Category Archives: Midi Fiction

If I Dealt in Candles: The Lost Masterpiece of Ralph Ellison

Constance thanked Wally profusely for his helpful critique and slipped the manuscript into her purse while Fan, with her gloved hand on Wally’s throbbing mitt, beamed at him and they all ordered drinks and that was the last anyone ever heard of it.

Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?

It had been days already and he couldn’t get that line out of his head. Bald frigging sissy. Bald frigging wig-wearing pansy son of a bitch. Couldn’t sleep because of it. Heart racing. Well, that and Fan’s snoring. It’s not marriage that kills the marital romance but the fartsoaked, snorehaunted warmth of the marriage bed. Poor Fan: the mottled brown back she smuggles into sleep in her pyjamas. Guilt from thinking this triggered a wave of loving pity and genuine gratitude like an endorphin rush after a hammer blow to an extremity and he thought, with a nod and the tenderest smile: partners for life, Fanny.

She always slept so deep and hard he could pretty much do whatever he wanted on his side of the bed without waking her. There he lay with his bedcovers thrown back and his pyjama bottoms off and his big fat jimmy in his hand while birdsong, streetsong, the singing of the water in the pipes as the neighbors performed their ablutions heralded another pinkeyed Paris dawn. Wally swears you can hear the French dookie crashing against the s-curves in the pipes on the way down but Fan just laughs at him. Like meteorites. Like fiery meteorites. His vivid imagination.

-This vivid imagination paid for that dress, didn’t it?

-Now don’t you start!

-I’m just saying, Fan. I’m just saying.

He still relishes the fact that it’s no longer Fanny who brings in all the money.

Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?

He finally gets his very own Paris Review interview and they send Tinkerbell and Butterfly McQueen to do the job. Ain’t that something.You know how lethal a white sissy and a faghag Negress can be together, each a canny burlesque of the other… inside jokes and furtive looks and an infallible knowledge of absolutely everything, especially, of course, manner of dress and style of speech. Condescended to by a couple of hincty short-story writers for godsake. Ain’t that rich. For this I win the National Book Award? Vilma and her conked hair and that keloid on her right biceps and she’s trying to get saditty on him.

He had his eelhead jimmy in his hand and Connie was crawling across the hotel’s Persian carpet towards him on her white satin belly just begging for it. There goes that vivid imagination of yours again, Waldo. The most important Negro-American writer on earth… shove this in that little pink mouth of yours, gal… winner of the National Book Award… he couldn’t believe that either Saul or himself had ever been so young or on intimate terms as to competitively compare erections. It was a close race but his was bigger and so of course Bellow runs and gets a tape measure. Hoping he’ll triumph in girth. Then he theorizes with a straight face that the Negro penis isn’t rooted as deeply in the groin as the Caucasian organ and this explains the average extra inch or two. In other words the Negro prick is cheating. The Negro prick; the Hebrew schnozz; the Irish capacity for drink: the exemplary dimensions of the ethnic. Saul’s buzzword: exemplary.

The look on Chester’s face as they picked their table at the Café de la Mairie and Chester ordered in high school French and Wally opened his mouth and ordered in a nosy rich Boursault of a tone and switched to his professorial English for the duration of the interview… Chester’s look had been one of those well what do we have here looks and Wally immediately thought of Saul’s frigging Sam Johnson joke, of which he frigging never tires, apparently, and if Saul tells it one more time at a party in Wally’s presence Wally will break that schnozz of Saul’s for him. At the very least put it out of joint. Besides which he always gets it wrong: it’s not a talking dog it’s a dog walking on its hind legs. Is that erudition?

Saul would sit there with a book of ‘great’ quotations open right next to the typewriter and salt-and-pepper his manuscript with kultcha. Season it with what he called ‘smarts’. Wally has seen him do it. Saul would wink and say, Whaddya think, buddyboy, a Matthew Arnold or something from Suetonious? Or maybe let’s throw ’em a real curve ball and opt for a schmeck of Lao- Tze. Way back when when Saul was still in on the joke. They would argue well into the night, Wally and Saul, about teleological niceties such as the fate of consciousness after the fact of mortality and Saul could not abide Wally’s assertion that individual consciousness reverts to its place in the great Undifferentiated Essence upon the moment of death… he was adamant, vociferous, nearly hysterical in his condemnation of it and Wally finally twigged that Saul’s resistance to the concept was, at root, anti-integrationist.

Connie paging through the manuscript.

I’m fat, thinks Wally. Call me Wally, says Ralph. I sweat too much, I need to lose weight, I’m losing my hair. I hate this big round barrel-shaped Negro head of mine and I hate these black gums and ashen elbows. This mustache. I look like an usher at the Apollo. I look like a Gold Coast garbage man. Freddy Dupee with that lethal smirk of his going, it’s funny, but he only seems to bark at you and the garbage man. Nobody fears or respects me. I’m all curves and no angles. I look like the over-stuffed furniture in Connie’s grandmother’s parlor. No wonder she won’t screw me. Saul and his goddamned girlish waist. Fine, if you like runty.

Vilma winking at Alfred so subtly that Wally almost misses it and she asks him, smiling with parental tenderness, Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?

-Call me Wally.

In the intro to the interview, in the penultimate sentence before the interview commences, this: “While Mr. Ellison speaks, he rarely pauses, and although the strain of organizing his thought is sometimes evident (emphasis Wally’s), his phraseology and the quiet, steady flow and development of ideas are overwhelming.”

Saul’s paging through Wally’s top secret manuscript, the follow-up to Invisible Man, kind of wincing and shaking his head and muttering to himself: damaging, very damaging. He tells Wally, Okay, fine, it shows a new sort of fluency for you, but fluency at what cost? This is very damaging to one’s reputation; they’ll massacre you if you’re crazy enough to publish it. Better to aim low and hit a bulls eye than aim at the stars and kill an albatross instead. Listen, don’t be sore. You wanted my honest opinion and now you have it. My suggestion would be to take this new found fluency and apply it to something a little closer to home. Your own people, for example. Don’t over-reach, Wally. What, this rich, vibrant diasporan culture you keep telling me about… this fertile vein of ore, as you once put it, has suddenly run out of stories?You’ve outgrown it? It ain’t worth mining any more? Dismissive gesture at the manuscript. Is that what this means?

Constance, Saul and Ralph standing at the corner where the eyepatched veteran sells roasted chestnuts from a rusty cart across from the Tuileries in full flower and throng. A warm but overcast day. Saul’s holding a helium-filled balloon and unties it and sucks the gas and does a few bars of What’ll I do? in a cartoon grasshopper croon and Connie laughs, thoroughly charmed. Ralph is fuming but he can’t show it and says, I say, old chap, you sound like one of Hadrian’s prize eunuchs!

Dud.

All three traipse arm-in-arm across the Place Pigalle, gay talk and big smiles except Ralph’s smile, of course, which is faux as an undiscovered Lautrec, a wet forgery, not even a good one, twitching at the corners. He keeps having this vision of an open manhole appearing suddenly on Saul’s side of the sidewalk. Saul, wearing his hat at a rakish angle, is saying, out of the corner of his mouth and rather loudly, Be advised, young lady, that if you keep up with these enchanting ways of yours you run the severe risk of ending up in one of my novels. You’re not litigious, I hope. Constance blushing. Saul snaps his fingers. Say, that’s an exemplary title for something: The Litigious Sylph. Whaddya say, Waldo? We haven’t heard a peep outta you since the Tuileries…

Ralph and Saul in the alley behind the hotel.

-I saw her first!

-This isn’t the schoolyard, buddyboy. This is the jungle and in the jungle, as you oughta know by now, the king of beasts holds sway. Namely, moi.

-You only even came over in the first place because of those damned letters I was writing about her!

-Hindsight is 20/20, ain’t it?

Constance paging through the manuscript on the checkered tablecloth in an out-of-the-way bistro that Ralph discovered with Fanny last year and whereinto Saul is highly unlikely to stumble. Ralph’s palms are moist. Constance is radiant in a pink mohair sweater, matching beret, black satin slacks and patent leather mules. Wally inquired, both to quell his nerves and because he had a genuine interest in fashion, as to the shoe’s designer. Constance said she honestly couldn’t remember; Robbie had given them to her right before the divorce. Robbie would know, she said. He has a shoe fetish.

Ralph joked, “What do they know of mules who only mules know?”

Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?

Fanny croaks, “Baby?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you awake?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Was I snoring again?”

“No, baby. You weren’t snoring. You were talking in your sleep.”

“I was?”

“You sure were.”

She reaches for her glasses on the nightstand and rolls over to face him, blinking behind the lenses, face lined with the meaningless diagram of her recent dreams, monogrammed silk pyjama top buttoned to the neck. Smiling she says, “What did I say?”

“You sang Stardust.”

She slugs his shoulder affectionately. Wally’s hand is still throbbing… it’s killing him. His writing hand. It’s infected. It amazes him that Fan has yet to notice the four raw against-the-grain gouges in fat fester behind the knuckle rill.

The three of them emerge from the rear exit of Madame Tussuad’s, blinking into the midday sun, waiting under the awning, and Saul does one of his impromptu magic tricks, only instead of a quarter from behind Ralph’s ear he snatches a frigging cotton ball.

Connie must be, what, 34 or 35 and she looks it at certain angles and yet there remains a youthful glow to her, a creamy kind of pastry warmth and though she is not quite the sylph that Ralph first saw on C.L.R.’s arm in ’46 he remains terribly smitten. She looks up from the manuscript and studies his face as though mystified.

“And the title…”

“If I Dealt in Candles.”

“That’s right. It’s very pretty, Wally. Where is it from?”

“An old Yiddish proverb. If I dealt in candles, the sun wouldn’t set; if I dealt in shrouds, people would stop dying!”

She closes the manuscript and without taking her eyes off the title page she says, “It’s just so well-written, what I’ve read so far. It really is. But I…”

“I’m glad it pleases you. I thought…”

“Yes?” She seems to steel herself against the blunder she’s certain he’s about to make.

He takes a deep breath in a sort of now-or-never way and she beats him to it, interceding on behalf of their friendship. She says, pressing her palms flat on the paper, “It’s not my place to comment, Wally, and please don’t be sore, but, gee, isn’t it kind of, I don’t know, wrong for you to be writing about Shtetl Jews, no matter how beautiful the writing is, while your own people still strain against the bonds of slavery?”

“By adding this certain amount of beauty to the story of the Jews, aren’t you stealing the same amount from the story of your people, who can ill afford to have this beauty stolen from them?” She says, “Oh please, please don’t be sore about all this, what I’m saying, Wally, but I guess I’ve taken it upon myself to speak for your race in this matter because you’ve turned your back on them… with the blood of old Egypt in your veins you’d rather tell the story of Moses! With that gorgeous, wonderful, heart-breakingly loyal woman by your side all the years of a fruitful and intimate marriage you opt to pursue the fickle affections of a silly, inconsequential, self-absorbed white girl who couldn’t even manage to stay married to the father of her own poor mulatto child. Wally, Wally, what’s the matter with you? What are you doing to yourself? Are you sick in the heart? Tired of being the luckiest Negro on Earth?”

“Don’t get me wrong… as I said, gosh I’m impressed, Wally, I really am, it’s beautifully written… it proves that you’re more of an intellectual than even I or Richard or Saul ever took you for, though I’m sure Fanny wouldn’t be surprised at all… she’d read a few paragraphs and know it was you, although, ironically, and correct me if I’m wrong on this: she was never meant to see it. Was she? Was she, Wally? Is that what being intellectual is for, Wally… for fooling your own good wife? Is being intellectual, in the end… is it only good for writing clever books for fooling your people and your wife? Is there no higher end towards which to apply the magnificent mind in that little boy’s head of yours? That school boy head of yours with its silly school boy crush on a sad, tired female of your oppressor’s race?”

“I will always love you, Wally, honestly, although by the time I’ve said my piece I’m willing to bet your passion for me won’t exactly be blue ribbon material.” She laughs and digs her fingernails hard into the hand he reaches for her under the table with.

Wally had been so concerned about eluding Saul that he’d clean forgotten about eluding Fanny. In walked Fanny to find Wally and Constance in a cozy little corner of the out-of-the-way bistro that Wally and Fan had discovered together last year. They called it ‘Our Out of the Way Bistro.’ It was a common rendezvous point. Had Wally forgotten? Or was his subconscious the secret engineer of the entire scenario? He stood rubber-knee’d but steadied himself and fetched a chair for Fan from one of a dozen empty tables and said, with a smile that seemed to be little more than his mustache itself, Constance was just showing me a manuscript for a book she’s working on, Fan. He glanced down at Constance who glanced up at him and he addressed her,

“It really is marvelous, doll, but it needs work, as I say. I wouldn’t show it to anyone else until you’ve rectified, uh… a few of the particular points we discussed. I’d be happy to look it over again after you’ve… yes… worked on it a bit…”

Connie chained naked and writhing to a rusty bedspring in a vacant lot on the South Side of Chicago on an overcast day in Autumn as several dozen identical Bigger Thomases in tattered flesh-revealing piss-reek finery emerge in deprivation and hunger from various caves, warrens, gutters, cellars and trash heaps in the vicinity…

Wally holds his breath. He toetenses and… sees stars and… detects one of the semen arcs landing with a tap on the Herald Tribune far away atop the dresser. Where the other two squirts land he neither knows nor cares but in the tingle of post-ecstatic slump he envisions Alfred Chester in that ratty orange wig tilting back in his chair at the Café de la Mairie with his fingers intertwined on his chest and his lips moving in the deliverance of some grand theory or profound observation or other as though he’s the famous writer being interviewed for the Paris Review and Wally fantasizes standing up and hauling off and punching Chester so hard his head snaps back and the chair back cracks and a fusillade of flashbulbs going pop pop pop pop pop like Ernest Fucking Hemingway has just walked in the room.

.

Year In Review [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

“Time is the ultimate disguise.”

-Christian Sands

It was pointed out to me that the defeated-looking guy who invariably took the table between the ladies’ room and the Picasso poster at The Supreme Bean was Chris Sands, who had once meant so much to me, as the walking embodiment of his records, at least, though to look at him now you’d have to double-check the timelessness of the records. Which I did.

The evening of the day I learned just who that local coffee-sucking wreck really was, I meandered home in a timefog. I went through my vestigial collection of vinyl and pulled out two whole records (his debut and his peak), which is saying something, since I’ve only managed to save one record each from such greats as Sun Ra, Jeff Buckley, Sam Cooke and the mighty Roche Sisters. I never even kept my Zager and Evans. The Voidoids and The Nyce are all gone now, too.

I lowered Chris Sands and the Manifestones on the spindle first, Side B track three, and for three minutes and forty two seconds, I was twenty years younger, though burdened with all-too-convincing visions of the troubling future. I clutched the headphones like a migraine.

I still believed.

I phoned Ed.

The Chris Sands lives around the corner in my neighborhood in Berlin, and you never bothered, before this afternoon, to fucking tell me?”

“I never even knew you knew who he was,” yawned Ed. “What time is it?”

I had no idea.

The next day, unfortunately, I had business in Stockholm.

This was a change of itinerary from an original destination outside the EU. Since I’ve learned that the best way to make it quickly through Customs (anywhere other than in the literal-minded U.S.) is by looking too obviously suspicious, I’d grown another mustache for the trip. I’d started liking that mustache, and didn’t bother shaving it off before getting the S-Bahn the frigid next morning to Schönefeld. A thick black glossy mustache that screamed bathhouse, backgammon, radical mosque, Ummagumma.

The flight was turbulent. It felt as though we’d never left the ground and were rolling vindictively over luggage on the runway. When we made it in one piece to Arlanda, I considered booking a train for the return trip. The train rolls into a ferry to cross the Baltic. I’d done it before.

“Chris Sands,” it says, in this yellowing clipping from the cover story of the March, 1980 issue of SideBeat magazine, “isn’t the next Dylan, but Dylan just might be the next Chris Sands, if he keeps at it.”

What is youth but one long exercise in hyperbole? And what is everything else but hyperbole’s correction?

“Timeline, Ed,” I said, two days after my trip. “Fill me in.”

I plopped his cake and coffee in front of him and pulled up a chair, not even bothering, after all this time, to notice that Ed never says preciate it anymore. He expects me to pay because I’m rich. Not rich rich. Ed rich.

“Well,” drawled Ed, smiling over my shoulder at white-haired, goateed, red-eyed Chris Sands in his dirty black raincoat and his baldspot-protecting homburg hat, “he kinda fell off the radar ten years ago, after his third divorce and the fiasco of that,” eyes bulging, “comeback album. Various rumors had it he was either a born-again, a suicide or, you know, the third option: gone Country on us. Then the rumors stopped and, well, the interest dried up and I kinda realized I hadn’t thought about the man for years. Until I found myself standing right behind him in the checkout line at that all-night market on Torstrasse.”

“What happened?”

“He paid for his stuff.”

I tried to remember exactly how Ed and I had met and I couldn’t.

“Are you writing him up in your Year in Review?”

“I doubt it. He’s just a Trivial Pursuit question, at this point.”

“So is Trivial Pursuit.”

“Touché.”

“I think I’ve been using touché incorrectly, mostly. I say it most often when someone says something witty with which I concur, when, in fact, it’s meant to concede…”

“In other words, I just used it wrong.”

I shrugged. “Half-wrong.”

Two American tourists pushed open the café door with the unearned swagger of the militantly unashamed. I brought them to Ed’s attention and said, as he twisted in his chair,

“Have you noticed how they’re turning fat into a race, back in our homeland?”

“A voluntary race. A non-racist race. A race you can opt out of.”

“You’re reading an ad in a magazine and you notice that even the after picture is fatness. Maybe it’s all to the greater good.”

“What was that tribe? Where fat was beautiful?”

“They made that sculpture.”

“Yeah. A famous fat sculpture with no neck or face and stubby limbs.”

“A fertility symbol.”

“Yeah.”

“Caveporn.”

“Be great on twelve-cent stamps and five dollar bills. Or not?”

“You’re saying imagine a whole country.”

We each chuckled an inch over our cups and drank with a synchronized motion. Both going ahhhh.

Early on,  months prior, I had a vivid dream that Ed was in my livingroom, his flimsy silhouette in a characteristic stoop and thumbing through my records, a finger over his lips going shhhh.

“I still can’t get over the fact. That’s Chris Sands. Right behind me. I could almost reach back and touch him.”

“But don’t.”

Coiling under all the clever dialogue was the disappointment and disgust of any genuine male friendship. Ed, the online music blogger, abruptly double-taked me.

“Wait. You always have a mustache?”

***

Time fell away like a shattered mask, and I was twenty again, shoplifting 45s with a Frisbee. The air was thicker and the sunshine was sweet to the touch. Never the best dresser, I see me got-up in flipflops and painterpaints and a powder-blue ruffle-breasted shirt, three dollars from Ragstock, the original Ragstock, the one on that godforsaken stretch along Washington Avenue, in the warehouse district of downtown, long before warehouse districts all over America became loft fodder. Hoboes straight off of freight trains and still bearing the momentums of their trotting dismounts would burst into the store for incredible bargains on camouflage pants. Off The Record was right up the street and around the corner from Ragstock, next to a headshop in which a girl I had mixed feelings for toiled, price-stickering water pipes, blacklight posters and Mexican porn.

If I concentrate it will come to me.

Candace.

“Wait,” she said. “You always have a mustache?”

I handed over a stack of 45s… Bauhaus, Siouxsie, The Wallets, The Is, Ultravox, Chris Sands… in exchange for the profoundly niggardly, now that I think of it, prize of a quasi-European air-peck on each cheek. Mustaches were the ultimate young no-no in 1980, yes, but where the crowd zigs, the free spirit zags, and girls with tattoos (a dotted line circumnavigating her neck) prefer zaggers. Or so I was told, or led to believe, or deluded myself into dreaming. One day I walked into the headshop and an eyebrowless man with an idiomorphic white Mohawk, leaning over the counter towards Candace’s plump little near-naked heart, regarded me over a bare shoulder and said, with a pretty good fake British accent, or maybe he was British,

Oh dear, it’s Journey.

“There was this girl, the year I quit school. This girl who looked very much like a punk version of Grace Kelly. Wouldn’t sleep with me but said I could watch her do herself if I promised to stay in this plush Edwardian wingback gentleman’s smoking chair she’d set up on the opposite side of the bedroom. Very much the kind of chair a Pope would probably scream in if Francis Bacon were to start painting him. I promised to stay in the chair. There were countless candles around the bed. I had to wait in the bathroom with my eyes closed while this girl with the shakes tried to light two jillion candles and get the room just so. Plumping the satin pillows and whatnot. Dressing the set.”

“Fifteen years too early for webcasting, sadly.”

“Don’t interrupt.”

“I’m just saying.”

“Saying is interrupting.”

“You could be halfway through your story by now.”

“I’m making a point.”

“The point you’re trying to make is negated by your method of making it.”

“How will you know until I’ve made it?”

“How will I know a joke about a Muslim, a Jew and a Pollack isn’t funny until I’ve heard it?”

I stared Ed down for a good whole minute with my blankest face and continued; slowly, at first; my anger cloaked in grandiloquence, “On the floor beside her futon was a kidney-shaped tray, such as one might see in the coroner’s lab with, say, an enlarged liver upon it. There were things on the tray that I assumed were dildoes, mainly because they were longer than they were wide, but dildoes like nothing on earth. These were not reassuring facsimiles of the human male organ. Remember the first time you ever saw a Sci Fi flick in which the space ships weren’t of a naively aerodynamic design? And how it opened your eyes, and you grew up, a little, and you could never go back to your sentimentally childish way of thinking of space ships again?”

I could see he was not interested. Who wants to hear some other guy’s sex story? Some other guy’s ancient sex story? We’d been friends for exactly a year.

I could write, at this point, that we stepped out of the café into the blistering sun. Or I could write that it was an effaced city of windsung snow and dagger-ice we stepped out into, and that I could see Ed’s breath as it slid towards me; that I dodged the head-shaped cloud that came out of his mouth for fear of being touched by it.

                      ***

A week later I was in London. My trips were usually spaced by months so this felt very quick and I was, in a way, disoriented. Oxford Street’s Christmas-week delirium was diluted to half-strength by the moderating influence of its immigrants, patterning the packed thoroughfare with ski-vested kaftans and over-coated burkas and faces ranging from pale gold to lustrous black. The vodka-colored sun was setting early after a late lunch, becoming a low bulge in the city-lit clouds as I let traffic urge me along towards Wardour Street.

I found the American-style self-serve restaurant I was supposed to find and chose a table, neither at the windows nor at the very back, as I had been instructed, and waited. While I was waiting, a well-dressed, honey-tanned blonde who couldn’t possibly be making eye contact with me from the other side of the salad bar appeared to be doing just that, while also doing something delicate to a frizz of beansprouts with tongs. She gestured with the tongs, seeming to mime a question about whether I cared for some salad. The improbability of the situation was virtually psychedelic. I was thinking how she looked like someone, a younger version of someone, though I couldn’t say who, but someone familiar.

I’d been doing this job for two years and this would be the first time anything really exciting happened while doing it, despite the fact that I’d travelled to six EU, and three non-Eu, cities. I was a courier, but it had nothing to do with drugs (or not directly, if at all): I was simply hand-delivering international mail in an age when cellphone messages, faxes, email and, especially, the postal and overnight parcel delivery services, are no guarantee of privacy. Sometimes I’m expected to wait for an answer, an answer I’ll carry back with me, and sometimes I’m not.

I wasn’t sure if I was always working for the same concern, or concerns, or a different well-off individual every time, but I did know I was well paid for it. My doorbell would ring (usually pretty early in the morning), and a man would hand me two envelopes: one with another envelope in it, and the other containing a plane ticket, a note with minimal instructions on it, and, best of all, a nice little packet of undeclared cash for my trouble. The Germans call it Schwarzarbeit or “black work”, an under-the-table transaction, and such assignations drive Berlin’s limping economy.

How I got this job was a stranger approached me in the lobby of a cinema, after a film. Just like that. He used the term luxury mail. Told me they were looking for trustworthy individuals of a presentable appearance who could jump on a plane at a moment’s notice kind of thing. It definitely appealed to my sense of cool, and freed me, if temporarily, from the horror of giving English lessons.

When the blonde gestured with her tray that I should clear a space for her on my table, my first thought was that she must be insane. My second thought was pure glee. I moved the hardcover novel (in which I’d slipped the envelope I’d been entrusted to carry) onto my lap and she lowered the tray with a clink of cutlery and sat down. Looking…yes. Like a young Vanessa Redgrave. In Blowup. With infinitely more strident boobs.

“Alright?” she asked, with an appetizing south-London accent.

“Over the moon,” I answered, and Vanessa smiled, clearly sane enough to evaluate the compliment. She was well-dressed, but the presentation veered a little towards the slutty, with lots of compressed pink bosom bulging up and out of a shiny gold blouse in a black velveteen jacket. All I needed, to deflate the fantasy and ruin my week, was to have her slide a laminated price list across the table at me.

“May I see the Christmas card?”

Aha.

My face burned as I opened the book, furtively, and handed her the squarish envelope out of it, feeling an utter fool. Hers lit up almost childishly as she tore the envelope and extracted the card (snowman), a fifty Euro bill falling out of it. A microchip in the card played a dismayingly loud Jingle Bells as she read the message to herself, lips moving, and afterwards kissed the card and reached across the table and touched my cheek, saying Sorry under her breath, the tinny music still playing.

Sorry, you never know.

In the same voice, Vanessa said, it’s best if we sit here and talk for a bit. An hour should do it. What shall we talk about? Name a topic. Or I’ll start if you want me to.

Then she closed the card and things were quiet again. I was thinking: Methinks a certain young lady hath seen one too many spy movies, Luv, but I decided to play along. After all, I was paid to.

I said, brightly, “How’s mom?” as she tucked into her salad.

“Don’t be cheeky.”

“Okay, then you start.”

“Hmm. Have I mentioned my flatmate is the ultimate pain in the arse? She leaves the loo lid up, doesn’t flush, and forgets to record my phone messages. She fluffs under the duvet while we’re watching Parkinson! And get this: she thinks she’s posh!”

“Is she half as beautiful as you are?”

“Don’t be slimey, darling.”

“We seem to be running out of topics.”

“What’s that book in your lap? Give us a peek.”

I put it on the table.

“Are you reading it, or is it just for show? Sorry, just teasing. Bad habit. What page are you on? I adore McEwan.”

“It’s the language that saves it from being a Cold War potboiler. I’m halfway through it.”

“Then I won’t spoil it for you.”

“Does Leonard die, or something?”

“I wouldn’t worry about Leonard. He’s the eponymous Innocent, isn’t he? What do the innocent have to fear, from God or the author?”

There was another long pause; what to discuss with a beautiful woman if you aren’t allowed to flirt? She didn’t seem bored, or anxious to leave, at all. Of course I was tortured mildly with curiousity about the message written in the Christmas card: no one sends an expensive private courier on an expensive plane ticket, from Berlin to London, with eight hours’ notice, to deliver a cheap card with fifty Euros in it.

Forgetting the fact that I would probably kick myself later for sounding like an innocuous, middle-aged man, I said, “Well now I can say that I’ve met that thing of legend, a genuine English Rose.”

Ms. Redgrave’s smile had a neat little sneer folded in with it. She opened the Christmas card and Jingles Bells started. “First off,” she said, “You won’t tell anyone anything about what you did in London today. Is that clear? Second, I’m not an English Rose, you bloody goofy American in a panto moustache; I’m not that physical type, with all of its racist implications, and I’m not even British.”

She closed the card. Then she told me, for the next forty minutes, in a warmly animated voice, all about her vacation in the Maldives.

I was thinking: my initial assessment of her sanity was essentially just.

                      ***

The ones who don’t give a damn what you think of them: they are the rulers of Time and Space. Whether fictive or factual, they marshall the hordes. What’s a horde? A group of young men. What would History be without its hordes? Do you know about young men? How they grope towards the human; how they can’t be reached? They can’t be reached by young girls, older women, old men, sisters, mothers, fathers, teachers, clean-living role-models or the parents of friends. They can only be reached by the mythical, clench-jawed savant, spot-lit and incandescent in his sweat: the Holden Caulfields, the Saint Pauls, the Adolf Hitlers and Chris Sands.

                      ***

A lovingly well-worn bit of apocrypha. This is years before Sands gets famous. Two summers before he’s discovered by the New York sharpie in a sharkskin suit by the name of Mal Pearl who engineers his debut on a college station in Duluth, Minnesota. It’s 1977 and Chris is 18 years old and he’s in a park in Minneapolis with his friends on the Fourth of July, bar-b-cuing and playing Frisbee and sucking on furtive communal reefers or whatnot, shirtless in the sweet American sun. This is a Cold War sun, remember. The mainstream use of the word Jihadi is about twenty five years in the future; a glimmer in the geopolitical eye: the nearest contemporary equivalent is Patty Hearst. In some versions of the story, the girl is a Nordic Amazon, a budding supermodel of the Ford models type, fresh out of high school, feeling her power. Other versions she’s half-black, stunning, fucked-up mentally, leery of other blacks but nursing a grudge against whites, who never accepted her but teased her, ironically, over the very rich features that made her so embarrassingly attractive: pillow lips, pointy tits, plump ass and lyre hips, and her  dirty-blonde rainforest of not-quite-kinky hair. In my favorite version of the story, she’s Asian: Hmong. Haughty and weird and Sci Fi pretty. She’s there at the Fourth of July gathering with Chris’s best friend/first disciple Manny Holzapple, the guy who actually taught Chris his first guitar chord in junior high school, only to see Chris surpass him in proficiency in such a short time that an adolescent deal with the devil would be the only rational explanation, if Manny’s parents weren’t avowed whitebread Buddhists, raising their Manny to see any religious practise other than chanting as a humanity-denigrating superstition. She’s there with Manny and Manny is on a very short velvet leash, so to speak, one end of which is tied in a slipknot around his brand new balls. She says Manny I’m thirsty and Manny hops up and runs about a fucking mile barefoot over a broken-glass-strewn sizzling blacktop to this Mexican-operated panel truck selling ice cold drinks and he fetches her back a frosty can of A&W rootbeer and it’s not exactly what she had in mind so he runs back and gets her an iced tea instead and she doesn’t give thanks,or otherwise demonstrate gratitude. That kind of thing. This inscrutable Queen Bee protocol against which Manny and his horny little touch-football-playing cronies are powerless to assert themselves as anything more glorious than serfs. This is long before women would be taken back down a peg, so soon after being hoisted a peg in the first place, by the widespread dissemination of hardcore pornography and the common currency of anal sex. These were good boys, boys raised to be feminists, inculcated with the notion that woman are, in all the ways that count, superior to men, a concept completely alien to their grandparents, from many of whom many of them are, in fact, by parental decree, estranged. But not Chris Sands, who was both very close to his nostalgic-for-whorefucking paternal granddad Christian Djindzc, whom Chris called DJ, and way ahead of his time. Legend has it that Chris Sands, in all of his Beethoven-haired, shirtless, shoeless, kung-fu-pantalooned pigeon-breasted summer incandescence, reached forth and plucked a badly-tuned Gibson off of somebody using it as a tabletop for the homely task of culling weedseed and he strapped it over his bone-colored shoulder and composed, on the spot, with amused fury, what would become the anthem of the defiantly fuckless, Woodeneven Dooya, singing it with a lordly arch of one bushy eyebrow and a supremely impertinent boogie in his slender hips, going You could hide a diamond in your pretty little voodoo / Wouldn’t even do you if my mama begged me not to, composing it right there on the spot, right in The Queen’s expressionless (in my version: inscrutable) face, with all the pussywhipped dudes gathered ‘round to gawp in grateful astonishment at the birth of Chris Sands’s epic witsneer of sixteen borderline-misogynist verses pulled like a thundering freight by that locomotive chorus straight out of his mouth, though he wasn’t quite Christ Sands yet, he was still Christian Djindzc the Third, and it’s doubtful he wrote the song whole, as it appears on his sophomore effort Yesterday’s Insults are Tomorrow’s Compliments, right there, on the spot, though it’s more than reasonable to assume he came up with the jist of it plus chorus, or a rough version, fairly close, per legend. And of course the girl was grossly insulted and thereafter ran off with him; they married, fought, attempted multiple separate suicides in an almost compositional sequence and divorced. Okay, maybe they never actually got married. Manny got a job in television, came out of the closet, owns a mindboggling little chunk of Starbucks stock and lives happily in Seattle with a guitar-strumming boy thirty years his junior to this day.

***

A series of bombs went off on Christmas Eve, in London, and no one was killed, as we now know. All of the bombs were in one structure and the structure was evacuated twenty-five minutes before the carefully-timed sequence of explosions brought it down. More than 3400 people managed to stream out of Saint Paul’s Cathedral before the first sequence ringed the dome with puffs and it imploded as larger detonations sent dead pigeons flying, and rained holy debris, including genuine gold dust and micro-relics of the ancient dead, for miles around. Because that event, and the three others that occurred, near-simultaneously, across Europe, were orchestrated precisely in such a way as to cause zero casualties where they might just as well have killed thousands, they were given the ironic handle “The Goodwill Bombings” by the British press. Three hundred billion-plus Euros of damage but only three serious injuries and one human death (heart attack). Ed sent an allcaps text message to meet him tomorrow at The Supreme Bean.

“Goddamn,” I said, rubbing my eyes. It was Christmas Day, and the Supreme Bean, owned and run by non-Christians, was one of the few cafés in Berlin still open, a blinding cube of light in a shrouded landscape. Consequently it was packed with family-free expats, the culturally and willfully dispossessed, along with Ausländers of every level and complaint, dark-faced and travel-wrapped. There was white-haired Chris Sands in a black rain coat, predictably, too, gloating over his lonely bowl of coffee. Far away back there in his favorite place near the ladies’ room.

I was thinking: Chris Sands could be your friend. Why not?

“Goddamn is right,” said Ed. I handed him his breakfast. He said, with an edge to his voice, “I take it you’ve seen the news.”

“I’m just glad nothing happened here, knock on wood.”

“Yeah, what an incredible coincidence.”

“How so?”

“Whatever.”

“Huh?”

He made a hateful dumbfuck face and aped me: “Huh?”

“What?”

“Whaaaat?”

My heart was racing.

.

The End of the World Club [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

photo by SG

Ginger toasts the young Turkish couple at the table in front of him. Unbeknown to them. He even raises his glass in the dark and it shines in the spotlight as the spotlight sweeps the stage. To a few heady months of compulsive sex and amazing self-righteousness, he smirks. The warmth of the dregs of his drink in his throat reminds him of a wino’s proximate sigh in an airport shuttle in winter. Benny is doing the twist and Ginger chuckles. Couple years ago Benny fell off a stage dancing like this, landing on a fat girl at a front-row table. Now she the band airbag, jokes Benny. Which wouldn’t be half as funny in the form of a grammatically correct sentence.

Benny sings Doo Wop with a backing group of old soldiers called The Midnighters and Ginger loves to listen, and he catches them when he can, if the gig isn’t at an inconvenient location. Usually, he hangs around until well after the last song, leaning on a sticky bar and buying Benny his syrupy drinks. Benny’s veiny black skull, muses Ginger, is a vault full of junk, mostly, but some precious heirlooms are underfoot of the headless blind mice in there, too. Propped on one elbow, his cheek in a palm, his dented hat crooked on his skull, Benny leans on the bar after singing for very little money for very few people all night and he remembers, smacking his lips on the syrupy drinks.

At a club called The End of The World Club in the far corner of the neighborhood called Neukölln, along a littered street that had once run up along the Berlin Wall, Benny became almost intimidatingly lucid one night, and announced, “Love songs are sad, man. You know that? They’re sad.” And Ginger agreed and bought him a syrupy drink.

Tonight he came to Benny’s gig early and got himself the perfect table to watch from, something center-left of the stage, not too far from the exit, half-hidden by a dusty rubber tree plant that may or may not be real rubber. This is the kind of club where the service is insulted if you speak to them in German so when the waitress came he asked for his drink like a man in a homburg in the kind of tavern his father used to disappear into all day, claiming to need the vitamin of the warm red light, starting with “Let me have a…” and ending with “Thanks, Baby.” The waitress is new and pretty, but he cannot for the life of him conjure her image after she leaves the table.

Ginger once had a conversation with a career soldier…funny little guy with bulging eyes and a Georgia accent… talked just like former President of the United States Jimmy Carter…referred to the military as the mil-turruh… in which this career soldier, Junie Haliburton, complained bitterly that the modern army wasn’t doing its job properly. At least as regards the combat soldier in a live theater of conflict (this was shortly after the time of the first Gulf War).

Junie Haliburton said: “A good soldier is already dead, see? That’s what the real army does, see, it pre-kills you so that nothing the enemy might could do to you don’t matter.” Madd-uh. “But this old pussy army nowadays,” puss-uh-ahmuh na-daze, “be so fine and recreational you sore afraid to die!” He went on to say “We seen a nigguh got tore up in Khafji looked like Emmet Till’s twin after them towelheads got done with him and so none of us was in the mood to fight. I mean, I’ll tell you the truth, brother, I started crying when I seen that boy cuz he was messed up…what kinda soldier gonna stand up there and cry? Wasn’t even my buddy. See, I blame the army for those bitter tears. Army ain’t doin’ its job.”

Ginger thought: Junie Haliburton is my Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Ginger thought: I remember catching my father waltzing out of one of those padded-red-door taverns before lunch with his arm around the waist of a slender black lady in a beltless bone-colored London Fog earning my father my eleven-year-old grudging admiration forever.

The name of the dive Ginger is in is HAPPY OURS, continuing in the amusing Berlin tradition of naming businesses after English-language quasi-puns that don’t add up. There’s a coffee place near Alexanderplatz called Drin Kup; an optometrist’s in Moabit called Clothe Your Eyes. Three or four salons around town called of course Director’s Cut. Happy Ours is on a corner deep in a neighborhood called Kreuzberg, opposite a very ugly vacant lot, on a street parallel to the green-watered canal that flows heavily through Berlin like absinthe (at noon) or motor oil (midnight). Berlin is very much a huge, creaking machine made of stone. A black-faced robot of unfathomable self-disgust and sadness. Which often smells of wet dog.

Ginger has been coming to Happy Ours off and on for many years because it is an excellent room for live music, unintentionally magnificent, acoustically; something to do with the weird voodoo of the shape of the walls and the height of the ceiling and the very old PA. It’s a warm sounding tummy-rubbing venue, sonically, and the waitresses don’t pester the clientele to keep drinking… the clientele is allowed to nurse a beer among themselves all night if need be. Fifty years ago HAPPY OURS was a thriving cabaret with a proper German name and evidence of that can be found in the PA and the lighting system, which were both fairly state of the art in 1957, but the original name (along with the original owners and clientele) are buried in the catacombs of the city’s collective memory.

He likes to sit and watch unknowns belt their souls out. Knowing that they are being paid in little more than drink tickets adds to the pathos of the material they usually choose to perform. Almost all of these unknowns who mount the stage to go a few rounds with old time popular music are American; it is that kind of club; and most of them are left over from the largely evacuated presence of the American Army that dominated Berlin from just after the Second World War until just after the obsolescence of the Wall. Cooks, drivers, doormen, hookers, masseurs, cha-cha teachers… what most of them have in common is that they are black and they can sing and that not many more than a handful of people in Berlin seem to give a damn when they take the stage and belt a few out at Happy Ours.

Earlier, Benny swept in on a cold breeze that made Ginger pull the collar of his coat up. It was an hour before show time and he shuffled straight for the bar to start with the stainglass-colored meds, tossing his hat on stage before settling on his corner stool in the three piece suit that Ginger is quite sure Benny sleeps in. Benny’s old derby (with a playing card in the hat band) slid to a halt a few feet in front of the drum kit and remained obediently in position while the guy at the light board experimented with the spots and some gels. Ginger liked the derby in devil red. Spectral blue was also good.

“Mr. Benny,” said Ginger, pointing as he approached him.

“Doctor,” Benny said, smiling through the bottom of a grasshopper-green drink.

“Tell me now, Sir, why is it you call me Doctor,” said Ginger, taking Benny’s drink-free hand, which was cold as Death, and giving it a squeeze, “if you’re the one who does all the operating?”

Benny got a good laugh out of that one. They were riffing on some vintage down-home repartee, but it was lost on the bartender, a German kid who only jerked beers for the sake of one day running his own piercing parlor with the same mephitic rue. Had more chrome in his face than the grill of an antique Caddy. Benny and Ginger are supposed to be having this witty exchange in a bar on the Southside of Chicago in 1973, but due to forces beyond their control, a rupture in the space-time continuum has stranded them in 21st century Berlin.

“Doc,” coughed Benny. “Do you believe in God?”

“That depends on who I’m talking to.”

“I been having trouble sleeping, lately. And since I can’t get any shut eye anyway, I use the time to think. I figure I’m doing about 40% more thinking these days than I ever done before,” he said, staring into his empty glass. Ginger, with the polite imperiousness of an American, signaled the bartender to provide another. “And I have come to some remarkable conclusions.”

“Sounds interesting. And do you believe in God, Benny?”

“Man, I’ll tell you something. I only believe in God when I’m in love. And I ain’t been in love in a long long time…”

The door opened again and another cold breeze blew in and circled the room, followed by the young Turkish couple who just stood there blinking in the dark for quite a while after the door closed behind them. Ginger knew the feeling: too cold and wet to want to go back outside, but, on the other hand, here inside is not exactly Caesar’s Palace. It’s hard to feign enthusiasm when no one’s watching. The interior of The Happy Ours is slightly more alluring than that of a hand-me-down orthopedic shoe.

“Tell me some of these remarkable conclusions you’ve come to, Benny,” said Ginger, turning away from the indecisive young couple to face Benny again. Benny smiled at his own reflection in the surface of the bar. The reflection was somehow the sharper of the two.

“You ever wonder how we know pain hurt, Doc?”

He let that sink in for a bit, then closed his eyes tightly and continued, “And how we know that feeling good…feel good? I been thinkin’ ‘bout that. If there ain’t no point to everything, if the whole world just an accident and nothing don’t mean nothing, how come we know that pain hurt? How come everything alive is always trying so hard? Runnin’, flyin’, hidin’, fightin’… lookin’ for love, buildin’ a nest, defendin’ its offspring… you wanna say that we all just been tricked into givin’ a damn? Is this here a planet of fools? How can that many livin’ things be wrong, man? How can a mosquito be wrong, man? It ain’t got enough of a brain to be wrong. But it be buzzin’ around all night, busy as hell, workin’ the kinda hours a Dominican would complain about! Why? Why a mosquito give a damn? Why don’t it just lay there and say to hell with it? You wanna know the meaning of life, Doc?”

Ginger answered with utter sincerity. “I’d love to.”

Benny slipped off his barstool and headed for the stage. “Ask a mosquito,” he winked.

In the middle of his disquisition, Benny’s band had arrived, filing in in their long dark column of air. Benny has a basic rhythm section… bass, guitar, drums… and his three back-up singers, The Midnighters… a six-piece, in total. Ginger fell into conversation with one of them one night; the guitar player; and asked how they could possibly be making enough money to support a six piece band. Were the drink tickets enough to keep them on the road? He giggled… a surprisingly girlish giggle out of a round black white-haired man… and said, “We do it for the pussy, man.”

He said it’s in their verbal contract with Benny that everyone gets two solos per set. “No solo, no pussy,” he giggled again. He continued, “I’d be lying if I said it’s like being on tour with Marvin Gaye. We’re not getting the type of girl that would make a fella like you envious…” Ginger laughed to acknowledge the compliment, “But choosing between pussy and no pussy, I’ll vote for pussy every time. And these German girls… they’re real sweet. Even the Oldies got Goodies! Dig?”

“Dig. Thanks for elucidating, brother. One more question. Why no sax?”

He winked. “Sax too popular.”

Benny is clearing his throat in the microphone and frowning into the spotlight, gesturing at his left ear for the sake of the sound man’s edification. Benny and his band count four and lumber into Why Do Fools Fall in Love? Frankie Lymon had a hit with it the first time around in 1957; Diana Ross did something big and silly with it again in the ‘80s. Compositionally, it’s a brilliant construction; the magic is mostly in the balance between short and long phrases in the melody. The pattern is too complex to have been a calculated effect… it must have been a gift from the composer’s subconscious. Ginger hasn’t heard the tune in many years; hearing it is just like being a teenager again. Singing an octave below Lymon’s version, Benny soars, nevertheless… clowning a bit like Satchmo through the bridge; clutching his chest and feigning a staggering heart attack through the start-and-stop drum break leading out of the bridge and back into the chorus.

It turns out that sitting at a table directly in front of Ginger’s new spot are the young Turkish lovers. They are very straight-backed and formal looking. They could be West-Side-Story-era Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn. He with his short black patent-leather hair, in his secondhand burgundy blazer and she with her black silk scarf of hair down the back of a sequined blue dress, hair tied high on her head with a single white ribbon. They sit at a formal distance from each other, but Ginger can see, on closer inspection, that they are holding hands under the table. Sitting as still and straight and proper as opera-goers above the table, below it they are conducting a passionate romance. Their hands are desperate and clumsy. Ravenous birds. Ravens.

They’re from a culture he can’t begin to parse. American teens haven’t been this sexually repressed and socially circumspect in sixty years. Their postures are mannequin-like: their cheeks are glazed and their hair molded. He wonders if they’ve even done more than kiss yet; has anyone discussed with these round-cheeked, glossy, hormone-bedeviled teens what Americans half a century ago referred to as the birds and bees? Being a Turkish virgin, does she have any idea what a blow job is? Does she have any idea of the importance of the blow job… of its physio-philosophical function and its place as a lever attached to the vast clockwork of the male animal’s outlook on life? It goes without saying that her boyfriend eschews the Hercules trial of eating pussy. Ginger toasts them, lifting his blood-red wineglass into the sacred beam of the spotlight like an Arthurian chalice of bitter dregs.

Benny’s bassist is doing what’s normally the sax solo in the song, thwacking his E string with that big black paw, humping the instrument around the stage as with a fat drunk amorous wife. It isn’t even a half-full house by now, but there are two or three obviously single ladies in the audience and the whole six-piece is working hard to get their special attention. The spot light follows the bass until its return to its original position, at the end of the solo, behind Benny, to his left, snug with the drummer, and then Benny, wiping the sweat off his brow in another shameless steal from Satchmo, talks his way through a rough soliloquy on Love.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Laze an’ jennimin, “Why do fools fall in love?”

Ginger cups his hands around his mouth and shouts “You tell us, Benny!” Everyone in the audience turns to get a look when he does that but he doesn’t care… being German they don’t understand that he is merely doing his duty as a member of Benny’s audience. The band stretches like an old cat into a lazy breakdown: just a throb of drums and the mumbling bass. Benny, with a bewildered look on his face, shouts, “Why do birds sing so gay?” He then addresses the bassist, “Bubba, you know any gay birds, man?”

Bubba (because he has no mic of his own) does a comedic shrug.

“What about you, Sticks?” pleads Benny, shifting his attention to the drummer, who at this point is keeping the beat alive with the kick drum alone like a bus driver working the gas pedal in bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour. “You ever seen a gay pigeon on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, brother?”

Benny gestures at a fifty-something orange-skinned woman with a shy chin and upswept bleached-blonde hair, in a low-cut blouse and tight jeans, seated near a monitor, who has been calling attention to herself by clapping in time to the one and three of the beat in a way Ginger once saw teenagers do in a Frankie Avalon movie on his grandmother’s Magnavox console television one evening that had his aunts and uncles, gathered around the set, hooting and catcalling with high mockery.

With much coaxing, the orange blonde stands from her table and comes forward, waving her hands with giddy shame. Benny helps her onstage and in doing so has formally declared his bed for the evening. Picture it: Benny’s shiny black booty just pumping away; the blonde, like a self-hating vanilla pudding, bouncing under his semi-oblivious weight. Benny will invest as much passion in the act as a bear scratching his ass on the bark of an old tree.

2.

The unspeakable secret that Ginger holds dear to his heart is that blacks are different. They are something else entirely, the lost tribe of a bejeweled galaxy, possibly, and if that isn’t obvious in how they performed plantation physics on 17th century Calvinist Psalmody and came up with Thelonius Sphere Monk, it’s evident in how you can never just casually look at a purely black person. Skin so black it’s like ten thousand books printed in one novel.

Thursday night at the Happy Ours is not Benny’s night. No sign of any member of his back-up band The Midnighters either. Tonight on stage there’s just an older-looking woman singing her self-pitying cabaret-style blues, accompanied by a German pianist who sports the irritating affectation of a porkpie hat and with whom she has little apparent rapport. After Ginger’s temperate applause, at the finish of every number, the singer can be heard, off-microphone, to inquire, politely, “Can we do____?” and the pianist either nodding or shaking his head. The singer’s name, it says on a cheap little handout on every empty table in the deserted club, is Ms. Madrid.

Perfect, thinks Ginger.

Ms. Madrid, the b&w handout (in design reminiscent of a program for a Baptist funeral) goes on to say, has performed in the classiest venues of Europe-from The Midnight Son in Stockholm to Harry Chin’s in London’s SoHo and all points East and West in Germany. She has toiled in the business of show against the backdrop of many of the most momentous occasions of the latter half of the 20th century, from the Vietnam War and Watergate to Chernobyl and the fall of The Berlin Wall. Been through it all and still Ms. Madrid is here, the ambassadress for music’s uplifting message of let the rhythm take you and keep on keepin’ on! By any means necessary!

Ginger is of the opinion that Ms. Madrid resembles the late great Congresswoman and would-be nominee for the 1968 Democratic presidential candidacy Shirley Chisolm. She is wearing big round pink-tinted sunglasses and a white scarf over a black wig and dressed in a belted house dress featuring a green and yellow floral pattern. She’s shuffling around the stage in silver-buckled kelly-green flats, vintage 1973. She is tall and svelte and dull black as cold tar.

Ms. Madrid is old and perplexingly dressed but there is something seasoned about her performance. The way she shuffles rhythmically from one side of the stage to the other, singing down into the mic with her eyes closed, her glossy, tousled Supremes-like wig just ever so slightly out of alignment. It’s rather hypnotic. Her singing is very close to talking but not tart or acerbic or bitterly drunk in the manner of Nina Simone’s. It’s in the awkwardly intimate register of a widow talking to herself whilst conscious of being overheard. When a song ends she looks up, blinking, as though the hypnotist has snapped his fingers and she takes a bow to Ginger’s temperate applause. Even he can’t tell if he’s mocking her or paying his respects or making like a man in a seal suit at a bootleg circus.

Ms. Madrid is what Ginger thinks of as one of The Old Ones… blacks who are the great-grandchildren of former slaves. In other words they knew former slaves; former slaves were members of the family; former slaves featured in the boredom of daily life. What is a history book compared to that? Hear it all from the horse’s mouth: what burning tar hitting fear-cold flesh smells like; the special, rarely-heard character of a genuine dying scream. The reek, dimensions and appearance of the plantation shit ditch and so on. Ms. Madrid is singing:

I been so down
That sweet little hole in the ground
Sound like my mountain top.
I said I been so down
That sweet little hole in the ground
Sound just like my mountain top
When they finally lay me in it
I know I got my big jackpot

The waitress appears at Ginger’s side with another drinks menu, laying a bold little hand on his shoulder. Her coin-blonde hair is in pigtails. Ginger gestures for her to lower her edible-looking ear to his lips.

“The names of all the really expensive drinks are too pornographic for my virgin lips to utter.”

“Agreed. Why don’t you just order a beer, which you can sip until my shift is over, and then you take me home?”

“When is your shift over?”

“When you finish the beer.” She squeezes his shoulder and goes for the beer.

There is a sudden hush in the darkly glittered room (the mirror ball is piebald with the lacunae of great age) and Ginger realizes that Ms. Madrid is taking her bows for the first set. He claps. Ms. Madrid shields her eyes against the spotlight and addresses the audience. “Thank you, thank you lady and gentleman. We’ll be taking a little intermission now, restrooms are in the back to the left and please don’t forget to tip your waitresses.” She climbs down off the stage and shuffles towards Ginger’s table.

She removes her sunglasses. “I thought I’d come over and say hello to my audience. May I?”

Ginger gestures that she may and she sits. He says, “You’ve got a good instrument.”

She replies, biting the stem of her sunglasses, “Have I? I always thought of myself as more like a tour guide through the song, see what I’m saying? Like, ladies and gentlemen, if you look out your windows to the right you’ll see the chorus.”

Ginger finds the way she talks while chewing the stem inexplicably sexy, despite the fact that she must be about his mother’s age. “But,” she adds, “I’d be the last one in this room to deflect a compliment, Sugar. Much appreciated. Are you in the industry?”

“How could you tell?”

“You’re looking at me like you’re trying to figure out what you’d change.”

“I wouldn’t change a thing, to tell you the truth.”

“You wouldn’t? Not even my age, Sugar?”

“Your age is a part of the package.”

“Spoken like a true professional.”

“No, this is the gifted amateur you’re talking to now. I’m off-duty. And anything I say off-duty has a more… personal… meaning to it.”

“I hear that.”

Ginger leans forward. “You know what?”

“What?”

“I know I don’t know you from Adam but…I feel I can talk to you.”

“That’s probably because you don’t know me. And I don’t know anybody you know. So confessing to me wouldn’t…”

Ginger chuckles. “Confessing.”

“Whatever it is you’d like to get off your chest, Sugar. Ms. Madrid is all ears, and her lips are sealed.” She mimes locking her lips with a little key and dropping the key down the cleavage-free front of her dress.

“You don’t want to hear my troubles, Ms. Madrid.”

“Let me be the judge of that. Start with the easiest.”

“You’ll think I’m nuts.”

Ms. Madrid folds her hands in her lap and leans back. “How old do you think I am?” She assumes a stern expression. “Be honest now.”

“65?”

“Add ten to that. Ten and a half, technically.”

“Wow.”

“Wow is right. 75 years on this planet. Never dreamed I’d make it past 50. Born in Biloxi Mississippi, moved to Chicago with my family when I was still a child. Migrated, I mean. Six brothers and four sisters. I was not the youngest but I’m the only one left.” She raps the table. “And in that span of time I have seen a thing or two. And I’ve known some real nuts. Some were even world famous nuts.”

“Such as?”

“Ever hear of an eccentric fellow name of Dali?”

“The melting clocks? The mustache?”

“When I knew Sal, his favorite pastime was sniffing the pinkie finger on his left hand. Refused to wash it. If Sal wasn’t twirling the tips of his mustache, he was sniffing that dirty little finger. You’d try to shake his hand or hug him and he’d stick this finger out at you.”

“Charming.”

They both laugh and Ms. Madrid continues, “Lived in Paris when I was just a skinny young thing, even skinnier than I am now, and I knew them all… poets, writers, painters, aristocrats, spoiled expats, local madmen, pimps,whores and even regular old working class people. Because a tight little colored behind is always welcome, pardon my French. This was long before my flirtation with showbiz. Back then I dreamed dreams of an entirely different color, Sugar. Back then I had dreams of becoming a writer. Silly me.”

“Gave up on the dream?”

“May it rest in peace.”

“Why?”

“What’s a nigger gonna write about being a nigger that previous niggers haven’t already writ?”

“Aha.”

She says, with amazement, “There’s only the one damn nigger book in the world and they keep writing the tired old thing over and over again. Starts with abject poverty and ends with self-awareness. You know the drill.”

“I know the drill.”

“But I ain’t bitter.”

Ginger winks. “Why should you be?”

Ms. Madrid smiles teasingly with her chin resting on one big flat palm. Ginger hasn’t seen a nose this broad in thirty years. Nor teeth so large and white. He feels as though he’s made some kind of discovery. As a young man he would have considered this face as plain as a dusty boot in a junk shop, but it strikes him now that her face is something of strange and magnetic and militantly exotic beauty. She could be from another planet. With her long, attenuating fingers and elbow straw legs. She could be a Venusian. Her age merely adds to this impression. He imagines her in a foil suit, an ancient giantess climbing out of the charred husk of trowel-shaped pod in the side of a steaming iceberg. In a wig.

The waitress is making the trip back to the table with his symbolic beer on a symbolic tray and Ms. Madrid, aware of Ginger’s fascination with her face, nods towards the approaching waitress and says (quickly, softly), “Girlfriend?”

Ginger shakes his head. “Just… a girl.”

Ms. Madrid says, “Are you sure about that?” and smiles enigmatically as the waitress sets the bottle on the table. Ginger says to the waitress, “Ms. Madrid was just telling me about Paris after the war.”

“I want to hear it. But what can I get you to drink first?”

“A glass of white wine would be much appreciated.”

“I have to say that I am loving your voice. You sing and I want to be a baby in her cradle.”

They all laugh. Ginger puts a finger lightly to the waitress’s arm. “Hear that, Ms. Madrid? The young lady is highly attuned. And that makes two of us.”

Ms. Madrid slips her sunglasses on. “Why not make it three?”

The big surprise, when it finally comes, will make Ginger laugh and Benny, too, when he hears about it. The blond will be lots less amused.

I am Philly Dawg

 Recovered_JPEG_9586

Before marrying Luddy, way back in what Luddy refers to disparagingly as Bobbi’s “interesting past,” Bobbi had been married, for not quite a year, to a boyish man named Charlton Diggins. This was back in Philly. Bobbi suspected from the beginning that Charlton was a guy of Jewish descent trying to pass himself off as a guy of Italian descent, and she’d liked that about him.

She’d suspected it was Charlton’s mother who was the X-factor, because Charlton was strangely evasive about both his mother and his mother’s side of the family. He said she was dead and Bobbi asked when, were you a child or already grown, because it might explain some things, but he’d seemed to need a few seconds to decide what was what before answering her. Or maybe it’s how your mind freezes when you’re talking to a Customs Official, but Bobbi wasn’t a Customs Official, she was Charlton Diggins’s newlywed bride, Roberta Gertrude Fortneaux Diggins, and he was obviously, touchingly, making it up, the line about his mother died in child birth. Charlton tried to pass off his three-second pause of invention as grief but Bobbi assumed it was shame and that Charlton’s mother was a Jewess maybe living right there in Philadelphia. He had that look about him, and Philadelphia was the kind of city in which you might lie about something like that in 1977.

The black roofs of the gray row-homes in Germantown are slick as rain hats in the fog at daybreak. Mornings in Philly can seem like classical mornings in a seaport and you do glimpse errant gulls sometimes, spiraling over rotted weathervanes and the witchy black fingers of Prussian spires. Bobbi loved the 19th century row-homes of Germantown with their bracketed cornices and flat roofs, built of Wissahickon schist. She tried sketching a block of these immaculately painted row-homes on a mostly black street from a corner bus stop one morning but found it was more pleasurable to look than draw. Three mornings in a row she tried and failed. The final morning of that little project she had an episode with some frisky black kids toting book bags shouting, “Draw me!” “Draw me!” “Hey lady, draw me!”

Three minutes felt like hours. They left Bobbi with a frozen grin and a racing heart when the SEPTA bus finally wheezed to a halt at the stop and took the little devils away. The blouse under her nylon windbreaker was soaking with sweat. Why did these kids scare her so? They were just kids.

Bobbi was 26 when she met her future first husband, 26 and feeling old and anxious to get married. No lines yet on her face, hair still dense and shiny, figure Huck-Finnish if tall. She wasn’t living at home with her parents, she was set up in a leafy little back-of-the-building apartment on Penn Street about a ten minute walk to the three storey house of her birth, on Queen Lane, where she was expected to stop by a few times a week, vulnerable to the pressure to do so by dint of being single and without a career.

Bobbi just didn’t have it in her to pretend to be too busy to visit her depressing parents. All of her school friends had 5-year-old sons and careers and Bobbi had a part time job and an easel. She rarely watched television. She was trying to be a painter, devouring winsome biographies of Picasso and Chagall and Modigliani over canned ravioli for dinner and then painting in stinkless, unserious acrylic well into the strangely suburban Philadelphia night by candle light, listening to the thick shiver of the breezed leaves of the Elms and the hourly clatter of the number 26 trolley up Wayne avenue and the lonely attenuated bark of a dog in another neighborhood. The dog became her mascot and her familiar. You bark and I paint. We are faithful to our given tasks while the lockstep world is sleeping.

Working in an art supply store, Bobbi was plugged into an endless source of children and old women with projects and hobbies but never had the serious art conversations with up and coming painters she’d dreamed of when applying for the job. Where were the up and coming painters of Philly buying their supplies? Were they all grinding their own pigments? She could well imagine that buying commercial tubes of paint was some kind of uncool capitulation in the eyes of artistic geniuses and that’s how she began to think of herself: the timid kind of amateur who not only used tubes of store-bought paint but had a part-time job in the store she bought them in.

The only thing Bobbi had going for herself artistically speaking was monomania. She knew that much about art, that monomanias are good. Versatility is show-offy and evolution is craftsmanlike but monomania bespeaks the psychological disturbances that average citizens and patrons of the art expect worthwhile artists to suffer. Over and over again she painted her hieroglyphic of the barking dog, mouth open and tail straight back. The dog was either barking or howling.

Eventually she worked with Krylon spray paint and a cardboard stencil for iconic mass-produced accuracy, but the fumes indoor were too much so she sprayed outside, in the back yard, with the canvases propped against the hurricane fence, which began looking geometrically diseased with partial rectangles of various colors. Bobbi got the bold inspiration one humid, meteorologically backed-up evening to just keep on going through the fence gate and down the alley with the spray can and the stencil and do it on a nearby office building. Just an unobtrusive and enigmatic silhouette in black metallic spray paint on the building’s cornerstone, right next to the A.D. MCMXXXVII, the execution of which produced in Bobbi’s skull the soft pop of an artistic breakthrough orgasm. A middle aged (in her mind) white (to all appearances) middle class (irrefutably) graffitist. One of those things where it suddenly hits you you’ve been heading this direction all along. Your whole life.

Spraying on public structures at 3am was an intensely sexual thrill for her…like a skin change operation she could undo every daybreak and re-do every night…it was like having Velcro’d genitals; a black set and a white set for night and day respectively. The black set of course male.The risk was distinct considering Frank Rizzo’s notorious graffiti-hating cops and here she was, suddenly engaging them on their territory, or at least trafficking in their milieu, while her old Main Line school friends with proper careers and lyrically named 5 year olds and nannies were only reading about the brutality and strife in the morning papers and tut-tut-tutting over their sectioned grapefruits. This city is becoming a multicultural trash basket. In a way her long lost school chums were all now hearing from Bobbi, picking up her vibrations in the ether as she added her note to the million-note chord of the streets that frightened them above and below the range of conscious human hearing.

Something about becoming some kind of measurable graffiti presence in Germantown, Philadelphia, triggered in Bobbi thoughts more serious and curious about black kids. They scared the hell out of her, no matter how much safely-distant concern or affection she managed to scrape up for them from her wholly other sphere. Why? Black kids scared the hell out of her and scared the hell out of others like her as well as others unlike her and even other black kids, too. Part of it was just the fearsomeness of kids, period; everyone in America is afraid of American kids because kids have a worldview and a budget and spending power which dictates much of the look of the modern world, certainly commercial spaces, arguably private space also, and that’s power enough to be afraid of. And beneath that the deranged impulsiveness, the famous cruelty, the avid gift in the art of wounding truths…

Which would seem to sum it up but if you come across two or three white youngsters in an urban setting it’s not an intrinsically frightening experience. It’s frightening if you call them juveniles but not if you call them youngsters. But if you refer to black kids as youngsters you’re not being wholly sincere: what you mean is juveniles. And that is a scary word.

Black kids were by no means the majority of the population in that integrated neighborhood called Germantown but they were the main unspoken topic of discussion. Condensed vectors of guilt and anarchy. Once you’ve made a serious mark or painted illicitly on public space you never again look at public space the same; you find yourself seeing lots of unmarked, unused, image-ready surfaces where before you saw banal or forbidding municipal order. Crossing that line is liberating but also feels like mess-making and the constant struggle to rein it in. The sense of “public” versus “private” vanishes completely after the first few times you cross that line and Bobbi realized that poor black kids with cans of shoplifted Krylon had become the psychological landlords of massive tracts of real estate simply by labeling it. Without bothering to write doctoral thesises on the topic they explored the limits of appropriation, grasping with a collective intuition that property law is the white man’s graffiti and by writing over the writing they have amended it. The white man’s graffiti is fine print. Imagine graffiti all over the White House. It wouldn’t be the White House any more.

Bobbi’s own self-esteem skyrocketed after she became a clandestine trademark on the blank spots of her neighborhood and as a side-effect acquired another valuable secret to add to her repertoire, becoming even less knowable to her mother and her friends and so much more knowable to herself. Not that she was as one with those juveniles with their gang code juvenilia, advertising in the glyph of the gonad. She was doing it in her own well-educated pretty white woman way with a neat little stencil and a smirk.

Her apotheosis as a graffitist in her neighborhood of Germantown, Philadelphia arrived the Tuesday afternoon she’d hired two kids, two twelve or thirteen year old black kids who lived in her building and should have been in school but weren’t…kids just sitting on the back steps right outside her bedroom window making, what, trucks or motorcycles or super-heroes-battling noises…she hired them for five dollars apiece to come in and haul her old sofa bed out to the curb. Just to shut them up. Even though what would she sleep on before she bought the next one?

They filed in through her screen door with sheepish grins and asymmetrical afros, weirdly embarrassed, she guessed, to be alone in an intimate space with an attractive young white woman; they were over-polite yet precociously sexual; and she offered them each a glass of powdered lemonade mix before delegating who would tackle which end of the sofa bed. Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am, they said, and Bobbi entered the kitchen, a move that took no more than a sidestep, and she heard the taller, thinner boy say to the stockier darker one, in a stage whisper, “Check it out, she rippin’ off Philly Dawg!”

Ripping off Philly Dawg. Bobbi peeped back into the living room, while the tap water ran, to see the boys stooped over the stack of her original barking dog canvases leaning against the radiator. She couldn’t believe it; her first acknowledgement; she did a little dance in the kitchen. Philly Dawg?

When Charlton Diggins came into Germantown Graphic Supply the next day, Bobbi was still so jazzed in the unrevealed guise of Philly Dawg that she parlayed the man’s shy query about piñata-making (he was a substitute teacher) into coffee and cheesecake at the Maplewood mall, her treat. There was something about this gangling Charlton, she thought. Trying to pass himself off as Italianate when in fact he was almost certainly a Jew. She liked how vulnerable and literary that made him seem. She liked how open-minded it made her feel. She imagined saying with a breezy Norman Lear sitcom inflection, “Honey, I don’t give a damn if you’re a Zarathustran as long as you don’t pick your nose or wear my panties,” in response to his tearful confession. All in good time, she counseled herself. All in good time.

Bobbi would stand in the autobiographies aisle of Paige Turner’s, the Chestnut Hill bookshop, one among a half dozen Madras-shirt-wearing graduate-school-age white women on the premises, thinking: I am Philly Dawg.

The day before inviting master Diggins over to her apartment for the first time ever, she’d hidden all the art paraphernalia, hidden or destroyed all the old paintings, because she had an absolute horror of seeing herself as some kind of pathetic would-be artist through her man-boy’s eyes. Better to present herself as unapologetically shop girlish. Defiantly boho shabby genteel. An espresso-drinking, highly literate, flat-broke style snob. The barking dog stencil and the three or four cans of Krylon she secreted in a big canvas purse with a curved bamboo handle and vivid threadbare bowls of fruit stitched on each side her mother had given her after a Golden Wedding Anniversary trip she took alone to Nassau, in the Bahamas. The stuffed canvas purse Bobbi kept in the basement.

After the wedding, Bobbi forgot all about her life as an irony-cloaked municipal art guerilla for all of six months, or until the honeymoon was irremediably over. It was definitively played out, the honeymoon, when the sex lost all of its unprecedentedness and entered the workaday schedule inked in for Monday evenings following CBS’s The Jeffersons. Once a week sex on a rigid schedule. At which point Philly Dawg soon found herself at it again, sneaking out at all hours of the night during her husband’s deeply effort-wracked postcoital sleep. Kicking and twitching. What inner-conflict was the poor wretch rehashing unresolved every night? At whose eidolon was he twitching and whimpering? Surely not Bobbi’s.

Sneaking out with an adulterer’s thrill, she claimed new buildings, new streets, and kelly-green awnings became attractive to her. Kelly-green, brick-red and royal blue. Hotels, pricier restaurants and funeral homes. She noticed that nobody had thought of doing the awnings yet and she did them so neatly that her work looked like discreet corporate logos on the projection flaps. In the beginning, she’d found faking orgasms with her newlywed husband to be an erotic experience but spraying projection flaps soon replaced that.

She got to the point that the end credits reprise of the sitcom’s theme song made her shoulders tense and her vagina very dry. Knowing that her husband would soon be reaching across to switch off that little lamp on the night table on her side of the double bed. Conjugal duty: the phrase started life as a chauvinism-lampooning joke between them and morphed into something more hideous every time it went unspoken. Six months: it flew by like a week that took an eternity and turned out to be the actual extent of their marriage. Trial period. Bobbi began rehearsing that phrase. Philly Dawg began targeting the 26 trolley. Taking therapeutic risks.

Therapeutic risks in the dead of night and Charlton’s interminable tales of Charlton Diggins, blue-eyed crusading substitute school teacher over dinner and The Jeffersons on Monday: that was her married life. This is what I got married for? She’d sit there nodding while he gestured emphatically. Relating in great anecdotal detail how dumb the kids could be while regularly gushing the liberal alibi of how smart they were. These kids are so smart, Bobbi. Running his hands through his curly ash-colored hair and then cupping his face in them. And that other liberal bromide that Bobbi takes exception to and wanted to correct Charlton over every time he uttered it: children are the future. No, children are not the future they are the past…the elderly are the future.

She found herself slipping more and more Yiddish into their dinner time conversations. She found herself placing a box of Matzoh on top of the refrigerator. A secondhand copy of the Bernard Malamud Reader on top of the toilet tank. She wanted that confession. She needed it soon.

Even the shock of the size of Charlton’s penis had devolved from delight to dread via a transitory phase of familial boredom, and her childhood gag reflex came back in spades. She reminisced fondly about tongue depressors. She’d get cold tears in her eyes and see stars. Performing it felt like a sorority hazing.

The only value at all Bobbi could find in Charlton’s favorite show The Jeffersons was in the marriage of Helen and Tom Willis, secondary characters, television’s first interracial couple. They were metaphysically privy, in a Jungian sense, to Bobbi’s racial secret and she nurtured the imaginary rapport, turning their straight lines into insights. Charlton would belly-laugh at George Jefferson’s zebra taunts and Bobbi would narrow her eyes.

Christmas Eve the year they married the sky was a low ceiling and the air was a loom of fluff, the flakes falling so densely they didn’t appear to be falling at all but rather stacked or even rising in air, muffling sound and holying the street and haloing the streetlights, and it was the scintillating spaces between the flakes themselves that seemed to be falling cold and invisible to earth. Bobbi put Charlton to bed early with goose and a handjob and bundled up and was out in it on the perfectly deserted streets in her Dostoevskian greatcoat, relishing the spectacle.

Just her alone on the blinded streets, the padded cell of the night, everything cold and swollen and soft…the only intense little burning pattern of color coming from the traffic lights changing from green to yellow to red with post-apocalyptic poignancy. The only sound was Bobbi’s frosted breath and Bobbi’s crunching boots. Even that distant neighborhood dog, the prototype of her graphic mission, her lone inspiration and spirit familiar, was silenced out there in the fused horizon, painted out under blankness. She thought of the word Leningrad as she set herself like an italic exclamation mark against the crumbling wind as it picked up, tickling and numbing her face. Up Penn to Wakefield, south on Wakefield for thirty minutes straight to Garfield, north on Garfield to Wister Woods Park. It’s a Christmas Eve blizzard and the only marks in the deep snow besides Bobbi’s gashing footprints are clover-shaped rabbit tracks printing the path leading into the park’s southern entrance like a whimsical invitation from the spirit of the park itself.

Entering the park from its north entrance is a tall, well-built 17 year old black boy in a brand new camouflage parka from the Army Surplus store on Chestnut Street, hood down, dark face vivid in the snowlight. The black boy outweighs Bobbi by a good thirty or forty pounds, as slender as he is (and as tall as she is), and if she were to find herself walking towards him on a dark street her dread of his approach would be incalculable and only properly described in physiological terms. But as it is she spies him from a comfortable vantage in a thicket on a hill, on her belly, laying up a snow dune in her greatcoat, bundled under the coat in itchy sweaters, peering over the top of the little hill. Watches him pick a fluff-upholstered bench under the white canopy of ancient oak and elm branches that half-shelter them both from the wind-shot snow. If she were a member of the Wehrmacht’s snow patrol and he were a Leningrad partisan she could lob a grenade over the thicket right into his lap.

The secret proximity to such a figure of terror is perversely delicious, even better than watching a panther in a zoo because here there are no bars and the panther doesn’t know he’s being watched. What’s he doing here? Sitting on a bench in a blizzard in Wister Woods Park. This big kid glowing black in the shadowed snowlight and the frozen trees making that occasional gun crack sound from the matrix of branches. He’s sitting there like Buddha in a snow globe.

He is thinking. Thinking back over the events of the evening. Just sitting and thinking all alone in the park while snow falls and kids all over Philly are dreaming in the aftermath of A Charlie Brown Christmas or The Grinch or Rudolph (Frosty the Snowman doesn’t rate a mention; Frosty is bullshit) or whichever cartoon perennial was on tonight. Innocent little kids who play stick ball in the summer and toboggan on flattened cardboard boxes down hills like the hills in the park here in winter and know not a thing about the pleasures and terrors of the real world. You think tobogganing down a steep hill on a flattened cardboard box is terrifying? You think it’s fun? Kid, you have no idea. Trust me. Sleeping furiously after the cartoons through the unbearable suspense of what did I get on Christmas morning. Only the cartoons as the years go by will definitely mean more to you than the toys you got the next morning; more than the train set, the GI Joe, everything.

His favorite will always be the Burl Ives-narrated stop-animation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer… due mainly to the character Clarice, the sweet little big-eyed reindeer with the white girl voice who remains faithful to the outcast Rudolph despite his freakishness. Despite the deformation of his glowing nose. Even Rudolph’s parents are ashamed of him and treat him like shit.

High point of the show is when Clarice sings to Rudolph there’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true. He’s seen Clarice sing this song to Rudolph what…ten times? Once a year since he was seven or something. He missed it the year before last because he felt it appropriate at fifteen to have outgrown such frippery but sure enough the very next year his ass was on that corduroy sofa in front of the color television and he misted up a little, careful to hide the childish reaction, when it came time for Clarice to sing. Well this year he guesses he really was too old for Clarice’s song of hope because he missed the show not for psychological reasons but because he was too busy fucking his 54 year old aunt, and if that’s not too grownup for cartoons, what is? Knocking on the door to his room in her transparent nightie holding a candle and with no underwear on going Merry Christmas.

The young man has a lot to think about. Even the categories of the thoughts he must think are many, from humorous (the way she’d kept whispering, gasping, with fake mounting panic, what are you doing? What are you doing? And he’d had a thought to shout I’m cleaning the rain gutters, what does it look like I’m doing?), to the philosophical (did he fuck her or did she fuck him?), to the scientific (what possible purpose could evolution find in making a 17 year old boy want to copulate with a woman beyond childbearing age?), to the moral (should I be ashamed? Should she? Should both of us?), to the legal (what if somebody finds out and reports it?). He imagines himself writing a love poem to his 54 year old Aunt and it makes him sick to his stomach. Well that’s the worst aspect of this whole situation. Nobody to write a love poem for. Nobody from whom to receive one.

Bobbi thinks: what’s that sound? Is the big black boy sitting on that bench there in a blizzard in Wister Park with his shoulders heaving…is he sobbing?

When her father revealed their secret to her while sitting among soft shreds of his own semen in the bathtub, 17-year-old Bobbi absorbed the news with only the slightest lurch of disorientation. This is a girl who could light a cigarette in a hurricane, she was thinking. She didn’t become suddenly and extraordinarily invested in Black History; she didn’t even become a self-hating Negrophobe in a wounded psychotic sense. She calmly folded the information about her particle of blackness into a corner of her deepest self for future delectation. It gave her strength to know that she and her father both knew what her mother didn’t know…both knew that her mother didn’t know.

For giving her that, if for nothing else, Bobbi was grateful to him, pathetic as his need for sedative bathtub handjobs was. All daughters crave a secret with Daddy they can call their very own and some think it’s incest until it happens but in Bobbi’s case the incest wasn’t a secret, it was part of the culture of their nuclear family. The real secret was so much bigger than that.

The kid is definitely crying.

Being a veteran (she refused the word victim) of incest explained nothing about her. But being an octoroon explained the strange prettiness she couldn’t have inherited from any known member of either side of her family: her aptitude for perfect tans and her incongruously full lower lip and the rich thick wave of her buttery hair…it all made perfect sense now, solving a riddle she hadn’t even realized was driving her nuts. The mirror finally made sense to her. Her mirror finally fit. Bobbi, 27, would stand in line at the Whole Truth Co-Op with other Birkenstock-wearing white women buying lentils in three pound sacks, thinking, I am Philly Dawg.

Belly-down in her great coat on the snow dune that night in Wister Park like one of Rommel’s soldiers in North Africa, only with chattering teeth and no binoculars, up on that little hill spying down on the big sobbing black boy, Bobbi was thinking I am Philly Dawg. How many years since she has thought that?

Her first husband Charlton came stumbling up from the basement in a Eureka state one day while she was napping off lunch on the new sofa bed; he burst into the living room swinging the dusty old canvas purse from Nassau crying “You? It’s you? You’re Philly Dawg?”

He’d been in the basement looking for stuff for a Valentine’s Day project, and Bobbi was horrified at how cutesy-fied she suddenly felt; how patronized; how utterly destroyed the meaninglessly cool thing she’d been devoting herself to for months became in her incompatible husband’s fuckface knowledge of it. How small. He knelt by the sofa bed and cupped his face in his hands and said, “I have a confession to make, too.”

She divorced him soon after the revelation. Not, of course, because he’d confessed to being a Negro. But that was definitely her excuse.

The Black [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

 

Berlin (1237)

 

   Berlin (Reuters)-Police in re-unified Germany’s capitol announced today that a serial rapist targeting elderly women has been active in the Charlottenburg, Mitte and Moabit neighborhoods of that city. The suspect is described as a tall, well-built, extremely handsome dark-skinned black male of approximately thirty-five years of age who speaks English with an American accent and wears a dark blue woolen cap. The six reported victims of the alleged rapist are said to be between the ages of seventy two and seventy eight years of age and of a uniformly tall, handsome, aristocratic appearance. At least three of the alleged victims are of “blue blood” by birth, and the others by marriage, sporting the tell-tale “von” prefix in their surnames. Police are as of now unwilling to speculate on a possible motive, but have confirmed that the alleged victims display few signs of physical trauma as a consequence of the so-called attacks, and forensic experts have been unable to establish evidence of forcible entry at the purported crime scenes. Women who fit the victim profile are strongly cautioned to exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of individuals matching the description of the alleged perpetrator.

There is a secondhand English language book store around the corner. A basement shop. The Black feels like a man who has made a resolution to get in better shape and so takes the next opportunity to walk right up to… and then actually into… a Health Food Store, or a sports equipment shop, sucking in his gut and reading with great care the labels on year-supply tubs of vitamin E and Brewer’s Yeast and then hefting chrome barbells with a thought towards investing. But it’s his brain not his body he needs to improve and therefore a bookstore not a health shop he dutifully enters. He has to watch his head as he descends the steep concrete stairs into the sick fluorescent lighting. The dark wood floor is warped and paint-spattered and there are fat pipes (the color of the ceiling; the color of the spatters on the floor) racing across the ceiling and around a corner into the back room.

The not-entirely unattractive woman behind the glass counter, with unconvincingly jet black hair and not much chin, gives The Black the tolerant smile with which she means to put him at ease on the matter of whether she’ll hold against him his inevitable decision to circumambulate the store once and then leave without buying a single thing, never to return. Little does she know that The Black actually feels compelled to buy, and not only by her reassuring smile. He is on a self-improvement kick and hopes to walk out of this place with an armload of second-hand books because there’s no time like the present to start.

The Black read a few books in High School. There is a case to be made that Isaac Asimov is every bit the genius that Vladimir Nabokov is but even The Black suspects the case would be ridiculous. Where’s the literature he can lose himself in? Where is the book that isn’t merely a careerist tactic or an extension of the writer’s adolescent libido, rotten with clichés or sub-Joycean experiments in narrative and typography that invariably go dud? Where is the living, breathing and engagingly sincere literature? The stuff he can apply towards Life? The Truth Telling?

The Black picks up a handsome old volume with a photo of what looks like a sinister Edwardian chickenhawk on the cover and rifles the pages and puts it with vague reverence back. The Black hasn’t the slightest idea who Gertrude Stein is (although the name rings some kind of bell) and he has certainly never read Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha, the second story from Getrude Stein’s much-discussed Three Lives, so how could The Black possibly be aware of Richard Wright’s oleaginously positive assessment of Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of the Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein?

“The first long serious literary treatment of Negro life in the Unites States,” is how the Negro writer Richard Wright praises Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of Gertrude Stein.

“Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress,” writes Gertrude Stein about the character Rose Johnson in the Richard Wright-lauded Gertrude Stein story Melanctha. “Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose,” explains Gertrude Stein, “had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people.”

Richard Wright noted: “I gathered a group of semi-literate Negro stockyard workers… into a [Southside of Chicago] basement and read Melanctha aloud to them. They understood every word. Enthralled, they slapped their thighs, howled, laughed, stomped, and interrupted me constantly to comment upon the characters.”

Later in this edition of Gertrude Stein’s Selected Writings, sui generis Gertrude Stein displays her mastery (a mastery which clearly vindicates what might seem simple and racist in such writings of hers as Melanctha) in a piece inspired by travel, with her mousy factotum, to Spain: It can no sail to key pap change and put has can we see call bet. Show leave I cup the fanned best same so that if then sad sole is more, more not, and after shown so papered with that in instep lasting pheasant. Pheasant enough. Call africa, call african cod liver, loading a bag with news and little pipes restlessly so that with in between chance white cases are muddy and show a little tint…(sic)

What The Black doesn’t like is the feeling (imaginary?) that the shop girl’s eyes are trying to steer him towards the colorful rack of celebrity biographies to the immediate right of the door, or the LARGE TYPE sports “literature” that stands in the rack to the left of it, forming a lowbrow gateway The Black had to pass through before discovering the musty nest of middlebrow paperback fiction lining a water-stained wall.

These same books are always waiting to be rescued from places like this, and they are as unappealingly poignant as mustached Romanian orphans. The kind of books that not only infest and depress second-hand book stores all over the English-speaking world but infest and depress junk shops, too. Something about these books emits an aerosol of salt peter for the literary boner. Something about the cover designs, the typography, and even the stylistic content… everything… turns The Black off to the extent that he suddenly wants to circumambulate the shop and leave without buying a single thing, never to return, despite his avowed intent to purchase an armload of brain-improving literature.

“I am liking your shoes.”

The Black looks up at the shop girl. She’s smiling at him over the top of a tabloid newspaper, the Berliner Zeitung or BZ. The headline on the cover page in 72pt bold screams SCHWARTZE RAUBTIER!?!

“Thanks.”

“They are pretty… nearly the woman’s shoe. You have small feet to be so big.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“That’s a good one.” She nods towards the book that The Black is just then pushing back in its place on the shelf, making him feel obligated to pull it out again and pretend for a moment to re-consider it. One of Anais Nin’s old things.

The shop girl sighs and says, “She was so free!” The Black stares at the self-absorbed face on the cover of the book, examines the back cover with equal intensity and slips it, finally, into its slot again.

“She didn’t care what the world is thinking. That’s the best way, I think.”

“Yes, I agree.”

Without warning, the shop girl erupts into theatrical laughter, covering her mouth and apologizing. The Black picks up another book and rifles the pages and says “What?” without looking at her.

“I’m sorry, but I look at you and I think: he has many girlfriends.”

“No.”

“What sort of book are you looking for?”

“A good one.”

“They are all good. Every book was once somebody’s hopeless dream…that’s what I say.”

“It’s a nice thing to say.”

“Thank you.”

The Black smiles back at her and gestures awkwardly that he’s about to retreat into the back room to check out a bit more of the inventory. “Enjoy,” she says, and pretends to go back to reading her tabloid. But she looks up again as he turns his strong broad back.

Is it him?

The back room is a catacomb. The 70s saw a fecundity blip of middlebrow paperback production and the output (from huge pipes at key points around the globe?) seems to have papered the planet three or four times over in self-regarding, clunky, sexually summer-campish fiction, for The Black has been seeing exactly these books on the Lit shelves of second hand establishments for thirty years now, across twenty American states and four European countries, though some of the books are surely by now eighth, ninth, tenth hand…with penciled-in prices erased and re-written and erased again on the fly-leaf in layers of embossed pentimenti. Interesting thing, in the books where the successive prices are crossed-out rather than erased, is how the values first show a steady decline until bottoming out well below a dollar (or Deutschmark), but then a weird bounce-back, post-Internet, as books more and more became the spinster’s luxury item…decorative artifacts for the shut-in’s night stand. This Gravity’s Rainbow, for example: the penciled-in asking price is €8, far more than its original cost (in 1972) of $2.98, though it cannot be considered a collector’s item… the cosmic joke being that no way did any of the chain of seven people who once owned and then re-circulated this fat gold tome ever read it.

Shockingly, a paperback of a non-70s vintage has found its way in the tight slot between Irving and Mailer and The Black digs it out. Yellowed pages and a dark blue cover sporting a grid of four headshots of the heroes of another era titled FOUR GREAT MINDS: A QUARTET OF MEN WHO SHAPED THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Then, possessed of a sudden inspiration, The Black seeks the piously cloistered “ethnic, gender, disability” section to the far left (as much as he hates to) and finds one miraculous copy of a book he hasn’t much thought of in almost forty years: MANTAN in LILY LAND by Napoleon Fanon. He digs it out with trembling hands and experiences an instant erection. The book is like Viagra for him. He taps Fanon’s name on the cover.

Despite the considerable embarrassment of obviousness he must endure (a black man buying a book about black issues by a black writer; why not a Frenchman in a striped shirt and black beret in line to buy a baguette?), The Black marches right up to the shop girl and plunks down the money for this 1968 first edition paperback of ManTan in Lily Land (with its lurid, racist cover). The shop girl waves goodbye. Her heart is beating so hard that she can barely catch her breath.

Once he is home, the light on everything else around him in the room seems to dim as the book emits the melancholy glow of erotic nostalgia. Dusty, perched on the windowsill, closes her eyes when he catches her watching him caressing it. The laminated cover of the paperback, though yellowing and cracked, gleams with the image of a black giant’s gaudily be-ringed, kong-like hand as it grasps a creamy doll-sized nude blonde. Her pubes and nipples are tastefully hidden behind giant black fingers and the expression on her face is compellingly ambiguous. Her mouth is open. Her eyes are half shut. Terror? Rapture? Her hair is done in the big blonde aeronautical style of the late ‘60s, a platinum nose cone. ManTan in Lily Land. As a blurb has it, the shocking narrative of an urban pilgrim’s progress from stuttering Negro to bold Revolutionary

The Black’s bedroom is high-ceilinged (the ceiling ringed with the 30s-era ornamental plaster-work called Stück), with tall windows, white walls, and a hardwood floor. The floorboards are separated by quarter-inch gaps where some kind of putty used to be, and down between the boards, in these deep dark grooves, is the shoe-deposited stratified compote of twentieth century Berlin (dried cum and blood, dog shit and dandruff) along with a sprinkling of the desiccated essence of the 19th and the 21st centuries, too. This is an old old building, as rooted in the brittle block of Kant Strasse as a stone molar. Still, no unfamiliar ghosts have bothered to trouble him here, despite the various moans and howls and gasps these bedroom walls have absorbed during his tenacious occupancy.

He did, however, one Sunday morning, glancing up from a crossword, get an adrenalized glimpse of a hawk with a wingspan the length of a man’s body taking lunch in the linden outside that window… so close that The Black could’ve swung the window open and leaned on the sill and dared to tickle the bird’s wingtip with his finger… so close that The Black could see the baked dirt on the pale scruff of the creature’s wide neck where no contortion of beak was possible to preen it. With one talon the hawk clutched the headless body of a pigeon (an old unraveling sock), tearing off red bits and shuttering its big black Pentax of an eye at The Black… there was something of Herbert Von Karajan in the hawk’s profile as it took him in through the double-glazed window… and it did seem to give The Black a glance of disdain before lifting back off into the merciless grandeur of its natural element… but the ghosts he expected to haunt him in Deutschland… livid Aryans and mournful Jews and plaster-dusted, eyeless waifs… they never did materialize.

Though someone once put to The Black the chilling proposition that a certain percentage of the pale, poorly dressed and dour creatures one comes across in Berlin every day… on the streets and in the U-Bahn, in the bakeries and grocery stores… are, in fact, corporeal ghosts from the War. A casual removal of their dingy jackets or stained skirts would reveal the noose burns or perforations of ancient machine-gun fire. Why were these spectral scowlers still hanging around? They had nowhere else to go, rejected by the afterlife itself, having made the bizarrely stupid error of persecuting the Jews in a Universe run by the father of a world-famous rabbinical student.

The sun is setting. The sun has set.

Dusty is staring out the bedroom window with an unreadable expression as twilight suffuses the sky with dark blood and the courtyard lights click on, casting unvarying shadows in the high-walled courtyard. The black imploring shadow hands of three old leafless trees stretch across the grass and red brick tiles and stand up on the dirty stone wall under The Black’s windows like a creepy etching by Otto Dix. Across the courtyard, visible through gaps in the high foliage, life of a sort is evident in random windows, bright or dim, under the pearly folds of Europa’s view of the Milky Way.

A too-tall blonde in an evening gown is ironing pillow cases. A pacing man with vivid black hair is lecturing (with broad gestures) a white-haired straight-backed couple seated on opposite sides of a kitchen table, making his passionate case for Euthanasia, perhaps. Two white-capped guys in overalls are painting an empty room, under a bare bulb…a portable television is placed atop the third step-ladder. The movie on the portable television is full of explosions and the screen blossoms repeatedly with orange blooms of fire and digital debris intercut with close-ups of a small-eyed, blank-faced starlet and her swollen, parted lips.

Near-naked in his dark bedroom, spying on the well-ordered mystery of German existence through a wind-shifted scrim of moon-blue leaves, what The Black misses most at this moment is… cricket song. Cricket song, and the smoke from the incense they bought as kids for two a penny and called punk and burned to ward off mosquitoes. Cricket song, punk, lightning bugs and talcum powder. Oh, and adolescent armpits. And autumn leaves, burning in damp piles, and Doctor Pepper, or Wint-o-Green Life Savers, on a pretty girl’s breath. Laundry flapping on the line, both the sound and the smell of it. Hose-water hitting hot sidewalks.

And the ruckus of a two-blocks-distant, contentious game of twilight stickball and the hiss of traffic on a Sunday morning after a light rain and the bright orange taste of a Dreamsicle and the deep smell of Vaseline on his anus as the rectal thermometer slid in… he was sickly as a child and that rectal thermometer was always sliding in. Burnt pancakes… don’t forget burnt pancakes. Don’t forget the menacing odorous glow of RCA tubes through the grille in the back of an old timer’s radio. And the clank and roar of a coal-burning furnace and the pagan dance of the flames as his grandmother snatched the grate open with a hooked poker to shovel more in. A grass-covered gasoline-smelly lawn mower parked in a damp hot garage on a puddle of oil on the garage’s cracked floor. A box of stale coconut macaroons, too. Garden-fresh tomatoes and green beans in two dirty buckets. The pulse of windshield wipers versus the throb of tires across the steel matrix of a drawbridge and their doze-disturbing properties. The crackle of ozone from the loosely connected tracks of an electric train set. A brassiere from the dirty clothes hamper. The sharp black reek of a chicken coop. The electrifying odor of a brand new Schwinn bicycle, freshly stolen from the shop. Wet cardboard. Wet bandages. Wet dog. Paper-thin cicada song above a vacant lot. The smell of cornpone baking…

The Black caresses the cover of ManTan in Lily Land

With two flicks through the pages of the thick-as-a-porterhouse paperback, the pages red-edged as rare steak, he comes right to the most familiar passage of the book, as though the copy he holds in his hand is the one he read from originally, in the library, Chicago, 1968, Harriet Tubman Elementary…

“What do you want with me?” she demanded, her eyes aflame with hatred. No Negro had ever so much as made eye contact with this proud daughter of America’s Anglo Saxon ruling class, this much was clear. That I dared not only to stare her down with an equal hatred, while seizing her wrist in a grip whose strength had been forged in everything from the Memphis workhouse to the brutal stockyards of Chicago, but also to address her in a tone that the Master reserves for his servant, was beyond the pale.

I twisted that fragile white wrist until she was down on one knee, and, truth be told, the expression I showed her then would have frightened even me, had I seen it, for it meant only one thing, and both of us knew it. Still grasping her wrist with the one hand, I back-handed her with the other, and she sprawled at the foot of the king sized bed in her parent’s master bedroom, overlooked by a framed, crocheted American flag. The symbolism was striking. She touched a finger to her bleeding lip and wept softly as I unbuckled my belt.

“For centuries,” I growled, in a voice devoid of emotion,”what’s about to happen to you has happened to innocent Negro women at the hands of your rapacious forefathers…”

AMINA

photo by SG

 

A figure in a hooded lapis running suit rounded the northernmost curve of Lake Pleasant. Veered up the leaf-strewn incline to Pleasant Lake Road and cut across the fresh black of the asphalt. A pantheon of street lights looking more curious than protective craned over the runner as it ran under the unblinking eye of one after another in a long row before taking a sharp right up Plymouth Circle Drive.

She jogged the road’s middle as it curved into the heights of Pleasant Hill, canopied by elms as old as the city, a grand continuum of elms whose thoughts were obvious, though immemorially misinterpreted by tone-deaf humans as the meaningless rustle of leaves. She remained on the dotted median of the road, keeping the late model imports a good distance to her right. She exhaled in punchy syncopation with the soft slap of her excellent shoes on the pavement and when the moment was perfect she enjoyed the sensation that the world was a weighty treadmill rolling with incremental majesty beneath her feet. To top this pleasure she ran for a mile with her eyes closed, chin up and arms out-stretched like a child becoming an airplane.

Unlike the corona of dead brilliance around the lake, the Pleasant Hill sidewalks were lit with genteel inefficiency by electric faux gas lamps. These faux gas lamps were themselves so old they had become authentic antiques. The neighborhood was lovely yet hypothetically dangerous, too, so dark and moneyed and full of hiding places, though statistics continued to indicate that violent criminals remained remarkably reluctant to commute. Such criminal activity as could be found on ‘The Hill’ was merely quaint: leaf-burning; low level tax evasion; residents of a certain age keeping rubber-banded stashes of ‘ganja’ in mysteriously marked coffee cans on high shelves in their two-car garages.

The higher along the pretty spiral of Plymouth Circle Drive the runner ran, the more impressive, and stand-offish, the houses became. Parked cars thinned out and then disappeared from the curb entirely except for the occasional Beetle or half-restored vintage muscle car indicative of home-for-the-holidays offspring, and picket fences replaced hurricane fences and hedges replaced picket fences and the hedges grew lusher as she put on some speed. The hedges intensified into crennelated battlements, mutated into topiary fantasias and resolved into the simple-yet-vast, this last example being a description of the stately, ten foot tall, six foot deep hedge around the Van Metzger Estate. A moat wouldn’t have looked out of place around the Van Metzger estate.

She slowed as she approached the grand green citadel of Gus Van Metzger’s corner. She loved this part of the run. As the neighborhood’s demographic shifted she was up here with decreasing frequency but later in the decade, in fact, she planned on seeing old Van Metzer himself. The air was creation-fresh and hung like a gallery with decorative lanterns of fireflies that winked out, one by one, as she reached to touch them. The sheer diversity, she marveled. The inaudibly low octave of far-ranging insect systems in the soil. And then the next order of creatures for whom these ‘tiny’ insects were armor-plated dinosaurs. And the bacterial super-communities of minds even smaller than that, whose thoughts were individual atoms. And so on. The atoms themselves were neither living nor dead nor entirely without consciousness.

If you looked from the bluff where the street ended, one block on from the Van Metgers’s, in the little roundabout called Plymouth Circle with its central boulder featuring a commemorative plaque of two loin-clothed indians and a white man in a preposterous hat, the view presented was a toy metropolis’s downtown as it fit in the soft box of the valley…the diamond bracelets of southbound traffic and northbound necklaces of rubies and the pearls of municipal lighting. She stood for a moment on the ledge of the bluff, checking her pulse.

On her way back down the spiral road, she took the detour up the alley behind the Van Metzger property, pulling her hood off in order to look less like the kind of character some might fear would spring from the bushes. Heaven forbid she should scare some dogwalking old lady to death. Her Afro expanded in the dark wet air and she felt, with a wry smirk, like intelligent topiary.

“Merriam?”

Upstairs at 5727 Humboldt.

The house had settled into itself for the night with an asthmatic wheeze from the central heating. To the left and right and across the street and behind the alley were nouveau mansions in the understated Scandinavian style, but 5727 was a bungalow in comparison, the oldest structure in the area. 5727 faced its mainstreet sideways and the soft-edged roofing over the attic dormers sagged in a way that made the old house look fraught with worries. The j-shaped walk from the gate in the hedge, curving across the yard to the front door, was broken-backed where roots cracked the old concrete. The roots were also responsible for muddy bald spots all over the yard and the owner of the property, Mrs. Gustafson-Davis, had been meaning to remove the offending tree since forever. Inside the house, the master bedroom had that flickering, morbid glow her husband Marcel always associated with blue balls. Blue balls and palpitations.

Merriam was wearing her gargantuan wireless headphones and watching The Mitch vs Spectre Hour, immune to her husband’s extremity in all three senses of the word. His nightly stations of the cross. Marcel Agonistes, is how he put it. Merriam, who prided herself on the fact that she and Marcel hadn’t had a voice-raising argument in twelve years, feigned to fail to notice that it had been exactly that long since the marriage had heard a voice raised in laughter or ecstasy, either. And then she had discovered wireless headphone technology and could do almost anything on either the first or second floor of the house without severing a connection to the ongoing narrative of the outside world, or having to listen to any distracting, vaguely irritating, or embarrassing sound that Marcel might make after Merriam got home from work at the travel agent.

“Merriam?”

In those headphones she appeared to him, laying there on her side in her pyjamas with her back turned, to be sporting Mickey Mouse ears that had sagged and slipped halfway down her head in late middle age. Still, he longed to have his knowledge of her sketchy cunt hairs refreshed; he wondered if they had all gone grey. Her husband lay there fretting while Merriam’s breathing synchronized itself with erotic empathy to the cadences of television personality Nate Mitchell’s voice.

Mitchell was handsome and blonde in the manner of an ambrosia-fed Liberal and his partner/opponent Spectre looked wonderfully-well described by his name: white-haired and gauntly Conservative. His head wobbled, a la Hepburn, when he rose too high in the saddle while on the charge viz certain topics: abortion, school prayer, The War. The show was ostensibly a balanced presentation of Left and Right worldviews in the form of an ongoing debate, with the audience voting the ‘winner’ at the end of every program. Merriam had been a campaign volunteer in every Presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s. Marcel had yet to register to vote.

“I’ll register to vote,” he said, softly, externalizing the conversation in his head, “when they put something relevant on the goddamn ballot.” He’d vote against professional sports, Fourth of July fireworks, recreational water vehicles and Nate Mitchell in a New York minute.

Nate Mitchell, who never got flustered on camera.

His brow never creased nor wept with perspiration and his voice maintained the gratifying temperature of pot-warmed honey on an oven-fresh banana nut bran muffin. Just imagine those two Liberal Aryans start talking politics together, thought Marcel, who considered politics to be a trivial affront to the majestically unambitious intangibility of the human spirit. He imagined the couple that he imagined Merriam was (foolishly) imagining the two could make. Merriam sometimes claimed that Marcel quitting his job at the Art School had established some kind of a pattern, ironically. He’d quit that job because of her. His student.

Quit that job back in the ’50s when Marcel and Merriam had been, literally, illegal. Being illegal had given them a thrill and a purpose, first at the Art School and then in the electrifyingly hostile territory of daily life, when shopping together could turn the morning into an ordeal they’d cap with a defiant sex act in the fragile safety of the efficiency they’d rented, from a sympathetic vet, a mulatto, a guy named Vincent Cob,  before moving to Minnesota.

Marcel remembered that time he’d sold five big canvasses to the actor Robert Culp: Two thousand, five hundred and seventy five dollars. How he’d thought he was finally on his way and how he still had a Polaroid of the check somewhere. He remembered his father teaching him to pronounce “mischievous” properly, and, almost immediately after, mispronouncing “erudite,” then scooping the silver muscle of a spirited fish from the blue bosom of the lake. Sitting in a skiff on Lake Calumet. He remembered Merriam playfully correcting his mispronunciation of “erudite” on their fifth date (the morning they’d first slept together). He remembered meeting Trini Lopez at a Civil Rights Benefit. The skiff called Cherokee.

He could hear the Van Metzger’s neurotic border collie Apollinaire barking in the dead of night at the crickets and/or squirrels again. The VMs were at the other end of a very long alley but it was such a quiet neighborhood and the acoustics of the alley were so peculiar that on summer nights with the bedroom windows open you could hear Apollinaire whimpering and farting in his sleep. Could Apollinaire, conversely, hear Marcel whimpering and farting in his sleep? Marcel frowned: the batty dog was barking louder and harder than usual. Possible sign of a coon in the garbage cans. They could be scary if backed into a corner.

“That damn dog is going to have another heart attack,” said Marcel, suddenly, in a loud clear voice, before remembering, immediately, for the Nth time, that Merriam couldn’t hear him. Merriam used to point at the headphones to indicate that she couldn’t hear but she no longer bothered. The isolating boundaries of their marriage had hardened into a tacit, durable and convenient structure.

“Merriam,’ said Marcel, to himself. He moaned and shifted his position. The trick he’d learned, long ago, was to keep a knee up so Merriam couldn’t see the blanket fluctuating like an irregular heartbeat on his his jerk-hand.

“Got a confession to make. Merriam, you remember the last big piece I did? Before I quit Art, I mean? Years ago. Twenty years ago. My masterpiece. Driving around town, collecting old futon mattresses like it was my job. Rolling these nasty things up and stacking them in the back of the station wagon, I was kinda affected. Maybe they were a bio-hazard. Maybe I got the disease. This loneliness thing.”

“I turned down a few futons for being too gross,  even after driving all the way to the other side of town, ringing the bell, jogging up flights of stairs and being met at the door by a person too bleak looking or filthy. I wasn’t about to hug that nasty history to myself and drag it to the car and nail it to the gallery wall. Most of the mattresses I bought were from couples, or single women. Didn’t want to touch a mattress a man had been crying on, I guess.”

“Well here’s my confession. I never told you that the one I paid the most for I bought from a beautiful law student named Amina. Wish to god I could remember Amina’s last name, it was so beautiful. Her name was mellifluous. She had described the color, lapis, over the phone. Queen-sized. Consider this my confession, Merriam. Close up, you could see the futon was covered with her long, long, kinky silky hairs. So gorgeous it hurt. The faded lapis and the long exquisite hairs like devotional script. Been dreaming about that girl ever since. Twenty year old Muslim law student with an Afro. Amina. Love of my life. Sorry. You think it was you?

“It amazed me the number of people who weren’t ashamed to sell me their futons with big old urine or period stains on them… ”

Marcel arched his back and wrenched to the right and threw up on the side of his pillow, away from Merriam’s side of the bed. It came out so easy. He let it go.

Nate Mitchell’s startling blue eyes, set in a bronzed mask that briefly changed the color scheme of the entire bedroom, seemed to follow Merriam as she rolled out of bed and slipped, while lowering her pyjama bottoms, into the master bathroom, door open, headphones still on, in a cruel parody of a marital post-lovemaking pee.

Amina jogged back down towards the lake, slipping the hood up over her Afro, and Marcel, confused, ran after her.

Top 5 Patricides of Midville, Illinois

 

With apologies to Ambrose Bierce

 

5.

Lucius Nathaniel Calvin. “Luke” or “Lucy” to his friends. Good-looking boy with innocent sour milk breath. Dutifully unspectacular student. Never show-offy with hand-raising in class or sinister in the sophistication of his cheating. Reasonably popular within the limits of rural terms of popularity, which hinge on things like prowess with a hunting rifle. Unrealistically blue-eyed, farm-tall, short-lipped, with veiny hands and close-cropped, pale-wheat hair which he kept in a Caesarean haircut that only a perfect-eared boy would dare to. The grainy photograph showing up in all the papers on the same day was from his yearbook, of course. The kind of smile that everyone of a certain age knows is put on to mock the cheap-suited yearbook photographer. 

Jennifer Paine. Jennifer Paine would later call Lucius, in all the interviews, on regional TV and local radio and for all the Midville newspapers, her fiancé. Lucius’ maternal grandmother (with whom Lucius had lived the first five years of his life, after his mother’s exit and before his father had gotten his accounting firm “off the ground”) claimed she’d heard of no such plans. She’d never said this in interviews for she was never interviewed. She always said it in a room featuring a television or radio on which Jennifer Paine was being interviewed, whether or not there were others in the room at the time. Lucius had caught his grandmother talking to the television before.  “Dream on,” she’d say. Or: “As if.” 

The kick of a rifle should increase with the size of the animal hit. The kick of the rifle should hurt. Then it would be fair.

Once, Luke said that the sky is a river. 

“What?”

“The sky. It looks like a river, doesn’t it? It’s like the sky is a river and we’re stuck on the bottom of a cloud looking down on the river and we could fall in it if we don’t hold on.” 

Jennifer squeezed Luke’s hand. He recognized the gesture of concern. Her other hand was palm-up on the sharp tips of fresh-mown grass and her eyes were shut. “I guess.” 

“No, seriously. Try.” 

“Try what?”

“Try and see it that way.”

“But why?”

“Because you’ll love it.” 

“I guess I’ve heard that argument before.”

Lucius laughed. He loved it when she acknowledged their iffy sex life. They were using pregnancy as a method of birth control.

A bullet is also a message.

Civilians were still finding silver blobby or feathery black fragments from the space shuttle in their driveways and swimming pools. Portrait-sized flakes of ash were scattered across flat roofs. Jennifer Paine loved Mike and the Mechanics and Lucius Nathaniel Calvin did not. 

4.

Oh My Papa

A big hit for Eddie Fisher. 1954. A very big hit. Fisher was of Russian Jewish descent but came off to many of his many fans as Italian. Being Italian had gone from acceptable to dreamy overnight and everybody wanted to know one and nobody knew why. What they called those dark good looks, which are always accompanied by a swagger. He thought he had it made. Died and went to Acceptance heaven. Fisher had a variety show called Coke Time with Eddie Fisher.

The unconscious smile on the old man’s flickering face as he stands in the doorway, angled against the jamb. Like, he doesn’t want to dignify that red-baiting network by sitting on the divan and taking the entertainment it offers like everyone else, as a responsible member of the audience. No, he’s making a statement, which, at this rate, it’ll take Ike approximately six thousand years to get the ambivalent message. But Debbie Reynolds is a different story. That he’ll watch. Eddie and Debbie duet. 

-It wasn’t six million Jews, it was six thousand. It’s not six billion years, it’s six thousand. Is this a coincidence? 

Three distinct strains of local rumor about Fisher that year (as though Midville has a plausible connection to either Hollywood or Tin Pan Alley) merge into one and hit Abraham Winters’ son with the force of an iron fastball to the temple on the suntorched baseball diamond he first hears it on, standing at first base with the kid who’d got there by bunting. The not-green grass of the diamond is patchy. The kid has a classic bowl haircut that reminds him of 1950. Maturity is measured in rectal thermometers. He caught himself thinking the word Ralston-Purina without anything attached to it. 

“Hear about Fisher?” 

“Hear what about Fisher?” 

“You seriously don’t know?” 

“Seriously what?” 

“Eddie’s a Hebrew queer who sucks colored cock like it’s going out of style. Pass it on.” 

“You’re so full of shit your eyes stink.”

“Oh yeah? My uncle’s seen the pictures.” 

“You’re uncle’s a drunk.” 

“So’s yours.” 

There’s a line drive straight over the only other half-Jew on Winters’ team so he never gets the chance to finish the argument. Home is a very long walk away for the losers.

“If you looked any more like Eddie Fisher than you already do, your father would smell a rat.” 

“Don’t say that, ma.” 

“I thought you liked it?” 

“Eddie Fisher’s a queer.” 

His mother slapped him. Slapped Robert Algood Winters, Caucasian, 5’6″, brown eyes, 125 pounds, fifteen years old in December. Nicknamed Howdy Doody by the arresting officer. Apprehended in flight to Matoon. 

The old man is shouldering the doorjamb in a plaid suit with the tie loose watching Channing Pollock saw a lady in half on Sullivan with a look on his face like he’s picking up tips. Like he’s matriculating. One hand balances a paper plate that’s way too shifty and bent and hot with baked beans while loud drunk relatives cavort in the gazebo. Speedy Gonzalez jokes and everything they imply, including the aunt with the bristle chin whom nobody can remember which relative by birth she used to associate with before he died and to ask now would seem insensitive. But the old man is mesmerized. Looks like Ray Milland in the cyanide-blue Sullivan light. The ghost-beacon that is midcentury television, guiding lost souls through the ether. The Ray Milland of interstate feedgrain sales. We’re talking about a magician that the old man quotes like a Winston Churchill. 

-Happiness: a way station between too little and too much-Channing Pollock. 

-No man in the world has more courage than the man who can stop after eating one peanut-Channing Pollock. 

There were two main medical theories about masturbation and neither was flattering.You were either a homo or a werewolf. He had a two-handed technique that made him look like he was committing hari kari with a turkey neck. His father would curse under the window before trying to yank-start the lawnmower again. His bedroom walls would mottle with waltzing late-afternoon clock-gears of leaf shadow and he couldn’t help thinking of them as Jew walls; Jew leaves; the roar of the motor. Robert first learned the adult theory of the word pussy back in the fateful Thanksgiving of ‘53. This sparked an increase in the annual productivity of his jerk-off factory by an impressive 51% percent. 

There’s a street in Midville, east of his house, with a colored on it.

The old man lectures him that he never touched his own self once before marrying your mother. 

Midville isn’t even a proper name, but a description, as a teacher informed him, sadistically, because Midville is half-way between Decatur and Matoon. Mr. Schieble. Feeble Schieble. Is Robert a name or a description? She lives in a split-level with a two-car garage and her polio husband with two young unisex offspring, pretending to be Italian, doing that pinchy hand-gesture, but you can see the Mulatto of her at the end of every summer, when her skin is just a little too brown and the humidity of August brings the frizz back up in all the tawny hair bunched under the scarf and he pictures her on her knees in a pearl necklace and zip else, sticky as butterscotch, blowing Eddie Fisher and boom the earth moves and Robert sees stars and his junk hits the ceiling. He has trained himself in the art of not groaning. His mother’s Episcopalian, meaning he is not a Jew, an explanation he has polished to terse perfection in the relentless rehashing. Maybe Mrs. Schieble is an Octoroon, speaking of Robert’s favorite kind of cookie, a brand new unopened box of which on the dresser awaits him. 500 million sperm cells in the average healthy white male emission. 100 million on the ceiling alone. He does Jackie Gleason doing Reggie Van Gleason III, the imitation everybody says he should get paid money doing, saying, What do you think, old boy, shall we go another round? 

The old man suddenly bangs the door open. 

His Schwinn can do ten, fifteen miles per hour, easy, just cruising downhill towards the reservoir. He’s standing up on the pedals like a walk on the wind with a song at the top of his lungs and furious black smoke like a thunderstorm bottled up in the house behind him. But no more songs by Eddie Fisher. 

3. 

I look you and everything forgiveness. You are unbelievable beautiful. I feel like wrecks compare myself but I’m think you choose me for be most beautiful also. I do not dare for looks in mirror to whispering of sentence for staring you with sleep for whispering loud to hear this make me strong. This is hope my letter is tell you. 

Life is such in Europe city to require every for what my strength is. I know is choice of me with go was make to go is true. I for snapped him finger one by one to daring try is stop me leave for everything. What a terror is for getting on such plane! But so many terror are unbelievable thrilling. For terror you are comfortable make to misery live. So for consider blessings to what city for people say way of talk with uncomfortable stay to stay. So smell of walking sidewalk with careful not bumping not notice for people I’m walk here. So stay is food smell for make is remember carnival or such childhood of fair from childhood is happen. This fair in a longest driving city was far long going. I from do not think of fairs now more. 

Sometimes I wonder so panics what you think when look me. For always fears I say with do wrong thing to see what loving turns with pity. Loving what impatient become is something else. I wonder such times if not for transitional emotion, love. Unstable by definition, connecting deeper more useful states like fear, disinterest, hatred? I mean maybe you can’t hate something until you have loved it first and maybe the capacity for hating something is so important that love had to be invented in order to making hate work? 

You can tell your mother almost have go for college. She know is Somerset Maugham or Upton Sinclair or also Saki.  She know is Pride and Prejudice for. As you can also tell she unbelievable mess. Remember you get the good and the bad with everyone. But look at you so perfect, beautiful, innocent, deserve everything good. I am looking at your slightly parted lips with that rosy space between them so unbelievable small like ghost of the finest watch-part. It’s like you are truly powered by some new kind of energy better than sunlight glowing through your cheeks and eyelids and the tips of your hair and warms your sweet breath. Or it’s like you’re made of this energy and I cannot believe it came out of me. They always called that the miracle of life that I finally understand, after thinking this was just flower talk for many years but I know it now something so pure can come out of a body so stained and dirty with a dark bubble of pain from this dirty body’s bloody mess. 

I feel that you angelic is masterpiece of geometer to look at the spiral of the wax of its ear and the small fat fruit of each balled fist unfold in a flower. Exactly its dreams probably are made still of the numbers more of the one than words that are something more envy to because the life of its mother is words and nothing but. My dreams are words always mumbled or scream but remembering I used dream for mostly in smells. For remembering the smell of a man’s aftershave could make me sicker than dogs. I’d go in and out of the house with a handkerchief deliberately soiled with chickens–t covering my nose when he’s shaving. I don’t want to complain in this letter but I have had rashes you could read in the dark by plus problems of the lower body most doctors would kill to look at. And these are just a few of things I overcame to becoming your mother. 

Today when you found your own seat on the tram and sat a little ways apart from me swinging your feet looking back to wave, I was so proud and crushed, darling. It made me so hopeful for future and for worrying. I thought about how today it’s your own seat on the tram, tomorrow it’s you talking with people I don’t know and bringing questions home with you. It all depends on how much I’ve unbelievable lie to you, which is not a lie for fun but for safety and pride and caring. This letter is my answer for one of those questions. I’m still not sure how I’m going to writing this. 

You don’t have a father, but you will know that already, by the time you’re read this. Oh, and you’ll probably never know the sensation I just felt after writing the last dependent clause of previous sentence. It’s like seeing one’s name on a list of the dead. I’m write this from the other side of my extinction, in a way, since (and I guess it’s spookily significant that I was always unbelievable affected by plot devices like this in second-rate novels and third-rate films) I’ll have made the necessary arrangements that you’ll be reading this letter only after receiving whatever possessions you’ll inherit in the event of my etc. Well, corny as that sentence is, I just can’t bringing myself to write it all out. 

Back to the thing about you have no father. That’s just the way it is, darling. I guess there’s a good chance I’ve already discussed this part with you (by the time you read this), but, in case the topic never came up, or I never had the nerve to be straight about the situation to your face: I wouldn’t recognize the man who inseminated me with you if my life depended on it. If your life depended on it, I’d make unbelievable effort, but, no. All I wanted was you, and I needed a man’s help to make for happen. 

He was very good looking and intelligent enough (we chatted for quite a spell at the touristy bar I picked him up in because I wanted to make sure). It was a Friday night, warm out, crowds on a sidewalk. We held hands on the way to his hotel room, which is more important to me, now that I think back on it, than you can possible imagine. I’m sure he’s the father, because I’ve only had sexual intercourse with two men in my life and the second man followed the first by gap of fifteen years.

You’ve never seen America and there is a good chance we will never go there together. Maybe you’ll go on your own one day. It’s hard to believe that I wouldn’t have discussed Midville with you but truly it’s obvious that my method will be for balance your happiness with the truth for shift and evolve as you grow older depending where your interests develop and so forth, so, if it turns out that I’ve decided to inventing the city of your mother’s (me) birth and childhood I’m sorry. The truth is the place I’m from is called Midville in the state of Illinois which is know as part of the Midwestern part of the United States of America. 

If I’ve invented my own exciting childhood in an urban metropolis for you, with rich parents and exotic friends: no. None of that is real and I hope I haven’t going too unbelievable far overboard to give you a mother with past you can to proud of. Again, I am very sorry if that was the case. The only difference between a working farm and the place I grew up on was that the place I grew up on was not working. I always felt I had a certain right to be bitter about the thriftshop clothing and chewed-on hand-me-down toys (shipped in crates from superior cousins I never met) but I always thought also even as unbelievable kid: what you expecting? The country’s ten times bigger than it was in the days that a farm was a livelihood… something more than the perfect place for the head of a family for hang himself. But your grandfather never hung himself. 

No, he didn’t. But you’re going ask of me, one day, about your grandparents, and whatever story I will have made up to tell you when you ask, this letter is the final truthful answer. 

2. 

“What a coincidence.” 

“No such thing, my friend.”

“This is the last place I’d expect…”

“Paging Carl Jung… “ 

“A real live Midvillian. Pinch me, I’m dreaming. Remember the Dairy Queen? Everyone called it the Hairy Queen…?” 

“I do indeed.” 

“Bastards tore it down. What. Fifteen years ago. It’s a Planned Parenthood now. There’s an irony for you. When was the last time you were in Midville, anyway?” 

“Don’t ask.” 

“Honey, you wouldn’t recognize it. Even got ourselves a gang problem these days.” 

“Inevitable clash of hierarchies.” 

“You’ve lost me.”

“Country clubs, Al-Qeada, the Black Panthers, Catholic Church, the military… they’re all hierarchies. That’s the first thing you get wherever two human beings or more shall gather together is a hierarchy.” 

“Interesting.” 

“That’s what people say when something isn’t.” 

“Isn’t what?” 

“Interesting.” 

“No, seriously. Tell me more.” 

“Well. You find yourself at the bottom of one hierarchy, what you do, any self-respecting ego, he invents one he can be at the top of. Say you’re some towel-head with a 5th-century education who couldn’t get laid if his life depended on it…” 

“Ouch.” 

“You invent, or situate yourself within, a hierarchy in which towel-heads…” 

“Not the most politically correct member of the frequent-flyer club, are you?” 

“Oh, I can do better than that.”

“I’ll bet you can. Let’s go back to your little hierarchy theory for a sec.” 

“Okay.” 

“Are we a hierarchy?” 

“Unless I’m missing something.” 

“Who’s on top?” 

“I guess I’m thinking what it would be like to put my cock in your mouth.” 

“You smooth-talking devil.” 

“That’s me.” 

“Hey, what’s the rush?” 

“You only live once.” 

“A grab the gusto kind of thing.” 

“Life is short, my cock is long.” 

“Vita brevis, cockus longus.” 

“You’ve been to college, I see.” 

“Auto-didact.” 

“Impressive.” 

“That’s exactly what people say…” 

“When something isn’t. Touché. You never answered my question.” 

“I don’t recall it was phrased in the form of one.” 

“Can I fuck the shit out of your ass?” 

“My, we’re saucy this morning.” 

“It’s been at least an hour since I jerked off. Look, I’m shaking. Hold me?” 

“Poor baby.” 

“If you let me fuck you in the ass, I’ll let you clean the sweet shit off my cock with your tongue.”

“And people say the art of conversation is dead.” 

“Now you’re being evasive.” 

“Not evasive. You just haven’t closed the deal yet, honey.” 

“You’re a treasure with a rusty lock.” 

“Getting colder.” 

“Are you allergic to beautiful dick?” 

“I think I hear my mother calling.” 

“Hey, it’s called a layover.” 

“Check please.” 

“Okay, okay. Have you ever heard of the name Paul Michael Swanson before?” 

“Rings a bell. Are you telling me you’re a celebrity?” 

1. 

The country was wooded everywhere except at the bottom of the valley to the northward, where there was a small natural meadow, through which flowed a stream scarcely visible from the valley’s rim. This open ground looked hardly larger than an ordinary door-yard, but was really several acres in extent. Its green was more vivid than that of the inclosing forest. The configuration of the valley, indeed, was such that from this point of observation it seemed entirely shut in, and one could but have wondered how the road which found a way out of it had found a way into it, and whence came and whither went the waters of the stream that parted the meadow below. 

Ambrose knelt on the bank of the stream, weighting his father’s poor pockets with stones. His father, Mordecai, inclined a torn face away from the boy’s activity as though shamed by it, despite all evidence, such as the blood caked everywhere and the bone of his skull exposed white as chipped flint, that his cares on this earth were now settled. Mordecai still clutched the hawthorn switch he’d meant for the beating of Ambrose, and Ambrose still clutched, between his teeth as he grunted in his efforts, the blade he’d used to forestall forever the beating. That the sun still flamed and birds still sang and nearby squirrels even frolicked, despite the terrible scene of not an hour’s coldness they’d all been witness to, helped Ambrose to nurture a grievance against the callousness of nature and the perceived insignificance of nature’s darkest bastard, which is man.

 

 

 

 

 

.

Teen Angst and Handcream [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

photo by SG 

Ginger Green’s destination is a showcase for a supposed rock group at an unlikely venue at the corner where the Ku’damm is crossed by Uhland Strasse. It is an intermittently overcast day. The clouds look like spit on a windshield. It was not easy getting this venue. It was Ginger’s idea but it was Ollie who pulled it off. How Ollie pulled it off…what he threatened or offered…Ginger is almost too frightened to wonder. Ollie refers to the golden demographic of 11-22 as The Bosses. As in, “Yeah, but will The Bosses fall for it?” The band hasn’t taken the stage yet. The band is called Chocolate Chainsaw. Ginger’s brainchild. Ollie didn’t like the name… he lobbied for Soul Soda… but Ginger and Reason prevailed. 

A well known Belgian manufacturer of hand cream wanted greater penetration into the youth market. Don’t we all. They commissioned Ginger and his partner Ollie to write a catchy song which wouldn’t reek of jingle and could pass for actual rock. The idea… the good lie… being that the song pre-existed the ad campaign. The song should be able to fake a plausible life of its own. The song should represent a fresh young authentic reality. The song should appear to be written by some movingly struggling band… struggling as in authentic…a band that would have come by sheer coincidence to the attention of the executives at the Belgian manufacturer of hand cream. The story will be that a Belgian executive “fell in love with the song and just had to have it for this great new product”. The whole project was reverse-engineered from the plasticky song that Ginger and Ollie slapped together in four hours after lunch the day after the initial call from the ad agency (otherwise known as the House of Good Lies). The song is called “Dreamwalker”. The lyrics have nothing to do with hand cream. That’s how the Belgian executives wanted it. 

Chocolate Chainsaw have known each other for two weeks, although they are well-prepared to pretend to be childhood friends. They have been studying. Three of the members are Berliners but the keyboard player Rheinhardt and the lead singer, Lux, are from Hamburg. Lux was recommended as a plausible “rock star” by a manager-friend of Ginger’s and came down by train a month ago, sang the song in a recording studio and began the grueling process of learning the band’s intensely confabulated back story. The back story, as stitched-together as any Hollywood epic by committee, is a group effort from Ginger, Ollie, three executives from the Belgian hand cream giant and three executives from the House of Good Lies. The back story stretches itself the furthest in explaining what the hell they are all doing in Berlin, if they’re British. Lux, according to this tale, is the son of a British diplomat. 

This gig in a McDonald’s is the first showcase. The showcase will be three songs. It’s an attention-span issue. The site was chosen for its strong American associations since the last thing anyone on Ginger’s side of the curtain wants is for Chocolate Chainsaw to read like a German band. The band should seem distinctly British, with Yankee influences. One of the ad guys had said “Clash meets The Strokes” whatever the fuck that meant. Another said “Pogues meet Bon Jovi.”

“The Ramones meet Fleetwood Mac,” wasn’t even taken seriously enough to make a bewildered face at.  

The band all speak English with a British accent… this was a prerequisite more important than fluency on an instrument. Germany divided by America equals Great Britain… therefore the McDonald’s. The Kentucky Fried Chicken would have been too weird. Dunkin Doughnuts too unhip. A lot is riding on this show. It will not be a play-back… it will be “real”. The band’s Past will be fake therefore its Present must be real; there are rules about that; conceptual guidelines. The band will really be playing and Lux will really be singing a song they will pretend is theirs while pretending to know each other: they have been coached extensively on the conspiratorial glances and inside gags and mysterious asides to one another during solos they should indulge in on stage. 

The showcase is deliberately set during school hours in the middle of the week to force kids who show up for it to be skipping classes, which adds to the aura around the event. The kids attending the show should feel that they are seeing it despite the best efforts of the Powers that Be. The experience should feel like a secret that the kids will smuggle from the show and parcel out like arbiters of cool to their classmates. After building grassroots mystique this way for five weeks, The House of Good Lies will leak the song into media outlets, hoping to spark an explosion of kids claiming to have loved it first while buying the product (which Ginger can’t remember…was it lip balm? Was it sugar-based lubricant?) as an afterthought. But even that isn’t the main goal of the campaign. The main goal is to hook the kids now in order to keep them as adults and get a lock on their children. The goal is genetic conscription. 

Look at Lux. Ginger looks at Lux. Lux is a tall, thin, long-haired blonde of about 23…neurasthenic in a way that should seem ‘70s rock but reads more as 21st century atonal. Lux is the victim of too many influences and far too many choices…the self-canceling non-presence of the undecidant who doesn’t know where to start and therefore doesn’t. He feels like an unfinished sneeze. Lux, with his big blue eyes and parenthetical hyphen of a mouth looks and walks like a cartoon. In a rehearsal room he puts on a passable show playing rock star; he prances with a hand on his hip and goes down on one knee with the mike-stand or detaches the mike and windmills it on the end of the chord without hitting anyone or knocking his own teeth out. Milling around in the McDonald’s before show time however he looks awkward and self-conscious in his black sleeveless t-shirt and the long white scarf around his neck and his huge red satin elephant bell-bottoms and Ginger realizes that a drug-free “rock star” is a sad and disappointing thing. He only hopes Lux doesn’t choke. Ginger has seen many a performer choke and is sensitive to the half-dozen or so telltale predictors…cardinal of which is excessive humility and/or politeness before a gig. Which Lux is displaying. He’s clutching a complimentary burger, enjoying the freebie perk. Or maybe he’s really hungry. But Germans are strange when it comes to free merchandise.  

Ginger spots, in the growing crowd of surprisingly attractive teenage girls, silver-haired men who look out of place in a European McDonald’s and pegs them as guys from the ad agency, or maybe Belgian guys from the company, or perhaps a smattering of both. They had evinced little interest, both camps, in having representatives at this first showcase, which everyone very coolly predicted would be “inevitably rough-edged”… but it’s obvious they’ve changed their minds. Or had planned on spying from the start. If any of the well-dressed, silver-haired men are in fact from either the ad agency or The Company, there’s a good chance that this is the only “rock” concert they’ve ever been to and are using a professional excuse to do just once what they never had the chance to do as teenage boys already on the fast track of Euro-Corporate life. Upper-class Germans can guess with an accuracy of within a 5% deviation a man’s income merely by being told his age, his last name and the kindergarten he attended. A name with a “Von” in it is also significant. 

The McDonald’s is now packed to its capacity of three hundred and fifty and to mollify its normal clientele the management is distributing free ice cream in little plastic cups with wooden spoons to everyone and meanwhile giving Ginger fervid looks meaning get them going exactly at the scheduled start-time and get them finished exactly at the scheduled wrap-up time and get these non-buying kids the fuck out of my franchise immediately after. A space of perhaps ten square meters has been cleared around the drumkit and the amplifiers in the main dining room and the space is already filled to the extent that female bodies are pressed against the equipment. It is ten minutes until show time and Ginger squeezes through the peristaltic throng (with its absolutely un-Americanly low average body mass index; imagine squeezing through an American mob from the same demographic and actually feeling bones) towards Lux.  

Lux is propped against the wall, down a short hall, next to the door to the unisex WC. He is chatting with Reinhardt the freakishly tall keyboarder and clutching a second burger with a cartoonishly perfect crescent-shaped bite out of it. When Ginger makes eye-contact with Lux he gestures peremptorily at his wrist-watch and Lux nods, chewing vociferously; chewing so vociferously in fact that he looks like an old-time speeded-up Keystone Cops type film of the silent era; and holds up his burger by way of explanation. Lux falls back into conversation with Reinhardt, who has combined elements of a freakishly tall man’s posture (the round-shouldered slouch of a vulture) with elements of the keyboarder’s default stance (arms folded low across the chest and feet splayed far apart) and added the twist of the terminal adolescent’s addiction to the outlandish and/or uncomfortable by propping himself like a stork on one leg. 

Reinhardt is by far the oldest member of Chocolate Chainsaw but hides the fact under dyed black hair, and a skater’s cap, with the fringe of his hair down over his eyes. At the cap-hidden crown of his dye-job there is a large asterisk of gray which appears almost white in contrast. Reinhardt is 37 and he can’t fake a British accent but they handled that by forbidding him from speaking on stage or during interviews: he’ll be the mute one. Ginger barely knows Lux and Reinhardt not at all; Lux got Reinhardt into the project and that was the one concession he demanded in his contract. 

Ginger notices that Lux is clutching the half-chewed second burger in one hand and holding a third in reserve, still wrapped, in the other, and they weren’t plain burgers after all, but, rather, the slightly more exalted filet-o-fish. This is either a good sign or a bad sign, but at least he’s hungry. Singers with hysterical stage fright don’t woof down filet-o-fish sandwiches just minutes before a gig, even if the management is providing them free of charge. Not the Big Macs or the Quarter Pounders, of course. Just the filet-o-fish or the  plain burgers featuring a pickle and a dollop of ketchup on a bun. Ginger would love to see one of those digital bits of postmodern burger data next to the prototype, a real live hamburger… one of which Ginger himself gobbled down at the first official McDonald’s restaurant in creation, known as McDonald’s #1, just outside of Chicago in the scary suburb of Des Plaines in the year 1964 as a guest of his Uncle Man. But everything these days is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy… 

A very pretty and tallish fifteen year old brunette in a pink sweater and a low-cut white top and skin-tight white jeans no longer than to the bottoms of her calves…with skin as softly reflective as the surface of a sugar-frosted cookie… tugs the sleeve of Ginger’s burgundy blazer. Every girl in the room is wearing either a vanilla-based or musk-based scent and she seems to have opted for the vanilla, which heightens Ginger’s impression that licking her face would yield frosting. 

“Excuse me, are you, like, with the band?” Her English is advanced MTV. It will take another few sentences before Ginger can be sure that she isn’t American. Her voice is throaty and older and sexier than it should be.  

“I’m the body guard.” 

“That’s very cool.” She reaches to shake Ginger’s hand. “I’m the Tanja.” 

“Nice to meet you, Tanja.” Her hand is a mere trinket in his.  

“Can you tell me, please, what does Chocolate Chainsaw really mean?” She manages to make the question extremely suggestive. Or maybe Ginger is projecting. 

Ginger says “You’ll have to ask the singer, Lux, that question,” and he nods towards Lux, who squeezes just then past both of them with an ironic salute, with Reinhardt in tow, both Reinhardt and Lux giving Tanja craven side-long glances more appropriate to roadies for the band than the lead singer of the band itself but there’s nothing Ginger can do about that. It’s disturbing enough that this fifteen year old hasn’t stopped flirting with 45-year-old Ginger long enough to give 23-year-old Lux the eye. With her weird European sophistication about power this girl has gone right for Ginger over the lead singer of the band she’s supposed to adore, despite Ginger’s pose as a hireling. Germans girls know to look for the boredom… the ones worth knowing are always truly bored. American kids are much more sophisticated consumers of media which is why their pop culture is better… but sophistication about media breeds a crippling innocence towards the real world of power and fucking and animal life. The fatness of the American teen is a symptom of innocence. German girls know better. After two local world wars and a local cold war, they are tuned right into the animal verities. 

“Tanja, I want you to look at my shoes.” 

“Oh, they’re nice. Where’d you get ’em?” 

“The store I bought them at is no longer in business. Out of business for fifteen years. These shoes are older than you are.” 

“I guess that means it’s, like, time to replace ‘em.” 

“How old are your parents, Tanja? I bet they’re not as old as I am. I bet your father would give me his seat on the U-Bahn.” 

“My father wouldn’t be caught dead on the U-Bahn.” She looks at him quizzically. “Are you American or not?” 

Ginger says, “American? Yeah, I’m American. When I was your age I was an all-American virgin, and there was no such thing as cell-phones, the internet, VCRs, CDs, DVDs, reality TV or AIDS. We didn’t even have answering machines. Don’t you think you’d be happier without all that junk, Tanja?  Don’t you think you’d be happier having picnics and climbing trees and flying kites in the sunshine for a change?” 

“Sounds, like, romantic. Are you free this Saturday?” 

“You’re not getting my point.” 

“Maybe my English isn’t, like, good enough. What is your point?” 

“That I’m old enough to be your grandmother’s gigolo.” 

“Na, und?” 

“You’re just a child.” 

“You make it sound like it’s, like, my fault.” 

“I’m talking about wrong and right.” 

Tanja puts her hand on Ginger’s face and pushes it gently to the left.  

“See that pretty girl in the expensive clothes over there? Talking on her handy? Looks like Paris Hilton but with much bigger boobies?” She pronounces “clothes” as cloe-thus. She pronouncesboobies” as boob-eyes. 

 “Yes.” 

“She’s sixteen, she’s my best friend, and she drives, like, an S-Class. Okay? She’s the happiest person in, like, the world. Her dad is, like, in really good shape. She has her own flat in London and gets really good grades in school and she… goes on dates with her dad because her mom is like, a total, like, bitch… you know? She got the boob surgeries because her dad has… wie sag man… suggested it. Is suggested a word? You know what I mean. Don’t you like German girls?” 

The drums and the guitars kick in and Tanja gets on her tip-toes and shouts “What’s your name, anyway? You never told me!” but Ginger shakes his head and waves bye-bye and pushes his way back towards the main dining room to stand in the deafening epicenter of the Chocolate Chainsaw experience. Anything less than a rude exit would have been a seduction. Ginger is trying to be scrupulous about that. He is trying. The silver-haired men are nodding to the beat at various stations around the room. They are all wearing sunglasses. 

The first song has a thirty-two bar intro to give kids outside or in the WC a chance to drop whatever they’re doing and rush to a spot in front of the”Stage” without missing Lux’s entrance. The third song, the hand cream song itself, scheduled to commence in exactly six and a half minutes, is to be the high point of the gig… it’s the song that the silver-haired men flew down here to see. The first song, the opener, is just the mood-setter and is built around a two-bar sample from the head riff of the Animals cover of the Nina Simone song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood… they are not seriously thinking of releasing a tune built around such an expensive sample, of course, but if the kids flip over it, who knows? The beat is already hooking them. It’s such a heavy, cocky, storm-troopers-on-the-march-into Paris kind of groove. 

The drummer, a hefty kid with black horn-rimmed glasses and a modified Mohawk (short strip on top, lines on the sides) is the best musician in the band. He was participating in a dozen other projects until Ginger began paying him a modest monthly allowance not to. The kid’s a monster. Ginger likes watching him slamming the skins with the professional frown of a proctologist on the toilet. The beat is so solid you could nail sheet rock to it. But the guitarist is merely a mammal and only there because he’s Japanese, which is still considered cool in Berlin; not Japaneseness in and of itself but Japaneseness with a guitar. And the youngest at 18, the bass player, he’s so cute he looks like his own little sister but is far from a Jaco Pastorius…see him grinning that 5-gee moonlaunch grin of terror. He pinches off each elephant-dung fundament on the downbeat with a sexless thud, but it’s okay because the drummer makes it all right. A good drummer is a panacea. Lux has his back to the audience (as per instruction), waiting for the upbeat at the end of bar 31 before he’s to whirl around and grab the mic and deliver the first line of the song, titled Ms. Undastood, which is “Hey I ain’t your toy, little girl, and I ain’t your baby boy, little g-r-r-r-r-l…” 

Everyone in the densely packed McDonald’s, as far as Ginger can see, is bouncing like beans on a bongo, locked into the song before Lux even opens his mouth. He scans the crowd for his partner Ollie Daumen and lo and behold he catches Ollie standing on the very spot that Ginger himself vacated just twenty four bars ago, proving the theory that nature abhors a vacuum, or that Ginger and Ollie are matter and anti-matter… for Ollie is standing with territorial intensity right there next to Tanja, looking quite sly and irresistibly bored and more than old enough to be her father. 

Lux whips around with his wild blonde hair and his eyes screwed shut, lurching across the stage to reach blindly for the mic like it’s a loaded rifle in a room full of lions and he opens his mouth and a buttermilk-colored python of vomit springs out. It coils around the shoulders of several little girls in the front row, suspended solid in the strobe of a camera flash for a millisecond before collapsing down the fronts of their dresses… setting off screams and a stampede in which several teens are severely rattled but none are very seriously hurt. 

Three Structural Definitions of Race [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

photo by SG

A. George Walton was born in 1809, child of a black father and white mother, and died in prison about twenty eight years later, having lived as a man who was good-looking in a manner that predated all hope of appreciation, as if a painting by Yves Tanguy had found its way back to the dawn of the 19th century only to inspire baffled glares and lots of kicks in the pants, as though a kick in the pants was the only persuasive critique his critics could improvise to respond to the singularity of his appearance: the loopy curls of broth-colored hair, the tawny skin, the full lips and a high-bridged nose sporting freckles…this, remember, during an era when leaded-white faces and lips like livid incisions were considered the very essence of beauty.

B. Von Ziegeldorff drove into town every Friday night to patronize a low club called The Chicken Shack which was famous for appealing to blacks. The drive in from his villa in a wooded, nearly rustic suburb of Potsdam through the throb of weekend traffic often took ninety minutes, during which he either had time to nurture his grievances against society in general and women specifically or listen to an instructional cassette of Advanced English for Germans. Somewhere in the lonely vastness of his car there was also a misplaced cassette of Callas he was suddenly in the mood to hear again after a year-long estrangement from that exquisitely bullying voice, the voice of high culture, because he’d been listening to far too much soul music recently.

C. Ramses sneeks a peek at the graying blonde as she steers gravely home. Or so he assumes. She reaches over and switches on the sound system. The fantasy, obviously, is that they will do the dirty without exchanging so much as a single word and she’s afraid that Ramses will ruin it now by saying a word. She doesn’t know that Ramses Gordon knows the rules of this game so well that he might have invented it; that he can play it blindfolded and has on more than one occasion and that he is thinking, also, against the background of the anti-erotic aria from Lucia Lammermoor, how differently blacks and whites absorb the behavioural proscriptions of Christianity. How this difference has a measurable impact on the respective copulatory styles of the races. How they fuck and how we live. Their guilt and our shrugs and the sacrificial sacrament of chicken.

A. Across the broad map of his short life, having been abandoned at an early age by parents driven chiefly by sexual logic through a low-walled maze of poverty, George Walton served almost a third of his earthly existence in prison. Born James, alias George, alias Jonas, alias James, alias Burley, alias Chick or Chicken John.

B. There was one black in particular. Von Ziegeldorff had made the mistake, early on, of running after all of them at once, like a kitten in a fishpond, therefore catching none, but being observant and far from stupid he soon took note of the fact that the old hands were patiently bedding one after another of the finest specimens the club had to offer, merely by chosing one and bringing to bear a convincing ersatz of passion until the goal was achieved (or quota met) and thereafter moving on. Every black girl in the club, of course, thinks of herself as The One who will prove to be so irresistible that the game will stop with her, therefore perpetuating the game.

C. Look at this respectable middle-aged German lady, for example. The grimly determined look on her face (this is supposed to be fun, lady); the way she clutches that steering wheel as though it’s hot with current: she feels Christ’s eyes on her, his disappointment in her, his weary sneer of disgust. Her husband has no problem with her little Liebesaffären…he encourages her because it absolves him of guilt for his substantial porno expenses. Christ is not so easygoing about it. Christ is not quite so cool. He plagues her with subliminal remonstrations (in which his lips never move, spookily, but his sad eyes pierce her). She wasn’t even raised in an overtly Christian family because Germans are traditionally pagan and she believes that she believes in fucking as a kind of physical therapy…a higher form of jogging…all the more therapeutic if she fucks an Asian, a Native American, or a Black. That’s what she thinks she thinks a liberal West German should believe they feel about it. But a stern (and vaguely oriental) Christ has the last word on all that and she has to hide the physical act itself behind all kinds of masks and filters to smuggle the pleasure out of Hell like a red hot trinket between her legs without fainting.

A. As a boy the tragic mulatto was the object of lazy sport among the poor whites of his acquaintance, though when he was kicked in the seat of his dusty breeches it was as a kind of running gag or after-thought, rarely with enough force to mean tears. As a manchild George fed himself by doing odd jobs for neighbors and once spent a summer doing back-breakingly honest labor for a farmer who paid him with two counterfeit five-dollar bills. “Well nigh half of what was owing me,” as handsome James alias George alias Chicken John put it. A philosophical turning point.

B. Earletta Goins was a would-be disco singer with her own little cassette out called The Story of My Life, released by a local label, an independent based in East Berlin and on this particular Friday night Von Ziegeldorff tipped the DJ a substantial amount to play both sides of Earletta’s cassette, as well as subsidizing free beers for all the patrons in the club (about two hundred people) for the duration of the cassette’s play, making for a good mood and plenty of people on the dance floor to dance beside VZ and Earletta while they danced with attention-getting self-consciousness to her disco music, which was neither truly bad nor truly good but fell within the range of most things.

C. The bedroom smells like…what? A kitchen. It smells vaguely of chicken not fried but stewed. Disgusting. On the walls flanking the massive bed, one on each, are two large wood-framed photos meant to resemble very old oil paintings. There is one of the lady in question and the other of her husband, or what looks like her husband or could be an Ex, and they are dressed up to look like an Iroquois chief and his squaw…the weak-chinned fellow sports an enormous feathered head dress. His lady, in real life the gray-haired blonde on her back on the bed with her eyes closed and her legs up like an as-yet-unstuffed Christmas goose, is black-haired and light-eyed in her sepiatone photo and neither reveal the subtlest shade of mirth, self-mockery, defensive irony or even decent embarrassment in the portraits.

A. After another period of backbreaking in the Charlestown shipyards and then aboard a fishing smack with the olfactory bloom of an African cathouse’s toilet, Walton fell in with a hook-nosed ex-convict named Symmes who mentored him in the trade of bank robbing, the craft of which George failed fully to master, being neither self-righteous nor brutal enough with his pistol, landing in prison in 1824 for a six month sentence after which he dabbled unchastened in the lighter art of the highwayman…with just as little talent. When Walton wasn’t busy being apprehended (being a mulatto in early 19th century America was a liability in the incognito game), it was easy if unremunerative work, as most of his victims chose to toss him their wallets and flee rather than tussle or risk injury at the hands of a thieving diabolical coon with freckles.

B. “I must confess,” shouted VZ, “I have never before seen a lady of your race with these green eyes of such beauty,” and he mimed his own astonishment, hands on his heart as though it might burst, for also her skin was the color of the pancakes he’d been mad for on his legendary trip across America, during which being a slave to this crude delicacy had given him an insight into the American psyche he was sure he could apply to the swift achievement of his goal.

C. Ramses imagines, quite vividly, the chin-free husband answering the telephone on one of those interminable Sundays of petty household chores choreographed to the pandering drone of television, the day on which long-married Germans speak less than a sentence to each other and he envisions the man of the household putting a hand over the receiver and lifting an eyebrow and invoking, yet again, the worn-out magic of his wife’s name as though it were a mild rebuke, tonally, or the long-suffering request to please stop something.

A. It was only when Walton came upon intended victim John Fenno, returning one evening from a dance across the old Chelsea bridge, that he met resistance and his fate. Fenno was a beefy man and sprang from his cart to wrestle Walton rather than part with his coins or jewelry, invigorated as he was by sexual frustration; had the dance been successful things may well have turned out differently; as it was, the robbery was thwarted though Walton escaped, but not before trying and failing to punish Fenno with a bullet. A suspender buckle saved Fenno’s life and doomed George as he was soon captured.

B. Driving on the fast black road towards his villa before dawn with gems of sparse precipitation fixed like glass moths to his glittering windshield, VZ found himself bedevilled by a sickening internal debate as to whether he dare risk slipping into the stereo his rediscovered cassette dub of a valuable reel-to-reel bootleg of the one-time-only performance of Callas doing Lammermoor with the notorious unscored E-flats included…punishingly high notes Callas tries for with laudable brio but misses, grazing the first E-flat with such a strained shading of the pitch that it’s almost a blue note and chipping the second with a Levantine fraction redolent of the bazaar. In every subsequent performance she eschewed the dreaded E-flats entirely. Wisely. As far as VZ knew, he was the only one on Earth in possession of this wounded version of Donizetti’s lugubrious masterpiece, a discarded run-through of Callas’s premier performance of the piece in Mexico City, 1953, and he felt a craving just then to hear it. Despite the fact that there in the white leather seat beside him was his prize, Earletta Goins, slouched with drowsy pliance, a half smile playing on her chewable lips, lips he fully envisioned in contact with the freckled red glans of his penis and VZ had to think long and hard before changing the sexual weather in his Porsche just then. He could only imagine the anti-aphrodisiacal effect an opera would have on this colored American sex machine. He could only imagine his future grief at never knowing the warm weight of those lips and the breathlessness of those strong brown unshaved legs crushing the breath out of him.

C. Wifey’s on her stomach, moaning and kicking, both hands locked under her thrashing pelvis making an extravagant display of humping alone. Some guy must have told her, thirty years ago, as an excuse for not touching her, that it turns him on. She’s waistless, veiny and pale as an old frog. Ramses very quietly puts his fat dangle of dick away and hitches his pants back up and sneaks out of the bedroom as the gnadige frau whips her egg into its cold-lathered glory. Down the hall and to the left the second floor bathroom door is open and sizzling with the sound of a midday shower and Ramses’s interest is piqued. Is it hubby, home early from work? A nubile daughter, out of school for the day with a chest cold? An impertinent maid, a poltergeist or a poor relation? Ramses eases up towards the invitingly open bathroom door on the plush white carpet, carrying his shoes, boldly curious, holding his breath, with little or no backup plan in place if anyone should catch him.

A. Faced with the gravity of his final punishment, Walton directed that a copy of his memoirs be bound in his own tawny skin and presented to the very Mr. Fenno whom George was sent to the gallows for trying to shoot. White historians take George Walton’s avowal that the gesture was one of esteem for Fenno’s bravery at face value, unfamiliar with the bitter nuances of colored irony. His skin, stripped in a supple parallelogram from his still-warm back after the hanging, was treated to look like a gray deer skin by the tanner, who delivered the stuff without comment to Peter Low the book binder, the latter of perhaps a less pragmatic disposition and therefore much disturbed by the job and suffering increasingly vivid nightmares the rest of his life.

B. I’ve spent so much time and money on this one dream of making sweet love with an Afro-American and on the very threshold of all that and more I decide to risk ruining the sexy mood that all of my efforts have managed by some miracle to put her into with a blast of my so-called high culture? Am I crazy?

C. What Ramses witnesses through the fogged, beaded, soap-scummed shower door is a jug-eared middle-aged black man with love handles and a sagging ass, the cheeks of which are matte and blacker than the rest of him, his large head crowned with a cap of webby, water-matted hair. Who is this man? Where does he fit in the cosmology? Was the guy in the Iroquois photo the Ex or is this the Ex and are things much kinkier around the homestead than Ramses first imagined? This avuncular apparition of a black man with the posture of an utterly defeated specimen. His left armpit foams as he scrubs at it with an eerie lack of energy more suitable to a nursing home sitz bath than a home owner’s shower; it’s like he’s preparing for his own execution. It is a joyless, prosaic, song-free ablution so full of truth that Ramses backs away from the threshold in waves of nausea and a paradoxically simultaneous joy in being alive, the details of which he can claim as wholly his own, his uniqueness in time, the song of his soul in his skin.

Oedipus Rx

eddie

Goss slithered out of the hotel bed, careful not to wake her. This was not easy because she was the lightest sleeper ever. He hadn’t been able to shift a millimeter without getting an interrogative grunt from her and his escape from the bed had taken what seemed like hours of excruciating control. When he finally slipped into the bathroom he realized it must be suppertime back home. Sat on the toilet, seat down, lights off, with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands but he was smiling. Not quite laughing. Actually maybe he felt slightly sick.

She was suddenly upright in bed. ‘Jimmy?’ she called. Not his name. And she pronounced it weird anyway. Yeemy?

Go in there, he ordered himself, and get your clothes. And don’t you say a fucking word to her.

‘Jimmy?’

Goss ignored her, staring straight at the corner where his pants must be, ignoring her motionless silhouette which registered on his peripheral vision like a shape in a sinister dreamscape as he groped and found briefs and slipped them on, then socks, his pants and down on all fours patted the floor for his cap and found it. His scarf. His pullover was flung across the half of the bed they hadn’t used and he remembered kicking his shoes off right inside the door, bouncing them off the wall, so they must be here and here. He couldn’t get the sensation of flap out of his mouth.

‘Jimmy,’ she sang, softly, sounding very sad.

He shod himself with one hop on each foot and got both hands on the doorknob squinting against the light he let like a rush of air into the room so musty with what they had done. He backed out careful not to look as the light closed on her old face and Goss blew out a long breath turning to the red AUSGANG sign and high-fiving a giant ghost before it hit him that his jacket containing not only a copy of Levy’s house keys but also all of Goss’s money and his passport and the sacred lock of hair was still hanging in the hotel room closet.

He rapped on the door and waited and rapped again. His nerve-endings sang with shame.

‘Mom?’

-2 Days Before That-

Goss on a couch beside Levy in a café on Königen Strasse called The Supreme Bean where they both liked the music and one of the waitresses was really pretty. Dogs romping around the café and hot coffee served in water glasses but Goss was comforted by normalizing details such as lonely males over Powerbooks like Nosferatus by the light of their desktops. As Tears go by, the ballad second only to the majestic Angie in the Richards/Jagger songbook was the song playing when it happened.

Goss had never written a song or fucked a girl worth writing a song about but he could remember a time in his life when both activities had seemed like eventual givens. He had almost fucked Tina Yee and had almost written a song about almost doing it, twenty years ago. It was Levy who had pointed out that every woman Goss ever fucked (not counting his first, a cousin) had been the ex-best friend of the girlfriend previous.

It is the evening of the day

Goss was mouthing the lyrics while Levy talked. He anticipated with emotions he could barely control the last stanza, containing as it did one of the great couplets in English verse: doing things I used to do, they think are new. Levy, meanwhile, who knew so much about everything that he knew exactly how much of everything that he didn’t know, as he often quipped, was yammering away. Pompeiian snowflakes in the cafe window and padding Berlin performed a miraculous makeover on the dirty city. Something told Goss to look up. An oldish woman, furred and painted, very tall or on preposterous heels, pushing through the corpsey curtain of the snowfall. Her epic grimace and coin-colored bob. Levy with his back to her but Goss’s heart flinched as the beautiful old thing moved across the picture window of the Supreme Bean like a queen puppet traversing a stage and the knowledge, the recognition, was so basic in Goss that it was semi-conscious. His body knew before his mind could react. Levy hunched forward in his chair, prepared to deliver the Levy-affirming punchline to whatever anecdote when Goss suddenly tugged at and freed his army surplus jacket from under Levy’s ass and he held up a finger and said Excuse, please, one sec, and bolted. It wasn’t forty seconds before Goss thought about running back for his scarf and gloves too but didn’t want to risk losing her on the shopper-choked street. She was roughly a block ahead. She was walking so fast with a spine so straight and open coat flying that Goss wasn’t sure briefly if she didn’t look a bit crazy and busy in the bad manner of the insanely alone. She was, or had been, he had been told, a performer and if Goss was 36 she would be about 55 with her bob hard-luminous in the creamy gloom of the high street. He jogged huffingly after the old girl like a thug who’d been hired by a jilted plutocrat to ruin her looks. No one else seemed to notice. Why did he feel persecuted?

-20 Years Before That-

In back of the house at 25th & Colfax the dog-breathed summer Tie a Yellow Ribbon was a hit young Goss was on his knees digging a hole behind the oak with a bent spatula on a Saturday morning. A lawnmower morning so loud with the sci fi sound of a planet hive, the neighborhood doused in green perfume, while Dad added his own nasal motor sleeping a stiff one off. When was the last time anyone mowed this lawn, thought Goss. He actually spat with contempt. It never occurred to him to mow the lawn. Cursing and in tears he worried a rooty wound in the earth at the mouth of the tree. This was a household of three males sharing the surname Goss and yet Goss, the youngest, was the one they all called Goss. Behind the oak to bury a picture of Tina Yee.

You may lose that fading sense-print of The First Kiss but you will never forget the very first I Don’t Love You Anymore. Despite the traditional disclaimer, it is you, you’re the one, the failure, the disappointment, the faded value, the seed on the deepest level unworthy of egg. Goss could always tell when an outbreak of I Don’t Love You Anymore was coming. They never look better than they do on the day they dump you.

Tina Yee in cap and gown smiling by the hole. About a foot into the nugatory cakemix of middleclass earth his bent spatula scraped a cigar box. He coughed and accidentally dropped a gross track of phlegm-web on the rim of the hole when he levered the box up and out and knocked a jacket of dirt off. An old Panetellas box for a photograph of a disturbingly attractive woman. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Also in the box a long lock of ice-blond hair. Goss was suddenly not crying and blinked at the photograph with no recognition, no switches tripped but the lock of hair was eerily-if-inaccurately familiar, like flying had been the first time he’d ever been on an airplane.

The evening of that day while Goss was out with his big brother and his big brother’s so-called friends mourning Yee, dousing the burning witch of his heart with tepid beer at a place called Moose’s, the photograph he’d found in the cigar box that morning disappeared from his bedroom from the top right drawer behind the magic mushrooms, never to be seen again. Over breakfast the next morning Goss glowered with the irritating wisdom of not mentioning it. But he had the lock of hair in his pocket and he fought the urge to place it on the table.

Joe senior had been a band-leader, a sax player, he’d even toured Europe. His sister Aunt Pennie told the brothers all about it but there hadn’t been a horn in the house since shortly after the year Goss was born. The saxophone, with its fetal curves, was a dead sibling you never mentioned and had become Goss’s stillborn twin like the twin haunting the dim but intense imagination of Elvis. Elvis was how Goss and Levy had met a month before Elvis’s self-satirizing death on a toilet. Levy was short but ramrod-erect among a slouching jumble of sideburned lotus-eaters near the front of the ticket line, turning suddenly to confront Goss about his t-shirt.

‘You’re wearing an Elvis t-shirt to a Beatles film festival?’ Levy laughed. ‘Man, if we weren’t all hippies, we’d have to kick your lanky ass!’

What you do with your hands when you’re not doing anything with them says a lot about you, thought Goss: this loudmouth has his arms folded over his chest like a drill instructor. Goss’s thumbs were hooked in the front pockets of his dungarees. He hankered after girls who struck limp-wristed postures like Cher (or Robert Plant, to be honest), a pose so feminine that it seemed to have vanished entirely from the increasingly macho planet by the time Goss was thirty, a loss that inspired vague pangs. All these years later, Levy was still Goss’s friend and friendship-deformingly rich. He had a company called The Bombardier Beetle and split his time between Minneapolis, Vancouver and Berlin.

-Last Night-

Back in the spare room, listening to Levy’s German girlfriend do something dramatic with Levy on the other side of the large flat, Goss found it impossible to sleep. But when they were finally finished the noise of his own breathing kept him awake so he slipped into his briefs and out of his unfamiliar bed and down the hall into the flicker-blue living room where he found the post-coital girlfriend watching the final minutes of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in German but with the sound off. Goss was prepared for what he found because Levy had carefully prepared him: Liesl likes to go naked around the flat. It had something to do with good health, or self-expression, or equal rights. She reflected the light of the wide-screen television, naked as an Equatorial baby and unremarkably attractive. Nice big hands, though. Her breasts a goatee’d lunatic’s unblinking stare. A giant bust of Lenin transfixed by It’s a Wonderful Life.

‘Hallo, man,’ she said. ‘…this flick is so corny.’

Goss squeezed her shoulder. ‘Corny? Are you kidding? It’s like something out of the Brothers Grimm.’

She lowered her voice and said ‘Levy is completely asleep. He’s sleeping like a baby. It’s always like that.’

She smiled at the TV. ‘I put him to sleep. Like a baby.’

She stared sidelong at Goss and Goss cleared his throat but said nothing. He scratched his head. Jimmy Stewart was clutching Donna Reed with all of his might, sending a pang through Goss that made him want to jump out of his skin and smash all the lights in the universe. Liesl hugged her knees and said, a tad loudly, ‘You know what I hate?’

‘What?’ asked Goss, who assumed he was about to be treated to a diatribe against American kitsch as embodied by Jimmy Stewart.

It was so cool to be not interested.

-Earlier Today-

‘I’ve heard disturbing reports,’ said Levy the next morning pacing the new carpet in his furnitureless storefront, ‘…that some of you, in violation of my policy, are smoking while distributing promotional materials to the public.’ Levy’s muscular arms were folded over his ever-expanding chest because getting rich had inspired him to start working out. It wouldn’t be long before he became too top-heavy to swim. ‘Smoking on the job is not just verboten. It’s fucking dis-gusting.’

Levy glared at Nikola B, the fleshily-attractive brunette with blonde streaks he had hired on the spot without any references. Nikola gathered her purse and coat from a big pile in the corner and left without saying a word slamming the front door so hard they were all afraid the building might collapse.

Goss asked himself, hours later, making his way to the building he believed was harboring his long-lost mother, why he couldn’t be like Levy. Why couldn’t he? It was a Vital Force thing.

Goss had followed the woman this far yesterday and turned back. He’d seen his mother enter that building. But did he really believe this? Or was it a sort of meta-belief… a belief that this belief was possible to believe? What seemed shakiest about this latest in a long line of improvised quests was the lack of gravity in his emotional response to the situation. Where was the bloody roil of emotions he was supposed to be feeling? He only knew for a fact that his mother had been from Berlin. Had followed Joe Goss to The States and bore him there two children and very soon after left. She could be in Berlin. A mile, two blocks, a neighborhood away. Yes, she could very well be the woman he saw walk by the café window last night. He would know his own mother, wouldn’t he? Mammals have that going for them, at least. Don’t they?

Last night’s spectacular snow was already melting under the fierce efforts of a little white custodial sun. The shoppers Goss squeezed by were unreadable, avoiding eye contact. Goss was wondering about this eye contact thing when he slowed and then stopped. He stuck his hands in his pocket and cleared his throat.

‘Hey, Nicole,’ he said.

She was crying. Not really crying; her face was relatively blank although her cheeks were bright red and decorated with silver tear-streaks. Her eyes might as well have been glands.

‘Nikola,’ she corrected him.

He looked away up the street towards the shop. He wanted to say: I’ve been searching for all of my life for the mother who abandoned me as an infant and I’ve finally tracked her down to an apartment building right up the street. Will you come there with me now as I see her again for the first time in thirty-five years and share that moment with me? Instead he said:

‘I’m sorry about what happened.’

She snorted.

Goss gathered the collar of his jacket around his neck. ‘Because. I don’t know. I thought you were a good worker.’

She laughed.

‘What?’

‘I thought Levy is so seductive to the women only because he is an American,’ she said, digging in her purse for a taschentuch, a kleenex, ‘But I see now that it is because he is a Jew.’

She blew her nose. ‘Talking to a female is hard for you, I think.’ She shocked Goss by tossing the balled tissue on the sidewalk.

‘You will probably be remembering this conversation for the rest of your life.’ She gestured at a balding red-haired scowler pushing impatiently between them on his way up the street. ‘Whereas to him, sex with me would mean less than nothing.’ She produced a package of Marlboros and lit one and stared at Goss through a cloud she kept adding to. Like eggs in the air.

‘So?’ she said, finally.

It was a very long bus ride away and early in the route the bus took them right by the building that Goss believed it was possible to believe harbored his mother. As the bus rounded the building’s corner he suppressed the urge, again, to proclaim, ‘I have good reason to believe that my mother, who I haven’t seen since I was an infant, is dwelling in that building,’ but he didn’t. Nicole’s hair was in a loose knot and she untied the knot and shook out and re-tied it twice during the awkwardly wordless journey. When they got off the bus at its Endstation it was in a neighborhood of fenced brown snow-patched yards and their dead-vine-covered houses of stone. It felt as though they’d bussed to another city. They walked through a rustic maze of narrow lanes under the high commentary of suburban birdsong until Nikola lifted the latch on a splintery wooden gate and Goss followed her in. I could be a killer, he thought. She pulled off her shoes at the door so he did also and they moved across the gloomy living room. In the kitchen they found Nikola’s mother busy at the sink with her back to them. She either hadn’t heard them enter the house or chose not to react. Nikola opened the refrigerator and removed a large black ceramic bowl of green grapes and pantomimed that Goss should take the bowl and follow her out of the kitchen. The bowl was heavy and warm; the mother had just then put it in the refrigerator. Nikola’s room was up a staircase so brief it was ridiculous, down a hallway, last right before a circular hall window overlooking a stone-ringed pond through the branches of a tree in a posture of agony. Goss managed a peek into two rooms along the way to Nikola’s bedroom and was surprised to see that each room he peeked into contained a person. The first was a teenage boy the second a man and each wearing a churchgoing suit and tie.

In Nikola’s little room, Goss put the bowl of grapes down on a dresser and closed her door and removed his jacket and tried to drape it from her door knob, which wasn’t a knob but a handle. His jacket shrugged off into a puddle on the floor and Nikola removed her own coat and purse and piled them on top of it. She positioned an old wooden folding chair beside her bed and reclined on the bed, smoothing her dress, her feet touching. Then, as though to a blown whistle only she could hear, she sat straight up and pulled the dress off over her head. She unsnapped her bra. The breasts of a beached sea creature when she was on her back. Goss was touched at how helpless they looked on land. They were too smooth, too firm and her vagina was simple as a fold in a table cloth. She reached and patted the seat of the folding chair and Goss sat.

‘No,’ she said, ‘bring the grapes here first and feed them to me.’

Goss had the look of a man attempting to make something happen with his thoughts alone. Bend a spoon or something.

‘Get the grapes,’ she repeated.

Goss was frozen.

Nikola flipped on to her stomach and hugged her pillow and counted to ten before saying,

‘Leave.’

‘Get out,’ she reiterated.

Goss was half way down the hall when he remembered his jacket and had to go back. When he left the house, the sky was a clear dilute blue. The blue of something pointless but collectible and he was surprised at how calm he felt. Everything was so familiar.

It was possible that Joe Goss, sideburned and swaggery back then, had been in this very neighborhood, had trod these very lanes and maybe Goss’s mother, a teenager not so much younger than Nikola at the time she’d met Goss’s father, was from this part of town, had grown up in this area and had used the bus that Goss had ridden. He was used to the kind of small-town coincidences that people from Chicago or Tokyo considered mindfucks of cosmic import. He was thinking that very thing when he looked up and saw Levy walking towards him with a self-satisfied smirk.

‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ asked Levy, who stopped in his tracks.

After Goss said to Levy that he’d taken the wrong bus to the end of the line and was now good and lost, Levy led Goss back to his car. ‘I have a little business to take care of, won’t be long, drive you back home when I’m done.’

-Earlier This Evening-

Goss ended up climbing out of Levy’s car again before night fell. It had been a profitable time alone, he thought. He put his cap on and zipped up his jacket and knotted his scarf and picked a random direction to walk in.

Loping along above the low seare hedge of one chalk-white cottage after another, Goss turned right, abruptly, when he spotted what looked like a major thoroughfare at the end of a darkening lane, a major thoroughfare behind which the sun was crashing, torching the brittle lung of the forest as it ground to a halt in the earth. Where the lane emptied into the thoroughfare, Goss found a bus stop bench in a shelter across the wet black shadow of the road. Seated on the bench was an older but nice-enough looking woman who smiled as he settled on the bench beside her. She waited until he was completely still and said, with an older woman’s precision, ‘You are an American.’

‘Yep,’ said Goss. ‘How could you tell?’

‘You weren’t afraid to look at me.’

Goss laughed. ‘Who would be afraid to look at you?’ He reached for her hand and looked her right in the eye and said, defiantly, ‘Jimmy.’

She hesitated so long before announcing her name in return that he knew it was a lie and he knew what the lie meant and it encouraged him.

‘Margarethe.’

She was tall and slender and profited from what looked like a fairly expensive dye job. Her hair up in a thick bun blurred gold in the fading last lights of the day.

‘Where are you going, Jimmy?’ she asked him. ‘Would you like a ride?’

He pulled his cap off. ‘You have a car?’ She was the right age. It was possible that she’d lived in America.

‘Yes, I have a car.’

He closed one eye. ‘Why are you waiting for the bus if you have a car?’

6 Counter-Intuitive Love Songs

photo by SG 

1.

St. Alban’s is a side street in the Summit Avenue neighborhood where F. Scott Fitzgerald feels most at home. Walks the street in a t-shirt on sultry nights. There are a dozen addresses along Summit where Fitzgerald lived but the only one the clique ever paid any attention to was a Romanesque brownstone in front of which we’d hang out on misty nights to give our cunts the fantods with Scotty’s approval. We, too, continued to haunt the area long after we’d quit or graduated. Fantods was Tucker van Tassel’s word. I filched it from him. I think I filched filched, too. Who says filched? The rich must die.

I was the only scholarship. The serf on a workstudy forced to wake up at the crack every Thursday, slip into crusty painter-whites and meet a gray-eyed half-Ojibwe alky named Chuck in front of the student union. There he’d be, stumbling already over dropcloths, his arms a rich organic color against the sequence of big tongues of pouring paint. And there I’d come. Supposed to be grateful for the opportunity. Here: attend this gilded bunker of privilege. Watch: your weightless friends sail through chatty days to reach every bacchanalia of no-free nights. I grew big guns shoveling coke in the boilers of the Titanic.

I confess it was my subconscious revenge maneuver to fuck one of their women. Exquisite chattel on a plinth: I think I glimpsed that on the menu of one of those temples she tried to put me in my place at later. But oh, when I first saw Mary Duncan Ford looming against that laughing, luminous, thirty-foot Jeanne Moreau on a bike I interpreted my aspirational panic as love. If I’d only known. She looked better than Ms. Moreau and rendered the story boring. Fiction is so vulnerable but in its favor I’d argue that at least it doesn’t care. Pushing her way down the row of cinema seats, hunched under the toy gray deathray from the projector, giggling pardon moi , she puts a hand on my knee and steps on my foot and settles to my left and fuck did the smell of her shampoo make it impossible. Does one of those guys die in the end? Maybe he sacrifices himself to save the other two (a neat resolution of the triangle). When all five of us got kicked out I followed my supremely-unembarrassable new friends to an off-campus pizzeria. And immediately, that night, back in my dorm, I started practicing the not-blushing… in a mirror. I’d say, “And who do you think you are?” in a certain voice. I could do the voice but I never learned to not blush. Which made the voice useless. The rich only blush when you glimpse their intestines.

The ones I met that first night were part of a much larger clique. Which was part of a much larger class. Which descended from an ancient tradition of the royal fuck you. These assholes knew the proper way to sleep in castles. Sophia, Katie and I sat on one side of the table and Eric and Tucker and Mary on the other. They were my first exposure to people who enjoy pizza and pop music without animal gusto but neither with guilt nor disdain but through cool, contractual loopholes protecting such people, who don’t really need to eat. I grasped immediately that curling my lip at disco music, for example, wouldn’t put me any higher on the carefully-calibrated ladder than being caught caressing a Travolta poster. I learned to never, under any circumstances, eye that very last slice. Subtle stuff.

I wisely kept my provincial enthusiasms for F. Scott Fitzgerald to myself. I wore my suspenders in the dark, alone. The main thing was they were all from well-off East Coast bloodlines and I knew if I gave them anything to pick on in those first few formative days and weeks the flaw or error would become the label on the can I was made of. I would become the hindered mascot. Rub its head for good luck. I was very quiet. I listened more than I talked. I mastered (and memorized an arsenal of) offhand quips and tailored a working persona. I developed a late-blooming sympathy for the Jews.

It’s obvious to me in retrospect that Mary was intrigued by my blue-collar looks. I wasn’t the only dark-haired boy in the bunch (Tucker’s hair was blue-black as any comic book hero’s) or the only one with a calloused handshake (sailing will do that for you) but there was something solid, or self-willed, about me. Something that the over-bred fuckers of her species lacked.

The first time I hit her I knew I was on to something. She laughed and said harder.

I am willing to take a test.

2.

Hyacinth is on her death trip again. Shuffling from room to room and staring at stuff with that spooky I am a camera blankness. Like she’s memorizing it, filing it away. Storing it for when, soon coming, none of this… the ashtrays, the doorstops, the all-in-one entertainment center with a busted cassette player and a scratched-at indelible Take That sticker on its side… will exist. Only Hyacinth will exist. Only Hyacinth will survive as a witness. Hyacinth the Chosen One. The rest of us are doomed, pal. When the landlord of landlords comes tromping up the back stairs of the universe, jingling his zillion keys, the rest of His tenants are toast.

What I like is how Hyacinth strips down before trancing. Wants to meet her maker in her innocence is how she puts it. In her birthday suit. Hyacinth has a very nice birthday suit.

You’re having a dinner party and virginal Hyacinth comes shuffling into the dining room with The Gypsy Kings on at low volume and she makes her entrance in the middle of some toff’s anecdote about Heidegger, in said birthday suit, Polaroiding everyone with those big brown eyes: that makes an impression. I usually say she’s sleepwalking, poor thing. No sudden moves. Remain seated. She’ll nip off to bed on her own in a minute or two.

People call and ask me, uh, when’s the next dinner party?

Well, problem is, I can’t guarantee that Hyacinth will make an appearance and nothing kills conversation like half a dozen people glancing expectantly at the dining room door the whole evening. Thing is, she has to be on a death trip to do it and she only goes on a death trip when the signs and omens augur the imminence of joyful dominion.

Hyacinth is our American. You’ve probably gathered as much.

It isn’t given to many of the English to be raised on a compound, is it? It’s practically a rite of passage for Americans. Most of them over there could probably write a pretty good tell-all about some Spiritual Leader or other. Most of them have been dandled on some Messiah’s knee as a matter of course and staged deprogramming interventions have become, in the 21st century, what bat mizvah’s and coming-out parties once were. I used to think Yanks were preposterous for forming these little cults of a few thousand and proclaiming themselves The Chosen (as distinguished from the other 6.8 billion on earth). That’s a pretty strict door policy. Studio 54 at its peak was all-embracing in comparison. But Americans always take things to the illogical extreme.

It’s a nation of escalation, the spiritual home of escalators. As if to prove that an apocalyptic sex cult of six heavily-armed Puerto Ricans speaking in tongues in a one-room flat in Brooklyn (for example) isn’t as far as one can go in the direction of exclusive holiness, now you’ve got these cults of one popping up… these solo-cults or uni-cliques like Hyacinth. In fact, Hyacinth tells me she had a falling out with her best friend Phoenix. Which is so, really, like, you know, sad. Phoenix was under the impression that she was the Chosen One (hereafter to be referred to as the CO). Reasoning that Nebraska isn’t big enough for two CO’s, Hyacinth headed back East. Her father, a relatively down-to-earth Baptist, was from New Jersey.

On the long bus trip east she noticed, strategically placed in seats on the right and left of the aisle, three or four waifs of approximately the same age, body mass index (in a country of the fat, the thin stick out) and facial expression. More CO’s, of course. Hyacinth’s only hope (if she planned to set up shop as a C.O. in unclaimed territory) was to get out of the country.

“It’s because you’re secure in yourself that you can admit that I am The Chosen One,” says Hyacinth, during one of her more talkative moments. But really it’s because I desperately want to nail her. What’s it like, I mean. Anal with a Chosen One. Must be special.

More about that compound.

That photo album she brings everywhere. It’s a wealth of coded information. Ignoring the sunsets and geese-on-the-lake and all those blurry snapshots she took of her own left hand, starting when she was nine, the other photos comprise a vivid document of the places where clean-air America and Millennial dogma meet and result in horrific stains. One snapshot that stays with me is of a man in a dark cloak, kneeling in the snow in a semi-circle of dark-cloaked onlookers. The man’s gloved hands cover his face. Yet the onlookers (with unisex, too-long, center-parted hair) don’t seem particularly galvanized. They seem bored; unimpressed. I always wanted to ask about that.

3.

My maternal grandfather shot his adopted son over a property deal. The deal would have made my grandfather a millionaire, finally, after so many years. My uncle, half-Ojibwe by birth, rescued by my grandfather from a Red Lake orphanage in Northern Minnesota, grew into a hippie. A hippie named Graham who refused to agree to the deal. He answered the door in nakedness one brilliant green morning. He was found right there in the vestibule of the hand-built house he loved. He was discovered by a groggy member of his harem. He had holes in his chest and face and he was scribbling on the baseboard with a bloody finger. 1968.

I started calling myself Graham and dressing a certain way, twenty years too late but quite awhile before it was fashionable again.

Reagan is giving a speech on a thriftshop television on which the speaker doesn’t work and the President sounds like a fly. I have a band called The Law of Averages and would you like to know what the law of averages means? It means that the average person is just average in the eyes of the law. This fat girl is paying my rent while Reagan talks. Her head is intermittently in the way. I’m not even worth shooting.

4.

There have been times in human history when ugly was fashionable, when being ugly was a kind of good luck so powerful it conferred itself also on those who clamored to be near it. When ugliness had the power to bless. But this isn’t such an era.

5.

It is Chicago, Illinois, and the year is 1972. There are three of us together, good friends, old friends, in Jimmy’s, near the corner of Jackson and State Street, under the ‘EL.’ Jimmy’s is halfway between what we’d call greasy spoon and down home and Jimmy does all the cooking. One has a choice of three tables near the window or the counter itself to eat on and the tables are always occupied. The tables are green Formica and chrome and they were new when Jimmy opened the place with a VA loan after surviving the Korean War with two good arms and a leg.

Jimmy is good at producing a certain kind of very heavy meal with sweet iced tea or very strong coffee for a beverage and pie for dessert and he charges a fair price. The one thing you do not do in Jimmy’s is tip.Jimmy’s is lit like a pool hall: coolie hats of light hung from a dirty ceiling. There is no jukebox. Jimmy thinks it’s impolite to listen to popular music while eating his food. The sooty windows onto State Street are a triptych of iron-webbed sky (the structure of the ‘EL’) and one little Xmas tree of a traffic light. The upper right corner of the triptych blinks red, yellow, green all night, even when there’s no one in Jimmy’s to see it.

Here we are: Gorman, Perez. Me. We are lucky and have a window table near the door. It’s summer and being seated near the door is a relief, even with thick stains of exhaust on the breeze. Gorman, with his big head and too-small haircut like a child’s cap barely reaching his neckline or red ears and his feminine eyelashes, has, in preparation, cut his meat into a grid of what looks like thirty two small squares and is now leisurely forking one after another into his mouth while Perez and I hack away at our porkchops.

‘The Germans are metaphysicians,’ says Gorman, between forkfuls, putting the meat away. ‘Nietzsche. Jung. Kant.’ He glares at the ceiling. ‘Hörbigger.’ He forks a square of meat and writes an ‘eight’ with it through a tablet of gravy and puts it away. ‘They might as well have been witch doctors.’

The squares of meat he removes from the plate follow a pattern: one bottom left, one top right. Next bottom left, next top right. Perez winks at me and tips his chin at Gorman’s plate: the puddle of gravy with a vertical ‘infinity’ inscribed in it. The tessellated Salisbury steak and cuneiformed mashed potatoes.

‘Gorman,’ says Perez, ‘We’re curious. Really. Do you take a crap as methodically as you eat?’

Perez is pretty: he has flared nostrils and a precise black haircut and an Elvis-like permanent sneer. But one eye is always bloodshot and a little dead because a big kid clubbed him on the playground for being too pretty. I heard a rumor more than once that Perez and Gorman did a little something as Vaselined choir boys in one or the other’s bunk one night when we were all three of us attending a week-long ‘retreat’ at a seminary in East Troy, Wisconsin. I can remember being so young that everything under your navel smelled the same. The retreat was sponsored by the Catholic School (Our Lady of The Loop) in which we were benignly and neglectfully incarcerated the year we three became friends.

Gorman was there at Our Lady of the Loop because his parents didn’t want him attending the run-down educational institution of the neighborhood, which is Joseph J. Pulaski Junior High School. Perez was there because his whiskery grandmother, the sole guardian of Perez and his six sisters, supported a Catholic universe with such natural fervor that she could experience ecstatic visions of the Virgin Mary on demand, the holy mother illuminated in swirling clouds of Lucky Strike. You could smell Perez’s house from a block away. I was sent to Our Lady of the Loop because it was the furthest my mother could get me from the house every day. We didn’t even live, technically, in Chicago. I’d come home and exorcise the place with air-fresheners. What kind of kid is forced to spend his allowance on air-fresheners?

The rumor about Perez and Gorman never bothered me, and I treated it with the same open-minded neutrality I applied to the miracles that the Sisters used so much of every school day advertising: I did not doubt nor did I believe. But that rumor goes a long way toward explaining the teasing. Gorman and Perez would bicker and tease like a couple embarrassed by the memory of an unrecoverable closeness.

‘Sure’n if you tink oi eats metodically,’ retorts Gorman, with a fakey brogue, after a swig of tea with a sandstorm of sugar in it, ‘you ought t’ see how oi diddle yer ma.’

Then he catches my eye and drops his gaze and he apologizes profusely in a deep soft voice. He’d forgotten. And now he feels like a shit, a real shit and I feel sorry for him. Being a good guy, and famously easy to get along with, I change the subject immediately, of course. Or, that is, I change it back.

‘Henry Miller.’

‘Henry Miller,’ echoes Perez, tapping the table. But Gorman is still pouting over his faux-pas, his mouth in the palm of his hands. All work has ceased on the construction site of his dinner plate and his words have escaped him. We have to prod.

I repeat, ‘Henry Miller…’ but Gorman won’t bite. Christ, Jerry, I want to say: she was my mother. What are you so upset about?

I say, ‘Come on, Jerry. You’re the writer. It’s your job to educate us Philistines. If you don’t finish, Perez and I are going to go out into that heartless night without the gift of knowledge to light our paths. You were saying… ‘ But Gorman just sits there, slumped, so Perez stars talking about popular film.

Poor Gorman. If only I could admit that I’m glad she’s gone! But that would put me under suspicion.

6.

LD: A particular guy wants a particular woman: this is not a story, it’s a situation. Make it two particular guys and make the two guys friends (and the woman beautiful) and at least you have a story. Make one of the two friends in competition for the affections of the beautiful woman not a guy but another woman and make the two not friends but married and you have a modern story on your hands, possibly. The jury is still out on the relative modernity of sad or happy or unresolved endings. Is there a fourth alternative? Maybe the fourth alternative is there is no ending. It just goes on and on that way. Everyone in the story just gets older and older until you can’t even stand to look at them any more. Does that sound like a bestseller to you? Anyway, you asked so I told you. How’s the Mrs?

MD: You’re so bitter, Larry. So sarcastic.

Princesses Street

sept walk 3

K was already up and making the first cup of coffee of the day by nine o’clock, early by almost any standard in Berlin. He was awake and busy so early because of the phone call he’d gotten from P, a Brit that K knew from his early days in the city. P had called to ask if K was still planning to give up his old flat, and if so, would K consider giving the flat to P’s friend, an Artist? “She’s German,” P warned, “But you’ll like her.”

Ten minutes later the Artist herself called and they agreed, through the medium of her awkward English and his pidgin German, that she should come over to look at the flat at noon. He’d taken both calls in bed and dozed again for a little while after laying the phone on the pillow beside him.

He had a disturbing dream and woke to the sound that the phone makes when the receiver lies out of its cradle for too long, which his dream had re-invented as the ambulance-mocking siren of a blood-red hearse. He backed out of the bed, rubbing his arms as though its sheets were soaked with the nightmare.

K put the espresso pot on the boil and got straight to tending the oven. There were three ceramic ovens in the flat, all beautifully ornamented in Belle Epoque style, because the flat was quite old, but he only used the biggest oven, a gigantic green monster in the living room, to heat with. In fifteen years he’d mastered the technique that the oven required… putting a certain number of coal bricks in at certain intervals, and never letting the fire go out completely. Also, the key was keeping the flue shut at all times, unless he’d overslept and was forced to start a fire from scratch. Keeping the flue shut bottled the heat in the oven, where before he’d let it escape up the chimney, a lot of expensive hot smoke. Nowadays the flat was always warm, even during that very cold winter. K looked out the living room windows, rubbing his hands together.

He looked out across the frozen park and the long row of cookie-colored buildings on the other side of the boulevard, behind which the naked sun sheltered, and dogs fussed and sprinted while a short broad Turkish woman in a tan raincoat and a frown-framing white scarf crossed towards K’s building in a slow diagonal across the stiff mud. He imagined she was walking straight from Istanbul with news of a death in the family.

What a morbid fantasy! He began to worry that the nightmare he’d had would infect his thoughts all day. He stared with hunger out the window, looking for an image to replace the optical aftertaste of the nightmare. He wanted to crowd his eyes with Life. Unfortunately, because of the season, and the neighborhood, he only managed to gather faint impressions of it. There was a blue haze of smoke, pressed down below the roof-level by the heavy lid of the cold sky, soaking the buildings in ectoplasm. All those coal-burning ovens. He opened a window and leaned out and inhaled and it could have been the smell of a mining town in Kentucky. But the neighborhood, poor yet chic, was called Kreuzberg, the ghetto assigned to Berlin’s congenital underclass of Turks, invited and then snubbed as post war labor. Turks and Bohemian Germans and thrill-seeking American students, who were easily identified because the heels of their shoes were always new, mingled in the cafés and on the streets in the summer.

K was surprised when the doorbell rang: if it was P’s friend, she was three hours early. It was also too early to be the mailman with a package. One could never rule out the possibility that it was the man who spot-checked to see if you had paid for your radio and television licenses; a separate fee for each individual television or radio. K had thus far eluded that fine, the kind of luck that was exactly equivalent to his managing to have lived in Berlin for fifteen years without once being splattered with pigeon shit. But he knew his time was coming.

When K opened the door he broke out in a huge grin and hugged the man standing there, who had to drop the two suitcases he was carrying in order to receive the hug. Just like him to show up this way, after four years, without warning!

“You bastard!” shouted K, with pleasure.

They had coffee together in the kitchen, where K tilted away from the table on the back legs of his chair and laughed into his coffee cup at his friend’s stories. His friend, who had married a pretty-but-icy German girl and moved to The States with her, was now fleeing back to Berlin, an optimistic refugee, talking hopefully about a divorce, and looking for a nicer girl to forget his recent mistake in. She didn’t have to be stunning, but she had to be nice, after what he’d been through.

Of course, he mused, all the better if she’s stunning and nice. And rich, with her own big flat. Why not? And what would it hurt if she was also a good cook who could cut his hair and tighten the buttons on his coat occasionally? And who was he to look a gift horse in the mouth if she was fluent in English, loved his stories, and encouraged him to publish? And a nymphomaniac on top of it?

They laughed with their hands clamped over their eyes. They couldn’t stop laughing.

K told his friend that he himself was moving to a trendy neighborhood in the East, to Prenzlauer Berg, and that his friend could take over the old flat… he gestured dismissively at the whitewashed walls… in exactly two weeks. It was cheap, K had renovated it extensively, and the neighbors were relatively quiet. His friend asked him exactly how much the rent was and he couldn’t believe it when K told him…it was half of what he paid, in California, for an apartment that was a quarter of the size. That was a good sign: his first day back in Berlin had produced a windfall.

He said “God, I’m tired!” and K showed him to a little room with a neatly made bed in it, and a lamp on a table and a small white ceramic oven at the other end of the room; it would take hours for the oven to become even mildly warm, and K hadn’t used it in so long that he was sure that it needed to be cleaned. They put the suitcases together at the foot of the bed and K went and got an electric radiator, rolling it down the hallway with a jovial admonishment not to use it so much that the room actually felt warm…electricity in Berlin was still expensive.

The traveler kicked off his shoes and got under the covers fully clothed, because the sheets were so cold. The electric radiator hummed soothingly beside the bed. K had pulled the curtains and the room was dark enough to sleep in. The switch on the radiator glowed orange, like a Christmas light, and he slipped into sleep as his eyes directed his soul into the hearth-like color.

K went about his business quietly around the flat, so as not to disturb his slumbering friend. He closed the kitchen door and washed the dishes with a trickle of water, stopping himself, in the middle of a song he’d started to hum, with a disbelieving grin. Four years and not a word, and now boom! Just like that! But K admired the nerve of it; the spontaneity. He thought of the days to come.

His friend will sit on the edge of the wobbly old table in the living room, staring out across the park through these open windows. Birds will remember their immemorial songs and dogs will tussle and bark and sprint on the firm mud. Turkish women, in their tan raincoats and white head-scarves, will cross the park in plodding diagonals towards Prinzessinnen Strasse…

Just at that moment, the doorbell rang, and K thought:  shit.

P’s friend, looking for a flat. K’s first ridiculous impulse was to hide, to remain absolutely still, pretending that he wasn’t home, which would cause her to press the button repeatedly, which would wake up his friend, which would complicate the situation further. He didn’t have time to improvise a story; an excuse for why he couldn’t give her the flat; as he hurried down the hallway.

He opened the door with a finger over his lips to hush her greeting. She smiled and reached for his hand and whispered “I am the Artist,” and K gestured for her to follow him into the living room. She was unusually attractive. She was so striking, as it turns out, that his face was burning and he was glad for the chance to turn his back to her as he led her down the long dark hallway.

Rather than working in her favor with him, however, her beauty irritated K. She looked like a Nazi’s idea of a perfect specimen, with the razor-sharp platinum haircut and precise manner to match. She was tall, and elegantly slim, with just enough bust to be alluring, but not so buxom to ruin the lines of her outfit, which looked to K (who admittedly knew nothing of women’s clothing) to be expensive.

There are men who love men, and men who love women, and rarely a type that loves both (the type called “Saint”) and K was a man who loved men. Not sexually. When it came time for sex, his choice of a partner was invariably female. Homosexuality was nothing more than a concept to be generous about in his well-educated circle. His love for men wasn’t erotic. He lusted after women but he preferred the friendship and the company and the stories of men. For K and many of his friends, women were an exotic-but-tired topic of discussion, like Hong Kong.

When P first called that morning, asking for a place for his friend The Artist to stay in, and he’d said “She’s German, but you’ll like her,” is that what P had meant? Only that she was beautiful? K was insulted.

Flustered at first by her chemical effect on him, he was actually relieved that she looked the way she looked as he ushered her into the living room, closing the big double doors behind them as she crossed towards the bright windows, raising her arms as though to herald the sun. It would make it simpler… even pleasurable… to say “no” to her. He didn’t feel one bit sorry for her. Born with everything and still she expected more.

“This is the wonderful flat!” she whispered sharply, obediently humoring K’s peculiar edict of sickroom-silence. “And the address,” she winked, “It is what is perfect for me! ‘Prinzessinnen strasse’. Yes, living here I will feel like the princess! I have seen this place in my dream!”

Embarrassed by her futile enthusiasm, K gestured at the little round table beside her, where he took most of his meals, and asked her if she’d like a cup of coffee. Thinking that it was expected of her to agree to everything, she said yes.

She took a place at the scarred wooden table as he left the room for the coffee pot, telling herself to calm down. Her heart was beating so fast and so hard that she could barely hear anything else above it. The flat was so large and so cheap…it was unbelievable. She could live here like a human being. A human being again! Things had looked so black only a few weeks before. She wouldn’t allow herself to have the thought that not very long ago, she’d seriously contemplated the most drastic cure for her suffering. Cutting herself with the same unsentimental gesture with which she destroyed certain canvasses.

It was important to bury, if not erase, those hideous thoughts… to hide them from the American. Americans love success, and positive people…they love uninhibited winners, and abhor the miserable, the lost, the unsure or depressed. She would impress him with her positive outlook… with her luck… and he would give her the flat. She wasn’t above flirting mildly with him. P had said, looking her up and down himself, “He’ll fall in love the second he lays eyes upon you!” and she had profited, and suffered, countless times from the ability to trigger that reflex.

Being so beautiful was like having the ambiguous power to spit fire: you were as likely to burn yourself as illuminate the room. Usually both. She had come to think of her beauty as a kind of signal beacon that invariably attracted her nemesis, the malevolent spirit that she’d been on the look out for since adolescence. It flitted from man to man like a wolf crossing a stream on the only available stones… exactly the way in which an apparently arbitrary path can be said to be predestined.

K returned with his little pot of espresso, closing the double doors carefully behind himself so as not to awaken his friend, and approached her solemnly where she sat smiling at her place at the table… the little round table he’d rescued from the curb in front of his first flat in Berlin… and it gave him pleasure to think that if she knew the table’s history, she’d lift her elbows off of it in horror. He’d fucked his Italian girlfriend on that table, holding her by the ankles like a gardener pushing a wheel barrow full of flowers up a hill. Some of the best, and worst, meals of his life had been eaten on it.

A stupendously drunk Brazilian actor, in this very flat, had sat at that table late one summer night and played that game, the macho game of sharp knife and a hand palm-down on a table with the blade hopping with increasing speed between the splayed fingers and he had cut the index finger of his left hand almost entirely off, at which point he started crying like an innocent victim of the world’s relentless injustice.

K took a good long look at the Artist and asked her, quietly, if she liked the view.

The Graduate

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Miriam with the curly blonde hair that when you looked closer was full of white and gray. Her point being that everyone knew she had two college-age offspring from a previous marriage. Who would she be fooling with a dye job? Robert didn’t want to seem timid or dull in Miriam Wallace’s eyes. Robert had first met Miriam during the Christmas season after his twenty-second birthday, the Christmas he flew back to Philly from Chicago to tell his parents he wouldn’t be going to graduate school. Turbulence on the flight had strengthened his resolve. Turbulence and his rotten stomach. His bachelors degree would have to be enough. He’d told his father that he needed time to consider his options and his mother, from the next room, the kitchen, had shouted, ‘Your options to fail?’

They drove, not slowly, the twelve blocks from Wayne Avenue to the Wallace house in Mount Airy on streets so icy and some so steep that Robert had a hopeful premonition that they would all die silent and angry in a grisly wreck. His mother angry at his father for his father’s laissez-faire attitude to discipline as Robert was growing up; his father angry at his mother for attaching so much weight to the opinions and judgments of outsiders; Robert angry at both of them for his existence and, more pressingly, the churning guts courtesy of the evening’s outcome. Robert’s mother’s technique of what his father called ‘analytical sarcasm’ was devastating and had left Robert longing for the corrective violence of a bowel-puncturing crash. The fatal relief of it. They drove by five  illuminated black Santas in a row without comment.

Robert’s vision of an impact had been so vivid that it felt like a dream of the afterlife when they all found themselves on the Wallace’s dark front porch fifteen minutes later, kicking clots of snow off their heels as if they meant to demolish the building. Miriam Wallace answered the door in a ball gown with that bemused look of hers. She didn’t know Dot or Alan terribly well and Robert seemed new to her, though it’s possible that she’d petted him once at a bar-b-cue when he was child.

‘Vampirella,’ said Robert’s mother under her breath as they followed Miriam into the living room. Miriam Wallace was tall, leathery, svelte. She had boyishly short curly blonde hair and definition in her biceps and an ass in the shiny dark material of her low-cut backless gown like a wet plum.

Forty minutes prior to their arrival at the Christmas party, right before Robert’s confession that he was ditching the notion of grad school altogether, Robert’s father had confessed, with Chablis breath, that he and Robert’s mother had been ‘fairly dedicated swingers’ in the ‘70s. And that Victor Wallace had been among the discreet circle of friends who had taken their Updike too seriously. Nineteen seventy four. His father said further that Victor, an architect, had fellated him and that the man sported a goatee in those days that looked like an Irish au pair’s fussy pussy. The women seemed to have been more interested in seeing Alan’s cock in Victor’s mouth than in each other and weeks later Robert’s mother was still making his father wash his penis with Phisohex before relations. Robert’s father said Victor had coughed the semen out into his cupped hands with his back to everyone, and then he handed Robert a glass of Chablis and said, winking, ‘This isn’t freaking you out, son, is it?’ Beaming.

‘No dad. It’s just that I have something I need to tell you.’

The swinging had lasted no longer than the whole country’s appetite for Scrabble and fondue. When Victor’s first wife Marnie, who was such a ‘cutie’ that Robert’s father had endured Victor’s ‘finicky’ blow job just to ‘get at her,’ died of breast cancer, the two families of former swingers used the funeral as a watershed; an excuse to wipe the slate clean. The surviving adults behaved as though the swinging had never happened. As though Victor had never tasted Alan’s semen or that Marnie and Dot had never awkwardly petted and kissed or had intercourse on numerous occasions with each other’s husband while the others watched and sometimes photographed it. They only socialized still at all because pointedly not to socialize would have been a tacit reminder of the unspoken.

There stood Robert’s family on the Wallace porch on Christmas Eve, alive and brooding. Miriam Wallace had paid no particular attention to Robert at her Christmas party for the first hour or so after he’d arrived. As Robert put it, in her arms in a rented bed a year later, it seemed as though it was an idea that ‘kinda sorta creeped up’ on her. Miriam said no, it wasn’t that. She’d had a lot on her mind that night. Her husband Victor, also responding to whatever nostalgia trigger a combination of mulled wine, Christmas, and the anticipatory angst of seeing old friends after a gap of years can create, had bragged to her about the swinging, too. With the notable twist that in his version of the confession, Victor hadn’t been the one coughing the semen out. Though Miriam stopped short of adding this detail when the topic came up. Let the boy keep his illusions. There is no kinder sentiment.

They were three assignations into the intermittent affair and spring had arrived in the form of green lawns appearing through block-long scabs of slush. More dangerous driving conditions; a self-conscious, rhythmless slow dance behind the drawn curtains of the motel window. Afterwards, Miriam, up on one elbow in bed, tracing random arabesques on Robert’s hairless chest with the finger of a much younger woman, told him, ‘You can’t imagine how jealous I was. It was bad enough that pictures of Marnie were still up all over the house, fifteen years after she’d died. Some of her clothes were still in the guest room closet, for god’s sake.’

She said, ‘Then I have to find out that Victor fucked Dot and Alan and this experience he shared with his dead wife the titless saint? Give me a break.’

As Miriam described it, Victor, clutching a wineglass with one hand and tugging the waist of his wife’s gown with the other, had pulled her into his study while friends and a token neighbor or two were singing along teary-eyed to a scratchy Joni Mitchell album in the living room.The scratches and skips on the record are the sound of our wrinkles, Miriam remembered thinking. That’s when Victor made the confession, producing a manila envelope of faded Polaroids from the back of a locked desk drawer for proof.

‘He was so proud of himself I wanted to slap him.’

The sun was setting in the curtains. Miriam and Robert had known each other for over a year. It struck Robert as his eyes darted from Miriam’s heaped clothing on the chair nearest the bed… to her fur-trimmed coat on the door… to that Panzer-like purse on top of the television and the lipsticked water glass beside it… that she had made the room her own. That is, although Robert had chosen the motel himself and made the reservation and would soon pay for the room with tip money it felt like they were trysting in Miriam’s boudoir. He felt bound by the rules of decorum imposed by being her guest. He couldn’t just get up and switch on a light, for example, or take a piss without asking. The mere thought of voiding his bowels in the motel toilet… her motel toilet… was beyond the pale.

He wondered if this was something she was good at, taking over a space, and was it just her or tall, attractive, adulterous wives in general. And yet, he reflected: ironically, she is the guest of her husband’s dead first wife in her own home. Miriam squeezed the hollows in Robert’s cheeks together in a way uncannily like his mother had done when he was a boy and she was a happier, more playful person and said, ‘You better not be thinking this is anything like a scene from The Graduate, buster.’

‘What?’

‘The Graduate. You better not…’

‘The graduate? Which graduate? Who?’

‘The film. Dustin Hoffman! You…’

‘Who?’

‘Simon and Garfunkle!’

‘Simon and what?’

‘Jesus fucking Christ.’

Miriam said nothing for a long time during which Robert could actually hear his Swatch watch ticking on the counter beside the sink in the bathroom. He thought: there are people who could pass gas in front of an attractive woman and laugh it off with a joke and people who’d rather hold it in for hours of discomfort and I am of the latter group. Although I admire the former. Life must be so much easier for them. He stole a glance at Miriam whose hands were covering her face. He came to understand that she was crying. He tried to imagine what the rest of his life would feel like if he let one fly beside Miriam under these circumstances. Hot and hissing and green like absinthe…the poltergeist of a rotten egg. His actual insides, exposed to the open room and her judgement.

‘Miriam.’

‘No.’

‘Miriam. No what?’

He pulled her hands away from her face and he flinched: she wasn’t crying, she was laughing with mirthless glee like a deaf child torturing a cat. She rolled off the bed and fetched her purse and got her cigarettes and lit a Kretek and sat with her back to him. She puffed like it was a thinking tool or a method of divination.

She turned to squint and said ‘Okay, the problem is this.’ More puffing. ‘An older married woman having relations with the young son of her husband’s friends, there’s plenty to hide. But in our case, ja? My husband encourages this. He asks for details afterwards. We’re just doing it in this motel room to give us the illusion that we’re indulging in an illicit thrill.’ Puff.

‘We could be doing this at home and Victor would be reading the New York Times downstairs in the fricking breakfast nook. Or washing the dishes. And he’d call up the back stairs and ask if anyone wants an herbal tea. He’d serve us on a breakfast tray complete with linen napkins. How erotic is that?’

‘What we do isn’t erotic?’

‘You think it is.’

‘I always assumed that anything anyone did with my erect penis was erotic.’

She turned her back to him again and blew out an empty blue thought-balloon of smoke.

Robert passed wind and waited.

The Patriarch

the-patriarch4

He’d been meaning to start a notebook with all such examples but the resolve to do so faded every time. The same with the general notion of keeping a journal. In school he’d had friends who’d faithfully recorded their thoughts and experiences, inspired to do so by a certain charismatic English teacher. He could imagine these friends as responsible old women and men of the future, clear-eyed and crisply dressed, validated by framed children and grandchildren as they angled pens over diaries on rolltop desks, recording in a fine clean script another day in each orderly life. The steady accretion of meaning.

Every attempt he made at starting a journal devolved into parody and then boredom. He always found it impossible to pretend that what he was writing during these attempts was unselfconscious and private and for his or its own sake. He immediately pictured an audience and what he should and yet couldn’t reveal and whether the style was literary enough. He’d lost track of the number of nice little moleskin notebooks he’d bought, only to leave enigmatic markings on their first few pages and toss them in the trash with a sigh of relief. And yet the urge to write things down kept coming back, a compulsion that refused to cure itself.

His grandfather, as dead as the Mesopotamians now, had kept a journal. Hundreds of volumes were found boxed in the basement after his death. They were stacked like bricks behind old luggage and the rusted treasure of a 1930s Tyco electric train set, an epic of secrecy recorded in stingy, leftslanting code. Secrets so faithfully kept increase in profundity until the eventual deaths of all concerned devalue both the secrets and the effort of keeping them and render the keeper quaint or absurd. A figure of vain pathos. Even if he started keeping a record there were so many important events that had lingered in vain for so long before disappearing completely from his thoughts, erased by subsequent moments of greater intensity but far less meaning,  usually to do with sex, the pursuit of which had occupied his twenties after an embarrassingly late start and precious little return on the investment, that to start now would only prove that his life was already largely forgotten.

Warned to get to the station early, he’d been up before dawn. Dressed in a strange cold room in fumbling darkness because he couldn’t find the switch. Borrowed flats were usually poor ones. Student housing or workspaces without bathtubs and in this case the only heat was supposed to have been provided by a coalburning stove he’d been afraid to meddle with. He could feel he could see his breath, moist as ectoplasm, dark as it was, dark as not being, or never having been or seen, as he blew on his hands as he polished the catechism of streets and corners and left and right turns in the path to the Altona station, the reverse sequence of the path to this flat inscribed on the envelope the key had come in. The envelope he’d carelessly tossed in the trash and which he had no intention of digging for. He got his clothes on and patted the floor around the mattress for any small possessions gone accidentally unpacked and found his passport.

The sound of the lock engaging as he shut the front door and the irreversible gesture of the key pushed back through the letter slot and the heft of a sack over his shoulder plus the rundown beauty of the hard blue sidestreets at dawn were the sensual pleasures of departure he always looked forward to. The selfpity he’d felt about having to wake in a strange cold flat before sunrise to make his train changed, quickly, as his head cleared, into a smug glee, the sense he was getting away with something he imagined having to do with disturbing the sleep of schoolkids with his bootsteps up the cobbled slope in a narrow pass between red brick buildings that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Chicago. The slot between the buildings like a flute and the rising birds the bubbles in it.

Booking a ticket the last minute for the New Year’s weekend had tripled the fare, straining his budget, which had kept him out of trouble in the end. His ears were still ringing from the witless fury of firecrackers on Saturday. The fucking things had bounced down the street and rained from apartments, the air a black sack of bright hot beads, the aggressive cheer of the Germans, their inherited urge to make war reduced to this loud slapstick with the meretricious beauty of pyrotechnics attached. So now it was Monday morning, day after the aftermath and his ears were still ringing. His boot heels loud on the cobbles. If as a child he’d have heard such bootsteps echoing outside his bedroom window at dawn on a school day he’d have dreamed a whole future of farflung adventures for the man in the boots, the sailor/troubadour/Christ figure of his childish imagination, but he himself was now this figure, or less.

When he boarded the train at Altona he found the carriage almost empty and the aisles still wet from a mopping. The vinegary disinfectant the Germans think smells fresh. He slid the compartment door open and saw that he had his compartment, which would normally seat four comfortably, entirely to himself, and the next thing he’d noticed was the weak oppression of a cheap perfume, the type with the faintest whiff of vulva about it, some working class teenager’s erotic Christmas gift. He saw the torn silver square of wrapping paper in the ashtray built into the window sill and he fingered it, imagining the smalleyed boy who’d hoped to receive pleasure in exchange for the offering. Feeling superior to this boy he’d dropped onto his seat and thanked his good luck in being alone. But now he thinks, staring at the Slav reflections on the window backed by rolling snowfields, that some version of this same thing keeps happening to him, over and over again and that it must be the fundamental scenario of not just his life but Life itself, this kind of twist, these mean little inversions of fortune,  the mournful catchphrase about a thing being too good to have been true.

The first stop after Altona he’d held his breath. Few climbed on the train and all of those who had walked right by the sliding glass doors of his compartment. So far so good. Sigh of relief as the train edged out of that station. The morning was lowceilinged and it shredded into a flurry over the tops of the old stone buildings he rolled past and then the flurry thickened as the countryside opened its hollowed flank to the tracks, the deathly ice of bronchial trees in a hardcream field fanning out.  The view from the train was splendid and evoked the euphoriainducing religions that predate all cities. He felt the euphoria himself, a feeling of pride towards existence and solidarity with the living world whether or not this world ever held him in its thoughts.

It was the fourth or fifth station, after twenty minutes of peace. Twenty minutes of the warm compartment and the clotting snow and old German lithograph view and him there drifting in his thoughts. It was then that his mood fell. As the train eased to a halt along a platform dark with the shifting jostle and rucksacks and hills of worn luggage several rows deep his thoughts all turned to shit. Lüneburg, the city near where they’d caught Himmler,  he knew that for some reason, all those fucking people, the jig is up. He gathered his duffle bag and the book he’d unpacked from it and drew himself up. He’d seen many young hatless heads in the crowd and many blondes at that so there lingered a good chance that the bad fortune of being on a train that pulled up to such a crowded platform would turn into the good fortune of a female shape as foretold in all those wet sessions alone with his disgusted selves. Maybe even a pretty one, with English, but not so much she was haughty, quick to correct him. On her way home after New Year’s. He’d had Germans attempt to correct his grammar more than once and the next time it happened he’d be ready for it.

But there they were, not a pretty girl at all, at the sliding glass door of his compartment, the father fumbling with the mechanism of the handle as though he’d never been in the 20th century before, scowling, shaking his big mop of graystreaked hair and scratching at stubble with the air of a mountain village patriarch, disdainfully ignorant and tough as old roots. The headscarved woman in a shapeless bundle beside him and then somebody’s grandmother and the chronically ashamed teenage daughter behind them all, lugging the stunned baby like a depressing cold lunch.

He couldn’t possibly have managed to disguise the look of horror they must have seen through the door the moment before they and their sole possessions crowded into the compartment with him. They heaved a suitcasesized toaster oven on the space beside him and then a clanking box of kitchenware on top. They were still stacking shopping bags on the luggage rack overhead when two college-age girls appeared in the doorway of the compartment like the final torment, frowning at their tickets and then at the compartment number over the door and back at their tickets again.  There was no doubt that they all would have gotten along wonderfully well together for the duration of the trip to Berlin.

‘I’m sorry,’ smiled the blonde, who was not sorry at all, in her ski pullover and tight jeans. She spoke in the formally condescending German she’d have used in a bakery. ‘I think there is somehow a mistake. Perhaps your tickets…’

The patriarch cut her off.  ‘You want to complain? Go get the police,’ he said, without for a second even looking at her or otherwise interrupting his work. He and his headscarved wife were securing things in the overhead while the daughter and grandmother sat on opposite ends of the facing banquette. The baby could have been a doll, or dead, for as much as it moved or made noise in the girl’s lap. The blonde blinked a few times and said, ‘This is not very polite!’ and she and her darkhaired girlfriend marched off.

For a long time after their departure he nurtured the hope that the girls had gone to fetch a ticket collector or porter but he knew it was more likely that, being young, they were flexible enough to find other seats and still not well-formed enough to know how to handle a confrontation so ruefully he pictured them sitting with their arms around pulled-up knees on the black-hard carpet with the rest of the student overflow in the dining car or some lounge, joking about it with handsome boys. American girls, especially middle or upper-middle class, would have handled it as an affront to their human rights. Would indeed have gone to fetch someone in uniform, the driver of the train if necessary. This was one instance when he’d wished for Americans or even the old kind of German.  But that last thought and its implications made him feel so guilty that he tried to catch either the grandmother’s or the teenage daughter’s eye to give them a reassuring smile as though it were in his power to give. But this didn’t happen. Not once in two hours of travel.

We hate because we are hated.

From right to left, reflected in the window, floating like slackjawed ghosts over snowscape, the teenager, patriarch, headscarved wife and old crone with sexy thick black hair in two plaits to her lap down her layered top. None of them had much to say and when they did speak in their coughing, swallowed language, whoever spoke would not look but continue to stare into the middle distance, just as whoever the remark had been aimed at would not so much as tilt a head or cock an eye to respond. Clearly, history was having its way with these people. He thought: that’s the mistake, the belief that it’s a constant roar of white noise that we’re all contributing to, all being affected by, all the time, forever. In fact, the sound of history being made is discrete, a sharp shock or a series. Gunfire, near or far. What was the suburban America of his and his parents’ youth but a safe haven from history? Where time is quiet.  Mute.

Several times the patriarch leaned over him, so close that the heat from his lap was felt; actually seemed to brush his cheek; and he handed first tangerines, then later salami and later still crumbly bread and cheese for the headscarved woman to prepare in her lap, tossing it down without looking. Mundane circus trick. When she passed the lobed tangerines to the family she made a perfunctory gesture of old world manners across the compartment at him but he smiled and he shook his head no, the smile wasted because she picked up the ‘no’ with her peripheral vision, and that was the first and last effort to communicate between the two camps. The American and the refugees.

The first fifteen minutes of the journey after their appearance stretched to accommodate what seemed like a week’s worth of thoughts. Three days back. Wandering the cold, surprisingly empty lanes of The Reeperbahn, all alone, in the late afternoon of the last day of the year, the sky already black, he had felt as cut off from any sense of human purpose or belonging as he ever had in life. He remembered feeling dizzy from it, the sense that it didn’t matter in which direction he chose to walk or how fast or with what facial expression or whether he bothered to remain on the sidewalk or suddenly walked into traffic: it truly didn’t didn’t matter. A vertiginous feeling. He’d thought: I could scream obscenities, or gouge my own eye out. What is it that holds everything together? You could slash a hooker’s throat with a boxcutter or use the same tool to slice your own thing off instead. The sun wouldn’t fail to rise the next morning.

So this is what they call Nihilism.

The hamburger joint with an Indian motorcycle gleaming in the window felt like a lifesaver after that train of thought and he’d realized he was powerfully hungry and with just enough money in his pocket to splurge on a grotesque meal of warm American plastic he crossed the street and pushed the door open and kissed the prospect of a discount handjob goodbye. The global American hamburger joint that the Germans he knew jokingly referred to as the American consulate. The very thought that he’d been saving his Deutschmarks for a handjob made him smile faintly as he ordered and it hit him like effusive praise from a ghost how young he was because the schoolgirl taking his order was not even young enough to respect him. He took his tray to a table at the window near the Indian motorcycle and watched the occasional clump of tourists tromp by through ankledeep snow, drunk and with their collars clutched, bored already at the sight of towering hookers dressed for Las Vegas marching in the opposite direction towards whichever sidedoor with a gray rainbow of accreted pisstains on its low right corner or whatever angerfilled car idling at a curb. He’d thought: it’s true, I’m young, there’s still time. Staring out the window and chewing that slop.

He glanced across at the headscarved woman, her man, the grandmother. In aggregate emotional age one thousand years old. But surely that’s a thought that only the old have: I’m young. If not old in years then old in chances lost. The grandmother with her carved brown face…  a face like something found in the grassless black circle under an apple tree. She’d done everything she was ever going to do and had the serenely blank expression of someone who wanted no more. She would go when they called her to,  easily. Who is the better human? The one with so little potential who fulfills it completely or the one with so much potential he can’t possibly hope to match it with real deeds, real accomplishments?

He was hounded by unformed talents. By his so-called potential and there wasn’t a so-called great book or movie or masterpiece of music that didn’t fill him with contempt and the thought that he could have done it, he could have created that, he could even have done it better. Nothing was beyond his reach. One simply needs a method. A technique. He could mock himself, though: I have the soul of a famous artist. The world looked, when it bothered to at all, and saw only a young man standing impatiently in the space the famous writer/painter/musician/film director was meant to occupy. A kind of place-holder.

He didn’t even have a job: he had the money his grandfather had left him. An amount just small enough, or so his grandfather had believed, to force the young man to find honest work to augment the stipend. But his grandfather had had no idea how cheaply he could live, or that he’d choose to live even more cheaply in Europe. Worse: in Germany. Where they’d threaded two bullets through the old man (then young), two bullets from opposite directions, accounting for the frogged brown arm with which the grandchildren identified him like something out of a bedtime story calling him Hoppy behind his old back. Pap Hoppy. The frogged arm, Pap Hoppy had once confessed, (with his back turned) had undercut his confidence and caused him to marry the first plain girl who’d have him. Not the formula for a happy life but the inspiration for a richly secret existence as recorded with patient care in journals no one would ever be able to read.

This girl, what was she, seventeen? Not pretty but very skinny which was attractive in and of itself. Skinny but gracelessly present in the chest, a dark line tracing the lipstick of her thin, resentful lips and her blond hair showing roots. With as much access to television as any teen North of Sicily she might have passed for American minus the shrewd expression. Worrying the dull baby’s little white fingers like prayer beads. Was that her little brother or little sister lying insensate in her lap and how had the headscarved mother, as packed away as an inherited football in layers of patches and repair tape, ever managed enough nakedness to conceive it? It would have been accomplished with a defecatory grunt in a dim room with grandmother’s black eyes shining like Pan’s from the corner. Or maybe it was the girl’s baby. He exchanged a look or two with her but there wasn’t enough imagination on the whole train or even the world to finesse those disinterested glances into any kind of flirtation.

children are not the future: the old are, obviously; are you stupid?

photo by SG

The hour was late, so late that he could expect either to witness unquiet ghosts walking the halls of the hundred year old house or fetching harlots fellating donkeys on internet porn. Okay, “fetching harlots” is grandiose. But he had an education. He wasn’t some whatever in overalls with plaster on his knees. He was unhappy with his girlfriend and what else was there to do? Other than be a voyeur to a donkey at this late late hour. Or watch the ghosts walk. Or let the ghosts watch porn.

He ejaculated to the volume-down sound of braying. He realized that he’d reached a sort of low point and the aftermath felt exactly like eating a stick of butter. Or two. You just want to back away from your own saturation. To masturbate to a brief film about a pretty girl putting a donkey’s penis in her mouth and gagging explosively on half a pint of probably caustic semen means what about how one feels about either pretty girls or donkeys? But what a great word.

Harlot.

-But donkey should be an adjective.

His girlfriend, Gwenda, asleep downstairs, was a lawyer. Sleeping a lawyer’s off-the-clock sleep, her spare-time sleep. A fitness fanatic with a nice enough body but a not-entirely beautiful face. In fact she was plain. In some lights she was not even that. Let’s be frank. While her worked-on biceps and trim waist were no illusions, her substantial bust had turned out to be somewhat of a mirage when he’d unwrapped it, greedy hands trembling, unravelling the bulges into lots of cotton wadding and air.

-What was the name of that song about vaginal moisture? A big hit. Early ’60s.

There’s cheap porn for those who like women and expensive porn for those who don’t and plenty for those who aren’t sure. Very few are sure. Like almost everything, it’s funny when you think about it because, think about it, the point is, okay, you sit through a film, not always short, waiting patiently for the payoff which is basically some male (human or dog or donkey) ejaculating. The chowdery or birdshittish or gasoliney semen, emitted by the spoonful or the cup. You’re saying you find this interesting.

Which is fine.

He was no male model but he was a lot better looking considering his gender than she was considering hers. In fact he was the best looking man she’d ever touched. Which may not be saying much etc. His relatively good looks were not an issue, initially, or, that is to say, they were an issue but in such a way that Gwenda benefitted from it. Call it Affirmative Action of the heart.

When he first saw her wearing that camelhair coat which rhymed almost religiously with her waved and buttery hair in the muted light of the subway tunnel under Christmas carols and timed festive electronics and everything. That stuff in the air called childhood. He knew straight off she wasn’t what you’d call attractive but she was something, in the aspirational competence of her effects, the hairshape and lipthickness and bustle-swell of the coat in its bosom, promising so much, though what, exactly?

-Da Do Ron Ron.

He used his sly system of saying hello to open things up. His system was I mock myself internally like Burt Reynolds while doing it but also he was quite serious in using that mustache voice he used that usually worked though the smallest part of him (the part he thinks of as his original infant humanity) felt silly. Hammy. But it worked.

-People are afraid of great actors.

It took him weeks to admit everything about her actual face to himself. By the night of full disclosure, when the makeup had grazed or sweated off and the roots had grown in and the wave had frazzled to lustreless wires, he was already, however, dangerously intrigued. He wouldn’t say smitten. Smitten was the word he was saving. “Smitten” he was guarding in a box.

-He had trained himself to speak in a lower register.

-He tweezed his eyebrows regularly.

When he made the decision to give off certain signals indicating he wouldn’t be averse to becoming the thing labeled boyfriend in her phonebook, it was with this in mind: that looks aren’t everything. And they aren’t. Weren’t. Are they? Were they? After the seven different kinds of hell his many moviestar-model-grade girlfriends had put him through, from his eighteenth year clear until the year before the night he pleasured himself watching a harlot giving pleasure to a donkey, he had come to the conclusion that a sweet-natured, forgiving and generous personality would be a welcome change in a bedmate.

No more dragon ladies, ice princesses, black widows or femme fatales. From now on: plain Janes and peppermint Patties. The Girl Next Door in an ugly suburb. He felt a sudden hunger for a lot more gratitude and much less condescension and coming to the conclusion that a ‘homely’ girl was the answer to his prayers felt like growing up. A Bar Mitzvah of sorts.

“Finally,” he thought to himself, as he kissed Gwenda’s wounded little underbite face that very first time after that sappy movie, a snowflake intact on her eyelid as he drew himself near, “you’ve learned your lesson.”

The smell of pine needles. His smile stuck shark-bulged in a blue ornament.

Things were great with Gwenda for the first few months. She laughed at many of his jokes and treated him to a detailed recap, every evening, of the day’s rich legal adventures. He discovered that during sexual congress on her living room carpet at a certain distance and angle from the floor lamp in muted light in the missionary position she resembled Meg Ryan, a famous actress of the era, but only in his suffused pre-orgasm deliria. This was a pleasant discovery.

He met her sister (slightly better looking but still rather homely though he did toy with the idea of etc), did most of the cooking, accepted expensive gifts and wondered if getting Gwenda pregnant was out of the question. He was toying with the voluptuous thrill of throwing his life away. The only thing that gave him serious pause was the thought of an ugly baby. Half-ugly at best. Accusing him with Gwenda’s small eyes and high forehead.

He shuddered.

One night, after the snow melted and all the childhood had vanished from the warming air, they fought rather passionately over something disproportionately trivial and she revealed herself, like a rainbow-colored cocoon splitting to reveal a fearsome black butterfly, as a strikingly effective bitch. Ugly faces are better at bitchery than beautiful ones, regardless of what the beautiful prefer to believe. He gazed upon the mask of her sarcasm-twisted features and thought: “She’s a bitch and she’s ugly,” and that’s when it dawned on him.

He said, “Do I look fat in this?” and her silence spoke volumes.

2.

Dearest Nate:

Perhaps I’m hallucinating on a grand scale, but when I go out in public and observe human beings at work and at play, I don’t see very much of this post-gendered world of yours that you defend against my arguments, as hard as I try (even squinting). For the most part, I see women/girls dressing up and/or pushing prams and I see men/boys horsing around, ogling cleavage, and scratching themselves. When I attend ‘fancy’ functions for people with better jobs and higher educations, I see women dressing up…and men ogling cleavage (and very discreetly, from time to time, scratching themselves). My married friends are either sexually bored-with-each-other and stable, or cheating like minks and totally comfortable indulging in passionlessly vicious verbal punch-ups in front of company.

I’m not saying I’ve never observed this state of PC Dyad Grace you seem to be eulogizing with your pep talks…I’m saying that PC Dyad Grace as I’ve observed it is generally larval, and, approximately six months into a relationship, moults its golden skin to become the twin brown moths of the lovable slob and the tolerable nag (before time gradually prefixes each adjective with an ‘un’ and an ‘in’, resp.)

The day I stumble into a happy, egalitarian, romantically sex-healthy relationship, I’ll lose about 70% of my friends, who will rightly consider my new found bliss to be a freakish and unforgivable betrayal. As post-humanly above reproach as my mate and I will be to each other, I’m hoping he’ll still get an atavistic thrill out of the fact that I can twist open jar lids, without much effort, that he couldn’t dream of budging. And me? I’ll get an atavistic thrill out of the way he looks dripping naked and pink after a shower. Anyway, you may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Hope this letter finds you safe, warm and very dry,

Ain’t college life wonderful?

(The sarcasm of a spoiled brat, I know)

3.

Thursday evening I am on my way home from the studio. It is about 9pm. Half a block from the front door of our apartment (the large one, the old one with high ceilings; the one Ingrid inherited from her father), I pass a figure, a noirish cartoon of mercury arc light and shadow wedged in a doorway, a little guy with a cell phone, Italianate, pleading in heavily accented German, “I love you, I love you, please…please…tell me what I must do.” It’s a scene from a movie with subtitles I’ll never decipher and sub-plots I’ll never know. And yet it’s the oldest movie on Earth. It’s pre-Colombian, pre-Christian, pre-English.

I love you, I love you… please…

I’ve been there, I’ve cried for love, I’ve never pleaded, I’ve never begged for it, never offered to die or kill for it, but I have cried real tears, tears that felt like they were cut right out of the jelly of each eye with a dull blade but always I was shrewd enough to know that begging never helps. Some of my ex-girlfriends, the ones who no longer speak, who don’t answer my calls and letters, who duck me on the street or actively propagandize against me five, ten, fifteen years after the fact might call me a womanizer. Simply because I didn’t stop at any of them in the long search for my happiness.

What am I, a ball on a roulette wheel?

I’m sure they ascribed it to a short attention span, or adolescent sexual whatever it is, the fact that I often showed signs of restlessness a month or two into it, but nothing could be further from the truth. Both parties (I sound like old Gwenda here: the plaintiff and the defense) are well aware when the fit isn’t right, but only one party ever seems to have the will or the courage to admit it and utter the magic phrase that will dissolve the contract.

-I love you, I love you…please…

The desperation in that guy-in-the-doorway’s voice: I’m haunted by it. It could power an Edward Albee play. A gypsy camp. The energy of an ego collapsing. He reminds me of what it’s like to be young, although he isn’t so young, he looks a bit like Peter Lorre, but being young is being desperate. In my middle-aged wisdom I know too well that if things don’t work with a woman, she isn’t The One and if she isn’t The One, why bother wanting her so much? The answer to that mostly rhetorical question, speaking from experience, is prestige. Prestige plus sexual intoxication, although sexual intoxication is so closely circuited with prestige that it’s technically inaccurate to list them as separate values. Who knows what Peter Lorre’s girlfriend…or ex-girlfriend…looks like. We can’t say with any certainty what his scale of reference is but it’s clear from the force of the pain in his pleading that this woman is a commodity he desperately wants to keep. A beautiful woman is a poor man’s Porsche.

You’re wrapped around each other in bed, auras blended, indulging in sticky warm penetrative intercourse. That high clear chime of addiction you detect above the mechanical comfort of humping is the thrill of possession. You’re thinking, as you pin her gently by the wrists, decorating her perfect face with a garland of worshipful kisses, “She’s mine, all mine, only mine.”

-Maybe she’s a 19 year old girl from the suburbs of Minnesota who looks like Grace Kelly and pees with the bathroom door open, charming you with her bravery. Because what if?

-Maybe she attends a tony hairdressing academy where half the instructors are snobby vain homosexuals who walk as though they’re wearing capes and the other half are aging heterosexual operators, sinewy-single and baked-looking, Roy Scheider in “All That Jazz”.

-Maybe they all hate you, you, a poor boy, a college boy who drives a fifteen year-old rust-scabbed hatchback and owns just three pairs of scuffed shoes who gets to fuck this flickeringly cinematic blonde and all they can do is glare when you drop her off in front of the academy on a brilliant August morning with a lingering kiss plus nuanced references in posture and smirk to sexual taboos that were breached the previous night.

-Or maybe that morning.

-They glare through the green glass walls of the provincially fancy, faux-Manhattan wellness and hair salon and if they could know that you and she had spent the summer in a menage-a-trois with your most recent ex, a tall brunette with cut-glass features and a mild gas problem, a heretic with something to prove in her second-hand suits from travelling salesmen who ranged from Iowa to the Dakotas to Missouri and Illinois, all three dancing together to Bauhaus in neoned clubs and sneaking mathematical fucks in the toilet, they’d hate you even more.

-You want to call me “sexist” because it will feel good.

-We all want to feel good.

Like many young Bohemian romantics, I believed in an anthropomorphic Universe when I was too young to know better. I believed in a Universe that was both aware of my existence and concerned with the delicate work of guiding me with signs and nudges through the maze of its horrors and rewards. Like many middle aged men who have subsequently suffered the scarred disillusionments of common experience, I went from the comfort of my lyrical animism to the bleakness of abject disbelief almost over night: the ‘Universe’ became a vast black mechanical box of perfect coldness and harsh light and I was nothing but a molecule bouncing around in it.

-She’d do a mild kind of hotdogish fart and dare you to say something.

-He wrote none of the above. The above is an impersonation in a deep-yet-fey voice. This is still a third-person narrative. This is still Gwenda and this is my story.

4.

From the age of nine, she’d adopted her Aunt Aggie’s husband Nate as the adult to listen to and emulate in general and follow around like his somber little potbellied squire. When she was free to do with her time as she pleased, she chose to spend it in Uncle Nate’s company. The comedy that she and Nate presented to anyone who might catch them entering a room together or walking up the street in tandem to buy the morning Tribune, two chins lowered and four hands in four pockets, was far from apparent to her at the time. This strange rapport with Uncle Nate, to whom she wasn’t even related by blood, was baffling to the adults in the family but clear enough to her, if not to Nate. Nate was the first person on the planet Earth who’d asked her opinion on an important issue and she’d appreciated that.

They’d been sitting on packing crates after lunch. Nate had come over to help another one of his wife’s sisters to move and his future shadow and his future shadow’s mother had been conscripted, too. It was a depressing little apartment they were gathering into boxes and the one to which all the boxes and furniture were going wasn’t even far enough away to play a good game of running bases between former and future front stoops. It was right next door in a long block of red brick buildings with green paint on the trim. The dented rain gutters and the fake shutters, screwed to the wall.

She was seated in what she thought of as a grownup slouch on a packing crate in a warm spring breeze from the open door when Nate, who was seated on the adjacent packing crate, reading a magazine while everyone waited for the caretaker with his pickle-reek to come and confirm on a checklist that no fixtures had been stolen nor walls violated by nails larger than a certain size and that working lightbulbs had been left in the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room sockets. Nate looked over his shoulder at her, obviously disturbed by something he’d just read.

“Let me ask you something, kiddo. Honestly. What does God want from us humans?”

Obviously, in retrospect, it was a rhetorical question. It tickles her now to think that her relationship with Nate (dead ten years next Friday) had been based, initially, on a misunderstanding: a nine year old’s misapprehension of the proper protocol for dealing with a rhetorical question. She’d taken the apparent request for input seriously, flattered beyond any previous value that she’d managed to experience, and worked on the problem with Jesuitical diligence all day, carrying boxes of silverware and small appliances and bags of linen out one door and right back into the next one like a robot, silent, frowning, lips very vaguely mobile with a secret symposium convened to address Nate’s question. At the end of the day, when every item in flat A had been transferred to identical flat B and the grownups were vetting the notion of ordering two or three large pizzas as an unprecedented treat, she approached Nate when they had a moment alone and said,

“He wants us to stop.”

Who wants us to…?”

“You asked what God…”

Uncle Nate was genuinely impressed and so perfectly deserving of his new shadow that he suppressed his first impulse to get his wife’s or sisters-in-laws’ attention in order to announce, “This kid’s a damn genius! Did you hear what she just said?” He played it cool instead.

“Could be,” is all Nate said, with raised eyebrows, and from that day they were almost a father and daughter arrangement. Maybe closer than that. Like salt and pepper; snow and hot cocoa: Nate and his special little Gwenda.

-He taught her the surefire method for charcoal fires.

-He taught her that arm wrestling is all in the wrist.

-He taught her to think before saying thankyou.

-He taught her that Bruce Lee was genuine and that David Carradine was bullshit and that a faculty for detecting the difference could be applied to almost anything in Life.

-Why does Time consume perfectly happy children for the sake of producing all these wretched adults?

5.

I once quipped to someone that suicide is a lot like smoking or drinking: if you don’t try either before the age of nineteen, you probably never will. But I didn’t know what I was talking about when I made that witty remark and there’s some evidence to suggest that the wittier the aphorism, the less it will actually apply to real life. It would have terrified me to know back then that so many years after the remark, I would have nothing and no one and no apparent reason to live. Despite my money; my professional success; my knowledge.

Burdened and blessed with the kind of intelligence that made me the little star of my grammar school and had me bagging college-level reading scores in fifth and sixth grade, I am living proof that while it may be the case that the moderately above average in intelligence have the world on a string, the freakishly gifted are in for tons of trouble.

I remember fresh workbooks were handed out in the first week of second grade, intended to last for half the school year; however, knowing no better, I completed every exercise in my workbook by the end of the day, oblivious to whatever it was the teacher was droning on about at the blackboard while I breezed through the (to me) elementary exercises. All the answers I had filled the blanks with were correct, but rather than being amazed, Mrs. Johnson was angry. And rather than feeling special as a result of my feat, I felt guilty and ashamed.

Any hope of ‘fitting in’ was lost long before that point, and so what it occurred to me to do was apply my intelligence towards money-making and a solid position in society.

Now what?

6.

-A photo of Gwenda at 15.

She had a mild crush (her only foray into what could have been a life-affirming lesbianism if only she were wired that way) on the girl who took the picture and wrote tons of poetry that summer.

i.

a plum is waiting

at the center of the world

for just the right tongue

ii.

is a plum a plum

before you have eaten it?

or just a theorem?

iii.

this plum got warm in

the sun and smelled better than

every one of us

iv.

refrigerated

cinematographically

blue plums at midnight

v.

these plums are famous

for never being those but

what if you mixed them?

vi.

this artist painted

nothing but plums until he

finally got one right

vii.

don’t pay me dollars

pay me in plums but just one

very lovely plum

viii.

la petite mort is

the state of brief amnesia

of the plum just loved 

 

7.

I cried shamelessly in the presence of the doctor and her very young trainee nurse, the first time in my life that I had let myself cry in front of strangers. Part of my blubbing was lack of sleep (the contractions came at 5 a.m.) and part of it was the pain I knew that my lover had gone through to bring our child into the late morning light of the sun. But most of it was mingled grief and gratitude about the distance I had come to the first day of the life I’d always dreamed of. With the circumstantial poetry of so many significant coincidences in this life, the birth happened on the first sunny morning in a months-long block of cold gray gloom. The tears in my eyes as I looked at her refracted brilliant sunlight. I had packed CDs for the birthing room that we never had a chance to use but, still, some delirious hybrid of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Bo Diddley’s Little Girl blasted in my head as I wept and my daughter came forth and the Past made its exit with a blast from my beloved’s operatic screams and yes, yes, yes, our baby girl is beautiful.

-I am smitten.