Me, through the airport, lugging my two allowed carryon bags, one packed with clothes, one packed with books. St. Louis to North Carolina—Raleigh—and Dante still in my mind after a three hour flight sitting with him as he recounts to me his journey. Rather, actually, just the notes for Dante. The back of Inferno. I know the text, but I plan to teach it next year, so just the notes this time. He's at the ice, I'm in the South.
A wedding. I've got a wedding to attend. I'll be the tall groomsman on the end, watching my high school friend John marry a girl I've met once. John left our sophomore year, a decade back, and I've seen him a few times since, talked to him on the phone, letters, etc. A childhood friend. And now he's getting married, and I'm going to be there, standing with him, watching, participating.
Avis, Hertz, and now here I am, Budget Rent-a-Car:
Hello I need a car please.
I'm going to drive to Indian Point for a wedding. How far is it.
Two and a half hours. OK.
No I don't want the insurance.
Compact is fine.
It will be back on Sunday.
On the right. Number nine. Got it. Thanks.
Toward the doors I go, and out I walk, and it's beginning to rain, not lightly, and I'm carrying two bags in a grey dusk while rain pelts my glasses and everything seems multiplied, curved, huge. But there is no car, so I trudge back, across the parking lot full of cars that companies own, in the doors, through the concourse, not really angry but wanting wishing to get started on my two and a half hour drive to Indian Point and beginning to feel, well, frustrated. And now Mr. Pleasant rises putting his sandwich down and wiping crumbs from his soft grey mustache onto his soft belly and greets me, big hello. I ask where the car is, so he calls Joe the guy who parks them and Joe says it's there, so I am told that I didn't walk far enough, past Avis parking to Budget, so out I go again through the rain again, and this time I find the car because I didn't walk far enough last time. I open the door, throw my bags in, jump in the seat, close the door, and clean my glasses. Where's the map? Two and a half hours. Let's go.
Three hours. It's been three hours. Jesus it got dark quick and these roads are so damned curvy and this fog doesn't help at all. At least it quit raining, but this car ahead of me won't go any faster dammit. These curves. This must be some joke something somewhere is playing on me and that's why all these curves and I can't tell because of all this fog. It's so damn thick and it's made my trip take longer I'd really like a coffee but where the hell am I when am I going to get to Indian Point I think this is it but what are all these buildings why doesn't the town put up a sign like every other tiny speck in the road does in every other state in the country? What are all the buildings why isn't anything open and how the hell am I supposed to find Indian Point and if I went too far and have to turn back I'm going to be pissed. Whoa slow down here's some place open hot damn The Cosmic Coffee House now I can call and get a cup of coffee assuming of course that they're open. They are.
So I go in:
No I don't care what kind.
Decaf? No, caf.
Thank you and can I use your phone.
Hello John yeah I'm here I think.
The Cosmic Coffee House.
I could barely find my way here it's so hard to see out.
How do I get to you.
OK sure I'll talk to your Dad.
Hi Mr. Cooper.
I got here but I don't know how to get to you.
The Cosmic Coffee House.
OK I'll wait.
Three minutes and there he is, tall, taller than I and lanky and his hand covers mine. He smiles and says it's good to see me. I follow him outside and I follow him in my car and I was only a block and a half from The Raintree Motel all the time.
I park my car and get in with him:
So how have you been.
Well that's good to hear.
Oh I'm fine.
Her name is J——-.
Oh she's fine I guess. How's John doing.
Good and how's Carol.
So they're not there.
Oh I'll bet they're having a good time.
And the men are eating BarBQ huh.
Well that sounds good.
Oh I'm a little hungry.
And who's doing it.
Oh so these are friends of Carol's mother.
Well that's really nice of them to do this for Carol.
We're there, so he parks the car and we get out.
In the door, and a low paneled room, stone fireplace, empty, a long table covered by a redwhitecheckered picnic cloth with empty plates—some gnawed bones, sauce, beans—and four or five blue plastic picnic cups, beer sitting in them at various levels. I'm expecting a large group of people but it is late and there's a table of men and women I don't know looking at me so I wave and Mrs. Cooper runs and hugs me and I'm so glad you finally made it we were about to send the state troopers out to look for you and then there's John, slim short hair khaki pants green knit red flannel brown boat shoes, walking up with a beer in one hand and a handshake in the other. Others, three, crowd about.
I talk to John, and to them:
How are you doing.
Yeah I had a time getting here.
Oh I remember Klaus.
Yes and I remember Henry too.
Well you didn't have the beard when I saw you four years ago.
John. Nice to meet you.
No I don't drink.
I had a coffee.
So the women are out huh.
And you guys have been waiting for me. Sorry.
Sure that sounds good to me. Let's go.
And so we leave.
Five men, and foggy, in a car: booze (beer and beer) and rootbeer (for me) and cigars. Back at the motel, whose room? Ours, Henry and I say, we troop into the room, cigars lit, I toss my bags on the bed, Ah shit I say when I see the No Smoking sign in the angled plastic picture mount on the TV. And John, cigar clamped between gritted teeth, laughter in the air, knocks the sign over behind the TV and What were you saying? Oh nothing, I reply, more laughter in the air.
Drinking: beer. rootbeer.
Drinking: more beer. more rootbeer.
Talking: The funny thing about letters is, you write them. Oh man remember when. So how long have you been going out. Have some more, goddammit. And then Seamus says. Hey get me a beer wouldja. Hey man don't forget you still got about thirty-six hours to back out.
Drinking: more booze. I'd like more rootbeer, but Dave grabbed the plastic two liter, shook it, and threw it out in the parking lot, so water.
Talking: Let's go out in the hottub. What hottub. The one outside our room on the deck. OK. In our shorts, I guess. OK.
They're in, warm bubbling water steams slightly in cool foggy summer night air, I'm standing on the deck finishing my third cigar, filling their drinks for them, pacing and promising to get in as soon as I finish the stogie. I finish, down to my boxers, and I am in, so I light another cigar.
I'm just settled, just comfortable, when Dave stands. Hey man what are you doing? John stands there and red-dotted boxers drip and he laughs and then he says I think that it's time for a little midnight stroll, OK? Right? and they all leap up and out to go with him and I don't see the point and besides I'm tired and I'm not drunk so I really don't see the point. So from me: I'm not going guys—see you in a bit. They walk off laughing, drinking, smoking: Oh man really Oh man! Four pairs of dripping boxers shamble stumble off, and I light my fifth cigar.
In my room, on my bed, I lie down. My carrywithme bag, that's always by my side with book or two and paper and pencil and quizzes and whatever else, next to me. Dante comes out. I read Dante notes. Wait. Should I call J——- and let her know I'm OK? Maybe I should. No the separation will be good for us. Best not to call. Dante. OK Dante. Ice. Poor bastard. Quite a meal he's having. Favorite parts. Grabs their attention with details: gnawing like a dog and wiping his mouth. Then I come in with allegory and symbol and do they relate? Read on.
Time, and I startle as the door swings crashes open and in walks Dave grinning and naked except for running shoes. And then Holy Shit! I say as he laughing says And look at this! and I look at his right cheek and the strawberry streaked with dirt the size of a hand and then I begin to laugh. In with Klaus and Henry and John in boxers and they are talking excitedly, laughing at John's ass. Cigars are lit.
In this little bitty town, and he walked down the street in his wet underwear, and everyone walked with him. All in wet underwear. Cars went by. They waved, cars honked and flashed their lights. And at one a.m. It was all hilarious. Up a block, and there's the kiddie park. They all run up. John wins the pull-up contest on the monkey bars. John runs over to the slide and whish down it. Into the dirt. He shows us again his strawberry, it is huge, and we are all laughing.
People dry off and put on trousers. John, gritting his teeth in mock pain yet laughing, leaves to walk the two hundred yards to his parent's rented cabin, now safely pantsed. See you tomorrow, man. Hey—and wash your ass. A few minutes, and the door—someone's at the door. I open it, and women. Hi Kate! and thank God I know one—John's sister. Any others? Wait. Whew. Hi Carol! How are you. John's wife. She's not listening to me. Of course not. Where's John she wants to know. Plus, it's been two years, and only met that once. Oh well be nice. Kate makes introductions. And Scott I'd like you to meet you Ththth. And this is Snsnsn, who's singing tomorrow. Nice to meet you. Kate's mumbling too damn much. Listen. Kate: … and Carol really loved the stripper we hired didn't you Carol? Oh yeah, she replies embarassed and laughing. I tell Carol that when she sees John next she'll be surprised. Oh great, she says. Henry and John laugh, and so we all do. Everyone parts. Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you. See you tomorrow. Nice to meet you. Bye.
Henry and I go into our room. Clothes off, down to boxers a second time, but dry now. The lamp is left on but everything else is off. Henry says goodnight—Goodnight Henry—and he rolls over. I pick up Dante and open to the back. But I close the book. I set it down on the nightstand and turn off the lamp. I settle down. And then, sleep.
The rehearsal dinner.
For an hour and a half rocknroll, interspersed oddly with the occasional latest popular alternative tune, songs boisterous contain the car, blast at me. Another forty-five miles to drive, but I've got four hours to kill. And I haven't eaten. "Winston-Salem" a sign tells me; hungry, I leave the road for the city. Downtown immediately, almost too quick, I turn a few times around a few corners, enjoying this new place, Sunday morning and open, warm, quiet downtown streets. "Visitor Information Center" I am told, so I pull over, get out, stride in, walk down, step up, receive information, directions, advice—Oh, what you're looking for is the Rainbow Cafe. You need to find the Rainbow Cafe and Book Store—rush back, slide in, drive off. Around a corner, and I find it, where it's been the whole time.
I am hungry, and I want food, but I want something to keep me occupied even more. Dante is almost done with, Dante is almost through; I've just read the explanation for the triune faces, with all due symbolism, can much be left? Into the heat then into the cool: Victorian huge house, with additions and curves and bay windows sticking out at all angles everywhere, a red doorway, then winding hallways, bookshelves neatly divided and subdivided, short hair cuts + glasses + loafers, all in a row, reading, and rooms cool and bright, empty soft chairs and well-pillowed sofas. I try out and put back Arthurian Symbolism, look over and abandon Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?, linger a moment but replace Concepts of the Kabbalah. Magazines? Oh they got magazines but the latest angry nude punk funksters don't excite me and this month's issue of Parabola devoted to Mazes, Labyrinths, and the Garden doesn't irresistably call forth my money, and news will be in my mailbox so why bother? Ah. I find what I want.
I pay the woman at the counter. I walk out onto the veranda. A pair of spectacles dart up over The New York Times. I find a small table. I sit down and look around me. Probably never be here again. I like this place. I'd come here a lot. Water is offered me, and I accept. What do I want? Beans and rice: curry. Coffee.
Sunlight, chatter, murmur, quiet. I am leaving Hell, the inferno, or at least the fringes of the pit, for I have read the notes, the bastard children of Alighieri and the mundus significons of torment, educating myself about a realm and a state, multivalenced, piecemeal and clutched in intervals, glimpsed as through a dusk, not viewed, caressed through spun wool but not embraced. Dante is out, I am through, so Dante disappears down into my bag. My plate, steaming, hazing, squats before me, so I prepare to eat. Food stirred, water sipped. I slide my book, fresh crisp clean, out of the sack's mouth, on the title page write my name and under my name 20 JUNE 92. Zen. Page one. I stir again, balance a mouthful on my fork, eye the first paragraph, and begin.
(revised 22 August 93)