Conjunctions:30 Paper Airplane

The Chatter Heart: An EKG
Uttoxeter to Sir
For years now you have done nothing more ambitious than paint seeds on wooden strawberries, each strawberry taking at least a week. There is a thriving market, and you never noticed how like seeds a baboon’s tits are. I excuse you, I let you off. There you squat, numbed in the throes of monogamy, rising hardly even above the Plimsoll Line of indignation to complain that British movies are too quiet, the mike’s in the wrong place, all the actors have laryngitis. if you are not Numb, then you can be Dumb or Crumb, strong names for their epic implications. What are you doing here? Because, you bluster, this country is more like the rest of the world than any other country is. Bah. Is that you at your most crisp and propulsive? Are you not the person who has to put on the radio to free yourself from that awful stammer of yours? Only with the radio playing, horsing around with the language and the prices, can you talk straight. Then you say it, something at least: “This country has produced some of the ugliest shoes in history orthopedic to the nth, whereas if you go to Italy ...” Finish it, then. All right, don’t. I agree about the shoes; only bullies wear them, whether or not they know they’re bullies. La Guardia, you say, is full of captive metal birds twittering with alarm. So when were you that far from home last? Merv calls all the time to say he hasn’t been out of his house for weeks. What would we do without Merv, conserving the notion of the homebody for us? “Send me all your books,” he pleads, “I daren’t go out. Not into the agora anyway.” He’s bloody learned, you have to grant that. 

     These are the people we know: the Mervs, the Numbs, Dumbs and Crumbs, the Pinks and Blues, all of them as decorous as a penis sheath worn in the tea room at the Plaza. They try, these gents, these dames, but they notice nothing, no more than you, my mostly silent interlocutor. You have been frightened by bad English, sir, at that same La Guardia (remember the Little Flower who was mayor?), hearing “Failure to board at this time will give up their seat to a standby,” and you cringe against the radiator or the cool unresponsive pot of the urinal, wondering what the world has come to. All you can see on emerging is a world you never wanted: kids in their strollers biting their blankets while being wheeled around like tiny astronauts. It is worse in Philly, my friend, where the helpless amateur who drives the bus announces “There will be two stops. First stop: Gates One through Fourteen B. Second Stop: Gate Twelve C.” What is going on? Where do you end up if you get out at the wrong gate? Why do we all gad about in Brownian motion? 

     You never answer. You do not know. You would get no farther than what the La Guardia officials call the other side of our gray wall with the telephones. We have all become our own porters, our camels. Imagine boarding your flight and, for the sake of friendship, countering her hello with some provocative remark about The Death of Virgil. Oh, dear, you’re going to a funeral, how sad. You need to get back to the toilet roll the maid has folded to a point, at least the first sheet anyway half-tempting you with the notion of an unsealed letter to lick. Don’t you dare. Remain in the zone of effluvia.

     Do you still, as when you were an immigrant, answer people’s genial inquiries with your blanket response? “Hello, no blow job,” an answer designed (you thought) to put people at their ease, persuading them you wouldn’t subject them to any sudden stress or crash of intimacy. How many times can you say “hellow, no blow job!” without offending an entire cocktail party? Not only should you never say it, you should never think anything so forward, you just thought it was the natural thing to do, being here and all, a stranger in a strange land, a stripling among the straphangers. On climbs a sturdy woman with a huge bag she at once empties out in the aisle, revealing eight smaller bags with which she crams the baggage rack the full length of the so-called “Express” plane. She knows how to travel. We know only how to stay at home. Into your favorite chair you sink, sunken, murmuring something about how foreigners handle foreign money, looking anxiously back at it as they march away from the tip, as if it will rear up and abandon them, involving them in humiliation. Can this be a ten? Or a twenty? They are not used to such numbers, such tiny bills, such austere colors, all the same really with different deads engraved thereon. The outsiders handle it as if it were rimmed with Kirlian auras. 

     The lord of all vermin enlarges his kingdom. That’s what you say when you’ve coffeed-up, gotten out of your traveller’s funk, unable to remember even where you went, or why. There on the table, a rancid wafer, sits the exhausted ticket, a souvenir full of deadly twisted staples, a mess of amendments, and you say, quite wretchedly, “I am not leaving this fucking place ever again. You go, he/she goes, we go, you go, they go, but I stay at fucking home, sucking the golden teat of myself. Goodbye, no blow job.”

     It is too late now to expect suavity of you. I will pursue my meditation on America while you cock your feet up and rant away about how the country has gone hack to the America Firsters, being beastly to immigrants and aliens all over again, the proud possessors (many of them foreigners to begin with) who don’t want anyone new to possess it. These you call the anal retentives of the American dream. Now you see the immigrant once again assembling the tip of one-dollar bills on a gleaming white bread plate, then after walking a few paces away returning to remove one dollar, like a thieving magpie presuming to adjust the tip toward some idol of perfect pecuniary justice. These, you tell me, are the fleurs du Mall. You have said this before, you will no doubt say it again; but I ask you, don’t you think saying “Hello, no blow job” is ambiguous? I mean, are you offering to pitch or receive? How can an obscenity be so misleading? 

     In turn I offer you, peeled away from sticky cards in my wallet, the gems of honor I carry with me: a color photo of peas, clipped from a packet of the frozen variety, meant for use in a Chinese restaurant, where they do not understand anything but snow peas, in pods, which I loathe. Bad enough, but what I follow up with is worse: gaffes of the mouth and pen, cousins of those intimate words telegraphed and transcribed miles away by an anonymous, semi-literate florist: “Love and kisses on publication day,” say, or “In memory of a gorgeous sleepless night!” No, this is how the bad stuff goes:
A journalist, the last article she had published, just before Christmas began “it’s the season to be jolly ...”
And this:
Delivered to the front lawn as a truck-load of long thin poles, people set up their electric saws to cut them into two-foot lengths ...
Another’s a horoscope:
PISCES (Feb. 19–March 20). Mention only the known facts others will hold you to your words. Trips to the ocean or a lake revive your energy. Encourage a child to study, as your influence can really make the difference. Aries apologizes.
     Aries apologizes! How dare they speak to me in titles without realizing they could be titles. There are the pinpricks only. Worse are the moaners at the bar in the Oyster Bar, all phoning someone else (or one another) on tiny retractable cellphones no bigger than sand-dabs, ignoring one another but just perhaps covertly speaking to one another: a planned exercise in fraudulent blather. The waiters wear black armlets, either in mourning or simply to remind us that what they wear is a uniform. “The Plaza kitchens are yours to command!” Hearing rather than reading this grandiose come-on, I eat the carnation imposed on my breakfast tray and prepare not to go out. Downstairs to buy toothpaste, however, I hear some dacoit woman saymg over and over “13 incense,” which I finally understand as a request for thirteen cents. These are by bruits, term filched from medicine, the complaining noises I make when safely among those who speak my language, who are few and far between. I am working my way toward the serious issue I must confront you with, having to do with poor, insufferable Pfitzner, and his possible rehabilitation (it hurts not to mention him as if he were a friend), and what went on in the Tower of London, 1914–1918. I inch my way toward it, knowing how ferociously petulant you can be, even as I mention a clipped nail, a nail-clip, found among the paperclips; the counterrevolution in which the Romanoffs whip out their revolvers and blow the execution squad to bits right there in that cellar, seated as they are by divine fight; the way the mention of Orange goes both ways, meaning either Dutch protestantism or Syracuse University. Treat every day, I tell you, as a newborn baby, a birthday present, an Arizona sunset. Sometimes, as a piece of sublime chamber music comes to a halt on the stereo, in a low register the furnace kicks on and I think it’s the first note of a nonexistent next movement. Describe this first note, I tell myself, and it’s an elegiac clonk, a hollow imprecation, oh all of that, a dirge of brown balsawood tapping on an old cowbell. It belongs to Roy Harris, who excels at ranch-house sounds.

     You respond to none of this, blustering, in your obsessive way, about the need to relate all passing events to something central: a main idea. I have watched you at your housebound duties, sprawled in a warm bath with a cold and gluggy throat, scribbling notes to yourself about the little socks you fit to the legs of chairs to keep them from scratching the parquet—when they rutch and slip away from the rubberbands that usually hold them fast, you tilt the chair and, cursing mightily, tug the socklet upward, then reposition the rubberband. A disproportionate amount of your time goes into this remedial activity, which is only part of your desire to dominate the world that threatens you. All you need is the one big idea that will make the world of swirling phenomena come to heel, like a thousand yapping, heroically obsequious Dalmations. 

     It is you who want the rosettes of the cheetah to merge into a uniform pigment, and in this we are different; I want the gray of the elephant’s hide to sprout rosettes. How we ever manage to deal with each other, I do not know, I the gadabout, the connoisseur of incidentals, you the integrator, the marsupial who knows one big thing—though you never tell me what it is. I the mindless pump, you the finessy master-builder.

     “Is this,” you retort, “going to be one of those awful, humiliating conversations in which two premises are aired to no purpose? Not so much a conversation as an exchange of rifle fire?”

     “In a time-compressed manner,” I begin, but you interrupt. I’ll say this: you’re getting braver. You’ll soon be calling “worst case scenario” by its proper name: “at worst.”

     What you interrupt with is this. “All at once, you mean, old friend.” You sound huffy and superior, which first you may be, but not the second. Oh no. Keep a stiff upper chest, “old friend,” there is worse coming over the horizon of the pericardium.


Uttoxter to Athol
“Hello, no blow job,” I say, but he permits himself a languid smile that turns his sallow features pink as if he has blushed, which he never does. He is never that emotionally tied to what he thinks.

     “in this season,” I say, “insects start coming into the house, they squeeze out of cold cracks into the mainstream of untidiness.” 

     “You would know,” he responds. “Pools rush in where wise men fear to trade.”

     That is enough, I decide: no more banter. Get to it. Tease him, search him out. After all, you want to know what he thinks. We are not addressing ourselves to the cloven hoof of the amaryllis that yawns into flowering goblets or the Masai, from nearby pointing at the sunset with long canes. We are not being exotic, not even wondering, as we sometimes have in the drear watches of a sleepless night, if criminality isn’t merely the left-handed form of human endeavor. A novel, I keep telling him, as from one who knows to one who has never thought about it, is a series of compromises flying in close formation. “One of these days, I’ll—” 

     “You’ll what?” he interjects, always this rude. 

     I abandon the thought, feeble as it was, hoping to snare him into the real gist of my thinking, trifling with him only in order to launch my serious moutons. Or, if you prefer a different animal, giving him the sorts of daft little retracted-claw taps that lion cubs indulge in. 

     Although chatting, he ignores me, his mind on yet another calamity he has noticed in a movie, this time the powder-compact mirror a woman gave Charles Lingbergh as he set out for his transatlantic flight. Of course she gave it really to James Stewart. Anyway, he says, here is Lindbergh-Stewart flying eastward, and the sun in the mirror dazzles him, “which can only mean,” I hear, “he is flying westward, the wrong way. Why can’t they get things right? Wrong-Way Corrigan is one thing, but Lindy’s quite another. Eff them to hell and back.” I hear him out in silence, knowing the pains of being a shut-in afflict him deeply, almost as if he were a prisoner in some comfy jail. 

     “Sure,” I tell him, “they always foul up with the planes. They think nobody’s watching. Your Blenheim takes off, becomes an Airacobra, and lands as a Catalina. They wouldn’t dare be that sloppy with cars, would they?” An olive branch, but he snubs it. 

     “What’s all this shit about some bastard of a German and the Tower of London? More cesspool history?” 

     “No, they’re separate,” I insist, “I’m trying to bring them together in mind to make a point about—well, cliche thinking and sacrifice.” 

     Now, you have heard of Pernambuco, the wood that does not float, it is so dense and solid? They make violins from it. He’s like that, he goes down to the bottom during all conversation, at rest only on the sea- or riverbed. It must be some fishlike tendency in him, to avoid others’ ideas like the plague; yet here I am going after him with something I can tell he’d rather not hear. What a little laughing embryo he is, deep in his armchair, perfect parasite of the cushions, not so much a human being as a bright, ingratiating and deceptive hologram. To whom I am obliged to address myself nonetheless. 

     “Yes,” he finally says (I know, I should say “he goes” or “he’s like” or some other slangy lapse), “you remind me of a mangy airline that’s gone broke but commissioned a new color scheme from the Gaudis who paint it. You come here under false colors, my friend, trying to provoke me into some anti-Nazi argument I am bound to win while you maunder on about the Tower of London. As if anyone cared.” 

     “I do,” I said, as if getting married. I was “I do,” I went “I do.” 

     “Long behind the butterfly,” he began, but I halted him. 

     “You mean aviation is. Technologically advanced, but still esthetically far behind?” 

     “One of your brighter days,” he said. “Let’s get on with it.” 

     “Piano in him is never bright.” 

     “Am not discussing piano.” 

     “You were. ‘Ve not heard the Palestrina thing.” 

     “You should.”

     “With you living underneath me I no doubt will.” 

     “As I was saying, he tried so hard to sound like a good Nazi, not so much believing as making all the gestures of a believer; and they saw through him. He wanted what he wanted for music, that was all. Anything for music.” 

     “And Hitler scorned him?” 

     “Wouldn’t give him the time of day.” How comprehensive that expression sounds, analogous to the extent of space, I suppose. 

     He isn’t really listening, not as he would if I were talking about the irresistible Richard Strauss, whose rhythms match his own, he says. 

     “Your point?” He sounds like an inquisitor. 

     “Well, I’m wondering if we should dismiss him on moral grounds, no matter how bad, how good, his music is. Bristling with obsequiousness, he comes across as a pill, but he did write some sturdy elegiac stuff. Should he not be allowed credit for that at least? Or must all he did go down the chute of his politics? That’s my point. They’re trying to rehabilitate him; Strauss doesn’t need it, of course, but Pfitzner does, downhill from his Blue Max in 1925. A long decline. I remember John O’Hara going to live in Princeton in hopes of an honorary degree he never got.”

     “Hans Pfitzner,” I tell him, “is hard to say. But let that pass. In some photographs he has a goatee and this leads you to thinking his gaunt face is all tufts. In other pictures, he has no beard and you notice how far back his head extends, almost as if a bulb grew out of it. He has a look of worried, revulsed, overnourished disappointment, ever-ready for the next affront. Devout Nazi that he was, and in spite of his grovellings before Hitler and Goering, he didn’t quite make it in the Nazi era, not even as well as his rival, the pro-Semitic Richard Strauss. Early on, almost as if he were some alpha pilot, he received the Blue Max, Pour Le Mérite, which might have been enough for many men, even composers; but he wanted more, he was one of those men Erich Fromm calls ‘marketing characters,’ whose self-esteem—if any depends on public opinion of him. He has no in-built pride. His music has a lumpish, brooding dawdle to it that evinces the man, as if someone determined never to get mad wrote from within a kennel of controlled rage. Am I making myself clear?” 

     “Bah,” he says, “another neglected Hun. Why bother? I’ve heard the music. He’s a muddler, a pasticheur, an awful mix-up of a dozen Romantic composers, twiddling echoes together to form what he hopes will be the cutting edge of a new idiom. Sod him.”

     “Nonetheless,” I persist, “his Palestrina does some worthy grave brooding not unlike Mahler.”

     “Those who suck up,” he answers, “get promoted downward. I’ve seen it. Look at me. I do all the draining, my role is downward. I do suck up.” 

     “And all the action is mine.” I rarely address him in this haughty fashion, but sometimes he irks me, lost in his trance, listening to the mellow ladies of the National Public Radio (no danger there): the hearty Scandinavian den mother who administers puzzles on Sunday mornings; the purring matron who has seen it all already and sounds regally bored; the bright and bouncy Jacki, the bookish one with tints of Philly or Pitt in her voice, her almost British diphthongs. He loves them all because, as they say, they consider all things, whereas I, when I hear them at all (I’m too busy thumping the body along), find the whole pack of them old-hat, passé, unformed. 

     From them to Pfitzner, one whose weird life drives you to ponder his sometimes almost martial art, is a fair jump because, although he tends to be pompous, trivial, footling, bombastic, secondhand, tinny and disconnected, sometimes using a brass band motif like the Nazis marching into Oslo, he has another strain that draws me on, and this sounds like the Brit strain of Bridge, Delius and Butterworth, as if, trickling through all that imitative pomp, there flowed water from the banks of green willow, a tune from the first cuckoo of spring, a whisper from the girl with the flaxen hair. He has a soothing, pastoral side that emerges in his saddest tones, as in the piano concerto about halfway, and in parts of his Palestrina portrait. I cannot for the life of me damn him through and through, whether or not he licked Nazi ass, my reason being—get this up there—that music transcends, begins not very earthly and gets unearthlier, having in its oblique semireferential way little to do with us. We leave it behind to chirp on our behalf but in no way to defile or befoul us. I need to tell my fellow synergist this, not raising Pfitzner to heroic status, but just allowing him his need (expression allowed?) of gentle, almost sentimental whimsy, which rather than derivative from the English spawns in the babbling brooks of the German countryside, where the rabbits and hares and boars had no idea which polity was afoot among them.

     Look, I tell him, knowing he wants some kind of proof other than words. “Look.” I produce from one of my chinks a small rectangle of paper that has been mine for years, with a few important numbers scribbled on it. How I have leaked into the fiber of the paper, drip by drip over the years, gradually changing off-white into, here and there, a pinky beige, or (my finest hoofprint) a pink splotch with a thick outer rim of cerulean blue, all very pastelly as you would find it on the never-postmarked stamps of some remote French colony, with the eternal coral pinking outward into the azure water: an atoll in reverse, I suppose, with on the unspoiled sand only the recent footprints of Wenckebach, long since lost to a hemorrhage. 

     “You could replace that,” he says, meaning the bit of paper, and I agree, remembering a recent envelope from Turkey not only bemired but rent, with all the world’s scribbles upon it (idle computations, a late date with Zuleika), and, legalizing it, the merest smidgen of a stamp, bleached and unpictorial as if from a failed society, and its flap dangling open like a burnous that has no fly. I get such things from time to time, telling me to buck up, to bear down hard, to push with all my heart. I do. I know nothing else, although I have fantasized about, one day, wobbling free along some street, leaving a bloody trail behind me (Wenckebach again) and amazing passersby with my constant rolling gait like a boxer practicing as he goes to buy some beef jerky. I dip a shoulder, then the other one, let out a gasp as I thrust with all of my might downward, free of him and his gravity-led idleness: the receiver, the collector, the drone. 

     Up and at ‘em, says I. Not him, him. I am full of the lingo of prize-fighting. I jab, I feint, I butt, I sometimes deliver a low blow, but I keep on punching because my genes tell me to. If you could hear every pulse in the world, you’d go crazy didn’t Charlie Parker say that, about every sound? Back to Pfitzner. Why should I care? My lot was decreed long ago and, barring a shot to the heart, heartbreak, or, heaven forfend, heartburn, will go on the same old way, shouting at the guy in the upstairs room, hearing his faint little chunter drift downstairs as he moans about having to listen to my monotonous rhythm all day, all night, I the enabler, the provider. Where he comes from, the novelists do not write any better than the rest of the population speaks. I am the Nawab of Pataudi, I’m the muscle man, I’m stronger on the right. I eject fractions, I get around by proxy, and I now and then burst into song, self-pitying or salacious:
Uttoxeter the muscle man 
works day and night, 
soft machine of marzipan, 
doomed bland anchorite.

Scabby little Hitler 
Took turds in his mouth 
(Hency the rash 
Behind his tash),
Or his wiener got littler 
And his ball dropped south.
Oh, Athol, he upstairs, gets about less than I, but the one I learn from most is Sir, who gets around an awful lot, networking, schmoozing, hearing them out as he thinks his own dastardly thoughts, to which I am privy. Yet I do not converse with Sir, only with Athol, the upstairs man. if I did, I’d give him a mouthful (perhaps even by means of this little billet-doux, putting my case to him tout court: why don’t I ever get a rest, except in some calamity?). That sort of plaint would vex him mightily, I know, but every now and then you have to spout up for yourself in a world of punishment disguised as sinecure. It is really to Sir that I address all I say to Athol, but I doubt it ever gets through, though, like a babe in the womb, I hear him raving about reviewers who damn any character in a novel who has come so much as near a book. Out there, it is books that drive them mad; they at once disdain any mention of such, although making no protest when somebody, like Sir on a recent trip, notices an Escort service in the Yellow Pages as having “Reubenesque” girls. The sandwich, even in sexual trade, will never go out of fashion. You should have heard him hooting about that, slavering as he got it down in his notebook, then transferring it to his newest chapter, stuffing it like rancid cabbage into the mouth of some wretched character he’s tormenting in his latest epic. All pumped up, that’s how I see him as he gurgles around my most athletic moments, muttering God help the novelist, who lives from scratch, flies to Manhattan and back without ever seeing the town, like Raymond Roussel sailing to India but coming back home without disembarking—“Have you been to India?” they’d ask and he’d answer yes, he had been to India. 

     Enough of Sir, ever my target, elusive as the Holy Ghost. To him I’m just a contraption, slaving away here in the engine room or hold while Athol swans away upstairs on the main deck, a plank lubber, a swot to my snob. I have often wondered why the working classes, oft yclept latefundia, never get to address their masters, and the answer seems to be: The more time spent yapping, the less time pumping. It’s as crass as that. No grousing, then, no grumbling, the last privilege of the prole.

     “Hi, there,” says Athol, lolling with big cigar, his chubby legs wide to receive where he squats. 

     “My name isn’t There,” I tell him with a fearsome bruit that makes Sir tremble and sweat, mentally registering an extra beat thrown in, wrecking the symphony of his sinus rhythm. Poor Sir, at the mercy of an Uttoxeter in his prime. Any moment I could sport an attack, refuse the overtures of passive-aggressive Athol, stage my own version of writer’s block. Not yet, though, not until I have truly had enough, as I have of television ants, sharks, baby turtles scuttling for the shallows, mother crocs hosting their young in the spaces between their teeth. I am weary too of lawyers’ jargon: their allocute, their redact, their Man-One, their always mispronounced voir dire. In truth, given my druthers, I would prefer the world of insects, I the super-insect, for they too seem sometimes perilously poised on the watershed between liquid and solid, as am I. I am as much what passes through me as what contains and shoves it. So take that, Abbot Odon of Cluny, who said women were bags of excrement. We all are. I am happier by far when, granted a screen (even if only reflections in the golden eye of a cardiologist’s speculum) that reveals the metamorphosis of a mosquito, tall at first in a bridal dress, ghostly with packed-up tentacles that unfold like a camera’s tripod, then looming like some grand butterfly peacock of the night until it zips away with a ping. They all, the insects, have fuzzy; indistinguishable, furry; oversupplemented, barbed and oddly angled faces. If I dream, I dream of le papillon grand paon de nuit, unfurling in anonymous, bloated pageantry. 

     I have lost Pfitz. Sorry. But when I lose him, he always comes back living in a shambles of a postwar hospital in a hovel with his second wife; being de-Nazified in 1945 in a convened garage that leaks, announcing, “The world is dead”; refusing to drink French wine during World War Two; strutting or flouncing out of the room in which someone quoted a poem of Claudel’s; in 1923 in yet another hospital being visited by Hitler and his entourage, who swiftly formed the impression (wrongly) that Pfitz was a crypto-Jew, a beard and no brawn, forever groveling to hide what the Faustian beard announced. I recover him making numerous trips to Poland to fawn on the Governor-General, Hans Frank, in the end taking with him an awful mishmash called Krakow Greeting. Indeed, I find it hard to lose him, but relish the spectacle of an almost completely misunderstood man who protested too much, more Nazi than the Nazis themselves, yet able here and there, amid the Arctic sterility of his output to compose some moving elegiac pieces. Do we forgive him? Never mind. Do we give him credit where credit is due? Or damn his all on moral grounds? I doubt it: he just wanted to be as famous as Richard Strauss and would have joined forces with the devil himself to make it as a musician. He should have worn his Blue Max with pride and attended to music, not Munich.


Uttoxeter to All
So, we are speaking of Germans again, as anyone with a sense of fear in the twentieth or twenty-first century is bound to do. Or disgust. You cannot read the history of the last hundred years without throwing in a few extra fibs, can you? Like some epileptic metronome. The shoe now, however, is on the other foot, and you will see why I set out with Pfitzie the lickspittle romantic pasticheur, not dangerous but appalling, whose Palestrina nonetheless disturbs us. Now I have to deal with a few public-spirited, patriotic Germans of the 1914–18 vintage who trudged about stuffy, cloudy, morose England and took almost a lepidopterist’s interest where soldiers lodged and drank, which ships docked and sailed, what sorts of packages stood on the dock, what sailors weighing themselves averaged in weight, how much the buoyant, jingoistic population smiled. Spies. Or, as they say in the South, spas. You could hardly accuse these fellows of latching on to colossal secrets—fake aerodromes, secret real aerodromes, munitions factories in hospital clothing, generals disguised as policemen as they came and went about their hellish duties. I have lately been perusing the record of what happened to these fellows at their trials and after, always wondering when the first woman would appear and shame them. You do not emerge from such reading with a manumitting sense of honor: gentlemen inspecting gentlemen. Take the first spy.

     I understand that he was just trying to commandeer some terrain and then protect it, like a king of old. None of us, however, will be quite so good at that as the red squirrel of the woods, the heckler and bully-boy whose tirade is a mix of stutters, chatters and searing squeaks somewhere between a rubber mouse and a whoopee cushion, with which racket he scares off squirrels much bigger than himself. Oh to be that intimidating, that ballsy, when your terrain so-called is a sludge of gurgles and glug-glugs, and all you are is a propeller of ruddy fluid, always the same except for days of calamity, longed-for provided none of the pain comes to roost down here. I don’t wish Sir much harm, but I do sometimes wish him other than he is, more aware, more respectful, more bloody cognizant of who’s who, even a courtesy wave at Athol, a bow to me. We’re just part of the suit, I’m afraid, which is no doubt why I have become so argumentative, so truculent sometimes, so interested in world affairs and the weird way humans have of trumping up reasons for what they want to have while the rest of us, the ones Falstaff called “the vital little commoners,” await our turn, nails bitten to the quick.

     So I come to Carl Hans Lody, a German of medium height and piercing blue eyes, who had once been married to an American and had intended to become an American citizen. In September 1914 he sent a letter to Stockholm about huge contingents of Russian soldiers passing through Edinburgh, sixty thousand, perhaps, so he was told, and trains were roaring through the station fast, with their blinds drawn. Something, he wanted his Swedish contact to inform Berlin, was going on, but he was not to know that his letter, posted in Scotland, ended up being read in London, where it was photographed. Thus a night-shadow began to hover over Lody’s lingering visits to barbershops and rnilitary outfitters (officers posted away buy fresh shirts). He next reported that the Forth Bridge had been barricaded, a large naval force was lying off Grangemouth, and a small crusier off Leith. His code name, oddly enough, was “Nazi,” no one knows why, and he traveled around with a rug, a big strap and a cardboard box, like a man journeying with a partly disassembled household in his grasp. He had even reported the Lusitania painted grayish black and Liverpool storehouses crammed with flour and potatoes, as spies presumably do, when he was seized, tried and condemned, bearing himself throughout with heroic affability, actually at one point waving gently to a witness who, volunteering to identify him, could not quite see him. There was laughter, in which he joined. 

     Yet they all knew where they were going as Lody explained his innocent-seeming code, his having been told not to make his telegrams too short, which was why he larded into them such combinations as “Johnson very ill last four days,” meaningless all of it. when he wrote “shall” he meant “arrived.” Tricky stuff they all thought, most of all when he refused to name his master spy, invoking honor and drill. A woman sobbed. Lody tilted, almost fell, then apologized to the military judges, explaining, “I have had a month’s confinement and my nerve has given way.” A glass of water came at which he sipped like a courtier.

     From the Tower Of London he wrote to an American friend in Omaha, “I am in the tower. An unfriendly guard paces the corridor outside. When you hear of me again, doubtless my body shall have been placed in concrete beneath this old tower, or my bones shall have made a pyre. But I shall have served my country.” On his third day before Lord Cheylesmore, he heard much use of adverbs in his defense (“frankly” and “fearlessly” the most frequent), then refused to make a final statement in his own behalf. It is here that the mind begins to sicken at the lethal etiquette of the whole business: word went out to the general officer commanding London district, Horse Guards, stating that His Majesty the King had confirmed the court’s findings and its sentence. There must elapse at least eighteen hours between Lody’s being told of his sentence and the actual shooting. So we now have a courtly little scenario between Major-General Pipon, CB, the Major of the Tower, fussing about the haste required, and Lody himself, who writes to the Commanding Officer of the Third Battalion Grenadier Guards at Wellington Barracks: “My sincere thanks and appreciation towards the staff of officers and men who were in charge of my person.” He signs himself Senior Lieutenant, Imperial German Naval Res. II.

     Next dawn, 6 November 1914, they brought him up from his condemned cell at 29 the Castmates and Lody said to the Assistant Provost-Marshal, “I suppose you will not care to shake hands with a German spy?”

     “No, but I will shake hands with a brave man.”

     Heroic decorum could ask no more of a man seated bare-chested, shirt wide open to the cold, in a chair lashed to stakes driven into the turf. Eight Grenadier Guards faced him, aiming, glad that the awkward slow march over cobbles to the execution shed was over. En route, Lody had even steered the chaplain to the fight as the cleric wandered the wrong way, though how Lody knew where to go remains a spy’s secret. Blindfold. Straps. One volley, the lead crashing through his heart, which is where I get downright squeamish as he dies of shock, all his intimate red meats plundered. Eight bullets in the heart does not so much stop it as expunge it, especially the pumping part down below. I shudder at the thought of the chair, the suave little cold handshake, the sour breath of the riflemen. 

     Perhaps now you see why I fuss about these matters, wonder why anyone at all should be a Companion of the Bath, why Grenadier Guards (who guarded the monarch with grenades, presumably) should have the fight to mash a beating heart, even when sanctioned by a Cheylesmore (how did he become a lord, and why? for tins?) and that mustachioed king whose right came not from God, as they all pretend, but from the old art of the grab? Not to mention, what’s heard in the background, the romantic, soppy old Eton Boating Song, the sedate click on bat of cricket’s ball, the imperial tenderness of Elgar’s music, all part of the polity that breaks the heart of these wretched men. Tricked out with all the confectionery of fancy names and tides, the execution almost attains the dignity desired, but it makes a hell of a mess of Lody, who was only doing his job, like Athol, like me, like Sir indeed. Even Pfitzner with his Blue Max. (You see how my moutons are flocking together?) I am wondering if the craven Pfitzner was ever any worse than the Lodys or their judges and executioners, whether his obsequious bigotry wasn’t a cut above cold-blooded (or hot-) marksmanship by Grenadier Guards in the so-cold rickety blood-stained rifle shed. 

     Would they ever shoot a Pfitzner? 

     He would never be a spy; oh, he would go to Edinburgh and Liverpool as commanded, but he would forget to keep his eye on things. 

     So it seems to me nobler never to obey, never to do one’s duty, always to beg off; the universe is full of gents only too willing to do their duty, like Athol, like me, like Sir, like you. 

     There followed one Muller, sentenced in the Central Criminal Court, welcome news to the general in charge, who wrote to his superior: “Allow me to carry it out in the Tower of London as in the case of Lody. It will have more effect on the country at large. Will you empower me to carry out all similar executions on my demand without further reference to you?” Hot to trot is what I call that. Transferred from Brixton Prison to the Tower, Muller went by cabs, the first one having broken down. Prepared bullets awaited him, their tops specially filed so as to break up in the body. He shook hands with each member of the firing party. Drops of blood and pulverized bone were the only signs of his execution. Once again, the heart had exploded, more than ever, thanks to the filed bullets. Etiquette had been satisfied once more, as with Roos and Janssen, executed at 6 AM. and 6:10 by a squad of Scots Guards, this time in the Tower ditch, a far less private place than the rifle shed. Roos asked for a cigarette he just as quickly tossed away and his life with it. Janssen nothing sullen did or mean on that memorable scene. 

     Followed by Melin (handshakes all round at the rifle range), Roggen (no bandage), Buschman (played violin all night, program of seventeen short pieces ranging from Bach to Verdi and Faure; no bandage, and smiled), Breeckow (a huge bound at the volley, 7 A.M.), Ries (handshakes, grave smile), Meyer (hysterical rendition of “Tipperary” on way to chair, followed by curses and agile wiggling, ripped bandage from eyes before volley struck) and Hurwitz-y-Zender, not so much a man as a mosaic, who showed “a fair amount of calm.” Years later, on the Thames beach below the Tower promenade, a brass cartridge case turned up, one of eight issued, with his name engraved on it as H. Zender, tower, 22nd January 1916.

     All I can think of is the fusillade of red-hot lead plunging through the heart and back, then maybe even onward, out the rear wall of the now demolished rifle shed. Yes, of course, they all died of shock, but did the heart? Was it not butchered before the man died of shock? In those few intervening seconds between impact and departure, I think of doing something awful to Sir (Athol is incapable, his type of fibrillation not grievous). A flutter, say, or a very fast fib, all beats chaotic in deadly V-tach, as it’s known in the trade. Getting our own back, say. I am no spy, however, nor no Pfitzner, and am perfectly willing to be beastly to any Germans I find. But should we not with shaken heads tolerate the Pfitzners and spank the spies? I am worried about an aspect of human behavior that censures for the sake of voluptuous protocol, a braided ceremony as something to believe in, followed by all those shredded hearts. Beat on I will, heart of gold, ever alert for the first sounds of Sir’s being strapped to the chair and eight pairs of guardsmen’s boots shuffling. 

Paul West (1930–2015) was the author of more than fifty books. Among his numerous awards are the Literature Award from the Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and the Order of Arts & Letters from the French government.