THE LONELY VOICE #12: Cheever in Albania Or The Lonely Voice Hates Travel Writing

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There are few things more riveting than watching people gossip in a language you don’t understand. You’re free to watch all the nuances of facial expression and gestures without having to bother with the substance of the story, which, we all know, is exactly the same wherever you are. Who’s sleeping with who, who isn’t sleeping with who, who knows about and who doesn’t, shhhhhh, don’t tell anybody what I’m about tell you, I’m only telling you…

A woman is talking very fast to a man who is one table away from her. I’m facing the two of them, trying not to make it too obvious that I’m spying. She’s elegant and made-up with a puffy face and large hoop earrings, and holds a very docile Afghan hound by a short leash. The dog is as exquisitely coifed as she is; his tail curlicues upward like a thin wisp of smoke. The dog doesn’t give a damn what the woman is saying, but the man at the next table does. He’s trying to be nonchalant about it – yet as the woman talks he leans toward her and nods his head as if to say more, more, tell it to me faster. The listening man has a bullet-shaped, hairless head and is wearing a powder blue shirt with his collar pointing straight up. On the underside of the collar, what would normally be hidden, but is now purposely visible to the world, an inexplicable line of English, The Best Company of Guys.

Of course, I could have this all wrong. They could be talking about politics or doughnuts or shampoo for all I really know. Still, I’d bet the house I will never own that this has something to do with a juicy bit of local news, with people who shouldn’t be having sex – but are. Plus, if they were talking about doughnuts the dog would have perked up by now. I’m in Albania, in Tirana, the capital city, where I’m not even sure they have doughnuts, at least not as we know them.[1] Don’t worry this isn’t a piece of travel writing. I see a piece of travel writing and I run for cover. What I’m doing here is too long a story for this space. Suffice it to say that I came here because I had a random idea for a story that was going to be set in Tirana. I’ve been here two days and already I know this was a screwball idea. This happens. I get something in my head like I absolutely must set a new story in Tirana. My life will not be worth living another minute until I go to Tirana. Most of these missions fail as miserably as this one apparently has, and so I’m not at all surprised to be here in this café, loitering over cold coffee, watching these two gossip in a language I don’t understand.

At the same time, I’m in the middle of a John Cheever story called, “The World of Apples.” In my bag are two novels by the great Albanian Ismail Kadare but I have this habit of never reading anything that’s relevant to the given moment I happen to be living. Go to Albania to write a story. While there, read about Wasps cavorting in Connecticut. “The World of Apples” is the title story of the collection and I’m reading the book in the original hardcover. I stole it from a friend’s house a few years ago. I’m sure he’s still wondering what happened to it. I’ll bet its worth a little something. Another habit: coveting a book and then once I have it, sticking it on the shelf and forgetting about it. Anyway, on my way out the door to the airport, I happened to stuff it in my bag. Chicago to Warsaw, Warsaw to Tirana on Lot Polish Airlines. Lot is awesome; they still let you smoke on the plane. The No Smoking sign is lit but the flight attendants all look the other way. Even the kids light up on Lot. It’s nice to read Cheever in a smaller collection rather than that crammed red Collected Stories. On the cover of my friend Bill Crouch’s stolen book is an enormous Granny Smith.

“The World of Apples” is not set in Connecticut. It’s about an old poet named Bascomb, originally a New Englander who has been living in an Italian villa for the past thirty years. Yet, like us all, no matter where we happen to live, in all the ways that count, Bascomb remains an outsider.

The beauties of the place were various and gloomy. He would always be a stranger there, but his strangeness seemed to him to be some metaphor involving time as if, climbing strange stairs, past strange walls, he climbed through hours, months, years and decades.

Bascomb is famous. He’s won every literary prize on the planet, except one. The story opens with the old poet swatting flies with a copy of La Stampa murmuring to himself, Why no Nobel Prize? But the story is less about common, insatiable writely ambition than about what a writer does when he’s simply got nothing left to say. All of Bascomb’s best friends, poets of equal stature, have killed themselves. Like so many of Cheever’s people, Bascomb is completely befuddled. His work’s in decline; he’s becoming more and more forgetful. He spends hours in bed trying to remember Lord Bryon’s first name. And how to live out the remaining days as opposed to simply doing away with them?  Bascomb quotes to himself Cocteau[2] who said that writing poetry is the exploitation of a substrata of memory that is imperfectly understood. This is all well and good but what happens when you’ve got no memory left to misunderstand? On top of all this, the only thing this old widower can think about, night and day, is sex.  Every morning, all he can muster up are lurid little ditties, pornographic limericks that he burns in the oven before lunch. Ashamed of himself, he flees to Rome where he goes to a concert, but hardly hears the music. He’s too busy stripping the soprano is in his mind.

One more thing about Albania. I thought it would be cement-colored. Cement-colored and echoey and sad. I thought the ghost of Enver Hoxha would lurk around every gloomy corner.  It’s July and it’s sunny. The story I had planned to write was going to be a cement-colored story. I should have come in December, clearly. Behind me, in the ungloomy recesses of this well lit café, are gambling machines with colored lights that keep blinking on and off. WIN CASH NOW WIN CASH NOW WIN. There’s also pop music, American songs sung in English by Albanian singers. I kind of like it. I think this is supposed to be Ke$ha. Tick Tock on the clock, but the party don’t stop. Shit, is this travel writing?

A Projected View of Sleek, Modern Tirana

My gossipers – my gossipers go on gossiping. The woman is coming to the moment. I can see it in her eyes. They are becoming wet with heightened anxiety; the best and most unbelievable part about to be disclosed. We’re on the verge of story climax here, people. She’s trying to control the words that flow faster and faster. And for his part the upturned collar man keeps edging closer as if by almost touching her she’ll come out with it now – now – now. But the thrill – the ecstasy – is never the story itself but the telling and once you reach that point where its all out in the open, that’s it, there’s no going back, ever. I’ve stumbled on a metaphor here. Here’s another. It’s over. She’s told him. He knows all there is to know. And now they both look a little depressed, spent, though at this very moment they are still laughing. There is something about the way they are laughing that is the opposite of laughing. Do you know what I mean, when laughing itself is a way of hiding, of retreating deeper inside yourself?

The Afghan hound woman’s face is less puffy now as if the secret had given weight to her face that’s now disappeared. Now she regrets having told it in the first place. If she’d kept it to herself, the news would still be hers. The dog starts to fidget; he knows any minute now he’ll finally be able to go home. His master is starting to get the sad look she wears at home since his other master left, years ago now. Upturned collar is starting to pull away also. He tilts his cup into his mouth even though he’s long since finished his espresso. He too lives alone. It’s why he spends so much time at this cafe. He says something dry, maybe something like the Albanian equivalent to “It figures” or “It just goes to show you” or “It takes all kinds”. They’re wrapping the conversation up – and I know I’m projecting here (my whole life consists of projecting emotions onto other people, some real, others I make up), but these two acquaintances have begun to think about how the story, the illicit (and now seemingly, to them, tired) story, relates to their own passionless lives, their own long trail of mistakes.

Meanwhile, in my book, Bascomb sleeps with his maid. This is a temporary salve. Sex itself is no better than thinking about it. His mind continues to be plagued. His poetry – gone.  He spends an entire morning writing FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK across page after page. Next, Bascomb sets off on a pilgrimage suggested by the maid, Maria, to a chapel in the mountains where he might make an offering to a sacred angel with the supposed power to heal whatever it is that ails him. There’s this pitch-perfect Cheever line:

All Bascomb knew of pilgrimages was that you walked and for some reason carried a seashell.

What does everything I’ve rambled about here have to do with each other? Nothing. I happen to be in Albania. I happen to be reading Cheever. The two are utterly devoid of any meaningful connection.[3] These are nothing more than random notes written at a wobbly plastic table at the Las Vegas Cafe in Tirana by a goof lamenting another failed idea. But here’s my stab. For all the non-stop socializing his characters do (and the sex they sometimes have), Cheever is the loneliest of writers. Bascomb, for all his fame, all the legions of admirers who constantly climb up the steep steps to his villa to pay homage to the great man, is lonely. For his dead wife, for his lost talent. My two gossips are lonely. The story they’ve just exchanged has only made them more so. They sit a few moments in silence and think of two happy people who shouldn’t be – but are! – whooping it up somewhere behind the closed shudders of some flat deep in this sun-drenched ex-draconian paradise. Why couldn’t, for once, it be them? And they proceed to remember all the reasons it isn’t them. It’s always better to be the subject of gossip than the gossiper. But it will never – never – be them.

I’m a little lonely myself. In Albania. What else is new?

The lady with the Afghan hound stands. She tosses some change on her table. The change plings and the dog barks. Kiblets at home at last. Upturned collar blows them both a kiss. With his other hand, he twirls his empty coffee cup around his thumb. Go, go, Valmira, leave me in peace. And the Tiranian afternoon begins to have a rosy, cheerful look as young Albanians get ready for a night of partying on the renamed The Boulevard of the Heroes of the Nation; the street used to be called, ironically, The Boulevard of Our Hero Stalin, back in the days when Enver Hoxha ruled this tiny country with a sense of paranoia matched only by the likes of Idi Amin and Pol Pot. Hoxha was a complete nutcase, for instance he wrote 60 books about how great he was at everything, so good that he outlawed God, his only plausible competition.[4] And Bascomb? Bascomb who is as present in this cafe as all the rest of us lonelys? I watch these two, I read, I watch these two, I lament the cost of my plane ticket (even Lot isn’t cheap). And the whole time Bascomb is dying. He is dying and he treks across Abruzzi lugging his lust with him like fat awkward suitcase. At the chapel of the angel, he drops to his knees and offers blessings to his heroes:

God bless Walt Whitman. God Bless Hart Crane. God Bless Dylan Thomas. God Bless William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and especially Ernest Hemingway.

Not the most inspired list but Bascomb is old school, and how many American poets today would offer a blessing to Hemingway? But it’s what happens after the chapel scene that provides Bascomb with some actual relief. He remembers something. He comes across a waterfall that sends him back to an image of another waterfall, in Vermont, to himself as a young boy watching, from a stand of trees, his white-haired father strip off all his clothes and dive head first into that brimming cascade. Back then it had confused him. What in hell was his father up to? The middle of a workday? Buck naked?

Now he did what his father had done – unlaced his shoes, tore at the buttons of his shirt and knowing that a mossy stone or the force of the water could be the end of him he stepped naked into the torrent, bellowing like his father.

Something comes to me now. When I was eleven or twelve, I overheard, from the other side of the fence and hidden by trees, one of our neighbors talking with another neighbor about a certain married woman who walked her dog down a particular street every night in order to rendezvous with a certain married man, also walking his dog down that same particular street. I can still hear Mrs. Gerstad’s voice, so viscously excited she could hardly get the words out. And Mrs. Krasner saying, “Oh, Please, Gilda, really, I don’t believe a word of this. Walking her dog?” In that case, I was more interested in the substance than the nuance. I soon realized it was my mother Mrs. Gerstadt was talking about.

I have always remembered the moment with shame, for my mother and for myself. Yet, here’s another angle on the memory. It could even be the truth. Seeing Mrs. Gerstadt (she had a colossal hairy mole on her nose, nobody slept with her including Mr. Gerstadt) and Mrs. Krasner again today, I now remember – in vivid cement-colors – being happy for my mother. I was ten or eleven but I thought, good for her. Mom has seemed a little lighter on her feet lately. It may have been one of the most inspired moments of my life. God knows there haven’t been that many since. It also may never have happened but what’s it matter now that I’ve come to Tirana to revise it?

It’s our previously misunderstood memories that give us our content. (Says Jean Cocteau, very avant-garde Frenchman.)

***

[1] I heard on NPR a few months back that some form of the doughnut is actually common to nearly every culture on the face of the earth. This is neither here nor there but I thought it was interesting.

[2] Under normal circumstances, anybody who would quote Cocteau (the same kind of folks who might quote Foucault) would also make me run for cover but Basomb is dying so he gets a pass.

[3] So said my editor, Rock Fitzgerald. Well, Rock said it nicer. Rock said, Orner, I kind of like the piece, it’s different, but sort of feels like the Cheever part is tacked on. Maybe you’re trying to write another sort of essay and shoe-horning in the short story part because you know we’re the only outfit who’ll run your haphazard shit and call it the Lonely Voice? But whatever we’ll run it. Why not? We got a kick ass Dear Sugar right on the heels, baby.

[4] Struck for smelling like travel writing.


Peter Orner’s most recent book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and was named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal. 2014 will mark the 5th year of the Lonely Voice column on the Rumpus. More from this author →