Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
My professor often lost control of the wheel and I would take over until he returned to his senses. He still had the pedals though, and we went flowing out across refineries, marshes, loading docks, wharves in the fog that only a single tall foundry flame affixed in the sky like a bright magnet.
As we went from reception to reception, he was so drunk that he always forgot that my door was locked and I had to squeeze into the tiny sportster’s red seat by approaching it from the white slope of its rear and hopping in; later, when he put the top down, I was able to unlock it myself by just leaning, but why throw out a perfectly good routine? At Teaneck, I stood up grasping the top of the windshield in my right hand when he floored the gas pedal. As I guided the wheel with my left hand, he—leaning over his unlocked door—put his face close to the front left tire and waved his arms around to grab bouquets of exhaust as they burst by, dreaming they were pretty faces in Shinjuku. Jack Daniels threading the air around us, he settled back into his seat and played with the turn signals, grinning about how he sometimes just wanted to reach out and kiss a whole armful of Tokyo girls as they trotted by, elbows linked in the summertime. I trusted him with the wheel, and he yelled I could sit down now but I stretched up completely instead, holding on to the windshield as all the trees planted by famous Americans went by. As I waved to them, the clouds seemed to melt into luscious bands of confetti.
I returned along a parallel street that licked itself between the two halves of the army base. There, even in the depressing amber light of the evening, Uighurs and Gitanes sold their wares, placed out on surplus blankets. Not only along the barb-crowned walls, but right out on the cobblestone thoroughfare as well. Thinking that if I continued in my present line of entertainment I would become despicable, I lingered at the spread of one vendor before continuing on to that night’s engagement. I knew I should read and think again and picked at his used books like musty pears. One title caught my eye: The Japanese Sonnet. I grinned cynically, thinking that it was another superficial and vanity-published study by some White Demon/Asshole drawing flowery parallels between English and Oriental poesy.
I was curious, however, about what particular Japanese poetic form he had discomfited with the comparison—tanka? hokku? I opened the slim volume and was surprised to find facing me, translated into English, a poem at least two or three times as long as any waka. I hastily counted the lines, thinking that it would turn out to be three linked five-line verses (not, strictly speaking, a form unto itself), but it turned out to be exactly 14 lines and with rhyme I hadn’t known existed in Japanese poetry: aaab cccb dddb (the last two lines kept disappearing from my eyes as I looked at the page). I decided immediately that this pattern should govern my opening act at the banquet that night. While singing a song of such quatrains, I would throw the whipped cream during each of the first three lines and duck under the linen of a table during the fourth (pie pie pie duck)—all the while acting whimsical in the manner of the famed Parisian and Tyrolian comedy troupes of the ’30s and early ’40s. I do not remember if I paid the mordant, probably illiterate vendor for the book—I don’t even know if I left it there—but set off immediately for the grand pavilion, though only after making sure I had rubbed out with a wet fingernail any place where the brilliant author’s name appeared on the langsamer vergehenden pages.
“Lev tells me that if only the idea of sex with a man appealed to him, he’d marry me right away. (He assumes I want him!) But he felt it would only be a substitution—there’d always be a lack.”
I was talking with Lee about the same thing on a clear November morning. It was Sunday and the first time I’d been to Brooklyn Heights. We kept going back and forth along the railing that faced the tall stegosaurus tail of Manhattan, engaged in the type of talk I may have had ten years before in prep school: self-images, fears of women, sexual anatomy, what our parents wanted us to do. It was rejuvenating—like the flat white and orange sides of the docked container ship below us, seagulls and all that; the mind cleared a little in the long-lost adolescent chatter, and we both knew we thought each other childish. A lot of people, in thick-knit sweaters and red or orange down vests left open like dirty life jackets, were out in the sunlight with their dogs.
One man, in ample yet taut flesh that looked as if it grew back each night after savage incidents, sat glowering on a cracked, dark-green bench, his end of the leash wrapped tightly around a spiked wristband. He was sunning himself and watched both men and women go by like stripped sides of pork. Every time we passed him in our endless walk I instinctively drew closer to Lee, which was ridiculous considering Lee’s tiny frame and lack of fortitude. A boy in cashmere coat and cap rolled a ball toward us.
Almost automatically I told Lee one of my favorite anecdotes. “Miles Davis once said, comma (I made the curling gesture with a finger), ‘Al Green is so sexy that if he had one tit, I’d marry him right away.’ But when I told this to Lev I took out the part about being sexy to make it apply to us—it’s ideas and art Lev wanted to share, or consume, so much: ‘That reminds me of what Miles Davis once said about Al Green.’
“‘Do you know what he said?’
“‘Uhn, what’d he say?’
“‘If Al Green had just one tit, I’d marry him right away.’”
Lee was listening, though something in his stare now seemed bored and critical. I continued:
“So Lev said, howling, ‘Miles would say that!’ but then he suddenly stopped, a bizarre grin twisting between his cheeks like a crumpled fender. Like he didn’t know whether he would have said it himself.”
But Lee also reacted with confusion, as if he were suspicious of why I was telling him this story about the anecdote. And as if I were too dense to be aware of the reason myself. Finally, he let his annoyance (I was always afraid of annoying Lee more than anything else) emerge the most as he snapped:
“Males have two mammaries just like women do. Haven’t you noticed that about yourself? So I don’t get it: Davis wanted him to undergo a mastectomy so he’d have only one breast? Besides, Al Green is a minister now.”
“I know, but he still sings.”
“Tits and breasts aren’t the same thing.”
Lee liked that, but only because he thought he’d made me show how much of a boor I was. He let out an ugly belch of a chuckle.
“Forget it,” I said, growing lonelier with each word.
We left the waterfront and stumbling about inland pretended that the diners and cafés were all too crowded with families and groggy couples this Sunday brunchtime, and said goodbye to each other. I knew that all the long subway ride and wait for the transfer back, I’d get angry thinking the whole afternoon, morning, and even the sympathy of last night had been a waste, I couldn’t trust any of it, and that uptown I’d soon be relying again on my “crotch.”
The line at the JCC banquet hall, converted from a chalky mansion, was too long, and my childhood buddy Fang and I descended in parallel into the street. Outside a fenced-in trash lot, he made jokes about obtaining coke just like that I began to walk off, smiling to myself that he still wore such torn-up blue windbreakers, and even that snap-buttoned haphazardly, when I saw him talking with a runt who was letting him inspect a coffee filter piled to over the top with snowy coke. At the same time, I also noticed a bright cop cruiser lurking in the lot like an alligator in the rubbish, right behind the two. Fang closed the deal and came toward me, who had already begun to walk hurriedly off, wanting to get lost in a crowd or the park.
“There was a cop right behind you, you dummy,” I hissed out the side of my mouth.
“Really? Omygod,” he said, his eyes blurred like two blue fish behind the thick aquarium glass of his horn-rims. Just as in the old days, without saying another word, we strayed off from each other and quickly reached the quiet sun-spread suburbs on a Sunday afternoon.
Fang, I intuited, was probably closing back in on me now, and—if drawing the usual loop—should be about one long block south of me, on the other side of the tall high school. I caught glimpses of the cruiser now and then, like robust splashes of blaue in a Kandinsky improvisation, but, strangely, I was not rattled: the haphazardness of the cruiser’s emergences and duckings from behind green-hooded trash receptacles, white fire hydrants, and other parts of the scenery convinced me that it had not spotted us, or, more correctly, yes, it had seen us now and then, but was not after us. I became convinced it was under remote control, or, more correctly, automatic control, although why that should have comforted me I don’t know.
Fang turned the corner toward me at the intersection one block south of me and came trotting up like a pet dog, chortling, a little abashed, but then walked right past me. The cruiser, in the schoolyard now, continued to jerk, pause, and wheel around in little sections of circles. It too seemed to be chuckling, although everything was very, very quiet. The JCC hall was across the street. Glad I had not soiled my tan disco suit, I went back to see if the line to the banquet had gone down.
Up the spiral stairway, past the lawn glimpsed at through a serving window, edging along the precipice. Mother and some pretty friend of hers watching from a deep corner in the banquet field, pointing proudly. I want to be handsome. Rediscolous dicko suit I go back out with David, the Korean son I’m supposed to be showing the ropes to. Outside, the whole avenue is celebrating graduation. The restaurants and bars have opened up to the spring sidewalks and at every parasoled table there are dark, slightly drunk, yarmulke-capped boys in white jackets and carnations braying jokes with their flushed, flower-dressed dates. Huge platters of chopped liver and pickled, roasted, or salted fishes and deli slices. Music woofed in everywhere. “This is the Jewish Myongdong,” I joke to David, who is polite enough to smile at everything I say.
We go back inside and, feeling debonair, glide forward past the crowded open bar with our right shoulders tilted down cutting the air before us. David mounts the steps again, but in a dank corner, I pause to inspect a huge golden-roasted side of carp whose scales seemed to be fluttering. It was true that there had been a fairly strong breeze outside and that, channeled by the narrow aisle along the bar from the thrown-open entrance, could have been blowing across the fish … but, in the end, I did not know if it was the wind or an internal respiration; in the dark each gold-silver square, a black catarrh at its center and ashes at its fringe, rose and fell like a tent, in the desert.
Again, I climbed up the spiral and inched along the precipice, this time almost falling over into the banquet field. In front of us in line were an old pink-dressed couple who commiserated with us about the unbearable conditions for entering the celebration. Again, Mother pointed at me and whispered to a friend in the far corner. It was clear to me now that I was expected to give a rousing poetry reading and suddenly realized that the arcane, intellectual poems I had brought were totally unsuitable for the occasion. I should have, instead, brought the series about a pilgrimage to my ancestors’ burial mounds in Korea—it always appealed to the sentimentality of the first generation and Jewish sympathizers—but it was late and too much trouble now to go back home to fetch the folders. At dinner, the caterer had prepared the Korean dishes miserably and the waiters were mean and incompetent, but I nevertheless felt compelled to champion the uniqueness and wonder of Korean cuisine. As in any of my propaganda about my ancestral culture, anything that resembled Japanese things I would say had originated in Korea. Tonight, the preparation was so ungainly, the marinades so bland, the portions unbalanced, the fried foods so drowned in old oil, and, worst of all, the loud businessman across from me, David’s father, kept asking me questions, throwing his money around, and had spilled or wiped ounces of dark juices and oils down the lapels of his dinner jacket, so that it looked like a restaurant tablecloth that hadn’t been changed for weeks.
“You took my son David out, showed him around? Whadda you do?”
“No, no we just walked around, Dad.”
“Ha, ha. That good. Ah, look, more food!”
More shit, and I had to explain what it was supposed to be to my earnest white and Jewish acquaintances.
Then began the train of questions about tips on how to get David into an Ivy League college. I had been an interviewer at admissions offices and so went into a long speech detailing the subtleties of the process, the ironies, dilemmas, injustices, exceptions, finally concluding that there was no surefire way to get in, even if you had straight As and good SAT scores. David’s father, near the end of the speech, began to look at me glassy-eyed and cocked over to one side as if I were either the most entrancing raconteur or stupidest number one son he had ever met. Or maybe he was just beginning to register what the food, which he had shoveled indiscriminately, was doing to his intestinal tract. His lower lip stuck out like a stone ledge and his whole red face slanted toward it. Fortunately, the belly dancer came out at this point and, looking over his right shoulder, he screamed with delight, ordered another round of beers, and turned his chair around to watch, clapping, while his thin, overworked wife tried to smile at her lap, which intrigued me. The lights dimmed, blue and pink, while the music wove into a soft interlude. She looked up at me, fingered back a bang, and impulsively said, “I’m so worry bout where my Davie, he canago to Harvada.” I lied to her and assured her that he was bound to get in somewhere in the Ivies. But all this had begun to feel nauseous, especially since I didn’t give two shits about such education, and I needed to get outside. It was then that I realized I was in a documentary about David’s struggle up from immigration to a new land, subsequent problems with the language and culture, hard ascent through the US educational system, failure as a third baseman, and eventual success as a battleship designer and tightrope walker in London. I quickly began inquiring about the identity of the producer/director to see if she would hire me on as a PA.
Walter K. Lew is a video producer, translator of the Korean dadaist Yi Sang, and poet. His Excerpts from: Δikith Dicte, for Dictee (1982) is available from Small Press Distribution.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.