08. The Loathesong of J Alfred Prufrock

Mr. Dame peeled the letter from its paper sarcophagus with trepidation. “Dear Mr. Dame” it began optimistically. “Thank you for your submission,” it continued before suddenly “We regret that your writing does not meet our…” He crumpled the paper and threw it aside. It bounced once and came to rest where he knew he’d have to pick it up at some point in the future — but for now he pretended his assertive hostility against the paper made him feel better. He slumped in a chair and stared at another stack of essays. Indeed, there would be time to grade them with their visions in need of revisions. But first, he decided, standing back up, it was time to heat some soup and pour some wine.

“Hmmmmm” said the microwave.

“I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” said Alfred behind him.

“Ding,” said the microwave.

Mr. Dame spared a glance at his glass of Slapdash Red before retrieving his soup.

“What did you suppose I meant by that?” asked Alfred, his voice as calm and gentle as a rusty nail on a chalkboard.

“It’s your inferiority complex. You don’t know if you’re that great, if you’re that important, if you can make the dramatic action that can get the girl,” M. Dame summarized from the lesson plan.

Alfred snorted derisively at him. “And you’ve read Hamlet, have you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mr. Dame asked, turning to face his surly guest.

“You’re the one who knows what things mean, not me,” Alfred said with derisive spite, turning away from Mr. Dame’s focus. “But really, was Hamlet great? Important? Romantic?” he mumbled. Turning back to towards Mr. Dame with a sudden outpouring of bile he kvetched “I said I’m not prince Hamlet, not that I’m not prince Charming. Jesus Christ, for being able to read you seem utterly illiterate.”

Mr. Dame stared agog at his visitor. Alfred stared back through bloodshot eyes. His scraggly black hair color-coordinated with his disshevelled short-sleeve shirt. His purple silk tie flowed with a contemptuous crookedness down his lanky torso. After a moment, Alfred’s face softened and he rolled his eyes away.

“Let’s rewind a bit: who is Prince Hamlet?” Alfred quizzed. Without waiting for a reply that might well be wrong, he continued “He’s a prince who doesn’t do the one thing that’s expected of princes which is to become king. Or conquer territories to expand the kingdom. Point is that he can’t be that great. He doesn’t even rescue a princess — quite the opposite really as he may be indirectly responsible for his lover’s suicide. Doesn’t sound so romantic. And important? Instead of fending off the Norwegian invasion, he gets shipped off to England to be executed, and while he’s gone Laertes almost becomes king by way of a peasant coup.” He gave an evocative shrug. “By those measures, for as much of a loser as Hamlet was, I might as well have been him,” he concluded.

The sudden reversal of meaning left Mr. Dame flummoxed. “Can I, uh, get you a drink or something?” he asked, helplessly curious about what would follow.

“Got coffee?” asked Alfred. Mr. Dame thought he saw a slight chemical shudder run through Alfred’s body.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll make some,” Mr. Dame confirmed. He dumped out the stale remains of the morning’s vile brew, scooped in some bitter grounds, realized that he didn’t know if a coffee spoon was a legitimate unit of measure, and also realized that he was being distracted from the conversation. “But if you might as well have been Hamlet by those measures, why weren’t you?” he asked.

There was a tick-tick-tick of a lighter failing to light followed by the distinctive smell of a cheap cigarette burning while Alfred waited for the coffee. After a loud exhale he replied, “It’s half a teaspoon. But you have to understand that Prince Hamlet is fundamentally driven by revenge. His tragedy is that his path of revenge kills him and almost everybody he loves, and destroys his father’s kingdom and legacy. As he suspected it would. And yet he did it anyway. That’s his ‘the readiness is all’ speech, yeah?” He paused for a drag on his cigarette. “What kind of psychotic bastard does that, man?”

“It turns out that I wouldn’t know,” said Mr. Dame dismally, dropping a spoon into the coffee and handing it across the table.

Alfred took it, sniffed at it, and set it on the table. “Right. Neither would I. I may be full of hate here, but going for all-consuming revenge is totally different.”

“But I was told that the poem was about you walking to tea with some lady that you were going to ask to marry you or something.”

Alfred stirred his coffee incredulously in no mean feat of expression. “Oh really.”

“It’s, uh, what I was told? It’s on the Internet, it’s printed in books.”

“And what part suggests that? I mean, I start by suggesting that the put-under atmosphere is about to be carved open to have bits removed, go into tawdry adulteries, mention women, plural, not monogamous per se, wax poetical on the waxy air pollution…?” He raised an eyebrow and noisily slurped his coffee.

Mr. Dame shrugged helplessly.

“Love! His affections do not that way tend;” Alfred scoffed. He took a long drag on his cigarette. “You know this, don’t you? You’ve… felt it?” Alfred’s eyes gleamed through the haze he was laying across the table.

A chill ran down Mr. Dame’s spine. He shivered involuntarily. “How so?” he asked, wondering if he wanted to get or evade clarification.

“You know what it’s like to be cast aside by the very object of your every affection.” Alfred sneered while Mr. Dame squirmed. “What?” he cooed, “You surely don’t think that people like us were simply born this way, do you? That our social anxieties spring up ex nihilo?” Mr. Dame stared back dumbly. “No. Didn’t think so.”

Mr. Dame mulled on this. “More coffee?” he suggested, unsure of how to rejoin the conversation.

“Yeah, sure, thanks.”

Mr. Dame wordlessly collected the cup, stood frigidly and turned away stiffly.

“Aw man,” said Alfred apologetically, “don’t be like this. I know you don’t understand. That you don’t really want to understand. That you’re even being paid to not understand. But you, you, you… I need you to understand. I need you to understand what couldn’t be said: the suppressed pervigilium. But before you can see what isn’t there, you have to see what is there in The Inventions of the March Hare. We have to go through this, you and I.”

Mr. Dame passed the coffee back to Alfred. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why do you need me to understand?”

“Because, as it were — two reasons, intertwined. Firstly,” half a cup of coffee down the gullet, “you are no doubt aware that I am not actually here, that you are not serving me coffee per se, that I am a construction of your imagination. That I have emerged from the darker recesses of your head. But secondly is that I can’t accept that I sprang in to being so deficient, so incapable.” He paused briefly to drain the remainder of the coffee from the cup. “If I learned to crawl, I want it acknowledged that my crawling is learned,” he hissed, sliding the cup back across the table.

Mr. Dame collected the cup and refilled it.

“Long ago, you learned to crawl — and learned to crawl again, but let’s not dwell on that — and if I’m going to be like you, then I must have learned as well even if it didn’t get written down. And I do have to be like you. Because no matter how miserable I am, I haven’t failed unless I have failed to be human, unless I have failed to capitalize on the poet’s essential advantage of seeing beneath the opaque surfaces and through to ‘the boredom, and the horror, and the glory,’ and present this very humane vision to you, my also-human audience.” He paused to light and drag on another cigarette. “So it kind of hurts when people see how miserable I am and say ‘well that’s just the way he is.’ Because it took a lot of work to get me this way, not all of which shows through.” He shifted the cigarette to permit himself a swig of coffee. “You know what the artist is really afraid of. I watched you when you came in here and saw your fears uncurl, strangely, from around my hovel as you uncurled that letter from what you hoped it would say. The artist doesn’t fear being misunderstood. The artist fears being understood clearly and judged to be no good.”

“I don’t get it.”

Alfred smiled ruefully. “Yes, as previously noted, you are paid to not get it. But look at it from your own point of view. You build up your lesson plan on me and deliver it to your students saying, ‘Behold, here is great poetry about being a loser!’ to which they respond ‘Oh look, it’s some loser feeling bad about nothing at all,’ then you’re left feeling…” he drained the cup and held it up. “Empty,” he said. Twisting it for inspection, “and chipped. Yeah.”

Mr. Dame lifted the cup away for another refill.

“But that’s the situation that I’m in, right? That Eliot’s in by your association. That you, serving as proxy, are exposed to. ‘Here are great words!’ you say. ‘Bullshit’ say they. And on face, they would seem to be correct. I take a teleological look at life sans teleological ends. I say, ‘oooh, I can see where I’m going and I don’t like it,’ but I never explain why my destiny is so dismal.” He sucked deeply on his cigarette thinking about how to explain the problem with this situation. “Can you imagine Hamlet without the ghost? Hamlet is just a whiny basketcase until he starts killing people. It’s our ability to identify with his desire for revenge that makes the play understandable and humane.”

“But my kids aren’t even sure that Hamlet was out for revenge,” Mr. Dame said handing the cup back.

“Ah, no,” Alfred replied primly, “Hamlet was out for revenge. Even if it was all in his delusional little head, he believed he was out for revenge. All he has to do is believe and project it strongly enough for us to identify with it — and for some people to also genuinely believe it. Real or imagined, right or wrong, we think we grasp why he’s doing what he’s doing.” He sipped the coffee, letting this sink in. “With me, however, I’m really not doing much and the official reason is that I’m a loser.” He sipped at his coffee, waiting for a reaction that was not forthcoming. “And here you are talking to me, sort of — I’m really kind of dominating this conversation, aren’t I? — so I wonder what that says about you?” he queried, raising his cup in salute before taking a chug of it.

“I’m here because my wife dumped me and I had to get a job and a place to live and now I need to get to grading papers because, well, there’s a stack of them,” Mr. Dame said, frustrated that Alfred was turning the discussion to him. “It’s the job I was offered, so I took it. And I am glad to have it. Did you have a point?”

“It was the wife I was offered, so I took it. And I am glad to have it,” Alfred said absently, rolling his eyes away. Mr. Dame seethed at the affront, but Alfred lunged toward him, spilling the last bit from the cup of coffee. “There! There!” he practically shouted in Mr. Dame’s face in triumph. “Your rage, my dear sir, there it is!” Grinning with savage pride in his discovery, he sat back in the chair. “Yeah,” he said, again deflated and reflective, “I don’t have any of that.”

Mr. Dame tossed a towel on the spill and recovered the cup for a refill. “Not everybody does,” he offered. “Fear tends to come first.”

Alfred shook his head — to no particular effect as Mr. Dame’s back was turned — and said, “No, people fear the unknown. When they face the known, then they shift to love or hate. Consider, if you will…” He paused to light a new cigarette, digging through prose and poetry to find some good rage. “Consider ‘I rode her off for the tenth time today, and practiced all the things I would say…'”

“The Offspring, ‘Self Esteem'” recalled Mr. Dame, picking up on the old familiar lyric.

“She came over,” prompted Alfred.

“I lost my nerve — I took her back and made her dessert,” Mr Dame concluded the line handing the cup back.

“Yes. And while the voice is of a person who has become stuck in a bad relationship, they angrily respond to any advice or concern we might have ‘ha, no, I’m getting laid, I’ll be fine,’ while disavowing how fine they’ll be in their next breath.” He took a drag on the cigarette, speaking the smoke out: “And that’s the difference between him and me, for example. He’s stuck in a bad way, but justifies it by claiming he’s getting something out of it. I’m much more New Order ‘Blue Monday,’ you know? ‘I still find it so hard to say what I mean to say, but I’m quite sure that you’ll tell me just how I should feel today.'”

Mr. Dame groaned slightly as he remembered: “And I thought I told you to leave me while I walked down to the beach.” He had that album and several dance remixes; he couldn’t believe he’d pulled “Creep” just because the Internet had suggested it.

Alfred continued on his chain of thought: “I effectively claim to be stuck in a boringly conventional way and getting nothing, not even myself, out of it. At least according to a flat reading. Which I object to, in a way uncharacteristic of a flat reading.”

“Is this where you tell me that all of the trepidation isn’t actually there?”

“Goodness no. But that the setup is all wrong. Remember, my concern is how I got there.” He downed the coffee on one go. “Go back to the beginning. I’m out and about in pollution and corruption, starting in the sky and coming down to earth. I am going to visit somebody, not stay with them — compared to the house, wrapped in sleeping vapors.” He handed the cup back for another refill. “Are you with me so far? I’m anxious despite the slumber-inducing toxic heaviness of the environment that wills me to sleep. But then I look ahead — there will be time. And there’s time for a great many things, changes and adjustments. But more than that, there’s time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet — honest intimacy is out of the question here, they’re just faces, not people. And there’s time for you and there is time for me. What there isn’t time for is us. There is an us now, possibly, but in the future there is you and there is me.” He dragged noisily on the cigarette. “Then it’s this room, again, with a plurality of lightly cultured women coming and going. Pin that to the corkboard; we’ll be back. Then we get back to looking forward — there will be time — as I’m wasting away in a dignified but wholly predictable fashion. Thanks,” he said taking the coffee back and sipping at it.

“Wholly predictable,” he repeated, recovering his train of thought, “at least as near as I can tell — I say I’ve known them all. That I can measure them out with coffee spoons. And while I think I can see her entirety in a simple descriptor — a formulated phrase, like ‘Butterfly Collector’ — the truth is that she’s pinned me like a butterfly collector and I’m… stuck. But nevermind that, because I turn and confess my distraction having known all the arms already. And then we’re back on our errand past other lonely, smoking men — but up in their windows and I’m lower than them being down in the street and lower than that still as I envision myself decapitated in sacrifice to the long, dark tea-time of the soul to placate a domestic life that I can’t break free from as it snuffs me out. But hey, no need to be frightened of the consequences if I’m already dead, right?”

“Isn’t this where you ask her to marry you or something, but she turns you down?” asked Mr. Dame feebly, failing to keep up.

“No,” said Alfred flatly. “Lazarus did not come back from the dead to get laid. That’s necrophilia and it’s no wonder that the chick in your version rejects it. Jesus Christ. But speaking of Jesus Christ, the point behind Lazarus was in Luke chapter 16 — it’s a parable about how if assholes are assholes despite all of the narrative tradition against assholes then nice guys coming back from the dead to warn them about the consequences won’t drive them to repentance and redemption. And missing that allusion is where your interpretation goes way off mark.” He paused to pour coffee into his mouth.

“Um, is that not the Lazarus that Jesus raised or something?”

Alfred swished the coffee in his mouth while shaking his head before continuing. “Luke. Look it up later. But she’s already got the upper hand here. She’s pinned me like a butterfly, decapitated me like John the Baptist, et cetera. That’s not a lover or fiancee. That’s a wife of the pejoratively emasculating variety — which might be the adjective that any wife of mine would develop simply in reaction to me, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m trying to come back from my death to get out of this disaster. To work up the courage to leave, with some shred of civil dignity. Good lovers don’t bite unless asked, and never completely bite off — but I want the matter bitten off with a smile. Because I’m dead in this way and I don’t want to continue on this path — which is why I’m out. I’m out searching for what I mean so I can say it, say ‘this is what I lack and why I must go,’ while she disavows any barbs or pins that have been draining the life from me for years.” He looked away to take a long draw on the cigarette, then looked back. “Oh, you’re starting to know this poem now, I think?”

“That is not it at all,” Mr. Dame managed to whisper, “That is not what I meant, at all.”

“No! But I’m not the kind of guy who would take revenge, now am I? I’m too meek for that. Too accustomed to the cage we’ve put ourselves in to try rattling the bars directly. I’ve already been pinned and decapitated anyway, eh? A decent enough trophy to show the woman’s hunting skill, but undervalued as a man. So what will I do instead? Anything to make me feel young and carefree. Anything to get me out of the crushing expectations she has me under.” He finished the coffee with his gaze fixed on Mr. Dame. “That’s why you’re almost happier here in this tiny fetid apartment than you were in your house. This is yours only, and you are responsible to you only — and you trust yourself to not fail, not because you won’t fail but because you know you can handle your self-loathing if you do. But when she was there, the fear of failing her and her seemingly insatiable demands was too much, wasn’t it?”

Mr. Dame released his lower lip from his teeth and measured out the words: “But what about you?”

“Oh, I have heard the mermaids, plural, again, singing each to each,” Alfred said with a caustic wink and a bite of his lip. He shook the empty cup at Mr. Dame.

Mr. Dame pondered Alfred’s body language while refilling the cup, then handed it back. Something beastly in Alfred’s gaze shocked a thought into his head: In the room the women come and go. “Oh my God,” Mr. Dame exclaimed, “you’re cheating on your wife by going to a brothel? Because you lack the guts to just leave her?”

“And now my peculiar rage and revenge takes shape, sir. And now you may know why I am lower than the lonely men, and even beneath what people see of me as I make the filthy transit from the place where people sleep themselves to metaphoric death.”

“But even in the end you’re uncertain,” Mr. Dame said, wondering how the last pieces of the puzzle might fit.

“What, about the hookers not singing to me in the way that real lovers do? Because no matter how pretty their smile or melodious their voice, they’re — at best — professionals and I’m just a customer, not a real lover? Is that what you mean I’m uncertain about?” he asked, shaking slightly. He tossed the coffee back and slid the cup across the table.

“I suppose,” said Mr. Dame, feeling slightly revolted as he collected the cup for yet another refill.

“Whatever. It’s the nature of the pervigilium. And now you know that I’m the lowest of the low,” said Alfred taking the cup back. “A man so emasculated, so afraid of his wife that he’s cheating on her with hookers in the hopes that she’ll leave him so he won’t have to work up the courage to leave her.” He paused to savor the vapors off the coffee before sipping at it. “And yet, I’m feeling more human already.”

“All of that and you’re not even certain about eating a peach?” asked Mr. Dame incredulously.

“And what type of peach do you suppose I was really thinking of eating?” asked Alfred with vicious salaciousness rolling through his voice.

“Um. Oh.” Mr. Dame blushed to think of the dramatic interpretation of peach-eating he’d given to to the pretty under-age student girls.

“Um. Oh,” Alfred repeated in a tone that would have been mocking, but was too resplendent with triumph.

But there was something else obfuscated in Alfred’s repetition. “You’re… still hiding something,” said Mr. Dame, suddenly curious as to what would still be worth hiding.

“Oh really,” said Alfred with an almost loving smile. He winked a gleaming eye and emptied the cup. Mr. Dame dutifully refilled it, thinking hard about the flow of the poem, from the sky to the sea, from consciousness to unconsciousness and unconsciousness to consciousness. Women who come and go.

Alfred nodded thankfully as he took the cup back and set it aside. “What else do you already know about me?” he asked, lighting another cigarette, sucking on it deeply on it and releasing fresh plume of blue-grey haze.

“You were smoking?” asked Mr. Dame, incredulous at the relative triviality of the vice.

“I was smoking the good stuff, the effective stuff,” Alfred wheezed, evacuating more smoke from his lungs.

“You can’t be serious.”

“You might say that it’s where the real fixation on pollution and vapors comes from,” he replied. “But,” he added before pausing. A distant look glazed his expression: “I have seen the world roll up into a ball / Then suddenly dissolve and fall away” he added dreamily, looking almost preternaturally serene. Then he noticed he was still holding the cup of coffee, so he chugged it down in one go, returning to the flow of the conversation. “But let’s review, shall we? My wife is a butterfly collector who has decapitated me and doesn’t understand why I’m freaking out about the suburban life she’s chained me to, but I’m too much of a coward to walk away. How do you suppose I work up the resolve to go sleep around with other women, hrm? How could I achieve ‘The awful daring of a moment’s surrender’?” he queried, arranging his eyebrows to indicate the inherent inanity of the question. After a pause he softly added, “Besides, if you go under on the opium you don’t even need the guts to choose a girl. They just cart you off to the side and leave you like a patient, etherized, while the women come and go, talking of… Michaelangelo. I think. I guess. I don’t know. I wasn’t exactly conscious at the time.” He gazed at the cup, chipped and empty. “I do not think they will sing to me.”

Mr. Dame took the cup, refilled and returned it.

“But their voices are always there to be woken to, in the lingering morning illness of the drug. But the worst part is crawling back out from that bit of blissful self-destruction where it was me that was in control of my downfall and returning to that house with her and the ongoing death of days and decades. It’s not the mermaid voices sending me out from their cave, as it were, but the human voices recalling me to their control. Unwilling to reject me despite my visible chips and cracks,” he said, lifting the cup again “she takes me back and…” he poured the coffee down in a breath.

“I wish she would suspect. I wish she would notice. I wish should would unleash all of her indignant fury. I wish she would cry out that she never wants to see me again. That’s what I’m waiting for. That’s what I’m trying to ensure happens. That’s what I’m persisting for, with my tiny drippings of rebelliousness. I need the sound of that human voice to let me drown,” he finished wretchedly.

Mr. Dame stared at him in awe and pity. He thought he had been hard-done by his ex, but J. Alfred Prufrock, hunched and twitching slightly over the empty coffee cup, was in a whole different league. “‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?'” he quoted, uncertain how to mask his disgust.

Alfred twisted his head back upward to face Mr. Dame’s. Tears gleamed in his eyes, at odds with the twisted smile that wound its way across his lips. “Forgiveness is not the object,” he said quietly, “because ‘so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist.’ And now I exist enough for you to really not like me. Because now you can see how I might really have been like you. And that is the point behind all of this, and why I stick in the darker recesses of your head.” Alfred’s acrid self-loathing smoldered up slightly again. “Because here’s the thing: you’re here with me, and because you’re here with me, you’re not in a position to proclaim my exact infamy, my horrible confessions, without proclaiming your own. Oh gee, he’s awful, you might say. Oh gee, somebody’s projecting a bit much, they will say.” Alfred paused to scoff. “And that was the lovely Italian preamble that you didn’t think was particularly relevant to the lesson.”

“And I still find it so hard to say what I mean to say,” repeated Mr. Dame quietly, wondering if he would have to avoid teaching this unit in the future.

“Exactly,” concluded Alfred. “But anyway,” he sighed, “you get on with your paper-grading. Have fun… without me. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.”