Elegant Union (John Clark Smith) - 4

John Clark Smith
A Novel by John Clark Smith

 

II

10

The gold disc was on his desk in the morning. It had the same gold front and black back, though now he could see that the black was a covering. He brought the disc under the bright light of the desk lamp to examine it more closely with a magnifying glass. Under the numbers was a name in capital letters. He jumped back when he read PAMOGHENAN. On the gold side of the disc were also tiny words that curved along the edge: TO KETKAR, SAVIOR OF HUMANITY.

When he read the word and this phrase, he dropped the coin and abruptly stood up. The expression and the coin suddenly blasted open his mind and he knew its origin: Gretchen.

Now his apartment became his hiking path. After circling the living room and walking into his bedroom and back repeatedly, the disc would catch his eye. Several times he went to the disc and examined it again, not believing that the disc had somehow found its way to his apartment.

Titus tried not to dwell on the words. He sat down on the couch and shook his head in despair. Why must he have this responsibility? When would he be free of it? Why not remain the professor?

“Leave me alone!” he shouted out to his empty apartment. “Let me be free!” The word ‘free’ triggered a shift to another event.

 

Gunfire and explosions surrounded him. He was in a large trench in a field near Zaragoza in Aragon, Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. In his arms was a dying Republican soldier, Enrico Gonzalez, a man he had nurtured for several years to fight the Fascist Rebels under Franco. Titus had nurtured the Republican camp as they tried to create a new kind of community based in democracy, equality, and decentralization. All factories and businesses would be managed by the people who work in them. There would no longer be poverty or class divisions. Equality and liberty for all was their mantra. All forms of tyranny would end. The divide of rich and poor would cease. The Church, the landowners, and the nobility would no longer have a greater share in power and resources.

Titus was fighting almost alone in his support of Republican Spain. The democracies and capitalists turned away. France, Great Britain, the United States, and others preferred to let the Fascist dictator Franco win, even though he supported the Nazis and Mussolini, rather than be on the same side as Communists. Fortunately, many individuals around the world—the International Brigade—sympathized with the Republican vision and came to Spain to fight for them. They paid no attention to their governments.

To Titus, like the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, not supporting Spain was a mistake. Fischer saw it differently. Franco’s Rebels were a sign of stability and tradition whereas the Republicans, Fischer believed, were under the whip of Soviet Russia, the Communists, and those wanting to remake Spanish culture. Fischer hated Soviet Communism and anarchism and worked hard to turn those called democratic nations against the Spanish Republic. To Fischer, they were forcing on the Spanish people an alien system that would remove their traditions, their economic system, their Crown, and their religion.

The young soldier Enrico, his eyes already closed, blood running from his ear and mouth, spoke his final words almost too soft to hear,

“Please, don’t let our spirit die.”

Titus said, “I won’t.”

“Promise!”

Titus grabbed his hand and squeezed it. He hated to make promises. To make promises and to offer hope was not his work. He could observe and nurture. He could also interfere. There were events in which his involvement was critical, but involvement and interference needed to be carefully distinguished.

*

Titus left the disc on the table and gathered his books and material for his classes. Normally going to class was a pleasure. His students would be there. His favorite subjects were discussed. The debates were challenging and inspiring. No two sessions were alike. Not today. Now his real work was weighing on him and Gretchen was watching. The phantoms had appeared. They might be sitting in front of him. If he saw them again, he would worry about how much time he had left in this existence as a professor.

As he crossed the quad, he passed students on his way. They smiled, nodded, and said, “Thank you.”

He walked past the bench. The students around the sculpture, said, “Bravo, we love you, sir.”

Sitting on the bench with a smirk was Fischer.

“Oh, such great work,” Fischer mocked. “As always, wrong side. Worst side in fact. Revolution, brother, isn’t the answer, without transcendence. What a freak you are! Read Cicero.”

“I’ve read Cicero,” Titus barked back. “I teach Cicero. But tell me. What do you think Cicero says?”

“You’re not in accord with nature or natural reason,” Fischer said. “These rebellions destroy harmony and compromise justice.”

“You misread Cicero,” Titus said. “These events, these actions by the government and others, are not in accord with nature or natural law. Thus, they’re not just or lawful. Cicero said, ‘no man should harm another unless he has been provoked by injustice.’”

“My point, brother, is you want government to mold people,” Fischer said, “to change them, improve them into walking robots of your thinking. That’s not Cicero’s view of government. Government is to keep people and their property safe, to maintain what works.”

Fischer walked away before Titus could reply and continue the debate. Titus entered the classroom building. He was relieved to see two of his students walking up the steps ahead of him. He acknowledged their greetings.

Good, he thought, no Chernyshevsky or other phantoms, but then, learning on a wall outside the classroom was Johann Caspar Schmidt. Titus stopped and approached him. He was, of course, alone, not with the other phantoms.

“You haven’t yet got there, have you?” Schmidt said, shaking his head. “Reality is you, you are not reality. You own reality.”

“Right now, my worry is existence,” Titus said.

“Now look at me and listen. There is no society, no mankind, nothing outside what you are. Worry about existence! What’s wrong with you? Existence is a fabrication. You are covering yourself with the slime of definition. Existence defines. Existence boxes. Reality is you.”

With those words, Schmidt walked away.

Every chair in the classroom—normally almost empty except for the front row where his graduate students would sit—was occupied plus another group standing around edges of the room. The hallway outside was jammed with students.

When Titus finally squeezed past the crowd, they all clapped loudly.

Though his conversation with Fischer hinted at a possible explanation, the reason for this adulation was unknown to him. Titus put his arms up to end the applause.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much. But I’m not aware of anything I’ve done that would deserve such praise.”

Midia stood up and explained,

“Yesterday in the student protest you defended our group and supporters and stopped the authorities from attacking or taking away the students who were protesting. And more than that, you spoke over the din of the agitators and police and gave us the way to real revolution, where this world can change for us and for our future. Thank you, sir. No professor has done that before.”

The student roared their approval again and continued clapping.

Titus had no recollection of giving such a speech or support. That did not mean he did not deliver the speech. His acts in existence did not always impress themselves on his memory. But to bury them was also another tactic of Gretchen to bring him back into his role. Nurture revolution and nudge the society in another direction, into another vision. The events of yesterday—assuming it was yesterday—were quite different in his memory, but he did not doubt Midia spoke the truth. In Gretchen’s endless and continually changing visions, that could be one of them. Water, desert, water, desert. Paine, Burke, Paine, Burke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hobbes, Kropotkin, Stirner, Kropotkin, Stirner.

He grabbed his briefcase and left the classroom, struggling to pass through the hallway. Once outside in the fresh air, the praise continued with students in bee costumes, but at least there were far fewer students.

The library could be a refuge. Monitors were there to keep noises down.

The praise and nods of recognition continued when he entered.

Titus sat down at one of the empty large and thick wooden rectangular tables, carved up with initials and messages from many years of use, and pulled out his small laptop and the Lucretius text he was translating. Beside him were dictionaries and other reference source books.

After fifteen minutes of work, the large table soon filled with Leibniz, Chernyshevsky, Shankara, Shelley, and Plotinus.

They glared at him as if he had been a naughty child. He tried to ignore them and assume they did not exist. They were, after all, phantoms. Their existence would play itself out. There was no need to worry.

The group of five was just as stubborn to prove their existence. Leibniz came around the table, sat down beside Titus, and began questioning his translation choices. Leibniz’s presence was uncomfortable, but his suggestions were often correct. Regardless what research Titus did—and for a time he switched to Aristotle—one of them would intervene and correct him. How could he refuse Plotinus’s views of Aristotle’s Greek? But by far the one who would not rest was Chernyshevsky. He had facility in Latin, ancient Greek, and modern languages, but he had another purpose and pushed the others away. With his arm around Titus’s shoulder, he said, “Что же теперь делать? Что же теперь делать? Это то, что вы должны учитывать. Что же делать?”[i]

Like furies, the bunch of them pestered him until Titus finally had to flee the library and find solace back at his octagonal bench beside the glass sculpture. The attention on him had diminished by this point, though a few students still congratulated him. He spent a couple hours on the bench staring at a couple of bees in the flowers behind him. They seemed to be screaming: “Desert! Desert!”

At his next class, only his regular students, no phantoms, attended.

 

11

 

That evening he entered the Charity Café. The café was in the basement of a six-story brown brick building near the corner of Bathurst and King Street West. In the front corner of the building, on King Street, was a pub. Walking south on Bathurst along the east side of the street, not more than fifty feet, a large neon sign blinked 444. That number confused many people trying to find an address on Bathurst because they assumed 444 was a street number, yet the Charity Café was in the basement of 69 Bathurst Street. Patrons had to walk down two flights with black handrails to a double pink door with long curved black iron carved door handles.

In the daytime, the Charity was a café where people came to talk business and have a coffee or sandwich with their friends. With brightly colored red, blue, yellow, and white walls, it was a woody, mostly rectangular main lounge space with several rooms off it. In the evening, till the early morning, it took on a Caribbean aura with tropical plants and ample space for dancing or being close with a lover in the booths, stools, and lounge areas. In the evening, the servers wore skimpy outfits that copied those from the summer Caribana festival. They walked around with trays of pizza slices and donuts or sample drinks. A fortune teller and tarot reader were in one corner. A small spotlight lit up a place to play chess, checkers, or go. A poker game was always happening in another corner and a pool table was available in a room off the main room. Wooden tables were set throughout the middle of the main space in the day, but in the evening, most of the furniture in the main space was taken away to a storage room to accommodate dancing.

He could relax at the Charity because it was not a student hangout. Teaching and researching were relaxing for him, but Titus was always uncomfortable with the hierarchy and the condescension assumed for the role. The universe reminded him of his smallness constantly and, if he forgot, he always had Gretchen.

Titus arrived at nine to have a couple hours to relax before Louise Michel would appear. Since he did not know where in the café she would meet him, he went to his favorite room with the blue and red couches. Initially no one was on the blue couch, but in fifteen minutes, a couple did join him. He moved to the red couch and ordered a Weihenstephaner, a beer he had drunk for centuries. While drinking it, the loud music and the conversation distracted him enough to empty his mind of its lack of equilibrium and confusion regarding the disc, the beast, pamoghenan, the phantoms, Gretchen, Oriana, and, as always, Fischer.

Oriana surprised him at ten o’clock.

“Hi there, Dalworth,” she said. She sat down on the couch.

“How’d you know I was here?” he asked.

“Have you forgotten? I used to come here with you. As your girlfriend?”

“You still are, I hope.”

“Of course. I always will be. It’s destiny. Fischer says--”

“--I don’t want to hear about Fischer. ‘Destiny!’ Why don’t people talk the way you do? It’s as if you come from another place.”

“Well, I do,” Oriana whispered. “Why don’t you want to hear from Fischer?”

He stretched out his arms.

“Come over here,” he said.

Oriana moved closer to him, and he put his arms around her in a tight hug.

“Who is he?” Titus asked, not knowing how much she knew about Fischer.

“What do you mean?”

“How do you know him?”

Oriana looked at him as if he had asked her to solve a puzzle.

“Oriana?” he said. “Are you OK?”

“You know,” she said, “I can’t remember. I think when I came to the university. I know he introduced us.”

“I know that too. But where does he come from?”

“My mind goes blank. I don’t think we ever talked about it. He once said you two go way back. Why? What’s happened?”

“I run into him a lot.’

“Why didn’t you call me?” she asked, changing the subject.

“You told me we needed to be apart for a while. I think your words were: ‘You’re frustrating, Dalworth.’”

“That was a while ago,” Oriana said. “I’ve been to the quad bench several times and at the Café and your apartment. I miss you.”

“I would’ve gone to the gym, but, well, you know what happened there.”

“Where?” she asked. “What gym?”

Titus closed his eyes. The most difficult problem of a continuum is whether the events are on a small plane or a large plane. What fits on a small plane may seem discontinuous on a large plane. It was frustrating in these phases where he was moving between reality and existence to gauge where others were. Was this the Oriana he knew when he first became a professor, the Oriana who could journey with him to the meeting about atomic bombs, the grad student Oriana, or some other Oriana?

Clearly, she seemed to know nothing about the gym.

“Where you went with Fischer?” Titus said.

“What? I did?”

As he recalled that time, neither Oriana nor Fischer said that they were going to 252 Adelaide St. E. He assumed they were going there because that was the only place where he found the word ‘pamoghenan.’ Plus, he did see Fischer there.

When Titus did not respond, she asked:

“What is it?”

Titus explained the story to her.

“That’s not how we met,” she corrected after he finished. “Well, it’s kind of how we met. I was on the bench in the quad with Fischer. I was upset. You did place money into my hat. But I wasn’t begging. My hat just fell on the ground. I guess I looked desperate. That’s true. But I had no bags. It was after the protest. While protesting I was hit by the police and was in pain. That was the cause of my tears. You stopped the police or they might’ve hurt me and others. They were trying everything to end the madness. You got up on the platform and everything stopped. I don’t know how. Then you gave this wonderful speech to the crowd. It was transforming, almost transfixing. We saw Lazan get killed. Then you came over to comfort me. You helped me walk to the clinic and stayed with me. And you let me sleep on your couch.”

Titus would not challenge her version. How could he? Though the time was different, how could he deny he was not involved in a protest that numerous people, including Oriana, saw him? How could he contradict her about pamoghenan and Fischer and Lazan? Could he verify any of it?

Oh, Gretchen, he thought, you’re a wizard.

“But I do recognize the word ‘pamoghenan,’” she said.

“You do?”

“It’s a word on an old building on Adelaide Street East. I used to walk by it all the time.’

“Did you ever go in?” Titus asked.

Oriana looked at him as if the question made little sense.

“Why does that bother you?” he asked.

“Why ask me that? Why would I walk in?”

“You’re right,” Titus said. “No reason.”

They sat quietly for a time, observing the other Café patrons around them.

“Lazan,” Titus was thinking about him but said the name out loud.

“What about him?”

“Nothing.” Titus said, again wanting to go off in a different direction and tell his version of the story of when he was on the platform ready to accept the award and saw Charlotte shoot Lazan and then kill herself.

“Good riddance to him, as far as I’m concerned,” she added. “Other than your speech, that was the only good thing that came out of that mess.”

“And Charlotte?” Titus asked.

Oriana turned and glared at him with disgust, slapping the couch seat next to her.

“You mean,” she said, “she’s dead because of that pervert? I would’ve shot him myself if it was a different world. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and walk over to her room and look at her bare mattress and how it looked when she…when she…did it. We’ve got to do something about people like Lazan.”

Titus was puzzled about so many things that he could not retrace the pathways of his brain to recall who was where and what was what. The shift into different actions in the same timelines in his existence as a professor was giving him a headache because of the necessity of being an existent entity and not a fully real being for a while. The turmoil when the classroom was packed with those applauding him made matters worse. There were certainly people sitting in the front row. But who were those people? He could not ask Oriana. She was not there. She could not confirm or deny.

“You never answered me,” Oriana said. “Why are you here?”

When did she ask him that?

He had reached the point—he had reached it on several occasions—when he hesitated telling her or anyone what he was doing or especially what he was thinking—at least from his view as a god. Does he lie and tell her he was there trying to relax and hoping to see Oriana, or does he tell her he’s there to see a phantom, Louise Michel, whom he saw in the waiting room outside Whispers just after he saw Oriana herself as “Duchess” Oriana and claimed to be preparing him to meet Ratanna and wanted “Lord Dalworth” to meet her.

“Why do you call me Dalworth?” he asked her, leading her in another direction.

“You told me to,” Oriana quickly answered, stroking his hair. “I love your hair.”

“I told you? When? What reason did I give?”

“You said, and I quote you, ‘It reminds me that Dalworth is the key to the future. It gives me hope.’”

“I said that?” Titus asked. “Those were my words?”

“I looked it up after you mentioned it,” she said. “Dalworth Park is now a part of Grand Prairie, Texas, with mostly African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanic residents. The man who created it was trying to make a model community between Dallas and Fort Worth, so he called it Dalworth. But that dream died because of the success of nearby Grand Prairie after his death.”

“But why would I tell you that?” Titus asked her, but he was also asking himself the same question.

“I don’t know,” Oriana said, “but that’s what you said. Do you want me to stop calling you Dalworth?”

Titus was about to say yes, but his mouth could not form the word ‘yes.’ Saying or remembering Dalworth seemed to fit a chant inside his head that he did not want to disrupt, as if he was in a temple somewhere and needed to complete the prayer.

“No, it’s fine. You can call me Dalworth. I only wanted to find out why.”

“I told Fischer about Dalworth and he said, ‘another utopian dream of Titus. Pay no attention.’”

“Fischer again. How often do you talk to him?”

“Often. He thinks I’m a good influence on you.”

“He thinks that, does he?”

“Now I’d like to know,” Oriana said, kissing him, and then reaching for her black cherry cider, “why you’re at the café. I don’t think it’s because of me.”

Another string unravelling. Another opportunity either to play along or to tell the truth and avoid the inevitable need to explain and deceive her.

“I’m here to meet Louise Michel,” he said, looking straight in her eyes.

Oriana did not reply. She stood and looked down upon him on the couch.

“Louise Michel!” she said enthusiastically, after first hesitating. “Well, that would be something, wouldn’t it? I know you want to start a revolution, but I didn’t think you needed to go to the 1870’s for help. After all, you have me.”

Titus could not remember talking to Oriana about a revolution. Was this another comment from Fischer? Or was his reality with Oriana bleeding out or a sign of existence slipping away?

“I’d like to meet her too, if you don’t mind,” Oriana said, a broad smile on her lips. “As you well know, she’s one of my heroines.”

He nodded, but no, he did not know she was Oriana’s heroine. Nor was Michel his heroine. He knew Michel’s name and her story, he admired her, he had studied and lived in the Paris Commune, but she was not his heroine.

Regardless, this reason why he was here created a period of silence between them. They did not speak until the hour of eleven was upon them. She snuggled up to his side and they listened to the music and conversation. A group of four young women that sat near them had an animated conversation about shoes.

“Have you seen the new Michael Kors? Look.”

She showed the picture of the athletic shoes on her phone.

The group gathered around the phone and admired the shoes.

Another woman brought out her phone and showed another photo.

“I’ve ordered the Y-3 Adizero.”

The group turned and looked at her phone.

“Only $313.00.”

“I’m getting them!” one of them said.

“I still like the big soles of the Michael Kors.”

“Have you seen the Rick Owens x Vega. Holt Renfrew has them for $290?

“Do you know when I was at the club this cute guy kept staring at my sneakers?”

“What were you wearing?”

“My old Adidas Ultra boost 20 S.”

“Oh no. What did you do?”

“I ran back to the locker room and changed into my Y-3 Black Kaiwa Knit.”

“Why weren’t you wearing them in the beginning?”

“I didn’t want to scuff them up.”

“I’m the same with my Pradas.”

“Which?”

“The White Red Band.”

“My Balenciagas are still in the box.”

“Well, of course. You went through hell to get your father to pay for them.”

 

Twice Titus left her and walked around the café to see if Michel had come and sat down somewhere else.

By eleven-thirty, Oriana said:

“Be honest. What’s this business with Louise Michel?”

No explanation would suffice now. Another paradox. Another sign of his state of mind. The events of the past day unnerved him. He slumped beside her. Suddenly sweat began to appear on his face, his chest started to heave, and his breathing quickened. He was hyperventilating. The series of recent events or pseudo-events, the viral paradoxes, the slipping from existence, the pull of reality, had infected and overwhelmed him. The body had had enough.

The group of young women quickly got up and moved away.

“It’s OK,” Oriana calmly assured Titus, “just breathe slowly. Don’t worry. Breathe in and out slowly. That’s it.”

A bee appeared and settled on to his arm. Oriana jerked away for a second, but then she returned to him when she saw the bee was harmless.

She wiped his brow and face with a napkin that came with her drink. Meanwhile, the manager came with a nurse who was one of the guests.

“I’m fine now,” Titus told them. “Don’t worry.”

Titus stood up and quickly walked to the door. Oriana followed. The bee flew off. Once outside, in the cool evening, he felt better, as he felt better when he had bolted out of Whispers.

“I’m going home,” he said. “I’m tired.”

“Let me come with you,” Oriana said. “You’re not well.”

“I’ll be fine. I’ll feel better after I meditate.”

“You meditate?”

He nodded.

“OK, something isn’t right here,” Oriana said firmly. “You’re talking about seeing and talking to people long dead…and meditating?”

Titus did not respond. He needed to know how much Oriana knew, or where she was in his real life before he could confide in her or invite her to journey with him.

“Perhaps you worry too much about helping people,” she said. “Perhaps you should talk to someone. That’s what Fischer says. He--”

He turned to her and gave a look of disinterest.

Titus wondered if she misinterpreted his dismissal of Fischer’s opinions. She might have thought it was sibling rivalry, but Fischer and he had no history as siblings. There was a rivalry but not because they were brothers.

Oriana and Titus found a taxi together and headed home. When they came to Oriana’s building, she stayed in the taxi and looked for an excuse to stay with him:

“This talk of Charlotte has made me anxious,” she said. “I don’t want to be in my room near where she slept. I have the image of her killing herself. Can I stay at your place?”

“You? You’re afraid?”

She nodded. Titus knew she was not afraid. This was another opportunity for her to be near him. He appreciated her feelings for him, but she could not understand what was happening to him. No matter. Titus told the driver to continue.

When they arrived at his apartment, Titus sat on the floor, crossed his legs, and began to meditate. Oriana asked if he could teach her so she could join him.

He explained the basic principles of Vipassana meditation—the meditation, he told her, that Siddhartha, the Buddha, taught others. Not surprisingly, since Oriana had an open and curious mind, she easily adopted the technique,

Together they meditated. The meditation removed the stress of the incongruities and discontinuity and visions he was seeing.

When they had finished, Oriana stayed with him.

Titus did not tell her about the gold disc, or the visitors to his class, or that he couldn’t recall his “revolutionary” speech, or the gym, or that her version of what happened on the quad was different from his, or his curiosity about Fischer and his interest in her. He dropped the talk about Michel and did not mention the others who were supposed to join him. He could only hope that this experience would pass, and existence and time would again freeze tomorrow.

‘Let me become the professor again,’ he thought.

He could hope, but he knew the odds of returning were not favorable. His existence was fading away.



[i] What’s to be done? What’s to be done? That’s what you must consider. What is to be done?


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