Who is Sylvia?

(Letter to David Saxe)

I watched through the classroom window three dogs playing out the sad, age-old love triangle in the schoolyard. Two dogs vying for the heart of the bitch and the loser sadly slinking off in gloomy defeat. Meanwhile I longed to be outside, standing on the corner with my hands in my pockets waiting for the rain to stop. I imagined myself hitchhiking to Kansas City or Philadelphia with a saxophone  and getting into a cutting contest with Moose “Whiteboy” Flinflon at the Crispy Crunch Lounge, instead of sitting here in my red sweater with Nelson Heapy poking me in the back of my head with his ruler.

The minute hand never moved. With six hundred seconds till the bell, eternities piled up, one on top of another. And yet time stood still. Everything was slow motion, like a death scene in a space opera, all those kids with their huge heads and bulging eyes, motionless. And the teacher’s voice like a 78 played at 33. My head hurt, my stomach was in knots, my teeth were falling out all over my desk and on to the floor and rattling around underfoot as Mrs Files’ clogs stomped down the aisle past me with that sickening sneer all over her pustulant face. As she passed my desk she let loose a voluminous fart that rattled the maps and food-rule charts on the green walls and echoed endlessly. Endless despite the absence of Time. Overwhelming nausea rose from my feet, through my legs and body to my head and enclosed me in odious vapours. I gasped for air, desperate to escape.

Those audacious dogs on the lawn and the sparrows flitting freely in the tree branches seemed to mock my bondage. In that room, frozen in time, I was invisible. Who could see me? All those remote, insensate bodies consumed with desires only to get home to their televisions, their sexless fornications, their bland porridges and sawdust dreams. I felt I could strip naked if so moved and not be seen. It was so tempting. How could I resist? A few quick glances, a furious scribbling, and the deed was done.

For a few brief hours I was a free man. With paper in hand I leapt from my seat and was out the door, clouds of chalk dust swirling in my wake and clinging to my face, filling my lungs so that I could barely breathe. I ran down the halls, tears of joy streaming from my eyes, flying in all directions, and mixing with the chalk dust and forming a thick white paste that clung to the walls, the green lockers filled with pictures of semi-naked women torn from photo magazines. But even as I ran I felt remorse begin its inevitable stirrings in the pit of my belly.

As I passed the girl’s washroom Sylvia Gandy appeared, the fluorescent light glinting off her pony-tail as the door behind her swung shut. One look at the light illuminating those silken strands and I was a goner. My shiksa goddess! My shining angel of forbidden, unknown worlds of ham and church wafers, of crucifixes watching from fireplace chimneys, and the wrinkled grannies smelling of sour soaps. Her V-neck tunic stretched across her chest where some day bite-sized breasts will blossom, and flowed downward across yearning hips stopping just in time to reveal her golden ankles where they rose from pure, blessed white socks. At that moment, and for eternity, I was a lost soul.

That moment was like years as I froze, transfixed, in that darkened hallway, with only the vision of Sylvia in a circle of light before me. All fear, loathing, and terrors of the night vanished from my mind, my spirit, my very soul. My flight was forgotten, slowed to a gentle stroll as I passed by her silent, careless beauty. And as I passed I nonchalantly punched her shoulder. She turned to me, her face bathed in a sunrise.

Sylvia Gandy. Blonde Madonna of the wrong side of the tracks. Masturbatory fantasy for pimpled juvenile delinquents, hoodlums, and gentile boneheads. Scion of alcoholic remittance men and grey-skinned harridans cooking wiener breakfasts in radioactive livingrooms watching Leave it to Beaver through gigantic magnifying lenses while their sons fondle their grotesque uncircumcised schlongs in puke-infested Chevys. Standing there on the verge of a hopeless future, she sees me, boner rising; her shoulder tingling with love and the promise of salvation; touched by a poet.

The drowning man sees his life in a flash. So, too, the saved man, and the saved chick, see not only the history of their bleak, unpromising lives but also the luminous purview of a golden eternity beckoning. The years before us filled my heart with glee. There’d be months of preparation as I nourished her starving soul. At my feet, massaging my ankles, I’d read poetry to her, teaching her the wisdoms. I’d play record albums, instilling in her a deep understanding of the various rhythm sections. Soon she’ll be tacking up posters of Greek art, Spanish bullfights, Mongo Santamaria, all over the kitchen walls, of her own accord. Then on to Manhattan, where in our Soho love-loft she’ll cook me stews as I sit at my table writing masterpiece after masterpiece…

Whoa!!!….”Sylvia,” I cried. “Wait here. Don’t budge. I’ll be back soon. I owe David Saxe a letter. We can’t start a new life with epistolary guilt hanging over us like this. Stay there. I’ll be right back.” And I was off again.

Down past the radioactive slop-ponds I fell into a trance watching x-ray men sitting on the benches, tears falling on their photo-albums. I could see right through them, veterans of nuclear wars and Walmarts. Hopeless orphans creaking through the days. I searched my pockets for loonies and, finding none, I doffed my toque and went on, a sad heart crying within. I’m so lucky, I thought. I fell to my knees praising God, thanking Him for sparing me. Suddenly a big truck came roaring down the street, wildly out of control, headed directly for a baby playing on the street, her mother watching horror-struck from the opposite sidewalk, immobilized by dread.

Suddenly I saw Nelson Leapy coming out of the Walmart with Mitzi Gaynor. They both carried big bags of kitchen gadgets. I called to him and walked over, grasping his hand in mine and pumping madly, causing him to drop some of his load. At first he didn’t recognize me but Mitzi did. “Hey, Nelson,” she cried. “It’s Brian. Sonofabitch!” We walked over to the Starbucks and sat silent over three lattes. None of us could think of a thing to say. We sat there for half an hour, totally silent, looking around nervously and humming. The monotony was occasionally broken when some old duffer recognized Mitzi Gaynor and asked for her autograph. Finally, I could stand it no longer. It was driving me crazy. I turned to Nelson and, with thoughts of all that we’d been through together, I said to him, “Fear not. The future will soon pass.“

Suddenly the phone rang, but it was a wrong number. I got on a bus and went home. Stars like sandwiches in a birdlike monastery flew, a hortense of callishers, sad but invisible destinies filled with paint. Rocks to go, I thought. Butter news or fats waller in time for time ascap sentences, or the flippy sides dental orchestra – I have will not but no to have go not no yes but who, who would yes? And Aaron took him Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab, sister of Naashon, to wife; and she bare him Oobop and Shebam, and Lazybones begat Fiedelbaum, and Ishtar. And the sons of Homer. Jethro and the sons of the Fantastic Fout thence unto them a child bore Pepsi Cola hits the spot; these are the heads of the fathers of the Levites according to their families.

It’s Sunday. Lucky for me it’s still raining. I had to wait around the house all day waiting for these two guys from Price Waterhouse to show up. I had a bad feeling that I’d fucked up somehow and I called this outfit to send someone over to do an independent audit of my correspondence.

When they showed up I’d been lying on the porch face up so I could watch the rain come straight down at me, and if I let my mind go it was like I was hurtling through space, the drops of rain like miniscule wet stars bashing me all over. These two guys, a fat one with a moustache and a thin one with a scar that ran from the top of his head down the back of his brown gabardine suit, stood over me without saying a word for minutes on end.

Finally the big guy says, “Didn’t you used to hang out at the La Paloma, back in the early to mid-sixties?”

“It’s not “the La Paloma”, it’s “La Paloma”,” I replied. “La means the in Spanish. That’s like saying The The Paloma

“I don’t know what paloma means.”

“Wise guy,” the thin one said. Then they let themselves in. I got up and went in and turned on all the elements on the stove so I could get hot and dry off. I was a mess. I poured myself a cup of coffee. Thick, dark coffee. Piping hot, rich, dark coffee. Deep roasted, steaming, thick, rich, dark, good-to-the-last-drop coffee. Coffee to restore a man’s soul to the condition it was in before he found it. A cup of java to singe the linings of a soprano’s throat; to raise the injured spirit and make the heart flinch in joy. A big, fat, ceramic mug with “Boss Lady” stencilled on it, steaming full of an ebony fluid brewed from specially selected beans raised on the verdant slopes high atop an Andean paradise by short men with big hats.

The kitchen filled with heavy steam from my sodden clothes and body. Condensation formed on the walls and appliances and ran down in rivulets, forming puddles on the floor which grew deep and started spreading towards the livingroom where they soaked into the rug. Suddenly the phone rang. It was Sylvia Gandy and Lindy Kaz singing Swingle Singer versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variation in close harmony from a phone booth in Oakland. It was so beautiful. There was a knock on the door. I put the phone down and splashed to the front door to answer the pounding there. There were seventeen mailmen with a registered letter for someone who had lived here before but had died when he tried to walk to Halifax to raise awareness of the plight of scat singers in Iran. I asked them why it took seventeen mailmen and the shortest one replied that they were taking a night course in mail delivery. I looked past them at the darkness everywhere and realized that it had gotten late. So late that darkness was everywhere upon the face of the earth and the waters thereon. The mailmen left in tears when I said their addressee was dead but, as they descended the steps, twenty-three cabdrivers arrived demanding clam chowder. It seems they’d all arranged to meet on a break and had gotten lost. They thought our place was an all-night diner called Love’s Skillet. How foolish.

When I got back to the phone the two guys from Price Waterhouse were trying to listen to the gals doin’ the twenty-first variation and tears streamed from their eyes, it was so beautiful. You can imagine, I was getting pretty pissed off by then. After all, a phone call is a private matter. I didn’t even know these guys.

I grabbed the phone and pressed the receiver to my ear. Tears began to stream from my eyes. It was so beautiful. I was reminded of all the wonderful, happy days of my youth in Montreal. Growing up on Clark Street was an experience I’ll never forget. Those long, endless summer days playing with my friends Gordy and Carl Arfin, and Gerry Weinman, building scooters out of broken roller skates and old orange crates, and hanging out on the stoops at night telling each other ghost stories under a huge Canadian sky filled with stars, the man in the moon watching over us. We’d walk down to White’s for ice cream and dawdle there, listening to older guys joking and telling tall tales, about fast broads and gangsters. Older men spoke about Russia. About hard times and the journey to America. But at night, in my room, I was shaken with nameless terrors. Lying there, I’d watch the lights from car headlamps three floors below form stripes on the ceiling as they shone through the venetian blinds. They’d stretch across the walls and ceiling, then fade and come again. What was I scared of? The future? In other rooms the family drama was played out. A life I could not fathom. Mysteries. Sex and death. Russia. Old men with beards praying. Fear of goyim. Hate. Stalin. Duplessis. Korea.

And it just kept getting worse. The older I got the worse it got. School. Work. Roles. It stayed a mystery. Yet the more I grasped of that strange puzzle the more of a mystery I became to myself. One of us was out of whack, me or conventional reality. The town just wasn’t big enough for both of us. We had a showdown at high noon on a spring day in 1961 on Main Street under a blazing hot sky. I lost. I had twenty-four hours to get out of town.

I set forth in search of Truth. I was prepared to spend my life in it’s quest, roaming the globe. I’d go hungry, if need be. I’d starve if I had to. I’d skip meals, if so required. I’d forego snacks if so ordained. I’d swallow without chewing one hundred times as advised in the macrobiotic diet cookbook if that was helpful. I saw before me endless years without rest till I found the answer. A vagabond drifting o’er the world, from town to city to mountain, clad in jeans and ratty tee-shirt, my army surplus pack on my back, thumbing rides and sleeping in jails and missions and fields on the edges of cities, my tattered copy of Kerouac’s The Scripture of the Golden Eternity stuck in my back pocket and a jug of Liebfraumilch in my knapsack. As it turned out, Truth wasn’t hard to locate. I think it took about twenty minutes before Truth tapped my shoulder and said, “Pssst, hey…over here.”

Thirty or more years later there I am in a cardboard townhouse on a nuclear dumpsite with a phone to my ear listening to lost love singing duets to me while auditors from a multi-national accounting firm check my hard drive for evidence of epistolary rectitude. Somewhere in another room my fiancee is painting furniture, the neighbours are slamming doors, their dogs bark endlessly, and the air is filled with foul smells and obnoxious noises from terrible machines that do no good for anyone.

I’ve forgotten something. I don’t know what. I put the phone down and go outside. The rain has stopped. I go down to the water and stare out across False Creek at the city, it’s glass towers shrouded in brown smog. I light a cigarette and breathe deep. I shut my eyes and feel that nicotine glow lift me in it’s beatific arms. I’m fifty years old. I don’t feel as if I’ve even begun to live, yet. Because I’ve forgotten something. A kid walks up behind me and taps my shoulder. “Pssst, hey…over here.”

I turn around. It’s me. It’s me at six years old. No…wait. That’s ridiculous. It’s a panhandler looking for a handout. No, there are no panhandlers around here. It’s Mr Pycock, back from the beyond with poetry tips. No, it’s Allen Ginsberg. It’s Nelson Leapy. Okay, okay…I don’t know who it is. It’s no one. Forget it. I finish my fag and toss the butt into the water and watch it float and bob past a couple of lazy good-for-nothing ducks.

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