-Ina says a dreamboat’s any man refrains demanding anal on like the third date.
-Dreamboat’s mother’s word.
-Mother’d pronounce it in-uh.
-Daddy said Eee-nah.
-Couldn’t even agree on that.
-Ina burns her fingers on the water glass.
-They served me coffee in a water glass.
-My first sensation in Berlin.
-Mother pretending drunk on balcony overlooking Mississippi.
-A balcony as architectural trophy of amicable divorce.
-Mother pretending drunk to make the saying…
-Ina needing no such excuse.
-…of certain things…
-Hard as some things are to say.
-Excuses are for those who can be bothered, says Ina.
-The darling child.
-Talks to herself openly in public.
-Ma, it is only cranberry juice.
-Oh so you’re a drink inspector now too. My daughter the mind-reading drink-inspector who quits colleges to chase ratsafarians.
-The sunset a rich dessert.
-The mighty Mississippi.
-Dandan’s mercurial grave.
-Ina thinking it is a Negro river.
-Thinking but never saying this word Negro…
-Okay she remembers calling Joanie Joplin my Negro once.
-Mother saying now Ina…
-Mother saying now do not look at me when I say this but.
-Sunset spectacular flambeéd entrails.
-Staring she said remember dear, gentlemen…
-Ina remembers and laughs out loud at table alone in café where they burned her fingers.
-I must look crazy.
-Suitcase beside me.
-Crazy but hot.
-Nazi folksinger looks up when she laughs.
-He sure looks like a folksinging nazi.
-Looking pure but not benign.
-Probably Jewish just to teach me to….
-Mother through ruby depths of faux Chablis peering says remember dear, gentlemen.
-Cheeks both red as cranberry.
-Is this how she turns herself on now?
-Talking dirty to college-age daughter?
-Remember dear, gentlemen do not expect a lady…
-Ina thinks how preciously naïve.
-Is that the scariest…?
-Ina thinks if only.
-I’d swallow a quart if that’s where it stopped.
-I’d be like, is that all you’ve got?
-Mother pronounced it ratsafarian.
-Please never tell me you’re pregnant with ratsafarian…
-And do not give me that look like it never happens.
-She’d say for all intensive purposes.
-Inscribing Department of Human Race Horses in her immaculate hand like preserve a secret for the ages in notebook and smile.
-Catch that nazi folksinger look again.
-I am wet as an eight-second egg.
-I am wet as a Mississippi.
-Looks again I’m saying something.
-Looks again it’s on.
-Let’s do this.
-I don’t give a chunky fuck.
-LED eyes Thou hast.
-Kiss these blistered…
-Sorry means never having to say I love you.
-Ina stands and goes hey um would you watch my stuff for a minute I need to go to the bathroom.
-Uncomprehending look in return.
-Look of the daze-ruptured put-upon.
-It is 15:40.
-Do you speak English?
-She laughs and squeezes between the tables wishing she hadn’t said need. Sounds so well I don’t know so irrefutably graphic to say like I need to go to the bathroom. Want would have been better.
-And what’s up with the word bathroom.
-It’s like I need to take a humongous dump.
-For medical reasons.
-Perforated duodenum and such.
-Can you hold my colostomy bag for a sec thanks.
-Batting her eyelashes. Do you find me alluring?
-Feels two eyes on her ass as she passes.
-The tables are just a thigh apart yet she squeezes through without even touching edges.
-Passed the buttock test with flying colors.
-Buttock the farm word.
-Fantasize he is infallible cool cyborg assassin scan rapid digit display scroll phosphor-green screen while geometric simulation of ass rotate 180 degrees on pulsating graph when target-circle zeroes-in on her anus.
-Loo door swings.
-Thankgod no Americans in this bathroom.
-Would it offend anyone if I called this shitroom Mecca?
-I could stay here all day.
-Having grown to abhor the sound of Trustifarian English.
-If I’m in here longer than five minutes nazi folksinger will picture the taking of a humongous dump.
-Can’t have that.
-Though: would it not be funny to birthgroan loud as a whale?
-We are not comedian.
-We are hot like Joan of Arc.
-‘Tis only tinkle.
-Mother crying Jesus wept on the toilet.
-Door’s all wide open and I’m like Mother.
-Rotten jello smell: the pain of stench.
-Hemorrhoids mother hindparts acquired evacuating hero of our story.
-The mighty Mississippi.
-My little brother’s widow.
-This foreign toilet paper sucks.
-So he claims his name is Spinoza.
-He claims his name is Spinoza. Yes he does. I do. He do.
-That is a fuckedness.
-You are a name bigot?
-Your parents are hippies?
-So now she is hippie-intolerant?
-On top of everything else.
-I am an honor student.
-What if I was black?
-Whatever. What if I were black?
-You’d have an excuse. But your name would not be Spinoza.
-No, my name would be LaFoyer Grady.
-That is a pretty convincing job of black name random generating on short notice.
-I see we have our racism in common.
-Something to fall back on during lulls.
-Lulls aren’t the things we fall back on?
-So his name is seriously Spinoza.
-Simply Spinoza. Yes. I am a gifted young DJ. What is yours?
-My first black girlfriend.
-Things are moving quickly.
-Ina thinking I recall now reading that a sweetish semen means it is diabetes.
-Which feels like far too intimate to know or to tell him.
-To wake and tell him.
-Rather text it.
-In a week I’ll text it.
-Spinoza in his fetal postcoital coma in the gloaming.
-Semen from her lips to his to close a circle.
-And also the Lego smell and Daniel.
-Daniel melted Legos on their bedroom lightbulb twice.
-Later died on a dare with the Mississippi.
-The varsity swimmer slash little brother in that mighty Negro river.
-Spinoza does not snore he fartles.
-Gnashing his teeth he fartles.
-Spinoza farts the smells of melting Legos to channel brother Daniel.
-Supine Ina sneers at posters of now-old or long-dead frog and wop actresses who wouldn’t even’ve as iffed him.
-Spiderwebs darkly drug-addled thoughts above his mattress.
-Said spiders watch his Jewy dreams.
-Said Ina too.
-Her mouth still sized to the proximate dick.
-The look called pursed.
-The boy she thought a nazi folksinger.
-The boy she thought pure not benign.
-He is fartling he is gnashing his teeth.
-Lo, a tugboat crosseth pudding lake.
-The anal flap and sputter.
-You just can’t imagine loving him less.
-In the spirit of which she note-writes about goodbyes and goodlucks and hinted-at manageable medical conditions.
-The dazzling legend of Nordic healthcare.
-Signed the first blowjob is free the next in dreams bereft ie fool me once.
-Signed I hate being an American on this Americans-choked sidewalk oh so looking the part of congenital Mallness.
-Like folks I just fell off the intercontinental turnip truck.
-But I will learn.
-She had a forty dollar haircut and birthcontrol bazooms and she was ready to use them.
-This rolling suitcase louder than the liberation of Paris.
-The airport handle.
-I am creditcard-dressed and distressed.
-Sweet-semen fed and obvious.
-Turning sees Spinoza in his briefs in window like mother on balcony overlooking mighty Negro brother-stealing river with a waving shyness mouthing call me.
-Call you what?
Veering into the sun before his sunbrella went up was like having a frying pan in full sizzle put flat on his cheek. The bulgey curve of the station wall had a sharp collar of shade around it in which sat the gypsy with her accordion, playing the dolorous tango they all played within a laughable range of capability, from not-at-all to utter mastery. She gave him a look as he veered out into the sun because she blocked the very narrow path the shadow protected, sitting cross-legged on a collapsible chair with a shoe tip burning in light. The look she gave him contained a library of philosophical treatises, a look at once aware and detached, worldweary-yet-playful, dismissively flirtatious, seductively bored and suppler than thought itself. It took him somewhat aback. She was in the same cruel league of beauty as his obsession Margarethe, though she was just a gypsygirl and he was late for dinner.
Margarethe in a printed dress as tight as a chocolate bar’s wrapper handed him warm wine and introduced people who were milling around the room hungry and browsing her paintings, examining the work with what struck Van in some cases as almost hostile diffidence, as though the paintings were untouchable meals reserved for richer guests due to arrive much later. As he’d often said his ex-wife Margarethe was the best bad painter in the world and he thought of her near-perfect copy of van Gogh’s self-portrait in front of the easel, 1888, showing the darkling feral head and retardedly-intense blue eyes but in her version he’s smiling and hoisting a condensation-bejeweled bottle of Coke. She said,
“Van, this is Taylor and Scotty and you know…”
“Exactly,” she grinned.
A large-ish American with short shiny hair stood up from the couch and introduced himself as Bartholomew, pointedly ignoring nearby Taylor and Scotty, who were Queers from London. Fucking Heteromanic American.
The air in the flat was dense with meat. Her new husband Konrad was clearly no vegetarian but a well-built, distracted-looking German in formal attire with red hands and a peeling nose which propped up big square black-rimmed glasses. From time to time he’d nod or grunt with disgust or amusement despite the fact that no one was talking to him. He pronounced “ski” in the old German manner: she. He peeled some skin off his nose and said aprés she as he went ahead to his place at the dinner table, Margarethe rolling her eyes at his back.
She confessed with rue that one has to climb so high to find natural snow these days that one wears a Lycra space suit on the slopes. The men get tremendous hardons. The glasses Konrad was wearing may or may not have been connected, though Van had noted that Konrad sported them in the manner of the blind, face beatifically elevated in an unfinished smile.
Something sharp-toothed and furtive squealed flaming to cinders in a trap in one of the rooms under renovation and Van could see it for a moment and then he couldn’t. He blinked.
When Margarethe announced dinner with a clap of her hands they formed a pilgrim’s procession of low chatter and crossed the apartment through a long, over-lit wing of plastic sheets and scaffolding. Up some plaster-dusted stairsteps they went leaving shoe prints and Van straggled behind studying the pretentious sepia-tone images on the wall in a hallway, pictures he’d taken with the antique Hasselblad Maggie had given him their first Christmas. Gypsies of unvarying facial expression hefted arched accordions over their knees like gulls with broken backs.
Margarethe laid a hand on an arm each of Scott’s and Taylor’s as she lead the procession, walking between them, and said, “I had the most ghastly nightmare again, darlings.”
Konrad was chewing and laughing at something on the ceiling as they filed into the dining room.
Bartholomew with his wide, flat, not-fat-at-all body, waved a finger at various points around the dinner table at which Van found himself seated among the others having their chunky pork soup ladled into exquisite porcelain bowls. Van only heard what sounded like the sea in a very big conch shell as the American droned on, a prime exemplar of the effect of the loss of empire on a disoriented consciousness. The dining room felt airless lit only with candles feeding mostly on Bartholomew’s breath and Van wanted desperately to open a window but he was no longer the flat’s master. Bartholomew had no plate set before him; no knife or fork or water glass. No food.
Konrad exhibited open-eyed signs of REM.
Someone was saying, “I suppose in the latter category you’ve got the theory of Relativity and smoking will kill you and an embryo is conceived when an egg cell meets a sperm cell in the womb and so forth.”
Bartholomew was rocking in his seat.
Second course was blood pudding.
Konrad noted suspicious gas leaks in Istanbul and Crete, hundreds dead or unaccounted for.
Van recognized the spider, limbs fanning long and tenuous as internet links, in a high corner. The spider or its descendant. He’d been separated from Margarethe for over two years and divorced for a year yet every single thing about the apartment was the same as he’d left it, minus the meaty veil of odors. He recognized the faint pattern of stains on the tablecloth, the brown-tinged continents on a medieval map of the known world.
He glanced at Margarethe with her high forehead and incongruously Croatian nose and the pewter ringlets of her hair. Memory provided the glistening plum of her kissable buttocks which had in turn been provided by her superblack boy-diddling bishop of a sweet-breathed father late of an almost blackless Capetown. Due to whom she pronounced black as bleck.
Van heard, “The fear of looking stupid is what keeps the intellectual in line.”
Playfully, he imagined Bartholomew as a big blond gypsy with a ring in his ear wrestling an accordion in the shadow of the station begging for coins instead of dispensing unsolicited pontifications at the dinner table. Van edited the gypsy girl into Bartholomew’s place, seated beside him at the table, slyly embarrassed by her decadent plateful of fatty meats. He found himself hoping she’d still be on that stool at the station wall when it came time to leave but it was New Year’s so of course she’d be at the Brandenburg Dome with the others, picking pockets or playing that same hideous tango with champagne-oiled ease.
Konrad had Bartholomew’s bright hair in a knuckle-grip and jerked hard, hacking through pulpy fat neck with a serrated blade, though no one else seemed to notice.
Fingerbowls were distributed.
Margarethe was blowing kisses at someone, mouthing Kiss ma bleck aws, while Taylor indulged in the so-called New Nostalgia with the repeated use of the phrase, “The Tolerable ‘20s.”
Maragarethe was saying, behind her hand while she chewed on gristle, “It was that nightmare about Bartholomew again, I’m afraid, I hope he calls,” but Van never heard this. She was hoping to get a rise out of her insufficiently jealous husband.
She was playing the drollest of hostesses and staring into her wineglass, the bowl of the wineglass magnifying her eye into a batty black goldfish, telling Van that Taylor was a Money Artist. That is, she clarified, Taylor works in the medium of money. The national gallery has a room of his elegant displays, each display featuring a fluctuating digit synched to an enormous amount somewhere. You see he started his career with artifactual lucre… didn’t you, Taylor… crisp bundles of Euros and dollars, arranged on plinths… though his breakthrough came when he finally grasped money in its most spiritual form.
Critics call his new work cleaner.
Konrad quoted an article to the effect that the art market is the biggest money laundering operation on the planet. He told a joke in a halting cadence that ended with the punchline the sweet smell of sock sex.
After a haunting gypo film in the screening room about transvestites (Manche Mogen’s Heiss), Margarethe, rubbing her eyes like a waking child, excused herself with a cautionary remark about dessert and Van, glancing at Konrad, offered to help in the kitchen, so down a dark hall and with the vented door still swinging he lay a finger athwart her woodgrain arm and moaned how he missed being the only black couple at the opera.
He said he missed the way she kicked in her sleep and commented too mordantly and far too loud in the theater and buttered both sides of her toast or snatched at her bushy cloud of pillowed hair like a honeybear in a cloud of bees when he used to go down on her.
He pulled her towards him and she laughed offering a modicum of resistance saying don’t. She said,
-Van, your words are lovely as ever, and you’re a good Christian, truly you are, but as a woman grows older she responds less to words than to deeds, and deeds aren’t done without power, and, as you know, Konrad has an inherited seat on the Ministry of the Interior…there’s more power in one of his ash-colored eyelashes than in the whole of that big carbon dick of yours.
-Ha! That old white devil be damned.
-You’re talking about my husband, darling.
–I’m your husband.
-No you’re not. Not any more you’re not.
-In the eyes of God.
The first punch stunned her and the second one brought her to her knees.
When she swept in from the kitchen with sugar-free parfaits on a tray of hammered tin from Morocco which Van, trailing behind her with half a dozen neon aperitifs, had forgotten giving her for their second anniversary, the shifty mass of her sheathed bosom as she lowered each parfait to every spot around the table was so milk-maidishly servile that it made them appear to be overdressed black help. This pleased Van perversely and he handed out the aperitifs with a shamingly servile flourish.
Scott turned to Taylor and said, not quietly enough, “I’m having that headache we talked about.”
Margarethe stamped her foot with winning petulance and said but it’s almost midnight! Her plan was to gather on the balcony after dessert and watch fireworks and greet the majestic change of centuries with upturned faces of child-like wonder.
A meth-massacre in Phuket. Konrad joked from the corner of his mouth that it takes a child to raze a village.
They sweated the proximity of the sultry night and watched animated neo-classical constellations like Diana the archer and Pegasus flapping his wings and the stars-and-cross of the Anglo-Germanian union scintillate then shatter into hundreds of jiggle-boobed goose-stepping showgirls in turn becoming great pinwheels lilting like funereal Lilies to Earth. After which, rainbow-colored cubes representing the six colors of the union rolled across the sky unfolding into crucifixes larger than any skyscraper. Crucifixes ringing the ecliptic, pulsing to Die Walküre and foreshortened towards the galactic hub.
Van was distracted by the scene he watched instead. Down there on the sidewalk, two stories below the balcony, near enough he heard their pleas for mercy. Handsome theatergoers surrounded and doused by a broken circle of gypsies and put peremptorily to the torch, dancing away from each other in flames towards opposite ends of the street trailing rich black streamers of skinsmoke. Reflections of the flames shrank curving across bubble windshields and Van was clutching his throat, suppressing the nausea, unsure of what he was seeing.
Konrad shouted U-Nasa with conclusive evidence: Asgaard settlement extinct. The others on the balcony merely oooh’d and ahhh’d with patriotic boredom at the immensity of the crucifixes stainglassing the sky.
Van knew it now. He was bewitched.
He rode the near-empty train to its endstation. He gasped at the foretaste of heat that rolled under the platform’s baked awning as he stepped from the train. It pulled away as he shuffled in his bright white flapsuit and widebrimmed hat, a Pierrot in blackface shuffling to platform’s end then down the hundred stairs in his two-legged tent, the handrail untouchably hot, bracing himself to emerge from the station into the noon’s blast furnace, slower than wading through oil.
Entering Gypsytown at high noon was the only way to sneak into the city.
He pictured them snoring in dark rooms while he stalked the blinding streets, a striking lone figure, something from a dream, and he realized that he was thinking about himself again, as he often did, and the tight cap of his mossy black hair itched. He was thinking of himself as a museumpiece, a rare collection of features gathered in the vitrine of his flat-nosed face, so broad across the cheekbones and heavy in the jaw, a public monument trusted to his own irresponsible stewardship. What if a gypsy punched him in the nose, ruining something of priceless rarity?
The rare blacks allowed back on the continent had been welcomed grudgingly under the stainless-steel wing of the Church. He was thinking of Margarethe’s father, Bishop Siss, or his own great-grandfather, the influential Christian theoretician famous for Multiple-Christ Doctrine, the original Vanross Olubodon, a remote and frightening figure. Not for one moment since birth had Van…or anyone from the small colony of blackies and darkfacers in Berlin…felt welcome.
Most of them, as in the case of Margarethe’s family, had commenced immediately to exobreed out of the color with almost any whites who were mad enough to fuck them. Margarethe had nieces and nephews who were already as light as the palms on her hands, or no darker than the inner folds of her navel, but, still, there were tests you were required to take at a certain age. Forms you had to fill out. You’d get Homo sapiens africanus stamped on your license for all to see, though perhaps one might keep it a secret on all but the genobureaucratic level.
Van’s family was an oddity. Both for having been in Europa for so many generations and for breeding almost exclusively black for the duration. Many of his people were priests; Van wasn’t a priest but he was a prominent theologian. The family members who weren’t in the priesthood, who were out there in the game of life, competing for love and money, were running out of black non-relatives to mate with. And with Van’s recent loss of mostly-black Margarethe, what would he do? Write his amateurish sonnets and masturbate on whores in blackface until the end of all time?
The station was a ziggurat of limestone steps on a dusty peninsula of asphalt. Across a weedy road were the vacant lots of the western edge of Gypsytown and beyond the vacant lots, a fifteen minute walk over rubble and weeds, queued the first of the white buildings, the coated buildings like walls in a low maze, each building decorated with its check of foil, foil over all the windows, the abandoned vista of an ancient millennial film project.
Set on the very edge of the asphalt before the broken road there stood a longish tent full of stacked bundles of newspapers and a sinewy bearded troll. The tall troll was seated crosslegged, dressed in the altogether save a suet-colored loincloth and sandals and sipping from a vintage bottle in the open shade of the tent. The man had the shaggy blonde sea-burned look of the Viking about him. But he was very thin.
As Van approached the tent in order to cross the broken road behind it the Viking put down his bottle with great care and slipped into a hooded cape which hung from head to knees. The cape had weight to it and concealed a dagger no doubt. He stepped into the sunpressure towards Van wielding a newspaper and Van recognized the paper as the Cassandran Standard and formed preemptive noises in his throat, shaking his head, but there was no way the tout would be put off, for Van was probably the first non-gypsy to cross his path all day… all week, possibly. Despite being momentarily flummoxed by the impossible blackness of Van’s face, he smiled and followed across the broken road with his spiel:
“Get your Cassandran, get your Cassandran right here, your sweet Cassandran Standard, all the news you were never supposed to know, reported at great risk to all involved, no gratitude necessary… top stories: the facts are in… average life-expectancy down by thirty percent in less than a century… top stories… the Asgaard Settlement alive and well and preparing for war against Earth… top stories… fish return to the Persian Gulf… you’ll read it here first… the news you were never supposed to know… all this plus the usual tasty all-color supplement: they’re fresh, they’re female, they’re Pagan… five dollars and the truth is yours to filter as you see fit….”
But when Van gave him a stainless steel dollar in hopes he’d scurry off the tout secreted the coin in the voluminous cuntfolds of his cape and said, wonderingly, after licking his lower lip, “You’re black.”
Van stopped walking and sighed. “That’s right.”
“I’m honored. They call me Gregorius. Is it true that blacks think not in words but in pictures, Sir?”
“I can only speak for myself when I say no to that question.”
Van nodded. Gregorius pointed at Gypsytown. “You are not going in there alone, are you, Sir?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” He glared from the grotto under the wide brim of his hat.
“For one thing, there are no street signs… they took every single one of them down, Sir. The gypos are dead clever. You’d find yourself hopelessly lost in minutes. In heat like this, for more than an hour, no shelter… that can mean heart failure, Sir.”
“You’re advertising your services as a guide.”
“Not just a guide. There are horrors greater than being lost…”
“Not many know that the gypsies are provided by The State to operate under their own rule of law and governance, Sir.”
“I’m well aware of that fact.”
“But do you know the tone or timbre of these Laws of theirs, Sir? The codes and statutes? Run afoul of them and it could mean your happiness, to say the least. And then there are ravenous crowpacks to deal with and bandits…”
“Five steel dollars an hour. Payment on the hour.”
They shook on it and continued across the weedy terrain of the vacant lots, Gregorius just slightly ahead. What does he have in that cape, wondered Van. A telescope? A rifle?
Without turning to face Van he called out, “What are you looking for, if I may ask, Sir?”
“Who, not what. I’m looking for a gypsy girl. A gypsy girl I saw this New Year’s Eve just past.”
“A gypsy you saw at the Dome, was it, Sir?”
“No. Earlier that day. At the Charlottenburg Station.”
“Charlottenburg Station? Performing there or just traveling, Sir?”
“She was performing.”
“Fair or dark?”
Van shrugged. “Not old.”
Walking backwards at Van’s pace, Gregorius stared a good long time before finally turning to point far off, lifting the edge of his cape. “That’ll mean she lives over there, on what was formerly known as Bergmann Strasse, then. The other end of Gypsytown.”
“The way you pronounce ‘Strasse’. ”
Van laughed again. “Strah-suh. You even talk like a gypsy. You speak it?”
“Fluently, Sir. Fließend means ‘fluently’.”
Van was pleased. He felt he was getting his money’s worth.
Flickered shadows now and then swept them over and up they’d look to see clouds of suntorched crows tumble headlong as though hurled from an invisible mountain and Gregorius would crouch low and dip one shoulder as if ready to swing hard at whatever came at them but the shadows flew onward, falling sidelong away at great speed. The nearest tree was kilometers distant.
Van and his taciturn page (what was he brooding on?) exchanged nary a word until they were well into the city-within-a-city, with its uniform myriad six-storey flatblocks and narrow treeless immaculate streets and sidewalks. No trash or thick brushstrokes of dogshit or mosaics of smashed glass forever. Nor rusting hulks of cars or trucks or gutted refrigerators. So unlike Berlin proper. He could have licked the griddle ground and left it hissing with spit with no fear of dirt-eating.
“It’s all so clean,” marveled Van, breaking the silence at such a low volume, just slightly above the striding rustle of his garment, that breaking it was barely worth it. His unwieldy white flapsuit. He was exhausted. He longed for his sunbrella. “It’s cleaner than any street I’ve walked on!”
“Of course it is, Sir. The Gypsies waste nothing.”
“Not even merdes…”
“They make fuel with it, Sir.”
“You’re very well-spoken for a man who lives in a tent, Gregorius.”
“There was a time, long ago, I participated in the world, like you. I gave it all up to do the noble work of selling the Cassandran. It’s a hard life but I sleep well every night and my gypo wife supports me. And I don’t live in that tent, you see. We live in a flat like any other.”
“I suppose it’s a myth that they steal, as well, then, Gregorius?”
“An ugly and ignorant myth, Sir. No offense.”
Van chuckled. He said, “So if one had a peek through a gypo flat…”
“One would most of all see books, Sir. Every gypsy lives with more books than he has stories to tell…a gypsy aphorism.”
Van curled his lip. Even he couldn’t afford more than a few books, and those he kept in a vault. “Books?”
Gregorius continued, “In point of fact they make nearly all their money as infobrokers.”
“Is there anyone less visible than a gypo? All dressed alike, all playing the same…”
Van scratched at his nose and grunted. He did not believe this, nor the other thing about books. He said, “Possibly.”
“May I ask why you speak so softly, Sir?”
Van lifted his chin at the building they were just then shuffling past and said, “They sleep in the heat of the day, as you know. It’s prudent…one speaks in certain tones…”
“Another falsehood, Sir,” Gregorius said, wearily. “Ironic, too, considering that they’re all awake and been doing business for hours when the rest of Berlin is still yawning over its first bitter coffee! It is true, these buildings have no power to offset the heat, but the cellars of the buildings are dark and cool and…”
“This is astonishing news…”
“…the gypsies have connected all the cellars in a kind of underground city.” Gregorius stopped in the street and touched his bare red chest with a flourish of his cape. “And I know the safest point of entry to the system.”
“But I must,” pleaded Van, revealing his desperation suddenly, “I must find this gypsy girl! She has bewitched me!”
Gregorius pointed at the cracked black skin of the three-hundred-year-old road.
“You’ll find her there.”
Looking at the road where he had been directed to, Van watched as Gregorius’ shadow appeared to raise a long dark sword to the sky, gripping the hilt with both hands as though he might fly away on it.
There was a roaring silence as Van stared blinkless into the white skull of the sun without being conscious of ceasing to.
A temperate breeze poured in over the tall grasses of the Auroran Savannah and clattered through the blinds and windchimes on the front porch and the naked prospects of the sunrooms above it and pushed open, with one polite hand, the curtains of the attic window.
The servant stooped polishing wood in the attic bedroom happened to look out the window at that moment to glimpse through the curtains the procession of secondhand government Zils coming in on the long approach paralleling the canal, like a funeral, though she knew for a fact it was only a lunch.
The master was still drowsing in his hammock on the porch. Drowsing as indolent in the summer’s long day as he was frenetic during the winter’s long night of restorative darkness, and though she felt the giddy impulse to hurry downstairs to wake him, one of the others would probably see to it, so she kept at her polishing, waltzing the soft fat cloth over the loops and whorls of the wood’s exquisitely ancient fingerprint. The chest of drawers she brought to its hard gleam predated her language; her people; the city of Aurora itself. Centuries of breath had trapped spirit-words in the microscopic chambers of the wood and she felt the furniture breathe as her palm swirled over it.
She expected at some point after lunch that the master would gather the barefoot staff in the kitchen in order to introduce them to the overfed guests, as ever, and charmingly perform his favorite trick of naming their various tribes: Aleuti, Russo Lapp, Samoyed, Swedish Tungu, Dane and Red Yankee! All living together under one roof, he would exclaim. A boast of his taste, his benevolence.
And all sharing one bed, she was always tempted to add. The two boys among them were even prettier than the black-eyed girls.
Lieutenant Governor Mey and the trade delegation from the North Atlantic States looked mortified in their youth, clustered together in the center of Stark’s library, waiting obediently for lunch. Stark was still drowsy and rumpled in his patrician, couldn’t-be-bothered way, scratching his belly through a fine garment. He knew history well enough to relish this sensation of intimidating elected officials with anything more subtle than an army. Their sincere diffidence was innocence and a luxury that wouldn’t last more than a few generations before sophistication, with the renascent persistence of evil, returned again to the world. But for now a breathing space. An Eden.
Stark drew their attention to two black heads on a recessed shelf in the wall beside the book case. The floor-to-ceiling, wall-wide case was emblematic in itself of staggering wealth, but they couldn’t begin to calculate the value of those heads.
“Very beautiful,” nodded Lieutenant Governor Mey, hands clasped behind his back because otherwise they’d be shaking. “May I ask how you got them that color?”
Stark laughed. “Jahweh gave it to them.”
“The super-being they both believed in, while they lived. The man in the sky who created the Earth and the Heavens. In the beginning he is said to have said to let there be light, and there was light.”
The trade delegation chuckled politely.
Stark touched the male head with a collector’s awed affection. “Preserved eternally with a process that renders the flesh incorruptible without changing its natural composition. If you care to touch here… very carefully… you’ll find that it is indeed flesh, flesh like yours or mine… at room temperature. Not even particularly cold. Though they’ve been dead for centuries.”
“Anyway, it’s a lost technology. We couldn’t do anything close to it.”
With a cupped hand Stark rounded the cheek and delicate jawline of the female head, her ear bending and springing from under his touch. The gesture was so like a lover’s postcoital caress that two of the delegates flinched. The head was so beautiful, so life-like in its preservation, yet so strange in its blackness and shining shaved skull that they expected the eyes and mouth to pop open with a scream when Stark had finished fondling it.
“I call the two of them the world’s greatest love story. I also call them the gypsies, because they’ve been all over the habitable world, seeking one another in death. The facts are really quite extraordinary.”
“Before I explain how I acquired them, I’ll let you in on the amazing fact that I know quite a lot of detail about their social status, their manner of dress and eating habits and even the specific circumstances of her death. His death I know less about.”
“I inherited him, you see. I grew up in a house that counted him coyly among its treasures, though he was kept in a locked case in the attic. I didn’t get a look at him until my father died and I inherited the estate. We were doing an inventory of the art treasures and he sort of popped up. As it turns out, he was worth more than all of the other paintings and sculptures combined.”
“He’s the only known example of a fully intact head from the species Homo sapiens africanus… what they called back then, rather obviously, a black. Interestingly, the black species thought only in pictures but not in words as we do. Otherwise, they were both shockingly different and uncomfortably similar to us.”
“I only regret that in preserving the head they’ve shaved the hair off, you see, because his hair was just as unique as the rest of him… very tight little kinks, very short, rather mossy… imagine, possibly, a cross between moss and wool.”
“The female’s hair was a bit different… imagine a cross between his hair as I’ve described it and yours or mine… because she’s not purebred, you see; her mother was Homo sapiens. Look at the nose.”
“Anyway, for years I’ve had him here in my library, the guardian of my books. Then one day, on a trip through Romana, to pay my respects to the ancestors, as one does… and also because I love French sweets, and France is right across that border, as it happens…”
Stark could see he was beginning to bore them. Time to spice up the story.
“I was offered the chance to bid on her by a private collector of ill repute. Of course I couldn’t refuse… money was no object. I felt I owed it to my black Adam to provide an Eve.” The Biblical reference went over their heads but he forged on. “The broker I purchased her from informed me that she’d been quite the celebrity of her era…married to a rich, powerful official… back when those three words together weren’t oxymoronic, gentlemen… back in that barbaric era…”
“He was rich and powerful and rather psychotically jealous. It seems he beheaded her lover and fed the lover’s corpse to her guests at a dinner party! Only a few weeks later he killed her, too. Beat her to death… most luckily sparing the face. The interesting thing about all that is how little punishment he received for his crimes; I’d dare say any of you would face more bother over a parking violation than he did for double murder. He lived to be a ripe old age and dined out, no pun intended, on the legend of his atrocity.”
“It was only after bringing Eve home to Adam, and setting them beside one another on that very shelf, that I began to wonder if they might have known one another in life. I wondered if there was some connection… perhaps by a few degrees of separation at the least. I knew they were from the same part of the world… I knew they were from the same era, vaguely…”
“Peeling off the tiniest amount of flesh from the back of our Adam’s neck, a technician had his genetic numbers checked against the oldest known database.”
“You won’t believe this, gentleman…but I assure you that what I’m about to say is true. It turns out… I’m getting goosebumps as I think about it… it turns out our black Adam and Eve were once married.”
“Let that sink in for a moment.”
“They were married, divorced, met their separate deaths… were separated as artifacts by thousands of kilometers for centuries… different countries and continents… now reunited on that shelf.”
Even Lieutenant Governor Mey was obviously moved. There was a catch in his throat when he asked, pointing to a small oil painting set in the center of the book case…asking, perhaps, merely to diffuse the intensity of the moment… “Can you tell us who this is?”
Stark drew himself straight with awful pride, but spoke with self-satirizing pomp.
“This? This is Iseult Tsurak, mother of the modern nation of Romana, hero of the Gypsytown rebellion, intellectual architect of the Pax Romana and the founder of the immense fortune that nourishes the Stark family to this day, even as far north as we’ve drifted. Stark is an Arctic modernization of the name Tsurak, you see.”
“She’s my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother.”
“What a look in those eyes, eh?”
“What a look.”
a fairytale by steven augustine
music by nicholas freilich
voice talent mr craig thomas
[editor’s note: the following story is an excerpt from a larger work, HERE]
The first time Benny saw her was in the produce aisle of the Decatur Blvd Von’s in Vegas and the first thing he said to her was “You look like you come from the stars, sister.” A meteorite-black Nefertiti in white.
Who, me? she pantomimed.
Wearing a flowing white caftan and a miter-like head-wrap, also white, and affecting a bewildered foreign air, she smiled her dimpled, dazzling smile and considered both the intent and merit of Benny’s effort. Bemused, and finished with her own “shopping”, she followed him up and down several aisles as he tossed various processed, animal fat, refined white sugar and bleached flour products into his cart and pushed it towards the check-out line, trying his blarney on her.
Benny was clean-shaven at the time and dressed in the hip square look of a man trying to break into the upper reaches of the hip square world of writing for Television: the Timex, the turtle neck, the khakis, the loafers. She mistook him for a swarthy honky talking black but let him rap on for the reasons that he was tall and handsome and would provide an excellent cover as she exited the Von’s with thirty pounds of shoplifted produce concealed upon her person, pressed tight upon her naked flesh. The cashier, a bleach-blonde leather-tanned cracker, fingernails chipped and bitten to the pork-pink quick, gave Benny a look of uncomplicated racial disgust as he paid for his purchases with that Negress in tow, signing a cheque that required three pieces of picture ID before she, the lipless cashier, would accept it. The striking black lady took Benny by the arm as they promenaded with some pomp through the double-electric-door airlock of the supermarket.
Beyond the protection of the arctic bubble of the supermarket’s air conditioning and prior to the bubble of Benny’s ’68 Mercury Cougar, the asphalt on which the car was parked pushed back at the sky with its black, impacted heat. It felt like walking behind a pre-takeoff F-15 as Benny slipped his Foster Grants on, a climatic extreme his East Coast blood never got used to. He popped the lid on his trunk and offered her a ride. She bent over to climb in and he noticed her belly, her hips and thighs were bulging and jutting and lumping out at various stresspoints along the seams of the caftan, and perhaps white wasn’t the most fortuitous color for her to have wrapped such a voluminous body in.
He stole boyishly furtive glances as he steered the Cougar, talking his head off. He was talking his head off in hopes that the right sequence of words might click and open the lock (if lock there was) on the young lady’s alpha and omega, which he intuited would be as restorative to his sexual powers as a dip in a rain barrel at Lourdes. Six months on MetraCal or some other modern dietary supplement and she’d be just about perfect.
Just as the brothers were dreaming of “dating” those incandescent peppermint blondes one saw on billboards all over the country hawking Virginia Slims and Miss Clairol: Only Her Hairdresser Knows For Sure, the preppy masterminds responsible for those very billboards were in turn lusting horribly after the brothers’ sisters, and Benny, perhaps, would have been shocked to be informed that in lusting after this black beauty his sexual proclivities were closer to a white man’s than to a brother’s that year.
“The thing to remember about the industry,” he heard himself saying, “it’s a medium in its infancy. It’s still what you call protean… everything’s up for grabs, you see what I’m saying? What you want is to be in on the ground level at the next paradigm shift and how do you achieve that? You just need that one solid hit… a bonafide hit that seems to contradict everything that came before it. See, I plan on having that hit, sister. I bank on it.”
If there was one thing in 1972 that she was sick of, it was white men calling her ‘sister’. Especially a white man trying to talk black. Still, he was cute.
“Take something like The Name of the Game. It’s the kind of television that successful people between the ages of 27 and 33 stay home to watch… they’ll turn down a cocktail party or a night out at the movies to watch this show and yet it defies all conventional wisdom. Each episode is 90 minutes long… 90 minutes! It’s really three shows, with three leads, wrapped into one. The leads rotate. Each episode is like a feature-length film, if you can ignore the commercials… a feature-length film for free. That’s what television means…that’s the meaning of television. The destiny of television. Never having to leave your own home for entertainment! One day, sister, there won’t be any commercials, either. What you’ll have then is an uninterrupted experience of your favorite shows, and, believe me, by then, everything on the tube will be your favorite. You’ll never want to leave that spot in front of the picture tube. You’ll never need to.”
“They’re working on that already. As things are now, what you’re seeing, listen, an advertiser pays a very large fee for the right to interrupt the show to talk a little about his product. A little song and dance about ketchup.They call it a break like it’s some kind of relief but the fact is it’s an interruption. But what if they could work the product into the show? You could charge the advertiser more for that because the product could end up with longer screen time but, see, there’d be no interruption. Okay, between shows you’d need a pause so people could… you know. So they could go to the, uh… to the bathroom…” Benny blushed.
“Anyway, I’m just talking now. I know I talk too much. What about you? Where are you from? Some exotic location. Let me guess. Port Au Prince? Cairo? Madagascar?”
Precious lifted her chin and shut him up with her Nefertiti profile. How should she play this? Would he be disappointed to learn that she wasn’t a foreigner? That she was born in North Carolina?
“I hope you don’t think there’s anything wrong,” she said, with exactly the kind of voice a Siamese cat would if one knew a human worth speaking to, “with a girl just being a common-ass Negro.”
“Common-ass you are not, sister,” said Benny.
“Maybe you don’t know enough Negroes.”
“Maybe you don’t know enough light-skinned brothers passing for white.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “Why didn’t you say so?” She reached down the front of her dress and extracted a mango. “You hungry?”
Benny said he was starving.
His immediate higher-up at The Studio went by the name of Gray, or Grayson, Parker, an affected anti-affectation meant to call attention to the fact that he was calling attention away from the fact that his actual name was much longer and stamped with pedigrees as old as the thirteen original Colonies. Parker was standing half-crouched on his desk, back to Benny, facing the enormous sixth floor picture window that guests in the chair in front of his desk usually faced (stunned by the view of The Strip which filled it precisely for that purpose, dormant and raw as the bottom of the Dead Sea, during working hours, and spectacular as a Con Edison-powered vision of a Kansan’s idea of a first class purgatory, at night).
It was late-lunch time on a Thursday afternoon and The Studio was meticulously emptied of higher-ups, most of them over at Sarno’s Circus Circus sucking radium-colored Margaritas through glass straws at the white-leather bar where Sean Connery had only months-prior filmed a scene for Diamonds Are Forever. Circus Circus wasn’t visible from Parker’s office but the north face, upper level, corner suite of the Satellite Motor Lodge was. Parker reached back without looking, and said, with a surgeon’s urgency, “Bushnells.” As Parker handed Benny the old Steiner spy glass in exchange, he took the Bushnells, adjusted them, and emitted an admiring groan that could easily have been taken for a song of pain.
“Son of a bitch,” he grinned.
An hour later they were waiting for seafood platters over bottomless glasses of so-so wine at the street-level bar of the relatively-rundown Stardust. As everyone who actually knew Vegas knew, each of the major casino/hotels was calibrated to appeal to visitors from a specific region of the greater Midwest, with The Sands aimed at Kansas, The Tropicana keyed to Oklahoma, and The Frontier designed specifically to rope in tourists from North and South Dakota, and so on. Or something like that. Benny could never remember the exact formula. Elements of the Stardust felt like an homage towards the blue-collar, redlight ambiance of near-Northside Chicago; the shocking abundance of colored waitresses (two) couldn’t have been a coincidence. The fact that Parker preferred the Stardust over the garishly swanky Circus Circus couldn’t have been a coincidence, either. As the waitress, a Benin bronze in a polyester wig, marched towards the kitchen, her red satin hotpants sucked so hard on Parker’s eyes that his optic nerves twanged like a banjo.
Parker had a habit, especially when he was feeling rose-lit by the grape-light, of calling Benny Pierre, due to Benny’s French-sounding surname, probably, and the only thing that kept Benny from taking umbrage at this was his knowing that Parker didn’t know he was a Negro. It was okay, in other words, because he was being denigrated as a man but not as a human. Most Negroes would never know how good that could feel, or even that an inexplicable appetite for such abuse (first to receive it, later to dole it out) was the key to success in business.
“Looks are everything, Pierre,” said Parker, checking the time, “…why do you suppose my watch is worth more than your monthly salary and yet yours costs less than this lunch? Does one keep better time than the other? I think not. Look,” he mimed drawing a diagram on the bar with his finger, “there’s an atomic clock with an IBM brain buried a mile under a mountain in Colorado in a top-secret room that cost the tax payers eighty five million dollars to build and a million a year to maintain… ” He raked his fingers through a haircut the color and texture of doll hair. He had a phenomenally small face. He looked bewildered, briefly, and started again.
“Pierre, I know you appreciate frankness. So I’m going to be frank. Why do you think the old guy hired you, despite your somewhat, shall we say, skimpy qualifications? Two years of art school on the G.I. Bill? Six months in the mail room of an AM radio station in Philly? Good grades in High School? I think not. We took you on because you look the part. The sideburns, the cheekbones, the suede jacket and turtleneck sweater. You beat out a guy who graduated near the top of his class from Harvard.”
It hit Benny that he was either about to be promoted to junior executive or fired with less ceremony than Parker had ordered their drinks with and his posture changed accordingly. With almost imperceptible stealth, he shifted back up off his elbows. He tasted a deep swallow of the bar’s stale layer-cake of old smoke and gambler’s fearsweat and became lucid as hell, clear as a tall glass of lunar vacuum, ready for whatever Parker was about to throw at him. His mouth was as dry as all that encroaching desert out there, only a three minute walk in any direction from any point on The Strip, tumbleweeds blowing down Sahara Avenue. He was ready for death.
Hamilton Gold entered the bar with an exaggerated tip-toe pantomime made all the more would-be comical by his briefcase, sneaking up on Parker with a wink at Benny, who was far from in the mood to play along. Gold loomed behind Parker for what felt like a solid minute, obviously stuck on what to do next, unable to think of anything hysterically funny. He took a seat at the bar and nodded defeated hellos. He caught the waitress’s eye and asked Parker,
“Have you, uh…?”
“Not yet. I was just getting to it.”
Gold turned to Benny and, making that face he made when he meant to make it clear that the face he was making meant he wasn’t beating around the bush, said, “We were interested in knowing whether you know any Negroes.”
“He means qualified.”
Parker leaned forward for emphasis. “We thought you might know, or might know someone who knows someone who is or knows…”
“See, you’re a bit younger than we are, LaFontaine, despite our official ages… ” Gold winked and turned to the waitress to order whatever the other two were having, then joked, as she sashayed towards a table of leisured-suited Missourians who were waving hundred dollar bills to get her attention, with a jerk of his big chin at her back,“Hey, I know, maybe we should ask… ?”
Parker made his in-point-of-fact-we’re-being-quite-serious-despite-Gold’s-tiresome-japes face and said, “Pierre, ever hear of a colored guy with the unforgettable name of Thaddeus Mumford?” When Benny shook his head, reaching for the steaming plate a Malaysian busboy was lifting shakily over Parker’s shoulder, Gold said,
“Talented kid… sings, acts, writes… I even hear he can direct. Clean-cut, well-spoken, sweet as a hundred eighty pound Hershey Bar…”
“Million-watt smile… sexy as hell… ”
“Not mad at anyone…”
“We want a Negro like that, Pierre, and we figure you can help us find one. Can’t you go to one of those parties we hear you go to… ?”
“There must be a couple of colored college types… ”
“Or Jewish girls who… no offense, Gold… they usually…”
Gold watched Parker pop a fried scallop in his mouth with a well-fed dog’s bored envy and said, in a neutral tone, “None taken, Gray. Maybe we should tell LaFontaine… ”
“Why we’re in desperate need of a Negro?” Parker frowned at Benny, chewing. “Think he can be trusted?”
“I think so. He’s one of us now, Gray,” said Gold, though his eyes darted to Parker to check for any notable reaction to the word us. “I think LaFontaine,” he toyed with the sound of the word, “needs to be aware of the gravity of the situation.”
Parker fixed Benny with a blinkless this-goes-no-further-than-this-conversation stare and said, “Remember that guy I was telling you about, before, the way-better-qualified guy you cheated out of a job…? The Harvard grad? Well,” Parker smiled pleasurelessly and Gold smiled back, “word has it his lawyers are about to hit us with a multi-million dollar lawsuit… discrimination… ”
“And it looks like they’ve got a pretty tight case.”
“We need your help.”
Benny drove directly home after the meeting, steering as straight as he could, though it felt like the Cougar, or the road, or the earth itself, was zig-zagging. Not just right and left but up and down and back and forth, too. And he tried his best to ignore the roadrunner, which resembled so much the famous cartoon…the long-necked bird pacing the car for a mile in a cloud of dust before loping off on a side-road towards North Las Vegas… he tried to ignore the tumbleweeds blowing into traffic in the middle of the city or the redneck sheriff’s deputy that zoomed past doing ninety wearing aviator sunglasses on the Tonopah Highway… or the billboard out there advertising The Chicken Ranch which featured a blonde, a brunette, a redhead like an Attack of the 50 Foot Whores and everything else conspiring at that moment to make him scream what the fuck am I doing here?
He spoke to himself, he spoke aloud, he declared in a firm, clear voice that he should go grocery shopping to secure provisions for the long weekend he predicted would see him reverting to the bunker mentality he’d perfected at his all-white Art School alma mater, where he flirted with and then fucked his first white women, experiences he only found exciting because they could get him killed, theoretically, though only if he confessed he wasn’t white. But still. He decided he needed a shower to clear his head before going grocery shopping. On top of everything else, he was very tired.
When he parked the Cougar he sat in it for a while and almost nodded off listening to the very weak signal of an AM radio station from L.A. playing rhythm and blues records from his adolescence… what they called jump blues back then…ladies and gentlemen Mr. Wynonie Harris… those old shellac 78s so heavy you could break windows with them… he would’ve preferred jazz for his mood but only one station featured one weekly show with jazz of any value and that was late in the evening on Saturdays… until he noticed there was mail waiting in the bank of aluminum boxes under the stairs curving up to his second-level apartment. A Stargazer’s Monthly magazine and other items visible through the slot. He got out of the car and fetched the mail, his mind still zonked on various Alexander-Dumas-grade ironies as he gripped the hot handrail and laid a tasseled loafer on each consecutive concrete step as the almost patronizingly helpful geometry of the spiral led him to his unlocked door.
He kicked off his loafers and treated his delicate feet to the carpet. He gazed upon the totem of his alphabetized collection of jazz LPs, seven thousand records in row upon row on shelf upon shelf along the wall leading out of the living room emitting the delicious perfume of time and cardboard. On the top shelf, beside the book-ended collection of miscellaneous 45s, was the painted wood and wire scale-model of the solar system that used to sit on his father’s desk, the only thing he got (by stealing it) when the old man migrated to the afterlife.
In the bundle of mail was a letter from a person with a name he suddenly remembered he’d forgotten years ago, a buddy from art school, Ricky Lang, a white boy with a Quaker background who’d been more or less indifferent towards Benny until discovering Benny was a Negro, which had seemed to make all the difference. This was before Benny had learned to dissemble on the topic. Parting the curtain of glass beads and standing in the arched passage between his modern white kitchen and the earthtone living room, Benny opened the letter first, before the bills, or even the latest issue of Stargazer, featuring a ten-page cover story on black holes, with its lurid artist’s renderings of stars being eaten alive, stars and their screams of light, destruction on a scale that made the continent-clearing whims of the Old Testament’s Jehovah seem childishly cute and extremely local. Clearly, Jehovah Himself answered to an even supremer being, and whatever It was, It was not to be fucked with.
I hope this finds you in good health and cheerful as ever.
Tomorrow, I start that weird occasional job again that I couldn’t expect you to know about, since we haven’t kept in contact much since our time together at the Franklin Academy, where we both planned to be world-famous artists. I was going to be Matisse and you were going to be Picasso, if I recall it right (wink).
Well, for a year now my job is standing naked before the art students. I swear, there are probably 300 drawings of me in student’s portfolios, trying to get them into the best colleges. Skinny guy, small dick, pot belly, gawky neck, womanly breasts, pointy nose. You can imagine. It’s at least SOME money (6 dollars per hour unless they’ve upped it again) and I just can’t say no, since I know that no one else in this whole fucking town of 3500 people wants to (or in some cases, would be allowed to) stand naked before our children. Did I tell you already that I moved upstate after my divorce? Anyway, I’m up in the sticks now.
It’s a funny fantasy. Do you ever have dreams that you show up in highschool and you’re partly or completely naked? Many people do have that dream. I do sometimes — and I’m the guy who’s actually doing it for real. I stand there in some pose and I think, hey, I really AM NAKED in front of the eyes of these people. I see these teenagers on the street and say Hi, and I think, wow, that person usually sees me naked.
But I think my more frequent dream is that I’m walking on the street at night, naked. I dreamed that the other night, and it was so real, I was thinking to myself in the dream, yes, I do this often actually, and no, it’s not a dream. After I woke up, I actually scanned my memory to clarify for myself whether I actually do go walking naked at night or not … and I don’t … but I have this nagging almost-memory, like yes, it does seem familiar.
I guess I should go do something productive now. Or just curl up.
Keep in touch,
Your old friend,
Benny lifted the wall-mounted white trimline receiver from the kitchen wall and dialed Sheila Silver’s number, auditioning a variety of salutations (so wide in range that he realized he hadn’t a clue as to the proper general tone to adopt with her, and this after nearly screwing, and then eating, her twice) before she answered. When she finally fumbled the phone and drawled a very weak Yes?, sounding something like someone wearing a blindfold in bed in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon you’ve only managed to rouse at all because she just took the sleeping pill; sounding, in fact, exactly like that; Benny hung up. Sheila was a depressive jazz-head with big tits who often slept in the middle of the afternoon. There was just no way Benny was seriously going to ask Sheila Silver if she knew of any parties this weekend at which there might be college-educated Negroes present, though he knew that there was no logical reason for him not to. Which is why he rang Sheila Silver’s number again, immediately after hanging up, rolling his eyes at his own squeamishness, his own lack of business acumen, before hanging up again the moment she answered again (this time a lot less drowsy, annoyed, even) while Benny mused on how telephones were less useful for talking than for not talking. What middle-late 20th century man accomplished by slamming a phone in its cradle could only have been achieved as thoroughly, in the time of Louis XVl, with a guillotine. And that was progress.
When he pulled up into the lot in front of the Von’s on Decatur Blvd he expected to come walking out of the store again, in under fifteen minutes, with nothing more earthshaking than cinnamon buns. Certainly not a Nubian Queen. He patrolled the numbingly long and relatively empty-of-shoppers aisles, aisles gently Muzaked (Yesterday, Cherish, Ramblin’ Rose, Moon River) yet astringent in their chill. Something about the modern supermarket epitomized, for Benny, when Benny was in a certain mood, neither quite despondent nor truly mellow, the European mind. The orderly-yet-somehow-borderline-psychotic nature of these cold white right-angled corridors. The soul’s abattoir. How many more thousands of years, if left on their own, would Africans have needed before they came up with a Vons Supermarket? And to what end, if then? The thought was more a twinge of disquiet than the rudiments of a manifesto at that point in Benny’s life. It passed, he pushed, and the visible spectrum of Smucker’s preserves rolled by.
There was still water in his ears, his left ear, from the shower. In his right ear was Moon River but in his left ear he could hear his breathing, his heartbeat, regular intervals of swallowing, the weight of his bones as he walked. His inner auteur imagined a voice-over on top of the left channel of his bodily sound effects saying blank-eyed he gazed upon the bounty of civilization. He searched but he did not find. He cruised the produce department and the meat department and glimpsed a marbled flank of beef swinging on its cold steel hook. He glimpsed the bloody mass through a round window in the stainless steel door behind the man in the white smock arranging neat little packages of ground cow on the astroturfed bottom of the frosted display case and he thought of Ricky Lang, naked in front of those art students. He saw Ricky on a serving platter carved into fatty pink flaps and slathered with his own blood’s gravy because he was old and would never be famous and he needed the pocket money. He saw Ricky’s bodiless head dictating a letter making light of the situation. Dear Friends, the letter would start, I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving…
-I must find a qualified Negro, whispered Benny, as he rounded the corner of the carbonated beverages aisle.
A qualified Negro. Wouldn’t that be a home run? He’d be promoted. He’d be invited for golf and cocktails with the Hamilton Golds in Palm Desert and flirt with Gold’s pretty Argentine Jew of a wife named Isolde and chuckle with Gold to country club bossa nova about Parker behind Parker’s back, an activity Parker himself subtly encouraged, since to be mocked enviously is to be powerful. Later, a purely mechanical affair with Gold’s wife as an unspoken favor to Gold so Gold could take his stupendous-looking quadrilingual Japanese secretary on ski trips without feeling guilty. One of the boys. Gold had said He’s one of us, now, Gray, but what he’d meant by that was that Benny could be if he passed this test.
Even if having a qualified Negro on the team couldn’t save The Studio from losing the lawsuit, everyone would know that Benny had delivered, under fire, on D-Day. They’d know he’d tried. The only gesture more effective than being seen to try would be going to jail on the company’s behalf on charges of discrimination himself. A possibility he wouldn’t rule out.
When he circled back around through Produce he saw her. And what was his first thought. Before even that romantic jolt her beauty chased through him like nausea. His very first thought, about which he was immediately ashamed, while Moon River swooned through the air on strings, as she turned to him as he rolled his cart past and she gave him that dimpled smile and time seemed to speed up and slow down simultaneously (even as it was happening, he seemed to be looking back on it, going over it as a series of stills and scribbled memos approximating the initial sensations):
I’ll bet she knows a qualified Negro.
It’s clear that all straight men want to fuck all women all the time (though not necessarily twice); that’s a given; but what happens in the mind of a man the first time he sees the woman he was more or less made to love? In Benny’s case, shame and self-pity both preceded a wave of the above-mentioned quasi-nausea, reddening his face, clearing the field for awe. He didn’t notice her slightly puffy eyelid. The still (slightly) discolored cheek.
“You look like you come from the stars, sister.”
Hers was the face of the First Woman, though Benny didn’t flatter himself that he was Adam. He wasn’t even Cain. But he knew he was fated to be her man. He knew he was her qualified Negro.
His penis knew it, too. He was astonished to feel it stirring in its cotton shroud, inflating from the tip down, already harder than any number of Sheila Silvers had managed to get it after hours (or so it always felt) of digital, then oral, than oral-digital, then verbal, then verbal-digital-oral-digital attention. He’d once had a worldly Sally Kellerman lookalike shove two fingers up his anus as what in some cases was probably The Secret Weapon but which only achieved, for Benny, the added complaint that he couldn’t masturbate (or defecate normally) for a week afterward. No: a peace sign up his ass was not the solution.
The solution was seated in the passenger seat of his Cougar, offering him a mango.
The Compound was out, way out, on the Tonopah Highway, beyond a cluster of mirage-like apartment complexes so new there were no flags on the flag poles yet, and many of the factory-fresh aluminum-frame windows were still wrapped in billowing plastic. The Compound was beyond, even, the skeletal shopping center (a concrete house of cards) that was going up in response to the sudden apartment complexes. Past all that, east on Mercury Road, which stretched straight back to the Sunrise Mountains, a black seam of fresh tarmac in the brushed suede of the desert, a zipper straight back to the huge rock bosom the sun rose over at the end of every working day.
Eating the proffered mango, Benny realized how hungry he’d been, back-handing his sticky chin and grinning at her. Benny’s groceries, including a pint of Neapolitan ice cream he’d forgotten about, were in a slumped sack on the back seat, but she extracted hers from the opening in the front of her caftan. She handed him a peach salted with the healthy odor of her perspiration and he did not hesitate to eat it. In fact he relished the sensation. How could Benny not be intrigued when he’d asked his new lady friend exactly where to drop her off and she’d answered, in the most matter-of-fact tone, or even perhaps with a tincture of affected modesty, as in –it’s really not a big deal, but–
“Excuse me, sister. The what?”
“You haven’t heard of The Compound? Don’t you watch the Evening News?”
But Benny hadn’t come to Vegas yet when all that happened. The fifteen-hour standoff with the Clark County Sheriff’s department and so on. Two long low stucco structures appeared on either side of a fifteen foot sun-blasted camper on a gravel lot protected by a hurricane fence, the gravel decorated in three of the four corners of the fence by dead brown Yucca trees. Benny expected snarling dogs to crawl out of camouflaged pits in the gravel but none were forthcoming. Where were the cable-armed brothers with their muscle t-shirts, lopsided Afros and Kalashnikovs?
“Is that it? What is it? It looks like a motel with a hurricane fence around it.”
“It was a motel. Once upon a time. Now it’s a deconsecrated Satellite Motor Lodge.”
He was taken aback at the unexpected glimpse of an unexpected vocabulary.
“Park across the street and leave the motor running,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.” She pulled on the door lock and added, “But if I don’t come out in fifteen minutes, just go. Do not step inside that fence and try to get me, okay? You understand? Just go.”
Benny understood, though it pained him to agree to it. He executed a tight u-turn and gunned the engine and put the car in park. She said, “Say yes, My African Queen, I understand.”
“Yes, My African Queen, I understand.”
She pecked his cheek and hopped out of the car and hurried across the road and let herself in through a silently swinging gate. She disappeared around back of one of the long low stucco structures. After waiting a few minutes he shut off the engine. He paged through the new issue of Stargazer, humming along with some oldies, reading about black holes, the trendiest topic in space.
One esteemed astrophysicist (dressed like a tennis instructor in the little photo beside his contribution) propounded the theory that nothing exists yet, and that Time as we experience it is a futuristic effect obtaining in the million billion trillionth of a second elapsing as the Super Black Hole of Reality (smaller than a neutron; comprised of the total mass of the Universe) collapses further before exploding to create Everything. And when Time finally does begin, it won’t be anything like what we think we’re experiencing in this infinitesimal moment.
Another even more esteemed astrophysicist (goatee’d Viennese) claimed that everything that has ever happened will happen again, exactly as it has always happened, oscillating like a perpetual motion machine between the perfectly balanced space/time forces of every perfectly-placed black hole in space.
The only female astrophysicist pictured (suspiciously young; an amateur watercolorist with some talent) likened black holes to tumors…the cancers of space/time…and predicted an epoch in mankind’s distant future when we’ll be able to treat these monster malignancies like surgeons with precisely detonated, super-compact nuclear weapons, many times more powerful than our sun.
Benny kept thinking: but how do they know all this?
And The Voice said: Believing is Knowing.
And Benny said: But what are we to believe, O Lord?
And The Voice said nothing. Or “nothing”. Or nothing. Benny couldn’t be sure.
When he awoke, the sky was being eaten by stars.
The dome of the overhead swarmed and seethed and he saw, half-dreaming, vast shapes with perforated edges fluttering upon the desert, papering it over in black. The domesticated nightsky as seen from his patio was one thing but the cosmos as revealed from where he lay at that moment was of another order of magnitude entirely and he realized that for the first time ever he was gazing upon the irrefutable Truth, groggy as he was, head still wedged between the headrest and the door. His neck was stiff and from his wiped-dry mouth he knew he’d been snoring in the face of All That.
Only the weakest light was visible from somewhere towards the back of The Compound, a gray blur like a stresspoint in black acetate, that and the green glimmer from the radio dial in his dashboard. And through the speaker-holes in the fiberboard shelf behind the back seat, what at first sounded like weak flies fucking under waxpaper revealed itself as a virtually inaudible version of Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler, 1957, and he knew without trying that his battery was too dead to turn the ignition and that he was stranded, twelve miles from home, like the fool he was, straining to hear the corpse of his battery channeling a heartbreaking Duke of Earl. Stranded across the street from The Compound late at night, hungry and cold. He’d rolled the window down and reclined in the bucket seat at dusk and that was all he remembered. He remembered being tired. He turned the radio off.
He remembered dreaming.
He’d dreamt he was married to that amazing black girl now curled up asleep in The Compound and that he’d traveled back East with her, incredibly, to introduce her to the family, but not his family, a dream family, with members he seemed to recognize within the dream with the accumulated confirmation of all of his childhood memories, and, yet, very strangely, the fading recollections of whom were alien to him less than two minutes after waking. What master-forger lived in his head, capable of counterfeiting recognitions he would have bet his life (in the dream) were forty years in the making?
Out of the Cougar, careful to ease the door shut, he went around to the back of the car, the wooden heels of his hundred dollar Joe Namath Dingo boots going clop clop clop, the irony of the ad copy for the boots coming to him like the stinging memory of a serious gambling loss: he knows when to wear them. And if the night had seemed unreal until that point it was real enough now as he was out in it, chilled by it, moving horizontally through a vertical vastness, a kind of elevator shaft, the walls of which receded as you approached them, the mockery it made of the infinitesimal scale of private thought and effort. He looked and found her reclining, over his shoulder, the constellation about ten feet above the horizon, the one he’d known and prayed to since childhood. Cassiopeia, with her incongruously-named constituent stars… Shedir, Caph, Ruchbah, Segin, Achird, Marfak. It had always bothered him that they were in her, part of her, these Arabs with their ugly names.
He popped the trunk of the car and found an Aztec-patterned beach blanket from Tijuana, a beach-blanket he’d never used because the beach wasn’t part of his cultural inheritance, whatever he pretended, however fair-skinned or straight-haired he was, the blanket was still folded in eighths and packaged in its scuffed plastic. Around he went again through the driver’s-side window and leaned over to the sack of groceries in the back, the sack with its dark spots of melted and spoiling foods, and he extracted a box of frosted strawberry ToasTarts. He rolled up the window and locked all the doors and, thus equipped, and with the unpackaged Aztec-patterned beach blanket wrapped around his shoulders like a serape, he began the twelve mile walk up the road.
He’d only been walking five minutes when nothing… his car, The Compound… was any longer visible behind him. He experienced the convincing illusion that he was walking towards it all rather than away from it. Or on a treadmill or in a hamster wheel. He realized that this was the point in the story during which the protagonist, of a certain age, at a certain point in his life, being by nature a seeker… has his Desert Epiphany.
It’s always in the desert. Bushes don’t burn in the suburbs, or, if and when they do, the burning doesn’t mean anything more philosophical than having to replace insured topiary. The desert is where it all happens, as far as revelations go, and the Native Americans and the antediluvian Semites and the Aboriginal Australians all had plenty of desert to wander around in and there to unearth their shallowly-buried epiphanies, epiphanies like golden statues lodged in the sand and becoming the roots of their cultural wisdoms, cultural wisdoms they’ve since shared with a grateful, spiritually hungry world, the keys to the cosmos handed down to us in popular movies and songs and best-selling novels. He thought of Kahlil Gibran. And now it was his turn to have his spirituality improved by nothingness. Or nothingness.
He followed the sound of his boot heels, swaddled in the Aztec-patterned beach blanket, with its very faint odor of petrol, and when not paying close attention he walked off the tarmac accidentally, twice, stumbling on scrabbly hard scallops of sand and the occasional low prickle of tumbleweed, hurrying back to the reassuring surface of the road, a symbol of progress since before the Romans, probably. A symbol for everything, actually, when he thought of it.
Further he walked, counting his boot clicks, tearing open the box of ToasTarts and into each of the three foil wrappers (each, in turn, containing two frosted strawberry ToasTarts) every quarter hour or so, suffused with an intensely private pleasure in the threatening face of the cold infinite as the plasticky dough of the mass-produced pastry accumulated between the rills of his gums and the inner pockets of his cheeks in a slow-dissolving infusion of sugar-heavy cud.
In the woolly blanket of the below-sea-level darkness he thought he glimpsed lumbering forms in his peripheral vision, the desert remembering its dinosaur dead. Brilliant as the sky was (like a vertiginous view of The Strip from a space ship) the light failed to trickle to anything lower than a hundred feet above the sand, half-illuminating the occasional bat or swallow or buzzard tumbling headlong overhead like ripples in spacetime and crying out.
Benny pretended he was entering an African village on foot. Where the village is exactly doesn’t matter. A sentry at the village gate; a fearsome sentry brandishing a scimitar and a necklace of yellow molars, a sentry big as Roosevelt Grier; poses a riddle the correct answer to which will allow Benny entry to the village. A wrong answer, on the other hand, will see Benny’s head rolling around in the sand. The sentry speaks English with the camp elocution of a mad Shakespearean actor.
“Interloper!” says the sentry. “I pose to Thee a riddle.”
“I say I say I say,” says Benny, in this fantasy, imitating Alan Alda imitating Groucho Marx, chomping on a mimed cigar in a manic stoop, “Pose away, Mr. Bones!”
“What creature is it,” booms the sentry, molar necklace chattering as he gestures violently to paint a picture of fable immemorial in the middle distance, “that travels on all fours in the morning, on two legs in the afternoon, and on three in the evening?”
“That’s an easy one, chief,” says Benny. “The secret word,” he pronounces “word” as woid, “is lush. A lush crawls around on all fours with a hangover in the morning, staggers on two legs in search of his next drink after a business lunch in the afternoon, and totters on a three-legged barstool in the evening!”
With a grunt of respect the sentry grants passage into the village, with its neat little roads and thatched huts, and, to make a long fantasy short, the king of the village, looking suspiciously like Benny’s father, wearing Benny’s father’s tuxedo jacket and Benny’s father top hat along with a grass skirt instead of his pants, presents Benny with a harem to service as part two of the trials he must endure before becoming the chief of the village (freeing the old man to enjoy his sunset years collecting stamps, and freshwater fishing).
The harem with which Benny is presented, he recognizes: every single girlfriend he ever had in grade school, starting with Beverly Huff, moon-faced, chubby and shiny brown. Beverly is five, smells like a pickle, and can punch harder than Benny, who is considered to be prettier than any of the girls in kindergarten. Beside Beverly is the girl Benny replaced her with, the same year, an older woman from second grade named Tamara, with root beer-colored eyes.
Looking cosmi-comically displaced amongst the little schoolgirls is the woman to whom he’d actually lost his virginity in a very nearly meaningless act (though orchestrating it probably took some doing on her part) at the age of thirteen: Gracie Barnes. The proprietress of the corner store at which Benny did all his after-school shopping. Bosomy black Gracie with her feline eyeglasses and her helmet of conked gray hair and her impotent, cigar-chomping husband named… Jimmy. Benny went in that shop one day and Gracie put the OUT TO LUNCH sign up and locked the door and that’s all he remembers about it except the ecstasy of walking out again ten minutes later clutching a fat roll of free comic books. Plastic man was his favorite.
Gracie, Beverly, Tamara, Verlene… Benny isn’t particularly enthralled until he gets to Karenna Beauchamp, sixteen years old in the tenth grade, held back a year due to being distracted from her school work by problems at home. Karenna’s mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, a very unusual complaint for a black woman to have in those days; so unusual, that the family tended to brag about it: she got her a white lady’s disease! My mama she got her a white lady disease, is how Karenna had broken the ice at a dance, in fact, as Benny remembers it. Maybe he’s making that up. Karenna is tall, slender, wide-hipped but nearly titless, with the kind of face that would have been used to sell face cream if she hadn’t been so incredibly, deliciously, blasphemously black. He singles out Karenna Beauchamp and she steps out of her vaguely native-ish, sarong-or-sari-like, drapey kind of clothing and reclines on a soft soft pile of ostrich feathers, pipe-cleaner legs spread, her hairless wrinkled blue-black cunt (like an elephant’s eye, squinting at him, crying its tear of vaginal moisture) cocked at the perfect angle of reception. A lion roars. Monkeys gibber in the trees and the ceremonial drums commence throbbing as Benny kicks out of his safari trunks and the king stares with kingly dispassion.
The problem Benny often has with his fantasies, especially the sexual ones, is their uncontrollability. At the very moment they become most persuasive, they tend to get away from him (stuck in a meeting, late for lunch, stomach growling for mercy while Gold or Parkerson drone on, for example, he’ll visualize a perfect plate of spaghetti, only to see a turd plop on it). Karenna Beauchamp is on that pile of ostrich feathers with her blank expression and her legs spread and her pussy ready to receive and all the other little black girls from Benny’s romantic history plus Gracie Barnes in a circle around the altar, chattering with school-girlish excitement like at the Saturday Matinee and Benny ready to mount when who should push through the crowd in a fury but his most painful memory, his half-sister Jolene, the illegitimate product of his father’s most famous affair?
Exactly (to the day) Benny’s age, Jolene was his eerie black twin, his dark mirror, the sister he didn’t even know existed until his father unwisely orchestrated a meeting on the occasion of the annual barbecue of the Greater Masonic Negro Tradesmen Association of West Philly, 1947, taking Benny aside with, “Son, you’re seventeen now, which is a man by any means of reckoning, and it’s time for you to know the things a man knows about the things a man will do, the things of the world beyond arithmetic or spelling or the pretty Bible tales your mother fills your head with.”
The whole terrible business. A very very painful thing. Benny hadn’t thought about it or Jolene for years and now she was filling him with her hot prickles of shame, grief, regret. The look on Benny’s father’s face when he found out, clutching that letter and shrieking at Benny from the other side of the kitchen although his face seemed just an inch away, filling Benny’s vision, the spit on his lips and the hate in his eyes and the look on everyone else’s face at the breakfast table, the detail of every expression Benny managed to absorb without taking his own eyes off of his father’s Old Testament Jehovah mask as he cast Benny out of the bosom of the family. Benny’s wailing, red-faced, innocently terrified mother and sisters… the toast burning… the Korean war… art school on the GI bill…
He stood cactus-still with the last ToasTart in one hand and the serape clutched in the other. And his socks were soggy with blood because his boots had never walked more than thirty unpunctuated steps since he’d bought them and it is amazing how far you can walk on bloody feet… the body must secrete some kind of natural anesthetic. Until you stop. And try to start again. How could he do this? But he had to: he couldn’t sleep in the desert. But his right foot was unbearably swollen. However long it had taken Benny to walk away from his car, it took him three times longer to walk back again, gasping and cursing and hobbling in this unexpected Jesus pain.
He cried out.
The sleek dead car in its cold dark sleep. He’d bought it with his first big check from television. The Compound. The silently swinging gate gave way. The gravel crunched. Ominously, the door to the lobby was not locked.
There was only just the floor lamp on, severely dimmed. He found himself standing in what had obviously been the ‘50s-style, modernist lobby of the front desk of the deconsecrated motel, listening to his own heavy breathing. Geometric patterns in aquatints and white all darkened by the dimness of that one sad floor lamp.
Frankly he’d rather be in a meeting with Parker.
There was no longer a front desk, but two dozen or so folding chairs, not in rows, but strewn in clusters across the carpet. The walls were darkly paneled and a patched screen for an 8mm movie projector…no wider than Benny’s outstretched arms… hung on the wall behind what had once been the spot upon which the front desk had rested. He could see that the pool-colored carpet with its geometric swirls was cleaner in that spot, a clean-spot of bright blue shaped like a giant’s thumbnail and grooved by pressure points. There was the pebbled glass of the outer wall behind him and the dim floor lamp before him and the outline of a man on the swinging door of the men’s room to the right of the phantom desk, half-illuminated by the light, and, further, a dark corner around which there’d be a hall or a storage room, probably.
A very large man with bushy gray hair and a hooked nose slipped into the lobby from around that corner. The man’s skin was the color and texture of a football Benny had owned as a child. Benny was tall but the man was taller and two of Benny wide. He struck Benny as being merely the visible aspect of a much larger creature or force. He was definitely not the qualified Negro, though he was obviously capable of giving either Gog or Magog a run for the money in the Destroyer of Worlds category. The whites of the man’s eyes were dark and he was dressed in his bathrobe and his bedroom slippers and when he spoke there was an amplified, over-articulated quality to his voice; a pressure you’d need to blow out the glass walls of the lobby to release. He spoke with the majestic belligerence of a voice-over in a PSA about street crime. It was too dark outside for the way he spoke, which was fully awake.
“What do you want here, white man?”
Benny didn’t know what to say.
“I repeat: what do you want here at three o’clock in the morning, whitey?”
“I’m not white.”
“I’m Negro. I admit I don’t look it but I’m a Negro. Like you.”
“Like me. Is that so?” The man laughed, but not too loudly. “What’s a Negro if a Negro’s not a thing that answers to the Negro description?”
Benny touched his chest and said “In here,” although the look on the man’s face was powerful enough to give Benny doubts.
“Really? Gosh, that’s good news, because in that case I’m T.S. Eliot,” said the man, who also touched his chest, “in here. You care for a spot of tea and some crumpets, whitey?”
“My battery’s dead.” He looked at his boots, near to fainting. “My feet…”
The man, hands on his hips, his chest exposed, eyebrows high, seemed ready to laugh again. His chest hairs were scant and curly white. “Your feet.”
“I’m parked across the street.”
“In front of my property.”
“Oh, just, you know, star gazing. Yeah?”
Benny shook his head.
Benny lowered his head and shook it.
“Okay. I see.” The big man nodded. “Keeping us under surveillance.” He smiled with unexpected warmth. “I’m still that important?”
The smile faded. Or pretended to. A comedic possibility. Would have to be one dedicated undercover cop.
“I mean,” added Benny, quickly, pointing towards the road again. “I gave your lady friend…”
“…I gave her a ride…”
The man pulled a folding chair to his side and sat in it, arms folded over his chest, head cocked. He looked at Benny a good long time and it was clear to Benny that the man was deciding upon how much energy to expend on dealing with him. How much trouble to go to or get into. He leaned back in the chair, which whimpered under his weight, and he shifted his huge clasped hands to the belly of his bathrobe and yawned, turning it into language.
“You agree I have a dilemma on my hands here?”
“Only if you think I’ve come to… ”
Benny’s right foot was so swollen in his Dingoes that he imagined having to cut the boot off, peeling the leather away from the delicate white bones of his foot along with a sopping roll of flesh.
“You’re from back East.”
“You talk like it.”
Benny winced. He needed to get off of that foot.
“A high yellow sort of fellow from… ”
“Philly,” said Benny, after a groan.
“Good old Philly,” said the man. “I killed a guy in Philly, once,” he added, “a yellow Nigger who looked too white for my tastes, I hope I haven’t upset you,” but he winked to show he was joking. He said he knew quite a few high yellow Negro girls from back East in Chicago because he used to have money and he used to be somewhat famous in what you would call a notorious way. He asked Benny if Benny had any sisters and Benny said yes, three, and the man stood and said maybe you’ll introduce me someday and gestured for Benny to follow him and Benny, in agony on his swollen foot, did so.
Benny awoke, fully clothed and wearing his boots, under the crisp clean sheet of a motel bed, the hard dry sun of the deep desert parting the drawn curtains like a sword. Benny’s first thought was that there must be a woman in the bathroom, freshening up, but he heard no water running, no flushing or spritzing or fussing with a purse or car keys or spray-on deodorant. But why would he have been sleeping in a motel room alone? Why was there a framed portrait of JFK on the wall to his right, above the television? What year was it and why wasn’t he sure? Behind every “why” was another “why”, and any particular procession of whys he could think of telescoped backwards by only a dozen or so degrees before butting up against the creation of the universe.
The throb in his right foot clarified and asserted itself as a terrible pain as he remembered where he was and how, to some extent, he’d come to be there. Still, his dreams lingered; the dream tastes and smells and emotions. Closing his eyes he saw, or felt, the fading trace of the people he’d known and loved in the other life he’d lived through the troubled hours of his recent unconsciousness, and losing them to daylight was like losing them to death. Or to life, maybe.
When Benny opened his eyes again, the man was standing at the foot of the bed. He was wearing the overalls of an auto mechanic, with a wide-brimmed sun hat and a solemnly curious expression, smelling powerfully of hard physical labor. The door was open brightly behind his massive silhouette and the fading wash of an airforce jet’s passing gave a great depth to the afternoon.
“What time is it, please?” asked Benny.
“It’s quarter after five, white man. Would you care for some breakfast?”
“A half a grapefruit would be nice.”
The man laughed. “Watching your weight, white man?”
Benny smiled. “Why do you keep calling me white man?”
“Well, for one thing, because your driver’s license says ‘Caucasian’ on it.”
Benny could feel his wallet still bulging in his back right pocket, clearly one of the two main causes of his troubled sleep. Still, he panicked. “How do you know that?”
The man laughed again. A surprisingly robust and good-natured laughter, for all its brevity. “Call it an educated guess. Why don’t you wash up while I prepare your grapefruit? You remember how? All the soap and water you’ll ever need is right in that little room. Some disposable razors and a can of shaving cream, too, if you’re feeling ambitious.”
Benny waited a few extra minutes after the man’s exit into the cauterizing sunlight, then lifted the sheet and pulled off his serape and rolled out of bed, discovering that things were as bad as he had feared when he tried to put some weight on his right foot. With a jolting pain like shattering glass with a nervous system he hopped the distance to the toilet and landed against the sink, leaning heavily on it, afraid to look in the mirror. Afraid of the thing in it.
He eased himself down on the toilet seat by clutching the shower curtain and spent a good long time contemplating his boots. They would have to come off, if only in order for him to undress fully so as to bathe, though of course the real issue was the confronting of the condition of his right foot, which no longer even felt like one, but was transmitting sensations that caused him to visualize a bloody fork of bone pronged out of his leg, jabbing into a raw chunk of meat with toes at the end of it.
Seated on the toilet he was able to remove a drawer in the cabinet the sink was built into and laid it upon his lap, fingering through several little bottles of aspirin, loose papers, ballpoint pens, rolls of gauze, a tampon or two and a sewing kit. Out of the sewing kit he removed a small pair of scissors and with these scissors he cut the smooth-heeled soles off each boot, beginning with the left, a not entirely difficult job, being as each boot was tattered and stitch-blown and road-blasted with holes. The soles hit the clean tiles of the bathroom with an earthy density, along with the remaining bits of each boot, including curled tongues and bitty laces, and he thought of Napoleon’s army, or the German infantry stranded in Stalingrad, boiling their footwear for dinner. The debris plopped into a black pile and while his left foot was merely stained indigo from the old coloration of the lived-in boot, the right foot was a vivid thing of purple and yellow and orange and red, glowing in the half-dark of the bathroom. He wanted to faint but he didn’t.
The over-shirts he unbuttoned and removed, one at a time, still seated, and then the t-shirts came off, ripping as he tugged them, exposing his chest and belly to the tingle and itch of air. After this phase he rested, steadying himself, avoiding the tableaux (though not the odor; impossible) of his neon foot, which dangled in a bulbous throb from the leg he’d crossed over the knee of the other.
Reaching over he managed to stopper the tub and turn on the water. Watching water so pure it was nearly blue gush into the Platonic form of a clean white bathtub was so fascinating that the tub was nearly full before he snapped out of the reverie and twisted the tap off. Hoisting himself on the shower curtain he managed to get to an upright position again, all of his weight on his left foot. He dug his wallet out of the back pocket and placed it on the edge of the sink, and, after a strength-gathering pause, he ripped his unzipped pants from the crotch down, tearing the rotted cloth from his legs in four strokes, and he ripped off the shreds of his underwear, which were a complicated color, and he sat himself groaning on the edge of the bathtub before falling sideways into it, splashing the floor tiles. He screamed when the parched wound of his macerated foot hit the hot water.
“You alright in there?” came the man’s deep voice.
When he got no answer he stepped into the bathroom, switching on the lights, and found the white man breathing, but semi-conscious, or pretending to be, in the bathtub, the blind fish of his little white dick floating in the bushy red kelp of his public hair, the bathwater pink. The bathroom floor tiles were covered in a quarter inch of water and he was careful to avoid the puddled filth of the white man’s clothing, which would have to be disposed of if ever he could find a fire hot enough. There was a wallet on the edge of the sink and he looked through it, finding a typewritten letter folded into eighths, a ticket stub for dry cleaning, and a long-expired driver’s license that claimed that the white man was a 42-year-old citizen of the state of New Jersey by the name of Ricky Lang.
When the white man came to consciousness again, he’d been summoned by the not entirely unpleasant pain of having his right foot cleaned and bandaged. He lay naked on the motel room bed he’d spent the previous night and morning in, his long hair and beard still damp but drying rapidly in the zero-moisture Vegas heat. The large black man who was tending to his foot said, “Someone tried to get into my car last night. There were scratch marks on the door. Was that you?”
“I’ve been sick for a while.”
The black man nodded, seeming to accept this for an answer. But then he added,
“I was about to throw away what was left of your pants when I found these.” He jingled a full set of house keys. “Why have you been living outside for so long? Where’s your home?”
The white man looked genuinely puzzled, and not a little pained, by the question. The black man stood with a graceful weariness and gestured at the bandaged foot and said, “I can’t guarantee you won’t get gangrene and die, but maybe this’ll help. Here’s a bathrobe you can wear. You can follow me if you’re hungry.”
They hobbled outside, the one helping the other to walk. There was a café-style table under a sunshade umbrella on the gravel between the two long, low stucco buildings of the old motel. Some distance behind them was a Jetstream motor home of dented and polished aluminum, parked beside a flagless flag pole and looking like a gargantuan kitchen appliance of the 1950s, its side door open and the unarticulated murmur of news radio at a low volume leaking out. The sun was still hours from setting but depleted and forgiving and the wind finished drying the white man’s shoulder-length hair and chest-length beard before he took his place at the table, lowered into the seat, wearing, with comical inadequacy, the very bathrobe he’d first seen the black man in.
“Help yourself,” said the black man. He nodded at a serving plate of cold scrambled eggs, a cold plate of sausages and potatoes, a stack of cold pancakes and a pitcher of warm orange juice.
The white man took a surprisingly petite forkful of the eggs and said, “I’m wondering what you might have found in my wallet.”
“Wasn’t much to find.”
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
“Want it?” The black man held it up.
The white man reached and took the wallet and placed it on the table beside the plate he was eating from. Something was in the air. It was different between the two of them now. The confrontational energy of the evening prior had evaporated. The black man scratched his chin and said, “And it wasn’t you I’ve been getting all those letters from?”
The white man, he shrugged and he chewed.
The black man said, “I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that you are what you appear to be.”
The white man asked, without looking up from his plate, “Which is?”
“Somebody with an interesting story to tell.”
There was a good long silence. The black man sneezed and the white man said god bless you.
The white man looked up, finally, and said, “Why don’t you tell yours first?”
I was born in 1932 near Chicago. My father was a sanitation worker employed by the city of Chicago and we came, in my thirteenth year, to live in a little gray, clean, clapboard house in a colored neighborhood of Chicago called Golders Park. By Negro terms of reckoning we were suddenly middle class, because my father had a job with the city. His position wasn’t as prestigious as that of a Federal postal worker’s, but he wasn’t a dishwasher, or a hustler, either. I was the second of eight children, and all of my siblings (six sisters and a baby brother), as far as I know, are living. Thelma, Marva, Bernadette, Antonia, Edwina, Gloria and Benny Jr.
I was an avid and talented student, twice promoted ahead of my classmates, so that I graduated from High School at the age of sixteen. Being younger than my classmates was never a social problem because I was always large, and, though I had no talent or interest in sports, I was built like a linebacker, so no one trifled with me. Being bigger than the bullies, I had that rare thing, a taunt-free experience of High School. I was never what you would call a handsome boy, but there were always girls around, whether or not you could call them attractive, and whether or not I ever did much with them. I made it through school with my virginity technically intact.
The year I graduated from Golders Park High School was 1948, and back then there were no real scholarships established to help the poor to attend college. If there were, they were a well-kept secret. There were little funds and sponsorships from local church and business but I wasn’t offered any, probably because I didn’t look the part of a student with the potential of bringing glory to the colored race. With no other options, I entered the job market, taking on a string of odd jobs while nursing my ultimate dream of working at a library. The year I turned 19, my dream came true, incredibly, and I assumed a custodial position at a little library on Chicago’s near North Side, a working class neighborhood of immigrant Poles and scattered Irish, ignorant, superstitious newcomers to the American dream. From our house in Golders Park to my job every morning at the Joseph Pulaski Memorial Library was an hour’s bus ride, involving three connections, through many different ethnic enclaves of the city, and it was into that most hostile of all the enclaves that I stepped off of that last bus, early every morning, five days a week. I learned soon enough that the best way to deflect hostile, wary looks as I walked the three blocks from the bus stop to the library was to carry my mop bucket to work with me.
The librarian was a woman named Bernadine Weaver. Caucasian, obviously. When I first met her, the day I applied for the position of janitor, she was 33 years old, single, a remarkably tall, but unremarkably handsome, bronze-blonde who always wore her very long hair in a burnished librarian’s bun. There’s something of the nun in a librarian: the chaste silence, the spinsterish dedication to an intellectual ideal of abstinence. The cloister-like smell of the stacks adds to the impression. She could as well have been wearing a wimple that day I first walked in, embarrassing us both with my height, which implied a pairing, for very tall women and very tall men can’t, in the end, avoid one another. I was dressed in my Sunday shoes, pressed dungarees and brand new flannel shirt. In that look she gave me, the first time ever she looked, she seemed to recognize the introductory few moments of her oldest recurrent nightmare. She knew she was fated to lay that big blonde head on this strapping 19 year old Negro’s chest and I, of course, would be the one who paid the highest price for her doing it. But, before I go any further on the subject of Bernadine Weaver, another word or two about my own family.
My father was a garbage man. But he was a good man. Raised in Oklahoma before it became the dust bowl of the Great Depression, he knew horses and cattle, and he longed to return to that life. He literally dreamed of the oatsy-sweet odor of cowshit, but it was the acid reek of the human variety he was forced to live with. People actually shit in their garbage in those days; he wouldn’t have recognized modern trash, with its cosmetic packagings and perfectly edible food, at all. When people threw something away back then, it really meant garbage, because any material that could be used for anything was hoarded like a treasure. If you’ve ever seen people come to blows over a heap of rotten vegetables (the first party claiming they were thrown away by accident, the second party claiming finder’s keepers, losers weepers), you’ll know what I mean. To be a garbage man for most of the years that my father plied his craft really meant something awful, collecting in places right there in the middle of Chicago where asphalt often gave way to dirt roads. It was an odious life for him, but he never once took it out on his family. He was a mild man, with a limited vocabulary, and a shiny black nose like a hound’s, who never resorted to talking with his hands.
Once a month he’d take me, just me, the eldest, to ride horses for a whole day in fresh air along the trails on a horse ranch in rural Illinois, run by people he was friendly with. I’m assuming we rode those horses free of charge, because what could he have paid them with? What service could he have bartered for the privilege? A little garbage-collecting around the ranch? I couldn’t possibly recall the name of the place, or the names or technical classifications of the horses we rode, but I will never forget the stinging rich odor of the polished leather of the saddles. Yes, and the warm sexual charge I remember, bumping along on a pony behind my father on that caramel-colored mare with her haughty blonde tail swishing and her sweaty rump in a rhythm like any female’s under the burden of my father’s body.
My father taught me all about horses; I’m sure he taught me plenty; but I lost that knowledge in prison. The theory of incarceration that’s most popular with modern jurists centers on re-education, more than punishment, but prison was always a school, and school is considered by many to be a punishment, while the terms of an institution’s educating are by no means under the control of the institution’s officials. Longterm incarceration replaces any knowledge you may have had, going in, with incarcerated knowledge, which is only ever useful within the walls of the institution of incarceration, or for going back to them, in a process you can almost feel while it’s happening. A student writing his dissertation for an advanced degree is as unfit, in his way, for society, as a man near the end of a fourteen year sentence for rape.
I was a tenant of Joliet for one hundred and seventy months, commencing my stay on April 1, 1953 and walking back out again on June 6, 1967, with a neatly wrapped package of my earthly possessions under one arm and all of my father’s lovingly imparted horse knowledge erased. The first act I committed as a free man was to catch a bus to the so-called scene of the crime, but I could have taken a limo. I wasn’t aware that I’d become a rich man while serving my fourteen years, and wasn’t to discover this fact until six months after walking out into the frightening daylight of the parking lot in front of the prison.
I took a Greyhound bus back to Chicago, and, from State Street bustling with shoppers, took a bus which connected to a bus that let me out just three blocks away from my old place of employment, the Joseph Pulaski Memorial Library, where I’d worked as a janitor for three happy years of my life. I stood on the sidewalk near the flagpole in the summer sun and looked upon the building that had become more symbolic, in my mind, of my fourteen years in prison than the building I had actually spent all those years inside of. It was a windy day, and the chain on the aluminum flagpole was whipping the pole with the repetitive frenzy of an SOS, and the American flag I’d personally repaired rips in was snapping high overhead like a sail on a sleek yacht, my trouser legs rippling and my hat in danger of being blown clear off. I noticed there were flag-colored candy wrappers stuck here and there in the bushes that ran in a broken rectangle around the library as I walked up the stairs and entered the place with a hand on my gray hat and my heart pounding.
In the bright gloom of library light I saw things pretty much as I had left them, despite the changes the country had gone through from 1953 to 1967. The high walls that were ringed low in a dark crowd by the stacks were still hung with dingy portraits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Pulaski, and framed maps of America, the world and the solar system according to early 20th century science, with its eight planets. In the center of this main room was the abandoned island of the horseshoe-shaped librarian’s station, and I took my place at a long table between the geography stacks from which I could watch things while remaining unobtrusive myself, hidden by a cart of jumbled atlases, my sweat-stained hat on the table in front of me.
This was the room, with its fluorescent hum and odor of old sentences and a musty carpet sweeper, in which everything had happened. I’d befriended my first white person in this room, learned to read intellectually in this room (and, by extension, to write) and in this room, not far from where I was seated, had I also lost my virginity to the woman for whom I was now patiently waiting, fresh out of prison after serving a fourteen year sentence for her alleged rape. When I noticed her standing behind the counter at the librarian’s station, counting three stacks of books, having rolled a cart back in from the lecture room while my mind was somewhere else, I suppose, it appeared as though she’d taken all of the changes that the library might have suffered, in my long absence, upon her self.
She was gray-haired and sharp-shouldered and dressed like a widow. I had turned 36 that January, in my prison-built body, and sat upright on that bench between the stacks, at the peak of my physical condition, feeling like something polished and cast-iron forged, greatly superior to my pathetic John Doe clothing, a black god who only had to go naked in order to become revealed, calculating that Bernadine must be exactly 50, or weeks from it. I couldn’t remember her birthday.
It was after observing her for a while that I realized that she must be aware of my presence. There’s a theatrical quality to even the most banal movements of someone who’s aware she’s being watched. There’s also, of course, a vast difference between the self-consciousness induced by having a stranger for an audience and the formal requirements of putting on a show for someone who has sucked on your breasts. She kept her head down and was careful not to glance in the direction of the geography stacks.
You can fantasize a moment with all of the kitchen-sink, realist skill of an Arthur Miller, but you will fail in your predictions, for the simple reason that the mind is a fantasist, and is even poorer at simulating reality than it is at observing it. Curled up on a mattressless bunk in a half-lit concrete room with a wet floor that smelled like a fillingstation toilet, I had rehearsed this scenario as many times as there were nights in Joliet, but I had never pictured just sitting there, watching, from between the stacks, for hours, while Bernadine Weaver did her shitwork. This diverged somewhat from the scenario of her begging for forgiveness, or begging to start a new life with me out West, or choking bug-eyed and purple-lipped in the grip of these hard Othello thumbs, or submitting, silently, justly, to the Socratic sexual torture I had mastered in prison.
Have you ever crossed the floor at a ball in order to ask a girl for the pleasure of her dance? If she says no, sometimes, you linger beside her anyway, for the longest time, paralyzed at the prospect of the humiliating walk back to where you started. The longer you remain beside her, with your hands in your pockets or your arms crossed over your chest, with nothing to do and no reason to be there, the more foolish you feel, the more paralyzed you become, the longer you remain. This is how it was in the Joseph Pulaski Memorial library that day, until, finally, after four hours which recapitulated the history of the world, Bernadine finally rolled the cart back into the lecture room, with her back to me, to fetch more books. I very quietly gathered my hat and box of possessions and walked back out into the sunshine, which had soaked into gold-edged shadows under the oaks and maples in the long hot hours after lunch.
I’d never before dared to walk anywhere on the near-Northside beyond the L-shaped, tree-lined path from the bus stop to the library, but here I was seeking out, boldly, a place to sit and eat before deciding the rest of my life. Having suffered the ultimate insult (short of execution) that a black skin can expect in America, I had deconstructed, and demystified, any innate sense of where a black skin is and isn’t welcome. Which I’m sure, in many cases, explains the high rates of Negro recidivism. If a particular bistro or lunch counter didn’t want my specific kind of business, let them tell me to my face. I was no longer going to discriminate against myself, on their behalf, to save them the trouble. Of such stuff is a budding “bad ass” made.
Well, any cop stopping the large, obviously freshly-minted vision of an ex-con I presented walking the sidewalks of Poletown, as that neighborhood was often called, would have been baffled to search my box of possessions and find in it nothing more incriminating than a cheap overcoat, a paperback Thesaurus, a change of underwear, four pairs of argyle socks I’d won in a prison raffle, and one letter of literary praise, each, from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, and the American classical music conductor Leonard Bernstein. I’d gotten other letters, too, from celebrities such as the boxer Cassius Clay and the actor Godfrey Cambridge, but these had been lifted from my cell by the guards whose job it was to search our personal effects, regularly, for handmade weapons, or drug paraphernalia, or digging tools, while we were walking the exercise yard, punching keyrings or license plates, or sitting for chow.
I’d probably collected a hundred letters. Most were written by ordinary people, in that pleasantly illiterate, Chaucerian style of the masses, spelling and grammar prescribed by common sense. Quite a lot of it was out-and-out hate-mail: genuine vintage coon-hating screeds from the 1920s and ‘30s. Fifteen-page death threats and so forth. My book, of course, is a lightning rod for coon-haters, and will never go out of print as long as coons and coon-haters walk the earth.
I received this “fan mail” from the time my book was published, four years into my stint at Joliet, until the day, a year later, when the publisher, suddenly realizing he had the biggest hit of his career on his hands, and, in hopes of defrauding me out of substantial royalties, stopped forwarding it. He destroyed any concrete evidence of both our relationship and my existence, emboldened by the fact that I was in prison, and that he’d published the book under a title I knew nothing about. Also, the book was published under the author’s pseudonym, standard for pulp pornography back then, of “Anonymous”. I never once received a copy. Later, by the nth print, the author’s pseudonym became the dashing “Napoleon Fanon”, a fact I discovered, quite by accident, years later. Meanwhile, between the day that my fan mail had stopped arriving and the morning I walked out of prison, I’d assumed that the book had sunken without a trace, and that I was owed no more than a few hundred dollars in royalties, a nice little sum I had little chance of recovering. C’est la vie.
I had tried writing poems, short stories and little essays under Bernadine’s tutelage at the library, but I hadn’t the time to develop any technique, or had access to an audience, until I went to prison. After the chores are done, what’s there to do in an eighty-one square foot cell, but read, do push-ups, or write? While there were acquaintances of mine who were breaking records, and winning prison tournaments, by doing five, six, or even ten thousand push-ups a day, I used my leisure time to become a force in the black market prison economy, writing out and then copying, or reading aloud, pornographic vignettes in exchange for contraband, or services, or small amounts of cash. I discovered that even the most illiterate, anti-social, and physically dangerous, prisoners responded to the golden rules of narrative. They were a better gauge, in fact, than any audience of politely encouraging well-wishers you could imagine. When a story didn’t work, or disappointed them in its ending, or had too much, or too little, or unconvincing, sex, I heard about it before the offending story or passage had barely cooled in their minds.
To get specific: I learned, for example, never to write a sex scene in which the female participant appeared to be enjoying it too much. That’s not how it work, I was informed, over and over again. That ain’t how it happen. And that a man only truly enjoys doing it to a woman who resists, if only inside. Nobody really want a woman who really want it. I took in this technical advice while honing my stories to the tastes of a paying audience, and realized, after much internal resistance (what Romantic wants to concede any of this as true?), that I was learning about something much larger than storytelling. I was learning about the thing about which all stories are told. As if I needed to be told. Here I was, doing a twenty five year sentence for aggravated rape (reduced to twenty for good behavior; reduced, again, eventually, to fourteen) as an innocent man, still playing, absurdly, the role of the lyre-strumming, lady-worshiping troubadour, in my eighty-one square-foot cell, with its wet floor and its stench of the sewer, a stench which taunted me with its echo of our daily routine of buggery in the showers.
To write at all well is to relinquish one’s casual understanding of the world. One’s self-protecting misconceptions of the world. To write at all well is to yank the veil off it. The process changes the writer, and only a changed writer can change the world for the reader reading him. Writing for a complicated, captive, paying audience of con men, arsonists, robbers, rapists, drug addicts, tax evaders, purse-snatchers, brawlers, burglars, bootleggers and sundry uncouth disturbers of the peace, I developed a complicated knowledge of what I was and wasn’t; what I could and couldn’t; what I longed for and abhorred, and my written words slowly became real writing, even if it was just material for womenless men to masturbate, or rape other men, to. But isn’t that the goal of any writer, metaphorically speaking? To make his reader come?
The manuscript I sent out to be published started life as one of these pornographic stories. My audience demanded something more than tight young pussies and big bad thrusting dicks. They were a higher grade of illiterate, many of them, being older; they were illiterates who couldn’t read Frederick Douglas or Homer as opposed to illiterates who couldn’t read Irving Stone. I wrote for them a political allegory: a nameless Negro everyman rapes his way across the Midwest, in the 1940s and 1950s, as a form of existential protest, targeting the most beautiful, upper class, socially valuable white women, getting them pregnant wherever possible. Ruining them. This was long before the blockbusting black-power rape memoirs of the 1960s which my work paved the way for. First it was a short story, which became a serial of weekly installments, until I bashed it into the rough form of a novel of 100,000 words. It was originally called “Jesus in Kansas” and I wrote it out in an impeccable longhand on seven composition notebooks I’d bartered for the cigarettes I’d received in payment for earlier, cruder efforts about, for instance, a church-going towhead and a runaway con hiding invisibly black in the basement.
During my stint in Joliet, my mother died, of grief, stress, over-work, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and a host of environmental poisons, as most Negroes will. She did not live the Natural Life; as a woman, she could not, and if she’d have been a man, she wouldn’t have. My father went bitter: perhaps, even (if he allowed himself to speak or think about me) he blamed his oldest son. The human I called on my first day of freedom regained, from a phone booth in downtown Chicago, in the cold shadow of the John Hancock building, the ultimate symbol of white power, was an old friend, from the old neighborhood. He gave me a place to stay, though he knew better than to offer to let me stay where he lived with his family. My friend was a married man who kept a low-rent apartment on the far Southside. The telephoneless apartment was furnished very basically with a bed, a liquor cabinet and a dirty bath towel. I could imagine what he used the place for. In fact, he warned me that he might drop by, from time to time, unannounced, for which occasions I wouldn’t have to leave the premises, as long as I remained in the kitchen.
The apartment was in a housing project called Harriet Tubman Gardens, a ghetto, in an industrial nomansland near Gary, Indiana. Tubman Gardens had rats and roaches and stray dogs that ran in packs like would-be wolves every night, but because it was situated on the outskirts of the city proper, bordered on one side by a marsh and the other by a wood, I sometimes, during long walks on sleepless nights, saw foxes and deer. The foxes were in town to raid the ramshackle pens of the folks who, in coming up directly from the Deep South, had invited all of their future fried chicken to come with them.
Most evenings I could hear the pounding of steel at the InterLake Steel Mills at a bend in the canal a few miles south, and I thought how the men working there must be deaf, and numb, and insane with this noise, which was the loudest I’d ever heard. It sounded to me like a god’s, if not the God’s, rage or hatred. Meanwhile, I breathed, from the opposite direction, the livid processes of a paint factory a mile upwind, smelling like rotten eggs and gasoline. To the west, across the blacktop of playground at the nearby Harriet Tubman elementary school, and from there across a few lanes of highway, extended the marsh, in the middle of which rose a missile silo, a bristling Cold War dick. All day and all night, every day and every night, an eternal flame, like a serpent-shaped sword, burned white from a pipe in the silo, burning off that volatile fuel, a primary target in the likely event of a nuclear war and a dim glow on the thin fabric of my bedroom curtain on even the foggiest night. The only way in which I was better off than I had been in prison was my freedom.
I took to sleeping through the day, troubled by the sounds of children running to and from school, and the rare event of garbage collection, and spending my nights on walks into the city, on an unpaved route that took me around the bend of the black canal being showered by sparks from the steel mill, my hands in my ears for miles, or the opposite direction, into the woods towards Lake Calumet and Gary, Indiana. Soon, I was feeding myself by hunting rabbits in those woods, with a sling I made from black stockings I found at the bottom of the closet. Skinning a rabbit was something I’d seen my mother do a thousand times, and it was a practical kind of non-verbal knowledge that fourteen years in prison hadn’t managed to erase. The satisfaction of quickly making the right cuts with a sharp knife, then separating, in one pull, the soft covering from the smooth wet muscle of the still-warm flesh, can be a kind of relief, and I began to see how the urban Negro, with his car, his woman, his TV dinner and his TV, is doomed to a short life of insanity and illness.
It sometimes happened that I would be coming home from one of my long walks, very early on a Sunday morning, ready for bed. At the same time, it sometimes happened that my neighbor in the flatblock was just then leaving for church. This neighbor, a stout Negress with an ashen complexion, a crow’s nest of gray hair and the gait of a waddling hunchback, had surprisingly light eyes. She carried an edition of the Bible that was written in Pidgin English, which I often heard her reciting from through the thin wall our apartments shared, in the hypnotic cadences of a desperation greater than anything I’d heard in fourteen years inside the Joliet state correctional facility. She was raising a child I assumed was her grand daughter, a child I gathered was retarded, and just as I heard this woman reading her Bible, she no doubt heard some of the sounds from my side of the wall, too.
One Sunday morning, as I was letting myself into the cell of my sanctuary, and she was letting herself out of hers, she said something. To me, I guess. Whatever she’d said was unclear, and I didn’t give a damn either way, so I entered my apartment and closed the door behind me. Only seconds after I’d closed the door she was knocking on it, but I ignored this. I stripped out of my clothes and walked upstairs to the little bathroom to produce a bowel movement and take a shower in preparation for bed. When the sound of the flushing toilet had died down I could hear her down there, knocking again, or still knocking. It was not a loud or an angry style of knocking; it was evenly repetitive, mechanical, in a very strange way; it was the kind of sound I imagined a ghost might make, rapping from the inside of a closet door. One two, one two. One two, one two…
I showered, went to bed in the little bedroom next door to the little bathroom upstairs. My sleep, in the iron strength of my youth, was as heavy as I was large, and although I could still hear the knocking, I slipped easily away. I had a dream, then, so vivid that I wrote it down as soon as I woke from it, barely able to open my eyes. I dreamt that I had a wooden heart, and that I could always hear it beating, and that I lived in terror that I would hear it stop. I dreamt that no matter how I rested, or exerted myself, my wooden heart always beat at the same speed, with the same strange rhythm, neither weak nor strong nor particularly invested in self-perpetuation; a rhythm that implied that it could, at any time, simply stop. Someone tried to speak but I hurried away, intent as I was on listening to the sound of my wooden heart beating. I came to understand that it was the hearing of my wooden heart that kept it beating. This person who’d tried to speak was chasing me, and I ran everywhere to hide, afraid that their talking would drown out the sound of my wooden heart. I climbed a fence and hid behind a stack of tires, but this person followed me, climbing over the fence, shouting some important message or warning. I put my hands over my ears to keep out the shouting; I squeezed my hands over my ears as hard as I could and I could hear nothing but the sound of my labored breath and my wooden heart stopped beating. I woke up in a terror, heart racing, half-blind with sleep. I wrote the dream down on a child’s notebook I’d found on the street, with a pencil I’d stolen from Paddy’s. The old Negress’s knocking had finally stopped, but I don’t doubt, to this day, that she was a practitioner of the Old Religion, and the nightmare she gave me was either a warning or a test, and taught me to respect the supreme strength of her ignorant beliefs.
Where was I?
During one of my long walks, I became aware of a place in a blue-collar, industrial neighborhood, what they call a transitional neighborhood, where only the poorest whites still clung as it flooded with Negroes and Mexicans and the freaks you get when the two groups mix, the shell of an Irish tavern called Paddy’s, with a changing clientele that did not reflect the neighborhood. I found Paddy’s by following a man who I knew, by instinct, had also done more than a few months in prison. Part of the fund of prison knowledge that pushes out a man’s prior wit and experience is the tool of knowing how to walk in such a way as to communicate specific messages, and also how to receive such messages, which go lost on the uninitiated. A man can walk in such a way that means he is open to reason. Or that the thing towards which he is walking is his alone. A man can walk in such a way as to indicate that he intends to kill, or to die, or to let fate decide. The way this man walked, which I spotted from a distance as he stepped into the one working headlight of some Mexican’s old tank of a car while crossing the street, was meant to communicate to receptive eyes that he was not a queer, although he was amenable to having his sexual tensions relieved by one.
I’m not afraid of your judgment, because, to be frank, who, on the ladder, from what I can see, and what I guess you have done, is lower than you? So I tell you this. My time in Joliet opened my eyes to society’s best kept secret, by which I mean that men who have sexual relations with women do so because society frowns on the alternative, an alternative society frowns on precisely because it would be far more popular than the acceptable option otherwise. Look at the army, the navy, the seminary, the high school locker room, the camping trips for boyscouts and their so-called masters. Men are inclined towards fucking other men. I say this as a man, however brutally you choose to define the term, without a trace of femininity in his makeup.
Seeing other men either naked or clothed inspires no feelings of tenderness, or yearnings for tenderness, or poetical metaphors or spiritual insights, in me. I’m no follower of Wilde or Whitman, though I’ve been known to read both writers with equal parts pleasure and skepticism. When I see another man, I see an obstacle to be overcome, an ally to be won over, or an animal to exploit. Sometimes, when I see a man, I see a servant I will humble by placing my erect penis in his mouth as he kneels, or by forcing the same hard thing into his rectum, as he assumes an even more subservient position, with no concern for his physical comfort or personal preferences. I went into Joliet as a man who’d only ever known the soft white body of one woman, the woman who sent him there, and I left the institution, fourteen years later, as a master of the mammalian sex game at its fundamental level. All of us in this Enlightened Society know, by now, the truism that rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. That statement doesn’t go quite far enough. Sex, in general, is not about sex, either.
When I walked into Paddy’s that foggy October night, with my collar turned up and my hands in the pockets of my longshoreman’s jacket, I couldn’t even identify the man I’d followed into it, because half the men in there were him; were me. The other half were white and some of those were rather frail looking. The frail ones, the ones who looked most like girls, attracted me. I’d sexually dominated enough scarred, ugly, sour-breathed bantamweight Mick and Pollack bluffers and brawlers already to last me two lifetimes. The tavern was dimly lit as you’d expect it to be, and, as I stood there, waiting for my eyes to adjust to a picture even darker than the streets I’d been walking, I realized I had no money in my pockets for a drink. I’d been living an approximation of the Natural Life for a few months already, eating nothing but rabbit and stolen fruit and garden vegetables and even some fish from Lake Calumet, and so I had clean forgotten about the thing called money. The irony being that there was money due me, riches I knew nothing about.
A fine-boned young man with pale skin and jet-black, longish hair approached me and offered to buy me a drink. He pointed at a little table and I took a seat at it while he pushed up to the bar. When he returned with the beer I’d ordered and one for himself, he wasted no time telling me what was on his mind. He said I looked big, very big, and asked me if it was so. I said it was so. He asked me if it was black. I said it was very black. He said he dreamed of hard black shiny long cock all day while he was sitting through Philosophy classes at the University, so that by the time he was home again and it was late enough for Paddy’s to open and start filling up, he could barely control the urge to run all the way from Hyde Park, a good twenty minute drive by car. He said he was usually disappointed. The real big specimens usually went to a harder place in The Loop you had to know the password to get into. The indoor pool in the old athletic club all the Irish cops prefer.
He asked me how much time I’d done in Joliet, and I was too impressed to ask him how he could tell. I told him how much time and he whistled. He asked what for and I said rape and he said good. He said maybe murder would’ve been the wrong answer. He said I like it rough but I don’t want to die for it. He said in my opinion, it’s as harmless a sin as smoking, it’s not fatal for either party, maybe a little messy at worst and anyway it’s nobody’s business, and everyone should treat it like that, but that’ll never happen in my lifetime. In two centuries, maybe. He said we can use the john but it’s filthy with scat and there’s a waiting line. He asked me if I had a place nearby and I said it was about an hour’s walk. He said he had a car.
He had a beautiful car, a foreign car, a big black thing with running boards that would have suited an old-time diplomat, which led me to deduce that his parents were somewhat wealthy and much older than they should have been, perhaps in their sixties, curled up in bed in some Gold Coast, or Lincoln Park, mansion, while the young master was getting his kicks on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks. Did they expect him to finish his studies soon and marry a debutante? Did they have any idea that, for some young upper-class men, it floats their boats to thrust their tongues up the unwashed rectums of hulking black members of the underclass? Would the news kill them? Would the son be willing to pay good money to spare them the shock? I’m ashamed to say that these thoughts passed through my mind, though I never considered myself a hustler; no more so than a man who finds a wallet stuffed with cash, and briefly-if-seriously entertains the notion of keeping it, is a pickpocket.
I warned him that we wouldn’t be doing it on the bed, where I had to sleep, and he said a folded towel on the floor for his knees would be fine, but that there should please be no choking or punching, or burning, with cigarettes, or my lighter, although rough was fine, rough was good, he guessed it depended how big I really was, but I didn’t have to rupture his insides or anything, and of course he wouldn’t need or expect any hugging or kissing afterward. And, also, please, no name-calling. Which I considered an extraordinary speech.
A few days later, I walked to Paddy’s, and had two beers purchased for me by a sheepish-looking crew-cut blonde with very bad teeth whom I couldn’t bring myself to screw. We were in an alley a few blocks from Paddy’s and his moonlit breath was so foul I couldn’t face the prospect of putting anything of mine in that snaggle-toothed hole, more the less in his rectum. When I changed my mind about the transaction, he apologized profusely for wasting my time, and I struck him, not hard, but hard enough that he backed away down the alley, holding that side of his face as though he’d always treasure the pain.
It was only a week or two later that I met Fabian Saldo at Paddy’s again. I was standing at the bar with an older man, for a change, a flinty, thick-haired, knife-faced man who put me in mind of the pictures I’d seen, on the backs of books, of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. He was well-spoken and cautious and I had a strong suspicion he was a priest with his collar hidden safe in his pocket. Fabian Saldo joined us at the bar and we all ended up driving back to my place in Fabian’s car, the priest and I seated in the back, the priest singing under his breath. I have vivid memories of clutching that man’s desiccated waist, which expanded and contracted like a blacksmith’s bellows as he cried out, on all fours, in his throaty, tobacco-dark Latin.
Word got around that I was of an unusual size and spectacular (virtually mineral) coloring, could be had for a beer or two, was not violent, sarcastic or likely to steal. And so I became a known factor and very popular. The queers who shared in relieving my tensions improvised between themselves a fair system about who could have me whenever I made an appearance at the tavern (no more than three times a week), and they never fought or grumbled, while to me, in any case, it made no difference, for, obviously, to have preferences any finer than the ones that rejected that one queer for his evil breath, would have indicated some small element of the queer in my own makeup. Though I have no problem admitting that I seemed to enjoy, most of all, the time I spent with Fabian Saldo. I didn’t even want to call Fabian Saldo a “queer”; I affected, once or twice, to call him a Laestrygonian, but it failed to stick, so, “queer” it was.
It was with Fabian that I fully developed my philosophy of the Natural Life: food and drink without additives; verbal communication only when necessary or meaningful; sex without the nonsense of emotional games and attachments; exercise in general (and long walks, specifically), as a form of prayer. Three of these four elements are impossible, I believed, with a woman. Believed: past tense.
Gradually, the system of knowledge called “prison”, which had replaced the system of knowledge called “family,” was replaced by the system of knowledge called “the Natural Life”. While the prison system had trained me to conform to a way of knowing shared by the semi-conscious, instinct-driven thousands, the system of the Natural Life eased me towards a unique knowledge, the knowledge of the self. While the fool hopes for immortality by lengthening his life, the wise man learns to deepen it, rather. Clearly, the goal is to slow time down, though mankind, everywhere, as far as I can tell, is doing his best to accelerate. The white man, that is. Only the white man could have dreamed up the concept of time seeming to fly while you’re having fun; everyone sane knows that real pleasure slows time down, and that boredom makes it fly: ask the office worker who sits down at his desk on the first day of work at the age of twenty three, only to wake up, suddenly, at the age of sixty five, as he is being ushered from the premises with the contents of his desk and a gold-plated watch! How cruel, to give this old man a watch. This dangerously neurotic white man who daydreamed immortality while speeding towards his death. Driven, pushed, goaded, of course, by his morally bankrupt white woman, who couldn’t wait to be rid of him.
Stare at a clock, or a gold watch, if you will, while listening closely to yourself breathe, and you will get a glimmer of what I mean. What takes a minute, according to the clock, will feel like two, three, or five, when you learn how. And a single day of such deepened one-minute intervals, that each felt like five, adds up to five days, not one. And a year of such days equals five years. Ten years of that equals fifty years. Fifty years of that… and so on.
Constance thanked Wally profusely for his helpful critique and slipped the manuscript into her purse while Fan, with her gloved hand on Wally’s throbbing mitt, beamed at him and they all ordered drinks and that was the last anyone ever heard of it.
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
It had been days already and he couldn’t get that line out of his head. Bald frigging sissy. Bald frigging wig-wearing pansy son of a bitch. Couldn’t sleep because of it. Heart racing. Well, that and Fan’s snoring. It’s not marriage that kills the marital romance but the fartsoaked, snorehaunted warmth of the marriage bed. Poor Fan: the mottled brown back she smuggles into sleep in her pyjamas. Guilt from thinking this triggered a wave of loving pity and genuine gratitude like an endorphin rush after a hammer blow to an extremity and he thought, with a nod and the tenderest smile: partners for life, Fanny.
She always slept so deep and hard he could pretty much do whatever he wanted on his side of the bed without waking her. There he lay with his bedcovers thrown back and his pyjama bottoms off and his big fat jimmy in his hand while birdsong, streetsong, the singing of the water in the pipes as the neighbors performed their ablutions heralded another pinkeyed Paris dawn. Wally swears you can hear the French dookie crashing against the s-curves in the pipes on the way down but Fan just laughs at him. Like meteorites. Like fiery meteorites. His vivid imagination.
-This vivid imagination paid for that dress, didn’t it?
-Now don’t you start!
-I’m just saying, Fan. I’m just saying.
He still relishes the fact that it’s no longer Fanny who brings in all the money.
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
He finally gets his very own Paris Review interview and they send Tinkerbell and Butterfly McQueen to do the job. Ain’t that something.You know how lethal a white sissy and a faghag Negress can be together, each a canny burlesque of the other… inside jokes and furtive looks and an infallible knowledge of absolutely everything, especially, of course, manner of dress and style of speech. Condescended to by a couple of hincty short-story writers for godsake. Ain’t that rich. For this I win the National Book Award? Vilma and her conked hair and that keloid on her right biceps and she’s trying to get saditty on him.
He had his eelhead jimmy in his hand and Connie was crawling across the hotel’s Persian carpet towards him on her white satin belly just begging for it. There goes that vivid imagination of yours again, Waldo. The most important Negro-American writer on earth… shove this in that little pink mouth of yours, gal… winner of the National Book Award… he couldn’t believe that either Saul or himself had ever been so young or on intimate terms as to competitively compare erections. It was a close race but his was bigger and so of course Bellow runs and gets a tape measure. Hoping he’ll triumph in girth. Then he theorizes with a straight face that the Negro penis isn’t rooted as deeply in the groin as the Caucasian organ and this explains the average extra inch or two. In other words the Negro prick is cheating. The Negro prick; the Hebrew schnozz; the Irish capacity for drink: the exemplary dimensions of the ethnic. Saul’s buzzword: exemplary.
The look on Chester’s face as they picked their table at the Café de la Mairie and Chester ordered in high school French and Wally opened his mouth and ordered in a nosy rich Boursault of a tone and switched to his professorial English for the duration of the interview… Chester’s look had been one of those well what do we have here looks and Wally immediately thought of Saul’s frigging Sam Johnson joke, of which he frigging never tires, apparently, and if Saul tells it one more time at a party in Wally’s presence Wally will break that schnozz of Saul’s for him. At the very least put it out of joint. Besides which he always gets it wrong: it’s not a talking dog it’s a dog walking on its hind legs. Is that erudition?
Saul would sit there with a book of ‘great’ quotations open right next to the typewriter and salt-and-pepper his manuscript with kultcha. Season it with what he called ‘smarts’. Wally has seen him do it. Saul would wink and say, Whaddya think, buddyboy, a Matthew Arnold or something from Suetonious? Or maybe let’s throw ’em a real curve ball and opt for a schmeck of Lao- Tze. Way back when when Saul was still in on the joke. They would argue well into the night, Wally and Saul, about teleological niceties such as the fate of consciousness after the fact of mortality and Saul could not abide Wally’s assertion that individual consciousness reverts to its place in the great Undifferentiated Essence upon the moment of death… he was adamant, vociferous, nearly hysterical in his condemnation of it and Wally finally twigged that Saul’s resistance to the concept was, at root, anti-integrationist.
Connie paging through the manuscript.
I’m fat, thinks Wally. Call me Wally, says Ralph. I sweat too much, I need to lose weight, I’m losing my hair. I hate this big round barrel-shaped Negro head of mine and I hate these black gums and ashen elbows. This mustache. I look like an usher at the Apollo. I look like a Gold Coast garbage man. Freddy Dupee with that lethal smirk of his going, it’s funny, but he only seems to bark at you and the garbage man. Nobody fears or respects me. I’m all curves and no angles. I look like the over-stuffed furniture in Connie’s grandmother’s parlor. No wonder she won’t screw me. Saul and his goddamned girlish waist. Fine, if you like runty.
Vilma winking at Alfred so subtly that Wally almost misses it and she asks him, smiling with parental tenderness, Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
-Call me Wally.
In the intro to the interview, in the penultimate sentence before the interview commences, this: “While Mr. Ellison speaks, he rarely pauses, and although the strain of organizing his thought is sometimes evident (emphasis Wally’s), his phraseology and the quiet, steady flow and development of ideas are overwhelming.”
Saul’s paging through Wally’s top secret manuscript, the follow-up to Invisible Man, kind of wincing and shaking his head and muttering to himself: damaging, very damaging. He tells Wally, Okay, fine, it shows a new sort of fluency for you, but fluency at what cost? This is very damaging to one’s reputation; they’ll massacre you if you’re crazy enough to publish it. Better to aim low and hit a bulls eye than aim at the stars and kill an albatross instead. Listen, don’t be sore. You wanted my honest opinion and now you have it. My suggestion would be to take this new found fluency and apply it to something a little closer to home. Your own people, for example. Don’t over-reach, Wally. What, this rich, vibrant diasporan culture you keep telling me about… this fertile vein of ore, as you once put it, has suddenly run out of stories?You’ve outgrown it? It ain’t worth mining any more? Dismissive gesture at the manuscript. Is that what this means?
Constance, Saul and Ralph standing at the corner where the eyepatched veteran sells roasted chestnuts from a rusty cart across from the Tuileries in full flower and throng. A warm but overcast day. Saul’s holding a helium-filled balloon and unties it and sucks the gas and does a few bars of What’ll I do? in a cartoon grasshopper croon and Connie laughs, thoroughly charmed. Ralph is fuming but he can’t show it and says, I say, old chap, you sound like one of Hadrian’s prize eunuchs!
All three traipse arm-in-arm across the Place Pigalle, gay talk and big smiles except Ralph’s smile, of course, which is faux as an undiscovered Lautrec, a wet forgery, not even a good one, twitching at the corners. He keeps having this vision of an open manhole appearing suddenly on Saul’s side of the sidewalk. Saul, wearing his hat at a rakish angle, is saying, out of the corner of his mouth and rather loudly, Be advised, young lady, that if you keep up with these enchanting ways of yours you run the severe risk of ending up in one of my novels. You’re not litigious, I hope. Constance blushing. Saul snaps his fingers. Say, that’s an exemplary title for something: The Litigious Sylph. Whaddya say, Waldo? We haven’t heard a peep outta you since the Tuileries…
Ralph and Saul in the alley behind the hotel.
-I saw her first!
-This isn’t the schoolyard, buddyboy. This is the jungle and in the jungle, as you oughta know by now, the king of beasts holds sway. Namely, moi.
-You only even came over in the first place because of those damned letters I was writing about her!
-Hindsight is 20/20, ain’t it?
Constance paging through the manuscript on the checkered tablecloth in an out-of-the-way bistro that Ralph discovered with Fanny last year and whereinto Saul is highly unlikely to stumble. Ralph’s palms are moist. Constance is radiant in a pink mohair sweater, matching beret, black satin slacks and patent leather mules. Wally inquired, both to quell his nerves and because he had a genuine interest in fashion, as to the shoe’s designer. Constance said she honestly couldn’t remember; Robbie had given them to her right before the divorce. Robbie would know, she said. He has a shoe fetish.
Ralph joked, “What do they know of mules who only mules know?”
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
Fanny croaks, “Baby?”
“Are you awake?”
“Was I snoring again?”
“No, baby. You weren’t snoring. You were talking in your sleep.”
“You sure were.”
She reaches for her glasses on the nightstand and rolls over to face him, blinking behind the lenses, face lined with the meaningless diagram of her recent dreams, monogrammed silk pyjama top buttoned to the neck. Smiling she says, “What did I say?”
“You sang Stardust.”
She slugs his shoulder affectionately. Wally’s hand is still throbbing… it’s killing him. His writing hand. It’s infected. It amazes him that Fan has yet to notice the four raw against-the-grain gouges in fat fester behind the knuckle rill.
The three of them emerge from the rear exit of Madame Tussuad’s, blinking into the midday sun, waiting under the awning, and Saul does one of his impromptu magic tricks, only instead of a quarter from behind Ralph’s ear he snatches a frigging cotton ball.
Connie must be, what, 34 or 35 and she looks it at certain angles and yet there remains a youthful glow to her, a creamy kind of pastry warmth and though she is not quite the sylph that Ralph first saw on C.L.R.’s arm in ’46 he remains terribly smitten. She looks up from the manuscript and studies his face as though mystified.
“And the title…”
“If I Dealt in Candles.”
“That’s right. It’s very pretty, Wally. Where is it from?”
“An old Yiddish proverb. If I dealt in candles, the sun wouldn’t set; if I dealt in shrouds, people would stop dying!”
She closes the manuscript and without taking her eyes off the title page she says, “It’s just so well-written, what I’ve read so far. It really is. But I…”
“I’m glad it pleases you. I thought…”
“Yes?” She seems to steel herself against the blunder she’s certain he’s about to make.
He takes a deep breath in a sort of now-or-never way and she beats him to it, interceding on behalf of their friendship. She says, pressing her palms flat on the paper, “It’s not my place to comment, Wally, and please don’t be sore, but, gee, isn’t it kind of, I don’t know, wrong for you to be writing about Shtetl Jews, no matter how beautiful the writing is, while your own people still strain against the bonds of slavery?”
“By adding this certain amount of beauty to the story of the Jews, aren’t you stealing the same amount from the story of your people, who can ill afford to have this beauty stolen from them?” She says, “Oh please, please don’t be sore about all this, what I’m saying, Wally, but I guess I’ve taken it upon myself to speak for your race in this matter because you’ve turned your back on them… with the blood of old Egypt in your veins you’d rather tell the story of Moses! With that gorgeous, wonderful, heart-breakingly loyal woman by your side all the years of a fruitful and intimate marriage you opt to pursue the fickle affections of a silly, inconsequential, self-absorbed white girl who couldn’t even manage to stay married to the father of her own poor mulatto child. Wally, Wally, what’s the matter with you? What are you doing to yourself? Are you sick in the heart? Tired of being the luckiest Negro on Earth?”
“Don’t get me wrong… as I said, gosh I’m impressed, Wally, I really am, it’s beautifully written… it proves that you’re more of an intellectual than even I or Richard or Saul ever took you for, though I’m sure Fanny wouldn’t be surprised at all… she’d read a few paragraphs and know it was you, although, ironically, and correct me if I’m wrong on this: she was never meant to see it. Was she? Was she, Wally? Is that what being intellectual is for, Wally… for fooling your own good wife? Is being intellectual, in the end… is it only good for writing clever books for fooling your people and your wife? Is there no higher end towards which to apply the magnificent mind in that little boy’s head of yours? That school boy head of yours with its silly school boy crush on a sad, tired female of your oppressor’s race?”
“I will always love you, Wally, honestly, although by the time I’ve said my piece I’m willing to bet your passion for me won’t exactly be blue ribbon material.” She laughs and digs her fingernails hard into the hand he reaches for her under the table with.
Wally had been so concerned about eluding Saul that he’d clean forgotten about eluding Fanny. In walked Fanny to find Wally and Constance in a cozy little corner of the out-of-the-way bistro that Wally and Fan had discovered together last year. They called it ‘Our Out of the Way Bistro.’ It was a common rendezvous point. Had Wally forgotten? Or was his subconscious the secret engineer of the entire scenario? He stood rubber-knee’d but steadied himself and fetched a chair for Fan from one of a dozen empty tables and said, with a smile that seemed to be little more than his mustache itself, Constance was just showing me a manuscript for a book she’s working on, Fan. He glanced down at Constance who glanced up at him and he addressed her,
“It really is marvelous, doll, but it needs work, as I say. I wouldn’t show it to anyone else until you’ve rectified, uh… a few of the particular points we discussed. I’d be happy to look it over again after you’ve… yes… worked on it a bit…”
Connie chained naked and writhing to a rusty bedspring in a vacant lot on the South Side of Chicago on an overcast day in Autumn as several dozen identical Bigger Thomases in tattered flesh-revealing piss-reek finery emerge in deprivation and hunger from various caves, warrens, gutters, cellars and trash heaps in the vicinity…
Wally holds his breath. He toetenses and… sees stars and… detects one of the semen arcs landing with a tap on the Herald Tribune far away atop the dresser. Where the other two squirts land he neither knows nor cares but in the tingle of post-ecstatic slump he envisions Alfred Chester in that ratty orange wig tilting back in his chair at the Café de la Mairie with his fingers intertwined on his chest and his lips moving in the deliverance of some grand theory or profound observation or other as though he’s the famous writer being interviewed for the Paris Review and Wally fantasizes standing up and hauling off and punching Chester so hard his head snaps back and the chair back cracks and a fusillade of flashbulbs going pop pop pop pop pop like Ernest Fucking Hemingway has just walked in the room.
“Time is the ultimate disguise.”
It was pointed out to me that the defeated-looking guy who invariably took the table between the ladies’ room and the Picasso poster at The Supreme Bean was Chris Sands, who had once meant so much to me, as the walking embodiment of his records, at least, though to look at him now you’d have to double-check the timelessness of the records. Which I did.
The evening of the day I learned just who that local coffee-sucking wreck really was, I meandered home in a timefog. I went through my vestigial collection of vinyl and pulled out two whole records (his debut and his peak), which is saying something, since I’ve only managed to save one record each from such greats as Sun Ra, Jeff Buckley, Sam Cooke and the mighty Roche Sisters. I never even kept my Zager and Evans. The Voidoids and The Nyce are all gone now, too.
I lowered Chris Sands and the Manifestones on the spindle first, Side B track three, and for three minutes and forty two seconds, I was twenty years younger, though burdened with all-too-convincing visions of the troubling future. I clutched the headphones like a migraine.
I still believed.
I phoned Ed.
“The Chris Sands lives around the corner in my neighborhood in Berlin, and you never bothered, before this afternoon, to fucking tell me?”
“I never even knew you knew who he was,” yawned Ed. “What time is it?”
I had no idea.
The next day, unfortunately, I had business in Stockholm.
This was a change of itinerary from an original destination outside the EU. Since I’ve learned that the best way to make it quickly through Customs (anywhere other than in the literal-minded U.S.) is by looking too obviously suspicious, I’d grown another mustache for the trip. I’d started liking that mustache, and didn’t bother shaving it off before getting the S-Bahn the frigid next morning to Schönefeld. A thick black glossy mustache that screamed bathhouse, backgammon, radical mosque, Ummagumma.
The flight was turbulent. It felt as though we’d never left the ground and were rolling vindictively over luggage on the runway. When we made it in one piece to Arlanda, I considered booking a train for the return trip. The train rolls into a ferry to cross the Baltic. I’d done it before.
“Chris Sands,” it says, in this yellowing clipping from the cover story of the March, 1980 issue of SideBeat magazine, “isn’t the next Dylan, but Dylan just might be the next Chris Sands, if he keeps at it.”
What is youth but one long exercise in hyperbole? And what is everything else but hyperbole’s correction?
“Timeline, Ed,” I said, two days after my trip. “Fill me in.”
I plopped his cake and coffee in front of him and pulled up a chair, not even bothering, after all this time, to notice that Ed never says preciate it anymore. He expects me to pay because I’m rich. Not rich rich. Ed rich.
“Well,” drawled Ed, smiling over my shoulder at white-haired, goateed, red-eyed Chris Sands in his dirty black raincoat and his baldspot-protecting homburg hat, “he kinda fell off the radar ten years ago, after his third divorce and the fiasco of that,” eyes bulging, “comeback album. Various rumors had it he was either a born-again, a suicide or, you know, the third option: gone Country on us. Then the rumors stopped and, well, the interest dried up and I kinda realized I hadn’t thought about the man for years. Until I found myself standing right behind him in the checkout line at that all-night market on Torstrasse.”
“He paid for his stuff.”
I tried to remember exactly how Ed and I had met and I couldn’t.
“Are you writing him up in your Year in Review?”
“I doubt it. He’s just a Trivial Pursuit question, at this point.”
“So is Trivial Pursuit.”
“I think I’ve been using touché incorrectly, mostly. I say it most often when someone says something witty with which I concur, when, in fact, it’s meant to concede…”
“In other words, I just used it wrong.”
I shrugged. “Half-wrong.”
Two American tourists pushed open the café door with the unearned swagger of the militantly unashamed. I brought them to Ed’s attention and said, as he twisted in his chair,
“Have you noticed how they’re turning fat into a race, back in our homeland?”
“A voluntary race. A non-racist race. A race you can opt out of.”
“You’re reading an ad in a magazine and you notice that even the after picture is fatness. Maybe it’s all to the greater good.”
“What was that tribe? Where fat was beautiful?”
“They made that sculpture.”
“Yeah. A famous fat sculpture with no neck or face and stubby limbs.”
“A fertility symbol.”
“Be great on twelve-cent stamps and five dollar bills. Or not?”
“You’re saying imagine a whole country.”
We each chuckled an inch over our cups and drank with a synchronized motion. Both going ahhhh.
Early on, months prior, I had a vivid dream that Ed was in my livingroom, his flimsy silhouette in a characteristic stoop and thumbing through my records, a finger over his lips going shhhh.
“I still can’t get over the fact. That’s Chris Sands. Right behind me. I could almost reach back and touch him.”
Coiling under all the clever dialogue was the disappointment and disgust of any genuine male friendship. Ed, the online music blogger, abruptly double-taked me.
“Wait. You always have a mustache?”
Time fell away like a shattered mask, and I was twenty again, shoplifting 45s with a Frisbee. The air was thicker and the sunshine was sweet to the touch. Never the best dresser, I see me got-up in flipflops and painterpaints and a powder-blue ruffle-breasted shirt, three dollars from Ragstock, the original Ragstock, the one on that godforsaken stretch along Washington Avenue, in the warehouse district of downtown, long before warehouse districts all over America became loft fodder. Hoboes straight off of freight trains and still bearing the momentums of their trotting dismounts would burst into the store for incredible bargains on camouflage pants. Off The Record was right up the street and around the corner from Ragstock, next to a headshop in which a girl I had mixed feelings for toiled, price-stickering water pipes, blacklight posters and Mexican porn.
If I concentrate it will come to me.
“Wait,” she said. “You always have a mustache?”
I handed over a stack of 45s… Bauhaus, Siouxsie, The Wallets, The Is, Ultravox, Chris Sands… in exchange for the profoundly niggardly, now that I think of it, prize of a quasi-European air-peck on each cheek. Mustaches were the ultimate young no-no in 1980, yes, but where the crowd zigs, the free spirit zags, and girls with tattoos (a dotted line circumnavigating her neck) prefer zaggers. Or so I was told, or led to believe, or deluded myself into dreaming. One day I walked into the headshop and an eyebrowless man with an idiomorphic white Mohawk, leaning over the counter towards Candace’s plump little near-naked heart, regarded me over a bare shoulder and said, with a pretty good fake British accent, or maybe he was British,
–Oh dear, it’s Journey.
“There was this girl, the year I quit school. This girl who looked very much like a punk version of Grace Kelly. Wouldn’t sleep with me but said I could watch her do herself if I promised to stay in this plush Edwardian wingback gentleman’s smoking chair she’d set up on the opposite side of the bedroom. Very much the kind of chair a Pope would probably scream in if Francis Bacon were to start painting him. I promised to stay in the chair. There were countless candles around the bed. I had to wait in the bathroom with my eyes closed while this girl with the shakes tried to light two jillion candles and get the room just so. Plumping the satin pillows and whatnot. Dressing the set.”
“Fifteen years too early for webcasting, sadly.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Saying is interrupting.”
“You could be halfway through your story by now.”
“I’m making a point.”
“The point you’re trying to make is negated by your method of making it.”
“How will you know until I’ve made it?”
“How will I know a joke about a Muslim, a Jew and a Pollack isn’t funny until I’ve heard it?”
I stared Ed down for a good whole minute with my blankest face and continued; slowly, at first; my anger cloaked in grandiloquence, “On the floor beside her futon was a kidney-shaped tray, such as one might see in the coroner’s lab with, say, an enlarged liver upon it. There were things on the tray that I assumed were dildoes, mainly because they were longer than they were wide, but dildoes like nothing on earth. These were not reassuring facsimiles of the human male organ. Remember the first time you ever saw a Sci Fi flick in which the space ships weren’t of a naively aerodynamic design? And how it opened your eyes, and you grew up, a little, and you could never go back to your sentimentally childish way of thinking of space ships again?”
I could see he was not interested. Who wants to hear some other guy’s sex story? Some other guy’s ancient sex story? We’d been friends for exactly a year.
I could write, at this point, that we stepped out of the café into the blistering sun. Or I could write that it was an effaced city of windsung snow and dagger-ice we stepped out into, and that I could see Ed’s breath as it slid towards me; that I dodged the head-shaped cloud that came out of his mouth for fear of being touched by it.
A week later I was in London. My trips were usually spaced by months so this felt very quick and I was, in a way, disoriented. Oxford Street’s Christmas-week delirium was diluted to half-strength by the moderating influence of its immigrants, patterning the packed thoroughfare with ski-vested kaftans and over-coated burkas and faces ranging from pale gold to lustrous black. The vodka-colored sun was setting early after a late lunch, becoming a low bulge in the city-lit clouds as I let traffic urge me along towards Wardour Street.
I found the American-style self-serve restaurant I was supposed to find and chose a table, neither at the windows nor at the very back, as I had been instructed, and waited. While I was waiting, a well-dressed, honey-tanned blonde who couldn’t possibly be making eye contact with me from the other side of the salad bar appeared to be doing just that, while also doing something delicate to a frizz of beansprouts with tongs. She gestured with the tongs, seeming to mime a question about whether I cared for some salad. The improbability of the situation was virtually psychedelic. I was thinking how she looked like someone, a younger version of someone, though I couldn’t say who, but someone familiar.
I’d been doing this job for two years and this would be the first time anything really exciting happened while doing it, despite the fact that I’d travelled to six EU, and three non-Eu, cities. I was a courier, but it had nothing to do with drugs (or not directly, if at all): I was simply hand-delivering international mail in an age when cellphone messages, faxes, email and, especially, the postal and overnight parcel delivery services, are no guarantee of privacy. Sometimes I’m expected to wait for an answer, an answer I’ll carry back with me, and sometimes I’m not.
I wasn’t sure if I was always working for the same concern, or concerns, or a different well-off individual every time, but I did know I was well paid for it. My doorbell would ring (usually pretty early in the morning), and a man would hand me two envelopes: one with another envelope in it, and the other containing a plane ticket, a note with minimal instructions on it, and, best of all, a nice little packet of undeclared cash for my trouble. The Germans call it Schwarzarbeit or “black work”, an under-the-table transaction, and such assignations drive Berlin’s limping economy.
How I got this job was a stranger approached me in the lobby of a cinema, after a film. Just like that. He used the term luxury mail. Told me they were looking for trustworthy individuals of a presentable appearance who could jump on a plane at a moment’s notice kind of thing. It definitely appealed to my sense of cool, and freed me, if temporarily, from the horror of giving English lessons.
When the blonde gestured with her tray that I should clear a space for her on my table, my first thought was that she must be insane. My second thought was pure glee. I moved the hardcover novel (in which I’d slipped the envelope I’d been entrusted to carry) onto my lap and she lowered the tray with a clink of cutlery and sat down. Looking…yes. Like a young Vanessa Redgrave. In Blowup. With infinitely more strident boobs.
“Alright?” she asked, with an appetizing south-London accent.
“Over the moon,” I answered, and Vanessa smiled, clearly sane enough to evaluate the compliment. She was well-dressed, but the presentation veered a little towards the slutty, with lots of compressed pink bosom bulging up and out of a shiny gold blouse in a black velveteen jacket. All I needed, to deflate the fantasy and ruin my week, was to have her slide a laminated price list across the table at me.
“May I see the Christmas card?”
My face burned as I opened the book, furtively, and handed her the squarish envelope out of it, feeling an utter fool. Hers lit up almost childishly as she tore the envelope and extracted the card (snowman), a fifty Euro bill falling out of it. A microchip in the card played a dismayingly loud Jingle Bells as she read the message to herself, lips moving, and afterwards kissed the card and reached across the table and touched my cheek, saying Sorry under her breath, the tinny music still playing.
Sorry, you never know.
In the same voice, Vanessa said, it’s best if we sit here and talk for a bit. An hour should do it. What shall we talk about? Name a topic. Or I’ll start if you want me to.
Then she closed the card and things were quiet again. I was thinking: Methinks a certain young lady hath seen one too many spy movies, Luv, but I decided to play along. After all, I was paid to.
I said, brightly, “How’s mom?” as she tucked into her salad.
“Don’t be cheeky.”
“Okay, then you start.”
“Hmm. Have I mentioned my flatmate is the ultimate pain in the arse? She leaves the loo lid up, doesn’t flush, and forgets to record my phone messages. She fluffs under the duvet while we’re watching Parkinson! And get this: she thinks she’s posh!”
“Is she half as beautiful as you are?”
“Don’t be slimey, darling.”
“We seem to be running out of topics.”
“What’s that book in your lap? Give us a peek.”
I put it on the table.
“Are you reading it, or is it just for show? Sorry, just teasing. Bad habit. What page are you on? I adore McEwan.”
“It’s the language that saves it from being a Cold War potboiler. I’m halfway through it.”
“Then I won’t spoil it for you.”
“Does Leonard die, or something?”
“I wouldn’t worry about Leonard. He’s the eponymous Innocent, isn’t he? What do the innocent have to fear, from God or the author?”
There was another long pause; what to discuss with a beautiful woman if you aren’t allowed to flirt? She didn’t seem bored, or anxious to leave, at all. Of course I was tortured mildly with curiousity about the message written in the Christmas card: no one sends an expensive private courier on an expensive plane ticket, from Berlin to London, with eight hours’ notice, to deliver a cheap card with fifty Euros in it.
Forgetting the fact that I would probably kick myself later for sounding like an innocuous, middle-aged man, I said, “Well now I can say that I’ve met that thing of legend, a genuine English Rose.”
Ms. Redgrave’s smile had a neat little sneer folded in with it. She opened the Christmas card and Jingles Bells started. “First off,” she said, “You won’t tell anyone anything about what you did in London today. Is that clear? Second, I’m not an English Rose, you bloody goofy American in a panto moustache; I’m not that physical type, with all of its racist implications, and I’m not even British.”
She closed the card. Then she told me, for the next forty minutes, in a warmly animated voice, all about her vacation in the Maldives.
I was thinking: my initial assessment of her sanity was essentially just.
The ones who don’t give a damn what you think of them: they are the rulers of Time and Space. Whether fictive or factual, they marshall the hordes. What’s a horde? A group of young men. What would History be without its hordes? Do you know about young men? How they grope towards the human; how they can’t be reached? They can’t be reached by young girls, older women, old men, sisters, mothers, fathers, teachers, clean-living role-models or the parents of friends. They can only be reached by the mythical, clench-jawed savant, spot-lit and incandescent in his sweat: the Holden Caulfields, the Saint Pauls, the Adolf Hitlers and Chris Sands.
A lovingly well-worn bit of apocrypha. This is years before Sands gets famous. Two summers before he’s discovered by the New York sharpie in a sharkskin suit by the name of Mal Pearl who engineers his debut on a college station in Duluth, Minnesota. It’s 1977 and Chris is 18 years old and he’s in a park in Minneapolis with his friends on the Fourth of July, bar-b-cuing and playing Frisbee and sucking on furtive communal reefers or whatnot, shirtless in the sweet American sun. This is a Cold War sun, remember. The mainstream use of the word Jihadi is about twenty five years in the future; a glimmer in the geopolitical eye: the nearest contemporary equivalent is Patty Hearst. In some versions of the story, the girl is a Nordic Amazon, a budding supermodel of the Ford models type, fresh out of high school, feeling her power. Other versions she’s half-black, stunning, fucked-up mentally, leery of other blacks but nursing a grudge against whites, who never accepted her but teased her, ironically, over the very rich features that made her so embarrassingly attractive: pillow lips, pointy tits, plump ass and lyre hips, and her dirty-blonde rainforest of not-quite-kinky hair. In my favorite version of the story, she’s Asian: Hmong. Haughty and weird and Sci Fi pretty. She’s there at the Fourth of July gathering with Chris’s best friend/first disciple Manny Holzapple, the guy who actually taught Chris his first guitar chord in junior high school, only to see Chris surpass him in proficiency in such a short time that an adolescent deal with the devil would be the only rational explanation, if Manny’s parents weren’t avowed whitebread Buddhists, raising their Manny to see any religious practise other than chanting as a humanity-denigrating superstition. She’s there with Manny and Manny is on a very short velvet leash, so to speak, one end of which is tied in a slipknot around his brand new balls. She says Manny I’m thirsty and Manny hops up and runs about a fucking mile barefoot over a broken-glass-strewn sizzling blacktop to this Mexican-operated panel truck selling ice cold drinks and he fetches her back a frosty can of A&W rootbeer and it’s not exactly what she had in mind so he runs back and gets her an iced tea instead and she doesn’t give thanks,or otherwise demonstrate gratitude. That kind of thing. This inscrutable Queen Bee protocol against which Manny and his horny little touch-football-playing cronies are powerless to assert themselves as anything more glorious than serfs. This is long before women would be taken back down a peg, so soon after being hoisted a peg in the first place, by the widespread dissemination of hardcore pornography and the common currency of anal sex. These were good boys, boys raised to be feminists, inculcated with the notion that woman are, in all the ways that count, superior to men, a concept completely alien to their grandparents, from many of whom many of them are, in fact, by parental decree, estranged. But not Chris Sands, who was both very close to his nostalgic-for-whorefucking paternal granddad Christian Djindzc, whom Chris called DJ, and way ahead of his time. Legend has it that Chris Sands, in all of his Beethoven-haired, shirtless, shoeless, kung-fu-pantalooned pigeon-breasted summer incandescence, reached forth and plucked a badly-tuned Gibson off of somebody using it as a tabletop for the homely task of culling weedseed and he strapped it over his bone-colored shoulder and composed, on the spot, with amused fury, what would become the anthem of the defiantly fuckless, Woodeneven Dooya, singing it with a lordly arch of one bushy eyebrow and a supremely impertinent boogie in his slender hips, going You could hide a diamond in your pretty little voodoo / Wouldn’t even do you if my mama begged me not to, composing it right there on the spot, right in The Queen’s expressionless (in my version: inscrutable) face, with all the pussywhipped dudes gathered ‘round to gawp in grateful astonishment at the birth of Chris Sands’s epic witsneer of sixteen borderline-misogynist verses pulled like a thundering freight by that locomotive chorus straight out of his mouth, though he wasn’t quite Christ Sands yet, he was still Christian Djindzc the Third, and it’s doubtful he wrote the song whole, as it appears on his sophomore effort Yesterday’s Insults are Tomorrow’s Compliments, right there, on the spot, though it’s more than reasonable to assume he came up with the jist of it plus chorus, or a rough version, fairly close, per legend. And of course the girl was grossly insulted and thereafter ran off with him; they married, fought, attempted multiple separate suicides in an almost compositional sequence and divorced. Okay, maybe they never actually got married. Manny got a job in television, came out of the closet, owns a mindboggling little chunk of Starbucks stock and lives happily in Seattle with a guitar-strumming boy thirty years his junior to this day.
A series of bombs went off on Christmas Eve, in London, and no one was killed, as we now know. All of the bombs were in one structure and the structure was evacuated twenty-five minutes before the carefully-timed sequence of explosions brought it down. More than 3400 people managed to stream out of Saint Paul’s Cathedral before the first sequence ringed the dome with puffs and it imploded as larger detonations sent dead pigeons flying, and rained holy debris, including genuine gold dust and micro-relics of the ancient dead, for miles around. Because that event, and the three others that occurred, near-simultaneously, across Europe, were orchestrated precisely in such a way as to cause zero casualties where they might just as well have killed thousands, they were given the ironic handle “The Goodwill Bombings” by the British press. Three hundred billion-plus Euros of damage but only three serious injuries and one human death (heart attack). Ed sent an allcaps text message to meet him tomorrow at The Supreme Bean.
“Goddamn,” I said, rubbing my eyes. It was Christmas Day, and the Supreme Bean, owned and run by non-Christians, was one of the few cafés in Berlin still open, a blinding cube of light in a shrouded landscape. Consequently it was packed with family-free expats, the culturally and willfully dispossessed, along with Ausländers of every level and complaint, dark-faced and travel-wrapped. There was white-haired Chris Sands in a black rain coat, predictably, too, gloating over his lonely bowl of coffee. Far away back there in his favorite place near the ladies’ room.
I was thinking: Chris Sands could be your friend. Why not?
“Goddamn is right,” said Ed. I handed him his breakfast. He said, with an edge to his voice, “I take it you’ve seen the news.”
“I’m just glad nothing happened here, knock on wood.”
“Yeah, what an incredible coincidence.”
He made a hateful dumbfuck face and aped me: “Huh?”
My heart was racing.
Venal Cunt spread her legs like a vile temptation at the end of the night, face deflected, eyes unplugged. Long and elegant and platinum-haired and bone-white with her sexy puckering lisp. The only color is the childish yellow scrawl of her bush and her pupils like residue in cocktail glasses and the raised red chevrons where she scratches her right wrist incessantly like a fox in a fur-lined trap. Even her nipples are white. She says what do I need to read for, my life is a bestseller. She says don’t take all day. Needy Cock lowers himself into her snob-dry vadge with pragmatic detachment and he cradles her too-small-for-compassionate-thoughts skull while he pushes in, prospecting in vain for as little as a teardrop’s quantity of moisture.
The days run together like yolks. His savings evaporate and his postcards begin to repeat themselves. Surfers march like bowlegged Aztecs into the Rite Aid for sunblock and the bakery in Ralph’s sells cinnamon buns at four a.m. and the gardeners wield their shoulder-slung gas-powered leafblowers like AK-47s and yes the Mexicans are poor as pigeons but they are polite and very clean and it’s no wonder the blacks feel threatened. I’ve never seen so many convertible-driving Aryan teens in my life. Not even on television.
Literature doesn’t prepare you for any of this.
His students shreik and clap. They say, “Say schedule again!”
Needy Cock can tell by the look on the cop’s face that the cop is disturbed by something about Needy Cock’s demeanor. Something doesn’t add up. This is not a by-the-book domestic. Wifebeaters are usually not so. What. The two of them are out in the hallway by the open door of Needy Cock’s flat and his cop’s two colleagues are inside and Venal Cunt is communicating tersely from within the locked bathroom. She refuses to come out.
It’s a beautiful day. A sack of Krugerrand-colored sunshine pours through the skylight, absorbed by the infinite dinge of the hallway. How many times has he plodded down this very hall to this very spot in front of his very door without having noticed that the pattern in the carpet is dollar signs? Well he notices in the extremity of his tribulation and the hallway appears to him as terribly run-down and it strikes him that he is now the working poor, one of Graham Greene’s shipwrecked whisky priests with a twist: an author of books who has recently resorted to borrowing money from one of his villa-dwelling students to pay cash for cafeteria sushi. O, this foot-blackened carpet and cigarette-sooted walls and cigarettebutts on the laundryroom stairstep…
Needy Cock finds that he’s strangely unashamed as a curious Queer neighbor (probably the one who made the call to the cops in the first place) steps out from two-doors-down and steals an avid glimpse. I Will Survive blares defiantly from the Queer’s open door. How many times has Needy Cock phoned the police in the dead of night to complain about the level of the disco music and this, ironically, is the first time they finally come?
“What was the fight about, Ma’am?” calls the cop through the bathroom door. He’s a freckled bull with bristly rhubarb-colored hair, scratching his chin. His partner is tall and black with close-set eyes and a mustache. The black has a hand hovering near the heavy gun on his hip and more of the essence of his being is concentrated in his pistol hand than in his face at the moment. The pistol hand is worried. How does the pistol hand know that Venal Cunt doesn’t have a weapon in there?
“Was it about money?” the ruddy bull, the spokesman, the one with the degree in sociology, offers. “Was it about debt?”
Venal Cunt snorts. They can all hear it through the bathroom door. A hefty snort of derision. “None of your fucking bithineth,” she screams.
A career criminal couldn’t muster as much arctic contempt for a uniformed cop as Venal Cunt, in the waning throes of her beserking, is spitting at them. Needy Cock has to admit he admires her for it and yet he realizes that his admiration only exacerbates the problem. Like when she was banging him across the apartment with kick-boxing techniques she’d spent the year learning, at Needy Cock’s suggestion and expense, as a way to channel her anger. He’d seen the humor in it. And she’d looked magnificent to him while doing it, too, even as she was kicking his thighs and punching his ear and his balls and knocking him over with a reverse hooking roundhouse and smashing things she had first carefully identified as his before smashing them. A splintered wooden bar stool is arranged like kindling across the bed. Steel-framed pictures are knocked off the walls and stunned with cracks. The phone is smashed and first editions are ripped and stomped-on and strewn about in what looks like the aftermath of a fascist rally. A fancy soup, still warm, is dripping from the walls and windows.
“Who started it, Ma’am?” the uniformed sociologist with a gun in their living room tries again.
Venal Cunt snatches the bathroom door open. The Bull steps back into a near-crouch in a reflex as she steps forward, six foot two in platform shoes, red-faced but otherwise camera-ready, and she says, “It wathn’t him, it wath me. Can you fuckerth pleathe get the fuck out of our fucking living room a. eth. a. p.? Can you pleathe just go?”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Ma’am,” the Red Bull counters, regaining the force that he’s lost as a man in the bulwark of the law’s tradition. He’s well aware that out of uniform, in a nightclub, in his dancing shoes, he’d be less than a mosquito in Venal Cunt’s ear. He regains his manhood in the Judeo-Christian majesty of the civil laws he has sworn a kitschy oath to protect.
“The discretion to press charges in a domestic abuse call is not entrusted to the private parties involved, for obvious reasons.” He gets out a little notebook. “It’s up to us,” he nods to his tall black colleague and the short blond one with Needy Cock out in the hallway, “…to make an evaluation at the scene, and act accordingly. Taking our observations under advisement, it’s the prerogative of The State,” he gestures out the window, “… whether to press charges or not.”
But they do leave, after a cursory admonition for Needy Cock and Venal Cunt to try to get along, with the tall black nodding at a framed Helmut Newton of a naked, welt-breasted goddess saying Nice picture and doing a double-take as he realizes the model is Venal Cunt herself as a teenager. How far she has fallen. Needy Cock points out the photographer’s autograph on the print. The Red Bull, taking leisurely note of the almost-ornate library that Needy Cock has amassed on tall shelves against two adjoining walls of the living room, inquires if they’re Needy Cock’s books.
Needy Cock lifts his chin and says yes.
The cop says everybody should read more.
Needy Cock closes the door quietly and tip-toes in the kitchen to get a bucket to start the long clean-up. The fancy soup on the walls, books and everything else is hardening. The glass from shattered pictures needs sweeping up. The splintered bar stool disposed of. Prater Violet is a write-off.
Venal Cunt is back in the bathroom and he can hear her crying again. He turns the kitchen tap off and he puts the bucket down and he stands there, face to heaven, hands in fists, stuck in his existential quagmire. He still feels that love. He raps softly and enters the bathroom in order to embrace her and her knuckledboned back is turned to him. Her shoulders are hunched in crying. He tentatively touches an elegant shoulder blade where it raises a soft cotton scallop… just that hesitant fingertip touch…
… she spins and drives a steak knife home in his chest. He throws an arm up in a futile defensive gesture and shouts an unexpectedly childish “Don’t!” He grabs at the blow which seems to glance off his chest with a stinging thud. She’s clutching the bladeless knife handle and whimpers and avoids his touch with spider-horror, sidestepping where he snatches at the shower curtain splashing blood.
Needy Cock is calling her name with absurdly gentle indignation. Venal Cunt! Venal Cunt! The pain of the blade in his body isn’t so bad, but the shock of it is sickening, humiliating, awful, for he has crossed a dark border into the Land of the Violent Poor with their tacky knife and gunshot wounds. Even as he grabbed for the shower-curtain, seeing stars, he knew it couldn’t support his weight and they’ll need to buy a new one. Venal Cunt has run into the bedroom in tears and slammed and locked the door behind her. The curtain rings go pop… pop… pop…
He’s gasping in the tub, legs over the side of it, the sucking wheeze and bubble of his fatal chest wound. He fingers the copious puddling heat on his Fred Perry shirt and the blade at the center of it and realizes the handle snapped off when she drove the blade in and this warm piece of metal rises an inch from the puckering slit. Touching it’s like tapping a tooth. He recalls that grunt she grunted while shoving it in and he keeps hearing the vitality of it and Christ it’s too funny. The most sexual noise she’s ever made with him.
That night she fucks him. Lights off of course. She strokes the crusted periphery of the wound. Strokes also, with a virgin’s holy awkwardness, the metal itself…which he discovers he enjoys having tugged. She touches it “accidentally,” at first. She touches it again more boldly. She pays it more direct attention, twisting and tugging and jarring it as they lose themselves in the screaming fall towards massive orgasm and she displays the kind of dirty fascination with the blade anchored firmly in his dead heart that he had always hoped for regarding his genitals.
Venal Cunt strokes the jagged edge of the dull glint in the dark room post-coitally cooing. Needy Cock thinks they should have done this years ago. He thinks things could be worse. He imagines all the American girls he will score with this new secret weapon.
Chapter One: More than Words
Sylvie’s father was a writer whose time had come and gone, but he was fine with that. He’d invested the windfall with prescience. He had a house in a decent neighborhood in a city that scored with consistent impressiveness on all the quality-of-life surveys worth checking, along with some property a two hours’ drive up north. The property up north featured a rustic cabin he was going to write his comeback in, a cabin near a well he wasn’t allowed to drink out of, overlooked by the aerie of an endangered species of hawk he could do up to ten years in prison for harassing or killing. The working title of the book was More Than Words. The rest of the book would come to him in the cabin. Usually he’d creep around the immaculately decorated house long after Sylvie had gone to bed, stewarding wineglasses and adjusting picture frames, soothed by the hum of the climate control, which made the house feel like an airship in flight over the continent. Sometimes he’d rescue a volume, or two, belonging to one of the sets of collected encyclopediae, open on its face on a settee in the media room, and shepherd it, humming, back up the three polished steps into the tracklit library, pushing against a satisfying resistance the thing into its proper slot. Tonight he just stood by Sylvie’s bedroom door, listening.
Chapter Two: A Perfectly-Judged Death-while-Sailing
Sylvie’s mother had come from a large, self-consciously colorful family that only tolerated exogamy, apparently, because exogamy’s extremest opposite was frowned on by The State. There were the four charismatic brothers who had always looked like men; an eldest sister of chilling beauty, with her infallible eye for long scarves (with their tragic associations) and a father who would have to die before Sylvie’s future mother finally moved out of the house she was born in, a recently painted Georgian mansion with pillars on its porches and Amish hex signs carved in its gable shutters, mocked on all sides by encroaching slum. Sylvie’s mother was the baby of the family and had effectively fended off Sylvie’s claim on the title. Driving by that house, recently, Sylvie’s father felt oddly vindicated by the graffiti all over its pillars and even slowed down in an ill-advised attempt to read some of it, stepping on the accelerator when the first stones ponked at the trunk. Girls who hate their fathers are not, as Sylvie’s father had discovered, the worst, if you aren’t the father. All three sisters, Sylvie’s future mother and the other two; the polyglot and the choreographer; had gotten pregnant within six months of the old man’s perfectly-judged death-while-sailing, and he wondered if there hadn’t been a subconscious race to produce a vessel for the old man’s anticipated return. Sylvie’s future father had first noticed Sylvie’s future mother not for her spectacular pre-Raphaelite hair, but for her terminal t’s, which she tended to over-articulate. Didn’t you want that with some fruit bits?- was the last sentence she’d spoken to him before he finally confessed, waving away the dry mangoes that always put him in mind of floor scraps from a bris, that he wanted her to move out. He hadn’t put it exactly that way. He’d offered to move out and she’d demurred as predicted. She’d joked about Arabs being able to divorce their wives by repeating a certain word three times but couldn’t remember the word and he’d said but we’re not really married and she’d stood suddenly and swept breakfast off the table, very much the prodigy losing a game against someone avowedly casual towards chess. She remembered the word was talaq. He said talaq, talaq, talaq, waving a finger like a wand, both of them laughing. To be honest, she was relieved. She’d said, We’ll let Sylvie decide who she wants to live with; that’s the only civilized thing to do, and Sylvie had chosen him, as predicted. Sylvie’s father and Sylvie’s mother continued sleeping together for quite some time until the night Sylvie’s mother never came home, which soon became the week she never came home.
Chapter Three: Cancer Gets the Girl
He imagined her seeing the country on a wasp-sleek Japanese motorcycle. He reminisced on how they’d met. They’d met in a self-defense class. She was there, looking barefoot and good, in what she called her Chinese pyjamas, because of encroaching slum, while he was there to meet a girl. Or girls. The solidarity of self-declared prey, as his best friend, whose idea it had been to go, had put it. This friend had dozens of good ideas on how to meet girls and yet never met any. From as far back as Sylvie’s future father could remember knowing this friend, this friend had talked like a well-informed cancer patient, with an ease in jargon and the cadences down and really good at reeling off technical specifications, probabilities, outlooks on graded contingencies with this clipped, confident, guardedly optimistic voice. And then he got cancer, causing no break or modulation in the flow of the way he communicated. He found the personality tic of his preferred mode of expression astonishingly well-suited to the circumstance. It’s as though he hit the ground running as far as cancer was concerned, was how Sylvie’s future father had put it to Sylvie’s future mother over a milkshake (this was before the days of fashionable young people drinking recreational coffee) after class. Should he feel guilty? Was the irony a bear, or a bluebird? He’d used his friend’s cancer to get a girl.
Chapter Four: Dreadlock Combover
Before Sylvie’s future father and her future mother got serious about each another, Sylvie’s future father wavered in his intentions towards another, slightly older, woman. Older, but in no way inferior, except, perhaps, in age. The woman was cultured and fine and dressed well in a manner that showed off her jaw, an angular marvel reminiscent of the jaw on the actress Jodie Foster, who was then still young. Whether she wore a ruffled collar, a turtleneck or a collarless t-shirt borrowed from her son, the jaw stood out with its sharp origami folds. He was enamored of this woman and had slept with her several times with memorable results and poetry and expensive baseball-sized sourdough blueberry muffins from her bottomless pantry as rewards. The day before Thanksgiving they attended an avant garde opera in a ceremonial gesture towards the deepening cultural seriousness of both that region of the country and their relationship, standing by coincidence behind her ex-boyfriend in the white-wine-line during intermission. The ex was a balding soi-disant (pre-internet) tech-whiz with blond dreadlocks leftswept over his pink pate like fraying ropes on a castaway ham. Fairly or not, she became repulsive to Sylvie’s future father in her ex-boyfriend’s reflected aura, but there was still an hour of grindingly self-serious and overlit opera to sit through. The weightless warm hand that sought its habitual place on his thigh when the opera commenced found only tensed muscle to rest on. The hand knew before the rest of her body. Sylvie’s future father reflected self-pityingly on an inner recitation of the oral history of his failed romances while two local characters (descendants both of auto workers) in Bauhaus-ish costumes of vaguely animal abstraction cavorted on a minimalist stage, realizing in a panic that the time he lost to the experience would never come refunded, and the woman he decided he loved was elsewhere.
Chapter Five: Ich mag sie nicht in einem Haus / Ich mag sie nicht mit einer Maus
Sylvie’s future father hurried over to Sylvie’s future mother’s house right after the opera, unmindful of the fact that he walked unarmed through encroaching slum. He found himself not only thinking of, but looking at, really looking at, more than one black-or-Afro-American-Negro-of-color at a time, for the first time in his life. He’d never admit this to anyone; not even to a friend with cancer; but the first thing that struck him was the variety. Not only in tint but in weight, gait, hair texture, posture, girth, aura, odor, manner of dress, scale of possible threat (from benign to sinister), range of facial features and sexual attractiveness. Some of the toughest boys were pretty as girls in their white t-shirts and tight jeans. Some of the prettiest women exerted the narcotic allure of the scent of the motherland, smouldering after a bushfire, and he locked eyes with more than one, with their coal-smooth breasts, before being ejected, further in his way down the road, each time, by a playfully dismissive smile. Sylvie’s future mother was on the front porch of the white island of the mansion, drying her gaze-stuffing pre-Raphaelite hair with a shreiking dryer at the end of a chain of three extension cords. Sylvie’s future father tried breathlessly to speak, sucking every other word back in, over the anti-siren song of the dryer. He told Sylvie’s future mother half the truth, which was twice the lie: that he’d suddenly realized that he loved her in the middle of an opera. She asked which opera. She laughed, or, being from a family of high-culture insiders, tittered, and explained. To his initial bafflement, which matured to a rage which hardened into a manifesto, he learned that the libretto of the work he’d squirmed through po-faced for two hours (the second half of which was twice as long as the first) was taken from Doctor Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. In German. That’s the problem with postmodern so-called Art, he sorrowed. The joke is always on us.
Chapter Six: He decided to write a Book that Everyone could Understand
He decided to write a book that everyone could understand.
“Every war on Earth is, in the end, a battle of the sexes.”-Azzedine El-Hadi
In the three months between the time I signed the lease on my new flat and the day I returned to Berlin with two suitcases of meager possessions, the building next door was knocked to the ground, and construction started on an above-ground parking garage. I’d been charmed by the old fashioned quality of this corner of the neighborhood and now they were modernizing it.
The day I’d first looked at this flat, flipping light switches and opening and closing cabinets in an amateurish pantomime of my father, the caretaker assured me it was a quiet neighborhood. It’s standard in Berlin that you’re allowed to deduct a portion of your rent for inconveniences such as malfunctioning heat in the winter or quality-of-life-damaging construction on or near your dwelling, but there is so much development happening in this suddenly fashionable neighborhood that there’s a special clause in my rental contract that negates the reduced rent option ‘in the event’ of construction, which, obviously, though unknown to me, was a certainty when I signed the contract. I signed it, flew back to California a week later, then returned to Berlin on the last day of summer.
The taxi driver who drove me from Tegel to August Strasse was not German; he was a London-born Pakistani named Shadz (a contraction, he informed me, of a name that sounded, as he pronounced it, like Sa-Heedz). Shadz lifted my two large suitcases of meager possessions into the trunk of his BMW-built taxi and guessed that I wasn’t a tourist. “Are you a scientist?” he asked, after I’d given him the address in halting German. I can’t say why, exactly, this offended me. Perhaps I’d rather have been mistaken for a rock star.
“A scientist? No.”
“You absolutely wouldn’t believe how many scientists I end up driving.”
“Oh, yeah. Something like, I dunno. Half a dozen a week, maybe more?” He didn’t in any way resemble the voice coming out of his mouth. He stared into the car that we were passing on the left as though its driver was insane. I looked too and saw that it was an extremely attractive woman at the wheel, brushing her teeth.
We drove through leafy green lanes that gave way to narrow, treeless, cobblestone streets. There was a fenced-in muddy lot of old touring coaches emblazoned with Cyrillic lettering, across the street from a row of run-down stucco cottages with boarded-up windows. Then a quaint shopping district populated almost entirely, it seemed to me, with women in Turkish headscarves. Then a mile of much-graffiti’d brown brick buildings. The scenery changed quickly and in unexpected ways and felt like a haphazardly-edited montage of many cities from different eras. Which, in a way, is what Berlin is.
“Are they working on some kind of big project, do you think?”
He eyed me in the mirror. “That’s the question I was going to put to you sir, actually.” We both laughed. Shadz said, “A machine for influencing your dreams, maybe?”
“Exactly. Top Secret stuff.”
“Imagine the possibilities if you could beam adverts directly into people’s skulls while they were sleeping,” he said wistfully. I smiled but couldn’t think of a clever comeback and soon found myself dozing… nodding off… my chin touched my collar bone twice. Each time I awoke with a sudden start and a snort. Embarrassed, to prove I was awake I said to Shadz:
“But how do you know they’re scientists?”
“How else would they get the job?”
When we pulled up in front of my building it was shortly after noon, and so the construction workers were on a break, but I saw the skyscraping crane anchored in the building-sized crater next door with a sinking heart. I was too tired to care much at that point, however. Shadz quoted the amount I owed him, I handed him two bills fresh from the money-changing kiosk at Tegel, and he popped the trunk and hopped out. He was yanking my bags with virile grunts and lowering them onto the pavement before I could manage to get my door open. That’s how wobbly the flight had left me.
Before he climbed in, he handed back one of the bills I’d given him. “Keep your eye on the ball, mate.” He winked. “This time the lesson was kostenlos,” he said, using the German word for ‘free,’ and he drove off, leaving me jet-lagged and constipated and with two large suitcases in the middle of the road, facing a construction site.
The only thing I like more than packing a suitcase is unpacking a suitcase; the former indicates an adventure to come and the latter an ordeal survived. My pleasure would be magnified in this case by unpacking my suitcases in an absolutely empty flat… just walls, floor, windows, doors and ceiling… a ritual I was, however, too exhausted to enjoy before getting a little sleep. In the top layer of suitcase number one was a cloth-covered air mattress I’d purchased from a bankrupt Army Surplus store as a much younger man always on the look out for bargains, novelties and items that nobody else had or wanted. I’d finally unpacked the thing, to air it out, the day before my flight, and it gave off a sad, dry rot odor of Korean War memorabilia when I first unboxed it. The odor managed to taint the entire contents of the suitcase, which I had wisely refrained from packing with clothes; suit case number two had all the clothes in it, along with a five hundred page manuscript (single-spaced, narrow margins, tiny font) I was nowhere near being finished with.
When I yanked the rip-cord dangling from the panel with the stenciled warning on it (WARNING: DO NOT PULL: JERK!), I expected the cord to snap off in my hand, or for nothing to happen, but, to my surprise, the mattress inflated rapidly with a loud hiss that changed in pitch as the mattress plumped out. The compressed air canister continued until the mattress bulged asymmetrically and I backed out of the room with my fingers in my ears and it exploded in a cloud of dust. Of course. I unpacked half the clothing from suitcase number two, arranged it in a thick rectangle in the middle of the room and laid the blown mattress on top. I kicked off my shoes and curled up on the makeshift bed.
I dreamed I was climbing a steep, grassy hill on a sunny day with The Beatles. They were long-haired and bearded and young-looking, younger than I had been in years, and I was slightly embarrassed, in this dream, to be an over-thirty, someone they might not trust, or, even worse, someone they might mock with their rapid, cutting, inside jokes. John was the one I had to be especially careful with, I remember thinking in this dream, and I put an effort into watching his face very carefully for reactions to my cautious remarks: a lifted eyebrow or a curling lip or a conspiratorial glance at George. It was difficult as he was the furthest from me. To my immediate left was Ringo in a bright red caftan and then to my right the order went George, Paul and then John. Climbing the hill in the heat had winded me but they, The Beatles, didn’t seem visibly affected. Their long hair was shiny, fragrant and beautiful in the golden light; in fact they were pretty as girls, even with their beards, and I couldn’t stop thinking how it was really them, The Beatles, and here I was climbing this hill in the sunlight with them.
At what point as the dream unfolded did it become clear to me that these four young men weren’t The Beatles at all? They had merely resembled The Beatles. But as I stared at the profile of the one I had taken to be John Lennon, the one who was furthest from me, with most of his face eclipsed by his hair, I could no longer locate even the faintest resemblance between his face and Lennon’s and it seemed to me (or does so now) that his facial features were changing, subtly, even as I watched, into something very strange.
The brilliant sunlight had dulled and darkened, too. The wind was picking up, whipping the tall grass, and, back down the hill into a vast valley that reached for miles to a poisonous black seam of clouds on the horizon, I watched white bits and large gray chunks of some kind of debris blowing; bouncing; rolling down the hill. The four young men I was climbing with were menacing, unambiguously hostile towards me and united in some kind of mission or scheme and their grim faces and dark clothing in combination with the cold wind and violent storm overtaking us made me shake with despair.
The noise that woke me was so loud that it seemed to push me to the floor but I was already on the floor, or close to floor level, gasping as my heart raced. I didn’t know where I was, but it felt like I was in an earthquake, back in California, having a heart attack. What was I doing on the floor of an empty, high-ceilinged room with strange windows and two narrow doors and a power socket in the wall shaped like nothing I was familiar with, rattled in my bones by a deafening rumble? A cheap ceiling lamp on the end of a white cord was swinging left and right. I stumbled in a panic to the door jamb and wedged myself there with my arms covering my head until I suddenly remembered where I was exactly and under what circumstances and laughed at my stupidity, right there where I squatted in the vibrating doorway. I slipped my shoes on, confronted a sleep-smashed face in the bathroom mirror (soft; middle-aged), splashed some water on it, and left the building to go for a walk, since sleep was impossible.
The day… a late spring/early summer day… was streaked with low, fast moving clouds like dark fish in a cold creek and the chill in the air made me consider going back to unpack a light jacket. But going back would have felt like the first small failure of my new life so I went forward instead, my hands jammed in my pockets and my collar turned up. It was early afternoon and there was only one other person on the street, a tall, pretty girl with brilliant orange hair. She wore a pale green diaphanous scarf over her hair and she didn’t once look up as she hurried past me on loud boots in the direction from which I’d come, the noise of her loud boots disappearing into the roar of construction. Turning to watch, I saw her cross towards my building and let herself into it while dust clouds and diesel fumes from the frenzy of construction next door blew over her.
I had followed her half-way back and waited to see if she’d appear in a window in the upper floors, pulling a curtain or lifting a blind to catch me spying from the corner. I lingered awhile, saw nothing and continued my walk. I started thinking of her as ‘the little red headed girl.’ I’d never had a neighbor that pretty in any apartment building I’d ever lived in in America but I had observed women like that in some of the houses I’d worked in, chatting amiably with harmless me over a mug of coffee from the other side of the invisible barrier of comfort.
Most of the work we did was at one or another of the gated communities that had mushroomed beyond the suburbs in response to opportunities in new technology at office parks that were an hour’s drive from the city. The rows upon row of brand new houses were identically over-large, poorly designed, thrown up far too quickly and in need of paint. The owners were invariably young, college-educated and friendly to a fault with the workers, all the way down to the Mexican maids and gardeners. I always made it a point to have at least one conversation with the lady of the house to assert myself, I suppose, as a reader of books and an appreciator of culture. Which Richard, my partner (my boss, actually; they were his bids, and he had me on an hourly wage), considered embarrassing not only for me, he said, but for the client and himself and the tradition of house painting.
“No matter how smart you may think you are, to them you’re just a beat up old house painter, just like me, John.”
“I’m only doing this to finance the writing of my book, Richard. You know that.”
“All I’m saying is how you see it ain’t how they see it so the point is what? Plus it’s fucking unprofessional. Okay?”
I was careful not to let him catch me talking with the homeowners after that exchange. Once, I walked into a living room carrying a step ladder and found the client’s blonde wife curled up on the Cadillac-sized leather couch in a bright red jogging outfit, chewing a finger and reading a brand new paperback of Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. She just happened to look up from the book as I entered the room in my cover-alls and cap, ladder over one shoulder, paint on my face. As she made eye contact I pointed and said, because I knew Richard was out in the van, mixing paint, “There’s textual evidence in there that Quilty is Lo’s biological father,” and her eyes went wide and her mouth fell open as though a talking dog had walked in on its hind legs and asked for a date.
Rosenthaler Strasse is the nearest main road and a trolley runs up and down both sides of it. There were more pedestrians there than on the side streets that led me to it and there was eerily quiet, clogged traffic packed with makes of cars and trucks I’d never seen before and for the first time since I’d arrived I had the thrilling sense of being in a foreign capital… the implication of infinite possibility and vague threat that middle-aged Bohemians travel for. The wind whipped flimsy spring coats against the short-skirted legs of business women or secretaries hurrying back to the office from lunch breaks and I wondered if the eros of foreign travel was more in the anonymity of it… as though anonymity in and of itself is an invitation to transgress… or in my subconscious superstition that European women find American men sexy. I turned left on Rosenthaler Strasse, under a whole city of clouds in places so black they looked rotten and I was chilled to the bone by the same wind that was flirting so rudely with the secretaries.
I hadn’t gone twenty paces when I came upon a pale older man, his thin hair wind-blown, painting a picture on the wall of a block-long building. The building housed a bakery and a barber shop and a travel agent among other ground level businesses. The building was made of huge black blocks of stone and he was very carefully taping a stencil to the wall and spray-painting it with slashing strokes. He then taped a second stencil on top of the first, lining up the edges of the two stencils with deft-but-nervous fingers and sprayed again with a different color. He was blowing on the fresh paint, his lips just inches from the black wall, as I came up on him, and he didn’t look my way but cocked his head at my footfalls. He carefully peeled the stencils off and slipped them into a backpack, then produced, from where I don’t know, a telescoping, red-tipped stick and hurried off, tapping the base of the black wall with the stick.
I looked at the image he had so carefully double-stenciled and saw that it was a formless mess of red and green paint running together into brown drips down the wall. I looked up again in time to see him hurrying across the street, his cane like a taut lead on an invisible dog. Almost without realizing it I decided to follow.
The title of the book I’m struggling to finish is ‘The Bomb Collector’. Set towards the end of the 1960s, it concerns the personal life of Azzedine El-Hadi, an Algerian émigré living in upstate New York. El-Hadi is a writer and bon-vivant, a silver-haired, worldly man of fifty with three American girlfriends. He teaches a creative writing class at a community arts center in his small town in the Wisselvallig Valley, and the youngest of his girlfriends, thirty years his junior, is a star of the writing class. The second girlfriend is married to a teacher of an evening class for working adults called ‘Generational Dissonance in Post-War Jewish Literature: from Singer and Malamud to Bellow and Roth,’ at the same arts center. His third occasional girlfriend, Ruth, his ex-wife, is the woman he married for his green card. Ruth is an amateur landscape painter and the mother of two grown children from a previous marriage.
El-Hadi has published one French novel, years ago, which he is busy translating for the English market; his second mistress has promised to show the manuscript to a publisher with whom she may or may not be having a parallel affair. The title of the French version of the book, Le Collecteur de Bombe, is from an Algerian saying that Azzedine’s father, a devout Muslim, often admonished his son with during the boy’s sex-mad adolescence: a man with too many women is like a bomb collector.
The Bomb Collector is comprised of thirteen linked short stories or vignettes on the theme of adultery; there are Moroccan, French, British and Nigerian adulterers featured in interwoven tales all set in Algiers, the great North African city. Cora (the second mistress, married to his colleague) has suggested that beyond translating the book, Azzedine should also include a new chapter, featuring an American, in order to increase the chances of getting the English version published. He initially resists her idea because to add a chapter would violate the numerology of the book. ‘Thirteen’ is one of its ordering motifs.
“Well,” suggests Cora, “simply replace one of the existing chapters.”
“Which chapter would you suggest I replace?”
Without hesitating in order to think about it, Cora answers, “Love is Blind. I think it’s the least-charming chapter in the book, to be honest. It denigrates women… also men, when I think of it. The book will be better without it.”
How can Azzedine admit, then, after Cora’s judgment, that the Love is Blind chapter is his favorite… the very heart of the book? A handsome man, an epic womanizer with philosophical inclinations, goes to his Moroccan apothecary one day and requests a philtre that will render him blind, but only temporarily. The apothecary, a man as versed in modern pharmacology as he is in Moroccan folk medicine, mixes a concoction that will blind his client for thirteen days exactly. Take this with a glass of wine on the morning of the first day and your vision will return to you on the evening of the thirteenth. The apothecary, who knows the womanizer well (having provided the man with condoms as well as penicillin and various other salves and ointments in the past), adds, But if you don’t mind my curiosity: why?
The womanizer explains: As you know, I rarely go without extremely desirable female companionship. However, it’s often occurred to me that for every impossibly beautiful woman I allow (or cajole) to climb into bed with me, there are at least a hundred of her sisters, all too willing but, unfortunately, too ugly to meet my silly standards. I curse my good taste but, as you know, there’s nothing to do about it… the male organ can’t be reasoned with in terms of what it finds attractive or not. However, I realized, one need only sneak a lover past the sentry box of the eyes in order to…
Ah yes, says the apothecary.
Following the apothecary’s instructions, the womanizer stirs the bitter substance into a glass of wine early the next morning. It’s a brilliant day, and he doesn’t even realize, at first, that what seems to be the encroaching gloom of cloud cover in an unseasonable display of weather before lunchtime is, in fact, the drug taking effect. By dinner time he is utterly blind. After spending a few days getting used to the situation (with the help of his servant), the womanizer tests his theory that by being free of the tyranny of the aesthetic prejudices of his eyes, his lovemaking will enjoy new freedoms and varieties… new intensities. Guided to the marketplace on the arm of his servant, he says: point me in the direction of a real sow. The servant does so; the womanizer makes contact with a lady of that description and finds himself escorting her home (just as he is escorted by his servant) in no time at all. The resulting sexual encounter is the best he’s ever had.
By the time his vision fades gradually back in on the evening of the thirteenth day, the womanizer has bedded dozens of women… fat, tall, short, skinny, old, young, poorly-dressed, exquisitely-dressed, European, African and everything else… and all with the same high level of energy and pleasure. The experiment has been a success. So much so that he hurries back to the apothecary the morning after the regrettable return of his vision and asks that the prescription be refilled. As you wish, cautions the apothecary, but I must tell you that the third time you use this drug, the effects are permanent.
Another thirteen days of carnal amazements follow. At the end of this journey into the ravishingly sensual night, the womanizer opts for a third, permanent dose, reasoning that he is no longer a young man; he’s seen enough of the world’s picture; to trade just one of his grossly limited senses for limitless pleasure would be more than worth it. With logical eloquence he persuades the apothecary to sell him the third dose.
A year goes by. The apothecary has nearly forgotten the strange case of the self-blinding womanizer when the man appears one morning at the counter on the arm of his harried-looking servant, looking pale and skinny and with his formerly distinguished head of gray hair gone white. The apothecary is filled with guilt and pity: it strikes him that the poor fellow has returned to plead for his sight back.Which is, as he was warned, impossible. As the apothecary approaches the counter with a heavy heart he is surprised to see the blind womanizer detect his presence with a cocked head and give off a sly and boyish grin.
How can I help you today, my friend? asks the nonplussed apothecary. Are all things right with your chosen life?
Righter than ever, answers the blind womanizer. I’ve broken my own previous record for number of conquests in a week several times over and show no signs of slowing down. There’s only one thing I need from you now to make my bliss complete, says the blind womanizer, lowering his voice so that the apothecary draws near.
And what would that one thing be? inquires the very curious apothecary.
A drug to render me deaf, responds the womanizer.
The parallels between the blind womanizer from the book within my book, able to ‘see’ all women as equally desirable in his darkness, and the blind graffiti artist, able to falsely ‘see’ his art as beautiful (or well-executed), were amusing to me. As I followed the blind man on his route, along which he stopped to stencil his runny brown blobs on various buildings, I began to feel that I knew him because I had created the character he was an offshoot from. I began to predict the buildings he would chose to mark (or to ‘piss’ on; wasn’t it territorial behaviour? Wasn’t it canine?) with impressive accuracy. He went right for the newest, cleanest buildings, despite his blindness. He’d walk right by the buildings with too much graffiti on them. The unstylish buildings, too. He didn’t seem to find those very attractive. I assumed by this behaviour that up until relatively recently he’d been able to see.
I was miles from home already but unpanicked because we’d followed a straight line through a commercial district with a tram running up and down it and I could always hop on to ride one home. Figuring out how to buy a ticket (I speak less German than the average pre-schooler here) was another matter, but I’d face that hurdle when the time came. The street I followed the blind man along is called Kastanien Allee.
It’s a neighborhood of young people, good-looking young people sitting inside and in front of the packed cafes (despite the threat of rain) and smoking languorously, or with emphasis, like movie stars. Young people strolling in and out of funky record shops and quirky boutiques. The girls are all stylish and tall like the ‘the little red head girl’ living in my building and I marveled at their uniform beauty. Not a fat body or failed outfit or wrinkled face among them. I began to feel quite self-conscious as a voyeuristic emissary from the awful fraternity of the aged and unhip and almost wished I’d picked a dowdier neighborhood to live in. I didn’t need to have my unfuckable mortality rubbed in my face every time I stepped outside to buy butter. But the blind man was above all that; those beautiful girls were as invisible to him as I was to the beautiful girls and so they had lost their power to tantalize and diminish him. He was flying through outer space with his spray paint. He would have been impossible in California and I realized that it was up to me not to become impossible in Berlin. Enough with the bitterness; expect nothing and you can’t be disappointed, I told myself. Finish your novel.
The writer character in my book, Azzedine El-Hadi, creator of the character of the blind womanizer, is based on a real person (of the same name) I’d met as a house painter. I suppose I never bothered to change the name of the fictional version of Azzedine because I either never really expected to publish the book, or assumed that he’d be dead by the time the miracle happened.
While the fictional Azzedine El-Hadi is a writer, the real-life El-Hadi runs an antique shop, with a sideline in contraband antiquities. Richard and I had been hired to paint the little apartment that Azzedine keeps over the shop which is situated in a row of genteel businesses in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego. Richard had said, You’re going to get a kick out of this guy on the way over in the van that first morning and he was right. El-Hadi looked like something out of an Agatha Christie novel when he answered the door, a silver-haired gentleman with a fastidious mustache wearing red satin pyjamas and velvet slippers.
The walls of his bedroom were covered from floor to ceiling with framed photographs of beautiful women; photographs it was our task to remove and eventually replace in exactly the same order. There was more preparation than actual painting involved in this particular job and I had the pleasure of chatting with Azzedine, or listening to him chat, while I worked. Richard had learned by this point in the history of our partnership to behave like a real boss, leaving me to do the great majority of the work. He’d be gone a few hours every day (at the race track for all I knew), therefore I was free to chat with the witty, literate El-Hadi while I stripped the wall paper in his bedroom or sanded the moldings.
It gradually dawned on me that El-Hadi’s wit wasn’t the main reason I enjoyed his company. Unlike every other citizen of the state of California, he was able to distinguish easily between my soul and my occupation. In short, he treated me as an equal, a fellow human being, and not a middle-aged house painter. If he hadn’t hired me to paint his flat, he never would have known, not being impolite enough to ask, how I earned my money… it was of no concern to him, the details of my material wealth or my social standing. What he needed to know about me he gathered with his eyes and ears; it was the quality of my conversation he noticed, my ideas and opinions.
Richard’s return from his four hour lunch break was always jarring: I became a house painter again the moment he climbed the back staircase with his thermos of coffee and the paint-layered cuticles of his fingernails. Richard’s idea of egalitarianism was to display contempt for us both (Richard and me). At which El-Hadi would shrug and wink, preserving the secret of my humanity until our conversation could resume.
As my admiration for El-Hadi increased during the three weeks we worked to refinish his apartment in an oriental theme of greens and golds, my stubborn tolerance of Richard shaded gradually into resentment. I saw that an ugly aura radiated from the man and that my first assumption… that being a house painter had turned him sour over the years… was wrong. His job, posture, manner of speech, living arrangement and outlook on life were all just accessories, after the fact, to the original core of his negativity. We’ve all known gloomy or even vicious children from our childhoods; maybe it starts in the womb, or in the miserable upbringing of the mother. It was finally clear to me in any case that time in Richard’s company was more toxic than exposure to any of the noxious chemicals we handled and for the sake of my own health I should get out, despite the money he paid to keep me near and under his control.
I brought up the taboo topic of novel-writing with El-Hadi one day about five minutes after Richard drove off to whatever he did on his own for half of every working day but he came back. He came back for the wallet he’d left in the jacket on top of the toolbox. He caught me standing on the top of my step ladder, scrubbing the ceiling with trisodium phosphate and discussing the problem of particularizing character in the context of a first-person narrative; how to separate the narrator’s voice from both the writer’s and the reader’s? Azzedine stood at the foot of the ladder with his chin in his hand, looking up. Even Azzedine jumped a little when Richard shouted at me.
“Hey! Don’t we have an agreement that you keep your mouth shut and paint shit? Nobody wants to listen to your wannabe crap!”
“Calm down shit!”
I climbed down off the ladder. “Forget it, Richard” I said. “It’s over. I quit.”
“Fine. Get the fuck out of here.”
“Fine,” I said, wiping my hands.
“Excuse me for interrupting, my friends,” said Azzedine, with his mellifluous voice and his unreadable smile. He nodded at me. “John and I were having a conversation that I would very much like to finish.”
“But you heard him, Mr. El-Hadi: the damn fool just quit!”
“Perhaps you can send me a bill for work completed, yes?” Azzedine turned to me. “Can you finish it on your own, John?”
I shrugged, then nodded. Richard turned red. He put his hands on his hips. “We agreed on a price.”
Azzedine’s smile took on extra depths as he made a very compact little voila gesture, saying, “Ah, but we have signed no contract, sir, correct?”
Richard laughed as though he enjoyed being out-maneuvered.
It was sometime after I’d watched the blind artist spray, with meticulous care, the fourth brown blob on an otherwise immaculate building that he lost me. He must have slipped into a doorway or up a side street while I was watching an unreachably pretty girl walk by. Ahead of me stood the massive overhead girderwork of the overground link of the U-Bahn system at Eberswalderstrasse, an old green hooded train bridge straddling a complicated five-way intersection thronged with cars and walkers. To get to the other side of the U-Bahn station I had to cross under it and against three traffic lights in a crowd of people. It felt like a group activity: a sight-seer’s hike or school kids on a class outing, five minutes of camaraderie with people I’d never seen before and would, for the most part, never see again. I imagined the crowd holding hands, two by two. A big girl to my immediate right, dark-haired and sweet-faced and over-dressed in a puffy orange jacket, must have thought the same thing because she seemed so amused by it all when we made eye contact. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have considered her even remotely attractive but loneliness in a foreign city can be a powerful aphrodisiac.
“Welcome to the International Society of Pedestrians Crossing Schönhauser Allee,” she said, with a pronouncedly Philadelphian accent. She walked as though weighed down by an invisible, book-laden backpack. I guessed her age at 29-ish.
“Membership is free, I take it.”
“All you need to join are your feet.”
“And you’re the president.”
“No, sir, I’m the ombudsman.”
“I always loved that word.”
“Me too. Ombudsman, stipend, satyr, druse… ”
“An incrustation of small crystals on the surface of a rock or mineral.”
She pressed her hands together in a mockery of prayer. “I’ve been waiting for years for someone to ask me the definition of that word.”
We all completed the complicated task of crossing under and to the other side of the vast green riveted structure. The group was dispersing. “Now what?”
“Ask me the definition of drupaceous.”
“Resembling or related to a drupe.”
There was a cafe in the shadow of the U-Bahn station and we sat there with cake and coffee while the weather, miraculously, cleared up. Her name was Amanda Nye and she’d been in Berlin for five years.
“Came as a German language student but defected when I figured out I don’t like speaking German.”
“If you don’t like speaking German, why stay in Germany at all?”
“Because Germans don’t like speaking German either. It’s easy to get by with your English and a native vocab of about twenty six words. Besides, Berlin is the least German city in Germany. I just pretend it’s South East London in an alternative universe where the Nazis won the war. How old are you?”
“Okay. That’s not so old.”
“Wanna come watch porno at my place? It’s not far from here. No big dogs or roommates.”
Funny girl. I paid for our coffees and half-eaten cakes and followed Amanda out the door of the cafe in time for a lurid sunset. All of the clouds had been pushed to the westernmost corner of the sky like damp kindling. She produced a wafer-thin camera and aimed it over my head and clicked without looking, paying attention to me instead. She said,
“Personal anecdote. I thought I was Dianne Arbus when I was nine years old. I had an old Kodak Instamatic and I photographed the ugliest people in my neighborhood. Fat kids, acne cases, crones with dowager’s hump, shrinking violets with faint mustaches… you name it. I kept developing these rolls of film and getting them back and they looked nothing like Dianne Arbus. You know: haunted, shunned and auguring extinction? Nothing at all like that. Nothing like I had hoped to capture.”
“Did you try using black and white film?”
“That was my next step. My uncle Dan drove to a flea market and got me a banged up old Pentax for twenty bucks. So back I went to re-photograph every freak and outcast in my neighborhood, and then I did my church and my grammar school too. The custodial staff at school was a god-send. They were Existential super-models. Wet eyes and stubble. I shot rolls and rolls of black and white 35 millimeter film and spent all my savings… every single Kennedy Half in my piggy bank… getting those damn rolls developed. And guess what?”
“You still weren’t Dianne Arbus.”
She pantomimed tearing her hair out. “I still wasn’t Dianne Arbus. It was very frustrating to a nine year old girl who’d come that close to knowing what she was going to spend the rest of her life doing.”
“You tacked every print to the bedroom wall and stared for hours trying to grasp the difference. While all the other kids were playing you were staring intensely with the curtains drawn. You took a magnifying glass and studied gray, blurry, low-contrast images down to the finest molecular grain to locate whatever it was that wasn’t quite there. You studied between the grains. You ran your fingers over the photos in the dark… ”
“I sure did. And guess what?”
“I came to a profound conclusion. See, all my freaks were… smiling… smiling. In every single photo I’d taken. Listen, it’s hard to look like a freak and an outcast when you’re smiling. Arbus was a fraud. Those famously eerie and depressing pictures of hers would have looked exactly the same no matter who she was photographing… as long as she put ’em in a bad enough mood first!”
I laughed, but it was also some kind of genuine insight. Funny girl; smart girl. But still not any version of pretty.
“See, artists, first and foremost… if they’re any ‘good’… ” She simulated quotation marks with her fingers, seeming to quote her own head. “… they’re con men. Con Artists. It’s all a scam. Because of that precocious little revelation, I lost the desire to be an artist very very young… but I couldn’t find anything else to replace it. Some epiphanies suck.” She sighed. Or ‘sighed’.
I thought: I should study her face the way she studied those photographs and get to the bottom of this ‘attractiveness’ thing. Was there no hope for her? We walked in silence for half a block until she perked up and skipped ahead and turned, walking backwards to face me and ask, “So, I guess being forty two and all means you already know what you became when you grew up, huh.”
“Well, yeah. ‘What’ and ‘how’ are pretty young questions. ‘Why’ is the one I’m dealing with now.”
Still walking backwards she held the camera out at me like it was I.D.. “Ask an oblique question and get an oblique answer, I guess. Smile?”
“Best I can do is leer.”
She stopped abruptly and I bumped into her, making us both laugh while also confirming my suspicion that she was flat-chested. Her bones were like a heavy old iron bed frame.
“So here’s my building and so forth.”
“Am I coming in?”
She shouldered a massive door and we passed through a dark hallway, one wall of which was a bank of letterboxes, and across a barren courtyard the most interesting feature of which was the wire-fenced enclosure for two wheeled dumpsters and three barrels for various colors of recyclable glass. Meaning beer bottles. She lived in the rearmost wing of the building, what the Germans call the hinterhof, and up five flights of stairs. Her voice and our footsteps echoed in the otherwise deathly quiet stairwell.
“I arrived in Berlin about two weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers, right? First thing I noticed was the airport… I flew out of Newark… the airport was empty. No lines, no waiting. I got upgraded to First Class and I got all kinds of free drinks. It was like everyone was feeling sorry for me. Then I land in Berlin and the Germans… you never saw Germans acting so compassionate. It freaked me out. I saw an ad in the paper and came to look at this flat… I was staying in a youth hostel up the road a ways… and the lady practically begged me to take it. Didn’t ask about my financial status or anything. All she needed was to hear that I was American. I was like a celebrity… I was living, breathing history and she wanted to be a part of it, and to show her solidarity with the American way of life.”
We were huffing and puffing as we trudged ever upwards.
“She told me she was leaving for Jamaica… a friend wanted her to run a bed and breakfast there… she proposed I sublet until she returned in March and then we’d talk about it. Fully furnished, washing machine, the works. Reasonable rent… all the utilities bills are deducted automatically from her bank account. All I have to do is deposit money in her account before the fifth of every month, right? She says I’ll call in a week in case you have any questions. She doesn’t leave a number or an address she can be reached at but I figure nothing that bad can happen in a week… if the toilet backs up I’ll bang on a neighbor’s door or something.”
We stood on the landing in front of the door while she dug in her puffy orange jacket for the keys. We were both winded and panted heavily while smiling at each other like idiots. She said,
“But she didn’t call in a week. Or in three weeks. Or, like, ever. It’s been five years and I haven’t heard a word.” She unlocked the door and pushed it open and gestured that I should enter first.
It was an airless flat with hardwood floors and overstuffed, maiden-aunt furniture. The distant odor of rotten cherries. Every flat horizontal surface (windowsill, counter-top, book shelf, banquette and faux mantelpiece) was covered with obsessive-compulsive kitsch. Porcelain figurines, miniature spoons, plasticine cartoon characters, antique thimbles, keys, ink pens, buttons and egg cups and so on. The living room opened, theoretically, onto a balcony but the double doors were blocked by a small table supporting a very large vintage radio and had a sealed look about them. There was a large box or trunk on the balcony, exposed to the elements. To the right of the table supporting the radio, on the floor, was a television on top of a VCR angled to face the overstuffed couch that Amanda gestured with mock grandiosity that I should sit on.
“Do you know what a vollmacht is?”
“Okay, it’s like this signed declaration authorizing you to pick up a parcel at the post office on the signatory’s behalf, for example. Okay. She left one for me on the kitchen table figuring there’d be packages for her from time to time.”
To the right of the television were two old steamer trunks which, unlike all the old steamer trunks I’d ever seen, had obviously once belonged to the profoundly wealthy, with ornately bracketed corners and complex locking mechanisms. The larger of the two stood on end, on metal wheels, and the one nearest the television lay on its bottom face, handle facing us. She opened this one and removed a video cassette and shoved it into the mouth of the VCR.
“Just about every two months I get a little green notification in the mail that the mailman has supposedly attempted to deliver a parcel… which is a lie, he’s just too lazy to come up the stairs and he assumes people will be at work during the day… and so here’s me in a taxi to fetch a package that isn’t even mine because it’s way too heavy to use my bike.”
She aimed a remote control at the television.
“About a year ago I figured, what the hell? So I started opening the parcels.”
A sinister-looking copyright warning in Cyrillic lettering appeared on the screen.
“It’s all porno. Hundreds of videocassettes of porno porno and more porno. Every kind of porno known to man, no pun intended. This trunk here is full of them but these are only the ones I’ve gotten to… the bedroom is stacked to the ceiling with ’em. Hey, what can I say, I’m on a tight budget… I can’t afford to go to the movies, pay for cable, or rent something from the videothek, so… you know. This is my entertainment. I can see you’re surprised. Some of them are actually pretty good and even clever in a theory of film kind of way but, well, duh, most of them are amateurish and evil but they’re all fascinating. I’m becoming kind of an expert. The neighbors must be pretty acclimatized to the moaning by now… moanin’ noon and night… moanin’ and groanin’ and horrible horrible music and so forth. I tried watching with the sound off a few times but a soundless porno is like a silent martial arts film and it was definitely missing a dimension.”
“So, you weren’t kidding about the porno.”
She shook her head just once and tossed her jacket on a chair near the kitchen door. “I wasn’t kidding about the porno.”
She plopped down beside me on the couch. “I’m not an expert on the terminology, okay, because I never studied it in school, so give me a break, but I’ve managed to break the films down into three basic categories: mind control, rape, and torture. The mind control ones are the easiest to watch. It goes like this. Some guy exchanges a chatty kind of dialogue with some chick with boobs out to here… I mean, I assume it’s chatty from the general sound of it… and within a few minutes she’s got his thingy-do in her mouth and they’re off an running. Some of the guys look fit enough and sometimes even slightly, weirdly cute… in a sideburned way… but most of them are bushy, freckled pot-bellied beasts so that’s the mind control aspect. It’s a certain kind of male fantasy for a certain kind of male… usually the gentler ones… that they can have sex with a mind-bogglingly attractive woman by merely coming up with the correct combination of words, all things being equal. I love it. But this one we’re about to see is from a rape batch, I’m pretty sure. Yeah, it’s definitely going to be rape. So, like, fasten your seat belt… ”
A tiny, black-haired, Middle Eastern type with dirigible breasts climbs out of a limousine as it comes to rest on a circular driveway. She’s done up in a way we’re meant to accept as wealthy: a low-cut black micro-dress and gaudy jewelry. Her hair hangs down as far as her thighs and she is pretty in a hard bronze way, with kohl-rimmed eyes and cheekbones of almost Mongol severity. She lets herself into a pillared house we accept as a mansion. Cut: to two gangly gentlemen (resembling nothing so much as retired second-string basketball players) dressed in black leather and berets, ransacking the master bedroom. Cut: to the ‘wealthy’ beauty ascending her spiral staircase, a half-finished bottle of champagne in one hand and her stiletto heels dangling by their straps from the other.
I cleared my throat and scratched my forehead and said, “Is this some sort of test, Amanda?”
“Um, you could think of it as a lie detector test in a way, yeah.” She giggled. Or ‘giggled’. I didn’t giggle back. What if I suffered a terribly obvious erection while these two black gentlemen beat and raped the Persian? What would that say about me and how could I deny the verdict? Amanda had mercy and flicked the remote and the picture froze with the blacks crouched on the obscure side of the bedroom door. It was a striking image. Figures on an urn. “Want some tea?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You think I’m weird now.”
“I’m not weird. I’m just acclimatized to Germans. You’re the first American I’ve ever had up here. I’ve forgotten certain standards of normal.You’re new in Berlin, okay, so you don’t know it yet but the cultural distance between, like, Germany and America isn’t that much smaller than the one between, say, Iceland and Iran. You’ll see what I mean.”
El-Hadi is in a quandary about his book. If he leaves the thirteenth chapter, Love is Blind, untouched, there’s a good chance that Cora (with her hairy privates; such a contrast to her polished nails) will renege on her promise to get the manuscript to Mr. X, the powerful, mysterious publisher she might also be screwing on the side. Azzedine doesn’t care who else she’s screwing beyond her husband; it’s good for his book if she sleeps with this man. He will encourage her to if she hasn’t already. He will even give her pointers. He wants to be a published American writer.
He realizes that he’s suffering the kind of cultural problem, the problem of truth, he’d expected on first arriving in his adopted country but until now naively believed he’d escaped. An illusion, of course. Has a man who hasn’t died young or even in middle-age escaped death? He’d expected the Americans to seem like Martians to him, and to treat him as though he himself were from the Moon, but his first weeks in New York had been a perfect dream of endless, seamless welcome. It was only now, all these years later, that he saw that the wall he’d expected to walk into had all this time been behind him. He was free to move forward in America but not to turn back. Not even to look back. Love is Blind, the tale of the blind womanizer… this looked too far back to Algeria. Cora was offended by the animal truth in his beautiful story and rightly saw in the center of the soul of the blind womanizer, as Azzedine had crafted him, Azzedine’s own eye winking back at her. The cold eye of a proper deity. That is art; that is truth. That is the heart of his book.
The evening of the day of Cora’s infuriating suggestion that he mutilate this creation of his; that he castrate it; Azzedine found himself alone with his young mistress, Noa, in the classroom he occupied on weekends at the community arts center. It was not a serious class and Azzedine was not paid a ‘serious’ fee for teaching it but he felt there was a serious dialogue about literature being held under all the small talk, hot air, topical blather, chit chat, empty banter and other forms of static the class was good for generating. The serious dialogue about literature was going on surreptitiously between his mistress and himself and their lovemaking was the distilled conversation in its arcane form. El-Hadi could just as well have quit the futile attempt to open these money-mad materialists up to the spirituality of a pure sentence and held the discussion in bed alone with Noa. There was something valuable in the mundane presence of the others, though. He couldn’t decide if it was as contrast or padding, or, even, protection, that the others served to magnify his pleasure in having Noa. Of seeing her amongst them like the high priestess to El-Hadi their minor god. He chuckled at this thought. But he felt it had truth.
The last lingering student, a housewife whose weekly ration of creativity was wasted in the selection of the garish hats she affected every Saturday in class, finally left them alone together. He sat for a good long time on the edge of his desk, trouser leg dangling from the desk’s corner and shining black Brogan swinging to the buzz of the overhead fluorescents with a boy’s indolence, and he luxuriated in their ability to stretch a purposeless moment. She sat at her student desk with skinny arms folded over that exquisite sparrow’s chest of hers (the violet welts of her breasts) and rolled her blue eyes around the room, smirking. Her sandy-blonde hair was short and boyishly cut and added to the aura of middle class mischief he associated with her dungarees and sandals and untucked shirt. Like that luminous gamine from Peyton Place. A woman like that, to get the full benefit of her, one makes love as one did as a boy, with a boy, that pungency under the tented bed sheet.
“Why were you so late today?”
“The truth would be indelicate, honey.”
She gave Azzedine a certain look and he turned away with embarrassment and said, “Aha. I see. Your strawberry days… ”
With a perverse glee she said, “I’m unclean.”
It was a clear, mild twilight in the shallow bowl of the Wisselwallig Valley, the sky resembled an inverted parfait with its dulcet bands of orange and pink at the bottom and deep dark grape at top. The breezes were warm breath and Azzedine went without his suit jacket, draping it over one shoulder on the hook of his forefinger a la Sinatra, and Noa’s white shirt provocatively unbuttoned to the level of her heart. The community arts center was all glass and dark metal (though brilliantly lit), a modern structure set down upon the northernmost hill of Wisselwallig Park. They strolled down the grassy slope towards the parking lot holding hands. Holding her hand in public produced in him the kind of prideful frisson you’d expect in a man who’d overcome a phobia. They could hear a basketball smacking the concrete on the court on the other side of the lot in which El-Hadi’s car stood alone. Floodlights blazed to reveal the disconcerting delay between the dribbled ball and the sound of it while gangling Negroes and a solitary paleface chased it around the court. Azzedine brought up the topic of Cora.
Noa was shaking her head. “What do you see in that wrinkled old bag, anyway?”
“Without the other women in my life I would rely too much on you, I think, Noa,” El-Hadi joked. But it was also true: keeping several women was insurance against any one woman taking over. Especially a young woman. With her untapped dowry of as-yet-unleashed cruelties. “Otherwise one upsets the balance, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I agree in principle but why her?”
He touched two fingers to his lips and frowned, one of the gestures she found most attractive in him. He spoke as though repeating sentences that were being whispered to him. “She’s convenient. I always know where her husband is. She’s grateful for the attention. And I must also admit that I like the fact that her husband is an academic Jew. You know… it’s the sibling rivalry of the Middle East, still sleeping in my Westernized bones. It wakes up in me when I see his wife naked, you see.” He laughed. “The aura of scholarly refinement I glimpse reflected in his wife’s neglected body inflames me.”
She said, “Jews are funny. They call themselves ‘Jews’. Isn’t that funny?”
He put a hand on her shoulder, certain that no one was watching. “I find the word ‘Caucasian’ rather more amusing, to be honest.”
“I’d tell that Cora Simon creature to screw off with her suggestions, if you ask me. Since when did she become Maxwell Perkins?”
“But I very much want this book to find a home in America, Noa. Until I’m published in this country, what am I? What’s my purpose? I’m living as a man of the past and I find that intolerable. Sometimes one must hang a man to keep him from harming himself, so to speak. Is Cora ignorant of art? We could say so. But there are politics… strategies… ”
“These are all rather arch ways of saying ‘sell out’ if you want my opinion.”
“You like Cora because she’s had three kids and her box is capacious enough to accommodate that massive bronze thingy-do of yours. And you like me because I’m smart like a boy.”
“As I’ve already told you.”
“And I let you screw me like a boy, too.”
El-Hadi offered a courtly gesture of assent.
“Promise you’re not a queer?”
“A queer is a man pretending to be a woman. Or longing to be a woman. I am a man inside and out. I was a man already at seven.” He pretended to pretend to make a muscle of his right arm like Charles Atlas. “You could ask my father. There are two of everything on this planet and a time for everything… a tool for every job, so to speak. When I take pleasure from a male’s body it’s a matter of power and utility. Do you understand what I mean? The exchange is between master and servant. Not between two bearded dreamers in pink.”
“Is it this way between us, too? Master and servant?”
“Teacher and pupil, I should say.”
“With the twist being that I’m the teacher,” she said, skipping ahead of him and walking backwards to face him as they walked.
“Exactly,” nodded El-Hadi.
“Exactly!” shrieked Noa, and she turned and ran ahead to his car. Just watching her tired him out, and he wondered if he himself had ever in this life run. She was swift and awkward like a child; her limbs seemed to fly from her torso in an ecstasy of flight and reassemble at her destination. But when she reached his car in her game of tag she seemed to recoil from it. She cupped her hands to her mouth and called back to him, “Hey, Rudolph Valentino!”
“Hey Jean Seberg!” he responded, impulsively, feeling very foolish… feeling light-headed. Feeling for half-a-second drugged. If this was his attempt to participate in the exuberance of the era it had taught him, instantaneously, that he couldn’t. Which was a relief. He was confused, however, to see Noa examining his dear old second-hand convertible, sneaking around it in the twilight. Her head appeared above the pale ragtop and she waved.
“You’re not going to like this!”
“What?” he shouted. Shouting gave him a headache. His normal tone was a whisper.
“You’ll see when you get here!” she shouted back.
After my confusing encounter with Amanda Nye earlier in the day I realized that the character of Noa needed re-writing, so I went back to the passage in which I had first attacked the problem of her with any depth and made her less grimly enigmatic and more sexual, less of a sphinx and more Puckish. Unpredictably young. After Amanda Nye it struck me that I couldn’t allow ‘god’ to write his characters with more verve than I did and that any novelist half-worth the term is better than ‘god’ (or god) at just about everything that matters. The novelist learns from god’s mistakes. Literature is the imposition of order and meaning on god’s untidy experiment. The passage I was re-wiring was only about half-way through the 500 or so pages (single-spaced, narrow margins, tiny font) I already had. Meaning massive revisions for the remainder.
My method is to write it out by hand in a notebook and type out the ‘completed’ chapters. Every time I change any passage anywhere (other than at the very end of the text ) it means a lot of work. But it seems to me that getting it right is a question of life and death. Getting it wrong would leave me with nothing to show for my time on the planet. A credo, if you will.
If Amanda Nye can bring a strange man, a rootless traveler (I might easily be a killer who has fled America to elude prosecution) home to watch hardcore porno with her, what is Noa Reese, twenty years old and beautiful in that magical year of 1968, capable of? I had to explore that within the themes of the book I had already developed. I had to let Noa flower without running amok. But I realized that Noa was a much more important character than I first assumed, and that Azzedine’s ex-wife Ruth was less so. Much of the writer’s block that marooned me on the 500th page was due to the strategic mistake of relying on Ruth’s character to catalyze plot developments. Ruth was too passive, content, even-tempered and willing to give. The dangerous energy of the re-configured Noa (capable, even, of violence) was my solution.
Noa wagged her finger. “Don’t touch.”
She grabbed Azzedine’s shirt sleeve as he reached for the driver-side door handle. He looked at her as though she were being bothersome and shoved her and reached for the door again. She shoved him back and said, “Christ, are you blind? Can’t you see? Somebody crapped on it.”
She pointed at swirls of what at first appeared to be ruddy rich mud on the driver-side door and on the handle and across the windshield in greasy figure eights. A thick-limbed stickman sketched in shit on the ragtop like a Roualt or a Klee. Where the tarry mud had smeared on thin it was dried and cracking but in the thicker, slopped-on gouts it oozed and glistened and fallen clumps piled under the chassis. It was not dog shit; there were mosaics of undigested food exposed in the smear. The dulled colors of a cheap cafeteria lunch. El-Hadi stood back from his car with a disgust so intense it looked to Noa, who couldn’t help laughing, like terror.
“The Jew did this… “ he said, surprised to hear his father’s quaking voice. Surprised most of all that the voice had survived the purifying crossing to America. Something chilling occurred to him as he hugged himself and headed for the floodlights of the basketball court, Noa running after him, seeking the possibility of a witnesses among those colored boys with their ball. Something very odd.
Chapter Four in The Bomb Collector… the chapter called A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods… didn’t something similar to this happen in chapter four of his book? Someone smears shit with his bare hands on a Nigerian art dealer’s front door and the Nigerian can’t bear the idea of ever setting foot in the defiled house again. And all the precious art in the house, the paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts and fetish figures he’s collected from Africa and Mediterranean Europe for twenty five years, he decides to destroy it all along with the house. He packs the perimeter of the building with dry brush and sets fire to it and watches the flames twist and rise and roar in an ecstasy of devils without realizing that the girl of his dreams is upstairs in bed waiting for him, a gift from his incorrigible brother.
I tried to sleep but I couldn’t, in no small part because I still didn’t have a bed. Buying one was the top of my list for the next day’s activities, but the resolution to do so didn’t much help at 2 in the morning as I lay on the rubberized canvas hide of the burst inflatable and a few layers of towels and sweaters under that for padding. I couldn’t sleep but I was exhausted. Not from the day’s walk but the night’s writing. Was it really an art or a compulsion? The more I wrote the less I cared about the answer to that question… which case being, in and of itself, of course, the answer.
My flat… the building… was quiet except for the sputters and hum of the student-sized refrigerator in the little kitchen. I began to imagine the most ancient former tenants of the place, which is the oldest building in the neighborhood: built at the end of the nineteenth century. Grim German ghosts. Because the games the mind plays with itself are usually uncontrollable, I had a vivid fantasy of a young peasant (shapeless hat; rope belt) hanging himself from a beam (now gone) in the living room where I was trying to sleep… kicking and swinging in front of the high window with its view of the park. When someone tapped on the window I nearly jumped out of my skin.
I opened the window and looked down and saw that it was Amanda Nye, standing on her tiptoes in a faint drizzle on the sidewalk. I put on my pants and shoes and let her into the building. “It’s 4 in the morning,” I whispered.
“It’s the human timepiece!” she said in a middle-of-the-day voice. There was a bike in the hallway, chained to the balustrade at the bottom of the staircase. “Is this your bike? We should ride to Wannsee before the weather gets too cold.”
“It’s not my bike.” I ushered her into the flat. I had to admit to myself that I was grateful for the company after the vivid suicide reverie of a few minutes prior. She peered into the kitchen, then turned left and I followed her into my living room, switching on the light as I entered. She was wearing her orange jacket and a dark beret and beadlets of rain were sparkling on her face. She was taller than me in very high heels.
She said, “I figured you could use some company,” and from the look on her face I couldn’t tell if she was making a guilty joke or congratulating herself on her amazing generosity. She looked around the room and her face fell. “No bed.”
“No nothing,” I added. I nearly mentioned the fact that I had to sit on the toilet just to write in my notebook but I didn’t want her to know I was writing.
“You’re a real little Abelard, aren’t you?”
“You don’t know the story of Abelard and what’s-her-name? Heloise?”
“No, and at the risk of sounding like a bad host, I don’t really care to, either.”
She patted my cheek and handed me her jacket. I hung it on the door handle. She fossicked around in her backpack and said, “Look, I brought some candles. And some absolutely exquisite hot cocoa. Ohhh, and some embarrassingly old digestive biscuits from the UK.” She handed me each item after announcing it.
“I don’t have a pot to make the cocoa in.”
“This is where my sheer genius comes in handy.” She handed me a small electric tea kettle and two tin cups.
She removed her heels and we sat on the floor in the candle-lit kitchen using mounds of my clothing, wrapped up in sweatshirts, as pillows. I took note of the fact that either the candles flattered her or she was wearing a cleverly subtle layer of makeup or that a combination of the hour, the circumstance and general loneliness was eroding my faculties of discrimination: her lips seemed plumper, her eyes rounder and the bridge of her nose not quite so broad. Also, the soft white sweater she had on seemed to me to be an order of magnitude bustier than I remembered her being. I wondered what kind of inventory she was performing on me, meanwhile. I could only hope I wasn’t being judged solely by the lights of the content of my character, because that would mean I was a shit.
“You must be the only person in Berlin who speaks less German than I do.” She gave me a thumbs-up. “What nobody can seem to get through their thick skulls is that I like not being able to speak the language… my isolation is a luxury, man, it’s precious to me. Most writers, like, pay for solitude like this.” She peered at me from under the rim of her beret as she sipped her cocoa.
“You’re a writer?”
“Didn’t I tell you? Oh my. That’s why I came to Berlin, to write my second book.”
“I thought you came to take language lessons.”
“That too.” She smiled and carefully placed her cup beside the electric kettle. “I’ve had two novels published and one twee little book of short stories. It’s practically an oeuvre, dah-ling. Surprised?”
“You said you were disillusioned with art at a young age, though, yes?”
“Writing isn’t an art, it’s an addiction, silly boy.”
I was glad that I hadn’t mentioned The Bomb Collector; how foolish would that have made me look? Strutting dilettante with his chest puffed out. The ghost of Richard, pointing and laughing. When and if she does ask what I ‘do’, I decided, my answer will be simple: housepainter.
“It’s cozy in here,” she said, “even without the furniture. You’re lucky… my flat gives me the creeps. Too many ghosts.”
“Doesn’t anyone ever come there looking for the former tenant?”
“No… I don’t think she knew very many people, poor girl. She was here illegally, you know… even the government didn’t know. Iranian. Persian if you want to get poetic and towel-head if you want to exercise your freedom of speech. Two heads worth of hair on her head… best thing about Iran has got to be all that hair in that country. The women have hairy arms and faint mustaches and the boys are capable of beards at seven. She was a pretty little thing, though. I suppose she’s packed in a box in an abandoned building in Haiti by now,” she giggled. “Not to be morbid. Jamaica, I mean,” she corrected herself. “How long do you think you’ll stay in Berlin?”
She sat with her back against the kitchen wall, hugging her knees. She seemed less larger-than-life than before… nicely so. It occurred to me in any case that I had fucked less likable women and even fallen in love with ones who were not nearly as bright. It also struck me that ‘personality’ is almost always a defense mechanism; a diversion. Wit, charm, gregarious vitality: they’re all a performance. The core being is a mysterious bundle of thoughts and sensations much closer to animal than we care to admit… it may well be that the ‘human’ aspect exists solely in the performance… the human bit is an avatar we project to interact with other avatars. The more her performance faded (out of sheer exhaustion), the more I liked her.
“I mean,” she yawned, resting her chin on her knees and closing her eyes, “do you even like Berlin so far, or are you already kicking yourself for coming here?”
I yawned back and didn’t bother answering. I just stared, determined to make her do all the work.
She stood and crossed the kitchen towards the countertop, dragging her fingers through my hair along the way, and cradled her hand around each candle flame before blowing it out. Because it was dawn, however, the room was no darker after than it had been before, and I watched her undress.
“Voyeur,” said Amanda.
It rained all day, the next day (or, that is, later the same day), and I found myself under a cheap umbrella on Schönhauser Allee, looking for a mattress store. I hadn’t told Amanda about my plan to go mattress shopping simply because I hadn’t wanted the activity to take on symbolic significance; a tacky conjugal milestone; I just wanted to make a basic purchase. After an adventurous few hours on the makeshift campsite of my living room floor, we’d separated drowsily at the front door of my building with a plan to meet later for dinner. I ended up wandering for quite a while in a light drizzle after it became obvious that most shops weren’t open before ten or eleven a.m.. I window-shopped a sex boutique with a row of huge black topologically accurate dildos on display like biblical serpents. Next door was a travel agent advertizing discount flights to Johannesburg.
There’s a wretched majesty to the city in the rain that fulfills its romantic image. I’ve seen Berlin on a bright hot summer day and there’s something sad about it under those conditions… ugly and vulnerable like an old queen kicked out at closing time and caught staggering home in a blast of work-a-day sunshine. Berlin is properly a city of mists and fogs and water-stained stone. Buildings rarely burn here, but they go black with time. To stand near one of these black edifices is to feel the cold serenity of the utterly hopeless.
When it started raining so hard that drops were bursting through the fabric of the umbrella in a fine spray, I stepped off the street into a cafe packed with refugees from the sudden downpour. Most of the refugees were standing with styrofoam cups of coffee at the glass wall of the cafe, watching the rain, waiting for a break in it, so there were several free tables. I picked one near the back, propped my drenched umbrella against the wall and dug a little notepad out of the capacious side-pocket of my raincoat. I always carry a notepad and pencil, never knowing when I’ll have the opportunity to write.
I flipped open the notebook, stared at the blank page on the table, licked my pencil and wrote: She is lying. Then I looked at what I’d written and wondered what I meant by it.
Azzedine El-Hadi once made a remark to me that was so powerful that I seriously considered either framing it or making a tattoo of it. We were using a chart to replace the hundreds of framed photos (of every size and style of framing) of beautiful women on the walls of his bedroom. The walls were freshly painted a lovely, subtle green called Statue Patina. I don’t remember what specific conversational thread led to this but he said:
“Women are liars and men are their lies.”
I went home after work that day and put the same line in the mouth of Azzedine’s doppelgänger in the untitled novel I’d just started (having scrapped the first attempt: a novel concerning the adventures of two house painters), inspired by our conversations. I was yet to have the book’s title as Azzedine was yet to pass it on to me (unawares) as the memory of his father’s favorite aphorism. The manuscript was thirty or forty pages of first draft at that stage and the few characters that populated it were stick figures who spoke like comic book characters and moved in a jerky, mechanical fashion.
Cora was standing in El-Hadi’s bathtub, one foot up on the bathtub’s rim, while El-Hadi sponged her reddening flesh. Rosewater. There was evidence of his attitude towards the female sex, she was thinking, in the vociferousness with which he soaps and scrubs my cunt. She sighed and said, “You can’t really agree with that, Azzedine. Tell me you can’t. Having a cunt doesn’t automatically make me a liar.” She usually pinned up her shoulder-length hair when he bathed her but she felt particularly exposed this time; shy about her old neck. My mother’s neck. Red as a radish. As a lobster. El-Hadi said,
“Whether I agree with it or not is immaterial, Mrs. Simon. The saying was already old before America itself was only a dream! Who are we to quibble with its wisdom? Perhaps you take it too literally.” A hand-rolled cigarette batted up and down between his lips as he spoke and his right eye squinted against the smoke that rose into it. “Okay,” he said. He clapped. “Out.” He fetched a towel and patted her dry.
I looked up from the declarative sentence in my notebook. I saw that it had stopped raining, so I left the cafe without having ordered a thing, feeling as though I’d gotten away with something. The scrubbed air tingled on my face and the clouds had lifted to the level of the tree tops like a blur of ghostly kites. The ground was a dark mirror of stone and asphalt; cars drove on their reflections.
“Are you always so mind-bogglingly observant?”
I jumped. It was Amanda, laughing in my ear. I was walking at a good clip but she was right beside me, clopping along in her heels. “I was sitting right there in the Supreme Bean!”
She took my arm in hers. “Possibly the name of the cafe you just came out of, Captain Kirk?”
“When I was a kid we had a cat that was forced to wear a bell around its neck… ”
“Droll. You walked right by me when you came in the cafe. You sat at a table in the back and wrote something in your notebook and just sat there staring at it in a trance for, like, fifteen minutes. Then you got up and left. What were you writing?”
“Nothing. List of things I need to buy today.”
“Do you mind if I look at it?” She reached in the pocket of my raincoat and fished out the notebook. It was a brand new notebook, so there was nothing else to find in it but what I’d just written. “She is lying. Who’s lying?”
“Not you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I wasn’t thinking that.”
“Okay. But only for as long as it took me to read, reflect on and be hurt by it.”
“Hey, aren’t we meeting for dinner tonight?”
“Hint taken. Well, here’s my bike, you silver-tongued devil.”
It was chained to what looked like a German No Parking sign. It was too beat up to require security measures more stringent than sticking a Free Bike sign to it. She unchained it, wiped the cracked vinyl rain-beaded seat with the arm of her orange jacket and swung a leg over. “Anyway, that’s what we do.”
“Writers. That’s what we do. We lie. Fair warning. So bring a decent bottle of wine and your toothbrush tonight. Or feel free to use mine. You haven’t even bothered to ask me who I was sitting in the cafe with. Tootles.” She pedaled off, leaving me in a quandary as to whether or not I liked her.
It wasn’t even 11 a.m. yet but I was too tired to continue this quest for a mattress. I made my way home and collapsed on the pile I called a bed and dozed off until the construction workers’ lunchbreak was over. The building shook and I let loose with a primal scream of rage and frustration that no one could even hear. Or so I thought.
Five minutes later my doorbell was ringing. I heard it during a two-second gap in the roar of construction. I assumed it was Amanda and snatched the door open wearing nothing but my pants and was nonplussed by the apparition of ‘the little red-headed girl,’ standing with a tentative smile in my doorway. I find that clichés work best in the description of beauty: she was cat-eyed and breathtaking. With perfect posture and pearly-white teeth. She spoke with the faintest of German accents.
“Are you okay? You screamed. It sounded like you hurt yourself.” As wild and irrational as I felt I must look to her at that moment, she didn’t seem afraid. She extended her perfectly sculpted hand in greeting. “I’m your upstairs neighbor, Nico. I heard an American was moving in.”
I shook hands with her. “John.”
“John! John… what?”
“Hi John just-John. So I guess you’re okay, then?”
“Great. Except, you know… the noise… ”
“Speaking of which.” She winked and lowered her voice and leaned near; the smell of her hair was tantalizing. “I heard you this morning. I thought you were watching a porno until I saw your girlfriend staggering out of the building… ”
“Who? Oh! That’s not my girlfriend.”
“Well, I hope she’s not your daughter!”
“No, neither. You know. I don’t know. It’s Berlin, right?”
“I’m a Christian, ” she beamed. Oh god. Well, the Christianity explained her boldness. Proselytizers are bold of a necessity, but I felt it was unfair for her to harbor an agenda like this and be so physically attractive. “Christians don’t do that. In Berlin or anywhere else.”
“Christians look like this?”
“You should see my little sister.”
“What do I get if I convert?”
“Unsurpassed peace and blessings everlasting.”
“Is that a euphemism?”
She wiggled her fingers in a bye-bye wave and turned towards the staircase. “You’re asking a virgin?”
“Have a nice day, Nico.”
“Same to you, John.”
And she ascended the staircase. What stuck with me was how she’d pronounced ‘unsurpassed,’ emphasizing the third and fourth syllables of the word. Like an Elizabethan. Her pale skin and orange hair and striking blue eyes supported this impression.
At Amanda’s that evening I experimented with pretending that Amanda was Nico. Nico lighting a dozen candles around her living room, bustling back and forth from the kitchen in an apron. A kitsch apron embroidered with a German aphorism girdling Nico’s hips. The touchingly harried look of a woman trying to get the first meal just right… but not on Amanda’s face… on Nico’s. It was impossible, though, to imagine Nico demonstrating one of Amanda’s feats of strength: the trunk. She was using the steamer trunks for dinner tables and the one edge-up on its wheels had to be laid on its side with the other. She was grunting and groaning as she maneuvered it, so I jumped from the sofa to help. I was stunned to discover that the thing must have weighed as much as I do.
“It’s okay, I’ve got it.”
“Honey, the thing weighs a ton, let me… ”
“Don’t be a male chauvinist pig, John-John… I said I’ve got it. Sit down, okay? You’re my guest. Sit fucking down and relax.” She lowered it carefully onto its side and let it fall the last inch or so with a flat-shaking thud. Her sleeves were rolled up and I saw the veins bulging in her forearms. I thought: I better never make this girl really mad.
She spread a white lace table cloth over each trunk and brought in two plates but no utensils. I was forbidden entry to the kitchen so when she went off to stir something or turn a flame down or whatever she was up to we communicated by shouting between the two rooms, which were separated by a short hallway. Both to make small talk, and to indulge in the surreptitious erotic delight of discussing Nico with Amanda, I said, “Turns out there’s a Christian living in my building. Right upstairs.”
“A Christian?” Amanda yelled, over the sound of chopping. “Is he a German?”
“She’s a German, yeah.”
“Germans can never really be Christians. They’re too pagan in the blood. They revert to their roots in times of great need or stress. I’d watch out for her. She’s probably horny as a stampede of cattle. Where do you stand on salt in your food?”
“No particular stance.”
She poked her head around the corner. “No issues with hypertension?”
“Well, you know. Forty two and so forth.”
“I’m a healthy specimen.”
“So I’ve noticed.” She disappeared. When she came out of the kitchen again she was carrying a paperback. She said, “Dinner’ll be ready in twenty minutes, sir. By the way, in case you’re curious.” She handed me the book.
“The Passenger. By Amanda Nye, Harridan Press. Nice cover.”
The cover was a black and white period-type photo of a station platform. Couple of ‘colored’ porters in the background and a pale-skinned, black-haired female traveler in the foreground, looking a bit camp in a pinstriped, shoulder-padded, wide-lapeled business suit of the ’40s. The dame was glancing at her chunky, modern, steel-banded wristwatch, the anachronism (no pun intended) which falsified the image. Glancing at the watch with a look of concern. Was someone late for a rendezvous? A suspect? A lover? I handed the book back.
“Oh no, please. Keep it.”
“Thanks. I’ll have a look later. Is it post modern?”
“Genre. Sub-genre. Lipstick-lesbian murder mystery.”
“There’s a market?”
“Large enough to keep me in Ramen Noodles.”
“I thought I recognized the smell of monosodium glutamate wafting from the kitchen.”
“Give that man a cigar! It’s the beef flavor packet, so your Riesling should go well with it.”
I tapped the female on the book cover. “Victim or sleuth?”
“Neither. The publisher’s girlfriend. Actually, this is true, I made the publisher a minor character in the book.”
“So it is post modern.”
“Though nobody yet has managed to define the term to my satisfaction.”
“Well, it’s like the definition of pornography, isn’t it.”
“You know it when you see it?”
“You know it when you do it. Ooops! Gotta go check on Ramen.”
The mention of the word pornography reminded me of the fact that the table-cloth-covered steamer trunk I would be eating on was full of it. This gave me a funny little thrill. I’d be dining atop all those pumping, heaving, spasming body-parts. All those pink and brown gurgling holes. It was very nearly disgusting, like some new Japanese restaurant fad.
I agreed with Amanda’s assessment of her flat: it gave me the creeps. There was an aura of the taxidermied and shellacked about it that the candle light, with its twitching shadows and orangey wood-tones, exacerbated. But did this creepiness emanate from Amanda or the previous tenant or something inherit in the apartment? Could the previous tenant really be blamed for the Victorian attic ambiance if Amanda had been living here for five years already?
I yelled, “Hey, I have an idea for a book you can write.” But she didn’t answer. I waited a good long time and called out, “Amanda?” and there was silence, though I heard the creaking of floorboards in other rooms in the apartment.
Just as I was deciding to go check on her she entered the room carrying a large silver serving tray, dressed in the style of an orthodox Muslim: from head to toe in a dark Burka, only her hands and eyes exposed. Her eyes were kohl-rimmed and the grim fabric of the Burka billowed and despite her attempt at being exotic or even seductive she was frightening. There was no trace… no remnant… nothing to indicate that within that macabre shroud there existed a human in any way known to me. She knelt with the tray and set it on the edges between the two trunks and spooned dollops of hummus, tabouli, tahini, etc., on my plate. Her plate remained empty.
I said, “Amanda…” But she cocked her Burka’d head with a perfectly alien movement and stared me down, a finger over the shroud where her lips would be.
I realized that in this role-playing fantasy, she couldn’t eat until after I was finished. I was very hungry and the food was delicious; she knelt beside me as I ate. The apartment was quiet as a crypt, which magnified the sound of my chewing and swallowing. She remained in character throughout, and I tried not to look at her, but it was impossible. There were no utensils; I just scooped and mopped with hunks of pita bread; and I’d stuff some in my mouth and glance over and there she’d be, eyes downcast, swaying almost imperceptibly as I ate. The horror of the Burka is the sinister magic of it… how the woman shrouded in it becomes all women and no woman, with less personality than a dog.
I ate quickly, finishing about half of the food, then leaned back from the plate and gestured that she should continue where I’d left off. She was reluctant until I moved entirely away from the ‘table’ and sat on the couch. She then crawled to the plate and balanced on her haunches, lifting the front flap of her cowl with one hand and stuffing the food in with the other, careful not to expose any of her own flesh in the process. There was a hypnotic rhythm to the mechanics of it and a dream-like blankness in her kohl-rimmed eyes which she fixed on me without acknowledging my presence. The eyes looked decorative, flat, painted-on… but it also struck me that they could be gazing on some bearded Imam of the 19th century for the absolute absence of recognition I saw in them.
Abruptly, she stopped shoveling it in and angled away from the plate for a still moment, eyes closed, and then she stood, with a rustle of fabric, and crossed to where I sat on the couch. Kneeling before me, pushing my legs apart, she fussed with my zipper. She reached in with thumb and forefinger and plucked it out deftly while lifting the front flap of her cowl. I only caught a glimpse of my swelling dick before it disappeared into her mouth under the shroud. Her head bobbed and I gripped at the couch, holding my breath while she nodded and gulped in prayer.
I closed my eyes and arched my back and pushed into the dark warmth. I made sounds… I said things… I’m not sure. If I hadn’t opened my eyes again before coming I wouldn’t have seen Amanda, in a bathrobe, walk into the room with that smirk of hers.
I shoved the Burka away and jumped up and snatched at the door and stumbled down five flights two steps at a time in the dark, barely able to breathe. I ran across the black courtyard to the front of the building and shouldered through the heavy door afraid that they might follow me and I ran when I hit the sidewalk and the laughter I had heard or imagined I heard as I escaped from Amanda’s flat… the dirty laughter that followed me down the stairs as though the witch it came out of was flying down the stairs behind me… her laughter was smokey, Middle Eastern; the dusty throat of the Levant. Amanda wasn’t laughing but her friend in the Burka was. This is like a movie, I kept thinking. This is like a horror movie. I even considered, for a wild second, flagging down a cop car. Had I just been raped? If not, I’d been severely fucked with. I couldn’t tell if the chest pains were from the trauma or from running down five flights of stairs.
I vowed to myself that I’d never cross paths with Amanda Nye again, although, the further I got from her flat, the less frightened, the less angry, I became. I could see the creepy Zen of it… the decadent, artistic Choderlos de Laclos wit of it, even. Still, I had never been less than ambivalent about a relationship with Amanda, as interesting as she had proven herself to be, and this was the perfect excuse for a righteous exit. She couldn’t drench me in guilt or seek revenge over my breaking things off with her because by almost any system of reckoning, what she had done was ‘wrong’. I could well remember her saying, I’m not weird, I’m just acclimatized to Germans. I’ve forgotten certain standards of normal. Damn right. But it wasn’t as though she’d killed anyone. Knowing Ms. Nye, I realized, meant never knowing when the floor was about to drop out from under you. Some people might enjoy that.
Six blocks away from the scene of the crime I began to laugh. I laughed hard. More had already happened to me in my first few days in Berlin than in ten years of living in San Diego. I felt free, the sky was bruise-blue and moonlit and beaded with stellar ova; the air was a cool drink and Kastanien Allee was jumping. A Babel of music pumped out of every cafe, club, restaurant and idling car on both sides of the long long street and young people were everywhere, endearingly willing to dress up in loud fashions and prance across my path. I was glad I hadn’t come in the Burka’s mouth. I was glad I hadn’t wasted the day’s orgasm.
A skinny blonde came skipping out of an Indian bistro sing-songing something in German. Taking note of my incomprehension, she said, “Do you please have the extra money you can give me, sir?” She was late-teens, early twenties and dressed like a pirate, with leggings and tall boots and a red bandana tied over her ratty blonde shoulder-length hair. She smelled like hard candy and cigarettes. There was a spot high in the middle of her forehead that it had obviously been the bandanna’s job, before slipping, to hide. “An Euro, perhaps?”
“Sure,” I said, and handed her a five. This appeared to impress her.
“You must be American,” she said. “Brits are as cheap like the Germans. Are all Americans so rich?”
“No, but we’re all fools.”
“I like fools!”
“Lucky you. I’m a one man ship of fools.”
“Hey, you talk like a book by Jack Kerouac, man. You must be, so, a Schriftsteller. I am correct?”
“What’s a Schriftsteller?”
She mimed writing. “You must be a psychic,” I said.
“For another five I am reading your palm.”
“I’ll give you ten to listen to me talk for forty minutes.”
She made a praying gesture with her hands. “Fifteen?”
We walked arm-in-arm up Kastanien Allee, a forty two year old American and a nineteen year old waif of Central Europe. Being a nameless, faceless traveler, I was immune to shame or the pressure of public opinion, like a long-time member of the Milwaukee chapter of the Kiwanis Club with his arm around a fifteen year old hooker in Saigon. I was still half-hard from the unfinished blow-job and rattled, still, by the prank. But I refused to remain creeped-out for the rest of the evening. I refused to let Amanda have the last laugh or dominate my thoughts by becoming a phobia. Let’s speak of things Amanda knows not of, I thought. I told the girl,
“I had an unhappy childhood. My parents divorced before I could even walk, and my father was nothing but an authoritarian voice on the telephone who would only make the special trip to where my mother and I lived if I had done something bad enough to deserve a spanking.”
“I soon figured out the relationship between misbehaving and seeing my father, so I misbehaved constantly. Those spankings were the high point of my week. I usually made sure to misbehave on the weekend so the spankings wouldn’t interfere with homework.”
“Meanwhile, my mother, my gentle mother, whom I’d loved obsessively as an infant, seemed less perfect as I grew older and went to school. She was not a bright woman… my father had married her for her looks and her ability in the kitchen and her natural genius was in her optimism and kindness. But I was a so-called gifted child… too smart to be happy, or to fit in anywhere… and I soon lost patience with the idiotic aphorisms and catch-phrases she faced life with. I was a cruel little tyrant of eight or nine the first time I told my poor sweet mother to shut up. What’s worse, rather than spank the shit out of me for that filthy impertinence, she obeyed me. Which had the effect, to make a long story short, of ruining my life.”
“I was accepted into an expensive private college, on a full scholarship, at the age of 15. The student body was equal parts whiz-kids and trust-fund brats and quite a few members of the faculty were bonafide geniuses and or masters of their discipline and taught classes that in some cases featured three pale students with large, pulsing craniums. It should have been exactly the kind of place I’d find myself in, but, instead, I spent my two years on campus staging elaborate pranks and fucking beautiful coeds from all over the world. I’d always wanted to write a book, I could write extremely well but only in spurts, but it had never occurred to me that writing could be a profession… something that people paid you to do. It never occurred to me that this private college was anything other than a symbol for everything I hated about people who’d been born having more than I did.”
“I quit in the middle of my sophomore year to follow a girl to California. I was still just barely seventeen. This was the late ’70s. I jumped into her Volkswagen minibus with a duffel bag full of my meager possessions and that was that.”
“The thing I noticed real quick was that whereas in prep school and college, smart people were paid or otherwise motivated to listen to you, outside of college, the density of smart people not only dropped to something close to the vacuum of interstellar space, but, also, the dumb fucks you suddenly found yourself surrounded by… whether on the job or in your run-down apartment building or even on the streets… could not give less than half a blind monkey’s bent-dicked fuck about your theories, dreams, quips or observations. In fact, it soon becomes painfully clear that many dumb people are too dumb to know they’re dumb or that you, in contrast, are smart… they even, some of them, misinterpreting the eccentric behaviour of the intellectually gifted for stupidity, might take to calling you retard.”
“The moistly voluptuous Jewish American Princess I had run away from school with wised-up fairly quick and opted out of the situation by playing her trump card: blaming me. Daddy sent a friend of the family… a crewcut jock attending the school I’d bailed out of… to get her the fuck out of our hovel with a minimum of incident and drive her back to the family compound in Rhode Island. When I got home from my job on the loading dock that day, I saw them driving off, and when I entered the open door of the apartment I noticed that all the good furniture, all the booze, most of the records and all of the silverware… was gone. The only thing she left me… and this hurt… was the hand-painted book of poetry I’d written for her birthday. That she left in the empty refrigerator, strangely, and I’m still working out the symbolism there. Her family had staged an intervention and pried her easily out of a poverty cult of two, no deprogramming necessary. Have I mentioned already that it was her idea to quit school and move to California? Life, as we now know, is unfair.”
The girl I was walking with (who called herself ‘Motte’… German for Moth) took all of this in and said,”You must be lucky to write. I dream of this, or to make music.” She reached up and adjusted her bandanna, self-conscious about her Third Eye. “To eat from what you create!”
She assumed, of course, that I was a published writer; that I earned my living from words. I could have taken her back to Amanda Nye’s place and introduced her, saying Now, this is a real writer, Moth; she has a book out and everything… unlike me. Instead, I acted the part for my little fan. To lie about being a published writer is to be closer to being a published writer than if one is honest about not being one, after all. I went into great detail about my book. If there’s one thing anyone who’s committed a year or two of his or her life to the founding and maintenance of a text knows, people with whom one can discuss the effort are far and few between. Songwriters have it easy: they ask for between three and five minutes of your time, on average. Painters even easier: usually, a glance will do it. But a writer… someone working on a novel… is truly a wretch, waiting for that rare patient angel with hours, days, weeks of attention to dedicate towards the reading and discussing of one’s god-damned creation.
The real Azzedine El-Hadi had been the only such listener in my life (while Richard was the perfect embodiment of the anti-listener); there would have been no The Bomb Collector (whatever degree of a shambles the manuscript is in at this moment) without our conversations. Rigorous conversations about aesthetics, language, vision, purpose, life. Everything. It was refreshing, in America, to have what Americans might consider a self-indulgence or a hobby treated by this cultured Algerian as a sacred duty imposed upon me by my sincere willingness to undertake it. Not that he had ever read the result, or even knew that I was working on a fabulated version of his life. He respected my serious desire to write and proved this respect by listening.
And now there was this nineteen year old runaway (I assumed she was a runaway), who’d listen to anything I cared to ramble about in exchange for a pathetic €15. She seemed smart enough; her English wasn’t bad; and, most importantly, she was at an age during which interest in Art is at its peak, if it is present at all. Not to mention the fact that €15 would probably feed her for three days. I only escaped feeling guilt about this exploitative arrangement by floating the mitigating (and experimental?) thought that at least I wasn’t expecting a blow job.
The first time El-Hadi was bold enough to go on a ‘date’ with Noa in public, he drove the precautionary distance from his conservative bedroom community in the Wisselwallig valley to Manhattan. If he couldn’t get away with it in Manhattan, there was nowhere in America that he could reasonably expect to. Noa considered her lover’s caution quaint (fatherly) at best and paranoid (grandmotherly) at worst, and El-Hadi was torn between wanting to have a pleasantly uneventful experience and hoping that his young mistress might learn a lesson about the dangers inherent in crossing certain lines, not only in America but around the world. Her assumption that she could go anywhere and do anything (the driving force behind the Peace Corps, no?) was her middle-class, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant birthright and El-Hadi resented and admired this birthright in equal measure. Noa Reese wouldn’t know the caliphate from a Caliban but she had a Mullah’s pig-headed arrogance.
The first part of the journey, El-Hadi kept the top up on his convertible, but ten miles along the Henry Hudson Parkway he pulled over into a scenic rest stop (Howard Johnson’s) and put the top down and they enjoyed the rest of the drive with the wind and the sun as fellow passengers. There was an AM radio in the car and Noa was in charge of it, so El-Hadi was treated to the cacophony of musical so-called ‘youth culture,’ which was owned, promoted, often created and sometimes even performed by middle-aged men. They had a good-natured argument about Paul Anka.
“No he’s not!”
“Oh, I’m afraid he is, my dear. His biggest pop hit is ‘Diana’, yes? You remember this song?”
“Yes I remember that dusty old thing.”
“It was about a Lebanese girl named Diana Ayoub!” El-Hadi laughed with great relish. “He’s now married to the daughter of an Egyptian count! You are unaware the extent to which the Arab world is taking over, my dear! But not to worry, I’ll put in a good word for you!”
“It’s just music for squares, anyway. Who cares? I suppose the Jefferson Airplane are Arabs, too?”
“I would not be shocked by this! Although I rather suspect they are Jews.”
“In point of fact it is, in many cases, but don’t tell anyone I uttered such blasphemy.” He dragged a finger across his neck. “It is an unpopular opinion among the boys with the sharp knives.”
“And so they have found Manhattan?” asked Moth.
“They have found Manhattan.”
“They found a good place to park?”
“They found the best of all possible parking places.”
“Did they park in the sun or under a tree?”
I began to seriously reconsider the blow job option. I said, “Moth, can you really read my palm?”
“I have done it like my nine-to-five job since I am twelve. Everybody knows that Motte is the girl who reads palms like they are U-Bahn maps.” We were standing in front of the crowded entrance to a club/cafe called Rash wherein a live band was banging away on their laptops. It didn’t strike me as the most congenial atmosphere for tuning into the ether but Moth grabbed my right hand and held it up in the brilliant red glare of the neon RASH sign.
As Noa and El-Hadi waited at the bus stop for the number 6a (because his car, smeared with human feces, was now untouchable), he thought of the time they’d driven into Manhattan together, a little more than a year before. He’d had the same damp palms; the anxiety like sand in his lungs. What did he expect to happen on a city bus, a lynching? He’d never in his life ridden one. Noa was in charge on this mission and it was she who held the two adult fares of thirty five cents each (including the nickle charge for a transfer) as the bus rounded the corner onto the main street that ran along the southern edge of Wisselwallig Park. The bus was a gleaming cage, a mobile exhibit from the zoo. It wasn’t packed but it was far from empty and, after Noa dropped their money in the slot and the machine collated and digested the coins, making a sound like a tiny washing machine, El-Hadi followed her up the aisle, careful not to make eye contact with any of the piles of clothing that sat motionless on the filthy green seats. The experience was marginally less disgusting than driving home in his shit-besmeared car would have been.
Last year, summer, a near-lunch in Manhattan and the Diane Arbus show at MoMa. El-Hadi had parked his car in a lot owned by distant cousins who’d preceded him to America and the cousin on site at the lot, the short dark one who now called himself Sammy, had given Azzedine a sly and complicated look which Azzedine recognized from his youth. That’s nice what you’ve got there, cousin… how about sharing?
A subway ride later they were on Fifth Avenue, headed for West 53rd Street. The tension in Azzedine’s neck by then made him feel like a robot who could only turn his head left or right by moving his entire torso. Noa, in contrast, was energized by the Manhattan shop windows and babbling giddily. Several times she reached spontaneously for his hand to drag him to see something… a purse or a shoe or a shockingly short skirt on a mannequin… and he dodged the gesture. Everywhere he looked he saw red-faced Irish cops, plainclothes detectives or bohunk sailors on shore leave, savagely drunk. The hipsters, freaks, fashion-plates, matrons and sniffy plutocrats who also thronged the street were invisible to him, or flat as cartoons and resolutely backgrounded as he picked out one after another of the vivid threats to his dignity and physical well-being as he and Noa walked by.
Who would intercede if there were to be trouble? The pathetic, black-skinned shoe-shine boy? The Puerto Rican queers cackling on the corner? Noa’s fine-featured, fair-skinned beauty made him feel blatantly dark and coarse in comparison, as though his charcoal touch had left smudges and pawprints on her. To make matters worse, Noa had dressed like a proper woman for a change. The knee-length skirt and frilly top and suede boots… the little purse and those big round sunglasses… he looked like her sweaty old chauffeur when he opened the car door for her and she poured out, long legs first, like a drink from an aristocrat’s refrigerator.
The Arbus show confirmed his mood. “My god,” whispered Noa, glancing at the museum guard over her shoulder as though what she was about to say might get them kicked out of the exhibition, “I didn’t realize there were so many ugly people… ”
Azzedine pressed two fingers to his lips and lowered his chin and said, “Is it that they are so ugly, or that they have seen so much ugliness?”
“Well, I bet they never dreamed they’d be hung on the walls like this, for all the world to see.”
“All the world? Not even a millionth of it.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know all too well what you mean.”
She tried to slip her arm around his waist but he sidestepped the gesture. “Not here, Noa,” he whispered. Now it was his turn to glance at the guard.
“If not here, then where? Christ, Azzy, it’s not… Nazi Germany!”
“For you it’s not,” he answered, too quickly, with too much passion, and he realized, immediately, how idiotic he sounded. Like a frightened old woman. To prove he was a man he reached and pulled Noa to his side and kissed her full on the mouth.
“That’s enough of that, Jack,” said the museum guard, tapping Azzedine on the shoulder. A thick-lipped Polack with sour-milk breath. “This is public property! Take it outside to the gutter!”
“We’ll probably just screw in the car, thanks,” said Noa, sweetly. It was exactly what the day needed… it broke the spell… Azzedine and Noa left the exhibition hand in hand, laughing, strolling down the famous spiral ramp of the museum like any other culture-loving couple. They didn’t notice the man who followed them out into the sunlit street.
Azzedine, who hadn’t been in Manhattan since his arrival in America more than a decade earlier, was on the lookout for a restaurant in which to treat his young mistress to a proper meal; he was torn between wanting to keep a low profile for fear of trouble and wanting to show off the prize on his arm in a commensurate venue. Noa continued to lobby for something casual, by which she meant, without being blunt enough to put it that way, an establishment frequented by young people. Azzedine had brought a navy-blue blazer to wear with his white turtleneck and gray slacks and oxfords, despite the heat, and the thought of sitting in a dining room full of similarly-attired people filled Noa with anticipatory boredom so powerful that she nearly yawned from it. Dining with her parents upstate every blue moon provided more than enough of the required yearly dosage of that particular character-building vitamin.
Her Algerian lover, so forcefully young in bed and so self-possessedly fascinating in the classroom, was half the man, however, under other circumstances. He aged and shrank in the context of the mindless chores and mundane confrontations of daily life; how else could she explain his vassalage to the snap judgments of absolute nobodies? It was Noa’s job, she felt, to support him… be his crutch, his shield or even his red-tipped cane… when he wasn’t fucking or lecturing. She’d read his story A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods but hadn’t understood it in the context of their relationship.
Noa won the restaurant battle because El-Hadi couldn’t find anything satisfactory after forty minutes of walking. By then they’d wandered into an aromatically fecund corner of the East Village and Noa stamped her feet in a mock tantrum in front of a place called The Star’s Bangled Jammer. Laughing, wringing his hands and rolling his eyes to a putatively Christian heaven for strength, Azzedine gave in.
They pushed through the heavy curtains of the entrance and found a table near the window and Azzedine, seating Noa and then himself said, “This looks like a madman’s idea of a restaurant.” The walls were covered in primitively hand-painted faces. “Or a child’s,” he added.
Noa shrugged. “Everything is relative, Azzy.”
“Relativism is merely nihilism without the courage of its convictions, my dear. Is bright light merely on a continuum with utter darkness? Pleasure interchangeable with pain? Aesthetics may seem to many to be a wholly subjective affair, but, I assure you, it is no more subjective a matter than biological or physical properties. There are laws. Rules.” He picked up his menu with a patient smile; he’d said what he’d said without bitterness or emphasis. Noa enjoyed his comment, in fact, and he knew it. She was reassured to see him become fully himself again. The lecturer. The stern lover. The confidently big-dicked intellectual.
A waiter came and sat at their table, scooting in next to Noa. He was a pale, thin Brit with his incisors missing and copper wires twined here and there in his shaggy hair. He said, “Here at The Jammer we believe in removing the artificial barrier between customer and the waitstaff. I’m Jeremy… pleased to meet you.” He reached across the table to shake Azzedine’s hand. Winking at Noa, Azzedine seized Jeremy’s hand in a manly shake and said,
“Tell me, Jeremy, do you also believe in removing the artificial prices as well?”
Both Jeremy and Noa laughed at this. Noa said, “Jeremy, what’s the story behind your teeth? I’ve seen other people in the area sporting the same fashion today. Is it religious?”
El-Hadi was surprised and impressed by Noa’s powers of observation; he’d noticed no such thing on the street himself. He’d assumed the condition of the young man’s teeth was drug-related.
“The canines? Had them removed.We inherit them from carnivorous ancestors, but in our case… myself, and the others you’ve noticed… we find them no longer necessary. You’d be surprised at how having these teeth pulled will purify your thoughts?”
Jeremy settled back in his seat. His gappy smile made him resemble a backwoods character from the popular televsion show called Hee Haw. The exquisite little cross-reference being that the dipthonged and glottal speech patterns of much of the American South were handed down from 18th century Cockneys marooned there in British penal colonies. It pained El-Hadi to have to forego the pleasure of sharing this observation. He smiled at Jeremy and said,
“How do you handle the lunchtime crowds with such a… relaxed… attitude towards service, if I may ask, young man?”
“If things get too hectic, actually? We close?”
Noa said, “Hey, Jeremy. I think we might be ready to order.”
“You haven’t told me your names.”
“Heckle and Jeckle,” said Azzedine. He was pleased no end when Noa rested her chin on her interwoven fingers and, batting her eyelashes, cooed, “I’m Jeckle.”
“Awe-inspiring,” said Jeremy, looking bemused, and he took their orders. “We’ll call your names when the food is ready.” Noa twisted in her seat to wave as Jeremy shuffled off, but when she turned to face Azzedine again she had a puzzled look on her face.
“I must say,” said Azzedine, “I’m impressed. This incisor matter. I noticed no such thing. Your powers of observation are truly amazing, my dear. I’m extremely proud of you.”
“Oh, I can do better than that. Much better. Behind me? The nondescript gentleman in the hat, with a camera around his neck?”
Azzedine peered over her shoulder. The man she described was frowning at a menu. He looked like a G-man from a B movie and he was surrealistically out of place in The Star’s Bangled Jammer. Noa said, “I recognize him from the museum. He was in the room with us when the guard kicked us out.”
“What’s even more interesting, Azzy, is the camera around his neck. It’s a real nice camera… a Hasselblad reflex, okay. He’s got a Zeiss telephoto lens on it. Viewfinder is on top. It’s really the only way to go if you want to take pictures of somebody without them noticing. Oh, and by the way? I see that the lens cap is off. Say cheese, baby.”
El-Hadi tried to adopt a lighthearted tone. “Paparazzi?”
“Are we so famous?”
“As you know,” joked Azzedine, “fame, like everything else, is relative.”
“I shouldn’t have told you.”
“Nonsense.” But he felt the tension return like a plague, spreading across his shoulders and up his neck and solidifying like lead in his jaw muscles. He looked at his watch. “Let’s go.”
“Without even eating?”
“But I was looking forward… ”
“I know. Heckle and Jeckle.” Azzedine stood, placed a five dollar bill on the table, and pulled an exasperated Noa out of the restaurant. The man with the camera put his menu down, scooped the five off the table they’d just vacated, and followed.
My first snow in Berlin arrived on the evening of November 1st. By this time, nearly ten months after moving to Berlin, I had a second-hand sofa bed in the living room, a kitchen table with two chairs, a basic set of plates, cups, pots, pans and utensils, and a futon in the narrow, windowless room next door to the living room.
I had re-worked The Bomb Collector considerably, but it was still, basically, poised at the same spot in the arc of the tale where it had stalled as I fled The States: the end movement remained unresolved. But the first two thirds of the manuscript had changed so much that it energized me to read through it. I had learned, ‘on the job’, as it were, to throw things away. Even good things; if they didn’t add to the forward-momentum of the tale, I crossed out. Any narrative threads that led to dead-ends were either crossed out or the walls that the dead-ends led to were dynamited.
By the evening of my first snow in Berlin, I hadn’t heard from or about Amanda Nye in months, not a peep or a note since her grotesque prank (the night of the Burka). My upstairs neighbor, Nico Taubkind, the pretty, orange-haired Christian, had eased into a harmless, chatty friendship with me, though she sometimes (and increasingly so) gave me funny looks. These looks of hers (troubled, intrigued) undoubtedly related to the fact that my living situation had taken rather a curious turn that any woman over a certain age would frown on.
I was scrawling in a fresh notebook on my kitchen table by the parchment light of a brass-based lamp I’d gotten at an Estate Sale (cancer in Pankow) when I heard a key jut into the door lock. The door jangled open and jangled shut like the exaggerated sound effect from an old time radio show, and boots stomped a little war dance on the muddy rug in the short hall of the entrance.
Moth came in with a dozen fat snowflakes impaled and trembling intact on the spikes of her platinum hair. She pecked me once on each cheek and I noticed, again, how her nose looked bigger with her hair so short, and her eyes looked smaller and closer together with her nose so big. But her skin had cleared up since I’d taken on the responsibility of feeding her in a more-or-less healthy way. Her white-sugar consumption was drastically down and every day spent inside the flat, sleeping late, bathing long and listening to music in the windowless room I let her have, was a day without smoking or exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. I’d even bought two cell phones, the cheap kind you buy minutes for, and given her one as a safety measure.
Discussing books with Moth was pointless: in the system she’d worked out, books and paintings are there to make us better people; popular movies and songs to keep us up to date; and everything else is mindless entertainment. Any discussion about a book that went deeper than the question of plot was lost on her, and she had a knack for changing the subject (sometimes by seducing me: an effective method). We rarely ate out or went dancing or strolled through Berlin’s surplus of galleries and museums because both of us were frankly embarrassed about the age gap. Our only public appearances together were shopping trips… clothes for Moth, mostly (clothes she preferred looking for in the Men or Boys departments). We rarely ever even ate together at home; she preferred taking a jar or a tin or a box of something into her room and chowing with her headphones on. I tried to make sure she had warm soup or a sandwhich and a big salad for lunch and dinner a few times a week but I never pressured her to dine with me. My eating habits, after years of living alone, were as solitary and unceremonious as her own, and I can remember, more than once, in California, coming home from ten hours of housepainting and drinking a ‘gourmet’ vegetable soup from Whole Foods cold, straight out of the can. In an almost Swiftian way we were a perfectly suitable couple, though I never deluded myself that it was a stable union. I knew she’d be gone by the time she was twenty.
I folded my notebook closed, lay the pen across it and watched Moth think with her body in the middle of the kitchen. The tip of her nose was as cold as it was red and it was running. She sniffed and back-handed it and said, “It’s snowing cats and dogs out there!”
“I haven’t seen snow in fifteen years.”
“Wow! You haven’t seen snow since the year I learned the word for it. That’s what you call poetic creepiness.” She grabbed the electric tea kettle and stuck it under the spigot. Her English had taken on an idiosyncratic suavity in the two months we’d been living together. She filled the kettle with hot water, a tic I’ll always remember her for, and said, “So, are you Mr. Busy right now?”
“Not really. Not anymore. I ran out of steam an hour ago. I’m just doodling now. Wanna see?”
“Wanna get fucked in the virgin snow?”
“Lemme put some warm tea in the Moth-motor first.”
“And then you get fucked.” She nodded with and that’s-that curtness.
I appreciated the offer. We hadn’t fucked in a week. I never pressured her; sometimes we fucked a lot and sometimes we fucked a little and it was my job to act as though I didn’t notice, it was all the same to me, etc. She, of course, was free to fuck whoever whenever as long as I didn’t have to meet them or smell the evidence. I therefore assumed that when our fucking suddenly dried up for a week, she was involved in a furiously passionate little affair. I never asked or commented. The only ground rules were: no smoking in the flat; no bringing others home to the flat; no fucking with notorious bisexuals or intravenous drug users. Moth was on the pill but we weren’t using condoms. Stupid, I know. But all too human.
As for my end of the open arrangement: I wasn’t fucking anyone but Moth. I didn’t need the trouble, and, at the age of forty two (soon to be forty three), an affair with a seventeen year old girl (sixteen the day we met: surprise) was as decadent as things should get. Twice, with her gangling, fidgety, sinewy form and her now-short hair, she’d been mistaken (once in a department store and once at the cinema) for my son. I must admit that sometimes even I saw her that way, catching a glimpse of her in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, eating peanut butter out of the jar.
She swallowed a slug of tea from our Mr. T mug (her purchase, her pun) and went “Ahhhh,” and belched loudly, exactly as a teenage son would have. “Herbal tea is my heroin,” she moaned, rubbing her parka’d belly. She glugged down more and slammed the mug on the counter with comical machismo and said, “Ready.”
If our arrangement generated collateral health benefits for Moth in the realm of her diet, for me it meant a healthy cut in the kind of days that Doctor Johnson would have marked in his diary with discreet little M’s. Having a young and often-willing sex partner on the premises for the first time in eons made jerking off feel wasteful and silly. Even when I went for a week bereft of her amazingly naked embrace, I preferred to sit it out rather than waltz alone, with the results being that I rediscovered a spring in my step and a fire in my loins and could approach such undertakings as my book with a crackling fund of stored energy. And, coming at it from another direction, in the hours of my palpable relief after every time Moth deigned to fuck me, the writing discovered a sense of reconnected humanity. I was a better writer for not masturbating.
There are any number of bluestockings of my acquaintance and in my age-class who would abhor this happiness in Moth’s skin. Fucking her wouldn’t even be legal for a teenage boy in most of the 50 states, and, even I, before weathering the existential sandstorm of being a forty-ish house painter with a high I.Q. in Southern California, would have looked askance at what I’m doing with her now. But, well, why not throw buckets of cold water on copulating dogs all day? Shoo away flies in mid-fuck, and haul your randy, gray-shanked baboons and goats and cocks and rabbits off to re-education camps. If Nature never intended middle aged males to fuck teenage females, She wouldn’t have made teenage males so useless.
There’s bio-karma at work here, too, since many of the middle-aged women who would stone me for fucking Moth now… broke my heart by shunning me when they were young and I was a useless teenager myself. They were all busy with older men, back then, of course. One day, perhaps, Moth herself will be a middle-aged woman shaking her fist at the same disparity. Existence is a joke written in a dead language on a Möbius strip.
I pushed the front door of the building open against a gritty white wind and a doorstop of snow. Everything was padded and numb with white. The little park across the street was an enameled triangle and the mercury arc street lamps along the street were hung with streaked veils that flapped and hung in a row. Moth and I had our parka hoods up and she gestured right and I followed her with the wind at our backs, which was howling and shoving like kids at a concert. I was curious as to how Moth planned for us to fuck in all this.
We trudged about fifteen paces and turned right, trespassing on the construction site next door, which could easily have passed for a bombed building at this stage in its development. The ten-story crane looming over it groaned and pinged like an old iron ship under all that ice in the wind, the top bit blazing in a beacon packed with snow flakes. We scrambled over the gouged, rutted, rock-hard mud under the snow and into the perimeter of the superstructure. There were eight floors, each floor featuring a checkerboard of huge gaps, and no walls, and snow-frosted pipes and cables dangling everywhere. The first few stories were connected by aluminum extension ladders and we scrambled up to a dark corner of the fourth level. The ladders, within the form of the building, were sheltered from all but the obliquest blowing snow; otherwise I wouldn’t have dared. After all those years as a house painter, I knew which stunts qualified as dangerous on an extension ladder, and scrambling up icy rungs with a fearless teenager in the dark was one of them.
Berlin is a city with a low physical profile, and you can see surprisingly far from shockingly low. Being on the fourth level of the skeleton enabled us to see a few miles in three cardinal directions. The famous Telekomm (Tele-Commie?) tower, nicknamed Sputnik, with its needle spire to the west of us (ironically) seemed as though it could be hopped on like playground equipment from where we were standing, though it was a twenty minute walk away. S potlights carved the low blocky clouds like glass blades from various points around the neighborhood, but whether they advertized gallery openings, portended aviational emergencies, or were merely first-snow exuberances… we couldn’t tell and wouldn’t have cared. The wind was weaker within the form of the building and we pulled our hoods off.
Moth, with her black back to me and the bright view of the sky in front of us like an enormous screen (on which the snowfall kept abruptly changing direction like schools of fish), said, “Do you think I’m a lesbian?”
“If you’re a lesbian, I am.”
“Maybe you’re a fag hag.”
“I don’t think that term applies to male groupies of lesbians.”
“What is the proper term, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know… I should know.”
“I totally made love with a woman for the first time last Friday. A real woman, almost as old as you. I really liked it.”
I should have seen the foreshadowing in that; the feminine ‘made love’ vs the masculine ‘fucked’ thing. Instead I merely suppressed the impulse to put a hand on Moth’s shoulder and give her a Son, you’re a man now speech. I said, “So that’s why… ”
“That’s why I slightly cut you off for a while there. Yeah. Completely, I mean. She lives in London most of the time and she flew back yesterday… so… she… ”
I felt my emotions shading very quickly from bemused to touched to devastated. Moth was crying. I caught myself thinking, bitterly, woundedly, absurdly: you can’t even trust a seventeen year old girl these days not to fall for someone else until I reclaimed my slippery grip on sanity and re-phrased the thought as: thank goodness she’s a healthy enough seventeen year old girl to fall for someone else…
“I can’t call her, I don’t have her address in London, she told me that when she’s back in Berlin she’ll… she’ll just… let me know.”
“How’d you meet her?” I know that speaking of the Beloved always helps, for some reason. I flashed on that night at Amanda Nye’s, when I’d thought of clever little ways to slip Nico into the conversation, back when I thought I was in love with Nico. Invoking the Beloved through the vocal avatar of the Beloved’s logos works; the sound of the name is part of the effect, like a post-hypnotic suggestion.
“The first time I met her when I was too young, outside all the time… when you’re homeless and young, before you become fucked up and smelly, you meet everyone in the neighborhood. You sit on a wall and the world walks by. Pretty soon she’d wave whenever she saw me. Then she started giving me good money when I was panhandling.”
She said, “Remember the night you and I first met?”
“You read my palm.”
“Yeah. We talked about love seriously for the first time that night. She was with a friend and they took me to dinner at that Indian place. We talked about everything.”
“So you didn’t even have to spend any of the money I gave you for the palm reading.”
“Yeah,” she sniffed, through a web of tears and snot, “it was brilliant.” I could hear that she was smiling. “It was like being rich. I wasn’t even attracted to her at first but she kinda grew on me. It wasn’t until after I moved in with you that I thought anyone would seriously be interesting in fucking me, and then I realized she’d been flirting the whole time. And then I thought, maybe I was, too.”
“At first I thought she was kinda shy and uncool. Then I understood that she was the strongest person I’d ever met.”
She said, “I know you think I’m a runaway because my dad did something to me, don’t you?”
I nodded in the dark.
“Well he didn’t. He was always good. But I had read so much about that shit and seen so many movies and special television shows and counselors at school telling us about inappropriate touching and this and that… I thought he was definitely going to one day… I thought it was a fact of life like puberty. You turn thirteen and your dad does something to you. Know what I mean? Like a nature film. So I ran away so he wouldn’t.”
“A pound of prevention.”
“What you did was crazy, stupid, or wise.”
She laughed. “That’s me alright.” She spit over the edge of the black semi-floor we were perched on; she was leaning against a vertical girder, back still to me, with the phoney insouciance of a perfected James Dean slouch. The falling snow was thinning out and as the air went hard and clear something in Moth’s voice changed, too. “Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Azizam pointed out to me… ”
“It means Beloved,” she said, proudly.
“Yeah, she pointed out that you’re just like my father now… shit, you’re even older than him, and you’re fucking me, so, it’s like, Moth is out of the frying pan into the fire! It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” She faced me, arms crossed, while spotlights criss-crossed behind her.
I had begun shaking. I said, with a fair amount of anger, “Wait a minute. I can’t be ‘like’ your father because I didn’t raise you or adopt you and you’re not my flesh and blood. The incest taboo isn’t based on an age gap, it’s based on, well, the violation of the, you know… direct kin reproducing. Birth defects and so on… ”
Moth laughed. “You think that’s why it’s wrong for a man to fuck his daughter? Because if she gets pregnant the kids will be retarded?” She laughed harder.
“Hold on now, Moth. You said this Azizam of yours… you said she’s almost as old as I am, right?”
“She’s thirty seven.”
“What’s the difference between her doing stuff to you or me doing it? My penis?”
“Give that man a cigar!”
“Oh come on.”
Sarcastically I said, “I thought you came out here to fuck me?”
With brilliant timing and delivery she retorted, “Don’t you feel like you’ve just been fucked?” And she punched me in the shoulder, dropped her copy of my keys at my feet and climbed down the ladder to the next level down, and again, further down. The soles of her boots ringing on the rungs. Genuinely concerned for her well-being I called out, in the dark, “Wait! Moth! Where are you going? Where will you sleep tonight?”
Down on the sidewalk she shouted, “She keeps a flat in Berlin! I have the keys! No hard feelings?”
“No hard feelings!” I shouted.
“Are we quit?” She meant are we even? Two months of her body for two months of my shelter is what she meant.
“We’re even!” I shouted. Maybe I screamed.
She waved goodbye and ran up the street.
The pain that hit me as a result of all this was like a crude old bomb dropped from a stratospheric height, taking its time in free fall, punching through clouds and whistling down a long lazy spiral over a map of the hemisphere, the continent, the city, my street. I managed to make my way back down the four levels of shakey extension ladder in the dark, though I shivered almost convulsively while doing it, as cold as the buried dead in my parka.
I almost snapped my ankle in half on the deep ruts in the frozen mud, twisting it at the foot of the last ladder and twisting it again hard as I stumbled to keep from falling. I limped off the site and around to the front of my building. It was hard to believe that a short while ago I had walked out this very door in high spirits, expecting bliss.
When the bomb of true suffering hit I was leaning with most of my weight on the kitchen table and staring at the dirty puddle of melted snow in front of the sink where Moth had been standing. A forty two year old man desperately in love with the seventeen year old girl who’s just dumped him: without a doubt the low point of my life. My ankle was broken, too.
Too crippled to unfold the sofa-bed in my living room, I hopped on one leg into what had been Moth’s room, hit the light and eased myself down into her futon, which was drenched with her scent. The odor was a comfort and a torture. I managed to untie my right shoe and get both it and its sock off without fainting, only to see what looked like a kind of purple half-sock wrapped around an ankle that had already swollen to the circumference of a coffee can. If I so much as tried to move the foot a centimeter in any direction I got a jolt of pain that manifested itself as a flash of green light and I was certain it was broken. I was also certain that I had no health insurance yet (which was ironic, since one reason I’d come to Germany was for the brilliant, socialized health care), knew not a soul in the whole damn country and I wasn’t even sure what I would do when I had to take an inevitable piss.
An answer to that last, existential question presented itself at least. Like everyone in Berlin, Moth only ever drank tap water in tea… otherwise her drinking water came in bottles, with or without ‘gas’ (carbonation: kohlensaure). The bottles have a twenty-cent deposit on them, and the walls of Moth’s windowless little room (which I had been forbidden entry to for two months) were ringed with empty deposit bottles. Moth’s little dowry… which I calculated was worth about €15. At least taking a piss in my crippled condition wouldn’t be impossible. There was food in the room, too: a secret stash of sweets (including two large bags of peanut M&Ms) in a laundry bag next to the futon. Shitting would be a problem, but a week or two of eating M&Ms would no doubt minimize that as an issue.
The things I’d bought for Moth, along with the rest of her meager possessions, were gone, of course: the CD player and its accessories; a dozen CDs; the cell phone and its accessories; several pairs of sunglasses; the costume jewelry; a book or two; the clothing, etc. She’d been secretly shifting the stuff to her lover’s flat in preparation for this break-up (or break-off) for days, probably, a few items secreted in her parka pockets at a time. She’d either assumed I was too petty for her to be open on the subject after her announcement, or she thought of these items not as gifts but as payments. Both, probably. And while both possibilities were unflattering to my self-image to say the least, the latter was crushing: I had been paying for a live-in teenage sex-servant for two months, and not, as I had framed it, having an affair. I had pictured myself rescuing her but it turned out it was a soft kidnapping instead. What I had pictured as love-making was consensual rape. I thought, hating myself: if I’d never fucked her, she’d still be here. But then I thought: that’s a dishonest thought. If we hadn’t been fucking, I wouldn’t have wanted her here.
I had a mental picture of the woman who had facilitated the becomingness of Moth’s selfhood (as certain theoriticians might put it in all seriousness) and I couldn’t get it out of my head: Susan Sontag. I kept seeing the thirty seven year old assassin of my happiness as looking like Susan Sontag. The thirty seven year old Sontag, when she was still beautiful enough to be physically as well as intellectually authoritarian. The diamond-cut features and the ink-black coif with a white streak in it. She was sneering at me. She was gloating in the acquisition of Moth’s skin, the skin I had purified for Susan’s delectation. I could see it: Moth squirming on Sontag’s face with an ecstasy she’d never bothered faking with me. But it wasn’t Susan Sontag (being left for a celebrity has, at least, some value)… it was just some hypocritical Dyke who had out-maneuvered me before I’d even known there was a war on. Blitzkrieg.
It was hard to think at all because of the pain. I began to wonder, feverishly, why this violence had been done to my unspectacular happiness and I remembered my fictional fictionalist’s story, A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods. My eyes were swimming. The overhead light burned and I couldn’t stand up again to switch it off and the hours crept across the futon, stepping on my ankle, which had swollen to such a grotesque size that glancing at it gave me palpitations. I could smell Moth’s scalp on the mattress and maybe I could smell her armpits and the faintest whiff of her ass and pussy, too. Unbelievably, in all my agony, I had an erection. This is the real battle of the sexes… between middle-aged men and middle-aged women. Sexually desirable young girls are the casus belli, the prisoners of war, the weapons of mass destruction and the battlefield too.
The ceiling of the narrow room I was in was much higher than any ceiling I’d lived under as an adult in America. There was no window, so I assumed that the wall partitioning the room off was a recent development. The entire four-story building had undoubtedly been intended, in the year of its completion (1888), as a one-family dwelling; most of my flat had probably originally been one grand room… the library, say. The area around the house had probably been a field and the field would have featured a road leading a mile towards a denser part of the city. Without being properly the countryside, still, the field would have featured its distant treelines and its idle cows or even sheep here and there without any of the elements in the composition sharing a purpose or meaning with their modern counterparts except in the most general sense. When I see a cow I think of MacDonalds; when I see sheep I think of Benetton; when I see a distant treeline I think of highways, future housing developments, or environmentally protected land. I don’t think home, hearth or Fatherland.
What kind of people would have inhabited this house and its surrounding landscape in 1888? Angels, compared to ‘us,’ or devils? When I note the vast differences, sometimes, as exist between various contemporary humans… compare a working class Brit to a wealthy Nigerian, both living in Berlin: their paths will rarely intersect and there’s more than likely trouble in store if they do… can we even really consider our ancestors human in the fullest sense, or they us?
I lay there under the bare, hypnotic bulb hanging from the high, high ceiling, thinking: am I more… or less… human… the lonelier I become, the more I suffer? If time can isolate you from the tribe as it marches on, can poverty, disability or crossing a ‘moral’ line too far do the same? It’s a discussion ‘we’ rarely allow ourselves but it’s an argument the body responds to: that filthy, reeking beggar in a puddle of his own sick on the sidewalk… do we really consider him human? And how far did he have to sink before his status changed? And can that status be changed without ‘sinking’… what about a lateral displacement? Too far left or right; ahead or behind? Is the state of being ‘human’ provisional… context-based… temporary? There’s a natural consensus on all this but it’s strictly unspoken; it may well be the last taboo in an era when the few that are left have to be carefully rationed.
As I finally drifted off under that bare bulb I thought I heard the faintest sound of a woman weeping, but I assumed it was the preview of my coming dreams.
Being bed-ridden for two weeks with a broken ankle in a small flat in a foreign city with a little food, some money, a cell phone (though, who the hell would I call?) and a few dozen empty Evian bottles was not as bad an experience as one would think. The first few days were the worst, before I got used to (and then bored by) the pain, and before it was even possible to half-stand and hop or even crawl to the bathroom. The Evian bottles filled up, one after another along the wall like some kind of ancient or conceptual clock, each bottle the slightest gradation of acid orange darker (as I dehydrated) than the bottle immediately preceding it. I had only as much sense of the shifting hours of the day or night as I could gather from the snow-muffled traffic sounds that filtered in from the living room windows. I became intimately familiar with certain patterns of my Christian neighbor upstairs.
Every morning I listened to her watch some chatty chirpy German version of an early morning wake-up show (chit chat, introduction, applause, chit chat, introduction, applause, on-location segment, national news, local traffic report, weather, musical interlude, wrap up, applause… all in a language I’m 99.99 percent deaf to). Then an excercise show that had her hopping up and down (with her light frame) on the floor directly over my head. Then a morning movie (during which can be heard the three classes of water-based event a morning’s toilet consists of), an afternoon talk show (introduction, unprofessional voice modulations, shrieks, boos, cheers from the audience, moderation), and a German-dubbed American sitcom rerun from the ’80s or even the ’60s… sometimes it was the ‘The Love Boat’ and sometimes it was ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. Both shows I recognized, of course, from their theme music; the dialogue was dubbed entirely in German. In the case of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’, the show came without a laugh track. In other words she was watching, in German, an American sitcom about a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War… with ominous dead air where there would have been canned laughter. The philosophical implications were weighty. Not that ‘The Love Boat’ generated no food for thought itself… especially when Nico, four out of five times, sang along (in a surprisingly strong voice) with the theme song. Being an invalid in that room under her bedroom was like living with her. Or, more like: being the ghost assigned to haunt her.
She would leave the flat so late every day (and often not at all), and return again after so short an interval, that it seemed unlikely that she had a job. Early afternoon (at which point on a winter’s day it’s already dark in Central Europe) I’d hear her strap her wooden-heeled boots on, hammer across her uncarpeted floor and hammer down the stairwell and out the door, clop clop clopping up the street. ‘Observing’ her served to keep my mind off of my awful physical circumstances, and off of Moth as well. Moth I was thinking of less and less frequently.
Considering the shocking intensity of the ‘love’ I felt for her at the moment she dumped me, my relative ambivalence towards the very notion of her existence just a few days after the break caused me to examine the nature of this post-hypnotic suggestion called ‘love’. In the absence of species-propagating hormone surges… at the age of forty two, that is… what is it, somewhere in my head, that still has the power to drive me to the brink of madness, or self-destructive obsession, in the name of it? And how does this tie in with that other mystery I tried to tackle the night of my injury… the mystery of human/non-human?
The answer can only be that a man in love; a man who is loved; is certain of his humanity. In the absence of love, the certainty vanishes. I’m quite sure, thinking back on it, that my real panic as I stood on the fourth floor of the open construction site next door and listened to the passionate narrative of Moth leaving me was the fear that my humanity was being rescinded. Even lying on the futon with my broken ankle under a bare bulb in a narrow room the walls of which were gradually being circumnavigated by bottles of my urine and facing this philosophical problem head-on, there was no guarantee that I wasn’t not human. Of course I panicked when Moth walked out on me. And that’s why some men (and even some women) will kill to prevent the leaving.
El-Hadi once told me, while we were replacing the hundreds of framed photographs of on his freshly painted wall (referring constantly to a chart we’d made to make sure the photos returned to their original spots), of an ex-lover who had attempted to poison him a few weeks after the affair was called off. What made this even more extraordinary was the fact that she, not El-Hadi, had been the one to call things off. So why the vengeful act?
“It wasn’t vengeance motivating her,” said El-Hadi, handing me a large black and white portrait of the would-be poisoner herself. “She wanted to make sure that I remembered her for the rest of my life.”
“By killing you?”
He shrugged. “The reasoning is sound, if less than ethical.”
The photograph was in the High School yearbook modus of the early ’60s… an off-the-shoulders gown, pearls and a towering blonde ‘beehive’ hairdo. The smile seemed to tilt subtly under the weight of the hairdo. I hung it on its nail. El-Hadi frowned at it, adjusted it so it hung a bit straighter, and said,
“She invited me to dinner a few weeks after breaking things off with me. I was pleasantly surprised by the invitation, though slightly nervous, despite assurances that her husband, a computer scientist working for Univac, was overseas at a conference on artificial intelligence, delivering a paper. He was in Germany for two weeks. I accepted the invitation. Perhaps it was the superstitions that surround the act of making love to a married woman that kept me on my guard.”
“I’d never been to their home before, as you can imagine. I got lost twice trying to find it, but I avoided asking directions, for obvious reasons. The house was an isolated and imposing structure on a very large plot of land, the perfect place, I realized, in retrospect, for getting rid of someone.”
“I was late in arriving for dinner. She’d been afraid I wasn’t going to show up, she said, and had been preparing to throw dinner away when I rang the doorbell. I remember thinking: these Americans! So rich they can throw food away!” He chuckled.
“I was quite ready to eat. As a precaution against her cooking being mediocre or even bad, I had starved myself before dinner. I was hoping to be led directly to the dinner table, but she wanted to make love, ‘one last time,’ before eating. I have to confess that at that point, I was so hungry, the offer of making love before dinner was not the most attractive proposition.”
“In the interest of not being rude, however, I allowed her to lead me by the hand, up a carpeted flight of stairs such as were often depicted in movies of the era… a thoroughly upper-middle class staircase… to the master bedroom. I was wearing a dinner jacket and penny loafers if I recall and she was wearing the gown you see here in this picture.We weren’t Rock Hudson and Doris Day but you get the idea. She threatened to rip my clothes off. I performed heroically, under the circumstances. She was blonde… my first blonde… but not beautiful. Exquisite body, yes, but she had a squint and a bit of an underbite that made her look permanetly resentful. But I did my duty… spurred on by the unusual degree of passion on display. She behaved as though I were to be shipped off to the war in Indochina at dawn the next morning. The war was just beginning to get public attention back then and I imagine there were many such dramatic partings. In this case, obviously, it was different.”
“Have I mentioned that she was a brilliant woman? Before marrying, she’d been some sort of scientist, or mathematician, herself. She had a mathematician’s quantitative interest in the Arts that passes for being cultured in some circles. But she was quite brilliant… intimidatingly so… nervous, neurotic, cold at times and given to strange moods, sudden outbursts of temper. I was extremely suspicious when I sat down finally to dinner. The brilliant ones are the ones to watch out for, and they are the most likely, as it turns out… I’ve done some research on the matter. The ignorant use knives, the stolid, church-going middle class have their guns but the clever usually opt for poison. I stared long and hard into my cream of mushroom soup… it had come out of a can, by the way.” El-Hadi made a face as though the fact that the soup had come out of a can was more distasteful to him than that it was laced with poison.
“A strong chemical odor rose from my bowl. So strong in fact it stung my eyes. It was a very poor job… an impulsive attempt at a poisoning. I pushed away from the table and began to laugh. And so did she.”
“I said, Marion… is it possible that you’ve tampered with my soup?”
“Her laughter became hysterical, shading into tears… very theatrical. And not very convincing. She was having her moment in the spotlight, I suppose.”
“I stood from the table and said, My God, you meant to poison me! I was quite obliging in those days, you see. Playing my role to the hilt. I was a pretty good sport, considering the fact that she’d emptied half a can of rat poison into my soup.”
“That’s when she stopped laughing and adopted the sly look of a Borgia, or the cat who swallowed the canary. ‘And how can you be sure,’ she said, ‘that I didn’t poison my pussycat too?’ She was, of course, referring indirectly to a sexual act I’d been known to experiment with, in those days, in a misguided effort to be modern.” El-Hadi chuckled again and handed me another picture to hang on the wall: an open-mouthed young redhead in tennis whites, posing with her racket as though it were a guitar.
“I saw myself to the front door and said, before making my exit, I’m fairly sure that if you’d really poisoned your pussycat, my dear, you’d have taken the trouble to wash it first. It was quite a zinger, as you say. She threw a wineglass at the door as I closed it, sealing my triumph. But halfway home I began to feel quite ill. There was a strange, metallic flavor in my mouth.”
“I had to pull over twice, on the road shoulder, to be violently ill. I felt feverish, dizzy, my heart was racing… I thought I was dying. You can imagine how frightened I was. I thought: my god! The madwoman really did it! She poisoned her private parts before inducing me to put my mouth on them! I’m going to die!”
“This was when I lived in a neighborhood of L.A. which was not too bad then, although today it’s a notorious ghetto; a no-go area. Back then it was a mildly integrated neighborhood of working class Mexicans, shabby-genteel white professionals, a few beatniks, artists, and some college students. To be honest I wouldn’t have been comfortable living in a suburban enclave of privelege. I drove myself to the Queen of Angels Hospital.”
“I had to fill out a form and sit in the waiting room along with the typical assortment of injured Americans. Household mishaps and matrimonial assaults… in decades to come, one supposes, self-mutilators and the morbidly obese would come to rule the territory. After filling out a form and while waiting in great discomfort to be seen by a doctor, I took note of the most beautiful colored girl; a sort of dream-Negress. This is far from a politically correct term and I trust you not to repeat the story, but we’re men of the world and you’ll know what I mean when I describe her as such. She was a living breathing daydream, with long legs and an exquisite small bosom. She had wrapped up her visit with the doctor and emerged looking a little shaky. She was gathering her coat and purse from the chair beside me… I still marvel at the social trust… the civility… in that gesture: imagine leaving a purse or a wallet unattended anywhere in America today! Not even in a jewelry store on Rodeo Drive, my friend. It could only mean the purse contained an explosive device!” Laughing a smoker’s hacking laugh, El-Hadi offered me a cigarette, which I declined, and lit one for himself.
“She put her coat on but sat down to tie her shoes… I noticed that she was wearing the same sort of white, crepe-soled shoe as the nurses wore, despite the fact that she was otherwise outfitted in ordinary street clothes… a pleated skirt and a sleeveless blouse. Her outfit was about ten years out of fashion but this was clearly not an eccentricity on her part. No, it was the sexual spice called poverty. After tying and re-tying her shoes, she slumped in her seat, her dark elbows on her skirt and her head in her hands… as though her thoughts were too heavy for her to hold her beautiful head up unsupported.”
“By now I was fascinated, and my own medical problems were the last thing on my mind. Who was this dusky vision, lovely enough to have been Shakespeare’s dark lady, and why did the weight of the world seem to be on her shoulders? There was some mystery as to her background, as well, I might add. She didn’t look entirely Negro… her nose was blunt, but her hair was lustrous and long. Staring at her flattened profile I thought I could detect an Asian, or even Mexican, influence. It struck me that an opportunity for adventure had dropped in my lap, give or take a few centimeters, and I decided to seize it. ”
“Can I offer you a ride?”
“Ain’t you sick, baby? Don’t you want to see the doctor?”
She gave me a skeptical smile, said El-Hadi. But I told her, “I have the rest of my life to be sick.” I knew there’d be only once chance at this. She let me help her gather her things and we left the hospital together. I showed her to my car. I took the trouble to put the top down on the convertible; it was a beautiful evening.
“Nice.” She ran a finger along the contours of the dashboard and then clawed at and shook her hair out in the wind as though washing it. “Nice to ride in a car once in a while. I showed up at the hospital tonight on a bus. Shoot, I had to walk six blocks to the goddamn stop, too. Pardon my French.” She sank back in her seat with a chuckle and closed her eyes and when he asked her Where to? she responded, with a drowsy smile and a far-off voice, Anywhere but home sweet home, baby.
Her profile was more mysterious than the full-on view of her face, with its soft-spread Negro features. In her profile El-Hadi decided she was Polynesian, one of Gaugin’s black virgins, the lustrous mane and perfectly tooled white teeth. He pictured her topless, a flimsy skirt around her cool dark legs, with less than subtle results in the crotch of his trousers. He felt none of the shame about this that he would’ve felt with a white woman riding beside him in the car, and no shame, in turn, about his lack of shame about this frankly racist distinction. You were allowed (even expected) to be a racist in deed in hysterically egalitarian America, El-Hadi had observed, but never a racist in principle. In the Old World, he’d been with black North Africans of both sexes and in every case they’d been servants or of the servant class and pragmatically interested in pleasing him. El-Hadi sensed that with Americans, one could persuade them to go along with nearly any idea as long as it remained unspoken.
El-Hadi said, “Then we drive to the beach.”
“Why not?” she cooed. “It’s your gasoline.”
El-Hadi switched on the radio and lucked out with a favorite song, played from a point very near its beginning: Nat ‘King’ Cole singing Ramblin’ Rose. Steering with his arm at rest on the driver-side door, El-Hadi reached over and took possession of her hand, which was hot to the touch, and lifted it gingerly to his side of the car seat, her arm offering only the slightest resistance. He placed her hand between his trouser legs, where it added heat to the pressure, and stroked it like a smooth little cat in his lap as he drove. Glancing, he noticed that although she still hadn’t opened her eyes, the drowsy smile on her lips of a moment before had been replaced with what one could interpret either as acceptance of the inevitable or the burden of knowing precisely how every such situation in life would turn out, long before it came to pass. As if she could already quite clearly see El-Hadi doing the trivial thing he wanted to do to her and disappearing very soon afterwards, never to be heard from again. Still, her little black hand remained where it was, sandwiched between his arousal and the hand with which an Algerian eats… alive with fine tremors, riding the force of his heartbeat.
This was still several years before the Johnson administration’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Azzedine took note of the heady feeling this entailed. Of course, back in Algiers, he’d had his social inferiors, but it was really a matter there of the aristocracy, the Europeans, and everyone else. An Algerian of Azzedine’s class rarely enjoyed this Lord of the Manor feeling in Algeria. It was profound to contemplate that here he was, in America, the shining Atlantis of the West, where even the poor lived better than many merchants could afford to in the land of his birth, and riding beside him in his car was this beautiful American native, an order of magnitude below him on the scale of the human, by law. El-Hadi’s passport stated his race as Caucasian, though he was sure that the darkest part of his body… the part he meant to acquaint her with soon… wasn’t much lighter than the lightest flesh on hers. She was biting her lower lip and her upper lip curled back in a sexual sneer.
“Fuck the beach,” she said, suddenly. “Buy us a six-pack and we can party at my place.” She removed her hand from between his legs to point at a neon Liquor sign, blurry and red, blinking on the other side of the wide and complicated road. He changed lanes and waited at the next light with the turn-signal ticking while she watched him in a strange state of suspense. As though she’d made a joke, or set up a prank, that he was yet to pick up on.
“Well?” she said.
“What?” he said, as he leaned into the left turn.
“You didn’t say ‘thank you’.”
Azzedine laughed. “I’ll say ‘thank you’ when I see where you live.”
She laughed with him. “No you won’t.”
This remark worried him but he pulled into the lot beside the little stucco building (barred windows and door; a hand-painted cardboard sign in the window reading The Cashier is Armed) and sent her inside with a five dollar bill.
El-Hadi had noticed before in neighborhoods like this that as soon as the speed of your auto dropped under a few miles per hour you were overwhelmed by cooking odors, commercial and private, and as he sat there waiting for his Gaugin to fetch their drinks and his change, a powerful odor of fried onions wafted from the stucco building on the other side of the lot. He remembered that he hadn’t eaten dinner; that less than an hour before he’d been driving himself to the hospital with sharp pains in his gut as a result of a psychosomatic poisoning.
When she came out with a six-pack of edible-looking beer bottles under one arm and a grocery sack under the other, she was grinning widely. He opened her door for her and she slid onto the seat with the bundle in her arms like a baby. El-Hadi nodded towards the source of the food odor. “Are you hungry?”
“That place? That place is a dump. We can do better than that.”
The convertible eased out into traffic like a boat with her as its navigator. What El-Hadi liked was their tacit adherence to a rule he’d never before realized was one of his sweetest fantasies: no names. A short while later, two king-size fried shrimp dinners to-go sat steaming on the space between them. He was in a part of the city he’d never seen before, surprising not so much by its poverty but because of how rural it all ooked. White clapboard houses and red dirt roads and shirtless black boys peddling ‘no-hand’ on their bicycles. Under the harsh glare of streetlights their black flesh looked to be made of the asphalt missing from the roads.
She said, “You know what this here little party of ours is lacking?”
“What?” El-Hadi found himself growing impatient.
“You’d like her. I like her too. Verna’s my cousin and we’re so close we kiss goodnight on the lips.”
Despite his impatience, El-Hadi’s sexual greed got the better of him, and he soon found himself turning left and right and then left again on roads that were sometimes dirt, sometimes gravel. The first house they stopped at produced no results; the Gaugin girl ran back down the front steps to the car and informed El-Hadi that Verna was at church, so they drove to church.
“I was under the impression that Americans only went to church on Sunday.”
“You ain’t in America right now, baby,” she laughed, pulling a fried shrimp out of its greasey white box and re-sealing the box lest El-Hadi consider doing the same, “This here is a suburb of Africa.”
How ironic that of the two of us, I’m the actual African, thought El-Hadi.
They pulled up in front of the church, a dark box of a building with lavender curtains in all of its windows and a white cross each painted on two of them; a building, minus the detail of the windows, which might just as easily have been another liquor store. There was no boisterous music or primitive ululations, despite his expectations; the only sound was the wind whipping a chain against the aluminum flagpole in front of the building.
The temperature had been dropping gradually all evening and El-Hadi felt a chill setting in. But his resolve to have his sexual experience only solidified as the minutes turned to hours. He’d never had relations with a genuine American colored girl and this intersection of opportunity and desire (she was more attractive than the few of her race that he sometimes came in contact with… shop girls and meter maids, mostly) would most likely never repeat itself. So he waited.
By the time Verna Williams emerged from the building in a thick plug of people, followed by a trickle of stragglers, a light drizzle turned the sidewalks into a dark cloth and beaded on the windshield, and El-Hadi had had to put the top on the convertible up again. When Verna came out the Gaugin said That’s her and stretched provocatively across El-Hadi and honked the horn. The girl who ran towards the car in response was heavyset and darker than her cousin, medium height and somewhere in her middle twenties, although El-Hadi, of course, had been fantasizing about a younger, more slender and sloe-eyed version of the Polynesian. Verna’s dark dress hid neither the round weight of her stomach nor that of her breasts, which bounced in a Disney ballet as she skipped towards them with a grin that struck El-Hadi as their only common feature. Verna leaned into the window and the cousins kissed, as promised, on the lips.
“Girl, how you doin’? I was gonna call you later to see if everything turned out okay.”
“You know me, Verna.”
“Too well, child.”
“Verna, this is my friend Rudy. You wanna come with me an’ Rudy to my place an’ celebrate?”
El-Hadi got out and opened the Gaugin’s door so she could get out in turn and let Verna Williams push her way onto the back seat. Close up, he noticed that Verna was a pretty girl, though heavyset, and his disappointment healed itself. He developed a wolfish interest in seeing all that flesh unpacked and set in contrast with the slender form of her cousin. He even got a hand on her hips as he helped her into the car and this re-animated his dozing erection. He glanced at Verna in the rearview mirror and wondered how far the two girls had gone in the past. The trick would be to get them to exceed the previous limit without calling attention to the moment of truth, and the beers they had with them would no doubt play a role. El-Hadi’s dark beauty handed one of the shrimp dinners back to her cousin and they ate the food quickly while chatting, polishing off two handfuls of shrimp, some coleslaw and their complimentary Saltine crackers.
“How long you got off now, girl?”
“He said I could come back to work on Monday.”
“A four-day weekend. That ain’t bad.”
“Least he could do, considering.”
Verna curled her lip and cocked her head. “Considering. You sure you okay?”
“Okay as I’m gonna get.”
Verna licked her fingers and met El-Hadi’s eyes in the rearview. “Rudy, what do you do?”
“He’s a male nurse,” answered the Gaugin.
“Oh. Should would be talking about… ?”
“Different hospital. He just started working at St. Luke’s.”
“That’s right,” said the Gaugin girl.
“How you like working there, Rudy?”
“I love it,” said El-Hadi, and all three of them laughed, each for a different reason.
They drove up a very long gravel alley and parked behind a tilted garage so weathered that it had nearly managed to unpaint itself. The Gaugin girl was through the gate and up the walk to the back door of the house before El-Hadi could help Verna out of the back seat. The Gaugin had either run ahead to warn someone about this unexpected arrival or to hide something El-Hadi shouldn’t see, he thought, but still he was surprised that it was a house and not a wretched little apartment after all. It was Verna who led him up the uneven walk in the rain, speaking in a museum-goer’s hush.
“Maybe Mr. Reyes home,” she said.
“Who’s Mr. Reyes?”
When they entered the kitchen through the screen door the air they met was the sealed air of a sickroom, though the lighting was over-bright as on a stage in a theatre as the curtain rises. There were four unshaded table lamps glaring from various spots around the kitchen. Seeing El-Hadi squint, Verna whispered, “The poor man losin’ his vision.”
A gray-haired man of indeterminate race slumped at the kitchen table with El-Hadi’s sixpack in front of his downed head and the pillow of his folded arms. Tugged by Verna, El-Hadi followed the two women out of the kitchen into a dimly lit hallway, thence left into a doorless room. The room would have been just about a comfortable size for one adult, with its permanently unfolded and unmade sofa bed on the far wall and its two playpens, side-by-side, under the heavily draped window nearest El-Hadi. In each playpen stood a curly-haired child, wide awake but silent, the one aged two or three perhaps and the other three or four and resembling each other not very much at all. El-Hadi remained in the doorway with Verna while his Polynesian extracted two loud bags of cheesecorn from the Liquor store grocery sack and handed one to each. Whatever purchase remained in the sack, which she did not crumple but placed discreetly on a chair near the playpens, was clearly allocated for the night. She said, over her shoulder, “Y’all go on to the other room and I’ll be right with you.”
Azzedine, overwhelmed by the unpredictability of living things and stunned by the fact of the children, allowed himself to be tugged further by Verna into a large, dark room at the end of the hallway. There was a massive console television set in front of drapes faintly aglow with streetlight and a sofa angled to face the television.
Verna came at him with the fervently awkward kisses of a twelve-year old. She placed his hands on her body and moved in them like a novice teaching the tango. He stumbled around the room with her like this, smelling the sweat baked in layers into her dress and the meal that he’d paid for on her lips, nurturing his arousal with brutal thoughts: he saw himself yanking her by her hair to her knees, forcing himself in her mouth. He fantasized pinning her belly-down to the floor and forcing an entrance or having both her and her beautiful cousin prone and compliant, side-by-side, like a buffet; anything to protect his arousal against her clumsy, giggly, anti-erotic behaviour. He unzipped her dress and gestured for her to pull it off over her shoulders, thinking, The important thing is to have her naked before the pretty one comes back into the room; if the line is already crossed, she can’t fear to cross it.
Under Verna’s dress was a tightly-packed slip instead of brassiere and panties. She backed away from El-Hadi and sprawled on the sofa in a gynecological posture. Her breasts were rounded slabs. He unzipped his pants and freed himself with a sigh of relief, pointing at the ceiling as though a string was pulling him. He knelt on the couch with one knee as she said, not in a whisper but in a very small voice, “I hope your cock bone strong… “
“Your cock bone… I hope it good and strong ‘cuz I got a hard cherry… “
“What are you talking about?”
“The bone in your cock… “
El-Hadi emitted an Algerian curse appropriate to being sold ten cracked eggs out of a dozen and dragged her up off the couch, to do a lurch-and-stumble tango of weak resistance across the room and up the hallway. Verna grunted and groaned, pleading No all the way. He dragged her to the doorway of the Gaugin’s bedroom. The light was off so he slapped on the light in the hall and he noticed that the bedroom smelled as though it had gotten a quick wipe-down from a kerosene-soaked rag by an arsonist: The Gaugin’s nightcap. She was snoring softly on her sofa bed between her doomed half-castes, one of whom blinked in the wedge of light that cut across his mother’s stockingless legs from the doorway as El-Hadi hurried to stuff himself back in his trousers.
She hadn’t even undressed; she was still wearing her crepe-soled shoes and Verna had Azzedine’s arm and pulled her mouth up to his ear and she said, “The poor thing had that operation today, you know what I mean. Let her sleep, Rudy. You can do it to me instead. Anything you want, I promise, I’ll take you to the moon and back just let my Raylene sleep.”
By the time El-Hadi had reached this part of the story, we were re-hanging the last of the framed beauties: a polaroid of a handsome gray-haired woman behind a desk, gesturing with a phone at the camera. Strange to say it but she didn’t look to me like a trustworthy woman. Something in her eyes caused the phrase “she’s lying” to pop, out of nowhere, into my mind. Not that I’d have been impertinent enough to say so to El-Hadi.
“My current love,” he said, wiping a smudge off the glass of the little gold frame. He kissed his bunched fingertips in a gourmet’s gesture. “Real Estate.”
“What about Raylene?”
“I never saw her again. But I bore her no grudge. What would you have done in her place? She taught me a valuable philosophical lesson.” El-Hadi counted on his fingers, “She got herself a free ride home, a dinner for herself, a dinner for her cousin, an evening’s worth of cheap fuel for her step-father, dinner of a sorts for her children and a bottle for bedtime in the bargain. She knew how to take when the taking is good. She really taught me something.”
“Verna wasn’t twenty five. She was thirty seven.”
I laughed. El-Hadi got a wistful look on his face. “It took three separate attempts, over the course of a week or two, to relieve her of the burden of her virginity.”
It took me four days to record that passage in my notebook, piecing it together (as Azzedine had told it to me) from memory and polishing it into a style close to his speech patterns. I did this with a thought to working it later into The Bomb Collector somehow… an adventure El-Hadi recalls for Noa’s amusement, maybe, or an adventure he has in ‘real time’, behind her back, cheating on his three mistresses. I’d have to change the setting from early 1960’s Los Angeles to late 1960’s New York State, but the transposition wouldn’t be too technically difficult. The story would lose some truth in the process (the ironic evocations of innocence in the original setting would be totally misplaced just a decade later) but the loss would be ineffable; known only to me.
I had started writing again four or five days into my crippled state. On the morning of the third day already I forced myself to hop into the bathroom and take a painful, backed-up shit… my ankle throbbed while I slumped on the toilet, sick with pain. Still, I experienced something like the catharsis of giving birth when I finally cleansed my system of the dense black bomb that had boiled in my guts since the night Moth dumped me. On my way back to the sick room I had a drink of tapwater in the kitchen and grabbed a notebook and two pens, determined to make my incapacitation worth something.
The break in my ankle, I began to realize, represented a larger ‘break’ that had been necessary for a long time: a break with my past. Had I come all the way from San Diego to Berlin in order merely to continue the life of failure I had lived up until the point of departure? Transcribing El-Hadi’s tale in the state of my extremity caused me to reflect not only on myself but life itself… the realities versus the perceptions. Why had I, unlike El-Hadi’s Gaugin, never taken while the taking was good? I wasn’t an actor, I was a reactor. I was essentially passive, a failure of the ego typical of the thinking man. Even this grand and all-consuming project of the last few years, my book, The Bomb Collector… why was I so busy fantasizing about a life (or lives) when I should have been living one myself? Worse, it became clear to me that writing about Azzedine at all had been my vicarious method for living the life of a self-assured male. The only thing worse than a writer’s totalitarian dominance of a created character is his pathetic reliance on one.
After I transcribed El-Hadi’s tale of the white poisoner and the black con artist and the overweight virgin, I made a new rule: I could only allow myself to write something in the evening if I had earned the right to do so with a bold action during the day. To go into effect as soon as my ankle had healed to the extent that I was capable of leaving the flat.
Two weeks of carefully rationed sweets, despite my lack of exercise (and the occasional pizza or chinese takeout I ordered from various flyers slid under my door), chiseled my features… or perhaps it was merely the loss of water weight (I was down to a glass a day)… in any case, that and my new facial hair gave me a romantically gaunt look. When I reached the point that I was able to support my weight (wincingly) on both legs, I trimmed the beard into a sort of Robert Louis Stevenson affair; a rakish van dyke. I hobbled around the flat with an umbrella for a cane, liking my new style. I would never again be so pathetic as the middle-aged man I had become, dumped by an empty-headed seventeen year old girl.
Almost three weeks after the accident, I exited my flat and limped up the stairs to the second floor, dressed in a dark suit, with the umbrella as a cane. I knocked on the door with the umbrella’s wooden handle and waited, knowing that my neighbor was preparing to leave the building, her television droning on in the background as she went from room to room doing her makeup or brushing her teeth. When she came to the door my confidence faltered for a split-second: she was far more beautiful than I’d ever seen her… or any woman, within touching distance, for that matter.
Her long orange hair had become a precise and luminous platinum bob, and her cheekbones looked to be sharpened on a whetstone. We took in each other’s changes, each taking also a deep breath, before I said, quite bravely,
“Hi John just-John.”
“I was wondering.”
“I hurt my leg recently…,” I touched my ankle through my suit pants with the metal spike of the umbrella, “… and I was wondering if you know where I might buy a stylish-looking walking stick?”
She was wearing a fashion I’d noticed a lot of in the neighborhood that year: a knee-length skirt over trousers. Her top, the skirt and the trousers were all black denim; the top featured pale bone buttons and the skirt featured thick white stitching in an almost oriental pattern for trim. She said, “Oh, yes, I know a very trendy shop where you can get yourself a walking stick. I like your hair.” She touched the shaggy edge that hung over my collar.
“I like yours.”
“Thanks. I’m going shopping in a few minutes. Would you like to come with me? We can stop off at the trendy shop and get your walking stick, and you can help me pick out new drapes for my flat.”
“Deal. But I’ll need my coat.”
“No you won’t. Haven’t you been outside at all in the past few days? It’s freakishly warm out. Like spring.”
“I blame you Americans,” she said, shaking her head, but she smiled and gestured that I should come into the apartment while she put the finishing touches on herself. What I saw of the interior of her flat was airy and light-filled (it amazed me how much difference one storey in elevation made viz the natural light available). I only saw her living room but it was in marked contrast to the only other flat in Berlin I’d thus far seen (beside my own), which being Amanda Nye’s artefact-stuffed lair.
It was indeed bizarrely warm outside considering that Christmas was only two days away; much warmer outside than it was within the entrance hall of our apartment building. Some trees, in fact, confused by the weather, had begun to show green, and children ran by us on the flooded sidewalk without jackets. We walked slowly, arm in arm, and I had no sense that Nico was impatient with our pace as I limped beside her on my umbrella. She took the opportunity to tell me the story of her life.
“Well,” she said, “where do I begin? I always blank out when somebody asks me a question like that. Maybe it’s easier to start with what I do. You must be curious, considering the odd hours I keep. Not that I think you pay attention to everything I do or anything. I’m an actress. I work seriously about half a dozen times a year and the rest of the year I’m either auditioning, learning a role, or doing commercials or voice-over work. You’d know some of this if you had a television.”
“I’ve known a few actors in my time,” I said, “but I’ve never seen an actor’s apartment that wasn’t full of pictures of himself.”
“You haven’t seen my bedroom… walls,” she said, and I was sure that she’d called the sentence to a halt before finishing it with ‘yet’. A violet blush suffused the flesh under the fine white powder on her face. “That’s where my vanity truly outdoes itself.”
She said, “My father was American but he died when I was very young… six. The first language I ever spoke was English and that’s why I’m not too bad at it nowadays, although I’ve spent most of my life in Germany. A few years ago I changed my last name, legally, from Silver to Taubkind, which is my mother’s maiden name, because I always, I don’t know… I thought ‘Silver’ sounded too show-bizzy.”
“The big news is that I’m up for a speaking part in a big American production… not the romantic lead but the romantic lead’s best friend who is killed in the beginning of the second act. They needed a German girl who’s English is perfect… it’s a thriller set in Berlin… so I have a pretty good chance.”
We were blocks away from home, still strolling along at my crippled pace, when I said, “It’s the blind graffiti guy again!” I pointed across the street with the umbrella like I was aiming a shotgun.
Strangely, Nico tensed… I felt it in her grip on my arm. She reached over and pulled my umbrella down. “He’s not a graffiti guy, he’s a famous artist here in Berlin,” she said, keeping an eye on him as we put his shuffling figure slowly behind us. A race of the locomotively impaired.
“A famous artist?” I wanted to laugh and spit at the same time. “He can’t even see what he’s doing! He just sprays brown blobs on new buildings!”
She shook her head. “It’s performance art. The green and the red paint represents money and blood… when they mix together it makes brown… shit. Sorry.” She blushed again. “The cane he uses has hi-tech sensors in it that respond to certain buildings that are implanted with microchips. He’s being filmed while he tags the buildings. It’s a year long project and he got a lot of grant money to do it.”
“Wow,” I said, eager to change the subject, “that’s ‘Art’, I suppose.”
“That’s the reaction of many of the tax-payers. It was quite a controversy last year. You know, the working class people say, my five year old can paint better than that! They get quite angry about it. They don’t realize that the money would never go to them either way, whether it goes to this project or not. That money is just a ghost to them, or they’re ghosts to it… they’d never even know about it if the press didn’t decide to report it. It’s no more their affair than the price of tiger’s paws in China and if they’re so worried about aesthetics why don’t you ever see the proletariat represented at art openings?”
I didn’t like being lumped in with boorish, uncomprehending, meat-and-potatoes hoi polloi, and, though normally I would have played the diplomat, steering the conversation away from her inadvertent insult, the ‘new me’ decided this was as good a place as any to assert himself.
“Bullshit,” I said.
Taken aback, but far from angry, she said, “How so?”
“Because it’s not a question of aesthetics, is it? It’s a question of the almost pathological need that the rich have to separate themselves from the middle class. Paying lots of money for utter crap that the middle class ‘don’t get’,” I mimed the quotation marks with my fingers, “serves the double-duty of snubbing the middle class and pissing on the poor. The quality of the art is never the point. The shock value is the point, and the shock value couldn’t exist without quoting the prices.”
Her head hung in thought while she considered all this and she began to nod, slowly. Again, that blush; but with an entirely different meaning this time. “I’ve often thought exactly the same thing, but you’re the first person I’ve ever known who put it into the right words.”
I leaned over and kissed her. She said, after coming up for air, “John, I should tell you I have a boyfriend.”
“Well, if you didn’t have one I’d be worried that there’s something wrong with you.”
And we kissed again.
That evening I sat in my kitchen writing, having earned the right to do so with two strong actions committed in the real world: kissing Nico and giving her my cell phone number. The second of the two acts wasn’t as profound as the first but it was a step on the path towards the act above-which-there-is-nothing-profounder, as some would argue. As far as I know, this is new in the philosophy of writing: my notion that each act of fantasy must be earned by a corresponding act in Life itself; in real time; how many pariahs, shrinking violets, shut-ins, hermits and ghouls from ‘The Canon’ could have been saved by this simple prescription?
Soon, I imagined, Nico and I would be exchanging witty and then intimate text messages. What could be more romantic than laying in my bed directly under Nico’s, separated only by the thickness of her floor and the muddled air above my head, whilst exchanging little haikus of text via the intermediaries of microwave relay stations and a satellite or two in geosynchronous orbit? And what could energize a writer in the early Autumn of his life more wonderfully than having a modern kind of goddess at his side to inspire him? I hadn’t actually been excited about a woman since college, sad but true. I flashed back on the very first moment I’d laid eyes on Nico, my first day in the flat… how she’d walked briskly up the street with her bright orange hair, astounding me. I saw myself dedicating The Bomb Collector to her. Maybe I’d end up actually publishing the damned thing after all.
I was certainly beginning to look the part of a guy who gets his picture on the back cover of a paperback. Speaking of which: propped against the wall beside me as I scribbled in my notebook was the antique blackthorn walking stick I picked up at the consignment store that Nico had directed me to. Apparently, a destitute Irishman had parted with the thing for a song.His abject shame and misery transmuted into my striking (literally) accessory.
I decided to take El-Hadi’s recently transcribed tale of The Poisoner, The Gaugin and The 37 year old Virgin and ease it into the fictional El-Hadi’s life, changing a few of the important details. For simplicity’s sake I removed Verna Williams altogether. And the would-be poisoner I decided to change into El-Hadi’s ex-wife Ruth, the obvious candidate. And The Gaugin (who I decided to name Delilah) would become El-Hadi’s new flame.
It had only been a few hours since Nico and I parted when my cell phone made the cricket-like sound indicating that I’d gotten a text message. Ah, so eager! The message read:
Meet 2morrow @ Supreme Bean @ 9am?
As luck would have it, The Supreme Bean was the only cafe I knew by name in Berlin. I typed in the answer and pressed the ‘send’ key: Perfect.
I was up early the next morning, boyishly excited about the rendezvous with Nico at the Supreme Bean. The fact that it was the day before Christmas Eve seemed appropriate. I had gone to sleep with silent-movie-type images of her face, the powerful beauty of which seemed to flutter between evoking the 1960’s or the 1920’s for me, and I felt like a man who was soon to inherit a large fortune. I washed myself quietly (for some reason I didn’t want her to hear me preparing for our meeting), trimmed my dandyish facial hair, and dressed in the second of the three suits I’d brought to Berlin with me, a brown woollen vintage bespoke suit I’d been given by Azzedine, in fact, who had brought too much heavy clothing to America on first arriving. The suit, which was forty years old, was immaculately preserved, and so old fashioned that it looked almost futuristic.
I left a little early for the two mile walk, not sure how long it would take me to limp along on the blackthorn. It was still unseasonably warm and the suit I was wearing was more than enough; halfway there I began to worry I might break into a sweat, despite the fact that it was the Christmas season.
Eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning in Berlin looks very much like six in the morning in every other major city I’ve lived in. What it is about Berlin that makes it so much like a ghost town, despite its millions of inhabitants (San Diego is less than half the population and seems to bustle and hum like Manhattan in comparison), I wasn’t qualified to say, but once, walking along with Moth (in an era that seemed shrouded in the mists of time, suddenly) past the third sex boutique on that particular street with flesh-tone appliances on display in the in the window, I asked her, only half-joking: “What does this city seem so… perverted?” And her answer had been to shrug, and say, “High unemployment? Too much time on their hands.” Academics could construct all kinds of fanciful arguments to describe the social effects of the economy on the lower classes but had any historian yet written a scholarly paper with the title, “Idle Hands: The Devil’s Workshop”? Boredom as a shaper of civilizations explained everything from the sexual decadence of ancient Rome to the murderous energy of modern Fascism. Employment was palliative care for the proletariat; even the very wealthy get up to mischief without vocational interests to harness their energies.
I limped along the sparsely populated street imagining that everyone else, from the out-of-work traffic cops to the out-of-work yoga instructors, was still crunched up in bed, sleeping the troubled sleep of the reality-persecuted. Only Berlin’s ravens, huge gray or black birds that looked like über-crows, seemed busy at that hour, making an awful racket… like rusty gears grinding… in the trees overhead. These aggressive birds, in some cases standing knee-high to a grown man, had been known to gather in large numbers (like a natural Luftwaffe) and mutilate flocks of sheep in rural areas where food is scarce, using beaks and talons to peck the animals’ eyes out.
They hop down from the tree branches to peck at litter on the sidewalk from time to time and aren’t even intimidated enough by humans to fly away or even hop aside should you find yourself approaching one. One hopped down in just such a way, in fact, as I limped along a few blocks away from my breakfast date, and I was glad I had the unbreakable blackthorn to swing at it.
When I stood in front of the door of the Supreme Bean it was quarter ’til nine and saw that it was already full of students and the glass walls were fogged with espresso steam and cigarettes. I reached for the door and saw, at the moment that I touched the handle, that the girl at the counter with her back to me, chatting with a chiselled, dark-haired man who was ringing up orders, was, unmistakably, Moth. As if in response to the emission of this nonplussed thought she turned as I opened the door. After a startled pause during which she adjusted to my new look she said,
“John? You’re all dressed up! Why do you look so horrified to see me?”
I thought: this could either end up being the most embarrassing hour of the day, or the funniest story of the year, or both. I could only hope that Nico was a little late for the appointment and I’d be done with Moth before she showed up. Of course, she’d seen Moth coming in and out of my flat more than once during the two months that Moth and I had lived together, but I didn’t want to remind her how much of a dirty old man I once had been, or, even worse, give her the impression that the affair lived on.
“Moth. You look… healthy.” We exchanged that pecking two-cheek kiss that it had taken me a dozen attempts to master. She did look healthier… rosy-cheeked and a little fleshier. Had I fed her so poorly during our time together? Perhaps my mistake had been in not playing enough of the father figure… letting her eat under her own supervision too often. I laughed at myself for this ridiculous thought even before completing it. She was wearing a pair of jeans I’d bought her; the sweater looked familiar, too. The motorcycle boots were from an entirely different patron, though.
She pointed at the handsome young man behind the counter, who I now realized was smolderingly Gay, and said, “John, this is Ramin.” Rah-meen. High cheekbones, olive skin, jet black hair, a slender frame and eyes from the frescoes at Pompeii. He wasn’t much taller than Moth; a compact little prince. If he hadn’t been Gay, I’d have been terribly jealous, despite the fact that Moth and I were no longer together and my mind, of course, was full of thoughts of Nico. Ramin seemed deeply amused at something and I wondered what Moth had told him about me. Here’s the dirty old man who stuck his dirty old thing in my mouth, ass, cunt, between my tits and my toes…
“Pleased to meet you, John.”
Moth said, “Ramin is my girlfriend’s business partner… they own The Bean together.”
“Looks like business is good.”
Ramin smiled enigmatically and said, “Well, I’ll give you two some privacy,” and he drifted off to take an order. Moth reached for my cane but I moved it. “It’s real, Moth… I need it to walk.” The amount of bitterness… of blame… I heard in my voice as I said this surprised me.
“Really?” She seemed genuinely concerned. “What happened?”
“It’s a long story.´”
“Suit yourself. I like the facial hair, by the way. You look like Johnny Depp.” She brushed by me on the way towards a few empty tables and said, “So, where do you want to sit?” and I panicked. I glanced at my watch and she added, “Okay, we’re still a little early, I guess, but… I have something important to tell you. I wanted to catch you before Christmas.”
It was only then that it dawned on me that the message to meet at the cafe that morning hadn’t come from Nico at all.
We sat at a table in the back, near the window; in fact, it was the same table I’d sat at the one time I’d been in this cafe before, early on, the morning of sleeping with Amanda Nye. This was the table I’d sat at with the notebook I wrote ‘She is lying’ in. I had ducked into this cafe while on the search for a bed, I recalled, to get in out of a downpour. I’d come in, taken a seat, written in the notebook and left again without even noticing that Amanda Nye was sitting there too. This was during an epoch even earlier than the Moth Dynasty. I’d been in Berlin less than a year and more had happened to me already than in all the time I’d lived in California. Idle hands and the Devil and so forth.
Moth said, “You want something? A hot chocolate or something? Anything we want is free.”
I was still doing my best to recover from the fact that Nico wouldn’t be coming through the door any minute. “I’ll have a look later.”
“Suit yourself. By the way, before I forget: what’s the name of the publisher your books are published with? I told my girlfriend about it and she’s curious.”
“It’s just… they’re just, you know, paperbacks. It’s a small press. Indie. Upper Midwest.”
“Yeah but we can order them on Amazon can’t we?”
I did my best to gauge whether Moth knew the truth and was needling me or if she still innocently believed my bullshit about being a published writer and therefore the intense little schoolboy horrors of dread and shame she was inflicting on me without preamble at 9 in the morning were purely unintentional; it was impossible to tell. “They’re all out of print but I guess you can try. The name of the publisher is Objets… like the French word. Objets.” I borrowed the name of Azzedine El-Hadi’s antique shop in Mission Hills, San Diego. The Objets Press sounded pretty good.
Moth said, “Listen, do you believe me when I say I’m really really sorry about how things, you know, ended up?”
“I mean, I’m not sorry I’m with my girlfriend. But I’m sorry I had to hurt you to be happy. You know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean. And I’m sorry I wasn’t a better friend to you instead of a horny old goat…, ” I lowered my voice, “who used you like… you know. Who used you.”
“Hey, I fucked you with my own free will,” she said, a little too loudly. A chubby student with blond dreadlocks (Moth’s old hairstyle) looked up from her book at us. “That wasn’t the problem.”
“What was the problem?”
She looked away, arrived at some sort of conclusion, and said, “You want to come see where I live now?”
We took the scenic route, and Moth gave me a guided tour, pointing out spots that had been her courtyard kitchens, cul-de-sac bathrooms, tree-shaded living rooms and overpass bedrooms when the entire neighborhood had been her apartment, before we’d met. I was nervous that Nico might see us walking together so I made sure to keep a distance from Moth as I hobbled along beside her. We wandered a maze of funky little side streets, left, right, left, left, right, right… until it almost felt as though we were traveling in an angular circle; as though Moth was doing her best to disorient me, or put off some kind of moment of truth.
Some of the streets felt vaguely familiar, the way streets will feel from a new approach after you’ve walked down them a few times already from the opposite direction and on the other side of the street. If she’d suddenly run off and left me limping alone, I thought, it would probably take me hours to find my way home, although I was only a few blocks, I was sure, from familiar landmarks. We followed the shattered wall of a baroque-era cemetery, crossed a railroad bridge and at some point could see the dull metal dome of a planetarium like a lead balloon rising over leafless treetops of the warm winter on this day before Christmas Eve. And then, it seemed to me, we doubled back along a parallel path, protecting ourselves from the obvious.
Just when I thought I couldn’t walk another step, Moth stopped in front of a big green door and was digging in her pockets for her latchkey. The strangest thought flitted through my head. A thought in the form of the sensation of vertigo.
“I know this place,” I said.
“All these buildings look alike. Don’t be a pussy. Let’s go up.”
We entered the dark hallway.
“Moth… ” I reached for her. In anger, possibly. She dodged my hand and bolted across the courtyard, into the rear wing of the building. I heard her on the staircase. I thought to myself: this can’t be true.
She was taking the steps two at a time and I went after her and tried to keep up on my bad leg, clutching the banister with one hand and swinging the cane with the other. The sense of deja vu that crowded in on me was so not ephemeral; so solid; that it was like a clinical symptom of insanity. Deja vu plus rage. The cracked yellow enamel on the walls; the threadbare red runner on the steps; the smells leaking out from the dark doors of silent apartments… it was like a film running backwards, returning me to the black room of a nightmare; a terrible accident; the scene of a crime. Breathless as I pounded up the stairs after her I called, “Moth… Moth… I can’t believe it… I can’t… ”
She called down, from two levels higher, “It was my idea, John! I chose you! I wanted you to be the father!”
And I remembered Amanda teasing me in front of the Supreme Bean that rainy morning with you haven’t even bothered to ask me who I was sitting with… I remembered Moth saying she was with a friend and they took me to dinner at that Indian place and I remembered Amanda joking that night, the night of the ‘dinner’, Give that man a cigar and Gotta go check on Ramen and those Kohl-rimmed eyes… the Kohl-rimmed eyes of the Burka’d ghost who sucked me… the dusky laughter as I ran down the same stairs I was now, insanely, stumbling back up again…
Moth kept running higher and higher and I was expecting, any minute, to wake from the dream.
So that was my Christmas present. After a handful of abortions with as many women over the years, I had finally been tricked into fatherhood. I celebrated the long Christmas holiday alone, paradoxically. Even Nico, who had family in Berlin, vanished from the building for a week that wasn’t even at least decorated with a snowfall. It was a cloudy, muddy, end-of-the-world Christmas. Then came New Year’s Eve, on which I received a text message from Moth while the bombs went off (New Year’s Eve in Berlin is like the 4th of July in Texas): hppy new yr & we c each othr soon. Moth.
Time after that fell away like a rope I no longer had the strength to clutch at; a rope tied to an undefined object of great weight… perhaps the heavy object had been me. Freed of this weight but only at the cost of falling. Moth filled out… her breasts lost any memory of boyishness and her face rounded many weeks before the bulge in her stomach showed. Of course, anyone privy to Moth’s nakedness would have detected the first subtle change down there immediately but I just watched from the outside of the expensive Irish sweaters Amanda kept her in throughout the mild winter.
I checked on Moth every few days by cell phone (hers was still one of only two numbers in my possession), saw her perhaps once a week for dinner. Amanda made an appearance a handful of times before Moth became so pregnant that she required constant supervision.
One night, in fact, I believe Moth was drunk, or on some kind of drug, and I was alarmed for the baby in her. She woke me up, whispering into her cell phone like a proper paranoid that all of the videotapes in that trunk in Amanda’s living room are the same film, John, and I’m really scared. Or something to that effect. I checked on her the next day and she laughed it off, but I couldn’t laugh off the drug-use. Should I bring it up with Amanda behind Moth’s back?
Seeing Amanda Nye again for the first time in months was a queer, but not entirely negative, sensation. In fact, by then, I was glad to see her, if only to have the opportunity to put some questions to her that had been driving me nuts for a very long time.
It was Moth who had phoned me on Valentine’s Day (ironically). “Amanda’s in town. Wanna come over for bagels?”
“What about we all meet at the Supreme Bean instead?” For whatever reason, I still found Amanda’s flat a place to be avoided.
“Okay. Three o’clock then?”
I was standing in my kitchen, where I’d gone to run hot water for the tea kettle while the phone was pressed to my face, and when I signed off I heard what sounded like plate glass shatter in my neighbor’s flat above me. Checking myself in my hall mirror first, I limped upstairs and knocked on Nico’s door. So much had happened since the one and only day we’d kissed that I’d almost forgotten about her. Understandably, I had lost a great deal of the force and self-confidence that had inspired me to boldness with Nico the last time I’d seen her. When she answered the door it was all I could do to resist the temptation to apologize for knocking.
“John just-John!” She broke into a huge smile. A smile, I noted, devoid of the vanity of sexual calculation. “Fancy seeing you in my doorway!”
Her razor-sharp luminous pearl of a platinum bob had devolved into a shaggier, nondescript chocolate-brown haircut in the interim. She was even wearing her reading glasses. Sweet, but hardly the stuff to incite self-immolating panics in a young man’s breast. Or even mine, for that matter. Thank goodness.
“Are you okay? I heard glass breaking.”
She frowned. “Glass breaking?” Then she laughed. “Okay, I know,” she grabbed my hand and pulled me over the threshold. “We’re editing.”
Her living room, otherwise exactly as I had seen it months ago, now featured a table at its center on top of which was a computer monitor and various other black or silver boxes of equipment, linked by a nest of cables. There were two chairs in front of the table and a young man, still with his back to us, sitting in one of them. He had curly blonde hair and a black tee-shirt on the shoulders of which there were either cigarette ashes or dandruff. My immediate thought: so that’s the boyfriend.
“John just-John,” said Nico, with a hand on the boy’s shoulder as he twisted in his seat and smiled at us, “Meet Eric-more-than-Eric,” a humorous introduction I felt slighted by. Slightly.
I realized that I still wanted her; there were still these pangs; but any dreams of actually having her now seemed fairly ludicrous. Not long ago, our paths had come so close that we might’ve touched, but that was the extent of it. My future was obviously shaping up to be too strange to include her: but even this portentous sentence makes it all sound more glamorous or full of mystery than it could possibly be.
“Whatever happened to that big Hollywood audition you were so excited about?”
Nico shrugged. “I decided to stop chasing luck,” she said, “And make some for myself.” She gestured at the computer screen as Eric returned his attention to it as well. He hit a key on the keyboard and a body went flying backwards through an un-shattering pane of glass, sucked feet-first out of the black night and into a kitschy bedroom, landing on tip-toe and freezing. “We’re making our own movie with rented digital cameras and some big software editing programs. Everyone donated their skills. That kind of thing is really ‘in’ now.”
Eric hit another key and dragged the mouse and the body went forward through the glass again, without sound and in slow motion this time, and I could see that it was somebody in a platinum blond wig (very much like the ice-cold hairstyle Nico had previously), doubling for her. The shattering glass looked like a wave smashing on a swimmer’s body. The body went back and forth through the membrane of the glass as they attempted to synch the sound-effect perfectly with the moment of impact. The sucking-and-then-spitting plume of candy-glass in the brilliant spotlight. The body’s arms as they crossed and flailed backwards and forwards, in half and double time, looked like some kind of devotional dance of the Middle East.
“It’s almost hypnotic,” I said.
“It’s the end of the film,” said Nico, softly. “This is where she kills herself.”
“Why does she kill herself?”
Nico shrugged. “She just does.”
Walking to my scheduled appointment at The Supreme Bean, I couldn’t get over that line: she just does. It was the perfect and terrifyingly unanswerable answer.
On my way through Berlin on a warm, partly-cloudy Valentine’s Day, it felt as though I’d been living in Europe for years already. My time as a house painter in Southern California seemed like another life, or a dream, or a novel I’d been working on many years ago only to abandon before coming to the end of it, though it had not been six months since I’d flown away from all that. There were probably still molecules of house paint swirling around in my bloodstream.
Work had stopped on The Bomb Collector… the physical work of actually writing it (following my new rule that I could only earn the right to a page of writing in the evening if I’d accomplished something ‘real’ during the evening’s day) … but it occupied my mind nevertheless. Even as I limped up the street, away from my building (next door to which workmen were still scurrying around, climbing up ladders and banging on things, although the decibel level had dropped to tolerable levels and the construction site was beginning to look like a building), I was seeing Azzedine El-Hadi’s fictionalized life projected on the backdrop of my current reality. I was picturing him walking arm in arm with a woman, well-dressed and unusually relaxed, not on a first date but clearly in the early phases of a romance. Who was the woman and where were they off to? Was this the black mistress I’d given him? What about Noa?
I was still puzzling all that out at the complicated intersection of Rosenthaler platz, not far from the spot I’d first seen the blind ‘artist’ defacing a black-walled building, when I happened upon the man himself, sitting in front of a trendy new cafe called Sankt Oberholz. He hadn’t changed much in six months and I wasn’t sure but was fairly convinced, in fact, that he was wearing the same outfit I’d first seen him in. If he hadn’t been blind anyway, on the other hand, he wouldn’t have recognized me at all, I chuckled to myself. My hair was longer, I was sporting this rakish facial hair, and I was hobbling like a distinguished gentlemen on an antique walking stick. In a way, I’d grown up. Back in Southern California, I’d still dressed like a college student, despite the fact that it had been twenty years since I’d handled a textbook.
The blind painter sat close enough to me, as I waited for the traffic light to change, that I could hear him muttering to himself. The cafe had a row of silver chairs placed in front of the window facing the street I’d just come up and he’d taken one of the chairs and pulled it out towards the corner. He was drunk, I realized. Was I imagining this or could I smell the liquor on his breath? He suddenly stiffened as if aware of the fact that I was staring at him and he swung his backpack around to his lap and rummaged around in it. He pulled out a case for his sunglasses, popped it open, extracted a pair of black framed eyeglasses, removed the sunglasses he was wearing and put them in the case… and then slid the eyeglasses on. They magnified his necrotically blue eyes as he turned them upon me… in a perfect imitation of being able to see. I jumped out of my skin in fright and hurried across the street.
Crossing the street at that intersection means crossing the streetcar tracks as well, and I limped dangerously across the tracks as one was approaching, a clattering tin toy in bright yellow, despite the stories I’d heard from Moth of people being hit and sliced in half by the streetcar. I watched from the opposite corner until the chain of five wagons had pulled away again but by then the blind painter was gone. Maybe into the cafe itself. Those dead blue eyes. There was something cruel or even evil about those reading glasses over his broken eyes, but I could admit to myself that it was a witty response to my staring. But how could he tell I’d been staring? The change in the rhythm of my breathing? I was going to have nightmares about the corpse-blue of those pupils.
Half a block away from the glass box of the Supreme Bean I could see Amanda and Moth standing at the counter, chatting with Ramin, and the idea of walking in there and standing between the two of them making small talk with the man who had ‘raped’ me as part of Amanda’s little prank was not what I would call appealing. But what were my options? I could keep walking, of course, and never see any of them again if I chose to. But the idea of Moth’s young body transformed, even as I gazed upon the three of them, by my sex, my seed, was too compelling. As a writer, too, I was driven by curiosity: how was this story going to turn out?
“There he is,” said Amanda. “The mystery man.” She hugged me. “I wouldn’t have recognized you if Moth hadn’t warned me first. My my. You do look a little like Johnny Depp with that pirate style. I like it. Is that walking stick real? How’d that happen?”
Moth hugged me too. Did I imagine a certain lingering quality to the embrace that reminded me of the embrace that had gotten her pregnant? In a panic over the instant erection this produced, I suggested that we grab a table at the back of the cafe somewhere, away from eavesdroppers. I ignored Ramin completely: my passive aggressive revenge.
Moth and Amanda were dressed in what the Germans call a “partner look”. We took our seats at a table insulated with a good distance on all sides; the cafe only had a handful of patrons in it.
“John, before anything else, I just want to apologize for my behaviour. Everything, I mean. I don’t have to go into detail here but you and I know a few things happened that shouldn’t have. In a way it was a misunderstanding, but it was unfair of me to kind of toss you into the deep end of a situation… a lifestyle… you probably weren’t prepared for. You won’t believe this but Ramin is sorry, too. But that’s enough on that subject. Fair enough?”
“Good. Next topic. You’re probably wondering about… ”
“The baby. Was it an accident or on purpose?”
“I don’t believe in accidents.”
“So, there was a plan,” I said, eyeing Moth carefully. She smiled warmly at me and squeezed Amanda’s hand on the table.
“Yes, a plan. Moth was outside a lot in those days, as you know. I wasn’t happy with that but it was something she felt she had to do… it was a freedom thing, right, baby? And being outside a lot she noticed people. We were looking… ”
Moth jumped in. “We had decided a while ago we wanted to be pregnant but we wanted a certain kind of guy for the father. He had to be good-looking,” she laughed.
“And we didn’t want a German,” Amanda took over again and Moth shook her head vociferously on this last point. “We wanted someone intelligent, too, but there’s no way to tell that one by looking, is there?”
“So that day I first met you crossing the street over there under the U-Bahn tracks… ”
“Yeah. It wasn’t random. We were sitting in front of that Indian restaurant on Kastanien Allee and Moth spotted you again so I, uh… I went after you.”
“Hey, be more flattered than freaked out.”
“Yes, John… we looked at… I don’t know… hundreds of guys before we picked you.”
“I was immediately impressed by your intelligence, John.”
“And Moth moving in with me… ”
“That was part of the plan, too.”
I looked at Moth but spoke to Amanda. “So she could get pregnant.”
“It took awhile.”
“I’ve heard of women tricking men into getting them pregnant before but this… ” I was numb.
“But there’s a big big difference, John. We don’t want you to take any of the responsibility for the child. We want you to be a part of her life…, ” they squeezed hands again and exchanged a romantic look, “… but only to the extent you feel comfortable. And not as a parent.”
“How do you know it’ll be a girl already? It’s only been a few months.”
“We just know,” said Moth.
“And you don’t expect any… financial… input from me?”
Amanda laughed and for a moment the old Amanda shone through this reasonable new facade: the arrogant, mysterious, sinister prankster. “Frankly John, I’m rich. Okay? No worries.”
Amanda produced what looked like the manuscript of a short story and smoothed it out on the table.
“In fact, along those lines, here’s something I had my lawyers prepare,” continued Amanda Nye, “don’t bother reading it now. Take a look at it at home. If you want a lawyer to look at it with you I’ll pay his fee.” She slid the sheaf of papers, stapled in a corner, across the table at me.
“This is just so there’re no awkward situations in the future. As much for your protection as ours.”
It was a beautiful irony that I should be walking home alone on Valentine’s Day with a legal document limiting both the responsibilities and influence regarding my paternity of a lesbian couple’s fetus, and the smile that I wore… patient, tired, numb, self-mocking… reflected the joke. I hadn’t been laid in months but I had this paper in my hands to certify the fact that long ago I had fucked a pretty girl so well that we had to get lawyers involved. Anyone I might meet on the way home now, making the mistake of seeing me as merely a sad and stringently unfucked middle-aged man, would get this seven page contract waved in his or her face. All I had to do was sign it and we’d all have legal proof that my hard cock had been in a vagina. But what about the other orifices, I wondered. No contract attesting to the fact that Moth had sucked me off more than once, or I her; no legal paper proving that her second-favorite invasive sexual act had been anal. In the missionary position, though. That was our invention. The secret is easing in and fusing gently with the heat and desperate grip of her darkness…
Well, I got a nice hard-on as I strolled along Kastanien Allee on Valentine’s Day, one hand in my pocket and the other one clutching the contract. I had no problem making eye contact with the girls, boys, men, dogs, crows and women I passed on the sidewalk, being at an age when a longstanding hard-on is considered a triumph. The unseasonably warm breeze ruffled my hair and pressed and fluttered at my bulging trousers like a vaguely distracted whore and I thought back on the days when these hard-ons were new, like stainless steel, and would last for half a day at a time, embarrassing me in check-out lines at the supermarket or in front of the card catalogue at the library.
Oh, so many pretty girls, then and now, frail and intimidating, saturated with that hot light that young men crave and go blind for (and that the savage ones smash into darkness sometimes, with words or fists). Bright outfits, long silks of dark and pale hair, trinkets of laughter… I wanted to cry and laugh about crying and sniff my tears and get on with it, move on, get myself out of the way, self-conscious about stumbling across that brave road with its mindless, fast traffic. My God, I’m old… that’s what those eyes… the eyes I made defiant contact with… that’s what they told me: you’re old. Some smiled, most scowled, a few frowned with puzzlement: you’re old. Don’t you know it? Get out of the road!
Being old is very much like being fucked in the ass, as it turns out. It only hurts until you accept it. A girl told me that, once, about ass fucking, while smoking her post-coital Virginia Slim cigarette. Way back in the 1970s, when we (as fresh young heterosexuals) thought we’d very hiply, very exclusively, stolen the practise from British queers. She said, it only hurts if you try to pretend it isn’t happening.
Exactly. So many pretty girls, every spring. So many springs.
I took the long way home and stuck the key in the lock in the front door of my building about an hour after Amanda had slid me the contract. I noticed that the skeleton of the building under construction next door was fleshing out with electrical conduits and large panels of fiberglass insulation and the sense of frenzy had mellowed into a few hammers banging humbly away on various floors of the building. The crane was gone, as were all the forklifts and dumptrucks.
I stood in the hallway outside the door to my flat and listened to a loud swelling of choral music. It was like standing in the foyer of a packed and floodlit church, and I recognized the piece almost immediately as Bach’s Johannes Passion… one of the most moving pieces of music ever written, in my opinion. It helped not knowing the lyrics, which were based heavily on the Biblical interpretation of that famous anti-Semite and man of peace Martin Luther. It was the saddest melody I’d ever come across as a high school student, and now that I was hearing it again in the hallway outside the door to my flat on a warm, lonely Valentine’s Day of my middle-age in a foreign country, I burst into tears.
I followed the sound of the music upstairs until I found myself in front of Nico’s door, from behind which the music blasted at a level she could only get away with because our building was almost empty. I sat down right there, leaning back against the door that seemed to bulge out and suck in against the breathing weight of a full choir and a massed orchestra and I submitted to it, holding my face in my hands. All these years on earth. All these years.
I felt the pressure give way as the door suddenly opened from behind me and I stood up with great embarrassment, my face wet, too late to hide it, giving Nico a kind of half-smile and a shrug, and as if in a dream she reached and pulled me over the threshold and against her breast, rocking me in a slow, sad, desperately tender hug. I didn’t dare open my eyes and didn’t bother fighting the flood of tears that came and she pulled us clear of the door and pushed it shut with her boot and pulled the papers out of my hand and let the sheaf fall to the floor… none of these actions audible against the music… and we kissed, undressed and made love.
The completion of the act, which came quickly, right there on Nico’s living room floor, in the blast of Bach’s morbidly majestic music, satisfied a craving in both of us that I knew we’d never feel again. Naked on my back on the chilly floor with a bottomless Nico collapsed upon me, I couldn’t help wishing that it was Moth instead, my penis shrinking in sleep in the dark warm wet of her body. We weren’t embarrassed or disappointed and the mood was very sweet. I stroked her dyed brown hair as we listened to the Johannes Passion play itself out; resolve; conclude, drain from the room like a tide.
Nico climbed up off of me with a bemused smile. She was blushing, though, so her attempt to come off as modern and casual about what we’d just done… that harmless little mistake… fell somewhat short. Which was reassuring, at least. My ego couldn’t have stood up to any more post-coital experiences with fearlessly unsentimental women that day.
“Let’s not mention this to Eric,” I joked. I was on my hands and knees, gathering up my clothing.
Nico went to fetch the pants she’d tossed across the room on the couch in the heat of our moment and said, “Eric?”
“He doesn’t need to know.”
“I’ll probably mention it at some point. He’s my best… ”
“Do you think that’s wise?”
“Are you that prissy about your privacy?”
“Won’t he want to kick my ass or something?”
Nico put her hand over her open mouth. “Oh my God,” she said, finally. “You think… ”
“John,” she said, laughing, “Eric is not my boyfriend! He’s as Gay as… ” she gestured vaguely, reaching for a metaphor. She was standing in front of the stereo system near the window, making sure that the Joahnnes Passion wasn’t about to cycle into a repeat, when the doorbell rang. Two short sharp rings and a very long one. At which she seemed to go pale, glancing at the clock on the wall over the couch. “Shit shit shit! I totally forgot!”
“There’s no time,” she said. She pointed at the table that the computer sat on… the editing table… which had been pushed to the wall to make room in the middle of the floor. “Get under it. Quick! Get under it and don’t make a sound. I’m serious, John! Hurry the fuck up! Get under the fucking table! Now!” (I would marvel at the quality of that acting job-Nico’s surprise at the doorbell ringing-later, when I had time to think about it).
She pressed two buttons on the stereo and ran to press the buzzer button that would let whoever it was into the building. The Johannes Passion started again. Then she ran back into the living room with a can of air freshener and sprayed the room. I didn’t see this… I only saw her feet briefly… but I heard her do it. I was crouching under the table with my bundle of clothing in my arms, blind to anything higher than the table top. My shoes I saw standing on their own near the couch, but there wasn’t time to scurry and get them as I heard Nico open the front door of her apartment. I scooted away from the front of the table, my back to the wall, holding my breath.
I was in as absurd a position as anyone could imagine: a middle-aged man cowering naked under a table in his upstairs neighbor’s living room to the mockingly grandiose soundtrack of very loud Bach. Even more absurdly, as I listened to Nico unlock her front door and greet whoever it was I was hiding from, I thought of Azzedine El-Hadi… not my old friend, but his fictional counterpart, my creation.
I thought of his day trip with Noa into Manhattan; how it started with a blue sky with only the tiniest cloud in the distance and suddenly became black with paranoia. Why was I thinking of Azzedine as I squatted under that table? A writer’s mind has its own agenda. Azzedine and Noa have a life of their own in my thoughts.
I remembered that aborted lunch in the hippie restaurant… the man with the camera who followed Azzedine and Noa out of the restaurant and into the street. Azzedine’s tightening chest… the barely controllable impulse to run. Who was this man? What harm did he intend?
I felt like a rabbit hiding from a hound as I cowered under the table, listening, through the Bach, to Nico and her visitor, a man with a very deep voice, exchange words. Without understanding a fragment of German, it was nevertheless obvious to me that her visitor was drunk, demanding, aggressive. Nico’s tone was conciliatory… pleading. I wondered if at some point the moment would arrive that I would have to crawl from under the table and defend her. They moved from the little entrance hall into the living room. I could see their feet as they stood in front of Nico’s couch, continuing the debate, their voices rising. How could it be that this man couldn’t see that someone was squatting under the table?
Noa and Azzedine were walking at a good clip down a shaded sidestreet festooned darkly on both sides with pawn shops and iron-barred jewelry stores, a street more like an alley than a street, Azzedine glancing frequently over his shoulder. The man with the camera had yet to round the corner, but he had thus far managed to remain doggedly on their trail, over a distance of many blocks and several abrupt changes of direction, maintaining a discreet distance.
All talk between Noa and Azzedine had ceased. There was only the ambient sound of the city and their huffing breaths as they hurried. It was Azzedine’s perfect idea of a nightmare, Bergmanesque in its silence, no comfort in having Noa there with him for he was convinced that it was she who had brought this visitation upon them. This sinisterly bland yankee hounding them was an avatar of covert American violence in his ruddy-faced, square-jawed manner… Azzedine worried that he might even be a government spy… a secret agent… what was the agency called? The O.S.S.? He was becoming furious with Noa for not quite keeping up as he walked faster and faster…
They had doubled back to the parking garage and when they had gotten within fifty yards of where a man sat on a stool in a booth in front of the garage’s entrance, reading a book with a sneer of pleasure, El-Hadi, who was a good twenty paces ahead of Noa, called out to the man in a dialect they shared. The garage was owned by cousins of El-Hadi’s and the man on duty was a countryman, a retiree’s age, no doubt doing the job for money under the table. Whatever El-Hadi called out had him off the stool and scurrying into the oily shadows to fetch the car with an expression on his face that struck Noa as so theatrically grave that she wanted to laugh. But she knew better.
The car sped back up the maze of the streets they’d followed, retracing their steps, as if El-Hadi now sought the man they’d only moments before been fleeing as from the Devil itself. Where the streets narrowed and admitted no traffic in the direction El-Hadi was speeding he drove anyway. Where they turned into the mouth of an alley where it was ill-advised to drive any faster than a crawl he put the speed on. Still, they couldn’t find him…
This menacing square with a camera; the shit smeared all over El-Had’s car a year later: they were related incidents. El-Hadi knew it, he knew it in the part of his mind (which wasn’t, perhaps, his mind at all but his heart or his guts) that knew without words and saw without pictures. The obvious connection was Noa, who’d never, in all the time he’d known her, struck him as real. That eternal smirk of hers, which he’d once mistaken for the ignorant arrogance of youth. He knew better now.
All that pleasure… how could he ever have been fool enough to think that it came without a price? And then I thought: is that how the book ends? Does he lose his mind? Does he kill her?
They were arguing: the male voice slurred, belligerent. The music was loud but I’m sure I heard the muffled sound of a punch, then a slap in response. A scuffle, a grunt, a gasp, the sound of furniture sliding, a struggle that went on like a booze-fueled dance. I jammed my hands over my ears until only the Bach roared through, but then I heard something above that anyway, something awful. Evil, even. A scream, yes, but a scream of pleasure… a man’s…
I slid from under the table on my knees and there was Nico, on her knees, with her hair tight in a man’s dirty fist and his fat ugly prick bobbing and spitting and poor Nico’s sad shocked face as I lunged at him, lunged at his back, holding my breath. I was shocked too, believe me. He was strong but I hit him full force, catching him unawares, knocking the wind out of him and me both, slamming with the weight of all my hatred. Every time the bones in my fist touched his mouth or ear or the side of his cheek a fine line of blood or bloody sweat or spit popped out like sparks from a flint. He was everything I had ever hated, a truth I only discovered at the moment of impact: he was my ex-partner Richard, he was my father, he was the bully in grammar school and the rich kids in college and the smugly successful, locally famous asshole who beats his wife. We hit the wall hard together as the German choir swelled in the nearly Satanic power of that Bach and Nico was tangled in the crash, maybe she was hurt too, I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t thinking, I know she cried out, I think she screamed for me to stop and clawed my face to pull me off but mostly I remember just pounding. Pounding her lover; his blinkless deadfather eyes. Beating that monstrous blind artist with everything in me, naked in my rage.
If you’ve never had the chance to beat an ugly man in the face with all the strength in your arms, I recommend it. Do it but not for long… twenty seconds is already too much… but do it because if you have read this book for this long you can’t be very different from me and that means you’re estranged from your natural self. Your inheritance. We hate the ugly… I believe this… we hate the ugly based on species memory. Ugly represents the beast, the monster, the animals with snouts or muzzles and bristling foul fur that hunted us hungry when we were few and soft and afraid and guarding our little settlements with pathetic sticks for weapons. That has to be where hate comes from and where my hate came from. Connecting to that is a powerful thing and once the connection is made it can never be undone, I think. The county jails and federal prisons are full of born-again Neanderthals like me.
Nico and I dragged her blind boyfriend by the ankles to the bathroom; he was moaning and hot-slippery with blood and I was relieved he was alive. Or greatly relieved plus just that little bit embarrassed in front of a female witness that I hadn’t been man enough to do more serious damage to my adversary, despite my lack of restraint. She daubed his pulpy features with a wet towel and said, kind of breathless, still shaking, he’s had better beatings than that. He’s dead drunk anyway and won’t remember this tomorrow and I’ll just tell him he got in a bar fight again.
Then she said Jesus, look at you and I saw myself with her eyes, hunched naked and very erect. Go get your clothes and put them on, John, she said, before you accidentally rape me. But she wasn’t angry, just upset and shaking. Matter of fact crisis control. I tried to put my pants on and my bloody hands were heavy with pain.
I said, Why didn’t you tell me this man was your lover?
She said, it’s none of your business, John.
I was shaking, too, and fumbling with my pants and then my shirt and I gathered the rest in my arms and quietly let myself out of her flat and down the stairs with weird vision both acute and vague and clinging to a sliver of hope that I was dreaming this mess and would wake out of it chastened and laughing and deeply relieved.
It was only after letting myself into my flat and washing off my hands and lying on the bed in the narrow bedroom under Nico’s (which I still hadn’t seen and probably never would, now) that I noticed that the Bach was still playing, loud as ever. Coming to its unalterable crescendo.
I couldn’t relax. I had to get outside. I put my shoes back on and grabbed my walking stick and a jacket in case it rained and was on the street again, limping like a man with a destination in mind. But in truth I had none. Whatever I was hurrying towards was as vague as whatever I was escaping.
It was spring, despite the unseasonable warmth, and the sun was already setting behind the low, undistinguished apartment buildings on the west side of August Strasse. The restaurant on the corner, with a short row of tables-for-two on the sidewalk, was alive with dinner talk and the clink of cutlery and generic dinner music… in this case a slick gypsy band… and I made eye contact with what patrons I could in transit. It was impossible to see into their lives because I couldn’t hear into their language, but it was clear that each and every one of them was the solidly unremarkable window dressing of a culture that was rewarding them decently for playing their parts.
It was a very expensive restaurant (I’d peered cautiously at the menu posted in a display case by the entrance before) and they had the money to eat there. The men were handsome, fleshy, my age or older, in dark silk suits or beautiful pullovers and many of the women were much younger than their dinner dates, and one or two were ravishingly, if vacuously, beautiful. And yet none of them were real. Or they were proof that I wasn’t; how could both sets exist in one reality? Just limping near them on the sidewalk produced a spiritual wobble in me akin to two musical notes, neither close enough to overlap nor separated enough to harmonize, jarring as they come closer. I touched my face where I thought one of them must have tossed the dregs of a cold drink and realized I was bleeding. A billion organisms from under Nico’s nails were starting a new life in me… she had fertilized my clueless scowl… the pain would come tomorrow.
I limped on. Where August Strasse empties into Rosenthaler Strasse, the major thoroughfare down which runs the streetcar, I turned right. It was only when I saw a young woman, a simple blonde, dragging a helium balloon in the shape of a bulging red heart through the twilight behind her, that I remembered it was Valentine’s Day. The fact that she was crying… sniffing red-eyed at long evaporated-tears… was reassuring.
In fact it was the sight of this pretty young German in the voluptuous trance of her dinky opera that cheered me up. She couldn’t have been much older than seventeen and there was nothing she could tell me about the recent events of her tragic hour, if I could only interview her, which would surprise me. Those upper-middle class diners in their tight-smiled, Chablis-pouring prime had chilled me to the bone, illuminating the lie in that old maxim smile and the world smiles with you. The sad young thing was a messenger from the great beyond. Cry, she had come to inform us, and we are never alone.
I wasn’t too old to share in that.
The drive up was tense not only because of the tritely appropriate drama of the rain but also because if he got lost on the way there was no one to call to for help. No safety net. He was forbidden from square one to store the information on a device or to print the directions on paper.
The directions appeared one morning in an audio loop that disabled itself after ten or fifteen minutes, a loop accompained by a black screen, a loop in the form of a sonnet. He’d been chanting it to himself for forty eight hours with an eerie pride in knowing that medieval illiterates had done it in much the same way. Further back than that, too, because songs in the fog of unmetered time had been less often used as entertainment than mnemonic devices of desperate importance. Didn’t antediluvian Asians in birchbark canoes navigate the Aleutians to landfall on North America using chanted sea maps? Or something.
He was roughly a third of the way through the sonnet and maybe two thirds of the distance to the compound and all of the clues had worked out very smoothly. But what if they hadn’t? He’d been on the road for seven hours. His team was up for an Emmy. He had inside information that the world would end before they won it.
Of course he could have cheated and written the directions down but he hadn’t wanted to. He longed for that new beginning. He hungered to start afresh. No more lies or cheating. Lose weight, no television, early nights and mornings. Stop masturbating. He had less than twelve hours, driving from several states away, making rest stops to eat and/or relieve himself, to get there before the others took steps to block the old dirt access road. To make the place impenetrable. If you can’t stop cold turkey, cut back to reasonable levels, at least. He thought of a cool title: Get fit at the Apocalypse Spa.
The new kind of man he was to become was not the kind who’d find himself bashing his Amherst-enhanced brain for four days against three lines of sitcom dialogue, of this he was certain. Like a chain of hyper-haikus from the sinisterly dumb future, various versions were branded on the soft white flesh of his consciousness.
Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!
Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.
Lola Beedo: (beat) Tell me, does it come in human sizes, too?
He thought of a picture someone had posted on the message board in the production team’s lounge. The multi-Emmy-award-winning production team’s lounge. A photograph from 1905. The young Ludwig Wittgenstein in a class picture from his days in the Realschule in the city of Linz and there, a distance of one or two students to the upper right (a knight’s move, as Nabokov would have put it), looking resigned to his fate, is Ludwig’s classmate Adolf Hitler. The fact being that nothing Wittgenstein had subsequently done as a philosopher, no great strides in ethics or logic or the lyric aprehension of mathematics, amounted to a hill of beans compared to the contribution he could have made had he taken the opportunity to act decisively during the long walk home from school one day and crushed young Adolf’s skull with a paving stone. In other words, not only thought but direct action is required of us at certain pivotal moments. And not only action but a little prescience helps too.
Hamilton Gold, the head writer, always said name me what’s funnier than decapitation. But, he’d say, let’s see if the audience is there yet. He’d looked over the bit quickly on Monday, flipping the pages in that idiot-savant scan of his and immediately picked out the three lines they’d been having trouble with and shook his head, I like the bit but fat jokes are dangerous. Fat is our demographic, don’t forget. How about substitute fat with slut? Slut is funny.
Gold propounds a theory that sitcoms govern Congress. What people laugh at is exactly how they will vote. Americans can’t bomb a country until they’ve laughed at it a little bit first. Maybe he took the sentiment more seriously than Gold had intended but pretty soon he was feeling like J. Robert Oppenheimer in that porkpie hat hearing the phrase comedy has known sin and he’s on the internet at 3:14 in the morning, looking for absolution.
No one knew that he’d based the popular character of Elke Hall on his mother. He had inside information that it was the end of the world and he hadn’t even notified her.
Beyond the rain and the ticking of the clock, drama or any sense of a grand doomsday epic on the road itself was sorely lacking. No roadblocks or frenzied hordes or menacingly black or fluorescent sunset: just zonked-out commuters in start-and-stop traffic on the long way home from the daily deathsentence of work. Most of these people were only vaguely aware of things, if at all, and the precious few who considered the situation anything to lose sleep over had lost sleep over so many looming catastrophes of the past that this recent matter would strike them as little more than more of the same. Tonight they would go to bed after a starchy meal, vacuous television and perfunctory sex per usual. A couple of pills and out like a light. How typical to be wrong the one time it counted. The one time it counted in a thousand years, you dumbshits. You call your wife to come out on the porch to have a look and less than a second later you’re all dead.
What gave him a kind of vertigo when he contemplated it was how close he had come to being just like them. Before that life-changing night on the internet which fanned into a dozen online conversations, each conversation in turn fanning out into a hundred others, and all of those but the crucial one petering out…the crucial one connecting to his special contact to the man whose vision he had now irrevocably made himself a part of. Yes, thinking back on it, it was amazing…how cloaked in the ordinary it had all once seemed. How something appeared in the inbox of a personals account at a no-hoper’s dating site he’d signed up to pseudonymously because it was free and therefore relatively untraceable: a message exactly two sentence fragments long. Two months later, after visiting god-knows-how-many encrypted sites and exchanging deepcover spam mails and vital details in chatrooms he found himself paypal-ing a mindboggling sum into an account set up in a Biblical name.
Eighty acres of land and five years of provisions for twenty three people (they’d done their best to balance male with female but visionary survivalism is not, strictly speaking, a female interest, so nine females and fourteen males. But their unflinching honesty about this state of affairs reassured him). No couples or families or friends. Only loners with college degrees…professionals older than 27 and younger than 55, disgusted with mainstream politics, wary of organized religion, environmentally friendly but not averse to the occasional bar-b-que. All strangers to one another. All white.
Radio was out of the question, in case some catchy tune came on and drove the sonnet out of his head. What he had was seven hours of motordrone and rubberhum and occasional rainfry sizzle on the roads. That and talking to himself. He supplied his own commercials. He thought of the Man from Glad, that futuristic Aryan hovering in a jetpack to shill ersatz Saranwrap to sexually frustrated newlyweds. He thought of The Beatles’ rooftop concert and George switching his amp back on in open defiance of the bobby. He thought: of course the whole thing could be a clever scam.
But the verisimilitude of the finework of paranoiac details like emailing strategies such as using spam prosodies for deepcover (mploy *black anal virgin* n subj. line & spyprgs wnt rd ur eml) had convinced him. Or how the ambiguously allusive chats he’d had with the man himself, the chats on the gratis personals site, had been regularly scheduled for 3:14 in the morning, based, he realized, on the value for pi and he wasn’t exactly sure why but that last detail had soothed him. Assuaged his fears.
I’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs.
When traffic slowed to a crawl he took the opportunity to peek into other cars. All those faces in profile, innocent with impatience or boredom. For the first time in his adult life he found himself loving humanity.
The automobile beside his to the right was a bruise-blue vintage Ford with a cream-white top, a big old iron box of a thing, perfectly preserved, its contour suggesting a jut-jawed crewcut profile and containing, as it happened, two male passengers with just that style of haircut. The driver could plausibly have been the father of the boy in the passenger seat. They both had brown hair…the guessed-brown on a vintage b&w picture tube…and they were so animated in that hatefully cheerful and perfectly postured way you’d expect in the kind of midcentury film the car and their haircuts seemed keyed to. You can’t see two males like that without automatically picturing the female that belongs with them. The bandana and the oven cleaner. The bubble bath and the shapely leg and the drawer of “female items” you aren’t even allowed to open in your mind, forbidden as the Arc of the Covenant in the cabinet under the sink.
He wondered, for a bemused moment, if he wasn’t hallucinating, or if such types in just such a car weren’t obviously time-travelers. Terrorists from the future, because that’s what they will look like, although, wait, he keeps forgetting that the future has already arrived. Would he be crossing state lines with a trunk full of firearms otherwise?
Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!
Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.
Lola Beedo: (beat) Tell me, did Bill Clinton design it?
He’d never known a girl named Amanda. He’d never been slapped in the face. Why was he sad about these two facts?
In the script margin Gold had scribbled, Bill who?
They had a regular skit called “Poem of the Week” that was supposedly topical. In the memos Gold had taken to referring to it as Poem of the Weak and the written phrase had acquired a poignance and profundity all its own. He swears he saw Gold’s assistant-to-the-assistant wiping her eyes and sniffing furtively after reading that phrase. Honey-baked boobs out to here.
The dream he held both dear and sheepishly for its foolishness was the dream of the girl who is waiting for him, waiting at the compound, one of the nine, the most beautiful of the nine, the barefoot heroine in rustic clothing without whom he had been rudderless, unmated, bereft for all these years. She’ll step intuitively out onto the porch of the rambling woodframe house in order to watch him drive up, her tomboy heart quickening to the recognition. She’ll smile tentatively as he greets her with an ironic salute, lugging his trunk of munitions stiff-legged towards the front steps, winded but amused by the exertion, shrugging off her offer to help him carry the massive thing. Golden-haired, curly-haired, of solid pioneer stock. She’d say, the others are inside.
-I’m the last?
-We thought you weren’t coming. We were preparing…
-To mine the road.
She’d hold the door open for him. She’d search his face as he squeezed his way past the woodland aura of her health into a sort of vestibule that opened into a large, high-ceilinged room, a room with a rough, honest look to it: a gathering place for the strong, the wise, the bravely sad. Oil paintings of country life on the walls, maybe. Old bay mares. Or, no, something ironic like Victorian portraits or blue period Picasso. A dynastic sort of fire snapping twigs in the hearth. Quiet conversations here and there tapering off as he sets his clanking trunk at his feet and senses her feminine presence gather force at his side as he takes everyone in while catching his breath, the late arrival at a party in honor of the end of the fucking world. Peripherally he’d feel her delicately hawk-eye him for the subtlest reaction to everything as though her self-esteem depended on his acceptance of the new reality. As though she’s putting herself in the picture with him and hoping there’s a fit.
Then it hit him who She was. She was Donna Douglas aka Ellie Mae Clampett and only then did the improbability of the fantasy mock him and he leaned on the horn and spoke in the precise duration of the car’s grievance as a motorcycle cut in front of him. He realized in a fleeting panic that he couldn’t remember the name of former president Jimmy Carter’s brother; if that went, could a key line from the sonnet be far behind? He then wondered in a morphed extension of this panic if he’d left the shower on. Which extended and morphed yet again into the awful realization that he’d left all his speed in a fannypack in the gym bag on top of his bedroom dresser. How was he supposed to get through the Apocalypse without his vitamin S?
He considered turning back for it.
The howdydoody Ford lurched forward and fell behind in the maddening traffic. Lurched forward and fell behind. It caught up again in a fanfare of horns he added his note to and he saw with self-perplexing irritation that the father and son were indifferent to the agonies of the traffic jam. Just chatting away. Even their windshield wiper seemed relaxed in the offhandedness of its gesture and the two reached up all smiles and lowered their sun-shades as an errant beam levered under the lowered lid of the late-afternoon rainmass with gospel brilliance. The beam illuminated them grinsquinting at eyelevel, goop-haired and adam-appled, a hit show, monster ratings from 1957 broadcast straight into the traffic beside him.
He pictured the mom, coiffed and trim in her gown in a pensive pose smoking in the living room window, the young trees in a line in the front yard doing the Watusi and all the televisions off, the radios off, the wall clocks off, the power dead and the Frigidaire silent in the tabernacle of the kitchen. She’s awed by the roiled heavens and so moved by the glory of God’s vast hand as it shapes the wind and the waters and green leaves plucked living from the trees that she forgets to worry about her own boys on the road at the mercy of it, the mystery of life and her place in it. And the man out there, the survivalist, the comedy writer, the agnostic visionary out there in her Christian storm, a half-Jewish Noah saving the world one shaky ego at a time.
Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!
Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.
Lola Beedo: (beat) The perfect outfit for a decapitation!