Old King Cole by Brian J. Buchanan


Mannequins in department stores — as a little boy he was afraid of them, yet strangely drawn by the skirl of nerves he felt whenever he approached one. Not quite a phobia, but a tingling, shivering him up and down, and the closer he inched to the mannequin, male or female, the more the hair rose on his neck and a wild aura wreathed his head.

Why this was, he had no idea.

The antidote was the jewelry counter — the thick lighted glass of the display case warming his chin as he gazed in past his own ghostly reflected face at bracelets and rings, topaz necklaces, strings of pearls —



The trembling center of me. I think of a glass of wine registering the first shudder of an earth tremor. In the garden, an apple vibrates on its stem. Something is coming. I tremble, yet feel solid. Are there two of me?


We lived up North, but sojourned part of one summer in the South: Jackson, Mississippi, 1960. I was eight. As a manager for a clothing company my father had work there involving shirt factories. We stayed in the nice house of some colleague of Dad’s who had vacated for the summer, probably to some sensible place like Maine.

Appalling humid heat. Rain turned the gravel driveway into a canal. I floated plastic boats on it. Starlings convened in the tall canebrake that bordered the yard, raising a daily racket. Mother would go out with two pan lids and clash them together, toneless cymbals dispersing panicked birds, exploding from the cane in a chaotic flapping, shrieking insults at the world.

Next door lived a poor black family in an unpainted house of dark wood, kids everywhere on the porch, corner lot in an otherwise white neighborhood. It looked like a slave cabin left over from plantation days, before suburbs took over. They kept to themselves. No one visited them.

Chief of my impressions of that stay was great solitude. My sister was two, not yet ready for board games or catch, though it was fun to play puppets with her. Old King Cole was her favorite, I think because he was silly but also a little scary, huge eyes staring from some strange distance, wild white hair under his comical red-and-gold hat.

Alone, I would read adventure tales – one was about the Swamp Fox – or mosey with a ball, glove and bat over to a nearby baseball field that was always empty. There I would fungo the ball, not too hard, as I would have to chase it, and throw the ball as high in the air as I could before dizzily squaring myself underneath to catch the popup. My hope was that other kids would see me and come out, but no one ever did.

I would lope back home along a mysterious, creepy green causeway flanked by dark woods, humid air filling my loose shirt. I was the Swamp Fox, with Redcoats in pursuit —


The female mannequin stared. It stared into, it stared past, the fashion world, standing dumb, a motionless participant.


We all shone on the horizon, a new horizon we’d discovered. It had to be reached, but it had us there already, waiting. It was 1967, 1968. Something was happening.

Something exciting beyond excitement, something grand beyond grandeur.

And it was us. We were this grandeur. We would make wonderful things happen, or they would just happen because we were us and we wanted them to, because we were fueled by the greatest new music, and the greatest feelings, and because we marched for civil rights and against war.

Some good things did happen.

Over everything hung the threat of nuclear annihilation. The bomb obsessed us for decades. It may seem quaint now, but from the ‘50s well into the ‘80s a lot of people were seriously freaked out by the possibility of nuclear war. Today that fear might seem overblown. But at the time it drove all sorts of self-destructive behavior.

The horizon shone, and we were all there, shining. We were still there when it darkened.



Pompeii. Extinction of a gnat in vodka.


Stoned flirtation with the pale skinny girl with her profusion of thick dark curly hair by her blue pool where she lazed about, indifferent to her wealth, a wealth I did not have. From the water I watched her lying on her yellow reclining chair. “White Rabbit” played over and over on a record player; she would reach a pale slender arm out to the tone arm again and again to repeat the song. It must have driven her neighbors crazy, if they were home. Her parents were not.

This girl and I didn’t talk much, and to my chagrin we never had sex. She said it would be boring. She lit another pipe. Once, in the pool, she did let me kiss her. She tolerated my hanging around but ultimately was as indifferent to me as she was to wealth. She was indifferent to everything except getting stoned. I got stoned too, but couldn’t stomach very much of it.

This was partly where we went wrong, out on the shining horizon. For so many it all came crashing down. At her house, her older brother fried himself silly on a high dose of LSD. He became psychotic, had to go into an asylum. Eventually recovered, sort of. Never was quite the same. Now lives on disability and collects junk. His apartment is packed with it.



Five ways the universe could end


He wrote a story that did not click shut but tore outward into space, destabilized him, tipped him over giggling and catcalling into near-madness. It involved stampeding department-store mannequins and an incessant tinnitus of starlings. A compulsive, dead-end story that had to be written, because for him at that time nothing else could be, had to be written, to the near destruction of the author, something like Akutagawa, minus the suicide. It seemed to have no setting, or a fractured setting, parts of one setting cutting into another. He longed to make the story escape into someplace like Joyce Carol Oates’s Portugal of The Poisoned Kiss, but could find no passage, no purchase. It seemed a story in search of an ideal place, an ideal story.


Five ways everything could end, in an instant. Not just Earth, not just the sun, but the entire universe. Because the universe, astrophysicists say, isn’t stable.

I saw it in a book. In one scenario something cosmic could happen at any moment that would pulse through every galaxy, star, planet, moon, patch of gas, dust particle, every object, every thought, annihilating all. You wouldn’t see it coming.

The End ... in an instant. You wouldn’t have time to blow your nose or bolt a shot of vodka.  You wouldn’t have time to make your pretty baby a Sunday hat. Flee? No time, nowhere to go. It would be worse than Pompeii, where people at least felt an instant of terrified wonderment as the molten rush approached, about to fill their homes.

In this book there were four other possible doomsdays. What would be left after any of them? Nothing. Nothing. Not a rowboat, not a chicken, not a drink coaster, not a condom, not a bed, not a toy yellow plastic knight.


Back home up North I could still pretend to see the Swamp Fox in the woods, until the snow came, piles of it. Then board games, books, sledding ... come spring, kites, and riding an imaginary horse through real puddles.

Before long, the dream. The metaphysical dream that I’ve never really reckoned with or recovered from.

It starts with me atop a ski jump, on a toboggan. Down I go, thrilled and terrified, snow hitting my face with sleety prickings — then whoosh off the end of the jump, off and up into Infinite Space — into which my whole being became diffused dizzying feeling of disintegration I am being reconstituted in space ... no longer just flying or falling, but expanding ...


He had to split off part of his personality. Rather, two distinct personalities demanded to be split. It was accomplished in this wise.

He lay on a sacerdotal pillow, in a righteous doze, in star sleep, and fish in funny hats pulled him one way, damsels in yellow gowns another. A grand bass drum pounded steadily.

One of him sidled into shadows, the other into floodlights, restlessly panning beams.

Beyond in the snow, reindeer ran hard.

His pillow is snow, he cries sharp tears. There is a girl with long dark curly hair. There comes a vast tearing sound, a mudslide, rocks knocking heads — a wedding tumult, silvery diaphanous nuptials thrown into chaos, guests scattering into darkness. Come morning, a child wanders weeping through windy grass on a hillside, a puppet on each hand.


What are we doing back here? she says now by the pool. Why did you bring me back here? My family moved away from here years ago, decades. I don’t want —

To try to recover something.

Recover what?

Something of what we could have been.

We? You and I? We were never a couple. We hung out by the pool. So what?

We, all of us. What we could have ...

Accomplished? We did what we could.

Isn’t there more to do?

Are we finished here? I want to get back to Palm Springs.


Until we cast our crowns ...


I’m on a bleak, dark street in an industrial part of town, hoping to score some heroin. Do people, junkies, still say “score”? Are we still called “junkies”? It’s cold, a black roar of winter, black and brittle. A few low houses. One, only one, has a small, forlorn Christmas wreath on the door. The wreath’s four or five lights twinkle weakly.

Heroin: Please mainline responsibly. Heroin rushes your veins like the lava at Pompeii. Like one of the five possible annihilations of the cosmos.


In college, in the print shop where I worked for a semester, there worked also a very lovely and very hostile young woman. Printing and copying was her full-time job. She had no patience with anyone. If you messed up, you got publicly chastised in the harshest terms. She was not the manager, but she acted like it. The manager was afraid of her. If you did something right she remained silent. Somehow I managed never to screw up around her.

She had long, dark, unkempt hair, beautiful unplucked eyebrows arched high with annoyance. She wore white lipstick and went around braless. Some said she was coming off a bad breakup, others that she’d been raped or beaten. I never learned the truth. After I’d graduated and moved on, a friend mentioned in a letter that this woman had liked me.



Tiled, festal portico. Hautboy and timbrel in a wedding song. Somewhere within, shouting. A dark throne can be seen dimly. Sennet.


When his daily work was complete, the work that brought in the money, he would find himself standing helplessly in his small library as if paralyzed, unable to decide what to do with the time that was suddenly his own. He told himself this inertia was a form of exhaustion, a deadening caused by tedium.

Then he would catch himself frittering away his time with paltry tasks such as sorting letters and bills, rearranging books, looking through literary catalogs — as if he needed more books, with hundreds standing unread, each possibly containing a clue, a vital clue, some fierce blaze against being “three parts iced over,” as Matthew Arnold said.

Or he would flail desperately through volume after volume, bedeviled by a crucial passage he could not find. Rain would streak the library’s one window.


These Northern girls. Fashions, drunken beauty. A certain strange intelligence.


Jackson, 1960. A drugstore with an array of toys at the counter. You may pick one, Mother said. Difficult decision, so many colorful new objects. I chose a blue plastic truck. It had a row of little holes at the back that, if you filled the truck bed with sand, would disperse it precisely along a little dirt road I’d made in the back yard. I could hear the black children next door through the canebrake. They sounded happy. I was happy with my blue truck, but I could have used a friend. I think now that they could have used a friend too, and a toy truck to play with.


Is today Christmas? Or was it yesterday? Or tomorrow?


At times he experienced a strange doubling he could not account for.

Drinking wine and finding flaws in the flavor, he saw himself pouring a glass of ideal wine, and reaching for it as if he had no wine already before him. The same with cigars — picking though the box for an ideal cigar, even as one burned in the ashtray.

And music. He would be listening to a mediocre sonata or concerto yet not hearing it, and would start to get up to put on some ideal music that he must have in his collection, somewhere, somewhere.

Possibly allied with this ideal doubling was a sense that everything he saw meant something else or hid something else — something other than itself or in addition to itself. And yet the other thing was an exact twin. But how could that be?


In a class on 18th century drama the professor told me I had the look of an actor and should try out. I did, and did well up to a point, but I was undone by an actress with curly dark hair just below her shoulders and blue eyes that weren’t clear blue but somehow darkened, cobalt, like jewels in shadow. Alternately she played hautboy and timbrel. I asked why. You never know, she said, when your character might need those skills.


I’m told this doubling is a common psychological condition, he said to a Northern girl at a bar as she gazed elsewhere.


Sky, cloud-scratched.


Seen from a second-floor window in a wintry English village, far north, in the distance a green slash at the bottom of a bleak brown hill, a little dale, where spring appeared to have alighted suddenly, as immediately present as a wren.


Fifteen hundred years of wrens in hedges.


Swinging a gold-knobbed walking stick, I strode across the border into Scotland.


In a vast university library, having been told he had a talent for scholarship, he researches an obscure passage in Wordsworth. A wintry passage. It is sundown, both in the Wordsworth passage and outside the metal-mullioned library window. He sits in a carrel. The library, all sixteen floors of it, is silent. He sees on the horizon a fiery gold line of light that makes him sit back in his chair.

I can no longer work, he says into the silence of the library.


I had to shoot a water scene with the dark-haired actress. Her character was fun-loving, flirtatious, eager for romance; off the set she was stiff, standoffish, barely speaking to anyone. It was a lousy movie, terrible script, but we all needed work.

Anyway, I had a hard-on in this water scene, in a Louisiana bayou, with overhanging cypress and banks of grass and greenery, algae in the water. All pretty disgusting, vile odors, but I was supposed to swim along with and playfully seize the actress in my arms. When she noticed the hard-on her face went cold. She ducked my head under the water.

Actress:           Asshat!

Director:         Cut! (To Actress) What are you doing?

Me:                  (Spluttering)

Director:         What’s wrong?

Actress:           He has a hard-on. Godsakes.

Director:         Oh, for crying out loud. OK, everyone, let’s take a break, give the hard-on time to go down.


Hotel life, with the money to pay for it, thanks to bad movies. A certain controlled, reliable intensity of living, an excitement of self-sufficient completeness, of exotic distance from everyday life, of ease. I am in New York, Winnipeg, or Taipei, or in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Yokohama, maybe Algiers. I inhabit my room, books and papers spread out everywhere, Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob. When I can no longer stand it I take the elevator down twelve flights to the lobby and buy a newspaper. There, in the lobby, I can read for as long as I wish, though in truth I look for clues in every passerby. Why is he here? Why is she here? Maybe she’ll show up in the bar.

A wide rack of pamphlets and brochures tries to lure me out to surrounding landmarks, establishments and sights, but I have no need for such. The hotel is my complete universe. The restaurant — every hotel should be required by law to have one. An exhausted, hungry traveler should not reach the front desk to check in only to be told that there is no restaurant, that he will have to go outside the hotel to find food, probably fast food, and good luck with that. Same for the hotel bar. In any hotel, a bar should be required by law.

In the bar, sipping an ice-cold gin martini, I sense limitless possibilities. Same in the restaurant, scanning the menu. I am safe. I am free. For an hour or two I don’t have to think about what’s twelve flights up in my room. Though of course I do.


At the long Russian banquet table, everything glitters with silver and glass, Georgian wine gleams pale gold, vodka rings prettily into frozen goblets. Chicken Kiev is brought forth to balalaika music. The chairs are of gold-painted wood with red cushions. In the glistening crystal candlesticks, suns and stars shine. To great applause, the Tsar welcomes the bride and groom.


A young woman sits down at the bar near me, one seat between us. Brunette hair, shoulder length, wrists ringing with bracelets and hands starry with rings, chest resplendent in topaz. Pale oval face, eyes rimmed black with startling precision. She places a small gold clutch on the bar on the side away from me. I am bewitched, watching her in the bar mirror, this displaced Macedonian princess above the liquor bottles. Do I dare? I have had two ice-cold gin martinis. We are in Latvia. I hazard French.

Attendez-vous quelqu’un?

Bien sûr.


Jaded look of the attractive woman under unwanted attention.

Je poursuis des études mystérieuse.

Of course you do, she says in English. Flicks open her clutch, draws out a cigarette, offers me one, a Lucky Strike. I have only recently taken up smoking. My cough makes her laugh, a pretty laugh, as she tilts her head back, closes her eyes.

Tell me about this mysterious scholarship.

Briefly, embarrassed to have brought this on myself, I begin outlining my researches into Late Antiquity, into Roman philology, in particular epithalamia.


Wedding songs. They’re —

At which point gauging a far angle in the mirror she interrupts me —

I’m in danger. We have to get out of here, now.

Reaches for my hand —



Old King Cole, wrapped against winter, ventures out through heavy drifts to minister to the poor. His cape flaps in the Northumberland wind.


In his palace, he is the proximate ideal king wearing resplendent finery red silk cloth of silver cloth of gold. His bearing regal yet humble. He laughs uproariously. He is a guest of all the world. All the world is his guest.



I need one more talk with you.

Do we have to?

You did something to me, back then.

I didn’t do anything to you.

I mean, you had an effect on me. You were the first girl I ... thought, maybe, I could love.

Well, you picked the wrong girl. I’m not trying to be mean. I just wasn’t the girl for you.

Still, I wanted you. I still do, even now, now that I see you again.

I’m flattered. But you’ll just have to forget about it.

‘White Rabbit,’ over and over, by the pool.

Yeah, I did that, didn’t I? Stupid me. ‘Feed your head.’

I couldn’t handle much of that back then, the drugs. Now I can. I’ve been getting wasted —


You mean you don’t? Fifteen years later and you’re sober?

Not entirely, but that doesn’t mean you should ... what do you want?

I want visions. I want extinction.

Look, I’m running out of time.

What do you want?

I want to love my husband and raise my children. I want to lie by the pool. I’ve always needed pools, for some reason. I love Palm Springs. We have friends. I read. I paint vases, sell a few —

You paint on the vases, or you paint pictures of vases?

Both. All that, and a little wine, makes me happy.

You’re not really living. You’re like an extinct volcano.

And? What am I supposed to do? And you, how could you want visions and extinction? That makes no sense.

I don’t make a lot of sense.



Perhaps extinction, cosmological or otherwise, will be as swift, as pleasantly annihilating, as the immediate death of a gnat landing in a cocktail glass full of straight, ultra-chilled vodka.


This sense of doubling I feel ... what does it mean? Is it a second reality, a separate alternate universe of myself? No, it seems coexistent — permeable. The two are in touch. The two are in correspondence, sending messages.

It seems that my personality — no, it’s more like my deepest being, beyond personality, in T.S. Eliot’s realm — has an affinity with the farthest western islands of the Hebrides. But how? There is so little lasting human presence there. Mostly it’s birds and sea. The last few people who lived on St. Kilda were evacuated in 1930. They could no longer get by on birds’ eggs and subsistence farming.


The King holds a cup of water to the lips of a dying man. Snow swirls outside the hut.


He’s living in an alley shed built by some homeless person who has moved on or died. It’s made of crudely nailed wood and roof shingles. He finds a heroin-cooking spoon and a used syringe near a urine-soaked mattress. The mattress also has a bloodstain. He hauls it out of the shed.

The next task is to find a new mattress and something to place it on to keep it out of the alley rainwater and the gray restaurant runoff trickling through the shed. It takes all day, but he comes home feeling triumphant, dragging a thin mattress and a cast-off pallet from a loading dock that two young black guys working there — one jovial, the other sullen — let him have. The pallet just fits the shed — perfect. A floor, a bed. Now to the restaurant dumpster for food.

One day he finds a small broken cooking grill in the trash behind an apartment house. And by sheer luck in the restaurant dumpster a dissatisfied customer’s partially eaten steak. No charcoal, so it’s time to collect wood scraps. In subsequent days he will nail a small plywood overhang above the doorway so he can cook outside the shed and out of the rain, sleet or snow, all of which are abundant this far north.

Finally on to a luxury improvement: a bookshelf. He cobbles one together to hold the twelve books he pulls out of his old striped suitcase. His manuscript, pads of paper and three pencils fit on top of the books. He reads.

He shoots up.

It becomes exhausting to reshelve a book.

He makes a deal with the restaurant for unfinished food and drinks and used-but-still-smokable cigarettes. In exchange he keeps the area around the dumpster picked up, to reduce incentives for rats. He’s able to sell a few bites, a few sips, a few cigarette butts to bums who hassle him. Before long he has amassed $8.87.

He finds a square of scratched, gleaming metal in the alley that serves as a mirror. His image does not look good. He needs to find some booze. He has the $8.87 in his pocket. In the past that might have gotten him one of those small bottles the liquor stores sell, but they’ve jacked up the prices to discourage people like him from coming in.

What if he wrote to the hostile girl who had liked him in the college print shop? Would she still be there? What would he say? What would she say?

Dear Susan, Maybe you remember that you liked me ...

Raindrops plink among fallen golden leaves in alley puddles.


In a dream stands a pale skinny girl with dark curly hair, and she gazes steadily out of a loggia at the stars. Spoken to, spoken to again, she does not answer.


Though already split, I develop an alternative self to one of my split selves. I construct a marionette, extravagantly costumed. His eyes are too large and very amused and gaze into an uncertain future and an uncertain past. He wears a tall red-and-gold hat, like a bishop’s miter but with gold streamers. Wild white hair sticks out alarmingly. His red-gold outfit spreads wide over yellow stockings and black buckle shoes. White-gloved hands lift elegantly as I ply the strings from the operating cross above.

Often I dream of the marionette I have made. Once he rose over me, over everyone around me, huge eyes staring, like a gargantuan parade float.

I have acquired great respect for professional puppeteers — so difficult is it to make the marionette walk, stop, turn his head, gesture. But I have lots of time to practice and eventually become reasonably proficient. My scholarship suffers in this prolonged endeavor. The edges of my manuscript have begun to curl. I am almost fed up with it, but my few remaining books continue to crook their ghostly fingers toward me, beckoning, and I swear, swear, I will hunt down those last goddam clues I need, clues that have become characters with hidden faces, characters lazing on riverbanks under strands of willow trailing in the breeze, characters lounging with liqueurs in yellow elephant-themed parlors in distant exotic hotels, occupied with their own secrets, their own mysterious scholarship —

My marionette, which I have named Old King Cole, for parental and kid appeal, tells little stories I have scripted. I have drawn on Late Antiquity epithalamia. I work Old King Cole’s head and hands as he tells his little stories. The speaking king leans in a marionettish way, does a little dance now and then, a very simple one, dances being extraordinarily hard to perform.


In the courts of the New Jerusalem ...


He kneels facing backwards on a park bench to dangle Old King Cole. Parents approach a little uncertainly, because of his appearance, his and Old King Cole’s; they approach holding their children’s hands, smiling tentatively. A small cash box lies open next to the bench. It has twenty-seven cents in it.

The wooden cross dips and swoops and shimmies, Old King Cole dances and gestures and ministers merrily to the poor. Watching him from above gives me the shivers at times. Some children watch Old King Cole utterly engrossed, mesmerized, fingers in mouths, eyes unblinking. Other children run away.