Grail/Grope

Stephen Policoff

Who were the protesters in the Sigmund Freud masks?

During the year Gabriel Bish was famous (1981-82), one or two of these grotesques seemed to shadow him: they knew his tour schedule, they were familiar with his habitual lateness, they were silent yet somehow hectoring figures outside the television studios, rock clubs, and performance spaces through which Gabriel lurched.

They always wore dark suits and larger-than-life-sized caricatured faces of Freud. That they disapproved of Gabriel seemed clear—they occasionally moaned or made strange, kabuki-like movements with their arms in his presence, as if warding off an evil spirit. They had already begun to unnerve him before the Provincetown disaster.

Once, after one of these clownish apparitions gesticulated wildly at him from among the black-clad crowd milling around the Mudd Club, Gabriel yanked me aside.

“Neddo,” he whispered, “Have you read any Freud lately? Because I haven’t glanced at the bastard’s works since I was 14; don’t think I ever finished one of his dense little tomes so I don’t know whether these Freud fuckers are comparing me to him, warning me about something, chiding me for not being enough like that dour son of a bitch, or what? What? What do they want? Ask. Find out. Report back.”

He pushed me toward the crowd. But the Freud fucker was gone.

This was the kind of assignment I often got from Gabriel. When I was not acting as his chauffeur or auditioning blank-faced blondes for the chorus of his theater epic, The Buddha Train, I was his research boy.

But no newspaper, magazine, or psychology journal I could find made any reference to angry Freud-faced mimes; no one I spoke to in the lower Manhattan art scene knew of any anti-(or-pro-)Freud protest group which might wish to harass the creator of this much-beloved avant-garde extravaganza. And no one else in his make-shift entourage seemed to have paid the slightest attention to these sightings.

Wace-Monmouth merely shrugged at my inquiry. “Mad assholes,” he ventured, and went on pouring himself shots of Chivas. My soon-to-be ex-wife, Elizabeth claimed not to have even noticed them. But by then, she noticed little except her own vertiginous desires. Only Gabriel’s manager/discarded lover Camille had much of a response—and it was not, I thought, a helpful one.

She gave me one of her enigmatic little smiles. “Freud was a bit of a pig, wasn’t he? Clueless about women, thought dreams were all about sex, that sort of thing? Sounds like our Gabriel, eh?” She abruptly slammed shut the cover of the huge gray volume she carried with her at all times—The Secret Teachings of All Ages, some grim occult omnibus. “He should be careful, don’t you think?” she murmured, and then she was gone.

But perhaps all my inquiries got back to the Freud fuckers, because we stopped seeing them for months. The show went on selling out at Lincoln Center and Gabriel’s cult following grew and grew till it seemed as if it might pop like a balloon blown up too quickly. He was mentioned in at least one think-piece per week in the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times that autumn. As a result, he received innumerable offers to speak, to read, to give workshops. He turned down most of them—he just couldn’t be bothered to rise in time, or to prepare any kind of coherent presentation.

“The only thing I have to say is already onstage, Neddo,” he muttered to me one October evening. We were sitting by the fountain outside the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where The Buddha Train was in its 6th month, and he was chain-smoking clove cigarettes. “And I have to see it over and over again, this dream I had 6 years ago, and I’m stuck with it. Until I get the next one, the next dream, the next picture in my head and it isn’t showing up right now, I’m in fucking creative limbo. Trapped like some bourgeois asshole with a crappy job.”

But in the spring of that glorious, horrific year, Gabriel received an invitation he could not turn down. He was asked to give a lecture at an international symposium, Dream as Healer/Dreamer as Shaman: Art, Humanistic Psychology and the Therapeutics of the Modern VisionQuest, sponsored by the American Society for Dream Research and being held that year in Provincetown.

“Great town,” he exclaimed, punching me lightly on the arm. “Teeming with art and sex. Great fucking views of the ocean, plus my favorite masseuse in the world lives there, a fat dyke named Marlena. Might be just what I need to get the creative Tao flowing again. Let’s go, just us Neddo, we’ll leave the tiresome women here, it will be a howl.”

Of course, I said yes.

I still loved and admired him. I still yearned for his approval, still accepted as a given that the extraordinary life he seemed to promise was the only life worth seeking. I still could ignore, much of the time anyway, the dark undercurrent of rage I felt when I saw Elizabeth’s hungry looks aimed in his direction.

So we went. I drove, he speed-rapped. It was life as I had once dreamed it might be, and the undeniable truth that it did not feel at all like I had imagined remained a quiet offstage whisper in my heart.

Camille had rented us a sleek black Thunderbird, and as I drove, Gabriel drank gin from a thermos Elizabeth had given him, nibbled hashish spread on crackers—one of Elizabeth’s favorite druggie treats—and kept up a running monologue about his work-in-progress. It was the first I had heard about it.

“Do you know about the quest for the holy grail, Neddo? Medieval bullshit but it could be so now. The heroes are seeking the one thing, the one sacramental thing that might lift the land out of the darkness it’s in. Do you know what that is? Sex. That’s what the grail is, the perfect orgasm. No, no, really, Neddo, I am very serious about this. Think about it. How many people spend their whole lives waiting for that one moment, that flash of transcendence. And what is that for most people, Neddo?”

I could never be sure if Gabriel was actually asking me a question or pausing to take breath, so I usually said nothing. But this time, he seemed disappointed in my silence. He leaned his massive head toward me.

“Elizabeth knows the answer, just ask her,” he whispered, and this was a departure from our usual unstated assumption that we would not speak about the woman we were both sleeping with. “Yes! I asked Elizabeth this same question and do you know what she said? The closest most poor assholes ever get to transcendence is coming. Brilliant! True true true a lot of sex is just slamming away meat against meat, but are we not always looking for the transfiguration? The implosion of self into other? That’s what I want the next opus to be about. Seeking that moment of orgasmic oneness, the one exquisite mouth, cunt, cock, asshole, whatever it is that you dream of, whatever it is that you must must have and the hell with what the rest of the world says, that thing that you want so much you will weep and writhe and die without it… Grail/Grope. That’s what I’m calling it. If I could only fucking have the dream I need, get there, get into that locked fucking kingdom of my unconscious.”

Sex. That’s what the grail is, the perfect orgasm.

I said little for the entire five hour drive; I kept thinking of Elizabeth, how she looked at me, how she gazed at Gabriel. By the time we arrived, I felt ill. We pulled into the parking lot of Sands of Time Inn & Conference Center in late afternoon; I immediately strode off toward the ocean. I kicked off my worn black Reeboks and walked for an hour along the cold beach, without looking back. I needed air. I needed to get away from Gabriel, if only for a moment. But even the crash of the green waves against the sand could not wash his insinuating voice from my thoughts.

Provincetown in early June was damp and windy. Even the unearthly dunes were enveloped in a low hanging cloud that periodically spit droplets of chilly mist at me.

Gabriel, who often seemed unable to cross the street without someone beside him to make sure he did not muse in oncoming traffic, somehow managed to check in without me. By the time I returned, moderately calmed from my slow ramble, he was soaking in the jacuzzi, and the suite smelled of the grapefruit and lavender-scented aromatherapy oils he carried with him everywhere.

“Do you know what I’m going to talk to them about tonight, Neddo?” he began, as if our conversation had only just been interrupted. “Pornography—the new spirituality. Well, it could be. It should be. If I could do anything right now, anything, I’d make a big budget sex flick. A kundalini musical. Erotic. Not the crap you see out there, the sad ugly studs and whores. Beautiful young men and women fucking and sucking while glorious gamelan chimes accompany their groans. God! That would be great.  Can you find my clothes? I’ve booked us a massage. I need inspiration!”

But Marlena was no longer working at the MagickChilde Massage & Shiatsu Center; no one seemed to know where she was. She had been replaced by Nimu, an emaciated Japanese woman with a harrowing cough. And the place itself, above a saltwater taffy store on Commercial Street, looked as if it had closed months ago but no one had bothered to inform its occupants. There were piles of sand and dust on the floor; the massage table itself had a broken leg and was pushed up against the grimy green wall to keep it from collapsing, and the only light in the place was from a fluorescent light overhead, which buzzed like an insect.

Gabriel was still determined to enjoy his massage. He stripped off his clothes and hopped on the table, eager for bliss. I sat on a folding chair in the sandy corner, waiting my turn, which never came. A few minutes into the massage, while Nimu was spreading some minty oil on Gabriel’s slender shoulders, she began to cough. She coughed and kneaded, coughed and pounded, coughed and rubbed. And then, she stopped doing anything else while the cough seemed to take on a life of its own, propelling her out the door, gasping for air.

“Very inspirational,” Gabriel said. He sat up, disconsolately grabbed his clothes, and stormed down the stairs.

But he was back in fine form that evening, ready for his lecture. He was wearing his celebrity-artist uniform: a collarless white linen shirt, black velvet jacket, black jeans, purple-tinted glasses. He had shaved, he had affixed a little smile to his usual expressionless face; he did not even seem to be especially drunk or high.

As sole factotum, I was responsible for setting up the podium where I knew he would wish it—slightly to the left of center on the small stage at the front of the room—testing the microphone, positioning the spotlight. I did not notice the crowd as they entered, murmuring excitedly.

When I looked up, the room was full of psychic researchers, dream therapists, Jungian scholars, would-be shamans. Most of them were earnest looking men, with wire-rimmed glasses and carefully pressed jeans. There was a smattering of women in long flowery dresses and heavy perfume. There was one dwarfish figure of indeterminate sexuality in what looked like a black burnoose, placidly holding up a sign which read, “THE DREAMS OF THE TRANSGENDERED MATTER TOO!”

There were speeches, introductions, a detailing of the somewhat daunting schedule of symposia (Holy Objects in Tasmanian Dream Ritual 7:45 AM in the Whaler’s Lounge). I watched Gabriel, his smile tightly etched onto his face, his fingers drumming.  He was ready to leap up and perform, and when his name was at last called, that is what he did.

Or that is what he would have done. He bounded up the stairs, ran a hand through his mass of curls, grasped the podium. He motioned to me to turn on the tape recorder, and I did, and his pre-recorded voice began to drone: Pornography/Spirituality Dream/Seem/Semen/See Men Frail/Flail Grail/Grope. He looked up at the ceiling. He said, “When we come in a dream, we come into ourselves.”

But suddenly there was a commotion at the back of the room. Someone shouted, “Who are they? Get them out of here!” and there was the sound of shoving and kicking. Three tall figures in black suits wearing Sigmund Freud masks pushed their way through the room to the edge of the stage. One of them was holding a huge Buddha Train poster, the one that had adorned every wall in lower Manhattan for the past year, the one that had Gabriel’s name in red and gold letters above the face of the Buddha.

“Sicksicksickness,” one of the Freuds whispered. “Corruption!” they all murmured, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. Gabriel froze.

The room froze. Each of the three Freuds pulled out a huge pair of shears. “Jesus fucking Christ!” Gabriel said. “They’re going to kill me.”

But with one swift motion, the shears-wielding Freuds slashed the poster, snipped Bish’s name in half, plunged the gleaming blades methodically into each letter of his name, dropped them, and fled.

I tried to run after them. I was the good boy always, and my first impulse was to save the day. But I couldn’t get through the thick crowd of astonished, yammering psychologists. And when I turned back to the stage, Gabriel was throwing up behind the podium. I raced up to him, but he brushed me aside, ran out a side exit, did not come back, did not return to the inn, did not meet me back at the car, was not seen for days.

“Sicksicksickness,” one of the Freuds whispered. “Corruption!” they all murmured, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.

The confrontation was well documented in The Cape Cod Times, but no one seemed to have a clue who these ominous phantoms were. As far as I know, they never visited Gabriel again. But they haunted him. He became obsessed with his name—he would stare at it in newspapers, touch it on the posters, as if to make sure it was still there.

And it affected his work, I’m sure of it. Something in him seemed to recoil, shrivel, grow smaller, though perhaps that would have happened anyway.

I ended up driving the rented Thunderbird back to New York by myself. Gabriel did not return for two weeks, and when he did come back he was drinking heavily. When I asked where he had been, he pursed his lips, shook his head. “Let’s call it a …retreat,” he said. He never spoke of it again. And if the name Freud ever came up in conversation, or in the harmless hum of TV, he blanched like a man who has only just discovered the idea of guilt.

Stephen Policoff’s first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, won the James Jones Award, and was published by Carroll & Graf in 2004. His second novel, Come Away, won the Dzanc Mid-Career Author Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. His fiction and essays have recently appeared in The Rumpus, Provincetown Arts, Necessary Fiction, and Vol. I Brooklyn :Sunday Stories. He is Clinical Professor of Writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU.

Before the Razor

Inside the Creative Process of “Grail/Grope”

“Grail/Grope” is an excerpt from The Buddha Train, a novel I have been working on for quite a while, off and on. “Grail/Grope” was actually one of the first pieces I wrote of that novel, even though it appears about halfway through.

That novel, like “Grail/Grope,” centers on the character of Gabriel Bish, self-styled avant-garde theater visionary, and his doomed circle of admirers, sycophants, enablers, and groupies. And like “Grail/Grope,” much of the novel is narrated by Ned Balin, a student at Columbia, who first admires, follows, and enables Bish, but subsequently grows to loathe him.

I actually dreamed up the character of Gabriel Bish many years ago, when I was a young and struggling writer (I’m still struggling, by the way, just not so young). I first imagined him in a short story I never finished, then in a novel I attempted to write, a largely lame attempt to construct a gothic novel around the Arthurian tale of the Quest for the Holy Grail, a boyhood fascination of mine which, like many of my somewhat strange boyhood fascinations (illusionists, Buddhist lore, cults, ghost stories) has stuck around far longer than anyone might have wished.

When my first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else (Carroll & Graf, 2004) was still bouncing around homeless, a friend advised me to start another one, and The Buddha Train was what I started. I knew I wanted the self-destructive Bish in there, and I knew a somewhat embittered Ned Balin would be the narrator. But The Buddha Train gave me a lot of trouble! It kept angling to be more complicated than I had imagined, and various voices kept demanding to help tell the story. Thomas Malory’s tale of Balin and Balan, two brothers who destroy each other, kept intruding into the novel, and so did a cult founded by Ned’s brother Nate Balin, called the Dream People. My boyhood fascination with the musician/visionary/cult-leader Mel Lyman reared its head here also; Ned’s brother Nate, called Father of Dreams, is to some extent, inspired by Mel Lyman’s weird Autobiography of a World Savior. 

For these reasons, and for other sadder reasons (the progressive illness of my older daughter Anna, and the profound despair and anxiety it evoked), I put The Buddha Train aside, and started a “follow-up” novel to Beautiful Somewhere Else, which turned out to be Come Away (Dzanc Books, 2014).

That novel, narrated by my sound-alike Paul Brickner, centers on the lore of the changeling and the fear of a beloved child being snatched away. The narrator of “Grail/Grope”, Ned Balin, also makes a walk-on appearance in Come Away.

I went back to The Buddha Train eventually, tinkering with it. A few pieces from it had been published in literary magazines a few years ago, and it seemed to me that “Grail/Grope” might also be a piece which could stand on its own. Eventually, I sent it to Razor; they liked it.

But when Come Away was done—the very day I wrote the final sentences—my wife Kate died, after languishing for 6 weeks in New York Hospital hell. After that devastation, followed by months of tying up the sad loose ends of our reasonably happy life together, I began to feel shadowed by the sorrow of losing her. To distract myself, I suppose, I started to wonder what it would feel like to actually be haunted—the ambiguous pleasure/horror of seeing the form, the apparition of your beloved at the window, on a swing set, on a garden bench. So, I started another novel. I decided to use the characters from Come Away (my not- entirely-trustworthy narrator Paul, his almost-teenaged daughter Spring, his father-in- law, the expert on occult lore, Dr. Maire). This one is called The Dangerous Blues, and it also includes the cult founded by Ned Balin’s brother, the Father of Dreams, and various other of my characters who seem to drift from one narrative to the next.

It’s just about done, the third in an unplanned trilogy (Beautiful Somewhere Else, Come Away, The Dangerous Blues). But then, I wonder, where does The Buddha Train fit in? I think I’m (finally) done with that one too, and it has some of the same characters, some of the same preoccupations (being haunted, loving someone who cannot love you back, a cult centered on dreams, lies and betrayal).

Which one is my 3rd novel? Which is one the 4th ? Okay, I suppose who cares? is a legitimate answer to that question. I do, of course. I can’t help hoping the readers of Razor may care as well.

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