So that the retriving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art
of a Conjuror, who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their graves many
hundreds of yeares: and to represent as it were to the eie, the places, Customes and Fashions,
that were of old Times.
—John Aubrey, Brief Lives
I’ve given the slip to those creeps in the geezer asylum across the road and tip-toed out the emergency exit when they thought I was taking a nap. It’s Friday evening in Squires Grove, and Burkhum’s Tap is crowding. I’ve staked myself out early at the bar and had a few Leinenkugels.
For a while I’ve been thinking about trying to say something to the guy sitting next to me. I want to share a few of my lives with him, but I can see he’s a very tired man. I’ve learned to be cautious because sometimes folks get the wrong idea when I start talking to them—like they think I’m trying to make a move on them or something. So ridiculous! It should be obvious to anyone that at my age I couldn’t even make an obscene phone call. It makes me feel low when people misread me like that.
When I’m discouraged, I think about throwing the whole thing over. Have I wasted my life, stuffing my brain with this horde of minibiographies? It was the one thing I could do well, and when you get as old as I am, you want just a little appreciation for what you’ve done.
Sometimes, I swear if I could locate the place in my brain where I’ve collected all these brief lives, I’d tilt my head and drain them all out through my ear hole into a bucket. Then late one night I’d sneak out of the care home and funnel the whole mess into the book drop slot of the Squires Grove library and start my life over.
But I never had the wit or strength to be a jock or a cock or a financial rock. Somehow I discovered that my only talent was for remembering the brief lives of others. I could do that, and I was a natural. When I recite these small stories to other people, it makes me feel important. Most folks don’t listen, but I tell them some lives anyway. I hope maybe they’ll think about it, and it might help them. It’s my modest gift to people; it gives me purpose when I thought for a long time I had nothing to give.
When I was a kid, my parents were drunk and screaming at each other all the time. The cacophony went on and on until—after a particularly wounding explosion—either my mother or father would stomp out of the house. When the fugitive returned, sometimes days later, the other parent would be lurking, ready to attack with vicious insults before making their own furious exit.
I was always left to tend one wounded, intoxicated parent when I was a kid. That was their strange way of being responsible parents—they made sure they never left me completely alone. One of them was always there for me. Every evening I heated frozen dinners, and the two of us would eat in brooding silence together in the breakfast nook. Then I’d pick up the empty bottles around the house before going back to my room to read.
One summer day there was a miracle. A canny traveling salesman got his foot in the door when both my mother and father were home and only moderately lit up. Quickly he sized up our situation and, burrowing into my parents’ guilt, convinced them to invest in the whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica for their “smart little scholar” son.
When the astonishing load of boxes arrived, we had no shelves to put them on—my parents were not good planners—so we had them stacked to one side of the front door. When the delivery people had gone away, my parents had another brutal dustup, blaming each other for this fiasco.
At first we were all intimidated by the huge stack of cartons. My parents ignored them, attending to their usual mayhem. Eventually I slit open a box and took the first volume up to my room.
I began reading from the beginning, skipping historical, scientific, and other entries to get to the brief biographies of people. I was transported by these small and great lives. The brutal sounds of my parents’ slaughter faded. Other kids were happily pumping their chubby Schwinns through the streets, but I stayed in my room and stuffed my head with brief lives. It became my full-time drill, reading all those miniprofiles in the Britannica from Aaron to Zeno.
When I grew to be a teenager, I saved money from grocery jobs and a paper route, and bought my own set of the Americana encyclopedias in installments, stacking the boxes on the other side of the front door as I acquired them. I devoured all the life stories in these imposing volumes until I’d finished high school. The Britannica was my father, and the Americana was my mother—the only family I could count on.
I also spent a lot of time hanging around the racks in Iverson’s Drugstore, scoping the latest news, sports, and movie magazines to get the dope on lives of prominent living people. The pharmacist finally gave up trying to shoo me away and put a stool to the side of the rack for me to sit on. Nice man.
I was ravenous for lives—politicians, scientists, actors, musicians, scholars, soldiers, writers, artists, clergy, entertainers, architects, thinkers, athletes, and other famous people. I wanted to know how they got into and out of this world while doing something important enough to be remembered. It is my vicarious pleasure to collect this information, and I always try to pass on some of these lives to others.
I’ve been drinking beer at the bar in Burkhum’s for at least half an hour next to this swarthy guy, and now I’ve decided that I’m going to give him one of my lives. I snap my fingers at him and cock my head.
“Got it!” I say.
He gives me a wary glimmer and leans away from me as I continue. “I’ve been trying to figure out who you remind me of. At first I thought, Carmen Basilio, but then—maybe Vincente Minnelli or Camillo Cavour? Then it hit me for sure—you are a dead ringer for Antonio Vivaldi.”
It’s just after five in Burkhum’s, and the place is full of weary, thirsty people. According to our town sign posted on the highway, 437 people live here, so Squires Grove is a quiet place. The grocery, pharmacy, and farmer’s hardware all folded several years ago, giving way to a Super Wal-Mart built in the larger market town twenty miles up the highway. Still, there’s the Mobil station, a small restaurant/motel, two garages, Burkhum’s Tap, and a VFW with a World War II tank mounted in front, its cannon pointed across the highway at the nursing home where I live now.
I’ve grown up to be an eighty-three-years-old man, and I require assisted living. I never knew how to have a girlfriend, never married nor had the courage to risk living with someone; I just worked jobs in town and spent my spare time collecting lives.
The guy beside me in the Tap is wearing spattered bib overalls and a grimy Milwaukee Brewers cap. He’s in the bar for a quick drink before heading home to his family to wash up after a hard week. He has puffy cheeks like Vivaldi’s.
“You look Italian,” I say. “Not many Romans in Grove.” He won’t look at me, doesn’t chuckle at my little joke. I suppose he’s heard of my reputation as a chatterbox.
But I’ve ducked out on those assholes in the nursing home, and now I’m on my fourth Leinenkugel. Every month or so I make a break for it and cut myself this slack. Otherwise I’d go bonkers, locked up with all those geriatrics. I’ve gone through three roommates, trying to tell them some of my lives. The last one attempted suicide, so now I’m assigned to a private room.
I speak loudly to my neighbor in the Tap so he can hear me over the television mounted above the bar. Other patrons are casting a wary eye.
“Vivaldi was a late seventeenth-century composer and lived halfway into the eighteenth.” The guy is looking panicky, so I hurry on before he can bolt. “You may know his composition, The Four Seasons. Probably you’ve heard it on an elevator in Madison or somewhere, but Vivaldi wrote a lot of other great stuff, too—concertos, a bunch of oratorios, more than ninety operas. He wrote pieces for lute and viola da gamba and pianoforte, chorals, even songs for solo voice. He made his living teaching music in a fancy school for orphan girls. He was an ordained priest, but he was always sniffing around the young ladies and sometimes the prefects had to send him away somewhere to cool him off.”
I invent these little twists in my biographies sometimes to give them some snap that folks in the Grove might relate to.
“Oh . . . yeah?” the guy says to me out of the side of his mouth. He still hasn’t looked at me.
“What’s your name?” I ask. “Mine’s Cyril.” I stick my hand out for a shake.
He’s slow to respond, but at last he says, “Vern,” and holds out some limp fingers for me to grasp.
“Well, Vern, let me tell you a little more that might surprise you. Vivaldi apparently had some influence on Johann Sebastian Bach. They lived around the same time, and scholars have found transcriptions of Vivaldi’s music in Bach’s hand. They never met, but it seems like Bach might have taken some leads from Vivaldi. Bach wrote a lot of music, and he was a sexy guy, too, but he wasn’t hung up being a priest like Vivaldi. He had twenty-two kids.”
Vern finally gives me a quick flash, to make sure I don’t seem too dangerous, then he swishes his drink around and drains it to the cubes. It looks like a double J. D. That was my father’s drink—starting around nine in the morning.
“Vivaldi was a grouchy guy,” I hurry on, “he was always stewing about things. Maybe chastity made him irritable. He used to pack a knife in his cloak, and if anyone messed with him on the street in Venice, he’d back them off fast.” I’m pumping this part up too, trying to make things interesting for Vern, but I see he’s trying to signal Burkhum for his tab.
“I got to go see to my milking,” he explains from the side of his mouth.
I hurry on, “One time Vivaldi sliced up a gondolier for shortchanging him, but they let him off without a charge because he was in the middle of composing an oratorio for the king. In those days governments sometimes gave you a little credit for being artistic.”
Burkhum comes over—but before Vern can ask for his bill, I say, “Hey, Burkhum, give me another Leinie, and I’d like to buy Vern here another of whatever he’s drinking.” Vern relaxes just a little now. Double mixed drinks cost four big ones in the Tap, and Burkhum puts out fresh popcorn in big bowls on Friday nights.
“Maybe you don’t favor music, Vern,” I say. “I see you’re wearing a Brewer hat. How about a little baseball? You know you look a little like Cookie Lavagetto, too?” Vern is starting to look uneasy again. Burkhum brings our drinks, and Vern takes a big pull on his double. I go on talking.
“Cookie came up with the Pirates in ’34, and then was traded to Brooklyn in ’37. He became the Dodger’s regular third baseman in ’39 and hit three hundred. But in a few years he got drafted for the war and didn’t get back to baseball until ’46. Mostly he warmed the bench for the Dodgers because they had Spider Jorgensen playing third. In the ’47 Series against the Yankees, in the fourth game Floyd Bevans is tossing a no-hitter in the ninth, but he walks the first two guys. The Dodgers put Cookie in to pinch hit, and he smacks a double off the right field wall to ruin Bevans’s no-hitter and beat the Yankees two to one. Cookie is king of Brooklyn.
“How did the Dodgers thank Lavagetto for this? They released him the next season. He’d given them everything he had. Baseball’s like Russian communism. You get the red star one day, and you disappear the next.”
Vern seems a little more interested in this biography, but he is still leaning away like he’s expecting me to explode at any minute.
“Hey, Vern,” I say. “Am I boring you? That’s all I know about Cookie Lavegetto and Antonio Vivaldi. Would you like to know what I know about Alfred Sisley or Buck Clayton? Harold Stassen? Cagliostro? Sarah Teasdale? St. James the Greater? Amelita Galli-Curci? How about Sonny Tufts? Sister Kenny? Maybe you like those Italians. Cosimo dé Medici? Boom Boom Mancini? Johnny Antonelli? Amedeo Modigliani?”
But Vern is gone. He knocks his glass over making his break and spills ice cubes down the bar. Everyone’s looking at me, and I feel like a backhoe on a wet clay court.
What the hell is wrong with me? Why do I go on gassing like this? Why can’t I just stay in my room and keep my trap shut? Because I have all this stuff in my head—I’ve got to let some of it out once in a while. What the hell! I’m keeper of the lives! But I’m like a guy who mucks out barns for a living. People stand clear of me.
Burkhum brings me the bill. “Bring me another Leinie, please,” I ask him.
“That’s enough today, Cyril,” he says. “The nurses are going to be in here looking for you in a minute, and they’re going to give me holy hell as it is.”
“Well, I don’t want to be a problem for you. Hey, Burkhum, did anyone ever tell you, you look like Sinclair Lewis?” Burkhum quick-steps away.
Just as I’m fixing to put on my stocking cap and leave the Tap, a guy I know from the nursing home comes in the door. His name is Nobleson. He lives in the “self-sufficient” section and can take a powder anytime he wants. He doesn’t have to sneak out like I do. Nobleson checks out the crowd and sees me waving to him. He hesitates, but then heads over because he knows I’ve got dough and will buy him a drink.
“Nobleson,” I greet him. “How’re you, buddy-boy? Sit down here for a minute. What are you drinking? You know, when you were walking over here, I was thinking that you look like Arthur Godfrey?”
Nobleson knows what’s up, so he steers me in a direction he favors more. “Not me,” he says. “You’re thinking about somebody else. I’ve always been told that I look like young Van Johnson.”
“Now there’s a guy!” I say to Nobleson.
Burkhum has approached us. “Double Old Crow on ice,” Nobleson tells him.
“And give me another Leinie,” I say.
“Crow coming up,” says Burkhum, “but no Leinie for you, Cyril. You need a nap.”
Burkhum is sometimes an obscenity. “Burkhum,” I say to him. “You remind me of George Jeffreys. You know who he was?”
Burkhum wipes the bar in front of us, but he doesn’t answer.
“He was the hanging judge for King James, the ‘Bloody Assizer,’ the keeper of the seal. The king’s muscle. He’d swing anyone from the gallows if they mouthed off about the king. No questions asked—and no defense allowed.”
“Sure, Cyril,” Burkhum says. “And I’ll be a bloody abettor if I give you another Leinie.” Burkhum might be a prick, but I have to admit, he has some swift. He attended the university in Madison for a year when he was younger.
“But you!” I turn back to Nobleson, “You are a ringer for young Van Johnson.”
I have to admit here though, I’m in a bit of a panic, scuffling with my gray cells, trying to come up with the goods on Johnson. I’m getting just a little rusty as I get older. I haven’t thought about Van Johnson in years, and the four Leinies have addled me—but there’s some Johnson stuff in there, I know it, and I can feel it beginning to shake loose—the filamentous branching of my neurons is extending. Then—aha! Bingo.
“The Human Comedy, now wasn’t Van Johnson in that? He played a young guy going off to the Second World War. Wasn’t that his first movie?” Clickety-click-click, I was on my way now. “Mickey Rooney was in it, too. And Frank McHugh. From a William Saroyan novel. Schmaltzy, but pretty good. It was okay to be a little sappy in those days.
“Let’s see. What was next for Van Johnson? Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo! They liked him playing young soldiers. Hell of a story. Pilot gets shot down and loses his B-25. Johnson did a heap of suffering in that movie. That was a big one for him. Nobleson, you’re right. You do look like him. He was a pretty boy.”
I was buttering him up, trying to keep him sitting on his stool. “Van Johnson . . . let’s see. The Last Time I Saw Paris, with Elizabeth Taylor. He was a soldier in that one, too. Wow! Johnson was 4-F in Hollywood during the war. All the other guys were off fighting. I’ll bet he used to get more ass than a toilet seat when he was making it big. But then some folks claimed he was queer, so maybe he was working both sides of the pump.”
Oh-oh! Too much. I’d gotten excited. Everyone in the bar heard that scatology. I put that last bit in just to give the story some zing. Sometimes the lives need a little help, you know—but now I’m over the top. I try to hurry on with something else. “Johnson was born in Rhode Island,” I say. I think that’s actually true. I pulled that out of my ratty hat. Pretty damned good for an assisted-living guy—but too late.
Burkhum is standing in front of me, and he is not impressed. He doesn’t allow dirty talk in his bar. “Cyril, there’s ladies in here. You’re getting kind of salty. You need to go outside and breathe some cold air.”
Nobleson has drained his glass and is gone. I pay the tab, pull on my stocking cap, slip into my coat, and shuffle out the door into the winter.
Hard snow is flying sideways, but I don’t want to go back to that pissy room in assisted living just yet. I pull my collar up, duck my head, and walk across the parking lot to the Mobil station. A guy’s pumping some lead free into his pickup, so I walk over to him, “How you doin’?” The man has his head covered in one of those button-down fur balaclavas, so I can’t see his face.
“You got any money?” That’s all he says. His voice is sort of spooky, coming out of that big hat. I don’t answer his question, so when the gas pump snaps off, he shoves the nozzle back in the cradle, claps his arms around his sides to warm himself up, and hustles into his truck to get out of the cold. But he cranks his window part way down. “I mean it, brother,” he says. “I could use a little help.”
His covered face makes it hard, but I try to size him up so I can give him a life. I say, “You know, with that hat on, you look like Elisha Kent Kane.” I step up to his window so he can hear me over the wind. “You probably don’t know who Kane was. He was a doctor from Philly and one of the first arctic explorers. He got his party lost in the tundra in 1855, but he led them on a hike all the way out to Greenland. It took three months, and they damned near all froze to death, but he kept them plugging along and saved most of them in the end. They put his picture on a postage stamp, and there were parades and national celebrations, but you don’t hear much about Elisha Kent Kane anymore.”
The wind boots up hard through the gas pumps, and a tin “Self-Service” sign is swinging and squawking just over my head. “She’s fixing to snow good,” I say. I’d forgotten my scarf in Burkhum’s and was starting to feel cold.
“How about it, grandpa, you going to give me a hand with my gas?” the guy asks again. His tone is tetchy and uneven. “I’m running short. Got to make it all the way to Peoria tonight.”
“They’re talking more than a foot of snow on the radio,” I say. I’m starting to feel a little uneasy. The guy seems weird. But I still can’t help myself. “That reminds me. There was this guy named Snow—C. P. Snow in the fifties and sixties, a scientist who started writing novels as a hobby, and got real deep into it. One of those real smart Brits, they made him a peer, and he was always trying to mix literary stuff with scientific in his books. It was a good shtick for a while and he cleaned up with some best sellers. Snow. Not many folks read him these days.”
I can’t see the balaclava guy’s eyes, but I feel him watching me from the fur. I know he’s wondering which wall I’d bounced off of. That’s the way it is with me. “What the fuck are you talking about?” he growls deep from his cold throat.
“Well, good luck on Peoria,” I say, and make to head off. “I better get back to my room.”
“Hold it, pops!” His voice snaps off and shatters like icicles from a spouting. “Get in.” He’s lowered his window all the way and has a pistol pointed at me.
“I’m just an old man,” I say. “I don’t have anything that would help you.”
“Get your creaky ass into the truck!”
I make another move to walk away, but he shouts, “Now, geezer, or you die!”
I know he means it. I hobble around to the other side of his truck, pull the handle, and get in. “I don’t know what you want, but the folks from the home are going to be looking for me,” I say.
He turns on his ignition and hits the gas pedal all in one motion, and the car jumps forward. Somebody in the station flashes lights, but he doesn’t stop. He’s down the drive, turning fast without looking onto the highway. Snow is really flying now and beginning to mount. There must be four inches down already. He hasn’t paid for his gas, and he’s making fast on the slippery road out of Squires Grove with me in his passenger seat. He’s a mean guy, and I’m thinking that all the lives in the world aren’t going to help me now.
I watch the heavy snow twist into the windshield. We are barreling toward Freedstown through windblown drifts. “You can have all the money in my wallet,” I say. “There must be about twenty-five in there.” He doesn’t answer. “You know, Clifford Brown was killed in snow like this. He was a great jazz trumpeter, made all kind of innovations. He was helping some motorist who got stuck in a drift, and another car going too fast slid into him and finished him.”
The guy unloosens his balaclava and folds the flaps back from over his mouth. He’s got a greasy black beard, and a mouth like an open cut. “Why don’t you shut your fuckin’ trap?” he says. He’s a man who doesn’t care where he goes or what he does, so long as he’s getting away. He’s not even going to Peoria.
There are no other cars on the road. Decent, sensible folks stay home on a night like this. You can’t even see the lights of Freedstown through the blizzard. For a moment the truck starts wavering and sliding almost sideways, but he takes his foot off the gas, straightens it out of the slide, and slows down only a little. You can tell he’s driven in snow like this before. He doesn’t care.
I’ve got to do something, so I start talking again. “One time Jesse James and his brother Frank were up north raising hell in Minnesota.” The guy twists in his seat, and I don’t know if he’s going to hit me or shoot me. To make things worse, now my groin is aching. I forgot to use the men’s room in Burkhum’s before I left. I have to pee. I mean I really have to pee.
But I keep talking. “Jesse and Frank are taking what they can get. They go into a bank in a little town, pull their guns, and have all the people up against a wall. Some women have fainted and little kids are crying. The bank clerk is moving too slow and Jesse knows he is stalling, so he tells Frank to shoot the guy in the foot just to show they mean business. Frank blows the guy’s big toe off, and he’s howling on the floor, but they haul him up bleeding and make him open the safe.”
I can tell in the darkness that the balaclava guy is listening. I start to improve the story a little.
“There’s an old man amongst the hostages, and he’s not in good shape. He’s gasping and clutching his chest like he’s going to drop from a heart attack. Jesse sees this and he feels bad. He’s partial to old guys because his father had been good to him when he was a boy.”
This is whole cloth I admit—but I am out there spinning through cold darkness with this mean balaclava guy and his gun, and I have to do what I can do.
“Jesse has some mercy. He takes the old guy by his arm, leads him to the door, and—to the amazement of the people in the bank—he lets him go. Then the James boys make about finishing their business, scooping up bloody bundles of cash and running for their horses. But some of those town folks in the bank were cheering Jesse and Frank as they rode away.” This last is too much of a spin.
“Get off it, you old shithead!” the guy snarls.
“I’ve got to pee,” I say.
“What are you sayin’ to me? Tough shit!”
“I’m going to do it in my pants!” I warn urgently.
“Not my problem.”
“It’ll get all over your upholstery.”
We haven’t passed another car yet, and balaclava is whizzing down the middle of the road.
“We’re the only two people in the whole county crazy enough to be out on a night like tonight,” I say. “Except the sheriff. I know him. He’ll be out watching for anyone speeding in this weather. By now he knows someone’s skipped paying at the Mobil.”
The guy thinks about this for a minute and looks into his rearview mirror. Then he says, “Bite it off, old man!” He still has his pistol on his lap.
“I’ve got to pee!” I try to keep quiet, but I feel it beginning to seep into my jockeys.
“What is this? Grade school?” The guy is really irritated.
“If you shoot me, I’ll just bleed all over your upholstery, too.”
Balaclava abruptly starts pumping his brakes, and the car is slowing down, wavering and slipping as he eases it toward the side of the highway, and it almost slides off into the berm.
Cyril, I say to myself, this is it. Now you’ve done it. You’ve recited your last brief life. But I give it one last best shot—I say to balaclava as the storm batters around us, “You remember Neil Armstrong, the first moon walker? He was born in a little town in Ohio, and they made him commander of the first moon mission, even though he was a civilian. It was 1969. When he stepped out of the Apollo onto the moon, he said some famous stuff about taking a small step for mankind. But when he wrote a book about it later, he claimed he was really thinking—just at that very moment when he first put his foot down in the white moon dust—about his old father in a care home back in Ohio. He was remembering how the old man was always gentle to everyone and everything. He wanted to remember this so that if he came across any moon creatures, he’d know to be kind to them.”
This was the wholest cloth I’d ever spun. It didn’t matter. “Jesus Christ, old man!” Balaclava snaps. “You are from the moon.” I thought he was going to laugh, but he says, “How do you shovel anything that deep?” He picks up his pistol and points it at me. “Give me your fucking wallet and get out of my truck before you start pissing on my seat.”
He doesn’t shoot me. I stand and watch his taillights disappear in the swirl. The snow is driving hard and horizontal, and wind is slicing. I pull my hat way down over my ears. It’s ten miles between Grove and Freedstown, and I figure I’m about halfway. Out here the farms are so far in you can’t even see their lights. My wet underpants are freezing solid to my groin, and my scarf is back on a stool in Burkhum’s Tap.
Cyril, I say to myself, get moving. It’s only five miles. I turn and start shuffling back in the direction of Grove, toward my warm, little room in the care home. Who do I start with? George Mikan? Heinrich Kuhn? The Empress Marie Louise? Bingo Binks? Catherine of Valois? Ji Chang? Siegfried Sassoon? General Alexis Kaledin? Nelly Sachs? Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev? Gorgeous George? Ségolène Royal? Thomas à Kempis? Colley Cibber? Seutonius? Édourd Vuillard? Heinrich Heine? Barbara Jordan? Marcel Cerdan?
Elisha Kent Kane. That’s it. Cyril, you’re on your way to Greenland. It’s going to take a while.
Paul Zimmer was born in Canton, Ohio, in 1934. Over almost half a century, he worked in the book business as a bookstore manager then as director/editor of three university presses. He has enjoyed retirement since 1998, living with his wife, Suzanne, plus dogs and cats, on 117 acres in southwestern Wisconsin. Nine of his books of poetry have been published and two books of memoir/essays. He has received six Pushcart Prizes for his work, an Award for Literary Achievement from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, and two writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. He still shovels his own snow, splits his own firewood, mows his own lawn, and works at his writing every day.
“Brief Lives” appears in our Autumn 2010 issue.