http://www.albany.edu/offcourse
 http://offcourse.org
 ISSN 1556-4975

   

Since 1998, a journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays edited by Ricardo L. Nirenberg.


"Petite Suite au Hasard" by Robert Wexelblatt

 

1. Le Nouvel Enseignant:  Concertino en D-prinicpal pour le Piano et Orchestre Fâché, Emphatique Comme un Poing et Compatissant Comme une Caresse

“Order, order.  Please, people.  People!” called Dr. Marinetti, the superintendant.  “We can’t discuss this if everybody’s going to speak at once.”

Everybody was speaking at once. Borah Auditorium seemed to tremble from the sheer force of parental indignation. The crowd yelped and growled and shook its homemade signs.

Taking a step back from the podium, Dr. Marinetti began to motion with both hands, palms down, like a desperate refugee stuffing clothes into a suitcase.  “Please, please,” he begged.  Behind him, on three gunmetal folding chairs, sat Mr. Harry Wollin, principal of Woodrow Wilson High School, and Ms. Lena Rheinach, head of the History and Social Studies department.  Wollin looked anxious, Rheinach distraught.  On a third chair, apart from the others, sat the focus of the tumult, Charles Olionama, a huge man in a well cut suit, with his legs crossed looking serene.  It was still September, only the third week of the new school year.

 In the front row, with tape recorder and notebook, sat Harriet Harrelson, along with a gaggle of her colleagues from the national press. Two days before she had broken the story that the newly hired history teacher at Wilson High was the same Charles Olionama who, for fifteen years, had been the president of an African country nobody could locate on a map.  Eighteen months earlier he had been deposed in a revolution that had gone badly.  Olionama’s enemies had accused him of embezzlement, violations of human rights, and socialism.  Because he had been a source of stability and accommodating to its aims, the U. S. government had quickly granted him asylum.  Since then he had dropped out of the news and, indeed, sight and memory.  But now here he was, a disgraced dictator, teaching the teenagers at Woodrow Wilson High School—and about American history, of all things.

Charles Olionama was a widower.  His only child, a son, lived in Frankfurt, worked in finance, and was on poor terms with his father.  Gregory was a zealous neo-liberal who believed that socialism—even his father’s dilute variety—appealed only to teenagers and imbeciles.  He despised his native country, considered it a hopeless case, and all the more because his father used to run it.  “King Laius”—that was what he called his dad when he spoke of him to his German friends.

So Charles Olionama had come through customs alone with one carry-on bag.  He was greeted with cold formality by an assistant secretary of state and a brace of Secret Service agents.

The crowd, egging each other on, wouldn’t settle down.  Finally, Mr. Olionama got to his feet, whispered into Dr. Marinetti’s ear, and took the podium.  He gazed smilingly at the mob, and raised his hand, which did quiet things a bit.  He spoke in that leonine tone once so familiar to the citizens of his homeland.

“Good evening!”

The crowd’s noise sank to the level of wind gusting through a grove of willows and they gradually lowered their signs:  Dictator Out, America for Americans, Save Our Children, Socialism (in a black circle with a diagonal line through it).

“I’m pleased that so many of you have come out this evening.  You’re generous with your time, which I know is precious.  I regret that I haven’t yet had the privilege of meeting individually any of my students’ parents but, of course, I’m delighted to know that many of you must be here tonight.  I am already in love with your children, likewise with my colleagues, your charming town, and our wonderful school.”

The crowd mumbled in perplexity.  Olionama had a commanding and resonant voice and, what’s more, an attractive accent, a cousin to English posh.  It was the kind of voice that could have stood in for God’s in one of Hollywood’s biblical epics.  But more than his resonant voice, it was his cheerfulness that took people aback.

“I hope you’ll be so good as to let me address a few of your obvious concerns.  Then, should you wish, I’ll be delighted to take questions.”

And just like that, everybody sat down to listen.

“First, then, why do I want the job of teaching your children?  Well, we must all make a living in some way.  It’s true that I could have taken a post at one of several institutes or so-called think tanks; but I didn’t want one, perhaps just because they are so. . . usual for people like me.  I have no wish to set up as a pundit.  I’m no longer a public man.  What I sought was a teaching job; however, I turned down offers from three universities.  I much prefer children to graduate students.  All I wish for is to share my love of its history and lifelong admiration of the United States with its young people.  And I hope you’ll allow that I bring an unusual point of view to the subject.”  He paused, considered.  “The floodlights that light up the baseball field are never in the middle of the diamond, are they?”

This obscure trope provoked a peevish clatter in the hall.  Olionama explained.  “I only meant to say that one may see more by looking from the outside than from the middle of things.  As to my qualifications, I have both a first from Cambridge University and a green card.  American history has always been my avocation and, with humility, I believe I’m adequately versed.  I know not only that George Washington is the father of this country but also that his 1793 inaugural address is the shortest on record—only 135 words, because his dentures were paining him—and that in 1798 his estate at Mount Vernon produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey.  I know that Benjamin Franklin invented not only the lightning rod but the urinary catheter.  I know that there have been eight left-handed presidents and that the charming American phrase ‘the real McCoy’ is a reference to Elijah McCoy, an African-American gentleman who invented a device that could oil a train’s wheels while it was in motion.”

“Never mind all that.  What about human rights?” somebody shouted.

“The noblest product of the half-millennium march from Luther to last week.  No one respects these rights more than I, who declared December 10 a national holiday and built a statue to Eleanor Roosevelt on which is inscribed the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It begins with these mighty words, Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. . . No, my dear friends and respected employers, I yield to no one in respect for human rights.  The claim that I violated them is a scurrilous lie.  Ask yourselves;  if it were true, would your government, to which all the world looks as the champion of those rights, have welcomed me?”

“What about the millions you embezzled?”

Olionama held up empty hands.  “What millions?  The salary in my contract is perfectly adequate for my few needs.  But it cannot be called princely and it is all I have on which to live, I assure you.”

“Bloody dictator!”

“Lewis and Clark sent President Jefferson a gift of two bear cubs which the author of the Declaration kept as pets on the south lawn of the White House.  Were they bloody?  Like them, I followed the course of nature and have been given refuge.  My country had peace and order until my genuinely bloody-minded enemies drove me out, as all the world now knows.”

Here Harriet Harrelson stood up, identified herself, and posed a shrewd question.

“You say you were like a bear following the course of nature.  Bears, sir, are predators.  Are you admitting that your long reign—no matter how ‘orderly’—was predatory?”

Olionama smiled down on the reporter like the May sun on a dandelion.  “My dear lady, I sought always to emulate my heroes, almost all of whom are Americans, and to act in the spirit of your Constitution, which I rate as the holiest of secular documents.  I am a democrat—not because I believe democracy is a perfect political system but because it is a good one and the only one that is self-correcting. I am a democrat because I believe history teaches us that no good society is perfect and no perfect society is good.”

Harriet was shaken by this apothegm, but stood her ground.  “What are you teaching, then?  That democracies should be run by grizzly bears?”

Unruffled, Olionama replied coolly, “The curriculum is, of course, prescribed.  I’m fine with that.”

At this point a well dressed woman in the middle of the auditorium got to her feet.  It was the mayor’s wife, admired equally for her good taste and philanthropy.

“I’d simply like to say that my daughter is in Mr. Olionama’s class.  In three weeks he’s changed her from a sullen, work-averse teenager into an energetic, engaged scholar.  It’s Mr. O said this and Mr. O told us about that.  She actually converses at the dinner table.  She’s taken to reading the New York Times and watching anything narrated by David McCullough.”

Other parents mumbled similar concessions, and this caused Lena Rheinach to rise and ask Olionama if he would relinquish the podium, which he did with a courtly bow.  “I too have noticed a remarkable transformation among Mr. Olionama’s pupils,” she said.  “They are quieter in the hallways, more respectful, and, above all, more disciplined.  At least a dozen of your kids have come to me to express their admiration.  His departmental colleagues have all given me first-rate reports too.  They say they enjoy talking to him, that he listens and always has something useful to say.”

Now Principal Wollin stood and took the floor.  He withdrew a 3x5 card from one pocket and his reading glasses from another, then put the card back.  “Mr. Olionama was hired by me after the most extraordinary interview it has ever been my privilege to conduct.  He has given you a sample of his manner and the depth of his erudition.  I will only add that his innovative pedagogical technique has certainly engaged your children.  In my opinion, we’re lucky to have him.”

People turned to one another uncertainly.  Harriet Harrelson fumed.  This was nothing like the incendiary story she had looked forward to reporting, the one she had promised her editor.  She leapt to her feet.

Discipline?  Is that what you said this man’s been giving our children?  I would suggest that they are simply cowed.”  She turned and faced the crowd.  “What’s the matter with all of you?  The man’s a notorious tyrant. Have you forgotten why you’re here?”

As she spoke, Olionama resumed his place at the podium.  “Tyrant?  This is simply untrue,” he boomed, then softened his tone.  “But neither is it a libel.  What’s more precious than our free press, which Ms. Harrelson represents?  Yes, I say our.  Like all immigrants I feel I too was at Breed’s Hill and Cold Harbor, that I also bear the shame of slavery and share in the exultation of V-J Day.  Even before the United States was the United States there was the case of Rex v. Zenger.  Perhaps you know it, Ms. Harrelson?  You really ought to, as it means so much to your profession.  In 1735, the colony of New York prosecuted the publisher John Peter Zenger for libeling the royal governor.  Zenger’s lawyer instructed the jury in their duty to apply the law and the facts impartially and they did so, acquitting Zenger.  And so, Ms. Harrelson, do I acquit you.”

“What gall!  That’s outrageous!”

Olionama beamed.  “Wouldn’t a guilty verdict have been the true outrage, my dear Ms. Harrelson?”

At that moment the doors at the rear of the auditorium burst open and a double file of adolescents marched down the aisles chanting in perfect unison, “Mr. O. . . Mr. O. . . Mr. O. . .”

 


 

2. Quattrogambe ou l’Ours: Poème Symphonique en Do Majeur et Do Dièse Mineur, Aimant et Haineux, Jovial et Plein de Ressentiment,  Joyeux et Malheureux, Comme une Vie Remplie

When he was thirty years old, Otto Pisanello made a trip to Spain.  He was not fond of traveling but only because of the special arrangements required; strangers stared at him, and officials tended to treat him as if he were a deaf child.  All the same, he agreed with Signor Guardi that matters would be simpler if he could meet in person with Banco Madrid’s IT people, evaluate their equipment and software, and assess their needs.  Signor Guardi was pleased.

“It’s an important contract for the firm and the Spaniards asked us to send our best, and that’s you, Otto.”

As it happened, the trip went smoothly.  Everybody looked at him but only the children stared.  Otto spoke to the one who ventured close enough; he had always been at ease with children because their curiosity is innocent.  His inveterate cheerfulness gave the little boy confidence to ask his questions, and Otto spoke candidly of his condition, without condescension.

“Well, as it happens, I was born with four legs and zero arms.  Yes, all my clothes are made to order.  Oh indeed, I loved sport when I was young.  Which?  Football, naturally.  Never in goal, of course; you need long arms to be a goal-keeper, but I was a reliable defenseman.  No, I can’t produce decent handwriting, but I’m a whiz with a trackpad.  Here, I’ll show you. Oh, I can handle a joy stick just as well.  Yes, I can stand up, but only for a little while. That’s right.  Exactly like a bear.”

Otto’s hosts at the bank were demanding but also gracious.  He was taken to lunch and discovered he liked paella.  When business had been seen to satisfactorily, the chief IT officer, a cultivated man, suggested he stay over the next day.  He wanted to show Otto the sights, in which he took civic pride, especially the Prado.

At the museum, Otto drew more attention than the pictures; however, art-lovers are a polite species, and for the most part only glanced at him furtively.  But Otto, enchanted as he leisurely scuttled through the galleries, took no notice.  Then he came on a painting that arrested him.  He could not move away from it; on the contrary he moved into it, so to speak.  When at last his host insisted that they had to leave or he would miss his plane, Otto asked to stop in the gift shop where he purchased a post card of this painting to take home with  him.

The picture was one of Velasquez’s portraits of the fools and dwarves beloved by the Spanish court.  The one that so affected Otto was of Francisco Lezcano, a squat rectangle whose edges seem to press in on the subject.  The catalogue his host had brought along described Francisco as “mentally retarded.”  Otto wasn’t sure this was the case.  True, the subject was slightly hydrocephalic and his features might be seen as those of a simpleton; however, Lezcano was identified as “a jester” and jesters are not morons.  The more he looked, the more ambiguous the composition of the picture seemed to Otto.  For instance, it is both an inside and outside picture—Francisco sits inside a dark space but with the mountains clearly visible on the right.  Otto reckoned Velasquez must have posed Francisco inside a tent.  The picture originally hung in the royal lodge at Torre de la Parada, and Lezcano is dressed in a hunting outfit.  Surely, only an idiot would take a moron hunting.  Francisco holds playing cards and, to Otto, this conveyed a message:  reminding the viewer that, as life is governed by fortune, he too could have been born with stunted legs and too-big head; his meals also might have depended on making spoiled royals laugh.

Otto looked at how the short right leg seems to kick out at the viewer, the sole in one’s face, an aggressive yet pathetic detail.  Despite the open spaces to the right, it is the darkness inside the tent that makes up two-thirds of the background.  And just as the sides of the picture seem to squeeze Lezcano, so the darkness of the interior seemed to Otto to entomb the poor fellow in his fate. Above all, it was Francisco’s strangely upturned face on which Otto concentrated. To the author of the catalogue it is a “stupid” face.  Otto reluctantly agreed that one could see it that way.  But, like the setting, Francisco’s aspect struck him as ambiguous.  Perhaps it really is that of a Down syndrome child but Otto couldn’t help seeing it as the countenance of a clever boy snared in the wrong century.  To him the portrait of Lezcano was ineffably touching.  He imagined that Francisco was trying to tell him something.

Otto was indeed, as he told the child, born with four legs and zero arms.  His native town was Treviso where his father had a job with the local bottling company.  His mother Sibella loved Otto unreservedly but his father could not.  The infant was too grotesque, too shameful.  Being a proud coward, Giancarlo Pisanello abandoned his wife, his quadruped son, his job, and the Veneto.  Under the circumstances, Sibella might have been excused for imagining her deformed son handsome and bright but, in fact, both were true.  Otto had an angelic face and a temperament to match.  As his forelegs were somewhat shorter than his back ones, he moved about rather like a bear cub.  This was the origin of one of his two nicknames, L’Orso, which Sibella used as an endearment.

Otto’s abandoned mother found a job as a secretary in a law firm where her diligence and maternal instincts were appreciated.  The lawyers soon became like her children, even the senior partners, and she soon became the pin in the firm’s pinwheel.  She established order in the office and, when crises arose, in the attorneys’ personal lives, too.  No one objected when she brought Otto to work with her.  Nobody even remarked on his lack of arms and hands.  In fact, once they got over their initial repugnance, people liked being around Otto.  He was always cheerful, never complained; he was charming, humorous, and smart.  Moreover, liking Otto made people feel better about themselves.  Children were especially drawn to him, perhaps because, being so close to the ground, he reminded them of their pets.  Otto understood his condition and its effect on others and resolved to follow his mother’s advice not to let it deter him.

Sibella had to fight the authorities to keep Otto out of the “special school” the government had set up in Frescada.  “It’s no better than a warehouse,” she declared in horror and gratefully accepted the aid of one of her lawyers.  Otto had been reading since he was two; by four he was solving quadratic equations, and, when Sibella acquired a used computer for him, Otto took to it the way Mozart did to the pianoforte.  The lawyer challenged the examining board:  “Give the boy any test you like.”

Otto got on well with his classmates at the public school and his teachers loved him nearly as much as Sibella did.  Though he showed little interest in literature or history, he excelled at the natural sciences and mathematics.  Socially, he was a surprising success.  The other children respected him and often appealed to him to settle their disputes.  He also patiently tutored his slower classmates.  The girls liked him; several conceived secret crushes on him.  He won the boys’ affection via football.  Otto was able to scuttle over the pitch with astounding speed, and nobody ever succeeded in dribbling through him.  Moreover, with four feet, he could kick the ball in any direction.  It was on the football pitch that he earned his second nickname, Quattrogambe—Four Legs—Quattro for short.

Only Marco Malvadi shied away from him.  Otto courted the boy, but this only made things worse.  One day Otto stole the ball from him right in front of the goal crease and Malvadi gave him a vicious kick.  Otto said nothing, but the other boys let Marco know what they thought.  He stalked off the field and sulked for a week.

By his first year of high school Otto was so advanced that Signorina Belfiglia arranged an interview for him with the chairman of the Mathematics department at the University of Bologna. This went so well that Quattro was offered a scholarship.

The school held a ceremony at which Otto and his friends bid a formal farewell.  Three girls wept openly; the boys gravely patted his broad back, and the high school orchestra gave a spirited performance of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture.  Only Marco Malvadi refused to say goodbye. After the music was over, Otto went up to him. 
          “Marco, I know you’ve always disliked me, though I don’t know why.  I wish you well.”
          Malvadi, who had grown into a real bruiser by lifting weights, grunted and turned on his heel.  Two years later, he dropped out of school and took a job on the loading dock of the Treviso bottling company where Otto’s father had once worked.

Sibella stayed on with her lawyers in Treviso but saw her son three weekends each month.  At the university Otto became a star.  He specialized in advanced cybernetics, wrote a dissertation that made news, and was recruited by a consulting firm that operated throughout Europe.  Two years later he married one of the company’s billing clerks, Gianna Tondelli, after overcoming the objections of her parents.  Hard as they tried, they couldn’t help loving him.

Otto took the post card of Velasquez’s painting to his office and pinned it to the bulletin board above his computer.  He didn’t want to show it to Gianna until he had worked out precisely what the picture was saying to him.

A new intern from the University was looking for one of his colleagues and wandered into Otto’s office by mistake.  When she saw him on his specially designed desk chair in his specially made clothes, she screamed.  As screams go, it was not impressive, neither loud nor long; moreover, the young woman apologized profusely as she backed out of the room.  This was hardly the first time in his three decades of life that Otto had provoked such a reaction; however, nothing of the sort had occurred for so long that it shocked him.  As he turned his head from the doorway his gaze fell on the portrait of Francisco Lezcano.  That was the moment when he understood.

Otto hardly slept that night. 
          “What’s wrong” Gianna asked sleepily.  “Why aren’t you asleep?”
          “It’s nothing,” said the unhappy bear, even though it was all he could do to keep from weeping like the high school girls at his farewell.

The next day at work Otto quickly tracked down via computer the address of Marco Malvadi, a small apartment near Treviso’s least picturesque canal.  Otto discovered also that there was a Signora Malvadi, Maria-Celeste, and three children.  At five o’clock he phoned Gianna to say he would be working late and not wait dinner for him.  Then he got into his specially fitted Alfa-Romeo and drove into Treviso.

Marie-Celeste answered the door. She was a plump, open-faced woman in a housedress and apron.  She didn’t scream.  She knew who Otto was, having often heard about Quattrogambe.
         “Pardon me, Signora Malvadi.  I would like to speak with your husband,” said Otto.
          “He’s just come home.  But,” she hesitated fearfully, “I’m not sure he’ll want to see you.”

They understood one another.  Otto nodded.  “If you could be so kind as to ask him?”

A whole laundry-load of questions spun through Marie-Celeste’s head.  Should she ask Quattro to come in and, if so, where should she put him, and would her children embarrass her and—above all—would Marco, who spoke of his old classmate with such inexplicable antagonism, rudely refuse to see him?  If she even asked, would he be angry and, if so, would he take it out on her?

“You’d best wait here,” she said finally, and retreated into the house.

Marco Malvadi’s feelings about Quattro were more than he could cope with as a schoolboy and he managed no better as a grown-up.  He was an ordinary, normal boy, undistinguished by either appearance or talents.  Lifting weights had bulked him up but lots of guys worked out in those days and the girls weren’t impressed.  Luciana Carpani even told him his oversized muscles were a turn-off.  “They make you look like an ex-con, Marco.”  And here was this Quattrogambe, this Orso—a deformed specimen who should have been smothered at birth.  He was popular, brilliant, had the face of a movie star and, worst of all, was imperturbably cheerful.  It galled Malvadi that Otto had been the toast of the school, every teacher’s pet, an object of interest to girls.  But to whom could he disclose his feelings of injustice?  Nobody would understand—worse, everybody would misunderstand.  Even he was half-ashamed of his feelings and did his best to conceal them.  From Otto he kept his distance.  It wasn’t easy; there was that impulsive kick.  His old classmates still remembered it.  They’d bring it up whenever he ran across one of them.  “Remember that kick you gave Quattro?  Why the hell’d you do a thing like that, Malvadi?”  So it was a relief to open his heart to Marie-Celeste about Otto Pisanello who had four legs, zero arms, who was a sort of football with feet, who had gone off to the University at fourteen and was now such a big shot in computers. Bologna, cybernetics—these things would forever be beyond Marco, despite his having two proper arms, with hands at the end of each of them.

Malvadi could be violent.  It frightened Marie-Celeste to hear her husband rant about Otto; she could see the fury in him from the way his throat turned red.  It was prudent to pretend to commiserate.  “Oh, yes.  I see how unfair it is.”  Marco, encouraged, fulminated.   “A boy with no arms or hands and with an extra pair of legs to boot—such a creature doesn’t deserve to be happy let alone successful.  I tell you, too many allowances were made.  People are sentimental; it made them feel good to go out of their way for him.  Quattro got all kinds of breaks.”  “Yes, of course,” murmured Marie-Celeste soothingly.  “Oh, the poor thing, they’d sigh.  But a guy like Marco Malvadi, he never catches a single break, does he?”  “No,” whispered Marie-Celeste.  Marco would strike the table.  “Look,” he’d say threateningly, “never mention this to anybody.  You hear me?

Otto sought out Marco because an odd notion had taken possession of him.  Once he realized what Francisco was telling him, he suddenly understood why Marco had hated him, the suffering behind it.  Suffering—that was what the dwarf Lezcano was telling him about.  Not just that of people like them, the malformed, but all people, everything that lives and dies.  The phrase “human misery” had always been an abstraction to Otto but now he felt as if he had been thrown into a ocean of it, unsuspected fathoms of misery.  Was this, Otto wondered, what the Buddha felt in the shade of that famous tree?

Francisco Lezcano told Otto what would have become of him had he been born in any other generation, even if he come into the world just twenty years earlier, a world where nobody had heard of the rights of the afflicted, one without computers and trackpads.  The Spartans would have tossed him off a cliff; the Athenians would have abandoned him on a mountainside; he’d have been thought the consequence of sorcery, a curse, the punishment for some sin; he’d have been thrown into a hell-hole with the mad and the imbecile—or dressed up in a hunting suit to absorb the mockery of drunken courtiers.  Because Malvadi thought in the old way what could he do but hate a happy Otto whose every triumph was an affront and contrary to nature?

Otto had pictured himself compassionately explaining all this to Marco, apologizing to him, humbling himself.  Then, as if Dostoyevsky were writing the scene, they would embrace, cry together, and be reconciled.

Malvadi came to the door.  He was barefoot, dressed in a work shirt and a pair of old, stained shorts.  A little boy with a filthy face peered out from between his father’s legs.

“What do you want?” he demanded.

Otto looked up at Marco’s red throat, his crossed arms, furrowed brow, and realized the utter absurdity of his fantasy.

“Merely to wish you well,” he said softly.  “Only that, Marco.  To wish you and your family well.”

 


 

3. Écriture à la Lumière: Quintette Episodique en Do Mineur pour Appareil Photographique et Stylos à Plume, Opus Posthume, Esthétique, Fétichiste

The Moliston Gallery in Chicago.  One hundred and seventeen photographs by the late Owen Klein, for twenty-two years official photographer of Bollinger College. All the photographs are of fountain pens and all are priced at $700.  It’s hard to believe there were only four subjects:  his old Esterbrook from elementary school, a black and green Pelikan 400, an antique Mont Blanc Meisterstück, and a handsome old Waterman Stalwart Blue Pearl.  The pictures are astoundingly varied and fascinating.  In black and white, color, with drapery, indoors, outdoors, in all sorts of light, raw, retouched, with nectarines, an ice skate, a ballet slipper, lying on a doll house bed, a pool table, a woman’s belly. Owen’s Rouen Cathedral, Owen’s hay stacks.

Moliston’s catalogue begins with a poem—or at least part of a poem—by Elvira Bennet.  I found it in the box where Owen secreted his fountain pen photographs.  I haven’t attempted to trace Ms. Bennet.  The gallery thought it might be a copyright violation but I told them I didn’t care.  If somebody sues, let them sue me.


I write with a German fountain pen,
my one link to tradition and a
black memento of my freakish tastes.

My  hand squeezes the pen too tightly; it
seems writing rubs my middle finger
the wrong way.  Inditing leaves calluses.

Aghast, I hasten to lift the nib: 
each sentence a slash, each clause a stab. 
The paper aches as from a crude tattoo.

Fountain pen? Inkwell?  Oh, what fathoms
of hope redolent of Helicon’s springs! 
The Muses’ liquid lips breathe holy lies.

Writing is a perpetual war
with an infinite number of truces. 
I’m a coward who won’t desert her post.

 

“This is stupid.”

“Of course it is.  It’s a sci fi film made for drive-ins in 1954.  Why’s this particularly stupid?”            

“Because there’s no such thing as a ‘Collective Id’ and anyway, if there were, it wouldn’t look like a cloud of Velveeta and swallow space ships.”

“Or scientists.”

“Or blondes.”

I met Owen’s sister at a mixer when I was in my first year of dental school and she was a junior Education major commuting from her suburban home.  Owen was a high school sophomore.  Once I’d passed muster, I was invited to stay over on the occasional Saturday night; this meant sleeping in the second twin bed in Owen’s room. We bonded over Creature Feature.  After his sister retired for the night, we’d stay up watching horror movies.

I suppose I loved my brother-in-law though I can’t claim to have known him.  Perhaps I knew him best when he was a teenager. One night back then he tried to explain himself to me; or perhaps I was merely the catalyst and he was working out his theory while he talked.  What he talked about was his solitude which, with adolescent pride and pretension, he called “my decided anti-sociability.”  Owen was a boy who read Nietzsche, Kafka, and Camus and was sure they were reading him.

“When I was twelve, I wanted to be a writer.  That was what I wanted most.  But I gave up on that,” he confided.  “I’m going to be a photographer.  That was decided by my bar mitzvah.”

One photo of the blue Waterman is nearly pornographic.  Owen had draped over it a pair of sheer panties.  Pink ones.  In another, the Pelikan sits on a communion plate set on a purple altar cloth.  In yet another, the Mont Blanc seems to float in thin air above a card calligraphed with the following quotation:  “There is neither lighter burden, nor more agreeable, than a pen. – Petrarch”. There’s one picture of his old Esterbrook set on a workbench, all shined up, next to a ball peen hammer and a cheap Bic that’s been bashed to smithereens. It too has a card:  “Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane. – Graham Greene”.

Of course everybody in seventh grade used ballpoints, but Owen stuck with his Esterbrook.

“The move was a shock, a blow.  I wasn’t consulted.  I mean I’d been going to the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade.  I belonged.  I had standing.  But, above all, the place was innocent.  This new school isn’t.  I know it sounds backwards, but that’s my experience;  the city’s pure, the suburbs—this one, at least—rotten to the core.  I’m sure the cities of the plain were suburbs.”

Owen’s Esterbrook became the sign of his intractability, his developing, isolated self.  A correlative.

“It’s my leaky out-of-place self,” he joked.

“I think it’s because of the move,” he said, hands laced behind his head, as if discussing somebody else.  “I didn’t like the new school or the new kids.  And vice versa.  Mr. Shrewsbury—that’s my guidance counselor; he wears argyle socks and has his Harvard Extension School diploma hanging on the wall—Mr. Shrewsbury’s a man of penetrating insight.  He says I just don’t fit in. I really liked the just.”

Owen’s family moved to the suburbs the year his sister started college and he prepared for his bar mitzvah.  “The bar mitzvah was to please my father,” he told me.  “Anyway, Dad made this joke which I guess was pretty dated.  Apparently, in his day the traditional gift for a thirteen-year-old upwardly mobile Jewish boy was a fountain pen.  Dad’s joke was about a kid who gets nervous when giving his little thank-you speech and, instead of starting with ‘Today I am a man’ says ‘Today I am a fountain pen.’”

The day before Owen began sixth grade, his mother took him to buy school supplies.  In the store he spied a display of Esterbrook fountain pens, the kind that were made of fake tortoise shell.  Owen was smitten and begged his mother to buy him the same green one that appears in the photographs.  She gave in but drew the line at the bottle of permanent jet black ink he wanted.  “Washable blue,” she insisted.

“The old Esterbrooks,” Owen explained, “were really awful.  They leaked.  You had to pull up this lever with your thumbnail and it cut the skin underneath.  They didn’t hold much ink either and the pulpy school paper sucked it into these big illegible blobs.”

One day, when Owen was visiting with his father downtown, they ducked into a first-class stationery store so his father could pick up staples and paperclips.  This was when Owen learned about really good fountains pens, beautiful instruments costing fabulous sums.  He stared at the display through locked glass doors. Afterwards, Owen could reel off their names the way the faithful do those of saints:  Montegraffia, Pelikan, Tibaldi, Waterman, Visconti, Parker, Mont Blanc, Urso.

“I knew my Esterbrook wasn’t a good fountain pen, but at least it was still a fountain pen.  In the same way, I’m not a good Jew but I’m still a Jew.”

The obsolete often gets aestheticized.  Old fighter planes, ball gowns, sailboats, saddles, celluloid collars, typewriters.  For Owen, it was fountain pens. It goes without saying that he got pleasure from using and looking at them; but I think it went a bit further, though I don’t really know.

The word fetish derives from the Portuguese fetiço and originally denoted a magic charm.  Psychoanalysis adopted the term to mean a non-sexual object that excites erotic feelings.  Nowadays, the word’s neither wholly clinical nor anthropological and can mean anything in which a person takes a excessive interest, from sports to ladies’ feet to repeating pocket watches.

In one photo, Owen has stuck a tiny African-style mask on the cap of the Mont Blanc.  It’s as though he’s making fun of his fixation and wanted the viewer to exclaim, “Look, a fetish!”

Today I am a fountain pen. I assumed I’d get a half-dozen or so, maybe even a really good one, you know?  But I didn’t get a single pen.  I got a lot of luggage and cash.  It felt like my relatives were telling me to get out of town.  The best present was my Nikon.  Grandpop knew this guy in the business and got it wholesale.  He couldn’t resist telling me the price.”

After high school, Owen went off to Bollinger College and, except for a year at the Illinois Art Institute, stayed there.  He became the school’s official photographer.  He took the idyllic pictures of the Quad on recruiting brochures, snapped the football and lacrosse players in action, shot their formal team photos.  He was responsible for picture ID cards and graduation photographs, as well the official portraits of exalted administrators and distinguished faculty.  He also produced one “artistic” picture a day for the school newspaper:  Bollinger at dawn, a colorful maple leaf fallen in the Quad, snow on evergreens, cheerleaders posed like Degas’ off-duty ballerinas.  Everybody at Bollinger knew Owen by sight, name, and function; yet nobody knew him.  After five years in a small apartment, he bought a small Cape Cod house and, so far as I can tell, never invited anybody to dinner.  That is, his high school solitude persisted—with a single exception.

One Thanksgiving, after too much Chablis, Owen wanted to take a walk with me to clear his head.  This was when he told me about his affair with an assistant professor of English. Otto never mentioned her name, just that she was married; but I wonder if it might have been Elvira Bennet, the coward who wouldn’t desert her post.  Don’t most English professors write verse?

The romance began when he went to her office to take a picture for the newspaper.  Her monograph on Muriel Spark had just won a minor prize and the editor was doing an article.  On her desk he spied a Pelikan.  They talked for over an hour, chiefly about fountain pens.

“She told me something about Muriel Spark she said I’d like.”

“Remember what it was?”

It was sad to hear the pathetic solemnity with which he said, “Oh, I remember everything.” I may have grunted.

“She told me Spark was famous for never revising a word and for doing all her writing in spiral-bound note books bought from Thin’s of Edinburgh.  The interesting thing,” said Owen, “was that Spark kept several fountain pens on hand and threw away any that had been touched by somebody else.”

The affair lasted only one semester.  It ended when the husband was offered a big job in California.  She had either to leave him or go along and look for another place herself.  I didn’t ask Owen whether he offered to marry her.  He said simply, “I couldn’t give up loving her but found I could give up intimacy.”

I expect all this boosted the sentimental charge of his fountain pens; perhaps it even provoked his obsessive project of photographing them.

Both ballpoints and fountain pens are industrial products. One difference is how the latter quickly lose their mass-produced quality and become personal.  Muriel Spark’s case may be extreme, but no user of a fountain pen willingly consents to its use by another.  There is a physical reason for this.  Unlike the ballpoint, the nib of a fountain pen gradually accommodates itself to its owner’s manner of using it, and the longer it’s used, the more customized the pen becomes.

The first design for a fountain pen was made by a Frenchman named Bion in 1702.  In 1819, a Brit named John Scheffer patented a half-quill, half-metal contraption.  A Baltimore cobbler with the splendid moniker of Peregrin Williamson successfully filed the first American patent for a crude fountain pen in 1809.  In 1831 John Jacob Parker patented a self-filling pen.  None of these was any good.  A breakthrough was achieved by an insurance man, Lewis Waterman, who added an air hole in the nib and grooves in the feed.  After that, competition focused on the ways in which the reservoir was filled:  the button method, the lever filler, the click filler, the matchstick, coin, and, after 1950, the ink cartridge.  The latter had a brief vogue—but not with the true aficionados.  The people who liked cartridges quickly shifted to ballpoints.

The ballpoint pen wasn’t a new idea, either.  In 1888, a leather tanner named Loud patented a pen with a reservoir and a roller tip.  More than three hundred patents for ballpoints were issued over the next half a century, but none made it to market—regular ink always clogged and thinner ink invariably leaked.  In 1935, the Biro brothers of Hungary came up with an improved ballpoint which they showed to a foreign gentleman they met while on vacation by the sea.  This turned out to be the President of Argentina who suggested they set up shop in his country.  A few years later the Germans invaded Poland and the Biros took up the Argentine offer, pausing in Paris to file a patent.  What really established the ballpoint was the air war. Unlike fountain pens, the ballpoint worked well at high altitudes and didn’t need frequent refilling. American pilots loved them.  During the war an American salesman named Reynolds saw the Biros’ pen during a vacation in Argentina, imitated the design, started a factory back home, and struck it rich.  Next came no-smear, washable ink, followed by the retractable tip (Paper Mate) and a huge cut in prices (Bic).  You could say it was vacations and strategic bombing that gave us the cheap ballpoint pen.

 

Owen got the gallopingly bad kind of cancer.  He was stubborn and wouldn’t move in with us until the final month.  I found the fountain pen photos after he died.  Otto had never mentioned them.  I almost felt as if I’d stumbled on a stash of pornography.

“They’re amazing,” said my wife.  “Why didn’t he ever show them to me, to us?  She was impressed, also puzzled and hurt.  Me, too.

“Something private, I guess.  I don’t know.”

Could Owen have been ashamed of his photographs? I prefer to think he was proud of his work, knew its value, that he kept the pictures to himself not because he didn’t know how good they were but either because he didn’t believe anybody else would or that they’d be misunderstood.

The chairman of Bollinger’s Art Department called to invite us to the opening of a memorial exhibition of Otto’s weekly photo-chronicle of life at the College.  I said that there might be something else—less fitting perhaps, but far better.  I sent her fifteen prints of the fountain pen photographs.

She called three days later.

“God,” she said.  “My God, they’re astounding.”

A local reporter wrote a Sunday feature about the exhibit, including illustrations.  Two days later we got the call from the Moliston Gallery.

“Why not?” said my wife.

“You want to sell them?”

“Sell them?  Can’t they just make prints and sell them?”

“They’ll be wanting the originals, sweetheart.”

She wasn’t sure.

“It’s up to you.”

 

We kept the four pens, Owen’s fetishes, the ambiguous talismans of his alienation and its opposite.


Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction. His most recent book is a short novel, Losses. A chapbook, The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, will be out in 2014 and a story collection, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, is also forthcoming.


His work in Offcourse: "Count Mactenburg" in #54, "Luciana da Parma" in #50, "Egon Gleicher", in #46, "The Story", in #41, "Inter Scoti et Scuti" in #39, "Ostbrück" in #35 and "The Dreams of Count Wenzel von Geiz and the Jew Eisik" in #34.



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