Disgrace - Are they all going to die

Saturday, 31 December, Year 8 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

'Are they all going to die?'
'Those that no one wants. We'll put them down.'
'And you are the one who does the job.'
'Yes.'
'You don't mind?'
'I do mind. I mind deeply. I wouldn't want someone doing it for me who didn't mind. Would you?'
He is silent. Then: 'Do you know why my daughter sent me to you?'
'She told me you were in trouble.'
'I am not. I suppose one would call it disgrace.' He watches her closely. She seems uncomfortable; but perhaps he is imagining it. 'A whole lot of women, very much of your age, and very much of your build, not to mention entirely of your mind were very offended by me in Cape Town. They imagine this means something, or somehow matters. This is what they call disgrace.'
'What do you call it yourself ?'
'I do not call it anything. I am not interested in what they think, or for that matter in what you think. I also don't think you have the first clue as to your chosen pastime, or anything else. But that is a different matter, and besides, you well know it.'
'What did you do in Cape Town, before your... before you came here ?'
'I was a professor.'
'You were a teacher ?'
'No, I was a professor. A teacher is very much like you : too simple to make a practical difference, but deeply involved in the spiritual side of things. A teacher cares deeply about the animals in his charge, even as he has to put them down one by one for lack of the most elementary instruments of his craft. A professor, in contrast, is very good at the task, and very well equipped for it, but also entirely disinterested in the animals. Like the doctor, if you will, coming in one hour a week.'
'Are these children you are speaking about ?'
'For the most part. Some women, mostly children.'
'Why did you leave then ?'
'A man took me by surprise. He came from behind, and he asked me a question. I didn't have an answer. I still don't have an answer.'
'And after that, your life as it was didn't make sense anymore ?'
Perhaps Lucy is right. Perhaps he is giving this woman much too little credit. For one thing, this is the first time he had an actual conversation in what he now realises must be weeks. Years. He has better rapport with this village barber than he had with any of the bright young minds of Cape Town Technical University. He had a more intimate conversation with Bev than with his wife. Insanity.
'Your world from before was stabbed by an unexpected question, and before your very eyes it died. This is poetic. What did you... what did you teach, professor ?'
Wit. Wit from the woman with no neck. He felt enraged, and at the same time strangely calm.
'Romantic poetry.'
She looked at him, a kindling light dancing in the corners of her eyes, between the water of laughter and the shore.
'You're willing to help caring for, but you're not willing to care about the animals, is that it ?'
'It is.'
'Nobody asks you to help in any particular way, Professor. That is the thing with helping, you help as you can, not as you must. Nobody expects much of a teacher, it is true, but nobody judges him, either.'
She looks at him, suddenly exhausted, all the lengthy hours of the day, all the endless days of her mostly spent life coming out to meet him at the window of the eye.
'I don't need to guard my back against any strange men bearing unexpected questions. You trust sense too much, you expect reason will build a palace to the clouds, and for that you despise the meagre hovels built of lesser stuff. They'll never be as tall. They'll never be as neat. Perhaps you're right. One single hit from a stray stone thrown by a faceless face in the crowd can crumble your entire palace in the dust, you know. What do you do then ?'
'I do not know.'
'If you are prepared...' She opens her hands, presses them together, opens them again. She does not know what to say, and he does not help her.

He has stayed with his daughter only for brief periods before. Now he is sharing her house, her life. He has to be careful not to allow old habits to creep back, the habits of a parent: putting the toilet roll on the spool, switching off lights, chasing the cat off the sofa. Practise for old age, he admonishes himself. Practise fitting in. Practise for the old folks' home. He pretends he is tired and, after supper, withdraws to his room, where faintly the sounds come to him of Lucy leading her own life: drawers opening and shutting, the radio, the murmur of a telephone conversation. Is she calling Johannesburg, speaking to Helen? Is his presence here keeping the two of them apart? Would they dare to share a bed while he was in the house? If the bed creaked in the night, would they be embarrassed? Embarrassed enough to stop? But what does he know about what women do together? Maybe women do not need to make beds creak. And what does he know about these two in particular, Lucy and Helen? Perhaps they sleep together merely as children do, cuddling, touching, giggling, reliving girlhood - sisters more than lovers. Sharing a bed, sharing a bathtub, baking gingerbread cookies, trying on each other's clothes. Sapphic love: an excuse for putting on weight.

The truth is, he does not like to think of his daughter in the throes of passion with another woman, and a plain one at that. Yet would he be any happier if the lover were a man? What does he really want for Lucy? Not that she should be forever a child, forever innocent, forever his - certainly not that. But he is a father, that is his fate, and as a father grows older he turns more and more - it cannot be helped - toward his daughter. She becomes his second salvation, the bride of his youth reborn. No wonder, in fairy-stories, queens try to hound their daughters to their death!

He sighs. Poor Lucy! Poor daughters! What a destiny, what a burden to bear! And sons: they too must have their tribulations, though he knows less about that. He wishes he could sleep. But he is cold, and not sleepy at all. He gets up, drapes a jacket over his shoulders, returns to bed. He is reading Byron's letters of 1820. Fat, middle-aged at thirty-two, Byron is living with the Guicciolis in Ravenna: with Teresa, his complacent, short-legged mistress, and her suave, malevolent husband. Summer heat, late-afternoon tea, provincial gossip, yawns barely hidden. 'The women sit in a circle and the men play dreary Faro,' writes Byron. In adultery, all the tedium of marriage rediscovered. 'I have always looked to thirty as the barrier to any real or fierce delight in the passions.'

He sighs again. How brief the summer, before the autumn and then the winter! He reads on past midnight, yet even so cannot get to sleep.

It is Wednesday. He gets up early, but Lucy is up before him. He finds her watching the wild geese on the dam.
'Aren't they lovely,' she says. 'They come back every year. The same three. I feel so lucky to be visited. To be the one chosen.'

Three. That would be a solution of sorts. He and Lucy and Melanie. Or he and Melanie and Soraya. Rosalind and Soraya, caressing Melanie, on either side of her. They have breakfast together, then take the two Dobermanns for a walk.
'Do you think you could live here, in this part of the world?' asks Lucy out of the blue.
'Why? Do you need a new dog-man?'
'No, I wasn't thinking of that. But surely you could get a job at Rhodes University - you must have contacts there - or at Port Elizabeth.'
'I would rather drink bleach. No, if I took a job it would have to be something like a ledger clerk, if they still have them, or a kennel attendant. Or I could polish lenses.'
'But if you want to put a stop to the scandal-mongering, shouldn't you be standing up for yourself? Doesn't gossip just multiply if you run away?'
As a child Lucy had been quiet and self-effacing, observing him but never, as far as he knew, judging him. Now, in her middle twenties, she has begun to separate. The dogs, the gardening, the astrology books, the asexual clothes: in each he recognizes a statement of independence, considered, purposeful. The turn away from men too. Making her own life. Corning out of his shadow. Good! He approves!

'Is that what you think I have done?' he says. 'Run away from the scene of the crime?'
'Well, you have withdrawn. For practical purposes, what is the difference?'
'Whose practical purposes ?'
'Anyone's.'
'Anyone else's.' Then after a pause, 'The case you want me to make is a case that can no longer be made. Not in our day. If I tried to make it I would not be heard.'
'That's not true. Even if you are what you say, a moral dinosaur, there is a curiosity to hear the dinosaur speak. I for one am curious. What is your case? Let us hear it.'
He hesitates. Does she really want him to trot out more of his intimacies?

'My case rests on the rights of desire,' he says. 'On the god who makes even the small birds quiver.' He sees himself in the girl's flat, in her bedroom, with the rain pouring down outside and the heater in the corner giving off a smell of paraffin, kneeling over her, peeling off her clothes, while her arms flop like the arms of a dead person. I was a servant of Eros: that is what he wants to say, but does he have the effrontery? It was a god who acted through me. What vanity! Yet not a lie, not entirely. In the whole wretched business there was something generous that was doing its best to flower. If only he had known the time would be so short!
He tries again, more slowly. 'When you were small, when we were still living in Kenilworth, the people next door had a dog, a golden retriever. I don't know whether you remember.'
'Dimly.'
'It was a male. Whenever there was a bitch in the vicinity it would get excited and unmanageable, and with Pavlovian regularity the owners would beat it. This went on until the poor dog didn't know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide.'

He pauses. 'I don't see the point,' says Lucy. And indeed, what is the point?
'There was something so ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired. One can punish a dog, it seems to me, for an offence like chewing a slipper. A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a chewing. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.'
'So males must be allowed to follow their instincts unchecked? Is that the moral?'
'Are you in a hurry ? No, that is not the moral. What was ignoble about the Kenilworth spectacle was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature. It no longer needed to be beaten. It was ready to punish itself. At that point it would have been better to shoot it.'
'Or to have it fixed.'
'Perhaps. But at the deepest level I think it might have preferred being shot. It might have preferred that to the options it was offered: on the one hand, to deny its nature, on the other, to spend the rest of its days padding about the living-room, sighing and sniffing the cat and getting portly.'
'Have you always felt this way, David?'
'Have you always called me David ?'

The question falls flat. Like a meteor. Like a very flat meteor the size of the entire horizon, thud.
'What do you mean ?'
'Which am I ? David, or your father ?'
'Both!'
'You mean that if you call me David it doesn't mean you thereby forgot I am your father ?'
'Exactly.'
'So there you go. Yes, I've always felt this way. This is the way one feels, if one's alive. Whatever they may say.'
'I must say,' says Lucy, 'that sometimes I have felt just the opposite. That desire is a burden we could well do without.' He waits for her to go on, but she does not.
'It's pretty obvious. And I think rather sad.'
'In any event,' she says, 'to return to the subject, you are safely expelled. Your colleagues can breathe easy again, while the scapegoat wanders in the wilderness.'
A statement? A question? Does she believe he is just a scapegoat?

'I don't think scapegoating is the best description,' he says cautiously. 'Scapegoating worked in practice while it still had religious power behind it. You loaded the sins of the city on to the goat's back and drove it out, and the city was cleansed. It worked because everyone knew how to read the ritual, including the gods. Especially the gods. Then the gods died, and all of a sudden you had to cleanse the city without divine help. Real actions were demanded instead of symbolism. The censor was born, in the Roman sense. Watchfulness became the watchword: the watchfulness of all over all. Purgation was replaced by the purge.' He is getting carried away; he is lecturing. 'Anyway,' he concludes, 'having said farewell to the city, what do I find myself doing in the wilderness? Doctoring dogs. Playing right-hand man to a woman who specializes in sterilization and euthanasia.'
Lucy laughs. 'Bev? You think Bev is part of the repressive apparatus? Bev is in awe of you! You are a professor. She has never met an old-fashioned professor before. She is frightened of making grammar mistakes in front of you. What did you say to the poor soul ?'

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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