Fiction: In The Tavern

July 11, 2017 Fiction , Literature , POETRY / FICTION

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By

G David Schwartz

 

 

Because we have to feed these people who live with us, because, Maria tells me, starvation is a form of murder and most forms of murder are crimes against the state, and so we have to feed these people, Maria sent me to the local store for a loaf of bread. “And,” she told me as I left, “Don’t loaf around.”

Naturally this last remark confused me. I parked around. I strutted around. I lanced around. But I was careful not to loaf around and, by the time I realized I need to get the bread and return to my flat, I walked into a tavern. It was to be expected. I did not know the town as well as Maria. Before I realized my mistake, I was deeply involved in a mug of beer and a discussion.

I wanted to be through with each of them quickly, but the conversation was not to be stopped. I attempted several times to leave, but the man had a hand on the sleeve of my jacket and was not about to let me go. What could I do? I had several more beers.

“Were you talking to me?” I asked when he began.

He gave me a look as if to say: Why would I be talking to you? Then he said, “Of course I am.” He swirled in his chair, spilled beer on my new shoes, and bent my ear, and my sleeve, for the next few hours. And such nonsense! He spoke such nonsense you would think your mother-in-law was visiting. Notice I emphasize YOUR mother-in-law. My Sophie Buttdinskiwitz is an angel. A regular angel.

“I’m a tool-maker,” he is telling me, “I make tools. A toolmaker does not make garments. A toolmaker does not make candles. A toolmaker does not make cows or butcher blocks or radios. A tool maker does not make books.”

“A tool-maker…” I offered.

“A tool maker makes…tools. The problem is,” he raised his hand, so I inspected for missing digits or gnarled formations which would have prevented his making tools, which is what a tool maker does, but saw none, “The problem is, with electrification and industrialization, socialization and imagination, you can get a tool to make tools.”

I shrugged haplessly.

“A tool to make tools!” he re-stated, “Have you ever heard of such nonsense?”

“I’ve heard quite a bit of nonsense…” I offered.

“Of course you have. But never such whimsy as a tool that makes tools.  It’s just not logical, I tell you. It just does not make sense. It’s like needing a ratchet to make ratchets, or borscht to make borscht. Can you possibly wrangle sense out of that?”

“Not that,” I said prideful, having completed a whole thought.”

It’s a good thing we are historical materialist,” he said. I thought I noticed a sneer.

“Oh? Why is that?”

“Because we have such intellectual problems,” he said. “We have cognitive problems. We have epistemological problems. We have comprehension and postulate problems.”

“Why do you mean?” I asked involuntarily.

“We’re stupid!”

Well, I did not see the reason I had to stand there and take such remarks from a perfect stranger, so I introduced myself.

“Leon,” he said, “A good name, Leon. You stupid?”

“No,” I said, “I’m Leon.”

Apparently he did not see the humor in my remark. “Most of our country is stupid. Tell me if you see the sense in this, Leon. That is your name, isn’t it? Leon.”

“Leon, Yes.”

“Tell me if you see the sense in this, Leo. If a person desires to leave the country…”

“No,” I answered quickly, “I don’t see the sense in that!”

“I’m not done. I’m not done, Leonard. A person desires to leave the country, and the state has paid for his or her education, the state says it is not right for the educated person to take his or her education out of the state. That makes sense, doesn’t it, Lionel?”

“Yes. That makes perfect sense,” I said, and indicated to the keep that I needed, really needed, another beer.

“But if you insist on your right to leave the country, and you have every right to leave the country, they put you in jail. So in other words, Lax, they give you an education. They want you to use your education. But if you want to use your education in a different country, they put you in jail. They put you in jail, and you can’t use your education. If you are in jail…”

“Where do you want to go?” I asked involuntarily.

“Israel.”

“No such place,” I said, “You might as well want to go to utopia. Look. We’d better drop this subject.”

“You’re absolutely right, Latka. So, I petition the state and they refuse. They send a polite letter, which, once you dig through the gobblie-goo and the rigmarole, says ‘no.’ So I petition the state again, and they arrest me. They put me in jail and tell me, ‘Look, comrade, jail is better than exile.’ And when they let me out of jail, a well-meaning communist party member says, ‘You were short term. Petition again and you will go to Siberia.'”

“I have friends in Siberia,” I said.

“I’m sure. We all have friends in Siberia. Anyway, Lasagna, I’m in jail and what do they want me to do? Read a book! They want me to read a book! They tell me it will make me a bonified communist. Well, I tell them I don’t want any bones in me and…”

“You know you have bones in you now,” I say, being a master of the obvious.

“What?” He jumps up. He flails his arms. He stretches his arms. What he does not do it let go of my sleeve?

I accidentally hit a woman who says, as she staggers into my chest, “Hello. I’m a Capricorn.” I respond, “Really? I’m not as familiar with the diverse sections of the party as I should be!” “Party,” she says, cooing and giggling as she staggers away.

“Anyway,” he says after settling into his seat, “I’ll assume you are kidding, Lettuce. Let’s see, so where was I? Oh, yes! So when I get out of jail, I go to get my old job back and they tell me I have no job. Of course I don’t, I tell them, but I should have. There is none, they tell me. What, I ask. They say a machine has been brought in to take my place. Meanwhile, I get a letter from the state, which says I must have socially useful labor or I will be determined to be a vagrant, and be put in jail. Unless, I am made to understand, this is a second offense, in which case I will be sent to…”

“Siberia.”

“Leningrad.”

“Leningrad?”

“Of course. That’s where they employ chemical workers.”

“But I thought you were a tool-maker.”

“Tool maker! Chemical maker! Look, if the state says you are something, you are that which they say. Look at me!”

I took a good look at the man. He had not shaved in several days and his clothes were filthy. In spite of this, however, he had the regal brow of an intelligent person, and the bright eyes of a thinker. Or a drunk.

“I’m a piece of shit,” he continued, “They told me so when I left jail. So, I think, I’m a piece of shit. Everyone not in the communist party is a piece of shit. Israel is not in the communist party. It’s just plain logical. So you use a little deductive power, and you know what follows.”

“Siberia,” we say together.

“What gets me is that we are not allowed to talk about certain things, which is ridiculous. You can’t understand what you’re not supposed to talk about, anyway. It’s the old egg problem.”

“Egg problem?”

“Yes, the egg problem. To make an omelet you must crack some eggs. The egg the soviet state has decided to crack is me! So I persevere in spite of the Stalinist legacy.”

“The Stalinist legacy?”

“Yes, the legacy which says that we need state permission to break an egg.”

I intend to think about his remark, but he goes on: “Of course, Lentil, this brings us back to the cognitive problem. After all, it was the Hungarian philosopher Lukacs who said that the appropriate egg does not exist; therefore we must break it hard. I prefer Sartre. He said eggs are manifest scarcity. Cracking must occur elsewhere. The early Merleau-Ponty, by which I think they mean the young Merleau-Ponty said that to perceive the egg is to perceive the contour of the revolution. He may have been correct, except that Walter Benjamin stated, succinctly and profoundly, that an egg broken while reading Rilke will not taste the same as an egg broken while ready Kafka. If this is not truth, I don’t know what is!”

“I don’t understand…”

“Lucien Goldman also said something important and relevant. Goldman said, if I may paraphrase, those eggs are admissible foul without wings or beaks, legs or a head. Rigidly divided into yellow, or yolk, and while, with various apertures denoting the vacancy of plumage, they, by which I believe he means eggs, are a parable for the borders between the motherland and China as well as pre-dialectical evidence which shall be properly disposed of, in all sense of the term, in the proletariat state. I hope I have not used a word or phrase you have not understood.”

“No. No, not at all,” I lied.

“Good! Because there is a general confusion, amongst ourselves as well as our captive allies about what certain words or phrases mean. There is this nagging intellectual confusion I keep talking about, Lenoid. It’s a terrible burden to have to distinguish between ‘Marxist,’ ‘socialist,’ ‘communist,’ ‘Bolshevik,’ ‘Soviet,’ ‘Pravda,’ and ‘Stalinist’. Let me clarify. ‘Marxist’ is what you do in the shower. If you have a shower, that is. And whether or not you have a shower is not strictly relevant to whether you take a shower or not. Whether or not you take a shower seems to have an empirical-critical bearing on whether or not you brush your teeth. I always recommend brushing your teeth, but I do not always recommend using a brush. Occasionally a good egg will do, but you have to be gentle. It also depends on whether or not you have any teeth left. In any event, do or don’t, do or don’t, all the other words depend on whose watching you. Their meaning becomes apparent in the eye of the beholder.”

“But what does this…”

“Ahh, you see! It all becomes clear now, doesn’t it, Hemroid? The more you think about these things, the clearer they become, doesn’t they Hammer-thigh? Hammer-thigh? Is that your KGB name?”

“No, my name is Leon.”

“Leon?

I thought you said your name was Leszek? Oh, well. What was I saying? Oh, yeah. So they set me free. They kick me out! They tell me to leave. The jail was the only place where I could get two good meals a day and an hour of sleep. So here I am out on the street, and I’m thinking, what is freedom anyway? Now, you must understand, I am convinced that no one will be free until everyone is free. But what does it mean? Does it mean the many are not free until all are free? Or does it mean that all are not free until the many are free? Or does it mean the one frees the many? Or the many frees the one?”

While he is talking, I am shivering; I keep thinking he is saying ‘freeze’ and, while carrying on this discussion about freedom, he is still holding me captive. Every time I jerk away, he jerks me back. Now my jacket is good and wrinkled and, I am willing to wager, stretched to boot. I look down at my boots and, sure enough, there sag the elbows of my jacket.

“…or that all reflect the many, or that many reflect the all, or that the many reflect the one, or that the one reflects all, or that…”

Obviously this man has more questions in him than I have answers in me, and I am starting to think that perhaps that jail they had him in was a psychiatric institute and instead of being let loose, he escaped himself into looseness.

“…and being paid. For if we are a free society, why do they pay us, and at the same time, why do they not pay us enough?”

“Look,” I say, “This is interesting, and you’ve given me many things to think about, but I really must be…”

“For example, now listen to this, Lenny. We have to work for wages, right?”

“Yes, and talk about work…”

“But they also say we get wages for work, right?”

“Yes, and if I want to live to see another day of work, then…”

“Which essentially means that you invert the two nouns? The statement means the same thing, no matter which way the nouns are facing. Doesn’t that follow? Yet that is not the case for most sentences. Take this one, for example.” While he is thinking of an example, I try to tug my arm loose.

“‘Bread for snails,’ meaning a person willing trade bread to obtain snails, right? But ‘snails for bread’ means something entirely different. It may mean the person we are speaking about is willing to trade snails for bread, and who wouldn’t be willing? Or it may mean that the person speaking wants some snails to put on his or her bread. How can you tell the difference? You can’t, that’s how! And this is where communism enters into the picture.”

One more tug before he begins speaking again.

“Communism explains, in the first case, that no matter who has the wages and no matter who had the work, it is in both cases the same person. The exploiter has the wages and the exploiter has the work. Do you understand now, Lester? Communism ends the epistemological problem in every sense of the word! That’s the only virtue of communism, but it is a great and wondrous virtue. There are no epistemological problems! Don’t you think that’s wonderful. In the first case, communists clearly and succinctly identify the owners of the means of production with the dispensers of wages. There is no confusion. In the case of the second problem, communists have solved our dilemma by virtually abolishing bread.”

Oh, my! Maria is going to be so mad. I tug my arm furiously, but he only tightens his grip.

“No bread, only lines. Which is great! Everyone can understand lines! Lines on paper, lines in a mathematical problem, lines in a drawing. Lines, lines, lines. But no bread! Doesn’t this make sense to you, Larry?”

No bread! If I do not return with the bread, Maria will have my head. She will serve our guests buttered-head-of-Leon!

“Unable to grow the food necessary to feed our own people, we do the next best thing: develop marvelous theories of abundance and surplus! This is a great country,” he yells out loud.

People looked around nervously, applauding his remarks.

He smiles for the first time since I’ve been there and raises his hand to accept the applause. One quick yank and I am free, the one is free, and running toward the door of the tavern.

But the idiot, the lunatic, the agitator is shouting at me.

“Wait. There’s more. Consider the clothing store. More lines.”

I do not stop. I am running. He is yelling louder: “You wait in a long line and what do you find when you get up to the counter? They only sell three sizes of trousers. That’s right. Three sizes of trousers.”

I am out the door and running. I still hear his voice.

“One size is for the person who has a thirty-four inch waist. Another size is for the person who someday will have a thirty-four inch waist. Still another size is for the person who once had a thirty-four inch waist.”

I am seven doors up the block; I still hear him yelling.

“Oddly enough, this is the same taxonomy which contains the three types of people. That’s right. Three types of people in all the world, and you don’t need to stand in lines to meet them. You can walk around blind for all I care. There are those who call me ‘Boris’ as well as those who don’t call me anything. Finally, there are those who don’t even care to call me anything. They call me nothing at all. They call me ‘shit-for-brains.’ They call me toilet-mouth. It’s an epistemological problem.”

I run, run, run through the town into the outskirts of our village. Maria meets me at the door. So where’s the bread? Bread! Do you know what a line I was standing in? And do you know what I found at the end of that line?

Maria doesn’t say a word. She thinks she understands, and I do nothing to correct her. Once again, I’ve saved my head. Nevertheless, at dinner, no one has a wonderful time. There is no bread for the borsch. There is no bread for the rhubarb or onions. There is no bread for the bread pie. We have plain pie. I am the unhappiest of all. Throughout the meal I head a distance voice yelling at me, I cannot quite make out what the voice is saying, so I have to add words myself to make it make the little bit of sense it will eventually make when, as my grandfather use to say, horses forget how to gallop.

“Please accept this for the brave piece of rhetoric it is, but I have studied the problem. One day you think you have a pleasant smile on your face when all you have is a face. It’s a terrible burden. An epistemological problem. A horrible curse. Thankfully the soviet doctors have figured it out. Simply cease smiling…”

“Which, by the way, has been the excellent efforts of our Soviet administrators over the last five years. It’s been a five-year plan. Well, let me tell you something: was it a good plan? I don’t know about that, but I’m pretty certain it has been well over five years.”

“But what are years anyway. Just a capitalist illusion?”

“And beer. What does imported beer mean. When we are standing on our own Soviet shore, even inland, imported beer means it came from somewhere else. But when we are standing in American…”

 

 

 

 

 

g-david-schwartz

G David Schwartz

I am the former President of “Seed House”, an online, interfaith community forum. I also have published three books – ” A Jewish Appraisal of Dialogue” (1994), “Midrash and Working Out Of The Book” (2004), and most recently “Shards and Stanzas” (2011).

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