St. Alban’s is a side street in the Summit Avenue neighborhood where F. Scott Fitzgerald feels most at home. Walks the street in a t-shirt on sultry nights. There are a dozen addresses along Summit where Fitzgerald lived but the only one the clique ever paid any attention to was a Romanesque brownstone in front of which we’d hang out on misty nights to give our cunts the fantods with Scotty’s approval. We, too, continued to haunt the area long after we’d quit or graduated. Fantods was Tucker van Tassel’s word. I filched it from him. I think I filched filched, too. Who says filched? The rich must die.
I was the only scholarship. The serf on a workstudy forced to wake up at the crack every Thursday, slip into crusty painter-whites and meet a gray-eyed half-Ojibwe alky named Chuck in front of the student union. There he’d be, stumbling already over dropcloths, his arms a rich organic color against the sequence of big tongues of pouring paint. And there I’d come. Supposed to be grateful for the opportunity. Here: attend this gilded bunker of privilege. Watch: your weightless friends sail through chatty days to reach every bacchanalia of no-free nights. I grew big guns shoveling coke in the boilers of the Titanic.
I confess it was my subconscious revenge maneuver to fuck one of their women. Exquisite chattel on a plinth: I think I glimpsed that on the menu of one of those temples she tried to put me in my place at later. But oh, when I first saw Mary Duncan Ford looming against that laughing, luminous, thirty-foot Jeanne Moreau on a bike I interpreted my aspirational panic as love. If I’d only known. She looked better than Ms. Moreau and rendered the story boring. Fiction is so vulnerable but in its favor I’d argue that at least it doesn’t care. Pushing her way down the row of cinema seats, hunched under the toy gray deathray from the projector, giggling pardon moi , she puts a hand on my knee and steps on my foot and settles to my left and fuck did the smell of her shampoo make it impossible. Does one of those guys die in the end? Maybe he sacrifices himself to save the other two (a neat resolution of the triangle). When all five of us got kicked out I followed my supremely-unembarrassable new friends to an off-campus pizzeria. And immediately, that night, back in my dorm, I started practicing the not-blushing… in a mirror. I’d say, “And who do you think you are?” in a certain voice. I could do the voice but I never learned to not blush. Which made the voice useless. The rich only blush when you glimpse their intestines.
The ones I met that first night were part of a much larger clique. Which was part of a much larger class. Which descended from an ancient tradition of the royal fuck you. These assholes knew the proper way to sleep in castles. Sophia, Katie and I sat on one side of the table and Eric and Tucker and Mary on the other. They were my first exposure to people who enjoy pizza and pop music without animal gusto but neither with guilt nor disdain but through cool, contractual loopholes protecting such people, who don’t really need to eat. I grasped immediately that curling my lip at disco music, for example, wouldn’t put me any higher on the carefully-calibrated ladder than being caught caressing a Travolta poster. I learned to never, under any circumstances, eye that very last slice. Subtle stuff.
I wisely kept my provincial enthusiasms for F. Scott Fitzgerald to myself. I wore my suspenders in the dark, alone. The main thing was they were all from well-off East Coast bloodlines and I knew if I gave them anything to pick on in those first few formative days and weeks the flaw or error would become the label on the can I was made of. I would become the hindered mascot. Rub its head for good luck. I was very quiet. I listened more than I talked. I mastered (and memorized an arsenal of) offhand quips and tailored a working persona. I developed a late-blooming sympathy for the Jews.
It’s obvious to me in retrospect that Mary was intrigued by my blue-collar looks. I wasn’t the only dark-haired boy in the bunch (Tucker’s hair was blue-black as any comic book hero’s) or the only one with a calloused handshake (sailing will do that for you) but there was something solid, or self-willed, about me. Something that the over-bred fuckers of her species lacked.
The first time I hit her I knew I was on to something. She laughed and said harder.
I am willing to take a test.
Hyacinth is on her death trip again. Shuffling from room to room and staring at stuff with that spooky I am a camera blankness. Like she’s memorizing it, filing it away. Storing it for when, soon coming, none of this… the ashtrays, the doorstops, the all-in-one entertainment center with a busted cassette player and a scratched-at indelible Take That sticker on its side… will exist. Only Hyacinth will exist. Only Hyacinth will survive as a witness. Hyacinth the Chosen One. The rest of us are doomed, pal. When the landlord of landlords comes tromping up the back stairs of the universe, jingling his zillion keys, the rest of His tenants are toast.
What I like is how Hyacinth strips down before trancing. Wants to meet her maker in her innocence is how she puts it. In her birthday suit. Hyacinth has a very nice birthday suit.
You’re having a dinner party and virginal Hyacinth comes shuffling into the dining room with The Gypsy Kings on at low volume and she makes her entrance in the middle of some toff’s anecdote about Heidegger, in said birthday suit, Polaroiding everyone with those big brown eyes: that makes an impression. I usually say she’s sleepwalking, poor thing. No sudden moves. Remain seated. She’ll nip off to bed on her own in a minute or two.
People call and ask me, uh, when’s the next dinner party?
Well, problem is, I can’t guarantee that Hyacinth will make an appearance and nothing kills conversation like half a dozen people glancing expectantly at the dining room door the whole evening. Thing is, she has to be on a death trip to do it and she only goes on a death trip when the signs and omens augur the imminence of joyful dominion.
Hyacinth is our American. You’ve probably gathered as much.
It isn’t given to many of the English to be raised on a compound, is it? It’s practically a rite of passage for Americans. Most of them over there could probably write a pretty good tell-all about some Spiritual Leader or other. Most of them have been dandled on some Messiah’s knee as a matter of course and staged deprogramming interventions have become, in the 21st century, what bat mizvah’s and coming-out parties once were. I used to think Yanks were preposterous for forming these little cults of a few thousand and proclaiming themselves The Chosen (as distinguished from the other 6.8 billion on earth). That’s a pretty strict door policy. Studio 54 at its peak was all-embracing in comparison. But Americans always take things to the illogical extreme.
It’s a nation of escalation, the spiritual home of escalators. As if to prove that an apocalyptic sex cult of six heavily-armed Puerto Ricans speaking in tongues in a one-room flat in Brooklyn (for example) isn’t as far as one can go in the direction of exclusive holiness, now you’ve got these cults of one popping up… these solo-cults or uni-cliques like Hyacinth. In fact, Hyacinth tells me she had a falling out with her best friend Phoenix. Which is so, really, like, you know, sad. Phoenix was under the impression that she was the Chosen One (hereafter to be referred to as the CO). Reasoning that Nebraska isn’t big enough for two CO’s, Hyacinth headed back East. Her father, a relatively down-to-earth Baptist, was from New Jersey.
On the long bus trip east she noticed, strategically placed in seats on the right and left of the aisle, three or four waifs of approximately the same age, body mass index (in a country of the fat, the thin stick out) and facial expression. More CO’s, of course. Hyacinth’s only hope (if she planned to set up shop as a C.O. in unclaimed territory) was to get out of the country.
“It’s because you’re secure in yourself that you can admit that I am The Chosen One,” says Hyacinth, during one of her more talkative moments. But really it’s because I desperately want to nail her. What’s it like, I mean. Anal with a Chosen One. Must be special.
More about that compound.
That photo album she brings everywhere. It’s a wealth of coded information. Ignoring the sunsets and geese-on-the-lake and all those blurry snapshots she took of her own left hand, starting when she was nine, the other photos comprise a vivid document of the places where clean-air America and Millennial dogma meet and result in horrific stains. One snapshot that stays with me is of a man in a dark cloak, kneeling in the snow in a semi-circle of dark-cloaked onlookers. The man’s gloved hands cover his face. Yet the onlookers (with unisex, too-long, center-parted hair) don’t seem particularly galvanized. They seem bored; unimpressed. I always wanted to ask about that.
My maternal grandfather shot his adopted son over a property deal. The deal would have made my grandfather a millionaire, finally, after so many years. My uncle, half-Ojibwe by birth, rescued by my grandfather from a Red Lake orphanage in Northern Minnesota, grew into a hippie. A hippie named Graham who refused to agree to the deal. He answered the door in nakedness one brilliant green morning. He was found right there in the vestibule of the hand-built house he loved. He was discovered by a groggy member of his harem. He had holes in his chest and face and he was scribbling on the baseboard with a bloody finger. 1968.
I started calling myself Graham and dressing a certain way, twenty years too late but quite awhile before it was fashionable again.
Reagan is giving a speech on a thriftshop television on which the speaker doesn’t work and the President sounds like a fly. I have a band called The Law of Averages and would you like to know what the law of averages means? It means that the average person is just average in the eyes of the law. This fat girl is paying my rent while Reagan talks. Her head is intermittently in the way. I’m not even worth shooting.
There have been times in human history when ugly was fashionable, when being ugly was a kind of good luck so powerful it conferred itself also on those who clamored to be near it. When ugliness had the power to bless. But this isn’t such an era.
It is Chicago, Illinois, and the year is 1972. There are three of us together, good friends, old friends, in Jimmy’s, near the corner of Jackson and State Street, under the ‘EL.’ Jimmy’s is halfway between what we’d call greasy spoon and down home and Jimmy does all the cooking. One has a choice of three tables near the window or the counter itself to eat on and the tables are always occupied. The tables are green Formica and chrome and they were new when Jimmy opened the place with a VA loan after surviving the Korean War with two good arms and a leg.
Jimmy is good at producing a certain kind of very heavy meal with sweet iced tea or very strong coffee for a beverage and pie for dessert and he charges a fair price. The one thing you do not do in Jimmy’s is tip.Jimmy’s is lit like a pool hall: coolie hats of light hung from a dirty ceiling. There is no jukebox. Jimmy thinks it’s impolite to listen to popular music while eating his food. The sooty windows onto State Street are a triptych of iron-webbed sky (the structure of the ‘EL’) and one little Xmas tree of a traffic light. The upper right corner of the triptych blinks red, yellow, green all night, even when there’s no one in Jimmy’s to see it.
Here we are: Gorman, Perez. Me. We are lucky and have a window table near the door. It’s summer and being seated near the door is a relief, even with thick stains of exhaust on the breeze. Gorman, with his big head and too-small haircut like a child’s cap barely reaching his neckline or red ears and his feminine eyelashes, has, in preparation, cut his meat into a grid of what looks like thirty two small squares and is now leisurely forking one after another into his mouth while Perez and I hack away at our porkchops.
‘The Germans are metaphysicians,’ says Gorman, between forkfuls, putting the meat away. ‘Nietzsche. Jung. Kant.’ He glares at the ceiling. ‘Hörbigger.’ He forks a square of meat and writes an ‘eight’ with it through a tablet of gravy and puts it away. ‘They might as well have been witch doctors.’
The squares of meat he removes from the plate follow a pattern: one bottom left, one top right. Next bottom left, next top right. Perez winks at me and tips his chin at Gorman’s plate: the puddle of gravy with a vertical ‘infinity’ inscribed in it. The tessellated Salisbury steak and cuneiformed mashed potatoes.
‘Gorman,’ says Perez, ‘We’re curious. Really. Do you take a crap as methodically as you eat?’
Perez is pretty: he has flared nostrils and a precise black haircut and an Elvis-like permanent sneer. But one eye is always bloodshot and a little dead because a big kid clubbed him on the playground for being too pretty. I heard a rumor more than once that Perez and Gorman did a little something as Vaselined choir boys in one or the other’s bunk one night when we were all three of us attending a week-long ‘retreat’ at a seminary in East Troy, Wisconsin. I can remember being so young that everything under your navel smelled the same. The retreat was sponsored by the Catholic School (Our Lady of The Loop) in which we were benignly and neglectfully incarcerated the year we three became friends.
Gorman was there at Our Lady of the Loop because his parents didn’t want him attending the run-down educational institution of the neighborhood, which is Joseph J. Pulaski Junior High School. Perez was there because his whiskery grandmother, the sole guardian of Perez and his six sisters, supported a Catholic universe with such natural fervor that she could experience ecstatic visions of the Virgin Mary on demand, the holy mother illuminated in swirling clouds of Lucky Strike. You could smell Perez’s house from a block away. I was sent to Our Lady of the Loop because it was the furthest my mother could get me from the house every day. We didn’t even live, technically, in Chicago. I’d come home and exorcise the place with air-fresheners. What kind of kid is forced to spend his allowance on air-fresheners?
The rumor about Perez and Gorman never bothered me, and I treated it with the same open-minded neutrality I applied to the miracles that the Sisters used so much of every school day advertising: I did not doubt nor did I believe. But that rumor goes a long way toward explaining the teasing. Gorman and Perez would bicker and tease like a couple embarrassed by the memory of an unrecoverable closeness.
‘Sure’n if you tink oi eats metodically,’ retorts Gorman, with a fakey brogue, after a swig of tea with a sandstorm of sugar in it, ‘you ought t’ see how oi diddle yer ma.’
Then he catches my eye and drops his gaze and he apologizes profusely in a deep soft voice. He’d forgotten. And now he feels like a shit, a real shit and I feel sorry for him. Being a good guy, and famously easy to get along with, I change the subject immediately, of course. Or, that is, I change it back.
‘Henry Miller,’ echoes Perez, tapping the table. But Gorman is still pouting over his faux-pas, his mouth in the palm of his hands. All work has ceased on the construction site of his dinner plate and his words have escaped him. We have to prod.
I repeat, ‘Henry Miller…’ but Gorman won’t bite. Christ, Jerry, I want to say: she was my mother. What are you so upset about?
I say, ‘Come on, Jerry. You’re the writer. It’s your job to educate us Philistines. If you don’t finish, Perez and I are going to go out into that heartless night without the gift of knowledge to light our paths. You were saying… ‘ But Gorman just sits there, slumped, so Perez stars talking about popular film.
Poor Gorman. If only I could admit that I’m glad she’s gone! But that would put me under suspicion.
LD: A particular guy wants a particular woman: this is not a story, it’s a situation. Make it two particular guys and make the two guys friends (and the woman beautiful) and at least you have a story. Make one of the two friends in competition for the affections of the beautiful woman not a guy but another woman and make the two not friends but married and you have a modern story on your hands, possibly. The jury is still out on the relative modernity of sad or happy or unresolved endings. Is there a fourth alternative? Maybe the fourth alternative is there is no ending. It just goes on and on that way. Everyone in the story just gets older and older until you can’t even stand to look at them any more. Does that sound like a bestseller to you? Anyway, you asked so I told you. How’s the Mrs?
MD: You’re so bitter, Larry. So sarcastic.