen motherfucker, don’t go fucking around with shit that you can’t handle, capiche? Now I know good God-damn well that you freaks got some wine down here, and, lookie here,” I said, moving his now red face to looking at the wine stocked underneath the till, “here it is. Six bottles. Well holy shit, I think that’ll about do it. So here’s what we’re gonna do—you listening?”
I forced him to nod. He gurgled in response.
“Good. I’m gonna buy these six bottles and give you a nice fuckin tip, cause I like your face this color—really accents your eyes. Now you’re gonna stop being all high-and-fuckin mighty, shit-for-brains. I ain’t one of your Brits who just takes shit with a stiff upper lip.” I released my grip on his throat, and he sucked in air and started coughing. I smacked his cheek and said, “I’ll be waiting to pay you for the wine, buddy.”
This time I walked around the corner to the other side of the counter. The girl was staring at me open-mouthed, eyes wide, and sputtering in trying to utter a response. I cleared my throat and got control of my anger. “That’s why you shouldn’t date assholes, ma’am. It rarely, rarely ends well with them outside of the movies.”
“We’s not datin,” she said in the most hideous accent I believe I’ve ever heard. “We’s just havin a little fun on the side, then. You’s didn’t need ta go almost killin him.”
“Please, for the good of humanity, never procreate.”
The bartender managed to haul himself up and put the six bottles of wine on the counter. He tapped a few buttons on the register, and I paid. “Thanks a bunch, man,” I said. I took the wine bottles out to the outdoor area and saw The Drunkard slapping the back of one of the Existentialists, swept up in a fit of laughter. Indeed, everyone at the table was roaring in glee.
I put the bottles on the table, went back for the glasses, put them on the table, and said, “What’s up?”
The Drunkard turned to me and said, “Man, Mattiheu has the best—and I mean the fuckin best—Bush joke I’ve heard in the last nine years. Tell him, Matthieu.”
One of the Existentialists—the one with a big black bush of hair and James Joyce glasses—stopped laughing for a bit and told me the joke. It was in French, which was a pity, because my French was limited to “Je voudrais un espresso,” and none of those words happened to be in the joke. Still, he finished, the table burst into laughter again, and I joined in.
Most of the remaining hour and a half was spent drinking wine and trying to follow the completely-in-French conversation. It turned out that The Drunkard had a really good grasp on the language, for, though he stumbled from time to time on words and syntax, he followed them much better than I would ever have been able to do. Despite that, I had fun drinking wine, getting drunker, and chipping bits of the wooden table off with my fingernails.
After a while, we got up to leave, made our way back to the college—The Drunkard whispering into Julie’s ear, and she having a look of mixed terror and bemusement on her face (The Drunkard was quite drunk at this point, and probably not in complete control of what he was saying or even thinking)—and went our separate ways. I went back to my block and played Risk with Jay and Zaf and a few other people who surprised me by knowing not only the rules to the game, but the territories by heart.
The Drunkard’s night, though, got much more interesting than mine.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Epilogue to The Stalker's Tale

Words cannot express the happiness I felt when The Drunkard took The Stalker by his shirt collar and dragged him out of the pub. Judging from the sighs of relief from The Traveler and The Writer (The Student having long ago passed out in the corner), I was not alone in thanking God that The Stalker was forced to stop his bizarre list of… I don’t know what.
“Jesus H. Christ,” said The Traveler. “What was that?”
“I do not know,” I said.
The Writer took a swig from his drink. “Something eldritch. Unfathomable. Ripped from an episode of To Catch a Predator.”
We sat in silence. I looked out of the front window of the pub and saw The Drunkard pacing back and forth in front of The Stalker in the middle of the square, his face red and his hand outstretched and index finger always pointing at The Stalker. The Drunkard looked a bit like what I would imagine General Patton would have looked like on the battlefield if a soldier were brought to him complaining about being afraid. I couldn’t hear what The Drunkard was shouting—for he was shouting, the people backing away from my companions was testament to that—but the absolute lack of reaction from The Stalker made the whole scene incredibly unnerving. I would have expected a nod, or a response, or a mutter from The Stalker while he was being upbraided, but there was absolutely no reaction. He stood there, facing straight ahead, back bolt-upright, like a man against a wall and facing a firing squad. I imagine that The Drunkard was shouting something to the effect of the following:
“You miserable little worm! How dare you soil the sacredness of our contest with such profane babble as that? Did you consider, even for one second, that what you were doing implied that you had engaged in behavior that would be considered, by any justice with half a mind, to be anti-social behavior indicative of a sexual predator? Son, I should throw you in the clink right now and have you await trial by court-martial! No, that’s too good for you. Some sick idiot might think you are innocent. What I should do is have you shot. No, that’s too quick. Hung! You should be hung by the neck until dead. Boy, you are the epitome of everything that has gone ill with human society.”
Of course, The Drunkard was probably just shouting obscenities at The Stalker and calling him a pervert, but I couldn’t be sure. Eventually, The Drunkard exhausted his surely copious list of obscenities and resorted to kicking The Stalker, once, in the ass. The two then walked back into the pub, and sat down.
There was a silence. To describe the silence as awkward would be an understatement. To describe it as pregnant would be—in addition to odd—an understatement. I could only say that it was a Lovecraftian silence. One could almost see ancient, malevolent beings cackling in the darkness, pleased that we puny humans were so ill-at-ease.
“I should apologize,” said The Stalker. “And so I do. Sorry. This is me. Being sorry. Saying what I did was ill-advised and I should never have volunteered to begin talking.”
“And?” asked The Drunkard.
“And I am not a sexual predator. You can look that up on the database.”
 Rather than accept the apology outright, we at the table nodded—except for The Student, who started snoring against the radiator.
“Okay,” said The Traveler, “let’s hope that nothing else like that comes out again.” He shivered. “That was just about as bad as The Interloper.”
“I would remind you,” said The Stalker, “that words are simply words. Though I strung words together in a chain, forming sentences, and, in this case, the beginning of a comprehensive list of my… interests in Tennessee, that does not inherently mean one thing or another.”
“Bullshit,” said The Drunkard.
“I find myself agreeing with The Stalker,” said The Writer. “Words do not mean one thing or another. He might as well have been reciting something from Facebook.”
“Once again, bullshit,” said The Drunkard.
“Please,” said The Student, “though I agree with you, you’re going to have to qualify that statement.”
“Figured I would,” The Drunkard said, taking a drink from his glass. He straightened up in his chair and popped his neck. “Right. You say that words are inherently neutral, correct? Now, if they were inherently neutral that would mean that they, in essence, have no bearing on the way they should be used in certain situations. In other words: would you agree with me if I were to state that whenever a party, A, is insulted or offended by the word choice of another party, B, they are overreacting, and are not in full understanding that a word’s connotation may be nullified over time?”
“I am,” said The Stalker.
“Very good. Now, Traveler, if I were to walk down the street and come across a black guy, and were to shout, ‘nigger!’ at him, what do you think would happen?”
“You’d probably find yourself getting your ass handed to you,” said The Traveler.
“I agree. Now, further, Traveler, would you have sympathy towards the person who shouted the racial epithet? Would you spring to his assistance?”
“God no.”
“And why not?”
“Because to do so would, to the outside world—and, honestly, to myself—suggest that I have sympathy for certain, ah,” he fidgeted in his chair, “anti-social views.”
“Exactly,” said, The Drunkard turning to The Stalker and The Writer. “While, semantically, you are correct in saying that words are neutral and they do not lean one way or another, we find that, in the real world, they, in fact, do. In the abstract, one could very well go around shouting ‘chink,’ ‘kike,’ ‘dago,’ ‘WOP,’ and any other slur you might think of, and that person would be perfectly fine, for he doesn’t mean any harm, he’s just shouting out sounds that translate into harmless, harmless words. However, we find that, in the real world, our epithet-spewing friend finds himself with broken bones, black eyes, and a whole mess of hospital bills. For, you see, his actions show him as a racist.”
The Drunkard sipped from his whiskey. “In a concrete example, would you want to hang around with The Interloper when he spots an Indian restaurant? Would you want to chill with a skinhead while you drive past a synagogue or mosque? I posit that if you say that you would not mind hearing invectives spewing forth from a foaming, racist mouth, then you are playing devil’s advocate and, in reality, have no argument to make beyond the semantic tripe that I’ve heard a thousand times.
“And so, Stalker, when you say such bizarre and grotesque things as ‘walks down dark paths,’ we are led to believe that you are a sexual deviant who must be punished.” He took another drink. “You probably are, but we need evidence to convict you. Words do in fact have a meaning and a, to mix metaphors slightly, alignment—there can, in other words, be an evil term—because of the weight society lends them.”
“Basically,” said The Student, “don’t shout slurs at people just because on the semantic level, it doesn’t mean one thing or another.”
“I must say,” said The Writer, “you are completely wrong and your entire argument is pedestrian and caters to the ills of society. You are, in fact, a coward.”
“Am I?” asked The Drunkard. Amazingly, the vein hadn’t popped out of his forehead yet. Perhaps the whiskey acted as a calming agent in some cases. “Well, next time you see your muscular German flatmate, you call him a Nazi—in earnest and not joking in the least, as if you were stating his name—and tell me what happens.”
The Writer fidgeted in his chair. “Er.”
The Traveler checked his watch. “Well, I think we’ve made some real progress here. However, I’ve got a research seminar I have to go to, so shall we adjourn for today?”
We nodded in agreement, and filed out. The Drunkard and I, though, were quite bored, so we decided to go to one of the bars on campus.