Issue #83

Summer 2022

Tableau Vivant, The Arrival, and Lisbon

by Tom Whalen

Tableau Vivant

Understandably, I feared meeting the renown collector Jindrich Styrsky in his hometown of Zurich, if only because of the green dog with five paws he was rumored to drag behind him wherever he went.

How had he known I was a collector as well? I had tried to keep my night activities as secret as possible, but still his letter found me at my favorite kiosk one morning when, in the guise of a banker, I purchased the NZZ and found tucked into its pages his letter written in a series of coded postulates, which I quickly decoded.

The birds were quiet when I arrived at twilight at the aviary beside the lake and saw a man taller than I expected, but without a dog. I offered him my hand, but he only looked at it, and then pointed me toward the WC. As I walked in that direction, the birds began to screech.

The real Styrsky stood in front of a urinal, his dog at his feet. A strange mold, like some kind of decalcomania horror, covered Styrsky's face and penis. He began to speak in a Czech that was crystal clear and at the same time completely incomprehensible, in part due to the noise of the birds that carried into the WC. Were they trying to warn me about something?

Then Styrsky stretched out an arm and opened his hand, and I saw on his palm a tiny tableau vivant with a man no more than half an inch tall in a mustard-colored shirt about to snap his red suspenders onto a pair of pleated wool pants, while on a dark wooden bench beside him my mother, naked, glared at me with a look uncanny and unholy.

***

The Arrival

A man caught the wrong train. Instead of the express to Nice, he hopped a local to Nowhere.

Hey, train, giddy-up.

I'm not a horse, the train said.

I didn't mean to offend you, the man said, but if it's OK with you, I'd like for us to get a move on. I'm late for nothing but in a hurry.

Fine, said the train without budging.

Then everything in the universe became perfectly still, nothing at all moved, not the wheels or the darkness or the mice on the tracks, or the man on the train to Nowhere who, without even knowing it, had already arrived.

***

Lisbon

In the white city a white cockatoo rode on the shoulder of my grandmother as she pumped up the hill to Christ Mountain, with me riding double on the handlebars. When we reached the top, Christ bore her away like a cygnet wobbly on the back of its mother. Then a goatish figure with a half-chewed toothpick in its mouth led me back down the mountain, whispering that I was the long-lost son of a king, offspring of a blind, mad race, and my chances of surviving in Portugal were minimal.

All that long afternoon I sat in a cafe near the Entrecampos Station drinking coffee, waiting for my friend Fernando to appear, but he never did.

Author Bio

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Tom Whalen's books include The President in Her Towers, Elongated Figures, Winter Coat, The Straw That Broke, April Fireball, Dolls, and his second selection and translation of short prose by Robert Walser, Little Snow Landscape (NYRB Classics). The Grand Equation: Prose Poems and Micro-Fictions is forthcoming in September. His “Man on the Plane” appeared in Issue 52 of The Cafe Irreal.