For Jim Schultz
Osip Mandelstam: “Take, for joy’s sake, from these hands of mine/A little honey and a little sunlight/As the bees of Persephone once ordered us to do.” Poem 116, November 1920.
“Give me the skinny, Doc,” I said, as if I were a real swashbuckler. Not the moment of reckoning, the last hurrah, the final goodbye, the diminishing hourglass. He was shining a slender flashlight, the size of a cigarillo, into my eyes. For a moment, I saw a wondrous rainbow. But when I blinked again, Dr. Ivanov’s violet blue eyes were scrutinizing me. Instead of my ratty blue jeans with the Grateful Dead patch over the bum, I was wearing a crinkled paper gown. Otherwise, completely starkers, except for my yellow boxers. I could see why men avoided prostate examinations, like the Bubonic plague.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Dr. Ivanov said.
My mother gasped. “Jesus.” Her old-fashioned black purse, which she usually carried with her to Mass, was hooked through her arm. Poor mom. Dad had dropped dead of a heart attack the year before when he was watching the final bout of World Wide Wrestling: The Masked Marvel vs. The Mighty Zorro.
I giggled. I had smoked a joint, instead of wolfing down Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast.
“Too bad,” I said, as if I had just lost a few bucks on a Maryland lottery ticket, not been given my notice. “Hey Doctor Ivanov, what do you do for stress?”
Teachers tell students they are going to fail; bankers tell customers they don’t have any money; traffic cops tell drivers they are going too fast. A doctor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center has to say: Sor-ry, but tick-tock goes your clock. You have three months. Six months. Maybe a year. Even a trainload of gold, wouldn’t make up for having to deliver such bad news. I didn’t enjoy shouting at my Egyptian students, “You’re plagiarizers. Cheaters. I told you a thousand times to cite from your sources. You don’t listen.” Or did I?
“Marathons,” Ivanov said.
“Maybe, you ought to try something lighter. Say, ballroom dancing? Or spinning? You ride and ride on a stationary bike and don’t go anywhere. Personally, I would love to learn the tango with Marilyn Monroe.”
Neither my mom nor Dr. Ivanov laughed.
“Doc, do I have time to go back to Cairo for my guitar? A Washburn. My Dad gave it to me.”
When I was not writing poems about Egypt, I was plucking out folk ballads.
Even in the spring, I had a queasy feeling that the old boy had returned. Your words begin to slur and you become a tadpole, swimming in a thick, brackish pond who is trying to come up for air, but can’t. Can’t. Can. It. I(t). Tah. Aah. Aah. Syllables dribble out of your mouth, like snot—a profound punishment for a poet. I felt so lousy in the last month before I left Cairo, that I simply dropped wads of dirty Kleenex on the floor of my apartment. Left hundreds of McDonald’s bags on my dining room table.
When there wasn’t a single rigatoni left in my apartment and I couldn’t drag myself to the store, I called McDonalds for a Happy Meal. I over tipped those Egyptian slobs. “Buzz off, pal,” I’d say, before I slammed the heavy wooden door in the delivery boy’s face. Immediately I regretted it, when I saw the hurt look on the kid’s face. Why was I behaving like such a lout? Considering what a runt I was, (all one hundred and thirty five pounds) I’m surprised no one punched me in the face. But like so many expatriate losers in Cairo, I enjoyed lording it over the locals.
Shortly after I wolfed down the Bargain Bonus, I barfed it up. Sometimes, I didn’t make it to the toilet. Afterwards, I crawled into bed and closed my eyes and slid back into the brackish pond, a tadpole again. Curled up in the fetal position. Going back, back, back. Wished mom would cover me with a blanket, like when I was a little kid. Make soup with homemade dumplings. I toyed with the idea of strangling myself with my Flintstones’ tie, but frankly, I didn’t have the energy. Instead, I picked up Mandelstam’s poems, which were dog-eared on my bedside table: “Take, for joy’s sake, from these hands of mine/A little honey and sunlight/As the bees of Persephone ordered us to do…/All we have left to us are kisses/Sheathed in down like tiny bees/That die as they scatter from the hive…”
I should have visited those gargantuan statues at Abu Simbel in Egypt, a tribute to one man’s desire for immortality. I should have lived every day, as if it might be my absolute last.
After my return from Egypt, I was shuttled off to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center. The lights were too bright–atmosphere sanitized. I was bundled up in a crinkled paper gown, which made me feel like a blob of toilet paper. Doctors and nurses wear green, shapeless outfits with papery shoes, as if they are on the Apollo Space Shuttle. Everything was disposable. I longed for the chaos of Egypt. Emotion was messy, like the wads of Kleenex, which littered the Egyptian apartment I left. I wished I could apologize to all those McDonald’s delivery boys.
Ivanov was giving me the Latinate medical terms for the old boy. Why was he going through the motions? The correct medical terms were gratuitous information.
In the middle of this sleeper, I said, “Tell me Doc, are you related to any famous ballet dancers?”
“Joe, please,” my mother said. It was the exasperated voice she used, when I lay down in the middle of the Piggly Wiggly and threw a tantrum if I didn’t get a Hershey’s kiss when I was five. Of course, there were worse things in life than not getting a Hershey’s chocolate kiss at Piggly Wiggly. Feeling ugly. Never getting a single one of your poems published. Never having a girlfriend. Losing your job. You would never, ever go to St. Petersburg, the city of your dreams.
“This is the treatment we can offer,” Dr. Ivanov was saying. Even though his voice sounded professional, his violet blue eyes were sad.
In a flash, I know I won’t return to Cairo, even for my Washburn guitar. Never finish my project of learning all of Peter, Paul and Mary’s ballads. Never finish my collection of Egyptian poems. Never have another party with my pals. I see myself in Cairo on the roof of my apartment building, plucking out “Puff the Magic Dragon Down By the Sea” for my drinking buddies. There’s Big Tulie my two hundred and twenty-five pound sidekick; Margarete, a good egg; Carter and Rachel, my pothead pals, old hippies. Carter shouts, “Yo, Joe, play Puff again. They lean against the satellite dishes, drinking Egyptian beer, Stella Local, out of the bottle. The sky is the color of lapis lazuli and the Pyramids, perfect in the distance. A blue sky, so rare in Cairo. The sky was usually a tepid yellow from pollution. In March, the Khamaseen, the dust storms, whirl through, blowing boards and crates off the roofs of buildings. From my one of my Egyptian poems: October, farmers burned cane in faraway fields/bitter smoke spirals and rises in this wild city/I yearn for grainy, pink cotton candy at the Maryland County Fair…
No happy ending, dear reader. Sorry that as an author, albeit an unpublished one, I cannot deliver delusion. However, if you keep reading, I promise I won’t give you too much sadness, although I can’t promise absolute hilarity, either. (April Fool.) I barfed a lot. I dreamed Sylvia Plath was a champion boxer. Would she approve? This is funnier, though, than The Bell Jar. (Although that wouldn’t be too hard.) Sometimes, I made patients laugh, by pretending to be a mummy. Other times, with my red bandana wrapped around my head, I was Snoop Doggy Dog. One day I got carried away, impersonating Osamma bin Laden and caused a national emergency on the floor.
“9/11. 9/11. 9/11. Terrorist on the floor,” I shouted.
How ridiculous could that be? I was a one hundred pound shrimp sporting an IV, not a tall Saudi with a beard.
An Indian orderly, named Gopi, said in all seriousness, “Yaaar, Mr. Pulaski, don’t make jokes about 9/11. This is a very serious matter, indeed.”
“I’ll make jokes until I’m dead, pal,” I said.
“I am sorry, Mr. Pulaski,” he said, wagging his head.
“Does that mean yes or no?” I asked.
“I must escort you back to your room, Mr. Pulaski,” he said, wagging his head again.
“I’m just like any Joe. Call me Joe, Gopi,” I said.
But he never did. I was always Mr. Pulaski.
Occasionally, I tried to write poems, but I could not thread the words together, each word, a lone pearl.
One day Ivanov brought me a guitar, a Gibson. Mom was watching “As The World Turns.” (Helen was sleeping with her best friend’s husband and had just discovered she was pregnant.)
“Wow! Incredible, Doc. Thanks,” I said, admiring the rosewood on the back of the guitar. I plucked a string. My fingers burned to play.
For a minute, Ivanov smiled.
“Hey Doc, have you read Mandelstam?”
“Both the sea and Homer–all is moved by love./To whom shall I listen? Now Homer falls silent,/And a black sea, thunderous orator,/Breaks on my pillow with a roar.”
“Very cool, Doc. An American doctor would never quote poetry. Most American doctors talk about golf. Their investments. How high their malpractice insurance is. They’re bores.”
Dr. Ivanov shrugged. “It’s high.”
“Why did you come here?”
“You have heard of The American Dream?'”
“Nice sense of irony, Doc. But you know, no one would die for poetry here.”
“Opportunities. Better jobs. We wanted a better life. Why everyone wants to emigrate to America.”
“So what? Have you seen how many street people we have on the streets of Baltimore. It’s a fuckin’ disgrace.”
“Joe. Watch your language,” Mom said.
“Hey, Mom. No big deal. The f-word,” I said. “Am sure Doc has heard the word before.”
“Sometimes, we miss home. Speaking Russian,” he said, suddenly waving his hands, expansive. “On long winter nights, we drink vodka and eat caviar and sing with our friends…”
“Sure,” I said, remembering the evening on the roof of my building in Cairo with Tulie and Carter and Rachel and Margarete.
“Do you have any kids, Dr. Ivanov?”
“One daughter. Natasha. She’s eleven,” he said.
“That’s a nice age. Before they become teenagers,” Mom said.
But I noticed she had one eye cocked on “As the World Turns.”
“Maybe you can play me a song, next time, eh?” Dr. Ivanov said, smiling briefly.
I was not fooled. His violet blue eyes were sad.
One day shortly before my finale, I dreamed I was at the circus in St. Petersburg. The ceiling is gilded with gold leaf, flecked with silver stars. No lions. No elephants. But acrobats soar through the air on trapezes. Their courage is breathtaking. Clowns are higher still, riding bicycles back and forth, as if they are tiny bees on a thin gold thread. At the same time, they are dropping sheets of blank paper into the vast net below. Are those my poems they are dropping into the air? Who will catch them?
“Take, for joy’s sake, this wild gift of mine/This uninviting dessicated necklet/made of dead bees that once turned honey into sunlight.”
Dear reader, there will be no artifacts. No sheaths of poems, wrapped in pink ribbons. No manuscript to be published posthumously. No Confederacy of Dunces. None of that glory and fame for me. Nyet. Nein.
Cut to the next scene in this script. I am nine feet under. Dry as dust. Departed. Deceased. Extinguished. Ex-tinct. (An aside: I gave away my heart, my eyes, my kidneys and my liver for transplants. Needless to say, other parts, weren’t up for grabs. They chucked the rest. Along with the crinkled paper gowns and the disposable shoes.)
When Grandma Pulaski died, we had to chuck a lot of stuff from her attic. “Hey Mom, is there any reason we need to keep all these sequined purses?”
We laughed a lot about those sequined purses. Just how many sequined purses did you need in a lifetime?
Very cool, were the rubber banded rolls of hundred dollar bills tucked everywhere. Underneath the cushions in her couch. In her panty hose. In jars of Ajax under the sink.
Mom let me keep the cash for helping her clear out the junk. I bought plenty of lids of pot and other goodies with Grandma Pulaski’s stash. Pleasure, instead of insurance. So don’t save your acorns for the winter. By the time winter arrives, you might already be eaten by the big, bad wolf. (I preferred the three little oinks.) Thanks, granny. When I was naughty, Granny P. chased me around with a pancake turner.
A professional packer, a lady named Zahra, (flower in Arabic) with a mummified-looking face and a few teeth will go through my stuff. Flotsam and jetsam. It is her job: to pack people. Of course, my circumstances are rather odd in that I am not going on to the next job. But to the next state: Ca-da-ver.
In Cairo, the housing office will have to hire a locksmith to bust open the lock. (No one has a spare key, not even my close friends. I was manic about my privacy.)
Ladies and gentleman, here was what was left:
Molded rigatoni with oregano and ant sauce still in the strainer in the sink. (Not my mother’s homemade dumplings.)
Hundreds of packets of sugar in the kitchen drawer. (Zahra is a first-class forager. A scavenger. Read my lips: a crow, not a flower. Packets of sugar are enough to cause her orgasmic delight.)
Kitchen drawers: packets of plenty from McDonalds. Natural Incense. Trick birthday candles. A lemon squeezer. Plastic Handiwrap. Zip lock bags. Receipts from Sun Lite cleaners. A bottle opener. One jar of unopened pepper. (Worth fighting over, eh? I was a lousy housekeeper.)
One very doleful microwave. (Never bothered to wipe up the coffee inside.)
Zahra will spend two hours looking for a short wave radio that I got at the Saint Anthony’s charity sale in Baltimore for twenty bucks.
A Beatles suit. Very straight style. Blue. Chinese collar. A matted wig. (I wore to Tulies’ Halloween costume party. I was a skinny Ringo Starr. Love me like that, yeah, yeah, yeah.)
Wide ties with goofy designs. Yellow elephants tiptoe through the tulips. Scoobie-Doo. The Flintstones. Yabbba Dabba Do. The Sphinx. (Loved to be a goof.)
A pair of faded Levis, left on an unmade bed. Waist ’30. Grateful Dead patch sewed on the back pocket. Who in this world could have such a tiny waist? Give to one of those skinny traffic cops in Cairo. (They won’t.)
One very handsome guitar, leaning against the couch. (Dad gave me the Washburn the year before he died. His favorite Johnny Cash song: “I Walk the Line.” We begged to differ on musical taste. And although, he never understood the appeal of poetry, he loved music. Close enough?)
One well-thumbed copy of Playboy. Silicone boobs, pressed flat under the mattress. (Who will kiss me?) “All we have left to us are kisses/Sheathed in down like tiny bees.”
A cigar box, bursting with promising poems-in-progress, written on matches from Harry’s Pub, bills from Sun Lite cleaners and Fourth of July napkins.
Passels of sheet music on a rickety music stand: Peter, Paul and Mary. The Beatles. Bob Dylan.
Books from my smallish library: Dostoeysky’s. Crime and Punishment. The Gambler and Other Stories. Heidegger. Sartre. Camus. Joseph Brodsky. Anna Akhmatova. Bulgakov. The Master and Margarita. The brilliant Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. Sentenced to the gulag and exile for his ode to Stalin:
“At ten feet away you can’t hear the sound/Of any words but ‘the wild man in the Kremlin,/Slayer of peasants and soul-strangling gremlin.’/Each thick finger of his is as fat as a worm,/…
Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, and the poet, Anna Akhmatova and friend, Natasha Shtempel preserved his manuscript in pillowcases and saucepans. Reconstructed fragments from memory–the sacrifices of love and friendship. For the love of poetry. But who loves words in America? Cliches: the bottom line. If you are not for us, you are against us. After 9/11, Terror Twaddle. Fiddle-faddle. Tomfoolery. George Sprat, a man who liked no lean. W. was Humpty Dumpty who sat on the wall.
Publishing in America is a bazaar, like the Khan il-Khalili in Cairo. Where they sell hubbly bubblies and brass trays and alabaster statuettes and muski glass and bottles of oily perfume. Special deal for you, my friend. But here’s the deal–as a dead boxer of no great fame or notoriety, who is out of the ring, I can offer you this advice: Under no circumstances, hang rejections on your fridge under a corny cow magnet.
Read this beauty, if you are suffering from insomnia:
From Tristia: “…Who can know from the word goodbye/What kind of parting is in store for us,/What the cock’s clamour promises/When a light burns in the acropolis…”
Lights burning in the acropolis. In Egypt, lights blink on and off. Keep a candle in a jelly jar in your kitchen. Just in case. Although it is more fun than you can imagine, to cook pasta in the dark!
I am no Osip Mandlestam. Nyet. Just plain Joe Pulaski. I have no squeeze who will memorize my poems. Who will kiss me? No one will save my beauties in pillowcases and saucepans. (They are in the cigar box. A better conceit.)
But the university will ask Margarete, a friend of mine to be present while they pack up my possessions. Witness to Zahra, the mummy lady and her entourage. Witness to the flotsam. Could you please sign here? We did not take snitch the McDonald’s sugar, even though we lusted after it in our hearts. We did not filch the handsome guitar. We did not loot the Beatles suit. We did not fleece the worthless microwave. We did not pocket the clock. (I tore off the hour hand for obvious reasons.) We did not hock the faded Levis. We did not purloin the Peter, Paul and Mary sheet music. We did not hook the Russian books. We did not pinch the poems in the cigar box.
We have an announcement to make:
There will be no memorial service, no wreaths of flowers, no chocolate sheet cake, no spaghetti casserole, no booze, but wait, wait, wait. Sssssh. I hear some murmuring. Listen:
“Poor Joe.” (So what? Everyone’s a poor Joe. Or a poor Mohammed, if you are in Egypt.)
“He must have suffered.” (You don’t know the half of it. I mean, that adage about walking in someone’s shoes is garbage, unless you have an imagination.)
“Didn’t he write a poem for you?” (From one of my poems: Phallic column in a stone-pit/ below the level of the river on Roda Island/measures river’s rise and good fortune for Nile Valley…)
“His behavior was outrageous.” (So I wasn’t dull?)
“I just couldn’t renew his contract. His behavior was so unpredictable.” (I agree with the boss, even if she wore the most ridiculous high heels. It was stupid to shout at the top of my lungs at a security guard at the Ramses Hilton. I don’t know why I took my class to the Ramses Hilton mall. Er, no lesson plan?)
From one of my poems: “Your last minutes are gold dragoons/you lasso jokes and swagger like a cowboy…”
What isn’t sent to my parents in neat boxes, but tossed in a green garbage bag: packets of sugar, mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, a checkered lunchbox without a latch, a cracked coffee thermos, rusty wire in the form of a figure eight, a box of Band-Aids and a giant jar of orange flavored Tums. Who doesn’t suffer from heartburn?
Margarete will lug all that detritus down the stairs and give it to the bawab, the gatekeeper of our building. He is as happy, as if someone has given him a big Chevy. Ash-raf will say, “Iowa.” Yes in Arabic, sounds like the state, Iowa. I only learned “Iowa,” which means Yes, and Laaaah, which means, “No.” Just say No to Arabic. Yes, to Russian. Once I tried to tell Ash-raf, “Look, pal, I’m fluent in Russian.” But he just looked baffled. How to explain: I never really wanted to live in Egypt.
The housing office sent the handsome guitar home. We’re late for a very important date. Could you please sign here?
It will be at least a year before Mom will sift through the flotsam. I didn’t win any trophies in high school, no letter jacket, no prizes. I was not a macho jock with sinewy muscles and wide shoulders. Not the Most Athletic. Not the Most Handsome. Not the Most Popular. Not the Most Likely to Succeed. However, Mom had framed the certificate with the gold seal from the National Council of English Teachers. A literary prize, for a short story I called “The Loser” about a pimple-faced pip-squeak, who was so lonely he read Yeats “The Second Coming” to his pet turtle, Jimmy Hoffa. Mrs. Kissman, my eleventh-grade English teacher had said, “Joe, you’re so talented. You ought to write. I see great things for you in the future.” Her idealism and kindness were intoxicating. I started dreaming about taking down her silky, brown hair, from the small knot at the back of her neck.
I was even mean to my cat, Pirate. Although maybe the old boy affected my behavior more than even I might admit. Was the Joker pressing on my kingpin, my wizard, my Einstein? Making me act like a jerk?
I wasn’t even nice before I got sick the first time. And don’t think I’m telling you, because I’m afraid of God. Even though we’re Polish Catholics and we had purgatory crammed down our throats at that crummy school, Saint Anthony’s, God is for the buzzards. I believe in Nothingness, the Existential Void, the Blank. Camus is my man. After, Mandelstam, of course.
The Peace Corps sent me home from Uzbekistan. I was so drunk on vodka that I picked a fight with a border guard. I broke his thumb. He broke mine, too. Tit for tat.
I always hung with a guy named Big Tulie in Cairo. (Yeah, he’s white. Last name is Tulip.) He weighed about two twenty-five. And everyone used to call us Mutt and Jeff. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t dumb. He just wasn’t as sharp as I was. He thought Steinbeck was one of the greatest writers of all time. And every time, we had passed the tenth Stella beer, he brought it up to needle me. “You don’t know shit about writing. You’re a fraud, pal,” I said. I threw beer in his face and stormed out of the Last Pyramid Bar.
Another thing: we had a business prof. named Clyde Honeydew in our building, who went loopy after 9/11. He told his Egyptian students that Arabs were wading knee-deep in blood. I used to call him up and say in an Egyptian accent, “Fuck you.”
Here’s the good me:
I saved a street cat with a gouged-out eye.
I used to give a few pounds every day to the one-legged beggar on Kasr el-Aini. Granted, I didn’t say God help you in Arabic, but mean stuff, like, “Hey man, why don’t you buy yourself a peg leg?”
I listened to Mimi wail when her diabetic cat, Rumi died. Mimi was a goofy Iranian painter who lived on the top floor. (Even though I was tempted to tell her there was no Cat Heaven, I did not.)
The day before I left Cairo, I jerked off in front of my she-cat, Pirate. I was remembering the doughy middle-aged woman from my host family in Uzbekistan. Boy, was I surprised when she came in my room in the middle of the night and went down on me. I am thirty and I have never really had a girlfriend. No Nadezhda for me. (Her name means Hope in Russian. Good, eh?)
Afterwards, I opened the kitchen door. “Go,” I said. Pirate looked at me, as if she were surprised.
When she refused to go, I stomped on her tail.
“Find true love,” I said.
I wandered into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. A few black whiskers sprouted from my chin. I looked liked a stray. “Loser,” I said, examining my whiskers. Didn’t even have full beard. I wiped the tears away with my hand. Even my fingers were slender. Looked feminine.
But I heard my high school English teacher’s voice, Mrs. Kissman. She was saying, “Joe, you’re so talented.” What happened to her after she moved away? Was she still alive? How was it that people who were so important to us, just slipped out of our lives?
That night I had boiled Rigatoni for my last supper. When the Egyptian driver, Khaled, came, I wasn’t packed. I thought I would be leaving the following night. In the middle of our row, the electricity went out. He shone a flashlight on my ticket; he was right. He was surprised when I didn’t take a suitcase. “Bags?” he said. “No bags? No shunot. ”
“No shunot, pal,” I said, slamming the door to my apartment, as hard as I could. On the way to the airport, he didn’t say a word. But when he left me next to the road, he said, “Ma Salamma. Go in peace, Mr. Joe.”
I felt my eyes well up with tears. Why was I crying? I didn’t know the guy. He was peaceful. I was not.
But suddenly, Ivanov was shining a light in my eyes. I was in the hospital. Not Egypt.
“You worry too much, Doc. You should take up ballroom dancing.”
Did I say that? Or was that another time? I have to get a new punch line for the ole Doc.
“Can you hear me, Joe?” Ivanov was saying.
But I am faraway, in the Tsarkoe Selo, the imperial palace designed by Rastrelli for Tsarina Elizabeth. I am gluing amber panels back onto the walls in the Amber Room. And no, the Germans didn’t abscond with the amber during WWII. The Russians desecrated their own palace and stole the loot. I am reciting Mandelstam, while I glue the amber panels back onto the walls of the palace: “Take, for joy’s sake, from these hands of mine/a little honey and a little sunlight…” It is a noble project, renovating the Amber Room. As noble as writing poetry, that will never be published. As noble as playing ballads, however imperfect, on the guitar for my friends in Cairo. As noble as listening to a loony Iranian woman, who is sad because her cat died.
Mom is handing me a panel of amber. I am saying. “Don’t be sad, Mom. Take this necklace of dried bees. Once upon a time, those bees turned honey into sunlight. I promise you. This necklace is much finer than one of Grandma Pulaski’s sequined purses.”
But I cannot speak now, the syllables won’t form, even though I hear my own poetry: “The eye of exile is violet blue, my dear friend/Nostalgia defies reason, as it should./The sweetness of your gift, a guitar, rich rosewood/Since, of course, you knew/my fingers would refuse…Bubbles of oxygen float to the surface of the brackish pond, as if they are in slow motion. One of the amber panels has fallen to the bottom of the pond. I want to touch the luminous amber. I feel light and free. Almost weightless.
Even death defies my expectations.