Red Beard [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

 

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Ginger Green stuck his thumb in the boiling water and counted very slowly to three, making sheepish contact with himself in the bathroom mirror by accident as he ran cold water over the blister after. He wanted sushi. He climbed into the Porsche the most empty-headed song in his catalogue had paid for and he tried to stay off the streets the hookers patrolled.

Because what if.

Long ago. Before Europop or Miriam or his ex-wife or even Europe itself and all his grownup ups and downs. Back into the clearer sounds and warmer colors of another age there had been Father Pat with his monkish beard the color of strawberry Kool Aid. The dayglo beard and the turtle-neck sweaters and Jesus sandals slapping the concourse on hot mornings.

One day they were long-legging it across campus with Ginger scuttling hard to keep up. Pat would’ve called Miriam a succubus. If he used that word for the homely girl who worked in the cafeteria he’d definitely have used it for Miriam, Miriam who was practically the clinical definition of the word . Miriam who had recently expanded operations to the province of Ginger’s dreams. Ginger had a blister to show for it.

“I’ve got your number, Green,” Pat said. Father Pat was one of two foreigners on campus, the other being Gupta the math instructor. “You stopped believing in God approximately ten minutes after learning there was no such thing as Santa Claus, didn’t you? Worked it out for yourself and quite proud, no mistaking. Why are you here with us, then? Off the record. To what end?”

“My parents sent me, sir.”

“You’ll suffer for that honesty,” answered Pat, though it was clear he was pleased. “Gifted with all the qualities but one. Quite the irony, wouldn’t you say?”

“If you say so sir.”

“I’ll let you in on a secret when you’re old enough, Green,” said the priest while shouldering the cafeteria door. “Ring me up once you’ve started shaving and I’ll let you in on it. In you go. Promise?”

“Promise, sir.”

Probably dead by now, thought Ginger, sucking the tip of his thumb. Steering with his knees. He still wonders what Pat’s secret might’ve been. He clearly hadn’t been Queer, unlike so many others among the faculty of that shaper of men, though there’d certainly been ample opportunity to act. Ginger worried the penitent blister with his tongue. Der Weg ist das Ziel. It was Father Pat’s German Ginger was regurgitating all these years later as a businessman in Berlin but it was Father Pat’s delicate sneer he felt his face deform to while doing things like doing his best to forget about Miriam X.

What Pat had failed to perceive was Ginger’s thing for money. Ginger saw the BP station at Bismarckstrasse come to him straight out of the dream and he winced and accelerated and within minutes he was parking in front of the sushi bar on Kant Strasse called Kuchi. The owners of Kuchi knew very well what a ‘kootchie’ was and that Immanuel Kant rhymes with ‘bunt’.

Sing, Miriam.

She looked Celtic, Irish, not genealogically German at all. Pale as a coma. Maybe if he’d fucked her he’d be free of her by now. It all started with a phone call. Why oh why did he answer that phone? The ringing jerked him swearing out of an intimate act as the ghost of his ex-wife wiped her chin. She vanished as he knocked a bottle over reaching for the phone.

“Yes.”

“I have heard that you are the man who is looking for a singer?”

“Excuse me?”

“What you are needing is a girl who would like to sing?”

He turned off the lights and crossed to the big window at the front of his flat. The flat was a store-front, a common architectural feature in Berlin, little shops built in the fronts of the massive old flat blocks. He peered through the blinds of the floor-to-ceiling window onto the midnight-empty street and at the playground across it. The jungle-gym, the sandpit, the see-saw and the swings.

“Who gave you my number?”

No response.

“I’m sorry, I’m not looking for a singer right now.”

Gone.

The next morning came hard in cold sunlight. Ginger was crossing a bridge over the canal near Potsdamer Platz which was nothing but the muddy crater of the navel of the geographic center of Berlin back then,  impossible to imagine that this vast mess of trucks and pipes and cranes and girders would ever be anything but a deafening playground for hard-hats. The phone in his pocket rang.

“You are knowing a man who is needing a young girl who can sing?”

“Who is this?”

There was a long pause that made Ginger afraid she’d hang up again so he said, “It depends. Do you have a demo or something? Are you gigging with a band I can catch you in?”

“No.”

Silence.

“Even a very rough recording. A cassette.”

“No.”

Another long pause and then, “We can meet us and I will sing for you?”

“U-Bahnhof Wittenbergplatz, tomorrow, kurz nach fünfzehn uhr. In front of the tabak kiosk. But how will I recognize you?”

“I must recognize you,” she said, in her tremulous voice and hung up.

At 3pm the next day, standing at a spot in a corner of the Wittenbergplatz U-Bahn station where he could observe the designated meeting place without himself being observed, Ginger was full of exhilarated dread, like a vintage astronaut in a leather helmet, squinting at the windsock through the porthole. He’d been separated from his ex-wife for exactly a year and ten minutes when he saw, waiting in front of the tabak kiosk in the middle of the station, at five minutes after 3pm, a nervy slender girl with shoulder-length blonde hair in a soft pink running suit, looking surprisingly (embarrassingly) like a school girl, pacing and chewing gum with manic fervor in an unwittingly wicked satire of his own hysteria. Not as beautiful as he expected but much younger. He thought:  No. He was turning to leave when someone nearby spoke up.

“You are Ginger?”

Ginger who attended a boarding school for intellectually gifted boys who might otherwise be juvenile delinquents on a hardship scholarship he was still doing his best to live down?

Yes.

She smiled weakly and reached to shake his hand and she seemed to him frail and gauzy as an immigrant’s ghost with ringlets of cherry-red hair and a waist he could circumnavigate with one hand, he thought, and flesh the color of blood smeared thin on porcelain.  Her forehead came no higher than his chest and the crown of her head smelled strong of pillowed scalp and her silk blouse was a size too small for her breasts, which strained like the blind in their cups. Over all that her black denim jacket was buttoned askew, the last button mated to the next-to-the-last hole, calling even more attention to the inadequacy of the clothing to contain her. She thanked him for showing up, speaking so softly that he had to lean down to hear it. The priest collecting her shy confession. He imagined her confessing that she’d been designed by the devil to fuck him up. Had his ex-wife sent her for revenge?

He wondered about the etymology of the word audition.

That first time she came to his place and stood in his living room to sing without preamble, denim jacket unbuttoned, blouse unbuttoned to a low strategic point, lacy red brassiere flashing, eyes shut, mouth open…

…the sound that came out was so pathetic, so hopeless and small and lacking in confidence yet defiantly clinging to life and tenacious with conviction, clinging to the air itself, it was just awful. Ginger can’t remember the song she chose to traduce for him as an audition that day but he remembers thinking that there was something, nevertheless, in there, some spark or sliver or flicker of some kind of talent or human potential worth salvaging or was it merely that he was already obsessed? Was it merely that he desperately wanted to fuck her and kill himself after? But, yes…no…there was something under all that bad singing. Something as moving as the thing under the silk blanket of Billie Holliday’s voice the first time she ever sang Strange Fruit in public. Something in this girl so crushed and buried and horrifically still vital.

He listened to her with as neutral a face as he could possibly manage, hands in his pockets, glancing out the window at the playground. Kids fighting on it. When she finished and looked at him with tremulous expectation he leaned against the wall, hands still in his pockets, and, marshalling the technique of encouraging bullshit he’d developed after years in the music business in a country where almost no one could sing he said, “You need a little polish. But it’s very good.”

“A little polish?”

“I like… the sound of your voice but you need… some technical skill. Breath control, etc.”

“Oh.”

“But I…” he looked at his feet and folded his arms. “I can help you. I can…”

“You will?”

“I’ll give you voice lessons. I’d suggest twice a week. I believe in your…talent.”

She crossed the room and put her head on his chest. He knew the move that was required of him in order to establish the nature (the give and take) of their working relationship and she seemed poised to accept it but. Stick his tongue so far down her throat he’d taste the stains on her panties but he couldn’t. He couldn’t for whatever reason bring himself to execute the move, despite the fact that those ballooning tits of hers seemed to be crying out to be handled. Those fragrant fucking fresh-baked loaves and here he is starving. But something, either a voice from behind or within or Father Pat’s shade or a faint transmission he picked up from her own smashed soul said don’t.

“Next Thursday we start your lessons. Every Thursday and every Sunday from three to four. Give me a year. In a year I can make you a singer.”

Even as he was saying it he knew how ridiculous it sounded. She’s not even paying me! I don’t even know her!

A year!

That Thursday, the day of the first lesson, the temperature dropped unseasonably and there were gray blown scurries of snow like shaved twilight on the streets and she came wearing a camel hair coat and a cranberry scarf and her runny nos. She stood in the middle of his living room and refused to remove either the coat or the scarf and seemed entirely unaware of the fact that a pale ingot of snot rested on the soft maxilla-protruded incline of the rosy flesh over her lip for the duration. What could Ginger do? Mentioning it could be a fatal embarrassment to her and ruin what little self-confidence she carried so he spent an hour trying not to stare at the snot. And plus it was not cold in his living room and yet she stood there trying a warm-up scale in that coat and with that scarf still knotted around her neck. Ginger asked may I take your coat and she shook her head. Ginger asked if he should turn the heat up and she said no, she was fine. For the longest time he stared at her with a professional smile, stymied.

“Every time you make a sound in here,” said Ginger, gesturing at the bare walls, “I want you to pretend that you’re singing in front of a packed concert hall. You’re singing in front of three thousand people. Okay? Do you understand what I mean? I mean that you must mean it every single time you open your mouth. Even when you’re simply talking. People who make casual noises aren’t good singers. Don’t make garbage noises that any old monkey could make. Make all your sounds become valuable. Make it so people want to pay you to make your interesting noises. Even if you never go pro I want you to learn to think that way.”

But do I say nothing about the coat and scarf?

“But I feel something must come out but it don’t wants to.”

“We need you to get in touch with your pain.”

Father Pat says the twists and turns of a profligate life all occur on a path as straight as a watchmaker’s measure.

“Pain?” she asked.

“Yes. Your pain. Whatever…” he took a deep breath. “Whatever is keeping you from singing, holding you back, we can turn that around and it can help you to sing and it’s all about your pain. Before we can unlock the potential energy of your pain, we have to get in touch with it. We have to know where it is before we can use it.”

Miriam stood very still with her back to him in a fluffy white angora sweater and tight leather pants the full ensemble effect of which was an exquisite torment.

For every hour Ginger and Miriam spent together on those Thursday and Sunday afternoons their uncategorized feelings seemed to grow. They established a romantic tradition. The tradition started at the end of the second lesson when Ginger just happened to have a bar of half-eaten chocolate with almonds in it on the kitchen table in its beautiful gold foil and offered it to Miriam when the hour was up.

Yes I love chocolate, she said and so every time after that he made sure to have a bar or two ready. He caught himself putting too much time and energy into it. He bought a bar from a confectionery on Friedrichstrasse, near the Lafayette, half a kilogram, a very expensive joke bar for American tourists, just about the size of carry-on luggage and she turned and smiled at him after the lesson, searching the room.

“Do you have something for me?”

He was delighted to produce it from a hiding place behind a big cushion on the couch. She squealed and clapped her hands and bit a tiny corner off it and went about the business of chewing. Not in great haste but lingeringly, with a heart-breakingly introspective expression which made Ginger’s feelings swell and spill over. At moments like this his heart went out to her, blotting out even the animal longing for sex. She licked her syruped lips and fetched her purse and re-wrapped the well-made bar like an heirloom and said, “And so we are finished today?”

“We are finished today.” He clicked his heels and bowed.

“Good.” She snapped the purse shut. “I must meet my boyfriend outside.”

“Ah. Your boyfriend.”

“He is waiting in his car. Every time we sing, he waits… I told him it is not his role to bother us. Today I promise him we meet his friends. So we go in a stupid club later.” She laughed. “But really, I am so tired! I only want to sleep.”

“Just tell him you can’t go, then.”

She smiled sadly and shook her head. Now Ginger was the child. She crossed the room and hugged him a very long time, her heartbeat tapping his gut through the camel hair coat as he looked down at the white lane of scalp and its fine white tributaries under a weft of red roots and the sweet attendant odor, that lover-odor of pillowed scalp, he breathed it in, holding her. Her boyfriend. But Ginger had hidden his crushing disappointment well. Of course she avoided mentioning the boyfriend before now. And yet. That lingering hug, that look she gave me when she left, where does she go when she leaves? I have no idea and no way to reach her.

After she was gone he saw she’d left her scarf and he masturbated on it, forced a some warm silver in the wool. To punish himself Ginger stood in an ice-cold shower he had to force himself to stay with until an ethical corpse-numbness took him over and he felt like Pat must feel, better than any temptation, safe in his box.

But what am I looking for when I look in a woman’s face?

Because men are always looking at women’s faces. Looking from one face to the next because they’ve lost something and maybe this one has it. On the U-Bahn Ginger looked at each woman or girl stepping on, dressed for winter, at some stops the whole species seeming to pour in with their shopping bags and bright chatter of friends and the primeval joy of purchases. When he looked at the pretty ones he felt something that he couldn’t feel when he looked at the others.

“Senor Verde,” calls Father Patrick, from the door of his office, wearing the thin grin about which Ginger has learned to be wary. He’s clutching a rolled up Arte Fact magazine and directs Ginger to have a seat in the leather chair , musty and comfortable as an old giant African hand, in front of his desk. He unrolls the magazine and with his gnawed finger pokes a two-page spread of Fra Angelico’s 15th century The Deposition. A crucified Christ (with a puncture wound resembling a bullet hole) is lowered from his cross by five male figures (two of which are haloed-John the Baptist? Joseph the Beard?) choreographed in an X-like configuration while a vulpine, flame-haired Magdalene prostrates herself to the holy corpse.

“What do you think of this? Be frank.”

“It looks like she’s sucking his toes, sir.”

This is my punishment for going into show business instead of becoming a priest.

The next lesson Miriam didn’t sound any better than she had during all the lessons before but at least she wasn’t wearing her coat or scarf while singing and she actually laughed a few times when Ginger did his joke conductor imitation to whip some vivacity into her performance. That was progress. She wasn’t even nearly approaching the moment when Ginger would feel she was beginning to sound like a singer but she was approaching the moment when he felt he’d be able to start teaching her. Right now he was simply teaching her how to be taught.

How long? How long was this going to take?

After that session he switched off the lights and peered out the window and watched as she slipped into a sleek black hearse of a car.

How he thought he might get in touch with her pain was to have her singing a seemingly nonsense phrase he’d written with a simple three note melody… almost a Gregorian Chant… to the words I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to… an idea he got based on the resistance he sensed in her posture and in the strained, weak, choked-off sound of her voice. He had her modulating that one phrase up one tone at a time a whole octave. And then back down the octave with a second phrase: please, please, please. That was the warm-up. Thinking this might loosen something in her. Maybe it was just amateur psychiatry. But after the warm-ups, then he would let her tackle whatever popular song she might choose if it wasn’t absurdly ambitious (R&B was off limits). Always starting and ending with I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to…please, please, please…

And this rudimentary psychology on Ginger’s part seemed to be having some kind of effect because two things began to happen. First, she sometimes refused to sing the please please please, which Ginger found significant, and, second, she began making mysterious allusions to something she wanted to “tell to him” about. Some secret she thought he needed to know. The first time she referred to this secret he didn’t realize what he was hearing and he reacted flippantly.

He didn’t think: aha.

“Something you should tell me? What? You’re not the Queen of England?” but she smiled like a sad little Sphinx and that’s when he realized that a mystery he hadn’t even been consciously aware of needing to solve had unfolded just one little torn petal for him.

He never broke his code of courtly behavior while teaching her, not even when she teased him. Not even when she made shy double-entendres, which she did often, or gave him those enticingly hugs. The word ‘maudlin’ derives from Magdalene. During the period reserved for eating her chocolate after every lesson she talked more and more about private things. About the parents who’d disowned her at puberty and the little sister with a drug problem, the incest with cousins and run-ins with ghosts and the crime blotter of boyfriends and relevant litanies of physical intimidation and emotional waste. All of this information delivered with a neutral smile and pencilled-in eyebrows raised to a working class altitude of fatal acceptance. She also mentioned along the way that she was sterile due to some venereal tragedy that had left her permanently ruined “Down there” and about which she was still seeing doctors. And it all had to do with her secret.

Eleven years after finally breaking all contact with Miriam, Ginger has this dream:

A long white van eases to a heavy stop at a British Petroleum station. He knows it’s BP because of the green and yellow. A panel door slides open and the van disgorges a small phalanx of the biggest, most square-jawed skinheads Ginger has ever seen, hopping backwards out of it like precision sky-divers. The light bulb skulls, stovepipe jeans, bomber jackets and high-laced steel-toed boots. The works. A half dozen of them are stretching (knuckles and spines cracking like distant sniper fire) out on the tarmac and then another half dozen creatures emerge.

They look like fiercely blue-eyed nuns. But too young for nuns with their teenage eyes, lashes and eyebrows so fair they’re invisible. Ginger knows there are piles and piles of wild blonde hair under all that satin as everything but the eyes is swaddled in voluminous white burka and the eyes blink and flare like cold electronics under the mercury arc lamps, nervous teenage eyes, teenage Euro-eyes in chador. Ginger sees it, a blue insignia in the shadowed upper right corner of the van, a crescent moon the tips of which are closing like delicate fangs on a swastika. Cloth-covered females go off in twos, heads bowed, to the gas station’s WC, around the far side of the building, while the men enter the store in an orderly fashion. One of the females is standing nearer the taxi.  Ginger sees he is in a taxi. One of the females has noticed him and the ghost comes nearer the taxi window and with a deft flick of an arm from under the burka exposes her face.

My love.

He jogs around the left side of the station, across the bright wet tarmac and behind a ziggurat of oil drums and into the blind rain, slipping on the gravel beyond the tarmac’s edge, sliding on mud beyond the gravel, steadying himself against the cold dark wall of the building. The tarmac, the gravel;, the mud and even the wall, they feel so real. So convincing. Each icy syllable of rain striking his face in a complex sequence is designed with such care and precision that he can’t help feeling an immense admiration for the craftsmanship. The instant she revealed her face from under the veil, of course, he knew it was a dream and he moved quickly to seize the opportunity. At the very back of the building he finds the WC door. He eases the door open and lets himself in.

He looks at his hands and wiggles his fingers. They look like a perfectly ordinary version of his fingers.

Just as he knew it would, the WC door opens and in steps Miriam in her burka, ultraviolet eyes darting, cloth billowing,  she closes and locks the door behind her and removes her veil with cinematic intensity and pushes back the cowl to expose her shivering red ringlets, that blood cloud of hair he had always wanted to clutch, Ginger stands at one end of the WC and Miriam at the other.

She squirms out of the burka, steps naked towards him… steps naked in her terrible skeletal state… her skin twang-tight from bone contour to bone contour and translucent as a jellyfish… breasts are melted lenses magnifying the fossil spider of her ribcage… and… in the harsh light Ginger can make out the slopped coil of her intestines… the rubber red wings of the lungs… the twin-fetus kidneys… the scrape-and-bruise-tinted sacks of stomach, liver, spleen, it looks like a shimmering 3-D body tattoo, an inverted illusion, her organs shift and shimmer with parallax as he moves around her to see. Her bush floats like ruddy kelp over the neck of the submerged amphora of her womb. Ginger sees her wincing heart in its Christ-struggle, jerking up and falling slack in its crucified agon and he will scream.

She is the most horribly beautiful thing.

He produces from under the black wing of a cape he seems to be wearing a compact little pistol. He gestures with the pistol that Miriam should cross the tiled floor and bend over the bathroom sink. Ginger then uses the toe of his boot to kick Miriam’s feet so far apart that her thighs tremble, her bubble-gum-colored anus puckers and she voids her bowels with fear. The shit pushes out in black chunks like horse manure and splatters in a lopsided pile at the midpoint between her far-spread feet. The odor is astounding and green-hot, he is holding his breath as he crouches behind her and with his vivid thumb presses himself into the ghastly tight translucence of her body. He goes in, comes out with a wet pop, and plunges in again, deeper. A spray of blood diffuses on every impact, speckling the floor and the near wall and a corner of the mirror with thicker and thicker ooze.

Ginger wakes with all the evidence of a wet dream on his belly but also in tears. A wet dream at 42! He boils a pot of water.

Father Pat nods gravely. Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral.

Ginger lowers his thumb in the boiling pot and craves sushi.

What was her secret?

Three months into their story Miriam arrived for her lesson an hour late, which was very unusual for her, but she was full of energy and very open and said that her boyfriend had been gone on business for a few days and had just come back the previous night and so there had been wonderful sex and she joked that she could barely walk but it was so great to be sore this way because she loved sex so much. She had always loved sex so much. Ginger resolved that afternoon to quit teaching her.

She was blabbing effusively and peeled off her camel hair coat and handed it to Ginger without hesitation and unknotted that cranberry-red scarf and tossed it to Ginger and removed also the black denim jacket she often wore under the coat to reveal that same old low-cut silk blouse that showed off her ponderous chest and very narrow waist and skinny little chalk-white arms to maximum effect against the grape-gray bruises on her white throat. She shook out her hair and it was like a billow of blood in the ocean. She stood at the living room window in a wide beam of spring sunlight with the contours of her improbable body in brilliant relief and her flesh like platinum and she did her warm-up exercises with a playful teasing smile singing I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to… please please please with comical hula-girl beckoning gestures and winking. Ginger restrained himself from crossing the room and pushing his tongue so far down her throat that he’d taste the stains on the insides of her panties. He stood where he stood as though nailed to the floor, as far away as possible, chin raised, hands clasped behind his back in the role of the strict and sexless and protective father figure, her voice teacher, the man who had taken on the task of giving her a voice. It was then he laughed at his so-called professional distance with a bitter sneer she couldn’t miss because he knew if he fell for this girl it wouldn’t be she who would suffer and the fall would be hard and he would shatter into useless pieces or sink into a dream with no end or meaning.

That was her secret.

 

 

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