Category Archives: Homage á

Eryn; Edwina [from CITY OF AMATEURS]

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Eryn said get this he unzips his pants and asks is it big enough. The waitress still hadn’t fetched their drinks. Eryn gave the room an orphaned look and continued so the dirty is done and I’m combing my ‘fro in the dresser mirror. Okay? And the bathroom door is cracked open yea wide. Okay? And I kind of glimpse my new friend is doing his pee pee like literally sitting down on the toilet. The hell is that?

They were slouched at the bar in Chez Guevara, laughing so American that nearby patrons turned tolerant smiles on them. If tolerant smiles were deathrays they’d be cinders. Edwina said Eryn, my dear, don’t you know all German men pee pee sitting down?

-Ever since Hitler, said Eryn. Hitler in Berlin is never a non-sequitur.

The restaurant was full of flatscreen televisions in fractured blue strips over the bar and on the walls and mounted in the vaulted brick ceiling. Like welcome to the video age. They saw vineyards and pokerfaced newscasters shuffle typescripts of massacre and disaster. They saw the imported copshow, or was it a German ersatz, duck and shoot, shoot and run, run and jump. Steaming orders on multiple plates hovered by on the fringe of their chit chat. Several of the screens displayed ‘70s softcore from Holland, blonde boobs and a picturesque canal you could dye your jeans in. The pigtailed girl was panting shut-eyed and heave-titted but the sound was off and Eryn imagined her strapped to a gurney in a nursing home of the present reminiscing out loud about the good old days of the beaver shot. Eryn was already homesick but determined to stick it out according to the terms of her grant. You could order cheeses in this restaurant that would make a vulture puke. Eryn’s mother’s mother’s mother had coveted locusts in honey and shat near the river by starlight. Fragments of the long-dead woman had made it to the first world and were now sitting in the second, waiting for a drink.

The biggest screen, over the bar, showed a couple of North American celebrities arm in arm at some premiere or benefit or beheading or whatever, the female demonstrating her tolerant smile against a sustained bombardment of strobes intense as the fall of Saigon. The male was just listening, looking on, did he ever talk any more, worried about dinner or money or whatever run-of-the-mill medical issue is typical for a male in the autumn of his spate. The piss comes out in a trickle and you shrink from your own edges like day-old wedding cake. Celebrities are there to remind us that the body dies. Edwina winked oh look, it’s Evadolph.

-They follow me wherever I go, said Eryn.

-White people eat that shit up. Haven’t you heard? Adoption is the new slavery.

Eryn was skinny and bakelite deco black and Edwina was proud of Eryn’s attention-getting Afro, though she wouldn’t have worn one herself, though she could have if she wanted to, with professional help, being part black (a hook-dicked Alderman on her mother’s side). Edwina’s hair was straight and coarse as an Inca’s which matched her flat features. Edwina’s face looked somehow under-utilized: maybe it was the baby fat. Her eye-popping tits. She was one of those light-skinned not-really-black black women.

Edwina was not well-read. She’d never heard of Luigi Pirandello. Eryn had but had forgotten that she had and was preoccupied with fears that she’d picked up a German yeast infection. She picked up yeast infections like corduroy picks up lint. Corduroy has the word for king in it. There was a foreign quality to her discomfort. She was itching like young red ants between her legs and prayed hard for the folk cure of her Caipirinha. Her vagina would go up in flames if the waitress didn’t show up soon to douse it. Her Afro was too big to avoid touching people. Her Afro touched up to hundreds of people a day.

Edwina was married to a beefy bisexual black lawyer named Kevin Brandischauer with whom she lived in a condominium in the Marina Towers, literally overlooking the Chicago River. Kevin said if you jumped from the observation deck you would splat on the other side of the river. Edwina came to Europe on ostentatious shopping sprees not despite, but because of, the weak dollar. Eryn wasn’t sure if she considered Edwina an African-American but you could only think of her as pretty if you thought of her as black. She knew that was a ridiculous thought. She said,

-It’s not like Europeans aren’t racist. Of course they are. But the difference I’m feeling since I’ve been over here is me. Back home, some educated-looking white person gives me a dirty look, deep down I think I deserve it. Am I right?

Eryn had been over for a week, her first ever trip out of the country of her birth, her first ever six-hour sleep at an altitude higher than clouds, the sensation of making a minor appearance in the pilot’s recurrent dream.

Eryn wasn’t attracted to black men and black men were only circumstantially attracted to her, she felt, though educated white men, as a rule, were absolutely nuts on the topic. They super-tipped in her presence; they copied out unattributed poems from nostalgic textbooks while daydreaming they were leaving their wives, especially the professors who volunteered to pick her up in their litter-filled cars at regional airports. She specialized in neglected dick with tenure. Every time Eryn had tried to have a learnedly witty conversation with a man of her background about the meaning of life she’d been afflicted with a self-mocking self-consciousness that killed the topic, though she admitted it was her own fault; she admitted the problem was hers.

The late great playwright August Wilson had mentored Eryn in an innercity arts program and nicknamed her Error.

Edwina asked Eryn if she’d ever had a near-death experience. It felt like a funny thing to ask, given the circumstances. Eryn said,

-The waitress is going to have a near-death experience if we don’t get our drinks soon. Why do you ask?

-I was in a house fire the day before 9/11. I mean a ten-storey apartment building. I was living on the top floor with an awesome view of Jackson Park, deep in a dream when my boyfriend at the time starts shaking me because the bedroom is full of smoke. The smoke was floating like black milk in a fishtank and it was about three feet off the floor so you stood up it would kill your ass. Back in those days I slept on a futon mattress on a hardwood floor, you could feel the heat coming up off the floorboards. I saw flames in the cracks between the floorboards.

Edwina broke off her riveting tale to watch an arresting image on the flatscreen over the bar: a Japanese girl with no arms in a black Lycra top without armholes painting watercolour kittens in a pastiche of Hokusai with a very long brush in her mouth.

By the time I got to Chez Guevara, much later than I’d planned to, still flustered after a vicious row with my first wife, Eryn and Edwina had finally had their drinks delivered and were easing under the mellowing influence of a second round. They’d moved from the bar to a table near the bar, Eryn with her back to the view of the crowded sidewalk as I entered the restaurant through the purple curtains over the doorway. Friday night’s revelers were threading in pairs and threesomes between fashionable automobiles progressing so slowly in traffic that many of the drivers were leisurely chatting up the best-looking unattached girls on the sidewalk.

I’d be lying if I claimed I hadn’t spotted what I considered a sexual opportunity in the sight of two black female tourists of a certain age, isolated in a room full of unfriendly Germans. I didn’t know either woman, at that point, but I knew what each woman symbolized (in the slightly different contexts of home and abroad). Each had advantages and disadvantages, parceled out at birth, which anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with human psychology could exploit by setting these attributes in subtle conflict. As so-called “white” women’s sexual roles changed in the West with the advent of the revolution that took only two decades to demystify the holy of holies (the reproductive aperture of the species), black women found themselves stranded in a sexual power vacuum. It was as a man mindful of a Zeitgeist in which Billie Holiday is no longer particularly sexy to any but the hoariest of tenured academics that I approached their table and inquired if anyone would mind if I joined them.

My then-wife, a model-type raised in a suburb of northern Hamburg (a village, essentially, where every house has a four-digit telephone number), had just spent two years going through a revolution of her own in Southern California. She had managed to shed every trait (except her looks) which I had found too charming to let another week pass without proposing to her, which I did a few weeks after the moment I first saw that figure parting a crowd on a street near the harbor in Hamburg. A figure with the bearing of a Wagnerian shepherdess. A long honeymoon in San Diego became an extended visa in a hell that replaced my Wagnerian shepherdess with a name-dropping, money-mad, all-American doppelgänger who wouldn’t fuck until I successfully wheedled or bribed her. I hadn’t ejaculated within five meters of my then-wife for weeks when the pressure valve blew.

It blew in the form of a fight that climaxed with us cursing and shoving and slapping each other. I had the presence of mind to throw on a blazer and exit the flat before somebody ended up in the custody of the German police or on a stretcher with an arm dangling. We’d been dressing for dinner at Chez Guevara, a pattern we’d fallen into since returning to Berlin from our ill-fated stay in America.

Later that evening, sitting on a chair by the bed in her hotel room, I asked Eryn about her novel, which she had dropped coy allusions to in the masking hubbub of the restaurant as though speaking a code she didn’t want Edwina to pick up on. She corrected me: it wasn’t a novel, it was a play. She was in Europe on a Tubman grant to complete it. This all happened years ago and I can’t be counted on to remember my conversation with Eryn Brandischauer accurately.

-Why did you start writing plays?

-Because I could.

-What inspired you?

-I was tired of people thinking I was stupid.

-What people? Who?

-Teachers. Family. Friends.

-What did you think of working with August Wilson?

-It changed my life, but the longer I knew him, the more I developed views about his work and life I couldn’t share with anyone. They weren’t hurtful, these words about August that I had to keep secret, but they weren’t laudatory, either. An artist achieves a certain stature and anything said within earshot of the artist has to be either explicitly laudatory or implicitly laudatory, those are the rules, but I had some trouble with the fact that he spoke two languages.

-You mean he was bi-lingual?

-No, not in that sense, despite the fact he could have been, in that sense. You know his father was a German from Germany, an immigrant named Kittel.

-No, I didn’t know that.

-August spoke two languages, one that must have been true, I felt, and one I felt was false, but I could never say which was which, because it depended on who he was speaking to and also who was auditing when he was speaking to that person. But I was just some kid from Saint Paul; what did I know?

-Do you consider yourself beautiful?

-I consider myself capable of defining beauty. That’s enough.

Edwina came out of the bathroom just then and we changed the subject.

.

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Lake Zurich

The last photo in the row of photos in cardboard frames on the windowsill was face-down on the sill and he wondered if this meant something or if the wind had done it, despite the fact that the window, for as long as she’d been living here, had never been open. The air was piped-in like music. He checked the seam between the lower half of the window and the track it was in and confirmed his suspicion that it was thickly painted shut, thick as a welding seam, seafoam green like a jail. Through the blinds the janitor, the Latino, was visible down there with his obscenely oiled hair dumping suds on a drain in the parking lot. Making even that look furtive.

Richly colored Penthouse tear-outs pasted all over the boiler is what Dominic pictured. Ripe-mouthed deposit bottles in a discreet cache behind a seatless toilet in a magic kingdom of pipes and pilot lights and pagan practices. He set the photo upright again and saw that it was his mother looking prettier than any girlfriend he’d ever had. No way would you correctly identify the woman in that picture now.

He’s thinking: when they’re young and valuable you build a citadel around them with a fence, big dogs, an armed response insignia. When they lose their value the security drops off considerably. Anybody could walk in here. But who would want to? He looks at his mother and then that picture again and scratches his neck. He could probably spirit the picture to safety without her noticing.

She’d given up the theater after his father died under what an expert called ambiguous circumstances and the chore of paying attention to her had fallen to Dominic’s twin brother, Dean, by default, for some reason, but Dean balked after a few years and they worked out a schedule. Dominic had her on Sundays and national holidays including Thanksgiving and Christmas, making that long drive into the city from Lake Zurich in the light morning traffic with a jumbo thermos of good coffee and a beachbook and whatever paperwork.

He’s thinking she looks mauled by the feral dogs of time. This life is a peach something / eats from within ‘til the taste of the peach turns / distasteful is a piece of a poem he remembers she wrote before even half of the depredations to come. It literally looks like whatever it was chewed her awhile and spit her out again twitching. As Deano once put it: Jesus Dom it’s like she bet God a hundred bucks he couldn’t fuck her up.

Dominic winks and uses the graying good looks of his last-chance middle-aged boyishness to reassure her. The old her wouldn’t have been so easily reassured. The version he feared and loved. He opens the blinds to let more light in and sees the janitor is now propped up on a mop handle, his chin on his hands on the handle’s tip, chatting with the colored security guard and casting a very short shadow. She is no longer the brave, honest, wisecracking cynic he always knew but has become prayerful and humbly positive-minded after the first operation and this is upsetting.

Why does this upset him? Because he loosely based his life on her example but then it comes down to the nitty-gritty and she does a one-eighty in the direction of Disneyland? No. It’s more about the howling terror he smells under this happy new mask of acceptance. Right under the surface of the so-called serenity of her badly lopsided smile. She’s like a hostage reading from the kidnapper’s prepared script. She has a wound on her right ankle due to poor circulation that keeps opening, with the leg swelling off and on. She’s had multiple pelvic and spinal fractures due to thinning bones. She was diagnosed with NPH and NPH is diagnosed with a lumbar tap and they had difficulty doing it so she was stuck repeatedly. They took her to surgery and had to shave the right side of her head and place a shunt from the right side of the head to the right side of the abdomen for absorption of the excess fluid.

She gazes upon the magazine he brought her from the rack on Evie’s side of the bed and singsongs androgynous hairstyles are “in” again, I see, with affectionate irony, pretending to dwell on a page she simply can’t turn because her fingers are too cramped and distorted with pain. Like a collection of useless quotation marks bunched in her lap.

Dominic says if Evie came home with a cut like that I’d divorce her. But he’s smiling. Pretending to smile. Pretending to wink. He peers through the blinds, talking away from her:

“I can’t say I like the look of your janitor.”

“Don’t be a racist, Dominic.”

“Whoa. Is ‘janitor’ a race?”

Dom’s thinking how safe it is up in Lake Zurich: no gangs or wild animals and even the few teenagers haunting the mall are girls and rarely gather in groups larger than three. The boys are neatly dressed loners and won’t become dangerous until well into middle age. It’s a suburb of middle-managers and their lotioned toddlers and the Guatemalan nanny is their minority group. People have the common courtesy to move out before their kids hit puberty. Dom likes the alpine allusions of the name and the name figured prominently in his decision to move up there and also in the ease with which he’d persuaded Evie, sight unseen. He liked how he might be backed up in traffic on a rusted and unpredictable side-street in Chicago with the air conditioning off so he could hear things, taking his life in his hands, yet soothe his jumpy soul with visualizations of Switzerland. The Alps.

Dom says, “I used to call Dean Dom, secretly, and he called me Dean. For most of our childhood. He never told you that?”

Luis says, “That’s just between you and me and the mosquitoes, man,” and gives Milton one of his long custodial looks and pats the ass pocket of his overalls for that book of matches his kid gave him sometime during the last sleep-over. The Museum of Science and Industry. For some reason the kid is under the impression he collects matchbooks. Milton lights up and takes a few puffs before committing himself to a reaction.

“But you saw all this.”

“No man. I told you. The lady of which I speak saw it and she told me about it in convincing detail. And now I’m relating it to you instead of more or less eating my lunch.”

“And she wasn’t on drugs.”

“Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“And you come to me.”

“Well, unless I’m sadly mistaken.”

“You’re saying I have a reputation as somewhat of a… ”

“I’m saying take it as a compliment.”

“Okay.”

“I’m saying have a look for yourself.”

“You’re saying drive out there… ”

Luis does a little move with the mop at arm’s length and brings the hardwood tip of the handle back to his mouth like a microphone. He’s uncomfortable in Milton’s presence because he doesn’t want to stare so he fidgets. He says, “I’m saying investigate the site first hand and come to your own conclusions. You of all people.”

“Because of a so-called reputation.”

“What can I say? People notice. A man reads a certain kind of books… ”

“You’re saying it sets him apart.”

“For better or worse.”

“And we’re taking your car?”

“If I had a car would I be asking?”

“Man, I was having a perfectly average day until you… damn. Damn. Okay. From my perspective?”

“I know.”

“You know what I’m saying.”

“I know.”

“I’m just saying that what we call the supernatural… ”

“I know.”

“… is another word for the unexplained.”

“I think we’re seeing eye to eye on this, Milton.”

“But phase two of this conversation is called gas money.”

Luis gestures politely for one last puff on Milton’s lucky. Milton shades his eyes from the sun and frowns with patience as Luis sucks the life-giving smoke all in. Milton is thinking how a middle-aged Catholic gets divorced and suddenly he’s the prey of every emotionally disturb 17-year-old girl who looks at him. Still, he’s flattered that Luis should approach him as some kind of expert in the mysteries of life. He thinks of himself as tuned into the highly unusual. He maintains an open channel on the wavelength of the ain’t-necessarily-so.

2.

It was one of those uncomfortable summer days in Chicago that mellows into a bearable late afternoon. Dominic was out in the parking lot feeling estranged from his late model Ford, staring at the keys in the ignition through the glass of the passenger-side window. His mother was just then going through her physical rehabilitation routine with a woman in a powder-blue pantsuit from Manila and he didn’t want to interrupt things in order to use her telephone. Neither did he have what he calls a toy phone on his person.

The nearest phone booth was probably a forty minute walk and covered in gang graffiti and reeking of piss and the chances that it would actually work after he went through all that were slim. People in phone booths are usually shouting. Dom tapped the glass. He yanked on the door handle one more time for magical reasons. If his mother lived in a conventional nursing home there’d be an office with a flirtatious not-bad secretary in it to ask about using the phone but the suggestion had time and again been stubbornly resisted. Dean says we’re paying nursing home prices for fraternity house conditions but she says the point is the lock I have on that door. Dom questions the concept of privacy when nothing you’ve got is what anybody is interested in seeing. She absorbs the comment with that Helen Keller smile that drives him up the wall. For magical reasons he yanked the handle again.

A reconditioned black Buick Roadmaster with RKO starlet curves and a big chrome sneer of a grill pulled into the lot like a death barge and emitted a passenger at the far end of the otherwise empty lot, motor running. Dom recognized the emitted passenger as the janitor and tried and failed to make eye contact with the man as he jogged into the building in his street clothes. Instead Dom strolled towards the Buick. He’d grown up in an integrated area of Chicago and was cautious but not afraid.

When the driver leaned over and cranked the passenger-side window down so they could interact Dom smiled and said, “Anybody in here capable of getting into my locked car without setting the alarm off?” He framed it as a joke, being that the only person in the car beside the black driver was a very pretty white girl on the back seat. Couldn’t have been older than twenty. She looked like a girl Dom had dated about thirty years ago called Toni.

The driver said, “Lock yourself out of your car on the Fourth of July weekend…that’s pretty rough,” and Dom was embarrassed at how well-spoken the man was. His English had a commiserating quality categorically alien to car thieves. Dom turned and the janitor was walking towards him with the duffel bag of dirty uniforms he’d forgotten.

“You’re 212’s son, right?”

They shook hands. “Yeah. I locked myself out of my car.”

“Can we give you a ride somewhere?”

“My brother lives in Elm Park.”

“By all means hop in.”

As a container of people the car is something other than its stated purpose of transport, thought Dom. There’s an intimate mood that’s fully visible to the public. People sleep, eat Ramen noodles and do whatever in their cars. He’d peered into many a car in the long commute from Lake Zurich and taken note of every possible contingency. You look into cars and see alternative selves driving by. Take away the motion and what you have is suspense: four people waiting for something to happen. There were books and magazines at the toes of his boots on the floor under the seat in front of him and he could see that one of the yellowing paperbacks was called The Book of the Damned. As a young man Dom had often participated in mixed-nut selections of automobile passengers like this. You get older and the variations tend to tone down regarding class and race and profession.

They drove without music or conversation by a long series of modest lawns behind hurricane fences. On each lawn was the curved sword of a sprinkler jet chopping the air. The girl, who hadn’t been introduced or as yet spoken a word, said, “You’re a Leo.”

“That’s correct,” said Dom. He responded without sizing her up, not being sure which, if either, of the men sitting on the front seat of the car she belonged to. He looked past her through the window on her side of the seat behind the driver and pretended to focus on a shirtless black boy with an eye-patch steering no-handed on a brand new bicycle falling gracefully behind.

“Luis is a Leo,” she added. “I’m sensing an illness in your immediate family.”

“Pardon me?”

“An illness in your family. Someone close. I’m sensing.”

“Well,” laughed Dom, “That’s a pretty safe bet considering that you picked me up in the parking lot of an elder care facility.”

Everyone chuckled, including the girl herself. Dom went further and sort of took in all the passengers in the Buick and said, “I’m sensing a conflict with your father,” and got a much bigger laugh.

3.

Milton said, in a spooky-wise tone of voice, “15,000 kids disappear every year, man. Where do you think they go to?” and for whatever reason Dom felt that a UFO conversation was trying to assert itself. It’s like Rod Serling dies and you have a sudden intense interest in his reruns again, looking for clues.

“Matter can neither be created or destroyed, am I right?”

Dom was thinking: she’s so turned on with three guys in this car and she’s the only female she’s about to slide off that hot vinyl seat. A Puerto Rican, a black and an assimilated Mick: exactly the kind of dirty joke my old man would tell at the airport. Back when there were lots of propellers and you could talk as loud as you wanted and say pretty much anything. Do I really want to be dropped off at Dean’s? On the other hand do I want to start a race riot on wheels. The pros and cons have to be weighed against the irresistible force and divided by the immovable object. How would Sun Tzu handle this? Slyly, he said,

“Luis, we got any possibility of some music up there?”

Milton said, “Got an AM radio.”

Dom said, “I won’t say no to that. How do you feel about oldies?”

Milton said, “I’m gonna say a word, okay, and you respond with the first thing that comes into your consciousness and that’s the process by which we will determine whether or not we think the same type of thing by which we mean ‘oldies’.”

Milton was grinning at Dom in the rearview yet beside him Luis Reyes had grown enigmatically stiff-necked; stiff-necked and coiled as he sat there in front of Dom on the passenger side, reading Dom’s mind with the back of his head. The thing of significance was between the girl and this janitor called Luis.

“Fair enough?”

“Fair enough.”

Dom liked taking tests. Milton put his eyes back on the road and allowed the intervening silence to develop. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Beach Boys.”

“Bullshit.”

Everyone laughed except Luis and the girl and Milton saluted without looking and announced, “You passed it, guy.”

He reached and twisted at the radio in a bird-like fashion and for the first time Dom noticed that Milton only had two fingers and a thumb on the right hand. It looked less like a wound than a birth defect. In other words if you didn’t know what a hand looked like it looked fine. There was a tinny, vintage speaker mounted in the upholstered surface behind the back seat where the rear window sloped towards the trunk and right behind Dom’s head there rose, like the sonic equivalent of a Persian miniature, Gypsy Woman, by The Impressions, on exactly the type of speaker the song had been engineered to sound best on.

With that lofty white male edge to his voice Dom said “Nineteen hundred and sixty three…” but the girl reached over and slapped her hand over his mouth to literally save his life.

Three Conversations, One Real [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

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?

2

“It was like listening to a fucking mugging.”

“Jesus.”

“Like listening to your mother…my mother…getting mugged during a transatlantic…”

“Jesus.”

“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.”

“Yeah?”

“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.”

“Surprising.”

“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 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?”

“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.”

“Blimey is right. Lock it?”

“Nah.”

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…”

“Right.”

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.”

“Excuse me?”

“Wait, I mean. Not that you have to wait.”

Mr. Rand felt the future open up under him.

3

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.

Evidence of Humor in the Obscure Works of Amis the Younger: a Thesis

evidence-of-humor

Qualos freezes before screaming. He teeters on his clogstilts like an icon of incredulity. He tells himself don’t. Don’t scream. Screaming will only serve to. The car is gone anyway. It’s long gone anyway. Fast as cars move these days the thing is a kilometer gone and screaming will only help Snatchers track him and how much is all the paper in these books worth, after all? The big book alone. 500 pages and he’s got three of them and here he is Qualos K. schlepping this royal stuff unattended. Fatty Snatchers are sub-verbal and post-culture and heartless as the useful dead (as the saying goes) and so anything of value…anything. Qualos shudders. Aware of the booming black market in azfat.

Don’t worry about the books. The books are fine. The trousers are ruined. The books (in aluminum overcoats) are no problem but the trousers are toast. Digression: Qualos’s young colleague Wahn did an etymological study on the word ‘toast’ and discovered that long long ago the word referred to a fermented beverage. The modern usage (pertaining to a thing’s utter uselessness) obviously relates to the deleterious effects of inebriation via this potent ‘toast’ drink. Anyway. What was the kunt doing offroad? 

Qualos’s one fucking good pair of trousers, his inheritance, 100 percent natural fibers. He was to be married in these ancient irreplaceable things and he only hazarded donning them in the first place on this day of all days because there was going to be this supposedly special department meeting with Chancellor Shahvez present and now look they’re oozing with cum-streaks of acid mud and wouldn’t you know it the meeting was called off (department head beheaded; El Ai for you) so… great. Might as well strip. Right down to the skinsuit. Kick the rags down a firehole and be done with it. Blend in with the tards and proles in his skinsuit until he gets home.

No, he thinks, raising his chins.

No, a scholar wears trousers.

He sloshes home with self-satirizing dignity past several garbage-ringed fireholes along the way. The trousers soon hang in strips from his waist the skinsuit shining like a lamp under the smoking tatters yet behold the chins of Qualos, so resolutely high-held. This is where his breeding comes into it. The resolute chins, the noble baldness. The shreds of the heirloom Armani.

My problem, thinks Qualos, as the rattan ginormity of Hotel 547 looms unreflected over its sludgy moat into view. Too proud to exercise my prerogatives. Could have txtd Muhreea with the car’s vassalplate and Muhreea could have txtd her dad and dad could’ve called in a personal airstrike. Two minutes tops and Mr. Sports Tank is bar-b-cue. Qualos can see it clear as day the six-wheeled chunk of metal spinning on its back like a turtle dropped on a rock by a gull and te fruit-dealing negritoe within: a guttering wick. This makes Qualos smile.

What’s the point of marrying into a Warlord’s clan if you’re too proud to indulge in the perks? Qualos shakes his head with mock-long-suffering pride in his pride. Just as he is sometimes afraid of his fear and disgusted with his disgust he is proud of his pride. Typical scholar. Muhreea says don’t smile, Qualos, it makes you look so weak but he shakes his head and he smiles. What Muhreea and the rest of her dynasty fail to grasp is how a perceived weakness cloaks an unperceived strength.

Qualos breezes in through the southeast checkpoint and gets the green flash and the strangely disparaging (and vaguely homosexual) he’s harmless from the screener chip. No one so much as glances up from their phoenbooks, frowning through loupes at all the little paradise-colored displays. The guests, the guards, the residents all hunched and loafing with their phoenbooks in the sweltering lobby. Because their rooms are shit. Most of their rooms are pure shit; are prewar toilets; are prewar toilets without toilets. How many of them have ever seen a genuine natural fiber example of what Qualos is carrying?

Digression: young Wahn the colleague informed Qualos once that way-back-when they pronounced ‘toilet’ as toy-lit.

Anyway. Paper-based books or unicorn eggs: same diff. But no one even looks up and Qualos, modeling his hissing trousers like they’re an antediluvian museum-piece of a grass skirt from the lost island of Haw-y-ee, makes a beeline for the lift. It’ll take twenty or thirty minutes to elevate to the 182nd floor (Senor Heyzeus owes him a saki and a handjob) and he wants to get this over with. So, up to the 182nd and then back down to his corner suite (in this case he must admit he indulged in a perk or two alright: he has a tubtoilet, a vertical bed, a kitchen and a closet) on the 160th. It takes longer to elevate to the penthouse (that he would ever have any business up there) than to drive to the next city. He hopes he can score a seat in the lift. Both directions. But he’ll settle for up.

As it happens, there is a free seat in the lift and it’s right next to someone Qualos knows, slightly, another scholar named Geeairmoe. Geeairmoe with the long hair and high forehead and the little mustache and mincing lips looking terribly like that guy on the Dreamervision show, the show that’s supposed to be so well-researched and so well-calibrated that it won’t even give you headaches after doing it solid for a month. Won an M.E. award.

Geeairmoe, who certainly knows his way around a paper-based book (and would recognize the aluminum protector plates as property of the Uni in any case), nods at the pile in Qualos’s lap and says, pretending to feign interest, “What you got there?” He doesn’t even mention the trousers. Geeairmoe’s tact is infinitely more wounding than a gaffe could ever have been. Lethal bastard. He’ll be a Head in no time. “Anything good?”

“Amis the Younger.”

“Ah.”

Geeairmo’s eyes twinkle with the soft reflected torchlight of the citadeled pleasures of youth. Like if Qualos had mentioned boysex or something. Saying Amis the Younger always gets this response, notes Qualos: that good old Amis twinkle. Not terribly unlike the so-called Rowling Effect, as SocPsyc Officers call it: even apeshit hammer-mad loonies go all placid (enough to tranq ’em, at least) when you chant a few paragraphs from The Potteriad. Likewise the number of times people have afforded Qualos himself the goodwill that Amis the Younger’s beloved works engender. As though Qualos were the centuries-dead Amis’s Sancho. Or his emissary. In fact Qualos often wonders if Muhreea… if even Muhreea… and so on.  He shakes his head.

“They’re all by Amis the Younger but it’s not the Little Paco series.”

“He… aha. He produced other books?”

“Quite a few, actually. Most people aren’t aware of the fact that Amis didn’t even begin the Paco until well into his seventies, which was considered an advanced age for intellectual activity back then. He first published in his early twenties, which people in those days considered rather young. Between his early twenties and his late fifties, he produced a fair amount of work, though only experts have read any of it, of course. We tend to refer to them as the minor works. The apprenticeship he had to serve, if you will…” Qualos sniffs, “in preparation for the masterpieces he’s remembered for.”

He strokes the scratched metal cover of the uppermost book. “I’m working on a Global Thesis Post (he can see that Geeairmoe is impressed, despite himself) to the effect that these so-called ‘serious’ early works…all of which Amis wrote in Old English, by the way… were intended to be every bit as comedic as Little Paco. It’s the radical difference in style and the shift from Old English when Amis made the all-important conversion of working only in Spanish (which in turn has to be converted into modern Spenglis) that throws the historians off, I believe. Not that I can’t commiserate with the clueless bastards. The ornate language of these early works can be pretty slow going. A pretty tough slog. I’ve been working on these three alone for a metric year. Trying to think of a comparison. Have you heard of a paper-based Old English book called Finnegans Wake?”

“Ah,” nods Geeairmoe, who neither truly understands nor cares.