Monthly Archives: June 2007

Tear Us Apart

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When Rafaella and I got off the plane, we were giggling, race-walking out of the fuselage, not even bothering to exchange phony goodbyes with the stewardesses, but shoving quite rudely through people in our mad dash for the ridiculous velvet ropes (was flying a magic act? an exclusive club?) we could see at the end of the wobbly square tunnel. We dashed down the concourse like children and people glared at our leather coats flapping. I hopped onto a baggage cart and Rafi grabbed the handlebar and pushed it full speed and swervy making folks scatter and I surfed it to the end of the concourse jumping off as it impacted undramatically on the Men’s Room door with a dull thud because Rafi didn’t have the strength to ram the door open.We’d been awake for something like 70 hours.

The Airport was full of people wearing shorts. I’d never seen that before. We hopped down an up escalator two steps at a time, me stumbling but not quite falling and ran through the baggage claim to escape into a hemisphere of  sunshine. Palm trees and sunshine. I wanted to cry but I grabbed Rafi against me, lifting her by her juicy dense cake of an ass, lifting her blond and voluptuous and sun-blind above me, yelling, “Did I or didn’t I?” Spinning us around. She was heavy and I made her feel light.

“Did I or didn’t I?” I was singing it at the top of my lungs. She was just laughing. I spun us around until I got dizzy and a little sick but laughing as the sidewalk came up at a nice sharp angle to slam the sides of our heads.

“Ow!” said Rafi, but we were still laughing.

“Ow,” I agreed, coughing and laughing still, too. I touched my temple and my finger flattened a sweet little droplet of blood. I held out the red-dotted finger for Rafi to lick but she wouldn’t, violating, I felt, an unspoken pact of Absolute Decadence between us, but no matter. We were sprawled on the sidewalk in front of the South West Airlines Terminal at Lindbergh Field, San Diego’s little airport and we were in no hurry to get back up on our feet. I seriously considered ordering food to be delivered to us right there on the spot… an Airport Picnic!… and if I’d had a cellphone on me I’d have done it.

People were watching us, stopped in their tracks by the spectacle, from a distance. Were we dangerous? Should they radio for help? I had thirty thousand dollars in thousand dollar bills in my money belt and they could all go fuck themselves.

“Did I or didn’t I?” I asked, out of breath, with the hint of a giggle, getting up on my elbows as the sky ladled us with all that glorious liquid California light. That dumbshit honey-rich sun. It was hard to believe it was January. I closed my eyes and tipped my head back: the sun felt good on my Adam’s apple. An Adam’s apple that had been living in the shadow of this manly chin for so long.

“Did I, or… ”

“You did,” said Rafi. “You did.”

We’d been in the air a total of eighteen hours (minus the two hour layover at O’Hare). When we’d left Berlin the city was in the middle of the coldest, meanest and most well-deserved winter storm in fifty years. It was like Stalingrad, with cars abandoned in snow drifts along the Ku’Damm and trees thickly sheathed in ice and the U-Bahn wagons stuffed with a shivering throng beaten down underground by the skeletal fists of the chill factor.

We’d boarded the BA flight to London at Tegel, with snowflakes intact in our hair, brushing off as the stewardess parted the First Class curtains for us. We’d brought nothing but the clothes on our backs: matching three thousand dollar full-length Helmut Lang wide-lapelled leather coats and second hand leather pants from Kreuzburg and a black t-shirt with Jerry Lewis as “The Bellboy” on it for me and a cream-white Jill Sander blouse with a ruffled collar and silver buttons for Rafi. Beatle boots for both of us. Nothing but the clothes we were wearing and our passports and the money, of course. Lots of money! Thirty thousand dollars (from the original figure of thirty six thousand) in my money belt, thirty thousand dollars of Rafi’s money, extracted from an account her father had started for her; the money she was to live on that first year away at school. And now we were in San Diego instead, sprawled on the sidewalk like pretty young winos in very expensive clothing, soaking up the preposterously attentive sun, thinking up ways to ruin our lives. Or was it more that I had much less to lose than she did? Sometimes I frankly dread my own black gifts of persuasion.

I’d known Rafi for little more than half a week. I’d known her since Friday. Friday night in that club. I’d looked across that smoky room and I zeroed in on her round-cheeked beautiful face… her bruised, top-heavy lips and her vigilant wildcat stare plus all that luminous hair; that mane; gushing down her neck like champagne down the side of a voluptuous bottle. I’d looked and caught her eye and crossed towards her as though on command, my heart beating itself up with excitement.

“You know you really should be cutting up a body instead,” I said, in a mock guilt-making voice. I picked myself up off the hot sidewalk, brushing grit off of my elbows and out of my hair and offered her a hand. “All the bodies have a student to call their own except Rafi’s. Boo hoo.”

“Retard,” she said, “It is ten at the night there.”

It had all started on a dare. I’d been in Berlin for ten years straight… at one point I thought I’d never come back to America again… and yet here I was, with a beautiful girl at my side and the beautiful girl’s money in my pocket, ready to try America all over again, but this time right. We held hands in the taxi and spoke only German because we had vowed not to do a single thing we didn’t absolutely love doing until the money ran out and we were not in the mood to talk to the fucking driver so we weren’t about to.

We were so beyond tired that we had entered a state of feral attentiveness and so noticed the dandruff (“flecken”) on the cabbie’s blue flannel shoulders and said, simultaneously, our voices in eerie monotone unison, Der Schnee Sturm hat uns eingeholt and then stared at each other wide-eyed at the coincidence, the sign, the further omen that it was kismet, that we were meant to be together …

“Two worlds collided,” Rafi sang, under her breath, intermittently only humming the words she could never get, rushing to the chorus, though it’s not much of one, “never tear us apart.” She was squeezing my hand, looking away at the skyline as the taxi rushed down the freeway and I couldn’t help thinking that of all the bands, why a has-been mid-‘80s teeny band like INXS? But of course that was the German in her, you had to overlook that. She had terrible taste in music.

Two vurlts collided…

I could never stand those songs until the lead singer killed himself, to tell you the truth. I met him once in a bar in Berlin, now closed. That is, I served him. I was bartending and he sat there looking magnanimous and world-weary and grimly over-paid, flanked by clinically rapacious blondes, smiling at a glass he had tipped to his lips and you just knew the poor bastard was destined to hang himself accidentally while indulging in auto-erotic asphyxiation. In Berlin, the Djs sometimes pronounce INXS (they still bother to play the music!) as INKSES and I hoot.

Rafi snatched at my hand and patted it down on the mound of her crotch and said, in a conversational tone, almost bored, Mach es. Do it. I took my hand away: too much like a movie. She pinched my ear to punish me and I slapped her plump white hand. I expected her breasts to destroy that blouse when she threw back her arms in a yawn. I had a sudden, vivid and uncanny premonition of slapping each other silly.

“Ich bin tierisch mude,” she said, and I said, “Nein nein, doch nicht jetzt,” because I thought if we were to sleep now, if we relaxed our grip on the infinitely-extending magic hour… that magic hour that had thus far stretched for days… the spell would be broken.

“No no, we must not sleep!” I hissed, under my breath, to shock her awake with the English. The taxi driver took the Downtown exit and I said, as we waited at a traffic light, in a fake German accent, “Driver, please turn left.”

“You said you wanted Downtown… ?” He turned halfway towards looking at us.

“Just please turn left,” I said again.

“Pardon me, Sir, but… ”

“Just please do as I say, Mr. Taxi driver.” I laid the accent on thick.

He laughed. “You’re the boss,” and he winked in the mirror. He popped a stick of gum in his mouth and he muttered. “Excuse me?” I said, leaning forward.

“Vielliecht braucht er mal eine saftige Abreibung,” said Rafi with surprising vehemence, turning red. After travelling a few blocks in that random direction, I asked the uppity driver to turn left at the corner of what looked to be a nice street rising to the top of a hill overlooking the cute little Lego-block Downtown and the bay and the narrow blue strip of Ocean beyond it. A huge grey battle ship floated in the bay like an expensive plastic model from my youth. The decals on it were very neatly done and I felt I could reach out and lift it from the water.

We climbed out of the taxi and I threw some bills at the driver and called him a son of a cucumber, the worst of all possible Turkish curses, in German. The sun was blinding. The street was such a beautiful, sharply sloping street and we stood at the top of it, breathing in deep and looking around idly for something to comment on. Sleep deprivation was catching up with me: with my back to Rafi, I realized I had no idea what she looked like. I’d turn away and give myself a quick quiz… little ears or big?… and face her again.

Wrong!

Shoulder length, or down her back?

Skinny young trees (not palms) festooned the sidewalk and a cute little sand-colored two-storey stucco building, with green awnings, stood on the corner. Across the street from this was a hurricane-fenced lot, vacant, rubble-carpeted, in which I could easily imagine myself scrounging for tin cans and recyclable bottles in some alternative universe of the not-too-distant future. I could see, shading my eyes with both hands, that the roof of the stucco building supported a limestone wall patterned with cut-away moons and above that Moorish wall waved the jetstream-tousled wigs of palm trees. I was sure there was a pool up there, right under the flight path of Southwest Airways, because I had looked down on this pool as the plane prepared to land, lowering its massive loins over the palms, touching its shadow to the golden trinkets sunbathing on the roof of our future temporary home.

Hazel or green?

A sign in the yard of the building said Vacancy. Two beds; two baths; a balcony; access to the pool on the roof. Two month’s rent deposit.

“Did I or didn’t I,” I whispered that evening, humping Rafi in the middle of the empty living room of our brand new unfurnished apartment in San Diego.

Her little eyes were almost luminous in the dark room; white-pupilled: inhuman. The room was carpeted in a brand new plush white wall-to-wall so a swarm of fibers came off on us, animated with static and Rafi’s hair was full of them and they flocked on the smear that shellacked her belly and the tacky slick I’d made on her thighs from slurping. Groin feathers.

A plane roared directly overhead every twenty minutes, blasting the windows with landing lights and stretching shadow from the blinds to stripe Rafi’s tits and belly as the building seemed to lift off the ground and Rafi’s body was fleshy and lush and sour-hot as scalded milk and it felt as though I could push my hand right through her without hurting either one of us and her breath pushed on my face…the sweet, neutral breath of a near-virgin…in gasps forced out under the beat of my own body as I pinned her wrists to the carpet. The groin feathers tickled my nose.

Innie or outie?

For whatever reason, I couldn’t come. I was as hard as I’d ever been, but I just could not come. The hellish repetition. Was I stuffing something in or digging it out?

I could tell how tired Rafi was and it was frightening. She kept drifting off. She’d close her eyes, her mouth would go slack and I’d kiss her awake feeling like a novice paramedic doing everything wrong seeing it all already as a wicked story to tell at the safe remove of the distant future with the humble arrogance of a wiser sadder self. Her thighs quivered and her breasts heaved and shook but her eyes were just fluttering slits. Her eyes were done with me. When I closed my own eyes, what did I see? The lunar surface of that vacant lot. Recyclable cans and bottles.

Finally, Rafi could only grunt and heave my torso as she rolled to her side to go fetal. She turned her back and she fell inside and she made her way home in her sleep.

-February 2002

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Sariah and Snowfall

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The English language is a suspiciously poor tool when it comes to giving life to anything but the bluntest evocations of romantic love and I can’t help wondering if that isn’t a pathological limitation…an echo of something cold in the hearts of the tribes that claim the language. I’m thinking of North America, the United Kingdom and the frostbitten bards who were the mead-drinking uncles of the tongue. I’m a cultural descendant of Shakespeare but still there’s a large part of me, an interior territory of fevers and visions, ignorant of the serenity of complete expression. That is, I’m not quite convinced that the English language is equal to my capacity to love. Is it possible that I would not have suffered this terrible sense of shortfall between my feelings and the voice whose duty it is to free them if I’d been born into another skin, or other circumstances?

1.

The first thing I think of, when I think of Her, is snowfall.

I’m getting dream-like impressions of village life in a cold climate, a place where a meal of runty potatoes and a bit of pigeon would have been considered a feast, eaten in the dark of the light from the flame that boils a huge old rusty pot. I see long low lodges, like barracks. Things of branch and hide arranged in a rough circle around a central well.

I can’t insist that these impressions are anything more than a fantasy, a fiction so vivid that it convinces me somehow, but in a Universe of infinite possibilities and in the possibility of Infinite Universes, all of this, just as I’m describing it, must have happened somewhere, at some time and to reject this assertion would reveal a nasty fact about the skeptic. An active prejudice against the writer’s imagination.

So. My father is dead, but my mother clings on, white-eyed and toothless, wheezing in a corner of the lodge, bundled and stacked in a heap with old cousins and aunts and three hounds we hunt with. My father had a sense of humor, so the hounds aren’t named properly, but were only given numbers instead: The First One; The Next One; and Too Many.

It’s a communal bed in the part of the lodge where the roof slants lowest, so low that I have to stoop when I’m talking to anyone in that corner, or when I’m making my preparations for sleep. The communal bed is a vast quilt of old furs on a mulchy cushion of twigs and leaves, upon which better furs as blankets are laid and the word for the smell of the mulch and furs and sweat together is the same as our word for sleep. Every lodge has its sleep odor and every village a dozen or so lodges and the territory of every village is described by the radius of its smell. On foot, on the wintry hills between settlements, the hounds begin whimpering and yelping at us when a new scent is traced and this means we’re crossing the border into the next village. Village boundaries contract in winter and expand effusively in the broader air of summer.

I’m happy in this world, which stretches no further than as far as I can walk, on a full stomach, in any direction and comprises a handful of these ramshackle villages. I’m known as a warrior here, which means that I’m argumentative and a good wrestler and nothing worse, generally, except for the awful fact that I killed a crazy teen-ager, ten years ago, when I was merely middle-aged. I had to kill him with a club. My punishment for this justifiable homicide was simple: I had to bury him in my own backyard, in a plot behind my lodge and I have to face his people fairly often, when they visit him for various reasons.

(Right in the middle of writing this, I ran out of ideas…or are they memories?…and this story languished for a day and a half until a coincidence rescued it. I received a call from a friend who invited me to lunch. Being as I write this in January, it’s cold out and so I wore a winter coat to her apartment. After lunch, she noticed that the buttons on this coat were loose and offered to tighten them. I helped her get a sewing basket down from a high shelf and, rummaging around in it for a needle and the proper shade of thread, she pulled out a strange object and held it up for my perusal. “This,” she announced, “is a forty-thousand year old flint axe,” and she went on to explain that as a child she’d walk carefully across a farmer’s field immediately after he’d plowed it and would come up with these artifacts, many of which were so important that she donated them to the University of Leipzig. Holding the axe in my hand and thinking of the forty-thousand year old hands that had first shaped it, I began to receive the vivid impressions that are necessary in order to continue this part of the story.)

A half a day’s walk in the direction from which the Sun comes every morning lies Her village. On sunny days, which are rare in winter, I walk there, lugging a gift of potatoes and whatever tools (fish hooks; axes) I’ve managed to craft since the last time I’ve been. I hand the gifts over to Her father, who is a year younger than I am, squatting on a bench beside the pot’s fire and I’m allowed to have a bowl of something and climb in the communal bed, because it’s always dark by the time I get there and the sleepers make room for us to be together.

The berry soup is tart and hot and makes me feel potent.

We’ve made four children over the years, three of which still live and it happens from time to time that all five of us manage to assemble in a little herd on the blankets, along with whatever hound I’ve brought (I usually bring Too Many) and we feel wealthy in our little family mass, although the firm legal concept doesn’t yet exist to distinguish, technically, between our children and their cousins, especially with time.

It’s easier for them to identify us as parents than for us to identify them as children, because while on the one hand we caused them to exist, on the other hand they don’t remain the children that we created for very long. By the time the girls get their periods and the boys are whimpering through wet dreams, their adult parents can barely recognize them. The part that adults as progenitors have contributed to…the original thoughts and gestures and even the original cells…are by then almost entirely gone, replaced by the materials and influences of the lodge in general. In this way, your parents are your parents forever, but your children are no more permanent than childhood itself.

She reclines, humming, and gestures for me to approach Her. I squirm out of my robes and climb on top of Her and Her eyes are pale discs in the lodge’s darkness and our children giggle. Her skull is at the same time delicate and heavy in the cradle of my hands and I lick the soot off Her cheeks…the soot of wood smoke and sweat…and I say I love you, a particular kind of I love you, one of thousands of variations possible, which in this case translates as: I came this far to be with you, and I will never stop doing this, unless prevented by something awful.

She says, I love you, back, whispering it hoarsely and her particular I love you translates as: I’m glad that it’s you here and nobody else and I hope it stays that way, until something awful happens.

Our word for death, translated literally, means: something awful.

Her hair is thick and black, Her breath is pretty from the cloves that she chews and before I know it I’ve ejaculated in Her. I roll off to let Her rub Herself, which is where we believe that children come from, and the children and I stare, through the coal-dust dark of the lodge, striated with rusty luminance from the crackling fire that her father cultivates under the pot, as she gasps through her pleasure. One of our more poetic words for “women”, in fact, means: they alone can give themselves pleasure. She’s on Her back, Her knees are wide apart and Her breasts jiggle with Her spasms. She looks like She’s trying to scratch an itch between Her shoulder blades by rubbing Her back on the furs.

“I think we just made another one,” She says, sitting up, pulling a blanket around Her shoulders. We happen to be a little famous, between our two lodges…between our two villages, even…for being so fertile. And also famous because we always make girls, highly valuable, which included that missing fourth, the first one we made, who disappeared years ago. We believe the poor daughter drowned.

“Yes,” She says, seeming to look down in Herself, “Someone new just showed up.”

“That’s funny!” says one of the children.

I put my layers and layers of robes back on; I lace my boots. Too Many perks up, tail wagging, ready to leave with me, but leaving Her is always so hard: our time together is rare. I look with great tenderness at Her while patting the head of one of our daughters, who is hugging my leg, and I say, shyly, “Do you really think we made one, another one, this time?”

“Stop bragging!” someone grunts, from under a blanket, nearby.

I squat and crawl over to speak to Her quietly, moving her hair from in front of her ear to do so. “Do you really think we’ve made another one?”

She pulls back and looks at me a long moment, chewing her upper lip. Her father has fed more sticks to the pot fire in the center of the lodge, and her face is suddenly very clear, illuminated in yellow from the left like a Rembrandt (to use a futuristic simile), and she nods. Her eyes are just a little wet with emotion. She’s twenty-seven. I’m even older. It’s incredible. She’s almost an old woman and I should already be dead and we’re still making children.

I say the “I love you” that means we do such good work together and she says that she agrees and I finally leave, pushing back the flap in the lodge wall, taking Too Many with me back over the hill and down the ravine that the stream carved and on and on across a terrain I know even in the dark, with Too Many yapping and prancing ahead of me, because it’s unthinkable to sleep anywhere other than one’s own lodge. It’s impossible to sleep outside of the powerful soporific of the odor of the lodge you were born into. But what thrills my heart as I walk along under the heavy black ice of the lid of the star-embedded sky is Her smell that I carry on me, still moist on my cock and thighs and belly, humidly preserved in the layers of my robes, the odor of conjugal bliss that will sustain me in a state of romantic grace, unwashed, for a week or two hence.

When I can’t stand not smelling Her anymore, I’ll risk the trip again.

This is what I’m happily reflecting on as I cross the frozen lake…the pond, really…that glimmers at the midpoint between our villages, the pond that She and I believe our first daughter drowned in during the fourth summer after her birth. I’m crossing with the sliding shuffle that’s the precursor to skiing, the frosted glass of the lake is blue with cloud-bearded-moon light and I’m so busy inventing a constellation in the outline of Her bountiful body that I break the first rule of lake-walking, especially at night, which is never look up. And sure enough, someone has been ice fishing that day. Just one person, judging from the size of the serrated hole. It’s almost too small for me to fall into.

I cut my fingers snatching at the sharp edge of the hole; I beat and kick the water. I hear Too Many’s barking anguish as though from a great distance; she’s hopping around the hole with a futile impulse to attack it. My dense baklava of woolen robes, which is at the cutting edge of winter-clothing technology…the wool was imported from very far east…soaks up the icy water that stings me under the solid roof of the pond with fatal efficiency. I suddenly weigh about three hundred pounds. It occurs to me that I will never bring Her father a sack of potatoes again. This makes me sad.

I see our first daughter, floating pretty and naked in the cloudy cold water beside me, her vagina a sexless fold, offering me a bundle of corn flowers. I see not only my dead daughter, but also a few other lost children I recognize who had slipped into the pond during my time on earth, forced to sleep with their toes lightly grazing the silt, dissolving like pills. I see a few children and a fully grown man who tried to cross the frozen pond two winters ago with several skins of rainwater with which to woo a lover. He’s as naked as the children, with a purple cock and long red hair with little green fish darting in and out of it and I can’t believe what a prankster my mind is, inventing these sweet jokes for me in my last few moments on earth.

Then I see Her, from a lofty vantage point, as though I’m a concerned sparrow and She’s running in howling tears away from the pond when they fish my robes out of it next spring. Her hair is flying long and black and I notice, for the first time, because I haven’t seen Her in daylight in years, the strands of gray in it. I’m so touched by the gray that I want to cry. But I’m underwater, I’m drowning, I can’t!

I surrender my last big bubble of air gulping an I love you that means you made living as long as I did entirely worth it for me and then my sense of self shrinks, contracting rapidly from my extremities, which feel as though they’ve burned off like candles in a blast furnace and I centralize into a hot white point the size of a single thought. The hot white point flares by impossible magnitudes hotter, burns a hole in Time. I fall through it, a newly minted coin through a slot.

2.

Berlin had changed so little in the ten years since he’d first arrived there, and especially in the four years that he’d been gone, that it gave him a smirk of satisfaction, which gradually faded into what looked like an insincere smile, as he pushed through the crowds at the Weinachtsmarkt at Breitsheidtplatz. A few futuristic buildings had popped up here and there, and it cost a bit more to ride the U-Bahn these days, but otherwise, the Café ‘M’ was still the Café ‘M’, women were still spitting on the street in Kreuzberg, and one out of every three billboards, except along the Ku’Damm, which had been purged of whores and was being Disneyfied for American tourists…bulged with a gargantuan pair of burnished nipples.

The Weinachtsmarkt was another eternal condition; he’d decided to divert his walk, at the last minute, right through the center of it, through the maze of portable selling stalls. It was Christmas Eve and people were buying up kitsch with ant-like urgency. They were buying kitchen clocks and comic ashtrays to bestow upon less-loved relatives and second-tier colleagues at work in that joyless reflex of giving that gave each year its endpoint and strengthened the contrarian spirit behind his own rather monkish life.

The shoppers were lugging sacks and inching from quaint wooden stall to quaint wooden stall, munching sugared nuts or sooty sausages, drinking gluhwein from plastic cups and he was quite certain that an identically dressed crowd would be in the same place, buying the same unlovable attic fodder, twenty years in the future, just as they had for the entirety of that exhilarating curfew that the Americans had called The Cold War.

He bought a little bag of cashews from a braided woman in a striped smock at a stall that was made up to look like a gigantic cuckoo clock. He was starving and didn’t want to make a pig of himself, later on, at the café at which he had a very important date scheduled, so a snack was in order. He handed the woman a twenty Deutschmark bill and she politely deposited his change on the hygienic plastic tray on the stall’s counter and he remembered the first time that had happened to him…the shop girl avoiding his palm with a kind of antiseptic horror. And yet, he thought, these people have been pissing openly in public for over 700 years, and they let dogs in their restaurants! He scooped up the change and said, “Merry Christmas!” to the woman in braids and she blushed, for some reason, at the English. As though at an undercurrent of Eros that snaked through the language. He moved on, chewing his handful of nuts, thinking, That’s the same as it ever was, too.

What World Capitol was as resistant to change as Berlin? Just the day before, he’d come out of the U-Bahn at Moritzplatz and been confronted with the impossibly 19th century image of a chimney sweep, on a wobbly black bicycle, top hat and sooty face and all, peddling his frizzy brooms and Dickensian paraphernalia towards Kreuzberg. He’d squeezed the top button on his coat as the bike rattled by, remembering that to do so when you see a chimney sweep is good luck.

Snow was falling lightly on the Christmas market, but he didn’t notice it until it presented itself to him as an accessory to feminine beauty. Lost in the crowd of red-nosed Germans, an elegantly dressed, black-haired woman moved along…the snowflakes arranged with perfect taste on her lustrous hair like an affectation…and she was even smaller than the lanky school kids whom she squeezed by where they jostled in front of a little arcade. He hurried to catch up and his heart raced, although he knew it wasn’t her.

Why was he so moved by the sight of those dozen or so snowflakes arranged on the black silk of that woman’s hair like jewels on display in a vitrine? Why was he pushing through the crowd to get a closer look at the image, the back of this woman’s snow-flaked head?

Digging through the layers of his own feelings like an archaeologist, he came across a buried memory. Now he remembered. He remembered the memory of this memory, the way he’d carried it around in himself as a Central Image of Beauty for the longest time. Remembering this caused him also to remember that he had been that kind of person, once, a person whose mind was always built around some Central Image of Beauty or another, a person who lived for golden moments and lyrical coincidences…a person who lived like a poem.

It pained him to realize that he no longer lived with a Central Image of Beauty. What had his mind become, after all…a mere word-processor? Is this what ‘maturity’ does to you…rob you of your central images of beauty, or your belief in the significance of lyrical coincidences, or the rightness of living life as a poem, as opposed to in the form of an accountant’s ledger?

The memory that he once again remembered, that he had long-ago treasured as his defining Central Image of Beauty: he had just spent a perfect evening, listening to Leonard Cohen while making love and his body was still flush with the chemical flood of that orgasm and he could still smell her on his lips and he was walking home, the long walk from Steglitz, a walk so long that only he would think to do it, at that hour. She hadn’t understood his need to leave at that dramatic time of the night and he couldn’t have adequately explained the paradox, but what he wanted was time to have his thoughts of her to himself. A selfishly loving urge. He didn’t want to share her, not even with her.

He was strolling along a stately tree-lined street, warm in his leather jacket and the street was empty of all life but his own…it must have been nearly three in the morning. The quilted clouds were high and pale blue and prism-edged, pasted tight to the vault of heaven, and the moon shone through a spot over the black roofs of a converging perspective of apartment buildings ahead of him, and it suddenly began to snow. Huge flakes. The street went from hard to soft in a matter of minutes, and then disappeared entirely. The trees became tall crystals, the row of parked cars inflated into a neat collection of huge white puffy toys. No one else was there on the street to see it and he felt that it concerned only him and maybe even that the radiant force of his happiness had somehow triggered it and he stretched his arms out and claimed the snowfall, walking that long walk home in his pleasure-drenched body, certain of the fact that he would never die.

And now he was staring at the back of this tiny black-haired stranger’s head, counting the snow flakes on it, feeling sentimentally mortal. It was as though Fate was teasing him, with affection this time, since he was due to meet Sariah, after four long years, in less than an hour anyway.

He followed the lovely ausländer out of the market and her boots clack-clack-clacked across the street and she disappeared somewhere on the other side of the Ku’damm and he continued along his own way to the café Hardenberg.

He didn’t even have to look at the menu; he knew what he wanted…

And then he was there, in front of her. He couldn’t believe it. He watched her study her menu with touching seriousness, as though she expected to be given a quiz on it. He said, when she folded it shut and placed it on the table, “I love that color on you,” and then he had to laugh, but wouldn’t explain the laughter when she quizzed him about it with her playful squint.

But he had laughed to realize that that was already the fourth time he’d used the word “love” since she’d walked into the café only fifteen minutes before. He’d said, first of all, I love that perfume you’re wearing, what’s the name of it? And then Listen, they’re playing Satie, I love this piece, and immediately after that: I love that blouse; I love that color on you. Four “loves” already and they hadn’t even ordered their drinks yet! Slow down, he counseled himself. Slow down.

He’d very nearly gasped when she’d first breezed in from under the thickening snowfall through that tall glass door: as beautiful as ever, if not slightly more so, but how could she be more beautiful than the first time he’d ever seen her, nearly ten years ago to that day, in a nightclub long-since closed?

But she was more beautiful: thinner, more poised, and dressed with a unity of effect that she’d never bothered with in those days. After all, he admitted to himself with a decent, but not destructive, amount of guilt: she’d been a teenager back then, and I was already thirty. Ten years later, she was still young, and he was now nicely handsome for his age. He never thought he’d see her again, but all it took was a simple phone call, and there she was, right in front of him! Destiny, these days, was simply a matter of picking up little devices with antennae on them, and punching in a few numbers.

Seated alone at a nearby table, kicking his legs while drinking an Eis Schokolade, was a black-haired child of six or seven, a little boy staring at them with his huge brown eyes. Sariah noticed him first and he followed her eyes and they both sat there smiling vacuously at the boy, doing, simultaneously, the simple arithmetic of subtracting the year of their shared abortion from the year of the present moment and coming up with six.

This thought caused the familiar pain to well up in him, the pain that had plagued him for most of their time together those years ago. The frustration of never finding the words…the exact combination of subject and verb and object and intonation…to properly express his feelings for her. Even now, sitting there with her after it was all too late, he blamed the loss…the loss of them to each other…on the emotional inadequacies of his mother tongue.

It struck him that he’d inherited his culture from sophisticated barbarians, people who could smelt iron and design cantilevered bridges and build three-stage rockets, but who didn’t have the linguistic ability to definitively separate lust from sentimental affection. It was all about fucking and doting in English…how could “I love you” mean much of anything to anyone when it was as likely to be uttered to a child as to a mistress or a co-worker, or even an inanimate object? He couldn’t help thinking that in another language…even if they’d been able to speak Persian to each other…they’d still be together. They’d be a family, with that beautiful black-eyed six year old kicking her legs on a chair between them.

But what was the point of suffering over all that again?

“Look,” he redirected her gaze to a framed poster for a Picasso exhibit that had happened before her birth, hung on the wall behind her, “Dora Maar is still crying!” Nothing about the café had changed in all those years. They even recognized one of the waitresses from that era: deeper frown, heavier hips, but balancing the same dark-as-blood beers on her tray. Was it only coincidence that this particular waitress was the least attractive of all the waitresses who had ever worked there, and there she was, trapped, still doing it? That was Berlin: as mercilessly Darwinian as Manhattan, but at a far slower pace, so that even the people not strong or fast or beautiful enough to thrive in the New World were able to live a little before extinction.

He signaled the waitress and looked at Sariah and said, “How are the Montagues?”, using his code name for her family.

“Fine. Well, not entirely fine, but nothing drastic,” she said. “Sonja just bought a new car and some skinhead used a nail to scratch ausländer ‘raus all over it; Zaffar had his heart broken by some German bitch who accused him of being harmless. But you wouldn’t believe he’s only sixteen, he’s taking it so well. Better than I could at that age, inch’allah.” She winked. “And the Capulets?”

He cleared his throat and put a finger on it, and said, apologetically, “Up until this moment I was debating with myself whether or not I should tell you, but my mother is very sick. She’s recovering from breast cancer.”

Sariah looked so stricken by his news that he wanted to sweep her up in his arms and never stop kissing her. How much of this impulse was sentimental; how much was lust? But the compound was a powerful one, including as it did a third factor, which was his purely objective vulnerability to fine art. He couldn’t stop staring at the painting she was: her graphite-black hair, terra cotta skin and lacquer-red lips. A Persian miniature. His mother had been that beautiful once, but now she was old and withered and bald, rooted to a spot in front of a television set in Chicago, slipping out of the last golden shackle of what had been her beauty. Becoming ugly had freed her to be alone.

He ordered his drink and waited for the waitress to leave before saying something daring, emboldened by the strength of Sariah’s grip, but Sariah, too, was waiting for the waitress to leave in order to say something, because you can only dwell on a sorrow for so long before you feel the urge to clean your heart with either anger or mirth, so when the waitress left with their orders, Sariah retracted her hand and said bluntly, just as he was opening his mouth in order to say I love you, “And how is your wife?”

He closed his mouth and shrugged, blinking. She softened immediately, and reached for his hand again, squeezing it. “Sorry. Sorry.”

He realized that he’d never have the nerve to say “I love you” to her again, and that holding her hand across this table would have to be enough and he treasured and committed to memory the experience.

3.

That black-haired seven-year old, seated at that nearby table, relishing his Eis Schokolade, was me. And the child they would have had, were supposed to have had, that I reminded them of…was my soulmate, incarnated briefly as their (aborted) offspring as the result of an intricate plan the two of us had worked out in a non-material state between births. I was to be born in Minnesota and She in Berlin and our paths were destined to intersect when my parents, both of them being Software Specialists, moved to Berlin in order to capitalize on the rapidly expanding market of the capitalist tabula rasa called Europe.

What went wrong?

Pollution. Microwaves, mostly. Because of the super-saturation of local space with all kinds of man-made pollution, Destiny…Fate, Kismet, Shiksal…is no longer a finely calibrated mechanism. It’s like an expensive Swiss watch that some idiot has left on the gigantic face of a powerful magnet…it’s increasingly off.

Deals, plans, agreements, plots and schemes that are carefully designed and ratified in Limbo are less and less likely to be carried through to completion on The Other Side (Life, that is)…with the result that the perception of certain sensitive souls on earth that existence seems to be lapsing into a territory of chaos is perfectly accurate.

My mother had trotted off to the unisex toilet of the café, relishing her freedom to do there in Berlin what she never would have dared to do in America…not even in Minnesota…which is to leave a child unattended in a public space. When she returned from her adventure (after waiting at the locked door of the toilet for a burly bearded man in a corduroy jacket, puffing a pipe, to come out), she found me talking to a couple at a nearby table. That is, I was shrugging a lot, staring down into my ice cream drink and they were asking me questions.

“Your boy is so beautiful,” said Sariah, to my mother. “We were asking him where he’s from.”

My mother Betty, a tall blonde with the broad shoulders of a Swedish farmer’s wife, and a matter-of-fact manner to go with her looks, said, “We’re from Minnesota, he’s a plain old every day American kid who likes video games and thinks that girls are revolting. Very shy, though. Aren’t you, Sander?”

Betty, who hadn’t yet taken her seat, then ruffled my curly black hair in transit to her chair, which she then proceeded to sit in backwards, like software engineers all over the world, flipping the chair-back around to face her interlocutors. Her legs spread out comfortably and she folded her arms and rested them on the top edge of the chair-back, then settled her chin on her crossed wrists, twiddling her fingers.

“He’s quite thoughtful, and acutely sensitive to his surroundings,” she said.

Being discussed in the third person in front of that beautiful woman at the other table humiliated me, but not so much that it discouraged my flirtations with her. She looked like a princess in a video game…a member of one of those seductively ambiguous fantasy races designed to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible. She was sand-colored, and sharp-featured and wasp-waisted and lush of breast.

All the female creatures…villainesses, and princesses alike…in my video games were wasp-waisted and lush of breast. So I found this feature attractive, though I had absolutely no idea what was really underneath all that swelling in the upper torso. Breasts weren’t even body parts, as far as I could tell, but an aspect of the architecture of female attire…I considered flat-chested women to be poorly dressed. My doomed mother, with her basketball player’s body, was just such a poorly-dressed woman in my mind, as much as I loved her. I was ashamed of those flat shirts she wore; her boyishly short blonde hair; her weathered red nose.

“We’re moving to Berlin this spring,” she continued, in her American way, telling her life story with only the slightest encouragement, “as freelance software consultants, because the job market is so wide open here. My husband is back in Minneapolis, selling the house, while little Sander and I check out Berlin. I really like the neighborhood of Steglitz the most, so far. Schoneberg, which everyone recommended, is a bit run down, in my opinion. And Kreuzberg!” She shuddered theatrically. “Out of the question! I’d rather live in Brooklyn, for god’s sake!”

“Yes, I live in Steglitz,” said Sariah, “It’s nice. It’s a good place to raise a child, I think.”

“What a coincidence!” exclaimed my mother. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we ended up being neighbors?”

Sariah dug in her purse for an ink pen, and scribbled on a napkin. “Here’s my number. You can call me, and perhaps I can be of some help.” She smiled slyly at me, winking. “You’ll probably need a baby sitter from time to time.” Then, reading my mind, she amended, “Though ‘baby’ isn’t the proper word, is it? Sander is a handsome young man.”

“Oh my God,” shouted my flat-chested mother, “You don’t even know my name! I’m Betty Lawson, ” she said, shaking the hands of that beautiful black-haired woman, and then the black-haired woman’s morose companion, introducing herself separately to each of them. She took Sariah’s curry-colored fingers in her hand as though they were fragile gifts. She gave the man, conversely, one of her competitive handshakes…I could tell because he winced.

“Sariah Dizadji,” said the beauty, who would one day be my mother’s closest friend, and then, in a few years, her bitterest enemy.

“Where are you staying in Berlin, Betty?” asked Sariah. “Not in a hotel, I hope.”

4.

Dreams are serious transactions and only take on their apparently defining attributes of non-sequitur and symbol in the waking recollection of them. That is, the conscious mind doesn’t store a vocabulary of concepts and images equal to the task of describing a dream’s business, so what comes out, in the remembering, is nonsense.

That night, kicking and muttering in my double bed, right next to my mother’s double bed in our room in a hotel on Budapester strasse in Berlin, I was very busy, triangulating my Soul between a lodge in a village in antediluvian America and a spot outside of Time with my Beloved and a moment in Berlin, eight years hence.

In the lodge, which was humid with breath and body odor and pungent with woodsmoke, I was a muscular old man, astraddle a light-eyed, black haired woman. The pleasure of my penis moving in her…the incipient orgasm…powered the connection, the three-way call between that moment and the moment beyond Time in which I communed unphysically with Her and that future event I was monitoring, as it was happening in Berlin in the year 2009, the conception of my baby sister. My half-sister.

My Beloved, as I mingled with Her in that unmomented placelessness, was a spectacular vision. She was many miles long and fluid-like, but of perfect flatness…sharper than a knife of one atom’s thickness. I saw Her as some kind of supercolor, a green so rich I could both smell and taste Her. She was vivid in the gray of Un-Nothing which is outside of Time, the sticky paste of dead moments that glues consecutive Universes together. She was Thought, unbound by skull.

She was still befuddled over the accident…the abortion. There wasn’t supposed to be an abortion. No sooner had She slipped into the little envelope of the body than She’d been emptied out of it again, dispatched from the Universe in a clinic in Steglitz on Alymerstrasse. We had so carefully worked it out…that She would gush into the world in Berlin, the daughter of this Persian…this beauty named Sariah. And I, born in America a year earlier, was supposed to join Her in Berlin at the age of seven.

But I had arrived in Berlin at the appointed time, only to find her missing…it was like standing alone on the platform as the last passenger has emptied from the train and the train has pulled out of the station and the face you were expecting to see…searching the crowd for it with joy and longing…has never appeared.

In the lodge in the village, where the old fellow (me) was tenderly fucking his mate (Her), the orgasm I was having…the little window of possibility that was connecting all three Realities in this complicated conference call…was arcing towards its peak, jumping in exponents towards the mind-blanking climax that would send my Soul back to the child’s body on that double bed in that hotel room on Budapester strasse in Berlin and shut the window of access on the future event of my half-sister’s conception eight years hence and sign off on my connection with the essence of Her spirit in that Un-Nothing place beyond Time.

We had to hurry.

“Slip in! Slip in, Love! Force your way in!” I urged Her. She was confused…murky still, as I say…from the shock of the abortion. What I was urging Her to do was unethical, but hardly unheard of. The Soul that I was urging Her to displace would just, in turn, have to displace some other Soul that was poised to slip into some other body, a domino-effect, or cosmic game of musical chairs, that would leave some Soul at the end of Time without the body they’d planned on. But so what? It was hardly a tragedy. Life itself…in the biological, space-taking, Time-bound sense…was only a game, or a trick, that some of us had learned to do. It’s a neat trick, and a funny one too…there are only a few hundred of us, really, and yet on Earth we manage the illusion that there are six billion people.

“Now!” I shouted with all of my thoughts. “Please, My Heart! Please! Now!”

And She managed it, slipping in at the last instant, just as that old warrior in that prehistoric lodge was groaning and coming, and I was spiraling back towards my little body in that hotel room on Budapester strasse and the American Steve Lawson was ejaculating between the legs of his Persian mistress in Berlin in the spring of 2009, crying with pleasure and guilt and love afterwards, soaking her rich black hair with his tears, knowing somehow that he’d gotten her pregnant and frustrated above all that there wasn’t an adequate way of expressing his love for her at that moment.

5.

S.L.: At some point you stop calling these things coincidences, because they just keep happening, and the word ‘coincidence’, to me, implies something random. And these things can’t all be random. They seem like part of some kind of plan. Laugh if you want to. Also, what do you call two related coincidences in a row…a coincidence of coincidences? A multincidence?

K.P: Well, all I can say to that is…well…I mean, what, are you going to tell me next… that you read your horoscope every morning now too?

S.L.: But Kurt, look, doesn’t it occur to you that two hundred years ago, people would have laughed snidely at the idea of sending magic pictures through the air…

K.P: I know, I know…into a little box called a television. The difference is, radio waves existed before we theorized about them, so it was only a matter of discovering them, and then developing the technology to make use of the principle. But what you’re proposing is the exact opposite…that you hope that all of this mumbo jumbo is real, and maybe it will turn out to be real one day because you hope so hard that it is. Your hope that the phenomenon is real precedes any empirical, or even theoretical, evidence of it. I therefore have to question your motives in formulating the hypothesis in the first place.

S.L.: Bullshit. I’m just saying that I have an open mind, man, and you don’t. In my opinion, to be such a rabid skeptic is exactly the same as being a dyed-in-the-wool believer…both positions are neurotically extreme, in my opinion, and evade the truth for personal reasons.

K.P: Steve, look. This is what I think happened to you: you fell in love, retired early, and have a baby on the way for the first time in fifteen years, and on top of everything else, you’re almost fifty, which has got you brooding on the topic of your own mortality. I mean, on the one hand, you’re experiencing the sexy magical bliss of imminent parenthood with your brand new foreign-born wife. Shit, Sariah is just about the most stunning chick that you’ve ever been with! No disrespect to your first wife, who happens to be one of my oldest friends, but Sariah makes Betty look like…er…an ex-wife named Betty.

S.L.: No comment.

K.P: But, on the other hand, you have to deal with the fact that, statistically speaking, a little more than half of your life is over. Hey, listen, I’m a year older than you are, so I have the same thoughts, Buddy, late at night when I’m sitting alone in my office and staring out across that spooky backyard of mine and wondering what the point of it all is. But I’m not going to start believing in Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Life After Death all of a sudden just because I don’t want to die. I need evidence. Proof. And you should too, with your background.

S.L.: Evidence is what I’ve been talking about! Evidence is what I’ve been giving you.

K.P: Coincidences are evidence? Where’d you learn your science…in Trinidad? Look: on a planet of almost nine billion people, a little over a billion of them own camcorders, or polaroid cameras, or a pair of those tacky sunglasses with a wireless e-cam in the frame…not to mention the fact that for the past twenty five years there hasn’t been a cubic centimeter in the Western World, or much of the Eastern World, for that matter, that isn’t monitored twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, by some kind of global surveillance system. After all these billions of hours of steady data recording, why isn’t there one fucking inch of credible footage of a poltergeist, or a UFO, or Santa Claus, or Madame Blavatsky, or Michael Jackson’s ghost, or…

S.L.: Hey! Hey! Excuse me…there isn’t any K-Mart security cam footage of neutrinos, quarks, super-quarks, gluons, k-muons, or sweet or sour fermi’s either, man…are you going to deduce from that narrow band of negative proof that sub-atomic particles aren’t real?

K.P: Apples and oranges.

S.L.: Bullshit. Apples and apples.

K.P: We’re going around in circles.

S.L.: When did you become such a stick-in-the-mud square, Kurt Powel? Have you always been such a quasi-Newtonian motherfucker?

K.P: Hey, at the risk of showing my age, let’s just say that maybe it’s a racial thing, Buddy! Maybe I’m just an uptight, fucked-up, low-sexed Wasp who never had the good fortune of taking his mother’s milk from a magic black tit. Maybe it’s that groovy Afro-Native American thing you’ve got going…maybe you’re in tune with the fucking infinite and all that shit. Maybe your great-great-great-great grandfather was a Hopi Shaman, or a Bantu Witchdoctor, and you’ve inherited the family mojo. But, see, my great-great-great-great grandfather was nothing more glamorous than a boring old chemical engineer in Edinburgh, and you know what I inherited from him?

S.L.: No lips and red hair and the world’s smallest dick?

K.P: The world’s hardest smallest dick. Why should I go around believing in ESP, Reincarnation, and Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Box? Why should I subscribe to the Oh Wow Times? What’s in it for me? Look…

S.L.: I know what you’re going to say…

K.P: No, you don’t, fuckface. What I’m going to say is that maybe my recalcitrance on the subject is an understandably touchy over-reaction to life in The States these days. You wouldn’t believe how bad it’s gotten in the eight years you’ve been gone. We’re two months shy of 2010 AD, Nato is sending a manned mission to Mars, the Japs are experimenting with anti-gravity, and yet the fastest growing religion in America is a mixture of Voodoo, Catholocism, and comic books! It’s like living in a hi-tech Mediaeval village! Excorcists run full page ads in the local newspapers, for chrissakes! Just last week, in Kentucky, they threw some chick in prison for casting a spell on her ex-boyfriend that made him lose his hair…

S.L.: You’re shitting me.

K.P: Shit you would I never.

S.L.: Okay, anyway, listen, Kurt. I’m not trying to turn myself into a kaftan-wearing missionary for the church of woodsprites and fairies or anything, man. It’s just that…I don’t know. The longer I live, the more things…happen. Things I can’t explain as a retired software engineer with an associate degree in particle physics. Maybe I’m turning into a Hippie in my old age. Or maybe it’s just because I see God every time I fuck my wife…

K.P: Don’t rub it in.

S.L.: Are you hungry?

K.P: Good question. Am I hungry. What are you thinking? Some Persian delicacy?

S.L.: No, I mean here. Eat something here. They’ve got these disgusting little ham sandwiches with butter on them, if you’re interested. Or I can ask for a menu from that flaxen-haired bartender who’s been staring at you off and on for the past hour.

K.P: I don’t need your charity-flattery, stud: I know she’s been staring at you. Shouldn’t we be heading back to your place before too long, in any case?

S.L.: No rush. I like to give Sariah her space. It’s good to let us miss each other a little sometimes. It’s a tricky transition…

K.P: From the illicit thrill of adultery to the sanctified boredom of marriage.

S.L.: Well, I wouldn’t have put it exactly that way, but that’s the gist of it.

K.P: Yup. Apropos ‘the gist of it’ : how is Betty holding up?

S.L.: She isn’t. It doesn’t help that we’re next door neighbors, and she can hear Sariah and me banging the headboard every night. She keeps slipping these single-spaced tiny-font ten page letters in the mailbox. And all of her e-mails to Sariah are in ALL CAPS.

K.P: What about Sander?

S.L.: That’s the weird thing! He’s never been a happier kid. It’s like…can a fifteen year old boy be ‘serene’ ? Isn’t he supposed to be going through his arsonist, or glue-sniffing, phase? His parents got divorced, his father is expecting a baby with the woman that stole daddy from mommy…his godmother, by the way…and all he can talk about is the stuff he wants to do with his baby sister when she’s old enough

K.P: Sweet.

S.L.: It’s almost too sweet! Do you know what he did the other day?

K.P: What?

S.L.: He thanked me for getting Sariah pregnant! There were tears in his eyes, Kurt! Tears!

-September 1997

Conversations with Mr. Earth

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The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

-George Bernard Shaw

Jesus Christ walks into a hotel. He hands the innkeeper three nails. He asks, “Can you put me up for the night?”

-Anonymous

I remember the day of the morning I found out that my father had died. He wasn’t particularly old, my father, but he wasn’t tragically young, either, so news that he had ceased to be was not as shocking as it was strange. My co-creator had died? His partner in my creation, my long-divorced mother, said only, “Another victory for Big Tobacco”, with typical sarcasm, when she called me with the news.

I grabbed a light jacket (it was Fall in Berlin) and left my little apartment on Bismarckstrasse. I had the idea I should find a park bench, preferably in the vicinity of a fountain, and sit alone with my thoughts. It was one of those undecided days: hot brilliant sunshine interrupted with maddening frequency by woolly clouds that cast the city under a refrigerating shadow.

School was just getting out as I crossed the timeworn plaza at Ernst Reuter platz. German school kids in their neat little rucksacks, not nearly as world-weary as their American counterparts, jumbled in a throng down the bunkerstairs of the U-Bahn entrance, scampering to the Underworld. Or they fooled around at the bus stops, snatching and punching, and they deafened the street with mock outrage and laughter. I was almost offended by the blotchy passion in their fat little faces; the electrocuting vitality of their squeals. There was someone in me, crushed under the stiff padding of twenty years, that pretended to be above wishing he was out there with them, screaming and dashing about and snubbing The Old with joy.

Dotting the pale foam of all that Germanity was the occasional dark blip, a rambunctious child of Turks, or Nigerians, or Chinese, horsing around with the rest of them. Did those kids know, yet, how different they were? At what age does Experience start separating us from the pack? At what age will these kids become individuals, which means alone, and discover in their “individuality” the seed of every kind of sadness? At what age will that little Nigerian, showing his big white teeth, playing tag with that bone-white girl with the fly-away hair, learn the mortifying truth? He’ll be a few years ahead of the Germans in his discovery. Eternity will tap him on the shoulder first, even if it doesn’t come with the gurney for another seventy years.

Wow, I thought. Mr. Cheerful . Mr. Sunshine.

There’s a fountain in the center of the roundabout at Ernst Reuter platz, but it’s so noisy with traffic. The only other fountain I could think of, a beautiful little baroque thing behind Victoria Luise platz, had recently been shut down because an old woman living up the street from it had complained about the splashing. I needed to find water. I felt compelled, mysteriously, to find water.

Crossing Ernst Reuter Platz and walking one third of a mile down the broad historic boulevard of the 17th of June, I came to the Tiergarten. The Tiergarten is Berlin’s Central Park. It isn’t ringed by highrises and skyscrapers, but it’s large enough, and central enough, to earn the comparison. A creek as wide as a sidewalk mutters through it, and, in lieu of the philosophical susurrus of a fountain, it seemed to me that a muttering creek came closest in my search for a spot suitable for sitting a few hours and dwelling on existence. Or the lack thereof.

There’s only one bench, as far as I know, that faces the Tiergarten creek. There aren’t many benches in Berlin in general. Some cities are bench cities (Minneapolis, Chicago, London, Philadelphia, Prague) and some aren’t (Berlin, Las Vegas, Warsaw, Stockholm, Saint Paul), and I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with a city’s problem with, or attitude towards, the homeless? Or the lazy. In any case, there was only one bench facing the Tiergarten creek and my father had died that morning and I was going to sit on that bench and contemplate Eternity, despite the unfortunate fact that a man was already sitting there.

He didn’t even look up, or scoot politely to a corner of the bench, when I sat down. This forced me to perch uncomfortably on the edge of it. I was to his left, balancing on one half of the seat of my pants, and he just sat there as he had been, in an expensive gray suit with a slight sheen to it, his right leg hooked over his left knee, smoking a clove cigarette. Some sophomoric student of photography could have crept up and snapped our picture and titled it Certainty and Doubt and won Second Place in a school contest. Our contrasting postures said so much about us, even before a word was exchanged: I there in my inconsolable slouch, arms folded defensively over my chest, he in his Philosopher’s repose, chin up, holding his cigarette like a quill pen poised between extraordinary sentences.

My father is dead, I thought. He’s lying on a slab somewhere, mouth ajar, eyes half-lidded, his shriveled cock exposed. The luminescent minus-signs of a twin-reflected overhead fluorescent light are shimmering in his dead pupils. My father; the guy for whom I represented little more than a long-forgotten orgasm. That guy who’d settle in that walrusy brown leather chair in the living room and sniff the newspaper. Too cheap or vain to buy reading glasses.

I would sit there and stack alpha-blocks and steal peeks at him. Why did he love sniffing the newspaper more than he loved talking to me? He’d sniff one side of a page, then cross over to the other and sniff that, top to bottom and finally turn it. After he was done, he’d sigh and yawn and push his way out of the chair. I’d wait until he was upstairs (they had a black and white television up there) and wedge myself into the soft little star of warmth he’d leave behind in the seat. I’d carefully retrieve the paper and commence sniffing it, desperately trying to learn to distinguish the smell of one page from the other.

I glanced over at the stranger hogging the bench. He was too oblivious to my presence to be considered rude, really. I considered, once or twice, bringing our seating arrangement to his attention, but then I realized that I’d already been there too long. It would seem odd to broach the subject now.

He was handsome but balding; strong jawed, big nosed. He had the effeminate lips of a man in the habit of eating very small portions of very rich foods. He was olive-skinned; swarthy, even. I tried to guess his nationality. Mediterranean skin, Germanic nose. And the hair, what remained of it, was tightly curled, sandy-colored but almost African in texture. What did that add up to?

Without turning to face me, he suddenly said, in a soothing voice (an actorish British accent), “My name is Samuel Earth. I’m a super-intelligent being of extraterrestrial origin. Any questions you’d like to ask me about human life, practical physics, or The Future, I’d be glad to answer for you, as long as I’m sitting here anyway.”

Then he turned slightly, giving me a three-quarter profile and smiled. I think I smiled back. It was clear to me that all of what he claimed was truthful, just as when a millionaire says “I have lots and lots of money,” the authority and ease of his tone puts the statement beyond question. Tucked away in the dark folds of his voice was a rare vocal frequency of such total superiority that it worked on me like a narcotic, dulling the shock I should have been in, the incredulity I should have met his statement with. I was amazed at how calmly I took his preposterous announcement.

He took a drag on his cigarette, closing his eyes with the voluptuous pleasure of it, and vented two thick white scrolls of smoke from his flaring nostrils. His eyelids fluttered as the smoke poured out. He was the best commercial for the pleasure of smoking I’d ever seen in my life. I even found myself tempted to take up the habit, despite the fact that my father had died that very morning of a cigarette-related disease, his very last breath probably reeking of a cross between a cold ashtray and a hole in the ground.

I cleared my throat and squirmed to maintain my balance on the edge of the bench. “I just received news that my father has died. Where did his Soul go at the moment of death? Or is there even such a thing as a soul?”

“The energy that animated the matter of your father’s body dispersed when a certain configuration of nerve cells in the brain, a microscopic organ called a Meta-Ganglial Knot, became disorganized, which is when the moment of death occurs. The MGK is the antennae, so to speak, that focuses the soul into the vessel of the body. It looks like… do you know, sometimes, when you comb your hair, and clean the hair out of the comb afterward, and from time to time you pull out a hair-knot… this tight little knot of hair, with long hairs dangling from it? Of course, that doesn’t happen to me anymore,” and gestured with his cigarette towards the hard unblinking eye of the hairless top of his head. “Anyway, it looks like that, but it’s only a micron across in dimension.” He uncrossed his legs, adjusted his suit jacket, and stood up, flicking his still-lit cigarette in a smoke-traced arc across the creek.

“Filthy habit. Would you like to go for a little walk?”

There were people out in the Tiergarten, students, tourists, lovers hooked at the arm like old jugs with locked handles, all of them sweatered or jacketed, insured against twilight’s coming chill. Mr. Earth walked at a brisk clip and looked at everyone with genuine interest, nodding a warm, “Guten tag,” here and there as I huffed to keep up with him. The crowd was walking in one direction, and we in the opposite, which puzzled me until I remembered that a concert was scheduled to be performed at the Heimat Klange that afternoon, a festival of ethnic music in the open-air venue that the Tiergarten abuts.

“Are you having trouble keeping up?” He was smiling, facing me suddenly, walking backwards. “It’s just that I would very much like to be at a certain part of the park, which happens to be on the other side of it, and I’d like to be there at a certain time of day, when the light is very beautiful.” I thought, at that moment, he’s crossed hundreds or thousands of light years, he’s probably the cerebral equivalent of a dozen Einsteins, but it’s the fact that he can walk backwards that really amazes me.

Still doing just that, and not slowing, and losing no breath, he said, “I was born on this planet, actually, and there’s nothing supernatural about my great ability to walk backwards. I just practiced it obsessively until I could do it. It’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself, nearly as well, if you tried to.”

“You’ve read my mind!”

“Yes, but not telepathically. It’s just statistically probable that those were your thoughts at that particular moment. There’s no such thing as ‘telepathy’. The brain, without it’s humdrum inputs of taste, touch, smell, vision and hearing, is sealed away in the skull, numb as a cauliflower. The brain is neither a receiver nor a transmitter of waves, a theory that became popular on this planet soon after the invention of radio. The brain is just a stiff chunk of protein; there is no telepathy. But statistical telepathy is a useful method of communication on many worlds. It just takes a bunch of people with substantial IQs and plenty of confidence in their guessing ability. There are planets where not a single syllable has been spoken, by adults, at least, in decades. With a lot less misunderstanding involved, I might add, than on this chattering planet.”

I thought a deliberate non-sequitur…goat rubber rolls uphill…to test him.

“Of course it won’t work…on that thought! You’re thinking gibberish to test me!” His smile was winningly giddy…almost adolescent. He had the boyish quality, verging on decadence, to again evoke the metaphor of great wealth, of certain carefree trust-fund heirs. “Statistical telepathy only works on planets where people want to communicate! What you just did proves exactly why the technique would never work on Earth.”

“Is there,” I said,

“No,” he said.

“… a God?”

He shrugged, still pumping his arms in the reverse-jog he was dancing, advancing backwards in long smooth strides.

“No, there is no God. The Universe is self-creating. Life… animate objects… account for less than one quadrillionth of a thousandth of one percent of all the chemical processes in this solar system alone. One out of every hundred million solar systems supports a Life-bearing planet; only two percent of those can boast any so-called intelligent life. Life is an accidental by-product of matter. The Universe is mostly concerned with Things, and not Creatures. Things evolve, too, you know, and they have turned out to be remarkably successful. Creatures are a fledgling form. You might be interested to know that a hybrid of the two is where Life in this Universe is heading. A billion years from now, this galaxy is going to be teaming with a form of Life greatly less animate than what we know as Life now. They will be slow, if not motionless and enjoy astronomically increased life spans. They’ll be durable and gigantic. They won’t be very “intelligent”, but “intelligence” is just a way of coping with the Evolutionary weaknesses of mortality and smallness, anyway. But I digress. How did the Universe create itself?, you want to ask.

“The Universe counter-acts the probability of never existing by creating itself over and over again, forever, with a frequency greater than the frequency of any other possible outcome, e.g.: The Universe only existing once, for a moment, or… The Universe only existing as a phenomenon of ‘The Past’.

“It’s a hard-working Universe! It wants to exist! It explodes from an infinitesimal point, the explosion expands quicker than time can be created to keep up with the expansion, it freezes and starts again. It’s in that frozen-moment when the Universe is on the verge of exploding again for the first time, which lasts for one thousand trillionth of a second, that WE exist. With every renewed explosion, the Universe progresses a little further than it did before, creating more space and creating more time, while simultaneously depleting Gravity. This progress, this stuttering expansion, is what we experience as Time. Reality is flickering. Since we are flickering with it, we can’t sense it as such.”

The trees, the grass, the red-bellied clouds lowering themselves like a blanket over the chilly sunset…

“All civilizations, at some point,” he continued, after letting what he’d said sink in, “reach exactly the point your world is reaching now. There is no God, that’s clear. Look, even Shi’ite Moslems, the most fanatically religious people on this Earth, are, by now, subconsciously beginning to understand the Truth. If there really were a God, you know, could there really be such a thing as television? Of course not.”

“Your Science is finally to the point where it’s able to reveal that to you. That was the legendary Forbidden Fruit on the Tree of Knowledge, by the way… biting the apple, one risked becoming enlightened… enlightened to the fact that God doesn’t exist. You’ve been misinterpreting that Garden of Eden story for centuries, you see. The risk of eating that apple was not that Man would disappear from God, but just the opposite. And now we see the results of Knowledge: perdition, as Milton would put it. Those Antediluvian Jews were quite clever.”

“By the way,” he continued, “if you’ve recently been wondering why Culture seems to be ebbing at such a low point of late…”

( I smiled ruefully)

He counted his elegant fingers, “I mean… poorly written novels, based on the trashiest subject matter, on the ‘Times Best Seller List! Jars of animal fat and human feces auctioned off as Art to millionaires for stratospheric prices at Sotheby’s! Inelegant, stripper-like fashion models! Insultingly dim-witted movies awarded multiple statuettes on Oscar Night!”

“And this so-called ‘music’, for tin-eared vulgarians, racing up the Pop charts…” he ran out of fingers and made a gesture of finger-fluttering mystification.

“It’s all related. To the Nonexistence of God, I mean. This is typical for a Culture…and, make no mistake about it, you belong to a World Culture… it’s typical for a World Culture on the brink of becoming technologically mature, when faced with the Truth of the Nonexistence of God… to attempt to will itself back, by embracing Cultural Primitivism… that is, kitsch… by embracing kitsch… to will itself back to the point before which God ceased to exist. Listen carefully to one of those guillotine-worthy pop songs… the insipid crooning! It’s the sound, quite touching, if you understand it… the sound of humanity’s longing for humanity’s unrecoverable naiveté… the secret sound of the longing for God… expressed as the veneration of Kitsch. Kitsch is that world-view wherein God exists at all and humans are the subjects in His kingdom, called Heaven. “

Walking backwards as fast as ever, he nimbly side-stepped a fallen branch I was half-hoping he’d trip on. He winked at me as he side-stepped it and I was momentarily ashamed of myself.

He said, “So, God doesn’t exist. Now what? Continue as a civilization, or commit mass suicide? What to do? What to do? One century from now, the major cities of the nations of your Earth will either be a collection of cindered Necropolises, of wild dogs and cannibals (I’ve visited such a planet, by the way, in my youth…the sex was unbelievable)…or the opposite Fate Path will be followed, and these same cities will become population centers of a shiny new Phase Two Society. That’s what makes Tourism on the Earth so interesting these days. Which way will it go?” He held his hands, palm-up, in a gesture of perfect uncertainty, and then moved them, oppositely, up and down like silver trays on an equivocating scale.

People stared in irritation, or amusement, as we hurried past them, towards the other side of the park, Mr. Earth walking backwards with no effort, never even bothering to turn around now and then to check that his path was clear (it took a while for me to notice that he was using my pupils like rearview mirrors) and me huffing and gasping to keep up with him without breaking into an undignified trot. There was, in fact, a longish interval during which there was no speech between us, me being hampered by breathlessness, and I began to panic in the absence of his hypnotic voice. It was as though the nitrous oxide was wearing off and I was becoming ever more conscious of sitting in a Dentist’s chair. I was race-walking with a backwards-walking man who claimed to be a super-intelligent Space Alien in possession of the Secrets of the Universe: and he was losing his hair. Alarm bells were beginning to ring, faintly at first.

I was relieved when he spoke again. We slowed down, backing into a secluded cul-de-sac of tiny-leafed bushes that formed a half-wall around a statue of some stern-faced German in brass breeches, and ruffled brass sleeves, and a dollop of pigeon shit on his head like a hair-restoring treatment. When Mr. Earth finally spoke, it pushed the confusion and troubled awe back out of me. It was like being taken up in a hand that was too massive for me to resist, but too languid for me to worry about being crushed by it.

“Do you see the way the sunlight streams down through the trees, shimmering on the forsythia and gentian like a soft mist, at this time of day?” His nostrils flared. “The sunlight has a rich, mellow smell to it, wouldn’t you say? I mean, metaphorically, or synesthetically, speaking.” He was suddenly looking at me with a directness that made me deflect my gaze. He rolled up his jacket sleeves and then fussed with his belt buckle, a droll smile curling the corners of his lips.

He said, “I have a date with a knockout tonight, and I feel that I’ll be at somewhat of a disadvantage if I go into it wanting something from her, if you catch my drift. How do you put it? Horny. I don’t want to meet this woman in a state of horniness, or it will give my game away. I’m sure you have some experience with desirable females, being a not-bad-looking fellow yourself. The body on this girl! You see, it’ll increase my bargaining power if I can be sexually blasé about her looks, at least tonight.” He gestured for me to step closer, and then closer still, as though he was about to share a chummy secret.

“Pursuant to that, we have little more than five minutes before tourists are likely to happen upon this spot. I want you to please get on your knees and suck on my penis until I orgasm in your mouth, if you don’t mind,” and his pants dropped down around his ankles, with a tambourine-slap of loose change and car keys. Without stopping to weigh my options, and with no prior experience, or preparatory fantasies, and without a crumb of pleasure or desire, or will of my own, I complied. He placed a ministerly hand on my shoulder and pressed me down. I was unable to refuse. I couldn’t help noticing how old and worn his blue silk briefs were, with their old-fashioned fleur-de-lis pattern. I found the pattern a peculiar comfort.

“You know,” he chuckled, lighting a clove cigarette while I knelt against him like a toddler at a water fountain, his thigh cold and hairless on my cheek, my hands clasped foolishly behind my back, “Your planet is famous for this.”

-October 1995

The Nabby

photo by Simonetta Ginelli

“You’re worthless, did you know that? Worthless and stupid and not very attractive. God, the years I’ve wasted in this relationship. The years! The things I’ve done for you… with you… because you made me. Because you made me. Look at you! You fat cunt.  Got the personality of a sea slug… you stink as well… can’t believe anyone ever had the stomach to kiss you. I swear, if I could leave… if I could but find the strength to cut all ties, I would! In a heartbeat, my dear. In a bloody heartbeat.”

Nigel Selwyn-Trask then pinched his fat red organ at the neck, shook out residual CCs of aperitif-colored urine and stuffed the Colonel back in its boxers. He was standing A-legged at the urinal, chin up, when a stall door creaked behind him and a white-haired fellow emerged, avoiding eye contact. The old duffer hurried out of the Gents on deck shoes without a ceremonial washing or even so much as a tug on the towels. Nigel had frightened him.

“Sorry,” he said.

Facing himself in the mirror over the sink, he patted his side-hair in place, stooping and twisting. The dangers of talking to one’s dick in public. His armless tee-shirt, what one of his scholarship students had pricelessly referred to as a wife-beater, was hanging more loosely than ever and he palpated his face: cheek bones getting closer and closer to the surface because all that running was starting to pay off. All that running and all that not-so-tasty food. But by running a bit longer on Nabokov’s birthday Nigel felt he would earn the right to splurge that night and treat himself to an artery-clogging dessert.

“It is, after all, a special occasion.”

Which made him groan. For five seconds he’d forgotten the looming doom of the evening. Oh. God. He wanted to go into a trance and snap out of it sometime next week with only dim memories of tonight’s disaster. Christ be clement. He was half-tempted to get the old Colonel out and yell at it all over again. As if that would help. Tonight will be the end of everything.

“I am going to have my head bashed in with a Nabby.”

Was one of those brilliant spring days that make Minnesota worth it. Lake gave off its sparkling little melodies of light while boats like lovably dumb dogs mobbed a dock laden with pretty wives and all their children. The far side of the lake was decorated with a naively busy tapestry of all commercial colors… walkers and joggers and bladers for life. Wind-surfer thingies criss-crossed the shocking blue water with pointless speed. The kind of windy day he would have dreaded when there was still stuff on the top of his head to worry about because being bald wasn’t so bad…. it was going bald that he’d hated. What was that wonderful smell? The wind had changed and grilled bangers from as far away as the band stand at Lake Harriet were waving.

April 23, a sunny late morning in Minneapolis. But it was a miserable suppertime in Blighty… cold and damp and reeking of cur and Nigel was pleased to think it, that even the posh gits he’d honed his ambitions on were gasping in fog at the moment, gasping and sniffing around tatty flats in itchy cardigans and grumbling at their lipless girlfriends about toast crumbs in the marmalade. Snooker on the telly.

He did his stretching on the side of the foot path, a sun-dappled bear toppling a tree and launched into the stream of pattering Reeboks, huffing already like he’d been at it an hour. There were two lanes of jogger traffic, separated by a cute little dotted line and he recognized every third person in the oncoming lane, an effect he never got used to.

“Hullo!” Huff.

“Hi!” Huff.

” ‘Morning, Stewart.”

It was incredible to think of the journey he’d made from Elephant and Castle, that fuscous cranny, to Uptown, Minneapolis, USA and all this comfy. He was a sort of semi-suburban Squire here, wasn’t he? In Minneapolis he was a Toff! “Hi!” And he’d done it with books. Books! He’d done it with books. A brick-layer’s son! Earning his money with books. “Hullo!”

“Hullo Julia!”

Not writing them. Christ, he’d tried. He’d tried a few years and given up, having managed to squeeze one parsimonious paperback out before the sphincter slammed shut, never again to open, and yet, nevertheless, here he was, living The Amurrican Duh-ream, doing quite well for himself teaching fiction… private lessons… a dozen paying students… ninety bucks an hour and three hundred a pop to read and critique a novel-length manuscript, thanks. Hello, house near the lake and hello studio in a building with a uniformed doorman and hello a Land Rover with vanity plates.

Big-Brit1.

“Hi!” Huff.

“Hullo!” Huff.

Christ!

He was out of breath, it happened every time, one had to greet so many relentlessly polite people running around Lake Calhoun on the weekend that one incurred an oxygen debt in less than half a lap. He spied a free bench up ahead and made for it, sprinting the last few dozen meters. A nice warm sunny bench. He plopped down on it with grateful hallelujahs. He cast his gaze about the green splendor of foliage and the blue splendor of lake, his eyeballs banging with heartbeat, and grinned pantingly, staring dreamily at a houseboat puttering by.

Someone said, “Good morning Mr. Trask!” and Nigel stuck an arm up without looking.

It was all in the accent, of course.

He freely admitted it. He was forty seven years old, he was financially secure and he no longer had to prove anything to himself, so he had no problem admitting to himself that the key to his success had had little to do with his knowledge of words and much to do with the sound of his voice and the effect that it had upon upper-middle-class housewives of the Midwest. Upper-middle-class housewives and paunchy lawyers on a self-improvement kick and the occasional “scholarship” student that Nigel instructed for free, which energized the sessions with a little youth and the ethnic spice of the underprivileged and made him look like a saint on top of it. Wife-beaters. Nigel chuckled soundlessly.

Five years, once a week, a dozen paying students, ninety dollars an hour. And all Nigel had to do was sit in his comfortable leather chair and moderate what were basically group-encounter sessions, with “fiction” as the medium of confession. Oh yes, and then, three years ago, he’d had a brainstorm: The Nabby. If only he hadn’t! But he had. He’d created The Nabby, and now he was going to die from one, having his head bashed in with it. They were quite heavy, these Nabbies. With big sharp Nabokovian noses.

Nigel stood up from the bench, considered jogging again, thought better of it, and commenced the leisurely ten minute walk to his door step, head bowed with athletic modesty.

He let himself into his lovely old Tudor, sidestepping that terrible spot in the foyer, the spot facing the foyer mirror. He sidestepped it like a dog refusing to cross the patch on the floor where somebody had died. It was this spot, just inside the front door, upon which Gina Balinari had knelt and produced the banal voila of a blowjob just two nights before. He’d watched it in the mirror, the sad back of her divorcee’s hopeful haircut, her freckled fat strapless shoulders, his hands hovering, awkward, noncommittal… and the look on his face: embarrassed to meet its own gaze. But then he’d looked down and gotten the real shock, for she was staring up at him! Staring up at him while she slurpped and gulped, her lips a huge red zero.

She’s mad, he’d thought, but then: That’s right… she is a Psychologist, isn’t she?

Oh, how he regretted that stingy little orgasm now! He’d had bigger ones by accident! And oh how he regretted the beers and flattery that had lead to that moment! And he regretted having written that little note (“keep at it!”) on the back of the receipt he’d mailed to her after receiving her monthly check. And the husky-voiced call he’d gotten from her after she’d read the note, divining praise where only half-hearted encouragement had been intended. And he regretted…

The ansaphone was blinking in the kitchen. He approached it sternly, with his hands on his hips, licking the sweat off his over-licked lip.

“Well hulloooo there Mr. Trask…” giggle “… just called to inform you how much I enjoyed our little moment the other evening and that I can’t wait for our little bash tonight, and…” giggle “… I just wanted to leave you this marvelous little quote by Yeats…”

He shut it off.

Yeets.

How long had Gina Balinari been attending his Workshop? Very nearly a year. It had been quite clear, straight off the bat, that she had no talent, would never, but since when had that prevented Nigel Selwyn-Trask from assuming the merciful role of tutor? Her money was as good as anyone’s.

Sad cow! What she lacked in writing ability she more than made up for in her greed for praise and in her clanking brass balls, the networking monster; the tireless coalition builder; shamelessly wheedling and browbeating the other members of the Workshop into agreeing to behave as though they considered her stuff worth reading. If someone with real talent had the temerity to dismiss one of her cliché-honeycombed trifles, she beehived a retaliatory clique and the offending party ended up in Workshop Siberia. It was a peculiar skill, what she had, and certainly worked in local politics and organized crime, but what was the point of bullying people into calling you a decent writer if they and you both knew bloody well better? What would one hope to achieve, in the end?

The Nabby.

Nigel had felt so clever… so entrepreneurial… thinking it up. Knowing full well the virulency of that American virus: competition. Before coming up with the idea of an annual fiction prize, to be awarded on Vladimir Nabokov’s birthday, Nigel had had a worrying number of drop-outs every season.

But just give them a goal, a prize to compete for, and suddenly the egocentric little shits were sticking with it the whole year in hopes of winning the damn thing. It had cost him one hundred and forty dollars apiece to have them cast in bronze from the template he’d commissioned from a student at MCAD and for every one he handed out he figured he’d stabilized about ten thousand dollars in revenue. He had four of them in a kitchen cabinet, left from the original run of six, and it gave him a weird thrill to think that the source from which his continued success in America emanated could be pinpointed to a spot above his dishwasher, where he also stored his Saltines. They might as well be solid gold, these poxy little busts of Nabokov.

And if Gina Balinari didn’t get hers this year, she’d no doubt make a horrible stink. At the worst she’d be crying sexual harassment and at the very least spreading the rumor that their beloved Englishman, shepherd of their sheepish muses, had taken advantage of her. And that would be the end of everything. These cute little Minneapolitans were a Puritanical bunch, after all. They were Calvinists in footy Pyjamas, and it was Nigel’s job to tuck them in once a week, with his soothing British voice, but they’d never stand for a tuck-in from a dirty old man. A dirty old man who’d taken advantage of an hysterically lonely divorced mother of a bedwetting (“The Little Wet Bed”) toddler. No. They’d be outraged and summarily re-think the propriety of his tutelage and he’d be bereft of ninety dollars per hour times twelve paying members times two hours per bloody week, forty two weeks a year.

And the problem was, Nigel had his eye on a boat. A cabin cruiser with the euphonious name of Bella Fortuna, equipped with an antique eleven foot teakwood bar that had been salvaged from a yacht once owned by Errol Flynn. Sleeps twelve. If Gina B. didn’t get The Nabby, Nigel didn’t get that boat. How was he going to mail photographs of himself leaning on that eleven foot antique teakwood Errol Flynn bar back to those bastards in Elephant and Castle if he couldn’t have the boat?

On the other hand, if Nigel immorally gave The Nabby to the unliterate Gina B. to keep her quiet, rather than to one of the two obviously deserving members of his Workshop (that chubby lawyer Del Eckhardt, or pretty Tonya Rice), and it ever came out that Gina had fellated him two days before the Award Dinner, the result would no doubt be the same.

He wanted that boat; he loved his lifestyle; he considered faking a heart attack. He was too afraid of the train of thought he might find himself on to even joke to himself about killing her. What would Nabokov do?

Nigel writhed out of his wife-beater and his shiny shorts and trudged upstairs and climbed into a scalding shower and thought about it. He pulled his (chest) hair and gnashed his teeth and took, once more, the opportunity to berate his ridiculous dick.

The dick in turn looked guilty and small and remained so as Nigel dressed himself later, after a fitful nap, from which he’d woken, paradoxically, refreshed. During the nap he’d had a dream and from the dream he’d derived a solution to the dilemma that had threatened to destroy him. Nigel whistled while he dressed himself, choosing a chiffon-yellow pullover, with suit pants and dress shoes, that made him look like Seamus bloody Heaney.

In Nigel’s dream, Nabokov had been twins, and had eloped with two women, one of them dark and fetching, and the other an Italianate cow. The Nabokov who’d gotten the dark and lovely one had run off with her to Iowa, and started a new life there as a brown-rice farmer. The dream was still vivid as Nigel worked his way through a loin chop, and a conversation about Martin Amis’ obvious, but rarely remarked upon, debt to Kurt Vonnegut, at dinner.

“Thank you, Carl.”

Nigel could remember when he’d first arrived in town and had discovered Figlio’s and had gone around mispronouncing it, giving it a hard “g”. Thank god nobody had known him back then. He looked around the trendy dining room; the open kitchen with flames leaping; and all those Minneapolitan diners still dressing like Don Johnson from Miami Vice, or in their prom gowns, and he felt a twinkle of affection for them in each eye, which came dangerously close to condensing into sentimental tears. Perhaps he’d had too much to drink.

“I think we’re all ready to order dessert now, Carl.”

He recognized the waiter. He was still trying to work out if the fellow was gay, a brown hatter in the parlance of Nigel’s antediluvian chums. It always bothered him when presumably gay men didn’t flirt with him. Not that Nigel was: far from it. But it seemed a very specific failure of one’s allure if one could not even attract…

He sat at the head of the very long table and tipped back yet another glass of red stuff that Carl had disinterestedly replenished for him. He smiled, through the bottom of the glass, at Del Eckhardt, who was not going to win a Nabby this year.

Del, still griping about Amis, was to Nigel’s immediate left. Next to Del was Judy Weintraub-Johnson (Nigel had proof that her hyphen was a recent development: her cancelled checks). Then came Wanda Pratt (in her Yoko Ono sunglasses) and Jeff Johannsen and the irritating affectation of his Vandyke. Next came sweet old Martha Teufel, who wrote surprisingly sexual stories about a village of human-like mice called “Nibbletown.”

Gina Balinari had, of course, commandeered the seat at the opposite head and was as chipper and chirpy as could be, loudly praising every writer at her end of the table with elder-stateswoman-like largess. Nigel winked at her from time to time to mask the facial tick that afflicted him whenever he gazed upon her. As a subtle prompt, or an effort at literary symbolism, she was wearing the same plum-colored strapless thing she’d had on the night she’d blown him. Nigel was quite sure that the powdery stain he imagined he saw near the neckline was impossible.

To Gina’s immediate left, coming up the other side of the table, was lawyer number two, Chad something, who’d been with the Workshop going on nine months and had yet to submit a story. After Chad came Chad’s girlfriend, Lyndsay Huffstedt, who owned a pointless pottery shop. Next to Lyndsay was that nice Jewish lady, Gloria Hundred Trees (who’d married and immediately divorced a real Indian, just for that name, Nigel suspected).

Gloria was the most recent member of the Workshop to be sentenced to Siberia for butting heads with Gina B., and she sat there, glugging booze, while Gina turned her into a negative presence by deliberately over-praising everyone else in a precise pattern around her. She’d even praised everyone’s but Gloria’s choice of an entrée. Gloria had beautiful flame-red hair and Gina said to Jeff Johannsen, whose hair appeared to have reddish high-lights from certain angles, “Jeff, you have the most scrumptious red hair.”

Next to Gloria was the oldest member of the Workshop, Valmore Cheney, who wrote Dadaist rants in beautiful cursive. Gina would send a salvo of praise towards 80-year-old Valmore, right across poor Gloria, and Valmore would say “Alright, already!” with undisguised exasperation and Martha Teufel would slap a hand over her mouth and titter through it.

Next to Valmore, after two empty chairs where Mo Jenkins and her hubby should have been (trouble at home), came… wait for it… the lovely Tonya Rice. Tonya was the “scholarship” student, colored and poor, from North Minneapolis, her father black and absent, her mother Lebanese.

She took two busses to Nigel’s studio and then two busses back home every Workshop night and he was always relieved to see her again the next week, alive and relatively unmolested. She was midway through an obviously autobiographical first novel called “Ignorance of the Law,” that Nigel was quite convinced would end up being published. She’d submitted a story taken from it and despite the ah-troe-shus spelling, it was brilliant. She was nineteen years old and Nigel had bent over backwards to avoid responding to her physical beauty for the six months she’d been attending his Workshop.

She’d sit there on one of the big pillows in the sun room of his studio, in nothing more special than a tee-shirt and jeans, listening politely while the rest of the group jabbered and Nigel would catch himself peeking at her. Those desert eyes and slender brown hands. And now she was within smelling distance, to his immediate right, all dressed up and looking like a Sumerian Queen, wearing touchingly inappropriate pearls and a delightfully cheap perfume that reeked of candy. He found himself fighting the rudiments of a stiffy.

She’s ineffably effable, he thought. He was going to be very pleased to hand her her Nabby.

Speaking of which: two Nabokovs sat, like kidnap victims, in a gym bag at his feet. He stood up, when the bussers had cleared everything in preparation for dessert and hoisted the gym bag upon his place at the table.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Nigel smirked, “Protégés and colleagues,” he winked, “Friends and pains-in-the-asses.” They all laughed.

“I will no longer keep you in suspense. Or not for very much longer, at any rate. We didn’t really all show up here tonight for the good food, or convivial company, now did we?”

Good God, he thought, look at her! So sure she’ll be getting one! He could barely bring himself to gaze at that smug gob of hers. He was going to hate himself for handing one over to her. Hate himself.

(Think about the bloody boat, you berk, and get on with it)

“But before we get to the goodies, a few remarks.”

“As most of you know, I come from a funny little corner of the world called Elephant and Castle, as unmagical a place as can be, despite the whimsical poetry of the name. It’s a rule of thumb, in fact, that the more blighted and drear a place in England is, the more lyrical its name and vice-versa. There’s a place called Grimsby, for instance, that couldn’t be lovelier.”

“Anyway, back to Elephant and Castle, the rhyming nickname for which I can’t, in mixed company, repeat…”

Gina raised her hand and shouted, “Smelly cunts and arse-holes, luv!” with her Dick vanDykian attempt at Cockney. Martha Teufel slapped a hand over her mouth and tittered through it. Jeff Johannsen laughed as well, tugging on the waxed points of his facial monstrosity. Diners in far corners of Figlio’s turned around in their seats in mid-chew.

“Right,” said Nigel, “Right. Good one. Where was I?” He pulled on his nose and frowned. He definitely had a Merlot buzz going. He was amazed that he wasn’t slurring his speech. Or was he. All the stuff he’d planned on saying about Vladimir effing Nabokov had flown right out his head and through the open window.

“Erm… yes.” He regained his composure. “So there I was, as a bored illiterate youth, subsisting in that wretched stop along the Northern line, the only distinguishing feature of the neighborhood being that that was where you could go if you needed to explain to some unsympathetic bastard at British Telecom why you wouldn’t be able to pay your phone bill that month.”

He scrunched his face and falsettoed his voice Tiny Tim-ishly.

“It’s me mum, Sir. Sick again, innit?”

And everyone at the table had a good but brief (award the award, dammit!) laugh, and Nigel said, smiling down at the table, “And if anyone had told me then that twenty years later, I’d be standing at the head of this table in this fancy American restaurant, passing judgment on the literary works of all you good good writers, I’d’ve called that soothsayer a liar, or a nutter, at the very least.”

“But here I am, indeed! Passing judgment! And that’s what you all trust in me to do, in fact.”

He unzipped the gym bag. He got out the two Nabbys, and stole a look at Gina, who had stopped beaming.

“I usually only hand out one of these a year, but this year is special…” and he looked at Gina again and she was no longer just looking mildly confused. Now she looked dangerous. Of course: for a praise-greedy creep like her, sharing the award was nearly as bad as not getting one at all. In the micro-moment it took Nigel to finish his sentence, she had turned from a giddy pink to a blood-blister red and her mouth had hardened into an assassin’s professional grimace. She began fumbling in her purse for something: surely not a pearl-handled revolver?

“I usually, as I say, erm, only give out one of these at a time, but… uh… this year….”

He was relieved to see she had merely retrieved a compact from her purse…she wanted to look good for her big moment… but Nigel thought: I’ll be damned if I’ll give in to this frowsy, big-mouthed, no-talent Yankee bitch and give her anything… and he experienced a sort of epiphany that he knew was wine-based and yet he gave in to it and he looked down at lovely deserving Tonya Rice, who had not a glimmer of the sense of what was to come, and he said,

“But this year I’m giving two of them… to Tonya Rice, one for her short story and one for her novel, and I only wish I had more than these, and my hollow words, to give her…”

…and Del Eckhardt slammed both fists on the table and shouted that he wanted all of his money back and Gina B. was making a noise like a hiccuping jackal and Martha Teufel was saying Oh my! and Nigel closed his eyes and felt all Hell break loose and wash over him and his heart was beating in his skull where it surely did not belong and he fell back in his chair, pelted by lipsticks, with his palms over his eyes and Tonya Rice’s delicate little hand on his shoulder, if only in the form of a daydream.

He had the fleeting thought that Life was a beautiful and meaningless thing and if only he could capture a sense of that adequately on paper, he wouldn’t give a toss about having to give up the idea of having that ridiculous boat.

-March 1998

Poon

Mut fell off a mountain.

Not even a real one, thanks: a mountain in a Parkade. What an embarrassing way to go, busting your guts in front of a class picnic. With one false step, Mut had turned himself into an unusually graphic object lesson, gasping from the center of the puddle of his waning life and looking unappetizingly like some kind of pizza-human hybrid. Like something coming out of the ground as opposed to something that had hit it: Homo Pepperoni. The next wave from GeniTek, a man who can eat himself. Why not? They can do anything now.

But not for this feller Mut. Not in his final state of mortal extremity, because Mut had refused the emergency care. Said no… thanks anyway… as they were unpacking and assembling their Trauma Kits, so smart in their hot pink jumpsuits, so practiced with their grumpy flourishes of efficiency, their ho-hum power of God. It’s the law: you’re free to say no to it. They just have to establish your sanity/clarity at the scene. Make you count to ten and then backwards to one and then repeat the refusal. There’s even a simple six-step yes-no version if your vocal cords are for some reason useless.

I want to see a Sho about Paris, thought Max, as his mind wandered. Something naughty about pastry. But then he flashed on Mut again. Mut was much on his mind, along with diffuse thoughts on mortality.

Max tried to remember the connection; the link; to this Mut. Ah. He’d been a friend of Mori’s, of course. Poor Mori! Mut had come from Back East to be with Mori, in fact… to dine with him, long term. He’d come West from Back East by way of the Wild Wild Middle. Thought of himself as some kind of explorer. Mori was definitely the passive one in that combo. Mori was the throat and Mut was the stuffer.

And now Mori was gone, too, his ticket out having been a canister of metalized hydrogen in the nuke. Obvious suicide (grief about Mut) except for the coffee canister they later found screwed to the intake on Mori’s cloud bike. Now there’s a hefty lawsuit in the making. The cans are nearly identical, especially to a guy who was woozy on grief candy! He thinks he’s heating his morning coffee and gets a mushroom cloud instead. Idiots. Mori had left behind no shortage of Uncles and Brothers and Nephews to litigate vengefully on his behalf. Daddi still around too. And they were Jues. With a name like Mori? With a name like Mori Izreel? Hollywood Jues. Sho klan.

Mori had cleverly left behind a veritable tribe of litigants when he checked out, as bright as the Hindenburg, as bright as the Sun, fusing with the walls of his kitchen. Unlike this Mut, who, as far as Max knew, had taken his mortal bow with livid Wasp austerity, leaving not so much as a single mourner, or creditor, or even some disaffected progeny in his wake. Which in turn rendered the residual gossip about his accident depressingly juiceless. Just some poor dead lonely neo-Californer and his empty house full of well-kept toys. There would be a State Auction Back East which Max made a mental note to keep an eye-out for, with his nose for bargains and fixer-uppers and unexpected treasures. He said ‘Sho,’ and a screen came creaking down from the ceiling. Max said, ‘Oops, I mean, Fone,’ and the screen went creaking back up and House said, ‘Who, please?’

‘…van Boyn.’

‘Don or Ronni?’

‘Which is which?’

“Ronni’s the Daddi.’

‘Not the Daddi.’

‘Is this a Lookifone call?’

‘Nah. Don’t really feel like being seen, do I?  Or seeing anyone else, for that matter. Just…’

House understood. ‘Placing the call,’ it said, preempting further explanation, without a trace of judgment implied. House made a mental note, in fact, to stop offering the Lookifone option. Max could request it when he felt up to it again, one day. Max was biting a fingernail while House foned Don van Boyn’s House and asked it to locate the master, please, on property. Then the two Houses exchanged gossip equivalent in volume to half the content of the fabled Library of Alexandria, in less than a micro-second.

He’d been fully conscious right up until the moment he’d flickered out, this Mut guy, refusing the medical attention but toothlessly asking for morphine (mmorpeen). There was even a rumour that he’d been assassinated by Napa Valley Royalists but Max knew for a fact that this was lurid inaccurate bullshit. A theatrical embellishment from the minds of a generation of gossips reared on tooth-rotting Snack Operas. But, seriously, what do you think his last thoughts were? What was it like? To suddenly know that you were really finally done with everything? A relief, maybe. Or an insult, like being laid off. Max had a friend named Toynee who was a Link Operator for 91111, and though Toynee hadn’t handled the call himself, he’d been on-shift with the guy who…

‘Max?’

‘Don!’

‘What’s round?’

‘Oh, you know, the usual. What’s round on you?’

Just hearing Don’s humdrum voice made Max regret having called him. But you had to call someone, or people started calling you a recluse. Which was really what all of Mut’s friends, and everyone else from his generation and class, were. They were hermits from birth, but had spent most of their lives trying not to seem so. And what kind of life is that, thought Max, in parallel to the grunts of assent and whinnies of flabbergast that he was dispensing robotically into Don’s stream of consciousness small talk… what kind of life is that? Where you put more effort into trying to seem that you weren’t what you clearly were than in simply being yourself and enjoying it?

Max and his friends were congenital hermits; hermits who ordered out for love with the casual presumption of unspectacular satisfaction with which their Way Back forbearers had rung out for pizza. Which brought Max’s mind back to Mut. And Toynee. Toynee who knew the guy who had handled the 91111 call about Mut falling off a mountain. Though Toynee hadn’t handled the call himself, he’d been on-shift with the guy who had. The actual guy who’d routed the call. And the stats as Toynee had dutifully gossiped them were grimly free of drama. And as follows:

Middle-aged guy of ninety or so, interesting looking (before and after), careless. Probably thinking ahead to dinner; dinner with someone hot and hungry and new; or thinking how great the day’s bowel movement had been… or maybe he’d seen a fucking sea gull and panicked. Took a step without looking. Off a two hundred foot fiberglass mountain.

Splutch.

What was he doing up there in the first place? What was he trying to prove? That he was different? That he wasn’t agoraphobic like all upper class folks plainly are? Even Don…

Ooops! It was happening to Max more and more these days: he would suddenly realize that a fone call was over, long after the fact, with no recollection of how he’d ended it. What he couldn’t know was that Don van Boyn was standing in his own dressing room and touching his own face, at that very moment, with the same kind of amused horror about his identical lapse in short-term memory. Oh well.

The one interesting detail about Mut’s death was the thing about his ‘last words’. Or word. Syllable. The last thing he’d said before winking out, apparently…but remember, this was how Toynee Diaz had repeated it… the last word(s) of Mut Kin on the occasion of his own extinction were (was) reported to have been: ‘Poon.’ Where did that come from? Was it supposed to mean something?

Poon.

Max squinted at himself in the vanity. He just couldn’t seem to keep his weight on. What was he now, under 350? He was afraid to weigh himself. Every day, nowadays, it seemed to him, he could make out a little more of the outline of the durably primitive skull that lurked under the loosening sock of his upper class face. As though death was a low-rent hustler that he harboured within himself. Pretty morbid thought for a man of seventy.

But then: Max’s dear old Daddi had only lived to be a hundred and sixty, hadn’t he? So there was always that. But you know what Max also says? He doesn’t say it but he thinks it… he remembers hearing it once and what an impression it made on his then-young mind. Some quote from some Smart Guy from the Way Back.

He who lives too long is doomed to forget everything, as though he had never lived.

And it wasn’t just a quote: it really happened that way. Max had watched, for example, that Sho about that guy in San Fran Angeles who had lived to be nearly 400. Sounds great, doesn’t it, but what was the old thing but a bent-over babbler, brown as sap, repulsively skinny, disoriented and reeking of camphor? No: I mean, yes: better to die with one’s fat, and one’s memories, intact.

Dinner tonight with Sye. This thought was a welcome intrusion. Sye was as fun as a Japanese toymaker. This would be the first time that Max and Sye had ever eaten together; that one guilty night of Fone Snacks last month didn’t count. Max had been snacking lightly alone for half a year now… six sad months like an adolescent… he was ready to eat a horse with somebody… and just the thought of stuffing his mouth, or having his mouth stuffed… was enough to make him want to run upstairs to the pantry and gorge. It took all of his will power to resist the urge. Save it for tonight. Save it for Sye. Hot little lower-class cherub-faced big-wristed Sye.

Max pictured himself stuffing Sye’s mouth with brown or purple or gold… getting his fingers all the way in there to fuss and snatch with that fat Polish tongue (fuck the rubber glove! He wasn’t wearing a rubber glove! He knew he was clean)… and working his arm down Sye’s clutching esophagus, elbow deep (it’s even hotter without the gag-suppressors or esophageal dilators; ever try it?)… and he thought: come on. Ooooh. Just. Just a little snack. Just a little something to hold me over until…

He padded out of the bathroom gripping the towel supporting his dense white belly in its sling. He was as beautiful and white as a powdered doughnut. He was his own exquisitely unwieldy luggage. He headed upstairs with restrained haste; waddled upstairs in search of the thousand little drawers of his velvet-walled pantry with a sophisticated sneer on his face. There were men out there who still considered solo snacking some kind of weakness, some kind of sin. Like you’d go blind from it or something. Like it was antisocial.

Max let loose a bark of laughter that made Caesar and Brutus his Toy Collies (very expensive, each the size of a tea pot) jump as he switched his hips through the incense-blue sunbeams of the atrium, letting the towel fall, concentrating on his reflection as it rippled over the bruise-blue pool, arms paddling. A bark of laughter as he remembered with affectionate hilarity how his own Daddi (an educated man! A Senator!) had warned him in stentorian tones that uncontrolled solo snacking causes… acne. That’s what they thought back then, thought Max, with a compassionate nod.

When he finally emerged from his pantry with one porcelain saucer bearing one rich brown dollop, his hand, the one carrying the saucer, was trembling. The free hand scooped up a stained and smeary magazine enroute to the chaise longue. Not a cinemag or chewbaiter or something… nothing about food: no, a scholarly old thing called a National Geographic.

He paged to a well-thumbed and paste-crusted page. A black humanite… a black female humanite… Max tried to remember his High School biology. Female? Before Mankind had fully seized the reins of His own procreation, back in the Way Back, offspring was… seeded? How did that line go? Offspring was seeded in a kind of living receptacle on legs called a ‘female.’ A freak inferior version of a man not only designed to be ‘fertilized’ with a literal kind of ‘seed’ but also equipped to dispense food, post-parturition, to offspring. Like some kind of mammalian vending machine!

Science, thought Max. Science is so… incredible.

Even more incredible to think that Mankind’s Way Back Past was still very much a Present in certain savage zones of the planet. Supposedly. Max peered closely at the photo in the old mag (he was a collector) and clucked his tongue at the humanite, who was barely dressed, standing with a casually brandished machete in front of a dumb old wooden house in the clearing of a forest… a real forest… and smiling, of all things. Max smiled back and shuddered: that black smile was a promise of bloody murder. The caption claimed the image was taken from deep within the middle territories of the Federated States of Chicargo. The Wild Wild Middle. That savage, landlocked country.

Now, if you saw the subject of the photo as some version of impressively well-developed animal… as Max had been trained all of his life to see it… no problem. The photo wasn’t freakish, but merely of interest. In fact he imagined the phrase in the voice of some masterfully reserved 21st century British naturalist, passing him a specimen and pronouncing it thus: of interest.

But if you shifted your mind just that hair’s width along the catastrophe-articulated curve of biosemantics and saw this photograph as some awful example of a degenerate version of a…

Wow.

But there were those… this supposedly growing movement… a queer minority that Max had only the scantest incidental knowledge of, thank goodness. In fact he’d heard dark gossip along those lines about that Mut guy, and Mori too. Anarchists who were proposing to believe just that, that these primitive black things… I know it sounds ridiculous… these ‘females’ with their wild hair and grotesquely large pendulous breasts and pathetically fragile jawlines and knobless throats… these penis-less shit-skinned monsters with broad hips and big nipples and hollow insides, for godsakes, were… were actually hu…

Did you say something? asked House and Max frowned.

He honestly couldn’t remember.

-May 2003

Burns

Moisture beaded on the cold pane of the window. The moisture on the window was condensed breath, plus vapor from the pot of water that Burns kept on top of the oven. They were silent, the two of them, struggling on the mattress under the window. They were silent except for their rapid and shallow and start-and-stop breaths. There was no moan of pleasure or calling out of nonsense, but Burns was humping Pandora so relentlessly that she had to bite her lower lip. She had to bite her lower lip to keep from laughing. It had just suddenly struck her as comical. To distract herself she looked at the window and noticed that under the patch of steam on the window was a word that someone had scrawled before with a fingertip.

The word was still nearly visible under the new layer of condensation. Pandora tried to make the word out but it was difficult. She was seeing it upside down and her head was bouncing. It was difficult to concentrate because she was trying to read it upside down as she lay there on her back with Burns pounding away between her legs, her head bouncing under his slamming push-ups. Her legs were up in the air around him, up like she was giving birth to a full-grown coal-black heavyweight boxer.

It was like he was trying to knock the wind out of her. She concentrated on figuring out the word on the window. She felt that it was a message. A word some other woman had scrawled on the window while she also lay helpless on her back while Burns filleted her; knocked the wind out of her; a message from the sweet sorority of the badly fucked. Pandora knew it would bother her if she didn’t decode the message. She thought When Burns gets off I’ll get a better look at it. The message appeared to consist of several scrawled letters and one of them was clearly an “o”.

Burns ejaculated with a rude word and a death rattle and rolled over, out of bed, and left the room. He wanted to work more on his painting. On his way out of the bedroom he brushed a hand over the soft shoulders of the suits that hung on a chrome rack by the doorway. She sat up as he left, facing a jagged-edged mirror that lay on its side along the bed.

The room was very dark: she couldn’t see herself in the mirror and she had to feel the floor along the mattress to find her little purse. Burns had absolutely forbidden her from smoking, to protect his suits from soaking up the odor, but she lit a filtered Camel anyway. She blew smoke towards the window. The window was open a few inches and the smoke flowed out in a stream. The cigarette’s tip cast a dim light on her thumb tip and finger and she sucked on it. She just sat there puffing quietly, her bone-white legs flattening her breasts, her chin on her knees, her straight blonde hair spilling over her toes. She looked in the mirror, barely able to make out the shaft of the cigarette where it stuck in the bruised seam of her lips and she listened. She could hear Burns through the wall.

He paced the room and grunted and talked to himself while he slashed at the painting. The huge canvas was nailed to the wall, so she could hear every impact of his violent brush; the strokes dragged and punched at the canvas. Burns had explained to her that making a picture beautiful was just the first step. To finish a picture he had to find a way of purifying it, of torturing the beauty mercilessly out of it until all that was left was the evidence of violation which became the testament to beauty that real art should be and that’s what he was doing. Now she winced every time his brush stabbed the canvas.

Before, in bed, she had tried to kiss him; she had tried to twice; and each time he’d caught her face in his big hand and stopped her, pushing her down, and the second time he’d lost his temper hissing How many times do I have to tell you stay offa my mouth, girl? and he had pinned her and angled her face away from his and bore down with all of his furious humping weight. Pandora touched herself there absently while recalling it.

She listened to the sound of Burns paint as his brush slashed and poked at the wall. She could see now that the word on the window began with an S. First S, then o. The other letters were too faint to make out so what she could make out was So.

She crushed the cigarette out on the windowsill and dressed quickly, leaving her watch on a chair by the bed, and slipped between the heavy curtains that draped the bedroom doorway. Tip-toeing across the dimly lit kitchen, she saw on the kitchen table two untouched cups of coffee, separated clouds of cream like thunderheads floating in each, and a fat poetry book, spread open on its face. She retrieved the book and carefully turned the key in the front door lock. She eased the door open and felt her way slowly down three flights of littered stairs in the moonlit stairwell. The building was like a War ruin. Was it a War ruin? Out on the street, a chilly March wind shouldered her towardsthe U-Bahn at Schlesisches Tor but she couldn’t help looking back. Burns’ shadow stained the curtains and she gloated to think of him missing her.

He stood naked in the bathwater light from a hodgepodge of candles. His calloused hands were clasped over the smooth dark solid of his skull and he stood there like that, like facing a firing squad. The studio was a vast empty room with tall front windows and rotten floor boards and there was a table in one corner covered with crushed tubes of oil and stiff rags and tin cans full of brushes, some with fine sharp tips and others bushy like tails, everything stinking of turpentine and the buttery poisons of oil paint. The canvas of the painting was nailed over the whole huge wall and the painting was dark and wild and ugly and Burns could almost step up into it and drown in the swirl.

He was tall and coal-black muscular. His broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist. His legs were graceful and powerful. Despite the stitched scar along the tender panel of his left forearm, his body was sculpturally beautiful and in every detail and proportion perfect. But his face was crippled by a cleft palate. A hare lip. The bridge of his nose was fine but the nostrils were bent and seemed to melt into the flat snarl of the hyphenated upper lip. His soft black muzzle was also discolored: white in patches.

But he dressed well and attractive women were fascinated when he approached them arrogantly, unapologetically ugly, with his cocky east-London accent, in an impeccably tailored suit. He’d perfected a method of bringing otherwise haughty women under his control and the illusion, from his dress and bearing, that he had money was only a fraction of it. It was in part his knowledge of how much contempt beautiful women had for the sexual power that men granted them: they found the experience of submitting to Burns an ironic and obscene delight, but the affairs often ended in protracted bedroom silences, or mean-spirited remarks just after climax, but only when Burns himself had decided he was finished. He could always tell the ones that might fall the hardest: they were, inevitably, the ones who had the most to lose. Unattractive women were immune to his ugliness.

Once, a rich man’s wife had asked him, before finally agreeing to leave his bed one night, How do you decide when you’re finished with somebody? and he’d said that he was finished with a woman when her pride was gone; self-esteem fascinated him. It fascinated him that people with no accomplishments could nevertheless feel good about themselves…proud even. Self-esteem fascinated him. It was almost tangible; a substance, that could be added to or subtracted from the measurable qualities of a soul. Where did this substance come from? It was magical stuff. You could take it from someone, but taking it, you couldn’t have it. It was only at the exact moment of taking a woman’s self-esteem from her that Burns experienced a sensation close to that of having it.

He paced in front of the wet canvas and days-old candles melted to guttery pools, huffing for air, and a coven of shadows, proportionate to each candle, pranced and jiggled on the walls. He felt the magnificent presence, pacing the studio with him, of something heartless.

The phone rang and he let it ring. He could hear it through the bedroom wall. The phone persisted so he grudgingly went to the other room to answer it but whoever had called and let it ring with such irritating persistence simply stood on the other end breathing and then hung up after he said Hallo.

Burns put the phone down by the chair by the mattress and discovered the antique gold watch that Pandora had left on the chair. It was heavy in his hand. He scooped it up and held it against the luminous blue dial of the clock radio on the floor so he could read the worn inscription on its soft backplate. The inscription read Beloved Pearl. He slipped the glittering watch on his black arm.

So on Monday Burns woke early and dressed in a light gray suit to celebrate the advent of spring and stood in the drizzle-light by the open bedroom window and rifled the yellow pages for a Ku’damm Jeweler, his long black finger with spatulate pink-nailed tip dragging down column after column until it stopped by the bold face of Steinmann Goldschmied. He figured he could get at least a hundred deutschmarks for Pandora’s watch. That was a hundred kilos of coal bricks to heat his flat with or half a month’s rent.

When Burns stepped out the flat he lifted his trousers and stooped and hid the key under a cardboard box full of old paperback books that he kept in the hallway. People might look under potted plants, or welcome mats, or even on the dusty sill of the door, but it wouldn’t occur to anyone to look under a heavy box full of trash for the front door key.

Riding the U-Bahn into town was always a chore. A year ago Burns had taken the taxi everywhere but now he was running out of money and reduced to riding the Underground without a ticket: riding it schwarz or “black”, as the Berliners called it. Along this section of the line in Kreuzberg, from Gleisdreieck to the end of the line at Schlesisches Tor, the U-Bahn was actually above-ground. The above-ground stations were drafty and pigeon-fraught in spring and unbearably cold in winter. The passengers at this end of the line were variously afflicted: green-haired punks and heroin addicts and gangs of Turkish teenagers with their pit bull terriers: he’d change wagons to avoid standing near one of those dogs. The fact that the beasts were notorious for killing children didn’t seem to deter people from wanting to own them.

The train snaked over the gray vista of Kreuzberg, stuttering over the rusted chinks in the well-worn tracks, twisting left and then right again over the busy streets and the paralleling canal, upsetting whirlwinds of pigeons at certain junctures, and passing close by living rooms and kitchens full of people so used to it that they seemed to have forgotten that they were being watched. Once, Burns had been on that train late at night and at a slow part of the track he’d looked into a window and seen a fat, middle-aged man fucking a tall, beautiful Turkish girl, her wild hair bouncing.

He stared out the window. He felt the eyes of the people on him, as usual, as much on his suit as on his deformity. He knew he was being watched and enjoyed it because he felt powerful. In fact, he couldn’t dream of being seen in anything other than one of his beautifully tailored suits. In jeans and a tee shirt they would have mistaken him for a wretch. But in one of his suits it was clear that he was greater than all those grubby people.

After Möckenbrucke the wagon emptied, leaving Burns alone with a pretty girl who stepped into the middle of the wagon with a lost look on her face. She was tiny and blue-veined pale, with long thick sable-shiny hair. Her bright-green eyes were wide-set and huge and when she blinked she blinked so slowly she looked like a doll doing it, her gaze trained upwards on the map posted on the curving ceiling of the wagon. She had come straight into the car staring at it. She was wearing a dark blue velvet jacket and a sweater under it… a dark brocaded skirt…the kind of outfit that seems colorfully ethnic to Americans but simply means Slavic poverty.

She tilted a few degrees forward against the weight of a bulging back-pack. Her full red lips separated into a whistling pucker. Burns looked her carefully up and down and noticed her boots. They were brand new red-brown leather, ankle-high, pointed-toed, with fur cuffs. She had obviously purchased them especially for this trip. Out here in the wild west.

Because the girl appeared to be so lost, Burns seized the opportunity and crossed over to her and asked, in German, if she needed a little help. With a helpless smile she said Please, do you speak English?

-Of course.

She looked back up at the overhead U-Bahn map and said It seems that I am in the opposite direction.

She was Russian, visiting a friend who now had permission to stay in Berlin and her friend, she said, was the smartest man she’d ever known but that he couldn’t get anywhere because he was poor and people consider the poor to be stupid, though he had studied architecture in Moscow and could make very beautiful, useful things for the world if given a chance. Yet, he cleaned toilets at a nightclub instead. S

She touched the cuff of Burn’s beautiful silk suit and said it was magnificent.

She said I am Irina and Burns reached out and said Len Burns. They shook hands, Burns’ big black hand engulfing hers and the contact lingered pleasantly until a jolt from the rickety train bounced them apart. They stood rocking over the tracks and Burns noticed her eyes wandering again and again to his lip and he felt himself getting angry over it but suddenly she remarked, innocently, Without that you would be ordinary.

Burns said, People are usually too polite to mention it. Children do point now and then, mind you. He smiled and the lip showed its seared flaws dramatically. She was perfectly beautiful and could never have been other than glamorized by the world’s gaze. She was beautiful in the face and beautifully shaped and petite: how could she ever have been anything other than wanted?

The train lurched into the Zoo Station. He said Can I buy you lunch at my place? And one thing lead to the invariable other.

Burns was groggy. He realized it was the phone. Ringing. The phone was ringing and he’d been dreaming so he reached out. Hallo? He scowled around the gloomy bedroom. What time is it? He looked at his arm but remembered the watch was gone.

Irina had admired it, laying beside him in bed. He’d let her try it on and she’d admired herself in the mirror with it. She’d said Who’s Pearl? and Burns had said My mother and shocked himself by feeling guilty about having lied to her. Then he’d said I want you to have this. It would mean a lot to me. And now it was Pandora herself on the phone, calling about the very watch.

Pandora said Hi, Burns. It’s me.

She said I think I left my watch at your place the other night and the sentence sounded so polished in her mouth, so artificial and well-rehearsed, that Burns relished the game that would follow, during which he would pretend no knowledge of it and Pandora unable to assert her certainty that the watch had been there because of course she’d left it on purpose. Her only chance of having the watch back was to admit what she’d done and that therefore she knew, for a fact, that it had to be there where she’d left it…otherwise it was impossible. Burns pretended to be distracted by something. He said I’m sorry what did you just ask me? She repeated herself. He savored the pause before she answered, then fed on the hint of panic that rose into her voice when she finally spoke.

He told her that he was afraid he hadn’t seen it and that if it would make her happy he’d tear his place apart looking for it, first thing in the morning, but he doubted it that there was much chance of it turning up.

Can’t you just check the place now? My grandmother gave me that watch.

But Burns hung up. The phone rang a dozen times. Then it stopped and resumed ringing. He stretched out on the bed with a muscular arm folded under the back of his head and played with himself, thinking of Irina, while it rang. He moaned to think that at first he had almost lost interest in fucking her at all because getting her into his flat, and then into his bedroom, had been too easy. It wasn’t until she’d had a few drinks and slipped her top off and he saw her magnificent affliction that he wanted her.

She’d been sitting there on the edge of his mattress, babbling on and on about art and morality and sacrifice, how ordinary moral rules could be broken to serve higher ideals, her English softening and then crumbling in the booze she was guzzling, when suddenly she’d crossed her arms down to the bottom of her sweater and hooked her thumbs into it and inverted the sweater over her head, lifting her hair and her breasts with it. Her hair poured down again over the pale breasts and her belly. It wasn’t until after she’d swept the curtain of her hair back over a shoulder that Burns had seen clearly what he was staring so avidly at.

It was as wide, across the middle, as a fancy silk scarf. Embossed in her opalescent flesh like a signet. A huge purple welt, spiraling her torso, screwing around from the lower left side of her belly, slashing across her middle and casting a raised shadow on the base of her right breast. A tremendous birth defect. A delicious hidden deformity. It magnificently ruined her otherwise perfect nakedness. She’d looked down at it herself, as if seeing it for the first time. Or as though she’d been hoping that it might have disappeared since she’d dressed that morning. When she looked down, her hair cascaded over it, Burns got on his knees and parted the sable scrim and traced the raised silhouette of the thick scar with a finger and her tears burned his arm. He made love to her on the scar, jerking on it with sad noises.

He lay there on her for quite awhile until Irina complained about his weight on her and asked him to get off, so he rolled over and they talked quietly. He was talking about art. He drifted to sleep beside her with his head on her breast while she sang softly. When he’d been awakened by Pandora’s phone call, Irina had been gone already for hours. He lay in the dark, savoring the memory of Irina’s secret body, and then he rolled over in bed towards the window and reached up and wrote the number fifty-one, in the steam on the glass with his fingertip. But damn if he didn’t feel a twinge of guilt doing it. What was happening to him? Was he falling in love?

He stood from the bed, putting the telephone aside and went into the kitchen and found a note from Irina on the table. It said Thank you so much for wonderful gift. I know it means so much to you. Why you give it to me? We must talk. I’m curious of how a man gives a mother’s gift to a stranger. Can we meet tonight at same U-Bahn stop at eleven? Please if you want to. She had signed it Beloved, but not Pearl.

He walked into the studio and examined his monstrous painting where it writhed on the wall. It was so vast and hideous that it demanded respect. Irina had said that she’d hated it, and Burns had enjoyed her honesty, thinking, at the time, how much sweeter it would be to bring her down from her high horse by seducing and then denying her later. But that was before he’d had her under him on the bed, her scar under his penis as if he’d ejaculated it, purple across her stomach and breast.

He looked at the painting. It stared back with its million crushed black eyes. He had an impulse. It came to him what an effort it had been to keep this life going that way, to support the self he had invented in Berlin. These paintings, after all, were just shields, or blinds, that he’d used to protect himself from the world’s pity. He felt no real pleasure in the making of art. Did anyone, other than mediocrities who puttered at crafts? Art was just what rich people decided that it was, anyway. If the rich were unaware of what you were doing, then it wasn’t art. And you didn’t exist. Wasn’t it true that Burns had fabricated Burns The Artist from out of thin air with the money he’d gotten from the settlement? If that architect’s pit bull hadn’t bitten him in Green Park that day those years ago, where would he be?

Well, now he was in Berlin, and his money was running out, and, truth be told, he didn’t give a rat’s ass for painting. The turpentine gave him headaches. But now he would find the courage to begin again, forget about painting, get a real job, change his ways. With Irina beside him he could be a person. He’d return to London with her…she’d jump at the chance of getting out of Russia.

He ripped the painting down from the wall. The canvas was so vast that he exhausted himself grappling with it. He went and got a large pair of shears from a tool box under the table and began ripping it and he never felt freer in his life.

Later, he chose his favorite suit to meet Irina in, a beautiful beige three piece. He wore it with a blue silk shirt. He stood and waited for her at the U-Bahn station where they’d first met. Women would come marching up the metal stairs to the platform and, every time, he’d be relieved, then disappointed, as their fair heads crested the stairs.

After twenty minutes of hoping, he worried that Irina had gotten the stations wrong, or gotten lost on the way. Or perhaps she’d been robbed or assaulted: she was tiny, beautiful and foreign and this was a bad neighborhood, full of junkies and anarchists. But such thoughts were melodramatic. She had probably overslept. She had his number, in any case, so he decided to wait another ten or fifteen minutes and then return home and simply wait for her call.

He got home an hour later, feeling disappointed, intending to check his machine for messages, when he discovered the front door key missing from its spot under the crate in the dark hallway. He felt around the dirty floor on his hands and knees in the vicinity of the box but he knew it should be exactly there, where he always hid it. Just beneath the front right corner of the box. Had his neighbors spied on him and seen where he kept the key and taken it? Turkish riff raff. Had he just unwittingly spoiled a future robbery? Over the door was a transom he always kept open…too narrow for him to get through himself. He went downstairs and outside to a payphone on the corner. He got out his little black book. He dialed and waited.

-Pandora? he said.

-Burns? She sounded shocked. Hi.

-Listen, I need you to get right over here. I think someone’s nicked the key to my flat and I need help getting in.

She sighed heavily and just said Burns. You only call when you want something.

-I want two things, actually, he said. Just come over, and you can decide if it was a mistake to afterwards. Fair enough?

Burns was standing in the dark of his hallway, standing guard, when Pandora got there. The dim lights of her face and hands and her clean white tee shirt, framed by her dark leather jacket, ascended the stairs like bits of a ghost. He saw her before she could see him and she was startled when he moved towards her, removing his suit jacket. He pressed against her, and a blond gallon of hair spilled in his face as she looked down as he stooped to bite a breast through her tee-shirt.

Pandora pushed away from him and Burns chuckled, undoing his pants, and guided her hand by her wrist. He ran the rill of small bones in the back of her hand over a smooth snake. He laid his massive hands on her shoulder and weighed her down to her knees to receive communion, leaning back on the banister and to ease his hips to her face and he swelled and shoved in her mouth.

Afterwards, he carefully removed his jacket and hung it over the banister and gave her a foot up to the transom. He felt the usual grateful emptiness…he felt drained…casual about existence after coming. He was glad she was there to do all this. She wiggled through the transom and he heard her drop lightly to the tile on the other side of the door.

He remembered the thank you note that Irina had left him, on the kitchen table, and hoped Pandora wouldn’t see the damn thing it after switching the lights on. He tried to think of a lie that would cover the situation, but his kitchen light went on and Pandora yelled I think you’ve been robbed and opened the door and Burns pushed past her. He went straight to the bedroom and found all of his suits gone. He made a sound like an animal.

Pandora just stood in the kitchen, where things were a bit of a mess, listening to Burns cursing and kicking things and sounding insane. His precious suits. All gone. His life was over and so forth. The bastards had taken his suits and so forth. Without those suits, he couldn’t even leave the house. But his face burned from the inside out as the truth came clearer to him. His seared lip curled up over his teeth as it came to him. Irina had seen where Burns kept the door key. She’d watched him. Irina had known where the key was.

Burns pushed by Pandora into the studio and found his masterpiece, the most important painting he’d ever done; in shreds all over the floor. His heart sank when he saw it, strewn about in ripped piles, as though he himself had not destroyed it.

But there was still hope: he was dithering madly as he gathered the scraps and tatters and began arranging them around himself on the studio floor, trying to reconstruct it and he was saying I can start over. I can still fix the painting and I have one suit left and I’ll look good and I can start over. He was on his hands and knees, shuttling around from scrap to scrap and some of the scraps of canvas were yards long and others were smaller than quilting squares, stiff with bumpy layers of paint. The slaughtered painting sprawled like black skin in heaps on the floor around him.

Pandora followed him into the studio. She had fetched the suit jacket from the banister. She stood there with it draped over her skinny white arms which were crossed over her chest. She was fascinated. She watched Burns scurry about on the floor: he looked like a wretch in an asylum.

She said to him, calmly, You’re going to ruin your pants like that. It’s the last suit you’ve got. If you ruin this suit it’s over for you. Are you crazy? You better change into some jeans before you ruin those pants.

Burns looked up and said You’re right. That’s a girl. Quick thinking. His words took on a pathetic hare-lipped sibilance in the stress of the moment. He jumped up and ran into the bedroom and slipped out of the suit pants and carefully hung them on the empty rack. He refused to look at the bed because he could still see Irina there wearing that purple stain. He’d been a fool and he’d paid the price. That simple. But fate had mercifully left him with one suit.

If he stuck to it he could work the galleries and become a success…he could still make an impression and when, one day, he started to sell paintings he’d buy more fine suits and then he’d be Burns again…fully Burns. As for now, he’d learned his lesson. He’d very nearly forgotten how cozy an affliction discontent really was when compared to abject, irremediable misery.

Pandora was just standing around with nothing to do when Burns came out of the bedroom in jeans, his magnificent black chest glistening with sweat. He grabbed her ass and said Wait for me in there while I fix this painting. When I come out, we’re gonna have a party. He turned and looked at her but failed to make eye contact and he covered his mouth and said, You wanted to be my woman, didn’t you?

Then he went to work. There were a thousand shredded pieces to deal with, but it wasn’t impossible. He could do it, he told himself. He could fix it. He could glue it to another canvas. First, he would find all the fragments and lay them out in proper order, like a puzzle. He hummed while he worked.

Pandora, also humming, was in the bedroom with the heavy shears, ripping his last suit to shreds.

-July 1992

Me and Dusty England

he wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld

-James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Appearance is destiny. Just ask any born-blonde with double-d cup breasts. Or any dwarf. You can’t judge a book by its cover…you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover…but aren’t most books sold largely on the strength of their covers?

My gorgeous mother spent most of my childhood on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors of the tenement flat that we lived in. Outside, on Chicago’s Southside, it was poisonous and filthy, but in our home every surface was scrubbed and polished clean. My mother kept the windows shut, banning the stink and evil.

On weekends, one of my four real uncles would take us for a drive through the country, far outside the city limits. Mother would stuff me in the back seat with the picnic basket and off we’d go, in a beat up old car on the highway. Sometimes we’d get a really late start in the afternoon and end up in the forest at twilight, the woods alive with insect din and the searchparty lamps of the firefly.

Holding mom’s hand (but I never called her “Mom” or “Mommy”; I never called her anything; there was no need), I’d follow her follow my uncle into a hazy clearing. We’d put down a blanket and sit and eat fruit. Our blanket was just a cheap white bedspread, vivid between the dark grass and my mother’s long legs, her beautiful taupe legs. I can’t tell you how many times, as an adult, I’ve fantasized about going back and trying to find those woods, just to sit in that same spot on some summer twilight and chide her selfish ghost.

She kept an unusual piece of furniture in her bedroom, a lacquered red dressing cabinet, taller than I was then, with a built-in closet whose door swung out on baroque hinges and there were little drawers at the top. The little drawers were full of nothing but buttons, every possible variety: glass and bone and ivory and wood buttons; big square buttons from England, little scuffed leather buttons like knots. I’d slide a stool to the dressing cabinet and climb up and open each of the four little drawers to count the buttons in them, giving up when I’d thought I’d reached a million. The right-most drawer was magical, containing nothing but buttons colored red. Every shape and size and texture, but all red. I liked to peer into the drawers at night with a flash light while my mother slept off a party. That dressing cabinet makes me think of the grief that my mother’s beauty brought to both of us.

I’d sit on the edge of her big old inherited bed, my pajama’d feet dangling over the dusty throw-rug that covered the chilly cement floor, and watch sternly while she rifled through the cabinet for this or that pair of stockings, this or that brassiere. If I didn’t approve of an item of clothing I’d just sigh. A worldweary sigh.

I didn’t talk much in those days. If I sighed like that my mother would usually change into something else, unless I was very wrong, in which case she’d say Honey, you might not like this particular item but it’s not you that I’m dressing up to please. She’d check herself in a dim oval mirror tilted on the cabinet’s top and just about the time she’d be combing her hair, or petting lipstick onto her pout, my moon-faced grandmother would show up and I’d be ushered like a lunatic to my unquiet bed.

And thirty minutes after that there’d be a Cadillac’s bullying horn and mother would hurry out the door, only to return at the crack of dawn all chewed up, a button or two missing from her blouse, grandmammy snoring on the living room couch (her glasses skewed) and me wheezing, upset in the blue dark at the top of the stairs by her bedroom. I always waited there for her, unable to sleep until she was back in the house. One night, I remember, she came back with an amazing rip in her red silk top, clutching a little white eyeless teddy bear that her date had forced on her.

As she passed me where I fretted at the top of the stairs she suddenly stooped and kissed me and got me all snotty and salty-wet and said Honey this bear’s an early birthday present for you from your motherfucking step-uncle Cecil.

I only remember bits and pieces from those days: the rest is murk. I see my early self as a gray photograph on the bottom of a troubled ocean. I see the front of the black-bricked tenement we lived in, the pale shades lowered in dark windows, through a sulfuric curtain of smoke and flames. Also, there’s my memory of my childhood fantasy of who my father was. He was bearded and long-haired and sad-looking. A white fellow. I’d seen his picture on a pageless calendar that hung in my mother’s bedroom, over her bed, virile and territorial. I can see him now, his arms out-stretched.

At the age of nine, right before my freakish growth spurt, I found myself living with Foster Parents, the Englands, in Pulaski Park, a middle class white neighborhood on the other side of Chicago. The change happened so quickly that I had no idea where my mother, or my grandmother or four real uncles, had vanished to. One day these people seemed to exist, and the next day they didn’t. One morning my mother unlocked her bedroom door and cornered me in the bathroom and spontaneously shellacked me with sad kisses. She thrust that hideous eyeless white teddy bear into my arms and sobbingly begged me to keep it always and remember her by it. Begged me to never lose it.

A minute later there was a beige sedan with the insignia of the state of Illinois on its doors parked out front in the drifting haze, which twinkled with sparks, downwind from the incinerator and a white man and a white woman got out, the woman breathing through a handkerchief and they came and got me. And so my mother was gone, or I was gone, I mean and the next thing I knew I was in Pulaski Park, standing on the front step of two old white-haired white people called England, clutching that eyeless white bear and sniffing bored tears. That’s the day I became an England, nick-named Dusty.

Sweet, skinny old Mrs. England bent over and wrapped me in her dry white arms and exclaimed Welcome to your new home, son! I never felt so black in all my life.

If before that I saw myself as “tan” or “camel” or “caramel” or any other of the euphemisms that Negroes had appropriated to salve the social burn of blackness, I now knew better: I was black. Black as coal. Bible black. Anthracite obsidian dark-side-of-the-moon subterranean black. No, it never really occurred to me, in so many words, that I was black, until the day I got white parents. It took some getting used to.

I attended an all-white elementary school called Eisenhower Elementary. Fourth and fifth grade crawled by with the ordinary geologic slowness of the time scale of the child (in which an hour equals approximately a week of adult elapsed time) with little or no incident. During sixth grade was when it happened: pituitary gland betrayed me with its freakish ambitions and I shot up, growing to six foot three by the end of seventh grade.

I was a bookish, sensitive child. But I was six feet three and weighed one hundred and seventy pounds at the age of thirteen and I was black on top of it all. A lustrous crude-oil black. I had athlete written all over me, but I rebelled, I deliberately cultivated a magnificent gracelessness, displaying fiendishly spastic inabilities on every playing field. In the beginning, team captains would fight bitterly for the right of first pick to get me on their squads. They’d feel invincible with me towering over my skinny white playmates at the center of whatever team; walking across a basketball court, my comrades clamoring for battle in a bunch behind me, I would feel sick at the nauseated fear I generated in the faces of the opposing team.

Everyone learned soon enough, however, what I was determined to teach them: that I was lousy at sports. In my incapable hands a basketball became lifeless as clay. A football seemed coated with grease. Also, at various parties I also set out to prove that I couldn’t dance (lacking rhythm), that I was only barely concerned with girls (not sex-crazed, no potential rapist) and that I preferred classical music over funk, r&b, gospel or soul. It was silly, of course, to go to such an extreme, but that’s the nature of adolescence. I refused to be an open book. I expected to be treated the same as anyone else at my school. As complicated, individual, mysterious, secretive and contradictory as anyone else. In short (or tall, that is): fully human.

Eisenhower Elementary, then Joseph Pulaski High School. Time began to accelerate. The false miracle of puberty attacked. My voice was segregated into unblended octaves; I stuttered and bumped into stuff and the thing between my legs…what Ma England had been in the habit of calling my “dinky” when she used to bathe me…it grew and seemed destined to shame me.

The harsh candy of perfume that wafted from gum-popping floss-headed girls in the hallways at school, or in a line at the record store at the Mall, put me into rich panics of longing. Never having been kissed by a girl, the idea didn’t move me (strange how we adults tend to forget that kissing is an acquired taste, like oysters, beer and cigarettes)…what I dreamed of, instead, in my furtive puberty-bed…those nights and afternoons and mornings I took the time to pacify The Thing by throttling it…what I fantasized about was holding some white girl’s hand.

That was the plot of my inner porno: a little white nail-polished hand, engulfed by my big black one. The idea aroused me more than any klieg-lit act of sodomy you can imagine. Receiving my change from the freckled cashier at the Pants? Got ‘Em, with her blue-veined hand dumping sweaty coins into my palm, was painful heaven.

The real miracle of my second childhood with the Englands was how little ridicule the three of us attracted together. There I was, at the age of sixteen already six feet and ten inches tall, flanked by this dry little elderly white couple, my hand grasping the old lady’s with the touching insecurity of a baby elephant’s trunk. I can’t imagine a sillier picture. But the neighbors were merciful, or was it because the image of us together was too ridiculous to ridicule, too funny to be made fun of, far too laughable to…?

Only once, I remember, crossing the parking lot of the Pulaski Park Mall, my fragile white mother in tow (me wearing the glassless eye-glasses I’d begged for), both of us in dignified dress, when a souped-up hotrod with flame decals screeched a semi-circle around us and a lank-haired hooligan (I knew his name, by the way: Jamie-John Arnold. To this day I hate him) shouted, over the loud rock music from his car’s eight-track player, Take that gorilla back to the zoo! But other than that and the routine stares we accumulated when wandering from our familiar suburb, nothing excruciatingly ugly pops to mind. Mostly, it was just that banal drone of discomfort the dispossessed will always inhabit.

Except. Ah yes, I remember.

The Prom.

2.

Ma woke me by tickling my big feet where they dangled foolishly over the bed’s edge. “Rise and shine, Dusty,” she chirped. “It’s a lovely Saturday morning!”

It’s unfair how the intensity of the tenderest facial expressions ruin the face over the years. Ma England’s mug was grooved and creased and rutted. She leaned over my dwarfed bed smiling that broad, unmitigated, love-fluorescing smile, and instinctively my arms rose up around her. Her twinkling corn-flower blue eyes were recessed in a topological map of the Badlands. The imprint of all those little streams and rivulets and wrinkled river beds told their soft story on my smooth black cheek as she left a kiss.

Sunlight streamed through the blue curtains of my open bedroom window. A breeze parted the fabric, the sunlight intensified on the leathery white soles of my feet. The gas-run buzz of a dozen distant lawn mowers, mixed with the squeals of fat children and radios announcing and dogs gossiping over great distances and screen doors slamming next door, was on the warm air.

I could picture all those industrious home-owning men, red-faced under fishing caps, their bellies bouncing, pushing and pulling their mowers around the slender trunks of trees, the rocky fringe of the garage. From time to time there’d be the whack of the mower blade scalping a base-ball, or shooting a stone at an ankle. I lay there peacefully, a pampered freak, a black Gulliver in suburban Lilliput. A sweet green breath of freshly mown grass blew over me.

Still half-dreaming, I had an aerial view of the green and mauve grid of my neighborhood, the split-level homes fixed to perfectly rectangular lawns, partitioned by the scuffed concrete interstices of sidewalk, trimmed by the shiny black asphalt of driveways, the total pattern awesomely neat. From high high up, I watched the neighborhood children flow back and forth between houses along the narrow channel of the sidewalk, some fast and some slow, like an exchange of electrons on a circuit board.

In the matrix of the suburb of Pulaski Park, our house was close to central; and in the structure of the England residence itself, my bedroom was dead-center; and in the cell of my bedroom, I lay along its equator, panting. The suburb of Pulaski Park was essentially an elegant maze, leading, through a sophisticated complex of blind-alleys and sharp turns and other distractions, directly to the central treasure of my gigantic black heart.

“Dusty! Dusty get up, boy! Breakfast is nearly ready!”

It was Pa England. Pa was a decent old guy, but it was clear from the beginning that he wasn’t prepared to love me, not the way his wife did. Any love from Pa went to Ma; it focused through the lens of Ma and warmed me that way. Pa had agreed to adopt in the first place as a loving sacrifice to her. He loved that old woman so fiercely that one day she said, after reading an article in the Tribune, Pa I think we should adopt an underprivileged Negro boy and raise him as our own and Pa didn’t even blink (or he didn’t blink for long) and said Okey-dokey. A funny little man with a Kirk Douglas chin and a perpetual squint.

“Coming, Sir,” I called through my door, hopping into pants.

“Okey-dokey, Dusty,” he said. I could hear him limping down the stairs. I put on a tee shirt and my glassless eye glasses.

I stooped low and out my door, bent forward all the way down the quiet stairs, touching for luck various things on the way to the kitchen: the corners of the framed photos of Family England on the stairwell wall; the pawn-like knob at banister bottom; the dusty fat leaves of a tall rubber tree plant in the living room.

Barefoot, in shorts and white tee-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, my feet smothered in the deep orange nap of the living room carpet, I nearly belonged in the picture. The mirror tiles on the far wall, near the arch that opened into the kitchen, however, mocked me coldly. Did you say you nearly belong in the picture? They seemed to say. Well, take a good look at the truth. I dreaded it. It was the shock I suffered every day before sharing breakfast with my adopted family. Daily, I had to face the wall of mirrors and that tall black creature there. Who are you? I’d ask. Who are you? And sometimes my reflection would just growl at me, a surly bear blocking the path.

“You’d better hurry, Dusty. Pa will beat you!” Mother England was grinning over the stack of pancakes she was shifting to my side of the table. Pa and I were both fast eaters.

I was already halfway through a lopsided stack of her silky hot pancakes when Ma said, in all blinding innocence, “Have you asked a girl to your senior prom yet, Dusty?” which paralyzed me mid-swallow. I blinked. Across the yellow Formica-topped breakfast table, Pa stiffened. Pa and I were both wise in a terrible way that Ma, it seemed, wasn’t. My senior prom? my heart retorted belligerently. I’m a colored behemoth attending an all-white high school in the city of Chicago, Ma. What do you think?

But of course I didn’t say that. I just looked at Pa and he winked and said, “The prom’s not such an important thing, Mother. If you ask me it’s just a lot of foolishness, an excuse for kids to taste liquor. I’m sure Dusty is better off sitting that one out.”

His thin white hair, the few fibers that sprawled across his sun-browned pate, began rising into the air, as though somehow sensing an impending lightning strike. He kept having to pat it down. He took a mouthful of bacon, and said, summarily, “I wouldn’t worry about it, boy.” He smiled and showed the burnt flecks on his old teeth. “You’ve got better things to do, around the old homestead, with me and Ma on prom night!” Pa suggested, for instance, a Chinese checker tournament.

But Ma wouldn’t have it. “That’s nonsense,” she said. “A boy’s senior prom is the single most important evening of his high school career. Why, in a way, it’s like the doorway to adulthood. It’s something you don’t want to miss, dear,” she said, and sat a big black pan of scrambled eggs on a tin plate on top of the counter beside the stove and turned to face us with her bony speckled arms crossed over her flat bosom, warming to the subject, and prepared to set Pa and me straight on the matter. She leaned back against the hot white face of the stove and looked me firmly in the eye and said, “Dusty, surely there are girls you’ve come to notice during your time at Joe Pulaski High, girls you might like. Well, the girl among that group that happens to like you back, she’s the gal you ask. You’re not going to sit there and tell me my very own son’s a chicken, are you?”

Helpless, my gaze scurried back to Pa again and he said, “Mother, Dusty isn’t even interested in girls. He’s a bookworm! Bookworms don’t…”

But Ma cut him off so firmly that it suddenly dawned on me that she wasn’t the scatter-brained cherub that she seemed most times: she knew. There was iron in her and under all that powdered sugar was a tough old bird I’d never bothered to notice before and she knew. She knew the subtext of the conversation and she would have none of it.

She cut Pa off, saying, “Oh Edwin that’s pure bunk and you know it. Dusty’s a healthy young man and healthy young men have an interest in girls. Dusty’s perfectly normal and of course he’s interested in girls! I never heard such foolishness! So you just hush and let Dusty answer for himself!”

Pa just shrugged sheepishly and then sighed and looked at me pleadingly, as if to say Your Ma’s an eccentric woman but I love her so we have to go along with her, no matter how futile and crazy a thing it is, so just say what she wants you to say but you and I know the truth, Dusty…you’re a Negro…that’s how it is…we didn’t make this world but we gotta live by its rules…

I said, looking down into my toppled stack of cakes, “I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought, ma’am.” My voice came out in squeaks and barks.

“Yes you have, Dusty! You’ve given it an awful lot of thought…I can tell. Too much thought, if you ask me. It’s very simple. You go up to a girl and ask her if she already has a date to the prom and if she says yes, well, there’s no harm done because some other fella beat you to it. And if she says no, she doesn’t already have a date to the prom, it’s a sure sign that she’s willing to go with you! Goodness sakes, Dusty, I’m not suggesting that you should ask Greta Garbo to the prom! A sweet girl with a sense of humor who’s light on her feet will do. She doesn’t have to be ravishing. Remember, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Some girls are not particularly easy to look at from the outside, but on the inside they may be a Mona Lisa.”

(Too true, Mother England! I’m thinking of you, of course, at this moment.)

The healing rays of her love for me were so powerful that I was actually beginning to believe that attending the prom was possible. Why, after all, shouldn’t I expect to be able to attend my own senior prom? It wasn’t as though I was an ax-murderer, or a two-headed man! So what if I was the lone colored boy in a graduating class of four hundred and fifty, the lone black face in a total student body (not counting four Koreans, a Mexican and a girl from the Philippines) of over one thousand white ones?

Should that pose some sort of inevitable restriction on my participation in the complete franchise of adolescent suburban-American life? Was I necessarily mateless, despite my extreme popularity at school? (The answers to the above questions, respectively: yes and yes.)

Putting my fork down, I poked my thumb and fore-finger through the lenseless gaps in my glasses and rubbed my eyes and said, tiredly, “There are a few girls at school that seem nice…”

“That’s the spirit, Dusty!” she said, and pleased, she began dishing out the scrambled eggs. When Pa had a certain amount on his plate he stuck his hand up and said, glumly, Okey Dokey.

Pa was expecting the worst.

After breakfast I helped Ma England by toweling dry the dishes, towering over her as we stood together at the sink. Pa sank into a speechless funk and wandered out back. We watched him through the kitchen window, plucking litter from the hedge that fenced our property. Then he froze suddenly, clutching a fistful of trash, and crouched down, peering hound-like into the prickly mass of the hedge, galvanized.

From where we watched him, it looked important. He remained in a crouch for quite awhile before acting. Then he bent into the bushes, exposing the pink over-flow of his rear end above the tartan plaid sock of his trousers, and the long red comma partitioning his cheeks, and he fetched something out of the earth, after much pawing. He turned towards us with his prize, holding it high where it twinkled in the sun, and he ambled to the kitchen window with a big smile on his squinty red face until we could see he was displaying an old quarter and Ma said, “Now Pa’s out of his funk.”

Later I went back to my room and flopped back onto my bed and thought over it again: the prom idea. It made my heart run in boozy limping circles. It made my mouth dry as a sock. It made the crotch of my khaki-colored shorts swell like a blister. It made me feel sick.

Just to imagine myself in a powder-blue tuxedo, the night alive with twinkling lights and music, a fragile white hand clasped in my own… but who was connected to the apparition of that hand? My imagination could trace a wrist from the hand, and a forearm connected to the wrist, and an elbow leading the arm into the diaphanous sleeve of something lacy and perfumed…after that, nothing. I wasn’t bold enough to insert a girl I already knew into my sordid dream. But just the thought of a little pale clasping hand, angled on a faun-tender arm, was enough to stir The Thing in its sweaty lair and it lifted its swollen head and demanded I tend to it. And that was the one cliché of negritude I couldn’t disown, discredit or downplay: the size of my johnson. Oh it was big. It was a big dumb animal and it bothered me day and night to pet it.

Monday morning I climbed out of the family station wagon and waved bye to Pa and faced the long gray concrete and glass bunker of Joseph Pulaski High School (we all called it Joe High) with my usual sour stomach of nerves, but on top of that was a new sweet dread, the dread of having to hunt for a girl to take to the Prom.

When I entered the building, turning right into that long bright bustling hall, which was lined with gray metal lockers and trophy cases and out of date maps of the world, my eyes were scanning the crowd of lip-biters; of spotty faces; of fidgety boys and girls I had grown up with. I looked down on the lank, sparrow-brown center-parted tresses; the luminous blonde pageboys; the curly red mops; the glossy black bobs; the sandy bowl cuts; the frizzy-dry mouse-brown perms; the oily pompadours; the bristling crew cuts of stone-bicepted jocks. The tops of so many different heads, and not a one like mine, which was a close-cropped field of pepper corns (Ma herself was my only barber).

“England!” There was a slap on my lower back. I looked down. Nathaniel Cohen.

“What’s up, England?” Cohen was all head, amplified by a bulbous helmet of thick red hair. His face was so heavily freckled that it almost looked like a brown face speckled with white spots. He had a long thin red beak of a nose that bore, at all hours of the day and night (and in the shower as well) tinted aviator’s glasses that covered half his face and reflected the face of anyone speaking to him with the insolence of fun house mirrors.

Only I, as his best friend (he’d adopted me my freshman year), had ever seen the pupils of his eyes. (The occasion had been his father’s funeral and Cohen’s eyes were blood-shot). He was wearing, as ever, an old green camouflage army jacket with the name J. Wayne sewn over the right breast pocket.

I went to my locker and Cohen trailed me there. Following tradition, he turned the combination on the lock and opened it for me, because it hurt my back to stoop to it. I took off my new wind breaker and hung it on the thin metal door, then took off my glasses and folded them carefully and laid them on a shelf. Then I took the heavy black Chemistry Is You book off the shelf and slammed the door.

“I have something I need to discuss with you, Nathaniel, but if you tell a word of it to anybody I swear I’ll cut your eyelids off and bury you up to your neck in the desert. Understand?” I gave him the most serious threatening face I could think of.

Cohen zipped a finger across compressed lips. I looked first left, then right, down the hallway to make sure that hostile ears were out of range. I said, “Remember that talk we had around Christmas time, when Mr. McCurdy’s class was having that Christmas brunch for juniors and seniors and I couldn’t attend because of the flu, only, as you know, I secretly wasn’t sick at all, but I couldn’t go because I didn’t have a date? Remember what you said about your cousin Rebecca?” I paused to gasp for breath. Then my voice came out in a squirt. “Is she still available?”

He said “Becky Silberstein? She’s in Oregon at College. Besides, she’s fat.”

“I don’t care if she’s fat.”

“No,” he said, stepping back two paces, as if trying to get the full perspective on a vast object, “I mean really fat. The whole family is fat. Christmas she was chunky. By Easter she was a hippo. The Silberstein effect. That whole part of my family is record-breaking. What do you want with a girl like that, England?” His eye brows climbed over the rims of his sun glasses and stuck there. “You been invited to a wedding?”

I just stared at him until he got it. It took awhile.

“Oh!” he said. “The Prom!” He punched my arm in slow motion. “I knew you had a dick, England!”

I shhh’d him with a stern finger. The hallway was one long spying ear drum. Its lacquered doors and polished surfaces gleamed with thirty years of sedimented gossip. (An acute sense of privacy derives directly from an acute sense of shame, and who could have been more ashamed, in that school, than I was?) I grabbed Cohen and pulled him towards me, just about right up under my chin. We were practically in my locker together: it must have looked strange to the passing throng. Cohen tapped my solar plexus.

“The Prom,” he whispered. He began grinning broadly. Above that candy-yellowed rictus (highlighted by two gold teeth, dead center), reflected in the mirrors of his shades, my two black faces frowned. “You need a girl,” he sang softly, then nodded with the calculating gravitas of a black marketeer. After which he shrugged. “But Becky’s out of the question.”

Why was I turning to dorky old Cohen for help, anyway? As a Jew at Joe High, he was nearly as untouchable as I was. And to top it off he was a nerd. As virgin eunuchs, the two of us had been practically driven into a close friendship by negative social pressures, or by a Darwinian process of elimination. In matters of the mating ritual, we were the mute teaching the blind to drive.

So it was inevitable that I doom myself by turning to outsiders for help. It was logical, after all. If I’d needed to improve my chess game, I’d have turned to Fink, the school prodigy. In matters of sex, therefore, I turned to Jack Perkins. That boy in Algebra 3. The one who was always leaning towards my desk during exams. School legend had it that he’d touched at least one nipple of every cheerleader on the Varsity Squad. He’d told me himself, in the shower after gym one day, that Carly Benjamin’s breast had squirted milk all over the seat of his father’s car at a drive-in movie (and this confession, as obviously bullshit as I now know it was, gave me an instantaneous erection at the time).

Perkins was the only teenage boy I knew who really smelled good. I always smelled him when he came into the class room. My eyes were shut as I slumped in my pathetically small desk-chair, daydreaming, my legs unfurled across the aisle, and then I smelled that coconut tanning butter that was Perkins. He made his way coolly down the aisle, nodding archly at various teenage Brahmins (the rich kids, the athletes, the kids on the staff of the school paper) until he slid into his seat beside me, stepping over my tanker-pipe legs to do so. My eyes popped open. My eye glass frames were skewed stupidly on my face.

“How’s it goin, champ?” He winked at me, combing his fingers through his medium-length, center-parted hair. He had the honey-bronze voice of an FM radio DJ. His nose was so tiny and sharp that I couldn’t believe that his nostrils had real holes in them. He was dimpled as well. He could deepen the dimples by clinching his jaw muscles, which he did habitually, especially while smiling.

There was a certain pose he’d mastered, which I’d seen him execute in the hallway, or at top of the steps behind the school: a shrugging slump, from which he’d peer, a la James Dean, from under a drooping lick of hair…it drove girls crazy.

“Ready for the big test?” I said. I said it sotto-voce, conspiratorially, while the teacher squeaked evil white pagodas of mathematical hieroglyphics on the black board way up in front of the class. As Mr. VanDendries marked the board in a fury of white slashes, my innocent question suddenly made his activity seem more sinister. Perkins looked quickly up at Mr. VanDendries and then back at me, putting two and two together.

Panic darkened his pretty face. “What test?” he hissed.

“I guess you came late that day.” I leaned across the aisle towards him. “VD is giving a test on chapter nine this Friday. Quadratic equations. Twenty five percent of the final grade.” (I tried to sound disgusted, when in fact I was looking forward to it). I adjusted my fake glasses, a tic that indicated that I was thinking. Computing.

Perkins clinched his jaw and his dimples deepened but no smile popped out. He was staring down at his desk top. He blew out a fatalistic sigh. He buried his face in his hands. “That’s perfect. If I get anything under a C in this class, my old man will think twice before getting me a car for graduation. I’m fucked, England. I’m doomed, man. I’ve been partying all week.”

I let the doom sink into him a little while. When he’d collapsed so far within himself that it looked like he’d never climb out, I offered a rope.

“Maybe I can help you, man,” I said. Perkins perked up.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’ll make a deal,” and here my whisper went subsonic. “I’ll let you…” I almost choked on the word “…cheat off my test if you help me with something.”

He looked like a boy on his way to the electric chair who’d just heard the phone ringing in the warden’s office. “Sure, England, but how can I possibly help you?” His voice underlined the “I” and double-underlined the “you” as if to say, “Our world’s are so absolutely impossibly unrelated…are you telling me they intersect somewhere?”

“First you have to swear an oath of secrecy.”

He was intrigued. I asked him if one of his parents was dead. He said no, but his grandfather just passed away.

“Swear on your grandfather’s grave.”

“I swear on my grandfather’s grave.”

“I need a date for the prom. Can you get me one?”

I could tell he wanted to laugh but he clinched his jaw muscles and his dimples deepened and a smile popped out. “No problem,” he said, “champ.”

Mr. VanDendries turned from the blackboard and faced the class. He smiled and clucked his tongue behind his dentures, clasping his hands in front of his spotty old face in a mean-spirited prayer. He always wore the same gray woolen trousers and brown sweater. The sweater always had chalk on it. He crossed the room to his desk and sat on it, legs dangling playfully. He cleared his throat and swept an arm back towards the blackboard. “To some of you, what I’ve just written up there must look rather like Chinese.” He looked pointedly at Perkins.

“Am I correct in assuming so, Mr. Perkins?” He tossed his chalk in a little hop and caught it with a flourish.

“I’m sure there are some, sir,” said Perkins and the whole class laughed.

3.

Three days later, just a day before the big Algebra test, Perkins met me in the cafeteria, easing ahead of me in the long line to receive a ration of meat, a dollop of mashed potatoes and a splintering of green beans. He spoke to me without looking at me, focusing his attention instead on the ladle that the cafeteria worker had suspended over his tray.

“It’s on,” he said. At first I thought he was talking to the middle-aged woman in the hair net. When I didn’t respond, Perkins said “Hey, are you receiving me?” I said Sorry! Yes, yes I’m listening. Go on.

“Meet me in the back parkinglot, by the fire exit. That door is always propped open on Prom night. We can sneak in that way without drawing attention. She’ll be with me. Be there a half hour after the program starts…that’ll be nine. If you’re late, you can find us inside. Only it’ll look fishy.”

I could barely speak, I was so excited. I wanted to kiss him. Not only had Perkins provided me with a date for the Prom, but he had also, essentially, provided me with my first girl. Ever.

He was leaving the line when I put my tray down on the counter top and grabbed the back of his sweater. He stopped and looked down at the sweater where it stretched to my hand and I let go of it.

“Hey Perkins…” I was practically stuttering with gratitude.

“Just be sure you have the right answers for me tomorrow, Champ! That’s all I ask in return, bro.”

“What’s she like?”

“She’s hot, man. I promise you, a good time will be had by all. Trust me.” I stood there in a happy daze as Perkins returned to his reserved table in the middle of the cafeteria, the table of the elite. Every girl at that table had waist-length straight blonde hair, in varying shades (Carly Benjamin, the queen bee of the table, the one who never had to look because she was always being watched: hers was platinum blonde. Cohen told me it was from a bottle).

When Perkins sat down, he looked across the bright room and smiled at me, and the others at the table, even the ones with their backs turned, looked to see where he was smiling and a few of them laughed. I couldn’t be sure that some of them weren’t in on my secret, but at that moment it didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was me knowing that somewhere in the world, and not very far away (a mile? a block? down the corridor?) a girl was thinking of me. She was imagining me, just as I was imagining her. She had agreed to it, she had accepted Perkins description of me…she had to be a rare person.

There was no misinterpreting Perkins’ description… and there was only one way for Perkins to have described me…Negro giant…if she accepted that, the remaining details of my composite could only please her. I was sensitive and cultured, I had a good sense of humor…I would show her the best night of her life. She would think I was what I dared to hope I might be: a rare creature. And maybe, too (just the thought of it made the serpent in my pants start hissing)…maybe…

The test the next day, or the cheating of it, I mean, went without a hitch: Perkins copied from my paper, angled so he could read it easily, with the fidelity of a Xerox machine. After he’d finished, I went back over it and changed a few of my answers so they’d be wrong (only knocking a few points off of what I was certain was nearly one hundred)…a smooth move to throw VanDendries off the trail…not that he wouldn’t be suspicious when Perk the Smerk turned in a higher score than mine…

Perkins low-fived me (I had to reach down so he could slap my palm) on the way out of the class room. Then, suddenly, he grabbed my crotch and jiggled it fraternally. “Air it out, man…you’re gonna be using it next Friday!” We low-fived again. I went home.

I aired it out.

I woke from a feverish nap. Ma England was vacuuming. I could hear her, through the thin wall of my bedroom, bumping the iron snout of the old Hoover against the base board of the little hall outside my room. The dusty old thing sucked and wailed like an infernal hound on the scent of a bear. She backed it towards the little upstairs bathroom that was mine. I sat upright in bed, heart pounding, thinking she might find evidence of what I’d just been doing…a puddle of semen on the blue tiles of the bathroom floor! Good god! I jumped out of bed.

“Dusty!” Ma switched off the Hoover. The wail dwindled with a grudge. “I didn’t realize you were home so soon from school, sweetheart!” She gave me a big hug.

“Gotta go, Ma.”

I slipped by her into the bathroom and locked the door. Sure enough, I found a little lake of microscopic fish swimming frantically at the foot of the toilet, their tails flicking like whips, going nowhere at a tremendous speed, the nearest fertile egg a thousand yards away (a semen light year) in the Lilly house next door. The beautiful college-aged daughter. Never saw her walk more than a few feet at a time. Laid in a lawn chair in the back yard all day, no ambition but to perfect her flesh in the sun. Tangerine bikini.

I took a wad of toilet paper and swished the thick puddle up. A second wad finished it. I flushed the toilet.

In the dim hallway, the air was full of agitated dust. Ma was stooped dangerously to wind the frayed cord around the hooks screwed at both ends of the heavy handle the cloth bag dangled from. The machine was a nasty old antique…I had feared the beast as a child. Words calligraphed in yellow on the dark green cloth of the bag had since faded into faint crusts.

I reached around Ma and straightened her with a hug. “Ma,” I said, “Didn’t I tell you not to strain your back that way? Do you want to give me and Pa a heart attack? Let me vacuum this hall…you know you shouldn’t be carrying this heavy old thing up the stairs!” She chuckled and let me lead her downstairs to the living room. We sat on the sofa and looked through a photo album spread open on the coffee table. There were severe faces in it, peering sternly at us from the last century. At least two of the well-dressed gentlemen pictured full-length on the crumbling tin plates in the album’s front had been slave owners. Ma had never confessed this; it was Pa told me.

“This was old George Cavanaugh.” She chuckled over a silvery photo. “He was a real rake, the old coot. My grandfather, Dusty! His wife was Olivia Payne Travers. She shot him! Caught him with her sister. He survived it…they had two more children together after he recovered. We’re strong stock, Dusty.”

I merely smiled. Truth be told, I had no interest in the horrible people in that book. Without a doubt, they would have hated me…each and every one. Even County Travers, who Ma proudly pointed out was an abolitionist… would he have nodded with pride to see the weird mingling of bloodlines his work eventually lead to? I doubt it…he would have had a fit, as Pa might put it. Look at him! Those straggly, billy-goat whiskers. That stern expression, those maddened eyes. Posed with a rifle. Hand on his hip. He would have hated me. He would have sold me to the circus.

Towards the rear of the book, where modern times commenced, according to Kodak, there were black-and-white, and then color, snap shots of me from the age of nine up. It was difficult to identify myself with the grainy early shots, like Big Foot sightings, I saw there. Look at that featureless little blackie in striped shirt and knee pants, pushing a toy truck on the orange (light gray in the snap shot) carpet.

Or outside with a fishing rod, beside Pa, in front of a pond, my eyes downcast sheepishly, a grin splitting the spade of my little face. Or the color shot at the table in front of my tenth-birthday cake (first party in new home), my eyes caught in a blink, the little white child beside me selfishly reflecting the majority of the flash bulb’s illumination, his blue pupils reflecting red in the film, his fair hair tousled under a paper party cap with balloons printed on it.

Why, when looking at that happy photo, can’t I shake the impression that its his birthday, and me just a guest? I’m at the center of the photo, yet my eyes go first to him. The cake glitters in front of me, Dusty written in red cream all over it…why does it persist in looking like his cake, his candles, his wish to fulfill when the candles got blown out? (Ironically, this little boy was later to die in a lake).

“Dusty.” Ma closed the book. She sat back in the couch, her bony little hands folded in the lap of her flower-printed house dress, and turned to face me. She looked at me carefully before speaking.

“I have a date, Ma,” I said, reading her mind. “It’s all taken care of.” I was glad to be able to say that. Otherwise, I was afraid she’d be disappointed in me.

“Pardon me?” She was confused.

“The Prom…”

“Oh, yes! Indeed. That’s very good, Dusty. I’m very pleased. I can’t wait to tell Pa! He’ll be tickled to death!” She clapped her hands together softly.

“Wasn’t that what you wanted to ask me about?”

“Frankly, Son, no.” Her face got grave again. She had to look at me again, carefully, before speaking. “How old are you, Dusty?” She said finally. She said it quietly, like it was a very personal thing to discuss. Old people get in that habit.

“I’m eighteen, Ma. Nineteen in the fall.”

“And how old do you think I am?”

I smiled and proceeded to answer what seemed at first to be a simple question, but I had to stop when it dawned on me I had no answer. How old was she? I had no idea. I didn’t know the age of my own mother.

I hazarded a guess. “Fifty?”

She laughed and laughed. She pinched my cheek and had to use the shoulder of her house dress to daub a tear of mirth from her eye. When she regained her composure she told me that Pa himself would be sixty soon, and that she was twelve years older than Pa.

I couldn’t believe it.

“People warned us the age difference would be a problem as we got older, but Pa and I think that it’s worked out quite well. Women usually out-last men, you know, by about fifteen years, so we’re balanced, I think. We’ll probably go around the same time. We couldn’t ask for a nicer anniversary present, Dusty.”

I stared at her, then at the coffee table, then at the floor. She kept talking.

“I know you hate to discuss such things, Dusty, but you’re very close to being a man. Your childhood is drawing to a close. Ho hum everyday realities are soon to become fond memories, son, which is the beauty of life. We shouldn’t hang on to things, you know, but it’s human nature. We cling to what we know. But change is what life on earth is about. We fear change, you know, so time is the Lord’s apparatus for forcing it.” She took my enormous mitt in hers and coaxed me to eye contact.

“The same force that brings Spring to us every year, sweet heart, is also bound to take me away from you. I’m telling you this, Dusty, because it’s important that we make plans for when the day comes. When Pa and I leave this earth together…well…” She squeezed my hand. “Well, son, you’ll be alone in the world, to put it frankly, until you make a life for yourself, a family of your own blood.”

She had to coax me to look at her again, but when I did she closed her eyes. She had a serene look on her face, and I realized that that was exactly how she would look at her funeral.

4.

That week I was a sleepwalker. The days passed like tense music from which the crescendo had been foolishly removed. I vibrated between two equally destructive emotions: hope and dread. I began, through the repetitive magic of obsessing a daydream, to form an image of the girl that would be waiting for me at the back parking lot near the fire exit on Friday.

I knew, for instance, that she wouldn’t be a knock-out. If she was a knock-out, Perkins would have kept her for himself. And besides, the last thing on earth I wanted to do was go waltzing around with a beautiful blonde Kim Novak on my arm…that would be asking for trouble. But she would probably be pleasant to look at. She would probably be a brain, too, because Perkins knew that I was, and only a truly cultured girl would have the sense and courage to agree to a date with a colored boy anyway. And she wouldn’t be colored because Perkins didn’t know any colored people besides me… because there weren’t any for miles.

She’d probably be Jewish. Jewish girls were known to fall in love with Negro men from time to time…I’d read that in a racy magazine that Cohen kept under his bed at home. Cohen himself had told me that his cousin Rebecca Silberstein had been in love with Nat King Cole for half of her life. Her parents were even proud that she kept photos of him on her bedroom wall. So my girl…I could see her already. A shy little bookish Jewish girl with shoulder-length chestnut curls, and those heavy Semitic breasts (“Did you ever see a flat-chested Hannah?” is how Cohen used to put it), in an embroidered satin blouse and a knee-length skirt and black pumps with a silver locket around her graceful neck with a picture of Nat King Cole in it. I’d take her glasses off and she’d turn out to be lovely. We’d hold hands and look at each other with a deep understanding.

The day before The Prom, Ma proposed a kind of fire drill for it. At seven o’clock on Thursday evening I drove to the Pulaski Park Mall and bought a box of chocolates and a mixed bouquet of flowers. I was dressed as nicely as I could (at my size it was extremely difficult to find formal clothing) in a burgundy cardigan sweater and a white shirt and knit tie with trousers from The Tall Man’s Emporium.

I drove back home and rang our doorbell twice, curtly. I waited. Acting her part, Ma didn’t answer the door straight away, but responded with the tardy hauteur of a teenaged beauty (she couldn’t know that this phase of the drill was irrelevant: my date would be delivered to me at a secret corner of a darkened school parkinglot with the pomp and circumstance befitting a bale of marijuana). She opened the door, dressed in a dark blue dress with white polka dots, her luminous white hair pinned up, looking like a celebrated authoress of whodunits on her way to a dinner banquet of peers.

“You look really nice,” here my voice broke, “Marguerite.” It gave me a weird chill using her first name like that. But she’d insisted, to make the simulation seem more authentic, that I treat her like a real girl that I was taking out for the first time. So I called her Marguerite. I presented her with the flowers and chocolates and she set them down on a chair just inside the door. I extended my arm and she took it. She seemed to weigh about ten pounds.

I walked her down those familiar concrete steps to the walk. Crickets chirped and fireflies flared coolly in the bushes. Kids up the street were playing hockey on roller skates, the mean slap of sticks on puck reaching us a full second after the image. Twilight was hissing up out of vents in the earth like a magic gas. I felt a terrible nostalgia for that moment, suddenly, as though I were already remembering it from a remote location in the future.

I held the car door for Ma and she folded down onto the sun-warmed car, which was just beginning to cool in a breeze that tousled the head of the maple tree over us. Ma smiled up at me, looking so touchingly small. It seemed as if the car was about to drive her off without me.

“A true gentleman!” she said.

I drove nervously with Ma watching, but I managed, despite the added pressure of motorists and pedestrians staring at us as we puttered like a shy hallucination through their lives.

I guided the station wagon into a diagonal parking space in front of a little island of a building across an open lot from the sprawling complex of the mall. The little building had glass walls with filmy pink drapes that filtered into abstractions what I could make out of what was going on inside. There was movement and sparkles of light. The marquee over the entrance said Pulaski Park Ball Room and then under those big blue space age letters smaller words said modern dancing since l957. I put the emergency brake on and looked over at Ma. She nodded.

We made our entrance and everyone in the luxurious twilight haze of the ballroom, where bossa novas boomed from discreet loudspeakers, looked up at me, bending their skulls back on frail necks. Some of them could only bend far enough back to see just parts of me. Seeds of light swirled around us, tossed copiously from a big mirrored ball that rotated under the ceiling. I was so near to the ceiling myself that I could hear the cranky whine of the motor that drove that ball round as we passed under it. Hearing it partially destroyed the seamless magic of the ballroom for me.

As we commenced to dance, I attempted to hide behind my glassless horn-rimmed glasses…attempted the difficult trick of averting my eyes from the squinty gazes that glinted dully from every angle of the room. It occurred to me that my body itself was a serious breech of etiquette. At my height, the impolite truth is that a tiny woman comes face level to my crotch. I’d never noticed it, hugging Ma at home, but in public it glared. Ma asked me how tall my date was and I lied (probably) claiming her a little taller than Ma. So we adapted strategically to the problem. I learned to keep a little to the side, my arms out a bit, to produce the illusion of closeness without pressing my groin into my partner’s face.

After a few different dances we got the hang of it. Gradually it became fun. When Ma was tired I bought her a soft drink and we sat a few out in the chairs that lined the glass walls. It felt queerly like a real date. I squinted to plane the wrinkles from her face…her voice itself was that of a young woman’s. Her perfume smelled as sweet. Had she really been young once?

“What was it like, meeting Pa?” I asked.

She shook her head and sipped her drink. “Pa was the rudest man I’d ever met. That’s what intrigued me about him, I guess. All the other men I knew treated me like god’s gift, but not your Pa. He treated me like a stray puppy, honestly. I was so angry with him, I stayed up nights thinking of sarcastic things to say to him the next morning. I was thirty, you know, Dusty. I’d already been married and divorced when I met Pa. He told me he was a college man, but that turned out to be a fib. We worked in the same grocery. It was at the tail end of what they call now the roaring twenties, just before the Great Depression sobered us all up a little ! We thought our feet would never touch the ground, but touch the ground we did.”

She took another sip of her drink, and though it was only gingerale, it seemed to have the effect of making her tipsy. She loosened as we talked.

“Would you like to know a secret, Dusty?”

I said of course, but in truth I wasn’t sure. Something about the way she took a deep breath and then paused before saying it gave me the feeling that hearing it might change my life forever. She cut her eyes wickedly at all the other elderly white people dancing through the blue room in front of us, and they all deflected their gazes furtively.

“Before I got serious with Pa I was in love with a colored fellow. Did you know that? I’ll bet you’re surprised,” she said, slapping my knee, and by god she was right. I was stunned.

“Walter H. Phillips.” She said the name with pride, then repeated it again under her breath, marveling at the sound of it. “I haven’t said that name out loud in forty years!” She finished her drink, then said “In fact, I think I’d like to hear myself say it again.” She took a deep breath. “Would you mind if I did, Dusty?” I said no.

She put her tiny wrinkled hand on my shoulder. “Tell me if you do mind, dear. Honestly.”

I said, Ma, really, it’s okay. Say it again if you want to.

“Walter Harvey Phillips.”

She closed her eyes. “He worked for the colored newspaper, The Defender. He wasn’t a reporter, I believe he set type, but he carried himself like a newspaper man. Wore one of those hats, and his shoes always polished with a spit shine! My, he was dandy. Fine and dandy. All the ladies in the grocery swooned when he came in, but of course most pretended to look down on him because he was colored. Most, but not all. You look surprised, Dusty, but the truth is, in many ways, relations between the Negro and Caucasian races were actually more advanced in those days. Ordinary people got away with quite a lot, if they were discreet. Unmarried love calls for extreme discretion in any case, so, in the end, it doesn’t make much difference.” She handed me her empty glass. “I’d like another, sweetheart,” she said.

I fetched it on wobbly legs. When I crossed the vast room from the bar back to her, she was in the process of fending off an unwanted proposition to dance from a red-haired Casanova (spotted scalp glinting under sparse curls) in a white ascot and spats. “Ah, my date’s back with my drink!” she announced suddenly as I materialized, golem-like, behind the old rake. He turned and looked up and stepped back and stumbled against a chair. Ma patted the seat beside her and I sat.

“We called him the Duke of Woodlawn avenue.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am?”

“The Duke of Woodlawn avenue. The grocery was on Woodlawn avenue, on the Southside, near the University of Chicago. He came in every day to buy a few things. Bachelor food. Bread and jelly, tinned meats. One day… you know I worked as a cashier… one day, you see, I just couldn’t help myself and I offered to cook him a real dinner. My goodness! My best friend, Jenny Doyle, she was a cashier at that grocery too and she practically had a fit! She was just jealous, of course. But she claimed I was betraying my race, but do you know what I told her?” Ma handed me her drink so she could gesture freely with her arms.

“I told her, Jenny Doyle, my race is the human race,” and here Ma brought both hands to her heart, “And the only way I can betray the human race is if I mistreat another human being, isn’t that what the Bible says? Well, that shut her up once and for all.” Ma took back her drink. She reached up and patted her hairdo demurely with a faintly trembling hand.

I could sense that she wanted to say more, but the look on my face wouldn’t let her.

5.

That night I had a fierce murky tropical erotic dream. My mother, my real mother, slithered through the warm silt of the dream like a soft brown sea snake, wrapping herself incestuously around the jutting forms of my subconscious. She kept reaching and touching me in that terrible place, and I kept fighting her hands away, her fingers like the nipping jaws of predatory fish. I woke up gasping in my black bedroom, my belly slick with my own sticky genes.

A gibbous moon peered down through my open bedroom window and blew a cool breath on me. I might as well have been lying on a straw mat in a thatched hut in the jungle.

Under my room, in the master bedroom downstairs, Marguerite and Edwin were mumbling harmlessly in their sleep, their unisex chests rising and falling in effortless synchrony, their little white bodies fixed to opposite sides of the bed.

They were not of my people, I was not of them.

I reached under my bed for that ragged eyeless dingy white teddy bear I’d been keeping all those years. I had to reach way under to the back of the bed and when I retrieved it I used it like a rag, to wipe the semen from my stomach. I looked at it with contempt, as surly as an African king. That pathetic little bear was the only evidence, besides my black skin, of who I really was; or what I had been.

I rose from my bed in the darkness and crossed the room. I stooped through my bedroom doorway and crept naked down the stair steps. At the bottom of the stairs, the rubber tree plant, exactly as tall as I was, stood like a solemn Indian chief in the ultra gray haze of the living room. I turned left, away from the living room, and padded down the short hall towards their bedroom. The creaking complaints of the floorboards were muffled under the thick carpet.

I stood still in their open doorway for the longest time. Edwin was snoring, and Marguerite tossed and turned. Sheer curtains floated over the picture window beside their bed, and violet milk from the moon spilled onto a few objects on the sill. An empty flower pot, a little ash tray from Mexico, a bottle of medicine.

What was I doing? What did I want? Was I dreaming?

I got as close to the bed as I dared to, standing beside Marguerite’s side of it, the right side of my body silvered by the window. Anyone walking across the front yard at that moment would have seen my silhouette through the curtains.

Marguerite’s silver white hair flowed out in waves across her blue pillow like rays of light from a pearl. Her mouth was shut in a prim smile. The odor of the mentholated ointment she rubbed on her chest to ease breathing on warm nights rose in faint waves from her.

With a silly thrill I thought I must be losing my mind, because I began, softly, to call Marguerite’s name. What would happen if they woke up and found me standing in their bedroom in the middle of the night, big and black and naked, clutching that ragged white teddy bear? My penis dangled hugely like a hose. How bad would it be if one of them woke up right now, and what would I do about it? Would I run away if they woke up at this instant?

Marguerite, I said. Marguerite.

Three times I called her name, and the last time it was not a whisper any more…it was almost loud. Edwin stopped snoring abruptly, and Marguerite turned on her side, towards me, her lips parted, her red silk pajama top gray in the moonlight.

She said That’s exactly what I’m talking about and my heart flinched and I sucked a sharp breath and my first impulse was to run until I realized that she was still asleep, talking to herself in a dream that didn’t concern me.

I lay the teddy on the pillow besides Marguerite.

Carefully, I backed out of the room.

6.

When Pa gave me the keys to the station wagon the next day he just dangled them over my open palm and gave me a long look before dropping them. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I was going to drive over to the Standard filling station to have the car washed. I climbed in and the car sank a few inches under my weight. Pa just stood there at the top of the stairs, whistling soundlessly. I sat behind the wheel of the car and waited. Finally, grudgingly, he went into the house. I turned the key in the ignition, put the car in gear, and backed timidly down the driveway.

Five hours later I was parking discreetly in the back lot at school, smelling of Old Spice, my heart pounding, the air in the car electric with the stench of my freshly polished shoes. When I turned the headlights off, everything went absolutely black for a moment, until my eyes sensitized themselves to the moonless light. Everyone else was parking in the lot in front, where spotlights bathed the entrance to Joe High, over which hung a red white and blue banner that read Welcome Seniors and under that The Prom ’72.

I had driven right by all that on my way to the back lot. The lights up front were dazzling. Girls in peach-colored chiffon dresses glided in pairs up the path towards the tall glass doors, squired by boys in powder-blue tuxedoes. There was a giddy hubbub of cars jockeying into spaces, a lot of frivolous honking and cat calls, teens lounging in loud clusters, boys showing off, girls giggling and popping gum and sprinting here and there with up-to- the-minute scandal news. I had driven right by it, the bright lights leaving green spots in my eyes, towards my lonely position in the dark lot out back.

I took my glasses out of the glove compartment and slipped them onto my face. I sat for a few moments in the car and savored the homey comfort of its familiar odors: the vacuum-tube-heated scent from the dashboard, the mildewed cracked leather seats, the stinky grease all over the jack that Pa kept on top of the spare tire. Along with tacky new melodies of fragrance; the shoe polish and the Old spice…plus the hum of sweat newly rising from my nervous arm pits. I had sealed my armpits with waxy lids of deodorant and here they were already beginning to stink.

I opened the car door and a humid summer nightwind blew in on me. I knew that when I stepped into that wind, I would begin the first in a series of lengthening steps away from the old white people that had raised me. I got out and slammed the door and jogged up the concrete stairs to the Fire Exit door. Just as Perkins said, it was propped open. Bright noises from the Prom inside filtered out to me.

It was a cloudy night. Out of reflex, I kept glancing at my watch, but I couldn’t see its numbers. The last time I’d seen the clock was on the illuminated dial in the car and then the time had been five before nine. I didn’t want to walk back down to the car to check, but I was sure it must have been nine thirty already. Perkins was a half hour late. A terrible realization commenced its dawning. I suddenly felt duped. Perkins wasn’t going to show. When I saw him on Monday he was going to shrug and say Sorry about that, England. She chickened out at the last minute, and what could I do about it? Take him to court? Beat him up? Use foul language against him? It wasn’t his fault anyway.

It was my fault for being a Negro. I could feel the accumulated fantasies of the previous week dissolve in a few sad moments. I looked around the pitch-black lot, and the darkness ceased looking mysterious, ceased looking pregnant with future daylights…it looked absolute, now. It looked like an impenetrable wall.

I felt sick. What would I tell Ma? She’d think I was hopeless. Pa would just shrug, because he already knew I was hopeless. I could see myself playing Chinese checkers with Pa the rest of the night, him letting me win out of pity.

Just at the moment I had finally resolved to leave my position beside the Fire Exit door and make the humiliated trek back home, a brand new white convertible Ford Mustang, headlights flashing playfully, came screeching around the corner into the lot, crunching the gravel in a crazy stop, parking at a wild angle beside the station wagon. It was Perkins with my date! I burst into a spontaneous smile. I tried to look cool, but it took all my self-restraint to keep from running down the stairs to the car, spouting happy nonsense.

Instead I put my hands in the pockets of my trousers and hoped my clothing didn’t look too informal (a powder-blue tux in my size was absolutely impossible to find).(Ma said that the sweater made me look like a college man).

“Hey Champ!” Perkins’ head popped out the Mustang’s window. The car was parked at such an angle that I could only see Perkins’ side of it, and his headlights were blinding me. Perkins was just a silhouette, and the girl in the seat beside him was completely obscured. The suspense was killing me.

“Sorry we’re late, bro…” He scurried out of the car and ran up the stairs to me. In his white dinner jacket, and the spot lights from the idling car behind him, he looked like a movie star. He might as well have been a dark-haired James Dean. But I was too excited to feel morbid comparing myself. If I was a freak of nature, then so be it, I thought. I reached down to him.

He slapped my palm. “Cop stopped us!” He was out of breath. “Can you believe that? Had to grease his palm with a ten spot, man. But that’s the least I owe you, England! I got a ninety-five on the test! The old man was generous in his appreciation, bro…” He swept his arm in a grand gesture towards the Mustang. “First thing next week, man, you and me will go cruisin’ with the top down! In style! Huh?”

But the last thing I cared about at the moment was his car, as beautiful as it was: that was just something else he had that I didn’t. What I wanted was in the car. That was something of my own, or at least that fell within the territory of my dreams. Perkins punched my arm and said The moment of truth! and hopped back down the stairs, cutting through the high-beams around the front of the car, over to the passenger side, and yanked the door open. A tall blonde unfolded herself from the car. My mouth went dry. I began to blink nervously. Perkins took her by the arm and escorted her gravely around the car’s front. As they passed through the headlights, I saw that it was Carly Benjamin! The Queen of Joe High!

She was my date! I was going to the Prom with Carly Benjamin! The most beautiful girl in Pulaski Park. In the short space of time that it took them to cross from one side of the car to the other, a thousand white-hot thoughts, the cascading shrapnel of a joyous explosion, dazzled down through my soul. Of course, I thought. That’s why she stared at me that day in the cafeteria…that’s why. She’d always liked me, but I was too blind to see it. Maybe I wasn’t such a freak, after all, and maybe she wasn’t too beautiful to enjoy sensitive thoughts, experience deeper emotions. It suddenly occurred to me that everything I thought I knew was wrong. And it was a relief….because everything I’d known up till that point was misery.

The two of them stood on the driver’s side of the car and Perkins seized the handle and I drew myself straight and tall and proud, all six foot ten of me, and he opened the door and reached in and switched the engine off, and then he drew back and there was more movement and I realized with a jolt that he was helping someone else out of the back seat of the Mustang. There was a lot of fuss, as the person appeared to be wedged too tight back there. There was a lot of grunting and groaning. With a loud birthing-moan they extricated her.

Perkins helped what appeared to be a middle-aged black woman in a tight, fringed red dress, out of his brand new sports car. She teetered on her heels when she stood beside the two of them. Her stomach bulged a bit at the dress’ shiny midriff. I could feel the corners of my smile melting into a lifeless thing down my face. I could feel a nasty chuckle tumble out of me, in an alien voice that seemed to come from a rotten spot so deep inside that the chuckle turned to sulfur on my lips. I could feel the gods snickering at me.

Perkins was back up in my face, leering with his boozy grin. Carly and the colored woman stood two steps below. Carly’s arms were folded over her chest, and she was practically glaring at me, daring me to react to the situation. But Perkins seemed oblivious. He was quite pleased with himself.

“Dusty England,” he said, turning back towards the woman, “I’d like you to meet Darletta McFadden.” He bowed. She took a step up towards me and extended her swollen black fingers. I shook her hand and she said “My my my. You a big one, honey.”

She looked me up and down and licked her lips. She broke out into a snaggle-toothed grin. At first I thought that one of the teeth was popped out in front, but I saw later it was a tooth with a ruby in it. The neckline of her dress plunged to reveal massive sweaty black teats, vandalized by light brown stretch marks. She caught me staring and wiggled her hips suggestively. She elbowed Carly and Carly laughed, looking me straight in the eyes.

Perkins drew closer to me and whispered, “Had to drive all the way over to Niggertown…you know, um, Blue Island, to find her, man. The beauty of it is, she’s yours for the night. Had to pay forty dollars, Bro…but it’s cool ’cause I owe you. Upshot is, that forty bucks includes everything, my man. Everything. You know what I’m saying! You’re a lucky man, England! There’s gonna be plenty studs out there tonight ain’t even gettin’ to first base….but in your case, see…home plate’s already paid for!” Perkins started laughing and Carly started laughing and the prostitute started laughing too.

I would have walked down those stairs and got in the station wagon and driven off without a word if it wasn’t for Carly Benjamin. But the way she stood there, smirking…expecting me to do just that…to flee back to the sad security of my adopted parents, my tail between my legs…I wanted to teach her a lesson. I wanted to show her I was stronger than anything she’d ever heard of before. Perkins was another matter…it was impossible to be mad at him… was that the secret of the ruling classes?…he was just ignorant, uncouth. He owned the world, and to him, Negroes and women both were just heirlooms he’d inherited from his grandfather. He was genial and friendly to everyone in that relaxed, superior way. He was above all of us in the world; the furthest beneath him were Darletta and I; and nothing I could do would ever affect him, nor put a dent in his sphere, nor even a slight wobble in his orbit unless, of course, I opted to assault him. As some brothers would. But that was never my style.

But Carly Benjamin, she was a subordinate, too. A servant. That was the animosity she felt for me, the bizarre pleasure she seemed to take in this breathtaking humiliation of mine. It was one servant despising another servant for being a servant. She was a servant of a much higher caste, of course, but still, she was not impervious to me like amiable Jack Perkins was…I could bother her in some way. I could at least ruin her cruel pleasure for that night. I forced myself to smile.

I reached out and Darletta McFadden, of the Niggertown McFaddens, took my arm.

The dance was in full swing when we made our entrance. There was a brief frozen period of shocked stares, and then little discreet eruptions of mirth bloomed around the dance floor as the four of us cut across the middle of the room, towards the table of refreshments at the other side, near the stage where a large band was playing. In the twinkling lights of the darkened room (another mirrored ball, this one a hundred feet up, under the steel girders of the gymnasium), Darletta didn’t look nearly as bad as she could have, but still she looked terrible.

She looked slovenly and chubby and loose. She looked old enough to be my mother. She was wearing an oily black wig, in the style of a bob, like a cap. White eyeshadow was smeared over her lids. Her blush looked painful in slick red bruises on her brown cheeks. Her eyes were bloodshot and tired. Still, she kept giggling, looking high up to me, and squeezing my forearm. She kept pointing out the different dresses, the glittering decorations, the big band on the stage under all those lights.

I handed her a plastic cup of punch and she sipped it and frowned and said, “Baby, I ain’t drunk no fruit juice since I was toilet trained.” She winked up at me. “I sure woulda liked ta toilet train you, though.” She hugged herself against my waist and I felt an acid heat tingling where her hot body rubbed me. I felt my Thing stirring but I thought of horrible subjects until it began to deflate again.

Carly and Jack stood just a few feet away, leaning against the refreshment table, ignoring each other and staring at us. Jack was grinning broadly and giving me a thumbs-up. Carly turned sideways from us and said something that made Jack double up with laughter.

I said to Darletta, “What’s it like living in Blue Island? Is it nice?” She disengaged herself from my legs and looked up at me like I was crazy. “Nice? Nice?” She blew out a disgusted breath. “Honey, I live there ’cause that’s just exactly where I ended up. That’s where stuff falls to, baby. It’s just the bottom of things, that’s all. Things fall, and they keep on falling, but one day they gotta land. That’s where I landed, that’s all.” She looked at me like I was an idiot. “You talk like a white boy,” she said. “And I’m paid to be nice to you, but I ain’t paid to answer no motherfucking personal questions. You dig?”

I said that I didn’t mean anything by it and she said “You wanna be my friend? Get me something good to drink.” Her eyes pointed to kids drinking in various spots around the room. “I know they ain’t all drinking no apple juice.” She suddenly grabbed my arm before I could leave to fetch her a drink. “And why don’t you take off them phony glasses while you’re at it, sugar? Frankly, I can’t see the point.” She held out a hand and I removed the glasses and placed them there. She put them in her little black patent leather purse.

I went to the refreshment table and sure enough I found a bowl of red punch that had been spiked with strong spirits. A few kids came over and patted me on the back as I stood there, and one girl, a mousy little thing from my chemistry class, had the nerve to say Dusty, that girl of yours is striking! I wanted to strike her. I ladled some high-test punch into a cup and brought it back to Darletta and she downed it with a gulp.

She had her eyes closed and licked her tongue slowly around the fat perimeter of her shiny lips and when her eye lids rolled up again, as slowly as the eyelids on a black-eyed doll, she looked straight through me. “You got to be the funniest looking white boy I ever seen.” she said. And I thought, and you’re nothing but dirt but I didn’t have the nerve to say it.

I looked over at Carly and Jack and they were kissing and hugging in a loose dance to a Beach Boys tune the band was playing. Little Surfer Girl. The song was so white that it seemed to congratulate them. I looked at my date and felt sick to my stomach. I was losing the war. Carly was grinning vacuously into Jack’s chest, her platinum blonde hair pouring across the elegant white sleeve of his leading arm.

Darletta caught me staring wistfully at the two of them and started shaking her head slowly from side to side, one hand on her broad hip, like she pitied me. I tried to ignore her. Time dragged on with excruciating precision, like a long, notched nail being extracted from my heart.

Darletta let herself smile again when the band started playing a Burt Bacharach tune. What’s It All About, Alfie? “That’s my song,” she said. She started singing along with it and her voice was so careful and out of tune that I suddenly felt sorry for both of us, I grieved for us, my pity and compassion and miserable sad sorrow formed a bubble around us that blurred the stupid staring grinning faces of the teenaged white monsters and I wanted to cry.

That’s how I felt, suddenly. After years of it. Because everyday of my life for the past nine or ten years had been exactly like this; this new situation was really not much worse. Everyday there’d been the stares, the giggles, the whispers, the idiotic or rude or cruel remarks, the asinine jokes in bad taste, the isolation, the oddness, that damning sense of eternal mistake, of basic horrible wrongness about myself. I once fooled myself into thinking that my height had a lot to do with it, but my height, in truth, was just a silly twist in the ugly joke of my being a real-black nigger in a white white, very white world. Originally smuggled into this merciless country as bits and pieces of DNA stored in the semen of some long-dead African.

Darletta reached out and pulled me to the middle of the dance floor. The crowd parted to admit us. I felt woozy feverish with renewed shame. Everything was dark and distorted. My lips inflated to the size and texture of truck tires. It took me a while to realize that my eyes were closed. The music came to me from the other end of a long metallic tunnel. When I opened my eyes, a crowd had formed around us. Nothing but friendly smiles, tragically misplaced, wobbled in a circle we centered. Darletta was ashamed of neither herself nor me. She pulled me along through a formless shuffling slow dance, pressed hard and lactating sweat against me, her fat hot breasts demanding attention. Her breath rose into me like a warm, earthy spirit. I felt myself swelling down there were she was.

She ran her tough, short-nailed hands expertly over my lower body. Unspeakable images marched through my imagination. Shocking, graphic snapshots. Scenes from the inferno; a raunchy, writhing black Eve; an even blacker serpent. My imagination revealed to me, in a virile convulsion, for the first time, exactly what it was that my body was really after… which wasn’t just holding somebody’s hand. I wasn’t quite me anymore: I was becoming my body. I was becoming a natural being, suddenly; my old thoughts ripped and falling like spent cocoons. It was then that I realized that growing up meant giving up poetry, and that poetry had nothing to do with life. Life is not poetic. Poetry is the rejection of life. Poets die miserable.

We kept dancing simply because I didn’t have the courage to cross the floor again in order to leave it. I don’t know how many songs went by, but eventually Darletta and I lost the novelty of our freak appeal and all the innocent white couples went back to the business of kissing and grinding together to the music. Teacher chaperones patrolled the audience to make sure that hands remained in polite places. One of them, walking near to us, behaved as though we were figments of his imagination; he broke into a nervous giggle and turned away.

Darletta said, “Boy, don’t you wear me out dancing! I won’t be worth a damn later on. Won’t have a drop of that sweet juice left. Let’s sit this one out.”

We took a couple of seats in a dark corner. We had nothing to say to each other. I looked around the gymnasium: not a sign of Carly and Jack anywhere. They were probably necking happily in a hidden spot already, laughing at me. I hadn’t taught Carly any fucking lesson. I hadn’t proven anything. I was just sad and tired. A sad tired freak with a tired whore on my arm.

I was desperately trying to think of a way to get out of that building and into the station wagon and safely back in my room without drawing attention to myself. Maybe I could sneak off while Darletta was in the Ladies Room…she’d have to go eventually, to vent the liquor she was tanking. What would it matter to her, anyway, if I snuck off? She’d been paid already.

“Say,” said Darletta suddenly, “Seriously…why you talk like a white boy?”

“What? What do you mean, exactly?”

What do you mean, exactly,” she said mockingly. “That’s what I mean, exactly. You talk like a white boy. If you weren’t such a big fine chocolate black nigger, I’d think you was a faggot. Don’t take it personal, baby.” She put her heavy wide hand on my leg. “I’m just curious, is all.”

My first impulse was to explain to her that I’d been adopted by white parents as a child, but then I thought better of it, because that wasn’t the point, in my opinion.

“Why, if I’m speaking proper English, does that mean I’m talking like a white boy? Does being colored automatically mean being uneducated?” I was becoming angry. It was a sore point with me.

She looked at me sideways. “What you mean, proper English? You think there’s only one way of talking? You think somethin’s more right just ‘cuz white folks do it?”

“It has nothing to do with black or white,” I said. “There’s proper English, and there’s slang. Plenty of whites speak slang as well. It’s not just Negroes. But if you want to make the best impression, you have to speak the English language as it was meant to be spoken.”

She took a long look before snorting, “Honey, let’s face it, you only gonna make one kinda impression yo’ whole damn life and the sooner you face that, happier you gonna be.” Then she stood up and patted me on the shoulder and vamped ostentatiously across the floor to get herself another real drink. I watched her lean forward over the refreshment table, her broad ass jutting, the fringe on her dress shimmying, her thick strong legs apart, her scuffed heels bent under her. Some red-faced kid was pouring a cup for her and they were chatting. A few others straggled over. She was drumming up business. She probably had a special discount rate for students. She’d be hopping from car to car in the parkinglot later that night. She wouldn’t even have noticed if I snuck out on her right at that moment.

Then I looked up, and felt trapped.

Coming across the floor towards me, grinning like Alfred E. Neumann, was Cohen. He was wearing his traditional camouflage army jacket, but his aviator’s glasses were off and his hair was slicked back. His ears protruded proudly. This was his idea of going formal.

If he caught me with Darletta McFadden, I’d be mortified. I’d never hear the end of it. I tried to scrunch down in my chair.

“England!” Cohen was thrilled to see me. “I see we’re both here stag! That’s perfect. We’re gonna have a helluva time, man. You are here alone, aren’t you? How long you been here? I decided at the last minute to come.” He sat in Darletta’s chair, beside me. He was too stupid to realize that the chair was already warm.

“I mean, what the hey, a man only gets one senior prom in his life, right? Who else made it?” He looked happily around the room.

“There’s Boney,” he said, pointing out one of his fat pariah friends (who, I had to admit, was at least with a girl who hadn’t been rented for the night).

I was too paralyzed to speak. I just watched with morbid anxiety as Darletta came snaking back across the dance floor in her lascivious hoochie-coochie towards us, a cup of ninety-proof sloshing in either hand. Every time her huge ass jolted on a footfall, spoonfuls of punch exploded from the cups.

“Holy shit,” said Cohen. “Who is that?”

She got closer and closer, my angel of death. My giddy reaper.

“England…she’s coming this way!” Cohen turned to me and said, “If she sits down over here, you do all the talking, okay? You know I’m not good with girls…will you look at the bongos on that lady!” Cohen grabbed my arm and clutched it so tight that I thought that I’d scream. When Darletta stopped directly in front of us, Cohen dug his nails so deep through the sleeve of my sweater that I shrieked and snatched my arm away.

Darletta handed me a half-empty cup of punch and remained standing. “Friend of yours, honey?” she asked, smiling down at Cohen. Cohen half-opened his mouth and a sound like a baby bird came out.

“Nathaniel Cohen, Darletta MacFadden.” I intoned monotonously. Cohen hopped to his feet and gestured frantically for her to take his seat. She curtsied grotesquely and sat.

“You dog, England!” Cohen punched me in the arm. Standing in front of me, he was as tall as I was seated. “You didn’t tell me you had a girlfriend.” He turned to Darletta. “And so pretty, too. Darletta…that’s a French name, isn’t it?”

My prostitute date giggled coquettishly.

“That’s a fine ruby-inlaid tooth, there.” he said.

“Nate,” I said as I stood. “It’s getting late. I have to get Darletta back home before midnight or her parents will have a fit.”

Darletta hooted and said, “Shit, I think I’ve heard it all, now!” Her laughter was deep and dirty, like an alley cat rolling around in her belly, but it was so full of real relish that it almost felt good to hear it. I must admit, I was on the verge of laughing myself.

Cohen looked stricken. “You can’t go already! You just got here! The night is young! Come on, don’t do this to me, England! Darletta doesn’t want to go yet…do you, Darletta? Come on, make this big jerk stay awhile. He just wants to keep you all to himself, that’s all.” He made a fist at me, standing on his tip-toes. I glanced at Darletta and smiled and she winked back at me.

I could see that she was flattered by the fuss that my idiotic friend was making over her. She began primping and preening like a virginal southern belle. She even tugged the corners of her wig to correct its angle. It was a revelation to me that Nate found Darletta not even laughable, but somehow attractive. He kept hopping around us like an excited little dog.

“Whatsamatter, afraid I’ll steal her from you? Some friend you turn out to be! Come on,” he whined, “Just one dance and then you can go…” but I had Darletta’s arm and we headed for the Fire Exit.

“I think your little friend likes me,” she said when we got outside.

Then she went on her knees, smacking her lips, and did as Perkins had instructed.

-June, 1993