Tuesday, April 6, 2021

THE BULGARIAN PSYCHIATRIST (how it begins)

(of course I am aware that there is a rather famous story "The Bulgarian Poetess"  by John Updike but this short book is not a comment on it)


George said he came to America with only a suitcase stuffed with neckties.

Yes, stuffed with neckties, he said, but couldn’t begin to tell anyone how many ties were in the brown suitcase because both the number, three, seemed so insubstantial when it came to trying to see how three ties could fill up a suitcase and how could anyone who hadn’t come to America with only one suitcase stuffed with ties, begin to understand how a suitcase--- even a large brown fake leather suitcase from Bulgaria--- could be stuffed with three neckties, two of which  he never wore after he began to live in America, which is not to say he had ever worn those three neckties as he and his wife moved about the United States during the year and nine months before establishing themselves in Brooklyn, on the edge of Greenpoint, to be exact, a street over from McCarren Park--- though there was a moment before that when they lived at another address in Brooklyn, in a street given over to as a topical description might: light industry, in a building stuffed, George later said, with Bulgarians and you can imagine what that was like, I am sure, stuffed with Bulgarians but we are not talking of that time…

No, he wore only one of the three ties as it was hard to unpack a suitcase stuffed with three ties and he was not trying to be thought philosophical because he and his wife had flown TWA from Frankfurt, that most factual of German cities, where they had been in residence immediately before receiving the notification that their application for a visa to the United States of America had been approved after having lived--- for how many years had it been--- in Hamburg where George was an attending psychiatrist in a clinic where fresh-cut flowers were placed in each patient's room reminding visitors of the complex glimmer of a possible recovery or funeral.

And it was not that he had always ever worn those three neckties in Germany or even before in Bulgaria. He was sure of having worn one of the ties and it was that tie he was wearing as he arrived in the United States of America and which appears around his neck and under the collar of the white shirt in the photograph his wife took of him as he walked down the steps from the plane.

Later, he learned that both actions: the walking down the steps from the plane and the picture talking were very rare actions, events almost, it could be said.  Vera was standing on the runway, smelling the kerosene fuel he was sure, having paused, turning telling George STOP as he was about to continue his walking down the steps having been separated from Vera by a very large man and two women who had pushed their ways in front of George, who gave way as was his wont.

Never again in all the times they were to come back from journeys abroad did any of these now three actions re-occur:  the walking down the steps, the picture taking, the being separated by pushy large people.

There must have been some sort of renovation of the terminal going on and while they did not have to board a bus for a short ride to the ARRIVALS as they were familiar with in Sofia, George does not remember any obvious signs of construction but he was hardly looking out for it on this, his first arrival in The United States of America, wearing one of the three ties which he always said later filled up his suitcase.

Vera some time later must have had the snapshot enlarged into a framed 8x10 photograph.  It was installed on the wall just before the bathroom door next to a drawing by Christo of an aspect of his plan to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin.  One of the children had typed on faded slip of lined school notebook paper: DAD'S ARRIVAL and inserted it in front of the glass but behind the wood of the lower right corner of the frame,

The tie, at the moment of the picture being taken, was blown by the wind up to George's right in the form of an abstract representation of the letter J in the Latin alphabet.

Indeed, it was this same narrow woven wool black tie which he constantly wore all those months as they traveled about in the United States and to be scrupulous, something George did not advocate, as it only led to the dreariest of consequences, though he was not making any real argument for lying, if someone might jump on his claim.  There is however a difference between lying and being scrupulous and it might be supposed in some way he did not have three ties in his suitcase if he was wearing one of them both arriving and then while traveling in the country by train, plane, bus and rented, borrowed or private automobile.

George did not have an epiphany while traveling, as had Powys, in Houston.  George was not given to any sort of religious enthusiasm.  The very word epiphany frightened him because of its religious overtone and while he did not think very highly of the anti-religion campaigns by the communists in Bulgaria, there was still a residual materialist component to his life as a psychiatrist and now he did believe, if he could use that word, that there was really nothing much beyond the room in which he and his patient sat, right now, pretending of course all the while, there was something beyond the room, a dire necessity for many reasons:  his patients were so lacking in imagination!  If only they had imagination and the ability to forget!   His patients were too often gripped by memories as tenacious as a terminal cancer and held by fantasies occasionally nailing them to the floor as in the famous joke much repeated with curious variations in the cafes in Sofia when he had been a medical student and still repeated to this day, Ilov told him only recently even with the fall of the communism now more than ten years ago.

George did wonder, when he thought about it so many years later, why Powys could use a word like epiphany when describing his discovery of the absence of sewers in Houston.  Powys had ended up in that city while on his own journey around the United States, a journey which turned out to be both his first and final trip around the country.  It was there in Houston Powys knew why he was moving to France with his family.

At the very least in France, Powys believed then, the French would not refuse to build a sewer system when there was only a need for one every three or four years, if even then, because how could a person look forward to living in a country, living out the years remaining, in a country where there was a city with many millions of people that could be built without a sewer.

However, when you arrive in a country with only a suitcase stuffed with neckties, you have only your own intelligence, George would say.  You arrive with only what you have already put into your head.  They could take everything away from you and they did that as far as they were able when you left a country like Bulgaria, back then, and it is hard to explain this, now, after the fall of the communism but then:  you are suddenly in this country, in The United States of America, where you have to always remember you arrived with only a suitcase stuffed with neckties and you have to be always prepared to survive, once again, as you did then, as you stepped down from that plane--- it was a TWA plane, an airline long gone from the skies and how it seemed then that TWA, Trans World Airways, along with PANAM, Pan American World Airlines, were symbols of the country George was coming to and this observation, one of so many, came back to him when he came to think about his curiosity about this Powys  and his being able to decide on such a radical move as he had after his trip by railroad around the United States and from that moment in Houston as Powys tried to get across a main highway now under a foot of water because that was the year of the one flood every three years or was it four years and Powys wanted to get across the highway to have a drink which he needed and when he got back to St. Marks Place couldn't get it out of his mind that there were people in this country, in the United States of America, in a rich and powerful city of the United States of America who could make such a decision that prevented him on that day from getting across that highway to have a drink after a hard day... no, it was more like days which seemed like months of traveling on the so-called Amtrak where you didn't know what would break next, which part of the train would fall silent, dark, stop working and again Powys thought there had to be some better way to live and while he was prepared to think traveling by railroad was maybe not the best way to see America and he was prepared to make allowances for all the things that didn't work on the train                 

                                                        he had learned to be tolerant, though that wasn't exactly the word he wanted, but anyway, he learned, somehow, as a grave digger for the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, when he was in the last years of high school, to over¬look, to be prepared for nasty surprises, to the finding of things that they didn't expect to find when they went digging into these graves where surprisingly things move about which are not supposed to move about and  really most of the time no one knew what was just a shovelful of earth away and later after both of the decisions were done into the past:  when Powys had moved to France and when George and Vera had left Germany for The United States of America eventually finding themselves living in Brooklyn, Powys on a brief visit from Paris for the fortieth anniversary of his brother's ordination, asked George:  did you think you would end up here in  this bar on St. Marks Place--- or where you are living in Brooklyn?--- when you stepped down from that plane out there at Kennedy? and found yourself in a country where even the white people didn't have brains because by now I am sure you have discovered:  white people in America are prepared to put up with the most awful situations if they think they are bound to get better--- which of course they are not really---  but there is no way to ever convince anyone in this country of that and you learn to be an American within an hour of landing in the United States of America, if not earlier as the world is full up of people who are destined to be Americans and are saturated with the idea: life is going to get better and better no matter what either the life or experience teaches them: 

isn't it a wonderful country where people in their eighties are thinking about, as they put it, career changes, 

(Copyright @Thomas McGonigle 2021)

5 comments:

Pop Leibel said...

Is "melancholy" a noun? I don't care. I'm going to use it that way. Look at me! I'm bending the rules of grammar. Screw you, John Simon, even though you're (sadly) dead.

Tom has a groovy way of combining melancholy, humor, and the absurd. I've always said that's the key to excellent writing. Not that anyone gives a flying fuck what I think about writing. Wait for a minute Pop Leibel, you savvy son-of-a-bitch. You are one sexy and intelligent fucker. Talking to myself. My father is 86, and he hates the word "fuck." So, maybe I should revise this a bit.

"A suitcase full of ties," huh? And, there were only three. Okay, so that is a tiny suitcase or three substantial ties. Plus, he only wore one of them. Nowadays, you can't get away with that. Christ, they charge you for every bag. If I were George, I would have worn all three ties on top of each other to save space. He may have been able to bring along some socks and underwear.

When I was in my thirties, I finally figured out how to tie a tie. Before that, I would have someone else do it for me. When I took the necktie off, I'd be careful not to lose the knot. That way, it'd be ready to go the next day at work. One time I even bought a clip-on. True story. Hell, we used them in the Navy. Why not? Clip-on ties are genius.

Okay, enough for today. I'm glad Thomas posted a new short story. I always get a swell feeling when he does. My favorite part of the story is when the flood keeps George from drinking in the bar. Nice irony, but that sucked. I may have swamped through that bitch for a cold one.

Thomas McGonigle said...

This is the opening of a short novel THE BULGARIAN PSYCHIATRIST ...... not a short story.... I thought it might be a sort of trailer to lure a publisher....the vanity of it all..some might say

Pop Leibel said...

I didn't realize this piece was more excerpts from a previous post, "THE BULGARIAN PSYCHIATRIST (pages)." I'd love to read the entire novel. This George is a real pip. What strikes me most is how George can't get across the flood for a cold beer. That bothers me somehow.



Am I Powys or George? (An Unfinished Poem)


George stood there clutching

a bowtie in either hand, a leather

suitcase between the bees of his

knees, softly touching

his emotions;

we wave at George gaily,

we raise our mugs,

a fuzzy runnel is forming in the street,

George mouths the words,

"thirsty, and I want meat."

(I may delete the above line)


Now I'm tired of working on this stupid poem, and the wife is bellowing from upstairs, "GET READY!! We HAVE to go!" Life is so weird sometimes. George can't get a beer, and now I've lost my concentration.

I have another Modiano book coming from Amazon. Something about lost youth. I'm looking forward to that.

Thomas McGonigle said...

Powys is telling George about the flood in Texas....

Pop Leibel said...

Yes, thank you. I see that now. I believe they're brothers. Powys must be the one stranded by the flood. I guess then that it wouldn't make sense having the wrong brother clutching bowties. It still bothers me that people can be kept from beer by high water. I guess it's better than drowning. Not much.