Category Archives: short

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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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