Excerpt from a Novel-in-Progress by J. Williams

What to think of this town, this municipality, this collection of houses, identical suburban developments surrounding a seventy-square-mile slum, what to think of this place that a professor of mine at the university once called that collection of houses to the north, not that bastion of culture, not that historic locale, not that vibrant metropolis, but that collection of houses to the north, this collection of houses, with its lack of intellectual culture, its lack of artistic culture, its utter lack of culture, a mere collection of houses, its only redeeming spot in my mind the main library downtown, built early last century with what was then called a neoclassical facade but now, as we live in the dustbin of our own crimes, that is to say our history, would be more appropriately termed a neo-fascist facade, its historic reverberations are very unsavory, indeed embarrassing to the thinking mind, I thought to myself. This library with its facade once termed neo-classical but which now would more appropriately be termed neo-fascist houses a decent collection, not a good collection, but rather a decent collection, one finds the odd book by Klima or Gombrowicz or Butor before it is deaccessioned, if one is lucky, only this saves it from being an absolute disaster with its rows and rows of irrelevant books, books which could not, I thought to myself, seriously be of any interest or use to anyone, I thought to myself, who in the world could actually want these books, desire these books, these books are so uninteresting, I thought to myself, only the odd book by Klima or Gombrowicz or Butor saves this library, with its facade once termed neoclassical but more appropriately now thought of as neo-fascist, from being a civic embarrassment, from being an utter disaster. The dispossessed men sleep across from the library, in the military park, one rarely sees a woman among them, I thought to myself, the dispossessed men sleep on the park benches in plain view of the impressively wide expanse of steps that leads into the library, among these men this park is known as a good place to sleep, one doesn't have the rules and tensions and overcrowding one finds in the missions, one can sleep on the benches in the military park and in the morning get a cheap cup of coffee at a diner and then spend the day hustling money on the impressively wide steps of the library, usually unmolested by policemen, the policemen are too busy patrolling the sidewalks in front of the reputable businesses, as they are called. . . .


At the time I met her, Rachel, the cultural anthropologist, in the library, I exhibited, without a doubt, a certain ignorance of Latin America, of the Caribbean, of Guyana, I had spent, it is true, a couple of years at a German university pursuing my studies, therefore I had a knowledge of and interest in European culture, especially as expressed through its literature, I was particularly interested in the German and the French, and the Polish and the Czech, despite this affinity for foreign cultures I had absolutely no knowledge of Latin America, of the Caribbean, of Guyana, I was, so to speak, tabula rasa; I was embarrassed by my ignorance of a region so close to the place where I lived, but she explained to me in the simplest terms all about this country that held her interest, and as she spoke her eyes sparkled and I could tell that she loved Guyana and especially the people at Monkey Creek, and I could tell also that no one in this place had ever asked her about Guyana, she seemed positively thrilled to be speaking to another living being about Guyana while not in Guyana, people in this place, it is well known, are not interested in other places, it is not xeno- phobia but rather intellectual laziness, they are not interested in other places unless they are packaged and marketed, as they say, and the poverty and disease and vestiges of colonialism that characterize Guyana do not lend themselves to effective packaging and marketing, certainly to advertise a holiday in Guyana complete with the possibility of the amputation of a limb due to inadequate health care wouldn't sell, as they say; I became sad as she described the people of Monkey Creek to me, especially the children, and I became sad again when she described the plundering of the cultural artifacts of the Akawaio by so-called explorers, a plundering so complete that these people lost all of their cultural artifacts, this, indeed, was why she had sought out this book depicting the daily life of the Ak-awaio in the early nineteenth century, so that she could perhaps photocopy the book and give it to someone at Monkey Creek as evidence of their history, as she spoke I glanced down at her calves and ankles and feet, she was wearing a skirt and sandals so I could clearly see her calves and ankles and feet, and I saw that her calves and ankles and feet were covered with round scars, perhaps one-quarter inch in diameter, scars from insect bites, I assumed, there in the bush, that is, the jungle, of Guyana, but I was not repulsed by these tens perhaps hundreds of scars, I myself have many scars on my sternum and collarbone and back and so forth from my skin condition, my doctor, as a matter of fact, once joked that he might have his nurse conduct an inventory of my scars, to which, of course, I could only laugh, what else is one to do when one is under the scalpel, at any rate my scars have made me numb to the scars of others, unaffected by them, I was, in fact, quite enamored of her, Rachel, the cultural anthropologist.


After our initial period of getting to know one another, after seeing each other at the library, there on the third floor, she joining me at my pine table covered with the evidence of what I called my rigorous intellectual undertaking, we began meeting almost daily, either for breakfast or for lunch, usually at a cafe that had long been my favorite, an establishment separated from the library by a short, brisk walk, a cafe fortunately not frequented by the tourists and the people from the suburbs, a cafe with comfortable velvet sofas and armchairs, which always seemed utterly civilized to me, and I began to slowly accumulate information about her, while my recursive and poetic mind was not particularly adept, at that time, on working on my book, it was adept, certainly, at gathering and organizing information about Rachel, the cultural anthropologist, whether by making note of a comment, asking a direct question, or perhaps by simple observation; I found out that she was interested in mathematics, physics, space exploration, cooking, gardening, languages (she spoke seven), boxing, music, fashion, geology, philosophy, painting, and goldsmithing, she was, indeed, a woman of many interests and talents, and I soon realized that her beauty and kindness and extreme intelligence placed her well outside the taxonomy I had developed in my mind over the years, the taxonomy into which I tried to place new acquaintances upon meeting them or upon getting to know them better, she was, in addition, an accomplished pianist, I, by contrast, have no musical talent, when I was eight or nine or ten, in fact, I was somehow assigned to orchestra class at the grade school and, although I could not read music or play an instrument, I was given an old french horn to play in the orchestra each day, I did not read music and I did not play the french horn, so I stood there for forty-five minutes each day for weeks or months and I aimlessly blew on the horn every few seconds, toot toot toot, each day I stood there blowing on that horn and no one noticed, or no one cared that the only sound I was making was an occasional toot toot toot, I was given a case in which to carry the horn home each day as well as a cream and cloth to polish the horn, which I dutifully did, but I couldn't really play the horn, and finally, after weeks or months, the boy who stood next to me playing the tuba remarked that he had heard me for weeks or months making an occasional toot toot toot noise, perhaps I should tell the teacher that I couldn't play the horn, which I did, after which the horn was confiscated from me and I never returned to the orchestra room since no one had the time to teach me to play the french horn, Rachel, the cultural anthropologist, by contrast, was an accomplished jazz pianist and could play any song by Monk or Tatum that one wished to hear, I found out, and play the song with authority, as they say, which greatly increased my admiration for her, when she played it was as if her fingers were connected to her soul and the piano gave voice to her sorrows and joys, often, after we were, so to speak, better acquainted, I would go to her mother's home to listen to her play the piano in her mother's living room, I would sit in an armchair next to the piano, close my eyes, and I felt as though I were being transported into the innermost regions of her soul by the sounds and vibrations of the piano, I, by contrast, was a musical deaf-mute, so to speak, my french horn having been confiscated from me at age eight or nine or ten, and I have from that time always felt a frustration connected to my inability to find musical expression, I have felt that there was and is a blockage in my soul caused by this musical inarticulation. Rachel, the cultural anthropologist, at any rate, stood absolutely outside my taxonomy, forced me to look at things in a new way, certainly it is good to be challenged, when one is challenged one feels alive, I thought to myself, there is nothing more exhilarating than the feeling of being alive, I could not help but recall the landlord from my days at the university who stood in my yard without coat or hat on the coldest day in the history of that town, forty degrees below zero with ten inches of snow on the ground, he stood in my front yard and remarked that such weather made one feel alive, then within a month he was dead from leukemia, he had in fact been sick, although I was not aware of it, with that disease for almost two years, and his excursion into my yard was, his widow later told me, the last time he really felt alive, the exhilaration of feeling alive is unfortunately utterly illusory, let's face it, in the end it is an illusion every time, for every one, as I sat there in my velvet armchair at the cafe drinking my coffee while she did the crossword puzzle I suddenly realized that the exhilaration of the feeling of being alive is absolutely fleeting and illusory, I thought of a line I'd once read in a book to the effect that one opens one's eyes at birth and realizes that death is right around the corner, at the time I'd read this I thought it was absolutely preposterous but now, as my years accumulate, I realize that the observation is absolutely accurate, undeniable; Rachel, the cultural anthro- pologist, asked me what I was thinking, as I looked as if I were in reverie, and I told her, and she laughed gently, and agreed that yes, life is absolutely fleeting and illusory, she recited for me that simple childhood rhyme, row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream, and pointed out something that I had never before noticed or considered in all my years of reciting that rhyme and hearing that rhyme recited, namely that the stream, time, has a current, and though one might feel one has control by rowing, the stream of time is actually the motive force, the stream of time will take us when and where it wants. I was suddenly filled with dread and commented that even our childhood rhymes are poisoned.


We paid our bill, left a nice tip, I, in fact, was once a waiter in a restaurant, in my days at the university, so I always have had a soft spot in my heart, as they say, for waiters and waitresses, we left a nice tip and departed the cafe and then we parted at the curb, as she was to return to her mother's home and I was to walk home to work on another unfinished project, a sentimental history of the automobile exhaust pipe, its lore and romance, the sounds, timbre, shape, and so forth and so on, of this piece of metal responsible for so many ailments, among both men and beasts, I had hatched my plan to write this article for the popular press, as it is called, as a way of surreptitiously getting my revenge on the automobile maniacs who have caused such a decline in the average citizen's quality of life with their obnoxious, belching homes-on-wheels, I thought of Henry Ford, autocrat, labor-hater and anti-Semite, I thought of how odd it was that I lived in a culture which found it possible to elevate such a man to the level of folk hero, a man celebrated for mechanizing working people's lives, a man complicit with Hitler, really, I thought, an enemy of life, a hollow-cheeked freak, I thought to myself as I walked along Washington Street, the smell of the city filling my nostrils, burning my sinuses, the smell of a festering sore, I had, in fact, encountered this smell many times in my life in this place, whether it was the sewage treatment plant or just the stench of mediocrity I never knew, at any rate I walked along the street, I passed the tiny cinderblock book store, I passed a couple of shelters where the dispossessed men, their eyes milky as are those of men who have lost all illusions, hang around in front, waiting for bedtime, then an early alarm, then off to the corner to wait for the old trashy day-labor truck, I passed a fleshy prostitute, her black, rotting teeth affecting a counterpoint to the colorful, intricate tattoo which covered the whole of her right thigh, a tattoo which proclaimed her name to the world: Fatty. As I walked I noted the endless streets of poverty, of decaying houses with their patchwork roofs, trash gently blowing through the streets, ill-fed children, an intimation of violence everywhere, a violence that might explode if only those who lived on these streets were healthy enough to explode, more likely they would slowly implode with ulcers and then tumors, I thought of the neighborhood I grew up in, Haughville, my street there akin to Singer's Krochmalna Street with its hustlers and losers, my King Avenue in Haughville where we shot at each other with soda can pull-tabs launched by rubber bands nailed to a length of wood, where I washed my basketball daily, because I knew there was no money to replace it, where we slept six children to a room, a few feet from the small gas stove which heated the entire house, King Avenue, with its tiny one-story workers' houses lined in a row, little wooden houses with little dirt yards, King Avenue, with the pool hall and laundromat and dime store on Tenth Street, just right around the corner, our neighbor with the goiter, the Catholic school playground that we only saw from outside the fence, King Avenue in Haughville was desperately poor but the life was rich, there is a bittersweet melancholia about poverty that one can never shake. As I walk along Washington Street I know this to be true. I see all of these streets, streets of battered dreams, streets identical to my King Avenue in Haughville, streets forgotten by outsiders who are terrified of them, who pray to God that their car doesn't break down on the way to their downtown fairyland, as I walk along Washington Street I see the most unlikely small businesses, a combination payday loan and casket business, a crumbling Masonic lodge which has become a venue for high school reunions and second-rate wrestling matches, a typewriter repair business, in an alley perpendicular I see a trash dumpster, its contents spilled out all around it, not a horn of plenty but a bin of decay, of nothingness, a rusted, mangled baby carriage, a rotting dog carcass, a bottle of shampoo with its contents oozing out, I see people, men and women and children, white and black and Mexican and Central American, wandering the street aimlessly because there is nowhere for them to go, no work for them to do, because they are undocumented or ineligible or somehow or another they don't count as human beings anymore, it looks so much like the pictures of the slums of Georgetown in Guyana that Rachel has shown me that I become breathless, this street is King Avenue is Krochmalna Street, almost an asthma overcomes me, I recognize the universality of poverty, I realize that moneygrubbers and powermongers really don't care about other people, they herd them into a ghetto and let them die slowly, no nightingale comes as they sleep and whispers the truth of the unseen world in their ears, there is no uprising, there are no martyrs, there is only the unending night of despair.

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