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JASON LOBELL

Jason Lobell is a senior editor at Promethean, CCNY’s official literary journal. Previously, he was was Senior Nonfiction Editor at Caustic Frolic, an NYU graduate journal. He has published fiction in Verum Literary Press, Promethean and Redivider. Jason is an MFA candidate in creative writing at the City College of New York and an adjunct professor of composition at Touro University.




THE ARIELS


His first Ariel arrived at The Middleton Academy in the autumn of 1948, his first year as a teacher. He was Martin Prescott and his green eyes and unwavering tenor voice immediately distinguished him. His next, John Reardon in 1951, spoke blank verse as if it was his first language. Then came David Whiting, Lawrence Turner, and Dylan Bates, all arriving just in time to be his Ariel, all arriving just in time for his staging of The Tempest.

He directed the spring play in a careful and ever expanding rotation. The original cycle included Antigone, Julius Caesar, and The Pirates of Penzance. It had grown over the intervening years to include Our Town, The Crucible, The Bald Soprano, and West Side Story. But The Tempest always returned every three years and he returned with it to play Prospero. In the familiar purple tunic that covered his widening stomach and donning the white wig that covered hair both greying and thinning, James Haverford stood center stage and commanded the revels. No one begrudged him these moments in the student run spotlight. Jim Haverford had earned them with his years of devoted service to the school. It was what all of them, students, faculty, and parents owed him, what they all owed their beloved Mr. H.

He stood on stage directing a rehearsal, his latest Ariel before him. He was Michael Barricault and he had entered Middleton as a senior in the fall of 1971. They had just spent ten minutes fighting over makeup. Michael wore the face covering sparingly, as blush, eye shadow, and mascara.

‘“You look ridiculous,” intoned Haverford.

“I’m a spirit,” Michael responded. “How do you know what a spirit looks like?”

Just hearing his voice thrilled Haverford. It was mellifluous even in speech and it broke gently, like a stream, over two carefully blended accents.

“It’s your fault anyway,” continued Michael. “I’m miscast. I’m not an Ariel. I’m a Caliban. That’s what I auditioned for. I told you that from the beginning."

He had auditioned for Caliban but Mr. H knew an Ariel when he saw one. The other parts were easy to cast. For the nobles Alonzo, Antonio, Sebastian, and Gonzalo, the older boys. For the clowns Stephano and Trinculo, the younger ones. For Miranda, the prettiest girl who auditioned from the nearby Hastings School. For Caliban, the class bully who best embodied inarticulate, adolescent rage. Second or third generation legacy students always did well for this and Will Stratton, this year’s choice, was no exception. The entire company stood silently, listening to them.

“A spirit is of another world, Michael. That makeup makes you look of this world. It makes you look common, Michael. Are you common, Michael?”

Michael didn’t answer. He just moved his hands slowly upward and smeared the makeup over his face and down to his chin.

Haverford relished the victory but he knew not to push his advantage. Better to accept a truce and call it a day.

“That’s all for this afternoon. Everyone back here Monday at 3:30. And no one be late.”

He watched them all leave except Michael. He just sat center stage with caked makeup dripping down his cheeks, face turned resolutely to an upstage mirror that covered the back wall of the auditorium. Haverford knew that Michael was smiling. He was learning that nothing could distort his beauty.


The next day, as he did every Saturday, Haverford took the ten o’clock train from Fairfield to Manhattan. He regarded himself as a eternal tourist in the city, one whose delight had never faded in twenty-five years of weekly visits. It was there for him as a perpetual wonderland, as Narnia or Oz or the world through Alice’s looking glass. It was always fresh with the fantastic dreams of childhood.

It meant, when in season, the matinee of the opera. There was chill enough in the spring air for him to wear an overcoat and the black fedora he only sported on Saturdays. He eagerly checked both when he arrived at the Met, knowing that retrieving them after the final curtain, among hundreds of others, would happily prolong his visit.

He settled into his orchestra seat and prepared himself for Otello, the last matinee of the season. Like all of Verdi, it was something he had always known, as ever-present as his parents who played it constantly throughout his childhood. It was so much a part of him that when reading or teaching the play, he had to fight not to hear it in in Italian, the libretto existing in his mind before the English text. It was that way as well with the other Verdi adaptations, Falstaff and Macbeth. He encountered the originals as works in translation, as something viewed through a hazy theater scrim. The lively musical offspring preceded in his mind their dour, playwright father.

But if the music was a comfort, the opera house was not. It was the new Met. The old Met, as it was now called, had been demolished and this palace of marble, bronze, and glass had been erected in its place. It was a fitting place for galas but an unfortunate one for singing. Its polished walls sent sound reverberating in faint echoes and whispers. Everything had to be deciphered and overheard and each audience member took part in a conspiracy to comprehend a masterwork. Even when excellently done, as it was on this day, it was something grasped in bits and fragments and this ahistorical house seemed filled with ghosts and spirits and other remnants of the dead.

After the performance, he left the Met and walked to the subway station. He had just enough time to regard the blotches of varicolored paint on the outside of the cars before the doors opened, allowing him inside. He stood clinging to a strap. All around him, men with hues like Michael Barricault’s jostled back and forth, alive with the excitement of youth and imminent adventure. They spoke a language he could not recognize as either English or Spanish but some careless amalgam of the two. Each word seemed created in the moment it was uttered. Haverford had noticed more and more of these people on each subsequent Saturday visit; they seemed to multiply by the week. Once confined to certain areas of the city, they now roamed freely and with arrogant ease through previously forbidden boulevards.

He exited the subway at Christopher Street. Night was beginning to fall and the Greenwich Village streets were being lit with neon and candlelight reflected through windows. Each time Haverford felt he had lost his way, a new club or restaurant emerged to illuminate his path. Music could be heard from behind closed doors. He had been inside some of them when that music was jazz but whatever he was hearing now, it was not jazz.

This place, this warren of tangled lower Manhattan streets, had been given to him years ago by Charles Roy, Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University and Haverford’s faculty advisor. Haverford was an Ohio boy at Yale. A generation earlier, Charles Roy had been an Indiana boy at Yale and he felt an immediate connection. So he taught Haverford not only Cervantes, Tolstoy, and Proust, but Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith and Sidney Bechet. They ventured into New York City together to listen to music and eat like peasants and mix with people who could not be found at Yale. It was time and a way of living that was now permanently lost to him. Never again would he venture into New York City other than alone. Never again would he listen to contemporary music or share a table with strangers or drink mixed cocktails in the fervent hope of getting drunk.

He regarded the doors and thought them closed to him. He walked up to and then passed by the entrances to the bars lining the streets, the ones with blackened windows and an interior darkness that matched the night sky. He felt a twinge of excitement as he approached and then a bitter rush of disappointment as he turned away.

It was almost one when he got home. As a house master he occupied the room on the ground floor of the dormitory; the boys who resided there slept upstairs. All was quiet except for Michael Barricault. Through his door poured the sounds of an electric guitar, wild chords that Haverford could not recognize as music. Still, it was something of Michael Barricault so he sat and listened to it. It allowed him to conjure visions of Michael Barricault, of him playing soccer or riding his bike along the quad or just sitting in his classroom, always in the first seat by the window.

When the music ended, Haverford went to the bookshelf and removed a volume of Rilke’s Sonnets To Orpheus. On a visit to his office one day, he had found Charles Roy reading it.

“Rilke,” he marveled. “There really is no one like him. But I’m not crazy about this translation. How’s your German, Jim?”

“Nonexistent, I’m afraid.”

“That’s too bad. You’re missing something wonderful.”

Three weeks later, Haverford received a package in the mail. It was a volume of Rilke, with Charles Roy’s handwritten translation of the verses in the margins. Haverford fondled the book before opening it once again, then ran his fingers along the sentences in antique blue fountain pen. He thought he could see the words floating off the yellowing pages. In his imagination, they became not the words of Rilke, but the expressions of his mentor. They did not exist in translation but were original and wholly of their language, unmitigated and with nothing ever lost. They were the unadulterated voice of Charles Roy, his long departed friend, speaking to him softly, extemporaneously, and from the heart.

It was no surprise that rehearsals with Michael Barricault were a struggle. Everything with Michael Barricault was a struggle. It had been that way from the first day of classes, when Haverford handed him his copy of Invisible Man.

“Why are we reading this shit?”

“Your language, Mr. Barricault.”

“Ellison isn’t where it’s at anymore. He’s a Tom, a sellout. Have you ever heard of James Baldwin?”

“Yes.”

“What about Chinua Achebe?’”

Haverford didn’t answer.

“Claude Brown? Ishmael Reed?”

Again, there was no answer.

“Well?”

“Yes, I’ve heard of them.”

“Have you read them?”

“No.”

“Why not? Why aren’t we reading them? Why are we reading these old men? Well, I get it. You’re an old man so you make us read old books.”

Each rehearsal was the same. Michael mumbled, he pouted, he spoke the lines of every character except Ariel.

“You are deliberately sabotaging this production. I know you know your lines.”

“I don’t like those lines. Those lines don’t speak for me. Caliban speaks for me. I told you I’m a Caliban. Let me play that if you really want to see something.”

“The parts have been assigned and there will be no alterations to the casting. Now speak your lines.”

“It’s no good H, I’m a Caliban through and through. We share so much. Like him, my mother is a witch. Yeah, a witch. She had to be to do what she did.”

“What did she do?”

“She married my father. She had to be a witch to do that. Everybody said so. Pretty little Carolina white girl marrying my big, Black father. What could she be except a witch?”

The company stood staring.

“Oh, didn’t you all know? I thought it was obvious. I am the color of café au lait.”

Haverford finally broke the silence.

“Let’s move along. Do the first song, Michael. Do Ariel’s first song.”

Michael began to sing. His voice filled the auditorium. Haverford listened as all became peaceful within Michael Barricault. His voice did not know anger or conflict as he improvised a melody to Ariel’s words. It was an incongruous melody considering its source. It was not a thing of the moment but a light waltz of the old country, something hundreds of years old. It was as gentle and benign as the air that it occupied.


The retirement party, now winnowed down to five, had moved from Bishop Hall to Henry Abbott’s house. All but Haverford continued the drinking they had begun earlier in the evening.

“Once again,” offered Haverford, raising a water glass, “to our dear friend and colleague.”

Henry Abbott lifted his glass in acknowledgment.

“You’re irreplaceable,” added Frank Dowling, who taught biology.

“Which they’ve admitted by not replacing you,” declared Tony Fowler, who taught algebra and trigonometry.

“Such an outrage” said Helen Rusk, of the history department.

“Helen, please…”

“Well it is. Not hiring another Latin teacher. No more Latin at Middleton.”

“Yes,” said Henry. “I’m retiring and taking my discipline with me. That’s the true honor of the moment.”

“What will they do without Latin?”

After inquiring, Tony rose from his seat to freshen his drink.

“They say it’s not needed anymore.”

“As opposed to trigonometry?”

“How needed is any of it?” asked Haverford. “I often say to myself, once they graduate, will they ever again read a poem?” “It’s the students,” said Helen. “They’re not up to it anymore. They’re not up to anything that requires discipline.”

“They do seem to be getting worse.”

“Worse by the hour,” she agreed, lips pursed.

“I’m the oldest and I’ve been here the longest and so I know that the idea of perfect students in days gone by is a mythology. They were never any better. I had to pound the Latin into them from my very first day, thirty-five years ago.”

“I mean just look at them now. The way they wear their hair, the way they speak. Like that Michael Barricault. I don’t know how they ever let him in here.”

“Michael is a difficult case, Helen. But bright, though. Very bright. Finishes his quizzes in five minutes and then he’s out the door.”

“I wish I only had to spend five minutes a day with him.”

“He is challenging but he has reason…”

“Challenging, Frank? He’s a demon.”

“That’s a little much, Helen.”

“I’m not saying it because he’s a Negro, Jim. I remember the first one we had here in ‘64. David Hollander. Just lovely. Proof that not all of them are like that.”

“Helen, I think—”

“We offer them an education but they refuse it. They refuse our help.”

“It can’t be easy. There are so few of them here.”

“What does that matter? I treat them all the same, as students. Middleton is like that. We’ve always been progressive. We had our first Jew in ’57, before anyone, before Andover or Groton. Adam Weiss. Again, lovely and grateful for the chance we gave him. But then the Jews were never really a problem.”

“I think we should call it a night,” said Haverford.

“I know some of the ones from the old families are just as bad, I know that. It’s the times we’re living in.”

“Don’t forget Helen, girls are coming. We’re getting our first girls next fall. They will save us. They will restore civilization.”

“Not these girls, Jim. Have you seen them these days? A year from now this campus will be awash in syphilis.”

None of the others responded. They had given up and drank silently. Haverford looked at Henry Abbott. He had given his life to this school. What, if anything, would he miss about the place? What, if anything, would the place miss about him? Even after decades, he knew, teachers were as ephemeral as students.


All of his Ariels ceased to be Ariels when they left Middleton. They required the magic of this island and his powerful enchantments. When he encountered former Ariels at class reunions or at homecoming, they had invariably turned into mediocre adults, all their splendor lost. Those he expected to be special turned out common. Those he expected to hear of drifted off into unremarkable obscurity. One had actually become a professional actor; he had a small part in The Longest Day as a paratrooper. Haverford had driven to a cinema in Waterbury to see him. The enormity of the screen exposed his ordinariness, the flatness of his adult features and even the banality of his mind lodged behind pale, empty eyes. Not surprisingly, the boy never acted again.

It was his practice, therefore, to never see an Ariel away from campus. So he was a long time in contemplating the flyer that had been slipped under his door. It was red with thick, black lettering and it advertised:


Michael Barricault and The Noble Savages

The Game Room

Saturday, May, 15th, 10:00pm


The Game Room was a bar in New Haven. He had never been inside it. He let the flyer drift to the floor. He hoped it would go lost or that he’d forget its contents, the time of the performance, the location of the bar. But they had inscribed themselves on his memory with a single viewing.

For the first time in twenty-five years, he did not make his Saturday trip into the city. Instead, he remained at home and listened to the entirety of Der Ring, the Furtwängler/Flagstad recording. He did not change out of his pajamas until eight o’clock at night. Then he slowly dressed himself in his grey, pinstripe suit, the brightest tie he owned, yellow with white dots, and his black fedora. It was too warm for an overcoat, which he regretted. His green trench coat would have to suffice. At nine o’clock he drove one of the school cars to The Game Room. He sat in it for several minutes before walking inside.

The bar was simple with wooden tables devoid of cloths and plain, steel fixtures. Posters covered the walls; he recognized Mao and Che Guevara but no one else. Yale students filled it. A makeshift stage had been set up on an elevated platform with a riser for the drummer and large amplifiers on both sides. He sat at the bar and ordered a glass of red wine, the only such order of the night. At some time after ten, Michael Barricault and his bandmates took the stage.

His face shone in the light. That was all Haverford knew. He didn’t hear the music and he didn’t care to. It evaporated in the very moment of its creation. All he knew was Michael Barricault’s lithe fingers on the guitar, his slender body gesticulating with every chord struck and the giddiness in his eyes as they took in the crowd’s adoration. He had become the embodiment of Ariel and his song as there was nothing contemporary about him. He existed as a reborn Maenad or Valkyrie, something impossibly ancient and eternal.

After an hour, the music stopped and the band left the stage. Had he seen him in the crowd, Haverford wondered. Did he know he was there? He turned his face away from the stage, to his untouched wineglass. When he turned back, Michael was standing in front of him.

“You flatter me, Mr. H. Your presence flatters me.”

“I…thank you for inviting me.”

“May I join you?”

Haverford nodded and Michael took the seat next to him.

“I had to invite you, Mr. H. I had to show you what lives in this world. I had to show you the truth. I had to show you that I’m a Caliban.”

Haverford was halting in his response.

“I’ve always thought you’re very talented, Michael. I’ve always thought so. And of course young people have their own music and their own way of doing things. That’s natural.”

“This is the way we are all going to do things from now on, Mr. H.”

“Things change best when things change slowly, Michael.”

“It’s too late for that. Things have already changed. You have. You’re not the same man you were when you walked in here tonight.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’re no longer a Prospero, you’re no longer a monarch.”

“It’s a part I play, Michael, nothing more."

“No, it’s who you are. Or were. I know one when I see one. My father is a Prospero, too. A magician with his horn.”

“He’s a musician like you?”

“A musician and a magician. I’ve seen him make buildings crumble and women wail and rivers flow upstream. All with his sax. His sax is his staff.”

Haverford didn’t respond.

“He was an exile too, like Prospero. A self-exile. Couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t take America anymore. So one day he just up and left. Took his white wife and his mulatto son and left. I was nine. Our family name had a Francophone ring so he took us to France, which he presumed to be our ancestral home. The first time I saw The Tempest it was in French and that’s how I think of it, in French. Do you know what that’s like, Mr. H?”

“Yes Michael, I do.”

“It’s fabulous. It erases everything, all languages and cultures, makes everything dust. Shakespeare wasn’t an Englishman. He was French. Jazz is the music of King Louis’s court and the slave makes the master dance.”

“Why did he come back?”

“He didn’t. I did. I wanted to claim my legacy. My legacy as an American, my legacy as a son of the only nation on earth born out of revolutionary violence.”

“All young people dream of revolution. But some things, some good, must be permanent.”

“Nothing is permanent. Nothing will last. It’s already begun, Mr. H, the destruction of everything. A world without Prosperos is what we want. It’s what we’ll get, too. One down, many more to go. Goodnight, Mr. H. I’ll see you at the opening.”

He was so quick off the bar stool that he stirred a breeze, one that passed across Haverford’s face and could easily be mistaken for a kiss.


The opening night of The Tempest was extraordinary. Each line from every cast member was letter perfect. Michael Barricault sang like a lark and moved about the stage like a gazelle. Haverford himself had never been better. Usually, he played the part to polite silence from the adults and nervous twitters and muffled laughter from the students. On this night, however, he held them rapt. Their silence was real and their focus was riveted. He had never been clearer in the verse or more resonant in his delivery. He spoke the great speeches of renunciation and resignation with a truthfulness previously unavailable to him as now he spoke not as Prospero, but as himself. He was Prospero or Prospero was him. He had grown into the part in the moment as he had never felt so weary, as he had never felt so near the end.

He received the congratulations of everyone at the cast party. All but Michael, who wasn’t there. He knew he wouldn’t be. But he also knew that if he waited long enough outside the auditorium, he would eventually appear. He stood by himself and watched the campus grow quiet and empty. He felt the cooler air descend onto the quad. He heard footsteps in the distance before he could make out Michael’s form emerging into the lamplight to take his hand.

Michael led Haverford to another school car and sat behind the wheel. It was strictly against the rules for a student to drive a school car but Haverford said nothing. Michael drove them to the train station. He purchased the tickets and led them onto the train. They rode together in silence. When they reached Grand Central Station, they boarded the subway, on a line Haverford knew intimately. It deposited them in Greenwich Village.

All doors opened to Michael Barricault. One in particular and Haverford followed. Inside, walls were painted black and all light came exclusively from candles. They lit the faces of Black men already lit with laughter. Michael chose the table. A waiter approached and he ordered a Martini.

“You’re too young to drink,” said Haverford. “You shouldn’t be in here.”

His hands were shaking.

“No one in here should be in here. We shouldn’t exist, but we do. Two Martinis.”

For the first time Haverford could hear the music. It emerged from the jukebox as something pounding and relentless, only three chords repeating in an endless, deafening loop.

Their drinks arrived.

“To the new Mr. H,” said Michael, raising his glass.

Haverford’s hands were shaking too much for him to lift the Martini. He brought his mouth to the rim of the glass and sipped. The gin, his first gin in decades, sent his head spinning.

Michael reached across the table and took Haverford’s hands in order to still them. He intertwined their fingers.

“No one can see you in here, Mr. H. We’re all shadows in here. This is the land of shadows. This is the underworld presided over by Pluto. We’re all of us exiles. And like that original castoff Hephaestus, we are all of us lame.”

Haverford sipped again at his Martini.

“Or if you don’t like that how about Pandemonium? How do you like our gathering of fallen angels?”

Haverford could feel the gin at work inside him. How did he know these things, how did Michael Barricault who despised all that was civilized and cultured know these names, these references? Who had taught him? No one had taught him, he had lived them. He was as ancient as he seemed. He was born at the beginning of creation and he had lived through millennium after millennium. The gods of Olympus were his cousins and Lucifer was his brother. He had witnessed the fall of man, the great flood, and the crucifixion.

“Won’t you enter this word peopled with Calibans?” asked Michael. “Won’t you acknowledge this thing of darkness as yours?”

Haverford gripped Michael’s hand tightly. He followed him as he rose from the table and walked to the darkest corner of the bar, untouched even by candlelight. Haverford felt Michael’s lips against his mouth and his tongue between his teeth. He had never felt anything so soft and welcoming. Around them, well hidden, he heard other men, their gasps and their kisses. They went unseen but he could feel their hot breath and pungent, ripe sweat. It sickened him. It called to his mind the smell of bellmen, train porters, and stevedores. It was the effluvium of beasts and it filled him with disgust. His stomach began to cramp and his eyes burned with the scent. He pulled himself free and ran for the door, knocking over tables as he went.

Outside, the dawn had broken. He vomited the gin into the gutter and fell to his knees. Then he turned his head upward. Now all was bright. The lights from the restaurants and clubs had been extinguished. Their doors were again sealed shut. He tried one and then another. Through windows came the sloshing sound of buckets and mops. He looked to the street signs but they revealed nothing. He looked for a fixed point in the sky, some late departing stars, but they offered no counsel. He looked for a guidepost, a landmark, a fellow traveler, a passing stranger, anything that could show him the way back to darkness.






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