Also available on Amazon Kindle, just search for "Eleven Variations on a Theme by Ernest Hemingway."
ON A THEME BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY
The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
The American did not think to question the genuineness of his companion’s fascination for the middle landscape, some unremarkable hills, dismayingly colorless in the sun’s glare, although at other times, the frequent instances, for example, when he sought her attention, the same problem, the genuineness or not of her reactions, loomed as one of great moment. He did like to think, while at the same time attempting not to feel particularly virtuous about it, that in her presence he made efforts to expand his own inner landscape, so to speak, to take in her inner landscape as well, at least to whatever degree he could divine it, and doing so now, he was not surprised, but still a bit shaken, to find himself entertaining the theory that her attention was riveted by the refulgent hills because the brown and desiccated desolation of their more immediate precincts, common to many rural railway facilities, may have been reverberating, not at all pleasantly, with the gloomy cogitations – of these at least he could be sure – which would, this noontime, be dominating her mind.
Thus, having settled on a psychological setting for whatever interactions were to ensue, one made up of a doughty despair on her part and a kindly culpability on his, he was not a little astounded when he heard her remark that the hills before them, to which, he had assumed, she had attached herself simply to avoid the recriminatory blandishments of the barren railroad bed and its environs, reminded her of, of all things, white elephants.
Shocked by this analogy, which quite belied the tenor in which, or so he had thought, they had settled for the nonce, he could only respond, and rather leadenly at that, that he could not comment on the resemblance because he had not, as yet, encountered any example of the creature to which she had so incongruously alluded.
The withering comment that his response elicited, that she had not supposed him capable of such an encounter, was clearly intended to encompass not only concrete experience, to which he had limited his remark, in deference to what he considered to be the compass of her interests, but imaginative impressions, as well. Although wisdom prompted him to change the subject, such a broadening of the range of their intercourse, to which he had not assented, not even tacitly, cried out for some sort of defense of himself.
It was a cry which it would have been better for him to have ignored, since he went on to enfeeble his perfectly reasonable declaration that fauna of that degree of fabulousness were beyond his realm of experience, by retreating even further into the prosaic, the very realm in which he conceded that she was more comfortable than he, by stipulating that the only criterion for adjudicating such a capability on his part was the empirical one, which, in the event, was tantamount to an admission of intellectual inadequacy.
The “little walk” proposed by Olga had taken them to the railway tracks, where some ornate iron chairs had been set out for visitors waiting to flag down the train for Protvino. Leonid, who sat on Olga’s right, boldly scrutinized his cigar, which he held above him, silhouetted against the sky. Semyon’s more covert attention was focused on Olga.
“Why are the hills white?” Olga asked, shading her eyes from the sun.
“They have eroded down to the chalk,” Semyon explained.
Olga turned to Leonid. “Don’t ask me,” he said. “I’m not the schoolteacher.”
“It is a generous and kindhearted calling,” said Olga, “Certainly more worthwhile than going around fighting and killing.”
If Olga had not bothered coming to his defense, Semyon would not even have noticed that Leonid’s response had been a taunt. What concerned him was that Leonid had not taken his eyes off his cigar, yet was immediately aware of Olga’s unspoken question. Was there some kind of bond between them? No, Semyon decided, Olga was too sensitive a soul to be attached to such a fop. Perhaps Leonid’s training as an officer had developed his peripheral vision.
“Isn’t there a way Nikolai Nikolaivich can make use of it?” asked Olga. “Chalk must have some value, and it is right beside the railroad.”
“Ye-e-s,” drawled Leonid. He took a puff of his cigar. “That was what Kopolov, the man who came down from Moscow, for the railroad, told him. Kopolov didn’t mention that one would also be required to build a factory to refine it, or some such thing. Can you imagine Uncle building a factory, even supposing he could somehow get hold of the money? He assumed the serfs would just dig up the chalk and haul it down to the tracks.”
“Russia,” said Semyon, profoundly, hoping for a political discussion in which, he knew, Olga’s sympathies would be on his side.
“Those hills are nothing but white elephants,” Leonid said.
“Yes!” Olga seemed delighted at this. “Nothing but white elephants. Exactly!”
“I don’t understand,” said Semyon. “Why ‘white elephants?’”
“It’s something the English say,” explained Olga.
“Just because I am not familiar with ‘white elephants,’” said Semyon, “does not mean that I am unfamiliar with a great many foreign idioms.”
Last week’s Saturday Evening Post lay on the tracks flapping in the gusts of wind from the beach just a couple of hundred yards away. Janet stood looking down at it as if mesmerized. When the cover flipped to the vertical, you could see a photograph of an old guy in a lab coat and a saucer-sized loupe, smiling at his cigarette. As I lugged the suitcase down the platform, the same gusts that had captured Janet’s attention by flipping the magazine were fascinating me by the way they fooled around with the hem of her skirt.
She was early. Most good-looking dames make it a point to be late for everything, but not Janet, at least during the week I’d been working for her. She thought I knew what I was doing (it’s not good business to let a client know you’re playing it by ear) and she was always eager to get on to the next step. She never cracked the whip, though. She had class. You could tell that by the way she made up her face, which she didn’t, and the way she wore her clothes as if they came from Sears, which they didn’t.
“Everything go all right?” she asked.
“Smooth as a baby’s backside,” I said. I didn’t let on that the baby I was thinking of was twenty-six and a half years old.
“Do you think they’ll go for it?”
“Fatso and O’Hara won’t know the difference, but we’re not going to fool the Professor.”
“And the real dove?”
“They’re both real, kid, only one is made of glass and is worth twenty bucks and one is a chunk of 500-year-old elephant tusk worth twenty grand. That one’s safe in its cage at the Greyhound Station.”
“That doesn’t give us much time, does it?” she said.
“We’ve bought ourselves a couple of days, maybe more,” I said. “They think they’ve got all the time in the world. They still figure that the last thing you’d do would be to get in touch with your husband.”
She must have realized then that she hadn’t been devoting enough of her attention to the Saturday Evening Post, because she turned away to stare at it again, as if she were trying to figure out what the old doctor was so pleased about as he flipped around in the wind.
“It was the right thing to do,” I said, “and it was the smart thing, too.”
She nodded, but didn’t look up.
I put the suitcase down beside her and laid my hand on her shoulder. She didn’t pull away. In fact, for a moment I thought she was going to lean her body against mine, which wouldn’t have been a good thing at all, it would have meant the end of the whole operation. I shouldn’t have felt sorry that she didn’t, but I did.
“Look, Janet,” I said, “You’ve gotten yourself into a strange, unexpected situation, so you’re going to be feeling strange, unexpected things. Ten days from now it’ll be all over and you’ll be home in Santa Monica, sipping coffee at your yellow Formica kitchen table.”
“Brown Formica,” she said. From the way she turned towards me and grinned I could tell she knew that I’d imagined her sitting at my kitchen table.
It should come as no surprise, if a lady and gentleman are observed sitting in silence, fiddling with their drinking vessels, that there is in the air a matter of some gravity. One of the vessels, in the instance that concerns us, was a wine glass which still contained a few sips, or a single gulp, of a rioja common to the neighborhood. It was being twirled, clockwise then anti-clockwise, by the long, shapely, delicately tobacco stained fingers of Miss Jesse Granger.
The other was a brown bottle emblazoned in red, Cerveza Cruz del Sur, in lettering of a style recently developed by Cyrillic designers further to the east. It was being rocked back and forth by Mr. Francis Alger with enough vigor for its monotonous, irregular thumping to be audible to Miss Granger, but not so much as to warrant her crying, “Frank, please do stop!” It had arrived at the table as cool as the ice water in which it had lain with its fellows in the small, stucco train station beside which Miss Granger and Mr. Alger were taking their refreshment. Now, however, globules of moisture dotting its surface, it showed the effects of the afternoon’s elevated temperatures -- far more than did Miss Grainger and Mr. Alger, each of whom enjoyed the protection of a wide-brimmed straw hat, hers reminiscent of the headgear one might have found being sported, atilt, over a rice paddy half a world away, and his a fedora eponymous with the isthmus where, a generation earlier, so many thousands of souls had been sacrificed to the streamlining of commerce.
In happier times a mutual disapprobation of that historical episode would have united the hearts and minds of this couple, as would have a mutual sympathy for the tediously wading Asian peasant, or a mutual admiration for the no-nonsense, proletarian design of the label on the beer bottle, but in the hour in which they have come to our attention, the concerns which exercised them were of a more personal and, unfortunately, divisive nature.
“If I didn’t know better, Jig, I’d say you thought that it was all my fault,” said Mr. Alger. “Jig” was how Miss Granger was familiarly addressed by her intimates, at least those of the opposite sex.
“I hate to break it to you, Frank,” said Miss Granger, “but this comparatively good knowledge which you are trumpeting so confidently is not all that you crack it up to be.”
As he brought his mind to bear on Miss Granger’s arraignment, Mr. Alger ceased rocking the beer bottle back and forth and turned it upside-down over a third vessel, a sturdy pint beaker circumscribed by a dozen or so vertical planes, to which clung scattered clouds of froth.
“You look like you could use another,” said Miss Granger. “Why don’t you fetch the señorita?”
Mr. Alger chose to respond to Miss Granger’s penultimate remark. “Of course, I accept some responsibility, but what I find difficult to believe is that you might not be doing the same on your part.”
“Pray tell, Mr. Alger, what would you have had me do?”
“Accept that it is both our faults. We were careless together. It’s not an uncommon situation.”
“You misunderstand me. I mean, what would you have had me do when the issue arose?”
Mr. Alger smiled, but at the same time grunted with a pique that overwhelmed his petit and transitory amusement.
“The pun was intended,” said Miss Granger. “But I repeat: what would you have had me do? Even if, in the midst of my own sensational activity, I had been able to divine the moment when yours was on the cusp of its fulfillment, in the pinioned posture to which our varied calisthenics had brought me, there was no exercise of force or entreaty which could have elicited a dislodgement thorough enough for me to have found myself, today, in Cadaques and the company of the Marquis and Marquise of Pùbol, instead of here, with you, being sullen together, and somewhat fearful, on my part, anyhow, waiting for the connecting train to Madrid. It was your responsibility entirely, Frank. There is a Latin term for the gentleman’s exercise of that responsibility which, in our set, at least, is far less uncommonly mentioned, than is our situation undergone.”
Mr. Alger placed the inverted beer bottle in the glass and laid his palms open, as if in supplication. “It’s just-” He thumped the back of his hands thrice on the tabletop. “It’s just, if you had not such an aversion to the use of French letters.”
Miss Granger sighed, and raised her eyes heavenward. “I can’t help it,” she said, “The procedure then is just too comical. It makes me feel that I’m being ravished by a little plush elephant from Steiff.”
Miss Granger gulped her gulp. Mr. Alger turned and called out, “Señorita! Señorita!”
Jig was washing the dishes. Gary was sitting at the yellow Formica kitchen table, smoking his after-dinner cigarette. He smoked three cigarettes a day. The doctor had said that was okay.
At dinner, Jig had announced that she was pregnant. When he’d said they should have it taken care of, she got angry. It was a big fight, a big deal.
He was pretty sure that she knew that the only thing they could do was have it taken care of and that she was pissed off only because he’d said it right off the bat, instead of pretending it was something they could think about. He could have said, all right, let’s have a kid, and then waited while she worked herself around to admitting they couldn’t. He’d actually thought of playing it that way. Before they’d gone to counseling he might have done something like that.
Since insurance had stopped covering Ohrenweiss, they had slipped back into their old patterns. Ohrenweiss had a beard and was a pompous ass-hole, but the stuff he’d done with them seemed like what it was supposed to be, and every once in a while he said something that stuck, like “Either you’re honest or you’re a liar, there’s nothing in-between.”
“I was just being honest,” said Gary.
“Well, why the fuck do you think I’m so hurt?” Jig was sponging one of the salad dishes when she said this, and didn’t turn around.
“Because I was being honest?”
“ Because of what you were feeling,” said Jig.
“I don’t know how I feel, so how do you know how I feel? I feel the way I always feel. I just said what I was thinking. It doesn’t prove anything about what I was feeling.”
Jig didn’t answer.
Gary noticed that she wasn’t clattering the dishes, which was something she normally did when she was washing the dishes during a fight. He thought it probably meant she wasn’t all that angry. “It’s not fair for you to be angry,” he said. “I’m allowed to have an opinion.”
“I’m not angry. I’m hurt.”
Gary nodded his head – it must have been just for his own sake, since Jig couldn’t see it. She was hurt, not angry. The difference seemed clear because of her not clattering the dishes. The damn thing was, that as soon as she’d said it, she did start clattering the dishes, clattering them so much that it sounded like she might break something.
Gary dropped his cigarette into the puddle of coffee left at the bottom of his mug and watched it turn from white to brown. The mug had a picture of an Airedale on it, just the head. They’d had an Airedale named Rambo when they were living together on Route 38, before they got married. He was eventually run over. The Airedale on the mug didn’t look anything like Rambo. He didn’t know why Jig bought things like that, but he never said anything about it. Of course, she never noticed that he never said anything. How was she to know?
When Jig let up a little on the clattering, Gary said, “I’m sorry. I don’t want you to be hurt.” Jig didn’t answer. “I don’t want you to be angry, either,” he said, hoping to lighten things up a little. Maybe it worked, because Jig stopped clattering the dishes altogether.
This was the moment, Gary thought, the moment when he could change everything. But how? “Jig,” he said.
She turned around. She’d left the sponge in the sink, but still had some silverware in her hand. Gary didn’t know what to say next. He knew he shouldn’t say what he wanted to say, which was, “C’mon, Jig, let’s forget all about it,” and all he could manage was a stupid grin, which basically said the same thing.
Jig tightened up her mouth into a straight line and shook her head, looking at him as if he were some kind of a jerk.
He knew she was about to turn around and start on the dishes again and he wanted to say something, anything, to keep her from doing that, so he said the first thing that came into his head. “You think I’m some kind of a jerk.”
“No,” said Jig, “I don’t think you’re a jerk,” and she almost smiled.
He would never have thought that would have been a good thing to say, but it turned out it was. You just never knew. It was so complicated.
“We’ve got too much weighing us down, right now,” he said. “The newspapers are saying recession, and you know what that means at work.” Gary was a Kia salesman, and actually there had been a debate at the showroom about whether a recession would mean fewer customers or more, since more people would be shopping for cheap cars.
Jig had turned back to the sink, but it was all right now. Gary could tell by the way she slumped her shoulders. The price he would have to pay was that they wouldn’t fuck for a few days. Then, of course, he’d have to go to the clinic with her and be supportive and all.
Gary thought about Ohrenweiss, who lived in Vista Blanco, which they could see through the window over the sink. He didn’t know whether they could see his house through the window, but he’d once heard Ohrenweiss’s wife’s name, and he’d been able to find their address in the phone book.
The houses in Vista Blanco were pretty fancy. They were mostly brown and were in three or four different styles, all resembling barns in Westerns. Sometimes Gary liked to imagine that the people who lived there had the same kind of crappy life that he and Jig had, even though they had so much money. This was one of those times.
Fugue and Postlude
The girl was looking off, often she was looking off now, not very often before, but now they knew, and thoughts of it would stalk them while they talked and then she looked off and looked away, as well. They were waiting now, but they were not always waiting, the thoughts that stalked into their talking would not be at all if they were always waiting, but waiting now, not only because there had been a time she had cried, “Wait! Wait!” in vain, but also because of his watch and the paper on the table between them. Of course, time always is, and histories too, always, not forever, like time, but from beginning to end, as from Barcelona to Madrid, and although some histories may run parallel to each other for a while, any convergence is only an optical illusion. No writing of even the most clerical exactitude could tell now what time in her history was 4:41 this afternoon and what time in his, or what place in her history would be Madrid at nine o’clock the next morning and what its place would be in his. This confusion of personal histories causes confusion for everyone to some extent, to the extent in her case that sometimes she cried, “Wait! Wait!” and in his that sometimes he overwhelmed her words with wordless roaring, trumpeting triumphantly between the white hills of her breasts.
Sometimes they were friends and he felt distress for her because of her situation and she teased him and parried words with him to lighten his distress for her because of her situation, but other times they were not friends, they were more than friends in some ways and less in others, and then the distress of each of them was doubled. His distress made her believe that he saw the situation not as her situation but as their situation, so she wondered why her distress had not halved instead of doubled, but the distress which became visible through the denseness of his feelings, a growth of thirty years, was distress not at their situation, which is how she would have liked him to see it, but distress at a related situation that only overlapped her situation. To her continuing distress, then, which she believed was fear because what was going to happen was not going to happen in London, where the number of comforters available ensured that if one, he for example, became unavailable because of a turn the situation she was in had taken, or one thought the situation had taken, another would be there with the ice pack or hot water bottle, the tea or whiskey, the platitude or persiflage, that the situation in that latter phase would require, but was in truth the fear that even if they were able to confine knowledge about the situation to the side of the channel they were on now the ostracism that she thwarted by doing this might somehow recoil and distress her conscience, whose most poignant distress until now had arisen from her dealings with beggars on the street or old ladies whom she had promised to visit, to which was added a distress more like embarrassment than any other feeling she could name, that she had gotten into a real situation which other women, never other women and men, had gotten into, with a real man (unlike the imaginary man she was with when they were being only friends) who, being real, was just like the men who had caused the other womens’ situations. To his continuing distress, when they were being something more than friends and something less, as well, which he believed was a bad conscience over the situation he had gotten her into but in truth was a bad conscience over the situation he had gotten himself into, was added the distress of realizing that for quite a while, perhaps for as long as three or four weeks, he was not going to have any fun at all, not a bit.
So there they were, waiting and drinking beer, the American appearing peeved, looking at his watch and the piece of paper on the table between them, the girl looking off at the hills, where the trees marched up and down the slopes like black giraffes, until the American’s agitation erupted and he called out, “Señorita,” in a tone which he may have intended to be imperious, but which the brown and white dog that emerged through the black beads of the doorway of the yellow building evidently, by its demeanor, from its accommodating grin to its wagging tale, regarded as some kind of amiable invitation. The woman who followed right after the dog, a woman in a black dress with a triangle of a turquoise scarf hanging apron-like from her waist, had a better grasp of the situation, not the situation that the girl who was looking off was in or that the increasingly agitated American was in, which may or may not be thought of as the same situation, depending on whether they were being friends or more than friends and less than friends, but the situation in which all three were involved (the dog not being included), so that before the man even asked, in Spanish, the question, is the train to Madrid always late by more than an hour? she was fully committed to the grand gesture of striding up the three steps to the platform, which served both as a raised surface where passengers, when trains did arrive, could embark and disembark, and a terrace for drinking the beer or Coca-Cola she kept in a ice box behind the ticket booth, of taking the paper from the table in her fist and crumpling it up and throwing it in the direction of the railroad tracks, and with an agitation quite different from that which had erupted from the American or that which the girl who was looking off was staving off by looking off, less hopeless and less hopeful, both at once, and much more impassioned, of imposing on them and their immediate surroundings a short harangue.
“She said,” said the American, “that the clock the government uses is the hole in its behind and that when the engineer is finished making love to his mother and the ugliest of his goats he might feel charitable enough to drive the train in our direction, and that if we were in Italy, things would be different.”
“I can’t wait till we get to Madrid,” said the girl, speaking figuratively, of course, and the man said, “It will be better in Madrid,” the rhetoric of the two of them spiraling up from figurative to almost mythological and they were not only friends again for now, but for now friends forever, angering even further the señorita because, or so she thought, it proved that what her brother said was true, that foreigners were there for their own decadent pleasures and should not be regarded as either friends or enemies, but in truth because the man and girl did not know and would never know how the agitation that love had caused in her thirty years ago made their foreign agitation like water to her wine, like chalk to her salt, like the squeak of a mouse to the trumpeting within her soul, and she stomped back to her den even more agitated than when she had emerged, followed by the dog, whose tail now drooped between its legs.
“I came for our habitual good-bye,
Where I say, ‘Say hello to Harvard Square.
That’s where we met, back then, your Mom and I –
You’re off to visit Jen, so you don’t care –
Have fun,’ and then I saw you with your friend.
I did not want to bring a scene intense
As yours was prematurely to an end,
So turned in at the cemetery fence,
Where Mom would take you when my train was late.
You’d pick a dandelion bouquet to hand
To me as I came through the station gate.
Here’s this. It’s silly, but you understand –
Some wilting buttercups and Queen Anne’s lace,
Still green, but since you’ve always loved it so –
My darling child, how sorrowful a face!
Young love – its matters always matter, oh
So much. I’ve seen the boy at Martin’s Stand,
He’s always been polite. If we had known--
I saw you crying, how he took your hand
And thumped your knee as if all hope were gone.”
“His name is Adam, and he’s not a boy.”
“But why those tragic gestures, why the tears?
I ask out of concern, not to annoy.
What is it?”
“After all these years
I hear the somethings roaring in that word.
An elephant in the room? Send in the cat!
Is that a smile?”
“The something that you heard
By Friday will be nothing.”
“Oh, love? I wish I knew –”
“The train. Track four.
Just leave the flowers. By Medford they’d be dead.
The thought’s what counts, and feelings. And I swore
That I’d remind your pretty little head
That if it rains and you are bored and Jen’s in class,
Go see the Peabody, the flowers made of glass.”
The 1:15 to the capitol was pulling in as Kah emerged from the gloom of the station onto the sunlit platform, but it seemed to be a freight train – a long line of what appeared to be cattle cars. Annoyed, Kah was about to turn back, when the wide doors of the cars opened and he could see that they were full of people, crushed as tightly and uncomfortably together as he had ever seen them in the underground at rush hour, although these cars did not have any seats, or even anything to hang onto while the train was in motion. Those who were not lucky enough to have found a place to lie or stand along the wall were clinging to each other for support.
“All aboard!” cried the stationmaster, an elderly, dark-skinned man in a blue uniform. “Aren’t you going to the capitol? Come, sir, come!” The capitol was six hours away and even now, on the platform, Kah felt nauseated by the aroma of sweat and cologne that wafted toward him. “Is there another train to the capitol today?” “At 3:14.” “In just two hours?” The stationmaster nodded. “Will it be like this one?” “Oh, no, sir. That one will be a very nice train – deluxe, as a matter of fact.” “Will a seat be available?” “Definitely,” said the stationmaster. “You’ll just have to exchange your ticket.”
Inside the station, Kah found the ticket window barred by wooden shutters, across which was scrawled the word “CLOSED.” He paced back and forth a while, waiting for the stationmaster to return, then put down his case and banged on the heavy slats. Almost immediately, the shutters were flung open with such force that Kah had to duck to avoid being struck by one of them. The stationmaster was in his undershirt and in one hand he held an unusual, pyramid-shaped brush. “What do you want, now?” “I want to exchange my ticket.” “The ticket office is closed.” “When will it open?” “When the paperwork gets here.” “And when will that be?” “About half an hour before the train arrives.”
Kah thought of the sandwich that Gigi, the maid at the hotel, had packed in a lunch bag in his case, and looked around him. “Isn’t there any place to sit?” “Are you requesting a chair?” How odd, thought Kah. “Yes, I am.” The stationmaster disappeared briefly, then returned with a folding canvas chair, which he handed to Kah through the window. As Kah unfolded the chair, the stationmaster, who was about to close the ticket window, leaned out and said, “Not here. You can’t sit here,” and pointed towards the center of the station.
With his case in one hand, dragging the chair behind him, Kah trudged in the direction the stationmaster had pointed. He had not noticed it when he had arrived, but on the floor was painted a large yellow rectangle framing the word “CHAIRS.” He sat down facing the doors to the parking lot and from his case withdrew the lunch bag. Inside, besides the sandwich, there was also a bottle of beer, on the label of which, in lipstick, had been drawn a crude heart. Kah bit into the sandwich. It was pickled onion and tomato, his favorite.
As Kah was leisurely enjoying this repast, a flurry of black automobiles pulled up to the station doors, then quickly departed. A few moments later a peasant family straggled in – a man, a woman, and five children, all girls, ranging in age from about eight to fifteen or sixteen. Kah could see that the older girl, a thin, wan creature with uncombed hair, was pregnant. The mother, who carried a large straw bag, seemed to be the one in charge. The father, a hulking lout with a scanty, unimpressive goatee, stood apart, surveying the scene from a distance.
“Hey, can we get some chairs out here!” called the mother. The ticket window shutters flew open and the stationmaster, who was back in uniform, barked, “Right away, ma’am!” He soon reappeared from the corridor that lead to the tracks carrying six folding chairs, three under each arm, which he set up in a semi-circle in front of Kah. The mother sat down in one, as did the pregnant daughter. The other children ran off to the opposite end of the station, where they began to quarrel noisily. “Go ahead and finish your lunch,” said the mother to Kah, “you got to keep up your strength. You can sign the certificate after you’re done.” “What certificate?” The mother reached into the straw bag and handed Kah a sheet of paper. At the top was written Paternity Certificate. “It agrees that you’re proud to be the daddy.” “Whose daddy?” The mother didn’t answer, but the daughter, who up to now had been sulking, leered at Kah wickedly. “But I’ve never seen any of you before.” “And won’t see us again, you betcha,” said the mother, “unless you sign this piece of paper.”
Kah laughed. What a ridiculous threat. In fact, the whole thing was ridiculous, the cattle cars, the stationmaster, the folding chairs. He took his chair, his lunch and his case and returned to the ticket window where he sat down, provocatively tipping the chair against the wall. The stationmaster came running in from the corridor and stopped a few paces away, waving his arms and gesticulating toward the seating area, but Kah ignored him and the stationmaster, frustrated, shuffled away. Kah finished his sandwich, which was indeed savory, and drank his beer which, although warm from the walk from the hotel, was still refreshing.
At about 2:45 the shutters of the ticket window again opened and the stationmaster, who evidently harbored no malice at Kah’s having flouted the seating rules, chirped, “Can I be of service?” “I want to exchange my ticket.” “Certainly, sir. I just need the certificate.” “What certificate?” “The paternity certificate.” “To exchange my ticket?” “It’s a special train. You have to be a patriotic citizen.” “I am a patriotic citizen.” “Then why didn’t you sign? And you seemed so eager and ready to take the initiative –”
The stationmaster was interrupted by the loud clanging of a bell. Red lights began flashing from the corners of the ceiling and over the hum of a public address system, which seemed to have been just switched on, a woman’s voice mellifluously announced, “The train to the capitol will leave in two minutes.” “I have a letter from the mayor,” said Kah. “So have I,” said the stationmaster, “but I’ve never been to the capitol.” Kah looked wildly around. The peasant family was already traipsing down the corridor to the train. Kah quickly followed.
The train that was pulling in was sleek and shiny, just three cars long. On the side of each of the chrome cars, in paint so fresh that it was still moist, was a portrait of the hillbilly father. Some military officers jumped out of the first car before the train came to a full stop. One took the straw bag from the mother, another greeted the father, then grasped the youngest girl by the hand. They all trooped down to the last car which, when the doors opened, Kah could see was a luxuriously appointed lounge car, with leather sofas. The officer holding onto the little girl was talking animatedly to the father, who lumbered silently beside him, staring seriously at the concrete floor.
Kah turned to the stationmaster, who had appeared at his side. “Is there another train to the capitol today?” “That’s the last train.” “What about tomorrow? When is the first train tomorrow?” “That was the last train. They’re closing the station. Budget cuts. That’s why there was a special train.” Kah stared at the stationmaster, in wide-eyed dismay. “Why don’t you take the bus?” asked the stationmaster, sympathetically. “Is there a bus to the capitol?” “Every hour, on the hour, from the front of the hotel. One of the maids there sells the tickets. Just ask for Gigi.”
What I’m doing is making it seem like I don’t want to have an abortion by saying I do want to have one and sounding like I really don’t. It’s to punish Tommy for just assuming I’m going to have one, instead of going, “C’mon, J. J., let’s have a kid and move back to Phoenix. Mom wouldn’t mind. She’d love to take care of a baby.” He did say that once, only I didn’t happen to be pregnant. Of course, because of the booze and the substances, Tommy has said just about everything there is to say, or he will say it sooner or later, until he drops dead. For Tommy, it’s going to have to be something medical, like dropping dead. Whatever the opposite of accident prone is, that’s what Tommy is. He’ll be just sitting there on the sofa with a beer, watching some football game, while everyone else is getting hit by cars while they’re changing a tire.
But the sex thing, male and female, is strong, going back to primitive times and all, and Tommy has gotten kind of eaten up over this pregnancy business. I guess he thinks he’s finally having his accident. I could tell him that it’s my accident, not his, but let him squirm. He isn’t good for much else, anymore. Ever since he found out I was pregnant he’s been fucking me like I had VD or something. If he had his head on straight he’d realize that now we could really go crazy. No sense mentioning it, though. You can’t tell a guy anything, he’ll just go ahead and do the opposite, like a cat. It’s women who are like dogs, all loving and intelligent, not the other way around, even if the other way around’s the traditional point of view, and people automatically say “he” about a dog and “she” about a cat, if they don’t know. You notice things like that if you’re someone who can think outside the box, like me.
Thinking, inside the box or outside, is not Tommy’s thing, so when thinking is unavoidable, he’s not very good at it. Typical. That’s why, even though you can’t make a guy do anything, it sure is easy to get him to think all kinds of shit. I’ve never said, “Boo hoo, you’re making me kill my baby.” I wouldn’t lie like that, I’m not that kind of a person. I keep telling him that I really, really do want to have an abortion. It’s not my fault he thinks I’m saying it just to try and cheer him up.
We’re at the bus stop, waiting for the bus to Allentown. We’ve already gone through our routine, you know, “J. J., you don’t have to get on the bus if you don’t want to,” and “I really, really do want to have it taken out, honey.” Now he’s just sitting there, twirling his can of Dr. Pepper back and forth between his palms, staring at this big round propane tank across the road, as if it were the most interesting thing in the world, even though we’ve passed it a dozen times since we’d been in Ephrata. He reminds me of a monkey, a monkey like the ones you see at the zoo, who stares into space like he’s about to invent the wheel, while his hands are busy with his cute little monkey hard-on.
I’m feeling kind of friendly again. After all, what does a monkey know? I point at the propane tank and say that it looks like an elephant, with the pipe going into the ground like a trunk and the wire coming out the back like a tail. We smoked a joint back at the motel and have come down to where we could have a nice riff on that propane tank. I expect Tommy’s going to say something like the little propane tanks that are scattered around are the elephant’s turds, which is where my head is at, but instead he says, “Who the fuck cares?”
Now that isn’t very nice at all, and instead of some cute monkey, it’s just another ass-hole sitting there. “You’re nothing but a worthless piece of shit,” I say. It makes no sense to try and communicate with ass-holes, though “worthless” turned out to be some kind of subliminal message, because the next thing Tommy says is, “I’m sorry,
J. J., I’m just not ready.”
For the rest of his life, even though he might not remember my name, he’s going to think he bullied some girl out of having a baby, when all the time she wanted to get rid of it as much as he did. (So she could move on to the next ass-hole, ha, ha.) In ten
or twenty years, if I could find out where he is, maybe I’ll write him a letter telling him the truth. I probably won’t, though. I wonder whether anyone has ever done anything like that. If they did, it’s definitely something that would get on the news.
On the first of April, 1939, the citizens of Tarazon discovered that everything that had appeared so supremely sensible for the last three years was, in truth, supremely stupid. The Workers’ Unionists and the Socialists, for example, grew quite shamefaced when they remembered their arguments in the Town Council, sometimes lasting until the early morning hours, over how much of their estates the propietarios would be allowed to retain following the anticipated reforms of 1940. To their mortification at having believed in such fairy tales and their chagrin imagining the gleeful celebrations which were now occurring out in the fincas, was added the burden of having to devise a strategy for regaining the good graces of the ruling class.
Everyone on the public payroll, of course, had to make adjustments, sometimes painful ones. Schoolteachers had to drastically refine, to the point of unrecognizability, a great number of opinions which, just the week before, they had presented as irreducible maxims. Fortunately, like most students everywhere, those of Tarazon had more important things on their minds than whatever their teachers kept droning on
about, so the bewilderment which might have ensued was avoided. Government employees who had been taken in by the optimistic and entertaining liberal style, which so abruptly had become passé in Madrid, were now busy composing letters of contrition to new department heads, while those who had been adroit enough to maintain a respectful ambivalence had nothing more pressing to do than hunt down their pre-1936 bribery schedules.
The conversion was easier for Tarazonans who had not taken prominent roles in the democratic fantasy. For most, all that was required was to decide where to hang the framed photographs which had suddenly become available in abundance, for fifty pesetas each, at Periera e Hijos. (An academician wishing to study the changes in Tarazonan society after the April proclamation, which were by necessity extremely subtle, could learn much from the placement of these pictures: in which room had the portrait of the complacent victor been hung and, more important, where in the room: on the wall facing the doorway? or beside the door where it would be obliterated each time the door was opened?)
Even the poets of Tarazona were effected, two thirds of them, at least. Javier de Espronceda and Severo de Castro had both, coincidentally as it were, come to the startling realization that Garcia Lorca was, after all, a second-rate sentimentalist, who might be said almost to have deserved his fate. Tarazona’s third poet, however, Fabricio Gomez Moreno, was one of the happy few for whom the events in Madrid held no importance whatsoever, except for giving him the pleasure of hearing that Espronceda and Castro had at last come around to his view of Lorca. Fabricio was a surrealist for whom any poet who paired a subject and predicate which previously had been paired in literature was a second rate sentimentalist.
Fabricio was Tarazona’s stationmaster. The position was usually filled by a poet, since never more than half a dozen trains a day stopped at Tarazona, and most other Tarazonans, who had developed the habit of industriousness in order to fend off a native inclination toward anxiety, found the idle hours too much of a strain. Fabricio, on the other hand, thought of the stationmaster’s office as his little atelier. It even came with a typewriter, on a desk from which he could watch the large clock on the wall and type whatever word happened to be in his head every quarter-minute which, he had read somewhere, was the writing technique of Tristan Tzara.
Fabricio was suitably grateful for his luck in having landed such an accommodating job and was scrupulous in fulfilling his duties. When someone appeared at the ticket window he would jump up, once the second hand had passed the next quarter-minute and he had typed “elephant” or “yesterday” or whatever, and assume a most professional air, and fifteen minutes before a train was due he conscientiously would remove the blanket he used to muffle the telephone.
One day, not long after the great event in Madrid, Espronceda and Castro were visiting Fabricio in his little hideaway. Aware of Fabricio’s casual attitude toward practicalities, and faithful friends despite their intellectual differences, they had brought the requisite photograph to hang in the stationmaster’s office, and Fabricio was teasing them by pretending that he would think nothing of painting a handle-bar moustache on it, a la Duchamp’s homage to the First Marquis of Pùbol.
These jolly confabulations were interrupted by a discrete, feminine cough. A girl, no one they knew, and they knew every girl in Tarazona, an American, an Englishwoman, a German, perhaps, was smiling hopefully at them through the wire grill of the ticket window. “Two for Barcelona, please” she said. “No return.”
The three poets replied as one, although each with his unique English articulation, “American?”
The girl shook her head, still smiling. “Two for Barcelona, please,” she repeated.
“English?” said Espronceda and Castro, while Fabricio, struck with a sudden brainstorm, asked, “Polskie?”
“Please, gentlemen, two tickets for Barcelona.”
As Fabricio moved forward to assume his official role, they heard another voice, a man’s. It was only two or three words, but they saw a glint of dismay cross the girl’s face before she turned and disappeared from view.
“What splendid breasts!” said Espronceda.
Castro shut his eyes and said, dreamily, “White, smooth, like chalk.”
“Tonight, in the privacy of your rooms, you can complete those odes,” said Fabricio, “if you do not spend yourselves in some briefer, though ultimately more gratifying pursuits. You have seen a female mammal, that’s all.”
“Of the same species as ourselves,” noted Castro.
“And if we did not live in the absurd confinement that society has constructed in its mania of self-importance,” continued Fabricio, “we would have acted on the impulse which arose from that fact.”
“Not if the male accompanying her were armed,” said Castro, who was the most intelligent of the three.
“Excuse me.” The friends turned to see the girl’s face in the window again, but now there were tears streaming over her cheeks, and although she tried, she could not keep her voice from trembling. “One ticket, please,” she said.
At that moment, Fabricio emerged from his cocoon, which had been in the dry and useless shape of a young poet, and as a creature so resplendent that he was almost unrecognizable to his friends, he turned to them and said, “It’s very simple. The tariffs are listed there, on the wall; veterans pay half; soldiers in uniform do not need tickets. I may return by this evening. If not, express my regrets to Councilman Arroyo who, I hope, will understand, considering the anecdote concerning him and the Marquesa da Cuevas that my parents never cease to enjoy repeating.” With that, he slipped out the door.
There was a small square window in the stationmaster’s office through which one could observe the tracks and the railway platform. The two poets soon saw the pretty tourist, the breezes from Monte Monacayo playing charmingly with the hem of her skirt, awaiting the 4:41 to Barcelona while clinging familiarly to the arm of Fabricio Gomez Moreno. The couple seemed to be involved in fluid conversation. “French!” cried Espronceda and Castro. At their graduation, Fabricio had won the French prize, usually a leather-bound abridgement of Sainte-Beuve, but in 1938 it was a slipcase edition of the proletarian novels of Poulaille.
Fabricio’s sudden transformation into a romantic hero precipitated a discussion so profound that Tarazona’s two remaining poets missed the arrival of the train and a final glimpse of their friend, who was never again seen in Tarazona. In his favor, it should be pointed out that the rapid crystallization of his emotions, spiraling from admiration to love in a matter of quarter-minutes, spurred on, no doubt, by the pitiful
agitation displayed by his beloved, was entirely natural and not encumbered with cultural allusions. Although Fabricio often had visited the Prado, as a steadfast anti-sentimentalist he had not allowed himself to be moved by Reni’s Girl with a Rose.
Every gal is half sweet and half mean, and the trick is to keep the mean half inside and the sweet half outside. My missus, Sally Ann Thunder, is both the sweetest gal and the meanest gal I ever knew. Her sweet half is as sweet as the prettiest June day you ever saw, the birds confabulating and the fish snapping their tails up out of the water for pure joy, but her mean half is as mean as the part of Hell where they heat up the pitchfork before they stick you with it. I suppose you would think that a fellow who could turn an alligator inside out and whip a mama bear at the same time he was flipping a pan of johnny cakes wouldn’t be much bothered by keeping some gal’s mean half and sweet half where they belong, but I have to confess I never have been able to get any sort of a grip on Sally Ann’s mean half when it’s the half that’s on the outside.
Sally Ann came over to Jefferson City to keep house for me when they hired me to lift up the drawbridge there while the hydraulic machinery was up in Chicago, getting repaired. It wasn’t exactly a strenuous job, hiking the roadway up and down, and with my free hand I was able to get some whittling done, a statue of Sam Houston, which the Texans went and put up in a park down in El Paso. They set up an observation post in its eyebrow to keep a watch out for Mexicans massing on the other side of the Rio Grande.
When she first got to Jefferson City, Sally Ann was in one of her mean spells. For example, one night she threw me out of the house for no good reason and I went down to a big meadow, where the strawberries were ripe, and pulled up about half an acre of the sod. I shook the strawberries out on our front porch, then went and picked up a couple of cows from a field on the other side of town, one under each arm, which I revolved and squeezed enough on my way back so that when I milked them over the strawberries, nothing but cream came out. When Sally Ann woke up in the morning and saw that big mess of strawberries and cream, all she said was, “I don’t see no sugar, Davy. You know I like sugar with my strawberries.”
Now there used to be a doctor up in St. Louis called Dr. Joy (I don’t know whether that was his real name or just his business moniker) whose specialty was getting a gal’s sweet half to stay on the outside for a while. Sally Ann had a regular appointment set up with Dr. Joy every other week. Getting her up to St. Louis was like trying to herd a pack of wild hyenas who’d spent the night passed out on a nest of fire ants, but the journey back to Jefferson City was easy as a slice of cream pie. Sometimes Sally Ann would be so sweet on the way home that the engineer would stop the train at some bodacious site and everyone would get out and lie in the grass and make up poetry about the shapes of the clouds.
The train from Jefferson City to St. Louis kept pretty much to its schedule, except once in a while it was late, and then Sally Ann would get twice as mean, if it’s possible to double what’s already as big and bad as can be, which I don’t think it strictly is. “Davy Crocket,” she’d holler, “you no good imitation of a hundred year old rat skin, how come you can’t get that train here on time. I’m getting meaner and meaner and if I don’t get to see Dr. Joy soon I’m going to chew up these rails and spit them out at that hill across the way to spell out D-A-V-Y N-O-G-O-O-D.” Then I’d have to hie myself down the tracks until I found the train, which I would haul by its cowcatcher up to where Sally Ann was sitting on the platform, tapping her heel as if she were a schoolmarm waiting for some unlucky whelp to come up and hand in the picture of lions and tigers he’d drawn instead of the penmanship exercise he should have been doing.
Once, though, I couldn’t find the dang thing, I guess it had been shunted off to a siding or something, and when Sally Ann saw me coming back without the train, she got so fumed up that she swung her pocketbook against the signal pole and the signal flags flew off flapping and clattering and decoyed a flock of Canadian Geese into believing it was time to fly south for the winter. “Davy Crockett, you loafer, you sleepwalking waxwork, you last-place loser in the glacier derby, you know I’ve got to get to St. Louis to have my sweet half pulled out. Why are you just dawdling along there like there was no one in the world but you and the spirits on the other side of the Pearly Gates who’ve come to understand that Time ain’t nothing but a cruel joke?” The truth of the matter was, I was running so fast that a mouse that jumped on the tracks just after I went by got roasted and eaten by a chicken hawk that ended up starving to death, since once he got a taste of cooked meat he couldn’t stomach anything raw again.
I was so out of breath, I would have liked to have sat down and rested for a heartbeat or two, but Sally Ann’s eyes were so fierce that I would have fused to the bench, so I pulled up the signal pole, which wasn’t of any use to anybody any more, and poked a hole in the hill across the way, and blew it up into the shape of an elephant. I set the bench on its back and pointed it toward St. Louis, with Sally Ann and me setting up on it in style. That didn’t satisfy Sally Ann, though. “Davy Crockett, you’re stupider than a Yankee without any fingers and toes trying to do arithmetic. An elephant is one of the slowest beasts there is.” I was about to explain that an elephant only looked slow, because of its size, and was just about the fastest creature there was that you could rest a railway waiting bench on top of, when I looked over my shoulder, and sure enough, there was the train, and it was gaining on us.
I took out my Bowie knife and stabbed that elephant in the rump. All the air I’d blown into it came out in a big whoosh and we shot forward so fast that when we passed through a rain cloud it turned to steam, which was considered a miracle by the folks underneath, who were having a church picnic, and they doubled the pastor’s salary. When we finally landed in Dr. Joy’s backyard, where he was having a picnic lunch of wieners and beer, it turned out we were early for Sally Ann’s appointment. “You better start dealing with me right now,” yelled Sally Ann at the old gent, as she climbed down from the collapsed elephant, “or I’m going to scream so loud that your neighbors won’t be able to tune their fiddles for a year, the strings will be twanging so much.”
That didn’t seem to effect Dr. Joy in the slightest. He just went on to finish his wieners and drink his beer, after which he lit up a cigar, a display of indifference which unsettled Sally Ann so much that she stopped yelling and gesticulating and just stood there in the doctor’s backyard like a beautiful statue, only with clothes on, waiting until he was good and ready, which just goes to show that those certificates that doctors hang up on the wall really mean they’ve learned a thing or two.
After Sally Ann’s appointment, she turned so sweet that when we got in a boat at the Tunnel of Love at the State Fair, which was being held at the time, we didn’t get out till we were in China, where everyone was walking upside-down, with all their money just pouring out of their pockets. We got so rich that we were able to buy a steamship in Shanghai and sailed back to Jefferson City, where we were greeted in real style, with the band playing “The Dashing White Sergeant”, fireworks and a speech by the mayor that was so stirring that it was printed in the newspapers all over the country, including Chicago, where the fellows fixing the drawbridge hydraulics got so spunked up that they finished the job six weeks early, and Sally Ann and I were able get down to the Gulf in time for the hurricane season.