Icarus Transfigured by m. l. teague (page 12)

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campus building

     Chapter Four, Section Two

The just-arrived coffeehouse patron approached the counter, but before he was able to order, he spotted his journal in a lost and found box by the register. “That’s mine!” he blurted.

The woman at the espresso machine did not match his excitement, saying only, “Someone turned it in last night.”

Aloysius picked up his book, unable to account for his absentmindedness. He was relieved to have recovered it, and with his thank you took his latte to the same window seat as his previous visit.

The idea someone might have perused his writing was unsettling. It was not simply someone seeing what he wrote that disturbed him, but how he wrote. His handwriting was barely legible, though more incriminating was his incessant rewriting of passages. His way of working bore little resemblance to recognizable practices of a given creative discipline, and to the degree he crossed paths with other proficients pursuant to these interests, he never ceased feeling like an imposter. He feared sharing his achievements for fear the unorthodox means by which he came to them might be discovered.

A pen was fished from his jacket pocket, and the moment of re-gearing provided an opportunity to size up the landscape by daylight: A puce-colored thrift store sofa sat near the entrance; a Jim Jarmusch film flyer was taped over the condiment bar; Nina Simone played on the speaker system. As for the patrons, students were scattered over the premises and trawling for a better wireless connection. There were even a few barnacled, unwired men his age on exhibit. Every detail was an archetype of coffeehouse society he knew well; and maybe on another less happy day, too well.

Late in his writing the dwarfish yard gnome (still in costume) came in to get a coffee to go. He eyed the new townie in a friendly way; Aloysius sized him up as another person to be avoided. Undeterred, the man strolled up to his table with his beverage. “You must be the new artist-in-residence. I saw you pull your trailer into Willis Quadrangle yesterday.” A chalky hand was extended. “My name is Jacques Cretier. I’m a performance artist over at the college.”

Aloysius rose to cordiality. “Aloysius Gauge.”

Jacques casually pulled up a seat. “That place you’ve moved into used to be the home of the architect and designer Daedalus Monet.”

“I don’t know much about him,” the painter confessed.

“He is the subject of many apocryphal accounts, but his greatest accomplishment is a miniature golf course not far from here.”

The sight of the performance artist in the window turned few heads, but Aloysius, embarrassed by his presence, joked nervously. “You look like a powdered donut about to dunk yourself in your coffee.”

The performance artist explained between slurps. “Believe me, I get all kinds of remarks in this outfit. Documenting them is the whole point of what I do.”

“I see. Society’s reaction to nonconformity.”

Jacques grinned with self-mocking. “That’s how I originally pitched it. But now I say it’s about how vertically-challenged folks are viewed as dehumanized novelties in our culture. I figured I might as well jump on the P.C. gravy train, too. Dress up an old Modernist saw in new Affirmative Action parlance.”

“Has it worked?”

Sighing, he related, “There aren’t enough angry dwarves in the world to achieve critical mass on making shortness a recognized victimology, so funding has been a slog.” He sallied on. “I pose in the better-off yards, mostly. Although I think I’m just pissing-off the college faculty while they’re doing yard work. One professor recently ran me off with an electric hedge trimmer.” (A bandaged hand was held up.) “Artists get no respect. Not even from tenured art professors.”

“I should think caffeine would be a liability for a man in your line of work. What with jitters and bathroom breaks…”

“Decaf,” the man replied, tapping his Styrofoam cup. “Besides, I am practiced at being invisible.”

The painter glanced around the indifferent room for confirmation.

Jacques threw an inquisitive eye back across the table. “What are you writing?”

Aloysius shrugged evasively. “A memoir, I think.”

“A memoir?” puzzled the performance artist. “If you spend all day in coffeehouses, you’re not going to have much of a life to write about.”

“True.”

Jacques was dry. “The idea of coffeehouses is one where everyone wears berets and argues about French poetry, but this place is an outpatient clinic.”

The tables being turned, Aloysius defended his own life choices. “For people like me, hanging out in coffeehouses is the solitude of angels, and only occasionally pathetic.”

“I suppose we’re all posing in this world.”

The seasoned coffeehouse frequenter waxed on it. “I would say, each regular who shows up gets a table, an allotment of caffeine, and as much time as they need to sit and stoically justify their existence in the universe. When they abandon their wishful sandcastles to make room for another, the tide moves in to bus the table.”

Jacques cut to the chase. “Of course, there are always cute girls to look at meanwhile.” He ogled the pretty-ish barista behind the counter, though commented acerbically, “That’s Erica. She’s a local dead-ender. One of those off-the-shelf bohemian-types with more piercings than sense.” With his condemnation, he rose to leave.

Aloysius seized his second opportunity of the day. “Do you know a good place to rent a camcorder and tripod?”

Jacques beamed. “I can do better than that!”

Scene: The two men walked off campus to where the graduate student lived in a ramshackle trailer. The small tract of land around it was landscaped with spastic handfuls of potting soil. Ceramic geese marked its corners, while plastic petunias in small pots (still bearing price tags) dotted the property line.

On ducking through the doorway, the farraginous décor continued inside. The narrow enclosure was dark, dank, and possessed the unmistakable sickly sweet detergent smell of dried semen. An uncooperative fitted-sheet covered three-quarters of a thin mildewed mattress of Spartan economy. A splintery plywood board and cinderblocks supported this makeshift cot, while Kleenex-like crustaceans were sprinkled liberally over a pile of pornographic magazines underneath it.

Jacques was pulling together video equipment when he caught his guest eyeing his handiwork. He quipped, “That’s my origami collection.”

Aloysius smiled uncomfortably in lieu of a verbal response, and turned his attention to stacks of videocassettes against a warped wall. A corroded-over hot plate, also in need of elevation, was almost tripped over in spotting toothpaste spittle and strands of discarded dental floss among the clutter. The painter had known poverty, but never such hopelessness.

The tenant intruded on his thoughts. “This recorder makes a noise when it rewinds, so don’t be alarmed by it.”

The borrower accepted the caveat, and inquired, “Why don’t you use digital recorders for your work?”

Jacques’ defense was quick, and rehearsed. “For the same reason a painter brandishes a paint brush and not a computer mouse. Analog is purer.”

“What will you do when they stop making parts for VCRs?”

The host declaimed, “The Cubans have been making workable transportation out of obsolete automobiles for decades. When cockroaches inherit the Earth, they will barely notice. When the power grid goes down, and computers become doorstops, I will still be able to point to my heap of cassette boxes and count them off like venerable tree rings.”

The skeptical painter glanced around the room; none of the tapes were labeled.

Jacques slapped one cassette into the video camera. “You can record over this old one.”

Aloysius was handed the camcorder and a tripod, and was about to leave when the lender extended an invitation. “A professor is throwing a Halloween wingding tonight for the fine arts students. His house is near where you live. It would be a good chance for you to meet some of the locals. Interested?”

The retiring man normally stayed clear of such things, but seeing he was turning over a new leaf, and the fellow artist had helped him out, he was agreeable.

With everything tucked under his arms, Aloysius ducked out the door, determined not to let the squalid detour of the trailer detract from his good mood. He basked in the purgative sunlight until he reached the grove of his neighborhood, where he thought shadows caught up with him too soon. He searched each curiously in passing, and found one comprised entirely of black, studious crows in the spreading bower of a blue ash tree: none as much as cawed or fluttered, and having crossed under their unnerving gathering unmolested, he entered the Quadrangle.

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