Monday, June 02, 2003

The Tragic Circus Chapter Three:

The Two-Headed Pig

The next few weeks unfold like origami swans into the usual long domestic hours, preparing and eating meals, cleaning the house or washing Lady Saturnine's old jalopy, which she inherited from her third husband (or was it her fourth?). There are bills to be paid, lawns forward and back to be mowed and the gazebo in the side yard is in quite a state of disrepair, when, Simon will you fix it? Time is kept at an even pace, measured by the comings and goings of Lilly to school and Frederick to his job, tailoring suits for the elite of the city, which leaves Soren ample time with his favorite and only nephew and the Lady Saturnine. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

In the dilapidated gazeebo, the three play a few rounds of Nerts, an ingenious little card game Lady Saturnine has been trying to introduce into the family's idle moments.

"It's all the rage in the Netherlands," claims Lady Saturnine though Soren has his doubts, having passed through Amsterdam on his way home (and carrying from there three cannabis cigarettes and a small thimble full of Hashish in the hollow heel of his left shoe). They are on their second of the three as a new hand is dealt.

"Personally, I think you made it up." Simon declares, puffing on a joint and passing it to Lady Saturnine.

"Nonsense! It's an ancient game. Egyptian of origin, I believe. She tokes. Devised by Pharaoh to pass the time while the locusts where milling about in the fields."

Soren and Simon giggle.

"Simon dear, you just dropped the nine of hearts on top of the eight of diamonds," Lady Saturnine points out with a sharp smile, hands the joint to Soren. "Do try and stay alert. It?s just like solitare, only you're playing with others."

"Oh hush, you!" Soren smirks as he slips the five of clubs under the lady's nose. Soren's taken to the game like the proverbial fish and has won three of four hands so far. He then calls out "Nerts!" to which Lady Saturnine replies with a thin, "Shit!" hissed between her teeth. Everyone tosses their cards in while Simon sorts through the three decks, tallying points.

Every so often though, this domesticity is upended and not just when Simon decides to paper the street with enigmatic words etched into lampposts, spreading a poem across the acres so that only a god would be able to read it but also by the heartfelt bickering of the two brothers. On a regular basis Frederick has it out with Soren over the state of his Kitchen.

"All I'm saying is, don't grate an onion with my cheese grater! All the cheese tastes like, like onion!" Soren is unrepentant though, leaving filthy pots and pans for another day. "He always was the messy one!" Frederick says with a smile to Lady Saturnine who pats him on the shoulder.

On Halloween Soren, dressed like a skeleton, chases the children of the neighborhood from door to door, distributing his stock of Japanese rice candy to the younger ones while showing the teenagers how to TP a house and pitch a rotten egg. "It?s just like a football. Only smaller."

One afternoon, Lady Saturnine manages to get Soren to sit still long enough to pose for a portrait, to replace his old one that has been hanging over his empty chair for the last twenty years. In his new portrait Soren wears an enormous coat of polar bear fur and stands at the top of the world, in a frozen landscape, one foot on a bear's skull, holding up the first daisy to pop through the spring thaw. Behind him is a magnificent sled pulled by a team of arctic buffalo.

Soren even accompanies Lilly to Mass one Sunday. He hits it off with Lilly's Priest, Father Jose and Brother Jerome, the Franciscan monk who tickles the organ keys. He invites the two over one night and the four of them, Soren, the Father, Brother and Lilly, stay up all night swapping stories, Soren of his infinite travels, The father of his missionary days in Argentina, the Brother of his prize orchids. Lilly listens to all of it and is amazed, not so much by the increasingly improbable stories as by how many bottles of Frederick's wine both her uncle and Father Jose manage to empty.

One night, Soren takes Simon to one of his old haunts; the only one in fact that still remains after all these years, The Two-Headed Pig. The old neighborhood bar stands on the corner, shingled roof askew, smoked glass windows at rakish angles, from which glows an inside-out sort of light. Despite protests from little old ladies and other prudes, the Two Headed Pig nightly fills with the sort of bawdy jokes and bawdier songs that flow in any pub, just as if there were a tap for them right next to the keg. The establishment takes its name from an Irish Proverb, carved into a little wooden plank set over the door:

If you see a two-headed pig,
Keep your mouth shut.

Gurney Holloman, the proprietor, produces a bottle of twenty-year-old scotch and slaps a shot down in front of Soren and one for himself.

"Soren, you dirty weasel! It's good to have you back! When your brother came down here a month after you lit out, well, me and the boys figured?Well, truth is, we missed you good and proper, all of us. 'Scuse me!" Gurney steps through the narrow door into the kitchen where a line cook pats him on the shoulder.

Stan, an older gentleman with a fondness for Hank Williams, saunters over to the karaoke machine and obscures old Gurney's sobs. For once, no one minds.

"Gurney and me, we used to have some times!" Soren chuckles, weekly. And it happens again. The long look on Soren?s face. The sad eyes. Simon notices it but says nothing.

A sudden silence drops a thoughtful shroud across the bar. It's nearly two in the morning. The Karaoke machine is put to bed and the jukebox turned down. It is now the time for long sighs. But none so long as Soren's.

"You look a tad blue about the gills. Everything all right?" Simon takes his fifth shot, smooth and slow. His eyes fog over until Gurney, composed and returned to the bar, slides another pint before him.

"Hmm? Oh. Yeah...." From his pocket, Soren produces a small notebook bound in moleskin. He lays it on the bar between them and taps it thoughtfully, "I was just thinking..."

Soren stares through the bottom of his shot glass at the dingy wooden bar. Through that even, down at his feet and the floor and into the center of the earth. After a moment he looks up at Simon, bloodshot eyes and all. "I was thinking that you aught to have this now."

He holds up the little notebook. "I intended to give it to you weeks ago. Make a big deal about it. You know, throw out some pomp and such. But with all the excitement I just forgot."

"No, that?s OK. There's no need, I mean..."

"Nope. Of all the family, you're the one who will appreciate this most." Soren thumps his hand on the bar, "This is a record of everything that I saw. And I wrote it all down so that I could share it. I shouldn't have been gone so long. I didn't intend to be, you know. Hell, I never meant to leave at all, really. But as I got near that grocery store, something inside of me? it was like a light switch turning off. I just couldn't go in there. I suddenly realized that if I had to put up with one more bland, sanitized middle class moment, grocery stores and mini malls and station wagons full of children, well that would be that. I'd be finished. So I kept on walking. I decided to see the world! Right then and there. I figured I'd be gone just a week or two. Just until I got the venom out of my blood. I'd drop the family a line when I got to wherever I was going. But, well obviously I didn't. I don't know why, really. A week became a month. Then I said, well, just a year. But before I knew it, it was five years, then ten. And the things I saw..." He sighs again. "Well, they're in here. All the world's beauty and tragedy and... Everything. This one time, when I was in Tibet." Soren's face, lit up for a moment by the fire of his memory, illuminates clearly the ghost of the younger man he had been. Simon can see him, as he was that night he left, peering out through his eyes. "At the time, it was scary to say the least. I was helping this Buddhist Monk smuggle his sister and her three children into India. We barely got out of Lhassa just ahead of the Chinese Secret Police. But looking back on it now, I wouldn't give it up for the world!"

"What made you come back?" Simon asks, "Not that we aren't happy to have you and all..."

"Well, there're a lot of reasons. But I guess what it comes down to is, well, I just knew I had to find my way back here one last time, before... Well before anything happened. I needed to give this to you, Simon." He places the journal in Simon's hand, closes his fingers around the spine.

Simon takes a long drink from his mug. "And they say I'm the poet of the family..."

"Oh, you are! That's just the whiskey talking through me. Whiskey makes even ditch diggers into poets. But the events of our lives, no they're not poetry. They're just life. Crude and wonderful and happy and sad." He sighs. "So sad. But that's not poetry, that's just how things happen."

"No! That's all the stuff that really matters! Real Poetry is Life. And vice versa."

"See! You are a poet. Everyone thinks so, so it must be true. Besides, a poet's more than just words on a page. It's how you look at things, the world. How you make it your own, with no regrets and no apologies. Life, see, it takes you in its jaws and chews you up and what's left over is, well, you. As for me, well I have no more illusions. I lost them all on my travels. And maybe you're right. Life is poetry. Or maybe it isn't but it should be. An act. Well, not an act. That cheapens it. But an expression of your heart and bones and blood. That's when life becomes poetry, when you can't tell the difference between you and the thing your living. I can tell that is you all over!"

Later, after all that happens, Simon remembers Soren's words and he thinks of them every now and again, every time he wonders why or what for. It may not be the world's greatest advice or a catchall answer for all of life's questions but it helps Simon grapple better with the unknown and unknowable variables of life to remember that someone else was there before him, just as befuddled and starry eyed as he is most of the time.

Soren teeters to his feet, pats his nephew on the shoulder. "Keep an eye on that for me. I?ll know where to find it, if I need it." And he staggers to the door. As he opens it, Soren looks back and smiles at Simon before he steps out into the fog.

In the morning, Lady Saturnine brings Soren toast and tea in bed. She knocks softly on the guest room door, finds it slightly ajar. Pushing it open she discovers him laying perfectly still, a slight smile on his lips, which have turned a soft shade of blue in the chill of an early November night. She pats his cold hand, then goes to fetch the family.

Frederick examines the bottle of sleeping pills, empty on Soren's nightstand. And there is a note pinned to the sheet tucked under Soren's chin:

Please don't think ill of me.
My life has not been exemplary
but neither should my death
be taken as an omen, or anything
but an unavoidable conclusion.
Not that, even. Just a passing moment.


"This was his way," Simon says. "A beautiful and tragic moment. And maybe it shouldn't be but that's life for you."

Everyone else merely nods.


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