CITY OF AMATEURS, my fourth (or fifth) book: even the *copy-editing* is better than what you’ll find in 93% of the big-budget, mainstream, innocuous, pre-Hollywood-option subway-commute fodder for sale this year! Don’t let the invisible sticker-price fool you! If you like the notion of cynical sharpies and doe-eyed dames locked in a crazy ballet of lust and failure, careening through a Cold War relic of a town… this is the book for you! Yours for the vertiginous price of the irretrievable hours of your Life… !
-Ina says a dreamboat’s any man refrains demanding anal on like the third date.
-Dreamboat’s mother’s word.
-Mother’d pronounce it in-uh.
-Daddy said Eee-nah.
-Couldn’t even agree on that.
-Ina burns her fingers on the water glass.
-They served me coffee in a water glass.
-My first sensation in Berlin.
-Mother pretending drunk on balcony overlooking Mississippi.
-A balcony as architectural trophy of amicable divorce.
-Mother pretending drunk to make the saying…
-Ina needing no such excuse.
-…of certain things…
-Hard as some things are to say.
-Excuses are for those who can be bothered, says Ina.
-The darling child.
-Talks to herself openly in public.
-Ma, it is only cranberry juice.
-Oh so you’re a drink inspector now too. My daughter the mind-reading drink-inspector who quits colleges to chase ratsafarians.
-The sunset a rich dessert.
-The mighty Mississippi.
-Dandan’s mercurial grave.
-Ina thinking it is a Negro river.
-Thinking but never saying this word Negro…
-Okay she remembers calling Joanie Joplin my Negro once.
-Mother saying now Ina…
-Mother saying now do not look at me when I say this but.
-Sunset spectacular flambeéd entrails.
-Staring she said remember dear, gentlemen…
-Ina remembers and laughs out loud at table alone in café where they burned her fingers.
-I must look crazy.
-Suitcase beside me.
-Crazy but hot.
-Nazi folksinger looks up when she laughs.
-He sure looks like a folksinging nazi.
-Looking pure but not benign.
-Probably Jewish just to teach me to….
-Mother through ruby depths of faux Chablis peering says remember dear, gentlemen.
-Cheeks both red as cranberry.
-Is this how she turns herself on now?
-Talking dirty to college-age daughter?
-Remember dear, gentlemen do not expect a lady…
-Ina thinks how preciously naïve.
-Is that the scariest…?
-Ina thinks if only.
-I’d swallow a quart if that’s where it stopped.
-I’d be like, is that all you’ve got?
-Mother pronounced it ratsafarian.
-Please never tell me you’re pregnant with ratsafarian…
-And do not give me that look like it never happens.
-She’d say for all intensive purposes.
-Inscribing Department of Human Race Horses in her immaculate hand like preserve a secret for the ages in notebook and smile.
-Catch that nazi folksinger look again.
-I am wet as an eight-second egg.
-I am wet as a Mississippi.
-Looks again I’m saying something.
-Looks again it’s on.
-Let’s do this.
-I don’t give a chunky fuck.
-LED eyes Thou hast.
-Kiss these blistered…
-Sorry means never having to say I love you.
-Ina stands and goes hey um would you watch my stuff for a minute I need to go to the bathroom.
-Uncomprehending look in return.
-Look of the daze-ruptured put-upon.
-It is 15:40.
-Do you speak English?
-She laughs and squeezes between the tables wishing she hadn’t said need. Sounds so well I don’t know so irrefutably graphic to say like I need to go to the bathroom. Want would have been better.
-And what’s up with the word bathroom.
-It’s like I need to take a humongous dump.
-For medical reasons.
-Perforated duodenum and such.
-Can you hold my colostomy bag for a sec thanks.
-Batting her eyelashes. Do you find me alluring?
-Feels two eyes on her ass as she passes.
-The tables are just a thigh apart yet she squeezes through without even touching edges.
-Passed the buttock test with flying colors.
-Buttock the farm word.
-Fantasize he is infallible cool cyborg assassin scan rapid digit display scroll phosphor-green screen while geometric simulation of ass rotate 180 degrees on pulsating graph when target-circle zeroes-in on her anus.
-Loo door swings.
-Thankgod no Americans in this bathroom.
-Would it offend anyone if I called this shitroom Mecca?
-I could stay here all day.
-Having grown to abhor the sound of Trustifarian English.
-If I’m in here longer than five minutes nazi folksinger will picture the taking of a humongous dump.
-Can’t have that.
-Though: would it not be funny to birthgroan loud as a whale?
-We are not comedian.
-We are hot like Joan of Arc.
-‘Tis only tinkle.
-Mother crying Jesus wept on the toilet.
-Door’s all wide open and I’m like Mother.
-Rotten jello smell: the pain of stench.
-Hemorrhoids mother hindparts acquired evacuating hero of our story.
-The mighty Mississippi.
-My little brother’s widow.
-This foreign toilet paper sucks.
-So he claims his name is Spinoza.
-He claims his name is Spinoza. Yes he does. I do. He do.
-That is a fuckedness.
-You are a name bigot?
-Your parents are hippies?
-So now she is hippie-intolerant?
-On top of everything else.
-I am an honor student.
-What if I was black?
-Whatever. What if I were black?
-You’d have an excuse. But your name would not be Spinoza.
-No, my name would be LaFoyer Grady.
-That is a pretty convincing job of black name random generating on short notice.
-I see we have our racism in common.
-Something to fall back on during lulls.
-Lulls aren’t the things we fall back on?
-So his name is seriously Spinoza.
-Simply Spinoza. Yes. I am a gifted young DJ. What is yours?
-My first black girlfriend.
-Things are moving quickly.
-Ina thinking I recall now reading that a sweetish semen means it is diabetes.
-Which feels like far too intimate to know or to tell him.
-To wake and tell him.
-Rather text it.
-In a week I’ll text it.
-Spinoza in his fetal postcoital coma in the gloaming.
-Semen from her lips to his to close a circle.
-And also the Lego smell and Daniel.
-Daniel melted Legos on their bedroom lightbulb twice.
-Later died on a dare with the Mississippi.
-The varsity swimmer slash little brother in that mighty Negro river.
-Spinoza does not snore he fartles.
-Gnashing his teeth he fartles.
-Spinoza farts the smells of melting Legos to channel brother Daniel.
-Supine Ina sneers at posters of now-old or long-dead frog and wop actresses who wouldn’t even’ve as iffed him.
-Spiderwebs darkly drug-addled thoughts above his mattress.
-Said spiders watch his Jewy dreams.
-Said Ina too.
-Her mouth still sized to the proximate dick.
-The look called pursed.
-The boy she thought a nazi folksinger.
-The boy she thought pure not benign.
-He is fartling he is gnashing his teeth.
-Lo, a tugboat crosseth pudding lake.
-The anal flap and sputter.
-You just can’t imagine loving him less.
-In the spirit of which she note-writes about goodbyes and goodlucks and hinted-at manageable medical conditions.
-The dazzling legend of Nordic healthcare.
-Signed the first blowjob is free the next in dreams bereft ie fool me once.
-Signed I hate being an American on this Americans-choked sidewalk oh so looking the part of congenital Mallness.
-Like folks I just fell off the intercontinental turnip truck.
-But I will learn.
-She had a forty dollar haircut and birthcontrol bazooms and she was ready to use them.
-This rolling suitcase louder than the liberation of Paris.
-The airport handle.
-I am creditcard-dressed and distressed.
-Sweet-semen fed and obvious.
-Turning sees Spinoza in his briefs in window like mother on balcony overlooking mighty Negro brother-stealing river with a waving shyness mouthing call me.
-Call you what?
Veering into the sun before his sunbrella went up was like having a frying pan in full sizzle put flat on his cheek. The bulgey curve of the station wall had a sharp collar of shade around it in which sat the gypsy with her accordion, playing the dolorous tango they all played within a laughable range of capability, from not-at-all to utter mastery. She gave him a look as he veered out into the sun because she blocked the very narrow path the shadow protected, sitting cross-legged on a collapsible chair with a shoe tip burning in light. The look she gave him contained a library of philosophical treatises, a look at once aware and detached, worldweary-yet-playful, dismissively flirtatious, seductively bored and suppler than thought itself. It took him somewhat aback. She was in the same cruel league of beauty as his obsession Margarethe, though she was just a gypsygirl and he was late for dinner.
Margarethe in a printed dress as tight as a chocolate bar’s wrapper handed him warm wine and introduced people who were milling around the room hungry and browsing her paintings, examining the work with what struck Van in some cases as almost hostile diffidence, as though the paintings were untouchable meals reserved for richer guests due to arrive much later. As he’d often said his ex-wife Margarethe was the best bad painter in the world and he thought of her near-perfect copy of van Gogh’s self-portrait in front of the easel, 1888, showing the darkling feral head and retardedly-intense blue eyes but in her version he’s smiling and hoisting a condensation-bejeweled bottle of Coke. She said,
“Van, this is Taylor and Scotty and you know…”
“Exactly,” she grinned.
A large-ish American with short shiny hair stood up from the couch and introduced himself as Bartholomew, pointedly ignoring nearby Taylor and Scotty, who were Queers from London. Fucking Heteromanic American.
The air in the flat was dense with meat. Her new husband Konrad was clearly no vegetarian but a well-built, distracted-looking German in formal attire with red hands and a peeling nose which propped up big square black-rimmed glasses. From time to time he’d nod or grunt with disgust or amusement despite the fact that no one was talking to him. He pronounced “ski” in the old German manner: she. He peeled some skin off his nose and said aprés she as he went ahead to his place at the dinner table, Margarethe rolling her eyes at his back.
She confessed with rue that one has to climb so high to find natural snow these days that one wears a Lycra space suit on the slopes. The men get tremendous hardons. The glasses Konrad was wearing may or may not have been connected, though Van had noted that Konrad sported them in the manner of the blind, face beatifically elevated in an unfinished smile.
Something sharp-toothed and furtive squealed flaming to cinders in a trap in one of the rooms under renovation and Van could see it for a moment and then he couldn’t. He blinked.
When Margarethe announced dinner with a clap of her hands they formed a pilgrim’s procession of low chatter and crossed the apartment through a long, over-lit wing of plastic sheets and scaffolding. Up some plaster-dusted stairsteps they went leaving shoe prints and Van straggled behind studying the pretentious sepia-tone images on the wall in a hallway, pictures he’d taken with the antique Hasselblad Maggie had given him their first Christmas. Gypsies of unvarying facial expression hefted arched accordions over their knees like gulls with broken backs.
Margarethe laid a hand on an arm each of Scott’s and Taylor’s as she lead the procession, walking between them, and said, “I had the most ghastly nightmare again, darlings.”
Konrad was chewing and laughing at something on the ceiling as they filed into the dining room.
Bartholomew with his wide, flat, not-fat-at-all body, waved a finger at various points around the dinner table at which Van found himself seated among the others having their chunky pork soup ladled into exquisite porcelain bowls. Van only heard what sounded like the sea in a very big conch shell as the American droned on, a prime exemplar of the effect of the loss of empire on a disoriented consciousness. The dining room felt airless lit only with candles feeding mostly on Bartholomew’s breath and Van wanted desperately to open a window but he was no longer the flat’s master. Bartholomew had no plate set before him; no knife or fork or water glass. No food.
Konrad exhibited open-eyed signs of REM.
Someone was saying, “I suppose in the latter category you’ve got the theory of Relativity and smoking will kill you and an embryo is conceived when an egg cell meets a sperm cell in the womb and so forth.”
Bartholomew was rocking in his seat.
Second course was blood pudding.
Konrad noted suspicious gas leaks in Istanbul and Crete, hundreds dead or unaccounted for.
Van recognized the spider, limbs fanning long and tenuous as internet links, in a high corner. The spider or its descendant. He’d been separated from Margarethe for over two years and divorced for a year yet every single thing about the apartment was the same as he’d left it, minus the meaty veil of odors. He recognized the faint pattern of stains on the tablecloth, the brown-tinged continents on a medieval map of the known world.
He glanced at Margarethe with her high forehead and incongruously Croatian nose and the pewter ringlets of her hair. Memory provided the glistening plum of her kissable buttocks which had in turn been provided by her superblack boy-diddling bishop of a sweet-breathed father late of an almost blackless Capetown. Due to whom she pronounced black as bleck.
Van heard, “The fear of looking stupid is what keeps the intellectual in line.”
Playfully, he imagined Bartholomew as a big blond gypsy with a ring in his ear wrestling an accordion in the shadow of the station begging for coins instead of dispensing unsolicited pontifications at the dinner table. Van edited the gypsy girl into Bartholomew’s place, seated beside him at the table, slyly embarrassed by her decadent plateful of fatty meats. He found himself hoping she’d still be on that stool at the station wall when it came time to leave but it was New Year’s so of course she’d be at the Brandenburg Dome with the others, picking pockets or playing that same hideous tango with champagne-oiled ease.
Konrad had Bartholomew’s bright hair in a knuckle-grip and jerked hard, hacking through pulpy fat neck with a serrated blade, though no one else seemed to notice.
Fingerbowls were distributed.
Margarethe was blowing kisses at someone, mouthing Kiss ma bleck aws, while Taylor indulged in the so-called New Nostalgia with the repeated use of the phrase, “The Tolerable ‘20s.”
Maragarethe was saying, behind her hand while she chewed on gristle, “It was that nightmare about Bartholomew again, I’m afraid, I hope he calls,” but Van never heard this. She was hoping to get a rise out of her insufficiently jealous husband.
She was playing the drollest of hostesses and staring into her wineglass, the bowl of the wineglass magnifying her eye into a batty black goldfish, telling Van that Taylor was a Money Artist. That is, she clarified, Taylor works in the medium of money. The national gallery has a room of his elegant displays, each display featuring a fluctuating digit synched to an enormous amount somewhere. You see he started his career with artifactual lucre… didn’t you, Taylor… crisp bundles of Euros and dollars, arranged on plinths… though his breakthrough came when he finally grasped money in its most spiritual form.
Critics call his new work cleaner.
Konrad quoted an article to the effect that the art market is the biggest money laundering operation on the planet. He told a joke in a halting cadence that ended with the punchline the sweet smell of sock sex.
After a haunting gypo film in the screening room about transvestites (Manche Mogen’s Heiss), Margarethe, rubbing her eyes like a waking child, excused herself with a cautionary remark about dessert and Van, glancing at Konrad, offered to help in the kitchen, so down a dark hall and with the vented door still swinging he lay a finger athwart her woodgrain arm and moaned how he missed being the only black couple at the opera.
He said he missed the way she kicked in her sleep and commented too mordantly and far too loud in the theater and buttered both sides of her toast or snatched at her bushy cloud of pillowed hair like a honeybear in a cloud of bees when he used to go down on her.
He pulled her towards him and she laughed offering a modicum of resistance saying don’t. She said,
-Van, your words are lovely as ever, and you’re a good Christian, truly you are, but as a woman grows older she responds less to words than to deeds, and deeds aren’t done without power, and, as you know, Konrad has an inherited seat on the Ministry of the Interior…there’s more power in one of his ash-colored eyelashes than in the whole of that big carbon dick of yours.
-Ha! That old white devil be damned.
-You’re talking about my husband, darling.
–I’m your husband.
-No you’re not. Not any more you’re not.
-In the eyes of God.
The first punch stunned her and the second one brought her to her knees.
When she swept in from the kitchen with sugar-free parfaits on a tray of hammered tin from Morocco which Van, trailing behind her with half a dozen neon aperitifs, had forgotten giving her for their second anniversary, the shifty mass of her sheathed bosom as she lowered each parfait to every spot around the table was so milk-maidishly servile that it made them appear to be overdressed black help. This pleased Van perversely and he handed out the aperitifs with a shamingly servile flourish.
Scott turned to Taylor and said, not quietly enough, “I’m having that headache we talked about.”
Margarethe stamped her foot with winning petulance and said but it’s almost midnight! Her plan was to gather on the balcony after dessert and watch fireworks and greet the majestic change of centuries with upturned faces of child-like wonder.
A meth-massacre in Phuket. Konrad joked from the corner of his mouth that it takes a child to raze a village.
They sweated the proximity of the sultry night and watched animated neo-classical constellations like Diana the archer and Pegasus flapping his wings and the stars-and-cross of the Anglo-Germanian union scintillate then shatter into hundreds of jiggle-boobed goose-stepping showgirls in turn becoming great pinwheels lilting like funereal Lilies to Earth. After which, rainbow-colored cubes representing the six colors of the union rolled across the sky unfolding into crucifixes larger than any skyscraper. Crucifixes ringing the ecliptic, pulsing to Die Walküre and foreshortened towards the galactic hub.
Van was distracted by the scene he watched instead. Down there on the sidewalk, two stories below the balcony, near enough he heard their pleas for mercy. Handsome theatergoers surrounded and doused by a broken circle of gypsies and put peremptorily to the torch, dancing away from each other in flames towards opposite ends of the street trailing rich black streamers of skinsmoke. Reflections of the flames shrank curving across bubble windshields and Van was clutching his throat, suppressing the nausea, unsure of what he was seeing.
Konrad shouted U-Nasa with conclusive evidence: Asgaard settlement extinct. The others on the balcony merely oooh’d and ahhh’d with patriotic boredom at the immensity of the crucifixes stainglassing the sky.
Van knew it now. He was bewitched.
He rode the near-empty train to its endstation. He gasped at the foretaste of heat that rolled under the platform’s baked awning as he stepped from the train. It pulled away as he shuffled in his bright white flapsuit and widebrimmed hat, a Pierrot in blackface shuffling to platform’s end then down the hundred stairs in his two-legged tent, the handrail untouchably hot, bracing himself to emerge from the station into the noon’s blast furnace, slower than wading through oil.
Entering Gypsytown at high noon was the only way to sneak into the city.
He pictured them snoring in dark rooms while he stalked the blinding streets, a striking lone figure, something from a dream, and he realized that he was thinking about himself again, as he often did, and the tight cap of his mossy black hair itched. He was thinking of himself as a museumpiece, a rare collection of features gathered in the vitrine of his flat-nosed face, so broad across the cheekbones and heavy in the jaw, a public monument trusted to his own irresponsible stewardship. What if a gypsy punched him in the nose, ruining something of priceless rarity?
The rare blacks allowed back on the continent had been welcomed grudgingly under the stainless-steel wing of the Church. He was thinking of Margarethe’s father, Bishop Siss, or his own great-grandfather, the influential Christian theoretician famous for Multiple-Christ Doctrine, the original Vanross Olubodon, a remote and frightening figure. Not for one moment since birth had Van…or anyone from the small colony of blackies and darkfacers in Berlin…felt welcome.
Most of them, as in the case of Margarethe’s family, had commenced immediately to exobreed out of the color with almost any whites who were mad enough to fuck them. Margarethe had nieces and nephews who were already as light as the palms on her hands, or no darker than the inner folds of her navel, but, still, there were tests you were required to take at a certain age. Forms you had to fill out. You’d get Homo sapiens africanus stamped on your license for all to see, though perhaps one might keep it a secret on all but the genobureaucratic level.
Van’s family was an oddity. Both for having been in Europa for so many generations and for breeding almost exclusively black for the duration. Many of his people were priests; Van wasn’t a priest but he was a prominent theologian. The family members who weren’t in the priesthood, who were out there in the game of life, competing for love and money, were running out of black non-relatives to mate with. And with Van’s recent loss of mostly-black Margarethe, what would he do? Write his amateurish sonnets and masturbate on whores in blackface until the end of all time?
The station was a ziggurat of limestone steps on a dusty peninsula of asphalt. Across a weedy road were the vacant lots of the western edge of Gypsytown and beyond the vacant lots, a fifteen minute walk over rubble and weeds, queued the first of the white buildings, the coated buildings like walls in a low maze, each building decorated with its check of foil, foil over all the windows, the abandoned vista of an ancient millennial film project.
Set on the very edge of the asphalt before the broken road there stood a longish tent full of stacked bundles of newspapers and a sinewy bearded troll. The tall troll was seated crosslegged, dressed in the altogether save a suet-colored loincloth and sandals and sipping from a vintage bottle in the open shade of the tent. The man had the shaggy blonde sea-burned look of the Viking about him. But he was very thin.
As Van approached the tent in order to cross the broken road behind it the Viking put down his bottle with great care and slipped into a hooded cape which hung from head to knees. The cape had weight to it and concealed a dagger no doubt. He stepped into the sunpressure towards Van wielding a newspaper and Van recognized the paper as the Cassandran Standard and formed preemptive noises in his throat, shaking his head, but there was no way the tout would be put off, for Van was probably the first non-gypsy to cross his path all day… all week, possibly. Despite being momentarily flummoxed by the impossible blackness of Van’s face, he smiled and followed across the broken road with his spiel:
“Get your Cassandran, get your Cassandran right here, your sweet Cassandran Standard, all the news you were never supposed to know, reported at great risk to all involved, no gratitude necessary… top stories: the facts are in… average life-expectancy down by thirty percent in less than a century… top stories… the Asgaard Settlement alive and well and preparing for war against Earth… top stories… fish return to the Persian Gulf… you’ll read it here first… the news you were never supposed to know… all this plus the usual tasty all-color supplement: they’re fresh, they’re female, they’re Pagan… five dollars and the truth is yours to filter as you see fit….”
But when Van gave him a stainless steel dollar in hopes he’d scurry off the tout secreted the coin in the voluminous cuntfolds of his cape and said, wonderingly, after licking his lower lip, “You’re black.”
Van stopped walking and sighed. “That’s right.”
“I’m honored. They call me Gregorius. Is it true that blacks think not in words but in pictures, Sir?”
“I can only speak for myself when I say no to that question.”
Van nodded. Gregorius pointed at Gypsytown. “You are not going in there alone, are you, Sir?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” He glared from the grotto under the wide brim of his hat.
“For one thing, there are no street signs… they took every single one of them down, Sir. The gypos are dead clever. You’d find yourself hopelessly lost in minutes. In heat like this, for more than an hour, no shelter… that can mean heart failure, Sir.”
“You’re advertising your services as a guide.”
“Not just a guide. There are horrors greater than being lost…”
“Not many know that the gypsies are provided by The State to operate under their own rule of law and governance, Sir.”
“I’m well aware of that fact.”
“But do you know the tone or timbre of these Laws of theirs, Sir? The codes and statutes? Run afoul of them and it could mean your happiness, to say the least. And then there are ravenous crowpacks to deal with and bandits…”
“Five steel dollars an hour. Payment on the hour.”
They shook on it and continued across the weedy terrain of the vacant lots, Gregorius just slightly ahead. What does he have in that cape, wondered Van. A telescope? A rifle?
Without turning to face Van he called out, “What are you looking for, if I may ask, Sir?”
“Who, not what. I’m looking for a gypsy girl. A gypsy girl I saw this New Year’s Eve just past.”
“A gypsy you saw at the Dome, was it, Sir?”
“No. Earlier that day. At the Charlottenburg Station.”
“Charlottenburg Station? Performing there or just traveling, Sir?”
“She was performing.”
“Fair or dark?”
Van shrugged. “Not old.”
Walking backwards at Van’s pace, Gregorius stared a good long time before finally turning to point far off, lifting the edge of his cape. “That’ll mean she lives over there, on what was formerly known as Bergmann Strasse, then. The other end of Gypsytown.”
“The way you pronounce ‘Strasse’. ”
Van laughed again. “Strah-suh. You even talk like a gypsy. You speak it?”
“Fluently, Sir. Fließend means ‘fluently’.”
Van was pleased. He felt he was getting his money’s worth.
Flickered shadows now and then swept them over and up they’d look to see clouds of suntorched crows tumble headlong as though hurled from an invisible mountain and Gregorius would crouch low and dip one shoulder as if ready to swing hard at whatever came at them but the shadows flew onward, falling sidelong away at great speed. The nearest tree was kilometers distant.
Van and his taciturn page (what was he brooding on?) exchanged nary a word until they were well into the city-within-a-city, with its uniform myriad six-storey flatblocks and narrow treeless immaculate streets and sidewalks. No trash or thick brushstrokes of dogshit or mosaics of smashed glass forever. Nor rusting hulks of cars or trucks or gutted refrigerators. So unlike Berlin proper. He could have licked the griddle ground and left it hissing with spit with no fear of dirt-eating.
“It’s all so clean,” marveled Van, breaking the silence at such a low volume, just slightly above the striding rustle of his garment, that breaking it was barely worth it. His unwieldy white flapsuit. He was exhausted. He longed for his sunbrella. “It’s cleaner than any street I’ve walked on!”
“Of course it is, Sir. The Gypsies waste nothing.”
“Not even merdes…”
“They make fuel with it, Sir.”
“You’re very well-spoken for a man who lives in a tent, Gregorius.”
“There was a time, long ago, I participated in the world, like you. I gave it all up to do the noble work of selling the Cassandran. It’s a hard life but I sleep well every night and my gypo wife supports me. And I don’t live in that tent, you see. We live in a flat like any other.”
“I suppose it’s a myth that they steal, as well, then, Gregorius?”
“An ugly and ignorant myth, Sir. No offense.”
Van chuckled. He said, “So if one had a peek through a gypo flat…”
“One would most of all see books, Sir. Every gypsy lives with more books than he has stories to tell…a gypsy aphorism.”
Van curled his lip. Even he couldn’t afford more than a few books, and those he kept in a vault. “Books?”
Gregorius continued, “In point of fact they make nearly all their money as infobrokers.”
“Is there anyone less visible than a gypo? All dressed alike, all playing the same…”
Van scratched at his nose and grunted. He did not believe this, nor the other thing about books. He said, “Possibly.”
“May I ask why you speak so softly, Sir?”
Van lifted his chin at the building they were just then shuffling past and said, “They sleep in the heat of the day, as you know. It’s prudent…one speaks in certain tones…”
“Another falsehood, Sir,” Gregorius said, wearily. “Ironic, too, considering that they’re all awake and been doing business for hours when the rest of Berlin is still yawning over its first bitter coffee! It is true, these buildings have no power to offset the heat, but the cellars of the buildings are dark and cool and…”
“This is astonishing news…”
“…the gypsies have connected all the cellars in a kind of underground city.” Gregorius stopped in the street and touched his bare red chest with a flourish of his cape. “And I know the safest point of entry to the system.”
“But I must,” pleaded Van, revealing his desperation suddenly, “I must find this gypsy girl! She has bewitched me!”
Gregorius pointed at the cracked black skin of the three-hundred-year-old road.
“You’ll find her there.”
Looking at the road where he had been directed to, Van watched as Gregorius’ shadow appeared to raise a long dark sword to the sky, gripping the hilt with both hands as though he might fly away on it.
There was a roaring silence as Van stared blinkless into the white skull of the sun without being conscious of ceasing to.
A temperate breeze poured in over the tall grasses of the Auroran Savannah and clattered through the blinds and windchimes on the front porch and the naked prospects of the sunrooms above it and pushed open, with one polite hand, the curtains of the attic window.
The servant stooped polishing wood in the attic bedroom happened to look out the window at that moment to glimpse through the curtains the procession of secondhand government Zils coming in on the long approach paralleling the canal, like a funeral, though she knew for a fact it was only a lunch.
The master was still drowsing in his hammock on the porch. Drowsing as indolent in the summer’s long day as he was frenetic during the winter’s long night of restorative darkness, and though she felt the giddy impulse to hurry downstairs to wake him, one of the others would probably see to it, so she kept at her polishing, waltzing the soft fat cloth over the loops and whorls of the wood’s exquisitely ancient fingerprint. The chest of drawers she brought to its hard gleam predated her language; her people; the city of Aurora itself. Centuries of breath had trapped spirit-words in the microscopic chambers of the wood and she felt the furniture breathe as her palm swirled over it.
She expected at some point after lunch that the master would gather the barefoot staff in the kitchen in order to introduce them to the overfed guests, as ever, and charmingly perform his favorite trick of naming their various tribes: Aleuti, Russo Lapp, Samoyed, Swedish Tungu, Dane and Red Yankee! All living together under one roof, he would exclaim. A boast of his taste, his benevolence.
And all sharing one bed, she was always tempted to add. The two boys among them were even prettier than the black-eyed girls.
Lieutenant Governor Mey and the trade delegation from the North Atlantic States looked mortified in their youth, clustered together in the center of Stark’s library, waiting obediently for lunch. Stark was still drowsy and rumpled in his patrician, couldn’t-be-bothered way, scratching his belly through a fine garment. He knew history well enough to relish this sensation of intimidating elected officials with anything more subtle than an army. Their sincere diffidence was innocence and a luxury that wouldn’t last more than a few generations before sophistication, with the renascent persistence of evil, returned again to the world. But for now a breathing space. An Eden.
Stark drew their attention to two black heads on a recessed shelf in the wall beside the book case. The floor-to-ceiling, wall-wide case was emblematic in itself of staggering wealth, but they couldn’t begin to calculate the value of those heads.
“Very beautiful,” nodded Lieutenant Governor Mey, hands clasped behind his back because otherwise they’d be shaking. “May I ask how you got them that color?”
Stark laughed. “Jahweh gave it to them.”
“The super-being they both believed in, while they lived. The man in the sky who created the Earth and the Heavens. In the beginning he is said to have said to let there be light, and there was light.”
The trade delegation chuckled politely.
Stark touched the male head with a collector’s awed affection. “Preserved eternally with a process that renders the flesh incorruptible without changing its natural composition. If you care to touch here… very carefully… you’ll find that it is indeed flesh, flesh like yours or mine… at room temperature. Not even particularly cold. Though they’ve been dead for centuries.”
“Anyway, it’s a lost technology. We couldn’t do anything close to it.”
With a cupped hand Stark rounded the cheek and delicate jawline of the female head, her ear bending and springing from under his touch. The gesture was so like a lover’s postcoital caress that two of the delegates flinched. The head was so beautiful, so life-like in its preservation, yet so strange in its blackness and shining shaved skull that they expected the eyes and mouth to pop open with a scream when Stark had finished fondling it.
“I call the two of them the world’s greatest love story. I also call them the gypsies, because they’ve been all over the habitable world, seeking one another in death. The facts are really quite extraordinary.”
“Before I explain how I acquired them, I’ll let you in on the amazing fact that I know quite a lot of detail about their social status, their manner of dress and eating habits and even the specific circumstances of her death. His death I know less about.”
“I inherited him, you see. I grew up in a house that counted him coyly among its treasures, though he was kept in a locked case in the attic. I didn’t get a look at him until my father died and I inherited the estate. We were doing an inventory of the art treasures and he sort of popped up. As it turns out, he was worth more than all of the other paintings and sculptures combined.”
“He’s the only known example of a fully intact head from the species Homo sapiens africanus… what they called back then, rather obviously, a black. Interestingly, the black species thought only in pictures but not in words as we do. Otherwise, they were both shockingly different and uncomfortably similar to us.”
“I only regret that in preserving the head they’ve shaved the hair off, you see, because his hair was just as unique as the rest of him… very tight little kinks, very short, rather mossy… imagine, possibly, a cross between moss and wool.”
“The female’s hair was a bit different… imagine a cross between his hair as I’ve described it and yours or mine… because she’s not purebred, you see; her mother was Homo sapiens. Look at the nose.”
“Anyway, for years I’ve had him here in my library, the guardian of my books. Then one day, on a trip through Romana, to pay my respects to the ancestors, as one does… and also because I love French sweets, and France is right across that border, as it happens…”
Stark could see he was beginning to bore them. Time to spice up the story.
“I was offered the chance to bid on her by a private collector of ill repute. Of course I couldn’t refuse… money was no object. I felt I owed it to my black Adam to provide an Eve.” The Biblical reference went over their heads but he forged on. “The broker I purchased her from informed me that she’d been quite the celebrity of her era…married to a rich, powerful official… back when those three words together weren’t oxymoronic, gentlemen… back in that barbaric era…”
“He was rich and powerful and rather psychotically jealous. It seems he beheaded her lover and fed the lover’s corpse to her guests at a dinner party! Only a few weeks later he killed her, too. Beat her to death… most luckily sparing the face. The interesting thing about all that is how little punishment he received for his crimes; I’d dare say any of you would face more bother over a parking violation than he did for double murder. He lived to be a ripe old age and dined out, no pun intended, on the legend of his atrocity.”
“It was only after bringing Eve home to Adam, and setting them beside one another on that very shelf, that I began to wonder if they might have known one another in life. I wondered if there was some connection… perhaps by a few degrees of separation at the least. I knew they were from the same part of the world… I knew they were from the same era, vaguely…”
“Peeling off the tiniest amount of flesh from the back of our Adam’s neck, a technician had his genetic numbers checked against the oldest known database.”
“You won’t believe this, gentleman…but I assure you that what I’m about to say is true. It turns out… I’m getting goosebumps as I think about it… it turns out our black Adam and Eve were once married.”
“Let that sink in for a moment.”
“They were married, divorced, met their separate deaths… were separated as artifacts by thousands of kilometers for centuries… different countries and continents… now reunited on that shelf.”
Even Lieutenant Governor Mey was obviously moved. There was a catch in his throat when he asked, pointing to a small oil painting set in the center of the book case…asking, perhaps, merely to diffuse the intensity of the moment… “Can you tell us who this is?”
Stark drew himself straight with awful pride, but spoke with self-satirizing pomp.
“This? This is Iseult Tsurak, mother of the modern nation of Romana, hero of the Gypsytown rebellion, intellectual architect of the Pax Romana and the founder of the immense fortune that nourishes the Stark family to this day, even as far north as we’ve drifted. Stark is an Arctic modernization of the name Tsurak, you see.”
“She’s my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother.”
“What a look in those eyes, eh?”
“What a look.”
a fairytale by steven augustine
music by nicholas freilich
voice talent mr craig thomas
[editor’s note: the following story is an excerpt from a larger work, HERE]
The first time Benny saw her was in the produce aisle of the Decatur Blvd Von’s in Vegas and the first thing he said to her was “You look like you come from the stars, sister.” A meteorite-black Nefertiti in white.
Who, me? she pantomimed.
Wearing a flowing white caftan and a miter-like head-wrap, also white, and affecting a bewildered foreign air, she smiled her dimpled, dazzling smile and considered both the intent and merit of Benny’s effort. Bemused, and finished with her own “shopping”, she followed him up and down several aisles as he tossed various processed, animal fat, refined white sugar and bleached flour products into his cart and pushed it towards the check-out line, trying his blarney on her.
Benny was clean-shaven at the time and dressed in the hip square look of a man trying to break into the upper reaches of the hip square world of writing for Television: the Timex, the turtle neck, the khakis, the loafers. She mistook him for a swarthy honky talking black but let him rap on for the reasons that he was tall and handsome and would provide an excellent cover as she exited the Von’s with thirty pounds of shoplifted produce concealed upon her person, pressed tight upon her naked flesh. The cashier, a bleach-blonde leather-tanned cracker, fingernails chipped and bitten to the pork-pink quick, gave Benny a look of uncomplicated racial disgust as he paid for his purchases with that Negress in tow, signing a cheque that required three pieces of picture ID before she, the lipless cashier, would accept it. The striking black lady took Benny by the arm as they promenaded with some pomp through the double-electric-door airlock of the supermarket.
Beyond the protection of the arctic bubble of the supermarket’s air conditioning and prior to the bubble of Benny’s ’68 Mercury Cougar, the asphalt on which the car was parked pushed back at the sky with its black, impacted heat. It felt like walking behind a pre-takeoff F-15 as Benny slipped his Foster Grants on, a climatic extreme his East Coast blood never got used to. He popped the lid on his trunk and offered her a ride. She bent over to climb in and he noticed her belly, her hips and thighs were bulging and jutting and lumping out at various stresspoints along the seams of the caftan, and perhaps white wasn’t the most fortuitous color for her to have wrapped such a voluminous body in.
He stole boyishly furtive glances as he steered the Cougar, talking his head off. He was talking his head off in hopes that the right sequence of words might click and open the lock (if lock there was) on the young lady’s alpha and omega, which he intuited would be as restorative to his sexual powers as a dip in a rain barrel at Lourdes. Six months on MetraCal or some other modern dietary supplement and she’d be just about perfect.
Just as the brothers were dreaming of “dating” those incandescent peppermint blondes one saw on billboards all over the country hawking Virginia Slims and Miss Clairol: Only Her Hairdresser Knows For Sure, the preppy masterminds responsible for those very billboards were in turn lusting horribly after the brothers’ sisters, and Benny, perhaps, would have been shocked to be informed that in lusting after this black beauty his sexual proclivities were closer to a white man’s than to a brother’s that year.
“The thing to remember about the industry,” he heard himself saying, “it’s a medium in its infancy. It’s still what you call protean… everything’s up for grabs, you see what I’m saying? What you want is to be in on the ground level at the next paradigm shift and how do you achieve that? You just need that one solid hit… a bonafide hit that seems to contradict everything that came before it. See, I plan on having that hit, sister. I bank on it.”
If there was one thing in 1972 that she was sick of, it was white men calling her ‘sister’. Especially a white man trying to talk black. Still, he was cute.
“Take something like The Name of the Game. It’s the kind of television that successful people between the ages of 27 and 33 stay home to watch… they’ll turn down a cocktail party or a night out at the movies to watch this show and yet it defies all conventional wisdom. Each episode is 90 minutes long… 90 minutes! It’s really three shows, with three leads, wrapped into one. The leads rotate. Each episode is like a feature-length film, if you can ignore the commercials… a feature-length film for free. That’s what television means…that’s the meaning of television. The destiny of television. Never having to leave your own home for entertainment! One day, sister, there won’t be any commercials, either. What you’ll have then is an uninterrupted experience of your favorite shows, and, believe me, by then, everything on the tube will be your favorite. You’ll never want to leave that spot in front of the picture tube. You’ll never need to.”
“They’re working on that already. As things are now, what you’re seeing, listen, an advertiser pays a very large fee for the right to interrupt the show to talk a little about his product. A little song and dance about ketchup.They call it a break like it’s some kind of relief but the fact is it’s an interruption. But what if they could work the product into the show? You could charge the advertiser more for that because the product could end up with longer screen time but, see, there’d be no interruption. Okay, between shows you’d need a pause so people could… you know. So they could go to the, uh… to the bathroom…” Benny blushed.
“Anyway, I’m just talking now. I know I talk too much. What about you? Where are you from? Some exotic location. Let me guess. Port Au Prince? Cairo? Madagascar?”
Precious lifted her chin and shut him up with her Nefertiti profile. How should she play this? Would he be disappointed to learn that she wasn’t a foreigner? That she was born in North Carolina?
“I hope you don’t think there’s anything wrong,” she said, with exactly the kind of voice a Siamese cat would if one knew a human worth speaking to, “with a girl just being a common-ass Negro.”
“Common-ass you are not, sister,” said Benny.
“Maybe you don’t know enough Negroes.”
“Maybe you don’t know enough light-skinned brothers passing for white.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “Why didn’t you say so?” She reached down the front of her dress and extracted a mango. “You hungry?”
Benny said he was starving.
His immediate higher-up at The Studio went by the name of Gray, or Grayson, Parker, an affected anti-affectation meant to call attention to the fact that he was calling attention away from the fact that his actual name was much longer and stamped with pedigrees as old as the thirteen original Colonies. Parker was standing half-crouched on his desk, back to Benny, facing the enormous sixth floor picture window that guests in the chair in front of his desk usually faced (stunned by the view of The Strip which filled it precisely for that purpose, dormant and raw as the bottom of the Dead Sea, during working hours, and spectacular as a Con Edison-powered vision of a Kansan’s idea of a first class purgatory, at night).
It was late-lunch time on a Thursday afternoon and The Studio was meticulously emptied of higher-ups, most of them over at Sarno’s Circus Circus sucking radium-colored Margaritas through glass straws at the white-leather bar where Sean Connery had only months-prior filmed a scene for Diamonds Are Forever. Circus Circus wasn’t visible from Parker’s office but the north face, upper level, corner suite of the Satellite Motor Lodge was. Parker reached back without looking, and said, with a surgeon’s urgency, “Bushnells.” As Parker handed Benny the old Steiner spy glass in exchange, he took the Bushnells, adjusted them, and emitted an admiring groan that could easily have been taken for a song of pain.
“Son of a bitch,” he grinned.
An hour later they were waiting for seafood platters over bottomless glasses of so-so wine at the street-level bar of the relatively-rundown Stardust. As everyone who actually knew Vegas knew, each of the major casino/hotels was calibrated to appeal to visitors from a specific region of the greater Midwest, with The Sands aimed at Kansas, The Tropicana keyed to Oklahoma, and The Frontier designed specifically to rope in tourists from North and South Dakota, and so on. Or something like that. Benny could never remember the exact formula. Elements of the Stardust felt like an homage towards the blue-collar, redlight ambiance of near-Northside Chicago; the shocking abundance of colored waitresses (two) couldn’t have been a coincidence. The fact that Parker preferred the Stardust over the garishly swanky Circus Circus couldn’t have been a coincidence, either. As the waitress, a Benin bronze in a polyester wig, marched towards the kitchen, her red satin hotpants sucked so hard on Parker’s eyes that his optic nerves twanged like a banjo.
Parker had a habit, especially when he was feeling rose-lit by the grape-light, of calling Benny Pierre, due to Benny’s French-sounding surname, probably, and the only thing that kept Benny from taking umbrage at this was his knowing that Parker didn’t know he was a Negro. It was okay, in other words, because he was being denigrated as a man but not as a human. Most Negroes would never know how good that could feel, or even that an inexplicable appetite for such abuse (first to receive it, later to dole it out) was the key to success in business.
“Looks are everything, Pierre,” said Parker, checking the time, “…why do you suppose my watch is worth more than your monthly salary and yet yours costs less than this lunch? Does one keep better time than the other? I think not. Look,” he mimed drawing a diagram on the bar with his finger, “there’s an atomic clock with an IBM brain buried a mile under a mountain in Colorado in a top-secret room that cost the tax payers eighty five million dollars to build and a million a year to maintain… ” He raked his fingers through a haircut the color and texture of doll hair. He had a phenomenally small face. He looked bewildered, briefly, and started again.
“Pierre, I know you appreciate frankness. So I’m going to be frank. Why do you think the old guy hired you, despite your somewhat, shall we say, skimpy qualifications? Two years of art school on the G.I. Bill? Six months in the mail room of an AM radio station in Philly? Good grades in High School? I think not. We took you on because you look the part. The sideburns, the cheekbones, the suede jacket and turtleneck sweater. You beat out a guy who graduated near the top of his class from Harvard.”
It hit Benny that he was either about to be promoted to junior executive or fired with less ceremony than Parker had ordered their drinks with and his posture changed accordingly. With almost imperceptible stealth, he shifted back up off his elbows. He tasted a deep swallow of the bar’s stale layer-cake of old smoke and gambler’s fearsweat and became lucid as hell, clear as a tall glass of lunar vacuum, ready for whatever Parker was about to throw at him. His mouth was as dry as all that encroaching desert out there, only a three minute walk in any direction from any point on The Strip, tumbleweeds blowing down Sahara Avenue. He was ready for death.
Hamilton Gold entered the bar with an exaggerated tip-toe pantomime made all the more would-be comical by his briefcase, sneaking up on Parker with a wink at Benny, who was far from in the mood to play along. Gold loomed behind Parker for what felt like a solid minute, obviously stuck on what to do next, unable to think of anything hysterically funny. He took a seat at the bar and nodded defeated hellos. He caught the waitress’s eye and asked Parker,
“Have you, uh…?”
“Not yet. I was just getting to it.”
Gold turned to Benny and, making that face he made when he meant to make it clear that the face he was making meant he wasn’t beating around the bush, said, “We were interested in knowing whether you know any Negroes.”
“He means qualified.”
Parker leaned forward for emphasis. “We thought you might know, or might know someone who knows someone who is or knows…”
“See, you’re a bit younger than we are, LaFontaine, despite our official ages… ” Gold winked and turned to the waitress to order whatever the other two were having, then joked, as she sashayed towards a table of leisured-suited Missourians who were waving hundred dollar bills to get her attention, with a jerk of his big chin at her back,“Hey, I know, maybe we should ask… ?”
Parker made his in-point-of-fact-we’re-being-quite-serious-despite-Gold’s-tiresome-japes face and said, “Pierre, ever hear of a colored guy with the unforgettable name of Thaddeus Mumford?” When Benny shook his head, reaching for the steaming plate a Malaysian busboy was lifting shakily over Parker’s shoulder, Gold said,
“Talented kid… sings, acts, writes… I even hear he can direct. Clean-cut, well-spoken, sweet as a hundred eighty pound Hershey Bar…”
“Million-watt smile… sexy as hell… ”
“Not mad at anyone…”
“We want a Negro like that, Pierre, and we figure you can help us find one. Can’t you go to one of those parties we hear you go to… ?”
“There must be a couple of colored college types… ”
“Or Jewish girls who… no offense, Gold… they usually…”
Gold watched Parker pop a fried scallop in his mouth with a well-fed dog’s bored envy and said, in a neutral tone, “None taken, Gray. Maybe we should tell LaFontaine… ”
“Why we’re in desperate need of a Negro?” Parker frowned at Benny, chewing. “Think he can be trusted?”
“I think so. He’s one of us now, Gray,” said Gold, though his eyes darted to Parker to check for any notable reaction to the word us. “I think LaFontaine,” he toyed with the sound of the word, “needs to be aware of the gravity of the situation.”
Parker fixed Benny with a blinkless this-goes-no-further-than-this-conversation stare and said, “Remember that guy I was telling you about, before, the way-better-qualified guy you cheated out of a job…? The Harvard grad? Well,” Parker smiled pleasurelessly and Gold smiled back, “word has it his lawyers are about to hit us with a multi-million dollar lawsuit… discrimination… ”
“And it looks like they’ve got a pretty tight case.”
“We need your help.”
Benny drove directly home after the meeting, steering as straight as he could, though it felt like the Cougar, or the road, or the earth itself, was zig-zagging. Not just right and left but up and down and back and forth, too. And he tried his best to ignore the roadrunner, which resembled so much the famous cartoon…the long-necked bird pacing the car for a mile in a cloud of dust before loping off on a side-road towards North Las Vegas… he tried to ignore the tumbleweeds blowing into traffic in the middle of the city or the redneck sheriff’s deputy that zoomed past doing ninety wearing aviator sunglasses on the Tonopah Highway… or the billboard out there advertising The Chicken Ranch which featured a blonde, a brunette, a redhead like an Attack of the 50 Foot Whores and everything else conspiring at that moment to make him scream what the fuck am I doing here?
He spoke to himself, he spoke aloud, he declared in a firm, clear voice that he should go grocery shopping to secure provisions for the long weekend he predicted would see him reverting to the bunker mentality he’d perfected at his all-white Art School alma mater, where he flirted with and then fucked his first white women, experiences he only found exciting because they could get him killed, theoretically, though only if he confessed he wasn’t white. But still. He decided he needed a shower to clear his head before going grocery shopping. On top of everything else, he was very tired.
When he parked the Cougar he sat in it for a while and almost nodded off listening to the very weak signal of an AM radio station from L.A. playing rhythm and blues records from his adolescence… what they called jump blues back then…ladies and gentlemen Mr. Wynonie Harris… those old shellac 78s so heavy you could break windows with them… he would’ve preferred jazz for his mood but only one station featured one weekly show with jazz of any value and that was late in the evening on Saturdays… until he noticed there was mail waiting in the bank of aluminum boxes under the stairs curving up to his second-level apartment. A Stargazer’s Monthly magazine and other items visible through the slot. He got out of the car and fetched the mail, his mind still zonked on various Alexander-Dumas-grade ironies as he gripped the hot handrail and laid a tasseled loafer on each consecutive concrete step as the almost patronizingly helpful geometry of the spiral led him to his unlocked door.
He kicked off his loafers and treated his delicate feet to the carpet. He gazed upon the totem of his alphabetized collection of jazz LPs, seven thousand records in row upon row on shelf upon shelf along the wall leading out of the living room emitting the delicious perfume of time and cardboard. On the top shelf, beside the book-ended collection of miscellaneous 45s, was the painted wood and wire scale-model of the solar system that used to sit on his father’s desk, the only thing he got (by stealing it) when the old man migrated to the afterlife.
In the bundle of mail was a letter from a person with a name he suddenly remembered he’d forgotten years ago, a buddy from art school, Ricky Lang, a white boy with a Quaker background who’d been more or less indifferent towards Benny until discovering Benny was a Negro, which had seemed to make all the difference. This was before Benny had learned to dissemble on the topic. Parting the curtain of glass beads and standing in the arched passage between his modern white kitchen and the earthtone living room, Benny opened the letter first, before the bills, or even the latest issue of Stargazer, featuring a ten-page cover story on black holes, with its lurid artist’s renderings of stars being eaten alive, stars and their screams of light, destruction on a scale that made the continent-clearing whims of the Old Testament’s Jehovah seem childishly cute and extremely local. Clearly, Jehovah Himself answered to an even supremer being, and whatever It was, It was not to be fucked with.
I hope this finds you in good health and cheerful as ever.
Tomorrow, I start that weird occasional job again that I couldn’t expect you to know about, since we haven’t kept in contact much since our time together at the Franklin Academy, where we both planned to be world-famous artists. I was going to be Matisse and you were going to be Picasso, if I recall it right (wink).
Well, for a year now my job is standing naked before the art students. I swear, there are probably 300 drawings of me in student’s portfolios, trying to get them into the best colleges. Skinny guy, small dick, pot belly, gawky neck, womanly breasts, pointy nose. You can imagine. It’s at least SOME money (6 dollars per hour unless they’ve upped it again) and I just can’t say no, since I know that no one else in this whole fucking town of 3500 people wants to (or in some cases, would be allowed to) stand naked before our children. Did I tell you already that I moved upstate after my divorce? Anyway, I’m up in the sticks now.
It’s a funny fantasy. Do you ever have dreams that you show up in highschool and you’re partly or completely naked? Many people do have that dream. I do sometimes — and I’m the guy who’s actually doing it for real. I stand there in some pose and I think, hey, I really AM NAKED in front of the eyes of these people. I see these teenagers on the street and say Hi, and I think, wow, that person usually sees me naked.
But I think my more frequent dream is that I’m walking on the street at night, naked. I dreamed that the other night, and it was so real, I was thinking to myself in the dream, yes, I do this often actually, and no, it’s not a dream. After I woke up, I actually scanned my memory to clarify for myself whether I actually do go walking naked at night or not … and I don’t … but I have this nagging almost-memory, like yes, it does seem familiar.
I guess I should go do something productive now. Or just curl up.
Keep in touch,
Your old friend,
Benny lifted the wall-mounted white trimline receiver from the kitchen wall and dialed Sheila Silver’s number, auditioning a variety of salutations (so wide in range that he realized he hadn’t a clue as to the proper general tone to adopt with her, and this after nearly screwing, and then eating, her twice) before she answered. When she finally fumbled the phone and drawled a very weak Yes?, sounding something like someone wearing a blindfold in bed in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon you’ve only managed to rouse at all because she just took the sleeping pill; sounding, in fact, exactly like that; Benny hung up. Sheila was a depressive jazz-head with big tits who often slept in the middle of the afternoon. There was just no way Benny was seriously going to ask Sheila Silver if she knew of any parties this weekend at which there might be college-educated Negroes present, though he knew that there was no logical reason for him not to. Which is why he rang Sheila Silver’s number again, immediately after hanging up, rolling his eyes at his own squeamishness, his own lack of business acumen, before hanging up again the moment she answered again (this time a lot less drowsy, annoyed, even) while Benny mused on how telephones were less useful for talking than for not talking. What middle-late 20th century man accomplished by slamming a phone in its cradle could only have been achieved as thoroughly, in the time of Louis XVl, with a guillotine. And that was progress.
When he pulled up into the lot in front of the Von’s on Decatur Blvd he expected to come walking out of the store again, in under fifteen minutes, with nothing more earthshaking than cinnamon buns. Certainly not a Nubian Queen. He patrolled the numbingly long and relatively empty-of-shoppers aisles, aisles gently Muzaked (Yesterday, Cherish, Ramblin’ Rose, Moon River) yet astringent in their chill. Something about the modern supermarket epitomized, for Benny, when Benny was in a certain mood, neither quite despondent nor truly mellow, the European mind. The orderly-yet-somehow-borderline-psychotic nature of these cold white right-angled corridors. The soul’s abattoir. How many more thousands of years, if left on their own, would Africans have needed before they came up with a Vons Supermarket? And to what end, if then? The thought was more a twinge of disquiet than the rudiments of a manifesto at that point in Benny’s life. It passed, he pushed, and the visible spectrum of Smucker’s preserves rolled by.
There was still water in his ears, his left ear, from the shower. In his right ear was Moon River but in his left ear he could hear his breathing, his heartbeat, regular intervals of swallowing, the weight of his bones as he walked. His inner auteur imagined a voice-over on top of the left channel of his bodily sound effects saying blank-eyed he gazed upon the bounty of civilization. He searched but he did not find. He cruised the produce department and the meat department and glimpsed a marbled flank of beef swinging on its cold steel hook. He glimpsed the bloody mass through a round window in the stainless steel door behind the man in the white smock arranging neat little packages of ground cow on the astroturfed bottom of the frosted display case and he thought of Ricky Lang, naked in front of those art students. He saw Ricky on a serving platter carved into fatty pink flaps and slathered with his own blood’s gravy because he was old and would never be famous and he needed the pocket money. He saw Ricky’s bodiless head dictating a letter making light of the situation. Dear Friends, the letter would start, I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving…
-I must find a qualified Negro, whispered Benny, as he rounded the corner of the carbonated beverages aisle.
A qualified Negro. Wouldn’t that be a home run? He’d be promoted. He’d be invited for golf and cocktails with the Hamilton Golds in Palm Desert and flirt with Gold’s pretty Argentine Jew of a wife named Isolde and chuckle with Gold to country club bossa nova about Parker behind Parker’s back, an activity Parker himself subtly encouraged, since to be mocked enviously is to be powerful. Later, a purely mechanical affair with Gold’s wife as an unspoken favor to Gold so Gold could take his stupendous-looking quadrilingual Japanese secretary on ski trips without feeling guilty. One of the boys. Gold had said He’s one of us, now, Gray, but what he’d meant by that was that Benny could be if he passed this test.
Even if having a qualified Negro on the team couldn’t save The Studio from losing the lawsuit, everyone would know that Benny had delivered, under fire, on D-Day. They’d know he’d tried. The only gesture more effective than being seen to try would be going to jail on the company’s behalf on charges of discrimination himself. A possibility he wouldn’t rule out.
When he circled back around through Produce he saw her. And what was his first thought. Before even that romantic jolt her beauty chased through him like nausea. His very first thought, about which he was immediately ashamed, while Moon River swooned through the air on strings, as she turned to him as he rolled his cart past and she gave him that dimpled smile and time seemed to speed up and slow down simultaneously (even as it was happening, he seemed to be looking back on it, going over it as a series of stills and scribbled memos approximating the initial sensations):
I’ll bet she knows a qualified Negro.
It’s clear that all straight men want to fuck all women all the time (though not necessarily twice); that’s a given; but what happens in the mind of a man the first time he sees the woman he was more or less made to love? In Benny’s case, shame and self-pity both preceded a wave of the above-mentioned quasi-nausea, reddening his face, clearing the field for awe. He didn’t notice her slightly puffy eyelid. The still (slightly) discolored cheek.
“You look like you come from the stars, sister.”
Hers was the face of the First Woman, though Benny didn’t flatter himself that he was Adam. He wasn’t even Cain. But he knew he was fated to be her man. He knew he was her qualified Negro.
His penis knew it, too. He was astonished to feel it stirring in its cotton shroud, inflating from the tip down, already harder than any number of Sheila Silvers had managed to get it after hours (or so it always felt) of digital, then oral, than oral-digital, then verbal, then verbal-digital-oral-digital attention. He’d once had a worldly Sally Kellerman lookalike shove two fingers up his anus as what in some cases was probably The Secret Weapon but which only achieved, for Benny, the added complaint that he couldn’t masturbate (or defecate normally) for a week afterward. No: a peace sign up his ass was not the solution.
The solution was seated in the passenger seat of his Cougar, offering him a mango.
The Compound was out, way out, on the Tonopah Highway, beyond a cluster of mirage-like apartment complexes so new there were no flags on the flag poles yet, and many of the factory-fresh aluminum-frame windows were still wrapped in billowing plastic. The Compound was beyond, even, the skeletal shopping center (a concrete house of cards) that was going up in response to the sudden apartment complexes. Past all that, east on Mercury Road, which stretched straight back to the Sunrise Mountains, a black seam of fresh tarmac in the brushed suede of the desert, a zipper straight back to the huge rock bosom the sun rose over at the end of every working day.
Eating the proffered mango, Benny realized how hungry he’d been, back-handing his sticky chin and grinning at her. Benny’s groceries, including a pint of Neapolitan ice cream he’d forgotten about, were in a slumped sack on the back seat, but she extracted hers from the opening in the front of her caftan. She handed him a peach salted with the healthy odor of her perspiration and he did not hesitate to eat it. In fact he relished the sensation. How could Benny not be intrigued when he’d asked his new lady friend exactly where to drop her off and she’d answered, in the most matter-of-fact tone, or even perhaps with a tincture of affected modesty, as in –it’s really not a big deal, but–
“Excuse me, sister. The what?”
“You haven’t heard of The Compound? Don’t you watch the Evening News?”
But Benny hadn’t come to Vegas yet when all that happened. The fifteen-hour standoff with the Clark County Sheriff’s department and so on. Two long low stucco structures appeared on either side of a fifteen foot sun-blasted camper on a gravel lot protected by a hurricane fence, the gravel decorated in three of the four corners of the fence by dead brown Yucca trees. Benny expected snarling dogs to crawl out of camouflaged pits in the gravel but none were forthcoming. Where were the cable-armed brothers with their muscle t-shirts, lopsided Afros and Kalashnikovs?
“Is that it? What is it? It looks like a motel with a hurricane fence around it.”
“It was a motel. Once upon a time. Now it’s a deconsecrated Satellite Motor Lodge.”
He was taken aback at the unexpected glimpse of an unexpected vocabulary.
“Park across the street and leave the motor running,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.” She pulled on the door lock and added, “But if I don’t come out in fifteen minutes, just go. Do not step inside that fence and try to get me, okay? You understand? Just go.”
Benny understood, though it pained him to agree to it. He executed a tight u-turn and gunned the engine and put the car in park. She said, “Say yes, My African Queen, I understand.”
“Yes, My African Queen, I understand.”
She pecked his cheek and hopped out of the car and hurried across the road and let herself in through a silently swinging gate. She disappeared around back of one of the long low stucco structures. After waiting a few minutes he shut off the engine. He paged through the new issue of Stargazer, humming along with some oldies, reading about black holes, the trendiest topic in space.
One esteemed astrophysicist (dressed like a tennis instructor in the little photo beside his contribution) propounded the theory that nothing exists yet, and that Time as we experience it is a futuristic effect obtaining in the million billion trillionth of a second elapsing as the Super Black Hole of Reality (smaller than a neutron; comprised of the total mass of the Universe) collapses further before exploding to create Everything. And when Time finally does begin, it won’t be anything like what we think we’re experiencing in this infinitesimal moment.
Another even more esteemed astrophysicist (goatee’d Viennese) claimed that everything that has ever happened will happen again, exactly as it has always happened, oscillating like a perpetual motion machine between the perfectly balanced space/time forces of every perfectly-placed black hole in space.
The only female astrophysicist pictured (suspiciously young; an amateur watercolorist with some talent) likened black holes to tumors…the cancers of space/time…and predicted an epoch in mankind’s distant future when we’ll be able to treat these monster malignancies like surgeons with precisely detonated, super-compact nuclear weapons, many times more powerful than our sun.
Benny kept thinking: but how do they know all this?
And The Voice said: Believing is Knowing.
And Benny said: But what are we to believe, O Lord?
And The Voice said nothing. Or “nothing”. Or nothing. Benny couldn’t be sure.
When he awoke, the sky was being eaten by stars.
The dome of the overhead swarmed and seethed and he saw, half-dreaming, vast shapes with perforated edges fluttering upon the desert, papering it over in black. The domesticated nightsky as seen from his patio was one thing but the cosmos as revealed from where he lay at that moment was of another order of magnitude entirely and he realized that for the first time ever he was gazing upon the irrefutable Truth, groggy as he was, head still wedged between the headrest and the door. His neck was stiff and from his wiped-dry mouth he knew he’d been snoring in the face of All That.
Only the weakest light was visible from somewhere towards the back of The Compound, a gray blur like a stresspoint in black acetate, that and the green glimmer from the radio dial in his dashboard. And through the speaker-holes in the fiberboard shelf behind the back seat, what at first sounded like weak flies fucking under waxpaper revealed itself as a virtually inaudible version of Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler, 1957, and he knew without trying that his battery was too dead to turn the ignition and that he was stranded, twelve miles from home, like the fool he was, straining to hear the corpse of his battery channeling a heartbreaking Duke of Earl. Stranded across the street from The Compound late at night, hungry and cold. He’d rolled the window down and reclined in the bucket seat at dusk and that was all he remembered. He remembered being tired. He turned the radio off.
He remembered dreaming.
He’d dreamt he was married to that amazing black girl now curled up asleep in The Compound and that he’d traveled back East with her, incredibly, to introduce her to the family, but not his family, a dream family, with members he seemed to recognize within the dream with the accumulated confirmation of all of his childhood memories, and, yet, very strangely, the fading recollections of whom were alien to him less than two minutes after waking. What master-forger lived in his head, capable of counterfeiting recognitions he would have bet his life (in the dream) were forty years in the making?
Out of the Cougar, careful to ease the door shut, he went around to the back of the car, the wooden heels of his hundred dollar Joe Namath Dingo boots going clop clop clop, the irony of the ad copy for the boots coming to him like the stinging memory of a serious gambling loss: he knows when to wear them. And if the night had seemed unreal until that point it was real enough now as he was out in it, chilled by it, moving horizontally through a vertical vastness, a kind of elevator shaft, the walls of which receded as you approached them, the mockery it made of the infinitesimal scale of private thought and effort. He looked and found her reclining, over his shoulder, the constellation about ten feet above the horizon, the one he’d known and prayed to since childhood. Cassiopeia, with her incongruously-named constituent stars… Shedir, Caph, Ruchbah, Segin, Achird, Marfak. It had always bothered him that they were in her, part of her, these Arabs with their ugly names.
He popped the trunk of the car and found an Aztec-patterned beach blanket from Tijuana, a beach-blanket he’d never used because the beach wasn’t part of his cultural inheritance, whatever he pretended, however fair-skinned or straight-haired he was, the blanket was still folded in eighths and packaged in its scuffed plastic. Around he went again through the driver’s-side window and leaned over to the sack of groceries in the back, the sack with its dark spots of melted and spoiling foods, and he extracted a box of frosted strawberry ToasTarts. He rolled up the window and locked all the doors and, thus equipped, and with the unpackaged Aztec-patterned beach blanket wrapped around his shoulders like a serape, he began the twelve mile walk up the road.
He’d only been walking five minutes when nothing… his car, The Compound… was any longer visible behind him. He experienced the convincing illusion that he was walking towards it all rather than away from it. Or on a treadmill or in a hamster wheel. He realized that this was the point in the story during which the protagonist, of a certain age, at a certain point in his life, being by nature a seeker… has his Desert Epiphany.
It’s always in the desert. Bushes don’t burn in the suburbs, or, if and when they do, the burning doesn’t mean anything more philosophical than having to replace insured topiary. The desert is where it all happens, as far as revelations go, and the Native Americans and the antediluvian Semites and the Aboriginal Australians all had plenty of desert to wander around in and there to unearth their shallowly-buried epiphanies, epiphanies like golden statues lodged in the sand and becoming the roots of their cultural wisdoms, cultural wisdoms they’ve since shared with a grateful, spiritually hungry world, the keys to the cosmos handed down to us in popular movies and songs and best-selling novels. He thought of Kahlil Gibran. And now it was his turn to have his spirituality improved by nothingness. Or nothingness.
He followed the sound of his boot heels, swaddled in the Aztec-patterned beach blanket, with its very faint odor of petrol, and when not paying close attention he walked off the tarmac accidentally, twice, stumbling on scrabbly hard scallops of sand and the occasional low prickle of tumbleweed, hurrying back to the reassuring surface of the road, a symbol of progress since before the Romans, probably. A symbol for everything, actually, when he thought of it.
Further he walked, counting his boot clicks, tearing open the box of ToasTarts and into each of the three foil wrappers (each, in turn, containing two frosted strawberry ToasTarts) every quarter hour or so, suffused with an intensely private pleasure in the threatening face of the cold infinite as the plasticky dough of the mass-produced pastry accumulated between the rills of his gums and the inner pockets of his cheeks in a slow-dissolving infusion of sugar-heavy cud.
In the woolly blanket of the below-sea-level darkness he thought he glimpsed lumbering forms in his peripheral vision, the desert remembering its dinosaur dead. Brilliant as the sky was (like a vertiginous view of The Strip from a space ship) the light failed to trickle to anything lower than a hundred feet above the sand, half-illuminating the occasional bat or swallow or buzzard tumbling headlong overhead like ripples in spacetime and crying out.
Benny pretended he was entering an African village on foot. Where the village is exactly doesn’t matter. A sentry at the village gate; a fearsome sentry brandishing a scimitar and a necklace of yellow molars, a sentry big as Roosevelt Grier; poses a riddle the correct answer to which will allow Benny entry to the village. A wrong answer, on the other hand, will see Benny’s head rolling around in the sand. The sentry speaks English with the camp elocution of a mad Shakespearean actor.
“Interloper!” says the sentry. “I pose to Thee a riddle.”
“I say I say I say,” says Benny, in this fantasy, imitating Alan Alda imitating Groucho Marx, chomping on a mimed cigar in a manic stoop, “Pose away, Mr. Bones!”
“What creature is it,” booms the sentry, molar necklace chattering as he gestures violently to paint a picture of fable immemorial in the middle distance, “that travels on all fours in the morning, on two legs in the afternoon, and on three in the evening?”
“That’s an easy one, chief,” says Benny. “The secret word,” he pronounces “word” as woid, “is lush. A lush crawls around on all fours with a hangover in the morning, staggers on two legs in search of his next drink after a business lunch in the afternoon, and totters on a three-legged barstool in the evening!”
With a grunt of respect the sentry grants passage into the village, with its neat little roads and thatched huts, and, to make a long fantasy short, the king of the village, looking suspiciously like Benny’s father, wearing Benny’s father’s tuxedo jacket and Benny’s father top hat along with a grass skirt instead of his pants, presents Benny with a harem to service as part two of the trials he must endure before becoming the chief of the village (freeing the old man to enjoy his sunset years collecting stamps, and freshwater fishing).
The harem with which Benny is presented, he recognizes: every single girlfriend he ever had in grade school, starting with Beverly Huff, moon-faced, chubby and shiny brown. Beverly is five, smells like a pickle, and can punch harder than Benny, who is considered to be prettier than any of the girls in kindergarten. Beside Beverly is the girl Benny replaced her with, the same year, an older woman from second grade named Tamara, with root beer-colored eyes.
Looking cosmi-comically displaced amongst the little schoolgirls is the woman to whom he’d actually lost his virginity in a very nearly meaningless act (though orchestrating it probably took some doing on her part) at the age of thirteen: Gracie Barnes. The proprietress of the corner store at which Benny did all his after-school shopping. Bosomy black Gracie with her feline eyeglasses and her helmet of conked gray hair and her impotent, cigar-chomping husband named… Jimmy. Benny went in that shop one day and Gracie put the OUT TO LUNCH sign up and locked the door and that’s all he remembers about it except the ecstasy of walking out again ten minutes later clutching a fat roll of free comic books. Plastic man was his favorite.
Gracie, Beverly, Tamara, Verlene… Benny isn’t particularly enthralled until he gets to Karenna Beauchamp, sixteen years old in the tenth grade, held back a year due to being distracted from her school work by problems at home. Karenna’s mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, a very unusual complaint for a black woman to have in those days; so unusual, that the family tended to brag about it: she got her a white lady’s disease! My mama she got her a white lady disease, is how Karenna had broken the ice at a dance, in fact, as Benny remembers it. Maybe he’s making that up. Karenna is tall, slender, wide-hipped but nearly titless, with the kind of face that would have been used to sell face cream if she hadn’t been so incredibly, deliciously, blasphemously black. He singles out Karenna Beauchamp and she steps out of her vaguely native-ish, sarong-or-sari-like, drapey kind of clothing and reclines on a soft soft pile of ostrich feathers, pipe-cleaner legs spread, her hairless wrinkled blue-black cunt (like an elephant’s eye, squinting at him, crying its tear of vaginal moisture) cocked at the perfect angle of reception. A lion roars. Monkeys gibber in the trees and the ceremonial drums commence throbbing as Benny kicks out of his safari trunks and the king stares with kingly dispassion.
The problem Benny often has with his fantasies, especially the sexual ones, is their uncontrollability. At the very moment they become most persuasive, they tend to get away from him (stuck in a meeting, late for lunch, stomach growling for mercy while Gold or Parkerson drone on, for example, he’ll visualize a perfect plate of spaghetti, only to see a turd plop on it). Karenna Beauchamp is on that pile of ostrich feathers with her blank expression and her legs spread and her pussy ready to receive and all the other little black girls from Benny’s romantic history plus Gracie Barnes in a circle around the altar, chattering with school-girlish excitement like at the Saturday Matinee and Benny ready to mount when who should push through the crowd in a fury but his most painful memory, his half-sister Jolene, the illegitimate product of his father’s most famous affair?
Exactly (to the day) Benny’s age, Jolene was his eerie black twin, his dark mirror, the sister he didn’t even know existed until his father unwisely orchestrated a meeting on the occasion of the annual barbecue of the Greater Masonic Negro Tradesmen Association of West Philly, 1947, taking Benny aside with, “Son, you’re seventeen now, which is a man by any means of reckoning, and it’s time for you to know the things a man knows about the things a man will do, the things of the world beyond arithmetic or spelling or the pretty Bible tales your mother fills your head with.”
The whole terrible business. A very very painful thing. Benny hadn’t thought about it or Jolene for years and now she was filling him with her hot prickles of shame, grief, regret. The look on Benny’s father’s face when he found out, clutching that letter and shrieking at Benny from the other side of the kitchen although his face seemed just an inch away, filling Benny’s vision, the spit on his lips and the hate in his eyes and the look on everyone else’s face at the breakfast table, the detail of every expression Benny managed to absorb without taking his own eyes off of his father’s Old Testament Jehovah mask as he cast Benny out of the bosom of the family. Benny’s wailing, red-faced, innocently terrified mother and sisters… the toast burning… the Korean war… art school on the GI bill…
He stood cactus-still with the last ToasTart in one hand and the serape clutched in the other. And his socks were soggy with blood because his boots had never walked more than thirty unpunctuated steps since he’d bought them and it is amazing how far you can walk on bloody feet… the body must secrete some kind of natural anesthetic. Until you stop. And try to start again. How could he do this? But he had to: he couldn’t sleep in the desert. But his right foot was unbearably swollen. However long it had taken Benny to walk away from his car, it took him three times longer to walk back again, gasping and cursing and hobbling in this unexpected Jesus pain.
He cried out.
The sleek dead car in its cold dark sleep. He’d bought it with his first big check from television. The Compound. The silently swinging gate gave way. The gravel crunched. Ominously, the door to the lobby was not locked.
There was only just the floor lamp on, severely dimmed. He found himself standing in what had obviously been the ‘50s-style, modernist lobby of the front desk of the deconsecrated motel, listening to his own heavy breathing. Geometric patterns in aquatints and white all darkened by the dimness of that one sad floor lamp.
Frankly he’d rather be in a meeting with Parker.
There was no longer a front desk, but two dozen or so folding chairs, not in rows, but strewn in clusters across the carpet. The walls were darkly paneled and a patched screen for an 8mm movie projector…no wider than Benny’s outstretched arms… hung on the wall behind what had once been the spot upon which the front desk had rested. He could see that the pool-colored carpet with its geometric swirls was cleaner in that spot, a clean-spot of bright blue shaped like a giant’s thumbnail and grooved by pressure points. There was the pebbled glass of the outer wall behind him and the dim floor lamp before him and the outline of a man on the swinging door of the men’s room to the right of the phantom desk, half-illuminated by the light, and, further, a dark corner around which there’d be a hall or a storage room, probably.
A very large man with bushy gray hair and a hooked nose slipped into the lobby from around that corner. The man’s skin was the color and texture of a football Benny had owned as a child. Benny was tall but the man was taller and two of Benny wide. He struck Benny as being merely the visible aspect of a much larger creature or force. He was definitely not the qualified Negro, though he was obviously capable of giving either Gog or Magog a run for the money in the Destroyer of Worlds category. The whites of the man’s eyes were dark and he was dressed in his bathrobe and his bedroom slippers and when he spoke there was an amplified, over-articulated quality to his voice; a pressure you’d need to blow out the glass walls of the lobby to release. He spoke with the majestic belligerence of a voice-over in a PSA about street crime. It was too dark outside for the way he spoke, which was fully awake.
“What do you want here, white man?”
Benny didn’t know what to say.
“I repeat: what do you want here at three o’clock in the morning, whitey?”
“I’m not white.”
“I’m Negro. I admit I don’t look it but I’m a Negro. Like you.”
“Like me. Is that so?” The man laughed, but not too loudly. “What’s a Negro if a Negro’s not a thing that answers to the Negro description?”
Benny touched his chest and said “In here,” although the look on the man’s face was powerful enough to give Benny doubts.
“Really? Gosh, that’s good news, because in that case I’m T.S. Eliot,” said the man, who also touched his chest, “in here. You care for a spot of tea and some crumpets, whitey?”
“My battery’s dead.” He looked at his boots, near to fainting. “My feet…”
The man, hands on his hips, his chest exposed, eyebrows high, seemed ready to laugh again. His chest hairs were scant and curly white. “Your feet.”
“I’m parked across the street.”
“In front of my property.”
“Oh, just, you know, star gazing. Yeah?”
Benny shook his head.
Benny lowered his head and shook it.
“Okay. I see.” The big man nodded. “Keeping us under surveillance.” He smiled with unexpected warmth. “I’m still that important?”
The smile faded. Or pretended to. A comedic possibility. Would have to be one dedicated undercover cop.
“I mean,” added Benny, quickly, pointing towards the road again. “I gave your lady friend…”
“…I gave her a ride…”
The man pulled a folding chair to his side and sat in it, arms folded over his chest, head cocked. He looked at Benny a good long time and it was clear to Benny that the man was deciding upon how much energy to expend on dealing with him. How much trouble to go to or get into. He leaned back in the chair, which whimpered under his weight, and he shifted his huge clasped hands to the belly of his bathrobe and yawned, turning it into language.
“You agree I have a dilemma on my hands here?”
“Only if you think I’ve come to… ”
Benny’s right foot was so swollen in his Dingoes that he imagined having to cut the boot off, peeling the leather away from the delicate white bones of his foot along with a sopping roll of flesh.
“You’re from back East.”
“You talk like it.”
Benny winced. He needed to get off of that foot.
“A high yellow sort of fellow from… ”
“Philly,” said Benny, after a groan.
“Good old Philly,” said the man. “I killed a guy in Philly, once,” he added, “a yellow Nigger who looked too white for my tastes, I hope I haven’t upset you,” but he winked to show he was joking. He said he knew quite a few high yellow Negro girls from back East in Chicago because he used to have money and he used to be somewhat famous in what you would call a notorious way. He asked Benny if Benny had any sisters and Benny said yes, three, and the man stood and said maybe you’ll introduce me someday and gestured for Benny to follow him and Benny, in agony on his swollen foot, did so.
Benny awoke, fully clothed and wearing his boots, under the crisp clean sheet of a motel bed, the hard dry sun of the deep desert parting the drawn curtains like a sword. Benny’s first thought was that there must be a woman in the bathroom, freshening up, but he heard no water running, no flushing or spritzing or fussing with a purse or car keys or spray-on deodorant. But why would he have been sleeping in a motel room alone? Why was there a framed portrait of JFK on the wall to his right, above the television? What year was it and why wasn’t he sure? Behind every “why” was another “why”, and any particular procession of whys he could think of telescoped backwards by only a dozen or so degrees before butting up against the creation of the universe.
The throb in his right foot clarified and asserted itself as a terrible pain as he remembered where he was and how, to some extent, he’d come to be there. Still, his dreams lingered; the dream tastes and smells and emotions. Closing his eyes he saw, or felt, the fading trace of the people he’d known and loved in the other life he’d lived through the troubled hours of his recent unconsciousness, and losing them to daylight was like losing them to death. Or to life, maybe.
When Benny opened his eyes again, the man was standing at the foot of the bed. He was wearing the overalls of an auto mechanic, with a wide-brimmed sun hat and a solemnly curious expression, smelling powerfully of hard physical labor. The door was open brightly behind his massive silhouette and the fading wash of an airforce jet’s passing gave a great depth to the afternoon.
“What time is it, please?” asked Benny.
“It’s quarter after five, white man. Would you care for some breakfast?”
“A half a grapefruit would be nice.”
The man laughed. “Watching your weight, white man?”
Benny smiled. “Why do you keep calling me white man?”
“Well, for one thing, because your driver’s license says ‘Caucasian’ on it.”
Benny could feel his wallet still bulging in his back right pocket, clearly one of the two main causes of his troubled sleep. Still, he panicked. “How do you know that?”
The man laughed again. A surprisingly robust and good-natured laughter, for all its brevity. “Call it an educated guess. Why don’t you wash up while I prepare your grapefruit? You remember how? All the soap and water you’ll ever need is right in that little room. Some disposable razors and a can of shaving cream, too, if you’re feeling ambitious.”
Benny waited a few extra minutes after the man’s exit into the cauterizing sunlight, then lifted the sheet and pulled off his serape and rolled out of bed, discovering that things were as bad as he had feared when he tried to put some weight on his right foot. With a jolting pain like shattering glass with a nervous system he hopped the distance to the toilet and landed against the sink, leaning heavily on it, afraid to look in the mirror. Afraid of the thing in it.
He eased himself down on the toilet seat by clutching the shower curtain and spent a good long time contemplating his boots. They would have to come off, if only in order for him to undress fully so as to bathe, though of course the real issue was the confronting of the condition of his right foot, which no longer even felt like one, but was transmitting sensations that caused him to visualize a bloody fork of bone pronged out of his leg, jabbing into a raw chunk of meat with toes at the end of it.
Seated on the toilet he was able to remove a drawer in the cabinet the sink was built into and laid it upon his lap, fingering through several little bottles of aspirin, loose papers, ballpoint pens, rolls of gauze, a tampon or two and a sewing kit. Out of the sewing kit he removed a small pair of scissors and with these scissors he cut the smooth-heeled soles off each boot, beginning with the left, a not entirely difficult job, being as each boot was tattered and stitch-blown and road-blasted with holes. The soles hit the clean tiles of the bathroom with an earthy density, along with the remaining bits of each boot, including curled tongues and bitty laces, and he thought of Napoleon’s army, or the German infantry stranded in Stalingrad, boiling their footwear for dinner. The debris plopped into a black pile and while his left foot was merely stained indigo from the old coloration of the lived-in boot, the right foot was a vivid thing of purple and yellow and orange and red, glowing in the half-dark of the bathroom. He wanted to faint but he didn’t.
The over-shirts he unbuttoned and removed, one at a time, still seated, and then the t-shirts came off, ripping as he tugged them, exposing his chest and belly to the tingle and itch of air. After this phase he rested, steadying himself, avoiding the tableaux (though not the odor; impossible) of his neon foot, which dangled in a bulbous throb from the leg he’d crossed over the knee of the other.
Reaching over he managed to stopper the tub and turn on the water. Watching water so pure it was nearly blue gush into the Platonic form of a clean white bathtub was so fascinating that the tub was nearly full before he snapped out of the reverie and twisted the tap off. Hoisting himself on the shower curtain he managed to get to an upright position again, all of his weight on his left foot. He dug his wallet out of the back pocket and placed it on the edge of the sink, and, after a strength-gathering pause, he ripped his unzipped pants from the crotch down, tearing the rotted cloth from his legs in four strokes, and he ripped off the shreds of his underwear, which were a complicated color, and he sat himself groaning on the edge of the bathtub before falling sideways into it, splashing the floor tiles. He screamed when the parched wound of his macerated foot hit the hot water.
“You alright in there?” came the man’s deep voice.
When he got no answer he stepped into the bathroom, switching on the lights, and found the white man breathing, but semi-conscious, or pretending to be, in the bathtub, the blind fish of his little white dick floating in the bushy red kelp of his public hair, the bathwater pink. The bathroom floor tiles were covered in a quarter inch of water and he was careful to avoid the puddled filth of the white man’s clothing, which would have to be disposed of if ever he could find a fire hot enough. There was a wallet on the edge of the sink and he looked through it, finding a typewritten letter folded into eighths, a ticket stub for dry cleaning, and a long-expired driver’s license that claimed that the white man was a 42-year-old citizen of the state of New Jersey by the name of Ricky Lang.
When the white man came to consciousness again, he’d been summoned by the not entirely unpleasant pain of having his right foot cleaned and bandaged. He lay naked on the motel room bed he’d spent the previous night and morning in, his long hair and beard still damp but drying rapidly in the zero-moisture Vegas heat. The large black man who was tending to his foot said, “Someone tried to get into my car last night. There were scratch marks on the door. Was that you?”
“I’ve been sick for a while.”
The black man nodded, seeming to accept this for an answer. But then he added,
“I was about to throw away what was left of your pants when I found these.” He jingled a full set of house keys. “Why have you been living outside for so long? Where’s your home?”
The white man looked genuinely puzzled, and not a little pained, by the question. The black man stood with a graceful weariness and gestured at the bandaged foot and said, “I can’t guarantee you won’t get gangrene and die, but maybe this’ll help. Here’s a bathrobe you can wear. You can follow me if you’re hungry.”
They hobbled outside, the one helping the other to walk. There was a café-style table under a sunshade umbrella on the gravel between the two long, low stucco buildings of the old motel. Some distance behind them was a Jetstream motor home of dented and polished aluminum, parked beside a flagless flag pole and looking like a gargantuan kitchen appliance of the 1950s, its side door open and the unarticulated murmur of news radio at a low volume leaking out. The sun was still hours from setting but depleted and forgiving and the wind finished drying the white man’s shoulder-length hair and chest-length beard before he took his place at the table, lowered into the seat, wearing, with comical inadequacy, the very bathrobe he’d first seen the black man in.
“Help yourself,” said the black man. He nodded at a serving plate of cold scrambled eggs, a cold plate of sausages and potatoes, a stack of cold pancakes and a pitcher of warm orange juice.
The white man took a surprisingly petite forkful of the eggs and said, “I’m wondering what you might have found in my wallet.”
“Wasn’t much to find.”
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
“Want it?” The black man held it up.
The white man reached and took the wallet and placed it on the table beside the plate he was eating from. Something was in the air. It was different between the two of them now. The confrontational energy of the evening prior had evaporated. The black man scratched his chin and said, “And it wasn’t you I’ve been getting all those letters from?”
The white man, he shrugged and he chewed.
The black man said, “I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that you are what you appear to be.”
The white man asked, without looking up from his plate, “Which is?”
“Somebody with an interesting story to tell.”
There was a good long silence. The black man sneezed and the white man said god bless you.
The white man looked up, finally, and said, “Why don’t you tell yours first?”
I was born in 1932 near Chicago. My father was a sanitation worker employed by the city of Chicago and we came, in my thirteenth year, to live in a little gray, clean, clapboard house in a colored neighborhood of Chicago called Golders Park. By Negro terms of reckoning we were suddenly middle class, because my father had a job with the city. His position wasn’t as prestigious as that of a Federal postal worker’s, but he wasn’t a dishwasher, or a hustler, either. I was the second of eight children, and all of my siblings (six sisters and a baby brother), as far as I know, are living. Thelma, Marva, Bernadette, Antonia, Edwina, Gloria and Benny Jr.
I was an avid and talented student, twice promoted ahead of my classmates, so that I graduated from High School at the age of sixteen. Being younger than my classmates was never a social problem because I was always large, and, though I had no talent or interest in sports, I was built like a linebacker, so no one trifled with me. Being bigger than the bullies, I had that rare thing, a taunt-free experience of High School. I was never what you would call a handsome boy, but there were always girls around, whether or not you could call them attractive, and whether or not I ever did much with them. I made it through school with my virginity technically intact.
The year I graduated from Golders Park High School was 1948, and back then there were no real scholarships established to help the poor to attend college. If there were, they were a well-kept secret. There were little funds and sponsorships from local church and business but I wasn’t offered any, probably because I didn’t look the part of a student with the potential of bringing glory to the colored race. With no other options, I entered the job market, taking on a string of odd jobs while nursing my ultimate dream of working at a library. The year I turned 19, my dream came true, incredibly, and I assumed a custodial position at a little library on Chicago’s near North Side, a working class neighborhood of immigrant Poles and scattered Irish, ignorant, superstitious newcomers to the American dream. From our house in Golders Park to my job every morning at the Joseph Pulaski Memorial Library was an hour’s bus ride, involving three connections, through many different ethnic enclaves of the city, and it was into that most hostile of all the enclaves that I stepped off of that last bus, early every morning, five days a week. I learned soon enough that the best way to deflect hostile, wary looks as I walked the three blocks from the bus stop to the library was to carry my mop bucket to work with me.
The librarian was a woman named Bernadine Weaver. Caucasian, obviously. When I first met her, the day I applied for the position of janitor, she was 33 years old, single, a remarkably tall, but unremarkably handsome, bronze-blonde who always wore her very long hair in a burnished librarian’s bun. There’s something of the nun in a librarian: the chaste silence, the spinsterish dedication to an intellectual ideal of abstinence. The cloister-like smell of the stacks adds to the impression. She could as well have been wearing a wimple that day I first walked in, embarrassing us both with my height, which implied a pairing, for very tall women and very tall men can’t, in the end, avoid one another. I was dressed in my Sunday shoes, pressed dungarees and brand new flannel shirt. In that look she gave me, the first time ever she looked, she seemed to recognize the introductory few moments of her oldest recurrent nightmare. She knew she was fated to lay that big blonde head on this strapping 19 year old Negro’s chest and I, of course, would be the one who paid the highest price for her doing it. But, before I go any further on the subject of Bernadine Weaver, another word or two about my own family.
My father was a garbage man. But he was a good man. Raised in Oklahoma before it became the dust bowl of the Great Depression, he knew horses and cattle, and he longed to return to that life. He literally dreamed of the oatsy-sweet odor of cowshit, but it was the acid reek of the human variety he was forced to live with. People actually shit in their garbage in those days; he wouldn’t have recognized modern trash, with its cosmetic packagings and perfectly edible food, at all. When people threw something away back then, it really meant garbage, because any material that could be used for anything was hoarded like a treasure. If you’ve ever seen people come to blows over a heap of rotten vegetables (the first party claiming they were thrown away by accident, the second party claiming finder’s keepers, losers weepers), you’ll know what I mean. To be a garbage man for most of the years that my father plied his craft really meant something awful, collecting in places right there in the middle of Chicago where asphalt often gave way to dirt roads. It was an odious life for him, but he never once took it out on his family. He was a mild man, with a limited vocabulary, and a shiny black nose like a hound’s, who never resorted to talking with his hands.
Once a month he’d take me, just me, the eldest, to ride horses for a whole day in fresh air along the trails on a horse ranch in rural Illinois, run by people he was friendly with. I’m assuming we rode those horses free of charge, because what could he have paid them with? What service could he have bartered for the privilege? A little garbage-collecting around the ranch? I couldn’t possibly recall the name of the place, or the names or technical classifications of the horses we rode, but I will never forget the stinging rich odor of the polished leather of the saddles. Yes, and the warm sexual charge I remember, bumping along on a pony behind my father on that caramel-colored mare with her haughty blonde tail swishing and her sweaty rump in a rhythm like any female’s under the burden of my father’s body.
My father taught me all about horses; I’m sure he taught me plenty; but I lost that knowledge in prison. The theory of incarceration that’s most popular with modern jurists centers on re-education, more than punishment, but prison was always a school, and school is considered by many to be a punishment, while the terms of an institution’s educating are by no means under the control of the institution’s officials. Longterm incarceration replaces any knowledge you may have had, going in, with incarcerated knowledge, which is only ever useful within the walls of the institution of incarceration, or for going back to them, in a process you can almost feel while it’s happening. A student writing his dissertation for an advanced degree is as unfit, in his way, for society, as a man near the end of a fourteen year sentence for rape.
I was a tenant of Joliet for one hundred and seventy months, commencing my stay on April 1, 1953 and walking back out again on June 6, 1967, with a neatly wrapped package of my earthly possessions under one arm and all of my father’s lovingly imparted horse knowledge erased. The first act I committed as a free man was to catch a bus to the so-called scene of the crime, but I could have taken a limo. I wasn’t aware that I’d become a rich man while serving my fourteen years, and wasn’t to discover this fact until six months after walking out into the frightening daylight of the parking lot in front of the prison.
I took a Greyhound bus back to Chicago, and, from State Street bustling with shoppers, took a bus which connected to a bus that let me out just three blocks away from my old place of employment, the Joseph Pulaski Memorial Library, where I’d worked as a janitor for three happy years of my life. I stood on the sidewalk near the flagpole in the summer sun and looked upon the building that had become more symbolic, in my mind, of my fourteen years in prison than the building I had actually spent all those years inside of. It was a windy day, and the chain on the aluminum flagpole was whipping the pole with the repetitive frenzy of an SOS, and the American flag I’d personally repaired rips in was snapping high overhead like a sail on a sleek yacht, my trouser legs rippling and my hat in danger of being blown clear off. I noticed there were flag-colored candy wrappers stuck here and there in the bushes that ran in a broken rectangle around the library as I walked up the stairs and entered the place with a hand on my gray hat and my heart pounding.
In the bright gloom of library light I saw things pretty much as I had left them, despite the changes the country had gone through from 1953 to 1967. The high walls that were ringed low in a dark crowd by the stacks were still hung with dingy portraits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Pulaski, and framed maps of America, the world and the solar system according to early 20th century science, with its eight planets. In the center of this main room was the abandoned island of the horseshoe-shaped librarian’s station, and I took my place at a long table between the geography stacks from which I could watch things while remaining unobtrusive myself, hidden by a cart of jumbled atlases, my sweat-stained hat on the table in front of me.
This was the room, with its fluorescent hum and odor of old sentences and a musty carpet sweeper, in which everything had happened. I’d befriended my first white person in this room, learned to read intellectually in this room (and, by extension, to write) and in this room, not far from where I was seated, had I also lost my virginity to the woman for whom I was now patiently waiting, fresh out of prison after serving a fourteen year sentence for her alleged rape. When I noticed her standing behind the counter at the librarian’s station, counting three stacks of books, having rolled a cart back in from the lecture room while my mind was somewhere else, I suppose, it appeared as though she’d taken all of the changes that the library might have suffered, in my long absence, upon her self.
She was gray-haired and sharp-shouldered and dressed like a widow. I had turned 36 that January, in my prison-built body, and sat upright on that bench between the stacks, at the peak of my physical condition, feeling like something polished and cast-iron forged, greatly superior to my pathetic John Doe clothing, a black god who only had to go naked in order to become revealed, calculating that Bernadine must be exactly 50, or weeks from it. I couldn’t remember her birthday.
It was after observing her for a while that I realized that she must be aware of my presence. There’s a theatrical quality to even the most banal movements of someone who’s aware she’s being watched. There’s also, of course, a vast difference between the self-consciousness induced by having a stranger for an audience and the formal requirements of putting on a show for someone who has sucked on your breasts. She kept her head down and was careful not to glance in the direction of the geography stacks.
You can fantasize a moment with all of the kitchen-sink, realist skill of an Arthur Miller, but you will fail in your predictions, for the simple reason that the mind is a fantasist, and is even poorer at simulating reality than it is at observing it. Curled up on a mattressless bunk in a half-lit concrete room with a wet floor that smelled like a fillingstation toilet, I had rehearsed this scenario as many times as there were nights in Joliet, but I had never pictured just sitting there, watching, from between the stacks, for hours, while Bernadine Weaver did her shitwork. This diverged somewhat from the scenario of her begging for forgiveness, or begging to start a new life with me out West, or choking bug-eyed and purple-lipped in the grip of these hard Othello thumbs, or submitting, silently, justly, to the Socratic sexual torture I had mastered in prison.
Have you ever crossed the floor at a ball in order to ask a girl for the pleasure of her dance? If she says no, sometimes, you linger beside her anyway, for the longest time, paralyzed at the prospect of the humiliating walk back to where you started. The longer you remain beside her, with your hands in your pockets or your arms crossed over your chest, with nothing to do and no reason to be there, the more foolish you feel, the more paralyzed you become, the longer you remain. This is how it was in the Joseph Pulaski Memorial library that day, until, finally, after four hours which recapitulated the history of the world, Bernadine finally rolled the cart back into the lecture room, with her back to me, to fetch more books. I very quietly gathered my hat and box of possessions and walked back out into the sunshine, which had soaked into gold-edged shadows under the oaks and maples in the long hot hours after lunch.
I’d never before dared to walk anywhere on the near-Northside beyond the L-shaped, tree-lined path from the bus stop to the library, but here I was seeking out, boldly, a place to sit and eat before deciding the rest of my life. Having suffered the ultimate insult (short of execution) that a black skin can expect in America, I had deconstructed, and demystified, any innate sense of where a black skin is and isn’t welcome. Which I’m sure, in many cases, explains the high rates of Negro recidivism. If a particular bistro or lunch counter didn’t want my specific kind of business, let them tell me to my face. I was no longer going to discriminate against myself, on their behalf, to save them the trouble. Of such stuff is a budding “bad ass” made.
Well, any cop stopping the large, obviously freshly-minted vision of an ex-con I presented walking the sidewalks of Poletown, as that neighborhood was often called, would have been baffled to search my box of possessions and find in it nothing more incriminating than a cheap overcoat, a paperback Thesaurus, a change of underwear, four pairs of argyle socks I’d won in a prison raffle, and one letter of literary praise, each, from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, and the American classical music conductor Leonard Bernstein. I’d gotten other letters, too, from celebrities such as the boxer Cassius Clay and the actor Godfrey Cambridge, but these had been lifted from my cell by the guards whose job it was to search our personal effects, regularly, for handmade weapons, or drug paraphernalia, or digging tools, while we were walking the exercise yard, punching keyrings or license plates, or sitting for chow.
I’d probably collected a hundred letters. Most were written by ordinary people, in that pleasantly illiterate, Chaucerian style of the masses, spelling and grammar prescribed by common sense. Quite a lot of it was out-and-out hate-mail: genuine vintage coon-hating screeds from the 1920s and ‘30s. Fifteen-page death threats and so forth. My book, of course, is a lightning rod for coon-haters, and will never go out of print as long as coons and coon-haters walk the earth.
I received this “fan mail” from the time my book was published, four years into my stint at Joliet, until the day, a year later, when the publisher, suddenly realizing he had the biggest hit of his career on his hands, and, in hopes of defrauding me out of substantial royalties, stopped forwarding it. He destroyed any concrete evidence of both our relationship and my existence, emboldened by the fact that I was in prison, and that he’d published the book under a title I knew nothing about. Also, the book was published under the author’s pseudonym, standard for pulp pornography back then, of “Anonymous”. I never once received a copy. Later, by the nth print, the author’s pseudonym became the dashing “Napoleon Fanon”, a fact I discovered, quite by accident, years later. Meanwhile, between the day that my fan mail had stopped arriving and the morning I walked out of prison, I’d assumed that the book had sunken without a trace, and that I was owed no more than a few hundred dollars in royalties, a nice little sum I had little chance of recovering. C’est la vie.
I had tried writing poems, short stories and little essays under Bernadine’s tutelage at the library, but I hadn’t the time to develop any technique, or had access to an audience, until I went to prison. After the chores are done, what’s there to do in an eighty-one square foot cell, but read, do push-ups, or write? While there were acquaintances of mine who were breaking records, and winning prison tournaments, by doing five, six, or even ten thousand push-ups a day, I used my leisure time to become a force in the black market prison economy, writing out and then copying, or reading aloud, pornographic vignettes in exchange for contraband, or services, or small amounts of cash. I discovered that even the most illiterate, anti-social, and physically dangerous, prisoners responded to the golden rules of narrative. They were a better gauge, in fact, than any audience of politely encouraging well-wishers you could imagine. When a story didn’t work, or disappointed them in its ending, or had too much, or too little, or unconvincing, sex, I heard about it before the offending story or passage had barely cooled in their minds.
To get specific: I learned, for example, never to write a sex scene in which the female participant appeared to be enjoying it too much. That’s not how it work, I was informed, over and over again. That ain’t how it happen. And that a man only truly enjoys doing it to a woman who resists, if only inside. Nobody really want a woman who really want it. I took in this technical advice while honing my stories to the tastes of a paying audience, and realized, after much internal resistance (what Romantic wants to concede any of this as true?), that I was learning about something much larger than storytelling. I was learning about the thing about which all stories are told. As if I needed to be told. Here I was, doing a twenty five year sentence for aggravated rape (reduced to twenty for good behavior; reduced, again, eventually, to fourteen) as an innocent man, still playing, absurdly, the role of the lyre-strumming, lady-worshiping troubadour, in my eighty-one square-foot cell, with its wet floor and its stench of the sewer, a stench which taunted me with its echo of our daily routine of buggery in the showers.
To write at all well is to relinquish one’s casual understanding of the world. One’s self-protecting misconceptions of the world. To write at all well is to yank the veil off it. The process changes the writer, and only a changed writer can change the world for the reader reading him. Writing for a complicated, captive, paying audience of con men, arsonists, robbers, rapists, drug addicts, tax evaders, purse-snatchers, brawlers, burglars, bootleggers and sundry uncouth disturbers of the peace, I developed a complicated knowledge of what I was and wasn’t; what I could and couldn’t; what I longed for and abhorred, and my written words slowly became real writing, even if it was just material for womenless men to masturbate, or rape other men, to. But isn’t that the goal of any writer, metaphorically speaking? To make his reader come?
The manuscript I sent out to be published started life as one of these pornographic stories. My audience demanded something more than tight young pussies and big bad thrusting dicks. They were a higher grade of illiterate, many of them, being older; they were illiterates who couldn’t read Frederick Douglas or Homer as opposed to illiterates who couldn’t read Irving Stone. I wrote for them a political allegory: a nameless Negro everyman rapes his way across the Midwest, in the 1940s and 1950s, as a form of existential protest, targeting the most beautiful, upper class, socially valuable white women, getting them pregnant wherever possible. Ruining them. This was long before the blockbusting black-power rape memoirs of the 1960s which my work paved the way for. First it was a short story, which became a serial of weekly installments, until I bashed it into the rough form of a novel of 100,000 words. It was originally called “Jesus in Kansas” and I wrote it out in an impeccable longhand on seven composition notebooks I’d bartered for the cigarettes I’d received in payment for earlier, cruder efforts about, for instance, a church-going towhead and a runaway con hiding invisibly black in the basement.
During my stint in Joliet, my mother died, of grief, stress, over-work, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and a host of environmental poisons, as most Negroes will. She did not live the Natural Life; as a woman, she could not, and if she’d have been a man, she wouldn’t have. My father went bitter: perhaps, even (if he allowed himself to speak or think about me) he blamed his oldest son. The human I called on my first day of freedom regained, from a phone booth in downtown Chicago, in the cold shadow of the John Hancock building, the ultimate symbol of white power, was an old friend, from the old neighborhood. He gave me a place to stay, though he knew better than to offer to let me stay where he lived with his family. My friend was a married man who kept a low-rent apartment on the far Southside. The telephoneless apartment was furnished very basically with a bed, a liquor cabinet and a dirty bath towel. I could imagine what he used the place for. In fact, he warned me that he might drop by, from time to time, unannounced, for which occasions I wouldn’t have to leave the premises, as long as I remained in the kitchen.
The apartment was in a housing project called Harriet Tubman Gardens, a ghetto, in an industrial nomansland near Gary, Indiana. Tubman Gardens had rats and roaches and stray dogs that ran in packs like would-be wolves every night, but because it was situated on the outskirts of the city proper, bordered on one side by a marsh and the other by a wood, I sometimes, during long walks on sleepless nights, saw foxes and deer. The foxes were in town to raid the ramshackle pens of the folks who, in coming up directly from the Deep South, had invited all of their future fried chicken to come with them.
Most evenings I could hear the pounding of steel at the InterLake Steel Mills at a bend in the canal a few miles south, and I thought how the men working there must be deaf, and numb, and insane with this noise, which was the loudest I’d ever heard. It sounded to me like a god’s, if not the God’s, rage or hatred. Meanwhile, I breathed, from the opposite direction, the livid processes of a paint factory a mile upwind, smelling like rotten eggs and gasoline. To the west, across the blacktop of playground at the nearby Harriet Tubman elementary school, and from there across a few lanes of highway, extended the marsh, in the middle of which rose a missile silo, a bristling Cold War dick. All day and all night, every day and every night, an eternal flame, like a serpent-shaped sword, burned white from a pipe in the silo, burning off that volatile fuel, a primary target in the likely event of a nuclear war and a dim glow on the thin fabric of my bedroom curtain on even the foggiest night. The only way in which I was better off than I had been in prison was my freedom.
I took to sleeping through the day, troubled by the sounds of children running to and from school, and the rare event of garbage collection, and spending my nights on walks into the city, on an unpaved route that took me around the bend of the black canal being showered by sparks from the steel mill, my hands in my ears for miles, or the opposite direction, into the woods towards Lake Calumet and Gary, Indiana. Soon, I was feeding myself by hunting rabbits in those woods, with a sling I made from black stockings I found at the bottom of the closet. Skinning a rabbit was something I’d seen my mother do a thousand times, and it was a practical kind of non-verbal knowledge that fourteen years in prison hadn’t managed to erase. The satisfaction of quickly making the right cuts with a sharp knife, then separating, in one pull, the soft covering from the smooth wet muscle of the still-warm flesh, can be a kind of relief, and I began to see how the urban Negro, with his car, his woman, his TV dinner and his TV, is doomed to a short life of insanity and illness.
It sometimes happened that I would be coming home from one of my long walks, very early on a Sunday morning, ready for bed. At the same time, it sometimes happened that my neighbor in the flatblock was just then leaving for church. This neighbor, a stout Negress with an ashen complexion, a crow’s nest of gray hair and the gait of a waddling hunchback, had surprisingly light eyes. She carried an edition of the Bible that was written in Pidgin English, which I often heard her reciting from through the thin wall our apartments shared, in the hypnotic cadences of a desperation greater than anything I’d heard in fourteen years inside the Joliet state correctional facility. She was raising a child I assumed was her grand daughter, a child I gathered was retarded, and just as I heard this woman reading her Bible, she no doubt heard some of the sounds from my side of the wall, too.
One Sunday morning, as I was letting myself into the cell of my sanctuary, and she was letting herself out of hers, she said something. To me, I guess. Whatever she’d said was unclear, and I didn’t give a damn either way, so I entered my apartment and closed the door behind me. Only seconds after I’d closed the door she was knocking on it, but I ignored this. I stripped out of my clothes and walked upstairs to the little bathroom to produce a bowel movement and take a shower in preparation for bed. When the sound of the flushing toilet had died down I could hear her down there, knocking again, or still knocking. It was not a loud or an angry style of knocking; it was evenly repetitive, mechanical, in a very strange way; it was the kind of sound I imagined a ghost might make, rapping from the inside of a closet door. One two, one two. One two, one two…
I showered, went to bed in the little bedroom next door to the little bathroom upstairs. My sleep, in the iron strength of my youth, was as heavy as I was large, and although I could still hear the knocking, I slipped easily away. I had a dream, then, so vivid that I wrote it down as soon as I woke from it, barely able to open my eyes. I dreamt that I had a wooden heart, and that I could always hear it beating, and that I lived in terror that I would hear it stop. I dreamt that no matter how I rested, or exerted myself, my wooden heart always beat at the same speed, with the same strange rhythm, neither weak nor strong nor particularly invested in self-perpetuation; a rhythm that implied that it could, at any time, simply stop. Someone tried to speak but I hurried away, intent as I was on listening to the sound of my wooden heart beating. I came to understand that it was the hearing of my wooden heart that kept it beating. This person who’d tried to speak was chasing me, and I ran everywhere to hide, afraid that their talking would drown out the sound of my wooden heart. I climbed a fence and hid behind a stack of tires, but this person followed me, climbing over the fence, shouting some important message or warning. I put my hands over my ears to keep out the shouting; I squeezed my hands over my ears as hard as I could and I could hear nothing but the sound of my labored breath and my wooden heart stopped beating. I woke up in a terror, heart racing, half-blind with sleep. I wrote the dream down on a child’s notebook I’d found on the street, with a pencil I’d stolen from Paddy’s. The old Negress’s knocking had finally stopped, but I don’t doubt, to this day, that she was a practitioner of the Old Religion, and the nightmare she gave me was either a warning or a test, and taught me to respect the supreme strength of her ignorant beliefs.
Where was I?
During one of my long walks, I became aware of a place in a blue-collar, industrial neighborhood, what they call a transitional neighborhood, where only the poorest whites still clung as it flooded with Negroes and Mexicans and the freaks you get when the two groups mix, the shell of an Irish tavern called Paddy’s, with a changing clientele that did not reflect the neighborhood. I found Paddy’s by following a man who I knew, by instinct, had also done more than a few months in prison. Part of the fund of prison knowledge that pushes out a man’s prior wit and experience is the tool of knowing how to walk in such a way as to communicate specific messages, and also how to receive such messages, which go lost on the uninitiated. A man can walk in such a way that means he is open to reason. Or that the thing towards which he is walking is his alone. A man can walk in such a way as to indicate that he intends to kill, or to die, or to let fate decide. The way this man walked, which I spotted from a distance as he stepped into the one working headlight of some Mexican’s old tank of a car while crossing the street, was meant to communicate to receptive eyes that he was not a queer, although he was amenable to having his sexual tensions relieved by one.
I’m not afraid of your judgment, because, to be frank, who, on the ladder, from what I can see, and what I guess you have done, is lower than you? So I tell you this. My time in Joliet opened my eyes to society’s best kept secret, by which I mean that men who have sexual relations with women do so because society frowns on the alternative, an alternative society frowns on precisely because it would be far more popular than the acceptable option otherwise. Look at the army, the navy, the seminary, the high school locker room, the camping trips for boyscouts and their so-called masters. Men are inclined towards fucking other men. I say this as a man, however brutally you choose to define the term, without a trace of femininity in his makeup.
Seeing other men either naked or clothed inspires no feelings of tenderness, or yearnings for tenderness, or poetical metaphors or spiritual insights, in me. I’m no follower of Wilde or Whitman, though I’ve been known to read both writers with equal parts pleasure and skepticism. When I see another man, I see an obstacle to be overcome, an ally to be won over, or an animal to exploit. Sometimes, when I see a man, I see a servant I will humble by placing my erect penis in his mouth as he kneels, or by forcing the same hard thing into his rectum, as he assumes an even more subservient position, with no concern for his physical comfort or personal preferences. I went into Joliet as a man who’d only ever known the soft white body of one woman, the woman who sent him there, and I left the institution, fourteen years later, as a master of the mammalian sex game at its fundamental level. All of us in this Enlightened Society know, by now, the truism that rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. That statement doesn’t go quite far enough. Sex, in general, is not about sex, either.
When I walked into Paddy’s that foggy October night, with my collar turned up and my hands in the pockets of my longshoreman’s jacket, I couldn’t even identify the man I’d followed into it, because half the men in there were him; were me. The other half were white and some of those were rather frail looking. The frail ones, the ones who looked most like girls, attracted me. I’d sexually dominated enough scarred, ugly, sour-breathed bantamweight Mick and Pollack bluffers and brawlers already to last me two lifetimes. The tavern was dimly lit as you’d expect it to be, and, as I stood there, waiting for my eyes to adjust to a picture even darker than the streets I’d been walking, I realized I had no money in my pockets for a drink. I’d been living an approximation of the Natural Life for a few months already, eating nothing but rabbit and stolen fruit and garden vegetables and even some fish from Lake Calumet, and so I had clean forgotten about the thing called money. The irony being that there was money due me, riches I knew nothing about.
A fine-boned young man with pale skin and jet-black, longish hair approached me and offered to buy me a drink. He pointed at a little table and I took a seat at it while he pushed up to the bar. When he returned with the beer I’d ordered and one for himself, he wasted no time telling me what was on his mind. He said I looked big, very big, and asked me if it was so. I said it was so. He asked me if it was black. I said it was very black. He said he dreamed of hard black shiny long cock all day while he was sitting through Philosophy classes at the University, so that by the time he was home again and it was late enough for Paddy’s to open and start filling up, he could barely control the urge to run all the way from Hyde Park, a good twenty minute drive by car. He said he was usually disappointed. The real big specimens usually went to a harder place in The Loop you had to know the password to get into. The indoor pool in the old athletic club all the Irish cops prefer.
He asked me how much time I’d done in Joliet, and I was too impressed to ask him how he could tell. I told him how much time and he whistled. He asked what for and I said rape and he said good. He said maybe murder would’ve been the wrong answer. He said I like it rough but I don’t want to die for it. He said in my opinion, it’s as harmless a sin as smoking, it’s not fatal for either party, maybe a little messy at worst and anyway it’s nobody’s business, and everyone should treat it like that, but that’ll never happen in my lifetime. In two centuries, maybe. He said we can use the john but it’s filthy with scat and there’s a waiting line. He asked me if I had a place nearby and I said it was about an hour’s walk. He said he had a car.
He had a beautiful car, a foreign car, a big black thing with running boards that would have suited an old-time diplomat, which led me to deduce that his parents were somewhat wealthy and much older than they should have been, perhaps in their sixties, curled up in bed in some Gold Coast, or Lincoln Park, mansion, while the young master was getting his kicks on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks. Did they expect him to finish his studies soon and marry a debutante? Did they have any idea that, for some young upper-class men, it floats their boats to thrust their tongues up the unwashed rectums of hulking black members of the underclass? Would the news kill them? Would the son be willing to pay good money to spare them the shock? I’m ashamed to say that these thoughts passed through my mind, though I never considered myself a hustler; no more so than a man who finds a wallet stuffed with cash, and briefly-if-seriously entertains the notion of keeping it, is a pickpocket.
I warned him that we wouldn’t be doing it on the bed, where I had to sleep, and he said a folded towel on the floor for his knees would be fine, but that there should please be no choking or punching, or burning, with cigarettes, or my lighter, although rough was fine, rough was good, he guessed it depended how big I really was, but I didn’t have to rupture his insides or anything, and of course he wouldn’t need or expect any hugging or kissing afterward. And, also, please, no name-calling. Which I considered an extraordinary speech.
A few days later, I walked to Paddy’s, and had two beers purchased for me by a sheepish-looking crew-cut blonde with very bad teeth whom I couldn’t bring myself to screw. We were in an alley a few blocks from Paddy’s and his moonlit breath was so foul I couldn’t face the prospect of putting anything of mine in that snaggle-toothed hole, more the less in his rectum. When I changed my mind about the transaction, he apologized profusely for wasting my time, and I struck him, not hard, but hard enough that he backed away down the alley, holding that side of his face as though he’d always treasure the pain.
It was only a week or two later that I met Fabian Saldo at Paddy’s again. I was standing at the bar with an older man, for a change, a flinty, thick-haired, knife-faced man who put me in mind of the pictures I’d seen, on the backs of books, of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. He was well-spoken and cautious and I had a strong suspicion he was a priest with his collar hidden safe in his pocket. Fabian Saldo joined us at the bar and we all ended up driving back to my place in Fabian’s car, the priest and I seated in the back, the priest singing under his breath. I have vivid memories of clutching that man’s desiccated waist, which expanded and contracted like a blacksmith’s bellows as he cried out, on all fours, in his throaty, tobacco-dark Latin.
Word got around that I was of an unusual size and spectacular (virtually mineral) coloring, could be had for a beer or two, was not violent, sarcastic or likely to steal. And so I became a known factor and very popular. The queers who shared in relieving my tensions improvised between themselves a fair system about who could have me whenever I made an appearance at the tavern (no more than three times a week), and they never fought or grumbled, while to me, in any case, it made no difference, for, obviously, to have preferences any finer than the ones that rejected that one queer for his evil breath, would have indicated some small element of the queer in my own makeup. Though I have no problem admitting that I seemed to enjoy, most of all, the time I spent with Fabian Saldo. I didn’t even want to call Fabian Saldo a “queer”; I affected, once or twice, to call him a Laestrygonian, but it failed to stick, so, “queer” it was.
It was with Fabian that I fully developed my philosophy of the Natural Life: food and drink without additives; verbal communication only when necessary or meaningful; sex without the nonsense of emotional games and attachments; exercise in general (and long walks, specifically), as a form of prayer. Three of these four elements are impossible, I believed, with a woman. Believed: past tense.
Gradually, the system of knowledge called “prison”, which had replaced the system of knowledge called “family,” was replaced by the system of knowledge called “the Natural Life”. While the prison system had trained me to conform to a way of knowing shared by the semi-conscious, instinct-driven thousands, the system of the Natural Life eased me towards a unique knowledge, the knowledge of the self. While the fool hopes for immortality by lengthening his life, the wise man learns to deepen it, rather. Clearly, the goal is to slow time down, though mankind, everywhere, as far as I can tell, is doing his best to accelerate. The white man, that is. Only the white man could have dreamed up the concept of time seeming to fly while you’re having fun; everyone sane knows that real pleasure slows time down, and that boredom makes it fly: ask the office worker who sits down at his desk on the first day of work at the age of twenty three, only to wake up, suddenly, at the age of sixty five, as he is being ushered from the premises with the contents of his desk and a gold-plated watch! How cruel, to give this old man a watch. This dangerously neurotic white man who daydreamed immortality while speeding towards his death. Driven, pushed, goaded, of course, by his morally bankrupt white woman, who couldn’t wait to be rid of him.
Stare at a clock, or a gold watch, if you will, while listening closely to yourself breathe, and you will get a glimmer of what I mean. What takes a minute, according to the clock, will feel like two, three, or five, when you learn how. And a single day of such deepened one-minute intervals, that each felt like five, adds up to five days, not one. And a year of such days equals five years. Ten years of that equals fifty years. Fifty years of that… and so on.
Constance thanked Wally profusely for his helpful critique and slipped the manuscript into her purse while Fan, with her gloved hand on Wally’s throbbing mitt, beamed at him and they all ordered drinks and that was the last anyone ever heard of it.
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
It had been days already and he couldn’t get that line out of his head. Bald frigging sissy. Bald frigging wig-wearing pansy son of a bitch. Couldn’t sleep because of it. Heart racing. Well, that and Fan’s snoring. It’s not marriage that kills the marital romance but the fartsoaked, snorehaunted warmth of the marriage bed. Poor Fan: the mottled brown back she smuggles into sleep in her pyjamas. Guilt from thinking this triggered a wave of loving pity and genuine gratitude like an endorphin rush after a hammer blow to an extremity and he thought, with a nod and the tenderest smile: partners for life, Fanny.
She always slept so deep and hard he could pretty much do whatever he wanted on his side of the bed without waking her. There he lay with his bedcovers thrown back and his pyjama bottoms off and his big fat jimmy in his hand while birdsong, streetsong, the singing of the water in the pipes as the neighbors performed their ablutions heralded another pinkeyed Paris dawn. Wally swears you can hear the French dookie crashing against the s-curves in the pipes on the way down but Fan just laughs at him. Like meteorites. Like fiery meteorites. His vivid imagination.
-This vivid imagination paid for that dress, didn’t it?
-Now don’t you start!
-I’m just saying, Fan. I’m just saying.
He still relishes the fact that it’s no longer Fanny who brings in all the money.
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
He finally gets his very own Paris Review interview and they send Tinkerbell and Butterfly McQueen to do the job. Ain’t that something.You know how lethal a white sissy and a faghag Negress can be together, each a canny burlesque of the other… inside jokes and furtive looks and an infallible knowledge of absolutely everything, especially, of course, manner of dress and style of speech. Condescended to by a couple of hincty short-story writers for godsake. Ain’t that rich. For this I win the National Book Award? Vilma and her conked hair and that keloid on her right biceps and she’s trying to get saditty on him.
He had his eelhead jimmy in his hand and Connie was crawling across the hotel’s Persian carpet towards him on her white satin belly just begging for it. There goes that vivid imagination of yours again, Waldo. The most important Negro-American writer on earth… shove this in that little pink mouth of yours, gal… winner of the National Book Award… he couldn’t believe that either Saul or himself had ever been so young or on intimate terms as to competitively compare erections. It was a close race but his was bigger and so of course Bellow runs and gets a tape measure. Hoping he’ll triumph in girth. Then he theorizes with a straight face that the Negro penis isn’t rooted as deeply in the groin as the Caucasian organ and this explains the average extra inch or two. In other words the Negro prick is cheating. The Negro prick; the Hebrew schnozz; the Irish capacity for drink: the exemplary dimensions of the ethnic. Saul’s buzzword: exemplary.
The look on Chester’s face as they picked their table at the Café de la Mairie and Chester ordered in high school French and Wally opened his mouth and ordered in a nosy rich Boursault of a tone and switched to his professorial English for the duration of the interview… Chester’s look had been one of those well what do we have here looks and Wally immediately thought of Saul’s frigging Sam Johnson joke, of which he frigging never tires, apparently, and if Saul tells it one more time at a party in Wally’s presence Wally will break that schnozz of Saul’s for him. At the very least put it out of joint. Besides which he always gets it wrong: it’s not a talking dog it’s a dog walking on its hind legs. Is that erudition?
Saul would sit there with a book of ‘great’ quotations open right next to the typewriter and salt-and-pepper his manuscript with kultcha. Season it with what he called ‘smarts’. Wally has seen him do it. Saul would wink and say, Whaddya think, buddyboy, a Matthew Arnold or something from Suetonious? Or maybe let’s throw ’em a real curve ball and opt for a schmeck of Lao- Tze. Way back when when Saul was still in on the joke. They would argue well into the night, Wally and Saul, about teleological niceties such as the fate of consciousness after the fact of mortality and Saul could not abide Wally’s assertion that individual consciousness reverts to its place in the great Undifferentiated Essence upon the moment of death… he was adamant, vociferous, nearly hysterical in his condemnation of it and Wally finally twigged that Saul’s resistance to the concept was, at root, anti-integrationist.
Connie paging through the manuscript.
I’m fat, thinks Wally. Call me Wally, says Ralph. I sweat too much, I need to lose weight, I’m losing my hair. I hate this big round barrel-shaped Negro head of mine and I hate these black gums and ashen elbows. This mustache. I look like an usher at the Apollo. I look like a Gold Coast garbage man. Freddy Dupee with that lethal smirk of his going, it’s funny, but he only seems to bark at you and the garbage man. Nobody fears or respects me. I’m all curves and no angles. I look like the over-stuffed furniture in Connie’s grandmother’s parlor. No wonder she won’t screw me. Saul and his goddamned girlish waist. Fine, if you like runty.
Vilma winking at Alfred so subtly that Wally almost misses it and she asks him, smiling with parental tenderness, Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
-Call me Wally.
In the intro to the interview, in the penultimate sentence before the interview commences, this: “While Mr. Ellison speaks, he rarely pauses, and although the strain of organizing his thought is sometimes evident (emphasis Wally’s), his phraseology and the quiet, steady flow and development of ideas are overwhelming.”
Saul’s paging through Wally’s top secret manuscript, the follow-up to Invisible Man, kind of wincing and shaking his head and muttering to himself: damaging, very damaging. He tells Wally, Okay, fine, it shows a new sort of fluency for you, but fluency at what cost? This is very damaging to one’s reputation; they’ll massacre you if you’re crazy enough to publish it. Better to aim low and hit a bulls eye than aim at the stars and kill an albatross instead. Listen, don’t be sore. You wanted my honest opinion and now you have it. My suggestion would be to take this new found fluency and apply it to something a little closer to home. Your own people, for example. Don’t over-reach, Wally. What, this rich, vibrant diasporan culture you keep telling me about… this fertile vein of ore, as you once put it, has suddenly run out of stories?You’ve outgrown it? It ain’t worth mining any more? Dismissive gesture at the manuscript. Is that what this means?
Constance, Saul and Ralph standing at the corner where the eyepatched veteran sells roasted chestnuts from a rusty cart across from the Tuileries in full flower and throng. A warm but overcast day. Saul’s holding a helium-filled balloon and unties it and sucks the gas and does a few bars of What’ll I do? in a cartoon grasshopper croon and Connie laughs, thoroughly charmed. Ralph is fuming but he can’t show it and says, I say, old chap, you sound like one of Hadrian’s prize eunuchs!
All three traipse arm-in-arm across the Place Pigalle, gay talk and big smiles except Ralph’s smile, of course, which is faux as an undiscovered Lautrec, a wet forgery, not even a good one, twitching at the corners. He keeps having this vision of an open manhole appearing suddenly on Saul’s side of the sidewalk. Saul, wearing his hat at a rakish angle, is saying, out of the corner of his mouth and rather loudly, Be advised, young lady, that if you keep up with these enchanting ways of yours you run the severe risk of ending up in one of my novels. You’re not litigious, I hope. Constance blushing. Saul snaps his fingers. Say, that’s an exemplary title for something: The Litigious Sylph. Whaddya say, Waldo? We haven’t heard a peep outta you since the Tuileries…
Ralph and Saul in the alley behind the hotel.
-I saw her first!
-This isn’t the schoolyard, buddyboy. This is the jungle and in the jungle, as you oughta know by now, the king of beasts holds sway. Namely, moi.
-You only even came over in the first place because of those damned letters I was writing about her!
-Hindsight is 20/20, ain’t it?
Constance paging through the manuscript on the checkered tablecloth in an out-of-the-way bistro that Ralph discovered with Fanny last year and whereinto Saul is highly unlikely to stumble. Ralph’s palms are moist. Constance is radiant in a pink mohair sweater, matching beret, black satin slacks and patent leather mules. Wally inquired, both to quell his nerves and because he had a genuine interest in fashion, as to the shoe’s designer. Constance said she honestly couldn’t remember; Robbie had given them to her right before the divorce. Robbie would know, she said. He has a shoe fetish.
Ralph joked, “What do they know of mules who only mules know?”
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
Fanny croaks, “Baby?”
“Are you awake?”
“Was I snoring again?”
“No, baby. You weren’t snoring. You were talking in your sleep.”
“You sure were.”
She reaches for her glasses on the nightstand and rolls over to face him, blinking behind the lenses, face lined with the meaningless diagram of her recent dreams, monogrammed silk pyjama top buttoned to the neck. Smiling she says, “What did I say?”
“You sang Stardust.”
She slugs his shoulder affectionately. Wally’s hand is still throbbing… it’s killing him. His writing hand. It’s infected. It amazes him that Fan has yet to notice the four raw against-the-grain gouges in fat fester behind the knuckle rill.
The three of them emerge from the rear exit of Madame Tussuad’s, blinking into the midday sun, waiting under the awning, and Saul does one of his impromptu magic tricks, only instead of a quarter from behind Ralph’s ear he snatches a frigging cotton ball.
Connie must be, what, 34 or 35 and she looks it at certain angles and yet there remains a youthful glow to her, a creamy kind of pastry warmth and though she is not quite the sylph that Ralph first saw on C.L.R.’s arm in ’46 he remains terribly smitten. She looks up from the manuscript and studies his face as though mystified.
“And the title…”
“If I Dealt in Candles.”
“That’s right. It’s very pretty, Wally. Where is it from?”
“An old Yiddish proverb. If I dealt in candles, the sun wouldn’t set; if I dealt in shrouds, people would stop dying!”
She closes the manuscript and without taking her eyes off the title page she says, “It’s just so well-written, what I’ve read so far. It really is. But I…”
“I’m glad it pleases you. I thought…”
“Yes?” She seems to steel herself against the blunder she’s certain he’s about to make.
He takes a deep breath in a sort of now-or-never way and she beats him to it, interceding on behalf of their friendship. She says, pressing her palms flat on the paper, “It’s not my place to comment, Wally, and please don’t be sore, but, gee, isn’t it kind of, I don’t know, wrong for you to be writing about Shtetl Jews, no matter how beautiful the writing is, while your own people still strain against the bonds of slavery?”
“By adding this certain amount of beauty to the story of the Jews, aren’t you stealing the same amount from the story of your people, who can ill afford to have this beauty stolen from them?” She says, “Oh please, please don’t be sore about all this, what I’m saying, Wally, but I guess I’ve taken it upon myself to speak for your race in this matter because you’ve turned your back on them… with the blood of old Egypt in your veins you’d rather tell the story of Moses! With that gorgeous, wonderful, heart-breakingly loyal woman by your side all the years of a fruitful and intimate marriage you opt to pursue the fickle affections of a silly, inconsequential, self-absorbed white girl who couldn’t even manage to stay married to the father of her own poor mulatto child. Wally, Wally, what’s the matter with you? What are you doing to yourself? Are you sick in the heart? Tired of being the luckiest Negro on Earth?”
“Don’t get me wrong… as I said, gosh I’m impressed, Wally, I really am, it’s beautifully written… it proves that you’re more of an intellectual than even I or Richard or Saul ever took you for, though I’m sure Fanny wouldn’t be surprised at all… she’d read a few paragraphs and know it was you, although, ironically, and correct me if I’m wrong on this: she was never meant to see it. Was she? Was she, Wally? Is that what being intellectual is for, Wally… for fooling your own good wife? Is being intellectual, in the end… is it only good for writing clever books for fooling your people and your wife? Is there no higher end towards which to apply the magnificent mind in that little boy’s head of yours? That school boy head of yours with its silly school boy crush on a sad, tired female of your oppressor’s race?”
“I will always love you, Wally, honestly, although by the time I’ve said my piece I’m willing to bet your passion for me won’t exactly be blue ribbon material.” She laughs and digs her fingernails hard into the hand he reaches for her under the table with.
Wally had been so concerned about eluding Saul that he’d clean forgotten about eluding Fanny. In walked Fanny to find Wally and Constance in a cozy little corner of the out-of-the-way bistro that Wally and Fan had discovered together last year. They called it ‘Our Out of the Way Bistro.’ It was a common rendezvous point. Had Wally forgotten? Or was his subconscious the secret engineer of the entire scenario? He stood rubber-knee’d but steadied himself and fetched a chair for Fan from one of a dozen empty tables and said, with a smile that seemed to be little more than his mustache itself, Constance was just showing me a manuscript for a book she’s working on, Fan. He glanced down at Constance who glanced up at him and he addressed her,
“It really is marvelous, doll, but it needs work, as I say. I wouldn’t show it to anyone else until you’ve rectified, uh… a few of the particular points we discussed. I’d be happy to look it over again after you’ve… yes… worked on it a bit…”
Connie chained naked and writhing to a rusty bedspring in a vacant lot on the South Side of Chicago on an overcast day in Autumn as several dozen identical Bigger Thomases in tattered flesh-revealing piss-reek finery emerge in deprivation and hunger from various caves, warrens, gutters, cellars and trash heaps in the vicinity…
Wally holds his breath. He toetenses and… sees stars and… detects one of the semen arcs landing with a tap on the Herald Tribune far away atop the dresser. Where the other two squirts land he neither knows nor cares but in the tingle of post-ecstatic slump he envisions Alfred Chester in that ratty orange wig tilting back in his chair at the Café de la Mairie with his fingers intertwined on his chest and his lips moving in the deliverance of some grand theory or profound observation or other as though he’s the famous writer being interviewed for the Paris Review and Wally fantasizes standing up and hauling off and punching Chester so hard his head snaps back and the chair back cracks and a fusillade of flashbulbs going pop pop pop pop pop like Ernest Fucking Hemingway has just walked in the room.
“Time is the ultimate disguise.”
It was pointed out to me that the defeated-looking guy who invariably took the table between the ladies’ room and the Picasso poster at The Supreme Bean was Chris Sands, who had once meant so much to me, as the walking embodiment of his records, at least, though to look at him now you’d have to double-check the timelessness of the records. Which I did.
The evening of the day I learned just who that local coffee-sucking wreck really was, I meandered home in a timefog. I went through my vestigial collection of vinyl and pulled out two whole records (his debut and his peak), which is saying something, since I’ve only managed to save one record each from such greats as Sun Ra, Jeff Buckley, Sam Cooke and the mighty Roche Sisters. I never even kept my Zager and Evans. The Voidoids and The Nyce are all gone now, too.
I lowered Chris Sands and the Manifestones on the spindle first, Side B track three, and for three minutes and forty two seconds, I was twenty years younger, though burdened with all-too-convincing visions of the troubling future. I clutched the headphones like a migraine.
I still believed.
I phoned Ed.
“The Chris Sands lives around the corner in my neighborhood in Berlin, and you never bothered, before this afternoon, to fucking tell me?”
“I never even knew you knew who he was,” yawned Ed. “What time is it?”
I had no idea.
The next day, unfortunately, I had business in Stockholm.
This was a change of itinerary from an original destination outside the EU. Since I’ve learned that the best way to make it quickly through Customs (anywhere other than in the literal-minded U.S.) is by looking too obviously suspicious, I’d grown another mustache for the trip. I’d started liking that mustache, and didn’t bother shaving it off before getting the S-Bahn the frigid next morning to Schönefeld. A thick black glossy mustache that screamed bathhouse, backgammon, radical mosque, Ummagumma.
The flight was turbulent. It felt as though we’d never left the ground and were rolling vindictively over luggage on the runway. When we made it in one piece to Arlanda, I considered booking a train for the return trip. The train rolls into a ferry to cross the Baltic. I’d done it before.
“Chris Sands,” it says, in this yellowing clipping from the cover story of the March, 1980 issue of SideBeat magazine, “isn’t the next Dylan, but Dylan just might be the next Chris Sands, if he keeps at it.”
What is youth but one long exercise in hyperbole? And what is everything else but hyperbole’s correction?
“Timeline, Ed,” I said, two days after my trip. “Fill me in.”
I plopped his cake and coffee in front of him and pulled up a chair, not even bothering, after all this time, to notice that Ed never says preciate it anymore. He expects me to pay because I’m rich. Not rich rich. Ed rich.
“Well,” drawled Ed, smiling over my shoulder at white-haired, goateed, red-eyed Chris Sands in his dirty black raincoat and his baldspot-protecting homburg hat, “he kinda fell off the radar ten years ago, after his third divorce and the fiasco of that,” eyes bulging, “comeback album. Various rumors had it he was either a born-again, a suicide or, you know, the third option: gone Country on us. Then the rumors stopped and, well, the interest dried up and I kinda realized I hadn’t thought about the man for years. Until I found myself standing right behind him in the checkout line at that all-night market on Torstrasse.”
“He paid for his stuff.”
I tried to remember exactly how Ed and I had met and I couldn’t.
“Are you writing him up in your Year in Review?”
“I doubt it. He’s just a Trivial Pursuit question, at this point.”
“So is Trivial Pursuit.”
“I think I’ve been using touché incorrectly, mostly. I say it most often when someone says something witty with which I concur, when, in fact, it’s meant to concede…”
“In other words, I just used it wrong.”
I shrugged. “Half-wrong.”
Two American tourists pushed open the café door with the unearned swagger of the militantly unashamed. I brought them to Ed’s attention and said, as he twisted in his chair,
“Have you noticed how they’re turning fat into a race, back in our homeland?”
“A voluntary race. A non-racist race. A race you can opt out of.”
“You’re reading an ad in a magazine and you notice that even the after picture is fatness. Maybe it’s all to the greater good.”
“What was that tribe? Where fat was beautiful?”
“They made that sculpture.”
“Yeah. A famous fat sculpture with no neck or face and stubby limbs.”
“A fertility symbol.”
“Be great on twelve-cent stamps and five dollar bills. Or not?”
“You’re saying imagine a whole country.”
We each chuckled an inch over our cups and drank with a synchronized motion. Both going ahhhh.
Early on, months prior, I had a vivid dream that Ed was in my livingroom, his flimsy silhouette in a characteristic stoop and thumbing through my records, a finger over his lips going shhhh.
“I still can’t get over the fact. That’s Chris Sands. Right behind me. I could almost reach back and touch him.”
Coiling under all the clever dialogue was the disappointment and disgust of any genuine male friendship. Ed, the online music blogger, abruptly double-taked me.
“Wait. You always have a mustache?”
Time fell away like a shattered mask, and I was twenty again, shoplifting 45s with a Frisbee. The air was thicker and the sunshine was sweet to the touch. Never the best dresser, I see me got-up in flipflops and painterpaints and a powder-blue ruffle-breasted shirt, three dollars from Ragstock, the original Ragstock, the one on that godforsaken stretch along Washington Avenue, in the warehouse district of downtown, long before warehouse districts all over America became loft fodder. Hoboes straight off of freight trains and still bearing the momentums of their trotting dismounts would burst into the store for incredible bargains on camouflage pants. Off The Record was right up the street and around the corner from Ragstock, next to a headshop in which a girl I had mixed feelings for toiled, price-stickering water pipes, blacklight posters and Mexican porn.
If I concentrate it will come to me.
“Wait,” she said. “You always have a mustache?”
I handed over a stack of 45s… Bauhaus, Siouxsie, The Wallets, The Is, Ultravox, Chris Sands… in exchange for the profoundly niggardly, now that I think of it, prize of a quasi-European air-peck on each cheek. Mustaches were the ultimate young no-no in 1980, yes, but where the crowd zigs, the free spirit zags, and girls with tattoos (a dotted line circumnavigating her neck) prefer zaggers. Or so I was told, or led to believe, or deluded myself into dreaming. One day I walked into the headshop and an eyebrowless man with an idiomorphic white Mohawk, leaning over the counter towards Candace’s plump little near-naked heart, regarded me over a bare shoulder and said, with a pretty good fake British accent, or maybe he was British,
–Oh dear, it’s Journey.
“There was this girl, the year I quit school. This girl who looked very much like a punk version of Grace Kelly. Wouldn’t sleep with me but said I could watch her do herself if I promised to stay in this plush Edwardian wingback gentleman’s smoking chair she’d set up on the opposite side of the bedroom. Very much the kind of chair a Pope would probably scream in if Francis Bacon were to start painting him. I promised to stay in the chair. There were countless candles around the bed. I had to wait in the bathroom with my eyes closed while this girl with the shakes tried to light two jillion candles and get the room just so. Plumping the satin pillows and whatnot. Dressing the set.”
“Fifteen years too early for webcasting, sadly.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Saying is interrupting.”
“You could be halfway through your story by now.”
“I’m making a point.”
“The point you’re trying to make is negated by your method of making it.”
“How will you know until I’ve made it?”
“How will I know a joke about a Muslim, a Jew and a Pollack isn’t funny until I’ve heard it?”
I stared Ed down for a good whole minute with my blankest face and continued; slowly, at first; my anger cloaked in grandiloquence, “On the floor beside her futon was a kidney-shaped tray, such as one might see in the coroner’s lab with, say, an enlarged liver upon it. There were things on the tray that I assumed were dildoes, mainly because they were longer than they were wide, but dildoes like nothing on earth. These were not reassuring facsimiles of the human male organ. Remember the first time you ever saw a Sci Fi flick in which the space ships weren’t of a naively aerodynamic design? And how it opened your eyes, and you grew up, a little, and you could never go back to your sentimentally childish way of thinking of space ships again?”
I could see he was not interested. Who wants to hear some other guy’s sex story? Some other guy’s ancient sex story? We’d been friends for exactly a year.
I could write, at this point, that we stepped out of the café into the blistering sun. Or I could write that it was an effaced city of windsung snow and dagger-ice we stepped out into, and that I could see Ed’s breath as it slid towards me; that I dodged the head-shaped cloud that came out of his mouth for fear of being touched by it.
A week later I was in London. My trips were usually spaced by months so this felt very quick and I was, in a way, disoriented. Oxford Street’s Christmas-week delirium was diluted to half-strength by the moderating influence of its immigrants, patterning the packed thoroughfare with ski-vested kaftans and over-coated burkas and faces ranging from pale gold to lustrous black. The vodka-colored sun was setting early after a late lunch, becoming a low bulge in the city-lit clouds as I let traffic urge me along towards Wardour Street.
I found the American-style self-serve restaurant I was supposed to find and chose a table, neither at the windows nor at the very back, as I had been instructed, and waited. While I was waiting, a well-dressed, honey-tanned blonde who couldn’t possibly be making eye contact with me from the other side of the salad bar appeared to be doing just that, while also doing something delicate to a frizz of beansprouts with tongs. She gestured with the tongs, seeming to mime a question about whether I cared for some salad. The improbability of the situation was virtually psychedelic. I was thinking how she looked like someone, a younger version of someone, though I couldn’t say who, but someone familiar.
I’d been doing this job for two years and this would be the first time anything really exciting happened while doing it, despite the fact that I’d travelled to six EU, and three non-Eu, cities. I was a courier, but it had nothing to do with drugs (or not directly, if at all): I was simply hand-delivering international mail in an age when cellphone messages, faxes, email and, especially, the postal and overnight parcel delivery services, are no guarantee of privacy. Sometimes I’m expected to wait for an answer, an answer I’ll carry back with me, and sometimes I’m not.
I wasn’t sure if I was always working for the same concern, or concerns, or a different well-off individual every time, but I did know I was well paid for it. My doorbell would ring (usually pretty early in the morning), and a man would hand me two envelopes: one with another envelope in it, and the other containing a plane ticket, a note with minimal instructions on it, and, best of all, a nice little packet of undeclared cash for my trouble. The Germans call it Schwarzarbeit or “black work”, an under-the-table transaction, and such assignations drive Berlin’s limping economy.
How I got this job was a stranger approached me in the lobby of a cinema, after a film. Just like that. He used the term luxury mail. Told me they were looking for trustworthy individuals of a presentable appearance who could jump on a plane at a moment’s notice kind of thing. It definitely appealed to my sense of cool, and freed me, if temporarily, from the horror of giving English lessons.
When the blonde gestured with her tray that I should clear a space for her on my table, my first thought was that she must be insane. My second thought was pure glee. I moved the hardcover novel (in which I’d slipped the envelope I’d been entrusted to carry) onto my lap and she lowered the tray with a clink of cutlery and sat down. Looking…yes. Like a young Vanessa Redgrave. In Blowup. With infinitely more strident boobs.
“Alright?” she asked, with an appetizing south-London accent.
“Over the moon,” I answered, and Vanessa smiled, clearly sane enough to evaluate the compliment. She was well-dressed, but the presentation veered a little towards the slutty, with lots of compressed pink bosom bulging up and out of a shiny gold blouse in a black velveteen jacket. All I needed, to deflate the fantasy and ruin my week, was to have her slide a laminated price list across the table at me.
“May I see the Christmas card?”
My face burned as I opened the book, furtively, and handed her the squarish envelope out of it, feeling an utter fool. Hers lit up almost childishly as she tore the envelope and extracted the card (snowman), a fifty Euro bill falling out of it. A microchip in the card played a dismayingly loud Jingle Bells as she read the message to herself, lips moving, and afterwards kissed the card and reached across the table and touched my cheek, saying Sorry under her breath, the tinny music still playing.
Sorry, you never know.
In the same voice, Vanessa said, it’s best if we sit here and talk for a bit. An hour should do it. What shall we talk about? Name a topic. Or I’ll start if you want me to.
Then she closed the card and things were quiet again. I was thinking: Methinks a certain young lady hath seen one too many spy movies, Luv, but I decided to play along. After all, I was paid to.
I said, brightly, “How’s mom?” as she tucked into her salad.
“Don’t be cheeky.”
“Okay, then you start.”
“Hmm. Have I mentioned my flatmate is the ultimate pain in the arse? She leaves the loo lid up, doesn’t flush, and forgets to record my phone messages. She fluffs under the duvet while we’re watching Parkinson! And get this: she thinks she’s posh!”
“Is she half as beautiful as you are?”
“Don’t be slimey, darling.”
“We seem to be running out of topics.”
“What’s that book in your lap? Give us a peek.”
I put it on the table.
“Are you reading it, or is it just for show? Sorry, just teasing. Bad habit. What page are you on? I adore McEwan.”
“It’s the language that saves it from being a Cold War potboiler. I’m halfway through it.”
“Then I won’t spoil it for you.”
“Does Leonard die, or something?”
“I wouldn’t worry about Leonard. He’s the eponymous Innocent, isn’t he? What do the innocent have to fear, from God or the author?”
There was another long pause; what to discuss with a beautiful woman if you aren’t allowed to flirt? She didn’t seem bored, or anxious to leave, at all. Of course I was tortured mildly with curiousity about the message written in the Christmas card: no one sends an expensive private courier on an expensive plane ticket, from Berlin to London, with eight hours’ notice, to deliver a cheap card with fifty Euros in it.
Forgetting the fact that I would probably kick myself later for sounding like an innocuous, middle-aged man, I said, “Well now I can say that I’ve met that thing of legend, a genuine English Rose.”
Ms. Redgrave’s smile had a neat little sneer folded in with it. She opened the Christmas card and Jingles Bells started. “First off,” she said, “You won’t tell anyone anything about what you did in London today. Is that clear? Second, I’m not an English Rose, you bloody goofy American in a panto moustache; I’m not that physical type, with all of its racist implications, and I’m not even British.”
She closed the card. Then she told me, for the next forty minutes, in a warmly animated voice, all about her vacation in the Maldives.
I was thinking: my initial assessment of her sanity was essentially just.
The ones who don’t give a damn what you think of them: they are the rulers of Time and Space. Whether fictive or factual, they marshall the hordes. What’s a horde? A group of young men. What would History be without its hordes? Do you know about young men? How they grope towards the human; how they can’t be reached? They can’t be reached by young girls, older women, old men, sisters, mothers, fathers, teachers, clean-living role-models or the parents of friends. They can only be reached by the mythical, clench-jawed savant, spot-lit and incandescent in his sweat: the Holden Caulfields, the Saint Pauls, the Adolf Hitlers and Chris Sands.
A lovingly well-worn bit of apocrypha. This is years before Sands gets famous. Two summers before he’s discovered by the New York sharpie in a sharkskin suit by the name of Mal Pearl who engineers his debut on a college station in Duluth, Minnesota. It’s 1977 and Chris is 18 years old and he’s in a park in Minneapolis with his friends on the Fourth of July, bar-b-cuing and playing Frisbee and sucking on furtive communal reefers or whatnot, shirtless in the sweet American sun. This is a Cold War sun, remember. The mainstream use of the word Jihadi is about twenty five years in the future; a glimmer in the geopolitical eye: the nearest contemporary equivalent is Patty Hearst. In some versions of the story, the girl is a Nordic Amazon, a budding supermodel of the Ford models type, fresh out of high school, feeling her power. Other versions she’s half-black, stunning, fucked-up mentally, leery of other blacks but nursing a grudge against whites, who never accepted her but teased her, ironically, over the very rich features that made her so embarrassingly attractive: pillow lips, pointy tits, plump ass and lyre hips, and her dirty-blonde rainforest of not-quite-kinky hair. In my favorite version of the story, she’s Asian: Hmong. Haughty and weird and Sci Fi pretty. She’s there at the Fourth of July gathering with Chris’s best friend/first disciple Manny Holzapple, the guy who actually taught Chris his first guitar chord in junior high school, only to see Chris surpass him in proficiency in such a short time that an adolescent deal with the devil would be the only rational explanation, if Manny’s parents weren’t avowed whitebread Buddhists, raising their Manny to see any religious practise other than chanting as a humanity-denigrating superstition. She’s there with Manny and Manny is on a very short velvet leash, so to speak, one end of which is tied in a slipknot around his brand new balls. She says Manny I’m thirsty and Manny hops up and runs about a fucking mile barefoot over a broken-glass-strewn sizzling blacktop to this Mexican-operated panel truck selling ice cold drinks and he fetches her back a frosty can of A&W rootbeer and it’s not exactly what she had in mind so he runs back and gets her an iced tea instead and she doesn’t give thanks,or otherwise demonstrate gratitude. That kind of thing. This inscrutable Queen Bee protocol against which Manny and his horny little touch-football-playing cronies are powerless to assert themselves as anything more glorious than serfs. This is long before women would be taken back down a peg, so soon after being hoisted a peg in the first place, by the widespread dissemination of hardcore pornography and the common currency of anal sex. These were good boys, boys raised to be feminists, inculcated with the notion that woman are, in all the ways that count, superior to men, a concept completely alien to their grandparents, from many of whom many of them are, in fact, by parental decree, estranged. But not Chris Sands, who was both very close to his nostalgic-for-whorefucking paternal granddad Christian Djindzc, whom Chris called DJ, and way ahead of his time. Legend has it that Chris Sands, in all of his Beethoven-haired, shirtless, shoeless, kung-fu-pantalooned pigeon-breasted summer incandescence, reached forth and plucked a badly-tuned Gibson off of somebody using it as a tabletop for the homely task of culling weedseed and he strapped it over his bone-colored shoulder and composed, on the spot, with amused fury, what would become the anthem of the defiantly fuckless, Woodeneven Dooya, singing it with a lordly arch of one bushy eyebrow and a supremely impertinent boogie in his slender hips, going You could hide a diamond in your pretty little voodoo / Wouldn’t even do you if my mama begged me not to, composing it right there on the spot, right in The Queen’s expressionless (in my version: inscrutable) face, with all the pussywhipped dudes gathered ‘round to gawp in grateful astonishment at the birth of Chris Sands’s epic witsneer of sixteen borderline-misogynist verses pulled like a thundering freight by that locomotive chorus straight out of his mouth, though he wasn’t quite Christ Sands yet, he was still Christian Djindzc the Third, and it’s doubtful he wrote the song whole, as it appears on his sophomore effort Yesterday’s Insults are Tomorrow’s Compliments, right there, on the spot, though it’s more than reasonable to assume he came up with the jist of it plus chorus, or a rough version, fairly close, per legend. And of course the girl was grossly insulted and thereafter ran off with him; they married, fought, attempted multiple separate suicides in an almost compositional sequence and divorced. Okay, maybe they never actually got married. Manny got a job in television, came out of the closet, owns a mindboggling little chunk of Starbucks stock and lives happily in Seattle with a guitar-strumming boy thirty years his junior to this day.
A series of bombs went off on Christmas Eve, in London, and no one was killed, as we now know. All of the bombs were in one structure and the structure was evacuated twenty-five minutes before the carefully-timed sequence of explosions brought it down. More than 3400 people managed to stream out of Saint Paul’s Cathedral before the first sequence ringed the dome with puffs and it imploded as larger detonations sent dead pigeons flying, and rained holy debris, including genuine gold dust and micro-relics of the ancient dead, for miles around. Because that event, and the three others that occurred, near-simultaneously, across Europe, were orchestrated precisely in such a way as to cause zero casualties where they might just as well have killed thousands, they were given the ironic handle “The Goodwill Bombings” by the British press. Three hundred billion-plus Euros of damage but only three serious injuries and one human death (heart attack). Ed sent an allcaps text message to meet him tomorrow at The Supreme Bean.
“Goddamn,” I said, rubbing my eyes. It was Christmas Day, and the Supreme Bean, owned and run by non-Christians, was one of the few cafés in Berlin still open, a blinding cube of light in a shrouded landscape. Consequently it was packed with family-free expats, the culturally and willfully dispossessed, along with Ausländers of every level and complaint, dark-faced and travel-wrapped. There was white-haired Chris Sands in a black rain coat, predictably, too, gloating over his lonely bowl of coffee. Far away back there in his favorite place near the ladies’ room.
I was thinking: Chris Sands could be your friend. Why not?
“Goddamn is right,” said Ed. I handed him his breakfast. He said, with an edge to his voice, “I take it you’ve seen the news.”
“I’m just glad nothing happened here, knock on wood.”
“Yeah, what an incredible coincidence.”
He made a hateful dumbfuck face and aped me: “Huh?”
My heart was racing.
Venal Cunt spread her legs like a vile temptation at the end of the night, face deflected, eyes unplugged. Long and elegant and platinum-haired and bone-white with her sexy puckering lisp. The only color is the childish yellow scrawl of her bush and her pupils like residue in cocktail glasses and the raised red chevrons where she scratches her right wrist incessantly like a fox in a fur-lined trap. Even her nipples are white. She says what do I need to read for, my life is a bestseller. She says don’t take all day. Needy Cock lowers himself into her snob-dry vadge with pragmatic detachment and he cradles her too-small-for-compassionate-thoughts skull while he pushes in, prospecting in vain for as little as a teardrop’s quantity of moisture.
The days run together like yolks. His savings evaporate and his postcards begin to repeat themselves. Surfers march like bowlegged Aztecs into the Rite Aid for sunblock and the bakery in Ralph’s sells cinnamon buns at four a.m. and the gardeners wield their shoulder-slung gas-powered leafblowers like AK-47s and yes the Mexicans are poor as pigeons but they are polite and very clean and it’s no wonder the blacks feel threatened. I’ve never seen so many convertible-driving Aryan teens in my life. Not even on television.
Literature doesn’t prepare you for any of this.
His students shreik and clap. They say, “Say schedule again!”
Needy Cock can tell by the look on the cop’s face that the cop is disturbed by something about Needy Cock’s demeanor. Something doesn’t add up. This is not a by-the-book domestic. Wifebeaters are usually not so. What. The two of them are out in the hallway by the open door of Needy Cock’s flat and his cop’s two colleagues are inside and Venal Cunt is communicating tersely from within the locked bathroom. She refuses to come out.
It’s a beautiful day. A sack of Krugerrand-colored sunshine pours through the skylight, absorbed by the infinite dinge of the hallway. How many times has he plodded down this very hall to this very spot in front of his very door without having noticed that the pattern in the carpet is dollar signs? Well he notices in the extremity of his tribulation and the hallway appears to him as terribly run-down and it strikes him that he is now the working poor, one of Graham Greene’s shipwrecked whisky priests with a twist: an author of books who has recently resorted to borrowing money from one of his villa-dwelling students to pay cash for cafeteria sushi. O, this foot-blackened carpet and cigarette-sooted walls and cigarettebutts on the laundryroom stairstep…
Needy Cock finds that he’s strangely unashamed as a curious Queer neighbor (probably the one who made the call to the cops in the first place) steps out from two-doors-down and steals an avid glimpse. I Will Survive blares defiantly from the Queer’s open door. How many times has Needy Cock phoned the police in the dead of night to complain about the level of the disco music and this, ironically, is the first time they finally come?
“What was the fight about, Ma’am?” calls the cop through the bathroom door. He’s a freckled bull with bristly rhubarb-colored hair, scratching his chin. His partner is tall and black with close-set eyes and a mustache. The black has a hand hovering near the heavy gun on his hip and more of the essence of his being is concentrated in his pistol hand than in his face at the moment. The pistol hand is worried. How does the pistol hand know that Venal Cunt doesn’t have a weapon in there?
“Was it about money?” the ruddy bull, the spokesman, the one with the degree in sociology, offers. “Was it about debt?”
Venal Cunt snorts. They can all hear it through the bathroom door. A hefty snort of derision. “None of your fucking bithineth,” she screams.
A career criminal couldn’t muster as much arctic contempt for a uniformed cop as Venal Cunt, in the waning throes of her beserking, is spitting at them. Needy Cock has to admit he admires her for it and yet he realizes that his admiration only exacerbates the problem. Like when she was banging him across the apartment with kick-boxing techniques she’d spent the year learning, at Needy Cock’s suggestion and expense, as a way to channel her anger. He’d seen the humor in it. And she’d looked magnificent to him while doing it, too, even as she was kicking his thighs and punching his ear and his balls and knocking him over with a reverse hooking roundhouse and smashing things she had first carefully identified as his before smashing them. A splintered wooden bar stool is arranged like kindling across the bed. Steel-framed pictures are knocked off the walls and stunned with cracks. The phone is smashed and first editions are ripped and stomped-on and strewn about in what looks like the aftermath of a fascist rally. A fancy soup, still warm, is dripping from the walls and windows.
“Who started it, Ma’am?” the uniformed sociologist with a gun in their living room tries again.
Venal Cunt snatches the bathroom door open. The Bull steps back into a near-crouch in a reflex as she steps forward, six foot two in platform shoes, red-faced but otherwise camera-ready, and she says, “It wathn’t him, it wath me. Can you fuckerth pleathe get the fuck out of our fucking living room a. eth. a. p.? Can you pleathe just go?”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Ma’am,” the Red Bull counters, regaining the force that he’s lost as a man in the bulwark of the law’s tradition. He’s well aware that out of uniform, in a nightclub, in his dancing shoes, he’d be less than a mosquito in Venal Cunt’s ear. He regains his manhood in the Judeo-Christian majesty of the civil laws he has sworn a kitschy oath to protect.
“The discretion to press charges in a domestic abuse call is not entrusted to the private parties involved, for obvious reasons.” He gets out a little notebook. “It’s up to us,” he nods to his tall black colleague and the short blond one with Needy Cock out in the hallway, “…to make an evaluation at the scene, and act accordingly. Taking our observations under advisement, it’s the prerogative of The State,” he gestures out the window, “… whether to press charges or not.”
But they do leave, after a cursory admonition for Needy Cock and Venal Cunt to try to get along, with the tall black nodding at a framed Helmut Newton of a naked, welt-breasted goddess saying Nice picture and doing a double-take as he realizes the model is Venal Cunt herself as a teenager. How far she has fallen. Needy Cock points out the photographer’s autograph on the print. The Red Bull, taking leisurely note of the almost-ornate library that Needy Cock has amassed on tall shelves against two adjoining walls of the living room, inquires if they’re Needy Cock’s books.
Needy Cock lifts his chin and says yes.
The cop says everybody should read more.
Needy Cock closes the door quietly and tip-toes in the kitchen to get a bucket to start the long clean-up. The fancy soup on the walls, books and everything else is hardening. The glass from shattered pictures needs sweeping up. The splintered bar stool disposed of. Prater Violet is a write-off.
Venal Cunt is back in the bathroom and he can hear her crying again. He turns the kitchen tap off and he puts the bucket down and he stands there, face to heaven, hands in fists, stuck in his existential quagmire. He still feels that love. He raps softly and enters the bathroom in order to embrace her and her knuckledboned back is turned to him. Her shoulders are hunched in crying. He tentatively touches an elegant shoulder blade where it raises a soft cotton scallop… just that hesitant fingertip touch…
… she spins and drives a steak knife home in his chest. He throws an arm up in a futile defensive gesture and shouts an unexpectedly childish “Don’t!” He grabs at the blow which seems to glance off his chest with a stinging thud. She’s clutching the bladeless knife handle and whimpers and avoids his touch with spider-horror, sidestepping where he snatches at the shower curtain splashing blood.
Needy Cock is calling her name with absurdly gentle indignation. Venal Cunt! Venal Cunt! The pain of the blade in his body isn’t so bad, but the shock of it is sickening, humiliating, awful, for he has crossed a dark border into the Land of the Violent Poor with their tacky knife and gunshot wounds. Even as he grabbed for the shower-curtain, seeing stars, he knew it couldn’t support his weight and they’ll need to buy a new one. Venal Cunt has run into the bedroom in tears and slammed and locked the door behind her. The curtain rings go pop… pop… pop…
He’s gasping in the tub, legs over the side of it, the sucking wheeze and bubble of his fatal chest wound. He fingers the copious puddling heat on his Fred Perry shirt and the blade at the center of it and realizes the handle snapped off when she drove the blade in and this warm piece of metal rises an inch from the puckering slit. Touching it’s like tapping a tooth. He recalls that grunt she grunted while shoving it in and he keeps hearing the vitality of it and Christ it’s too funny. The most sexual noise she’s ever made with him.
That night she fucks him. Lights off of course. She strokes the crusted periphery of the wound. Strokes also, with a virgin’s holy awkwardness, the metal itself…which he discovers he enjoys having tugged. She touches it “accidentally,” at first. She touches it again more boldly. She pays it more direct attention, twisting and tugging and jarring it as they lose themselves in the screaming fall towards massive orgasm and she displays the kind of dirty fascination with the blade anchored firmly in his dead heart that he had always hoped for regarding his genitals.
Venal Cunt strokes the jagged edge of the dull glint in the dark room post-coitally cooing. Needy Cock thinks they should have done this years ago. He thinks things could be worse. He imagines all the American girls he will score with this new secret weapon.
Chapter One: More than Words
Sylvie’s father was a writer whose time had come and gone, but he was fine with that. He’d invested the windfall with prescience. He had a house in a decent neighborhood in a city that scored with consistent impressiveness on all the quality-of-life surveys worth checking, along with some property a two hours’ drive up north. The property up north featured a rustic cabin he was going to write his comeback in, a cabin near a well he wasn’t allowed to drink out of, overlooked by the aerie of an endangered species of hawk he could do up to ten years in prison for harassing or killing. The working title of the book was More Than Words. The rest of the book would come to him in the cabin. Usually he’d creep around the immaculately decorated house long after Sylvie had gone to bed, stewarding wineglasses and adjusting picture frames, soothed by the hum of the climate control, which made the house feel like an airship in flight over the continent. Sometimes he’d rescue a volume, or two, belonging to one of the sets of collected encyclopediae, open on its face on a settee in the media room, and shepherd it, humming, back up the three polished steps into the tracklit library, pushing against a satisfying resistance the thing into its proper slot. Tonight he just stood by Sylvie’s bedroom door, listening.
Chapter Two: A Perfectly-Judged Death-while-Sailing
Sylvie’s mother had come from a large, self-consciously colorful family that only tolerated exogamy, apparently, because exogamy’s extremest opposite was frowned on by The State. There were the four charismatic brothers who had always looked like men; an eldest sister of chilling beauty, with her infallible eye for long scarves (with their tragic associations) and a father who would have to die before Sylvie’s future mother finally moved out of the house she was born in, a recently painted Georgian mansion with pillars on its porches and Amish hex signs carved in its gable shutters, mocked on all sides by encroaching slum. Sylvie’s mother was the baby of the family and had effectively fended off Sylvie’s claim on the title. Driving by that house, recently, Sylvie’s father felt oddly vindicated by the graffiti all over its pillars and even slowed down in an ill-advised attempt to read some of it, stepping on the accelerator when the first stones ponked at the trunk. Girls who hate their fathers are not, as Sylvie’s father had discovered, the worst, if you aren’t the father. All three sisters, Sylvie’s future mother and the other two; the polyglot and the choreographer; had gotten pregnant within six months of the old man’s perfectly-judged death-while-sailing, and he wondered if there hadn’t been a subconscious race to produce a vessel for the old man’s anticipated return. Sylvie’s future father had first noticed Sylvie’s future mother not for her spectacular pre-Raphaelite hair, but for her terminal t’s, which she tended to over-articulate. Didn’t you want that with some fruit bits?- was the last sentence she’d spoken to him before he finally confessed, waving away the dry mangoes that always put him in mind of floor scraps from a bris, that he wanted her to move out. He hadn’t put it exactly that way. He’d offered to move out and she’d demurred as predicted. She’d joked about Arabs being able to divorce their wives by repeating a certain word three times but couldn’t remember the word and he’d said but we’re not really married and she’d stood suddenly and swept breakfast off the table, very much the prodigy losing a game against someone avowedly casual towards chess. She remembered the word was talaq. He said talaq, talaq, talaq, waving a finger like a wand, both of them laughing. To be honest, she was relieved. She’d said, We’ll let Sylvie decide who she wants to live with; that’s the only civilized thing to do, and Sylvie had chosen him, as predicted. Sylvie’s father and Sylvie’s mother continued sleeping together for quite some time until the night Sylvie’s mother never came home, which soon became the week she never came home.
Chapter Three: Cancer Gets the Girl
He imagined her seeing the country on a wasp-sleek Japanese motorcycle. He reminisced on how they’d met. They’d met in a self-defense class. She was there, looking barefoot and good, in what she called her Chinese pyjamas, because of encroaching slum, while he was there to meet a girl. Or girls. The solidarity of self-declared prey, as his best friend, whose idea it had been to go, had put it. This friend had dozens of good ideas on how to meet girls and yet never met any. From as far back as Sylvie’s future father could remember knowing this friend, this friend had talked like a well-informed cancer patient, with an ease in jargon and the cadences down and really good at reeling off technical specifications, probabilities, outlooks on graded contingencies with this clipped, confident, guardedly optimistic voice. And then he got cancer, causing no break or modulation in the flow of the way he communicated. He found the personality tic of his preferred mode of expression astonishingly well-suited to the circumstance. It’s as though he hit the ground running as far as cancer was concerned, was how Sylvie’s future father had put it to Sylvie’s future mother over a milkshake (this was before the days of fashionable young people drinking recreational coffee) after class. Should he feel guilty? Was the irony a bear, or a bluebird? He’d used his friend’s cancer to get a girl.
Chapter Four: Dreadlock Combover
Before Sylvie’s future father and her future mother got serious about each another, Sylvie’s future father wavered in his intentions towards another, slightly older, woman. Older, but in no way inferior, except, perhaps, in age. The woman was cultured and fine and dressed well in a manner that showed off her jaw, an angular marvel reminiscent of the jaw on the actress Jodie Foster, who was then still young. Whether she wore a ruffled collar, a turtleneck or a collarless t-shirt borrowed from her son, the jaw stood out with its sharp origami folds. He was enamored of this woman and had slept with her several times with memorable results and poetry and expensive baseball-sized sourdough blueberry muffins from her bottomless pantry as rewards. The day before Thanksgiving they attended an avant garde opera in a ceremonial gesture towards the deepening cultural seriousness of both that region of the country and their relationship, standing by coincidence behind her ex-boyfriend in the white-wine-line during intermission. The ex was a balding soi-disant (pre-internet) tech-whiz with blond dreadlocks leftswept over his pink pate like fraying ropes on a castaway ham. Fairly or not, she became repulsive to Sylvie’s future father in her ex-boyfriend’s reflected aura, but there was still an hour of grindingly self-serious and overlit opera to sit through. The weightless warm hand that sought its habitual place on his thigh when the opera commenced found only tensed muscle to rest on. The hand knew before the rest of her body. Sylvie’s future father reflected self-pityingly on an inner recitation of the oral history of his failed romances while two local characters (descendants both of auto workers) in Bauhaus-ish costumes of vaguely animal abstraction cavorted on a minimalist stage, realizing in a panic that the time he lost to the experience would never come refunded, and the woman he decided he loved was elsewhere.
Chapter Five: Ich mag sie nicht in einem Haus / Ich mag sie nicht mit einer Maus
Sylvie’s future father hurried over to Sylvie’s future mother’s house right after the opera, unmindful of the fact that he walked unarmed through encroaching slum. He found himself not only thinking of, but looking at, really looking at, more than one black-or-Afro-American-Negro-of-color at a time, for the first time in his life. He’d never admit this to anyone; not even to a friend with cancer; but the first thing that struck him was the variety. Not only in tint but in weight, gait, hair texture, posture, girth, aura, odor, manner of dress, scale of possible threat (from benign to sinister), range of facial features and sexual attractiveness. Some of the toughest boys were pretty as girls in their white t-shirts and tight jeans. Some of the prettiest women exerted the narcotic allure of the scent of the motherland, smouldering after a bushfire, and he locked eyes with more than one, with their coal-smooth breasts, before being ejected, further in his way down the road, each time, by a playfully dismissive smile. Sylvie’s future mother was on the front porch of the white island of the mansion, drying her gaze-stuffing pre-Raphaelite hair with a shreiking dryer at the end of a chain of three extension cords. Sylvie’s future father tried breathlessly to speak, sucking every other word back in, over the anti-siren song of the dryer. He told Sylvie’s future mother half the truth, which was twice the lie: that he’d suddenly realized that he loved her in the middle of an opera. She asked which opera. She laughed, or, being from a family of high-culture insiders, tittered, and explained. To his initial bafflement, which matured to a rage which hardened into a manifesto, he learned that the libretto of the work he’d squirmed through po-faced for two hours (the second half of which was twice as long as the first) was taken from Doctor Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. In German. That’s the problem with postmodern so-called Art, he sorrowed. The joke is always on us.
Chapter Six: He decided to write a Book that Everyone could Understand
He decided to write a book that everyone could understand.