Tuesday, December 30, 2008


“There is amongst us a set of critics who seem to hold that every possible thought and image is traditional; who have no notion that there are such thing as fountains in the world, small as well as great; and who would therefore charitably derive every rill they behold flowing from a perforation in some other man's tank.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Preface to “Christabel”

"I have not included 'Christabel,' for the reason that 'Christabel' has failed completely to include itself. Wherever the mysterious tracts from which it rose may lie, they are off the road which leads to 'The Ancient Mariner' and 'Kubla Khan.' And we are following only where known facts lead. I wish I did know in what distant deeps or skies the secret lurks; but the elusive clue is yet to capture." — John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination

According to biographer Richard Holmes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge began writing his unfinished narrative poem “Christabel” in the spring of 1798. He continued to tinker with it — or at least claimed to be doing so — into the latter part of 1800, but in the end it remained, like “Kubla Khan,” a tantalizing fragment. Years later he outlined the poem's supposed conclusion to a contemporary, James Gillman, but Gillman's description throws little additional light on what was probably a doomed project from the beginning.

In all honesty, the ruins of “Christabel” don't bear up to comparison, in terms of memorable language, with “The Rime or the Ancient Mariner” or what we have of “Kubla Khan,” but the tale they sketch out is not without interest. Briefly, the story is something like this: Christabel, the young daughter of the Baron Sir Leoline, goes wandering in the woods one evening outside her father's castle, ostensibly to pray for “the weal of her lover that's far away.” While kneeling beneath an oak tree she hears a strange sound, and on rising she discovers another damsel, barefoot and dressed in a white silk robe. Interrogated by Christabel, she says that her name is Geraldine, that she is the daughter of a nobleman, and that the previous morning she had been taken from her home by five warriors, tied on a white horse, and forced to ride at breakneck speed before being abandoned by her kidnappers.

Taking pity on Geraldine's plight, Christabel brings her home, at one point heaving her swooning guest over the threshold of the castle. They retire to Christabel's chamber where, in an unmistakably erotically charged scene, Geraldine bids her rescuer undress, then herself disrobes, lays down by the girl's side, and pronounces, “in the touch of this bosom,” a spell of possession over her. The next morning Geraldine rises, now fully restored, and awakens a somewhat ill at ease Christabel, who prays “that He, who on the cross did groan / might wash away her sins unknown.” The two young women seek out the Baron, who gives an enthusiastic welcome to his guest, and is surprised to learn that she is the daughter of an old friend, one Lord Roland de Vaux, from whom he has become estranged.

The Baron vows to repair the wrong done to Geraldine, and orders his bard, Bracy, to seek out the castle of Roland de Vaux in order to report Geraldine's safety and, at the same time, declare his own desire to be reconciled with him. Bracy, in reply, temporizes, reciting a dream he has had, in which a dove (obviously meant to represent Christabel) has been seized in the embrace of a bright green serpent. In the meantime, Christabel catches a glimpse of Geraldine, as “the lady's eyes they shrunk in her head / each shrunk to a serpent's eye,” but then instantly falls into a trance, and herself begins to hiss like a snake. She throws herself at the Baron's feet and desperately begs him to send Geraldine away, calling on her dead mother as witness for her pure intent. This inexplicable treatment of a guest infuriates the increasingly obsessed and Lear-like Baron, who bids Bracy depart at once in search of Lord Roland. There, after a brief and inscrutable envoi, the poem breaks off.

Fragmentary and odd as it is, “Christabel” has not been without descendants. The poem reportedly influenced Poe and J. S. Le Fanu, as well as a lesbian romance novelist named Karin Kallmaker, who, writing under the pen name of Laura Adams, adapted it into a novel. Like the underground stream of the sacred river Alph, it sometimes surfaces in unexpected places greatly removed from its original headwaters. As far removed, for instance, as 20th-century Texas. The following are the lyrics to another “Christabel,” this one from the singer and songwriter Robert Earl Keen, who included it on his 1984 debut album, No Kinda Dancer:
It's been seven long days and seven hard nights
In a '62 Chevy with broke tail lights
An eastbound man in a westbound lane
A dishwater blonde about sixteen
Was standing on the shoulder with a ribbon in her hair
Her hand on her hip and her thumb in the air
And I pulled off the road and as she grabbed for the door
I knew the wind was cold 'cuz I'd seen it all before
And I was scared

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

Now the moonlight peeked in and out behind the clouds
Now and again on this godless child
And the radio was scramblin', cracklin' in the air
The ribbon she wore looked old in her hair
And I saw the moonlight sliver dead down on her face
I knew it was true she was in the wrong place
In the wrong time, in the wrong tale
I knew when I'd asked her she'd hiss, "Christabel"

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

She was after the man who had left her alone
With no father beside her and love longtime gone
And the snake deep inside her a hiss in her head
The rest that had been her was dying or dead
And she'd a taste for young women with pearly white skin
She spat on the floor when she spoke of the man
Who made her like this
Who had written her tale
This medieval maid they call Christabel

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

Then she breathed out the story of her lover to be
A knight's shining armor on a silvery steed
Who longed to be worthy so he sought the crusade
While she waited, breath bated, in linen brocade
But a pair of black eyes wove 'round her a spell
The snake they call Lydia seduced Christabel
And she cuddled her tender, she poisoned her soul
She stole her young body and made it her own

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

Now the knight would love Lydia in Christabel's arms
And Lydia would have him should he ever return
But Lydia was left with the story undone
No silvery steed, no castle, no throne
Half woman, half serpent, entwined in a spell
A barge black and fancy this medieval tale

And she faded at dawnin', the bird and the beast
Deep in the dreams of those bound for the east Like me

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

Things ain't never what they seem …
In addition to the obvious changes in setting and style, Keen's version preserves some features of Coleridge's poem while blithely discarding others. Geraldine becomes “Lydia” — a distinct improvement, I think — Sir Leoline is barely alluded to, and the absent lover, whom Coleridge mentions only in an aside, becomes the motive for Lydia's possession of her victim, with whom she now shares a single existence. The suggestion of lesbianism is made briefly and bluntly (“a taste for young women with pearly white skin”), and there's a sly allusion to Bracy's dream in the reference to Christabel as both “the bird and the beast.” Most interestingly, Coleridge has himself become a character, the man “who had written her tale,” and, by abandoning it unfinished, leaves Christabel / Lydia to wander the highways and centuries searching for a lover who will never return.

Keen has slipped in some great little lyrical touches, while keeping to the general tumbleweed atmosphere. I love “I saw the moon sliver dead down on her face” — did he half-intend “slither,” one wonders? — and the surprising image of “the barge black and fancy” seems the perfect vessel to bear the ageless, deathless Christabel along on subterranean waters from another time.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Winter pieces (III)

As the year waned and the days grew shorter she spent most of her weekend morning hours in bed, asleep if she could stay asleep or just thinking with her eyes closed if she couldn't. She always kept the room a little cold around her; she liked it that way, didn't like having to throw off a layer of the covers that she kept tightly wound around her if she got too hot. In her third floor flat, with the storm windows shut tight against the occasional passing car and the shouts of the downstairs neighbor's children, she would be undisturbed as long as she liked; her friends knew not to call. By mid-morning light would fill the room but she didn't mind; it fell obliquely, filtered by the shades, and by the time she was finally ready to rise it would have taken the edge off the morning chill.

She would cast a glance at the cover of the paper, dropped on her doorstep before dawn, but then set it aside until evening, make herself some oatmeal or a couple of eggs and a cup of tea, and only then would she change out of her nightgown and robe into a pair of jeans, a layer or two of sweatshirts, an old and ample soft gray sweater, and take her winter coat down from the wooden hanger in the little hall closet where it hung alone. She would collect her sketchbook and a few pencils from the easel she kept by her rarely used fireplace, gather her gloves and hat, and go out. It would be too cold along the harbor, this time of year, so she would head inland instead, climbing to the outskirts of town, to the first ploughed-over cornfield, then walk another mile or so along the road until she came to the edge of the woods. There she would sweep the tail of her coat beneath her and sit on a stone wall crusted with patches of lichen, yellow and blue and grey-green, and with her back to the road she would sketch the oak trees, the frayed remains of an orchard that had been abandoned years before, and the crows that gathered to glean the fields.

She couldn't pick the crows out by sight, but she was pretty sure they were the same ones, from week to week; in any case, there always seemed to be the same number, a dozen or so in the acre's ground she had a view of. They must have been accustomed to the sight of her, but if so they acted no differently, never approached or gave a sign of recognition. She imagined they had their own concerns, and she was not part of them, or perhaps they noticed her but were too polite to intrude upon her solitude. But now and then it would seem to her that one, having drawn near, would considerately pose for her for a moment, just long enough for her to deftly trace its form with her pencil. If so, she didn't signal her appreciation but kept it to herself; it was her treaty with them, that she would never cross that line.

She would have only a few hours of daylight. When the outlines of the furthermost trees began to soften and the wind picked up and bit at her cheeks she would close her book and climb down from the wall, ready for a warm meal, the newspaper, and phone calls. At night she would dream of the crows and in her dream she would hear their histories and they would tell her everything that had happened and everything they had seen from the deepest beginning of time.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Full Service No Waiting

According to the liner notes to this 1997 record by Peter Case, “this album was composed on a '60s Smith Corona manual acoustic word processor & a Gibson J-45 at the Shishim Building, Santa Monica, CA.” The Smith Corona, or one like it, turns up in the back cover photo and the photo on the back of the lyric booklet; the Gibson is the one shown in the cover photo at right. In an interview with the Village Voice earlier this year, Case described the circumstances of the record's genesis at greater length:
I was married and there were little kids around, my kids and everything, and I couldn't write so I rented a room from this guy Dark Bob, my friend, like he had a room in this building. I just went to this room and I wrote. I'd get there, and I was so busy all the time that I just was happy to be able to get to it and I would just walk in and the second I got in there I'd just start writing. And I'd write right off the top of my head onto the typewriter. I could hear the music in my head and I would just write and write and write. And I had a script of what I wanted to accomplish there, like what kind of songs I was going to write. And I just did it. I knocked out that whole album like that.
Making good use of that opportunity gives the eleven songs on Full Service No Waiting a special unity and focus. There's plenty of terrific music on Peter's other records, but I think this one comes together as more of a coherent whole than any of them, with the possible exception of his most recent CD, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John. It's a strongly autobiographical and retrospective record, in which he looks back on old friends, old haunts, and old joys. Some Case fans, particularly the ones who knew him from his days as a member of the Nerves and leader of the Plimsouls, are lukewarm about the record, which uses mostly acoustic instruments and is more consistently “folky” than his earlier work. That's a matter of taste, of course, but there's little doubt that the level of both songwriting and performance on this record is consistently high. Many of these songs, especially “On the Way Downtown” and “Crooked Mile,” have become staples of Peter's live shows.

What follows is an attempt to scratch out a few notes on the songs, supplemented with some of Peter's comments, which, except as noted, are from a section of the Vanguard Records site that is no longer up but that can still be found archived elsewhere. The more I listen to this record — and I've listened to it countless times — the more I hear in it. My hope is that by thinking and writing about it I will find more things in it still. But there's no substitute for the original; if you don't know Full Service No Waiting already, then by all means get hold of a copy and let the music speak for itself.

Spell of Wheels

Of all the songs on the album, the first cut is probably the least typical, at least in subject matter. Telling its story in just a couple of verses, it's as sharply chiseled and compressed as a gem. It concerns a specific incident, real or rumored.
“Spell of Wheels” is a tale of an experience my son Joshua had in the winter of 1991 when he took a trip North from Kansas City. He's been my road manager for a while, and he lives in Austin and plays in a band called Gold. It's the urban myth of the black car — an adventure in the dark labyrinth of the American Midwest. Since I started playing it live, people have started coming up to me with their own similar stories.
Joshua Case shares writing credit on the song, which begins innocently enough:
Kansas City as the first snow of the year begins to fall
she's at a Westport party drunk & leaning against the wall
Skip & Wolf come stomping in someone has a plan
Faceboy goes to fetch his clothes I go to lend a hand
we leave KC at midnight heading north on the interstate
snow is falling hard & fast we're glad to get away
five kids in a beat up car kickin' up their heels
& heading out into the dark
beneath the spell of wheels
beneath the spell of wheels
The arrangement is quiet and unhurried at first, perfect music for starting out on a long car trip: some congas or bongos, a little looping acoustic guitar figure, and a few notes on an electric of some kind (probably Greg Leisz on either lap steel or pedal steel). There's something else in there too, I suspect it's Andrew Williams's harmonium, but the liner notes aren't specific. A couple of minutes in the music suddenly turns darker and more urgent, and the lyrics quickly trace out a harrowing tale of a highway encounter with a strange car and a pointed shotgun. But then, just as we're expecting expect the violent climax, it's all over:
now we're sinkin' low as we can go & waitin' for the blast
Skippie jams down on the brakes that demon car blows past
we pull off on the roadside everybody pulls their knives
the black car keeps on goin' & I guess so do our lives
He wraps it up with a few quick, perfect lines, leaving the listener restored but a bit shaken. Some things you don't easily get out of your mind.
we get to Minnesota spend the winter in monochrome
fall in with small time criminals just like the ones at home
watchin' through the windows for what the night reveals
& waitin' for the spring to come
beneath the spell of wheels
beneath the spell of wheels
After the lyrics are finished the music takes its time coming to an end, giving the story time to sink in. Case plays the harmonica, Leisz's guitar slides slowly up and down like dopplering traffic; then suddenly the tension lifts and there's a shift to (I think) a major chord, but then the last thing you hear is Leisz trailing eerily off.

On the Way Downtown

After that brilliant but disturbing opening, the next cut is a welcome relief, and in a way “On the Way Downtown” is really where Full Service No Waiting, as a set of interconnected songs, begins thematically. It's the first of several songs in which Peter looks back from early middle age at his younger self and at the same time takes stock of where he is now (or where he was c. 1997). In at least three of those songs (this one, “See Through Eyes,” and “Still Playin'”) he does so specifically in reference to his own musical apprenticeship busking and hanging out with the like-minded.
“On The Way Downtown” was inspired by a trip back to my hometown; it's a song of contemporary survival and of connecting the past up with the present. With Eric Rigler's uilleann pipes and Don Heffington's jaw harp and bodhran, we have a combination of Mississippi John Hurt and Celtic music: celtabilly — country blues crossed with Celtic. They're kind of two rivers that run through my songs.
The song begins with a repeated droned beat on a single acoustic guitar note. In live performances I've heard Peter extend this intro for several bars beyond the album version; it's probably a useful trick for beginning a gig until the audience settles in and listens up. Then the guitar traces out the melody of the verse once before the lyrics begin. It's one of Peter's most instantly recognizable riffs, even-paced, big-hearted, neatly tied off with a flourish, rooted in the coffee house guitar styles of the 1960s (which of course drew on the work of earlier generations of players). There's a similar (but darker) riff underlying “Drunkard's Harmony,” and yet another in “Still Playin'.” The song begins with the daily grind of present circumstance, but soon turns to places where the past, as Faulkner said, isn't even past:
how many times have I washed my face
combed my hair & left this place?
felt the shiver in my chest when I hit the door
the promise of something here worth living for?

had a fight with the woman that had my kids
can't get along with anyone what if I did?
I'm going back to the corner where we used to meet
when our dreams were young & the nights were sweet

I'm going out tonight goin' way downtown
where my friends who died still hang around
see what's shakin' as the leaves turn brown
the seasons been & gone
another one's comin' on
& I'm on my way downtown
Three decades melt away and Case is back at a moment of musical revelation, described in more or less spiritual terms:
well it was thirty years ago in the setting sun
& I was walkin' down Union Street I started to run
down into a cellar where the music screamed
I guess it hit me harder than I ever dreamed

in the Palace Theater hall later on that night
there were miracles in store but not a soul in sight
pay phone ringing didn't seem so strange
anything could happen everything could change
Then he's in the present again, reflecting wryly on changes and getting older. The lyrics are about as vivid, precise, and evocative as any you'll hear in popular music; they're both vernacular and elevated, seamlessly, at the same time. It doesn't necessary strike you while you're listening, but it's hard to say, without taking the song apart, what's chorus and what's bridge; there's always a little twist to heighten interest, but in the end it all winds up on the refrain.
we used to gather here flirt & laugh
now all my dreams are cut in half
now the girls are smokin' cigarettes & chewin' gum
they just get scared when they see me come

way downtown the corners moved
the sandstone slabs are worn & grooved
turning black in the first drops of rain
you can smell the earth & sky again

hear the rattle of the leaves the locusts call
underneath the elms by the school yard wall
summers over & the fields are tall
a seasons been & gone
another one's coming on
& I'm on my way downtown
This is, I think, one of Peter's most popular songs with audiences, and I suspect one of his own favorites as well. I've heard him live three times and he's included it in his set each time. I don't blame him one bit.

Let Me Fall

I don't have anything terribly profound to say about this one. It's not a bad song by any means, but of all the cuts on the album it's the one that's never quite gotten under my skin.
“Let Me Fall” is a story about a girl who has to make a big decision about falling in love and letting everything come down. I was born above Niagara Falls, and if you fall into the river, you can get carried away. In Buffalo, you have this idea of being swept away by the river.
The song starts out with a quick chugging guitar rhythm, then a harp break, before the lyrics begin. It's a kind of uptempo blues serenade, a seduction song, in that respect maybe distantly akin to “Ice Water” from Peter's first solo record. There's no real verse and chorus, just the three-word refrain, but Peter sings the third and last stanzas a little differently, giving them more urgency. The best lines are in the final stanza:
your friends are outside waiting
'neath the light of a thousand stars
come with me while the dew is falling
out to where the campfires are
let me fall let me fall
let me fall
The percussion and Lili Haydn's fiddle give the song its drive and drama; at one or two points there's a suggestion of a bit of Sgt. Pepperish countermelody on the fiddle. The harp comes back in at the end to lead the band out.

Green Blanket (Part 1)

Peter's written several songs about street people (see “Poor Old Tom” and “Underneath the Stars”), but this one turns out to be a surprisingly cheerful waltz. It's a recollection of San Francisco in the '70s. From the Vanguard notes:
Green blankets are the blankets that used to be given away free to homeless people in California. I lived in a junkyard near San Francisco Bay. I was a young acid casualty. I'll never forget wandering the streets and seeing the golden glow pour from people's living room windows. This experience has colored my work. But instead of just decrying the miseries of the homeless, in this song I'm trying to show another side of it.
It's hard to say exactly what's verse and what's chorus in this song, but the opening lines serve for a refrain:
out on the street it isn't so bad
or all that it's cracked up to be
some are half crazy others plain stupid
some there just want to be free
some there just want to be free
Most of the song is relaxed and pleasant enough, but the real payload comes at the end of the first verse, with its sudden flash of color and tribute to the joys of oblivion:
if this rain keeps on falling it'll wash me away
down through the gutter & out to the bay
where the red & the gold & the silver fish play
that's someplace where no one will find me
someplace where no one will find me
Then, just when it seems like the song is cycling back for another verse, an unexpected bridge continues the thought:
someplace where no one will tell me a lie
block all the exits lock up the sky
they get too close & I tell 'em goodbye
before they tell me why …
The line in the second verse about people sleeping in “cars up on blocks” is from first-hand experience:
I moved into the junkyard. It was right on the bay in Sausalito, a muddy patch of land jutting out into the water, a quarter mile past the last houseboat pier, way behind the Heliport. … There were a dozen or more abandoned trucks, some up on blocks. … I moved into an abandoned yellow school bus, back up the strand. (As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport)
The arrangement is relatively simple and straightforward. The drummer (Sandy Chila) beats time to the waltz, there's a bit of fiddle and what sounds like a tenor guitar or a guitar capoed up high in addition to Peter's own instrument. At the end of the first chorus, and once or twice after that, there's a little eight-bar descending pattern that reminds me a bit of Joni Mitchell's guitar work on the title track of For the Roses.

As far as I know there was never a “Green Blanket (Part 2).” From what I gather he doesn't seem to play this one much anymore.

Honey Child

I have a soft spot for this one. When I first started listening to Full Service No Waiting, nine or ten years ago, I used to have to make occasional Sunday afternoon trips on business to a writer's center in a train station on the lower Hudson. I took the CD along in the car once or twice and had a good chance to air it out and get to know it on the drive down and back, and this was the first song that really grabbed me and made me reach for the replay button. The line about “runnin' by the river” seemed apropos as I drove away with the sun setting over the Hudson.
I was stealin' 'neath the moonlight
and her watch dog let me by
when I spied her by the fountain
well it made me want to cry
'neath a golden halo
blue eyes sweet and kind
reachin' through the dayglo
with all the love I'd ever find

honey ain't no sweeter
clover ain't so wild
runnin' by the river
she's my sweeter than honey child
It's almost certainly a coincidence, given the utter obscurity of the material, but as it happens the third line in the first stanza above can be found verbatim in a “profane love song” said to have been intoned by the Jewish mystic Sabbatai Zevi, as quoted in Harry C. Schnur's Mystic Rebels. Is it my imagination, or is there an affinity in spirit as well in the following lines?:
I was climbing up the mountain
I was coming down the hill,
When I spied her by the fountain,
Melisselda of Castile.

As she bathed in milk-white splendour,
Scorn she flashed with eyes of steel
But her coral lips were tender
Proud infanta of Castille
But here's something really interesting: the name Melisselda (also spelled Meliselda and Melisenda) sounds like a variant of Melissa, which means, in Greek — honey bee. Except that, according to one online source, Melisenda is in fact:
from the Old German name Amalasuintha ("strong work"), which had first evolved in[to] Malasintha among the Lombards and Burgundians. It is therefore a cognate of the modern name Millicent. Melisenda was the name of a daughter of Charlemagne.
The same character, incidentally, shows up in Chapter XXVI of Part II of Don Quijote, as part of a puppet show, under the name of Melisendra. There's a beautiful tone to the acoustic guitar part on this song. The best place to hear it is at the beginning, before the other instruments jump in; it sounds like a guitar capoed up high, but I'm not sure. Its syncopated rhythm is deceptively simple sounding. Peter does his own backing vocals, as he does to great effect throughout the album. This is probably the most danceable tune on the record.

See Through Eyes

Another retrospective song, featuring some great dobro licks by Greg Leisz and some of Peter's most soulful singing. In his words:
“See Through Eyes” are what you've got before you begin to doubt everything you know. I need another pair.
It's a wistful look back at old times spent hanging with friends and making music:
aw man it was great
if you had to be there
we were pulling the songs
out of thin air
played 'em & laughed
threw 'em away
just passing by well I decided to stay
through the black nights & the high times
YES was always on the tip of our tongues
praise was rising like smoke
our flags were flyin' we were constantly broke
we were young & so were the jokes
we had nothin' but time for trouble
& a river that rolled
gold between our see through eyes
now what would I do
for another pair of see through eyes?
what could I give
for another pair of see through eyes?
The upper-case YES is no typo; it's a shouted affirmation, expressing what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera has dubbed "a categorical agreement with being." Of course it can't last forever
so this whole world explodes
I can't tell you why
its got something to do
with a couple of lies
we stopped a moment
lasting a year
next time I looked 'round there was nobody near
yeah we all disappear now it's been a long time
since we took the chance to speak our hearts & minds for a while
& that start of surprise knocked us off our feet
the tide began to rise on the river that rolled
gold between our see through eyes
now what would I do
for another pair of see through eyes?
what could I give
for another pair of see through eyes?
(I've emended the line beginning “since we took” slightly, as a couple of words seem to have been skipped in the printed lyrics.)

In just about every song on this record there's a point where an already memorable song suddenly takes a leap to a higher level and becomes pretty much irresistible; in this case it's from the words “on the river that rolled” to the end of the verse. If you don't dig Peter Case at that point it's hopeless. The song is impassioned and easygoing at the same time, and reminds me a bit of some of my favorite lines from the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade:
Your shoulders are holding up the world
and it's lighter than a child's hand
No, it's not easy getting that feeling back.

There's a brief tip of the hat to bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins in the second verse. A Case favorite, Lightnin' also makes an appearance in “Ain't Gonna Worry No More” from Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John. Diane Sherry Case shares the songwriting credit on this track.

Until the Next Time

A bright, gentle, nicely observed song that will strike a chord with anybody who can remember back to having an adolescent thing for a girl they thought just maybe one day might work out.
“Until The Next Time” is about falling in love with someone or something that's somewhere in the world, but very extremely distant. A dream.
You can smell the autumn air in these lyrics:
empty street end of the day
kickin' red leaves while the children play
smoky sky got me thinkin' of you
almost wishin' I'd never seen that blue

I'm tryin' to keep my feet
until the next time the race starts
close to the finish line
& down in my heart
I know this could be the start of something
& I know I'm gonna wait until the next time
There are some neat little rhythmic things in the song: the way the three final down beats fall in “icicles hangin' from my eyes ears nose,” the switch from quarter-notes to eight-notes in the bridge, and the delicate little syncopation of what I think is Andrew Williams's guitar behind the verses. My favorite lines are in the final verse:
empty heart you came & you went
beware the magic object & the magic event
hitched a ride slidin' on the back of a car
christmas lights shinin' on a water tower star
Sometimes I think that Greg Leisz's solo after the bridge maybe goes on a few bars too long, but overall the dobro is pretty indispensable to the mood.

Crooked Mile

Starting when I was a teenager, I hitchhiked all over the place. I used to take twenty bucks and my guitar and go out and stick out my thumb. I'd take the first ride and I'd go where it went. Then I'd stick out my thumb again, and I'd take the next car and go where it went. I'd hitchhike and play places all over the Northeast and West Coast — just checking out the world. The first time I saw Lightnin' Hopkins play was on one of those hitchhiking trips to Cambridge in 1970. I'd go to Toronto, D. C., Boston, NYC, all across New York state. Then I came out to the West Coast and played out in the street everywhere from Portland to Mexico. That's a crooked mile.
The first of two songs on the album that deal with salvation, the other being “Drunkard's Harmony,” which could be regarded as the dark flip side of this one. It's a song that Peter plays often, and one whose title, extended to Who's Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile?, was chosen for the 2004 Vanguard compendium of his work for the label, so clearly it has special significance for him. Its description of the frantic journey of a wayfarer is at least roughly autobiographical:
I left my mother's house at fifteen
with her diamonds & a suit of clothes
set to hitch the first car by
& ride it where it goes
who's gonna go your crooked mile?

I got to New York City
where they looked me up & down
at knife point off Saint Mark's Place
I gave up the crown
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
The chorus, which evokes blues and folksong lyrics, sermons, and I don't know what else, is a rush of pointed — and unanswered — questions:
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
who's gonna haul your load?
who's gonna come out in the dark
& find you on that road?
He drifts across-country and has an encounter with a woman that is summed up in a few quick lines, never to be alluded to again. The questions return, insistently; they overflow the chorus to fill out a verse
out in California
I was spinnin' 'neath blue skies
I fell hard, all for a girl
with raindrops in her eyes
who's gonna go your crooked mile?

now who's gonna hold your lily white hand
who's gonna drive you south?
who's gonna be your mornin' dove
& kiss you on the mouth?
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
Finally he can go no further, then unexpectedly finds redemption:
& when my run was over
I got down on my knees
& I felt the touch of the Holy Ghost
when I said 'Jesus please'
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
The last verse encapsulates a newfound view of his life on earth:
now the mile still runs crooked
the highway's up above
& the only thing I've found that counts
in this world is love
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
I've added an apostrophe in “highway's” that isn't there in the liner notes; I think it's important to an understanding of the song not to have any confusion about what this pivotal line is saying: that the highway — the true way, the place where the only real journey that matters takes place — is up above. The crooked mile — that's down here, and as crooked as ever. But that isn't the road that counts.

It's impossible to talk about this song and not address the issue of Peter's religious faith. It may not be a Bible-waving, literalist, self-righteous faith, and it may only be explicitly manifest in a few of his songs (see “Beyond the Blues” and “Somebrightmorninblues”) but I think it would be a mistake to underestimate it. Its cornerstone is the unwavering, unqualified statement that ends the final verse: "the only thing I've found that counts / in this world is love."

Judging from his songs, Peter seems to take the equation of God with Love very seriously. At the end of another song “Poor Old Tom” from The Man with the Blue Post Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, he concludes the story of a homeless ex-seaman with some unexpected lines:
Now the radios blare newsak and muzak
diseases are cured every day
the worst disease is to be unwanted
to be used up and cast away.

So as we make our way towards our destination
fortunes are still made with flesh and blood
Progress and love got nothin' in common
Jesus healed a blind man's eyes with mud
I don't see Peter's point as necessarily being that progress and love are inevitably incompatible or opposed; it's that they have nothing to do with each other. Love and compassion can be present in the most abject circumstances, and can carry out their labor with the humblest of raw materials. Scientific and economic progress, on the other hand, provide no guarantee of benevolence; cruelty and indifference to suffering did not go out of style with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern democracy.

One other, tangential, point about the lyrics. I don't know what to make of the implication that the narrator of this song (not to identify him with Peter, for the moment) stole his mother's diamonds, other than the fact that it makes a great line. It's interesting, though, to compare “Crooked Mile” with Freedy Johnston's “Gone Like the Water,” another song (also possibly autobiographical), about a young man arriving in New York City:
An old suitcase she'll never miss
Leather coat he used to wear
Thinking tough, looking tired
With Mama's money and Daddy's ring

He's gone like the water down to NYC
Sleeping on the 8:02 along this river, running down
He's gone like the water down the depot drain
Disappearing in the city
The songs have little in common otherwise, and certainly Freedy's has no “spiritual” side, but in both songs the appropriation of “borrowed” accessories serves to underline both where the subject has come from and how much he has separated himself from his parents' world. Inheritances — intentional or otherwise — connect us to the past, but they are also things that we “take away from” our parents' world when we leave it behind.

As far as I can tell Peter plays alone on this one, which he does nowhere else on Full Service No Waiting. There's hardly any need (or room) for another instrument, as the bravura guitar arrangement provides all the drama you could want. The singing is particularly inspired as well. In live performances I've heard Peter let the guitar fall quiet at the end and finish the song with a half-sung, half-spoken final “who's gonna go your crooked mile?” You don't necessarily have to agree with the implied answer — that God or Jesus will go it — to appreciate the seriousness and urgency of the question.

Beautiful Grind

Is there a better and truer song about married life? And has Peter Case ever written a more romantic — not to mention erotic — song? His own comment is brief:
“Beautiful Grind” is one of my favorites on the record; it's another song about contemporary survival, and I love Greg Leisz's pedal steel on this one.
Like “On the Way Downtown,” this is a song about taking stock, about coming to grips with the inextricable joys and burdens of growing older and finding yourself entwined with other people who depend on you and also give you a reason to keep going when things gets tough. One of the things that impresses me about “Beautiful Grind” is how the opening verse switches seamlessly from past to present not once but twice. In doing so it manages to portray two distinct stages in the story of a relationship at the same time:
seven years ago we were friends at first
started off slow developed a thirst
one hot night the thunderhead burst
the flood rushed us away

now there's daily bread & love for real
dirt & pain & wounds to heal
first time I kissed you by the steering wheel
I knew our time had come

& there's work to do & children who
need our love & time
I see you there & you give me the sign
I feel the current in my heart
I only see you when the lightnin' strikes
it's a beautiful grind
a beautiful grind
The neatest transition is between the two parts of the second stanza, where the kiss is a sudden shift back to the past. I've always assumed that everything after that was in the present again, but it occurs to me now that the lines beginning “I see you there …” could easily be in both past and present, especially if you connect the “thunderhead” of the first stanza with the “lightnin'” at the end, which doesn't seem unreasonable.

There's a similar transition, by the way, in “Poor Old Tom,” Peter's song about a homeless ex-seaman who may have undergone an involuntary lobotomy years before. Neatly paralleling the man's wandering thoughts, at one point the scene switches, without warning, from the conversation Case is having with him to Tom's own recollections of events long past:
Now his eyes bulge out as we talk on the corner
He turns on the gurney they held him down
'Till one morning they wheeled him to another building
A surgery room with doctors standing 'round
Leisz really is very good here. The arrangement is uptempo and pretty straightforward; it's just Peter's picking, steady support from the rhythm section, and Leisz, who is almost always playing something but never gets in the way.

Drunkard's Harmony

If the pun can be forgiven, this is the most sobering song on the album, the one in which Case inverts the story of redemption sketched out in “Crooked Mile” to capture the state of mind of someone whose spiritual hunger — spiritual thirst, if you will — has brought them to the abyss. Except that the abyss is described in terms that sound strikingly like grace. Peter's own comment is blunt: “'Drunkard's Harmony' is about the spiritual side of being shit-faced drunk.” The lyrics are among his best.

The track begins with a single long bowed note on David Jackson's double bass. Peter's guitar plays little percussive patterns behind it; then when the bass drops off the guitar lays out the melody, a darker, more anxious variation on the kind of picking style heard in “On the Way Downtown.” The first stanza begins:
raised by wolves beneath the sputnik sky
your best friends were birds & bees
missing child of a missing child
then one day you found the key
I don't know whether the song is meant to be addressed to another person or to Case himself, or even if it matters. The “sputnik sky” reference makes it clear that it's someone of his generation, but the free-spirited “missing child” seems equally akin to both the female figures in “Let Me Fall” and “Honey Child,” and to “Crooked Mile”'s runaway.

In this descent into the netherworld, it is the bottle that takes Virgil's part:
took a first drink full of wind & stars
next one led you to the shore
there you stood with your empty glass
& all you wanted was some more
After these two stanzas the melody changes — let's for simplicity's sake call each of the song's two intricate halves one full verse — and the lyrics offer an idyll of
sweet summer nights
strollin' the diamonds
out to the trestle the first frost of fall
roamin' the fields with your fast companions
& all you could hear was their call
the harmony
broken harmony
drunkard's harmony
“Strollin' the diamonds” is a beautiful phrase, even if I'm not sure what it means (baseball fields in a public park perhaps?). [As for the trestle, it may well be the one Case is shown walking across in Tom Weber's 2011 documentary Troubadour Blues] Notice that the stanza goes from summer to fall; this is more than a one-night bender. The “fast companions” could be friends, but then again maybe not, because as the verse concludes their are more voices calling, and they seem not to belong to this world:
LAUGHTER shining from your eyes
stranger voices harmonize
free from death unbound by time
stay and the spirits will sing
in harmony
drunkard's harmony
The spiritual elevation achieved by means of drink delivers what all mystics seek: transcendence, harmony, union with the divine. (I don't know why the word “laughter” is upper case in the lyrics; it may just be a typographical fluke.)

The second verse returns to earth, resuming the description of the drinker's education begun in the second stanza of the first verse. The reference to “heading west” in the wonderful third and fourth lines suggests Case's own westward migration, but no doubt much more than that is intended:
learned a trick to stop the spinnin'
when you couldn't slake your thirst
kept heading west but you never arrived
somehow your shadow got there first
(And it would be literally true, would it not, that someone walking westward at the same pace as the sun, and with the sun behind him, would be preceded by his shadow all the way out?)

This verse doesn't have a further stanza before the melody changes to the second part, for another vision of comfort and union. Notice that the seasons have continued around:
now the clock stops
it's 3 am forever
under the bridge where the winter turns Spring
safe in the cradle loved & protected
hearin' the voice of the King
in harmony
broken harmony
drunkard's harmony
The praise of the sheltering King is unmistakeably religious in language, even if the object of the praise is not what one usually expects. And then there is one final, perfect stanza, addressed — I think — no longer to the drinker but to the one he (or she) worships:
smash the gifts your servants bear
hear this broken midnight prayer
not height nor depth nor dark despair
can hide from the love that He brings
the harmony
drunkard's harmony
In the first line the “you” of “your servants” must, I think, be the King, the false idol represented by the bottle; the servants, by that logic, would be the drunkards. Their offerings, perhaps, are their very lives, which the King then contemptuously destroys because their only value for him is in the pleasure of destroying them and in the fealty embodied by their tributes. He is an enslaving god, not the true God who liberates the spirit, but for his faithful the intoxicating “harmony” he offers is indistinguishable from what they think they seek from the divine. Has any song ever captured better the sinister allure of addiction?

Peter's guitar and the double bass carry the arrangement, with a powerful harmonica solo between the two verses and another after the second. At the end it's just the bass fades out and the guitar part slows down, then there's a little tinkling bit of percussion, like a swizzle stick being rattled inside a glass.

Still Playin'

And then after that ominous ending the next cut strikes up and it's another of Peter's signature guitar figures (this time backed by David Jackson's accordion) but now we've returned to major chords and happier thoughts to wrap the record up with. Once again he's looking back at younger days spent playing the streets of San Francisco:
we used to call 'em the dirt capades
buskin' on the corner the masquerade
walkin' 'round playin' guitar in the rain
singin' on the street as they come & go
killin' long hours when the crowds are slow
reachin' for the high notes as the world runs down the drain
(I don't know how many times I listened to this song before I noticed that the second through the sixth lines all start the same way, with present participles.) Here's what Peter had to say about the song:
“Still Playin'”: For years, I was a street musician in San Francisco, and this one works into the lyrics a lot of references to songs I used to perform when I was busking: Gene Autry's “Strawberry Roan,” Mance Lipscomb's “Cherry Ball,” Mississippi John Hurt's “Payday,” Lazy Lester's “Jailhouse Wall,” Gus Cannon's “Stealin',” and Reverend Gary Davis's “Cocaine Blues.” And the J-45, of course, is my Gibson guitar.
After the opening stanza the melody varies a bit for a few more lines, then there's what sounds like it's going to be the chorus:
still playin'
judgin' every note I play
only request I heard all night
was 'can you sing far, far away?'
But just when you expect it's going to start over for another verse, the pace picks up and there's yet another variation (this is where the song references get worked in). If you listen carefully it actually is more or less the same as the opening melody, but because of the double-timing it doesn't feel like it. Then there's a longer version of the “chorus,” and only after that does it finally circle back and take up where it began. The song is five minutes long, but because of its spun-out structure there are (depending on how you break it down) arguably only two verses, separated by just a few bars.

The second verse skips ahead to the present — or maybe it's still the past, or maybe it's both — in any case it sounds like we're in the interior of Dark Bob's room as the songs that make up Full Service No Waiting are being written:
& I'm up in a room with a J-45
waitin' on a wire wondrin' how to survive
with a scrap of yellow paper & a broken pen
older than I ever thought I'd be
with more responsibility
& I know I'm bound to stay
& pray & pay & play again
(Those are the printed lyrics, which may be outdated; it sounds like what Peter actually sings is "& I know I'd pay to play again," which falls off the tongue a lot easier.)

Coming where it does, the song brings us up from the depths of “Drunkard's Harmony,” but it also serves as a kind of response to a song like “See Through Eyes,” in which the communal joys of making music with friends seemed to be lost forever. In this concluding song Peter Case portrays himself still surviving, still playin' on into days to come, finding the joy in it, in spite of age and care and family responsibilities. It's an upbeat finish to a record that has covered an astonishing range of emotional and spiritual territory.

Acknowledgment is due to the participants at pcblog for sharing their insights over the last few years. — CK

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


She stood by the sink looking out through the window. It was dusk and a line of crows were passing above the bare trees, all flying in the same direction, heading for their winter roosts in the valley a few miles to the west. They knew where they were going but showed no sign of haste.

The backyard brambles were bare and stiff. The fruit trees had gotten out of control again; she would have to tend to them but not now, later when the worst of winter was over.

Her children were grown, gone. She poured flour into a bowl, scattered in a little sugar, salt, and yeast, then mixed it with a wooden spoon. She took a glass measuring cup and filled it at the tap, then poured the water in, scouring and beating the mixture together with a few efficient strokes. She added more flour, until she could no longer turn it with the spoon. Rolling her sleeves up, she gathered the uneven mass in her hands and worked it until it came together. She spread another bit of flour on a wooden board and began to fold the dough, slowly, strongly, with a practiced touch, adding a little more flour when it began to stick.

She thought about the motions she was making, how they had been performed, with little alteration, for thousands of years, from the time when some woman unknown, somewhere in the Levant or North Africa, had taken flour she had likely querned by hand, coarser and darker flour than this to be sure, and worked it together with a bit of saved and soured dough, then set it aside to let it ferment and rise.

Her own yeast came out of a jar, the flour came from god only knew where, all the ingredients had passed through a complicated nexus of exchange, had been processed, reduced to their most elemental and negotiable state, packaged, transported, sold and re-sold. But as she finished kneading and set a damp cloth over the dough it was no longer a commodity, it had reverted to its ancient identity, beyond all that. It would rise for a while and then she would bake it and eat it on her own, with a little leftover soup she had made two days before.

And she would keep on doing so, for a long time to come.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Guy Fleming jackets

Who was, or is, Guy Fleming? He's not mentioned in Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger's By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design, nor does there appear to be a tribute site or any other information of significance on the web. I've found a scattering of listings for books that credit him as a designer or illustrator, but other than that all I know is that between 1970 and 1979 he designed this quartet of jackets for Harper & Row (back when there was still a Harper & Row and not whatever its pathetic Rupert Murdoch-owned successor is called these days). (See comments section for an update.)

For most readers of my generation, the more familiar cover for One Hundred Years of Solitude was the old Avon or Bard version, which at least in my copy does not credit the designer. Fleming's cover is quite good, though; notice the boat being enveloped by the jungle, which is of course straight out of the book. The bottom pair of jackets are certainly eye-catching (which is what a book jacket needs to be, after all) but the one for Eréndira is maybe a little too busy.

The best of the lot in my opinion is the cover for The Autumn of the Patriarch. The detailing is actually quite intricate, but the overall layout is very simple and the lettering stands out effectively against the dark background. (I assume, without knowing, that the lettering was done by hand.) Notice that the building and the backlit window are a few degrees off perpendicular, which gives the impression that the whole thing is sinking.

My copy was purchased in 1976 in the old Barnes & Noble Sale Annex at 5th Avenue and 18th Street, opposite the flagship store that still operates. At the time, the store had a policy (fairly unheard of back then) of discounting the New York Times bestseller list 40%. I waited until the book hit the list, and then plunked down my $6.00. Compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude, though, it was a bit of a laborious read, and I've never re-read it.

Update: In the course of the '70s Fleming apparently created the jackets for at least two other García Márquez books, Leaf Storm and No One Writes to the Colonel. I haven't found a usable image of the latter yet, but here is Leaf Storm:

Sunday, October 19, 2008


At one time during his adolescence he spent endless hours flipping through LPs in the local record stores, riffling through the bargain bins — 99¢, 49¢ — searching for an album that he knew in all likelihood didn't exist. He went on looking for it nevertheless, stubbornly believing, against all evidence, that his search was bound to be rewarded for the simple reason that he had himself dreamed it into being. Maybe it hadn't literally been a dream — he was already no longer sure — maybe just a vision, or maybe he had simply conjured it up out of whole cloth because he so badly wanted it to exist. He only knew that if he ever found the album he would recognize it, and that in some obscure way that record was the key, the opening to a kind of revelation that would instantly change everything, that would grant him direction, grant him wisdom, that would let him soar away from the distinctly unexceptional life he was living into a kind of infinite paradise of meaning and richness.

Sometimes he thought he knew, or half-knew, what the record was. It had to involve lyrics, of course; there had to be songs on the album. Instrumental music, classical or jazz, though he enjoyed them well enough, would not do. There had to be words that would make perfect, orderly, rational sense, even as the chords would be the richest and the melodies the most delicate and thrilling that had ever been composed. As he imagined it at various times, it might take the form of a nearly forgotten early Dylan album (which turned out never to have been recorded), or a rumored bootleg available only to those who knew where to ask, or a half-remembered Georges Moustaki disque a friend had played him once and which his ignorance of French prevented him from understanding, or a Pentangle record he had heard behind the background chatter at a party. But always, when he found them, assuming there really were LPs that fit those descriptions, their promise soon evaporated on closer inspection. They weren't bad records, necessarily — in fact some of them he became quite fond of, for a time — but they were unmistakably not what he was looking for.

Once or twice he flattered himself that the vision had been given to him because the album was in fact his to record. His musical skills were modest at best — actually they were almost negligible — but he was young, perhaps with time … But no, in the end he knew that his act of creation was destined to consist purely of having imagined the record's existence; his vindication would be its discovery. He faithfully anticipated the day when he would at last find the record and buy it, his hands trembling a little as the clerk handed him the bag, and would rush it home at once, break off the plastic wrap, and unfold the cardboard sleeves. There would be two discs, each in its own white paper liner, and as the black vinyl of the first began to rotate steadily at 33⅓ revolutions per minute he would drop the stylus into the groove. The first strains of music would emerge into the room and he would sit there and begin reading the lyrics (printed in white on a black, starry background, because night and space are the deepest mysteries of all), and instantly, effortlessly, everything would be revealed.

Eventually they stopped making LPs. The record stores he had haunted were replaced by discount chains, then they all disappeared. He accommodated himself to CDs, and after a while no longer listened much to vinyl. A shadow of the vision remained in his memory, but the record was by now forever beyond his grasp, annihilated or never born.

Monday, September 29, 2008



Many years ago, when I was a kid, I remember someone demonstrating how you could catch a frog by peeling off the red cellophane strip from a pack of cigarettes, attaching it to a hook, and dangling it in front of the amphibian's nose. Unlike fish, who could often be fussy about what a lure looked like and whether it resembled what they're accustomed to eating, the frog didn't seem to care that the cellophane didn't look in the least like an insect or anything else that might be regarded as suitable prey; it responded only to motion, instinctively and without discrimination. It's worked for 200 million years, so why complicate things?

What the frog appeared to lack was an idea of its prey. Does, on the other hand, the motionless heron in the marsh, waiting for a fish — or our hapless frog — to swim within range of its beak, have such an idea, a mental image of what it has caught before and may expect to see again? I'm not up on the research on animal minds, but I'd be surprised if it didn't. And anyone who thinks that a dog, waiting in a silent house at the end of an afternoon, is less capable of not just expecting but imagining its owner's imminent arrival than the man now driving home is able to envision the dog waiting behind the door, can't have spent much time around dogs.

But it doesn't matter where we draw the line in our ancestral journey up from mindless invertebrate wriggling, whether at the birth of the first mammal or the first primate or at Lascaux. The inescapable fact is that at some point along the way we became capable of experiencing in our minds things that are not there. And the moment we can form an image of something, whether in pictures or sounds or ideas, we enter a world of ghosts, because an image, by definition, is separate from the thing it represents and takes on a life of its own.

Like most people, I regularly communicate with people whom I have never seen or even spoken to. Technology has made this faster and more pervasive, but in essence the phenomenon dates back to the birth of writing. A scribe picked up a stylus and incised a row of signs in a tablet of clay, and the signs escaped him and bore away their signals to be read by others in another city or another time, even long after the cities had fallen into ruins and the scribe's language had vanished from the tongues of men.

As Derrida famously showed, even spoken language itself is, in essence, another form of writing, of inscription, not the other way around. Like writing, our spoken words — even our imagined words — are no more than the trace of a presence whose own existence is hypothetical except as revealed in its trace. But I'm not really all that interested in the philosophical problems this raises, as provocative (and unresolvable) as they are.

What does interest me is the psychological landscape that such a discovery supposes. Because we are conscious and capable of imagining things that are not immediately present, we live among memories, fantasies, anticipations, fictions, conversations recollected and imagined. We draw distinctions, naturally, between what is real and what we only imagine, but the border turns out to be surprisingly permeable. We can, for instance, be moved to tears or laughter by a movie knowing full well that we are only witnessing flickering patterns of light, shadow, and sound, knowing that the actors are not who they pretend to be, that they may be dead or may even, in the case of animation and computer graphics, have never drawn a breath at all.

And what of those who are real (or were) but whom we imagine when they are not there, whom we perhaps imagine, at times, as they are not and have never been? What ghost world do they enter, the moment they step out of sight?


Today on my way back to work from picking up lunch I spotted a large praying mantis on the sidewalk. The mantis seemed sound in body but I wasn't sure how long she'd stay that way if she remained where she was, so I gently urged her from behind until she had climbed up onto a wall into at least temporary safety. I could have captured her and brought her home, but what do I know of where a mantis wants to be?

As far as the mantis was concerned, my prodding, a signal from an alien and inconceivable world, was nothing more than a stimulus producing an enforced response. The mantis climbed, and within whatever rudimentary form of consciousness it possesses no trace of me remained.

Mantises are not common — though probably not as uncommon as one would think, being well-camouflaged — and I doubt that I see even one a year. Though they probably play some small ecological role, eating and being eaten, I suspect it would be scarcely noticed if one day they simply vanished. How many other small things have gone, and no one the wiser? But against that gray, depleted eventuality the mantis climbed the wall, vigorous but unhurried, and one of us walked away altered by the encounter.

Something — anything — that is not only this moment.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

After lunch (Julio Cortázar)

(As far as I can tell, there has never been an official English-language version of this story, which originally appeared in Final del juego in 1956 as “Después del almuerzo.” I've always had a soft spot for the piece, and the absence of a translation is a little mystifying, given Cortázar's reputation, but such are the whims of the publishing business. My translation below has, as they say, “the merit of existing”; I will gladly remove it at the request of the copyright holder. I have chosen to refer to the narrator's unnamed companion as “him,” although it could just as readily have been “it.”)
After lunch I would have preferred to stay in my room reading, but almost immediately Papa and Mama came to tell me that I had to take him for a walk that afternoon.

At first I said no, let someone else take him, please let me study in my room. I would have said more, would have explained why I didn't like having to take him out, but Papa took a step forward and started looking at me in that way I just can't resist, fixing his eyes on me so that I can feel them penetrating deeper and deeper into my face, until I'm ready to scream and I have to turn around and say yes, of course, right away. At such times Mama doesn't say anything and doesn't even look at me. She just stands back a little bit with her hands clasped together, and when I see her gray hair falling over her forehead I have to turn around and say yes, of course, right away. So then they went away without another word and I started getting dressed, my only consolation being that I could break in a pair of yellow shoes that shined and shined.

When I left my room it was two o'clock, and Aunt Encarnación said that I should look for him in the back room, which is where he always likes to settle himself in the afternoon. Aunt Encarnación must have noticed how miserable I was about having to take him out, because she ran her hand over my hair and then leaned down and gave me a kiss on the forehead. I felt her slip something into my pocket.

“So you can buy something,” she said. “And don't forget to give him a little, it's better that way.”

I kissed her on the cheek, feeling a little better, and walked past the living room door where Papa and Mama were playing checkers. I think I said see you later, something like that, and then I reached into my pocket for the five peso note, smoothed it out, and tucked it into my wallet where I already had a one peso bill and some change.

I found him in a corner of the back room and grabbed hold of him the best I could. We went out through the patio to the gate into the front yard. Once or twice I was tempted to let go of him, to go back inside and tell Papa and Mama that he didn't want to come with me, but I was sure that in the end they would bring him along and make me go with him to the front door. They had never asked me to take him downtown — it wasn't fair to ask me to do that because they knew perfectly well that the only time they had made me take him for a walk on the sidewalk that horrible thing with the Alvarez's cat had happened. I could still see the face of the cop talking with Papa in the doorway, and then Papa serving two glasses of rum, and Mama crying in her room. It just wasn't fair for them to ask me.

It had rained that morning and the sidewalks of Buenos Aires were even more of a mess than usual; you could hardly walk without getting your feet soaked in a puddle. I did what I could to walk on the dry parts and not get my new shoes wet, but right away I saw that he actually liked going into the water, and I had to tug with all my strength to keep him at my side. In spite of this he managed to get to a spot where there was one stone that was sunk deeper than the rest, and by the time I caught on he was completely soaked and had dead leaves all over him. I had to stop and clean him off, all the time feeling the eyes of the neighbors watching me from their yards, not saying anything, just watching. I don't want to lie — really I didn't care that much that they were watching (watching him, and watching me take him for a walk). What bothered me was being forced to stand there, with my handkerchief getting all wet and muddy and full of bits of dead leaves, and having to grab on to him the whole time to keep him away from the puddle. Besides, I was used to walking down the street with my hands in my pockets, whistling or chewing gum, or reading comic books while keeping an eye on the stones of the sidewalks I know by heart all the way from my house to the streetcar stop, so that I know when I'm passing in front of Tita's house or when I get to the corner of Carabobo Street. But now I couldn't do any of that, and my handkerchief was starting to soak the lining of my pocket and I felt the dampness on my leg. It was really incredible having so much bad luck at the same time.

At that hour the streetcar is usually pretty much empty, and I prayed that we'd be able to sit together, keeping him on the window side so that he'd be less of a nuisance. It's not that he moves around much, but he annoys people all the same and I understand it. So I was aghast when we got on, because the streetcar was almost full and there were no double seats unoccupied. The trip was too long for us to ride on the platform; the conductor would have made me sit down and find him a seat somewhere else. So I hurried him in and found him a spot in the middle next to a woman who had the window seat. Ideally, I would have sat behind him to keep an eye on him, but the streetcar was full and I had to keep going forward and sit quite far away. The riders didn't seem to take much notice; at that hour people are still digesting their lunches and are lulled half asleep by the rocking of the streetcar. The problem was that the conductor stopped at the side of the seat where I had left him, tapping with a coin on the steel of the ticket machine, and I had to turn around and signal to him so that he'd come get the fare from me. I held up the money so he'd understand that I was buying tickets for two, but the guard was one of those gorillas who just stare stupidly and don't even try to understand, and he just kept tapping and tapping the machine with the coin. I had to get up (and now two or three riders were watching) and make my way to the other row. “Two tickets,” I said. He punched one, looked at me a minute, then handed me the ticket and lowered his head, just kind of peering at me sideways with one eye. “Two, please,” I repeated, certain that by now everybody in the car was watching. The gorilla punched the other ticket and handed it to me; he was about to say something but I gave him the exact change and beat it to my seat without looking back. The worst part of it was that I had to keep turning around to see if he was still sitting quietly on the seat behind me, and that was bound to draw the attention of the other riders. At first I promised myself that I'd only turn around each time we reached a street corner, but the blocks seemed terribly long and at every moment I expected to hear a shout or a scream, like that time with the Alvarez's cat. Then I started counting to ten, like in a boxing match, and that worked out to about half a block. Each time I reached ten I snuck a look back, by fixing the collar on my shirt for instance, or putting my hand in my pants pocket, anything that would look like a nervous tic or something like that.

I don't know why but after about eight blocks I got the impression that the woman sitting next to him by the window wanted to get off. That really was the worst thing that could happen, because she was sure to say something to him so that he would let her out, and when he didn't notice or didn't want to notice she might get mad and try to force her way through, but I knew what would happen in that case and so I was on tenterhooks, and I started looking back well before each corner. Finally it seemed to me that she really was about to try to get up, and I could have sworn that she said something because she glanced to her side and I thought I saw her lips move. Just at that moment an old fat lady stood up from one of the seats near me and started to make her way down the aisle, and I got up behind her wanting to shove her along, give her a kick in the legs so she'd hurry and let me reach the row where the woman was lifting up a basket or something she had at her feet and now was standing up to go. Finally I think I did shove the fat lady, I heard her object, and I don't know how I managed to reach the side of the seat and haul him up in time so that the woman could get off at the corner. Then I pushed him up against the window and sat down next to him, so relieved even if four or five idiots were watching me from their seats up front and from the platform where the gorilla must have said something to them.

Now we were passing through the El Once district. The sun was shining brightly and the streets were dry. At that time of day if I'd been traveling by myself I would have gotten off the streetcar to walk the rest of the way downtown on foot. For me it's nothing to walk from El Once to the Plaza de Mayo. Once I timed myself and it took me exactly thirty-two minutes, granted that I ran part of the way, especially at the end. But now, on the other hand, I had to keep an eye on the window, because one time somebody caught on to the fact that he was capable of opening the window and tossing himself out, just for kicks, like so many of his other whims that nobody can explain. Once or twice it seemed to me that he was about to lift the window, and I had to reach around behind him and grab it by the frame. Maybe it was just me; I can't really say for sure that he was about to lift it open and jump. For example, when the thing with the inspector happened I forgot about him entirely and he didn't throw himself out. The inspector was a tall, skinny guy who appeared on the front platform and started punching tickets in that chummy way that some of the inspectors have. When he came to my seat I handed him both tickets and he punched one; then he looked down, looked at the other ticket, started to punch it and froze for a minute with the ticket poised in the jaws of the punch, and the whole time I was praying for him to just get on with it and punch it and give it back to me, because it seemed like everyone on the bus was starting to stare at us. Finally he punched it, shrugged his shoulders, and handed both tickets back, and then I heard someone on the back platform let out a laugh, though naturally I didn't want to turn around. I put my arm around him again and grabbed hold of the window, pretending I didn't see the inspector or anybody else anymore at all. At Sarmiento and Libertad people started getting off, and by the time we got to Florida there was hardly anyone left. I waited until San Martín and then I made him get down by the front platform, because I didn't want to have to pass the gorilla, who might have said something to me.

I really like the Plaza de Mayo; when somebody says downtown I immediately think of the Plaza de Mayo. I like it because of the pigeons, because of the presidential palace, and because it carries so many memories from history, of the bombs that fell when there was a revolution, and of the caudillos that said they wanted to tie up their horses at the Obelisk. There are peanut vendors and hawkers that sell things, it's easy to find an empty bench and if you want you can keep going a bit and go down to the harbor and look at the ships and the derricks. Because of that I thought that the best thing would be to bring him to the Plaza de Mayo, away from the cars and buses, and just sit there for a while until it was time to go home. But no sooner did we get off the streetcar and start walking along San Martín than I started to feel queasy; all of a sudden I noticed how tired I felt, after spending nearly an hour on the streetcar having to keep looking back the whole time, pretending I didn't see that everyone was watching me, and then the guard with the tickets, and the woman who wanted to get off, and the inspector …

I really would have liked to go into a milk bar and get an ice cream or a glass of milk, but I was sure I wouldn't be able to, that I'd regret it if I went anywhere people were sitting down and would have time to look us over. In the street people just crossed and went their own way, especially in San Martín which is full of banks and offices and where everyone bustles about with portfolios tucked under their arms. So we just kept going until we got to the corner of Cangallo, and then as we were walking past the shop windows of Peuser's, which were full of inkwells and other elegant things. I could tell he didn't want to keep going, he kept getting heavier and heavier and as hard as I tugged (trying not to draw anyone's attention) I could hardly walk and finally I had to stop in front of the last window, pretending to look at the embroidered leather desk sets. Maybe he was a little tired, maybe it wasn't just a whim. Besides, it wasn't that bad to stay there like that, but all the same I didn't like it because people going by had more time to look us over, and two or three times I noticed somebody making some remark to someone else, or elbowing them in the ribs to get their attention.

Finally I couldn't take it any more and I grabbed hold of him again, tryiong to act like someone going for an ordinary walk, but each step was harder than in those dreams where you have shoes that weigh a ton and you can hardly lift them off the ground. Eventually I got him over the idea of standing there, and we continued along San Martín to the corner of the Plaza de Mayo. Now the problem was getting across the street, because he doesn't like to cross streets. He's perfectly capable of throwing himself out a streetcar window, but crossing streets he doesn't like. The worst part is that in order to get to the Plaza de Mayo you always have to cross a busy thoroughfare; at Cangallo and Bartolomé Mitre it wouldn't have been nearly as bad, but now I was on the verge of giving up, he dragged on my hand so much, and twice when the traffic stopped and the people who were lined up on our side started to make their way across, I realized that we would never make it to the other side because he was going to plant himself right in the middle, and so I decided to wait until he made up his mind. And of course now the guy from the newsstand on the corner was staring at us more and more every minute, and he said something to a kid my age who was making faces at me and said I don't know what in return, and cars kept going by and stopping and starting up again, and there we were stuck on the sidewalk. Sooner or later a cop was bound to come by; that would have been a disaster because the cops are good guys and so are bound to stick their noses in. They start asking questions, make sure you're not lost, and at any moment he could get one of his ideas into his head and who knows how it would all end up. The more I thought about it the more nervous it made me, and finally I felt really afraid, like I was going to throw up, I swear, and when the traffic stopped again I got a good grip on him and closed my eyes and pulled him ahead practically bending over double, and when we made it to the Plaza I let go of him, took a few more steps by myself, and then I walked back to him and I really just wished that he were dead, that I were dead, or that Mama and Papa were dead and me too while you're at it, that everybody was dead and buried except for Aunt Encarnación.

But such thoughts pass quickly; we saw that there was a very nice bench, completely empty, and I took hold of him without tugging and we went and sat on the bench to watch the pigeons, who fortunately don't let themselves get caught like cats do. I bought peanuts and caramels, I gave him a few, and we were all right there with the afternoon sun shining on the Plaza de Mayo and people going this way and that. I don't know exactly when it occurred to me to leave him there. All I can remember is that I was shelling a peanut for him and at the same time I was thinking that if I pretended to be throwing something to the pigeons who were just a little further off, it would be easy to go around the Obelisk and be out of his sight. At that point I'm not sure I was thinking about when I got home or about the look on the faces of Papa and Mama, because if I had I wouldn't have done such a stupid thing. It must be very hard to think of everything, like wise men and historians; all I was thinking was that I could just leave him there and go for a walk downtown with my hands in my pockets and buy myself a magazine or go in somewhere and have an ice cream before it was time to go home.

I kept on feeding him peanuts for a while but I had already made up my mind, and after a minute I pretended I was getting up to stretch my legs and I saw that it didn't matter to him if I stayed or if I wandered off to throw peanuts to the pigeons. I started tossing around the ones I had left, and the pigeons surrounded me until the peanuts were all gone and they lost interest. From the other end of the Plaza you could hardly see the bench; it was just a matter of crossing to the Casa Rosada, where there are always two grenadiers on guard, and walking alongside the building until I reached the Paseo Colón, that street that Mama says kids by themselves should stay away from. Out of habit I kept looking back, but there was no way he could follow me; the most he could do would be to wallow around next to the bench until some lady from the benevolent society or a cop came by.

I don't remember very well what happened as I made my way along the Paseo Colón, which is an avenue just like any other. Eventually I sat down on the bottom window ledge of an import-export company, and that's when my stomach started to hurt. Not like when you have to go to the bathroom; it was up further, where your stomach really is, and I wanted to breathe but it hurt; then I had to sit quietly and wait until the cramp went away, and in front of me I saw something like a green blob and little dancing stars, and Papa's face, in the end it was just Papa's face because I had closed my eyes, I think, and in the middle of the green blob was Papa's face. After a while I was able to breathe normally again, and some boys were there watching me and one of them said to the other that there must be something wrong with me, but I shook my head and said that it was nothing, that I got cramps all the time but that they always went away. One of them offered to get me a glass of water, and the other said I should wipe my forehead because I was sweating so much. I smiled and said I was fine, and I started walking again so they would go away and leave me alone. It's true that I was sweating because sweat was pouring down onto my eyebrows and a salty drop ran into my eye, and then I took out my handkerchief and ran it over my face. That's when I felt something scrape across my lip, and when I looked I found a dead leaf stuck in the handkerchief; it was the leaf that had scratched me.

I don't know how long it took me to get back to the Plaza de Mayo. Halfway there I fell down but I got up again right away before anyone noticed, and I dashed across the street between the cars driving in front of the Casa Rosada. From a distance I could see that he hadn't left the bench, but I kept on running and running until I reached him, and I threw myself down on the bench like I was dead while the startled pigeons flew away and people turned around to give me that look they give to kids when they see them running, like it's a sin or something. After a while I cleaned him up a little and told him that it was time to go home. I only said it so I could hear myself say it and feel better, because as far as he was concerned the only thing to do was to grab hold of him and bring him along, he didn't listen to words or just pretended not to listen. Luckily this time he didn't try to get up to any tricks crossing streets, and the streetcar was almost empty at the beginning of the trip, so I could shove him in the first row and sit next to him, and I didn't turn around once the whole trip back, not even when we got off. We walked the last block very slowly, him trying to get into the puddles and me struggling to keep him onto the dry stones. But it didn't matter, nothing mattered. I was thinking the whole time, “I abandoned him”; I looked at him and thought, “I abandoned him,” and though I hadn't forgotten what had happened on the Paseo Colón it made me feel so good, almost proud. Maybe another time… Who knew how Papa and Mama would look at me when they saw me leading him by the hand. Naturally they'd be happy that I'd brought him downtown — things like that always make parents happy — but I don't know why it occurred to me, just at that moment, that sometimes when Papa or Mama take out their handkerchiefs and dry their brows, every now and then they find a dead leaf inside that scratches them on the face.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Tenant (conclusion)

[Back to Part I]

11. I had begun cobbling together a story from raw materials that originally had nothing to do with each other. On the one hand were impressions of Borges and his circle derived from a slender memoir by Alberto Manguel; on the other was the vaguely remembered dream from which I had awakened the morning after reading the memoir.

12. After writing a few pages I found myself quickly losing interest, in part because I myself didn't find the story believable. After all, I knew little about the setting and not much more about the characters of my little conte à clef, except for some bits about Borges I had gleaned from reading Emir Rodríguez Monegal's biography years before. I wasn't going to go to the trouble of researching the background, for one thing because ultimately I knew it would all be fakery; I've never been to Argentina and anything I would learn from my researches would be superficial and unreliable. Plus the story had turned into a kind of drawing-room literary satire that requires an alertness to social nuances which I do not in fact possess.

13. Still, I had four characters (five, if you count the young woman observed entering the building across the street) whom I had left hanging, their teacups poised in mid-air. So, not to draw things out further, here is how the story would have gone had it been my story to write, or had I been the writer to tell it:

14. Once the possibility has been raised that the young woman they have been observing might be in league with a vampire, one of the characters must suggest that they break into the apartment and have a look around. Perhaps it's one of those things that gets started as a joke and develops its own unstoppable momentum, each of the four raising the stakes a bit until they have committed themselves beyond recall. Borges, of course, being blind and elderly, must naturally be depicted as being at least as game as any of the others; Manguel, as the youngest, would largely defer to the rest. So it is Ocampo and Bioy Casares who do most of the egging on.

15. The next problem was how to get them into the building opposite, once the young woman has left for the day. My first thought would be that the lock would be picked, but who would do it? Who would be revealed as the secret possessor of the skills of a break-in artist? Bioy, the slightly disreputable man-about-town (as I depicted him), with a soupçon of James Bond in his makeup? Manguel, who, newly sobered up, reveals himself as a handy and resourceful character suitable to a Hardy Boys novel? Borges? Or, after they had failed miserably to gain access, would Ocampo show them all up with a hatpin? In the end I settled on an alternate contrivance: Ocampo would have noticed that the young woman always slipped the key into a windowbox upon leaving, and they would simply dig it out from among the petunias and open the door.

16. Once inside they would find the building deserted, dark, and barely furnished, the few pieces covered with dropcloths and shoved to the side. They would climb first one flight of stairs, then another, and as they reach the third floor (but in Argentina, of course, it would be only the second piso) they would be struck by a sudden and unexpected illumination. As they step forward into a large central room they would see that the roof above was made of glass, and as they enter this brightly lit solarium they would approach a couch, its back turned to them, and reclining on the couch, its head projecting over the top, they discover a skeleton …

17. At this point the young woman unexpectedly comes up behind them. “How dare you,” she says, or something along those lines; “What is the meaning of this?” There will be a moment of embarrassed silence until at last Borges steps forward. “My dear,” he says meekly but with impeccable dignity, “I must apologize for our intrusion. I'm afraid we have let our imaginations get the better of our judgment.” Then, while his companions stand abashed, he tells her the whole story.

18. The young woman appears to be, to some extent, mollified by this. (And besides, she has recognized the old man, as any resident of Buenos Aires would.) She briefly explains that she is an artist, the skeleton her model, and she pulls aside some coverings and shows them easels on which are displayed some of the accomplished, intricate anatomical drawings with which she has been occupying her afternoons.

19. But she does not quite accept the old man's abject expressions of regret. “An apology is not sufficient,” she declares sternly; “I demand compensation.” There is another awkward silence as the intruders anxiously ponder what kind of retribution the young woman may require. Speaking directly to Borges she says, “You must return later in the week, after my day's work is done, and be my guest for tea.” And then, as an afterthought, she adds, “you may bring your friends, if you like.” Borges nods, gravely, and of course he accepts her terms. With a great sense of relief the four leave the building, escorted by the young woman.

20. On the appointed day, Borges and the others appear at the front door, dressed elegantly and bearing flowers and a small cake. They ring the bell but there is no answer. Reluctant to barge in a second time, they wait outside, then ring the bell again. When no one appears one of them tries the door handle and they see that it is unlocked. They step inside and and call up the stairs, but there is no answer. They climb up through the building until once again they come into the solarium. There is no sign of the young woman, nor of the skeleton. The easels are gone and every other trace of the tenant has been cleared out. There is no note. The four writers stand together in the late afternoon sunlight, lost in thought.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Tenant: untelling a story (I)

1. A few nights ago I began reading a slender volume by Alberto Manguel entitled With Borges. In it, Manguel relates how, as a teenager working in a bookstore in Buenos Aires in the 1960s, he became one of the many people who at one time or another were recruited to read to Jorge Luis Borges, who was by then almost entirely blind. From that starting point he sketches, in a mere seventy-odd pages, a genial portrait of Borges and his circle, touching on the great man's friendships, his character, his political opinions, and his reading habits, the latter being, to Borges, most important of all, much more so even than his own writing.

2. Before I woke up the following morning I experienced a sort of gothic dream, the details of which I have largely forgotten. The dream had nothing at all to do with Borges or with Argentina, but as I woke up, with Manguel's memoir on the bedside table and still fresh in my mind, the dream and the recollected traces of the previous night's reading began to converge, and by the time I was fully awake I had imagined the outlines of a short story in which Borges, his friend and collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares, Bioy's wife Silvina Ocampo (herself a noted writer), and Alberto Manguel would be the participants in the events that had taken place in the dream. The story was to begin in the apartment long inhabited by Bioy and Ocampo, where Borges was a frequent visitor.

3. As soon as I could I began writing the story. But almost immediately the first of several obstacles arose. I have never been to Buenos Aires, and know next to nothing of its geography and neighborhoods. Borges, I knew, lived, when Manguel first met him, on the Calle Maipú. Was this within walking distance of the Calle Posadas, in the upscale Recoleta district, where his hosts lived? A bit of cursory research suggested it was not, but I wasn't sure. Would Borges have come on foot? I didn't know.

4. I began my story with the old man's arrival, the young Manguel at his side. Here was another problem. I referred to the character as “the old man,” and not by name, because I was in fact inventing the details of his appearance and bearing out of whole cloth. It was meant to be evident that the man was Borges, but any attempt to pass off my description of him as an accurate likeness would never pass scrutiny by anyone who knew better. And so I began:
The old man arrived, as was his custom, around nine, dressed in a faded grey suit and yellow necktie, a neatly folded handkerchief (surreptitiously spritzed with cologne by his maid) poking out of his suit pocket. He was accompanied by a young man they didn't know, no more than sixteen, with a wisp of beard and incipient mustache, who hung back slightly but didn't seem overawed to be in the company he was in.
Except for the fact that Borges habitually wore a suit only one detail of this was reliable, and it was lifted straight from Manguel: Borges's maid did sprinkle his handkerchiefs with eau de cologne, though apparently not on the sly.

5. Next I introduced the character who was meant to be Silvina Ocampo but at the same time also Victoria Ocampo, her sister and perhaps an even more important literary figure, at least in her role as publisher of the influential journal Sur. I knew very little about either sister, so I simply made it up:
The woman, in her sixties, tall, slender, and sporting a floral print dress and pearls, ushered them in and bestowed a quick, affectionate quick on the old man's cheek before returning, but only momentarily, to the kitchen, her shoe heels rapping loudly on the wood floors where there were no rugs.
As for Bioy Casares, he barely received a description at all:
Her husband, who was reclining in a worn upholstered armchair reading the evening paper, saluted the visitors warmly but did not get up.
6. It quickly became clear that it was going to be very tiresome not to be able to refer to any of my characters by name. There were only so many times I could refer to “the old man,” “the woman,” and “the husband” without it becoming monotonous. Manguel's character, at least, I could refer to, alternatingly and inconsistently, as “the boy” or “the young man.”

7. In my description of the scene in the apartment, I soon began drifting away from the sophisticated literary circles of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires into the world of Jiggs and Maggie. My Ocampo bustles from room to room while heating up a soup left by her maid, who has been given the night off. Bioy Casares, whom I depicted, without evidence, as an avuncular semi-alcoholic, pretends to grumble when his wife asked him to fix drinks for their guest, then plies the teenage Manguel with nearly undiluted scotch, which quickly takes its toll.
By the time the woman announced dinner the boy was quietly reeling but, he thought, managing not to show it. Fortunately the host stepped up to escort the old man, sparing the boy the embarrassment of leaning on his ostensible charge for stability. The woman had set out a garish china tureen and was ladling out a thin, dark liquid that was giving off whiffs of an unpromising aroma. There was a basket of thin bread, which went untouched. The boy saw the old man raise one spoonful, and then a second, to his lips, before carefully setting the implement down and dabbing delicately at the corners of his mouth with a napkin.
My only defense for anything in the above paragraph is Manguel's remark that meals at the Bioy-Ocampo household were uninspiring, consisting for the most part of “boiled vegetables.” Guests went there for scintillating conversation, not for the food.

8. As for conversation, I took a stab at it, with “the old man” breaking the dinnertime silence:
“This young man has been reading me Chesterton.”

The boy, hearing himself referred to, looked up with a start, and instantly broke out in a sweat. He had himself by now consumed several spoonfuls of the broth, and was not sure if it was the scotch or the food that was making him feel unwell.

“Father Brown or theology?” his host inquired.

“Father Brown,” came the answer. “Though to me they are equally mysterious.”

The others pondered this mot in silence for a moment, until the host turned to the boy.

“You speak English, I take it?”

“Yes,” he said, in his befuddlement trying to remember whether he actually did, or what the question meant, and whether he would as a consequence of his answer be asked to sing a few bars of Gilbert and Sullivan to prove it.

“He reads English passably well, and French too, in the manner in which they are taught by our schoolmasters,” the old man declared. The boy debated whether or not this was meant as a compliment, and decided that it would have to do.

“He sells me Penguins at Frau Lebach's,” the old man added, finally. For a moment the boy considered this statement, which was after all absolutely true, as well as the utter insouciance with which it was received by his hosts, then barely suppressed an attack of giggling before lowering his head and spoon solemnly in a feigned resumption of battle with the soup.

“I see,” said the woman, in something of the same tone, or so the boy imagined, in which she might have responded to a report of a sheep with two heads or a man who had lived for seven years inside a giant wheel of Stilton. Or perhaps not, for when he looked up she seemed to be regarding him kindly and he felt a pang of regret that he was almost certainly about to pass out into his soup bowl. At the last minute he was saved; the woman stood up abruptly, whisked away the plates, and strode with them out of the room and into the kitchen, where she deposited them into the sink without troubling to rinse them off. She was back in what seemed like a few seconds but was probably ten minutes, bearing cups of rich, strong tea.
"Frau Lebach's" was Pygmalion, the “Anglo-German” bookstore owned by Lili Lebach, where Manguel was employed and where Borges was a customer. Whether Manguel spoke English or French or German at the time (Borges knew them all) I had no idea; I simply assumed that since he was working in a foreign-language bookstore he must have some facility with languages. “Insouciance” was ridiculous; it wasn't the right word but I couldn't think of another.

9. It's common knowledge that Borges read Chesterton's Father Brown stories, and Manguel relates that in spite of his own lack of religious belief he was fascinated by and enjoyed reading theology. But the real point of all this badinage and low comedy is to advance the plot, by means of a shameless segue. (Having finally grown tired of being unable to call my characters by name, I settled on the half-measure of “Sylvie” for Silvina Ocampo.)
“Perhaps Sylvie could make employment of your Father Brown,” her husband said. “She is convinced that there is a mystery afoot in the neighborhood.”

“Ah, is that so?” said the old man, perking up slightly.

“He's making fun of me again,” said the woman. “He never believes anything I tell him.”

“That's not true, my dear. I'm just suggesting that perhaps the good Father, were he here, would be able to clarify the mystery, that's all.”

“What is the nature of the mystery, may I ask?” inquired the old man.

The couple hesitated. “You tell them,” said the woman.

“No, my dear, it's your mystery. By all means you must tell it.”

“Very well, but you must refrain from mocking me while I do so.”

“My lips are sealed.”

“That would be a miracle. It's like this. There's a three-storey house across the street, on the corner, that has been vacant for some time. Three weeks ago, while I was writing by the window in my study, a moving van pulled up outside the building. Two men got out and stood by the truck for about an hour, until a woman in her late twenties or early thirties arrived by cab. She unlocked the front door, and the two men carried a long wooden crate — about six feet long or a little more — into the building. A few minutes later they returned, took a few smaller crates out of the van, brought them inside, and drove away. The woman remained inside the building for about an hour, then left. The following day she arrived at around ten in the morning, carrying a large valise. She stayed until four in the afternoon, then left for the day, valise in hand. Since then she has returned, almost every day, at the same time, and always leaves by nightfall. No one else has entered the building.”

“How can you be sure that no one has entered the building when you weren't looking?” the young man interjected.

There was an uncomfortable silence. The husband finally broke it:

“Sylvie has been watching out the window, almost all day and all night, for more than two weeks. She has hardly slept”

“I am positive no one else has entered the building. And the woman is never there at night.”

“Perhaps it is Bram Stoker that you need, and not Chesterton,” the old man drily observed.
10. And there, perhaps a third of the way through the story, having descended into banalities unworthy of an Agatha Christie novel, I threw in the towel. But there was more of the story still to be told.

(To be continued)