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The Captain sits on his loveseat inspecting his socks while holding a book in his left hand, a collection of Nietzsche's works and letters. He picks long and short strands of hair from his socks wondering how they got there. He remembers going through this exercise earlier in the week and having to pick out textures and colors of hair that together made no sense, though he understands. Sometimes humans understand what makes no sense. Long, short, curly, straight, blonde, brunette and red ...
How can socks grow hair? -he ponders, especially samples so different.
It would make sense if they were identical, you know, all black or all blonde. But it didn't matter anymore, not to the Captain. Nothing or no one related to the samples was around anymore. This was comforting to the Captain.
He sat back and finished reading a letter that Nietzsche wrote over a century ago, "If I could give you an idea of my feeling of loneliness! I have nobody among the living or among the dead to whom I feel related. This is indescribablyhorrible!" -Nietzsche's confession to an acquaintance. These words embody the essence of classic statements and emotions. Centuries pass, but in the ocean of historical events, circumstances and emotions preserve their relevance for those who follow. The Captain had no one to write.
In late spring, the Captain received a letter from his alma mater. He was to be honored as a distinguished alumnus during homecoming events. Over a decade had passed since his last visit to Western Michigan University -since graduation. He felt honored and humbled that his life and accomplishments would be recognized with distinction. However, the Captain knew his personal and professional accomplishments were only superficial, a shell that someday would or wouldn't implode. Whether it implodes or not depends on the dispositions of the gods. Like the Greeks fighting the Trojan War, the Captain isn't sure whose side the gods are on.
The Captain flew out of Dayton alone. He arrived in Grand Rapids alone. He drove into Kalamazoo alone, and this was familiar to him. Kalamazoo was a place that he experienced alone for most of his time in graduate school. Dr. Michael Rowe met the Captain as he drove up to The Oaklands. Mike gave the Captain a short tour of the old house. Many years ago, The Oaklands served as the university president's house on campus. It was a quaint home similar to the old homes portrayed in horror movies. The Captain made his way up the spiraling staircase that led to the second floor and his bedroom. As the Captain went up or down the stairs, he thought about the possibility of losing his balance and falling. For brief seconds, as he descended or climbed, he thought about how it would feel to plummet. Falling from such heights inspires a fatal sense of freedom. Death is freedom.
The awards dinner was enjoyable. As he approached the assigned table, the Captain's eyes fixed on the petite female occupying the chair next to the one he would choose. She had lush long black hair, a beautifully thin body type and sensual health. Her skin was delightfully pale with a constellation of freckles on her face. Her smile radiated throughout the table and held him captive.
Five glasses of wine can change a man, not in substance, but structure. The Captain has always been shy. That shyness sometimes keeps him from striking up conversations with women with the intent to seduce. The liquid courage running through his body that night encouraged him. He was still the same man ... with the same thoughts, feelings and desires. But which of these thoughts, feelings and desires surfaced and to what extent was related to the structural and more superficial changes he experienced that evening. This woman held his consciousness in her prison.
Ten minutes into his flirtatious conversation, it suddenly occurred to the Captain that maybe she was married. Someone so beautiful was either married or had a boyfriend. That had been his fortune in life. With dread and unwanted anticipation, he looked at her hand and with swift disappointment saw her wedding ring.
The Captain looked around and saw Mike, the gorgeous woman and strangers. The Captain appreciated Mike's good will and sentiment, but there was no one there with whom the Captain could share that moment intimately, a moment that for a man like the Captain can only be shared with a woman.
Lost in the realms of memory, the Captain loses himself in time while the sun descends. The living room darkens with the only dances of light coming from the fireplace.
The Captain's head slowly slumps on his shoulder. His hand, still holding the book, slides to his lap and with his lips slightly open, he closes his eyes into unconsciousness.
The Captain walks into the master bedroom and dazedly collapses on the bed. The bedroom has two closets storing the Captain's suits, shirts, jeans, pants, t-shits and other miscellaneous articles. His taste for color is without flair. The colors in his closets are dark. The Captain has a fascination with black. Near the foot of the bed sits a forty seven inch television. There's a small nightstand beside the bed, on the left, and to the right a bookshelf. On the bookshelf, there's a Koran, Tanakh, protestant and Catholic Bibles, humanities textbooks, logic books and other literary works. Among the Captain's favorites are Homer's The Odyssey & The Iliad, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Sándor Márai's Embers & Casanova in Bolzano, as well as Emperor Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. It's often said that one can know people by the books they treasure.
As you enter the bedroom, you encounter the foot of the bed. The room is bland. There's no décor. Cherry wood is the predominant color. The bed is sturdy. It has survived many sensual earthquakes. Though not noticeable at first glance, the wooden rails on the bed have been replaced with rails of steel. The old wooden rails fell victim to ravaging passions and earthquakes -shakes, shocks and trembles capable of letting anyone's hair loose. Maybe that explains the strands of hair on his socks ... The bed is cold and sends chills through his body. They're pleasant chills, pleasant in a masochist sense. He responds by rubbing his naked body with warm hands in hopes the friction brings balance. His body temperature subdues the chill's onslaught.
The bed is a fountain of memories. It holds them with the zeal of a woman that's in possession of her deceased loved one's last photograph. As inanimate objects, beds come closest to consciousness. The consciousness beds acquire comes from the moments of nonrational and passionate encounters unleashed against them. They become conscious through imperfect osmosis. It's imperfect osmosis because beds ultimately absorb our complete consciousness without allowing balance or equal sharing of the state. While their masters sleep or battle over them, they absorb consciousness, until one day, there's none left and the masters die. Time devours. The comforter and sheets begin to warm. The Captain turns on the television and sets the timer so that it turns off in exactly thirty minutes. This is enough time for him to develop some interest in the programming, yet insufficient time to arouse his full consciousness -enough to exhaust him into submission. Though there's nothing interesting on the television, it makes for soothing background noise -like an adult's lullaby.
Once again, the Captain sleeps. He's familiar with the loss of consciousness. It's a state in which there's no self-awareness, awareness of others or fixation on anything. It's a nonreligious Nirvana in which all aesthetic value as we know it is lost because there's no human interest in or consciousness of any specific thing. In unconscious states, there's only basic existence, unadulterated by the senses. If we're fortunate, we recall these pure experiences during waking hours. The tightly closed blinds and circulating air render him unaware of the afternoon's bright and scorching sun. In time, the Sun is also subdued by darkness -time devours.
It's 6:00pm. The Captain remembers his guest will arrive soon. He shaves his 6-day beard, speckled with salt and pepper, and showers. For the Captain, shaving usually occurs in the shower. Water drains down his body, from hair to feet, while he slices years off his face -one of the few weapons against time, a razor. Shaving is always a chore. The Captain is unfortunate in this respect. He must always shave twice. First, he shaves the outer layer, that which is most exposed to the world and allows others to guess his age or surpass it. Then, he shaves again to achieve the closest cut possible and to coax out any appearance of leftover youth. It's during this second shave that he begins to bleed. His face becomes a map of ancient Mesopotamia. On his chin, closest to the side of his mouth, two thick and very slow streams of blood descend. These red trails map out an inverted and extending Tigris and Euphrates rivers branching out from the Persian Gulf. On many occasions, the Captain has been approached and addressed in the language of Allah. But the Captain, flattered and apologetic, informs his new friends that he cannot speak Arabic.
The Captain's thick black beard nostalgically reminds him of his grandfather, Luis. Luis unequivocally loved his daughters, rum, cigars and his grandson. Not necessarily in that order. In the Captain's refrigerator, there's an opened bottle of Don Q rum. On his dining room shelf, there's a collection of old cigars, dried and cracked. The cigars have been in his possession for over a decade. Among the cigars, he displays a cigar-making board and blade. They belonged to his grandfather and have been in the family's possession for over three quarters of a century.
As a child, the Captain was tasked with fetching his grandfather at the local bar. A patron, usually a friend of the family, would walk by the house and inform his mother that Luis was drunk and unable to get home safely without help. From the hill they lived on, it was a five minute walk to the bar. The boy descended and turned right at the road. The road's path was forced by the river as they ran parallel to each other. Once on the road, the boy walked by two houses before reaching the bar. The side of the road was overwhelmed with tropical plants and bamboo trees. The boy had an aversion to walking this path at night. There were no lights. In the darkness, the wind swayed the bamboo trees and these cracked and made horrid sounds. When the boy arrived, the bartender and regulars yelled out, "Luis, here is your god." The drunk man replied, "Yes, here is my god. Come here my god. What do you want? A child's beer?" His grandfather was referring to a nonalcoholic beverage that is very popular in Puerto Rico called malta. It looks like Guinness, maybe even tastes like it a bit, except that it's sweet. Its glass container also makes it look like beer. Luis' speech was slurred, but clear. The grandfather embraced the boy and kissed him on the cheek. The boy felt the coarseness of his grandfather's beard piercing his soft face. To this day, Luis' brazen beard lives in the Captain's memory. That was an expression of love between a grandfather and grandson.
The prickly beard and smell of rum on his grandfather's breath inspired a poem that the Captain wrote decades later ...
The old black man downed a shot of Don Q.
The old black man saw his light skinned grandson descend.
He's my God; he is God! -exclaimed the grandfather.
The old black man downed a shot of Barcardi.
Hail Mary, mother of God, full of grace! -he worshipped.
Here's your God! -shouted the bar's faithful.
I'm a witness- confessed the old black man.
I was there ...
I saw ...
His father, loving my daughter, was thrown aside by God.
Yahweh Elohim, father of Baal, himself claimed the right of primae noctis.
The light skinned grandson is Jesus' brother.
The old black man's breath smelled of beer and rum.
The old black man kissed the light skinned boy on his cheek
-grazing him with a beard of age and sandpaper.
God bless Don Q and Bacardi rums.
The steaming jets of water prick his skin and provoke it as soldiers did the shores of Normandy during the Second World War. He feels oddly excited as rivers make their way to his toes. He dries and walks to the guestroom. Well kept and hanging in the closet is the Captain's Air Force uniform -his battle dress. His Air Force blues hang next to his battle dress. He considers wearing his blues tonight, but tonight isn't a night for formality. Tonight should represent the Captain's character, his life-simple, elegantly vulgar, paradoxically confused and embattled. Fully dressed and before the mirror, the Captain smiles. Holding his cap by the bill, the two silver bars indicating his former rank polished, he puts it on his head. The uniform still fits. A sense of vanity overtakes him momentarily. He separated from the military six years ago. He rarely exercises and it still fits. He's more surprised than impressed that he isn't bursting out of the uniform.
His memory carries him into the past. It's difficult for the Captain to remember timelines with any accuracy. For the past six years, time has meant nothing to him. As concerns time, he suffers mental atrophy. He can't sense time. He can't use time. He no longer understands time. He does know there was a beginning and will be an end.
Maybe tonight will be the end -he ponders.
Though impressed with the fit of the uniform, the uniform reminds the Captain of the biggest motherfucker he's ever known, Lieutenant Colonel Pratts. Unlike the memory of his grandfather, that of Lt. Col. Pratts is an abomination.
Lt. Col. Pratts is a short man. I'm assuming he's still alive. Bad weed never dies, it lives on infesting and festering like a boil on the lifeless body of Christ. It's hard to explain. Was it his height? Did someone do something to him? Lt Col. Pratts placed the chip on his own shoulder. He considered anything said or done an offense or a mockery of him. Apparently, he lived life under this assumption which was unfortunate because you couldn't have a normal human relationship with him. Relating to Lt. Col. Pratts was to enter a master-slave relationship in which you were the slave. Was it lack of self-esteem? Was he attempting to prove himself beyond reason and thus making himself an instrument of evil? He was the personification of that which makes the lives of others a living hell.
Excerpted from Chronicle of a Fall from Grace by Sándor Márai Copyright © 2009 by Sándor lsg Márai. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 11, 2009
Posted November 11, 2009
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