A Most Practical Imperative – Joe Taylor

“Peter! Peter Rabbit! How long it has been!”

The old gentleman calling this out was from either Romania or Rome, so what he said really sounded more like “Pay-ter! Pay-ter Rha-beet! Hu longue eet hath bane!” But to keep things simple and move the interesting facts along, I’ll transcribe for you.

“Peter! Peter Rabbit! How long it’s been!”

Him, yelling out the same thing again. He had to, for Mr. Rabbit, a rising stockbroker who’s changed his father and grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s name from Rabowski, was pretending not to hear this wanton immigrant by once more placing The Wall Street Journal before his face and shoulders.

But the lanky old man persisted. He followed Peter off the commuter train and pushed his way through the connecting tunnel of bumping and bustling people, his voice all the while echoing off fluorescent lights and advertising, “Peter! Peter Rabbit! How long it has been!”

The foreign gentleman, his hair as white as December snow, tried to remain a polite and proper Old World six paces behind in the passageway. Or, if you rather, he couldn’t get closer because of the bumping and bustling of commuters, despite his long legs. These six paces, topped by his unsure hearing, kept his voice bordering on a shout, even when he managed to edge closer, which happened when they both moved out of the tunnel and reached sunlight. When he was within, say five, or even four-and-a-half paces, he again shouted: “Peter! Peter Rabbit! How long it’s been!”

And his shouting continued through three streets, reaching finally—contemporaneously with Mr. Rabbit—a sidewalk vendor of fine teas and exquisite cafés.

The vendor nodded as he handed over Peter’s café au lait and pocket change, “I think that geezer there’s talking to you.”

“Not me, I don’t know him.”

This geezer, of course, had a name, but since we’re rushing the story along American-fashion it shall remain to your imagination; the old man, as I previously commented, also had bad hearing, but not that bad. He heard Peter Rabbit’s denial to the vendor and he then quieted. He mutely followed Peter to his apartment, and just as Peter was inserting a key to get into the secure building, he attacked him brutally.

The upshot is this: After pummeling Peter and spilling his café au lait, he gave him the equivalent of three black eyes. Why three will be understood later. Suffice now to say that a great mystical insight equivalent to any Yoga master’s levitative meditation would soon illuminate Peter Rabbit. For not only did the old man pummel Peter’s eyes, but he threatened him with a pair of gardener’s shears that lay handily nearby on a stoop even though no greenery was in sight, giving the shears a thwack near Peter’s nose, with an inclusive and meaningful glance toward Peter’s mid-section, indicating that further damage would be done to both sites unless Peter follow his forthcoming instructions carefully, to the tea, if you will.

“Whenever, Mr. Peter Rabbit, you ride the commuter train to work, whenever you walk to the commuter station, you will wear upon your back a placard that I will prepare for you tomorrow. The placard will read, ‘Do not talk to me. I do not care about you.’ I will write this because for you caritas is dead. You may remove this placard when you get to work, because everyone there must know the truth of this already. Perhaps they are all the same. Caritas is dead, long die caritas.” The old man gave a thwack to the shears.  “Do you understand?” Giving another thwack elicited Peter’s eager nod.

And so it happened. The placard waited outside Peter’s apartment building at sunrise, leaning against an iron banister, lettered in red, and complete with tape. Ominously, the garden shears were no longer in sight, though a decapitated lily lay close by. Peter paid a street urchin to tape the placard on, not caring whether it hung crookedly any more than he cared whether the urchin had eaten hamburger or offal in the last forty-eight hours. And when Peter boarded the commuter train, the old man, already seated in the same car, clacked his false teeth and made a spinning motion with his finger. Peter obliged by turning so that the sign was visible. Thus he remained.

Two weeks later, the old man met Peter outside his apartment building. The old man was holding a new placard, for the first one had endured two downpours and its lettering was running.

“Do you know why you are wearing this?” the old man asked.

Peter vaguely nodded, worrying more about the game starting on ESPN.

“No you don’t. You have violated Immanuel Kant’s practical imperative. You constantly violate my countryman’s imperative, which demands you should treat people with respect, as ends in themselves, not as spurious means. But nein, people remain only a means to you. A cheap means to whatever small pleasure you desire.”

“I thought you were from Rome, not Germany,” Peter said.

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“I read it somewhere.”

The old man, who was tall, looked over Peter’s shoulder toward a newspaper rack and shook his head sadly. “There were two, maybe three days on earth when you could trust what you read. Now with this the Internet, these the crazy talk show hosts, and these all the national newspapers, that game is lost forever.” He thrust the new placard and a roll of tape into Peter’s hand and slumped away.

Three days later the old man died of heartbreak in a boarding house, having digested the awfulness of what he’d spoken about trust and truth on that last evening before Peter. This is why I did not tell you his name. There is sadness enough in the world already.

Peter Rabbit faithfully kept wearing the placard. In fact, once he realized that the old man had disappeared and maybe even died, he bought Saran Wrap so that rains would not run the letters. Moreover, he wore the placard at work, for the old man was wrong: there were always a handful of people—new employees, couriers, and such—who did not realize the truth about Peter. The placard, he found, eased matters in this realm. Petty conversation fled before its red lettering.

Oh, there came occasions when he missed talking about the Chicago Bears and how they were doing. Such times, however, he would simply stroll into a sports bar, stand against the wall, and order a beer. He could belch, cheer, and talk statistics with nearly anyone then. The second time he did this, however, he made the mistake of not backing away after the game ended, but rather turning so that the placard was visible. The two fans he’d been talking with did not take the placard lightly—even sportballers apparently operate within a vague code of manners. So they followed him outside and gave him a thrashing much worse than the old man had done. Moreover, they stuffed a great deal of the placard into his mouth.

Peter constructed a new placard, bettering the old man’s design by using purple glitter. This he lovingly coated in protective Saran Wrap again. He frequented a different sports bar and was always careful to back away or wait until the fans he’d been talking with had left.

One day Peter thought he saw the old man in a park. He rushed toward him, shouting, “You there! You German-Roman-Romanian there! How long it has been!”

This old man ignored him as a stranger, of course, and even edged toward a pair of cops walking their beat. Satisfied, Peter smiled and trotted away, feeling the warmth of sunlight shining through the trees upon the placard. In his heart he knew that the old man, wherever he was, despite his statement about mistrusting printed matter, had performed a service equal to the National Disclosure Act or the Truth-in-Lending Law. Yes, all in all, the old guy and the twerp named Immanuel Kant had made a timely loan, of a most wondrous and practical imperative.

What more, Peter mused, could a human being ever ask from life—other than a Chicago Bears’ win?

***

Joe Taylor recently published Pineapple, a novel in rhyming quatrains. He is the director of Livingston Press. This unpublished story is from a collection in progress entitled Child’s Play. He has a novel entitled The Theoretics of Love forthcoming next year.