Portrait of the Artist as an Old Drunk

by Christopher Orlet

After the war my father worked on the Ford assembly line—not a bad job, really, for a man without much skill or intelligence, but not quite good enough for him all the same. We were all quite glad he wasn’t a drinker like the other boys’ fathers, and his beatings were rare, all things considered. Every evening, rain or shine, he would take my brothers and me to the racetrack and we’d watch the ponies run. Homework would have to wait till morning on the bus to school if it was to be done at all. Other than that my father was a responsible man. Afterwards he’d have us pick up all the thousands of discarded tickets searching for a winner. From my father I learned about hope. From my father I learned responsibility.

* * *

Later, in my twenties, I made a hardscrabble living as a ventriloquist, going on the road with my Nietzsche dummy. At first I got a lot of gigs at high schools and colleges since the English and philosophy faculties believed it would be educational to have Nietzsche appear at their schools, even though I tried to make it plain that Nietzsche was a dummy. I’d actually only read one book by Nietzsche called The Anti-Christ so I’d open with that. My dummy would say that the problem with Western Civilization was it had this Judeo-Christian slave morality, that instead of helping the best and brightest people, the Supermen, we wasted our energies helping the weakest among society, the ones who didn’t deserve to live. Then just for laughs I’d have Nietzsche talk about how the fundamental flaw of the female character is that women are defective in the powers of reasoning and deliberation, traceable to the position that Nature had assigned them as the weaker sex. Actually, I believe Schoepenhauer said that, but it sounded just as good coming from the dummy Nietzsche. Finally, for an encore I would have Nietzsche go crazy, and begin railing about the German people, how their souls were full of icy caves. I don’t recall getting too many encores.

* * *

I remember exactly where I was when the Berlin Wall fell. I was a traveling salesmen then and I sold sandpaper to Amish furniture makers. I was in the parking lot of a cabinet factory in Arcola, Illinois, a parking lot crowded with horses and buggies, and I was so excited I sat in my Dodge listening to the news for half an hour wishing I were back in my hotel room, the TV tuned to CNN. At length I went inside the office grinning ear to ear and asked the owner, a severe man with a long dusty beard, if he’d heard the news. He said he hadn’t. I said, “No? The Berlin Wall has fallen.” He looked at me with that deep, mistrustful look the Amish have of outsiders. “That’s it for communism,” I said. “It’s all over, the end of history.” “Did you bring the samples?” he said brusquely. I felt stupid for a moment. The Iron Curtain, I mean, what was that compared to the latest abrasive sample? The Amish had their own walls, you see, and they weren’t made out of cement and razor wire. I apologized and got down to business. He ordered $25,000 worth of product, and that evening I celebrated with a hotel hooker. Anyway, that’s where I was when the Berlin Wall fell.

* * *

Many years ago I lived in a Siberian city near the Arctic Circle and often when I would walk past a group of local kids they would look at me and at my clothes, even if I were wearing their clothes, and they would ask me a question, something simple like what time it was. They just wanted to hear me speak. They just wanted to hear if I could speak. Maybe I was a German or an American, even a Brit. I would always answer back in Russian, saying something like, “I don’t know.” This would confuse them. They never knew if I was Russian or what.

* * *

I’d only meant to stay a year or two at my job, then I would move on to another job that I probably wouldn’t like any more than this one, maybe less. But the years went by like so many billboards on buses and the days dragged by like so many dead cats tied behind bicycles and my children grew up like so many aspiring athletes and I got more money each year, not a lot, not enough to make a difference, but enough to buy an above ground pool for the backyard and pretty soon I was the only one left who knew anything and I was running the company which, looking back, I suppose I knew was going to happen the whole time. Even when I was telling myself that I only meant to stay a year or two, I knew.

* * *

In those days we would talk about how we felt shortchanged because there hadn’t been a decent war in our lifetime. War stories are the best stories, after all. Not just that, but the whole wartime experience gives a person a certain attitude of philosophical resignation essential for good profound writing. Vietnam didn’t count because it was way the hell over there and the only thing over here were wasted, longhaired crybabies. This was a difficult thing to discuss because war is no joke. Not that we were joking. We were dead serious. Sparks said he would give his left nut to have grown up during a good, terrible war with a genuinely evil enemy like the Nazis, but Sparks was full of crap. The women accused us of being shallow and selfish to even think of trading hundreds of thousands of innocent lives for a stupid story. We reminded them of what Faulkner said, about how the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of little old ladies. “Faulkner, another misogynistic asshole,” they said.

* * *

Sometimes after I was asleep, or pretending to be asleep, my wife would sneak out of the house. After a while I would get out of bed and pour myself a stiff one and wait for her to return. Sometimes I would wait three or four hours listening to the strange buzzing of early morning. You can pour a lot of drinks in four hours. Sometimes I’d even run out of booze. Then I’d smoke cigarettes while I waited. A pack or two of Camel filters was not uncommon. The kids would be asleep, but the dogs would usually get up. I’d hear them crunching their Gravy Train. Sometimes I’d go back to sleep, weary of waiting. After all I didn’t want to make a fuss. We’d already played that scene, with the cops and all. But I always awoke when she returned drunk and stoned in the early morning. I’d take my pillow and go into the kids’ room and lay down with them. They were good kids, young then, full of love for the both of us. Anyway there’s nothing you can do. She would tell me to leave if I didn’t like it. There was no point in arguing. There was no point to anything we did in those days.

* * *

Things according to plan haven’t gone exactly like expected, to put it mildly, which is how I prefer it put, mildly, that is, things in general. The Yids say Man plans, God laughs, only no one I know ever heard God laugh, or even seen him crack a smile. Show me one one-liner in all of Scripture, one pun, one humorous anecdote and I’ll show you the mummified remains of Christ, jowls frozen in a horselaugh. Paradise is like that, there’s no joking around. Which reminds me. The happiest event of your life was the birth of your first grandchild. You have no grandchildren.

Christopher Orlet was born in a log cabin in southern Illinois—unnecessarily. His work has appeared in The Simpering Nautilus, Inside the Female Ear, The Happy Hyena, High Noon at Midnight, and many other high-brow publications.