The woman next to me on this packed bus is watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie on her laptop. I’m watching over her shoulder. Van Damme points a lot, shouts, scowls, does not smile. I’m thinking this guy’s not that bad an actor. I mean, I couldn’t do half the shit he does and not laugh. He’s also got a cross on his neck. It looks heavy, as a cross should be, burdensome. At the moment he is running across a roof while getting shot at by guys who appear to be rogue cops. My seatmate is wearing headphones so I can’t hear the sound. The whole thing is like a dance with guns and I can’t take my eyes off it. I’m holding a book, but what’s a book to Van Damme?
This bus I’m in happens to be in Haiti. I’m out in the countryside, about fifty miles west of Port-au-Prince. What I’m doing here isn’t important to this column, which is supposed to be about the short story. I will say, though, that there are times when I wonder if I don’t go out of my way to find new places to be lonely. I wasn’t lonely enough at home? And not to toot my own horn, but someone who can feel alone on a packed bus in Haiti has a certain amount of talent in this area.
And I have to say also that there is something comforting about watching a movie on someone else’s computer while on a packed bus. My seatmate’s daughter is asleep, squeezed in the nook between the seats. Her name is Chantal. She’s four. Before she fell asleep, she and her mother talked to me. Chantal dozed off during an earlier shootout. But just now she woke up and tugged her mother’s arm because she’s hungry. Her mom has paused the movie and I’m taking this opportunity – Van Damme’s face frozen in fierce contemplation on the screen (he’s sad, as if he wishes he didn’t have to be so strong and fearless all the time) – to take down a few notes for a long, long over-due column. A half hour ago I was in the middle of a V.S Pritchett story called, “The Fall.” My finger is still holding my place. I’ve read this story many times, and though it is brilliant, almost miraculous in my view, Van Damme totally walloped it.
It’s been the habit of this column to bring together disparate elements. Usually this has to do with where I am and what I happen to be doing at a particular time, and how it all connects to a given short story. So it might be expected that I will now link the elements I’ve raised here, Van Damme, the Republic of Haiti, and the great English storywriter V.S. Pritchett. But this time I won’t. The fact is that but for all three things happening to me at this moment, on this bus, they have zero to do with each other. Why force it? I should also mention that while Haiti itself is fascinating and difficult and very welcoming (note Chantal and her mother’s kindness to a stranger), even Haiti’s green, often breathtaking, severely denuded countryside is no match for this goon, Van Damme.
I could, of course, remark on the irony of a Haitian woman watching a Jean Claude Van Damme movie at all, and talk about how Haiti whooped Napoleon’s French ass in 1804.
(Is Van Damme French?) Anyway, you get my point. Or maybe not. Wait, that’s right, I’ve decided not to make a point here at all. What I’m trying to say, without making a case out of it, is that the world is full of these crazy crosscurrents. Let us now praise disconnection. It doesn’t fit. It will never fit. It fits. A Haitian woman and her daughter, a somewhat lost American, this idiotic movie, V.S. Pritchett on my lap – all here, all now.
This said, it is tempting to inject a bit more meaning by replacing the Pritchett book with the Lyonel Trouillot novel that’s in the backpack at my feet. There would be more symmetry if Van Damme, (the French?) action hero, had distracted me from a profound and intense novel of Port-au-Prince called The Street of Lost Footsteps. I might then have been able to say colonialism remains alive and well via the entertainment industry.
And traveling in a relatively unknown place with V.S. Pritchett is like having a busload of befuddled oddballs along with you on the bus of oddballs you are already on. Right then, onward with the column. Chantal will be done eating her oatmeal, potato chips, and string cheese soon.
“The Fall” is about an accountant. The scene is an industrial city in England, also a former colonial power but that is neither here nor there. The story opens with the accountant, Charles Peacock, in his hotel, getting ready for the annual accountants’ dinner.
At the Royal was Charles Peacock, slender in his shirt, balancing on one leg and gazing with frowns of affection in the wardrobe mirror at the other leg as he pulled his trousers on; and then with a smile of farewell as the second went in. Buttoned up, relieved if his nakedness, he visited other mirrors…
Frowns of affection! Saying goodbye to his legs as he puts his pants on! Relieved of his nakedness! See what I mean? This is the third sentence in the story, and you are already starting to know, intimately, a guy named Peacock. We are nothing more and nothing less than our idiosyncrasies. For example, I often carry on detailed conversations with my shoes. And like us all, Peacock is burdened by problems, family problems. In his case, it is his brother, Shelmerdine Peacock – the movie star – who plagues him. Everywhere Peacock goes he is only his brother’s brother. As soon as he enters the dinner, the president of the accountants’ association shouts, “I saw your brother this afternoon.”
Peacock’s drink jumped and splashed in his hand. The president winked at his friends.
“Hah!” said the President. “That gave our friend Peacock a scare!”
“At the Odean,” explained a kinder man.
“Is Shelmerdine Peacock your brother? The actor?” another said, astonished, looking at Peacock from head to foot.
There’s an upside though to being Shelmerdine Peacock’s brother, and Peacock vacillates between being horrified to basking. He’s a lonely neurotic. Even here among all his fellow accountants, Peacock is jittery and isolated. The man’s got no Van Damme. (His brother might, not him.) So being the brother of celebrity takes the edge off a little.
It was pleasing. There was always the praise; there were always the questions. He had seen the posters about Shel’s film during the week on his way to the office. They pleased, but they also troubled. Peacock stood at his place in the Great Hall and paused to look around, in case there was one more glance of vicarious fame to be collected.
And yet, something beyond his merely being Shelmerdine Peacock’s brother occurs and this is where the story takes a turn for what I will call: the ordinary strange. By this I mean that V.S. Pritchett has a way of immortalizing the plain weirdness of being alive on a daily basis. Charles Peacock hates the annual dinner, but at the same time he – desperately – doesn’t want it to end. (Who can’t relate to this? I dread going to parties, but once I get to one you got to pry me loose.) So Charles Peacock, a most average man, in order to try and convince his fellow men to stay a little while, is about to do something no reader will ever forget. Because Shelmerdine is not the only Peacock with talent. As the men begin to leave the Great Hall, Peacock drops to the floor.
‘Falling,’ said Peacock. ‘The stage fall.’ He looked at them with dignity, then let the expression die on his face. He fell quietly full length to the floor. Before they could speak he was up on his feet.
‘My brother weighs two hundred and twenty pounds,’ he said with condescension to the man opposite. ‘The ordinary person falls and breaks
an arm or a foot, because he doesn’t know. It’s an art.’
And down he went, thump, on the carpet again and lying at their feet he said: “Painless. Nothing broken. Not a bruise. I said “an art.” Really one might call it a science. Do you see how I’m lying?’
‘What’s happened to Peacock’ said two or three of the men joining the group.
And Peacock falls and falls again.
After a while, most of the accountants begin to lose interest. One of the few men who has bothered to stay finally tells Peacock all right already, that he gets it, that he appreciates the demonstration but that Peacock need not fall again, that he’s actually more interested in the theory behind the falling than the falling itself. This infuriates Peacock who insists that there is nothing theoretical about it. Once again, he hits the floor. Peacock’s falling is not unlike a Pritchett story itself. His stories never call attention to how good they are. They just do. They just are. Meaning is never handed. Connections are never forced. Now a man – a man we have come to know – is standing. Now he’s at our feet. Peacock stands, Peacock falls. A character is redeemed, and for me, enshrined in my memory for good. Who needs Shelmerdine and his movies (Waste, The Gun Runner, Zut)? I, for one, will always have his brother, Charles. At last the final indifferent accountant slowly wanders away. It’s his brother who’s famous, not this hapless clown. Why should I watch him fall?
There’s some Charles Peacock in us all. We fear other people while at the same time we have an insatiable craving for attention. Don’t look at me, don’t look at me. Look at me. By the way, our bus is now, in case it is of interest, stopped at a police roadblock. The guy in the seat behind has just handed me – an obviously lunchless person – half his turkey sandwich. “We’re going to be here a while,” he said. “As soon as they get bored terrorizing us, we’ll be on our way.” So on the bus we remain. Out the window, on the left is a small lake; on the right a steep cliff. In front, and behind us, a line of cars, buses, motorcycles, women and men and children on foot hauling merchandise. Money changers wave wads of bills. A woman selling hats wears, I count, eighteen of them on her head.
And, yet in my mind – even as Chantal has finished eating and the three of us are once again ensconced in the movie – I’m also still thinking about the story I didn’t re-read and how nice it might be to simply let go and fall on the floor. Any floor. Which is, in a way, comforting. As comforting as this turkey sandwich, as comforting as my seatmates and this movie.
Two last things: (and with my apologies for the whiff of connections): One, I no longer want this bus ride to end and am half hoping that the cops find some reason to detain us. Or maybe later we’ll break down. And two, I just remembered that a couple of days ago, in Port-au-Prince, I saw a man selling a peacock on John Brown Avenue. He was selling the bird for 1600 U.S. dollars, cage included. I asked my friend Jean Pierre who he thought might buy it. Jean Pierre said someone with 1600 USD who also wants a peacock. Like that would not be unusual at all, and maybe it wouldn’t be.
 It’s been heartening that there are three or four of you out there who indulge me in this periodic ritual – people who seem to love – need – stories as much as I do and don’t mind wasting a little time between stories to read what I have to say about stories, which will never be better than reading a short story, even a mediocre one.