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

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.

Ginger and Birdy

 IMG0532A-2

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 or nineteen, years before her conversion. He was thirty-six or so and S  was eighteen or nineteen 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 re-established contact, six or seven years and one trip to India and one unintentional daughter later, via email.  First, there was 9/11, and then S and her eight month old Shanti were suddenly The Cynic’s to care for. Two unrelated watersheds.

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 25 or 26 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 aging Cynic and the riper 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.

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. It really couldn’t have looked more pathetic to him.