CHICAGO, THE BIG BUILDING wall with one tiny window in an upper corner, the enormous motor oil advertisement painted on the expanse. The freshly sandblasted facade like a cultural cameo. The great clock on La Salle Street Station informed the public, passengers on the CTA elevated, Toffinetti's and the Parmelee.
In the station, Fotomat, banks of gray lockers, a wryneck standing beside the escalators. He's lost weight, impoverished beauty. It flapped its shoulders.
"You look bitter."
"My good looks. I got out on them."
The wryneck, red sweatshirt and Levi's under a brown overcoat, pecked out a cough. A passing sailor gave a low whistle, "Hello, Mary."
"How are you feeling?"
"The train was crowded... And you?
"Pretty much the same."
Fitzmuir pulled out a pack of Pall Malls. "Here. You must be pickled steel."
"Thanks, first of all... How's Judith?"
"Beautiful. But you're right. She could never have been one of us."
* * * * *
It was an old plan anyway, progressively disregarded as they had matured, the meshing and sharing of peers who were female. Another expendiency of human adolescence, now the end of it was clambering up to them hand over fist. The old favoritisms could still be exploited, the old protocol furthered to outright bonding or severance, to stile barriers to free existence. No false attachments. No hypocrisy in its most radical definitions: politics because a rational individual needs no government if the less rational are being governed, formal religion because its allure is for attracting and controlling the less perceptive ones who could never understand the essential simplicity and "naturalness" of the Creator.
Amos Alonzo Stagggggg. Like veins on old hands the winter ivy covering the stadium seemed to corroborate the University of Chicago's venerableness. Venerable University Library, venerable inter-mural seclusion, venerable Reynolds Club. Venerable Stagg Field in the afternoon light almost glowing with its peculiar fame: the Manhattan Project.
"Incidentally, I've been admitted to a fraternity. A rush rush, you might say. They're hoping I'll leave Judy and make the sensible move."
"I didn't know there were fraternities at U. of C."
"Oh yes. It's very anti-Hutchins. Long benches, trenchers and tankards. Beer camaraderie. Let's go there. I'll tell them you psychoed out of the Navy. You just smile."
"I suppose I ought to be disgusted with myself. I probably could have stuck it out until my enlistment expired. But to paraphrase the little girl, they brought it on themselves. You might say it was uncalculating in a reverse sort of way."
"But your performance with regard to the rest of us?"
"Standardized retorts to standardized complaints. That was much of my Navy career because I thought keeping my mouth shut would merely be throwing away opportunities. You're dealing with people who think in standardized ways if at all. There was another guy in the psycho ward at Bremerton, had slashed his wrists with a razor blade. Really nasty wounds. He was off the Coral Sea. They were going to send him back to duty, from one observation cell to another, perpetually unable to break out of his little compartment."
They found themselves in Rockefeller Chapel.
They sat down on a pew, the radiator throbbing somewhere. When the janitor didn't appear Fitzmuir said in an everyday tone of voice:
"Probably could have talked him into letting us stay but I had to kick him. Uncalculating."
"You must have seen him since. Why didn't you go up to him and apologize? That's how calculating Andy is... Come on."
So saying, the former naval person, on silent civilian soles, walked up the aisle, followed by his friend, to the altar. He reached out and grasped the right-hand candle, twisted it out of the holder and blew it out. Encircling the top of the candle was a heavy brass collar to conserve the wax.
He let the melted wax run off onto the floor and stuck the massive cylinder into his pants pocket. He buttoned up his Hong Kong double worsted coat.
"So you say you're a schizophrenic now."
"Siamese inseparably head-joined backbreaking to stay bipedal mobile."
The two youths sliding and pirouetting, chasing after each other, their uncontrolled laughter reduplicating off the ice in the Midway Pleasaunce. One of them knew a liquor store on 63rd Street.
"Knowingly in spite of disapproval of my marriage."
"Well, that must be included regardless of whether it's the entire reason for your pique. You say 'something arty' as though placing her in an okay category while knowing she can never be a Pavlova or a Martha Graham. She's something arty, something smart, but nothing outstanding. You married Judy without the gestalt's go-ahead."
"Yeah. What else?"
"What are you going to be doing?"
"Guess I'll be covering my tracks for a while."
* * * * *
She stroked a limb of the Christmas tree. Some needles came off and she felt them prickle and snap in her closing palm. Her large, unblinking gaze circled the waiting room.
"Poor debauched public tree," said Rose of Sharon.
Jack watched a sailor and his girl necking for all they were worth before that awful train came and took her cuddly back to duty. Jack had never seen Aaron in uniform -- his mother had, however -- and now he never would. Well, pictures. He had a snapshot of Aaron with his arms full of brown women in a Subic Bay dive. The train was announced and in a few minutes the arrivees came funneling into the vast room. He watched a furious child being half-carried by one arm.
"Its glittering cosmetics," said Rose of Sharon.
She critically flipped a finger at a bauble making the reflections on its yellow surface sway and belly, then stilled it with the same deliberate finger so that she could cover the sphere with her own reflection. There. She peered. The eyes had become green, and her skin browner than the now copper hair which rayed electrically about her face, a face bloated in the intense repose of the drowned, she thought. She was pleased at any accidental corruption her beauty. She turned expectantly to Jeeber.
Jeeber said nothing, stood as he had since they got to the station, arms folded, staring slack-mouthed into the crowd. Nor did he react when she showered him with spruce needles, except for an involutary blink when one of them struck an eyelash. She kissed the mole on his jaw (that his razor was careful to avoid and which, consequently, was surrounded by a tuft of eyelashes). Now she turned to the crowd and struck a pose with three-point coverage like Botticelli's Marine Venus.
"Everybody hark! I'm a chaste fornicator."
This time Jeeber responded. Members of the crowd converged or fled, or kept walking staid and foursquare in the Zion of their impertubability. Rose of Sharon would hawk and spit on a WAC recruiting poster and Jeeber scurry to remove the gob with his own, dirty handkerchief.
Meanwhile the Willow Child was making his way through the waiting room, Michigan Central Station, to the baggage counter. As he gave the redcap his claim ticket he put his hand in his pants pocket and jingled large change, he was already into his $300 mustering out pay, to accellerate the alacrity, which was done with a grin and the ex-serviceman's duffel bag. The squealing scrape of silver coins across the countertop's yellow brass sheathing. Outside the station, a fine-gauged snow.
"Do you feel like home?" Rose of Sharon asked solemnly.
He laughed and flung his arms around her, kissing her face, her eyes, feeling their bodies together through the dielectric of coats and sweaters her knee nudging up his leg, his hands under her coat.
"You'll stay this time," she assured him.
A strange car pulled up and Jeeber got out of it. Aaron and Jack hoisting the duffel bag into the trunk, feeling the bump of their existence in the tattered exhaust and taillight. Let nothing part us, friend. We'll seal the bond with a debt.
"Well, boyo. Got another ride, didn't you."
"Thanks, you wild teenage driver."
There was a complex shudder as the sporty car shot a junction of old streetcar tracks and their bed of cobblestones at the foot of Woodward Avenue. Then on the right an example of old riverfront Detroit, three and four story commercial buildings heavily encrusted with architectural devices, while on the left rose a new monolithic edifice with a ruptured duck on the polished granite facade.
"There's your new hangout," Jack cracked. "The Veterans' Memorial Building."
"Bet you're hungry," said Rachel.
He felt her hand pressing his.
They went to The Golden Dragon, a hangout of the friends when something was to be celebrated and they wanted to expand over full bellies. The Cantonese cuisine in copious quantities. This time there was no festive air, rather one of finality.
"The Reluctant Dragon," said Rachel.
"Do you think I can stay at Greg's?" he said at length.
Jack cleared his throat.
"Not anymore. The FBI have got his place staked out."
"Since Jeeber's Ma," said Rose of Sharon.
So the bottom dropped out of the diving bell.
"I is all covered with rue," Aaron said, suddenly interested in who was sitting in the neighboring booths. "So where do you two go?"
"Jud lets us use his place," she said, in the middle of the meal tapping out a Chesterfield. "You remember Jud, don't you?"
As she lighted the cigarette he regarded the cat scars on her hands.
"Greg Miksell is the only straight free agent I know in this town," he said. "He always left his key out. What happened?"
"He was raided two months ago," said Jack, doodling obscenely on the napkin. "They confiscated his books."
He recalled an old caution. "Yeah. Pioneer Press. Andy said she threatened three years ago."
Jack sniggered, looked at him with a leer, Jeeber musagetes..
"So how about Jud? I'm sure he'd be delighted."
"Bastard!" Rose of Sharon spat.
Jack turned his Cheshire cat on her. "I thought you were going to be consistently unconventional..."
"Toadspawn. Why can't you be consistently intelligent?"
"But he's my friend."
"By the way," he said, in the mood of the old Golden Dragon, and anyway he was the only one who was using chopsticks. "Judy danced last night."
"You mean Fitzmuir's..."
Why had Jack said East Jefferson was like Chicago? "East Jefferson's Chicago all the way," he had said. He thought of that morning arrival in Gary three years ago, the smell of Gary and the old, uniformly rusty ore boat moored there, it had never been painted, with a TV antenna on the wheelhouse. Fitzmuir was still living in Burton-Judson, his roommates unequivocally intelligent striplings one and all. That was the Speedy Gonzales hitchhike, the lucky truck ride from outside Niles all the way to Gary, himself alert in the cab to driver Speedy Gonzales's tales of the forty-thousand foot high Sierra Madre and herding chihuahua dogs in the deserts of Mexico while Jack and Andy illegally snored back in the Fruehauf. Fifty-three hours without sleep -- his own score, at any rate -- and Jack and Andy collapsed beneath a tree, the sun shining and the birds singing, outside Michigan City, Indiana. He was hallucinating, seeing things that weren't there, ghost rigs, but his endurance paid off. He got picked up by a moving van from Saskatchewan, White cab-over-engine. The driver let him sleep up in the bunk, young French-Canadian guy with a visored cap pushed back off his forehead, one of those caps with a pencil stub. He remembered the Kanuck accent yelling above the idling engine -- they were waiting for a light at an intersection -- LIVERNOIS! and they were in Detroit. Found the Cass bus and made it to Greg's, slept for fourteen hours. Now he expected Jack had hoped for disillusionment, or at least dishallucination, at his arrival, or return, this time. He saw this in a mirror flash of the situation, glanced at Rachel and reassured himself of the genuineness of her annoyance and that the two really were at cross-purposes. This, then, must explain his apparent failure to catch the point about the street. Outside the snow had stopped.
"Do you want to shift gears?"
Jack released the clutch. Rachel pushed the lever down with her left hand. Grind me a pound. She had her right hand deep down in Aaron's pocket. Jack looked at her grimly and shifted for himself, The heater was on in the leaky old softtop, and the radio.
"Why I can remember away back when," Rose of Sharon declared expansively.
"Lemme see," crackered the Willow Child. "Musta been before ol' Hal Mott come up from the wilderness."
"Aw, shut up, both of you. You know my father happens to be from Nashville."
"Nashville Tennessee, the Hillbilly Captal o' the World."
"I've never been there and I don't like hillbilly music."
"He likes folk music." She turned to the Willow Child. "And where did you get your liking for that kind of music?"
Rose of Sharon nodded conclusively.
"Just goes to show you. One rotton apple'll spoil the whole boy scout troop. HEY!..."
Jack had run a red light.
A purple '47 Hudson convertible.
The car wove as if dodging pursuit. All at once the top started coming down.
--Thoughtless correspondent, Jack. You sent too few letters and stuffed your pages with non-think scatology, non-think lists of books instead of commentaries on books, tricky avant garde movies, and leadbelly sowbelly gutbucket tripescraping booger-eating folk music records. By the way, I saw Pete Seeger in Seattle. But I think I told you in a letter. But what I'm wondering is why you didn't convey some self to me. Do you still use "transmogrify?" I don't even know your vocabulary anymore. --I suppose I haven't been saying enough to need one. I've had a general lethargy. Almost flunked out of high school. The same with Wayne. I think part of it has been too much home and mother. --I thought we talked that through last time I was in Detroit. You agreed to leave. --I did. But when I got back from California I was broke and had another year of school. So there wasn't much I could do about it then. And another thing. My mother found out that I hitchhiked from your place instead of taking the Greyhound.
Rachel nodded conclusively and began whistling a Bachic one-part invention which Aaron fumblingly tried to enter, recalling her old plaint that she wasn't born with three heads so's she could whistle fugues. She could be a bitch.
Whenever anybody came inside the diner and shut the door the condensation on the window would dislodge and the heaviest drops plummet down leaving furrows of clarity on the pane. Neon music rectified through the plate glass, sounds from neighboring bars, the bright sneak of automobiles. The jukebox started up, a voice callow and homogenized. No tremolo, just Mell-O-Roll.
Two women came in and slammed the door, dressed identically in Lees and leather jackets. In a synchromesh gesture both pushed their visored caps to the back of their heads.
"Truck drivers," Jack whispered out the corner of his mouth.
The two bull dykes took seats at the opposite counter, settled balancing on the stools which groaned. The counterman approached wiping his hands on his apron.
"Coffee and doughnuts."
Aaron watched the two huge lesbians get their coffee and doughnuts, saw how they pinched the doughnuts brutally between thumb and forefinger and dunked them in the coffee, heard the slurping and open-mouthed munching. Meanwhile the counterman shook the basket of french fries and went back to scraping the griddle, paused and turned two hamburgers with the spatula and took up the scraper again. He was wearing only a T-shirt above the dirty apron. Tattooed on his right biceps was a dagger-pierced skull and "death before dishonor." His depilated arms quivered as they pushed the scraper and his middle-aged face, except for its pumice-like porousness, was of the same depilated smoothness. He put down the scraper, wiped his hands on his apron and turned the hamburgers again. Then he turned a handle on the stainless steel coffee urns and the coffee in the glass column dropped and then rose again. Turned down the gas under a miniature frying pan, picked up a small stainless steel bowl and a whisk and scrambled the eggs that were in the bowl and poured them into the little frying pan. Meanwhile the buns were toasted. At the other end of the counter beyond him a knot of youths posed. One of them was leaning diagonally against the wall. The counterman flipped the eggs. Jack accomodatingly leaned back on his stool in order to disimpede his friend's view of the Edward Hopper tableau. One of the youths noticed this and aggressively caught Aaron's gaze, lifted one eyebrow and licked his lips with the tip of his tongue. Aaron blushed but forced himself to maintain the stare until the other young man looked away and returned to the avian chattering of his companions. The furnishings of patrician youth, some with hair peroxided to cast gold, others with just a streak of palladium among the dark curls; scarves flambeau, quetzal plumage, white silk muffler and navy blue trenchcoat. Pliant gestures, tinkle of spoons and rustle of lips on a paper napkin. They glanced inquisitively at the ex-sailor and tittered. Jack's leer.
"Aren't you the lady-killer."
The diner's door opened and slammed shut and there stood Rachel together with the hatless Howie stamping and rubbing their hands, breaths objecting whitely into the greasy atmosphere of the streamlined place. The man caught the precise and identical slutes of the two lesbians and returned them by tugging his close-cropped forelock.
"Hey Howie. Getting in the antifreeze?" one of them said.
"Buddy -- Terry..." He nodded to each. "How's tricks?"
"Aw, we got stood up tonight."
"And in this weather, too."
"Well, it happens to the randiest of us," he consolled. Meanwhile Rose of Sharon, pirouetting with excitement, had clamped onto his other hand and was hauling him over to where Jeeber and the Willow Child were sitting.
"See what I brang ya, Jud?" she cackled. "Aint he purty?"
The man smiled ambiguously and said, "Well, hello," and proffered a hand which Aaron shook. Rose of Sharon was doing a little dance.
"Ya promiss not to open him up till next Christmuss? Do ya promiss?"
There was a wolf whistle from the pansies at the end of the counter and the dominant of the two lesbians, Buddy, raised her coffee mug in a toast."
"Happy un-birthday, Howie."
Again Aaron blushed.
"On my honor..." the man raised his right hand. "On my honor as a . . . uh..." He looked down at his shoes.
"As a clean-limbed American," prompted Jack.
Howie slowly elevated his eyes to the unblinking Jack's and nodded expressionlessly.
"Yeah. A clean-limbed American."
Rose of Sharon intervened. "And can he rest his purty head on that pillow that's clean?"
"Yes, the clean pillow case. It's still clean, isn't it?" He looked forthrightly into Aaron's face, man-to-man as though to discount all of this nonsense and remove the younger man's evident embarrassment. "Would you like to come over to the Rio Grande with me and have a drink?"
Not wanting to seem ill-at-ease Aaron was on the point of saying yes, but Jack gave him a nudge.
"They'll bounce you if you can't prove you're twenty-one."
Rose of Sharon long-faced sympathetically but pleased. Her wayward manchild, her prodigal protege, her Willow Child needed care.
"I see," said Howie, shrugging. "Well, I'm going back over there. I guess I'll see you at home in a couple of hours." He turned to Rachel. "You have a key." They kissed briefly, noisily like old friends. "Will you be coming to Tim's New Year's Eve party?"
"If we can't manage something better to do," she replied, looking hard at Jack. "Expect us if you see us."
Jack looked up in time to see the man's dark head and shoulders part the door and hunch away into the night, and Rachel's eyes and bright hair spark at him in satisfaction and reproach.
Jack paid and they left. Outside the three of them stood in the middle of Farmer Street and Rachel pointed towards an establishment that was painted sky blue.
"He's in there," she said.
Two men opened the little door under the neon sign and went inside. They heard music and laughter.
"Who's playing in there?" said Aaron.
"Chi-Chi Franklin, who else?" said Jack as he headed for the car. "Don't ever stand in back of Chi-Chi or you'll disappear."
"What do you mean?"
"You'll fall in like a steamshovel swallowed up by quicksand."
"Why you insufferable slob!"
"If you want to see who's a slob just look at Chi-Chi."
"I'll have you know Chi-Chi Franklin is a great lady!"
Rose of Sharon running up on Jeeber and giving him a kick in the slats.
* * * * *
The genie which inhabits the apartment, completely filling its volume, could have come out of an old-fashioned lady's smelling bottle. Ammoniac cat urine. Flakes of Kitty-Komfort all balled up with cat and human hair, gnawed lamb chop bones, dust muting all surfaces. The bridge table streaked and sodden from slung teabags, egg-yolked forks separating greasy dishes, glasses containing thawed ice cubes, a soup bowl full of cigarette stubs. Candle stubs, empty matchbooks, cooked minute rice, a noodle. Undone do-it-yourself furniture, desktop askew and tottering with record jackets avalanching onto the floor like a paper drive, the tasteful colors and designs, authoritative commentary, Rachel burrowing in them. Jack is sitting in the chair from which he has just tipped a heap of dirty shirts. There he sits with chin on chest, arms folded, legs straight out and crossed at the ankles. Cross-legged among the wadded bedding Aaron sits playing with the cats.
RACHEL: (frustrated) Not here. I guess it's on the turntable... (She and Aaron exchange a random smile.)
JACK: (morosely) Aw, let's go. I'm sure our friend is pooped from his travels. (He stands up noisily and zips his jacket.)
RACHEL: Yeah... He must have been listening to it. (She removes the stack of discs and lays them on a level space on the desk, lifts them carefully one from the other until she finds what she has been looking for.) Here! (triumphantly. Then she places the record on the spindle and puts the others on top of it.)
But she doesn't start the record player. Instead she looks meaningfully at Jack, who knifes a hand into his pants pocket and pulls out a significant something. He takes a couple of steps over to the foldabed and hands it to Aaron.
JACK: (apologetically) Here, buddy. Twenty to help you get started, find a job. Howie'll probably let you stay here free till you find one. Maybe I can find you a room or an apartment, maybe at Greg's place. You can try the State Employment Agency. They got me a job at Ford's...
His voice becomes a nearly inaudible mumble. Aaron shakes his hand.
AARON: Thanks, buddy. Listen, I'll see you in a couple of days to let you know. I suppose I'm going to the party...
Jack has taken his gloves from his hip pocket and is swinging them against his thigh.
JACK: Well, sure good to see you. Come on over to my place -- better yet I can bring some records over here.
RACHEL: Oh, he'll be sure to tell his Momma.
Now Jack looks at Rachel, then towards the door and back at her.
RACHEL: (still standing at the record player, an undertow in her voice) You go on out and start the car. I'll be there in a minute.
Jack stands there not at all vague in the dimness. The traffic noise from East Jefferson transmingles through the closed windows. Inside the apartment it is explaining, exhortative, choral. Jack leans into the sound, the shadows, sharp jaw set, arranging his muffler. Then he opens the door, and disappearing on the other side shuts it softly behind him.
Rose of Sharon waited until she was certain Jeeber was outside the building before she laughed. She laughed loud and prolonged, whooping laugh. She pushed the button which started the record player. Her pealing laughter and the traffic's voices blended into "a discussion between four reasonable people," the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in F Major, Opus l35. Then she pushed the Willow Child onto the bed. It was only after she had completely undressed him that Aaron was able to get his hand inside her underpants. His potency was such as to deprive his brain of blood. He tried to pull her dancing tights and underpants down and she twisted away.
"No," she whimpered. "I love you. It's impossible. It's my fault."
He managed to unhook her brassiere with one hand. Suddenly she pushed away and got off the bed.
"Jeeber's waiting," she said. "He might have driven home without me."
She ballerina-pattered out to the bathroom. On her return he was sitting up in the bed. He had put on his shorts.
"If Jack has gone home do you promise to come back here?"
She smiled without replying and put her things on. Then she knelt on the bed and kissed him on the mouth.
"Little leaf man," she whispered, cupping his face in her palms. "I want you more urgently then ever. But Jud will be here soon and we couldn't do anything then. Wrap yourself in music."
* * * * *
Boris's purr stopped abruptly and both cats streamed to the windowsill. In a few moments the entrance doors of The Pasadena heaved open and footsteps approached from the lobby. The cats darted through the darkness to the door of the apartment and the red cat made a mwr sound in its throat. A key rippled and turned in the lock and the door opened quietly. In a minute light suddenly shown from the bathroom and there was a prolonged, frothing jet into the toilet bowl. Then the kitchen light was switched on and from where he was lying Aaron watched the man feed his cats.
"You're not asleep, are you."
He placed two plastic bowls on the floor and both cats chewed and purred.
"Of course not." Aaron tossed himself upright. "But I'm still dreaming."
The man took an icetray from the refrigerator and placed a cube in each of two clean glasses. Then he unlatched a bottle of gin.
"You want yours mixed with anything?"
He poured the gin, lips pursed and head nodding evenly in approval, then stepped onto the room, handed Aaron his glass and stepped back somewhat for a better view. There Jud stood, a big silhouette in the kitchen doorway, swaying slightly, his burden of inebriation suddenly obvious. He reached for the doorjamb with one hand and leaning swirled his drink with the other. He noted that his shadow fell directly across the bed, across the Willow Child.
"The lifer in prison," he sipped portentiously, "the condemned man can only dream of the past. Was it a good dream?"
The newly discharged sailor laughed indulgently. "It was strenuous. Do you think I look fey or something?"
"Only if anything but what you are is for you impossible."
"But then I'd be somebody else."
"Okay. No need to track that to its lair. All I mean is you shouldn't give up hope." He drank again and sighed.
"And what does that mean?" Aaron smiled.
"Oh, not necessarily you in particular, just everyone in general..."
Jud was pontificating again. He chuckled and shuffled off his coats.
"...and Eddie Guest is Detroit's poet laureate."
"I still don't follow you."
"Well, then I guess I'm drunk. I must think I'm still talking to somebody else."
"The poor guy."
The man looked at him suspiciously. "Are you being sarcastic? She told me you're an old friend of Jeeber's."
"I only mean that the person must be in terrible shape to need such advice," Aaron explained slowly. "And what does Jeeber have to do with it?"
"Oh, he's always trying to bait me. He seems to resent our being so close, Rachel and me. He doesn't like it that we were intimate before he was even a twinkle in her cherry eye." He smiled mysteriously and maneuvered to the record player. "Of course I mean Platonic intimacy."
"And do you mean that Rachel was a virgin before knowing Jack?"
Howie wrinkled his brow in disapproval.
"Yes. Twenty-five years old."
He lifted the discs out of the record player and replaced each one carefully in its sleeve. He came to the bottom one in the stack.
"These aren't in order. Did she play them for you, this one first?" He held up the Beethoven quartet. Aaron nodded. "Well, you only heard the first side. It's a stupid way to listen to records. The machine drops a stack of first sides, then you turn them over and hear the seconds. You want to hear the rest of it now?"
Without waiting for a reply he replaced the record on the spindle and pushed the button. Then he sat down heavily on the bed. The lento surprised Aaron by its contrast to the first movements, then with its similarity poured recollection into the convolutions of his brain. She was still in his hands, his nostrils.
His hand was cold around the glass. He took another swallow. The gin felt good, modulated his fatigue into something pleasant. Jud's voice entered his musing.
"How was your trip? Rose of Sharon tells me you hitchhiked."
"Only as far as Chicago." He scratched his scalp vigorously as though trying to get the road out of his head. "Seemed like it was snowing all the way from Donner Summit to Des Moines. Rides weren't too bad but I had to wait a long time in a couple of places. Half the night outside some town in Wyoming, nearly froze..."
The man smiled at the hitchhiker's drawl and slurred inflection of place names.
"...caught a few hours' sleep in Chi and decided to take the train from there." He rose from the bed scratching himself all over, nude except for the Navy issue undershorts. The man watched him leave the room.
"I'll bet Jeeber hates you for stunts like that."
"Oh I don't think so."
The sailor called from the bathroom.
"I think he eats it up. One time he hitchhiked back from California, didn't like it. He's never done it since. He experiences life through my exploits. Say, is there anything wrong with this toilet?"
"Not that I know of. Why?"
"Can it be flushed?"
"By all means."
In a moment he reappeared. He downed the remainder of his gin and was about to crawl into bed when the man casually asked:
"Don't you think it would be more comfortable to sleep in the raw -- what is that?"
A hand reached out for the rosary and he sidestepped it, slid under the covers.
"No thanks. I'm most comfortable when obeying established habits."
The man arched an eyebrow in the darkness. Then he got up from the bed, found a box of kitchen matches on the card table and struck one, held it for a moment and lighted a wick. The flame flickered up as the paraffin liquified and a feeble red glow reached out at the corners of the room. It was a vigil light, like the ones used in Roman Catholic churches. He reached up and stood it on the kitchen door frame.
The little red glass with the flame burning in it could just be there on the moulding. When the record player stopped the man went and shifted it into neutral and then undressed himself.
"Well, you won't mind if I sleep in the raw, will you?"
"Of course not."
In a ritual of retiring Howie stood naked over the bed and stroked Boris until the cat stood up, then touched the spot on the back, the spring release which flicked the tail erect. Then the kitchen light went out and Aaron felt him crawl in. The bed sagged in the man's favor and the youth jerked his leg away when he felt a knee accidentally touch his own. Both men lay in the red glow, stiffly, listening to the purr of cats and the ticking of wrist watches.
"Well, I suppose you will be looking for a job after New Year's. Do you know where you're going to start?"
"How about where you work?"
"I don't think so. You see..."
"What do you do?"
"I was sort of an idea man for Parke, Davis, the big pharmaceutical lab. I thought up trade names for their products." the man went on enthusiastically. "They hired me because I know some Greek and Latin, but at a low salary for the reason that I didn't finish college. I studied classics at Ann Arbor. It was a good job. All I did was sit around and twiddle my brains."
"Names like what?"
"Names like, ah, Posiquil. That's one of my ideas."
"Yes, Posiquil. You've never heard of it? It's a sedative for children, administered as anal suppositories. Works immediately and mildly. It's a barbituate, though; habit-forming. Then there's Cortigel, a cortisone salve for intractible skin diseases..."
The kid was asleep.
* * * * *
The trip especially, stepping off The Challenger in Cheyenne for a few minutes. What kind of beer did they brew in Wyoming? He couldn't sleep in the coach, his reserved window seat, the old woman beside him yakkety-yakking into the night. He didn't feel like talking to anybody, in the diner. She was a scrute, he was certain, an investigator or an informer, the way she pumped him and pumped him. So he took his pillow and went up in the dome car, curled up under his coat. Woke up a couple of times, the train at speed pushing the block signals, seeing them change from red to green as they flashed past, the Union Pacific locomotive waggling its finger of light at sagebrush grade crossings.
* * * * *
Boris's purr stopped abruptly and the animal sinuated from the bed to the other cat's side behind the venetian blind. The red cat, Ralph, made a mwr sound in its throat, then the street doors were opened and the two cats made a guided scramble for the apartment door.
The man let himself in.
He must have dozed. The footsteps were in the bathroom and then willful, foaming urination into the toilet bowl. The sliding kitchen door was closed and only a slit of light came from under it. He closed his eyes again. He heard the door roll back.
There was the flimsy creak of a tin can reopened with a fork, then something was plopped into two plastic bowls. There was an outright meow from Boris.
"You're not asleep, are you."
"Of course not." The kid tossed himself upright. "But I'm dreaming anyway."
The man reached into the refrigerator and took out a bottle of gin, unlatched it and poured two stiff ones. His back was turned but the kid could sense the purse of his lips.
"Rose of Sharon told me -- that you had been psychoed out."
He handed the kid a glass, placed his own on the bookcase and turned to the record player. He turned it on and took a sip of gin while it warmed up. Then he carefully placed the stylus on the last band of the LP.
"Diagnosis 3005," Aaron said matter-of-factly. "'Among their friends, these individuals are regarded merely as queer or eccentric; under close examination, however, they show evidence of psychotic symptoms.'"
"You're lucky you didn't wind up in a VA hospital."
"'Hospitalization of such cases is rarely necessary.'"
He snorted the explanation and resigned himself to the music. The man claimed his drink and sat down tipsily on the edge of the bed.
"Well..." He drank without a toast. "...the lifer in prison dreams of the past or of present impossibilities, then, hoping for parole, begins a fantasy of anticipation -- what is that?"
Aaron saw the man shift the drink to his other hand and reach out for the rosary, felt the fingertips deliberately brush the skin of his chest. They were cold and moist from the glass of gin. In the light from the kitchen the man peered closely at the upside-down crucifix, exhaling slowly. Then he got up and went over to the card table, put the glass down and found a box of matches and struck one. He held it down into something. The flame flickered up as a feeble red glow reached out at the corners of the room. It was a vigil light, perhaps stolen from a Roman Catholic church. He reached up and stood it on the moulding over the kitchen door.
The cats came in from the kitchen and hopped purring onto the bed. The man sat down and stroked Ralph's back until the cat stood, then touched the spring release at the small of the animal's back that made the tail snap to.
"What do you think of The Hub?"
"Where you were drinking coffee tonight. Where I met you."
The kid searched for a cosmopolitan-sounding adjective.
"...it's painfully interesting. I'm almost afraid to watch the habitués."
"They expect it. Their personae are calculated. That's why it's hard to get a finger honestly in, at distances anyway." Howie stood up and shucked off his coats. "But they will freely talk about themselves as a sort of love-play."
This was spoken with savored emphasis that suggested at least a nod of concurrence from the youth. As he unbuttoned his shirt he surreptitiously looked for it in the dim light, but saw only the kid's eyes perhaps carefully on the face-polishing Ralph. He vehemently removed his trousers.
Aaron handed his own empty glass to the man who, stark naked, strode with them to the kitchen. Then another steaming polemic into the toilet bowl. He strode back, sat down on the edge of the bed and brushed off the soles of his feet. The kid got up and headed for the bathroom and the man, dazzled by the white boxer shorts, arched both eyebrows as he passed through the fully lighted kitchen. In a minute the kid reappeared.
"The light switch is on your left -- hey, turn around."
The kid turned around. Stencilled across the seat of the shorts was MOTTZYTROTTZ W.C.
"What's the C for?"
"The middle initial. On your stencil."
"Don't you think it would be more comfortable to sleep in the raw?"
"No thanks. I'm most comfortable when obeying established habits."
"Well, you don't mind me sleeping in the raw, do you?"
"Of course not."
The hitchhiker crawled into the sack beside Dr. Pepperdine. The two men lay stiffly in the red glow, listening to the purring of cats and the ticking of wrist watches.
* * * * *
Gurgling delight, purring while masticating the fresh veal kidney which was their favorite dish, Howie knelt among his cats' gratitude and the odors of urine and blood, caressing their coats, causing the tails to jerk and curl at the end of each stroke, attentive of the odor and of the scarlet teeth and gums. The kidney was the last thing out of the refrigerator. Now, with fussbudget gallantry, he arranges the defrosting tray, closes the door part way and removes the plug from the outlet, gallantly in this instance because nothing else has been done to the place. Eating utensiles or lamb chop bones have kept the plates from growing together, the lamb chops from the Syrian grocery store across the street, empty tin cans stacked along the wall like full ones at the supermarket, rank upon honeycombed rank of empty bottles some of which contain cockroach carcasses as big as cigars. Let's watch Howie in the daylight as he prepares things. The kidney was the last thing out of the refrigerator. Now he arranges the defrosting tray, closes the door so that it is slightly ajar and offhandedly pulls the plug out of the wall. In reaching for the plug he has disturbed a pile of empty bottles which clatter about his ankles, spilling their mouldy dregs into his pants cuffs and on his shoes and disclosing their cigar-sized cockroach carcasses. He lives on the ground floor, over The Pasadena Patent Medicine. The old man down there must have heard the racket.
"Jefferson's Chicago all the way," said Jack with the tone of a contemplative who has been embraced by a false god, and was right. For the simple equivalence of Negro presence had been superceded by awareness of the more subtle similarities of architecture, street width, building purpose and situation, and the distribution in given time of the neighborhood's habitués. There were certain variations of soot-rimed shrubbery in the occasional and invariably skimpy front lawns of East Jefferson apartment walk-ups and the structures themselves, flat-roofed except for the occasional pointed gables of their builder's affordable individuality, cheap but with the solidity of brick. Driving along, the turned head views scanty-treed side streets, Dequindre, Riopelle, St. Aubin, and always East Jefferson's blank-fronted automobile showrooms shouldering perhaps an abandoned church, perhaps a furniture store, another row of walk-ups converted into competing private hospitals where a man in his pajamas hot-foots it away. And there, across the street, a crumbling pile of an apartment house with its tiny spa in the corner basement, The Pasadena Patent Medicine. Another side street. Still another large apartment building. The park-stop-turning-lane poker hand of the cars, the preferences in brand and color, or parked beside curbs or in the torn cyclone fence parking lots with dustbins and sumach, sumach grows fast, faster than animals. All of this, and with the degree and accent of human variegation the street had unmistakably the aroma of Chicago. "And not just Cottage Grove above the University," Aaron added.
Fornication in an ice-paved swamp transparent monstrance of the temperature, thin-lipped winter sun flogs sustaining passion into overcoats galoshes chastity earmuffs hearing nothing. It could have been the Budapest String Quartet but it was Little Richard electric thud dichotomy gutteral exuberance. She likes her whiskey Scotch, does Fitzmuir's wife. Though not exactly a spider doing push-ups on a mirror you've got to hand it to him. Everyone to his own taste said the man who but you never seen her dance in just her underpants. Never knew tits could shake in different directions -- Man! And well would his chipped-beef fraternity brothers give their right balls for the candle the sailor stole off the altar of Rockefeller Chapel.
Running gape-clacked whistle through an interstice of awning left up to shade the walk from snow. Snow tatters testing nyctaleptics, death dust fickle up the pantslegs of hope-seared pickers of will nutriment and windy-eyed whiners in hard darkness, the indigo mouths, cradle-capped whimpering around corners and into the neutral gravity of between streetlights. Light coveted ash of recurring prayer of pedestrians who cough white stones onto the street. Now a cluster of some rubbled some still standing shattered corneas transplanted into dog poison snow beneath bricks and the splintery-fingered trapeze of bent girders and floorboards planed now by the wind's tread. A railroad overpass. Iron things thrust from brick and concrete, handles, hydrants, cyclone fences, warehouse doors clashing on steel jambs, cast iron fenders at the sides of manufacturing portals, the hard, sharp sprawl of American industrial commerce, the street an iron hand meeting with ingot weight the counter-heave of the night. Traffic lights were moods in the eyes of passersby in the night, subjected momentarily through the car's windows infecting the vision of its occupants, then some other glance, gone, themselves now long gone and this street, dance-floor grains of snow blowing from the Great Lakes and the noise-seive city, this pavement dandruff in the cracks and slight grass brown as summer, gray as ashes cold as slow slow desolation, white as molten recollection poured in the ears of sidewalk sleepers awakened in the act of death.
back to the Short Story Page.The Double Take, 8 August 1996