ACROSS MY BIG BRASS BED
AN INTELLECTUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS
“There he stripped himself naked
and engaged in a wrestling match with no one,
proclaiming himself victor over no one,
bowing to an audience of no one.”
PART ONE: “THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES”
“I would make these nymphs endure.”
—Stéphane Mallarmé, L’aprés-midi d’un faune
“My want of success with women has always been caused
by my excessive love of them.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions
Barceloneta, November 28th, 3 :00 AM, fine rain, high as a kite
I drove, aimlessly but alertly, fighting traffic, around the basement. I pressed the big red plastic button in the middle of the knurled steering-wheel with the heel of my palm, but the horn didn’t work. I recall it clearly: the silent horn in my mind. If it was powered by batteries, and those batteries were dead, that was a problem I could solve. Already a problem solver, because my parents and I had been in the business together—never seeking a profit, only union—from the beginning. I recall the silent confidence in my mind as clearly as its silent envelope or cloud of unknowing. Were there lights too? In mind or car? Two little flashlight beams for our perpetual twilight? There was a radio to be sure, my red and white transistor, with its two little serrated wheels for tuning and volume, propped on the seat next to me, hissing and crackling. I kept it for years, like a teddy bear. And when I lost him I truly lost him: I do not know how it happened. He was simply gone. Maybe the horn was an air-horn, like clowns used, its rubber bulb collapsed with long use. Maybe it had been an entirely false horn from the first moments of its design, a play-horn, a big button connected solely to my imagination. The cause was beside the point; what mattered was that I didn’t let it get the best of me. Don’t let it get the best of you! was my motto. Mom and Dad agreed. If the horn didn’t work, couldn’t work, had never worked, that was of so little consequence I almost had to laugh. I made do as I came around the furnace with my own vocalizations, the beep and variations on the beep: the honk, the air-raid siren, the fog-horn. My voice is my soul. I prefer to think in tones rather than words. Every now and then I would feign astonishment (perhaps the only trick of that sort in my bag just then) at the incapacity of my fellow drivers and shout something like, “Look out!” or “Hey, watch where you’re going!” Then suddenly it was over and I was nosing my vehicle into a far dark corner, sighing with relief at the end of another long and mysteriously bootless day. I made careful, silent egress from the faintly rustling and creaking plastic car, and tip-toed my way up the stairs, which also creaked, to the top, where I silently opened the door to Carla’s mother’s kitchen. I stepped around it and silently—save a single soft click of the hard, fat tongue of the latch on the strike plate as it lodged in the shallow dish of the frame—CLICK—closed it. In the depths of the gloomy basement, had Carla heard that subtle but singular sound? Did she now feel alone? Perhaps abandoned, deserted? Did she feel in her inarticulate way a loss of mutually sympathetic unity? I took a moment to collect myself. The floorboard creaked. I took a deep even breath, exhaled it in a perfectly meditative demonstration of balanced respiration, and took another. I was the Master of Breathing. It was very quiet in the kitchen, in the house, in the neighborhood, because President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just been—new word— assassinated. This is of course old news now, most people have, I think, heard about it and if they think about it, it is very like a thought about, say, Abraham Lincoln, who got his brains blown out too, enjoying a stage show, in the District of Columbia, our nation’s capital, but not a state in its own right, in 1865, after having emancipated—older word but still deep and glossy with mysterious meaning—an immense population of Negro slaves in the revolting South , while Kennedy was waving and smiling in celebration of a New Golden Age of universal civil rights and civic responsibilities in the backseat of a long black convertible in the midst of a motorcade—new word—in the midst of a parade, in Dallas, a big city, much bigger than Minneapolis and Saint Paul, where Carla and I lived, a mythic cowboy city in Texas, but only possibly that out-and-out bona fide state’s capital (I was ashamed to realize I didn’t know, when it seemed only yesterday that I had all forty-eight down, AND the two new ones)—that is to say, both of these gigantic, heroic men had been laughing and enjoying themselves in important places and important times at the instant their brains ceased to cohere, the gelatin melted, the electricity failed, the chemicals decomposed—but, as I began to say earlier, the news then (I had seven years of acute and penetrating observation, and gently guided study with Mom and Dad already behind me) was brand new, without precedent, and it was being televised, which was also a brand new means of intense study and mind-blowing imagery, though most households had owned a set for, on the average, dare I say, a decade: devoted, however, for the most part, to the limitless variations of comedy, every house on my street, Washington Boulevard, left on 105th Street, and left again on Terrace Avenue where Carla lived, had looked closed up, as if every family in the neighborhood had gone on vacation, drapes pulled across livingroom windows, mothers and wives watching in sorrowing disbelieving silence—in silence again, both in mind and mouth, the silent black-and-white TV images of the riderless horse and the flag-draped coffin in the—new word—rotunda—and the wholly incomprehensible scenes from the parade, the motorcade, the sudden speed and inexplicable moments, blurred and ominous and deeply strange. Some houses between Carla’s house and mine even looked abandoned, as if their occupants had been unable to bear the assassination and the scene in the rotunda, the simultaneously sped up and slowed down scene in the back seat of the convertible, unable to hear those somber words and unprecedented images without breaking down, without some kind of flight. Whatever it meant to be human, President Kennedy could no longer manage it. I listened to the silence in Carla’s house for a moment, holding my breath, then flung the door open and pounded down the stairs, banging the flimsy boards as loudly as I could. When I reached the bottom, when I was standing as it were in a pool of light, the first of many, honestly if not brilliantly illuminated, my face clear and shining, complete, good, proud, but feeling the light make and unmake tiny shadows as the dangling bulb continued to shiver in the eerie vacuum of my thunderous descent, I shouted, “Honey, I’m home!” And I was. I felt it in my blood, in my bones, in my humming brain. Carla rushed in upon me from the damp gloomy darkness of our little apartment, and we embraced passionately. Her hair was dark, wavy, lustrous, and it bobbed around my face as we hugged and kissed and awkwardly danced our interpretation of family life, offered, to ourselves, a representation of the great and good love that grows so strongly and beautifully between husband and wife and their children. We had no stratagems for power, for one’s domination of the other. Our fantasies of each other were wholly defined by adoration and desire tempered by the knowledge that the greatest desire was a mystical, sympathetic, constantly turning yin and yang union. There was no room for resentment or secret calculations of how love might be destroyed, if it had to be. Carla was a lovely little girl. She looked like a six-year-old Italian movie-star. As far, in those days, as I understood physical feminine beauty and “sex appeal,” she was irresistible. When I played soldier—those days when I could not go to Carla’s house and ravish and protect her in the damp dark basement, with its mildew-stained concrete-block walls and cobwebbed window wells and those two bare light bulbs, the one shivering at the foot of the stairs, the other over the washing machine, those days when I was out in the fresh air with my friends killing, being killed, arguing the finer points of death (how much movement constituted life, did you have to hold your breath, and most importantly, how long did you have to stay dead, yesterday we’d agreed that death was no more than a ten-count, but today…?)—those days when I was alive and stretched out on my bunk in Africa, Carla was like a pin-up girl to me. Her picture was painted on my fuselage. I was deeply affected by her beauty: the glossy hair, the dark eyes and thick lashes, the soft chubby cheeks…but what sharpened it—whatever “it” was, my evolving desire? my apprentice appreciation? my innocent willingness to proceed?—what sharpened it past my understanding, were her teeth, her front teeth, which were bucked. I loved those teeth so much I wanted bucked teeth of my own, and went around, publicly, privately, at school, at home, with my bottom lip tucked behind the less magnificent, tetracycline-stained central incisors I would have to live with. I loved Carla’s teeth. I wanted them in my mouth and I wanted to admire them in her rosy mouth. I wanted to touch them with my lips and tongue, with my own inferior teeth. I marvel at such intensity. We were playing house. We knew we were playing house. We set out explicitly to do just that, to pretend we were husband and wife in the mode of our parents but innocently unaware of the torment, the hatred, the despair, the mania, the depression that actually constituted married life, family life: Carla poured me a rich steaming cup of imaginary coffee in the morning and made sure a hot and nutritious imaginary meal from all four food groups was waiting for me when I came home after work, and she asked me how my day had gone. Not well, I told her, hugging and laughing, one soul but two stories: I’d just had a piano lesson from a woman who frightened me so much I had begun to hallucinate, the piano tipping up on one end and then the other, so that I was playing vertically most of the time, as if on a storm-tossed ship at sea. I closed my eyes and continued to play, seeing flashes of bright light on which a kind of text or score was barely visible, and vivid luminous primary colors in a kind of swirling river of a landscape passed before me. I confessed some of this to my mother, who played the piano beautifully, and she confirmed an apparent ability on my part, a seemingly genuine magic, to make myself sick, genuinely ill, with a fever, to avoid those terrifying lessons—and I thought, wait, I am making myself sick? No, no, no, it’s the witch at the piano!—but conversations like that, and the attendant gestures, the non-strategic narratives of how the world was stacked against us and getting worse by the day, mattered hardly at all. Carla, my love, and I, went through those motions because we wanted to hug and kiss. The fact that we were pretending, that the food was in our minds only, that our love, because we were children and knew it, was childish—that should have made even our passion a performance, a representation that pleased us on the level of theater, not as expressions of real and therefore uncontrollable, remorseless emotion. Real desire, real need. Were her teeth merely a fetish? What I felt was raw, wild lust. I knew that as surely as I knew we were pretending, playing, acting, imagining. How then did I reconcile such radically opposed perceptions of reality? Was I simply a poet-in-training? An actor? It would seem to be so. It seems to have been so. I have been wholly given over to intensely felt demonstrations of what I believed was selfless love, a kind of demented Don Juan so lost in his “action,” so lost in his “character,” offering displays so histrionic and void of actual meaning they are, in a way I can never understand until it’s too late, false, exactly as false as I was sure they were true—consequently violent. It must have been false from the beginning, with Carla, because by Halloween I was through with her. She taken to apparently uncontrollable sobbing that smacked of bad acting, of histrionic play-acting…but which I realized I often heard muted, coming from Carla’s mother in some nether region of the little house. When I decided our selfless union had become corrupt or at least contaminated and strange, I went to the class Halloween party dressed as Superman. I wore my everyday blue-jeans and a blue sweater upon the breast of which my mother had sewn a golden S. My red cape was an old frayed towel, used and threadbare, dyed scarlet. One of the other boys had come as a tiger in an elaborate costume that was the talk of the party. He would have been the most popular boy in school had he not mistaken his judgment at a crucial moment and frightened Tina, my new hope for selfless love, frightened her genuinely when he had only been playing. “I’ll save you, Tina!” I said, and lunged at the tiger, knocking him off his feet and dazing him. I stood quickly, and when I saw that he was still on the floor, grabbed him by his sturdily stitched tail and dragged him toward some kind of tiny building that had been erected for the holiday, either a jail—that’s how I remember it, law and order as some kind of theme even as we celebrated lawlessness—or a castle. When he finally got to his feet, I pushed him hard into the building, so hard that he began to cry. As authority figures swooped in, I fought my way back through the cheering crowd to Tina, who was still in a state of shock, still so frightened that she did not understand I had saved her, that it was I, I who had saved her, who was hugging and kissing her. She wept and I kissed the tears from her cheeks, remembering guiltily how unmoved Carla’s tears had left me. When she hit me, I stepped back in pure bafflement. Again and again she hit me, and I let her, because I was selfless, because I didn’t know if she was playing or not. I went from a completely heroic mastery of the scene to fearful disorientation—in which I wanted unmistakably to cry, too, but did not—ending in a completely anomic breakdown: I felt entirely alone and despised the people around me. Knuckleheads. Weaklings. No chance of unified sharing of souls. A year passed, during which I guess I was working on my material, because I emerged as a comedian. Cheryl Schmolke was the Queen of the Second Grade at Jefferson Elementary School, a pretty girl with big eyes, brunette hair in a pony-tail, and an air of being much older than eight—as was I. We had just finished an hour of instruction in the basics of geology, and Cheryl and I found ourselves alone at the sink in the science corner of the classroom. She was washing the dust and grit of samples from her hands, and I said to her, “Cheryl, I didn’t know what your head was made of, so I took it for granite.” I turned away, toward the classroom with its rows of desks and backs of heads shooting out in lines of crazily skewed perspective that must have been the product of incipient vertigo, but nobody was actively listening to us, listening to us as I hoped they might be, like “kids” do in a play, twenty-five-year-old Broadway stars pretending to be five-year-old Broadway stars—when the “main character” says something outrageous, that big, wonderful, sinuous rubber-necking double-take. Nevertheless: Cheryl giggled. Word spread quickly of my staggeringly felicitous sense of humor, and the class appreciated my nascent sexual superiority in the way that only children can, with dead-pan blinking and delightfully grave suspicions. Had there been no hub-bub, as I thought there had been, when I spoke? Had everybody heard me? Had Mrs. Erickson? Was I truly amusing or would I be punished? It was possible, and I accepted the possibility then as candidly as I do now, that I had been both amusing and deserving of punishment. I saw, first and foremost, however, how important it was to make women laugh, that nothing of consequence could be achieved if you did not take very seriously their senses of humor and their need for lively, energetic men. I said, some time later, the next year, I think, third grade, fourth grade, while I stood as if smoking a cigarette, with that kind of tough nonchalance, next to the anchoring pole of the swing-set on which Cathy Gibbs was swinging, nonchalant but like I was still working a routine, the same routine: that what sexy smart Cathy ought to do was to bite my cork. I had no idea what a cork was, and, if I ran through all the possibilities in my mind, no cork that I might conceivably call my own was a thing that wanted biting. Still, that was what I said to her, and the only discernible effect was a slight increase of swings per minute. Cathy had given me the impression she was earthy, from a different side of the tracks, working class and Catholic as opposed to managerial class and Protestant, perhaps, I have no idea, had no idea, only a sense of exotic permission. But it was permission for selfless union with a girl I thought I might love. It turned out that she admired me as a partner in science projects and had no interest in selfless unions of souls. In consequence I suppose, I had studied for a long time the cover of a National Geographic (my grandfather, who disliked farming and wished only to learn, had given me subscription for my birthday) that appeared that spring: it showed an American soldier walking through the jungle in Vietnam. I knew something had changed. It threatened selfless union with attractive girls. We were no longer at Jefferson Elementary, they were busing us to wherever they could find the space, and I must simply have felt, being cast about, without a steady center to study, licentious. License, the inherent anarchy of being among “others,” among people, id est, unlike those among whom we have matured, and whose conversation seems therefore odd and therefore mad, the inherent criminality of comedy—all this must have made the allure of uniforms, of a harmless, childish fascism, more than hard to resist. It is possible, certainly, that I had no inkling of political and cultural forces as vast and nasty as all that—just the sense that something had changed in a place called Vietnam, the only evidence for which was the attractive photograph on the cover of the National Geographic—and that I was simply excited, thrilled, to be united (this is two years later) at a brand-new school with a brand-new girl named Joni. It was a real marriage—if common interests and enthusiasms, and proper sanction and ceremony are what make marriages real—or at least a relationship acknowledged as valid and binding by society: we were taking flute lessons together, and had been nominated and elected to the twin posts of Crossing Guard at Madison Elementary School. We were the most serious and talented children in the band, had genuine responsibility, genuine authority outside the band, outside, even, the physical plant of the school itself. We went, almost hand in hand, through hours and hours of intensive instruction, during which it was made plain and repeated over and over that lives were going to be in our hands, the lives of our friends and neighbors in our hands. We were going to be up against automobiles, and we were shown lurid film-strips of what automobiles could do, did do frequently and regularly, to human bodies. When we passed that course, when we proved with our attitudes that we had increased our knowledge and made it practical, rather than breaking down and becoming undone by the horror of it, we were presented with certificates of worth and accomplishment, and garments of webbed straps, bandolier-like, with little plastic cups sewn just below the broadest band, the belt, in which we were to insert our flag poles. The flags were orange with red stop signs, trimmed in white, and we were given white gloves to further distinguish ourselves in the dangerous if ordinary milling and shouting of the intersection. But what made the uniforms truly authoritative as well as snazzy were the caps. They were in the style of military officers, pure white visors and crowns with orange bands circling the base of the crown. Black chin-straps. Joni was nearly a foot taller than me but no one seemed to care or notice, or if notice, to not think it odd, or if think it odd, to interpret in any way detrimental to me. It was in the nature of things: we were in the sixth grade, which is the bottom of the heap, now, of middle school, but which was then the top of the heap of the elementary grades, and Joni, like many young women, had shot past most of us boys. She had the beginnings of breasts and hips and I had been secretly courting her for at least a year—it seemed like forever, like no girl had meant a thing to me before Joni. If it threw my notions of sympathetic selfless union into disarray, I had high hopes that it was truer, a kind of more mature love, and nurtured the relationship carefully. I forbade myself irony and wasn’t even funny most of the time. I was gentle and—most important—knowing. That is to say, knowledgeable beyond my age, and, for my age, wise. I’d given up everything for scholarship—everything but practical understanding of everyday tools and machines. Like bicycles, for instance. I was a straight-A student but could flip a wrench back and forth in the palm of my hand, box-end to open-end, open-end to box-end, like a switchblade. As often I could without seeming obvious, never two days in a row and usually only once a week, I would rocket toward Joni’s house on 105th. Just as I figured I was coming into the view of her bedroom window, I would make a face, theatrically big, to make sure it would carry across her yard, of concern, and shoot a glance back at my rear wheel. I would squeeze the calipers around the polished rims of the wheels, come quickly but adroitly to a stop, and dismount—not with the least hint of annoyance or alarm, but forthrightly and calmly with curiosity, readiness, and capacity. Those states of being or attributes of character or whatever they are I now lack entirely; they are as absent from my self as if they had never been part of it, and I am forced to ask were they ever genuinely there? I thought so at the time. I was very clear about the difference between the show I was putting on for Joni—monkeying around with chain, thinking almost aloud too much slack as I demonstrated that slackness, adjusting the cables with one twist clockwise and one twist counterclockwise, tapping the spokes as if listening for some slight tonal evidence of looseness—very clear about the difference between that and the show I’d put on for Carla (much less the absurd posing for Cheryl and Cathy, and the confusing, troubling affair with Tina): with Carla I had been aping a love I knew I had no understanding of, not even any real interest in, but which would allow me to hug and kiss the beautiful bucktoothed girl, believing the frankness of the play (a frankness I assumed Carla shared) mitigated the pretense and might even bear real psychological fruit, somehow, later on, when I became capable of real love; but with my bike and the mysterious new Joni, I was demonstrating real skill. If it’s true that the call for the demonstration was not quite honest, was in fact rigged, that nothing was wrong and I was only showing what I was capable of if something truly went wrong, it is also true that I thought it was something that Joni would like to know, perhaps even needed to know. When we were made crossing guards, I was convinced that a force greater than my own will, greater than my transparent wish to show-off, was confirming and encouraging me. The show may have been gratuitous, the uniforms silly, but the skill, the sympathy that made the shows possible, the childish street theater and the community service—those gifts were real. But of course there is a great difference between a sense of rightness and even confirmation, and action in the world. My instinctive belief was that once you commenced to act, unease fell away; there were simply too many other things to deal with, and in my limited experience with action, that was so. But as I stood on my side of the street that sunny mild September day in 1967, and felt my plastic crossing flag flutter stiffly in the breeze, and saw Joni’s flag flutter in the same gust a fraction of second later, I began to suspect that unease might be more a shadow than a cloak: no matter how one occupied oneself, you could not throw it off, it would still be there. I began to act but felt, if anything, more uneasy with each passing second. Joni seemed troubled. The width of the street was sufficient to make my perception of her as “troubled” pretty clearly an exaggeration born of my own anxiety, but she was not so far away that I couldn’t make out a kind of uncertainty in her posture, a tentativeness that could have been the first stages or signs of haste, of precipitate action. Nothing much was at stake, and if I give the impression I sensed disaster looming, I must say I did not. There was very little traffic, and none of our fellow students had arrived yet at the intersection. Some men were laying sod on the oval island that was the new school’s front yard, in the center of which stood a flag-pole also so new it had no flag to raise. I could see some parents coming up my side of the street, and some very small children with them. Joni was schoolside and couldn’t stop darting apprehensive looks at them, at me, back at them, back at me. She was very tall, as I’ve said, and though not in the usual way horsey-looking, horse-faced, she did strike me as a filly about to dash off for the far side of the corral. I wanted to wave to her, but was afraid it would be interpreted as some kind of official gesture, coercive, one bound to confuse whoever saw it, since it had no relation to public reality, merely a private concern. And yet I waved. I couldn’t help myself. It was a small, subtle wave that I hoped would reassure Joni, even calm her if indeed it was panic that I thought I saw approaching in the deep background of the picture, if the restlessness and uncertainty I thought she was exhibiting were the simmering precursors of a mistake in judgment or a breakdown of nerve. But I failed. I think I failed. How can I say? It was so long ago, the stakes so low, the arc of the action so submerged in ordinary murk…but what I thought I saw was that my wave was being misunderstood. What I remember seeing is Joni coming rigidly alert, then after a tense few seconds of scrutiny, straining her head forward, opening her dark mysterious horse-like eyes as wide as they could be, demanding, silently but with clear impatience, what I meant with the wave. Suddenly there was a crowd around me of mothers and tiny children and cars were approaching the intersection from all four directions at once. Joni, still giving me a look, stepped off her curb. I made an even more subtle sign: halt, hand palm-up, facing out, but held very closely to my side, and waving just a bit. Then I said to my pedestrians, “Follow me, please,” and stepped off my curb. Automobiles were not the military vehicles they are now: if you called a car a tank, it was an insult, a deprecation, a suggestion of awkward ugliness. Our cars were long and wide, to be sure, but very low. Grills looked like teeth—but not sharp teeth, friendly teeth, rather, smiling, and rear fenders almost always had some kind of tail-fin swoop to them. They were sleek. We had a Buick Electra 225, a long low blue Greek tragedy of a car with a black vinyl top. It had fins and a somber, ambiguous, classical smile, pistons the size of one-gallon paint cans, eight of them banging up and down in their storm-drain cylinders, the jets in the four-barreled carburetors spraying gas like they were fire-hoses in a roar so perfectly muffled it purred rather than rumbled. It generated horsepower of a nearly incalculable order. But at that moment, crossing the street for the first time as a professional, with eight or ten of those wide, wide flashing grills suddenly upon me, I felt I could have stopped anything, a ten-ton truck, everything.