Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Laundromat of Wickedness

Peter de Vries, The Tents of Wickedness (1959) —

He awoke in a strange bed. Not awoke exactly, but felt it penetrate his consciousness that it was a strange bed in a strange place, before sinking into even deeper slumber . . .

. . . Then for some reason he could not explain, except within the logic of dreams where no explanations are required but oddity itself imposes its kind of clarity, he was in one of those places where people take their laundry to wash it in automatic machines. The public Laundromat. It would be a mistake to say he was there in person: he was rather there in spirit, to witness the two old women who were the only customers as they drew the soiled family clothes from their bags and chucked them into the washers. The machines were side by side, the center pair in a glistening white row of perhaps ten. The women sat side by side on a bench to gossip, and as the machines simultaneously commenced the first of the cycles, the drone of their words mingled with the hum of the motors and the wash and splash of the water and the clothes, while all of it seemed to be going on in Swallow’s head itself, where it merged in an endlessly flowing river of dialogue.

FIRST WOMAN

It was a literary friendship. (Laughter from the toothless crones.) Can’t you see them in their trysting shanty, talking about books. Well, it’s the sterne realities they’ll be facing now.

SECOND WOMAN

What he minds most they say is the being a laughing stock. It’s his rire end to be seen sticking through the britches he was too big for.

FIRST WOMAN

And hers out front. They must have known it would illicit comment.

SECOND WOMAN

That sort’s not practical, the artistic — and when it comes to the poets! I understand he could be treacly in his tastes for all that. Not even above a little Tennyson.

FIRST WOMAN

Chacun à son goo. And that’s not all. Think o’ them fancy composers they must have cuddled up listening to. Everything was fine and d’indy then, but I de falla now to see a bright side to the situation. Now don’t fly off the handel about the modern stuff, Molly, that’s not what the subject is about. Let’s stick to it for once, for a luscious one it is, my duck.

SECOND WOMAN

I’m not shootin’ me mouth off about that aspect of it either. There ought to be a law against all these illicit relations. What’s needed is some good plain penal reform.

FIRST WOMAN

Beginning with his. Cut it off without a pity — and don’t stop there either. Let him die intestate, him on his Castro convertible.

SECOND WOMAN

So he’ll never go whole hog again? (Laughter) But he won’t soon again anyway, I’ll be bound. Still, it’d be a stop in the right direction.

(There is a pause and they suddenly turn silent and thoughtful, even sad. There is a transition in the machine and a change of tempo in the wash)

FIRST WOMAN

(Half humming) Ha hee ha ho a low . . . It’s keening the sound of these machines makes me feel like doing. A mournful ancient seadark sound it is, this in the Laundromat, as of all the waters washing all the shores in the weary world. The splash and swish of the suds reminds me of all the rivers running into the sea, yet the sea not full. There, the pre-rinse is over, and now it’s the water frothing and swirling in the seacove, lonely beyond knowing, my Molly, the last outlet of Time . . . the wash everything comes out in as they do be sayin’.

SECOND WOMAN

Stop your lip, woman, and leave the poetry to them as can moan it proper. Poets are born, not made.

FIRST WOMAN

Aye, but we know one was made, don’t we now? And proper too she was. She priapubly had them lined up waiting their turn. Had I the queue for passion she has I wouldn’t be doin’ meown washin’, let alone others’. There’s food for thought there — intravenus injection. Still ’twas she, not I, met with a foetal accident.

SECOND WOMAN

Ah, you’re a foul-mouthed sweet old soul. Yes, made she was I must admit — and made once, maid no more.

FIRST WOMAN

Stop grinning with them two remaining teeth. They remind me of cloves, which reminds me I’ve got to get home and fix a ham for the poor old clod I’ve remaining to me. An incurable rheumatic. Ah well I love him just the same, the same. He’s persona non Groton, but he’s mine, and he wouldn’t go cheatin’ on me even if he had the opportunity, like that other blatherskite.

SECOND WOMAN

Oh, let’s not blacken the lad to the point of using him as a sinonim for all ruttin’ off the reservation. I’ve heard rumors he was the one prevailed upon. The soft sell and then the hard sell, and him so young and rubicund. It’s the company he kept.

FIRST WOMAN

Kept is it now? He keep anyone, that cheapskate, at least to hear tell? He’d never get in that deep — he’d never get fiscally involved if he could help. Furs and flowers, and then Christmas coming round and she up there in the flat waiting over the eggnog, in hopes that St. Necklace soon would be there. And him with his Santa Claustrophobia. No, not him. Just once he slipped and now he’s slapped and that’s the long and the short of it. Slapped around just like that clothes behind the glass there. Did you ever hear the one about the woman who looked at one of these and said, ‘Well, if that’s television . . .’?

SECOND WOMAN

Oh, woman, if you can’t tell jokes at least no older than yourself, button up. Here comes the Spin-dry. Then you can spread your washin’ proper and get home to cook that ham. How do you cook a ham?

FIRST WOMAN

(Growing absent) So little thyme. Sanctuary much, he’ll say ironiclike. He was good for the jests he was, once and many a spare quid for a case of bottles. Remembrance of Things Pabst, that’s the story of our life, and ah, how we lay dreaming on the grass. Him reading to me books with plots. How Greene Was My Valley of Decision then. Yes right off, and him with the wherewithal to hitch us up straight off. Legal Tender Is the Night. Him laying in bed drunk singing as I dropped my shift on the cold hotel room floor, Sister Carrie Me Back to old Virginibus Puerisque. It’s all a welter mitty in my head, thinkin’ back so fondly. For the lad it’s Beth In the Afternoon. As I went walking down the street I metamorphosis. It’s like that Spin-dry in my head as it must be in his too. I hear he’s mental now, aw, let’s have a kind thought for the chap. This is the end for him: delirium: tear-a-lira-lirium: stream of conscience: you pays your money and you takes your joyce.

(His head spins furiously at top speed. Then something mercifully clicks the end of the cycle and the whirling slows. The spectral blur sorts itself out in a circle of faces wreathing the bed, into which he looks up. Dr. Bradshaw is there, then another physician, a nurse, and Crystal too, wiping his brow.)

DR. BRADSHAW

(Raking his boyish gray hair) It’s the most amazing case of auto-suggestion I’ve ever encountered in my thirty years as a family doctor in these parts. To think so strongly you’re a swine as to turn into one! Look at it. I mean the eyes. Like beads.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN

And the red along the face — not just around the eyes. If it isn’t arrested the whole skin surface will be covered with it, which might be fatal. The only case on record like it that I recall is in Tender Is the Night. The woman in Diver’s sanatorium there, remember? [Then this man isn’t a doctor but a critic, and the consultations are literary, not medical. Could it be Blackmur? Or Burke? One of the giants? One of the Symbol Simons of literature?] It was related to the blush. When guilt is so strong it has to be organically realized —

SWALLOW

(Resentfully) You mean this is derivative too? I tell you I won’t —

(Hands press him firmly back onto the bed)

PROBABLE CRITIC

He seems to take it so personally. But there, he’s dropped off again. He must be exhausted. But now to get back to what we were saying, there’s another way of analyzing this particular hysteria. The need to convert himself into a swine may be an indirect way of blaming the woman.

DR. BRADSHAW

You mean the Biblical legend — ?

PROBABLE CRITIC

I was thinking mainly of the Circe scene in The Odyssey, where she changes them all into pigs, remember? Thus it becomes, you see, the woman’s work, the woman who’s responsible.

(Swallow sits bolt upright, profoundly elated)

SWALLOW

We’ve done it! A Homeric parallel. This is it! We’ve made it! We’re in! Tell Cowley, tell Warren, get everybody on the wire, we’re in, do you hear! A Homeric parallel! At last! Get Wilson on the wire, get Hyman and Daiches and Jarrell! Shoot it to the newspapers and magazines. Wire Prescott and Rolo and Gissen and Hobson and Hutchens and Hicks —

VOICE

He’s really delirious now.

(The two washerwomen briefly reappear, keening and chanting “Dear a lear and leerious . . . ”)

FIRST WOMAN

You need to cut it both ways now, with hidden meanings I’m afreud. You Rahv Pater to play ball, and a little Levin levineth the whole ump. Ah well, they were boobs in the wood, those two, like us all, beside this babbling book that has no end. My years ache with the melancholy plaint of footnotes, and my poor head rumbles when the Kazins go rolling along. And that other bunch washing their Lenin in public. Who will resolve all this and bring White peace again? Look look, the desk is groaning, and my poor chair’s gone ashen. What’s left for the likes of us but to draw up our chair to the fire of a night, and munch the tried old crusts again. What ails the new loaf I can tell you straight. It’s too inbread and lax —

SECOND WOMAN

Lacks what?

FIRST WOMAN

That good old William Butler Yeast.

SECOND WOMAN

That does it! I’m going home to Maugham.

(The two women fade, gently moaning “Tear a leer a lirium . . . He’s a merewolf.”)

SWALLOW

Phone Fadiman —

VOICE

Shh . . .

(Another voice is heard offstage, growing louder. It is a Dutch accent of somebody obviously shouldering his way forward)

DR. BRADSHAW

Dr. Van Kuykens, thank God you’ve come. (There is a stir of handshaking all around, while a hand with a cool cloth continually soothes Swallow’s brow) This thing has gotten a little beyond me. I mean while we doctors like to keep abreast of psychosomatic medicine as the situation calls for these days, we’re not geared for anything like this. It’s an amazing case. Organically realized delusion. I’m sure you can tell by one look what he fancies himself to be.

(Dr. Van Kuykens wedges a round, smooth-shaven face into the circle. He looks Swallow over, feeling his forehead and taking his pulse. He lifts Swallow’s left eyelid and lets it drop.)

DOCTOR VAN KUYKENS

I can certainly see what dis is at a glance. Dis man has got trichinosis!

OTHERS

Trichinosis! (They back sheepishly off) I never gave that a . . .

DR. VAN KUYKENS

Severe edema of the eyes. Bad enough to make dem almost disappear. Soreness of de muscles I’m sure from de vay he moofs on de bed . . . (He breaks off, openmouthed a moment.) You mean I have come all de way from Rotterdam to diagnose an case of trichinosis? Och, God in hemel, wat is me dit? Ezels! (Going away) Give him aspirin, a mustard bath to bring de fever down, absolute rest and quiet. Plenty of nourishing food as soon as he can take it, and in a few days maybe a little light readink.

(Blackout)