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.

.

Class Fantasies

 

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1. GRAYSCALE

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

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

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

-What’s it about again? 

-Existentialism.  Brando.  X-rated.

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

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

We gaze on a minor Warhol with affectionate contempt.

What is that melody?

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

What is that melody?

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

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

Body and Soul.

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

-Of course. 

-Play along.

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

Pardon? You talking to me?

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

He laughs and says nothing. I press further.

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

-Oh yeah? 

-Yes. Are you married? 

-Who isn’t? 

-How long? 

-The usual. 

-Any kids? 

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

-You love your wife?

-Why not? 

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

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

-Funny, you don’t look like a pimp.  

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

-What are we talking about?

An experiment. A game. 

-Yeah? 

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

-And what does she think of all this?

-She thinks what I tell her to think. 

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

-Are you interested or not? 

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

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

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

Just to be safe.

***

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

-Jew eat? 

-No, Jew?

 

2. ZARAH FRAYN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Told me what, he said.

Those scars on my back.

I assumed…

No.

Sylvie: *A Nanonovel in 6 Chaptagraphs*

photo by SG

Chapter One: More than Words

Sylvie’s father was a writer whose time had come and gone, but he was fine with that. He’d invested the windfall with prescience. He had a house in a decent neighborhood in a city that scored with consistent impressiveness on all the quality-of-life surveys worth checking, along with some property a two hours’ drive up north. The property up north featured a rustic cabin he was going to write his comeback in, a cabin near a well he wasn’t allowed to drink out of, overlooked by the aerie of an endangered species of hawk he could do up to ten years in prison for harassing or killing. The working title of the book was More Than Words. The rest of the book would come to him in the cabin. Usually he’d creep around the immaculately decorated house long after Sylvie had gone to bed, stewarding wineglasses and adjusting picture frames, soothed by the hum of the climate control, which made the house feel like an airship in flight over the continent. Sometimes he’d rescue a volume, or two, belonging to one of the sets of collected encyclopediae, open on its face on a settee in the media room, and shepherd it, humming, back up the three polished steps into the tracklit library, pushing against a satisfying resistance the thing into its proper slot. Tonight he just stood by Sylvie’s bedroom door, listening.

Chapter Two: A Perfectly-Judged Death-while-Sailing

Sylvie’s mother had come from a large, self-consciously colorful family that only tolerated exogamy, apparently, because exogamy’s extremest opposite was frowned on by The State. There were the four charismatic brothers who had always looked like men; an eldest sister of chilling beauty, with her infallible eye for long scarves (with their tragic associations) and a father who would have to die before Sylvie’s future mother finally moved out of the house she was born in, a recently painted Georgian mansion with pillars on its porches and Amish hex signs carved in its gable shutters, mocked on all sides by encroaching slum. Sylvie’s mother was the baby of the family and had effectively fended off Sylvie’s claim on the title. Driving by that house, recently, Sylvie’s father felt oddly vindicated by the graffiti all over its pillars and even slowed down in an ill-advised attempt to read some of it, stepping on the accelerator when the first stones ponked at the trunk. Girls who hate their fathers are not, as Sylvie’s father had discovered, the worst, if you aren’t the father. All three sisters, Sylvie’s future mother and the other two; the polyglot and the choreographer; had gotten pregnant within six months of the old man’s perfectly-judged death-while-sailing, and he wondered if there hadn’t been a subconscious race to produce a vessel for the old man’s anticipated return. Sylvie’s future father had first noticed Sylvie’s future mother not for her spectacular pre-Raphaelite hair, but for her terminal t’s, which she tended to over-articulate. Didn’t you want that with some fruit bits?- was the last sentence she’d spoken to him before he finally confessed, waving away the dry mangoes that always put him in mind of floor scraps from a bris, that he wanted her to move out. He hadn’t put it exactly that way. He’d offered to move out and she’d demurred as predicted. She’d joked about Arabs being able to divorce their wives by repeating a certain word three times but couldn’t remember the word and he’d said but we’re not really married and she’d stood suddenly and swept breakfast off the table, very much the prodigy losing a game against someone avowedly casual towards chess. She remembered the word was talaq. He said talaq, talaq, talaq, waving a finger like a wand, both of them laughing. To be honest, she was relieved. She’d said, We’ll let Sylvie decide who she wants to live with; that’s the only civilized thing to do, and Sylvie had chosen him, as predicted. Sylvie’s father and Sylvie’s mother continued sleeping together for quite some time until the night Sylvie’s mother never came home, which soon became the week she never came home.

Chapter Three: Cancer Gets the Girl

He imagined her seeing the country on a wasp-sleek Japanese motorcycle. He reminisced on how they’d met. They’d met in a self-defense class. She was there, looking barefoot and good, in what she called her Chinese pyjamas, because of encroaching slum, while he was there to meet a girl. Or girls. The solidarity of self-declared prey, as his best friend, whose idea it had been to go, had put it. This friend had dozens of good ideas on how to meet girls and yet never met any. From as far back as Sylvie’s future father could remember knowing this friend, this friend had talked like a well-informed cancer patient, with an ease in jargon and the cadences down and really good at reeling off technical specifications, probabilities, outlooks on graded contingencies with this clipped, confident, guardedly optimistic voice. And then he got cancer, causing no break or modulation in the flow of the way he communicated. He found the personality tic of his preferred mode of expression astonishingly well-suited to the circumstance. It’s as though he hit the ground running as far as cancer was concerned, was how Sylvie’s future father had put it to Sylvie’s future mother over a milkshake (this was before the days of fashionable young people drinking recreational coffee) after class. Should he feel guilty? Was the irony a bear, or a bluebird? He’d used his friend’s cancer to get a girl.

Chapter Four: Dreadlock Combover

Before Sylvie’s future father and her future mother got serious about each another, Sylvie’s future father wavered in his intentions towards another, slightly older, woman. Older, but in no way inferior, except, perhaps, in age. The woman was cultured and fine and dressed well in a manner that showed off her jaw, an angular marvel reminiscent of the jaw on the actress Jodie Foster, who was then still young. Whether she wore a ruffled collar, a turtleneck or a collarless t-shirt borrowed from her son, the jaw stood out with its sharp origami folds. He was enamored of this woman and had slept with her several times with memorable results and poetry and expensive baseball-sized sourdough blueberry muffins from her bottomless pantry as rewards. The day before Thanksgiving they attended an avant garde opera in a ceremonial gesture towards the deepening cultural seriousness of both that region of the country and their relationship, standing by coincidence behind her ex-boyfriend in the white-wine-line during intermission. The ex was a balding soi-disant (pre-internet) tech-whiz with blond dreadlocks leftswept over his pink pate like fraying ropes on a castaway ham. Fairly or not, she became repulsive to Sylvie’s future father in her ex-boyfriend’s reflected aura, but there was still an hour of grindingly self-serious and overlit opera to sit through. The weightless warm hand that sought its habitual place on his thigh when the opera commenced found only tensed muscle to rest on. The hand knew before the rest of her body. Sylvie’s future father reflected self-pityingly on an inner recitation of the oral history of his failed romances while two local characters (descendants both of auto workers) in Bauhaus-ish costumes of vaguely animal abstraction cavorted on a minimalist stage, realizing in a panic that the time he lost to the experience would never come refunded, and the woman he decided he loved was elsewhere.

Chapter Five: Ich mag sie nicht in einem Haus / Ich mag sie nicht mit einer Maus

Sylvie’s future father hurried over to Sylvie’s future mother’s house right after the opera, unmindful of the fact that he walked unarmed through encroaching slum. He found himself not only thinking of, but looking at, really looking at, more than one black-or-Afro-American-Negro-of-color at a time, for the first time in his life. He’d never admit this to anyone; not even to a friend with cancer; but the first thing that struck him was the variety. Not only in tint but in weight, gait, hair texture, posture, girth, aura, odor, manner of dress, scale of possible threat (from benign to sinister), range of facial features and sexual attractiveness. Some of the toughest boys were pretty as girls in their white t-shirts and tight jeans. Some of the prettiest women exerted the narcotic allure of the scent of the motherland, smouldering after a bushfire, and he locked eyes with more than one, with their coal-smooth breasts, before being ejected, further in his way down the road, each time, by a playfully dismissive smile. Sylvie’s future mother was on the front porch of the white island of the mansion, drying her gaze-stuffing pre-Raphaelite hair with a shreiking dryer at the end of a chain of three extension cords. Sylvie’s future father tried breathlessly to speak, sucking every other word back in, over the anti-siren song of the dryer. He told Sylvie’s future mother half the truth, which was twice the lie: that he’d suddenly realized that he loved her in the middle of an opera. She asked which opera. She laughed, or, being from a family of high-culture insiders, tittered, and explained. To his initial bafflement, which matured to a rage which hardened into a manifesto, he learned that the libretto of the work he’d squirmed through po-faced for two hours (the second half of which was twice as long as the first) was taken from Doctor Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. In German. That’s the problem with postmodern so-called Art, he sorrowed. The joke is always on us.

Chapter Six: He decided to write a Book that Everyone could Understand

He decided to write a book that everyone could understand.

.

The Bomb Collector (an antifictional novel)

photo by SG

“Every war on Earth is, in the end, a battle of the sexes.”-Azzedine El-Hadi

In the three months between the time I signed the lease on my new flat and the day I returned to Berlin with two suitcases of meager possessions, the building next door was knocked to the ground, and construction started on an above-ground parking garage. I’d been charmed by the old fashioned quality of this corner of the neighborhood and now they were modernizing it.

The day I’d first looked at this flat, flipping light switches and opening and closing cabinets in an amateurish pantomime of my father, the caretaker assured me it was a quiet neighborhood. It’s standard in Berlin that you’re allowed to deduct a portion of your rent for inconveniences such as malfunctioning heat in the winter or quality-of-life-damaging construction on or near your dwelling, but there is so much development happening in this suddenly fashionable neighborhood that there’s a special clause in my rental contract that negates the reduced rent option ‘in the event’ of construction, which, obviously, though unknown to me, was a certainty when I signed the contract. I signed it, flew back to California a week later, then returned to Berlin on the last day of summer.

The taxi driver who drove me from Tegel to August Strasse was not German; he was a London-born Pakistani named Shadz (a contraction, he informed me, of a name that sounded, as he pronounced it, like Sa-Heedz). Shadz lifted my two large suitcases of meager possessions into the trunk of his BMW-built taxi and guessed that I wasn’t a tourist. “Are you a scientist?” he asked, after I’d given him the address in halting German. I can’t say why, exactly, this offended me. Perhaps I’d rather have been mistaken for a rock star.

“A scientist? No.”

“You absolutely wouldn’t believe how many scientists I end up driving.”

“Really.”

“Oh, yeah. Something like, I dunno. Half a dozen a week, maybe more?” He didn’t in any way resemble the voice coming out of his mouth. He stared into the car that we were passing on the left as though its driver was insane. I looked too and saw that it was an extremely attractive woman at the wheel, brushing her teeth.

We drove through leafy green lanes that gave way to narrow, treeless, cobblestone streets. There was a fenced-in muddy lot of old touring coaches emblazoned with Cyrillic lettering, across the street from a row of run-down stucco cottages with boarded-up windows. Then a quaint shopping district populated almost entirely, it seemed to me, with women in Turkish headscarves. Then a mile of much-graffiti’d brown brick buildings. The scenery changed quickly and in unexpected ways and felt like a haphazardly-edited montage of many cities from different eras. Which, in a way, is what Berlin is.

“Are they working on some kind of big project, do you think?”

“Who, mate?”

“The scientists.”

He eyed me in the mirror. “That’s the question I was going to put to you sir, actually.” We both laughed. Shadz said, “A machine for influencing your dreams, maybe?”

“Exactly. Top Secret stuff.”

“Imagine the possibilities if you could beam adverts directly into people’s skulls while they were sleeping,” he said wistfully. I smiled but couldn’t think of a clever comeback and soon found myself dozing… nodding off… my chin touched my collar bone twice. Each time I awoke with a sudden start and a snort. Embarrassed, to prove I was awake I said to Shadz:

“But how do you know they’re scientists?”

“How else would they get the job?”

When we pulled up in front of my building it was shortly after noon, and so the construction workers were on a break, but I saw the skyscraping crane anchored in the building-sized crater next door with a sinking heart. I was too tired to care much at that point, however. Shadz quoted the amount I owed him, I handed him two bills fresh from the money-changing kiosk at Tegel, and he popped the trunk and hopped out. He was yanking my bags with virile grunts and lowering them onto the pavement before I could manage to get my door open. That’s how wobbly the flight had left me.

Before he climbed in, he handed back one of the bills I’d given him. “Keep your eye on the ball, mate.” He winked. “This time the lesson was kostenlos,” he said, using the German word for ‘free,’ and he drove off, leaving me jet-lagged and constipated and with two large suitcases in the middle of the road, facing a construction site.

The only thing I like more than packing a suitcase is unpacking a suitcase; the former indicates an adventure to come and the latter an ordeal survived. My pleasure would be magnified in this case by unpacking my suitcases in an absolutely empty flat… just walls, floor, windows, doors and ceiling… a ritual I was, however, too exhausted to enjoy before getting a little sleep. In the top layer of suitcase number one was a cloth-covered air mattress I’d purchased from a bankrupt Army Surplus store as a much younger man always on the look out for bargains, novelties and items that nobody else had or wanted. I’d finally unpacked the thing, to air it out, the day before my flight, and it gave off a sad, dry rot odor of Korean War memorabilia when I first unboxed it. The odor managed to taint the entire contents of the suitcase, which I had wisely refrained from packing with clothes; suit case number two had all the clothes in it, along with a five hundred page manuscript (single-spaced, narrow margins, tiny font) I was nowhere near being finished with.

When I yanked the rip-cord dangling from the panel with the stenciled warning on it (WARNING: DO NOT PULL: JERK!), I expected the cord to snap off in my hand, or for nothing to happen, but, to my surprise, the mattress inflated rapidly with a loud hiss that changed in pitch as the mattress plumped out. The compressed air canister continued until the mattress bulged asymmetrically and I backed out of the room with my fingers in my ears and it exploded in a cloud of dust. Of course. I unpacked half the clothing from suitcase number two, arranged it in a thick rectangle in the middle of the room and laid the blown mattress on top. I kicked off my shoes and curled up on the makeshift bed.

I dreamed I was climbing a steep, grassy hill on a sunny day with The Beatles. They were long-haired and bearded and young-looking, younger than I had been in years, and I was slightly embarrassed, in this dream, to be an over-thirty, someone they might not trust, or, even worse, someone they might mock with their rapid, cutting, inside jokes. John was the one I had to be especially careful with, I remember thinking in this dream, and I put an effort into watching his face very carefully for reactions to my cautious remarks: a lifted eyebrow or a curling lip or a conspiratorial glance at George. It was difficult as he was the furthest from me. To my immediate left was Ringo in a bright red caftan and then to my right the order went George, Paul and then John. Climbing the hill in the heat had winded me but they, The Beatles, didn’t seem visibly affected. Their long hair was shiny, fragrant and beautiful in the golden light; in fact they were pretty as girls, even with their beards, and I couldn’t stop thinking how it was really them, The Beatles, and here I was climbing this hill in the sunlight with them.

At what point as the dream unfolded did it become clear to me that these four young men weren’t The Beatles at all? They had merely resembled The Beatles. But as I stared at the profile of the one I had taken to be John Lennon, the one who was furthest from me, with most of his face eclipsed by his hair, I could no longer locate even the faintest resemblance between his face and Lennon’s and it seemed to me (or does so now) that his facial features were changing, subtly, even as I watched, into something very strange.

The brilliant sunlight had dulled and darkened, too. The wind was picking up, whipping the tall grass, and, back down the hill into a vast valley that reached for miles to a poisonous black seam of clouds on the horizon, I watched white bits and large gray chunks of some kind of debris blowing; bouncing; rolling down the hill. The four young men I was climbing with were menacing, unambiguously hostile towards me and united in some kind of mission or scheme and their grim faces and dark clothing in combination with the cold wind and violent storm overtaking us made me shake with despair.

The noise that woke me was so loud that it seemed to push me to the floor but I was already on the floor, or close to floor level, gasping as my heart raced. I didn’t know where I was, but it felt like I was in an earthquake, back in California, having a heart attack. What was I doing on the floor of an empty, high-ceilinged room with strange windows and two narrow doors and a power socket in the wall shaped like nothing I was familiar with, rattled in my bones by a deafening rumble? A cheap ceiling lamp on the end of a white chord was swinging left and right. I stumbled in a panic to the door jamb and wedged myself there with my arms covering my head until I suddenly remembered where I was exactly and under what circumstances and laughed at my stupidity, right there where I squatted in the vibrating doorway. I slipped my shoes on, confronted a sleep-smashed face in the bathroom mirror (soft; middle-aged), splashed some water on it, and left the building to go for a walk, since sleep was impossible.

The day… a late spring/early summer day… was streaked with low, fast moving clouds like dark fish in a cold creek and the chill in the air made me consider going back to unpack a light jacket. But going back would have felt like the first small failure of my new life so I went forward instead, my hands jammed in my pockets and my collar turned up. It was early afternoon and there was only one other person on the street, a tall, pretty girl with brilliant orange hair. She wore a pale green diaphanous scarf over her hair and she didn’t once look up as she hurried past me on loud boots in the direction from which I’d come, the noise of her loud boots disappearing into the roar of construction. Turning to watch, I saw her cross towards my building and let herself into it while dust clouds and diesel fumes from the frenzy of construction next door blew over her.

I had followed her half-way back and waited to see if she’d appear in a window in the upper floors, pulling a curtain or lifting a blind to catch me spying from the corner. I lingered awhile, saw nothing and continued my walk. I started thinking of her as ‘the little red headed girl.’ I’d never had a neighbor that pretty in any apartment building I’d ever lived in in America but I had observed women like that in some of the houses I’d worked in, chatting amiably with harmless me over a mug of coffee from the other side of the invisible barrier of comfort.

Most of the work we did was at one or another of the gated communities that had mushroomed beyond the suburbs in response to opportunities in new technology at office parks that were an hour’s drive from the city. The rows upon row of brand new houses were identically over-large, poorly designed, thrown up far too quickly and in need of paint. The owners were invariably young, college-educated and friendly to a fault with the workers, all the way down to the Mexican maids and gardeners. I always made it a point to have at least one conversation with the lady of the house to assert myself, I suppose, as a reader of books and an appreciator of culture. Which Richard, my partner (my boss, actually; they were his bids, and he had me on an hourly wage), considered embarrassing not only for me, he said, but for the client and himself and the tradition of house painting.

“No matter how smart you may think you are, to them you’re just a beat up old house painter, just like me, John.”

“I’m only doing this to finance the writing of my book, Richard. You know that.”

“All I’m saying is how you see it ain’t how they see it so the point is what? Plus it’s fucking unprofessional. Okay?”

I was careful not to let him catch me talking with the homeowners after that exchange. Once, I walked into a living room carrying a step ladder and found the client’s blonde wife curled up on the Cadillac-sized leather couch in a bright red jogging outfit, chewing a finger and reading a brand new paperback of Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. She just happened to look up from the book as I entered the room in my cover-alls and cap, ladder over one shoulder, paint on my face. As she made eye contact I pointed and said, because I knew Richard was out in the van, mixing paint, “There’s textual evidence in there that Quilty is Lo’s biological father,” and her eyes went wide and her mouth fell open as though a talking dog had walked in on its hind legs and asked for a date.

Rosenthaler Strasse is the nearest main road and a trolley runs up and down both sides of it. There were more pedestrians there than on the side streets that led me to it and there was eerily quiet, clogged traffic packed with makes of cars and trucks I’d never seen before and for the first time since I’d arrived I had the thrilling sense of being in a foreign capital… the implication of infinite possibility and vague threat that middle-aged Bohemians travel for. The wind whipped flimsy spring coats against the short-skirted legs of business women or secretaries hurrying back to the office from lunch breaks and I wondered if the eros of foreign travel was more in the anonymity of it… as though anonymity in and of itself is an invitation to transgress… or in my subconscious superstition that European women find American men sexy. I turned left on Rosenthaler Strasse, under a whole city of clouds in places so black they looked rotten and I was chilled to the bone by the same wind that was flirting so rudely with the secretaries.

I hadn’t gone twenty paces when I came upon a pale older man, his thin hair wind-blown, painting a picture on the wall of a block-long building. The building housed a bakery and a barber shop and a travel agent among other ground level businesses. The building was made of huge black blocks of stone and he was very carefully taping a stencil to the wall and spray-painting it with slashing strokes. He then taped a second stencil on top of the first, lining up the edges of the two stencils with deft-but-nervous fingers and sprayed again with a different color. He was blowing on the fresh paint, his lips just inches from the black wall, as I came up on him, and he didn’t look my way but cocked his head at my footfalls. He carefully peeled the stencils off and slipped them into a backpack, then produced, from where I don’t know, a telescoping, red-tipped stick and hurried off, tapping the base of the black wall with the stick.

I looked at the image he had so carefully double-stenciled and saw that it was a formless mess of red and green paint running together into brown drips down the wall. I looked up again in time to see him hurrying across the street, his cane like a taut lead on an invisible dog. Almost without realizing it I decided to follow.

2.

The title of the book I’m struggling to finish is ‘The Bomb Collector’. Set towards the end of the 1960s, it concerns the personal life of Azzedine El-Hadi, an Algerian émigré living in upstate New York. El-Hadi is a writer and bon-vivant, a silver-haired, worldly man of fifty with three American girlfriends. He teaches a creative writing class at a community arts center in his small town in the Wisselvallig Valley, and the youngest of his girlfriends, thirty years his junior, is a star of the writing class. The second girlfriend is married to a teacher of an evening class for working adults called ‘Generational Dissonance in Post-War Jewish Literature: from Singer and Malamud to Bellow and Roth,’ at the same arts center. His third occasional girlfriend, Ruth, his ex-wife, is the woman he married for his green card. Ruth is an amateur landscape painter and the mother of two grown children from a previous marriage.

El-Hadi has published one French novel, years ago, which he is busy translating for the English market; his second mistress has promised to show the manuscript to a publisher with whom she may or may not be having a parallel affair. The title of the French version of the book, Le Collecteur de Bombe, is from an Algerian saying that Azzedine’s father, a devout Muslim, often admonished his son with during the boy’s sex-mad adolescence: a man with too many women is like a bomb collector.

The Bomb Collector is comprised of thirteen linked short stories or vignettes on the theme of adultery; there are Moroccan, French, British and Nigerian adulterers featured in interwoven tales all set in Algiers, the great North African city. Cora (the second mistress, married to his colleague) has suggested that beyond translating the book, Azzedine should also include a new chapter, featuring an American, in order to increase the chances of getting the English version published. He initially resists her idea because to add a chapter would violate the numerology of the book.  ‘Thirteen’ is one of its ordering motifs.

“Well,” suggests Cora, “simply replace one of the existing chapters.”

“Which chapter would you suggest I replace?”

Without hesitating in order to think about it, Cora answers, “Love is Blind. I think it’s the least-charming chapter in the book, to be honest. It denigrates women… also men, when I think of it. The book will be better without it.”

How can Azzedine admit, then, after Cora’s judgment, that the Love is Blind chapter is his favorite… the very heart of the book? A handsome man, an epic womanizer with philosophical inclinations, goes to his Moroccan apothecary one day and requests a philtre that will render him blind, but only temporarily. The apothecary, a man as versed in modern pharmacology as he is in Moroccan folk medicine, mixes a concoction that will blind his client for thirteen days exactly. Take this with a glass of wine on the morning of the first day and your vision will return to you on the evening of the thirteenth. The apothecary, who knows the womanizer well (having provided the man with condoms as well as penicillin and various other salves and ointments in the past), adds, But if you don’t mind my curiosity: why?

The womanizer explains: As you know, I rarely go without extremely desirable female companionship. However, it’s often occurred to me that for every impossibly beautiful woman I allow (or cajole) to climb into bed with me, there are at least a hundred of her sisters, all too willing but, unfortunately, too ugly to meet my silly standards. I curse my good taste but, as you know, there’s nothing to do about it… the male organ can’t be reasoned with in terms of what it finds attractive or not. However, I realized, one need only sneak a lover past the sentry box of the eyes in order to…

Ah yes, says the apothecary.

Following the apothecary’s instructions, the womanizer stirs the bitter substance into a glass of wine early the next morning. It’s a brilliant day, and he doesn’t even realize, at first, that what seems to be the encroaching gloom of cloud cover in an unseasonable display of weather before lunchtime is, in fact, the drug taking effect. By dinner time he is utterly blind. After spending a few days getting used to the situation (with the help of his servant), the womanizer tests his theory that by being free of the tyranny of the aesthetic prejudices of his eyes, his lovemaking will enjoy new freedoms and varieties… new intensities. Guided to the marketplace on the arm of his servant, he says: point me in the direction of a real sow. The servant does so; the womanizer makes contact with a lady of that description and finds himself escorting her home (just as he is escorted by his servant) in no time at all. The resulting sexual encounter is the best he’s ever had.

By the time his vision fades gradually back in on the evening of the thirteenth day, the womanizer has bedded dozens of women… fat, tall, short, skinny, old, young, poorly-dressed, exquisitely-dressed, European, African and everything else… and all with the same high level of energy and pleasure. The experiment has been a success. So much so that he hurries back to the apothecary the morning after the regrettable return of his vision and asks that the prescription be refilled. As you wish, cautions the apothecary, but I must tell you that the third time you use this drug, the effects are permanent.

Another thirteen days of carnal amazements follow. At the end of this journey into the ravishingly sensual night, the womanizer opts for a third, permanent dose, reasoning that he is no longer a young man; he’s seen enough of the world’s picture; to trade just one of his grossly limited senses for limitless pleasure would be more than worth it. With logical eloquence he persuades the apothecary to sell him the third dose.

A year goes by. The apothecary has nearly forgotten the strange case of the self-blinding womanizer when the man appears one morning at the counter on the arm of his harried-looking servant, looking pale and skinny and with his formerly distinguished head of gray hair gone white. The apothecary is filled with guilt and pity: it strikes him that the poor fellow has returned to plead for his sight back.Which is, as he was warned, impossible. As the apothecary approaches the counter with a heavy heart he is surprised to see the blind womanizer detect his presence with a cocked head and give off a sly and boyish grin.

How can I help you today, my friend? asks the non-plussed apothecary. Are all things right with your chosen life?

Righter than ever, answers the blind womanizer. I’ve broken my own previous record for number of conquests in a week several times over and show no signs of slowing down. There’s only one thing I need from you now to make my bliss complete, says the blind womanizer, lowering his voice so that the apothecary draws near.

And what would that one thing be? inquires the very curious apothecary.

A drug to render me deaf, responds the womanizer.

The parallels between the blind womanizer from the book within my book, able to ‘see’ all women as equally desirable in his darkness, and the blind graffiti artist, able to falsely ‘see’ his art as beautiful (or well-executed), were amusing to me. As I followed the blind man on his route, along which he stopped to stencil his runny brown blobs on various buildings, I began to feel that I knew him because I had created the character he was an offshoot from. I began to predict the buildings he would chose to mark (or to ‘piss’ on; wasn’t it territorial behaviour? Wasn’t it canine?) with impressive accuracy. He went right for the newest, cleanest buildings, despite his blindness. He’d walk right by the buildings with too much graffiti on them. The unstylish buildings, too. He didn’t seem to find those very attractive. I assumed by this behaviour that up until relatively recently he’d been able to see.

I was miles from home already but unpanicked because we’d followed a straight line through a commercial district with a tram running up and down it and I could always hop on to ride one home. Figuring out how to buy a ticket (I speak less German than the average pre-schooler here) was another matter, but I’d face that hurdle when the time came. The street I followed the blind man along is called Kastanien Allee.

It’s a neighborhood of young people, good-looking young people sitting inside and in front of the packed cafes (despite the threat of rain) and smoking languorously, or with emphasis, like movie stars. Young people strolling in and out of funky record shops and quirky boutiques. The girls are all stylish and tall like the ‘the little red head girl’ living in my building and I marveled at their uniform beauty. Not a fat body or failed outfit or wrinkled face among them. I began to feel quite self-conscious as a voyeuristic emissary from the awful fraternity of the aged and unhip and almost wished I’d picked a dowdier neighborhood to live in. I didn’t need to have my unfuckable mortality rubbed in my face every time I stepped outside to buy butter. But the blind man was above all that; those beautiful girls were as invisible to him as I was to the beautiful girls and so they had lost their power to tantalize and diminish him. He was flying through outer space with his spray paint. He would have been impossible in California and I realized that it was up to me not to become impossible in Berlin. Enough with the bitterness; expect nothing and you can’t be disappointed, I told myself. Finish your novel.

The writer character in my book, Azzedine El-Hadi, creator of the character of the blind womanizer, is based on a real person (of the same name) I’d met as a house painter. I suppose I never bothered to change the name of the fictional version of Azzedine because I either never really expected to publish the book, or assumed that he’d be dead by the time the miracle happened.

While the fictional Azzedine El-Hadi is a writer, the real-life El-Hadi runs an antique shop, with a sideline in contraband antiquities. Richard and I had been hired to paint the little apartment that Azzedine keeps over the shop which is situated in a row of genteel businesses in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego. Richard had said, You’re going to get a kick out of this guy on the way over in the van that first morning and he was right. El-Hadi looked like something out of an Agatha Christie novel when he answered the door, a silver-haired gentleman with a fastidious mustache wearing red satin pyjamas and velvet slippers.

The walls of his bedroom were covered from floor to ceiling with framed photographs of beautiful women; photographs it was our task to remove and eventually replace in exactly the same order. There was more preparation than actual painting involved in this particular job and I had the pleasure of chatting with Azzedine, or listening to him chat, while I worked. Richard had learned by this point in the history of our partnership to behave like a real boss, leaving me to do the great majority of the work. He’d be gone a few hours every day (at the race track for all I knew), therefore I was free to chat with the witty, literate El-Hadi while I stripped the wall paper in his bedroom or sanded the moldings.

It gradually dawned on me that El-Hadi’s wit wasn’t the main reason I enjoyed his company. Unlike every other citizen of the state of California, he was able to distinguish easily between my soul and my occupation. In short, he treated me as an equal, a fellow human being, and not a middle-aged house painter. If he hadn’t hired me to paint his flat, he never would have known, not being impolite enough to ask, how I earned my money… it was of no concern to him, the details of my material wealth or my social standing. What he needed to know about me he gathered with his eyes and ears; it was the quality of my conversation he noticed, my ideas and opinions.

Richard’s return from his four hour lunch break was always jarring: I became a house painter again the moment he climbed the back staircase with his thermos of coffee and the paint-layered cuticles of his fingernails. Richard’s idea of egalitarianism was to display contempt for us both (Richard and me). At which El-Hadi would shrug and wink, preserving the secret of my humanity until our conversation could resume.

As my admiration for El-Hadi increased during the three weeks we worked to refinish his apartment in an oriental theme of greens and golds, my stubborn tolerance of Richard shaded gradually into resentment. I saw that an ugly aura radiated from the man and that my first assumption… that being a house painter had turned him sour over the years… was wrong. His job, posture, manner of speech, living arrangement and outlook on life were all just accessories, after the fact, to the original core of his negativity. We’ve all known gloomy or even vicious children from our childhoods; maybe it starts in the womb, or in the miserable upbringing of the mother. It was finally clear to me in any case that time in Richard’s company was more toxic than exposure to any of the noxious chemicals we handled and for the sake of my own health I should get out, despite the money he paid to keep me near and under his control.

I brought up the taboo topic of novel-writing with El-Hadi one day about five minutes after Richard drove off to whatever he did on his own for half of every working day but he came back. He came back for the wallet he’d left in the jacket on top of the toolbox. He caught me standing on the top of my step ladder, scrubbing the ceiling with trisodium phosphate and discussing the problem of particularizing character in the context of a first-person narrative; how to separate the narrator’s voice from both the writer’s and the reader’s? Azzedine stood at the foot of the ladder with his chin in his hand, looking up. Even Azzedine jumped a little when Richard shouted at me.

“Hey! Don’t we have an agreement that you keep your mouth shut and paint shit? Nobody wants to listen to your wannabe crap!”

“Calm down.”

“Calm down shit!”

I climbed down off the ladder. “Forget it, Richard” I said. “It’s over. I quit.”

“Fine. Get the fuck out of here.”

“Fine,” I said, wiping my hands.

“Excuse me for interrupting, my friends,” said Azzedine, with his mellifluous voice and his unreadable smile. He nodded at me. “John and I were having a conversation that I would very much like to finish.”

“But you heard him, Mr. El-Hadi: the damn fool just quit!”

“Perhaps you can send me a bill for work completed, yes?” Azzedine turned to me. “Can you finish it on your own, John?”

I shrugged, then nodded. Richard turned red. He put his hands on his hips. “We agreed on a price.”

Azzedine’s smile took on extra depths as he made a very compact little voila gesture, saying, “Ah, but we have signed no contract, sir, correct?”

Richard laughed as though he enjoyed being out-maneuvered.

3.

It was sometime after I’d watched the blind artist spray, with meticulous care, the fourth brown blob on an otherwise immaculate building that he lost me. He must have slipped into a doorway or up a side street while I was watching an unreachably pretty girl walk by. Ahead of me stood the massive overhead girderwork of the overground link of the U-Bahn system at Eberswalderstrasse, an old green hooded train bridge straddling a complicated five-way intersection thronged with cars and walkers. To get to the other side of the U-Bahn station I had to cross under it and against three traffic lights in a crowd of people. It felt like a group activity: a sight-seer’s hike or school kids on a class outing, five minutes of camaraderie with people I’d never seen before and would, for the most part, never see again. I imagined the crowd holding hands, two by two. A big girl to my immediate right, dark-haired and sweet-faced and over-dressed in a puffy orange jacket, must have thought the same thing because she seemed so amused by it all when we made eye contact. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have considered her even remotely attractive but loneliness in a foreign city can be a powerful aphrodisiac.

“Welcome to the International Society of Pedestrians Crossing Schönhauser Allee,” she said, with a pronouncedly Philadelphian accent. She walked as though weighed down by an invisible, book-laden backpack. I guessed her age at 29-ish.

“Membership is free, I take it.”

“All you need to join are your feet.”

“And you’re the president.”

“No, sir, I’m the ombudsman.”

“I always loved that word.”

“Me too. Ombudsman, stipend, satyr, druse… ”

“Druse?”

“An incrustation of small crystals on the surface of a rock or mineral.”

“Aha.”

She pressed her hands together in a mockery of prayer. “I’ve been waiting for years for someone to ask me the definition of that word.”

We all completed the complicated task of crossing under and to the other side of the vast green riveted structure. The group was dispersing. “Now what?”

“Ask me the definition of drupaceous.”

“Okay.”

“Resembling or related to a drupe.”

There was a cafe in the shadow of the U-Bahn station and we sat there with cake and coffee while the weather, miraculously, cleared up. Her name was Amanda Nye and she’d been in Berlin for five years.

“Came as a German language student but defected when I figured out I don’t like speaking German.”

“If you don’t like speaking German, why stay in Germany at all?”

“Because Germans don’t like speaking German either. It’s easy to get by with your English and a native vocab of about twenty six words. Besides, Berlin is the least German city in Germany. I just pretend it’s South East London in an alternative universe where the Nazis won the war. How old are you?”

“Forty two.”

“Okay. That’s not so old.”

“Thanks.”

“Wanna come watch porno at my place? It’s not far from here. No big dogs or roommates.”

Funny girl. I paid for our coffees and half-eaten cakes and followed Amanda out the door of the cafe in time for a lurid sunset. All of the clouds had been pushed to the westernmost corner of the sky like damp kindling. She produced a wafer-thin camera and aimed it over my head and clicked without looking, paying attention to me instead. She said,

“Personal anecdote. I thought I was Dianne Arbus when I was nine years old. I had an old Kodak Instamatic and I photographed the ugliest people in my neighborhood. Fat kids, acne cases, crones with dowager’s hump, shrinking violets with faint mustaches… you name it. I kept developing these rolls of film and getting them back and they looked nothing like Dianne Arbus. You know: haunted, shunned and auguring extinction? Nothing at all like that. Nothing like I had hoped to capture.”

“Did you try using black and white film?”

“That was my next step. My uncle Dan drove to a flea market and got me a banged up old Pentax for twenty bucks. So back I went to re-photograph every freak and outcast in my neighborhood, and then I did my church and my grammar school too. The custodial staff at school was a god-send. They were Existential super-models. Wet eyes and stubble. I shot rolls and rolls of black and white 35 millimeter film and spent all my savings…  every single Kennedy Half in my piggy bank…  getting those damn rolls developed. And guess what?”

“You still weren’t Dianne Arbus.”

She pantomimed tearing her hair out. “I still wasn’t Dianne Arbus. It was very frustrating to a nine year old girl who’d come that close to knowing what she was going to spend the rest of her life doing.”

“You tacked every print to the bedroom wall and stared for hours trying to grasp the difference. While all the other kids were playing you were staring intensely with the curtains drawn. You took a magnifying glass and studied gray, blurry, low-contrast images down to the finest molecular grain to locate whatever it was that wasn’t quite there. You studied between the grains. You ran your fingers over the photos in the dark… ”

“I sure did. And guess what?”

“Eureka?”

“I came to a profound conclusion. See, all my freaks were… smiling…  smiling. In every single photo I’d taken. Listen, it’s hard to look like a freak and an outcast when you’re smiling. Arbus was a fraud. Those famously eerie and depressing pictures of hers would have looked exactly the same no matter who she was photographing…  as long as she put ’em in a bad enough mood first!”

I laughed, but it was also some kind of genuine insight. Funny girl; smart girl. But still not any version of pretty.

“See, artists, first and foremost… if they’re any ‘good’… ” She simulated quotation marks with her fingers, seeming to quote her own head. “… they’re con men. Con Artists. It’s all a scam. Because of that precocious little revelation, I lost the desire to be an artist very very young… but I couldn’t find anything else to replace it. Some epiphanies suck.” She sighed. Or ‘sighed’.

I thought: I should study her face the way she studied those photographs and get to the bottom of this ‘attractiveness’ thing. Was there no hope for her? We walked in silence for half a block until she perked up and skipped ahead and turned, walking backwards to face me and ask, “So, I guess being forty two and all means you already know what you became when you grew up, huh.”

“Well, yeah. ‘What’ and ‘how’ are pretty young questions. ‘Why’ is the one I’m dealing with now.”

Still walking backwards she held the camera out at me like it was I.D.. “Ask an oblique question and get an oblique answer, I guess. Smile?”

“Best I can do is leer.”

She stopped abruptly and I bumped into her, making us both laugh while also confirming my suspicion that she was flat-chested. Her bones were like a heavy old iron bed frame.

“So here’s my building and so forth.”

“Am I coming in?”

“Suit yourself.”

She shouldered a massive door and we passed through a dark hallway, one wall of which was a bank of letterboxes, and across a barren courtyard the most interesting feature of which was the wire-fenced enclosure for two wheeled dumpsters and three barrels for various colors of recyclable glass. Meaning beer bottles. She lived in the rearmost wing of the building, what the Germans call the hinterhof, and up five flights of stairs. Her voice and our footsteps echoed in the otherwise deathly quiet stairwell.

“I arrived in Berlin about two weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers, right? First thing I noticed was the airport… I flew out of Newark… the airport was empty. No lines, no waiting. I got upgraded to First Class and I got all kinds of free drinks. It was like everyone was feeling sorry for me. Then I land in Berlin and the Germans… you never saw Germans acting so compassionate. It freaked me out. I saw an ad in the paper and came to look at this flat… I was staying in a youth hostel up the road a ways… and the lady practically begged me to take it. Didn’t ask about my financial status or anything. All she needed was to hear that I was American. I was like a celebrity… I was living, breathing history and she wanted to be a part of it, and to show her solidarity with the American way of life.”

We were huffing and puffing as we trudged ever upwards.

“She told me she was leaving for Jamaica… a friend wanted her to run a bed and breakfast there… she proposed I sublet until she returned in March and then we’d talk about it. Fully furnished, washing machine, the works. Reasonable rent… all the utilities bills are deducted automatically from her bank account. All I have to do is deposit money in her account before the fifth of every month, right? She says I’ll call in a week in case you have any questions. She doesn’t leave a number or an address she can be reached at but I figure nothing that bad can happen in a week… if the toilet backs up I’ll bang on a neighbor’s door or something.”

We stood on the landing in front of the door while she dug in her puffy orange jacket for the keys. We were both winded and panted heavily while smiling at each other like idiots. She said,

“But she didn’t call in a week. Or in three weeks. Or, like, ever. It’s been five years and I haven’t heard a word.” She unlocked the door and pushed it open and gestured that I should enter first.

It was an airless flat with hardwood floors and overstuffed, maiden-aunt furniture. The distant odor of rotten cherries. Every flat horizontal surface (windowsill, counter-top, book shelf, banquette and faux mantelpiece) was covered with obsessive-compulsive kitsch. Porcelain figurines, miniature spoons, plasticine cartoon characters, antique thimbles, keys, ink pens, buttons and egg cups and so on. The living room opened, theoretically, onto a balcony but the double doors were blocked by a small table supporting a very large vintage radio and had a sealed look about them. There was a large box or trunk on the balcony, exposed to the elements. To the right of the table supporting the radio, on the floor, was a television on top of a VCR angled to face the overstuffed couch that Amanda gestured with mock grandiosity that I should sit on.

“Do you know what a vollmacht is?”

“A what?”

“Okay, it’s like this signed declaration authorizing you to pick up a parcel at the post office on the signatory’s behalf, for example. Okay. She left one for me on the kitchen table figuring there’d be packages for her from time to time.”

To the right of the television were two old steamer trunks which, unlike all the old steamer trunks I’d ever seen, had obviously once belonged to the profoundly wealthy, with ornately bracketed corners and complex locking mechanisms. The larger of the two stood on end, on metal wheels, and the one nearest the television lay on its bottom face, handle facing us. She opened this one and removed a video cassette and shoved it into the mouth of the VCR.

“Just about every two months I get a little green notification in the mail that the mailman has supposedly attempted to deliver a parcel… which is a lie, he’s just too lazy to come up the stairs and he assumes people will be at work during the day… and so here’s me in a taxi to fetch a package that isn’t even mine because it’s way too heavy to use my bike.”

She aimed a remote control at the television.

“About a year ago I figured, what the hell? So I started opening the parcels.”

A sinister-looking copyright warning in Cyrillic lettering appeared on the screen.

“It’s all porno. Hundreds of videocassettes of porno porno and more porno. Every kind of porno known to man, no pun intended. This trunk here is full of them but these are only the ones I’ve gotten to… the bedroom is stacked to the ceiling with ’em. Hey, what can I say, I’m on a tight budget… I can’t afford to go to the movies, pay for cable, or rent something from the videothek, so… you know. This is my entertainment. I can see you’re surprised. Some of them are actually pretty good and even clever in a theory of film kind of way but, well, duh, most of them are amateurish and evil but they’re all fascinating. I’m becoming kind of an expert. The neighbors must be pretty acclimatized to the moaning by now… moanin’ noon and night… moanin’ and groanin’ and horrible horrible music and so forth. I tried watching with the sound off a few times but a soundless porno is like a silent martial arts film and it was definitely missing a dimension.”

“So, you weren’t kidding about the porno.”

She shook her head just once and tossed her jacket on a chair near the kitchen door. “I wasn’t kidding about the porno.”

She plopped down beside me on the couch. “I’m not an expert on the terminology, okay, because I never studied it in school, so give me a break, but I’ve managed to break the films down into three basic categories: mind control, rape, and torture. The mind control ones are the easiest to watch. It goes like this. Some guy exchanges a chatty kind of dialogue with some chick with boobs out to here…  I mean, I assume it’s chatty from the general sound of it… and within a few minutes she’s got his thingy-do in her mouth and they’re off an running. Some of the guys look fit enough and sometimes even slightly, weirdly cute… in a sideburned way… but most of them are bushy, freckled pot-bellied beasts so that’s the mind control aspect. It’s a certain kind of male fantasy for a certain kind of male… usually the gentler ones… that they can have sex with a mind-bogglingly attractive woman by merely coming up with the correct combination of words, all things being equal. I love it. But this one we’re about to see is from a rape batch, I’m pretty sure. Yeah, it’s definitely going to be rape. So, like, fasten your seat belt… ”

A tiny, black-haired, Middle Eastern type with dirigible breasts climbs out of a limousine as it comes to rest on a circular driveway. She’s done up in a way we’re meant to accept as wealthy: a low-cut black micro-dress and gaudy jewelry. Her hair hangs down as far as her thighs and she is pretty in a hard bronze way, with kohl-rimmed eyes and cheekbones of almost Mongol severity. She lets herself into a pillared house we accept as a mansion. Cut: to two gangly gentlemen (resembling nothing so much as retired second-string basketball players) dressed in black leather and berets, ransacking the master bedroom. Cut: to the ‘wealthy’ beauty ascending her spiral staircase, a half-finished bottle of champagne in one hand and her stiletto heels dangling by their straps from the other.

I cleared my throat and scratched my forehead and said, “Is this some sort of test, Amanda?”

“Um, you could think of it as a lie detector test in a way, yeah.” She giggled. Or ‘giggled’. I didn’t giggle back. What if I suffered a terribly obvious erection while these two black gentlemen beat and raped the Persian? What would that say about me and how could I deny the verdict? Amanda had mercy and flicked the remote and the picture froze with the blacks crouched on the obscure side of the bedroom door. It was a striking image. Figures on an urn. “Want some tea?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You think I’m weird now.”

I shrugged.

“I’m not weird. I’m just acclimatized to Germans. You’re the first American I’ve ever had up here. I’ve forgotten certain standards of normal.You’re new in Berlin, okay, so you don’t know it yet but the cultural distance between, like, Germany and America isn’t that much smaller than the one between, say, Iceland and Iran. You’ll see what I mean.”

4.

El-Hadi is in a quandary about his book. If he leaves the thirteenth chapter, Love is Blind, untouched, there’s a good chance that Cora (with her hairy privates; such a contrast to her polished nails) will renege on her promise to get the manuscript to Mr. X, the powerful, mysterious publisher she might also be screwing on the side. Azzedine doesn’t care who else she’s screwing beyond her husband; it’s good for his book if she sleeps with this man. He will encourage her to if she hasn’t already. He will even give her pointers. He wants to be a published American writer.

He realizes that he’s suffering the kind of cultural problem, the problem of truth, he’d expected on first arriving in his adopted country but until now naively believed he’d escaped. An illusion, of course. Has a man who hasn’t died young or even in middle-age escaped death? He’d expected the Americans to seem like Martians to him, and to treat him as though he himself were from the Moon, but his first weeks in New York had been a perfect dream of endless, seamless welcome. It was only now, all these years later, that he saw that the wall he’d expected to walk into had all this time been behind him. He was free to move forward in America but not to turn back. Not even to look back. Love is Blind, the tale of the blind womanizer… this looked too far back to Algeria. Cora was offended by the animal truth in his beautiful story and rightly saw in the center of the soul of the blind womanizer, as Azzedine had crafted him, Azzedine’s own eye winking back at her. The cold eye of a proper deity. That is art; that is truth. That is the heart of his book.

The evening of the day of Cora’s infuriating suggestion that he mutilate this creation of his; that he castrate it; Azzedine found himself alone with his young mistress, Noa, in the classroom he occupied on weekends at the community arts center. It was not a serious class and Azzedine was not paid a ‘serious’ fee for teaching it but he felt there was a serious dialogue about literature being held under all the small talk, hot air, topical blather, chit chat, empty banter and other forms of static the class was good for generating. The serious dialogue about literature was going on surreptitiously between his mistress and himself and their lovemaking was the distilled conversation in its arcane form. El-Hadi could just as well have quit the futile attempt to open these money-mad materialists up to the spirituality of a pure sentence and held the discussion in bed alone with Noa. There was something valuable in the mundane presence of the others, though. He couldn’t decide if it was as contrast or padding, or, even, protection, that the others served to magnify his pleasure in having Noa. Of seeing her amongst them like the high priestess to El-Hadi their minor god. He chuckled at this thought. But he felt it had truth.

The last lingering student, a housewife whose weekly ration of creativity was wasted in the selection of the garish hats she affected every Saturday in class, finally left them alone together. He sat for a good long time on the edge of his desk, trouser leg dangling from the desk’s corner and shining black Brogan swinging to the buzz of the overhead fluorescents with a boy’s indolence, and he luxuriated in their ability to stretch a purposeless moment. She sat at her student desk with skinny arms folded over that exquisite sparrow’s chest of hers (the violet welts of her breasts) and rolled her blue eyes around the room, smirking. Her sandy-blonde hair was short and boyishly cut and added to the aura of middle class mischief he associated with her dungarees and sandals and untucked shirt. Like that luminous gamine from Peyton Place. A woman like that, to get the full benefit of her, one makes love as one did as a boy, with a boy, that pungency under the tented bed sheet.

“Why were you so late today?”

“The truth would be indelicate, honey.”

She gave Azzedine a certain look and he turned away with embarrassment and said, “Aha. I see. Your strawberry days… ”

With a perverse glee she said, “I’m unclean.”

It was a clear, mild twilight in the shallow bowl of the Wisselwallig Valley,  the sky resembled an inverted parfait with its dulcet bands of orange and pink at the bottom and deep dark grape at top. The breezes were warm breath and Azzedine went without his suit jacket, draping it over one shoulder on the hook of his forefinger a la Sinatra, and Noa’s white shirt provocatively unbuttoned to the level of her heart. The community arts center was all glass and dark metal (though brilliantly lit), a modern structure set down upon the northernmost hill of Wisselwallig Park. They strolled down the grassy slope towards the parking lot holding hands. Holding her hand in public produced in him the kind of prideful frisson you’d expect in a man who’d overcome a phobia. They could hear a basketball smacking the concrete on the court on the other side of the lot in which El-Hadi’s car stood alone. Floodlights blazed to reveal the disconcerting delay between the dribbled ball and the sound of it while gangling Negroes and a solitary paleface chased it around the court. Azzedine brought up the topic of Cora.

Noa was shaking her head. “What do you see in that wrinkled old bag, anyway?”

“Without the other women in my life I would rely too much on you, I think, Noa,” El-Hadi joked. But it was also true: keeping several women was insurance against any one woman taking over. Especially a young woman. With her untapped dowry of as-yet-unleashed cruelties. “Otherwise one upsets the balance, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I agree in principle but why her?”

He touched two fingers to his lips and frowned, one of the gestures she found most attractive in him. He spoke as though repeating sentences that were being whispered to him. “She’s convenient. I always know where her husband is. She’s grateful for the attention. And I must also admit that I like the fact that her husband is an academic Jew. You know… it’s the sibling rivalry of the Middle East, still sleeping in my Westernized bones. It wakes up in me when I see his wife naked, you see.” He laughed. “The aura of scholarly refinement I glimpse reflected in his wife’s neglected body inflames me.”

She said, “Jews are funny. They call themselves ‘Jews’. Isn’t that funny?”

He put a hand on her shoulder, certain that no one was watching. “I find the word ‘Caucasian’ rather more amusing, to be honest.”

“I’d tell that Cora Simon creature to screw off with her suggestions, if you ask me. Since when did she become Maxwell Perkins?”

“But I very much want this book to find a home in America, Noa. Until I’m published in this country, what am I? What’s my purpose? I’m living as a man of the past and I find that intolerable. Sometimes one must hang a man to keep him from harming himself, so to speak. Is Cora ignorant of art? We could say so. But there are politics… strategies… ”

“These are all rather arch ways of saying ‘sell out’ if you want my opinion.”

“I do.”

“You like Cora because she’s had three kids and her box is capacious enough to accommodate that massive bronze thingy-do of yours. And you like me because I’m smart like a boy.”

“As I’ve already told you.”

“And I let you screw me like a boy, too.”

El-Hadi offered a courtly gesture of assent.

“Promise you’re not a queer?”

“A queer is a man pretending to be a woman. Or longing to be a woman. I am a man inside and out. I was a man already at seven.” He pretended to pretend to make a muscle of his right arm like Charles Atlas. “You could ask my father. There are two of everything on this planet and a time for everything… a tool for every job, so to speak. When I take pleasure from a male’s body it’s a matter of power and utility. Do you understand what I mean? The exchange is between master and servant. Not between two bearded dreamers in pink.”

“Is it this way between us, too? Master and servant?”

“Teacher and pupil, I should say.”

“With the twist being that I’m the teacher,” she said, skipping ahead of him and walking backwards to face him as they walked.

“Exactly,” nodded El-Hadi.

“Exactly!” shrieked Noa, and she turned and ran ahead to his car. Just watching her tired him out, and he wondered if he himself had ever in this life run. She was swift and awkward like a child; her limbs seemed to fly from her torso in an ecstasy of flight and reassemble at her destination. But when she reached his car in her game of tag she seemed to recoil from it. She cupped her hands to her mouth and called back to him, “Hey, Rudolph Valentino!”

“Hey Jean Seberg!” he responded, impulsively, feeling very foolish… feeling light-headed. Feeling for half-a-second drugged. If this was his attempt to participate in the exuberance of the era it had taught him, instantaneously, that he couldn’t. Which was a relief. He was confused, however, to see Noa examining his dear old second-hand convertible, sneaking around it in the twilight. Her head appeared above the pale ragtop and she waved.

“You’re not going to like this!”

“What?” he shouted. Shouting gave him a headache. His normal tone was a whisper.

“You’ll see when you get here!” she shouted back.

After my confusing encounter with Amanda Nye earlier in the day I realized that the character of Noa needed re-writing, so I went back to the passage in which I had first attacked the problem of her with any depth and made her less grimly enigmatic and more sexual,  less of a sphinx and more Puckish. Unpredictably young. After Amanda Nye it struck me that I couldn’t allow ‘god’ to write his characters with more verve than I did and that any novelist half-worth the term is better than ‘god’ (or god) at just about everything that matters. The novelist learns from god’s mistakes. Literature is the imposition of order and meaning on god’s untidy experiment. The passage I was re-wiring was only about half-way through the 500 or so pages (single-spaced, narrow margins, tiny font) I already had. Meaning massive revisions for the remainder.

My method is to write it out by hand in a notebook and type out the ‘completed’ chapters. Every time I change any passage anywhere (other than at the very end of the text ) it means a lot of work. But it seems to me that getting it right is a question of life and death. Getting it wrong would leave me with nothing to show for my time on the planet. A credo, if you will.

If Amanda Nye can bring a strange man, a rootless traveler (I might easily be a killer who has fled America to elude prosecution) home to watch hardcore porno with her, what is Noa Reese, twenty years old and beautiful in that magical year of 1968, capable of? I had to explore that within the themes of the book I had already developed. I had to let Noa flower without running amok. But I realized that Noa was a much more important character than I first assumed, and that Azzedine’s ex-wife Ruth was less so. Much of the writer’s block that marooned me on the 500th page was due to the strategic mistake of relying on Ruth’s character to catalyze plot developments. Ruth was too passive, content, even-tempered and willing to give. The dangerous energy of the re-configured Noa (capable, even, of violence) was my solution.

Noa wagged her finger. “Don’t touch.”

She grabbed Azzedine’s shirt sleeve as he reached for the driver-side door handle. He looked at her as though she were being bothersome and shoved her and reached for the door again. She shoved him back and said, “Christ, are you blind? Can’t you see? Somebody crapped on it.”

She pointed at swirls of what at first appeared to be ruddy rich mud on the driver-side door and on the handle and across the windshield in greasy figure eights. A thick-limbed stickman sketched in shit on the ragtop like a Roualt or a Klee. Where the tarry mud had smeared on thin it was dried and cracking but in the thicker, slopped-on gouts it oozed and glistened and fallen clumps piled under the chassis. It was not dog shit; there were mosaics of undigested food exposed in the smear. The dulled colors of a cheap cafeteria lunch. El-Hadi stood back from his car with a disgust so intense it looked to Noa, who couldn’t help laughing, like terror.

“The Jew did this… “ he said, surprised to hear his father’s quaking voice. Surprised most of all that the voice had survived the purifying crossing to America. Something chilling occurred to him as he hugged himself and headed for the floodlights of the basketball court,  Noa running after him, seeking the possibility of a witnesses among those colored boys with their ball. Something very odd.

Chapter Four in The Bomb Collector… the chapter called A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods… didn’t something similar to this happen in chapter four of his book? Someone smears shit with his bare hands on a Nigerian art dealer’s front door and the Nigerian can’t bear the idea of ever setting foot in the defiled house again. And all the precious art in the house, the paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts and fetish figures he’s collected from Africa and Mediterranean Europe for twenty five years, he decides to destroy it all along with the house. He packs the perimeter of the building with dry brush and sets fire to it and watches the flames twist and rise and roar in an ecstasy of devils without realizing that the girl of his dreams is upstairs in bed waiting for him, a gift from his incorrigible brother.

5.

I tried to sleep but I couldn’t, in no small part because I still didn’t have a bed. Buying one was the top of my list for the next day’s activities, but the resolution to do so didn’t much help at 2 in the morning as I lay on the rubberized canvas hide of the burst inflatable and a few layers of towels and sweaters under that for padding. I couldn’t sleep but I was exhausted. Not from the day’s walk but the night’s writing. Was it really an art or a compulsion? The more I wrote the less I cared about the answer to that question… which case being, in and of itself, of course, the answer.

My flat… the building… was quiet except for the sputters and hum of the student-sized refrigerator in the little kitchen. I began to imagine the most ancient former tenants of the place, which is the oldest building in the neighborhood: built at the end of the nineteenth century. Grim German ghosts. Because the games the mind plays with itself are usually uncontrollable, I had a vivid fantasy of a young peasant (shapeless hat; rope belt) hanging himself from a beam (now gone) in the living room where I was trying to sleep… kicking and swinging in front of the high window with its view of the park. When someone tapped on the window I nearly jumped out of my skin.

I opened the window and looked down and saw that it was Amanda Nye, standing on her tiptoes in a faint drizzle on the sidewalk. I put on my pants and shoes and let her into the building. “It’s 4 in the morning,” I whispered.

“It’s the human timepiece!” she said in a middle-of-the-day voice. There was a bike in the hallway, chained to the balustrade at the bottom of the staircase. “Is this your bike? We should ride to Wannsee before the weather gets too cold.”

“It’s not my bike.” I ushered her into the flat. I had to admit to myself that I was grateful for the company after the vivid suicide reverie of a few minutes prior. She peered into the kitchen, then turned left and I followed her into my living room, switching on the light as I entered. She was wearing her orange jacket and a dark beret and beadlets of rain were sparkling on her face. She was taller than me in very high heels.

She said, “I figured you could use some company,” and from the look on her face I couldn’t tell if she was making a guilty joke or congratulating herself on her amazing generosity. She looked around the room and her face fell. “No bed.”

“No nothing,” I added. I nearly mentioned the fact that I had to sit on the toilet just to write in my notebook but I didn’t want her to know I was writing.

“You’re a real little Abelard, aren’t you?”

“A what?”

“You don’t know the story of Abelard and what’s-her-name? Heloise?”

“No, and at the risk of sounding like a bad host, I don’t really care to, either.”

“Suit yourself.”

She patted my cheek and handed me her jacket. I hung it on the door handle. She fossicked around in her backpack and said, “Look, I brought some candles. And some absolutely exquisite hot cocoa. Ohhh, and some embarrassingly old digestive biscuits from the UK.” She handed me each item after announcing it.

“I don’t have a pot to make the cocoa in.”

“This is where my sheer genius comes in handy.” She handed me a small electric tea kettle and two tin cups.

She removed her heels and we sat on the floor in the candle-lit kitchen using mounds of my clothing, wrapped up in sweatshirts, as pillows. I took note of the fact that either the candles flattered her or she was wearing a cleverly subtle layer of makeup or that a combination of the hour, the circumstance and general loneliness was eroding my faculties of discrimination: her lips seemed plumper, her eyes rounder and the bridge of her nose not quite so broad. Also, the soft white sweater she had on seemed to me to be an order of magnitude bustier than I remembered her being. I wondered what kind of inventory she was performing on me, meanwhile. I could only hope I wasn’t being judged solely by the lights of the content of my character, because that would mean I was a shit.

“You must be the only person in Berlin who speaks less German than I do.” She gave me a thumbs-up. “What nobody can seem to get through their thick skulls is that I like not being able to speak the language… my isolation is a luxury, man, it’s precious to me. Most writers, like, pay for solitude like this.” She peered at me from under the rim of her beret as she sipped her cocoa.

“You’re a writer?”

“Didn’t I tell you? Oh my. That’s why I came to Berlin, to write my second book.”

“I thought you came to take language lessons.”

“That too.” She smiled and carefully placed her cup beside the electric kettle. “I’ve had two novels published and one twee little book of short stories. It’s practically an oeuvre, dah-ling. Surprised?”

“You said you were disillusioned with art at a young age, though, yes?”

“Writing isn’t an art, it’s an addiction, silly boy.”

I was glad that I hadn’t mentioned The Bomb Collector; how foolish would that have made me look? Strutting dilettante with his chest puffed out. The ghost of Richard, pointing and laughing. When and if she does ask what I ‘do’, I decided, my answer will be simple:  housepainter.

“It’s cozy in here,” she said, “even without the furniture. You’re lucky…  my flat gives me the creeps.  Too many ghosts.”

“Doesn’t anyone ever come there looking for the former tenant?”

“No… I don’t think she knew very many people, poor girl. She was here illegally, you know… even the government didn’t know. Iranian. Persian if you want to get poetic and towel-head if you want to exercise your freedom of speech. Two heads worth of hair on her head… best thing about Iran has got to be all that hair in that country. The women have hairy arms and faint mustaches and the boys are capable of beards at seven.  She was a pretty little thing, though. I suppose she’s packed in a box in an abandoned building in Haiti by now,” she giggled. “Not to be morbid. Jamaica, I mean,” she corrected herself.  “How long do you think you’ll stay in Berlin?”

She sat with her back against the kitchen wall, hugging her knees. She seemed less larger-than-life than before… nicely so. It occurred to me in any case that I had fucked less likable women and even fallen in love with ones who were not nearly as bright. It also struck me that ‘personality’ is almost always a defense mechanism; a diversion. Wit, charm, gregarious vitality: they’re all a performance. The core being is a mysterious bundle of thoughts and sensations much closer to animal than we care to admit… it may well be that the ‘human’ aspect exists solely in the performance… the human bit is an avatar we project to interact with other avatars. The more her performance faded (out of sheer exhaustion), the more I liked her.

“I mean,” she yawned, resting her chin on her knees and closing her eyes, “do you even like Berlin so far, or are you already kicking yourself for coming here?”

I yawned back and didn’t bother answering. I just stared, determined to make her do all the work.

She stood and crossed the kitchen towards the countertop, dragging her fingers through my hair along the way, and cradled her hand around each candle flame before blowing it out. Because it was dawn, however, the room was no darker after than it had been before, and I watched her undress.

“Voyeur,” said Amanda.

6.

It rained all day, the next day (or, that is, later the same day), and I found myself under a cheap umbrella on Schönhauser Allee, looking for a mattress store. I hadn’t told Amanda about my plan to go mattress shopping simply because I hadn’t wanted the activity to take on symbolic significance; a tacky conjugal milestone; I just wanted to make a basic purchase. After an adventurous few hours on the makeshift campsite of my living room floor, we’d separated drowsily at the front door of my building with a plan to meet later for dinner. I ended up wandering for quite a while in a light drizzle after it became obvious that most shops weren’t open before ten or eleven a.m.. I window-shopped a sex boutique with a row of huge black topologically accurate dildos on display like biblical serpents. Next door was a travel agent advertizing discount flights to Johannesburg.

There’s a wretched majesty to the city in the rain that fulfills its romantic image. I’ve seen Berlin on a bright hot summer day and there’s something sad about it under those conditions… ugly and vulnerable like an old queen kicked out at closing time and caught staggering home in a blast of work-a-day sunshine. Berlin is properly a city of mists and fogs and water-stained stone. Buildings rarely burn here, but they go black with time. To stand near one of these black edifices is to feel the cold serenity of the utterly hopeless.

When it started raining so hard that drops were bursting through the fabric of the umbrella in a fine spray, I stepped off the street into a cafe packed with refugees from the sudden downpour. Most of the refugees were standing with styrofoam cups of coffee at the glass wall of the cafe, watching the rain, waiting for a break in it, so there were several free tables. I picked one near the back, propped my drenched umbrella against the wall and dug a little notepad out of the capacious side-pocket of my raincoat. I always carry a notepad and pencil, never knowing when I’ll have the opportunity to write.

I flipped open the notebook, stared at the blank page on the table, licked my pencil and wrote: She is lying. Then I looked at what I’d written and wondered what I meant by it.

Azzedine El-Hadi once made a remark to me that was so powerful that I seriously considered either framing it or making a tattoo of it. We were using a chart to replace the hundreds of framed photos (of every size and style of framing) of beautiful women on the walls of his bedroom. The walls were freshly painted a lovely, subtle green called Statue Patina. I don’t remember what specific conversational thread led to this but he said:

“Women are liars and men are their lies.”

I went home after work that day and put the same line in the mouth of Azzedine’s doppelgänger in the untitled novel I’d just started (having scrapped the first attempt: a novel concerning the adventures of two house painters), inspired by our conversations. I was yet to have the book’s title as Azzedine was yet to pass it on to me (unawares) as the memory of his father’s favorite aphorism. The manuscript was thirty or forty pages of first draft at that stage and the few characters that populated it were stick figures who spoke like comic book characters and moved in a jerky, mechanical fashion.

Cora was standing in El-Hadi’s bathtub, one foot up on the bathtub’s rim, while El-Hadi sponged her reddening flesh. Rosewater. There was evidence of his attitude towards the female sex, she was thinking, in the vociferousness with which he soaps and scrubs my cunt. She sighed and said, “You can’t really agree with that, Azzedine. Tell me you can’t. Having a cunt doesn’t automatically make me a liar.” She usually pinned up her shoulder-length hair when he bathed her but she felt particularly exposed this time; shy about her old neck. My mother’s neck. Red as a radish. As a lobster. El-Hadi said,

“Whether I agree with it or not is immaterial, Mrs. Simon. The saying was already old before America itself was only a dream! Who are we to quibble with its wisdom? Perhaps you take it too literally.” A hand-rolled cigarette batted up and down between his lips as he spoke and his right eye squinted against the smoke that rose into it. “Okay,” he said. He clapped. “Out.” He fetched a towel and patted her dry.

I looked up from the declarative sentence in my notebook. I saw that it had stopped raining, so I left the cafe without having ordered a thing, feeling as though I’d gotten away with something. The scrubbed air tingled on my face and the clouds had lifted to the level of the tree tops like a blur of ghostly kites. The ground was a dark mirror of stone and asphalt; cars drove on their reflections.

“Are you always so mind-bogglingly observant?”

I jumped. It was Amanda, laughing in my ear. I was walking at a good clip but she was right beside me, clopping along in her heels. “I was sitting right there in the Supreme Bean!”

“The what?”

She took my arm in hers. “Possibly the name of the cafe you just came out of, Captain Kirk?”

“When I was a kid we had a cat that was forced to wear a bell around its neck… ”

“Droll. You walked right by me when you came in the cafe. You sat at a table in the back and wrote something in your notebook and just sat there staring at it in a trance for, like, fifteen minutes. Then you got up and left. What were you writing?”

“Nothing. List of things I need to buy today.”

“Do you mind if I look at it?” She reached in the pocket of my raincoat and fished out the notebook. It was a brand new notebook, so there was nothing else to find in it but what I’d just written. “She is lying. Who’s lying?”

“Not you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I wasn’t thinking that.”

“I disagree.”

“Okay. But only for as long as it took me to read, reflect on and be hurt by it.”

“Hey, aren’t we meeting for dinner tonight?”

“Hint taken. Well, here’s my bike, you silver-tongued devil.”

It was chained to what looked like a German No Parking sign. It was too beat up to require security measures more stringent than sticking a Free Bike sign to it. She unchained it, wiped the cracked vinyl rain-beaded seat with the arm of her orange jacket and swung a leg over. “Anyway, that’s what we do.”

“What?’

“Writers. That’s what we do. We lie. Fair warning. So bring a decent bottle of wine and your toothbrush tonight. Or feel free to use mine. You haven’t even bothered to ask me who I was sitting in the cafe with. Tootles.” She pedaled off, leaving me in a quandary as to whether or not I liked her.

It wasn’t even 11 a.m. yet but I was too tired to continue this quest for a mattress. I made my way home and collapsed on the pile I called a bed and dozed off until the construction workers’ lunchbreak was over. The building shook and I let loose with a primal scream of rage and frustration that no one could even hear. Or so I thought.

Five minutes later my doorbell was ringing. I heard it during a two-second gap in the roar of construction. I assumed it was Amanda and snatched the door open wearing nothing but my pants and was non-plussed by the apparition of ‘the little red-headed girl,’ standing with a tentative smile in my doorway. I find that clichés work best in the description of beauty: she was cat-eyed and breathtaking. With perfect posture and pearly-white teeth. She spoke with the faintest of German accents.

“Are you okay? You screamed. It sounded like you hurt yourself.” As wild and irrational as I felt I must look to her at that moment, she didn’t seem afraid. She extended her perfectly sculpted hand in greeting. “I’m your upstairs neighbor, Nico. I heard an American was moving in.”

I shook hands with her. “John.”

“John! John… what?”

“John just-John.”

“Hi John just-John. So I guess you’re okay, then?”

“Great. Except, you know… the noise… ”

“Speaking of which.” She winked and lowered her voice and leaned near; the smell of her hair was tantalizing. “I heard you this morning. I thought you were watching a porno until I saw your girlfriend staggering out of the building… ”

“Who? Oh! That’s not my girlfriend.”

“Well, I hope she’s not your daughter!”

“No, neither. You know. I don’t know. It’s Berlin, right?”

“Is it?”

“It’s not?”

“I’m a Christian, ” she beamed. Oh god. Well, the Christianity explained her boldness. Proselytizers are bold of a necessity, but I felt it was unfair for her to harbor an agenda like this and be so physically attractive. “Christians don’t do that. In Berlin or anywhere else.”

“Christians look like this?”

“You should see my little sister.”

“What do I get if I convert?”

“Unsurpassed peace and blessings everlasting.”

“Is that a euphemism?”

She wiggled her fingers in a bye-bye wave and turned towards the staircase. “You’re asking a virgin?”

“Have a nice day, Nico.”

“Same to you, John.”

And she ascended the staircase. What stuck with me was how she’d pronounced ‘unsurpassed,’ emphasizing the third and fourth syllables of the word. Like an Elizabethan. Her pale skin and orange hair and striking blue eyes supported this impression.

7.

At Amanda’s that evening I experimented with pretending that Amanda was Nico. Nico lighting a dozen candles around her living room, bustling back and forth from the kitchen in an apron. A kitsch apron embroidered with a German aphorism girdling Nico’s hips. The touchingly harried look of a woman trying to get the first meal just right… but not on Amanda’s face… on Nico’s. It was impossible, though, to imagine Nico demonstrating one of Amanda’s feats of strength: the trunk. She was using the steamer trunks for dinner tables and the one edge-up on its wheels had to be laid on its side with the other. She was grunting and groaning as she maneuvered it, so I jumped from the sofa to help. I was stunned to discover that the thing must have weighed as much as I do.

“It’s okay, I’ve got it.”

“Honey, the thing weighs a ton, let me… ”

“Don’t be a male chauvinist pig, John-John… I said I’ve got it. Sit down, okay? You’re my guest. Sit fucking down and relax.” She lowered it carefully onto its side and let it fall the last inch or so with a flat-shaking thud. Her sleeves were rolled up and I saw the veins bulging in her forearms. I thought: I better never make this girl really mad.

She spread a white lace table cloth over each trunk and brought in two plates but no utensils. I was forbidden entry to the kitchen so when she went off to stir something or turn a flame down or whatever she was up to we communicated by shouting between the two rooms, which were separated by a short hallway. Both to make small talk, and to indulge in the surreptitious erotic delight of discussing Nico with Amanda, I said, “Turns out there’s a Christian living in my building. Right upstairs.”

“A Christian?” Amanda yelled, over the sound of chopping. “Is he a German?”

She’s a German, yeah.”

“Germans can never really be Christians. They’re too pagan in the blood. They revert to their roots in times of great need or stress. I’d watch out for her. She’s probably horny as a stampede of cattle. Where do you stand on salt in your food?”

“No particular stance.”

She poked her head around the corner. “No issues with hypertension?”

“Not particularly.”

“Well, you know. Forty two and so forth.”

“I’m a healthy specimen.”

“So I’ve noticed.” She disappeared. When she came out of the kitchen again she was carrying a paperback. She said, “Dinner’ll be ready in twenty minutes, sir. By the way, in case you’re curious.” She handed me the book.

The Passenger. By Amanda Nye, Harridan Press. Nice cover.”

“Thanks.”

The cover was a black and white period-type photo of a station platform. Couple of ‘colored’ porters in the background and a pale-skinned, black-haired female traveler in the foreground, looking a bit camp in a pinstriped, shoulder-padded, wide-lapeled business suit of the ’40s. The dame was glancing at her chunky, modern, steel-banded wristwatch, the anachronism (no pun intended) which falsified the image. Glancing at the watch with a look of concern. Was someone late for a rendezvous? A suspect? A lover? I handed the book back.

“Oh no, please. Keep it.”

“Thanks. I’ll have a look later. Is it post modern?”

“Genre. Sub-genre. Lipstick-lesbian murder mystery.”

“There’s a market?”

“Large enough to keep me in Ramen Noodles.”

“I thought I recognized the smell of monosodium glutamate wafting from the kitchen.”

“Give that man a cigar! It’s the beef flavor packet, so your Riesling should go well with it.”

I tapped the female on the book cover. “Victim or sleuth?”

“Neither. The publisher’s girlfriend. Actually, this is true, I made the publisher a minor character in the book.”

“So it is post modern.”

“Isn’t everything?”

“Though nobody yet has managed to define the term to my satisfaction.”

“Well, it’s like the definition of pornography, isn’t it.”

“You know it when you see it?”

“You know it when you do it. Ooops! Gotta go check on Ramen.”

The mention of the word pornography reminded me of the fact that the table-cloth-covered steamer trunk I would be eating on was full of it. This gave me a funny little thrill. I’d be dining atop all those pumping, heaving, spasming body-parts. All those pink and brown gurgling holes. It was very nearly disgusting, like some new Japanese restaurant fad.

I agreed with Amanda’s assessment of her flat: it gave me the creeps. There was an aura of the taxidermied and shellacked about it that the candle light, with its twitching shadows and orangey wood-tones, exacerbated. But did this creepiness emanate from Amanda or the previous tenant or something inherit in the apartment? Could the previous tenant really be blamed for the Victorian attic ambiance if Amanda had been living here for five years already?

I yelled, “Hey, I have an idea for a book you can write.” But she didn’t answer. I waited a good long time and called out, “Amanda?” and there was silence, though I heard the creaking of floorboards in other rooms in the apartment.

Just as I was deciding to go check on her she entered the room carrying a large silver serving tray, dressed in the style of an orthodox Muslim: from head to toe in a dark Burka, only her hands and eyes exposed. Her eyes were kohl-rimmed and the grim fabric of the Burka billowed and despite her attempt at being exotic or even seductive she was frightening. There was no trace… no remnant… nothing to indicate that within that macabre shroud there existed a human in any way known to me. She knelt with the tray and set it on the edges between the two trunks and spooned dollops of hummus, tabouli, tahini, etc., on my plate. Her plate remained empty.

I said, “Amanda…”  But she cocked her Burka’d head with a perfectly alien movement and stared me down, a finger over the shroud where her lips would be.

I realized that in this role-playing fantasy, she couldn’t eat until after I was finished. I was very hungry and the food was delicious; she knelt beside me as I ate. The apartment was quiet as a crypt, which magnified the sound of my chewing and swallowing. She remained in character throughout, and I tried not to look at her, but it was impossible. There were no utensils; I just scooped and mopped with hunks of pita bread; and I’d stuff some in my mouth and glance over and there she’d be, eyes downcast, swaying almost imperceptibly as I ate. The horror of the Burka is the sinister magic of it… how the woman shrouded in it becomes all women and no woman, with less personality than a dog.

I ate quickly, finishing about half of the food, then leaned back from the plate and gestured that she should continue where I’d left off. She was reluctant until I moved entirely away from the ‘table’ and sat on the couch. She then crawled to the plate and balanced on her haunches, lifting the front flap of her cowl with one hand and stuffing the food in with the other, careful not to expose any of her own flesh in the process. There was a hypnotic rhythm to the mechanics of it and a dream-like blankness in her kohl-rimmed eyes which she fixed on me without acknowledging my presence. The eyes looked decorative, flat, painted-on… but it also struck me that they could be gazing on some bearded Imam of the 19th century for the absolute absence of recognition I saw in them.

Abruptly, she stopped shoveling it in and angled away from the plate for a still moment, eyes closed, and then she stood, with a rustle of fabric, and crossed to where I sat on the couch. Kneeling before me, pushing my legs apart, she fussed with my zipper. She reached in with thumb and forefinger and plucked it out deftly while lifting the front flap of her cowl. I only caught a glimpse of my swelling dick before it disappeared into her mouth under the shroud. Her head bobbed and I gripped at the couch, holding my breath while she nodded and gulped in prayer.

I closed my eyes and arched my back and pushed into the dark warmth. I made sounds… I said things… I’m not sure. If I hadn’t opened my eyes again before coming I wouldn’t have seen Amanda, in a bathrobe, walk into the room with that smirk of hers.

8.

I shoved the Burka away and jumped up and snatched at the door and stumbled down five flights two steps at a time in the dark, barely able to breathe. I ran across the black courtyard to the front of the building and shouldered through the heavy door afraid that they might follow me and I ran when I hit the sidewalk and the laughter I had heard or imagined I heard as I escaped from Amanda’s flat… the dirty laughter that followed me down the stairs as though the witch it came out of was flying down the stairs behind me… her laughter was smokey, Middle Eastern; the dusty throat of the Levant. Amanda wasn’t laughing but her friend in the Burka was. This is like a movie, I kept thinking. This is like a horror movie. I even considered, for a wild second, flagging down a cop car. Had I just been raped? If not, I’d been severely fucked with. I couldn’t tell if the chest pains were from the trauma or from running down five flights of stairs.

I vowed to myself that I’d never cross paths with Amanda Nye again, although, the further I got from her flat, the less frightened, the less angry, I became. I could see the creepy Zen of it… the decadent, artistic Choderlos de Laclos wit of it, even. Still, I had never been less than ambivalent about a relationship with Amanda, as interesting as she had proven herself to be, and this was the perfect excuse for a righteous exit. She couldn’t drench me in guilt or seek revenge over my breaking things off with her because by almost any system of reckoning, what she had done was ‘wrong’. I could well remember her saying, I’m not weird, I’m just acclimatized to Germans. I’ve forgotten certain standards of normal. Damn right. But it wasn’t as though she’d killed anyone. Knowing Ms. Nye, I realized, meant never knowing when the floor was about to drop out from under you. Some people might enjoy that.

Six blocks away from the scene of the crime I began to laugh. I laughed hard. More had already happened to me in my first few days in Berlin than in ten years of living in San Diego. I felt free, the sky was bruise-blue and moonlit and beaded with stellar ova; the air was a cool drink and Kastanien Allee was jumping. A Babel of music pumped out of every cafe, club, restaurant and idling car on both sides of the long long street and young people were everywhere, endearingly willing to dress up in loud fashions and prance across my path. I was glad I hadn’t come in the Burka’s mouth. I was glad I hadn’t wasted the day’s orgasm.

A skinny blonde came skipping out of an Indian bistro sing-songing something in German. Taking note of my incomprehension, she said, “Do you please have the extra money you can give me, sir?” She was late-teens, early twenties and dressed like a pirate, with leggings and tall boots and a red bandana tied over her ratty blonde shoulder-length hair. She smelled like hard candy and cigarettes. There was a spot high in the middle of her forehead that it had obviously been the bandanna’s job, before slipping, to hide. “An Euro, perhaps?”

“Sure,” I said, and handed her a five. This appeared to impress her.

“You must be American,” she said. “Brits are as cheap like the Germans. Are all Americans so rich?”

“No, but we’re all fools.”

“I like fools!”

“Lucky you. I’m a one man ship of fools.”

“Hey, you talk like a book by Jack Kerouac, man. You must be, so, a Schriftsteller. I am correct?”

“What’s a Schriftsteller?”

She mimed writing. “You must be a psychic,” I said.

“For another five I am reading your palm.”

“I’ll give you ten to listen to me talk for forty minutes.”

She made a praying gesture with her hands. “Fifteen?”

“Deal.”

We walked arm-in-arm up Kastanien Allee, a forty two year old American and a nineteen year old waif of Central Europe. Being a nameless, faceless traveler, I was immune to shame or the pressure of public opinion, like a long-time member of the Milwaukee chapter of the Kiwanis Club with his arm around a fifteen year old hooker in Saigon. I was still half-hard from the unfinished blow-job and rattled, still, by the prank. But I refused to remain creeped-out for the rest of the evening. I refused to let Amanda have the last laugh or dominate my thoughts by becoming a phobia. Let’s speak of things Amanda knows not of, I thought. I told the girl,

“I had an unhappy childhood. My parents divorced before I could even walk, and my father was nothing but an authoritarian voice on the telephone who would only make the special trip to where my mother and I lived if I had done something bad enough to deserve a spanking.”

“I soon figured out the relationship between misbehaving and seeing my father, so I misbehaved constantly. Those spankings were the high point of my week. I usually made sure to misbehave on the weekend so the spankings wouldn’t interfere with homework.”

“Meanwhile, my mother, my gentle mother, whom I’d loved obsessively as an infant, seemed less perfect as I grew older and went to school. She was not a bright woman… my father had married her for her looks and her ability in the kitchen and her natural genius was in her optimism and kindness. But I was a so-called gifted child… too smart to be happy, or to fit in anywhere… and I soon lost patience with the idiotic aphorisms and catch-phrases she faced life with. I was a cruel little tyrant of eight or nine the first time I told my poor sweet mother to shut up. What’s worse, rather than spank the shit out of me for that filthy impertinence, she obeyed me. Which had the effect, to make a long story short, of ruining my life.”

“I was accepted into an expensive private college, on a full scholarship, at the age of 15. The student body was equal parts whiz-kids and trust-fund brats and quite a few members of the faculty were bonafide geniuses and or masters of their discipline and taught classes that in some cases featured three pale students with large, pulsing craniums. It should have been exactly the kind of place I’d find myself in, but, instead, I spent my two years on campus staging elaborate pranks and fucking beautiful coeds from all over the world. I’d always wanted to write a book, I could write extremely well but only in spurts, but it had never occurred to me that writing could be a profession… something that people paid you to do. It never occurred to me that this private college was anything other than a symbol for everything I hated about people who’d been born having more than I did.”

“I quit in the middle of my sophomore year to follow a girl to California. I was still just barely seventeen. This was the late ’70s. I jumped into her Volkswagen minibus with a duffel bag full of my meager possessions and that was that.”

“The thing I noticed real quick was that whereas in prep school and college, smart people were paid or otherwise motivated to listen to you, outside of college, the density of smart people not only dropped to something close to the vacuum of interstellar space, but, also, the dumb fucks you suddenly found yourself surrounded by… whether on the job or in your run-down apartment building or even on the streets… could not give less than half a blind monkey’s bent-dicked fuck about your theories, dreams, quips or observations. In fact, it soon becomes painfully clear that many dumb people are too dumb to know they’re dumb or that you, in contrast, are smart… they even, some of them, misinterpreting the eccentric behaviour of the intellectually gifted for stupidity, might take to calling you retard.”

“The moistly voluptuous Jewish American Princess I had run away from school with wised-up fairly quick and opted out of the situation by playing her trump card: blaming me. Daddy sent a friend of the family… a crewcut jock attending the school I’d bailed out of… to get her the fuck out of our hovel with a minimum of incident and drive her back to the family compound in Rhode Island. When I got home from my job on the loading dock that day, I saw them driving off, and when I entered the open door of the apartment I noticed that all the good furniture, all the booze, most of the records and all of the silverware… was gone. The only thing she left me… and this hurt… was the hand-painted book of poetry I’d written for her birthday. That she left in the empty refrigerator, strangely, and I’m still working out the symbolism there. Her family had staged an intervention and pried her easily out of a poverty cult of two, no deprogramming necessary. Have I mentioned already that it was her idea to quit school and move to California? Life, as we now know, is unfair.”

The girl I was walking with (who called herself  ‘Motte’… German for Moth) took all of this in and said,”You must be lucky to write. I dream of this, or to make music.” She reached up and adjusted her bandanna, self-conscious about her Third Eye. “To eat from what you create!”

She assumed, of course, that I was a published writer; that I earned my living from words. I could have taken her back to Amanda Nye’s place and introduced her, saying Now, this is a real writer, Moth; she has a book out and everything… unlike me. Instead, I acted the part for my little fan. To lie about being a published writer is to be closer to being a published writer than if one is honest about not being one, after all. I went into great detail about my book. If there’s one thing anyone who’s committed a year or two of his or her life to the founding and maintenance of a text knows, people with whom one can discuss the effort are far and few between. Songwriters have it easy: they ask for between three and five minutes of your time, on average. Painters even easier: usually, a glance will do it. But a writer… someone working on a novel… is truly a wretch, waiting for that rare patient angel with hours, days, weeks of attention to dedicate towards the reading and discussing of one’s god-damned creation.

The real Azzedine El-Hadi had been the only such listener in my life (while Richard was the perfect embodiment of the anti-listener); there would have been no The Bomb Collector (whatever degree of a shambles the manuscript is in at this moment) without our conversations. Rigorous conversations about aesthetics, language, vision, purpose, life. Everything. It was refreshing, in America, to have what Americans might consider a self-indulgence or a hobby treated by this cultured Algerian as a sacred duty imposed upon me by my sincere willingness to undertake it. Not that he had ever read the result, or even knew that I was working on a fabulated version of his life. He respected my serious desire to write and proved this respect by listening.

And now there was this nineteen year old runaway (I assumed she was a runaway), who’d listen to anything I cared to ramble about in exchange for a pathetic €15. She seemed smart enough; her English wasn’t bad; and, most importantly, she was at an age during which interest in Art is at its peak, if it is present at all. Not to mention the fact that €15 would probably feed her for three days. I only escaped feeling guilt about this exploitative arrangement by floating the mitigating (and experimental?) thought that at least I wasn’t expecting a blow job.

The first time El-Hadi was bold enough to go on a ‘date’ with Noa in public, he drove the precautionary distance from his conservative bedroom community in the Wisselwallig valley to Manhattan. If he couldn’t get away with it in Manhattan, there was nowhere in America that he could reasonably expect to. Noa considered her lover’s caution quaint (fatherly) at best and paranoid (grandmotherly) at worst, and El-Hadi was torn between wanting to have a pleasantly uneventful experience and hoping that his young mistress might learn a lesson about the dangers inherent in crossing certain lines, not only in America but around the world. Her assumption that she could go anywhere and do anything (the driving force behind the Peace Corps, no?) was her middle-class, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant birthright and El-Hadi resented and admired this birthright in equal measure. Noa Reese wouldn’t know the caliphate from a Caliban but she had a Mullah’s pig-headed arrogance.

The first part of the journey, El-Hadi kept the top up on his convertible, but ten miles along the Henry Hudson Parkway he pulled over into a scenic rest stop (Howard Johnson’s) and put the top down and they enjoyed the rest of the drive with the wind and the sun as fellow passengers. There was an AM radio in the car and Noa was in charge of it, so El-Hadi was treated to the cacophony of musical so-called ‘youth culture,’ which was owned, promoted, often created and sometimes even performed by middle-aged men. They had a good-natured argument about Paul Anka.

“He’s Lebanese.”

“No he’s not!”

“Oh, I’m afraid he is, my dear. His biggest pop hit is ‘Diana’, yes? You remember this song?”

“Yes I remember that dusty old thing.”

“It was about a Lebanese girl named Diana Ayoub!” El-Hadi laughed with great relish. “He’s now married to the daughter of an Egyptian count! You are unaware the extent to which the Arab world is taking over, my dear! But not to worry, I’ll put in a good word for you!”

“It’s just music for squares, anyway. Who cares? I suppose the Jefferson Airplane are Arabs, too?”

“I would not be shocked by this! Although I rather suspect they are Jews.”

“Same thing.”

“In point of fact it is, in many cases, but don’t tell anyone I uttered such blasphemy.” He dragged a finger across his neck. “It is an unpopular opinion among the boys with the sharp knives.”

“And so they have found Manhattan?” asked Moth.

“They have found Manhattan.”

“They found a good place to park?”

“They found the best of all possible parking places.”

“Did they park in the sun or under a tree?”

I began to seriously reconsider the blow job option. I said, “Moth, can you really read my palm?”

“I have done it like my nine-to-five job since I am twelve. Everybody knows that Motte is the girl who reads palms like they are U-Bahn maps.” We were standing in front of the crowded entrance to a club/cafe called Rash wherein a live band was banging away on their laptops. It didn’t strike me as the most congenial atmosphere for tuning into the ether but Moth grabbed my right hand and held it up in the brilliant red glare of the neon RASH sign.

9.

As Noa and El-Hadi waited at the bus stop for the number 6a (because his car, smeared with human feces, was now untouchable), he thought of the time they’d driven into Manhattan together, a little more than a year before. He’d had the same damp palms; the anxiety like sand in his lungs. What did he expect to happen on a city bus, a lynching? He’d never in his life ridden one. Noa was in charge on this mission and it was she who held the two adult fares of thirty five cents each (including the nickle charge for a transfer) as the bus rounded the corner onto the main street that ran along the southern edge of Wisselwallig Park. The bus was a gleaming cage, a mobile exhibit from the zoo. It wasn’t packed but it was far from empty and, after Noa dropped their money in the slot and the machine collated and digested the coins, making a sound like a tiny washing machine, El-Hadi followed her up the aisle, careful not to make eye contact with any of the piles of clothing that sat motionless on the filthy green seats. The experience was marginally less disgusting than driving home in his shit-besmeared car would have been.

Last year, summer, a near-lunch in Manhattan and the Diane Arbus show at MoMa. El-Hadi had parked his car in a lot owned by distant cousins who’d preceded him to America and the cousin on site at the lot, the short dark one who now called himself Sammy, had given Azzedine a sly and complicated look which Azzedine recognized from his youth. That’s nice what you’ve got there, cousin… how about sharing?

A subway ride later they were on Fifth Avenue, headed for West 53rd Street. The tension in Azzedine’s neck by then made him feel like a robot who could only turn his head left or right by moving his entire torso. Noa, in contrast, was energized by the Manhattan shop windows and babbling giddily. Several times she reached spontaneously for his hand to drag him to see something… a purse or a shoe or a shockingly short skirt on a mannequin… and he dodged the gesture. Everywhere he looked he saw red-faced Irish cops, plainclothes detectives or bohunk sailors on shore leave, savagely drunk. The hipsters, freaks, fashion-plates, matrons and sniffy plutocrats who also thronged the street were invisible to him, or flat as cartoons and resolutely backgrounded as he picked out one after another of the vivid threats to his dignity and physical well-being as he and Noa walked by.

Who would intercede if there were to be trouble? The pathetic, black-skinned shoe-shine boy? The Puerto Rican queers cackling on the corner? Noa’s fine-featured, fair-skinned beauty made him feel blatantly dark and coarse in comparison, as though his charcoal touch had left smudges and pawprints on her. To make matters worse, Noa had dressed like a proper woman for a change. The knee-length skirt and frilly top and suede boots… the little purse and those big round sunglasses… he looked like her sweaty old chauffeur when he opened the car door for her and she poured out, long legs first, like a drink from an aristocrat’s refrigerator.

The Arbus show confirmed his mood. “My god,” whispered Noa, glancing at the museum guard over her shoulder as though what she was about to say might get them kicked out of the exhibition, “I didn’t realize there were so many ugly people… ”

Azzedine pressed two fingers to his lips and lowered his chin and said, “Is it that they are so ugly, or that they have seen so much ugliness?”

“Well, I bet they never dreamed they’d be hung on the walls like this, for all the world to see.”

“All the world? Not even a millionth of it.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know all too well what you mean.”

She tried to slip her arm around his waist but he sidestepped the gesture. “Not here, Noa,” he whispered. Now it was his turn to glance at the guard.

“If not here, then where? Christ, Azzy, it’s not… Nazi Germany!”

For you it’s not,” he answered, too quickly, with too much passion, and he realized, immediately, how idiotic he sounded. Like a frightened old woman. To prove he was a man he reached and pulled Noa to his side and kissed her full on the mouth.

“That’s enough of that, Jack,” said the museum guard, tapping Azzedine on the shoulder. A thick-lipped Polack with sour-milk breath. “This is public property! Take it outside to the gutter!”

“We’ll probably just screw in the car, thanks,” said Noa, sweetly. It was exactly what the day needed… it broke the spell… Azzedine and Noa left the exhibition hand in hand, laughing, strolling down the famous spiral ramp of the museum like any other culture-loving couple. They didn’t notice the man who followed them out into the sunlit street.

Azzedine, who hadn’t been in Manhattan since his arrival in America more than a decade earlier, was on the lookout for a restaurant in which to treat his young mistress to a proper meal; he was torn between wanting to keep a low profile for fear of trouble and wanting to show off the prize on his arm in a commensurate venue. Noa continued to lobby for something casual, by which she meant, without being blunt enough to put it that way, an establishment frequented by young people. Azzedine had brought a navy-blue blazer to wear with his white turtleneck and gray slacks and oxfords, despite the heat, and the thought of sitting in a dining room full of similarly-attired people filled Noa with anticipatory boredom so powerful that she nearly yawned from it. Dining with her parents upstate every blue moon provided more than enough of the required yearly dosage of that particular character-building vitamin.

Her Algerian lover, so forcefully young in bed and so self-possessedly fascinating in the classroom, was half the man, however, under other circumstances. He aged and shrank in the context of the mindless chores and mundane confrontations of daily life; how else could she explain his vassalage to the snap judgments of absolute nobodies? It was Noa’s job, she felt, to support him… be his crutch, his shield or even his red-tipped cane… when he wasn’t fucking or lecturing. She’d read his story A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods but hadn’t understood it in the context of their relationship.

Noa won the restaurant battle because El-Hadi couldn’t find anything satisfactory after forty minutes of walking. By then they’d wandered into an aromatically fecund corner of the East Village and Noa stamped her feet in a mock tantrum in front of a place called The Star’s Bangled Jammer. Laughing, wringing his hands and rolling his eyes to a putatively Christian heaven for strength, Azzedine gave in.

They pushed through the heavy curtains of the entrance and found a table near the window and Azzedine, seating Noa and then himself said, “This looks like a madman’s idea of a restaurant.” The walls were covered in primitively hand-painted faces. “Or a child’s,” he added.

Noa shrugged. “Everything is relative, Azzy.”

“Relativism is merely nihilism without the courage of its convictions, my dear. Is bright light merely on a continuum with utter darkness? Pleasure interchangeable with pain? Aesthetics may seem to many to be a wholly subjective affair, but, I assure you, it is no more subjective a matter than biological or physical properties. There are laws. Rules.” He picked up his menu with a patient smile; he’d said what he’d said without bitterness or emphasis. Noa enjoyed his comment, in fact, and he knew it. She was reassured to see him become fully himself again. The lecturer. The stern lover. The confidently big-dicked intellectual.

A waiter came and sat at their table, scooting in next to Noa. He was a pale, thin Brit with his incisors missing and copper wires twined here and there in his shaggy hair. He said, “Here at The Jammer we believe in removing the artificial barrier between customer and the waitstaff. I’m Jeremy… pleased to meet you.” He reached across the table to shake Azzedine’s hand. Winking at Noa, Azzedine seized Jeremy’s hand in a manly shake and said,

“Tell me, Jeremy, do you also believe in removing the artificial prices as well?”

Both Jeremy and Noa laughed at this. Noa said, “Jeremy, what’s the story behind your teeth? I’ve seen other people in the area sporting the same fashion today. Is it religious?”

El-Hadi was surprised and impressed by Noa’s powers of observation; he’d noticed no such thing on the street himself. He’d assumed the condition of the young man’s teeth was drug-related.

“The canines? Had them removed.We inherit them from carnivorous ancestors, but in our case… myself, and the others you’ve noticed… we find them no longer necessary. You’d be surprised at how having these teeth pulled will purify your thoughts?”

Jeremy settled back in his seat. His gappy smile made him resemble a backwoods character from the popular televsion show called Hee Haw. The exquisite little cross-reference being that the dipthonged and glottal speech patterns of much of the American South were handed down from 18th century Cockneys marooned there in British penal colonies. It pained El-Hadi to have to forego the pleasure of sharing this observation. He smiled at Jeremy and said,

“How do you handle the lunchtime crowds with such a… relaxed… attitude towards service, if I may ask, young man?”

“If things get too hectic, actually? We close?”

Noa said, “Hey, Jeremy. I think we might be ready to order.”

“You haven’t told me your names.”

“Heckle and Jeckle,” said Azzedine. He was pleased no end when Noa rested her chin on her interwoven fingers and, batting her eyelashes, cooed, “I’m Jeckle.”

“Awe-inspiring,” said Jeremy, looking bemused, and he took their orders. “We’ll call your names when the food is ready.” Noa twisted in her seat to wave as Jeremy shuffled off, but when she turned to face Azzedine again she had a puzzled look on her face.

“I must say,” said Azzedine, “I’m impressed. This incisor matter. I noticed no such thing. Your powers of observation are truly amazing, my dear. I’m extremely proud of you.”

“Oh, I can do better than that. Much better. Behind me? The nondescript gentleman in the hat, with a camera around his neck?”

Azzedine peered over her shoulder. The man she described was frowning at a menu. He looked like a G-man from a B movie and he was surrealistically out of place in The Star’s Bangled Jammer. Noa said, “I recognize him from the museum. He was in the room with us when the guard kicked us out.”

“Yes?”

“What’s even more interesting, Azzy, is the camera around his neck. It’s a real nice camera… a Hasselblad reflex, okay. He’s got a Zeiss telephoto lens on it. Viewfinder is on top. It’s really the only way to go if you want to take pictures of somebody without them noticing. Oh, and by the way? I see that the lens cap is off. Say cheese, baby.”

El-Hadi tried to adopt a lighthearted tone. “Paparazzi?”

“Are we so famous?”

“As you know,” joked Azzedine, “fame, like everything else, is relative.”

“I shouldn’t have told you.”

“Nonsense.” But he felt the tension return like a plague, spreading across his shoulders and up his neck and solidifying like lead in his jaw muscles. He looked at his watch. “Let’s go.”

“Without even eating?”

“Yes.”

“But I was looking forward… ”

“I know. Heckle and Jeckle.” Azzedine stood, placed a five dollar bill on the table, and pulled an exasperated Noa out of the restaurant. The man with the camera put his menu down, scooped the five off the table they’d just vacated, and followed.

10.

My first snow in Berlin arrived on the evening of November 1st. By this time, nearly ten months after moving to Berlin, I had a second-hand sofa bed in the living room, a kitchen table with two chairs, a basic set of plates, cups, pots, pans and utensils, and a futon in the narrow, windowless room next door to the living room.

I had re-worked The Bomb Collector considerably, but it was still, basically, poised at the same spot in the arc of the tale where it had stalled as I fled The States: the end movement remained unresolved. But the first two thirds of the manuscript had changed so much that it energized me to read through it. I had learned, ‘on the job’, as it were, to throw things away. Even good things; if they didn’t add to the forward-momentum of the tale, I crossed out. Any narrative threads that led to dead-ends were either crossed out or the walls that the dead-ends led to were dynamited.

By the evening of my first snow in Berlin, I hadn’t heard from or about Amanda Nye in months, not a peep or a note since her grotesque prank (the night of the Burka). My upstairs neighbor, Nico Taubkind, the pretty, orange-haired Christian, had eased into a harmless, chatty friendship with me, though she sometimes (and increasingly so) gave me funny looks. These looks of hers (troubled, intrigued) undoubtedly related to the fact that my living situation had taken rather a curious turn that any woman over a certain age would frown on.

I was scrawling in a fresh notebook on my kitchen table by the parchment light of a brass-based lamp I’d gotten at an Estate Sale (cancer in Pankow) when I heard a key jut into the door lock. The door jangled open and jangled shut like the exaggerated sound effect from an old time radio show, and boots stomped a little war dance on the muddy rug in the short hall of the entrance.

Moth came in with a dozen fat snowflakes impaled and trembling intact on the spikes of her platinum hair. She pecked me once on each cheek and I noticed, again, how her nose looked bigger with her hair so short, and her eyes looked smaller and closer together with her nose so big. But her skin had cleared up since I’d taken on the responsibility of feeding her in a more-or-less healthy way. Her white-sugar consumption was drastically down and every day spent inside the flat, sleeping late, bathing long and listening to music in the windowless room I let her have, was a day without smoking or exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. I’d even bought two cell phones, the cheap kind you buy minutes for, and given her one as a safety measure.

Discussing books with Moth was pointless: in the system she’d worked out, books and paintings are there to make us better people; popular movies and songs to keep us up to date; and everything else is mindless entertainment. Any discussion about a book that went deeper than the question of plot was lost on her, and she had a knack for changing the subject (sometimes by seducing me: an effective method). We rarely ate out or went dancing or strolled through Berlin’s surplus of galleries and museums because both of us were frankly embarrassed about the age gap. Our only public appearances together were shopping trips… clothes for Moth, mostly (clothes she preferred looking for in the Men or Boys departments). We rarely ever even ate together at home; she preferred taking a jar or a tin or a box of something into her room and chowing with her headphones on. I tried to make sure she had warm soup or a sandwhich and a big salad for lunch and dinner a few times a week but I never pressured her to dine with me. My eating habits, after years of living alone, were as solitary and unceremonious as her own, and I can remember, more than once, in California, coming home from ten hours of housepainting and drinking a ‘gourmet’ vegetable soup from Whole Foods cold, straight out of the can. In an almost Swiftian way we were a perfectly suitable couple, though I never deluded myself that it was a stable union. I knew she’d be gone by the time she was twenty.

I folded my notebook closed, lay the pen across it and watched Moth think with her body in the middle of the kitchen. The tip of her nose was as cold as it was red and it was running. She sniffed and back-handed it and said, “It’s snowing cats and dogs out there!”

“I haven’t seen snow in fifteen years.”

“Wow! You haven’t seen snow since the year I learned the word for it. That’s what you call poetic creepiness.” She grabbed the electric tea kettle and stuck it under the spigot. Her English had taken on an idiosyncratic suavity in the two months we’d been living together. She filled the kettle with hot water, a tic I’ll always remember her for, and said, “So, are you Mr. Busy right now?”

“Not really. Not anymore. I ran out of steam an hour ago. I’m just doodling now. Wanna see?”

“Wanna get fucked in the virgin snow?”

“Why not.”

“Lemme put some warm tea in the Moth-motor first.”

“Okay.”

“And then you get fucked.” She nodded with and that’s-that curtness.

I appreciated the offer. We hadn’t fucked in a week. I never pressured her; sometimes we fucked a lot and sometimes we fucked a little and it was my job to act as though I didn’t notice, it was all the same to me, etc. She, of course, was free to fuck whoever whenever as long as I didn’t have to meet them or smell the evidence. I therefore assumed that when our fucking suddenly dried up for a week, she was involved in a furiously passionate little affair. I never asked or commented. The only ground rules were: no smoking in the flat; no bringing others home to the flat; no fucking with notorious bisexuals or intravenous drug users. Moth was on the pill but we weren’t using condoms. Stupid, I know. But all too human.

As for my end of the open arrangement: I wasn’t fucking anyone but Moth. I didn’t need the trouble, and, at the age of forty two (soon to be forty three), an affair with a seventeen year old girl (sixteen the day we met: surprise) was as decadent as things should get. Twice, with her gangling, fidgety, sinewy form and her now-short hair, she’d been mistaken (once in a department store and once at the cinema) for my son. I must admit that sometimes even I saw her that way, catching a glimpse of her in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, eating peanut butter out of the jar.

She swallowed a slug of tea from our Mr. T mug (her purchase, her pun) and went “Ahhhh,” and belched loudly, exactly as a teenage son would have. “Herbal tea is my heroin,” she moaned, rubbing her parka’d belly. She glugged down more and slammed the mug on the counter with comical machismo and said, “Ready.”

If our arrangement generated collateral health benefits for Moth in the realm of her diet, for me it meant a healthy cut in the kind of days that Doctor Johnson would have marked in his diary with discreet little M’s. Having a young and often-willing sex partner on the premises for the first time in eons made jerking off feel wasteful and silly. Even when I went for a week bereft of her amazingly naked embrace, I preferred to sit it out rather than waltz alone, with the results being that I rediscovered a spring in my step and a fire in my loins and could approach such undertakings as my book with a crackling fund of stored energy. And, coming at it from another direction, in the hours of my palpable relief after every time Moth deigned to fuck me, the writing discovered a sense of reconnected humanity. I was a better writer for not masturbating.

There are any number of bluestockings of my acquaintance and in my age-class who would abhor this happiness in Moth’s skin. Fucking her wouldn’t even be legal for a teenage boy in most of the 50 states, and, even I, before weathering the existential sandstorm of being a forty-ish house painter with a high I.Q. in Southern California, would have looked askance at what I’m doing with her now. But, well, why not throw buckets of cold water on copulating dogs all day? Shoo away flies in mid-fuck, and haul your randy, gray-shanked baboons and goats and cocks and rabbits off to re-education camps. If Nature never intended middle aged males to fuck teenage females, She wouldn’t have made teenage males so useless.

There’s bio-karma at work here, too, since many of the middle-aged women who would stone me for fucking Moth now… broke my heart by shunning me when they were young and I was a useless teenager myself. They were all busy with older men, back then, of course. One day, perhaps, Moth herself will be a middle-aged woman shaking her fist at the same disparity. Existence is a joke written in a dead language on a Möbius strip.

I pushed the front door of the building open against a gritty white wind and a doorstop of snow. Everything was padded and numb with white. The little park across the street was an enameled triangle and the mercury arc street lamps along the street were hung with streaked veils that flapped and hung in a row. Moth and I had our parka hoods up and she gestured right and I followed her with the wind at our backs, which was howling and shoving like kids at a concert. I was curious as to how Moth planned for us to fuck in all this.

We trudged about fifteen paces and turned right, trespassing on the construction site next door, which could easily have passed for a bombed building at this stage in its development. The ten-story crane looming over it groaned and pinged like an old iron ship under all that ice in the wind, the top bit blazing in a beacon packed with snow flakes. We scrambled over the gouged, rutted, rock-hard mud under the snow and into the perimeter of the superstructure. There were eight floors, each floor featuring a checkerboard of huge gaps, and no walls, and snow-frosted pipes and cables dangling everywhere. The first few stories were connected by aluminum extension ladders and we scrambled up to a dark corner of the fourth level. The ladders, within the form of the building, were sheltered from all but the obliquest blowing snow; otherwise I wouldn’t have dared. After all those years as a house painter, I knew which stunts qualified as dangerous on an extension ladder, and scrambling up icy rungs with a fearless teenager in the dark was one of them.

Berlin is a city with a low physical profile, and you can see surprisingly far from shockingly low. Being on the fourth level of the skeleton enabled us to see a few miles in three cardinal directions. The famous Telekomm (Tele-Commie?) tower, nicknamed Sputnik, with its needle spire to the west of us (ironically) seemed as though it could be hopped on like playground equipment from where we were standing, though it was a twenty minute walk away. S potlights carved the low blocky clouds like glass blades from various points around the neighborhood, but whether they advertized gallery openings, portended aviational emergencies, or were merely first-snow exuberances… we couldn’t tell and wouldn’t have cared. The wind was weaker within the form of the building and we pulled our hoods off.

Moth, with her black back to me and the bright view of the sky in front of us like an enormous screen (on which the snowfall kept abruptly changing direction like schools of fish), said, “Do you think I’m a lesbian?”

“If you’re a lesbian, I am.”

“Maybe you’re a fag hag.”

“I don’t think that term applies to male groupies of lesbians.”

“What is the proper term, then?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mr. Writer.”

“I know… I should know.”

“I totally made love with a woman for the first time last Friday. A real woman, almost as old as you. I really liked it.”

I should have seen the foreshadowing in that; the feminine ‘made love’ vs the masculine ‘fucked’ thing. Instead I merely suppressed the impulse to put a hand on Moth’s shoulder and give her a Son, you’re a man now speech. I said, “So that’s why… ”

“That’s why I slightly cut you off for a while there. Yeah. Completely, I mean. She lives in London most of the time and she flew back yesterday… so… she… ”

I felt my emotions shading very quickly from bemused to touched to devastated. Moth was crying. I caught myself thinking, bitterly, woundedly, absurdly: you can’t even trust a seventeen year old girl these days not to fall for someone else until I reclaimed my slippery grip on sanity and re-phrased the thought as: thank goodness she’s a healthy enough seventeen year old girl to fall for someone else…

“I can’t call her, I don’t have her address in London, she told me that when she’s back in Berlin she’ll… she’ll just… let me know.”

“How’d you meet her?” I know that speaking of the Beloved always helps, for some reason. I flashed on that night at Amanda Nye’s, when I’d thought of clever little ways to slip Nico into the conversation, back when I thought I was in love with Nico. Invoking the Beloved through the vocal avatar of the Beloved’s logos works; the sound of the name is part of the effect, like a post-hypnotic suggestion.

“The first time I met her when I was too young, outside all the time… when you’re homeless and young, before you become fucked up and smelly, you meet everyone in the neighborhood. You sit on a wall and the world walks by. Pretty soon she’d wave whenever she saw me. Then she started giving me good money when I was panhandling.”

She said, “Remember the night you and I first met?”

“You read my palm.”

“Yeah. We talked about love seriously for the first time that night. She was with a friend and they took me to dinner at that Indian place. We talked about everything.”

“So you didn’t even have to spend any of the money I gave you for the palm reading.”

“Yeah,” she sniffed, through a web of tears and snot, “it was brilliant.” I could hear that she was smiling. “It was like being rich. I wasn’t even attracted to her at first but she kinda grew on me. It wasn’t until after I moved in with you that I thought anyone would seriously be interesting in fucking me, and then I realized she’d been flirting the whole time. And then I thought, maybe I was, too.”

“At first I thought she was kinda shy and uncool. Then I understood that she was the strongest person I’d ever met.”

She said, “I know you think I’m a runaway because my dad did something to me, don’t you?”

I nodded in the dark.

“Well he didn’t. He was always good. But I had read so much about that shit and seen so many movies and special television shows and counselors at school telling us about inappropriate touching and this and that… I thought he was definitely going to one day… I thought it was a fact of life like puberty. You turn thirteen and your dad does something to you. Know what I mean? Like a nature film. So I ran away so he wouldn’t.”

“A pound of prevention.”

“What?”

“What you did was crazy, stupid, or wise.”

She laughed. “That’s me alright.” She spit over the edge of the black semi-floor we were perched on; she was leaning against a vertical girder, back still to me, with the phoney insouciance of a perfected James Dean slouch. The falling snow was thinning out and as the air went hard and clear something in Moth’s voice changed, too. “Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Azizam pointed out to me… ”

“Azizam?”

“It means Beloved,” she said, proudly.

“That’s lovely.”

“Yeah, she pointed out that you’re just like my father now… shit, you’re even older than him, and you’re fucking me, so, it’s like, Moth is out of the frying pan into the fire! It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” She faced me, arms crossed, while spotlights criss-crossed behind her.

I had begun shaking. I said, with a fair amount of anger, “Wait a minute. I can’t be ‘like’ your father because I didn’t raise you or adopt you and you’re not my flesh and blood. The incest taboo isn’t based on an age gap, it’s based on, well, the violation of the, you know… direct kin reproducing. Birth defects and so on… ”

Moth laughed. “You think that’s why it’s wrong for a man to fuck his daughter? Because if she gets pregnant the kids will be retarded?” She laughed harder.

“Hold on now, Moth. You said this Azizam of yours… you said she’s almost as old as I am, right?”

“She’s thirty seven.”

“What’s the difference between her doing stuff to you or me doing it? My penis?”

“Give that man a cigar!”

“Oh come on.”

“Well?”

Sarcastically I said, “I thought you came out here to fuck me?”

With brilliant timing and delivery she retorted, “Don’t you feel like you’ve just been fucked?” And she punched me in the shoulder, dropped her copy of my keys at my feet and climbed down the ladder to the next level down, and again, further down. The soles of her boots ringing on the rungs. Genuinely concerned for her well-being I called out, in the dark, “Wait! Moth! Where are you going? Where will you sleep tonight?”

Down on the sidewalk she shouted, “She keeps a flat in Berlin! I have the keys! No hard feelings?”

“No hard feelings!” I shouted.

“Are we quit?” She meant are we even? Two months of her body for two months of my shelter is what she meant.

“We’re even!” I shouted. Maybe I screamed.

She waved goodbye and ran up the street.

The pain that hit me as a result of all this was like a crude old bomb dropped from a stratospheric height, taking its time in free fall, punching through clouds and whistling down a long lazy spiral over a map of the hemisphere, the continent, the city, my street. I managed to make my way back down the four levels of shakey extension ladder in the dark, though I shivered almost convulsively while doing it, as cold as the buried dead in my parka.

I almost snapped my ankle in half on the deep ruts in the frozen mud, twisting it at the foot of the last ladder and twisting it again hard as I stumbled to keep from falling. I limped off the site and around to the front of my building. It was hard to believe that a short while ago I had walked out this very door in high spirits, expecting bliss.

When the bomb of true suffering hit I was leaning with most of my weight on the kitchen table and staring at the dirty puddle of melted snow in front of the sink where Moth had been standing. A forty two year old man desperately in love with the seventeen year old girl who’s just dumped him: without a doubt the low point of my life. My ankle was broken, too.

11.

Too crippled to unfold the sofa-bed in my living room, I hopped on one leg into what had been Moth’s room, hit the light and eased myself down into her futon, which was drenched with her scent. The odor was a comfort and a torture. I managed to untie my right shoe and get both it and its sock off without fainting, only to see what looked like a kind of purple half-sock wrapped around an ankle that had already swollen to the circumference of a coffee can. If I so much as tried to move the foot a centimeter in any direction I got a jolt of pain that manifested itself as a flash of green light and I was certain it was broken. I was also certain that I had no health insurance yet (which was ironic, since one reason I’d come to Germany was for the brilliant, socialized health care), knew not a soul in the whole damn country and I wasn’t even sure what I would do when I had to take an inevitable piss.

An answer to that last, existential question presented itself at least. Like everyone in Berlin, Moth only ever drank tap water in tea… otherwise her drinking water came in bottles, with or without ‘gas’ (carbonation: kohlensaure). The bottles have a twenty-cent deposit on them, and the walls of Moth’s windowless little room (which I had been forbidden entry to for two months) were ringed with empty deposit bottles. Moth’s little dowry… which I calculated was worth about €15. At least taking a piss in my crippled condition wouldn’t be impossible. There was food in the room, too: a secret stash of sweets (including two large bags of peanut M&Ms) in a laundry bag next to the futon. Shitting would be a problem, but a week or two of eating M&Ms would no doubt minimize that as an issue.

The things I’d bought for Moth, along with the rest of her meager possessions, were gone, of course: the CD player and its accessories; a dozen CDs; the cell phone and its accessories; several pairs of sunglasses; the costume jewelry; a book or two; the clothing, etc. She’d been secretly shifting the stuff to her lover’s flat in preparation for this break-up (or break-off) for days, probably, a few items secreted in her parka pockets at a time. She’d either assumed I was too petty for her to be open on the subject after her announcement, or she thought of these items not as gifts but as payments. Both, probably. And while both possibilities were unflattering to my self-image to say the least, the latter was crushing: I had been paying for a live-in teenage sex-servant for two months, and not, as I had framed it, having an affair. I had pictured myself rescuing her but it turned out it was a soft kidnapping instead. What I had pictured as love-making was consensual rape. I thought, hating myself: if I’d never fucked her, she’d still be here. But then I thought: that’s a dishonest thought. If we hadn’t been fucking, I wouldn’t have wanted her here.

I had a mental picture of the woman who had facilitated the becomingness of Moth’s selfhood (as certain theoriticians might put it in all seriousness) and I couldn’t get it out of my head: Susan Sontag. I kept seeing the thirty seven year old assassin of my happiness as looking like Susan Sontag. The thirty seven year old Sontag, when she was still beautiful enough to be physically as well as intellectually authoritarian. The diamond-cut features and the ink-black coif with a white streak in it. She was sneering at me. She was gloating in the acquisition of Moth’s skin, the skin I had purified for Susan’s delectation. I could see it: Moth squirming on Sontag’s face with an ecstasy she’d never bothered faking with me. But it wasn’t Susan Sontag (being left for a celebrity has, at least, some value)… it was just some hypocritical Dyke who had out-maneuvered me before I’d even known there was a war on. Blitzkrieg.

It was hard to think at all because of the pain. I began to wonder, feverishly, why this violence had been done to my unspectacular happiness and I remembered my fictional fictionalist’s story, A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods. My eyes were swimming. The overhead light burned and I couldn’t stand up again to switch it off and the hours crept across the futon, stepping on my ankle, which had swollen to such a grotesque size that glancing at it gave me palpitations. I could smell Moth’s scalp on the mattress and maybe I could smell her armpits and the faintest whiff of her ass and pussy, too. Unbelievably, in all my agony, I had an erection. This is the real battle of the sexes… between middle-aged men and middle-aged women. Sexually desirable young girls are the casus belli, the prisoners of war, the weapons of mass destruction and the battlefield too.

The ceiling of the narrow room I was in was much higher than any ceiling I’d lived under as an adult in America. There was no window, so I assumed that the wall partitioning the room off was a recent development. The entire four-story building had undoubtedly been intended, in the year of its completion (1888), as a one-family dwelling; most of my flat had probably originally been one grand room… the library, say. The area around the house had probably been a field and the field would have featured a road leading a mile towards a denser part of the city. Without being properly the countryside, still, the field would have featured its distant treelines and its idle cows or even sheep here and there without any of the elements in the composition sharing a purpose or meaning with their modern counterparts except in the most general sense. When I see a cow I think of MacDonalds; when I see sheep I think of Benetton; when I see a distant treeline I think of highways, future housing developments, or environmentally protected land. I don’t think home, hearth or Fatherland.

What kind of people would have inhabited this house and its surrounding landscape in 1888? Angels, compared to ‘us,’ or devils? When I note the vast differences, sometimes, as exist between various contemporary humans… compare a working class Brit to a wealthy Nigerian, both living in Berlin: their paths will rarely intersect and there’s more than likely trouble in store if they do… can we even really consider our ancestors human in the fullest sense, or they us?

I lay there under the bare, hypnotic bulb hanging from the high, high ceiling, thinking: am I more… or less… human… the lonelier I become, the more I suffer? If time can isolate you from the tribe as it marches on, can poverty, disability or crossing a ‘moral’ line too far do the same? It’s a discussion ‘we’ rarely allow ourselves but it’s an argument the body responds to: that filthy, reeking beggar in a puddle of his own sick on the sidewalk… do we really consider him human? And how far did he have to sink before his status changed? And can that status be changed without ‘sinking’… what about a lateral displacement? Too far left or right; ahead or behind? Is the state of being ‘human’ provisional… context-based… temporary? There’s a natural consensus on all this but it’s strictly unspoken; it may well be the last taboo in an era when the few that are left have to be carefully rationed.

As I finally drifted off under that bare bulb I thought I heard the faintest sound of a woman weeping, but I assumed it was the preview of my coming dreams.

12.

Being bed-ridden for two weeks with a broken ankle in a small flat in a foreign city with a little food, some money, a cell phone (though, who the hell would I call?) and a few dozen empty Evian bottles was not as bad an experience as one would think. The first few days were the worst, before I got used to (and then bored by) the pain, and before it was even possible to half-stand and hop or even crawl to the bathroom. The Evian bottles filled up, one after another along the wall like some kind of ancient or conceptual clock, each bottle the slightest gradation of acid orange darker (as I dehydrated) than the bottle immediately preceding it. I had only as much sense of the shifting hours of the day or night as I could gather from the snow-muffled traffic sounds that filtered in from the living room windows. I became intimately familiar with certain patterns of my Christian neighbor upstairs.

Every morning I listened to her watch some chatty chirpy German version of an early morning wake-up show (chit chat, introduction, applause, chit chat, introduction, applause, on-location segment, national news, local traffic report, weather, musical interlude, wrap up, applause… all in a language I’m 99.99 percent deaf to). Then an excercise show that had her hopping up and down (with her light frame) on the floor directly over my head. Then a morning movie (during which can be heard the three classes of water-based event a morning’s toilet consists of), an afternoon talk show (introduction, unprofessional voice modulations, shrieks, boos, cheers from the audience, moderation), and a German-dubbed American sitcom rerun from the ’80s or even the ’60s… sometimes it was the ‘The Love Boat’ and sometimes it was ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. Both shows I recognized, of course, from their theme music; the dialogue was dubbed entirely in German. In the case of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’, the show came without a laugh track. In other words she was watching, in German, an American sitcom about a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War… with ominous dead air where there would have been canned laughter. The philosophical implications were weighty. Not that ‘The Love Boat’ generated no food for thought itself… especially when Nico, four out of five times, sang along (in a surprisingly strong voice) with the theme song. Being an invalid in that room under her bedroom was like living with her. Or, more like: being the ghost assigned to haunt her.

She would leave the flat so late every day (and often not at all), and return again after so short an interval, that it seemed unlikely that she had a job. Early afternoon (at which point on a winter’s day it’s already dark in Central Europe) I’d hear her strap her wooden-heeled boots on, hammer across her uncarpeted floor and hammer down the stairwell and out the door, clop clop clopping up the street. ‘Observing’ her served to keep my mind off of my awful physical circumstances, and off of Moth as well. Moth I was thinking of less and less frequently.

Considering the shocking intensity of the ‘love’ I felt for her at the moment she dumped me, my relative ambivalence towards the very notion of her existence just a few days after the break caused me to examine the nature of this post-hypnotic suggestion called ‘love’. In the absence of species-propagating hormone surges… at the age of forty two, that is… what is it, somewhere in my head, that still has the power to drive me to the brink of madness, or self-destructive obsession, in the name of it? And how does this tie in with that other mystery I tried to tackle the night of my injury… the mystery of human/non-human?

The answer can only be that a man in love; a man who is loved; is certain of his humanity. In the absence of love, the certainty vanishes. I’m quite sure, thinking back on it, that my real panic as I stood on the fourth floor of the open construction site next door and listened to the passionate narrative of Moth leaving me was the fear that my humanity was being rescinded. Even lying on the futon with my broken ankle under a bare bulb in a narrow room the walls of which were gradually being circumnavigated by bottles of my urine and facing this philosophical problem head-on, there was no guarantee that I wasn’t not human. Of course I panicked when Moth walked out on me. And that’s why some men (and even some women) will kill to prevent the leaving.

El-Hadi once told me, while we were replacing the hundreds of framed photographs of on his freshly painted wall (referring constantly to a chart we’d made to make sure the photos returned to their original spots), of an ex-lover who had attempted to poison him a few weeks after the affair was called off. What made this even more extraordinary was the fact that she, not El-Hadi, had been the one to call things off. So why the vengeful act?

“It wasn’t vengeance motivating her,” said El-Hadi, handing me a large black and white portrait of the would-be poisoner herself. “She wanted to make sure that I remembered her for the rest of my life.”

“By killing you?”

He shrugged. “The reasoning is sound, if less than ethical.”

The photograph was in the High School yearbook modus of the early ’60s… an off-the-shoulders gown, pearls and a towering blonde ‘beehive’ hairdo. The smile seemed to tilt subtly under the weight of the hairdo. I hung it on its nail. El-Hadi frowned at it, adjusted it so it hung a bit straighter, and said,

“She invited me to dinner a few weeks after breaking things off with me. I was pleasantly surprised by the invitation, though slightly nervous, despite assurances that her husband, a computer scientist working for Univac, was overseas at a conference on artificial intelligence, delivering a paper. He was in Germany for two weeks. I accepted the invitation. Perhaps it was the superstitions that surround the act of making love to a married woman that kept me on my guard.”

“I’d never been to their home before, as you can imagine. I got lost twice trying to find it, but I avoided asking directions, for obvious reasons. The house was an isolated and imposing structure on a very large plot of land, the perfect place, I realized, in retrospect, for getting rid of someone.”

“I was late in arriving for dinner. She’d been afraid I wasn’t going to show up, she said, and had been preparing to throw dinner away when I rang the doorbell. I remember thinking: these Americans! So rich they can throw food away!” He chuckled.

“I was quite ready to eat. As a precaution against her cooking being mediocre or even bad, I had starved myself before dinner. I was hoping to be led directly to the dinner table, but she wanted to make love, ‘one last time,’ before eating. I have to confess that at that point, I was so hungry, the offer of making love before dinner was not the most attractive proposition.”

“In the interest of not being rude, however, I allowed her to lead me by the hand, up a carpeted flight of stairs such as were often depicted in movies of the era… a thoroughly upper-middle class staircase… to the master bedroom. I was wearing a dinner jacket and penny loafers if I recall and she was wearing the gown you see here in this picture.We weren’t Rock Hudson and Doris Day but you get the idea. She threatened to rip my clothes off. I performed heroically, under the circumstances. She was blonde… my first blonde… but not beautiful. Exquisite body, yes, but she had a squint and a bit of an underbite that made her look permanetly resentful. But I did my duty… spurred on by the unusual degree of passion on display. She behaved as though I were to be shipped off to the war in Indochina at dawn the next morning. The war was just beginning to get public attention back then and I imagine there were many such dramatic partings. In this case, obviously, it was different.”

“Have I mentioned that she was a brilliant woman? Before marrying, she’d been some sort of scientist, or mathematician, herself. She had a mathematician’s quantitative interest in the Arts that passes for being cultured in some circles. But she was quite brilliant… intimidatingly so… nervous, neurotic, cold at times and given to strange moods, sudden outbursts of temper. I was extremely suspicious when I sat down finally to dinner. The brilliant ones are the ones to watch out for, and they are the most likely, as it turns out… I’ve done some research on the matter. The ignorant use knives, the stolid, church-going middle class have their guns but the clever usually opt for poison. I stared long and hard into my cream of mushroom soup… it had come out of a can, by the way.” El-Hadi made a face as though the fact that the soup had come out of a can was more distasteful to him than that it was laced with poison.

“A strong chemical odor rose from my bowl. So strong in fact it stung my eyes. It was a very poor job… an impulsive attempt at a poisoning. I pushed away from the table and began to laugh. And so did she.”

“I said, Marion… is it possible that you’ve tampered with my soup?”

“Her laughter became hysterical, shading into tears… very theatrical. And not very convincing. She was having her moment in the spotlight, I suppose.”

“I stood from the table and said, My God, you meant to poison me! I was quite obliging in those days, you see. Playing my role to the hilt. I was a pretty good sport, considering the fact that she’d emptied half a can of rat poison into my soup.”

“That’s when she stopped laughing and adopted the sly look of a Borgia, or the cat who swallowed the canary. ‘And how can you be sure,’ she said, ‘that I didn’t poison my pussycat too?’ She was, of course, referring indirectly to a sexual act I’d been known to experiment with, in those days, in a misguided effort to be modern.” El-Hadi chuckled again and handed me another picture to hang on the wall: an open-mouthed young redhead in tennis whites, posing with her racket as though it were a guitar.

“I saw myself to the front door and said, before making my exit, I’m fairly sure that if you’d really poisoned your pussycat, my dear, you’d have taken the trouble to wash it first. It was quite a zinger, as you say. She threw a wineglass at the door as I closed it, sealing my triumph. But halfway home I began to feel quite ill. There was a strange, metallic flavor in my mouth.”

“I had to pull over twice, on the road shoulder, to be violently ill. I felt feverish, dizzy, my heart was racing… I thought I was dying. You can imagine how frightened I was. I thought: my god! The madwoman really did it! She poisoned her private parts before inducing me to put my mouth on them! I’m going to die!”

“This was when I lived in a neighborhood of L.A. which was not too bad then, although today it’s a notorious ghetto; a no-go area. Back then it was a mildly integrated neighborhood of working class Mexicans, shabby-genteel white professionals, a few beatniks, artists, and some college students. To be honest I wouldn’t have been comfortable living in a suburban enclave of privelege. I drove myself to the Queen of Angels Hospital.”

“I had to fill out a form and sit in the waiting room along with the typical assortment of injured Americans. Household mishaps and matrimonial assaults… in decades to come, one supposes, self-mutilators and the morbidly obese would come to rule the territory. After filling out a form and while waiting in great discomfort to be seen by a doctor, I took note of the most beautiful colored girl; a sort of dream-Negress. This is far from a politically correct term and I trust you not to repeat the story, but we’re men of the world and you’ll know what I mean when I describe her as such. She was a living breathing daydream, with long legs and an exquisite small bosom. She had wrapped up her visit with the doctor and emerged looking a little shaky. She was gathering her coat and purse from the chair beside me… I still marvel at the social trust… the civility… in that gesture: imagine leaving a purse or a wallet unattended anywhere in America today! Not even in a jewelry store on Rodeo Drive, my friend. It could only mean the purse contained an explosive device!” Laughing a smoker’s hacking laugh, El-Hadi offered me a cigarette, which I declined, and lit one for himself.

“She put her coat on but sat down to tie her shoes… I noticed that she was wearing the same sort of white, crepe-soled shoe as the nurses wore, despite the fact that she was otherwise outfitted in ordinary street clothes… a pleated skirt and a sleeveless blouse. Her outfit was about ten years out of fashion but this was clearly not an eccentricity on her part. No, it was the sexual spice called poverty. After tying and re-tying her shoes, she slumped in her seat, her dark elbows on her skirt and her head in her hands… as though her thoughts were too heavy for her to hold her beautiful head up unsupported.”

“By now I was fascinated, and my own medical problems were the last thing on my mind. Who was this dusky vision, lovely enough to have been Shakespeare’s dark lady, and why did the weight of the world seem to be on her shoulders? There was some mystery as to her background, as well, I might add. She didn’t look entirely Negro… her nose was blunt, but her hair was lustrous and long. Staring at her flattened profile I thought I could detect an Asian, or even Mexican, influence. It struck me that an opportunity for adventure had dropped in my lap, give or take a few centimeters, and I decided to seize it. ”

13.

“Can I offer you a ride?”

“Ain’t you sick, baby? Don’t you want to see the doctor?”

She gave me a skeptical smile, said El-Hadi. But I told her, “I have the rest of my life to be sick.” I knew there’d be only once chance at this. She let me help her gather her things and we left the hospital together. I showed her to my car. I took the trouble to put the top down on the convertible; it was a beautiful evening.

“Nice.” She ran a finger along the contours of the dashboard and then clawed at and shook her hair out in the wind as though washing it. “Nice to ride in a car once in a while. I showed up at the hospital tonight on a bus. Shoot, I had to walk six blocks to the goddamn stop, too. Pardon my French.” She sank back in her seat with a chuckle and closed her eyes and when he asked her Where to? she responded, with a drowsy smile and a far-off voice, Anywhere but home sweet home, baby.

Her profile was more mysterious than the full-on view of her face, with its soft-spread Negro features. In her profile El-Hadi decided she was Polynesian, one of Gaugin’s black virgins, the lustrous mane and perfectly tooled white teeth. He pictured her topless, a flimsy skirt around her cool dark legs, with less than subtle results in the crotch of his trousers. He felt none of the shame about this that he would’ve felt with a white woman riding beside him in the car, and no shame, in turn, about his lack of shame about this frankly racist distinction. You were allowed (even expected) to be a racist in deed in hysterically egalitarian America, El-Hadi had observed, but never a racist in principle. In the Old World, he’d been with black North Africans of both sexes and in every case they’d been servants or of the servant class and pragmatically interested in pleasing him. El-Hadi sensed that with Americans, one could persuade them to go along with nearly any idea as long as it remained unspoken.

El-Hadi said, “Then we drive to the beach.”

“Why not?” she cooed. “It’s your gasoline.”

El-Hadi switched on the radio and lucked out with a favorite song, played from a point very near its beginning: Nat ‘King’ Cole singing Ramblin’ Rose. Steering with his arm at rest on the driver-side door, El-Hadi reached over and took possession of her hand, which was hot to the touch, and lifted it gingerly to his side of the car seat, her arm offering only the slightest resistance. He placed her hand between his trouser legs, where it added heat to the pressure, and stroked it like a smooth little cat in his lap as he drove. Glancing, he noticed that although she still hadn’t opened her eyes, the drowsy smile on her lips of a moment before had been replaced with what one could interpret either as acceptance of the inevitable or the burden of knowing precisely how every such situation in life would turn out, long before it came to pass. As if she could already quite clearly see El-Hadi doing the trivial thing he wanted to do to her and disappearing very soon afterwards, never to be heard from again. Still, her little black hand remained where it was, sandwiched between his arousal and the hand with which an Algerian eats… alive with fine tremors, riding the force of his heartbeat.

This was still several years before the Johnson administration’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Azzedine took note of the heady feeling this entailed. Of course, back in Algiers, he’d had his social inferiors, but it was really a matter there of the aristocracy, the Europeans, and everyone else. An Algerian of Azzedine’s class rarely enjoyed this Lord of the Manor feeling in Algeria. It was profound to contemplate that here he was, in America, the shining Atlantis of the West, where even the poor lived better than many merchants could afford to in the land of his birth, and riding beside him in his car was this beautiful American native, an order of magnitude below him on the scale of the human, by law. El-Hadi’s passport stated his race as Caucasian, though he was sure that the darkest part of his body… the part he meant to acquaint her with soon… wasn’t much lighter than the lightest flesh on hers. She was biting her lower lip and her upper lip curled back in a sexual sneer.

Fuck the beach,” she said, suddenly. “Buy us a six-pack and we can party at my place.” She removed her hand from between his legs to point at a neon Liquor sign, blurry and red, blinking on the other side of the wide and complicated road. He changed lanes and waited at the next light with the turn-signal ticking while she watched him in a strange state of suspense. As though she’d made a joke, or set up a prank, that he was yet to pick up on.

“Well?” she said.

“What?” he said, as he leaned into the left turn.

“You didn’t say ‘thank you’.”

Azzedine laughed. “I’ll say ‘thank you’ when I see where you live.”

She laughed with him. “No you won’t.”

This remark worried him but he pulled into the lot beside the little stucco building (barred windows and door; a hand-painted cardboard sign in the window reading The Cashier is Armed) and sent her inside with a five dollar bill.

El-Hadi had noticed before in neighborhoods like this that as soon as the speed of your auto dropped under a few miles per hour you were overwhelmed by cooking odors, commercial and private, and as he sat there waiting for his Gaugin to fetch their drinks and his change, a powerful odor of fried onions wafted from the stucco building on the other side of the lot. He remembered that he hadn’t eaten dinner; that less than an hour before he’d been driving himself to the hospital with sharp pains in his gut as a result of a psychosomatic poisoning.

When she came out with a six-pack of edible-looking beer bottles under one arm and a grocery sack under the other, she was grinning widely. He opened her door for her and she slid onto the seat with the bundle in her arms like a baby. El-Hadi nodded towards the source of the food odor. “Are you hungry?”

That place? That place is a dump. We can do better than that.”

The convertible eased out into traffic like a boat with her as its navigator. What El-Hadi liked was their tacit adherence to a rule he’d never before realized was one of his sweetest fantasies: no names. A short while later, two king-size fried shrimp dinners to-go sat steaming on the space between them. He was in a part of the city he’d never seen before, surprising not so much by its poverty but because of how rural it all ooked. White clapboard houses and red dirt roads and shirtless black boys peddling ‘no-hand’ on their bicycles. Under the harsh glare of streetlights their black flesh looked to be made of the asphalt missing from the roads.

She said, “You know what this here little party of ours is lacking?”

“What?” El-Hadi found himself growing impatient.

“Verna Williams.”

“Who?”

“You’d like her. I like her too. Verna’s my cousin and we’re so close we kiss goodnight on the lips.”

Despite his impatience, El-Hadi’s sexual greed got the better of him, and he soon found himself turning left and right and then left again on roads that were sometimes dirt, sometimes gravel. The first house they stopped at produced no results; the Gaugin girl ran back down the front steps to the car and informed El-Hadi that Verna was at church, so they drove to church.

“I was under the impression that Americans only went to church on Sunday.”

“You ain’t in America right now, baby,” she laughed, pulling a fried shrimp out of its greasey white box and re-sealing the box lest El-Hadi consider doing the same, “This here is a suburb of Africa.”

How ironic that of the two of us, I’m the actual African, thought El-Hadi.

They pulled up in front of the church, a dark box of a building with lavender curtains in all of its windows and a white cross each painted on two of them; a building, minus the detail of the windows, which might just as easily have been another liquor store. There was no boisterous music or primitive ululations, despite his expectations; the only sound was the wind whipping a chain against the aluminum flagpole in front of the building.

The temperature had been dropping gradually all evening and El-Hadi felt a chill setting in. But his resolve to have his sexual experience only solidified as the minutes turned to hours. He’d never had relations with a genuine American colored girl and this intersection of opportunity and desire (she was more attractive than the few of her race that he sometimes came in contact with… shop girls and meter maids, mostly) would most likely never repeat itself. So he waited.

By the time Verna Williams emerged from the building in a thick plug of people, followed by a trickle of stragglers, a light drizzle turned the sidewalks into a dark cloth and beaded on the windshield, and El-Hadi had had to put the top on the convertible up again. When Verna came out the Gaugin said That’s her and stretched provocatively across El-Hadi and honked the horn. The girl who ran towards the car in response was heavyset and darker than her cousin, medium height and somewhere in her middle twenties, although El-Hadi, of course, had been fantasizing about a younger, more slender and sloe-eyed version of the Polynesian. Verna’s dark dress hid neither the round weight of her stomach nor that of her breasts, which bounced in a Disney ballet as she skipped towards them with a grin that struck El-Hadi as their only common feature. Verna leaned into the window and the cousins kissed, as promised, on the lips.

“Girl, how you doin’? I was gonna call you later to see if everything turned out okay.”

“You know me, Verna.”

“Too well, child.”

“Verna, this is my friend Rudy. You wanna come with me an’ Rudy to my place an’ celebrate?”

El-Hadi got out and opened the Gaugin’s door so she could get out in turn and let Verna Williams push her way onto the back seat. Close up, he noticed that Verna was a pretty girl, though heavyset, and his disappointment healed itself. He developed a wolfish interest in seeing all that flesh unpacked and set in contrast with the slender form of her cousin. He even got a hand on her hips as he helped her into the car and this re-animated his dozing erection. He glanced at Verna in the rearview mirror and wondered how far the two girls had gone in the past. The trick would be to get them to exceed the previous limit without calling attention to the moment of truth, and the beers they had with them would no doubt play a role. El-Hadi’s dark beauty handed one of the shrimp dinners back to her cousin and they ate the food quickly while chatting, polishing off two handfuls of shrimp, some coleslaw and their complimentary Saltine crackers.

“How long you got off now, girl?”

“He said I could come back to work on Monday.”

“A four-day weekend. That ain’t bad.”

“Least he could do, considering.”

Verna curled her lip and cocked her head. “Considering. You sure you okay?”

“Okay as I’m gonna get.”

Verna licked her fingers and met El-Hadi’s eyes in the rearview. “Rudy, what do you do?”

“He’s a male nurse,” answered the Gaugin.

“Oh. Should would be talking about… ?”

“Different hospital. He just started working at St. Luke’s.”

“Presbyterian?”

“That’s right,” said the Gaugin girl.

“How you like working there, Rudy?”

“I love it,” said El-Hadi, and all three of them laughed, each for a different reason.

They drove up a very long gravel alley and parked behind a tilted garage so weathered that it had nearly managed to unpaint itself. The Gaugin girl was through the gate and up the walk to the back door of the house before El-Hadi could help Verna out of the back seat. The Gaugin had either run ahead to warn someone about this unexpected arrival or to hide something El-Hadi shouldn’t see, he thought, but still he was surprised that it was a house and not a wretched little apartment after all. It was Verna who led him up the uneven walk in the rain, speaking in a museum-goer’s hush.

“Maybe Mr. Reyes home,” she said.

“Who’s Mr. Reyes?”

“Step-father.”

When they entered the kitchen through the screen door the air they met was the sealed air of a sickroom, though the lighting was over-bright as on a stage in a theatre as the curtain rises. There were four unshaded table lamps glaring from various spots around the kitchen. Seeing El-Hadi squint, Verna whispered, “The poor man losin’ his vision.”

A gray-haired man of indeterminate race slumped at the kitchen table with El-Hadi’s sixpack in front of his downed head and the pillow of his folded arms. Tugged by Verna, El-Hadi followed the two women out of the kitchen into a dimly lit hallway, thence left into a doorless room. The room would have been just about a comfortable size for one adult, with its permanently unfolded and unmade sofa bed on the far wall and its two playpens, side-by-side, under the heavily draped window nearest El-Hadi. In each playpen stood a curly-haired child, wide awake but silent, the one aged two or three perhaps and the other three or four and resembling each other not very much at all. El-Hadi remained in the doorway with Verna while his Polynesian extracted two loud bags of cheesecorn from the Liquor store grocery sack and handed one to each. Whatever purchase remained in the sack, which she did not crumple but placed discreetly on a chair near the playpens, was clearly allocated for the night. She said, over her shoulder, “Y’all go on to the other room and I’ll be right with you.”

Azzedine, overwhelmed by the unpredictability of living things and stunned by the fact of the children, allowed himself to be tugged further by Verna into a large, dark room at the end of the hallway. There was a massive console television set in front of drapes faintly aglow with streetlight and a sofa angled to face the television.

Verna came at him with the fervently awkward kisses of a twelve-year old. She placed his hands on her body and moved in them like a novice teaching the tango. He stumbled around the room with her like this, smelling the sweat baked in layers into her dress and the meal that he’d paid for on her lips, nurturing his arousal with brutal thoughts: he saw himself yanking her by her hair to her knees, forcing himself in her mouth. He fantasized pinning her belly-down to the floor and forcing an entrance or having both her and her beautiful cousin prone and compliant, side-by-side, like a buffet; anything to protect his arousal against her clumsy, giggly, anti-erotic behaviour. He unzipped her dress and gestured for her to pull it off over her shoulders, thinking, The important thing is to have her naked before the pretty one comes back into the room; if the line is already crossed, she can’t fear to cross it.

Under Verna’s dress was a tightly-packed slip instead of brassiere and panties. She backed away from El-Hadi and sprawled on the sofa in a gynecological posture. Her breasts were rounded slabs. He unzipped his pants and freed himself with a sigh of relief, pointing at the ceiling as though a string was pulling him. He knelt on the couch with one knee as she said, not in a whisper but in a very small voice, “I hope your cock bone strong… “

“What?”

“Your cock bone… I hope it good and strong ‘cuz I got a hard cherry… “

“What are you talking about?”

“The bone in your cock… “

El-Hadi emitted an Algerian curse appropriate to being sold ten cracked eggs out of a dozen and dragged her up off the couch, to do a lurch-and-stumble tango of weak resistance across the room and up the hallway. Verna grunted and groaned, pleading No all the way. He dragged her to the doorway of the Gaugin’s bedroom. The light was off so he slapped on the light in the hall and he noticed that the bedroom smelled as though it had gotten a quick wipe-down from a kerosene-soaked rag by an arsonist: The Gaugin’s nightcap. She was snoring softly on her sofa bed between her doomed half-castes, one of whom blinked in the wedge of light that cut across his mother’s stockingless legs from the doorway as El-Hadi hurried to stuff himself back in his trousers.

She hadn’t even undressed; she was still wearing her crepe-soled shoes and Verna had Azzedine’s arm and pulled her mouth up to his ear and she said, “The poor thing had that operation today, you know what I mean. Let her sleep, Rudy. You can do it to me instead. Anything you want, I promise, I’ll take you to the moon and back just let my Raylene sleep.”

By the time El-Hadi had reached this part of the story, we were re-hanging the last of the framed beauties: a polaroid of a handsome gray-haired woman behind a desk, gesturing with a phone at the camera. Strange to say it but she didn’t look to me like a trustworthy woman. Something in her eyes caused the phrase “she’s lying” to pop, out of nowhere, into my mind. Not that I’d have been impertinent enough to say so to El-Hadi.

“My current love,” he said, wiping a smudge off the glass of the little gold frame. He kissed his bunched fingertips in a gourmet’s gesture. “Real Estate.”

“What about Raylene?”

“I never saw her again. But I bore her no grudge. What would you have done in her place? She taught me a valuable philosophical lesson.” El-Hadi counted on his fingers, “She got herself a free ride home, a dinner for herself, a dinner for her cousin, an evening’s worth of cheap fuel for her step-father, dinner of a sorts for her children and a bottle for bedtime in the bargain. She knew how to take when the taking is good. She really taught me something.”

“And Verna?”

“Verna wasn’t twenty five. She was thirty seven.”

I laughed. El-Hadi got a wistful look on his face. “It took three separate attempts, over the course of a week or two, to relieve her of the burden of her virginity.”

14.

It took me four days to record that passage in my notebook, piecing it together (as Azzedine had told it to me) from memory and polishing it into a style close to his speech patterns. I did this with a thought to working it later into The Bomb Collector somehow… an adventure El-Hadi recalls for Noa’s amusement, maybe, or an adventure he has in ‘real time’, behind her back, cheating on his three mistresses. I’d have to change the setting from early 1960’s Los Angeles to late 1960’s New York State, but the transposition wouldn’t be too technically difficult. The story would lose some truth in the process (the ironic evocations of innocence in the original setting would be totally misplaced just a decade later) but the loss would be ineffable; known only to me.

I had started writing again four or five days into my crippled state. On the morning of the third day already I forced myself to hop into the bathroom and take a painful, backed-up shit… my ankle throbbed while I slumped on the toilet, sick with pain. Still, I experienced something like the catharsis of giving birth when I finally cleansed my system of the dense black bomb that had boiled in my guts since the night Moth dumped me. On my way back to the sick room I had a drink of tapwater in the kitchen and grabbed a notebook and two pens, determined to make my incapacitation worth something.

The break in my ankle, I began to realize, represented a larger ‘break’ that had been necessary for a long time: a break with my past. Had I come all the way from San Diego to Berlin in order merely to continue the life of failure I had lived up until the point of departure? Transcribing El-Hadi’s tale in the state of my extremity caused me to reflect not only on myself but life itself… the realities versus the perceptions. Why had I, unlike El-Hadi’s Gaugin, never taken while the taking was good? I wasn’t an actor, I was a reactor. I was essentially passive, a failure of the ego typical of the thinking man. Even this grand and all-consuming project of the last few years, my book, The Bomb Collector… why was I so busy fantasizing about a life (or lives) when I should have been living one myself? Worse, it became clear to me that writing about Azzedine at all had been my vicarious method for living the life of a self-assured male. The only thing worse than a writer’s totalitarian dominance of a created character is his pathetic reliance on one.

After I transcribed El-Hadi’s tale of the white poisoner and the black con artist and the overweight virgin, I made a new rule: I could only allow myself to write something in the evening if I had earned the right to do so with a bold action during the day. To go into effect as soon as my ankle had healed to the extent that I was capable of leaving the flat.

Two weeks of carefully rationed sweets, despite my lack of exercise (and the occasional pizza or chinese takeout I ordered from various flyers slid under my door), chiseled my features… or perhaps it was merely the loss of water weight (I was down to a glass a day)… in any case, that and my new facial hair gave me a romantically gaunt look. When I reached the point that I was able to support my weight (wincingly) on both legs, I trimmed the beard into a sort of Robert Louis Stevenson affair; a rakish van dyke. I hobbled around the flat with an umbrella for a cane, liking my new style. I would never again be so pathetic as the middle-aged man I had become, dumped by an empty-headed seventeen year old girl.

Almost three weeks after the accident, I exited my flat and limped up the stairs to the second floor, dressed in a dark suit, with the umbrella as a cane. I knocked on the door with the umbrella’s wooden handle and waited, knowing that my neighbor was preparing to leave the building, her television droning on in the background as she went from room to room doing her makeup or brushing her teeth. When she came to the door my confidence faltered for a split-second: she was far more beautiful than I’d ever seen her… or any woman, within touching distance, for that matter.

Her long orange hair had become a precise and luminous platinum bob, and her cheekbones looked to be sharpened on a whetstone. We took in each other’s changes, each taking also a deep breath, before I said, quite bravely,

“Hi Nico.”

“Hi John just-John.”

“I was wondering.”

“Yes?”

“I hurt my leg recently…,” I touched my ankle through my suit pants with the metal spike of the umbrella, “… and I was wondering if you know where I might buy a stylish-looking walking stick?”

She was wearing a fashion I’d noticed a lot of in the neighborhood that year: a knee-length skirt over trousers. Her top, the skirt and the trousers were all black denim; the top featured pale bone buttons and the skirt featured thick white stitching in an almost oriental pattern for trim. She said, “Oh, yes, I know a very trendy shop where you can get yourself a walking stick. I like your hair.” She touched the shaggy edge that hung over my collar.

“I like yours.”

“Thanks. I’m going shopping in a few minutes. Would you like to come with me? We can stop off at the trendy shop and get your walking stick, and you can help me pick out new drapes for my flat.”

“Deal. But I’ll need my coat.”

“No you won’t. Haven’t you been outside at all in the past few days? It’s freakishly warm out. Like spring.”

“Global warming.”

“I blame you Americans,” she said, shaking her head, but she smiled and gestured that I should come into the apartment while she put the finishing touches on herself. What I saw of the interior of her flat was airy and light-filled (it amazed me how much difference one storey in elevation made viz the natural light available). I only saw her living room but it was in marked contrast to the only other flat in Berlin I’d thus far seen (beside my own), which being Amanda Nye’s artefact-stuffed lair.

It was indeed bizarrely warm outside considering that Christmas was only two days away; much warmer outside than it was within the entrance hall of our apartment building. Some trees, in fact, confused by the weather, had begun to show green, and children ran by us on the flooded sidewalk without jackets. We walked slowly, arm in arm, and I had no sense that Nico was impatient with our pace as I limped beside her on my umbrella. She took the opportunity to tell me the story of her life.

“Well,” she said, “where do I begin? I always blank out when somebody asks me a question like that. Maybe it’s easier to start with what I do. You must be curious, considering the odd hours I keep. Not that I think you pay attention to everything I do or anything. I’m an actress. I work seriously about half a dozen times a year and the rest of the year I’m either auditioning, learning a role, or doing commercials or voice-over work. You’d know some of this if you had a television.”

“I’ve known a few actors in my time,” I said, “but I’ve never seen an actor’s apartment that wasn’t full of pictures of himself.”

“You haven’t seen my bedroom… walls,” she said, and I was sure that she’d called the sentence to a halt before finishing it with ‘yet’. A violet blush suffused the flesh under the fine white powder on her face. “That’s where my vanity truly outdoes itself.”

She said, “My father was American but he died when I was very young… six. The first language I ever spoke was English and that’s why I’m not too bad at it nowadays, although I’ve spent most of my life in Germany. A few years ago I changed my last name, legally, from Silver to Taubkind, which is my mother’s maiden name, because I always, I don’t know… I thought ‘Silver’ sounded too show-bizzy.”

“The big news is that I’m up for a speaking part in a big American production… not the romantic lead but the romantic lead’s best friend who is killed in the beginning of the second act. They needed a German girl who’s English is perfect… it’s a thriller set in Berlin… so I have a pretty good chance.”

We were blocks away from home, still strolling along at my crippled pace, when I said, “It’s the blind graffiti guy again!” I pointed across the street with the umbrella like I was aiming a shotgun.

Strangely, Nico tensed… I felt it in her grip on my arm. She reached over and pulled my umbrella down. “He’s not a graffiti guy, he’s a famous artist here in Berlin,” she said, keeping an eye on him as we put his shuffling figure slowly behind us. A race of the locomotively impaired.

“A famous artist?” I wanted to laugh and spit at the same time. “He can’t even see what he’s doing! He just sprays brown blobs on new buildings!”

She shook her head. “It’s performance art. The green and the red paint represents money and blood… when they mix together it makes brown… shit. Sorry.” She blushed again. “The cane he uses has hi-tech sensors in it that respond to certain buildings that are implanted with microchips. He’s being filmed while he tags the buildings. It’s a year long project and he got a lot of grant money to do it.”

“Wow,” I said, eager to change the subject, “that’s ‘Art’, I suppose.”

“That’s the reaction of many of the tax-payers. It was quite a controversy last year. You know, the working class people say, my five year old can paint better than that! They get quite angry about it. They don’t realize that the money would never go to them either way, whether it goes to this project or not. That money is just a ghost to them, or they’re ghosts to it… they’d never even know about it if the press didn’t decide to report it. It’s no more their affair than the price of tiger’s paws in China and if they’re so worried about aesthetics why don’t you ever see the proletariat represented at art openings?”

I didn’t like being lumped in with boorish, uncomprehending, meat-and-potatoes hoi polloi, and, though normally I would have played the diplomat, steering the conversation away from her inadvertent insult, the ‘new me’ decided this was as good a place as any to assert himself.

“Bullshit,” I said.

Taken aback, but far from angry, she said, “How so?”

“Because it’s not a question of aesthetics, is it? It’s a question of the almost pathological need that the rich have to separate themselves from the middle class. Paying lots of money for utter crap that the middle class ‘don’t get’,” I mimed the quotation marks with my fingers, “serves the double-duty of snubbing the middle class and pissing on the poor. The quality of the art is never the point. The shock value is the point, and the shock value couldn’t exist without quoting the prices.”

Her head hung in thought while she considered all this and she began to nod, slowly. Again, that blush; but with an entirely different meaning this time. “I’ve often thought exactly the same thing, but you’re the first person I’ve ever known who put it into the right words.”

I leaned over and kissed her. She said, after coming up for air, “John, I should tell you I have a boyfriend.”

“Well, if you didn’t have one I’d be worried that there’s  something wrong with you.”

And we kissed again.

That evening I sat in my kitchen writing, having earned the right to do so with two strong actions committed in the real world: kissing Nico and giving her my cell phone number. The second of the two acts wasn’t as profound as the first but it was a step on the path towards the act above-which-there-is-nothing-profounder, as some would argue. As far as I know, this is new in the philosophy of writing: my notion that each act of fantasy must be earned by a corresponding act in Life itself; in real time; how many pariahs, shrinking violets, shut-ins, hermits and ghouls from ‘The Canon’ could have been saved by this simple prescription?

Soon, I imagined, Nico and I would be exchanging witty and then intimate text messages. What could be more romantic than laying in my bed directly under Nico’s, separated only by the thickness of her floor and the muddled air above my head, whilst exchanging little haikus of text via the intermediaries of microwave relay stations and a satellite or two in geosynchronous orbit? And what could energize a writer in the early Autumn of his life more wonderfully than having a modern kind of goddess at his side to inspire him? I hadn’t actually been excited about a woman since college,  sad but true. I flashed back on the very first moment I’d  laid eyes on Nico, my first day in the flat… how she’d walked briskly up the street with her bright orange hair,  astounding me. I saw myself dedicating The Bomb Collector to her. Maybe I’d end up actually publishing the damned thing after all.

I was certainly beginning to look the part of a guy who gets his picture on the back cover of a paperback. Speaking of which: propped against the wall beside me as I scribbled in my notebook was the antique blackthorn walking stick I picked up at the consignment store that Nico had directed me to. Apparently, a destitute Irishman had parted with the thing for a song.His abject shame and misery transmuted into my striking (literally) accessory.

I decided to take El-Hadi’s recently transcribed tale of The Poisoner, The Gaugin and The 37 year old Virgin and ease it into the fictional El-Hadi’s life, changing a few of the important details. For simplicity’s sake I removed Verna Williams altogether. And the would-be poisoner I decided to change into El-Hadi’s ex-wife Ruth, the obvious candidate. And The Gaugin (who I decided to name Delilah) would become El-Hadi’s new flame.

It had only been a few hours since Nico and I parted when my cell phone made the cricket-like sound indicating that I’d gotten a text message. Ah, so eager! The message read:

Meet 2morrow @ Supreme Bean @ 9am?

As luck would have it, The Supreme Bean was the only cafe I knew by name in Berlin. I typed in the answer and pressed the ‘send’ key: Perfect.

15.

I was up early the next morning, boyishly excited about the rendezvous with Nico at the Supreme Bean. The fact that it was the day before Christmas Eve seemed appropriate. I had gone to sleep with silent-movie-type images of her face, the powerful beauty of which seemed to flutter between evoking the 1960’s or the 1920’s for me, and I felt like a man who was soon to inherit a large fortune. I washed myself quietly (for some reason I didn’t want her to hear me preparing for our meeting), trimmed my dandyish facial hair, and dressed in the second of the three suits I’d brought to Berlin with me, a brown woollen vintage bespoke suit I’d been given by Azzedine, in fact, who had brought too much heavy clothing to America on first arriving. The suit, which was forty years old, was immaculately preserved, and so old fashioned that it looked almost futuristic.

I left a little early for the two mile walk, not sure how long it would take me to limp along on the blackthorn. It was still unseasonably warm and the suit I was wearing was more than enough; halfway there I began to worry I might break into a sweat, despite the fact that it was the Christmas season.

Eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning in Berlin looks very much like six in the morning in every other major city I’ve lived in. What it is about Berlin that makes it so much like a ghost town, despite its millions of inhabitants (San Diego is less than half the population and seems to bustle and hum like Manhattan in comparison), I wasn’t qualified to say, but once, walking along with Moth (in an era that seemed shrouded in the mists of time, suddenly) past the third sex boutique on that particular street with flesh-tone appliances on display in the in the window, I asked her, only half-joking: “What does this city seem so… perverted?” And her answer had been to shrug, and say, “High unemployment? Too much time on their hands.” Academics could construct all kinds of fanciful arguments to describe the social effects of the economy on the lower classes but had any historian yet written a scholarly paper with the title, “Idle Hands: The Devil’s Workshop”? Boredom as a shaper of civilizations explained everything from the sexual decadence of ancient Rome to the murderous energy of modern Fascism. Employment was palliative care for the proletariat; even the very wealthy get up to mischief without vocational interests to harness their energies.

I limped along the sparsely populated street imagining that everyone else, from the out-of-work traffic cops to the out-of-work yoga instructors, was still crunched up in bed, sleeping the troubled sleep of the reality-persecuted. Only Berlin’s ravens, huge gray or black birds that looked like über-crows, seemed busy at that hour, making an awful racket… like rusty gears grinding… in the trees overhead. These aggressive birds, in some cases standing knee-high to a grown man, had been known to gather in large numbers (like a natural Luftwaffe) and mutilate flocks of sheep in rural areas where food is scarce, using beaks and talons to peck the animals’ eyes out.

They hop down from the tree branches to peck at litter on the sidewalk from time to time and aren’t even intimidated enough by humans to fly away or even hop aside should you find yourself approaching one. One hopped down in just such a way, in fact, as I limped along a few blocks away from my breakfast date, and I was glad I had the unbreakable blackthorn to swing at it.

When I stood in front of the door of the Supreme Bean it was quarter ’til nine and saw that it was already full of students and the glass walls were fogged with espresso steam and cigarettes. I reached for the door and saw, at the moment that I touched the handle, that the girl at the counter with her back to me, chatting with a chiselled, dark-haired man who was ringing up orders, was, unmistakably, Moth. As if in response to the emission of this non-plussed thought she turned as I opened the door. After a startled pause during which she adjusted to my new look she said,

“John? You’re all dressed up! Why do you look so horrified to see me?”

I thought: this could either end up being the most embarrassing hour of the day, or the funniest story of the year, or both. I could only hope that Nico was a little late for the appointment and I’d be done with Moth before she showed up. Of course, she’d seen Moth coming in and out of my flat more than once during the two months that Moth and I had lived together, but I didn’t want to remind her how much of a dirty old man I once had been, or, even worse, give her the impression that the affair lived on.

“Moth. You look… healthy.” We exchanged that pecking two-cheek kiss that it had taken me a dozen attempts to master. She did look healthier… rosy-cheeked and a little fleshier. Had I fed her so poorly during our time together? Perhaps my mistake had been in not playing enough of the father figure… letting her eat under her own supervision too often. I laughed at myself for this ridiculous thought even before completing it. She was wearing a pair of jeans I’d bought her; the sweater looked familiar, too. The motorcycle boots were from an entirely different patron, though.

She pointed at the handsome young man behind the counter, who I now realized was smolderingly Gay, and said, “John, this is Ramin.” Rah-meen. High cheekbones, olive skin, jet black hair, a slender frame and eyes from the frescoes at Pompeii. He wasn’t much taller than Moth; a compact little prince. If he hadn’t been Gay, I’d have been terribly jealous, despite the fact that Moth and I were no longer together and my mind, of course, was full of thoughts of Nico. Ramin seemed deeply amused at something and I wondered what Moth had told him about me. Here’s the dirty old man who stuck his dirty old thing in my mouth, ass, cunt, between my tits and my toes

“Pleased to meet you, John.”

Moth said, “Ramin is my girlfriend’s business partner… they own The Bean together.”

“Looks like business is good.”

Ramin smiled enigmatically and said, “Well, I’ll give you two some privacy,” and he drifted off to take an order. Moth reached for my cane but I moved it. “It’s real, Moth… I need it to walk.” The amount of bitterness… of blame… I heard in my voice as I said this surprised me.

“Really?” She seemed genuinely concerned. “What happened?”

“It’s a long story.´”

“Suit yourself. I like the facial hair, by the way. You look like Johnny Depp.” She brushed by me on the way towards a few empty tables and said, “So, where do you want to sit?” and I panicked. I glanced at my watch and she added, “Okay, we’re still a little early, I guess, but… I have something important to tell you. I wanted to catch you before Christmas.”

It was only then that it dawned on me that the message to meet at the cafe that morning hadn’t come from Nico at all.

We sat at a table in the back, near the window; in fact, it was the same table I’d sat at the one time I’d been in this cafe before, early on, the morning of sleeping with Amanda Nye. This was the table I’d sat at with the notebook I wrote ‘She is lying’ in. I had ducked into this cafe while on the search for a bed, I recalled, to get in out of a downpour. I’d come in, taken a seat, written in the notebook and left again without even noticing that Amanda Nye was sitting there too. This was during an epoch even earlier than the Moth Dynasty. I’d been in Berlin less than a year and more had happened to me already than in all the time I’d lived in California. Idle hands and the Devil and so forth.

Moth said, “You want something? A hot chocolate or something? Anything we want is free.”

I was still doing my best to recover from the fact that Nico wouldn’t be coming through the door any minute. “I’ll have a look later.”

“Suit yourself. By the way, before I forget: what’s the name of the publisher your books are published with? I told my girlfriend about it and she’s curious.”

“It’s just… they’re just, you know, paperbacks. It’s a small press. Indie. Upper Midwest.”

“Yeah but we can order them on Amazon can’t we?”

I did my best to gauge whether Moth knew the truth and was needling me or if she still innocently believed my bullshit about being a published writer and therefore the intense little schoolboy horrors of dread and shame she was inflicting on me without preamble at 9 in the morning were purely unintentional; it was impossible to tell. “They’re all out of print but I guess you can try. The name of the publisher is Objets… like the French word. Objets.” I borrowed the name of Azzedine El-Hadi’s antique shop in Mission Hills, San Diego. The Objets Press sounded pretty good.

Moth said, “Listen, do you believe me when I say I’m really really sorry about how things, you know, ended up?”

“Don’t… ”

“I mean, I’m not sorry I’m with my girlfriend. But I’m sorry I had to hurt you to be happy. You know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean. And I’m sorry I wasn’t a better friend to you instead of a horny old goat…, ” I lowered my voice, “who used you like… you know. Who used you.”

“Hey, I fucked you with my own free will,” she said, a little too loudly. A chubby student with blond dreadlocks (Moth’s old hairstyle) looked up from her book at us. “That wasn’t the problem.”

“What was the problem?”

She looked away, arrived at some sort of conclusion, and said, “You want to come see where I live now?”

We took the scenic route, and Moth gave me a guided tour, pointing out spots that had been her courtyard kitchens, cul-de-sac bathrooms, tree-shaded living rooms and overpass bedrooms when the entire neighborhood had been her apartment, before we’d met. I was nervous that Nico might see us walking together so I made sure to keep a distance from Moth as I hobbled along beside her. We wandered a maze of funky little side streets, left, right, left, left, right, right… until it almost felt as though we were traveling in an angular circle; as though Moth was doing her best to disorient me, or put off some kind of moment of truth.

Some of the streets felt vaguely familiar, the way streets will feel from a new approach after you’ve walked down them a few times already from the opposite direction and on the other side of the street. If she’d suddenly run off and left me limping alone, I thought, it would probably take me hours to find my way home, although I was only a few blocks, I was sure, from familiar landmarks. We followed the shattered wall of a baroque-era cemetery, crossed a railroad bridge and at some point could see the dull metal dome of a planetarium like a lead balloon rising over leafless treetops of the warm winter on this day before Christmas Eve. And then, it seemed to me, we doubled back along a parallel path, protecting ourselves from the obvious.

Just when I thought I couldn’t walk another step, Moth stopped in front of a big green door and was digging in her pockets for her latchkey. The strangest thought flitted through my head. A thought in the form of the sensation of vertigo.

“I know this place,” I said.

“All these buildings look alike. Don’t be a pussy. Let’s go up.”

We entered the dark hallway.

“Moth… ” I reached for her. In anger, possibly. She dodged my hand and bolted across the courtyard, into the rear wing of the building. I heard her on the staircase. I thought to myself: this can’t be true.

She was taking the steps two at a time and I went after her and tried to keep up on my bad leg, clutching the banister with one hand and swinging the cane with the other. The sense of deja vu that crowded in on me was so not ephemeral; so solid; that it was like a clinical symptom of insanity. Deja vu plus rage. The cracked yellow enamel on the walls; the threadbare red runner on the steps; the smells leaking out from the dark doors of silent apartments… it was like a film running backwards, returning me to the black room of a nightmare; a terrible accident; the scene of a crime. Breathless as I pounded up the stairs after her I called, “Moth… Moth… I can’t believe it… I can’t… ”

She called down, from two levels higher, “It was my idea, John! I chose you! I wanted you to be the father!”

And I remembered Amanda teasing me in front of the Supreme Bean that rainy morning with you haven’t even bothered to ask me who I was sitting with… I remembered Moth saying she was with a friend and they took me to dinner at that Indian place and I remembered Amanda joking that night, the night of the ‘dinner’, Give that man a cigar and Gotta go check on Ramen and those Kohl-rimmed eyes… the Kohl-rimmed eyes of the Burka’d ghost who sucked me… the dusky laughter as I ran down the same stairs I was now, insanely, stumbling back up again…

Moth kept running higher and higher and I was expecting, any minute, to wake from the dream.

16.

So that was my Christmas present. After a handful of abortions with as many women over the years, I had finally been tricked into fatherhood. I celebrated the long Christmas holiday alone, paradoxically. Even Nico, who had family in Berlin, vanished from the building for a week that wasn’t even at least decorated with a snowfall. It was a cloudy, muddy, end-of-the-world Christmas. Then came New Year’s Eve, on which I received a text message from Moth while the bombs went off (New Year’s Eve in Berlin is like the 4th of July in Texas): hppy new yr & we c each othr soon. Moth.

Time after that fell away like a rope I no longer had the strength to clutch at; a rope tied to an undefined object of great weight… perhaps the heavy object had been me. Freed of this weight but only at the cost of falling. Moth filled out… her breasts lost any memory of boyishness and her face rounded many weeks before the bulge in her stomach showed. Of course, anyone privy to Moth’s nakedness would have detected the first subtle change down there immediately but I just watched from the outside of the expensive Irish sweaters Amanda kept her in throughout the mild winter.

I checked on Moth every few days by cell phone (hers was still one of only two numbers in my possession), saw her perhaps once a week for dinner. Amanda made an appearance a handful of times before Moth became so pregnant that she required constant supervision.

One night, in fact, I believe Moth was drunk, or on some kind of drug, and I was alarmed for the baby in her. She woke me up, whispering into her cell phone like a proper paranoid that all of the videotapes in that trunk in Amanda’s living room are the same film, John, and I’m really scared. Or something to that effect. I checked on her the next day and she laughed it off, but I couldn’t laugh off the drug-use. Should I bring it up with Amanda behind Moth’s back?

Seeing Amanda Nye again for the first time in months was a queer, but not entirely negative, sensation. In fact, by then, I was glad to see her, if only to have the opportunity to put some questions to her that had been driving me nuts for a very long time.

It was Moth who had phoned me on Valentine’s Day (ironically). “Amanda’s in town. Wanna come over for bagels?”

“What about we all meet at the Supreme Bean instead?” For whatever reason, I still found Amanda’s flat a place to be avoided.

“Okay. Three o’clock then?”

I was standing in my kitchen, where I’d gone to run hot water for the tea kettle while the phone was pressed to my face, and when I signed off I heard what sounded like plate glass shatter in my neighbor’s flat above me. Checking myself in my hall mirror first, I limped upstairs and knocked on Nico’s door. So much had happened since the one and only day we’d kissed that I’d almost forgotten about her. Understandably, I had lost a great deal of the force and self-confidence that had inspired me to boldness with Nico the last time I’d seen her. When she answered the door it was all I could do to resist the temptation to apologize for knocking.

“John just-John!” She broke into a huge smile. A smile, I noted, devoid of the vanity of sexual calculation. “Fancy seeing you in my doorway!”

Her razor-sharp luminous pearl of a platinum bob had devolved into a shaggier, nondescript chocolate-brown haircut in the interim. She was even wearing her reading glasses. Sweet, but hardly the stuff to incite self-immolating panics in a young man’s breast. Or even mine, for that matter. Thank goodness.

“Are you okay? I heard glass breaking.”

She frowned. “Glass breaking?” Then she laughed. “Okay, I know,” she grabbed my hand and pulled me over the threshold. “We’re editing.”

Her living room, otherwise exactly as I had seen it months ago, now featured a table at its center on top of which was a computer monitor and various other black or silver boxes of equipment, linked by a nest of cables. There were two chairs in front of the table and a young man, still with his back to us, sitting in one of them. He had curly blonde hair and a black tee-shirt on the shoulders of which there were either cigarette ashes or dandruff. My immediate thought: so that’s the boyfriend.

“John just-John,” said Nico, with a hand on the boy’s shoulder as he twisted in his seat and smiled at us, “Meet Eric-more-than-Eric,” a humorous introduction I felt slighted by. Slightly.

I realized that I still wanted her; there were still these pangs; but any dreams of actually having her now seemed fairly ludicrous. Not long ago, our paths had come so close that we might’ve touched, but that was the extent of it. My future was obviously shaping up to be too strange to include her: but even this portentous sentence makes it all sound more glamorous or full of mystery than it could possibly be.

“Whatever happened to that big Hollywood audition you were so excited about?”

Nico shrugged. “I decided to stop chasing luck,” she said, “And make some for myself.” She gestured at the computer screen as Eric returned his attention to it as well. He hit a key on the keyboard and a body went flying backwards through an un-shattering pane of glass, sucked feet-first out of the black night and into a kitschy bedroom, landing on tip-toe and freezing. “We’re making our own movie with rented digital cameras and some big software editing programs. Everyone donated their skills. That kind of thing is really ‘in’ now.”

Eric hit another key and dragged the mouse and the body went forward through the glass again, without sound and in slow motion this time, and I could see that it was somebody in a platinum blond wig (very much like the ice-cold hairstyle Nico had previously), doubling for her. The shattering glass looked like a wave smashing on a swimmer’s body. The body went back and forth through the membrane of the glass as they attempted to synch the sound-effect perfectly with the moment of impact. The sucking-and-then-spitting plume of candy-glass in the brilliant spotlight. The body’s arms as they crossed and flailed backwards and forwards, in half and double time, looked like some kind of devotional dance of the Middle East.

“It’s almost hypnotic,” I said.

“It’s the end of the film,” said Nico, softly. “This is where she kills herself.”

“Why does she kill herself?”

Nico shrugged. “She just does.”

Walking to my scheduled appointment at The Supreme Bean, I couldn’t get over that line: she just does. It was the perfect and terrifyingly unanswerable answer.

On my way through Berlin on a warm, partly-cloudy Valentine’s Day, it felt as though I’d been living in Europe for years already. My time as a house painter in Southern California seemed like another life, or a dream, or a novel I’d been working on many years ago only to abandon before coming to the end of it, though it had not been six months since I’d flown away from all that. There were probably still molecules of house paint swirling around in my bloodstream.

Work had stopped on The Bomb Collector… the physical work of actually writing it (following my new rule that I could only earn the right to a page of writing in the evening if I’d accomplished something ‘real’ during the evening’s day) …  but it occupied my mind nevertheless. Even as I limped up the street, away from my building (next door to which workmen were still scurrying around, climbing up ladders and banging on things, although the decibel level had dropped to tolerable levels and the construction site was beginning to look like a building), I was seeing Azzedine El-Hadi’s fictionalized life projected on the backdrop of my current reality. I was picturing him walking arm in arm with a woman, well-dressed and unusually relaxed, not on a first date but clearly in the early phases of a romance. Who was the woman and where were they off to? Was this the black mistress I’d given him? What about Noa?

I was still puzzling all that out at the complicated intersection of Rosenthaler platz, not far from the spot I’d first seen the blind ‘artist’ defacing a black-walled building, when I happened upon the man himself, sitting in front of a trendy new cafe called Sankt Oberholz. He hadn’t changed much in six months and I wasn’t sure but was fairly convinced, in fact, that he was wearing the same outfit I’d first seen him in. If he hadn’t been blind anyway, on the other hand, he wouldn’t have recognized me at all, I chuckled to myself. My hair was longer, I was sporting this rakish facial hair, and I was hobbling like a distinguished gentlemen on an antique walking stick. In a way, I’d grown up. Back in Southern California, I’d still dressed like a college student, despite the fact that it had been twenty years since I’d handled a textbook.

The blind painter sat close enough to me, as I waited for the traffic light to change, that I could hear him muttering to himself. The cafe had a row of silver chairs placed in front of the window facing the street I’d just come up and he’d taken one of the chairs and pulled it out towards the corner. He was drunk, I realized. Was I imagining this or could I smell the liquor on his breath? He suddenly stiffened as if aware of the fact that I was staring at him and he swung his backpack around to his lap and rummaged around in it. He pulled out a case for his sunglasses, popped it open, extracted a pair of black framed eyeglasses, removed the sunglasses he was wearing and put them in the case… and then slid the eyeglasses on. They magnified his necrotically blue eyes as he turned them upon me… in a perfect imitation of being able to see. I jumped out of my skin in fright and hurried across the street.

Crossing the street at that intersection means crossing the streetcar tracks as well, and I limped dangerously across the tracks as one was approaching, a clattering tin toy in bright yellow, despite the stories I’d heard from Moth of people being hit and sliced in half by the streetcar. I watched from the opposite corner until the chain of five wagons had pulled away again but by then the blind painter was gone. Maybe into the cafe itself. Those dead blue eyes. There was something cruel or even evil about those reading glasses over his broken eyes, but I could admit to myself that it was a witty response to my staring. But how could he tell I’d been staring? The change in the rhythm of my breathing? I was going to have nightmares about the corpse-blue of those pupils.

Half a block away from the glass box of the Supreme Bean I could see Amanda and Moth standing at the counter, chatting with Ramin, and the idea of walking in there and standing between the two of them making small talk with the man who had ‘raped’ me as part of Amanda’s little prank was not what I would call appealing. But what were my options? I could keep walking, of course, and never see any of them again if I chose to. But the idea of Moth’s young body transformed, even as I gazed upon the three of them, by my sex, my seed, was too compelling. As a writer, too, I was driven by curiosity: how was this story going to turn out?

“There he is,” said Amanda. “The mystery man.” She hugged me. “I wouldn’t have recognized you if Moth hadn’t warned me first. My my. You do look a little like Johnny Depp with that pirate style. I like it. Is that walking stick real? How’d that happen?”

“Long story.”

Moth hugged me too. Did I imagine a certain lingering quality to the embrace that reminded me of the embrace that had gotten her pregnant? In a panic over the instant erection this produced, I suggested that we grab a table at the back of the cafe somewhere, away from eavesdroppers. I ignored Ramin completely: my passive aggressive revenge.

Moth and Amanda were dressed in what the Germans call a “partner look”. We took our seats at a table insulated with a good distance on all sides; the cafe only had a handful of patrons in it.

“John, before anything else, I just want to apologize for my behaviour. Everything, I mean. I don’t have to go into detail here but you and I know a few things happened that shouldn’t have. In a way it was a misunderstanding, but it was unfair of me to kind of toss you into the deep end of a situation… a lifestyle… you probably weren’t prepared for. You won’t believe this but Ramin is sorry, too. But that’s enough on that subject. Fair enough?”

“Fair enough.”

“Good. Next topic. You’re probably wondering about… ”

“The baby. Was it an accident or on purpose?”

“I don’t believe in accidents.”

“So, there was a plan,” I said, eyeing Moth carefully. She smiled warmly at me and squeezed Amanda’s hand on the table.

“Yes, a plan. Moth was outside a lot in those days, as you know. I wasn’t happy with that but it was something she felt she had to do… it was a freedom thing, right, baby? And being outside a lot she noticed people. We were looking… ”

Moth jumped in. “We had decided a while ago we wanted to be pregnant but we wanted a certain kind of guy for the father. He had to be good-looking,” she laughed.

“And we didn’t want a German,” Amanda took over again and Moth shook her head vociferously on this last point. “We wanted someone intelligent, too, but there’s no way to tell that one by looking, is there?”

“So that day I first met you crossing the street over there under the U-Bahn tracks… ”

“Yeah. It wasn’t random. We were sitting in front of that Indian restaurant on Kastanien Allee and Moth spotted you again so I, uh… I went after you.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Hey, be more flattered than freaked out.”

“Yes, John… we looked at… I don’t know… hundreds of guys before we picked you.”

“I was immediately impressed by your intelligence, John.”

“And Moth moving in with me… ”

“That was part of the plan, too.”

I looked at Moth but spoke to Amanda. “So she could get pregnant.”

“It took awhile.”

“I’ve heard of women tricking men into getting them pregnant before but this… ” I was numb.

“But there’s a big big difference, John. We don’t want you to take any of the responsibility for the child. We want you to be a part of her life…, ” they squeezed hands again and exchanged a romantic look, “… but only to the extent you feel comfortable. And not as a parent.”

“How do you know it’ll be a girl already? It’s only been a few months.”

“We just know,” said Moth.

“And you don’t expect any… financial… input from me?”

Amanda laughed and for a moment the old Amanda shone through this reasonable new facade: the arrogant, mysterious, sinister prankster. “Frankly John, I’m rich. Okay? No worries.”

Amanda produced what looked like the manuscript of a short story and smoothed it out on the table.

“In fact, along those lines, here’s something I had my lawyers prepare,” continued Amanda Nye, “don’t bother reading it now. Take a look at it at home. If you want a lawyer to look at it with you I’ll pay his fee.” She slid the sheaf of papers, stapled in a corner, across the table at me.

“This is just so there’re no awkward situations in the future. As much for your protection as ours.”

17.

It was a beautiful irony that I should be walking home alone on Valentine’s Day with a legal document limiting both the responsibilities and influence regarding my paternity of a lesbian couple’s fetus, and the smile that I wore… patient, tired, numb, self-mocking… reflected the joke. I hadn’t been laid in months but I had this paper in my hands to certify the fact that long ago I had fucked a pretty girl so well that we had to get lawyers involved. Anyone I might meet on the way home now, making the mistake of seeing me as merely a sad and stringently unfucked middle-aged man, would get this seven page contract waved in his or her face. All I had to do was sign it and we’d all have legal proof that my hard cock had been in a vagina. But what about the other orifices, I wondered. No contract attesting to the fact that Moth had sucked me off more than once, or I her; no legal paper proving that her second-favorite invasive sexual act had been anal. In the missionary position, though. That was our invention. The secret is easing in and fusing gently with the heat and desperate grip of her darkness…

Well, I got a nice hard-on as I strolled along Kastanien Allee on Valentine’s Day, one hand in my pocket and the other one clutching the contract. I had no problem making eye contact with the girls, boys, men, dogs, crows and women I passed on the sidewalk, being at an age when a longstanding hard-on is considered a triumph. The unseasonably warm breeze ruffled my hair and pressed and fluttered at my bulging trousers like a vaguely distracted whore and I thought back on the days when these hard-ons were new, like stainless steel, and would last for half a day at a time, embarrassing me in check-out lines at the supermarket or in front of the card catalogue at the library.

Oh, so many pretty girls, then and now, frail and intimidating, saturated with that hot light that young men crave and go blind for (and that the savage ones smash into darkness sometimes, with words or fists). Bright outfits, long silks of dark and pale hair, trinkets of laughter… I wanted to cry and laugh about crying and sniff my tears and get on with it, move on, get myself out of the way, self-conscious about stumbling across that brave road with its mindless, fast traffic. My God, I’m old… that’s what those eyes… the eyes I made defiant contact with… that’s what they told me: you’re old. Some smiled, most scowled, a few frowned with puzzlement: you’re old. Don’t you know it? Get out of the road!

Being old is very much like being fucked in the ass, as it turns out. It only hurts until you accept it. A girl told me that, once, about ass fucking, while smoking her post-coital Virginia Slim cigarette. Way back in the 1970s, when we (as fresh young heterosexuals) thought we’d very hiply, very exclusively, stolen the practise from British queers. She said, it only hurts if you try to pretend it isn’t happening.

Exactly.  So many pretty girls, every spring. So many springs.

I took the long way home and stuck the key in the lock in the front door of my building about an hour after Amanda had slid me the contract. I noticed that the skeleton of the building under construction next door was fleshing out with electrical conduits and large panels of fiberglass insulation and the sense of frenzy had mellowed into a few hammers banging humbly away on various floors of the building. The crane was gone, as were all the forklifts and dumptrucks.

I stood in the hallway outside the door to my flat and listened to a loud swelling of choral music. It was like standing in the foyer of a packed and floodlit church, and I recognized the piece almost immediately as Bach’s Johannes Passion… one of the most moving pieces of music ever written, in my opinion. It helped not knowing the lyrics, which were based heavily on the Biblical interpretation of that famous anti-Semite and man of peace Martin Luther. It was the saddest melody I’d ever come across as a high school student, and now that I was hearing it again in the hallway outside the door to my flat on a warm, lonely Valentine’s Day of my middle-age in a foreign country, I burst into tears.

I followed the sound of the music upstairs until I found myself in front of Nico’s door, from behind which the music blasted at a level she could only get away with because our building was almost empty. I sat down right there, leaning back against the door that seemed to bulge out and suck in against the breathing weight of a full choir and a massed orchestra and I submitted to it, holding my face in my hands.  All these years on earth. All these years.

I felt the pressure give way as the door suddenly opened from behind me and I stood up with great embarrassment, my face wet, too late to hide it, giving Nico a kind of half-smile and a shrug, and as if in a dream she reached and pulled me over the threshold and against her breast, rocking me in a slow, sad, desperately tender hug. I didn’t dare open my eyes and didn’t bother fighting the flood of tears that came and she pulled us clear of the door and pushed it shut with her boot and pulled the papers out of my hand and let the sheaf fall to the floor… none of these actions audible against the music… and we kissed, undressed and made love.

The completion of the act, which came quickly, right there on Nico’s living room floor, in the blast of Bach’s morbidly majestic music, satisfied a craving in both of us that I knew we’d never feel again. Naked on my back on the chilly floor with a bottomless Nico collapsed upon me, I couldn’t help wishing that it was Moth instead, my penis shrinking in sleep in the dark warm wet of her body. We weren’t embarrassed or disappointed and the mood was very sweet. I stroked her dyed brown hair as we listened to the Johannes Passion play itself out; resolve; conclude, drain from the room like a tide.

Nico climbed up off of me with a bemused smile. She was blushing, though, so her attempt to come off as modern and casual about what we’d just done… that harmless little mistake… fell somewhat short. Which was reassuring, at least. My ego couldn’t have stood up to any more post-coital experiences with fearlessly unsentimental women that day.

“Let’s not mention this to Eric,” I joked. I was on my hands and knees, gathering up my clothing.

Nico went to fetch the pants she’d tossed across the room on the couch in the heat of our moment and said, “Eric?”

“He doesn’t need to know.”

“I’ll probably mention it at some point. He’s my best… ”

“Do you think that’s wise?”

“Are you that prissy about your privacy?”

“Won’t he want to kick my ass or something?”

Nico put her hand over her open mouth. “Oh my God,” she said, finally. “You think… ”

“Isn’t he?”

“John,” she said, laughing, “Eric is not my boyfriend! He’s as Gay as… ” she gestured vaguely, reaching for a metaphor. She was standing in front of the stereo system near the window, making sure that the Joahnnes Passion wasn’t about to cycle into a repeat, when the doorbell rang. Two short sharp rings and a very long one. At which she seemed to go pale, glancing at the clock on the wall over the couch. “Shit shit shit! I totally forgot!”

“What?”

“There’s no time,” she said. She pointed at the table that the computer sat on… the editing table… which had been pushed to the wall to make room in the middle of the floor. “Get under it. Quick! Get under it and don’t make a sound. I’m serious, John! Hurry the fuck up! Get under the fucking table! Now!” (I would marvel at the quality of that acting job-Nico’s surprise at the doorbell ringing-later, when I had time to think about it).

She pressed two buttons on the stereo and ran to press the buzzer button that would let whoever it was into the building. The Johannes Passion started again. Then she ran back into the living room with a can of air freshener and sprayed the room. I didn’t see this… I only saw her feet briefly… but I heard her do it. I was crouching under the table with my bundle of clothing in my arms, blind to anything higher than the table top. My shoes I saw standing on their own near the couch, but there wasn’t time to scurry and get them as I heard Nico open the front door of her apartment. I scooted away from the front of the table, my back to the wall, holding my breath.

I was in as absurd a position as anyone could imagine:  a middle-aged man cowering naked under a table in his upstairs neighbor’s living room to the mockingly grandiose soundtrack of very loud Bach. Even more absurdly, as I listened to Nico unlock her front door and greet whoever it was I was hiding from, I thought of Azzedine El-Hadi…  not my old friend, but his fictional counterpart, my creation.

I thought of his day trip with Noa into Manhattan; how it started with a blue sky with only the tiniest cloud in the distance and suddenly became black with paranoia. Why was I thinking of Azzedine as I squatted under that table? A writer’s mind has its own agenda. Azzedine and Noa have a life of their own in my thoughts.

I remembered that aborted lunch in the hippie restaurant… the man with the camera who followed Azzedine and Noa out of the restaurant and into the street. Azzedine’s tightening chest… the barely controllable impulse to run. Who was this man? What harm did he intend?

I felt like a rabbit hiding from a hound as I cowered under the table, listening, through the Bach, to Nico and her visitor, a man with a very deep voice, exchange words. Without understanding a fragment of German, it was nevertheless obvious to me that her visitor was drunk, demanding, aggressive. Nico’s tone was conciliatory… pleading. I wondered if at some point the moment would arrive that I would have to crawl from under the table and defend her. They moved from the little entrance hall into the living room. I could see their feet as they stood in front of Nico’s couch, continuing the debate, their voices rising. How could it be that this man couldn’t see that someone was squatting under the table?

Noa and Azzedine were walking at a good clip down a shaded sidestreet festooned darkly on both sides with pawn shops and iron-barred jewelry stores, a street more like an alley than a street, Azzedine glancing frequently over his shoulder. The man with the camera had yet to round the corner, but he had thus far managed to remain doggedly on their trail, over a distance of many blocks and several abrupt changes of direction, maintaining a discreet distance.

All talk between Noa and Azzedine had ceased. There was only the ambient sound of the city and their huffing breaths as they hurried. It was Azzedine’s perfect idea of a nightmare, Bergmanesque in its silence, no comfort in having Noa there with him for he was convinced that it was she who had brought this visitation upon them. This sinisterly bland yankee hounding them was an avatar of covert American violence in his ruddy-faced, square-jawed manner… Azzedine worried that he might even be a government spy… a secret agent… what was the agency called? The O.S.S.? He was becoming furious with Noa for not quite keeping up as he walked faster and faster…

They had doubled back to the parking garage and when they had gotten within fifty yards of where a man sat on a stool in a booth in front of the garage’s entrance, reading a book with a sneer of pleasure, El-Hadi, who was a good twenty paces ahead of Noa, called out to the man in a dialect they shared. The garage was owned by cousins of El-Hadi’s and the man on duty was a countryman, a retiree’s age, no doubt doing the job for money under the table. Whatever El-Hadi called out had him off the stool and scurrying into the oily shadows to fetch the car with an expression on his face that struck Noa as so theatrically grave that she wanted to laugh. But she knew better.

The car sped back up the maze of the streets they’d followed, retracing their steps, as if El-Hadi now sought the man they’d only moments before been fleeing as from the Devil itself. Where the streets narrowed and admitted no traffic in the direction El-Hadi was speeding he drove anyway.  Where they turned into the mouth of an alley where it was ill-advised to drive any faster than a crawl he put the speed on. Still, they couldn’t find him…

This menacing square with a camera; the shit smeared all over El-Had’s car a year later: they were related incidents. El-Hadi knew it, he knew it in the part of his mind (which wasn’t, perhaps, his mind at all but his heart or his guts)  that knew without words and saw without pictures. The obvious connection was Noa, who’d never, in all the time he’d known her, struck him as real. That eternal smirk of hers, which he’d once mistaken for the ignorant arrogance of youth. He knew better now.

All that pleasure… how could he ever have been fool enough to think that it came without a price? And then I thought: is that how the book ends? Does he lose his mind? Does he kill her?

They were arguing: the male voice slurred, belligerent. The music was loud but I’m sure I heard the muffled sound of a punch, then a slap in response. A scuffle, a grunt, a gasp, the sound of furniture sliding, a struggle that went on like a booze-fueled dance. I jammed my hands over my ears until only the Bach roared through, but then I heard something above that anyway, something awful. Evil, even. A scream, yes, but a scream of pleasure… a man’s…

I slid from under the table on my knees and there was Nico, on her knees, with her hair tight in a man’s dirty fist and his fat ugly prick bobbing and spitting and poor Nico’s sad shocked face as I lunged at him, lunged at his back, holding my breath. I was shocked too, believe me. He was strong but I hit him full force, catching him unawares, knocking the wind out of him and me both, slamming with the weight of all my hatred. Every time the bones in my fist touched his mouth or ear or the side of his cheek a fine line of blood or bloody sweat or spit popped out like sparks from a flint. He was everything I had ever hated, a truth I only discovered at the moment of impact: he was my ex-partner Richard, he was my father, he was the bully in grammar school and the rich kids in college and the smugly successful, locally famous asshole who beats his wife. We hit the wall hard together as the German choir swelled in the nearly Satanic power of that Bach and Nico was tangled in the crash, maybe she was hurt too, I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t thinking, I know she cried out, I think she screamed for me to stop and clawed my face to pull me off but mostly I remember just pounding. Pounding her lover; his blinkless deadfather eyes. Beating that monstrous blind artist with everything in me, naked in my rage.

18.

If you’ve never had the chance to beat an ugly man in the face with all the strength in your arms, I recommend it. Do it but not for long… twenty seconds is already too much… but do it because if you have read this book for this long you can’t be very different from me and that means you’re estranged from your natural self. Your inheritance. We hate the ugly… I believe this… we hate the ugly based on species memory. Ugly represents the beast, the monster, the animals with snouts or muzzles and bristling foul fur that hunted us hungry when we were few and soft and afraid and guarding our little settlements with pathetic sticks for weapons. That has to be where hate comes from and where my hate came from. Connecting to that is a powerful thing and once the connection is made it can never be undone, I think. The county jails and federal prisons are full of born-again Neanderthals like me.

Nico and I dragged her blind boyfriend by the ankles to the bathroom; he was moaning and hot-slippery with blood and I was relieved he was alive. Or greatly relieved plus just that little bit embarrassed in front of a female witness that I hadn’t been man enough to do more serious damage to my adversary, despite my lack of restraint. She daubed his pulpy features with a wet towel and said, kind of breathless, still shaking, he’s had better beatings than that. He’s dead drunk anyway and won’t remember this tomorrow and I’ll just tell him he got in a bar fight again.

Then she said Jesus, look at you and I saw myself with her eyes, hunched naked and very erect. Go get your clothes and put them on, John, she said, before you accidentally rape me. But she wasn’t angry, just upset and shaking. Matter of fact crisis control. I tried to put my pants on and my bloody hands were heavy with pain.

I said, Why didn’t you tell me this man was your lover?

She said, it’s none of your business, John.

I was shaking, too, and fumbling with my pants and then my shirt and I gathered the rest in my arms and quietly let myself out of her flat and down the stairs with weird vision both acute and vague and clinging to a sliver of hope that I was dreaming this mess and would wake out of it chastened and laughing and deeply relieved.

It was only after letting myself into my flat and washing off my hands and lying on the bed in the narrow bedroom under Nico’s (which I still hadn’t seen and probably never would, now) that I noticed that the Bach was still playing, loud as ever. Coming to its unalterable crescendo.

19.

I couldn’t relax. I had to get outside. I put my shoes back on and grabbed my walking stick and a jacket in case it rained and was on the street again, limping like a man with a destination in mind. But in truth I had none. Whatever I was hurrying towards was as vague as whatever I was escaping.

It was spring, despite the unseasonable warmth, and the sun was already setting behind the low, undistinguished apartment buildings on the west side of August Strasse. The restaurant on the corner, with a short row of tables-for-two on the sidewalk, was alive with dinner talk and the clink of cutlery and generic dinner music… in this case a slick gypsy band… and I made eye contact with what patrons I could in transit. It was impossible to see into their lives because I couldn’t hear into their language, but it was clear that each and every one of them was the solidly unremarkable window dressing of a culture that was rewarding them decently for playing their parts.

It was a very expensive restaurant (I’d peered cautiously at the menu posted in a display case by the entrance before) and they had the money to eat there. The men were handsome, fleshy, my age or older, in dark silk suits or beautiful pullovers and many of the women were much younger than their dinner dates, and one or two were ravishingly, if vacuously, beautiful. And yet none of them were real. Or they were proof that I wasn’t; how could both sets exist in one reality? Just limping near them on the sidewalk produced a spiritual wobble in me akin to two musical notes, neither close enough to overlap nor separated enough to harmonize, jarring as they come closer. I touched my face where I thought one of them must have tossed the dregs of a cold drink and realized I was bleeding. A billion organisms from under Nico’s nails were starting a new life in me… she had fertilized my clueless scowl… the pain would come tomorrow.

I limped on. Where August Strasse empties into Rosenthaler Strasse, the major thoroughfare down which runs the streetcar, I turned right. It was only when I saw a young woman, a simple blonde, dragging a helium balloon in the shape of a bulging red heart through the twilight behind her, that I remembered it was Valentine’s Day. The fact that she was crying… sniffing red-eyed at long evaporated-tears… was reassuring.

In fact it was the sight of this pretty young German in the voluptuous trance of her dinky opera that cheered me up. She couldn’t have been much older than seventeen and there was nothing she could tell me about the recent events of her tragic hour, if I could only interview her, which would surprise me. Those upper-middle class diners in their tight-smiled, Chablis-pouring prime had chilled me to the bone, illuminating the lie in that old maxim smile and the world smiles with you. The sad young thing was a messenger from the great beyond. Cry, she had come to inform us, and we are never alone.

I wasn’t too old to share in that.

fin

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!

Azura’s Gift [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

 

photo by SG

Like many young prostitutes in Berlin, Azura had a dayjob. Due to reasons too numerous to go into here, the fee a prostitute could typically expect in exchange for the usual requests had withered, over the decades, to a paltry fraction. A young prostitute of today could expect the kind of money a middle-aged whore would have been disappointed to earn in the 1970s.

Middle-aged whores were now limping up and down the Kurfürstenstrasse, the scarred habitat of tattooed junkies and African exchange students, offering the total inventory of their butchershops for a pittance. Like the feather-sprung, peg-legged pigeons these damp women shared the curb with, time appeared to be dismantling them with extraordinary impatience. There was even a rumor that one of the oldest had been selling off toes and now fingers to pay for bigger implants.

Four days a week, Azura worked as an intern for a fledgling film production company called Auslandish Films, on Rosenthaler Strasse in the Mitte neighborhood. Her wage as an intern was minuscule… barely “drink money”… but she believed she was getting her foot in the door of the film business. She resembled a film star herself, in a 20th century way, with a defiant posture her customers at the brothel interpreted as a challenge.

Azura’s boss at Auslandish Films was a soft-spoken Afro-American expat named Mr. Jeffries, fluent in German, with an arrogant wife and three cookie-colored children, the oldest, a boy, not much younger than Azura. The boy was trouble, but he rarely showed up at the office. When he did, he made such an exaggerated show of ignoring Azura that it was the same as staring. His hair was in soft slow shoulder-length loops the color of dirty butter, floating in the invisible currents he seemed to move through. His own lazy ocean of Balthazar Jeffries.

Saturdays were the only days on which Azura worked both jobs, stopping in at Auslandish in the morning (opening up with her own key and code to the alarm) to deal with the overnight mail and important answering machine messages and then riding her scooter far across town to the neighborhood of Charlottenburg, on Blissestrasse, where Lady Luck, her brothel, took up the second and third floors of a grand old building that had dodged aerial bombs during the war.

On the Saturday morning in question Azura inadvertently intercepted a private message from Balthazar Jeffries to Mr. Jeffries on the answering machine. It was the last message on the tape and was so long that the tape ran out in the middle of a sentence. She played it more than once, hugging herself in the cozy gloom of the office with its steel shutters still down over the windows and sun slashing through like razors. She recognized immediately Balthazar’s deep deep voice.

He went on in a far-ranging monologue to say horrible things about his dark-skinned father Mr. Jeffries. There were almost no gaps between the words in his Gregorian chant of a diatribe and Azura knew from experience which drug was involved. Balthazar hinted more than once that the message was a suicide note. Tell Mom and Becky and Gladys and so forth. Azura realized that she had to come to a decision as to whether or not to delete the message before re-activating the security system and locking up shop and driving across town to the brothel. If the message was all merely the inhuman animus of a drug in oration, Balthazar would be profoundly relieved to discover later that his poor father had never received it.

Azura dwelt on her decision, and the implications of her decision, the rest of the rainy afternoon in the brothel.

The truth is that the most lucrative services weren’t about sex at all. Azura’s colleague Lilly, for example, had consented to an incision (local anesthetic) about four inches long, in her abdomen, not far from the left kidney, which the medical student who considered doing this a refined pleasure then carefully sutured, returning a week later to undo the threads (local anesthetic again) and probe gingerly, with a sterilized implement, the smiling wound. For this Lilly received two payments, the first much larger. And Azura herself had once complied with a request to make dirt discreetly into a chasteningly-expensive triple-gusseted flapover briefcase. Real alligator. A perfect little shit of a milkdud. This month’s gas, water, phone and electricity bills all neatly dispatched with a grunt.

All this happened in the neutrally-decorated chambers of Lady Luck, a converted gerontological clinic, where Azura paid rent for a smaller room overlooking the courtyard. In the courtyard twisted a chestnut tree whose flowered arms reached up towards her window, nagging her about the past, wagging its finger when she bent over the little bed or mounted it on all fours with her face to the window.

Every weekend during her happy childhood, Azura had slept at her grandmother’s. Some nights she’d sit up in her little bed crying. Her Nana was a woman from a small country of ritual and habit who only took her hair down when it was bedtime, before her prayers and after her milk and a magazine, and she climbed the stairs to the room where the ceiling slanted down towards the window by Azura’s small bed and asked her Azura, with the militant compassion of a saint, why she was crying.

Weil der Neandertaler nicht in den Himmel kommen kann, the child answered, with a gulp after every word. Because the cavemen can’t get into heaven.

-Say again?

-The cavemen, she repeated, miserable. You said they were born before Christ Nana so how can they can ever be angels and go to Heaven?

-No, no, cooed Nana, softened by the truth, stroking Azura’s forehead with a trembling hand and confronting her blunder in this fine-cut grief. Bible stories were always distressing for younger children, who hadn’t yet learned to bend logic. In her diaphanous nightgown and shocking dark tumult of hair Nana resembled an excluded angel herself, cooing how the Christian God would never be so unfair like that, Azura. The good cavemen, they will go to Heaven. Don’t worry. Go to sleep.

-Even if they didn’t know it was a sin to kill Nana?

-Even so, said Azura’s grandmother, with somewhat less certainty in her voice but the persistent desire that the child should go peacefully to her dreams. She who was given to fevers and days on end of pretty speechlessness. Mother a stone and father an old suit in the closet.

The next night Nana was drinking her milk and re-reading a magazine (the hypnotic offense of raw youth in proud clothing; the communists would never have allowed it) when again she heard the prayer-like murmur of abject misery in the attic. Up the stairs she climbed, lifting the hem of her nightgown with one hand and clutching the candle holder with the other.

-The cavemen, Azura gulped.

-They’re in Heaven. Don’t you remember? The cavemen are in Heaven near God.

-Yes, answered Azura, but how can cavemen be happy in Heaven? They can’t talk with the others. They aren’t wearing good clothing! The others will treat them like animals Nana! How will the cavemen be happy?

Nana had to admit that it was difficult to imagine cavemen with angel wings flying around a standard Heaven, brandishing their clubs.

-The Christian God is wise, she responded, after thinking a while with her eyebrows so high they were straining. About such a problem he’s already thought, before creation, even. He has given the cavemen their own Heaven and there they are happy.

-There’s a caveman Heaven?

-Yes.

-And no one else can go there?

-No one else can go there, confirmed Nana. To point and laugh, she added, smoothing Azura’s astonishing hair. No one.

Rainy days brought out the worst kind of customer, for it was usually the type of person who would otherwise have been occupied, enjoying the weather in a convertible with a beautiful amateur had the sun been willing. She preferred the business of the damp white cast-offs who skulked in out of a glorious day, mocked by the splendors of existence. They were very quick and predictable and rarely had the money to propose something frightening. But of course such visits only covered a few hours of overhead.

On rainy days, as Azura’s colleague Lilly put it, the snakes use the staircase. Worst of all were middle-aged men with perfect bodies who mentioned the price they were willing to pay before describing the service they intended to pay for. The good news/bad news technique of the novice oncologist or seasoned sadist.

Azura was curled on the bed, gazing through the rain-melted window at a sky like cold dishwater and dishwater’s buried shapes, recovering from her last visit, toying with the idea of opening the window to let the bad feelings out. It was suppertime and she was daydreaming about Balthazar Jeffries. She daydreamed a knock on the door; she daydreamed putting on a bathrobe and telling whoever it was to wait.

She’d cross the room in three strides and sit at the vanity, the light from the illuminated mirror the only light in the rain-darkened room, and reconstruct the impenetrable mask of her makeup. Once, a customer had pressed her prone to the bed with his knee between her shoulder blades with such force while he pulled himself to completion that a perfect portrait of her face like a shroud of Turin remained on the pillowcase when he freed her to breathe again. Or, yes, more like that Munch painting.

She’d answer the door and like a horrible miracle and a gift there would stand Balthazar Jeffries, angered by rain and shivering off mud from the riverbed.

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.

The Bad Czech (a novel)

photo by SG 

Too bad it was always the men who were strong enough to leave her who always left her! Too bad it was always the men who were wise enough to resist her who always resisted her! Why did it always have to be the type who fell in love with her who…fell in love with her? She wanted for once to be wanted by a man who didn’t want her. Left by a man who would stay

1.

Lola was smiling. It still hurt to.

On the way to the airport, waiting for the taxi in front of the apartment building I would never see again (fuck you, and goodbye forever, 3e, with your salsa music… 3b, with your phony orgasms), I had seen a dead bird on the sidewalk. A sparrow. A breeze  ruffled the frizz of its breast.

I pointed it out to her but she rolled her eyes and looked away. But my point… or the point I was going to make… was that this dead bird was maybe the third I’d seen, inert on the sidewalk, since moving to California a few years before. And yet the trees and the sky are full of birds, millions of them, and they aren’t immortal. What’s the average life span of a sparrow, anyway? A few years? Shouldn’t the streets and sidewalks be thick with dead birdies? It doesn’t add up.

Just a thought. An airport thought, apropos of nothing. What does your mind get up to when faced with the higher-than-usual probability of Death? Imagine making a reservation, a month in advance, to play fifteen hours of Russian roulette. I was scared.

“What do you call these?”

Lola offered me half of a bear claw with a quizzical pout. She held it out at arm’s length and shook it at me, but I shook my head as well, and she retracted it. But I reached for it and tore it in half and stuffed it in my mouth.

She’s only offering what she doesn’t want, I was thinking. Food she was really interested in she usually started on quickly, insurance against sharing more than half of it, a habit I diagnosed as stemming from her foreign childhood. A childhood of the rationed and the ersatz. Self-sacrifice, even in a mild snack-related form, was not one of her moves. Her food in ‘our’ refrigerator had always been protected by red Ls of nail polish. Especially the chunky peanut butter; that was off limits. That was her lieblings snack. If you’ve never ejaculated in a jar of chunky peanut butter…

She said, “You said…”

“I said what?”

“Forget it.”

“How can I forget what I haven’t heard yet?”

Sigh. “Let’s not fight, baby, okay? Let’s just try to be nice…” she looked at the wall clock, “…for twenty minutes.”

“If you say so,” I said, but I was thinking two things. First: you can’t wait, can you? Second: when did you start calling me ‘baby’? Was that one of Harry’s words? Was she going to be running back to Harry as soon as I left the country? Harry the video game pornographer with racial dysmorphia. At least he’s rich. At least he isn’t a loser like me.

I expected the worst. I didn’t expect Lola to be satisfied until she’d utterly ruined both of us. That’s how bad things had gotten with my Lola and me, but I was jumpy anyway, jumpy and fearful and therefore not very hungry at all, though I put away that bear claw quickly enough, holding my sugar-cursed hands at face-level afterwards.  Loath to touch anything.

Not long ago, Lola would have tended to them briskly, with a kleenex. Without us needing to exchange a word. Now, as I sat there, sticky-fingered and mildly wretched, there was nothing, no response, her once-taut sensors had gone slack. She was reading something of great interest and just… kept reading… as I sat there like a post-scrub neurosurgeon. She licked a thumb and turned a page and I finally wiped my hands on my thighs. The machine of our love, as we both already knew, was broken.

I turned my mind to other thoughts. I had fifteen hours of flight to get through, involving two connections and the monstrous underlying threat of the North Atlantic in November. The bottom of the North Atlantic is littered with travelers, both ancient and new. Lola was checking her lips in a little mirror.

There’s something so dispassionately technical about the way a woman looks at her own mouth, I was thinking. If only I could learn to look at a woman’s mouth that way. I licked a still-sticky finger pleasurelessly. Lola patted my arm. A plane took off.

“It’s only fifteen hours,” she said. “The first part is nothing.”

She gave me a thumbs-up and a wink: another Americanism she’d only recently added to her collection, like ‘baby.’ I watched a mustached businessman in a seat at the far end of the lounge staring at her, and his eyes went back to his Financial Times when he saw me see him see her do it to me.

Be my guest, sucker,  I wanted to shout across the lounge at him.

I looked at her as a stranger would…I looked at her as if I were graying in a distinguished fashion, paunching a little, unlovably (but reliably) mustached, peeking at a woman over the tremulous hedge of a Financial Times. A tall blonde with a fabulous body, a strikingly pretty face. Yes of course. I’ll call my accountant. She would be easily worth the added expense.

Only fifteen hours?” I said, after a very long pause during which Lola put down and picked up again our copy of Vogue magazine, the one we’d just gotten in the mail that morning. A potent symbol of life. I intended to use it to ward off any existential panics that were sure to bedevil me in flight. She wiped her hands of her own bear claw gunk and folded the Vogue open and held up a page to me, frowning.

“Do you think she’s pretty?”

The first part of my journey was the thirty minute flight from Lindberg Field to LAX, in a propeller-driven airplane that looked like a good vehicle for a cheap cinematic death when I first saw it waiting for me on the landing field. There were dings in the shiny fuselage from decades of rolling staircases being shoved by careless members of the ground crew against it. It was a sunny, windy day. Black gusts of jet exhaust blew across the airfield like windblown widows’ veils.

My fellow passengers that day were of two types: the ones who make the quick hop to L.A. routinely, with Wall Street Journals rolled in the nooks of their blazered arms, and the ones like me who were disconcerted to find themselves about to take a sweaty hike across a dusty landing field towards a thirty-year old propeller airplane with a hole in it. A hole.

There was a little round portal under the cockpit window, about the size of the hole in the ticket-seller’s window at a cinema, and the pilot was handing something to, or receiving something from, a member of the ground crew through it. It looked like a Magritte painting, the sight of that uniformed arm, with its gold-trimmed cuff, sticking out of that hole under the cockpit window of the little plane; or like a plane with an arm in a kid’s book. But that was a comfort, because what kind of kid’s book would tell the story of a plane with an arm and then let it crash?

Lola had her back to me, staring out the glass wall of the terminal. With the same mysterious part of her brain that she used in order to finish most of my sentences, or to retract her mouth and close her eyes with impeccable timing the very instant before I’d ejaculate, she managed to turn to face me the exact moment that I stood up, coat slung over my arm, ready to leave.

I said “Lola…” and she backed away with a detached smile. I took a step towards her and she backed away again. I sang, softly, “Lola,” and she shook her head, a finger over her lips to shush me, and waved me away, as though with the force of the breeze from her hand to push me through the terminal door and out across the patches of raw sunlight and oily shadows of the tarmac towards the plane.

The more I thought on it, blasted with grit and exhaust as I followed my fellow passengers up the rolling staircase into the fuselage, the more I realized that Lola’s goodbye had been perfect. And so the more I wondered why I was leaving her.

But there was no time to dwell on that, because my mind was busy shutting itself down with mortal fear. Before I knew it, I was compressing my eyelids with terror, sailing out over the Pacific Ocean in an exotic curve that I was sure would end with a sputter of the engines, a magical spate of silence and weightlessness and then death. Instead, we slammed softly through a few boulders of cold dense air before leveling off over the little white waves that scalloped the coastline. Seagulls glittered over the Pacific like confetti.

I had the Vogue on my lap, my hands palm-down on it. The cover was already puckered and warped with sweat, just fifteen minutes into the flight. The guy in the seat next to me, who bore an uncanny resemblance to George Harrison, was casually flipping his way through Screen Writer’s Monthly. A very tall, white-haired, George Harrison with heavy black eyebrows.

“I see you don’t agree with flying,” he said in a voice that wasn’t George Harrison’s at all. It was absurdly deep, and he ornamented the end of the heavily-accented sentence with a hacking cough that I correctly placed as Eastern-European in origin. He was dressed in a modish suit with thin lapels, and a dark shirt with a strange collar, which added to the Beatle-esque aura he managed to project.

He was obviously too tall to sit comfortably on the airplane; his knees were not far from his chin; but he didn’t seem to be inclined to complain about it. My immediate thought was: He’s so glad to be in America, there could be a spike up his ass and he’d be saying ‘Please! Thank You! Make it a rustier spike, if you prefer!’’

He stuck out a hand and identified himself. His hand was hairy and bony-wristed and huge…I was hesitant to put my fingers in it. But he smiled when he said his name, and his too-white teeth were traced in black… a cheap or very old cap job… which for whatever reason made him seem less likely to crush my fingers. It’s funny how some forms of ugliness are seen as nice, and some as sinister, and likewise with beauty.

“Miro Pahnik. I’m in the Luck Business.”

I told him my name, shaking his hand, and added, “I’m a Starving Artist.” I gave him a look of what I considered to be hip resignation. “What do you mean by ‘the Luck Business’?”

He winked. “Movies. All of my filthy rich comrades… the directors and screenwriters and working actors… they all say, when explaining their fantastic success, ‘It was luck!’ Which is supposed to be taken as pure modesty,” said Miro Pahnik, leaning in towards me to make his point, “But really it’s the height of arrogance. Because what they’re saying by saying that all of their success comes from luck is that they are favored by God!” His eyes widened.

“Can you imagine? Favored by God! Likewise, when Oscar time comes and they get that statuette in their sweaty little well-manicured hands, who’s the first person they invariably thank? God! The same God who wouldn’t lift a finger to save an innocent Jew from being peeled like a banana in a Nazi experiment has bothered to help this movie star win an Oscar!”

I had never thought of it in that way before and told him so. He looked deeply satisfied to hear this. He touched a cigarette-yellowed fingertip to his temple. “How can one avoid eating shit if one doesn’t know exactly what it tastes like?”

I smiled and stared out of the window, slightly sick at the extreme plausibility of the sudden fantasy I was having… of Lola watching the news of my plane crash and hugging the television with demented grief, sobbing in German, looking sexy as hell with puffy red eyes and banshee hair and lips all glossy with snot and tears.

I was still rigid in my seat when the plane began lowering its belly like a dimwitted gull over Los Angeles, which looked like an entire country from the air, and I took the first deep breath that I’d taken in forty five minutes.

The journey across LAX, from one terminal to another, and then to the plane itself, was ordeal number two. I spent more time in a line for the check-in for my flight to Frankfurt, where I’d make the connection to Berlin, than I’d spent already in the air. It was an immense comfort to find myself strapped into my window seat in the Lufthansa jet, which was so full of people speaking German that I felt that I was already outside of the U.S. Both of the seats beside me remained empty as the plane taxied out on the runway, and I couldn’t believe my luck.

Which is why I was mildly surprised, and deeply disappointed, to feel someone lower himself into the seat beside me nearly an hour into the flight, as I lay my head against the chilly porthole with my eyes closed, trying to make time fly by ignoring it. The pilot had just announced, in three languages, that we were over the Grand Canyon. I opened my eyes and glanced to the right without moving my head, or uncrossing my arms from over my chest. It was George Harrison again.

“I had to get away from my first-class seat mates. I hope you don’t mind.”

I let a theatrically drowsy smile play across my face, hoping to discourage conversation by establishing, immediately, the ground rules for my version of the flight: reading; movie watching; sleep. “Not at all,” I said quietly. I yawned.

He peered at the Vogue, which was still in my lap and heavy as a Bible. “May I?”

I handed it over and he took it in his hands with relish. He was full of energy. He licked his thumb, the tic of inveterate readers of a certain age, and plowed into it.

“This is contraband stuff in my circle of friends, you see. Nothing is more puritanical than a repentant hedonist, and all of my friends are repentant hedonists. This includes my good friend the feminist with the breast implants. In her eyes, a man who reads a fashion magazine is just a tiny step above a pedophile.”

He paged through the issue…the decadently voluminous fall issue…with real pleasure, stopping to linger, now and then, on certain splayed-limbed poses, certain slack-jawed or pouty close-ups. He cocked an eyebrow at me, looking up from the magazine, though he was still rifling through it. “You subscribe?”

“Yes and no. It’s in my girlfriend’s name, but it’s for me.” I sat upright…the sleep-ruse was obviously pointless. I was blinking, looking around the cabin, orienting myself to the conversation.

“She must be quite secure in her looks.”

I held up a finger, meaning “hold that thought”, and unbuckled my seat belt. I then went through the foolish contortion required to dig my wallet out of my back left pocket. There was no money in it, but it was full of pictures of Lola: a telling metaphor. I handed him the wallet, and he slipped a picture (the picture of Lola at the nude beach in La Jolla) out of its hiding place behind a tamer photograph of the two of us together on a horse. As if he’d known it was there. I almost reached for it, the naked one, to save it from his fingers, but held my breath instead.

Her hair is boy-short and bright and sharp as metal in this picture. She’s squinting into the sun which is setting behind me as I aim the camera and my shadow is rippling over her like the diaphanous gray fabric of the most expensive dress in creation. Her unshadowed left breast seems to burst from the photo in contrast. It made me feel kind of provincial to feel so queer about letting him see that private image, private for reasons beyond the nudity of it, from back in the sweet days when Lola and I first enjoyed California together. The Czech studied the picture and nodded slowly, his mouth turned down at its corners.

“I can see you have problems with her,” he pronounced, like a Doctor thinking his way through a tricky prognosis. “She’s pretty, and you’re such a nice young fellow, so you can’t resist the unfortunate impulse to treat her like a princess,” he handed me back the photo and wallet separately, looking me directly in the eye as he finished his thought, “Which bores her to tears.”

I had a ridiculous smile on my face. “What?”

“She’s crying out for a little rough treatment, man…that’s obvious.” He went back to the Vogue, and turned the pages carefully, as though looking for an example in support of his argument. “Ha.” he said. “Look.”

He held up a picture of a doe-eyed blonde with a fat lower lip, posed between two po-faced Masai warriors, and she was as sleek and cool as a utensil in her vinyl dress and thigh-high white vinyl boots. “The first man who is man enough to fuck this girl in the ass will own her forever. He could be a cop or a garbage man, it wouldn’t matter. In fact, one of these big black gentlemen beside her in the picture would do nicely.” He chuckled deeply, blowing a raspy coalmine breeze on me from those dark lungs. He patted my knee. “I’ve offended you.”

“Not at all,” I said, clearing my throat, but I was thinking: you rude fucking refugee from a third world communist bloc country. “But you’re wrong. First off,” I began counting on my fingers, “She isn’t bored with me at all…in fact it’s quite the opposite, since I’m leaving her. Second, I’m not young…I’m thirty six. And third… ” I lowered my voice, “I’ve already fucked her in the ass,” I lied, “and it really wasn’t a big deal at all. For either of us.”

He bowed a bit… a subtle inclination of the head that Dukes and Barons were always doing in screwball Hollywood comedies of the ‘Thirties… conceding my point. He closed the Vogue and set it carefully on his lap, studying the cover during the awkward silence that followed. Awkward for me, at least, but clearly not for him. His follow-up question was:

“And so you’re leaving her?”

“Yes. Flying to Berlin.”

“May I ask why?”

“No, you may not.” I tried to make it sound playfully sarcastic, but it came out sounding…terse. He chuckled deeply. His leather-lunged chuckle.

“Look,” I said, “I’m not trying to be rude. I mean, I don’t want to seem… ”

Pahnik opened the Vogue again. “No need to apologize! You were only being frank. If only Americans, in general, would be so frank! As we say in Prague, ‘you can’t make a good soup with lukewarm water,’ and that’s all I get in L.A., day in and day out, on the beach, in the sauna, or at the sushi bar. Warm water! I miss burning my tongue a little, from time to time, in Europe. You Americans call it rudeness. ”

I yawned. I couldn’t help myself. “Pretty lucrative business, screen-writing?” The stupidity of the question was neutralized by the good will behind the gesture of asking, I felt.

“Oh, obscenely so, my friend.” He winked. “Obscenely so.” He patted the imaginary mound of a wallet in his jacket pocket.

“Do you have a writing credit on anything I’d know, like, er… ‘Heaven’s Gate’ or something?”

He shook his head. “Not at all, and that’s the trick. That’s the trick. I’m the author of well over one hundred paid-for scripts…I first arrived in Paradise in the early ‘80s, clinging desperately to the edge of Milos Forman’s flying carpet. He had done ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ and ‘Hair’, and was soon to have a major success with ‘Amadeus’. Anyway, as I was saying, I have written over one hundred paid-for scripts, and twice as many ‘treatments’, and the least I ever got for a script, counting the advance for the ‘treatment’, was $50,000.00, adjusting for inflation, which is peanuts, as you say. And not a one of those scripts became a movie! Not a one! And for that I thank my lucky stars and also a little skill on my part… but mostly it’s luck. As I told you earlier, I’m in the Luck Business.”

“But,” I said, “I don’t get it. You’ve written a hundred scripts in twenty years and not one became a movie. Isn’t that… I mean… wouldn’t some call that a kind of… how can I put this… ”

“Failure?”

“Yes.”

“No worries! Don’t be afraid of the word! You’re showing your stars and stripes again! But, no. A failure it’s not. For two reasons…for at least two reasons. First reason: in Follywood, what you want, even more than to have a so-called ‘hit’, is to not have a so-called ‘bomb’… not having a bomb is even better than having a hit. Because a ‘hit’ is something to live up to…and while two or three hits in a row may be reasonably called a success, one hit alone… followed by a resounding silence…”

He drew a jagged-nailed finger across his ropey red neck… figuratively decapitating himself… with a disturbingly skull-like grin. Those big white teeth, traced in black grout.

“As long as you’re not having a bomb, it is possible for everyone to believe that you will have a hit one day, and the safest way to not have a bomb is to not even have the script made into a picture! Not to mention the fact that the rights to a script that isn’t made into a movie at some point revert to me… that’s in my contract… and so I can feasibly then sell that very same script again… for more, usually, than I did the first time! In fact, yes, there’s one script of mine… ‘The Bad Czech’… that I have rewritten and sold more than three times already, in intervals of five years, doubling the price every time that I’ve re-sold it.”

He settled back into his seat, stroking a page in the Vogue (a vaselined black model with a shaved head and H-bomb tits was modeling for a line of clothing started by an aging rapper with a taste for rhinestoned panties) and looked quite deep in thought. He might have been Thomas Merton discussing an Augustinian paradox with me, or Enrico Fermi eulogizing the atom.

“I’m considered a hot-property as a screen-writer, because I’ve been on the scene for twenty years, longer than the Ice Age, and yet I’ve never had a bomb! That’s quite a track record! My asking price nowadays is quite phenomenal. Because I’ve never written an actual film that could do bad box office, and I’ve never had a so-called ‘hit’ to live up to, that means my perceived potential for writing blockbusters is… astronomical.”

“Still, of course, I’m not even in the top sixty percent. I’m little potatoes, as far as lunch in Tinsletown goes. But I might as well be Louis the bloody Sixteenth compared to some poor schlub of a college professor in Missouri, or some serf of a trauma specialist getting splashed with A.I.D.S.-infected blood on a daily basis in some roach-infested E.R. in the barrio.”

“Or some wretch of an artist living in a one bedroom apartment with a girlfriend he can’t afford in San Diego,” I offered, with a curled lip.

He waved my self-pity away jovially.

“And the beauty of this all is,” he concluded, in a lower tone, as if he really wanted me to understand the seriousness of his point, “is that I’ve been circulating the same scripts over and over again now for five years… I haven’t done a lick of work in all that time. And still, the money rolls in…these monstrous, sun-blotting waves…tidal waves of cash that I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.”

“Some life.”

He raised an instructive finger. I couldn’t avoid staring at that yellow, thick, and hacked-at nail on the end of it. It looked like something from an Egyptian tomb… the faded carapace of a scarab. “Though not, and you may well resent me for saying this… not as idyllic as you, having no money, might assume.”

“Oh really?” If there was one thing I was sick of, it was hearing rich people say that. Money can’t buy happiness? Fuck you. Try being poor. Resent him I did.

As it turned out, the finger he lifted was not instructive at all… he was signaling for the stewardess’ attention. While he was waiting for the tight-lipped girl to bring him a drink, he began to tell me a story that he swore was true.

2.

In the early part of the last decade, soon after the wall went down, Pahnik went to Berlin. He went, he says, out of curiosity and boredom. He had just pocketed a substantial wad of dough from the third rewrite of his perennially-rewritten (and re-sold) script “The Bad Czech,” and he was sick of L.A. Sick of sick palm trees, three-block limo rides, insincere blow jobs, and nouvelle cuisine. Without any pressing chores or relationships to hold him back, he hopped on a plane for Europe.

Why Berlin? In part because it still, after all those years, had somewhat of a reputation as a wild town, and also because he could get as close, in Berlin, to his Eastern European roots as possible without in fact running the risk of being in Prague or Warsaw when the Iron Curtain slammed shut again, something he always expected to happen in those days. So long after Glasnost it no longer seems as likely that the barbed wire and sentry towers will go up again, but just a couple of years after the Wall first came down, it was still by no means a certainty that the opening of the East was a permanent thing. It looked to some like a trick.

Pahnik was plagued back then with nightmares in fact. He’d dream that he’d flown back to visit his mother and brother in Prague (his only remaining relatives) and wake up the next day to sirens, and troops in square helmets marching ten abreast, and the police banging on his mother’s door to confiscate his luggage. And he couldn’t even remember how to speak Czech in this nightmare, but he’d wake up screaming in it.

Berlin had enough whiff of the East about it to satisfy his guilty need to “go home” without actually risking the real experience. He booked a room in the semi-posh Hotel Continental, on Budapester str, between the Tiergarten and the Zoo, and he lived there for a month.

He’d arrived in Berlin during the rainy season of its miserable winter, and so he rarely left the hotel, at first… his most adventurous attempt to do so saw him get as far as a block away, in a morning’s oblique drizzle of cloudy raindrops, before turning back. He did manage to travel much further afield than a block, eventually, but that was near the end of his stay, and is an important part of the story, and doesn’t need to be described in detail until later.

Stuck inside the hotel, he had to amuse himself with the materials at hand. What were the materials at hand? Television, fellow guests at the hotel, and the hotel staff. Those were his choices of amusement.

One day and night of television was enough to scratch it from the list of activities immediately, and forever. Television was dismal: dubbed re-runs of American sitcoms and cop shows; soccer, news; and the soft porn that German programming offered in the evening, which was beyond anything possible on American channels, but still not much more than interesting, once you’d made the comparison. In fact, if anything, watching television in Germany could have the adverse affect of making the sight of naked big breasts seem fairly boring, pretty quickly. And he didn’t want that.

He first turned his attentions to his fellow guests in the hotel. They were, for the most part, Americans, but there were a handful of Asians as well. The Asians were no fun… standoffish and unresponsive… they merely registered terrified smiles when he tried to spark conversations with them in the elevators, or at the front desk in the lobby. The fact that Pahnik was nearly twice the height of some of them may have been a factor.

The Americans, as advertised, were much more fun. They broke down into two groups… two distinct phenotypes: the easily offended, and the gregariously offensive. The former were intensely fun but only once; the latter were reliably entertaining if terribly predictable. He learned to identify the two types by their footwear. The gregariously offensive tended to stomp around the lobby in cowboy boots. Region was indicated by the style and condition of the boots. The further East, in America, that the businessman/cowpoke came from, the fancier and newer the boots looked.

“Howdy pardner!” Pahnik would call out, as he stepped off the elevator, spotting one of his Wyomingites, or Texans, or Michiganders, etc., collecting their mail at the front desk. But there was one in particular.

“Hey ho, Ivan!”

The most gregariously offensive American staying in the hotel that month was Charlie van der Roos. He was tall and fat and never once, during his stay in Berlin, removed his cowboy hat, a sure sign, in Pahnik’s opinion, that Charlie was going bald. His eyebrows were so blond that from the other side of the lobby it looked like he didn’t have any. His face was soft and pink and youthfully free of wrinkles, though he claimed to be old as Pahnik, who was a little older than forty then. His gleaming double chin, and the way he threw his head back when laughing, made Pahnik think of a huge pink seal.

He wore three-piece suits and bolo ties and hailed from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. He owned a chain of doughnut shops in Minneapolis, and its suburbs, called Le Dönut. Le Dönut, as Charlie put it, was a high-class doughnut bistro for people who liked croissant shops but didn’t necessarily like croissants. Business was so good he was thinking about going national. He foresaw a Le Dönut in every major airport.

He was working on “some tie-in synergy shit” in which he hoped to position the doughnut… as a concept… in a relationship with the Fourth of July the way that Turkeys were wedded to Thanksgiving. He’d complained jovially to Pahnik about it over the heads of three Japanese businessmen with hysterical smiles in the elevator one afternoon.

“Shit, Ivan, I’ve already dropped a quarter of a unit,” $250,000, “On an exploratory think tank on the goddamned concept and all I got so far is a new word for doughnut…a goddamned ‘freedom ring’! Would you eat a cinnamon-sprinkled freedom ring? But it’s gonna shit paydirt in the long run, you watch.”

Pahnik had singled Charlie out for companionship, out of all of the nouvelle rednecks available, because he was by far the most jovially rude of the lot, illogically referring to Pahnik as “Ivan,” while all the others called him “Mr. Miro” or “Mr. Pahnik” or “Sir”. Did Charlie think that Czechs were Russians? He once described his ideal girl, and in the same bold stroke identified himself as the soul of tolerance, by confessing to Pahnik that he dreamed of meeting a “chick with nigger lips, kike tits, jap hair, and a teen-age faggot’s ass,” and Pahnik had to admit that Charlie had a point. Who wouldn’t? Dream of such a girl.

Conveniently enough, Charlie van der Roos was staying in a room just three doors down from Pahnik’s, on the fifth floor, and by the second week in Berlin, Charlie’s room became the first stop of the day on Pahnik’s way towards the Hotel Bar every morning, where breakfast was an untouched plate of scrambled eggs and a petrol tank’s worth of beer.

One morning Pahnik sauntered down the hall and rapped once on that door, pushing it after hearing Charlie yell “Open!,” and entered the room to find Charlie sitting on the toilet, the bathroom door ajar, smoking a cigar and clutching a mammoth cellular phone as if it were electrocuting him. With barely controllable disgust, Pahnik deflected his gaze, out the window, which the slate-gray drizzle seemed to be tapping with affection. The whole city, or what was visible from the window, was the color of the rain clouds that darkened it methodically with murky water. East Berlin’s famous television tower, looking like Sputnik’s father, speared the sky-sized wheel of the clouds, and loomed over the monochrome map with rude Soviet glamour.

Charlie put his hand over the telephone’s receiver and spoke from the corner of his mouth, pushing his cowboy hat back on his head and squinting on a finger of cigar smoke that rose to poke his eye when he spoke. “Grab yourself a beer, Ivan… be with ya in a Jew-York minute….”

He suddenly raised his voice, yanking the sodden cigar from his mouth, shouting “No shit, Sherlock!” into the phone. He finger-punched the off/on button like it was the eye of an enemy and smiled a painful smile at Pahnik and stared into the middle distance like a man about to make a philosophical remark, but grunted instead.

There was a pregnant pause, then a voluminous plop in the toilet bowl. Followed by a smaller one. Then Charlie’s sigh of relief. He winked, re-inserting the cigar in the corner of his mouth and settling back on the toilet seat in peace. With the puzzled expression of a man discovering an after-thought, he extended the phone towards Pahnik as far as he could reach without toppling from the toilet.

“You wanna make a call to anybody State-side? I can write it off on my taxes… ” but Miro gestured a “no” so Charlie set the phone down in his lap and kept talking.

“I can tell by the way you never talk about how much shit costs,” he observed, “That you have some money. Am I right?”

Pahnik shrugged, pinching his nose shut. Was Charlie planning on flushing any time soon?

“Oh,” guffawed Charlie, “I guess your shit don’t stank! I guess your shit smells like perfume! I guess you mail it out to friends and loved ones every X-mas like the rest of us send fruit cakes!”

“Charlie,” said Pahnik, after grabbing a Beck’s from the little refrigerator beside Charlie’s bed, “Charlie Charlie Charlie.” He just had to laugh. “That’s not entirely the point, my dear American friend.”

“Uh-uh, the point is,” countered Charlie van der Roos, wiping himself perfunctorily and flushing the toilet and hoisting his pants up and buttoning his shirt and tossing his saliva-blackened cigar in the wake of his cigar-shaped shit in the vortex of the toilet, “You’re still here talking to me.” He swatted the air in front of his nose, activated the toilet’s exhaust fan, and closed the bathroom door behind him with genteel discretion.

“But anyway. I wonder would you be interested in a little wager? I mean, like, involving some hefty cash. And not,” he raised a hand, along with his eyebrows, “no fucking nigger fortune of a hundred dollars. I’m talking, like, a white man’s wager. Cut-your-throat-if-you-lose-it money.” He stroked his double-chin, and it reddened responsively where he touched it. It was clearly a pleasure to touch. “A briefcase-full.”

Intrigued, Pahnik sat on the edge of van der Roos’ humidly unmade bed. The serious stare he gave the soft pink giant encouraged the giant to keep talking while he dressed, slipping one boot on, then the other, while leaning against the wide screen television in the corner of the room, adjacent to the window.

He said, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed the new chambermaid for our end of the floor,” Pahnik had indeed, “But she’s quite a piece. Gorgeous chunk of pussy.”

Miro had in fact already begun lazily rehearsing a speech about flying her out to L.A. for a screen test or some bullshit like that the morning he’d first seen her, emerging from the service elevator like a very tall Audrey Hepburn with bigger tits, long black hair, and the ridiculous disguise of a maid’s uniform. And something in the eyes too… some kind of cleverness, or hardness, or even a hint of cruelty that made him fancy her being some version of a soulmate or other. Or maybe these impressions had been added retroactively… it’s hard to sift memory into individuated particles that fine, sometimes. Miro grinned at Charlie, but he was seeing the chambermaid. “Nigger lips, kike tits, Jap hair….?”

Charlie crossed the room and slapped the palm of Miro’s hand with delight. “And a teen-age faggot’s ass!”

Then he got a very unpleasant look on his face, did Charlie van der Roos. Like a man smelling burning flesh and liking it.

“Fifty fucking thousand dollars to whichever one of us can slip her a hard one first, Ivan.” He grabbed Pahnik’s crotch affectionately, making Pahnik jump, and added, “The standard of proof will be extremely high, of course. I’m thinking hidden video camera. Do we have a game here or what, buddy?”

3.

Pahnik interrupted the telling of his tale to accept his tray of chicken dinner from the mysteriously surly stewardess, and I chose to have the same, and we sat there chewing a few minutes in relative silence. The stewardess was one of those women that a frown seems to make more attractive, but I noticed, or seemed to, the flicker of some softening in her grimace as she leaned over Pahnik to pass me my dinner. As though to highlight the fact that her displeasure was specific to Pahnik.

He skipped his little pale brick of chicken, and the sweaty bed of rice it was interred upon, and went straight for the apple cobbler, and when he finished it he asked for mine, and I gave it to him, wondering why I had, until the reason gradually dawned on me. I gave it to him because he asked for it. There was something profound in that fact that seemed to hint to me why I wasn’t “successful” in the world, but it was still too simple a lesson for me to comprehend.

I watched him with sidelong jealousy while he polished it off (he certainly made it seem tastier than I’d have expected it to be) and I looked up as our stewardess backed her empty food cart by our seat, and muttered, “This must be the first rude stewardess I’ve ever had to deal with on an international flight.”

Pahnik grinned while he was still chewing and waved the very thought of her away. “She probably just got some bad news today.’ He shrugged. ‘No worries!”

“Anyway,” I said.

“Anyway,” he nodded, and continued the story.

4.

He liked the idea of a little competition with Charlie van der Roos, chiefly because Charlie was a filthy American blister of money…a classless monster of capitalism…who needed to lose in a way that would hurt his hidebound ego the most. And all the more instructive to lose to a Czech. But Pahnik had no intention of lowering himself to Charlie’s level by going at this girl wink for wink, innuendo for innuendo, and champagne glass for champagne glass with that gelatinous pink cowboy, who even as Pahnik sat in his hotel room contemplating the wager, was undoubtedly marching out of some flower shop up the street with a ridiculous bouquet of red roses to shove at the poor girl the next time he caught her with a Hoover in the hallway.

Even a late model mercantile shark like Charlie van der Roos suffered from trite delusions of amerikanisch romance that neither Pahnik, nor the shockingly pretty German chamber maid who trembled at the heart of their wager, could ever share or bother to fathom.

Charlie was going to do his hulking damnedest to woo the girl by way of a protracted siege of symbol and cliché that would take at least a week to show some results, and Miro was going to use his brains and get her into bed, and on tape doing it with him in every arcane or disgusting arrangement of limb and sphincter possible, that very night. In fact he momentarily regretted that he hadn’t added a stipulation to the effect that a little bonus of ten percent would be awarded on top of the 50,000 in the event that the winner could bed the girl that quickly. But then, that might have sensitized Charlie’s antennae to the true depths of the game afoot, and crashed the whole program, so, no, things were better as they were. It’s not as though Miro actually needed the money, in any case.

He couldn’t wait for the evening… or the chambermaid’s shift… to begin, because he was so well equipped for it. Being a rich tourist was reason enough, but being part of the Hollywood creative community made it all the more likely that he would have a very expensive video camera at his disposal, even that long ago, before average people had them. He laughed to himself as he set the camera up on a tripod in a discreet corner of the room, peering through the view finder at the big white bed. Charlie had even offered him the use of his own camera (“Shit, I got two or three of ‘em,”) in case Pahnik needed it.

“Of course,” said Charlie, “You ain’t gonna need one ‘tall cause the closest she’s gonna get to fucking you my friend is making your bed and slippin a mint under the pillow afterwards but I believe in giving you a fightin’ chance, Ivan!” Along with the traditional slap on the back.

Miro doubted, with a smug grin to himself, if Charlie’s camera had a credit-card sized infra-red remote like Miro’s did. Miro even went and sat on the edge of the bed and clicked the remote to test it. The green light beside the lens went on. A second click and it turned red again, blinking. A third click and it winked entirely off.

And then what did he do? He fetched a rubber-banded wad of hundred dollar bills from the sock drawer of the dresser and began to peel them free and toss them out over the bed, doing his best to simulate disorder, which took some doing.

His plan, which he was fairly proud of, considering how quickly he’d improvised it, was to douse himself in liquor, hang the “service requested” sign on his door knob, and sprawl on the money-littered bed like a total drunk on the verge of passing out. Then, when the chambermaid came in to do whatever cleaning she expected to do, he would babble out something to the effect that he’d just won all of this money in a card game… so much money that he hadn’t even counted it all yet, and thereafter lapse into his theatrical coma. Sooner or later she’d be tempted to steal a few hundreds while she swept in and out of the room with her rags and buckets…who wouldn’t? A hundred dollars was worth twice as many Deutschmarks. Who wouldn’t?

Just at the moment she was stuffing the cash in her pockets, Pahnik would seize her by the arm and make quite a stink. He’d threaten to take her to the Hotel Manager; he’d threaten to call the police. Just when he’d have her on the verge of jumping out the window, he’d surreptitiously finger the wafer-thin remote hidden under his pillow, check that the video camera’s green light was on, and propose to her a way out of the very serious trouble that threatened to destroy her career (her career in toilet scrubbing) forever. He even had a condom on hand to make the whole thing as antiseptic a transaction as possible. Fuck me, dear chamber maid, and we’ll forget the whole thing ever happened…you can even keep the bills you’ve pilfered.

He prepared the scenario with real glee. Five thousand dollars worth of hundred dollar bills were heaped on the bed (he never went anywhere with less than that in cash…his American friends, with their Armani pockets full of plastic, always found that quaint). He dabbed some cognac behind his ears, rubbed it in his hair, and gargled with some as well. Then he made a minor mess with wet towels and two bags of potato chips in the bathroom, hung the “service requested” sign on the outer doorknob, left the door ajar, and sprawled on the bed, humming Beatles songs with a drunk’s toneless gusto.

He had to wait that way for twenty long minutes, and just as he was about to get up to take a quick piss (and leave it yellow and unflushed as a detail for verisimilitude), there came a rabbit-shy knock on the door, a significant pause, and then the ravishing chamber maid pushed softly into his view.

First Pahnik saw the intrepid prow of her hard young bustline, and then that face announced itself like an astronomical event in the stratosphere of his room, the reverse of a lunar eclipse, and he had to remember how drunk he was supposed to be, because her black-haired beauty had sobered him like two hard slaps.

She was easily the most delicious girl that he’d ever seen. She had the same long-limbed awkwardness about her, as though she’d been born on the moon and Earth gravity was just too much, that all the great models had… that even the aging ones never quite lose… a tentative way of walking, and positioning herself vis-à-vis other objects, that was poignant and intimidating as well. What are you?, the simplest part of him wanted to shout at her. What fucking planet are you from? She glanced at Pahnik where he lay on the money-leafed bed and deflected her gaze as he opened his mouth to deliver his little speech and her shy avoidance silenced him.

She was in the bathroom, fussing with cabinets and turning the tap in the tub on, before he’d recovered enough to try it again. Damn! This was not going to be nearly as easy as he thought it might be, if even just getting his opening lines out in time was costing him such effort! How was he ever going to find the guts to suggest that she suck him off in order to keep her job… especially since it wasn’t necessarily inevitable that she’d take the bait and steal any money in the first place.

Pahnik just wanted to quit; he wanted to stop lying there like an idiot pretending to be drunk and gather the money up and straighten his pants and go have a seat in the bar while she tidied his counterfeit mess for him… he suddenly was entertaining a very lazy and post-adolescent fantasy of merely worshipping this unapproachable girl from afar. He’d buy her something nice on his last day in Berlin and leave it for her at the front desk. Maybe write a little note; leave his phone number; suggest that she might want to visit him in L.A. one day? Like any American college boy, smitten but chicken, using his country as bait. But he felt certain he’d be better equipped to deal with her in his territory, with that vulgar California sun pouring over his craggy features like pot-warmed honey softening a rock. And starlets and studio heads and producers all in a row doing that trendy hand signal with thumb and pinkie and mouthing I’ll call you from glinting convertibles parallel to his on Ventura boulevard, two and three and four lanes over, and… and…

The problem was it was no longer just a matter of not winning $50,000 from that Midas pig Charlie van der Roos… the issue was more did Miro really feel like losing that much? Which would really be like losing $100,000…the money he wouldn’t win plus the money that Charlie would. And not a single of Pahnik’s Hollywood friends, even the ones so much richer than Miro by orders of magnitude that they considered Pahnik poor… not a one of them was so rich as to sneeze at that much money, to write it off as a lesson or forget about the whole thing as a mistake he was sure to never repeat.

That much money might seem like a pittance to some starving Artist who’s constantly busy shocking himself with the amounts of money that the undeserving rich spend on imported olives for their cocktail parties alone, every year, but to anyone who really had some money, $100,000 was still a chunk. The paradox being that the more money one had, the stingier one became: didn’t Edgar Bronfmann of Seagram’s carry a brown bag lunch to work every day? Or was that some other Croesus? It didn’t matter.

Miro lay there singing his slurry version of “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and the chambermaid was dragging the Hoover across the bedroom floor to plug it in and Miro said, before the Hoover was on and roaring too loud to allow him to deliver himself of the complicated exposition his fiendish script called for him to orate, he said, “Er…”

He propped himself on his elbows, eyes half-shut, and said “Look a tall dish munny I won… ” and she smiled at him, startled, and took a step back from the bed, “plane carz…hey doan be fray I woan by choo. Shit, I candeefin coundis high!”

Then he had a terrible thought: did she even speak English? Was she even comprehending a word of his script? Was she getting the exposition? To speak German with her at this point would seem too sober, too not-on-the-brink-of-a-coma, to risk it. All he could do was fall back with his arms akimbo and snore theatrically. His heart was thumping. The Hoover roared into greedy life again, huffing from the carpet his pubic hairs and dandruff and Charlie van der Roos’ stray cigar ashes and farting its ancient musk into the air in exchange.

The infernal thing droned on and on, roaring and wheezing, nearer and farther and nearer again, banging against the dresser, the bed legs, the wall in the corner. It sounded like a Soviet-era Hoover. It was a monster of boundless energy, and he wondered how long she would go on worrying the carpet in that particular area when he just happened to pop an eye open and saw that as she steered the vacuum cleaner past a corner of the bed, she very deftly fingered a hundred dollar bill from it (how long had that been going on?), with a facial expression so in every way different from the mask she’d first entered the room with, that two things happened: a) he found her far less beautiful and b) he fell completely in love with her.

He acted quickly, seizing her by the wrist. She yelped and stumbled into the bed, banging her shin and tripping over the Hoover’s cord and disconnecting it in the process. There was a dramatic silence, they stared into each other’s eyes, she struggled to wriggle out of his grip but he held fast. She looked very much like she was on the verge of bursting into a monsoon of desperate tears, while Pahnik himself was grinning like a pirate. Now, thought Pahnik, now.

The first sound she made was a high-pitched shrieking gasp that made him think she must be losing her mind; it startled him so that he jumped. It took him just a few seconds to realize that she was laughing. Laughing and laughing and laughing.

5.

We were over Greenland. I glanced at the little screen that was set into the back of the seat ahead of me when Pahnik took a break from the story, yawning and stretching as best as he could in his seat. He twisted to the left and to the right, and his spine made a noise like it was chewing itself. The little symbol of the airplane on the green and blue map was leaving a dotted line trail in the wake of its crawl above North America that was unnervingly un-straight.

“She was laughing!” repeated Pahnik, and he leaned back in his seat, eyes closed, and I could see him seeing it, his favorite scene from his favorite movie. “Cracking up! Tears were streaming down her face, her cheeks were red, and at some point I realized that she was laughing too hard to run anywhere, and I let her go. And she sat on the floor holding her sides and kept laughing.”

“She said, finally, ‘I can’t do it anymore!’ I had gone to the bathroom and gotten her a glass of water and handed it to her and she said ‘I can’t do it anymore!’ and then took a drink, which seemed to calm her down. She wiped her face off with the shoulder of her uniform and took another sip. I was very patient; I just sat there on the end of the bed and waited, because I suddenly realized that a new world was about to open itself to me. Intuition. My screen-writer’s intuition. Just as I can sit and watch a movie and tell you every plot twist before it happens… I can usually even guess most of the dialogue… I could feel a twist coming. A good one.”

“‘Most of them just come right out and offer me a few thousand Deutschmarks to sleep with them,’ she finally said when she was completely composed. She was staring at the floor with this lovely half-smile. ‘You were the first,” and here she looked at me, and I was really flattered for some reason, ‘You were the first to come up with such an elaborate plan.’ Those weren’t her exact words, you know, because her English wasn’t that good yet. It was half Deutsch, half English. I’m just translating now. How is your German, by the way?”

I shrugged. “Nicht so gut.“

He gave me a slyly reproachful look and went on.

“’What in the hell are you fucking talking about, bitch?’ I said. Of course I didn’t really call her a bitch. And she started smiling at the floor again. She said one word like it explained everything. ‘Pookie.’ I said What? She said it again. ‘Pookie made me do it.’

“So what she confessed I could hardly believe. It blew my mind, man… I’m not kidding. I thought, as I was listening to her: this really is a movie!”

“The whole thing was a con! A set up! And as she detailed it to me I was thinking: of course! It’s so fucking obvious. I mean, think about it. What a ridiculous bet to make. Who in his right mind…who with enough money to actually bet $50,000 … is going to wager with some guy that he can bed a chambermaid at a fucking hotel in a foreign country first? I mean, who’s going to dangle that kind of bait in front of a fucking capitalist? Think about it. It’s ridicu-fucking-lous. Of course the first thing I’m going to do is think of a way to cheat. Of course an American businessman…they were all American business men… of course an American business man is going to go straight to the girl and offer her a few thousand Deutchmarks… even dollars if she looks too intimidating… to fuck on film and win the bet.”

I was squinting at Pahnik. “You mean that the chambermaid and Charlie van der Roos were a team?”

“A team?” Pahnik grinned. “They were lovers.”

“I don’t get it, then,” I said, scratching my head just like some comic book character expressing confusion, “Why make a bet with some guy knowing that he’s going to cheat and then win it?”

“Well,” said Pahnik, as though to a dullard, “What do you suppose the value of a video cassette of a married rich businessman fucking a hotel maid…what do you think it’s worth?”

“Oh. Blackmail.”

“Exactly. Businessman offers Sinead two thousand bucks to screw on camera. Sinead…”

“Sinead?”

He made a gesture to shush me and continued, “Sinead at first acts very shocked and virginal and the businessman starts getting frightened she might call the Front Desk on him but then she says something to the effect of… I don’t know… like, ‘Well, my saintly old Turkish mother does need a heart operation… ’ and she dickers it up a little. Which is what Pookie called getting them coming and going…”

“‘Pookie.’ ”

Again he shushhhed me, “Because first our cheating businessman pays Sinead, the chambermaid, a few thousand dollars in hard currency to go through with the fucking. And later of course he gets hit for the blackmail. But here’s the brilliant detail: the whole time they do it… when they start the camera rolling and he starts screwing her she squirms and kind of acts like she’s fighting him off a bit… acts real virginal and shy and ashamed. She even says, so it’s audible, in her broken English, no! No, wait, stop, it is hurting me! Please stop, I am a virgin, wait… it is hurting me. But they never stop, never, nor even slow down, as she told me, it just eggs them on, it makes them hot to hear her whimper and cry, and often her pleading turned them a bit nasty; they got rougher, ruder.”

Then he gave me a look of theatrically pious sorrow and leaned in close with that enormous head, and tombstone teeth of his, and worried aloud, in basso profundo, “Are you ashamed to be a man yet?”

I shrugged and said “Anyway…” gesturing that he should continue. I was embarrassed to be sprouting an erection at that point of the story.

“Anyway, all this gets on tape. The tears, the crying, the hairy white business ass pumping away with flabby brutality.”

“It’s over in five minutes. Crying pitifully, and putting her uniform all the way back on quite easily, because it was never completely off, Sinead takes her money and flees the room in a well-acted counterfeit of shame. Her acting skills are impeccable. She’s every inch the deflowered virgin, though no blood is in evidence, but business man doesn’t notice or care!”

“He gets his pants back on in a sloppy hurry, grabs the video camera… the camera was often on loan from the diabolical Pookie himself…and runs gleefully down the hall to Pookie’s room. Knock knock! He’s ready to collect his $50,000 because he has videotaped evidence that he bedded this pretty maid first. There’s the day, the year, the hour right there in a corner of the screen. Hurray! He’s feeling like a pudgy little stud. This shit never happens to him in Kansas!”

“Pookie, aka Charlie, reviews the tape. He plays it back so the guy can watch the whole thing along with him…the gory details, as it were…the pleading, the crying, the clearly enunciated stuff about being a virgin…please stop, it hurts…he doesn’t remember it being that bad! Ouch! But yes, it’s clearly all there. ‘You win!’ says Charlie, ‘You did it you old hound dog! You sunnavabitch! You screwed her first! Shit, you practically raped that virginal little bitch, you super-stud! What is that between your legs, anyway, a chainsaw?’” And the Rube is nodding and grinning, proud of himself. Until Pookie says:

“ ‘But what would your wife think, not to mention the German police, about the fact that you just forcibly deflowered a Turkish virgin…and had the audacity to film it?’”

“Business man is standing there in Charlie van der Roos’s hotel room. He’s barefoot, red-faced, and cum is still running down his pant leg. He’s due to check out and fly back to America the next morning…Pookie has made sure of this…and suddenly this guy, this member of the Kiwanis Club, this Little League Coach, is facing rape charges in a foreign country! God knows what prison is like over here. There’s filmed evidence too…Christ, he filmed it himself!…and this guy…this big fucking guy who he doesn’t know from Adam…has got his hands on the very tape, because the culprit himself was jackass enough to deliver it to him!”

“Whatever empire-building venture he has come to sniff out in Berlin in the first place…and some of these speculative trips were funded by multi-national behemoths like International Harvester, or the 3M corporation…all of that is in fearful jeopardy. As is his life on earth. Holy Shit becomes his instant mantra. His heart, it’s pounding, his mind is racing. There’s a lot to consider. ”

“Then Pookie hits the poor sucker with a depth charge. An A-Bomb. Charlie is the fucking Enola Gay and the bay doors just swing open in his big belly and Little Boy comes tumbling out, whistling down through space, and it’s targeted for your balding head, Mr. Republican. Pookie reels off, from memory, the businessman’s home phone number! In other words, he, Pookie, has a direct hot line to the wife! To little wifey in her suburban nest. Little wifey and the kids! And how is this possible?”

Pahnik held up a yellow-tipped finger again, grinning fiendishly, clearly enjoying himself. “Because a day or two before, Pookie…I mean Charlie van der Roos…in a very friendly way, offered to let the businessman make a phone call, free of charge, on Charlie’s antediluvian cell phone. ‘By the way, any cawlls y’all wanna mayke? I kin rat it off in mah taxes, ya’ll.’”

“Free call? What greedy American could resist? It’s not so much that it will save the businessman money as it will cost Charlie an arm and a leg that they find so strangely irresistible. And because this free offer…this oh-so-casual free offer…was inevitably made in the morning, Berlin time, that would have made it late at night somewhere in the States. Between ten p.m. and one in the morning. Now, who is a decent American businessman gonna call, that late, Stateside, in front of a relative stranger and fellow American like Charlie van der Roos, but his wife? And yes indeed, they were always married…Charlie…Pookie…made sure of that. And it’s a simple matter to retrieve that number from his cell phone’s quaint little pre-pentium memory. And voila, Pookie has your home phone number. And he’s quoting it from memory to you as you stand there with a wet spot in your pants and your knees knocking together and your career and your marriage going up in flames before your very eyes! Whomp! Whoosh! Ker-Boooom!”

At which point a stewardess…not the one who seemed to dislike Pahnik so much…came down the aisle and leaned over us to remind us that some of the other passengers were trying to sleep. We apologized profusely…I’d never been reprimanded on an airplane before (I had visions of Federal Marshals waiting to arrest me at the Airport when we landed)…and Pahnik continued his story in a whisper.

6.

He sat there, on the edge of his bed, big hands on his knees, mouth hanging open, dumbfounded. The chambermaid, sitting on the floor with her legs folded up against her uniformed breasts and her arms around her short-skirted legs and her chin on her knees told him the unbelievable tale of her life with Pookie The Great.

They’d been together four years, having met when she was nineteen and Pookie himself was twenty nine. She was working in a café in Mazahn, deep in East Berlin, and he was driving an American car that was as big as a boat…not his own as it turns out…and she climbed in the car and drove off with him when he finished his beer. The Wall had just come down the previous Fall and the possibilities seemed endless.

And girls like her…girls that pretty…are best compared to those silver toy helium balloons clutched pathetically by children in a daze in the parking lot after The Fair, just waiting for a strong breeze to come along. Pookie was that breeze. Pookie was that hurricane.

Pahnik listened to her story squirmingly…he noticed that it was very much like enduring a crude punishment inflicted by a loved one, because she was, by now, he did, by now…he did love her. Listening to this tale, he was profoundly disturbed, transfixed by her face as it glowed like a funeral pyre ember with sexual nostalgia in the neutered gloom of his hotel room, disturbed to identify the agony of the jealousy that bit through his heart with its rancid red teeth as he learned about Pookie.

Jealous! This was a first! To be jealous of someone is to imply a frustrated yearning to exchange places with that person, and when had Miro Pahnik felt that about anybody? But now he was feeling it about that fat American slob Charlie van der Roos. Roos…ruse…very funny…

Pookie, explained Sinead, hadn’t always been fat, just as he hadn’t always been Charlie. He had once been lean and strong and beautiful, with a face like something on a thousand-year-old coin…the face of a hero, with fine blond wavy hair and cheekbones that cast shadows like shark’s fins, as from a titanic ‘Forties-era propaganda poster painted by Tamara deLempicka and plastered on the walls of an Ayn Rand metropolis. To hear Miro recalling Sinead’s telling of it, that is. Like she was eulogizing the Lost Continent of Atlantis in the form of a man.

“We live this time in B.A. pilot’s two bedroom flat in West Kensington London, on the Talgarth road,” she bragged. “It must normaleweise cost us nine hundreds pounds for month but we have ganze place for free for fucking year while pilot, Paki bastard, stay with tussi stewardess cause Pookie was give the guy guitar lessons, and saying him to think we can ficken when he play his cards so correct…by the time he cames with the nerve to leave note…a note he ask me do I sleep with him!…we move on.”

“Pookie make him falsch Russian religious ikonen and we sell this to wahnsin American tourist on Drotningsgatan in Stockolm cause I look me Russian with this too much eye shadow on; we standing on the steps of biggest cathedral in ‘old town’ but it’s Catholic shit church but how these crazy Yankees gonna know the shit difference? I wear me black velvet dress and biggest silver orthodox kreuz and say me the blah blah and Pookie ‘translate’ and we sell the ganze twelve…the all he paint that week. We staying with friend he got in Gamla stan and eating fruits and vegetables from clean garbage at day end at markt on Kungsgatan and we not us spend one shit nickel on a whole week we there; pure profit.”

Pookie the genius; Pookie the god. Oh he really hated Pookie; if Pahnik thought he’d disliked him as Charlie, he was moved to new heights of imaginary auto-de-fe-style violence contemplating this inexplicable new Pookie phenomenon. And then he had to hear about Pookie’s baguette-sized cock on top of it.

She detailed their sexual exploits…which took place in city parks, grocery stores, and cemeteries…with the same cool narrative intonation as she related the litany of cons and capers…couldn’t she see how far Miro had already fallen for her? Couldn’t she see Miro wincing?

And to hear about the silver liquid brilliancy of the orgasms that Pookie had induced in her by a certain counter-clockwise stirring movement of his genital cudgel in her little thing, along with a perfectly timed finger in her even littler other thing…but that wasn’t the worst. That wasn’t the killer. The killer was yet to come. A narrative morsel thus far withheld.

Because Charlie/Pookie was a Chinese box of identities…shapes within shapes…layers under layers. Every face had another face preceding it. Every name an antecedent. And it was the deepest layer that was grinning like a death’s head under the “Pookie” persona that had Miro Pahnik, successful Hollywood screen-writer, seriously contemplating the taking of a human life when he found out about it. Had him rehearsing, very carefully, with mannequins as props, the quick and Zen-smooth chopping off of a head with an axe. A real head, with a brain in it.

7.

Miro looked at me. His eyes were bloodshot; he voice was hoarse from whispering. He suddenly told me that he wanted to sleep, and I let him. He reached up and clicked off our over-head light, wrapped himself in the pathetically small blanket the airline gave him for the purpose (of course he could have been sleeping like a Duke back up in First Class where he belonged) and he was snoring within minutes.

I was ready about then for a break…you can only be overwhelmed with the details of someone else’ life for so long before you become eager to return to the business of dwelling on your self for a while again. I had my own twists and turns and losses to dwell on; I looked at my watch, still set to California time, and thought of Lola, just then probably drifting off to sleep with the television on, some soothing re-run of a show that it was our habit to drift off to together. Was she keeping to the left side of the futon, and therefore mourning my loss, or was she sprawled extravagantly across the full diagonal width of it…celebrating?

I was stricken with a sense of mistake that felt like a mild form of food poisoning. Why is it so hard to succeed; so easy to fuck up? Like the difference between flying, and falling down a hill. In a just world, wouldn’t it be as easy to glide over the tree tops as to trip down a staircase and break your neck? The fact that it isn’t speaks volumes.

Oh I was feeling sick; the kind of sick that says to you how badly you’ve fucked up. I was feeling like a little boy who had run away from home to prove his point, only to lose his nerve and decide to turn back at sunset, when the scenery gets weird and the chill sets in, only to suddenly notice that he’s a grown man, not a little boy, and that he can’t turn back because he’s trapped in an airplane headed for Europe. And whose idea was that? Is this, I mean. Proving a point is one thing; leaving the country is another. Which illustrates the primary pitfall of adult life: the ability to do things. It’s so much safer; so much wiser; to do nothing in most cases. Take a deep breath; take five; sit it out. Isn’t that Buddha’s gimmick?

Lola!

With the clear-mindedness of a man who has just swan-dived from the roof of a thirty-six story building, I could see that I had fucked up, I could see how essential she was. How I thought I’d ever come across a girl like that again in this life, I’ll never know. I even almost felt like crying, but found a strange pleasure in the suffering that turned my trembling lower lip into a smile. I guess you might say it was rue. I sat there for the better part of an hour doing nothing, in the half-light of a snoozing jetful of strangers, but looking rueful. Which is not, I eventually realized, with a shudder, a young man’s facial expression.

With Pahnik asleep, I was finally able to turn the full force of an appropriate facial expression on him for the first time since he first invaded the airspace beside me. I frowned at him. The frown meant: you obnoxiously entertaining lunatic. And as though the frown was the sharp slap on Pahnik’s cheek that I might have wished that it really could be, he woke up, one eye first and then the other, and started talking again.

8.

“Have you ever killed anyone?” he whispered, grinning. “No, don’t answer that, the answer’s too obvious. The question should be, have you ever wanted to kill someone so badly that it frightened you?” He nodded gravely and looked down his long nose and big teeth at me, reclining in his tortured-posture of sleep; the posture of a giant’s skeleton jammed into the smaller corner of a catacomb.

“Anyway, this is the part of the story where I become what we call in literature an unreliable narrator. You’ll have to decide for yourself, as the reader…or, the audience, I guess it would be…how much of what I’m about to say is strictly true. Or what I hope to gain, or what point I hope to make, by misleading you. If I am.”

9.

Pahnik sat on the edge of his hotel bed. He had listened to Sinead’s complete confession; felt himself wounded with jealousy to watch her perfect lips form words of praise for this Pookie character who had bamboozled the great Miro Pahnik into believing that he was a crass entrepreneur from Minnesota named Charlie van der Roos who had struck it rich with a chain of doughnut bistros. Le Dönut! Shit.

She was scrunched up in the corner, her toes digging into the plush white carpet (at what point had she kicked off her crepe-soled shoes?), and doing a kind of Eastern Bloc Scheherezade, spinning this fantastical tale and causing Pahnik to fall in love with her, one cubic centimeter at a time.

So it bugged the shit out of him to know how every bump and pore of her had been so gratefully marked by that chubby-fingered American grifter…as brilliant as he admittedly was. Still, if Pahnik had to have a rival, better it be an American than a German…he could just about stomach being bamboozled by a Yankee. It would have killed him to have been hoodwinked by some lead-footed, square-headed, tight-assed Kraut.

For the longest time she just sat there in the dimly lit room, giving off her own light like a magical child, and she smiled into the middle distance. Without speaking, so as not to break the spell, Miro offered her a bottle to drink from, and she did. And then the second half of the story commenced; the part that Pahnik enjoyed, up until a crucial point.

Yes, he enjoyed it, perversely; despite himself; only because it brought Pookie down from the mountaintop. Down from the mountaintop and into the cesspool! She vomited it all out, speaking rapidly, as if in fear that Pookie himself might break into the room and silence her.

She told, sadly, of how Pookie got bored, in time, with his little diversions…his scams, and with Sinead herself…how he grew bored, and disgusted with existence, somehow. Perhaps it was her fault: perhaps there was something inside of her that somehow depleted the joy in him, but it was sometime after the second year that it all went bad.

He drank more, drank harder; ate indiscriminately, gained weight….would come home from a bar after drinking all night and half rape her, whatever the hour, smothering her under his sweaty carcass, making her sick with his breath.

And if the rape was uncompleted, due to booze-induced impotence, he’d shove the dead thing between her legs for a while, cursing, and then beat her instead for not being pretty enough to get him hard. But really he preferred a kind of sexual torture…the only thing that excited him anymore…a sense of shame wouldn’t allow her to describe it. But suffice it to say it was an atrocity…war crime stuff.

She rolled up the sleeve on a skinny arm and stuck it out and showed Pahnik what appeared to be…cigarette burns. And she mentioned, too, in a round-about way, how much damage that big cock of Pookie’s could do if forced without lubricant into a situation in which it didn’t quite belong…and to add insult to injury (quite literally) he usually…grabbed her by the hair at the nape of her neck and forced her, afterwards…you know…he held her in place in order to finish in her mouth. And pinched her nose until she was forced to swallow it.

Here for the first time Sinead made direct eye contact with Miro as she talked, and her face had darkened, and cooled…a blue shadow seemed to pass over it…her irises glowing from the dark of some cave. She looked older, sadder, though still beautiful…but Pahnik could see how even telling this part of the story affected her.

But the Screenwriter in him couldn’t help thinking how sequence is everything. If the happy part comes first, and the sad part comes last: the story is a tragedy. But reverse it, and put the sad part first, and finish up with the happy part, and you have…Cinderella. Though the facts in both cases are exactly the same.

Take for example a widely-revered writer like Henry Miller, who not only, after years of obscure struggle in the chilly damp gulag of Art, found a world-wide audience in his sixth decade, but plenty of sexual attention too. He’d endured forty years of colorful struggle in New York and Paris, then basked in the reward of twenty years of money and fame in the idyllic setting of Big Sur, California…and finally, just at the very end…a few years before his death, he starts making a fool of himself by writing pathetically horny love letters to twenty-year old gimlet-eyed gold diggers who in turn humiliated him in public.

And it was those handful of years at the end that rendered Miller’s life a tragic one. Because he ended badly. Everything is a rehearsal for that last year…those last weeks. That terminal minute. Pahnik looked up from this fleeting reverie in time to see a flesh-colored tear…tear mixed with makeup…sliding down the eggshell of the chambermaid’s cheek.

The Pookie she’d originally known and fallen in love with…the chiseled Satyr whose tricks and cons were really just a kind of Olympian expression of the Genius of the Spirit of Play…this beautiful creature had disappeared from the face of the Earth. To be replaced by the chubby, money-mad ogre who nightly forced himself on her; forced her, even, from time to time, to sell her own ass (or mouth) for money so Pookie could have his nights in the local Kneipe…a seedy bar full of leather-clad trolls he kept thoroughly entertained with drinks on the house, and shameless tales of his woman’s decline.

They’d park on Joachimsthaler strasse. He’d sidle up to an American business man in line to buy a cheeseburger at MacDonald’s there across the street from the Bahnhof Zoo and say a few discreet words and then they would both come out, like old friends, laughing and talking, and get in the car…Pookie in the front seat and the business guy in the back with Sinead, who got right to business, no pun intended, unzipping his pants like she was shelling an oyster.

Down she’d go, holding her breath so she wouldn’t actually smell it, the thing she was taking into her mouth. Once, even, while the trick was wolfing down his burger, and using her hair (why should this; but it is; be the worst part of the story?)…as a napkin. While Pookie drove around the block to avoid a parking ticket. And what were her thanks?

“You’re just a slut anyway, and deserve it!”

That’s how Pookie put it. “A woman with any morals left at all would refuse to do this for me! Sell her cunt for a few dirty dollars? Just so I can drink?” That’s what Pookie had to say about it. She deserved it. “To think I ever fucked you!” But then he’d come around later that night himself, demanding his percentage…his freebie.

“It’s wirklich schrecklich…horrible…” she said, to Miro Pahnik, smiling, absurdly. “Machmal denk ich…sometimes I think…” and here she mimed, with her graceful fingers, putting a gun to her head. Closing her eyes. Pulling the trigger. Still smiling.

Pahnik cleared his throat. “Well,” he said to her, because he didn’t know what to say, but he had to say something, to break the evil spell of the dirge of silence that followed, “I must admit I never expected an American to be so damn…I mean, yes, of course, he’s very bad…but…so…damn…clever…”

At which point Sinead-the-chambermaid released her second big torrent of laughter for the night; her facial expression went from requiem to… cartoon…so quickly that he thought he saw two beautiful women in the corner, briefly: one haunted, the other on the verge of mirthful hysterics.

“American?” She gasped. “American? Pookie, American? Pookie isn’t American…” and here Pahnik felt his hackles rising…his mind jumped ahead a millisecond and came to the word she was coming to exactly one half of an eye-blink before she actually said it, and landing on the word was like having a rough-hewn spear driven up through his ass-hole and directly into the base of the stiff chunk of his brain, where the spear-tip lodged so firmly that it was clear that the spear would never come back out of the rectum again without removing the brain as well, with a liquid pop, or the onomatopoeiac sound-effect of… ‘Czech!’

10.

Pahnik looked at me, eyes narrowed.

“Czech.”

11.

In fact he was born in a little town not far from the little town in which Miro himself had been born. The two towns, Pookie’s and Miro’s, Prostĕjov and Blansko, were the Minneapolis and Saint Paul of Czechoslovakia, in more ways than one.

There was a rivalry between the two in which Minneapolis-like Prostĕjov considered itself more worldly, more hip and cosmopolitan, than Blansko, which was quiet, low key…Saint Paulish. Blansko, of course, considered Prostĕjov to be godless and crass in return. Choosing between Morality and Modernity, which way does a little boy’s heart incline? Especially if he has Artistic inclinations? Miro had often accompanied his father on shopping trips (on their horse-drawn cart!) to Prostĕjov, and felt the sting of the bemused gaze of those modern Prostĕjov boys and girls as Pahnik fils et pere, from the narrow roads and stone farm houses of Blansko, shambled up their main street in a humiliated parade of rural goodness. Sometimes, with cheeky grins, the well-dressed kids on the curb (in buckle shoes, and the girls in wide-brimmed hats) would toss coins in the cart as Miro and his father (and the nameless horse) clopped by. And now the thought…and now the thought. That among those smug little pigs had been a Pookie…

Was that a glaze of almost-tears in Pahnik’s bruise-blue eyes as he fixed them on me? Between his misting eyes and his manic, outraged grin, I suddenly felt the most sickening shock wave of…intimacy …it hit me, for the first time, that I was hearing something private. This story I’d been listening to all night: I was being shown a foot-long scar on some old man’s milk-white belly; I was watching a newlywed trying to cover her black eye with makeup; I was smelling the booze on the breath of a middle-aged priest.

Pahnik was staring at me, and then through me, expecting a response to this latest twist in the narrative. I cleared my throat.

“He was Czech?” I asked, politely.

12.

Sinead was still laughing as Miro crossed the room and kicked a stool in front of the dresser; the stool hit the bathroom door with a sharp crack. Then he turned and headed back towards the corner of the room where Sinead had folded herself, as if she were next, and her knees drew up and she lowered her head, in preparation for the blow. But of course Miro Pahnik wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, kicked a woman. Not even a female dog, or a cow. He wasn’t that kind of Czech; he wasn’t that kind of screenwriter.

“I want to kill him,” said Miro, wringing his hands like a fishwife, “I really want to kill him now.”

“I want you to.”

“I want to kill him painfully. I want to cut his…cut his ass off and choke him with it.”

“I want you to.”

“Or skin him alive and toss his wiggling raw body into a bathtub of salt. Or nail his tongue to one knee cap and his cock to the other.”

“I’d love that.”

Pahnik, who had been busy gathering his hundred dollar bills (with trembling hands) off of the bed while ranting, as if preparing to storm out of his own hotel room, suddenly stopped, sat himself on the edge of the bed, and stared at her for a long little time.

“Wait a minute. Are you…”

She nodded before replying. “Of course I am. I’m serious. I want him dead as much as you do. What has he done to you, compared to what he’s done to me?” Of course this was all said in German, the language of complaint, and therefore more moving to Pahnik than if he’d heard it in English.

First, he bit a fingernail. Then: “Say again.”

“I said,” she said, with patient bemused over-enunciated clarity, but softly, so he had to lean towards the sentence to make sure that he heard it, “ I-want-you-to-kill-him.”

13.

The plan they concocted together went like this.

Or, no, let’s cut to the chase: Pahnik is standing smoothly naked in a 19th Century wardrobe with an axe. He has shaved his body of all hairs so as not to leave forensic evidence; not even an eyebrow, not even a follicle: nothing will place him there. He was thinking: A moment comes…a moment in your life that reveals to you, finally, the meaning of your life…it tells you what your life was leading to, and therefore what it meant. Which you will never know until the moment arrives…whether it comes at fifteen, or eighty six. Or now.

It was a nice apartment in a bourgeoisie part of town; only someone with money and taste could have lived there. The high ceilings, ornamented in wedding-cake detail of plaster filigree called stueck; the parquet floors; the marbled bathroom. Pahnik liked being there…it was like acting in a Kubrick film.

He felt the dusty poisonous flutterings of evil butterflies in his stomach, but had learned long ago, the veteran of many a faux-impromptu speech at many a life-or-death Hollywood brunch, where a wrong word or a poorly chosen facial expression or spinach between your teeth could finish your career forever, how to turn that kind of terror into the most attractive breed of confidence.

The trick was adopting an inner pose of humbled arrogance and letting it soak out through your skin, making you shine with the rarest oil of Destiny. See, the trick was becoming a Vessel. As in: I’m deeply flattered that God has chosen me as the. It amazes me to think that The Almighty deems me worthy of. I’m pleased to know that The Creator has put me here to. Which was one of the lost secrets of the Old Religion, re-discovered with gusto in the late 20th century by Show Biz Luminaries and New Age Book of the Month Housewives and Muslim fanatics alike: blaming God for everything. This ‘Free Will’ bullshit was out. The other important secret of the Old Religion being something to do with killing.

And so that’s what Pahnik was thinking to calm himself, hiding in a priceless Restoration-era wardrobe in a good neighborhood on a tree-lined street in Berlin, optically naked in a clear vinyl rain coat, hefting an expensive birch-handled titanium axe featuring a blade he could have sliced bread with.

I’m so flattered that God has chosen me to lop your head off for you, he was thinking as he visualized Pookie with his fat pink back to the bedroom. And let’s face it, too: the situation was giving Pahnik an atavistic erection. Something good and acrid and a million years old in him had been triggered and it was thumping on the vinyl, demanding its due, potent as a bearded Nun. Gasping like a fish in the raincoat. Plus he’d stood there in his raincoat in the dry-rotted darkness and listened to Sinead being fucked badly by Pookie; her groans of bored discomfort and, at the very end, her gaggings and sniffles and gulps of disgust. Now he just had to wait for her to get her clothes back on and leave the room.

Sinead had prepared him for the scenario he could expect to face upon kicking the wardrobe door open. There wouldn’t be time to think; Pahnik would have to kick the door open and cross the room in two long steps swinging and do the job in one graceful unhesitant Samurai home-run swoosh if he expected to succeed (success being defined as a clean cut and a quick but leisurely and undetected exit from the crime scene), so Sinead had painted the picture for him with great care but also giddy frightened relish.

She walked him through it a dozen times. The bed is here, Pookie sits this way, the upstairs neighbor she don’t get home until after supper time, the church bell always starts ringing a few minutes after the fucking stops, etc. Then they practiced with scarecrows and mannequins. Scarecrows with melon heads, propped on the edge of a mattress-less bed frame in her run-down flat on Reichenberger strasse. It took 2 weeks of practice; thirty dollars in melons; Pahnik’s forearms and biceps started aching chronically in the good way of muscle development but also his wrists began to pain him and he worried he was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome and he might have to go to a doctor and get silicone injections but then it cleared up the day before the Big Day and he felt he was ready.

And there he was, standing in that wardrobe, listening to Sinead ease her badly used body off of the badly squeaking bed, wordlessly grabbing the heap of her clothing and slipping out of the room, the whole time with post-coital Pookie seated contemptuously on the edge of the bed with his fat naked back to her (as Sinead had reassured Pahnik that Pookie always always always did), lighting a cigarette, staring out the window, and the bells of the too-close church would begin their deafening pealing (perfect for covering whatever noise)…and now they were pealing and God it was loud…Pahnik had a ridiculous vision of ten little Quasimodoes dangling up and down on the bell ropes with feet kicking and monstrous idiot glee…and Pahnik kicking the wardrobe door open and stepping into a long swing with a chin-up all-business Joe DiMaggio grimace…

14.

It was at this point in the story that I lost all interest in it, because we hit turbulence.

15.

It was bad turbulence, too. First a mild hiccup (it could have been a soccer hooligan seated behind me, unaccountably head-butting my chair back) followed by that portentously innocuous elevator bell that accompanies the understated on-blink of the seat belt hieroglyphic and then suddenly the plane lurched and bucked like it was being top-fucked by something very big and viciously horny, or having a seizure, or falling apart. Airborne earthquake.

A stewardess came and instructed Pahnik in a confidential tone to please return to his proper seat up front and secure his carry-on and buckle himself in quickly for his and everyone else’ safety. He rose wobblingly and saluted me and said ‘No worries!’ before climbing the aisle, but I was already gone at that point…taking the slippery slide-chute down into a cold white secret place of spiritual rage and nausea…and couldn’t be expected to interrupt the demanding work of owning and operating my terror just to do something trivial like acknowledge the nightclub’s worth of strangers with whom I was suddenly contemplating a massacre-messy death.

Basic turbulence is always more than enough, and here we were starting several notches above that, with an initial jolt that inspired an isolated scream (soprano) and a shy spate of embarrassed giggles and then a second jolt that got a chorus of screams (alto, soprano, tenor, bass) and no laughter at all. And a third, fourth, fifth, etc., nudging us all to piss or shit our pants, or douse ourselves with warm parsleyed vomit. How many good stiff shakes would it take? Was not-befouling ourselves immediately a kind of hubris that we would pay for with our lives? Could we propitiate the gods by shitting and puking en masse very quickly, and thereby avert disaster?

And I was thinking: what do they not tell you about plane crashes? What is it that the news (special report or update) won’t even handle with the latex glove of euphemism? They’ll show the catapulted loafer; the orphaned teddy; at a crash site…these were the videoclichés that the TV news thrived on (to such an extent that you had to suspect that any good reporter kept a couple of dolls or teddies in the trunk of his or her car just in the wildly improbable case that the tenement or trailer park or jumbo had been under-equipped with these details when the fire/tornado/impact had decided to make the news). The camera will close-up the dinky scatter of personal effects in the aftermath of a crash, but what about the shit everywhere? There must be shit everywhere.

With five hundred passengers on a good sized jet and ten pounds, on average, of compacted fecal material in each passenger (two pounds in some and eighteen pounds in others) that would be five thousand pounds of shit flying through the cabin as we snapped the tree tops off. Do crash sites stink? Is there every kind of shit all over everything when the euphemistically-named rescue crews arrive on the scene, slipping on it as they climb through the smoke-filled cabin? When they scoop the passengers up in twenty five gallon rescue bags, do they have to scoop all the shit up, too? After all, the shit is part of you…the shit was part of the transaction…a considerable part of the client who purchased the ticket in the first place. It was as much a human material as whatever brains had left the container, too.

16.

‘You’re disgusting.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Shit at the crash site!’

‘Well?!!’

‘Well, it would all have burned up in the explosion!’

‘French fried shit! Think so? Apropos shit, know what Doktor Effenkuhl greeted me with when I rang the doorbell? First thing he said was ‘welcome to Scatopolis’ which is the same as saying ‘welcome to Shitville,’ basically. Because of all the dogshit thawing out now after being frozen all winter I guess. I must admit I noticed an odor when I got out the taxi. The streets are covered with it, aren’t they, the dogshit, plus all of the buildings are shit-gray and shit-brown, and the coal-burning ovens reek of fart, blue farts. Like Kentucky. And the way these toilets are designed! These toilets! They don’t tell you about that in the travel guides do they?’

‘You’re so lurid. You are one lurid mother-fucker, pardon my French.’

‘I am, aren’t I? I am pretty lurid. I was a lurid kid. Being lurid was probably compensation for being poor. Although poverty itself is lurid. But I’m not even sure of the definition of ‘lurid,’ now that I think of it. Funny word, really, isn’t it? Lurid. I have to look it up when we get home. Are you sure ‘lurid’ is a word? I won’t know if I agree that I’m lurid until I look it up. At least I’m not boring.’

Studying her finger nails. Biting one. ‘Am I boring?’

‘You’re too young to be boring.’

‘Not much of a compliment, is it?’

‘What do you need compliments for? You have your youth.’

‘You make it sound like it’s everything. Being young.’

‘Only to the extent that Time is everything.’

‘Time is everything?’

‘Only to the extent that nothing is possible without it.’

‘Okay, so, and then what happened?’

‘Then what happened when?’

‘On the airplane.’

‘It obviously didn’t crash, if that’s what you’re worried about.’

‘No, I mean, with Pahnik. What did Pahnik say next?’

I shrugged. ‘Nothing, really. I didn’t see him for the rest of the flight. He stayed put in First Class. I saw him briefly when I made my connection at Frankfurt. I was going one way and he was going another and he kind of looked over the heads of some Japanese that were between us and said something stupid to me and that was the last I saw of him. I don’t even know if he continued on to Berlin. Maybe he stayed in Frankfurt. Who knows?’

‘What was the stupid thing he said?’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘Yeah, but what was it?’

‘I’m telling you, it won’t make a bit of sense.’

‘So? I’m curious! You know I’m going to drive you fucking crazy until…’

‘He said the wrong guy. Or something like that. The wrong guy or the wrong one. I’m not sure. I couldn’t hear him over the airport noise. I said what? And he just laughed and saluted me and disappeared. He was a nut. But a special kind of nut. I have to write about him one day, now that I’ve quit painting. But I’d change the story a little. You know, make it meaningful. That’s the thing about True Stories, isn’t it? They don’t mean anything. That’s the difference. Fiction means something. Or tries to. When are you going to make us both unspeakably happy and sleep with me again? Like the good old days? You used to love it.’

She laughed, squinting and blushing. The blush soaked down to her breastbone, like a litmus test, where the laughter made her boobs bob. She wagged a finger at me. ‘I used to like it.’

‘Lola, you know you’re dying to.’

‘I’ll let you know when the time comes.’

‘Well, just don’t hold back informing me about that for too long. Okay? Promise?’

‘Promise.’

The fantasy-Lola looked so…looked so sane. So clear. And we were so cute together; we said such witty things. She reached and we held hands. The Lola of seventeen years old, the Lola I never knew, the Lola before too many men had gotten to her.

It was a daydream I kept having. Over and over again. Polished with repetition, the script was becoming more and more complicated. More and more convincing. If. Only.

Reality is so… I don’t know. Awful?

17.

This was my second trip to Berlin, but the first in broad daylight. Riding into the city from Tegel International Airport, I had felt that I was entering a city in mourning, like it must have felt driving across Dallas the day after J.F.K. quit his human form to become a deity, his essence on the tips of two bullets. The Berliners I saw in their cars and along the streets weren’t wearing black arm bands, but they might as well have been, ashen and dour and eyes-averted, scowling, with drawstring mouths and labyrinth foreheads and gravity-degraded shoulders.

And of course it was kind of nice, but disconcerting, that cars passing or being passed weren’t massaging our kidneys with bass signal, but were, rather, as meek as cars in an old celebrity’s funeral cortege; that wild-eyed people weren’t fussing and fooling in crowds on the sidewalks or crossing the streets at anywhere other than the designated crossings; that the police were a sparse, utilitarian, introspective presence. That the Berlin police, even in their army-green uniforms and square-jawed enormity, seemed more like librarians than centurions. There to shusssh you, with a glance, from time to time, but not much else. What is it that William Burroughs said about a functioning police state? Not needing police?

‘Hey, you know what you were thinking, but were too ashamed of yourself to admit you were thinking, even as you were thinking it?,’ said Doktor Effenkuhl, one eyebrow like a circumflex, ‘You were thinking: this is what the U.S. would be like without the blacks!’ Ziss is vat ze Oooh Ess vood be like…’

‘I was thinking that? If you say so…’

‘Yes, and what you would have qualified that thought with, had you the permission to articulate it, would have been: for better or worse. Because not only have the kidnapped West Africans that you now call ‘blacks’ raised the temperature in the U.S. beyond anything possible in marble-cool Europe…and this heat is where Hollywood, and rock-n-roll, and the general concept of the great American export called ‘Cool,’ ironically, come from,…but they will also, these blacks, be the moral, intellectual, and political downfall of your country.’

He grabbed my very large trunk and hefted it out of the hallway and into the doorway of the little room, to the right of the flat’s entrance, which would be mine. It was a queer little room, long and narrow and high-ceilinged like a monk’s cell. It featured a normal-sized window at an abnormal height, too high for me to see anything but sky (and the black needle of a church steeple) out of, and a chain contraption for opening and closing it.

(Far) under the window was a desk with a brass lamp on it; along the wall to the right of the desk was a plain little pillow-less four-poster bed, mattress wrapped in a rough woolen blanket, a very large key on top of the mattress.

I had tossed my carry-on luggage on top of the bed, and Doktor Effenkuhl shoved my trunk into the room behind me, continuing his speech with his hands on his hips, huffing and puffing and purple-cheeked from the effort.

‘Cold-blooded Europe, with her baggy, blood-shot, old-woman eyes of a tortoise…will long out-live the virile American hare, with his racing heart. And that is why.’ Und zat iss vye. ‘It is all in the pulse rate.’ He pointed east. ‘Looking at China, the oldest one there is. The pulse rate is zero! I trust the accommodations are amenable, young man?’

‘Oh yeah. Perfect space to get a little thinking done,’ I said, pantomiming a panoramic glance of genuine assessment, and making myself look pleased as a result. I mean, I was pleased, if only to be out of California. Pleased also that Lola had known someone in Berlin I could stay with; an intellectual; a doctor.

I was still trying to work out if Lola had kicked me out, or if I’d left of my own free will. Had she pushed or had I jumped? Answers to these questions were crucial details for my love life’s CV, even though it’s common knowledge that everyone lies on these, padding the successes and understating the humiliations.

The lecture on ‘blecks in ze Oooh-Ess’ was the first lecture I had ever received from Doktor Effenkuhl, and I couldn’t have known at the time how relatively brief of an Effenkuhl lecture it was. I had simply pressed his door bell, the door had swung open, he had said ‘Welcome to Scatopolis; not my flat, I mean, Berlin itself,’ bade me enter with a huge gesture, and treated me to this lecture, in response to my ice-breaking comment about the funereal taxi ride from the airport. I had merely said, ‘Hey, the ride here was like driving through a ghost town…’

And he had replied, ‘Hey,’ (smiling to show that the mockery intended was gentle), ‘you know what you were thinking, but were too ashamed of yourself to admit you were thinking, even as you were thinking it?’ etc.

He also noticed that I say ‘If you say so’ a lot. He was enthusiastic about idiomatic American expression, excited to pick my brain for new nuggets. No Way Jose, Take a Hike, From Soup to Nuts, Spic and Span, Bug Off, and Holy Cow he knew already. But when I introduced him to the urbanesque ‘Baby Mamma Drama,’ he reacted as though I’d presented him with something wrapped in a fancy red ribbon. I was confident that I could come up with even richer locutions for him in the weeks or months (my very expensive round-trip ticket…how had Lola managed to afford it?…was open-ended) to come.

It was clear to me on that first day that Doktor Effenkuhl was a bit of an eccentric. He was funny.

He asked me: ‘How much do you weigh?’ and when I told him, he nodded, stroking his chin, and said, ‘Good.’

He said, ‘Name a place in North America that you have never been to, but always wanted to live,’ and I thought a while and answered ‘Manhattan?’ and he frowned with amusement and waved my answer away, deciding, ‘Out of the question.’

I was glad that Doktor Effenkuhl’s English was excellent, if heavily accented, since my German is nil…the closest I can come to speaking German, in fact, is speaking a comedic, heavily-accented English, like Doktor Effenkuhl’s, and there was a terrible temptation to do so. I was immediately ready to change all of my Ws into Vs, and make that cow-kissing face that Germans can’t seem to get through a sentence without. But the last thing I wanted to do was to offend my host, who I liked so much, immediately, in part because he reminded me of myself. And he smelled very good…an expensive cologne that hinted at vast, cold cities of stone.

Despite his professorial manner, he looked like he could have cleaned the kitchen floor with me, with his big hands and broad shoulders; evidence of Viking intervention in early Germanic breeding schedules. But his face belonged to the same family as mine. It was a little like looking in a warped mirror.

He couldn’t have been more than five years my senior, but he managed, with his Continental air (and adult furniture), to make me feel very young, and I assumed the aura of pupil while he lectured me with good-natured arrogance about the contents of my own mind, the meaning of my own thoughts, and even on the implications of my reactions to these observations of his.

Lola told me that Doktot Effenkuhl was a respected Psychotherapist who’d invented a new kind of treatment for something or other, but she’d forgotten what. Even such vague praise impressed me, because what had I done but spend my life preparing to do something? Doktor Effenkuhl and I shook hands, and his big red mitt was smooth and hot to the touch.

‘I’m Salter,’ I said. And he answered, again, that he was Doktor Effenkuhl. I handed him the package that Lola had given to me to give him and he looked pleased. In fact, he hugged me.

18.

My experience is that the dirty dishes will multiply to match your capacity to keep them clean. In other words, people can get pretty extravagant using the kitchenware, when they aren’t expected to keep it all clean themselves. A cup-a-day usage expands to a new cup for every drink; one plate and one fork for dinner every day turns into a plate and cutlery for every little snack, and suddenly the olive forks, cheese graters, and teaspoons are all in use again, and water glasses are being tossed into the dirty dishes pile in the sink after only one drink of water…but that’s okay.

In exchange for washing the dishes every evening (Doktor Effenkuhl liked to meet the morning in an immaculate kitchen), I was allowed to live in that peculiar spare bedroom in Doktor Effenkuhl’s large flat, rent-free. He usually saw three or four patients a week (patients I never met, but who I sometimes heard); his sessions occurring in a room at the other end of the flat while I slept.

My window was so high off the floor that I couldn’t even look out of it by standing on top of the desk under it. All I could see, from a low angle, was the sky, and the black needle of the church, and the occasional bird or cloud, traversing the window like a trivial thought.

I asked about this architectural eccentricity one night…my second or third night there…while washing the dishes. Doktor Effenkuhl informed me that the building housing his flat had once been a private residence, a one-family house for aristocrats, and that my room had been the room belonging to the autistic youngest child of the noble family the house had been built for.

This was an 18th century story, he said, and autism wasn’t treated then as now. There used to be shackles chained to the wall along which your bed is now, he elaborated. In fact, added Doktor Effenkuhl, grinning over his reading glasses at me, you can still see, if you look carefully, in the part of the wall that is now hidden by your bed…the dents in the wall where the screws for the shackles were secured.

Was it a girl or a boy, I wondered, but did not ask, afraid that such a question would sound too ‘American.’ But I soon found out without asking. My imagination then involuntarily projected Lola into the lead role of the story.

‘Sometime during her sixteenth or seventeenth year,’ intoned Effenkuhl, smiling into a middle distance as though recalling a personal memory, ‘this autistic daughter became pregnant. But how is this possible? the family wondered. No man had ever been closer to her than standing on the other side of the very thick door of her/your room, having no idea that there lay on the other side of it a beautiful half-nude teen age girl with the mind of a dragonfly, shackled by her ankle to the wall. This would have been something like the year 1790 or so, if you know what I mean.’

The Doktor gestured at me twice with the succulent thumbs of a tangerine before I realized he was offering me some. It was delicious, and the pleasure of it became a part of the story he told, along with the Bach, a suite of works for unaccompanied cello, that his kitchen radio was playing in the background as he talked. I stopped washing the dishes long enough to enjoy the tangerine, pieces of which he kept handing me, and listen.

‘Now,’ said Effenkuhl, ‘This floor of the building, where we are now, the ground level, was where the laundry and cooking were all done…here, the servants were most active. As you can see, there is not so much of sunlight. There was actually an Italian system of mirrors, derived from the camera obscura, rigged up in order to channel some sunlight from the tower to this lower level…terribly high-tech and expensive by the standards of the day.’

‘The autistic daughter’s cell was adjacent to a pantry, down the hall from the kitchen, in a part of the house that saw little noble traffic. The family was rarely down here…they did their living in the upper four levels of the building, and, as you have noticed, on the other side of the building, facing the walk that leads to the old church, the ground is higher, and there is an entrance on what to us is the second level, and this is the entrance that the family used, along with their proper guests, to come and go through.’

‘The three older children weren’t even aware that a younger sister existed. The parents themselves only made their appearance to her, in the presence of a priest, during the Christmas holidays, and it was on one such visit that they noticed the daughter was displaying a somewhat protuberant belly, which caused, as legend has it, the mother to faint when she felt a kick after placing a curious hand on it, thinking at first that the belly must be a gas bubble as a result of the poor child having possibly eaten apples intended for the horses. You know, they didn’t put it past someone to substitute horse food for the two daily aristocratic meals, including French wine, that were rightfully hers…they didn’t put it past some servant that she might eat these fine meals herself and let the strange poor child eat the worm-ridden horse apples instead.’

‘But that some galoot of a serf had seduced and impregnated this idiot savant of a virgin daughter? This taxed their ability to conceive of such a sin. Surely the Devil was at work, even in the mundane guise of a house servant.’

‘The priest and the father quizzed the old nurse in charge, who kept her bed in the scholars’ dormitory on the grounds of the adjacent church (the same church whose bells we hear so often) and was by day responsible for the child’s bathing, feeding, and toilet-making; only the old nurse was in possession of the big iron key to the girl’s door…the key you found on your bed, by the way, the very same historical key, in case you should ever want to lock your door for privacy one night…’ he winked at me ‘…and not even the father, the lord of the mansion, a former officer in the Prussian cavalry, with the saber scar and monocle and extravagant mustache to prove it…not even he had a key to his beautiful autistic daughter’s jail cell.’

I fantasized a barefoot Lola with shaved eyebrows and straw-littered hair, half into a dirndl and chained to the wall. I fantasized a saber-scarred father for her, creeping downstairs in a hooded cloak, letting himself quietly into his daughter’s cell with a frown of philosophical self-loathing.

Effenkuhl had paused to smirk wryly, as though enjoying the same fantasy. ‘No, not even the father had a key. Much to his relief, as it turns out. His wife would have put him first on the suspect’s list, no doubt. Anyway, the authorities tortured the old nurse energetically, to try to get a confession out of her…they were sure she’d been selling the shackled services of the daughter to craftsmen or seminarians or mercenary Prussian soldiers or whomever. But she never confessed. In fact, the old girl died of a heart attack on the fourth or fifth day of interrogations…by then it seemed quite obvious that she’d been telling the truth…whatever truth she could have mumbled, with her tongue crimped and branded, and all her bloody teeth yanked out.’

At that moment, the phone began ringing, and Effenkuhl excused himself and backed out of the room with a bow. It was 10 pm. I washed the remaining dishes while I waited for him to return and finish the story, but he didn’t, so I dried my hands, switched off the kitchen radio (enough Bach), put on my jacket and slipped out into the German night.

19.

Jet-lag reversed my sleep-logic, producing a photo-negative of the snapshot of my life as it had been in Southern California. Back there, I was up every morning, out on the daily walk to fetch Lola’s and my bakery breakfast, blinking at the bright marquee of the sorbet-and-acetylene dawn. And seventeen hours later, in bed again, back-to-back with Lola, tired and giving off a day’s worth of heat, re-converting quest into sleep as the moon pursued its parallel journey through the Pacific midnight’s absinthe.

I had a friend who liked to refer to So Cal sunsets as ‘Tijuana dinners,’ evoking the spice and splash of border town diarrhea. He’s an unpublished poet, living in an attic room in the house owned by his ex-girlfriend’s mother, and I was suddenly inspired to call him. The time difference would put it at about two in the afternoon in San Diego. Good old Ray. He always got a kick out of my adventures; he also had always wanted to fuck Lola, but how could I blame him for that? And thinking that made me want to call not Ray, of course, but Lola.

I walked up Uhland strasse in search of a pay phone. Uhland strasse is a wide long street of shops and cafes and bakeries, all closed at this hour, plus a handful of open-doored bars (kneipen), dark with leather upholstery and smoke and old denim and facial hair, and body-temp gallons of blood-colored beer. I walked by one every two or three blocks; I could hear the patrons barking and hacking over jukebox kraut-rock accordions, trying to make sense of the world by glugging a penny-flavored version of it. These are the real Germans, I was thinking. And I will never know one. They were frightening.

Just as I had never known a real American, because real Americans are frightening. The Americans I had known were all faux Europeans, faux Indians, faux Jamaicans, etc. And the Germans I would bother to know would be faux Americans; look at Doktor Effenkuhl, with his collection of Yankee catch-phrases.

Six blocks along, where Uhland Strasse crosses Berliner strasse, I found a pay phone…not in a booth, but on an aluminum post, under a flickering sign advertising the company that the equipment belonged to. Phone booths are on their way out, I guess; another obsolete corporate courtesy, like Customer Service. Fuck you in a rain-or-snow storm, is what Telekom seemed to be saying. Did I really want to use this thing? Then I noticed that the coin slot was jammed with backed-up pennies and the phone was unusable anyway.

I hurried up the street in search of the next one. The further I went without finding a pay phone, the more urgent my need to make that call, to hear Lola’s voice.

I became almost frantic, imagining that the call I might not make in time would have prevented Lola, for example, from answering a knock at the door from a handsome Mexican delivery boy with a box cutter in the back pocket of his too-tight jeans, who would find her alone in a bathrobe and seduce, then rape, then kill her.

Or, less horribly but more realistically, that my call would help her decide against falling in love with someone handsome, domineering and better than me who had begun already, in my absence, to insinuate himself into all the new gaps in her life…and if I didn’t make that call in the next few minutes…

The first time I ever saw Lola, it was a moment of déjà vu, because I had been expecting it for so long. She was sitting on the steps of the Opera house at Covent Garden, in London, smoking, and throwing bread at the pigeons. She wasn’t feeding the pigeons…she was throwing huge chunks of a hard baguette at them. She hit one and it staggered sideways, flapping with shock, and took off, and she cheered. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, with a boy-short platinum haircut, and big cracked lips. She was wearing a McDonald’s uniform. Then she took careful aim and hit another one.

I had been in Europe for three weeks at that point…still reeking of The States, but starting to get the hang of Europe, which struck me as one very large Bohemian neighborhood, after the suburbs of Minneapolis, or the open-air malls of Southern California. I had started by flying to Stockholm, hanging out there two weeks, then taking a ferry across The Baltic, to Germany. From Germany I flew to London.

Crossing the Baltic in a train was a thrill. The train, an old Czech monster, was loaded into the belly of the ferry at the port in Malmo late in the evening. I watched the loading with my head stuck out of a window in the sleeper car’s corridor. Flags were snapping and rippling from various masts and flagpoles that towered and teetered around the port. Stadium lights glared. We rolled on groaning wheels into the ferry.

I stood in the corridor and watched the procedure like a kid on his first train trip. I hadn’t expected this at all. I naively…Americanly…expected a bridge or a tunnel. But this: a train in a ferry. I was too surprised to be afraid. I didn’t think once of all the ferry sinkings I’d read about, or seen on World News. I just stood there in the narrow corridor with my head out the window, feeling free and alive for the first time in years. Everything seemed possible, and I had the feeling that sometime soon, I’d be meeting someone important. I can still remember the sense that the Future was rapidly approaching.

My compartment mate was out in the corridor with me. He was tall and thin, with the close-set eyes and beaky nose of a 40’s-era aristocrat; his mustache added to this impression; but there was something politely downtrodden, or washed-out, about him, that reeked of East German flat-bloc dweller. We never exchanged names, but made pleasant chit chat in a comradely fashion. He resembled the English actor Ralph Fiennes.

‘And how are you finding Europa?’

‘I’m finding the women sexy as Hell. You European guys are lucky.’

‘Lucky?’ He shrugged. ‘They aren’t interested in us.’

Our little sleeper compartment, equipped with dingy beds no longer than children, and with no efficient way for me to climb into my bunk without stepping on his, was a challenge that we faced together in good spirits. There was a tiny writing desk beside the curtained window that opened to reveal a sink (along with a stern warning in five non-English languages to avoid drinking the recycled water).

We stuck our heads out of the corridor window and breathed the eggy air of the Baltic, and I whispered a goodbye to Sweden, and a goodbye as well to the affair that had ruined the city for me. I purged my mind of the only Swedish I’d bothered to learn (“Jag pratar inte Svenska,” I don’t speak Swedish) and we rolled into the belly of the ferry and were swallowed by it, and its metallic groans and echoes, and the bluish odor of diesel fuel, and I was glad.

It was a good crisp night; I had been sweltering from Stockholm until Malmo, stuck in a sun-baked wagon with sixty other passengers and no air conditioning. I was relieved to change at Malmo, despite the burden of having to heave my large trunk off one train, and across the station, and onto the next. I left behind a Dane I’d been flirting with; a tall, young, bespectacled librarian with a razor-sharp wheat-blonde bob and a very pretty face that surprised me with the flattest profile I’d ever seen on a European. From the side she looked like a flaxen-haired Chinese giant. Was she The One I had come to Europe to meet?

We got off the train together and made our idle chatter, which shaded quickly into flirtatious adieu’s, when I was suddenly seized by an uncool panic because we were a hundred meters from the train and it dawned on me that I’d left my ticket on it. I stuck her there guarding my trunk while I dashed back through the crowd along the platform towards wagon number 2, seat number 17, which killed that fledgling romance. And it really struck me how easy a fledging romance it was to kill…one misstep on my part was enough to change the expression on her face. It was as though I had sneezed and left a translucent green web draped over my lips.

But then I felt fine, as I made my connection and rolled out of Malmo while hefting my trunk onto an overhead rack with help from Ralph Fiennes. I was now on a Czech-made renovated German-owned Mitropa train. I was suddenly infinitely more comfortable…I had stopped sweating and stinking of it…I felt more in control of my destiny; and the night, as I said, was crisp and clear and lit like a casino. We rolled into the ferry and could see only the industrial paint job of the belly of the ship, and the rivets in its seams, and stenciled specs and warnings.

I withdrew my head to avoid having it thunked by a girder we inched by and I ducked into the sleeping compartment to have a look at a brochure that had been placed on the little desk by the window. It was a menu, and I briefly considered spending Dm 7.90 on Sechs Nürnberger Rostbratwürstchen (mit Antioxidationsmittel und Geschmackverstärker) but thought better of it.

Ralph suggested we look for the toilets on an upper deck of the ship since the toilets on a train of this type are unusable if the train isn’t in motion over open track. We waited for the orange-vested brakemen to secure the train, and for the ship to slide into the Baltic, and then we stepped out into the floodlit container along a narrow walk beside the train. Everything was painted beige or red or black, and the ferry throbbed bone-jitteringly as the engines strained against the waves. There was nothing of the wobbly ride I had come to expect from using the little ferries that connect one neighborhood to another in Stockholm.

My bunk mate led the way, and shouldered through a heavy door that was stenciled with hieroglyphics referring to gift shops and casino’s and toilets, and I followed him up three or four flights of painted metal stair steps, and we let ourselves in to an upper deck that was full of people in casual clothing, strolling back and forth on dull red carpeting. We mingled with these people; the other passengers on the ferry.

Peculiar that I felt like a trespasser from steerage, since I’d crept up from the belly of the ship, when in fact I’d paid more for the ride then most of the passengers who’d boarded the ferry right there at the port. They were merely crossing the Baltic, whereas I had already covered a third of Sweden, and my journey was due to continue for hours after the ferry docked in Rostock. I was headed for Berlin, and had the rest of the night to go before the train was scheduled to ease into the Zoological Gardens, or Zoo Station, at around seven in the morning. From the Zoo Station I would have to find Tegel, where I was to catch a flight bound for London.

We found the toilet and separated with politely embarrassed smiles and vented our bladders. Outside the toilet again, we shook hands (a post-penis-handling shake, mind you) and I let him return to our sleeping compartment alone. He wanted to sleep through the crossing, but sleep was the last thing on my mind. I trusted him enough to let him alone for hours in that room with my backpack and trunk and most of my money, and I resolved to investigate the ship. It was unlikely I’d be crossing the Baltic again in the foreseeable future, so I wanted to make the most of my little adventure. It was funny that I should be coming from a state in America that was larger than most of the countries that my fellow passengers hailed from, and yet this ferry ride was my idea of a wild experience, while for them it was little more than an inconvenience of dreadful banality.

There were banks and banks of slot machines arranged along the promenade of deck seven, welded there cleverly to siphon off their coins, and heal their trans-Baltic boredom with simulations of Vegas.

In fact I sat there for a bit, in a row of chairs facing the slots, and watched some Polish auto worker in a pale gray track suit go from machine to machine, dumping in coins and winning jackpots. If he was a shill for the management I was the only audience to the spectacle, and I remained untempted to gamble, so the show was wasted on me. I just watched him pull the levers, set off the jingles of the jackpots, and slide on over to the next machine, with nothing more than raised eyebrows on his part to register the windfalls. It was either a miraculous night for him, or the jackpots are paid in pennies. I suppose I should have gotten a closer look.

Never having been on an Ocean Ferry before, I must admit I was uncertain about how to behave on one. I’d walk right up to the smudged glass doors that opened out onto the wind-washed deck but I’d content myself with merely peering through them at the blackness that seemed to rise up in an infinitely gentle curve above the ferry. Then I’d pace the concourse, and cross to the other side of the ship, and peer again, as tantalized by the outside elements as an insect in a jar. I was troubled by the fear that opening a set of these large double doors would set off an alarm, but then some sloppily dressed Russians with a moon-faced child in a slick red raincoat pushed through these very doors, squeezing by me, sauntering in from the prow of the ship, and set off no (audible) alarm.

It was fantastic out there. I was in California-style shorts, but bundled in a rubberized rain jacket, which features a hood, and it was perfect in the chilly weather of the Baltic. I had sweltered in the train from Stockholm wearing this jacket, and felt like a fool to have even brought it, but now I was vindicated. I was cozy and self-contained.

I had with me a British magazine…style and music and movies…and I found a deck chair beside a pair of teen age girls and settled in under the flood lights, and I began reading, or pretending to, running my fingers over the pictures but being too distracted to pay attention to the text. We were the only ones out there, the teen-aged girls and I. They were singing perfectly foreign pop songs in touchingly high and imperfect voices, and I couldn’t have been more delighted.

One was blonde and sweetly unremarkable and the other had her hair pinned-up and cheaply dyed a beet-red color that had been some kind of proletariat fashion statement in this part of Europe for fifteen years, and I relished the naïve energy that they blessed the prow of the ferry with. A thread-thin line of lights were dimly apparent on the German side of the water, looking like a hairline crack in the black flesh of the sky. The stars above us, unfortunately, were as invisible as anything at the bottom of the Baltic. But that didn’t keep me from being exhilarated.

In fact, there was another moment coming in which hand-made music and the night and bright lights would blend similarly to thrill me with a sense of life’s possibilities: a night in London, a week later, when I was crossing Leicester square on a Saturday night and I happened upon a combo of bryl-creamed street musicians…a sax and an upright bass and a guy thwacking a snare drum with brushes…playing the theme from A Hard Day’s Night in 5/4 time with un-ironic verve. Couples in white dinner jackets and evening gowns were flowing over the cobble-stoned square in droves, with British pomp-and-shyness, and London suddenly swung for me, if only for five minutes, but what a five minutes it was. I stayed up all night. I could feel it: I was getting closer. I was getting closer to whatever I had come to Europe for.

And now, here I was, watching this cruelly beautiful blond pelting pigeons with rock-hard bread. I felt it in my shortness of breath…the unsteadyness of the earth under me: this was Ground Zero. Fate rolled back the curtains with a drum roll.

She was It.

‘Now, that wasn’t very nice,’ I said, with a hungry grin, as I approached her. I had all the courage of a tourist. Pundits rarely cite that as the chief lure of travel, but I found it to be a powerful kick: the people in a foreign city don’t count, because they don’t know me, so I become fearless. And Trans-Atlantic travel is the world’s easiest acting job; just being there implies that you have the time to; that you have the money.

‘Nice is crap,’ she retorted, shading her eyes from the sun as she looked up at me. She spoke very slowly, with a voice as deep as my own, and an accent as thick and white as marzipan. ‘You are reminding me of someone.’

‘I am reminding you of someone good or bad?’

‘Bad. Very bad.’ She shot a chunk of baguette with a vicious flick of her wrist, ‘But I loved him.’ Wap. A pigeon slid sideways across the paving stones, blinking.

I sat down, reaching for some of her ammo, and tried my hand at hitting the pigeons. I wasn’t good at it, and soon wasted all of her bread, but it was a thrill, a nasty treat, just trying to hit one. I was born in Minneapolis. Minneapolis is the World capitol of Have a Nice Day. They’re nice to animals there. I sensed that she had something to teach me.

She stood up and excused herself, grinding out her cigarette, and ran down the stairs, disappearing around a corner before I could ask her her name. I thought: shit. Lunch break is over. I was paralyzed with disappointment until she reappeared five minutes later, another baguette tucked under her arm.

‘Fresh baguette,’ I observed.

‘Wrong. Day old. Cheaper! Harder.’ She broke it into brittle fifths, and stacked them in a pile beside her. Then she fastidiously swept the crumbs from the lap of her uniform. She was incredibly beautiful, even in that uniform. ‘I do this every day for the lunch break.’

I said, with a hint of incredulity: McDonald’s. She said, with a hint of incredulity: yup.

I watched her hit another pigeon, like kicking an old valise, raising dust. A very tall woman in a pink pant suit, stooping to hold the hand of what appeared to be a day-care-age albino in miniature Jesus sandals and overalls and over-sized cartoon sunglasses, was watching, too, from the other side of the square. Then she started crossing towards us with a frown, slowed in her progress by the rubber-legged child.

I said, while staring at the grown-up who drew inexorably nearer, ‘You’re not British. Why are you working at a McDonald’s in London?’

She shrugged and squinted. ‘Escaping.’

‘From?’

She closed her eyes. ‘Germany.’

‘You didn’t escape very far.’

‘Not finished yet.’

‘Escaping can be a life-long occupation.’

‘Escaping can be a life.’

‘That was a deeper philosophical remark than I would have expected from a girl wearing a MacDonald’s uniform.’

‘Yup.’

‘Do you understand it when I say complicated things to you in English?’

‘Don’t have to.’

‘You just say ‘yup.’’

‘Yup.’

‘Saying ‘yup’ to everything could get you into a lot of trouble, miss.’

‘I am aware what sentences not to say ‘yup’ to, sir.’ She grunted and the heavy crust she then flicked made a whiffling sound like an arcane Chinese weapon and hit a pigeon so hard that it flopped over, pedaling, like it was doing the back-stroke. ‘Any sentence with the words fuck, suck, horny, or we in it, I don’t say ‘yup’ to. Alles klar?’

I shrugged: seems reasonable! I said: I’m Salter. She said: Me Lola.

I’d never felt so free, and confident, and careless about consequences. I’d never even spoken with such a beautiful girl before, and she was making it easy for me because I was American, and could offer her The Grand Canyon, or Honolulu, or Hollywood, and I was naively up to the challenge. I cleared my throat and looked her dead in the eye and steeled myself against blinking. I somehow knew that if I blinked, all was lost. I said, loud enough for her to hear me at that distance, ‘Wanna get married?’

A couple of large plaid tourists were just then ambling by, and mistook my proposal for a romantic moment, a memory they could impose themselves on, so they stopped to gawk at us. Nosy Nebraskans. Bangor-based busy-bodies.

‘Come on now, honey, say yes to the man!’ urged the fattest of the two, the male, with a big-lensed camera slung from his neck like a Japanese dream penis. He hefted the camera and stroked the lens with a cajoling twist of his wrist as he aimed it first at Lola, then me. His wife in her tartan mu-mu had her hands on her hips, smiling with a frown of impatience. They were both wearing green sun visors. He gestured for Lola and me to sit closer together.

I flipped them a two-handed bird, and Lola pelted them with baguette, until they backed off and waddled away in a thigh-banging rush, hands up, making sounds like things with blow-holes, with shocked looks on their faces. Lola spat and said ‘I fed those two couch-killers a bucket of French fries already this morning’ and unpinned her McDonald’s name tag and tossed it at me.

Catching it, I impaled myself on its open pin; it was stuck. I pulled it out and a berry swelled in the palm of my right hand. I tossed the name tag away. I scooted up close to Lola and showed her my wound in a childish pantomime of suffering, like a test to call forth in her either the Virgin Mary, or the Magdalene, and it was the Magdalene that I got. The Magdalene took my hand, glanced at its stigmata, and let it fall. She lit a cigarette. She said:

‘That’s nothing, husband,’ and blew the smoke in my face. ‘Just wait.’

20.

She had such boyish hips that it made me feel homosexual, fucking her, especially with the low octave of her smoke-flavored moans, and also as I found myself fantasizing in a black fever that our doggie positions were penetratively anal in execution, rather than vaginal, though I didn’t have the courage to try that, stroking and clutching and shuddering over the pink missile of her soft body as I bumped my way into her. I fucked her the way the poor behave at a fancy banquet, stuffing their faces and coat pockets; never straying too far from the buffet; looking asinine with gratitude, guilt, avarice, fear.

Lola loved California, and California loved Lola.

Her breasts were so big, in comparison to the gamine circumference of her waist, that they embarrassed me, as though by just being a part of our sex life they had exposed something trite and crude and bovine in me, in my libido. I stared at those breasts, and, catching me staring, they accused me.

They accused me in a lather through the faceted glass of the shower when I took my long arcing piss every morning; they accused me on Black’s beach, the nudist Gay spot in San Diego where we spent most weekends sunning; they accused me from under one of her ragged t-shirts at the breakfast table, while also eroticizing the gray milk in her cereal bowl, and everything else in the room. Those swollen, dark, wide-apart and accusing eyes; the milky tears they would never cry. They accused me while Lola slept and I stealthily uncovered her. Leave me be! They pleaded. Stop staring! Those big unblinking eyes on her chest. Those touchy masses. Counter-weights.

It’s too much for a human to bear. Humans should be ideas, not objects. There’s a terrible tension between the human dream of being just that, an idea, a principle, and the terrible reality: that a human is really just a thing, a mass and a volume, perfectly described with handfuls of trivial measurements. A structure, with features; with systems and mechanisms; with equipment. What were Lola’s tits but equipment? Where did they end, and Lola begin?

I hadn’t at first even noticed them as she was wearing that over-sized McDonald’s smock when we met. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the courage to approach her if they’d been clear to me from the beginning. It was her face that mesmerized me initially; but then, when I knew her, the teats took over. Yes, I’m ashamed! Not of myself, but of them. Those inertial, alabaster, lavender-eye’d, blue-veined things. They were and are, literally, galactic.

I’ve always doubted the science behind the theory that men fancy big breasts because of an Evolutionary imperative (nursing copiously at the apparatus of a large-breasted woman, her offspring has a greater chance of survival, is how the reasoning goes): if preferring larger breasts is an Evolutionary strategy, why are large-breasted women the exception, rather than the rule? How could the gene for medium-to-smaller-sized breasts enjoy such overwhelming dominance, still, if higher survival rates rested, from time immemorial, on the side of mammoth knockers? (Though it’s true that human females have the largest breast-to-body-mass ratio in the entire mammal family).

The explanation for the Canonical Fantasy Dominance of the D-cup in contemporary Western Civilization, I think, is simpler: people always want what they can’t have. They dream what they don’t know. Most men are with women with medium-to-small breasts, because most women have medium-to-small breasts; therefore, most men want women with large breasts. Likewise, men with large-breasted women dream of small-breasted women; however, they don’t, in every case, act on the fantasy of exchanging the one for the other, most probably because of the status they enjoy in the eyes of men who have small-breasted women. It’s a vicious circle.

Or it could be that men didn’t start hankering after dirigible-class mammaries until the advent of color photography; of the mass-market glossy magazine; of sophisticated slo-mo effects in video.

I wish there were equally frivolous female aesthetical prejudices deforming a man’s ‘value’ in the mating game, but there aren’t. Women prefer men with money, which makes perfect sense, unfortunately. It’s a wonder that poor men ever get to fuck at all. And, of course, until the middle of the 20th century, they didn’t.

It’s fashionable for people these days to treat ‘The Sixties’ as a delightful but ridiculous era that ended up changing nothing…a mere glitch in the data stream of history. But The Sixties changed everything for the Poor Man…The Sixties was the Era in which the Poor Man was given the right to Fuck.

But wait.

An important detail that will surprise you. Two important details.

It took me two years to see Lola’s boobs naked; two years before I could fuck her. It took me that long before I hefted and harried and chafed and boxed and coddled and nursed and teased and wrestled and nuzzled her…them. The time span between the day Lola and I first met, when I proposed marriage on the steps of the Opera house at Convent Garden, and the day we met again, in America, was two years. A few weeks short of two. And until the day I saw her again, I’d heard nothing, not a post card, not a peep, and the very night of the day I saw her again, we were lovers. Before that, I’d almost forgotten about her. ‘Almost’ meaning not at all.

It was that gray-haired bitch in the pink pant suit; the bitch with the hemophiliac son; Mrs. Fortney, who fucked me up. Fucked us up. It was her fault. She’d seen Lola blasting the pigeons and so she’d crossed the square, I presumed, in order to give us a righteous tongue lashing on behalf of her son and the animals and all things helpless and innocent. Instead:

‘Not to be a frightful bother, but have you ever considered modeling professionally?’ Completely ignoring me.

Lola, shaking her head: ‘Are you the lesbian, lady?’

‘No, I’m not,’ she said, without anger, impressively unruffled, and added, ‘This is my son Roderick,’ and skinless pink Roderick ducked in pinker terror behind his mother’s pink pantaloons, ‘And my husband Simon and I own and run Black Forest Furs, on Oxford Street. Do you know it?’

Without waiting for a polite affirmative she continued ‘And the point is, it’s a frightful chore, really, trying to find a decent model willing to wear fur these days; the silly tits all suddenly think they’re animal rights activists! It’s such a bore, and I couldn’t help noticing…with those filthy birds you were tormenting just now…’

Lola coughed out several hacked-up lung-sized zephyrs of nicotine, laughing, ‘You saw me hurting the doves and thought, this girl, she don’t give a shit!’

‘Well, yes, quite,’ said Mrs. Fortney, stooping to scoop up her squirming little Roderick, ‘I mean to say, you’re hardly a card carrying member of PETA, now, are you?’ With her free hand, she handed Lola a silver business card. ‘Anyone who tells you it’s a ‘career’ is taking the piss, and no mistake. You enter at the middle and stay there; there’s absolutely no future in it. It’s money; piles of it, that’s all. It’s pots of cash for practically no work. That’s why it attracts the worst sorts, you see. Do it for five years and you can retire, if you’re smart. We need a new girl for our Fall campaign and you’ll do nicely.’ She nodded appraisingly at Lola, going hmmmmm and hmmmm, and then, to herself: ‘Oh, yes, this one will come up a treat.’

Mrs. Fortney stood straight, smoothing the wisps of her Roderick’s staticky white dandelion of hair, and prepared to say ta ta. ‘One thing: Simon, my husband. You will meet him, and the poor dear will try to make a pass at you. You’re his type. Just tell him no. It’s easy! I promise you he’s incredibly resistible. All men are.’ And here I could say that she smiled at me wickedly, but she never once bothered to glance my way.

‘Ta ta.’

And off she went, in a whirlwind of no-nonsense, bearing her Roderick away like an expensive bouquet of recessive traits.

Lola was busy methodically ripping the pockets off of her McDonald’s smock after Mrs. Fortney made her exit. Growling as she ripped the cloth. She boasted to me, grunting with effort, ‘Now I don’t…must to work…at McDonalds…or marry you, neither, so…I’m the lucky…girl,’ offering me a conciliatory cigarette from her box of Camels, which I declined, ‘But anyway leave your address in The States on the back here, just in case you never know.’ (Hard to believe this happened five years ago!)

She handed me Mrs. Fortney’s card; I took it obediently and printed my address in California on the back. I just happened to have a pen in my pocket, because that’s what I was doing at Covent Garden in the first place, trying to pick up girls.

And what was the second? The second surprising detail…about Lola…when she finally came to California to be with me, two years later?

She was a virgin.

21.

Three pay phones in four square miles, and all of them broken. By the time I found one, a phone booth, containing a phone that actually worked (apparently), I was lost, it was nearly midnight, and the booth was already occupied…by a black man. Which explains why I stood there, outside the booth, for the longest time, glancing at my watch and coughing, waiting. Though the man in the booth wasn’t even using the phone, but was standing there with his back to me, reading under a ditsy galaxy of gnats.

When he finally turned and noticed me, I had been standing there for ten minutes, feeling desperate. He swung the booth door open. ‘Waiting for the phone, man? Shit! I’m sorry! How long you been standing there?’

He was laughing. He was wearing what looked like a billowy dark pirate shirt, open to the navel, and a car key for an ear ring. Why is it that men who wear pirate shirts, open to the navel, always stand a certain way, with their hands on their hips, and their feet spread wide, like Gene Kelly?

He said ‘Sorry!’

I shrugged that it was okay and we exchanged places. He asked me if I’d be long (‘Gonna be a long one, he he he?’) because he was waiting for a call and I said, no, just a few minutes; I was calling The States and couldn’t afford to talk for very long anyway.

The States? He asked, with a hungry look on his face. Whereabouts? I told him California and he whistled, like I’d quoted an impossible sum. I closed the door and noticed that the booth was deep in his not unpleasant odor: sweat and roses.

After all that trouble, all I got was Lola’s answering machine, which needled me with a brand new me-less message, the outgoing message of a beguiling single woman, nobody’s doormat, grouching ‘I’m probably here but I don’t want to talk. Take your chances.’ Beeeeeep.

At least she didn’t sound happy.

‘That was a quickee, he he he,’ said my new black friend when I backed out of the booth. ‘No news is good news, right?’

‘I got the answering machine. Do you know Berlin pretty well?’

‘I uh got the path I always take to avoid the shit I always uh avoid, he he he.’

‘Because I’m lost.’

‘Hello, Lost, he he he.’’

He was very black, with a shaved head that gleamed like state of the art equipment, reflecting every single one of a row of street lights that hung over the dark little street we were standing on, a curving meridian of pearls in his skull, and he had hands like graceful birds. He was small but his gestures made him seem big. I could see that women would find him attractive without him having to work at it; that smooth vinyl chest to lie on; those graceful black birds to tease you. I assumed of course that his penis made mine look useless in comparison. He had the nerve to tell me that his name was Lord Johnson.

‘Don’t look at me, man, blame my parents. L-o-r-d Johnson! It’s on my passport; check it out! Not the uh freakiest name! But uh try being black and going through…Heathrow Airport with it! He he he.’

‘Ok, uh, the story behind the name. Pops told it to me when I was a kid and like I still don’t know if he was joking? Man, that dude was always joking. Hey, jokes are a form of abuse, too! What’s a joke but a funny lie?’

He shook his head sadly. Then he brightened up again; his eyes were like headlights.

‘Like, I was a natural child birth, with, uh, a Mexican midwife. Okay? I took my time coming out…I wasn’t stupid, he he he. Thirty six hours, man! My parents were black hippies who kinda hung out on the fringe of a, like, celebrity crowd in Santa Monica. Pops was what you’d call a black-light artist. Black light paintings of Bruce Lee and Hendrix and Pam Grier naked and whatnot. He trucked his masterpieces to headshops all along the coast in his, like, royal chariot, a VW Beetle van! What you’d call a cottage industry, he he he. Pops tried his hand at uh an underground comic which he financed with his own bread featuring this freaky uh Super Hero called ‘Not Quite Gigantic Man!’ Which, like, never caught on.’

‘My Moms was like a professional topless extra in various drive-in flicks of the 70s. She was in a big movie called ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem.’ Yeah? Plus stuff on television with all her clothes on after they started putting lots and lots of black folks on TV. She even made regular appearances on this show called ‘Mannix?’

‘Okay. ‘Not Quite Gigantic Man’ flops and uh Pops loses his grip. Accuses Moms of sleeping with ‘Mannix’!’, check it out! Pops goes AWOL, I guess I’m glad he didn’t, you know, honor kill her like a Muslim brother or some shit he he he. Five solid years, man, Pops was a no-show. I’m like, Mommy, where’s Daddy? And she’s like all, you are not to mention that word around this house, boy. Then, uh. He, uh. Comes back. Right? New walk, new haircut, new everything! Shit! We didn’t even recognize him!’

‘Anyway, my name. The story! It goes…drum roll…Moms is in labor, I’m preparing for my debut, the big entrance! And now, straight from a successful sold-out engagement in the womb…My mother screamed. You know: tight pussy; big head. Everybody just…uh…used to call my Daddy by his last you know…name. Johnson this, Johnson that. Like ‘Lenin.’ Dig? So I’m like squeezing through and she’s screaming and cussing…’

He tilted his head back and changed his face to imitate his mother howling on her back as she delivered him:

‘Lord, Johnson, what have you done to me!?’

Then he shrugged and winked.

‘And it…uh…stuck.’

22.

That morning I had a terrible dream that Lord Johnson was fucking Lola with a special method that everyone knew about but me, a technique from China that involved exotic spices, and specially applied steaming-hot towels, and if it was done exactly right, this method, then a woman’s arms, or her legs, would fall off. But the orgasm would be intense. It was obvious, in the dream, that Lord Johnson was collecting the arms and legs of white women.

I was pleading with Lola not to go through with this dangerous and crippling procedure, but she was adamant, completely under Lord Johnson’s sinister power, and she made me feel bothersome and ridiculous to be worrying them with my sad little nigglings while she and Lord Johnson, a real man, were in pursuit of this once-in-a-lifetime ecstasy together. Every objection to this grisly sexual procedure I came up with she mocked with baby talk, and I woke in tears, groping for her in the daylit room where the autistic daughter of 18th century German aristocrats had once been chained to the wall, pregnant.

23.

Every day in Berlin that went by uneventfully felt like a criticism; every week added to a mounting debt that I’d never be able to repay. Repay to whom? My own sense of self? A vacation is one thing, because it starts with a known limit, a terminus; the end-point gives it a shape, the shape makes it a pleasure. But here I was, in a foreign country, open-ended, floating. What was the point, the plan, the method? Did I have any goals in mind? What was my story? All I had was the pain in my chest over Lola. I wanted her ‘back,’ but had I ever had her? And my wanting her, I saw, was like any dirt poor American living in a rent-it-by-the-week hotel near a bus station and dreaming of hitting the big time one day. A flop.

I once sat on a bus in Minneapolis behind a grizzled scratchy couple who spent the whole ride describing what they’d spend the fortune on if they won the lottery, and the conversation ended in a nasty fight when the guy finally announced, with his nose up, that with his last million he’d buy a yacht that no one else, not even she, was allowed on. And now I felt like one of them, a pathetic dreamer, fretting over unavailable options.

I woke every day around six pm, thrummed like iron myself by the evening church bells, and went to bed again at ten the next morning, and rarely spoke to anyone but Doktor Effenkuhl, who was not always talkative after a day of administering his Psychotherapy. I did nothing but eat, walk, sleep, excrete, and wash the dishes.

Something seemed broken. Something was wrong with Time; it felt as though existence could only be discussed in the past tense, and that the world was a difficult memory exercise, or a jumble of old stories in the care of a halting, stuttering narrator.

What had once seemed like just one of an almost infinite variety of emotions or activities to choose from now struck me as being the only option: Nostalgia.

Memories were no longer being manufactured freshly, but only recycled. Nostalgia was a musty veil over everything. I couldn’t breathe. The permanent twilight and musty air and airless gasps of Nostalgia. Had this awful feeling been triggered entirely by my break-up with Lola? Was this an idiosyncratic misery, or a Cardinal Glitch?

I was on this particular dismal train of thought while washing the dishes one night. Doktor Effenkuhl was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a very old newspaper (his policy was never to read any newspaper that was less than ‘cured’ of the news, that is: at least six months old), when we both heard a terrible noise. It seemed to be coming from the upstairs neighbor’s apartment. Doktor Effenkuhl put down his paper and scowled at the ceiling, as though reading particularly offensive graffiti on it, until the noise repeated itself.

‘Frau Schivelbeiner,’ said Doktor Effenkuhl, disgusted. ‘Have you ever known a woman with more than one cat…who didn’t have a sexual problem?’

‘Was that sound Frau Schivelbeiner, or one of her cats?’

We both waited for the awful sound to repeat itself, and when it did, Doktor Effenkuhl nodded, but I was the one who spoke.

‘New boyfriend?’

‘Ah, but it’s always the same one, you see,’ he said, resuming with his paper. ‘And that’s why it’s so monotonous, although his name, height, color and age may vary. He does what he wants with her for two weeks and then leaves. Then he comes back, after a polite interval, with a new face, a new voice, a new joke, and starts all over again. And she doesn’t even have the imagination, or the decency, to invent a new name for him! She always calls him Schnecke!’

He said: ‘There’s an old joke. Women are shallow and cruel when they’re young, and clinging and bitter when old…and men are just the reverse.’

I picked up the dish towel. ‘Well, I hope she’s in love, at least…’

Doktor Effenkuhl stared at me over the hedge of his paper for a good long time before saying ‘That’s exactly like hoping she’s insane.’

He continued, ‘Using sex to express ‘love’ is like using a Porsche for a nutcracker.’

He said ‘Why do you suppose it is that the average woman has three times more reason to fear physical harm at the hands of her lover, in her own home, than from a complete stranger? A lover thinks: I want to own and control what you are, and what you do. A passionate lover thinks: as long as you are useful to me, I’ll let you live.’

I had my back to him, scrubbing an expensive pot. ‘Do you really see it that way, Doktor Effenkuhl?’

The Doktor ignored this question and continued, ‘Love is just a secular replacement for God. First, it was Secular Humanist Love, and then it was Romantic Love, and, now, Total Freedom is already gradually replacing both of those. Do you believe for one moment that human emotions are immutable? There were emotions available twenty generations ago that we no longer even have words for. A reptile climbs on a rock and looks at the sun: what ‘emotion’ is it experiencing?’

He put his year-old newspaper away, folding and replacing it in a stack on the cabinet under the kitchen window behind him. ‘That is the kind of purity I am interested in, ja?’

He glanced at his watch impatiently, and, within seconds, as though prompted, the phone rang, and he left the room to answer it.

24.

Coincidentally, when I let myself out of the flat for my nightly walk (my nightly attempt to phone Lola), clutching a sack of garbage, I met Frau Schivelbeiner in the stairwell. She was a tiny handsome gray-haired German woman with a wide, high-cheek-boned face, in black silk Pyjamas and stiletto heels. A rhinestone crucifix sparkled coolingly on the brown-to-pink papyrus of her breastbone. The freckles on her over-tanned skin looked like pepper. It looked like it would burn my tongue if I licked her.

I was twisting the key in Doktor Effenkuhl’s front door lock (he was out for the night) when she surprised me by speaking, clomping towards me down the stairs. German neighbors rarely speak to each other in the stairwell, is what I had gathered. But here she was, speaking! Unfortunately, her overture was in German, and I had to pantomime my perfect ignorance with a frown and a shrug. So she repeated herself in English.

‘Oh, excuse me. I did not realize that we had an American in the building! I only wanted to apologize just now for my cat. She is making an awful racket these days…’

Before thinking, I said, ‘That noise was your cat?’

She frowned. ‘Yes.’ She purred, fingering her crucifix. ‘Schnecke.’

25.

Frau Schivelbeiner’s daughter was home for awhile from college; back from an exchange program in The States; and Schnecke, a fourteen year old thirty-five pound Siamese with a bald spot on her shoulders (from squeezing under a low cabinet in the master bathroom for all those years), was jealous.

I said, because it was a safe thing to say: Yes: cats are like people.

Frau Schivelbeiner asked after Doktor Effenkuhl: was he okay? He’d lost so much weight, she said.

‘Really?’

‘Oh yes, he used to be quite heavy. Well, not fat, of course. But large. Larger than you.’ She looked at me closely. ‘Are you the brother in America?’

‘No. He has a brother in America?’

‘He said so once, yes. A brother, and a sister, in America. The brother is a writer, I think.’

Frau Schivelbeiner was standing beside me in front of the big blue dumpster in the back courtyard, her arms folded over her sparrow-like, elegant chest. She was a very fast talker.

‘But he’s lost quite a bit of weight. I was afraid that he was very sick. Not that we are friends, so much….’ She lowered her voice. ‘The people in this building are not so friendly. It is quite okay, of course, because everyone here is respectful. But I have lived in Philadelphia, with my ex-husband, Jenny’s father. He was American. And I became accustomed to the American way. One’s neighbors knew a certain amount of one’s business, and one knew a certain amount of theirs. It was friendlier, but sometimes awkward.’

‘For example, our upstairs neighbor, a Puerto Rican woman named Glenda Velasquez, knocked on our door at ten one night and asked to use the telephone. Hers had been shut off because of a big long distance bill from calling her father in Puerto Rico all the time that she hadn’t paid for in over three months. She said, very casually, that she just needed to make a quick call to a Recovered Memory Hotline because she had just remembered that her father had sexually abused her as a child, and then she offered me a quarter for the call! The memory had been triggered by a special report on the six o’clock news! What could I say? I must admit, at this moment I began to admire the German policy of respectful distances.’

Frau Schivelbeiner raised her eyebrows at me. She put a hand on my arm. ‘She told me that her elderly father had put things in her! A pickle! A Barbie Doll! Can you imagine confessing that to a stranger?’

‘I knew more about my American neighbors in Philadelphia after a few months living there than my own mother ever knew about my father the forty years they were married together! But that didn’t slow them down. On the contrary, it probably helped. I’m here, aren’t I? And I’m the youngest of ten children.’ She winked at me. She had conjured, in one innocent sentence, a montage of ten simultaneous tight-lipped fuckings. ‘Ten!’

I must have looked at her without blinking for ten seconds too long, because she looked right back at me.

I said, ‘Is your daughter upstairs?’

‘No.’ She kissed the crucifix. ‘She is staying with friends tonight.’

26.

Is self-awareness a form of insanity? Is culture an altar to madness? Animals are proto-rational, in that what they do always makes sense, unless they are badly damaged, mentally…and I wonder if animals who exhibit strong signs of neurosis are therefore, like man, self-aware?

Schnecke was growling and popping and hissing, from her vantage point at the top of a very tall chest of drawers, the whole time I was having intercourse with her friend Frau Schivelbeiner, who was sitting as straight-spined as a Yogi on me, gasping. We were balanced on the edge of her giant red bed.

Consequently, Frau Schivelbeiner frequently shouted ‘Schnecke!’ during the act, to admonish the cat, but her complaints sounded like cries of amorous abandon instead, punctuated with her gasps. I could see the top edge of the electrified black outline of the beast in the shadow just under the ceiling, but Frau Shivelbeiner’s back was to her, so her face was turned half away from me as she bounced on my lap, calling out ‘Schnecke!’ until it felt not a little like a menage-a-trois. And the raking red scratches in neat diagonal stripes down my back I finally walked out of her flat in the middle of the night with only added to this impression.

Despite her claws, she was a tiny, fragile, lovely thing in my lap. Her skin was smooth; she was fifty! Strangely, and grotesque in a sexy way, all of her wrinkles had furled to her groin, as though smoothed down from the top of her forehead with an iron, until her groin was as brown and hairless and wrinkled as a dune. Her breasts were just welts, and I bit them, and she bit mine; she tipped me back and rode me with her hair on my face like a veil, and I stuck my thumb in her arse, and she monkey-see, monkey-do’d this hospitable gesture until I cried out for her to stop. Or not to. Until I.

‘I’m sorry you couldn’t come,’ I whispered, while she ground my squashed penis into my belly with her sopping pelvis. I cupped her narrow waist between my hands, and her muscles shifted under her skin, under my fingertips, as though I was holding a snake.

‘But I was coming the entire time!’ she whispered back, biting my ear, and I loved this poetic lie.

‘May I spend the night?’ I asked gallantly.

‘No; my husband will be back in a while!’

‘Your husband! I thought you were divorced!’

‘I am…from my first two husbands. My third is still around. He won’t like this.’

I thought: Doktor Effenkuhl doesn’t know a thing about this woman!

27.

One night as I lay in Frau Schivelbeiner’s arms I could hear, under us, muffled shouting.

‘Almost every night,’ she whispered. ‘He is for hours on the phone…shouting, laughing…some times he weeps!’ She was talking about Doktor Effenkuhl. ‘And Always in English. This is what puzzles me.’

All we could hear of Effenkuhl’s shouting was the carrier-wave of anger…the words were smooth hot blurs that rose to his ceiling and squeezed, dissipating, through Frau Schivelbeiner’s floor. I couldn’t have said what language he was raving in.

‘How can you tell it’s in English?’ I asked, before lowering my mouth to a breast. She slid from under me and slinked across the moon-blue bedroom like a naked show girl, her silver bob seeming to float, a magician’s corny trick, and then she kneeled in a corner, pushing a chair, from which Schnecke had been glowering, to the side. Scnhecke pulsed out of the room as though yanked by a string. Schivelbeiner (she asked me to call her that…I still don’t know her first name) fussed with something that sounded like Velcro for a moment and then told me to join her on the floor. I followed in a crouch, dragging my snoozing penis.

In the baseboard was an opening, a rough-hewn rectangle the size of a post card, that had been covered with cardboard and duct tape. Schivelbeiner pressed her lips to my ear, holding my head with gentle hands, and explained.

‘A very long time ago, in another century, this building was all one house…a one-family dwelling for the rich. Downstairs, where your Doktor Effenkuhl has his flat, were the servant quarters…in Dokotor Effenkuhl’s bedroom especially it is very dark. In the old days, to channel sunlight to the lower floors…’

‘I know,’ I whispered back. ‘Camera obscura.’

‘Precisely. And the tunnels in this building which once carried sunlight, they now carry sound.’

‘And so you kneel some nights by this hole in the hall and listen?’ I said with a chuckle.

I could feel her turn red in the darkness…the spreading heat of it near my cheek. ‘One is curious,’ she smiled back. Then she put a finger across my lips.

‘Who is he?’ we could hear Effenkuhl shouting. ‘Tell me who he is so I can kill him!’

‘Don’t give me that bullshit!’

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yes, of course! Certainly!’

Then, after a long interval, ‘SPARE ME YOUR FAIRYTALES! DO YOU TAKE ME FOR ONE OF YOUR FOOLS?’

It was a turn-on, his rage…my penis stirred and stiffened to it. Having just finished fucking Schivelbeiner, I undertook to commence a second helping of her. I slipped behind her like a college wrestler, a hand on her shoulder, the other clutching her waist, and found new moisture under what at first seemed dry as an old river bed. Warm silt gradually gave way to the river Styx. The side of Schivelbeiner’s face was pressed to the cold wall, and the profile I could see looked almost alien with pleasure. But still I wondered, as I churned my steady beat in her, my slow blues, mining endorphins, if sex wasn’t really just something that women generously provided to the addicted gender, as opposed to a craving men wanted to believe we all shared.

Fucking her was like swimming upstream against all the years that were packed in her body…packed so dense that plugging and unplugging her the way I was doing…my cock in her pussy; my thumb in her ass; caused them to explode out over us. In the dark room I hallucinated a swirling stream of heat and color hissing out of her. In the dark her profile against the wall…with her eyes shut, her mouth open… looked so much softer, younger…more valuable. Any man who doesn’t feel at least a little love for a woman who does this for him, at least while she’s doing it, I was thinking…

Her ass was a fat fist at my groin, a fist with one knuckle, a fist with two holes in it. I pulled out of the lower hole and held her firm while adjusting, and then I tucked myself into the other hole, forcing my head with the flat of my thumb. Met with a sandy resistance initially. Deep in, I didn’t last five seconds before the shocking heat and her involuntary writhing slammed me with a stabbing orgasm that made us both howl, Schivelbeiner’s mouth just inches from the hole in her baseboard, a blended howl that sounded like a radical political slogan with all of the consonants sucked out, until Doktor Effenkuhl banged his ceiling with a broom handle.

Afterwards, back in bed (after I took a discreet trip to her WC to rinse two streaks of her shit off of my still-hard penis), we were talking, in chastened tones, about this and that.

Of course, I wanted to talk about Lola, who had become my great subject, but I couldn’t think of an easy way of broaching it; I couldn’t think of a polite or at least a smooth way to introduce another female into the conversation I was having with this naked woman with whom I’d just done so much. Where would I find the nerve to begin? But I was dying to.

I must have been leaving clues as we chatted, significant sighs and pauses, because, at some point, in the middle of an abstract philosophical conversation about ‘relationships,’ Frau Schivelbeiner suddenly said, in a didactic tone, ‘The day I crossed the line of becoming an ‘older woman,’ it became clear to me that a big part of my sex life would involve lying post-coitally in the arms of younger men, discussing younger women.’

She got up on one elbow.

‘It’s okay if one sees it as a natural law, I suppose. If one doesn’t take it any more personally than one would take the fact that exposure to air inevitably turns a sliced apple brown.’

‘An older woman is invariably a second choice, like a handsome man is the second choice for a woman who would have preferred a rich one, or a kind man is the second choice for a woman who would have preferred a handsome one.’

She thought awhile.

‘Or, honestly put, a kind man is always the third choice. My current husband, for example, is a kind man! My third husband is my third choice: this is very neat, and logical, because my first husband was rich, and when that didn’t work out, I tried my second husband, who was handsome. But I don’t feel cursed, because most women never do any better than to begin and end with the fourth choice, which is a man who is at least a man, and not a woman! So we all know what the fifth choice is…’

Here she laughed.

‘But I’m getting off the point. My point is, if you feel like talking about some young woman in your life for whom sex with me is the best substitute at the moment, feel free to; I have only one restriction, one demand.’

‘You can talk about her all you want, but you can’t say a damn thing about her looks, or anything physical about her. Only her personality. Nothing about her face or her body or even the smell of her hair in the morning! Nothing about the eyes or the voice, which men, feeling crafty, believe counts as somehow more spiritual features of the female to get horny about!’

‘Talk about your absentee goddess all you want, but restrict herself to what counts, which is her soul, her dreams, her special personality features, and I’ll be happy to listen.’

She lay back, flat on her back beside me, and said, ‘I’m all ears.’

After the extremely long silence that intervened, I got dressed, we hugged, and I tip-toed out of her apartment.

28.

I was beginning to hate Berlin, and I hadn’t seen a thing of it. The night was a cage, the bars of which were the German language. I never went shopping: Doktor Effenkuhl provided the food. I rarely saw daylight: I was sleeping through it. I never met people, but only shared dark side streets with nervous strangers who coughed as they passed me.

I needed desperately to speak with Lola, if only for a few minutes, but she never answered the phone. Worse: I didn’t even have the option of leaving a message anymore, because her answering machine had been disconnected. When I dialed her number, her phone just rang and rang and rang.

29.

I spent a week writing a story, a short story about Lola, and I mailed the result to her. Slightly more than a week after posting it, I began anticipating the arrival of the mail every day, waking to the postman’s heavy boots in the stairwell, the tumult of bills and catalogues through the slot, the sound of Effenkuhl lumbering out from the kitchen to nose a shoe-tip through the pile before stooping for the best pieces. And everyday the same awful news, announced in a merciless silence: nothing for me.

I went back to sleeping through the day.

30.

One evening I awoke slightly later than usual to find the flat empty, the kitchen radio on and playing Bach again. I entered the kitchen to turn off the radio and wash the dishes when I noticed, on the table, what looked like pages from a manuscript, with binder-ring holes along the left margin. Beside this document on the table was an almost-full cup of coffee with a cloud of cream floating in it, and a dish on which several cookies were stacked, as though Doktor Effenkuhl had left in a hurry, without having planned to, in the midst of enjoying a snack with his reading. On top of the first page, printed by hand in block letters, which I could read despite the fact that it was upside down to me, was: LOLA BAEDO.

Of course I was curious. And of course my curiosity was stronger than my civilized aversion to reading words that I obviously hadn’t been intended to read. I had a closer look.

Under ‘LOLA BAEDO’ it said, in a hurried scrawl: ‘police?’ And then, in another (very angry) hand altogether: Falsch! Falsch! Falsch! It had never occurred to me before that Lola’s acquaintance with Doktor Effenkuhl had been anything other than friendly and casual. Most of the text had been crossed out.

From her fifteenth year the patient (L.) has been subject to fainting spells. By
all accounts they come on usually after quarrels, disagreements or
disappointments. They are not accompanied by blanching, by clonic or tonic
movements of any kind, they last for uncertain periods ranging from five
minutes to an hour or more, and consciousness does not seem to be totally
lost. In addition she has vomiting spells, these likewise occurring when
balked in her desires. She is subject to headaches, usually on one half of
the head, but frequently frontal. There is no regular period of occurrence
of these headaches except that there is also some relation to quarrels, etc.
On several occasions the patient has lost her voice for short periods
ranging from a few minutes to several hours following particularly stormy
domestic scenes.

Physical Examination Aug. 20—L.–A well-developed, extremely ‘attractive,’ woman,
appearing to be about 20 years of age. Face wears an anxious
expression and she shuns the examiner’s direct gaze. Movements of the right
hand and arm are now fairly free. There is no appreciable difficulty in any
of its functions according to tests made for ataxia, strength, recognition
of form, finer movements, etc., in fact, she uses this hand to write with,
as she cannot talk at all. Such writing is free, unaccompanied by errors in
spelling, there is no elision of syllables and no difficulty in finding the
words desired. The face is symmetrical on the two sides. There is no
evidence of paralysis of the facial muscles. In fact, the cranial nerves, by
detailed examination, are intact, except in so far as respiration and speech
are concerned. The right leg is held entirely spastic, the muscles on both
sides of the joints, that is, flexors and extensors, being equally
contracted. It is impossible to bend this leg at any joint except by the use
of very great force.

Speech–There is complete loss of the ability to make any sound, either
voiced or whispered; that is to say, there is complete aphonia,– there is
loss of all voice. The patient understands everything, however, and writes
her answers to questions rapidly and correctly. She can read whatever is
written, there is no difficulty in the recognition of objects, no evidence
of any aphasia whatever.

The diagnosis–hysteria–can hardly be doubted. The history of headaches,
fainting spells without marked impairment of consciousness, vomiting spells,
hemianaesthesia, hemianalgesia, complete aphonia and an exaggerated
paralysis, not only of the right leg, but of the ability to thrust out the
tongue, while at the same time all other cranial functions were unimpaired
together with the apparent health of the individual in every other respect,
make up a syndrome hardly to pass unrecognized…

When Doktor Effenkuhl returned later, I was just finishing the dishes. He entered the room and stood behind me while I scrubbed a pot and he said ‘This is very awkward.’

He said ‘This was so careless, that I left this report on the table like so. You have no idea how disappointed I am in myself! You can’t be blamed for giving in to the most human of temptations and reading it, but, on the other hand, you must appreciate the gravity of the situation I find myself in.’

‘You know too much now, and I’m afraid I will have to kill you.’

The way he delivered this last line was so convincing that it made my heart race, despite the fact that it was clearly a joke. And how was I so sure that it was a joke? Because that line of dialogue was so bad that it had to be intentionally so, and therefore comedic. Still, it pays to reflect that in the entire History of the world, it’s safe to assume that almost exactly that sentence has been spoken more than once with absolutely no spirit of satire, and the objects of the sentence have died.

Effenkuhl smiled and gestured that I take a seat at the table and I did so. He cleared the untouched coffee and cookies from it and pulled a half-empty bottle of wine from the refrigerator, pouring us each a glass. He sipped his standing, leaning against the sink.

‘When Lola first came to me in the Fall of that year, almost ten years ago, she was in very bad shape. She was not at all the nearly perfect young woman you and I know and love today.’

‘Well,’ he asked, ‘did you always simply assume that she was born with a sturdy sense of self, and a rational system by which to make sense of the chaos of modern life? The Lola you knew was an effort.’

By the way he raised his eyebrows at the end of this sentence I took it to mean that the effort had been his.

‘What I’m about to reveal to you,’ he said, after pouring himself another glass of wine, ‘is of course not to be repeated to anyone…least of all to Lola herself. It will probably shock you. Possibly disgust you as well.’

‘When I first met Lola, introduced by a former patient, and began treating her, early in the last decade, she was suffering from a soul-destroying trauma.’

He nodded gravely at me. ‘Guilt,’ he said. ‘Terrible terrible guilt.’

Guilt over what? I asked.

He weighed the word a good long time before setting it down before me.

‘Murder.’

We both laughed. Another cliché!

And then, like the best comedians, he upped the ante.

‘And I was the victim!’ he added, with mock outrage. Yes, we laughed a good long time. Then he pulled his glasses off, wiping them on his shirt tails, and said, ‘But, seriously.’

He took one long step across the kitchen floor and back-handed me with a grunt, knocking me to the floor, chair and all. I saw stars, and then deep deep cherry-black space. I thought, just before the curtain came down:

This? This is it?

31.

At the age of 26, a year before she escaped Europe entirely and made it to America to join the American, Lola moved into a square room in Mrs. Fortney’s baronial flat on Talgarth road in West Kensington, a forty minute walk from ‘Black Forest Furs’ on Oxford Street. At 26, she was old for a model, but at the apex of her fragile powers as a Northern-European beauty, her naturally snow-blonde hair and eyebrows startling against her freckled ruddy cheeks and black irises, and perfectly offset by the mink or ermine or silver fox enwreathing her boyish shoulders, and lining her titanic cleavage, making Lola and not the fur itself seem to be the unaffordable product to die for.

In the brief bloom of opportunity before her Scandinavian attributes began wilting in the dry heat of Time, she had lucked into this job as the face of this almost invisibly exclusive furrier. Lola became Mrs. Fortney’s protégé, and a tacit ally in the metaphysical Cold War that Mrs. Fortney had been waging against her husband Simon since the birth of their son Roderick, as well as the mysterious face in a series of posters that had been plastered all over London to create what they still call a buzz.

Thankfully it was largely an absentee sub-population of American or Italian tourists who had known Lola as the best looking girl that anyone had ever seen selling French fries in a MacDonald’s. She had no History to pre-date the posters.

Some enterprising intern at the agency that Black Forest Furs used, in fact, had even placed the posters (tastefully, tastefully) in key locations around the Kensal Green, Kensington, Hammersmith, and Golder’s Green cemeteries. Like an angel on the monuments. And there was an amusing case that made the papers: a poster of Lola had appeared in the world famous London Zoo…on the rearmost wall of the lion’s compound.

Who is this half-naked stunner in furs?

London wanted to know. Without a word or even a logo (nor even fine print about copyright, etc) on the poster, the image became a puzzle, and the puzzle could only be solved if you happened to walk by the shop window at 23 Oxford Street and glance in at the gilt-framed twice-times larger than life photo of the same girl on an over-sized easle (purple velvet curtains as a back drop) in the otherwise bare display. By appointment only.

Lola became known, on the street, and then in trendy street-level mags and even on Channel Four (specifically the show ‘The Word’ as hosted by that Terry Whathisname prat), as ‘The Fur Girl,’ and then ‘Furry,’ until East End rhyming slang converted her smoothly into ‘No Worries’ and the sobriquet stuck like a stain.

She liked it! She liked her new name, her new identity, the alias that London had given her. Her escape from Berlin felt complete; she avoided speaking whenever possible, lest the sound of her own voice should remind her of Germany, and Germany remind her of all the horrible things she wanted to burn with a torch from her memory.

At night, in The Ball Club, a trendy disco just off Earl’s Court (walking distance from home), she was ‘No Worries,’ which was soon enough clipped to ‘Worries’ by the cooler blacker clientele. By day, after waking up in the afternoon in time to take a red-eyed tea with Mrs. Fortney, she was Miss Lola. Miss Lola was reeling, still.

‘Miss Lola,’ announced Mrs. Fortney, while handing Lola a dish of shortbread cookies, ‘Is not feeling well today, I see.’ Dryly. Mrs. Fortney knew all about The Ball Club. She sometimes went herself, in dark glasses. The thing about clubs, and this is why people like them so much, is that one’s presence on the premises is a tacit acceptance of the activities therein; walking through the doors is like signing a waiver. Which is to say: anyone seeing you there is just as guilty as you are. Of whatever it is. This is what Club Friendships are based on. And which is what marriages should be, but aren’t. Mrs. Fortney was frowning.

‘Simon,’ she continued, ‘Do stop standing there in the doorway like that and be of some use. Go polish the neighbors’ brass, or something.’

‘No need to be rude,’ grumbled Simon, as he slinked off, stoop-shouldered, with his hands in his pockets.

‘No,’ rebutted Mrs. Fortney in her most astringently disinfectant tone, ‘There is every need.’ She was saying it to Lola. She rarely addressed two remarks in a row to Simon, unless the second was a simple reiteration of the first, since the first remark was almost always a request for him to bugger off.

Lola was staring into her tea cup as if it were a television. Or as if she was a gypsy. She could still smell Split and other things on her upper lip, a smell she hoped the roof-colored tea would wash away as soon as it was cool enough to sip at. Someone, a concerned party, white, of course, had taken Lola aside…when was it? Three weeks ago. The very night she’d first met Split. Taken her aside, this jealous cheese-white ginger-haired purse snatcher with filed teeth and red-rimmed ass-holes for eyes, pulling her with his jagged smile off of Split’s arm for a moment and saying, ‘Ta. You do know why they call him Split, now, don’t you, Darlin’ ?’ And then miming, with his two hands, something as big as a good-sized fish. ‘Episiotomy, innit?’

Split. Lola let herself think about Split because she wouldn’t let herself think about the Other One, not yet; not until she’d had her tea. She looked up from the cup and saucer. She managed half a smile.

Mrs. Fortney was keeping a flinching Roderick in her lap, like a Bond Super villain stroking the pervy talisman of her mascot, and Roderick was doing his thing, personifying Fear, Nerves, Endangerment. Personifying Prey. He was the only child Lola had ever known who was afraid of her!

Other children; babies, even; had responded to her with the infallibly gullible eye that Innocence has for Beauty, grinning like old fools and reaching for her from the grocery trolley, from the stroller, from their grandmothers’ arms. But Roderick shrank from her; he shrank away in tachycardial terror when she sometimes reached to tousle his threadbare dental floss hair, or offered to put him to bed while Mrs. Fortney went out to the off-license for American videos and liquor. Lola would carry Roderick to his room like a tub drowning, his cheeks gone lapis with apoxia, his eyelids fluttering with fright. Or was it loathing?

She mulled that one over, now and again, with a secret thrill. She yearned for it…being loathed. Consequently, Roderick was the only child (Lola considered children to be nothing more enchanting or less useful than larvae) she could tolerate. Or even like. The way he shivered and sputtered and gasped and spasmed in his mother’s lap. Any minute, he’d go running from the room for the safety of the crawlspace under his bed, a hundred meters down the chandeliered corridor.

Mrs. Fortney was glugging her tea and telling on Simon…another one of her anecdotes about how dumb/useless/vain/irritating/unfaithful men/Simon were. The afternoon-ish late-in-the-year sun was making a surprise visit at the blinds, as red-eyed as Lola, striping the book case, the wide-screen television, and the side of Mrs. Fortney’s face with candy-colored exhaustion. To punctuate her diatribe, she kept singing, ‘More tea, Dear?’ though Lola hadn’t even tasted her first cup yet, staring down through its sediment depths instead. It made her think of diabetic urine. Not that she could think. She kept seeing all that blood.

She was still. Her mind was still. Fucked. About the previous evening.

‘It’s a kind of enforced banality, marriage,’ Mrs. Fortney was saying. ‘Like American culture.’

Last night, Split had cleared a path towards Lola at the bar and said, with infinite delicacy, steadying her by the shoulder and folding himself down to her ear, ‘There’s a perv wants to pay us four figures to do it in front of him in his hotel room. Should I say yes? We’ll divide it 60-40, because it was my connection. Right? He specified oral. Are you for it? Loadsamoney reckons he’s your biggest fan, I guess. What should I tell him?’

Lola had looked around the smoke-veined dark of the room while Split held her head to his lips, whispering the proposition. Split’s voice was no less penetrating than his dick. In fact she liked to straddle him while he whispered what he was going to do to her and then it was like a double-penetration, voice and penis, the tips of the two large inserts meeting somewhere in the region of her solar plexus and bumping noses there. She looked around The Ball Club, smiling on the tickle of his breath, wondering which the rich Perv was.

As usual, most eyes were on them, so she narrowed it down to the paunchy pewter-haired waist-coated guy in a blousy white shirt (he looked like a Snooker champion) by the cigarette machine to the side of the coat check, since he was one of the few who didn’t appear to be looking, which is another way of saying he was looking very hard. He didn’t seem dangerous, and, anyway, Split would be there, bigger than anything in the entire Hotel.

32.

It was a very nice Hotel, Georgian façade, royal-red window shades, in Knightsbridge, with a knock-off Beefeater under the red awning and everything. Red carpet. Split had the key. Squash-court-sized Persian rugs on the butterscotch-smooth parquet in the foyer. Marble drinking fountains. Deco sconces. They just breezed by the Reception Desk at 2 in the morning, popped in the lift, and went up. Creaky old lift for such a posh hotel, though…as though the posh was all just a mask, hiding a grimy reality of devilish old London-town horrors. She imagined age-green gargoyles pulling the chains in the elevator shaft. She imagined Jack-the-Ripper tools in the sub-cellar, rusting away in an inch of 19th century water.

Following her up the corridor, Split said, reassuringly, ‘Right. This is the drill. I’m going to chain you to the bed, right? Geezer’s in the closet, peeping. After I chain you to the bed, just follow my lead. Nuffing we ain’t already done, like.’

Lola’s first night in The Ball Club…her first five minutes in The Ball Club…she’d been approached by an American pretty boy with spikey blonde hair, dressed in a pink t-shirt and a striped green tie, and he’d tapped her on the shoulder and pointed out another blonde pretty boy in a Paul Smith suit, standing nearby, pretending to be preoccupied. ‘His name’s Rich. Guess mine.’ Grinning at her. Lola just gave him her blankest look. Soon to shade into boredom, then revulsion, then…

‘Poor!’ he said, shouting over the music. ‘My name is Josh Poor, swear to God! His name is Rich Kroft. They call us Rich and Poor, and the funny thing, he’s really Rich, really! The dough he spends parking his car every month is more than I pay in rent, girlfriend! His Dad owns a fucking helicopter! Ever seen London from the air? It looks just like Chicago!’

And Lola scanned the room and just then, Split entered, high-fiving (or low-fiving…he was twice the height of some) a receiving line of Clubland dignitaries. He was the largest man in the vicinity, and black as tar, with a grin like the grill of not the fastest car on the road but the biggest, in a canary-yellow running suit.

‘Excuse me, my fiance just arrived,’ and she left Josh Poor standing there, blinking, mouth hung open, as she crossed the room to intercept this Yellow Clad Slab of a Jet-Black Man. She put her arms around his waist and bent her head back on her neck until it just about snapped, looking up at him, and said ‘Act like my boyfriend.’ He was already sweating; the small of the back of his running suit was damp. But he smelled good, like a Tea shop. ‘Act like my boyfriend for a little while.’

He’d said, ‘Fair enough. Who’s the audience?’

‘Those two little fuckers by the bar. One’s in a suit.’

‘Oh, you mean Oasis over there? Two think they’re rock stars? They’ve had a thumb in half the pie in this room. One’s a Yank, right? Fairies.’

He pulled back and got a good look at her and whistled. ‘But why pretend, heart-breaker? Try me out. Maybe you’re ready to switch to a better brand.’ He pulled her close again and folded down to her mouth and kissed her, stretching her lips around his heavy tongue. It was purple, and throbbed with its own heart. She could feel that he was tasting her. He pulled out and wiped his mouth. ‘You a vegetarian? They call me Split. As in banana. As in at home in me closet I got ten of these identical yellow suits hung up. Wicked.’

After having been fucked by Split the second time (in a photo booth in the Picadilly Arcade), Split had told her that by his system of reckoning she was worth about 5,000 pounds an hour. He had a system by which everyone could be indexed according to their hourly value. Some were worth as little as seven pounds an hour (but everyone is worth something, a system which would do much to restore a sense of dignity and proportion in the Developing World). Only one woman in Split’s life had ever been worth more (Shoko Crane), at 6050 pounds an hour, but that was because she’d been half-Asian and half-Caribbean black and that’s just worth more. Paul McCartney, whom Split had never met, was worth 17,999 pounds per hour, by Split’s system, so there’s the scale.

He’d said, ‘Most have taken umbrage at all I’m about to tell you, girl…it gets up their nose due mostly I think to their inflated view of themselves. Right? But take it as the highest compliment…’ and here he zipped up with a little jig of adjustment as they stepped to match the speed of the down escalator, ‘that I’d put your net worth at no less than 5,000 pounds an hour. Fact.’

And now they were gliding down this dowager’s boudoir of a hallway (floramorphic Edwardian light fixtures; cupids in the wall paper and putti in the tiramisu-colored carpet) in a posh Hotel in Knightsbridge, headed for the last big porno scenario of their ‘relationship’ (three weeks; she was raw from it; she felt like she’d been in a dozen Kentucky Derbies), and it was nice that they were getting paid. 60-40. Was it ever 50-50? All men are pimps.

She’d soon have to quit attending The Ball Club, which was a shame because it was so conveniently located (saved her a fortune in cab fare), but it was rapidly filling with men she had fucked at least twice.

The good thing about Split was she wouldn’t have to give him a speech. She just had to disappear. Or worry about him killing her. Not that he hadn’t been the gentlest fuck ever. But it was different when they owned you, wasn’t it? It’s an unspoken agreement that you fully intend to violate, and they’re completely aware that you do: if they can’t have you, nobody can. Universal. A woman ignores this at her own peril.

Split liked to talk while he worked.

‘My my my,’ he said. ‘Look at that. Look at that lovely thing. Lovely. Lovely. Look at it. Smiling at me. Lovely! I think it wants some. Do you want some? Lovely little thing. Let Split give you a taste. Try that. Ah, lovely. You like? I think she likes it. Lovely! Listen, try a bit more. Yes. Yes. Lovely. Ahhh, yes. That’s the way. That’s it. Lovely…’

He was talking down to her mouth. He had a finger under her chin, elevating it to a certain angle, and she was blind-folded. He’d cuffed her to the brass of the bed, and she was kneeling beside it, topless and unshod, on the side of the bed that was furthest from the closet, the door of which was just ever so slightly ajar, the dark stripe of said aperture dotted with a Watusi-high and bloodshot eye. Blinking.

Split liked to take his time, and he also had a thing about taking his penis out of a girl’s mouth every once in a while and wiping it on her face, drawing it along one side of the jaw and then the other, that long black pipe of glistening eel leaving its track of spit and pre-cum on the angles and planes of the beauty mask, like some kind of survey, like some kind of hoary African naming rite. And talking at it, about it, the whole time, in the Sunday morning tones of the voice-over on a televised darts or snooker or golf tournament.

‘Look at that. Isn’t that lovely? Oh isn’t it. Incredible. Yes. All right…all right there, in black and white, lovely. Oh my. What a picture. Yes. National Geographic. Yes. Around the….yes. And there. Yes. Alright…open up again. That’s it. Up…up! That’s it. Lovely. Ah…’

Then Lola heard a floor board creak. And Split, languorously: ‘Ah, yes. Mate. Mate. Welcome to the party. Here…’

Split commenced pulling his penis out of her mouth; a careful extraction. He was stroking her hair calmingly (Lola was a thoroughbred, likely to bite if spooked; Lola was a bomb you wouldn’t want to cross the wires in defusing). Even after Split was out like the army, the hot black ghost of his largeness was still a weight on her tongue. Her lips were still shaped to the fit of it and humming with its vital throb of blood-fat jazz. She heard Split zip (think of how rarely you hear a zip-up from close range; Lola heard it often and knew that nothing else sounds like zipping up; nothing sounds as dismissive), then, softly, slowly, as to a child about to go on her first train trip to Granny’s alone, ‘Change of scenery time, Love. Don’t you move, now. Keep on doing what you’re doing. Right? Tip top. That’s a good egg. Do what the gentleman says, like. We aim to please. For services rendered. Satisfaction guaranteed. Lovely.’

And then, ‘Good one, Mate.’ She heard the wadded slip and shuffle of a quick-thumbed paper transaction of some density. ‘Cheers.’ And then a new body heat blotted Split’s old airspace near her cheek, an aura tinted with expensive cologne giving way to the acrid humidity, the pickle and tickle, of crotch.

Split eased himself heavily out of the hotel room and whistled ‘Strangers in the Night’ down the hall, and she soon found that another penis had berthed itself with bobbing imprecision in her mouth. Not much smaller than Split’s, in fact, a derrick angling in from the same approximate height. This guy was another skyscraper like Split. Well, this was a lot more than watching. Not that she was complaining. For this much money…

And then she knew in a sudden flash of hotly illuminating Cosmic Awareness that Split would not be splitting the honorarium for this job, 60-40 or otherwise, and that he’d probably be scarce around The Ball Club for a season or two, and how hysterically funny to realize that she’d been fucked by a man for nearly a month without ever having seen where he actually lived.

They’d always somehow ended up in borrowed flats (or in derelict cinema foyers) and she had to admit to herself that she had admired Split for treating her that way: like nothing particularly special.

Too bad it was always the men who were strong enough to leave her who always left her! Too bad it was always the men who were wise enough to resist her who always resisted her! Why did it always have to be the type who fell in love with her who…fell in love with her? She wanted for once to be wanted by a man who didn’t want her. Left by a man who would stay.

There weren’t enough in the world like Split. First Konstantin, then Split. And here she was, blindfolded, chained to a bed in a strange hotel, sucking a white (she could taste it) cock for free. Konstantin. She hadn’t let herself even think the letter ‘K’ since him. Since Konstantin.

What Lola liked about giving head was that she didn’t have to pretend to like it. It was just a mildly inconvenient favor you did if you felt like it, like writing someone a letter of recommendation. No one could accuse you of getting anything out of it. You were always owed if you sucked a cock. You didn’t have to pretend to like it, you didn’t have to pretend to be grateful, you didn’t have to pretend to be impressed. Most beautifully of all, you weren’t, for a change, expected to say anything. No one ever asked ‘Are you alright?’ or ‘how do you like it?’ or ‘what are you thinking?’ while their cock was in your mouth. And eye contact was on waiver, too. Really, the perfect sex act.

Her mind wandered pleasantly, as it sometimes could when she was lunching wood; woofing johnson…a holiday drive along that inner winding road of her mind: the tall trees, leafshadow and sunlight. The dappled woodland stream of consciousness. A majestic white swan gliding upstream. In my thoughts I have seen. Hypnotic. Daydreams. Rings of smoke through the. The alpha-waved lull of repetitive tasking; Lola on a pornographic prayer rug, davining away, om-ing her brains out on a glistening staff of life. She was thinking: what is dirt made out of? Seriously, she mused: what is it made of? She’d always just assumed…dirt is made of The Earth, isn’t it? The Earth is made of dirt. But what’s. Where does it.

This is the kind of thing that Konstantin was good at talking about. Or through, or at. Even after he’d turned bad on her, Lola had often been able to deflect his abuse by distracting him with what he liked to call a Cardinal Question. Like that time. After that one trick had paid with a counterfeit hundred! Oh Konstantin had been in a real mood to hit something that time. Already had her by the hair when she’d said…thinking fast…what makes sleep? What makes us sleep? What is it made of, sleep…how does it work? And pondering that one had stopped his raging.

The fatter he’d gotten, the more he’d raged. But she remembered how he’d been before he threw away his looks with Existential contempt: he’d been Jaweh’s most beautiful and rebellious Archangel…a retinal throb of lumens that could burn a girl all the way down through her heart. The first time ever she saw his face. The minute that man had walked in the door of the café that she was an indentured servant in (the café’s owner and her step-father were ‘business’ partners) she’d thought: I want to put him in my power. Meaning, her mouth.

She’d seen him walk into that wretched burnt-toast-perfumed and fly-speck-upholstered and sour-mopped café she was working in at the time and she felt, looking at him, beholding him, a sudden shocking uncharacteristic surge of racial pride in being European…the truth of the sexual nature of fascism slapped her…a country full of guys like that would have been the terror of Europe, she sneered to herself, growing heavily wet. Scare the shit out of us fucking krauts. Imagine a good version of Nazi, without the nasty wasteful genocide part, just, you know, the stylish bits, like, Nazism as basically the ultimate Nightclub experience. Sharp outfits and a wicked fucking door policy.

A nation of patent leather and bleached hair and cruel cheekbones. Just enough atmospheric S&M to eradicate the bane of her existence, that most wretched of American inventions: politeness. Imagine a world un-tainted by please and thankyou and most of all I’m sorry. This is a prince, she remembered thinking…how old was she? nineteen?…when first that pathetic bell dangling over the Kafé Kundera’s door in Mahzahn in East Berlin had ding-a-linged Konstantin Mirek’s entrance with comedic understatement and signaled, also, the next three or four chapters of Lola Beedo’s semi-miserable life.

Oh. Oh. Oh.

The man screwed tightly to the weighty cock she was slurrping was not old, clearly, by evidence of the nearly upright teakwood table leg the cock was capably imitating, but he was wheezing so, either asthmatic or a serious-about-killing-himself smoker, and then gasping and snorting and whispering ‘oh’ a lot, soon to catapult his tablespoon of liquid self down her throat, but it was strange. Something. It was strange like a fire alarm going off underwater…which would take you a beat to recognize this elemental noise of warning, but, even after you did, you’d still be disoriented for a fatal interval trying to figure out where all the water had come from, and how everything had gotten submerged, and, if everything was submerged, what danger could fire possibly hold for you at this point anyway, since you were about to drown?

Lola gasped through her nose and gulpingly un-swallowed the slick hard dolphining dick with violent aversion and half-stood and stumbled backwards, yanked by the handcuff that bound her to the bed, wheeling against it and banging her shin badly on the frame while a thin finger of cum grazed her cheek, and some still squirting, shooting off in all directions, scalding her hair and her arm, while the shooter laughed the toneless hiccupped spasm laugh of naughty orgasm, the sound neither giggle nor sob, Lola flaming red and spitting his spunk out.

And yelling PAHNIK, YOU FUCKER MOTHERFUCKER and trying to get the blindfold off and shouting PAHNIK. And even then she was seeing the blood again, all that blood, while Pahnik stood back and milked the pearly dregs of his pleasure down a pant leg with a fleetingly serious look on his face, all concentration now, all focus, being that the overall quality of an orgasm (and its afterglow) is determined by the handling of the resolving paroxysms. With orgasms, as with Life itself, it’s the final moments that count for everything.

33.

Pahnik was having a hot post-coital leak in the bathroom sink (old habit from water-rationing days in Blansko) and speaking over his shoulder to the girl who was handcuffed to the frame of his hotel bed.

‘I must say, it wasn’t very hard tracking you down, Sinead,’ he sing-songed, pinching the last strong cider drops from his plump and ruddy dick, that two-liquid dispenser (and that’s where nature, famously efficient, fucked up, in Miro Pahnik’s oft-mused-upon but never-voiced opinion: why not the third liquid? Why not milk?)…‘not that I expected it to be, girl with your looks. Hard to keep a face and body like that a secret, isn’t it? I’ve been in London, what. Two weeks? Not even.’

He sauntered back towards the bed, zipping.

‘I once dated a stripper in L.A.,’ he continued, with one foot on the bed, his hands bracing the small of his back, ‘Are you listening to me?’ Lola had her back to him, unspeaking, mostly naked, handcuffed to the bed frame, her legs curled under.

‘Dinah Sore; she was about fifty. That was her stage name. Dinah Sore! Old school. Did I ever tell you what I like best about Americans? The names they come up with for themselves? Poor little Dinah had been doing the pole dance on the club circuit in West Hollywood for thirty years, I met her in ’82 or so, which would mean she started dancing in the 50s. She of course augmented her hourly wage as a dancer with under-the-table jobs of the hand and mouth variety…who wouldn’t, given those circumstances? And what I liked about her…I mean, why I liked fucking her, was because it was so easy to be nice to her.’ He paused to let this sink in. Also to stare at the perfect back of Lola’s perfect head and marvel. You can always spot a woman that beautiful from behind, without ever needing to see the front to verify. Her swan-like neck.

‘She was grateful for anything. Little compliments. You have beautiful eyes, Dinah. Dinah, you have the hands of a thirty year old woman! Or holding the door open for her, helping her with her coat, or sliding the chair out for her…it made her blush with joy. Anything. Kiss her on the cheek and tell her she smells good, for example…do this after coming between her tits in the back of a checker cab. It made her so fucking happy, and it made me feel like Fred Astaire, and it was so easy. It was so easy to be nice to poor old Dinah Sore.’

Despite herself, Lola could see the saggy-breasted, henna-haired Dinah, saucer-sized nipples and a cowboy hat, twining around a pole with her shit-eating grin…just begging to be put out of her misery. Dating ever more dangerous Tricks. Hitch-hiking in slums. Pahnik had been an early attempt at picking an executioner, probably…she’d recognized the potential in him. Too thick to see it himself, Pahnik was getting the story all wrong.

‘If I’d met her twenty years earlier, of course, it would have been another story entirely. Oh Jesus. Thirty years earlier, and I couldn’t have met her at all. Time, old age, humanized her. It put her in my league…in my ballpark.’

Pahnik grunted and walked bouncingly over the bed like a gigantic 12 year old in his boots and stepped down to the floor on the other side, so Lola could face him, but she turned stubbornly away, twisting her neck to look back over the bed (at a ghost? A big fat ghost?) so Pahnik sighed and smiled. He was still relishing the sunburn tingle of what he had done to her, just now; what he’d done in her mouth. How ecstatically not nice, how atavistically impolite…and the weird paradox of the transaction, how he’d paid a large sum in order to steal something.

‘Thirty years from now, Sinead, or should I call you ‘Worries’…or just plain Lola, little Lola Beedo…Baby, you’ll be just like poor old Dinah Sore. Lola Beedo will morph into Dinah Sore. Grateful for any compliment, hungry for hungry male stares, you’re gonna find yourself…’

‘Christ!’ shouted Lola, eyes shut tight. ‘Unchain me.’ Her eyes popped open and trained their deadly pink particle beams on Pahnik, who smirked involuntarily to shield himself. She pointed a thumb at her platinum muff, which was bristling up out of a luminously pink satin panty. ‘I need to pee.’

Pahnik rubbed a forearm as though she’d bit him there, although he was smiling. It wasn’t lost on him that although he was the one who was fully clothed, nearly seven feet tall, with a pocket full of money, and still tingling with a lordly orgasm he’d stolen in her mouth…she was the one, bearing the aforementioned in mind, with the power to either crush or beatify. With a word, a smile. ‘You haven’t uttered a peep about what I just said, Sinead. That’s rude. That’s…’

‘Miro, please, either call the police and turn us both in…you as a murderer, me as your accomplice…or unchain me and let me out of this room.’

‘I can’t do either. Won’t, I mean.’

‘I’ll scream.’

‘I’ll kick you.’ He showed her the wicked toe of his boot.

If she called his bluff it would cancel the points he acquired in the orgasm, he realized. He could no more kick her than slash the Mona Lisa. That’s where Pookie had had him. That’s why Pookie would always be Her Man: he’d kicked her, punched her, fucked her in the ass. The best that Pahnik could hope to be, in her pantheon, was Curator, and he knew it. The Curator who gets to sneak the masterpiece into his study and lean it against the wall for a few hours after closing time for surreptitious gloatings, calculating his pleasures by the fey exquisites of custodial privilege…every once in a blue moon. Godammit.

Pookie would always be granted direct experience of her soul, of her vitals, and Pahnik would always be just some dick-bearing etcetera. Even though (or especially because?) Pookie was dead now, dead and buried; his head in a hatbox at the bottom of a hole in The Grunewald, his fingertipless torso last seen in the trunk of a stolen car parked in Neukoln. What else am I supposed to do? Pahnik wanted to scream at Heaven. I killed him and he’s still The King!

A one hundred and fifty kilo body holds a lot of fluid. All that blood. Blood stinks; no one tells you that. It smells like shit and ozone. Funny there aren’t black market workshops in body disposal, considering how large a potential market there is. A sloshing bathtub full of blood is something to cope with; a headless torso in three inches of its own thick cherry-black bubble bath. Pookie’s corpse had farted undignified bubbles in its own blood! The horror! The horror! Mr. Kurtz, he daid. Write a scene like that and the audience would…

‘Miro,’ sighed Lola. ‘Come on. Enough’s enough.’ She lifted the handcuffed wrist.

‘Enough’s enough.’ Mocked Pahnik.

‘Is this about sex? Is that it?’ She sighed. ‘You want to fuck me?’

Pahnik almost fainted with the…from the…from the enormity of…’Do I want to fuck you?’ His eyes bulged squintingly. ‘Do I want to fuck you?’ He kicked the bed, making Lola flinch. ‘I just did, bitch! Or hadn’t you noticed? I fucked your fucking mouth! I stuck my big cock in it and I came like fucking Secretariat, bitch! Bitch, didn’t you even notice? What are you saying?’

Yes, the next thing would be to find out that Lola could reverse the flow of time, resurrect the dead, make soggy old dollar bills crisp and new. Look! She had nullified Pahnik’s sex act (and the corresponding orgasm) with attitude alone. It had never happened, according to the look on her face. He couldn’t believe it. The awe he felt despite himself was crushing.

There’s no way out but suicide or murder, he suddenly thought. I’m trapped in the shredded cage of my own sick heart…I have to kill my way out of it. A woman like this…

A man, a man like Miro Pahnik, who had thought of himself for all those years as a success, a winner…anointed, blessed, favored by The Gods. A man like that…was nothing, a blip, mere junk and protoplasm…to a woman like Lola Baedo. The only safe way to view her was through a magazine, or on a television, or in a higher-class porno video, or even on the screen of a movie theater. She was a Medusa safely gazed upon in a mirror only…an obliterating super-field at the core of which hummed Desire’s encrusted red sphincter source. Parallel to that loony thought he was also able to think quite clearly: I’m losing it…

To make matters worse he then felt a tear-track salt his cheek…and a twin, on the other side…what could he do but cuff them, pathetically? His eyes had burst like grapes. A real nut job would have started laughing at that moment, to hide the horrific Grammar School shame of it.

Lola pretended not to notice he was crying, she was miming absurd concern with her toenails just then…she was suddenly so afraid… that her fear generated its own subset of paranoia…the fear that Pahnik could hear the awful pounding of her heart. If he detected that she was afraid, it wouldn’t be long before he correctly identified and then became what it was she was afraid of. It was the ‘non-violent’ ones…the ones who hadn’t really made a buddy of dumb rage during the course of their lives…who had no idea what to do with it when it came. They tended to over-react. Look what she’d been able to trick him into doing to Effenkuhl. And now…

Sniffing, blinking, Pahnik kneeled down towards Lola where she pretended not to notice his tears…where she was cowering, really…knowing that men were most dangerous just exactly then, when the tears arrived to announce that something was very very over. A limit had been reached and faced…a decision made…the tears came out to mark it. Middle Aged Tears were rarely a river twice-crossed. They could mean an end had finally been come to. By which I mean. A torment. A life. They could mean: do it.

One of Miro’s enormous mitts would circumnavigate Lola’s throat, fingertips touching thumb, if it squeezed hard enough; she wouldn’t even have a chance to scream before he strangled her. She’d be found the next morning by the chambermaid, another unremarkably kinky sacrifice to big city life in London, a purple-necked hooker’s corpse handcuffed to one of thousands of the metropolis’ unslept-in beds, and it bothered Lola the most to know that no one would ever guess that she’d done it for free, she hadn’t even received payment for it, she’d done it for Split. But there was some satisfaction to be had knowing that Split would find out about it; he might even cringe at the news. She would perhaps live in Split’s heart as a mild spasm of guilt, or regret, even, for a year or two after her body had become one with the Earth’s great garbage.

Lola then had a sharper-than-television vision of her step-father strangling a swan. The primal scene. The swan’s huge red feet peddling the air, the swan’s mad wings beating a sphere around itself and its killer with a blizzard of feathers, the whole scene eerily silent because little Lola was jamming her ears with her fists, her mouth open on an airless scream, as though her step-father’s coal-black hand was crushing her esophagus instead of the poor big flapping blinkless bird’s.

He’d been working on the car, that’s why his hand was so black. They’d driven up to the lake on a Sunday and there had been motor trouble; she could see the dented hood propped up…her step-father’s shiny black hand. She could not for the life of her remember the events between the car’s stalling along the road over-looking that serenely glittering, sunset-orange body of water…and the execution of the swan. She remembered only that the helplessly flapping bird had made her think of her sweet old granny Holzfuss. Was that a clue?

According to that fat old foolish fuck Doktor Effenkuhl, the strangling of the swan was a primal clue to the shape of Lola’s entire adult life. Guilt about the innocent bird’s death had driven her to sacrifice herself, time and time again, in the arms of brutish men with big hands who reminded her of her step-father? Lola was the Swan.

For example, the psychosomatic Aphonia she’d been suffering when first she came to him as a patient…her speechlessness was that of the swan with her step-father’s hand on its neck. But then, how seriously could you take the professional opinion of a man who had started trying to fuck her less than a week after their first session together? Lola had a joke for that: psychotherapist = psycho the rapist. She’d never bothered to mention…because she just knew he’d make too much of this…how much Effenkuhl resembled her step-father.

‘Du bist mein Dietrich,’ he would gasp over her, with his brown breath. Making her want to puke. She would just lay there, rolling her eyes while he settled his therapeutic weight on her, dredging away in her, scraping the walls of her pussy with his chalky red fossilized digger…the sensation that he was laying a sticky string of eggs under her skin (inspiring a nightmare about thousands of greasy black grasshoppers). She would never forget his smell…the sour old skin and tobacco lungs and teeth. And the babbling…pouring his long brown breaths of rancid philosophical catshit on her, justifying the fucking as part of some kind of…what. Transcendental? Cure.

Well, he had, in a way, cured her…but not with the method he would have preferred, probably. A radical new methodology! The irony would not have been lost on him. The elegant patient-kills-her-doctor cure. Really, all of her symptoms…the nightmares, the episodes of paralysis…cleared up when Effenkuhl’s wet head blumped the floor. It bounced. Pahnik vomited.

Effenkuhl’s naked headless body stood straight up, as though a Duchess had entered the room, before falling to its knees. They kicked it over and rolled it onto a tarp and hurried it like grunting ER orderlies into the bathroom. Motherfucker had had the nerve to invoke Hegel while working two fingers up her corn hole. The Analist. What is it with men and rectums? Another month and he would have been trying a fist in there…why merely fuck a woman when you could coax her into letting you rip her insides out, right? Fucking was just a foot in the door. So to speak.

Lola had let Effenkuhl do things to her. How his liver-spotted hands had trembled the first time he tugged her panties off of her! And then that repulsive gesture of kissing his bunched fingers like a gourmet praising a meal, gazing upon her pussy. She’d let him do things to her twice a week for two months, long enough to justify what she ended up doing to him. Konstantin had been the mastermind but Lola had been the spark. Konstantin had worked out the plan, the craziest, most complicated scheme in the history of pointless murders…but Lola had been the plan’s inspiration. The Muse.

Ah, but wait. This micro-second of reflection was over. Pahnik’s hand was on her throat, positioning her. What was he babbling?

34.

‘You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying,’ sighed Mrs Fortney, with mock grief. Every thing she did was mock something. Her life was bracketed by ironic inverted commas. Still, she was doing something right. She had power and money and only seemed to fuck when it suited her, which didn’t appear to be often. And certainly not with her husband, whose sole apparent function (providing Roderick) had been so long-ago accomplished that it was puzzling that he could still be found, hanging around the flat.

There had been a time…in the beginning, nearly a year before…when Lola had toyed with the idea of wanting to be Mrs. Fortney, to end up like her. To that end, Lola had studied her, but had come to the conclusion, soon enough, that Mrs. Fortney had always been Mrs. Fortney, and Lola had and would always be Lola…they were two separate archetypes, she realized, and one could not become, or develop from, the other. Lola was a wolf, and Mrs. Fortney was a heron. In the middle of one of Mrs. Fortney’s carefully sculpted sentences, Lola suddenly looked up from her tepid tea and said, ‘A man tried to kill me last night.’

Mrs Fortney put a hand to her throat. Mock terror.

‘I mean…I don’t mean he tried and failed. I mean he thought about it and came close to doing it, but he lost his nerve at the last minute.’ Lola finally brought the tea cup to her lips. ‘He had his hand on my throat. I’m only here…’

‘Oh God,’ said Mrs. Fortney. ‘I knew it. One of those jungle bunnies they export in abundance to The Ball Club.’

Lola sipped. “No,’ she smirked. ‘He’s whiter than you. Whiter than Roderick.’

Roderick whimpered: the monster had spoken his name.

’Someone you knew?’

Lola gave Mrs. Fortney a certain look.

‘Ah,’ nodded Mrs. Fortney. ‘An Ex.’

Lola frowned.

‘A pseudo Ex,…a man you’ve known for a while but have never slept with, despite his fondest wishes.’

Lola bit a lip.

‘And by whom you were fucked for the first time last night…’

Lola took another wide-eyed swallow of tea. Feeling no need to clarify.

‘…under less than ideal circumstances. Does he know where you live? Where you’re staying?’ Before Lola could think about that one, Mrs Fortney stood up, lifting Roderick like a sack over her shoulders, and said, ‘Probably. We’ll have to talk about that.’ She headed for the hallway. ‘It’s time for Roddy’s afternoon nap…wait here for me, darling. Won’t be a moment.’

A baby is the mouth-piece of a family. If you want to know about a family, ask the baby. Because a baby cannot talk, it also cannot lie. The baby is a pure little indicator, a strip of emotional litmus paper, the meter on a family’s health, wealth, happiness, and potential. What had Roderick, as a baby, said about The Fortneys?

Sometimes, it took hours to put batty Roddy to bed. Mrs. Fortney had the power and concomitant leisure to lavish on her queer albino offspring the ultimate luxury, that of time. Like the rich farmer who can afford to have all the windows open and all the heaters in the farm house on in the dead of winter, she could let the meters…the things we call clocks…run and run. Lola sat in the drawing room with the cup and saucer in her lap for forty minutes, in no particular rush to get on to the next thing, whatever it might be, especially not in her current state, but still. After forty minutes, the wallpaper (hand-made by Milanese artisans, the endless motif of silver snowflake on deep blue backing was hand-painted, no two snow flakes were painted alike) lost its ability to amuse her.

The long hall connecting all the second level rooms, chez Fortney, was a study in Mrs. Fortney…dozens of framed pictures of her, from wallet to museum sized…from girlhood to girlhood’s apotheosis. There was Mrs. Fortney at 14, even more titless than now, in her danskin, scissoring herself on the barre. To the left : a little older, in a Beefeater’s blazer and jodhpurs and one of those silly hats, sailing over a five bar gate on a Cadillac-sized horse. Next: Uni-age, with a boyish hair cut and a mannish frown, leaning on the fender of a Porsche. Then a life-sized black-and-white studio portrait, the creamy over-heated noir of a Hurrell, featuring a string of pearls and a hard set to her mouth, looking all too late-30s, above a framed magazine photo of Mrs. Fortney being handed a weapon-shaped ceremonial something by a house-coated Margaret Thatcher herself. Adjacent to a red-haired, freckled, pig-tailed Mrs. Fortney, two front teeth mithing, head cocked, milk-ad smile. And so on. Lola could hear Mrs. Fortney commenting on all of it in a mordant drawl in Lola’s head: ‘I’m nothing but a type, you see. A cat-a-gory.’

Through an empty room, and another, she found Roderick’s. Mrs. Fortney was on a leather couch beside his baronial crib, cradling him, who was half in his pyjamas, naked leg danging off of the couch, to her unbuttoned frilly blouse. He was sucking in his sleep, purposefully, on one of her hard little tits. Mrs. Fortney acknowledged Lola with a distant smile, as if engrossed in a complicated passage of her favorite piece by Beethoven. Lola became Fortney for a moment and put a finger on her own lips to shush herself, crossing the room. She knelt at the creche of the couch and stroked so lightly Roderick’s white dandelion hair while moving in closer between Fortney’s leather-panted legs with lips parted in unthinking anticipation. But something stopped her. This was a bit much even for Lola…

“Shouldn’t we…I mean…shouldn’t he…”

“Why?” said Fortney. “It’s perfectly natural.”

The sweet surprise of milk. Roderick twitching awake. That immemorial hack, London rain, typing diligently on the stain-glassed window of Roderick’s empty play room.

35.

Dusty Springfield was belting a torch-lighting weepy of a hurt-me-but-don’t-desert-me ballad to Lola as the clouds parted. Lola was nodding off. The clouds parted to reveal the indigo engraving that was the acid-etched sky under the cloud canopy over El Ay. Luxopolis. The lights of the city were sickly, they were brilliant, they were blinking and sizzling like a short-circuit, they were hula-dancing from smoke-stacks like the stacks were zippo lighters, it was all a warped grid of giga-watts and black-outs that rolled over the black horizon, dripping light into space from the sharp edge of the flat earth. Here it was, the Anglo-Latin capitol of America’s giddy fucked-up future…the cock fights and lo-fat and optical processors…the sleek suits and face transplants and world-conquering leisure time activities. The majority of minorities. America itself was a majority of minorities. The jet was banking, stretching and yawning after the long snooze of trans-continental flight, and the sun was a wedge of dirty fruit floating in the Pacific drink. The Pacific drink was sloshing with its shocking ingredients, its goodies, its kingdom of dumped evidence.

Dusty lifted the melody to a pleading fourth…G to C… in the middle eight, and a gospel choir kicked in to testify on her behalf before the pilot, Captain Richard B. Sievers, cut in suavely to announce the time and temperature and estimated moment of touch-down, along with his super-sincere hope that Lola’s flight had been so pleasant that she would consider doing it again, and real soon, y’all, y’hear? If there’d been a Talk Back button, Lola would have slammed it and said something about shutting the fuck up. But no, she remembered…no…take a deep breath. Count to ten. She pulled off her head phones and reached for the Customs Form a stewardess was handing her. She glanced at it and wanted to sleep again.

The glass of the port-hole was cool on her cheek. Then her forehead.

Fifteen hours before, on the tube to Heathrow International Airport, Lola had seen something of importance. Epiphany. With impeccable timing, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, entering the tube with a dozen other dour commuters, a middle aged woman, average height, a little wide, dressed like a clown. Totally done up as a clown, with the grease paint and red afro (crushed under a petunia-sprouting homburg); the cherry-tomato nose, the loony attire. Sat herself down on one of the long seats at the front of the wagon, scowling. Scowling like every other European on the tube, of course…that classical Beethoven scowl…that miserable fucking life-is-a-chore, don’t fuck with me facial expression…only here she was, in total clown regalia, scowling along with all of the others, down-turned mouth, without a trace of irony. Perfect. Goodbye to all that.

She was headed for the Land of Smiles.

There are two countries called The U.S.A., two nations in a state of dynamic superimposition, and the capitol of the one U.S.A. is L.A., and the capitol of the other U.S.A. is Manhattan, and trans-Atlantic refugees tend to have either one or the other in mind, depending on whether they are dreaming of Pleasure, or Romance, ultimately. Pleasure embodies within it also the selfish ideals of Power and Freedom, whereas Romance entails the worthless (in Lola’s felt but un-reasoned opinion) subsets of High Culture and Courtly Love. Refugees who miss both capitols and end up somewhere else in America (like Miami, the lo-tech L.A., or Chicago, the overweight Christian Manhattan) aren’t clear in themselves about the destiny they seek. Lola, whose will to live was distilled to a freakish intensity…for that of a Nihilist…was clear.

Her forehead pressed to cool glass under which El Lay seemed to be pinwheeling slowly on the axis of the tip of her nose, Lola saw her pale gold reflection stretched out over the sparkle and darkle of the megapolis…her face was a sky-sized mask of God. All those people down there, imperfect, broken, small, pathetic…clamoring. And Lola unblinking, gazing out over it, with the savage strength and ignorance of her young-ish thoughts, her Ayn Rand-ish thoughts and feelings, just smart enough to feel brilliant, not quite smart enough to wisely feel limited, incomplete, cautious in the claims she might make for herself…in separating herself…from all those inferior souls.

‘Do you have family down there?’

Lola looked and frowned.

‘In Los Angeles. Family. Do you have it? Is family a factor, or are you just doing the tourist thing? Sprekkin-zee English? Parlay Voo?’

It was Thing. Thing was talking to her.

For eleven hours, from Heathrow til now, the deeply tanned Asian male sitting in the seat next to the empty one next to her, the voodoo-doll guy with the tiny body and the big head, his hair like a Beatle Wig, wearing Roy-Orbison-styled sunglasses and a charcoal-colored three piece suit, hadn’t said a word to her. The three words he’d spoken at all, ‘Chicken’ and ‘No, thanks,’ had been adressed unlookingly to stewardesses.

He’d spent the whole trip hunched over a Gameboy thingy, or something beepingly similar, his thumbs dancing on it, its weird blue and violet christmas lights reflected in the ant-black mirrors of his shades. Lola had promptly classified him as Thing and forgotten about him. And now he was talking to her. Confusingly, his deep deep voice was coming out of a little girl’s mouth.

‘Hey,’ he purred, ‘Don’t worry. I’m definitely not hitting on you.’ Chuckling. ‘Anti-depressants. The little man is not a factor.’

He offered a little girl’s hand to her. His pinky was the size, appoximate color, and shape of a baby carrot (stewed). ‘Harry Chew.’

‘You’re not Chinese, ‘ scolded Lola.

‘Hey, I’m impressed! Good eye. And you’re not American. Americans can’t tell the difference between one kind of Asian and another. Americans think Bruce Lee did karate. The only Americans who can tell the difference between The Reverend Sun Yung Moon, and The Dalai Lama, are the ones who like sushi, and even they think Kuala Lampor is a cocktail.’ He spent a few seconds smiling at this.

‘Okay, my parents are Hmong. The have a restaurant in Orange County called Hmong Friends. It’s a great story. I was suffering from Racial Dysmorphia.’ He shook his head with amazed self-sympathy, a key American emotion. ‘See, I always felt like a Chinese trapped in the body of a Hmong, I don’t know why, it’s genetics. I changed my name, legally. It was like a flash bulb went off in my head, man! Name was definitely a factor…I never say my old name now…I’m living the dream, I’m prospering. Hey, my parents won’t speak to me, but I feel great. Or maybe I feel great because they won’t speak to me, huh? The anti-depressants don’t hurt, either.’ He covered his mouth, miming laughter.

‘Are you going to tell me your name or something, or do I have to keep babbling like this, like some kind of idiot? Not that I mind. Babbling. Hey, my babble makes more sense than most Harvard commencement addresses, if you ask me…but that’s just my opinion.’

After Lola said ‘Lola,’ Thing waved his thing, the little black tablet with silver buttons and a screen, in her face, saying, ‘Check it out.’

There, on the screen, was Thing, Harry, a Harry Chew video game character, Beatle Wig hair and Roy Orbison sunglasses and a three-piece charcoal-gray suit and everything, but two inches tall. In the background on the screen was a Post Apocalyptic urban filmscape not unlike the El Lay of Lola’s dreams, which was the one they were just then landing on.

36.

Thing had a pretty little face on that big head of his; you could see that when he took his sunglasses off. Impossible to guess his age, except to notice that his tar-black pudding bowl hair was probably a dye job, lacking a certain degree of lustre, hiding some possible gray. What would it be like to let a panting doll like this crawl on you? With his little girl hands and his cat-sized tongue? With his lipstick dick? Maybe not so bad. Anyway, Thing was perfectly sexless, and, therefore, no one for Lola to be worried about. Anti-depressants…the little man is not a factor. Good, because she needed a place to stay, at first, and why dip into the £27,000 she’d blackmailed from the Fortneys if dipping into it wasn’t absolutely necessary?

In Thing’s fancy car, it was like flying, all over again. Lola was already nostalgic for the days of standing still. Standing still, she grasped, was not going to be a common feature of her new life. Her new life was going to be all about movement or sleep, and she could imagine that there was going to be plenty of sleeping in cars and planes, too…movement plus sleep.

Whether they were really driving to Thing’s citrus-treed villa or not, the villa was obviously not where Thing lived. Maybe the villa was where Thing rested, but it was obvious that he lived in his vehicle, despite its fastidious upkeep. There were clues. Two or three sunflower seed shells on the carpet, for example. A lidless bottle of aspirin rolling around between her boot heels. Magazines in the door pouch and a pile of neatly folded clothing on the back seat. Lola didn’t know the half of it: there was a microwave oven in the glove compartment, too. Sometime during the course of the creative tension between freak mutation and Natural Selection, Kalifornium Erectus had adapted to his environment by evolving wheels. Homo Gyro.

But here they were again, flying.

The air conditioning had the stale hum of cabin air, and the road felt like it was 30,000 feet under them, with the occasional smoothed-over pot hole jolt no worse than the mild turbulence of skipping over a low pressure dent in the sky. This was not a car; it was a mothership. The street lights were a string of harsh moons against the outline of what looked like mountains in the great distance, but which were in reality flat clouds of pollution, back-lit by the low-watt stars. Thing had said he lived on a mountain. Lola mistook the jagged scrim of pollution on the horizon for the mountain Thing lived on: it looked like it was ten miles high.

They were sharing the road with trucks, mostly…horizontalized skyscrapers roaring on a town’s worth of wheels and lit like landing strips. Every trucker they sailed by, on Lola’s side, frowned down a tattooed bicep at her with the seriousness of a potential buyer. They were all either Stetsoned or ballcapped and every tenth was a woman. Or possibly the same woman, mischievously exploiting the interstate time warps that allow a driver to over-take, repeatedly, the same vehicle. With her poodle perm. With her chivalrous cap-doffing.

‘You know how they say the best way to get rich is to combine your job with your passion?’ Harry waved vaguely with his right hand, but it wasn’t a communicative gesture; it was a command. The car radio went on. ‘It’s only really true if your passion is making money.’ The Beach Boys were singing. Then The Byrds. What year was it, anyway? ‘See, even the slightest aversion to money-making will hold you back. If you’re not thinking about the stuff 24/7…right? If you don’t literally see dollar bills in your green salad, or feel a little tug whenever you walk by a fountain with a bunch of coins at the bottom of it…forget it; success is not for you.’

Lola was a little disappointed that she hadn’t arranged for a flight that would land her in California in daylight, in the middle of the molten belly of the mythic sun. Looking out over the sometimes low wall of the freeway that night, at the liquor store neighborhoods doing their best to hide their scuttling thoughts from the police helicopters that came and went overhead with the blasé regularity of taxis, she got the feeling of a kind of pre-show excitement, like it would feel in an empty auditorium in the early afternoon of the day of a Bruce Springsteen gig. The So Cal Sun would be taking the stage in less than five hours, for one of its legendary fourteen hour sets. Some die-hard fans were even camped outside in anticipation, curled up on bus stop benches, or in wide-screen television packing crates, sweating with unconscious excitement in the dog-mouth night.

‘Think about it,’ Harry looked directly at Lola, ‘Every interaction between living things on this planet is a transaction of some kind. Money, it just intangibilizes the degree of force involved, wouldn’t you say? And every transaction, in my philosophy, could be considered either a, let’s see. Pure, mediated, or, a, yeah. Conflicted…transaction.’

‘Say you’re hungry. Some guy with a hot dog stand wants a buck for a dog. He gets the buck he wanted, you get the dog you wanted, that’s a pure transaction. Okay, but say you want to be the prettiest girl at the ball. Bear with me…I know, I know…you are most definitely already the prettiest girl at the ball, no question. But for the sake of argument, you’re not. But you want to be. So, say you buy the same brand and color of lipstick you saw Cheryl Tiegs wearing…ooops. Showing my age. I mean…the same brand and color of lipstick you saw Gisele Bundchen wearing in Vogue. You buy it to look like her. Whether or not you end up eventually looking a little like her, that’s irrelevant, it’s still a mediated transaction. You’re not buying the thing itself, you’re buying a path to the thing. You’re putting a down payment on the possibility of having the thing you want. Not always a satisfying type of transaction…nothing is as satisfying as a pure transaction. But a mediated transaction is still not as bad as the third type of transaction. I can tell this is all deeply fascinating to you.’

A sudden break in the monologue. There was the breathy fizz of the air-conditioning and the jingle jangle of The Byrds shading into The Troggs on the radio and…some sniffing for a moment while Harry paused to sniff, pinching and wiping at his thumbnail-sized nose.

Harry was a Filibusterer, conversationally, but that was okay. Lola didn’t mind Harry’s exhaustive monologs, because A) she only understood every third word of them. And B) his deep deep voice was so relaxing…listening to it was like being a marshmallow afloat in the hot cocoa of his sound, or, no, like being a baby luxuriating in a velvet-black body-temperature poultice of figgy shit. That’s how good Harry’s larynx was. Even Harry was in love with it.

‘So. There’s this third kind of transaction, the least satisfying for all parties involved, the type of transaction most likely to end in disappointment, litigation, anger, violence, whatever. Which I call the Conflicted Transaction. The best every day example of a conflicted transaction I can think of? This’ll hardly shock you. Just think about it.’ He looked at her again, eyebrows up. A black word escaped his clinched teeth. ‘Sex.’

Sex? Lola knew that syllable. She stopped being relaxed and started paying attention. The stranger driving the car she was trapped in, on a freeway driving towards who knows where, really, had just said sex. Were there power tools in the trunk? Something heavy under his car seat to smack her with? Two rolls of duct tape and a postal sack with which to dispose…?

‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Even I picked up on that.’

‘On what?’ Said Lola, surreptitiously feeling for the door handle. Then she started removing a black vinyl boot. It was thigh-high and massively wooden-heeled and she had to unzip it. ‘You picked up on what?’

‘How tensed you got when I just said the word sex. Look! You did it again! You tensed up…’

‘Ach, nein, it’s not…’

The smell of Lola’s warm sock, a smell like kittens, flooded the car.

‘No, but, listen…that just proves my point. You know? Conflicted transactions? It’s the very point I was making.’

Lola smiled, pretending to consider Thing’s theory while massaging a foot with her left hand, clutching a boot like a hammer in the right, thinking: if he reaches for you, smash his gott verdammt head in with this heel.

37.

On the way up to Harry’s palace in the mountains, they stopped at a roadside liquor store on the outskirts of a desolate town called Julian. To the right of the road was a widely spaced strip of video nooks, liquor stores, fast-food castles…all lit up like an open fridge in a dark kitchen after midnight. And on the left, away from the road shoulder, was scrub. Here and there, far out in the scrub, was an unlit billboard, or a ghostly shack or trailer. Plus millions and billions of unseen intelligences, of course, from e-coli to coyote in size, but they were not participants, they were outside the drama; they’d be surprised to get even this mention, since Life is voraciously inclusive and Art is the opposite. Emetically exclusive.

Climbing out of his matte-black mother ship, easing up from the busy cabin air of the mothership in order to be wrapped in the humid blanket of the night, Lola felt that she was finally setting foot on the North American continent; finally felt that she had landed. She stretched and yawned. It was too warm for even a light jacket at almost two in the morning, and the parking lot to the side of The Valley Spirit Depot had five evenly distributed neon-reflecting cars of radically varying value placed on it.

After the roar of Thing’s air-conditioner, the semi-circle of reddened light they walked across seemed resoundingly silent, an area of eerie absence, the effect exacerbated by the tense munch of gravel underfoot, and a cricket’s pining for his long-lost love from somewhere in the purple distance. One reason Americans shoot so much, she concluded…to fill up scary silences like these. How many American movies had she seen as a girl that contained the line I don’t like it…it’s almost too quiet.

I’m here, thought Lola. Here. Lola is here in America.

It was only when they entered The Valley Spirit Depot through an iron-barred side entrance five seconds later…that Lola adjusted her thoughts and the scale of her perceptions to think, after the shock wore off: okay, now I’m here. Now I’m. I’m in…

Jesus Fucking Christ. The dimension of the store was mood-altering. Outside had felt smaller than this. They could have driven up and down these aisles in the mothership, making u-turns where necessary, plenty of room for two-way traffic. Drive-through shopping. This was the first time Lola had ever been in a commercial structure that featured a visible vanishing point…the bottle-mad aisles were a study in Renaissance perspective. If this is what the small town road-side liquor stores look like here, what the fuck is a super-market? What the fuck is a mall?

For the first time since early adolescence, Lola smiled. She was seized with the giddy impulse to scream; do a cartwheel, smash something, but the sheer bigness of the New World didn’t horrify her…it didn’t vex or dwarf her…she felt, rather, her soul expand to fill the available volume, and like a rapidly expanding gas would, it cooled off…just a little. The change registered as a liquid click in her heart. Her smile stretched to its limit and twitched…the muscles involved were rusty. It hurt. It hurt a little to smile. She’d have to try again in a day or two.

‘Do some late night shopping,’ said Harry, rubbing an eye and walking away from her. ‘Want something?’

I am Philly Dawg

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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.

P. Qua P. [from CITY OF AMATEURS]

photo by SG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love to.”

“And I could show you.”

“Show me what?”

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

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

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

“Yep. My naughty little party trick.”

“How little?”

“Ever hear of a thing called female ejaculation?”

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

“Har har.”

“Tell me more about stripping.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Didn’t it make you hate men?”

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

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

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

“So…”

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

“I haven’t?”

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

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

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

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

“That was cute.”

“What?”

“The way you just said ain’t.”

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

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

Salter makes it to the airport quite early.

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

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

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

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

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

“You do? What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought what he said was quite powerful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus.”

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

He hugs himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, nothing in common.”

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

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

“Blondes.”

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

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

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

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

“He needed more proof.”

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

“I’m all ears.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the funniest thing happens. A miracle.

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

“That is not piss, I assure you!”

“I don’t want to argue with Steven Augustine about reality, because that is a wilderness of mirrors…” -James Wood