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On the Eve: A Story

Ackermann is out on the street once more, roaming in the globe of his times. A large and challenging cosmos it is with catastrophic Bolshevik birds of the north flying in formation from the snow-clad top of the world; and the rash, overheated mosquito continent of Central America; and the beleaguered orange groves of Israel, the ever-brooding and breeding Palestinians, and here and there small populations fat with conceit; and the echoing Middle West, East Coast, South and Middle Atlantic. To hold positions is to fight a duel at every dawn and not with some rubberbooted terrorist creeping out of the forest but with a bright-eyed Vulcan thundering on TV. Oh, ye hypocrites.

In the distance he sees a terrible figure of solitude approaching him. It is like a celestial accident dispersing the statistics and probabilities of existence in a city of almost twelve million. Five minutes, two minutes, two seconds, a happy crossing to the other side and this unwelcome apparition coming toward him would himself be only a statistic. No escape from the distracted ally in the battle, a fair-faced thinker, wrinkled and yet glittering with an inner fire fed by the kindling of notions.

His name is A. Stanford Hamilton, the A standing for Alexander. No volatile financial or political genes remained from the two-hundred years’ passage through many respectable blood streams. This Hamilton is in a worn tweed coat and red muffler. With his thin eagle nose, his inward smile, skin white as bread, he is a battered icon among the sallow citizens from hot islands or from the cold huts of Baltic ports. His is a story of the failed bourgeoisie, of polite Anglo-Saxon clapboard mansions fallen from hope, of ancestral oaks of a depressing unfruitfulness.

Hamilton has written a few things soon forgotten. Short they were, book reviews and essays whose existence on earth ruled his future like a bad omen in a fairy tale. He could go neither forward nor backward nor in another direction. Sometimes, as Ackermann has reason to know, a hasty, hortatory, satiric sketch reared up and was struck down by silence. These messages lay in the files, in the drawers of small magazines, lay there gathering dust because the editor could not undertake the refusal of a lost friend.

Hamilton appears at conservative meetings and panel discussions and in the open forums sits in the front rows with his crooked, knowing smile and gives off somehow the intense glitter of his roiling disconnections. A treasured, carefully reared little boy, grown old, cast adrift.

So, how’s it going? A lachrymose and yet fraternal lift to the question.

Hamilton is the possessor of an inchoate originality. The sequence of his thoughts is quite simple and therefore peculiar. Some years back he had found in himself a sort of vegetative conservatism, something he came upon in his diggings, like the struggling stump of a briar rose in a neglected garden. He fell in love with the capitalist “theorem,” as he called it, because of the philosophical beauty of the way foods and goods came into New York City each morning. Oranges from Florida, hamburger from the Middle West, avocados from California, dresses from Milan, lumber from Canada, crackers from Sweden and soup mix from Switzerland.

This distributive astonishment augments to the miracle of immense corporations circling the globe, overseeing like a schoolmistress a random class of automobiles, wheat, hides, medicines, tractors. Computers and jams, shoes and fountain pens combining in one company name on the stock exchange struck him as a phenomenon of Euclidean beauty. To that he added a deep scholarly interest in the tragic fall of overreaching individuals in the drama of commerce and finance. Kruger, Richard Whitney, Bernard Cornfield lived out their destiny in an Aeschylean mode.

So, how’s it going? Ackermann quickens his pace and now he and Hamilton are treading the cement together. Hurrying along, Hamilton offered in a tone of secret information the details of all the attacks Ackermann and his kind had received in magazines and newspapers in the last months. D.’s review was puzzling, was it not? And then he commended the reciprocating attacks, some subtly hidden and some forthright.

The lances and steeds of the battlefield, the flags, the ambush from the hills, the counterattack on the sleeping troops under a pale moon rise up in his discourse and carry Hamilton high above the unremarkable buildings, the noise of the buses and the terror of the crossings. The crowds, the shops with their anxious clerks behind locked doors, machines grinding carrots, oranges, and papayas vibrated in the sunlight. The world was spinning on its axis and some spectacular mercantile power was reigning with the serene command of Michelangelo’s great curled and bearded Almighty.

Ackermann at last kindly touches the tweed shoulder, faces his ally with a now-cramped smile, and hails a cab. Out of the back window as he moves away, he can see Hamilton standing alone in the heart of the metropolis. A lonely offspring of old New York, or old Boston, or old Connecticut: the Eastern establishment with all the gloss ground down to a white powder which now is blown about mercilessly by a sudden vicious wind from the Hudson.

The blue sky remains, the friendly winter atmosphere prevails, and Miriam and Hamilton leave the stage as the taxi makes its way across Central Park by means of the growls of a surly black driver. Ackermann has the day and evening free and more than that he is to be alone for ten days and the idea is that he will write and write when he is not occupied with the many calls on his attention.

What times these are. His wife is a sociologist and a commentator on the affairs of women, the family, day care, sex, and much more. At this moment she is in Sweden attending a conference. It is her intention to offer her audience a number of arresting thoughts. She plans to say: the most discriminated-against person in the United States is the talented white male. This statement with its clear rhythms and daunting novelty is flying across the North Atlantic with the stunning velocity of the century’s inventive spirit.

Madison Avenue—a feline thorough-fare with goods and mirrors meant to intimidate bone and flesh. A scourging idealism, a snarling transcendence watched over by clerks as insolent as the pet eunuchs of a sultan. The feminization of taste lightly troubles Ackermann, even if it is as old as history itself. Monarchical wigs, ruffs, lace handkerchiefs in a fop’s sleeve, and now very young girls in fedoras and frontier belt buckles. Crossdressing, androgyny: a mine of significations in the streets and on the bodies. The new AT&T cathedral—an aesthetic of the recession? Or the spacious, arched mouth of the recovery? As a conservative, Ackermann is no less an aesthetician than he was as a more or less Marxist young man.

Yesterday composing his memoir he had risen like a kite above the exposition, risen to explore an interstice of his experience of the national life.

Spoiled, beguiling girls, all was to be yours by divine right. Starved, rich American girls with shoulder blades like the points of sabers….”

Ackermann has in mind here a small, brown-skinned girl, Joanna, an heiress, a minor heiress descending in a wayward line from early natural gas pioneers. He is aware of a green patch of feeling for Joanna and for their brief love affair ten years ago. Ring the downstairs bell, wait, climb the stairs of the brownstone, enter the small, neat apartment, see the freesia in a white vase, hear the ice crackling in the glass, listen to Harold in Italy, watch the bare feet in the lamplight near the bed…

On the avenue the restaurants are snoozing in the afternoon lull, in the florist shops what appear to be frozen tulips from Holland hold up their heads, polished antiques sit in sedate arrangements, decorated porcelains unfaded and unchipped by the dust cloths and soapsuds of a century patiently await their destiny. The sky begins to cloud over in a sudden metamorphosis of intention. The word, snow, appears in the drift of voices.

In front of a fashionable bookshop, glossy jackets and black type, new novels and stories. Too many, Ackermann believes, about laid-back young adults, husbands in pickup trucks, drinking beer and driving across the country in flight from not one but two wives and various children; too many inward, hypochondriacal reveries. In the last year he has written a long essay on these fictions and the toil of it, the vehemence of his adjectives make the glowing reds and blues and the patent-leather gloss of those he has censured almost an affront.

Wasn’t it Kant who understood that when we say “in my opinion,” we mean instead, “all men able to judge will agree”?

Joanna lingers in his thoughts—the sweet, little nut-brown face and the memory of their picturesque secret life, of excursions at twilight. If he were to meet her, she would say: What is your story? Where have you been? Dear Joanna has a mind fixed like a footprint in cement. The ACLU, the Sierra Club, Committee for an Effective Congress, Planned Parenthood. She is shy as a nun but there was her face in a recent copy of The Village Voice. Joanna in the shrieking bowels of Penn Station, trying to persuade a homeless woman to go off to a shelter. An outrageous beauty Joanna is, a skinny phantom in the steaming glare of the station.

At the end of the afternoon Ackermann is at home once more. Solitude, quiet. He plays back his telephone messages for the day. Snow is falling softly outside the window where he stands with a drink, dreaming. Theatricality is not out of place for one who has in the last decade experienced an unexpected U-turn in his thoughts. Where have I been? Sometimes he thinks of himself as having set out in an oxcart across the plains or he is one who set sail in a leaky boat in search of the mouth of the Mississippi.

Joanna, shall I tell you about old D., ragged as a Zouave after a skirmish, and his compendium of New Deal and Fair Deal bacteria swimming in the naive blood of America? Something like that, only drier, more suitable to intimate discourse, but still colorful and affecting. Or his own private vision on the road?

In Miami in 1972, at the time of the Republican Convention he stood at the dinner hour outside the Fontainebleau Hotel and watched the delegates and their families, modest Republicans, unworldly and very boring, he thought. Strangers. They were wearing outfits of red, white, and blue, dresses and hats and shoes bought in the department stores of middle-sized cities. While he was standing there a girl rushed up to the front of the hotel and took off her clothes. She stood there turning like a model, giving her message. The people stared in confusion, in silence. They were seeing it at last—the Sixties. Ackermann decided at that moment to vote for Nixon. He published his intention and thus his new life, far from the instructing old thinker and the abashed red, white, and blue citizens, began.

The hospitable evening skyline, a tempest of incandescent meteors. Ackermann cannot see the culminating stars of the sky-city to the south of him, but surely a white light shines in the Empire State tower and the squares of private life on high floors are a glamorous zodiac of bulls, crabs, lions, goats, and virgins. Below him men and women suddenly appear in country boots and jackets and release their steamy breath like horses in pasture. Dogs on leashes leap to the snow and in the window across from him a large cat questions its fate.

It is time to remember things left unfinished, the heartfelt boyish duplicity of sudden loves, romances lightly erased so that their traces remain on the calendar of promiscuous memory.

Once, exaggerating, expanding, and also censuring, he told his wife, Donna, of his brief love for Joanna. Donna, small, quick, and decisive, with a bee-like cleverness generally quite consoling, gave him a friendly, diminishing glance and said, That’s OK. But that’s enough.

That’s enough? So, in love he was a mere spot; out of love he could be what he liked, a writer, a thinker, an imposing person, parent of two hard-working goddess daughters, one in medical school, one in law school. He could be Donna herself—and that is marriage.

But here is the snowy night, die Winterreise, the solitude and sleepy nostalgia, the down of memories, the years shuffling away, the dust of youth. Everywhere people in bars and restaurants are behaving, under the eye of the waiter, with an insinuating politeness quite agreeable and interesting. Many are laying out their biography in patterns: first this and then that and all that is neither this nor that.

At eleven o’clock Ackermann in suede boots and fleece-lined coat, looking like a farmer out to inspect the barn, gets into a taxi and tells the driver to go to Penn Station. With Joanna he will rescue a homeless lady. Yes, he will be coming in from Princeton, a traveler pacing homeward in the station. And she will say finally, Where have you been and what’s happened to you?

The station is awful, an unsuitable rendezvous. Most of the kiosks are masked by metal bands as gray as sleet, the record shops have stilled their hoarse invitations. Only a few taverns and one big magazine stand are awake in the unswept gloom.

He sees a woman propped up against the wall. She is faithful to type, being a human bundle surrounded by unfathomable lumps of treasure. Her face is covered by a scarf and she sleeps like an ethnographic item shipped in the hold from Calcutta. He listens to the horse hooves of the subway; his eye sweeps up and down the cavern and he does not discover the angel of hope, Joanna.

Outside, a midnight Thirty-fourth Street. A marauding emptiness; shaved heads of dummies in Macy’s windows. The end of the day. It is over and the snow falling on these streets is gray and dull, as if it had picked up ash on its passage across the city. All he meets as he waits for a cab is a transvestite in a muskrat coat, hobbling home on sequined heels.

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