Monday, October 25, 2021

drinkdrankdrunk: "Insecurity" by James Nowlan

One day, Tom had an encounter that he at first thought might change his life in some miraculous way, but it only ended up making things worse.  The man said he was special, a genius, and Tom believed him.  Of course, he should have realized that this was just another crazy person; in fact, even more insane than most of the crazies he’d already met in a life full up with psychosis, but he needed so bad to believe in something that he took this looney at his word.

He was standing guard at a bank, in Paris itself this time and not some housing project or suburb.  Though he didn’t know it, he wasn’t there to dissuade robbers (as if any real bank robbers would have been dissuaded by him) but because customers of that branch had been being harassed by the victims of a plague that had just like himself wandered over from America, crack.  American television shows are full of bad ideas, but for some reason there are people all over the world who want to try them out for themselves.

So Paris had crackheads.  Not the hoards of crackheads that roamed the streets of American cities in the late eighties but enough to be a nuisance.  Even one crackhead can be a big nuisance.

It all started when the man was trying to withdraw some money from the bank’s cash machine.  He looked old and unwashed like a retired person before whom death is looming larger every day so they’ve stopped caring about their appearance because the emergency room or morgue personnel who’ll cut the clothes off of their corpse certainly won’t.  Tom didn’t really pay attention to him until one of the local addicts started harassing the man.  “Donne moi du fric maintenant et on peut se défoncer,” give me the cash we can get high, the ravaged wretch pleaded in a tone both pathetic and slightly menacing.  Tom didn’t want to get involved and looked the other way, but the man cried out to him in an obvious American accent, “Tu ne peux pas faire ton putain bulot, quoi?”, you can’t do your fucking job?  So Tom felt compelled to intervene. “Laisse les clients tranquilles, monsieur.”

Being called “monsieur” seemed to have a strange effect on the cocaine damaged brain of the street person.  “Ce monsieur ci, il fait comme il veut, mais ne veut pas des histoires avec des flics quoi.”  This sir here does what he likes but doesn’t want any trouble with the cops.  The derelict then ambled off, glaring after him at the badge on Tom’s uniform mumbling what might have been some obscure curse.

After recuperating his cash, the client approached Tom. “So you’re an American too, huh?  You’re a real American, not these junior year abroad kids.  I can see that.  We’ve got to look out for each other.  I’ve got plans, big plans.  But nobody understands.  I’ll come back to meet you when you get off, six thirty, huh?  We’ll go talk somewhere. Maybe you’ve heard of me?  The poet Roberto Bolsa?  I guess not.”

At a loss for words, Tom simply nodded his head in assent, and his fellow American hobbled away on bad knees with feet in worn slippers.  Tom spent the next three hours thinking about what these “big plans” might be.  He’d never had any sort of plans ever in his life.  In the empty hours that he passed standing on the pavement as a disdainful crowd of more important people pushed by he stared off into space and in his imagination built these “big plans” into something grandiose and his wretched compatriot into a tattered savior.

When his work day was done, Tom went inside the bank and, after putting his cheap uniform jacket in a sports bag, got into an old black leather fireman’s coat.  He went outside to where he had been stationed, and the passersby were now more circumspect.  He looked like somebody official.  A woman even stopped and asked him if someone had tried to rob the bank (les sapeurs-pompiers de Paris [Parisian fire fighters] are a military unit that not only puts out conflagrations but sometimes guards banks among other things).

As dusk fell, he had decided that it had all been some sort of practical joke and was about to take off for home when his newfound friend came plowing through the throng of café and restaurant bound Parisians mumbling curses in several languages.  He didn’t even seem to notice Tom until he had almost run right into him, then he suddenly beamed a drunken smile and held forth a clammy hand.  “I knew that you would wait.  I knew that you would understand.”  He then turned without a sign that Tom should follow him, and Tom dutifully tagged along as his self-appointed co-conspirator forged a path through a deluge of indignant faces offended that such a pair should tread their sidewalks.

Mounting towards the heights of Belleville, they came to a dilapidated gray building with a streetlamp bolted onto its façade like a searchlight.  Their climb up eight floors to an attic apartment was rewarded by a view of Paris lit by the last rays of sunlight.  Without asking what Tom wanted to drink, he poured them both glasses of Jack Daniel’s on the rocks and, after clinking glasses and gulping the whiskey down, he stared aggressively into Tom’s face and addressed him gruffly.  “What you’re doing now, it’s bad for you, standing around all day like a target.  You’re make people like us, real Americans, look weak.  I’m not saying that you’re not a real American, but you’re not being a real American in a real way.”

Tom sipped a bit of the Jack’s to fortify himself and then timidly murmured, “I don’t really know what else I can do.”

“Don’t do!  Be!”

“Be what?”

Roberto stood up brusquely and dug through a bookshelf that covered a wall to bring back a torn and frayed little book and, turning to the frontispiece, held it out for Tom to see.  It bore the portrait of a face that would look rather like Tom’s if his hadn’t taken so many beatings.  But the piercing paleness of the eyes was eerily similar.

“So who’s this guy supposed to be?”

“Don’t you know?  It’s Rimbaud.”

“Rambo?  Is that like how he looked before he went through special forces training and got sent to Vietnam?”

“You really don’t know?  Riiiiimboooow!”

“I don’t know many people.  Most people seem to avoid me.  And the rest usually have some bad intentions.”

“So much the better.  You’ll be perfect for the part.”

“What?  Are you making a movie or something?”

“Much more than that, I’m making a whole new world!”

Roberto then glared at Tom with a triumphant decisiveness, and Tom looked over the shabby surroundings and his battered interlocutor and wondered what whole new world could come of it.  But the man ranted on oblivious to Tom’s incomprehension.  “You see, there’s a war going on, a war of words.  What word means what and how it should be said.  To be able to describe and name, that is where the real power lies, and I am caught up in this power struggle.  I was born into it.  I knew when I was just eight years old that I was destined to be a great poet, probably the greatest of my generation.  Both my parents were professors of literature, and they recognized my precocious greatness as well.  But these fucking parasites in the university departments they make it all political.  Do they think that they’re fighting fascism?  My parents both fled fascism in Spain not suspecting that they would fall into the eagle claws of American authoritarianism.  Me, I refuse to let the purity of my verses be sullied by the swill of one brand of ideology or another.  The future will be born of my work or there will be no future.  But them with their snide and sneaky little brains have found a way to insinuate themselves into the language itself so that the magnificence of my writings is reduced to incomprehensible nonsense by cocksucking scumbags.  I thought that by fleeing to another continent, the continent of my parents’ birth, I might escape them, but they are everywhere with their schools.  They are such total crap, a complete scam, a total sham.  First this Lipschitz Languages and then this Downtown English.  You’ve heard of them I imagine.”

Tom had lost track of what was being said several sentences ago.  “Heard of who?”

“This teaching English as a second language garbage, ‘Lipschitz’ and ‘Downtown English’.”

“I’ve seen some ads in the subway.  Never paid much attention.  I try not to look at advertising for too long.  It starts doing things to me.  Things that it probably wasn’t meant to do.”

“Yes!  Yes!  You’re perfect!  All you need is a diploma and some tranquilizers to stop your twitching!”

“I don’t got no diploma, and these like contractions in my face they come and go.  I wish I could control it somehow.”

“A diploma is easy enough to print up, and the right medication will still your shivering cheeks, at least for a long enough while to get you in, get you working for these slimeballs and have them believing that you’re just another dupe.”

Tom felt like he was stepping through a trap strewn forest.  What was this man trying to get him involved with?  Then he realized that the voices in his head were silent.  Normally they should be howling for him to hack this person to pieces.  He then looked into the bloodshot eyes with dark heavy bags like that of an old hunting dog that would never chase down another rabbit and realized that he was needed.  Needed for what it wasn’t at all clear, but if this being needed could halt the awful commands from resonating in his skull for a while then it’d be worth it.  At least he’d save the money he’d been spending on whores and wine.

By Saturday of that week, Roberto had already lined up job interviews for Tom with both of his sworn enemies, “Lipschitz Languages”, and “Downtown English”, as well having had a diploma printed up.  He’d decided upon UC Santa Cruz.  “Partying too hard would explain your present state.”

“My present state?” repeated Tom with a tone of inquietude.  Could this man divine the strange ugliness churning within him?  Perhaps he had chosen him for that reason.  He was maybe planning that Tom would go berserk and murder the lot of them.

To assuage Tom’s wariness, Roberto eased his voice down to a more soothing register, “Yes, unfortunately, that’s the way it is.  Personally, I’m quite alright with it but these people, they have a product to sell.  And to sell their product it’s better to ascribe your condition, and I’m not diagnosing you--I’m not a doctor--but of course it’s plain to see that you’re only partly in this world as others are, and then again I’m not assuming what this other world may or may not be, but let the reason be bad drugs instead of harsh treatment because they are much more comfortable with America the decadent and hedonistic than with America the cruel and brutal.  And then they go on and tell people that there’s a way to escape the voracious character of nature when of course there isn’t.  Unless you want to be devoured, and I’ve already been devoured and by the looks of it you as well and being devoured isn’t the worst of it; it’s being shat out afterwards.”

Tom wasn’t reassured.  In fact, this last ranted paragraph made him more ill at ease than ever.  He could feel the abject terror that sometimes overwhelmed him, rising up from the lower parts of his gastrointestinal tract towards his heart and brain.

Roberto could see the change coming over his chosen instrument of both glory and vengeance, and it boded ill.  He had to keep him at least sane enough to pass a job interview.  And he needed his trust.  Tranquilizers and some more whisky would do the trick so he poured him a generous glassful and gave him half a handful.

Tom looked at the assortment of pills in his palm.  Perhaps they were meant to kill him or drive him permanently insane.  The forces that had been hounding and harassing him for so long would invariably chose someone like Roberto as their agent.  But if he was destined to die an early death or spend the rest of his life locked up in an asylum then better to get it over with he thought as he gulped the plastic tasting pills and washed them down with the burning liquor.

Roberto proffered him another glass, and Tom sat waiting for the effect of the medication to hit him.  But it eased its way into his troubled spirit so gradually that he didn’t even notice it.  Some ten or twenty minutes later, the man across from him was ranting on spitefully about being robbed of the renown that was rightfully his, and Tom realized that he had been chemically liberated from all that had been weighing upon him for too long.  And Roberto looked exactly like what he was, an absurd and bitter man, and the words barking forth from his mouth slurred into one long unintelligible growl, “rar, rar, rar, rar, raaaaaaaaaaaaar, raaaaaaaaaar.” He couldn’t keep from bursting out laughing. 

Not one to support the slightest mockery, Roberto forgot that he was supposed to be cultivating his recent acquaintance as an ally and let loose the rage brewed by fifty years of the world’s indifference.  “You think you can laugh at me you shit!  You think I’m too old to give you a beating?” he shouted slamming his fist down on the table.

For some reason, probably the drugs, the unimposing waste of a man suddenly seemed frightening to Tom, and he scrambled for a pretext to support his release of merriment.  “I, I, I, was thinking about something, something else, something that happened at work.”

“Oh?  And just what sort of something?”

“A strange person, a very strange person.”

“What strange person?”

Tom didn’t have to try too much with that one because most of the people he had met at work were strange.  “A man, about the same age as me, who had been in the army.”

“So?  How’s that strange or amusing?  Most every Frenchman has been in the army; they have national service here.  It’s not like America where the poor are sent off to fight for the rich people’s empire.”

“Um, I don’t know, but he was in sort of special combat unit or so he said; he was fighting in somewhere, and there he met some Americans, and he was fighting alongside them against whoever it was, some kind of Marxists or something.”

“Yeah, well that’s goddamn hysterical, killing dark-skinned people for the free market, ha, ha, ha.  Instead of making slaves of them, just incinerate them with napalm.  That’s progress.  You find that amusing, do you?  Maybe you’re too fucked up in the head for my projects.”

Now that it was about to snatched away from him, being a part of Roberto’s plans, no matter how deranged they might be, seemed like a prize of inestimable value to him, so he scrambled to make himself make sense.  “Yes, Yes, and then like after that he decided to go to America for some reason and be part of some extremist group.”

“A Marxist extremist group?”

“No, no, some sort of rightwing extremist group in an armed compound in Idaho.”

“I’m still not finding any humor in this story.”

“Yes, well, he got deported.”

“So, he got deported.  So, what?”

“Yeah, well, that’s the thing he didn’t even remember what happened.  He was drinking heavily in some country bar when he was suddenly arrested, and I think he resisted arrest, and they ended up sedating him, and then like the next thing he remembered he was back in France.”

Roberto eyed Tom through bloodshot orbs as if he were some curious object.  “Look you’re going to have to learn to put all those bad ideas and ugly memories in a box and close the lid.  If you’re going to start laughing for no apparent reason and people ask you why and you tell them something that makes them uncomfortable then they’re not going to want you around.”

“But what can I tell them then when they ask me to tell them something about myself?”

“Well, certainly not that you’ve worked with trained killers who want to join extremist groups, but they’re too alcoholic.  That’s not what normal people talk about.  Make up some story that’s like some feel good movie or TV series.”

“Like some horror or science fiction program where monsters attack people?”

“No, something closer to real life.”

“My real life is close to a horror or science fiction program where monsters attack people.”

“No, not your life, your life, it isn’t normal; that’s exactly what you must hide, talk about meeting someone or having a life changing experience.”

“Getting attacked by a monster would sure change your life.”

“No, like some kind of encounter that transformed your life in a positive way.”

At first, the word “encounter” made Tom think of extraterrestrials, and he thought maybe he could make up a story about being the victim of alien abduction, but that wouldn’t be possible.  He suddenly suspected that he had in fact been abducted by beings from another world, and they had performed some monstrous experiment upon him; that would explain a lot of things.  But he wasn’t so out of touch with reality that he didn’t realize that this as well wasn’t the sort of story to tell.  Then he remembered meeting Isabelle.  “My wife, after I met her things were better, at least for a while.”

“But what went wrong?”

“I don’t know really; it was like some sort of voodoo, a conspiracy of vegetarian art students.  They made us homeless, so we had to flee America.”

“Yeah, I know that’s kind of what happened to me as well, but these people you’re going to be dealing with, they are vegetarian art students.”

Tom panicked.  “Have they followed us?  Are we going to end up homeless again?”

“No, they’re just here like some sort of extended stay tourists, but they believe that this city is going to make them into something special.”

“But it does, it does; it works upon you, turning you into something, but maybe not something you want to be.”

“They think it’s going to make them into great artists or writers.”

“Writers of what?  I met somebody in a bar once; he said he was a copywriter for an advertising agency.  He said he had become a part of something that he called ‘la machine à débiliser des masses’.  I don’t know how you’d translate that.”

“You see, that’s what I’m talking about.  That’s what they’re doing to the English language, making it bereft of thought.”

“Bereft of thought?”

“A language of stupidity.  A stupid language.”

“Won’t a stupid language be easier to learn?”

“Yes, but you’ll only be able to express simple things with it.”

“Like, how about another drink?”

“Yes, I guess you’ll always be able to say that.  Do you want another drink?”

Tom nodded, and Roberto filled their glasses, and they stopped talking and contented themselves with the solace of conversation free alcohol consumption.

When Tom had staggered home, his wife was distraught at his drunken state, “Tu aurais pu te faire renversé par un bus ou arreté par la police”, you could have gotten run over by a bus or arrested by the police.  But Tom assured her that it had been necessary and exceptional.  He had met someone with fantastic projects whose entirety could only be conceived in a state of inebriation.

A few days later, the diploma was printed up, and Tom passed the job interviews at both Lipschitz and Downtown English by saying little and smiling serenely under the influence of a handful of Xanax.  The black leather coat and security guard tie and shirt gave him the air of someone who belonged and knew what they were doing.

For his first day of work at Lipschitz, he was given a book and told to read phrases and have the students first repeat what he said.  He stood in front of them and began reciting the text.  “We are going to learn something new.”  The dozen students just stared at him blankfacedly.  “We are going to learn something new.  Learning new things is fun,” he recited but received not a peep of reply from his stony-faced audience.  He felt like a priest before a faithless congregation obliged to attend the funeral of a colleague they hadn’t actually liked that much.  They knew it was a farce and weren’t going to play along.  A thirtyish short and pudgy man in the front row looked like someone likely to break if the right pressure was applied.

Tom stepped to where he was looming over his desk and pointing to the sentence in the book lying open and spoke with a parental tone, “We are going to learn something new.  Learning new things is fun.”  He then tried to put an encouraging smile on his face.

His target merely shook his head with placid indifference before answering in almost flawless English.  “We are not going to learn something new.  We are not going to have fun.  Our employers have sent us here as some job retraining scheme that’s just an excuse to try and lay us off.  So you should just sit there and say your little line to yourself and we’ll do more important things.”

This actually sounded like a good plan to Tom.  The less he had to get involved the better.  So, he sat at the front of the class and futilely read out loud to the empty air the simple sentences while his recalcitrant captives read books or newspaper or gossiped in hushed utterances.

After about twenty minutes the sound of singing and music began to reverberate from the adjoining classroom.  “I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande, but my legs ain’t bowed and my cheeks ain’t tan”.  The song continued for a while before some shots rang out, and Tom instinctively jumped under the table.  He’d been waiting for gunfire for such a long time but now encountering it in an unexpected place made it even more frightening.  He looked up at the formerly stoic students to see that they were laughing at him, the one who had given the little explicatory speech the loudest.  “They are the fun class.  They have fun.  Maybe you should go see.”  He then pointed cryptically at the door to the hallway.

Somehow feeling he had no choice, Tom snuck through the exit and creeped towards the adjoining classroom, the aged floorboards creaking eerily beneath his feet.  Through the semi-opaque glass of its door he could see shadows flitting about in a way that had nothing to do with his idea of classroom activities.  As he was about to turn the knob another shot rang out, and he ducked.  He then realized that the door was too flimsy to stop a bullet and he might as well go through it than stay where he was.

What he saw on the other side was so odd that he guessed that he must be hallucinating.  The female students were mounted piggyback on the male students, and they were galloping up and down the aisles.  The woman who would be their teacher, if this didn’t happen to be a vision provoked by a psychotic state, was dressed up in a cowgirl outfit, her spurs splintering the top of the desk she was standing on while she cracked a whip over the heads of what would be her students with her right hand while agitating an antique revolver almost the size of a small sub machine in her left.  While the student continued singing and galloping back and forth, another shot rang out, so loud that it made Tom’s ears ring.  The report added to the acrid fumes of black powder drifting through the classroom.  The song went on unperturbed, “I'm a riding fool who is up to date I know every trail in the Lone Star State cause I ride the range in a Ford V-8 Yippie yi yo kayah.”

Tom just sat down in a chair and looked on.  If it was an hallucination, it would probably go away after a while.  If it was part of the plot to drive him permanently insane that he suspected his life was, then he’d just act unaffected, and they would realize that they weren’t going to make him lose his mind no matter what bizarre antics they put on display.  He fixed a spot in the ceiling, a crack in the plaster, and concentrated on it with all his might, putting himself in a state where the goings on about him faded away.  He was shaken out of this state some unknown time latter by the cowgirl English teacher, “Hey, you ain’t a student, are you?” she drawled.  “You don’t look like a student, but you don’t look much like an American neither.  I’m Mary Ann from Austin, Texas.  Whereabout you from?  What’s your name?”

“I’m Tom.  I’m not really from anywhere.”

“Howz that?”

“Well, I was born in Chicago, but my family moved to the desert because the angels of God told my mother to.”

“My oh my, and I thought my life was special; you’ve just got to meet the gang.”

“The gang?  Are you criminals?”

“I don’t mean a biker gang or the bloods or the crips, though we might become something like that; I mean the other teachers who are here in Paris doing creative things.”

Tom didn’t know about this, but it might be an opportunity for free alcohol, so he nodded his head in consent.

“Just let me pack my stuff away, and we’ll get going.”  She put her revolver and her whip in a sack and led Tom down to the metro.  He stared at the floor of the subway car; there were always interesting things there, cigarette butts, discarded tickets, cracks, stains of bodily fluids.  She kept talking to him but the noises of the train passing through tunnels drowned it out.  The sensory overload of it all made him pass into a trance-like state.

He didn’t even remember how he had gotten to the café or bar or whatever it was.  He was sitting in front of a pitcher of beer in a place made up like a haunted house; ghosts, goblins, and witches flew across the ceiling.  Skeletons and mutilated corpses were attached to the walls.  Over shelves holding bottles filled with liquors of a variety of colors was the name of the place, “Jack O’Café” in glowing crimson letters.  Mary Ann’s gang were having deep conversations.  They talked about semiotics.  They talked about ontology.  They talked about the semiotics of ontology, and the ontology of semiotics.  For some reason, they took Tom’s pseudo-psychotic state of de-realization for a profound reflection upon their discourse.  They wanted to know if cruelty was necessary for this thing that is called culture or something like that.  The voice he seldom heard came, the booming voice, the one that spoke as if from some distant place where it saw all and knew all.

“Seismic oncology,” it intoned.

Tom repeated in a voice almost a grave as the one that echoed in his head, “Seismic oncology!”

All the young people gathered at the table gazed at each quizzically.  Was this guy saying something that didn’t make any sense?  Was he doing it because he was too stupid to understand or was he trying to make fun of them?

As they were making up their minds as to whether the newcomer merited some scathing sarcasm or not, an older man sitting in the shadows, wearing an old fashioned black corduroy suit spoke up in a ringing voice with an indeterminable accent.  “Yes, it’s very much the fashion, seismic oncology.  Imagine you lived on a peninsula.  In the south were volcanoes that occasionally erupted spreading death and destruction.  In the middle were grottoes filled with toxic gas that induced hallucinations.  In the north, earthquakes periodically shook the ground bringing down buildings and crushing their inhabitants.  You could well surmise that these three things were attributable to three separate gods, an angry god who spewed forth fire and smoke, a malevolent and capricious god who wanted to reduce your cities to rubble, and a divinatory one who wished to communicate with you through some occult means.  But if you were able to descend into the bowels of the Earth and see it’s molten magma churning, you’d understand these things to be all the product of one phenomenon.  And that you yourself are phenomena living on a phenomenon and at this very moment there might be phenomena developing inside you, perhaps cancerogenic cells, that could end your life.”

At the end of this little treatise, the group began speaking amongst themselves again but this time in hushed tones as if afraid of saying the wrong thing loud enough so that it might be overheard.  They avoided looking at Tom and edged away from him as if he were possibly infested with lice.  A newcomer came and took advantage of the place that was left next to him to sit down at the otherwise crowded table.  Eager to be accepted, she took Tom’s isolation for importance and tried to start a conversation.

“My name’s Allison, from Connecticut.”

For some reason, Tom had trouble remembering his name, “Ah, I think, I think, I think, yeah, it must be, wait a second.”

Then a helpful voice in his head chimed in, “Tom.”

“Oh, yeah, of course, it’s Tom,” Tom muttered.

Thinking that he was joking, Allison stuttered at him, “MMMMaybe, yyyyyour, parents give you short name easy remember.”

Most of what his parents did was to abuse and humiliate him somehow so that must have been the reason.  But that she had seemingly figured this out so quickly was unsettling.

Allison took the forehead wrinkled with consternation as a manifestation of some aesthetic troubles, “Are you some kind of starving artist?”

Being a starving artist seemed like an almost criminal thing to be accused of, maybe they would lock him up somewhere for it, so he pulled up his shirt and pinched the extra inches of belly fat he had.  “Look, see I get a lot to eat.”

“Okay, that’s not what I meant.  It’s your face.  It has hunger in it.”

“Don’t worry; I’m not going to bite you.”

“Ha, ha, well you better not try.”

“I don’t know.  I’m not strapped down.  Once when they were wheeling her away my mother was trying to bite them, but she was strapped down.”

Tom felt like giving a demonstration and snapped his teeth ferociously in the air.  Allison began to realize that this wasn’t a person she wanted to be sitting next to.  This wasn’t even a person that she wanted to be seen sitting next to.  She pointed in the general direction of the bar, “I think I see someone I sat next to at a Collège de France lecture, ‘la littérature comme sport de combat’ I think I’ll go ask them if they took notes.”

She held out her hand for him to shake, and he looked blankly at it.  He forgot when he had last shaken someone’s hand.  For some reason, it made him think back to a time when he was walking down the Avenue of the Americas and he saw an orangutan strapped into the front seat of a pink Cadillac convertible from the early sixties.  He didn’t wonder why its owner had left it there.  Somehow it seemed as though it had been left there for him.  It looked inquisitively at him.  Maybe he had come to set it free and lead it back to the jungle.  When he approached it, it stretched forth its arm.  Tom could see that the member was powerful enough to crush his hand, but he had had so much beer and whisky to drink that he didn’t much care . He grasped the simian paw and gazed into its eyes to be shocked back to sobriety by the look of profound understanding there.  One being in a city of seven million people commiserated with him, and it was covered in orange hair.  He wanted to hold on to that grasp, but the ape decided to let go after several seconds and look up at the windows of neighboring buildings as if there might be more interesting people to play with dwelling there.  Tom walked on and never told a soul of this experience.  They’d just think he was lying or confabulating.

But now when Tom took the girl’s hand it seemed more foreign than that of the genetically more distant primate and by the face she made he could tell she was feeling something similar.  She pulled her fingers away as quickly as she could without signaling her discombobulation and rose away from him like he were something toxic.  “Have a nice life,” she shot over her shoulder as she quickened her way towards the supposed acquaintance.

Did she really want him to have a nice life? Tom wondered.  Did she understand that most of the time he didn’t even feel alive?  Anyway, her abrupt rejection of him seemed to signal to the whole table that he was something unpalatable.  As if all of one mind they had suddenly decided that they were going to “Austin Powers night at the Lizard Lounge”.  Sounded sinister to Tom, and he was supposed to have a costume.  Walking around in a costume seemed even worse than wearing a uniform to work so he was glad when they made it obvious that he wasn’t invited.  They all stood to go except the man in the black corduroy suit, “I’d come with if I hadn’t forgotten my flamethrower, but you must invite our fascinating new compadre to your reading.”

Though they were all uneasy at the thought of having anymore to do with the odd interloper, the man appeared to have some sort of authority over them so one of them threw a flyer in front of Tom on the table.  At the top was printed “Kafé Alternatif” and underneath the address, time, and date of the event.  By the time he looked up again they had all vanished except for the older man who slid his chair over to Tom’s side.  “I’m doing this as a favor to Roberto, on account of what he did for me in Prague in ’68.  But this is the last.  I don’t want anything more to do with his schemes.”  He then stood up, threw Tom an odd sort of salute, and marched off.

Tom was left alone in a place he didn’t belong.  Something he was used to, but for some reason it was unsettling this time.  He didn’t even want anything more to drink, not even if someone else was buying.  If Roberto’s plan was not actually a plan at all but a scheme then maybe it was something he didn’t want anything to do with.  Tom had wanted to have a plan for some time, or at least be part of a plan.  Of course, most people he had met said they had a plan, they had big plans, big big plans.  But in the end they were only schemes or scams.  Plans took time, and most people Tom had encountered in his chaotic life didn’t know whether they would even be alive next week.  It wasn’t really the plan itself that they needed.  They just needed the idea of having a plan to make them feel less hopeless and helpless.  If they had given any thought to it they’d realize that it wasn’t actually leading to anything, or just leading to trouble.  Tom had had enough trouble already.

So he was out of Roberto’s whatever it might be.  It was actually a relief.  He rode the subway home with a big idiot grin on his big head, and it seemed to irritate a lot of the passengers but that just made him grin all that much more.  When he got home life became complicated once again.  A strange smelly man had come by saying that he had important business with Tom, something that was going to lead to greatness for both of them.

At first Isabelle thought that maybe it was a relative of Tom’s.  Most of the Americans she had met had seemed clean and orderly until she had had the misfortune of meeting Tom’s family.  He had told her that most of them had been in jail or mental wards at some time or another for doing things that didn’t make much sense but in France they wouldn’t just lock up such people but they’d keep them locked up.  The most disturbing was his mother.  She thought that everyone else in the world thought that Americans were racist, and she was eager to assure her husband’s wife that she wasn’t.  She loved Oprah.  Sometimes Oprah even came out of the television to hold her hand and pray with her.  She’d also mentioned that her brother was institutionalized, and they were never letting him out.  So was this Tom’s uncle who’d escaped, gotten on a plane, and somehow found where they lived?

After Roberto had ranted on for a while she figured out that this was the man who’d gotten Tom the job teaching English.  How could he get anyone a job?  He looked like someone who couldn’t even find a job for himself.  Maybe he had bothered them so much that they acquiesced to employing Tom just to get rid of him.  He was annoying, and these vague references to the “revolutionary master work that was going to change the world” were very unsettling.  She then hit upon a tactic to liberate herself from him.  She’d offered him some coffee and noticed the disappointment in his eyes when she’d said it was all she had.  She mentioned that the Beaujolais Nouveau had come out a few weeks before and a store a few blocks away had a special array of marked down bottles at bargain prices.  If he hurried he could get there before it closed.  He could get some to celebrate with Tom when they had achieved the “literary glory that was rightfully his”.

Before leaving he handed her an envelope.  When he had left she first thought about steaming it open to get a clue as to what new kind of mess her husband had gotten himself into.  She then considered just throwing it down the garbage chute but eventually settled upon getting to the bottom of it all.

She had quite a few questions for Tom when he got home.  Questions he didn’t really have answers for so he just put it all down to some favors he owed somebody for his new job.  When she produced the envelope, he opened it hesitantly.  For some reason it felt like bad news.  When he actually read it though he felt waves of energy flowing through his brain.  This was a new sort of madness and actually it wasn’t so far from his own, even painfully too close.  Suddenly whatever Roberto was about made some kind of strange sense.  If he were to recite these words to the right people in the right place then maybe just anything could happen.  It could be like an incantation at an improvised black mass summoning up who knows what sort of demons, and he would be its high priest.

When the signal evening came he reinforced himself with a bottle of Côtes du Rhône and marched up avenue Gambetta towards Belleville.  It seemed as if the people he passed could sense that he had a rendezvous with destiny, but when he arrived at the address he was a bit taken aback.  It was a storefront whose interior was made up to resemble a squat in Kreuzberg or the Lower East Side in the nineteeneighties, but its attempt at randomness and chaos had been carefully planned.  Instead of furniture found in a garbage heap, the chairs and tables had been bought at secondhand shops in Saint Ouen and arranged with a certain idea of composition.  The graffiti on the walls weren’t vomits of angst but “street art”.  It felt like a trap.  Oh well, his whole life had been a trap.  He ordered a half liter of beer and a shot of whisky to deal with it.

After a while a trendy alternative clientele began to filter in.  One of them, whose funky facial hair, piercings and tats were screaming “I’m so special and authentique” sidled up to him but then recoiled when Tom turned and sighed toxic fumes at him.  He made him think of a police informer in a bad seventies cop show, dressed up to infiltrate the underclass.  “Hi I’m Joe from Seattle; I’m in charge of the open mic.  I was told you got something to read?  We’re open to everything but prefer works that are progressive and transgressive.”  Of course, Tom had done a lot of transgressing; his birth had been a transgression, a punishment from God his parents used to say.  But he had never made any progress.  A glass fell to the ground and shattered.

As it wasn’t even his work but Roberto’s he had no real idea what it was about.  In fact, Roberto himself couldn’t have truthfully stated what the subject or object of his writing was; it would have been too painful.  If anyone would have asked him he would have harangued them for hours about how he was heroically battling the vulgarity, hedonism, and superficiality of the state, California, to which he’d been exiled as a child.  But its real subject was his being rejected from doctoral literature programs at all of its major and most of its minor universities.  And its object was to exact some sort of vengeance upon the universe of the Golden State’s academia if not in its lecture halls from which he’d been banned then in the chimerical world of his troubled mind.  Luckily, Tom’s thoughts were much less complicated, and  he was on his way to being very drunk so he just glanced at the ceiling and slurred, “um er, something different, something very different and new.”  The organizer just nodded his head with a floating motion and made a note to put Tom last.  He didn’t pay much attention to what the others read and concentrated on drinking and was a bit startled when his name was called.

He had noticed that the others had introduced themselves so he made a very clumsy attempt to do likewise.  “When I left America I thought the voices would stop, but they didn’t.  I don’t know what could make them stop.”  The crowd laughed raucously.  “They were injecting me with anti-psychotic medication for a while.”  Some suspected that this wasn’t a comedy routine, and the volume of responding merriment decreased as if a laugh-track technician had turned it down for a less funny performer.  “Have you ever been injected with anti-psychotic medication? It’s like the worst hangover in your life times ten.”  Now almost everyone realized that this odd personage wasn’t there to amuse them and only a few suppressed giggles answered Tom.  “Perhaps electroshock or lobotomy would be the answer, but unfortunately they don’t do that here.”  Now there was almost dead silence except for a few earnest and concerned whispers.  “I maybe should have tried that before I left.  And why do you ride the subway to parties for super villains dressed up as cartoon characters?  Are you trying to make me hallucinate or believe that I’m hallucinating?”  Somebody in charge of what little technical matters there were decided to redirect the light into Tom’s eyes so to avoid being blinded he pulled Roberto’s tattered manuscript out of his pocket and began to read.

“Los Angeleez!  I am a Farrah with no Faucet to gush from, a Starsky with no Hutch to hide in, blond Californians fought in other galaxies now forgotten an enraged shark chomped through your beach party the best minds of my generation ended up flipping burgers at McDonalds, Is your meal still happy when the acid of your stomach is digesting it?  I met a girl in Prague who shot at silhouettes of Uncle Sam at 16 and ate your fries with a tiny plastic fork when she was 18.  Do revolutionaries care about greasy fingers?”

The sound of shattering glass came from the obscurity before him.  Had an empty pint of beer fallen to the ground or been thrown at him by somebody who had bad aim?  He hesitated only a moment at the idea of glass breaking on his face, but then decided it would only add to the spectacle and continued.

“Can mountains of cocaine burn away a foreign idea of cinema?  I should be a delirious derelict twitching in a puddle of piss on a Sunset Boulevard sidewalk.  You can’t ticket me for jaywalking now that I have become a vehicle officer.  Throwing balls and catching balls you catch a disease that throws you and you never learned to bounce.  I am Mickey Mouse back from Euro-Disney.  Back to make you laugh at all.  And you will laugh at all.  Is some Empire coming which will transform all this banality to greatness through the lens of a thousand years of history?  My life has no sense other than giving a meaning to yours.  Your life has no meaning other than material for my senses.  My guts are too wasted to absorb enough alcohol to blind me to your twenty foot high ‘Jesus Saves’ sign in neon letters on the roofs of residence hotels filled with irredeemable transients.  What is this to the super zombie powers of the cephalophore martyrs of a faith that my father failed to beat into me?  Can you not see how grim your Hollywood sign is?  Recalling pagan sacrifices in Teutonic groves.  It forced you to elect an offspring of Teutons swollen with artificial hormones who stuffed your prisons full until they became inhuman.”

“It’s bleeding,” someone blurted out.  He couldn’t tell if someone was actually bleeding or if this was some kind of commentary on his reading, but he didn’t care.  It seemed to fit in.

“Furtive figures clutching crack and meth pipes in tattered tents are your new pilgrims.  They must be praying to some extraterrestrial messiah for salvation or extermination or maybe both.  Where has your smog gone?  The apocalyptic incense of its orange pall is needed more than ever.  But you don’t understand.  You don’t even know that you don’t understand.  I’m the savior of the American language, and every letter I write is like a drop of blood from Yankee-Doodle-Christ.”

The last stanza of his recitation had been punctuated by the scraping of chairs’ legs against the concrete floor, the rustling of clothing and hushed whispers.  He’d thought that it was some agitation caused by the unbearable truths of Roberto’s words.  But now that the lights went down he saw that it had been the rumblings of the audience’s retreat and the club was now empty but for one man who sat almost directly before him.  He clapped slowly, not with a mocking slowness but of a certain solemnity.  When he had finished he stretched out his right hand towards an artfully mismatched and playfully rickety chair beside him.  Tom went and sat where indicated like a well-trained dog.  The man was slim but not unmuscular.  He had a chambray shirt on with jeans.  Perhaps he didn’t know that you shouldn’t wear denim with denim (unless you’re in an institution where it’s the uniform) or he had a specific reason for dressing so.  His ankle high black boots and large black plastic-rimmed glasses looked institutional as well; fashion niceties weren’t Tom’s forte, but the carceral look raised some hackles.  “My, my quite a performance,” he exclaimed appreciatively, “cleared out the house.”  Noticing that Tom had given his outfit a looking over he felt obliged to study Tom’s clothes as well.  When he wasn’t in uniform Tom usually wore whatever was lying around, but his wife had decided to dress him up for the occasion, so he was in a calfskin jacket that she had shoplifted from the Auchan in Bagnolet (something she’d been taught by her mother, who had learned to steal growing up in Menilmontant), an old red and white mariniere that her father had thrown out when he gave up sailing, and black corduroy trousers from Tati.

The stranger stared at the shirt for a while.  “Looks like the ones they sell at La Rochelle; have you ever been there?”

“No, I’ve never been anywhere in France.”

“But you’re in France now; you’re in Paris.”

Tom paused for a moment to consider that yes he was in Paris and that Paris was in France.  “Yes, I guess I wasn’t paying attention.  I’ve never been anywhere else in France, but I’ve read about La Rochelle, the siege, in The Three Musketeers.”

“So, you’ve read Dumas.”

“Do?  Ma?”  The copy of The Three Musketeers that Tom had read had had its cover and title page torn off.  He found it lying in a trashcan in a factory or a warehouse he was supposed to be guarding.  It was the only book in French that he had ever read, but he’d read it a dozen times thinking it had some kind of special message for him.  Did the people at whatever prison or state hospital for the criminally insane this guy came from know about his mother?

“You’ve read The Three Musketeers, but don’t know who Alexandre Dumas is?”

“Is that the real name of one of the characters?  They were all using what’s it called?, nommes de guerre, right?”

“No, Alexandre Dumas is the author; he wrote lots of books, and he fought a number of duels with people who didn’t like what he wrote.  Some say that he incorporated the details of some of his duels into his books.”

“I think I know what you’re talking about.  There’s a scene where someone gets stuck in the lung.  That’s seriously painful.”

“I imagine that it would be.”

“Oh, it sure is.  Somebody stabbed me in the lung when I was homeless in L.A.”

“Why would somebody try to murder a homeless person?”

Tom didn’t even have to think about that one because he had spent years ruminating upon it.  “Well, there’s so many people in America who want to kill someone and a homeless person, it’s like they can kill them for free.  It’s not like the police care.”

Tom struggled with how to express what a sucking chest wound felt like, when you tried to breathe the air gurgled in through a hole in your ribcage.  It was like being transformed into another animal, something primitive with gills, perhaps, amphibian-like.  But people didn’t usually want to hear about this sort of thing, so he just kept quiet.

The stranger obligingly ordered drinks for them, and they were thankfully able to dispense with talking until a man in something resembling a military uniform came in.  He was wearing a black bomber jacket and boots with grey pants and a black turtleneck sweater.  He sat down without being invited like he and the man in denim were close friends.  “Going to the Koons’ show?” he queried.

“Not interested.”

“But he’s the new Warhol.”

“Warhol’s work had a form of nihilism derived from a profound reflection on the superficial.  Koons’s work doesn’t seem to have any reflection on anything.”“Well, we can’t all be such deep thinkers as you Yalies; if something’s too difficult to understand, just blow it the fuck up.  How are things at the State Department anyway?”

Tom had tuned out the conversation, but the mention of “State Department” set off alarms of paranoia in his head.  What State Department he wondered?  Maybe some State Department of Corrections.

Were they looking for him?  Were these two part of some undercover squad searching for fugitives?  He could have committed a serious crime in some American state while he was blacked out in a psychotic episode.  There were so many states, and they had so many laws that it was hard to tell if you were doing something illegal even if you weren’t insane.

James Nowlan is the author of the novels Security (from which this chapter is an outtake), Killebrity, and Shock And Awe.  He is also a filmmaker, and I am quite happy to feature his work on drinkdrankdrunk!

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