The following is a documentation of correspondence between myself and my good friend Iqbal, who is currently out of the country. To begin at the beginning is advisable, but unnecessary, as the nature of our conversation is, by all accounts, deeply universal and fundamentally relatable.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Quick

Dearest Iqbal-

I wandered around the square. It seemed like something to do. I had already dusted my venetian blinds, and then dusted the tops of my books (amazing how much accumulates on unread volumes). I set out in my best shirt, sunday shirt as my parents might say, and strolled. I initially fell into my gate of choice: brisk, deliberate, and most of all, angular. Each step meaning something. But I realized how inappropriate this was. The goal of my jaunt was not only unclear, but it really didn't exist. To walk briskly would not only make it less pleasant, but it would make clear to me my own day's emptiness all the sooner. The hope was that if I did enough of nothing and went through the motions of enjoying it, then I'd be able to convince myself that I did something. 

The day was unseasonably warm and I was glad that I'd rejected the blazer, though it did match my Sunday shirt quite finely. I took my time around the square, stepping lazily and occasionally varying my direction so to clarify to all around me that I had no where peculiar to go. "There goes that man, just enjoying his day. It might as well be Sunday for him." It was in fact Tuesday. 

This was the second day the venetian blinds were cleaned. Yesterday was Monday; the first day that the newspaper that had employed me was no longer printing. There was talk of a spin off magazine or shifting the paper's weight to the internet, but no one had the organizational skill or the impetuous or the capital, so it was quietly snuffed out. An announcement ran one week before the final paper, and then on the final paper. 

I hadn't really been a great journalist, or much of one at all. A cousin was an editor of sorts, his name slept soundly on the mast and it was hard to not promote me. Up from stock boy and mail-room paper-cut receiver and assistant to anyone and everyone. They eventually gave me a column. I was instructed to keep it light, keep it local, and keep it legible. I proceeded. I wrote about Christmas parties, and coming out parties (well, we didn't really have those, this not being Dixie at all, but god damn we could pretend like the best of them), fundraisers, parades, school plays, the tearing down of old movie houses, the shooting of movies, the charm of the architecture on M____ Street, the death of certain matriarchs, and my personal reflections on the air in town. The closest I ever came to any hard journalism was an ironic expose on the decrepitude of some of the historical buildings. On a tour, I once noticed decaying electrical systems and rotted water heaters. While the piece's heart was serious, it was written in the tone of a comical rebuke. "A house, like a man, should be judged by his upstairs and his downstairs, by his front windows and his basement floor." 

I had written other things that went unpublished. Some serious "journalism," several volumes of diary, a number of short stories (which I submitted to my very paper under the nom de plume "Gerome Calhoun"), and the better part of a worser novel. All these scribbling filled my attic, boxes and boxes, but never filled a single page of mass printed paper. They existed soley and quietly on reams of paper filled with the close and precise type of my trusted typewriter, which I always wrote on.

I had few misgivings. I was published! On a weekly basis. In quite a handsome paper, in quite a handsome column. Just because it was no longer in print, doesn't mean it no longer mattered. Those papers existed in archives and on microfilm, and in a small box kept in my attic. I was proud.  And now I no longer needed to think on paper. I could enjoy the walk around the square without letting my mind wander and devise ways in which the minutest of sensations or reflections could be expanded in a column. 

The sun came out. I giggled (all to myself). "Sunlight on a broken column." That's what it is! I should have squeezed that into my last entry. Oh I could have. Too late now.

I sat down on a bench in the shade. Across from me was a sleeping man, perhaps 25, laid out on a bench. At least I thought he was sleeping, his dark sunglasses obscured his eyes. He stirred and sat up, and took out a notebook from his inner pocket. He read what was previously written and began to write. With a pencil. 

A pencil is in poor form, I thought to myself, but at least he is writing. So few today. I lifted my hat and he smiled, removing his glasses. 

"Lovely day," I said.

"Yes, it is," he responded warmly.

"I couldn't help but notice. What are you writing?"

"Oh, it's a draft of a letter. My father and I write back and fourth once or twice a month. Long letters. He lives in Bombay. Expatriate you might say. We've found that letters are much more personal and interesting than bad telephone connections or email." 

"Indeed! It must be very satisfying. And to have them all. A solid record of a correspondence."


"In what form do you usually send the letters? Pen? Handwritten?"

"I have tried a number. His always comes in handwriting. It's always so legible and clean, but very personal. I can see him laying in bed composing."

"Very nice. The physical artifact; lovely."

"But mine, mostly hand written. I've never been a fan of my handwriting. It looks childish, especially compared to his. I've printed out some at the library, like typed on a computer and then printed. That always feels wrong though."


A thought flashed across my mind. An author retiring (me) passing along an instrument of writing to an author young (him). I certainly wouldn't need it anymore. My life was quieting, was slowing. I checked my watch. I had been out for 45 minutes, long enough for it to be substantial. I made the option known:

"Have you ever considered writing on a typewriter?"

His eyes focused then glazed, then focused again.


"They are in many ways ideal. They retain the physical element of a handwritten note, the crinkles in the paper made when you feed it in, and the specific idiosyncrasies of the typewriter, broken serifs, letters that don't mark as hard, etc., but is still easy on the the eye to read."


"I have one, you know. One that is of no use to me anymore."

"Really? Why don't you want it?"

"Well, I'm a writer too, but retired. Maybe I was a writer. You're welcome to it. It's not electric or anything like that, but in perfect working condition. And I've got plenty of ribbon left for her."

"Well, are you sure?"

"Nonsense. It'd please me to pass it off. It'll be good to know that it's still getting use. In my old home it will gather dust, not putting a sentence to paper."

"Well, sure than."

We stood up, setting off at a healthy gate towards my home. Destination made my steps meaningful and idle conversation filled the air. I could tell he was legitimately excited to get the instrument, and I'd get it off my hands. One more thing taking up space in my old age would be gone. 

I turned the corner to my home, pointing it out to my companion. As I pulled the keys out of my pocket and reached for the door there was a strange surge in my body.

The windows, on all floors, smashed, the glass flying out. The door was blown off it's hinges, flying towards me. Flames erupted from every orifice. The roof of the house lifted noiselessly up into the air, levitating 15 feet above the house before a loud "boom" was heard and all began to fall. I was vomited back from the front door many yards. I landed with my front door beside me. I quickly covered my head as debris began to fall. A toilet, a desk drawer, spoons and knives, rained down. Inches from me landed the typewriter. It collapsed into tiny pieces. And then the burning rain. I looked up, all through the air were pieces of singed paper, some still aflame. Hundreds of them. As they landed all around me I realized they were all typewritten. All my work.

We made eye-contact. My companion seemed fine.  "The boiler must have blown, lucky it didn't happen seconds later. We're alive!"

"Indeed we are," I said. "Indeed we are."

-Robert de Saint-Loup

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Dearest Iqbal-

The weather has finally broken. It rained heavily for a number of days, soaked the concrete and in a few select places forced earth worms to rise from the muck and die on the street. Though beneath the city is dirt, dirt everywhere, it may as well be miles away. Think of the thousands of worms that rise up when the ground floods only to bump their soft heads against the underside of 6th Avenue. An inauspicious end.

Not long ago I was walking on Jane St. and before me was a construction team. They had cut a perfectly square hole out of the ground, lifted the asphalt and revealed the wet dirt beneath. I was revolted and felt the urge to vomit and looked away. Like the impact of seeing someone you love on an operating table, their generic entrails turning black in the air, the physical sensation of wrongness is overwhelming.

Elizabeth Edwards has told Oprah that when her husband confessed to being physically intimate with another woman she vomited. The bodies insistence on purging itself is quaint. It works with alcohol and putrid food, and it's funny to think that the same technique will get the truth out of us. I'm sure it helps. To see floating in the toilet before you a mess of matter, and to know that that was in you when you found out the wrongness and that now it is no longer in you: That's a start.

I was standing on line getting coffee yesterday. A girl with a shock of red hair was in front of me talking on her telephone. As she was hanging up, she made a pun to which I laughed and found myself, without a word, in a conversation with her. I asked her if she made it up.

She shrugged. "When you're a faith healer with sock puppets for the kids a little jive is required."

There we were, in a muggy, cramped coffee shop and she had the strength to reach out across oceans and time and pluck those silly nouns which seems so far away. I laughed. And wondered, can one have a shock of red hair or only white? I was shocked.

It reminded me of a story that I may well have told you. If so, stop here. Myself and another character were traveling through the backwoods of upstate New York, looking for a state park to burry Iroquois arrows we had purchased at a museum gift shop (we do enjoy this sort of archeological jest). It was late at night, miles and miles passing between junctions, and we were quite hungry. Against our judgement we stopped into a McDonalds. We were however, not the only ones there. Perhaps 10 or 12 ate at 3 adjacent tables. In the center of this group was a large, deformed woman in a shapeless dress. Her eyes were colorless and her forehead wide and her hair pulled back. Surrounding her were her children. The were all dressed like her: big dresses, white shirts for the boys. Some of the older girls gleefully nannied an infant while the older boys sat in silence. The way they interacted with each other as if in a bubble, not even seeking out our eyes or noticing my stares.

My first thought, based on their appearance, was that this was a minor religious sect, perhaps Mennonite, maybe matriarchal, likely inbred. But among them was one anomaly.

She sat at the edge, perhaps 12 years old, socializing with two other girls her own age. She was wearing a flowery print dress and a fleece pull-over. Her hair was bright red. In this sea of colorless, mottled skin and dun hair was her, her appearance was screaming and wailing. She noticed me, or I should say she noticed me noticing her. She was different in every way she possibly could be. Did she know?

My mind began immediately forming narratives of how she got there: she met one of the sisters in a school play and has become part of the family, though she obviously doesn't share their beliefs. She lives near them, and because there are no (normal) little girls for her to play with she and her parents have shrugged their shoulders and allowed her to socialize with Mennonites.

Either way, the mother stood up and without a word all the children began to finish up. They walked as a body outside and got into two unmatching vans, one being driven by the mother, the other by one of the elder sons. I'd like to think the red headed girl looked back, but I doubt it. I didn't think she needed saving or rescue or anything as dramatic as that. Maybe just recognition.

One more story I will bore you with. This one brief. I was walking down Jane St again (the hole long having been filled in). I was walking behind a girl, again red headed, who could have easily been the same girl I saw in the McDonalds, at least from behind. Flowers have been planed around all the trees on Jane St. and she knelt down to smell one. She inhaled, twice, then reached out her hand and felt the flower. From the way it moved in her hand I could make the discovery with her: plastic. She laughed in the flower's face and walked on.

It is bizarre, Iqbal. Everywhere I turn I am faced with the one open eye of a sleeping man.

-Robert de Saint-Loup

Monday, May 4, 2009


Dearest Iqbal-

Poor bloke, eh:

Arthur was still responsible for the tulips. As he aged and became less and less able to fulfill his horticultural responsibilities there was a mild debate over whether to maintain him out of respect or simply remove him -- maybe rename a square of the garden after him or dedicate a bench to his honor. His assistants and groundkeepers-- really no more than manual laborers-- were being forced to take on truer and truer responsibilities, make decisions about when to hem the begonias and whether last years lilacs overshadowed everything around them to an unacceptable degree. It is a testament to the warmth and generosity that emanated from Arthur that no one complained about the picking up of his slack and there was no sudden degradation of the quality of the grounds-- at least none that was voiced.  Maybe the elders who'd been visiting the castle gardens for years may be experienced a pang of disappointment when faced with the variety and composure of this years flora, but that could have been easily dismissed as the gilding of memory that occurs when the senses becomes less distinct.

So a compromise was struck. A new, younger groundskeeper was brought in to take care of general management and the executive decisions while Arthur would remain solely responsible for tulips. This was ideal: the tulips were his favorite, are one of the greatest draws of the castle garden, and really needed tending only in the fall and spring-- times when the temperature was temperate and less likely to tire frail Arthur.

He now lived full time in a cottage south of the castle grounds. By bicycle he was 25 minutes to his tulips and 35 minutes to a railroad station that would happily see him to London, if he ever desired to go. On weekends his daughters (alternating) would come to visit him; both were childless, but in no way a disappointment to him. Shira and Lisa. They were disturbingly like their late mother, as if the marriage had been morganatically arranged, unbeknownst to Arthur, but this did not bother him. While a lesser man may have resented it, Arthur took comfort in it. As soon as his wife's grey eyes closed, succumbing to breast cancer quite young, Arthur looked up and saw those very same grey eyes ensconced firmly and healthily in his daughters' faces. He would tell friends that his wife hardly seemed absent at all and they would marvel at the intense spiritual connection that love had birthed between man and late wife, but Arthur silently wondered if that connection wasn't more from simply seeing his wife's eyes, and hearing her voice and witnessing her gait on a weekly basis. These women-- they came before him (his wife being quite a bit older) and would be there after him.

And really, Arthur was content. He sipped his tea, he read his Rudyard Kipling, and kept up to date on the latest horticultural trends and theories.

As a certain Spring friday rolled upon Arthur, he found himself-- as he often did on Friday-- home early. He put some water on the stove and took from the fridge and once used tea bag (twice was his limit). As the water was beginning to dance in the pot and his mind was struggling to recall what was going to be on television this evening, the telephone rang. Arthur turned off the stove and crossed the kitchen to answer the ringing. Before getting there he knew it must be Shira calling; it was her weekend to come and visit. 

"Dad, I know it's my weekend to come and visit, but me and a couple girlfriends were going to head up to a music festival outside of Kent. Ya know, Dad?"  

He was only Dad when she was trying to be "straight" with him; trying to momentarily step out of the mild infantilization she had imposed. He of course understood. 

"Maybe Lisa's got nothing on her plate this weekend. She can come again," questioned Shira.

"Oh no. No need, course not. There's some stuff to do around the house. Don't you worry a bit."   Arthur proceeded to re-boil the water.

The next morning he awoke bright and early and ready for the day, but with nothing at all to do, no plans, or prospects for them. He considered calling Lisa; maybe indeed she had nothing on her plate, but scratched that idea not wanting to be more of a burden. He stepped out and walked the grounds of the cottage. Not a thing to do.

"Ah well. Let's go to town," Arthur declaimed aloud. He hadn't been to London in years; since Shira and Lisa had taken him to see The Sound of Music. He scrambled to pick a hat and get some cash out of the jar. Because he hadn't a clue about the train schedule the only option seemed to be to rush so as not to just miss a train. 

He mounted his bicycle and peddled quickly, but not too hard, not wishing to arrive in the city tired, windy, and sweaty, but luckily it was a breezy, cool day; perfect for a trip. As the road he was traveling on merged and began to run parallel to the railroad tracks, Arthur would occasionally look over his shoulder, hoping not to see a train coming, for if he saw it here he'd miss it there. But when he arrived he had a full 20 minutes to deposit his bicycle and purchase a newspaper. 

He hadn't read a paper or bothered with the news over the radio in while and decided it best to reacquaint himself with the issues of the day so that he could be an active participant in any conversation he may find himself in. Before long the train came, and Arthur settled into a 2nd class seat and quickly dozed. He awoke to a young man sitting across from him with a computer on his lap. The computer was white and shiny with the emblem of an apple on it.

"My daughter Shira, she has one just like that," Arthur said, gesturing to the computer. 

"Does she?" the man responded, quickly returning his eyes to the screen.

Arthur peered out the window. The buildings were getting taller and greyer and closer to one another. Getting close, thought Arthur. He thumbed his wallet to be sure it was secure and prepared himself for arrival. 

Out in the street and with a sly smile, Arthur was struck dumb. He quickly and self-consciously fell into the rhythm of t he city: broad and sweeping and busy. "The financial capital of the world," Arthur mumbled to himself. 

He considered getting on the tube, but with no destination and having forgotten how exactly they worked, decided that walking was just fine. 

I'm glad Shira couldn't make it this weekend. It's good for me to get out. Nice change o' pace. I hope she's having a swell time with her girlfriends. Girlfriends? Just girlfriends? Maybe some boyfriends too, but she wouldn't tell her old Daddy that, would she? though Arthur. 

He made his way to the Queens walk, getting a sandwich and cold milk  along the way. The sun was already pretty far to west and Arthur's only regret was not having come earlier. Had he made an earlier train there'd have been time for a picture or two. 

He passed a pub and smirkily slid in. He found himself a stool and ordered a pint. The room was filled with mostly men-- of all drinking ages. Their eyes were occasionally transfixed on teh television screen. Leeds was playing Edinburgh. It had been a while since he had followed football, but the game was simple and when a goal was scored and the goalie's face buried in mud Arthur made a grimace (careful to make it a groan of empathy and not sympathy, for he didn't know which team he should be hoping for). 

The game raged on and one and he slowly sipped his beer. When a commercial came over the television advertising for the music festival that Shira was at, Arthur turned to the man next to him, "My daughter is there. Do hope she's having a good time." The man nodded, and when the game came back on, Arthur attempted a conversation: "Quite a game, eh? Must be hard with the mud so wet."

"Yes- but it makes it hard for both teams. No advantage. Really it's the same game, with or without the mud."

"I bet the team laundry women wouldn't say so!" guffawed Arthur. The other man did not. "Mind watching my drink ? Gotta run to the bathroom." The man nodded.

Loud and echoey and covered in nasty writing, Arthur closed his eyes and didn't bother washing his hands. Out in the bar, his drink was untouched but the man didn't look up when Arthur thanked him.

Lifting the mug, still a third full, Arthur made a sweep around the bar, finally settling on a brood of dart players. He didn't know if they came together or knew each other beforehand but decided it didn't make a difference. He engaged them in the most impersonal of small talk, lifting his drink when an excellent toss was made and giving mild words of encouragment when someone didn't do their best. The players seemed to accept Arthur, but the game ended they traveled on together, hardly saying a "good bye" to Arthur. 

Our man settled onto a stool beneath the dart board and worked on the frothy bottom of his now warm beer. Despite it all, he was quite content.

Then a woman walked up.

"Hello there." 

"Hello, how are you?" asked Arthur. They began to chat. The woman's name was Henrietta, a widow who lived not too far away, and was perhaps a few years his junior. They migrated over to the bar and Arthur happily ordered them both new pints. Apparently she'd been a secratary, and her husband a middling official in the Thatcher administration who'd died a number of years ago of a heart attack. She lived quite happily off his pension, spending time with her daughters, reading Rudyard Kipling, and sipping beer. They proceeded to order fish and chips to dilute the third pint they were both having.

Time was slipping away and when Arthur checked his watched he announced that he must be off to the railroad station. Henrietta put he hand on his and implore him not to go. She insisted that he accompany her back to her apartment; she had a bottle of excellent Sherry that hadn't been touched since her husband passed.

Arthur assented. The flat was clean and tasteful and the Sherry was perfect: not too dry, but not mawkishly sweet either. Henrietta made the first move, but Arthur quickly followed it up with a deeper kiss and a tighter embrace. Despite the beer and Sherry he felt perfectly clear headed and was surprised at how adeptly he still knew to hand a woman's body and how genuinely responsive it was to his touch. They were both assured; past the age when a lack of confidence has any bearing on the nature of action. 

Once in the bedroom, however, Arthur did begin to worry. It had been years since he had had sex, and while he never had trouble before he was certainly not a a young man. And while he had grown grey and sagging his ideal of beauty had not. Would this widow's nudity shock him? He supposed he could call it off, or slow it down, bring it to a halt, maybe even without offending her. But no moment presented himself, which is to say that he was enjoying each moment more than the last and didn't want to stop. 

When the time came, all went well, and while her breasts were more formless than the one's that one sees in one's mind and her legs less defined, the intention and desire embodied by her body was more than enough to arouse him. He handled himself quite well and they both slept soundly and satisfiedly. He awoke to the murmur of cars below and to light streaming in the window. Henrietta made coffee and eggs, and they exchanged telephone numbers and mailing addresses. 

On the train ride home, Arthur was quite happy and contented with himself. He had affirmed that he was alive and could bring that knowledge back with him to his cottage and his tulips. And he did.

But a few days later he noticed for the first time a burning sensation, and in the mornings he'd encounter a mild drip that would accumulate putridly in this pajama pants. He decided to ignore it; "a mild infection, will clear itself up soon." But it did not. And when Shira came that next weekend, he was racked with fear and pain. She sensed it immediately and demanded to know what the matter was.

At first he lied: "Oh nothing- whatever do you mean?" But after going to the bathroom and experiencing a burning more intense than previous and a certain reddened swelling at the tip of his penis he came out dejected. "Please: will you take me to the hospital."

"Why, Daddy?" Shira leapt up. "What is the matter?"

"Nothing major. Just please, drive me to the hospital."

"If it's nothing major than why not Dr. Miniver. He's around the corner, the hospital is a good 35 minutes by car."

"No. The hospital please."

"Daddy, this is absurd. Tell me right away what the problem is."

Arthur did. He expected a moment of shocked silence, but there was none.

"How could you Daddy? How disgusting! How shameful! I cannot believe this. What would Mother say?"

She glared down at him with anger.

Meekly, "Now do you see why we cannot go to Dr. Mininver? If we went to him everyone--"

"Get your hat! Let's go." 

Arthur was too shocked and stoned for tears to come to this eyes. He took down a hat and pulled it low over his brow and locked the door on the way out of his cottage.

-Robert de Saint-Loup

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Dearest Iqbal-

Early this morning, the Girl from São Paulo (you will remember her well), sent me a piece of writing she'd been working on the previous night. At first I was shocked. I understood none of it! Her writing was so brilliant that I gleamed no meaning at all from it. Here it is... 


o primeiro café do dia e o amor às segundas-feiras: único sinal de que mais uma noite se foi, que mais sete dias se passaram.
ele sempre falava sobre o que ela pensava, mas não ousava dizer. era um ritual realizado uma vez por semana para provar que sim, sincronia, sim, eu conheço o fundo, ela diz.
recorrência demais não cabe na diagramação, nem deus. até aí deus não cabe em lugar algum, na verdade coisa alguma cabe direito em palavras. ela diz: eu também não, mas continuo insistindo. ele insiste menos, mas se recusa a desistir.

naquela manhã não houve cama capaz de aquietar angústias. era o pó, a claridade, solidão demais estampada no papel. o amor então abraçou bem de leve, dando a falsa impressão de casualidade, e partiu.

na semana seguinte ele retornaria, pontualmente. eles podiam pecar por excesso, por ausência, por orgulho. mas ele era constante. e, por ser espelho dela, a tornava constante também, num excercício diário de esperar.
mas só às segundas-feiras."

Quite elegant, no?

In any such case, she lovingly explained that it was in face in Portuguese and was generous and lovely enough to provide a translation...


the first coffee of the day and love at mondays: the sole sign another night was gone, another seven days had passed.
he always talked about what she thought, but didn't dare to say. it was a ritual performed once a week, to prove that yes, synchrony, yes, i know the bottom.

the excess of recurrence does not fit the diagram, nor does god. but then god doesn't fit anywhere, no thing can suit words properly. she says: neither can i, but i insist. he is less insistent, yet he refuses to give up.

on that morning there was no bed capable of calming down their anguish. it was the dust, the clarity, the loneliness printed on paper. then love embraced her lightly, giving the false impression of casualness, and left.

in the following week he would punctually return. they could sin for being indulgent, absent, proud, but he was constant. and, as her mirror, he brought her constance, in the shape of a daily waiting.
it only happened at mondays."

Many thanks to the girl in São Paulo.

-Robert de Saint-Loup

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Navigating the Zoo

Dearest Iqbal-

I was lost for a while in the zoo yesterday. I always have trouble orienting the map, fixing the miniature to the scale version in any meaningful way. The best I can hope for is some kind of point to point navigation. I can see that the monkey cage is adjacent to the tiger dens, and here are the monkeys, and that looks like a tiger, so I should go this way. And beside the tigers is the aquarium, so that must be it! I end up hopping from station to station, up and down the food chain, one caged beast at a time, but never quite knowing where I am.

In front of the monkey's I'm a little despondent. It's a tiny cage. The size of maybe a Grammercy studio, but the ceilings aren't as high. The monkeys seems perpetually anxious. Wouldn't you? They managed to evolve up onto two legs and they can peal their own bananas, but the lazy lions, Darwinistically static for millenia and for t most of those millenia, asleep get a lawn to lounge on. Oh for the quiet of that! They can even hear the breeze through their main.

Next to the monkeys was, as I said, the tiger den. The tigers are behind two layers of bars. The first to keep them in, the second is to keep the watchers far enough back from the first barthat they can't foolishly reach their arms in and have them ripped off. The tiger seems to sense the irony. People want to put their hands in, for the thrill and to find out how fine their fur of a killer is, and the tiger knows this. He's probably confused: "In the wild, they don't want to be fleshed, but I chase them down and kill them anyway. Here they'd love to be ripped, but the architecture won't let them."

Next to the tigers was an enclosed aquarium. I walked through a stone portico, past which everything seemed suddenly cooler. Light shined through plastic blue filters that stained the walls. It entered into a large oval room lined with different fish tanks and a pool in the middle. Some tanks held fresh water, made to simulate the muck beneath a rice patty, others coral reefs, and still others darkened like the bottom of the ocean.

I enjoyed the darkness and made my way around the oval, making eye contact with fishes as I went. They seemed entirely content and so was I. In this room I could see everything and there was no way to get lost and no need for a map.

I made two revolutions around the oval before bumping into a man making opposite revolutions. He was well dressed and grey around the temples with the comfortable air of a man who knows most of his life is happily behind him. We both apologized and continued on our way, me going clockwise and he counter. I marveled at the coral reefs, full of iridescent color. I put my hands on the glass which was warm, like the Caribbean.

I wandered to the center where a shallow pool of dark water was brimming with skates and rays. I put my hands in the water and closed my eyes. I felt the velvety flesh slide under my palms. They were playful and prodding and the cool water felt pleasant.

"The puppies of the sea, no?"

My eyes opened and I saw the man whom I'd bumped into. "Yes, very social."

"Friendly! Positively happy to see you!" And he was correct: a ray nearly jumped out of the water and flapped his wing at the man.

"Gerome Calhoun. Pleasure to meet you. Don't worry, mine's wet too."

We shook wet hands.

Into the light we stepped together. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust allowing me to get a decent idea of what Mr. Gerome Calhoun looked like. He was older than his voice and handshake would lead one to believe. By the look of him only, a cane wouldn't have been out of order.

I produced from my back pocket the map. He snatched it from my hands and quickly deposited it in a garbage pail.

"No need of that nonsense now. I know my way around the zoo."

Indeed he did. I followed him to the finest position in which to view the birds of paradise, impressive they were and where one can peer over a fence to see the hippotami sunning themselves, letting it all hang out believing themselves to be in a place quite private.

And he also knew the position of the snow cone man who used the most sugary syprup on his cones, assuring me that to end one's refreshment with a patch of bland ice can leave a bad taste all day in someone's mouth.

At last he said, "Before you go, I think there is one more think I should like to show you. It is something of secret, not by dint of being hidden but simply by dint of few caring. He led; I followed.

A angular, black building looked ahead. The sign read "Reptiles." Inside the building the air was cool and still, yellow lights shined from inside glass enclosures. I was mesmerized. Vipers, cobras in repose, constrictors relaxing. My pace slowed and jaw slacked. I'd never found this place before, and likely for good that was. I didn't know what to think, like I did about monkeys or tigers. And I was glad I wasn't there alone, for I might have become frightened and frozen in place.

"Come on! The day is late as it is," said Gerome in a raspish whisper.

"Late? It's always dark in here. Is it ever different?" I too whispered, no wanting to alert the serpents to my presence.

"Yes, I believe at night they dim the lights significantly allowing only a glimmer in each cage."

I followed him back, past cages and cages. In some, despite the sign before it specifying the species, I could not even discern the snake. Farther and farther back. The air seemed stiller and we were no longer surrounded by animals of any sort.

"Are we supposed to be here?"

"It is not proscribed, though perhaps not advertised," responded Gerome, quietly. Up ahead, I saw the reflection of a green, glowing light. We turned a corner. Before us was a long wooden bench before a huge glass cage. Unlike the others, there was no foliage or dripping water; no attempt at natural semblance. Lying in the cage was a snake of grotesque propotions. Flat out, a it was, it was perhaps the length of two rather tall men. But it's length, while huge, was unnoticed compared to it's girth. It was gorged, and swollen, only coming to a point at the head and tail. It's eyes followed us though the body did not stir. It seemed far too large for any but the most necessary motion, and even then that result was in doubt.

"Impressive? Shocking, no?"

It was indeed, but I was too taken to possibly respond.

"How about just 'magnificent'?"

"Yes, perhaps," I muttered.

"Delilah is of West African descent. She of course shouldn't..."

"Delilah? Are all the snakes named?"

"Well, no. And you'd be hard pressed to find her name recorded anywhere. But I've been coming here to see her so long that the handlers saw it fair that I do so. They all refer to her as such. Like I was saying, she shouldn't be this size. This is the result of gross over-feeding and captivity induced lethargy-- mostly during the mid-1990s when she was first brought here. I've seen pictures from before then and you wouldn't recognize her."

No doubt the circumference of her stomach at it's center exceeded her length, and it was barely possible to perceive of any motion in her breathe.

"At first she hunted. Live game was presented and she happily finished them. But she's become lazy. So very lazy. When I first came she'd only approach freshly dead meat that was dropped into a corner, but now anything. They lower food, whatever they deem most low and unwanted by the other animals, into the cage from a pulley above. It dangles, dry and putrid over her head and usually lands inches from her mouth. She seems to not care about anything any more."

The snake seemed genuinely touched by Gerome's compassion. It's eyes followed him closely, imploringly.

"I've taken quite a liking to her. Isn't she beautiful? Or at least, don't you find it undeniable that she could be stunningly beautiful?"

Gerome settled onto the wooden bench. I was unsure if I was supposed to follow him.

"Look! They are feeding!"

From a hook descending scratchily from the ceiling a piece of meat, dry, cracked, and likely just defrosted, came into view. It swirved over her head and fianlly came to rest in front of her face. The tongue flicked.

"It's sad. Never easy for me to watch. So unnatural!"

The snake eyed the food but then returned his gaze to Gerome.

"Oh I doubt she'll eat before you. It was years before she even considered eating before me. It's humiliating for her too."

I glanced at my watch, unreadable in the dark of the room.

"Then perhaps I better go."

Gerome looked to me. "Yes. Yes, maybe that's best."

"How does one get out of here?"

"Walk back the way we came, keeping an equal distance from the vipers and cobras, and then a mild left at the anacondas. You will see the light. Once outside, follow the path before you to the right, and then take every right you can while staying on that path. You will arrive at the parking lot."

"Thank you. Thank you for everything."

"Any time."

I left Gerome sitting there, watching Delilah, and having no idea what to possibly think.

-Robert de Saint-Loup

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tableau Vivant

Dearest Iqbal-

Have I told you lately about my friend Lauren? After a stint at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she decided to strike out on her own in a valiant effort to redefine her life. She coincided this with dumping her boyfriend of 8 months and leaving her apartment on the upper west side. No more philanthropy, no more coddling, no more cozy apartment. Kids in Africa can take care of themselves, and so could Benjamin Santos, and, God, who needs a fire place. In a fit of independence she melted daddy's credit card and poured it into key hole of her former abode on her way out.

She found herself serving coffee in a cafe that catered to over-employed 20-somethings. That's where I met her, in the coffee shop. (As you know, I'm not an over-employed 20-something, but I like the cut of their dresses and the tailoring around the shoulders of certain men's shirt so it affords a nice place to sit and look). She approached me, probably cognizant that I didn't belong, and offered me a coffee menu. I perused it and ordered the sumatran because the list of adjectives beside it was so inclusive that there was no way I could not absolutely love it. She laughed, probably at my feigned indecision, and returned soon with the coffee.

And while the cut of her dress didn't flatter the way the girl two table's over did I noticed a certain charm to her carriage and her voice. The way she asked "And should I bring sugar to the table?" lead my mind to wander, before bringing it around with a definitive "absolutely." 

I watched her go, quite avidly.

As I was wrapping up I decided, "Well, I don't come here all that often. If I leave my number the worse thing that could happen is it becomes a little awkward the next time I'm here, if I even ever return. Why not?" I scribbled my number and my name down on the receipt and left, quite happy with myself.

Out in the fresh air I breathed deeply, but as I exhaled all my confidence and self-satisfaction slipped out of my mouth and left me deflated but for a nugget of fear. I began to sweat. What if she's offended? Sexual harrasment of sorts? Or worse: what if she's thrilled with my boldness, but my handwriting is illegible. 4's for 9's, or 2's for 7's. We'll never find each other and next time I come in she'll be angry for leading me on and standing her up.

I dashed back in, my hands fumbling through my pockets pretending I was searching for my cell phone that perhaps I'd left behind. The table was cleared. Mistake made. Done and in the past. I turned around and headed for the door.

"Change your mind?"

I spun around, there was Lauren. Far less attractive when seen at eye level and not bearing gourmet coffee, but still charming I suppose.

"Why no. I was just afraid...."

She held up the receipt, I could read the numbers quite clearly.

"Do you want it back?"


"Well, then get out of here."

I left. The whales belly no longer holds Geppeto. I was scared, but less so. A few days went by before a strange number appeared on my cell phone.


"Robert? It's Lauren, the waitress at Cafe Tableau Vivant."

"Oh, hi. Yes."

"Well you left my number, I assumed there was something you wanted to say that you didn't want to say quite then."

"Well yes. Shall we... what would you say to a drink or a walk or something sometime?"


So we got tea and walked along the river front with a cool breeze blowing. She told me about her childhood growing up between yachts and royalty, about her well heated trip to the north pole, about being accosted by somali pirates outside the Straits of Hormuz, and about ignoring the invitations of a certain hotel heiress. "Oh anyone can tell you: Iran was better under the Shaw. How can we even have this conversation?"

We came to the Brooklyn Bridge and decided to cross.

"I love it over there in Brooklyn. It's all half done and plenty of non-white people to make you feel smaller."


We stepped over the water.

"Did you know that more than 150 people died in the construction of this bridge?" I asked realizing the only currency I might have with this mystic trust fund receptacle was knowledge.

"Maybe, but look how worth it was," as we gazed up the stones upon stones reaching into the sky. She put her hands against it and rubbed them down, making her hand red with little scratches. I took that hand in mine.

We marveled for a moment at the Statue of Liberty.

"Isn't it a shame that she's stuck? She can't move, totally unchanging," she said wistfully.

"Why a shame?"

"Well, what's the point of liberty if you can't change or move?"

"Well, it's the institution, the notion of liberty, that is unchanging. That can't change. If that changed than we'd all be like her, turning green from the oxygen and unable to switch hands."

"Maybe," she said.

We landed in Brooklyn.

We perused a used book store or two. She was taken by anachronistic pornography. "Can you believe this turned people on?"

"What will they say about what turns us on?"

"Probably that it's hot." She giggled.

We eventually, crossing under two bridge and out of the trendy areas replete with Czechoslovak furniture stores and couture wedding dress galleries, ending up in her "hood." 

We sat at an Indian restaurant that was open air. The seats of the booth were cracking and upholostery was spilling out. A waiter walked up.

"The usual, miss?"


"And you, sir?"

No menu was offered, "I'll have the same."

"Indian? 'Si?'"

"Welcome to New York, cowboy." She laughed at her own with-it-ness. 

The food was wholesome and green, wrapped in a thin bread. A vague taste of curry and vegetables and was surprisingly nice. The bill came to 9 and a half dollars, which I happily paid. 

Outside she took my hand and led me to her apartment. Drunk off nothing but roti and bad breathe we stumbled upstairs. I did not know what to expect. The building had "character" and "history." I gently reserved judgement, not out of generosity but for fear of feeling myself a fool if the inside was magnificent. 

A strange site once the three locks were released: a dirty futon on the floor, the smell of mold, maybe a cockroach (not sure now if I saw it or it's appropriateness was so perfect that my mind's eye was insistent). Along a wall was an exposed closet bar, hanging from it was seemingly hundreds of dresses, clearly designer, often beautiful. In a corner was a pile of shoes: pumps, sling backs, espadrilles, ballet flats. In the center, dominating the room, was an antique apothecary table with a sculpture, in copper, of an elongated horse in mid stride. 

I must have been staring at it for she mumbled some name, an artist I didn't recognize. "It's an original. Nice eh? I feel it matches the room."

The horse's upturned head and devout snout, insisting on dignity, threatened to trample the room, but maybe she was right. Maybe the defiance and self-regard was fitting. 

I quickly realized that I didn't belong here. I had nothing but affection for Lauren. I desired, and still do, an intimacy of sorts with her, but certainly not closeness. I left. 

Since then, we have seen each other a few times. A movie here, a butterfly exhibit there, but nothing serious or even vaguely romantic. To increase to you, who are so far away, the reality of this I've included a photograph of Lauren that I took -- after our first date, post any romantic possibility. You will note the lightness of it, derived from a deep connection unencumbered by real world evidences.

-Robert de Saint-Loup

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Flying Machine Flies

Dearest Iqbal-

As a lover of revisionist history you will love what came to me in the bath tub this morning. It was written in bubbles and standing water:

In October of 1897 Samuel and Edgar Culpepper mounted their horses and set out on a long, ranging trip. They were looking for a suitable location to test their Flying Machine. They each envisioned a hill that gradually fell away into a long, flat valley, devoid of trees and rocks and sudden changes in temper. They set out South from their home.

The Flying Machine was not yet completed but they were both confident enough in it's eventual success that they wished to have the location chosen before hand so they could complete their test before the winter months. 

On the fourth day of November they set out, the Flying Machine resting on flat bed being drawn by two horses. They avoided main roads so they would not suffer under the eyes of their neighbors.

Atop the hill the wind was blowing as they would have wanted and with enough consistency that it could be leaned on. The flipped a coin to decide who would ride in the front seat and who in the back, quite strangely for neither knew which position would be more desirable. 

Their faith was distinctly bisected. They knew in their hearts that the machine would work; they could close their eyes and see it clearly. But their bodies told them differently. When they looked up and saw sparrows and hawks moving stilly through the air, they could feel in the small of their back and the tips of their fingers that this could not be. But the weight of wood and time was against this doubt and the machine was slid slowly off it's bed and placed at the crest of the hill.

They took their seats and turned on the locomotive engine. With a slight gliding off a lever, the engine became louder and the machine lurched forward. The lever was pushed harder and things no longer made sense to the small of their backs. The ground fell away beneath them, they stayed straight and even. Both Culpepper's clenched their stomachs and stared strait forward as if a loss of focus would make the ground snap up to meet them. Samuel broke his silence and looked to his left. They were indeed flying. A mild increase of locomotive intensity was applied and suddenly they were no longer strait, but indeed rising. 

But then something changed. It sounded as though the locomotive propellers were pushing against the wings, not with them. The equilibrium was lost; the Flying Machine seemed unhappy. Samuel clutched himself and Edgar buried his head in his palms. They entered the water harshly. Samuel watched with one eye his brother's head slam against the panel before him and bound back like a rubber ball.

After the burn of the impact the submergence in cool water was refreshing. Samuel could see a line of red water snaking from behind the back of his brother's head. "He isn't well," thought Samuel, maintaing his mildness. Better to be mild.

Samuel reached over his brother's shoulder and unsnapped Edgar's harness and then his own. The river washed the blood and the Flying Machine away. Samuel watched as it slowly fell away from them. Samuel looked down. He was flying. Higher and higher above the Flying Machine. It got darker and faded into the black. 

Samuel kicked his legs twice and brought his brother above water. They both coughed and inhaled and rested on the beach. The river kept going along, somewhere with the Flying Machine.

"It flew," said Edgar through the blood on his nose. His nose, broken severly, was now uglier than it had been before the flight.

"Yes. It flew in the sky," said Samuel.

"What river took it?"

"I don't know." 

"Might you gentlemen be requiring of assistance?" a voice echoed.

Samuel turned around. Looking down upon then was a silver haired woman sitting side saddle on a silver haired horse.

"The last time a more forlorn looking package washed up beside a river it was under the rule of Pharoh."

"Yes, Ma'am. I see the connection. Where are we, Ma'am, if not Thebes?" 

"My home, Thank You. I assume you boys did not intend for a swim?"

"No, Ma'am. Our Flying Machine worked and then stopped working."

"And where is this Flying Machine?"

"At the bottom of the river. Lucky we too are not there!"

"Indeed you are lucky. I will ride ahead back to the house in order to arrive firstly. I will set aside some dry clothes and instruct a supper to be laid. You walk up the hill to where I am now and you will be able to see a line of weeping willows planted by my late husband. You will follow along them, until you come see the house. I will be expecting."

The silver haired woman rode off.

"Where have we landed, Samuel?"

"Within a circle of generosity."

Up the hill they did in fact see a line of weeping willows which pointed back towards an estate house. It was certainly not as big or grand as one might have imagined or hoped, but certainly larger than the homes that the Culpepper's had been accustomed to living in.

The matriarch, who then introduced herself as Mrs. Sarah Batchworth, the widow of the Colonel Nathaniel Batchworth, esteemed cavalry commander of The Army of Northern Virginia.

The table was set with worn but white table linen and the food was wholesome though the portions were small. The matriarch seemed to have forgotten that her appeitite had declined along with her stature and those in the prime of life needed more sustenance. But the brothers were hardly to complain. 

She asked the boys mild questions about their Flying Machine, seeming unwilling to take on the weight of belief or the energy of suspicion. She took their words as gospel; more than true, less than believable. 

After dinner Samuel stepped out to the phone line to make a call to their home town to put at ease their mother and arrange for a passage home. The only one with a phone in town was Judge Wilcommen, to whom Samuel explained their situation. The Judge giggled and said he was happy to come pick them up straight away tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile Edgar was inside having his nose bandaged by the old woman. She was quite adept despite the quivering of her hands. 

They settled in before a fire place that sparked but seemed to give off no heat, and Sarah Batchworth poured off some Brandy into dusty snifters.

"It has been a number of years since anyone has partaken of this Brandy. I hope it has held. My late husband, the Colonel, he was a great lover of mild liquors such as this. He never indulged, mind you, never had a need to, but he liked the way it felt in his mouth and the way the vapors drifted up from his mouth into his dignified nose. He would doubtless be glad after all these years to have two fine boys enjoying it quietly in his home.

"I know the house isn't as big or as grand as some others. The portico is corroding a little and between the Grecian columns there is a hint of slouch, but I have a great affection for the stead. My husband, while he did not build it or design it, not being a licensed or trained architect, was the sole artistic inspirer. He decided the elements that would be used, the feel it would have, and the tonality. He didn't decide how long each piece of wood would be cut, or the shape of every brick, but his spirit did guide it. The actual architect, I have long forgotten his name and countenance, was an underling of my husbands during the war, a Corporal or Major or something. My late husband took a liking too him, as my husband was wont to do to anyone who had much to offer but small hands to offer with.

"I'm sure you're father must have spoken well of himself in the war. Your nods suggest a mildness and modesty which I find most appealing, especially in young men like yourselves. Yes, you would have surely fit in quite a fashion with my husband's outfit. He was a military man all his life, academically trained the way few soldiers are. They tried to stick him in the infantry, as a General, but he said 'No, not for me! I'd rather be a Colonel among cavalry than a General among infantry' and then that's what they made him, just like that. He loved the cavalry. He'd fly on his horse; arms outstretched, being baptized but the wind. That's what he'd say.

He had the distinction, one that still makes me prideful -- bless my soul -- of continuing to battle the invaders after the official surrender of the Army. Even after word had spread of the end of conflict, he traveled north, forcing the Union Army to fend for their supply lines. For a number of weeks, through April and May, that glorious spring, he managed to harass and discomfort the occupiers in quite a manly fashion. And what was most manly was when the time came, he surrendered himself, best sword outstretched.

"In must be so difficult for you young boys. Born to late to have been there when it mattered. There must be a guilt. To be born after the end. There was a time where all this mattered quite a bit. But do not worry; we all know that were you there you would have spoken well for yourselves. What do you boys do?"

"We build Flying Machines," said Edgar quietly.

"Yes, but you said that yours was successful. You assured me that you flew most of the way here."

"Indeed." said Edgar.

"Well now what?"

"I do not know."

The next morning the honking of the Judge's horn roused them from bed and took them home.

-Robert de Saint-Loup