First published July 2009 in Midway Journal
A Substitute for Death
From here, from my seat here in this hole of despair where I cast out invective on a world of god nuts, from a shed that is, literally speaking, hand made, made by someone's hands I mean, this shack stuck like a tick on the butt of Pap Pap's Hat Shop here in the town of Total Despair, I, Xavier Smashitallup, representing the newest lowest rung of the Hat Shop Customer Service Professionals in a town of broken toilets and sports fans, sit, I mean sitting at this moment of starting, of awkward birthing of narrative, staring through myself, my soul itself (though I do not believe in such things literally, but use such poetic fluff as "soul" or "by all the dirty-palmed angels of heaven," etc. to enact communication of a sort between my gold-minded self and the general "people" of this town of anguished toil), staring, sit I, indeed staring through a clouded unwashed window into the very bosom of the tack shop showroom of AnnaMay's Tack Shoppe and Bridal Stuffs across the bleak uncaring way.
I am here, shoe in hand, being unshod on one hoof momentarily, as I eye the lace to pierce the hole, the unlikelihood of the proverbial camel passing through the eye of the needle prancing in my mind's eye at the moment. And let it be known I am no wealthy lout by earthly measure. The gaping holes proclaiming the freedom of penury sing out from my inky stocking. In winter I apply the tape and newspaper, but now is the season of honey-making and cajolery. But glancing up, as one does on the verge of utter despair in tiny rooms, engaged in ceaseless chores, I see old Brown Fox Laurel, the only gambling man in town. His game is writing, be that what it may. He's written religious tracts describing damnation in pornographic detail, and a complete rewriting of the World Book Encyclopedia omitting every instance of the letter "e," self-published as Many Pricks Hath This Work of Sin. So I saw him standing, that Brown Fox Laurel, at the backside entrance to AnnaMay's Tack Shoppe and Bridal Stuffs, standing and staring at all the infinite filigreed detail of loneliness that one may project upon the systems of nature, or should I say he may have been staring thusly, for all I know. The camera pans to me again as I exclaim, "By all the dirty-palmed angels of heaven, etc.," dropping my shoe on my unshod foot, scudding like the turgid clouds of frozen Russia away from my aforementioned window, through which at times I stare upon the mysterious works of man and beast, and so on. And why it is that the mere presence of this man sends the snakes into my veins, causing fangs and horns to burst out across my body, I can't say for sure. And at this very moment, simultaneous to my rising gorge, you will see the lonesome dove of commerce descend on Pap Pap in the Hat Shop. The very thought that Brown Fox Laurel may gain knowledge of the details of Pap Pap's interactions with the svelte minions of trade ignites my inner creaking. With the heel of my one loose boot I swat at flies, and now my hives begin to inflict me.
In affairs of the narrative sort, such as this, there often comes a time for the laying out of details, such as, oh, he stood here and then went over there and then came back here with her in that thing out there, or, it fell down over there where the yew trees yawn across the ochre skies in magisterial pomp and where the tradesmen tramp the stones formed in the time of Zeus and the spires of the roofs flange in demonic wonder, or what have you. Anyway, Pap Pap's Hat Shop stood on a mere side street in this town of Total Despair. We are on Mommy. That is, Pap Pap's is on Mommy Street, and near us is the White Hair, a shed and shop for the repair of aged horses. In front of us, but behind Main Street and ahead of Mommy Street, I suppose you would say, or, rather, betwixt the two parallel-wise (You may wish to draw this on paper if it helps you.), ran a lane where deliveries were made and where the derelicts of this buffeting world would repose in drunkenness to urinate on themselves in the warm seasons, and to freeze themselves to death in the cold. This shop called Pap Pap's is itself inscrutable in its banal intricacies. President McKinley once said that we sold the nothingness resident at the very heart of being. Soon thereafter he was assassinated. In our grand window showing onto Mommy stands a leathern shard of onyx hue. This shard depicts a shad (Atlantic shad boiled in lard being Pap Pap's favorite dinner), large as the head of the Colossus of Constantine, to indicate that in our shop no detail pertaining to self-sufficiency shall ever be lost among the accounting books. Encircling the leathern shad shard is an ever buzzing ring of wasps. It is the presence of these wasps which, Pap Pap intuits, spontaneously generates our ever-growing inventory of coat suspenders, hanger buttons, painted roofs, cans of rheumatism, and a substitute for death packaged in honey, bottled, served willingly to a desperate public at the end of long sticks of oak. I believe they smoke it, or chew it.
Pap Pap himself, now smilingly adrift upon the wings of the dove of commerce, as you may recall, keeps himself thin and unwashed, and from his chicken bone neck hangs the silver locket stuffed with the grey hair of the reverend whom Pap Pap shot on a warm evening of a wedding day in June. That was years ago. Pap Pap claimed that this reverend was in fact a devious doppelganger (what that is, neither myself nor anyone around here is all too sure of), a mirrored anti-self of Pap Pap himself representing all that Pap Pap opposed, such as marriage and "the very baboon-ass of social custom," as Pap Pap calls religion. So Pap Pap shot him, then scalped him, and stole the dead man's suspenders, which Pap Pap wears to this day. At his trial, Pap Pap (representing himself) asked of the jury, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?" When the jury foreman answered, "No," Pap Pap countered with, "And the reason for that is because I have set him free!" And then he was found not guilty. Nothing sticks to Pap Pap but sweat and dirt. Pap Pap is happy to place his head inside a beekeeper's box and there to endure the brutal stings. This is better than having family around, he believes. A harmonious dove of commerce once tried to sell a family to Pap Pap, a daughter named Maynot and a son called Callous. In a moment of weakness, Pap Pap considered buying them for decorative purposes, to stand them in the window amid the shad shard and wasp wave, but happily this weakness passed.
So on this morning, to return to the business at hand, there was I, expunged of glee in the act of bootlacing, Brown Fox Laurel, his very being igniting my wrath, Brown Fox Laurel, I say, domineering the random energies of the universe to place himself, quite possibly eavesdropping, in the nearby dismal lane, while shop-wise Pap Pap engaged himself in agonies of the business day. The reedy bird of commerce of the moment, a salesman I mean, was trying his best to sell to Pap Pap twenty dozen hinges to ten dozen doors that opened directly onto the secrets of happiness. This was mysticism of a stripe that Pap Pap, on occasion, could stomach. It was at this moment that I unfurled my peculiarities in a fit of bow-legged peevishness, for when I rage I also wilt. Something dies in me, I mean. Phrase it as you please, for you are author here as well as I, either way, I, at that moment, stormed to the epicenter of the shop, still wearing but one boot for lunatic emphasis, and proceeded to the statue of the Virgin Mother on whom we hang the bandoleers and six-shooters. Taking up a revolver and madly waving it, I shrieked something like: "You take your doors to happiness back to the Bhagwans and Balas who sent you here! Do you understand me? Out, Swami, out!" To assure myself I had indeed bitten the holy cords in twain, I fired one shot through the roof. The salesman left his sacred hinges on the counter and ran out of the store. Pap Pap absently waved his hand to shoo away a solitary wasp, and said softly to no one in particular, "I have known happiness in my day, indeed I have."
I was on my bicycle then, heading out of town, turning left or right occasionally, as the contour of the road demanded of me, for on this day I decided to allow the whims of my forefathers and their road-making decisions to control me. More often, I pedal my bike exactly where I please, regardless of pre-existing paths. Allowing this or that to control me, I say, being a choice of my own, you see, yes, allowing myself to be the whipping boy of social error, though that may not be the proper turn of phase I'll let it stand, for I have a pressing queue of details in my forebrain, or so that feels to be location of them, that must be dealt with. "Contours of the road," "whipping boy," "queue of details," and so forth, these sorts of phrases are the eternal flies in my ointment. For honestly, these are utterly empty phrases referring to utterly empty phenomena. At times like this, when the dark rage comes over me, I find myself in drop-jawed wonder, stunned at the fact that humanity, that aggregate unwashed toilet-flushing singularity, can continue on with any semblance of order at all. At times I feel that masturbation may be the only doctrine that one may adhere to with any self-respect. Woe is me, said that poor closet mop Ophelia, and she was right, for all of us, I mean. But as I look at this, today's events I mean, my tirade in Pap Pap's shop, and my urgent need to flee, etc., as I recline myself here beneath this poplar, elm, or hemlock, I have to ask myself why, why was this rage of mine all brought on by the presence of Brown Fox Laurel, and even more irritating, why did the thought that he might be eavesdropping so infuriate me? What Brown Fox Laurel represents to me is some sort of impossible totality. As it appears to me, this world is going straight down the shitter, even now we see and feel the earth slipping away beneath our feet. This Brown Fox Laurel is one of those who would say I'm over-reacting, or smile at my imbalance, and then go right on burning up this precious dying globe in his own self-absorbed way. He is them, and they are not me, and they represent the countless multitude who go right on with things as they've been done for generations. I abhor tradition, and when the laws are changed someday, and the great social powers say, "You can't do that anymore. It's killing the world," the Brown Fox Laurel's will say, "But I don't understand. We've always done it that way," and then the giant voices will echo with, "Well, you can't do that anymore, dumbass. We've changed the law. You do that now and we'll throw your ass in jail. The beavers and the sycamores are just as important as you are. Do you understand that now?" But by the time that comes, I'll be long dead, and maybe some old-timer will say, "Don't you remember that queer fellow who used to get all in a tizzy over the world going down the shitter?" and some other old fart friend of his might say, "Oh, that queer fellow what's been dead for so long now? Too bad he ain't around no more to see that he was wrong. The world didn't go down the shitter. We changed everything and we saved it. We saved it." And I'm just glad I won't be around to hear it, that's all. Woe is me. OK, so by my count, this so-called story is now about six pages long, and you know what?, I'm tired of it. I feel I've made some points here and there, engaged in some phoney-baloney fictionizing, characters, story-telling, etc., but, really, enough is enough, I think. This isn't 1840 for Christ's sake, things have changed. I was in a bookstore tonight and was skimming a new book by Mr. Vollman. Some blurbs on the back were going on about what a genius Mr. Vollman is, etc. etc., and I thought, wow, do people really still go on like that? Well, I guess they do. Don't they realize it's all over? I guess they don't. So I cracked the book open and you know what I saw in there? Pages and pages of words! I shit you not. Pages and pages that looked just like this. And then I realized that Mr. He's-A-Genius-I-Tell-You had obviously invested lots of time in the process of massaging Mr. Vollman's pages in such optimistic ways that he (Mr. He's-A-Genius-I-Tell-You, I mean) could only arrive at one conclusion, and that being: What a genius Mr. Vollman is! Personally, I'm feeling a bit tired these days. I've been spending years optimistically massaging pages of Shakespeare and Melville. Who has a life long enough to massage everyone's pages? Let's just massage our own from now on, and that brings me back to my masturbation theory. But actually, I'm already tired of that, too. Tired of everything, I fear. I suppose that what I should really do is toughen up to the maze I've built for myself and, as if we really were still in the heroic romps of human history, I should write myself back out of this mess and neatly close the door, to whit: That evening Pap Pap, recumbent in his woolen hammock, creaking peacefully on the back porch of the Hat Shop, perfumed smoke lilting up from his corncob pipe, he halted me with a few words as I sheepishly drifted back into town after disappearing so long in a huff. "Xavier, my boy, you really mustn't let things get to you so. You must learn to understand the subtle within the subtle. We enlightened ones, and I include you in that, for you have potential surely, we can quite easily reach the realm of the subtle, where we intuitively sense the essence of all disciplines, all modes of thought, world-making and the techniques and strategies of all forms of control, where the transparencies of all interactions offer up all possible resolutions to our imaginations, such that no ending can startle us, for we are masters of the interaction power sciences and masters of imagination and observation. But my advice is simply this: don't get stuck there, for that's the realm of suffering. You may achieve the subtle, but the subtle within the subtle sets you free. Knowing that you will always expertly know the mysteries, but knowing that you don't need that knowledge allows you to enjoy the sparrow's song even amid the deafening thunder of human shit worlds, or, I should say, allows you to once again enjoy the sparrow's song." With that he handed me one of the small hinged doors that opens directly onto the secret of happiness. I opened it, and inside was nothing.