Looking for Nemerov
by Jim Story
Oliver, a graduate student, lying in bed one morning with his arms propped behind his head, decided he wanted to give a lecture to be called "History as the Next Room of the Dream." He stared at a small patch of deteriorating plaster in the ceiling and thought. It would be based on a poem he had read by Howard Nemerov. He got so excited thinking about his idea that he could hardly wait to tell Polly, the woman he lived with.
But that would be a long time from now. Polly was a substitute teacher. The phone had rung an hour ago, at 6 a.m., summoning her to teach math to a group of eleven-year olds at PS 145 on the Upper West Side.
Polly had looked so good to him a few minutes later, dressed only in panties, garter-belt and nylons, before slipping on her multi-colored nylon dress, that he had wanted to drag her back into bed and ravish her. P.S. 145 would not be denied, however, so Oliver, once the door had slammed shut, had to be content with pulling himself off. Otherwise, he would never return to sleep.
But at that moment, stretched naked on the bed, still panting from the retreating excitement of his spent passion, he began to think about history as the next room of the dream.
Making his way into the kitchen, Oliver skirted a pile of plaster which must have fallen overnight from the ceiling and splattered over a three-foot radius on the floor. He made himself a strong pot of coffee and a poached egg, then went searching for the Nemerov book. He usually kept it on a table beside the bed, where now there didn't appear to be anything but beer cans. He'd come in late from his job at the bar and drunk a six-pack, thinking about the pressures of graduate school, sitting on the bed beside a sleeping Polly.
Nemerov was nowhere to be found. He searched high and low but couldn't come up with it. Under the bed. Beneath stray pieces of clothing. Along his board-and-brick shelves in the living room. He even poked under the sink, moving pots and pans, setting aside cans of Drano and bottles of Windex.
So where was it? Suddenly he remembered lending it to a tall redhead he had met in the reading room at Butler Library. She'd come onto him, or so he fancied, and he'd said why not do lunch? They shared a sandwich in the cafeteria and commiserated about the pressures of graduate school. She was married, she confessed, to an excruciatingly dull engineering student. Oliver revealed that studying made him horny. The redhead appeared shocked by his disclosure, so instead of finding a convenient alcove in the stacks where he might hump her on the floor behind the Croatian collection (such was his fantasy), he lent her his Howard Nemerov.
In the middle of his living room, Oliver flicked a spec of plaster off the keyboard of his ancient PC and considered. Maybe he didn't need to re-read the poem? Maybe he could recall enough to get started, and check it later? He took his place before the monitor, after first drawing on his rain cap.
Then he awoke.
Blinking his eyes, he looked around. It had seemed so real!
Polly wasn't there. He remembered the 6 a.m. phone call, remembered watching her dress, remembered how sexy she'd looked in her panties and stockings. Recalling this made him so horny he needed to pull himself off. A few minutes later, lying on his bed in the aftermath of extinguished lust, he began to speculate on the possibility of a lecture he might call, "History as the Next Room of the Dream."
Rising, he made himself a pot of coffee and an egg, avoiding a starburst of scattered plaster in the middle of the living room. He went looking for his Howard Nemerov, but the search proved fruitless. Where could it be?
Suddenly, it came to him! He had loaned it to that redhead in Butler Library, as a means of promoting contact because he wanted to fuck her. Perhaps he could remember enough of the poem that suggested his lecture to get started. Later he could retrieve the book from the redhead if he needed it.
Oliver grabbed the rain hat from beside his desk and shoved it onto his head. He brushed a fleck of plaster off his computer keyboard and tried to concentrate. Before long, however, he felt the first drop of moisture. He looked up. The ceiling above his desk had continued to decay. Polly had pestered him to tell the landlord, but the landlord had argued he needed to wait for the snow to melt to fix the roof. Then, he explained, he could repair the ceiling. Polly suggested moving the desk, but Oliver preferred wearing his canvas hat while he worked.
Oliver's lecture idea was that history resembled an iceberg, the facts that had gone unrecorded lying beneath the surface unknowable and un-nameable. The history that we know was therefore but a modest fraction of "what actually happened in the past". Of course, the thin layer of facts we know must still be interpreted. But one cannot look upon them objectively, from the outside, as one might a cluster of bacilli in a Petrie dish. With human history, we are both subject and object, scrutinizer and scrutinized. It is rather more like James Thurber's experience in My University Days, Oliver speculated, where in science class young Thurber waves over the instructor after finally adjusting the microscope so he sees something, only to find he has drawn his own eye.
Therefore -- Oliver imagined bells clanging and cymbals clashing when he would deliver the salient line from the poem -- "as in a dream interpreted by one still sleeping, the interpretation is only the next room of the dream."
At this point, Oliver woke up.
Wow! How vivid a dream! But how had it come about? He lay there trying to summon it up.
He could recall Polly climbing out of bed this morning in response to the telephone's clamor. He could remember her returning to the bedroom a few minutes later after a quick shower. His mind's eye saw her pulling on panties, bra and stockings before slipping on her dress. How sexy she'd looked! Remembering this got him so worked up he needed to pull himself off so he could get back to sleep. But moments later, awash in the blissful reverie that followed his self-induced orgasm, he began to ponder a lecture he might call, "History as the Next Room of the Dream."
He wanted to share his idea with Polly, but she, of course, wouldn't return from the classroom until later.
Oliver glanced at his bedside table, expecting to find the book of poems by Howard Nemerov which had inspired his lecture idea. Instead, he found only beer cans, six of them, lined up at discrete intervals, as if positioned for target practice. No Nemerov.
Frowning, he rose and went into the kitchen, skirting some plaster on the floor, to poach an egg and brew some coffee. The book was somewhere about, he was sure.
But the search proved more difficult than expected. One by one he examined his library's volumes, lined row on row across the length and breadth of the living room. Hardcovers, softcovers, history, theatre, poetry, psychology, novels, more history. But no Nemerov.
Where on earth could it be? Suddenly, it came back! But this was unfortunate! He realized he could never tell Polly about the lecture. Because she would ask about the title and he would tell her it came from a poem, and she'd say read me the poem, and he'd say . . . what? No, that would never do.
Because he remembered that he had lent the book to a scrumptious redhead he'd met in the library. They'd taken lunch together, talking about the pressures of graduate school, and he had longed desperately to take her back to the stacks and shtup her. But since that wasn't going to happen immediately, he had given her the Nemerov book as an excuse for seeing her again. And that, of course, he couldn't possibly tell Polly.
Meanwhile, did he really need the book? He could always make notes for the lecture and then fill in the relevant lines from the poem when he recovered the book.
So he jammed on his rain hat, cracked his knuckles, sat down at his monitor, and flicked a smattering of plaster from the keyboard. Earnestly, he began to type.
About the author:
Jim Story, Oklahoman by birth, Californian by upbringing, and New Yorker by choice and longevity, is a poet, fiction writer, ex-college history professor and retired municipal employee. He has published short stories and creative nonfiction in Karamu, Folio, Pindeldyboz, And Then and Home Planet News, reviews there and elsewhere, and poetry in a variety of literary publications. Notable moments include nomination for a Pushcart Prize, a Best New Writers Award (Poets & Writers), and residency at the Edward Albee Center in Montauk, Long Island.