|What Dya Know
Ryland W. Greene
October. Damn. I am standing in the yard between chores and the avoidance of chores and I feel the wind come around me in a way I hadn't noticed until just now. It seems to come from a long way off and carry an urgency to get on along. It's not that its strong, just brushing by me, kind of a tease to the mind, a mild insult to the skin. Like my first wife used to say, when I feel that autumn air on my face, I think I ought to be packing up to go somewhere. Years past Ive up and gone. Eventually she did too.
But here I am, afflicted by that same autumnal urge brought by the wind and I'm casting about for why I might be feeling this need to move on, and where I would go anyways, and I come upon the idea that this feeling, part nice, part irritation, goes back to the days of going off to school come the fall. I'd twelve years of doing that. Maybe thirteen, given a delay between eight and ninth while I was feeling dyslexic, before they or I knew about such things. Plus add on a couple of years at the community college, and then the service, then a bit more college, but not to the end of it. As in no degree. More than twenty years if you throw in my hitch in the Navy which is learning about what you don't want, part of anyone's education. Then the kids doing about the same, Jill until she went off with that roller skater, pregnant to boot, and Arlen, until he said oh fuck it to his guidance counselor and joined the air force. I have been around this feeling long enough to recognize the urge to take off come this time of the seasons. Its a common feeling most folks know of, but when it comes upon you, it feels like yours alone.
Where to go appears a tad more problematic. No school for old-timers like me. No train ticket to the State U. I elect to drop down to Alex Erstiles place, The Erstwhile Inn. Three fifths of a mile straight down the hill, and, coming back up the hill, a chance to sober up for my third wife, Connie. The second didn't amount to much one way or another. She said the same about me so at least we agreed on that one thing. Probably the only time either of us got something right about the other.
I'd dropped out of the bar scene a few years back, trying to stabilize my stomach lining. I didn't want to get so far into the bottle that one day I'd come to and find I'd pulled the cork in after me. Then too, all the DUI laws that were tripping up my familiars finally got to me, too, in spite of good intentions. Took my license. Around here if you don't drive, you don't work. Don't eat hardly. Single, you don't get laid. Married, you get worn out layin' 'cause there's nothing else to do once you've cut your grass both ways to plaid with a push mower 'cause you can't drive out for gas. Then this weather-sent urge to go somewheres, and the Erstwhile seemed like a reasonable solution to my conflicting needs. My daughter, Jill, she used to talk about her conflicting needs and I have come to realize, at long last, what she was talking about. Going two ways at once, getting nowhere.
The Erstwhile is set into the corner of a larger building that was once a good hotel and a well-known restaurant in these parts. It has its own special standing and there is a historic plaque there by the main door. Sits just a block off the railroad so that, in its day now long past, it was within walking distance of the station. I figure that back then folks from other places, following the urge to go, came here. It would seem some still do. Pensioners and guys just passing through, maybe a family waiting on other arrangements rent its rooms. The eatery opens and closes with predictable management changes. The bar has held steady for a long time. Who knows why, it draws a mixed crowd, everything from youngsters to those like me, from tarred-up road toppers to the chiropractor over by Second Street who we call Bones, to the lawyer Kriddiden when he's out slumming or on the run from his old lady. Sometimes there is a woman or two, usually not alone, but usually left alone. So why any of us go there is a mystery. There's not even much room to move. Tables crowded against the wall so the neons hang eye-level high with their wires all dangling about like your aunt Hattie's slip straps, a narrow path between the tables, and the bar that's like walking on a single rail. Get twenty people in here and you feel a condition coming on.
I'm sitting here nursing a shot and a beer. I have the corner spot away from the door so I can see down both parts of the bar and take notice of who is coming and going, though I long ago learned how to look bored and not to act like I've taken note even when I have. So here I am, behaving myself, more deeply bored than I'm pretending to be, and this guy comes in. I see him enter and know straight away he dont belong in this place. He looks around, sort of strides in long steps down towards me, squeezes into the seat at my right on the short end of the bar. He spends this considerable amount of time getting his coat off and seeing his stuff arranged. Finally he gets himself squared away, nudges me, apologizes, and I say no problem; then damn if he don't open a book right there on the mahogany and start to read. Alex has to ask him twice what he's drinking, and the guy says sherry. Sherry, says Alex, like in a question. Well, I'll have to see about that. Alex starts to rummaging under the bar and he's got half a dozen dusty bottles out on his woodenwalk when he finally he comes up with a big jug with a screw top and a faded label. Dry sherry, Alex says, unscrewing the cap and sniffing at the contents. He arches his eyebrows, tilts his head and pours into a glass that's more familiar with muscatel. The reader only half looks up and takes the glass from Alex before Alex can get it on the coaster. He sips, makes strange shapes with his lips, and shrugs. Martin, on my left, says in my ear, When I seen him make up them lips I thought he'd gonna kiss old Alex smack on his. I nod. Nowhere to go with a conversation on that. The reader is skinny and more than a bit peculiar, but I've learned not to rush into giving offense over what doesn't matter anyway. Martin wanders down the bar for a better audience. I raise the shot and stick my tongue into the whiskey, then sip my beer.
The reader closes his book and looks up above the bar mirror where there isn't much to see except a wet stain working through the last coat of semi-gloss Alex brushed on some years back. Obviously the guy is thinking. That is, thinking something more special than what anyone of us might be thinking. I use the opportunity to take a look at the book cover and, without meaning to, I say the title out loud. Never was successful at silent reading. Move my lips when I read. Four Quarters, I say, thinking of coins in the fountain or some such.
Four Quartets, he corrects me.
After a pause to assess this, I observe: well, four quarters is one whole. That true of those quartets?
That 's interesting, he says to me. Maybe old TS had that in mind. Maybe four quartets also make a whole.
I sense he's talking down to me. Three quartets wouldn't, I tell him, and five quartets is a problem too.
Martin is back. TS is tough shit in any man's language, he says, speaking straight ahead to the beer held in front of his face. I ignore him as does the reader, but I'm somewhat embarrassed anyway.
Here is a place of disaffection, my neighbor observes. Maybe he's speaking about Martin after all, but I can't know. Don't think I've heard it said quite that way, I tell him, but if youre speaking about here and now you may have got it right.
I'm quoting out of the book, he informs me.
That so? You like it so much you put it to memory?
Not all. I make mistakes. But much of it.
I knew a preacher did that with the New Bible. I also knew a kid named Andrew Foots that memorized his Boy Scout manual. I never did know why. I myself could once recite Oh Captain My Captain by that Camden fellow they named the bridge after. I thought he come on a bit heavy.
I didn't set out to memorize this, he says, tapping the little book. I've just read it so much that some of it has begun to stay with me.
Can a fellow ask why you read it so much? It's not that thick a book. Seems you'd have mastered it already with reading it once or twice. Get the gist anyways.
I can't stop reading it. It's like Eliot knew who I am and what I live with when he wrote this. The truth is, it's almost oppressive, the way I have recognized my experience summed up in his words. Or maybe his language created my experience. It sort of cuts both ways.
Yeah, is all I give him back. It seems a familiar thought but then many confusing things are familiar to me.
Look down the bar there, he tells me, and listen to this. Neither plentitude or vacancy. Only a flicker over the strained, time- ridden faces distracted from distraction by distraction. Don't those words make you realize what you have been seeing for years but couldn't quite give shape to?
I paused to think it over. I don't want to give him his way too easy. But he don't appear to be on a hustle. I can realize the words taking up what I see here and now and what Ive seen for a long time, but not so sharply. Martin is haranguing a fellow I speak with occasionally at the VFW and this guy does have a strained face ridden hard by time, though of course the same could be said of me. So there is a sense of all that distracting going on like he says. But hell, that's what I do here. That's what I do more and more. That's what the kids do down at the video game place. Maybe even fishing counts. Hell, when getting distracted becomes a problem, well a man wants to get distracted from that too. The point is, a person has a certain need of distraction, and I can see that's what this guy's proposing, though I suspect he dont really approve of it being so.
Okay. What else this fellow say? I ask, worried that Im opening up the conversation unwisely, but not quite able to shut it down.
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning, tumid apathy with no concentration, men and bits of paper whirled by the cold wind that blows before and after time.
He says all that?
What's with humid apathy? I don't think apathy is humid. I'd make it kind of dry and brittle.
Not humid. Tumid. The opposite of dry and brittle. Maybe bloated or distended. As in overly full.
Like with gas?
I keep after these shots and beers, that's what I'll get.
Huh. You should try this sherry.
Not likely to do that.
Well, I wasn't serious. It's a reminder of how imperfect life can be. Not strained, just time-ridden there under Alex's bar.
Ill bet. So tell me that tumid line again.
You like it?
I cant know.
He repeats it.
It does seem familiar, I tell him. We become silent. My drink needs finishing and refilling. I recognize that I have to set the edges to a conversation like this, so personal and so distant all at the same time. I am fighting with my mind to remember what I know about this fellow the reader calls TS, and something lurks in the several fogs around my brain, some fragment maybe from those classes I wandered through so long ago. Bitchy Dr. Rosenberger telling us we were dumb, dumb, dumb and making out endless lists of what we should have read if we desired to be less dumb then we were. That's also long ago, several lives back.
This TS the same guy who wrote about a drowned sailor, I ask?
Yes. In The Waste Land.
I'm trying to recall how it goes. I remember him, I say. I remember wondering was he drunk when he drowned, and was he from a country that no longer is. I was Navy for four years. That was kind of like drowning. But that drowned sailor, I couldn't ever figure out what he was about. Dr. Rosenberger set great store by him. I remember that. But I thought he called him phony. I remember that too.
Yeah, phony. I remember it seemed strange. Rosenberger got kind of miffed
over me saying what I thought hed said. So that miffed me.
Phoenician. Not phony. Phoenician.
Phoenicians is just goddamned Armenian Jew bastard Gypsy Arabs from fucking Lebanon and Puerto Rico, Martin says. He is getting his anger up 'cause nobody will pay him any attention, which in turn makes him worse, which then makes folks even less likely to give him a listen. He's been like this since the desert war. Before that he was ordinary enough. A good third baseman on the volunteer firemen's team.
I'd apologize for Martin if I could, I tell the reader. Problem is, he'll never get better, only worse. He seems unable to find satisfaction in anything. That makes apology kind of worthless. Hell just keep on finding fault, studying up on ugly. Still, you wouldn't think someone would talk that way today. About kinds of people. But then you got to allow for him being in the last war.
Well, he replies, we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to meaning restores the experience in a different form there's more, but it's not coming to me.
Privately, I'm a little tired of this exchange and beginning to feel like a straight man for a fool. Thats not very satisfactory, I tell him, still thinking of Martin, me tilting back the new shot and trying not to show the burn in my throat. You ought to get some better words. A little profanity might help us ordinary folks.
You're right, neighbor. That wasn't very satisfactory. Just a way of putting it. There was a long pause followed by him scrambling in his little book. But listen to this, he says, and he starts to read, got some decibels going now so others can hear him over the music and the evening news, intolerable wrestle with words and meanings- the poetry does not matter- It was not, to start again, what one had expected .and then he reads something about calm, which by this time no one is, and also something about autumn, and I figured this is where I came in. I siphon my beer, check the change on the bar, nod to Alex who is checking the label on the big sherry jug, and turn to go. It's been fun, I say to the reader, but maybe you ought to put the book away. Learn to look bored, give the impression you don't see anybody. Change your drink. Me, I got to go.
It might work, he says. In my end is my beginning.
Don't talk about being in your end around here. These guys are sensitive about talk like that. Try and stay clear of Martin, if you can.
I worry he wants to shake hands or exchange names so I am pulling back as best I can. He turns full towards me with both hands in front of him like he's offering me something. You must go through the way in which you are not, he says to me, And what you do not know is the only thing you know and what you own is what you do not own and where you are is where you are not. The bar is quiet and folks are looking.
Ok, I say, but where I am is not where I'm going to be much longer.
I walk past some people I know and some I don't, turning half sideways to ease through the narrow path by the tables. As I pass Martin, he grabs me by the sleeve and says, We come here to get away from the crazies, not to bring them around. Take that asshole with you. I take my sleeve back from him and give him my best look of disgust. Terry from the Mobil station asks me am I going home and I say, you bet. The heavy silence of the last moments is starting to trail off into small talk. Then the reader starts up again.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated of dead and living.
On the deck my Captain lies, fallen cold and dead, I find myself thinking. I have to check myself to make sure I'm not mumbling. As I pull the door after me I think, who in this life would want to know things that way? So many words, so little sense. Or maybe it is just so much sense but of no damned help to a guy. Hearing it put that way, fancy and such, just makes it worse. Like today's wind, stirring me up with no place better to get to other than here.
I hike the three fifths of a mile up the hill to our place, walking mostly in shadows but occasionally, when there is a gap in the houses and trees, seeing my shadow leap out under my left arm like it is trying to get free of me. With clear air comes cold weather, I reason to myself, shivering in my light coating of sweat, the booze cooking under my mackinaw. At the house I go in by the back door. Connie is at the sink fidgeting more than necessary with an arrangement of fake flowers she tells me she just bought at Replay, the charity shop for abused women. I squeeze in by her to wash my hands.
Daylight time is off. The darkness comes earlier. I was worried where you were, she says.
I know she is trying to smell my breath, but I don't turn from her. I was at the Erstwhile, I explain. Just for two.
I felt the need to go some place but couldn't think where. Except there.
Anybody there but you?
Some. Alex on bar, Terry from the Mobil. And Martin, trying to find a cause for being like he is, plain ornery. Also, this guy come in with a book. Poems. I couldn't believe it. Damn if he didnt sit down right by me. Couldn't shut him up. Got embarrassing after a while.
What's he doing in the Erstwhile?
Couldn't say. I felt folks were getting uneasy, him saying all that stuff out loud. And in a strange voice, a note too high and like he was holding his breath. I recollect poetry doing that to me, back in school. I mean, leaving me confused and uneasy. Couldnt say it normal.
Long time ago, long way back. School, you know. It's like, was we ever there, she says, speaking kind of distant herself. And, how 'd we ever get to here?
Yeah, well. I dry my hands on a tea towel and she turns away to put her bouquet on top of the fridge where it doesn't look so good. Uglier for trying so hard to look pretty. But I don't say that. Instead, I ask a question. You know who T.S. Eliot is, I ask?
Maybe. I'm not sure. I guess he isn't local. I'd say I don't know of him.
Me neither. Thought I might have heard of him once. Long time ago, long way back. Like you said.
Well, I guess that's an end to it then, she says with a flat look on her face and a glance that says I'm under suspicion for something done or undone, who could know.
I guess Im thinking on winter coming, I tell her. Get the storm windows set. I've felt a certain disaffection come on me just this day. I've been thinking, I'm having a bit of trouble with feeling too much one minute, too little the next. Full of empty.
What d'ya know, she says.
|© 2003 Ryland W.
This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the express permission.of Jane Maulfair. Please see our conditions of use.
This is the second appearance in The Barcelona Review for Ryland
Greene. He has also had stories in In Posse. Retired from a professional life in
the visual arts, he lived and wrote in the Lehigh Valley of Eastern Pennsylvania until his
untimely death August 5, 2003, while in communication with TBR over the publication of
"What Dya Know." He is survived by writer and teacher Jane Maulfair and
their four children.
issue 38: september - october 2003