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Dawn, October 3, 1849, Edgar Poe is found in ill-fitting clothes, not his own, in a Baltimore street, sprawled in his own vomit , semi-conscious with delirium tremens. Transported to the Washington College Hospital, he dies four days later, never having become coherent enough to offer an explanation. 40-years-old.
Here am I sitting behind the broad window of the coffee house: high, broad forehead, prominent nose, black-as-Hades muttonchops, ebony moustache…
For some months I had been ill, close to death, but then unexpectedly the illness receded (it was never precisely diagnosed), and now I was recovered, or at least convalescing.
I experienced the keen-sensed, all-over vision of one suddenly released from the death bed.
The 30 milligrams of laudanum I just ingested in the lavatory contributed to my vision while enforcing its composure.
Now I was smoking a fragrant panatela, newspaper on my lap, seated in a comfortable chair in the large, smoky coffee house fronting the busy thoroughfare.
I recall the great K responding to an acquaintance asking after his health; he considered himself fortunate, he said, if he could stand in the corner of his room and merely breathe.
In my present state, drawing breath, hearing my heart beat, even coolly observing my familiar sources of pain as I drew on my cigar, were utter pleasure.
I had been amusing myself most of the late afternoon chuckling at the sober-intentioned puerilities in the newspaper, bemusedly scrutinizing the ads and “personals.”
Most of all I was absorbed in observing the souls around me.
I positively fixed my gaze on the faces, several of which were of remarkable coarseness, even ugliness.
Faces I would normally have avoided for two reasons: I would neither have wished to attract their gaze nor have endured their brutality.
Next began the laudanum game, which I played for quite a while, of recognizing someone I knew in every face.
Often I knew the name, sometimes not.
It was dusk on a Friday in early May, the fragrant linden (Tilia insularis) and imposing chestnut were leafing and my window seat afforded me a perfect view of the throng outside—milling, laughing, moving, lurching this way and the other.
In fact my broad window was clouded with smoke from the cigars, cigarettes and coffee vapors, which, veiling my view, thereby enlightened it.
Through my window I observed the various clusters parading robotically in one direction or another, intersecting; laughing when one of their number laughed; shouting when one of their number shouted; the younger among them flirting so patently with their opposite gender that they might as well have been communicating in sign language like the deaf.
Composed and affable as I felt, the spectacle left me between tears of satirical laughter and simple revulsion.
After some time of abstractly observing my fellow humans en masse, I commenced to narrow my focus, scanning from this one to that, observing dress, gait, expression, mannerism more pointedly.
Not surprisingly, there was scarcely any difference between one and the other, a remarkable (and in fact disheartening) homogeneity, which struck me both as insupportably dull and potentially dangerous, as is the tendency in any mindless collective.
Drawing deeply on my panatela and emitting a thick wreath of smoke, my eye caught a male of about my own age who seemed not to belong to any cluster or group.
Nor was he dressed like the others; instead he wore a black woolen greatcoat despite the mild May weather and a strange woolen cap of earthen colors with rather ridiculous tassels which seemed either Andean Indian or plainly mad.
The cap he had pulled down on his head so that his features were not discernible.
Nonetheless, there was something in his manner which spoke to high caste, social polish, even a kind of eccentric grace, which drew my interest.
He seemed to be walking with one of the clusters, though lagging somewhat behind.
Without forethought, I dragged deeply on my cigar, dropped a few bills on the table, gathered my cloak and cane, and left the shop, all the time with my eyes on the strange fellow.
He was in the process of crossing the broad thoroughfare against the light, as I myself commonly did.
I followed some ten steps behind and watched him attach himself to the tail of another throng of young men and women—younger than he by at least twenty years—who were moving south on the wide sidewalk, cavorting and playfully jostling each other, mostly separated by gender, but not without flirtatious jousts back and forth between them.
They all wore approximately the same outfits: jeans, light sweaters or fleece jerseys, sneakers.
The man I was following—I’ll designate him as P—now trailed some five feet behind the youthful mindless cluster.
He walked as though he were trying to imitate their jaunty, sporadic gait, but not quite getting the rhythm of it.
It could also be that he was mocking them.
I tried to draw even with him so as to get a better look at his face beneath the outlandish Andean cap, but just as I did he made an abrupt about-face and commenced to retrace his steps.
Walking rapidly, he turned left down a narrow, darkened street and hastened along with head bowed, emerging at a boulevard as another throng, about the same age as the previous, exited from the movie house and were boisterously reprising the action scenes of the movie— sword fights, fist fights, loud manly arguments, with the females on the sidelines.
But who were these young people beneath their adolescent bravura?
From their looks, I would estimate they were corporate serfs.
Recently graduated from university, channeled by the delusory culture which encouraged their most banal fantasies while impeding their progress—not to mention independent thinking—in “real time.”
Ah, but it was a Friday evening in May, and so the heroic fool’s fantasy was afforded its time and space.
Moreover the fantasy play was at times rough, with the deflected anger that their monitored lives suppressed.
Lurking ten steps behind P, who was only a few steps behind the throng, I observed that one of the more raucous males noticed him and alerted a comrade—they both laughed loudly and mockingly at P’s mien and costume.
I almost thought (perhaps wished) they would accost, even assault, P, but their minds were on other things, which is to say nowhere, and they resumed their haphazard movements, still in imitation of the moronic movie.
As the two males turned toward P, I glanced at his face beneath the preposterous cap and thought I saw an expression about his eyes and mouth that welcomed their notice, welcomed even what violence might succeed their notice.
Once the idiot throng resumed their mania, P’s expression rapidly changed to disappointment, even bereavement.
So it seemed.
Now it had begun to rain lightly with a fog settling down, so that clear vision was no longer available.
What did seem clear was that after the throng refused to pay any notice—violent or otherwise—to P, he backed up, turned sideways and began walking hastily down a steeply descending side street.
Again I followed, even as it rained harder and the streetlights came on, enhancing the mise en scene’s phantasmagoric character.
P was walking so rapidly that I had to speed up to keep him in sight.
After turning left he turned left again down another steep, twisting street, then strode through a narrow alley that ran parallel to a series of small, rundown buildings.
I was myself familiar with that alley, a disreputable sector where males and the occasional female congregated to ingest drugs and seek out trouble.
P actually slowed almost to a halt in the alley as if to cultivate whatever trouble might be lurking, but by now it was raining too hard to tarry.
Again he sped up, emerged from the alley, then across another broad thoroughfare, finally pausing before a music hall of sorts.
Rather than enter the music hall he lurked outside, pulling his cap down farther on his face against the pouring rain.
Without an umbrella, I was by now soaked to the bone and considered giving up the fruitless tracking, when unexpectedly P removed his cap and greatcoat and entered the dancing hall.
In truth it was a restaurant-cum-dancing hall, a capacious room with a cynical-looking musical quartet of synthesizer, guitar, bass, and percussion, on a small elevated stage.
Hanging from the ceiling and rotating slowly was an incongruously large, luminous papier-mâché ball.
P was approached by a Maitre d’ of sorts who inquired whether he wished to be seated but P waved him away and moved onto the dancing floor proper, where eight or ten couples were doing the Rumba, which had recently gained a retro popularity.
What happened next was disquieting: P dropped his greatcoat and woolen cap on the dance floor and commenced to circle and then dance by himself, gracelessly, mockingly it seemed, without any regard to the sanitized Latin beat.
Before I knew what I was doing, I myself entered the dance floor and weaving, pretending to dance between the robotic dancing couples, actually took hold of maddened P—or imagined that I did.
He eluded me, or I simply missed him; in any case, I was grasping at air.
Instead someone seized me by the elbow—a burly man with a nametag on his chest—who steered me to the sidelines.
Then he said with what sounded like play-acting brusqueness: “What you are doing is not permitted.
“Do you wish to be arrested?
“Do you wish to be interred?
“You understand that there is a prison graveyard that resides beneath this very building.
“Reserved for those who have failed all the tests.
“Show me your papers.”
I glared at him through the dizzying lights beneath the grotesquely large rotating luminous ceiling ball.
I saw that the name on the tag pinned to his chest was Griswold.
Then I dropped my cane and from an inside pocket withdrew a carte de visite containing my photo and “title”, which I passed to him.
He gazed at it for a long time, then finally looked down at me—he was a large man and I was (am) five-feet-five-and-a-half.
“I know that face—it is Poe the madman who wrote ‘The Crow.’
“But that was, what?, 150 years ago.
“He is long, long dead.
“Dead, buried, his body turned to dust, ordure, stone.”
I stood on my toes and laughed in his face.
Then, since I was Edgar Poe:
poet, adored (like Jerry Lewis) by the prescient French
writer of tales grotesque, arabesque and ratiocinative
life-destroyer, death-preserver, hence immortal
I recited the following words in a language the YY dummy would never have heard before:
“Le vrai, Monsieur, ce n’est pas toujours vraisemblable.”
Harold Jaffe has published fifteen books of fiction, “docufiction,” and creative nonfiction. His most recent volume is the novel Jesus Coyote.
This story is included in issue #41: Freak. Copyright © 2008 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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