I was leafing through the newspaper the way one does — reading a paragraph, checking the headlines. All the news, but none of it new. I skimmed the features. A little here, a little there, nothing really strenuous. And not finding anything very compelling in the world.
I was in the Want Ads when I saw a leader in ten-point saying “Need a Metaphor?” with an address in the Village. Well, now, you know, every once in a while a person does need a metaphor. I wouldn’t say I was actually hungry for one, but if it’s appropriate and the price is right, I’m in the market. And I will admit I was intrigued: I’ve never come across an ad for metaphors — at least, not in the Want Ads.
Of course, the Sunday Magazine is full of metaphors for sale from Absolut to Xanadu. But public, commercial metaphors (like Nike and Rolex) are so depressingly shop-worn these days that they leach all the strangeness out of life. Instead of defamiliarizing the world to make us see things new, they show us that everything’s the same.
On the other hand, I might go for something more private, a personal metaphor — though not one of those pet metaphors that everybody talks about. You’ve got to use them all the time, like circus animals, take them out rain or shine and display them with or without a leash. After all, a person is known by the metaphors he keeps. And I didn’t want people coming into my apartment and saying “My God! What’s that?” A metaphor is like a joke: if you have to explain it, it doesn’t work. And nobody, certainly not me, wants broken metaphors littering the house.
So with a compote of feelings, I carefully copied the address out of the newspaper before returning it to my neighbor’s doormat.
The shop was in an area of the Village that looks almost exactly like Brooklyn Heights — which looks almost exactly like the Village used to look when it was still the Village. Narrow quiet streets, old well-brushed brick houses, inactivity dozing in resident silence. Or, if there was noise or action, it was the tenor of the city we don’t hear anymore, the white noise that is not noise but whose hum indicates what is, universally, absent. The place smelled of yeast-dough rising, Parmesan cheese, and evoked the taste of a girl I knew in Cambridge. The afternoon light was the grey of early Sunday May morning in the damp wadis and arroyos of Wall Street.
The exterior of the shop was not very distinguished. I didn’t expect it to be, considering the area and the merchandise. It was a few steps off the street (up or down, as you wish). I pushed through old iron doors with panels of opaque glass the color of horn, and walked into Arctic air conditioning.
The store was on two levels; the second opened to areas in the back concealed behind painted screens. If I didn’t know this was the shop of a metaphor merchant, I wouldn’t know what was being sold. There were counters and cupboards, bins and trays. Nothing very clearly set out and yet nothing very hidden. I didn’t know what the empty fish tank bubbling in the corner was for and later found out it contained submerged metaphors — winged souls, perched hopes, that sort of thing.
The man behind the counter looked like someone else, but wasn’t. His wild white hair leaped up in surprise from the sides of his head, burying his ears and leaving the crown naked. Einstein, maybe.
“Good afternoon, sir, may we help you?”
“No, thanks. I’m just prowling the area.”
“Well, make yourself at home.”
I picked among some trinkets on the counter beside the old brass cash register. A pair of ruby lips carved out of plastic. The foot of a hill. The leg of a table. The eye of a needle.
I was confused.
“These are ….?”
“Dead metaphors,” he said. “We keep them around as conversation pieces. Something to break the ice. Give customers an idea of the sort of thing we neither stock nor sell. If that’s what you want, you’ll have to look elsewhere.”
“You mean there are other stores like this in the city?”
“What? You’re comparison shopping? For metaphors?”
“Actually,” I said, side-stepping neatly, “I’m looking for similes.”
“Metonymy or synecdoche, sir?”
“Maybe I better just look around,” I said.
A young woman in white pointy shoes, white tights, a white beret, and an ostentatiously red scarf shadowed me into the shop.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Sanfermin, what may we get you today?”
“I’d like two fresh metaphors, please. One vegetable and one industrial.”
“Verbal or visual?” the man asked.
“Oh — visual, please.”
“Step this way.” He moved farther down the counter.
“How are your similes today?” she asked.
“Fresh as puppies,” he said with a smile. “Crisp as lettuce.”
“I would like one temporal simile for a letter to an old boy friend.”
“I have a nice green verbal here,” he said, “but I must tell you it was used once before by a gentleman-scribbler in Coppertone, Kansas, who wrote for an hour every Monday and Thursday.”
The customer curdled in disappointment.
“But,” the shopkeeper continued brightly, “he never published.”
“Well, then,” smiled the young woman in white.
“Yes. Will there be anything else?”
“Oh,” she said, “I want to tell you how very much my guests enjoyed the paradox you sold me two weeks ago. They never heard anything like it.”
The shopkeeper was incandescent with joy.
“I told them I bought it here and that you have the best figures of speech in town. Really!”
“Thank you. My hook is in the newspaper, but I rely on word of mouth.”
He folded two metaphors and the verbal simile in old newsprint and slipped them into a plain brown wrapper.
I wandered around the shop, looking in bins and rummaging on table tops. I pulled down a book or two known to use metaphors. I came to a wall with two windows. One looked out upon a sylvan landscape of forest lake mirroring the distant Rocky Mountains and sunset and sky. The second window opened upon industrial New Jersey or the English Midlands bubbling with pollution in the nineteenth century. As I wondered back and forth between the two windows, I noticed Shakespeare’s Sonnet #130 framed on the wall between them: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Then I remembered where I was.
A young man, feather-thin, came in and ordered a dozen puns for a party in the Hamptons that weekend: “four literary, four nautical, and four salacious.”
When he left, the proprietor approached me again.
“How are we getting on?” he said.
“I’m having a little trouble with this,” I said, looking around. “Aren’t metaphors supposed to clarify, intensify, signify?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but what makes you think stores or stories have to be realistic?”
“Aren’t you in business to make money?”
“Actually, it’s the other way around,” he said smugly. “Money makes business. Otherwise and usually, it’s a metaphor. Metonymy for wealth.”
“I could use a little more of that metonymy.”
“Everybody needs metonymy,” he said seriously. “Fortunately, we’ve got tonnes and tons and tuns of it, though we sell it by the pun. Come here, let me show you something.”
I followed him up a few steps into the back.
“As you know,” he said, “your basic metaphor is composed of two parts. Well ….”
He opened a door upon a wall-to-wall male choir.
“These are the tenors,” he said, and, opening another door that led to the garage, “These are the vehicles.”
When I didn’t respond, he looked disappointed and tacked to another course.
“Okay,” he said, “perhaps you would like to see some of our better, high-tech, visual metaphors? Absolutely non-traditional.”
He stood me in front of a 3-D Holusion, dots upon dots, and urged me to loosen my mind until I saw a tyger emerge from a Westinghouse refrigerator.
“Or perhaps you’re more interested in an interface like this.”
I slowly traversed the visual plane of a hologram. Suspended in purple space was a human mask seen from behind. Through the eyeholes I saw the mask-front reflected in a mirror. The face was mine.
“We call this ‘Interfacial.’ Get it?” He clapped me on the back in a metaphor of friendliness.
“I must say, this is really a very clever idea.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Do you mean the store or the story?”
“Well, both, ha-ha, but the store was what I had in mind.”
“Thanks. We put a lot of work into making it work. Even so, we had some difficulties running-in. For example, you see that rough patch over there?”
He indicated a jumbled field of poppies, roses, and daffodils surrounding a bottomless pool edged with a tragic swamp where the sun hung like a wafer in the sky. The field seemed a junk-yard of broken columns, amphorae, half-sunk visages, rusted Cadillacs, and Twinkie wrappers. The sky lowr’d and, muttering thunder, wept some sad drops.
That whole corner of the story was rich with wildlife. In a beechen green, I saw nightingales flitting among shadows numberless, herons stalking, wild swans cooling, vultures circling, and skylarks — blithe spirits — at break of day arising. And among the predictable animals I saw a bear, a dog, a cat, a bloody lamb, and above them all a lion — like the mayor of a golden metro — poignantly roaring. Or perhaps it was the lamb that was roaring.
“We tried,” he said, “to keep symbols and metaphors separate, but the little beggars kept impregnating each other, like rabbits. Really quite a mess. Birds are the worst. We’ve had to abandon the distinction entirely.”
“Just like life,” I said. “Is that the Slough of Despond or the big two-hearted river?”
“Yes! That’s the problem.”
A lavender pile in the corner — not flowers but flesh that looked like old dough — exuded the pungent, rank smell that rises from sewers and suggests the Congo and the deliquescence of death.
“Phew! What’s that? Dead hippo meat?”
“No,” he said. “Carrion comfort.”
But the smell didn’t arise from literary allusion. He was smoking.
“Is that …?” I said.
“No,” he laughed, “it’s just a cigar. Will you join me?”
“No,” I said, “I think I’ve seen enough. How do I get out of here?”
“You’re really going?”
“Yes. That’s what leaving means.”
“Where are you going?”
“Back to my apartment. Back to work.”
“Are you going to finish this story?”
“No-no,” I said. “I’m not a metaphor for the author. I thought you were.”
“Me! No, we’re just a shop keeper. Merchant. Peddler of metaphors. We live here. You?”
“I live uptown. I’m a character. Like you.”
“Like you, too. But it’s not enough to build a life on,” he said with whelming despair, “and it doesn’t place many metaphors.”
He led me back through the store, and as I stepped out into the street, I was suddenly struck through the heart by a piece of Skylab falling.
No. I stepped into a steaming pile abandoned by the insouciant horse of a mounted policeman.
No-no. Let’s see. I put my hand in my pocket and fingered the ruby lips I had lifted.
You must be wondering how this is going to end since it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere — as if things of this nature were mobile. (Soto voce: which they are: they echo, they carom in the head; they can be folded and slipped — like ruby lips — into a pocket.) Don’t look at me. I’m a character, not an omniscient narrator. But I do like what the shopkeeper said a few pages back when I said that selling metaphors was a clever idea. He wanted to know if I meant the store or the story and I said “the store,” but I could just as well have said “the story.”