We talked about that wretched boy who could never be approved of, Friday at the faculty club where Jake never goes but I suppose he could have been coddling me out. Professorial in those battered boots, vest of many pockets, we all dress like that Jake, was never out of place in his life. Discrimination she says Jake says Jake I know what she says. The committee won’t approve it Jake, who knows who else knows the research but you know we’re all butt-ignorant here. The boy needs to go somewhere they know about these things. Resources Jake it’s about resources and Jake turned his bald hat in his hand shaping the rim. Another one, Jim, he called to the waiter I’ve known for years, Jim — another coffee, Jim. Whiskey I said and still we talked about that wretched boy. Why should you? Jake said that’s not how it’s done is it. How the thing’s done. She says you disrespect him, forced out like this and what about me then and never any talk about those other things Jake she says about those other things not approved of. Jake’s worn old fedora rubbed raw by a rough hand on the crown shaping it. On the crown now crushed. Put it down, Jim, I said. Put the coffee down. He’s gone.
That boy said it’s all monkey talk listen he said. I wasn’t to listen but Jake’s door was open because I was to. It’s what you do he said, how the thing is done is nothing but whispering in the library, the boy said you won’t. I’m not approved of Jake and you won’t stand up but that’s not how things are done is it Jake what am I supposed to do then? Not a wise man at times Jake had spent nothing to coddle the boy out. A harsh way about it Jake is a harsh man at times. You should go, Jake said, where they know about these things. That word go, that word the boy flung angry through the open door I wasn’t to hear but everyone did just the same. His carrel key hit Jake on the ear. Close the door Jake said to me Günter close the door. He’s gone. Yes. Brilliant I agreed but you can’t Jake you can’t make him write that book you didn’t write. That’s not how the thing is done. The thing is done. Forget it Jake this business I said he’s gone Jake. Forget this business. Why he said why should I if it’s all monkey talk would you tell me why.
He explained the geography of it to me the boy laid the pencil’s point delicately on the map. Writers and artists drawn together he said like atoms in a bomb he laid the pencil’s point on the map. Like a Talmud that map of ideas, times and places, gatherings and dispersals of the artigianato why? he said why should they? How do they know it will be here, here this time they will come together, atoms together, there next time. His pencil slid across the map a discouraged mark crossing it out the map but what did that matter, together. Greenwich Village in the fifties, San Francisco the sixties, Jake was there, the boy said. He knows he knows where everything is and will be and how does he know. A brilliant strange man, Jake I said, but where he walks now — now don’t go storming out I’ve had enough of that I know she says it’s unfair but who here knows anything about this except Jake? Because he said Jake is just an old man who had a brilliant idea once. That’s not enough is it I said you should go — but he flung open angry the door and was gone — go I said somewhere they know about these things I said to but he was gone pencil and map all where they know about these things I said my boy I would have said my boy. Yes, the word disrespects him boy. She’s right about that but still she’ll have to go her and the boy will go. That’s not the way things are done.
We talked about that wretched boy, father of the man never to be approved of. The wizard’s club rejected she said the Hotel Marcos bar where no one goes it’s just another club with yellow beer and burros on stools side by side our eyes aside by rule and custom. Rieva Derwent demurely, once professionally crossed ankles neat in gray wool waiting for me to say something cruel. Justice she said. What’s that? A chimera, a dangerous marshlight, her words disguised broken by the yellow beer the fork of vegetarian beans. Justice, she said swallowing justice she said best do nothing I suppose she said biting the words. Points the fork. You all wanting the scales driven down. Heavy justice, judicious words heavy, contemptuous, hateful in the mouth. Indulgences for sale here in the temple of bourgeois capitalism. No scholar she said I was no scholar. Perhaps so but whoever said I was? Günter humble Tor and no scholar. Bureaucrat of the temple she said whoever said we wanted a certain order, that’s not the way it’s done is it. Whim, prejudice, whispering in the library Rieva Derwent no longer professor professed of rage and a certain melancholy in the hand that points the fork which salsa and beans slide away with the powerless melancholy with which she weep, oh weeps for all those who seek out knowledge.
The library, Günter my friend, Jake says if you want to know what this is about. Shakespeare, The Tempest whispers he said that tempestuous wind. You remember, in the library that boy spoke more than he knew, that boy, untutored Caliban, the outsider who lurks beyond the light an imaginary horror except the knife’s urging draws real blood and would we would we want to know that man on the bus who talks to himself is an artist with children. That boy Caliban wont to call forth storm and sun, the wizard says the wizard Prospero and the boy calls forth nothing, Jake says. Who am I Jake says but that wonting poor wizard who seeks out rags of knowledge and bones of learning naught, strange words whispered, incomprehensible glyphs denied speech. That boy Caliban speechless under my wizard’s tutelage he now breathed out his soul at last supposing he had one and why, why else would we have wanted that scourge? I cannot play my role against such a mind sloping away like a shrug. Caliban must he be, afeard not of noises, the wild man tormented enslaved on this my island magicked fifty years, years of pointless wassail and a sword broke in the guts to show for it. His sublimated soul now passed off a gas, mere breath, passing sublime. I could say nothing of his sorrow but instead I said we broke our bread once Jake. Your food simple country fare, a stew rough red wine a good wife homely, intelligent, a diplomat in her youth — I left that house sated, the moonlight full on my face was weaker than nights past not knowing how it had become so. Life’s bounties are strangely spread and taken back with the same indifference.
Powerful places libraries. Weening dangerous, o’er reaching withal. Just stopping off his message reads and never heard again. Some ancient door opened and found centuries after pressed like a leaf between the pages of an Augustine manuscript. Reach me down a copy some arthritic old book unbuffed with notes and commentary in old leather powdered like the vainest dowager, pages pitted with typemarks like an acned youth oe’r which fond fingers run with the blanch of passion fearfully anticipated. Upon thy wicked dam, come forth! Prospero commands striking the rocks with iron staff like some parched Aaron bringing forth naught but a bitter flood of curses. Prospero we know the magus and Caliban we know — we’re sick of fashionable Caliban set round the ramshackle winds of island idyll, that old trope Circe’s Eden. Poor Caliban never reached so high but only wished a world of shadowless love somewhere beyond the scrim. This was Jake’s stage once. His busking tragedians set to learn their craft, fieldwork, jinking practice battles to slope off afterwards laughing, unhurt, to bar and gym when done. I a stranger among these wind-drifts of Donne and Spenser who was once more apt to be digging through Hollinger boxes looking for copper in the records of Phelps and Dodge. But here’s another Caliban I wasn’t told of, he of Setebos. By Robert Browning it says. Am I to read this too? Setebos an island — no. A god. A mystery. What will I ever know of gods. The rank tongue of another blossoms into speech and here it says he dwelleth in the cold of the moon, thinking he made it, made that crafty man who makes the cry my maker cannot make — oh no I cannot read this. It cuts too near the bone Jake too near what we do. That’s not the way the thing is done is it.
A man no more, a mere Tor, a gate not a gatekeeper as they think but an empty space, a durchgang or like a tunnel leading from one street to another much less Herr Pförtner that doorman carpeted in gold and brass I live now on the empty air of my arcade, the pretty things encased in glass which line my passage, the shops which cry out for me what I once wanted and never needed. My food now is the air I take by need not pleasure. In my time of Asian wars, barefoot and crazed by justice, wild men and women as Derwent is now, wild with need, starved of so many things and always that rage for justice ravenous for more, always more of that. How much does she think there is of justice to be supplied like this lump of ground beef indefinitely and never mind who pays, who dies for it. Fled from the library to the commons I sit with my hamburger close by a table of three girls, an old ghoul absorbing their heat. Girls. Not women these chattering squirrels for whom my eyes by rule and custom keep away, seeing only dead meat catsup blood on the boards in the theater of food. Words, she says with which she says prayers for her soul, delicate, needing the right thing pure as the impure corpus requires, today meat and blood, chips, a pickle. Pray these vatic girls numbered small smart as a cell phone’s keyboard on which to play pierced and sweaty music. Pray this wizard she says no wizard but wizened, dried up, husked fragments of ancient food, the nourishment of mummies. There is only one way now the wizard embodies the unbodied world and what is in it by rule and custom only, not face to face but out the corner of my eye. She says they say, the boy, the woman, the man say listen to what I was not to hear, see what I was not to see, and lose thy life.
A letter my secretary says no e-mail letter unmarked by post nor frank. Enter Ariel, invisible, piping solemn music. We are men, she says, whose destiny has made mad. We roar, afraid to think on earth and dust. A certain bitterness of woe and gall damps the air and hastens rot. Then enter Ariel, piping solemn music invisible, unnamed, what will she? We all want more of those blue beads traded to the Indians in want. What will she waits to go while within her thin walls the neighbors are having a party to cover the rain, no portent there. What god weeps for any of us? A father in Syracuse she said once but not that of Archimedes who died in battle too as it was forty years ago. Forty years for nothing. Leafy hillside shops on Euclid Avenue I suppose in every campus town in the world there is a Euclid Avenue. A cemetery next the campus, a place for professors’ kids to hide. The learned and the dead make odd neighbors you might have thought when you were a green-eyed girl and the smell of wet smoke filled the air and they promised the earth would swallow you, which is not a promise with much risk or even true time was. Lay your body down. All that is learned will be lost. Your mother taught Latin you said rope’s end of a time when any language at all was valuable. Well I know that all mines are worked out eventually. The stuff collects in tailings, lungs, water from the clouds, more rain than ever, copper the yellow not of sunlight but old oak leaves fallen, trodden into the wet cement, making the way to class slippery with their dead hands. But maybe then you didn’t know about that, green you were. Justice, you said. A mouth full of stones.
Now Jake too is freed Jake from that little place in North Beach the Café Trieste, tristesse, that Italian place where everyone went for a while its bistro tables fogged windows spaghetti coffee and somewhere a poetry reading Ginsberg at the Six I saw the best minds of my generation he said, but instead a party in a couple of rooms over a Chinese laundry which a girl told him about. He couldn’t get past the crowd on the stairs and he never saw her again. All night on the end of a pier looking out at Alcatraz, the smell of coffee fish cold wind against the little yellow windows there on the other side of that water so black. No nightclub in half a mile but still the sound of a saxophone. Saxophones sound tormented don’t they. Something in his coffee they said it was something he put in his coffee.
Encinitas, I said. A beach house rented summer now years, saving more ambitious trips like that wretched boy’s artists’ dens, hers backwards, Jake’s forward, dark at both ends. No farewell because thee fare not well — is it best to say nothing, to say what is not so, to trample feelings unthinkingly? Is it best the world were ordered to my convenience? We can’t all leave the stage a moment judged the last of our powers — someone must be left behind, one shill at least to bang his hands well done! well done. And so I go again now all is done. Prospero resolves to lay down his staff and relinquish his island kingdom, retire to the wings to talk to the stage manager and wait imaginary applause. I have in my time played the role of justice denied, love unfilled, the role of a boy himself a wretch was once master of an island no more than a mere stage set. A clubhouse we called it, built between a tree and a wall to hold it securely upright. Upright we were on this island with a dirt floor neither wide nor long enough to lie down and one chair, a trap door and an attic not tall enough to sit up and below that one chair on which to stand to reach the trap and crawl in. Its entrance dark, covered by dirty burlap, shaded by the tree, overborne by the wall, a gloom for which we had yet no name. A magicked island unexplored of fearful groans, a tree shifting restlessly in the wind. There we caught a girl shipwrecked by a storm of curiosity and punished for her trespass, stripped and sat on that accursed chair to raise her dress and show us what was not there in the dark to see that for which we had yet no name. Ariel, invisible. A darkness of my eye and mind illuminated like an ancient shaman’s vision of cave walls crawls deep into the earth with his pots of ochre and soot to smear a line or two before the torch snuffs out. No scholar, she said. On cloudless staring days alone in my magicked cave I gain no knowledge, learn nothing. His life spent sitting naked in the dark, sceptered Prospero resolves to lay down his staff, relinquish his poor island. It is time past time time past. The beach house rented long ago could not be put off. My old skin takes sun badly now, so I keep in the shade, take a large umbrella or just sit on my balcony alone. There’s not much surf here. It’s not my childhood beach of stubborn rock and spume spit five times my height above. I shouldn’t say stubborn. They were rocks after all. Rocks are like that. This pacific lake is sublime enough for me without those histrionics. There’s sand everywhere. In the pizza, mixed with the tea leaves in the bottom of the cup, the toothbrush. My skin’s sticky with salt. Sometimes I wonder, I suppose everyone does from time to time, wonder if maybe you’ve got it wrong so wrong you’re as clueless as a rock on the beach piddled on by the tide forever.
Charles Brownson: I was born in South Dakota and earned my MFA from the University of Oregon in 1969. In 1972 I received an MLS from the University of California, Berkeley, and worked as an academic librarian in collection development and miscellaneous specialties until my retirement in 2005. I’ve written seven novels, a memoir, and a book on the detective as a cultural icon, but until recently most of this work went into my artists’ books, using my own handmade paper and artwork. In my will I’ve left instructions to be stuffed and given to the Smithsonian.