Zeph

Zeph’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t stop time. It drove him crazy. The fact that every moment a second of his life was ticking away, and that, no matter what he did, the ticking wouldn’t stop, tormented him. Maybe, though, Zeph was just a bad loser. And it terms of time you always lose. Every second that passes brings you a second closer to death. And winning any of those seconds back was impossible.

Zeph was around 45, and one of those American writers and artists living in Paris who hadn’t realized yet that the glamorous times of American writers and artists living in Paris had been gone for over half a century. There was no Anaïs Nin waiting for him anymore. Only young French girls who thought that the Americans should se cassent. It didn’t help much that Zeph didn’t speak any French. In six years in Paris he had just about managed to order a café au lait and a pain au chocolat, and the latter still provoked many misunderstandings due to a pretty bad New York accent.

Zeph didn’t have any time to learn foreign languages, however. Zeph only had time to write a novel. Not that the novel had really gone anywhere in the past six years, but that was besides the point. “Great art can’t be produced in a day, right?” Zeph used to say. (I leave it up to the reader to decide how a day relates to six years.) However, this was where Zeph’s problem with time came into play: What if he ran out of it? What if he just wasn’t allowed to be on this earth long enough to produce great art? (Someone might say that it didn’t help much that Zeph spent most of his time in bars sipping cognac rather than working on his goal to produce great art, but given the all-important time question he had to ponder this might seem overly particular.)

Zeph’s novel was about a guy from New York who goes to live in Grenada, gets married, gets bored, moves to Vegas, gambles, loses all his money, almost drinks himself to death, then has an awakening (kinda like he finds Jesus, only that it’s not Jesus but more like the Holy Ghost who’s gone astray from the trinity – it was a complicated concept, we can’t really get into it here), sobers up, goes back to New York, and … Zeph wasn’t clear about the end yet. He was clear, however, that this was gonna be an existentialist masterpiece of earth-shattering dimensions. Kinda like Henry Fool’s Confession, only that this time it would be the real thing. (Oh, why did Zeph have to be in Paris to write a story that played in Grenada, Las Vegas, and New York? I have no idea. As I said earlier, I think he just suffered from the illusion that Paris was still a hip place to write a novel for an American.)

Before coming to Paris, Zeph had worked in a bookstore in the East Village. The problem with time only running out, never running in (so to speak), first occurred to him when this lady, a regular in the store, looked at the clock one evening and said “oh, my god, you’re closing in two minutes, what can I do to stop that clock for half an hour?” It was a life-altering moment for Zeph since the answer to the question was crystal clear: nothing. Zeph has never been the same since. It was from this moment on that the cornerstones of his current existence had emerged: The tremendous urge to produce great art - and the equally tremendous inability to do so. (And the depression and the drinking problem that inevitably came with it.)

The closest Zeph ever came to a satisfying answer on how to stop time was when he was talking to this drunk at the bar one night who told him that time was nothing but an illusion, so the question as to how to stop it was an illusion too. Zeph liked the theory for its unconventional take, yet he wasn’t convinced ‘cause he was still gonna die, right?

Studying the philosophers he found a complete waste of time. They didn’t know anything. Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence could have provided an answer in the sense that it followed the conviction that the problem was in fact not that we were running out of time but much rather that we were caught in the endless wheel of it, but Zeph had to reject that theory outright: Zeph hated Germans. (Curiously, he was of German descent. His last name was Hildebrand. But, on second thought, this was most likely the problem.)

Studying the religious teachings was condemned to futility too because the monotheistic ones were unfit for a self-declared bohemian, and most of the Eastern ones didn’t go so well with the drinking. (Even though a guy like Jack Kerouac didn’t seem bothered much by the latter, but who was Jack Kerouac? Zeph was going to write a masterpiece, not travel diaries.)

One night Zeph sat in one of the bars around the Place d’Italie, drunk on red wine and cognac again.

Some guy who appeared equally drunk sat down next to him. “You’re American, aren’t you?” he said in an East Coast accent.

“Yes,” Zeph said. “How’d you figure?”

“You look like one … Listen,” the guy continued, “I know what your problem is.”

“Get outta here,” Zeph waved his hand and turned away.

“No, no, man, I’m serious,” the guy said. “See, it’s all about time.”

Zeph turned again to face the guy. He looked really bad. Greasy hair, wild beard, shabby clothes. He stank. Zeph would have said that he looked around 50, but he might have been a good many years younger. “What are you saying about time, man?”

“See, I’ve been around long enough…” The-East-Coast-guy-turned-clochard-in-Paris leaped into a story that started in the Bowery, from where it went to San Francisco, from where it went to Rio, from where it went to Lisbon, from where it finally went to Paris where the-East-Coast-guy-turned-clochard-in-Paris had apparently arrived 21 years ago.

Zeph sat there thinking that none of this interested him in the least, but he listened quietly for a while anyway on the account of being really wasted and half asleep. Eventually, however, it got too much, and he said: “Look, man, I appreciate your life story and all, but I really can’t process all of this right now. Why don’t you cut to the punch line and tell me what it is that you know about time?”

The-East-Coast-guy-turned-clochard-in-Paris seemed caught totally off guard. He re-gathered his thoughts. “Oh, right, time! Yes, that’s what you need to know. Sorry, I must have gone off on a tangent there somewhere...”

“Don’t worry, man,” Zeph said, “it’s been a long day for all of us. But now: So, what is it that I need to know about time?”

The-East-Coast-guy-turned-clochard-in-Paris leaned over, then carefully looked left and right as if he was gonna tell Zeph Yahweh’s true name. Zeph thought that this was kinda funny and didn’t mind having his new friend’s bad smell right up in his face. “Listen, man,” the-East-Coast-guy-turned-clochard-in-Paris whispered under his whiskey breath, “time is a catch-22 with a cause.”

Zeph stared in his empty glass, then looked the-East-Coast-guy-turned-clochard-in-Paris in the eye. The guy’s stare was penetrating. Zeph was all teary-eyed. He leaned over, gave the-East-Coast-guy-turned-clochard-in-Paris a long, long hug and said: “I love you, man!”

The guy nodded, got up, grabbed his coat, and left. He hadn’t said another word. Zeph picked up his bill.

When Zeph arrived at his apartment that night, he took the manuscript for his book off the table, yanked the last page from the typewriter, got the photocopies he had made halfway through the text, went down to the river, and threw it all in the Seine. Watching the hundreds of white sheets disappear felt tremendously liberating.

He was on a plane back to Newark three days later.

(2004)