Do I Wake or Sleep?


I lie in bed with my personal Venus. She is of flesh and bone like me. I am sleepless and feel belabored reaching for paper and pencil at two forty-four in the morning. I am not a Romantic! I employ only the twenty-six elements and nothing else. I do not nearly know the infinity of combinations. Narrative to reader sympathy, Revolution! I scribble in the black book:

“Nicholas walked into the room looking for his pals.” No. Must grab the reader’s attention like a pitbull. Must contract lock-jaw:



Nikita paced his way through the Untimely looking for acquaintances. The Untimely was not exactly the Chicago version of the Boston book-bar. The emphasis was less on the books, or for that matter the coffee. Rather it was on the clientele—a distinguished motley of local ‘Ahht’ types sporting a wide variety of clothing. Also a few poseurs from city institutions who actually paid for what they ordered and played chess like samurai. With all that, the Untimely still retained a casual feel, and that was the most extraordinary feature of the little cafe.

Nikita had walked all the way to the rear yet the only person he recognized was Clever Hans. Hans was a gaunt curly-haired scarecrow of a man with very large fingers. He had the swarthy appearance of a Turk, though he was a Jew. He had a Swedish name, but was Polish. Nikita knew Hans from conversations in which things were discussed rather abstractly and with little regard for the participants. In fact most of these had been inane discussions on the nature and denature of modern poetry. They had concluded that it was in a decimated state. That was some time ago.

“What a morbid coincidence!”, thought Nikita. Gloomily, and with these testy thoughts and counterthoughts (a fencing of neurons . . . ), Nikita approached Mr. Hans.

It seemed that Hans was busy with a long, door-shaped piece of wood. Upon coming closer, Nikita noticed it did indeed have a striking resemblance to a door. As suddenly as Nikita had noticed the door he was stricken by a profound and subtle sense of hysteria, like a hair tickling the back of his throat. The piece of wood was unquestionably a door. The hysteria vanished completely, and Nikita sighed evenly.

“Hans,” his voice sounded thin: he took a deep breath, “How are you, sir.” Thicker.

“Fine—hey, Nikita! How are you my Droug?” A long look from Hans was enough to rally any demoralized voice.


“But what of this wood?” Nikita thought. Dear, clever Hans was an artist, not a some sort of noble craftsman.

As these familiar thoughts passed through Nikita’s head, Hans put his screwdriver down and presented him with the steady glance of his full attention.

“How are you these days, old Nik?”

Nikita hissed under his breath and bent his beard against its grain. “Not the greatest.”

Then there was one of those odd pauses, a silent coma of an instant that are present even in the conversations of friends.

Nikita had tried, desperately for much of his life, to become an ‘artiste.’ Yes—that’s what he wanted most in his sleep. But alas! He was unskilled in painting—it took him two years to find out, as it was his first passion and very dear. He was not inclined towards sculpting, for his hands did not obey him.

Abandoning the spatial arts Nikita lunged at film, as an adder to a rat. He took a course called “Editing for the Screen -1.” He composed several theories on the subject and devoted all his time and money to viewing cinema d’art. It was not for him: he could not come up with anything well-defined and had a particularly uninteresting taste for black and white shots of sidewalk cracks.

So he tried music. Bass. He quit after a year’s stint with the “Articulate Pythons” because of a painfully distinct lack of rhythm. Those experiences were back in his time at college, the young manhood of 18 through 22, on the campus of DePaul University. Nikita was now thirty-one and was quite sure that those days were behind him.

During his senior year as an English major Nikita had decided to try his hand at the art of fiction. The “Pythons” had just broken up after a post-show squabble about beer, amplifiers, and somebody’s girl. Nikita seemed to remember she had long brown hair. Long legs maybe—a girl with a serpentine posture.

That night Nikita had returned to his studio flat on Halsted and Wellington and tapped out his first poem. He read it to his dog, and then to his friend. They both liked it. A few months later Nikita decided with uncalled-for passion that poetry had been killed by media and undertook his first short story. He wrote it in a night and all his friends had liked it. But seven years later, after teaching, shooting pool, waiting tables, and fixing sinks, he forgot about his stories. He didn’t have the time or the desire to wrack his brains re-living his rust.

So Nikita had never discovered his creative gift, and was finally unable to realize his highest aspiration, his dream. He gave up the quest, sold his leather clothing and settled for the armchair comforts and minor challenges of appreciation and barroom critiques. He was even approaching connoisseurship at one point but decided he risked becoming altogether too snide.

At present Nikita’s mind was a bit jumpy. He briefly noticed a young woman with a shirt made of mohair, or maybe it was yak, who knows? She was beautiful in that animal hair. He imagined himself a young man, but was neither young nor old. He was more of a moderate man. There was an illusory comfort in this realization, and Nikita had recently been reminding himself of his moderate status and moderate means. But most of him was not about to accept the mediocrity of this classification.

Nikita’s imagination, annoyed with such moderation, ran rampant and naked in full glory like some tar-eaten Gaul charging the outerworks and the Roman legions manning them. The tables turned at Alesia, the Gauls spread and Vercingetorix rises to towering heights after burning Rome.

Every night, this pesky barbarian caused more angst for Nikita than one man could withstand in a lifetime. He did his best to remind Nikita that the day world had only a shade of the night world’s misgivings. Nikita was unaware however, and was spared from being a nervous wreck simply because he didn’t remember his dreams. He would wake up having forgotten.

He also had certain dreams which, piled on top of the imaginative ones, were more easily recalled but more contrived. He had a particular recurring dream, mostly during the day but never asleep, which told of his potential. In this dream he would be addressing a large crowd, usually at a rally but sometimes at a stately and opulent dinner. He was often clothed as the pope. He would simply raise his arms—that’s all—and the crowd would be moved to applause, even to outright cheers. Then, or shortly thereafter (occasionally he raised his arms for a second round of kudos) Nikita would come round. Thus he dreamt the dreams of success and power, and there were so many variations on this theme that Nikita was constantly revising his strategy “for de life” rather than simply opening with pawn, so to speak. In a word he was a dreamer, and just what was to be done?

Hans had made an extraordinary rise to underground popularity and notoriety with the performance of his major project “Still Born and the Aqueduct,” just four years ago. The show was a smashing event, though several orchestra members narrowly escaped bodily harm when part of the aqueduct separated and fell from its moorings. Had it not been for the irreparable damage to the aqueduct, Hans was convinced that upon second or no later than the third performance, he would have made it big. His mother had called him last night. She wanted him to visit her in Sun City-West, out in Arizona. He had never been there.

Hans, the Untimely legend, hoisted the end of the door up with a mighty grunt and pointed out the slots in the wood for the jambs. Nikita rubbed his finger over it—it was as smooth as plastic. Hans said something about the skin of women and this wood. Nikita thought he wanted to design some sort of wooden dress for women.

“It wouldn’t be comfortable, Hans.”


It was exactly that which was bothering Nikita. Wood and doors. Nikita mused. Wood, Doors . . . snakes and wooden doors.

He had met Simone at a health-food cafe which featured fresh-squeezed glasses of homegrown grass-juice. There were many grasses available for many tastes. A few of them were even tasty. The cafe also had a children’s playpen. It was not exactly Nikita’s kind of place, but it had elements that appealed to him intensely. His favorite color was green.

“You found some shoes?”

“Yes, uh yes indeed, thank you.”

Eventually Simone decided to go back to school and get her Master’s degree in Art Therapy. She was going to quit at the library because of classes. Nikita was happy for her, but was unsure that his feeble salary working as a guard in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities would be sufficient. He also wondered, “What is Art Therapy?”

The problems began when, six months after they had moved in, Simone started coming home late after classes. She was working as a waitress a few nights a week, and sometimes she would not come home until late at night even when she did not work. Nikita fretted and picked his appendages in his extra time. He became more and more nervous. He began thinking maybe everything was not right between them.

He suspected Simone of seeing another man after work, or at the restaurant. Nikita could not accept Simone’s devotions to her studies. Of course he was too scared to tell her of his suspicions, so for a while he just came into the restaurant where she worked and sat at a table drinking coffee waiting for her few seconds of attention. Nikita was so worried that he began smoking more and more cigarettes, beyond a pack a day. He imagined what Simone might be doing at school and it made him both jealous and sick.

Simone didn’t understand Nikita’s strange attitude, and was offended when he finally explained what he was nervous about. She began to avoid him because he asked so many questions, which only made him more jealous. Finally he left, taking his few possessions and leaving a crude sort of note.

It was now three weeks since Nikita left, and he had not yet broken down and called Simone. He was not comfortable on the telephone, and did not get one installed in his new apartment.

Like an old man savoring an as yet unrealized dream, Nikita frowned and clenched his teeth. He realized he had been staring blankly at Hans and the door for at least five minutes, while he had rerun his most fervent romance reel again and again upon the dimly lit screen of his memory. He was as usual a passive and occasionally terrified viewer.

“Nikita, hey—how are you, eh? Look . . . Door! You like eh?”

Nikita looked at the the door. It was a nice door, straight and solid. He saw Hans involved in the object, caressing the wood like a pet snake. He saw groups of people he did not recognize clumped around tables drinking coffee. He felt old and out of place.

He had never felt this way with Simone.

“What’s the matter, Nik? Check out this door, huh?”

Nikita looked at the door, glad that it really was a door.

“Nice door . . . I’m getting old, Hans. Old, decrepit, haggard, crotchety, wizened.”

Hans gave his friend a noticeable run-down with his head. “Rubbish.”

“No, its true.”

“If I called you a fool, that would be too sparing a term; an idiot—still too nice. You’re still thinking for her, eh?”

“No . . . ”

“What do you know about love, my dear friend?”

Nikita wondered if Hans cared at all. If he even could. He scowled at Hans, who was smiling with a certain plasticity to his lips that was less human and more like gummi candy. It was a sticky, even sickly grin. Nikita felt offended, decided to act on his feelings rather than let it pass, and stormed out of the Untimely despite the insistent protestations of Clever Hans.

I lie awake on my small bed in my small room. Venus is gone. I get up. I light a cigarette, make coffee. Eat Grape Nuts, toast. I shall have potatoes again for dinner. I think about writing something about the gay MG mechanic who tried to get me to come over to his house a few nights ago at three in the morning to play ‘Uno’. Was that a dream? No. I type at my blue screen:

‘Nikita was afraid of growing old.’

Name still a problem. Nikita used by bad Russian villains etc.

So it was that Nikita entered his period of sulking. There was no question of ownership—it was his alone. The more he thought about the fragility of his new friendships, the less amiable he became. He started avoiding people in what became rather severe ways. He hardly ever went to the Untimely. He would walk down alleys rather than main streets. He stayed in his tiny studio brooding and not doing much of anything. He smoked most of the time and thought he was courting the Muse, whom at the time he believed was the Indian goddess Kali. Eventually Hans came over to apologize. He said that he was too critical and that he was ‘truly sorry.’ Nikita forgave him and that night they went to a party. The party was held in an entire three-flat, each floor with its own theme, booze and food. Nikita saw some old friends. He talked with a friend of Simone’s who told him that Simone wanted to reach him. He started having a good time. He danced and shook his body and stared down.


“Is this Simone?”

“This is Nik.”

Simone gasped and laughingly asked him how he was doing. It was a happy, rushing laugh.

“I am doing . . . rather . . . badly,” Nikita said, and wished he was in another place, another time, where he would not have to explain and the gallery of his loneliness could be emptied before her to rise towards the sky, like helium balloons.


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