Karl didn’t know his Frederick

January 28, 2012


I was watching the debates the other night. We all look for gaffes. Mistakes. But standing up in front of an audience (knowing that there are millions of people watching you) takes a lot of courage. And the advice you get before you go on. Relax. When I defended my Master Thesis in philosophy I was told that there were be a small panel of professors to ask me questions. And a handful of people to watch. It would last 45 minutes. Perhaps it was because of my thesis (I was arguing that Karl Marx had misread Hegel and that communism was thus based on a flawed theory) but the room was packed. There were people in an adjoining hallway. The experience would last over 2 hours. I was doing fine until a Professor Pinto stood up to ask a question. He asked a four part question. By the time he got to his fourth part, I could not remember the first part. I survived. But I had nightmares about that experience for months afterwards. And so the seed for this story. From my novel, The Adventures of Fred and Me: Episode 1, Divorce and Kitty Litter.

 

……………………………………….

Panic in the Lecture

 

I took a swallow of water and put the cup down. By now Fred had passed out, curled in a ball with his chin resting on his right forearm. Dr. Blackstone had returned to his seat and was waiting for me to begin.

“I left home early that evening. I met Claude on the way out.”

“Whose Claude?” the doctor asked.

“My landlord’s son.”

“No one of importance to you,” the doctor said impatiently.

“Not exactly.”

“Just continue on, David.”

“Fred slept most of the way there.”

“You took your cat?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why?”

“Fred and Ann don’t get along too well. Ann says that Fred is always correcting her grammar. Ann does not like to be corrected on anything.”

There was a long pause as the doctor stared out at our non-existent audience. He shrugged his shoulders and waited some more. It was as if he was listening to the audience laugh.

I continued my story.

“There were many photographs on the walls of the cafe. It was the first thing I noticed when I entered the room. They were photographs of other rooms, identical with this room, with people standing side by side. These were photographs of people who had participated in earlier readings. They all looked serious, responsible, reading their work, cradling the Holy Grail of Canadian culture in their verse. And everyone in the photographs was waiting, looking in on this room, waiting for me to speak. Perhaps I, too, was in a photograph on a wall in one of their rooms waiting for them to speak. The wallpaper behind the photos was tacky, maroon and gold paisley in relief, like a view from the inside of a hooker’s heart. There was plenty of smoke drifting through the room, heavy and curling in upon itself like a dense fog off the Grand Banks. It reminded me of an old sailor I met once in the Spadina Hotel who claimed to have seen the Titanic go down. He was on a fishing boat with his father miles away from the scene, but because the night was so clear and quiet, he said he could hear the music from the ship and the screams of voices across the water, and he said he could see the lights as the big ship, nose down, sank into the stillness.

I stared into the cafe. I couldn’t stop my lower lip from trembling. A room of eyes stared back at me like the lights on the Titanic. Outside on the Danforth a bus screeched to a stop. My body bolted alert. The bus doors opened with a yawn. Someone stepped out of the bus, walked a few steps across the sidewalk, dragging his left foot ever so slightly, and entered the cafe. I looked up. A beautiful blond stepped into the cafe and took a seat. Someone coughed. On the bar, coffee dripped in a coffee machine. Behind the bar, an elderly gentleman, who looked like Joe Dimaggio the Yankee skipper, grinned. Ice in someone’s lemonade began to crackle. I cleared my throat, took a mouthful of water, and forgot how to swallow. For a moment I considered spitting the water back into my glass. The blond got up from her chair and moved to a table closer to the podium. My teeth began to melt. I gargled. There was laughter and a round of applause.

I looked down at the podium. My paper lay there like a dove, cooing. I was afraid to touch it, lest it take flight. The print seemed to grow smaller. It began to disappear into the distance. I charged after it, hoping to retrieve it, banging my head on the podium. There was laughter. How strange it is that at the moment before disaster strikes, the scene appeared comic. The audience assumed that this was part of my presentation. I wondered if, when the Titanic first struck the ice, someone didn’t laugh. I grinned then forgot how to stop. Someone coughed. This wasn’t how I saw myself delivering the lecture. I’d seen many professors give lectures at the university and none had begun their talk using slapstick. The fellow who ran the coffee shop and who had introduced me, leaned against the bar watching. His name was Collins.

Collins was a bearded balding fellow with a beer gut that hung over his belt like a money pouch. His main claim to fame was that he had been at Woodstock and had made love with a famous folk singer, but couldn’t remember afterwards which one she had been. There was a terrible sobriety about his gaze, like a bird of prey soaring high over a meadow looking for lunch.

My eyes glided over the faces of the audience. The patrons of the cafe all looked like English majors, each one with a show me the good parts expression on their face. I thought of Ann watching television, lying on the couch in her bathrobe with a glass of coke tucked between her knees. I jerked my head. My grin fell off.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I cried out of the side of my mouth like W. C. Fields. I began my lecture. Despite Fred’s criticism, the introduction was well received. At the end of my introduction, I paused to take another sip of water. Several people coughed. Someone lit up a pipe. Someone pushed their chair back, the screech hitting a high C. The blond parted her lips to receive a cigarette. The cigarette was so white. Her teeth were so white. Smoke seemed to rise out of her eyes. I cleared my throat and found that I needed to spit. There was no place to spit. I swallowed instead. Someone groaned, “Oh my God, I’m going to be sick.” The image of a long set of stairs crossed my mind. I couldn’t remember whether I was ascending or descending. I stepped into the body of my lecture with a discussion of the group, pushing my hair off my forehead.

“The Fatherland needs growing space,” I blurted out. The room was silent. It was happening again. The black hole in the center of my consciousness was growing. I paused and looked around the room. At the back of the shop near the entrance, two people were mumbling. The thought crossed my mind that they were from the police vice squad. I can’t imagine why this thought appeared except that I had parked my car in front of a fire hydrant. Everyone turned to look at the couple. It was William Powell and Myrna Loy playing their roles as Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man series. Nora nudged Nick in the ribs with her elbow. Nick smiled briefly, quit talking, and then when Nora wasn’t looking, stuck his tongue out at her.

I turned and stared at the floodlights focused on the podium. I saw Claude staring through the basement window into our apartment. Ann was lying on the couch in her housecoat watching television. Claude’s eyes were lasers, opening Ann’s housecoat, revealing her pale round marble breasts. I looked down at the pages in my hand. My palms were sweating, the sweat spreading across the page making the ink run. An ambulance cried out from the street. I looked up from my notes. At the back of the room I saw Ann in the shadows, naked, lying on the couch, her legs apart, moving her ass, asking someone, anyone to…

“Ann!” I cried. There was a stir in the room. I looked down into the glass of water. Claude’s face, like a bloated sucker, was swimming around, smiling up at me. “Good evening, Mr. Halliday.” I turned away. Ann looked up at me from the kitchen table, a cup of coffee in her hand. “Who are you, David? I don’t know you anymore. Did I ever know you?”

Taking a handkerchief out of my pocket, I wiped my brow.

“Excuse me!” I said, trying to smile. Someone was standing behind me. I could feel their breath on my neck. My mouth was now racing through the text of my lecture as if the words were in a panic to be released from my tongue. I felt like a ticker tape machine in a pressroom spitting out the news from United Press. I stopped to take a breath. There was someone behind me. I spun around. For a brief moment I had a glimpse of Claude’s huge fingers crawling like a spider between Ann’s thighs, his huge thumbs parting the lips… There was nothing behind me but a blank wall with a poster advertising – DAVID HALLIDAY: THE GROWTH OF THE SELF.

I turned back to the audience. There was a shuffling of chairs. A few people had begun to mumble to each other. Someone coughed. The blond glared at me, her eyes like a gun, cocked. Collins had come to attention. He looked worried. I tried to recall where I had left off. I cleared my throat and took another sip of water and then spat it back into the glass. It tasted like vinegar. I wiped my mouth with my sleeve. The image of my father ran through my mind, my father wandering through the woods alone. “I was a son once too,” he said. “I had to deal with my father, as you have to deal with me. We’re all in the same boat.”

Collins stepped up from behind the bar and into the lights that were fixed on me.

“Mr. Halliday,” he said. There was a sudden pain in my side. I continued to speak, somehow determined to finish what I had begun, believing in some crazed logic that, if I finished, everything would be alright.

“We’ve heard enough, Mr. Halliday,” Collins cried out as he approached the podium.

I looked up. Claude approached the stage. Ann stepped between us, wearing her housecoat, knelt down on the floor, her back to me, and began to pull the zipper of Claude’s trousers, down. Nick Charles stepped up behind Claude and looked over his shoulders. There was an amused smile on his face.”

I fled from the stage, knocking over the podium, smashing my glass of water on the floor, and raced out of the coffee shop. The cool evening air hit me like a wall. And that’s how the evening ended.”

Dr. Blackstone chuckled.

“Continue, David.”

“That’s all there is, sir,” I responded.

“We know better than that, David.”

“Yes sir,” I replied. There was more. I had forgotten.

“The evening air was cool and light as I staggered out of the cafe and it hit me like a wall. I fell against a street lamp trying to catch my breath. An old woman stepped up to me.

“Have you seen my sparrow, young man? I’ve lost my little sparrow. He flew off, out of the open window when I took him out of his cage for a little exercise. He’s never done that before. And there are so many of those awful pussy cats in this neighborhood.”

I pushed the old lady onto the sidewalk and ran down the street toward the car. When I reached the Beetle, I vomited over the front hood.

“You alright, mister?” A voice cried. I turned around. A little kid, in T-shirt and shorts and bouncing a red rubber ball smiled at me. I climbed into the front seat of the Beetle and turned on the windshield wipers. I pulled out into traffic and raced down the Danforth, the events of the evening repeating themselves in vivid Technicolor in my mind: Collins standing at the bar, the blond blowing smoke rings, Nick Charles repressing a smile, Ann blowing smoke rings, Claude standing at the bar, Ann opening her housecoat, the blond opening her housecoat, Nick Charles pouring himself a drink at the bar, Collins burying his head between Ann’s thighs, Claude with an amused smile. “Have a good evening, Mr. Halliday.”  My father smiled, “I had to deal with my father as you have to deal with me.” A sparrow flew through the passenger window and out my window.  My father wandered through the woods. Coffee dripped. The Titanic sank. A ball bounced down the stairs.”

I turned back to the doctor.

“When I finally came to my senses, I realized that I must have been driving around for hours. I’d forgotten all about Fred. I dreaded going back to the coffee shop, but what choice did I have? Hopefully, everyone would have long since gone. When I returned to the scene of the crime, I found Fred waiting, leaning against a newspaper stand by the curb. I stopped the Beetle and opened the door. Fred jumped in. We moved west on the Danforth toward home. And that’s how it ended.”

The doctor looked at me for a moment, then slapped his knee with his hand, and howled with laughter.

“That is one heck of a story, David. One heck of a story. And what did you tell Ann when you got home?”

“I did what any man would do in a similar situation. I lied.”

The doctor slapped me on the shoulder and roared with laughter.

“Without a doubt, David, you are one of our most delightful guests.” There were tears in his eyes.

The doctor stood up, shook my hand and looked out into the non-existent audience as if he were listening to applause. Then the doctor checked his watch, reminded me to take my medicine and to report back in two weeks. I departed, waving to the non-existent audience as I walked off the set.

 

 

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