Sunflowers of Evil
back from my first visit to Paris, I sat in the Luau Lounge pondering
my destiny when Charles Baudelaire took the stool next to me. To my surprise,
he was not a formal man. "Call me Chuck," he said, right off the bat,
and helped himself liberally to the salted peanuts. "I prefer those cheddar
fromage goldfish crackers, but...." He grabbed another fistful
in existential resignation. Figuring he had much to teach me, I took some
an hour we talked, about romance and poetry, about inspiration and talent
and why the Red Sox had not won the World Series since 1918. Forget Buckner's
error in '86--Chuck was still so shattered by Boston's 1920 sale of Babe
Ruth to the Yankees that his teeth chattered.
he cried. "And one for my friend!" He squeezed my knee. "What was your
bartender squinted sadly, in the middle of Happy Hour. Her face needed
a nap. "You mean that raunchy green stuff from Europe?"
I said. "It makes the heart grow fonder."
leaned toward us. "Don't let the manager hear this, but no drink's good
for your heart, if you want to know God's own truth." She emptied Charlie's
already choked ashtray. "Whoa, your lungs must look like fresh asphalt."
of pernods then, espèce de con! You have that, don't you?"
I detect a note of hostility, Mr. Smoke Yourself To Death? Did I touch
sighed and met my eyes, then gazed at his lap as if waiting for some answer
to arise. "My lungs were not the organ that betrayed me." He lit up an
Eve with the butt of his last one, a faint tremor in his Jimi Hendrix-size
fingers. I gently steered his great mind away from spirochetes and tincture
Flowers of Evil, Chuck. One hell of a book."
grimaced artistically. "Forget Valentine's Day just once, mon vieux,"
he said, "and you'll find out what I meant."
erupted at the plastic coconut-shell door. "In the name of all that's
holy--" I began.
list indeed," Chuck muttered, and dragged mightily on his edenic coffin
bouncer, a silver-haired Samoan of sumo proportions, held aloft a scowling
adolescent in knickers and a backwards baseball cap. Baudelaire guffawed
as the kid kicked and squirmed in vain.
it's that little punk Artie Rimbaud, getting carded!"
the kid shouted, like a tourist who expects a native to understand if
he only yells loud enough. "I am the great Rimbaud!"
Samoan folded his arms and sneered. "If you're Rambo, I'm Robert Redford."
'The Drunken Boat'!"
they do on cruise ships ain't none of my business. The Luau Lounge don't
serve no minors since the last time they shut us down. Take a hike, kid--there's
a Dairy Queen on the corner."
poet's heaving chest was criss-crossed with bandoliers, like Pancho Villa
or a disgruntled postal worker. "Nobody disses Rimbaud!"
I know. Not even the entire Vietnamese army. Now blow."
boy's eyes lit up, until he realized that meant he was supposed to leave.
On the edge of a retort he saw us gawking at him, and flashed a petulant,
double-barrel bird in our direction.
overrated, Baudelaire! You've got the balls of a sparrow! Reader's
Digest wants your reeking poems!"
sniffed as if last week's fish had been left under the radiator. "Damn
Verlaine for not having better aim when he shot him," he said as the Samoan
hustled the kid out, gripping the scruff of his neck like a mother lion
hauling a cub.
will not forget!" were the last intelligible words we heard in a string
of broken-voiced obscenities.
shook his head. "Pathetic, immature anthropomorphizer." He shrugged, oozing
negative capability, with a pinch of stoicism for flavor. "With luck he'll
grow out of it. Our luck."
Sox suck!" Rimbaud's adenoidal whine pierced through a side window. "Red
Sox suck and you're a loser, Bawdy Lair! Yankees rule, you hack! Your
poems should be stacked in public toilets, ready for use! Then they'd
finally be good for something!"
vert with envy because I got another NEA grant this year," Chuck
confided smugly, not exactly displeased at the chance to hit me with that
bit of information--as if I didn't know already from my umpteenth rejection
letter from the same source.
Body Hair! I wanted you to be the first to know. I just got a MacArthur!
Sixty grand a year till I'm old enough to vote, and I don't even have
to fart for it!"
frowned, forming deep furrows in his forehead like the ones soaked with
impure blood in the "Marseillaise." He crushed a palm-load of goldfish
crackers in his clenched fist.
de la politique!" he spat. "Who does that petit worm know on the committee?"
briefly, offering as consolation my uncannily similar reaction to being
rejected by the NEA mavens, and everyone else for that matter. But before
I could be further tempted by, and probably indulge in, such an ignoble
course, I was distracted by a voice murmuring manically at the Bridges
of Madison County pinball game. It was rare to see anyone at that machine
now, though at one time citizens had lined up for blocks to feed it vast
sums of money, despite the fact that it only gave you two balls. I had
to admit, though, that they were big balls, and constructed of the shiniest
brass I had ever seen.
wearing wooden shoes and earmuffs hunched over the box, masterfully fingering
the flipper buttons, bumping and grinding the machine to the very knife-edge
of TILT without sending it over. Instead of the usual bells when the ball
ricocheted off bumpers, cameras flashed and shutters clicked, and R-rated
moans à la Donna Summer issued from its bowels as the frenzied
player furiously racked up points.
fucking million!" he crowed. "A record! I am an artiste!"
grimaced. "Mon dieu, van Gogh, get a grip. It's only a damn game."
Then to me, in a sotto voce titter: "Friends, Romans, countrymen,
lend me your ear."
Gogh glanced my way. "Did Evil Flower just leak that butchered Shakespeare
line again? Come on, Baudelaire, how about a little originality for a
change? It was halfway funny the first time you said it, but that was
a century ago."
who's talking about originality! I don't quite know how to break the news,
Tulip Toes, but painting a vase of sunflowers ain't exactly cutting edge.
Take your finger out of the dike and smell the coffee."
mixed metaphor. You might have a future writing Hallmark cards."
with lame pictures of sunflowers on them. Or skies full of inane whirlpools
like somebody's flushing them down the toilet."
bartender set down the remote after finding NASCAR racing on the tube.
"Gentlemen! Clean up your act or take it outside. This is a class establishment."
nearly sprayed his mouthful of Pernod. "Yeah, right! And Vinnie here's
Leonardo da Vinci. What's next--cutting scenes into cubes and throwing
in body parts wherever you feel like it? Splashing paint at random on
a canvas and thinking some schmuck will buy it? There are limits, Dutch
Boy, there are limits!"
like a true bourgeois," van Gogh said. He gazed starry-eyed at his tally
on the machine, that insistent, angular four followed by seven plump,
empty, insatiable zeroes, then adjusted his earmuffs and picked up his
beret to leave. At the door he paused, as if suddenly struck by an epiphany.
the way," he asked innocently. "Did I mention that I'm flying to Tokyo
tomorrow to do the sets for the new Godzilla film? It's hard not to have
a yen for the serious simoleons those exotic orientals throw around. Ciao,
gasped. "The lucky cochon," he whimpered. "Godzilla is almost as
brilliant as Jerry Lewis. Is there no end to a poet's pain, and lack of
opportunities to pad our pockets?"
you got the NEA grant, I thought. Me, I have to make due with a pile of
rejection slips massive enough to wallpaper the Moulin Rouge.
was so shaken that he drained his drink, then chugged mine as well. He
touched my shoulder. "Man will not merely endure," he said with tears
in his eyes, "he will prevail." And stumbled out.
seconds the bartender slapped the check in front of me, obviously worried
that I would try to beard her and bolt without paying. As if an artist
would do such a thing.
does it matter?" I muttered into my empty glass. "In a hundred years we'll
all be dead and no one will be reading us anyway."
at the bartender, waiting with her hand palm-up to heaven, to all appearances
amazingly and absolutely unconcerned with my plight.
I said, "are you positive you don't have any absinthe?"