The Bastard and the Bishop
Most of the city is underground—that’s how cold it is here, great galleries, complex, reinforced earthen walls, apartments tiered four levels down, sometimes five—the underground river bisecting the city, lit blue or yellow or green to denote neighborhoods, help drunken passengers ferrying the river find their way home. The buildings that do rise from the surface lean forward, as if heaved by ice, as if expecting something—some meaning from citizens on their evening above-ground passagiato walking quietly, the men in overcoats, hands clasped behind their backs, the women a few paces behind, bent, high-booted and scarved, as if the path these couples trace—a script cryptic, enigmatic—would one day, by dint of repetition, translate itself into sense—a ratcheting backwards into the old dream of 90 degrees, into dimly-remembered sunny afternoons, warm stone, warm breeze.
You impute more to buildings than is there, you say, but I say that it can’t be said that buildings have no intelligence.
At night they auction stories here, and the rich send their representatives to bid for them, buy them; therefore the cellars of the rich are lined with stories, some of them my own. I don’t mean stories I’ve invented or read; I mean stories of things that have happened to me, things I’ve told out loud—the fistfight with the man slapping the prostitute on the boulevard, the drowned dog eddying in yellow light, the first time I made love with my wife.
I never had the sense that these were “mine,” exactly. All stories, once told, belong to all of us. But in the buying of them, the storing of them, I do feel that part of me is lost, and in fact all of us, when we try to tell our auctioned tales again, stumble on the words, cannot keep the thread, abandon the end.
Friends of mine often leave their homes late at night, cold settling in from above, cross neighborhoods, blue to yellow to green, find the fine houses where their stories live, and pace—pitifully, it seems to me—in front of those houses, bright light flaring from windows like hyperbole. It’s as if merely being near their stories can coax them back, but I tell them it doesn’t work that way. The common ones remain in the cellars, the sexy ones in the vaults, and the ones heavy with irony in the poorly-lit libraries.
It is my belief that our auctioned stories speak to each other at night and are changed.
There’s a story I want to tell called The Bastard and the Bishop, and it is partly about me—but if I tell it, diaphragm its warm breath into the forty-degree air, and if one day at a dinner party you hear a story called Ten Bastards and an Archbishop at Fifty-five Degrees, say my theory is right, won’t you? And remember me, think of me: I was the first of the former bishop’s bastards.
By the river, yearning for an old friend, the cab driver wonders if he’s really yearning for an old friend or just yearning for an old friend by a river. Every day: pulls his cab over, gets out, stands at the rail. But this is no rustic shore: it’s a kind of violence, collision of concrete & water, velocity & garbage, but still he stays there mesmerized, the engine of the old Mercedes ticking, diesel smoke drifting his way.
The old friend he imagines is no one particular. A man. I just want to stand here,the driver thinks, in rain or sun, and have him come to me, put his arm on my shoulder, maybe say, “What the hell are you doing standing here looking at this stinking water? Get in the cab and go make some money. We’ll meet for a beer later.”
Every day he comes here like this, to the stinking water, every day at a different hour.
(Fragment from an Interview)
After the fracture her leg withered.
I was sent to speak with her. I remember it in black & white, somehow—she, propped sideways in a leather chair, her good leg thrust over it, her bad one tucked under it at a slant. I had on a white shirt & black pants, black shoes, and sat in a silver folding chair, a glass of water in my right hand, pen in my left, notebook on my knee.
I was sent to ask about the accident and her career, the concept of runway, which was hers no more, an irony in the word now—I was sent to bring out that irony for a headline. Young then, moon-faced; in retrospect I see that I was set up, naïve to her reputation.
I started in and she just shook her head.
Icarus, I thought she said, and I thought, O.K., I can go with this, fall from a great height, unthinking…
I can see a similarity there, I said, but say more, please. Icarus flew too close to the sun, he was warned, as your agent warned you not to go to Istanbul?
No, she said. Not that Icarus. Ichorous, and she spelled it: I‑C-H-O-R-O-U‑S. You know what it means?
I must admit I don’t.
Having the quality of a watery, bloody discharge—usually from a wound. From ichor. But do you know what ichor used to mean? A fluid, a heavenly fluid—running through the Greek gods’ veins. Vanity Fair compared me to Persephone once, the way I’d disappear part of the year, and it sort of caught on, and for a while that dispensation served me. But you know, strange thing. Ever have a horsefly loose in your house, came in through the open window, can’t find its way out? Can you bring to mind that sound? Every time someone called me Persephone I’d hear that fly, a shitfly, there in the background, as if the sound itself was some portent, some preface to the accident. And here I am, forever in the fucking underworld, and you have stepped into it, my friend. You’re in. Want to meet Hades? He’s in the other room. Come over here, sit right next to me. We’ll give you an interview.
Now: let’s go. Ever been in a Turkish hospital?
Get him out of the wind,
one of them said, and that seemed a strange thing—the voice that said it, one of them, becoming human that moment, as if there could be a chance that not all hope was lost. But of course hope waslost—there were just minutes now, and, facing the wall, away from the wind, the body itself seemed something to be cared for, grateful that it wasn’t in wind—that northeast blade of ice that had insulted it for twenty years! So yes, in the last moments there it was: kindness in a human voice and the gratitude of a body still alive, and it was still his body, and though he knew the end would be quick, and though he could not know how painful, and though of course there was fear and it was rising, something inside rejoiced.
Let’s organize a parade of one-legged war heroes,the President said,
fifteen years of roadside bombs, there must be thousands of ’em! We’ll dress ’em in bright colors, the lost lefts we’ll do red, the lost rights we’ll do in Air Force blue, we’ll fly ’em here, put ’em up a few nights—vouchers for drinks, that’s all it’ll take—they’ll march the half-step, we’ll goose-step ’em, left flank & right, and when they’re told to Close Ranks for the cameras, they’ll look whole again in the afternoon light & our great nation can forget…
Dressed in polished cotton, the soldiers came, did as they were told. Up the straight avenue they marched, young men, young women, slow but lockstep, eyes raised, televised, unwavering, arm in arm for support.
And then, as one, they fell, The Domino Effect come true, but not the way the generals had warned of it, been funded for it so long ago; there on that glorious day the one-legged warriors fell, men against women against men against men, arm in arm they went down in the clatter of prosthetics, the reds into the blues in one wave undulating down the avenue, the band on the bandstand antheming its martial pageantry of spring, cherry blossoms adrift in the brisk April breeze.
What about one-armed men, then, said the President. They can still salute, can’t they? Let’s make ’em salute. What about gurneys? Can we get guys on gurneys…
Gerald Fleming’s most recent book is One (an experiment in monosyllabic prose poems, Hanging Loose Press); previous books are The Choreographer (prose poems, Sixteen Rivers Press), Night of Pure Breathing (prose poems, Hanging Loose), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore, (poetry, Sixteen Rivers). His work has appeared in New Letters, Michigan Quarterly Review, Hanging Loose, Carolina Quarterly, New World Writing, Volt, and The Prose Poem, many others. Between 1995 and 2000 Fleming edited & published the annual magazine Barnabe Mountain Review, in 2013 edited and published the limited-edition epistolary magazine Forward to Velma, and is currently editing both the limited-edition vitreous magazine One (More) Glass and The Collected Poetry & Prose of Lawrence Fixel. Fleming taught in San Francisco’s public schools for thirty-seven years and has written three books for teachers, including Rain, Steam, and Speed (Jossey-Bass/Wiley). He lives most of the year near San Francisco and part of the year in Paris.