The Picaresque Negotiator (Part the First)

Note: a picaresque is a loose, episodic mode of fiction, often following a rambling, uncertain protagonist. The second part appears here.

Setting Out

Spring had been unusually tiring. Negotiations were protracted, the wholesalers as recalcitrant as the shops, and I was strung out in the middle. Waiting on the dock, I stared at the faded blue of the sky, characteristic of these parts. The old photographs are not washed out. That blue is apparently timeless.

I resented it, though. It was a blue for waking, and not to sit beneath, at day’s squandered end. Music too youthful for my ears had propelled the drive, but the frequent rest-stop detours were reminders of my age. And, awaiting the ferry, hunger waxed until appetite found solace in bar-food around the corner from the docks. This, then, was my first irritation; and if I’d had my wits about me, I’d have recognized it for what it was.

Travel begins neither with arrival nor departure. It begins with the first exasperation that life’s routines, the routines that have chaffed the days and compelled travel in the first place, have been interrupted. Here was the first break, and the gulls squawking and a chorus of Boston accents harmonizing to deliver the day’s sporting news insisted that this was not an extension of life’s normal exasperations. I was too deadened to the world to notice.

Worse still, I worried that this interruption to routine was becoming a routine of its own: a regular escape from working life. It has been eight years since I have been promoted: from English Language Instructor to Associate Negotiator, at a firm whose name I cannot divulge, but whose location in a building perpetually jarring in its anonymity makes any name superfluous. I recall, as vividly as is possible in such a case, walking through its hallways on my first day on the job, deflecting the French, German, Spanish, and Polish greetings with a neutral English “hello,” and seeing, in the reflective walls, polished tables, and tinted windows, my reflection reduced to a blank silhouette. It must have been the same for every visitor.

But I remained. First, there were the alluring glances, promising confession or condolence, or both; but then, once that illusion had faded, there were the words in native languages, the seepage of days and years, the joys at lives situated at oblique angles from the world of the office, just beyond my sight, and the sadness too, all too exposed before me, because the life of sadness, isolated and contained, cannot be left behind. It was on account of those teary and angered men and women that I remained. Without falling in love with any of them, they made my own daily shuffle feel an act of solidarity rather than a compromise with survival. When, after three years of working as a language-consultant, at intervals of increasing frequency, I was asked if I would like to come on board, it seemed a path on which I could travel.

And it has been. But travel away from the path, the real kind of travel, is necessary now as it was not at first. I do not suffer from wanderlust; but my passion for travel, my anxiety that it too might become just another routine, has raised eyebrows among my friends. Charlie Ribbon-Earth and Art Flood, for instance, have dissented on opposite sides. For Charlie, the misanthropic collector of stamps, the erstwhile passionate bachelor, travel is best pursued at home, from the armchair. Since it is the dream of escape and departure that satisfies, the dream alone should suffice. For Art, a consultant abroad more than he is at home, travel ought to be life, rather than a departure from it. Anything less is a failure to overcome stultifying convention. It is rare that the three of us gather, but when we do, over wine and scallops, the conversations inevitably intensifies to the pleasurable debate that characterizes true friendship.

I wish sometimes that they were with me on these travels. More often, possessing that wish is enough. Tonight I arrived, free from company, free even from my own active thoughts; passive to the low brush, the shingled houses, and the sea-musk, I made my way to the family house. With every approach to it, I wondered whether I would be overcome by a particular memory, of grandparents playing poker, or of a fraternal game of Risk, but it was always the same: the demands of familiarity prevented a nostalgic swoon and I shuffled through greetings to unpack and take my life for granted.

The Sea

 I will not philosophize about it. Its depths, inconstancy, and refusal to cede any but dead fish, broken shells, and the faintest limn of salt are too well known. Were the sea a hoary-bearded god these days (as it once was, or perhaps a youthful bruising goddess) he (or she) would no doubt reply that the memories are sufficient recompense for a visit to its shores.


I recall the sun crackling on its surface, like fat risen from a boiling carcass; the sand too soft for a determine stride; a few forms of taut skin, scattered in happy loneliness, patiently awaiting russet tones; a dog barking against the immense roar, as in the painting by Turner; and children deceiving their parents into believing that they, the children, believe there to be a perfect shell which it is their fate to find.

At play in the surf, riding the waves, trying to stay far enough from the packs of strangers that they would not feel threatened by my solitary joy, and near enough that they would take pity if I were injured, I did not notice the small family who had descended in the provinces of my towel and chair.

The beach on the island’s south shore is always contested territory. In its shifting borders, invading groups, and tacit tribal alliances, it resembles the Roman Empire of the fifth century A.D. Yet here was a clear breach of tribal etiquette. My towel and chair, some hundred paces from the nearest neighbors, formed a small country villa, and the area around them its attendant modest estate. What right then, the hefty husband and waif of a wife, two kids in tow, to set their affairs on its sill?

As I lumbered from the froth towards my chair, took my towel to violently dry my face, and plopped into a leisurely read, I expected a sly consultation between the procreative pair, followed, by a shuffle at least five, if not ten feet, to the right, with a discreet dragging rather than ostentatious refolding of chairs, towels, toys, coolers, and apparatuses. Instead, they encouraged the children to enjoy a game of beach-tennis, directly to my rear.

My reading that late morning had been voracious. At noon it had barely slowed with my sandwich in hand. Now, mid-afternoon, it stalled, and started, and stalled, with each thwack of the ball and each flinch of my neck for fear that their aim would prove less sure than their tennis-coach would have liked.

Worst of all, I found myself in the pull of those routines of labor I’d hoped to break: in my mind, I played out fantasies and nightmares of negotiation. The parents seated, me standing, too threateningly; the parents seated, my kneeling with a curious assumption of familiarity; the parents seated, my calling out, risking a tone of aggression in an attempt to overcome the distance; the parents standing, and my interrupting whatever task had made them stand; the parents strolling by, and my beckoning them imperiously to chat; an approach to the children, and the ire of the parents at my having bypassed their authority, rage at what they perceive as intimidation, or concern at the sight of a stranger with their young brood.

I settled instead for the mute approach, a passive aggressive passion play, consisting of dramatically exaggerated and frequent turns of the neck at each thwack of the ball, sighs so deep as to heave over the breeze, and shuffling of the chair, indicating the desire to move while retaining the pride of place that will not be sacrificed.

All of it was a failure, of course, and proved most of all a bitter reminder of the March proceedings. An entire batch of ham from Spain had been accepted for purchase at too high a price, owing to my heart-ache at the time and my resentment at what was only a projection of self-loathing; tracing shapes in the sand at my feet, I saw the same toes that had tensed with distracted angst beneath the conference table as I attempted to regain control over the events of the recent past with even less success than I, minutes later, would attempt to regain control over the course of negotiations.

In Town

He was jittery today. (I was jittery today, and I remain so; to find a semblance of control, I will write in third-person). He was jittery today, and so set out to town thinking the walk would do him good. The beach at his back, the gusts propelling him onwards, he did not know what to find, but thought he would look, being pensive and melancholy still, for what had been lost.

The sea gulls were pleasantly absent, and the shingles on the house-fronts placidly grayed themselves in the weather. They inspired him with their stoical resignation; which weather mattered not at all, so long as there was some weather to be had, and in so humbly, squarely, and demurely accepting one of the world’s few constants, they were a model for living. He considered briefly if he ought to follow their example, and then, without giving it much thought, decided against it, in favor of vivacious dissatisfaction, and occasionally dissatisfying vivacity.

Where better to find either than in town? A small town, without a stoplight, with aggressively cobblestoned streets, and with a plethora of boutiques, it offered hardly a decent coffee or affordable snack. The overpriced art, faux-impressionist beach scenes, recalled a senile dowager reliving her youth each night at the retirement home buffet, oblivious of the seventy years that had passed since she had last worn her debutante’s gown, bringing with them changes in both fashion and corporeal shape.

Some years prior, he had thrilled at the town’s print-bazaar, an emporium called “The Hub,” where A-rate, B-rate, C-rate, and otherwise rated magazines clambered for space on thin slanting shelves, their harsh wood painted in sloppy thick green coats. If the scent of Possibility could ever have a real, earthly presence, it would have been housed among the rows of print in “The Hub.” Here, the sticker-books of professional sports teams had offered the satisfaction of collecting and completing a “set.” Here, the grainy newsprint paper was not reserved for the Globe or Times, but served also niche magazines and fanzines that opened, like doors in a carnivalesque shanty-town, into lives of narrowly circumscribed passions and interests. Here, he had expanded his nascent collection of comic books, purchasing the special Annual edition of Spider-Man and exploring, with more generosity than his normal schedule of collection would permit, lesser-known titles in the DC universe. Here, he lavished money on glossy yachting guides, nurturing early the acquisitive instinct for luxury beyond his means.

His disappointment was no less vivid for being expected; as he arrived at the shop, still, quaintly and cruelly, called “The Hub,” he was met by a vacuum. His nostrils quivered at the threshold of the door, but caught at…nothing at all. Stepping in, he perceived a standard array of high-end boutique publications and obligatory major news outlets, but otherwise only knick-knacks, and space dominated now by a coffee bar. He did not pine or mourn, but he took in what had happened, and knew it for sure to be the work of time.

There is no good verb for what happens between a person and such a loss. Undoubtedly something does happen, but the loss is not “suffered,” nor is it blankly, like a stranger or acquaintance, “encountered.” It is not “seen” like a creature on safari or celebrity. It is not “met with” like bad luck, or even “confronted” like an airline employee who will not help with luggage gone astray. That absence of the verb is not a peculiarity of the language. It is a deep symptom of experience. Whatever happened at that moment, he could feel neither dissatisfied vivacity nor vivacious dissatisfaction. The loss had swallowed that too–it acted on him, rather than the other way around. It neutered his affect; it sundered his passions; it took him into itself.

He walked up, blankly, and ordered a hot coffee, even though it was eighty degrees outside, even though the tepid almond-milk would do little to reduce its excruciating heat, and even though he was already pinched around the temples from too much (but then, it always left room for a doubt: maybe it just wasn’t enough) of the stuff. He scalded his mouth, stepped back onto the street, and disposed of it, joyfully sensing the heavy liquid splatter against the plastic lining of the bin. He suspected his breath had been soured.

The thought of it is enough to impel me to return to the first-person, where I will gratefully dwell for the remainder of my account.

Landscapes. People. Departure.

Some days it seemed as if the island offered nothing but landscapes: seared browns, dulled blues, pale greens, furze, reeds, long grasses, gnarled pines, scrub oaks, and sand bluffs satiated my field of vision. On bike rides and walks through the moors, along the coasts, people were absent except as momentary blinds behind which more landscape hid, then pounced, without surprise, for it always fit, always merged perfectly with what had been there before. It came to feel, as it had always come to feel after some time there, comforting and maybe, in so far as it relieved me from any normal participation in the world, genuinely relaxing.

In the spheres of living where normal earthly tasks remained, sociability persisted, albeit in diluted form. In the supermarket, for instance, with inevitable exchanges over cartons of eggs; at the exit of the property, neighbors bellowed greetings when departing or arriving for the beach.

On my second-to-last night there, those neighbors to the east of my Airbnb invited me over for a buffet-bbq. The dread of that special isolation found in the vicinity of spinach and artichoke dip was inevitably justified. Fortunately, it entailed small suffering as I realized how little these strange men and women expected of me. Small talk not only could be dull, but should be; efforts at bombast, creativity, and eccentricity are never welcome among mere acquaintances, or even among the category of people who, though hardly any more familiar, liberally bestow the term “friend.”  The trick is aspiring to the smallest flourishes of inappropriate remark—the dash of the scatological, the twist of erotic suggestiveness, but never the straight draught. For so long, I had suffered from the misconception that average party-going required a transformation of personality. In fact, it required nothing less than an absolute shedding of it! And how much easier it is to be agreeable and find others the same when one is so unencumbered, a babbling train of first-person observations, marionette motions, and haphazard nods. Talking to infants is no easier!

Most happily of all, nobody cared much what I did for a living, or why I had arrived alone on vacation so far from home, or who and what I had left behind, or whether I had left it or it had left me.

Suffice to say that I was well-positioned by sunset to enjoy the spread of oranges across the low horizon. When the conversation fell into an inevitable lull, my ears opened to listen to the crash and suck of the waves on the sand.

I slept happily that night. And the next day, I resolved I would leave soon, trading in that Island for another, larger, near to the Continent where I live. This Island had suited me well on the first stage of my travels; my body at least was grateful for the chill of salt spume, the violence of waves ridden shorewards, and the reminder of buoyancy, native to human life where human life is not native.

The ferry accelerated. The short white lighthouse reclaimed, for an instant, the personality it held in my childhood, when it seemed a stocky and genial man, eager for company, endearing on account of its stupid pride. It had survived and performed its small duties without purpose for some time now, sheltered by the encircling arms of a harbor facing a sound, oblivious to roughest seas and perfectly content witnessing a fleet of sails in colorful array.

Continued here


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