Trying to walk off dark hours and thoughts of Bodil, thoughts of Carlita Cicerone
(a former student you have been dreaming about of late), and the shock of suddenly
recognizing that you are a sixty-five-year-old orphan, you find yourself wandering
Isted Street, not far from the Central Station, the wild west side of this ancient
capital. It is late, the cold sidewalks empty, the black leather and pink and lavender
dildos of porn shop windows dimly illuminated. Doubling back toward the station
to avoid a group of beefy flaneurs, you pass a doorway from the shadows of which
a woman asks, You vant to come op with me?
You have not really considered this sort of alternative to loneliness. You pause
to look at her, feel yourself swaying slightly, having stopped here and there for
a pint. You doubt that you would be able to muster passion for this woman, whose
bare legs in a mini skirt are bone-thin and purple with chill. You look at her face,
which vaguely resembles the face of The Little Mermaid, her dirty blond hair short
and choppy and her complexion, even shadowed, not the best. You do wish to die the
little death at least one more time before you die the big one, but you wish to
do so with someone other than this poor creature in the shadows of that doorway,
and neither do you wish to purchase that little death, at least not with money.
Nonetheless, the heart in your head goes out to her. Perhaps you would increase
the sum of human misery by blatantly rejecting her. The head in your heart suggests
that it might by a minuscule measure decrease the sum of human misery if you and
this woman, fully clothed and ever so fleetingly, hugged, exchanged momentary warmth
in recognition of one another’s misery.
How much just for a hug? you ask.
You can’t buy no love affair, dude, she says. You want French? Four hundred. Swedish?
Three. Danish cost you five plus the room.
You know what French is; Swedish, you guess, is a honeymoon of the hand; while Danish,
you presume, is the style of the missionary. Dismal. You shake your head, dig into
your pocket for the fifty-crown note that is buried there, reach it toward her hand
which automatically rises to accept it, and you turn to move on, but she steps out
quickly from the shadows, brushes her lips against your cheek. Her blue eyes almost
smile. You nod and continue walking. It occurs to you, as you climb the concrete
steps from the dark side street up to the Central Station, that you are far out,
that it is time to return to your miserable apartment and sleep.
In the morning, sitting on the edge of your bed, you shudder to think of the woman
in the shadowy doorway, consider the fact that you could be so far out as to stop
on a dark street to consider a poor, wretched hooker. Perhaps you should focus more
on the simple, ordinary, everyday things. Cultivate the potential joie de vivre
in your daily life, the smell of coffee from a newly opened package, the hiss of
the broken vacuum, sound of the spoon digging in to the grinds, the plop of mail
through the door slot, the newspaper waiting on the mat for you to read, pleasure
of the senses, five avenues of communication with existence. Pay attention. Bathe
your head in water, dress in clean garments, take brisk walks and observe the world.
You do that, legs pumping you through the streets, past your corner church where,
you know, social events are regularly held—art exhibitions, talks, screenings.
Parishioners gather over coffee and cake, even a bit of wine, sandwiches. Perhaps
you should become a church-goer. You attended briefly with Bodil, who was active
there. Until she had a disagreement with the priest, who wanted the congregation
to begin kneeling, which she refused to do. Perhaps you should go back. You are
not a member, do not pay church tax, but they wouldn’t have to know that. You could
sit in a back pew in a ray of sunlight during the services, meditate the beatitudes,
nothing wrong with the beatitudes, maybe meet a hot widow to practice the little
death with. Christians get lonely for a ride, too.
But your legs have left the cozy little church behind, pump you along the boulevard
with its pastel apartment buildings. See there, a house where Georg Brandes lived,
says it on a plaque, advance guard of the Modern Breakthrough. And slouching toward
you a boy, perhaps fourteen, walking with fists stuffed in the slash pockets of
his jacket, dressed more for spring than winter, his posture a mix of bravado, shy
pleasure and curiosity. You remember yourself at that age, that same mix of expectant
emotion. Is that really gone? Yet the heart behind your face is young as his. You
order yourself to look at your face, mirrored in a shop window; you refuse the order,
suck in your gut and quicken your pace to a brisk clip, smile at the boy, and he
smiles back. Excellent lad!
The pounding of your feet sends a sensation to your mouth just as you reach the
Coal Square and spy the White Lamb serving house, established 1807, semi-basement
across from where Søren Kierkegaard lived in the 1830s. Wonder did Søren K, in his
20s then, ever nip down as you yourself are now doing for a large draft.
You pick a table near the window, order sardines and a pilsner, help yourself to
the morning tabloid provided for the reading pleasure of the patrons. You eat your
sardines on rye with knife and fork, press juice from the lemon slice over the two
shiny little fish, sip your pilsner, paging through the newspaper, anticipating
what awaits you on page 9: Helga is twenty and comes from Albertslund. Helga, naked
but for some sort of cord around her waist and a very small bird’s nest in a very
existential place, gazes with raised eyebrows and half-mast lids into the camera.
A knowing smile plays across her lips, her body turned three-fourths forward, her
small, nonsymmetrical breasts nodding upward. You find it hard to believe that this
black and white photograph of a 20-year-old woman, unremarkable in all but the fact
that she is naked, can rouse such longing in you.
You wonder if something is wrong with you, whether your humanity is stunted. Should
you not be incensed at this objectification of another human being, particularly
one so young? Should you not be ashamed to be eyeballing, in order to arouse your
lower passions, this young woman, young enough to be your grand daughter—even,
by a stretch, your great grand daughter?
You should be ashamed.
But you are not.
Reluctantly, you page on, come to the classified ads toward the back, the many entries
under “Massage.” You think again about the fact that prostitution is
legal in this country, though profiting from it by third parties is not. You remember
the skinny woman in the doorway—Can’t buy no love affair, dude!
Well, why not? you think. And the crazy idea fleets through your mind of paying
a woman to love you, to pretend to love you, to smile and comfort and lie to you,
give you what you like. For one dizzy moment it seems a viable possibility before
revealing itself as pathetic madness, then the taint of that madness colors all
the love and affection you have ever experienced in your life: Was it all just
a sham, a purchase, exchange, barter, I buy a round and then you buy a round, kiss
for a kiss, tit for tat, this for that, I take care of you, you take care of me.
One long mutual back scratch.
You turn the last page of the massage ads, look at the comics—Beetle Bailey getting
pounded by Sarge, Killer’s moustache ends twinkling at some foxy WAC, Andy Capp
on the sofa raising his head to call for his wife to bring him a beer, Dagwood being
bested by Blondie, belted by Bumstead. Turn to Your Stars today: Your relationship
is going through bad weather. Maybe you can’t stop the rain but you can build a
shelter of kindness and consideration and invite your mate in to get warm.
Sitting at the table, you gaze out to the chill winter square, remembering things
you did wrong with Bodil: Got drunk, acted like a prick, snapped at her. But never
called her names. Never. Never hit or pushed or laid angry hands on her. Never.
Gave her presents. Loved to love her, to kiss and hug her. Never tired of that.
Reach around behind her and cup those lovely melons in your palms, feel the nipples
stiffen. Last couple times you did that, she jerked away. Invited her to the sunny
south islands. Listened to her. Not always. Not when she gabbed. Misunderstood sometimes.
Did you build a shelter of kindness and consideration and invite her in to get warm?
Sometimes. A lot of times!
Then, as your agitation builds, you suddenly see yourself at the age of sixty-fucking-five
sitting in this 200-year-old serving house, delivering yourself to agitation from
a tabloid horoscope. Abruptly you shove your empty sardine plate from you, quaff
the remainder of your pilsner, pull on your long dark overcoat and beret, wrap your
long grey-striped scarf around your throat, clip on shades, climb three steps up
to the street, stride briskly across the square to the North Gate. Your feet propel
you past Rosenborg Castle, the Botanical Gardens, across Brandes Square where the
head of Brandes in bronze sits on a pedestal in thin winter sunlight. Thinking modernist
thoughts. Breaking through.
You are walking east, toward your miserable little apartment where you do not want
to be, hoping that something will deflect you from that undesired goal. You think
of the Fiver Wine Room, quarter of an hour’s quick-step from here, enough to build
up a thirst, think of sitting there among people who know you by sight, enough to
nod, make room for you without imposing, put on the jazz CD you request. Your feet
decide, change course, aiming for that quiet place of quiet jazz.
On Silver Street, a tall construction worker wearing dirty white overalls and carrying
a rattling plastic bag of beer bottles, handsome man of perhaps fifty, looks you
up and down, then demonstratively laughs into your face.
Why did that man laugh at you? Are you so ridiculous now that strangers feel free
to laugh at the sight of you? What is the meaning of this? Dolt! you think. I am
not nobody! you think. I am not ludicrous! you think. I am not just any ordinary
flea on the backside of God! you think, quoting Charles Simic to enlist your erudition
and his linguistic skills for support in your distress.
On Stockholm Street, you stop and peer at your reflection in the window of an antique
shop, surveying your image for some trace of absurdity: dark beret, long dark overcoat,
long grey scarf, clip-on shades, grey sideburns. What is ludicrous about any of
Perhaps, you think, you look anachronistic. Perhaps you look eccentric. You recall
a scrap of literary history—when the editor of the controversial 1840s periodical
Corsaren, a man named Goldschmidt, with the money he had made from the magazine’s
success, had purchased an extraordinary greatcoat with gold buttons and epaulettes
and gold braiding on the breast and walked out proudly on the Copenhagen streets
only to be stopped by Kierkegaard, who advised him that he should not go about in
such an extravagantly decorated coat but should dress like others. Mortified, Goldschmidt
took the coat back to his tailor and had it modified.
In light of that memory, you wonder if your own appearance seems extravagant to
others. You recall that Bodil encouraged you to wear hats, to dress with distinction
and style as she herself did. You wonder if it was a folie à deux that has now been
reduced by subtraction to a folie à un?
You picture yourself reverting to tweed jackets, white shirts, neckties. No! Or
wearing jackets with name brands emblazoned on the left breast. No! You won’t! Yet
the thought of entering the Fiver Wine Room now, the possibility that behind the
nods and smiles might hover suppressed laughter is lodged like a splinter beneath
the nail of your heart, and you change course once again, head directly home. You
try to picture yourself in the eyes of the world, ask yourself sincerely if you
might appear out of kilter. It seems that you no longer know what sort of image
will be created in the eyes and minds of others by your appearance and behavior.
You wonder, as you have wondered before, if that is the thought process of a psychopath,
to be concerned more with the way others see your behavior than with its moral and
human correctness and balance. Perhaps you are actually some manner of low-grade
psychopath. You once phoned your psychologist friend to enquire whether it was possible
that you could be a low-grade psychopath. He chuckled and told you that a psychopath
never asks himself whether he is a psychopath. You ask, therefore, you are not,
Nearly home, you stop on your corner at the convenience shop run by a Pakistani
immigrant. Bodil uses this shop, too, so you are always poised for an encounter,
although you have only run into her once here. She averted her eyes, turned her
back, then sent you a letter suggesting that you choose another convenience shop
to avoid the unpleasantness of further meetings. You neither replied nor complied.
Now you load milk, eggs, juice, bacon, licorice, a bottle of wine into the shopping
basket, and as the Pakistani loads your goods into a transparent blue plastic bag,
he glances at you with a smile that seems to you simpering, perhaps even vulturous
—are you going mad? you wonder—and he asks whether you and Bodil are still apart.
You nod, think, What is this? Is he trying to collect gossip?
But are you still good friends? he asks. That simpering smile. Do you still think
Taking your bag of goods, you tell him that is a private matter which you do not
wish to discuss.
His smile falters. I ask only as a friend, he says, and you think perhaps this is
a cultural difference, perhaps you are out of balance, imagining things.
It’s okay, you tell him, but I prefer not to discuss it.
Then you are home with your bag of staples. Still wearing your coat and beret you
pour a hefty vodka over ice, light a cigar, sit in the dark on your sofa.
You ought to call your children, you think. But it seems you are always calling
them. You have promised yourself to give them room, to wait until they call you,
fear the thought of them dreading the weekly call from Dad. Picture the two of them
discussing you, trading Dad stories. You order yourself to pull yourself together,
lay your cigar and untouched drink aside , remove your coat and cap and jacket,
put your wares away, drop to the Persian carpet and snap off twenty push-ups, reassured
that you are still able to do at least that.
Then, supine on the carpet, you notice a scatter of mail beneath the slot on your
front door. A royalty check—always comforting. The new issue of The New Yorker.
You slit open the envelope with the check—$421. Every bit helps. You tear the
wrapping off The New Yorker, relight your cigar, sip your vodka, leaf through the
magazine, pause to glance at an article about Ludwig Wittgenstein, learn that three
of his four brothers committed suicide, two in their early twenties, the third at
forty; that another brother, a concert pianist, lost one arm; that there were three
sisters and that the husband of one of them committed suicide also, following the
example of his father. The family, it seems, was one of the wealthiest in Austria.
The article goes on to say that the one-armed brother achieved success as a concert
pianist, that practicing on a grand piano in their home once, he jumped up and shouted
through the closed door at his brother in the next room to get out of the house
because he could feel his skepticism seeping in beneath the door.
You close the magazine, puff your cigar. The smoke gives comfort, but the outburst
of the one-armed concert pianist has you thinking of Bodil’s claim that you filled
too much space in the living room. You remember one of your brothers saying about
the other once that there was not room for anyone else in his presence. You wonder
if there could be anything to this sort of claim.
That night you dream about a woman you know who works in a bookshop. In the dream
she stops you on the stairway and asks, Have I been too demanding? She studies your
face with a penetrating gaze, then kisses you once, twice, three times, her lips
gentle and soft, wonderful lips. You fall in love with her but lose your balance
and strike your back against the banister.
You wake and look at the illuminated dial of your wristwatch: 4:25 a.m. The clock
is set for 6:15, but something else has awakened you.
Pain. In your back, your side. Bad pain. Very bad. Appendicitis? You limp out to
your computer, google “appendicitis.” Right side. This is the left. And escalating.
You limp around the apartment, groaning, instructing yourself not to act like a
baby, thinking, God has decided to cut you down in your 65th year, like Chaucer’s
White Knight: Alone, without any company! What does it matter, you wonder, that
you loved jazz and poetry when you are dead? What good did it do you? Which somehow
seems ironic and vaguely funny, though the pain does not allow you to laugh. There
is a basic background of excruciating pain which every so often notches up and remains
at the new level.
Pain this great, you think, cannot continue for long. But it continues. Half an
hour. Forty-five minutes. An hour. You lean on a chair back, bow forward across
the surface of your writing table, kneel on the floor with your butt in the air
and your chest on a cushion, lay on your right side, left side. Nothing helps. You
are writhing, in constant motion seeking a position of relief but no relief is to
You try to think. What to do? Emergency room? Call the emergency doctor? What’s
the number? But your brain is taken up by the pain, no room for thought, trying
to fathom it. Without success. Abstract from it. Can’t. Now it is an hour and fifteen
minutes, and the pain is still constant and very bad. On a scale of 1 to 10? This
has its own scale which outweighs all normal measures. Here there’s only max.
You baby! Pull yourself together! Can’t. Why do I hurt so bad?
As the pain moves toward an hour and a half’s duration you think, Call your
kids. Then you think, No, don’t call your kids! You go to the phone and dial
information, get the number for the emergency doctor and say, Call up, into the
mouth piece. There is a queue on the line, and you are told by a recorded voice
that you are number fourteen. Which could only mean a good hour before you get through
and then no doubt three or four or five hours before the doctor comes. You call
the hospital emergency room to ask for an ambulance. The operator tells you to take
a taxi out, so you call a cab and are promised one in ten minutes.
You lay down the phone and run for the bathroom and heave. Twice. Red. Blood? You
think of your father who at 58 one day threw up blood, lived on in terrible pain
for three days, then died. Your heart goes out to him for those three days of pain.
Here you are not quite at two hours and almost willing to die to be free of it.
You cancel the taxi and call back to demand an ambulance, explain you can’t take
a taxi because you are throwing up blood. That works. They are there in less than
ten minutes. Two young men. The one says to you, Boy, some way to start the day,
They provide you with a barf bag, strap you to a stretcher, and drive you to the
trauma center at The State Hospital—the hospital made famous by Lars Van Trier
in his TV series Riget, later optioned by Stephen King as The Kingdom,
although King would have trouble matching Van Trier in terms of intelligent eerie
dark humor. At this particular moment your own sense of humor is deactivated. You
are rewriting Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” All you know on earth
is that pain is truth, truth pain. And that all you wish is to be free of that truth
at any cost.
An orderly tells you it is probably a kidney stone you are experiencing and hands
you a morphine suppository. Can you do this yourself? he asks.
Do what? you ask and barf into your barf bag.
As repulsive as it is to you, the orderly pulls on clear plastic gloves and shoves
the thing up your butt. You are lying on the stretcher in your puke-spattered pajamas
with a lump of morphine stuck up your kazoo, staring blurrily at the ceiling and
thinking about the White Knight’s song:
What is this life?
What asketh man to have.
Now with his love
Now in the cold grave.
Alone, without any company.
Well, you’re not in the grave yet anyway, you think. Which is possibly a good thing.
Somewhere around four hours later you notice that the pain seems to have subsided
to a distant throb. But you don’t trust it to be gone. You feel it there, watching,
ready to clamp onto you again when you least expect it.
You realize now that you have never truly known pain before, have learned that pain
is another dimension. You realize that you have just had a glimpse of what it is
like for anyone stuck in that dimension, which made you understand, graphically,
the need for empathy. The irony does not escape you that no one understands the
need for empathy as well as one who needs it. And something else has been made quite
clear to you as well: You do not wish to visit that dimension again anytime soon,
You thank God that there is an efficient hospital system here to help you deal with
that pain. But at the same time you are now acutely aware that there is no longer
anyone in your life who will share whatever comes your way and will truly care that
you are experiencing pain and stand by you in your pain. Perhaps, you think, we
are all in this together. But you, you think, are alone now.
The morning proceeds with a lower body scan which indicates that there are no further
stones in your kidneys.
If, the scanologist woman notes, what you experienced was a stone.
She tells you that you are being sent up to urology for a bladder probe. You very
much do not wish to experience a bladder probe, but in the lingering haze of the
kazoo morphine, you cannot find the words that will release you from this further
Then you are naked on a table, a doctor and a nurse standing over you. The doctor
tells you that they just need to have a look in your bladder. You tell the doctor
that you experienced this once before, about fifteen years ago and that it hurt
like holy hell so you would like to have more morphine first. He explains with a
superior smile that great progress has been made over the past fifteen years in
equipment and technique, that this will take only a few moments and that you may
experience some discomfort but no pain. You have heard that expression before and
recognize it for the lie it is, but the nurse disables your resistance with a look
of pure empathy. You resign yourself to what they must do.
The doctor asks the nurse to pass him “a number fourteen” which he proceeds to insert
into your penis. This is not fun. Even less fun when he says, Oh dear, there is
Oh, no! you moan. What is a stricture?
That means that you’re, er, narrow, he explains.
We are the narrow men, you mutter—a pathetic bid for dignity.
The doctor says to the nurse, Perhaps we should try a number twelve.
No, you croak, make it a number eight! Make it a number six!
They acknowledge your statement with a chuckle, not realizing apparently that you
were not joking.
Okay, then , says the doctor, a number ten. And he proceeds with this long insult
to that part of your body that has all your life been so private and pleasurable
but which the medical world now seems intent on invading and tormenting.
You stare up at the hazy white ceiling and try to find something to distract your
mind while they conduct their invasion and torment. You’re a writer, you think:
Imagine something! Imagine something other than a woman, something other than a
woman’s lovely legs, other than…
You advise yourself not even to go there. To think of other joys. Picture a Waterford
crystal rock glass in your hand, four clear distilled-water rocks in the glass.
Picture a bottle of black label Smirnorff. Uncapped. Picture the triple distilled
vodka steaming over the rocks, cracking them. Picture the glass lifting to your
lips. Picture removing the stirrer from this lovely potion. Yes, picture that. Picture
the stirrer being removed slowly, most gingerly, cast away from you…
You open your eyes and see the empathetic middle-aged face of the nurse looking
down into yours. You think you love her, even as you realize she could not possibly
feel real empathy for all the many patients that people her days. It must be an
We’re all done, sir, she whispers.
At first you hear it as “done for,” which alarms you, but then, Thank you, you whisper
Now the doctor’s face is there, too, a bland face devoid of empathy. We found nothing,
he says. Your bladder would appear to be a healthy one.
Thank you, you whisper. Thank you so much. Would you please call me a taxi? You
can tell by his smile that he is tempted to Groucho Marx you, say, Okay, you’re
a taxi, but instead he says, The receptionist will do that.
And then you are experiencing the surreal moments of sitting in the back seat of
a Mercedes taxi cab, wearing pukey pajamas, your dick smarting smartly, as a new
lump of morphine pulses in your kazoo, radiating outwards, and the driver drives
you east toward your misterable apartment while telling you about what the hospital
system did to him the year before.
Sawed open my chest, he says over his shoulder. Peeled back my ribs and replaced
a valve in my heart with the valve of a pig. God’s truth! Pig heart, the wife calls
me now. And know what I am? A Jew!
Be thankful, you murmur, uncertain whether you really said it and to whom you are
In your pocket are three additional morphine suppositories in a plastic envelope
which you have been advised to refrigerate as soon as you get home. Home, you think
and picture your miserable little apartment with a stack of unwashed dishes in the
sink and no woman in your bed. Not that you would be in any condition to respond
to her presence, but you would powerfully much like to put your arm around her and
hold her face to your chest and inhale the sweet aroma of her hair.
Then you are in your apartment. It is well past noon. You think of frying two eggs,
but make toast instead with a slice of cheese and ketchup, remember your mother
used to call this a pizza. You were not kind enough to your mother, you think. You
drink a tumbler of tomato juice straight down, smack your lips. Your dick hurts.
A lot. You place the morphine suppositories in the refrigerator, in the empty butter
compartment. You consider inserting a fresh one where it will do you good, but decide
instead to load a bong of skunk, locate the little cellophane bag in the cigar box
where you keep your postage stamps and airmail stickers and stash, light the bong
with a stick match and suck sweet ‘moke deep into your lungs, lean back, smiling,
and feel the skunk tingle across the soles of your feet, up into your poor tortured
You have lived to smoke another bong.
Munching the remainder of your cheese on toast, you hobble out to the computer,
fire it up, check your Gmail and see through half-lidded eyes a message from Carlita
Cicerone, a woman who a few years ago was your student, a blue-eyed Sicilian poet
you once kissed. She is now affiliated with an academic conference held in New York
during the summer. Attached is a formal letter of invitation for you to speak there,
to which Carlita has affixed a ps:
I so hope you can come. It would be lovely to see you again. I’ve missed you.
It has been a long, long weekend, you think. But Carlita has missed you, might very
well, in fact, have been missing you for months, years; even in your greatest distress
she might have been missing you, even as the orderly inserted the morphine plug
up your butt, she might have been missing you.
You select the reply tab on your Gmail and, your heart is beating like mad, and
you key in Yes I will…
—From Kennedy’s novel-in-essays, Last Night My Bed a Boat of
Whiskey Going Down, New American Press (2010)