Wednesday, August 25, 2010

H.C. Klingman

He sits pensively in the hush of his rented room, scarcely noticing the gathering darkness. A black veil over the horizon dampens the twilight, parodying his own descent into night. His despair intensifies in the gloom, and he can no longer control the state of his mind as anguish over recent events destroys all reason.

Still bitter over the divorce, he thinks of all he has lost, his house and family, his job…all that made life worth living. And now…, everything is so hopeless.
Occult voices whisper sinister thoughts, grinding deeply into his unhappiness, crowding out all else. He is trapped in a black hole facing a life of misery. Could he ever regain something like his old life with all the comforts of home that had made him content?

No, insinuates a witches chorus, it cannot be…cannot be cannot be…
He reflects that his life had not been large enough for his wife’s cravings, and so she had backed out, finding solace with a man who wanted to marry her. The unholy choir mourns "…your son… yes your son, they’re even taking little Marty" His head drops, and his sobs are crys for help. But the chanting voices morph gradually to a basic existential proposition, "not to be, to be, …to be or not to be?" Yes, yes, he thinks, that is the real question. His own sea of troubles is as hopeless as that which had plagued Hamlet.

What would it be like not to be? Would the torment cease? Would it bring him peace? How would Marty react? Would he suffer in grief? What would Marty remember about their life together? He thinks about the finality of suicide. Surely there can be no more pain when life stops. But what about the brief moment before the bullet crashes into the skull? There would be that instant between life and death, that moment after pulling the trigger with his senses still alive for a nanosecond before his brain explodes. His body shudders in dread.

Next to him, on the night table, the Colt 45 lays lethally beside a glass of water and a box of pills. The doctor had said the medication would make him feel better. But he has not taken them, and doubts they are any more than mood changers, of no help. Why take them now?

Presently there is a pounding on the door that intrudes into his reverie, and he wipes his eyes, considering…but why bother answering, nothing matters anymore. The banging increases and he hears an urgent shout, “Dad, Dad, it’s me, Marty.” Marty’s presence is unexpected. It demands attention, and it has enough energy to create a small fissure in his mind-set. The voices pause. He visualizes Marty’s pleading face, his tears. Taking time to reorient himself, he wonders vaguely if his dilemma could have another outcome. Emotionally drained, he is ready to crack.

Through the window he can now see a sliver of sunset glimmering below the rising clouds, and the thought that he might be looking at the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel seems, paradoxically, quite funny. He almost wants to laugh, but there is too much heaviness in his soul. He decides he cannot face his son just now, and waits until the knocking stops and the outside door slams shut. An unearthly earworm is trying to wriggle back into his brain, with a muffled "…to be or not to be not to be…"

He picks up the weapon. Hard and heavy, it smells of oil. Holding it up he thumbs a catch and ejects the magazine. Sliding out the cartridges one by one, he clicks the empty magazine back in. He knows there is still one bullet in the chamber. Daring himself closer to the edge he takes off the safety, and lays the gun back, next to the pills. He picks up the pillbox, absently rattling its contents, then puts it back down..

He remains sitting quietly in the darkness for the longest time. Then he calmly reaches out to the bedstand and chooses his solution.
The Missing Link
H.C. Klingman

I was preparing copies of my dissertation “Synchronisity in Random Sequences” when the telephone rang. It was Laura, my ex-fiancee. I had reluctantly moved out when she said she needed some time alone, a trial separation sort of thing. I hoped some fragments of the relationship lingered.
“Hi,” she said cheerily, “how’s it going?” We hadn’t talked in the two months since my low-key departure, and so I wondered about the friendly tone and why she was calling me now. She wasn’t one for chatting. There was always meaning behind her talk, so I searched for clues.
“Great,” I said, thinking she meant my Ph.D work. “Prof. Curtis and the Committee accepted it without revision. What’s up with you?”
“Busy-busy, power-shopping for new clothes and stuff, cooking up a storm, preparing for a new life. I just wondered if you could drop by tonight, I’ve got a surprise for you. Six?”
All kinds of possibilities came to mind, but I suppressed thinking about them until I had a chance to lay them out logically, so I answered, “…be fine, great, see you then” and hung up eager to give it scrutiny.
I was warmed by the notion that she might want me back. But what were the signs for that? Well, she was the one who called, she sounded happy, she asked me for six and said she was cooking so that meant dinner and deep talk, didn’t it?
For the last several months I had been in my research cocoon, and had missed many signals from her, so I started analyzing the jigsaw puzzle of our relationship. Laura wanted, above everything, to get married and have children. I wanted to wait. That was why I got alarmed when I noticed her irregular use of the Pill. Then I remembered her skipping breakfast, and other stuff, but she told me it was nothing, and not to worry.
So I hadn’t. Until now. What had she meant by “new clothes and stuff, a new life?” Was she getting maternity clothes and baby things? I remembered seeing her entering the Medical Arts Building a couple of weeks ago. Could she be sick, something awful that she wanted to tell me now in confidence? But she had looked in glowing health. And a sick person doesn’t avoid the problem by buying a new outfit or entertaining an old lover. Not Laura. She was practical.
When I considered the signs, they seemed to add up to only one thing. Her “surprise” was a reality that I must now face along with the “new life”. Yes of course, that was it, she had prepared all this to announce her pregnancy. That was just like her. Curiously, it didn’t scare me anymore. After all, I still loved her, my doctorate and a research position were in the bag, and I could now become a family man.
I ran the scenario through my head. I would ring the doorbell at six sharp, she would open the door smiling welcome as I exchanged a nosegay for a light peck on the cheek. There would be fine aromas of food, and her table would be a showpiece of crystal, bone china and stiff linen. She knew the trappings. After cocktails, a leisurely candlelit dinner would warm the atmosphere, and then, afterward, with the stage fully set, she would deliver the news, the catalyst for our future together, and we would seal our reunion as lovers should.
I got a sudden thought, as I pushed the bell, that I would politely preempt her staged annunciation, putting her at ease, by telling her straightaway that I knew and accepted what was, and that we could celebrate the event in quiet harmony. Laura, in perfume and stunning dress, opened the door and said, “C’mon in” turning to lead the way. No kiss, yet. She looked great, happy and content with her life, and the life within. Gourmet essences wafted from the kitchen.
In the foyer she stopped and asked, “Can you guess?” I could see her table set festively for two, and figured she wanted to get that question out of the way first. That was right on my wavelength.
“I think I can,” I said, “I saw you going to the doctor’s office, in preparation for the new life. I just want to say it’s alright, and that I’m hungry as hell for your cooking.” A funny expression came over her face, one at odds with the topic, as she handed me a small box. “What’s this,” I asked, “some kind of gift?”
She replied, as usual, in code, “Have you noticed something missing in your life since we broke up?”
“Yes,” I said, jumping on the wrong track of that train of thought.
Still cryptic she asked, “What requires a pair, and is useless as a single? That’s my surprise. Open it.” I saw this as a veiled reference to parenting. In the box there was a single solid gold cufflink, the lost mate to one I had at home. They were valuable heirlooms. She said, “I found it while cleaning after you left, and since I know what they mean to you I thought I would return it to you before my trip.”
I tried to work that one out as she guided me by the elbow to the door. I asked, “You’re taking a trip?”
“Yes I went to the Doctor to get all my shots, and bought a bush hat and jacket and all sorts of gear for our African Safari.”
“Our,…who’s our?
“My new boyfriend, Alec, he’s coming for dinner in a few minutes, so I don’t have more time to talk right now, I’ll buzz you when we get back.”
I was still holding my wilting posies when I started to say, …”you mean you’re not…” but the door was already up against my very red face.
H.C. Klingman

I am dimly conscious, waking to a strange world. Blurred, masked faces look down at me, eyeglasses glinting between bright lights. Busy hands stretch out from green gowns. A voice says, “Give him a little more, let’s keep him comfortable.” Strangely, I feel no pain. My last moment of recall was the crashing blow that ended in a white flash, an instant that turned into darkness.
It seems like I was gone only a second, or was it a century? I try to remember. Wispy images come and go, in and out of a fog. With a vague sense of something beyond, I chase memory fragments, to find out who I am.

The commandment to migrate was strongest in my grandfather Miklos, and his father, Yul. I see their wagons, always on the move. They stop only briefly, the men of their family earning money along the way as tinkers, handymen repairing anything, or trading horses. They were the Roma, gypsies who shun the attachment of place, who wander because they die in confinement. I am one of them.
The old ones were always able to find a dog or pony to be trained and sold at the next stop. Their women told fortunes, or begged on wealthy street-corners. They knew omens and curses and could enter and leave stores invisibly.
When outsiders drank wine at our campfires, swarthy girls danced sinuously to guitars. Deft fingers caressed wallets and unsheathed knives settled arguments. Gone are the groans of old wagons, the creak of harness, or the pungent sweat of horses straining in slowly moving landscapes. Absent now, the makeshift bivouacs in open fields, that were broken up by an irate farmer or a sheriff.
They stayed miles ahead of vengeful townsmen, the “gadje” who thought we were villains, thieves and sorcerers. We, in turn, considered them marks, victims to be tricked or cheated. They knew nothing of real freedom, of souls unburdened by civilized baggage.

I focus hard on the present, against the anesthetic that lures me into darkness, and wonder how I got here; what happened.
I once knew, even before the honking geese, that winter was coming. Dunja, my treasure, my lovely daughter, knew it too. All of us of the blood feel the call to follow an uncertain life, to leave the places where hostile men’s laws have power over us.
Where is Dunja? What has happened to her?
What remains of the old days is a sense of the road beyond, traveled now in diesel sedans pulling small trailers. That is my life too. Between bouts of fitful sleep I reassemble events to find out how I got here.

We are packing our trailers to leave a park, when fast pounding hoof-beats announce a rider approaching swiftly. I see that it is a runaway horse fighting its bit. It is a stampeding, bucking menace, lathered white. The rider is a terrified girl, dark haired, like my Dunja, and she is screaming, tugging helplessly at the reins. This can only end in terrible injury to bones and flesh, or even death, I thought..
What was it that caused me, in that dangerous instant, to intervene? Was it a gypsy’s instincts for taming horseflesh, or a father saving a child? Or was it an urge to overcome the lengthening shadows of age? I make a lightning grab for the bridle and pain shoots up into my shoulder sockets. I am dragged several yards digging in my heels but finally manage to turn the large head of the stallion that this child has foolishly ridden. The headlong run is halted, but the horse snorts and stamps in protest.
I help the hysterical girl from the saddle, but the instinct of my fathers was absent as I carelessly let down my guard. The kick was swift, the iron hoof smashing into my face, turning off lights that came on again only in the operating theater.

I am now in a private room. There is a nurse and a doctor, and…and an angel with white skin. Dunja, my Dunja, but I cannot say it, unable to move my wired jaw or my head. My pains are now severe, and the nurse adjusts a morphine drip.
The doctor says, “You’ve been away for a long time. Don’t try to speak, you’re in good hands here and will slowly make a complete recovery. We will keep you in traction until your bones heal. Then, we will give you beautiful teeth, and you can regrow that big mustache we had to remove. The papers and TV have made you a local hero because you rescued the daughter of the mayor. Dunja can tell you everything. I’ll leave you with her.”
Dunja says, smiling through tears. “Bapo my poor dear Bapo, you are now out of danger. There is so much good news for us. You saved the girl’s life and her grateful father ordered you here at his expense. We have been given a rent-free apartment. There is also a fund drive, and more money than we have ever seen is coming in from all over. A job is promised for you in the Parks Department, and I have taken work at a travel agency.”
I wish to remark about her immodest skirt, and revealing sweater, but cannot. I am so confused about everything. How can I explain? I cannot speak or write. My questions are not about money or comfort. Like the stallion, I am desperate to avoid captivity. Like him, gypsies must resist fates forced upon them. From deep within me comes a sad cry to escape, to return to the true life, unbound by all except my family.
After this hospital, where is freedom? How can I ever live in that apartment, do gadjes work, follow their bidding? Oh, how long will it take until I can again be with gay Roma spirits that have circled the earth with music and laughter for a thousand years; phantoms that speak to me more loudly than the voices of these outsiders. Ah, dear child of my love, do you not see in my face the wounds of my soul? How far away from the true life have you gone in my absence?
I search for understanding, but her sorrow for me does not shield an expression of something different, a young mind with hopes I cannot share. This weighs upon me more heavily than the pains in my head. I am too helpless to save her.
Drugs pull me into retreat from the white sheets of my prison, back to images of a life as free as the wind on moors, or the sand of shifting deserts. There is a place for me around a large fire, where passionate melodies of suffering and love are plucked from strings of gypsy guitars. Castanets clap wild rhythms, and tambourines talk. The popping logs send plumes of sparks skyward, like gypsies, vanishing into the dark night.
H.C. Klingman

Okay, I gotta tellya why I’m mad at this stage of my life. I’ve been to a few foster homes, and here I am, being shown again with people looking at me like I’m a dumb animal. I’m thinking if they only want a stupid pet to cuddle, they should buy a teddy bear.
It’s tough fitting into a new household. The last family that got me had two nasty kids that liked to torment me. Then there was their damn cat. They were always hassling me in some way, and I knew I had to get out of that prison.
The deal was, I’m there for a trial period, and if they didn’t like me they can send me back for a restocking charge. So I tried to figure out ways to annoy them. After a lot of disrespectful wisecracks that didn’t work, I found the answer. I sang loudly or talked at the top of my voice at night. Then I bit a finger. That did it. After that the father swore mightily and said, “That little black bastard is going back, first thing in the morning.”
So it’s back to the perch in that pet shop behind the stinky puppies. I tease them by imitating their little yelps. The owner is a tightwad who skimps on birdseed, even when he’s asking top buck for me, the most expensive animal in the store. A cheaper parrot lived a few cages down, but he hadn’t talked much English in the last 50 years, and was probably past his shelf life.
The greedy old owner was tired of having to recycle me. And there were no takers despite the enticing words written on the card that said, “Mynah Bird, India, Imitative Avian. Talks. Special Price. The favorite bird of the maharajahs.” He offered discounts, but there were no takers.
People would come close to the cage and the best they could muster up was a lame “Hello” as though I were some kind of a retarded mocking bird. But I never liked their looks so I sulked and kept my beak shut. The miserable shop owner always tried to induce me to talk or sing for prospective customers. But a bird’s got his pride. I didn’t perform on cue and awaited my chance. What I wanted was a nice family, no kids or pets, a big cage and a full seed cup.
I was waiting for the right opportunity to recite my confidential resume, an achievement unequaled among vocalizing birds, including that dopey Pakistani parrot in the next aisle who spoke mostly Pashtu. Who’d want him. You’d need a dictionary. So I practiced quietly, biding my time.
I sensed a chance to get a new home when my wily old Fagan put an ad in the paper announcing a raffle and a “Talking contest between a loquacious Pakistani Parrot, and a talkative Indian Mynah.” The idea was the winner of the raffle would get to pick the bird that spoke the best. Pretty smart. That way me and old Paki would talk up a storm outdoing each other to vamoose that dump and the winner could pick from two contenders at their best. I wanted that “Get out of Jail” card badly.
Old Scrooge put fresh Naples Daily News into our cages and took us down to the packed lodge hall. He was going to clean up on this deal, and get rid of hard to move inventory. The losing bird was to be auctioned off. No lottery like that for me, man. I was thinking furiously, planning my tactics, and vowed that the squawker with the crooked beak would be put on the block to second place destiny. I preened my feathers to a glossy black and cleared my throat.
The format was simple. First came the drawing to select the winning judge. The old fart would then put us each onto a perch, and speak a tailored phrase for us to repeat. (This avoids ad-libbing that could produce profanity that all imitative avians engage in from time to time.) It demonstrated the quality of our elocution. (A few sybillants, and no gutturals showed us off at our phonetic best.)
The parrot, who was in beginning moult, came first. Holding a few sunflower seeds in his fist, our miserly speech teacher slowly said the words, “Hello, hello, how are you? Are you singing in the shower.” The parrot was slow on the uptake, so he slipped him a bribe and repeated, “Are you singing in the shower?” The hall was silent as all awaited that birdbrain’s reply. Then, after two head bobs, and a ruffling of feathers, he came out with it, giving a peremptory “Awwk”, that revealed his low class.
I must say I admire his courage because his accent was rusty, having spent too many years of his long life in a Pakistani pet shop. But he stabilized and slowly, with some fuzziness in the consonants, he said, “Yes I am fine. I am sinning in Peshawar.” It was fairly close to “Singing in the Shower.” I thought that was not a bad effort for an exotic costing only 129.99, but his Pashtu accent meant that he was a loser and I was going to win. Besides, he couldn’t ad-lib.
So when my turn came, I went for it. Ignoring the maestro’s prompting, and his infantile patter, I launched my full throated resume for the slam dunk, declaiming it in fine Calcutta Oxford diction.

“No cluck like a chicken, but wise as an owl.
Not pretty as a parrot, that fine feathered fowl,
Not regal as the eagle, that scavenging dope,
Nor preening as peacocks, who’re dumb beyond hope.
The paradise bird shows off like a whore,
And parakeet’s mutterings totally bore.
And if crows could but talk, I’d win each debate
Cause Mynah’s IQ is a hundred and eight.”

At first stunned, the crowd went wild with applause for my bravura performance, and the lucky number guy came forward to claim his prize. But he headed right for my neighbor. I ask you, what moron would pick a virtually tongue-tied refugee from the Bird Market of Peshawar over me? I’ll bet he was some kind of terrorist! My rage was enormous as I whistled and rasped my objections to this fowl injustice.
But, on closer inspection I decided I didn’t like this guy’s simian look, or his ponce outfit. He said, as he claimed his prize, “I’ll take the parrot. He tried so hard, besides who needs a wise-guy Mynah poet who can’t follow instructions.”
The jerk walked down the aisle carrying the cage with his dopey prize, coaxing it with sickening banality, “Polly want a cracker?” I was glad to have avoided such linguistic mediocrity. So I got auctioned off as runner-up. I thought anything was better than a guy with purple socks.
Today I finally got lucky. There was only one bid in response to old sleaze-bag’s strenuous auctioneering. The kindly little old lady shouted a preemptive bid, “Six hundred dollars, and you throw in a big cage.” I was enchanted with her right from the beginning.
Back at the pet shop the deal was concluded and I knew I was finally in for a cushy life when she bought the most expensive bird seed, some special treats, and a little bell for my cage. For that generosity I would have imitated a canary. The cage was a spacious model I knew. I could pick the catch on the door, and get out whenever I wanted.
So, I determined to enjoy my new home by being a cute little companion in her old age, as long as she didn’t get too possessive or come down with Alzheimers. If she did, I had only to wait until there was an open window. Then, as they say, I would fly the coop. Is that KG enough for you?