Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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3063 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

Old Dude in the Free State

Thomas E. Kennedy

“I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.
Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let’s buy it!”
—Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks)

You roam the Free State with your buddy, F, who knows a barmaid at Nemoland, and she has promised him a free drink. You don’t need a free drink, but you want to meet the barmaid. Barmaids are mythic. You can never know too many barmaids. Turns out you meet four, and one is prettier than the other, and they all have the same name—Annemethe. F introduces you to hisAnnemethe, whose daughter is in school with his daughter. She’s cute. She’s thirty-two. She pops two cold bottles of Free State beer and pours two shots of bitter schnapps. The air is redolent of the sweet seductive smell of skunk. The two of you chat with Annemethe, but it’s a busy night. She doesn’t have time. You drink up to move on, and Annemethe comes out from behind the bar to embrace F, then takes your hand in both of hers and pours you a smile that warms your ancient heart.

It is mid-September, the kind of lingering summer night where the air is laden with the promise of autumnal dying, the time of year that Rilke spoke of:

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters throughout the evenings
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
—Translation by Stephen Mitchell

But you are an optimistic old dude. Two nights ago you went to the theater, and the actress doing the Shirley Valentine monologue suddenly put your full name right in the middle of it, and when you heard your name there it made you question the soundness of your mind, but she told you afterwards that she had seen you coming in and that was her way of saying hello. This has put a gloss on your feel-good shield, and now you are loose in the Free State with your buddy F who at fifty-five is ten years your junior.

As the two of you walk on the dark dirt paths studded with burning barrels and hash stalls and milling Friday-nighters, F says, “You know, I met a girl the other day who is almost twenty-five years younger than me, but I can see the way she looks at me that she thinks we could be together. She has a kid, I have a kid, we’re both alone. But I think she’s afraid. I think she sees me as an intellectual, and she only went to ninth grade!”

“You could teach her,” you say. “She might just be longing for an intellectual guy to help her learn how to read a poem, look at a painting, know what to think about a short story.”

You can see F is tempted. You step into the Woodstock bar, order two Free State beers and sit at the tables outside amidst the smoke-eaters and unruly dogs of all sizes and quarelling Inuits. There’s an agreeable chill to the dark, and you tell F about the woman you met in Manhattan, the Signora, who is nearly thirty years younger than yourself but roused you from spiritual sleep with her kiss a few weeks ago. A mystery; but how could you say other than yes to a beautiful young poet who consented to come to your hotel room and allowed you to seduce her. “If she lived here instead of the other side of the ocean, and if she would have an old dude like me, I’d take a chance on her in a minute. Maybe it would only work for a couple years. Five at most maybe. Then I start to fall apart. But five years of joy is five years of joy compared to five years of writing long letters and walking up and down the boulevards.”

But she doesn’t live here. So what you have with her is long letters and two or three meetings a year. You’ll take it.

F replenishes the beers and tells about a woman he met a few months before, a dancer. “She was beautiful, I tell you she was beautiful. I took her home.”

“You took her home?”

“I took her home. We drank a bottle of wine. We started doing what men and women sometimes do. I opened another bottle of wine, and she started telling me about a problem she has with her toe nails. Chronic fungus. Here’s this beautiful naked woman on my sofa, music on the stereo, an open bottle of wine. But I kept thinking about toenail fungus. I couldn’t get past it.”

“You could have put a pair of socks on her. Look past the toes. Remember Schade’s poem about the Finnish girl with bad teeth who showed him her breasts.”

F laughs loud. “Yeah, we’ve got to focus on the positive.” He thinks for a moment. “But you know, women look differently at men than men look at women. Men look at women in parts, women see the whole man. They see us holistically.”

“Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” you say.

The two of you are sitting alone at a picnic table in the dark, and three young women approach and ask in English if they can take the empty seats.

“It would be an honor,” you say.

“Well,” says F with a smile, “Let’s see what it would be before making pronouncements about it.”

In Danish you remind him about the saying of the High One that admonishes to remember always to praise the beauty of a woman for he who praises sometimes gets.

The young women are speaking English—American as the Danes say. There is a blond with clear plastic eyeglasses and full lips, a brunette who looks vaguely like Sarah Palin, and another brunette who has the sleeves of her blouse pulled down over her delicate shapely hands, something you have never been able to resist. You wonder how women figure out that something like that would reach right into a man’s heart, wonder whether they devise such practices or whether it is just that you are a susceptible old dude who can’t resist anything about women.

You ask, “Are you girls from Scarsdale?” because the blond reminds you a little of the Signora, who is from Scarsdale. They’re not, but the question is sufficiently stupid to get you all chatting. They are from Oregon, are in Denmark for a graduate program in urban planning. The one with the shapely hands is Emily, originally from Vermont, and her brown eyes make you clutch your heart. The blond is named Lou Anne Leapingdeer.


“It’s an Americanization of the German name, Hirschsprung.

You show her that very name, Hirschprung, on your little tin box of mini-cigars, and the two of you marvel at the smallness of the world. Emily excuses herself and disappears, to your considerable disappointment, but Lou Anne and Sarah Palin reassure you she will be back. She’s just gone to buy some space cookies. Lou Anne says they spoke with a dealer earlier who was trying to court Emily by doing things like giving her a lighter for her joint which was a novelty lighter—gave her a shock. Then he touched her hand with an electric fly swatter—another shock. You are thinking how if you got the opportunity you would shock her with gentle touches of veneration, but then maybe that’s not the sort of shock she prefers.

Your plan is to go to the Free state JazzKlub , and F, god bless him, handsome fellow that he is, says, “Why don’t you girls join us?”

To your surprise they are enthusiastic. Lou Anne tells you there will be bluegrass in the JazzKlub tonight. She tells you that she heard the group playing last night right here in the Woodstock. She tells you it was music that touched her heart deeply. You were thinking you wanted to hear some jazz, but are not averse to hearing bluegrass that touched deep into Lou Anne’s blond heart with her full lips and clear plastic spectacles and blue eyes that make you think of the Signora.

Emily returns with her space cookies in a plastic bag, and the five of you head along Pusher Street to the JazzKlub, but at the door the girls hang back. The Sarah Palin one says, “There’s smoke in there.”

You tell her that second-hand smoke can make you feel good. F says, “Not much hope for a place to go in the Free state if you can’t take the smoke.”

By now you’ve paid your eight bucks admission, had your hand stamped and bought two bottles of Free State beer, and you and F sit alone at a table while the musicians set up: two electric hardbody guitars, drums, a keyboard, and a guy with an alto sax. Doesn’t look like bluegrass.

You ask F, “Why did the girls leave us? We were perfect for them.”

F shares your surprise. “You’re right. We were perfect for them.”

The JazzKlub looks like an agreeably dingy Third World café, with mismatched furniture and gouged walls. On a table is a flower display in the shape of a tenor sax, commemorating the recently deceased St. Louis jazz man Luther Thomas, who had lived for years in the Free State. Dead at 59. Would’ve been six years ago for you. Silently you thank your body for plodding on.

Then you light a little cigar and swig your beer from the bottle and look up, startled to see an incredibly beautiful raven-haired woman walking toward your table on high-heeled boots. F stands and greets her, and they kiss. On the mouth. Lingeringly. He introduces you as a famous writer—the hyperbole of a supportive friend— and you say, “Not nearly as famous as F.” They step aside and chat and when F returns, alone, he says, “That’s her. With the toe fungus.”

“Oh maan. Not all the toe fungus in the world could nullify that beauty.”

“Yeah, but I couldn’t.”

“Even when you can’t, there’s other stuff to do.”

A passing black man does a double take at you. It is Henri, a clarinetist who occasionally has backed you up at poetry readings. He has a look of dismay on his face as he reaches to hug you and thump your back. “I hear you and Susanne split?”

“Shit happens.”

“Couples like you and Susanne are not supposed to split!”

“Shit happens.”

Then he is gone, and F looks suddenly to the bar. “They’re back!” he says, and you see the slender sauntering figures of Lou Anne and Emily approaching your table, bearing bottles of Free State beer. What a good old life this is, you think, marveling that all it takes to make you happy is to be in the presence of beauty. Turns out they ditched Sarah Palin. They settle at your and F’s table, and the jazz begins, and the alto goes straight into your blood, and you share a mini-cigar with Emily, delivering and receiving it to and from her shapely hand, as you watch an extremely large African-American woman dancing like a mobilized Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture, like the Venus of Willendorf gone jazz-rhythmic, and her beauty, the beauty of her moves, is overwhelming. A voice from behind you, a woman leaning close, says softly, “I’d like to dance, too. You look like you might be a good dancer.”

“I’m not,” you apologize, “but thank you for wanting me to be. In fact, F is my surrogate dancer. You’ll have to speak with him,” but F is in deep conversation with Lou Anne. He looks up to say to you in Danish, “Lou Anne is twenty-nine!”

“Yeah, that can work—you’re only fifty-five,” you reply in Danish, cautioning yourself to keep things in proportion, not to be a foolish old dude, but the alto is so bloody beautiful, you are grooving at the core of your heart, and then you and Emily are outside in the dark sharing a cigar-sized skunk joint that she produced from her bag. Two hits and you are there in that other world where everything slows to such a perfect pace and the decelerated moments present themselves in passing for a thorough examination, each and every one of them, before flowing on, and the face of Emily touches deep in that region where the alto has prepared a place for it, as your mind sorts through options, and your superego admonishes you to maintain what is left of your balance and remember that you are truly an old dude more than twice her age.

Emily tells you she is leaving for Berlin early in the a.m., and it is already early in the a.m., and she says she would like to read one of your books, and you give her your “Flaneur, Plongeur” business card with your email address and ask her to write and tell you how she liked Berlin, and she says that she will, that that will give her something to look forward to about going home to Oregon, and water stings your old-fool eyes, and your faces are so close that you are in danger of offering a fatal kiss but manage to restrain yourself, reasoning that a kiss, if accepted, would be awfully nice, but also, if rebuffed, could ruin the loveliness of this entire encounter, so you are about to instead recite a poem by Rumi, but then remember that it begins, “I would love to kiss you,” and that really will not do, so you only take the joint from her cute fingers, two more tokes, and she takes two more, and then the two of you are back in the Klub, and the keyboard man is playing wild percussions on his tangents while the alto wails a sound that finger fucks heaven, and you are wondering whether you should have just taken the chance and kissed her anyway, but also thinking what a privilege it is to sit in this little Klub hearing such magnificent sounds, and you are about as high as a man can get and still remain upright and somewhat rational, and then you notice that you are not just thinking these things, you are in fact making an oral presentation of them to the two young women who are listening attentively, perhaps only politely, or perhaps mesmerized by your stupidity, and you are wondering just how much you may have told them about your private thoughts, maybe you spilled the whole beans, but then you think well what’s wrong with forthrightness and honesty anyway, and F is swaying to the music, his eyes closed, and you look at your watch and see it is half past two and time for old dudes to be in bed.

You say your farewells, and Emily hops from her chair and hugs you tight, and you say, “Uhmmm…” and she says again that she will write and that she wants to read one of your books, and you are moved right down to the elastic of your sock-holders, although you know full well that she will not write, and why should she?

You float through the night-dark unpaved Free State streets, congratulating yourself on having succeeded for once in not making a total ass of yourself, though wondering whether in fact you did, or whether you should have, as you pass dark clusters of people who in another world might seem threatening but who here are simply other people in the dark of the night pursuing happiness.

On the other side of the gate, back in the real world, a Mercedes taxi waits to drive you along the canals of Christiania, over Knippels Bridge, black water glistening below, through the deserted center of the ancient kingdom, and back to your little cobblestoned street where you let yourself in to your little apartment and stand on your Persian carpet, cheered to be surrounded by the art you have spent the past couple of decades collecting. You turn a circle, gazing from picture to picture, the colorist Skotte Olsen with his strange oil faces of peering eyes, Barry Lereng Wilmont’s gouaches of Dan Turèll motifs, Savino’s eerie disembodied souls wafting through the canvases, Teodor Bok’s strange angels...

Then you light a little cigar and open your computer to see if, perchance, there is a message from the Signora, and there is! And then you are glad you didn’t kiss anybody tonight, although the Signora probably wouldn’t mind, even if you wish she did mind, at least a little, but it is nice to have a woman to be faithful to, even if there is no reason at all for you to be, and as always when you see her name lit up in the inbox, your heart goes pit-a-pat because there is no way around it, you are an old fool. It is just a couple of lines: “My dear Professore,” she begins, as she always begins her mails to you, and tells how the past couple of days have been so full of demands that she has been unable to write but wanted to assure you that she is thinking of you and is sending kisses and will have time tomorrow to write a good long mail, and your elation is mixed with apprehension that it would be so easy to misunderstand what “kisses” and “thinking of you” really mean. But she did say she wanted to “assure” you, so it is hard not to think she didn’t mean those kisses to be actual kisses, even romantic ones perhaps, and those thoughts of you to be warm ones, and so what if you are pathetic, you like feeling these emotions, they make you feel alive.

Then you are in your bed, which is a row boat without oars or anchor, floating away, a smile on your face, and you think that if the inevitable surprise should come for you in your sleep tonight, it will have been a good old life; what better way to go than assured that you are safe in the Signora’s thoughts?

—From Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down, New American Press (2010)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury