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Robert W. Norris, Author of Expatriate and Antiwar Fiction
Modeled roughly on Malcolm Lowry's "Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid," Robert W. Norris's "Autumn Shadows in August" is part homage to Lowry and Hermann Hesse, part mushroom retrospective, and part middle-aged love story. David Thompson is an expatriate American teaching at a Japanese university and suffering from hepatitis C. His wife Kaori is recovering from cancer surgery. Feeling a strong sense of their own mortality, confusion about the significance of what they have done with their lives, and a need to escape the constrictions of their life in Japan, the two set out on a journey to Europe to retrace a path from David's adventurous youth and locate a German benefactor from the past. What lies ahead--a trip through the Magic Theater, a sudden death, an encounter with Lowry's ghost, and a descent into the Capuchin Crypt in Rome--will change their lives irrevocably.
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We were at Central Station by eight buying round-trip tickets to Alkmaar. It was a thirty-minute ride. We watched the flat, expansive, green landscape with many trees fly by outside the train window. Canals criss-crossed the land here and there. We saw many clean, orderly, brick houses. Dairy cows, sheep, and horses huddled in groups and grazed in the fields.
There was a large crowd of tourists at the cheese market. Kaori took many pictures of the round, thirty-three-kilogram blocks of cheese being stacked, checked for quality, then carried to the weigh station by porters in colorful hats who afterward stacked them back in delivery trucks. We got separated. I rested at a cafe awhile, then walked around the nearby streets taking in the sights.
By the time the show was over at twelve-thirty, the sky had turned gray. A light, cold rain began to fall. I couldn't find Kaori. The crowd thinned out, but still she was nowhere to be found. I figured she had already taken the train back to Amsterdam.
I wandered down some side streets and came upon a small head shop called The Black Eagle. I entered. Reggae music on low volume filled the room. There were some displays of smoking paraphernalia and seeds in the front, a wooden table and four chairs in the back left, and a counter in the far right corner. A young, dark-eyed man with slicked-back hair and wearing a silk jacket was behind the counter. He looked up and smiled at me.
"Is it all right if I smoke a joint?" I asked.
"I normally don't allow anyone to smoke on the premises, but you are the only customer I've had today, so I think I can make an exception. Please, sit down," the man said, motioning toward the table.
I sat down, pulled out the little baggie and rolling papers I'd bought the day before, and set them on the table. "Would you like to join me?" I asked.
"It's a slow day. Why not?" The man brought an ashtray and put it on the table. "What are you smoking?"
"It's called Red Bud. I bought it at the Siberie in Amsterdam yesterday. The lady said it gives a pleasant, mellow high that's very nice for morning time when you just want to ease into the day. My name is David."
"I'm Pablo. It's nice to meet you."
We shook hands and Pablo sat down. "May I take a look?" Pablo asked.
Pablo picked up the bud, looked at it closely, then pinched it and held it to his nose. "It has a nice fragrance, but it's a little dry." He handed it back to me and said, "You should save it for later. Let's smoke some of mine. It's fresher."
Pablo got up, went behind the counter, disappeared behind a curtain, and returned with a large bud and a small brass pipe. He clipped some of the bud, filled the pipe, handed it to me, and gave me a light. We took three hits apiece.
"What do you think?"
"Very nice," I said. "It's not too stony, kind of refined. It tastes a bit like the sinsemilla I used to smoke years ago."
I felt quite comfortable with Pablo, almost as if I'd known him all my life. We talked for a while about places we'd traveled, adventures we'd had, and the quality of the dope we'd smoked in Nepal, Afghanistan, and Madagascar. Then we fell into private ruminations and listened to the music.
I suddenly became aware of Pablo gazing intently at me. "Is something wrong?" I asked.
"Not really. I just have a feeling that you're here on a special journey."
"I suppose you could say that. There's a German friend who helped me years ago when I was lost and confused and I want to see him once more and thank him."
Pablo leaned forward and said, "Please tell me about him."
"His name is Thomas Knorr. He gave me a place to stay for a short while and turned me on to all kinds of things about Iran and Afghanistan in 1977 before I went to those countries. I used him as the model for one of the characters in my first novel."
"I see." Pablo took another hit off the pipe and passed it to me.
I took a good hit, held it for a moment, exhaled slowly, then continued, "We really only knew each other for about ten days when I stayed at his place in Lorrach. I'd gone there with Hasan and Ataullah, the Iranian and Afghan I met in Paris. Anyway, those ten days and all the adventures I had on the road from Germany to India changed my life forever," I said. "In a sense, Thomas is partially responsible for leading me to Japan, to my wife and my present life."
"So now you expect this Thomas Knorr to give you some kind of affirmation of your life?"
Pablo's question startled me. I hadn't considered it. "I'm not really sure what I expect. I only know that I want to see him once more to thank him before I die. That's all."
Pablo smiled gently and raised his eyes a bit. "I think there's more to it than that," he said confidently.
"What do you mean?"
Pablo's smile disappeared for a moment, replaced by a look of serious intent. "I sense that you are here on a journey of the spirit. It's in the aura surrounding you." Pablo put the pipe and lighter on the table and leaned forward. "May I speak honestly with you?"
"Yes, please do."
"You remind me a bit of Harry Haller, whom I got to know quite well. He, like yourself, was a self-exiled member of his society, unable to integrate himself into that society. I get the feeling that you are ailing spiritually, that you are restless, astray in an alien world, unable to find contentment and fulfillment."
"How can you see that? We've only just met." A shiver ran through me.
Pablo ignored my question. "You had a dream recently that disturbed you, did you not?"
"Yes, yes I did. Last night, in fact."
"You should reflect on the symbolism that was in the dream. Dreams are a mirror into the soul and can give you profound insights into what is ailing you. Think also of the symbolism of the book you brought. Think of the symbolism in everything you encounter. Just remember that all the symbols do not necessarily pertain to you personally."
Pablo's words and what he knew about me were unsettling. It was as if he knew me better than I knew myself. I didn't know how to respond. I turned my eyes away from his for a moment and took a deep breath. "I don't know what to say. What are you? Some kind of shaman or something? How can you possibly know all this about me?"
Pablo leaned back in his chair and laughed softly. "No, not a shaman. You could say I'm one of life's Chess Players."
"Yes. Chess is like the game of life. And the pieces of each person's game are made up of the many broken parts, the many selves, of his or her personality. It is my job as a Chess Player to help those whose soul has broken into pieces. We do this simply by showing people like yourself that you can rearrange your own pieces in any order you want. In this way, you can build up the soul again, reclaim your artistic vision, and achieve an infinite number of moves and possibilities in your own game."
"Are you inferring that I'm unstable? Insane?"
"Perhaps. That may be your own perception or the perception of others, but what I'm saying is merely that madness is the beginning of wisdom. A wise man is one who has developed the game of his life to such an extent that he can see the humor in the pathos, the pathos in the humor."
I didn't like the way the conversation was heading. I'd hated the military psychiatrists psychoanalyzing me in my prison days, and I didn't like Pablo doing it now. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean. I should probably be getting back now. The rain is letting up and--"
Pablo raised his hand gently and said, "Please wait a minute before you leave. I have something I'd like to give you." He got up, went into the back of his shop, and returned with a small box, which he handed to me.
"What's this?" I asked.
"You've heard of the Magic Theater, haven't you?"
"Yes, but I don't understand."
Pablo smiled and touched my arm. "Inside the box is a door to the theater, more of a key to a door, really. There is also a small chessboard and some pieces to play with. Use them as you see fit, or throw everything away if you will. I only want you to have this gift for the proper time."
"Well, thank you very much. I appreciate your kindness." I put the box in my pocket.
Pablo shook my hand with a brotherly firmness and looked directly into my eyes. "I feel a certain sadness about you. I think you have lost the ability to laugh innocently. You need to regain that ability. You've read Hesse's books, haven't you?"
"Yes, a long time ago."
"Then you should remember what I said to Harry Haller: the magic theater is for madmen only and the price is only your mind. Do you admit to being a madman?"
I laughed nervously.
"Good," he said and smiled brightly. "I'm glad to see you haven't forgotten completely how to laugh. I hope you will enter this little theater and find much to marvel at. Also, remember that you'll be required to leave your personality, your ego, at the door. Good travels, my friend."
On the train ride back to Amsterdam I thought deeply about the strange things Pablo had said. Much had been on target. The book I'd brought with me, for example. It could be seen symbolically. The facts of the current journey I was on weren't unlike Malcolm Lowry's novel "Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid" with the main character Sigbjorn Wilderness taking his second wife along with him to Mexico to confront his past and search for his old friend and mentor Juan Fernando. I empathized greatly with Sigbjorn, with Lowry himself. There were many things we had in common.
Lowry was, if nothing else, a symbolizer. Everything he thought, saw, experienced seemed to mean something dark and foreboding to him. The landscape of Mexico in both "Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid" and in his greatest work "Under the Volcano" is filled with abysses, labyrinths, and demons that represent his own personal hell. Numbers and snippets of conversation overheard or combinations of words seen on a poster or menu represent various premonitions and omens. Throughout my own wandering life, I'd reacted to the stimuli around me in a similar fashion. The fictional version of my journey to the East was filled with symbolic descriptions of the landscape and, indeed, the character of Hasan, with whom I'd journeyed from Lorrach to Iran, had become my own Virgil guiding me through a Dantesque Inferno. And India. Good God, India. The madness that overtook me by the time I was sleeping on the streets of Calcutta with all the lepers and Untouchables had me seeing all sorts of strange visions and creatures from the netherworld. Yes, I had a strong connection to Lowry's madness.
Alcoholism was there, too. I was a lightweight compared to Lowry's excesses, but I'd had my own battles with the booze and no doubt that had exacerbated the hepatitis. I had an unquenchable thirst for beer mainly, and the six months of abstinence I'd just completed while on the interferon was a constant battle. More to the point, though, I was a stoner, which is difficult in Japan because there's not a lot of pot to be found (not to mention the possibility of seven years in the slammer with nothing but fish heads and rice if you're busted for possession), but in my twenties I must've done a good seventy-five trips on one hallucinogen or another. Never had a bad trip, either. Lowry was no pothead, but his choice of drink was mescal, which can produce a hefty hallucinogenic experience, so there was that connection, too.
What else? We were both expatriates. That in itself is the source of many strange neuroses and thought processes concerning one's identity, the meaning of life, the constant dealing with a foreign language and no matter how proficient you become there's always a nuance of misinterpretation to everything you say and hear because no matter how you try you can't escape totally from the culture you were raised in, the influences and values and judgments that marked you as a child and adolescent. You are in a sense doomed as a man without a home, an "ibasho wa nai ningen" as they say in Japanese. Again, perhaps Pablo had been right. I was a self-exiled man unable to integrate myself fully into society, destined to be the eternal outsider.
We were also both ex-cons. I'd done my time, six months' worth, in a military brig as a conscientious objector refusing my order to fight in Nam in 1970. That single experience had catapulted me into the whole cauldron of mixed-up madness that comprised my life experiences and confusion of the following umpteen years, that is, until I met Kaori and somehow managed to bring it all under control. As for Lowry, he'd been arrested three times in Mexico during his first sojourn there. How he had suffered. Such a story! Such self-inflicted suffering! My own life, once I'd read Lowry's books and biography, seemed a breeze in the park, a mere comedy. But as I say we both knew what it was to be locked up, to be an undesirable in common society, to have, in Lowry's words, "a Dostoevskian fixation" on prison and "practically a pathological sympathy for those who do wrong...and get into the shit." These prison visions, no doubt for both of us, caused us to pour words on paper in a purging of the soul and a search for understanding. The result for Lowry was his masterpiece "Under the Volcano"; for me, a minor novel that, if nothing else, proved therapeutic.
There were more connections and similarities, but the main thing was that while reading "Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid" I was finding on nearly every page some passage that described exactly what was happening or had happened to me. How could Pablo have known all that?
Kaori was still out when I got back to the hotel room. I pulled a chair up to the window overlooking the Warmoestraat, opened a beer, and watched the activity of the street below. I propped my right ankle up on a stool, sighed heavily, and thought again about my earlier days wandering through Europe.
Those had been good days when my legs were strong and I could pace the streets for hours. Nostalgia came over me. I wished for a moment I was in my twenties again, walking and walking, driven by hunger and thought, ready to take any new road, to follow freely strange yearnings that would take me to all corners of the earth. Life had been poignant then with all the multitudinous mysteries I'd faced head on. Of course, there was comfort now in having a good job, some money, staying in a decent hotel, eating good food, not wanting for anything. But passion had left me, replaced by an inexplicable emptiness.
It was hard to pinpoint exactly when my fatigue and apathy had set in. Certainly, when I arrived in Japan at the age of thirty-two, I was still consumed by a vast store of energy and a thirst for more knowledge and more experience. Perhaps the years of adapting to a new culture had drained me--the living rough and broke for the first few years before the time came to make the decision to commit to the permanent life of an expatriate, knowing that in order to secure a more stable visa, job, and life I'd need to gain the qualifications necessary to teach at a university. In my mid-thirties I began the correspondence course that eventually took seven years to complete--pure stubbornness it was to stick with it that long--but in the end while working several part-time jobs I'd gotten that master's degree and all the efforts paid off when I landed a full-time job teaching at a women's junior college.
Maybe those years of teaching too many hours at too many places and working in every spare moment I could garner to complete the degree, this in addition to trying to learn the Japanese language, had burned me out, but I felt a tinge of pride in what I'd accomplished, in my perseverance, the one quality that through my life had allowed me to survive to the age of forty-nine--an age I once thought distant, strange, somehow unattainable--and outlive my literary heroes, the ones who had burned themselves out, too: Thomas Wolfe, dead at thirty-seven; Jack Kerouac, dead at forty-three; Malcolm Lowry, dead at forty-eight.
Not that I could count myself in their league, but if I died tomorrow I could still say that I'd left behind something of a literary legacy: two novels, a novella used as a textbook in Japanese universities, two other reference books collaborated on with a group of Japanese authors, and fifteen papers on teaching English as a foreign language. All in all, my work had had some merit.
In rationalizing my life and accomplishments to myself, I could probably point to the time spent in the Denver military prison as the original spark that had motivated me all these years. Yes, I thought, if I ever had the chance, I'd dearly love to take my resume back to those psychiatrists, chaplains, officers, and others who had tried to break me down mentally and show me that the choice I'd made in refusing my order to fight in Nam would ruin my life and that as a coward and ex-con and communist I'd never be able to hold a decent job, raise a family (maybe they'd been right there), or hold my head high as an upstanding citizen of the late great United States of America, the greatest country in the history of mankind, the only country to truly have God on its side, and with the stigma of an undesirable discharge, an "undesirable" for Christ's sake, I'd be forced to live a life of shame if I didn't admit to my wrongdoing, adhere to the morals of society, and return to the fold as a "rehabilitated" man.
Well, I'd proved them wrong. I'd rejected their efforts to save me and created my own life, a good life, an independent life. But at what cost? Even though my stubbornness, my quirky independence, my drive, my obsessive nature, I supposed, had pushed me onto a path that held for me tenfold the experiences, discoveries, horrors, loneliness, and miles and countries covered in the lifetimes of most other men, there was still something missing. Perhaps that was the main reason for this trip.
I thought of Thomas Knorr. Perhaps Thomas had the final answer for me. Hadn't Thomas, or at least the image of Thomas, always been a man who, from an early age, knew what his ideals and dreams were and pursued them? Hadn't Thomas been the personification of a man in tune with his time, a man with purpose to his life, a man of adventure who was not afraid to follow his dreams to their end in order to realize them?
Perhaps it had simply been the intensity of the psilocybin we'd taken or the quality of the hashish we'd smoked while discussing life and philosophy during our ten days together back in 1977, but I believed I'd never connected intellectually as closely with anyone (except for Kaori) before or since. There had been an immediate and mutual understanding. Thomas hadn't questioned all the amazing coincidences he said had guided his life, the times when a second earlier or later here or a couple of inches closer or father apart there had saved him (as if by a crazy kind of divine intervention), the strange appearance of benefactors of unknown origin who either saved his ass in one way or led him in another before disappearing into the dust. It was in the unquestioning acceptance of whatever fate threw at him as being right for the time, the free will of allowing himself simply to be carried off by the winds of the moment, the willful act of giving himself up to fate, accepting, knowing the path that lay ahead was already preordained and irrevocable. It was a faith, he'd explained, that could not be articulated.
In listening to Thomas, I'd understood completely. During our time together the unfathomable mysteries of my own life became clear and I gained a vision of my future. My fears disappeared and all the paths of the past that had led me to Thomas's house suddenly became meaningful as the inevitable ones I'd had to follow. It was an astonishing revelation. I'd been born to be "undesirable" in order to free myself.
Or so I'd thought back then. Anyway, what did it matter now? Shouldn't I be thinking about what to say to Thomas after not having any contact for twenty-two years? It was possible we'd both changed immeasurably since that time. If Thomas's "situation was bad," as his wife Undine had said on the phone when I managed to contact her a couple months before, would he even want to talk about the old days? What if he'd lost his faith in himself and the meaning of his life? What if he'd become a grumpy old man? Would he even want to see me? That was something I hadn't considered. What would Thomas think about my having used him as a character in my novel? Would he be angry, especially since I'd not even changed the name and place? If anyone else from Lorrach read the parts in the book about his drug and smuggling experiences, would any harm come from it? And what about his appearance in my dream and the words he'd spoken? What did it mean? What was the symbolism there?
I found myself rubbing the box Pablo had given me. I pulled it out of my pocket and opened it. There were four mushrooms, a tiny chessboard, and some figurines of different ages from infant to elderly inside. It was strange that Pablo knew so much about me, but like all the chance encounters with people I'd met throughout my life, I accepted it as natural. It had been that way with Thomas, with Hasan and Ataullah, with Kaori, with everyone who had influenced the direction of my life. I wasn't sure if I'd actually take the mushrooms or throw them away. Maybe I could take them just to get back into that hallucinogenic and revelatory frame of mind that had connected Thomas and me on the hill above his place where we'd walked after taking psilocybin and looked out on three countries and up at the stars two nights before I left with Hasan for Iran. Yes, that was an idea. After all, the last time I'd taken a hallucinogen was at least twenty years ago when passion still burned within me and I felt deeply about everything in life.