V, p.13

V., page 13

 

V.
 



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  “One good provolone, she says.”

  “I got her good provolone. Why can’t she do shopping herself. She spends all day watching Mrs. Grossería’s TV.”

  “Did you see Ed Sullivan last night, hey Andy. He had this bunch of monkeys playing a piano with their—”

  From another part of the city; “And Speedy Gonzales says, ‘Señor, please get your hand off my ass.’ “

  “Ha, ha.”

  And: “You ought to be over here on the East Side. There is stuff all over the place.”

  “It all has a zipper on it, over on the East Side.”

  “That is how come yours is so short?”

  “It is not how much you got, it’s how you use it.”

  Naturally there was unpleasantness from the FCC, who ride around, it’s said, in little monitor cars with direction-finding antennas just looking for people like this. First came warning letters, then phone calls, then finally somebody wearing a sharkskin suit glossier even than Zeitsuss’s. So the walkie-talkies went. And soon after that Zeitsuss’s supervisor called him in and told him, very paternal, that there wasn’t enough budget to keep the Patrol going in the style it had been accustomed to. So Alligator Hunter-Killer Central was taken over by a minor branch of the payroll department, and old Brushhook Spugo went off to Astoria, Queens, a pension, a flower garden where wild marijuana grew and an early grave.

  Sometimes now when they mustered out in front of the candy store, Zeitsuss would give them pep talks. The day the Department put a limit on the shotgun shell allotment, he stood out hatless under a half-freezing February rain to tell them about it. It was hard to see if it was melted sleet running down his face, or tears.

  “You guys,” he said, “some of you been here since this Patrol started. I been seeing a couple of the same ugly faces out here every morning. A lot of you don’t come back, and OK. If it pays better someplace else more power to you, I say. This here is not a rich outfit. If it was union, I can tell you, a lot of them ugly faces would be back every day. You that do come back live in human shit and alligator blood eight hours a day and nobody complains and I’m proud of you. We seen a lot of cutbacks in our Patrol in just the short time it’s been a Patrol, and you don’t hear anybody go crying about that either, which is worse than shit.

  “Well today, they chopped us down again. Each team will be issued five rounds a day instead of ten. Downtown they think you guys are wasting ammo. I know you don’t, but how can you tell somebody like that, who has never been downstairs because it might mess up their hundred-dollar suit. So all I’m saying is, only get the sure kills, don’t waste your time on probables.

  “Just keep going the way you have. I am proud of you guys. I am so proud!”

  They all shuffled around, embarrassed. Zeitsuss didn’t say anything else, just stood there half-turned watching an old Puerto Rican lady with a shopping basket limp her way uptown on the other side of Columbus Avenue. Zeitsuss was always saying how proud he was, and despite his loud mouth, his AF of L way of running things, his delusions of high purpose, they liked him. Because under the sharkskin and behind the tinted lenses, he was a bum too; only an accident of time and place kept them all from sharing a wine drunk together now. And because they liked him, his own pride in “our Patrol,” which none of them doubted, made them uncomfortable—thinking of the shadows they had fired at (wine-shadows, loneliness-shadows); the snoozes taken during working hours against the sides of flushing tanks near the rivers; the bitching they had done, but in whispers so quiet their partner didn’t even hear; the rats they had let get away because they felt sorry for them. They couldn’t share the boss’s pride but they could feel guilty about making what he felt a lie, having learned, through no very surprising or difficult schooling, that pride—in our Patrol, in yourself, even as a deadly sin—does not really exist in the same way that, say, three empty beer bottles exist to be cashed in for subway fare and warmth, someplace to sleep for a while. Pride you could exchange for nothing at all. What was Zeitsuss, the poor innocent, getting for it? Chopped down, was what. But they liked him and nobody had the heart to wise him up.

  So far as Profane knew Zeitsuss didn’t know who he was, or care. Profane would have liked to think he was one of those recurring ugly faces, but what was he after all—only a latecomer. He had no right, he decided after the ammo speech, to think one way or the other about Zeitsuss. He didn’t feel any group pride, God knew. It was a job, not a Patrol. He’d learned how to work a repeater—even how to fieldstrip and clean it—and now, two weeks on the job, he was almost beginning to feel less clumsy. Like he wouldn’t accidentally shoot himself in the foot or someplace worse after all.

  Angel was singing: “Mi corazón, es tan solo, mi corazón . . .” Profane watched his own hip boots move synched with the beat of Angel’s song, watched the erratic gleam of the flashlight on the water, watched the gentle switching of the alligator’s tail, ahead. They were coming up to a manhole. Rendezvous point. Look sharp, men of the Alligator Patrol. Angel wept as he sang.

  “Knock it off,” Profane said. “If Bung the foreman is up there, it’s our ass. Act sober.”

  “I hate Bung the foreman,” Angel said. He began to laugh.

  “Shush,” Profane said. Bung the foreman had carried a walkie-talkie before the FCC clamped down. Now he carried a clipboard and filed daily reports with Zeitsuss. He didn’t talk much except to give orders. One phrase he used always: “I’m the foreman.” Sometimes “I’m Bung, the foreman.” Angel’s theory was that he had to keep saying this to remind himself.

  Ahead of them the alligator lumbered, forlorn. It was moving slower, as if to let them catch up and end it. They arrived at the manhole. Angel climbed up the ladder and hammered with a short crowbar on the underside of the cover. Profane held the flashlight and kept an eye on the coco. There were scraping sounds from above, and the cover was suddenly jacked to one side. A crescent of pink neon sky appeared. Rain came down splashing into Angel’s eyes. Bung the foreman’s head appeared in the crescent.

  “Chinga tu madre,” said Angel pleasantly.

  “Report,” said Bung.

  “He’s moving off,” Profane called from below.

  “We’re after one now,” Angel said.

  “You’re drunk,” Bung said.

  “No,” said Angel.

  “Yes,” cried Bung. “I’m the foreman.”

  “Angel,” Profane said. “Come on, we’ll lose him.”

  “I’m sober,” Angel said. It occurred to him how nice it might be to punch Bung in the mouth.

  “I am going to write you up,” said Bung, “I smell booze on your breath.”

  Angel started climbing out of the manhole. “I would like to discuss this with you.”

  “What are you guys doing,” Profane said, “playing potsy?”

  “Carry on,” Bung called into the hole. “I am detaining your partner for disciplinary action.” Angel, halfway out of the hole, sank his teeth into Bung’s leg. Bung screamed. Profane saw Angel disappear, and the pink crescent replace him. Rain spattered down out of the sky and drooled along the old brick sides of the hole. Scuffling sounds were heard in the street.

  “Now what the hell,” Profane said. He swung the flashlight beam down the tunnel, saw the tip of the alligator’s tail sashaying around the next bend. He shrugged. “Carry on, your ass,” he said.

  He moved away from the manhole, carrying the gun safetied under one arm, the flashlight in the other hand. It was the first time he’d hunted solo. He wasn’t scared. When it came to the kill there would be something to prop the flashlight against.

  Nearly as he could figure, he was on the East Side, uptown somewhere. He was out of his territory—God, had he chased this alligator all the way crosstown? He rounded the bend, the light from the pink sky was lost: now there moved only a sluggish ellipse with him and
the alligator at foci, and a slender axis of light linking them.

  They angled to the left, half uptown. The water began to get a little deeper. They were entering Fairing’s Parish, named after a priest who’d lived topside years ago. During the Depression of the ’30s, in an hour of apocalyptic well-being, he had decided that the rats were going to take over after New York died. Lasting eighteen hours a day, his beat had covered the breadlines and missions, where he gave comfort, stitched up raggedy souls. He foresaw nothing but a city of starved corpses, covering the sidewalks and the grass of the parks, lying belly-up in the fountains, hanging wrynecked from the streetlamps. The city—maybe America, his horizons didn’t extend that far—would belong to the rats before the year was out. This being the case, Father Fairing thought it best for the rats to be given a head start—which meant conversion to the Roman Church. One night early in Roosevelt’s first term, he climbed downstairs through the nearest manhole, bringing a Baltimore Catechism, his breviary and, for reasons nobody found out, a copy of Knight’s Modern Seamanship. The first thing he did, according to his journals (discovered months after he died) was to put an eternal blessing and a few exorcisms on all the water flowing through the sewers between Lexington and the East River and between Eighty-sixth and Seventy-ninth Streets. This was the area which became Fairing’s Parish. These benisons made sure of an adequate supply of holy water; also eliminated the trouble of individual baptisms when he had finally converted all the rats in the parish. Too, he expected other rats to hear what was going on under the upper East Side, and come likewise to be converted. Before long he would be spiritual leader of the inheritors of the earth. He considered it small enough sacrifice on their part to provide three of their own per day for physical sustenance, in return for the spiritual nourishment he was giving them.

  Accordingly, he built himself a small shelter on one bank of the sewer. His cassock for a bed, his breviary for a pillow. Each morning he’d make a small fire from driftwood collected and set out to dry the night before. Nearby was a depression in the concrete which sat beneath a downspout for rainwater. Here he drank and washed. After a breakfast of roast rat (“The livers,” he wrote, “are particularly succulent”) he set about his first task: learning to communicate with the rats. Presumably he succeeded. An entry for 23 November 1934 says:

  Ignatius is proving a very difficult student indeed. He quarreled with me today over the nature of indulgences. Bartholomew and Teresa supported him. I read them from the catechism: “The Church by means of indulgences remits the temporal punishment due to sin by applying to us from her spiritual treasury part of the infinite satisfaction of Jesus Christ and of the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints.”

  “And what,” inquired Ignatius, “is this superabundant satisfaction?”

  Again I read: “That which they gained during their lifetime but did not need, and which the Church applies to their fellow members of the communion of saints.”

  “Aha,” crowed Ignatius, “then I cannot see how this differs from Marxist communism, which you told us is Godless. To each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.” I tried to explain that there were different sorts of communism: that the early Church, indeed, was based on a common charity and sharing of goods. Bartholomew chimed in at this point with the observation that perhaps this doctrine of a spiritual treasury arose from the economic and social conditions of the Church in her infancy. Teresa promptly accused Bartholomew of holding Marxist views himself, and a terrible fight broke out, in which poor Teresa had an eye scratched from the socket. To spare her further pain, I put her to sleep and made a delicious meal from her remains, shortly after sext. I have discovered the tails, if boiled long enough, are quite agreeable.

  Evidently he converted at least one batch. There is no further mention in the journals of the skeptic Ignatius: perhaps he died in another fight, perhaps he left the community for the pagan reaches of Downtown. After the first conversion the entries begin to taper off: but all are optimistic, at times euphoric. They give a picture of the Parish as a little enclave of light in a howling Dark Age of ignorance and barbarity.

  Rat meat didn’t agree with the Father, in the long run. Perhaps there was infection. Perhaps, too, the Marxist tendencies of his flock reminded him too much of what he had seen and heard above ground, on the breadlines, by sick and maternity beds, even in the confessional; and thus the cheerful heart reflected by his late entries was really only a necessary delusion to protect himself from the bleak truth that his pale and sinuous parishioners might turn out no better than the animals whose estate they were succeeding to. His last entry gives a hint of some such feeling:

  When Augustine is mayor of the city (for he is a splendid fellow, and the others are devoted to him) will he, or his council, remember an old priest? Not with any sinecure or fat pension, but with true charity in their hearts? For though devotion to God is rewarded in Heaven and just as surely is not rewarded on this earth, some spiritual satisfaction, I trust, will be found in the New City whose foundations we lay here, in this Iona beneath the old foundations. If it cannot be, I shall nevertheless go to peace, at one with God. Of course that is the best reward. I have been the classical Old Priest—never particularly robust, never affluent—most of my life. Perhaps

  The journal ends here. It is still preserved in an inaccessible region of the Vatican library, and in the minds of the few old-timers in the New York Sewer Department who got to see it when it was discovered. It lay on top of a brick, stone and stick cairn large enough to cover a human corpse, assembled in a stretch of 36-inch pipe near a frontier of the Parish. Next to it lay the breviary. There was no trace of the catechism or Knight’s Modern Seamanship.

  “Maybe,” said Zeitsuss’s predecessor Manfred Katz after reading the journal, “maybe they are studying the best way to leave a sinking ship.”

  The stories, by the time Profane heard them, were pretty much apocryphal and more fantasy than the record itself warranted. At no point in the twenty or so years the legend had been handed on did it occur to anyone to question the old priest’s sanity. It is this way with sewer stories. They just are. Truth or falsity don’t apply.

  Profane had moved across the frontier, the alligator still in front of him. Scrawled on the walls were occasional quotes from the Gospels, Latin tags (Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem—Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, grant us peace). Peace. Here had been peace, once in a depression season crushed slow, starving-nervous, into the street by the dead weight of its own sky. In spite of time-distortions in Father Fairing’s tale, Profane had got the general idea. Excommunicated, most likely, by the very fact of his mission here, a skeleton in Rome’s closet and in the priest-hole of his own cassock and bed, the old man sat preaching to a congregation of rats with saints’ names, all to the intention of peace.

  He swung the beam over the old inscriptions, saw a dark stain shaped like a crucifix and broke out in goose bumps. For the first time since leaving the manhole, Profane realized he was all alone. The alligator up there was no help, it’d be dead soon. To join other ghosts.

  What had interested him most were the accounts of Veronica, the only female besides the luckless Teresa who is mentioned in the journal. Sewer hands being what they are (favorite rejoinder: “Your mind is in the sewer”), one of the apocrypha dealt with an unnatural relationship between the priest and this female rat, who was described as a kind of voluptuous Magdalen. From everything Profane had heard, Veronica was the only member of his flock Father Fairing felt to have a soul worth saving. She would come to him at night not as a succubus but seeking instruction, perhaps to carry back to her nest—wherever in the Parish it was—something of his desire to bring her to Christ: a scapular medal, a memorized verse from the New Testament, a partial indulgence, a penance. Something to keep. Veronica was none of your trader rats.

  My litt
le joke may have been in earnest. When they are established firmly enough to begin thinking about canonization, I am sure Veronica will head the list. With some descendant of Ignatius no doubt acting as devil’s advocate.

  V. came to me tonight, upset. She and Paul have been at it again. The weight of guilt is so heavy on the child. She almost sees it: as a huge, white, lumbering beast, pursuing her, wanting to devour her. We discussed Satan and his wiles for several hours.

  V. has expressed a desire to be a sister. I explained to her that to date there is no recognized order for which she would be eligible. She will talk to some of the other girls to see if there is interest widespread enough to require action on my part. It would mean a letter to the Bishop. And my Latin is so wretched . . .

  Lamb of God, Profane thought. Did the priest teach them “rat of God”? How did he justify killing them off three a day? How would he feel about me or the Alligator Patrol? He checked the action of the shotgun. Here in the Parish were twistings intricate as any early Christian catacomb. No use risking a shot, not here. Was it only that?

  His back throbbed, he was getting tired. Beginning to wonder how much longer this would have to keep up. It was the longest he’d chased any alligator. He stopped for a minute, listened back along the tunnel. No sound except the dull wash of water. Angel wouldn’t be coming. He sighed and started plodding again toward the river. The alligator was burbling in the sewage, blowing bubbles and growling gently. Is it saying anything, he wondered. To me? He wound on, feeling soon he’d start to think about collapsing and just letting the stream float him out with pornographic pictures, coffee grounds, contraceptives used and unused, shit, up through the flushing tank to the East River and across on the tide to the stone forests of Queens. And to hell with this alligator and this hunt, here between chalkwritten walls of legend. It was no place to kill. He felt the eyes of ghost-rats, kept his own eyes ahead for fear he might see the 36-inch pipe that was Father Fairing’s sepulchre, tried to keep his ears closed to the sub-threshold squeakings of Veronica, the priest’s old love.

 

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