Hobart the Cartoonist

 

by Barry Spacks

 

ONCE IN A DREAM HOBART the cartoonist hung out with the Dalai Lama and found himself so moved to be in the holy man’s presence that tears welled up. He told the Lama “It’s wonderful to spend time with you," and the Dalai Lama replied – Hobart wrote these words down as soon as he woke – “Keep changing your life until your life changes.”

   Well, Hobart had done exactly that, specialized in changing every which way, went in for copious quests, risks, shifts of intention, waxings and wanings of attachments, yet never quite felt well landed in a settled version of himself, if that’s what “until your life changes” means.

   He lived these days in a very strange town, in a one-room kitchenette above Tata Willie's café where he worked as luncheon waiter. Before and after his shift he'd maybe sketch in a notebook or stare out the kitchen window thinking heavy thoughts while studying the view. It came to him that there's a name for this view, Tiempo, for its vaguely Spanish look: torn, red-striped café awning below, tall, thin-faced windows across, Bare Hill to the right, dusty square and fountain below where empty sherry casks bounced and rumbled along the cobbles to be loaded onto sailing ships bound for Who-Knows-Where.

   Tiempo -- Time -- that's what's going on out there. 

   But one evening something refreshingly new happened: down by the harbor he met a woman named Alyssa, tall, striking, with much hair, someone to lean on in a storm. They had settled on the same iron bench, observing the loading of a four-master with sherry tuns. Hobart in his nervousness babbled on in his usual way -- "this so-called existence, what's it worth, after all?…,” that sort of thing – making beautiful Alyssa smile and gaze at him with what he took to be affectionate bemusement. She said "Face it, Hobart, few find lost innocence again.”

   Is that what this so-called existence is all about?

   They chatted while the chill harbor night breeze stirred Alyssa's swirly hair and brought a wild freshness to Hobart's feelings, for he sensed that the very womanliness of this impressive Alyssa could make everything turn around for him. The notion of a great possibility at stake drove him into a spate of white silence. It wasn't so much a perfume he sniffed, sitting close to Alyssa, but rather something more like an air of sanctity.

   A few of the shops across the way were still open, casting yellowy light onto the cobbles: Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker.

   On the bench Hobart and Alyssa had a wonderful view of the tall sailing ship being loaded with sherry casks. Sherry casks, empty sherry casks, were the town's great export, rumbling and bouncing and tumbling down the cobbles at unpredictable hours. After all, it was a harbor-side town. Many times after work Hobart would visit the smelly old municipal nautical museum with its dipping oaken floorboards, its displays of fancy rope-knots, scrimshaw in glass-front cases, buxom wooden ladies on the walls who once graced the prows of long-sunk sailing ships, with always a whiff of tar-smell there at the museum.

   Maybe Hobart was a sailor in a previous life?

   “Maybe I was a sailor in a previous life,” he remarked to Alyssa.

   "You enjoy sad things, Hobart, is all. Maybe you were a mortician in a previous life."

   He had to admit that he did tend toward melancholy. "Listen," he told her, smiling, "wouldn't it be great if a guy could sell his silence? Granted I've been a chatterbox with you, Alyssa, but I can also produce a rather high grade of silence on demand. Have you noticed?”

   "Somebody loves you, Hobart."

   These words, spoken gently, took Hobart by surprise. Tears welled up in his eyes.

   Keep changing your life until your life changes.

   "I hear you, Alyssa. You mean God or stuff like that? Who loves me? Listen, dear lady, perhaps you'd be willing to continue our conversation in my well-equipped kitchen over a late night cup of tea?"

    "Thank you. Another time. I do enjoy a nice cup of tea. "

   "Tea is one of the gifts, isn't it? In fact, what could be better? Granted, wild sex would be better, but where would you find such a thing in this incomprehensible town?"

   And then, with the sweetest smile, Alyssa rested two fingers ever so lightly on the back of Hobart's hand.

   It was as if she'd touched his open heart.

   Then she stood up from the bench.

   "Farewell, Hobart. It's time for me to disappear.”

   And immediately she wandered off. Terrible. Hobart had just been sketching her face in his notebook and, poof, no more Alyssa. How would he ever find her again? She had the secret, something told him that. But no last name, no address, no Contact Code -- there were probably thousands of Alyssa's in town!

 

   All of which left Hobart sitting morosely at his kitchen window again the following morning, contemplating Bare Hill while he chewed over what had passed between him and Alyssa the night before. He thought: I must find her, and so bestirred himself, wandering the waterfront, hanging out at the bus station, crossing and re-crossing the town's seven rococo bridges, even stopping at the municipal bathhouse where he paused long enough to take a reviving bath. No Alyssa anywhere. Hobart settled at last at Tata Willie’s café, his daily workplace. Late, closing time, Iron-faced Menke the night-waiter grunting in his smelly black uniform as he hefted wire backed chairs onto the outdoor tables one by one.

 

   But wait, the very next morning Hobart observed a dog at the top of Bare Hill. A dog with alert eyes. Dogs are great, we all know that, so full of joy. And suddenly it hit Hobart, the sort of realization as when a dog smells a situation and understands it completely, that from very far back he'd not been experiencing things the correct way. Glancing up from another sketch of Alyssa’s face, he concluded that he hadn't been paying attention to big matters, to important themes like love, life, death, and he rushed in a whoosh of determination into the streets with a deepened resolution to make contact with Alyssa again, which is when the dog from Bare Hill came bounding up and jumping around him. Hobart decided to call the dog "Schwartz." He had a sense that "Schwartz" would work out as this particular dog's name. You can often tell such things about dogs if you take the trouble to sniff a little and gaze into their big feelingful eyes.

   Straight off, with Schwartz at his side, Hobart wandered down by the docks and there he showed some sailors one of his notebook sketches of Alyssa, a bit cartoonish, granted, but reverent. They all took a long look at her smile and her swirly hair and though none of them recognized her, they seemed eager to help. So Hobart and Schwartz moved along with the group of laughing sailors through the pickle-smelling waterfront, sailors drinking from bottles to become drunk even before lunchtime, sailors bumping into Hobart and Schwartz and each other, crying "Here, Alyssa! Here, Alyssa!" and cracking coarse jokes about her which Hobart didn't appreciate in the least, so shortly he and the dog slipped away down a narrow twisting lane.

   They wandered searching until day settled into evening, and eventually fell asleep that night in an optometry shop's deep entryway, only to be awakened near dawn by Hobart’s boss Tata Willie. Dog Schwartz growled and showed his teeth as Willie leaned over them, but Tata growled right back. The little man managed a nice dog-imitation. Pointing to Hobart he said: "This is unsightly, Luncheon Waiter. Shameful! We can't have such sloppy sleeping arrangements in our otherwise appealing town!"

   "I intend to keep changing my life until my life changes," Hobart told him. "Kindly hire somebody else to take over from me as luncheon waiter."

   "Who is the pushy guy?" Schwartz inquired, as Tata, with much laughter and coughing, tried to pull Hobart to his feet, causing the loyal dog with a low ongoing growl to leap for Tata's neck, drawing blood.

   "Quit that, quit!" Hobart cried. "For goodness sakes!" He tugged and beat at Schwartz until the dog backed down, gazing at Hobart with chastened incertitude: "Not the right move?"

   Tata Willie shrugged, a reddened handkerchief at his neck. "These things happen. A dog does his dog-work. As for me, what I need right now is a towel. Look, we happen to be chatting directly across from The Floating Dog Café, run by my cousin Armand.  Let's grab us a morning coffee and ask somebody to stitch up a stitch or so in this tough old neck of mine. Incredible! That's some animal you have there, Hobart!"

   Which caused pride to burst out all over Schwartz’s expression.

   They moved across the cobbles to the Floating Dog Café, where Cousin Armand and several waiters mopped up Willie's blood. Schwartz, contrite, couldn't look at anyone, so he concentrated on the Floating Dog up near the ceiling while Armand supplied medical aid. Fixed at last and with a red-stained white towel about his neck, Willie leaned toward Hobart’s ear: "Never once," he whispered, "since you've lived above my establishment all these years, not once has there been a woman in your life, why is that? And you talk about learning from your soul-mate, this so-called Alyssa! Pahhshaw! Granted, you don't have a touch with women, so now instead you maintain a vicious dog? AND you sleep in doorways, Hobart? For such slovenliness you give up a sturdy job as luncheon waiter at my café?”

   "Whatever it costs," Hobart declared as they left Armond's place, "I'm going to find Alyssa! She'll show me the way. Love, Tata Willie, it's true what they say about it. 'Somebody loves you,' Alyssa told me. She has some sort of wisdom, you can feel it in her presence. And she smells so good!" But how could he make himself worthy of her? Where could she be found? It came to him to advertise, so he took the drawing he'd shown the sailors and with a few strokes of the pen turned it into a WANTED poster. Then, wherever he and Schwartz went searching, he paused to draw another copy and tack it up until there were ALYSSA WANTED posters all over town.

   He and the dog continued sleeping in doorways till one night, exploring all the way over near Olde Town Gate, no sooner did they turn a corner by the spiked iron fence there than a voice spoke with distinct irritation from behind. "One usually allows an Official Guide to lead the way during trips through Olde Town."

   It was Tata Willie. “Could you get your dog under control, Hobart? These are tight narrow quarters we're about to move through here."

   "Schwartz," Hobart cried, "heel!"

   "Okay, okay," said Schwartz as Willie led them through the gate and along a dark Olde Town lane where the second stories of the houses overhung the street. Passing there was like moving through a tunnel with a narrow strip above for a view of the stars.  Far ahead the lane curved downward toward the glow of a single gaslight, under which a woman lounged in scanty clothes, smoking. Hobart’s heart pulsed with anticipation, but no, she wasn't Alyssa. Not in the least.

   "You taking the Olde Town tour, young fellow?" this barely covered woman inquired. "Many," she told him, "progress no further than here, pausing with me to seek forgetfulness in a comfort I'm glad to provide, and at reasonable rates."

   "Comfort, ha!" murmured Willie as they passed the beckoning woman, cigarette smoke from her nostrils drifting sinuously away, "Comfort is a  rare item on the Olde Town tour. Let's move farther along now, Hobart and Dog, to the Mystical Amusement Park at Central Square, not to be missed!"

   In the distance loomed the vast square, alive with hurdy-gurdy music and colored lights, a great Ferris Wheel dominating its central midway, its booths offering greasy food and the distractions of games of chance. "Who knows," said Willie, "there may be an Alyssa or two hanging around hereabouts."

   Rinky-dink music began grinding as the white-lighted Ferris Wheel turned, all the rocking gondolas occupied by lovers. Some were holding hands, some conversing, some kissing, many even stretched out all naked, wildly entwined with each other. Oh, and when each gondola reached the top of the wheel and hung there high above the square, the joyous groans and sighs of the lovers were stirring to hear! All those lovers, cozy with one another as the wheel climbed upward, once each pair began the downward swoop their sounds turned to bickering, they pulled away from closeness, they struggled and hit out or sat grudgingly, miserably apart...until the next upward turn of the wheel.

   “And this goes on,” commented Willie, "endlessly. There's much to learn from a Ferris Wheel. Please step along, Hobart and dog, the next stop on the tour leads us to the Lower Depths and the Underground River. First we must descend four hundred and forty-six steps into the darkness."

    Schwartz gazed at Hobart. Hobart gazed at Schwartz.  Scary.  What to do? But with a lifting of the chin and his dog by his side, Hobart plunged ahead, following Willie down step after dank step cut in the rock till they reached at last a cavernous chamber clouded above by a host of sleeping bats.

   Laid out in neat rows here were a multitude of bare brown wooden coffins filled with skeletal cadavers, their fleshless skulls bone-white. Hobart and the dog gasped as these creatures all at once sat stiffly up while above the waking bats emitted a horrid scream. "0h Boss," moaned Schwartz, "do we really need this?"

   "We are the dead," the creatures in their coffins announced, huge eye sockets glaring. "Look upon us, take thought, have a care!"

          "I'll never find Alyssa here!" Hobart cried. "She's alive! Alyssa lives!"

   The dead thundered back: "For a time, Hobart. For a time." Their bone-pale faces glimmered in the eerie light.

   "This is your vehicle," said Willie, indicating an empty coffin. "This is the craft reserved for you alone."

   "I'm not getting in there!" Hobart declared, "not on your life!"

   "No. On your death!" cried Willie, and Hobart was struck by a gigantic gust of wind as the bats screamed and fluttered in a clattering crowd and he found himself floating in his coffin along the underground river among the rest. Schwartz, having learned something from the visit to Armand’s Floating Dog Café, looked down terrified as he floated above Hobart’s head, while the great tide of coffin mariners swept faster and faster through the darkness and ahead came a crescendo of roaring from the Great Falls of the Underground River.

   Torches set in bronze snake-mouthed sockets glowed at intervals along the towering rough walls of the cavern, the river itself so wide one couldn't see to the opposite bank. All to both sides and ahead and behind sat the dead in their coffins, staring straight ahead. The Underground River gleamed in the light of the flickering torches. No matter his fright, Hobart felt moved by the beauty of the sheen on the black waters. Ahead resounded the stunning rumble and roar of the great waterfall. Close above his head, Hobart could smell fear on Schwartz's hovering dog's-breath as the sound of the plunging water increased to a punishing roar.

   And Willie nowhere to be found!

   "We set out searching for Alyssa and we wind up like this?" cried Schwartz, directly overhead.

   At the very lip of the falls, at the very last instant, the dog's teeth grabbed Hobart by the collar of his coat and there they were, floating above the river while coffins by the score tipped and plunged into the huge boiling spume of the waterfall.

   They held on that way precariously a moment, watching the hurtling coffins, until Schwartz with considerable effort began to drag Hobart back through the feted air toward their point of entrance. The dog set him down finally on the last of the four hundred and forty six steps. Winded, they waited a while in the terrifying darkness until enough energy returned for the long climb to the light, back up to Central Square from where they'd be able again to see the stars.

    "Boss," said Schwartz, "can you believe the shit you have to go through around here?!"

   "And Willie left us on our own, the traitor! Oh dog," said Hobart, "I owe you a big one, Dog Schwartz. You saved me from the final plunge, you got me back to the stairway."

   "Think nothing of it, Boss, that's dog-work, that's what we do."

   They trekked along, took a left, a right, turned another corner and found themselves at the very iron gate where they’d entered Olde Town, and there they spotted a cab waiting to be hailed. Would you believe who served as driver? Yes, Tata Willie.

   "Why did you abandon us like that at the scariest part?" Hobart complained. "We survived, sure, but gosh!"

   "Whoa, slow down, Luncheon Waiter," said Willie" as he hurtled the cab through deserted late night lanes. "It's always something, isn't it, Hobart? But meeting the very worst, alone and without a guide, that's crucial, no? "

   Alone? But I'm not alone, Hobart thought. I'm with my dog, I've been encountering love and death, I'm questing  for my lady.

   Willie pulled the cab to the curb at the café and Hobart decided he needed the ministration of a cup of coffee before climbing to the apartment above. To his surprise, iron-faced Menke the night waiter melted into smiles to see him, his grueling former meanness passing over into careful coffee service, as if to say "Welcome Home!"

   Hobart and Schwartz, exhausted, toiled up the narrow stairway to the one-room kitchen flat. Totally dark on the stairs, dark on the landing. Dark, yes, and as Hobart reached for his key he had a vision, one that many may discount as mere wishful yearning, but he felt a sense that Alyssa could actually be waiting right there in his unlighted kitchen, marking his return from danger, intending to surprise him with a smile, overwhelming in her beauty, waiting for him in the darkness, sipping tea.

   More may have to come for Hobart in this town, or in another equally provoking, but for now he paused there on the landing and lit a match to study one of his sketched of Alyssa's face. Inside awaited his kitchen with its view called Tiempo where sherry tuns rolled day and night down to the harbor. "Oh Schwartz," Hobart  whispered, "we've known some strange things together, loyal dog. Why are we here? What is this we're going through?  Where does it lead? What's still ahead, still to learn?"

   But the dog, no longer hovering, his four feet firmly set on the landing, failed to speak. He gazed at Hobart in an ordinary doglike manner, with affectionate, red-glowing eyes, and began sniffing energetically as any dog might do.

   Listen. A lovely scent seemed to be reaching Schwartz the dog there on the landing. Did Hobart sense it too? And need I describe that scent? Surely by now you'd recognize it, Reader, or will again, though who can say after how much questing.

   Will Hobart the cartoonist remain trapped forever in this baffling rococo town?

   Will there ever come for him the chance of a breakthrough, a definitive arrival, a new start?

   Could Alyssa actually be there? If so, how would she have gotten in? By way of hope, affection, charity? And what would follow from that?

   Or would Hobart merely settle at his table by the window as deep night blanked Tiempo, his view, from memory? He turns his key in the lock. He opens the door. He switches on the light.


© Barry Spacks has brought out various novels, stories, three poetry-reading CDs and ten poetry collections while teaching literature and writing for years at M.I.T. & U C Santa  Barbara. His most recent book of poems, Food for the Journey, appeared from Cherry Grove in August, 2008.

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