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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Song of the Past: Twenty-seven

Table of Contents

Friday, 8:00 PM
Deirdre traveled downtown to look for a place to eat. When she got off the bus at the Green, the sky had turned tumultuous and rain looked imminent. She wandered into the Yale campus. At Wall Street, a side street a couple of blocks east of the Sterling Library, a blue neon sign caught her eye. When she went to investigate it she found Naples Pizza. The restaurant was buried in the middle of a block of Georgian buildings owned by Yale. The restaurant’s dark, rich wood interior, multi-paned casement windows, exposed beams, and soft lighting was like her idea of some pub near Oxford or Cambridge, or at least a pizza joint near Yale. The rain already had begun to fall, so she hurried inside.
Deirdre determined that she needed to order at the counter, as there was no waitress service. While she waited for help, she watched a group of three Asian girls chatting at a table nearby. Next to them sat a teenage couple: a black boy with beaded cornrows and a white girl with hair dyed a light raspberry: two young lovers hypnotically contemplating an image of the self dimly perceived in the other. She ordered a beer and a small cheese pizza from a thirtyish, heavy-set Italian man, and received an order number. Deirdre moved to the front of the restaurant and took a table next to a rain-streaked window. The only person near her was a man a couple of tables away, also sitting by the windows. He wore a tweed jacket and a sweater-vest. His thin white hair swirled around his head like wisps of cirrus clouds. He rapidly flipped through a thick book. Beyond him and out the windows, flashes of lightening highlighted the outline of cars.

She noticed that her table was densely scored with carved graffiti. She glanced around her: every reachable wood surface that she could see was in similar condition: the other tables, the benches at the booths, the wooden frames around the pictures of Yale in 1888 and maps of New Haven in 1913, even the walls themselves. Decades of carving deeper, cutting through the previous generations’ marks, an assertion of the self. Evanescent, like all. She had seen the graffiti that ancient Greeks carved on Egyptian temples at MMOA in New York. Something to remember me by. Sure, a tour guide, Abdul, diffidently telling the tourists: “And here is where some barbarian from the north carved his initials in 450 BC.”
Her order came up, and when she returned to her table she opened her novel, The Five Red Herrings, to the page where she had left off. But she couldn’t focus, and after a few minutes she flipped the book into the air, somersaulting it onto the table. She looked up and found her neighbor studying her.
“Bad book?”
“Not at all. I’m just distracted.” She picked the book up from the table and held the cover toward him. “Dorothy Sayers. Do you know her?”
“Of course. One of the finest writers of detective fiction.”
“And what are you reading?”
Paradise Lost.”
“Milton, is it? Heavy dinner-time reading.”
“The great ones always are difficult—dinner or any other time. I’m actually re-reading this, probably for the fifth time, because I’m teaching it in the spring.”
“At Yale?”
“Yes, in fact.”
“How do like working there?”
A smile played across his face. “I could hardly find a university position that would better suit me. And yet, that’s not saying too much. I wish I had more students… more students who loved literature, not grades. It’s a real problem today, and I don’t know if there is any solution.”
Deirdre was tickled by an urge to say more. But she couldn’t identify the source of the tickle. Was it the phase of the moon, something about the way his thick eyebrows moved when he talked, Athena’s soft-footed messenger? She probed further, hoping to out the culprit.
“Do you ever discover problems that are like quicksand, where the more you struggle with them, the deeper in you sink?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment. Finally, he answered her question with another. “What’s your problem?”
“I’m a detective. I’m working on a case where I’ve sunk in up to my neck. Another wriggle or two, and I’ll have worked my mouth into the muck.” She paused and stared at the lion crouched in the stained-glass window above her table. “Most of the time, if we can’t solve a case, it’s because we just don’t have enough evidence. But this time, my problem is that I’m swamped with evidence, up to my bloody ears in evidence. But it’s just made things cloudy. It’s like I’m watching a play, but it’s impossible to grasp the plot because the actors are all speaking at the same time, mumbling from the wings. I’m so desperate that I’ve taken to re-reading books like this one, hoping that some of the fictional magic Lord Peter possesses will rub off on me.”
A thin smile came across the man’s lips. “Why did you go into your line of work?”
“It’s funny that you ask. It was detective novels. I mean, sure, I knew that real police work wouldn’t be like the stories. But what would be closer?”
The man stared off into the gloom above the ceiling beams. When he looked back to her, it was to say, “You’re suffering from anxiety of influence.”
“Whose he when he’s at home?”
The man chuckled. “You’re warring with the fictional detectives in your mind, afraid that you won’t measure up to your own imaginings. You’ve got to master your influences. Then you’ll have the confidence to move out on your own.”
She thanked the man for his advice, letting him get back to his book and she to hers. Anxiety of influence, was it? Well, she did feel anxious, and after another beer, she’d be under the influence as well.

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