Friday, January 18, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Sixteen

The day before I left New Haven, while walking the streets beyond the Taft Hotel in search of a liquor store, I had an experience that made a significant impression on me and gave my life a direction every bit as significant as my association with Wolfram and the result of my impending publication by Yale University Press.

If the incident had happened before I met Wolfram, academic that I was, I’d have likely seen it as dialectic between good and evil, Manichean in its implications. Now, I’m not so sure. Perhaps existential, perhaps Zen-like. Maybe even a result of Chaos theory. Had he heard all the details, Wolfram would have penciled in neo-Marxist. I did start to tell him, by the way, but by then he had his own agenda.

There was a moment when I did start to tell him, but there was a point in our conversation where I found myself teetering on both sides of a chasm, my own inner voices speaking to me with an enthusiasm and sense of being right that quite out spoke this dapper, quick man who I so much admired.

I was looking for a liquor store in the first place hoping to buy a bottle of the best brandy, perhaps even cognac, I could find under the circumstances and, with no illusions, as good a cigar as I could find in such a neighborhood. My intent was ceremonial and symbolic, arrived at with the help of at least one brandy at Christie’s.

My transmogrification began with spirits on my breath, was enhanced by my need for a shave, given further scope by my wrinkled shirt and a jacket needing a good pressing. No doubt my facial expression was visited by a certain wildness in the eyes, brought forth by the moral inquiries I put myself through and to the weight of responsibility clinging to me, Determined to show I was made of better stuff than to simply take the money from Yale and run, as it were, I nodded in recognition to Wolfram’s assessment: Facile, energetic, blessed with a good memory, but derivative. I took a nolo contendere plea to that judgment; I was a synthesizer, an in-dog-out-sausage man who’d had the stroke of luck to have produced a particular sausage a step ahead of his rivals.

Nursing a coffee and brand in Christie’s, I resolved to a kind of future behavior where I would be honest to my interests. No false modesty, but as well, no hubris and arrogance of truth for its own sake because even at that relative point, I was neither fooled nor daunted by the abstraction of truth. I was forswearing smarminess, false modesty, and action for action’s sake. Howard Camden may well be an arriveste, a poseur, and a man of extraordinary luck, but he was not going to build any edifice on so shaky a platform, Howard Camden was going to take risks and the responsibilities of consequence that went with such behavior, devil take the hindmost. Devil take the tenure as well, if it came down to that.

By no means your New Age acolyte or Middle-Aged hippie looking for an on-ramp to the karmic fast lane, I lurched out of Christies on that early autumn night in the spirit of Stephen Deadalus, eager to encounter reality and in the smithy of my soul forge an identity for Howard Camden.

Half an hour later, my collar turned up against the chill, I found the liquor store. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty; historical revisionists are not only factually right, they are morally right as well. That said, I can testify under pain of perjury to not interpreting the fact of the liquor store having a pint bottle of Remy Martin cognac as any kind of omen. It simply meant my ritual would be smoother, my prognosis for a hangover greatly reduced. My right hand brandishing the bottle, my left clenched for warmth in my jacket pocket, I approached the counter.

“Give me the best cigar you’ve got,” I told the man at the cash register.

“No, no, please,” the man, said, his voice even in those few words redolent of the East Indian exaggerated emphasis on vowels. His skin, the color of walnut-dyed furniture, was a handsome match with his silvery hair. “Please do not do this.”

“A good cigar,” I said, plunking the bottle on a rubber counter mat with an advertising logo for Camel cigarettes, “and I’m out of here.”

He regarded me nervously, lifted a hand as if to assure me, then brought forth a paper bag.

I shook my head. “No need for that.” I hitched my head toward my pocket. In the great clarity of retrospect I am able to allow for the possibility that the clerk thought I was indicating the gun in my left pocket. At the time it seemed an absurdity to me that he opened the register and began stuffing bills from it into the bag.

Alarmed at the turn of events, I shook my head and started to back toward the door. The clerk’s eyes bulged as he reached for a button. Surely an alarm system in some nearby security system or police station would be activated. “Not necessary,” I said, bringing my left hand from the pocket and spreading both hands before him. Some semiotist Howard Camden was, his hands now spread in what he considered the universal sign of friendly intent. The clerk pressed at the button again, his eyes focused on me. I nodded assent, thinking it would take the police to straighten this out.

I quickly saw how wrong I was. The button the clerk jabbed with such fury was no alarm at all; it triggered the opening of a larger cash drawer.

“You are please not to shoot,” the clerk said, thrusting bundles of bills at me.

Again I shook my head, which caused the man to begin to shiver. Leaning over the counter, he pushed thick bundles of bills at me,

“You’re making a mistake,” I said.

“No, please,” he said. “No mistake. Have nothing larger.” He pressed a packet of bills into my hand, topped it off with the Remy Martin bottle, and then thrust it toward me. “Look,” he said, dropping to his knees, then ceremoniously spreading his hands before him, extending his body until he lay prone on the floor. “Not to shoot. Total cooperation.”

I reached for one of the packets of bills, thinking to drop it and the others like it next to him, then get out of there, But a sense of great excitement squirted through me. Looking down at the clerk, I realized that I could do this; I could walk out of the store, taking the stacks of bills.

When I got back to the Taft, I spread the money out on the bed, arranging it in neat piles; There were some hundreds, a great many twenties, some tens and fives. I slipped the protective envelope from a drinking glass in the bathroom then poured myself a generous splash of the Remy Martin. Standing next to the bed, I lifted my glass in salute to the money before me. Only then did I realize I’d come away without the cigar.

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