Carrying an old worn paperback copy of James Joyces Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in his left hand, Dr. Donald Huggins casually strolled the gravel through Desert Sky Park as the sun touched the tips of the majestic purple mountains to begin its descent into summer night. He was whistling Brahms. Las Vegas evenings, particularly the sunsets, were the best part of living in Las Vegas, a city Dr. Huggins had moved to from Dallas with some trepidation ten years ago.
He had had nightmares about moving to Las Vegas, a place once run by mobsters. He had heard that, while the mob was no longer operating in this desert oasis, the city itself was a monument to all that was gaudy and tasteless in a decadent consumerist culture. Friends had led him to believe that Las Vegas, unlike every other city of comparable or larger size in the United States, offered very little in the way of culture. Art museums, concerts, and poetry readings would be rare indeed. He would be lonely there.
As Dr. Huggins stepped off the gravel path and onto the soft moist grass bordering the pond, he realized that he did have to agree with that point: culturally, Las Vegas was quite dead. Attempts by city leaders to bring in live theater, artists, poets, classical musicians and the like had proved somewhat futile, although there was certainly more of the artistic and intellectual present in Las Vegas now than, say, even five years ago. Yet, the somewhat limited cultural activities of the college had proved to be quite enough. Additionally, there were two or three operas a year, and he never missed those.
Dr. Huggins was a thin balding man with delicate, almost feminine features. As he stooped and picked up a smooth-surface oblong rock to skip along the pond, he had to admit that in the long run he was quite pleased with the desert area and with his position of the English department of the fastest growing community college in the United States. He had made numerous friends at the college and in the community, the Mayor of the city included, and felt that he never moved anywhere ever again, if he were to die tomorrow in this desert oasis, he would be quite content.
Glancing up at the darkening sky, Donald breathed in deeply. The grass, moist and newly cut, made the night air sweet and for some reason reminded him of a poem by Houseman "To An Athlete Dying Young." He looked out across the glass-blue pond and watched the ducks bob in the water for plants, insects and fish. Careful to respect the beauty of the moment and the calm balance represented by the tableau consisting of a newly constructed park in the fastest growing section of the valley, the well-kept gravel path and blue pond, and the white well-fed ducks in the water, Don dropped the rock at his feet into the gravel bed where he had found it. The evening was perfect; he did not want to spoil it.
He continued to stroll along the grass bank towards one of the concrete and wooden benches that had been tastefully placed around the pond. At this time of day, most were occupied by couples. Each bench sat under a light post, and with the night coming the old-style Victorian street lamps had just been turned on. And with the lights came the gentle desert breeze from the west, which so often blew in the evenings through this desert community, a reminder that before the city had been built there had existed here an order and balance by which the natural world continually renewed itself. Seating himself on the bench and opening his book on his lap, Dr. Huggins felt at one with this order, the momentary apprehension of which brought a kind of Emersonian transcendence.
Huggins had read Joyces masterpiece at least ten times, perhaps twenty. As he sat on the bench, he recalled the first time he had read Portrait, certainly one of the greatest British novels. At the time, he had been living in Eugene, Oregon, where he was a graduate student in English. He was on the verge of getting his Ph. D. in Sixteenth Century English literature when, one evening, he had taken a solitary walk through a beautiful lush green park that lay just to the west of the quaint little university town of Eugene. He had just angrily left his best friend and roommate Benjamin Best behind. After all, that was the day on which he and Ben had had the terrible argument over what to do with their aging and arthritic dog Spock. Ben had wanted to put Spock to sleep; Donald had wanted to let the dog die in his arms of natural causes.
Book in hand that night in Eugene, he had strolled the dirt path that circled the small pond in Grayson Park. It was evening, couples lay scattered on the grass around the pond, and the small fish that had been planted in the pond just the month before were jumping wildly in the water. Don had thrilled to the movement of the fish and had wished that Benjamin had been there to share it with him. He would have forgiven Benjamin, with his deep blue eyes, immediately. What Don most remembered about the pond, however, is that it was home to an unusually large number of those white, thoroughly domesticated ducks for which American parks are so well known.
Sitting on the grass next to the pond and leaning his back against one of the towering dark green pines that surrounded the body of water, Don had opened the novel and begun to read.
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a
moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was
coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby
His father told him that story: his father looked at him
through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where
Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.
Joyces choice of and play on words had sent the young Huggins into transports of ecstasy. Feverishly, as if he were making love with another, Donald had devoured the book in one evening, finishing the novel at four am after he had returned to his apartment in the university district to find Benjamin gone for good. From that point on, he had read everything by James Joyce that he could lay his hands on, even Finnegans Wake, a novel that nearly drove him out of his mind. The sense of transport was always the same, sometimes greater than at first. He had felt at the time that, with James Joyce as his constant companion, he would need little else in life. He could make it alone.
Now, nearing sixty years of age, he began the novel again, felt the same transport, knew that he was baby tuckoo and his father Daedalus father. He felt that, in the course of his career as a college English professor, he had become Joyces masterpiece and Joyces masterpiece had become him. He was the detached artist pairing his nails as the literary work unfolded before him. Huggins felt the same mystic oneness with the words on the page as he did in pondering the fish and ducks of the pond. He could sit here all night, reading Portrait of an Artist, if need be.
As long as he read Joyce, Professor Huggins knew he could keep at bay the demons of consumerism that populated and, in time, corrupted most of the people living in the gambling mecca. So, as he sat next to the pond in the Las Vegas park, pouring through Joyces Portrait, he couldnt help thinking with a part of his mind that it was his devotion to literature like this, to classical music composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach that had allowed himself to remain somewhat insulated and protected in a city that had thrived on gangsters, gambling, dirty sex, and championship prize fights. He knew the artists better than he knew himself and continually sought refuge in them.
He recalled, as he tried to read on with part of his imaginative mind, that some of his colleagues at his present institution had, upon moving to the southern Nevada community, very quickly capitulated to the gambling, sex, and greed of this growing city. They had quickly accepted it as a way of life. Some even occasionally frequented the strip-tease bars for which Las Vegas is so famous. Huggins shuddered as he tried to imagine what those places would be like. Indeed, Dr. Huggins had lost respect for these professors, seeing them as things little better than beasts who had sold their souls to the devil. He was glad he was not one of them. He was equally glad that he had never seen a Las Vegas stage extravaganza, which apparently featured women dancing topless, once in his years in this city. Of course, he had never been asked to go to one.
Pausing and looking up into the now dark night sky, searching for meteors, Dr. Huggins decided that he would have to continue his reading at home, perhaps in bed. Joyce, after all, was eternal and represented those qualities of the human spirit, of the intellect that were most worth preserving.
As he rose from the bench and headed back to the path, which would eventually take him to his car, Dr. Huggins nearly collided with a shadow that proved to be another human being, probably enjoying the pond and park as he was.
"Oh, pardon me," said Dr. Huggins, always acting on the premise that politeness is the best policy.
"Oh, I think the fault may be entirely mine," came the gentle response. Immediately and irrationally moved by the newcomers words, Huggins recognized the voice--the slight and somewhat effeminate British accent--as belonging to a colleague ten years his junior. It belonged to Professor Ruff Weston, a hardened odd sort who peers considered something of a savage. Rumor had it that Weston had been involved in numerous bar room fights in the darker, more dangerous areas of Las Vegas.
"Oh, hello Weston," Dr. Huggins replied, trying to assume a position of detachment. "I didnt see you. We almost collided. Almost. Had we collided, why, one of us might have been injured. Or I may have dropped my book on the ground, and then I would have had to stoop and pick it up." Even as he spoke, Huggins was aware of how ludicrous his words were.
"Well, Huggins," said Weston, a coy smile on his brown weathered face, "were all right, I think. You havent dropped your book, nor have I dropped mine. If we had, we both would have had to stoop down to pick them up."
Even in the darkness of the park, Huggins was drawn into Westons piercing blue eyes. Hed never realized that Ruff Weston had such wonderfully blue eyes or such a gorgeous smile. The eyes reminded Don of the pond, of Emerson, and of Houseman.
It seemed to be getting darker. Looking over at the pond, Huggins could just make out a dimly white gathering of ducks. "Well, it has been a pleasure to encounter you," said Dr. Huggins, unsure now whether he should quickly terminate the conversation and return to his car or stay and converse with a man whom, for reasons Dr. Huggins couldnt quite articulate, he found immediately fascinating. Looking up for an instance, he saw a meteor explode across the night sky. In the slight evening chill, he suddenly felt the warmth of day.
"By the way," Don added, extending the brief encounter, "what are you reading? Just curious, you know." Uncomfortable with Westons possible response (After all, he didnt really know the man.), Don ran the fingers of his right hand through his thinning hair. He was beginning to perspire a bit.
Weston looked down at his book as if he couldnt remember. Then, looking into Dons eyes with his deep blue eyes, he said, "I am reading something by Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility, I believe. Yes, thats it. Of course thats it. Sense and Sensibility. Ive been carrying it about all day. Its my favorite novel, one that I read for the first time as a graduate student years and years ago at the University of Washington. Next to a pond like this one, come to think of it now. What are you reading?"
Dr. Hugginss mind temporarily reeled as he mentally took note of what seemed, on the surface, to be a fantastic coincidence. Gathering his thoughts then, Don replied, "I am reading Joyces Portrait of an Artist, a work I consider to be one of the greatest novels every written. And, I might add, I have also read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake." Immediately, Donald regretted trying to impress and intimidate his colleague, whom he wanted to get to know more intimately.
But Weston was not put off. "I quite agree with you," replied Professor Weston, who didnt seem so hardened and backwards as Huggins had been led to believe. Huggins couldnt imagine that the things others said about Ruff Weston were true.
In the darkness, barely illuminated now by the Victorian lamp over the vacated bench, Weston inched closer to Huggins, his face now inches away. Don could smell the mans cologne, nearly feel the mans pulse and hear his heartbeat. At this moment, Dr. Huggins thought of Benjamin Best and did not want to go home.
"I just absolutely adore Joyce," commented Weston, emphasizing the word "adore" and suddenly looking very melancholy while gazing deeply, gently into Dons eyes. Don had never seen the sadness or the tenderness in the man standing before him.
Don breathed deeply and huskily responded, "And I happen to love Austen. I adore the novels of Jane Austen." Like Weston, Donald especially emphasized the word "adore."
"Perhaps, then," said Weston, almost breathless, "we should make a point of getting together to just talk about great literature. Uh, do you have time to get together? Perhaps a favorite place? A coffee house?"
"Yes, lets do that," responded Don, who was surprised that he too was short of breath. Perhaps there was smoke or dust in the air that was so affecting the breathing of the two men. He kept his eyes on Westons eyes.
Then Don asked a question that seemed to have no relationship to anything else. "Is your real name really Ruff?" Immediately, Don knew how ridiculous his question must have sounded.
Weston paused for a moment and closed his eyes. Then he answered, "No, its not Ruff. Its Miles. Miles Weston. Its a name I have absolutely detested. It it ." Miles did not, perhaps could not, finish his sentence. Huggins wasnt going to pressure him to do so.
The two men stood inches from each other, almost touching, before Dr. Huggins said, "Well, Miles, well, ...I must be going. It was nice running into you. Quite a distinct pleasure, really." He cleared his throat. He could think of nothing else to say. His mind was a blank, just as it had been during his first blind date in college.
Realizing the encounter was over, Miles Weston slowly stepped back a foot and commented, "Yes, and it was nice meeting you. Very, very nice, I might add. We must do this again. Soon. Please. I want to. Are you here a lot?" Weston looked down for an instant, almost as if he knew he wouldnt receive an answer to his last question. Then, looking up, he gazed into Huggins eyes. His heart racing, Huggins felt the gaze penetrate his soul.
Somewhat embarrassed, still at a loss for words, Dr. Huggins looked at the ground and started slowly, almost reluctantly walking toward the gravel path. He wondered what Benjamin Best was doing at this moment. He feared that Benjamin may have died long ago.
"Uh, by the way, Don," Professor Weston said, putting his hand on Dr. Huggins shoulder, "I believe your shoe is untied."
Glancing down, Don noticed that the shoe on his left foot was indeed untied. The strings dangled in a sloppy and unkempt manner. He could trip and fall if he werent more careful.
"Thank you for telling me," said Don, kneeling to tie his shoe. When he had finished, Dr. Huggins rose and looked around. Miles Weston was no where to be seen.
About the author: Rich Logsdon has taught English at the Community College of Southern Nevada for over twenty years. He received his Ph. D. at the University of Oregon. Currently, he is the editor-in-chief of Red Rock Review, a new small literary journal that is sold coast-to-coast. Rich has had stories recently published, or accepted for publicaton, in the following magazines, all accessible over the Internet: Gothic.Net, Slumgullion, Night People, State of Unbeing, Barking Spider, Noir Mechanics, The Oracle, San Francisco Salvo, and Yellow Dog. His poem Talking Frogs appears elsewhere in this issue, and his story Sweet Sounds appeared in our Spring 1998 issue.
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