Howard Wolf


July 30, 2008



Howard R. Wolf

         123 Cornell Avenue

Amherst, N. Y.  14266

  Tel.: 716-838-1776

“In the comic the gods see their own being  reflected as in a mirror, and   while the tragic  poet is bound by strict laws, they will allow the comic artist  a freedom as unlimited as their own.”

                               Isak Dinesen, “Sorrow-Acre”

“Real and unreal are two in one….”

                              Wallace Stevens, “An ordinary Evening in New Haven”

“All the Muse That’s Fit to Print.”    

                              Hemmy Zimmer

   Ludwig Fried, well, that was his proper name, deep into semi-retirement, stood at midnight on July 3 at the window of his late mother’s condo in the Driftwood, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, eating a naval orange  and contemplating his navel. It was for him, a child of the 1950’s, a generational sport. And, in Florida, he never would run out of oranges.

   He had spent a lot of his life looking up at and out of windows. In the New York of his childhood and adolescence, he had looked up at the windows of many glamorous East Side town houses and apartments and wondered why he hadn’t been able to figure out a way to live in one of them.

   And, then, later, teaching overseas from time to time, a wandering Jewish academic, he had looked out of the windows of his high rise apartments in Ankara and Hong Kong and wondered how and why fate had brought him to these far-away places and not to East 72nd Street between Madison and Park, the holiest of holy real estate for the children of exiled parents who had been determined to make it big time in America to make up for the losses and humiliations of Europe.

    Wandering or wondering, he had been alone most of the time, too alone he always had known, but he had been held back after the divorce, though so many years ago, from making the fabled therapeutic “commitment” from some vague apprehension of catastrophe. Many therapists in many cities had brought him to the edge of insight about his failure to attach himself to a partner like a periwinkle to a breakwater, but he always, so far, had found a way to block the floodtide of necessary emotion and flow of language that  would have closed the deal.  

   He had known many good women and some not so good who had been more than willing to apply Tiger Balm to his wounds, as ineffable as they were, especially in Hong Kong, but he always had been clever enough to find a way to disappoint them. After a while, of course, he would miss these good women, not all of them, but some of them, and he would be left looking out of a window, wondering why he was alone.

   As he was now. He never, it seemed, had done anything  wholeheartedly, without “ambivalence,” another of those slightly upper middle class 1950’s words that had made most psychotherapists rich, including Woody Allen’s.  It made sense, if anything did,  that Ludwig Fried, the latest version of himself, was only semi-retired from teaching, lecturing, and writing, that he now was able to divide his life between one of the sunless Finger Lakes on the shores of which he taught at a small liberal arts college and the Sunshine State.

   He corrected the drift of his ruminations. He wasn’t semi-retired from writing. He hadn’t pulled the rip-cord on that. If anything, he was writing more and striking out in new directions, like Huck, for the territory ahead, but he still wrote “lite” philosophic porn under a nom de plume, “Hemmy Zimmer.” It was more accurate to say that he was only half-employed in the business of full visibility  and real authenticity: existential wholeness, as Buber, Camus, Sartre, Tillich, any of them might have said.

   But to the world at large, to the world that took notice, and it wasn’t a very large club, he looked semi-retired, and, he sometimes thought,  he even may have been somewhat envied for the terms and quality of his

“gigs,” as one of his ex’s, a fellatio-flutist, always put it: the occasional visiting  semester in America and overseas; the odd keynote address on “fantasy in America,” his field; a series of lectures in Slovakia or Kerala.

   Most people, even well informed ones, couldn’t locate exactly the venue of his small successes: the banks of the Torysa, the estuarial palm groves of Trivandrum, the rush-banks of the Kinneret; but they recognized, to some degree, that here was a man  who went out into the world from time to time and did something that probably was interesting.  If not quite a succes d’estime, at least an item for the local paper.

   If his former graduate school friends, the ones who still were doing time in the Big House of Academe, wouldn’t have seen him even in terms of minor success, at least the mailman at the Driftwood did, to say nothing of the topless dancers, the throngs of tongs, who knew him as an irregular regular at the Triangle Club, not Princeton, he didn’t need to hasten to add to anyone. To the B-girls, he was the only prof in town, and to the postman, he was a real man of letters as well as a man of real letters. Both paste and post treated him with respect. Attention was paid.

   He longed  to tell everyone that he, in fact, was sort of famous as “Hemmy Zimmer,” author of a score of Jewish American epistemologically erotic comedies about an itinerant Reform Rabbi, Lou Handleman, ex-sax player,  who moonlighted at various unlikely jobs  to support the extravagant life-style of his chic wife who shopped only at high end shops, who had Gucci embossed on her suburban, Arp-like ass, and drove a BMW in the fast lane. But he had kept his secret as a matter of academic self-preservation.

   It was one thing to have his character Lou  work as a chauffeur for high end call girls whose clients were all septuagenarians who really wanted to relax on the Sabbath. It was another to go public with some form of lust, even if it was a staple of unreality tv, and  to admit that one wrote stories about a  rabbi, however assimilated, who represented a brassiere line, Bosom Buddies, and wasn’t above selling  a Nina Ricca laced satin item to a congregant who needed a lift or a Chantelle sheer tulle one to a desperate housewife who complained that her husband didn’t see her for who she was and what she had. It didn’t hurt to read some passages from the Song of  Solomon to close these deals.

   These semi-irreverent books had sold well over a several decades. They were, in the great scheme of debased sensibility,  almost discreet. They had enabled Ludwig, much to everyone’s puzzlement, to drive a Hummer and to live in an upscale neighborhood – an inheritance, colleagues surmised. After all, several of them had come into money, so why not Fried?  Even his ex-wife wrote him poison pen letters for a while from Sante Fe, accusing him of hiding money in Switzerland at the time of the divorce. But she knew he was honest to a fault when it came to financial matters and believed that he only told half-truths when it came to psychological, spiritual, and aesthetic issues, so she stopped writing them.

   For many years, he wanted to cry out in the halls of the department – where one screw-ball article could put you at the top of the totem and taboo pole – that his alias would make him a celebrity  in Brighton Beach, North Miami, and Ben-Gurion’s old neighborhood in Tel Aviv.

He had wanted to cry out until he was blue in the face that he was a winner in the Borscht Belt, at least the notches that were left, one of a handful of intellectual  lite porn writers with a Yiddishkeit twist, like the lemon rind in espresso. He had a few literary rivals, but he was the best at what he did and the most successful, but his success had been hidden, invisible, and still was.

   He had wanted to cry out, yes, but they might have laughed at him and, worse, the Chair could have assigned him night classes of composition, three hour sessions, the meeting place of the comma and comatose. The department, always fighting for funds, competing with “sexy” areas (but not real sex) – neuro-science, informatics,  Diasporas – wouldn’t have allowed Ludwig Fried, aka “Hemmy Zimmer,” to go public without some form of professional punishment for having embarrassed them. In the academic world, respectability was the last firmament of theoretical minds.

   And now, on the verge of breaking free from the burdens of the past, he had learned from the mailman that his arch-rival, William “Bull” Horn, popular culture maven, had moved into a unit on the posher side of the pond. It was the kind of improbable coincidence that you only came across in a short story or  Revenge Tragedy, but there it was, a fact. Maybe Bull had seen the same ad that he had seen in the travel section of  The New York Times. 

   Whatever, there he was across the pond. Ludwig hadn’t seen Bull yet, but he had heard his music waft across the pond at night  -- King Creole, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. The music was too loud, but Ludwig had to admit that Bull had taste and that he had been successful. Bull had made it Big Time in a small-time place: department chair, endowed chair. He was the War and Peace man, Conflict Resolution from Homer to Hanoi. One year at the Brookings Institute, he was the proverbial big fish in a small pond. If these were your shallows, he was the shark.

   Bull wasn’t politically correct, but he was famous in acceptable, if somewhat absurd, ways, and so the college had given him everything, even though he sometimes taught in armor  and brought a cross-bow to class. Most colleges had one Bull, one performance-artist, who could fling the higher bull-shit,  who caught the imagination of undergraduates and opened the wallets of alumni. 

   Bull’s coup de grace at the end of the term  was to shoot an arrow across the lecture hall at a poster of William Tell  which dropped from the ceiling at just the right moment. It never failed to bring the students to their feet, clapping and cheering. Ludwig had seen him do it once, and he was reminded, with some envy, of the audience’s response to Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty  when the audience had joined in shouting, “Strike! Strike!” Bull was no Odets, but he had his fan-base.

    And there he was, now, across the pond. Bull never had taken any notice of Ludwig really, so even if he  saw him

now, he would continue doubtless to ignore him and to assume that his more or less polite indifference was a form of civilized behavior. Bull had assumed, if he assumed anything about Ludwig, that Fried  was just another standard

academic, acceptable deadwood, something like that. Bull had treated him with dismissive cordiality.

   When Ludwig published a small volume of travel essays with a small press, Bull  said to him in the elevator, one of the few places they ever met, “Nice going, Lud, as with women, so with writing, one likes to be between covers. But remember, you want to do it more than once, and with a major press next time,  good luck.” The door  opened, and he was gone.

   It humiliated him now to think that he had taken such an insult from Bull without fighting back. Bull had kicked him in the psychological balls, and he had limped back to his office. The time had come to retaliate, to catch him off guard, to mount a “counter-attack.” The word hit him between the eyes like one of Hemingway’s big game shots. Without his cross-bow and his character armor, Bull would be vulnerable. Ludwig would bring him down off his self-appointed high-horse.

    The time for action had come. He had, in his way, in his subterranean idiom, written about rebellions, uprisings (plenty of those), and revolts – how could you not if you had written in the 20th century? – but he had stayed in the shadows. No Hemingway, only a semi-Hemingway, a “Hemmy,”  he had hunted in his imagination. Like a lord of the jungle he had hunted at night, but no one had known that he was a hunter.

   That would change now. The action, his, would begin now. “Now was the time for the Now,” as he recently had written elsewhere in one his philosophically erotic romps.  It was late in the day to be taking action, and it soon might be too late.  If he waited much longer, his epitaph would read: For Whom the Bell Tolled.

   With action, his writing might move towards a deeper level of engagement with big social and political issues. He might then push through the Halloween  mask of Hemmy Zimmer and speak for those who couldn’t speak for themselves. He could imagine a headline  in The Nation: “An American Orwell Goes Fifteen Rounds.”

   He had the props. He had been collecting artifacts of rebellion  for years without thinking  consciously about their possible use. They had been, mainly, palpable, embodiments  of his wander-years, souvenirs

and objects that lined the shelf of his memorabilia highway. He had brought some of these objects to Florida  to connect him to his former life.

   Other retirees, semi or whole, had Lalique, Wedgewood, faux Renoir boating scenes. Ludwig Fried, aka Hemmy Zimmer, had a statuette of Michaelangelo’s David, a shard from Masada, a Xhosa walking stick, an engraved gourd from Guangzhou with a depiction of the Boxer Rebellion on it, and the first Ludwig Fried’s pistol, a Webley, pin removed.  His late uncle’s revolver had been recovered from the ashes of the Zbecno ghetto uprising and returned to the family. It was this Ludwig’s most treasured possession. These and other artifacts  lined the shelves and shadow boxes where his mother had displayed imitation flowers.

   Ludwig placed the Webley snugly into his holster belt. He put on his Basque beret -- a gift from Hemingway, a story he would tell one day, he hoped, when he had reinvented himself as his true self -- at  a rakish angle, tilted slightly to the left. He checked his watch. It was just after midnight. No one would be taking an aerobic stroll  around the pond at this hour.  Even the ducks would be resting under the hibiscus bushes and sawgrass. The time and timing were right. This would be no raid on the inarticulate. This was the beginning of a real action – Le Combat!

   He paused at the top of the stairwell to make sure no one was coming. It wouldn’t take much  in the post-9/11 world of Bush’s “war on terrorism”  to be mistaken for a suicide bomber, even in a South Florida

condo. After all, some of the meshugge jihadists had taken flying lessons in Broward County.

   This was the real beginning of the disantlering of  Bull Horn, even if Bull Horn wouldn’t understand why anyone would want to attack him. And that was the point of it. Bull didn’t even know that he had stepped on other people on his way to the top. For him,  it was just a natural way of walking. This was going to be the first night of a resistance movement  in which  Ludwig Fried and Hemmy Zimmer would merge and become one.

   And Bull Horn, if no one else, would know it, even if he didn’t understand what he knew or faced, or couldn’t see what he faced. Ludwig, on the verge of becoming Hemmy, Hemmy, on the verge of becoming Ludwig, together, they, as it were, parted the veil-like curtains of Spanish moss that hung from the cypress trees  that  made up a small grove between the condo and the pond.  Stepping through the gossamer foliage, he felt as though he were entering a new world: Shangri-La South, Ponce de Leon meets Henny Youngman.

   He had come close once before, during a moment of midsummer madness, to rising up in protest against  Bull’s ego-fortress. On the solstice, delirious with the promise of the season, he had slipped through the hedges of Bull’s estate, scissors in hand, ready to snip all of Bull’s sun-flower stalks – so obvious a symbol to everyone: Le Roi de Soleil. Self-love had risen to the self-appointed level of droit de seigneur.

   Half-mad, but not crazy, knowing what he was doing and shouldn’t be doing, a mummery of sorts, an acting out, a psychodrama that might not be bad for his psyche,  he had cut one brilliant Van Goghish bloom as a trophy and emblem of acts of self-assertion to come. A literary critic, himself from time to time, might have called it a “proleptic heliotrope.” Pretentious, of course, but he had whispered it only to himself. He had not said it aloud, least and last of all to undergraduates, beaten deep into the loam and peat with the back side of the funeral shovel known as “theory,” a word that stuck in his throat like a fish-bone.

   Years ago, a wise psychoanalyst, whose daughter he had been fondling in every hollow and dune on the Lower Cape, whose hollows and dunes he had savored as a form of salvation he hadn’t even known he needed until after the divorce, had advised Ludwig always to call on judgment even when reason failed.

   “Illogical, I know it sounds,” he had said, fingering his pre-Columbian figurine, “but, a son of Europe, you will understand.” He had  and said “Ya” to himself and had kept the mind-doctor’s injunction as an inner mantra through the years in  times of peril, and so he had left Bull’s garden with one stalk before anyone called 911 and booked him for trespassing. 

   Now he stood at attention: a faux Partisan and underground fighter, a Jewish fighter in the Allied Forces, color war captain, the history of rebellion and self-affirmation wound up as tight as a Prague spring. He was bathed in the glow  of the lime-green arc-lights  that illuminated the upper branches of the cypress trees, an obscure, but important, actor on the stage of his own construction.

   If Bull now was looking out  his window, he might not know  if he was looking at a man or his shadow, but an image would be clear, and there was a real sense in which, without bull’s understanding it, he would be looking at a man and his shadow: Ludwig and Hemmy. Tightening his holster belt, trimming the edge  of his beret, thrilled at the height of the emotional precipice  on which he was standing at last, even though it was only a hummock mound, he wound up, Koufax  at the top of his game, and gave Bull a finger in the night as triumphantly as Churchill’s V for Victory. Only a sign, yes, but digitally poetic and one that had drawn  the Allies together  and led inexorably to the defeat of the Nazis and their European puppets  and  Quislings.  

   Ludwig, with Hemmy at his side, second self, ghost writer, felt like Francis Macomber, drawing a bead on a charging water buffalo. Bull was in his cross-hairs. Hem had said that every writer needed a “bull-shit detector, an instrument more accurate than Thoreau’s “realometer.” Lud-Hemmy now understood what Hem, poor guy, had meant.

   He wound up and thrust an even stiffer finger  in the air, a veritable CN Tower of suppressed rage and historical inhibition, now released in a flood of Reichian energy, that bordered on the Rubicon of hysteria. All men stored resentment in psychic silos and then craved release in some form. Why else had Shakespeare invented the soliloquy?

   Hollywood used special effects  and stunt men  to create the illusion that ordinary men could bring the world to near annihilation  through acts of techno-violence, so why couldn’t he give Bull a symbolic finger in the night? Bull had ridden his egomaniacal steed through the valley of the department. It was time to pull him off his Trojan horse. He was going to step out of the shadow  of his secret life. He had been Lamont Cranston’s secret sharer for too long.  No Hamlet or late Henry James, he needed to act.

   “You’ve had it, Bull,” he called out, as he thrust his finger high into the air.  

   A shadowy figure seemed to appear at Bull’s window.

   “Is that you, Fried, you obscure little bastard? What the hell are you doing disturbing the peace?”

   So, Bull knew that they were condo colleagues,  but there was no way that Bull could make out his face in the dappled shadows that the arc-lights cast through the tracery  of Spanish Moss. And he hadn’t disturbed anyone yet.  But he was armed, sort of, or seemed to be, even if it was a Yiddish masque, a psychodrama, and, if Bull called 911, he would have some explaining to do and might spend a night in jail. Which might do him some good and bring him to his senses, but that was another story.

   He was torn between advancing and beating a retreat.

   “Get ready, Bull,” he warbled softly across the pond, you’re on the way down, I’m on the way up.” He had heard Bull say this once to the department’s only distinguished aging scholar. He had felt sorry for the old man as he limped towards the Xerox machine.

   “If that’s you, Fried,  I’ll have you arrested, you professional putz.”

   “I am not Ludwig Fried,” he cried out, trembling, “I am Hemmy Zimmer!”

   There was silence. 

   It was as if he had uttered  the Coleridgean  “I am the infinite I AM” or the Biblical “I AM WHO AM.”

   “Hemmy Zimmer? The Hemmy Zimmer? Holy Shit, it can’t be you. I’ve been reading you for years. You’re my goddamned hero. We’ve got to talk. I’m lonely as hell down here. Let’s meet at the pool for the fireworks tomorrow night, please, I’m not as big a prick as you think I am.”

   It was dreamlike, but not a dream. Most people lived in fantasy – he was just acting one out. Human kind couldn’t bear too much reality, as the poet said, but Ludwig hadn’t, finally, been able to stand too much fantasy and had done something about it. He had done something real, if a little wacky, and it was doubtless the most interesting thing going on in the Driftwood, if not all of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and South Florida, at this time.

   Bull called out again, “But it can’t be you. It’s too uncanny to be true.”

   “I am Hemmy Zimmer,” he proclaimed from the veritable tintinnabulation of his balls, “you’ll see, you’ll see.”

   The next night, July 4th, most of the retirees gathered around the pool for small fireworks, sparklers, and an act by an over the hill Borscht-belt comedian who once had done the Tonight Show with Carson. Ludwig wasn’t prepared to  meet Bull yet on a new footing, or even sure that he wanted to meet him face to face, mano a mano, an I to a Thou.

   Bull had made him suffer, without knowing that he had made him suffer, a worse offense, and it was only fair that Bull should get some of his own medicine, at least for a while. Let him live with the unbearable knowledge that someone better known than he was giving him the cold shoulder. Let him know what indifference felt like.

   He wouldn’t join him, but he would let him know, or think, that he might be out there somewhere in the night. He would send up one Roman Candle. He prepared a small launching platform, a kosher butcher’s block just below his window at the edge of the pond, and waited until he could see the sparklers flickering beyond the cypress grove. Then he lit the wick and sat back in his beach chair.

   Bull would see it rise above the trees like a flaming arrow. He might surmise that it was Ludwig’s fireworks, but he couldn’t be sure about it and that would bother him. He wouldn’t know what Fried might do next.   

He couldn’t kick Bull in the balls, but he could squeeze his psychological cojones, at least for a while. That’s what Hem might have done and certainly what Hemmy Zimmer could have “Lou Handelman,” stealth brassiere salesman, do in his next learned thriller.

   “This is for you, Bull,” he muttered to himself, “going, going, up into the Bronx cheer of your soul, the old bird of paradise.”

   As he leaned back in his beach chair, listening to Zecky Bloom’s tired one-liners echo over the pool, he realized that he had let his fantasy life get out of hand, to say the least. The time had come to put all those energies into writing. The country’s independence was one thing, his was another. Word and deed needed to be separated.

   Finally, Bull Horn was not the enemy. He was just another two-bit tin-horn  bull-shit artist  with a bull horn and a bully pulpit  in a second tier college on the shores of the Lakes. No more, no less.  Bull was not the enemy. The enemy was, as even he and his double knew, within. Yes, he had come to the same place of knowledge as all the other pundits: Zen Masters, Jungians, Aromatherapists, Logo-Therapists.

   Yes, the same place. Location was important here as everywhere else. He – or maybe it was “hes,” like “yous” – had been the enemy all along. Ludwig Fried and Hemmy Zimmer  had been crossing wires  in short-circuits all his adult life. He had turned Bull into a paper tiger.  It was a common problem: thwarted ambition creating a mirage of external threats. It was easier, finally,  to see Williamson caught in the wires, as Hem had, than to face your own gut-wrenching pain.   

   Perhaps Hem and Hemmy — yes, he had to admit it, he had been a comic imitator – hadn’t believed enough  in their own suffering  and had felt the need to exaggerate.  This was understandable in a century of atrocities and genocides, but suffering was relative, even if one’s relatives weren’t. One should be able to accept one’s own candle-power of grief as sufficient unto the night. One didn’t have to be an Isaac Babel or Kafka  to know what it meant to suffer as a writer. 

   It was better to make use of one’s own actual experience than to invent a big no-hearted enemy like Bull who doubtless had invented his own enemies. He breathed deeply and fully. He wasn’t embarrassed by his antics. After all, he hadn’t hurt anyone. He hadn’t inflicted shock and awe on any enemy, real or imaginary.

   His antics had brought him, in fact, to a new place. Resistance was always good if you were on the side of freedom. It was just a question of finding the right way to fight. You had to find a way to change the world without setting it on fire, or blowing up innocent by-standers, or turning people into slaves of sorts and asking them to serve your interests. Narcissism and the abuses of power unto torture and genocide were the modern sins.

   Maybe he would write Bull a note and suggest a meeting by the pool. Who knew? Maybe they could co-author an article  together one winter when they both would be at the Driftwood. Maybe they could become something like real friends in the fullness of retirement – recognizing and embracing the other’s  inner being.

   He would go back to his unit now and pack up his memorabilia arsenal and stow  all the icons of imaginary combat with his late mother’s faux flowers and push-pillows embroidered  with sentimental sayings -- a spring cleaning of his soul  was in order. He would lay Hemmy Zimmer to rest with the Webley and the bushman spear. He would write a new story in his own name and strike out for the real territory within. He would not let other voices, even his own, drown him anymore.

   As he walked along the edge of the pond towards his unit, his new writing place, he heard Bunny Berrigan’s “I’ve Been Around the World” coming from Bull’s place. It sounded good. Ludwig hadn’t seen a revolution in Spain, but he had seen the aftermath of a bloodless one in Portugal. Like his own. He felt now as if he had gone through a kind of cultural revolution. He had replaced Mao’s cult of personality and its assassinations  with his own renovation of character -– his own, maybe Bull’s, maybe the two of them having a real dialogue with all due apologies to Martin Buber.