TERMINAL VIBRATO
A Novella

(Chapter 1, 12 Pages in Typescript)
 
 
 
 
ONE                        
 

                "Now the thing you have to remember," said Nelson, "is that history is first and foremost a record of what elites have accomplished, whether as thinkers and artists or politicians and generals, and while things like labor struggles and trade issues must be taken into account—I concede that—a person who concerns himself too much with the so-called masses and the fleeting ephemera of day-to-day living may well consign himself to needless obscurity." Nelson had his mouth very close to my ear as he spoke,which was natural in the circumstances, and his message was punctuated with considerable urgency. "We see this most clearly in pogroms and genocide," he went on. "We see the almost instantaneous disappearance of millions and millions of stories from the record—and I'm talking human stories—and are left with the tragic difficulty of trying to account for those whose lives have no memorial."
                "Yeah," I said breathlessly, "yeah. I got it."
                "So finally it's not a question of a willed and chosen exclusivism. but of embracing and consolidating the tradition of moral and spritual values which has been handed down through the generations."
                "Yeah, I said. "Yeah. Okay."
                "Now another thing we're going to have to think about—"
                And then the bell rang. Clang!
              Nelson put some salve on the bruise over my right eye and said, "go get 'em, tiger"—or some such—and almost before I stood up dragged the stool out from under me.
                But Jerome Keady, I'm sorry to say, was in good form that night and working his left jab to good advantage. I had practiced defending against it of course, with my sparring partners, but Keady was in better condition than any of us expected; although I was dancing pretty well and working the right hook for which I'm known, he kept getting through my gloves with that quick jab. At one point we got tangled up in the corner and he hit me with it before the referee could drag us apart.
                By the time I went to the corner at the end of the third round, I was tired. Damned tired.
                Manny, my second, put the stool out and I sat down.
                Nelson was right in my ear again, his breath hot against my face.
                "Now Freudianism must be seen as an aspect of the doubleness that began seeping into the culture toward the end of the nineteenth century, he said. "The drive inward, the attempt to discover the true nature of the human psyche, has correspondences in the phenomenological work of Husserl and von Hartmann." Then—without any change of tone—"you've got to stay away from that left hand of his, you've got to feint, you've got to parry and deflect. He's hurting you, he's hurting you."
                "Tell me about it," I said.
                "I'm telling you, man, he's hurting you. But if you keep moving to your left and stepping backward, it'll keep him from being able to reach you with that jab. Then you can work your right hook while his momentum carries him forward. Are we clear about that?"
                "I think so," I said, gasping for air.
                "You want more water?" Manny said quietly.
                I opened my mouth and Manny squirted. I spit in the bucket, then he worked a towel over my face and back.
                "But there're these other things you're not taking into consideration!" I whispered. "Doesn't Freudianism imply a weakening of moral certainty, of the moral center? I mean, how can one know and do what is right if actions are generated by hidden or unconscious factors? How can one have any, you know, autonomy?"
                "That's something we have to talk about," Nelson said. "But now remember what I told you. Stay away from that jab. Let him work you backward, then use your hook as he comes forward."
                Again the bell clanged. It was a signal which, I confess, I was not looking forward to. The sweat on my forehead was making my left eye sting—I would have liked to have had another go-round with the towel—and I could feel the cut above my right eye beginning to open up. I tried to remember what Nelson had told me, however, and in Rounds 4 and 5 I surprised Keady with some solid right crosses, then two devastating uppercuts. Unfortunately, I could feel him beginning to make his own adjustments, and before Round 5 was over he had opened up that cut some more. By the time I sat down I was hardly sitting but slumping back on the stool, exhausted. I stretched my arms out along the ropes.
                "You're doing okay kid, you're doing okay," Nelson said, despite the palpable evidence to the contrary. "You're hanging in there."
                "I'm trying," I said, breathing heavily. "On the other hand, what about someone like Henry Ward Beecher? We never finished our conversation about him. Doesn't it seem interesting to you that a person could have so much leftover energy—and we all know what kind of energy it was—that he would spend his evenings sweeping a pile of dirt back and forth in his basement? These things interest me! And what about the man who was taking Walt Whitman's brain to be weighed, after his autopsy, and dropped it? What ever happened to him?"
                "That's a good question", said Nelson. "Those are good points. But now, just remember what I told you."
                My chest was heaving, rising and falling like a fireplace bellows, and the crowd noise was making me almost dizzy. "Do you realize," I panted, "that there exists a visual likeness—a daguerreotype, I believe—of Paul Revere's son? That's how young this country is!"
                "I know, I know," said Nelson. "I think he was killed during the Civil War. We'll talk about that later."
                He dabbed my cut with talcum and smeared liniment on my face.
                "And the Civil War—speaking of the Civil War. Do you know at roughly that time James Marsh had a plan to breed camels as a form of transportation in the southwest? Can you believe it?" I was really heaving now. Manny squirted water in my mouth. "Think how different this country would be if we had camels wandering around in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico!"
                "Yeah, you're right," said Nelson. "That's something to think about." Manny, too, agreed.
                And then there was the bell: clang!
                But perhaps I should explain.




                Nelson McKendrick, my old buddy from college days, was at my house having lunch one afternoon several years ago, when—even while I was in the middle of a sentence—he interrupted and rather peremptorily announced that I was thinking too much. You're thinking too much: I can still hear the italics his tone gave to the phrase. And I can still hear the implied note of ridicule. We had been talking about automobiles and I casually asked him if he ever did what I sometimes do, tried to visualize the inner workings of an automobile engine, I mean visualize them while it's running. In fact, I asked him, had he ever thought about what goes on inside all the engines of the cars on the highway? "Think of all those pistons going up and down!" I said, and all the sparks shooting out spark plugs, all the gas gurgling through the lines! Think of the pressures, the heat and grease, the grinding of gears, the noise and racket, the chaos and confusion!" Nelson slumped down in his chair looking downcast and uncomfortable. At the end of the lunch, when I was making coffee and knocked the pot against the counter top and mumbled "oops"—and later knocked the creamer against the refrigerator door and said "sorry"—he suddenly got feisty.
                "Do you realize you're apologizing to the kitchen counter?" he said. "Do you realize you're apologizing to your refrigerator? Does it ever occur to you that you're spending a lot of time thinking about things that shouldn't be thought about, worrying about things that shouldn't be worried about? Why don't you try getting out of your own goddamn head for a while? Why don't you consider coming out here in the world, and joining the rest of us?"
                Nonplussed, in fact feeling a bit defensive, I asked him what he meant. He said he believed my thought processes and perceptions would be clearer, and I would personally be a whole lot happier, if I got involved in some kind of physical activity, in his words gave your brain a rest. Specifically, he suggested that I join a health club—perhaps the one where he worked out—and swim, or jump rope, or use the body-building machines. "In fact," he said, "if you really want to develop your body, your coordination and muscle tone, if you really want to be in a position to defend yourself in this world, I'll teach you to box." Think how much better you'll feel when you learn to tattoo the speed bag instead of the refrigerator."
                That, to make a long story short, is how, three years later, I found myself fighting in the junior lightweight quarterfinals at Gaston Park. Nelson had been a mainstay of the wrestling team in college and had later served as assistant coach, and unbeknownst to me, afterward had had a career as a boxer. Now he was sitting across from me at my kitchen table and browbeating me; after lunch he finally extracted a promise that I would get involved in some kind of physical activity. Well, I'm not one to do things half way. By going to the gym every day, by doing sit-ups and push-ups and using the weight-lifting machines, I really got my endorphins—which I previously had thought were some kind of marine animal—working. When I saw some young men sparring in a ring in the corner, I decided to give it a try. Before long I developed a real facility in the sport and was competing on the amateur circuit. Nelson agreed to serve as my trainer and corner man, and Manny Lewis, a gentle black man with a sweet round face, eventually signed on as a second. Not that I have an enormous amount of power behind my punches; rather it's the quickness and stamina I developed through roadwork and rope jumping—my ability to stay on my feet and wear my opponent down over the course of a fight—that have gotten me where I am today. Along with Nelson's help, it's my agility and careful preparation that have enabled me to hold my own with fighters of greater experience and firepower.
                As I say, however, Jerome Keady was in better physical condition than we expected that night, and seemed to have hidden reserves of stamina and adrenalin that I didn't possess. (Did he think all the cheering and crowd noise was for him? I began to wonder?) In the sixth round of this, my ninth pro fight, he opened up the cut over my eye, and I knew if I had any hope of taking him before the referee stopped the fight, I was going to have to reach deep into my bag of tricks. Everything was on the line now, everything; I think it was my excitement and fatigue—the pressure of the crowd, the months of preparation, the memory of all those days in sweaty gyms, the endless study of the films Nelson had acquired—that made my mind work faster than ever.
                "Did you know that the influenza epidemic of 1918-20 took nearly twenty million lives?" I said to Nelson in the corner, while Manny swabbed my forehead. "And Venturi's principle: do you ever reflect on Venturi's principle? The principle that says that increasing the speed of a fluid over an aperture decreases the pressure at that point? Along with Bernoui=lli's Theorem, the principle explains not only why airplanes rise—the curve on the top of the wing makes the air go faster than over the bottom, so decreases the pressure—but why gas gets sucked into the carburetor of an automobile. It also explains why in an automobile, cigarette smoke drifts out the window."
                "That's interesting," said Nelson, leaning close and dabbing my cuts, "very interesting. But maybe we should talk about it later."
                But he was wrong if he thought that the pressure of the fight was going to stop me now.
                "And the Battle of Lepanto," I said. "Up until that time it was the largest naval battle in history! Did you know that nearly a hundred and seventy-five thousand men and over four hundred and fifty galleys took part in the Battle of Lepanto?"
                "No, but I heard about it," said Nelson. But listen, listen to me. I can keep this cut from bleeding openly for maybe one more round. Then it's gonna bleed so bad it's gonna blind you and the ref's gonna call the fight. Do you think you can hang in there? Now here is what I want you to do . . . ."
                "But wait," I said, panting. "What about blimps—from type B, blimp—contrary to popular opinion, the word does NOT derive from type B, limp—which were earlier called 'dirigibles' because their movement could be directed. 'Dirigible,' you see, is French for directible, or steerable. Did you know that people used to walk on top of those things while they were in flight? And Winchester's widow, the Winchester who invented the rifle. She was so haunted by the ghosts of people his rifle might have killed that she built a house with hundreds of rooms, then constantly rearranged them to trick the ghosts! No, no, wait! There's more!" (This when my corner man tried to interrupt.) "Do you know it takes a ton of paint to paint a 727? Do you know that Franz Liszt was such a superstar that society ladies would gather up his discarded cigar butts, stuff them in their bosoms, and save them as souvenirs? Cherish them forever? Do you know why the windows of airport control towers are always slanted inward? Easy! So the controllers won't see their own reflections!"
                "Now calm down," said Manny, quietly. "Calm down."
                But I couldn't. I began to talk about the Prussian general staff, especially General Schlieffen whose obsession with the Roman defeat at Cannae was one of the things that precipitated World War I. I began to talk about the Roman emperor Elagabalus, who was partial to the tongues of peacocks and nightingales and once had the heads of six hundred ostriches brought to him so that their brains could be eaten. I began to talk about how members of the Jesse James gang would hide in the very posses that were looking for them, I began to talk about how Anton Mesmer, of mesmerization fame, became proficient on the glass harp Benjamin Franklin perfected. "And what about the balance of payments problem!" I said. "We have to think of that, too! And how come nobody ever talks about the varnish industry, or the sidewalk chalk that children use?"
                Well, the last thing I remember is the sound of the bell; at least that is the last thing I remember clearly. I got up from the stool and went into the seventh round knowing it was do-or-die, that I had to give it everything I had, that if I let Keady hurt me any more—if I let him get to that cut over my eye—which looked worse than it was but was clearly drawing the attention of the ref —my shot at the semifinals was over. Fortunately, I hit Keady with a couple of jabs and then an uppercut, then we drifted into a corner, arms around one another's waists, both exhausted now, and loose and rubbery, and again the ref pulled us apart. I raised my gloves and danced out of the way of two near-misses, Keady and I traded body punches, I hit him with a left to the ribs, and another left, then a right to the chin. And then. . . .
                Then the lights went out. I was sprawled flat on my back on the canvas. I was lying there spread-eagled, arms and legs akimbo, in the middle of the ring, staring up at Nelson and Manny and the —ref, staring up at those intense lights on the ceiling. And I remember thinking: what, exactly, is a halogen lamp? And how do halogens differ from holograms? In a sports arena as large as this one, how do they change the bulbs? Do they use huge ladders or scaffolding? I looked at the ref's bowtie; it suddenly seemed about five feet long and a foot high. Above it were the chin whiskers, and I asked myself: if you placed all the whiskers a man shaves in his lifetime end-to-end, how far would they reach?
                Then I blacked out again. The next thing I remember, I was on a stretcher and being loaded into an ambulance. There were two EMT's in the truck, a man and a woman, and I believe it was the latter who first used the word oxygen. Lying there, I thought for some reason of apples, and in retrospect the reason is clear. In an environment where the atmosphere is carefully controlled—the control being the almost complete removal of normal air—apples can be stored for considerable lengths of time: a year when the air contains only three percent oxygen, three years when it contains only one percent. The wax applied to apples to keep them shiny is made by the same companies that make floor wax.
                Well, here I am, in the hospital. Flat on my back with my right arm and left leg in traction. The concussion I suffered was only a mild one, apparently, and fortunately has had no effect on my thinking. But Manny said that after Keady decked me, I got my leg and arm caught under me as I fell; he said it was excruciating to watch. Anyway, here I am. Other than a very pretty nurse named Valerie, the main item of interest in my limited perceptual field is the bumpy cast on my raised leg, which, beginning at my toes, descends toward me like a ski slope full of tiny bumps, or moguls. The bandage over my eye, of course, I can't see. Although I am not enjoying being here, as who would be, at least the people at the hospital have gone out of their way to make me comfortable.
                But, about apples. Apples have very sensitive skins. How do apple pickers load them into their bins without bruising them? Simple. They place their sacks in the bin and unhitch them from the bottom, and let them slide out slowly. At the warehouse, likewise, they don't simply turn the bins upside down so that the apples dump out onto a hard surface. No, the bins are lowered into great tanks of water, and the apples float slowly to the top.

 
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