The Song of Black Jack Ketchum


Of all the visitors I welcome to my den Alexandra is the most eagerly received.  There she is as usual lit up like she has swallowed a rainbow, the colours dancing from her skin, large opals of eyes sparkling in tune with matching jewellery and clothing.  What are you doing in on such a lovely day, she said?  I looked towards the window.  Indeed the sun was shining now upon the still, peaceful waters of the harbour after a long night of continuous rain, as though it had never been otherwise and would never be otherwise.  I searched for a suitable reply to Alexa's question but when I turned my gaze back from the window she was gone.  I don't know how long I've been without her but I know that without her I am a tired man who will not go out at all as if a great weight is due to fall on his head and has too much time to multiply in his mind the weight of the falling object, a boulder or enormous rock, by the square of the velocity.  Alexa's disappearance as sudden and dramatic as her appearance plunged me into the mood in which I am Black Jack Ketchum.  They come to wake me.  I wake.  No, I don't.  Black Jack with the eye patch and the smelly black beret.  I woke.  No, I didn't.  I didn't wake.  But it was my den and there were the hollow sounds, sounds full of holes and a voice:  Hello are you in there Black Jack?  I stirred.  No, I didn't.  I didn't stir, neither a limb nor a toe but continued in the den, the horrible smells of liniment and kerosene.  Long black hairs bristled in my nose like the hairy snout of a big black pig.  Black Jack, we're here, come out, face it Black Jack, face it like a man.  My eyes opened, no they didn't.  My eyes didn't open.  In any case I have only the one eye, the other gouged out by a meat hook long ago, the empty socket covered by a black patch.  I didn't open my one eye.  It remained closed under its heavy lid like a broken bulb.  There are too many people alive, too few holocausts, so they're coming to cull you Black Jack and they will play golf with your balls.  I turned onto my belly, no, I didn't.  I didn't turn though I saw myself as never before wheeling my bicycle through the crowded city, the stench, the grime, the filth, with my mouth wide open and my teeth as black as rubies.  A hundred years or more propelling this body that you have never seen, no more than you have ever seen the heart that pumps the vital blood, you've never sat in a back seat and seen yourself limp into the room, or opened your ears to the voice you have propelled so often down the years, no more than an actor has sat in the auditorium and watched his own performance that has had the record run on the stage.  I woke.  No I didn't.  I didn't wake.  But the performance continued.  Now I was tied to a tree like Saint Sebastian.  They gouged out my left eye with a meat hook.  And they surrounded me and hammered nails into my head like it was a coffin lid and sang the same old song:  Black Jack Ketchum.  Not sure how many years I have to count back to Alexa.  Counting confuses me greatly, whether it is the years or the doors in the house.  If I really put my mind to it I can begin but soon I become innumerate, if I advance as far as seven or eight I feel the heavy strap of the master descending upon my ear and all the numbers are knocked into a senseless muddle.  At such critical moments I'm guilty of feigning indifference but truly at such critical moments I am all too aware that the purpose of an individual life is to attain mastery over the rhythm, something so complicated as to be almost impossible, like building a perfect space within which to move where every single moment is organised in a temporal and spatial harmony, where there will be a concord of peace and joy.  I am all too aware that the purpose of an individual life is to achieve mastery over its own rhythm so that it can then be a harmonious note in the matrix, in the symphony.  Every note has its time and space.  The perfect painting is not complete until the last daub of colour is added and that coincides with a moment very close to death, at least as close to death as energy in the living body allows.  I feign indifference.  It is the pretence of which I am least proud.  For some time I have battled with it but now in advancing years the truth is that I have become so suspicious of people that I refuse to talk to them most of the time.  When asked a pertinent or impertinent question I strive to keep my mouth zipped tight, that orifice of lies, not a simple task to keep it shut, and then I strive to adapt a stone-faced expression of which Socrates would be proud.  I would like to boast that I talk only when ordering sausages, onions, tripe and drisheen in the market but it would be a sad and hollow fabrication.  The truth is that I inherited a capacity to blurt out the most far-fetched information from a horror of being considered quiet and calculating.  It is better to treat life as a dream.  That way when you are having a nightmare you can wake and say it was all a dream.  I try to separate certain times of the day from others, certain necessary activities from those unnecessary but necessary in a different and more dreamlike way.  I'm a young man again.  I have to go to work.  Of course it is a nightmare.  I must attempt to enter a trance when going over the line that separates work from here, the cosiness of my den.  When I walk over the line that separates these two realities, two parallel existences are registered, two zones are defined.  At the dawn entrance, that is Welcome to the Horevalley Country Agricultural and Farm Machinery, Imports and Exports, in whose offices on Eagle Wharf I worked as hall porter for almost thirty years, I try to go into a trance which will get me through till dusk when I can wake and say:  it was a bad dream.  To live in denial is not so extraordinary or shameful.  Everyone has to do it sometime.  It might even be healthy.  To have something to deny helps you to keep going.  Everyday when I get out of the nightmare, You are Leaving the Horevalley Country Agricultural and Farm Machinery, Imports and Exports, I can switch into another dream and it is the same as ever it was, just more intense now in the autumn of my years, that one day I will compose a masterpiece, as simple as that, as childish as that, as raw as that, one day I will leave the Horevalley Country Agricultural and Farm Machinery, Imports and Exports behind forever and compose a masterpiece.  It will be a platform for a nameless narrator.  He will have a limitless canvas to work upon.  There will be endless space to fill with descriptions of a world that does not exist at all except from behind his eyes.  No one world exists but one world for everyone who exists.  Every passenger has a unique perspective on the landscapes passing by.  And he will begin this masterpiece and the rhythm will be beautiful and all the years of having been a zombie, living in a trance in that Horevalley Country Agricultural and Farm Machinery, Imports and Exports, enduring all either with zombie-like indifference or with an unrestrained mouth rattling like the crank-shaft of an old double-decker bus, will have paid off because as Rilke suggests it will be time to compose the perfect sonata.  The autumn of my years.  It's 9 a.m.  The beautiful sunny morning has slipped away as quietly as Alexa.  Now already the day is overcast and I see clouds with heavy rain bellies.  Clouds with fat grey bellies about to burst.  And they are floating as though on the surface of the sea and the bellies are getting heavier and heavier.  Behind the big fat clouds come smaller clouds, little puffy clouds like strips of dirty cotton wool and for a tail they have a touch of blue as if to proclaim that after a morning of rain it might well be fine again in the afternoon.  The crows on the electric wire are drying out their shiny black feathers.  It's a good perch to dry out.  They are called Darby and Joan.  It's their regular early morning spot.  They perch there as if discussing the day ahead, though after a night of rain they are much too busy at their feathers to have time for chat.  The cloud banks continue to move very slowly.  The big bellies grow and grow.  The tide in the harbour is three quarters full with a grey sheen coming off the top of the shimmering water.  The water looks uneasy like it's hiding a big, Loch Ness type monster.  There is always a way to escape.  If only you can find it.  Sometimes when I'm walking the corridors or the aisles in the offices themselves, where I bring the coffee and biscuits, imbibing the dull and stuffy atmosphere of the rooms, I overhear them talking about topics that are meaningless to me, and somehow find my way out through the ceiling and fly away till I'm over streets of a city with art galleries and museums and people reading books on the trains.  I drift down like a feather till I find myself there walking along not thinking about anything in particular, with nowhere special to go and all day to go there.  Or perhaps I find myself in the carriage of a train waiting to depart.  It is like every other departure I have experienced, after all the days of anticipation it has come so suddenly and now mixed with the excitement of looking out the train window at a world about to move away, there is a misgiving that after all I don't really want to leave and that actual deliverance is as chimerical as Utopia, as evanescent as a visit from Alexandra.  
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