Or, The Postmodern Sterculius
"I suppose so," I replied. "As much as God or Elvis."
We were sitting on the floor in Columbuss's apartment. Light squeezed through Venetian blinds, streaked across his ebony eyes. On the hi-fi Sonny Sharrock was getting busy, teaching the air to move.
"I basically hate people really," Columbuss said. "They're all the same. Think about that. They're always the same."
"I guess so," I said, and Columbuss said, "When I turned twenty-five I decided to die each day for the rest of my life."
"Hey," I said, "Columbuss, we're all dying."
He nodded, thinking, rubbing his chin. "Ever think of the future, Rikkee?"
"I think about it all the time," Columbuss said. "For instance, death. Someone's bound to find a cure for it. People will last forever. And then they'll look back on those who died among us every day, who had to accept death, and couldn't live life to its fullest without the recurring knowledge that they would some day die."
"They will think us bold," I said.
"Or stupid," Columbus said. "Or stupid," he said again. "Or stupid," he said again.
* * * * * * *
I first met Columbuss at a cocktail party held in his honor. His latest novel had recently topped the independent booksellers list. When I heard that the party was at the Tobacco Warehouse here in Richmond, I called in sick at the bookstore and drove as quickly as I could get there.
The dance floor was crowded with wall-to-wall white people wearing tuxes and gowns and blowing smoke rings from clove cigarettes. A psychedelic polka band, dressed in green polyester jumpsuits and sporting mousse pompadours, was playing cover tunes from the White Album. The entire scene smacked of irony.
Unsure about whether or not I'd stumbled into the right party, I accosted and old black man in a white tux and gloves. "IS THIS COLUMBUSS'S RECEPTION?" I yelled over the din.
He nodded stoically, not even attempting to raise his voice.
"WHERE IS HE?"
He pointed to a precarious black man seated alone in the center of the room, who seemed to shrink as I approached. Dressed in a crumpled brown suit that matched the texture and color of his skin, he said hunched and trembling, clinging to a cigarette with a tiny birdlike hand. His head was small and grey with square features, offset by big tubercular eyes that blinked over a thin pug nose, eyes the remained in a constant state of flux. A book of Rabearivello's poetry in its original French lay across his knocking knees.
"Are you Columbuss?" I asked.
He looked at me, eyes ticking. "What led you to that discovery?"
We shook black hands.
"I'm Rikkee Buttler," I said. "I have all your books."
"Do yourself a favor," Columbuss suggested. "Tear the pages out of them and insert each one after every page of War and Peace."
"I'd like your autograph."
"I can't write tonight."
I looked at him, and he reached for my hand. My whole arm quivered. "Have you ever been alone at a party?" he asked.
"Not recently," I replied.
"I have," Columbuss admitted. "It's so easy being lonely. Even in a crowd one can remain . . . invisible."
I nodded, not knowing what to say.
He lit another Kool. "You go to school here?"
"Liberal Arts major?"
"How'd you know?"
"Would you like fries with that?"
"Now wait a minute--"
"Never mind," he said. His gaze swept over the crowd. "I live in my own little world. No one knows how stuck I am here. There is no escape from loneliness." His grip on my arm tightened for such a slight man, and he pulled me toward him with the strength of desperation. "How would you like to learn more about life than what those precious little books on your reading list tell you?" he offered.
"You can start by getting me the hell out of here."
"But this is your party."
His eyes inflated like two brown balloons. "White folks are vampires, Rikkee. The only thing about my books that's important to them is my autograph. Then it's back on the shelf with the dust and the others. They don't want my words. They want my soul."
I looked around me. A naked fat woman with a pink stole was dancing on top of a table. Five bearded men applauded. The polka band struck up a punk version of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," and dancers on the floor coiled and shook to the music like tall, standing snakes. The party had begun a new paragraph.
Rabearivello slid like an impatient child from Columbuss's lap, and I stooped to pick him up. Columbuss knelt with me to the floor. "Please, Rikkee. I'll tell you everything you want to know. Just don't let me die here. No, not here." I handed him the book. He clutched it to his frail chest, looking at me, blinking. "Be my friend, Rikkee."
And there was something in those eyes, those turbulent eyes, the way in which they reached out and seized me, all at once, by the eyes, eyes that told of distant places, horrible places, the places in his mind that were horrible, as if all the suffering in the world were contained in them, and suddenly I wanted to become those eyes, not by walking into them from the front, but from behind.
"Okay," I said. "What the hell."
He clapped his hands. I helped him to his feet. Hand- in-hand, we strolled out.
* * * * * * *
We were sitting on the floor in Columbuss's apartment, across from each other. Outside, the day was dying, burnishing the light a burnt umber. The next-door neighbor was pounding a nail into her wall, and I thought of the coffin waiting for me at the end of my life.
Columbuss was rubbing his chin, thinking. "You know something, Rikkee? A black man in America is a genius only if he plays an instrument or a sport."
"I never thought about that," I said.
"Famous white people are known by their last names. Famous black people, by their first."
"Hmmm," I said, and Columbuss said, "To be white is forever to be running from the black universe."
* * * * * * *
I drove him home. He lived in a tiny brownstone in the Church Hill district, down by the railyard. It wasn't the kind of neighborhood one would expect a writer of his caliber to be living in. Trash cans lined the sidewalks, where rats regarded us suspiciously as we pulled up to the curb. Laundry hung like phantoms from clothes pulleys, casting ghastly shadows on unkempt, dog-shitty lawns. And down the street, music spooked from some house, leaning its loud elbow out the window and rising in a tangled factory of sound.
He asked me up. I accepted. I'd never been in a celebrity's home before. As we ascended the spit-spattered steps, I imagined a comfortable, carpeted above lined with shelves or rare books and wet bar stocked with expensive whiskeys, an oasis of culture in this wasteland of indigence.
When Columbuss opened the door, however, I was greeted with the pungent odors of spoilt milk and stale semen.
I stood in the doorway while he ventured inside, stumbling blindly through the darkness in search of a light switch. He tripped over something I couldn't see, and a domino effect of crashes followed.
"Columbuss," I called into the void. "You all right?"
"Never better." He stumbled over something and threw the switch.
Light fell from a naked lightbulb in the center of a water-stained ceiling onto a labyrinth of filth. The sight of the decrepit apartment was even more menacing than the stench. There were books, yes, but without shelves, scattered in piles about the uncarpeted floor. One end of the sofa was legless, and its upholstery was ruptured, bleeding Styrofoam entrails. The kitchen table was ruined with chunks of rotten food that been nibbled on and left for the roaches. An open milk carton indicated where the smell of spoilt milk was coming from, and I dared not inquire about the semen. On one wall was a line from Prufrock," spray-painted in gang graffiti: "DO I DARE DISTURB THE UNIVERSE?"
"My hovel on the fringe," Columbuss offered by way of an explanation. He crossed to the fridge and offered me a bottle of Genesee cream ale. I took it reluctantly. "You'll have to pardon the mess," he continued, "but this is how I live."
I mustered a polite smile.
"Come in, come in," he commanded, "or you'll let the roaches out."
"A good artist," he often said, "must be a janitor of the world." And, "the only art is the kind that truly dies."
One of his fecal sculptures was of Mickey Mouse, another a bust of the President of the United States. "When we elected this one," Columbuss remarked, "we gave birth to a turd."
He said that the only thing society couldn't deprive us of was a good shit. "Think about it. Every day we lose another freedom. Down the hole it goes. But when we shit, we shit on society. We send out a message."
Over his see-through glass toilet, there hung a wooden plaque with an inscription that read: "Excretion is creation." An open blue eye was printed on each sheet of toilet paper. "The anus is blind," Columbuss said. "But it's the only eye that truly opens."
"Yes, I'm scatalogical," he admitted. "But being scatalogical is better than being illogical, and logical people are anal retentive. I know nothing about logic, Rikkee. What would be the logic in that?"
Whenever I'd ask him about his life and education, he'd counter by saying, "I have no biography." But I did learn that his parents, both deceased, had never loved him.
And on the wall in front of his desk, there hung a framed copy of his release from the state mental asylum. "My diploma," he called it.
While he was busy writing or conjuring up some fecal composition, I busied myself with the up-keep of Columbuss's apartment. I fixed the legs on the couch and sewed the stuffing in the cushions. I threw out all the garbage, swept the floor, and Spic-and-Spanned the linoleum in the bathroom. I even stacked his books in neat rows along the walls to create some floor space. His library included copies of Abafi, or The Son of Aba; Interview with a Vampire; The Death of Virgil; The Kama Sutra; The Tao of Pooh (the Latin version); and Horton Hears a Hoo.
"I like comic books, too," Columbuss said. They're better than the movies. You can blow up the world and piece it back together in one page."
Often I'd find him huddled in some corner, reading Dr. Seuss and rocking back and forth to Miles Davis or Sonny Sharrock, as though he were in some trance. Whenever some idea came to him, his head would suddenly jerk, as though his imagination had dealt his head a massive blow. Immediately he'd scurry about the apartment in search of something to write on, as though he were looking for a place to puke. "Words are the excrement of thoughts," he said. If he couldn't locate a scrap of paper (or "t.p." as he called it), he'd settle for anything with a blank space. Everything--his walls, ceiling, floor, and furniture--was covered with words. "Hell," he said, "I've got words coming out my ass."
He also liked to clip out newspaper articles, rearrange them, and then paste them in his novels. "It's important to stay current," he'd say every m morning as he deconstructed the Richmond Times-Dispatch with a pair of scissors.
"Isn't that plagiarism?" I asked.
"Nobody ever sued Dos Passos."
"But isn't loyalty a good quality?"
"No," he said. "I think it's a terrible quality. I think it's the worst quality there is. There's more to style than honesty, Rikkee. There is no truth to me."
when he honed in on an object or an idea, the world suddenly became a very narrow place for him. His brain didn't think; it ticked, like a clock, the hands in his head spinning madly. Wherever he went, whatever he did, nothing escaped that rhythmic ticking, those vacuum portals, the people who were his eyes. He was the first man I ever met who wasn't afraid of himself.
Columbuss laughed and I laughed. We laughed a lot in those days. The neighbors must have thought us mad, but we weren't. We just wanted things our own way. We were happy, we were alive. We had each other.
"Rikkee," Columbuss said. "There's something I've been meaning to tell you."
"You can tell me anything. You know that."
He shifted in the darkness and the darkness moved. "I don't know how to put this into words. For the first time in my life I don't know how to say anything."
I leaned forward, trying to discern the expression on his face. All I could see was the vague shape of his head, as if the darkness were erasing him, the shadows of the room wrapping him up in their long arms. "Just say what you want," I prompted, and Columbuss said, "I'm HIV-positive."
The room suddenly held its breath.
"You sure?" I asked.
"Positive. Pardon the pun."
"But they 've got drugs now. You can stay alive for years."
"It's too late. I'm in my final trimester."
"Oh, my god . . ."
"Death, Columbuss said, "is near. And I don't want it to win."
"But what can you do?"
"Die from something else. Something planned."
"No," Columbuss said. "I want you to kill me."
By that time I couldn't see him. Only darkness. And for all I knew, Columbuss wasn't there.
1. I had to kill him with my hands. No gas, no poison, no suicide machines. Just my hands. When I asked him how I was to do it, he told me to be creative. "And do wear gloves, Rikkee," he instructed. "I don't want anyone to discover what animal did this."
2. He had to be naked in the bathtub. Contrary to the condition of his apartment, Columbuss was very hygienic and bathed every evening at approximately nine o'clock. When I asked about the significance of the tub, he told me he wished to return to the womb, "where this whole mess started in the first place" (Columbuss).
3. After the "ritual," as he called it, was "carried out to its completion," I was to haul his sculptures into the bathroom and dump them, "one by one," into the tub. "And do be careful with the President's head, Rikkee, " he advised. "it tends to fall apart from time to time." After that, I was to abandon the apartment immediately, leaving the lights and the hi-fi on, and I wasn't to close the door behind me.
4. Lastly--and this was the most important part--I wasn't to tell Columbuss when I was coming. "It would spoil the surprise," he explained. "And besides, Death never sends a messenger."
I set down my notepad. "Columbuss, I don't think I can do this."
He seized my hand. "You agreed to be my friend, didn't you?"
"Yes, but I--"
"And you love me, right?"
"Yes, but that's not--"
He slapped a pair of latex gloves in my hand. "Then you'll do it," he declared. "The biggest payment of all. Friendship. It's in you, Rikkee. It's in us all."
It was a crisp autumn night, haunted by fog from the James. The sky was crackled into a million eyes. In the wind, black leaves scraped their nails along the sidewalks. The clacking of wheels on rails from empty trains sounded at a distance, and even farther could be heard the ram-like battering of boxcars as they linked up to slide across the mysterious prairies. A full moon slithered like a lizard up the sky, looking for the darker places.
A stereo banging bass emanated from a Grand Am parked across the street from the townhouse. The bright eyes of desperate youths flashed at me from their darkness, and the car revved up and pulled away from the curb, disappearing into the dead city.
The brownstone was dark when I reached the stoop, save for a tiny light in the rear that crept up to the front window to take a look at me. I hesitated at the first step, taking long tokes on my cigarette. The light seemed to grow impatient, beckoning me.
I looked to see if there was anyone around. The world was empty, wet, and cold, pausing between breezes. The smell of wood smoke clung to the air, indicating that people were in for the night, safe and warm, and my only audience was my shadow, which lay like an ink blot before me, stretching my existence.
Shivering more from nerves then from the cold, I killed my cigarette on my shadow and gazed up at the light in the window, how it shone like a beacon in the night, defying the dark like the last star in heaven, clinging to existence, but like all starlight, betraying the star, for the light that we see is old, the star already gone.
"Well, Columbuss?" I said. "It's time for god." And I ascended the steps like a vampire.
His robe was folded neatly on the toilet lid. His tiny slippers were set down, side by side, on the rug at the foot of the tub in which Columbuss bathed, naked and wrinkled and squeaking his rubber duckie. The light bulb in the ceiling leered down at me like a red-veined eyeball buzzing with bees.
I entered the room, my icy soul slicing through the bath water. He looked up at me with the face of forced familiarity old friends often wear when they haven't seen each other for a while. He appeared older than I remembered him, and I wondered why I'd never acknowledged his senescence.
"Why, Rikkee," he said oddly. What a pleasant surprise."
I approached the tub.
"What took you so long?" he asked, eyes flexing. "I thought you'd never get here."
He was scrubbed and clean, with pomaded hair, and his eyes were as innocent as a lamb's. He squeaked his duckie once, only once, and I hit him in the jaw as hard as I could, making a flat sound.
His head shot away striking the wall on the other side of the tub, reeling from the blow. Righting himself, he fought to keep his arms down, and I rapped him across the bridge of his nose, making a popping sound.
I'd never struck anyone in the face before, and the volatility of the act intoxicated me. A warmth I'd never known rose up within me, and I punched him several times about the skull, our shadows merging and waltzing on the moldering wall, his head bouncing between my fists like a puppet. His nose was bent, both ears bled, his eyes were raw oysters. He struggled to speak through swollen lips, but they kept bouncing together like rubber tires, and his jaw went around in circles.
"More blood! More blood!" he spat through splayed teeth, and I him him, hard. I beat him repeatedly until his blood spread its black wings through the bath water and his face was an amorphous lump of pus. IN the next room the hi-fi was beating itself to death.
I grabbed his hair and jerked his head back. Our eyes locked.
"I love you, Rikkee," he murmured.
"I know," I said. "I know," and whacked him beneath the bridge of his nose, sending cartilage screaming into his brain, rupturing thought, those lovely thoughts, and all those uncut blood vessels. He went into convulsions then, babbling incoherently, and I shoved his head underwater. Instinctively he struggled for air, waving and kicking his arms and legs, and I bashed his face repeatedly against the base of the tub, wondering what it must have been like for him, all alone in his busted brain, how the world must have mangled and melted for him then.
Soon the struggle ceased, and I held him under a little longer for good measure. The last few bubbles of his dying breath came to the surface, fizzled, and were gone, until all that was in him would not rise. I let his head float to the top of the water, where his eyes regarded me blankly, flat with death and perfectly still for the first time since the moment I'd met him. And in that instant I knew they were dying, all those precious little cells that made up that unique brain, cells that were seeping, slipping, escaping, one by one, into the black distance, diminishing like stars, and never to be replaced or duplicated by anyone ever again.
A turd discharged from Columbuss's anus, his final statement. It floated there in the black water, a blind pigboat with nowhere to go, trapped, lifeless, with no outlet.
This serving as a reminder, I went into the next room and returned with the sculptures. I dumped the, one by one, into the bathtub and plopped the President's head in the exact same spot where I'd seen the turd surface - right between Columbuss's legs. He would have enjoyed that, I'm sure, wherever he is or isn't.
I turned Coltrane over on the hi-fi and flipped on some more lights. But before I left i decided to comb the apartment for a keepsake to remember him by, something of his I'd wanted to be mine. In the end I settled for his eyes.
I roll them around in my pocket.
* * * * * * *
He died here in Richmond
the day before yesterday,"
the coroner said.
He was discovered beaten to death
This announcement may startle many,
Eye get up, Eye clean my teeth, Eye shave and shower.
Eye poach an egg for breakfast and eat it with toast and jam, and Eye stack the dirty dishes in the sink.
Eye dress in my best suit and pack some clean underwear, a change of clothes, and my toiletries in an overnight bag.
Eye check my smile in the mirror and straighten my tie.
Eye fumble around in my pants pocket for the car keys.
The eyes are still there.
Eye open the front door. Sunlight slices my eyes. A splendid morning. Eye surmise, but it will be hot by the time Eye get there.
Eye turn around and gaze back into my little home. Everything seems peaceful, clean, and somber. The clock on the mantle is ticking like a head. Furniture gleams with wax and is happy. The carpet is freshly swept, and roses in the window sweet the air. In the kitchen the refrigerator kicks itself to life, keeping my food cold and preserved, food Eye will no longer eat, and will spoil And somehow Eye feel that this house will miss me when Eye leave, that it already does, and will weep as soon as Eye'm gone.
"Good-bye," Eye tell it as Eye step out into light, leaving the door open and getting into my car with the overnight bag.
The paperboy has left the newspaper where he always does, at the foot of the driveway, and Eye squash its words as Eye back the car out and onto the road.
Eye drive up north to the state mental asylum. The quiet asylum, with its carpet of green grass, prodigious oaks, and ivy-veined brick building.
Eye pass through its gates undetected and park my car in the handicapped zone. Eye roll up the windows, the electric windows. Eye get out of the car with the overnight bag, leaving the keys in the ignition, and lock the doors. And Eye slam the doors.
Eye ascend the pigeon-shitty steps of the gargoyled asylum and pass through electric doors, where the sensor looks down at me like a square eye.
Eye am greeted with the piquant smell of rubbing alcohol and the stink of rotting brains.
A group of doctors is huddled like doves around a soda machine in the lobby. One of them is tall with Elvis sideburns. Another is short and plump with red hair and reading glasses and resembles a tomato. The other is sharp and dark with skinny eyes and an ophidian stethoscope wrapped around his throat.
"A dollar for a twelve-ounce can of cola?" Mr. Tomatohead's face blazes as red as his hair.
"Out of Dr. Pepper again? Elvis's voice has an English lilt to it.
"Nothing is caffeine free," Stethoscope concludes.
Eye walk past the nurses' station and approach the doctors, my suitcase in one hand, the turning eyes in the other.
"Excuse me," a woman's voice calls from behind the desk. "Ex-CUSE ME!"
Eye set my suitcase at the doctor's feet and show them the eyes.
Eye juggle them.
Eye stick one in my ear and spit the other out my mouth.
Eye put his eyes in my eyes and make faces at the doctors.
Eye have their undivided attention.
"How do you like me now, gentlemen?" Eye ask.
But they do not laugh with me.
Eye hand Stethoscope the eyes.
Their eyes look at his eyes; their eyes look at mine.
Mr. Tomatohead gestures down a bright corridor. "Right this way."
Eye pick up my bag. He takes it for me. Eye hold hands with Elvis and Stethoscope. They lead me through a celotex interior.
"Not to worry," Elvis says Englishly. "Everything is permitted here." He is looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
Eye think of Columbuss, one by one. Columbuss the writer, Columbuss my friend. Eye think of Columbuss dead.
He never accepted the fact that he was alive; he was too embarrassed to go on living; he was humiliated enough to die. And Eye will miss this genius, this mute genius, so delicate, so fragile, whose only ambition was not to be destroyed, but that he should become immortal, in words, among books, to change a world that wasn't ready for change, but some day might be.
"The diploma," Eye mutter.
"Diploma?" Elvis asks.
"I've come for my diploma."
They look at one another and smile.
"You've come to the right place," Stethoscope says. He tucks the eyes into his smock pocket.
We are approaching a big blue door, guarded on either side by a surly black orderly. Eye can hear voices on the other side, laughing, singing, calling my name.
Sometimes there is pleasure. Sometimes there is pain.
Some people like killing hamburgers and sodas.
Some people like killing other people.
Some people like killing other eyes.
To beat a baseball bat into the brains of a genius, the endless always wins.
"Eye'm home," Eye sigh. "Eye'm finally home."
Eye unfurl my wings and walk where old clouds melt
like new aspirin. And at precisely that moment Eye burst into song.