Monday, August 22, 2011

Dennis Phillips | from HOPE

Dennis Phillips
from Hope

Was I asleep at my table? Why leave anything out? But I’ve left too much out. I need to take you back. I want you to know more about it. It’s important. It’s mainly that street corner that’s important. It was the first step of my exile. Maybe place is everything. And I waited and waited, like a stupid pet. But you don’t know that yet.

Carmen said, “Something’s weird. Stay with me. We’ll have sex, grab some lunch and drive there together. You don’t need them to help you. We can do it together.” It was only a car return.

From here my stomach knots at my stupidity. It wasn’t that I thought I needed help finding a rental car agency one city away, but you don’t know where I was or why. It was the trip after the car return that lured me. First to Glasgow, then to a small village at the coast. Tarbert it was called. What was I afraid of missing? That’s the question that tortures me now, now that the full absurdity and treachery of the whole thing’s so clear to me. That’s the real question. Because it wasn’t that I didn’t know better. I did. Or at least part of me did. But what does that even mean? I knew what we all know: that people follow patterns. So fucking what? I should have known that Emerson and McPherson would follow theirs, and that things work out and there’d be a conference, or there wouldn’t be a conference because things wouldn’t work out. That’s so simple even a stranded, crazed islander can understand it. That’s not the question though. The question’s why did I feel that I needed to go with them?

And inside the question’s the gut knotting, humiliating truth that it was clear to them what I’d do because I was always the most predictable and obvious one no matter what I thought.

Carmen tried to stop me. Could she see what was happening, or did she just want a last afternoon with me? Had she seen me as they did? While I was placing myself at the top of the food chain, did every one else see me as a flagrant baitfish? They were leading me into a trap. What else could it have been? She couldn’t have been party to it. She never liked either of them, especially Malcolm.

No. I fell for the propaganda of atmosphere. That was Emerson Vogel’s greatest gift. He could make the ordinary seem extraordinary. He could make the moment seem mo-mentous. He could make the vacuum that poets live in seem real and important and historical.

If he turned out to be a pathetic Mephistopheles, what a painfully cheap Faust was I. I traded a few hours of self delusion to join the over-rehearsed list of Emerson Vogel’s straw men. Or worse. I was only bait, pure and simple.

Would I miss a chance to make literary history? Wasn’t that always the unspoken temptation? Didn’t Emerson always come back with a tale worthy of a biography?

Oh, Joseph, you missed that one badly. It was Emerson who was writing the history, and the thesis was that he was the Figure. I could be the amusing counter-point in a few stories about his genius. But share the stage? That simple concept was the come-on that he knew I’d fall for. And I fell for every trope and gambit, gullible, proud and stupid.

But wait. You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?

“Just stay here with me,” Carmen said. And I kissed her goodbye at the door to our fancy hotel room and left with Emerson Vogel and Malcolm McPherson.

I followed their car as they led me through the back roads from Edinburgh to Glasgow. When we got to the outskirts, where the car rental agency was, I followed the plan we had discussed: Since the street was very busy and there would certainly be no parking, I would pull in, pay for the car and walk back to the street where, after having circled the block once or twice, they would pull up and I would hop in. From there we were to travel to Tarbert, where McPherson wanted to visit an old friend of the family who happened to be a very well connected editor.

No doubt it was that meeting that attracted me.

I pulled into the space reserved for car returns and waved at my friends as they proceeded on. Ten minutes later, back on the street, I watched the cars pass. I watched for half an hour. At first I assumed they had been held up in traffic, then that they might have been in an accident. I walked back into the agency to see if perhaps they had called. Back outside, I continued to wait, watching each car and bus and truck in the constant stream. Each of the hundreds of cars I watched pass added to my suspension between anger and concern, among impulses about what I should do and how much longer I should do nothing. Should I make my way to a bus or train station? Maybe I should just re-rent my car and drive back to Edinburgh. Once again I walked back into the car agency. This time I used their phone to call Carmen. I was partly curious to see if they had left a message with her, partly I just wanted to hear her voice. At least we could have a laugh at her having been right, once again, about Emerson. She was not in the room. I left no message.

It’s odd how many thoughts and actions occurred in the next millisecond. The first thought was a kind of epiphany. Suddenly it was clear that Emerson and McPherson were letting me hang on the street corner while they were getting their dicks sucked by one of the high-class whores Emerson was always telling me that McPherson had connections to. My fury at the certainty that this had to have been their plan all along, and that my standing in attendance for however long was either of no consequence or part of the amusement, arched over the scene like a proscenium under which thoughts and actions instantly compiled: I decided to re-rent the car, drive back to Edinburgh, pick up Carmen and head to the airport. I hung up the phone. I turned around. I sought to make my desire known to one of the car rental clerks and noticed that the office was empty.

Now, two rotund men in suits walked into the agency office. Were they officials from the car rental company? No. But they wanted to speak to me. I froze. A niggling little thought peeped up: that the appearance of these suited men was related to the absence of my friends. But at this millisecond it had not yet occurred to me that my good friend Emerson Vogel was any more than self-involved. It would take considerably longer for me to realize the degree to which he had been active in the scheme that landed me here, half a world away, on this island.

“Are you Joseph Spero?” asked the American accent of one of the two suited men.

“Who the hell are you?” I replied.

The other man, apparently the good cop, intervened: “Sorry sir,” he began, also with an American accent. “We should have identified ourselves. I am Agent Robbins and this is Agent Allan. We are with the Central Authority.”

“Do you mean the U.S. Central Authority?” I asked.

“That’s the one,” snapped Agent Allan.

“I didn’t realize that the jurisdiction of the American secret police included Europe.” I was belligerent. That was naïve.

“Are you Joseph Spero, sir?” asked Agent Robbins.

Through the plate glass agency window beyond Agent Robbins’ chubby form, I saw Malcolm McPherson’s car emerge from the mass of traffic and pull to the curb.

Without answering my agents, I watched Emerson Vogel and Malcolm McPherson walk across the sidewalk toward me and my interrogators.

“What’s going on?” asked Malcolm as he and Emerson stepped into the office. He was affecting an excellent rendition of surprise and outrage.

“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” I answered. “Where the hell have you two been? I’ve been waiting here for over an hour. Now I’ve got the secret police asking me if I’m me.”

“We’re from the Central Authority, sir. Not the secret police,” Agent Allan corrected.

“What do you gentlemen want with Mr. Spero,” asked Malcolm McPherson in his most upper class Scots accent.

“My name is Malcolm McPherson. I am a citizen of this country and Mr. Spero is my guest. I’m sure it doesn’t matter to you people that Mr. Spero is an important poet. But, if you cannot make your business clear to me instantly, I will be on the phone to your State Department. I am a personal friend of Sir Arlington Aspry, the British Foreign Secretary. I’m sure that if I need to enlist his aid in correcting this outrageous breech of our sovereignty there will be stiff price to pay. Now, do I make myself clear?”

“With all due respect, Mr. McPherson,” said Agent Allan, “I don’t see which point you’re trying to make clear. I don’t give a rat’s ass about who you are or who you know. As for breeches of sovereignty, we are here with permission of the office of the Foreign Secretary.”

“Gentlemen,” intervened Good Cop Robbins, “There’s really no need for you to be upset, especially Mr. Spero. We just need to ask him a couple of questions and give him a bit of important information. We just need a few minutes in private with you, Mr. Spero.”

McPherson’s display irritated my anger. Emerson, of course, was silent during the exchange. I felt a twinge of intuition that told me to speak to the two cops and get it over with. I wasn’t sure what they wanted, but I didn’t think they’d try to kill me or arrest me. So I asked Emerson and McPherson to excuse us, and stepped onto the loud sidewalk to hear what Agents Robbins and Allan wanted.

The funny thing is, I can’t remember the details of what they said. I remember very clearly the sounds of the traffic, the late morning light, that a cheek tick of Agent Robbins was matched by an eye twitch of Agent Allan. I remember needing to suppress a smile at the pair of mobile faces.

I remember thinking that the food in Scotland was not agreeing with at least one of them. I remember pondering the idea of the business suit as a police uniform. And I still have a vague essence of their demands; that there was some kind of investigation going on, that they might want me to come to a hearing in D.C., that I shouldn’t worry, I wasn’t the subject of the investigation, that I didn’t even need to bring an attorney. It was just routine. I also remember thinking what an odd routine it was to send two agents to Scotland just to inform a non-suspect that there was going to be an investigation.

I can’t bring back any of the exact street conversation, as vivid as the exchange in the agency office still is. But two things are etched deeply; I was very worried and I knew that I’d need a lawyer.

Emerson Vogel, Malcolm McPherson and I drove west to the town of Tarbert. The trip lasted hours, or seemed to. I was so mad that I knew my voice would tremble if I said anything, so I said nothing. McPherson was squeezed shut, furious that I dared to be angry and outraged that I wasn’t grateful for his display of magnificent plumage before the agents of the law. Emerson was simply silent.

When we finally arrived in Tarbert, the tide was out and the fishing boats sat in the muddy basin of the walled harbor. I let Emerson and McPherson go off to their meeting. Wasn’t that why I had come with them in the first place: to meet with whomever Malcolm had arranged for us to meet? But now all I wanted was a shot of whiskey that I hoped would numb me into some understanding of what I had just been through.

In the bar of the Hotel Tarbert, I opted for beer instead of whiskey, sat at a low table with my back to windows that overlooked the harbor, and waited to calm down.

I knew that at some point Emerson would join me, which, after a while, he did.

“You have to try the kippered trout,” was his greeting as he sat across from me.

“I just had one.”

“No, you really need to try one.”

He summoned the waiter and ordered a kippered trout and a double whiskey.

“The Malkster was loaded for bear, wasn’t he,” attempted Emerson.

“Where the fuck were you guys,” was my counter. “I waited for over an hour. If you had some place to go, why couldn’t you have told me about it? If you were off getting your dicks sucked, I could have waited in a bar or a bookstore. I just can’t fathom why you’d let me stand there. Maybe if I’d been somewhere else, those two goons wouldn’t have found me.”

Usually the steel-trap mind of Emerson Vogel works faster than it did that afternoon. But then, he had a lot of information to collate to formulate his lie. I might have expected better than the boilerplate that he came up with: “I didn’t know where he was going. He had a meeting. I was waiting too. You know Malcolm. I said, ‘What about Joe?’ All he said was he’d just be a minute.”

“So you were waiting in the car while he got his dick sucked? Give me break, Emerson.”
“I don’t know what he. You know. He told me he had to meet with this guy. I was double-parked. He left me with his keys and said ‘Just move if the cops come.’” Et cetera, et cetera.
Oh Joseph Spero. Look at your silly, blinded trust. Look at this story now. And you didn’t see it coming. You just couldn’t process the connections. They were probably worried that they’d be too obvious. They underestimated you, Joe.

Author of A World (1989), Arena (1991), Credence (1996), and Sand (Green Integer, 2002), among other books of poetry, Dennis Phillips teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the city where he lives with his wife, Courtney Gregg and their daughter Sophia. His first novel, Hope, was published by Green Integer in 2007.

Copyright ©2007 by Dennis Phillips and Green Integer.

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