Jan/Feb 2010 Nonfiction

Representative Men

by Stanley Jenkins

Lunch with the Rabbi

I was having lunch with Isaac Luria. And we were talking origins. And practical problems like how you find the skin and bone to control the divine influx, because, God knows, if it's too soft the damn thing flails around like an unmanned fire hose.

The guy who built the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington Roebling. Suspension bridge across the East River. Son of a great man. He believed the key was to make it stiff. Rigid.

I excused myself from the table.

The advertisements in the men's room were all from the same outfit. It was like being in a subway car. I could feel the ancient railroad sway. Everything smelled like Amtrak.

I went back to the table. The Rabbi wiped his mouth with a linen napkin.

"You never get used to passing between worlds," he said. "Last night I brought flowers home to my wife and she burst into flames. I almost drowned on the marble steps of the foyer of an apartment building I've never visited. I have an ulcer."

I thought about pretending I hadn't heard him. I thought about maybe just insisting upon another take. I thought about the sheer utility of denial.

"Silly Rabbi," I said, "Kicks are for trids."

"You do know," Isaac Luria said, "it's still going to be here when you wake up, right?"

I stood up then. Got out of my finely upholstered seat. And I said. This is what I said to the Rabbi:


And he said. This is what he said back to me:

"It just never was ever going to be any different."

And I said.

This is what I said:




I was reading Ralph Waldo. Emerson. And it felt like fire works in the mind-factory. Like all the shards of exploded ideas flaring into light and illuminating the night sky. It was all Fourth of July and self reliance. And I was appalled. I was offended.

At his insistence upon rootlessness. In this New World.

I waved Wallace Stegner novels at him. I screamed the name of the past. Not the public name but the secret one given to us at birth. The key to the code. I screamed that name until blood dripped from my eyes and the timber wolves drew near.

I saw an Old One playing fiddle in the piney wood. An old song. I saw him once before. Same guy. Same Old One. He was sitting on a log. In a mythological forest. Toothless and drunk. He was among the hare-lipped giants and malformed ancients who gathered eternally. The great assembly. The ancient ones who in riots and orgies weave language from dried tongues. Make up words and their meanings. Pass them down to us mortals. Through portals in sacred oak trees and in dreams. Laughing and whooping it up. Bawdy and bodacious and broken. In the forest.

They meet in the woods. The great assembly of word-weavers.

I saw the Old One out there beyond the camp. He winked at me. And was gone.

Damn old Ralph Waldo. Emerson. Throwing bombs in the houses of the respectable. Making me feel the call of the wild. Like I was supposed to be some damn Jack London.

Cutting us loose from any old homestead or root. While still requiring us to honor our father and mother.

I waved my American fist at old Ralph Waldo.

I saluted my flag and pressed on to the only frontier left to us.

And at the great feast—the great Super Bowl Sunday—I seated him with Sacco and Venzetti. And the Haymarket Martyrs. Wild haired bomb-throwers and anarchists. Shoemakers and clerks.

While me and the boys pressed on to the last frontier. Still riding with General Custer and Jesse James. Though I worked on my seating chart for the great feast in the saddle all the way there and back.

And the Old One of Concord just smiled his sad smile. Ralph Waldo. And he took me for a long walk in the woods. The woods beyond the lights of the town. And he didn't say nothing. He just let me be. And I did him the same honor.

We just dreamed together. Without saying a word.

Like I was as good as him.

So rootless and new. A couple of citizens of the Republic of Dreams.


Jack and Me

I was stone blind drunk with Jack London. Me and Jack. On a tear. And his teeth were all rotten. And his friends were all vultures. And he just didn't give a damn.

You can only pretend to be someone for so long. Sooner or later you're going to have to become someone. Someone invisible. Like for real and not in some story you write.

Jack had gone just about as far as you can go.

We were sitting on a dirty beach in Santa Cruz. It was night time and we'd built a beach fire of driftwood. All the street kids hovered around. Dancing with fire-shadows. Erased in stolen prescription drugs and earnest handshakes. They danced like flames licking logs. On a dirty beach in Santa Cruz.

I was seeing double. I was holding off the spins. Me and Jack on a tear. And he was wrestling with a stranger on the beach. He just wouldn't let go. It was like everything depended upon him not letting go. Veins were bulging. Joints were being ripped out of sockets. The two of them out there on the beach. Beating the crap out of one another. They were dancing on my last nerve.

I stood up. I started singing John Prine songs at the top of my lungs. I worshiped at a different church. I cut ole Jack loose.

I just had to get off that dirty beach.

When I finally reached the boardwalk, Jack was there waiting for me.

"Do you see what I'm saying now," he asked?"

I threw up all over his canvas boat shoes.

"I guess," I said, gasping for breath.

There was a sob in my throat. Like the gurgle of water down a drain. I just stood there and watched as me and Jack disappeared. Became invisible.

"I guess," I said.

And disappeared just like a diamond in water.


A Bigger Boat

I was lounging around in a boat with the Comte de Lautreamont. And boys, let me tell you, the waters were troubled.

We were studying sharks and sipping yerba mate from steel straws in gourds. The waves were part of it.

He was exclaiming upon jazz in some weird hybrid accent. It was all "Sidney Bechet this and Sidney Bechet that". It was all Bix Beiderbecke and Satchmo.

I was losing my patience.

I'd been sipping absinthe, listening to Kris Kristofferson songs. I was sucking wormwood. I was sniffing glue.

I screamed, "Eddie Cochran!" I invoked Cassius Clay. And Abraham Lincoln. I gyrated like Jackie Wilson and sprayed spittle all over his Montividean face.

I sang Joe Hill songs.

He was having none of it. He was a snob. Something about Madison Avenue and the masses.

We just rose and fell in the troubled waters. In our little boat. The anger growing.

But I'm here to tell you boys, neither one of us was prepared for the apparition.

The man in the gray flannel suit walked on the troubled waters in the moonlight.

I just reacted. The last thing I remember was ole Isidore yelling at me to get back in the boat. I can't tell you if I was swimming toward or away. But I was swimming, boys. With all the sharks. Looking for a bigger boat.

Looking for a bigger boat. Big enough for every which way I've betrayed some ideal. Big enough to reach some safe harbor. On some great getting up morning. With all these barnacles clinging and disfiguring me.

The Comte de Lautreamont just floated away and I never heard from him again.

He died young.

Lost at sea.



In this one I was standing on the tip of the island looking out onto New York Harbor. I was waving goodbye to a ship that was sending Big Bill Haywood off to Soviet Russia.

Some kind of forced exile. Or escape. I misremember which.

I had reliable intelligence from the future which led me to believe that the old wobbly would not fare well in the Soviet Union. He would die bitter and alone, longing for the long lonesome nights of the prairie. And the wells of whiskey and women. Pumping continuously into the hard-eyed mouths. Of fresh-faced boys. Beyond the sight of their mothers in mining camps.

It was the innocence he mourned. And the photographic-flash of mattering. The sheer joy of creating yourself and no one being able to stop you from doing it.

Big Bill Haywood was about to become invisible.

So anyway, in this one I was waving goodbye to a ship that was sending Big Bill Haywood off to Soviet Russia. And me and Robert Ford—that dirty little coward—were passing a bottle back and forth.

"Son of a bitch was a terrorist, you know?" I said, taking a snort.

"Yeah, I know." Robert took a slug of the bottle.

"Got what he deserved, if you ask me," I said.

He took the bottle back and looked at me.

"You ever get what you deserved, Pilgrim?" he asked.

"I guess not," I said, looking at the ground.

"Me neither," he said and spit.

"At least I wouldn't destroy the world because it wasn't what I wanted it to be," I said. "At least not anymore."

"Hell son, none of us would. At least not anymore."

I took a slug of the bottle, snuck another peek at him and decided there wasn't any meat on those bones.

Big Bill Haywood sailed out into the horizon. A reliable source from the future had it that he died bitter and drunk in some sad room.

Me and Robert Ford watched as the story played itself out. Passing that bottle back and forth. Just passing it back and forth, the ship getting smaller and the dream growing larger with every instant of its betrayal.

And a whole continent beckoned when we turned our backs.


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