Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sack Street

Yellow means you like butter, nothing you like margarine. His grandmother made raisin tarts, primping the edges with a tea fork. His uncle Jim threw up at the supper table, leaving a path of spoil and desiccation spattered all over the dollied tablecloth. His grandmother had to use a wet rag to clean up the gravid smelly vomit.

Féile Scannán stood astride the Mabbot Lane bridge throwing scabs of bread onto the choppy black water, a gaggle of ducks nipping at one another trying to get a mouthful. The bumboats ferried in and around the mouth of the harbour, scouting for a quayside berth or shallow enough water to weigh anchor. His great great-great-granddaddy liked peach cobbler with fresh creamery cream and nutmeg. He worked as a coxswain on the Ivory Divvy, a whaler out of Mountjoy Prison. Oliver St John and Joseph Gogarty, skinflint and petty thief, worked the rigging and yardarm respectively; Gogarty known for his great round-biceps and St John for his thin chicken-lean neck. A man’s a man only when he can drive a plank spike through his hand without flinching. He had no idea why these men with hula girls on their forearms, salty dog men, didn’t just stay onboard their bumboats, play cards or trade tall-tales, fight over crumpled pictures of their sweethearts back home or get drunk on spiced rum. The sails were stitched from baleen and pytlovina and starched with Slivovice, Kontušovka if the menfolk at the Ceské Koruny Public House had drunk the Slivovice dry. Poldy never met his great great-great-great granddaddy or his great-great granddaddy, or for that matter his great grandfather, his father’s father’s father. The one, his father’s father, with the one leg, he met him; when he was twelve and angry that he had to sit in the back of the car all the way to the swimming hole under the bridge under the overpass behind the petrol station where his father’s father wiped the windshield clean of spattered bugs and grime. The other one, the one who sailed on the Ivory Divvy with Joseph Gogarty and Oliver St John, petty thief and skinflint, who liked peach cobbler with fresh creamery cream and nutmeg, he he never met; he only heard tall-tales about him from his father’s father, the one with the one leg and mean disposition. He tried driving the nail through the tight skinned palm of his hand but the nail slipped off and fell to the ground. He remembered his granddaddy saying ‘it’ll slip off if you’re hand is too sweaty... so wipe it clean before you drive it home’.

The sun broke through the clouds like a schoolyard bully pushing its way into the blue morning sky. He stood facing the back of his head; the Seder grocer’s window reflecting his image back to front. He noticed a whorl on the backmost crown of his head, a tonsure-like wreath that unravelled like a circle, leaving the impression that further tonsuring was inevitable. With this in mind he set out to purchase a new hat; one with a wider more generous top, a helmet or a brigade cap, something that would cover up the wreathing, allowing him to walk about at ease in the knowledge that his tonsured renunciation was his and his alone, not something to be stared at or made fun of. He knew a hatter who sold big, oversize hats, ones made for men with big heads and wide brows. If he could only remember where his shop was and how to get there. These past few months his judgment had been overrun with dower, useless thoughts, things that never made it beyond assumptions or simple conjecture. A new hat, perhaps that would levy his thoughts he thought, allow him to think more seriously, rid him of the uninspiring nonsense that tormented his thoughts day and night, night and day.

He was born in 1882, June 16th to be accurate. Then again in 1887 and 1901. In 1887 he was born and then died three days later; in 1901 he lived for days, three of which he spent smothered in the bosom of an aunt, a giantess with enormous russet brown areolas that squirted rather than trickled. (You may have Juan the race my boy, but your Carlos Onetti too many times). His grandfather spoke in ciphers; neutering phrases and severing sentences; deleting words he felt didn’t reflect his demeanour and adding those he felt did. When he spoke, which he did with bravura bravado, the tip of his gin blossomy nose twitching like a metronome, everyone within commonplace earshot stood up and paid attention, his great booming voice filling a field or park with an ear-splitting roar. He remembered listening to him reminisce about his experience at the fish company; regaling him with stories of walleyed catfish and rotten milkfish, neither fish he dare allow on his supper plate. As he was going down Sack Street, which he did Mondays and every second Tuesday, he stopped to look at a woman admiring her reflection in Sweny’s fanlight. What an odd woman he thought to himself tucking his shirttail into his trousers. Everyone knows you can’t buy pear soap at Sweny’s. They stopped stocking it after the Great Fire; razed half the block to the towpath. Funny how an old thought becomes commonplace once it’s thought about again. Suppose the day is full of them; just have to dot the t’is’ and cross the if’s. Like old hat like; but without the brim and chin-whistle. Mine was grass green and stuck to the top of my hair like a fly net; left bits of straw in my hair. Mom said it looked better with the chin-whistle done-up; made my face look less pudgy. Real cowboys wear theirs at a tilt; makes their heads look bigger; mutton chops and all. My granddad wore his straight-on; never ever taking it off unless he was sleeping or taking a soak. Same for my great uncle; ‘cept he kept his on when he slept, easier to make a get-away he said; husband can’t identify you if you’re wearing a hat. His great grandfather soaked his button-down jacket in saltwater and lye; gets rid of the fish guts and makes an old rag look brand new.

They drank their fill, the alewife bringing them four second rounds, at La Candelaria, spitting Whiskey and spiced rum at whoever got in their way. A plump fat woman wearing a flowered hat skips like a boulder across the dance floor, her cumbersomeness sending her caroming over tables and into unsuspecting laps. ‘her chin whistle... yank on!’ yells an colossus bellied man chewing on his thumbnail. ‘get out of the way, Lord Jesus... she’ll flatten you like a griddlecake!’ shrieks a woman eating a hunk of pulled mutton. Lela sat squared away in her booth, the tips of her toes touching the second and fourth table legs, her eyes squinting to make out the person leaning against the bar. Lord Murphy its him she said pulling her toes into her knees then clubbing them into doughy plugs. Leaning sideways against the bar, his head tilted slightly was Albert Scrim, rounder; a man with an iron heart and the morals of a defrocked priest. She held her breath and pulled herself deeper into the booth; hoping beyond wish that he wouldn’t see her, make her out. He ordered a third spiced rum, angling the glass to his mouth, a mouth beaten into a gory hole, and stared into the diamond-shaped mirror over the bar.

The last time she saw Albert Scrim he was forcing a boy wearing a propeller cap to kneel and lick the mud off his boots. The boy, his face torn between anger and fear was crying like a lost lamb, his propeller cap spinning round and round in circles. She pulled her knees into her chest to make herself seem smaller, invisible, the fan above her head wheezing like an asthmatic. Humphrey Champed, known for his crossed-eyes and wicker ear, stood admiring his phizog in the diamond-shaped mirror over the bar. Crossing his hairy ape-like arms and using them as a cowcatcher Humphrey Champed elbows his way to the back of the taverna. ‘you there!’ he says pointing a hairy finger at Lela, ‘what is your name?’

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"Poetry is the short-circuiting of meaning between words, the impetuous regeneration of primordial myth". Bruno Schulz

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