Category Archives: Maxi Fiction

The Early Days of Television

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[editor’s note: the following story is an excerpt from a larger work, HERE]

The first time Benny saw her was in the produce aisle of the Decatur Blvd Von’s in Vegas and the first thing he said to her was “You look like you come from the stars, sister.” A meteorite-black Nefertiti in white.

Who, me? she pantomimed.

Wearing a flowing white caftan and a miter-like head-wrap, also white, and affecting a bewildered foreign air, she smiled her dimpled, dazzling smile and considered both the intent and merit of Benny’s effort. Bemused, and finished with her own “shopping”, she followed him up and down several aisles as he tossed various processed, animal fat, refined white sugar and bleached flour products into his cart and pushed it towards the check-out line, trying his blarney on her.

Benny was clean-shaven at the time and dressed in the hip square look of a man trying to break into the upper reaches of the hip square world of writing for Television: the Timex, the turtle neck, the khakis, the loafers. She mistook him for a swarthy honky talking black but let him rap on for the reasons that he was tall and handsome and would provide an excellent cover as she exited the Von’s with thirty pounds of shoplifted produce concealed upon her person, pressed tight upon her naked flesh. The cashier, a bleach-blonde leather-tanned cracker, fingernails chipped and bitten to the pork-pink quick, gave Benny a look of uncomplicated racial disgust as he paid for his purchases with that Negress in tow, signing a cheque that required three pieces of picture ID before she, the lipless cashier, would accept it. The striking black lady took Benny by the arm as they promenaded with some pomp through the double-electric-door airlock of the supermarket.

Beyond the protection of the arctic bubble of the supermarket’s air conditioning and prior to the bubble of Benny’s ’68 Mercury Cougar, the asphalt on which the car was parked pushed back at the sky with its black, impacted heat. It felt like walking behind a pre-takeoff F-15 as Benny slipped his Foster Grants on, a climatic extreme his East Coast blood never got used to. He popped the lid on his trunk and offered her a ride. She bent over to climb in and he noticed her belly, her hips and thighs were bulging and jutting and lumping out at various stresspoints along the seams of the caftan, and perhaps white wasn’t the most fortuitous color for her to have wrapped such a voluminous body in.

He stole boyishly furtive glances as he steered the Cougar, talking his head off. He was talking his head off in hopes that the right sequence of words might click and open the lock (if lock there was) on the young lady’s alpha and omega, which he intuited would be as restorative to his sexual powers as a dip in a rain barrel at Lourdes. Six months on MetraCal or some other modern dietary supplement and she’d be just about perfect.

Just as the brothers were dreaming of “dating” those incandescent peppermint blondes one saw on billboards all over the country hawking Virginia Slims and Miss Clairol: Only Her Hairdresser Knows For Sure, the preppy masterminds responsible for those very billboards were in turn lusting horribly after the brothers’ sisters, and Benny, perhaps, would have been shocked to be informed that in lusting after this black beauty his sexual proclivities were closer to a white man’s than to a brother’s that year.

“The thing to remember about the industry,” he heard himself saying, “it’s a medium in its infancy. It’s still what you call protean… everything’s up for grabs, you see what I’m saying? What you want is to be in on the ground level at the next paradigm shift and how do you achieve that? You just need that one solid hit… a bonafide hit that seems to contradict everything that came before it. See, I plan on having that hit, sister. I bank on it.”

If there was one thing in 1972 that she was sick of, it was white men calling her ‘sister’. Especially a white man trying to talk black. Still, he was cute.

“Take something like The Name of the Game. It’s the kind of television that successful people between the ages of 27 and 33 stay home to watch… they’ll turn down a cocktail party or a night out at the movies to watch this show and yet it defies all conventional wisdom. Each episode is 90 minutes long… 90 minutes! It’s really three shows, with three leads, wrapped into one. The leads rotate. Each episode is like a feature-length film, if you can ignore the commercials… a feature-length film for free. That’s what television means…that’s the meaning of television. The destiny of television. Never having to leave your own home for entertainment! One day, sister, there won’t be any commercials, either. What you’ll have then is an uninterrupted experience of your favorite shows, and, believe me, by then, everything on the tube will be your favorite. You’ll never want to leave that spot in front of the picture tube. You’ll never need to.”

“They’re working on that already. As things are now, what you’re seeing, listen, an advertiser pays a very large fee for the right to interrupt the show to talk a little about his product. A little song and dance about ketchup.They call it a break like it’s some kind of relief but the fact is it’s an interruption. But what if they could work the product into the show? You could charge the advertiser more for that because the product could end up with longer screen time but, see, there’d be no interruption. Okay, between shows you’d need a pause so people could… you know. So they could go to the, uh… to the bathroom…” Benny blushed.

“Anyway, I’m just talking now. I know I talk too much. What about you? Where are you from? Some exotic location. Let me guess. Port Au Prince? Cairo? Madagascar?”

Precious lifted her chin and shut him up with her Nefertiti profile. How should she play this? Would he be disappointed to learn that she wasn’t a foreigner? That she was born in North Carolina?

“I hope you don’t think there’s anything wrong,” she said, with exactly the kind of voice a Siamese cat would if one knew a human worth speaking to, “with a girl just being a common-ass Negro.”

Common-ass you are not, sister,” said Benny.

“Maybe you don’t know enough Negroes.”

“Maybe you don’t know enough light-skinned brothers passing for white.”

“Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “Why didn’t you say so?” She reached down the front of her dress and extracted a mango. “You hungry?”

Benny said he was starving.

***

His immediate higher-up at The Studio went by the name of Gray, or Grayson, Parker, an affected anti-affectation meant to call attention to the fact that he was calling attention away from the fact that his actual name was much longer and stamped with pedigrees as old as the thirteen original Colonies. Parker was standing half-crouched on his desk, back to Benny, facing the enormous sixth floor picture window that guests in the chair in front of his desk usually faced (stunned by the view of The Strip which filled it precisely for that purpose, dormant and raw as the bottom of the Dead Sea, during working hours, and spectacular as a Con Edison-powered vision of a Kansan’s idea of a first class purgatory, at night).

It was late-lunch time on a Thursday afternoon and The Studio was meticulously emptied of higher-ups, most of them over at Sarno’s Circus Circus sucking radium-colored Margaritas through glass straws at the white-leather bar where Sean Connery had only months-prior filmed a scene for Diamonds Are Forever. Circus Circus wasn’t visible from Parker’s office but the north face, upper level, corner suite of the Satellite Motor Lodge was. Parker reached back without looking, and said, with a surgeon’s urgency, “Bushnells.” As Parker handed Benny the old Steiner spy glass in exchange, he took the Bushnells, adjusted them, and emitted an admiring groan that could easily have been taken for a song of pain.

“Son of a bitch,” he grinned.

An hour later they were waiting for seafood platters over bottomless glasses of so-so wine at the street-level bar of the relatively-rundown Stardust. As everyone who actually knew Vegas knew, each of the major casino/hotels was calibrated to appeal to visitors from a specific region of the greater Midwest, with The Sands aimed at Kansas, The Tropicana keyed to Oklahoma, and The Frontier designed specifically to rope in tourists from North and South Dakota, and so on. Or something like that. Benny could never remember the exact formula. Elements of the Stardust felt like an homage towards the blue-collar, redlight ambiance of near-Northside Chicago; the shocking abundance of colored waitresses (two) couldn’t have been a coincidence. The fact that Parker preferred the Stardust over the garishly swanky Circus Circus couldn’t have been a coincidence, either. As the waitress, a Benin bronze in a polyester wig, marched towards the kitchen, her red satin hotpants sucked so hard on Parker’s eyes that his optic nerves twanged like a banjo.

Parker had a habit, especially when he was feeling rose-lit by the grape-light, of calling Benny Pierre, due to Benny’s French-sounding surname, probably, and the only thing that kept Benny from taking umbrage at this was his knowing that Parker didn’t know he was a Negro. It was okay, in other words, because he was being denigrated as a man but not as a human. Most Negroes would never know how good that could feel, or even that an inexplicable appetite for such abuse (first to receive it, later to dole it out) was the key to success in business.

“Looks are everything, Pierre,” said Parker, checking the time, “…why do you suppose my watch is worth more than your monthly salary and yet yours costs less than this lunch? Does one keep better time than the other? I think not. Look,” he mimed drawing a diagram on the bar with his finger, “there’s an atomic clock with an IBM brain buried a mile under a mountain in Colorado in a top-secret room that cost the tax payers eighty five million dollars to build and a million a year to maintain… ” He raked his fingers through a haircut the color and texture of doll hair. He had a phenomenally small face. He looked bewildered, briefly, and started again.

“Pierre, I know you appreciate frankness. So I’m going to be frank. Why do you think the old guy hired you, despite your somewhat, shall we say, skimpy qualifications? Two years of art school on the G.I. Bill? Six months in the mail room of an AM radio station in Philly? Good grades in High School? I think not. We took you on because you look the part. The sideburns, the cheekbones, the suede jacket and turtleneck sweater. You beat out a guy who graduated near the top of his class from Harvard.”

It hit Benny that he was either about to be promoted to junior executive or fired with less ceremony than Parker had ordered their drinks with and his posture changed accordingly. With almost imperceptible stealth, he shifted back up off his elbows. He tasted a deep swallow of the bar’s stale layer-cake of old smoke and gambler’s fearsweat and became lucid as hell, clear as a tall glass of lunar vacuum, ready for whatever Parker was about to throw at him. His mouth was as dry as all that encroaching desert out there, only a three minute walk in any direction from any point on The Strip, tumbleweeds blowing down Sahara Avenue. He was ready for death.

Hamilton Gold entered the bar with an exaggerated tip-toe pantomime made all the more would-be comical by his briefcase, sneaking up on Parker with a wink at Benny, who was far from in the mood to play along. Gold loomed behind Parker for what felt like a solid minute, obviously stuck on what to do next, unable to think of anything hysterically funny.  He took a seat at the bar and nodded defeated hellos. He caught the waitress’s eye and asked Parker,

“Have you, uh…?”

“Not yet. I was just getting to it.”

Gold turned to Benny and, making that face he made when he meant to make it clear that the face he was making meant he wasn’t beating around the bush, said, “We were interested in knowing whether you know any Negroes.”

“He means qualified.”

“Obviously.”

Parker leaned forward for emphasis. “We thought you might know, or might know someone who knows someone who is or knows…”

“See, you’re a bit younger than we are, LaFontaine, despite our official ages… ” Gold winked and turned to the waitress to order whatever the other two were having, then joked, as she sashayed towards a table of leisured-suited Missourians who were waving hundred dollar bills to get her attention, with a jerk of his big chin at her back,“Hey, I know, maybe we should ask ?”

Parker made his in-point-of-fact-we’re-being-quite-serious-despite-Gold’s-tiresome-japes face and said, “Pierre, ever hear of a colored guy with the unforgettable name of Thaddeus Mumford?” When Benny shook his head, reaching for the steaming plate a Malaysian busboy was lifting shakily over Parker’s shoulder, Gold said,

“Talented kid…  sings, acts, writes… I even hear he can direct. Clean-cut, well-spoken, sweet as a hundred eighty pound Hershey Bar…”

“Million-watt smile…  sexy as hell… ”

“Not mad at anyone…”

“We want a Negro like that, Pierre, and we figure you can help us find one. Can’t you go to one of those parties we hear you go to… ?”

“There must be a couple of colored college types… ”

“Or Jewish girls who… no offense, Gold… they usually…”

Gold watched Parker pop a fried scallop in his mouth with a well-fed dog’s bored envy and said, in a neutral tone, “None taken, Gray. Maybe we should tell LaFontaine… ”

“Why we’re in desperate need of a Negro?” Parker frowned at Benny, chewing. “Think he can be trusted?”

“I think so. He’s one of us now, Gray,” said Gold, though his eyes darted to Parker to check for any notable reaction to the word us. “I think LaFontaine,” he toyed with the sound of the word, “needs to be aware of the gravity of the situation.”

Parker fixed Benny with a blinkless this-goes-no-further-than-this-conversation stare and said, “Remember that guy I was telling you about, before, the way-better-qualified guy you cheated out of a job…? The Harvard grad? Well,” Parker smiled pleasurelessly and Gold smiled back, “word has it his lawyers are about to hit us with a multi-million dollar lawsuit… discrimination… ”

“And it looks like they’ve got a pretty tight case.”

“We need your help.”

Benny drove directly home after the meeting, steering as straight as he could, though it felt like the Cougar, or the road, or the earth itself, was zig-zagging. Not just right and left but up and down and back and forth, too. And he tried his best to ignore the roadrunner, which resembled so much the famous cartoon…the long-necked bird pacing the car for a mile in a cloud of dust before loping off on a side-road towards North Las Vegas… he tried to ignore the tumbleweeds blowing into traffic in the middle of the city or the redneck sheriff’s deputy that zoomed past doing ninety wearing aviator sunglasses on the Tonopah Highway… or the billboard out there advertising The Chicken Ranch which featured a blonde, a brunette, a redhead like an Attack of the 50 Foot Whores and everything else conspiring at that moment to make him scream what the fuck am I doing here?

He spoke to himself, he spoke aloud, he declared in a firm, clear voice that he should go grocery shopping to secure provisions for the long weekend he predicted would see him reverting to the bunker mentality he’d perfected at his all-white Art School alma mater, where he flirted with and then fucked his first white women, experiences he only found exciting because they could get him killed, theoretically, though only if he confessed he wasn’t white. But still. He decided he needed a shower to clear his head before going grocery shopping. On top of everything else, he was very tired.

When he parked the Cougar he sat in it for a while and almost nodded off listening to the very weak signal of an AM radio station from L.A. playing rhythm and blues records from his adolescence… what they called jump blues back then…ladies and gentlemen Mr. Wynonie Harris… those old shellac 78s so heavy you could break windows with them… he would’ve preferred jazz for his mood but only one station featured one weekly show with jazz of any value and that was late in the evening on Saturdays… until he noticed there was mail waiting in the bank of aluminum boxes under the stairs curving up to his second-level apartment. A Stargazer’s Monthly magazine and other items visible through the slot. He got out of the car and fetched the mail, his mind still zonked on various Alexander-Dumas-grade ironies as he gripped the hot handrail and laid a tasseled loafer on each consecutive concrete step as the almost patronizingly helpful geometry of the spiral led him to his unlocked door.

He kicked off his loafers and treated his delicate feet to the carpet. He gazed upon the totem of his alphabetized collection of jazz LPs, seven thousand records in row upon row on shelf upon shelf along the wall leading out of the living room emitting the delicious perfume of time and cardboard. On the top shelf, beside the book-ended collection of miscellaneous 45s, was the painted wood and wire scale-model of the solar system that used to sit on his father’s desk, the only thing he got (by stealing it) when the old man migrated to the afterlife.

In the bundle of mail was a letter from a person with a name he suddenly remembered he’d forgotten years ago, a buddy from art school, Ricky Lang, a white boy with a Quaker background who’d been more or less indifferent towards Benny until discovering Benny was a Negro, which had seemed to make all the difference. This was before Benny had learned to dissemble on the topic. Parting the curtain of glass beads and standing in the arched passage between his modern white kitchen and the earthtone living room, Benny opened the letter first, before the bills, or even the latest issue of Stargazer, featuring a ten-page cover story on black holes, with its lurid artist’s renderings of stars being eaten alive, stars and their screams of light, destruction on a scale that made the continent-clearing whims of the Old Testament’s Jehovah seem childishly cute and extremely local. Clearly, Jehovah Himself answered to an even supremer being, and whatever It was, It was not to be fucked with.

Friend Benny,

 

I hope this finds you in good health and cheerful as ever.

 

Tomorrow, I start that weird occasional job again that I couldn’t expect you to know about, since we haven’t kept in contact much since our time together at the Franklin Academy, where we both planned to be world-famous artists. I was going to be Matisse and you were going to be Picasso, if I recall it right (wink).

 

Well, for a year now my job is standing naked before the art students. I swear, there are probably 300 drawings of me in student’s portfolios, trying to get them into the best colleges. Skinny guy, small dick, pot belly, gawky neck, womanly breasts, pointy nose. You can imagine. It’s at least SOME money (6 dollars per hour unless they’ve upped it again) and I just can’t say no, since I know that no one else in this whole fucking town of 3500 people wants to (or in some cases, would be allowed to) stand naked before our children. Did I tell you already that I moved upstate after my divorce? Anyway, I’m up in the sticks now.

 

It’s a funny fantasy. Do you ever have dreams that you show up in highschool and you’re partly or completely naked? Many people do have that dream. I do sometimes — and I’m the guy who’s actually doing it for real. I stand there in some pose and I think, hey, I really AM NAKED in front of the eyes of these people. I see these teenagers on the street and say Hi, and I think, wow, that person usually sees me naked.

 

But I think my more frequent dream is that I’m walking on the street at night, naked. I dreamed that the other night, and it was so real, I was thinking to myself in the dream, yes, I do this often actually, and no, it’s not a dream. After I woke up, I actually scanned my memory to clarify for myself whether I actually do go walking naked at night or not … and I don’t … but I have this nagging almost-memory, like yes, it does seem familiar.

 

I guess I should go do something productive now. Or just curl up.

 

Keep in touch,

 

Your old friend,

 

Henri Matisse

 

Benny lifted the wall-mounted white trimline receiver from the kitchen wall and dialed Sheila Silver’s number, auditioning a variety of salutations (so wide in range that he realized he hadn’t a clue as to the proper general tone to adopt with her, and this after nearly screwing, and then eating, her twice) before she answered. When she finally fumbled the phone and drawled a very weak Yes?, sounding something like someone wearing a blindfold in bed in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon you’ve only managed to rouse at all because she just took the sleeping pill; sounding, in fact, exactly like that; Benny hung up. Sheila was a depressive jazz-head with big tits who often slept in the middle of the afternoon. There was just no way Benny was seriously going to ask Sheila Silver if she knew of any parties this weekend at which there might be college-educated Negroes present, though he knew that there was no logical reason for him not to. Which is why he rang Sheila Silver’s number again, immediately after hanging up, rolling his eyes at his own squeamishness, his own lack of business acumen, before hanging up again the moment she answered again (this time a lot less drowsy, annoyed, even) while Benny mused on how telephones were less useful for talking than for not talking. What middle-late 20th century man accomplished by slamming a phone in its cradle could only have been achieved as thoroughly, in the time of Louis XVl, with a guillotine. And that was progress.

***

When he pulled up into the lot in front of the Von’s on Decatur Blvd he expected to come walking out of the store again, in under fifteen minutes, with nothing more earthshaking than cinnamon buns. Certainly not a Nubian Queen. He patrolled the numbingly long and relatively empty-of-shoppers aisles, aisles gently Muzaked (Yesterday, Cherish, Ramblin’ Rose, Moon River) yet astringent in their chill. Something about the modern supermarket epitomized, for Benny, when Benny was in a certain mood, neither quite despondent nor truly mellow, the European mind. The orderly-yet-somehow-borderline-psychotic nature of these cold white right-angled corridors. The soul’s abattoir. How many more thousands of years, if left on their own, would Africans have needed before they came up with a Vons Supermarket? And to what end, if then? The thought was more a twinge of disquiet than the rudiments of a manifesto at that point in Benny’s life. It passed, he pushed, and the visible spectrum of Smucker’s preserves rolled by.

There was still water in his ears, his left ear, from the shower. In his right ear was Moon River but in his left ear he could hear his breathing, his heartbeat, regular intervals of swallowing, the weight of his bones as he walked. His inner auteur imagined a voice-over on top of the left channel of his bodily sound effects saying blank-eyed he gazed upon the bounty of civilization. He searched but he did not find. He cruised the produce department and the meat department and glimpsed a marbled flank of beef swinging on its cold steel hook. He glimpsed the bloody mass through a round window in the stainless steel door behind the man in the white smock arranging neat little packages of ground cow on the astroturfed bottom of the frosted display case and he thought of Ricky Lang, naked in front of those art students. He saw Ricky on a serving platter carved into fatty pink flaps and slathered with his own blood’s gravy because he was old and would never be famous and he needed the pocket money. He saw Ricky’s bodiless head dictating a letter making light of the situation. Dear Friends, the letter would start, I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving…

-I must find a qualified Negro, whispered Benny, as he rounded the corner of the carbonated beverages aisle.

A qualified Negro. Wouldn’t that be a home run? He’d be promoted. He’d be invited for golf and cocktails with the Hamilton Golds in Palm Desert and flirt with Gold’s pretty Argentine Jew of a wife named Isolde and chuckle with Gold to country club bossa nova about Parker behind Parker’s back, an activity Parker himself subtly encouraged, since to be mocked enviously is to be powerful. Later, a purely mechanical affair with Gold’s wife as an unspoken favor to Gold so Gold could take his stupendous-looking quadrilingual Japanese secretary on ski trips without feeling guilty. One of the boys. Gold had said He’s one of us, now, Gray, but what he’d meant by that was that Benny could be if he passed this test.

Even if having a qualified Negro on the team couldn’t save The Studio from losing the lawsuit, everyone would know that Benny had delivered, under fire, on D-Day. They’d know he’d tried. The only gesture more effective than being seen to try would be going to jail on the company’s behalf on charges of discrimination himself. A possibility he wouldn’t rule out.

When he circled back around through Produce he saw her. And what was his first thought. Before even that romantic jolt her beauty chased through him like nausea. His very first thought, about which he was immediately ashamed, while Moon River swooned through the air on strings, as she turned to him as he rolled his cart past and she gave him that dimpled smile and time seemed to speed up and slow down simultaneously (even as it was happening, he seemed to be looking back on it, going over it as a series of stills and scribbled memos approximating the initial sensations):

I’ll bet she knows a qualified Negro.

 

It’s clear that all straight men want to fuck all women all the time (though not necessarily twice); that’s a given; but what happens in the mind of a man the first time he sees the woman he was more or less made to love? In Benny’s case, shame and self-pity both preceded a wave of the above-mentioned quasi-nausea, reddening his face, clearing the field for awe. He didn’t notice her slightly puffy eyelid. The still (slightly) discolored cheek.

“You look like you come from the stars, sister.”

Hers was the face of the First Woman, though Benny didn’t flatter himself that he was Adam. He wasn’t even Cain. But he knew he was fated to be her man. He knew he was her qualified Negro.

His penis knew it, too. He was astonished to feel it stirring in its cotton shroud, inflating from the tip down, already harder than any number of Sheila Silvers had managed to get it after hours (or so it always felt) of digital, then oral, than oral-digital, then verbal, then verbal-digital-oral-digital attention. He’d once had a worldly Sally Kellerman lookalike shove two fingers up his anus as what in some cases was probably The Secret Weapon but which only achieved, for Benny, the added complaint that he couldn’t masturbate (or defecate normally) for a week afterward. No: a peace sign up his ass was not the solution.

The solution was seated in the passenger seat of his Cougar, offering him a mango.

The Compound was out, way out, on the Tonopah Highway, beyond a cluster of mirage-like apartment complexes so new there were no flags on the flag poles yet, and many of the factory-fresh aluminum-frame windows were still wrapped in billowing plastic. The Compound was beyond, even, the skeletal shopping center (a concrete house of cards) that was going up in response to the sudden apartment complexes. Past all that, east on Mercury Road, which stretched straight back to the Sunrise Mountains, a black seam of fresh tarmac in the brushed suede of the desert, a zipper straight back to the huge rock bosom the sun rose over at the end of every working day.

Eating the proffered mango, Benny realized how hungry he’d been, back-handing his sticky chin and grinning at her. Benny’s groceries, including a pint of Neapolitan ice cream he’d forgotten about, were in a slumped sack on the back seat, but she extracted hers from the opening in the front of her caftan. She handed him a peach salted with the healthy odor of her perspiration and he did not hesitate to eat it. In fact he relished the sensation. How could Benny not be intrigued when he’d asked his new lady friend exactly where to drop her off and she’d answered, in the most matter-of-fact tone, or even perhaps with a tincture of affected modesty, as in –it’s really not a big deal, but

“The Compound.”

“Excuse me, sister. The what?”

“The Compound.”

“The Compound?”

“You haven’t heard of The Compound? Don’t you watch the Evening News?”

But Benny hadn’t come to Vegas yet when all that happened. The fifteen-hour standoff with the Clark County Sheriff’s department and so on. Two long low stucco structures appeared on either side of a fifteen foot sun-blasted camper on a gravel lot protected by a hurricane fence, the gravel decorated in three of the four corners of the fence by dead brown Yucca trees. Benny expected snarling dogs to crawl out of camouflaged pits in the gravel but none were forthcoming. Where were the cable-armed brothers with their muscle t-shirts, lopsided Afros and Kalashnikovs?

“Is that it? What is it? It looks like a motel with a hurricane fence around it.”

“It was a motel. Once upon a time. Now it’s a deconsecrated Satellite Motor Lodge.”

He was taken aback at the unexpected glimpse of an unexpected vocabulary.

“Park across the street and leave the motor running,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.” She pulled on the door lock and added, “But if I don’t come out in fifteen minutes, just go. Do not step inside that fence and try to get me, okay? You understand? Just go.”

Benny understood, though it pained him to agree to it. He executed a tight u-turn and gunned the engine and put the car in park. She said, “Say yes, My African Queen, I understand.”

“Yes, My African Queen, I understand.”

She pecked his cheek and hopped out of the car and hurried across the road and let herself in through a silently swinging gate. She disappeared around back of one of the long low stucco structures. After waiting a few minutes he shut off the engine. He paged through the new issue of Stargazer, humming along with some oldies, reading about black holes, the trendiest topic in space.

One esteemed astrophysicist (dressed like a tennis instructor in the little photo beside his contribution) propounded the theory that nothing exists yet, and that Time as we experience it is a futuristic effect obtaining in the million billion trillionth of a second elapsing as the Super Black Hole of Reality (smaller than a neutron; comprised of the total mass of the Universe) collapses further before exploding to create Everything. And when Time finally does begin, it won’t be anything like what we think we’re experiencing in this infinitesimal moment.

Another even more esteemed astrophysicist (goatee’d Viennese) claimed that everything that has ever happened will happen again, exactly as it has always happened, oscillating like a perpetual motion machine between the perfectly balanced space/time forces of every perfectly-placed black hole in space.

The only female astrophysicist pictured (suspiciously young; an amateur watercolorist with some talent) likened black holes to tumors…the cancers of space/time…and predicted an epoch in mankind’s distant future when we’ll be able to treat these monster malignancies like surgeons with precisely detonated, super-compact nuclear weapons, many times more powerful than our sun.

Benny kept thinking: but how do they know all this?

And The Voice said: Believing is Knowing.

And Benny said: But what are we to believe, O Lord?

And The Voice said nothing. Or “nothing”. Or nothing. Benny couldn’t be sure.

When he awoke, the sky was being eaten by stars.

The dome of the overhead swarmed and seethed and he saw, half-dreaming, vast shapes with perforated edges fluttering upon the desert, papering it over in black. The domesticated nightsky as seen from his patio was one thing but the cosmos as revealed from where he lay at that moment was of another order of magnitude entirely and he realized that for the first time ever he was gazing upon the irrefutable Truth, groggy as he was, head still wedged between the headrest and the door. His neck was stiff and from his wiped-dry mouth he knew he’d been snoring in the face of All That.

Only the weakest light was visible from somewhere towards the back of The Compound, a gray blur like a stresspoint in black acetate, that and the green glimmer from the radio dial in his dashboard. And through the speaker-holes in the fiberboard shelf behind the back seat, what at first sounded like weak flies fucking under waxpaper revealed itself as a virtually inaudible version of Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler, 1957, and he knew without trying that his battery was too dead to turn the ignition and that he was stranded, twelve miles from home, like the fool he was, straining to hear the corpse of his battery channeling a heartbreaking Duke of Earl. Stranded across the street from The Compound late at night, hungry and cold. He’d rolled the window down and reclined in the bucket seat at dusk and that was all he remembered. He remembered being tired. He turned the radio off.

He remembered dreaming.

He’d dreamt he was married to that amazing black girl now curled up asleep in The Compound and that he’d traveled back East with her, incredibly, to introduce her to the family, but not his family, a dream family, with members he seemed to recognize within the dream with the accumulated confirmation of all of his childhood memories, and, yet, very strangely, the fading recollections of whom were alien to him less than two minutes after waking. What master-forger lived in his head, capable of counterfeiting recognitions he would have bet his life (in the dream) were forty years in the making?

Out of the Cougar, careful to ease the door shut, he went around to the back of the car, the wooden heels of his hundred dollar Joe Namath Dingo boots going clop clop clop, the irony of the ad copy for the boots coming to him like the stinging memory of a serious gambling loss: he knows when to wear them. And if the night had seemed unreal until that point it was real enough now as he was out in it, chilled by it, moving horizontally through a vertical vastness, a kind of elevator shaft, the walls of which receded as you approached them, the mockery it made of the infinitesimal scale of private thought and effort. He looked and found her reclining, over his shoulder, the constellation about ten feet above the horizon, the one he’d known and prayed to since childhood. Cassiopeia, with her incongruously-named constituent stars… Shedir, Caph, Ruchbah, Segin, Achird, Marfak. It had always bothered him that they were in her, part of her, these Arabs with their ugly names.

He popped the trunk of the car and found an Aztec-patterned beach blanket from Tijuana, a beach-blanket he’d never used because the beach wasn’t part of his cultural inheritance, whatever he pretended, however fair-skinned or straight-haired he was, the blanket was still folded in eighths and packaged in its scuffed plastic. Around he went again through the driver’s-side window and leaned over to the sack of groceries in the back, the sack with its dark spots of melted and spoiling foods, and he extracted a box of frosted strawberry ToasTarts. He rolled up the window and locked all the doors and, thus equipped, and with the unpackaged Aztec-patterned beach blanket wrapped around his shoulders like a serape, he began the twelve mile walk up the road.

He’d only been walking five minutes when nothing… his car, The Compound… was any longer visible behind him. He experienced the convincing illusion that he was walking towards it all rather than away from it. Or on a treadmill or in a hamster wheel.  He realized that this was the point in the story during which the protagonist, of a certain age, at a certain point in his life, being by nature a seeker… has his Desert Epiphany.

It’s always in the desert. Bushes don’t burn in the suburbs, or, if and when they do, the burning doesn’t mean anything more philosophical than having to replace insured topiary. The desert is where it all happens, as far as revelations go, and the Native Americans and the antediluvian Semites and the Aboriginal Australians all had plenty of desert to wander around in and there to unearth their shallowly-buried epiphanies, epiphanies like golden statues lodged in the sand and becoming the roots of their cultural wisdoms, cultural wisdoms they’ve since shared with a grateful, spiritually hungry world, the keys to the cosmos handed down to us in popular movies and songs and best-selling novels. He thought of Kahlil Gibran. And now it was his turn to have his spirituality improved by nothingness.  Or nothingness.

He followed the sound of his boot heels, swaddled in the Aztec-patterned beach blanket, with its very faint odor of petrol, and when not paying close attention he walked off the tarmac accidentally, twice, stumbling on scrabbly hard scallops of sand and the occasional low prickle of tumbleweed, hurrying back to the reassuring surface of the road, a symbol of progress since before the Romans, probably. A symbol for everything, actually, when he thought of it.

Further he walked, counting his boot clicks, tearing open the box of ToasTarts and into each of the three foil wrappers (each, in turn, containing two frosted strawberry ToasTarts) every quarter hour or so, suffused with an intensely private pleasure in the threatening face of the cold infinite as the plasticky dough of the mass-produced pastry accumulated between the rills of his gums and the inner pockets of his cheeks in a slow-dissolving infusion of sugar-heavy cud.

In the woolly blanket of the below-sea-level darkness he thought he glimpsed lumbering forms in his peripheral vision, the desert remembering its dinosaur dead. Brilliant as the sky was (like a vertiginous view of The Strip from a space ship) the light failed to trickle to anything lower than a hundred feet above the sand, half-illuminating the occasional bat or swallow or buzzard tumbling headlong overhead like ripples in spacetime and crying out.

Benny pretended he was entering an African village on foot. Where the village is exactly doesn’t matter. A sentry at the village gate; a fearsome sentry brandishing a scimitar and a necklace of yellow molars, a sentry big as Roosevelt Grier; poses a riddle the correct answer to which will allow Benny entry to the village. A wrong answer, on the other hand, will see Benny’s head rolling around in the sand. The sentry speaks English with the camp elocution of a mad Shakespearean actor.

“Interloper!” says the sentry. “I pose to Thee a riddle.”

“I say I say I say,” says Benny, in this fantasy, imitating Alan Alda imitating Groucho Marx, chomping on a mimed cigar in a manic stoop, “Pose away, Mr. Bones!”

“What creature is it,” booms the sentry, molar necklace chattering as he gestures violently to paint a picture of fable immemorial in the middle distance, “that travels on all fours in the morning, on two legs in the afternoon, and on three in the evening?”

“That’s an easy one, chief,” says Benny. “The secret word,” he pronounces “word” as woid, “is lush. A lush crawls around on all fours with a hangover in the morning, staggers on two legs in search of his next drink after a business lunch in the afternoon, and totters on a three-legged barstool in the evening!”

With a grunt of respect the sentry grants passage into the village, with its neat little roads and thatched huts, and, to make a long fantasy short, the king of the village, looking suspiciously like Benny’s father, wearing Benny’s father’s tuxedo jacket and Benny’s father top hat along with a grass skirt instead of his pants, presents Benny with a harem to service as part two of the trials he must endure before becoming the chief of the village (freeing the old man to enjoy his sunset years collecting stamps, and freshwater fishing).

The harem with which Benny is presented, he recognizes: every single girlfriend he ever had in grade school, starting with Beverly Huff, moon-faced, chubby and shiny brown. Beverly is five, smells like a pickle, and can punch harder than Benny, who is considered to be prettier than any of the girls in kindergarten. Beside Beverly is the girl Benny replaced her with, the same year, an older woman from second grade named Tamara, with root beer-colored eyes.

Looking cosmi-comically displaced amongst the little schoolgirls is the woman to whom he’d actually lost his virginity in a very nearly meaningless act (though orchestrating it probably took some doing on her part) at the age of thirteen: Gracie Barnes. The proprietress of the corner store at which Benny did all his after-school shopping. Bosomy black Gracie with her feline eyeglasses and her helmet of conked gray hair and her impotent, cigar-chomping husband named… Jimmy. Benny went in that shop one day and Gracie put the OUT TO LUNCH sign up and locked the door and that’s all he remembers about it except the ecstasy of walking out again ten minutes later clutching a fat roll of free comic books. Plastic man was his favorite.

Gracie, Beverly, Tamara, Verlene… Benny isn’t particularly enthralled until he gets to Karenna Beauchamp, sixteen years old in the tenth grade, held back a year due to being distracted from her school work by problems at home. Karenna’s mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, a very unusual complaint for a black woman to have in those days; so unusual, that the family tended to brag about it: she got her a white lady’s disease! My mama she got her a white lady disease, is how Karenna had broken the ice at a dance, in fact, as Benny remembers it. Maybe he’s making that up. Karenna is tall, slender, wide-hipped but nearly titless, with the kind of face that would have been used to sell face cream if she hadn’t been so incredibly, deliciously, blasphemously black. He singles out Karenna Beauchamp and she steps out of her vaguely native-ish, sarong-or-sari-like, drapey kind of clothing and reclines on a soft soft pile of ostrich feathers, pipe-cleaner legs spread, her hairless wrinkled blue-black cunt (like an elephant’s eye, squinting at him, crying its tear of vaginal moisture) cocked at the perfect angle of reception. A lion roars. Monkeys gibber in the trees and the ceremonial drums commence throbbing as Benny kicks out of his safari trunks and the king stares with kingly dispassion.

The problem Benny often has with his fantasies, especially the sexual ones, is their uncontrollability. At the very moment they become most persuasive, they tend to get away from him (stuck in a meeting, late for lunch, stomach growling for mercy while Gold or Parkerson drone on, for example, he’ll visualize a perfect plate of spaghetti, only to see a turd plop on it). Karenna Beauchamp is on that pile of ostrich feathers with her blank expression and her legs spread and her pussy ready to receive and all the other little black girls from Benny’s romantic history plus Gracie Barnes in a circle around the altar, chattering with school-girlish excitement like at the Saturday Matinee and Benny ready to mount when who should push through the crowd in a fury but his most painful memory, his half-sister Jolene, the illegitimate product of his father’s most famous affair?

Exactly (to the day) Benny’s age, Jolene was his eerie black twin, his dark mirror, the sister he didn’t even know existed until his father unwisely orchestrated a meeting on the occasion of the annual barbecue of the Greater Masonic Negro Tradesmen Association of West Philly, 1947, taking Benny aside with, “Son, you’re seventeen now, which is a man by any means of reckoning, and it’s time for you to know the things a man knows about the things a man will do, the things of the world beyond arithmetic or spelling or the pretty Bible tales your mother fills your head with.”

The whole terrible business. A very very painful thing. Benny hadn’t thought about it or Jolene for years and now she was filling him with her hot prickles of shame, grief, regret. The look on Benny’s father’s face when he found out, clutching that letter and shrieking at Benny from the other side of the kitchen although his face seemed just an inch away, filling Benny’s vision, the spit on his lips and the hate in his eyes and the look on everyone else’s face at the breakfast table, the detail of every expression Benny managed to absorb without taking his own eyes off of his father’s Old Testament Jehovah mask as he cast Benny out of the bosom of the family. Benny’s wailing, red-faced, innocently terrified mother and sisters… the toast burning… the Korean war… art school on the GI bill…

He stood cactus-still with the last ToasTart in one hand and the serape clutched in the other. And his socks were soggy with blood because his boots had never walked more than thirty unpunctuated steps since he’d bought them and it is amazing how far you can walk on bloody feet… the body must secrete some kind of natural anesthetic. Until you stop. And try to start again. How could he do this? But he had to:  he couldn’t sleep in the desert. But his right foot was unbearably swollen. However long it had taken Benny to walk away from his car, it took him three times longer to walk back again, gasping and cursing and hobbling in this unexpected Jesus pain.

He cried out.

The sleek dead car in its cold dark sleep. He’d bought it with his first big check from television. The Compound. The silently swinging gate gave way. The gravel crunched. Ominously, the door to the lobby was not locked.

There was only just the floor lamp on, severely dimmed. He found himself standing in what had obviously been the ‘50s-style, modernist lobby of the front desk of the deconsecrated motel, listening to his own heavy breathing. Geometric patterns in aquatints and white all darkened by the dimness of that one sad floor lamp.

Frankly he’d rather be in a meeting with Parker.

There was no longer a front desk, but two dozen or so folding chairs, not in rows, but strewn in clusters across the carpet. The walls were darkly paneled and a patched screen for an 8mm movie projector…no wider than Benny’s outstretched arms… hung on the wall behind what had once been the spot upon which the front desk had rested. He could see that the pool-colored carpet with its geometric swirls was cleaner in that spot, a clean-spot of bright blue shaped like a giant’s thumbnail and grooved by pressure points. There was the pebbled glass of the outer wall behind him and the dim floor lamp before him and the outline of a man on the swinging door of the men’s room to the right of the phantom desk, half-illuminated by the light, and, further, a dark corner around which there’d be a hall or a storage room, probably.

A very large man with bushy gray hair and a hooked nose slipped into the lobby from around that corner. The man’s skin was the color and texture of a football Benny had owned as a child. Benny was tall but the man was taller and two of Benny wide. He struck Benny as being merely the visible aspect of a much larger creature or force. He was definitely not the qualified Negro, though he was obviously capable of giving either Gog or Magog a run for the money in the Destroyer of Worlds category. The whites of the man’s eyes were dark and he was dressed in his bathrobe and his bedroom slippers and when he spoke there was an amplified, over-articulated quality to his voice; a pressure you’d need to blow out the glass walls of the lobby to release. He spoke with the majestic belligerence of a voice-over in a PSA about street crime. It was too dark outside for the way he spoke, which was fully awake.

“What do you want here, white man?”

Benny didn’t know what to say.

“I repeat: what do you want here at three o’clock in the morning, whitey?”

“I’m not white.”

“Really.”

“I’m Negro. I admit I don’t look it but I’m a Negro. Like you.”

“Like me. Is that so?” The man laughed, but not too loudly. “What’s a Negro if a Negro’s not a thing that answers to the Negro description?”

Benny touched his chest and said “In here,” although the look on the man’s face was powerful enough to give Benny doubts.

“Really? Gosh, that’s good news, because in that case I’m T.S. Eliot,” said the man, who also touched his chest, “in here. You care for a spot of tea and some crumpets, whitey?”

“My battery’s dead.” He looked at his boots, near to fainting. “My feet…”

The man, hands on his hips, his chest exposed, eyebrows high, seemed ready to laugh again. His chest hairs were scant and curly white. “Your feet.”

“I’m parked across the street.”

“In front of my property.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, just, you know, star gazing. Yeah?”

Benny shook his head.

“Butterfly hunting?”

Benny lowered his head and shook it.

“Okay. I see.” The big man nodded. “Keeping us under surveillance.” He smiled with unexpected warmth. “I’m still that important?”

“No….”

The smile faded. Or pretended to. A comedic possibility. Would have to be one dedicated undercover cop.

“I mean,” added Benny, quickly, pointing towards the road again. “I gave your lady friend…”

“Careful now.”

“…I gave her a ride…”

The man pulled a folding chair to his side and sat in it, arms folded over his chest, head cocked.  He looked at Benny a good long time and it was clear to Benny that the man was deciding upon how much energy to expend on dealing with him. How much trouble to go to or get into. He leaned back in the chair, which whimpered under his weight, and he shifted his huge clasped hands to the belly of his bathrobe and yawned, turning it into language.

“You agree I have a dilemma on my hands here?”

“Only if you think I’ve come to… ”

“Haven’t you?”

Benny’s right foot was so swollen in his Dingoes that he imagined having to cut the boot off, peeling the leather away from the delicate white bones of his foot along with a sopping roll of flesh.

“You’re from back East.”

“Yes.”

“You talk like it.”

Benny winced. He needed to get off of that foot.

“A high yellow sort of fellow from… ”

“Philly,” said Benny, after a groan.

“Good old Philly,” said the man. “I killed a guy in Philly, once,” he added, “a yellow Nigger who looked too white for my tastes, I hope I haven’t upset you,” but he winked to show he was joking. He said he knew quite a few high yellow Negro girls from back East in Chicago because he used to have money and he used to be somewhat famous in what you would call a notorious way. He asked Benny if Benny had any sisters and Benny said yes, three, and the man stood and said maybe you’ll introduce me someday and gestured for Benny to follow him and Benny, in agony on his swollen foot, did so.

***

Benny awoke, fully clothed and wearing his boots, under the crisp clean sheet of a motel bed, the hard dry sun of the deep desert parting the drawn curtains like a sword. Benny’s first thought was that there must be a woman in the bathroom, freshening up, but he heard no water running, no flushing or spritzing or fussing with a purse or car keys or spray-on deodorant. But why would he have been sleeping in a motel room alone? Why was there a framed portrait of JFK on the wall to his right, above the television? What year was it and why wasn’t he sure? Behind every “why” was another “why”, and any particular procession of whys he could think of telescoped backwards by only a dozen or so degrees before butting up against the creation of the universe.

The throb in his right foot clarified and asserted itself as a terrible pain as he remembered where he was and how, to some extent, he’d come to be there. Still, his dreams lingered; the dream tastes and smells and emotions. Closing his eyes he saw, or felt, the fading trace of the people he’d known and loved in the other life he’d lived through the troubled hours of his recent unconsciousness, and losing them to daylight was like losing them to death. Or to life, maybe.

When Benny opened his eyes again, the man was standing at the foot of the bed. He was wearing the overalls of an auto mechanic, with a wide-brimmed sun hat and a solemnly curious expression, smelling powerfully of hard physical labor. The door was open brightly behind his massive silhouette and the fading wash of an airforce jet’s passing gave a great depth to the afternoon.

“What time is it, please?” asked Benny.

“It’s quarter after five, white man. Would you care for some breakfast?”

“A half a grapefruit would be nice.”

The man laughed. “Watching your weight, white man?”

Benny smiled. “Why do you keep calling me white man?”

“Well, for one thing, because your driver’s license says ‘Caucasian’ on it.”

Benny could feel his wallet still bulging in his back right pocket, clearly one of the two main causes of his troubled sleep. Still, he panicked. “How do you know that?”

The man laughed again. A surprisingly robust and good-natured laughter, for all its brevity. “Call it an educated guess. Why don’t you wash up while I prepare your grapefruit? You remember how? All the soap and water you’ll ever need is right in that little room. Some disposable razors and a can of shaving cream, too, if you’re feeling ambitious.”

Benny waited a few extra minutes after the man’s exit into the cauterizing sunlight, then lifted the sheet and pulled off his serape and rolled out of bed, discovering that things were as bad as he had feared when he tried to put some weight on his right foot. With a jolting pain like shattering glass with a nervous system he hopped the distance to the toilet and landed against the sink, leaning heavily on it, afraid to look in the mirror. Afraid of the thing in it.

He eased himself down on the toilet seat by clutching the shower curtain and spent a good long time contemplating his boots. They would have to come off, if only in order for him to undress fully so as to bathe, though of course the real issue was the confronting of the condition of his right foot, which no longer even felt like one, but was transmitting sensations that caused him to visualize a bloody fork of bone pronged out of his leg, jabbing into a raw chunk of meat with toes at the end of it.

Seated on the toilet he was able to remove a drawer in the cabinet the sink was built into and laid it upon his lap, fingering through several little bottles of aspirin, loose papers, ballpoint pens, rolls of gauze, a tampon or two and a sewing kit. Out of the sewing kit he removed a small pair of scissors and with these scissors he cut the smooth-heeled soles off each boot, beginning with the left, a not entirely difficult job, being as each boot was tattered and stitch-blown and road-blasted with holes. The soles hit the clean tiles of the bathroom with an earthy density, along with the remaining bits of each boot, including curled tongues and bitty laces, and he thought of Napoleon’s army, or the German infantry stranded in Stalingrad, boiling their footwear for dinner. The debris plopped into a black pile and while his left foot was merely stained indigo from the old coloration of the lived-in boot, the right foot was a vivid thing of purple and yellow and orange and red, glowing in the half-dark of the bathroom. He wanted to faint but he didn’t.

The over-shirts he unbuttoned and removed, one at a time, still seated, and then the t-shirts came off, ripping as he tugged them, exposing his chest and belly to the tingle and itch of air. After this phase he rested, steadying himself, avoiding the tableaux (though not the odor; impossible) of his neon foot, which dangled in a bulbous throb from the leg he’d crossed over the knee of the other.

Reaching over he managed to stopper the tub and turn on the water. Watching water so pure it was nearly blue gush into the Platonic form of a clean white bathtub was so fascinating that the tub was nearly full before he snapped out of the reverie and twisted the tap off. Hoisting himself on the shower curtain he managed to get to an upright position again, all of his weight on his left foot. He dug his wallet out of the back pocket and placed it on the edge of the sink, and, after a strength-gathering pause, he ripped his unzipped pants from the crotch down, tearing the rotted cloth from his legs in four strokes, and he ripped off the shreds of his underwear, which were a complicated color, and he sat himself groaning on the edge of the bathtub before falling sideways into it, splashing the floor tiles. He screamed when the parched wound of his macerated foot hit the hot water.

“You alright in there?” came the man’s deep voice.

When he got no answer he stepped into the bathroom, switching on the lights, and found the white man breathing, but semi-conscious, or pretending to be, in the bathtub, the blind fish of his little white dick floating in the bushy red kelp of his public hair, the bathwater pink. The bathroom floor tiles were covered in a quarter inch of water and he was careful to avoid the puddled filth of the white man’s clothing, which would have to be disposed of if ever he could find a fire hot enough. There was a wallet on the edge of the sink and he looked through it, finding a typewritten letter folded into eighths, a ticket stub for dry cleaning, and a long-expired driver’s license that claimed that the white man was a 42-year-old citizen of the state of New Jersey by the name of Ricky Lang.

***

 

When the white man came to consciousness again, he’d been summoned by the not entirely unpleasant pain of having his right foot cleaned and bandaged. He lay naked on the motel room bed he’d spent the previous night and morning in, his long hair and beard still damp but drying rapidly in the zero-moisture Vegas heat. The large black man who was tending to his foot said, “Someone tried to get into my car last night. There were scratch marks on the door. Was that you?”

“I’ve been sick for a while.”

The black man nodded, seeming to accept this for an answer. But then he added,

“I was about to throw away what was left of your pants when I found these.” He jingled a full set of house keys. “Why have you been living outside for so long? Where’s your home?”

The white man looked genuinely puzzled, and not a little pained, by the question. The black man stood with a graceful weariness and gestured at the bandaged foot and said, “I can’t guarantee you won’t get gangrene and die, but maybe this’ll help. Here’s a bathrobe you can wear. You can follow me if you’re hungry.”

They hobbled outside, the one helping the other to walk. There was a café-style table under a sunshade umbrella on the gravel between the two long, low stucco buildings of the old motel. Some distance behind them was a Jetstream motor home of dented and polished aluminum, parked beside a flagless flag pole and looking like a gargantuan kitchen appliance of the 1950s, its side door open and the unarticulated murmur of news radio at a low volume leaking out. The sun was still hours from setting but depleted and forgiving and the wind finished drying the white man’s shoulder-length hair and chest-length beard before he took his place at the table, lowered into the seat, wearing, with comical inadequacy, the very bathrobe he’d first seen the black man in.

“Help yourself,” said the black man. He nodded at a serving plate of cold scrambled eggs, a cold plate of sausages and potatoes, a stack of cold pancakes and a pitcher of warm orange juice.

The white man took a surprisingly petite forkful of the eggs and said, “I’m wondering what you might have found in my wallet.”

“Wasn’t much to find.”

“That’s what I’m thinking.”

“Want it?” The black man held it up.

“May I?”

The white man reached and took the wallet and placed it on the table beside the plate he was eating from. Something was in the air. It was different between the two of them now. The confrontational energy of the evening prior had evaporated. The black man scratched his chin and said, “And it wasn’t you I’ve been getting all those letters from?”

The white man, he shrugged and he chewed.

The black man said, “I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that you are what you appear to be.”

The white man asked, without looking up from his plate, “Which is?”

“Somebody with an interesting story to tell.”

There was a good long silence. The black man sneezed and the white man said god bless you.

The white man looked up, finally, and said, “Why don’t you tell yours first?”

***

I was born in 1932 near Chicago. My father was a sanitation worker employed by the city of Chicago and we came, in my thirteenth year, to live in a little gray, clean, clapboard house in a colored neighborhood of Chicago called Golders Park. By Negro terms of reckoning we were suddenly middle class, because my father had a job with the city. His position wasn’t as prestigious as that of a Federal postal worker’s, but he wasn’t a dishwasher, or a hustler, either. I was the second of eight children, and all of my siblings (six sisters and a baby brother), as far as I know, are living. Thelma, Marva, Bernadette, Antonia, Edwina, Gloria and Benny Jr.

I was an avid and talented student, twice promoted ahead of my classmates, so that I graduated from High School at the age of sixteen. Being younger than my classmates was never a social problem because I was always large, and, though I had no talent or interest in sports, I was built like a linebacker, so no one trifled with me. Being bigger than the bullies, I had that rare thing, a taunt-free experience of High School. I was never what you would call a handsome boy, but there were always girls around, whether or not you could call them attractive, and whether or not I ever did much with them. I made it through school with my virginity technically intact.

The year I graduated from Golders Park High School was 1948, and back then there were no real scholarships established to help the poor to attend college. If there were, they were a well-kept secret. There were little funds and sponsorships from local church and business but I wasn’t offered any, probably because I didn’t look the part of a student with the potential of bringing glory to the colored race. With no other options, I entered the job market, taking on a string of odd jobs while nursing my ultimate dream of working at a library. The year I turned 19, my dream came true, incredibly, and I assumed a custodial position at a little library on Chicago’s near North Side, a working class neighborhood of immigrant Poles and scattered Irish, ignorant, superstitious newcomers to the American dream. From our house in Golders Park to my job every morning at the Joseph Pulaski Memorial Library was an hour’s bus ride, involving three connections, through many different ethnic enclaves of the city, and it was into that most hostile of all the enclaves that I stepped off of that last bus, early every morning, five days a week. I learned soon enough that the best way to deflect hostile, wary looks as I walked the three blocks from the bus stop to the library was to carry my mop bucket to work with me.

The librarian was a woman named Bernadine Weaver. Caucasian, obviously. When I first met her, the day I applied for the position of janitor, she was 33 years old, single, a remarkably tall, but unremarkably handsome, bronze-blonde who always wore her very long hair in a burnished librarian’s bun. There’s something of the nun in a librarian: the chaste silence, the spinsterish dedication to an intellectual ideal of abstinence. The cloister-like smell of the stacks adds to the impression. She could as well have been wearing a wimple that day I first walked in, embarrassing us both with my height, which implied a pairing, for very tall women and very tall men can’t, in the end, avoid one another. I was dressed in my Sunday shoes, pressed dungarees and brand new flannel shirt. In that look she gave me, the first time ever she looked, she seemed to recognize the introductory few moments of her oldest recurrent nightmare. She knew she was fated to lay that big blonde head on this strapping 19 year old Negro’s chest and I, of course, would be the one who paid the highest price for her doing it. But, before I go any further on the subject of Bernadine Weaver, another word or two about my own family.

My father was a garbage man. But he was a good man. Raised in Oklahoma before it became the dust bowl of the Great Depression, he knew horses and cattle, and he longed to return to that life. He literally dreamed of the oatsy-sweet odor of cowshit, but it was the acid reek of the human variety he was forced to live with. People actually shit in their garbage in those days; he wouldn’t have recognized modern trash, with its cosmetic packagings and perfectly edible food, at all. When people threw something away back then, it really meant garbage, because any material that could be used for anything was hoarded like a treasure. If you’ve ever seen people come to blows over a heap of rotten vegetables (the first party claiming they were thrown away by accident, the second party claiming finder’s keepers, losers weepers), you’ll know what I mean. To be a garbage man for most of the years that my father plied his craft really meant something awful, collecting in places right there in the middle of Chicago where asphalt often gave way to dirt roads. It was an odious life for him, but he never once took it out on his family. He was a mild man, with a limited vocabulary, and a shiny black nose like a hound’s, who never resorted to talking with his hands.

Once a month he’d take me, just me, the eldest, to ride horses for a whole day in fresh air along the trails on a horse ranch in rural Illinois, run by people he was friendly with. I’m assuming we rode those horses free of charge, because what could he have paid them with? What service could he have bartered for the privilege? A little garbage-collecting around the ranch? I couldn’t possibly recall the name of the place, or the names or technical classifications of the horses we rode, but I will never forget the stinging rich odor of the polished leather of the saddles. Yes, and the warm sexual charge I remember, bumping along on a pony behind my father on that caramel-colored mare with her haughty blonde tail swishing and her sweaty rump in a rhythm like any female’s under the burden of my father’s body.

My father taught me all about horses; I’m sure he taught me plenty; but I lost that knowledge in prison. The theory of incarceration that’s most popular with modern jurists centers on re-education, more than punishment, but prison was always a school, and school is considered by many to be a punishment, while the terms of an institution’s educating are by no means under the control of the institution’s officials. Longterm incarceration replaces any knowledge you may have had, going in, with incarcerated knowledge, which is only ever useful within the walls of the institution of incarceration, or for going back to them, in a process you can almost feel while it’s happening. A student writing his dissertation for an advanced degree is as unfit, in his way, for society, as a man near the end of a fourteen year sentence for rape.

I was a tenant of Joliet for one hundred and seventy months, commencing my stay on April 1, 1953 and walking back out again on June 6, 1967, with a neatly wrapped package of my earthly possessions under one arm and all of my father’s lovingly imparted horse knowledge erased. The first act I committed as a free man was to catch a bus to the so-called scene of the crime, but I could have taken a limo. I wasn’t aware that I’d become a rich man while serving my fourteen years, and wasn’t to discover this fact until six months after walking out into the frightening daylight of the parking lot in front of the prison.

I took a Greyhound bus back to Chicago, and, from State Street bustling with shoppers, took a bus which connected to a bus that let me out just three blocks away from my old place of employment, the Joseph Pulaski Memorial Library, where I’d worked as a janitor for three happy years of my life. I stood on the sidewalk near the flagpole in the summer sun and looked upon the building that had become more symbolic, in my mind, of my fourteen years in prison than the building I had actually spent all those years inside of. It was a windy day, and the chain on the aluminum flagpole was whipping the pole with the repetitive frenzy of an SOS, and the American flag I’d personally repaired rips in was snapping high overhead like a sail on a sleek yacht, my trouser legs rippling and my hat in danger of being blown clear off.  I noticed there were flag-colored candy wrappers stuck here and there in the bushes that ran in a broken rectangle around the library as I walked up the stairs and entered the place with a hand on my gray hat and my heart pounding.

In the bright gloom of library light I saw things pretty much as I had left them, despite the changes the country had gone through from 1953 to 1967. The high walls that were ringed low in a dark crowd by the stacks were still hung with dingy portraits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Pulaski, and framed maps of America, the world and the solar system according to early 20th century science, with its eight planets. In the center of this main room was the abandoned island of the horseshoe-shaped librarian’s station, and I took my place at a long table between the geography stacks from which I could watch things while remaining unobtrusive myself, hidden by a cart of jumbled atlases, my sweat-stained hat on the table in front of me.

This was the room, with its fluorescent hum and odor of old sentences and a musty carpet sweeper, in which everything had happened. I’d befriended my first white person in this room, learned to read intellectually in this room (and, by extension, to write) and in this room, not far from where I was seated, had I also lost my virginity to the woman for whom I was now patiently waiting, fresh out of prison after serving a fourteen year sentence for her alleged rape. When I noticed her standing behind the counter at the librarian’s station, counting three stacks of books, having rolled a cart back in from the lecture room while my mind was somewhere else, I suppose, it appeared as though she’d taken all of the changes that the library might have suffered, in my long absence, upon her self.

She was gray-haired and sharp-shouldered and dressed like a widow. I had turned 36 that January, in my prison-built body, and sat upright on that bench between the stacks, at the peak of my physical condition, feeling like something polished and cast-iron forged, greatly superior to my pathetic John Doe clothing, a black god who only had to go naked in order to become revealed, calculating that Bernadine must be exactly 50, or weeks from it. I couldn’t remember her birthday.

It was after observing her for a while that I realized that she must be aware of my presence. There’s a theatrical quality to even the most banal movements of someone who’s aware she’s being watched. There’s also, of course, a vast difference between the self-consciousness induced by having a stranger for an audience and the formal requirements of putting on a show for someone who has sucked on your breasts. She kept her head down and was careful not to glance in the direction of the geography stacks.

You can fantasize a moment with all of the kitchen-sink, realist skill of an Arthur Miller, but you will fail in your predictions, for the simple reason that the mind is a fantasist, and is even poorer at simulating reality than it is at observing it. Curled up on a mattressless bunk in a half-lit concrete room with a wet floor that smelled like a fillingstation toilet, I had rehearsed this scenario as many times as there were nights in Joliet, but I had never pictured just sitting there, watching, from between the stacks, for hours, while Bernadine Weaver did her shitwork. This diverged somewhat from the scenario of her begging for forgiveness, or begging to start a new life with me out West, or choking bug-eyed and purple-lipped in the grip of these hard Othello thumbs, or submitting, silently, justly, to the Socratic sexual torture I had mastered in prison.

Have you ever crossed the floor at a ball in order to ask a girl for the pleasure of her dance? If she says no, sometimes, you linger beside her anyway, for the longest time, paralyzed at the prospect of the humiliating walk back to where you started. The longer you remain beside her, with your hands in your pockets or your arms crossed over your chest, with nothing to do and no reason to be there, the more foolish you feel, the more paralyzed you become, the longer you remain. This is how it was in the Joseph Pulaski Memorial library that day, until, finally, after four hours which recapitulated the history of the world, Bernadine finally rolled the cart back into the lecture room, with her back to me, to fetch more books. I very quietly gathered my hat and box of possessions and walked back out into the sunshine, which had soaked into gold-edged shadows under the oaks and maples in the long hot hours after lunch.

I’d never before dared to walk anywhere on the near-Northside beyond the L-shaped, tree-lined path from the bus stop to the library, but here I was seeking out, boldly, a place to sit and eat before deciding the rest of my life. Having suffered the ultimate insult (short of execution) that a black skin can expect in America, I had deconstructed, and demystified, any innate sense of where a black skin is and isn’t welcome. Which I’m sure, in many cases, explains the high rates of Negro recidivism. If a particular bistro or lunch counter didn’t want my specific kind of business, let them tell me to my face. I was no longer going to discriminate against myself, on their behalf, to save them the trouble. Of such stuff is a budding “bad ass” made.

Well, any cop stopping the large, obviously freshly-minted vision of an ex-con I presented walking the sidewalks of Poletown, as that neighborhood was often called, would have been baffled to search my box of possessions and find in it nothing more incriminating than a cheap overcoat, a paperback Thesaurus, a change of underwear, four pairs of argyle socks I’d won in a prison raffle, and one letter of literary praise, each, from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, and the American classical music conductor Leonard Bernstein. I’d gotten other letters, too, from celebrities such as the boxer Cassius Clay and the actor Godfrey Cambridge, but these had been lifted from my cell by the guards whose job it was to search our personal effects, regularly, for handmade weapons, or drug paraphernalia, or digging tools, while we were walking the exercise yard, punching keyrings or license plates, or sitting for chow.

I’d probably collected a hundred letters. Most were written by ordinary people, in that pleasantly illiterate, Chaucerian style of the masses, spelling and grammar prescribed by common sense. Quite a lot of it was out-and-out hate-mail: genuine vintage coon-hating screeds from the 1920s and ‘30s. Fifteen-page death threats and so forth. My book, of course, is a lightning rod for coon-haters, and will never go out of print as long as coons and coon-haters walk the earth.

I received this “fan mail” from the time my book was published, four years into my stint at Joliet, until the day, a year later, when the publisher, suddenly realizing he had the biggest hit of his career on his hands, and, in hopes of defrauding me out of substantial royalties, stopped forwarding it. He destroyed any concrete evidence of both our relationship and my existence, emboldened by the fact that I was in prison, and that he’d published the book under a title I knew nothing about. Also, the book was published under the author’s pseudonym, standard for pulp pornography back then, of “Anonymous”. I never once received a copy. Later, by the nth print, the author’s pseudonym became the dashing “Napoleon Fanon”, a fact I discovered, quite by accident, years later. Meanwhile, between the day that my fan mail had stopped arriving and the morning I walked out of prison, I’d assumed that the book had sunken without a trace, and that I was owed no more than a few hundred dollars in royalties, a nice little sum I had little chance of recovering. C’est la vie.

I had tried writing poems, short stories and little essays under Bernadine’s tutelage at the library, but I hadn’t the time to develop any technique, or had access to an audience, until I went to prison. After the chores are done, what’s there to do in an eighty-one square foot cell, but read, do push-ups, or write? While there were acquaintances of mine who were breaking records, and winning prison tournaments, by doing five, six, or even ten thousand push-ups a day, I used my leisure time to become a force in the black market prison economy, writing out and then copying, or reading aloud, pornographic vignettes in exchange for contraband, or services, or small amounts of cash. I discovered that even the most illiterate, anti-social, and physically dangerous, prisoners responded to the golden rules of narrative. They were a better gauge, in fact, than any audience of politely encouraging well-wishers you could imagine. When a story didn’t work, or disappointed them in its ending, or had too much, or too little, or unconvincing, sex, I heard about it before the offending story or passage had barely cooled in their minds.

To get specific: I learned, for example, never to write a sex scene in which the female participant appeared to be enjoying it too much. That’s not how it work, I was informed, over and over again. That ain’t how it happen. And that a man only truly enjoys doing it to a woman who resists, if only inside. Nobody really want a woman who really want it. I took in this technical advice while honing my stories to the tastes of a paying audience, and realized, after much internal resistance (what Romantic wants to concede any of this as true?), that I was learning about something much larger than storytelling. I was learning about the thing about which all stories are told. As if I needed to be told. Here I was, doing a twenty five year sentence for aggravated rape (reduced to twenty for good behavior; reduced, again, eventually, to fourteen) as an innocent man, still playing, absurdly, the role of the lyre-strumming, lady-worshiping troubadour, in my eighty-one square-foot cell, with its wet floor and its stench of the sewer, a stench which taunted me with its echo of our daily routine of buggery in the showers.

To write at all well is to relinquish one’s casual understanding of the world. One’s self-protecting misconceptions of the world. To write at all well is to yank the veil off it. The process changes the writer, and only a changed writer can change the world for the reader reading him. Writing for a complicated, captive, paying audience of con men, arsonists, robbers, rapists, drug addicts, tax evaders, purse-snatchers, brawlers, burglars, bootleggers and sundry uncouth disturbers of the peace, I developed a complicated knowledge of what I was and wasn’t; what I could and couldn’t; what I longed for and abhorred, and my written words slowly became real writing, even if it was just material for womenless men to masturbate, or rape other men, to. But isn’t that the goal of any writer, metaphorically speaking? To make his reader come?

The manuscript I sent out to be published started life as one of these pornographic stories. My audience demanded something more than tight young pussies and big bad thrusting dicks. They were a higher grade of illiterate, many of them, being older; they were illiterates who couldn’t read Frederick Douglas or Homer as opposed to illiterates who couldn’t read Irving Stone. I wrote for them a political allegory: a nameless Negro everyman rapes his way across the Midwest, in the 1940s and 1950s, as a form of existential protest, targeting the most beautiful, upper class, socially valuable white women, getting them pregnant wherever possible. Ruining them. This was long before the blockbusting black-power rape memoirs of the 1960s which my work paved the way for. First it was a short story, which became a serial of weekly installments, until I bashed it into the rough form of a novel of 100,000 words. It was originally called “Jesus in Kansas” and I wrote it out in an impeccable longhand on seven composition notebooks I’d bartered for the cigarettes I’d received in payment for earlier, cruder efforts about, for instance, a church-going towhead and a runaway con hiding invisibly black in the basement.

During my stint in Joliet, my mother died, of grief, stress, over-work, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and a host of environmental poisons, as most Negroes will. She did not live the Natural Life; as a woman, she could not, and if she’d have been a man, she wouldn’t have. My father went bitter: perhaps, even (if he allowed himself to speak or think about me) he blamed his oldest son. The human I called on my first day of freedom regained, from a phone booth in downtown Chicago, in the cold shadow of the John Hancock building, the ultimate symbol of white power, was an old friend, from the old neighborhood. He gave me a place to stay, though he knew better than to offer to let me stay where he lived with his family. My friend was a married man who kept a low-rent apartment on the far Southside. The telephoneless apartment was furnished very basically with a bed, a liquor cabinet and a dirty bath towel. I could imagine what he used the place for. In fact, he warned me that he might drop by, from time to time, unannounced, for which occasions I wouldn’t have to leave the premises, as long as I remained in the kitchen.

The apartment was in a housing project called Harriet Tubman Gardens, a ghetto, in an industrial nomansland near Gary, Indiana. Tubman Gardens had rats and roaches and stray dogs that ran in packs like would-be wolves every night, but because it was situated on the outskirts of the city proper, bordered on one side by a marsh and the other by a wood, I sometimes, during long walks on sleepless nights, saw foxes and deer. The foxes were in town to raid the ramshackle pens of the folks who, in coming up directly from the Deep South, had invited all of their future fried chicken to come with them.

Most evenings I could hear the pounding of steel at the InterLake Steel Mills at a bend in the canal a few miles south, and I thought how the men working there must be deaf, and numb, and insane with this noise, which was the loudest I’d ever heard. It sounded to me like a god’s, if not the God’s, rage or hatred. Meanwhile, I breathed, from the opposite direction, the livid processes of a paint factory a mile upwind, smelling like rotten eggs and gasoline. To the west, across the blacktop of playground at the nearby Harriet Tubman elementary school, and from there across a few lanes of highway, extended the marsh, in the middle of which rose a missile silo, a bristling Cold War dick. All day and all night, every day and every night, an eternal flame, like a serpent-shaped sword, burned white from a pipe in the silo, burning off that volatile fuel, a primary target in the likely event of a nuclear war and a dim glow on the thin fabric of my bedroom curtain on even the foggiest night. The only way in which I was better off than I had been in prison was my freedom.

I took to sleeping through the day, troubled by the sounds of children running to and from school, and the rare event of garbage collection, and spending my nights on walks into the city, on an unpaved route that took me around the bend of the black canal being showered by sparks from the steel mill, my hands in my ears for miles, or the opposite direction, into the woods towards Lake Calumet and Gary, Indiana. Soon, I was feeding myself by hunting rabbits in those woods, with a sling I made from black stockings I found at the bottom of the closet. Skinning a rabbit was something I’d seen my mother do a thousand times, and it was a practical kind of non-verbal knowledge that fourteen years in prison hadn’t managed to erase. The satisfaction of quickly making the right cuts with a sharp knife, then separating, in one pull, the soft covering from the smooth wet muscle of the still-warm flesh, can be a kind of relief, and I began to see how the urban Negro, with his car, his woman, his TV dinner and his TV, is doomed to a short life of insanity and illness.

A side-story:

It sometimes happened that I would be coming home from one of my long walks, very early on a Sunday morning, ready for bed. At the same time, it sometimes happened that my neighbor in the flatblock was just then leaving for church. This neighbor, a stout Negress with an ashen complexion, a crow’s nest of gray hair and the gait of a waddling hunchback, had surprisingly light eyes. She carried an edition of the Bible that was written in Pidgin English, which I often heard her reciting from through the thin wall our apartments shared, in the hypnotic cadences of a desperation greater than anything I’d heard in fourteen years inside the Joliet state correctional facility. She was raising a child I assumed was her grand daughter, a child I gathered was retarded, and just as I heard this woman reading her Bible, she no doubt heard some of the sounds from my side of the wall, too.

One Sunday morning, as I was letting myself into the cell of my sanctuary, and she was letting herself out of hers, she said something. To me, I guess. Whatever she’d said was unclear, and I didn’t give a damn either way, so I entered my apartment and closed the door behind me. Only seconds after I’d closed the door she was knocking on it, but I ignored this. I stripped out of my clothes and walked upstairs to the little bathroom to produce a bowel movement and take a shower in preparation for bed. When the sound of the flushing toilet had died down I could hear her down there, knocking again, or still knocking. It was not a loud or an angry style of knocking; it was evenly repetitive, mechanical, in a very strange way; it was the kind of sound I imagined a ghost might make, rapping from the inside of a closet door. One two, one two. One two, one two…

I showered, went to bed in the little bedroom next door to the little bathroom upstairs. My sleep, in the iron strength of my youth, was as heavy as I was large, and although I could still hear the knocking, I slipped easily away. I had a dream, then, so vivid that I wrote it down as soon as I woke from it, barely able to open my eyes. I dreamt that I had a wooden heart, and that I could always hear it beating, and that I lived in terror that I would hear it stop. I dreamt that no matter how I rested, or exerted myself, my wooden heart always beat at the same speed, with the same strange rhythm, neither weak nor strong nor particularly invested in self-perpetuation; a rhythm that implied that it could, at any time, simply stop. Someone tried to speak but I hurried away, intent as I was on listening to the sound of my wooden heart beating. I came to understand that it was the hearing of my wooden heart that kept it beating. This person who’d tried to speak was chasing me, and I ran everywhere to hide, afraid that their talking would drown out the sound of my wooden heart. I climbed a fence and hid behind a stack of tires, but this person followed me, climbing over the fence, shouting some important message or warning. I put my hands over my ears to keep out the shouting; I squeezed my hands over my ears as hard as I could and I could hear nothing but the sound of my labored breath and my wooden heart stopped beating. I woke up in a terror, heart racing, half-blind with sleep. I wrote the dream down on a child’s notebook I’d found on the street, with a pencil I’d stolen from Paddy’s. The old Negress’s knocking had finally stopped, but I don’t doubt, to this day, that she was a practitioner of the Old Religion, and the nightmare she gave me was either a warning or a test, and taught me to respect the supreme strength of her ignorant beliefs.

Where was I?

During one of my long walks, I became aware of a place in a blue-collar, industrial neighborhood, what they call a transitional neighborhood, where only the poorest whites still clung as it flooded with Negroes and Mexicans and the freaks you get when the two groups mix, the shell of an Irish tavern called Paddy’s, with a changing clientele that did not reflect the neighborhood. I found Paddy’s by following a man who I knew, by instinct, had also done more than a few months in prison. Part of the fund of prison knowledge that pushes out a man’s prior wit and experience is the tool of knowing how to walk in such a way as to communicate specific messages, and also how to receive such messages, which go lost on the uninitiated. A man can walk in such a way that means he is open to reason. Or that the thing towards which he is walking is his alone. A man can walk in such a way as to indicate that he intends to kill, or to die, or to let fate decide. The way this man walked, which I spotted from a distance as he stepped into the one working headlight of some Mexican’s old tank of a car while crossing the street, was meant to communicate to receptive eyes that he was not a queer, although he was amenable to having his sexual tensions relieved by one.

I’m not afraid of your judgment, because, to be frank, who, on the ladder, from what I can see, and what I guess you have done, is lower than you? So I tell you this. My time in Joliet opened my eyes to society’s best kept secret, by which I mean that men who have sexual relations with women do so because society frowns on the alternative, an alternative society frowns on precisely because it would be far more popular than the acceptable option otherwise. Look at the army, the navy, the seminary, the high school locker room, the camping trips for boyscouts and their so-called masters. Men are inclined towards fucking other men. I say this as a man, however brutally you choose to define the term, without a trace of femininity in his makeup.

Seeing other men either naked or clothed inspires no feelings of tenderness, or yearnings for tenderness, or poetical metaphors or spiritual insights, in me. I’m no follower of Wilde or Whitman, though I’ve been known to read both writers with equal parts pleasure and skepticism. When I see another man, I see an obstacle to be overcome, an ally to be won over, or an animal to exploit. Sometimes, when I see a man, I see a servant I will humble by placing my erect penis in his mouth as he kneels, or by forcing the same hard thing into his rectum, as he assumes an even more subservient position, with no concern for his physical comfort or personal preferences. I went into Joliet as a man who’d only ever known the soft white body of one woman, the woman who sent him there, and I left the institution, fourteen years later, as a master of the mammalian sex game at its fundamental level. All of us in this Enlightened Society know, by now, the truism that rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. That statement doesn’t go quite far enough. Sex, in general, is not about sex, either.

When I walked into Paddy’s that foggy October night, with my collar turned up and my hands in the pockets of my longshoreman’s jacket, I couldn’t even identify the man I’d followed into it, because half the men in there were him; were me. The other half were white and some of those were rather frail looking. The frail ones, the ones who looked most like girls, attracted me. I’d sexually dominated enough scarred, ugly, sour-breathed bantamweight Mick and Pollack bluffers and brawlers already to last me two lifetimes. The tavern was dimly lit as you’d expect it to be, and, as I stood there, waiting for my eyes to adjust to a picture even darker than the streets I’d been walking, I realized I had no money in my pockets for a drink. I’d been living an approximation of the Natural Life for a few months already, eating nothing but rabbit and stolen fruit and garden vegetables and even some fish from Lake Calumet, and so I had clean forgotten about the thing called money. The irony being that there was money due me, riches I knew nothing about.

A fine-boned young man with pale skin and jet-black, longish hair approached me and offered to buy me a drink. He pointed at a little table and I took a seat at it while he pushed up to the bar. When he returned with the beer I’d ordered and one for himself, he wasted no time telling me what was on his mind. He said I looked big, very big, and asked me if it was so. I said it was so. He asked me if it was black. I said it was very black. He said he dreamed of hard black shiny long cock all day while he was sitting through Philosophy classes at the University, so that by the time he was home again and it was late enough for Paddy’s to open and start filling up, he could barely control the urge to run all the way from Hyde Park, a good twenty minute drive by car. He said he was usually disappointed. The real big specimens usually went to a harder place in The Loop you had to know the password to get into. The indoor pool in the old athletic club all the Irish cops prefer.

He asked me how much time I’d done in Joliet, and I was too impressed to ask him how he could tell. I told him how much time and he whistled. He asked what for and I said rape and he said good. He said maybe murder would’ve been the wrong answer. He said I like it rough but I don’t want to die for it. He said in my opinion, it’s as harmless a sin as smoking, it’s not fatal for either party, maybe a little messy at worst and anyway it’s nobody’s business, and everyone should treat it like that, but that’ll never happen in my lifetime. In two centuries, maybe. He said we can use the john but it’s filthy with scat and there’s a waiting line. He asked me if I had a place nearby and I said it was about an hour’s walk. He said he had a car.

He had a beautiful car, a foreign car, a big black thing with running boards that would have suited an old-time diplomat, which led me to deduce that his parents were somewhat wealthy and much older than they should have been, perhaps in their sixties, curled up in bed in some Gold Coast, or Lincoln Park, mansion, while the young master was getting his kicks on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks. Did they expect him to finish his studies soon and marry a debutante? Did they have any idea that, for some young upper-class men, it floats their boats to thrust their tongues up the unwashed rectums of hulking black members of the underclass? Would the news kill them? Would the son be willing to pay good money to spare them the shock? I’m ashamed to say that these thoughts passed through my mind, though I never considered myself a hustler; no more so than a man who finds a wallet stuffed with cash, and briefly-if-seriously entertains the notion of keeping it, is a pickpocket.

I warned him that we wouldn’t be doing it on the bed, where I had to sleep, and he said a folded towel on the floor for his knees would be fine, but that there should please be no choking or punching, or burning, with cigarettes, or my lighter, although rough was fine, rough was good, he guessed it depended how big I really was, but I didn’t have to rupture his insides or anything, and of course he wouldn’t need or expect any hugging or kissing afterward. And, also, please, no name-calling. Which I considered an extraordinary speech.

A few days later, I walked to Paddy’s, and had two beers purchased for me by a sheepish-looking crew-cut blonde with very bad teeth whom I couldn’t bring myself to screw. We were in an alley a few blocks from Paddy’s and his moonlit breath was so foul I couldn’t face the prospect of putting anything of mine in that snaggle-toothed hole, more the less in his rectum. When I changed my mind about the transaction, he apologized profusely for wasting my time, and I struck him, not hard, but hard enough that he backed away down the alley, holding that side of his face as though he’d always treasure the pain.

It was only a week or two later that I met Fabian Saldo at Paddy’s again. I was standing at the bar with an older man, for a change, a flinty, thick-haired, knife-faced man who put me in mind of the pictures I’d seen, on the backs of books, of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. He was well-spoken and cautious and I had a strong suspicion he was a priest with his collar hidden safe in his pocket. Fabian Saldo joined us at the bar and we all ended up driving back to my place in Fabian’s car, the priest and I seated in the back, the priest singing under his breath. I have vivid memories of clutching that man’s desiccated waist, which expanded and contracted like a blacksmith’s bellows as he cried out, on all fours, in his throaty, tobacco-dark Latin.

Word got around that I was of an unusual size and spectacular (virtually mineral) coloring, could be had for a beer or two, was not violent, sarcastic or likely to steal. And so I became a known factor and very popular. The queers who shared in relieving my tensions improvised between themselves a fair system about who could have me whenever I made an appearance at the tavern (no more than three times a week), and they never fought or grumbled, while to me, in any case, it made no difference, for, obviously, to have preferences any finer than the ones that rejected that one queer for his evil breath, would have indicated some small element of the queer in my own makeup. Though I have no problem admitting that I seemed to enjoy, most of all, the time I spent with Fabian Saldo. I didn’t even want to call Fabian Saldo a “queer”; I affected, once or twice, to call him a Laestrygonian, but it failed to stick, so, “queer” it was.

It was with Fabian that I fully developed my philosophy of the Natural Life: food and drink without additives; verbal communication only when necessary or meaningful; sex without the nonsense of emotional games and attachments; exercise in general (and long walks, specifically), as a form of prayer. Three of these four elements are impossible, I believed, with a woman. Believed: past tense.

Gradually, the system of knowledge called “prison”, which had replaced the system of knowledge called “family,” was replaced by the system of knowledge called “the Natural Life”. While the prison system had trained me to conform to a way of knowing shared by the semi-conscious, instinct-driven thousands, the system of the Natural Life eased me towards a unique knowledge, the knowledge of the self. While the fool hopes for immortality by lengthening his life, the wise man learns to deepen it, rather. Clearly, the goal is to slow time down, though mankind, everywhere, as far as I can tell, is doing his best to accelerate. The white man, that is. Only the white man could have dreamed up the concept of time seeming to fly while you’re having fun; everyone sane knows that real pleasure slows time down, and that boredom makes it fly: ask the office worker who sits down at his desk on the first day of work at the age of twenty three, only to wake up, suddenly, at the age of sixty five, as he is being ushered from the premises with the contents of his desk and a gold-plated watch! How cruel, to give this old man a watch. This dangerously neurotic white man who daydreamed immortality while speeding towards his death. Driven, pushed, goaded, of course, by his morally bankrupt white woman, who couldn’t wait to be rid of him.

Stare at a clock, or a gold watch, if you will, while listening closely to yourself breathe, and you will get a glimmer of what I mean. What takes a minute, according to the clock, will feel like two, three, or five, when you learn how. And a single day of such deepened one-minute intervals, that each felt like five, adds up to five days, not one. And a year of such days equals five years. Ten years of that equals fifty years. Fifty years of that… and so on.

for RK

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Class Fantasies

 

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1. GRAYSCALE

This life is inconceivably beautiful. It is a life of the mind. It is always late summer, the blacks are inky-rich, the whites are milky singularities, the grayscale between is perfectly-judged. Satchmo, an immolated saint, has burned clear, finally, of all kitsch and his rehabilitation proves that we are capable of anything.

T. and I are standing as far apart as two Bohemians can, while still holding hands, looking at different paintings, grunting or sighing our assessments, our cool contentments or stern critiques, protected by the gallerist’s approving leer. The gallerist is a friend; she lowers the volume of the background music to afford us whispers. The city lowers its volume to afford us whispers. The ability to whisper is a function of IQ., or so I have read. T.’s whispers are suggestive and wet as little berries hung ripe on the air. She is taller than I. For her, the world will always be new.

-This is going to be great, tonight, at Bleecker Street, I say, pulling her close. She smells of everything fresh and healthy and young. Bertolucci’s first major statement in years, when it came out. A scandal. We have to get there early.

-What’s it about again? 

-Existentialism.  Brando.  X-rated.

-X-rated? How will I get in? If they card me I’m dead.

-Think of it like Nick and Nora, I say, it’ll be an adventure and squeeze a muscular handful of her incredible ass through denim as soft as old money. She can’t understand why I prefer her to dress this way and she never will, because she’ll always be seventeen, just as I’ll always be forty two, older but not old, wise to life but not a fossil of cynicism and vigorously sex-possessed but not scary. I light a cigarette and touch it to my lips and sip it like ghostly grey wine through a straw, knowing it will never hurt me. Her bluejeans and sneakers and white dress shirt, tail out. And that striped t-shirt she sometimes wears, Seberg to my American Belmondo. I confess we own berets. I will teach her to smoke my cigars.

We gaze on a minor Warhol with affectionate contempt.

What is that melody?

It seems like days since last we’ve made love, but it’s only been minutes. An hour. She rode me in a corner of my loft beneath an Arbus. We heard a distant gunshot through an open window so like the sound effect from a radio drama of the ‘forties that we laughed and took a break and switched positions. A joke about Bridge. But the second position was more intense. No laughing. Just gunshots.

What is that melody?

Even crime transcends its dictionary definition to function as a compositional element, a narrative texture, in the masterpiece of this island. Rape and murder are the black that contrasts the white of witty banter; they are not foregrounded, they are anecdotal; no one we know has been touched or threatened by this kind of pain or grief or life-altering inconvenience. They merely tell stories about it. Something you watch out for, distracted by main events, like hornets in autumn on the Cape. It’s the colorful nonsense of the uneducated poor, as distant as whatever music they listen to (neither Gershwin nor Schubert).

We both suddenly remember and hum the rest of the tune together, accompanying the scratchy, fifty-year-old recording the gallerist has turned up again as we nod our smiled goodbyes and back through the glass into the vibrant sheen of the Sunday-dappled sidewalk. Looks like rain, later. An aesthetically-perfect thunderstorm.

Body and Soul.

***

Over dinner at our favorite bistro, Y. and I wallow in the almost obscene luxury of complaining about our copious lives. It’s an old script. A litany. A call-and-response in which we take our tacit comfort. Y.’s job is too good (he wishes he were a starving artist) and I worry out loud about having a seventeen-year-old lover who looks like a model, is obsequious to the point of being a fuckable housepet and boasts a lineage that intimidates every doorman in this impossible-to-intimidate town. My brow is knitted as I enumerate, again, every relevant superlative over the down-to-earth pizza we can share without needing to eye its last slice awkwardly with angst or regret. We usually simply leave the last slice untouched; a sacrifice to our casual Gods. The background chatter is reassuringly lively. Yet not too.

She’s seventeen, I say, with a gesture more French than Rabbinical, though there is something vaguely and indefinably Jewish about the depth and pessimism of even my most light-hearted banter and there is something cozy in that; the ethnic weft; the white-but-not-too-ness. Also: it’s a devastatingly sexy contrast to the über-Wasp (Malevitch?) whiteness of my to-die-for lover, who’s so tomboyish, when I think about it, that she verges on being my catamite. I often fantasize about sodomy; the other kind. I touch the cool crook of Y.’s short-sleeved arm conversationally and say, with a Groucho Marks cadence, have I mentioned already she was a virgin when I first had Biblical knowledge of her? At the age of sixteen? In a hansom cab on Thanksgiving?

Y. counters with a story. I’m reminded of Borges but don’t say so and don’t know why. Story as follows.

A well-known director, otherwise associated with audience-pleasing romantic comedies, and known to write his own scripts, has an idea for a science fiction film, something dystopian, very dark, Owellian in the sense that a perpetual foreign war is described and slogans are everywhere and uniformed agents with unspecified powers keep the people in check. Dissent is not tolerated. Intellectuals sell-out, civilians disappear, the technology has reached a black-box level of godly near-magic that renders the regime invincible. A literal thousand-year-Reich is implied but never stated. The technology is both a giant’s oppressive fist and a drug-like distraction capable of soul-raping wonders. This is the scenario described. As I say: very dark. Bleak. Almost too dark to contemplate, but the well-known director, tired of being known for light fare, believes that this film will establish him as an artist of the first rank, up there with Welles. He throws himself into the project, despite his other commitments (the post-production of one romantic comedy and the pre-production of its follow-up), giving every extra moment; every gap of breathing-space in the continuum of his success-hijacked existence; to the conceptualization of this dark, depressing script.

But these prior commitments are endless; money has to be made. Time passes. Months become years, then decades, as the dystopian project (working title: 2002) fades in the intensity of its claim on his actual working time, but never frees his mind. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about it, until the day he suddenly realizes that thirty years have gone by and the scenario of the film he was never able to realize has come horribly true. That is, the hellish dystopia is Now and no one can escape it by simply walking out of a movie theater.

***

The cab ride home from the movie is wordless. That’s the difference between great art and mere entertainment: great art shuts you up. It’s a short ride but a long silence. I can read T.’s thoughts. Easy as perusing a book in a rack near the cashier in a shop at the Airport.

I had forgotten, of course, that the movie is more than existentialist sex in lower-strata Paris. E.g., I’d remembered the butter scene but not the scene with the open casket; I’d remembered the shaving sequence but not the eponymous tango. T. and I were kissing passionately, already, through the opening credits, and then we weren’t and then we weren’t even holding hands. Agnès Varda’s Camus cribs.

I’m thinking all this, and about Y.’s dinner story, while T. thinks only of the Jean-Pierre Léaud character, the single (hapless) innocent in the film. The hack is a regular Joe who can’t take his eyes off of T. in the rearview and I can read his little thoughts, too. In his mind, there’s nothing wrong with this morose little girl that his blue collar expertise in bed couldn’t cure by bringing her down a peg. By opening her to the smell of her own prejudices. The musk of her own prejudices. Barbieri’s sepiatone soundtrack invades the grayscale of my beautiful Gershwin thoughts; Barbieri’s soundtrack and Schneider’s bosomy tits. Should we have seen the Fellini instead?

Was Brando cheated, ironically, out of that phallic Oscar that so looks like a self he once was?

A pothole jolts me back to the actual. This borough after hours is a reflection of pearls in a flute of black water from the Lethe. Or the Styx? Anyway, every morning, all is forgiven as the slate is wiped clean; memories are chalk dust. I lean close to T. and whisper, Do you trust me?

-Of course. 

-Play along.

I say to the driver, She’s something, isn’t she?

Pardon? You talking to me?

-My date. I can see that you like her.

He laughs and says nothing. I press further.

-Don’t think I have a problem with that, because I don’t. 

-Oh yeah? 

-Yes. Are you married? 

-Who isn’t? 

-How long? 

-The usual. 

-Any kids? 

-Not any more. What about you two? He winks in the mirror at T.

-You love your wife?

-Why not? 

-How would you like to spend the night with my date here? 

The quality of his attention is instantly altered. His eyes are off  T. and dead on me, half-hidden and wary in the mirror’s black shine.

-Funny, you don’t look like a pimp.  

-We’re not talking about a sum of money. 

-What are we talking about?

An experiment. A game. 

-Yeah? 

-You get my date and I get your wife. Six hours. Hotel of your choice. Tonight. 

-And what does she think of all this?

-She thinks what I tell her to think. 

-You look like a college professor but you talk like a what. I don’t know. 

-Are you interested or not? 

-I’m interested in everything. Oil crisis. The Knicks. That silly prick Carter, what he’s doing to this country, people say bring back Nixon. Nixon was a crook you could trust. Rich Arabs and uppity blacks. That Patty Hearst twat. I read the papers, I watch the evening news when I’m home. You think I’m uninformed? 

I squeeze T.’s hand and lean in close again and say, You see? It’s all just talk. It was just a movie. This is what real guys are like, afraid of their sexual shadows. Safe as milk. Never ever forget that Jean-Pierre Lèaud and Marlon Brando are just actors, but this is real life and it’s without consequences. Cinema is the art of the worst-case scenario and I can feel her relax into the revelation; the literal muscles involved. I congratulate myself on saving the evening. I tip the cabbie so big, in the end, it probably insults him. I want him to be insulted: to admit that is liberating.

There is no sex tonight. We only murmur and spoon.

Just to be safe.

***

Y. and I stroll to the squash courts on a brilliant-yet-sunless Monday morning. A warm silver sky; the inhumanly reflective retina of a deity too close to distinguish. We both know what we will say before we say it, Y. and I. And so we say it, as we have and ever shall, without pleasure, but with the blank serenity that taunts free will with the brilliance of a nova-hot projector bulb, melting through time like a sign.

-Jew eat? 

-No, Jew?

 

2. ZARAH FRAYN

If you asked Zarah Frayn about the scariest thing that had ever happened to her she could tell you without thinking but wouldn’t. It had happened the month after marrying Jack. She hadn’t thought of it in all these years. As though the divorce had suddenly opened her to thoughts like that again, or to people who would ask that kind of question. It’s true she wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise. Not now. If it’s a flirtation it’s a funny way to flirt, she thought. Was he trying to scare her? His English was weakly accented, but she didn’t think he was foreign. He’d just been here too long.

She saw the answer to his question without answering it. It’s amazing how many thoughts you can have while putting a glass to your lips. How many pictures you can see. She had been married to Jack for a month, living happily in the rented house in Minneapolis, near the lake.

In the summer you could hear the people on the sailboats talking loudly over music through the screen door to the back porch that Jack had converted into what he’d called his study. Three sides of the porch were windows they hadn’t found screens for in the cellar or attic or in the garage and they hadn’t had the time or money to get new ones from the hardware store. You could only angle the windows slightly open and the problem was that mosquitoes came in.

Being newlyweds was their excuse, at first, for not getting screens but they still didn’t have time or much money, eleven years later, when they finally called it quits. It could get pretty hot on the porch but the air conditioning from the kitchen helped to keep it pleasant during the day, with the shade from all the trees an additional help. They usually wouldn’t use the air conditioning in the evening, which is when you could sometimes hear the people on the sailboats drifting by on the dark lake chatting around their mild and orderly music. If the music was jazz, which it was sometimes, it reminded her to wonder why Jack refused to listen to jazz while they were having sex.

She was on the couch on the porch, not really reclining and not really sitting up, with a magazine, it must have been a Vogue, the bare light in the slanted ceiling of the porch kind of hurting her eyes. Sometimes it hurt her eyes and sometimes it didn’t. It depended on where she sat in relation to the bulb but she felt too lazy, she remembers, to get up and simply cross the porch to the overstuffed chair in the corner that it was better for her eyes, in the evening, to read in. Also, the chair smelled slightly old. She looked up from the magazine at the chair, several times, as though to go to it by thought alone or as if someone was sitting in it. She looked up at least half a dozen times while flipping the pages of the Vogue.

Behind all the windows was darkness complicated with leaves of the trees and bushes. The windows were patterned with porch reflections and glare from the naked bulb and then the dark padding, under that, of the evening and the toothy dark mesh of the leaves that sounded like cooking or old time radio applause when the wind was blowing. Because of the tilt of the pane of glass behind the overstuffed chair she could see some of herself reflected in it, not really reclining and not really sitting up.

The top of her head in the reflection was bright and distinct with flaring hairs under the bare bulb but the rest of her blended in the reflection with shingled wood behind her and the leaves outside the reflecting window and it was like a bad composite photograph of a big dark face wearing a little cap of angelic hair and forehead. It looked like a very strange face was staring at her while tearing itself slowly in half. That’s why she kept looking up from the magazine. When she shifted her position and looked more closely it dawned on her that the face she was seeing wasn’t a complex optical illusion. It was a face at the window staring right into her eyes.

“Have you ever been truly frightened?” asked the stranger. Was he good looking? Is youth ever not?

Zarah couldn’t get over how people shared tables with you here. Simply paying for your coffee or cake wasn’t considered proof of your temporary ownership of the whole table. They would just sit down. Sometimes they would ask and sometimes they wouldn’t. Like some kind of traditional wartime thing like seating space in bars and cafés must have been desperately rationed. She imagined the ersatz parmesan of concussed plaster sifting over inedible plates of spaghetti. And she imagined each isolated candle-lit Aryan face accepting a cold justice long delayed while desultorily chewing. Though obviously her imagination was Minneapolizing them. Dramatic strangers jammed together at banquet tables in makeshift cellar restaurants just waiting for that last definitive thing.

He was young, younger than she; scratching his chin in a way that meant he was scratching his chin to make fun of the gesture as a thing that older people did without thinking about it and she realized he was from the Midwest, too, because the gesture was nice, somehow. She wouldn’t say loving because she was trying to learn not to exaggerate. She could tell he’d had a happy childhood. She usually got along with people like that, although he’d sat at her table without asking.

She thought: whatever. Had an affair with the boy (she thought of him as a boy now) for a week without ever seeing where he was staying. He dismissed his hypothetical flat as a dump and evaded her smalltalky queries with deft references to cultural touchstones of the upper Midwest.  Namely Lutefisk. Taconite.

He looked around her room in the big shared flat on Eisenacher Strasse and said it was nice. Liking the fact that she shared the flat with flight attendants, he looked through her CDs and it seemed to her that it took a very long time for him to find something he made an approving sound at. She ached to be able to stick a tongue out at Jack, in fact, because it was a jazz compilation the boy approved of.

The boy pulled the jazz compilation out of the stack and the disk up out of its jewel case and handled the disk properly, as only males seemed in her experience to bother doing, while slowly circling the room in search of something to put it in. He looked confused when he couldn’t find anything. She hadn’t decided on one yet. Do they think that fingertips squirt acid?

His wispy crushed hairs down there looked exactly the way Zarah had expected them to. She’d expected the defiant indignance of the inadequate exposed to scrutiny and that’s what she got. Like lifting a big rock with a wooden lever in her garden in the rented house in Minneapolis and confronting a self-sufficient life form resentfully frightened of change. His name was Michael Pappell, rhyming with “repel”.

Six months later she met Mike Pappell by chance at a tram stop while he was climbing off the modern yellow tram and she was waiting to climb on. By then she could speak a bit more German and felt a little less like she was open to criticism from people she came near wherever she went in public. She felt like the native compared to Mike, who maintained the aura of a hitchhiker who hitchhikes to make a statement about those who don’t hitchhike.

She said, you know, I was thinking about it the other day. How I never told you?

Told me what, he said.

Those scars on my back.

I assumed…

No.

P. Qua P. [from CITY OF AMATEURS]

photo by SG

P was British. Tall P, yellow-haired, green-eyed, slender and fit, was from the lovely resort town of B_____.  Nice thick 1970s-cut hair had P, and dimples and big white teeth. A fading bottle tan rendered her skin tone sweetly sallow. She looked good in white t-shirt, jeans and motorcycle boots and she was a little older than she appeared to be at first glance but that was a plus, in his opinion. All the wisdom of those five extra years without the apparent wear and tear;  forty years compressed into what looked like a thirty-five year old package. The wear and tear was on the inside. The wear and tear was in her skull.

“Excuse me,” she said, “Do you speak English? Where’s the next tube station? Will you walk me there?” In town for a Buddhist retreat or convention or something. Alright, okay: Buddhist. Better than Baptist, at least. What Salter liked most was the Eliza Doolittle accent that P would put on, pronouncing “lady” as “lie-dee” and even trotting out a few “blimeys” from time to time for laughs.

It only took about four hours, gallivanting around Berlin like backpacking teenagers, for P and Salter to develop a rudimentary system of inside jokes and catch-phrases and by the end of the day they were holding hands. When he put her on the train to Frankfurt (from where she’d be flying back to the U.K. the next day) they indulged in a lingering kiss goodbye. Walking home from the train station he was shadowed by an unexpected melancholy, but not because she was gone.

Salter did not, could not,  kid himself that he was falling in love. What Salter and P both seemed to be willing to settle for was a good-natured, no-sweat mimicry of passion as they remembered enjoying it in their twenties. They’d both hit 40 with an aversion to drama. No risk, no fun is a German saying but the Germans hate risk and rarely have fun and he was feeling the influence of his environment. When he was young he was into beginnings just as now he is into middles: middle-age, middle-class, middle-of-the-road, fair-to-middlin’, etc., and none of the taxing passions (each representing a beginning and an ending with no middle) of the bad old days…those brief ecstatic super-highs he invariably paid for with shattering dunks in the slough of despond. P felt much the same way but the trick was in not coming right out and saying it, or even being conscious of the fact…the trick was letting the subconscious hoard the truth as its terrible treasure. Salter liked P but if he had learned, the very next day, of her Discount Jet failing catastrophically to land without incident, he would not have been moved to shed a tear. Which may or may not be chilling. But that’s what growing up is all about: crying less and less over the fate of others and more and more over the fate of one’s self.

What did Salter like so much about P ? She had a good body, nice face, pleasant personality. The value of his body’s stock was not rising. Grab somebody while we still can, his body was pleading. The Germans call it Torschlusspanik, the panic of the closing door. The Americans call it musical chairs,  which is exactly the kind of passion-free calculation that the young abhor in the wise. He visualized, without pain, the possibility of ending up in B_____, patrolling the beach in a warm overcoat at dusk after a cozy dinner, white-haired and introspective and stripped of worrisome passions or options or that persistent nag, the Hope demon.

Over the following weeks they spoke on the phone every day, at exactly the same time. The aridity of the modern childhood creates that in us, a longing for rituals, for traditions. It was touching. She’d call him just as she was sitting down to eat her delicious microwave dinner while gazing out the big bay window upon the picturesque street angling down towards the brilliantined wrinkles of the sea. And all the bright bay windows across the street with none of their curtains drawn, either. Salter enjoyed the sound of her chewing in his ear. He’d had a lover once who couldn’t stand the sound of chewing. Mixed nuts would have her sticking her fingers in her ears in the next room and a bag of chips would have her out on the window ledge. It could very well be that P chewing in his ear on the telephone,  and not minding to hear Salter chewing in hers, won him over against certain perceived debits in her personality and her history. A man seriously considers spending the rest of his life with a woman because she chews in his ear during phone calls.

He considered marrying her. Even after learning over the phone that she’d spent ten years living as an expat lesbian in San Francisco, earning good money as a stripper. She earned “pots of cash” in one of the oldest tit joints in the city, the anti-erotically named LUVLEE LADY, with its red velvet draperies and uncle-spunk ambiance. Do they or do they not, wondered Salter, during the course of the conversation, turn tricks for quick cash backstage? Salter hadn’t seen her piercings but when she spoke of them, and the stripping, and the physically abusive lover who had driven her (with sisterly kicks and punches) back towards the plausibility of a relationship with a man (“Making up after a fistfight with your girlfriend is kind of an anticlimax,” as she put it)…he was intrigued and lightly revolted. She was good on the phone and revealed a streak of Celtic garrulity when touching upon the topics of her booze-addled father (“imagine an English Richard Pryor…from Yorkshire…whatever that means”), her job (“Don’t get me started…”), and her experience with black men (“None, but open to edification, Darlin’.”).

“I mean,” she said, “what’s it like?” Loik. “Is it fat and purple or long and black or…what? Is it positively elephantine, like they say? God, you must think me an awful slag to ask!”

“Not at all…how will you learn things if you never ask?”

“Well…” he could picture her smiling coyly, “…I can think of one way I could learn: you could show me.”

“Love to.”

“And I could show you.”

“Show me what?”

“Hmmm.” She smacked her lips. “I could show you…my naughty little party trick.”

He had never much cared for the word naughty. His inner-voice reacted strongly to the word “naughty” and urged him to forget it; to call it off over this one word, pronto. But rational elements of his mind complained, quite reasonably, that you can’t just drop a woman for having used one wrong word. There ought to be dozens of them first.

“Your naughty little party trick,” he repeated, with neutral inflection.

“Yep. My naughty little party trick.”

“How little?”

“Ever hear of a thing called female ejaculation?”

“Sure.” Salter cleared his throat. “Ever hear of the Loch Ness Monster?”

“Har har.”

“Tell me more about stripping.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Didn’t it make you hate men?”

“You’re putting the carriage before the horse, darlin’. And hate is too strong a word. I don’t hate anyone…I’m a Buddhist.”

“But you felt, shall we say, contempt for them.”

“My mum bought me a dehumidifier years ago. Right? I should probably warn you that I have mild asthma, by the way. Anyway, the dehumidifier sits unobtrusively in a corner of my living room, and it’s always just humming away. Naughty me, I’ve never changed the filter, if you can imagine…couldn’t be bothered, innit? I’m sure this dehumidifier is absolute shite at this point…good for nothing at all. But I’d rather not deal with it because of the thought of what’s going on under the lid…what with that grotty old filter and all…it gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. But it’s too bleeding massive to chuck in the bin, see. So I just…you know…it just sits there, where it’s always been, plugged in but useless. I don’t even really look at it any more…I vacuum around it a few times a week and that’s the extent of it. See what I mean? It’s just…,” he could hear that she was looking over her shoulder at it, “…it’s just there.”

“So…”

“That’s how I saw those blokes in the strip joint. I mean, it’s not like I was stripping for them. I was stripping ‘cuz my boss told me to, and I got paid for it, and no, I never turned a trick for cash…and you haven’t answered my questions about your dick, by the way.”

“I haven’t?”

“Not very comfortable talking about old dickie, are you?”

“It’s not that I’m uncomfortable…more that the topic…offends me,” he surprised himself saying. “You know: black male. Big dick. Blah blah blah.”

“Oh God, I’ve been racially insensitive, haven’t I?”

“Believe me, you ain’t the first, Honey.”

“That was cute.”

“What?”

“The way you just said ain’t.”

When he didn’t respond to that she asked, “So then, how big is it?”

After chatting like this for almost a month they made plans for her to visit him in Berlin for a weekend, based on the grownup theory that three days in his flat together would be an accurate test of their compatibility. The morning she left for Stansted Airport (the cheapest route to that airport from B_____ took more than twice as long as the flight to Berlin) it was chilly in B_____, so P dressed accordingly. Which meant the baggy black running pants she’d painted her kitchen in, an old anorak and a ridiculous bobble hat.

Salter makes it to the airport quite early.

He doesn’t want to chance being late and having P get off the plane and walk through customs without him there to meet her. When he first finds the arrivals gate, no one else is waiting for the late flight from London. He is about thirty minutes early. This gives him plenty of time to think. One thing he keeps thinking about is how not excited he is to be awaiting  P’s arrival. He dwells on this. He’d much rather be in bed, alone, preparing to watch the Grammies.

A crowd eventually forms in front of Salter, a small-but-intense crowd of people more eager than he is to peer into the arrival lounge as loved-ones disembark the plane with the dazed gratitude of the living and line up to yank luggage off the sluggish conveyor. The crowd consists of the usual: girlfriends, grannies, grandchildren, wives, best friends, hotel-sent drivers holding signs saying ZIEGELDORF, etc. Directly in front of Salter paces a serious-looking middle-aged man in creased gray trousers, dress shoes and a leather jacket, nervous or anxious as hell, glancing at his watch incessantly and clutching a significant bouquet of roses. This guy’s been thinking about this moment for days and weeks, thinks Salter. This guy knows the score: life is short, find someone, buy her roses, pick her up at the airport. When the plane lands and his lover gets off it’ll be Christmas for them, Salter nods to himself, enviously. She might be plain or old or downright ugly but it won’t matter because he obviously cares for her and that’s what matters; I bet they’ve been together for twenty years; I wish I had someone to care for. He sighs audibly. I wish I had someone to wait at the airport for with a bouquet of roses.

But Salter is far from prepared for what happens when he sees the serious beau (not much younger than Salter himself) see his girl with creases of joy at his eyes and he gestures excitedly through the glass at her and she is the most unbearably beautiful girl in a Navy Peacoat, a fine-boned brunette with lustrous hair and exotic eyes and an incredible pre-Raphaelite profile and she hurries on her long legs without luggage through customs and practically pirouettes into the arms of the middle-aged guy who drops the bouquet to catch her: a fair trade, a lyric metaphor, and the crowd around them smiles, the people all smile, and Salter is flooded with feelings of …its just unfair, is all, and he’s hurt and he knows it’s ridiculous but still it’s unfair and it hurts.

And then P comes out in her bobble hat and baggy pants and anorak, red-nosed, walking with that foalish pigeon-toed gait; that asinine counterfeit of helpless youth she affects; looking befuddled and old nevertheless; mouth open…a caricature of dowdy British spinsterhood, dragging her wheeled plaid suitcase behind her…and it is all Salter can do not to slip through the crowd and run for the exit when she spots him and smiles and hugs herself and mouths its cold!

No doubt she realizes how awful her get-up looks; maybe it had hit her on the plane, half-way over the black face of the North Sea: the obvious self-sabotaging provocation of dressing this way for what was essentially a second date. Why did she do it? Why did she get on a plane for Berlin as though dressed for a weekend of D.I.Y. in a rustic cottage in Cornwall? She wouldn’t have wanted her mother to see her in a costume like this, more the less an attractive man she’s been courting (or been courted by) long-distance for a month. Was the bobble hat a subconscious Sapphic protest or simple self-destructiveness or even simpler fuck-it-all-edness at this late stage of the game or what? She knows she’ll have to hustle to save the weekend and she does…she hustles, going to work immediately. She grabs Salter’s hand and leads him off in an arm-swinging walk towards the escalator saying “Cor blimey, Guv!” or some such cutesy exaggeration. “I got sumfink for you,” she sing-songs, improvising a grin. Salter does his best to play along.

“You do? What?”

“Save it for later,” she says, coyly, Soivit fa lighter, but really she doesn’t have anything for him at all; nothing in the suitcase but three changes of clothing, a bottle of baby oil, some candles and her meditation mat. Save it for later is a stalling technique, and her teasing tone is so ambiguous that she might be referring to sex, and heaven knows she’s completely willing to offer her ass as a virgin sacrifice to propitiate the gods at this point. Stupid stupid stupid…with a little lipstick and her cat suit on and those thigh-high vinyl boots (somewhere in the back of the closet) she’d have been the master of this situation. As it is she will probably have to resort to letting him do something to her she’d never before let a man do and with a dick probably twice the size of the legal limit and pretend to like it, too. She can already hear herself saying it’s funny, but I could never understand why most women I know seem to hate doing this…and it makes her want to puke.

Most women hate doing this because it’s painful, unhealthy and perfectly degrading and they find themselves under constant pressure to do it, actually. She thinks of her pretty, tragically straight buddy Gladys back in ‘Frisco and accompanying Gladys one fine fall day under a sky of milk-smeared lapis to the free clinic in Haight over what turned out to be a cluster of rectal fistulas. Is that what P can look forward to, now, after her strategic fuck-up? Holes in her ass-hole? But it’s so trivial, the difference between what she did and what she should have done…mother-effing lipstick? This is how a man decides on a life-partner? A fucking bobble hat and no lipstick is a make-or-break? What about my brain, the quality of my affection, the depth of my experiences? And it makes her angry and rebellious all over again and now she remembers the space she was in about an hour before leaving her flat to catch the bus to the train to the tube to the train to Stansted. She’d ransacked her dresser drawers and the closet and tried on about ten different outfits, something she hadn’t done since the age of twenty, and yet in none of the outfits does she look twenty, or even thirty five…in all of the outfits she looks tarted-up and old and garish and desperate and first in despair but then in anger she’d thought: fuck it. This is me. Take it or leave it. Like it or lump it. This is me.

They manage to fill the long train ride from Schönefeld to Salter’s neighborhood with neutral chatter; that is, Salter, in no mood to pretend to be pretending not to be in love, is at least grateful that P is able to fill what would have been the uncomfortable silences. It is amazing to Salter that she has anything left to say after blabbing on the phone with him every day for a month; amazing that she can access this deep reservoir of emergency small talk; he gets away with nodding and smiling or nodding and frowning and the occasional interrogative grunt. It must look and sound hysterically funny to anyone in the seats behind them: this chatty animated white woman in the bobble hat and the all-but-mute brother beside her. From behind it must look like this has been going on for twenty years: she blabbing, he nodding. Not that his side of the trip isn’t full of rich interior monolog…covering everything from his first kiss to Dick van Dyke’s insufferable “Cockney” accent as the chimney sweep Bert in “Mary Poppins.”

The train passes through fifteen desolate stations in the blighted east before getting anywhere near where Salter usually hangs out in Berlin and he muses that the one single fucking advantage of sitting on this train with P as opposed to with his dreamgirl (that vivacious pre-Raphaelite at the airport, say) is that if Neo Nazis should suddenly hop on the S-Bahn they won’t be particularly enraged to catch Salter with this dowdy Brit…the bobble hat is a tool of invisibility like Wagner’s Tarnhelm, protecting them both.

The train finally reaches his station and they embark on the fifteen minute walk to his flat in a misty drizzle. Not another soul on the street do they encounter as P bumps the wheels of her wretchedly large suitcase over uneven concrete and cobblestones with a child’s passive-aggressive delight in unavoidable noise-making, the loudest thing for miles, he slightly ahead of her and grateful that it’s just cold enough outside to excuse his keeping both hands firmly in his pockets every inch of the way.

It’s better in his flat: at least it’s comfortable, cozy, a controlled environment. Salter opens the door and ushers P in and takes her coat and hat with what they both play as jokey, English-butler-like froideur and offers her something to drink and goes right to the television, switching it on and wheeling it to the center of the living room: just in time for the Nth-annual Grammies. P takes in the room with a furtive glance: high ceilings, immaculate parquet floor…minimal, roomy…some shelves, some gadgets, two tall silver floor lamps, two massive black faux-marble vases…nice…uncluttered but nice and it’s obvious that this boy is not averse to dusting. Men are far more likely to do the cooking than the dusting, usually…anything they can show off with they don’t mind doing.

They seem to have missed no more than the first third or so of the interminable award ceremony. There should be a Grammy given for Best Grammy Award Ceremony. The epic broadcast will give them something to talk about without forcing him to engage her directly on anything remotely personal …the television will be the third party, or buffer, or random arbiter for them that it is for most doomed, inarticulate marriages, no matter how brief or enduring. And the epic length of the show gives Salter some hope of putting P to sleep without even having to fuck her.

What Salter likes about watching the Grammies in Germany is that the broadcast isn’t sanitized for German audiences the way it is for all those sensitive, shockable, immaculate church-going virgins in the U.S…whatever happens on camera, the Germans will see. Same with “live” White House press conferences…if a reporter asks an embarrassing question, the television audience in Germany gets to watch the entire question being asked as well as its entire shaky and or furious response from the President. When Germans cover big political news in America, the German audience sometimes gets to see normally suave tepid Congressmen blurt words like “bullshit” or “fuck” (both translated as “Scheisse”) and once heard Strom Thurmond spit a super-dipthonged “Niggra” so close to “Nigger” that a mass spectrometer couldn’t have discriminated between epithets. In many cases, not only are Americans blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the world in general…they’re less aware of what’s happening in their own towns, or up their own streets, than the TV audience in Germany is. Who was Spiro T. Agnew and what did he do wrong? More Germans than Americans can answer that question. Not that the Germans are driven by any force more noble than pedantic Schadenfreude. The Germans are no more a nation of ethical bloodhounds driven towards the warm odor of All Truth than any other nation on earth. There are thousands of German school kids who couldn’t come up with more than a factual sentence or two about Adolf Hitler, and hundreds who haven’t even heard of him. Tens of thousands, at least, who still use the word Jew as a casual pejorative. But about American malfeasance they are all quite hip and plugged in…they are all media cynics, these kids, monitoring the TV and the Internet the way Weegee used to monitor his short wave police scanner…

Earlier that week, in fact, an American scandal, downplayed in the stateside press, had made front page in all the left-wing papers in Germany: two rookie cops in Baltimore, summoned to a mall to subdue a family of three accused of shoplifting, were caught on several amateur videos brutalizing the family…a 32 year old black mother and her two daughters (14 and 11)…to the extent that a 235 pound fourth-generation Italian-American cop is seen resting his massive knee on the fragile bones between the shoulder blades of a prostrate 75 pound 11-year-old while handcuffing her as the mother screams in the background that her daughter is asthmatic and won’t be able breathe with his weight on her. To exacerbate the blinding halo of absolute injustice around the incident it later comes out that the three weren’t shoplifting at all; the items found in the mother’s purse were returns, all of which she had receipts for…she had simply wanted to exchange the three Danskins in her possession for others that fit better. Security had only checked Mrs. Broder’s Gucci handbag in the first place, minutes after the three entered the store (in an upscale suburban mall), on a “hunch”. The final twist is that the very black Broder family is not from the ghetto at all: the mother is a veteran reporter at a local television station, married to an in-house lawyer at DOW Chemicals, and the punitive damages against the city of Baltimore are projected by their celebrity legal team to be in the tens of millions. The story is surprisingly (or not) muted on stateside media.

Salter busies himself in the kitchen while P sneaks the makeup kit out of her scuffed suitcase and does a quick, subtle job of rehabilitating her image before he returns with a big bowl of popcorn and two tall dark German beers. She has applied lipstick and blush and teased her short crop of gold-coin-colored hair with a switch-blade comb she stole from an ex-ex ex and checked her overall image pouting into the mirror of the bulging big screen of the television when the camera panned the Grammy audience and the screen went black segueing into a classy, Boomer-targeted car commercial. This is no time to make a political statement or prosecute mammal life on the planet for the way it should be as opposed to the way it is, to paraphrase her thoughts. Look pretty. Think of it as an investment in the future. Time is not exactly standing still. Commercial over, and The Rolling Stones’s live rendition of their bland new super-forgettable single gives Salter plenty to be funny about, and P makes sure to laugh. She laughs, takes a deep swallow of beer, and laughs harder. She’s reeling it all back in. Almost lost him. The beer is helping.

“Mick!” he shouts at the screen, “why the collagen? You should be donating that excess lip fat to needy starlets, man, not injecting more of it!”

Okay, thinks Salter: it’s true. I’m feeling better. Call me shallow. She took the opportunity to apply a little makeup while I was making the popcorn and it’s not just that she looks better again but it’s also the fact that she is doing her best to please me that somehow…breaks the ice. It’s almost turning me on. I know it’s creepy…it’s some kind of caveman trip, wired into my medulla oblongata, I guess. What can I do about it? Did I fucking design the human brain? Did I write the fucking program governing the reproductive hardware? Am I the perpetrator of my preferences or the victim of them?

“Holy shit, am I nuts or does Keith Richards look more and more like a Strat-playing hemorrhoid every day?”

P is meanwhile very stealthily scooting closer to him on the leather sectional. Not to touch him, necessarily, but close enough for him to touch her when he’s ready. She knows how to do this: to control through abasement. It’s the same strip-club principle behind getting a Kotex of Thomas Jeffersons in your g-string as opposed to a Kleenex of George Washington. All her post-pubescent life she has oscillated between fearing men and pitying them and the thing is you can love someone you pity. Yes you can. She could love Salter…she could see it being worth it to love him. It’s just not the other way around: you can’t love someone who pities you, and that’s what she is truly alert to, as she grows older…that’s what she is rawly vigilant about: not so much being objectified, as in the days of yore…about being objectified she no longer gives a shit…human beings are first and foremost objects…but being pitied. Being pitied by some paunchy dick with halitosis even older than her is what she could kill over. Okay: cards on the table. A black man can’t pity her, can he? That might be this poor guy’s greatest theoretical attribute as a life-partner.

When it comes time to announce the winner in the category Best Rap Solo Performance, there are two presenters: a gangling black feller with a steam-shovel jaw and owlish glasses in a sable-trimmed cap-and-gown get-up…and his co-presenter: a petite, top-loaded platinum blonde so skinny she looks like a Scandinavian hieroglyphic. Or the letter P when she stands in profile. The juxtaposition of the black male and the blonde female makes a good visual while at the same time spuriously implying a broadly integrated society, though in reality, of course, the only black men she associates with are her body guards and the only white females he’ll talk to are prostitutes. The blonde, Sabreena, is channeling her nervous energy into glittering glissandos of glib giggling as she waits for the applause elicited by the mere fact of her presence to die down. The brother, MC PhD, also beneficiary of a big hand for doing little more than finding the lectern with the help of a generically pretty escort, seems agitated, and keeps biting his upper lip and adjusting his mortar board. Two Grammy ceremonies ago, he was the Best Rap Solo Performance and his debut album, Matriculator, has sold 14 million copies to date. The son of militant West Coast “black intellectuals,” he embarked on a serious career in music only after graduating with a degree in communications from Howard University and is known to be incisive and fluent on record, if not quite so while reading from a teleprompter in front of a live audience.

We learn that there are five nominees in this category, four of which are men and one of which is a woman, and the audience already knows without being told that the only female nominee is also the only non-African-American. E-Rex, the fat blind paraplegic rapper from Georgia whose mother died in the Fourth of July drive-by shooting that put him in his customized wheel chair, is heavily favored to win. After reading off an inspirational statement explaining that Rap is valuable to American and even global culture not only for its sheer vitality but also for its ability to enrich so many other art forms with the irrepressible wisdom of the streets, MC PhD leans on the lectern and reads a scripted witticism haltingly, waits for Sabreena’s canned retort, steps on her mispronounced retort with his leaden comeback, and joins her with, “And the winner of Best Rap Solo Performance is…” as Sabreena tears open the envelope.

“White Krissmiss!” squeals Sabreena. Cue: the chorus from White Krissmiss’s breakthrough smash “Tales of the Pale” as the lady herself, tall and bald as a 100 watt bulb and dressed in the Wehrmacht’s winter camouflage ski-suit (or something just like it) po-facedly storms the stage to take her Grammy against the sustained approving roar of the audience, more and more of whom are seen to be rising with benign reluctance into a peer-pressured ovation after she pimp-walks down the aisle.

“Shameless!” whoops Salter, who can’t help being delighted. It’s the greatest Grammy travesty since the Anita Kerr Singers blind-sided The Beatles by triumphing over “Help!” with “We Dig Mancini” for Best Performance by a Vocal Group in 1966.

“My God,” gasps P “It’s Elvis all over again!”

But MC PhD isn’t having it. White Krissmiss, out of breath and smiling humbly, reaches for her Grammy but PhD, clutching it to the breast of his sable-trimmed gown, leans across the lectern again, taps the microphone thuddingly and says, “Whoa. Wait a minute. Wait up.”

He says, to the eight hundred and fifty formally-attired people in the audience at the Bob Hope Memorial Westinghouse Pavilion in Los Angeles, and the estimated 1.4 billion people (some of them in loin cloths) watching “at home”,

“Yo. This ain’t…that’s just…see, this ain’t the deal. You know what I’m sayin? Nuh-uh. It’s like, first Baltimore, now this? I don’t think so…and y’all…see, no disrespec to Krissmiss…okay? Know what I’m sayin? But we didn’t even…when I was growin up…I was hungry. Okay? I’m talkin’ ‘bout Oakland, okay? And we didn’t go stealin’ or robbin’ ‘cause my mama, she woulda…she woulda whupped our black asses with a belt. And that Sista and her family down in Baltimore, they coulda been…they wasn’t even shopliftin or nuthin…know what I’m sayin? …and that cop coulda killed that little sista with her asthma and now y’all wanna tell the other nominees…like, the brothas shouldna even bothered come down here tonight and y’all just…Y’all think y’all can even do that better…ya’ll don’t even want ya niggers black!”

And he goes on in this vein but the segue music swells up and it’s suddenly time for a commercial break and White Krissmiss herself has been standing to the side during the jagged verbal collage of MC PhD’s impressionistic sermon, head-bowed, hands clasped behind her back…nodding the whole time. And when she looks up and over at MC PhD she looks not as though she wants to throttle him, as well she should…she looks, instead, as though she wants to hug him and feel his pain and Salter thinks: are white people just smarter, or faker, or do they have ice-water in their veins, or what? Just like the android super-villain the hero can only hope to defeat through the miraculous intervention of sheer luck, he thinks. What would Isaac Asimov suggest? Every time a black somewhere loses control, flips out, gets loud…there’s a level-headed white somewhere waiting in the wings who not only benefits from the loss of control but benefits enormously…

“That was brilliant!” says P. She is by now pressed close beside Salter on the couch, with her hand between his shoulders, giving him a light, experimental, prefatory back-rub. “He really told it like it is; that took guts…I am so proud of him! Wow. That was inspiring!” She pats Salter on the back and repeats “I am so proud of him.”

If she could see Salter’s face at this moment she’d be shocked. Frightened even. On the television another classy car advert is playing out a Wagnerian scenario of soaring eagles and winding mountain roads bracketed between jump-cuts of black on the screen…black upon which the flickering white words elegance, then stature, then sensuality fade in and out…black like a mirror so P glimpses a fleeting, distorted reflection of…but that’s not possible. She hasn’t done anything wrong, has she? But she feels his back muscles go rigid as a tractor tire to her touch and she removes her hand without even being conscious of removing it and he leans forward and turns off the television and says, without facing her, “Proud of what?”

Salter looks over his shoulder and sees: the proverbial frozen smile. He turns away again, cracking his knuckles. He has no way of knowing that her abusive ex-girlfriend used to crack her knuckles in much the same manner. “You’re proud of what? That clown in his cap and gown didn’t make one ounce of fucking sense.”

“I thought what he said was quite powerful.”

“Gotta love the irony, though…he’s standing up there in his fur-trimmed cap and gown and he couldn’t speak one complete sentence in English! Hey, and please don’t try to tell me…”

“But I don’t understand what you’re getting so upset about.”

“Please don’t try to tell me that if it was some white dummy up there being incoherent, you would have been proud of him, too!”

“But that’s just the point…there won’t be any white dummies, as you call them, up there …reacting with grief…genuine human rage and grief…over an injustice done to them by the black majority…because there is no black majority. And most of the injustices…the kind we’re talking about… are against blacks. Or am I a dummy too?”

“Look, I know you mean well. I really do. But liberal condescension does not help people like that…”

“People like that. That’s a funny way to put it. People like that…”

Salter gets up and grabs a jacket where it’s dangling from a door knob. “Oh, I see…I’m not allowed to make a distinction! Gee, thanks for reminding me of my roots, Miss Daisy…I almost got uppity there for a second!” He slips the jacket on and zips it. “Don’t wait up.”

“Jesus.”

He leaves the room, marches down the hall, and exits the flat, closing the door quietly behind him. Down the stairs. He feels better already. It’s only when he’s about a block away from the building that it hits him that now he’s being over-emotional, rather than coldly analytical…he’s doing just what he’d excoriated MC PhD for doing…he’s flipping out. I guess flipping out is just my fucking heritage…flipping out is my culture. I come from a long line of last-straw niggers; for us…everything is the last straw…we are born to flip-out, Jack…we emerge from the womb with our fists clenched and our eyes bugging out, little black hand-grenades, packed with the DNA of exasperation. Well, he sighs, at least I flipped out articulately…at least I can say that. Fuck it.

He hugs himself.

There’s the moon again. Very small, very cold, astonishingly incurious up there in its track in the cold sky over its humanity-infested paramour the Earth. All the little details, every day and every night without end: wildfires, volcanoes, the silver needles of jets and the warped quilts of farmland and the intricate gray circuit boards of metropolises and hurricanes like vast toilets flushing all over the equator…and Las Vegas a smashed re-molded disco ball and rhizome-like lightning illuminating the soil-like-air over the rusted industrial hubs…and satellites like glittering insects and sweet green pollutions like intercontinental perfume…all this…of zero interest whatsoever. Maybe there was a time when the moon was a dedicated witness, even a loving one, recording the surge and recession and resurgence of humanity’s Dorian-Gray-like self-portrait on the face of the Earth…those soft-as-cookies Mayan, or Elizabethan, or Igbo motifs…but then came the 20th century and it was all just too fucking much to look at…the paparazzi fusillade of A-bombs going off on the red carpet of the world premier of the modern age… and the moon is now catatonic or hysterically blind, lashed to its gravity track forever, a white-eyed corpse on a merry-go-round. What a sick thought, thinks Salter; I need another beer. A nice black Weizenbier. There is a tankstelle about four blocks from his flat, on Leibniz Strasse

…the Tankstellen…the petrol stations…sell beer at night. In the old days, before the laws loosened, grocery stores could only be open between nine in the morning and six at night, and about four hours on Saturday and not at all on Sunday and that was the law. You’d end up doing most of your shopping in gas stations, especially if you fucking worked for a living. Every day at a quarter past five every grocery store in Berlin was packed with people dressed like businessmen and their secretaries…five or six check-outs in the bigger stores and aisles all jammed and the queues ridiculous. And if you couldn’t make it before six or you didn’t want to stand in a queue for twenty minutes or you wanted a snack, quite spontaneously, at three in the afternoon on Sunday…the petrol station. Beer, ice cream, road maps, porno magazines, wiener in jars, flour for baking, milk, wiper fluid, candy bars, and all kinds of beer. Weizenbier, translated literally, is wheat beer…he wants, he thinks, specifically: Hafer Weizenbier…yeast wheat beer. Buy it in a club or a café and they have to give you a very tall glass for it because of all the foam. The bartender rolls it on the bar to shake the yeast off the bottom of the bottle.

The Tankstelle on Leibniz Strasse is a grand one, a meeting place for night drivers, a small grocery store. Salter goes right to the corner behind the bottled water and grabs a big green and gold can of Pilsner (no more Hafer Weizenbier tonight) and gets in a line about six deep, guzzling from the can already, standing directly behind a very tall, very skinny, very blonde girl in a black vinyl raincoat and black vinyl cap and hair all the way down to the hem of her jacket, not quite reaching her ass, which is one of those asses where the jeans pull the cheeks apart under the coccyx causing a gap like the apex of a cathedral archway. Or an inverted saddle. She is drenched in a musky perfume that Salter guesses is an attempt to mask her own odor from herself…women like that are perpetually in heat or at least imagine themselves to be and ashamed of the condition, he thinks; they think everyone else can smell it. They are ashamed but also crazed by it…they are as easy to pick up as the bruised fruit in the shade around the base of the copious pear tree. The short-haired check-out girl (Peter Pan in her green jumpsuit) has a radio on behind the counter and Salter has heard, since getting in line behind Rapunzel, the very end of the Sid Vicious version of My Way, followed by Mr. Sandman by whoever did the original of that gem of Ike-era putrefaction and now it’s Golden Lady by Stevie Wonder… so of course Salter, very quietly but with great accuracy, sings along with Stevie. And of course Rapunzel turns around, glowing at him.

Oh, don’t stop, that is real entertainment, she says.

Her face is painted like a souvenir ashtray from Tijuana and she is no less than fifty five years old, with big red lips and blue eyes bleached of sanity, utterly free from any mood more moderate than lust or terror…she’s loony and sexual and fascinating, in fact, and Salter realizes: it’s The Moon herself. The Moon come down to visit after I invoked her spirit with boozy ruminations in my time of greatest need…it’s my Cherokee blood that enables me to call down The Moon. A talent my grandmother had. What was the Moon’s name again? What was her name? He used to know from reading all that Science Fiction. That’s it: Selene.

“I’m glad you like it, Selene,” Salter answers. Everyone in line ahead of them turns to stare because of the loud English but he doesn’t care…the beer has immunized him against self-consciousness. “I have to say, Selene…your hair is amazing.” Like ripped yellow silk. She reaches and touches his.

“Your hair also. It’s very unusual for a colored man. Where does it come from?”

“My grandfather. He was a…German Jew…” and here Salter shrugs with Yiddish resignation about a sentence he need not finish. A German Jew? Why not. This is how you flirt with old Germans.

She shrugs too. “Aha! My father was a very big officer. Ein Oberst. What is your word? General. So,” she smiles, “we have something in common.”

“No, nothing in common.”

“Ach.” She pouts. “You are very intelligent for a colored man.”

“Colored men are very intelligent, as a rule, but we have a weakness.”

“Blondes.”

“No: humanity. We’re too human. Colored men are far too human.”

“Yes. I have always thought the same. What was your…grandfather’s…profession before my father sent him like a carrier pigeon to his after-life, may I ask?”

Salter squints. “He was a sociologist. I don’t know the German word for it. Sozialoge? He studied people. Cultures.”

“And so his knowledge couldn’t save him.”

“He needed more proof.”

She laughs a smoker’s laugh and squeezes his arm and says “A long time ago I had a clever thought that I couldn’t tell anyone, a terrible waste, so I’ll tell you. Yes?”

“I’m all ears.”

“It is this. If we had said not that we are killing all the Jews, but rather that we’ve decided to be rid of six million of our fellow German citizens…like your American Civil War…there wouldn’t be so much for the Germans to feel guilty about now.” She squeezes his arm again. “Do you see? It’s just semantics. That’s why I can’t take this Jew business so seriously. Jew this, Jew that. Those Jews were first of all Germans, never forget. They would be the first to agree.”

She smiles and turns to pay for a liter of Diet Coke and a carton of Marlboros. She leaves in her caul of perfume and a creepily blank expression (dead eyes painted on) as Salter pays for his already empty beer can, handing it crushed to the cashier to please dispose of, and when he steps out to in front of the pumps he sees Selene in her silver Jaguar right there in front of him, sucking a flame through a cigarette while the engine revs, checking herself in the rearview mirror, the overhead light on, the bill of her cap shadowing dramatic cheek bones and sunken eyes. She sees Salter and her mouth opens, eyes jammed shut in a bowel-voiding ecstasy as if preparing to step forward bloodily and in a glistening slip of mucous from out of her own loose skin. Or maybe it’s just an old whore’s terrible yawn. He can see all the way down her throat…the rimey tonsils and her yellow teeth and a dozen gold fillings…and the pink and red and black plumbing…and the smoke rising out of her and filling the car like her guts are burning. Oh I would love to fuck that, he thinks. I would love to.

Salter hurries home like a paramedic delivering a vital organ on ice. At the front door of the old building with the moon at his back he shoulders the door open and crosses the courtyard and the moon peeks over the lindens. He slips into his hinterhof. Up the stairs. He’s hurrying as though he can apply the momentum directly to the intensity of a fuck, like the fuck is a wall he has to ram through. If she’s in his bedroom he’s going to fuck her without a word of apology or preamble. If she wants to be fucked, he’ll do it…if not, at the slightest hint of resistance he’ll abandon all efforts and sleep on the gold couch in the other room.

In the dark flat he listens. The significant silence not of sleep but of hold-her-breath listening. She listens for clues to his frame of mind. Listens for clues. She has learned to listen for clues. She can hear his breathing…the short stopped breaths of the surprisingly great physical effort of stripping. The awkward, quick, balanced contortions: try, just try, to do those slowly: that takes skill. First one shoe, then the other: already a rain-dance in and of itself. The roll and shimmy of his broad shoulders as he slips the confines of his jacket. Pants. Shirt. Socks. Briefs. All in a pile. We are so small in our words and our clothing. He imagines seeing his own image in the infrared as he pads down the hall, massive and dense with muscles but with this tip-toe delicacy that makes the image eerier. If he could but see himself it would be terrifying, he thinks. It’s not an implication of violence but the dawn-of-time shit that this would put him in mind of and make him leap out of his skin to see himself in his skin this way, two hundred pounds coming down that long white hall in the darkness. The missing link. He eases the bedroom door open and just a flimsy gray meringue of indirect moonlight gives faint shape to the bed on which he can just about make her out. The word is sejant: in repose like a sphinx or a lion. She’s breathing like a woman doing her best to stay calm. He can smell her; she has humidified the room. She moves…comes across the bed with a shift and rustle of the sheets…very good at this game. There will be no talking: finally, there will be no talking…

…after a few false starts at various awkward holds she is straddling him, pushing her sopping wet bush over his face like a sponge in rough scrubbing strokes… he has to hold her in place to keep her from crushing the bridge of his nose and banging his teeth with that asinine clit ring. That offensive ring in her clitoris: she goes oh every time she dings his front teeth with it like it’s a shared pleasure and he sees stars, green stars, every time she lands on his nose so he grips her pelvis and forces her down to a more congenial squat and keeps her still with great effort against her willful bucking and goes about the task of straining to eat a pussy he is manifestly not enamored of, spurred only by the desire to do a good job. He likes neither the way it smells nor how it tastes, her pussy. He reaches up to pull on her nipples and encounters hardware there, too: she has armor-plated her pussy and her tits. It’s not unhygienic or bad, her pussy smell, just alien. If he’d loved her then the pussy would appear to him as a big fat lovely dandelion to blow on with joy but not loving her it’s just very hard to resist the idea of abhorring this whole damn gig. It’s bad enough, that faint whiff of anus he’s getting, late in the game. Didn’t you even bathe before you got on the plane? So anal is totally out. This is too intimate. He feels a prissy resistance to ingesting her substance that borders on being a matter of civil rights… his… she’s violating his civil rights and maybe this is an angle she’d respond to if he called it off and framed it that way… it’s just all the horror of the word “juice” in this context that he can’t seem to force from his mind… so very not the way it had been when he was young and eagerly gulping a girl he’d dreamed of for months, because…

…sucking at the reddened base of a girl you love is one of the great unrefined body-joys of mortal existence but this is just drudgery. This is like being forced to eat floppy pounds of something on a wet toilet under fluorescent lights at gunpoint in February’s cold. And he does his best not to imagine the dozens of ugly frothing dicks she’s had jabbing around in there before, a whole history, a Decameron of gruesome hard-ons, straight, bent, curved, runty, skinny, fat, pointed, huge, soft, sore and blister-red on parade, tight little balls or hanging big loose ones or even those one-balled sacs with psoriasis though some are ginger-haired or mossy-black or with blonde curlicues or pelted sleek like otters. Or picture a fat lesbian tongue with a coat on it going slurp slurp slurp like a basset. He’s licking a wall full of wallpaper paste. He’s licking a seabed at ebb tide.

And the funniest thing happens. A miracle.

It thrums in thick hot jets up her pipes from the knot of stripped nerves at the root of that armored pussy and P tenses like a mare about to kick a big ol’ bucket of suds and Salter feels P kegel-brace for the big one squatting so deep down good down fused within herself and she grinds again in an apparent attempt to remove his features and something squirts! Holy fuck, thinks Salter, Holy fuck, I’ve slurped her so well the lady is shooting! Female ejaculation! ‘Tis no myth, Sir! The trumpet-tooting angels knew it all along! The opened lights of heaven knew it all along! P explodes in a triumphant convulsion, clutching hard at Salter’s face by handles he never knew he had and holding him there and pouring out, pouring on him, pouring her hot blessing, gushing her all, emptying all that simmered love on Salter’s face, incredible how she’s gushing. Even Salter can’t come like this, no man can, not this much, not cups of it, it’s too much, he’s choking on it, spitting it out, swallowing what he can’t spit out and coughing it out and he shoves her in a panicked epiphany and rolls from under the flushing haunch and crashes off the bed as she kneels on the bed with her hands clamped over her ears shouting loud as she possibly can…

“That is not piss, I assure you!”

Career Move [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

 

 

Berlin (862)

 

Wednesday evening at 19:00, Simon’s event at the North Coast Gallery, in association with Absolut Vodka and Virgin Records, is scheduled to open with a wine-and-cheese reception, followed by a learned discussion between Kahn-Meyers and five panelists, followed by the event itself. Simon is in competition for the lucrative and prestigious Stein Prize.

The North Coast gallery is a handsome space on Sophienstrasse in Berlin’s gallery ghetto, where there’s an opening every night of the week in the last warm period before the soggy beast of winter’s stomping return. Openings which feature munching crowds on the sidewalks in commingled clouds of German champagne, garlic breath and American cigarettes. The heated scramble for cred and/or authority in a comically under-funded milieu results in a bitter, bitchy lethargy that is part of the charm.

Simon feels that civilization is in conflict with itself and that it all goes back to the playground. We tell children, be good; do no wrong, but a child who turns in a wrong-doer is a quisling or a snitch. We tell a child, do not resort to violence, but a child who goes to a teacher for protection is a whiner or a crybaby and the kid who kicks the ass of a bully gets our eternal respect. Simon did not enjoy his time in primary school.

Simon’s submission for the Stein Prize this year is a tent. Simon has won the prize twice already, but not more recently than the year of the second Space Shuttle disaster, when he hung a gallery full of illegal Chinese skeletons dipped in dark chocolate and called it SUGAR COATING DEATH; the smell itself had been a statement. The current piece is a tent, deluxe model, weather-proof and kelly green, reeking of newness, big enough for two Yuppie camper couples with a wordly arrangement going, pitched in the middle of the gallery’s judging-you-white concrete 85 square meter floor. A cool spider of complex tracklighting stands on the tent, lightbeam-legs akimbo. Within the tent, in odalisque-parodying repose, is reputed to be Simon’s stunningly beautiful irony-naked 29-year-old Eurasian girlfriend Thy Trann, herself an artist (a “Wetter Künstler”), who will likely be ovulating (as the catalog attests that her gynecologist has attested) during the climax of the event.

As the catalog puts it on page ten, after recapping Kahn-Meyers’s illustrious CV and indulging in the requisite dense page of art-speak mumbo-jumbo, plus sponsor ads: any one of the six anonymous judges of this year’s Stein Prize is invited to sign a release form (at an undisclosed location) waiving paternal rights and responsibilities and be chauffeured via special limo to the gallery…to enter the tent (hooded) and impregnate Thy. If the insemination is successful, Trann and Kahn-Meyers have pledged to raise the resulting child in a kind of ongoing Performance Art that will, “hopefully,” as Kahn-Meyers put it, “long outlive me.”

The title of the piece is THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE and there is a giggly buzz in the usually demonstratively unimpressed crowd of both highbrow and boulevard press and cognoscenti and curious onlookers and free food parasites who meander around the outside of the mute tent with their plastic champagne flutes, their chatter kept at a curiously polite low level, as though in a room where a child is sleeping. The thought that the tent contains not only a beautiful naked girl but the artist’s girlfriend herself electrifies the evening with a kind of verisimilitude that hasn’t been generated since Warhol’s pioneering efforts at making decorum irrelevant in the midst of the decorum-hungry 20th century.

Not that Simon Kahn-Meyers reveres Warhol. He tends to deride the “Slavic hucksterisms”. Kahn-Meyers wants, first and foremost, to draw a line in the critical sand between Warhol’s conceptual moonings and serious work such as his own. Kahn-Meyers considers the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy of received art history intolerably irksome and will assail this sloppy thinking with this his latest masterstroke, reminiscent of the work that immediately preceded it, the gently titled PLACEBO.

PLACEBO featured a fully operational vintage voting booth from the American state of Illinois containing a naked Thai (not Thy) on a chopped-legged stool in the booth offering oral pleasure to anyone who could produce a passport stating Artist in the blank reserved for “occupation.” In the catalog Kahn-Meyers refers to THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE as a “self-evident escalation” of PLACEBO’s intent: to blur the lines between public duty and personal compulsion. The only thing Simon fears now is German taste: they always confuse metaphysical with intellectual, these Germans, and Simon can never, he fears, get quite metaphysical enough for these Kraut fucking mystics and their prize money. Simon is thinking of his first major piece: a life-sized ironing board made of pure white wax called Irony Board; sold it for a pile. Heartbreakingly beautiful. Seems like a century ago.

At the far end of the gallery is set up a long table upon which are placed three microphones facing six empty seats. Facing the six empty seats, on the other side of the table, at a respectful distance, is a square of thirty six black metal folding chairs. Slowly, the thirty six chairs are filled. Those who stand do so with German Kultur rigor: chins up, hands clasped behind their backs. The difference between the overly-cerebral and the occult is what, exactly?

He takes his seat at the center of the table with a recondite smirk (as if contemplating the news of the humiliating defeat of an old rival) and the five other panelists straggle in from various conversations around the spacious gallery like staff at a private school, summoned by the principal to a disciplinary hearing. The panelists (in the order they take their seats): Yeon-Ju Bongiovi (video soap artist), Riley Klein (Kahn-Meyers’s gallerist), Simone Pohle (film maker/writer/art critic/clothes-designer/model), Siegfried Stummfeldt (photographer) and Sylver Goldin (self-proclaimed “self”-artist, patron of the arts, and prosperous local gender-ambiguous restaurateur, driven to the event in its trademark lavender Jaguar). The music being piped in over the gallery’s sound system (jazzy Bach) dwindles to a hiss as Simon taps his microphone.

“Before I begin,” says Simon, “although, how one can begin before beginning is not entirely clear…” he shrugs to acknowledge the titters this receives, “I’d like to say something to, uh… I want to address something to the artist Thy Trann, I’m sure you know and respect her work… who… uh… as you are aware is collaborating with me on this particular… piece.” He lifts his chin over the microphone and raises his voice. “Thy?”

All thirty six seated members of the audience and the dozen or so standing twist like licorice to hear Trann call out from the tent behind them, in her throaty trans-Pacific accent, “Yes, Dear?” which also receives titters. The un-amplified quality of her localized voice, in contrast to Kahn-Meyers’s Moses-like omni-directional amplification, serves to call vivid attention to her presence in the tent, while at the same time serving to subliminally support the visual imagination of her as stark naked therein. Not to mention providing, for the comfort of sensitive or militant lesbian members of the audience, confirmation, inferable from the casual music of Simon and Thy’s exchange, that Thy isn’t being coerced… wasn’t bullied, threatened, drugged or tricked… into performing this history-making “action”.

“Thy, I just want to make sure you’re comfortable in there. Are you comfortable in there?”

There is the sound of Thy punching a plush pillow or two. “Yep!”

“And you’re warm enough?”

“Yep!”

“Good. I just need… I just need for you to bear with our chatter for a little while… and, uh… yes. And then… you can… get ready to…” Kahn-Meyers’s gaze sweeps the audience carefully, almost accusingly, in order to complete the sentence in everyone’s head for them.

“A-okay!” Trann calls out, and the panel discussion can commence, granted the easy segue of generous applause for Thy Trann, this evening’s sacrifice.

So far so smooth, thinks Kahn-Meyers.

“Before I begin,” begins Riley Klein, Simon’s jowly American gallerist, pausing a beat for the laughs he anticipates being able to milk further from Simon’s inaugural witticism and getting one… from Simon himself… he continues, “I want to thank all of you for coming, as well as salute Simon and Thy,” more applause, “because we are all, each one of us, a part of this equation.” He clears his throat, plucks his glasses from a pocket in his dark tweed blazer, and hunches forward with the glasses on the end of his nose to read aloud a “provocative statement” from a sheet of paper on the table in front of him, his hands in his lap. He looks like a dutiful school boy and reads with the dutiful schoolboy’s abashed singsong.

After the statement (a long quote from Robert Mapplethorpe) is read and absorbed, the first panelist to speak, Simone Pohle, touches her microphone as if to give it pleasure and looks sidelong down the long white table with narrowed eyes and poses the question, pushing her white-blonde hair out of the way and displaying perhaps the faintest hint of piquant hostility, “Mr. Kahn-Meyers, what is it that you are trying to achieve here tonight?”

Kahn-Meyer’s blinks innocently at the audience and replies, stroking his neat white beard, “What am I trying to achieve here tonight? I’m trying to win an art prize!” And the audience loves it.

The Paracelsus of Hair Straightening

Across town, Sadie Olubodun is putting the finishing touches on herself to the sound of Les Negresses Verts, a horn-driven French ensemble that gallops out of the stereo with a loping gypsy beat; the music is a stupid dog dashing ecstatically between the man-sized speakers. There is an aura of romantic anarcho-collective about the band that Sadie loves, having herself been raised and schooled by Catholic nuns from Belgium. The music is very loud. There are intermittent floor, wall and ceiling  bashings from the neighbors. 

In the free-standing “bathroom” mirror (there are no walls around the toilet) Sadie is puckering her lips to paint them: a swollen strawberry into a deliquescing heart. She’s running a special comb through her very long hair; the very long hair she is very proud of. Staying stick thin is easy: pharmaceuticals take care of that. Flawless black vacu-formed skin and giraffe height and a spot-lit Steinway smile she was born with. But her hair is the Grand Project of Sadie Olubodun’s life.

Having just turned twenty seven, Sadie O has been busy with hair maintenance since the day she “graduated” (escaped over a chain link fence) from Saint Serifina’s Polytechnical Boarding School for Wayward Girls. She literally ran away, five barefoot miles down a dusty road at dawn to a bus stop, to make it to a model casting at a French hotel she’d read about a week before, by accident, after unwrapping Friday’s fish. Sister Berthe-Claudette is probably still shouting Sadie’s name during roll call every morning. Sadie Olubodun, that tall skinny shy girl with the modest afro. No longer!

Every three or four weeks for the past twelve years Sadie has gone to have her hair straightened first by the best black private hair stylist in West London, a dwarfish Gay Canadian named Horton Bard, nicknamed Hard-on Board, and then, after she’d escaped London, by the best black private hair stylist in Hamburg, a portly straight Senegalese named Monsieur who often worries about the fact that most of his clients are wealthy black Muslim ladies who procure his services at the risk of being stoned.  Sadie makes the trip to Hamburg monthly. Monsieur happens to be Horton Bard’s hand-picked acolyte; his initiate in the alchemical mysteries of hair straightening. Monsieur is the Comte De St. Germaine to Horton’s Paracelsus.

“Kinky hair,” says Horton “is merely asleep. We wake it up!”

Sadie has cultivated her hair to the point that it rivers down the macadam of her back, ending near the Lamborghini scallop and sudden twin convexities of black lacquered showroom ass. She calculates that her hair (rippling with windblown arabesques like Muslim devotional script)  has cost her, to date… she figures something like £30,000. Her hair is a statement and an investment and a way of life.

What she hates is when sisters of every nationality go the cheap route and prance around in public with armadillo shells and coconut husks for hair. She’s ashamed for them. You’re not satisfied with your natural hair texture and so you fry it, pickle it in pigeon grease, stack it atop your lye-scorched skull like something scraped out of a drain? Sadie wonders what she abhors more, the lye-job conks or the… the thirty dollar polyester wigs from Woolworths. Honey (hah-nee), she wants to say, just shave it off… you might as well… have a little pride. Have a little dignity (deeg-NAH-tee).

If Sadie, a girl from a village (born in a semi-detached house with only two televisions) can afford to do it right, how are you going to persuade her that an American can’t? Sadie’s hair is a contrarian manifesto of equivalence that says: if a European (Your-OH-pee-ahn) can get her hair curled, I can get mine straightened! If she can wear blue contacts, I can too, or wear them red if I choose. For every hundred Your-OH-pee-ahns who pay for twenty minutes in a tanning salon, one Michael Jackson is allowed to bleach his skin! Or lop off his nose! Or whatever. Fuck off.  She kisses the locket on the gold chain around her neck, a thumb-sized engraving of Olaudah Equiano.

“Hey ho, let’s go!” she shouts and punches Siegfried’s ceiling-high, twenty year old rubber tree plant in the midsection on her way out of the flat, slamming the eight foot steel-reinforced door behind her. She can still hear Les Negresses Verts from a block away as she flips her hair in the wind and raises her arm for a taxi. The taxi over-shoots Sadie then screeches to a halt, that time-tested cinematic cliché.

Whoever Loves a Black Girl

Simon glances at his cheap watch as a heated argument between a panelist and a member of the audience stretches like an interminable surrealist ping pong game in which each side keeps serving a brand new unreturned ball. He’s never heard the name Tristan Tzara evoked so many times in his life. Tristan Tzara and the word paradigm. He can remember when it was synergy. Hell, he can remember when it was parameter; he can even remember back to the ‘50s when the artspeak word of choice was atavistic.

Put one Englishman in a room full of Germans and the Germans will outdo themselves avoiding the speaking of German, because no one wants to seem provincial. Consequently, Simon has never lost an argument in Germany, though his rhetorical fire has been doused on more than once occasion in America (even, once, by a Mexican fucking clerk in a fucking Rite Aid ) with the dreaded un-trump-able… whatever. Only Americans could have invented “whatever”, the neutron bomb of heated debates. America, the looking-glass land where the children of slaves subsist on welfare and where being crippled is seen as some kind of advantage and where guns don’t kill people (people do); America the anti-abortion, pro-death penalty land of puritanical pornographers and pro-Israel anti-Semites where you can lose weight and save money by eating and buying more…

Simon rubs his eyes and has a vision of a mound of corned beef hash of infant pinkness beside a weighty brick of hash brown potatoes dressed in two fried eggs like a bikini top, an unheard of dish in Berlin and something he could have right now, or even at three in the morning (the hour he roughly calculates this ordeal will be over) if he were in Manhattan. But if he wants to keep his prices up in New York he has to keep his mystique alive in Europe and that’s why he’s doing this. Business has been bad since 9/11, a simple fact. He can’t help selfishly framing that fishy act of terror as him being put out of work by a rival gang of faux naïf Event Artists with deep-pocket patrons.

He’s on the verge of calling the discussion to a halt (fifteen minutes to show time) when the discussion calls itself to a halt. Everyone in the back of the gallery to listen to the nothing-at-stake rhetorical jousting of the panelists is suddenly peering back to the front of the gallery where a taxi was just heard to screech to a halt and screech off again and there are curious murmurs and shiftings of attention and all artspeak has ceased, for the nonce. Art is so easily ignored when Real Life gets up off its ass and deigns to reclaim our attention. Simon stands up and gestures to Riley to put phase two into motion; he leans forward into his microphone and says, solemnly, redundantly, “Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our panel discussion…if you will please move to the front of the gallery…” because they’ve already started moving that way.

Good God, whispers Simon.

Standing just within the gallery’s front door, having effected a grand entrance, is a six foot plus, on teetering Lucite heels, skinny-as-a-Giacometti alien. Universe-black, possibly female. Nude, at first glance, in a see-through vinyl raincoat. On closer inspection (Simon strides fearlessly her way) she’s dressed in a black bikini under the coat, which warps and pools the light from the ceiling across its dazzling surface. It’s like she’s walking around in a force field or a vertical swimming pool, this towering black alien with the ponytail tickling her flog-worthy ass.

Imagine owning one of those, thinks Simon, with survivable guilt. Those 18th century Yanks weren’t fools.

Ancient graffito from poor Pompeii: Whoever loves a Black girl is set ablaze by black charcoal; when I see a Black girl, I willingly eat blackberries.

She’s not stark naked, but the effect is the same and Simon nearly panics: the integrity of the event is being threatened: camera flashes have already started their scale model electrical storm around the gallery. She’s de-focusing his event.

He takes her by the arm and says, very softly, very deeply, “I’ll need you to clear the entrance, here, darling… would you care for some wine? Some cheese? Riley…” Riley is panting close behind, “Get this lovely girl some… sustenance. Smashing outfit,” he adds, squeezing her waist as he passes her to the blushing care of his gallerist, who takes her by the elbow as though he is wearing asbestos gloves.

“I would like to please draw everyone’s attention…” shouts Simon, then, at a lesser volume, “to the two gentlemen standing in front of the tent.” He has to work to get his timing back after the miraculous aberration of the alien (where is she? Near the back with Riley and that pony-tailed photographer clod; they seem to know each other). Normally, Simon lives for miraculous aberrations. But not now. He points and proclaims: “Elite members of a private security force.” From out of nowhere, two very large gentlemen, dressed in identical secret-service type suits, have materialized, anthropomorphic representations of the capital letter A in front of the tent.

“They are not. Not. Here to protect… Thy.” Simon strokes his beard as though weighing carefully the next remark. “They are here to protect… you. To protect… Art.”

Glancing again at his watch he asks, “What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is that art is a serious matter. I am not, as they say, fucking around. If one of the judges of the Stein Prize has the courage to take me up on my challenge, the question is… will I then have the courage to follow through?”

“Let’s be honest. The odds are not great that one of these so-called judges will climb into that specially assigned limo… have I mentioned already? That the limo… a vintage 1933 Hispano Suiza J-12…”

Simon pauses; several older art buffs stagewhisper Picasso… Picasso. Simon’s eyes narrow.

“I mean: I know that the likelihood is not great that I’m going to have to follow through on all this. But without at least the risk that we will all be involved in a life-changing event here tonight, can we call this… Art?”

“These large fellows,” Simon smiles, “are here to protect you … and Art Itself… by insuring that Simon Kahn-Meyers, the so called international art star, ” he says with very nearly misjudged vehemence, “Doesn’t get cold feet. That I don’t renege on a promise. If one of those judges has the courage and vision to take me up on the ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE challenge, there’s… nothing I can do to stop this thing from running its course… because these gentlemen have been pre-paid rather handsomely and instructed to physically restrain me from interfering with this event, if need be. They are under contract, in fact… should they fail to restrain me from ruining this event at a crucial moment, they are each legally liable for a considerable sum.”

“Thy Trann is now in a state of inner contemplation… she is deep in herself… she is creating this piece even as I speak… deep within herself in this tent. I was the conceptualist but her fertile body is the concept. We have agreed that she say nothing at this point… nor attempt to communicate with anyone until this event is formally over, whatever happens..”

As unlikely as anything really is to actually happen, Simon’s words and masterful delivery have mesmerized the audience. Lulled them into an eerie sense of traumatic relaxation, or anticipatory recovery. As though the event as described has already happened and his words have started a healing process; have started them on the road to recovery after all they’ve all been through. Though nothing has actually happened. But everyone could see it, somehow, as Simon spoke it. Could picture the old man flailing in a shamingly effortless headlock, screaming “No! Stop! Make it stop!” and straining against the merciless professional restraint that he himself has hired. So moved is the audience that they aren’t even sure of the etiquette of applauding, until a trickle starts (from a far corner less affected by the charismatic field of Simon’s presence, possibly) and then an ovation.

During which Simon does his best not to be caught peering furtively after the stunning, must-have Watusi from Mars who very nearly stole the show. She’s still in the dead bit of the gallery where Riley is keeping her. Riley and that ponytailed galoot. Simon sees, with satisfaction, however, that the alien is applauding him heartily, with all the rest. How to separate her from that Nikon-toting idiot (dressed in a Tuxedo jacket and camouflage battle fatigues) long enough to get a phone number or set a lunch date?

Hispano Suiza

The Vernissage has reached that point in the evening when all of the cheese is gone, the champagne is running very low, and the chatter is thinner but very loud. The contemplative low rumble of pseudos wallowing in the aural loam of their own pronouncements has become the boisterous deaf barking of drunks. The evening, which hasn’t even truly begun, smirks Simon, has been a mild success.

About twenty minutes ago, one of the somber giants standing with arms folded in front of The Tent was given a bottle of Evian to hand to Thy within it, for which gesture she was heard, by those nearest The Tent, to thank the guard, who had reached in without looking. About seventy percent of the original attendees are still present; the ones who have gone on (to home, or restaurants, or bordellos) are of no importance. The ones who have remained (Sylver Goldin, Simone Pohle, et al) are networking and therefore connected and therefore useful.

Simon’s already thinking of his next piece…either the Muslim thing he’d been conceptualizing of late or a technology gambit involving taking dead kittens and puppies and stuffing them with animatronics to get them gamboling around a gallery in all their cloudy-eyed rotting flesh. Which one he starts on next will depend on whether he wins the Stein Prize because those animatronix are expensive.

Simon makes his way to the back of the gallery and touches his gallerist’s arm and whispers “Riley, give that freakish black girl my cell phone number and instruct her to call me in exactly forty five minutes” and returns to a spot where he can hover in close proximity to The Tent. He is thinking, because he suddenly remembers the dread and pleasure of reciting it in his bed in the morning as a child, of:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
And that was the end of Solomon Grundy
.

There are about thirty people outside, smoking or cellphoning or smoking and cellphoning or cellphoning smokers, when the Hispano Suiza, huge and sinisterly well-kept in its antique ebony and white leather sleekness, in mass and value so like a cast-iron yacht, pulls into a long space marked by parking cones in front of the gallery, rumbling and hissing like a docking dirigible and scattering a dozen onlookers. The liveried driver climbs smartly out, circles crisply round the side, and opens a heavy door, chin held high, as one… two… three… six, finally, hooded men of various heights, weights, apparent ages and classes; two in tuxedos and others in business suits and one gangling fellow in a track suit; emerge from the limo, striding through the gallery door and stooping into the tent to gasps and then merriment from the crowd.

“Oh my God!” claps Simon. “All six of them! This is great!” He hurries to the front of the tent (where he is blocked, politely but firmly, by the two large gentlemen) and calls into it, hands cupped around his mouth, “Way to go, boys! Thanks for having a sense of humor about this!” He turns to a bystander and adds, “You see, deep down, maybe I was a bit afraid the judges were offended by my little stunt…” laughing “…but, you see, they’ve shown us all how classy…” he turns and gestures at Riley with a sweeping arm, raising his voice jovially. “Riley, get some Moet up here toute suite…”

But wait: evidence of struggle. Grunts and groans and what sounds like a compressed scream in an avid hand clamped over a mouth. Scheisse, comes a brutal male voice from within the tent, Sie hat Mich gebissen!

“Thy!” shouts Simon. He lunges for the tent but, as he had to expect, one of his Armani-suited security guards grabs him and holds him fast to a spot about four feet from the flapped opening. “Let go of me, you fucking ape… are you brain-dead? Those aren’t the Stein Prize judges in there!”

He squirms and punches out wildly but is headlocked with humiliating ease. The chiseled brute holding him doesn’t even look much bothered. He looks pleased. He obviously likes his job. What he’d really like to do in fact is kick the rich old Jew around the gallery floor for a few minutes but that would be a too-liberal interpretation of the range of his duties.

“Let go of me! They’re raping my girlfriend!”

Some of the bystanders are still amused, applauding, but an increasing number achieve a sense of giddy disquiet or even concern, frowning, approaching the tent from all sides, exchanging thrilled glances with a communal sense of having the historical luck of being present where some REALITY is taking place. I was there, many can already imagine saying, when that famous artist was raped in that gallery…

“Thy!” screams Simon.

What did he say to you?  hisses Siegfried to Sadie, after Riley Klein walks off, showing concern, towards the front of the gallery. Siegfried, ignoring the ruckus, grabs Sadie’s hand and pulls her to the dark corner of the gallery where the few remaining boxes of champagne are stacked. He sits her down on a box, hands on her shoulders, staring into her upturned face.

-What did he say?

-He gave me that art bloke’s number and said I should call him in forty five minutes.

-Kahn-Meyers? Simon Kahn-Meyers wants you to call him? And are you going to do it?

-Should I?

-Of course you should. Do you know who he is? Who he knows?

-Who?

-Everyone.

-You’re worse than the nuns. You’re just a pimp…

-You know how much I love you.

-Then why are you always giving me away?

-Because, otherwise, my love for you would destroy me.

-Oh Ziggy…

-You wouldn’t know what to do with me if I loved you the way you think you’d prefer me to. I could write you love poems and give you flowers every day, but you wouldn’t be happy… you’d be bored within a week…

-But how can you stand the idea of other men with their hands on me? With their lips on my lips? Their things… in my…

-It’s just like having a bad tooth. Have you ever had a bad tooth?

-No…

-No, you wouldn’t, not with your east African teeth… your east African teeth are perfect. But we Europeans, we have much experience with having a bad tooth. And when you have a bad tooth, I’ll tell you something strange… it gives you much pain, the bad tooth, but, somehow, biting down on it, and making it hurt even more… it feels good. So I give myself the pain of knowing that another man fucks you in order to kill the pain…

-Nonsense! You simply buckle under your perceived pressure of the responsibility of loving me! You want to spread the responsibility as thinly as possible… and if you can get something out of it, by pimping me to men you want something from…all the better. Or perhaps, deep down, you’re homosexual and giving your girlfriend to other men is a way, indirectly, to fuck, or be fucked by them and the sad truth is it’s probably a little bit of both explanations and I’m a fool to put my heart at your mercy.

-Maybe you’re right. But what are you going to do about it? We’re stuck with things as they are, just like everybody else. Can you pretend that it would be better with other men? Can any woman?

Siegfried stares hard into Sadie’s eyes, blinking slowly, and Sadie looks away, then back into his eyes, then away again. And there’s nothing more to say or think on the topic. She stands, brushing his hands off, turns slowly and walks towards the front of the gallery, where all the shouting is, hugging herself in her transparent vinyl raincoat.

Aboveness

The first time Sadie Olubodun saw Siegfried Von Stummfeldt, he was sitting at the snaking long wrought-iron bar of some trendy nihilist cave-like club in a run-down neighborhood deep in East Berlin, reading Baudelaire and looking so above it all. The music was deafening and the disco lights were seizure-inducing and this guy is sitting there with a green glass of Absinthe reading Les Fleurs du Mal with a smirk of genial boredom. Of course she had to talk to him.

He was wearing leather pants, sandals, and a tuxedo jacket over a hooded sweatshirt. Sadie was wearing a terribly expensive tiny kidskin backpack over a second hand wedding dress over thigh-high black vinyl boots and her hair piled in a tilted tower atop her perfect little black head. She stood behind him and spied on what he was reading, so close that she was literally breathing down his neck, but he played it cool and did not react and she spotted a fortuitous couple of lines near the bottom of the page, something that would go very well with the Absinthe, and she raised her voice, quoting it to him over the idiot throb of the music: Et dans ces bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent, Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent…

He closed the book without looking up and finished the passage for her, declaiming: …  Il n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété, Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé!  He gestured to the bartender to bring another glass, filled it about two thirds full from his bottle, and placed his own monogrammed spoon (the slot in it was like a snake, writhing in harmony with the wrought iron bar itself) over the glass, then a sugar cube in the slotted spoon and so forth. His preparation of her drink of wormwood was practised and precise and embellished with magician-like flourishes of his long-fingered hands. The satiny hands of a man who’s never done a day of manual labor in his life.

One thing Sadie truly abhorred was the hard-earned “character” of a workman’s paws. The pathetic scars and bulging knuckles and ugly calluses. She could never bear to be handled by mitts like that. Mr. Fleurs du Mal’s face was merely so-so and his body was not the sexiest she’d seen, but she was instantly smitten with those aristocratic hands.

He handed her the glass and shouted, “Do you know the Café Slavia? It over-looks the Moldau. There is a painting in it of a good-dressed Bohemian fellow enjoying his delicious Absinthe and seeing this most lovely vision…” he touched the air above them with the glass, “… a naked, absinthe-green girl floating. But now I see…” he handed her the glass, “…that this floating dream girl, she was really very black and has come to life in front of me.”

Linking arms they sipped the Absinthe.

Things happened very quickly. They left the bar, ears ringing, and hailed a taxi and promised the driver a huge tip to defy the speed limit rushing to Siegfried’s loft where Siegfried practically kicked the huge door down and Sadie hiked up her wedding dress and commanded Siegfried to bugger her without much preamble right there in front of the kitchen sink. In her kidskin backpack there was a water-soluble clove-scented chapstick from The Body Shoppe that she favored and bending over and bracing her hands on her knees she’d directed Siegfried to fetch the chapstick out and smear it on liberally as a numbing lubricant. This chapstick she never used on her own lips of course but she’d been known to share it on location once or twice with various models and booking agents she didn’t much care for. When he’d slipped in with much gasping and groaning she asked him, firmly “Will you do as I say?” and in a very humble tone he said yes.

She said, “Good. Now, hold very still. I will do all the moving. You see?”

And he held very still with his hands bracing his back and his mouth hanging half-open with bomb-defusing suspense as she moved on him in the high-ceilinged gloom of his lit-only-by-a-tiny-fluorescent-light-under-the-buff-aluminum-kitchen-cabinets loft with an almost imperceptible corkscrewing of her serpentine hips. There curled a livid seam somewhere deep in her rectal lining just itching for the jab of a pointed dick. That irritable little seam was her ersatz clitoris. By slowly rolling and shifting and clinching and un-clinching she inched the tip of his organ towards that very spot, holding her breath, eyes closed, straining, knees weak, creeping up on a howl of satisfaction…

Without so much as discussing the matter with him, Sadie moved into Siegfried’s loft the very next week, bringing over a dozen suitcases in a taxi around dinner time, unannounced. He hadn’t eaten dinner yet and they went for a walk in the twilight along the Spree where the sun was warm butter on the cool green water as it set. Siegfried, with a massive old Leica hanging from his neck and dressed in the dashing vest and dented ball cap and worn khakis of a modern war correspondent, took the opportunity to lay out his Manifesto, seeing as they were now living together, and also to tell Sadie about his best friend Hansi Kraus…

…the I.P. photographer whom Somalians had beaten to death in the city of Mogadishu in 1993. Poor sweet little Hansi who loved black American culture like you wouldn’t believe and was executed by an African mob for his white skin. Siegfried described the weekend-long soul parties Hansi would throw in his cool pad on Wiener Strasse… described Hansi’s proudest possession: the old time American juke box stocked with mint-condition 45s… What Does it Take (to win Your Love) by Junior Walker and the All Stars and Give it Up (or Turn it Loose) by James Brown and Love On A 2-Way Street by The Moments, etc., but even better: three different versions of Mbube, that unrivaled Meisterwerk of African pop, by the late great Solomon Linda… the first version (1940 or so) of moan-inspiring rareness and scratchy as a recording of Edison’s voice and it had to be transferred from the original massive clay 78rpm disc to the “modern” 45 on vintage equipment in Stuttgart to even play in Hansi’s jukebox… that’s how much passionate love and tender respect Hansi Kraus could show towards African culture.

Second version, recorded live in concert in 1957 by a white group called The Weavers and also not the easiest artifact to come by was re-titled “Wimoweh” after a homophonic approximation of the refrain, and Hansi had that one, too. The third version of the song in Hansi’s jukebox was the one almost everyone knows: The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a Christmas hit for The Tokens in 1961, and this was the version that the drunks at Hansi’s soul parties would end up singing along with at three in the morning, cracking the glass in all the windows of the apartment block by singing the high parts en masse, though it was the original version, the version performed by its creator, the profoundly cheated Solomon Linda (who received less than one percent of what he deserved in royalties) that Hansi would insist on.

It just so happens that Siegfried was watching CNN the night they reported Hansi’s lynching and Siegfried was eating spaghetti with ketchup for sauce when he saw the footage… glimpsed a near-naked barefoot limp white corpse being kicked and dragged and spat upon, and it may have been Hansi or it may have been one of the others in his doomed entourage but the sheer magnitude of the injustice was surely greater than whatever happened to Solomon Linda. Siegfried spent the next two weeks shouting accusations at whatever confused little African students were unlucky enough to cross paths with him, no matter from where on that continent they’d come to Berlin.

Siegfried said to Sadie I must be completely honest with you…  since then I have had two feelings…  A) that I need to do whatever I can do to insure that such a misunderstanding never again occurs in this world and B) a certain ambivalence towards blacks.

Siegfried talked and Sadie listened. He talked not only about poor Hansi but also about Baudelaire and Lou Reed and Thomas Bernhard and all about the Artist’s responsibility to his own Aboveness… above Work, above Morality… which is why in ninety nine out of one hundred cases women can’t really be Artists because they are too firmly grounded in the quotidian… the domestic banalities of clothing and food and children… too grounded to know Aboveness… even if they let themselves float a bit they get an earthy reminder once a month that no amount of detachment will enable them to ignore… and yet any woman truly capable of Aboveness is such a freak that her presence would be repulsive and sexually intolerable and the Muslims would be right to stone her. This last bit was a joke. Wasn’t it.

He said, as they passed closely by plain or unattractive couples strolling in cautious or giddy hand-holding silence, these people aren’t even living. He said do you know what the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss said when he was told, while he was in the middle of performing a great calculation, that his wife was dying? Siegfried beamed at her and shook his fist with admiration:

He said: please tell her to wait a moment until I’m finished!

Intermittently, during that rambling inaugural lecture on the topic of his Weltanschauung… his worldview… Siegfried would halt… at a corner or facing a weird old Gothic Church or the streaky hand-lettered storefront of a Turkish Social Club (through which you’d see the men at various little round tables in their cheap boxy suits, smoking and playing cards) and snap pictures. Siegfried said: Sometimes I go out without film in the camera and snap pictures anyway, to remind myself that it’s the taking, not the having, that counts… after which he leered at her significantly. Sadie had just started thinking: yes, I could be happy doing this for a year or two when she noticed that Siegfried’s speech was starting to jumble and slur.

And his stride was getting. It was becoming slightly limpy then staggery and…  was he being funny? But his breath. It smelled…  it began to reek… of chemicals. Acetone. Had he popped some evil powerful pill unbeknownst to her during the course of their conversation? One minute they were walking side by side like any slightly awkward man and woman on a date, crossing Berlin in the twilight, and the next thing Sadie knew this tall strange Siegfried was stumbling and ranting like a shit-faced belligerent drunk trying to walk across a trampoline.

He crumpled to his knees and then collapsed on the curb like a string-shorn marionette. This is not happening, she thought. Oh, okay: it’s a dream, yes? No. Her new boyfriend was thrashing about and screaming and foaming at the mouth and what was she supposed to do about it?! She barely spoke German!

He was having some kind of seizure right in front of the gates of a playground and kids from all over the little park ran to the gate to watch him flop and sputter on the sidewalk under the garishly cruel street light half-shaded by a tree and all Sadie wanted to do was back away… back away a few paces and turn and run because it wasn’t fair because he hadn’t even told her he was an epileptic! Or possessed by the devil or whatever the fuck his problem was. His lips were shiny black with blood and his eyes were vivid whites rolled up in his head and he was growling and banging his skull on the pavement as though refuting the untenable principle the pavement was intent on adhering to.

A cherubic redhead with a mouthful of corrective braces that made her look too young…  in overalls with a two-year-old slung over her hip…  calmly unlatched the playground gate and handed numb Sadie her squirming child. She knelt beside Siegfried and batted his flailing hands away and stuffed a Snickers bar in his mouth and even pressed his jaws together to start him chewing it. She glanced over a shoulder at Sadie and said, with a reassuringly competent British accent, “I’m assuming your friend never bothered to mention that he’s a diabetic.”

Sadie stared.

“I always carry a bit of candy in my pocket or a can of Coke or something in my purse just in case.”

Sadie blinked.

“A pretty good indicator is when they start behaving in an inebriated fashion.” Looking puzzled and shifting back on her haunches and standing up she added, “But then it got to the point with my Marco that I could always tell something was amiss when…  he’d suddenly become this playful, affectionate…  puppy, almost. Not like him at all, seeing as he’s a 14 stone Squaddie. Funny, isn’t it? When he was being lovely to me it always meant something was wrong.” She stared at Sadie and said, “You poor dear.”

She handed down to Siegfried a Kleenex to dab his mouth with and fetched her child back from Sadie and looked on with tired benevolence as Siegfried sat upright on the sidewalk, moaning and looking very much like he’d fallen out of a tree. The lens on his Leica was good and cracked. There was the slow blue flashing light of an ambulance pulling up on the pavement. The redhead squeezed Sadie’s arm and walked back through the playground gate towards where another daughter was calling from the floodlit swings.

How many embarrassing and/or terrifying diabetic fits has Siegfried jigged through since that first one, her initiation, wonders Sadie. Twenty? Twenty five? The prize winner had to be the time his big fat mouth got him in trouble with a Prole in front of a Curry Wurst stand and he puddled into a seizure as Sadie pleaded and the Prole had him by the lapels of his jacket, preparing the head-butt. And yet he’s the one afraid of commitment! And if his racist Austrian mother has finally in some small way accepted the black African Sadie Olubodun in her precious son’s bed it’s only because Siegfried Stummfeldt needs a fucking nursemaid and nobody else, certainly no German bitch, is stupid enough to do this thankless job.

“Aboveness!” spat Sadie, pushing her way through the hubbub of the gallery and looking for Simon Kahn-Meyers, who was at that moment indisposed; working; wrapped up in the grand drama of his own design. She knew better than to interrupt just yet. She spotted his gallerist, Riley, instead, and shoved towards him and Siegfried watched her move, a Queenly silhouette, a head above the others…  he watched from the safety of the darkness at the back of the gallery.

World Fame

Sadie is having her toenails painted with voluptuous care like a travesty of the famous scene in Kubrick’s Lolita where Humbert is abasing himself to his nymph. Heavily allegorical: rich wise old Jew in a bathrobe and lovely young Negress, nude.

Glistening.

Sadie reclines in a special throne of leather and chrome, a customized gynecologist’s chair re-designed for the purpose, her foot secure in a raised stirrup while Simon Kahn-Meyers, squinting into a jeweler’s loupe and squatting on a stool specially designed for the purpose, lacquers her nails from an expensive bottle of cardinal crimson. The scene is reminiscent also of Tintoretto…  a cross between Suzanna at her Bath (c. 1560) and a detail from Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples (c. 1547)… compositional elements from the former and psychological aspects of the latter, with Simon playing the part not only of Suzanna’s diligent foot-attentive servant but the voyeuristic elders looking on, as well… and Christ.

Sadie’s toes wiggle indolently. She’s thinking about tomorrow’s hair appointment in Hamburg. She’s not thinking about Siegfried at all. She gazes upon the speckled pate of the old man who is her transitional lover. A patronizing smile softens her calculating expression. She’s thinking that the next one will either be about true love or mind-boggling amounts of money. The next one will either be her soulmate or someone who owns a private jet. Simon is neither, but at least all he wants is to play with her feet. The money shot he spares her. Does it out of earshot (eyeshot) in the bathroom or somewhere. Maybe he can’t even get an erection any more. That’s fine with her. If everyone else in this world could only want what no one would mind giving them, this would be paradise, wouldn’t it?

Sadie wiggles her toes and closes her eyes and drifts off into semi-sleep. It’s so relaxing. She needs this. Simon needs this too. It relaxes him.

He didn’t win the Stein Prize. He didn’t win the Stein Prize. That beautiful Korean nut who calls herself NO won it, of course. She won with a simple-as-a-shit-in-a-bucket piece called YESTERDAY’S INSULTS ARE TOMORROW’S COMPLIMENTS. In which she sat casually dressed in a darkened room in a gallery watching a loop of old black and white Laurel and Hardy movies… crying.

Weeping, softly, non-stop for precisely eight hours and eight minutes. What the numerology of the piece was supposed to symbolize Simon has no idea but he knows that not only didn’t he win the Stein Prize with his infinitely wittier and more provocative installation (come on: a gang rape of the artist girlfriend of an artist competing for an art prize by the judges of the art prize? what’s not to like?) but he’s out a lot of money. That was an expensive fucking installation. From the rental of the Hispano Suiza to the security guards to the actress playing his girlfriend and the actors playing the half dozen rapist-judges and six cases of champagne and god knows how much expensive French cheese and crackers. The sponsors covered the advertizing, flew in a couple of the panelists and presented everyone of importance with a bottle of Vodka, otherwise it was Simon’s dime. Jesus. Meanwhile, how much did NO spend on her prize-winning schtick? The cost of a junkshop television. She probably didn’t even buy the TV. She probably borrowed it. It makes him sick.

Simon needs to relax. Simon needs to think. His real girlfriend, the “weather artist” Thy Trann, has been strangely evasive of late. Could be that she smells a plane crash. Could be that she senses that Simon’s stock is plunging. Simon’s problem is that he’s a British conceptualist, and his reputation is therefore ineffably bound to the public profile of Damien Hirst, who is being perceived as slightly passé of late. What Simon needs is for Damien to make another big splash and soon. Or Simon himself will need to do it.

But he’s afraid.

He first got the idea years ago, when those towelheads laid that career-making fatwa on lucky Rushdie. The death and destruction which Rushdie trailed in his wake (people forget: there were casualties of that particular fatwa, even if Rushdie escape unscathed…  for now) put Simon off the idea for a few years, but then 9/11 happened and he was seriously tempted to go for it. But, again…

He was afraid.

And yet, what does Simon Kahn-Meyers fear more? Death or irrelevance? Which does anyone fear more?

Sadie has a dream right there in the chair in which every man loses his head over her. Their heads literally fall off. Their eyes go wide with panic and they point at their necks, gesturing frantically, as the necks turn black. And then their heads fall off.

Doonk.

Three hours later. Sadie announces loudly that she’s going to a dinner party. No answer. She’s already showered and perfumed and dressed in a gold lamé pantsuit and green velveteen slippers and ready to step out the door… she searches for and finds Simon sitting at a slanted work table in a back room in the flat and announces again quietly that she’s leaving for a dinner party.

“A dinner party? How delightful. I am feeling peckish.”

“Darling, it might be slightly rude to bring you.”

“Why would it be rude?”

“Darling… they aren’t expecting you. You aren’t invited.”

“Perhaps my arrival will be a glorious surprise. I am, after all, a known artist, Sadie.”

“Simon, I promise you, they have never even heard of your name.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“But how?”

“Trust me.”

“But how?”

“I’m going to be late. If you insist on tagging along you had better get yourself dressed in five minutes.” Five MEE-nots.

“I am dressed.”

Sadie gives him a look.

“Okay, okay. Give us a minute. I’ll put on a fucking suit, for Christ’s sake.”

While Simon roots around in the armoir in the next room for his one serious suit, Sadie saunters across the studio and peers with blasé curiosity at the large sheet of drawing paper on the work table that Simon had been hunched over. Beside the paper are a drawing pencil and the wretched black rubber frying pan crumbs of a vigorous erasure or two. There is also a T-square and a plastic lettering stencil.

On the creamy sheet of paper, in roughly-sketched lettering, are two simple words in large block print; one an expletive verb and the other the name of a major religion. Two smaller words, in cursive, look more like notes or directions than sketches of the art itself. The two small blue-ballpoint words are the word green and the word gold…  Sadie is struck by the coincidence: these are the colors she’s wearing. Kismet? The little word green seems to be a note about the color of the background. Gold is scrawled within the body of one of the letters of the two large words which are obviously meant to be the subject of the painting itself.

There are numbers across the bottom of the page: 22′ x 18′.  Sadie nods. That’s feet not inches.

The Dinner Party [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

Two things are in fashion in Berlin that year: hookahs and riverside bars. Some riverside bars even feature hookahs. To the list of punny names like Chocolate Bar and Crow Bar and Gold Bar and Bar Nun and even All Holds Bar there was added, that year, a place along the absinthe-colored Spree on the bank of a kink in the Spree’s many twists through the part of Berlin called Kreuzberg. A place called the Zand See Bar. Not far from the indestructible ghost of The Wall.

Five tons of white sand have been imported from somewhere along the Baltic, with five potted palm trees, none of which look well, and a concrete wet bar as long as a light-aircraft runway plus a Dj platform, complete with search light, which was once a guard tower, transplanted from one hundred and seventy five meters to the east.

Adjacent to Zand See Bar is a band shell faced by fifty rows of rusting iron benches still warm with thousands of hours of Soviet march music. The flaking band shell is called Oompah and a preppy American named Tony Gale owns both Oompah and Zand See Bar along with his rich German partner and boyfriend, Born. There is a warm, shaggy, dirty old breeze blowing. Ambient club tracks dingle and whum on speakers lashed to palms between strings of straggly Christmas light like paralyzed sparks in the sky.

“This is not a date,” had said Salter, when Elke opened the door to her flat.

“Okay,” she saluted. “Just please give me one minute to fix myself up for this not date of ours you are too early for.”

Her heat-fluffed cloud of pyrite hair swished as she turned towards the bathroom, leaving Salter in a fog of roses. Her gentleman caller nodded at framed photos on an upright piano at the wall under the heavy curtains over the living room window. He studied a snap of her at eight or nine featuring platinum hair in thick flashes over a dark jacket as she knelt in a camera crew’s floodlight, chipping away at The Wall. Perched beside her in the photo,  rubbing shoulders, was a baldingly long-haired pedophile with a mustache, doing his bit with a bottle opener. Salter did not pay much attention to the pedophile. He was riveted by the beauty of his date at eight or nine.

Her hair was so long that she’d step on it sometimes climbing the ladder to her bed on top of the loft her father built with help from mechanically clever Uncle Heinrich. It took forever to dry at that length after a bath. Money-wasting showers were forbidden. Elke remembers with a shiver of horror how after they moved to the west her pennypinching mother would draw a bath for all four members of the family… first came Papa who would languish in there for an hour reading the paper and then came mama who was always number two after Papa and then came little brother Jörg who was just five or six and came before Elke in everything simply because he was a boy and who she knew for a fact considered it the height of luxury to float under the stream of his own warm urine in the tub (since by his turn the water was relatively cool) and finally, with horror and nausea, came Elke, already a budding woman at twelve who had to lower herself into the filthy family soup of the bathwater. Most times she faked it but her mother caught her once, sitting on the toilet and reading a Gala in a towel instead of stewing in the sedimented room-temperature broth and after that the baths were supervised…

At the age of fourteen Elke had a little abortion adventure. She’d noticed something while sitting in the waiting room of the West Berlin gynecologist. This was a waiting room so comfortable and pleasant that it was almost an incentive for her to come back for another abortion, the opposite of the Trotskyite bedside manners of the East, where the doctors hoisted their eyebrows at female mistakes and tut-tut-tutted at female weaknesses; female horror of blood and female fear of pain.

She noticed something while sitting there not on the day of the abortion but during one of several consultations she was required to endure before having the fetus evacuated. What she noticed, sitting there in her skinny stonewashed jeans and her mid-metamorphosis- Michael Jackson t-shirt, while glancing up occasionally from a year old copy of Gala… was this: while not all of the unattractive women in the waiting room were there unaccompanied, not a one of the attractive females, whether there for a checkup or prenatal care or a termination, was alone. One bronze-haired, cruel-lipped beauty even showed up with two men, one her approximate age and the other old enough to be the father of either. With his hand on her knife-sharp knee…

Being chronically early, Elke watched the females come and go and she tried to imagine how life might look if she summoned the foolish courage to sneak out of the waiting room and raise the cell-bud instead of terminating it. She observed that the fattest, ugliest females invariably sat in the waiting room clutching badly-used magazines in postures of long-accumulated insult, sad-eyed and wise beyond their looks. The pattern was laughably consistent and Elke laughed, very softly, in fact: a sequence of three or four ponderously pregnant girls with stringy hair and unappetizing skin and inconsequential eyes would shuffle in and quickly find a seat with cringing deference as though ducking into a packed theater twenty minutes late. And next, some lethal blonde newlywed or magazine-haired mistress would breeze in, pulling a male by the ring through his nose, rolling her eyes with boredom.

“Have you been to Tony’s club yet?” called Elke, from the bathroom. “I think it is a trendy place.”

In the back seat of a taxi on the way to Zand See Bar she reached over and rested her hand on the crotch of Salter’s tight white American pants. She told him that one thing she remembered from her childhood before The Wall vanished were the ultraviolet gro-lights you’d see in all the bedroom windows along the quiet streets at night, glowing vivid nutrition on everyone’s treasured pot plants, especially beautiful on snowy nights, the black light spun through falling snow with festive devilishness and that was the first unforeseen disappointment, when her family migrated West (stepping carefully over the imagined bodies of all those shot for trying the very same walk too soon): where were all the pretty purple night-lights? It wasn’t long after that loss that she had the abortion.

The abortion was the rite of passage she’d expected losing her virginity would be. The gynecologist with the waiting room where they played a cassette of the greatest hits of The Carpenters performed on a synthesizer masquerading as a harp. The first time an authority figure ever touched her pussy. See, what was good about Donnal, Elke’s Irish statutory rapist, was not his workaday performance of the task of despoiling her and the diminishing returns of his several followups but rather Donnal’s sideshow of penance for each messy act of coitus. The auctioneering catechisms while pounding his thighs or yanking hairs off his scrotum or the time he drew blood raking his dirty (incl. dark news from her ass) bohemian fingernails across his own ruddy cheek with a howl. The sex was that good.

She’d been thirteen when they started, thirteen to Donnal’s twenty one, and yet he’d seemed to her far more innocent because of his wide-eyed superstitions; his credulity; that fantastic show he put on. Even at thirteen Elke knew it wasn’t the mother of God keeping an eye on you but the Stasi; those two-faced, nosy friends and neighbors who filed reports. And sex was the last thing you got in serious trouble over, anyway, but, rather, it was being an oddball and a rebel with a horror of filling out forms that could get you treated as though you’d been possessed by the devil. Elke’s hand rested lightly on the hill rising in Salter’s crotch.

Now Salter is trying to decide how much he likes her as she schmoozes energetically a hundred paces away from him at the bar, taller than all the men surrounding her, a skinny Amazon. A barge horn adds a perfect bass note to the music, thirty octaves down. Seagulls in the distance. Gnats close up. He recognizes Tony Gale as a friend’s ex-boyfriend and Gale stares at Salter a good long time, shading his eyes against the late afternoon sun, but doesn’t wave or wink or anything in case Salter doesn’t wave back; or maybe in case Salter expects a free drink. Elke knows Born from club life in general and goes over to the bar where he’s standing and chats a while, establishing not only her Club Cred, Salter guesses, but her independence as well. Or maybe she just genuinely feels like chatting. Salter can only hope that Elke noticed that Tony Gale was very pointedly staring at him. Not that Salter gives too many shits or percentages of a fuck how cool Elke thinks he is but he knows how carefully calibrated the point system can be.

How Elke can negotiate the sand in high heels Salter can’t imagine. In her heels she’s as tall as Salter. With fragile ankles like that. She’s wearing a very short brown suede skirt and a ruffled white blouse and her thick banana-blonde hair pinned up. Swaying next to her while she chats with blue-suited, flute-clasping old Born at the bar is another expat, with terrible posture, in a Take That t-shirt, balding and long-haired with a Fu Manchu mustache, called Nixon. Nixon looks like an American beach bum in Thailand c. 1976.

Nixon is a hard-to-parse amalgam of beatnik, hippie, and epicurean redneck from whom everyone at Zand See Bar this afternoon, at some point or another in the past, has purchased a controlled substance. Nixon, with his Shakespearean forehead, is one of those paranoid ex-stoners capable of shocking you with a massive I.Q. as demonstrated by a ferocious erudition in the service of a mad passion for angels-on-a-pinhead trivia. Among other things. Nixon is a genius. Nixon started out selling E but he realized that synthetics didn’t suit him…neither synthetics like E or LSD nor the hard currency drugs like blow and horse, as Germans now call them. Not for him. Nixon currently markets whole-earth drugs like pot or mushrooms to an exclusive clientele that reads Carlos Castenada and Aldous Huxley now that they and vinyl LPs are again in fashion.

Nixon is slouching close to Elke (with his queryingly curved spine and Biafra belly and thumbs hooked in the waistband of his cut-offs), a parasite feasting on the smell of her freshly washed hair. Just when he is beginning to worry that if someone doesn’t recognize and approach him soon he’ll be forced to join Elke with Born and Nixon at the bar, losing valuable points, Salter is recognized and approached by someone. A freckled weak-chinned man with a very low hairline in a three piece copper-brown Paul Smith suit and smart Italian shoes. He tip-toes through the sand like he’s never seen sand before, arms up and out for balance and taps Salter on the shoulder.

“My God, Cough” says Salter, giving his ex-drug-dealer a hug. Crushed in the hug, Cough pats Salter affectionately on the back in the manner of the loose approximation of an ex-in-law that some ex-drug dealers are.

“How long has it been do you reckon?”

They let the background music and ambient noise fill the intervening silence. They watch pretty girls trudge by alone and in mobs. Elke crosses the sand with Nixon in tow and an ironic formation of WW2 bombers overhead on the way to an airshow in Poland. You can almost see the quotation marks.

Cough bows at the lovely Elke with a flourish, very pointedly does not so much as look at Nixon and squeezes Salter’s elbow saying “We’ll talk later,” and trudges off across the shadow-stained sand towards the hurricane fence separating Zand See Bar from Oompah. Leaning on the fence looking bored are well-dressed young people possibly in need of Cough’s attention. Nixon snorts and executes an Italian chin-brushing gesture of derision at Cough’s back. Nixon, whose voice is incongruously dark and deep, says to Salter, with his ashtray breath and his Princetonian mumble, “The root of the word mulatto. Guess what it is. Mule. Guess why. You are sui generis, Sir. We’ve met before.”

“Salter this is Nixon,” giggles Elke and Nixon inclines his head and palms his breastbone with mock-courtliness. “Nixon is paranoid,” she adds.

Nixon chews a corner of his mustache, glancing thither and yon. Hither also. “The late great William Burroughs tells us that a paranoid is a person in possession of all the facts, ma’am,” he says.

“Funny,” says Salter.

Elke suddenly hops and waves at someone standing near a distant palm and flutters off again with a Be right back… leaving Salter there squinting at Nixon, who is staring at Salter with the tilted head and cautiously incredulous gaze of a parrot. He says, finally, “Little miss Elke tells me you’re in the popular music game the same as she is, but from the other end, I assume, by which I mean you’re not one of the puppets but one of the string-pullers. True?”

“How do you know Elke?”

“Known her for years. I was her tutor. Mentor. Role model and idol. Do you always answer a question with a question?”

“Do I?”

“You haven’t asked me what I do yet, Ishmael. Isn’t that the first thing us Americans do, ask people what they do? Germans try to pin that one on me all the time as if they haven’t noticed that Nixon displays zero curiosity about them. Ask me what I do.” Nixon’s rapid mumble was like little round boulders bumping into one another whilst rolling down a hill and was not an unpleasant sound. “Go on, ask me.”

Okay. “What do you do?”

Mock disgust. “That’s always the first thing Americans fucking ask you.”

Salter glares at him.

Impishly: “I’m a part-time drug dealer by trade.” Nixon lifts an instructive finger. “But a full time author by calling. In the middle of my fifth novel, in fact. All this,” he gestures dismissively at the sand and the palms and some nearby girls, “…research. You need a writing teacher? Hey, I have an idea. Highbrow pauper, meet well-to-do hack… join forces for the benefit of mankind. Why not? You want to learn to write, don’t you? Don’t look at me like I’m Uri Geller, son, Elke told me all about it over there at the bar. It was Elke’s idea. She thought we should get together. How much are you willing to pay? Per hour, I mean.”

“A real live novelist. Who are you published with?”

Nixon’s face, yanked up by his nose, wrinkles like a kneecap. “Published?” He takes a step back. “One more philistine comment like that, good Sir, and the deal is off, you hear me? By the way: philistine and Palestine share etymological roots. Of course I’m not published… I don’t write to put bread on the table; that’s what drug-dealing is for; I write to avoid not writing. Consider. I’m a truth-telling aesthete, man. My novels are imagination-powered thinking machines based on a centuries-old technology that they still haven’t managed to improve. I deal in bibles in the original sense of the word. Bible is from Byblos which was the name of the Phoenician port where papyrus was shipped from, which you already know, of course. You want to become an adept at this seminally spooky technology, I’m the guy at whose feet you must sit, brother. So how much is that worth to you? Give or take a drachma or two? How much?”

“Well, I’d like to… uh… can I, uh, read some of your… uh… before I…”

“Better idea. How ‘bout I recite some for you right here on the spot? Hold on to your hat, Ishmael.”

Without waiting for Salter’s response Nixon holds up the instructive finger again, improves his posture by many magnitudes, does some lip-limbering exercises that may or may not be comic relief, and intones, with the raised hand now on his heart, “From City of Amateurs by Nixon W. Prescott the Third. Chapter Three… Scottie’s Haircut.”

Nixon clears his throat.

“You wanna know when the despair hits? It hits on the day that it hits you that you’re better… truly and demonstrably better than many if not all of the ones who are at the so-called top… the ones everyone thinks of as ‘the best’… the ne plus ultra of the hegemony’s queer empyrean… you realize you’re better than they are after years of honing… honing and honing… honing the log to a club and the club to a spear and the spear to an arrow and the arrow to a needle and the needle to a ray of light and that ray of light right down to a single pure concentrated line of steel-burning thought, man… honing, honing… all this honing and one day you look up and it hits you: you’re fucking better than they are… goddamn! Whoopee! You can’t believe it at first but no, it’s true, you are simply better and… and… so what? So what? So fucking what? So what? Because hello, knock knock, anyone home… it ain’t about better! It ain’t about genius and craft and all that shit. It’s a social game, a herd game, a hierarchy with shibboleths and secret signs and antlers and big dicks and tails between the legs like any other activity that hunting and gathering Neofuckinlithic man indulges in… a pecking order determined by lots of things that ain’t got shit to do with intellect or talent. You wanna know why F. Scott Fitzgerald is still famous, an icon, exalted in the pantheon, as famous as ever, the so-called golden boy, while John Peale Bishop, for example, ain’t shit? Scottie’s haircut, motherfucker. His haircut. And you’re bald.”

He fires up a Pall Mall and lets that sink in while Salter nods, appearing to digest what he’s heard. Through the intervening gap bulges ambient club music and chatter and the grumpy chug of a rusty red barge negotiating the kink in the green Spree. Elke, with her high heels swinging from one hand and an empty champagne glass in the other comes marching through the cigbutted sand back towards them, wiggling her nose like Samantha Stevens and sniffing furiously. What has she been up to and with whom? A quick scan of the perimeter for Cough turns up no evidence but then Salter spots an aqua-blue Porta-Loo at the very edge of the sand, close to the parking lot, with a circle around it rather than a queue in front of it and he has his suspicions.

TESTING ONE-booms a voice, pronouncing “one” like “fun”. TESTING ONE TWO ONE TWO. The crowd is trickling from Zand See Bar over to Oompah. Salter searches the breast pocket of his blazer for the backstage passes, which are color-coded wrist bands.

“It is almost time for the show,” Elke gushes. “I am so excited.”

Twenty minutes later they’re all three standing backstage at Oompah while the girlgroup of which Elke was briefly a member, Q-Teez, mimes its way through the first song of the set, Come and Get Your Man. Elke the contrarian firebrand was summarily replaced by pliant, warm, full-bodied Inisha after Ollie, the senior A&R guy at the record company, fucked Inisha and found the deed to his liking. The chore of notifying Elke of her redundancy fell to Salter, a lesser A&R functionary, who parlayed the odious task into a very long and philosophical phone conversation that metastisized into a late lunch and a cinema date. It was Elke who then called Salter the day after and asked him to squire her to the Q-Teez showcase. No hard feelings, see?

Miraculously, the fifty rows of rusted iron benches facing the band shell have filled with people, who stand on them. Even more miraculously, a goodly chunk of the audience (a mixed crowd, demographically; typical for Berlin: blame the high unemployment) seems to be miming right along with the lyrics and hopping in place and punching the air and behaving like genuinely unembarrassable lunatics… or loyal fans. Pathetically, Salter spots more than one bulky thirty-something mixed in with the semi-pathetic twenty-somethings and the red-faced teens and toddlers. Looking out into the audience from within the dirty ear of the band shell, from behind the sound man and the light technician and the massive black scrim of richly cabled gear is a strangely, childishly, safe and secure feeling.

Salter has never noticed before how vulnerable a “singer” is out there in front of the mob. About whose intentions we only assume we know. That sea of flailing arms and bared teeth. The oldest part of the brain, the reptilian bit that tells us when to run and when to play dead, must suffer ramifying cascades of panic when confronted by such an unnatural spectacle for the real show is always in the audience and the bigger the crowd the greater the risk the bigger the spectacle. That’s what stage fright must really be. Not the modern fear of fucking up but the primordial fear of being ripped to pieces.

More banally, watching from behind as the Q-Teez prance back and forth across the stage in their carefully choreographed routine like amphetamined zombies, without even the token benefit of seeing their lips move, dilutes even further the illusion that the voices blasting out from the sound system are coming, in real time, from the singers themselves. They’re dressed in matching pink hot-panted satin uniforms… crowned with rhinestone tiaras… and high-heeled mules laced up to the knee… like Monegasque bordello chambermaids of another era.

Halfway through the bridge, as Salter knows, the sound man will have to activate Inisha’s headset for a live improv (a shrill “Come on, clap your hands, we love you Berlin!”) and kill it again and then bring up all three headsets at the very end of the vamp so they can introduce the next song and indulge in carefully scripted banter about how one of the girls’ adopted mother kinda, in a way, inspired this next tune. At Q-Teez’s very first showcase the soundman, who was let go on the spot for his sin of omission, forgot to kill Inisha’s headset after the four-bar bridge improv and the audience was treated to a horrendous 1:47 of her suddenly out of sync, out of breath, profoundly off-key and forgetting the words in a panic.

Nixon shouts, “Consider! The more huge a celebrity gets the more the celebrity functions as a kind of diagnostic tool for the sickness of the culture celebrating it, man…consider how the ghoulishly pathetic Michael Jackson… who wanted to represent a blending of races and genders and classes but in truth became a bloody, fatal, high-speed collision of everything… look how perfect an emblem he is for the ugliest decade in American history! We can only pray for the sake of your dancing slut puppets here that they never make it!”

“What?” shouts Salter.

Nixon turns to Salter. “I said… !” shouts Nixon.

“What?” shouts Elke. Nixon turns to her.

“I said… !” shouts Nixon.

“I can’t hear you!” shouts Salter.

“Never mind!” shouts Nixon. “Fuck it!” He puts his hands over his ears. But Nixon isn’t about to let Elke and Salter hang out there backstage together alone. He stands his ground between them and the three slut puppets in pink satin hotpants, seemingly in slo-mo, shake their booties at him to the idiot stomp of their hideous modern march music.

2. Checkers

They used to play checkers. Draw the board on a calendar spread flat, on two consecutive pages, inking in half of the squares, and using American coins as pieces. He: filthy pennies. She: smeary nickles.

“Do you really write books?” she asked once, after her opening move, pushing a bright lock out the blue beam of her eyes. This would have been shortly after the start of the Honecker trial, Nixon believes. She was twelve.

“Are you really a writer?”

“Yes.”

Clever little fox. He was rattled and nearly lost that game. Am I a writer? Do you mean the noun… or the gerund? I am definitely the gerund. From time to time during that checker match and at other times, too, The Bad Thing would stir in him, stretching and yawning in the folds of his baggy crotch, and he would think: an avid reader leads a rich life that doesn’t involve consequences. An avid writer toys with consequences. The writing is a rehearsal of actions and consequences which sometimes leads to real actions and actual consequences. Real actions are, at all costs, to be avoided.

If he were rich enough he’d just do it, as the phrase goes.

Nixon has a love-hates-love relationship with his books… the four already completed and the one he’s halfway through. His books are brilliant and he knows it but they aren’t about anything and he knows that, too, despite the fact that they average about three hundred and fifty pages apiece, single-spaced, reproduced and spiral-bound at the copy shop. Compulsive Creativity. He has four large cartons containing dozens of copies of each book and miscellaneous cartons containing other output: short stories, diaries, essays, aphorisms and a form he believes he himself must have invented: the fictional operating manual for the imaginary device or appliance, of which there are several dozen. WARNING: PLEASE READ INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY BEFORE OPERATING THIS DEVICE. But no poetry. Writing new poetry is like recording new ragtime or painting new Russian religious icons, in his opinion.

His first novel (The Fun Haters) was about a man who’s writing his first book about a man writing his first book. The second book (Flicker) was about a man who’s writing his second book about a man writing his second book. The third book (City of Amateurs) was about a man who’s writing his third book, and so on. And all of them are about nothing, essentially… or none of them, that is, is about anything. That’s roughly seven years of work… roughly seven years of living he turned into roughly seven years of writing which became, in total, roughly fourteen years of a literary kind of half-life.

One thing he doesn’t love-hate but rather hate-hates is money. Hates thinking about it, dealing with it, being forced to genuflect to the movie-star beautiful bully of the idea of it. Money is everything bad about humanity in its liquid form. He can’t stand the idea that everything on earth… everything… has its calculable equivalent in cash. Can be reduced to a dollar amount. Even his ugly body. Even his brain. This means that Plato’s assertion that everything around us is merely a reflection of a purer, higher Truth… the theory of the Platonic Ideal… was really just a futuristic description of money.

Money is the highest authority and authority is all about pushing people around. Nixon hates being pushed around. He even hates having to stand there while a cashier counts out his change for a twenty like some shorthand lecture in good book-keeping. He wishes he could walk through shops picking out what he wants and throwing wads of cash and being gone.

For that you need to be rich. The way in which Ulysses was ahead of its time… what made it “modern” and why it’s still ahead of most everything in print, muses Nixon, is not in the fucked up sentences. Plenty of writers before Joyce tried fucked up sentences (they just didn’t make it into print with their experiments). It wasn’t the sex. The sex was in an obscure language. Most of the people who objected to the anal/excretory/masturbatory passages had to be led to the passages and have them translated before they could even feign outrage… no it wasn’t the sex. The Bible beat Joyce in the obscurely worded pornography field in any case. What was and still is revolutionary about Joyce’s Ulysses was that it was the first book of any importance that wasn’t, directly or indirectly, concerned with money.

Consider.

His father was rich. Nixon once heard his father, without much irony that he could detect, maybe even with delight, ask, “What’s this?” picking up a newly minted Kennedy Half from the steps in front of the gazebo and turning it in the sun. He thought it was some kind of medal. Nixon thinks that European money feels like old bandages and American money feels like old skin. Pliant, loin-warm, reeky. Nixon writes, above all, to avoid thinking about money. The only relief from the insult of money is when he’s buried up to his ears in his own safe sentences. Well if Joyce said there’s nobody in any of his books worth more than a few shillings Nixon can do him one better: there’s no one in any of Nixon’s books period.

But if Nixon were rich (like Montgomery)….

Nixon looks out across Berlin from his highrise penthouse in the hideous grey concrete plattenbau at Alexanderplatz. His neighbors pay twice the rent he pays because he got in the building before its bland grotesquerie became chic in a nostalgie de la boue kind of way, shortly after The Wall came down. Being a genius isn’t only useful for the making of Art… it can be applied to banalities like comfortable living, too. The wide tin snake of traffic that curls clattering around his flat block stuffing the street every morning seems muffled and far away, but it’s only ten stories down… the pedestrians resemble Brownian molecules or icons on a high-res desktop. As a crowd they seem worthwhile, but as individuals, from this height, they seem pointless… just bits drifting off from a crumbling mass at the mercy of entropy. If Nixon can’t be rich he can be famous. Write a book…that kind of book. The kind that makes you famous. Some stupid fucking book about someone wanting something and getting it in three hundred and fifty pages.

If only I had a story, he moons. He stands on his balcony in his bathrobe, watching the morning sky assemble itself groggily from a scattered box of old components. His bath robe is as threadbare and comfortable as an old hound. He feels like a Callas doomed forever to sing scales. To clear her throat.

If only I had a story, sighs Nixon, scratching the dry blind eye of his bald spot. He reflects that the tremendous potential energy stored in his own body climbing the ten flights of stairs to his penthouse apartment every evening could be released like a bolt of lightning to smash him flat in less than three seconds by stepping over the low railing of his balcony in the morning. That’s a lot of energy and it comes from his own skinny legs. Not that he entertains such thoughts but the option to end it all at any given moment is a cherished freedom and Nixon’s source of power… for if suicide is an option, why not try anything, instead, then? Why not try everything? Because any situation can be brought under perfect and eternal control in the time it takes to sever the thin chord attaching us to Time.

There are no mirrors in Nixon’s penthouse. No mirrors and few if any reflecting surfaces… the occasional droplet of water or bead of perspiration, maybe… it’s all buff and rough and matte in Nixon’s flat. His drinking cups are made of wood, his cutlery and cooking utensils and bathroom and kitchen utensils are of buff aluminum or other dull alloys. Once there was this 14 year old Romanian prostitute up there, in her lace-up knee-high cuffed suede boots and leather bustier, sneering jovially at all of the American’s expensive stuff, but when it dawned on her (a conclusion she confirmed with a terrified check of the bathroom) that there were no mirrors to be found, none, not even tiny and incidental reflective surfaces, she started trembling uncontrollably and crossed herself, backing towards the door, bleating “Strigoi! Strigoi!” and making a hasty retreat for the elevator.

Which of course delighted Nixon who found it highly erotic and more than his money’s worth. He came right there in his pants in the foyer as the elevator doors muffled her screams. Ugly Nixon. An ugliness set in cruel relief against well-to-do parents so physically beautiful that even deep into their Alzheimered twilights they are in constant danger of being diddled by caretakers; the edible jewel that is his mother with her amphorae-green eyes and Hepburnish cheekbones and lunar mane; his father’s Caligulan profile. He imagines a burly Jamaican nurse in crepe-soled shoes weighing mama (accent on the second syllable) down on a freshly turned and neatly childish bed, wielding aluminum-light mama like a kite.

How could such an ugly Montgomery Nixon W. Prescott the 3rd be the result of Gaia and Montgomery Jefferson W. Prescott the 2nd doing the dick and pussy trick? At least junior turned out to be a genius. Maybe he was a genius because of the ugliness… maybe he had no other choice. Maybe the isolating power of ugliness was essential. The sun is rising and the moon is sinking as its counterweight. Nixon is thinking that we hate intellectuals so much on this planet that Nabokov knew he’d have to make Humbert a pedophile before we’d tolerate Humbert’s smug narration. But what does pedophile mean, thinks Nixon, when you break the word down into its two clear simple meanings?

Child.

Love.

Nixon is not only a literary genius without a story to tell: he’s a checker champion without a worthy challenger. Why is it that chess gets all the press? Why isn’t the “game” of checkers taken seriously? Checkers is not an activity for children. Nixon rarely gets the opportunity to quote Poe (because Americans always mistake him for an adjective and the Germans for an ass) but Nixon relishes it when he can, quoting the master on checkers and chess: In the latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.

Amen, thinks Nixon, looking out over the fake bustle of Alexanderplatz.

The most terrifying thing about Poe was his eerie resemblance to mid-twentieth-century American comedian Bob Newhart. What is Love? Love is pleasure and need and poetry… that’s why animals can’t love… there’s the pleasure and the need but no poetry… not even the poetry of the beloved’s name. Elke. A twisting arrow of geese glides over, so low that Nixon flinches, and they are honking like a Turkish wedding, reminding him of a specialty of Weimar-era brothels in Berlin called Die Weinachts Gans… the Christmas Goose… you’d have a live goose sent up to your room. Right? Probably cost a million depression-era Deutschmarks. You’d fuck the goose and at the moment of climax lop the head with a cleaver, enjoying the writhing gush of its death throes. Das Huhn, das goldene Eier legt, schlacten. A treat for the rich. But what would stop a peasant from grabbing some goose behind the out house and doing exactly the same thing for free? Context is everything.

The first chance Nixon got to use the Poe quote was with his sweet little East German English pupil, back when he was forced to teach just to keep milk and wiener on the table, before he figured out how to sell Ecstasy in the long lines in front of the clubs, Ecstasy and then various organics, and his precocious pupil gave him the best checker matches of his life. Those checker games were so good that he wanted to marry her, despite the fact that she was eleven or twelve.

People talk of chess prodigies but rarely of checker prodigies but Nixon felt she was one. She was twelve at the time but now she was in her twenties and floating away from him. They’d first met, symbolically enough, perched on The Wall beside a thousand nobodies, both of them chipping away in the blinding smug glare of the CNN camera lights. Sheer luck. Sheer luck that he was in Europe when it all happened, the official death of white communism (no one seems to give much of a shit about those billion-and-change worth of yellow commies looming on the other side of the sunrise every morning, or that little brown crust of commies breathing and shitting their red beans and rice near Florida).What were the odds against these two, these special two, Nixon and Elke, Dante and his Beatrice, meeting? How old was Poe’s first cousin (Virginia Clemm) when Poe married her in 1835? Thirteen. Name one of the newlyweds’ favorite pastimes.

Checkers.

If only I had a story, swoons Nixon, high up above the morning bustle of traffic at Alexanderplatz. All this verbal firepower at his command… a fucking nuclear aircraft carrier’s worth of literary firepower at his finger tips… and not a single story to tell with it. His life is a blank. His childhood was just days that bunched into months and his adolescence was just weeks that clogged into years and his adulthood is a flickering, throbbing, unarticulated emission of interminable Now. The closest thing he has to a story is a subject, and he can’t even admit to that. She’d laugh at him if he did. Or shrink from him in horror. He buries the evidence in the prose. Bits and pieces of her: the smell of the insides of her gloves in winter, the almost imperceptible asymmetry of her nostrils (heightened to noticeability when she laughs); the way she still pronounces “clothes” as “clo-thus” or pluralizes “hair” and “spaghetti”. He thinks: I blew it with the writing lessons. I always blow it with the writing lessons. I always come on too strong. He hopes Elke isn’t too exasperated with him for blowing it…she tried so hard to get Nixon together with her handsome black pigeon but Nixon blew it by coming on to strong, like a fox who showed his sharp teeth in a smile.

Oh, that would have been such easy money.

3. Finnegans Wank

Nixon and Elke stopped by Salter’s around lunch time on Saturday and Elke left after about an hour (the pretty girl always leaves after about an hour; that’s a rule) but Nixon lingered and had a detailed look of just about everything in Salter’s flat. Nixon would pick something up…a matchbox memento or an old photograph and ask, with a child’s directness, what’s this? Nixon had no idea that Elke and Salter had already embarked on a sex life, in their peculiar way and Salter is tickled by Nixon’s hammy chaperone act, getting between the two of them whenever possible and making sly (and slightly effective) comments in Elke’s absence designed to discourage Salter from thinking about Elke in a romantic or sexual way.

Snooping around, Nixon had discovered Salter’s box of old photographs in the little room with the gold couch. He literally went on a room-to-room investigation of Salter’s entire flat; if anyone else had tried such a preposterous violation of his privacy Salter would have flung him bodily from the premises but Nixon has this holy fool aura about him… maybe simply because he’s so ugly… which gives him special license. Carefully examining one fragile old photo after another, Nixon had said, with a sidelong glance from the furthest corner of his eye:

“How old were you when you lost your virginity? I’m just curious. Arthur Brooke, who wrote the story Shakespeare ripped off to write Romeo and Juliet, made his Juliet sixteen, which is a tad young but just about squares with civilized modern standards, and if you ain’t never seen Olivia Hussey in the role for Franco Zeffirelli’s production do yourself a flavor and check it out, my man… talk about honeydews… talk about ripe… know where the word estrus comes from? You probably know this already. From the Latin word meaning, roughly, frenzy. Amen. But I digress.”

Nixon turned to face Salter for emphasis and continued,”Shakespeare, that dirty old fugger, made his Juliet fourteen years old, ain’t that scandalous? Fourteen! Of course, that was the sixteenth century, so, you know, who are we to get retroactively puritanical on a bunch of odoriferous Elizabethans who enjoyed a life expectancy of maybe forty, forty five years, tops…okay. But hold on to your hat, Ishmael. Elke… Dear Elke… our Elke… lost her cherry at thirteen. Ain’t that perfectly fucking disgusting? Fucked a twenty one year old bartender… some illiterate fucking harp from Derry with a chiseled jaw and the clap, prolly… and her parents knew about it. Thirteen! That’s even too young to play with anatomically correct dolls! Thirteen. Wouldn’t touch that pussy with a wax dick from Crete. Nuh-uh. Don’t tell her I said that.”

Nixon lifted a faded sepiatone photograph of Salter’s mother at the age of sixteen, combing her waist-long hair, and said “Who’s that?” Salter told him and Nixon then took an even older snapshot of Salter’s aunt Virginia at the age of twenty seven, in a one-piece bathing suit and a cap, holding a sea shell up for the camera, and said “Who’s that?” He dug out another picture of the aunt, even younger, crimped hair down to her shoulders, standing in a doorway with one foot forward and both hands on her hips and Nixon said “Be still my beating fucking heart. Goddamn, man. Is there some kind of law in your family that only the foxy chicks are allowed to live?”

Nixon said, “Nice cat.” Dusty threaded in and out between the legs of Nixon’s dirty dungarees and trotted out of the room again. “Artists should always have cats, not dogs, … dogs are too easy to please. Dogs radiate this incessant talent-eroding message: you’re great, you’re God, I love you, don’t change… everything you do impresses me, master! Any artist who owns a dog becomes complacent. You wanna know why Kurt Vonnegut, genius that he is, got so complacent over the years? And look at Hemingway…that was eighty percent of his problem… woof! The Old Man and the Sea… exactly the kind of book a dog would approve of. That was Faulkner’s problem. Steinbeck’s too. Jack London, obviously. Have you been writing? Let me see something. I’ll give you a sixty second critique that will advance you by at least five years in your painful struggle towards self-expression, free of charge.”

Salter went and got something out of a kitchen drawer and handed it to Nixon saying, “It’s just a… ”

But Nixon silenced him with the instructional finger, raised. “Never make excuses for anything you write. Would you make excuses for a crippled child?” Nixon glanced diagnostically at the tops and bottoms of each of the five pages that Salter had given him and noticed also that the word Elke appeared several times in the body of the text and said, “Junk.”

He turned his back to Salter and handed the pages back and said “Don’t get me wrong: junk is the standard. No shame in it. But three pieces of advice: one. Always start in the middle of the story. Nobody wants to read any once upon a time shit anymore; we don’t have the patience for it; this is a busy fucking century. Two. Contrary to that old saw, write about what you don’t know….nothing’s more boring than reading about something the writer is totally comfortably bored with. Three. You ain’t a writer. Writers are born, not self-invented. Oh, I forgot, there’s a number four, too. Four. Who the fuck am I to tell you that you ain’t a writer? That’s number four.”

Nixon says, “I gotta be honest, brother… I don’t get you.”

“How so?”

“You’re in showbiz, correct? Earning good bread, spending quality time with all kinds of tasty little slut puppets and getting paid for it… roof over your head and decent threads and the freedom to move through certain quasi-refined social milieus that are closed off to many of your tint… what the hell you want to write for? You need a hobby that badly? Bored with your life? What?”

“I need a reason to write?”

“Most assuredly, my good fellow. You need a reason to write. Your reason is your license… it’s your permission.”

“Ah, I see, now I need permission… ”

“Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, yes. But it’s all on the honor system, unfortunately. No enforcement. That’s the problem with all these diarists and aphorists and workaday scribblers… these yuppies with their creative writing workshops… do you think if somebody told them that words are not a renewable resource and we’re reaching a global crisis point and the word pool is in danger of drying up completely they’d stop, or even cut back, tomorrow?”

“Man,” says Salter, “nobody looking at you… ” and here Nixon sees himself through Salter’s eyes as Salter gives Nixon the up-and-down: his scuffed suede shoes; his second hand corduroy pants; his army surplus raincoat over his fading Milli Vanilli Unplugged t-shirt, “would take you for an elitist.”

Nixon gives Salter an open-mouthed glare that changes like time-lapse photography into a smile. He thinks: I am forthwith going to be the most seductive motherfucker I have ever been in my life. I will spare no trick; I will utilize to the utmost my seductive intellectual wiles and make Raquel Welch look like Lucy van Pelt as a succubus in comparison.

“Okay, here’s the thing, Ishmael” says Nixon, buttoning his army surplus raincoat and flipping his long thin greasy hair up over its raised collar. “I can’t teach you to write, but you can buy me a cup of coffee. Let’s go.” He scratches his bald spot vociferously. “Out.”

“Now?”

Salter is intrigued. What can it hurt? Besides: he feels the faint hum of incipient friendship. It’s kind of thrilling. When was the last time Salter felt the pang of the kindrid? All his so-called “relationships” are political (showbiz related) or short-term (sexual) or small-talk-based and patently disposable; he says Wie gehts? to the Lebanese guy at the magazine kiosk on the way home every day after shopping or what not and counts that as some kind of friendship. He has buddies like Noland and Ollie he can go for months without seeing or thinking about. It’s a mysterious process, how two grown men become friends, real friends, in that compulsive way they were once able to as boys, bonding and splitting and bonding anew like molecules in hot water… what are the factors… where do these last little droplets of boyish enthusiasm come from, this late in the game? Salter thinks he can feel it happening.

“You want to go get a coffee now?”

“Yes now. Now. Why not? Out in the great wide open.”

“Sit in a café with some coffee and do what?”

“I talk, you listen. Stuff like that.”

“Will you talk about writing?”

“Inadvertently, yes. Let’s ride, man. Bring that box of old photographs with you. Come on… let’s go.”

Salter sits on the U-Bahn with the shoebox of photographic heirlooms on his lap. Nixon opines wryly that he couldn’t help noticing that half of the young girls they passed on the way sneaked discreet or bold looks at Salter and he wondered if such chronic sexual attention was responsible for Salter’s… no offence intended… borderline illiteracy. This is how a man becomes a mere footnote, ignorant of itself.

One fucking book in your whole flat, man… I counted. One. And that was a paperback with a picture of King Kong on the cover! It’s a wonder you can spell your name! Not that I’ve seen evidence that you can. Can you?

Are you saying that books make you smarter, frowns Salter.

Nixon says that reading doesn’t automatically increase one’s I.Q… raw intelligence is inherited at birth and activated, probably, during infancy by sensual stimulus: sights and sounds, mostly, but also touch; maybe certain smells and tastes, too… maybe certain smells even foster intelligence but that’s just conjecture. But reading a higher kind of literature with disciplined regularity definitely shapes the mind and focuses intellectual potential and spurs the mind’s will to express itself and this self-expression contributes to social standing. Intelligence incapable of self-expression is almost useless in broader society (though handy on a desert island, where the solitary challenges of survival might favor the introvert)… an intellectual gift incapable of self-expression is like millions in paper currency issued by a deposed government… the best you can do with the money is keep warm or make a little light by simply burning it.

In a way, Salter feels, that’s what he did with his native gift of intelligence… used it for kindling… simply because he’s never put the time into polishing it into something…

“…capable of impressing people?” asks Nixon, sardonically.

Salter shrugs. “Well, yeah. That’s what it’s all about, no? Anyway…” Salter shrugs. “It’s a tragedy, that’s all.”

Nixon says “Yes, but… dig: if we can agree on the classical definition of a tragedy as being an avoidable error that ends instructionally in a death… is being a Negro in this world really a tragedy, as you might consider it, or merely a catastrophe, like an earthquake?”

Nixon says, “Okay, another helpful hint about writing: deploy your exclamation marks sparingly.”

Nixon says: the word “maudlin” comes from the Italian pronunciation of “Magdalene”, but you already knew that.

The train fills up at the next stop. Nixon stares hard across the aisle at Salter and says, “Ever notice how when the train is packed people are all smushed together on these long seats but then the train empties out but the person sitting next to you doesn’t exploit the newly available seat space but remains smushed next to you for several more stops? Germans are the only people I ever saw do that. I call it mandatory intimacy. A distant cousin of rape.” The red-cheeked Hausfrau at that moment sitting tight-up against Nixon with a bag in her lap sniffs diffidently.

The next station, a middle-aged beggar with a dog gets on, rattling a cup systematically up one side of the aisle and back the other. Nixon cups his hands around his mouth, highlighting his snaggling teeth, and stage-whispers, “Pssst. Ever notice the peculiar air of piety that some Germans affect when they beg? Like Shtetl Jews. Brilliant mimics these Germans.” He feigns frowning, intrigued, and adds, “How many Shtetls can you name? Let’s see, there’s Chortkiv, and Berdychiv and DrohobychPinsk… don’t forget Pinsk…”

Pretty girls get on and off the train in great numbers as they stop in station after station because it’s lunch hour at school and Nixon smirks with an I-told-you-so smirk as a considerable percentage pay Salter attention… staring and giggling from their seats or waving as they cross in front of him or strap-hanging in a swoon in groups. Nixon makes a joke, a loud joke, about being Salter’s manager and anyone interested in fifteen minutes with the stud will can purchase tickets from him, group rate or singles, but the girls’ English isn’t quite good enough to get the joke. Salter says, “Man, how long have you been in Berlin? Don’t you speak German yet?” and Nixon says he isn’t a collector of knick-knacks.

There’s that wreck of an Irish drunk who’s been busking on this line for ten years now, beating his three-stringed guitar and keening with the guttural wail of the Derry dead, authentic as hell and stinking of piss, his body and his guitar long-survived by his voice. Salter remembered when this feller was young and merely drunk all the time but not ruined: full of gab, doing Berlin on a lark, probably. But now he seems likely to die. The first really cruel winter will do it. Bloated baggy face like something fished out of the drink. Surprising full head of Dylan Thomas hair, though.

And then a perfect vision of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen enters the train, galvanizing the wagon. You’ve never seen anything like it. Salter had seen it before… every true Berliner has… they call it The Phantom of Line Seven and it talks like an old woman with a piping, chirping, sarcastic voice. It could be a mass hallucination but only some seem to see it or find it shocking… about a third of the passengers glance up without reacting and go back to their crossword puzzles or paperback romances. The rest of the wagon is horrified. One kid points, another kid cries. A chubby French tourist’s mouth gapes behind splayed fingers. Here comes skully-head in a red knit cap and knobby bone arms and legs in a bright orange ski vest over stripeless pyjamas and improvised tape and rags and feet swaddled in metallic duct tape-and-foam-made shoes… shambling on a crutch with sallow translucent skin and a skull grin. The grim reaper is homeless. It hands out printed material and begs for donations… a penny will do… it shambles in those duct-tape slippers, wobbling on the crutch, looking both impossible and exasperated.

It shuffles up the subway aisle in its improvised Easter raiment of foil-and-tape with its skull smirk and says, in German, “No no, don’t worry, no need to shrink from my nearness as I approach, you can’t catch it, it’s not a disease, I am not a filthy homosexual or intravenous drug user suffering for my sins… contact with my words is definitely more dangerous to you than contact with the beautiful tissue of my flesh! For pennies you can read my latest tract!” It waves a sheaf of pamphlets (white and black printing on red paper) over its head.

“Believe me, if I could do my work without ever walking among you, I would, but then, what would you have to stare at? Who would give you your best bad dreams? No, despite the fact that I have many other things to do with my time, ladies and gentlemen, I will never let you down, I will haunt you, in fact, so to speak, and bring my message to you, since I can’t really count on you coming to me in order to get it. In other words, this is a serious relationship, and in any serious relationship, serious talk is of the utmost importance.”

It breaks stride as it approaches Salter and gives him a strangely ambivalent look, making eye contact for long enough to make Salter hold his breath. A swarthy youth with monk-like facial hair and a matching hood across the aisle gestures for a copy and it senses the gesture and turns to him. Pleased, The Phantom hands him a tract, pockets three pennies and then continues towards the end of the wagon, intoning,

“In these wonderful writings that cost even less than water, what do you find? You find the truth! Well, what is the truth worth to you? This most weighty of philosophical questions, I’m sorry to say, you must answer for yourselves in the few seconds left before this train pulls into the next station! Before you make that decision, ask yourselves if the creature you see before you, the like of which you have never seen before in this world, would appear to you at such a vast expense of will and energy for the sake of small talk?”

The train pulls into the next station, the doors pop open and the skeleton clatters off. The swarthy young man with the monk-like facial hair, bent over the pamphlet he has purchased, reads something that causes him to chuckle and nod vociferously. There are fellow passengers who now fret that they’ve passed up a bargain, but Salter himself is sure that he doesn’t care to know.

“There it goes,” says Nixon, with a jerk of his chin. “The Phantom of Line Seven.”

“First time I saw her,” says Salter, talking towards Nixon but looking at the skeleton’s back as it shuffles along the platform, “Maybe ten, twelve years ago. I wouldn’t have given her a year to live. Damn if she isn’t still going strong. Probably outlive both of us. Being homeless can make you tough, I guess.”

“On the other hand,” adds Nixon, not as softly as Salter, “I’ve heard a very intriguing rumor that… he isn’t homeless at all.”

“He?”

“Indeed, my man. I’ve heard from more than one source that it’s not an old woman suffering from AIDs but rather a middle aged fiend named Stephan who hates his well-to-do parents with such a pathological passion that he has developed an awe-inspiring eating disorder to shame them. Possibly suffering from a time-delayed, sympathetic guilt reaction to…” Nixon winks. “You-know-what.”

The U-Bahn surfaces at some point after Kurfurstenstrasse and mounts a banked track on a brontosaurian curve into the low sky over the river. They see Potsdamerplatz in the distance, rebuilt and garish, a neo-expressionist Oz. On the other side of the train, in the other distance, away from the sun, a black water tower looms like sinister Victoriana under the warm clouds over Kreuzberg. The train rocks to and fro. Nixon, in a voluble mood, rubs his hands together and says, “Man, I’m starving. You’re paying, right?”

There are block-long prison-gray housing complexes, and lots of stray dogs, and little girls in headscarves, and incomprehensible billboards, and ten year old boys with faint mustaches. Many of the housing blocks sprout dozens of satellite television dishes like inverted mushrooms tracking invisible suns. There are bakeries selling aromatic wheels of fladenbrot and fast-food joints hawking kebabs and falafel and schwarma and carbonated milk product beverages and lottery tickets promising windfalls in obscure currencies.

Walking up the street towards the place that he has in mind, Nixon says, out of the blue, as if in response to a remark Salter just made although they’ve both been silent for a quarter of an hour at least, “North American Negroes aren’t even a race, man, they’re a product… you were created, you were bred, you were a product designed to meet a specific demand. Created, perfected, marketed, shipped and sold. How are you not a product? Designed originally for back-breaking physical labor you are now used chiefly for entertainment. You know: sex, sports, buffoonery. Yo, my man, let me ask you a pertinent question,” says Nixon, chewing his mustache.

“What?”

“Isn’t there anything I can say to offend you?”

“Doubt it.”

“You don’t mind me trying, though, do you?”

Salter laughs. “Nope.”

“That’s what I like about you, Ishmael. Fucking imperturbable.”

They are at a corner diagonally across the street from a café displaying a red neon cursive in the window glowing softly with the hopeful message Morgenland in the intermittent daylight. Black chunks of ejecta from unclogged sinks in the sky are sliced by sunbeams. Directly behind them is a dimly lit storefront with half-drawn shades and white-bearded Turks in homely blazers and some also in skull caps, playing cards at various tables under roiling gray arabesques moored to the tips of two dozen Camel Filters and a handful of cheap cigars. Nixon reaches out and grabs Salter’s belt loop to prevent him crossing the street and…puts the other hand on the knob of the door behind him with its thick dark beveled glass. He says, “What we are about to do here is walk into this Turkish social club… men only… and take a seat at a table like there’s nothing queer about it whatsoever, dig? I’ve done it before. They think I’m just a crazy gringo and you… you look like some kinda of Muslim, so as long as you keep your voice low we’ll be fine, trust me. It’ll be an experience, Ishmael.”

“Okay. But there’s just one thing,” says Salter.

“What?”

“Don’t call me Ishmael.”

Nixon winks and looks truly pleased with himself but Salter isn’t in on the joke.

4. Chocolate Chicken Theory

It smells like a combination of Salter’s grandmother’s pantry and ringside after a fight, there in the Turkish Male Social Club. Onions, stale smoke, dry rot and supermarket cologne. There is a splintery wooden counter and a large television bolted to a metal arm extended from a wall and mildewed wallpaper with a stained pattern of fleur-de-lis and racehorses. Behind the splintery counter is a florid man with a yellowing Gurdjieffian mustache under a proportional nose and jet-black hair, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, his scalded hands on the counter and his black black eyes glued to Nixon and Salter as they creep across the room like mice. On the high television young men kick and prance on eternal grass through eternal fussball games with unmediated facial expressions, sound off. There are only three widely-scattered round tables in the room that remain not surrounded by groups of three or four men playing card games such as Dost kazigi or Okey or Maca kizi. Nixon chooses the empty round table furthest from the others in a corner behind a coat rack with the non-sequitur of a woman’s yarny pink hat hung on it, at the window. The window is velvety with grime. The carpet feels scratchy even through the thick soles of Salter’s shoes.

There are framed photographs of a man resembling a long-haired Stalin in sun glasses nailed here and there to the wallpaper. Lots of men with sleek gray Omar Shariff hair here; lots of Elvis happening as well. Weren’t those two in a movie together once? Salter and Nixon sit at their wobbly table, and Nixon makes sure to sit in such a way that he’s facing the rest of the room and Salter’s back is to it. Nixon’s eyes dart to and fro. Salter places his box of photographs in the middle of the table.

Gurdjieff tosses a dishrag and comes from behind his counter…looking very much shorter than he’d appeared to be behind it… and stands facing Salter and Nixon with his hands on his hips and a deferential tilt of his head. He is wearing an immaculate white apron. Nixon raises a hand in greeting and says, with comedic emphasis, “Biftek!” and when Gurdjieff looks inquisitively at Salter, Nixon says “Biftek!” again. Giurdjieff looks at Nixon and Salter in turn repeating, softly, “Biftek.” Byifftyikk, byifftyikk. Nixon says “Oui, mon ami! Biftek!” and off Gurdjieff goes.

Nixon leans back in his chair. “I just ordered you a steak with my High School French. Most Turks speak a little and respect you more if you use it instead of German or English. Do you dig chocolate cake?”

Salter admits that he does.

“What is chocolate cake made of? Consider. You probably never baked one, but you, like I, have osmotic knowledge of a chocolate cake’s ingredients the way we both know the plot of Moby Dick in a vague way… flour, eggs, butter, chocolate.”

Salter shrugs.

“Can’t really make a chocolate cake without eggs, can we? Eggs give the cake that spongy, springy richness that we North American gluttons prize. But those eggs in the cake are chickens, remember…everything of importance in a chicken is already present in the egg. So we take these liquid chicken ova and mix them with powdered plant sperm and incubate it and call it a cake! If you think about this while eating your next chocolate cake I guarantee you’ll detect the flavor of chicken… what is a chocolate cake but a chocolate chicken? You see? Chocolate cake as we know it didn’t become chocolate cake until about a hundred and fifty years after it was first invented…by then it was a celebrity and the reality was irrelevant; it became chicken-free the way Lauren Bacall became Goyish. We don’t taste the chicken in the cake because we don’t want to anymore… we have consensus and voila: the modern, chicken-free flavor of chocolate cake… see?”

Salter confesses to not seeing. Nixon tries another tack.

“For about six months, once, when I lived in San Diego,” and here Nixon lowers his voice appreciably, glancing nervously around the room, “I was a Jew. I had just moved there from Philly… ”

“You lived in Philly?”

“Yeah, but let me finish this parable first. Nobody knew me in San Diego and I decided to try life as a Jew and bingo, I was a Jew. It was easy! Not only did people treat me better as a Jew, but it was incredibly easy to get them to accept this lie. Know why? Because they wanted it to be true all along. They wanted me to be a Jew… I got that question in grammar school all the time… I was always the smartest kid anywhere I went and I was funny looking by their standards… scrawny and dark and balding by the time I was old enough to drive… they always asked me, are you Jewish? They didn’t want me in their gene pool. That’s how they wanted to explain me away: Jew. They were uncomfortable with me otherwise. So I finally decided to try to become what they always wanted me to be when I moved out to San Diego… I was richly rewarded for giving them what they wanted. Let me tell you.”

“Where in Philly?”

“Hold your horses. First girlfriend I’d had since High School I got by masquerading as a Jew. She’d never been with a Jew before. Yesterday’s insults are tomorrow’s compliments! First time she goes to blow me she asks me how come I’m not circumcised. Because I am a non-practicing Jew, honey, I explain. She wasn’t bad looking! She was really rather cute! Name of Gretchen Hunt… daughter of well-to-do Republican bigots from Ohio. Escaped to California to be an actress, thought San Diego was so much nicer than L.A. and conveniently located only ninety minutes away from Hollywood by car… might as well have been in Alaska as far as her career was concerned… ended up a career waitress with a severe credit card problem she cured by dabbling in porno but oh well. What’s this beautiful girl doing sucking my cock, I used to think, with my Yarmulke tilted rakishly athwart my noggin. By the way, the root of Yarmulke is a Turkish word that means rain bonnet.”

Nixon did a Burlesquely Yiddish shrug and said “I pretend to be a Jew and suddenly I’m getting things I never had… a good job, a pretty All American girlfriend, and a bunch of All American buddies who slapped me on the back and called me bud when we talked about the sports on the tellervision. I really liked being called bud… the weird conflation of derision and acceptance the word embodies is a uniquely American gesture, baby. It was heaven for about six months until I couldn’t take it anymore and fled town and never pretended to be a Jew again.”

“Did you know the part of Philly called Germantown?”

“We’ll get to that! Jesus! Where was I? Oh yeah: I discontinued the Jew Act. Not that I’d forsworn fakery as a practice. Far from it. In fact, I decided to up the ante. I skipped my lease and jumped a Greyhound bus to Minneapolis… from the palm trees and beach bunnies and perfect year-round median temperature of 77.5 degrees Fahrenheit to…Minnesota! The dick-snapping winters of the tundra! Lived and worked there for four years. Counselor at an Urban Youth Center. And just try to guess what I decided to be? Guess what sector of the American rainbow I chose to tap, despite the fact that I wasn’t quite hung for the role? Black.”

Gurdjieff is standing before them with a wooden serving tray upon which sizzle two large plates of bloody steak… cut into squares. Each square with a tooth pick in it. A very Tartar-like snack. Attila the Hun stuff. Gurdjieff gestures with his eyes that someone should move that box off the table and he slides the plates off the tray and bows out. Nixon says Merci. Salter is chuckling as he reaches for his first cube of steak.

“Black.”

“That’s right. Black. Well, an Octoroon, actually. Of course. Got me the foxiest black girlfriend you ever wanted to see, too… her name was… Johnny Rose. Put Pam Grier to shame, honey. Ever come in an Afro? Not on it… in it! Ah! Like fucking a Nerf Ball. Johnny Rose! Where are you now? My, that’s rare. Does blood make you squeamish? The Tarters ate raw beef. Turkish-Mongol tribe, of course. Did they even cook this… ?”

Salter likes it there in the clubby gloom of the Social Club; this is one of those rare places where Time stands still. Is it possible that it’s impossible for Time to stand still for men in the presence of women and therefore the informal ban? The girly pink hat on the coat rack is like the drop of black added to a gallon of white paint to make the white paint seem whiter, for this is the most masculine ambiance that Salter has ever dared to soak up. Every few minutes a muted cheer rises around the room in general (fussball) or at specific tables (cards) but at no time does anyone but Gurdjieff pay any attention to the interlopers. Salter is in fact amazed that no one oozes an odor of hatred or anger their way, especially considering the global hostilities between one of the three major desert-based faiths on Earth and the other two.

“Hold on now, Nixie… rewind. An Octoroon… in Minneapolis.”

“Yes Sir. An Octoroon. I figured,” swallow, “as a swarthy white I’m near the bottom of the barrel, n’est ce pas, but as a pale-skinned black I’m an aristocrat. Claimed that my roots were Creole. Toothless black winos started calling me Professor Longhair with affection when I’d stroll by in the ‘hood. Are you familiar with Minneapolis? Let’s have a look at those now.” Chewing lustily, Nixon gestures for Salter’s box of old photographs.

Salter pushes it towards him and Nixon wipes his trembling hands (and even he is impressed at his own prodigious powers of invention! What has inspired him to lie so fluently, so outrageously, and with such instinctive accuracy? An Octoroon? Professor Longhair? ) on his t-shirt before opening the box. Salter says, portentously, “The ancestors. My grandmother Moose… she was part Cherokee…she’d say that our blood… was a flow of many rivers…”

Nixon says “Okay, now don’t give me any shit about your great great granny being able to conjure spirits or heal the sick or fry chicken without even using oil or whatnot, okay? I’m too clear-minded for that stuff.” Winking, he pushes his plate aside and spreads a few of the mothwing-fragile photos on the table like tarot cards, studying each very carefully as he lays it in a grid on the table, a finger at his temple, his tongue between his teeth. He feels like a vampire (“Strigoi! Strigoi!”) … a literary Nosferatu about to feed on the thick warm blood of Salter’s own story. He is very hungry. He experiences the fleeting, condescending guilt that a vampire might experience, but it is overridden by his terrible hunger.

“Tell me about… this one,” says Nixon.

5. The Dinner Party

“Ach, schade, I thought you might be Stephan.”

As Brigitte von Bredow stands smiling in the doorway, it strikes Salter what a brilliant and shameless pimp is Elke. Brigitte is wearing a velveteen choker and a low-cut semi-transparent blouse and spray-on jeans and silver stiletto heels. The effect. Her nipples are dark blurs floating in the Monet of the blouse. Noblesse oblige. There Salter stands in his steel-grey suit, attempting head-cocked belligerent unselfconscious black American class defiance on the threshold, in possession of not even a proper invitation from the hosts plus clownishly attired and doubly not-invited Nixon beside him, but the woman is patently unfazed. She gives Salter the up-and-down as though she’s checking the reality against Elke’s particularly glowing product description and delighted to find a very close match. She wants to touch that deliciously black bald head; crush it between her nutcracking thighs.

Salter hears dinner party clink-and-chatter behind the skinny bleached wind-sharpened countess. Or duchess or baroness whatever she is. Hair pulled tight in an equestrienne’s S&M pony tail. She smiles… beams… and ushers them both in with a flourish, betraying only the scantest modicum of disdain for Nixon in the brevity with which her gaze engages his image, calling out to her husband the duke or the count or whatever to set another two places at the table because this is Berlin aristocracy and the only servants they can claim are a poker-faced cleaning woman who comes in every Saturday morning and the building’s arthritic concierge who seems to spend half his life in their master bathroom with a bucket and a wrench, and she lays a hand on Salter’s arm and lightly squeezes his biceps.

Salter sniffs in Brigitte’s wake and glances at Nixon who makes some kind of Italian gesture of loose-wristed appreciation. She is faintly but movingly redolent of the kind and class and rarity of scent that civets and lemurs and various endangered species indigenous to Zanzibar get tossed on a bloody heap sans musk gland for. The elders of the antediluvian ghetto of Salter’s childhood would have referred to the countess dismissively as a chicken wing.

The entrance to the building was impressive compared to the entrance of Salter’s building and to general standards in Germany but nothing, of course, compared to intimidating foyers of New York or London. There wasn’t even a doorman or an elevator operator or a hindrance against walking right into the building of any kind but there was a red-carpeted, grandly curving staircase that reminded Salter of a visit he once made to a brothel. Mahogany banister, cracked plaster nymphs and grape vines impressed in the time-stained walls and a half ton of chandelier hung about thirty feet over the 19th century marble tiles which are troughed and warped and boot-worn by the glaciation of traffic. Salter took to the stairs rather than be stuck in close quarters with bad-breathed Nixon in the minuscule elevator and Nixon trailed up the staircase behind him, composing an ad hoc commentary with a radio commentator’s late night spooky velvet.

“Ever higher ascends the conquering hero, this supreme black figure of a brother man, unbowed by history’s ambivalence, unheralded yet irresistible, a swaggering cocksman with total penile recall of every glistening kootchie he has had occasion to lovingly distress with ample girth and indefatigable brio… attended by his valet, his faithful page, his clownishly attired Sancho Panza, the ambulatory brain the hero himself never had… yet never fully needed… higher and higher the bourgeois staircase they mount. Even as our hero grows weary of his sidekick’s self-consciousness-motivated burlesque of this earth-shaking occasion, the side-kick evinces a highly compressed…” and here Nixon paused on the stairs and winced, “… fart… to articulate his churlish disdain…”

“Nixie,” chided Salter. “Hush, man.” He rang the bell and there she stood.

The hallway leading to the wardrobe and then the dining room is a gallery of scores of black and white photos of the count and countess’s world travels. What do these pictures…of Brigitte in front of a tasseled elephant in wherever country it is that tasseled elephants live, or svelte bisexual Sebastian posing in a wide brimmed hat in front of some gorge or other… what do they say beyond that these people can afford the price of travel? Despite whatever else it is that these pictures are straining so hard to say. Brigitte and Sebastian in stylish matching outfits, leaning with rifle-caressing Masai on the flank of a muddy Land Rover. Brigitte topless and goggled and up to her waist in the Amazon. Salter and Nixon scan these and other pictures as they follow the slinky Brigitte down the very long hall. It’s as though the pictures are there specifically to irritate all visitors; to give them something to hate the hosts for in order to spice up the dinner a little; hate them for ageless good looks or affluence or global fluidity. When in fact you end up hating them for being crassly show-offy and letting you down by not behaving like your cherished age-old fantasy of wealth which is restrained, attenuated, bloodless and aloof. When did rich people start acting like poor people with money, wondered Salter. Probably soon after they started watching television. And then being on it.

Brigitte swings double doors open and the dining room is brilliant and mellow with silver details and polished wood and fat candles grandly crusted with time’s minute excreta. The banquet table is an Olympic swimming pool of polished mahogany and festooned with six basilica-scale candelabra and it is many meters long. Nine people, not counting Brigitte, are already seated at it, the first truly intimidating thing Salter has seen since entering the building. He can feel Nixon’s crisis of confidence flare up behind him in the form of Nixon pressing close as Brigitte introduces the two of them to the seated guests. Salter can feel Nixon’s fearful breath heating his shoulder. Nixon wants to be a puppy cringing behind Salter’s boot at this moment. There are times when being freakishly smart is no more of a defense than walking into battle with the original copy of the Magna Carta as a shield and this is one of them. Behind Brigitte’s empty seat at the far end of the table roars a fire in a baronial hearth that Nixon tries to calm himself by imagining taking a leak into but his hot breaths on Salter’s shoulder accelerate as Brigitte claps and says,

“Everyone! Please.” She points. “A dear friend of Elke’s. Elke is late as usual,” polite tittering, “and here also we have the friend of the friend. But everyone is welcome. That is our motto.” She takes Salter by the hand and leads him towards a spot that has been cleared adjacent to her queenly seat and says, “One of those annoying traditions of dinner parties, I’m afraid. Always split up guests who arrive as a couple,” more tittering. “It facilitates the most fascinating conversation. No one leaves one of our soirees without learning something or someone new.”

Nixon sits timidly between the otherworldy Sylver Goldin to his left and a florid, well-dressed, pot-bellied man who resembles a 19th century British food critic… even appears to be wearing some kind of medal on a tri-color ribbon around his neck. Or, no. The Master, Henry James, is what he resembles. Pretending this puts Nixon somewhat at his ease. Goldin says, to no one in particular, “I know this black man from somewhere,” as Salter glides the length of the other side of the very long table being tugged possessively along by the countess.

Nixon can only hope that this will end up being one of those upper-class German dinner parties that will devolve after much pseudo-intellectual chatter into an absinthe-fueled orgy but who might he pair up with in that case? The last one of those type things he was invited to, he just kind of skittered pantless around the throbbing periphery, trying wherever he might to assert/insert himself and ending up with mixed (possibly ancient and homosexual but definitely shit-tipped) results. Important to stake the claim on a likely female early. It will have to be a female who is homely enough, of course. He’d prefer a slender body and an asymmetrical or overweight face to the obverse, if he is able to choose. Then he spots the woman seated across from him whose main physical defects appear to be a highly visible mustache and a continuous gull wing eyebrow paralleling it and Nixon says to himself aha.

It isn’t until Salter takes his seat to Brigitte’s left, across from a stern blond bearded gentleman who doesn’t seem pleased with Salter’s arrival at all, that he gets a good look at the other guests around the table and discovers, at the far end, in a white turtle-neck and wire-rimmed glasses, looking appropriate indeed, Cough.

Cough glances away from the conversation he’s deep into and gives Salter the discreetest of acknowledging glances. Perhaps he’s not at this dinner in a professional capacity and noticing Salter too heartily will give both of them away. Still, Salter finds the sight of Cough sitting there a mind-spinning thing. It grants Cough too much of a backstory, too much of an inner life, too much validity, being seen out of context like this. Salter had bumped into him at the Zand-Zee Bar recently, but that’s to be expected… a drug dealer at a trendy bar. That’s only good business. But in attendance and completely at ease at this upper class dinner party, wearing wire-rim glasses and striking the pose of a deep thinker with a finger on his lips and one eyebrow raised?

Cough knows Brigitte and Sebastian… Gitte and Sebby… through Siegfried von Stummfeldt, a former client. Cough is interested in Art, suddenly… interested in becoming an Art Dealer (from Drug Dealer to Art Dealer is the distance of a handful of letters) and Gitte and Sebby have suggested that he attend this dinner party in order to make the acquaintance of the blonde fellow with the beard seated opposite Salter, who has connections both in Real Estate and the Art World. Cough wants to use his painstakingly accreted drug money to ease into an only slightly more legitimate business.

The blonde fellow with the beard, glaring at Salter as though Salter is the culprit in the foolishness he’s about to describe, continuing a conversation that Salter’s arrival interrupted, says, “People see a photo of Jack Kennedy playing touch football with his rapacious brother Bobby on the White House lawn and they think they know everything there is to know about the golden Kennedy. Mention bootlegging or Mary Jo Kopechne and you’re some kind of what… communist.”

“Paul,” says Sylver Goldin, with a smoked chuckle, “you are not up-to-date with your name-calling, darling. What American gets called a communist any more? That is precisely as damaging as calling someone a rascal.”

He smiles with disgust, “The only information that sticks with the masses is information that comes with an emotional charge. They only learn it if it frightens them, excites them sexually, or makes them cry. The cinema is the true classroom of the Republic. Take…”

Salter interjects: “Are you from Boston?”

“Yes sir, I am.” The bearded blonde Bostonian turns to Goldin again and says, “It’s ridiculous. Take…”

She chides him, “But why get excited about it?” and turns to Salter and smiles coaxingly, dropping her voice, “I am certain I know you from somewhere.”

The bearded blonde rubs his eyes and says, with great weariness, “Take Gandhi…”

Nixon, rediscovering his nerve, says, leaning shaggily across Sylver Goldin’s lap, “Gandhi, exactly. The greatest possible disjoint between image and reality. Gandhi the icon of brotherhood and good-living versus Gandhi the… gung-ho Sargeant-Major in the South African…”

“Yes yes, you see? The old hypocrite was a motivated participant in the Zulu slaughter when the Bambatta Rebellion broke out! A loyal citizen of South Africa for over twenty years and supported not only Apartheid as a practice but its philosophical underpinnings as well! And yet the… the…”

“Theatre-going public… “ adds Nixon with perfectly judged sarcasm.

Brigitte is explaining the Tuareg ceremonial dagger everyone finds on the innermost right of the serving plate, after the beverage spoon and salad knife, exactly where the dinner knife should be. She notes that the daggers are over a century old (and have most likely performed the task well they were designed to perform) and are identifiable by their straight, double-edged blades decorated with incised geometrical patterns, the hilts of which are still protected from the tarnishing force of acidic Tuareg sweat by the original woven leather. She indicates the knob-like shapes at the end of each handle and explains that they’re called the pommel, and winks that any meat that can’t easily be cut by these knives should not be eaten.

The bearded blonde smiles for the first time since Salter sat down across from him. Then he laughs with a hand on his chin. “I do hope the ghastly things are sanitary, Gitte,” he quips.

Henry James, seated beside Nixon and until now silent, says, with a heavily Germanized Etonian accent, “I must say, Paul, until you just now mentioned it, I was as ignorant on the matter as our Theatre-going brethren.”

Nixon says, using a voice that Salter has never heard him use before, “But Ben Kingsley as Gandhi is so adorable.”

“One can remember when wearing a suit and tie to the cinema was de rigeur,” sniffs Henry James.

Paul nods and lifts a finger, “Let me tell you, Mohandas K. Gandhi makes me look like a bloody secular humanist in comparison… ” everyone titters, “yet… ”

“Come now, Paul,” chimes Sylver Goldin, “we all know that you like to indulge in a bit of kaffir flogging from time to time,” and there is much merriment. Brigitte is smiling with Queenly beneficence as the conversation surges and flares. Henry James claps in an oh-goody way. “I say, this is jolly fun. Knocking plaster saints off their department store plinths. Who else can we debunk at?”

The ugly woman across from Nixon bounces in her seat and says “Marlene Dietrich!” and is ignored. Nixon finds her aura of extraneity and isolation extremely fetching. He wonders if she’s a poor relation and tries repeatedly to catch her eye. Voices lower and go local as the conversation shatters gently into intimate cells. Henry James nods at Paul Whittington and says, “Dickens.” Sylver Goldin leans towards Salter and frowns.

“I think it will drive me crazy.”

“People always think they recognize me from somewhere else.”

“Lovable old Charles Dickens, creator of Oliver Twist and defender of the poor… hated blacks. Abhorred them.”

“Was it on television, possibly? Are you an actor?”

“You’re referring to him being under Carlyle’s influence, of course.”

Salter says no, he’s not an actor.

“Am I overstating the case?” asks Henry James, blushing.

You are not an actor perhaps but you are as pretty as one.

Cough, at the other end of the table, exchanges a smirk with Sebastian as they watch gender-non-plussed Sylver Goldin spin her/his web. They can’t hear what she’s saying but the coy inclination of her head along with the pouty extrusion of her lips says everything. They watch Salter grin bashfully in response: a little black boy and an old white witch. Did his parents never warn him?

“Ah,” says Sebastian wistfully, “but to have a schwanz of that size to work with…”

When the food comes, the first course on a massive rattling trolley illuminated by candles like a birthday and grandiosely gleam-domed as a model Saint Petersburg that Brigitte herself wheels out, the whole room ooohs and ahhhs.

“The dirty little secret,” confides Henry James to Nixon, hugging himself and smiling at the food as it is ladled and tonged, “Is that there was a time when we were truly in control of them and now we are not.” Now vee ah naught. He passes a plate of food to his immediate right. “We’re long overdue what you’d call a revolution… ” he passes another plate, “.. .our only salvation being the happy fact that the Proletariat have become such fat no-hopers in the interval, they… are these sweet potatoes? I had my first sweet potato in Manhattan, the year Ballanchine died. May I ask where you were educated, Mr. Prescott?”

The front door bell gongs again and Brigitte hops up from the table, twisting up out of her seat, giddy and young-seeming. She says, to no one in particular, in German, “maybe it is Stephan!” She hurries to the door. Salter listens as she makes a girly fuss in the hallway, greeting some key arrival who is not, unfortunately, Stephan. In fact it’s the Nigerian supermodel Sadie Olubodun, spectacular, unprecedented, in blood-red furs, trailed closely by the artist Simon Kahn-Meyers in a tweed suit looking very much like Santa Claus in the courtroom scene from Miracle on 34th Street. Henry James is squinting at Paul Whittington and counting on his fingers.

“Let’s see, there was Firbank’s Prancing Nigger… ”

“And Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven. People have forgotten about… ”

“And the Nigger of the Narcissus, of course. And even e.e. cummings’s Jean le Negre. And Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians… ”

“Was originally called Ten Little Niggers, I know.”

Whittington chuckles with his chin on his chest and adds, very quietly, “Of course, only a liberal who doubts his own motives is afraid of telling them but a joke is a joke and some of them happen to be damn funny. I am quite proudly part-Scots on my mother’s side and believe you me, no one laughs harder at a skin-flint Scots joke than I do. What does any right-thinking person have to fear in telling a joke, after all? Surely we’ve come so far in the past fifty years… ” He leans in towards Sylver and says, with an impishly dimpled leer, “What’s the difference between a winter tire and an African American?”

Sylver’s eyelids go heavy with anticipatory relish.

“The tire doesn’t start singing the blues when you strap a chain around him… ”

“Dear friends,” announces Brigitte, with a clap, “Good news. Frankie and Georgette, our young guests who are so very talented, will make us so very lucky tonight with a tribute to Billie Holiday… ”

Salter is so intent on staring at Sadie that he doesn’t notice the skinny sideburned German in a striped waistcoat fetch a guitar case from under the table. The skinny guitarist stands dutifully, for Brigitte has commanded it, and so does his fleshy blonde companion; they stand on opposite sides of the table, making solemn eye contact; and after the guitarist plays a stiff little Django-derivative filigree with his veiny red hands the singer (with a carnation behind one ear) performs a swooping, adenoidal travesty of God Bless the Chile, improving on the original in her German version’s strict sounding of the terminal “d” in child and repairing the contraction in “who’s”, exchanging it pedantically with “who has.” Who has got its own; God bless the CHILD who has got its own. The “the” still sounds like “ze”, however.

The cherubically fleshy singer rolls her eyes, fish-lips her mouth, gestures indolently and slouches pathetically. Rather than be enraged, Salter feels pure bliss. He chews in synchrony with crude-oil-black Sadie sheathed in red furs who chews in synchrony with him and he raises his wine glass in an understated toast to her and she acknowledges it by putting her delicious beaky red parrot lips to her own glass and smiling with halved-eyes as she eases one slow swallow down, implying that the wine is Salter. He enjoys that. And the murmur of chatter and clink and clank of cutlery and the noded nimbus of steamed candle light and the ludicrous, well-meant music.

Simon is stewing in his seat across from Cough. He’s too far from Sadie to hiss something subtle at her across the table but not too far to watch her making fuck-eyes and pouty fellatic moues at someone at the other end of the table. He could throttle her.He doesn’t expect her to be faithful… after all she’s already cheating on the man she lives with by being here with Simon at all… but does she have to humiliate him in this room full of poncey Bosch snobs? Simon’s eyes dart around the table to assess the number of people possibly noticing the cuckolding he’s being subjected to and Cough catches Simon’s eye and says, aiming his voice in a robust stage whisper across the table under the hollow moan of the singing emanating from the spot beside him, “Excuse me, but aren’t you Simon Kahn-Meyers?”

“Indeed I am.” Aren’t you Simon Kahn-Meyers, the mediocre artist, being cruelly made a fool of by your much-younger African wench?

“Mr. Meyers! My god, it’s all I can do to keep myself from cadging an autograph! I’ve studied your work, I have. Feel free to laugh at my ignorance if I’m wrong here but I’ve always considered you to be both the cure for and the missing link between chronic British over-reactors like Hirst and empty American irony as embodied by Koons…”

“I wouldn’t call that ig… ”

Sebastian, at the head of the table, shusshes Simon loudly and points at the singer and Simon finishes the sentences in a whisper, “… ignorant at all!”

Whittington, with his hand carressingly light on Sylver’s bony knee in designer jeans squeezes it and says, “What’s the difference between an African American male and a pizza?”

Sylver squirms.

“A pizza can feed a family of four.”

Again the doorbell. Brigitte gestures that the musicians should forge ahead towards a grandiose, tin-eared climax without interruption and tosses her napkin on her plate and hurries with a gratified smile towards the front hall. When Brigitte returns not with “Stephan” but three other late guests instead it is to a round of applause that she swings open the huge black lacquered double doors of the dining room; applause for God Bless ze CHILD; but the four who stand suddenly in the doorway, backlit dramatically and bringing with them a sardonic little gust of chill wind like a ghostly pet, take the tribute for their own and each appropriates the praise in a way that befits his or her personality… smiling or smirking or squinting or frowning. Making the grand entrance beside Brigitte von Bredow are Siegfried von Stummfeldt and Sebastian’s older brother Luddy and Luddy’s wife Bobbi.

Bobbi gives the room a cursory smile and wave and sees Salter sitting there with his gleaming dark bald head and square jaw and heroic shoulders in a steel-gray suit that amplifies the sheer impact of his darkness and she feels a drop of interior moisture forming. Brigitte seats Luddy between Sadie and Henry James on the one side of the table and Siegfried to the guitarist’s right and Bobbi beside Siegfried on Salter’s side. Between Sadie and Luddy is a blank spot. Between Salter and Bobbi are two blank spots and the ugly woman Nixon was previously flirting with. Nixon, diagonally across from Bobbi, is now, however, stunned by her fine-boned and somehow strange beauty and encouraged by her age… the drawstring wrinkles around her mouth. His relative youth (plus his prodigious loquacity) might give him an advantage. When the orgy breaks out, he will make a beeline for her, for Bobbi, old and pretty as she is. Simon is thinking: this knowledgeable young man has saved the evening; who cares what that air-headed black slut gets up to now? I’m being appreciated.

Siegfried has passed around a large portfolio of his work-in-progress The Brotherhood Project. Each large, black and white print in the portfolio shows a German ‘model’, a girl with the profile of Elvis Presley, dressed up like the Statue of Liberty and on her knees, holding her torch aloft while sucking the penises of various naked black men. Some of the black men grimace and others laugh. Everyone around the table takes the portfolio and pages through it for a polite amount of time and passes it on.

“Everyone,” says Brigitte, clapping once. But before she can announce whatever she is about to announce, the doorbell rings again and again Brigitte skips to the door like a child. And finally her anticipatory enthusiasm is rewarded. She shrieks with delight: Stephan Schwartzwald has finally arrived. Nothing will ever be the same. Paul Wittington forks a morsel off of Sylver Goldin’s plate and into his mouth and whispers, chewing, What are three things you can’t give to a nigger?

A black eye, a fat lip, and a job…

What Brigitte fetches back into the room with her resembles nothing more than a tall, soft white spider in a Saville Row suit and a jaunty Borsalino. A scowling skull in a Borsalino hat. Salter, Sadie, Simon and Cough all gasp as one, but the others… the Germans and the Bostonian… all wave or smile and or exclaim “Stephan!” Henry James inclines most subtly towards Nixon and says “Richer than God… “ and Nixon, who has seen something like this in a dream, or while musing in the depths of a desolate night at his typewriter, haunted by failure and self-revulsion… merely raises his eyebrows and watches the creature make its way around the table, doffing its hat once, to take its place in the seat between Sadie and Luddy von Bredow. Luddy grins with secret, ferocious irony as he exchanges a soft greeting with the creature, who nods a subtle acknowledgement, but Sadie stiffens as though a huge bleached insect has fallen from the ceiling into her soup with a complacent plop.

Jesus Christ, thinks Salter, it’s the Phantom of Line 7! Salter, Sadie, Nixon and Cough have all suffered simultaneous and catastrophic losses of appetite. The rich and/or Germans in the room seem not only unfazed but delighted… invigorated and self-conscious in the presence of the rarest wealth and fame. “Why, Stephan Schwartzwald, you old rake!” exclaims Henry James. “What news do you bring from your illustrious travels, sir?”

“Rome wasn’t built in a day but it burned down in an hour,” retorts Schwartzwald, glancing at Sadie, to his immediate right, with contempt, before turning his gaze inwards to the seat he has settled on with a soft clatter of limbs. He scoots in closer to the table with a pained effort. “I hope you all haven’t waited on me before having your little dinners,” he says. “I’ve come this late on purpose to spare you all the lurid spectacle of watching me eat.”

“Stephan,” says Brigitte, with a doting grin, “what on earth are you talking about?”

Stephan looks from face to face, pointedly ignoring both Sadie and Salter. “Certain gustatory strategies I’ve developed of late. A refinement of the process.” He closes his eyes and smiles like a man rebuking a pain. “Not for the faint-hearted, I’m afraid.”

“Stephan,” says Brigitte, with a strained, forbearing smile, doing her best not to take offense, “who says any of us are faint hearted?” She gestures for Sebastian to bring Stephan some dinner.

A plate of paper-thin, bloody-rare strips of venison in orange sauce and capers, balanced with a circle of caramelized spring potatoes and garnished with symmetrical sprigs of mint, is placed before Schwartzwald, who pats his vest pockets. He finds what he’s looking for…a clear plastic vial of coarse white granules… and asks for a glass of water, a mid-sized stone or earthenware bowl and a drinking straw.

“What is death by old age,” asks Stephan, in his reedy, asexual, piping voice, “but a matter of the stored energy available in the body being less than the crucial threshold required to power the vital organs? It’s a simple matter of book keeping. By conserving energy where possible,” he continues, holding up the vial, “we extend and even double or triple our lifespans. This,” he says, indicating the substance in the vial, “is a digestive regent. And this,” he says, as the requested bowl is fetched and placed beside his dinner plate, “is tonight’s stomach. I picked up this technique, you see, in Buenos Aires… my tutor a learned physician who was well over one hundred and fifty years old himself and looked not a day over seventy.” The expressions of fascination evident around the dinner table vastly outnumber those of revulsion or horror.

“Ingenious,” exclaims Henry James, “… external digestion…”

“But doesn’t…” interjects Sebastian, “… wouldn’t the chewing itself… ?”

“Waste my precious energy? Indeed it would. This is why you would remark, at a very fine dinner party, in Buenos Aires, given by people not unlike our dear friends Gitte and Sebby, but much much older, of course… at these parties imagine, say, ten invited guests at the table. And beside each invited guest, a beautiful and very clean young woman… ideally not older than twenty… ”

Schwartzwald turns to his right and addresses the plump young singer sitting on the other side of his immediate neighbor, Sadie. “You’re young, yes? Very young. And you don’t suffer, I imagine, from either gum disease or an excess of calcium in your saliva? No colds or symptoms of hepatitis?” Schwartzwald then trains his gaze on Sadie, who vacates her seat without having to be asked. The singer takes Sadie’s place. Schwartzwald gives her a grave look and, after removing the pink plastic straw, slides the earthenware bowl in front of her.

.

Ginger and Birdy

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1. Ginger, Ollie, Inisha and Kim

Ginger has a late lunch/early dinner meeting with Ollie, Ollie Daumen, an executive from Heart Cell Records. The task at hand is only obliquely related to music. All they are doing is looking at photographs. On the table in front of Ginger is a thick sheaf of prints.

They are having lunch in Chez Guevara, on Alte Schonehauser Allee, where the waitresses are twice as pretty as the food is good, and the food is ten times better than the service, except for the breakfasts. The breakfasts are equal to the service. The waitresses are all wearing berets. More than once, as Ginger sits there with Ollie, songs with which he has had something to do warble at them from the low-key speakers over the bar. I repudiate you, he thinks, each time. One, especially, sung by a kid from Munich with the most irritating voice since Alvin and the Chipmunks, makes him very nearly physically ill.

Ollie is younger than Ginger but looks older. He has a jowly face, rough with perpetual stubble, under a sexy boy haircut. Everyone at the record company envies Ollie’s hair. You can tell, because they all make fun of it. His nickname at the company is Duran Duran. His eyes have the secretive twinkle of a sherry-tippling grandmother’s. It was Ollie to whom Ginger once explained, during a punishingly long recording session with a talent-free German rap act that had to be rushed out to market a week before Christmas, the German national character versus the American national character as exemplified in Dusty Springfield’s two versions of the Bacharach/David song “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” her German cover of which was called “Warten und Hoffen.”

Now, in the American version of this elegant Jane Austenesque pearl of ‘60s era romanticism, the chorus is: Wishin’, and hopin’, and thinkin’, and prayin’, plannin’ and dreamin’ each night of his charms… that won’t get you into his arms. In other words, it is a call to action…it advocates aggressive measures in a carpe diem sort of way. If you want some attention from the dreamed-of love object, girl, you best go get him…don’t sit around on your sumptuous ass in the rumpus room just sighing. Do something about it. Whereas the German version of the chorus states the exact opposite. It advises the listener: Nur warten und hoffen und hoffen und warten, Sehnen und träumen, Tag aus und tag ein, Dann bist du bald nicht mehr allein… Just waiting  and hoping and hoping and waiting, longing and dreaming, day out and day in, then soon you won’t be alone anymore

“You see, Ollie? Right there is the key…”

“Oh, come on!”

“…it’s the whole fucking problem with your country! You’re always Warten und Hoffen…”

“Like there are no problems with America!”

“…you’re a bunch of day-dreamers, baby. A bunch of talkers and planners…”

“A bunch of thinkers, perhaps, yes. Yes, we Germans think before we do… whereas you Americans tend to shoot before you think…” Ollie had then mimed aiming, Oswald-like, a rifle at Ginger from the other end of the control room sofa and pulling the trigger.

The material they have in front of them has been distilled from sixty rolls of film. There is a black girl (not really black, but half-German and half-African), an Asian girl (of Japanese descent, but with bleached-blonde hair, born in Berlin), and one very white girl, tall, striking, with enamel-blue eyes and blue-black waist-long hair. Together they are going to be known as “Q-Teez,” and Ginger is being asked to write the songs for their first record. The photos range from class-picture cute to insincerely Sapphic; it is Ginger’s general opinion that if you’re going to photograph girls kissing each other, they should be given a few days to practice first.

“I like the way this one looks,” he says, “…even though she needs a new hair style,” sliding a photo of the tall one, dressed like a Geisha but leaning across a motorcycle, back across the table towards Ollie, “…but the other two look like truck-stop chippies. How old is she?” Ginger taps a photo of the “black” one.

“We’re claiming… I don’t know. What do you think? Seventeen?”

“She doesn’t look a day under twenty one. And I’d say very near to celebrating her twenty third.”

Ollie salutes him. “Good guess.”

“And the Japanese girl looks like a transvestite. Why is she wearing a scarf around her neck in every picture?” He strokes his Adam’s apple. “How big are her hands?”

Ollie shrugs. “These three tested the best together.”

“Which one can sing?”

“Yumi. The Japanese.”

Ginger taps a picture of the tall one again. “Too bad it’s not her.”

“Couldn’t sing with a gun to her head and a canary in her mouth and… Tom Jones as her biological father.”

“Don’t tell me the black girl is the dancer…”

“Okay, I won’t tell you.” Another Ollie shrug. Ollie has honed his shrug, over the years, into a tapered, elegant tool of detachment. “There is a reason that stereotypes are stereotypes.”

The look that had been decided on is sporty casual, plus incongruous accessories of glamour (running suits and diamond necklaces, say)… Ollie and Ginger put the photos away and they decide to order. Before Chez Guevara, the in-place had been right up the street: The PsycheDeli. Ginger is sorry that The PsycheDeli is no longer “hip,” because the food there is still much better, and he eats there whenever it isn’t important, meaning, whenever he is alone, simply for the pleasure of the food and the atmosphere. A hundred years ago (or so it seemed), when Ginger had a wife, they would go to The PsycheDeli for pepper cheese cake, or bagel/ice cream sandwiches, and lounge on the terrace out back, finger-feeding each other and making an afternoon of it.

It is the late lunch rush, and Chez Guevara is full of faux film producers, out of work actors, and the spoiled sons of Zehlendorf (Berlin suburb) with their tier-3 model girlfriends, along with a handful of very well dressed but solo gray-at-the-temples nobodies who are leering around the room and eating their hearts out. Ginger has four shots of Elke, the tallest Q-T, fanned out in front of him like Tarot cards: The Queen of Pentacles; The Tower: The Virgin; Death.

“She’s definitely the sexiest.”

“And the biggest bitch to work with.”

Viva la Resistance.”

“You won’t think it’s so funny when you’re in the studio with her.”

“I’m not afraid of a little controversy.”

“You know Udo? The photographer?”

They’ve been sitting there almost an hour already when their waitress shows up, asking if they require menus, or if they know what they want already. Ollie orders a capirinia and a rum-and-coke, and a plate of little sandwiches, to start with. She almost leaves before Ginger can order, assuming that Ollie’s drinks are for both of them.

“Udo said something about Kiery…the black one…the one with the huge boobs? That she needed to loose a little weight? That’s all. You need to lose a kilo or two, honey. Yes? Kiery was fine with it, she’s a sweetheart and a real pro, but this Elke…”

“Uh oh.”

“She says, ‘look at you!‘ To Udo! In front of everyone! She says, ‘You’re fat and old and bald and you’ve got the nerve to criticize us?’

“Good for her.”

“Hey, Udo thought it was pretty funny. He tells her, ‘Honey, I’m not the one having my picture taken,’ and she replies, ‘Damn right you aren’t.'”

“I bet Udo was careful what he said to her after that.”

“He didn’t refuse to work with them again, he only let it be known that he would be charging more the next time. So, she’s already costing us money. Even Willie’s afraid of her! Personally, I think it was a mistake. To cast her, I mean. There’s plenty of subservient little blow-job artistes out there who would kill for this opportunity, no? So, why this one?” He counts on his fingers. “One, she’s too tall…she’s a head taller than the other two. They look like her children in some of these pictures. Two, she has a big attitude. Attitude is something you should only get with a gold record.  Three, she can’t fucking sing and she can’t fucking dance, right? So what is she doing there?”

Ginger gently removes a creased photo of her (faking a karate kick at the camera) from Ollie’s grip. “Because she’s the one you can’t take your eyes off of.”

Ollie leans across the table. With a low voice and that grandmotherly twinkle in his eye he corrects Ginger. “Because she’s the one Willie can’t take his schwanz out of.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Shitting you? There’s no equivalent for that phrase in the German language, sir.” Ollie leans back in his chair again and runs his fingers through his thick blonde hi-lighted hair and wipes a hand down his grandmotherly face and the waitress comes with their provision of drinks.

“When I first started working for Willie,” Ginger reminisces, sipping his Tom Collins, “I assumed Willie was doing that boy… what was his name? Top ten record five years ago? Had a big hit called fools in paradise? Looks a little like…”

“Captain Jax.”

“Yeah, him. I assumed he was…”

“He was.”

“With Willie.”

“Without a doubt.”

“So Willie Gold likes Redskins and Yankees.”

“Huh?”

“Boys and girls.”

“Willie likes anything that’s half his age, minus ten. That’s the formula.” Ollie poured a rum and coke through his smile. “Half his age minus ten. I worked it out.”

“Glad I’m not his wife.”

“Tell me, what is it you pity most about her? Her life of unimaginable luxury, or the fact that she hasn’t had to touch Willie’s willy in thirty years?”

“So this Elke is nineteen.”

“That’s what she claims.”

There is an attention-getting Turkish girl sitting at a table on a diagonal from them that Ollie has positioned his chair… otherwise his back was to her… in order to see. She is laughing at something that her female dinner date has said and Ollie’s mouth is open in a sympathetic response, holding his glass like he is about to spit his heart into it.

The Turkish girl has toothpick arms (silky with dark hair) and breasts like…breasts. Not deformity-large, these breasts, but wonderfully useful-looking. Wearing a short beige low-cut dress she is darker than, with her hair in a thick braid that could be a high-tension cable. Like a lot of girls who end up on television, she is so pretty that she is very nearly ugly… eyes too big, jawline so narrow it’s extraterrestrial, neck impossibly long. They would probably laugh at her in Ankara. Ollie, meanwhile, is projecting future events on the canvas of her terracotta skin… his blink rate is dangerously slow… Ginger isn’t even sure if Ollie’s heart is still beating.

Ginger clears his throat and says “How’s Kim?”

“Kim?”

“Your wife.”

“My wife?”

“The female that you…”

“Ooops, I forgot: you’re American. Don’t ask don’t tell, right?” He winks and speaks softly. “Kim is fine. She reads a lot of classics these days… Kant, Goethe, Nietzsche. Very impressive. She’s in bed all day with a stack of books on one side and a box of chocolates on the other. She says she wants to improve her German. But who does she want to improve her German for, I ask myself. Is she having an affair with a seventy year old professor of Philosophy at Humboldt University? But no, she can’t be, because even professors of Philosophy prefer skinny young students to middle-aged wives who are getting fatter every day.” He finishes his drink. “Don’t look so uncomfortable. And how is your beautiful German wife? Oops, I forgot, you’re divorced, she hates your guts and you haven’t spoken in years. May I please go back to staring at the Turkish girl again?”

“She’s certainly worth your tawdry dick.”

Ollie nods at her when he catches her eye. “That she is. Ever fuck around on Birdy, when you two were married?”

“Often.”

“Ever hate yourself for it?”

Ginger pauses before answering. “Sure.”

“Liar.”

“Maybe Kim’s depressed,” Ginger offers. Ollie snorts. Ginger thinks: that’s the worst thing about the Unhappy… the funniest, sometimes, too. They can never seem to imagine the suffering of others.

“Excuse me for one moment, please,” says Ollie.

He gets up and saunters to the girls’ table with his hands in his pockets, a move that will call attention to his beautifully tailored suit, and he stands there, his back to Ginger, rocking on his heels. The Turkish girl’s dinner date, a chubby blonde (it isn’t poor fat, but rich fat) in a backless dress with a waist-long ponytail (fake), smiles over her shoulder at Ginger. She lifts her wine glass in a pantomime toast and mouths some big-voweled words he can’t make out. There is lipstick on her capped teeth.

Ollie’s wife Kim came over to Berlin on the same boat that Ginger did, so to speak. He saw her around town quite a lot back then, in all the expat clubs, a sweet-faced little woman in outlandish platform shoes who developed a reputation for being somewhat of a fag-hag. This was years before Ollie even knew that black doesn’t rub off with a rag. Ginger heard he met Kim at a party that featured a German professional Michael Jackson imitator who later performed at their wedding.

Marrying Kim may have temporarily alienated his parents, but it changed Ollie’s career forever: a German record exec with a black American wife gains knowledge and experience overnight; he shines with the quasi-authentic gleam of reflected soul. Ollie became super-credible and his higher-ups at Heart Cell began to behave as though he suddenly knew what he was talking about. His marrying black, a calculated move or not, benefited him musically in much the same way that Sammy Davis Jr.’s conversion to Judaism about 50 years prior had benefited him;  in any case, it only really mattered to insiders. Ollie started getting the jobs…  signing groups, matching the singer with the single, executive-producing albums. So what if his black wife Kim is about as funky as the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Ollie brings the two girls, Inisha (accent on the first syllable), the Turkish one, and Petra, the blonde, back to his and Ginger’s table, dragging their chairs for them. Inisha Ozgören, born and raised in Munich, of pure Turkish descent, is first of all German, however. This is clear in her posture, the angular disposition of her neck, the way she purses her lips when speaking. Her posture is quite regal.

“Petra, Ginger, Inisha, Ginger. Ginger, I’ve been explaining to the girls,” he says, spinning his chair around and sitting in it backwards, “that we could use a little expert opinion over here. Otherwise, it’s gonna be a long long night.” He winks at Ginger, and Ginger winks back. Ginger finds it extremely amusing, as usual, that they are all speaking English. The girls speak English with an English accent. Ollie gestures at the promo stills of Q-Teez that are fanned across the table and says, to their guests, “So what do you think? Be brutally honest.”

He winks at Ginger again. “Market research.”

“She’s attractive,” says cherub-faced Petra, dismissively, ruddy-cheeked with wine, smirking at a photo of Kiery. Before this, Ginger had no particular feeling about this light-skinned black girl, Kiery, but now he feels protective of her. He remembers Ollie saying that Udo the photographer had warned her in front of everyone that she needed to lose weight, and that Kiery had taken the criticism cheerfully, and it makes him want to hug her.

Inisha picks up another photo of Kiery wearing an evening gown and motorcycle boots and she squints at it, biting her lip. It seems to Ginger that sensing a sudden opportunity has sobered her; she begins thinking very hard. “This one looks a bit butch, I think,” continues Petra, with a giggle, indicating Yumi. Petra’s counterfeit of an Oxford accent is flawless.

“Inisha, don’t you agree with Petra that Kiery is attractive?” asks Ollie.

“And this one,” adds Petra, raising her eyebrows, indicating Elke. “Rather arrogant, I’d say. Too skinny. I don’t find her one bit….”

Ollie cuts in. “But I’m still interested in Inisha’s opinion…”

His persistence is comically nightmarish; he is pushing at something, shouldering a door, forcing it, until it gives way. He is too drunk to see that the door isn’t even locked.  “Don’t be shy,” he is saying. Let it go, Ginger is thinking. He suddenly hates all the drunks in the room. All the horny old men; all the hard-eyed daughters of pragmatism. He wants to go home, eat a snack, read a magazine and masturbate, but Ollie is holding the afternoon hostage. They can’t leave the table until his demands are met.

Inisha shrugs and smiles helplessly. She is thinking, and telegraphing the thought, that this other dark girl in the photograph is cute, yes… but… certainly no better looking than Inisha herself, who is bound by good manners to keep this opinion to herself. Thank her good upbringing. Ginger glances at his watch. Ollie nods at Ginger gravely, as though he is still meant to take both Ollie and the conversation seriously, and Ollie is drumming on the table with pensive fingers, concluding, “Something tells me that our Inisha doesn’t quite agree.”

Ginger wants to say: who gives a fuck?

“It’s obvious,” Ginger says, to tease everyone, “that Inisha doesn’t care for this pop music nonsense, Ollie. Give the girl some credit for having a brain! Why don’t we talk about something interesting for a change?” Ginger gathers up the promo shots as though to put them away, yanking two from Petra’s fat fingers. He says, “Ollie and I were discussing Nietzsche earlier. One of Ollie’s best friends is an expert on Nietzsche. Her name is Kim, right, Ollie? Kim something, I forget her last name. Ollie, what is it you told me that Kim was saying about Nietzsche? Something about…”

“You have the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen on a man,” says Inisha suddenly, turning to Ollie, ignoring Ginger utterly, “may I touch it?”

He bends sideways towards her and gives her his head like a puppy, like a lamb, resting with a sigh on her bosom, and she clutches at his yellow hair with her graceful hands with a yelp of delight. Ginger ignores this, leafing through the stack of photos. He says, for the sake of saying something, gesturing at a photo of Elke, “Is this her natural hair color?”

“What?” Ollie is in an awkward position from which to see the photos, being as his head is wedged in Inisha’s cappuccino bosom.

“This girl, Elke. Is black her natural color?”

Ollie sits up. Inisha, Ginger notices, manages to keep a hand on Ollie. Ollie is no Fred Astaire, but to an Ausländer female he is a rare commodity: an upper class German with a glamorous job who doesn’t mind flirting with a foreigner. Being Turkish, there is no way in Hell this girl is going to give him a sliver of pussy without an engagement ring, reflects Ginger, which means that poor Kim, his wife, will have to go, even if Ollie doesn’t actually end up proposing to Inisha. Ginger thinks all this in the time it takes for Ollie to reach into the inner pocket of his blazer and extract a credit-card-sized digital camera. Scrolling through shots, he finally finds what he is looking for. He hands Ginger the camera. “It’s a wig,” Ollie says.

Ginger is shocked: he is looking at a pre-makeup, pre-wardrobe photo of a pretty blonde… and he recognizes her. “This is Elke?”

Ollie nods. “I like her better in the black wig. She’s kinda boring as a blonde. I mean: a blonde in Germany… what a concept.” Ollie reaches for his camera. “As a blonde she looks like a fucking… hooker. Which is…”

“Exactly what she is,” says Ginger.

2. Ginger, Birdy, Cough

When Ollie settled the bill and all four left Chez Guevara together, he took Ginger aside, and tickled his ear with his lips, like a drunk will do, whispering, “Sure you don’t want to join us?” and “Don’t forget: I’m with you for the next two hours. Call me tomorrow.” He tossed his car keys to Inisha.

Inisha and Petra had a six room flat in Stieglitz, and that’s where Ollie intended to spend the time he’d be pretending to spend with Ginger. But Ginger is a bad alibi, because he’s friends with Ollie’s wife Kim and Kim knows that Ginger is clean these days and rarely even touches red wine…his party days are over… but last minute infidelities always have a slapdash air about them that prove that the perpetrators want, most of all, to be caught. Ginger could picture poor Kim at three in the morning, woofing down a large pizza with everything on it, blinking at the television, waiting for the sound of Ollie’s key in the front door key hole. Ollie will tiptoe over the threshold, flooding the flat with pussy, hoping that Kim is asleep. Ollie’s infidelity was Kim’s punishment for getting fat, and Kim’s getting fat was Ollie’s punishment for not loving her any more, and Ollie’s not loving Kim anymore was Kim’s punishment for being human and needy and simply there…and Ollie’s ever loving Kim in the first place was his parent’s punishment for god knows what. And so on, back to the beginning of time.

Ginger, waving, walking up the street as Ollie’s car peels off towards the bloated late afternoon sun, can remember another instance, years back… this is almost a déjà vu… during which Ollie had contrived to leave Chez Guevara with a woman other than his wife with the identical monomaniacal intention of doing childishly naked, tenderly violent things for an hour or two before slithering home. That time, Ginger had been rather drunk, or drugged up, or something more characteristic for a musician than the sober introspection he is rehabilitating his reputation with these days. There had been lots of back-slapping, and mirthless hilarity, he remembers. It was late at night, or rather, an early Tuesday morning, when he found himself on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, he could remember, because he’d thought, with bemused alarm, when the party was in full swing, This is a little much for a Monday evening, eh?

“You sure you don’t want to join us?” Ollie had whispered, just as now, only in that case the girl (Thai) was giggling and climbing into the driver’s side of Ollie’s Porsche. The German Pop Economy had been much healthier then. Then, as now, Ginger had declined the offer, not that he hadn’t felt righteously tempted. His wife (Ginger was then married to a striking blonde he called Birdy) was not doing her duty in the conjugal arena… and who could’ve blamed him for getting elsewhere what wasn’t forthcoming at home? Was Ginger ready to bury his dick along with all the other pleasures of his receding youth? But, in this case, the available girl just wasn’t his cup of tea. Unlike his wife, who was his cup of tea until she went too cold and bitter for reasons he swears are unknown.

That first time Ollie said You sure you don’t want to join us?, Ginger had declined the offer to join the debauch and waved Ollie and Ollie’s new friend off and he walked a long walk through a cold-boiling fog that smelled like an old hat and swirled like curtains parting to absorb Ollie’s Porsche. Ginger remembers: it was early in the year. February, perhaps. There were still Christmas lights strung through bare-branched trees in postures of agony along the way, seams of gold in the translucent rock of the fog, and the view was magical, especially as he approached the massive black baroque bridge over the river on Friedrichstrasse, which he could never cross without thinking of sex.

Birdy and he used to call it the Fucking the Enemie bridge, because it had been spray-painted with that slogan, in neon orange, solecism included, by skinheads during a Mayday parade right after the Wall came down. The bridge became a big part of the jargon of their private mythology. Ginger would call her and say, “Meet me at Fucking the Enemie…”

Or she’d start a story with: “I was walking across Fucking the Enemie this morning…”

The graffito had long-since been removed, but not the memory. It was very quiet, the walk home that night after getting too drunk with Ollie. Standing on that bridge on that warm night in February, he had just recently begun to become what he felt was middle-aged and he was thinking of his inward-collapsing marriage, and his Unca Jerry, strangely… his great-Uncle Jerry Miller, who had put dreams of Europe in his head long before he even knew what a Big Apple was. Back when Ginger was a free-ranging waif in Chicago. Ginger’s mom had been Jerry’s confidante (Unca Jerry was the family hair stylist… he’d cut your hair and psychoanalyze you at the same time), and, years later, he tried it with Ginger, but Ginger was too young and Unca Jerry was far too old to confide in anyone. But he liked telling stories, and Ginger, as a fatherless kid, would do. He was the perfect audience, in fact.

“Germany was like a nasty drunk. The drink was power. By the time I got there, the war was over…it was like the aftermath of a wild party… some were sheepish, some were defiant. You had to be careful. It’s not common knowledge, but a lot of Americans got killed over there in the so-called peacetime… had their throats cut, or got lynched… white trash getting lynched! Army kept it quiet. See, they didn’t want popular opinion back home to turn against American involvement.” And Ginger would say, tell me about the German girls again, Unca Jerry!

Ginger hugged himself in the fog, and gulls were floating in linked spirals over a rusty barge that was moored to the far bank, stacked with tires. Another barge, upriver, came chugging from under the torn blanket of the fog. Before reaching the bridge, he had passed the Friedrichpalast, a relic from the Communist era. The Friedrichpalast was East Berlin’s version of Carnegie Hall, and he was recalling times that he and Birdy, in the raw fever of early courtship, had picnicked with candles on its steps in the dead of night. Being within walking distance of her flat it was a favorite spot, back before this neighborhood became chic; before, even, it was entirely safe.

It looked like Brooklyn, when the skinheads hadn’t yet been shoved by rent increases and snooty cafes deeper into the crumbling East. You’d see them swaggering out of the grocery store with their jumbo provisions of beer every morning, as fit and uniformed as any army, in jackboots and stove pipe jeans and suspenders, running in large groups to catch the tram, marching towards Prenz’lberg for a football game. What was frightening sometimes was how good looking some of them were…you could see them eliciting the secret sympathies of working-class Germans; the hero worship of children. The “skinhead” brand had enormous name recognition. Skinheads seemed to take strength from the liberal disgust heaped on them; they had the advantage of being underdogs. This area was still dilapidated enough in those days to feel like home for the scruffy arm of fascism, so Birdy and Ginger had to be alert, they had to be watchful, discreet about holding hands, because they were on their turf.

You had to be careful. It’s not common knowledge…

It was about as safe or unsafe for Ginger as living in Harlem would have been. The skinheads weren’t always necessarily looking for trouble, but they were also the least likely to miss an opportunity to send an arrogant American to the hospital. Birdy had a weird apparent compassion for them that made her even more attractive to him, at first, because she claimed to see them as a species of wild animal being robbed of its habitat by the necessary evil of encroaching development.

“Soon,” she would say, “they will have nowhere to go.”

“Except to school,” Ginger would answer.

She liked his contentiousness, he liked what he first assumed was her compassion; they’d picnic at midnight and fuck in broad daylight in isolated corners of various city parks. Her sexuality was magical, it was manic, she came to Ginger after he’d suffered through a string of detached lovers and her obsession with the basic biology at the core of the act was a revelation. She’d accompany Ginger pantyless, in a short skirt, to matinee movies that nobody wanted to see, documentaries about the DDR, and sit on his lap facing the screen, skirt hiked up, grinding her narrow hips between the armrests, and it was like fucking the narrow gap in a crowded elevator’s closing door, ripping his dick off going down. She didn’t like oral, she had no patience with anal, she never once gave him a hand job…mostly because all of these techniques represent profligate wastes of semen.

She warned him, from the beginning, that she wanted to get pregnant. They didn’t have to think about it, they didn’t have to try…but she wouldn’t work to prevent it, either. If it happens, it happens, she would say, but I’m hoping it will. Every time we screw, screw as though you’re stuffing a baby in me. Screw as though your DNA really means it, ja? He liked how she pronounced it: skvoo.

“Look at that,” Birdy would gasp, pretending to be shocked, her hand over her mouth. “Flaming elephant trunk! Bring it to me!”

She wasn’t on the pill, and she threw all his condoms away the first night he slept over, rifling through his travel bag. “I’ll raise the offspring on my own if you don’t want this,” she’d announce, climbing off of him afterwards, cupping her pussy with both hands, careful not to spill a drop. “But no more abortions, that’s clear.”

The first night they picnicked on the steps of the Friedrichpalast, she summed up her romantic history for him with a shrug, crunching a carrot and staring sadly at his lap: “Three boyfriends, three abortions.” What she didn’t say was that two of the abortions had been with one particular boy, the dangerous one preceding him, with whom she’d had the longest and most intense relationship: an “intelligent” skinhead, ten years her junior, named Frank.

Ginger got the facts six months into their relationship, when they were talking seriously about getting married. They were both 35.  He confessed that he had dabbled in drugs once, long long ago (not true), and she confessed… that she had been deeply in love with a Neo-Nazi, not so very long ago at all. They had been together several years, Ginger’s Birdy and her small-town Fascist. Certain elements of that philosophy, she shrugged, are only common sense

Ginger was shocked, but undeterred. The simple fact is that she was the prettiest woman he’d ever been with; she looked like something out of a jewelry box. Her limbs were fragile and smooth, her hair was wavy moonlight, her skin was frost on a windowpane. He could see the blue veins pulse in her opal breasts when he sucked them. She was translucent; she made him feel darker, stronger, when she straddled him, her hair pouring down on his face.

“Jews own all of this,” she’d sigh, nodding at the Ku’damm, West Berlin’s equivalent of State Street, and Ginger would laugh at her, pointing out the absurdity. Birdy hated Israel and Turks and Slavs, but found anything American impossibly cool. He therefore saw himself as her patient reformer. “Oh God, these Gypsies, breeding like rats,” she’d sneer, clutching him as though for protection when they were approached by concertina-playing children on the U-Bahn. So Ginger would make a point of correcting her by giving the little beggars money, and calling them cute. No stranger is stranger than an early self, the self you were ten years ago; no mockery or disappointment more crushing, either, probably, than if the old and new you could meet. Beggars with concertinas get nothing but glares from the new Ginger. About that perhaps Birdy was right. But the rest?

Ginger didn’t think about any of Birdy’s “issues” at the time, of course…all he cared about was being in love, and fucking about four times a day, and dreaming out loud with his girl…she of the eyebrows so blonde that they couldn’t be seen unless you were kissing her… dreaming out loud about their future children… their raucous brood. They married in a civil ceremony at the Bezirksamt Prenzlauerberg; each of them brought a witness that neither of them knew; afterwards they paid the two off and went west for ice cream. He baptized her Berthe Neudorffer Green with a dollop of rum raisin on her forehead. “My uncle probably crossed this very bridge fifty years ago,” he told Birdy, as they walked back home across the Fucking the Enemie bridge that evening, “isn’t that weird? How life repeats itself? Like a loop.” And every repetition adds a layer of irony. They moved into his flat on Kantstrasse.

“Deeper! Deeper!” she’d gasp. “Don’t waste a drop!”

There were precursors of Birdy way back in ‘44, watching the Americans roar into town in their muddy jeeps, or striding in a loose phalanx across the bombed-out squares like swains on their way to a country dance, walking with the unrepeatable cool of souls that were soaking with country reels or swing music, milk-fed boys with heavy thighs, clanking with heavy equipment. Unca Jerry had entertained Ginger with his inappropriate stories, about his soldier time, maybe set in Berlin, maybe in Munich, and Ginger could picture him crossing this very bridge on Friedrichstrasse, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, helmet under an arm, chewing his clove-flavored Beekman’s gum and watching a colored platoon marching by in the other direction singing “White Christmas” with ironic gusto, changing “White” to “Weiss”.

It wasn’t until long after Ginger lost his virginity that he finally worked out that all of the tantalizing tales that Unca Jerry told him at bedtime about the hungry long-legged “frauleins” he’d encountered in the roofless clubs and waterless flats of the liberated city had more than probably been kerls, rather: boys named Fritz and Heinz and Bobby. How close “kerls” is to “girls”. In Unca Jerry’s descriptions they always had smart, short “pageboy” haircuts and “dangerous tongues” and waists like writhing serpents. Fucking the enemy: that’s a hard thrill to beat. Standing on that bridge on Friedrichstrasse in the fog, he pretended he could see Unca Jerry down there, hidden with a friend in the shadows, the tunnel echoing with the suck and slap and sighs of dark water. Of all the ghosts Ginger was then dealing with, Unca Jerry was the easiest with which to commune.

A weak-chinned man with a very low hairline and vampire-white skin (well-dressed but in a state of Dionysian disarray: his coat seemed bright and bristling new but for multiple cigarette burns on both sleeves) emerged from the fog and approached Ginger where he stood on the bridge. It was three or four in the morning…the night had boiled its last weak lumens of natural light off and was at its greatest density, the darkest liquid at the bottom of the pot. This was the time of the morning when anyone out in it found his or her self in a perfect position to deliver a soliloquy, alone on stage and clutching Yorrick’s skull, the eerie audience (of who? of what?)  rapt. The slightest gesture would take on great drama…the unexpected addition to the stage of another character could only be greeted with dread.

“American?” the man inquired, with a not very posh British accent. He asked it with a smile that anticipated Ginger’s response with great pleasure. He leaned on the 19th century stone balustrade of the Fucking the Enemie bridge with his back to the water and nodded at Ginger’s curt affirmative. He put a palm on his forehead and said “Christ,” and whistled and marveled, “I’ve been at it all night, mate, and I’m not half knackered. When in Rome, as they say. Do people live in this city, or are we all just thrill-seeking tourists? Tell me, do you live here?”

Again, Ginger nodded.

“Well you’ve got more energy than me, mate, I’ll hand you that. If I did… this… more than a few times a year…”

He looked away, down the road into the fog, laughing. “Oh dear. Dear dear dear. I can read your mind, you know. You’re thinking: what’s this poof on about, right? You’re thinking: here he is, him in his quiff and his fucking New Romantic shoes, about to put that disgusting question to me.” He turned to face Ginger with a grin so huge it was frightening. “Am I right?”

“Listen,” he winked. “Put your mind at ease. Me, I hate queers. No, really, I fucking hate them. I hate them so much… to be honest, my lady is quite puzzled by it all… she calls it my affliction. What do you have against queers, she says, what about Freddie Mercury, she says, you bought A Night at the Opera like everyone else…” he placed his hand on his forehead again, “… ah… but what’s more queer than going on and on about how much you hate queers, is what you’re thinking, right? That’s just your entry level Freud, innit, no news there.”

He took a step towards Ginger and Ginger sobered and straightened up quite suddenly, and he made sure that his height and weight were clear and preemptively threatening but not in a provocative way (situations could escalate very rapidly… violence could strike like lightning… events occur in two seconds that participants regret for years) and he took an involuntary step backwards. But the man was simply handing Ginger a business card and saying, with the sniff of pride of a retired snooker champ now selling Caribbean cruises,  “Barry Coughlin… friends call me Bazza, or Cough… and I’m the best drug dealer you’ll ever have. Take it.”

Ginger found that his wife was awake when he got home, reading Thomas Mann. She didn’t even look up from the page when he entered the bedroom, though she had buttoned her pajamas all the way up to the very last button (does any woman alone in a well-heated apartment button all the buttons of her pajamas?) when she heard him at the front door.  He stripped out of his shoes and coat, hung the coat in the closet and walked down the hall to the bathroom.

Living in a household where children have been wanted badly, but are never possible, is exactly like living in a household where children have died. Or, no, it’s worse, because children who never really existed are more demanding, craftier, make greater claims on us; needy little demons with dangerous access to our imaginations. They can’t be talked away: they don’t even have names. Like the missing who never make the transition to being officially dead, they disturb our sleep, and shame us out of laughing too hard, or too long, or even at all. Not only that, but somebody has to take the never-articulated or vaguely implied blame. The terrible responsibility for un-conceived children he didn’t want with all of his heart in the first place.

When the doctor told her that she was incapable of pregnancy in large part due to an infection she’d suffered as a result of her third abortion, the first thing that happened was  that Ginger’s wife’s interest in sex vanished completely, quite literally overnight. The next thing that happened was she became the missing children, the children they couldn’t have:  several of them, not very lovable, brats and terrors… a petulant one, a cruel one, one who disagrees with everything you fucking want or say or stand for on principle, for the pure pleasure of throwing the battered logic right back in your face. This was hard. They had been married two years when the doctor delivered his verdict: if you ever want children, you will be forced to adopt. There are children in Romanian orphanages… 

The rectangle of little bulbs around the vanity mirror in the bathroom was blinding. There was a circular magnifying mirror on a telescoping arm mounted to the wall to the immediate right of the larger mirror and Ginger could see a big red eye, making its minuscule adjustments, left and right and up and down, taking everything in. Something about the bright light (it was like Florida in that bathroom whenever he wanted it, even on the drearest and Berlinest of days or nights) cheered him up, counter-balancing Birdy’s effect on his will to live. The bathroom door was bolted and he was blinking at his complex reflection, weighing a two ounce baggie of brown flake crystals in his cold right hand. There was a hot-air balloon painted to look like a Restoration-era moon hovering directly over the building at that moment, perfectly symbolic of his predicament, but Ginger had no way of knowing this.

He was thinking: The devil approaches you on a bridge over a polluted river at three in the morning in Berlin and gives you… free of charge… a drug that nobody has ever heard of… and you… what. Take it?

He was thinking: I can crawl off to bed now and lay there, curled up, fetal, my back to her as she reads, a patch of skin on my spine the only point of contact between our bodies, there where my spine will touch her fully clothed ass or thigh, where I will feel myself glowing, and her cold flesh sucking at my desperate, generous heat… and that is our sex life. I can lay there with my useless erection, eyes shut, back to her, enduring it. My torture is her only source of strength. She’s always reading those books. I can lay there to the sound of another page turning. Hatred is healthier than this. I pray for hatred like the crucified pray for death, but it never comes. The closest I can get is sleep. Do I want to sleep?

He wasn’t even sure how to take the drug (shoot it? smoke it? lick it? sniff it? stuff it up his ass in one of Birdy’s suppositories?) but he took it. He chewed a few flakes, sitting on the toilet’s lid, head in his hands, waiting for the kick and within minutes, for the first time in months, he didn’t care. About anything.

And even Unca Jerry, way up there in Heaven, couldn’t see the harm in that.

Gently Flew the Flag

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S was a hippie. She was a hippie about thirty years too late, which is even worse than being a fourth generation punk, in that the punk ethos only needs a little tweak here and an upgrade there to fit right into prevailing attitudes. But “hippie” is deader than “commie”… both are too dead as concepts, in fact, to even work as pejoratives. No one gets jailed or punched or turns red over either of those two words anymore and The Cynic always felt that if S  hadn’t turned hippie at the age of twenty two she would have gone for commie instead. Even more embarrassing: he can easily imagine a future for her in which Jesus will figure prominently.

The Cynic fucked S  nine times when she was eighteen, years before her conversion. This was during his first few months in X (a city on the continent). He was thirty or so and S  was eighteen and he was struck by how clever she was. How quick and sharp with language, even English, which was not her native tongue. She once said to him: “I’m enjoying myself,” and then she looked at him like she’d whiffed a fart and said, “Enjoying myself? What a strange thing to say! Enjoying my… self. How do you enjoy your self?” And he just thought that was the wittiest little moment. And she was good looking, too.

She was freckled, olive-skinned, dark-haired… half-Cuban. She called herself a dancer but that didn’t mean that she got paid for doing it but her body was very nice, if ever-so-slightly short-legged, with the waddling soft ass of a goose. The fifth time The Cynic showed up at the huge flat on Regensburger Strasse that S was sharing with both of her half-sisters, she led him into her bedroom and told him to close his eyes. He did so and over the soft music (Cat Stevens) and the distant bug mutter of traffic and shiny percussive kitchen noises that wafted over the railing of her balcony he heard her unbuckle her jeans. When he opened his eyes there she stood, bottomless, making a ta-da gesture and thrusting her pelvis forward to present her half-Cuban bush which had been shaved by a professional into a thick black crisp kinky heart. A heart-shaped pussy, just for him.

“Surprise! It’s our five day anniversary!”

They somehow lost touch after the ninth intense long-grinding session (both wise enough to quit while ahead) and he only saw her again by accident, four years and one trip to India and one unintentional daughter later.  S and her eight month old Shanti were on the same underground train as The Cynic but in the next wagon and it was only by chance that S  saw The Cynic through the connecting doors that lined up at a certain angle as the train took a very sharp curve. She hurried out of her wagon carrying Shanti in an under-arm hold like twenty pounds of dry catfood and into his wagon at the next stop and that’s when they started it all up again with a passion.

The Cynic had an instant family on his hands. Despite the fact that S   was an unemployed yoga-teaching single mother with a baby who would never in a million years pass for The Cynic’s child. And who no longer lived in the genteel neighborhood he’d first known her in but had moved, upon returning from Rishikesh, to a highrise in a smelly Turkish ghetto in the poorest part of city X.

S  was discreet, at first, with the hippie stuff. Like a circumspect middle-aged transvestite who doesn’t march bravely into the living room wearing his wife’s panties until a few weeks after the wedding, S  rationed her loony pronouncements and under-reasoned theories and impossible folk-certainties with amazing restraint while The Cynic eased into the role of step-daddy. The baby was placid (shell-shocked?) and The Cynic enjoyed taking Shanti out in the backpack while her finely-tuned mother calmed her nerves in the absence of both of them. The Cynic, for his part, enjoyed the responsibility. He loved those little hands tugging his ears while they went for long walks. His secret goal was to have her first words be English. He always carried a little brown ball in his pocket to give to her when she became a squirmy nomad on his back.

“Ball,” he’d say, handing it to her. “Ball.”

The sex with S  was good, if not as good as it had been when she was 18. She was only as yet 22 but some profound inner shift had re-structured the mesh of all her intangible parts. Those inner-gears like interlocking cypher-cogs spelling out so many junk novellas in the fullness of time. It’s funny how The Cynic now thinks of rational thinking as a deeply sexy and even romantic thing. When S  was 18, she was clear-eyed and rational and so avid with her warm skin glowing; her easy mainstream health. Something in the sham metaphysics later (the duped hunger for infinite power) had turned her cold and tired and self-enshrining. But back in the bright day of 18, she’d kneel before The Cynic and nod and slurp with her puffing, sucking cheeks… he’d lift her dark rush of hair and bundle it to the side, balling the mass in his fist, pulling her tight up to his balls, her eyes gazing upwards, a smile in her eyes… it was trivial and profound. In the early innocence of sex, she was thrilled and that was thrilling. She hadn’t yet reached the decadent stage when it rots into little more than a bossy voodoo, powered not by her secret strengths but a man’s obvious weaknesses… using pussy for things like coercing a devotee’s husband to fetch a pizza in the middle of the night at the ashram, for example.

But still, sex between the thirty-four-year old Cynic and the twenty-two-year old S  was worth doing, if infrequent due to baby. The sex was infrequent and less than eureka-grade but there was a new kind of sexiness implied in the set-up, for The Cynic, in a way… this hoary, footprint-in-the-rock attitude to the effect that he was now wealthy in females. The females of his Yurt. That he owned them (sweetly, of course) and now he was some kind of patriarch with his rag-tatter tribe. Gently flew the flag of their minuscule, short-lived nation.

“Ball,” said The Cynic. “B-A-L-L-”

The first day of S’s  bold coming out as an “Esoteric” coincided with The Cynic’s first deeply dubious glance at her, though the glance and the Esoterics were not connected. Not in an obvious sense. The glance of deep dubiety came after an ungaurded moment when The Cynic was persuading himself that he was happier than he’d ever been (nonsense) and asked her, while she wincingly gave suck to her Shanti, “You know what I really loved that time?”

“What?”

“When you. You know.”

The action he mimed was impossible for her to identify.

“When I…?”

“That time.”

“Which time?”

“You shaved… ”

“I shaved?”

“You shaved your… ”

“I shaved my… ?”

“The spot.”

“What spot? My head? My legs? What?”

“No. Your…”

“… my…”

“You know.”

“No I don’t. I don’t know. What are you trying to tell me?”

He took the plunge. “I just thought it was nice the time you… surprised me that time by shaving your pussy that time into the shape of a… ,” and he felt strangely stupid saying this, “… heart for me. That one time.” He suddenly felt mortified, although what he claimed was perfectly true. She made her crinkle-nosed whiffing-a-fart expression.

“I did what?”

“Oh yes.”

“Huh?”

“You shaved it into a heart for me.”

“Are you kidding?”

“No. Why would…”

“Listen. You must be confusing me for somebody else. You’re saying what. I shaved my pussy into a heart? If I did I would have to remember doing it but believe me when I say I don’t so I didn’t. That’s so funny! I wonder what cool chick you’re thinking of? Are you sure you didn’t see that in a movie? Are you sure you didn’t dream it? Do you think I’m a hooker?”

The Cynic gave her the look of deep dubiety. Carefully changing the subject, he said, softly, softly, “Who are those pictures of?” Jerking his chin towards two framed photos on the wall above her head. Shanti was by then limp in her mother’s reluctant arms; everything in the shape and tension of this maternal embrace screamed mitigating factors. Screamed you were a mistake child. Screamed how can I be a mother when I’m still a child myself? Milk-tinted saliva trickled from poor Shanti’s circumflexed mouth. “That kid. Who is that?”

He was referring to the seven framed photos of a dark-haired, big-eyed adolescent that he’d been glancing at for two months around her flat, the frames of various sizes, in gold or black, on the foyer and kitchen nook walls or free-standing on the bathroom and bedroom vanities. He’d vaguely assumed it was her half-brother Pascal. He was only moderately curious. He was only changing the subject to avoid having her catch him staring speechless at her as though she were insane. If she could so easily forget ceremonially shaving her pussy into a heart, what else had she been up to during the intervening four years that would render such a gesture mundanely forgettable by comparison? And who was that kid in all the photos?

She twisted and smiled up at his image beatifically, whispering a quick prayer, and said  “That’s Babaji.” After which The Cynic got the first installment of the spiel she’d been saving to tell him ever since seeing him again by accident on the U-Bahn. Well, you just don’t go to India and live in an Ashram (where she nearly died of malaria; a doctor “tricked” her into taking the Western Medicine that saved her life by alternating her Pyrimeth/sulfadoxine injections with a bitter placebo administered from a coconut shell) for over a year for nothing. After the bulk of the spiel she waited for The Cynic to absorb the psychedelic algebra of her assertions and added, before his mind could cool off:

“Do you know what’s really beautiful about Babaji? Babaji wasn’t born like you and me… he manifested, as a teenager… intact.”

“So, one day, no Babaji, and then… poof. He’s asking for the car keys.”

“Don’t make fun.”

“I won’t.”

“Seriously.”

“I know.”

She handed Shanti over to The Cynic: a reward for his credulity. She re-wrapped her sari and glided with utter knowingness into the filthy kitchen where the dishes ached in petrified shit-green and shit-yellow and blood-brown crusts. Okay, The Cynic thought, carrying the Christ-like body of Shanti in the opposite direction, towards her crib, okay.

He’d seen the crystals and the sari and the candles and incense etc but had assumed that S  was an aesthetic hippie all this time, not a medievalist. Not some bumpkin who might seriously look for important data or late-breaking news in the color of a turd or the shape of a butchered goat’s liver. He’d assumed S  was as much of a hippie when she went barefoot in her sari and Ankh amulet as he was a pimp when he wore his leather pants and that floppy, wide-brimmed hat.

Then again, was he going to let a little ideology break up his beautiful new family? He was thirty four and feeling very old (unaware of the fact that in five years he’d be feeling much younger) and did not want to be alone. Did not want to grow old alone, as far off as old might at that point be. Months went by and he learned to swallow everything. The crystals, the tarot cards, the swear-on-my-mother’s-grave claims of levitation, the infallible testimonies of long range precognition, the weekly meetings of her Geomantic Vibrational Healing Society and the holocausts of dirty dishes that exploded in their wake, the extravagantly expensive half-liter bottles of “energized” water she paid to have delivered twice a week by some guy driving a hand-painted truck when she couldn’t even afford new shoes for Shanti who had kicked the left one out of the stroller when The Cynic took her out for a walk one evening to avoid squabbling over the ludicrousness of the magazine her mother had spent fifteen Euro on just to read the cover article about the significance of the various styles and purposes of the special clothing worn by communities of elves in Germany’s forests…

Then, just as he had adjusted to the new reality, six months into the experiment, when Shanti was fourteen months old and responding to certain words with truly moving flickers of comprehension and bracing herself to invent not only walking but language itself, it all came crashing down. The end of everything started, as these things often do, innocently enough… the end announced itself in a drowsy postprandial chat. The Cynic, in yet another ungaurded moment, said, “See, what I like about our relationship is that we can speak … the truth to each other.”

“Me too.”

“It’s rare.”

“It is very rare.”

“Tell me about it. Most couples, they live on lies.”

“Lies and games. Games and lies. It’s very sad.”

The Cynic had introduced the topic in preparation for making the announcement that although he still failed to share in S’s  so-called esoteric so-called beliefs, he was sure that they loved each other so much that it wouldn’t matter, in the end. Romantic Love and the profound respect attending it would always be their common ground. More and more, The Cynic had taken upon himself S’s  parental responsibilities. It had gotten to the point that four days out of the week, The Cynic had Shanti the whole day…from before sunrise, when he mixed her grain-based formula and warmed it in her bottle with the electric tea-kettle in a state of purposeful pre-dawn befuddlement, until he put her to bed, properly exhausted after fifteen hours of his absolute attention, at nine p.m.  S would meanwhile have run her errands, sat in cafes, gone for long restful walks alone while The Cynic took upon himself not her sins exactly but her role of single parent like some kind of bachelor Christ.

Four days a week, sixteen hours a day. It was exhausting. He wasn’t getting any work done or bringing in much money but he was dedicated to the task. Kitchen, bathroom, living room floor… that was The Cynic’s new reality as a pantomime father and though he had developed a visible, irritating tremor in his right eyelid from the lack of sleep he reveled in the challenge of this thirty-million-year old task. No true parent ever suffered an Existential crisis. Not while the children were children. Worrying about whether or not Shanti’s formula was precisely the right temperature…neither cold enough to hurt her tiny stomach nor hot enough to burn her tiny tongue…pushed fears of eternal non-existence right out of his head, right along with that nasty inner tally of his life-long lack of accomplishments.

The Cynic said, “See…”

But S  interrupted him. She took a deep breath and said, “I am having an affair with the Vital-Aqua man. The guy who delivers the energized water. Rudy. I always suspected he was coming on to me, you know? I have a sixth-sense about these things…I mean, as you know, I have the sixth sense about everything…everyone agreed my precognition was among the most developed at the Ashram…it’s really not an ego thing. Maybe it’s the Cuban blood? My mother said I was different as a child, always staring off into the distance. I guess I was seeing things, even then. Beloved, you should know that Rudy and I make love on your off days, on the days when he delivers the water. I told him all about you…about us….I think he was really moved. He said to say Hi. He’s really funny. He’s so young…I feel like his spiritual mother sometimes although we are exactly the same age! You would approve of the way he touches me…it’s very…conscious. Did I tell you he gives us a discount on the Vital-Aqua? Beloved, you’re so…wise. Why do people feel they must own each other? Can you tell me that? Oh Beloved…Beloved, look at my heart beating! Look at it! Look how it beats and beats! Oh, Beloved, I’m so glad, like you said, we can be honest to each other. Thank you! No games, no lies. It is really special. Isn’t it? What we have…it feels so…ascended…to me…”

While S  slouched at the table in her intestinal kitchen, free-associating in tones alternating between hushed awe and giddy incredulity through the glass-beaded curtain of the kitchen’s low portico, The Cynic made his rounds of the several small rooms of the flat, quietly gathering his possessions. With an armful he then tip-toed into Shanti’s room and watched her sleep. Mouth open, fists clinched. The wispy blonde hair like frayed nylon. The life ahead of her was so clearly hard that she looked exhausted anticipating it. For a ridiculous and heart-jolting split-second he imagined he saw Shanti mouthing the word ball in her sleep but really she was just dreaming of her mother’s selfish breasts. Which gave him a sudden, clarifying insight. He could finally see how easy it was to believe in the patently absurd as long it served one’s own purposes to do so.

Whore.

He eased out of the flat while S  was still talking to him about him…how giving and loving and non-jealous and ascended The Cynic was. Most men, she was saying, would take this the wrong way. Most men would take it badly. He slipped out the door into the hallway and could still hear her though not exactly her words while waiting for the elevator in her Turkish tenement high-rise to return to the twentieth floor and fetch him back down to earth. There was some kid’s cheap plastic tricycle near the elevator with a Turkish flag stuck in the handlebars commemorating a recent soccer victory.