Paul arrived at Brasserie Lipp around 18:30, about thirty minutes before his agreed meeting with Günter.
As the maître’d seated him in one of the banquettes in the entrance, cold rain drizzled down on the gray sidewalks, driving the tourists back to their hotels. He smiled wryly because he didn’t like tourists, especially American tourists; their congregating in front of the café to soak up the remaining DNA of the lost generation somehow offended him.
Paul was not immune to the allure of past writers’ haunts nor absorbing their DNA. That was why he was at the Lipp rather than some more modest café in his neighborhood. Perhaps that was the real reason why he looked down on the tourists huddling beneath the awning, rain dripping off their noses, waiting for a table that the haughty maître’d may or may not grant them, because he knew he was not much different from them. The only difference, he rationalized, was that he had published a handful of poems in Germany. Somehow that legitimized him, whereas these others were simply that-the others.
As he waited for Günter he extracted a moleskin notebook from the inside pocket of his tweed jacket and a Pelikan fountain pen he bought in a shop in the center of Frankfurt. He was working on something he believed might be important: a metaphysical conceit he thought of while reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. He summarized the conceit easily and succinctly: poetry is a message in a bottle, cast into the sea by the poet, to float alone and find its own fate.
Of course, like every conceit, he built upon it and refined it. He even imagined writing a whole series of poems about a shipwrecked and his struggle to live within the confines of a deserted island.
In fact, this morning while shaving he thought of a corollary image, which he thought opened up a new avenue of philosophical development, an avenue which he wanted to discuss with Günter. Suppose a young, idealistic shipwreck throws a bottle into the sea and then over the years forgets about it. He goes about his work on the island, doing everything he can to survive. Years later, he is walking on the beach at dusk, when he sees a glint in the sand. He hurries to it and digs it out with his staff. He uncovers a blue-green glass bottle. He examines it and discovers its mouth is sealed with beeswax; he peels the seal back with his long yellow nails and extracts a piece of rolled bark. On the bark he reads a message in smoky charcoal: “I sailed on the HMS Manifest Destiny in 1952. The ship sank in the China Sea; all hands were lost except me. Shipwrecked.”
The man is startled. He pities the poor man, who, so many years ago, became shipwrecked at the same time as he. A man just like him cast a message into the world but unfortunately his message landed on another deserted island. He wonders if he still lives, and then it dawns on him that he is the shipwrecked. With this realization, his hope crumbles and he begins to sob; tears stream down his face. He is alone and the message in the bottle has “unconcealed” his condition in the world. He is a shipwrecked on a deserted island. The sea surrounds him and marks his boundaries. The sky forms his roof and he is mortal, fated to die alone. The help he waited for will not come. With the truth now revealed, he returns to his life on the island, where he dwells.