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?
Eryn said get this he unzips his pants and asks is it big enough. The waitress still hadn’t fetched their drinks. Eryn gave the room an orphaned look and continued so the dirty is done and I’m combing my ‘fro in the dresser mirror. Okay? And the bathroom door is cracked open yea wide. Okay? And I kind of glimpse my new friend is doing his pee pee like literally sitting down on the toilet. The hell is that?
They were slouched at the bar in Chez Guevara, laughing so American that nearby patrons turned tolerant smiles on them. If tolerant smiles were deathrays they’d be cinders. Edwina said Eryn, my dear, don’t you know all German men pee pee sitting down?
-Ever since Hitler, said Eryn. Hitler in Berlin is never a non-sequitur.
The restaurant was full of flatscreen televisions in fractured blue strips over the bar and on the walls and mounted in the vaulted brick ceiling. Like welcome to the video age. They saw vineyards and pokerfaced newscasters shuffle typescripts of massacre and disaster. They saw the imported copshow, or was it a German ersatz, duck and shoot, shoot and run, run and jump. Steaming orders on multiple plates hovered by on the fringe of their chit chat. Several of the screens displayed ‘70s softcore from Holland, blonde boobs and a picturesque canal you could dye your jeans in. The pigtailed girl was panting shut-eyed and heave-titted but the sound was off and Eryn imagined her strapped to a gurney in a nursing home of the present reminiscing out loud about the good old days of the beaver shot. Eryn was already homesick but determined to stick it out according to the terms of her grant. You could order cheeses in this restaurant that would make a vulture puke. Eryn’s mother’s mother’s mother had coveted locusts in honey and shat near the river by starlight. Fragments of the long-dead woman had made it to the first world and were now sitting in the second, waiting for a drink.
The biggest screen, over the bar, showed a couple of North American celebrities arm in arm at some premiere or benefit or beheading or whatever, the female demonstrating her tolerant smile against a sustained bombardment of strobes intense as the fall of Saigon. The male was just listening, looking on, did he ever talk any more, worried about dinner or money or whatever run-of-the-mill medical issue is typical for a male in the autumn of his spate. The piss comes out in a trickle and you shrink from your own edges like day-old wedding cake. Celebrities are there to remind us that the body dies. Edwina winked oh look, it’s Evadolph.
-They follow me wherever I go, said Eryn.
-White people eat that shit up. Haven’t you heard? Adoption is the new slavery.
Eryn was skinny and bakelite deco black and Edwina was proud of Eryn’s attention-getting Afro, though she wouldn’t have worn one herself, though she could have if she wanted to, with professional help, being part black (a hook-dicked Alderman on her mother’s side). Edwina’s hair was straight and coarse as an Inca’s which matched her flat features. Edwina’s face looked somehow under-utilized: maybe it was the baby fat. Her eye-popping tits. She was one of those light-skinned not-really-black black women.
Edwina was not well-read. She’d never heard of Luigi Pirandello. Eryn had but had forgotten that she had and was preoccupied with fears that she’d picked up a German yeast infection. She picked up yeast infections like corduroy picks up lint. Corduroy has the word for king in it. There was a foreign quality to her discomfort. She was itching like young red ants between her legs and prayed hard for the folk cure of her Caipirinha. Her vagina would go up in flames if the waitress didn’t show up soon to douse it. Her Afro was too big to avoid touching people. Her Afro touched up to hundreds of people a day.
Edwina was married to a beefy bisexual black lawyer named Kevin Brandischauer with whom she lived in a condominium in the Marina Towers, literally overlooking the Chicago River. Kevin said if you jumped from the observation deck you would splat on the other side of the river. Edwina came to Europe on ostentatious shopping sprees not despite, but because of, the weak dollar. Eryn wasn’t sure if she considered Edwina an African-American but you could only think of her as pretty if you thought of her as black. She knew that was a ridiculous thought. She said,
-It’s not like Europeans aren’t racist. Of course they are. But the difference I’m feeling since I’ve been over here is me. Back home, some educated-looking white person gives me a dirty look, deep down I think I deserve it. Am I right?
Eryn had been over for a week, her first ever trip out of the country of her birth, her first ever six-hour sleep at an altitude higher than clouds, the sensation of making a minor appearance in the pilot’s recurrent dream.
Eryn wasn’t attracted to black men and black men were only circumstantially attracted to her, she felt, though educated white men, as a rule, were absolutely nuts on the topic. They super-tipped in her presence; they copied out unattributed poems from nostalgic textbooks while daydreaming they were leaving their wives, especially the professors who volunteered to pick her up in their litter-filled cars at regional airports. She specialized in neglected dick with tenure. Every time Eryn had tried to have a learnedly witty conversation with a man of her background about the meaning of life she’d been afflicted with a self-mocking self-consciousness that killed the topic, though she admitted it was her own fault; she admitted the problem was hers.
The late great playwright August Wilson had mentored Eryn in an innercity arts program and nicknamed her Error.
Edwina asked Eryn if she’d ever had a near-death experience. It felt like a funny thing to ask, given the circumstances. Eryn said,
-The waitress is going to have a near-death experience if we don’t get our drinks soon. Why do you ask?
-I was in a house fire the day before 9/11. I mean a ten-storey apartment building. I was living on the top floor with an awesome view of Jackson Park, deep in a dream when my boyfriend at the time starts shaking me because the bedroom is full of smoke. The smoke was floating like black milk in a fishtank and it was about three feet off the floor so you stood up it would kill your ass. Back in those days I slept on a futon mattress on a hardwood floor, you could feel the heat coming up off the floorboards. I saw flames in the cracks between the floorboards.
Edwina broke off her riveting tale to watch an arresting image on the flatscreen over the bar: a Japanese girl with no arms in a black Lycra top without armholes painting watercolour kittens in a pastiche of Hokusai with a very long brush in her mouth.
By the time I got to Chez Guevara, much later than I’d planned to, still flustered after a vicious row with my first wife, Eryn and Edwina had finally had their drinks delivered and were easing under the mellowing influence of a second round. They’d moved from the bar to a table near the bar, Eryn with her back to the view of the crowded sidewalk as I entered the restaurant through the purple curtains over the doorway. Friday night’s revelers were threading in pairs and threesomes between fashionable automobiles progressing so slowly in traffic that many of the drivers were leisurely chatting up the best-looking unattached girls on the sidewalk.
I’d be lying if I claimed I hadn’t spotted what I considered a sexual opportunity in the sight of two black female tourists of a certain age, isolated in a room full of unfriendly Germans. I didn’t know either woman, at that point, but I knew what each woman symbolized (in the slightly different contexts of home and abroad). Each had advantages and disadvantages, parceled out at birth, which anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with human psychology could exploit by setting these attributes in subtle conflict. As so-called “white” women’s sexual roles changed in the West with the advent of the revolution that took only two decades to demystify the holy of holies (the reproductive aperture of the species), black women found themselves stranded in a sexual power vacuum. It was as a man mindful of a Zeitgeist in which Billie Holiday is no longer particularly sexy to any but the hoariest of tenured academics that I approached their table and inquired if anyone would mind if I joined them.
My then-wife, a model-type raised in a suburb of northern Hamburg (a village, essentially, where every house has a four-digit telephone number), had just spent two years going through a revolution of her own in Southern California. She had managed to shed every trait (except her looks) which I had found too charming to let another week pass without proposing to her, which I did a few weeks after the moment I first saw that figure parting a crowd on a street near the harbor in Hamburg. A figure with the bearing of a Wagnerian shepherdess. A long honeymoon in San Diego became an extended visa in a hell that replaced my Wagnerian shepherdess with a name-dropping, money-mad, all-American doppelgänger who wouldn’t fuck until I successfully wheedled or bribed her. I hadn’t ejaculated within five meters of my then-wife for weeks when the pressure valve blew.
It blew in the form of a fight that climaxed with us cursing and shoving and slapping each other. I had the presence of mind to throw on a blazer and exit the flat before somebody ended up in the custody of the German police or on a stretcher with an arm dangling. We’d been dressing for dinner at Chez Guevara, a pattern we’d fallen into since returning to Berlin from our ill-fated stay in America.
Later that evening, sitting on a chair by the bed in her hotel room, I asked Eryn about her novel, which she had dropped coy allusions to in the masking hubbub of the restaurant as though speaking a code she didn’t want Edwina to pick up on. She corrected me: it wasn’t a novel, it was a play. She was in Europe on a Tubman grant to complete it. This all happened years ago and I can’t be counted on to remember my conversation with Eryn Brandischauer accurately.
-Why did you start writing plays?
-Because I could.
-What inspired you?
-I was tired of people thinking I was stupid.
-What people? Who?
-Teachers. Family. Friends.
-What did you think of working with August Wilson?
-It changed my life, but the longer I knew him, the more I developed views about his work and life I couldn’t share with anyone. They weren’t hurtful, these words about August that I had to keep secret, but they weren’t laudatory, either. An artist achieves a certain stature and anything said within earshot of the artist has to be either explicitly laudatory or implicitly laudatory, those are the rules, but I had some trouble with the fact that he spoke two languages.
-You mean he was bi-lingual?
-No, not in that sense, despite the fact he could have been, in that sense. You know his father was a German from Germany, an immigrant named Kittel.
-No, I didn’t know that.
-August spoke two languages, one that must have been true, I felt, and one I felt was false, but I could never say which was which, because it depended on who he was speaking to and also who was auditing when he was speaking to that person. But I was just some kid from Saint Paul; what did I know?
-Do you consider yourself beautiful?
-I consider myself capable of defining beauty. That’s enough.
Edwina came out of the bathroom just then and we changed the subject.
The last photo in the row of photos in cardboard frames on the windowsill was face-down on the sill and he wondered if this meant something or if the wind had done it, despite the fact that the window, for as long as she’d been living here, had never been open. The air was piped-in like music. He checked the seam between the lower half of the window and the track it was in and confirmed his suspicion that it was thickly painted shut, thick as a welding seam, seafoam green like a jail. Through the blinds the janitor, the Latino, was visible down there with his obscenely oiled hair dumping suds on a drain in the parking lot. Making even that look furtive.
Richly colored Penthouse tear-outs pasted all over the boiler is what Dominic pictured. Ripe-mouthed deposit bottles in a discreet cache behind a seatless toilet in a magic kingdom of pipes and pilot lights and pagan practices. He set the photo upright again and saw that it was his mother looking prettier than any girlfriend he’d ever had. No way would you correctly identify the woman in that picture now.
He’s thinking: when they’re young and valuable you build a citadel around them with a fence, big dogs, an armed response insignia. When they lose their value the security drops off considerably. Anybody could walk in here. But who would want to? He looks at his mother and then that picture again and scratches his neck. He could probably spirit the picture to safety without her noticing.
She’d given up the theater after his father died under what an expert called ambiguous circumstances and the chore of paying attention to her had fallen to Dominic’s twin brother, Dean, by default, for some reason, but Dean balked after a few years and they worked out a schedule. Dominic had her on Sundays and national holidays including Thanksgiving and Christmas, making that long drive into the city from Lake Zurich in the light morning traffic with a jumbo thermos of good coffee and a beachbook and whatever paperwork.
He’s thinking she looks mauled by the feral dogs of time. This life is a peach something / eats from within ‘til the taste of the peach turns / distasteful is a piece of a poem he remembers she wrote before even half of the depredations to come. It literally looks like whatever it was chewed her awhile and spit her out again twitching. As Deano once put it: Jesus Dom it’s like she bet God a hundred bucks he couldn’t fuck her up.
Dominic winks and uses the graying good looks of his last-chance middle-aged boyishness to reassure her. The old her wouldn’t have been so easily reassured. The version he feared and loved. He opens the blinds to let more light in and sees the janitor is now propped up on a mop handle, his chin on his hands on the handle’s tip, chatting with the colored security guard and casting a very short shadow. She is no longer the brave, honest, wisecracking cynic he always knew but has become prayerful and humbly positive-minded after the first operation and this is upsetting.
Why does this upset him? Because he loosely based his life on her example but then it comes down to the nitty-gritty and she does a one-eighty in the direction of Disneyland? No. It’s more about the howling terror he smells under this happy new mask of acceptance. Right under the surface of the so-called serenity of her badly lopsided smile. She’s like a hostage reading from the kidnapper’s prepared script. She has a wound on her right ankle due to poor circulation that keeps opening, with the leg swelling off and on. She’s had multiple pelvic and spinal fractures due to thinning bones. She was diagnosed with NPH and NPH is diagnosed with a lumbar tap and they had difficulty doing it so she was stuck repeatedly. They took her to surgery and had to shave the right side of her head and place a shunt from the right side of the head to the right side of the abdomen for absorption of the excess fluid.
She gazes upon the magazine he brought her from the rack on Evie’s side of the bed and singsongs androgynous hairstyles are “in” again, I see, with affectionate irony, pretending to dwell on a page she simply can’t turn because her fingers are too cramped and distorted with pain. Like a collection of useless quotation marks bunched in her lap.
Dominic says if Evie came home with a cut like that I’d divorce her. But he’s smiling. Pretending to smile. Pretending to wink. He peers through the blinds, talking away from her:
“I can’t say I like the look of your janitor.”
“Don’t be a racist, Dominic.”
“Whoa. Is ‘janitor’ a race?”
Dom’s thinking how safe it is up in Lake Zurich: no gangs or wild animals and even the few teenagers haunting the mall are girls and rarely gather in groups larger than three. The boys are neatly dressed loners and won’t become dangerous until well into middle age. It’s a suburb of middle-managers and their lotioned toddlers and the Guatemalan nanny is their minority group. People have the common courtesy to move out before their kids hit puberty. Dom likes the alpine allusions of the name and the name figured prominently in his decision to move up there and also in the ease with which he’d persuaded Evie, sight unseen. He liked how he might be backed up in traffic on a rusted and unpredictable side-street in Chicago with the air conditioning off so he could hear things, taking his life in his hands, yet soothe his jumpy soul with visualizations of Switzerland. The Alps.
Dom says, “I used to call Dean Dom, secretly, and he called me Dean. For most of our childhood. He never told you that?”
Luis says, “That’s just between you and me and the mosquitoes, man,” and gives Milton one of his long custodial looks and pats the ass pocket of his overalls for that book of matches his kid gave him sometime during the last sleep-over. The Museum of Science and Industry. For some reason the kid is under the impression he collects matchbooks. Milton lights up and takes a few puffs before committing himself to a reaction.
“But you saw all this.”
“No man. I told you. The lady of which I speak saw it and she told me about it in convincing detail. And now I’m relating it to you instead of more or less eating my lunch.”
“And she wasn’t on drugs.”
“Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“And you come to me.”
“Well, unless I’m sadly mistaken.”
“You’re saying I have a reputation as somewhat of a… ”
“I’m saying take it as a compliment.”
“I’m saying have a look for yourself.”
“You’re saying drive out there… ”
Luis does a little move with the mop at arm’s length and brings the hardwood tip of the handle back to his mouth like a microphone. He’s uncomfortable in Milton’s presence because he doesn’t want to stare so he fidgets. He says, “I’m saying investigate the site first hand and come to your own conclusions. You of all people.”
“Because of a so-called reputation.”
“What can I say? People notice. A man reads a certain kind of books… ”
“You’re saying it sets him apart.”
“For better or worse.”
“And we’re taking your car?”
“If I had a car would I be asking?”
“Man, I was having a perfectly average day until you… damn. Damn. Okay. From my perspective?”
“You know what I’m saying.”
“I’m just saying that what we call the supernatural… ”
“… is another word for the unexplained.”
“I think we’re seeing eye to eye on this, Milton.”
“But phase two of this conversation is called gas money.”
Luis gestures politely for one last puff on Milton’s lucky. Milton shades his eyes from the sun and frowns with patience as Luis sucks the life-giving smoke all in. Milton is thinking how a middle-aged Catholic gets divorced and suddenly he’s the prey of every emotionally disturb 17-year-old girl who looks at him. Still, he’s flattered that Luis should approach him as some kind of expert in the mysteries of life. He thinks of himself as tuned into the highly unusual. He maintains an open channel on the wavelength of the ain’t-necessarily-so.
It was one of those uncomfortable summer days in Chicago that mellows into a bearable late afternoon. Dominic was out in the parking lot feeling estranged from his late model Ford, staring at the keys in the ignition through the glass of the passenger-side window. His mother was just then going through her physical rehabilitation routine with a woman in a powder-blue pantsuit from Manila and he didn’t want to interrupt things in order to use her telephone. Neither did he have what he calls a toy phone on his person.
The nearest phone booth was probably a forty minute walk and covered in gang graffiti and reeking of piss and the chances that it would actually work after he went through all that were slim. People in phone booths are usually shouting. Dom tapped the glass. He yanked on the door handle one more time for magical reasons. If his mother lived in a conventional nursing home there’d be an office with a flirtatious not-bad secretary in it to ask about using the phone but the suggestion had time and again been stubbornly resisted. Dean says we’re paying nursing home prices for fraternity house conditions but she says the point is the lock I have on that door. Dom questions the concept of privacy when nothing you’ve got is what anybody is interested in seeing. She absorbs the comment with that Helen Keller smile that drives him up the wall. For magical reasons he yanked the handle again.
A reconditioned black Buick Roadmaster with RKO starlet curves and a big chrome sneer of a grill pulled into the lot like a death barge and emitted a passenger at the far end of the otherwise empty lot, motor running. Dom recognized the emitted passenger as the janitor and tried and failed to make eye contact with the man as he jogged into the building in his street clothes. Instead Dom strolled towards the Buick. He’d grown up in an integrated area of Chicago and was cautious but not afraid.
When the driver leaned over and cranked the passenger-side window down so they could interact Dom smiled and said, “Anybody in here capable of getting into my locked car without setting the alarm off?” He framed it as a joke, being that the only person in the car beside the black driver was a very pretty white girl on the back seat. Couldn’t have been older than twenty. She looked like a girl Dom had dated about thirty years ago called Toni.
The driver said, “Lock yourself out of your car on the Fourth of July weekend…that’s pretty rough,” and Dom was embarrassed at how well-spoken the man was. His English had a commiserating quality categorically alien to car thieves. Dom turned and the janitor was walking towards him with the duffel bag of dirty uniforms he’d forgotten.
“You’re 212’s son, right?”
They shook hands. “Yeah. I locked myself out of my car.”
“Can we give you a ride somewhere?”
“My brother lives in Elm Park.”
“By all means hop in.”
As a container of people the car is something other than its stated purpose of transport, thought Dom. There’s an intimate mood that’s fully visible to the public. People sleep, eat Ramen noodles and do whatever in their cars. He’d peered into many a car in the long commute from Lake Zurich and taken note of every possible contingency. You look into cars and see alternative selves driving by. Take away the motion and what you have is suspense: four people waiting for something to happen. There were books and magazines at the toes of his boots on the floor under the seat in front of him and he could see that one of the yellowing paperbacks was called The Book of the Damned. As a young man Dom had often participated in mixed-nut selections of automobile passengers like this. You get older and the variations tend to tone down regarding class and race and profession.
They drove without music or conversation by a long series of modest lawns behind hurricane fences. On each lawn was the curved sword of a sprinkler jet chopping the air. The girl, who hadn’t been introduced or as yet spoken a word, said, “You’re a Leo.”
“That’s correct,” said Dom. He responded without sizing her up, not being sure which, if either, of the men sitting on the front seat of the car she belonged to. He looked past her through the window on her side of the seat behind the driver and pretended to focus on a shirtless black boy with an eye-patch steering no-handed on a brand new bicycle falling gracefully behind.
“Luis is a Leo,” she added. “I’m sensing an illness in your immediate family.”
“An illness in your family. Someone close. I’m sensing.”
“Well,” laughed Dom, “That’s a pretty safe bet considering that you picked me up in the parking lot of an elder care facility.”
Everyone chuckled, including the girl herself. Dom went further and sort of took in all the passengers in the Buick and said, “I’m sensing a conflict with your father,” and got a much bigger laugh.
Milton said, in a spooky-wise tone of voice, “15,000 kids disappear every year, man. Where do you think they go to?” and for whatever reason Dom felt that a UFO conversation was trying to assert itself. It’s like Rod Serling dies and you have a sudden intense interest in his reruns again, looking for clues.
“Matter can neither be created or destroyed, am I right?”
Dom was thinking: she’s so turned on with three guys in this car and she’s the only female she’s about to slide off that hot vinyl seat. A Puerto Rican, a black and an assimilated Mick: exactly the kind of dirty joke my old man would tell at the airport. Back when there were lots of propellers and you could talk as loud as you wanted and say pretty much anything. Do I really want to be dropped off at Dean’s? On the other hand do I want to start a race riot on wheels. The pros and cons have to be weighed against the irresistible force and divided by the immovable object. How would Sun Tzu handle this? Slyly, he said,
“Luis, we got any possibility of some music up there?”
Milton said, “Got an AM radio.”
Dom said, “I won’t say no to that. How do you feel about oldies?”
Milton said, “I’m gonna say a word, okay, and you respond with the first thing that comes into your consciousness and that’s the process by which we will determine whether or not we think the same type of thing by which we mean ‘oldies’.”
Milton was grinning at Dom in the rearview yet beside him Luis Reyes had grown enigmatically stiff-necked; stiff-necked and coiled as he sat there in front of Dom on the passenger side, reading Dom’s mind with the back of his head. The thing of significance was between the girl and this janitor called Luis.
Dom liked taking tests. Milton put his eyes back on the road and allowed the intervening silence to develop. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Beach Boys.”
Everyone laughed except Luis and the girl and Milton saluted without looking and announced, “You passed it, guy.”
He reached and twisted at the radio in a bird-like fashion and for the first time Dom noticed that Milton only had two fingers and a thumb on the right hand. It looked less like a wound than a birth defect. In other words if you didn’t know what a hand looked like it looked fine. There was a tinny, vintage speaker mounted in the upholstered surface behind the back seat where the rear window sloped towards the trunk and right behind Dom’s head there rose, like the sonic equivalent of a Persian miniature, Gypsy Woman, by The Impressions, on exactly the type of speaker the song had been engineered to sound best on.
With that lofty white male edge to his voice Dom said “Nineteen hundred and sixty three…” but the girl reached over and slapped her hand over his mouth to literally save his life.
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.
a filmsong by Steven Augustine
The Kiss Off
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Decline of the Aura
1. Art is Honkies Fucking
The pedigree of the kiss in Western culture is less a matter of sex than of Christianity. Spirit is breath, it utters the sacred word. The early believers were enjoined to bestow on each other the kiss of peace. Blasphemy is the sacred’s inversion: the Judas kiss.
The kiss started to become secularized around the time of the troubadours. The fair skin of the beloved was a foreglimpse of the pleroma; through her lips poured the divine afflatus. Soon most of the afflatus had leaked out, but there was still enough left to puff the white sails of religion’s successor, romantic love.
By the time of the really iconographic kisses – Rodin, Klimt, Munch – many had begun to suspect that romantic love was a con. Schopenhauer and Darwin had given the hint: It was all about replenishing the racial stock. Hence the three most famous kisses of the time were also the most equivocal – too strenuous, or too brittle, or vampiric.
Along came Hollywood and pop music to re-inflate the tires. It wasn’t just a question of warm bodies after all, a whole society had to be reproduced. Rhett! Scarlett! Rhett! Scarlett! Some crooning, some swooning – then the Lent of mortgage payments, a new refrigerator, and picking a wallpaper pattern for the nursery.
The flowery script on the warranty said Forever but it wasn’t until Pop Art that we were able to appreciate the irony. Warhol’s Kiss (1963) would seem to spell the quietus est for twenty centuries of honkies fucking in frescoes and framed museum pieces. But instead we have a culture in the grip of cynical reason: I can’t stand to walk away . . . I can’t stand to stay . . . a generic pop tune in endless playback.
2. Art is Fucking Honkies
Traditionally the kiss symbolizes union. In the mingling of breaths, two souls meet and become one. Art, too, is supposed to resolve contradictions. It creates a unity that is “above” its determinations.
“Andy & Patty” refuses this harmonization, staging instead the disarticulation, the incommensurability of the very materials it brings together. They are not melded, only superimposed. Each new frame reframes the others.
The appearance of writing in a film destroys the unity of the image. So far so Godard, but the filmsong’s writing goes further, deploying the rhetorical figure of chiasmus:
Art is Honkies Fucking
Art is Fucking Honkies
Fucking is Art, Honkies
Chiasmus is the privileged trope of difference, of the production of difference-in-identity. It is the double-cross that undoes the self, in the same movement founding and confounding it. In this case, the universalist pretensions of Art are revealed to be a European narcissism, honkies pressing faces to the mirror.
The filmsong is chiastic in its very structure, almost an elaborate pun on the inverted parallelism of chiasmus itself. It opens with the straight couple from Warhol’s film but works its way to the mash-mouth of Warhol’s gay couple and a scene of two-fisted interracial monster-cock deep throating. Sexual difference and racial difference – ideological coordinates of the Great White Kiss.
In the era of cynical reason, however, nothing any longer has the power to shock, it’s all grist for the mill of social reproduction. Since Patty Hearst’s turn as “Tanya” even terrorism has become part of the spectacle. The only image to resist the tidal pull of banality is what would seem to be the most ordinary and everyday of them all, almost beneath notice: the scaffolding against the side of the building.
In the Greek alphabet the letter “chi” – the first letter in the name of Christ – is shaped like an X, a cross. For this reason chiasmus was once the favored trope of Christian writers. The scaffolding’s props and crossbeams also suggest a kind of Calvary. The two workmen arrive for their daily crucifixion.
The filmsong offers a chiastic pun on images of labor – labor as work, and childbirth as labor. These were, after all, the curses stamped on Adam and Eve’s eviction notice: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread . . . In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” I almost said Andy and Patty’s eviction notice.
The image of childbirth avoids the banal affirmation of “new beginnings” to the extent that it is by caesarian section. Instead it is a parody of the Virgin Birth. We see a gaping wound; there will be a scar.
Every document of civilization has as its verso a transcript of toil, written in scars. The same with love: there was always someone before you. It’s as if our kissing couple should separate for a moment and one – it doesn’t matter which – should say to the other, “Whose cock is that on your breath?”
3. Fucking is Art, Honkies
Astrolabe, centrifuge, one-armed bandit – the Andy & Patty chiasmus-machine keeps turning. Old binaries undone, their tokens may yet yield up an unforeseen combination or novel precipitate. The one moment when a pair of eyes looks back at the viewer is in the clip of the blond porn-actress at work. Like much women’s work, it must be performed on her knees. With her hands raised to the sides of her head on the mahogany crossbeams of enormous cocks, it is another image of crucifixion. Yet covered in sweat and spit and goo, her hair plastered and mascara smeared, she glistens as wetly as a newborn. And look at the technique, the brio, the sprezzatura – she is good at what she does, and she knows it. Colors mix on the palette. A new millennium of poetry and fucking is in store for those who can divine this threefold mystery. All others pay cash.