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Bellman

J. D. Schraffenberger

The only way to become a bellman, I always say—& I’ll say until my dying day (years hence!)—is to be a bellman.

If you fancy a future in locksmithery, you’ve books aplenty, yes? Or, just call upon old kind Tom Nisbet down the way & ask him, Please sir, could I watch you forge & mould or take apart these diabolical mechanisms & put them back together?—voila! Let me pick your brain (for despite his slow & quiet ways, Tom is not so much a dupe he don’t enjoy such cleverness of tongue applied to his humble trade), then say, I promise to be helpful in fetching you this or that strange implement, I’ll sweep & buff whatever you like, I’ll carry your box of tools round town, &cetera, &cetera.

Or let’s say you consider yourself fit for the press, a young lad like you with clear eyes & presence of mind & all the wherewithal (& more!) afforded one of your lowly station—well, dear boy, comb your hair with pomade or oil of jasmine & daub your pipply cheeks with a smidge of rouge & find the venerable Brothers Maxwell as they dawdle round King Street looking for some evening entertainment—say to them how very long you’ve dreamt (yes dreamt!) & dreamt deeply with a longing of the most necessary kind! dreamt of a day when you might apprentice yourself to men so notable & elegant as they, for the Brothers be a vain bunch with assorted & I daresay (hearsay!) sinister proclivities—for which particular want you may well indeed be found suitable if not more than passably agreeable.

But concupiscence & charm won’t get you very far if you wish to rise in the esteem of those lavish dolts in our dear aedibus academicis, for whom ye need stuff thy nose with reams of Lingua Latinus & all the archaic dialektos of Greece & keepeth straight your Hippias from Hipparchos, your Thessaly from Thrace—naso suspende adunco! I always say—& then blow the whole wad of it back out onto your slate & hope beyond hope it gleams with the genius of your brilliant brains. Oh ho ho, many a man I met whose brains was better left softening in their skulls.

But! The only way to become a bellman, as I’ve said, is to be a bellman.

I have, nevertheless, after much deliberate meditation and consideration, chosen you, dear lad, as my successor & will endeavor to instruct you in the ways of my vocation.

Measure twice, cut once. So sayeth the carpenter, which I done in choosing you, & though my mind seem a chaos of extraordinary projects—a good bellman is always a horde of notions if not plans, conceptions if not tangibilities, the future always there shimmering in the morning mist—and in this regard, I’ve measured twice. I seen you hold your own down in the dust of Clyde Street with the well-fed sons of merchants, boys twice your size, who know their way round a brawl—but more, I hear’d you singing with your brothers at the pub, & your voice above the rest I caught, rising clear as the brass clapper on this bell, loud as pipes, & commanding. So, be at peace that I’ve chosen well, & having been chosen, know too that someday soon, up from that morning mist you’ll rise, & remain risen.

Don’t believe for a moment, however, what they whisper (or shout!) about me—or what they’ll certainly say about you. They point & laugh & sing out, Look, ha ha! there goes Dougal Graham, a poor old Pady from Cork, the fool, buffoon, hump-back clown with a big red nose rotten as a carrion corpse, but let me tell you, & listen close, I more than once held the mayor’s ear on matters of gravest consequence, & there be more pleased pussies in all Glasgow by my virtue than on account of any comely rake about town, or slow-strolling gent, or (worse!) some boastful & boorish Black Watch brigadier whose bawbag braggadocios bore our finer ladies to tears. Over are my days of lodging heads & thraws among the swine. Over my days of peddling scraps of this for tads of that. I’m a person with purpose, a person of paramount import! I am, my boy, a prick with a post!

Stand therefore straight as a senator’s podium & speak. Cock your head like so. Now! Wake something deep inside keen as the scythe’s curved edge. Today, you announce yourself to the riotous world.

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J. D. Schraffenberger is editor of the North American Review and professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of two books of poems, Saint Joe’s Passion and The Waxen Poor, and the co-author with Martín Espada and Lauren Schmidt of The Necessary Poetics of Atheism. His other work has appeared in Best of BrevityBest Creative NonfictionNotre Dame ReviewPrairie Schooner, and elsewhere. 

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