V, p.41

V., page 41

 

V.
 



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  “Slab and you were—” kicking a tire—“horizontal once.”

  “Okay.” Quiet. “It is myself, what I could slide back into, maybe a girl-victim underneath this red mop—” she had one little hand pushed up from under into her hair and was slowly lifting the thick mane of it, while Profane watched and began to grow erect—“part of me that I can see in her. Just as it is Profane the Depression Kid, that lump that wasn’t aborted, that became an awareness on the floor of one old Hooverville shack in ’32, it’s him you see in every no-name drifter, mooch, square’s tenant, him you love.”

  Who was she talking about? Profane’d had all night to rehearse but never expected this. He hung his head and kicked inanimate tires, knowing they’d take revenge when he was looking for it least. He was afraid now to say anything.

  She held her hair up, eyes gone all rainy; came off the fender she’d been leaning back on and stood spraddle-legged, hips poised in a bow, his direction.

  “Slab and I rotated our 90 degrees because we were incompatible. The Crew lost all glamour for me, I grew up, I don’t know what happened. But he will never leave it, though his eyes are open and he sees as much as I do. I didn’t want to be sucked in, was all. But then you . . .”

  Thus the maverick daughter of Stuyvesant Owlglass perched like any pinup beauty. Ready at the slightest pressure surge in the blood lines, endocrine imbalance, quickening of nerves at the love-breeding zones to pivot into some covenant with Profane the schlemihl. Her breasts seemed to expand toward him, but he stood fast; unwilling to retreat from pleasure, unwilling to convict himself of love for bums, himself, her, unwilling to see her proved inanimate as the rest.

  Why that last? Only a general desire to find somebody for once on the right or real side of the TV screen? What made her hold any promise of being any more human?

  You ask too many questions, he told himself. Stop asking, take. Give. Whatever she wants to call it. Whether the bulge is in your skivvies or your brain do something. She doesn’t know, you don’t know.

  Only that the nipples which came to make a warm diamond with his navel and the padded cusp of his ribcage, the girl’s ass one hand moved to automatic, the recently fluffed hairs tickling his nostrils had nothing, for once, at all to do with this black garage or the car-shadows which did accidentally include the two of them.

  Rachel now only wanted to hold him, feel the top of his beer belly flattening her bra-less breasts, already evolving schemes to make him lose weight, exercise more.

  McClintic came in and found them like that, holding together until now and again one or the other lost balance and made tiny staggers to compensate. Underground garage for a dancing-floor. So they dance all over the cities.

  Rachel grasped Everything outside as Paola climbed from the Buick. The two girls confronted, smiled, passed; their histories would go different from here on, said the shy twin looks they swapped. All McClintic said was, “Roony is asleep on your bed. Somebody ought to look after him.”

  “Profane, Profane,” she laughed while the Buick growled to her touch, “dear; we’ve got so many of them to take care of now.”

  IV

  Winsome came awake from a dream of defenestration, wondering why he hadn’t thought of it before. From Rachel’s bedroom window it was seven stories to a courtyard used for mean purposes only: drunk’s evacuation, a dump for old beer cans and mop-dust, the pleasures of nighttime cats. How his cadaver could glorify that!

  He moved to the window, opened, straddled, listened. Girls being tailed somewhere along Broadway, giggling. Musician out of work practicing trombone. Rock ’n’ roll across the way:

  Little teen-age goddess

  Don’t tell me no,

  Into the park tonight

  We’re going to go,

  Let me be

  Your teen-age Romeo. . . .

  Dedicated to the duck’s-ass heads and bursting straight skirts of the Street. That gave cops ulcers and the Youth Board gainful employment.

  Why not go down there? Heat rises. On the areaway’s jagged floor there’d be no August.

  “Listen friends,” Winsome said, “there is a word for all our Crew and it is Sick. Some of us cannot keep our flies zipped, others remain faithful to one mate till menopause or the Grand Climacteric steps in. But randy or monogamous, on one side of the night or the other, on or off the Street, there is no one of us you can point to and call well.

  “Fergus Mixolydian the Irish Armenian Jew takes money from a Foundation named after a man who spent millions trying to prove thirteen rabbis rule the world. Fergus sees nothing wrong there.

  “Esther Harvitz pays to get the body she was born with altered and then falls deeply in love with the man who mutilated her. Esther sees nothing wrong either.

  “Raoul the television writer can produce drama devious enough to slip by any sponsor’s roadblock and still tell the staring fans what’s wrong with them and what they’re watching. But he’s happy with westerns and detective stories.

  “Slab the painter, whose eyes are open, has technical skill and if you will ‘soul.’ But is committed to cheese Danishes.

  “Melvin the folk-singer has no talent. Ironically he does more social commenting than the rest of the Crew put together. He accomplishes nothing.

  “Mafia Winsome is smart enough to create a world but too stupid not to live in it. Finding the real world never jibing with her fancy she spends all kinds of energy—sexual, emotional—trying to make it conform, never succeeding.

  “And on it goes. Anybody who continues to live in a subculture so demonstrably sick has no right to call himself well. The only well thing to do is what I am going to do now, namely, jump out this window.”

  So speaking Winsome straightened his tie and prepared to defenestrate.

  “I say,” said Pig Bodine, who’d been out in the kitchen listening. “Don’t you know life is the most precious possession you have?”

  “I have heard that one before,” said Winsome, and jumped. He had forgotten about the fire escape three feet below the window. By the time he’d picked himself up and swung a leg over, Pig was out the window. Pig grabbed Winsome’s belt just as he went over the second time.

  “Now look,” said Pig. A drunk, urinating below in the courtyard, glanced up and started yelling for everybody to come watch the suicide. Lights came on, windows opened and pretty soon Pig and Winsome had an audience. Winsome hung jackknifed, looking placidly down at the drunk and calling him obscene names.

  “How about letting go,” Winsome said after a while. “Aren’t your arms getting tired?”

  Pig admitted they were. “Did I ever tell you,” Pig said, “the story about the coke sacker, the cork soaker and the sock tucker.”

  Winsome started to laugh and with a mighty heave, Pig brought him back over the low rail of the fire escape.

  “No fair,” said Winsome who had knocked the wind out of Pig. He tore away and went running down the steps. Pig, sounding like an espresso machine with faulty valves, joined the pursuit a second later. He caught Winsome two stories down, standing on the rail holding his nose. This time he slung Winsome over a shoulder and started grimly up the fire escape. Winsome slithered away and ran down another floor. “Ah, good,” he said. “Still four stories. High enough.”

  The rock ’n’ roll enthusiast across the court had turned his radio up. Elvis Presley, singing “Don’t Be Cruel,” gave them background music. Pig could hear cop sirens arriving out in front.

  So they chased each other up, down and around the fire escapes. After a while they got dizzy and started to giggle. The audience cheered them on. So little happens in New York. Police came charging into the areaway with nets, spotlights, ladders.

  Finally Pig had chased Winsome down to the first landing, half a story above the ground. By this time the cops had spread out a net.
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  “You still want to jump,” Pig said.

  “Yes,” said Winsome.

  “Go ahead,” said Pig.

  Winsome went down in a swan dive, trying to land on his head. The net, of course, was there. He bounced once and lay all flabby while they wrapped him in a straitjacket and carted him off to Bellevue.

  Pig, suddenly realizing that he had been AWOL for eight months today, and that “cop” may be defined as “civilian Shore Patrolman,” turned and raced fleetly up the fire escape for Rachel’s window, leaving the solid citizens to turn their lights off and go back to Elvis Presley. Once inside, he reckoned he could put on an old dress of Esther’s and a babushka and talk in falsetto, should the cops decide to come up and inquire. They were so stupid they’d never know the difference.

  V

  At Idlewild was a fat three-year-old who waited to bounce over the tarmac to a waiting plane—Miami, Havana, San Juan-looking blasé and heavy-lidded over the dandruffed shoulder of her father’s black suit at the claque of relatives assembled to see her off. “Cucarachita,” they cried, “adiós, adiós.”

  For such wee hours the airport was mobbed. After having Esther paged, Rachel went weaving in and out of the crowd in a random search-pattern for her strayed roommate. At last she joined Profane at the rail.

  “Some guardian angels we are.”

  “I checked on Pan American and all of them,” Profane said. “The big ones. They were full up days ago. This Anglo Airlines here is the only one going out this morning.”

  Loudspeaker announced the flight, DC-3 waited across the strip, dilapidated and hardly gleaming under the lights. The gate opened, waiting passengers began to move. The Puerto Rican baby’s friends had come armed with maracas, claves, timbales. They all moved in like a bodyguard to escort her out to the plane. A few cops tried to break it up. Somebody started to sing, pretty soon everybody was singing.

  “There she is,” Rachel yelled. Esther came scooting around from behind a row of lockers, with Slab running interference. Eyes and mouth bawling, overnight case leaking a trail of cologne which would dry quickly on the pavement, she charged in among the Puerto Ricans. Rachel, running after her, sidestepped a cop only to run head-on into Slab.

  “Oof,” said Slab.

  “What the hell’s the idea, lout.” He had hold of one arm.

  “Let her go,” Slab said. “She wants to.”

  “You’ve slammed her around,” yelled Rachel. “You trying to total her? It didn’t work with me so you had to pick on somebody as weak as you are. Why couldn’t you confine your mistakes to paint and canvas.”

  One way or another the Whole Sick Crew was giving the cops a busy night. Whistles started blowing. The area between the rail and the DC-3 was swelling into a small-scale riot.

  Why not? It was August and cops do not like Puerto Ricans. The multimetronome clatter from Cucarachita’s rhythm section turned angry like a swarm of locusts turning for the approach on some rich field. Slab began shouting unkind reminiscences of the days he and Rachel had been horizontal.

  Profane meanwhile was trying to keep from being clobbered. He’d lost Esther who was naturally using the riot for a screen. Somebody started blinking all the lights in that part of Idlewild which made things even worse.

  He finally broke clear of a small knot of wellwishers and spotted Esther running across the airstrip. She’d lost one shoe. He was about to go after her when a body fell across his path. He tripped, went down, opened his eyes to a pair of girl’s legs he knew.

  “Benito.” The sad pout, sexy as ever.

  “God, what else.”

  She was going back to San Juan. Of the months between the gang bang and now she’d say nothing.

  “Fina, Fina, don’t go.” Like photographs in your wallet, what good is an old love—however ill-defined—down in San Juan?

  “Angel and Geronimo are here.” She looked around vaguely.

  “They want me to go,” she told him, on her way again. He followed, haranguing. He’d forgotten about Esther. Cucarachita and father came running past. Profane and Fina passed Esther’s shoe, lying on its side with a broken heel.

  Finally Fina turned, dry-eyed. “Remember the night in the bathtub?” spat, spun, dashed off for the plane.

  “Your ass,” he said, “they would have got you sooner or later.” But stood there anyway, still as any object.

  “I did it,” he said after a while. “It was me.” Schlemihls being, as he believed, passive, he could not remember ever having admitted anything like this. “Oh, man.” Plus letting Esther get away, plus having Rachel now for a dependent, plus whatever would happen with Paola. For a boy not getting any he had more woman problems than anybody he knew.

  He started back for Rachel. The riot was breaking up. Behind him propellers spun; the plane taxied, slewed, became airborne, was gone. He didn’t turn to watch it.

  VI

  Patrolman Joneš and Officer Ten Eyck, disdaining the elevator, marched in perfect unison up two flights of palatial stairway, down the hall toward Winsome’s apartment. A few tabloid reporters who had taken the elevator intercepted them halfway there. Noise from Winsome’s apartment could be heard down on Riverside Drive.

  “Never know what Bellevue is going to turn up,” said Joneš.

  He and his sidekick were faithful viewers of the TV program Dragnet. They’d cultivated deadpan expressions, unsyncopated speech rhythms, monotone voices. One was tall and skinny, the other was short and fat. They walked in step.

  “Talked to a doctor there,” said Ten Eyck. “Young fella named Gottschalk. Winsome had a lot to say.”

  “We’ll see, Al.”

  Before the door, Joneš and Ten Eyck waited politely for the one cameraman in the group to check his flash attachment. A girl was heard to shriek happily inside.

  “Oboy, oboy,” said a reporter.

  The cops knocked. “Come in, come in,” called many juiced voices.

  “It’s the police, ma’am.”

  “I hate fuzz,” somebody snarled. Ten Eyck kicked in the door, which had been open. Bodies inside fell back to provide the cameraman a line-of-sight to Mafia, Charisma, Fu and friends, playing Musical Blankets. Zap, went the camera.

  “Too bad,” the photographer said, “we can’t print that one.” Ten Eyck shouldered his way over to Mafia.

  “All right, ma’am.”

  “Would you like to play,” hysterical.

  The cop smiled, tolerantly. “We’ve talked to your husband.”

  “We’d better go,” said the other cop.

  “Guess Al is right, ma’am.” Flash attachment lit up the room from time to time, like a spell of heat lightning.

  Ten Eyck flapped a warrant. “All you folks are under arrest,” he said. To Joneš: “Call the Lieutenant, Steve.”

  “What charge,” people started yelling.

  Ten Eyck’s timing was good. He waited a few heartbeats. “Disturbing the peace will do,” he said.

  Maybe the only peace undisturbed that night was McClintic’s and Paola’s. The little Triumph forged along up the Hudson, their own wind was cool, taking away whatever of Nueva York had clogged ears, nostrils, mouths.

  She talked to him straight and McClintic kept cool. While she told him about who she was, about Stencil and Fausto—even a homesick travelogue of Malta—there came to McClintic something it was time he got around to seeing: that the only way clear of the cool/crazy flipflop was obviously slow, frustrating and hard work. Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care. He might have known, if he’d used any common sense. It didn’t come as a revelation, only something he’d as soon not’ve admitted.

  “Sure,” he said later, as they headed into the Berkshires. “Paola, did you know I have been blowing a si
lly line all this time. Mister Flab the original, is me. Lazy and taking for granted some wonder drug someplace to cure that town, to cure me. Now there isn’t and never will be. Nobody is going to step down from Heaven and square away Roony and his woman, or Alabama, or South Africa or us and Russia. There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough. Can you see Eisenhower telling Malenkov or Khrushchev that? Ho-ho.”

  “Keep cool but care,” he said. Somebody had run over a skunk a ways back. The smell had followed them for miles. “If my mother was alive I would have her make a sampler with that on it.”

  “You know, don’t you,” she began, “that I have to—”

  “Go back home, sure. But the week’s not over yet. Be easy, girl.”

  “I can’t. Can I ever?”

  “We’ll stay away from musicians,” was all he said. Did he know of anything she could be, ever?

  “Flop, flip,” he sang to the trees of Massachusetts. “Once I was hip . . .”

  chapter thirteen

  In which the yo-yo string

  is revealed as a

  state of

  mind

  V

  I

  The passage to Malta took place in late September, over an Atlantic whose sky never showed a sun. The ship was Susanna Squaducci, which had figured once before in Profane’s long-interrupted guardianship of Paola. He came back to the ship that morning in the fog knowing that Fortune’s yo-yo had also returned to some reference-point, not unwilling, not anticipating, not anything; merely prepared to float, acquire a set and drift wherever Fortune willed. If Fortune could will.

  A few of the Crew had come to give Profane, Paola and Stencil bon voyage; those who weren’t in jail, out of the country or in the hospital. Rachel had stayed away. It was a weekday, she had a job. Profane supposed so.

  He was here by accident. While weeks back, off on the fringes of the field-of-two Rachel and Profane had set up, Stencil roamed the city exerting “pull,” seeing about tickets, passports, visas, inoculations for Paola and him, Profane felt that at last he’d come to dead center in Nueva York; had found his Girl, his vocation as watchman against the night and straight man for SHROUD, his home in a three-girl apartment with one gone to Cuba, one about to go to Malta, and one, his own, remaining.

 

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