A Big Cloud
with apologies to James Joyce
Chandler had knocked around Europe for nearly a decade. With a Ph.D. in English and a couple of visiting assistant professorships at backwater state universities under his belt, he’d been able to scrape by teaching English and doing various odd consulting jobs in advertising and corporate management. He’d taught in companies across the continent, at a Swiss Hotel school, a university on the Gianicolo in Rome, even at a German medical school for a couple of years. Munich, Paris, Marseilles, Venice, Rome, Montreaux, Madrid, a winter’s downtime skiing in the Dolomites, a summer sunning on the red-tiled coast of Croatia, his itinerary read like the stickers plastered haphazardly on a 1920s Bright Young Things travel trunk. He’d found academia too divorced from experience, too snug and safe, its inhabitants too cowardly to confront real life, and so he walked away to wed himself to an uncertain future of border crossings and experiments in living. I want to become a chanter of personality, he once said.
After all those years of walking the tightrope, he’d returned to where he started from.
I never understood or agreed with why he left, and now I wanted to understand why he’d come back to our little stubble-plain, high desert college town. Although Chandler saw himself as an outsider, the ironic truth is being an outsider is just one more route to becoming an insider. Assume the radical stance, criticize the American Dream well enough, and eventually you’ll be rewarded with the American Dream. In my view, why bother with all that posturing and party line rebellion, when in the end the destination is always the same?
A little after four, he walked through the blue-framed doorway of Poverty and Tatters, our local independent bookstore-cum-café, bald as a light bulb except for two dagger-like sideburns pointing to a graying pharonic goatee projecting two inches below his chin like a salt and pepper stalactite. He wore a knee-length black coat, black sweater, faded jeans, and scuffed black high top Chucks, the uniform of a 20-something trust-fund boho. Snow dusted the shoulders of his coat like a doorman’s epaulettes. His eyes seemed to search the room for something, meaning perhaps, and when they finally settled on me they widened momentarily, as if they’d found what they were looking for. He nodded as I stood up, then smiled. We hugged and I said, “what the hell are you doing back here?”
He pulled back, gripped me tightly by the triceps, then shook his head. “What are you still doing here?”
We both laughed. “Sense of security, the comfort of the familiar. Marriage, kids, mortgage, tenure track, all the usual excuses.”
“A life more ordinary.”
“That’s not quite true.”
“So, how many?”
“Marriages? Still Anne.”
“One. A boy.” I shook my head. “Six months since I’ve slept. I’ve been parading up and down the living room, three, four in the morning, this wailing little alien succubus stuck to my shoulder.”
“It’s obvious you’re enjoying fatherhood.”
“No, really, it’s great. I caught Wagner’s entire Ring on PBS late night reruns this last week.”
“The power of gold,” he said as we both sat down at the same time.
“When did this place open?”
“Three years ago. We’re still chain free here in the valley. So tell me, what’s happened to you all these years? I haven’t heard from you in what, five, six years?”
“Father Walt once said, ‘the weft of first purposes and speculations mixed with the warp of that experience afterwards, always brings strange developments.’”
“I take it there’ve been strange developments.”
He nodded. “Too many to number, my friend, far too many.”
“Do you remember in Beckett’s Murphy there’s a character named Neary, who has the ability to stop his heart? Let’s just say that whenever developments got strange, I developed the Neary heart.”
He’d written his dissertation on Beckett and the narcissism of despair. I’d written mine on the Frankfurt school, specifically Adorno’s philosophy of materialism, the need to let suffering speak as the condition of truth, the application of negative dialectics to the English elegy, a sure path to academic stardom I’d thought, but instead I wound up teaching introductory composition. For the most part they were poor students and bad writers, and the teaching had quickly become routine.
“So there were women. Anyone special?”
He stared into my eyes for moment. “They were all special.”
“So I take it you’re not married.”
“Far from it.”
We ordered cappuccinos from the student waitress. The café was crowded with other students, mostly shabby trendies from the MFA program prattling on about how they were going to revolutionize the novel, recontinentalize film, or make poetry relevant to life once more. I looked out at the sunset pulsing above the bare, brown hills and felt a sudden unmooring, a feeling of inconstancy, a floating free of tethers and restraints.
In a word, panic.
The wound closed as the sun dropped below the horizon, but the moment of panic remained. “I’m surprised you’re back,” I managed to say. “Why is that?”
“Why are you surprised, or why am I back?” He smiled. “I guess the question really is, why did I ever leave?”
I could still feel my heartbeat quickening. “Yes. Romantic quests, tilting at windmills, searching for self, on the road, further, does anybody take that stuff seriously any more?”
“Obviously, I did. Look, I just knew I couldn’t stay. The whole academic system of footnoted reality, the comfort of glancing down to the bottom of the page to find the reassuring citation of a knowing authority, telling you what to think and how to live. That just seemed wrong to me.”
“Hey, I like the reassurance of a knowing authority. You know, taking off like that wasn’t exactly a rational decision.”
“Being rational wasn’t the point. Criticism is rational, artificial and lifeless, soul killing. I couldn’t take it.”
“So, did you find your soul?”
“Away from here,” he replied, “away from all this, there’s this sense of tunneling through toward experience, digging deeper and deeper toward the center of being.”
“The center cannot hold, there is no center, just interpretations masquerading as absolute truth, or at least that’s what we teach in theory class. Not that I’ve taught a theory class.”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be standing in the Alps, looking up at the receding stars and sky and wishing you could soar above it all.”
“No, but I know metaphysics when I see it. You can’t soar. There is no soaring. Sorry to say it, Icarus, but look where you’ve fallen.”
After the sunset, the lights in the café dimmed and music started playing through the speakers mounted in the corners. I closed my eyes as Mick sang:
The sunshine bores the daylights out of me/Chasing shadows moonlight mystery/Headed for the overload/Splattered on the dirty road/Kick me like you’ve kicked before/I can’t even feel the pain no more.
I refocused on Chandler, who just sat staring down at foam peaks of his cappuccino.
“She died. It was my fault.” He stood up and walked away.
I never found out who she was or why it had been his fault. Chandler had reappeared and then disappeared from Pocatello in less than one earth orbit. I haven’t heard from him since, and I really don’t expect to.
When I got home that night, Anne was upset because I forgot to bring home a pound of her favorite French Roast beans from Poverty and Tatters. She said some things she didn’t mean, and I said some that I probably didn’t, and after an hour of gazing at the TV and suffering in silence, we went to bed. About 2 am, the child woke up and started crying, and since Anne had to work in the morning, I got out of bed, picked him up out of the crib in the room that doubled as my study and his nursery, and marched into the living room.
After twenty minutes or so, he fell back asleep, drooling down my shoulder. I placed him back in the crib, carefully, then just before shutting off the light, looked over at the dissertation manuscript on my desk. A small academic press in North Carolina had expressed some interest in possibly publishing it as a book after a major revision, but during the school year it’s difficult to find the time to get much work done, other than teaching, grading papers, and committee assignments. I didn’t feel like going back to bed, so I sat down at the desk and started rereading what I had written all those years ago. Eventually, I picked up a pencil and started jotting down some notes. Suddenly, the child woke up and started crying again. I jammed the pencil point into the manuscript, shattering the carbon tip.
The child went silent, then started screaming at the full volume that defined his personality. I turned around in my chair just as Anne stormed into the room.
“What did you do?” she yelled, fastening the tie of her robe. “Damnit, Tom, you know I have to go to work in a couple of hours!”
“I didn’t do anything,” I replied. “Why is it always my goddamn fault?”
She sighed deeply, then turned her back on me and picked up the child. “There, there, my little man,” she chanted, “there, there, my little love, there, there…”
I walked out of the room and went back to bed.
Nabokov wrote in Strong Opinions, “mediocrity thrives on ideas.” But isn’t this statement, in itself, an idea? Does this mean that Nabokov, by his own measure, is mediocre? I am a strong believer in the power of ideas, so I can’t understand how someone so obviously not mediocre as the author of Lolita and Pale Fire could consider a believer in ideas ordinary, less than ordinary. My students have their ideas, based on media and pop culture, and I have my ideas, ideas described and developed in my work on suffering as truth.
Late at night, marching back and forth across the living room like a dutiful soldier on the battlefield of family life, the little child crying on my shoulder, hour after hour, night after night, I feel secure, comfortable, the sense of the familiar that avoiding the overload, the splattered dirty road, has given me. It’ll be summer soon, and I hope to get some work done on that major revision of my dissertation into the book I so desperately need to get tenure.