20 Tanks from Kasseldown
from the forthcoming book, Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays, out from City Lights this fall.
He sat in his cell tapping his fingers on the bottle, thinking, it’s very sporting of them to give me this bottle. When he tapped at the glass it felt good on his fingers, spreading them a bit so, and getting the cool, clean touch. He had used whiskey before, found it made life bearable; took off the edge; was a good wash for minds that turned too fast: culling it, slowing it, settling it to a visible mark.
A roach moved across the floor, click-fast, then click-stopped before one of his shoes. It stood there and he stopped tapping, and watched. From the still fingers on the bottle to the very shape of the shoe by the roach, his lines were slim, pliable, womanish without being feminine; and there was a dignity that made you think of kings, of princes, of sheltered and spoiled things, and if you hadn’t known, you’d think he had been untouched by life. (He stepped out and crushed the roach.) He was about thirty and the face, like a thinker’s face, looked at the same time younger and older. His movements were restrained and quiet, always subservient to the mind, and sometimes when in crowds, falsified and churned up bluntly so as not to attract attention. During the trial, when he was news, the cell was piqued with reporters. He smiled continually when they questioned him, yet they could see he wasn’t the least happy—as if he should be! And yet it wasn’t a mocking smile. It was pleasant in a sense. There didn’t seem much hatred in him; just a vagueness, an inconsistency. He hadn’t bothered to shave and had a fine-grained beard, thin, like the hair under the armpits. It did give him that martyred look, that beard, the ghost eyes, and he would lean back against the wall, light his cigarette in soft-handed movements, looking down. Then he would smile at the reporters: “Well, friends, what can I do for you?”
“Just keep the priests away…” he said…
He sat in the cell and the fingers began tapping again, tapping the bottle. Still, it was the second time, and it wasn’t as good because he expected it. He began to smile.
Had time to write a book. Should have written a book. Print on pages, you know. The first letter of each chapter very fancy. Done up with a rose or a leaf or a maiden’s knee. Should have written a book. They all do it. “Treason…is only being on the losing side of revolution.” This is a small country, but I could have written a large book…This is a small country, but with 20 more tanks, just 20, I would be at Kasseldown and Curtwright would be here—writing a book. Hell, even with 100 horses…
But now you are the peculiar target to make the glory of country more armorous in the history textbooks. You see, you have killed a roach and they have too—that is, they will today when the sun goes down…See the little ones reading, reading, and there the teacher with her long wooden stick and her blackboard, pointing to a colored map. The notebooks, the fat ink in desks…memorize, memorize this. A whole movement, a whole flow of word and thought and idea…hours of talk and counter-talk, examination, tradition bent in hard on soft minds, and forever unchanged. And now they sing, sing, and march out of classrooms and bounce balls and believe…and grow and read the newspapers, and believe…all this, on the difference of 100 horses, 100 chunks of beast flesh, fed and dunged; dumb, dumb mass of beast flesh that made the notes of song…Curtwright’s horses.
He sucked at the bottle again, feeling very lonely but not because of four wet and arenaceous walls.
But still…you tried it. And if you had won, it would have been the same thing at the other end…Why did you bother with it? Didn’t you know that beyond the numbered few, even slight meaning ends?...No, it wasn’t ambition—in that sense…It was just the people, all lives running, all lives running so weak, plunged through with fear. Everything was a ritual of no-do, no-hurt, no-chance. He had just gotten a hunger, a hunger for doing…doing anything at all to break the suffocating shell.
He sat in the cell and held the bottle before his eyes. The light was poor but still he could make out the branded words in the glass: FEDERAL LAW FORBIDS SALE OR REUSE OF THIS BOTTLE…
He stood up and found he was looking at the walls. Walls funny grey, sweating cold, thick—yet bunched through with a drama of their own—and so old…Old. Funny about women, too…How they got old. Sad, really sad. You saw the young ones walking all tight and high…and you hated their proudness, for proudness had no right in things mechanical and momentary. Proudness only belonged to those who created new forms, and won…He smiled again and stood looking at the walls. They seemed pleasant and meaningful and he touched a finger to the rough edge, grey and wet.
His throat felt dry and he went over to the tap and filled his tin cup. The water came hard and made a swirling, white rising of foam in the cup. He shut the tap, but too late, and there was a splash of overflow making a blotch of clean, porous leather on one shoe. Something turned slowly in his forehead and he thought, it is too quiet. He drank the water but it tasted badly of tin, and all of a sudden he felt sick, very sick. He sat down again on his cot, the room all shadow and cement, and he was conscious that he was breathing, and through each inhale came the taste of tin. He drank what was left of the whiskey bottle, then set it very quietly on the floor. The setting down of a bottle was one of the few independent actions he had left. He leaned back against the wall, closed his eyes, opened them, and knew he was just perhaps really frightened, the mind trying to work up some apology for the death of the flesh.
As the thought set in, a chill began in the fingers and went up both arms, making him jerk his shoulders spasmodically to shake it out of his back. It is very quiet, he thought again, and all of a sudden his mind found an outlet, a base, and he hated the swirl, the meaning-drenched swirl, the vast mass and computation, the weight of numbers and chance; mass and press of unchanneled and baseless things that could kill without a glisten, a sigh, a tick.
But here, he thought, never let passion deform the frame. Passion, unmoulded, is a sign of inferiority! Listen. Take this, all this, and for them—make numerals, symbols, hard and fought-out, well-balanced formulas.
Then he, at last, began laughing—not laughing but sniggering, womanish, only half-understood, semi-mad.
“Guard!” he yelled.
The guard came and stood there, outside the bars. “Do you want the priest?” he asked.
The guard was bald and fat, and looking at him he thought; bald and fat, his face is crossed between brutality and humor and can’t make up its mind, and the eyes are so small, so small.
“You mustn’t accuse me of crassness or bitterness, guard, but a man like you—makes no difference when he lives: now, or two thousand years hence, or some place in between. You make no marks, no sounds, no new entrances…Still, it’s grand to be alive, grand even as you. Grand to stand there and ask me if I want a priest, grand to play your little safe game and watch the larger clash going on. After all, you do absorb something, even standing aside…but I’m sick of hearing my voice. You say something. What do you think, guard?”
“What do I think?”
“Do you want the priest?”
“No. Go away.”
He sat in his cell, sick.
I try, I try…I try to see. But the whole god damn world seems fake, fake…Oh, I should have stayed at the hospital, tinkering with people, painting at night. I could have made my own world at night. But I wanted to stir the whole pond, shake the base. Oh hunger—hunger.
He looked down at the floor, at the spot that had once been a roach, and smiled again.
A prolific author, Charles Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels.