She walks against the wind like it’s some kind of trick staircase in headlong lilts like Arabic script towards the filthy Post Office. Everything is filthy: phone booths, convenience stores, sidewalks. Everything. Everything stinks of singed garbage and the revealed interior of the body. This is what they mean by that beautiful euphemism urban blight. She would chuckle but she does all her laughing on the inside these days for she has recognized the wisdom of not transmitting, of no longer being a sender. Instead she is a receiver. A perfect receiver of threat’s end-of-the-dial broadcast, out there where the satellites sing. Her peripheral vision is so sharp she can read the commercials on the sides of the buses as they heave by without even lifting her disgusted gaze from the filthy sidewalk. Gobs of spit like dissolving emeralds. A mound of hominid shit in a doorway.
It’s a long trudge against a devil wind during which she reflects on the twists and turns of her long life while also remaining vigilant to the obvious. That murder of little Negresses skipping rope at the corner. That bandanna’d kid with the splintered pool cue. Where do these demons come from and why do they never leave? Trying to out-last them has been a futile project. She’s seen these same kids hanging around this block for thirty five years now and if you get close enough she bets the rope-skippers are wizened and wrinkled and smell of camphor, a notion that shivers in her shoes. You touch a face and the cheek crumbles off on your fingers. She used to buy peanut brittle in pound-sized buckets from a shop that used to be where that pimp is standing, talking into his hand and getting answers. She forgets what she’s carrying: is this a manuscript for her dead agent Cy?
She had waist-long hair kept braided and stuffed under a Chicago White Sox baseball cap for years due to vivid premonitions of being scalped but now she’s wearing an auburn wig and if any scalpers come she’ll just toss the wig at them as a diversionary tactic. This is the auburn wig that belonged to Lillian Hellman when the name Lillian Hellman meant something. In other words: take heed. Her deep-pocketed house coat is laden with teak-handled steak knives from a set someone gave her on some holiday nobody celebrates anymore which she absentmindedly slips into one or the other pocket whenever she dons her scowl like a white visor and steps outside on these unavoidable errands in the too-bright realm of incipient harm. She is bent and a-clatter with cutlery. She is lugging a parcel. Secondhand books for her son who is incarcerated in a foreign prison. Extremely imaginative fiction is his only hope.
She turns left on Woodlawn Ave and she figures she’s about a twenty-minute walk from the old Stagg Field where that Henry Moore blob commemorates something about something that used to make her worried about walking near the spot on the way to her lectures and Georgie of course would run right towards it and the more she yelled get away from that thing the faster he’d run. And now, of course, he’s incarcerated.
More and more often she finds herself thinking in a forgetful fury of all those martyrs to emptiness, the women who died for the sake of nothing better than some man’s shitty orgasm. Three in her family alone: her big sister Eda who perished in a blind fever of complications from an illegal abortion she slipped off to with the very first night of the Ed Sullivan show as her cover… then the adopted daughter of one of her brother’s exes who was strangled and raped in that order. And Carole, of course. The Pill. The cancer. Oh Carole, Carole, Carole, Carole.
A young man with his narrow back to her, waiting for the light, twists for a wary glimpse as she approaches the curb intoning her daughter’s name. There’s a broken brown leaf like an Indian-head nickle stuck in his modest irregular Afro and he is a lovely chiffon yellow like the young Smokey Robinson. In his dirty pink shirt and dress pants.
“I just finished reading Senelitá this morning,” he says, improbably enough, his softly puzzled face turning away from her. He scans for a gap in the cars coming.
“Svevo?” she responds cautiously, patting her coat pocket; rattling her knives.
He scratches an elbow but doesn’t turn again to face her, so intent is he in divining the traffic. She has to strain to hear when he says, “It was a bitch. A real disappointment. Not an inch of room in the whole book for yours truly the reader to decide what he is thinking about what Svevo is trying to say.”
“Listen,” she responds, with a shoo-fly gesture, “Don’t forget when he wrote it. Silent films were a dream of the future. Narrative technology…” But she catches herself. From the look of sharp disbelief the yellow black man turns on her before dashing across the street through a sudden gap in traffic she comes to realise that his half of this exchange never happened.
She had been about to say something regarding that famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where a monkey tosses a tapir’s leg-bone into the sky and it match-cuts to a Pan Am space shuttle. She is less overwhelmed by embarrassment at making a fool of herself than crushed by disappointment that she won’t be finishing the conversation.
But then she thinks: why not?
“It was like listening to a fucking mugging.”
“Like listening to your mother…my mother…getting mugged during a transatlantic…”
“Jesus is right. Tell me about it. I timed it. Have you ever had a six minute coughing fit? Two minutes seems long. Poor thing. But that’s not even the worst.”
They were driving along on a brilliant day at a leisurely pace behind a sleek modern hornet-yellow streetcar. In the back window of the streetcar sat a pretty young girl in a pink top showing some profile. Mr. Rand found lapsing into a faint approximation of Mr. Bacon’s laddish speech irresistible.
“Only a Berliner would do that,” said Hakim Bacon. “Sorry to interrupt you. About your mother and all. But only a Berliner would do that.”
“I mean,” said Hakim, putting the Mini in gear again with a grunt of disgust as the Strasssenbahn in front of them disgorged itself of a paltry two passengers and juddered forward, “How long we been following this thing? Six? Seven? Blocks? And her there posing. Like Queen Regina on a fucking stamp.”
“Normal thing would be A, turn your back and forget about us or B, fuck it and wave or something. Make contact.”
“Oh fuck yes. Girl from Bristol? She’d’ve hopped off and importuned us for a ride by now. I was reading something recently.”
“Guess how many American tourists are struck by cars in the UK annually due to left-right flow of traffic confusion. On average. Guess.” Without waiting for Mr. Rand to guess, Hakim Bacon said, “Fifteen fucking hundred.”
“Well, it’s all kept very hush hush, innit? Fucking Tourist Board. That’s what I’d call a right conspiracy, mate. And that’s the fucking Tourist Board. Not exactly bloody Casa Nostra. I mean.”
“If the British Tourist Board is capable…”
“Exactly. Shudder to think what fucking Coca Cola gets up to when the moon is full. At the end of the day…”
“Or Microsoft. Or the bleeding Pope. Look at her.” Hakim took his left hand off of the steering wheel and waved it facetiously from his window, wriggling his fingers. His flapping hand was huge on the toggle of his bony wrist and too big for the sleeve of his retro-futurist Nehru.
“Ten quid says she don’t react. Just you watch. Fucking chronic. What’s the worst?”
“Your mother. If her coughing fits… if they aren’t…”
“Oh. Yeah. No, the coughing fits… if only they were the worst. Two weeks ago…”
Mr. Rand broke off and calculated. Was this something he wanted to share? He’d known Hakim for years but he was just the guy you went to if you needed a fake passport, expensive stereo equipment, or a child bride from Russia. Yes and for the assassin’s drug of choice, as Hakim put it. You went to Hakim Bacon of Bristol.
Hakim was half-German and half-Pakistani but spoke with an accent so cynically-musical that he inspired infinite confidence in his capacity to fix pathetic problems for a fee. He’d seen and done and brokered everything. He was bony and tall and dressed in the manner of a DJ who always wore those sunglasses like a tiara, those big red sunglasses on Hakim Bacon’s sleek black bangs with royal pomp. Did Mr. Rand want to open up to Hakim? This wasn’t some hilarious third-party narrative about sexual humiliation he was dying to tell. This was Mr. Rand’s mother they were talking about. A story about terrible nakedness. A story about second-infancy’s sanity-free slapstick and dread. She used to be a writer.
“Two weeks ago,” prompted Hakim.
“I call her. The phone rings and rings. It’s about 9 o’clock her time so I know she can’t be out. She has to be home, glued in front of that television…”
“Loudly agreeing with some big-haired video-fascist who she thinks of as her only friend.”
“Yeah. The phone keeps ringing and I’m getting worried. Finally, she answers, sounding. I don’t know. Strangely… detached? I go, Ma. What are you up to? She goes: I had an episode. I go: an episode? What sort of episode? She goes: you know, an episode. At this point she’s whispering into the phone, because she doesn’t want the neighbors to hear. It took me quite a while to get the story out of her.”
Mr. Rand cleared his throat. “Basically, she somehow just rolled off her bed, naked and ended up pinned between her bed and the wall. She was lying there that way all morning, all afternoon, well into the night. When I called, she managed to pull the phone by its cord off the nightstand to answer it.”
Hakim was frowning with distant concentration as he parked the car in front of SPACE BAR, which was a student café by day and a spiritual battleground for second-tier models by night.
“Blimey is right. Lock it?”
They threaded their way between the tables laid out like the monotone squares of a madman’s chess board in front of the café and found a free spot beside three plaster-dusted workmen, each wearing a dusty blue bandanna as a hat and a pair of opaque white goggles like a necklace, staring at the street with dormant menace, protecting tall glasses of beer. Glancing at a menu and handing it to Mr. Rand, Hakim lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out.
“How’s your thing coming? With, uh. You know. The bird with the….” He made a facial expression with bulging eyes to convey the concept of large breasts.
“Hannah?” Mr. Rand stuck the pointer finger of his right hand across his upper lip in simulation of a mustache. Simultaneously, but very subtly, he lifted the palm of his left hand upright.
Hakim laughed. “Right.”
After they had ordered, but before the table was cluttered with food, Hakim spread a map out on it.
“As you can see,” he said, squinting contemplatively, “This is a map of Germany, the bit which is extremely near to the Polish border, and, lo, here’s a bit of Poland, too.”
He tapped the upper right corner of the tattered old map. “What we’re talking about here is basically a part of the world that the Silesians who dwell there like to refer to as Silesia. Silly old them. Used to be German, not really Polish now and land there is fucking cheap. Which is where you come in with your grand American scheme, if I’m not mistaken.”
Hakim tapped Mr. Rand’s shoulder and Mr. Rand thought how pure whites never do that. “Bloke named Wenceslas Wenceslasovitch or whatever…right out of central casting… big red hands like raw hams… massive geezer with a yellow mustache… wants to sell his portion of a parcel of land that is well nigh fifty hectares, mate.”
Hakim paused for dramatic effect and looked Mr. Rand in the eye. “Have you any idea how fucking big a hectare is? Really, have you? I doubt it. I hadn’t a clue myself, to be honest, till I checked up on it.” He paused again. “One hectare. Ten thousand square meters. Ten bloody thousand. That’s one hundred acres. To give you an idea: your average suburban plot of land is half an acre or one acre tops. Our friend Wenceslas owns 14 hectares of this fifty-hectare plot and he wants to liquidate his bit, he wants to be rid of it, for a very reasonable price… you’ll laugh when you hear it. You’ll die laughing when you hear what he wants for his 14 hectares, I guarantee it… joke of the year… and that includes three farm houses and a barn and a fucking well without a dead cat down it.”
Hakim lit another cigarette and sat back and took a long drag on it, acknowledging with a satirical nod the cement-cold stare of one of the dust-covered workers who happened to find himself in the path of Hakim’s second-hand smoke. Under his breath Hakim said, “Put on your gas mask and lovely goggles if the smoke troubles you, darling,” and then, louder, to Mr. Rand, “There’s only one drawback, as I see it.”
Languidly his head went back as his mouth opened and out came what appeared to be a quivering x-ray of his skull. “The other thirty five hectares of the property in question is owned by Wenceslas’s dear old mum and she’s firmly against having the land sold off in bits. There’s a bright side, though… and I wouldn’t be mentioning all this if there weren’t.” He stubbed out the just-started cigarette, winking at the dust-covered worker and his two chums, who hadn’t uttered a word or moved very much at all since Mr. Rand’s last nervous appraisal.
“Right,” said Hakim. “The bright side. Mother is at death’s door, innit? Cancer of the heart or something. She’s like 99, this bird is, 99 on stilts and the wind is kicking up. She falls dead, Wenceslas can do what he wants with the property. You give him fifty thousand in one cash payment, you give me seven thousand for my time and expertise, you pay certain fees and sign certain documents with the Polish government, and you’re suddenly the lord of all you survey. Hear it’s real nice in the fall. No neighbors to speak of. Wolves. Folk tales. Nice. Whatcha think, then? I get 33% of my fee up front before you contact the seller, of course. Refundable within thirty days if the deal breaks down. Which I can’t see happening, frankly.”
“So now we’re just waiting…”
“For a poor old lady…”
Hakim winked and lit another cigarette and studied passersby on the street a good long time. A smile unfurled on his face. “Not that you have to.”
“Wait, I mean. Not that you have to wait.”
Mr. Rand felt the future open up under him.
Q: Now that you’re dying… we are, literally, between the first and second blow being delivered to your skull by the intruder’s blunt object (probably a watchman’s flashlight)… we wonder if you’d mind answering a few questions about life as you lived it?
A: Not at all.
Q: This photo. Who is it?
A: My sister and me. Surprising, isn’t it? We look like fashion models there, all dressed up, posing in front of a fountain. I don’t remember where the fountain was but you can see tourists milling around in the background so I’m assuming a world capitol. Maybe Paris. Our first trip to Europe.
Q: You are how old in this photo?
A: I’m afraid I can’t give you a precise answer but I’d say twenty, twenty one. Maybe twenty two. I think it must have been the early 1950s. The haircuts and the fashions have both come back, haven’t they? Everything always comes back but the people. Jean said that once and I thought it was sad and funny. I thought she was sad and funny. My little sister Jean.
Q: Can you remember for us what your interests were at the time of this photo?
A: The interests of any young woman of a certain class during the era. One had the feeling that things had loosened up after the war…there were cracks in the facade we thought we might squeeze through. People think of the 1950s as a particularly repressed era in American life for some reason but never in the history of the planet had so many non-aristocratic people been so well-educated and so ready to use this knowledge to make the world a better place. All of the seeds of the so-called counter-culture of the 1960s were planted during the 1950s and we thought it was a terribly exciting time. I even toyed with the idea of becoming an Abstract Expressionist painter. But maybe that was later.
Q: You say you toyed with the idea. Nothing came of it?
A: I’d like to say that I realized soon enough that I had no talent and so gave it up in a gesture of frank self-awareness, but it was worse than that. I think I realized that talent had very little to do with how far one might go with it, so to speak. I’m a very quick study in some cases and I made my observations and came to my conclusions. Art is just another facade we flatter ourselves with. The race, I mean. The human race. We flatter ourselves that we aren’t just herd animals with a pecking order, concerned mostly with power, food and, you know, reproduction.
Q: You were clear-eyed at a young age.
A: Well, not to seem too full of myself, but any so-called attractive young girl with enough of a brain in her skull picks up massive amounts of this information…call it the animal verities or the herd report…she picks it up at a very young age. The attention that’s paid and the nature of the attention and the kind of things one is punished for and the nature of the punishment. You learn it all in puberty. The lesson never really gets any more complex as you grow older and even more so-called attractive…it simply repeats itself until you finally really genuinely in all sincerity get it, like that Kafka story with the machine carving a sentence over and over again in the prisoner’s flesh. You get that aha moment.
Q: When did you first leave America for a substantial amount of time?
A: If by substantial you mean more than a few months I’d say in 1968. I was a grown woman, no children, money from a divorce settlement in the bank and nothing to keep me. There was a darkness in America…maybe the darkness was mostly in Philadelphia…but anyway I decided to sell my things and throw a party and just be done with it. But that was only my first escape. I came back with my tail between my legs two years later, having attempted to live as a single white woman in Morocco. Morocco was the destination of choice in 1968 for a certain crowd but for me it was a disaster.
Q: Cultural differences?
A: Yes, but not between myself and the so-called natives…between me and the expats. A more horrible group of people you can’t imagine. It was truly as though North America and pretty much all of Western Europe had systematically rounded up all the lotus-eating dilettantes and nouveau-riche snobs with a passion for throw-pillows and deported them to Morocco. It took me about a year to get myself permanently un-invited from every dinner party thrown there. Not that I minded. I very much enjoyed being alone.
Q: No problems at all with the indigenous culture? No incidents?
A: Well, if you call a near-rape an incident, yes. Once. It was very late and I was being foolish, singing to myself quite loudly. A man had me by the neck suddenly and I found myself in a sort of courtyard lit only by the moon. He had a knife that was not very big but it looked very sharp, glinting in the moon light and he kind of pantomimed that if I made the slightest sound he’d cut my throat. It’s very funny what happened. When he opened his robe and revealed his, you know…his erection, I suppose it’s okay to say…rather than struggle or look horrified I reached up and sort of gently…well, this is slightly embarrassing but there you have it. I stroked him there like a lover. And he was absolutely so revolted by the gesture that he shrank back from my touch and fled as though I were a witch. Not before spitting copiously on me, of course. But I had saved myself with my knowledge of human psychology and I was very proud of the fact and I even wrote home about it. I seem to remember trying to turn it into a poem or a short story but nothing came of it.
Q: When did you leave America permanently?
A: Lots of my friends and acquaintances claimed that they’d leave the country if Reagan won the election but I was the only one who made good on the threat.
Q: But you didn’t move straight away to Poland.
A: Oh no. There was a kind of a long filtration process at work. First I tried London. But I found soon enough that I longed for a certain quality that life in Morocco had had. That sense of perfect solitude one only achieves when surrounded by people speaking a language one is blissfully ignorant of. Even being literally alone, out in the woods or on a mountaintop, can’t match it.
Q: So you you tried Germany.
A: Yes, next came Germany. This is like the story of Goldilocks, isn’t it? But the Germans were too cold. And it was, what, only about forty years after the end of the war and there was just too much baggage. It was an extremely neurotic culture. Seven days a week and twenty four hours a day of over-reactions. You’d chide someone for cutting in front of you in a queue at the post office and he’d react as though you’d accused him of gassing Jews.Then, I met my future husband, and I suppose my head was turned by the fact that he owned and ran art galleries, and he was technically a count, a Polish count, this dashing blonde with a name it took five whole seconds to say in its entirety. I actually timed him saying it once. And he didn’t seem to mind that I was no longer, shall we say, thirty. Or even forty. Though I’ve managed to keep the same figure I had at twenty, which is one of the few advantages of being flat-chested.
Q: And you were happy?
A: Well, I didn’t expect to end up in a farm house in the middle of nowhere on the border between Germany and Poland on a plot of land too big for me to walk across in an afternoon, no. And I never dreamed that one day I’d become the stepmother to a forty year old drunk who likes to sun himself in his birthday suit even in the middle of winter…that’s a “no” too. But he’s a sweet-natured boy. I’m sure he’ll be devastated when he discovers my body.
Q: Thanks very much for your time.
A: You’re very welcome.