Two things are in fashion in Berlin that year: hookahs and riverside bars. Some riverside bars even feature hookahs. To the list of punny names like Chocolate Bar and Crow Bar and Gold Bar and Bar Nun and even All Holds Bar there was added, that year, a place along the absinthe-colored Spree on the bank of a kink in the Spree’s many twists through the part of Berlin called Kreuzberg. A place called the Zand See Bar. Not far from the indestructible ghost of The Wall.
Five tons of white sand have been imported from somewhere along the Baltic, with five potted palm trees, none of which look well, and a concrete wet bar as long as a light-aircraft runway plus a Dj platform, complete with search light, which was once a guard tower, transplanted from one hundred and seventy five meters to the east.
Adjacent to Zand See Bar is a band shell faced by fifty rows of rusting iron benches still warm with thousands of hours of Soviet march music. The flaking band shell is called Oompah and a preppy American named Tony Gale owns both Oompah and Zand See Bar along with his rich German partner and boyfriend, Born. There is a warm, shaggy, dirty old breeze blowing. Ambient club tracks dingle and whum on speakers lashed to palms between strings of straggly Christmas light like paralyzed sparks in the sky.
“This is not a date,” had said Salter, when Elke opened the door to her flat.
“Okay,” she saluted. “Just please give me one minute to fix myself up for this not date of ours you are too early for.”
Her heat-fluffed cloud of pyrite hair swished as she turned towards the bathroom, leaving Salter in a fog of roses. Her gentleman caller nodded at framed photos on an upright piano at the wall under the heavy curtains over the living room window. He studied a snap of her at eight or nine featuring platinum hair in thick flashes over a dark jacket as she knelt in a camera crew’s floodlight, chipping away at The Wall. Perched beside her in the photo, rubbing shoulders, was a baldingly long-haired pedophile with a mustache, doing his bit with a bottle opener. Salter did not pay much attention to the pedophile. He was riveted by the beauty of his date at eight or nine.
Her hair was so long that she’d step on it sometimes climbing the ladder to her bed on top of the loft her father built with help from mechanically clever Uncle Heinrich. It took forever to dry at that length after a bath. Money-wasting showers were forbidden. Elke remembers with a shiver of horror how after they moved to the west her pennypinching mother would draw a bath for all four members of the family… first came Papa who would languish in there for an hour reading the paper and then came mama who was always number two after Papa and then came little brother Jörg who was just five or six and came before Elke in everything simply because he was a boy and who she knew for a fact considered it the height of luxury to float under the stream of his own warm urine in the tub (since by his turn the water was relatively cool) and finally, with horror and nausea, came Elke, already a budding woman at twelve who had to lower herself into the filthy family soup of the bathwater. Most times she faked it but her mother caught her once, sitting on the toilet and reading a Gala in a towel instead of stewing in the sedimented room-temperature broth and after that the baths were supervised…
At the age of fourteen Elke had a little abortion adventure. She’d noticed something while sitting in the waiting room of the West Berlin gynecologist. This was a waiting room so comfortable and pleasant that it was almost an incentive for her to come back for another abortion, the opposite of the Trotskyite bedside manners of the East, where the doctors hoisted their eyebrows at female mistakes and tut-tut-tutted at female weaknesses; female horror of blood and female fear of pain.
She noticed something while sitting there not on the day of the abortion but during one of several consultations she was required to endure before having the fetus evacuated. What she noticed, sitting there in her skinny stonewashed jeans and her mid-metamorphosis- Michael Jackson t-shirt, while glancing up occasionally from a year old copy of Gala… was this: while not all of the unattractive women in the waiting room were there unaccompanied, not a one of the attractive females, whether there for a checkup or prenatal care or a termination, was alone. One bronze-haired, cruel-lipped beauty even showed up with two men, one her approximate age and the other old enough to be the father of either. With his hand on her knife-sharp knee…
Being chronically early, Elke watched the females come and go and she tried to imagine how life might look if she summoned the foolish courage to sneak out of the waiting room and raise the cell-bud instead of terminating it. She observed that the fattest, ugliest females invariably sat in the waiting room clutching badly-used magazines in postures of long-accumulated insult, sad-eyed and wise beyond their looks. The pattern was laughably consistent and Elke laughed, very softly, in fact: a sequence of three or four ponderously pregnant girls with stringy hair and unappetizing skin and inconsequential eyes would shuffle in and quickly find a seat with cringing deference as though ducking into a packed theater twenty minutes late. And next, some lethal blonde newlywed or magazine-haired mistress would breeze in, pulling a male by the ring through his nose, rolling her eyes with boredom.
“Have you been to Tony’s club yet?” called Elke, from the bathroom. “I think it is a trendy place.”
In the back seat of a taxi on the way to Zand See Bar she reached over and rested her hand on the crotch of Salter’s tight white American pants. She told him that one thing she remembered from her childhood before The Wall vanished were the ultraviolet gro-lights you’d see in all the bedroom windows along the quiet streets at night, glowing vivid nutrition on everyone’s treasured pot plants, especially beautiful on snowy nights, the black light spun through falling snow with festive devilishness and that was the first unforeseen disappointment, when her family migrated West (stepping carefully over the imagined bodies of all those shot for trying the very same walk too soon): where were all the pretty purple night-lights? It wasn’t long after that loss that she had the abortion.
The abortion was the rite of passage she’d expected losing her virginity would be. The gynecologist with the waiting room where they played a cassette of the greatest hits of The Carpenters performed on a synthesizer masquerading as a harp. The first time an authority figure ever touched her pussy. See, what was good about Donnal, Elke’s Irish statutory rapist, was not his workaday performance of the task of despoiling her and the diminishing returns of his several followups but rather Donnal’s sideshow of penance for each messy act of coitus. The auctioneering catechisms while pounding his thighs or yanking hairs off his scrotum or the time he drew blood raking his dirty (incl. dark news from her ass) bohemian fingernails across his own ruddy cheek with a howl. The sex was that good.
She’d been thirteen when they started, thirteen to Donnal’s twenty one, and yet he’d seemed to her far more innocent because of his wide-eyed superstitions; his credulity; that fantastic show he put on. Even at thirteen Elke knew it wasn’t the mother of God keeping an eye on you but the Stasi; those two-faced, nosy friends and neighbors who filed reports. And sex was the last thing you got in serious trouble over, anyway, but, rather, it was being an oddball and a rebel with a horror of filling out forms that could get you treated as though you’d been possessed by the devil. Elke’s hand rested lightly on the hill rising in Salter’s crotch.
Now Salter is trying to decide how much he likes her as she schmoozes energetically a hundred paces away from him at the bar, taller than all the men surrounding her, a skinny Amazon. A barge horn adds a perfect bass note to the music, thirty octaves down. Seagulls in the distance. Gnats close up. He recognizes Tony Gale as a friend’s ex-boyfriend and Gale stares at Salter a good long time, shading his eyes against the late afternoon sun, but doesn’t wave or wink or anything in case Salter doesn’t wave back; or maybe in case Salter expects a free drink. Elke knows Born from club life in general and goes over to the bar where he’s standing and chats a while, establishing not only her Club Cred, Salter guesses, but her independence as well. Or maybe she just genuinely feels like chatting. Salter can only hope that Elke noticed that Tony Gale was very pointedly staring at him. Not that Salter gives too many shits or percentages of a fuck how cool Elke thinks he is but he knows how carefully calibrated the point system can be.
How Elke can negotiate the sand in high heels Salter can’t imagine. In her heels she’s as tall as Salter. With fragile ankles like that. She’s wearing a very short brown suede skirt and a ruffled white blouse and her thick banana-blonde hair pinned up. Swaying next to her while she chats with blue-suited, flute-clasping old Born at the bar is another expat, with terrible posture, in a Take That t-shirt, balding and long-haired with a Fu Manchu mustache, called Nixon. Nixon looks like an American beach bum in Thailand c. 1976.
Nixon is a hard-to-parse amalgam of beatnik, hippie, and epicurean redneck from whom everyone at Zand See Bar this afternoon, at some point or another in the past, has purchased a controlled substance. Nixon, with his Shakespearean forehead, is one of those paranoid ex-stoners capable of shocking you with a massive I.Q. as demonstrated by a ferocious erudition in the service of a mad passion for angels-on-a-pinhead trivia. Among other things. Nixon is a genius. Nixon started out selling E but he realized that synthetics didn’t suit him…neither synthetics like E or LSD nor the hard currency drugs like blow and horse, as Germans now call them. Not for him. Nixon currently markets whole-earth drugs like pot or mushrooms to an exclusive clientele that reads Carlos Castenada and Aldous Huxley now that they and vinyl LPs are again in fashion.
Nixon is slouching close to Elke (with his queryingly curved spine and Biafra belly and thumbs hooked in the waistband of his cut-offs), a parasite feasting on the smell of her freshly washed hair. Just when he is beginning to worry that if someone doesn’t recognize and approach him soon he’ll be forced to join Elke with Born and Nixon at the bar, losing valuable points, Salter is recognized and approached by someone. A freckled weak-chinned man with a very low hairline in a three piece copper-brown Paul Smith suit and smart Italian shoes. He tip-toes through the sand like he’s never seen sand before, arms up and out for balance and taps Salter on the shoulder.
“My God, Cough” says Salter, giving his ex-drug-dealer a hug. Crushed in the hug, Cough pats Salter affectionately on the back in the manner of the loose approximation of an ex-in-law that some ex-drug dealers are.
“How long has it been do you reckon?”
They let the background music and ambient noise fill the intervening silence. They watch pretty girls trudge by alone and in mobs. Elke crosses the sand with Nixon in tow and an ironic formation of WW2 bombers overhead on the way to an airshow in Poland. You can almost see the quotation marks.
Cough bows at the lovely Elke with a flourish, very pointedly does not so much as look at Nixon and squeezes Salter’s elbow saying “We’ll talk later,” and trudges off across the shadow-stained sand towards the hurricane fence separating Zand See Bar from Oompah. Leaning on the fence looking bored are well-dressed young people possibly in need of Cough’s attention. Nixon snorts and executes an Italian chin-brushing gesture of derision at Cough’s back. Nixon, whose voice is incongruously dark and deep, says to Salter, with his ashtray breath and his Princetonian mumble, “The root of the word mulatto. Guess what it is. Mule. Guess why. You are sui generis, Sir. We’ve met before.”
“Salter this is Nixon,” giggles Elke and Nixon inclines his head and palms his breastbone with mock-courtliness. “Nixon is paranoid,” she adds.
Nixon chews a corner of his mustache, glancing thither and yon. Hither also. “The late great William Burroughs tells us that a paranoid is a person in possession of all the facts, ma’am,” he says.
“Funny,” says Salter.
Elke suddenly hops and waves at someone standing near a distant palm and flutters off again with a Be right back… leaving Salter there squinting at Nixon, who is staring at Salter with the tilted head and cautiously incredulous gaze of a parrot. He says, finally, “Little miss Elke tells me you’re in the popular music game the same as she is, but from the other end, I assume, by which I mean you’re not one of the puppets but one of the string-pullers. True?”
“How do you know Elke?”
“Known her for years. I was her tutor. Mentor. Role model and idol. Do you always answer a question with a question?”
“You haven’t asked me what I do yet, Ishmael. Isn’t that the first thing us Americans do, ask people what they do? Germans try to pin that one on me all the time as if they haven’t noticed that Nixon displays zero curiosity about them. Ask me what I do.” Nixon’s rapid mumble was like little round boulders bumping into one another whilst rolling down a hill and was not an unpleasant sound. “Go on, ask me.”
Okay. “What do you do?”
Mock disgust. “That’s always the first thing Americans fucking ask you.”
Salter glares at him.
Impishly: “I’m a part-time drug dealer by trade.” Nixon lifts an instructive finger. “But a full time author by calling. In the middle of my fifth novel, in fact. All this,” he gestures dismissively at the sand and the palms and some nearby girls, “…research. You need a writing teacher? Hey, I have an idea. Highbrow pauper, meet well-to-do hack… join forces for the benefit of mankind. Why not? You want to learn to write, don’t you? Don’t look at me like I’m Uri Geller, son, Elke told me all about it over there at the bar. It was Elke’s idea. She thought we should get together. How much are you willing to pay? Per hour, I mean.”
“A real live novelist. Who are you published with?”
Nixon’s face, yanked up by his nose, wrinkles like a kneecap. “Published?” He takes a step back. “One more philistine comment like that, good Sir, and the deal is off, you hear me? By the way: philistine and Palestine share etymological roots. Of course I’m not published… I don’t write to put bread on the table; that’s what drug-dealing is for; I write to avoid not writing. Consider. I’m a truth-telling aesthete, man. My novels are imagination-powered thinking machines based on a centuries-old technology that they still haven’t managed to improve. I deal in bibles in the original sense of the word. Bible is from Byblos which was the name of the Phoenician port where papyrus was shipped from, which you already know, of course. You want to become an adept at this seminally spooky technology, I’m the guy at whose feet you must sit, brother. So how much is that worth to you? Give or take a drachma or two? How much?”
“Well, I’d like to… uh… can I, uh, read some of your… uh… before I…”
“Better idea. How ‘bout I recite some for you right here on the spot? Hold on to your hat, Ishmael.”
Without waiting for Salter’s response Nixon holds up the instructive finger again, improves his posture by many magnitudes, does some lip-limbering exercises that may or may not be comic relief, and intones, with the raised hand now on his heart, “From City of Amateurs by Nixon W. Prescott the Third. Chapter Three… Scottie’s Haircut.”
Nixon clears his throat.
“You wanna know when the despair hits? It hits on the day that it hits you that you’re better… truly and demonstrably better than many if not all of the ones who are at the so-called top… the ones everyone thinks of as ‘the best’… the ne plus ultra of the hegemony’s queer empyrean… you realize you’re better than they are after years of honing… honing and honing… honing the log to a club and the club to a spear and the spear to an arrow and the arrow to a needle and the needle to a ray of light and that ray of light right down to a single pure concentrated line of steel-burning thought, man… honing, honing… all this honing and one day you look up and it hits you: you’re fucking better than they are… goddamn! Whoopee! You can’t believe it at first but no, it’s true, you are simply better and… and… so what? So what? So fucking what? So what? Because hello, knock knock, anyone home… it ain’t about better! It ain’t about genius and craft and all that shit. It’s a social game, a herd game, a hierarchy with shibboleths and secret signs and antlers and big dicks and tails between the legs like any other activity that hunting and gathering Neofuckinlithic man indulges in… a pecking order determined by lots of things that ain’t got shit to do with intellect or talent. You wanna know why F. Scott Fitzgerald is still famous, an icon, exalted in the pantheon, as famous as ever, the so-called golden boy, while John Peale Bishop, for example, ain’t shit? Scottie’s haircut, motherfucker. His haircut. And you’re bald.”
He fires up a Pall Mall and lets that sink in while Salter nods, appearing to digest what he’s heard. Through the intervening gap bulges ambient club music and chatter and the grumpy chug of a rusty red barge negotiating the kink in the green Spree. Elke, with her high heels swinging from one hand and an empty champagne glass in the other comes marching through the cigbutted sand back towards them, wiggling her nose like Samantha Stevens and sniffing furiously. What has she been up to and with whom? A quick scan of the perimeter for Cough turns up no evidence but then Salter spots an aqua-blue Porta-Loo at the very edge of the sand, close to the parking lot, with a circle around it rather than a queue in front of it and he has his suspicions.
TESTING ONE-booms a voice, pronouncing “one” like “fun”. TESTING ONE TWO ONE TWO. The crowd is trickling from Zand See Bar over to Oompah. Salter searches the breast pocket of his blazer for the backstage passes, which are color-coded wrist bands.
“It is almost time for the show,” Elke gushes. “I am so excited.”
Twenty minutes later they’re all three standing backstage at Oompah while the girlgroup of which Elke was briefly a member, Q-Teez, mimes its way through the first song of the set, Come and Get Your Man. Elke the contrarian firebrand was summarily replaced by pliant, warm, full-bodied Inisha after Ollie, the senior A&R guy at the record company, fucked Inisha and found the deed to his liking. The chore of notifying Elke of her redundancy fell to Salter, a lesser A&R functionary, who parlayed the odious task into a very long and philosophical phone conversation that metastisized into a late lunch and a cinema date. It was Elke who then called Salter the day after and asked him to squire her to the Q-Teez showcase. No hard feelings, see?
Miraculously, the fifty rows of rusted iron benches facing the band shell have filled with people, who stand on them. Even more miraculously, a goodly chunk of the audience (a mixed crowd, demographically; typical for Berlin: blame the high unemployment) seems to be miming right along with the lyrics and hopping in place and punching the air and behaving like genuinely unembarrassable lunatics… or loyal fans. Pathetically, Salter spots more than one bulky thirty-something mixed in with the semi-pathetic twenty-somethings and the red-faced teens and toddlers. Looking out into the audience from within the dirty ear of the band shell, from behind the sound man and the light technician and the massive black scrim of richly cabled gear is a strangely, childishly, safe and secure feeling.
Salter has never noticed before how vulnerable a “singer” is out there in front of the mob. About whose intentions we only assume we know. That sea of flailing arms and bared teeth. The oldest part of the brain, the reptilian bit that tells us when to run and when to play dead, must suffer ramifying cascades of panic when confronted by such an unnatural spectacle for the real show is always in the audience and the bigger the crowd the greater the risk the bigger the spectacle. That’s what stage fright must really be. Not the modern fear of fucking up but the primordial fear of being ripped to pieces.
More banally, watching from behind as the Q-Teez prance back and forth across the stage in their carefully choreographed routine like amphetamined zombies, without even the token benefit of seeing their lips move, dilutes even further the illusion that the voices blasting out from the sound system are coming, in real time, from the singers themselves. They’re dressed in matching pink hot-panted satin uniforms… crowned with rhinestone tiaras… and high-heeled mules laced up to the knee… like Monegasque bordello chambermaids of another era.
Halfway through the bridge, as Salter knows, the sound man will have to activate Inisha’s headset for a live improv (a shrill “Come on, clap your hands, we love you Berlin!”) and kill it again and then bring up all three headsets at the very end of the vamp so they can introduce the next song and indulge in carefully scripted banter about how one of the girls’ adopted mother kinda, in a way, inspired this next tune. At Q-Teez’s very first showcase the soundman, who was let go on the spot for his sin of omission, forgot to kill Inisha’s headset after the four-bar bridge improv and the audience was treated to a horrendous 1:47 of her suddenly out of sync, out of breath, profoundly off-key and forgetting the words in a panic.
Nixon shouts, “Consider! The more huge a celebrity gets the more the celebrity functions as a kind of diagnostic tool for the sickness of the culture celebrating it, man…consider how the ghoulishly pathetic Michael Jackson… who wanted to represent a blending of races and genders and classes but in truth became a bloody, fatal, high-speed collision of everything… look how perfect an emblem he is for the ugliest decade in American history! We can only pray for the sake of your dancing slut puppets here that they never make it!”
“What?” shouts Salter.
Nixon turns to Salter. “I said… !” shouts Nixon.
“What?” shouts Elke. Nixon turns to her.
“I said… !” shouts Nixon.
“I can’t hear you!” shouts Salter.
“Never mind!” shouts Nixon. “Fuck it!” He puts his hands over his ears. But Nixon isn’t about to let Elke and Salter hang out there backstage together alone. He stands his ground between them and the three slut puppets in pink satin hotpants, seemingly in slo-mo, shake their booties at him to the idiot stomp of their hideous modern march music.
They used to play checkers. Draw the board on a calendar spread flat, on two consecutive pages, inking in half of the squares, and using American coins as pieces. He: filthy pennies. She: smeary nickles.
“Do you really write books?” she asked once, after her opening move, pushing a bright lock out the blue beam of her eyes. This would have been shortly after the start of the Honecker trial, Nixon believes. She was twelve.
“Are you really a writer?”
Clever little fox. He was rattled and nearly lost that game. Am I a writer? Do you mean the noun… or the gerund? I am definitely the gerund. From time to time during that checker match and at other times, too, The Bad Thing would stir in him, stretching and yawning in the folds of his baggy crotch, and he would think: an avid reader leads a rich life that doesn’t involve consequences. An avid writer toys with consequences. The writing is a rehearsal of actions and consequences which sometimes leads to real actions and actual consequences. Real actions are, at all costs, to be avoided.
If he were rich enough he’d just do it, as the phrase goes.
Nixon has a love-hates-love relationship with his books… the four already completed and the one he’s halfway through. His books are brilliant and he knows it but they aren’t about anything and he knows that, too, despite the fact that they average about three hundred and fifty pages apiece, single-spaced, reproduced and spiral-bound at the copy shop. Compulsive Creativity. He has four large cartons containing dozens of copies of each book and miscellaneous cartons containing other output: short stories, diaries, essays, aphorisms and a form he believes he himself must have invented: the fictional operating manual for the imaginary device or appliance, of which there are several dozen. WARNING: PLEASE READ INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY BEFORE OPERATING THIS DEVICE. But no poetry. Writing new poetry is like recording new ragtime or painting new Russian religious icons, in his opinion.
His first novel (The Fun Haters) was about a man who’s writing his first book about a man writing his first book. The second book (Flicker) was about a man who’s writing his second book about a man writing his second book. The third book (City of Amateurs) was about a man who’s writing his third book, and so on. And all of them are about nothing, essentially… or none of them, that is, is about anything. That’s roughly seven years of work… roughly seven years of living he turned into roughly seven years of writing which became, in total, roughly fourteen years of a literary kind of half-life.
One thing he doesn’t love-hate but rather hate-hates is money. Hates thinking about it, dealing with it, being forced to genuflect to the movie-star beautiful bully of the idea of it. Money is everything bad about humanity in its liquid form. He can’t stand the idea that everything on earth… everything… has its calculable equivalent in cash. Can be reduced to a dollar amount. Even his ugly body. Even his brain. This means that Plato’s assertion that everything around us is merely a reflection of a purer, higher Truth… the theory of the Platonic Ideal… was really just a futuristic description of money.
Money is the highest authority and authority is all about pushing people around. Nixon hates being pushed around. He even hates having to stand there while a cashier counts out his change for a twenty like some shorthand lecture in good book-keeping. He wishes he could walk through shops picking out what he wants and throwing wads of cash and being gone.
For that you need to be rich. The way in which Ulysses was ahead of its time… what made it “modern” and why it’s still ahead of most everything in print, muses Nixon, is not in the fucked up sentences. Plenty of writers before Joyce tried fucked up sentences (they just didn’t make it into print with their experiments). It wasn’t the sex. The sex was in an obscure language. Most of the people who objected to the anal/excretory/masturbatory passages had to be led to the passages and have them translated before they could even feign outrage… no it wasn’t the sex. The Bible beat Joyce in the obscurely worded pornography field in any case. What was and still is revolutionary about Joyce’s Ulysses was that it was the first book of any importance that wasn’t, directly or indirectly, concerned with money.
His father was rich. Nixon once heard his father, without much irony that he could detect, maybe even with delight, ask, “What’s this?” picking up a newly minted Kennedy Half from the steps in front of the gazebo and turning it in the sun. He thought it was some kind of medal. Nixon thinks that European money feels like old bandages and American money feels like old skin. Pliant, loin-warm, reeky. Nixon writes, above all, to avoid thinking about money. The only relief from the insult of money is when he’s buried up to his ears in his own safe sentences. Well if Joyce said there’s nobody in any of his books worth more than a few shillings Nixon can do him one better: there’s no one in any of Nixon’s books period.
But if Nixon were rich (like Montgomery)….
Nixon looks out across Berlin from his highrise penthouse in the hideous grey concrete plattenbau at Alexanderplatz. His neighbors pay twice the rent he pays because he got in the building before its bland grotesquerie became chic in a nostalgie de la boue kind of way, shortly after The Wall came down. Being a genius isn’t only useful for the making of Art… it can be applied to banalities like comfortable living, too. The wide tin snake of traffic that curls clattering around his flat block stuffing the street every morning seems muffled and far away, but it’s only ten stories down… the pedestrians resemble Brownian molecules or icons on a high-res desktop. As a crowd they seem worthwhile, but as individuals, from this height, they seem pointless… just bits drifting off from a crumbling mass at the mercy of entropy. If Nixon can’t be rich he can be famous. Write a book…that kind of book. The kind that makes you famous. Some stupid fucking book about someone wanting something and getting it in three hundred and fifty pages.
If only I had a story, he moons. He stands on his balcony in his bathrobe, watching the morning sky assemble itself groggily from a scattered box of old components. His bath robe is as threadbare and comfortable as an old hound. He feels like a Callas doomed forever to sing scales. To clear her throat.
If only I had a story, sighs Nixon, scratching the dry blind eye of his bald spot. He reflects that the tremendous potential energy stored in his own body climbing the ten flights of stairs to his penthouse apartment every evening could be released like a bolt of lightning to smash him flat in less than three seconds by stepping over the low railing of his balcony in the morning. That’s a lot of energy and it comes from his own skinny legs. Not that he entertains such thoughts but the option to end it all at any given moment is a cherished freedom and Nixon’s source of power… for if suicide is an option, why not try anything, instead, then? Why not try everything? Because any situation can be brought under perfect and eternal control in the time it takes to sever the thin chord attaching us to Time.
There are no mirrors in Nixon’s penthouse. No mirrors and few if any reflecting surfaces… the occasional droplet of water or bead of perspiration, maybe… it’s all buff and rough and matte in Nixon’s flat. His drinking cups are made of wood, his cutlery and cooking utensils and bathroom and kitchen utensils are of buff aluminum or other dull alloys. Once there was this 14 year old Romanian prostitute up there, in her lace-up knee-high cuffed suede boots and leather bustier, sneering jovially at all of the American’s expensive stuff, but when it dawned on her (a conclusion she confirmed with a terrified check of the bathroom) that there were no mirrors to be found, none, not even tiny and incidental reflective surfaces, she started trembling uncontrollably and crossed herself, backing towards the door, bleating “Strigoi! Strigoi!” and making a hasty retreat for the elevator.
Which of course delighted Nixon who found it highly erotic and more than his money’s worth. He came right there in his pants in the foyer as the elevator doors muffled her screams. Ugly Nixon. An ugliness set in cruel relief against well-to-do parents so physically beautiful that even deep into their Alzheimered twilights they are in constant danger of being diddled by caretakers; the edible jewel that is his mother with her amphorae-green eyes and Hepburnish cheekbones and lunar mane; his father’s Caligulan profile. He imagines a burly Jamaican nurse in crepe-soled shoes weighing mama (accent on the second syllable) down on a freshly turned and neatly childish bed, wielding aluminum-light mama like a kite.
How could such an ugly Montgomery Nixon W. Prescott the 3rd be the result of Gaia and Montgomery Jefferson W. Prescott the 2nd doing the dick and pussy trick? At least junior turned out to be a genius. Maybe he was a genius because of the ugliness… maybe he had no other choice. Maybe the isolating power of ugliness was essential. The sun is rising and the moon is sinking as its counterweight. Nixon is thinking that we hate intellectuals so much on this planet that Nabokov knew he’d have to make Humbert a pedophile before we’d tolerate Humbert’s smug narration. But what does pedophile mean, thinks Nixon, when you break the word down into its two clear simple meanings?
Nixon is not only a literary genius without a story to tell: he’s a checker champion without a worthy challenger. Why is it that chess gets all the press? Why isn’t the “game” of checkers taken seriously? Checkers is not an activity for children. Nixon rarely gets the opportunity to quote Poe (because Americans always mistake him for an adjective and the Germans for an ass) but Nixon relishes it when he can, quoting the master on checkers and chess: In the latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.
Amen, thinks Nixon, looking out over the fake bustle of Alexanderplatz.
The most terrifying thing about Poe was his eerie resemblance to mid-twentieth-century American comedian Bob Newhart. What is Love? Love is pleasure and need and poetry… that’s why animals can’t love… there’s the pleasure and the need but no poetry… not even the poetry of the beloved’s name. Elke. A twisting arrow of geese glides over, so low that Nixon flinches, and they are honking like a Turkish wedding, reminding him of a specialty of Weimar-era brothels in Berlin called Die Weinachts Gans… the Christmas Goose… you’d have a live goose sent up to your room. Right? Probably cost a million depression-era Deutschmarks. You’d fuck the goose and at the moment of climax lop the head with a cleaver, enjoying the writhing gush of its death throes. Das Huhn, das goldene Eier legt, schlacten. A treat for the rich. But what would stop a peasant from grabbing some goose behind the out house and doing exactly the same thing for free? Context is everything.
The first chance Nixon got to use the Poe quote was with his sweet little East German English pupil, back when he was forced to teach just to keep milk and wiener on the table, before he figured out how to sell Ecstasy in the long lines in front of the clubs, Ecstasy and then various organics, and his precocious pupil gave him the best checker matches of his life. Those checker games were so good that he wanted to marry her, despite the fact that she was eleven or twelve.
People talk of chess prodigies but rarely of checker prodigies but Nixon felt she was one. She was twelve at the time but now she was in her twenties and floating away from him. They’d first met, symbolically enough, perched on The Wall beside a thousand nobodies, both of them chipping away in the blinding smug glare of the CNN camera lights. Sheer luck. Sheer luck that he was in Europe when it all happened, the official death of white communism (no one seems to give much of a shit about those billion-and-change worth of yellow commies looming on the other side of the sunrise every morning, or that little brown crust of commies breathing and shitting their red beans and rice near Florida).What were the odds against these two, these special two, Nixon and Elke, Dante and his Beatrice, meeting? How old was Poe’s first cousin (Virginia Clemm) when Poe married her in 1835? Thirteen. Name one of the newlyweds’ favorite pastimes.
If only I had a story, swoons Nixon, high up above the morning bustle of traffic at Alexanderplatz. All this verbal firepower at his command… a fucking nuclear aircraft carrier’s worth of literary firepower at his finger tips… and not a single story to tell with it. His life is a blank. His childhood was just days that bunched into months and his adolescence was just weeks that clogged into years and his adulthood is a flickering, throbbing, unarticulated emission of interminable Now. The closest thing he has to a story is a subject, and he can’t even admit to that. She’d laugh at him if he did. Or shrink from him in horror. He buries the evidence in the prose. Bits and pieces of her: the smell of the insides of her gloves in winter, the almost imperceptible asymmetry of her nostrils (heightened to noticeability when she laughs); the way she still pronounces “clothes” as “clo-thus” or pluralizes “hair” and “spaghetti”. He thinks: I blew it with the writing lessons. I always blow it with the writing lessons. I always come on too strong. He hopes Elke isn’t too exasperated with him for blowing it…she tried so hard to get Nixon together with her handsome black pigeon but Nixon blew it by coming on to strong, like a fox who showed his sharp teeth in a smile.
Oh, that would have been such easy money.
3. Finnegans Wank
Nixon and Elke stopped by Salter’s around lunch time on Saturday and Elke left after about an hour (the pretty girl always leaves after about an hour; that’s a rule) but Nixon lingered and had a detailed look of just about everything in Salter’s flat. Nixon would pick something up…a matchbox memento or an old photograph and ask, with a child’s directness, what’s this? Nixon had no idea that Elke and Salter had already embarked on a sex life, in their peculiar way and Salter is tickled by Nixon’s hammy chaperone act, getting between the two of them whenever possible and making sly (and slightly effective) comments in Elke’s absence designed to discourage Salter from thinking about Elke in a romantic or sexual way.
Snooping around, Nixon had discovered Salter’s box of old photographs in the little room with the gold couch. He literally went on a room-to-room investigation of Salter’s entire flat; if anyone else had tried such a preposterous violation of his privacy Salter would have flung him bodily from the premises but Nixon has this holy fool aura about him… maybe simply because he’s so ugly… which gives him special license. Carefully examining one fragile old photo after another, Nixon had said, with a sidelong glance from the furthest corner of his eye:
“How old were you when you lost your virginity? I’m just curious. Arthur Brooke, who wrote the story Shakespeare ripped off to write Romeo and Juliet, made his Juliet sixteen, which is a tad young but just about squares with civilized modern standards, and if you ain’t never seen Olivia Hussey in the role for Franco Zeffirelli’s production do yourself a flavor and check it out, my man… talk about honeydews… talk about ripe… know where the word estrus comes from? You probably know this already. From the Latin word meaning, roughly, frenzy. Amen. But I digress.”
Nixon turned to face Salter for emphasis and continued,”Shakespeare, that dirty old fugger, made his Juliet fourteen years old, ain’t that scandalous? Fourteen! Of course, that was the sixteenth century, so, you know, who are we to get retroactively puritanical on a bunch of odoriferous Elizabethans who enjoyed a life expectancy of maybe forty, forty five years, tops…okay. But hold on to your hat, Ishmael. Elke… Dear Elke… our Elke… lost her cherry at thirteen. Ain’t that perfectly fucking disgusting? Fucked a twenty one year old bartender… some illiterate fucking harp from Derry with a chiseled jaw and the clap, prolly… and her parents knew about it. Thirteen! That’s even too young to play with anatomically correct dolls! Thirteen. Wouldn’t touch that pussy with a wax dick from Crete. Nuh-uh. Don’t tell her I said that.”
Nixon lifted a faded sepiatone photograph of Salter’s mother at the age of sixteen, combing her waist-long hair, and said “Who’s that?” Salter told him and Nixon then took an even older snapshot of Salter’s aunt Virginia at the age of twenty seven, in a one-piece bathing suit and a cap, holding a sea shell up for the camera, and said “Who’s that?” He dug out another picture of the aunt, even younger, crimped hair down to her shoulders, standing in a doorway with one foot forward and both hands on her hips and Nixon said “Be still my beating fucking heart. Goddamn, man. Is there some kind of law in your family that only the foxy chicks are allowed to live?”
Nixon said, “Nice cat.” Dusty threaded in and out between the legs of Nixon’s dirty dungarees and trotted out of the room again. “Artists should always have cats, not dogs, … dogs are too easy to please. Dogs radiate this incessant talent-eroding message: you’re great, you’re God, I love you, don’t change… everything you do impresses me, master! Any artist who owns a dog becomes complacent. You wanna know why Kurt Vonnegut, genius that he is, got so complacent over the years? And look at Hemingway…that was eighty percent of his problem… woof! The Old Man and the Sea… exactly the kind of book a dog would approve of. That was Faulkner’s problem. Steinbeck’s too. Jack London, obviously. Have you been writing? Let me see something. I’ll give you a sixty second critique that will advance you by at least five years in your painful struggle towards self-expression, free of charge.”
Salter went and got something out of a kitchen drawer and handed it to Nixon saying, “It’s just a… ”
But Nixon silenced him with the instructional finger, raised. “Never make excuses for anything you write. Would you make excuses for a crippled child?” Nixon glanced diagnostically at the tops and bottoms of each of the five pages that Salter had given him and noticed also that the word Elke appeared several times in the body of the text and said, “Junk.”
He turned his back to Salter and handed the pages back and said “Don’t get me wrong: junk is the standard. No shame in it. But three pieces of advice: one. Always start in the middle of the story. Nobody wants to read any once upon a time shit anymore; we don’t have the patience for it; this is a busy fucking century. Two. Contrary to that old saw, write about what you don’t know….nothing’s more boring than reading about something the writer is totally comfortably bored with. Three. You ain’t a writer. Writers are born, not self-invented. Oh, I forgot, there’s a number four, too. Four. Who the fuck am I to tell you that you ain’t a writer? That’s number four.”
Nixon says, “I gotta be honest, brother… I don’t get you.”
“You’re in showbiz, correct? Earning good bread, spending quality time with all kinds of tasty little slut puppets and getting paid for it… roof over your head and decent threads and the freedom to move through certain quasi-refined social milieus that are closed off to many of your tint… what the hell you want to write for? You need a hobby that badly? Bored with your life? What?”
“I need a reason to write?”
“Most assuredly, my good fellow. You need a reason to write. Your reason is your license… it’s your permission.”
“Ah, I see, now I need permission… ”
“Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, yes. But it’s all on the honor system, unfortunately. No enforcement. That’s the problem with all these diarists and aphorists and workaday scribblers… these yuppies with their creative writing workshops… do you think if somebody told them that words are not a renewable resource and we’re reaching a global crisis point and the word pool is in danger of drying up completely they’d stop, or even cut back, tomorrow?”
“Man,” says Salter, “nobody looking at you… ” and here Nixon sees himself through Salter’s eyes as Salter gives Nixon the up-and-down: his scuffed suede shoes; his second hand corduroy pants; his army surplus raincoat over his fading Milli Vanilli Unplugged t-shirt, “would take you for an elitist.”
Nixon gives Salter an open-mouthed glare that changes like time-lapse photography into a smile. He thinks: I am forthwith going to be the most seductive motherfucker I have ever been in my life. I will spare no trick; I will utilize to the utmost my seductive intellectual wiles and make Raquel Welch look like Lucy van Pelt as a succubus in comparison.
“Okay, here’s the thing, Ishmael” says Nixon, buttoning his army surplus raincoat and flipping his long thin greasy hair up over its raised collar. “I can’t teach you to write, but you can buy me a cup of coffee. Let’s go.” He scratches his bald spot vociferously. “Out.”
Salter is intrigued. What can it hurt? Besides: he feels the faint hum of incipient friendship. It’s kind of thrilling. When was the last time Salter felt the pang of the kindrid? All his so-called “relationships” are political (showbiz related) or short-term (sexual) or small-talk-based and patently disposable; he says Wie gehts? to the Lebanese guy at the magazine kiosk on the way home every day after shopping or what not and counts that as some kind of friendship. He has buddies like Noland and Ollie he can go for months without seeing or thinking about. It’s a mysterious process, how two grown men become friends, real friends, in that compulsive way they were once able to as boys, bonding and splitting and bonding anew like molecules in hot water… what are the factors… where do these last little droplets of boyish enthusiasm come from, this late in the game? Salter thinks he can feel it happening.
“You want to go get a coffee now?”
“Yes now. Now. Why not? Out in the great wide open.”
“Sit in a café with some coffee and do what?”
“I talk, you listen. Stuff like that.”
“Will you talk about writing?”
“Inadvertently, yes. Let’s ride, man. Bring that box of old photographs with you. Come on… let’s go.”
Salter sits on the U-Bahn with the shoebox of photographic heirlooms on his lap. Nixon opines wryly that he couldn’t help noticing that half of the young girls they passed on the way sneaked discreet or bold looks at Salter and he wondered if such chronic sexual attention was responsible for Salter’s… no offence intended… borderline illiteracy. This is how a man becomes a mere footnote, ignorant of itself.
One fucking book in your whole flat, man… I counted. One. And that was a paperback with a picture of King Kong on the cover! It’s a wonder you can spell your name! Not that I’ve seen evidence that you can. Can you?
Are you saying that books make you smarter, frowns Salter.
Nixon says that reading doesn’t automatically increase one’s I.Q… raw intelligence is inherited at birth and activated, probably, during infancy by sensual stimulus: sights and sounds, mostly, but also touch; maybe certain smells and tastes, too… maybe certain smells even foster intelligence but that’s just conjecture. But reading a higher kind of literature with disciplined regularity definitely shapes the mind and focuses intellectual potential and spurs the mind’s will to express itself and this self-expression contributes to social standing. Intelligence incapable of self-expression is almost useless in broader society (though handy on a desert island, where the solitary challenges of survival might favor the introvert)… an intellectual gift incapable of self-expression is like millions in paper currency issued by a deposed government… the best you can do with the money is keep warm or make a little light by simply burning it.
In a way, Salter feels, that’s what he did with his native gift of intelligence… used it for kindling… simply because he’s never put the time into polishing it into something…
“…capable of impressing people?” asks Nixon, sardonically.
Salter shrugs. “Well, yeah. That’s what it’s all about, no? Anyway…” Salter shrugs. “It’s a tragedy, that’s all.”
Nixon says “Yes, but… dig: if we can agree on the classical definition of a tragedy as being an avoidable error that ends instructionally in a death… is being a Negro in this world really a tragedy, as you might consider it, or merely a catastrophe, like an earthquake?”
Nixon says, “Okay, another helpful hint about writing: deploy your exclamation marks sparingly.”
Nixon says: the word “maudlin” comes from the Italian pronunciation of “Magdalene”, but you already knew that.
The train fills up at the next stop. Nixon stares hard across the aisle at Salter and says, “Ever notice how when the train is packed people are all smushed together on these long seats but then the train empties out but the person sitting next to you doesn’t exploit the newly available seat space but remains smushed next to you for several more stops? Germans are the only people I ever saw do that. I call it mandatory intimacy. A distant cousin of rape.” The red-cheeked Hausfrau at that moment sitting tight-up against Nixon with a bag in her lap sniffs diffidently.
The next station, a middle-aged beggar with a dog gets on, rattling a cup systematically up one side of the aisle and back the other. Nixon cups his hands around his mouth, highlighting his snaggling teeth, and stage-whispers, “Pssst. Ever notice the peculiar air of piety that some Germans affect when they beg? Like Shtetl Jews. Brilliant mimics these Germans.” He feigns frowning, intrigued, and adds, “How many Shtetls can you name? Let’s see, there’s Chortkiv, and Berdychiv and Drohobych… Pinsk… don’t forget Pinsk…”
Pretty girls get on and off the train in great numbers as they stop in station after station because it’s lunch hour at school and Nixon smirks with an I-told-you-so smirk as a considerable percentage pay Salter attention… staring and giggling from their seats or waving as they cross in front of him or strap-hanging in a swoon in groups. Nixon makes a joke, a loud joke, about being Salter’s manager and anyone interested in fifteen minutes with the stud will can purchase tickets from him, group rate or singles, but the girls’ English isn’t quite good enough to get the joke. Salter says, “Man, how long have you been in Berlin? Don’t you speak German yet?” and Nixon says he isn’t a collector of knick-knacks.
There’s that wreck of an Irish drunk who’s been busking on this line for ten years now, beating his three-stringed guitar and keening with the guttural wail of the Derry dead, authentic as hell and stinking of piss, his body and his guitar long-survived by his voice. Salter remembered when this feller was young and merely drunk all the time but not ruined: full of gab, doing Berlin on a lark, probably. But now he seems likely to die. The first really cruel winter will do it. Bloated baggy face like something fished out of the drink. Surprising full head of Dylan Thomas hair, though.
And then a perfect vision of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen enters the train, galvanizing the wagon. You’ve never seen anything like it. Salter had seen it before… every true Berliner has… they call it The Phantom of Line Seven and it talks like an old woman with a piping, chirping, sarcastic voice. It could be a mass hallucination but only some seem to see it or find it shocking… about a third of the passengers glance up without reacting and go back to their crossword puzzles or paperback romances. The rest of the wagon is horrified. One kid points, another kid cries. A chubby French tourist’s mouth gapes behind splayed fingers. Here comes skully-head in a red knit cap and knobby bone arms and legs in a bright orange ski vest over stripeless pyjamas and improvised tape and rags and feet swaddled in metallic duct tape-and-foam-made shoes… shambling on a crutch with sallow translucent skin and a skull grin. The grim reaper is homeless. It hands out printed material and begs for donations… a penny will do… it shambles in those duct-tape slippers, wobbling on the crutch, looking both impossible and exasperated.
It shuffles up the subway aisle in its improvised Easter raiment of foil-and-tape with its skull smirk and says, in German, “No no, don’t worry, no need to shrink from my nearness as I approach, you can’t catch it, it’s not a disease, I am not a filthy homosexual or intravenous drug user suffering for my sins… contact with my words is definitely more dangerous to you than contact with the beautiful tissue of my flesh! For pennies you can read my latest tract!” It waves a sheaf of pamphlets (white and black printing on red paper) over its head.
“Believe me, if I could do my work without ever walking among you, I would, but then, what would you have to stare at? Who would give you your best bad dreams? No, despite the fact that I have many other things to do with my time, ladies and gentlemen, I will never let you down, I will haunt you, in fact, so to speak, and bring my message to you, since I can’t really count on you coming to me in order to get it. In other words, this is a serious relationship, and in any serious relationship, serious talk is of the utmost importance.”
It breaks stride as it approaches Salter and gives him a strangely ambivalent look, making eye contact for long enough to make Salter hold his breath. A swarthy youth with monk-like facial hair and a matching hood across the aisle gestures for a copy and it senses the gesture and turns to him. Pleased, The Phantom hands him a tract, pockets three pennies and then continues towards the end of the wagon, intoning,
“In these wonderful writings that cost even less than water, what do you find? You find the truth! Well, what is the truth worth to you? This most weighty of philosophical questions, I’m sorry to say, you must answer for yourselves in the few seconds left before this train pulls into the next station! Before you make that decision, ask yourselves if the creature you see before you, the like of which you have never seen before in this world, would appear to you at such a vast expense of will and energy for the sake of small talk?”
The train pulls into the next station, the doors pop open and the skeleton clatters off. The swarthy young man with the monk-like facial hair, bent over the pamphlet he has purchased, reads something that causes him to chuckle and nod vociferously. There are fellow passengers who now fret that they’ve passed up a bargain, but Salter himself is sure that he doesn’t care to know.
“There it goes,” says Nixon, with a jerk of his chin. “The Phantom of Line Seven.”
“First time I saw her,” says Salter, talking towards Nixon but looking at the skeleton’s back as it shuffles along the platform, “Maybe ten, twelve years ago. I wouldn’t have given her a year to live. Damn if she isn’t still going strong. Probably outlive both of us. Being homeless can make you tough, I guess.”
“On the other hand,” adds Nixon, not as softly as Salter, “I’ve heard a very intriguing rumor that… he isn’t homeless at all.”
“Indeed, my man. I’ve heard from more than one source that it’s not an old woman suffering from AIDs but rather a middle aged fiend named Stephan who hates his well-to-do parents with such a pathological passion that he has developed an awe-inspiring eating disorder to shame them. Possibly suffering from a time-delayed, sympathetic guilt reaction to…” Nixon winks. “You-know-what.”
The U-Bahn surfaces at some point after Kurfurstenstrasse and mounts a banked track on a brontosaurian curve into the low sky over the river. They see Potsdamerplatz in the distance, rebuilt and garish, a neo-expressionist Oz. On the other side of the train, in the other distance, away from the sun, a black water tower looms like sinister Victoriana under the warm clouds over Kreuzberg. The train rocks to and fro. Nixon, in a voluble mood, rubs his hands together and says, “Man, I’m starving. You’re paying, right?”
There are block-long prison-gray housing complexes, and lots of stray dogs, and little girls in headscarves, and incomprehensible billboards, and ten year old boys with faint mustaches. Many of the housing blocks sprout dozens of satellite television dishes like inverted mushrooms tracking invisible suns. There are bakeries selling aromatic wheels of fladenbrot and fast-food joints hawking kebabs and falafel and schwarma and carbonated milk product beverages and lottery tickets promising windfalls in obscure currencies.
Walking up the street towards the place that he has in mind, Nixon says, out of the blue, as if in response to a remark Salter just made although they’ve both been silent for a quarter of an hour at least, “North American Negroes aren’t even a race, man, they’re a product… you were created, you were bred, you were a product designed to meet a specific demand. Created, perfected, marketed, shipped and sold. How are you not a product? Designed originally for back-breaking physical labor you are now used chiefly for entertainment. You know: sex, sports, buffoonery. Yo, my man, let me ask you a pertinent question,” says Nixon, chewing his mustache.
“Isn’t there anything I can say to offend you?”
“You don’t mind me trying, though, do you?”
Salter laughs. “Nope.”
“That’s what I like about you, Ishmael. Fucking imperturbable.”
They are at a corner diagonally across the street from a café displaying a red neon cursive in the window glowing softly with the hopeful message Morgenland in the intermittent daylight. Black chunks of ejecta from unclogged sinks in the sky are sliced by sunbeams. Directly behind them is a dimly lit storefront with half-drawn shades and white-bearded Turks in homely blazers and some also in skull caps, playing cards at various tables under roiling gray arabesques moored to the tips of two dozen Camel Filters and a handful of cheap cigars. Nixon reaches out and grabs Salter’s belt loop to prevent him crossing the street and…puts the other hand on the knob of the door behind him with its thick dark beveled glass. He says, “What we are about to do here is walk into this Turkish social club… men only… and take a seat at a table like there’s nothing queer about it whatsoever, dig? I’ve done it before. They think I’m just a crazy gringo and you… you look like some kinda of Muslim, so as long as you keep your voice low we’ll be fine, trust me. It’ll be an experience, Ishmael.”
“Okay. But there’s just one thing,” says Salter.
“Don’t call me Ishmael.”
Nixon winks and looks truly pleased with himself but Salter isn’t in on the joke.
4. Chocolate Chicken Theory
It smells like a combination of Salter’s grandmother’s pantry and ringside after a fight, there in the Turkish Male Social Club. Onions, stale smoke, dry rot and supermarket cologne. There is a splintery wooden counter and a large television bolted to a metal arm extended from a wall and mildewed wallpaper with a stained pattern of fleur-de-lis and racehorses. Behind the splintery counter is a florid man with a yellowing Gurdjieffian mustache under a proportional nose and jet-black hair, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, his scalded hands on the counter and his black black eyes glued to Nixon and Salter as they creep across the room like mice. On the high television young men kick and prance on eternal grass through eternal fussball games with unmediated facial expressions, sound off. There are only three widely-scattered round tables in the room that remain not surrounded by groups of three or four men playing card games such as Dost kazigi or Okey or Maca kizi. Nixon chooses the empty round table furthest from the others in a corner behind a coat rack with the non-sequitur of a woman’s yarny pink hat hung on it, at the window. The window is velvety with grime. The carpet feels scratchy even through the thick soles of Salter’s shoes.
There are framed photographs of a man resembling a long-haired Stalin in sun glasses nailed here and there to the wallpaper. Lots of men with sleek gray Omar Shariff hair here; lots of Elvis happening as well. Weren’t those two in a movie together once? Salter and Nixon sit at their wobbly table, and Nixon makes sure to sit in such a way that he’s facing the rest of the room and Salter’s back is to it. Nixon’s eyes dart to and fro. Salter places his box of photographs in the middle of the table.
Gurdjieff tosses a dishrag and comes from behind his counter…looking very much shorter than he’d appeared to be behind it… and stands facing Salter and Nixon with his hands on his hips and a deferential tilt of his head. He is wearing an immaculate white apron. Nixon raises a hand in greeting and says, with comedic emphasis, “Biftek!” and when Gurdjieff looks inquisitively at Salter, Nixon says “Biftek!” again. Giurdjieff looks at Nixon and Salter in turn repeating, softly, “Biftek.” Byifftyikk, byifftyikk. Nixon says “Oui, mon ami! Biftek!” and off Gurdjieff goes.
Nixon leans back in his chair. “I just ordered you a steak with my High School French. Most Turks speak a little and respect you more if you use it instead of German or English. Do you dig chocolate cake?”
Salter admits that he does.
“What is chocolate cake made of? Consider. You probably never baked one, but you, like I, have osmotic knowledge of a chocolate cake’s ingredients the way we both know the plot of Moby Dick in a vague way… flour, eggs, butter, chocolate.”
“Can’t really make a chocolate cake without eggs, can we? Eggs give the cake that spongy, springy richness that we North American gluttons prize. But those eggs in the cake are chickens, remember…everything of importance in a chicken is already present in the egg. So we take these liquid chicken ova and mix them with powdered plant sperm and incubate it and call it a cake! If you think about this while eating your next chocolate cake I guarantee you’ll detect the flavor of chicken… what is a chocolate cake but a chocolate chicken? You see? Chocolate cake as we know it didn’t become chocolate cake until about a hundred and fifty years after it was first invented…by then it was a celebrity and the reality was irrelevant; it became chicken-free the way Lauren Bacall became Goyish. We don’t taste the chicken in the cake because we don’t want to anymore… we have consensus and voila: the modern, chicken-free flavor of chocolate cake… see?”
Salter confesses to not seeing. Nixon tries another tack.
“For about six months, once, when I lived in San Diego,” and here Nixon lowers his voice appreciably, glancing nervously around the room, “I was a Jew. I had just moved there from Philly… ”
“You lived in Philly?”
“Yeah, but let me finish this parable first. Nobody knew me in San Diego and I decided to try life as a Jew and bingo, I was a Jew. It was easy! Not only did people treat me better as a Jew, but it was incredibly easy to get them to accept this lie. Know why? Because they wanted it to be true all along. They wanted me to be a Jew… I got that question in grammar school all the time… I was always the smartest kid anywhere I went and I was funny looking by their standards… scrawny and dark and balding by the time I was old enough to drive… they always asked me, are you Jewish? They didn’t want me in their gene pool. That’s how they wanted to explain me away: Jew. They were uncomfortable with me otherwise. So I finally decided to try to become what they always wanted me to be when I moved out to San Diego… I was richly rewarded for giving them what they wanted. Let me tell you.”
“Where in Philly?”
“Hold your horses. First girlfriend I’d had since High School I got by masquerading as a Jew. She’d never been with a Jew before. Yesterday’s insults are tomorrow’s compliments! First time she goes to blow me she asks me how come I’m not circumcised. Because I am a non-practicing Jew, honey, I explain. She wasn’t bad looking! She was really rather cute! Name of Gretchen Hunt… daughter of well-to-do Republican bigots from Ohio. Escaped to California to be an actress, thought San Diego was so much nicer than L.A. and conveniently located only ninety minutes away from Hollywood by car… might as well have been in Alaska as far as her career was concerned… ended up a career waitress with a severe credit card problem she cured by dabbling in porno but oh well. What’s this beautiful girl doing sucking my cock, I used to think, with my Yarmulke tilted rakishly athwart my noggin. By the way, the root of Yarmulke is a Turkish word that means rain bonnet.”
Nixon did a Burlesquely Yiddish shrug and said “I pretend to be a Jew and suddenly I’m getting things I never had… a good job, a pretty All American girlfriend, and a bunch of All American buddies who slapped me on the back and called me bud when we talked about the sports on the tellervision. I really liked being called bud… the weird conflation of derision and acceptance the word embodies is a uniquely American gesture, baby. It was heaven for about six months until I couldn’t take it anymore and fled town and never pretended to be a Jew again.”
“Did you know the part of Philly called Germantown?”
“We’ll get to that! Jesus! Where was I? Oh yeah: I discontinued the Jew Act. Not that I’d forsworn fakery as a practice. Far from it. In fact, I decided to up the ante. I skipped my lease and jumped a Greyhound bus to Minneapolis… from the palm trees and beach bunnies and perfect year-round median temperature of 77.5 degrees Fahrenheit to…Minnesota! The dick-snapping winters of the tundra! Lived and worked there for four years. Counselor at an Urban Youth Center. And just try to guess what I decided to be? Guess what sector of the American rainbow I chose to tap, despite the fact that I wasn’t quite hung for the role? Black.”
Gurdjieff is standing before them with a wooden serving tray upon which sizzle two large plates of bloody steak… cut into squares. Each square with a tooth pick in it. A very Tartar-like snack. Attila the Hun stuff. Gurdjieff gestures with his eyes that someone should move that box off the table and he slides the plates off the tray and bows out. Nixon says Merci. Salter is chuckling as he reaches for his first cube of steak.
“That’s right. Black. Well, an Octoroon, actually. Of course. Got me the foxiest black girlfriend you ever wanted to see, too… her name was… Johnny Rose. Put Pam Grier to shame, honey. Ever come in an Afro? Not on it… in it! Ah! Like fucking a Nerf Ball. Johnny Rose! Where are you now? My, that’s rare. Does blood make you squeamish? The Tarters ate raw beef. Turkish-Mongol tribe, of course. Did they even cook this… ?”
Salter likes it there in the clubby gloom of the Social Club; this is one of those rare places where Time stands still. Is it possible that it’s impossible for Time to stand still for men in the presence of women and therefore the informal ban? The girly pink hat on the coat rack is like the drop of black added to a gallon of white paint to make the white paint seem whiter, for this is the most masculine ambiance that Salter has ever dared to soak up. Every few minutes a muted cheer rises around the room in general (fussball) or at specific tables (cards) but at no time does anyone but Gurdjieff pay any attention to the interlopers. Salter is in fact amazed that no one oozes an odor of hatred or anger their way, especially considering the global hostilities between one of the three major desert-based faiths on Earth and the other two.
“Hold on now, Nixie… rewind. An Octoroon… in Minneapolis.”
“Yes Sir. An Octoroon. I figured,” swallow, “as a swarthy white I’m near the bottom of the barrel, n’est ce pas, but as a pale-skinned black I’m an aristocrat. Claimed that my roots were Creole. Toothless black winos started calling me Professor Longhair with affection when I’d stroll by in the ‘hood. Are you familiar with Minneapolis? Let’s have a look at those now.” Chewing lustily, Nixon gestures for Salter’s box of old photographs.
Salter pushes it towards him and Nixon wipes his trembling hands (and even he is impressed at his own prodigious powers of invention! What has inspired him to lie so fluently, so outrageously, and with such instinctive accuracy? An Octoroon? Professor Longhair? ) on his t-shirt before opening the box. Salter says, portentously, “The ancestors. My grandmother Moose… she was part Cherokee…she’d say that our blood… was a flow of many rivers…”
Nixon says “Okay, now don’t give me any shit about your great great granny being able to conjure spirits or heal the sick or fry chicken without even using oil or whatnot, okay? I’m too clear-minded for that stuff.” Winking, he pushes his plate aside and spreads a few of the mothwing-fragile photos on the table like tarot cards, studying each very carefully as he lays it in a grid on the table, a finger at his temple, his tongue between his teeth. He feels like a vampire (“Strigoi! Strigoi!”) … a literary Nosferatu about to feed on the thick warm blood of Salter’s own story. He is very hungry. He experiences the fleeting, condescending guilt that a vampire might experience, but it is overridden by his terrible hunger.
“Tell me about… this one,” says Nixon.
5. The Dinner Party
“Ach, schade, I thought you might be Stephan.”
As Brigitte von Bredow stands smiling in the doorway, it strikes Salter what a brilliant and shameless pimp is Elke. Brigitte is wearing a velveteen choker and a low-cut semi-transparent blouse and spray-on jeans and silver stiletto heels. The effect. Her nipples are dark blurs floating in the Monet of the blouse. Noblesse oblige. There Salter stands in his steel-grey suit, attempting head-cocked belligerent unselfconscious black American class defiance on the threshold, in possession of not even a proper invitation from the hosts plus clownishly attired and doubly not-invited Nixon beside him, but the woman is patently unfazed. She gives Salter the up-and-down as though she’s checking the reality against Elke’s particularly glowing product description and delighted to find a very close match. She wants to touch that deliciously black bald head; crush it between her nutcracking thighs.
Salter hears dinner party clink-and-chatter behind the skinny bleached wind-sharpened countess. Or duchess or baroness whatever she is. Hair pulled tight in an equestrienne’s S&M pony tail. She smiles… beams… and ushers them both in with a flourish, betraying only the scantest modicum of disdain for Nixon in the brevity with which her gaze engages his image, calling out to her husband the duke or the count or whatever to set another two places at the table because this is Berlin aristocracy and the only servants they can claim are a poker-faced cleaning woman who comes in every Saturday morning and the building’s arthritic concierge who seems to spend half his life in their master bathroom with a bucket and a wrench, and she lays a hand on Salter’s arm and lightly squeezes his biceps.
Salter sniffs in Brigitte’s wake and glances at Nixon who makes some kind of Italian gesture of loose-wristed appreciation. She is faintly but movingly redolent of the kind and class and rarity of scent that civets and lemurs and various endangered species indigenous to Zanzibar get tossed on a bloody heap sans musk gland for. The elders of the antediluvian ghetto of Salter’s childhood would have referred to the countess dismissively as a chicken wing.
The entrance to the building was impressive compared to the entrance of Salter’s building and to general standards in Germany but nothing, of course, compared to intimidating foyers of New York or London. There wasn’t even a doorman or an elevator operator or a hindrance against walking right into the building of any kind but there was a red-carpeted, grandly curving staircase that reminded Salter of a visit he once made to a brothel. Mahogany banister, cracked plaster nymphs and grape vines impressed in the time-stained walls and a half ton of chandelier hung about thirty feet over the 19th century marble tiles which are troughed and warped and boot-worn by the glaciation of traffic. Salter took to the stairs rather than be stuck in close quarters with bad-breathed Nixon in the minuscule elevator and Nixon trailed up the staircase behind him, composing an ad hoc commentary with a radio commentator’s late night spooky velvet.
“Ever higher ascends the conquering hero, this supreme black figure of a brother man, unbowed by history’s ambivalence, unheralded yet irresistible, a swaggering cocksman with total penile recall of every glistening kootchie he has had occasion to lovingly distress with ample girth and indefatigable brio… attended by his valet, his faithful page, his clownishly attired Sancho Panza, the ambulatory brain the hero himself never had… yet never fully needed… higher and higher the bourgeois staircase they mount. Even as our hero grows weary of his sidekick’s self-consciousness-motivated burlesque of this earth-shaking occasion, the side-kick evinces a highly compressed…” and here Nixon paused on the stairs and winced, “… fart… to articulate his churlish disdain…”
“Nixie,” chided Salter. “Hush, man.” He rang the bell and there she stood.
The hallway leading to the wardrobe and then the dining room is a gallery of scores of black and white photos of the count and countess’s world travels. What do these pictures…of Brigitte in front of a tasseled elephant in wherever country it is that tasseled elephants live, or svelte bisexual Sebastian posing in a wide brimmed hat in front of some gorge or other… what do they say beyond that these people can afford the price of travel? Despite whatever else it is that these pictures are straining so hard to say. Brigitte and Sebastian in stylish matching outfits, leaning with rifle-caressing Masai on the flank of a muddy Land Rover. Brigitte topless and goggled and up to her waist in the Amazon. Salter and Nixon scan these and other pictures as they follow the slinky Brigitte down the very long hall. It’s as though the pictures are there specifically to irritate all visitors; to give them something to hate the hosts for in order to spice up the dinner a little; hate them for ageless good looks or affluence or global fluidity. When in fact you end up hating them for being crassly show-offy and letting you down by not behaving like your cherished age-old fantasy of wealth which is restrained, attenuated, bloodless and aloof. When did rich people start acting like poor people with money, wondered Salter. Probably soon after they started watching television. And then being on it.
Brigitte swings double doors open and the dining room is brilliant and mellow with silver details and polished wood and fat candles grandly crusted with time’s minute excreta. The banquet table is an Olympic swimming pool of polished mahogany and festooned with six basilica-scale candelabra and it is many meters long. Nine people, not counting Brigitte, are already seated at it, the first truly intimidating thing Salter has seen since entering the building. He can feel Nixon’s crisis of confidence flare up behind him in the form of Nixon pressing close as Brigitte introduces the two of them to the seated guests. Salter can feel Nixon’s fearful breath heating his shoulder. Nixon wants to be a puppy cringing behind Salter’s boot at this moment. There are times when being freakishly smart is no more of a defense than walking into battle with the original copy of the Magna Carta as a shield and this is one of them. Behind Brigitte’s empty seat at the far end of the table roars a fire in a baronial hearth that Nixon tries to calm himself by imagining taking a leak into but his hot breaths on Salter’s shoulder accelerate as Brigitte claps and says,
“Everyone! Please.” She points. “A dear friend of Elke’s. Elke is late as usual,” polite tittering, “and here also we have the friend of the friend. But everyone is welcome. That is our motto.” She takes Salter by the hand and leads him towards a spot that has been cleared adjacent to her queenly seat and says, “One of those annoying traditions of dinner parties, I’m afraid. Always split up guests who arrive as a couple,” more tittering. “It facilitates the most fascinating conversation. No one leaves one of our soirees without learning something or someone new.”
Nixon sits timidly between the otherworldy Sylver Goldin to his left and a florid, well-dressed, pot-bellied man who resembles a 19th century British food critic… even appears to be wearing some kind of medal on a tri-color ribbon around his neck. Or, no. The Master, Henry James, is what he resembles. Pretending this puts Nixon somewhat at his ease. Goldin says, to no one in particular, “I know this black man from somewhere,” as Salter glides the length of the other side of the very long table being tugged possessively along by the countess.
Nixon can only hope that this will end up being one of those upper-class German dinner parties that will devolve after much pseudo-intellectual chatter into an absinthe-fueled orgy but who might he pair up with in that case? The last one of those type things he was invited to, he just kind of skittered pantless around the throbbing periphery, trying wherever he might to assert/insert himself and ending up with mixed (possibly ancient and homosexual but definitely shit-tipped) results. Important to stake the claim on a likely female early. It will have to be a female who is homely enough, of course. He’d prefer a slender body and an asymmetrical or overweight face to the obverse, if he is able to choose. Then he spots the woman seated across from him whose main physical defects appear to be a highly visible mustache and a continuous gull wing eyebrow paralleling it and Nixon says to himself aha.
It isn’t until Salter takes his seat to Brigitte’s left, across from a stern blond bearded gentleman who doesn’t seem pleased with Salter’s arrival at all, that he gets a good look at the other guests around the table and discovers, at the far end, in a white turtle-neck and wire-rimmed glasses, looking appropriate indeed, Cough.
Cough glances away from the conversation he’s deep into and gives Salter the discreetest of acknowledging glances. Perhaps he’s not at this dinner in a professional capacity and noticing Salter too heartily will give both of them away. Still, Salter finds the sight of Cough sitting there a mind-spinning thing. It grants Cough too much of a backstory, too much of an inner life, too much validity, being seen out of context like this. Salter had bumped into him at the Zand-Zee Bar recently, but that’s to be expected… a drug dealer at a trendy bar. That’s only good business. But in attendance and completely at ease at this upper class dinner party, wearing wire-rim glasses and striking the pose of a deep thinker with a finger on his lips and one eyebrow raised?
Cough knows Brigitte and Sebastian… Gitte and Sebby… through Siegfried von Stummfeldt, a former client. Cough is interested in Art, suddenly… interested in becoming an Art Dealer (from Drug Dealer to Art Dealer is the distance of a handful of letters) and Gitte and Sebby have suggested that he attend this dinner party in order to make the acquaintance of the blonde fellow with the beard seated opposite Salter, who has connections both in Real Estate and the Art World. Cough wants to use his painstakingly accreted drug money to ease into an only slightly more legitimate business.
The blonde fellow with the beard, glaring at Salter as though Salter is the culprit in the foolishness he’s about to describe, continuing a conversation that Salter’s arrival interrupted, says, “People see a photo of Jack Kennedy playing touch football with his rapacious brother Bobby on the White House lawn and they think they know everything there is to know about the golden Kennedy. Mention bootlegging or Mary Jo Kopechne and you’re some kind of what… communist.”
“Paul,” says Sylver Goldin, with a smoked chuckle, “you are not up-to-date with your name-calling, darling. What American gets called a communist any more? That is precisely as damaging as calling someone a rascal.”
He smiles with disgust, “The only information that sticks with the masses is information that comes with an emotional charge. They only learn it if it frightens them, excites them sexually, or makes them cry. The cinema is the true classroom of the Republic. Take…”
Salter interjects: “Are you from Boston?”
“Yes sir, I am.” The bearded blonde Bostonian turns to Goldin again and says, “It’s ridiculous. Take…”
She chides him, “But why get excited about it?” and turns to Salter and smiles coaxingly, dropping her voice, “I am certain I know you from somewhere.”
The bearded blonde rubs his eyes and says, with great weariness, “Take Gandhi…”
Nixon, rediscovering his nerve, says, leaning shaggily across Sylver Goldin’s lap, “Gandhi, exactly. The greatest possible disjoint between image and reality. Gandhi the icon of brotherhood and good-living versus Gandhi the… gung-ho Sargeant-Major in the South African…”
“Yes yes, you see? The old hypocrite was a motivated participant in the Zulu slaughter when the Bambatta Rebellion broke out! A loyal citizen of South Africa for over twenty years and supported not only Apartheid as a practice but its philosophical underpinnings as well! And yet the… the…”
“Theatre-going public… “ adds Nixon with perfectly judged sarcasm.
Brigitte is explaining the Tuareg ceremonial dagger everyone finds on the innermost right of the serving plate, after the beverage spoon and salad knife, exactly where the dinner knife should be. She notes that the daggers are over a century old (and have most likely performed the task well they were designed to perform) and are identifiable by their straight, double-edged blades decorated with incised geometrical patterns, the hilts of which are still protected from the tarnishing force of acidic Tuareg sweat by the original woven leather. She indicates the knob-like shapes at the end of each handle and explains that they’re called the pommel, and winks that any meat that can’t easily be cut by these knives should not be eaten.
The bearded blonde smiles for the first time since Salter sat down across from him. Then he laughs with a hand on his chin. “I do hope the ghastly things are sanitary, Gitte,” he quips.
Henry James, seated beside Nixon and until now silent, says, with a heavily Germanized Etonian accent, “I must say, Paul, until you just now mentioned it, I was as ignorant on the matter as our Theatre-going brethren.”
Nixon says, using a voice that Salter has never heard him use before, “But Ben Kingsley as Gandhi is so adorable.”
“One can remember when wearing a suit and tie to the cinema was de rigeur,” sniffs Henry James.
Paul nods and lifts a finger, “Let me tell you, Mohandas K. Gandhi makes me look like a bloody secular humanist in comparison… ” everyone titters, “yet… ”
“Come now, Paul,” chimes Sylver Goldin, “we all know that you like to indulge in a bit of kaffir flogging from time to time,” and there is much merriment. Brigitte is smiling with Queenly beneficence as the conversation surges and flares. Henry James claps in an oh-goody way. “I say, this is jolly fun. Knocking plaster saints off their department store plinths. Who else can we debunk at?”
The ugly woman across from Nixon bounces in her seat and says “Marlene Dietrich!” and is ignored. Nixon finds her aura of extraneity and isolation extremely fetching. He wonders if she’s a poor relation and tries repeatedly to catch her eye. Voices lower and go local as the conversation shatters gently into intimate cells. Henry James nods at Paul Whittington and says, “Dickens.” Sylver Goldin leans towards Salter and frowns.
“I think it will drive me crazy.”
“People always think they recognize me from somewhere else.”
“Lovable old Charles Dickens, creator of Oliver Twist and defender of the poor… hated blacks. Abhorred them.”
“Was it on television, possibly? Are you an actor?”
“You’re referring to him being under Carlyle’s influence, of course.”
Salter says no, he’s not an actor.
“Am I overstating the case?” asks Henry James, blushing.
You are not an actor perhaps but you are as pretty as one.
Cough, at the other end of the table, exchanges a smirk with Sebastian as they watch gender-non-plussed Sylver Goldin spin her/his web. They can’t hear what she’s saying but the coy inclination of her head along with the pouty extrusion of her lips says everything. They watch Salter grin bashfully in response: a little black boy and an old white witch. Did his parents never warn him?
“Ah,” says Sebastian wistfully, “but to have a schwanz of that size to work with…”
When the food comes, the first course on a massive rattling trolley illuminated by candles like a birthday and grandiosely gleam-domed as a model Saint Petersburg that Brigitte herself wheels out, the whole room ooohs and ahhhs.
“The dirty little secret,” confides Henry James to Nixon, hugging himself and smiling at the food as it is ladled and tonged, “Is that there was a time when we were truly in control of them and now we are not.” Now vee ah naught. He passes a plate of food to his immediate right. “We’re long overdue what you’d call a revolution… ” he passes another plate, “.. .our only salvation being the happy fact that the Proletariat have become such fat no-hopers in the interval, they… are these sweet potatoes? I had my first sweet potato in Manhattan, the year Ballanchine died. May I ask where you were educated, Mr. Prescott?”
The front door bell gongs again and Brigitte hops up from the table, twisting up out of her seat, giddy and young-seeming. She says, to no one in particular, in German, “maybe it is Stephan!” She hurries to the door. Salter listens as she makes a girly fuss in the hallway, greeting some key arrival who is not, unfortunately, Stephan. In fact it’s the Nigerian supermodel Sadie Olubodun, spectacular, unprecedented, in blood-red furs, trailed closely by the artist Simon Kahn-Meyers in a tweed suit looking very much like Santa Claus in the courtroom scene from Miracle on 34th Street. Henry James is squinting at Paul Whittington and counting on his fingers.
“Let’s see, there was Firbank’s Prancing Nigger… ”
“And Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven. People have forgotten about… ”
“And the Nigger of the Narcissus, of course. And even e.e. cummings’s Jean le Negre. And Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians… ”
“Was originally called Ten Little Niggers, I know.”
Whittington chuckles with his chin on his chest and adds, very quietly, “Of course, only a liberal who doubts his own motives is afraid of telling them but a joke is a joke and some of them happen to be damn funny. I am quite proudly part-Scots on my mother’s side and believe you me, no one laughs harder at a skin-flint Scots joke than I do. What does any right-thinking person have to fear in telling a joke, after all? Surely we’ve come so far in the past fifty years… ” He leans in towards Sylver and says, with an impishly dimpled leer, “What’s the difference between a winter tire and an African American?”
Sylver’s eyelids go heavy with anticipatory relish.
“The tire doesn’t start singing the blues when you strap a chain around him… ”
“Dear friends,” announces Brigitte, with a clap, “Good news. Frankie and Georgette, our young guests who are so very talented, will make us so very lucky tonight with a tribute to Billie Holiday… ”
Salter is so intent on staring at Sadie that he doesn’t notice the skinny sideburned German in a striped waistcoat fetch a guitar case from under the table. The skinny guitarist stands dutifully, for Brigitte has commanded it, and so does his fleshy blonde companion; they stand on opposite sides of the table, making solemn eye contact; and after the guitarist plays a stiff little Django-derivative filigree with his veiny red hands the singer (with a carnation behind one ear) performs a swooping, adenoidal travesty of God Bless the Chile, improving on the original in her German version’s strict sounding of the terminal “d” in child and repairing the contraction in “who’s”, exchanging it pedantically with “who has.” Who has got its own; God bless the CHILD who has got its own. The “the” still sounds like “ze”, however.
The cherubically fleshy singer rolls her eyes, fish-lips her mouth, gestures indolently and slouches pathetically. Rather than be enraged, Salter feels pure bliss. He chews in synchrony with crude-oil-black Sadie sheathed in red furs who chews in synchrony with him and he raises his wine glass in an understated toast to her and she acknowledges it by putting her delicious beaky red parrot lips to her own glass and smiling with halved-eyes as she eases one slow swallow down, implying that the wine is Salter. He enjoys that. And the murmur of chatter and clink and clank of cutlery and the noded nimbus of steamed candle light and the ludicrous, well-meant music.
Simon is stewing in his seat across from Cough. He’s too far from Sadie to hiss something subtle at her across the table but not too far to watch her making fuck-eyes and pouty fellatic moues at someone at the other end of the table. He could throttle her.He doesn’t expect her to be faithful… after all she’s already cheating on the man she lives with by being here with Simon at all… but does she have to humiliate him in this room full of poncey Bosch snobs? Simon’s eyes dart around the table to assess the number of people possibly noticing the cuckolding he’s being subjected to and Cough catches Simon’s eye and says, aiming his voice in a robust stage whisper across the table under the hollow moan of the singing emanating from the spot beside him, “Excuse me, but aren’t you Simon Kahn-Meyers?”
“Indeed I am.” Aren’t you Simon Kahn-Meyers, the mediocre artist, being cruelly made a fool of by your much-younger African wench?
“Mr. Meyers! My god, it’s all I can do to keep myself from cadging an autograph! I’ve studied your work, I have. Feel free to laugh at my ignorance if I’m wrong here but I’ve always considered you to be both the cure for and the missing link between chronic British over-reactors like Hirst and empty American irony as embodied by Koons…”
“I wouldn’t call that ig… ”
Sebastian, at the head of the table, shusshes Simon loudly and points at the singer and Simon finishes the sentences in a whisper, “… ignorant at all!”
Whittington, with his hand carressingly light on Sylver’s bony knee in designer jeans squeezes it and says, “What’s the difference between an African American male and a pizza?”
“A pizza can feed a family of four.”
Again the doorbell. Brigitte gestures that the musicians should forge ahead towards a grandiose, tin-eared climax without interruption and tosses her napkin on her plate and hurries with a gratified smile towards the front hall. When Brigitte returns not with “Stephan” but three other late guests instead it is to a round of applause that she swings open the huge black lacquered double doors of the dining room; applause for God Bless ze CHILD; but the four who stand suddenly in the doorway, backlit dramatically and bringing with them a sardonic little gust of chill wind like a ghostly pet, take the tribute for their own and each appropriates the praise in a way that befits his or her personality… smiling or smirking or squinting or frowning. Making the grand entrance beside Brigitte von Bredow are Siegfried von Stummfeldt and Sebastian’s older brother Luddy and Luddy’s wife Bobbi.
Bobbi gives the room a cursory smile and wave and sees Salter sitting there with his gleaming dark bald head and square jaw and heroic shoulders in a steel-gray suit that amplifies the sheer impact of his darkness and she feels a drop of interior moisture forming. Brigitte seats Luddy between Sadie and Henry James on the one side of the table and Siegfried to the guitarist’s right and Bobbi beside Siegfried on Salter’s side. Between Sadie and Luddy is a blank spot. Between Salter and Bobbi are two blank spots and the ugly woman Nixon was previously flirting with. Nixon, diagonally across from Bobbi, is now, however, stunned by her fine-boned and somehow strange beauty and encouraged by her age… the drawstring wrinkles around her mouth. His relative youth (plus his prodigious loquacity) might give him an advantage. When the orgy breaks out, he will make a beeline for her, for Bobbi, old and pretty as she is. Simon is thinking: this knowledgeable young man has saved the evening; who cares what that air-headed black slut gets up to now? I’m being appreciated.
Siegfried has passed around a large portfolio of his work-in-progress The Brotherhood Project. Each large, black and white print in the portfolio shows a German ‘model’, a girl with the profile of Elvis Presley, dressed up like the Statue of Liberty and on her knees, holding her torch aloft while sucking the penises of various naked black men. Some of the black men grimace and others laugh. Everyone around the table takes the portfolio and pages through it for a polite amount of time and passes it on.
“Everyone,” says Brigitte, clapping once. But before she can announce whatever she is about to announce, the doorbell rings again and again Brigitte skips to the door like a child. And finally her anticipatory enthusiasm is rewarded. She shrieks with delight: Stephan Schwartzwald has finally arrived. Nothing will ever be the same. Paul Wittington forks a morsel off of Sylver Goldin’s plate and into his mouth and whispers, chewing, What are three things you can’t give to a nigger?
A black eye, a fat lip, and a job…
What Brigitte fetches back into the room with her resembles nothing more than a tall, soft white spider in a Saville Row suit and a jaunty Borsalino. A scowling skull in a Borsalino hat. Salter, Sadie, Simon and Cough all gasp as one, but the others… the Germans and the Bostonian… all wave or smile and or exclaim “Stephan!” Henry James inclines most subtly towards Nixon and says “Richer than God… “ and Nixon, who has seen something like this in a dream, or while musing in the depths of a desolate night at his typewriter, haunted by failure and self-revulsion… merely raises his eyebrows and watches the creature make its way around the table, doffing its hat once, to take its place in the seat between Sadie and Luddy von Bredow. Luddy grins with secret, ferocious irony as he exchanges a soft greeting with the creature, who nods a subtle acknowledgement, but Sadie stiffens as though a huge bleached insect has fallen from the ceiling into her soup with a complacent plop.
Jesus Christ, thinks Salter, it’s the Phantom of Line 7! Salter, Sadie, Nixon and Cough have all suffered simultaneous and catastrophic losses of appetite. The rich and/or Germans in the room seem not only unfazed but delighted… invigorated and self-conscious in the presence of the rarest wealth and fame. “Why, Stephan Schwartzwald, you old rake!” exclaims Henry James. “What news do you bring from your illustrious travels, sir?”
“Rome wasn’t built in a day but it burned down in an hour,” retorts Schwartzwald, glancing at Sadie, to his immediate right, with contempt, before turning his gaze inwards to the seat he has settled on with a soft clatter of limbs. He scoots in closer to the table with a pained effort. “I hope you all haven’t waited on me before having your little dinners,” he says. “I’ve come this late on purpose to spare you all the lurid spectacle of watching me eat.”
“Stephan,” says Brigitte, with a doting grin, “what on earth are you talking about?”
Stephan looks from face to face, pointedly ignoring both Sadie and Salter. “Certain gustatory strategies I’ve developed of late. A refinement of the process.” He closes his eyes and smiles like a man rebuking a pain. “Not for the faint-hearted, I’m afraid.”
“Stephan,” says Brigitte, with a strained, forbearing smile, doing her best not to take offense, “who says any of us are faint hearted?” She gestures for Sebastian to bring Stephan some dinner.
A plate of paper-thin, bloody-rare strips of venison in orange sauce and capers, balanced with a circle of caramelized spring potatoes and garnished with symmetrical sprigs of mint, is placed before Schwartzwald, who pats his vest pockets. He finds what he’s looking for…a clear plastic vial of coarse white granules… and asks for a glass of water, a mid-sized stone or earthenware bowl and a drinking straw.
“What is death by old age,” asks Stephan, in his reedy, asexual, piping voice, “but a matter of the stored energy available in the body being less than the crucial threshold required to power the vital organs? It’s a simple matter of book keeping. By conserving energy where possible,” he continues, holding up the vial, “we extend and even double or triple our lifespans. This,” he says, indicating the substance in the vial, “is a digestive regent. And this,” he says, as the requested bowl is fetched and placed beside his dinner plate, “is tonight’s stomach. I picked up this technique, you see, in Buenos Aires… my tutor a learned physician who was well over one hundred and fifty years old himself and looked not a day over seventy.” The expressions of fascination evident around the dinner table vastly outnumber those of revulsion or horror.
“Ingenious,” exclaims Henry James, “… external digestion…”
“But doesn’t…” interjects Sebastian, “… wouldn’t the chewing itself… ?”
“Waste my precious energy? Indeed it would. This is why you would remark, at a very fine dinner party, in Buenos Aires, given by people not unlike our dear friends Gitte and Sebby, but much much older, of course… at these parties imagine, say, ten invited guests at the table. And beside each invited guest, a beautiful and very clean young woman… ideally not older than twenty… ”
Schwartzwald turns to his right and addresses the plump young singer sitting on the other side of his immediate neighbor, Sadie. “You’re young, yes? Very young. And you don’t suffer, I imagine, from either gum disease or an excess of calcium in your saliva? No colds or symptoms of hepatitis?” Schwartzwald then trains his gaze on Sadie, who vacates her seat without having to be asked. The singer takes Sadie’s place. Schwartzwald gives her a grave look and, after removing the pink plastic straw, slides the earthenware bowl in front of her.