Category Archives: Midi Fiction

Eryn; Edwina [from CITY OF AMATEURS]

tors

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

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

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

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

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

-They follow me wherever I go, said Eryn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Why did you start writing plays?

-Because I could.

-What inspired you?

-I was tired of people thinking I was stupid.

-What people? Who?

-Teachers. Family. Friends.

-What did you think of working with August Wilson?

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

-You mean he was bi-lingual?

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

-No, I didn’t know that.

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

-Do you consider yourself beautiful?

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

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

.

Lake Zurich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be a racist, Dominic.”

“Whoa. Is ‘janitor’ a race?”

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

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

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

“But you saw all this.”

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

“And she wasn’t on drugs.”

“Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“And you come to me.”

“Well, unless I’m sadly mistaken.”

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

“I’m saying take it as a compliment.”

“Okay.”

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

“You’re saying drive out there… ”

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

“Because of a so-called reputation.”

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

“You’re saying it sets him apart.”

“For better or worse.”

“And we’re taking your car?”

“If I had a car would I be asking?”

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

“I know.”

“You know what I’m saying.”

“I know.”

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

“I know.”

“… is another word for the unexplained.”

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re 212’s son, right?”

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

“Can we give you a ride somewhere?”

“My brother lives in Elm Park.”

“By all means hop in.”

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

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

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

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

“Pardon me?”

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

Milton said, “Got an AM radio.”

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

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

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

“Fair enough?”

“Fair enough.”

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

“Bullshit.”

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

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

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

Gypsies

photo by SC

Veering into the sun before his sunbrella went up was like having a frying pan in full sizzle put flat on his cheek. The bulgey curve of the station wall had a sharp collar of shade around it in which sat the gypsy with her accordion, playing the dolorous tango they all played within a laughable range of capability, from not-at-all to utter mastery. She gave him a look as he veered out into the sun because she blocked the very narrow path the shadow protected, sitting cross-legged on a collapsible chair with a shoe tip burning in light. The look she gave him contained a library of philosophical treatises, a look at once aware and detached, worldweary-yet-playful, dismissively flirtatious, seductively bored and suppler than thought itself. It took him somewhat aback. She was in the same cruel league of beauty as his obsession Margarethe, though she was just a gypsygirl and he was late for dinner.

Margarethe in a printed dress as tight as a chocolate bar’s wrapper handed him warm wine and introduced people who were milling around the room hungry and browsing her paintings, examining the work with what struck Van in some cases as almost hostile diffidence, as though the paintings were untouchable meals reserved for richer guests due to arrive much later. As he’d often said his ex-wife Margarethe was the best bad painter in the world and he thought of her near-perfect copy of van Gogh’s self-portrait in front of the easel, 1888, showing the darkling feral head and retardedly-intense blue eyes but in her version he’s smiling and hoisting a condensation-bejeweled bottle of Coke. She said,

“Van, this is Taylor and Scotty and you know…”

“Konrad.”

“Exactly,” she grinned.

A large-ish American with short shiny hair stood up from the couch and introduced himself as Bartholomew, pointedly ignoring nearby Taylor and Scotty, who were Queers from London. Fucking Heteromanic American.

The air in the flat was dense with meat. Her new husband Konrad was clearly no vegetarian but a well-built, distracted-looking German in formal attire with red hands and a peeling nose which propped up big square black-rimmed glasses. From time to time he’d nod or grunt with disgust or amusement despite the fact that no one was talking to him. He pronounced “ski” in the old German manner: she. He peeled some skin off his nose and said aprés she as he went ahead to his place at the dinner table, Margarethe rolling her eyes at his back.

She confessed with rue that one has to climb so high to find natural snow these days that one wears a Lycra space suit on the slopes. The men get tremendous hardons. The glasses Konrad was wearing may or may not have been connected, though Van had noted that Konrad sported them in the manner of the blind, face beatifically elevated in an unfinished smile.

Something sharp-toothed and furtive squealed flaming to cinders in a trap in one of the rooms under renovation and Van could see it for a moment and then he couldn’t. He blinked.

When Margarethe announced dinner with a clap of her hands they formed a pilgrim’s procession of low chatter and crossed the apartment through a long, over-lit wing of plastic sheets and scaffolding. Up some plaster-dusted stairsteps they went leaving shoe prints and Van straggled behind studying the pretentious sepia-tone images on the wall in a hallway, pictures he’d taken with the antique Hasselblad Maggie had given him their first Christmas. Gypsies of unvarying facial expression hefted arched accordions over their knees like gulls with broken backs.

Margarethe laid a hand on an arm each of Scott’s and Taylor’s as she lead the procession, walking between them, and said, “I had the most ghastly nightmare again, darlings.”

Konrad was chewing and laughing at something on the ceiling as they filed into the dining room.

Bartholomew with his wide, flat, not-fat-at-all body, waved a finger at various points around the dinner table at which Van found himself seated among the others having their chunky pork soup ladled into exquisite porcelain bowls. Van only heard what sounded like the sea in a very big conch shell as the American droned on, a prime exemplar of the effect of the loss of empire on a disoriented consciousness. The dining room felt airless lit only with candles feeding mostly on Bartholomew’s breath and Van wanted desperately to open a window but he was no longer the flat’s master. Bartholomew had no plate set before him; no knife or fork or water glass. No food.

Konrad exhibited open-eyed signs of REM.

Someone was saying, “I suppose in the latter category you’ve got the theory of Relativity and smoking will kill you and an embryo is conceived when an egg cell meets a sperm cell in the womb and so forth.”

Bartholomew was rocking in his seat.

Second course was blood pudding.

Konrad noted suspicious gas leaks in Istanbul and Crete, hundreds dead or unaccounted for.

Van recognized the spider, limbs fanning long and tenuous as internet links, in a high corner. The spider or its descendant. He’d been separated from Margarethe for over two years and divorced for a year yet every single thing about the apartment was the same as he’d left it, minus the meaty veil of odors. He recognized the faint pattern of stains on the tablecloth, the brown-tinged continents on a medieval map of the known world.

He glanced at Margarethe with her high forehead and incongruously Croatian nose and the pewter ringlets of her hair. Memory provided the glistening plum of her kissable buttocks which had in turn been provided by her superblack boy-diddling bishop of a sweet-breathed father late of an almost blackless Capetown. Due to whom she pronounced black as bleck.

Van heard, “The fear of looking stupid is what keeps the intellectual in line.”

Playfully, he imagined Bartholomew as a big blond gypsy with a ring in his ear wrestling an accordion in the shadow of the station begging for coins instead of dispensing unsolicited pontifications at the dinner table. Van edited the gypsy girl into Bartholomew’s place, seated beside him at the table, slyly embarrassed by her decadent plateful of fatty meats. He found himself hoping she’d still be on that stool at the station wall when it came time to leave but it was New Year’s so of course she’d be at the Brandenburg Dome with the others, picking pockets or playing that same hideous tango with champagne-oiled ease.

Konrad had Bartholomew’s bright hair in a knuckle-grip and jerked hard, hacking through pulpy fat neck with a serrated blade, though no one else seemed to notice.

Fingerbowls were distributed.

Margarethe was blowing kisses at someone, mouthing Kiss ma bleck aws, while Taylor indulged in the so-called New Nostalgia with the repeated use of the phrase, “The Tolerable ‘20s.”

Maragarethe was saying, behind her hand while she chewed on gristle, “It was that nightmare about Bartholomew again, I’m afraid, I hope he calls,” but Van never heard this. She was hoping to get a rise out of her insufficiently jealous husband.

She was playing the drollest of hostesses and staring into her wineglass, the bowl of the wineglass magnifying her eye into a batty black goldfish, telling Van that Taylor was a Money Artist. That is, she clarified, Taylor works in the medium of money. The national gallery has a room of his elegant displays, each display featuring a fluctuating digit synched to an enormous amount somewhere. You see he started his career with artifactual lucre… didn’t you, Taylor… crisp bundles of Euros and dollars, arranged on plinths… though his breakthrough came when he finally grasped money in its most spiritual form.

Critics call his new work cleaner.

Konrad quoted an article to the effect that the art market is the biggest money laundering operation on the planet. He told a joke in a halting cadence that ended with the punchline the sweet smell of sock sex.

After a haunting gypo film in the screening room about transvestites (Manche Mogen’s Heiss), Margarethe, rubbing her eyes like a waking child, excused herself with a cautionary remark about dessert and Van, glancing at Konrad, offered to help in the kitchen, so down a dark hall and with the vented door still swinging he lay a finger athwart her woodgrain arm and moaned how he missed being the only black couple at the opera.

He said he missed the way she kicked in her sleep and commented too mordantly and far too loud in the theater and buttered both sides of her toast or snatched at her bushy cloud of pillowed hair like a honeybear in a cloud of bees when he used to go down on her.

He pulled her towards him and she laughed offering a modicum of resistance saying don’t. She said,

-Van, your words are lovely as ever, and you’re a good Christian, truly you are, but as a woman grows older she responds less to words than to deeds, and deeds aren’t done without power, and, as you know, Konrad has an inherited seat on the Ministry of the Interior…there’s more power in one of his ash-colored eyelashes than in the whole of that big carbon dick of yours.

-Ha! That old white devil be damned.

-You’re talking about my husband, darling.

I’m your husband.

-No you’re not. Not any more you’re not.

-In the eyes of God.

The first punch stunned her and the second one brought her to her knees.

When she swept in from the kitchen with sugar-free parfaits on a tray of hammered tin from Morocco which Van, trailing behind her with half a dozen neon aperitifs, had forgotten giving her for their second anniversary, the shifty mass of her sheathed bosom as she lowered each parfait to every spot around the table was so milk-maidishly servile that it made them appear to be overdressed black help. This pleased Van perversely and he handed out the aperitifs with a shamingly servile flourish.

Scott turned to Taylor and said, not quietly enough, “I’m having that headache we talked about.”

Margarethe stamped her foot with winning petulance and said but it’s almost midnight! Her plan was to gather on the balcony after dessert and watch fireworks and greet the majestic change of centuries with upturned faces of child-like wonder.

A meth-massacre in Phuket. Konrad joked from the corner of his mouth that it takes a child to raze a village.

They sweated the proximity of the sultry night and watched animated neo-classical constellations like Diana the archer and Pegasus flapping his wings and the stars-and-cross of the Anglo-Germanian union scintillate then shatter into hundreds of jiggle-boobed goose-stepping showgirls in turn becoming great pinwheels lilting like funereal Lilies to Earth. After which, rainbow-colored cubes representing the six colors of the union rolled across the sky unfolding into crucifixes larger than any skyscraper. Crucifixes ringing the ecliptic, pulsing to Die Walküre and foreshortened towards the galactic hub.

Van was distracted by the scene he watched instead. Down there on the sidewalk, two stories below the balcony, near enough he heard their pleas for mercy. Handsome theatergoers surrounded and doused by a broken circle of gypsies and put peremptorily to the torch, dancing away from each other in flames towards opposite ends of the street trailing rich black streamers of skinsmoke. Reflections of the flames shrank curving across bubble windshields and Van was clutching his throat, suppressing the nausea, unsure of what he was seeing.

Konrad shouted U-Nasa with conclusive evidence: Asgaard settlement extinct. The others on the balcony merely oooh’d and ahhh’d with patriotic boredom at the immensity of the crucifixes stainglassing the sky.

Van knew it now. He was bewitched.

2.

He rode the near-empty train to its endstation. He gasped at the foretaste of heat that rolled under the platform’s baked awning as he stepped from the train. It pulled away as he shuffled in his bright white flapsuit and widebrimmed hat, a Pierrot in blackface shuffling to platform’s end then down the hundred stairs in his two-legged tent, the handrail untouchably hot, bracing himself to emerge from the station into the noon’s blast furnace, slower than wading through oil.

Entering Gypsytown at high noon was the only way to sneak into the city.

He pictured them snoring in dark rooms while he stalked the blinding streets, a striking lone figure, something from a dream, and he realized that he was thinking about himself again, as he often did, and the tight cap of his mossy black hair itched. He was thinking of himself as a museumpiece, a rare collection of features gathered in the vitrine of his flat-nosed face, so broad across the cheekbones and heavy in the jaw, a public monument trusted to his own irresponsible stewardship. What if a gypsy punched him in the nose, ruining something of priceless rarity?

The rare blacks allowed back on the continent had been welcomed grudgingly under the stainless-steel wing of the Church. He was thinking of Margarethe’s father, Bishop Siss, or his own great-grandfather, the influential Christian theoretician famous for Multiple-Christ Doctrine, the original Vanross Olubodon, a remote and frightening figure. Not for one moment since birth had Van…or anyone from the small colony of blackies and darkfacers in Berlin…felt welcome.

Most of them, as in the case of Margarethe’s family, had commenced immediately to exobreed out of the color with almost any whites who were mad enough to fuck them. Margarethe had nieces and nephews who were already as light as the palms on her hands, or no darker than the inner folds of her navel, but, still, there were tests you were required to take at a certain age. Forms you had to fill out. You’d get Homo sapiens africanus stamped on your license for all to see, though perhaps one might keep it a secret on all but the genobureaucratic level.

Van’s family was an oddity. Both for having been in Europa for so many generations and for breeding almost exclusively black for the duration. Many of his people were priests; Van wasn’t a priest but he was a prominent theologian. The family members who weren’t in the priesthood, who were out there in the game of life, competing for love and money, were running out of black non-relatives to mate with. And with Van’s recent loss of mostly-black Margarethe, what would he do? Write his amateurish sonnets and masturbate on whores in blackface until the end of all time?

The station was a ziggurat of limestone steps on a dusty peninsula of asphalt. Across a weedy road were the vacant lots of the western edge of Gypsytown and beyond the vacant lots, a fifteen minute walk over rubble and weeds, queued the first of the white buildings, the coated buildings like walls in a low maze, each building decorated with its check of foil, foil over all the windows, the abandoned vista of an ancient millennial film project.

Set on the very edge of the asphalt before the broken road there stood a longish tent full of stacked bundles of newspapers and a sinewy bearded troll. The tall troll was seated crosslegged, dressed in the altogether save a suet-colored loincloth and sandals and sipping from a vintage bottle in the open shade of the tent. The man had the shaggy blonde sea-burned look of the Viking about him. But he was very thin.

As Van approached the tent in order to cross the broken road behind it the Viking put down his bottle with great care and slipped into a hooded cape which hung from head to knees. The cape had weight to it and concealed a dagger no doubt. He stepped into the sunpressure towards Van wielding a newspaper and Van recognized the paper as the Cassandran Standard and formed preemptive noises in his throat, shaking his head, but there was no way the tout would be put off, for Van was probably the first non-gypsy to cross his path all day… all week, possibly. Despite being momentarily flummoxed by the impossible blackness of Van’s face, he smiled and followed across the broken road with his spiel:

“Get your Cassandran, get your Cassandran right here, your sweet Cassandran Standard, all the news you were never supposed to know, reported at great risk to all involved, no gratitude necessary… top stories: the facts are in… average life-expectancy down by thirty percent in less than a century… top stories… the Asgaard Settlement alive and well and preparing for war against Earth… top stories… fish return to the Persian Gulf… you’ll read it here first… the news you were never supposed to know… all this plus the usual tasty all-color supplement: they’re fresh, they’re female, they’re Pagan… five dollars and the truth is yours to filter as you see fit….”

But when Van gave him a stainless steel dollar in hopes he’d scurry off the tout secreted the coin in the voluminous cuntfolds of his cape and said, wonderingly, after licking his lower lip, “You’re black.”

Van stopped walking and sighed. “That’s right.”

“I’m honored. They call me Gregorius. Is it true that blacks think not in words but in pictures, Sir?”

“I can only speak for myself when I say no to that question.”

“Ah.”

Van nodded. Gregorius pointed at Gypsytown. “You are not going in there alone, are you, Sir?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” He glared from the grotto under the wide brim of his hat.

“For one thing, there are no street signs… they took every single one of them down, Sir. The gypos are dead clever. You’d find yourself hopelessly lost in minutes. In heat like this, for more than an hour, no shelter… that can mean heart failure, Sir.”

“You’re advertising your services as a guide.”

“Not just a guide. There are horrors greater than being lost…”

“Horrors.”

“Not many know that the gypsies are provided by The State to operate under their own rule of law and governance, Sir.”

“I’m well aware of that fact.”

“But do you know the tone or timbre of these Laws of theirs, Sir? The codes and statutes? Run afoul of them and it could mean your happiness, to say the least. And then there are ravenous crowpacks to deal with and bandits…”

“Alright.”

“Five steel dollars an hour. Payment on the hour.”

They shook on it and continued across the weedy terrain of the vacant lots, Gregorius just slightly ahead. What does he have in that cape, wondered Van. A telescope? A rifle?

Without turning to face Van he called out, “What are you looking for, if I may ask, Sir?”

“Who.”

“What?”

Who, not what. I’m looking for a gypsy girl. A gypsy girl I saw this New Year’s Eve just past.”

“A gypsy you saw at the Dome, was it, Sir?”

“No. Earlier that day. At the Charlottenburg Station.”

“Charlottenburg Station? Performing there or just traveling, Sir?”

“She was performing.”

“Fair or dark?”

“Dark.”

“Young?”

Van shrugged. “Not old.”

Walking backwards at Van’s pace, Gregorius stared a good long time before finally turning to point far off, lifting the edge of his cape. “That’ll mean she lives over there, on what was formerly known as Bergmann Strasse, then. The other end of Gypsytown.”

Van laughed.

“Sir?”

“The way you pronounce ‘Strasse’. ”

“Strasse.”

Van laughed again. “Strah-suh. You even talk like a gypsy. You speak it?”

“Fließend.”

“What?”

“Fluently, Sir. Fließend means ‘fluently’.”

Van was pleased. He felt he was getting his money’s worth.

Flickered shadows now and then swept them over and up they’d look to see clouds of suntorched crows tumble headlong as though hurled from an invisible mountain and Gregorius would crouch low and dip one shoulder as if ready to swing hard at whatever came at them but the shadows flew onward, falling sidelong away at great speed. The nearest tree was kilometers distant.

Van and his taciturn page (what was he brooding on?) exchanged nary a word until they were well into the city-within-a-city, with its uniform myriad six-storey flatblocks and narrow treeless immaculate streets and sidewalks. No trash or thick brushstrokes of dogshit or mosaics of smashed glass forever. Nor rusting hulks of cars or trucks or gutted refrigerators. So unlike Berlin proper. He could have licked the griddle ground and left it hissing with spit with no fear of dirt-eating.

“It’s all so clean,” marveled Van, breaking the silence at such a low volume, just slightly above the striding rustle of his garment, that breaking it was barely worth it. His unwieldy white flapsuit. He was exhausted. He longed for his sunbrella. “It’s cleaner than any street I’ve walked on!”

“Of course it is, Sir. The Gypsies waste nothing.”

“Not even merdes…”

“They make fuel with it, Sir.”

“You’re very well-spoken for a man who lives in a tent, Gregorius.”

“There was a time, long ago, I participated in the world, like you. I gave it all up to do the noble work of selling the Cassandran. It’s a hard life but I sleep well every night and my gypo wife supports me. And I don’t live in that tent, you see. We live in a flat like any other.”

“I suppose it’s a myth that they steal, as well, then, Gregorius?”

“An ugly and ignorant myth, Sir. No offense.”

Van chuckled. He said, “So if one had a peek through a gypo flat…”

“One would most of all see books, Sir. Every gypsy lives with more books than he has stories to tell…a gypsy aphorism.”

Van curled his lip. Even he couldn’t afford more than a few books, and those he kept in a vault. “Books?”

Gregorius continued, “In point of fact they make nearly all their money as infobrokers.”

“Infobrokers?”

“Spies, Sir.”

“Spies?”

“Is there anyone less visible than a gypo? All dressed alike, all playing the same…”

Van scratched at his nose and grunted. He did not believe this, nor the other thing about books. He said, “Possibly.”

“May I ask why you speak so softly, Sir?”

Van lifted his chin at the building they were just then shuffling past and said, “They sleep in the heat of the day, as you know. It’s prudent…one speaks in certain tones…”

“Another falsehood, Sir,” Gregorius said, wearily. “Ironic, too, considering that they’re all awake and been doing business for hours when the rest of Berlin is still yawning over its first bitter coffee! It is true, these buildings have no power to offset the heat, but the cellars of the buildings are dark and cool and…”

“This is astonishing news…”

“…the gypsies have connected all the cellars in a kind of underground city.” Gregorius stopped in the street and touched his bare red chest with a flourish of his cape. “And I know the safest point of entry to the system.”

“But I must,” pleaded Van, revealing his desperation suddenly, “I must find this gypsy girl! She has bewitched me!”

Gregorius pointed at the cracked black skin of the three-hundred-year-old road.

“You’ll find her there.”

Looking at the road where he had been directed to, Van watched as Gregorius’ shadow appeared to raise a long dark sword to the sky, gripping the hilt with both hands as though he might fly away on it.

There was a roaring silence as Van stared blinkless into the white skull of the sun without being conscious of ceasing to.

3.

A temperate breeze poured in over the tall grasses of the Auroran Savannah and clattered through the blinds and windchimes on the front porch and the naked prospects of the sunrooms above it and pushed open, with one polite hand, the curtains of the attic window.

The servant stooped polishing wood in the attic bedroom happened to look out the window at that moment to glimpse through the curtains the procession of secondhand government Zils coming in on the long approach paralleling the canal, like a funeral, though she knew for a fact it was only a lunch.

The master was still drowsing in his hammock on the porch. Drowsing as indolent in the summer’s long day as he was frenetic during the winter’s long night of restorative darkness, and though she felt the giddy impulse to hurry downstairs to wake him, one of the others would probably see to it, so she kept at her polishing, waltzing the soft fat cloth over the loops and whorls of the wood’s exquisitely ancient fingerprint. The chest of drawers she brought to its hard gleam predated her language; her people; the city of Aurora itself. Centuries of breath had trapped spirit-words in the microscopic chambers of the wood and she felt the furniture breathe as her palm swirled over it.

She expected at some point after lunch that the master would gather the barefoot staff in the kitchen in order to introduce them to the overfed guests, as ever, and charmingly perform his favorite trick of naming their various tribes: Aleuti, Russo Lapp, Samoyed, Swedish Tungu, Dane and Red Yankee! All living together under one roof, he would exclaim. A boast of his taste, his benevolence.

And all sharing one bed, she was always tempted to add. The two boys among them were even prettier than the black-eyed girls.

Lieutenant Governor Mey and the trade delegation from the North Atlantic States looked mortified in their youth, clustered together in the center of Stark’s library, waiting obediently for lunch. Stark was still drowsy and rumpled in his patrician, couldn’t-be-bothered way, scratching his belly through a fine garment. He knew history well enough to relish this sensation of intimidating elected officials with anything more subtle than an army. Their sincere diffidence was innocence and a luxury that wouldn’t last more than a few generations before sophistication, with the renascent persistence of evil, returned again to the world. But for now a breathing space. An Eden.

Stark drew their attention to two black heads on a recessed shelf in the wall beside the book case. The floor-to-ceiling, wall-wide case was emblematic in itself of staggering wealth, but they couldn’t begin to calculate the value of those heads.

“Very beautiful,” nodded Lieutenant Governor Mey, hands clasped behind his back because otherwise they’d be shaking. “May I ask how you got them that color?”

Stark laughed. “Jahweh gave it to them.”

“Jahweh?”

“The super-being they both believed in, while they lived. The man in the sky who created the Earth and the Heavens. In the beginning he is said to have said to let there be light, and there was light.”

The trade delegation chuckled politely.

Stark touched the male head with a collector’s awed affection. “Preserved eternally with a process that renders the flesh incorruptible without changing its natural composition. If you care to touch here… very carefully… you’ll find that it is indeed flesh, flesh like yours or mine… at room temperature. Not even particularly cold. Though they’ve been dead for centuries.”

“Anyway, it’s a lost technology. We couldn’t do anything close to it.”

With a cupped hand Stark rounded the cheek and delicate jawline of the female head, her ear bending and springing from under his touch. The gesture was so like a lover’s postcoital caress that two of the delegates flinched. The head was so beautiful, so life-like in its preservation, yet so strange in its blackness and shining shaved skull that they expected the eyes and mouth to pop open with a scream when Stark had finished fondling it.

“I call the two of them the world’s greatest love story. I also call them the gypsies, because they’ve been all over the habitable world, seeking one another in death. The facts are really quite extraordinary.”

“Before I explain how I acquired them, I’ll let you in on the amazing fact that I know quite a lot of detail about their social status, their manner of dress and eating habits and even the specific circumstances of her death. His death I know less about.”

“I inherited him, you see. I grew up in a house that counted him coyly among its treasures, though he was kept in a locked case in the attic. I didn’t get a look at him until my father died and I inherited the estate. We were doing an inventory of the art treasures and he sort of popped up. As it turns out, he was worth more than all of the other paintings and sculptures combined.”

“He’s the only known example of a fully intact head from the species Homo sapiens africanus… what they called back then, rather obviously, a black. Interestingly, the black species thought only in pictures but not in words as we do. Otherwise, they were both shockingly different and uncomfortably similar to us.”

“I only regret that in preserving the head they’ve shaved the hair off, you see, because his hair was just as unique as the rest of him… very tight little kinks, very short, rather mossy… imagine, possibly, a cross between moss and wool.”

“The female’s hair was a bit different… imagine a cross between his hair as I’ve described it and yours or mine… because she’s not purebred, you see; her mother was Homo sapiens. Look at the nose.”

“Anyway, for years I’ve had him here in my library, the guardian of my books. Then one day, on a trip through Romana, to pay my respects to the ancestors, as one does… and also because I love French sweets, and France is right across that border, as it happens…”

Stark could see he was beginning to bore them. Time to spice up the story.

“I was offered the chance to bid on her by a private collector of ill repute. Of course I couldn’t refuse… money was no object. I felt I owed it to my black Adam to provide an Eve.” The Biblical reference went over their heads but he forged on. “The broker I purchased her from informed me that she’d been quite the celebrity of her era…married to a rich, powerful official… back when those three words together weren’t oxymoronic, gentlemen… back in that barbaric era…”

“He was rich and powerful and rather psychotically jealous. It seems he beheaded her lover and fed the lover’s corpse to her guests at a dinner party! Only a few weeks later he killed her, too. Beat her to death… most luckily sparing the face. The interesting thing about all that is how little punishment he received for his crimes; I’d dare say any of you would face more bother over a parking violation than he did for double murder. He lived to be a ripe old age and dined out, no pun intended, on the legend of his atrocity.”

“It was only after bringing Eve home to Adam, and setting them beside one another on that very shelf, that I began to wonder if they might have known one another in life. I wondered if there was some connection… perhaps by a few degrees of separation at the least. I knew they were from the same part of the world… I knew they were from the same era, vaguely…”

“Peeling off the tiniest amount of flesh from the back of our Adam’s neck, a technician had his genetic numbers checked against the oldest known database.”

“You won’t believe this, gentleman…but I assure you that what I’m about to say is true. It turns out… I’m getting goosebumps as I think about it… it turns out our black Adam and Eve were once married.”

“Let that sink in for a moment.”

“They were married, divorced, met their separate deaths… were separated as artifacts by thousands of kilometers for centuries… different countries and continents… now reunited on that shelf.”

Even Lieutenant Governor Mey was obviously moved. There was a catch in his throat when he asked, pointing to a small oil painting set in the center of the book case…asking, perhaps, merely to diffuse the intensity of the moment… “Can you tell us who this is?”

Stark drew himself straight with awful pride, but spoke with self-satirizing pomp.

“This? This is Iseult Tsurak, mother of the modern nation of Romana, hero of the Gypsytown rebellion, intellectual architect of the Pax Romana and the founder of the immense fortune that nourishes the Stark family to this day, even as far north as we’ve drifted. Stark is an Arctic modernization of the name Tsurak, you see.”

“She’s my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother.”

“What a look in those eyes, eh?”

“What a look.”

The Real Jimmy Davis

 the-real-jimmy-davis

We’ve all heard of the Angel of Death, but what about the Angel of Poverty, the Angel of Rape, the Angel of Racism? They aren’t the subjects of florid poems or valuable French oil paintings. We rarely discuss them. Yet there they are.

Note for screenplay: cars as suits of armor. Animated? He leans on the horn. If the horn were a death button he’d press it even harder and far more often. He is Danny Vespers (this with a Rod Serling voice) driving home, from a pilgrimage to the hallowed gadget shop in the most masculine corner of his segregated mall, with a top-of-the-line camcorder. Danny is slightly embarrassed to bring this camcorder home to a less-than-immaculate household. High-end products give us a standard to live up to. Both in the viewfinder and in comparison, the sleek sexy camcorder made Miriam’s vagina look like an heirloom.

Can we work that into the voice-over?

***

An old idealist is impossible. At the very least, the body’s ongoing corruption as life runs out makes mock of ideals or ideas, noble or otherwise, because, check it out, the old man or woman’s bad odors and pathetic mechanical frailties are the ultimate betrayal of idealism; ultimate because irrefutably, not just rhetorically, true. Ideals are a nice decoration for physically perfect bodies: yes. And yet, the idealism of the young is idiotic. Imagine a lion cub arguing the ethical merits of vegetarianism to its parents.

***

He contemplated the fractured, contingent totality of their bored perception of him standing hip-handed in front of the class. His knees hurt. The old fuck the young as though they’re owed something. They are, aren’t they?

Vespers’s eye was on that one in the second row, that perfect little cinnamon titcake. God. Hindu? Imagine six arms in bed, a hand for each of his dicks. He had polished a suavely radical disquisition and it never failed to drop at least three students per school year in the sofabed under the curtained window in his office. Soft pink fruits with names like Tuesday or Ashley. You will be surprised to learn that instructors are still fucking students in certain private academies of higher knowledge for in the amoral old money timelessness of épater le bourgeois the parents secretly like it and provide a clear signal (like lights around a heli-pad) by naming a daughter Tallulah.

Anyone caught referring to it as “film class” would get a failing grade. Would Vespers be teaching if he hadn’t been failed by cinema?

***

Vespers was in a bit of trouble. Not for fucking Tallulah. This is how it happened. That good looking boy who actually was fucking Tallulah; Brody, Brody Camp; at some point in a discussion about Cassavetes, of all people… he says: We are here to help each other through this thing called Life…

Vespers, gunning for Brody anyway (infuriating name, pedigree, girlfriend, jawline, stature, pecs, youth and Italian shoes) goes, with a smile, tossing the chalk and snatching it down, “Thank you Mister Camp for invoking that quintessentially sappy all-American tautology we are here to help each other which is a little like claiming we exercise to build the strength to lift weights and is only trumped for sheer vacuous, well-meaning stupidity by the witlessly evil doctrine of Karma, an infinite, and therefore pointless, regress of balance and counter-balance that proposes we accept Adolph Hitler… think about it… as nothing more heinous than an agent of divine justice. Those Jews had it coming. More thinking and less reflex parroting of unexamined masscult bullshit in this class, thanks, Mr. Camp. We are here to think.”

Two days later Vespers is notified with ominous decorum of the early stages of a hate speech lawsuit being filed by the parents of none other than the Hindu titcake.

***

Miriam peered between slats in the blinds in the kitchen window towards the gazebo. Paolo was making uncanny sounds like the loyal hound in a slasher flick.

Vespers, preoccupied with this lawsuit bullshit, had left the side door of the garage ajar.

Leave a door open and something always comes in.

***

He liked the smell of his own farts. Looked forward to them. His pedagogical method encouraged what he called a living scepticism. Top positions in any field will be colonized by those with the desire but not the talent. It’s the lack of talent that breeds the desire. He said you won’t get a good grade in this class by agreeing with me. Approximately once a semester some student fell into the carefully-baited trap of asking if you know so much about movies how come you never made one?

He gave his speech about modern movies. The thesis of the cinema of tears and shit; blood being the stand-in for shit. Hollywood is not quite ready to show shit. We are not quite ready for the Hollywood shitbath.

He said: Democracy, an experiment in making freedom intolerable.

He scanned the room for reactions. His eyes sort of hopped over the Hindu girl. It occurred to him that this might turn out to be the first semester in his history as a teacher that he’d have to do without fucking a student. Or worse. Someone knuckle-rapped the bulletproof glass in the classroom door and Vespers jumped a lightyear in his skin.

Oh: just Good old Paul.

Paulie.

Over a bagel sandwich in the hot little student place about a block off campus good old Paul said thanks for taking the time.

-Come on. We’re friends.

-Longer than we’ve been married. Paul fingered the spot on his jacket’s lapel that corresponded to the spot on Vespers’s jacket lapel where he wore the black button that said The Doctor Is In and chuckled I can’t believe you’ve gotten away with wearing that all these years.

-Remember the time we brazenly rolled that wheelbarrow into the Riverpark nursery and stacked it with twenty-pound sacks of mulch and walked right out without paying and nobody said a word?

Paul set his bagel back down on its plate to laugh and nod loosely in his hands.

-It’s like that.

-Well, I always said you’d make a great cult leader.

-It’s only a matter of scale.

-Any prospects in the current crop?

-Too early to say.

-Times are hard.

-Among other things.

Paul said, God, remember how they used to say there are over a hundred words for snow in the Eskimo language?

They laughed.

-Listen, Danny…

-Uh oh.

-Yeah, it’s kind of obvious from my tone, isn’t it? I need to ask kind of a momentous favour of you.

-Shoot.

-I need you to talk to Bevvie.

-You want a divorce?

-I want to come out of the closet and I don’t know how to frame it for her, verbally, in a way that won’t sound like an apology or I don’t know. Like bragging or something. Or defiance. Or an admission of sin. Just, you know. I want it to be about relating a fact, or a set of facts, or circumstances, without the emotional or psycho-political distortion of all the baggage you build up in a long marriage which will inevitably have her searching my face for clues or deeper meanings when what I really need her to do is simply listen to and grasp and accept the facts. I don’t want this info dramatized I want it reported. I mean, if I deliver the message, I’m a kind of unreliable narrator figure, for purely circumstantial reasons, ie, her husband, regarding whom, as you know, the proper approach is, you know, forensic, mediated by a sense of the conventions surrounding the unreliable narrator’s performance, and by contrasting what the narrator presents with what we know of the greater circumstance we plug into the author’s intention. Right? But, see, there is no intention. It just is. Like a rock is or, I don’t know, this bagel. It’s just a fact which acceptance or non-acceptance is not the issue. Like oxygen.

-Paulie. Wait. What. You?

Vespers went for a drive through Inver Hills.

The mansions were pre-War, dignified, what you’d call imposing. Poor folks from down the hill when he was young would take spiraling walks up here to physically daydream convenient reincarnations into very old money. They daydreamed on foot along a curve overlooking the valley of low expectations they came up from, until a city ordinance in the early 1980s made it illegal to walk or park or dream on Inver Hills streets. There weren’t any sidewalks. It was Vespers’s guess that the rich used to enjoy the spectacle of having the poor up there before the definition of poor refined itself too sharply. Poor was no longer what you were but what you did. The armed response signs were being posted further and further down the driveways. Vespers remembered driving Miri up in the green Camaro, slowly, dreamily, in the creamy continuum of courtship, one arm around her waist. He wanted tears to well-up recalling the Kodachrome sweetness of the Kingston Trio. He wanted tears to well and over-brim imagining his old eight-track in its loyal woodgrain shell at the bottom of several generations of trash somewhere, poignantly built to survive its usefulness by a thousand years.

***

Vespers still fucked Miri to the sincere satisfaction of both parties at least once a week, occasionally pretending to be a running character named Jimmy Davis, a black burglar with an unplaceable accent. Acquiring a licorice-colored supercock in the process. A licorice nightstick as he put it to himself while putting it to Miri, who’d pretend to be chafed by it.

“Jimmy Davis” would rifle through Miriam Vespers’s underwear drawers in search of “jewelry”, uncovering a trail of carefully-placed sex aids, already switched on, plus video tapes ready to pop in the VCR and blank tapes for the camcorder. “Rape” the gagged housewife to a bebop soundtrack. Rape as kitsch and marital aid. Vespers couldn’t imagine trying to get away with using Jimmy Davis on one of his coeds, although the fact that he could derive pleasure from pretending to be a black burglar raping a white housewife without having the slightest desire to be black or rape housewives was the most personal argument he could come up with in support of his false catharsises of cinema theory. The magic of cinema being that the audience is acting, too, though not out of identification. In self-defense. Powerful cinema is no less an intruder than is Jimmy Davis. The passive gaze is the ultimate mask.

But this is what Vespers had forgotten: he’d forgotten fucking a hardship student named Ruby Davis in 1977.

***

Miriam didn’t like the way her voice sounded as she heard herself calling who’s out there?

***

Paulie pointed suddenly and precisely saying Here. Turn right here, and they pulled into a tree-lined driveway.

Vespers said Where’s the front door?

-Real mansions don’t have front doors. That’s the point, isn’t it?

Vespers tried to pre-picture the polo-shirted catamite Paulie was so eager to introduce him to as what. Justification for obliterating the little spark of joie de vivre still lingering in the body of Vespers’s (and Vespers’s wife’s) dearest friend, the poor wife Bevvie, like futile volts in a leather lightbulb? They parked in a gravel lot, in front of a kerosene shed of heavy landscaping equipment, in a row of surprisingly downscale automobiles. Vespers voiced this observation with ungaurded smugness as he unbuckled his safety belt and Paulie said gardeners. Uncloseted Paulie was suddenly scoring snob points left and right and Vespers made a mental note to crucify his friend on some intellectual matter later. All the better if it related to fiction since Paulie was teaching the subject.

Danny Vespers was plotting this fey revenge on his undeservedly loyal friend at the very moment the brother of an alumna was tying his wife to a chair in the kitchen with an extension cord he’d gotten from the garage.

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 Man from Elephant and Castle

1.

Venal Cunt spread her legs like a vile temptation at the end of the night, face deflected, eyes unplugged. Long and elegant and platinum-haired and bone-white with her sexy puckering lisp. The only color is the childish yellow scrawl of her bush and her pupils like residue in cocktail glasses and the raised red chevrons where she scratches her right wrist incessantly like a fox in a fur-lined trap. Even her nipples are white. She says what do I need to read for, my life is a bestseller. She says don’t take all day. Needy Cock lowers himself into her snob-dry vadge with pragmatic detachment and he cradles her too-small-for-compassionate-thoughts skull while he pushes in, prospecting in vain for as little as a teardrop’s quantity of moisture.

The days run together like yolks. His savings evaporate and his postcards begin to repeat themselves. Surfers march like bowlegged Aztecs into the Rite Aid for sunblock and the bakery in Ralph’s sells cinnamon buns at four a.m. and the gardeners wield their shoulder-slung gas-powered leafblowers like AK-47s and yes the Mexicans are poor as pigeons but they are polite and very clean and it’s no wonder the blacks feel threatened. I’ve never seen so many convertible-driving Aryan teens in my life. Not even on television.

Literature doesn’t prepare you for any of this.

His students shreik and clap. They say, “Say schedule again!”

2.

Needy Cock can tell by the look on the cop’s face that the cop is disturbed by something about Needy Cock’s demeanor. Something doesn’t add up. This is not a by-the-book domestic. Wifebeaters are usually not so. What. The two of them are out in the hallway by the open door of Needy Cock’s flat and his cop’s two colleagues are inside and Venal Cunt is communicating tersely from within the locked bathroom. She refuses to come out.

It’s a beautiful day. A sack of Krugerrand-colored sunshine pours through the skylight, absorbed by the infinite dinge of the hallway. How many times has he plodded down this very hall to this very spot in front of his very door without having noticed that the pattern in the carpet is dollar signs? Well he notices in the extremity of his tribulation and the hallway appears to him as terribly run-down and it strikes him that he is now the working poor, one of Graham Greene’s shipwrecked whisky priests with a twist: an author of books who has recently resorted to borrowing money from one of his villa-dwelling students to pay cash for cafeteria sushi. O, this foot-blackened carpet and cigarette-sooted walls and cigarettebutts on the laundryroom stairstep…

Needy Cock finds that he’s strangely unashamed as a curious Queer neighbor (probably the one who made the call to the cops in the first place) steps out from two-doors-down and steals an avid glimpse. I Will Survive blares defiantly from the Queer’s open door. How many times has Needy Cock phoned the police in the dead of night to complain about the level of the disco music and this, ironically, is the first time they finally come?

“What was the fight about, Ma’am?” calls the cop through the bathroom door.  He’s a freckled bull with bristly rhubarb-colored hair, scratching his chin. His partner is tall and black with close-set eyes and a mustache. The black has a hand hovering near the heavy gun on his hip and more of the essence of his being is concentrated in his pistol hand than in his face at the moment. The pistol hand is worried. How does the pistol hand know that Venal Cunt doesn’t have a weapon in there?

“Was it about money?” the ruddy bull, the spokesman, the one with the degree in sociology, offers. “Was it about debt?”

Venal Cunt snorts. They can all hear it through the bathroom door. A hefty snort of derision. “None of your fucking bithineth,” she screams.

A career criminal couldn’t muster as much arctic contempt for a uniformed cop as Venal Cunt, in the waning throes of her beserking, is spitting at them. Needy Cock has to admit he admires her for it and yet he realizes that his admiration only exacerbates the problem. Like when she was banging him across the apartment with kick-boxing techniques she’d spent the year learning, at Needy Cock’s suggestion and expense, as a way to channel her anger. He’d seen the humor in it. And she’d looked magnificent to him while doing it, too, even as she was kicking his thighs and punching his ear and his balls and knocking him over with a reverse hooking roundhouse and smashing things she had first carefully identified as his before smashing them. A splintered wooden bar stool is arranged like kindling across the bed. Steel-framed pictures are knocked off the walls and stunned with cracks. The phone is smashed and first editions are ripped and stomped-on and strewn about in what looks like the aftermath of a fascist rally.  A fancy soup, still warm, is dripping from the walls and windows.

“Who started it, Ma’am?” the uniformed sociologist with a gun in their living room tries again.

Venal Cunt snatches the bathroom door open. The Bull steps back into a near-crouch in a reflex as she steps forward, six foot two in platform shoes, red-faced but otherwise camera-ready, and she says, “It wathn’t him, it wath me. Can you fuckerth pleathe get the fuck out of our fucking living room a. eth. a. p.? Can you pleathe just go?”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Ma’am,” the Red Bull counters, regaining the force that he’s lost as a man in the bulwark of the law’s tradition. He’s well aware that out of uniform, in a nightclub, in his dancing shoes, he’d be less than a mosquito in Venal Cunt’s ear. He regains his manhood in the Judeo-Christian majesty of the civil laws he has sworn a kitschy oath to protect.

“The discretion to press charges in a domestic abuse call is not entrusted to the private parties involved, for obvious reasons.” He gets out a little notebook. “It’s up to us,” he nods to his tall black colleague and the short blond one with Needy Cock out in the hallway, “…to make an evaluation at the scene, and act accordingly. Taking our observations under advisement, it’s the prerogative of The State,” he gestures out the window, “… whether to press charges or not.”

But they do leave, after a cursory admonition for Needy Cock and Venal Cunt to try to get along, with the tall black nodding at a framed Helmut Newton of a naked, welt-breasted goddess saying Nice picture and doing a double-take as he realizes the model is Venal Cunt herself as a teenager. How far she has fallen. Needy Cock points out the photographer’s autograph on the print. The Red Bull, taking leisurely note of the almost-ornate library that Needy Cock has amassed on tall shelves against two adjoining walls of the living room, inquires if they’re Needy Cock’s books.

Needy Cock lifts his chin and says yes.

The cop says everybody should read more.

3.

Needy Cock closes the door quietly and tip-toes in the kitchen to get a bucket to start the long clean-up. The fancy soup on the walls, books and everything else is hardening. The glass from shattered pictures needs sweeping up. The splintered bar stool disposed of. Prater Violet is a write-off.

Venal Cunt is back in the bathroom and he can hear her crying again. He turns the kitchen tap off and he puts the bucket down and he stands there, face to heaven, hands in fists, stuck in his existential quagmire. He still feels that love. He raps softly and enters the bathroom in order to embrace her and her knuckledboned back is turned to him. Her shoulders are hunched in crying. He tentatively touches an elegant shoulder blade where it raises a soft cotton scallop…  just that hesitant fingertip touch…

…  she spins and drives a steak knife home in his chest. He throws an arm up in a futile defensive gesture and shouts an unexpectedly childish “Don’t!” He grabs at the blow which seems to glance off his chest with a stinging thud. She’s clutching the bladeless knife handle and whimpers and avoids his touch with spider-horror, sidestepping where he snatches at the shower curtain splashing blood.

Needy Cock is calling her name with absurdly gentle indignation. Venal Cunt! Venal Cunt! The pain of the blade in his body isn’t so bad, but the shock of it is sickening, humiliating, awful, for he has crossed a dark border into the Land of the Violent Poor with their tacky knife and gunshot wounds. Even as he grabbed for the shower-curtain, seeing stars, he knew it couldn’t support his weight and they’ll need to buy a new one. Venal Cunt has run into the bedroom in tears and slammed and locked the door behind her. The curtain rings go pop…  pop…  pop…

He’s gasping in the tub, legs over the side of it, the sucking wheeze and bubble of his fatal chest wound. He fingers the copious puddling heat on his Fred Perry shirt and the blade at the center of it and realizes the handle snapped off when she drove the blade in and this warm piece of metal rises an inch from the puckering slit. Touching it’s like tapping a tooth. He recalls that grunt she grunted while shoving it in and he keeps hearing the vitality of it and Christ it’s too funny. The most sexual noise she’s ever made with him.

4.

That night she fucks him. Lights off of course. She strokes the crusted periphery of the wound. Strokes also, with a virgin’s holy awkwardness, the metal itself…which he discovers he enjoys having tugged. She touches it “accidentally,” at first. She touches it again more boldly. She pays it more direct attention, twisting and tugging and jarring it as they lose themselves in the screaming fall towards massive orgasm and she displays the kind of dirty fascination with the blade anchored firmly in his dead heart that he had always hoped for regarding his genitals.

Venal Cunt strokes the jagged edge of the dull glint in the dark room post-coitally cooing. Needy Cock thinks they should have done this years ago. He thinks things could be worse. He imagines all the American girls he will score with this new secret weapon.

.

Poem of The Weak

The drive up was tense not only because of the tritely appropriate drama of the rain but also because if he got lost on the way there was no one to call to for help. No safety net. He was forbidden from square one to store the information on a device or to print the directions on paper.

*

The directions appeared one morning in an audio loop that disabled itself after ten or fifteen minutes, a loop accompained by a black screen, a loop in the form of a sonnet. He’d been chanting it to himself for forty eight hours with an eerie pride in knowing that medieval illiterates had done it in much the same way. Further back than that, too, because songs in the fog of unmetered time had been less often used as entertainment than mnemonic devices of desperate importance. Didn’t antediluvian Asians in birchbark canoes navigate the Aleutians to landfall on North America using chanted sea maps? Or something.

*

He was roughly a third of the way through the sonnet and maybe two thirds of the distance to the compound and all of the clues had worked out very smoothly. But what if they hadn’t? He’d been on the road for seven hours. His team was up for an Emmy. He had inside information that the world would end before they won it.

*

Of course he could have cheated and written the directions down but he hadn’t wanted to. He longed for that new beginning. He hungered to start afresh. No more lies or cheating. Lose weight, no television, early nights and mornings. Stop masturbating. He had less than twelve hours, driving from several states away, making rest stops to eat and/or relieve himself, to get there before the others took steps to block the old dirt access road. To make the place impenetrable. If you can’t stop cold turkey, cut back to reasonable levels, at least. He thought of a cool title: Get fit at the Apocalypse Spa.

The new kind of man he was to become was not the kind who’d find himself bashing his Amherst-enhanced brain for four days against three lines of sitcom dialogue, of this he was certain. Like a chain of hyper-haikus from the sinisterly dumb future, various versions were branded on the soft white flesh of his consciousness.

Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!

Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.

Lola Beedo: (beat) Tell me, does it come in human sizes, too?

*

He thought of a picture someone had posted on the message board in the production team’s lounge. The multi-Emmy-award-winning production team’s lounge. A photograph from 1905. The young Ludwig Wittgenstein in a class picture from his days in the Realschule in the city of Linz and there, a distance of one or two students to the upper right (a knight’s move, as Nabokov would have put it), looking resigned to his fate, is Ludwig’s classmate Adolf Hitler. The fact being that nothing Wittgenstein had subsequently done as a philosopher, no great strides in ethics or logic or the lyric aprehension of mathematics, amounted to a hill of beans compared to the contribution he could have made had he taken the opportunity to act decisively during the long walk home from school one day and crushed young Adolf’s skull with a paving stone. In other words, not only thought but direct action is required of us at certain pivotal moments. And not only action but a little prescience helps too.

*

Hamilton Gold, the head writer, always said name me what’s funnier than decapitation. But, he’d say, let’s see if the audience is there yet. He’d looked over the bit quickly on Monday, flipping the pages in that idiot-savant scan of his and immediately picked out the three lines they’d been having trouble with and shook his head, I like the bit but fat jokes are dangerous. Fat is our demographic, don’t forget. How about substitute fat with slut? Slut is funny.

*

Gold propounds a theory that sitcoms govern Congress. What people laugh at is exactly how they will vote. Americans can’t bomb a country until they’ve laughed at it a little bit first. Maybe he took the sentiment more seriously than Gold had intended but pretty soon he was feeling like J. Robert Oppenheimer in that porkpie hat hearing the phrase comedy has known sin and he’s on the internet at 3:14 in the morning, looking for absolution.

*

No one knew that he’d based the popular character of Elke Hall on his mother. He had inside information that it was the end of the world and he hadn’t even notified her.

*

Beyond the rain and the ticking of the clock, drama or any sense of a grand doomsday epic on the road itself was sorely lacking. No roadblocks or frenzied hordes or menacingly black or fluorescent sunset: just zonked-out commuters in start-and-stop traffic on the long way home from the daily deathsentence of work. Most of these people were only vaguely aware of things, if at all, and the precious few who considered the situation anything to lose sleep over had lost sleep over so many looming catastrophes of the past that this recent matter would strike them as little more than more of the same. Tonight they would go to bed after a starchy meal, vacuous television and perfunctory sex per usual. A couple of pills and out like a light. How typical to be wrong the one time it counted. The one time it counted in a thousand years, you dumbshits. You call your wife to come out on the porch to have a look and less than a second later you’re all dead.

*

What gave him a kind of vertigo when he contemplated it was how close he had come to being just like them. Before that life-changing night on the internet which fanned into a dozen online conversations, each conversation in turn fanning out into a hundred others, and all of those but the crucial one petering out…the crucial one connecting to his special contact to the man whose vision he had now irrevocably made himself a part of. Yes, thinking back on it, it was amazing…how cloaked in the ordinary it had all once seemed. How something appeared in the inbox of a personals account at a no-hoper’s dating site he’d signed up to pseudonymously because it was free and therefore relatively untraceable: a message exactly two sentence fragments long. Two months later, after visiting god-knows-how-many encrypted sites and exchanging deepcover spam mails and vital details in chatrooms he found himself paypal-ing a mindboggling sum into an account set up in a Biblical name.

Eighty acres of land and five years of provisions for twenty three people (they’d done their best to balance male with female but visionary survivalism is not, strictly speaking, a female interest, so nine females and fourteen males. But their unflinching honesty about this state of affairs reassured him). No couples or families or friends. Only loners with college degrees…professionals older than 27 and younger than 55, disgusted with mainstream politics, wary of organized religion, environmentally friendly but not averse to the occasional bar-b-que. All strangers to one another. All white.

*

Sid Caesar.

*

Radio was out of the question, in case some catchy tune came on and drove the sonnet out of his head. What he had was seven hours of motordrone and rubberhum and occasional rainfry sizzle on the roads. That and talking to himself. He supplied his own commercials. He thought of the Man from Glad, that futuristic Aryan hovering in a jetpack to shill ersatz Saranwrap to sexually frustrated newlyweds. He thought of The Beatles’ rooftop concert and George switching his amp back on in open defiance of the bobby. He thought: of course the whole thing could be a clever scam.

But the verisimilitude of the finework of paranoiac details like emailing strategies such as using spam prosodies for deepcover (mploy *black anal virgin* n subj. line & spyprgs wnt rd ur eml) had convinced him. Or how the ambiguously allusive chats he’d had with the man himself, the chats on the gratis personals site, had been regularly scheduled for 3:14 in the morning, based, he realized, on the value for pi and he wasn’t exactly sure why but that last detail had soothed him. Assuaged his fears.

*

I’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

*

When traffic slowed to a crawl he took the opportunity to peek into other cars. All those faces in profile, innocent with impatience or boredom. For the first time in his adult life he found himself loving humanity.

The automobile beside his to the right was a bruise-blue vintage Ford with a cream-white top, a big old iron box of a thing, perfectly preserved, its contour suggesting a jut-jawed crewcut profile and containing, as it happened, two male passengers with just that style of haircut. The driver could plausibly have been the father of the boy in the passenger seat. They both had brown hair…the guessed-brown on a vintage b&w picture tube…and they were so animated in that hatefully cheerful and perfectly postured way you’d expect in the kind of midcentury film the car and their haircuts seemed keyed to. You can’t see two males like that without automatically picturing the female that belongs with them. The bandana and the oven cleaner. The bubble bath and the shapely leg and the drawer of “female items” you aren’t even allowed to open in your mind, forbidden as the Arc of the Covenant in the cabinet under the sink.

He wondered, for a bemused moment, if he wasn’t hallucinating, or if such types in just such a car weren’t obviously time-travelers. Terrorists from the future, because that’s what they will look like, although, wait, he keeps forgetting that the future has already arrived. Would he be crossing state lines with a trunk full of firearms otherwise?

*

Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!

Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.

Lola Beedo:  (beat) Tell me, did Bill Clinton design it?

He’d never known a girl named Amanda. He’d never been slapped in the face. Why was he sad about these two facts?

In the script margin Gold had scribbled, Bill who?

*

They had a regular skit called “Poem of the Week” that was supposedly topical. In the memos Gold had taken to referring to it as Poem of the Weak and the written phrase had acquired a poignance and profundity all its own. He swears he saw Gold’s assistant-to-the-assistant wiping her eyes and sniffing furtively after reading that phrase. Honey-baked boobs out to here.

*

The dream he held both dear and sheepishly for its foolishness was the dream of the girl who is waiting for him, waiting at the compound, one of the nine, the most beautiful of the nine, the barefoot heroine in rustic clothing without whom he had been rudderless, unmated, bereft for all these years. She’ll step intuitively out onto the porch of the rambling woodframe house in order to watch him drive up, her tomboy heart quickening to the recognition. She’ll smile tentatively as he greets her with an ironic salute, lugging his trunk of munitions stiff-legged towards the front steps, winded but amused by the exertion, shrugging off her offer to help him carry the massive thing. Golden-haired, curly-haired, of solid pioneer stock. She’d say, the others are inside.

-I’m the last?

-We thought you weren’t coming. We were preparing…

-To mine the road.

-Yes.

She’d hold the door open for him. She’d search his face as he squeezed his way past the woodland aura of her health into a sort of vestibule that opened into a large, high-ceilinged room, a room with a rough, honest look to it: a gathering place for the strong, the wise, the bravely sad. Oil paintings of country life on the walls, maybe. Old bay mares. Or, no, something ironic like Victorian portraits or blue period Picasso. A dynastic sort of fire snapping twigs in the hearth. Quiet conversations here and there tapering off as he sets his clanking trunk at his feet and senses her feminine presence gather force at his side as he takes everyone in while catching his breath, the late arrival at a party in honor of the end of the fucking world. Peripherally he’d feel her delicately hawk-eye him for the subtlest reaction to everything as though her self-esteem depended on his acceptance of the new reality. As though she’s putting herself in the picture with him and hoping there’s a fit.

*

Then it hit him who She was. She was Donna Douglas aka Ellie Mae Clampett and only then did the improbability of the fantasy mock him and he leaned on the horn and spoke in the precise duration of the car’s grievance as a motorcycle cut in front of him. He realized in a fleeting panic that he couldn’t remember the name of former president Jimmy Carter’s brother; if that went, could a key line from the sonnet be far behind? He then wondered in a morphed extension of this panic if he’d left the shower on. Which extended and morphed yet again into the awful realization that he’d left all his speed in a fannypack in the gym bag on top of his bedroom dresser. How was he supposed to get through the Apocalypse without his vitamin S?

*

He considered turning back for it.

*

The howdydoody Ford lurched forward and fell behind in the maddening traffic. Lurched forward and fell behind. It caught up again in a fanfare of horns he added his note to and he saw with self-perplexing irritation that the father and son were indifferent to the agonies of the traffic jam. Just chatting away. Even their windshield wiper seemed relaxed in the offhandedness of its gesture and the two reached up all smiles and lowered their sun-shades as an errant beam levered under the lowered lid of the late-afternoon rainmass with gospel brilliance. The beam illuminated them grinsquinting at eyelevel, goop-haired and adam-appled, a hit show, monster ratings from 1957 broadcast straight into the traffic beside him.

He pictured the mom, coiffed and trim in her gown in a pensive pose smoking in the living room window, the young trees in a line in the front yard doing the Watusi and all the televisions off, the radios off, the wall clocks off, the power dead and the Frigidaire silent in the tabernacle of the kitchen. She’s awed by the roiled heavens and so moved by the glory of God’s vast hand as it shapes the wind and the waters and green leaves plucked living from the trees that she forgets to worry about her own boys on the road at the mercy of it, the mystery of life and her place in it. And the man out there, the survivalist, the comedy writer, the agnostic visionary out there in her Christian storm, a half-Jewish Noah saving the world one shaky ego at a time.

*

Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!

Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.

Lola Beedo:  (beat) The perfect outfit for a decapitation!

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.

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

She walks against the wind like it’s some kind of trick staircase in headlong lilts like Arabic script towards the filthy Post Office. Everything is filthy: phone booths, convenience stores, sidewalks. Everything. Everything stinks of singed garbage and the revealed interior of the body. This is what they mean by that beautiful euphemism urban blight. She would chuckle but she does all her laughing on the inside these days for she has recognized the wisdom of not transmitting, of no longer being a sender. Instead she is a receiver. A perfect receiver of threat’s end-of-the-dial broadcast, out there where the satellites sing. Her peripheral vision is so sharp she can read the commercials on the sides of the buses as they heave by without even lifting her disgusted gaze from the filthy sidewalk. Gobs of spit like dissolving emeralds. A mound of hominid shit in a doorway.

It’s a long trudge against a devil wind during which she reflects on the twists and turns of her long life while also remaining vigilant to the obvious. That murder of little Negresses skipping rope at the corner. That bandanna’d kid with the splintered pool cue. Where do these demons come from and why do they never leave? Trying to out-last them has been a futile project. She’s seen these same kids hanging around this block for thirty five years now and if you get close enough she bets the rope-skippers are wizened and wrinkled and smell of camphor, a notion that shivers in her shoes. You touch a face and the cheek crumbles off on your fingers. She used to buy peanut brittle in pound-sized buckets from a shop that used to be where that pimp is standing, talking into his hand and getting answers. She forgets what she’s carrying: is this a manuscript for her dead agent Cy?

She had waist-long hair kept braided and stuffed under a Chicago White Sox baseball cap for years due to vivid premonitions of being scalped but now she’s wearing an auburn wig and if any scalpers come she’ll just toss the wig at them as a diversionary tactic. This is the auburn wig that belonged to Lillian Hellman when the name Lillian Hellman meant something. In other words: take heed. Her deep-pocketed house coat is laden with teak-handled steak knives from a set someone gave her on some holiday nobody celebrates anymore which she absentmindedly slips into one or the other pocket whenever she dons her scowl like a white visor and steps outside on these unavoidable errands in the too-bright realm of incipient harm. She is bent and a-clatter with cutlery. She is lugging a parcel. Secondhand books for her son who is incarcerated in a foreign prison. Extremely imaginative fiction is his only hope.

She turns left on Woodlawn Ave and she figures she’s about a twenty-minute walk from the old Stagg Field where that Henry Moore blob commemorates something about something that used to make her worried about walking near the spot on the way to her lectures and Georgie of course would run right towards it and the more she yelled get away from that thing the faster he’d run. And now, of course, he’s incarcerated.

More and more often she finds herself thinking in a forgetful fury of all those martyrs to emptiness, the women who died for the sake of nothing better than some man’s shitty orgasm. Three in her family alone: her big sister Eda who perished in a blind fever of complications from an illegal abortion she slipped off to with the very first night of the Ed Sullivan show as her cover… then the adopted daughter of one of her brother’s exes who was strangled and raped in that order. And Carole, of course. The Pill. The cancer. Oh Carole, Carole, Carole, Carole.

A young man with his narrow back to her, waiting for the light, twists for a wary glimpse as she approaches the curb intoning her daughter’s name. There’s a broken brown leaf like an Indian-head nickle stuck in his modest irregular Afro and he is a lovely chiffon yellow like the young Smokey Robinson. In his dirty pink shirt and dress pants.

“I just finished reading Senelitá this morning,” he says, improbably enough, his softly puzzled face turning away from her. He scans for a gap in the cars coming.

“Svevo?” she responds cautiously, patting her coat pocket; rattling her knives.

He scratches an elbow but doesn’t turn again to face her, so intent is he in divining the traffic. She has to strain to hear when he says, “It was a bitch. A real disappointment. Not an inch of room in the whole book for yours truly the reader to decide what he is thinking about what Svevo is trying to say.”

“Listen,” she responds, with a shoo-fly gesture, “Don’t forget when he wrote it. Silent films were a dream of the future. Narrative technology…” But she catches herself. From the look of sharp disbelief the yellow black man turns on her before dashing across the street through a sudden gap in traffic she comes to realise that his half of this exchange never happened.

She had been about to say something regarding that famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where a monkey tosses a tapir’s leg-bone into the sky and it match-cuts to a Pan Am space shuttle. She is less overwhelmed by embarrassment at making a fool of herself than crushed by disappointment that she won’t be finishing the conversation.

But then she thinks: why not?

2

“It was like listening to a fucking mugging.”

“Jesus.”

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

“Jesus.”

“Jesus is right. Tell me about it. I timed it. Have you ever had a six minute coughing fit? Two minutes seems long. Poor thing. But that’s not even the worst.”

They were driving along on a brilliant day at a leisurely pace behind a sleek modern hornet-yellow streetcar. In the back window of the streetcar sat a pretty young girl in a pink top showing some profile. Mr. Rand found lapsing into a faint approximation of Mr. Bacon’s laddish speech irresistible.

“Only a Berliner would do that,” said Hakim Bacon. “Sorry to interrupt you. About your mother and all. But only a Berliner would do that.”

“I mean,” said Hakim, putting the Mini in gear again with a grunt of disgust as the Strasssenbahn in front of them disgorged itself of a paltry two passengers and juddered forward, “How long we been following this thing? Six? Seven? Blocks? And her there posing. Like Queen Regina on a fucking stamp.”

“Normal thing would be A, turn your back and forget about us or B, fuck it and wave or something. Make contact.”

“Oh fuck yes. Girl from Bristol? She’d’ve hopped off and importuned us for a ride by now. I was reading something recently.”

“Yeah?”

“Guess how many American tourists are struck by cars in the UK annually due to left-right flow of traffic confusion. On average. Guess.” Without waiting for Mr. Rand to guess, Hakim Bacon said, “Fifteen fucking hundred.”

“Surprising.”

“Well, it’s all kept very hush hush, innit? Fucking Tourist Board. That’s what I’d call a right conspiracy, mate. And that’s the fucking Tourist Board. Not exactly bloody Casa Nostra. I mean.”

“If the British Tourist Board is capable…”

“Exactly. Shudder to think what fucking Coca Cola gets up to when the moon is full. At the end of the day…”

“Or Microsoft.”

“Or Microsoft. Or the bleeding Pope. Look at her.” Hakim took his left hand off of the steering wheel and waved it facetiously from his window, wriggling his fingers. His flapping hand was huge on the toggle of his bony wrist and too big for the sleeve of his retro-futurist Nehru.

“Ten quid says she don’t react. Just you watch. Fucking chronic. What’s the worst?”

“The worst?”

“Your mother. If her coughing fits… if they aren’t…”

“Oh. Yeah. No, the coughing fits… if only they were the worst. Two weeks ago…”

Mr. Rand broke off and calculated. Was this something he wanted to share? He’d known Hakim for years but he was just the guy you went to if you needed a fake passport, expensive stereo equipment, or a child bride from Russia. Yes and for the assassin’s drug of choice, as Hakim put it. You went to Hakim Bacon of Bristol.

Hakim was half-German and half-Pakistani but spoke with an accent so cynically-musical that he inspired infinite confidence in his capacity to fix pathetic problems for a fee. He’d seen and done and brokered everything. He was bony and tall and dressed in the manner of a DJ who always wore those sunglasses like a tiara, those big red sunglasses on Hakim Bacon’s sleek black bangs with royal pomp. Did Mr. Rand want to open up to Hakim? This wasn’t some hilarious third-party narrative about sexual humiliation he was dying to tell. This was Mr. Rand’s mother they were talking about. A story about terrible nakedness. A story about second-infancy’s sanity-free slapstick and dread. She used to be a writer.

“Two weeks ago,” prompted Hakim.

“I call her. The phone rings and rings. It’s about 9 o’clock her time so I know she can’t be out. She has to be home, glued in front of that television…”

“Loudly agreeing with some big-haired video-fascist who she thinks of as her only friend.”

“Yeah. The phone keeps ringing and I’m getting worried. Finally, she answers, sounding. I don’t know. Strangely… detached? I go, Ma. What are you up to? She goes: I had an episode. I go: an episode? What sort of episode? She goes: you know, an episode. At this point she’s whispering into the phone, because she doesn’t want the neighbors to hear. It took me quite a while to get the story out of her.”

Mr. Rand cleared his throat. “Basically, she somehow just rolled off her bed, naked and ended up pinned between her bed and the wall. She was lying there that way all morning, all afternoon, well into the night. When I called, she managed to pull the phone by its cord off the nightstand to answer it.”

Hakim was frowning with distant concentration as he parked the car in front of SPACE BAR, which was a student café by day and a spiritual battleground for second-tier models by night.

“Blimey.”

“Blimey is right. Lock it?”

“Nah.”

They threaded their way between the tables laid out like the monotone squares of a madman’s chess board in front of the café and found a free spot beside three plaster-dusted workmen, each wearing a dusty blue bandanna as a hat and a pair of opaque white goggles like a necklace, staring at the street with dormant menace, protecting tall glasses of beer. Glancing at a menu and handing it to Mr. Rand, Hakim lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out.

“How’s your thing coming? With, uh. You know. The bird with the….” He made a facial expression with bulging eyes to convey the concept of large breasts.

“Hannah?” Mr. Rand stuck the pointer finger of his right hand across his upper lip in simulation of a mustache. Simultaneously, but very subtly, he lifted the palm of his left hand upright.

Hakim laughed. “Right.”

After they had ordered, but before the table was cluttered with food, Hakim spread a map out on it.

“As you can see,” he said, squinting contemplatively, “This is a map of Germany, the bit which is extremely near to the Polish border, and, lo, here’s a bit of Poland, too.”

He tapped the upper right corner of the tattered old map. “What we’re talking about here is basically a part of the world that the Silesians who dwell there like to refer to as Silesia. Silly old them. Used to be German, not really Polish now and land there is fucking cheap. Which is where you come in with your grand American scheme, if I’m not mistaken.”

Hakim tapped Mr. Rand’s shoulder and Mr. Rand thought how pure whites never do that. “Bloke named Wenceslas Wenceslasovitch or whatever…right out of central casting… big red hands like raw hams… massive geezer with a yellow mustache… wants to sell his portion of a parcel of land that is well nigh fifty hectares, mate.”

Hakim paused for dramatic effect and looked Mr. Rand in the eye. “Have you any idea how fucking big a hectare is? Really, have you? I doubt it. I hadn’t a clue myself, to be honest, till I checked up on it.” He paused again. “One hectare. Ten thousand square meters. Ten bloody thousand. That’s one hundred acres. To give you an idea: your average suburban plot of land is half an acre or one acre tops. Our friend Wenceslas owns 14 hectares of this fifty-hectare plot and he wants to liquidate his bit, he wants to be rid of it, for a very reasonable price… you’ll laugh when you hear it. You’ll die laughing when you hear what he wants for his 14 hectares, I guarantee it… joke of the year… and that includes three farm houses and a barn and a fucking well without a dead cat down it.”

Hakim lit another cigarette and sat back and took a long drag on it, acknowledging with a satirical nod the cement-cold stare of one of the dust-covered workers who happened to find himself in the path of Hakim’s second-hand smoke. Under his breath Hakim said, “Put on your gas mask and lovely goggles if the smoke troubles you, darling,” and then, louder, to Mr. Rand, “There’s only one drawback, as I see it.”

Languidly his head went back as his mouth opened and out came what appeared to be a quivering x-ray of his skull. “The other thirty five hectares of the property in question is owned by Wenceslas’s dear old mum and she’s firmly against having the land sold off in bits. There’s a bright side, though… and I wouldn’t be mentioning all this if there weren’t.” He stubbed out the just-started cigarette, winking at the dust-covered worker and his two chums, who hadn’t uttered a word or moved very much at all since Mr. Rand’s last nervous appraisal.

“Right,” said Hakim. “The bright side. Mother is at death’s door, innit? Cancer of the heart or something. She’s like 99, this bird is, 99 on stilts and the wind is kicking up. She falls dead, Wenceslas can do what he wants with the property. You give him fifty thousand in one cash payment, you give me seven thousand for my time and expertise, you pay certain fees and sign certain documents with the Polish government, and you’re suddenly the lord of all you survey. Hear it’s real nice in the fall. No neighbors to speak of. Wolves. Folk tales. Nice. Whatcha think, then? I get 33% of my fee up front before you contact the seller, of course. Refundable within thirty days if the deal breaks down. Which I can’t see happening, frankly.”

“So now we’re just waiting…”

“For a poor old lady…”

“Right.”

Hakim winked and lit another cigarette and studied passersby on the street a good long time. A smile unfurled on his face. “Not that you have to.”

“Excuse me?”

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

Mr. Rand felt the future open up under him.

3

Q: Now that you’re dying… we are, literally, between the first and second blow being delivered to your skull by the intruder’s blunt object (probably a watchman’s flashlight)… we wonder if you’d mind answering a few questions about life as you lived it?

A: Not at all.

Q: This photo. Who is it?

A: My sister and me. Surprising, isn’t it? We look like fashion models there, all dressed up, posing in front of a fountain. I don’t remember where the fountain was but you can see tourists milling around in the background so I’m assuming a world capitol. Maybe Paris. Our first trip to Europe.

Q: You are how old in this photo?

A: I’m afraid I can’t give you a precise answer but I’d say twenty, twenty one. Maybe twenty two. I think it must have been the early 1950s. The haircuts and the fashions have both come back, haven’t they? Everything always comes back but the people. Jean said that once and I thought it was sad and funny. I thought she was sad and funny. My little sister Jean.

Q: Can you remember for us what your interests were at the time of this photo?

A: The interests of any young woman of a certain class during the era. One had the feeling that things had loosened up after the war…there were cracks in the facade we thought we might squeeze through. People think of the 1950s as a particularly repressed era in American life for some reason but never in the history of the planet had so many non-aristocratic people been so well-educated and so ready to use this knowledge to make the world a better place. All of the seeds of the so-called counter-culture of the 1960s were planted during the 1950s and we thought it was a terribly exciting time. I even toyed with the idea of becoming an Abstract Expressionist painter. But maybe that was later.

Q: You say you toyed with the idea. Nothing came of it?

A: I’d like to say that I realized soon enough that I had no talent and so gave it up in a gesture of frank self-awareness, but it was worse than that. I think I realized that talent had very little to do with how far one might go with it, so to speak. I’m a very quick study in some cases and I made my observations and came to my conclusions. Art is just another facade we flatter ourselves with. The race, I mean. The human race. We flatter ourselves that we aren’t just herd animals with a pecking order, concerned mostly with power, food and, you know, reproduction.

Q: You were clear-eyed at a young age.

A: Well, not to seem too full of myself, but any so-called attractive young girl with enough of a brain in her skull picks up massive amounts of this information…call it the animal verities or the herd report…she picks it up at a very young age. The attention that’s paid and the nature of the attention and the kind of things one is punished for and the nature of the punishment. You learn it all in puberty. The lesson never really gets any more complex as you grow older and even more so-called attractive…it simply repeats itself until you finally really genuinely in all sincerity get it, like that Kafka story with the machine carving a sentence over and over again in the prisoner’s flesh. You get that aha moment.

Q: When did you first leave America for a substantial amount of time?

A: If by substantial you mean more than a few months I’d say in 1968. I was a grown woman, no children, money from a divorce settlement in the bank and nothing to keep me. There was a darkness in America…maybe the darkness was mostly in Philadelphia…but anyway I decided to sell my things and throw a party and just be done with it. But that was only my first escape. I came back with my tail between my legs two years later, having attempted to live as a single white woman in Morocco. Morocco was the destination of choice in 1968 for a certain crowd but for me it was a disaster.

Q: Cultural differences?

A: Yes, but not between myself and the so-called natives…between me and the expats. A more horrible group of people you can’t imagine. It was truly as though North America and pretty much all of Western Europe had systematically rounded up all the lotus-eating dilettantes and nouveau-riche snobs with a passion for throw-pillows and deported them to Morocco. It took me about a year to get myself permanently un-invited from every dinner party thrown there. Not that I minded. I very much enjoyed being alone.

Q: No problems at all with the indigenous culture? No incidents?

A: Well, if you call a near-rape an incident, yes. Once. It was very late and I was being foolish, singing to myself quite loudly. A man had me by the neck suddenly and I found myself in a sort of courtyard lit only by the moon. He had a knife that was not very big but it looked very sharp, glinting in the moon light and he kind of pantomimed that if I made the slightest sound he’d cut my throat. It’s very funny what happened. When he opened his robe and revealed his, you know…his erection, I suppose it’s okay to say…rather than struggle or look horrified I reached up and sort of gently…well, this is slightly embarrassing but there you have it. I stroked him there like a lover. And he was absolutely so revolted by the gesture that he shrank back from my touch and fled as though I were a witch. Not before spitting copiously on me, of course. But I had saved myself with my knowledge of human psychology and I was very proud of the fact and I even wrote home about it. I seem to remember trying to turn it into a poem or a short story but nothing came of it.

Q: When did you leave America permanently?

A: Lots of my friends and acquaintances claimed that they’d leave the country if Reagan won the election but I was the only one who made good on the threat.

Q: But you didn’t move straight away to Poland.

A: Oh no. There was a kind of a long filtration process at work. First I tried London. But I found soon enough that I longed for a certain quality that life in Morocco had had. That sense of perfect solitude one only achieves when surrounded by people speaking a language one is blissfully ignorant of. Even being literally alone, out in the woods or on a mountaintop, can’t match it.

Q: So you you tried Germany.

A: Yes, next came Germany. This is like the story of Goldilocks, isn’t it? But the Germans were too cold. And it was, what, only about forty years after the end of the war and there was just too much baggage. It was an extremely neurotic culture. Seven days a week and twenty four hours a day of over-reactions. You’d chide someone for cutting in front of you in a queue at the post office and he’d react as though you’d accused him of gassing Jews.Then, I met my future husband, and I suppose my head was turned by the fact that he owned and ran art galleries, and he was technically a count, a Polish count, this dashing blonde with a name it took five whole seconds to say in its entirety. I actually timed him saying it once. And he didn’t seem to mind that I was no longer, shall we say, thirty. Or even forty. Though I’ve managed to keep the same figure I had at twenty, which is one of the few advantages of being flat-chested.

Q: And you were happy?

A: Well, I didn’t expect to end up in a farm house in the middle of nowhere on the border between Germany and Poland on a plot of land too big for me to walk across in an afternoon, no. And I never dreamed that one day I’d become the stepmother to a forty year old drunk who likes to sun himself in his birthday suit even in the middle of winter…that’s a “no” too. But he’s a sweet-natured boy. I’m sure he’ll be devastated when he discovers my body.

Q: Thanks very much for your time.

A: You’re very welcome.

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.

Red Beard [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

 

IMG0351A

 

Ginger Green stuck his thumb in the boiling water and counted very slowly to three, making sheepish contact with himself in the bathroom mirror by accident as he ran cold water over the blister after. He wanted sushi. He climbed into the Porsche the most empty-headed song in his catalogue had paid for and he tried to stay off the streets the hookers patrolled.

Because what if.

Long ago. Before Europop or Miriam or his ex-wife or even Europe itself and all his grownup ups and downs. Back into the clearer sounds and warmer colors of another age there had been Father Pat with his monkish beard the color of strawberry Kool Aid. The dayglo beard and the turtle-neck sweaters and Jesus sandals slapping the concourse on hot mornings.

One day they were long-legging it across campus with Ginger scuttling hard to keep up. Pat would’ve called Miriam a succubus. If he used that word for the homely girl who worked in the cafeteria he’d definitely have used it for Miriam, Miriam who was practically the clinical definition of the word . Miriam who had recently expanded operations to the province of Ginger’s dreams. Ginger had a blister to show for it.

“I’ve got your number, Green,” Pat said. Father Pat was one of two foreigners on campus, the other being Gupta the math instructor. “You stopped believing in God approximately ten minutes after learning there was no such thing as Santa Claus, didn’t you? Worked it out for yourself and quite proud, no mistaking. Why are you here with us, then? Off the record. To what end?”

“My parents sent me, sir.”

“You’ll suffer for that honesty,” answered Pat, though it was clear he was pleased. “Gifted with all the qualities but one. Quite the irony, wouldn’t you say?”

“If you say so sir.”

“I’ll let you in on a secret when you’re old enough, Green,” said the priest while shouldering the cafeteria door. “Ring me up once you’ve started shaving and I’ll let you in on it. In you go. Promise?”

“Promise, sir.”

Probably dead by now, thought Ginger, sucking the tip of his thumb. Steering with his knees. He still wonders what Pat’s secret might’ve been. He clearly hadn’t been Queer, unlike so many others among the faculty of that shaper of men, though there’d certainly been ample opportunity to act. Ginger worried the penitent blister with his tongue. Der Weg ist das Ziel. It was Father Pat’s German Ginger was regurgitating all these years later as a businessman in Berlin but it was Father Pat’s delicate sneer he felt his face deform to while doing things like doing his best to forget about Miriam X.

What Pat had failed to perceive was Ginger’s thing for money. Ginger saw the BP station at Bismarckstrasse come to him straight out of the dream and he winced and accelerated and within minutes he was parking in front of the sushi bar on Kant Strasse called Kuchi. The owners of Kuchi knew very well what a ‘kootchie’ was and that Immanuel Kant rhymes with ‘bunt’.

Sing, Miriam.

She looked Celtic, Irish, not genealogically German at all. Pale as a coma. Maybe if he’d fucked her he’d be free of her by now. It all started with a phone call. Why oh why did he answer that phone? The ringing jerked him swearing out of an intimate act as the ghost of his ex-wife wiped her chin. She vanished as he knocked a bottle over reaching for the phone.

“Yes.”

“I have heard that you are the man who is looking for a singer?”

“Excuse me?”

“What you are needing is a girl who would like to sing?”

He turned off the lights and crossed to the big window at the front of his flat. The flat was a store-front, a common architectural feature in Berlin, little shops built in the fronts of the massive old flat blocks. He peered through the blinds of the floor-to-ceiling window onto the midnight-empty street and at the playground across it. The jungle-gym, the sandpit, the see-saw and the swings.

“Who gave you my number?”

No response.

“I’m sorry, I’m not looking for a singer right now.”

Gone.

The next morning came hard in cold sunlight. Ginger was crossing a bridge over the canal near Potsdamer Platz which was nothing but the muddy crater of the navel of the geographic center of Berlin back then,  impossible to imagine that this vast mess of trucks and pipes and cranes and girders would ever be anything but a deafening playground for hard-hats. The phone in his pocket rang.

“You are knowing a man who is needing a young girl who can sing?”

“Who is this?”

There was a long pause that made Ginger afraid she’d hang up again so he said, “It depends. Do you have a demo or something? Are you gigging with a band I can catch you in?”

“No.”

Silence.

“Even a very rough recording. A cassette.”

“No.”

Another long pause and then, “We can meet us and I will sing for you?”

“U-Bahnhof Wittenbergplatz, tomorrow, kurz nach fünfzehn uhr. In front of the tabak kiosk. But how will I recognize you?”

“I must recognize you,” she said, in her tremulous voice and hung up.

At 3pm the next day, standing at a spot in a corner of the Wittenbergplatz U-Bahn station where he could observe the designated meeting place without himself being observed, Ginger was full of exhilarated dread, like a vintage astronaut in a leather helmet, squinting at the windsock through the porthole. He’d been separated from his ex-wife for exactly a year and ten minutes when he saw, waiting in front of the tabak kiosk in the middle of the station, at five minutes after 3pm, a nervy slender girl with shoulder-length blonde hair in a soft pink running suit, looking surprisingly (embarrassingly) like a school girl, pacing and chewing gum with manic fervor in an unwittingly wicked satire of his own hysteria. Not as beautiful as he expected but much younger. He thought:  No. He was turning to leave when someone nearby spoke up.

“You are Ginger?”

Ginger who attended a boarding school for intellectually gifted boys who might otherwise be juvenile delinquents on a hardship scholarship he was still doing his best to live down?

Yes.

She smiled weakly and reached to shake his hand and she seemed to him frail and gauzy as an immigrant’s ghost with ringlets of cherry-red hair and a waist he could circumnavigate with one hand, he thought, and flesh the color of blood smeared thin on porcelain.  Her forehead came no higher than his chest and the crown of her head smelled strong of pillowed scalp and her silk blouse was a size too small for her breasts, which strained like the blind in their cups. Over all that her black denim jacket was buttoned askew, the last button mated to the next-to-the-last hole, calling even more attention to the inadequacy of the clothing to contain her. She thanked him for showing up, speaking so softly that he had to lean down to hear it. The priest collecting her shy confession. He imagined her confessing that she’d been designed by the devil to fuck him up. Had his ex-wife sent her for revenge?

He wondered about the etymology of the word audition.

That first time she came to his place and stood in his living room to sing without preamble, denim jacket unbuttoned, blouse unbuttoned to a low strategic point, lacy red brassiere flashing, eyes shut, mouth open…

…the sound that came out was so pathetic, so hopeless and small and lacking in confidence yet defiantly clinging to life and tenacious with conviction, clinging to the air itself, it was just awful. Ginger can’t remember the song she chose to traduce for him as an audition that day but he remembers thinking that there was something, nevertheless, in there, some spark or sliver or flicker of some kind of talent or human potential worth salvaging or was it merely that he was already obsessed? Was it merely that he desperately wanted to fuck her and kill himself after? But, yes…no…there was something under all that bad singing. Something as moving as the thing under the silk blanket of Billie Holliday’s voice the first time she ever sang Strange Fruit in public. Something in this girl so crushed and buried and horrifically still vital.

He listened to her with as neutral a face as he could possibly manage, hands in his pockets, glancing out the window at the playground. Kids fighting on it. When she finished and looked at him with tremulous expectation he leaned against the wall, hands still in his pockets, and, marshalling the technique of encouraging bullshit he’d developed after years in the music business in a country where almost no one could sing he said, “You need a little polish. But it’s very good.”

“A little polish?”

“I like… the sound of your voice but you need… some technical skill. Breath control, etc.”

“Oh.”

“But I…” he looked at his feet and folded his arms. “I can help you. I can…”

“You will?”

“I’ll give you voice lessons. I’d suggest twice a week. I believe in your…talent.”

She crossed the room and put her head on his chest. He knew the move that was required of him in order to establish the nature (the give and take) of their working relationship and she seemed poised to accept it but. Stick his tongue so far down her throat he’d taste the stains on her panties but he couldn’t. He couldn’t for whatever reason bring himself to execute the move, despite the fact that those ballooning tits of hers seemed to be crying out to be handled. Those fragrant fucking fresh-baked loaves and here he is starving. But something, either a voice from behind or within or Father Pat’s shade or a faint transmission he picked up from her own smashed soul said don’t.

“Next Thursday we start your lessons. Every Thursday and every Sunday from three to four. Give me a year. In a year I can make you a singer.”

Even as he was saying it he knew how ridiculous it sounded. She’s not even paying me! I don’t even know her!

A year!

That Thursday, the day of the first lesson, the temperature dropped unseasonably and there were gray blown scurries of snow like shaved twilight on the streets and she came wearing a camel hair coat and a cranberry scarf and her runny nos. She stood in the middle of his living room and refused to remove either the coat or the scarf and seemed entirely unaware of the fact that a pale ingot of snot rested on the soft maxilla-protruded incline of the rosy flesh over her lip for the duration. What could Ginger do? Mentioning it could be a fatal embarrassment to her and ruin what little self-confidence she carried so he spent an hour trying not to stare at the snot. And plus it was not cold in his living room and yet she stood there trying a warm-up scale in that coat and with that scarf still knotted around her neck. Ginger asked may I take your coat and she shook her head. Ginger asked if he should turn the heat up and she said no, she was fine. For the longest time he stared at her with a professional smile, stymied.

“Every time you make a sound in here,” said Ginger, gesturing at the bare walls, “I want you to pretend that you’re singing in front of a packed concert hall. You’re singing in front of three thousand people. Okay? Do you understand what I mean? I mean that you must mean it every single time you open your mouth. Even when you’re simply talking. People who make casual noises aren’t good singers. Don’t make garbage noises that any old monkey could make. Make all your sounds become valuable. Make it so people want to pay you to make your interesting noises. Even if you never go pro I want you to learn to think that way.”

But do I say nothing about the coat and scarf?

“But I feel something must come out but it don’t wants to.”

“We need you to get in touch with your pain.”

Father Pat says the twists and turns of a profligate life all occur on a path as straight as a watchmaker’s measure.

“Pain?” she asked.

“Yes. Your pain. Whatever…” he took a deep breath. “Whatever is keeping you from singing, holding you back, we can turn that around and it can help you to sing and it’s all about your pain. Before we can unlock the potential energy of your pain, we have to get in touch with it. We have to know where it is before we can use it.”

Miriam stood very still with her back to him in a fluffy white angora sweater and tight leather pants the full ensemble effect of which was an exquisite torment.

For every hour Ginger and Miriam spent together on those Thursday and Sunday afternoons their uncategorized feelings seemed to grow. They established a romantic tradition. The tradition started at the end of the second lesson when Ginger just happened to have a bar of half-eaten chocolate with almonds in it on the kitchen table in its beautiful gold foil and offered it to Miriam when the hour was up.

Yes I love chocolate, she said and so every time after that he made sure to have a bar or two ready. He caught himself putting too much time and energy into it. He bought a bar from a confectionery on Friedrichstrasse, near the Lafayette, half a kilogram, a very expensive joke bar for American tourists, just about the size of carry-on luggage and she turned and smiled at him after the lesson, searching the room.

“Do you have something for me?”

He was delighted to produce it from a hiding place behind a big cushion on the couch. She squealed and clapped her hands and bit a tiny corner off it and went about the business of chewing. Not in great haste but lingeringly, with a heart-breakingly introspective expression which made Ginger’s feelings swell and spill over. At moments like this his heart went out to her, blotting out even the animal longing for sex. She licked her syruped lips and fetched her purse and re-wrapped the well-made bar like an heirloom and said, “And so we are finished today?”

“We are finished today.” He clicked his heels and bowed.

“Good.” She snapped the purse shut. “I must meet my boyfriend outside.”

“Ah. Your boyfriend.”

“He is waiting in his car. Every time we sing, he waits… I told him it is not his role to bother us. Today I promise him we meet his friends. So we go in a stupid club later.” She laughed. “But really, I am so tired! I only want to sleep.”

“Just tell him you can’t go, then.”

She smiled sadly and shook her head. Now Ginger was the child. She crossed the room and hugged him a very long time, her heartbeat tapping his gut through the camel hair coat as he looked down at the white lane of scalp and its fine white tributaries under a weft of red roots and the sweet attendant odor, that lover-odor of pillowed scalp, he breathed it in, holding her. Her boyfriend. But Ginger had hidden his crushing disappointment well. Of course she avoided mentioning the boyfriend before now. And yet. That lingering hug, that look she gave me when she left, where does she go when she leaves? I have no idea and no way to reach her.

After she was gone he saw she’d left her scarf and he masturbated on it, forced a some warm silver in the wool. To punish himself Ginger stood in an ice-cold shower he had to force himself to stay with until an ethical corpse-numbness took him over and he felt like Pat must feel, better than any temptation, safe in his box.

But what am I looking for when I look in a woman’s face?

Because men are always looking at women’s faces. Looking from one face to the next because they’ve lost something and maybe this one has it. On the U-Bahn Ginger looked at each woman or girl stepping on, dressed for winter, at some stops the whole species seeming to pour in with their shopping bags and bright chatter of friends and the primeval joy of purchases. When he looked at the pretty ones he felt something that he couldn’t feel when he looked at the others.

“Senor Verde,” calls Father Patrick, from the door of his office, wearing the thin grin about which Ginger has learned to be wary. He’s clutching a rolled up Arte Fact magazine and directs Ginger to have a seat in the leather chair , musty and comfortable as an old giant African hand, in front of his desk. He unrolls the magazine and with his gnawed finger pokes a two-page spread of Fra Angelico’s 15th century The Deposition. A crucified Christ (with a puncture wound resembling a bullet hole) is lowered from his cross by five male figures (two of which are haloed-John the Baptist? Joseph the Beard?) choreographed in an X-like configuration while a vulpine, flame-haired Magdalene prostrates herself to the holy corpse.

“What do you think of this? Be frank.”

“It looks like she’s sucking his toes, sir.”

This is my punishment for going into show business instead of becoming a priest.

The next lesson Miriam didn’t sound any better than she had during all the lessons before but at least she wasn’t wearing her coat or scarf while singing and she actually laughed a few times when Ginger did his joke conductor imitation to whip some vivacity into her performance. That was progress. She wasn’t even nearly approaching the moment when Ginger would feel she was beginning to sound like a singer but she was approaching the moment when he felt he’d be able to start teaching her. Right now he was simply teaching her how to be taught.

How long? How long was this going to take?

After that session he switched off the lights and peered out the window and watched as she slipped into a sleek black hearse of a car.

How he thought he might get in touch with her pain was to have her singing a seemingly nonsense phrase he’d written with a simple three note melody… almost a Gregorian Chant… to the words I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to… an idea he got based on the resistance he sensed in her posture and in the strained, weak, choked-off sound of her voice. He had her modulating that one phrase up one tone at a time a whole octave. And then back down the octave with a second phrase: please, please, please. That was the warm-up. Thinking this might loosen something in her. Maybe it was just amateur psychiatry. But after the warm-ups, then he would let her tackle whatever popular song she might choose if it wasn’t absurdly ambitious (R&B was off limits). Always starting and ending with I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to…please, please, please…

And this rudimentary psychology on Ginger’s part seemed to be having some kind of effect because two things began to happen. First, she sometimes refused to sing the please please please, which Ginger found significant, and, second, she began making mysterious allusions to something she wanted to “tell to him” about. Some secret she thought he needed to know. The first time she referred to this secret he didn’t realize what he was hearing and he reacted flippantly.

He didn’t think: aha.

“Something you should tell me? What? You’re not the Queen of England?” but she smiled like a sad little Sphinx and that’s when he realized that a mystery he hadn’t even been consciously aware of needing to solve had unfolded just one little torn petal for him.

He never broke his code of courtly behavior while teaching her, not even when she teased him. Not even when she made shy double-entendres, which she did often, or gave him those enticingly hugs. The word ‘maudlin’ derives from Magdalene. During the period reserved for eating her chocolate after every lesson she talked more and more about private things. About the parents who’d disowned her at puberty and the little sister with a drug problem, the incest with cousins and run-ins with ghosts and the crime blotter of boyfriends and relevant litanies of physical intimidation and emotional waste. All of this information delivered with a neutral smile and pencilled-in eyebrows raised to a working class altitude of fatal acceptance. She also mentioned along the way that she was sterile due to some venereal tragedy that had left her permanently ruined “Down there” and about which she was still seeing doctors. And it all had to do with her secret.

Eleven years after finally breaking all contact with Miriam, Ginger has this dream:

A long white van eases to a heavy stop at a British Petroleum station. He knows it’s BP because of the green and yellow. A panel door slides open and the van disgorges a small phalanx of the biggest, most square-jawed skinheads Ginger has ever seen, hopping backwards out of it like precision sky-divers. The light bulb skulls, stovepipe jeans, bomber jackets and high-laced steel-toed boots. The works. A half dozen of them are stretching (knuckles and spines cracking like distant sniper fire) out on the tarmac and then another half dozen creatures emerge.

They look like fiercely blue-eyed nuns. But too young for nuns with their teenage eyes, lashes and eyebrows so fair they’re invisible. Ginger knows there are piles and piles of wild blonde hair under all that satin as everything but the eyes is swaddled in voluminous white burka and the eyes blink and flare like cold electronics under the mercury arc lamps, nervous teenage eyes, teenage Euro-eyes in chador. Ginger sees it, a blue insignia in the shadowed upper right corner of the van, a crescent moon the tips of which are closing like delicate fangs on a swastika. Cloth-covered females go off in twos, heads bowed, to the gas station’s WC, around the far side of the building, while the men enter the store in an orderly fashion. One of the females is standing nearer the taxi.  Ginger sees he is in a taxi. One of the females has noticed him and the ghost comes nearer the taxi window and with a deft flick of an arm from under the burka exposes her face.

My love.

He jogs around the left side of the station, across the bright wet tarmac and behind a ziggurat of oil drums and into the blind rain, slipping on the gravel beyond the tarmac’s edge, sliding on mud beyond the gravel, steadying himself against the cold dark wall of the building. The tarmac, the gravel;, the mud and even the wall, they feel so real. So convincing. Each icy syllable of rain striking his face in a complex sequence is designed with such care and precision that he can’t help feeling an immense admiration for the craftsmanship. The instant she revealed her face from under the veil, of course, he knew it was a dream and he moved quickly to seize the opportunity. At the very back of the building he finds the WC door. He eases the door open and lets himself in.

He looks at his hands and wiggles his fingers. They look like a perfectly ordinary version of his fingers.

Just as he knew it would, the WC door opens and in steps Miriam in her burka, ultraviolet eyes darting, cloth billowing,  she closes and locks the door behind her and removes her veil with cinematic intensity and pushes back the cowl to expose her shivering red ringlets, that blood cloud of hair he had always wanted to clutch, Ginger stands at one end of the WC and Miriam at the other.

She squirms out of the burka, steps naked towards him… steps naked in her terrible skeletal state… her skin twang-tight from bone contour to bone contour and translucent as a jellyfish… breasts are melted lenses magnifying the fossil spider of her ribcage… and… in the harsh light Ginger can make out the slopped coil of her intestines… the rubber red wings of the lungs… the twin-fetus kidneys… the scrape-and-bruise-tinted sacks of stomach, liver, spleen, it looks like a shimmering 3-D body tattoo, an inverted illusion, her organs shift and shimmer with parallax as he moves around her to see. Her bush floats like ruddy kelp over the neck of the submerged amphora of her womb. Ginger sees her wincing heart in its Christ-struggle, jerking up and falling slack in its crucified agon and he will scream.

She is the most horribly beautiful thing.

He produces from under the black wing of a cape he seems to be wearing a compact little pistol. He gestures with the pistol that Miriam should cross the tiled floor and bend over the bathroom sink. Ginger then uses the toe of his boot to kick Miriam’s feet so far apart that her thighs tremble, her bubble-gum-colored anus puckers and she voids her bowels with fear. The shit pushes out in black chunks like horse manure and splatters in a lopsided pile at the midpoint between her far-spread feet. The odor is astounding and green-hot, he is holding his breath as he crouches behind her and with his vivid thumb presses himself into the ghastly tight translucence of her body. He goes in, comes out with a wet pop, and plunges in again, deeper. A spray of blood diffuses on every impact, speckling the floor and the near wall and a corner of the mirror with thicker and thicker ooze.

Ginger wakes with all the evidence of a wet dream on his belly but also in tears. A wet dream at 42! He boils a pot of water.

Father Pat nods gravely. Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral.

Ginger lowers his thumb in the boiling pot and craves sushi.

What was her secret?

Three months into their story Miriam arrived for her lesson an hour late, which was very unusual for her, but she was full of energy and very open and said that her boyfriend had been gone on business for a few days and had just come back the previous night and so there had been wonderful sex and she joked that she could barely walk but it was so great to be sore this way because she loved sex so much. She had always loved sex so much. Ginger resolved that afternoon to quit teaching her.

She was blabbing effusively and peeled off her camel hair coat and handed it to Ginger without hesitation and unknotted that cranberry-red scarf and tossed it to Ginger and removed also the black denim jacket she often wore under the coat to reveal that same old low-cut silk blouse that showed off her ponderous chest and very narrow waist and skinny little chalk-white arms to maximum effect against the grape-gray bruises on her white throat. She shook out her hair and it was like a billow of blood in the ocean. She stood at the living room window in a wide beam of spring sunlight with the contours of her improbable body in brilliant relief and her flesh like platinum and she did her warm-up exercises with a playful teasing smile singing I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to… please please please with comical hula-girl beckoning gestures and winking. Ginger restrained himself from crossing the room and pushing his tongue so far down her throat that he’d taste the stains on the insides of her panties. He stood where he stood as though nailed to the floor, as far away as possible, chin raised, hands clasped behind his back in the role of the strict and sexless and protective father figure, her voice teacher, the man who had taken on the task of giving her a voice. It was then he laughed at his so-called professional distance with a bitter sneer she couldn’t miss because he knew if he fell for this girl it wouldn’t be she who would suffer and the fall would be hard and he would shatter into useless pieces or sink into a dream with no end or meaning.

That was her secret.

 

 

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…”

AOD

photo by SG

A figure in a hooded lapis running suit rounded the northernmost curve of Lake Pleasant. It veered up the leaf-strewn incline to Pleasant Lake Road and cut a diagonal across the asphalt. A pantheon of street lights looking more distantly 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 itself, 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 treadmill rolling with slow 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.

In contrast to the corona of dead brilliance around the lake, the Pleasant Hill sidewalks were lit with genteel inefficiency by electric faux gas lamps themselves so old they had become authentic antiques. The neighborhood was lovely yet theoretically 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 hedge.

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 paying old Van Metzer himself a visit. 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 armour-plated dinosaurs. And the bacterial super-communities of minds even smaller than that, whose thoughts were individual atoms. And so on.

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 noveau 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 luminence 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. 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.

“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’ by call-in touchtone menu 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, 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 majestic intangibility of the human spirit. He hadn’t had a paying job, other than the ongoing project of painting the garage, in twenty years. He hadn’t even graduated from Art College.

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 animals if backed into a corner.

“That damn dog is going to have another heart attack,” said Marcel, before remembering, immediately, for the Nth time, that Merriam couldn’t hear him. She used to point at the headphones to indicate that she couldn’t hear him, but she no longer bothered with that. The isolating boundaries of their marriage had hardened into tacit structures.

“Merriam,’ said Marcel. “What’s sadder than an old man and an old woman in a bed they never use together? A hard cock they never use? A cunt they never use? I know you have possibilities, still, Merriam. You don’t have to tell me. Bag boys at the grocery store still look at you, sometimes, oh yes, for a fleeting moment, those moments I guess you live for, without even thinking you’re old. Maybe they don’t care that all that gray hair is dyed gold and the big droopy never-used tits are strapped up and plumped together in a wonderbra and a third of those big white teeth go in a glass overnight. Maybe they don’t even know it. Maybe they’re blessed with the ignorance of youth. I mean, of course they are. They see the surface. They don’t know what surfaces hide, dear. You know what the surfaces hide?”

Marcel moaned and shifted his position.

“I have a confession to make. Merriam, do you remember the last big piece I did? Before I quit Art, I mean? Years ago. Twenty years ago. I was driving around town, collecting old futon mattresses. Rolling these dusty old things up and stacking them in the back seat of the station wagon, I was kinda affected by hugging all of those…you know…sponges of intimate experience. Think about it: all those soaked-up fuckings and droolings and fartings and fevers and dreams. I hugged them to myself and frog-marched them out of strange buildings but maybe they were a bio-hazard. Maybe I got the disease then. This loneliness thing.”

“I turned down a few 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…that old prejudice. Didn’t want to touch a mattress a man had been crying on, I guess. I never told you that the one I paid the most for I bought from a beautiful law student named Amina. She had described the color, lapis, over the phone. It was queen-sized and stainless. Consider this my confession, Merriam. The closest I ever got to infídelity. Close up, you could see the futon was covered with her super-long kinky hairs. It was beautiful. The faded lapis and the delicate hairs. Been dreaming about that girl ever since. Twenty year old Muslim law student with a spectacular afro.”

“I’d end up with three or four mattresses rolled up in the back of the station wagon in a day, the classified section of the newspaper on the seat beside me, and this complicated odor…the body-nostalgias of total strangers…. It amazed me the number of people who weren’t ashamed to sell me futons with big urine or period stains on them. But that was the theme of the exhibition.”

“And then I was thinking of the irony of going around buying these old futons, rejecting the really gross ones, the ones from the really repulsive owners, when we had, you know, the previous year, sold someone a bed set, including a mattress, on which…okay…on which you had the miscarriage. Sold it without disclosing this information. Well, I had considered keeping it for whatever historical reason. But you said: no. Like you were disciplining a puppy. No no no, Marcel! No Marcel! No Marcel! No…Amina…”

Marcel gasped a telescoping gasp…it sounded as though he was having a coughing fit backwards. He went rigid on his pillow.

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.

The jogger jogged back down towards the lake, slipping the hood up over her afro, and Marcel, slightly confused, jogged behind her.