I had stopped by late in the day, having taken my wife’s advice that it was a cozy place to escape the early winter’s blast.
So there I was, in a small, art filled cafe in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, warming myself as best I could, and staring thoughtfully at a woman’s breasts as the afternoon light began to fade.
I had no idea who the woman was that belonged to the breasts.
”Perhaps it is fate,” I mused. But, whether fate or chance, or the rare combination of the two, I had arrived at that moment in my life, with genuine concern for all mankind, and what I thought was the best of intentions.
What was it my English Literature professor used to say? It was something about the bawdiness of Chaucer, I mused.
I tried to picture the professor lecturing.
I could not remember a thing.
I have reached the age where memories have a life all their own.
They certainly do not obey me.
My memories have for years, been like a dog sleeping on the couch.
The dog does not move when approached and my memories will not come when called.
Both lack the decency and courtesy of simple respect.
When you can no longer count on a name, or date, a similar situation, or damn near any thing of value, to come rushing forth into your frontal lobes, you are in trouble.
Gone are the days when my past life was at a constant boil, ready to bubble forth at a moments notice.
Instead, memories now are a slow trickle, duplicating I suppose, masculine bodily functions, which once visited by age, also have a mind of their own.
There was but a trace of my memories left in the Truth or Consequences Cafe, but I tried as hard as I could to think back to my early years in college.
I was in my 20s when the professor I was thinking of taught at the University. He was a good friend of Morris Eaves, a renowned expert on the visionary poets…..especially William Blake. Morris had been a much-loved professor, accounting perhaps for how I have managed to retain HIS name.
But now years later, I could think of neither the one professor’s name nor what he had said.
I could however envision myself in his class, which gave me little to nothing to go on. My entire thought process was futile if not absurd.
Somehow time had placed this man and his words in a peculiar fog, which rolled in and out, as if my mind was San Francisco Bay.
There was however one clue to the mystery of the English Literature professor, and it was that whatever he said it had something to do with breasts. Maybe even Chaucer and breasts.
The woman’s breasts that I had been staring at had triggered a cornucopia of literary and art related thoughts, untamed though they may be.
And while I could not come up with what the phantom professor had once said, I had a vivid recollection of other less prescient things people had once said to me.
One of my art professors propounded something around that same time and although it was something I would rather forget, it was what came rushing forth into my mind.
This professor’s name also eludes me, but what he said has vexed me most of my adult life.
“A naked woman is like an apple.”
I was in a life drawing class, frustrated as hell because my drawings looked worse and worse with each passing day, and this man several times, walked up behind me, grabbed the charcoal out of my hand, corrected my errant drawing and said, “A naked woman is like an apple.”
What the hell did he mean by that? He said it in such an authoritative way that I could never bring myself to question him.
And as if it had the wisdom of the ages was baked in its core he repeated the phrase again to the entire class.
“A naked woman is like an apple.”
The aphorism was repeated only two or three times in my life (if I remember correctly), however IT has not yet left me.
It has become permanently lodged, I suppose, somewhere between my heart and my esophagus.
Seeing as how it was a woman’s breasts that had triggered the whole thing, I want to assure you that it was not simply a prurient interest I was engaged in that cold late afternoon.
It was a genuine literary matter.
The breasts in question belonged to a woman behind the counter who was bending down searching for a chocolate chip cookie, which I had requested.
And here is where fate plays a hand, because had I requested the peanut butter cookie she would never have bent down so far and I would not have had such a good look at what was emblazoned across her chest.
It was a tattoo that appeared to be two short paragraphs of what I first thought might be French.
After studying it for a while I decided it was Middle English. I also thought I made out the phrase, “a thurghfare ful of wo”
I was captivated, as I had not read Middle English verse since I was 22, and I immediately set myself the task of trying to decipher the message.
I needed my glasses, but they were in the truck, and I strained to read the text.
Tattoos are common these days, at least in my neck of the woods, and seem to be de rigueur in Truth or Consequences New Mexico.
Growing up in the 1950s I had seldom come across anyone with a tattoo visible to the naked eye. Perhaps tattoos covered the arms and legs of the men I often saw wearing suits and ties. But I doubt it.
Those were the days when wearing a hat was mandatory as well, so maybe there were tattoos on the tops of men’s heads that remained covered in public.
However, the idea that a woman would have a tattoo was out of the realm of possibility.
What caused the tsunami in the tattoo industry I don’t know, but since the 1950s people have made up for lost time.
Women especially seem enamored of the notion that ink and bodies do mix.
I can’t say that I yet favor the idea or that I am totally used to it.
But a casual glance at a woman these days is likely to involve not only the woman, but a pictorial representation of a flower, an animal, a pastoral setting, or some sort of phantasm.
Men and women both are now walking billboards, advertising their interests and sharing their darkest secrets.
It is as if Twitter and Facebook are not just websites, they are a mindset, or lifestyle choice. And every waking thought or image seeks to be set free in hopes of taking root in some virgin soil.
As I stood there staring at the lady behind the counter, attempting to read her breasts, she retrieved my chocolate chip cookie, stood up and looked right at me.
She must have felt the heat of my vision, because instantly her eyes caught mine and she looked angry.
I managed to stammer, ”Ummmm….uhhhh …..Chaucer? ”
Her withering look intensified, blistering me at once.
As if in slow motion, I could see the glare in her eyes calling forth a word, which seemed to come from deep inside, and landed on the young woman’s lips.
“WHAT ? !” she demanded, and the flame had now set her face ablaze.
“I….I…. Uhhh, I don’t have my glasses on, but the uh….. the poem or statement that is tattooed around your neck….. I thought maybe it was written in Middle English and that it might have been from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tale”.
My words sounded strained and false.
“Uhhhh….Ummmm…maybe it’s the section called the Squire’s Tale ?....... or maybe I just imagined it,” I offered.
I was hoping she would judge me not simply as a pariah but perhaps as a pitiable wretch whose mind was clearly off balance.
“ I had a professor years ago who said something about Chaucer…and …and…”
My voice trailed off. I could not bring myself to say the word “breasts”. At least not in this context, and as they say context is everything.
I breathed in deeply hoping that during the pause she would explain (in a friendly way) what it was she had in mind when she got the tattoo.
I also wanted to go on and ask her if getting the tattoo was painful. But that question too was a victim of context.
Silence….I received silence.
She offered no friendly explanation or anything….
Perhaps she was angry with Chaucer or was warned never to discuss him with strangers.
Instead of a friendly conversation, all I got was silence in the Truth or Consequences Café.
I was instantly aware that the passage of time might never remedy the situation and I would never know what she had tattooed on her chest.
Some things are lost to eternity.
I am perplexed however, as she had essentially made a public offering on a fairly private space.
Perhaps the tattoo was simply a personal reminder of some sort, along the line of “stand up straight”. Or perhaps it was not Middle English I was deciphering, but a depiction of abstract leaves. I really wanted my glasses.
“Well I can’t even remember the professors name,” I said nervously, “ so I guess whatever he said about Chaucer….” And again my words trailed off. I could tell she was not listening.
The cookie was on the counter. It awaited my payment. And I hurriedly sought my wallet, fumbling uncontrollably.
“The cookie is $ 1.45?” This I said with a forced cheeriness, that I hoped would somehow conclude the matter.
The silence continued.
The young woman’s eyes never again met mine.
Instead they looked far ahead, as if seeking a distant freighter that was far out at sea.
Our encounter was finished, my cookie was finished, and indeed I was finished, at least in her world.
Silence is not always golden.
And while nothing had really changed all that much, the warmth of the small Café had proven to be illusionary and a small glacier had taken the place of the wood stove.
On top of all that, I desperately wanted a coke. But I decided that ordering one was not in my best interest at that moment…besides I had promised my daughter that I was going to quit. My daughter is convinced Coca Cola causes diphtheria.
The cookie having been purchased, I sat down, pretending to look at the art.
Regrets flooded over me.
I truly regretted the entire episode.
Literature and high-minded thoughts were now as far away as the freighter that the young woman was looking for.
I regretted looking at her breasts and pondering so many imponderables.
I regretted thinking about the word “bawdy”.
I regretted my thought processes, which left me looking open-mouthed, and deranged, much as my father had looked as he aged.
I regretted not being content with a peanut butter cookie and seeking the chocolate chip, which helped to set the whole thing into motion.
But mainly I regretted not having a Coca Cola.
I really wanted one.
In time, it all passed ….the awkwardness, the self-consciousness and the embarrassment.
I finished the cookie and stumbled out into the cold.
Life would go on, despite the woman, her tattooed breasts, and her chocolate chip cookie.
The cold slapped me in the face and I went on to immerse myself in the mundane things of everyday life.
But even now, from time to time I continue to think about that English Literature professor, the one whose name and teachings continue to evade me.
He had set me on a lifetime course that included thinking about Chaucer. Should I thank him for that?
Did Chaucer say something about breasts that I should know?
What would Chaucer say about this episode in my life?
Is there some deeper meaning I can take from all this?
No matter how hard I try, I can find nothing all that concrete.
The lesson of the café might be that literature should best be left where it is most often found, safe and sound in a university, a cloistered cell, or some other contemplative environment.
But, and I am unsure why, the composite brew of profound and profane that is art, just as often, finds its way back into the streets, stirring up trouble as it goes.
Maybe a proper introduction would help.
Even so, because the vengeance of time turns some things in our lives to dust, and leaves other things unscathed, I continually come back to this:
“ A naked woman is like an apple.”
I have no idea what it means but I’m thinking of getting it tattooed on my chest.