categories: Cocktail Hour
Comments Off on The Adventures of Mr. Id–part 3
Everyone now focused on finishing their meals. Kronin, with his pinched ant-like face, paused, and with the slightest smile, gestured at the small blood stain on Charles’s plate, the only evidence that it had once held food.
“You must have been quite hungry,” Kronin said.
Just a droll little comment from a droll little person, but at first Charles took it entirely the wrong way. Was this a challenge? he wondered. An insult? Did this pale aged stick of man really want to fight? Kronin had gained a sort of scientific celebrity back in the 70s by extrapolating the lessons he’d learned from ant society into the world of human beings. What, Charles wondered, was the protocol for battle within his beloved ant colonies? How should he respond? Should he mock Kronin’s food, too?
Charles got control of myself and again requested of his brain that it send neurons to his tongue to produce words.
“I was famished,” he said. “Tough afternoon on the squash courts.”
He made a little flick with his wrists to mimic swinging the racket.
“Ah, yes,” Kronin said, nodding, as if this forgave his neighbor’s frenzied assault on his dinner. “We should hit sometime.”
Charles was proud of his own quick-witted response, though less proud of a new impulse to grab Kronin’s steak and make a run for the door. The eating and drinking had been fun but it was tough just sitting there while others indulged in a pleasure that for him was already deep in the past, and he stood up abruptly, just as desert was arriving, and, with a quick glance at Pam, stalked back to what had been in an older time known as the Smoking Room. The stares of others followed him, he was certain, but he was past caring. He needed a place to gather himself, a lair, and after prowling down the hallway of the Faculty Club–past a not quite grand piano, a grandfather clock whose ticking rang in his ears like a gong, and a portrait of a stern-looking man named Fredrick Henry Hedge (1805—1890)–he discovered that lair when he walked into the Smoking Room. As soon as he entered he understood he’d found a place that perfectly matched the needs of his mood. Old oak paneling, dark interior and, best of all, books all around. Books! A great womb of words! Charles pulled a volume off the shelf, not even glancing at its title, and stuck his nose into its middle pages, snorting the deep musk into his nostrils. The scent rose of the pages and tickled the cilia of his vomernasal organ which sent signals of delight along miniscule fibers to the olfactory region of his brain. He jammed the book back and picked up another and was surprised by how particular, how unique, the smell of this next, musty and musky yes, but a different musk, a unique musk, quite different than the last. A third book revealed its smell signature, and a fourth, and he began to get excited by the thought that maybe he’d stumbled onto something new, a new olfactory discipline, or at least a new discovery within some old discipline he hadn’t heard of, a type of study that dealt specifically with the smell of books. Was it possible to nasally discern the molecular components of different volumes? Maybe he should go back to the table and tell Warworthy, he thought, though maybe not another voice in his head rebutted. He took a few steps to his left and closed his eyes and reached forward, pulling a random volume from the shelves. Eyes still closed, he stuck his nose into it. It felt and smelled like a biography, no, more like a history, maybe a multi-volume history of a war. And he couldn’t really have described the glee he felt when he opened his eyes and saw that he was right! Churchill’s The Hinge of Fate. A common enough book, a lucky guess perhaps, but at that moment a guess that seemed nothing short of miraculous. Charles could actually smell his way through a library!
It was then he let out the loud blurting laugh—a single sharp “Ha!”—that led to the next noise: a quiet throat-clearing that seemed to emanate from the room’s corner. Charles whipped his head around to discover that he was not alone in his book-lined lair. Over in the far corner stood a young man in a white coat who nodded solemnly at him. At first Charles didn’t understand who this young man was or why he would be there with him in his private room. His coat seemed to suggest that he was a dentist, but that made no sense. He stood behind a table covered with a white table cloth that pinned him diagonally in the room’s corner, and Charles’ initial anger and confusion over the intrusion disappeared as he slowly came to understand the young man’s purpose. It was a delightful purpose, really, and Charles saw it now: he was there to provide free liquor. Charles could also see that the young man, no more than a boy really, was likely an undergrad and that since Charles himself was, he now remembered, a full professor, their status relationship would allow for some free range as far as eccentric behavior, maybe even making it possible for the boy to overlook the fact that Charles had been smelling books as if snorting lines of cocaine. Charles gathered himself and strode quickly up to the front of the boy’s table.
“Hi there,” the boy said.
Charles’s brain shot neurons to his tongue again. But with a less successful result.
“Hello, young man.”
Did that sound like something he would actually say? Or like an alien or person from another century? Did he really talk like that? No matter. The boy had free alcohol!
“What would you like, sir?” the boy asked.
What would he like? What a good question! A good clean kid with a good and simple purpose.
Charles pointed at one of the bottles, a clear one that seemed to refract a small prism of light off a darker bottle. Then, following the reflecting light, he pointed at the darker bottle.
“Mixed together?” the boy asked. He wore the kind of bowl haircut that Charles thought had gone out of style long ago, if it had ever been in, and acne spotted his pale face. He sounded confused.
“Yes, together.” Charles intermeshed the fingers of both hands to demonstrate so he would be understood.
Ice! The idea of ice….the molecules within bobbing slowly….the cold squareness of it.
Charles was speaking more naturally now, without the elaborate coaching and coaxing of neurons from brain to mouth, and this pleased him, as did the sight of the brown liquid splashing into the clear, the two sloshing together like a confluence of rivers, one heavier and sediment-loaded, the other lighter. Then the boy put a napkin under the drink—a nice touch. What a good boy, Charles thought again. He took the drink and clasped it in both hands, one under the napkin and the other clutching its cold wet side, the heat of his hand warming the glass as the glass simultaneously cooled his fingertips. This boy was a friend, truly. One thing Charles especially liked was that the boy wasn’t his equal, that he didn’t pose any real threat, and so was the first person all night he didn’t have to be on guard around. It occurred to Charles that it might be nice for the boy to talk to a distinguished professor of microbiology, and he wondered what they should chat about. But the only conversation starter that came into Charles’s head was asking where in that fine dark room one might be able to urinate. He had already been eyeing the wide mouth of a fireplace, which somehow seemed a natural spot.
Even in his altered state, Charles realized that this would be an inappropriate conversation-starter, so he took his drink with him on a tour of the old room. A slight formaldehyde smell rose off the portraits of prim-looking people who stared down judgmentally from the walls: Sheldon Emery, Charles Alerton Coolidge, William T. Lawrence. Horrible pictures really, portraits of dead prim professors looking down their noses and pale old English-looking ladies who wore their hair in the curly-cue style of schoolgirls, as if they hoped to affect a style at once proper and coy. Charles thought of these old men and women, all long dead, their genetic scripts handed down to the next generations, the same up-turned noses and large brows and judging eyes still out there in the world somewhere, still at large, genes sprinkled and spread like seed. There was something about the expressions on these people–a tightness, a certain type of jawline– that reminded him of his father, though his father and his people had been, at best, servants to people like these. Charles moved away from their angry stares and for a good five minutes he found himself studying the thick burgundy curtains that bunched up on the sides of the room’s sole window. They were heavy curtains, shroud curtains, curtains that could smother you, and he imagined they must have been home to generations of spiders. After some time he pulled himself away from the curtains and did another lap of the room, hoping that this would seem natural to the pageboy bartender. Less natural-seeming, perhaps, was when he suddenly stopped to stare at the walls. In their deep wood grain he could see flowing shapes—butterflies, clouds, the faces of dragons—and he was wondering about the even smaller shapes within these forms, worlds within worlds, when he sensed a coming disturbance. His peace was shattered even before he heard the booming voice fill the room. It was as if he could tell, just by the footpad on the rug and the plume of scent, that it was Stanwurst who was approaching from behind. Charles swiveled abruptly and saw he was right: there was Stanwurst in full porcine glory, trundling toward him and pointing a fat pink finger.
“What do you call that, Dr. Kaiser?”
Again it took a moment to understand. What did he call what? The way he had performed out in the dining area? The guttural noise he’d emitted during Stanwurst’s talk? Or could this pig-man read his mind? Did he mean the way he earlier couldn’t stop thinking about breasts?
“It’s his own invention.”
Words came from behind Charles. He pivoted quickly and saw it was the pageboy. How wildly confusing that this boy should be talking directly to Stanwurst. Did Stanwurst know this boy? And a wilder thought: could the boy be Stanwurst’s son?
“I’ll have one, too.”
No, no, of course. Charles talked himself down. In science the right solution was often the simplest one. The boy was just the bartender. He had spoken to Stanwurst as prelude to preparing the professor’s alcohol. The pimply boy was merely serving the pig-man. Nothing more.
But now the strangest thing. Stanwurst put an arm delicately behind Charles, steering him away from the drink table, before pirouetting both of them, with surprising elegance, so that they stood in the center of the room.
“Looks like we’re alone here, Kaiser” he said.
Charles glanced over at the boy. Was it possible that Stanwurst had forgotten about the bartender already? Charles was considering trying to explain that the boy existed and so they weren’t technically alone but this seemed far too confusing a concept. So he nodded.
Stanwurst took the silence as an opportunity to move his face closer to Charles’s, close enough so that Charles swore he could see each pulsating pore of the man’s fat cheeks. He studied those remarkable cheeks as they deflated, then inflated like bellows, before beginning to expel words at an alarming rate. The first words of Stanwurst’s monologue were something like, “I have always admired men of science,” though it soon became clear that the real gist of what he was saying was that he didn’t really admire men of science at all. In fact Charles was just beginning to understand that the man’s thesis was how vastly superior his field—he was the chair of English—was to Charles’s own, when the words began to lose sense and take physical shape in the air. Now he could actually see Stanwurst’s words, phrases, and whole sentences forming like vapor in front of the man’s mouth. This sight held interest for a second or two, certainly more than the meaning of what Stanwurst was saying, but then quickly enough grew repulsive, noxious even, like chemical fumes, and Charles had to turn away. While Stanwurst spoke on, Charles found myself scanning the room, his eyes settling on a statue in the corner. The statue was made of bronze and depicted a near naked man who seemed to wear a shopping bag over his head and who held his arms stretched out, each hand holding what looked like a candlepin bowling ball. Stranger still the man stood on top of a flying turtle. The figure was Kronos, the god of Time, though by its appearance he could just as well be the god of nonsense. Charles took a step or two closer to the stature to read its inscription, and Stanwurst, talking all the while, followed in his orbit. The sculptor was Frank Edwin Elwill, Charles noted, who fashioned the piece in 1901, and the plaque read: Kronos, Time, with veiled face, moves forward inevitable, whether on swift wings or at the pace of a turtle. He holds in his hand all things we know (those, Charles thought would be the candlepin bowling balls.)
Charles was deeply absorbed in the statue, trying to make out facial features below the shopping bag, and had almost forgotten that Stanwurst was talking, when a signal jarring word jumped out of the noisestream.
This was hard to cipher, impossible really, until the stout man pulled the two long brown cigars from the inside pocket of his jacket.
Instantly Charles forgot about the statue and Stanwurst’s speechifying and everything else and focused in on those cigars. Now this was an idea! To light a thing on fire and suck it into their bodies. Just think of the molecular interactions! Charles bent closer to the cigars and sniffed them; they smelled at once like summer fields and winter fires. Maybe Stanwurst was not so bad after all. Charles searched around for a match, eager to start, but the fat man laughed and patted his arm.
“Sorry, old friend. It’s just called the Smoking Room. You can’t actually smoke in it anymore. We’ll have to step outside.”
Which proved another stoke of genius by Stanwurst. The world outside the club offered a higher ceiling and that sky-ceiling was filled with the day’s last streaks of orange and purple. They didn’t merely “step outside” but walked along the small brick path to the curb of Quincy Street. Headlights flashed toward them and brake lights burned red. At the edge of the street they lit their fire sticks which proved every bit as satisfying as Charles had imagined. He sniffed the air, wondering if he could break down the fiery reaction into its component chemical parts. Elemental is the word that came to mind, like sitting around a fire at a backwoods camp in Maine, except this fire was in their mouths. The charry taste traveled down his throat into his middle and then even deeper into him, down to his feet and back out into the suddenly throbbing world. How had he never before noticed this sidewalk of heaving brick or the glistening black bars of the fence with their spear like-tops that partitioned off Harvard Yard like some kind of ineffective zoo or farmyard? Across the road, fenced off within the zoo, grew a huge gnarled tree, a European Beech if he wasn’t mistaken, a great gray branch-filled tree with wild waving arms, a tree from childhood that made him want to run across the road and climb it. He could smell the beech and then too a whiff of violets and bougainvillea off to their right.