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207 The poster in the antique store advertises a brand of “hair tonic and brain cooler,” and I think, Boy, I could use some of that. I mean, not the hair tonic. It’s an Indian poster, so maybe they have hotter brains over there, though who could have a brain that popped and sizzled like that of Sergeant Boston Corbett, known to history for shooting John Wilkes Booth through the slats in Garrett’s tobacco barn, though a few years earlier, weary of the temptations of the flesh, he cuts a slit in his scrotum, lowers his testes through the opening, slices them off, stitches the hole closed, and goes to a social gathering. Didn’t hurt his aim, though! And at least he’s remembered for taking down Lincoln’s assassin, whereas countless sad-eyed others shuffle down history’s sidewalk clad only in the rags of someone else’s bitter memory: for example, the cook, helper, and otherwise unidentified man known only as Hairy Bill who traveled with reformer Roger Casement in the Congo and whose culinary repertory was limited to three dishes: chicken, custard, and something called boiled or stewed sugar. “Chicken, chicken, custard, custard, every day,” writes Casement in his diary, Is That It? david kirby two poems by 208 ecotone and “Custard again twice daily for a month,” turning to sarcasm at times: “We had boiled sugar again for change, also custard.” He was the best Hairy Bill he could be, though. Then again, he didn’t have a choice: “It was easy to be a Kink, hard to be me,” says Ray Davies of the Kinks. You’re a teenager, and one day you’re eating beans on toast off a chipped plate in your mum’s kitchen and the next, boys are getting their hair cut like yours, girls you don’t know are fighting each other for the privilege of licking your body, and men with designer suits and hair cream are throwing money at you so fast you have to hire someone to count it. Looking at the expensively dressed ladies at an evening party, Thomas Hardy asked himself, “If put into rough wrappers in a turnip-field, where would their beauty be?” On a bad day, any of us can be reduced to a telegraph dash, semaphore, gang sign, like the guy from around here who got stabbed to death, and when I ask who it was, I’m told “some asshole lawyer,” though later I find out it was a friend I’d lost contact with and a good fellow, by and large, good husband and father. Or another friend who got married, and when I ask a mutual acquaintance who the bride is, he says, “A popcorn girl,” and when I look puzzled, says, “You know— popcorn girl! Girl who sells popcorn at the movies,” and I’m thinking, Asshole lawyer, 209 david kirby popcorn girl—is that it? When I was an undergrad, I had lunch once with three of my professors; one wore a blue blazer and another a plaid jacket, and then there was me and the other prof, who had lost his hair, and when the check came, the waitress had written by our orders “blue,” “plaid,” “young,” and “bald,” and the bald guy flipped out: he’d gotten a PhD from a top school and was a solid teacher and, if not a great scholar, one with a handful of articles, maybe a book on the way. Bald, popcorn girl, asshole lawyer: they all worked so hard to be so much more. “We work in the dark,” says Henry James, “we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” And that’s the truth, or my name’s not Scipione Borghese— which it isn’t, but who wants to go through life without saying “Scipione Borghese” as often as possible? Finally my brain cools down, but just before we go to bed, I tell Barbara that the young Emerson was working in his uncle’s fields one summer when he met “a Methodist...


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pp. 207-211
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