The Last Wheeze of H.M. Palmer
SCENE: 1976, Hearthstone, A hoary Palmer is puffing on scrolls of The Kural while transcribing the package labeling for imported brands of hashish. Pain shoots consummately down his left limb, causing him to drop the fiery scroll onto his arabesque rug.
Huginn, his pet mynah: FOUCAULT!
H.M.: Hey! I’m the one who should be blurting profanities! (stamping the flame) Besides, every philosopher has his good points and bad poiNCARÉ! OW! These pangs – their frequency is escalating! (wiping his brow) It’s time, Huginn, it’s finally time.
H.M.: No, no, it isn’t time for your saucer of seed. It’s time to establish my estate! Now then, every will needs a live witness and every witness needs a will to live, so let us do God’s work and put the two together.
(One phone call and an unprescribed Numorphan later.)
H.M.: (with narrow breath) Time isn’t on our side, Huginn. Death comes to those who wait…and ’tis centuries since.
(A knocking at the door.)
H.M.: Could…this be…so soon…?
Charles Grodin: (jeeringly) Here’s the soda crackers and Bitter Kas you wanted. Is this what you eat for Passover?
H.M.: Yes, but what’s it to me if you indulge on Easter sundae?
Grodin: I hope it doesn’t bother you if I say that your black bird kind of gives me the heebie-jeebies.
H.M.: As long as you don’t give it the herpes simplex. My mynah is the color of death, I’ll grant you that – which is the reason I had you come here.
Grodin: Ohhh, you don’t want me to bird-sit, do you?
H.M.: It would cheer me up to watch you perch and preen, but…something dreadful is uponing.
Grodin: Ok, let’s sit down here in the kitchen. Lay it on me.
H.M.: This isn’t easy for me to talk about.
Grodin: That’s alright. Lots of people have lots of things they can hardly bring themselves to talk about – but you know me, I can talk about, or in this case listen to someone else talk about, anything.
H.M.: (choking up) I believe I’m very near…
Grodin: Yes, very near what? Very near-sighted? I could surmise that from your lenses.
H.M.: You see this dishcloth? Picture that tied around me old jobbernowl, propping up the maw from gracelessly falling open and letting the pneuma ooze out onto the breakfast tray.
Grodin: I’m not following.
H.M.: Oh…I was born in this town and now I’m going to die in it – life is austerely palindromic and encapsulated like a lonely Tylenol. (intimately) Hold on…I hear it. Do you hear it? I hear it!
Grodin: What? What do you hear?
H.M.: The tolling of the margin bell!
Grodin: I see. You want me tell you some jokes to cheer you up? Name three things that have yeast.
H.M.: A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou…yes, I agree, that’s a good one, but I believe we both heard it better in reverse on the Tonight Show. Don’t force things when you give my eulogy either.
Grodin: I’m giving the eulogy?
H.M.: I appreciate your quiddity. You tend to put the audience in a weird state – quantum even. I want to keep everyone on their toes until they pirouette out of the funeral, each one driving the other party’s vehicle home unawares.
Grodin: Open casket?
H.M.: No, no, no. I’d make Lenin’s mummy look like you.
Grodin: (squinting) Didn’t you say you had something for me to sign?
H.M.: I do. My will. But it isn’t written yet. (overzealously licking the tip of a ballpoint) My whole life has been tugged along by paroxysms of creation, so let there be write!
Grodin: How are you supposed to begin a will? I, being of sound mind¿
H.M.: Yes, I, being of sound mind, calloused soul and exuberant breast¡ No! What speciousness do you think the American legal system is built upon? A circular definition is a definition which is circular and always will be.
Grodin: (browsing the pantry) Ok, how about the pledge of allegiance? Is that American enough?
H.M.: Why not? (writing) I plea Alford to the fasces fag of the coup’d confederation of Vespucci, and to the stoolie on the witness stand, fifty-seven haplotypes, Allah-in-fact, divided by zero, with litigi and Faustus for all.
Grodin: Isn’t that a tad too, I don’t know…political for a simple will?
H.M.: Dismantle the straw manikins and denude the establishment, that’s what I always say. I can do what I want. That’s the whole point of a will.
Grodin: Let’s just skip to the part about leaving your savings bonds to so-and-so and all of that.
H.M.: Oh! Which reminds me – if the holidays roll around and I’m not here, I want you to mail my two garrulous grandchildren copies of Finnegan’s Wake and black Swedish Ghoti spiced with ammonium chloride. I find such a pairing tongue-numbingly appropriate and it should keep them quiet.
Grodin: Alright, that’s a start.
H.M.: (scribbling) To Mignon McLaughlin, I leave the west half of my storage unit in Edison because I know she’ll rearrange everything, take the good half of the whole unit, and leave the rest to burden an unacquainted high bidder after she abandons the unit.
Grodin: Sounds sensible enough.
H.M.: To my freakish nephew Philip Soltanek, I bestow a 78 of What Killed the Dog by Nat Wills signed by the artist. Heaven help him…
Grodin: A will typically isn’t a forum for passing judgment.
H.M.: Look, to set the record straight, that kid has a lot to learn – that old disc has become very warped and wobbly over the years.
Grodin: (straddling his chair turned backwards) You wanna just get one of your Irish bulls out of the way while you’re at it?
H.M.: If I had time to come up with a new one, I’d make sure it was one you’d never heard before.
Grodin: Thank you.
H.M.: I’m leaving my prized cuspidor to Cyril Connolly…strike that, he’s dead…I leave my spit-shined cuspidor to Connolly’s latest widow…strike that again, she remarried…just see if you can get one of those eternal flames installed at his grave but replace the flame with a grogger.
Grodin: How about you fill in all the rest later and I’ll just sign where I need to sign now.
H.M.: (bleary-eyed and sniffling) You know…Cyril said the nicest thing to me once…he said, “No one puts me on edge more than the homogeneous genius, always too clever to be clever. I consider you my dear friend, Mr. Palmer, because you are his antithesis.”
Grodin: There, there…you’re gonna get me choked up too and then I’m going to get upset at myself and kick something…and then I’m actually going to cry from the pain.
H.M.: (clutching his left arm) Oooh! The pain! It’s back!
Grodin: Let’s get you to a doctor.
H.M.: VISIBLE DARKNESS! NOWHERE REVISITED! THIS IS IT!
Grodin: (lifting Palmer at the pits) Come on, let’s – OOF! My back! My back! Let me just…move…for a second…
H.M.: (catching his breath) It’s…alright…I think it’s passing now…it must be passing…ooh…
Grodin: I’m sorry. I’m really not such a young man myself – the world’s outpacing us both.
H.M.: What sort of a world am I leaving? One where computers write our poems? Little RAM, who wrote thee? Dost thou know who wrote thee?
Grodin: You want some of those crackers now? I’m a little hungry.
H.M.: Quod me nutrit me destruit…and what doesn’t kill me makes me stranger.
Grodin: And some water? I don’t know what that Bitter Kas is all about, but I’m not taking any chances with the state we’re in.
H.M.: I’d expect poems to program computers before the inverse happens barring accident. But this conversation has taken an eerie turn for the eschatological. Better than scatological, I suppose…which reminds me, please see to it that my tersorium is gifted to the United States Conscience Fund.
Grodin: Ok, I’m taking it upon myself to sign this thing somewhere…
H.M.: Oh, go ahead, sign away. S.W.A.L.K. it. People are right to ignore their ultimate fate, you know? Death is precisely bupkis: Thanatos tapinosis.
Grodin: That’s right. This…dish towel has been lying here dead all this time and hasn’t complained once about its non-living state.
H.M.: Yessir, that dish towel has nothing to complain about. And neither does this soda cracker (devours it)…or this one (eats it too)…or this one (and another)…
H.M.: (drinks gratefully) Ahhh, or this water! So many dead things all around us – the universe is full of practically nothing but dead weight!
Grodin: Yeah! Zillions of…lead fishing sinkers! Exactly…well…approximately!
H.M.: And here I am, the only living thing in the universe, well, approximately.
(Mr. Palmer loses himself in a moment of dissociation while following the faux wood grain of his 1975 Kenmore microwave oven with his eyes, patterns as sinuous as a Keynesian’s aggregate supply and demand curves.)
H.M.: Non cogito, ergo non sum…pardon…a tinge of mooreeffoc must’ve come over me.
Grodin: If you don’t mind me asking, you being such a distinguished man of letters, what would you want your last words to be if you had the choice?
H.M.: Last words? I’d try to be as efficient as could with them – an epigram’s density is often proportional to its potency. How about one last sweeping blast of a word then? Onceandforallthatisholycowlicketysplitdecision! huffhuff…I’ve run out of breath already. Not sure if I’d have the strength for that in my eleventh hour.