[Fiction] Varii Graffiti – Michael Paul Hogan

He leaned back against a wall beside the River Neva, one leg bent at the knee, the sole of his sneaker flat against the white stone, the sleeves of his sweater rolled up to his elbows, his French beret set at a jaunty angle, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, 

TOLSTOI Y TROTSKY ESTAN MUERTOS!

painted in letters six feet high on the otherwise pristine marble wall.

*

They met in cafes and bars and bistros in cities as diverse as Paris and Krakow and New York. They wore clothes that were only appropriate for the movie in which they wished themselves to be. I was a sickly child, a cripple who’d contracted polio at the same age Mozart was when he wrote his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, a kid who wore tinted spectacles to shield himself from the anger of the sun. Precocious, abandoned, allergic to all but the shelves of books that towered from floor to ceiling in my uncle’s atelier, having no friends but the sparrows I fed with breadcrumbs on the slender balcony that looked down on an indifferent street, I lived and loved vicariously, insulated from life the better to experience it. My uncle, blind and paralyzed, stared with passionate intent at a vast and interior landscape populated with pageants of fake-medieval pre-Raphaelite joy, mumbling only when, with an enormous effort for my crippled nine-year-old frame, I tilted him from one half of his backside to the other – not to improve his internal, entirely subjective view, but to better spread the wear-and-tear on the worm-eaten wooden supports of the antique sofa on which he barely lived and so persistently dreamed. If he dreamed of The Blessed Damozel, I dreamed of all those meetings in the cafes and the bars and the bistros, tilting glasses of Sauvignon Blanc or Zywiec Beer or Manhattan cocktails, leaving smears of paint on otherwise pristinely polished counters, wearing long coats the texture of carbon-paper, sporting silk scarves casually draped around unshaven necks, acknowledging the covert smiles of waitresses that led to inevitable kisses blown through the smoke-plumed air. These were the heroes of my anarchic invention and I looked forward to when they were published as a series of cigarette cards, even buying a container of Gloy glue in anticipation of owning the album in which they, like flies in amber – no, like flies on flypaper – would be permanently stuck…

*

He stepped back from one of the Ionic columns of the Temple of Zeus and used the handle of his paintbrush to tilt back the brim of his hat. A globule of red paint hesitated on the end of a bristle then landed splat! exactly between his rope-soled espadrilles. He took a swig from the bottle of Metaxa that he had been holding in his other hand and smiled the beautiful smile of a matinee-idol spider admiring a Brigit Bardot kind of fly. In the meantime 

I KNOW HOW MEN IN EXILE FEED ON DREAMS

had been written around the column like a tattoo on a sailor’s arm.

*

Their names were unknown to all but themselves. If ever they had faces, those faces were no more than the masks in Greek plays. I hoisted myself from desk to chair to mantlepiece, cursing my spindly, useless legs, flinging myself like a sticky-fingered frog against the bookcase that contained Drama from A to B. Did I honestly think that I could write the unwritable by reference to those who, even in my precocity, wrote in languages, in idioms, that I was too ignorant, too unlearned, to understand? I ran my poor hands down the cloth-bound spines and then laid my withered cheek against the gilded lettering of Prometheus Bound and then Mother Courage and Her Children, reading Drama from Aeschylus to Brecht as though it were braille. Down on the street the siren of a fire engine provided its own soundtrack to another night of wildly illustrated dreams.

*

They learned to fly vintage aeroplanes and, with cannisters attached to their wings, painted revolutionary slogans across the canvas of the sky. They found a woman sleeping outside a temple of Lakshmi in Karnataka and inscribed a line from The Upanishads on her eyelids. They lined up for a photograph in the studio of a celebrated London-based fashion photographer, each of them wearing children’s party masks, a cat, a dog, an elephant, a bear. Behind them, painted on an otherwise white backdrop,

NIETZSCHE DIED SO THAT CHRIST MIGHT LIVE

And thus they appeared as lavish spreads in the pages of British and French and American Vogue.

*

I love windows that look out over rooftops, I love the angles and awkward silences, the mountains and valleys made out of brick and slate, the lush forests of lichen and the steppes of lead flashing, the chimney pots like sullen factories, blossoming out smoke and silhouetted against a starlit sky. How many hours, how many hundreds of hours, did I spend looking out of my uncle’s attic skylight, twisting my already twisted body to encompass the entire panorama of an unknown city, a city of hats and hat brims with never a knowledge of the faces just underneath? I, who rocked myself to sleep in the crib of my agonized fantasies, knew nothing but delighted wakefulness when I prized open the ancient casement and soared over the rooftops of the city, swooping past yellow-lit windows, glancing down through skylights much as my own, skylights that looked down on the lonely, the burningly passionate, the defiantly enabled, running the tips of my fingers along soot-begrimed eaves and using those same soot-blackened fingertips to write

VARII GRAFITTI TI AMO

across the cracked and blue-veined tiles that made the wall above my uncle’s equally ugly, equally blackened galley-kitchen stove.

*

And if they did not have names, that was not for the lack of names I gave them. I remember when I was six maybe seven years old, being dragged through an old street by an even older nursemaid, an old street in the old quarter of the city where all the angles were wrong and the windows were yellow squares painted on gloomy wood and brick facades. It was a trip we made every Saturday, a visit to the Jewish Cemetery in the oldest part of the old quarter where her grandfather was buried, the victim of some purge or pogrom instigated by some century-old Kaiser or Tsar. The tombstones echoed the strange angles of the buildings that surrounded the small but crowded plot, moldering slabs of decomposing stone, many with the texture of pumice and hideously disfigured with the evil excrescence of lichen and moss. What names they might have been engraved with had mostly been lost, only random letters, some in English, others in Hebrew or Cyrillic, allowing the living to separate the dead. Oh, how I hated those weekly excursions, only made possible because the nursemaid, Mariska, answered to nobody, my parents being dead themselves (though buried far away elsewhere) and my uncle already nine-tenths living / dying in a world of his own devising. Even on the brightest summer day the ancient Jewish Cemetery was as gray as December and nearly as cold. Immediately I was pulled, whimpering, through the rusty iron gate I was conscious of my bare legs and the thinness of the material of my jaunty and hopelessly inappropriate sailor-suit. I stumbled over horizontal headstones, scraping my unprotected shins and smearing my pristine white knickerbockers against the collapsed and rotting memorials of the forgotten dead. I experienced that same sense of injustice and anxiety that made my weekday classmates in the Lycee simultaneously desperate to go to the bathroom and too fearful to ask to be excused. I said,

          “Mariska, why must we go here?”

and was always answered with a muttered oath and a renewed pressure on my already twisted arm.

An irony at once beautiful and grim is that after the polio that cut my legs from under me and made all such excursions impossible, I was completely unable to remember anything whatsoever about the actual location or appearance of her grandfather’s much-visited grave. The streets of the ghetto, the houses, the windows, the view of the madly random tombstones through the rotting filigree of the gate – these I could no more forget than the iron cages that were clamped around my miserable useless legs. But the grave itself… I said,

          “Where is Mariska?”

          and the nurse glanced at the doctor and the doctor nodded and the nurse said,

          “Why, Yuri? Do you miss her?”

          “No.”

          “Are you sure?”

          “Very sure. Will my uncle be sad if I can’t walk anymore?”

          “Why do you say that, Yuri? Do you think he mightn’t be?”

          “I don’t know.”

There was a gauzy white curtain in front of the open window that billowed slightly inwards with the breeze. I liked that curtain very much and wanted to touch it, but my bed was too far away. I said,

          “Tolstoi y Trotsky estan Muertos!”

and there were voices from outside that sounded like the voices of people in wheelchairs shouting out greetings to other people in wheelchairs. Or maybe cheerful people with the cushioned handles of crutches under their arms, crutches that made them swing like Sunday morning church bells. I said,

          “I would be grateful for a glass of water. If it’s not too much trouble.” 

and turned my face to the window. The sky through the breeze-blown gauze of the curtain seemed very far away.

*

VARII GRAFITTI E IL NOSTRO NOME!

“Mariska,” I said, “please let me go.”

We had taken a slightly different route to the grave of Mariska’s grandfather – the path that led directly, or at least as directly as the paths in the old Jewish Cemetery could possibly lead, was blocked by an elderly lady pushing an ancient gentleman in a chair with two sets of enormous and tiny wheels. The gentleman was wrapped in several blankets and wore spectacles with tinted blue lenses and silver rims. I said,

          “Mariska, please.”

and broke away from her grip on my wrist and went to stand in front of a tombstone upon which the original chiseling had been worn almost entirely away but across the face of which had been quite recently painted

FYODOR ISAAC DOSTOYEVSKY

although the lichen underneath the paint had, like some kind of allergic rash, already started to show through.

*

In all those subsequent nights of gazing over moonlit rooftops, in all those silent days surrounded by the walls of my uncle’s books, I created a world for myself that needed heroes, heroes of my own invention, not the heroes of the library, of Mallory or Byron or Dumas, nor the heroes of boys, my contemporaries, from whose society I was cruelly excluded, for example Biggles the aviator, Batman the Caped Crusader, Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise. On what occasion did I reach out my arm and run my extended finger down the face of the moon and realize that I could paint my frustrated desire on all the surfaces of the world?

EROI CLANDESTINI DI PAZZO GRAFITTI!

I propelled myself with awkward jerks around a table piled high with literary bric-a-brac and crashed open the balcony doors. There were three sparrows on the railing, none of which flew off but, on the contrary, looked at me with their quick bright eyes in anticipation of food. There had been a shower of rain through the sunshine and piles of oranges and peppers and tomatoes gleamed in the wooden boxes that extended from underneath the faded red and blue awning of an épicerie down on the opposite side of the street. Strolling along the pavement a man carrying a cannister of spray-paint looked up at me, made eye contact, gave me a beautiful smile and raised the cannister in a gesture between a salute and a wave. It was like physical contact, an embrace. I had never seen such a beautiful smile before.

*

I called him Jonquil Clearwater and he was the first to be named.

VIVA LA REVOLUCION!

VIVA LA FRUTA Y LAS VERDURAS!

And soon I had a whole Dramatis Personae, as fine a crew as ever sailed in the Argo or stood before the walls of Troy. 

*

They were international miscreants, unafraid to paint the lids of people’s eyes. They were charismatic and enigmatic, intellectual and playful, and if ever they used a stick it was intended as a prop, a means to a certain elegant swagger, rather than as a tool to give a cripple traction across a lonely, book-lined room. In addition to Jonquil Clearwater, possessor of the world’s most beautiful smile, there was Boris Velasquez, who painted the names of writers and revolutionaries on St. Petersburg’s marble walls, and Lazarus Pope,

          “Excuse me, young man, whom did you say?”

          “Lazarus Pope, madam.”

          “A most unlikely name.”

who decorated with extraordinary swirls of primary color the tombstones and headstones and memorial monuments of the world’s most illustrious dead. From an island in the Aegean, an island so small that its name has never been recorded in either atlas or nautical chart, came Penny Arcadia, the Aerosol Queen, and out of the tenements of Brooklyn, littered with the debris of unfulfilled hopes and broken dreams, appeared Jill Jalapeno, her sister in crime, whose speciality was signing her name across the plate-glass windows of shady boutiques selling sky-high thigh-high rubber and latex fetish gear, herself wearing only a white plastic trench coat and a pair of nine-inch stiletto heels –   

JALAPENO SUX CUM xxx

Jack Dauncey danced across the rooftops of Paris, weaving sparklers to write poems on the midnight sky, and Lorenzo Sloop, wearing a thick white polo-neck sweater and a blue jacket with brass buttons, sailed around the world on fishing trawlers and cargo vessels and rich men’s yachts, painting quotations from Conrad and Captain Nemo on the walls of waterfront brothels from San Francisco to Shanghai. Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows, wearing a mask that one moment made him resemble a gentleman cat-burglar, the next a character from the Comedia del Arte, was Sebastian Scaramouche – 

          “You, sir, are nothing but a sick young hoodlum!”

          “Yes, ma’am, I have that reputation.”

who had the ability to blend into the fog or dissolve in a shower of rain. 

They were mine. They belonged to the world, but more significantly they belonged to me. I stumbled out onto my uncle’s balcony and shouted out their names, creating them as aboriginal people once created all the things of the earth. The tears streamed down my cheeks and I felt I must literally glow with the force of my own emotion. Then the names that I had shouted I whispered, and down on the street Jonquil Clearwater and Boris Velasquez, Penny Arcadia and Jill Jalapeno, Lazarus Pope and Jack Dauncey and Lorenzo Sloop, one by one proceeded along the street, each glancing upwards to give me a mock-severe smile and a military-style salute…

Then, after four or five minutes had elapsed, slipping in and out of the shadows, wearing a cape that swirled around his ankles and a Venetian carnival mask, I glimpsed Sebastian Scaramouche, who acknowledged my presence in what must’ve seemed like the balcony of a theatre with a beautifully elaborate bow.

*

In the winter of that year it snowed heavily and the rooftops that I loved so much were more beautiful still. I discovered a taste for my uncle’s plum brandy, several bottles of which I’d discovered by accident in an old armoire and a small glass of which was sufficient both to warm me and produce the mildest of intoxications, allowing my soul to leave my body for several minutes at a time, giving me the extraordinary capability of balancing on chimney pots with an acrobat’s legs and seeing the city spread out beneath me like a Russian fairy tale. One night I drained off another glass, two glasses, three, and unbuttoned my trousers and urinated over a canvas of snow-layered slate, a quotation from Rimbaud

J’AI SEUL LA CLEF DE CETTE PARADE SAUVAGE

a purple pastiche of a sudden and liberated joy! Purple and yellow, like an over-ripe plum.

*

When my uncle finally died two women arrived to take charge of the corpse. They were neighbors, one from the next-door apartment who would sometimes be hanging out washing at the same time as I was feeding the sparrows, the other from the same building as ours, but the floor lower down. They were both in their fifties and both quite thin, but one of them was tall and one of them was short. They wore severe black, of course, and looked at me with a mixture of pity and contempt. I was happy to sit quietly in the shape of a question-mark and read one of my uncle’s books. They laid his body out in the bedroom, leaving the door open so I could see. They argued about everything, but in exaggeratedly low voices, the way people talk in church. They argued about whether he should be buried with his watch-chain, and what shoes he should wear, and whether to put pennies on his eyes. Then they argued about whether the pennies should be simply placed over the eyes or else screwed into the sockets like a pair of monocles. The taller one said,

          “Yuri.”

          “Yes, ma’am.”

          “Come and look at your uncle before they take him away.”

I levered myself off the chair in which I had been reading Montaigne’s Essays and lurched into the bedroom. The pennies they had chosen were new and shiny and to me he looked more alive than he had for at least the past three years. It was a shame they were burying him when he looked so well. They’d even added a touch of rouge to his cheeks. I said,

          “Goodbye, Uncle.”

and then, in a genuine whisper that the two women, both of whom, anyway, had discovered the plum brandy, would be unable to hear,

          “Don’t worry about a tombstone, like Mariska. I’ve made some wonderful new friends, and if I ask them nicely, they’ll paint your name all over the world. On buildings and churches and rooftops and – oh, even on the sky if you want them to.”

I hesitated. I remembered he’d probably never even noticed the invention of the aeroplane. I said,

          “Or on the sides of trams, if the sky seems a bit too ambitious.”

I went back into the drawing room. The two ladies had finished very nearly a whole bottle of the plum brandy and were arguing about whether it had been made with French plums or English plums. The shorter one said,

          “Well, Yuri, you’ve got to take care of yourself now.”

She said it like she knew I wouldn’t be able to. I said,

          “That’s right,”

and went out onto the balcony. It was a lovely spring morning, a little misty and still quite chilly, and down on the street the owner of the épicerie was putting the finishing touches to his display. He disappeared inside the shop, then reappeared with a box of mixed peppers, red and yellow and orange and green. The box neatly fitted into a gap on the slatted wooden framework that extended onto the pavement. He admired his handiwork and then, for no reason I could discern, half turned and looked up over his shoulder at exactly where I was standing. He smiled a beautiful smile and raised his hand in something between a wave and a salute. Gripping the railing of the balcony firmly with my left hand I returned his greeting with my right. I wanted to shout something, but my chest was too weak. But at least I was able to smile and he smiled again and repeated the gesture. Then he disappeared back underneath his awning. I leaned on the railing with my elbows and used the backs of my hands to wipe the tears from my eyes. I gulped for breath. I had never known such overwhelming happiness before.

*

Born in London, Michael Paul Hogan is a poet, journalist, fiction writer and literary essayist whose work has appeared extensively in the USA, UK, India and China. He has published six books of poetry and numerous articles on contemporary literature, photography and painting in both mainstream and independent magazines. His short stories have appeared in many literary journals, including Big Bridge, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, The Blue Nib and Oddville Press.