By Tom Carson
Picador Copyright © 2003 Tom Carson
All rights reserved.
This Tiny Ship
SKIPPERTOO AND GET ME HOME, I MEAN IF YOU REALLY WANT TO hear about it. They took away my facial hair and gave me a small hat. Please to ignore dead bird around neck, hokay? We were seven, like the Mercury astronauts. But all that came after I'd done my time in the booby hatch.
Eisenhower on the rebop, waving yo-ho to a U-2 and a boo-hoo to Batista. So hipped am I on clinching my Houdini exit from the old burg, where the specimen before you wore a sweatshirt laundered only by my tears, that I don't even feed the mailbox a snack for my best high-school buddy after Dobie skywrites me an epistle exhaling how gassed he is the New Frontier is here. When the thousand days start clicking off, I'm hanging on by my goatee in North Beach. The coffeehouses are losing steam, the topless bars aren't so much as a gleam in Carol Doda's plastic surgeon's scalpel. On the sidewalk outside City Lights, with avid periwinkle peepers but a poor Christmas salting his ever waggable chin, even Ferlinghetti's looking like he doesn't know where his next trochee's coming from. Hello, hi, "Can you believe this fog?" he says, clutching my arm, which what with Fisherman's Wharf north by northwest and the Rice-A-Roni streetcar going dingding practically in our ears makes me think, wow, he's never had a dull moment.
Then he put on some lip about the big "Ask not" recital that got beamed our way this San Fran A.M. out of snowy — doubly snowy, in the transmission-flaked ghost dance our coast's early risers blinked at — Washington, DeeCee. "And so the Harvard sonovabitch asks Robert Frost to write him an inaugural poem, for Christ and Buddha's sake," Larry sniffed, huffing himself up to his full height just as some middle-aged square doing a walk-by in a mackintosh gave us a look like he hadn't known our kind was still roosting in the nabe. "Pass that torch, Jack! They'll never learn. That monosyllabic, meter-crazy Vermont retard — he ever stops by my woods with miles to go before he croaks, I'll take two forks and stab him in the ass with them! Why wasn't it Bill Carlos Bills? Hell, what about me? I'd have been there like a shot off a shovel." We know you would, Ferl, I said, and made to split. Larry always reminded me of a St. Bernard who'd gotten bombed on his own brandy cask. A dog on a long MacLeish, Corso used to say.
But me, I'm toking on a modest hope that things are looking up. Even if Rexroth did call it déjà lu, in a slam that accused me of counterfeiting bongos and beret to pull a fast one on easy readers" "If I'm any judge," which he was in all but robe and gavel, "this kid knows North Beach like the back of Allen Ginsberg's hand" — my little book Wake Me When It's Over Daddy-O: Proems 1957 — 1960 has sold a couple of copies, and my girl, who got hers for free, looks good in a leotard. And even better out of one, even if I can't quit missing Thalia Menninger, who never knew what she meant to me. For our bread, Suze is girl-ing the java urn at a place called the Vertigo-Go. Then, just three months into Camelot, JFK banana-peels us with the Bay of Pigs.
Bam, ogle me on the move with a few other scraggly cats and chicks down Columbus Avenue to Montgomery Street and Union Square, lipping "Hands off Castro!" and shoving our "Fair Play for Cuba" leaflets at a sluice of snap-brims all doing the lunch-hour hurry-hurry. Ferlinghetti's rounded up whoever isn't on a reading tour or in Tangiers with Burroughs to show some angry beard. Soon a red light holds us up and we accordion, which is when the tagalonging crewcut we were hoping was plainclothes says he's with the Chronicle. That's all Ferl needs:
"When governments write bad poetry, poets have to govern. And this," he says, puffing himself up to his full heat, "is a bad poem, in my professional opinion. You remember what Shelley said," and if you're fast you see the crewcut's brain go "Winters?" but Larry is tearing along: "I mean I don't know where Allen and Gregory are on this, we each go our own way, but to me the 'free' in free verse has always been a verb, you see. The way Fidel did Havana, I want to free verse. Free verse!" he hollers, jerking his head up at the rest of us. "Free verse!" And my Suze, who's in black from her Feiffer-feet to the witch hat on her middle-parted hair and looks like she's just guessed where all the flowers went, is nudging in and saying, "Larry, it's turned green, like really green, green like my eyes, we gotta go."
Across from a scary-looking mausoleum just short of Union Square, some burlies are hoisting a sign that makes me wonder if I'm on peyote. It's a clock with twelve hands all holding coffee cups, and underneath it says, "There's Always Time For Some More Maxwell House!" I mean, sometimes I think the straights know things we don't, out in the crazy heart of America. The whole bit's gone a little haywire, we aren't moving, now I see that Ferlinghetti's in a face-off with a couple of wharf rats up from the Embarcadero who think our gang is what's wrong with this picture, and that's why they've just knocked FaFaFaFair Playayayay ffor CubaCubaCuba in a long scoop down the gutter. The fat one with the hair like shaving cream is tearing off his cap and lipping away at Larry like a one-man what's-up-doc cartoon, and the shrimp in the sneaks and red sweater next to him has hard and frightened eyes for me, why me? I know I don't know him from Adam.
Then someone hollers "Watch yourself, Maynard!," in the same brain-blink that my inner radar pings a toppling world of uh-oh up above. When I look the coffee clock's come loose, did it jump or was it pushed?, and is avalanching toward me from the sky. I try to protect myself with my "Leave Fidel Alone!" sign, but it's too late, because time has grown a thousand feathers that I have to try to name. The clouds keel like old sails in a washing machine, hey pops which way to Alcatraz?, and Suze's face is skidding at me from all directions under her witch's hat, her mouth making the big O, as Larry jumps back like a circus lion in a movie running backwards and I think Corso never liked me. Off in a corner of this scene, which I couldn't sort out with a colander, a lanky detective was hauling a drenched blonde out of the big blue drink next to the Golden Gate.
While a ship with nowhere to get to sailed calmly on.
* * *
I came to in a Jasper Johns, not representational like you would know of, what but undeniably sturdy. Big on white, a use of pigment so tactile it made your eyeballs feel like workingmen's thumbs, and shapes of sheriff's badges in rows and uninhabited aisles in an as yet unrecognizable pattern. This is either prison or a dream, I thought; not noticing the false dichotomy. After a minute or a week, part of the painting opened up, and a nice Negro lady Jasper had hidden back of it said, "With us again at last! It's about time. You must be starving. I'll just go fetch Dr. Troop."
Dr. Troop? I knew no Dr. Troop. Nor can I peg the cat who soon comes nimbly ambling in as if the air behind his heels is still begging for more autographs, a square but clearly some sort of glamor boy in his particular square world. Grown-up baby blues and teeth I groove on, better tended than the Taj Mahal I wonder if I'll ever get to see unless I build my own, out in the yard where the doghouse used to be.
Troop sits down on a bit of here that Jasper's just decided is a chair, and as he hikes a pack of Larks from his breast pocket I dig the monogram — "KFT" — on the blue shirt underneath his lab coat. Just like the ad, he holds out the pack to me: "Sure you don't smoke?" he asks, when I shake my head. "I suck 'em down like popcorn on fire myself, couldn't have made it through med school otherwise. Hopkins was rough stuff, believe me," just like he'd flown a Douglas SBD Dauntless torpedo bomber over Midway or something. "So's everything since been. My patients had just better pray the Surgeon General's boys don't turn up anything too scary, because I'm not about to give these babies up."
He Zippos one and blows some smoke that kills the painting, now it's just a room I'm in. Then he gives me another gander at the Taj. "Anyway, hello," he says, and calls me by a name I've never heard before.
"Whoever that is, it's not me," I told him. "I'm Krebs — Maynard G. Krebs."
Troop looked a little disappointed, but not surprised. Making his cigarette act as glad to be near him as if it was a bird and he was St. Francis of Sinatra, he gave a glance at the window he'd brought in with him, which gazed back admiringly. The next bit seemed to be up to your correspondent.
"Well," I said, my own earlier check of points south of my goatee not having turned up anything out of whack, "I guess the first question is, what kind of doctor are you?"
"The best." Troop flashed me a quick Taj. "I'm your psychiatrist. You're in the Mayo Clinic."
"Yeah, well — hold the Mayo for me, will you, Doc?" I joked weekly, I mean weakly. Troop's face told me he was slightly tired of having to pretend that he found that one wry, that he thought it cut the mustard, that he greeted it with relish. He thought it was a bunch of baloney. Then again, someone must have had some lettuce to install me in this pad, and Thalia Menninger was a tomato.
"Man, am I hungry," I said. "I sure could use a crab sandwich on sourdough bread from Fisherman's Wharf right now. But what am I doing here?"
"Returning appetite is a good sign," Troop said. "You've had a breakdown, damn near as bad as they come, and I wrote the book on those. It's on sale in the gift shop, if you feel like chipping in for my retirement fund. The big words aren't too hard. Your mother practically had to Scotch-tape you together to pack you in the car over here."
Mother? I thought. I, Maynard Krebs, had no mother. And certainly no father, as even Troop didn't dispute. As he took a drag, his cigarette's glow briefly reddened his retinas, like two tiny stop signs. But I was feeling woozy, and Troop was stubbing out a bird:
"Well!" he said, smacking his knees and calling me by the wrong name again, he must be a busy man. "Just wanted to say howdy-doo, give you a peek at who's been taking care of you since Old Man Sky fell down and conked you on the head, and welcome you back to our program. I'll have Julia bring you up some lunch. No can do on the crustacean, I'm afraid, but I'm sure she's got something in the kitchen almost as good."
"Hey, Doc?" I said.
He was about to step out of the painting. But he turned all the way around — with his whole body, not just his head. Some trick, I thought; the feet must go like so, then so.
"Just how far are we from North Beach?" I said. "I'd like to ask some cats I know to come dig this white flag."
Troop hesitated, which was nice of him, considering. "I'm honestly sorry," he said, "because they say it's a helluva town. But you might as well know that you've never been in San Francisco. Oh, maybe with your folks, on home leave when you were a kid; your mom didn't mention anything like that, but we didn't have time to go over everything. Much less under it! But we're in Rochester, Minnesota, and that's where you've always lived."
He split. A second after that, he left. My noggin felt as heavy as Coit Tower, my goatee weighed a ton. But I had to get it and the rest of me up. I came off the bed and went straight to my knees, which turned out to be bare; I was wearing some sort of gown. Figuring out I couldn't stand if it was life or death and that I must be drugged, I dragged Maynard, G., and Krebs across cold floor and then more floor to the window like I was ready for Andrew Wyeth, who'd started painting Maynard's World at an easel just behind me.
I didn't know what I was on, but I must have been higher than the snows of Kilimanjaro. For a few seconds, I hallucinated that I saw a metropolis of ivory and paste, dominated by a stubby pencil stabbing upward like the giveaway spiking in a lie-detector test. On the far side of the river it faced, I could see a mansion with pillars like fat cigarettes, topping a hill planted with endless rows of upright Scrabble tiles. Beyond it were bunched miles of pastel homes, mingled with older liver-spottings of slowly browning brick and leaking greenery the hue of my Suze's tender, mocking eyes.
Down near the water's edge, a gaunt group of outsized men was struggling to raise a mast or antenna. Blind cars shot past them toward gang-a-gley. Gang-a-gley?
Langley. The way my brain said it turned that humdrum name into a sound that both harbored the ogres and augured the harbors of tales heard from diaper days on. But I must have stepped into a puddle-piece of someone else's addled, jigsaw-puzzled life, and no one in sight could explain it to me: not the history teacher plucking at his rubber-banded wrist, not the Scrabble-loving woman with the patriotic rain hat in her lap. Not the bourbon-sipping gargoyle moodily watching a helicopter settle on his lawn, not the empty space still shaped like a girl turning toward me, crossing her arms like a magician's assistant to cover up twin winks I'd never seen in sunlight, but the magician had.
Then I heard a splatter-pop that I mistook for musketry, but they must only have been shooting a movie. As soon as "The End" showed up, I blinked it all away.
Saw fields, a power plant. A peeling sign that read EGAN'S GARA. Dead sky. And winter that stretched to the ends of the earth.
* * *
When the drugs wore off and I could walk again, a week or another blink later — it was hard to tell here in the Mayo, when half an hour felt like all day — they moved me out onto the ward. There were maybe a dozen of us in all, though it was hard to tell that too; everyone had several faces, the dingy gowns all looked alike, and we were all indifferent to everything. I think Troop put something in the water.
Holden Caulfield, who had the bunk left of mine — unless I lay with my feet on the pillow, in which case he was on the right — was just a nasty piece of work no matter how you sliced him. Kooky, but I hit it off better with Cpl. Ira Hayes, a full-blooded Pima Indian who'd helped hoist the flag on Iwo Jima. Once people quit taking pictures of him, he'd gone back to the reservation and hoisted a few more. Now he was in pretty bad shape. He looked a little like Tony Curtis, which was cool; I dug Tony in The Great Impostor and Some Like It Hot the most. Farther down our row, Edsel Ford spent most of the day just staring out the window, pressing his fingers to the glass and saying "Me?" in a soft voice whenever a car zipped by.
Nixon, who was pregnant, had my old room off the ward. Troop said he'd been back six times so far. Not a mingler, but you could peek in by pretending you were on your way to the can while they fed him his daily cottage cheese and ketchup. You might lose your own breakfast, though, because he wasn't easy to look at, with an adult head and torso and the arms and legs of a malformed child, the whole thing in a blue suit on the bed. We'd hear him screaming in the night like there was murder in his thighs, trying to bring out a new Nixon. One day, pop-pop, his hands would poke out of his sleeves, and black wingtips slither out his pants-cuffs. Sometimes it took him years, Troop said.
Years, wow. I guess people can get used to anything if it's them. But I was me, and that was Maynard Krebs and not the other G., and I never stopped thinking about North Beach, or wondering how could I get word to Ferlinghetti. He'd come out for Castro, he'd come out for me. He owed me that much, I thought. I knew he had a thing for Suze in some bald-pated, white-hairs-curling-out-the-workshirt, bright-eyed older-fellow way but that was all right, after all he was a much more established poet in our scene than I was, he'd taught us all a lot and anyhow I could hardly picture Suze's face or her green eyes. She was going away and all I could see was the flow of her light brown hair as she glided past Columbus and a row of lookers on her way to history, I guessed that must be long ago but it was hard to tell in here, so long, so long, so long. There was something in the water but Troop would never admit it.
In my dreams, Larry was often there. Sometimes he had Moe and Curly with him. Tiny planes dangled in the night, bombing us out of our gourds. We fired our Kerou ack-ack gun and fled to join Fidel; in the Sierra Mastre, there we felt free. I saw the best mimes of my generation destroyed, running through Ghirardelli Square at noon in flight from angry pedestrians.
Then the lanky detective I had watched raising a blonde little friend of all the world out of the sea near the Golden Gate would push away my blue bedspread and come sit beside me a while. Only it turned out that he didn't want to solve mysteries anymore: "I'll tell you, son, once Hitchcock showed me what life outside of Bedford Falls would really be like, it made me dizzy," he said affably. "I hustled back to Capra like a rabbit." Saying which, he looked up past his shoulder. "Wouldn't you?" he asked.
That's the way it was. Alack and shite gave way to living dolor. Brett Sommers surprised us, in her slack klugmans there I felt free. Bewitched, I dreamed of Suze's eyes, blinking at me from inside a bottle. She was wearing acres of green petticoats, and I called her the hyacinth girl; sometimes we even talked alike. With a wiggle of her nose, she married Sergeant York. But she was mother-naked now, and those were the wrong eyes in the bottle, and I knew that wasn't allowed. She swallowed the eyes and then I fled, I flew like a nun. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Gilligan's Wake by Tom Carson. Copyright © 2003 Tom Carson. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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