"Wow, Fitz," Matt nodding enthusiastically, suddenly looking around for a lit joint that wasn't even there – now where did that roach go? "I always knew you were smart, man, but...."
Fitz picked up his Schlitz, leaned way back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk, put one hand behind his head, looked out the window at the rain, at all the leaves changing colors, and was just getting to feeling good and comfy when the chair broke to bits under him, sending him crashing ass-first to the floor.
"It’s a Bentley, sweetie.”
She blinks twice. Looks around herself. “It’s a Bentley, sweetie,” she says.
“And that’s sheepskin, not leather.”
“Sheepskin, not leather,” she says, stroking it more tentatively now. “This is the part, of course, where I express righteous leftist indignation at the very existence of anything as ludicrous as a quarter-million-dollar automobile.”
“So go ahead.”
“With teachers buying toilet paper for bathrooms in Detroit public schools.”
“So go ahead.”
“I will, I will. It’s just this seat is so, so soft.”
I can’t look, the latter says several minutes later, sitting on the toilet, left hand covering her eyes, right one holding out the stick she’s just peed on. Tell me.
Tara steps forward. Looks. Pauses.
Oh sweetie, she says. It’s an old test. It’s probably no good anymore.
Angela, mouth agape, looks now herself. Then catches a glimpse of her horrified expression in the compact mirror on the sink beside her. I’m never five days late, she says. Ever.
That’s why they’re in groups, Rob.
No way. Every network is visible on some level.
Hey, that’s nice. We’ll put it on our tombstones.
It’s not a network. They’re insular. They’re forming clusters of three, four, five. That small. And probably the clusters have no idea others even exist. Although of course they can’t be totally insular. Each individual has to keep ties to the straight world, if only to keep the group invisible. So they’re in community colleges. They’re in minimum-wage jobs.
Why those class affiliations?
Think about it.
Are they in church?
If they’re smart. Camouflage is of the essence.
"Oh, shit," Will said. "I should've warned you." He went to her and took her wrist and pulled her hand away from her face. She ducked his hand at first, then relaxed and let him touch her. Her nose didn't seem hurt. He touched her cheek.
She followed him into the living room. He filled one of the tall plastic glasses and she swallowed the champagne down in a few gulps. Her eyebrows raised and her lips pursed. He smiled and drained his own glass. He said, "I thought you'd like that grape juice." He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and said, "Wanna watch some tube?"
The TV didn't interest her anymore. She sat on the floor with her back to it, her empty glass on its side by her knee, drawing with Will's Parker on the sheets of paper he'd given her. She drew only one thing: circles. Unnervingly perfect circles. Her hand never moved faster than a clock's second hand. He sat watching, bleary eyed, following the motion of the pen. The news was on TV. A blonde woman was doing the weather. Clear and cold tomorrow.
Nuh-uh. That’s not what I’m thinking. Listen. Just a few of them get together. A handful. The usual grist for the usual mill. Charismatic. Young. Energetic. Intelligent, as far as it goes. Freakishly attractive. Of course. But the thing is, they hide it.
They hide what?
All of that. All of it.
A pause. Which lengthens. Someone sighs.
All right. They hide it. But there’s always been X percent of the population that fits that description, Carol. I’ll go one in ten thousand. Maybe fifteen. Baggy clothes, shit haircuts. They eschew cosmetics, keep their mouths shut. Maybe some nun scared them shitless when they were nine. Maybe they’re --
No, I don’t mean they quash it. I mean they hide it.
From everyone. From us. From everyone but each other.
Well why? No, don’t tell me. Anarchists again. They want to wear bandanas over their faces, burn SUVs. Throw trash cans through the movie screens that would otherwise, what. Steal their souls.
Those are just the religious again, Mike. We’ve been through that. These aren’t anarchists. They’re thieves.
Another pause. The second hand sweeps a considerable ways around the face of the Swiss clock over the door.
They’re stealing from us. From the system we created. That’s essentially what’s happening here. If it’s happening.
They sit in a booth near the bar, the Friday-night crowd coalescing around them. Rob scans faces, battling the uneasy feeling he’s being watched. Half an hour ago he found a business envelope under the Land Rover’s windshield wiper, the inscrutable sentence SOMEBODIE’S GOT SOME EXPLAINING TO DO magic-markered on it in big, childish letters. In the envelope, judging by what he could see through the paper, a stack of photos. He didn’t open it: his cohort, Dave Duvall, whose E-Type was in the garage for the second time this month, was a few steps behind him, needing a ride. Then, as he was dropping Dave off at the brand-new condo building catty-corner to the brew pub, Angela was pulling up in the Jetta right behind him. So the envelope had stayed under the Rover's seat.
Semen odor patch. Hotrod spacemen. Demon tears chop. The nomad corpse.
I ask her if she has others of those -- those --
She says yes.
I ask what of.
She says a rose.
I ask where.
She smiles, looks at me, and says -- you have to hear it with the German accent -- "Ze rose is on my ass."
In walked beauty through the squealing screen door, faux leather bag on her shoulder. She stood there, hand on hip, coatless, grease stains on her uniform. "About time," ventured Jay.
"Howdy, baby," the waitress replied vacantly, eyes scanning the apartment as if she'd been expecting somebody else.
"I'd sure like to know your name."
"Well," she said, "they call me Terry."
Jay nodded thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. "Now what kind of girl," he wondered aloud, "comes after dark to the room of some strange man she doesn't even know, Terry?"
Electing, apparently, to answer with a gesture, she withdrew a snub-nosed handgun from her purse. "Did you say something about wanting a gun?"
"Well, I guess I did."
She cocked the hammer on the thing, pointed it at his head in such a way he figured she knew how to use it. He began to stand up. "No no, don't get up," she said. "No need for friends to play polite." Her other hand was procuring something else from the bag: the fifty-dollar bill, of course, he'd left on her tabletop. This she crumpled like she'd done his address that morning, then chucked it across the kitchen into the corner by the stove.
"You get down on your hands and knees," she said, "and crawl and get that money."
This Jay did, feeling the grime on the linoleum floor under the heels of his hands. Having fetched it, he sat there on his knees, holding it hopelessly. "Now you eat that fifty," she said, a vaguely insane warble in her voice -- and this he did, too, tearing the bill into bite-size pieces, gagging now and then as they went down.
"You got anything else," she said when he'd finished, "you want to say to me?"
Jay swallowed repeatedly, struggling to get the last piece down. "I'd say we've talked enough," he said. "Now get those fucking clothes off."
She crossed the kitchen, slapped him once stingingly across the side of the head. "You little slut," she said. "I swear to God. Get on that bed in there or I'll kill you."
When Jay's tongue was in her navel she said, "I reckon my husband ain't gonna like this."
Figuring she could use some protein after whatever trauma had caused the faded bruises, Will ordered her prime rib. But when the waiter set it, two Molsons for Will later, on the checkered tablecloth in front of her, her expression was instant and violent revulsion. Then she was sobbing, wailing, tears running out of her eyes. The whole place was silent as Will leapt up, telling the dumbstruck waiter they'd take it in a bag.
Outside, C____ seemed afraid of the Saturday-night crowd. She looked up at Will in what he thought was a pleading manner. Every few dozen yards she turned and walked blindly into his side or leapt mysteriously, apparently startled. When they reached the corner of Wisconsin and M a man with no shirt was jumping up and down, screaming, "Yeah! Yeah!" Two kids with half‑shaved heads and Harley jackets stared unapologetically at C_____, and she stared back, animal dumb. Will hurried her away, noticing how her hands were swallowed up by the sleeves of the sweater he'd put on her. The bottoms of her jeans dragged on the sidewalk.
We spent evenings in our building’s lush back yard, drinking screwdrivers, grilling burgers and corn ears, rehashing this or that movie, book, or sitcom from childhood. I surprised myself, going on and on about Smurfs, Willy Wonka, Doogie Hauser. I hadn’t really spoken to anyone in two years. Occasionally husband and wife would give me heavy-lidded looks, but I couldn’t tell if it was sexual interest or sleepiness.
If you’re standing on an infinite plane, do you see a horizon? Or does the ground just seem to fold upward and enclose you?
Her ass -- no longer a butt, but an ass -- is on a sink; Mr. V. is between her knees, rooting into her neck, making these funny grunting sounds that almost crack her up. But then she sees her face in the mirror on the opposite wall, sees the scene playing out as in an mpeg clip on some porn site, and it suddenly feels serious. She watches her eyelids droop, feels herself smile into his collar, feels his -- his -- thing pressing now against her -- her --
Is it true, she whispers hotly against his ear, you’re gonna be hosting that new Bethel sports show every Saturday?
When, after a moment, he registers the question, he smiles, sucks her lower lip. Nods.
I want to be on it too, she says. Every week. Right there with you.
He grins expansively. I can make that happen.
To reward him, she lets out a little gasp -- a tiny squeak -- when his fingertips brush her inner thigh just inside her sweat-damp gym shorts.
"What the fuck is it?" he asked Siegelman. Who was on the couch. And whose expression was utter delight.
"It's a barrel of oil!"
Krantz took a stop toward it, looking at it like it like it should be explaining itself and wasn't. "What the -- fuck is it doing here?"
Siegelman was hysterical now, screaming in laughter, clutching his ribs. "Whaaaaaah! Eeeeee! It's a -- it's a...!" He was gasping for air. "It's an actual fucking barrel of oil!"
"I don't think so."
"Look. Science, right? Science can't get anywhere near the big questions. Why is there anything rather than nothing? Why a universe instead of no universe?"
"We'll get there."
"Does anything exist outside of consciousness? There are two ways to take that question."
"To what extend does the fact of there being all this stuff -- all this stuff instead of no stuff -- indicate that unconsciousness, nothingness, oblivion are impossibilities?"
Will took her to the Gap and Banana Republic. Envisioning what might happen if he sent her to a dressing room alone, he guessed her sizes and bought her jeans, t‑shirts, a black leather jacket. He put it all on his MasterCard. Everywhere they went people
26. A scary moment in a New Orleans bar when a drunk in a Harley jacket tried to stick what I think was a steak knife in me because I’d told him he’d have to blow me for an autograph.
27. A guy I’d occasionally smoked weed with in high school calling me in a New Haven hotel room, taking thirty minutes to chat me up before asking, inevitably, if he could borrow four thousand dollars.
His mouth fell open when he saw the mutilated drapes, the gallon of milk splashed across the hardwood floor, the strewn contents of his bookshelf, the toppled stereo components.
He shut the door. He stood there dazed for a long time. Then he started walking through rooms, surveying the damage. A broken picture frame, spilt cereal boxes. A roll of unwound toilet paper. This trail he followed till it disappeared under the bathroom door. When he got there he reached slowly for the knob. He turned it and pushed the door open with his fingertips.
She shook her head. "Poor Fitz. He almost got it right. See," hair falling down over her left eye again, her breath so close he could feel it on his face, "it's just that some people want very badly to be on TV. And they go nuts from frustration because they know they're not."
Matt blinked. "Why would anyone want to be in that stupid box?"
"Because!" grabbing his wrist. "It's easy to think your life doesn't mean anything unless someone draws lines around it. It's easy to think something's not real unless someone’s taken a picture of it."
"No,” bewildered, “this is no good. I want my life to mean something. I want to be real. Someone’s already taken your picture, Chloe. What if no one wants to take mine?"
"Uh-uh," grabbing his shoulder, sinking her nails in pretty good. “Now you’re just going the wrong way. Because once you’ve got the picture that made you real, your picture can't be real till someone takes a picture of it. See?"
He grabbed his head, shook it.
"It's a bad road," Chloe, unhanding him, giving a little shudder he felt against his thigh. "I'm telling you. Don’t go down it."
How so what?
How are they beating the system?
Well what’s to disprove them? Once they’ve gone into their frumpy hiding, there’s nothing to tell them they weren’t otherwise bound for, for, Jay Leno’s couch, right? And if that’s the reality they subscribe to, then. What. That is their reality.
I walked to the window and pulled aside the rubberized curtains by their plastic rods, looking down on the “city” 14 stories below. Cars turned cautious lefts. A dozen people weaved their way past each other in a crosswalk. An old woman tripped over a curb and fell. Beyond a public park, all autumnal oranges and yellows, the afternoon sun glinted off a river whose name I didn't know.
I sat down on the edge of the pleasantly stiff mattress behind me, feeling the warmth of the slanting sunlight on my legs. I rubbed my penis through my slacks until it was semi-erect. I inspected my fingernails. Then I got up a little unsteadily, crossed the room and looked at myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror on the closet door. I wore a midnight-blue Tom Ford suit, black Prada shoes and belt, a shimmering gold Hedi Slimane tie. My hair was an artful tussle. My skin was fair and clear. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.
He marched back to the house, beaming, waving at cars. Ten minutes later, grunting and sweating, forcing his now-criminal fingers deep into the happy and horny-making mass of silk and cotton that was Chloe's hamper, thinking he might not, in an instance as unique and special as this, be above trying some of these items on, his knuckles struck something hard. Hello. What was this? He fumbled for it, got a hand on it, pulled it up from the musky depths. It was...a videotape! What could it be? Well it could be just about anything!
With no hesitation whatsoever he trotted the thing down the cedary-smelling hall to the living room, marching gleefully, knees lifted high. He squatted in front of the dusty TV/VCR combo, stabbed his finger at power buttons, heard gears whir to life, shoved the tape into a slot that sucked it in and swallowed it up, mmm, yum-yum, mmm.
And then, suddenly, after twenty seconds of fuzz, rolling lines and white noise, he saw...Chloe! This was too good!
But where was she? What was this she was doing?
She was sitting at what looked like a folding card table, in some ugly wood-paneled room, in front of -- wow -- a big Texas state flag thumbtacked to the wall behind her. It appeared there was also a big plate of...spaghetti in front of her. Which Chloe -- virtual Chloe, pixelated Chloe, who had just shot a ferocious look at whoever was behind the camera, like he (Matt already knew somehow it was a he) was gonna owe her big for this one -- picked up a fork and laid into, gobbling away.
Then Matt's initial suspicion there was potential here for some weird fuckin' shit to happen was suddenly realized, as the person -- indeed male -- behind the camera, watching Chloe, shouted, apropos of nothing, "Ooh baby yeah!" Matt, squatting there, feeling the swelling evil that had entered the scene, made a weird noise in the back of his throat, hunkered lower, not sure if he really wanted to be seeing this, man.
So I was outside, sitting there in the dirt by the street breaking up twigs, when I heard footsteps coming down the stairs behind me -- the other family's stairs, on the other side of the house. I got scared again, of course. And next thing I knew the girl was standing there beside me in this little green terrycloth outfit, hands on hips, her eyes squinting at me in the bright sun. I remember the freckles on her nose and cheeks and her dusty toes clenching and unclenching in her flip-flops. Or at least I think I do.
She just stood there a while, staring at me. Then she said, "I saw you looking at me, you know." I just ignored her and went on breaking up sticks. She took a step closer to me, so she was almost on top of me, and she said, "Do you want me to tell my dad?" I didn't say anything, didn't even look up at her. I was mad at her, though -- real mad, don't ask me why -- and I was trying to think up something mean to say to her as I was sitting there in the dirt.
"Stupid," she said.
"Stupid girl," I said.
Then she said, "I'm telling." She turned around and
She followed Will back into the living room. Since the TV had survived her wrath, or whatever it had been, he turned it on for her and went back to the kitchen to start cleaning. When he came back out a few minutes later, dish towel in hand, he found her crouched in front of the screen, murmuring to herself, touching the glass like she was trying to touch the images trapped inside. It was a PBS show about bats. They swooped from one edge of the screen to the other.
Will put down the rag, went to his bedroom and pulled an old tape recorder from the closet. In the living room he found a cassette on the floor, loaded it into the machine and recorded several minutes of her yammering. She gave no indication she understood what he was doing. He cleaned up the milk, picked up his books and rewired the stereo. Then he went and sat on the carpet beside the girl. He’d meant to get up and keep cleaning, but he wound up staying there beside her, watching TV for several hours instead.
Then I'm in that house, I'm in it, I'm in it, I'm
When he sees her spot the turd on the Lexus' roof, he smiles. Didn’t even expect to, really. Thought he was putting it there perfunctorily, dutifully, just because something should mark the six-month anniversary of their divorce. But when she finds it and curses a tiny thundercloud into the cold air, he smiles involuntarily and broadly, watching himself in the rearview mirror. It’s a reminder: Don’t ever underestimate the peevish, childish pleasures. The pleasure of pulled hair. The pleasure of Indian burn. The pleasure of smashed toy. It’s so good, in fact, he follows her home, staying well behind her (he doesn’t want that turd on his windshield), seeking some further shabby gratification. Hey: Six months is an accomplishment. And he’s got an hour to kill before he picks up his niece anyway.
Jay parked in the ditch, jogged up the dusty front lawn and knocked hard, hard on the door, grinning ruthlessly when, after a moment or two, an obese woman emanating the funk of fried chicken opened it. She saw him standing there in his wrecked chinos and jacket, looked at him like he was fucking insane, but still left behind a screaming child to take him around back of the place, up some perilous wooden stairs and into a third-floor apartment. Inside, Jay rapped on the walls, stepped repeatedly on a squeaking floorboard, pressed his fists into the stained mattress on the wildly careening iron bed frame, then announced to the woman, who was visibly nervous by now, that he'd take it. He paid her the necessary deposit in cash from his wallet, she babbling something in that grating accent about her husband sending up a copy of the lease. Then he showed the good woman the door.
Alone at last in his new home, Jay removed a silver flask from his jacket pocket, unscrewed the top, took one slug from it, then another. He drew his lips up over his teeth, turned round and round in self-satisfied circles, examining the walls. "My walls," he said. He stepped into the bathroom, saying, "My bathroom," and discovered an old-time bevelled mirror on the back of the door. Feeling some obscure, some unnameable, urge, he stripped naked before it, then stood there, his clothes in a tired pile at his feet, turning his body left and right, examining his profile, saying, "Oh baby. You're so fine. You're so fine."
"Told her? Told her what?"
"That you loved her, you worm."
He tried to smile, succeeded only in showing some dental work. "Well, once, on her couch, in her dorm room, at school? I, I, I, I– "
Chloe snapped the lighter shut, blew smoke at Matt's nakedness, spun a hand in the air.
" I almost told her."
"Oh. You almost told her. That’s great."
"But, but – "
"No buts about it, you wet noodle. What did she look like?"
"What'd she look like?"
"What did she look like?”
"I don’t know. Short. Blonde. Curvy."
He stopped abruptly. Realized he’d just described Chloe.
She narrowed her eyes, blew more smoke through her lips, which were pursed so tightly now it could only be to keep from grinning. "Well that’s interesting, isn't it?"
Matt, wide-eyed, said nothing.
"So tell me, Matt my buddy. Just how good of friends are you and Fitz?"
"Mmm, I see, I see.” A strand of hair fell over her left eye. “And what about me, Matt? Am I your friend?"
"I think you’re the devil."
Chloe threw her head back, loosed a Satanic laugh. Matt stood there, a jerk.
"Let me give you some advice, buddy," she finally said, picking her navel under her T shirt. "You might want to get dressed, fast, ’cause your friend just pulled into the driveway."
Matt scrambled for his clothes, grabbing one article after another, sticking this limb into that hole, unbuttoning this thing and re-zipping that, getting his jeans on inside-out, his shirt on backwards, finally hitting the couch, holding Nietzsche up to his face, upside-down, just as Fitz, with the neighbors' one-eyed, malnourished, highly noxious cat following at his heels, came through the kitchen door, announcing, "Today was another defeat!" The cat trailed him into the living room, where it jumped gracelessly onto the coffee table and, as Matt, Chloe, and Fitz watched horrified, delivered up, after some violent torso spasms and hacking, a slick, steaming hairball – or maybe a half-digested mouse. Then he/she/it bolted, hurling through the storm door in the kitchen, leaving a tattered cat-shaped hole in the screen.
"What," queried Fitz, "should we have for dinner?"
After our set we stood backstage, panting, hands on waists and knees. There, a hard-faced guy in his late thirties lurched through a fire door, sweating. “Who the fuck are you?” he wanted to know.
It was like he was angry at us.
Forever. That’s a long time.
It is a long time. And for that portion of it we’re alive, we get to contemplate daily the pain of our alienation from that place they inhabit.
That place. That psychological state.
Not a geographic locale.
Well. Strictly speaking, no. But it’s a psychological state that sometimes articulates itself in geographical terms.
Actual physical space.
Major urban centers, of course. And coastlines.
It goes a long way, doesn’t it, towards explaining the discomfort we feel when visiting those places.
Proximity, of course. The abject pain of being so close to a world we’d like to inhabit but are barred from utterly. It’s just behind that garden wall. It’s just eight stories up, behind that window with the glowing Japanese paper lanterns. It’s just at the end of that pier there, behind that locked cabin door.
Oh lord. They’ve only just met, just three hours ago, but they’re in that cabin at the end of that pier having the type of sex we spend our whole lives fantasizing about, stimulating our sad little parts while thinking about, trying to tell ourselves no actual human beings ever experience it in actual reality anyway, shamelessly and without even asking permission doing things to each other we won’t ask even our chubby and slightly asthmatic partners of all these years to do, licking things we’d never dare lick, saying things we’d never dare say, making bold and thrillingly rude gestures to these strangers they’re with, staring hard and unembarrassed at the particular parts in motion.
Thinking and saying simultaneously. Reaching
One afternoon we were drinking Coronas on the deck of a barbecue place near Charleston when a tall guy in a lot of linen introduced himself sheepishly. He was the editor of a local tourist rag. Were we local? Were we together? He’d love to put us in his Charleston’s Most Beautiful Couples issue.
It wasn’t till she left a note at the hotel desk – a trope miles beneath her – informing me she’d gone back to Miami, back to her CIA-operative husband, that I realized I’d fallen chemically in love with the Norwegian. I had 48 hours of shakes, nausea, cold sweats. In my hotel room I punched a mirror, knocked over a television, stomped my wristwatch. Only the tinkle of broken glass could comfort me.
Is there any such thing as subjectivity outside of ideology?
The elevator doors opened and he carried her down the hall, turning around to look behind him when he reached his door. The hall was long and empty. There was a droning sound like a wind blowing.
None of this is what's important about the wooden patio, though. What's important – and this is what I figured out that summer when I was eight or nine – is that it had the house's outdoor shower stalls, like all beach houses have, right underneath it. Smack dab. I also figured out that if I got down on my hands and knees and pressed my face to the boards, I could see through the cracks between them right into the showers.
I tell Shelly this, and she barks out a laugh and says, "You little pervert."
"What?" I say. "I haven't told you what I did."
"I don't think you have to," she says, and actually looks genuinely disgusted for a second. She takes the last swig of her Rolling Rock and wedges the empty bottle between her thighs. I try not to notice this. She says, "I guess I should've expected as much."
"What?" I say. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing," she says.
I go on with the story, since it's on my mind.
So this particular year, I tell her, the family underneath us had a couple kids with them. At least I think there were a couple; I only really remember one for sure.
"The one you spied on in the shower," Shelly says.
"All right," I say. "You're right. You're right." Might as well admit it so I can go on with the story.
I keep talking. The girl, the kid, I spied on in the shower, I tell Shelly, was probably ten or eleven. A little older than me. What little kids call a big kid. So one afternoon, probably the same day I made my discovery about the house's little design flaw, I was out on the back porch playing with my Star Wars figures or some such shit when I saw this girl walking up the flat dirt road from the beach, her towel dragging on the ground beside her, her hair still slicked back and wet. I got excited then, because I realized
But that was all on the east side of town, where the school and its culture had invaded and conquered like some sort of Dionysian warlord. In the west
But a montage of memories from that Devilish period might prove illustrative of whatever point I’m trying to make. And might provide textures heretofore unavailable to the public, should anyone still give a shit.
So here are 31 memories, in glorious disarray. One for every year I’ve endured.
1. Someone clinging to my leg on the sidewalk outside the Scala in London, weeping, sobbing out, “I just want to be you.”
2. Our drummer Vince laughing and threatening a bloated wax dummy in a Tribeca gallery with his lit Zippo. Then getting too close and the thing going up like a drum of rubbing alcohol.
15. A girl who absolutely would not remove her fishnets inquiring, after every aberrant act we performed together in her Toronto apartment, some party howling outside the locked bedroom door, if I’d ever done that before. Determined, it seemed, to discovery the one perversity that would prevent her vanishing from my brain the second I was back in the airport.
16. Ivan "the Terrible" Towson, a 32 year-old Geffen legal consultant with a lot of hair and a skinny tie, quitting his day job two days after we told him, backstage at our second Wild Boar gig, sure, what the fuck, he could manage us. This guy with a wife, a two-grand-a-month apartment in Brooklyn, an adopted Chinese baby. Me realizing, Holy shit, I think we’re gonna get famous. This is exactly the type of idiocy that goes on when someone’s gonna get famous.
17. Going alone to a bar in an East-Village Russian restaurant the night after the Devils played Letterman. Getting ripped on Stoli martinis, eventually realizing the stunning black girl at the far end of the bar was staring at me over her date’s shoulder. Me deciding, on fledgling rock-star legs, to get a drink thrown in my face when she went to the women’s room – or a punch thrown in same by beau much sooner – by tonguing the crotch of my index and middle fingers at her. But she just smiling slyly at the gesture.
Hang on, dude, Rob says, holding up a palm, taking a gulp of watery 7 & 7. He hates this sports-bar shit. You remember the New York indiscretion? Of last fall?
Oh yeah. Tim sips his Heineken. The one indiscretion every man must, in a just and decent society, be permitted.
Annually. That’s right. So listen to this. Angela and I are at the movies last night – that Beaches Near and Far flick?
That unrated thing? You got Angela to go see that?
Yeah. And ten minutes into it –
He breaks off, laughing riotously, slapping his own thigh. Oh, Jesus, dude. Ten minutes into it, guess who suddenly walks on screen?
Tim’s face slackens. You’re joking.
No, man, Rob laughs, passing a knuckle under his eye. I swear to God. I almost had to go jerk off in the men’s room.
No effing way. Tim stares at Rob. Not Kelly Merchant. She is not the chick you – who you met in that martini bar by Cooper Union. Who got loaded on cosmos. Who asked you to walk her back to the Hilton.
Rob gulps at his drink, whimpering, Hey, man, all I ever got was her first name.
Who spent half the night sitting on your face? Dude, do you never turn on the fucking television?
Rob reaches for the peanuts, tosses one into his mouth. I’m a movie man.
Tim shakes his head, looks around to make sure none of his colleagues are present, plucks a cigarette from inside his sports coat. Lights up.
I tell you, Rob says, it’s really something. He grins thoughtfully now, staring at college-football highlights on the TV over the bar. It makes you realize how pretty much any of us could’ve wound up famous. You know? I mean what’s the difference between them and us?
Dude, we are famous. Tim exhales grey lung smoke. We’re Bethel famous.
We’re famous in miniature.
Yeah, Rob says.
Tim has another nervous look around. Then, in a lowered voice: Hey, man. Remember that senior cheerleader I told you about? Jackie? The one I’ve been having the whole crazy-ass flirtation with?
Well, I think it’s finally gonna happen. Later tonight I’m supposed to –
Dude, Rob says, grinning, holding up a hand. Do I legally want to hear this?
She kept tapping the spoon. Your name is an anagram of anal, she said.
Oh lord. There are some words it’s simply too much to hear a beautiful woman speak aloud, you know.
It’s funny, she said. Every British guy I’ve ever known. All of them, what’s the word. Cads.
That’s it. Cads.
No no. I’m no cad.
A cad, he said, is a man who propositions women fully expecting to be turned down.
But you haven’t even heard the best part, he said.
The best part? Is it when we fit my husband with horns? After the photo shoot is through?
A pained smile. He looked wounded. Or did a good job pretending. Now Meg, he said. You know I respect the institution of marriage much too much for that.
Har har har.
The best part, he said, is that we could actually publish the pictures.
She gave him a blank look again. An expression effectively communicating that she was staring into a vacuum where a human being used to be.
Your face won’t be in them, of course. Which I admit is regrettable, because, you know. But it just isn’t possible, is it?
She was smiling again. It’s really rather funny, she said, we should be having this conversation today of all days. She noticed how she slipped into Britishisms – rather, quite – whenever she conversed with him. Like that. Conversed instead of talked.
This naked but faceless business.
Haven’t you come across _______.com yet? he asked. In your what you cultural-studies people pass off as research?
She became hysterical then, bending over laughing, taking care not to spit out her mouthful of Diet Coke, taking care to keep her knees together, since she was wearing a skirt and he was right opposite her, sitting a little lower than her on her tired old Ikea couch, a grad-school leftover, this British cad who spoke every desire that came into his grimy head and was no doubt hoping for a nice up-skirt sitting where he was.
What? he said, grinning. What?
I think I can guess what _______.com is, she said, recovering. All asses, no faces.
Well you needn’t make it sound crass. The genius of it is anyone can post pictures there. These aren’t models. They aren’t prostitutes. No one’s making money. These are possibly your own mates’ wives. Or your own dental hygienist.
Your own dental hygienist? She was doubled over again, nearly crying now.
All right, then. Maybe the cute sophomore in your 11:00 modernism seminar.
Or her professor.
Ah. See? You’re catching the tune.
Oh please God, she said, wiping her eyes, don’t tell me you’ve posted naked pictures of yourself on this website.
What? Are you joking? There are no men on it. No one wants to look at anonymous naked men.
One day three guys in jumpsuits came and took me from my place in front of the WalMart. They put a blanket over me, strapped me into in a van, drove me a long, long ways. We seemed to be going in circles. When they uncovered me again, I was in a gleaming white corridor in the bowels of an office building, far beneath the surface of the earth.
We have, in the immediate foreground, a window. It's a tall, thin window. An old window. A house window. It is, I mean, a window in an old house. There are, it's worth noting, cracks in this window. Long, delicate, arcing cracks that meet at a point on the rattling wooden frame and that are, under a fingertip, sharp and cold as the edges of razor blades.
We have, under this window, a rooftop. The one covering the kitchen on the floor – on the storey – under us. It's gritty, flat and grey, this rooftop, littered with twigs and branches fallen from trees overhanging it, repaired, in spots, with patches of tar the exact same black as a blackboard. There are gutters, loose nails, laundry vents. There is, at this rooftop's corner, a brick chimney, sooty black, with a leaning television antenna above it.
We have, in the middle ground, a thousand houses, all crushed together, the peaks of their glistening slate-shingled roofs straining upward for light and air. They're brick houses, white-clapboard houses, century-old working-class houses, some intricate and Victorian, some hard and square and plain. Jutting up between them, there are, we see, bare trees, leaning street lamps, telephone poles, sagging black cables with
"You know how you got here, don't ya?" he wants to know, his voice unexpectedly loud. He's sixty-five easy, Amish-looking, wispy white chin beard and all. Like an old Thoreau. I gradually discern "here" to be the laundromat: a woman's place. I get three or four minutes, furious at myself for standing there and taking it, about how the goddamn feminists have wrecked this country, about how his wife always knew her place was at home like he knew his was at the Steel. This is how they raised their two boys -- the one even went to college. He concludes, predictably, with a denunciation of that fuckin' idiot in the White House (it's 1997), then, suddenly embarrassed, like he didn't want to spew this shit at me but couldn't help himself, turns back to the laundromat and leaves me behind, walking weirdly briskly, a farmer making tracks over his acres. I'm embarrassed too. He's told me he hates women. He's told me he's got no one, not even his two good boys, to talk to. Why do I even go out. Throwing the Hefty bags into the front seat, I drop my keys on the blacktop, then accidentally kick them under the car.
He lay there breathing, heart pounding, wondering what to do. He stood up very slowly. He started walking cautiously toward the living room, keeping his eyes on the girl's squatting figure. Her crouch tightened. He was imagining dragging her out of the building by her flailing legs. But getting closer, he saw her eyes for the first time ‑‑ blue ‑‑ bruises the color of violets in their corners. He stopped and looked at her. She stared back, breathing.
Suddenly he was trying to soothe her. He was speaking gently to her and offering her a piece of Wonder Bread from the loaf he found on the floor. After a couple minutes she crept forward and took it from him. She chewed the crust, then stuffed the whole piece into her mouth, jaws working furiously, eyes fixed on him. He went to the kitchen and retrieved different foods from the refrigerator: a carrot, a Del Monte pudding pack, cold pizza. Only the bread interested her, though. She devoured three quarters of the loaf, then followed him back to the kitchen, always staying five feet from him, and washed the bread down with a quart of Welch's grape juice. When she'd finished drinking, she smiled, her lips and face a mass of purple, her
He drove into town, passing leaning clapboard houses, cinderblock laundromats, a pack of dirty-faced boys on Huffies whose blank-faced stares he returned as he motored by. He turned corners on potholed streets with no curbs or sidewalks, the BMW's suspension rattling and banging, the transmission screaming as he fought through the gears. An ancient black man sitting on a careening front porch began to wave, then stopped. A burned-out house with two satellite dishes and what appeared to be a tombstone in its front yard appeared after he passed the volunteer fire station. It was three blocks off Main Street, though, that he found the thing that had been calling to him in his sleep: a shot-to-hell 19th-century Victorian house with a cardboard sign in its window reading APARTMENT FOR RENT. This was truly a city of signs.
This from Alan Belk, the Welsh post-doc who’d this semester fallen into the habit of spending every noon hour in Meg’s office.
She sucked the plastic spoon with which she’d just finished her yogurt. Thinking he was getting pretty bold. Deciding how big a bone to throw him.
Actually, yes, she said. Outside of a knee-surgery scar, I do, in fact, look pretty tremendous naked.
Oh my God.
He was thirty pounds overweight, smelled of cigarette smoke, mild B.O. But there was something to him. There was something to him. The charm of the utterly unrepressed. Plus which he got a good bit of mileage out of the accent. Just two days earlier she’d overheard a sophomore in the Humanities Center telling her friend something really rather remarkably debauched she wanted to do to him. If he spoke like a Philadelphian there’d be none of that.
I’d so love to photograph you, he said.
I bet you would.
Naked, he said.
She smiled. That's what I figured you meant.
I’m serious. How can you be working on a book on pornography and not on some level want to be photographed naked?
Who says I haven’t been?
I don’t mean by your bloody husband. There’s nothing pornographic in that.
She tapped the spoon on the edge of the yogurt cup, looking out the window over his shoulder. The trees were budding. Birds and bees.
Dear God, he finally said. It was your husband, wasn’t it?
One evening while the Wrangler was out with his Swedish girlfriend, who despised me, I called the Norwegian in Miami. I told her I’d studied history in college. I told her a kid in second grade had punched me in the stomach on the bus and made me vomit. I told her I’d been in a celebrated rock band with a hit in the U.S. and U.K. Hearing that last she blew air out her nose, amused. “I knew,” she said, “it had to be something like that.”
“Why don’t you leave that gun-toting jerk-off?”
“What on Earth are you doing?” she asked. “I mean, with your life, what are you doing?”
“You nitwit. The same thing everyone else is.”
“Oh yes? What is that?”
“Waiting to die.”
I materialized next in the not-so-deep American South. A sleepy state-university town whose
Then he remembered the girl. His back was sore from carrying her. He realized he'd been dreaming about her. He'd dreamed he was standing with her on a vacant dirt lot, possibly a soon-to-be construction site, watching her throw rocks at bottles.
He went to the bedroom door. He opened it a crack and looked out into the living room. Sure enough, she was still there on the couch, breathing spastically, like a wounded animal.
He went into the bathroom and showered and dressed. He stuffed a silk tie into his pocket. When he came back into the living room the girl was still asleep. He went to try and wake her, but kneeling beside her found himself awash in the same wave of pity he'd felt the night before and couldn't raise his hand to shake her. So he left her sleeping, a box of Hostess powdered donuts and an explanatory note on a yellow legal pad on the coffee table beside her.
"Oh my God. You're insane," his cohort Jay said at lunch.
"Seriously, Will," Rebecca said, gazing at him huge-eyed over her tuna sandwich. "Jesus Christ. She's probably got a, a U‑Haul over there right now, cleaning the place out. You've gotta go home."
He slurped from his empty drink cup. Melissa was also staring at him in amazement. "Hey," she whispered. "What if she dies?"
Jay said, "Will? Hello?" But Will just shook his head. "I'm not worried," he said cryptically.
Anyway, I don't know why, but I'm spending a lot longer than I probably need to setting up this story for Shelly. I'm telling her all about this goddamn house, with its orange and green vinyl furniture like beach houses have, and its '50s-style refrigerator. I'm telling her about the fishing nets hung on the living room walls, and the fake plastic crabs and lobsters stuck in them. I'm telling her about the crankable glass slats on the storm doors, and the dresser that made my whole bedroom smell like cedar whenever you opened a drawer. I'm telling her about how the first thing my family always did when we got to town was go to the A&P up on the highway and buy all the groceries for the week, and how I used to try to get my mom to buy me a carton of Yoo-Hoo when my dad was off shopping in another aisle, and how we had to lug all the groceries up the sandy wooden stairs to the kitchen door, and how this was 1978 or so, so my favorite T-shirt had a picture of a Star Wars stormtrooper on it.
"Yeah yeah," Shelly finally says, "it was a beach house, you were at the beach. I get it. What's the story?" She's got her seatbelt off, and she's twisted around sideways in her seat, her back against the passenger door. There's a Rolling Rock from the cooler in the back seat in her hand, and there's a bright green cornfield streaking by behind her. She's grinning at me, looking hard at me. She's been looking at me all afternoon, and I'm starting to wonder what it's about.
"I'm getting there," I tell her.
I realize at this point that there are two key facts for my story that I haven't told her yet. The first is that my family didn't rent this entire house. The place was broken up into two
“You got me,” I said.
“Fuckin’ A,” clutching my knee, hard. Trent threw back the second half of his martini, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Don’t you want to know how I found you, sexy?”
“Tell me an elaborate but instructive lie.”
“I followed the buzzards.”
When he passed out on my couch four hours later, a girl from the Googie place draped over him, I walked gingerly out. Wallet in hand.
Fourteen hours later I was in Hilton Head, South Carolina. I couldn’t seem to escape the heat. There, in a gleaming Hyatt bar, I met a legally separated Norwegian, a beautiful woman in the James Bond tradition. She was Sorbonne educated. She had mile-long corkscrew curls, green cat eyes. She spoke five languages, could get dinner or a lawyer in five more. She liked discussing Russian economics, Caribbean religions, Wole Soyinka. Rich men had approached her in night clubs in New York, Rome, Geneva, wanting her to fly with them to Madrid, Colombo, Monterey.
She was 31.
It’s too much. Five minutes after the beach scene, whispering to Angela something about that second Guinness he had, he gets up and heads for the lobby, actually forgetting to check out the cute brunette teenager working the snack bar. In the men’s room, staring into the mirror, still grinning, feeling his hard-on pressed against the edge of the sink in front of him, he leans forward, tells himself, Hey, buddy. You fucked a movie star.
* * *
Despite her exhaustion, Angela slips into character when spotted on the sidewalk outside the theater: Mitch Gable this time, the local attorney who’s just made the city's front pages by arguing City Council into green-lighting slots casinos for the old steel-mill sites. Angela, Mitch groans, that restaurant. Rob, amused, watches the old codger’s hand knead Angela’s lower back – then sees Mitch’s poodlish wife observing the same. You’ve really hit it out of the park. That bouillabaisse. Never had anything like it this far from Manhattan. Whatever you’re paying that chef, double it.
Aw, thanks, Mitch.
How’s work, Rob?
Saw that interview with you on the news last week, about the new arts center. And that bartender of yours, turning back to Angela.
First proper martini I’ve had in Galilee in twenty years.
Yeah, it’s her martinis you love, Angela thinks as they walk back to the car in the cool November air, not her ass, which you leered at all night, never mind your wife was sitting right across from you.
In the Land Rover, Rob actually tries to get a hand into her skirt. Oh God, you’re joking, she says, right? I just put in ten hours at the restaurant and – get off – went with you to see that god-awful, male-gaze-privileging – ow – flesh bonanza.
Just let me touch it, just for a sec.
She goes limp, puts on a long-suffering face. All right? she says. Done? He starts the engine, grinning. That Kelly Merchant slut, she says. There should be a warning to wives and girlfriends at the start of her movies.
Oh, if he could only tell her! You have no idea, he says.
She doesn’t bother asking what that means.
* * *
They roll up to a pre-fab manse dropped into the middle of what was, till two years ago, a cornfield. It’s surrounded by a dozen others just like it. Last week Angela parked in a wrong driveway, ambled up a wrong front walk, tried to put her key into a wrong front door. Inside she
Pushing his spectacles up onto his forehead: "When are we going to give bad writers their day? When will we acknowledge the efforts of those voiceless thousands?" Some hung-over kid barfs sloppily onto her desktop, all orange juice and scrambled eggs. "It's art!" cries another. Dr. Doctor smiles approvingly. "Listen, son. Nothing you think matters for shit if other human beings don't like you. Willy Loman was right, you know."
Late one October night in the near-empty parking garage under his office building, Will found a body sprawled across the hood of his Passat. Seeing it, he froze in his tracks like he'd hit a pane of glass, a taste like battery acid filling his mouth. Then he began his slow and cautious approach. It was, he saw, a young woman. Rather scantily clad. White legs, mane of dark hair, one arm stretching up across the windshield. She was on her stomach, one leg protruding off the fender. Within a few feet of her now, Will leaned in and saw she was breathing – panting, sort of. Her face was tinged with bruises.
He straightened up and looked out into the echoing shadows. Then he quickly dug his car keys out of his pocket and opened the passenger door of the car. Working gingerly, not wanting to rouse her, he slipped one arm under the girl's neck, the other under her knees, scooped her up, and placed her in the passenger seat. Then he shut the door, walked around and climbed in on driver’s side. He started the car and watched the shadows as he drove to the exit ramp, half‑expecting whoever had left the girl here to leap out from behind a concrete pillar. But no one did. The gate swung up in front of him, and he aimed the VW out into traffic.
GWU was nearby. He'd drop the girl off at the hospital there. Driving up Pennsylvania Avenue, though, past the hotels and offices washed in light, he got his first really good look at her. She was tiny and thin. She had a child's face and a mop of black hair. There were goosebumps on her arms. He watched the streetlights creep across her face and was filled with a strange rush of emotion, a crushing pity, and he