Morning and Melancholia

Frederick Seidel

Mr X, a bureaucrat at the UN Secretariat, who, with his wife and child,
Lived in a collapsing Gatsby mansion in Oyster Bay
My wife and I rented half of for that summer, depended for everything
On Shantilal, the sweet houseboy with a shy moustache
Who did everything with a smile:

Plumbing, painting, roof repair, keeping immaculate the long white gravel drive,
Electrician, cook, butler, nanny, gardener, housemaid, everything
Including brilliant, indefatigable badminton –
Everything except the one thing he had been promised
And which had persuaded him to leave his wife and son in India

And come to work for Mr X in America
For forty dollars a month –
Namely, to learn to drive a car.
He used his bicycle with its basket to shop
For odds and ends the boss or madam suddenly craved.

The one thing Shanti wanted to do,
In his brightly-smiling, bright young life and shyness and flame,
Was drive a car.
Every day X parked his car at the station and took the train into Manhattan
To solve the world’s problems and leave his own behind.

Me and my fancy friends played badminton for hours,
With Shanti on one team or the other, and my pregnant wife.
How many summer hours we spent swatting the shuttlecock
Back and forth till I finally woke.
I finally told X that, regretfully –

Since he was in other ways such a decent man –
I would have to report him to the Secretariat
So that he would surely lose his job,
If he did not give Shanti a proper salary and driving lessons.
I felt I was finally picking off my scabs so I could bleed, age thirty.

Many years later, I was divorced –
And living in a tiny apartment without hope –
When Shantilal called to say he wanted to come work for me for free.
I explained to him there was no room.
He said he would sleep on the floor.

I took a vow of silence for three months in Paris, age eighteen,
Back in the days when even an ancient waiter was Garçon!
I read Etienne Gilson’s Hélöise et Abélard
And walked past prostitutes late at night.
I read all of Freud in English in Paris in silence.

A man comes up to me and looks at me.
It’s my Uncle Maurice and he’s scary.
‘It’s the gossip of St Louis and you should be ashamed of it.
People are saying you’re a dissipate.’
And he hands me a highball.

I was about to leave St Louis and Maurice for Paris and silence.
I was a tadpole in a fishbowl about to be a whale – and breach – and sing!
Someday in Oyster Bay I will save Shantilal!
In a future life, Mr X will tremble like a leaf!
Someday the houseboy will drive the car!

Meanwhile, small cell carcinoma loves the brain –
Eats brains with the gusto the French do – does love to eat a brain.
While your brain is being eaten, you’re out of breath.
To put it mildly, friend, you’re near your death.
I don’t know anyone who’s had it and I’m glad it wasn’t you.

I glance out the window at the apartment building across Broadway
And see someone looking at me from exactly my floor.
A man my age is standing there looking at me.
He appears to be talking on the telephone.
He hangs up, still looking at me, and my phone rings.