Tom Hazuka

Sunflowers of Evil

           Just 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 myself.
           For 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.
           "Absinthe!" he cried. "And one for my friend!" He squeezed my knee. "What was your name again?"
           The bartender squinted sadly, in the middle of Happy Hour. Her face needed a nap. "You mean that raunchy green stuff from Europe?"
           "Absinthe," I said. "It makes the heart grow fonder."
           She 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."
           "A pair of pernods then, espèce de con! You have that, don't you?"
           "Do I detect a note of hostility, Mr. Smoke Yourself To Death? Did I touch a nerve?"
           Baudelaire 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 of mercury.
           "The Flowers of Evil, Chuck. One hell of a book."
           Baudelaire grimaced artistically. "Forget Valentine's Day just once, mon vieux," he said, "and you'll find out what I meant."
           Shouting erupted at the plastic coconut-shell door. "In the name of all that's holy--" I began.
           "A short list indeed," Chuck muttered, and dragged mightily on his edenic coffin nail.
           The 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.
           "Why, it's that little punk Artie Rimbaud, getting carded!"
           "Rimbaud!" the kid shouted, like a tourist who expects a native to understand if he only yells loud enough. "I am the great Rimbaud!"
           The Samoan folded his arms and sneered. "If you're Rambo, I'm Robert Redford."
           "I wrote 'The Drunken Boat'!"
           "What 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."
            The poet's heaving chest was criss-crossed with bandoliers, like Pancho Villa or a disgruntled postal worker. "Nobody disses Rimbaud!"
           "Yeah, I know. Not even the entire Vietnamese army. Now blow."
           The 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.
           "You're overrated, Baudelaire! You've got the balls of a sparrow! Reader's Digest wants your reeking poems!"
           Chuck 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.
           "History will not forget!" were the last intelligible words we heard in a string of broken-voiced obscenities.
           Baudelaire 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."
           "Red 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!"
           "He's 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.
           "Yo, 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!"
           Chuck 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.
           "C'est de la politique!" he spat. "Who does that petit worm know on the committee?"
           I considered, 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.
           A figure 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.
           "Forty fucking million!" he crowed. "A record! I am an artiste!"
           Chuck 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."
           Van 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."
           "Look 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."
           "Nice mixed metaphor. You might have a future writing Hallmark cards."
           "Yeah, with lame pictures of sunflowers on them. Or skies full of inane whirlpools like somebody's flushing them down the toilet."
           The 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."
           Chuck 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!"
           "Spoken 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.
           "By 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, Chuck."
           Baudelaire 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?"
           At least 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.
           Chuck 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.
           Within 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.
           "What 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."
           I looked at the bartender, waiting with her hand palm-up to heaven, to all appearances amazingly and absolutely unconcerned with my plight.
           "Mademoiselle," I said, "are you positive you don't have any absinthe?"