Monday, August 11, 2008

Justin Isis - Residual Bourgeois Manners Were the Only Thing That Saved Me From Total Ruin

It was raining that morning, and still very dark. When the boy reached the streetcar café he had almost finished his route and he went in for a cup of coffee. The place was an all-night café owned by a bitter and stingy man called Wong. After the raw, empty street, the café seemed friendly and bright: along the counter there were a couple of actors, three spinners from the cotton mill, and in a corner a man who sat hunched over with his nose and half his face down in a beer mug. The boy wore a helmet such as aviators wear. When he went into the café he unbuckled the chin strap and raised the right flap up over his pink little ear; often as he drank his coffee someone would speak to him in a friendly way. But this morning Wong did not look into his face and none of the men were talking. He paid and was leaving the café when a voice called out to him:

"Son! Hey Son!"

He turned back and the man in the corner was crooking his finger and nodding to him. He had brought his face out of the beer mug and he seemed suddenly very happy. The man was long and pale, with a big nose and faded black hair.

"Hey Son!"

The boy went toward him. He was an undersized boy of about twelve, with one shoulder drawn higher than the other because of the weight of the paper sack. His face was shallow, freckled, and his eyes were round child eyes.

"Yeah Mister?"

The man laid one hand on the paper boy's shoulders, then grasped the boy's chin and turned his face slowly from one side to the other. The boy shrank back uneasily.

"Say! What's the big idea?"

The boy's voice was shrill; inside the café it was suddenly very quiet.

The man said slowly: "I can't stop thinking about vaginas."

All along the counter the men laughed. The boy, who had scowled and sidled away, did not know what to do. He looked over the counter at Wong, and Wong watched him with a weary, brittle jeer. The boy tried to laugh also. But the man was serious and sad.

"I did not mean to tease you, Son," he said. "Sit down and have a beer with me. There is something I have to explain."

Cautiously, out of the corner of his eye, the paper boy questioned the men along the counter to see what he should do. But they had gone back to their beer or their breakfast and did not notice him. Wong put a cup of coffee on the counter and a little jug of cream.

"He is a minor," Wong said.

The paper boy slid himself up onto the stool. His ear beneath the upturned flap of the helmet was very small and red. The man was nodding at him soberly. "It is important," he said. Then he reached in his hip pocket and brought out something which he held up in the palm of his hand for the boy to see.

"Look very carefully," he said.

The boy stared, but there was nothing to look at very carefully. The man held in his big, grimy palm a photograph. It was a desert landscape, and in the air, suspended by itself, was a soft pink vulva, its labial lips emitting a steady radiance.

"See?" the man asked.

The boy nodded and the man placed another picture in his palm. The vulva was floating above a beach now, and its glow seemed stronger, causing the picture to look overexposed.

"Got a good look?" He leaned over closer and finally asked: "You ever seen that before?"

The boy sat motionless, staring slantwise at the man. "Not so I know of."

"Very well." The man blew on the photographs and put them back into his pocket. "That was a vulva."

"Your wife's?" the boy asked.

Slowly the man shook his head. He pursed his lips as though about to whistle and answered in a long-drawn way: "Nuuu -" he said. "I will explain."

The beer on the counter before the man was in a large brown mug. He did not pick it up to drink. Instead he bent down and, putting his face over the rim, he rested there for a moment. Then with both hands he tilted the mug and sipped.

"Some night you'll go to sleep with your big nose in a mug and drown," said Wong. "Prominent transient drowns in beer. That would be a nice death."

The paper boy tried to signal to Wong. While the man was not looking he screwed up his face and worked his mouth to question soundlessly: "Drunk?" But Wong only raised his eyebrows and turned away to put some pink strips of bacon on the grill.

The man pushed the mug away from him, straightened himself, and folded his loose crooked hands on the counter. His face was sad as he looked at the paper boy. He did not blink, but from time to time the lids closed down with delicate gravity over his dark brown eyes. It was nearing dawn and the boy shifted the weight of the paper sack.

"I am talking about vaginas," the man said. "With me they are a science."

The boy half slid down from the stool. But the man raised his forefinger, and there was something about him that held the boy and would not let him go away.

"Twelve years ago, I was travelling in outer Mongolia. At that time I was a DJ at one of China's hottest nightclubs, but my life wasn't satisfying. I had everything you're supposed to want: money, women, influence. But it wasn't enough. Spiritually, I was empty. There was a hole, an absence in me, which craved God. Are you listening to me, Son? Without God, we are nothing. But at that time I knew nothing, only that something was wrong. So I retreated to the desert. For days I walked alone, wandering with no destination in mind, hoping that the universe would take care of me. As my supplies dwindled, I faced the sun and prayed to God for enlightenment. When I looked down again, a vulva was floating in the air above me, the same one you saw in the picture, emitting waves of calm. I asked it what was the meaning of my life. And then a voice sounded from within the labia. 'All time and space is slowly moving towards the Absolute,' the vulva told me, 'In the name of thrice-great Hermes, I proclaim the Aquarian Age...'"

The man paused.

"There is no time, every instant is proof of divinity. We are all parts of God - capillaries, perhaps. I realized that was what the vulva was trying to tell me."

He tightened his blurred, rambling voice and said:

"I took care of that vulva. I loved it. Yes...I loved it. I thought also that it loved me. It had all home comforts and luxuries. It never crept into my brain that it was not satisfied. But do you know what happened?"

"Mgneeow!" said Wong.

The man did not take his eyes from the boy's face. "The vulva disappeared. I came in one night and the house was empty and it was gone. It left me."

"With a fellow?" the boy asked.

Gently the man placed his palm down on the counter. "Why naturally, Son. A vulva does not vanish like that alone."

The café was quiet, the soft rain black and endless in the street outside. Wong pressed down the frying bacon with the prongs of his long fork. "So you have been chasing the vulva for eleven years. You frazzled old rascal!"

For the first time the man glanced at Wong. "Please don't be vulgar. Besides, I was not speaking to you." He turned back to the boy and said in a trusting and secretive undertone: "Let's not pay any attention to him. O.K.?"

The paper boy nodded doubtfully.

"It was like this," the man continued. "I am a person who feels many things. All my life one thing after another has impressed me. Moonlight. Sausages. The leg of a pretty girl. One thing after another. But the point is that when I had enjoyed anything there was a peculiar sensation as though it was laying around loose in me. Nothing seemed to finish itself up or fit in with the other things. Women? I had my portion of them. The same. Afterwards laying around loose in me. I was a man who had never loved."

Very slowly he closed his eyelids, and the gesture was like a curtain drawn at the end of a scene in a play. When he spoke again his voice was excited and the words came fast - the lobes of his large, loose ears seemed to tremble.

"Then I found the vulva. And you know what it was like? I just can't tell you. All I had ever felt was gathered together around this vulva. Nothing lay around loose in me any more but was finished up by it, by the vaginal canal."

The man stopped suddenly and stroked his long nose. His voice sank down to a steady and reproachful under-tone: "I'm not explaining this right. What happened was this. There were these beautiful feelings and loose little pleasures inside me. And this vagina was something like an assembly line for my soul. I run these little pieces of myself through it and I come out complete. Now do you follow me?"

"Did you try to make it come back?"

The man did not seem to hear. "Under the circumstances you can imagine how I felt when it left me."

Wong took the bacon from the grill and folded two strips of it between a bun. He had a gray face with a pinched nose saddled by faint blue shadows. One of the mill workers signaled for more coffee and Wong poured it. He did not give refills on coffee free. The spinner ate breakfast there every morning, but the better Wong knew his customers the stingier he treated them. He nibbled his own bun as though he grudged it to himself.

"And you never got hold of it again?"

The boy did not know what to think of the man, and his child's face was uncertain with mingled curiosity and doubt. He was new on the paper route; it was still strange to him to be out in the town in the black, queer early morning.

"Yes," the man said. "I took a number of steps to get it back. I went around trying to locate it. I went back to outer Mongolia. I went to every province it had ever mentioned to me, and I hunted down every man it had formerly been connected with. Sichuan, Shanxi, Hunan, Gansu, Fujian.. .. For the better part of two years I chased around the country trying to lay hold of it."

"But the vulva had vanished from the face of the earth!" said Wong.

"Don't listen to him," the man said confidentially. "And also just forget those two years. They are not important. What matters is that around the third year a curious thing begun to happen to me."

"What?" the boy asked.

The man leaned down and tilted his mug to take a sip of beer. But as he hovered over the mug his nostrils fluttered slightly; he sniffed the staleness of the beer and did not drink. "Love is a curious thing to begin with. At first I thought only of getting the vulva back. It was a kind of mania. But then as time went on I tried to remember it. But do you know what happened?"

"No," the boy said.

"When I laid myself down on a bed and tried to think about the vulva, my mind became a blank. I couldn't see it. I would take out its pictures and look. No good. Nothing doing. A blank. Can you imagine it?"

"Say Mac!" Wong called down the counter. "Can you imagine this bozo's mind a blank!"

Slowly, as though fanning away flies, the man waved his hand. His brown eyes were concentrated and fixed on the shallow little face of the paper boy.

"But a sudden piece of glass on a sidewalk. Or a nickel tune in a music box. A shadow on a wall at night. And I would remember. It might happen in a street and I would cry or bang my head against a lamppost. You follow me?"

"A piece of glass . . ." the boy said.

"Anything. I would walk around and I had no power of how and when to remember the vulva. You think you can put up a kind of shield. But remembering don't come to a man face forward - it corners around sideways. I was at the mercy of everything I saw and heard. Suddenly instead of me combing the countryside to find it, it begun to chase me around in my very soul. The vulva begun chasing me mind you! And in my soul."

The boy asked finally: "What part of the country were you in then?"

"Shanxi," the man groaned. "I was a sick mortal. It was like smallpox. I confess, Son, that I boozed. I fornicated. I committed any sin that suddenly appealed to me. I am loath to confess it but I will do so. When I recall that period it is all curdled in my mind, it was so terrible."

The man leaned his head down and tapped his forehead on the counter. For a few seconds he stayed bowed over in this position, his hands with their long warped fingers held palm to palm in an attitude of prayer. Then the man straightened himself; he was smiling and suddenly his face was bright and tremulous and old.

"It was in the fifth year that it happened," he said. "And with it I started my science."

Wong's mouth jerked with a pale, quick grin. "Well none of we boys are getting any younger," he said. Then with sudden anger he balled up a dishcloth he was holding and threw it down hard on the floor. "You draggletailed old Romeo!"

"What happened?" the boy asked.

The old man's voice was high and clear: "Peace," he answered.


"It is hard to explain scientifically, Son," he said. "I guess the logical explanation is that I had chased the vulva for so long that finally I just lay down and quit. Peace. A queer and beautiful blankness. It was spring in Sichuan and the rain came every afternoon. All evening I just stayed there on my bed in the dark. And that is how the science come to me."

The windows in the streetcar were pale blue with light. The two actors paid for their beers and opened the door - one of the actors combed his hair and wiped off his muddy puttees before they went outside. The three mill workers bent silently over their breakfasts. Wong's clock was ticking on the wall.

"It is this. And listen carefully. I meditated on love and reasoned it out. I realized what is wrong with us. Men fall in love for the first time. And what do they fall in love with?"

The boy's soft mouth was partly open and he did not answer.

"Vaginas," the old man said. "Without science, with nothing to go by, they undertake the most dangerous and sacred experience in God's earth. They can't stop thinking about vaginas. Is that correct, Son?"

"Yeah," the boy said faintly.

"They start at the wrong end of love. They begin at the climax. Can you wonder it is so miserable? Do you know how men should love?"

The old man reached over and grasped the boy by the collar of his leather jacket. He gave him a gentle little shake and his brown eyes gazed down unblinking and grave.

"Son, do you know how love should be begun?"

The boy sat small and listening and still. Slowly he shook his head. The old man leaned closer and whispered:

"Vaginas. Vaginas. Vaginas."

It was still raining outside in the street: a mild, gray, endless rain. The mill whistle blew for the six o'clock shift and the three spinners paid and went away. There was no one in the café but Wong, the old man, and the little paper boy.

"The weather was like this in Sichuan," he said. "At the time my science was begun. I meditated and I started very cautious. I would pick up something from the street and take it home with me. I bought a foam rubber vagina and I concentrated on the foam rubber vagina and I loved it. I graduated from one thing to another. Day by day I was getting this technique. On the road from Sichuan to Fujian-"

"Aw shut up!" screamed Wong suddenly. "Shut up! Shut up!"

The old man still held the collar of the boy's jacket; he was trembling and his face was earnest and bright and wild. "For six years now I have gone around by myself and built up my science. And now I am a master. Son. I can't stop thinking about vaginas. No longer do I have to think about it even. I see a street full of people and a beautiful light comes in me. I watch a bird in the sky. Or I meet a traveler on the road. Everything, Son. And anybody. Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?"

The boy held himself stiffly, his hands curled tight around the counter edge. Finally he asked: "Did you ever really find that vulva?"

"What? What say, Son?"

"I mean," the boy asked timidly. "Did you make your peace with God?"

The old man loosened his grasp on the boy's collar. He turned away and for the first time his brown eyes had a vague and scattered look. He lifted the mug from the counter, drank down the yellow beer. His head was shaking slowly from side to side. Then finally he answered: "No, Son. You see that is the last step in my science. I go cautious. And I am not quite ready yet."

"Well!" said Wong. "Well well well!"

The old man stood in the open doorway. "Remember," he said. Framed there in the gray damp light of the early morning he looked shrunken and seedy and frail. But his smile was bright. "Remember the vulva," he said with a last nod. And the door closed quietly behind him.

The boy did not speak for a long time. He pulled down the bangs on his forehead and slid his grimy little forefinger around the rim of his empty cup. Then without looking at Wong he finally asked:

"Was he drunk?"

"No," said Wong shortly.

The boy raised his clear voice higher. "Then was he a dope fiend?"


The boy looked up at Wong, and his flat little face was desperate, his voice urgent and shrill. "Was he crazy? Do you think he was a lunatic?" The paper boy's voice dropped suddenly with doubt. "Wong? Or not?"

But Wong would not answer him. Wong had run a night café for fourteen years, and he held himself to be a critic of craziness. There were the town characters and also the transients who roamed in from the night. He knew the manias of all of them. But he did not want to satisfy the questions of the waiting child. He tightened his pale face and was silent.