I Taste Like a Sword
By Barry Hannah
Why are you alive? they ask me.
It’s not the first time these two have been in here at that table almost in the street window there as you see. They march in and sit, light up, you bring them over the narrow plastic menu and they say Hello again. Why are you alive? The hateful thing is he looks just like me, the other one who doesn’t talk much. But he searches my face for the answer. Why are you alive? But he smokes and smokes, my old brand when I was a smoker. Their bicycles lean together almost on the glass outside. I thought at first they were Mormon, that I was the only outlet for whatever meanness they had. But that wasn’t so. They are no church.
Even a monkey can imitate life, the speaker says. Other creatures can be taught to make the gestures of a man. I saw a chicken in South Carolina once could count change, which you barely have to do. But you’re coming along nicely. You’ve got the worthless cafe doper down almost exactly right.
The one who looks too much like me seems in a hurry with his glances, like, When are you going to get out of my way, out of everything’s way? The other says it would seem nature gets lonely for moving life. God’s such a party guy, anything will do. Even you. You were elected to fill space.
He points to this area of the cafe and makes both his hands walk across the table top. They could be two starfishes on a stage. You’re not even a decent hole, he goes on. Why aren’t you a woman? Then you might give some good man fifteen minutes’ peace.
It’s sort of a scandal you’re a male, yes. For godsake do something about your face. We're eating here. Then he whispers: Where did you get the hair, where was that borrowed? I suppose to you your hair is somehow tragically significant and those shorts with your weenie legs and highlaced booties. Have you just come down off the mountain, dear friend, stamping out a forest fire or have you just licked them with your spit and furred tongue? The other one just watches pale and with tired eyes like me. His clothes look like he bought them somewhere pricey, though.
I think he will rise up and become me, absorb me, he is impatient for my space, is my feeling. But that must also mean there’s something good about me he has to have, and my silence leaves me in a superior position. He seems very tired from watching. I think he’s watched me at home too some way. The days keep going by and he just about has had it, is the feeling.
Across the room near the bar kneels Minnie Hinton. That same man is back at her table ordering his expensive whiskeys. Everything he does is costly. I believe he is a doctor going to law school in his BMW convertible. Something about the law and medicine and some field where you just sit on your butt being smart for high pay, as I understand. I believe there is a broomstick far up him. I sense the knob of it is about at his Adam’s apple in his throat in there. He moves off the axle of this long stick in him. He is short with square shoulders, square face and some gray curls in his black hair, like somebody near a condo pool looking sidelong at lesser creatures with open contempt. Thirty years ago where he lives they would call a pad. The disdain of this man is thick, is the feeling, with Minnie knelt there in front of him. He is moving ahead, always moving, down from his townhouse on the Square and he resents he’s on the ground with the others and having to walk where they walk, is my sense. Minnie kneels down before him. She wrings her hands, looking into his face. His face is quiet, almost without expression, but his mouth is moving all the time, whispering, you can barely hear anything over here with the crowd. He must know this. From him there is a long hiss that never quits.
Once you are tuned into the hiss you can detect it clear as a bell out of the casual buzz of the whole eatery.
This is an eatery and bar both and they have good music at night, but I’m jealous of the musicians and it hurts to listen to them having fun. I like the bad bands better, the ones with stupid humor and little talent. They make me feel at home and I might stay through midnight even after waiting tables all day. The girl followers of bad bands are my kind, too. They like it bad and true talent frightens them. They will go home with you sometimes not expecting anything and pull apart their poor clothes and fall to love like simple honest mechanics who’ve been prepaid for repairing a part. Then afterward you maybe never even see them again except on the arm of a new loser but giving you a smile like everything is understood and cruising in its right orbit.
But Minnie’s companion, who pays high for this act, is not casual. Things intended and designed pour out from him without stop, and it is the same Minnie, the goddess of this place and introduced to strange life by poverty, who fractures you in her quietness. She’s almost on her knees but I suppose actually in a crouch before his knees with his hands on each like a priest speaking his best sermon. But she is pitched close to the attitude of the outright kneel.
Slut tramp harlot backseat diver, he keeps going on as she listens calmly. Hag strumpet. In the whisper, hardly a breath between.
Yes, sir, she says.
Right. Twitching minx. Gutter lizard.
Right now, come and die right now. I’ll keep on while you’re dead.
Then he shows just a flick of his rockhard eyes down at Minnie’s face. In that second you can see very sadly how much he wants to be her.
Netherson. I never meant to meet Netherson, who once for a whole week had nothing to eat in Amarillo, Texas. He slept in Amarillo, Texas, and played checkers for food with people better than him and always lost. The cops would come by, rousting him from the park and other hard beds under trees near water. He was too weak to do much but sleep only he couldn’t even finish a nap. The cops had his number, and he was black, as a further kicker. He is something of a legend here, having missed many meals back then in his questing youth. He hit the road with absolutely nothing, which those who write about it never really do. He never had a dog companion. He was just himself and bone needy all over the West, Northeast, Midwest and South, where he finally stopped when work opened. Netherson as a barman is a black zombie. He is moved by nothing, but he seems to be called by something, a voice is persistent in his forehead, you can almost see it in the wires of his temples. He is called away, he’s not standing here, not looking at you. Some believe he’s a god, especially the girls, he’s somebody long ago crucified now back to show you his hands, the ones pushing the drink to you, no expression in his face, nothing.
I did not want to meet him. He scares me. But once I saw those dead eyes briefly rise to some softness like a hamster’s or a small child’s. He scares me like something out of a sea bottom. Behind him the putty is flaking down at the bottom of the long bar mirror where the sunlight always hits with that one beam, just that one beam. A flashlight beam at the bottom of Netherson’s sea and this disturbs me. People look at Netherson and laugh that laugh of deserted insides, very flat, no reaction from him. It occurs to me all the laughter here is like that. Even the two waiting for me to come back and get my treatment when I bring the order.
Minnie, almost to the full kneel like a woman in church, I think of her and Netherson getting naked together, for he is her man. That’s hard to realize. She’s his woman and you can’t believe he ever asked for anything. Although I am ashamed and even cruel sometimes, I need to be with some woman, testament to my existence. Be in a suit have some money sell something travel. Somebody would sort of miss me. Netherson stuck on himself in his zombiehood. If my cat would die I could have freedom and a personality maybe but I love the cat. She reminds me there is not much to it, only the noise, and sleeps three quarters of the day.
The hands on the clock seem like snakes any minute to curl out and fall on your neck. But on my boots I can rise, I am solid, I can stand with Netherson, I have the soul of an implacable Negro. In certain moments, not many, I can reasonably imagine a tall naked woman standing there beside me with her hand on my butt, saying Yes I am all his. Sometimes I think about my mother’s panties and where I came from, place to place to place. She was tall and strong and my father was in helicopter technology, a civilian hired by different arms of the service. I was not curious enough to ask much about him and now I realize he might have been interesting although something about my devoted apathy in my teens wouldn’t let me like him. He loved it that helicopters packed the most punch in modern war. He was short, but he stood tall on that fact, and he stood tall in lots of places, Florida, Oregon, Delaware.
My mother would tremble at the window when he was overhead in a helicopter. She was a nervous woman, tall but strong. Even nervous my mother was stronger than my father. He was freckled with round shoulders but he had fine fingers for his work and in Louisiana he received an award on the tarmac near those tall pines and red dirt. The pines had moss hanging down and I was back in a veil of it pretending I was dead while the helicopters in the air went by pop pop pop packing their punch. Much of what I see reminds me of death but death is interesting, not just sitting there. It is moving around, my mother being nervous there. Death was like Stalin moving behind the scenes with a moustache, killing every other person; Stalin the very man my father opposed, as I gather. Yet he died and they cut the brain out of his head to study.
I had a dream about Stalin in my room looking for his brain. My mother was in the dream, still nervous, she seemed to know where it was. My dead father was sailing around the room showing everybody his lung cancer but laughing at Stalin even though he hardly ever laughed when he was alive. I want to be dead like Netherson, nothing in my eyes, maybe be nothing but black muscle with eyes in it. Minnie would come to me. No more on her knees making extra money listening and agreeing. No more enduring this shame and this slackness and the total indifference of Netherson.
Death, let’s get it on, I say.
Not so fast though.
Here we go again at my table. Look who’s back, the lone wartberry, guy says.
While I'm holding the trays up, the man who looks like me except groomed has not said a word yet, but he has roll crumbs on his mouth and the white sauce of the salad remains in a line across his upper lip. He doesn’t eat well, so impatient he is, while the other goes on.
We are sworn to bring the message home to you, Wartly. We do wish we could see your dreams. Most waiters are waiting until a better thing turns up. But you, Wartly, seem already promoted beyond your talents. This man speaking is courtly, of the world. Even his rich tie looks born for him, his shoes are loving animals gathered to his feet. When I brought him more tea, the meal had not tired him at all.
Our old pale old Wartly. Why are you alive? Could it be that anyone would find you necessary? We’ve figured you as a walking breathing missing person but nobody is searching for you.
Yes who? The other man, even more like me suddenly, finally spoke. His look lingered on me. I could hardly believe he had spoken. He is moving up in my eyes and shoulders with his expression. He is taking possession, after long patience, in exasperation, is how it feels. I move away from myself into even further nothing, not toward death, not toward Netherson, and I float out the window, past Minnie Hinton still on her knees before her paying customer, always right, the hissing man, him set there in a pout, and I float out into the alley into the hot meat exhaust fan and pavement oil with my arms around the dumpster, is how it feels.
I could be Fagmost, on the other hand. He is that drunkard always sick under the stands after every ball game, puking up his guts but smiling. He screams at the team for three solid hours and then you will see him dancing alone in the lowbrow clubs around town. You see him on his hands and knees but making kick motions like a dancer shot down. Then one night two policemen piled into the crowd and dragged Fagmost off, him all wet in his lumpy flowered shirt and dirty beard. He never claimed to be nice like everybody around here aspires to. I am nice, I am all right. What a nothing to be said, no? Why, he turned on the television just to get another ethnic group to scream at. He fed stray cats is the best thing I know about him. I could be him, but I doubt I have the staying power to be a good drunkard. You see Fagmost trying to eat a hearty meal, the way his lips quiver and he scrapes around at it, this man can move you with his lack of memory and gut persistence. He is smiling, mostly, and you see him back under the stands of the football stadium, puking without a thought of the well-dressed women around him and all the while wearing his smile. My Lord if I, say, had a good four-year war behind me and was a hopeless lush carried down the street by a flock of children on Memorial Day, that would be something like Fagmost, that would be Fagmostian, I wouldn’t have to stand for any of this over at that table. Nobody wants to take the time to insult Fagmost, he is so out there.
But I just want to eat candy and drink three sodas with it then fall asleep with a sweat on me watching some women prisoners in slips on the television, wanting to be their guard. I would even wear a slip too just for fun because all women know how to talk. I would like to have a poison ivy rash and have them scratch it for me, all in their slips and their little folk ways to cure what ails you.
Or I could be Jimmy with Mister Beckett in the alley. Jimmy wears a football helmet and Mister Beckett follows him with a cane. They are inseparable. Jimmy pigeon-toed and hunchbacked gimping along slowly looking at the pavement, while Mister Beckett follows. Then he will strike Jimmy over the helmet with the cane, blap, and there starts their neverending loud playhouse. Jimmy goes into a howling fit to remark on his discomfiture and sends Mister Beckett down to hell several times. Then Mister Beckett extends his hand, apologizes. They make up and move on to drink coffee in the town cafe across the street under a marlin on the walls. They are feebleminded but they have structure and design such as discussed in that class at the UI took. Wouldn’t you imagine Mister Beckett is a god and Jimmy, looking for cans to cash in, his faithful servant? While I serve and yet never serve anything.
While the two are finishing up their meal I don’t have to look over there. I can feel that one’s eyes on my back. The clock is hard to watch too the way it is rushing forward and the hands trying to get out like snakes. It is hot on my back and the one at the table is running after me down a gray alley with the air heavy in hot meat exhaust every damned pizza ever consumed like preflatulence of the eating mobs. I’m out of breath just turning around and my bare legs over my boots look like thin milky sticks to run on, they can’t carry on much farther, I should have done more exercise like God intends for real men only I’m in love with my weakness, women in slips could stand and lie all around me soothing my disease, they go for weak men you know, oh yes they love nothing better than a bad poet who needs all kinds of help and understanding even to finish out a new poem about self abuse. The man handles me somehow, yes his fingers go around my neck, become snakes off the clock, next the way he steps into me with his knees behind my knees, paralyzing me to make me buckle like somebody collapsed in love. He is like smoke and he wears me like a suit or maybe just underwear.
My mother, the strong one, taller than both my father and me, she was always at the window nervous, looking out at the flatness of the airfields where my father worked. She said she wondered why we needed to go to the moon, we already lived on it, we had lived on many moons, one moonscape to the next. They are making my mind flat, she said, and she never complained much. My breasts are going flat, my chest does not swell, no heart in it. I can see out there honestly try as I might, then try to love again in another place, wherever God has furnished another pool table for their little games. You can’t just peer out to the flats forever. I can’t love again, I can’t. You will have to make do with some younger gypsy with huge breasts. Even in her depression my mother was strong, you see. But she pitied me and all the ones over the world who were never quite dead but little else. That is the trouble with everything, she said, new people are not quite loved like I can’t quite love you or your father. On the streets in the airports in the churches in the stores they are not quite loved. You can see it in almost everybody’s eyes they are paying for somebody to love them, they are trying to make up somebody who loves them, but everybody’s soul is stretched out flat, we just are things to sit something on like airfields. There are too many places too many pictures. Nobody can get to them to love and be loved.
My father, I just remembered. He was working on a strange gas with a space name to power a weapon that in a single helicopter you had the gunforce to level a block in Manhattan at midnight in a storm. He worked always deep into the night even at home and he loved those Winston cigarettes. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer his doctor suggested he sue the government because that space gas had a direct bearing and the doctor would testify so. But see this, my father was a patriot as well as a small genius and he could not in good heart, as he put it, and with cancerous lungs sue his own government even if it would provide millions and Harvard for me and a palace in the mountains for my mother although my mother always said she just wanted one small Ozark to live on at last, she was from Arkansas and that’s all she dreamed of, just the one little mountain. So he just blamed the Winstons alone and nobody knew of the other until his partner later died too with tumors like fists in his head and lungs and liver.
The very next day after my father was diagnosed, I mean the next day after that ceremony on the tarmac, helicopters saluting him from overhead in a squadron, I watched where he got the award. In Louisiana. The moss hung from the limbs of the pines and the sun up like bright hell, the sky just stupid and blue, a skinny squirrel running behind the grandstand over the tarmac like some rat making a protest, all that pavement and bop bop bopping metal sound overhead. Before he began crying and getting smaller, he said, Yes, there are too many. God bless war otherwise the pestilent hordes reaching up to level us. There you’d really have your flat plains. You can never trust an armed corporal, boys and girls, something’s different there no matter what you read. Trust this, history will always create a monster to harvest the millions. We should worship the helicopter, boy, god of our times. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Hussein, all of them corporals. There is not even such a thing as a personal soul in many countries. The souls were dead already waiting for Marx, all he was was the final announcement. I am dying for you, I have had hell so you may carry on. Love me, every breathing son and daughter around me. I give you my lungs and heart to eat thereof. I taste like a sword.
When I turn to take the bill over to the man who looks just like me, he is standing right in my face. His meal is all in his breath.
Isn’t it time we met? he asks. Please take off that apron.