“Dulcinea”

The Juliet Club…Bad fictional advisors… Pachuco and Dulcinea..

There is an office in Verona, Italy, known as the Juliet Club. It is staffed by a team of Italian women–volunteers–who answer letters of heartbreak addressed from all over the world to Juliet Capulet, the doom struck heroine of “Romeo and Juliet” fame. At first I was taken with the romantic sensibility of the whole thing, but then I remembered that in Shakespeare’s famous play Juliet commits suicide by running herself through with a dagger after finding Romeo dead from poison, which probably ranks high on the list of the worst possible outcomes for people in love. I tried to put that fact aside lest people accuse me of being callous, skeptical or even worse, a grouch.

I was sitting on the deck of a local cantina, drinking my margarita, watching the frothy liquid go from the lip of the glass, down to the tropic of cancer, to the equator, further to the tropic of capricorn, and finally to the south pole at which time the waiter facilitated my trip back up to the arctic, so to speak, by refilling my glass. I began to wonder. I was curious as to how the women in the Juliet Club office who answer these letters from all over the world can articulate useful advice on love and romance while still maintaining the style, eloquence and fury of one of the most famous characters in literary history. Are they speaking as the ghost of Juliet (she’s dead, theoretically) at thirteen, or at four hundred years old, which is just about how old she would be now. If I were answering the letter I know my advice would be different now, in my thirties, than when I was thirteen, not to mention four centuries of watching the agony, the ecstasy, madness, fervor and ultimate demise of generations of lovesick wanderers. I would suppose that after almost half a millennium to think about it, “Juliet” may be a little wiser and a little less impetuous. But then again, maybe not. Maybe, true to form, all her correspondence has to have the same suggestion as kind of a rigid fatalism. I’ve read “Romeo and Juliet” a couple of times in my life, and damn if it always ends the same way.

“Dear Lonely in San Antonio. Yes I’ve received your letter, and thank you. It does seem a shame that Rick is taking Anne to the prom instead of you. Might I suggest you do what I did. Get you a dagger and cut a big hole in your chest. That will show everybody. Say something fancy before you do it though. That is what worked for me.”

“Dear Lachrymose in London. What happens when you come home from work early and find your bloke dressed in all your frilly girly things? Why you run yourself through with a dagger is what you do. Cheerio.”

“Dear Downcast in Dublin. I don’t care what the ghost of St. Patrick asks your girlfriend to do to him in the name of martyrdom. Some things are just too filthy. And by the way, if he’s playing darts and drinking a pint at the pub, it’s probably not St. Patrick. Best to just get a dagger and run yourself through, though, just to say you considered all possibilities.”

The lesson here, I decided, is that some fictional characters, although they mean well, may just be the wrong folks to ask for advice on love and relationships. Desperate fictional characters are usually too obsessed and too tortured, unable to compromise, in it for the reckless thrill of it all. I cite from a few classics books…

“Greetings Frederick Clegg. Just writing because I wanted to ask your opinion on something. I have a tremendous infatuation with a woman from my neighborhood. Do you think it would be odd to kidnap and imprison her, to “collect” her, so to speak, and try to encourage her to love me through a system of rewards and punishments. Oh. Oh you have. Same thing. How did it work out? Tried to get you with an axe, eh? Well if at first you don’t succeed…”

“Hey Mr. Humbert Humbert, do you think it is okay to flee with a twelve-year-old Lolita and go across country, having your way with her every chance you get after inadvertently causing the death of her mother?”

“Hello there, Mr. Clyde Griffiths, do you think it wise to murder my wife in order to gain a more prestigious place in society? She’s not a very good swimmer and… oh, oh really? In a boat on Big Bittern Lake? Accidental, eh? Got caught, huh? An American Tragedy, indeed.”

I’m feeling the pinch of the old philosophical truism that when someone seeks out advice, depending on whom they ask, they’ve already set in motion the answer they are eager to get. If someone asks Frederick Clegg whether it is reasonable to collect a woman like a butterfly, of course he is going to say yes. Humbert Humbert will insist there is no other way but to take the girl-child. Likewise Clyde Griffiths will draw a detailed map to the big fat lake where the unlucky wife gets to swallow a lungful of murky water.

I was putting myself in a weird mood with this line of thought and so decided it was best to move along. In my experience tequila only exacerbates. It never really solves. On my way home I cut through a bohemian neighborhood of Atlanta called Little Five Points. I passed a grungy little shop that was advertising two mangy, worn out tee-shirts for the price of one. Basically I had to buy one, and I could choose another of equal or greater manginess, and that one was free. I’ve always been a fan of the classic tee-shirt. For starters, they are extremely comfortable. Second, you can get in touch with some great American obscurity. Whether it is Bucky Beaver from the Ipana toothpaste commercials or a flaky old photo of Harry Dean Stanton, you’re sporting a very peculiar history. Little did I know I was about to stumble upon a weird scene, which is not really unusual for Little Five Points. The situation was not without its share of confusion, and I found myself a bit wiser after it was all over.

It all started as I was approaching the store. I spied an old acquaintance of mine, let’s call him Pachuco, loitering off at the side of the building, looking like his usual shifty self. He seemed nervous. He waved me over.

“Hey Chuco,” I said. “You’re looking particularly unkempt today.”

“Listen,” he whispered, getting right to it. “Do me a favor and go into the shop and see if Dulcinea is working.”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“She’s super beautiful, plays in a band and she is usually back by the socks and belts and stuff.”

“How useless of a description,” I said. “What color hair does she have?”

“She changes it depending on her mood.”

“Height?”

“Straight up or slouching?”

“Forget it. What do I do when I find her?”

“Tell her you are interested in buying her Hammond B3 organ with working Leslie amplifier. Like I said, she is an artist. Please. If you don’t help me I’m going to have to write a letter to the Juliet Club. And you know what they will tell me to do.”

It seemed simple enough. A total pain in the ass, but relatively simple in its design. I went into the store. Dulcinea, by the way, is not the girl’s name. I use it only because Dulcinea was, or is, the name of Don Quixote’s object of affection from the Miguel Cervantes classic, and whose description varied significantly depending on whether starry-eyed Don Quixote was describing her, or the more grounded Sancho Panza. The former painted her as beauty incarnate, a thousand points of artistic inspiration manifest in the feminine form, unparalleled with anything before or since. I don’t recall Sancho Panza’s exact description of her, but I think he mentions she’s got a good bit of hair on her chest for her gender, or any other for that matter. She’s got a neck like a turkey. She can arm-wrestle even the wildest drunk and flip him ass over teakettle, and she has got a voice like a foghorn that shakes the roofs of the whole village when she calls her fourteen children in from the field.

I walked into the tee-shirt shop, trying to resolve my dual purpose of finding a few decent old, coming-apart-in-your-fingers shirts, and finding the nebulous Dulcinea and inquiring about the Hammond, at which point I would say thanks but no thanks and be on my way, done with my obligation. But everything went wall-eyed. I could immediately feel a tension in the air. There was hostility. Two women were standing on opposite sides of the store, staring each other down. None were super beautiful, kind of frumpy and frumpier, but I figured one of them had to be Dulcinea. I tried to be casual, just flipping through a couple of racks, when one girl asked if I could come back in five minutes.

“We’re having a thing,” she explained.

“Actually,” I said, “I’m looking for Dulcinea. I hear she is selling an old Hammond and that it has a working Leslie that comes with it. I might be interested.”

One girl, less frumpy, stepped forward, but the other stopped her. “You stay here,” she said, after a moment of calculation. “I’ll show him.”

More frumpy led me out the back door to a garage. When she stepped out the back door into the sunlight she paused, sniffing the air. I walked outside and caught a fleeting glimpse of Pachuco peering around the side of the building. He was gone in a flash. The girl yanked up the garage door and led me into the storage area where the huge musical instrument sat in a big room full of dusty junk. The thing was enormous. Even if I wanted it I would have no idea how to move it. My dowdy companion started giving me a technical rundown, the kind that completely loses a person unfamiliar with the terms. Rotors and stops and pedals that do this and buttons that do that. But she was jumpy. Her eyes darted. She must’ve sensed I was some type of impostor, because she suddenly stood bolt upright and ran out of the garage and back into the store. I followed. The store was empty. The other girl was gone. My guide to the Hammond stormed out the front door, and, being unable to resist, I followed. What ensued was a snarling scene of mad rage as the girl stood on the sidewalk, watching the other girl get driven off by Pachuco on the back of his motorcycle. A geyser of invective drifted in every direction, like verbal death right then and there. Deciding it was the wrong time to inquire about any good tee-shirts, I silently made my exit, thinking that once the woman got it in her mind to figure my possible complicity, I would be in big trouble.

Back home I pondered. I considered what I would say if I had been a volunteer at the Juliet Club and had received a letter from the angry girl from the tee-shirt store outlining her love triangle, and devious behavior, and jealousy, and feeling unworthy in your own skin, and all the other crap that goes with it.

“Dear Lit Up in Little Five. This is Juliet Capulet. Thank you for your letter. First off, I was wrong about the dagger thing. I was young. Hasty. I overreacted. Grief, sadness and pain are all uncomfortable. Try to avoid them. But these emotions are the counterbalance to great joy, and if you possess the capacity for sadness, rest assured the possibility for great joy is there too. Keep your head up, and be on the lookout, for consciousness is the possibility of possibility. The agent of your bliss is out there. And by the way, if you find any good tee-shirts with a roller disco theme can you put them off to the side for me. Arrivederci.”

More Alembics to come.

The Augur

Prophecy… The Wonton Food Corporation…Oedipus…Limericks…

“Your Eyeball Will Meet The Tongue It Has Been Waiting For.”

I read and re-read the slip of paper I had plucked from the fortune cookie that sat on the tiny decorative plate in front of me, thinking the message must be some fashionable and kinky version of “You Will Find True Love,” or just a fortune cookie writer having a little fun with the wayward and lost.

It had been a strange night, culminating in my sitting at this karaoke bar off Buford Highway at 3:00 in the morning. I was listening to a hilariously awful rendition of “Calypso Blues,” the Marvin Gaye version, sung by a young asian fellow whose grasp on the english language was questionable, but who, because of the relentless conga drum that pounds through the song, had whipped himself into an atonal frenzy. He gyrated on the tiny stage like Elvis Presley chewing on an electrical wire, and I was impressed. The Happy Pagoda Chinese Buffet and Karaoke Bar was open late. It was the last stop before home. There was a restaurant on one side and the karaoke bar was on the other. I had spent some time on the karaoke side drinking a Kirin Ichiban and listening to off-kilter renditions of “Ain’t No California,” by Mel Tillis and “Hot Rod Lincoln,” by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, when that abyssal drunken feeling of hunger kicked in, as it usually does at that time, and I adjourned to the dining room to eat some greasy noodle dish with something mixed into it that I hoped was chicken. I paid the bill and that was when the waitress dropped off some orange slices and the fortune cookie. “Your Eyeball Will Meet The Tongue It Has Been Waiting For.”

I put the slip of paper in my pocket and then pulverized the cookie itself, swept its dust into my hand and dumped it into a nearby teapot. There are a few reasons I’ve always been a little distrustful of fortune cookies. The first is that it just seems like a bad idea to have something inedible purposefully put in the middle of something that is supposed to be eaten. Whether it is a rock, a golf pencil, a crushed cigarette, fake eyelashes, or a piece of paper that vaguely predicts your general condition or immediate future, to have to concentrate on not eating something while eating something seems like more trouble than it is worth. Another reason is that the cookie itself, both the consistency and the lack of flavor, doesn’t seem like something suitable for ingestion in the first place. It is brittle, tastes somewhat artificial, and has a shape that is better designed for packing a box full of fragile contents scheduled for rough transport.

On top of that, I’ve always been cautious of having my future explained to me. Ever since I heard about poor old Oedipus, who was told he would murder his father and marry his mother, and who, understandably alarmed, took the necessary precautions to travel as far from his home, his father, and his mother as possible. On the open road, he gets into a scrap with an anonymous traveler (road rage, could happen to anyone), kills the bastard and then starts dating an attractive older woman (he’s lonely, what are you going to do). Then comes the, “Oh, I’m adopted. Shit, let me guess..the traveler was.. egads…and my wife is…dagblast it all…”

A cruel joke, since the oracle’s predictions would not have come true had he not bothered with the oracle in the first place, and that’s why I don’t trust oracles, seers, sibyls, prophetesses, augurs, or tiny pieces of paper packed in stale cookies. They all suffer from the same thing. Oracle Vanity.

“I’d rather be right in my prediction than save you any undue suffering. I’ve got a reputation to uphold. No refunds, sucker.” That’s the attitude of your rank and file oracle, rest assured. I do not want to pry open a fortune cookie only to read what is printed on the paper and then have to gouge my eyes out and roam the earth. That is not the life for me. The final reason that I am afraid of fortune cookies is because just a week or so ago a worker from the Wonton Food Corporation, one of the biggest producers of fortune cookies in the United States, was found dead in the giant cookie mixer. An investigation is pending, although I suspect his fortune was something paradoxical and cruel, like Oedipus’s. “You never fail to satisfy. Particularly the guests of the Happy Pagoda Chinese Buffet and Karaoke Bar off of Buford Highway in about two weeks when they accidentally consume you.”

I pictured it with all the lucidity afforded the clinically insane. “Calypso Blues,” banging away in the background, party of four seated around the large dining table with the lazy susan in the middle, opening their fortune cookies while the waitstaff looks on approvingly.

“Mine says I will find wealth.”

“Mine says I possess great gifts.”

“I’ve got a pinky toe and a tuft of hair.”

“Mine is staring at me.”

Then comes the horror, the screams, and the retching. A mad dash for the restroom, the front door, anyplace. Tainted fortune cookie to match “Tainted Love,” which just happened to be the next song up on the karaoke side.

The threat of contamination is just something the modern human must live with, be it food or love or art or whatever. Anything born pure will eventually be set upon by some poisonous influence. The trick is to avoid it or just build up a tolerance to steamroll it with a superior defense system.

“Let’s dance,” she said, grabbing me from out of nowhere, a girl much drunker than I was and with the frivolous vigor of youth. Before I could pose any objection or ask her name or if she planned to lick my eyeball, we were whipping around each other, tripping and flailing all over the dance floor, using each other’s drunken momentum as a counterpoint to our own, which prevented us from careening into the nearest wall. Our tainted dancing was an added point of amusement to the “Tainted Love” song that was being muddled by the singer on the stage. We swung around each other, narrowly avoiding what would have been a pretty serious collision, when she posed an interesting question.

“How do you eat your fortune cookie?”

“I don’t.”

“I tell you there is no right way and no wrong way,” she said. “I know most people just crack it open, pull the paper out, read their fortune and then sit back and eat the cookie shards, mulling it over.”

“Yes.”

“Boring. Watch what I can do.”

She led me over to the corner of the room, right outside the entranceway to the kitchen. Disappearing for a moment, she returned with a handful of fortune cookies. She crammed all of them into her mouth, chewed them up and swallowed the huge mass, paper and all. Then her eyes rolled into the back of her head, her body started to convulse and a minute later she stuck her tongue out at me. At the tip of it was a collage of all the fortunes she had consumed, rearranged to form some type of super-readout. It said:

“There once was a man with true grit,

whose limericks he would never submit,

when asked “why?” he said with a sigh,

‘Damnit all, I just can’t keep from trying to get as many words into the friggin last line of the whole fucking thing as can possibly, possibly fit.’”

I lifted it delicately from her mouth, added it to my pocket.

“Does that help?” she said. Every writer should be so lucky.

More Alembics to come.