Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Unhappy Devotion (Dedicated to Peter Schilling, Sr. and Jr.)

From a very early age Maraini had been singularly, almost frighteningly obsessed with divining all of the secrets of magic. He was fortunate in one particular regard: as a boy he had lived in a large industrial city in New Jersey, and located on the already beleaguered main street was a cramped and dusty old magic shop whose owner was only the second proprietor the establishment had known in its more than seventy years of operation.

This would have been somewhere around 1963, and the owner of the store was very old. His name was Gaylord Shattuck, and he had recently retired from the professional practice of magic and was devoting what was left of his life to writing a scrupulously researched history of the genesis and evolution of every trick and illusion known to him. Among his small and dwindling circle of confidantes, Shattuck would boast that - at least in the world of magic - there was now nothing he had seen that he did not understand or could not place in an historical context. When Maraini first set foot in the shop - still called Sharpovsky's Magic after the original owner, and still crowded with posters and other relics from its early years - he was ten years old, already a serious boy and a serious student of magic who had virtually memorized every book on the subject that he could find in his hometown library or at the New York Public Library, which he visited a half dozen times a year with his mother.

Gaylord Shattuck had seen youngsters parade in and out of the store for forty years; they paid the bills many months, and he had a rote patter that he used to sell them the basic gags, pocket tricks, and simple routines with which they could amuse their schoolmates. Maraini, at ten years old, was having none of Shattuck's auto-pilot shtick.

"I already know all that," the boy said, and Shattuck would later recall being struck by Maraini's peculiar focus. The boy didn't smile. He wasn't there to horse around. No, Shattuck said, this was a kid who was looking for the real thing, the best kept secrets and latest wrinkles. Shattuck, of course, had a long list of customers he had first encountered as children who later went on to distinguished careers in magic. A couple of them became minor legends, at least among other magicians. But he'd never had a kid as young as Maraini come through the door so clearly determined to break through every wall and build new, and higher, walls of his own.

Shattuck sold Maraini his first doves, then eventually let him through doors he'd opened for fewer than a dozen customers in his decades in business. The last time, the last door, Shattuck had immediately regretted. Maraini, who was by this time twelve years old and was already capable of performing the acts of men who had made a good living off magic and were now in the twilight of their careers, seemed utterly unimpressed, and had instinctively grasped the illusion from the set-up to the execution. At this point Shattuck pointed Maraini in the direction of another retired magician in Newark, a legendary eccentric who was rumored to have devoted the last decade to attempting something that had never been accomplished.

More than that no one had been able to discover or to coerce the old man to disclose. This man's name was Cabbott Sandor - the Great Sandor - and Maraini was said to have served a brief but fruitful apprenticeship with him. Sandor's memories of the boy - recorded when Maraini's career was still in its relative infancy - jibed almost exactly with Shattuck's. Against his parents' wishes, Maraini dropped out of high school at sixteen, and is said to have undertaken a long pilgrimage in Europe at around this same time. In Paris, in London, in Prague and Munich, in Madrid and a small village in Portugal, there were legendary magicians, most of them old, who recalled his visits and his impatient interrogations. He reportedly performed his act - excellent, highly skilled, but still relatively conventional - in public places and local theaters and nightclubs whenever he could persuade someone to give him an opening set, usually preceding some singer, comedian, or cabaret performance.

He traveled for varying lengths of time with itinerant circuses in Spain, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Maraini was still at this time a teenager, and no one who encountered him during this period recalls much about the boy beyond his severity and what someone once described as his "unhappy devotion to magic." He apparently had no close friends, no romantic relationships, and seemed to subsist on little beyond water. There are some who claim that Maraini developed a pernicious drug habit during this time in Europe, but there has been no evidence to support that claim.

A grainy photograph of him appeared in a cheap but influential magic newsletter in the early 1970s. The photo showed a tall, unsmiling, virtually emaciated young man staring into the camera with an expression that simultaneously conveyed boredom and malice. The headline above the brief article that accompanied this photograph read: "A potential legend, or a legend of potential?" The article documented Maraini's pilgrimages to the shops and homes of legendary and obscure magicians all over Europe. Around this same time Maraini stopped performing entirely, but he continued to travel and visit magicians, all of whom were said to be impressed with his intense curiosity and restlessness. Maraini, despite scant evidence that would support such claims, was persistently suspected of hatching something that would prove earthshaking in the world of magic.

Then, in 1975, another brief article - this one bearing Maraini's byline - appeared in an influential magic publication. It was unclear where exactly Maraini was at the time - India or Africa, people surmised - but he claimed in the magazine that he had been traveling with a "merchant of cobras," that he had assembled a collection of living scorpions, and that this merchant's company, he hoped, would facilitate the "procurement of an elephant or some even more spectacular beast."

The article also included this strange quote: "I've spent the last fifteen years looking for magic, and what I have found is an endless series of cheap puppet shows performed in cemeteries overrun with plastic flowers and slack-jawed zombies. Make no mistake: magic as you've known it is dead. A new magic will only be found in the oldest, most disreputable form of magic: miracles. That, then, is where I'm turning all my attention. Upward."

After this rare, uncharacteristic, and utterly inexplicable public pronouncement, Maraini was not heard from for over two years.

Years later reports would be pieced together regarding Maraini's activities and whereabouts during the two years he seemed to disappear entirely from the radar. Many of the sources of these reports were unreliable at best, or from notoriously disreputable sources at worst. There is no doubt, however, that he spent at least several weeks with an old, internationally known magician in Singapore. This man was a German ex-pat who had settled in Singapore in the early sixties, and he was regarded in the magic community as something of a crackpot, a man who had for the last thirty years refused to even acknowledge a magic community, or to claim membership or fraternity in anything that, in his own words, "continued to propagate the same old transparent frauds and patently bogus gee-whizzers that had reduced magicians the world over to a bunch of slick practitioners of the usual hocus-pocus hokum."

The man, whose name was Einer Schulz, professed that his one remaining hopeless goal in the time remaining to him was to obliterate every deck of cards on the planet. During his last known stint as a performing magician in Europe, Schulz was doing an act in which his hands were bound and he worked exclusively with his feet. It is also claimed that today's risk-taking, extreme marathon stunts of confinement, isolation, and deprivation had their origins in the mind of Schulz, who somewhat presciently saw that the future of magic, its next frontier, was not properly magic, but suffering.

At any rate, Schulz, who was as frequently despised as he was grudgingly admired by serious magicians and historians of magic, accepted Maraini as a visitor. The old man died before Maraini made his big splash, but he did recount some details of the younger magician's visit in a journal that surfaced after his death. In one entry he wrote that "the young man is strange, and may be crazy. Who am I to say? He's clearly looking for something, another dimension that I myself have not yet been able to conclusively conclude exists."

Elsewhere he seems perplexed with Maraini's obsession with obtaining an elephant.

"I told him, of course, that Houdini had already, in New York in 1918, disappeared an elephant on stage at the Hippodrome," wrote Schulz. "An illusion Houdini learned or stole from Charles Merritt, the Yorkshire alcoholic hypnotist and  illusionist who had performed a similar stunt with a donkey. The fellow, who is almost alarmingly gaunt, brushed this off with disgust and the sputtering indignation that seems to be his primary mode of communication. 'That,' he said, 'was nothing but a cheap box-and-mirror trick, and an even cheaper stunt that fooled virtually no one. I want to really disappear an elephant, in an open space with no props or sets. I want the elephant to be gone.'

"After pondering this for some moments, during which the young man appeared to be festering with frustration, I ventured that - if I was understanding him correctly - what he proposed seemed like an impossibility, emphasizing that this was a word I had used and entertained rarely, and only with reluctance. Clearly angry, Maraini stalked away from me, and later spent part of the afternoon locked in a box with scorpions and cobras, an experience that late that evening he pronounced 'pointless. Boring for me, boring and likely traumatic for the creatures, and surely boring, however repellent, for any audience.'

"Several days later he sold his collection of cobras and scorpions, which I was led to believe he had hauled all over the world, to a man even I find unsettling who runs an animal market in a slum."

Schulz's last entry regarding Maraini's stay was perhaps enlightening: "To be a truly great and singular artist, a man must demonstrate some of the pathology of the criminal, and young Maraini clearly has all of the tell-tale signs. There is really no telling what the man might do, which makes him both tragic and enviable. All the same, I can't help feeling that I've heard the last of him."

Schulz's journals were dated Sept. 1976, and the man was dead by the end of the year, killed in mysterious circumstances by the husband of a palm reader. It is unclear where Maraini's travels took him next, but reports from those who supposedly encountered him at various points in his long journey - and these dispatches came from such disparate and far-flung locales that it is difficult to know what to believe - increasingly took on a starry-eyed, almost mystical tone. After his visit to Schulz there are no more accounts of Maraini practicing -at least publicly- anything that might have been construed as magic. Questions have also been raised regarding how his travels were financed, but much of the speculation - drug peddling, gun trafficking, begging - can likely be dismissed as idle rumors.

Then, in August of 1978, an advertisement appeared in several magic publications, placed by an apparent promoter no one had ever heard of, announcing Maraini's return to New York.

"It is Foolish to Promise Something That Has Never Been Seen Before, as there is both Precious Little and Plenty That Has Never Been Seen Before, Depending on Your Awareness and the Paucity of Your Experience and Imagination," the announcement read. "But As I Wish to Speak in a Debased Language You can Understand, and also Because I Mean the Phrase Literally, I intend to reveal to Interested Parties Something That Has Never Been Seen Before, and which I feel confident will Never Be Repeated. Free to the Public."

There was no other information beyond a date, a time, and a place: Central Park, the Great Lawn, September 7th, five p.m. This announcement occasioned a great deal of curiosity, among magic aficionados, certainly, but as Maraini had by this time become a legendary mystery, if nothing else, the story began to be pieced together and reported by the media. The New York Times ran a sketchy and - in all likelihood - largely apocryphal profile that made the man seem like a full-blown modern myth.

There was absolutely no indication of what the man  might do, and even speculation seemed pointless. The last anyone in New York had seen of Maraini he had been a precociously gifted teenager who had mastered  nothing beyond what might be called the basic repertoire. Everyone, of course, recalled his almost alarming seriousness, and his vague singularity of purpose and obvious ambition. But as a successful older magician, who had crossed paths with Maraini during the years before he embarked on his odyssey, told the reporter from  the Times, "He was a kid, and he was very good, but he had zero presentation skills, nothing in the way of patter, and, frankly, he was doing stuff that hundreds of other magicians in New York could do with more flair."

The Times article also included a few quotes from Maraini's father - something of a Holy Grail for Maraini obsessives, as the family had been  unyielding in their refusal to speak about their son and brother; they had, in fact, been entirely silent and invisible throughout Maraini's absence.
The crowd at Sharpovsky's magic shop in New Jersey had vague memories of both the mother and the father occasionally accompanying their son on his early trips to the store, but no one could recall their names. Over the years various attempts had been made to call every Maraini in the New York and New Jersey phone books, but none of the people contacted had ever heard of the magician. This part of the mystery was put to rest by the profile in the Times.

"My son's given name is Dario DeCarava," his father said. "I have no idea where it came from, but from the time he got interested in magic - and he was just a boy - he started referring to himself exclusively as Maraini."

It turned out that no one in the family had had any sort of contact with Maraini since early in his European pilgrimage. As for what his son might have in store for the curious come September 7th, the father said, "Your guess is as good as mine. In fact, your guess is probably better than mine. He was a mystery from the time he learned to speak."

Early on the morning of September 7th a large crowd began to gather on the Great Lawn. It was a perfect autumn day of the sort New York is famous for. There was a considerable presence of New York police officers, many of them on horseback. A large canvas tent was erected in the middle of the lawn, surrounded by several large trucks. The word made its way through the magic contingent - many members of which had traveled from far afield - that the set-up had occurred in the dead of night, and all the necessary permits and paperwork had been secured.

No one had yet seen Maraini, or seemed to have any idea when he might have arrived in the city, or from where. Later police estimates claimed that the eventual crowd gathered on the Great Lawn was in the neighborhood of 5000, although I would personally guess that it was much closer to 10,000. A series of barriers had been erected around the tent, creating an open space that was perhaps fifty yards in circumference. At exactly five p.m. a flap was pulled back from the tent and Maraini emerged - or at least it was assumed this was Maraini. No one was really in any essential way capable of recognizing him. The man who walked out into the clearing to address the crowd was tall, a bit stooped, and as thin as advertised. His hair was long and disheveled, and he was wearing a faded blue tee-shirt, bell bottom jeans, and  sandals, which he immediately removed and  tossed back in the direction of the tent.

He appeared to squint out at the crowd, shook his head - almost sadly, it seemed - and stepped hesitantly to the microphone, where he stood unmoving and unspeaking for several long moments. The crowd was remarkably silent. Eventually the flaps of the tent were rolled back and several people emerged leading a giraffe, which crept forward with lurching, tentative steps until it came to rest behind Maraini.

"This is an African giraffe," Maraini said, finally addressing his audience. "It has undertaken a long and arduous journey to be here today, and before this day is over it will have traveled an even longer and more amazing journey."

The handlers released their reins and stepped back toward the tent. The giraffe lowered its head briefly and then raised it again and stood perfectly still.

"This giraffe is here in New York," Maraini said. "Surely as alien and unsettling a place as it has ever found itself."

Maraini's voice was utterly without inflection. He did not smile or move from the microphone.

"Like so many in the city it cannot begin to imagine what it is doing here, and also like so many in this merciless city, it would dearly love to be somewhere else, anywhere else."

At this point Maraini removed the microphone from the stand and turned to face the giraffe. He appeared to be staring into the giraffe's eyes, and the giraffe, unmoving except for ripples that ran up and down its long legs and steady waves that rolled across the velvet of its ribcage, returned Maraini's gaze.

"I cannot begin to express my gratitude to you, my patient friend," Maraini said. "But I thank you for everyone here. And now you are excused."

With that Maraini turned back toward the crowd and the giraffe instantaneously disappeared. A gasp went through the crowd, followed by a swelling murmur, and then a burst of wild applause. Maraini raised his hands and beckoned for silence. He now seemed to be glowering.

"There is nothing to cheer about," he said. "It is a disgraceful, an unpardonable, thing to make a giraffe disappear. Is it not, however, a wondrous thing when a giraffe appears, anywhere in the world, even here in Central Park?"

Maraini closed his eyes, clasped his hands together as if he were praying, and then once again turned his back to the crowd. He repeated the series of gestures. The crowd was almost completely silent, poised in a rare moment of communal breathlessness. The giraffe did not reappear, and by this point it was clear that something had gone wrong. A number of people emerged from the tent and appeared to be both conferring with Maraini and consoling him. Everyone stood around for what seemed a very long time, the noise of the crowd growing by the moment. Maraini paced around distractedly in front of the tent for fifteen or twenty minutes. He was clearly distraught, and several times shook off assistants who approached him with the apparent intent of offering comfort or advice. After perhaps 45 minutes passed Maraini approached  the microphone.

"Something has gone wrong," he said. "In this world, you will surely have noticed, something always goes wrong."

And then he turned away and disappeared back into the tent. The crowd milled around for a bit longer and then began to disperse. Some speculated that they had just witnessed a hoax, an elaborate publicity stunt. Others believed that they had been witnesses to a crime. Still others, myself included, had no idea what to think. That night's television news gave a good deal of coverage to the story. Maraini, it was said, was not available for comment.

Then, near the end of the newscast, the anchors broke from a story they were reporting to announce that Maraini had allegedly killed himself with a gunshot wound to the head in a Brooklyn warehouse. Unidentified police sources on the scene had provided a preliminary identification of the deceased, and official confirmation came later in the evening.

The next day we learned that Maraini had left instructions that he was to be buried in a pauper's cemetery on Hart Island. There would be no service. The burial occurred several days later, and there were witnesses, including the grave diggers, Maraini's family, and a few members of his traveling party. There was also a report from the mortician who prepared the body for burial.

The morning after Maraini was interred, the entire city was abuzz with the news that a giraffe had appeared, grazing on the Great Lawn of Central Park. Suspicions being immediately aroused, and based on a tip from what police called a reliable source, a request was filed for the exhumation of Maraini's grave, despite objections from his family. A party, including city officials, a few journalists, and Maraini's parents, made the trip to Hart Island. News reports described a grim affair. The disinterment took place in a cold, torrential downpour, and the gravediggers had difficulty locating the coffin and then extricating it. The grave had filled with water, creating a sucking mudhole.

When the casket was eventually hoisted from the hole in the ground it was removed to a storage shed for inspection, pried open, and discovered to be empty.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Two Little Stories About Religious Paranoia

The other night I dreamt I was in a boat floating in thick fog, talking to God.

Look, He says to me, I'm just hoping to catch a few fish. I didn't come down here to listen to you bitch.

I wouldn't think you'd need to fish, I said.

Very few people in this world need to fish, He said. But it just so happens I like to fish. I'm a sportsman, and though, yes, I could technically cheat --at this as well as at anything else I damn well please-- that's never been my style. I don't much go in for flashy stuff and intervention. The fish don't know who's on the other end of the line, and that's the way I like it. The truth is that if they did  know, it would only make it all the more difficult for me to catch them. Do you think for one minute that if those fish down there knew I was in this boat they would eagerly impale themselves on my hook just to make me happy? I can assure you they would not. Unless and until somebody wants or needs something virtually all of creation runs from me. Oh sure, there are nuts --there are always nuts-- but I think you know what I mean. You're all fish to me --understand, of course, that I'm now speaking metaphorically, but that's the way I've always thought of you-- and when I go fishing it's virtually always bad news for somebody. And I'm terribly sorry, my friend, but today that somebody is you.

And with that God pushed me out of the boat.

An Unfortunate Agreement

One night Ruckert dreamt that he had died and was standing in a long line outside the gates of Heaven. Some functionary was making his way along the queue with a clipboard, directing queries to the prospective entrants.

“Will there be dogs in Heaven?” Ruckert inquired of the man.

“Yes,” the man said, “but unfortunately not your dog. As you might recall, he killed a number of rabbits.”

The man offered Ruckert the option of spending eternity in hell with his dog, an offer that Ruckert accepted without hesitation, at which point he awoke in a cold sweat.

Despite the best and most rational counsel of his closest friends and therapist, Ruckert could not be dissuaded from  his conviction that this dream represented some sort of binding agreement.

Friday, January 20, 2012

From The Annals Of Exploration

I recall reading somewhere about a party of British adventurers who were mucking about in some primitive, forsaken  place. This was, if I'm not mistaken, some time relatively early in the 19th century. According to a handful of sketchy journals they left behind they'd had an arduous expedition and  had lost several members of their party to violence and various mysterious maladies.

Much of the time they spent navigating an unpredictable river and plodding through thick brush and rough, rocky terrain. I don't quite remember what they were looking for, but I'm certain it can be safely surmised that it was more or less something they hadn't seen before. Like many such explorers I'm supposing they were bored with domesticity and civilization, and hoped  that hardship and  peril would make them  men again.

They were also --once again, like many such characters-- blunderers, utterly ill-prepared and incompetent, certain that their firearms and education  (they were mostly well-to-do graduates of Oxford, I believe, with a handful of hardscrabble human mules to do their dirty work) made them superior to the vague task at hand.

Almost needless to say, they disappeared, as is so often the case with such foolhardy explorers. Many years later a party of anthropologists and botanists stumbled across a jungle clearing in that still inhospitable part of the world, a clearing where they discovered a neatly arranged collection of bleached skulls seemingly growing from the earth like jack-o-lanterns made of bone. Additional investigation revealed that the bodies belonging to these skulls had in fact been buried vertically, and presumably alive, up to their necks.

When these pathetic souls were excavated  it was discovered that they were still wearing their tattered clothing, and one of their number was yet clutching in what was left of his right hand a scrap of moldering cloth on which was scrawled in fading script the words: "We have had the misfortune of encountering a party of white men."

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Mountain

The mountain told the crow he was lonely.

"If you would use your wings to fly away, even if only for a short time, you would surely not feel so lonely," the crow said.

"But I don't have wings," the mountain said. "I cannot fly away. And even if I could fly away, I could not do so. Where I am is what I am."

"Nonsense," the crow said, and lifted off and soared away across the valley.

The mountain was not a majestic specimen. It was, in fact, a humble mountain, covered with trees almost all the way to its highest point and surrounded by other mountains from which it was virtually indistinguishable. There was a good deal of mountain competition for a hundred miles in every direction. To the north of the lonely, humble mountain there was a range of truly majestic mountains, rock-faced and snow-capped, that were said to be visible from the smaller mountains on all sides.

The lonely mountain could not see these majestic mountains. He was severely myopic and knew of the majestic mountains only from descriptions he had heard from the birds, and from the occasional comments of admiration he heard from the rare hikers who climbed through the trees --'climbed' was perhaps not wholly accurate; people could walk at a leisurely pace to the top of the lonely, humble mountain-- to stand or sit for a moment at the small cluster of rocks that constituted its modest summit. No one who ever came to the lonely, humble mountain ever addressed a word to him. No one had ever asked his permission to cut down his trees, to build fires from his wood, or to fish in his brooks. For hundreds of years he had been conversant with no one but the occasional bird. Some of them, from their perspective high up in the sky, could at least see that he was there, distinct; could see that though he was covered with trees and bushes and flowers and rocks, and that though there were springs and brooks and all manner of animals living on him, he was the mountain, the village in which all these other things resided.

After the mountain had made his confession to the crow other birds began to visit and hector him with the same advice: "Fly away! Fly away!"

The crow must have gossiped that the mountain was lonely. The crow was loud, and loose lipped, and the mountain knew that he never should have confided in him. All that summer the birds came flitting and swooping and soaring in from the north, south, east, and west. "Tsk-tsk, lonely," they would cry. "Tsk-tsk, lonely. Fly away! Fly away!"

Most of the birds the mountain had ever known were foolish. Only the owls were wise, and they seldom deigned to talk to him. He had lived longer than all the foolish birds combined, and he had heard them coming and going for hundreds of years. Of course they were not lonely. They were not anchored to the earth and nearly blind. They built nests and had children and traveled great distances and visited other mountains and forests and lands. The mountain had heard their stories, and once upon a time they had thrilled him.

One day near the end of the summer, on an afternoon when the mountain could once again sense the changing of the seasons and could feel the planet churning beneath him, a hawk paid him a visit.

"I hear you are lonely," the hawk said.

"It is true, yes," the mountain said. "I am lonely. It is lonely to be an old mountain."

"Why do you not fly away?" the hawk asked.

The mountain sighed. "Because I do not have wings," he said. "It would be impossible for me to fly away. And where I am is what I am."

The hawk seemed to consider this for a moment.

"But of course you have wings," he said. "I have seen them. I have been snatching mice from the feathers of your wings for years. And what you are you will be wherever you go."

"Nonsense," the mountain said. "I am a mountain, and if I were to leave I would cease to be a mountain."

"Your problem, old Mr. Mountain," the hawk said, "is that you are stubborn and blind. It is no wonder you are lonely." And with that the hawk hurled itself into the air and was carried away on the wind.

Autumn crept over the mountain and darkness came early and the nights grew longer and colder. Soon the snow would begin to fall and the mountain would be silent and more alone than ever. Winters were hard on the old mountain. They nibbled away at him year by year, and when spring once again came around there would be new cracks and less of him than there had been the year before.

Increasingly, when the first snow came the old mountain would close his eyes and sleep fitfully until he heard the first tentative arrival of the birds and the running of the brooks carrying away the last of the melting snow. One evening in late autumn he was already dreaming of that day when he was startled awake by the sound of migrating geese, crossing the sky above him in great numbers.

As he listened to their exuberant, long familiar traveling songs, the old mountain felt something moving within him, a rustle that built rapidly to a roar --the crashing of trees and rocks, thunderous, terrifying, a noise that gradually subsided and was replaced by what sounded like nothing so much as a huge, rhythmic heart beating furiously and almost weightlessly within him. And then the startled old mountain suddenly felt himself rising in a swirling blizzard of dirt and pebbles and dead leaves.

With dreaming wonder, the mountain watched the earth gradually recede as he climbed higher and higher into the clear night sky, alternately gliding and gyring, carried up and away --or so it did indeed seem-- by a giant pair of dusty wings. And when he cast one last look backwards and downwards he saw that the mountain that had been for so many years home to his lonely heart was still there, reposed in the moonlight and waiting for the arrival of another long winter.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Memories Of Tchaikovsky

It's no secret that people of great achievement are often abject curiosities and spectacular failures as human beings, and this was certainly true of Tchaikovsky, who lived in my hometown when I was growing up.

I can't truly claim that it was my privilege to know the man, or even that to know him would have been, in fact, any kind of privilege at all. (My understanding is that this was decidedly not the case.) But I certainly remember the old man, and recall seeing his stooped and wretched specter stumbling along the sidewalks of my neighborhood.

People around town knew Tchaikovsky, of course, or certainly were aware of his strange presence. Few, however, apparently realized that he was writing music. Most folks remember him as a stunningly bad amateur painter whose crude oils of birds --robins, almost exclusively-- were entered in the art show at the county fair each summer.

Somewhere I have a snapshot of the garish tattoo of a naked clown bleeding from his eyes that Tchaikovsky had etched into one of his forearms. I can't recall how I came by this photograph, to be honest with you, but it remains among my most prized possessions, and countless scholars have tried to buy it from me over the years.

There was always a great deal of speculation that Tchaikovsky was consumptive, or infected with venereal disease. There did, certainly, appear to be something wrong with him. There were clearly health issues of one sort or another, most obviously a painful-looking skin condition. He also had dodgy hygiene, and always seemed to be in need of a new pair of shoes.

Late in his life Tchaikovsky wore a beat-to-shit pair of purple moon boots, no matter the season. This was after moon boots had long since gone out of fashion, and I suppose he picked them up on one of his regular visits to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, where he was also said (this was in the newspaper after his death) to be an indiscriminate hoarder of "potboilers and paperback westerns."

Every afternoon he would emerge from his rented room at the Ace Hotel over on the east side by the railroad yard, and he and Friedrich Engels, another Ace resident and local curiosity, would stumble around  the sidewalks of downtown engaged in heated conversation that often resulted in minor dust-ups and spitting matches. Kids used to regularly throw rocks at them.

I can also tell you that Tchaikovsky rolled his own cigarettes (Drum), and spent a great deal of time drinking coffee and banging away at the Cannonball Run pinball machine at a local pizza parlor. He was once arrested for shoplifting a porno mag from Nemitz’s (I can remember my father sitting at the dinner table and chuckling over the Daily Herald’s description of the stolen merchandise as “a gentlemen’s magazine of undetermined value.”).

Whenever we'd see him out and about, my mother would always say, "That poor man doesn't know whether he's coming or going."

"I could help him out with that," my father would say. "He's going."

The old mutterer had one sister still in town, but she was said to find him repellent, and more than once sought a restraining order against him on the grounds that he creeped her out –that, at least, was my mother’s version, which she had received secondhand from a courthouse clerk who was part of a group my mother belonged to that made quilts (with Bible verses pinned to them) for Africans.

Tchaikovsky occasionally played chess at the public library with the conductor of the high school orchestra, and somehow managed to talk this man into performing some of his compositions at the annual spring orchestra concert. Nothing much was made of his music at the time, however, and when Tchaikovsky died he was largely friendless and wholly uncelebrated.

Even to this day there are people in my old hometown who will insist that the music now attributed to Tchaikovsky was, in fact, composed by some other person, or persons. 

Repeated attempts to raise money to erect a statue in his honor outside the library have been unsuccessful.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The International Repository Of Regrets

Since he lost his job as an aviation mechanic in the late 1980s, Riggs has been a clerk at the International Repository of Regrets. He hasn't had a good night's sleep in almost ten years.

The Repository, housed in a World War Two-era train depot, is a vast place of bad light and spooky, institutional acoustics. Even in the middle of the night --especially in the middle of the night-- it is always crowded, and the mood there is generally sour and joyless. The crowd is polyglottal, often dizzyingly so.

Some of the people who stand in the long lines are dead, shuffling in place in stepped-down shoes, often clutching photographs –or entire albums of photographs-- to their breasts. Many of the waiting have grown hoarse from a lifetime of rehearsing and fine-tuning their regrets. For the most part, they throw their cigarette butts and the wrappers from the vending machines on the scarred concrete floor.

The International Repository of Regrets is now little but a purely bureaucratic facility, and offers nothing in the way of dispensation, absolution, or second chances. Even as a repository it has long since surrendered any claims of utility.

These days, whatever regrets are unburdened there are merely scribbled haphazardly in the margins of ancient, crowded ledgers, wherever there is room. All attempts at maintaining accurate chronological records have been abandoned.

They will soon enough run out of room entirely, at which point the clerks in their teller's cages will be forced to simply sit and listen, reduced to the role of secular priests, mostly disinterested and concerned not at all with salvation or even compassion.

By now, Riggs had pretty much heard it all before, from the truly criminal to the almost unpardonably banal.
Even so, these latter confessions were the things that continued to haunt him, revealing as they did the cumulative, lingering damage that could result from even the smallest childhood disappointments. For instance, there was, in the wee hours of one long night, the old woman who had stood in line for days to tell Riggs of the heartbreak she had suffered owing to the fact that allergies had made it impossible for her to ever hug a dog. Or the younger man, deceased by the time he made his way to Riggs’ window, who was grief stricken over his lifelong inability to throw a baseball to his father's satisfaction.

Riggs had also encountered individuals --there had been at least a dozen-- whose chief regret in life was one particularly bad haircut.

And so, so many people had stood before Riggs and poured out their regret over elaborately planned surprise parties that had been disastrous or poorly attended.

Most distressingly and unsurprisingly, love --faithless love, tragic love, and love gone wrong, gone cold, or gone missing-- continued to be the reason the overwhelming majority of the broken and beleaguered clientele made the difficult pilgrimage to the International Repository of Regrets. Day after day and night after night Riggs listened to these stories. Unlike some of the other, older clerks, he was incapable of not listening. Sometimes he found himself jotting notes on scraps of paper he carried in his pockets for just this purpose. Personal note taking was strictly forbidden, and the regrets that were offered up at the Repository were never supposed to leave the facility.

Yet Riggs did take these notes. He took them down and he took them home, and he would spend some time studying and mulling them each day at the end of his shift. And then he would put them away in a box he kept under his bed, a box in which he had for 32 years kept a collection of notes and faded greeting cards –old birthday, anniversary, and Valentine cards—that were all addressed to him and signed in the same unmistakable hand.

And every day Riggs went to work and kept his vigil, even as he was slowly, slowly, slowly losing hope that eventually the familiar, beautiful, and sad face he had been waiting for all those years was one evening going to appear before him, and offer up the words that would set him free.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

From An Obituary In The Forest Lake Times: Perpetuating One More Old, Cruel Stereotype

...You will be like a man compelled to spend his life on a desert island and there toiling to erect a memorial so that future seafarers shall know he once existed.
      --Schopenhauer,  “On Ethics.”
This was the life of the small town spinster librarian: a clock that clanged on the half hour every day for over 50 years. The city's siren swelling in the streets each afternoon at exactly 12 o'clock, and again to signal the ten p.m. curfew --as if people couldn't tell time or didn't have clocks to do it for them. A dysfunctional milkman, desperate, facing extinction, and the butt of a thousand old jokes, sweating his hard sell door-to-door. A moldering Main Street full of nothing but empty storefronts and dreams that began to fade the moment they took bloom. A few dreary taverns she had never visited, but whose clientele and climate she could well imagine, given her unfortunate familiarity with the squalid habits of so many of her fellow townspeople. A dozen rusty grain elevators and a scar of ragged railroad tracks that passed for industry, and a rusty water tower that served as a local landmark and should have had some sort of pointed apology painted across its facade.

The librarian had always felt as if the whole town was beneath her, almost literally so. She would never make house with a bumbling local; this determination had been hardwired in her heart back in her schoolgirl days. She would look with nothing but scorn upon the flock of poor bachelors who gathered each afternoon and evening in the library's front parlor, making stammering conversation and rustling through the collection of inferior magazines and newspapers.

The local weekly wasn't worth the nearly transparent paper it was printed on, and was produced by end-of-the-road or entry-level journalists playing at the saddest sort of dead-end reportage: school board meetings, piddling zoning controversies, wedding and anniversary announcements, school lunch menus, senior citizen center craft sales, high school football, and obituaries. There had always been plenty of obituaries--the local funeral home was the newest building in town, and was illuminated like a casino all through the night-- but anymore even the number of dead people was diminishing by the day.

Every night the spinster librarian carried home thick novels, read herself to sleep, and regretted everything other than the fact that she had been taught to read.

One day late in her life she would have the realization that her father was to be the only true gentleman she would ever meet, and the only man who would ever hold her in his arms.

Before she’d even reached fifty she had made arrangements to be buried in Boston, a place she had never so much as visited. This was the only wish she ever publicly expressed, as well as the only wish she was ever granted.