The Don Quixote of New Jersey

Mark Tarallo


THERE MAY BE better places to sound for depth, to mine for connections, to steep oneself in the near-eternal and give the ultracontemporary world the slip, than Edgewater, New Jersey.

     But from just outside my three rented rooms on Undercliff Avenue, through the rusty sideways diamonds of the staggering fence that runs along the walk and separates the occasional pedestrian from the oil tanks and cranes below, there is much to consider.

     There are the buildings of north Manhattan, densely set, in various shades of russet, umber and faded grey, colors which for some reason give them the air of intellectual residences. I recognize two -- the high square tower of Riverside Church, and the dome under which Ulysses S. Grant lies. (Ask the motionless guard who spends his days staring at the tomb why Grant, a Midwesterner, is buried in New York, and he will tell you.)

     There is the languid Hudson, running shimmery and slow in a foreboding shade of slate blue that suggests eternity and infinity and death. But the river takes in more light as it moves south, so when following its path with your eyes, you may see what looks like sheets of silver or perfect glass interleaved with long narrow patches of shadow, until the last line of sea bleeds into a vague shape that rises off the far shore (which may or may not be Battery Park, I’m not quite sure).

     Between the buildings and the river, cars, tiny in the distance, move slowly north and south on the tree-masked West Side Highway.



    THIS CAN BE seen from a place I think of as Ideation Headquarters, situated mid-cliff in the upper Palisades, off a street called Undercliff Avenue. A wonderful space for a wonderer. Right now, in fact, I’m wishing hard for immediate transport to that street, to be gazing at the river through the rusty sideways diamonds of the staggering fence.

     For it was there that I decided to undertake The Investigation, driven by the river shadings, building representations and even the distance from which I saw them. All are related to what I am trying to accomplish. But before anything further, it would be wise to turn my attention to matters at hand, for Rick has started to yelp.

    Once again, it is DialAmerica time.

    --Wake 'em up! Rick yelps. It's DialAmerica time! Let's hear some bells! We're doin' Beeperphones this morning; we're doin' Beeperphones. Let's here some bells, guys and gals! Let's hear some bells!

     Grinning, Rick paces the front of the room. From somewhere behind me, the ding of a clerk's bell sounds, signaling a sale. Rick stops; his head turns.

     --Ahhhh, the lovely Beryl Lomax! Rick says, smiling at a young woman in the back, already on her next call. Keep it up, Beryl, keep it up. C'mon guys, who's gonna match Beryl? Who's gonna match Beryl? Let's hear some bells, guys. Let's hear some bells!

     On days like these, when Rick's bantering seems deeply depression-inducing, I make use of the sole brilliancy that has come to me here: beeping.

     --Yes, may I speak to Mr. Lutz? Mr. Lutz, my name is Kevin Piercey and I’m calling about Beeperphone...

     After the word Beeperphone, I press one of the tough-tone keys on the receiver. <Burrrrrp!> it sounds.

     --...the portable pager system. As you probably know, Mr. Lutz, cellular phone technology is revolutionizing our marketplace and personal lives, and Beeperphone <Burrrrrrp!>  is on the cutting edge...

     --What's that sound? interrupts Mr. Lutz. 

     --Excuse me? I say, even though I understood the question.

     --I just heard two beeping sounds. Did you press one of the buttons by mistake?

     --Oh, no, ahh, that's part of the presentation, I say.

     Mr. Lutz does not respond.

     --Okay, I continue, ummm, as I was saying, Beeperphone <Burrrrrp!> is on the cutting edge of that technology. Beeperphone <Burrrrrp!> offers a state-of-the-art communication system that you can strap onto your belt, allowing you to be reached by phone no matter where you are--indoors or out. And Bee....

     There is a loud click, then the harsh buzz of the dial tone, once defined as the sound of a disengaged soul.



     ONE CREDENTIAL ALONE, I have decided, qualifies me to undertake The Investigation -- lack of distinction. Academics? I spent a distracted five years generating mediocre grades at an ordinary state university.

     Worldliness? After graduation, I backpacked through Europe in an effort to relieve the crushing obligation to solicit culture in the temples of the Old World. I doubt I had one fresh thought about the usual cities, paintings, churches and squares that I took in, with the possible exception that a portion of Paris's 15th arrondissement resembles certain sections of Hoboken.

     Career? Ready to embark on life at 24, I have taken a temporary job at DialAmerica, the nation's largest telemarketing firm (national headquarters: Jones Road Office Park, Fort Lee, N.J.) while I search for true vocation.

     Of course, one may counterargue, and say that my unqualifications qualify me as a model representative for the Generation X, the latest progeny of the Lost Generation to mistakenly assume originality.

    Sorry. Here I fail on a different count. For citizens of the slacker-world -- in their drifting, purposelessness, and no-future philosophies – always assume a certain confidence, something I do not possess.

    For I have not yet mastered the correct exteriors for expected behaviors. What is the proper glance for the passing pedestrian who faces you on the sidewalk? How does one respond, without stammering, to the unexpected question from a stranger at the bus stop?

    Is there truth buried in my discomfort, in its recognition of the complexity of interaction? Perhaps.  Nonetheless, it makes living harder. To an idealist like myself, eradicating irony, posturing, sarcasm, coldness and all the other tropes in the repertoire of day-to-day living may sound pleasing. But some rehearsed gestures are needed to get through our world. Every point of contact, every exchange, cannot be dwelled upon. You would end up like me.

     I have often succumbed to the American practice of measuring progress by pitting oneself against all others in one’s peer group. In every newspaper profile I read, I count up from the subject’s birth year to see what he or she was up to at my age. The conclusion is always clear: I am markedly unaccomplished. Meanwhile, my contemporaries cruise. The young entrepreneurs are amassing their fortunes. The gifted writers are reading favorable notices of their first novels. The young science doctoral candidates are engaged in advanced cellular research, making a contribution toward a cure for cancer. The esquires-to-be are setting their sights on a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

     And yet, I sometimes suspect that no one is more qualified to undertake The Investigation than I.

     Only someone like myself, a congressman of undistinction, can represent the vast constituency of the utterly undistinquished, those without academic pedigree, who have not surmounted the odds or survived broken homes, the uncertain, the nervous, the tentative. For them, The Investigation holds great redemptive....

     --Takin' a break there, Mr Piercey? Rick says. No problem, no problem, just don't take too long. Lotta Beeperphones to be sold this morning, Kevin. Lotta Beeperphones.

     Red-faced, I wave a limp hand of acknowledgement at Rick. Jesus. The beeps are my only solace. I decide to try a long one.

     --Mr. Capezzuto, my name is Kevin Piercey, and I'm calling about Beeperphone portable pager systems. As you probably know, Mr. Capezzuto, cellular phone technology is


     I hold the button down for a ten count, without taking the receiver from my ear. Finally, I let it go and resume speaking at a passage near the bottom of the script.

     --........rrrrrrrrrp> you to try Beeperphone on a no-risk trial basis?

     --I-I didn't hear what you said with that beeping sound, Mr. Capezzuto says excitedly.

     --Hmmmm, that's strange, I didn't hear anything. Must be...

     --You didn't hear that? Mr Capezzuto says. I thought you did it!

     --No, hmmmm. Well, what I was saying was that Beeperphone is <Burrrrrrrrrrrrpppp.......

     I press the button for another ten seconds, wondering if Mr. Capezzuto will hang on that long. When I finally release it I hear a dial tone, not surprising in the least.

     These beeps are more, much more, than a silly prank. They are actions of surprise and they feel heady, almost dizzying. Dialing again, I decide to supplement the beeps with some British diction.

     --Yes, is that Mr. Rizzo?, I say.

     --Who is this? Mr. Rizzo answers. A voice like a clenched fist.

     --Mr. Rizzo? Hallo, Kevin Piercey here, and I'm ringing you up to chat about Beeperphone, the portable home...

     --Quit botherin' me at home, godDAMMIT!

     The hammer-on-anvil sound of a slammed receiver explodes in my ear. I sit, stunned, with heat rising off me, and stew in the sweaty fires of humiliation.



     I PRESS HEAVILY against the backrest of my chair, trying to shake off the Rizzo episode, and attempt to refocus on the big picture -- The Investigation.

      Ideation? I’m hip, the know-it-alls will say, claiming prior knowledge, as is their wont. I’ve got it covered. The act of the mind by which objects of sense are apprehended and retained as objects of thought.  No mystery there, dude!

      Yet at the risk of excessive expatiation, I feel compelled to explain what the apprehension of objects of sense, and their retention as objects of thought, actually means vis-a-vis The Investigation. I full well realize I may be attempting something I haven't the words to describe. And perhaps this is not the best time to flesh these things out, since I am still reeling from Mr. Rizzo's nastiness.

      But what the hell: The Investigation involves delving below the surface of everyday life, in search of the substantial. To excavate human existence, measure its comparative levels of depth, and, once having done so, to slip the shackles of the contemporary and fuse oneself with the essential, the deep, the eternal or near-eternal. With Life.

    How I will do this remains a mystery.

    What will happen if I am successful remains mysterious.     

    I am reasonably certain it cannot be done from the offices of DialAmerica. But I believe my vantagepoint next to the staggering fence, outside the three rented rooms, holds great promise. And I am optimistic about what is hidden in the shadings of the Hudson, and in the arrangement of the buildings of north Manhattan.



     And I do know what The Investigation does not entail:

     Becoming a writer. Enlisting in a latter-day Abraham Lincoln brigade and defending freedom and Western values in a faraway war. Traversing Asia with a backpack. Developing a feverish interest in social causes. Doing volunteer work. Joining the Peace Corp. Living on a kibbutz. Losing myself in religion. Or history. (I once met a graduate student who tried to imitate an eighteenth-century man of letters by wearing queer hats and quoting John Donne. Blind to the vulnerability of his position, he did not refrain from criticizing all oddities around him. His style gave me courage). This is not to disparage the nobility of any of these actions. I simply know that The Investigation is not about them.

     And I know that nothing can stop me except myself. Inwardly, my enemies have already claimed choice high ground and are armed to the teeth: loneliness, social scorn, unintentionally comic humiliations, and the fear of being perceived as a failure. Perhaps it is folly to even consider fighting them -- to risk annihilation and 100-proof bitterness -- and expect to succeed. For how long can in-dwelling treachery be staved off?

     Then there is the most dangerous adversary of all: the rusted-shut heart, stocked with stirrings and longings denied release, carried around in the chest like a bomb.

     All this may have you thinking of me as the most ridiculous person in the world, the Don Quixote of New Jersey, a transcendentalist gone awry, the Outcast of the Universe. Well, think what you will. I will take my chances, and trust in the wisdom of that old sweet song:

      "If they had a king of fools then I would wear that crown,

     And you can all die laughing because I'll wear it proudly."



     Bells, silent for most of the morning, ring three or four times in quick succession.

     --A flurry of sales! Rick exclaims, almost leaving the ground in excitement. A flurry of sales! Who was that, Beryl again? Tim? Kim Deats? Good work, guys. Good work. That's what we like to hear.

     No sales for me thus far. I return to the phone. After two no answers, I come to a Sylvia Hershberg.

     --Hello, Ms. Hershberg?

     --Yesssss? comes a sleepy voice.

     Oh God, I woke her up. Yet the voice holds little just-woken panic. Instead, surprise, and a trifle of suspicion. Something in the voice betrays a desire -- a small hope -- to give one the benefit of the doubt. An altogether admirable voice.

     --Ms. Hershberg, my name is Kevin Piercey and I'm calling about Beeperphone <Burrrrrrp> portable pager systems.

     A small jot of guilt rises in my chest. I had beeped mainly out of force of habit, but it gives me pause to sully a voice such as hers (and one just out of sleep, no less) with a beep. I decide to allow myself one final beep -- one for the road -- with an ad-lib thrown in for good measure.

     --As you probably know, Ms. Hershberg, cellular telephone technology is revolutionizing the entire field of communications, and Beeperphone <Burrrrrrp> is in the avant-garde of that revolution...

     I hear a sleepy, sexy laugh, wonderful yet still worrying. Did I misuse "avant-garde?" Is it "on the avant-garde" instead of "in the avant-garde," like "on a wing and a prayer?" Is it a Marxist term?

     --The beeps after the beeperphone are great, she says. Did you make that up yourself?

     --Oh, hehheh, thanks, I reply. Anyway, Ms. Hershberg, with Beeperphone <Burrrrrp> portable paging systems, you never have to miss a call, no matter where you are, indoors or out.

     There is a few seconds of tremulous silence as I await her response.       

    --Well, Kevin, Beeperphone <breep> certainly sounds like a wonderful system, but to tell you the truth I’m not important enough to use a pager, even one as great as Beeperphone <breep>.

     A sloppy, overloud laugh sluices out of my mouth.  Inwardly I scold myself: Don't be a fucking giggly schoolboy.

     --Even if Lenin used it to call Trotsky during the Russian revolution, she says.

     Another overloud laugh on my part, and in desperation I ransack my brain for a conversation-extender. I come up completely dry. Once again, this is where it all ends, with me at a loss and scared to risk…. 

     --Now let me ask you a question, she says. If you were writing the secret history of existence, what would you include?

    I nearly fall out of my damn chair.


This excerpt, from author Mark Tarallo’s novel, High Human Qualities, was previously published in Red Mountain Review. It's published here with permission from the author. 


Author Bio:

Mark Tarallo is a writer and journalist who lives in Washington D.C. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, including Abbey, Beltway, Cold Shoulders/Evil Eyes, District Lines, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Insulatus, Quintessence, and The Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal. His awards include Washington Writing Prizes for poetry and fiction and an Artist Fellowship Award from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He is also the author of Modern Management and Leadership: Best Practice Essentials (Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group).


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