Then I made me way into the tottering house itself and found it all in shambles. A clothesline freighted with frilly red underwear, not mine, and three pairs of long johns, not mine, stretched across the living room. The bathroom reeked of men’s after-shave and colognes – Brute – and was littered with gum stimulators, nose-hair scissors, moustache trimmers, nail cutters and other implements and toiletries that I never use.
The bedroom. The bedroom. It stabbed me heart. Men’s boots and shoes of various sizes and shapes, quality and age were lined along the wall. But not one pair of mine in the lot.
“What! That you?” She said, pulling down the edge of her slinky black negligee.
I was charged with great emotion, seeing her spread out there in our old bed, seeing her unchanged not a jot in all the years I had been gone. Not one wrinkle, not one gray hair, not one bump or wart or blemish. She was her old skinny self with a few new appealing curves, her tongue still as sharp as her pointy elbows.
Before I could answer her, Nestor with all the juice of his youth dried out of him, limped into the room – where was his forth leg? – and gave me a steady look and a short sniff. Sniff sniff, like a sneeze that had fallen asleep; then he turned about and limped out the door as if I were not there, had never lived there, would never again live there.
“Nestor,” I cried, “It’s me.”
Not a glance me way. He may be deaf, I thought, seeing him slouch off like an old man with a missing leg, en plus. Age and loss. Twin themes I had thought would never visit me.
“Yes, it’s me come home,” I said, as she rose from the bed and wrapped about her a great green house coat which covered her from foot to neck – her head sticking out like a white bean squeezed from its pod.
“Returned home like the faithful sailor you are. Away for a thousand years and never a post card.”
“It’s a long and odd story, my dear, and one I’m eager to tell.”
“The world may be all ears but I’m not,” she said. “Your berth’s been taken, sailor, so cast off.”
She was her same wonderful biting self but with a decidedly new and attractive twist. Her once long and sharp toe nails were now trim and shaded rose. Her feet, peeking out from under the train of her robe, usually rough and dry like barnacles, were presently smooth and, dare I say, creamy. Dare I say, fetching!
She glowed in her new soigné self. Or is it soignée self? – I have never mastered the niceties of French grammar. In short, she looked swell. I had a strong, sudden rise of feeling for her, which caught her eye.
“That broken mast of yours? That midget sea worm? That slack line, here again?” Her chuckle frozed the furnace in me heart.
She brushed by me in a breeze of jasmine and swept into the kitchen, where I followed in her wake. She poured herself a mug of java, black and without refinements.
“And me?” I asked, wishing so much for a cup of true American coffee, spiced with sugar and cream. And maybe some slices of Wonder Bread or a Kaiser roll with a few patties of butter and jam on the side. It had been so long.
“There’s the diner across the way,” she said pointing with a hand loaded with glittering rings.
I sank under this humiliation, me, the descendent of Hercules and the sometimes master of my fate. I looked about me to conceal the sad unfairness of my welcome. The open shelves were bursting with canned goods, mostly pickled meats and exotic soups, but not one tin of spinach. And above me hung hams and sausages of all nations, garlands of garlic and fierce red peppers, and cheeses, too, hanging in the morning breeze and sun of the open window. I could smell the sea outside and hear its salty churn mixing with the rumble of voices and their medley of languages.
“I suppose,” I said, at last, “I’ll grab me tackle and be on me way.
She softened at seeing my unhappiness and in a kindly voice said, “Pour yourself a cup, then, but don’t be all day about it.”
I sat in a block of stone, granite I think, unable to move, until she said, “Look here, I’ll do it for you, as you seem out of sorts.”
“Forgive me,” I said, “I have not been in a house or at a table or with a spoon to stir me cup for many years, and I came to believe that I never would again.”
“And I did not think that I would ever again see your face although that was all I ever did wish.”
“I did not recognize you at first,” she said, “with your rough beard and white hair, with your sunken cheeks and starved eyes.”
“It’s me all the same,” I said, brightening a little at the friendly tone in her voice.
Then she laughed and added, “Well then, if it be really you, say it for me.”
At first I did not know what she meant and I cudgeled me brain and all its rafters to bring it to proper recollection.
At last it hit me: “Je suis ce que je suis,” I said.
“You’re a fake, a fraud, trying to trick me like all the others out there!”
“Non, non,” I protested, “un imposteur, moi! ce ne pas vrai.”
She went for a broom and made to sweep me away like some old dust underfoot, “Clear out,” she said, “scuttle along you devious slug!”
But then, in a bolt of memory, I finally got my native language back and I said: “I am what I am.”
“There you are!” she said, pouring me another cup of java. But then, fearful it seemed she had gone too far in warming to me, she added, “And there you go, because nothing’s changed that you went away without a word and stayed away with a word.”
“Not my fault,” I said. But before I could continue, she said with a kind of xenophobic fury, “And what’s with the Frenchy stuff, anyways?”
I saw no point in more palaver? I did what any manly American man would do and went into action instead of talking more talk. I rose up and took the broom from her hand and planted one on her lips, a kiss to make up for all the lost years, a kiss to send stars spinning in her head.
When we at last unlocked, she said in a voice throaty and sexy, “Take off your cap and let me have a good lookatya.”
I did so and flattened down me hair and licked me upper teeth for a brushing. She gave me another long look and said: “I know what’s missing, my dearie.” She went into a cabinet and drew out, hidden behind boxes of cereal, one of me old pipes, which she plugged with tobacco and lit with a match the length of an arrow.
“This is better than any dream I ever had when I was in me cage and dreaming of dreaming of returning home.”
“Your cage?” she said, alarmed for me in my past.
“Yes, my dear, my iron cage,” I said. Then I went right down to it and told her how I had been drugged and shanghaied one night and sold to be the strongman in a traveling circus, l ‘Odyssée the troupe s’appealait, for it was French straight down to every nail and peg.
“Oh! Dear!” she said, her eyes widening into saucers.
“By day, I was fed food laced with flowery drugs that kept me lazy and sleepy and content to stay in me cage, and at night, just before show time, they spooned me just the right amount of spinach to give me the strength to wrassel lions and bears and gorillas, to do tug of wars with elephants, and to break giant cables wrapped about me chest. The drugs kept me in a haze of forgetfulness of all I had ever lived or been, but sometimes your memory and our life together with our son would penetrate the haze and I would scheme to escape.”
“ Oh! Popeye.”
“But I was guarded day and night by a one-eyed man who slept on a cot by the side of the cage – he was the fire eater, one of the show’s main attractions and a partner in the circus, so he had every reason to keep me a prisoner – a slave – as I was a big money draw.”
“But weren’t you recognized by the audience?” she asked suspiciously. “The world knows you!”
“Not with the mask they kept over me head when I performed – a papier machemask of me own head.”
“How clever,” she said! “A mask of you to mask you!”
“And,” I continued, “everyone from the grub man to the ringmaster spoke only French and after a few years I lost my own language and I spoke only French, but a debased form of it that was mocked by all but the show animals, who I should say, came to love me as I did them, we being of the same captive stuff. Even the singing eagle and the chorus of her ferocious brood loved me. So, too, the elephant family I taught how to play poker – jokers wild – and the dancing python, too, all friends under the same tent.”
I was going on with my story, when I heard the voices out the window grow louder and more belligerent. She looked at me as if to say, “See what you have come home to?”
“Who is out there,” I asked, “in our courtyard?”
“The ones waiting for you never to come back, the ones waiting for me to fall into their lap.”
So, it was true. I was forewarned of all this by the fortuneteller at the circus. I would find me wife’s suitors and claimants at me home rioting at me door when at last I returned home, she had said, reading tea leaves drowning in a cup. I went out to the courtyard to see what was what. Fifty men were milling about, from ages twenty-five to sixty-eight, some bleary eyed and disheveled from having slept in a chair or in a sleeping bag, and some spanking fresh and ready to take on the world, each man the rival of the other and all the rival of me.
“Pipe down,” I said, “You’re disturbing the peace.”
“Beat it, Pops,” a lad a with biker’s helmet said, twirling a chain.
“Go home, grandpa,” shouted another wearing a tailored suit and creamy pink tie. I could see a pistol bulging under his coat.
I realized then how old and worn out and weak I must have looked, like a beggar who has been wandering for years along dusty back roads. I realized, too, that with all the changes to me-self, I had gone unrecognized and was nothing but bones with a beard that had come to beg for shelter. I heard a piercing cry high above me and saw an eagle, my old friend from the circus, circling there in long strong loops, and it gave me a good cheer.
I said nothing to their jeers and returned to the kitchen to continue me story. To finish with that piece of business before going to another.
“Be patient,” I said. “We’ll get to the heart and matter of these people in a little while.”
She looked at me with a friendly pity, as if to say, I know you would do the best you could in ridding us of this trash but look at you, you seem too weak even to climb a ladder. I took her arm, touching her for the first time since I had come home. So soft her skinny arm, so beautiful. The noise out in the courtyard grew even louder than when I went out there, and this time there were shouts and calls for fist fights and battles with knives and baseball bats.
“Perhaps we should just disappear,” she said, “steal away and leave them to themselves while we sail elsewhere and chart a new course.”
“And give up the house and the garden and the wide veranda that fronts and hangs over the sea, give up me chumming rights and me clam beds and lobster traps, give up me dinghy with it’s one green mast, give up me son, whom I have yet to see in his grown years, give up me bed that I built with me own hands from the planks and beams of noble three-masters driven to the rocks in shattering tempests, the bed I anchored down to the living granite beneath me house, give up you, in whose eyes I will have become a mollusk without courage or a spine?”
I could see her brood on this a while, little ringlets of smoke curling about her ears as they did when she was given to serious thought or was about to grow angry.
“I see your point,” she said, folding her arms into several knots.
“Bear with me awhile,” I said, “because I have not come home without contrivances or hope.
I was about to return to my tale of how I escaped the circus, how I tricked my one-eyed guard to open my cage, and how I blinded him with one quick plunge of me pipe-stem and stole the keys to all the cages while he writhed about in the cold straw of me cell. To tell how I set free all my animal friends, including a giant tortoise whose shell glowed in the dark and sent weather signals to the mermaids at sea. But then I heard great roars of laughter and derision, and I poked me head out the window to see me old friend Wimpy in his great brown tweed suit being dangled by his ankles over veranda rail. His bowler was waiting for him, floating in the ocean below.
One of the men holding him spied me and called out, “Come out here old man and get some of the same.”
That did it. I could stands me no more. First I went to the bathroom and scissored off the greater part of my wild beard and lathered up what stubble was left on me face and shaved it down to the smoothest baby skin. Then I took off me shirt and sprinkled some water over me chest and stringy neck. The tattoo on me forearm was fading into the bowels of me skin but there was enough of the blue anchor showing to tell the world just who it was playing with. I gave me teeth a proper brushing until those pearls looked new- born from their shell. In all, I didn’t look a day older than fifty.
“Oh! Here’s my man,” she said, on my return to the kitchen. “Here’s the one I waited for and would gladly wait for again.”
“Yes, Olive, my dearie. I’m home at last.”
She rummaged behind a shelf of beef and soup cans, her arm sinking deep into its depths, until she drew out a musty old tin.
“I’ve saved this for you,” she said, opening the can. “Do you want it on a plate or will you take it straight?”
I downed the spinach in two swallows. And could feel me strength returning to me in a warm current.
“Now, be my champion!” she said.
I planted another one on her, smack on the lips until little moons spun about our heads. I stepped onto the veranda and looked up to the sky and signaled the spiraling eagle, who sent out a cry summoning all the circus animals who were waiting nearby to help me retake my home. The tortoise lumbered along sending signals to the mermaids to swim to our aid. The elephants blew their great trumpets, calling the waves to fearful heights; the lions breathed mighty roars that split clouds; the python hissed with a cold slicing sound that melted rocks; the gorillas beat their chests and cursed in gutter French. I watched as my allies gathered force, and then I sallied forth with my naked arm to set the world to right.
This text was first published in Jeff Koons: Popeye Series (London: Serpentine Gallery and Koenig Books, 2009).