The Floating Opera by John Barth

From The Floating Opera by John Barth

I was just thirty-seven then, and as was my practice, I greeted the new day with a slug of Sherbrook from the quart on my window sill. I’ve a quart sitting there now, but it’s not the same one; not by a long shot. The habit of saluting the dawn with a bend of the elbow was a hangover from college-fraternity days: I had got really to enjoy it, but I gave it up some years ago. Broke the habit deliberately, as a matter of fact, just for the exercise of habit-breaking.

I opened my eyes and bottle, then, and took a good pull, shook all over from head to toe, and looked at my room. It was a sunny morning, and though my window faces west, enough light reflected in to make the room bright. A pity: the Dorset Hotel was built in the early eighteen hundreds, and my room, like many an elder lady, looks its best in a subdued light. Then, as now, the one window was dappled with little rings of dust from dried raindrops; the light-green plaster walls were filigreed with ancient cracks like a relief map of the Dorchester marshes; an empty beef-stew can, my ashtray, was overflowing butts (I smoked cigarettes then) onto my writing desk — a bizarre item provided by the management; the notes for my Inquiry, then in its seventh year of preparation, filled a mere three peach baskets and one corrugated box with MORTON’S MARVELOUS TOMATOES printed on the end. One wall was partially covered, as it is yet, by a Coast & Geodetic Survey map of Dorchester County — not so annotated as it is now. On another hung an amateur oil painting of what appeared to be a blind man’s conception of fourteen whistling swan landing simultaneously in the Atlantic during a half-gale. I don’t recall now how I came by it, but I know I let it hang through inertia. In fact, it’s still over there on the wall, but once while drunk my friend Harrison Mack, the pickle magnate, drew a kind of nude on top of it in crayon. All over the floor (then, not now) were spread the blueprints of a boat that I was building at the time in a garage down by the range lights on the creek; I’d brought the prints up to do some work on them the day before.

It seems to me that any arrangement of things at all is an order. If you agree, it follows that my room was as orderly as any room can be, even though the order was an unusual one.

Don’t get the impression that my life, then or now, is “bohemian” or “left bank.” If I understand those terms correctly, it isn’t. In the first place, by 1937 I wasn’t enthusiastic about any kind of art, although I was and am mildly curious about it. Neither was my room dirty or uncomfortable — just crowded. It was probably the day before the maids came to clean: they spoil my orderliness by putting things “straight” — that is, out of sight. Finally, I live too well to be called a bohemian. Sherbrook rye costs $4.49 a quart, and I use a lot of quarts.

So. It’s really a quite adequate room, and I’m still here. I woke up that morning, then, slugged my rye, looked around my room, got quietly out of bed, and dressed for the office. I even remember my clothes, though that date — the 21st or 22nd — escapes me, after sixteen years of remembering: I wore a gray-and-white seersucker suit, a tan linen sports shirt, some necktie or other, tan stockings, and my straw boater. I’m sure I splashed cold water on my face, rinsed my mouth out, wiped my reading glasses with toilet paper, rubbed my chin to persuade myself that I didn’t need shaving, and patted my hair down in lieu of combing it — sure, because I’ve done these things, in that order, nearly every morning since perhaps 1930, when I moved into the hotel. It was at some moment during the performance of this ritual — the instant when the cold water met my face seems a probable one — that all things in heaven and earth came clear to me, and I realized that this day I would make my last; I would destroy myself on this day.

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Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 9:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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