V, p.43

V., page 43



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  They ended up drenched, exhausted and swearing mutual fealty. Groomsman even named Knoop to honorary membership in the PAL and Restricted Men’s Club.

  The reconciliation came as a surprise to Pig, who’d expected to get the book thrown at him. He felt let down and saw no other way to improve his outlook but to get laid. Unfortunately he was now afflicted by contraceptivelessness. He tried to borrow a few. It was that horrible and cheerless time just before payday when everybody is out of everything: money, cigarettes, soap, and especially rubbers, much less French ticklers. “Gawd,” moaned Pig, “what do I do?” To his rescue came Hiroshima, ET3.

  “Didn’t anybody ever tell you,” said this worthy, “about the biological effects of r-f energy?”

  “Wha,” said Pig.

  “Stand in front of the radar antenna,” said Hiroshima, “while it is radiating, and what it will do is, it will make you temporarily sterile.”

  “Indeed,” said Pig. Indeed. Hiroshima showed him a book which said so.

  “I am scared of heights,” said Pig.

  “It is the only way out,” Hiroshima told him. “What you do is, you climb up the mast and I will go light off the old SPA 4 Able.”

  Already tottering, Pig made his way topside and prepared to climb the mast. Howie Surd had come along and solicitously offered a shot of something murky in an unlabeled bottle. On the way up, Pig passed Profane swinging like a bird in a boatswain’s chair hooked to the spar. Profane was painting the mast. “Dum de dum, de dum,” sang Profane. “Good afternoon, Pig.” My old buddy, thought Pig. His are probably the last words I will ever hear.

  Hiroshima appeared below. “Yo, Pig,” he yelled. Pig made the mistake of looking down. Hiroshima gave him the thumb-and-index-finger-in-a-circle sign. Pig felt like vomiting.

  “What are you doing in this neck of the woods,” Profane said.

  “Oh, just out for a stroll,” said Pig. “I see you are painting the mast, there.”

  “Right,” said Profane, “deck gray.” They examined at length the subject of the Scaffold’s color scheme, as well as the long-standing jurisdictional dispute which had Profane, a deck ape, painting the mast when it was really the radar gang’s responsibility.

  Hiroshima and Surd, impatient, started yelling. “Well,” said Pig, “good-bye old buddy.”

  “Be careful walking around on that platform,” Profane said. “I robbed some more hamburger out of the galley and stowed it up there. I figure on sneaking it off over the 01 deck.” Pig, nodding, creaked slowly up the ladder.

  At the top he latched his nose over the platform like Kilroy and cased the situation. There was Profane’s hamburger all right. Pig started to climb on the platform when his ultra-sensitive nose detected something. He lifted it off the deck.

  “How remarkable,” said Pig out loud, “it smells like hamburger frying.” He looked a little closer at Profane’s cache. “Guess what,” he said, and started backing quickly down the ladder. When he got level with Profane he yelled over: “Buddy, you just saved my life. You got a piece of line?”

  “What are you going to do,” said Profane, tossing him a piece of line: “hang yourself?”

  Pig made a noose on one end and headed up the ladder again. After a couple-three tries he managed to snare the hamburger, pulled it over, dragged off his white hat and dumped the hamburger in it, being careful all the time to stay as much as he could out of any line-of-sight with the radar antenna. Down at Profane again he showed him the hamburger.

  “Amazing,” Profane said. “How did you do it?”

  “Someday,” Pig said, “I will have to tell you about the biological effects of r-f energy.” And so saying inverted the white hat in the direction of Hiroshima and Howie Surd, showering them both with cooked hamburger.

  “Anything you want,” Pig said then, “just ask, buddy. I have a code and I don’t forget.”

  “Okay,” Profane said a few years later, standing by Paola’s bed in an apartment on Nueva York’s 112th Street and twisting Pig’s collar a little, “I’m collecting that one now.”

  “A code is a code,” Pig choked. Off he got, and fled sadly. When he was gone, Paola reached out for Profane, drew him down and in against her.

  “No,” said Profane, “I’m always saying no, but no.”

  “You have been gone so long. So long since our bus ride.”

  “Who says I’m back.”

  “Rachel?” She held his head, nothing but maternal.

  “There is her, yes, but . . .”

  She waited.

  “Anyway I say it is nasty. But I’m not looking for any dependents, is all.”

  “You have them,” she whispered.

  No, he thought, she’s out of her head. Not me. Not a schlemihl.

  “Then why did you make Pig go away?”

  He thought about that one for a few weeks.


  All things gathered to farewell.

  One afternoon, close to the time Profane was to embark for Malta, he happened to be down around Houston Street, his old neighborhood. It was cooler, fall: dark came earlier and little kids out playing stoop ball were about to call it a day. For no special reason, Profane decided to look in on his parents.

  Around two corners and up the stairs, past apartments of Basilisco the cop whose wife left garbage in the hallway, past Miss Angevine who was in business in a small way, past the Venusbergs whose fat daughter had always tried to lure young Profane into the bathroom, past Maxixe the drunk and Flake the sculptor and his girl, and old Min De Costa who kept orphan mice and was a practicing witch; past his past though who knew it? Not Profane.

  Standing before his old door he knocked, though knowing from the sound of it (like we can tell from the buzz in the phone receiver whether or not she’s home) that inside was empty. So soon, of course, he tried the knob; having come this far. They never locked doors: on the other side of this one he wandered automatic into the kitchen to check the table. A ham, a turkey, a roast beef. Fruit: grapes, oranges, a pineapple, plums. Plate of knishes, bowl of almonds and Brazil nuts. String of garlic tossed like a rich lady’s necklace across fresh bunches of fennel, rosemary, tarragon. A brace of baccale, dead eyes directed at a huge provolone, a pale yellow parmigian and God knew how many fish-cousins, gefülte, in an ice bucket.

  No his mother wasn’t telepathic, she wasn’t expecting Profane. Wasn’t expecting her husband Gino, rain, poverty, anything. Only that she had this compulsion to feed. Profane was sure that the world would be worse off without mothers like that in it.

  He stayed in the kitchen an hour, while night came along, wandering through this field of inanimate food, making bits and pieces of it animate, his own. Soon it was dark and the baked outsides of meats, the skins of fruits only highlighted all shiny by light from the apartment across the courtyard. Rain started falling. He left.

  They would know he’d been by.

  Profane, whose nights were now free, decided he could afford to frequent the Rusty Spoon and the Forked Yew without serious compromise.

  “Ben,” Rachel yelled, “this is putting me down.” Since the night he was fired from Anthroresearch Associates, it seemed he’d been trying every way he knew to put her down. “Why won’t you let me get you a job? It is September, college kids are fleeing the city, the labor market was never better.”

  “Call it a vacation,” said Profane. But how do you swing a vacation from two dependents?

  Before anyone knew it there was Profane, full-fledged Crew member. Under the tutelage of Charisma and Fu, he learned how to use proper nouns; how not to get too drunk, keep a straight face, use marijuana.

  “Rachel,” running in a week later, “I smoked pot.”

  “Get out of here.”


  “You are turning into a phony,
said Rachel.

  “You’re not interested in what it’s like.”

  “I have smoked pot. It is a stupid business, like masturbation. If you get kicks that way, fine. But not around me.”

  “It was only once. Only for the experience.”

  “Once I will say it, is all: that Crew does not live, it experiences. It does not create, it talks about people who do. Varèse, Ionesco, de Kooning, Wittgenstein, I could puke. It satirizes itself and doesn’t mean it. Time magazine takes it seriously and does mean it.”

  “It’s fun.”

  “And you are becoming less of a man.”

  He was still high, too high to argue. Off he rollicked, in train with Charisma and Fu.

  Rachel locked herself in the bathroom with a portable radio and bawled for a while. Somebody was singing the old standard about how you always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all. Indeed, thought Rachel, but does Benny even love me? I love him. I think. There’s no reason why I should. She kept crying.

  So near one in the morning she was at the Spoon with her hair hanging straight, dressed in black, no makeup except for mascara in sad raccoon-rings round her eyes, looking like all those other women and girls: camp followers.

  “Benny,” she said, “I’m sorry.” And later:

  “You don’t have to try not to hurt me. Only come home, with me, to bed. . . .” And much later, at her apartment, facing the wall, “You don’t even have to be a man. Only pretend to love me.”

  None of which made Profane feel any better. But it didn’t stop him going to the Spoon.

  One night at the Forked Yew, he and Stencil got juiced. “Stencil is leaving the country,” Stencil said. He apparently wanted to talk.

  “I wish I was leaving the country.”

  Young Stencil, old Machiavel. Soon he had Profane talking about his women problems.

  “I don’t know what Paola wants. You know her better. Do you know what she wants?”

  An embarrassing question for Stencil. He dodged:

  “Aren’t you two—how shall one say.”

  “No,” Profane said. “No, no.”

  But Stencil was there again, next evening. “Truth of it is,” he admitted, “Stencil can’t handle her. But you can.”

  “Don’t talk,” said Profane. “Drink.”

  Hours later they were both out of their heads. “You wouldn’t consider coming along with them,” Stencil wondered.

  “I have been there once. Why should I want to go back.”

  “But didn’t Valletta—somehow—get to you? Make you feel anything?”

  “I went down to the Gut and got drunk like everybody else. I was too drunk to feel anything.”

  Which eased Stencil. He was scared to death of Valletta. He’d feel better with Profane, anybody else, along on this jaunt (a) to take care of Paola, (b) so he wouldn’t be alone.

  Shame, said his conscience. Old Sidney went in there with the cards stacked against him. Alone.

  And look what he got, thought Stencil, a little wry, a little shaky.

  On the offensive: “Where do you belong, Profane?”

  “Wherever I am.”

  “Deracinated. Which of them is not. Which of this Crew couldn’t pick up tomorrow and go off to Malta, go off to the moon. Ask them why and they’ll answer why not.”

  “I could not care less about Valletta.” But hadn’t there been something after all about the bombed-out buildings, buff-colored rubble, excitement of Kingsway? What had Paola called the island: a cradle of life.

  “I have always wanted to be buried at sea,” said Profane.

  Had Stencil seen the coupling in that associative train he would have gathered heart of grace, surely. But Paola and he had never spoken of Profane. Who, after all, was Profane?

  Until now. They decided to rollick off to a party on Jefferson Street.

  Next day was Saturday. Early morning found Stencil rushing around to his contacts, informing them all of a third tentative passage.

  The third passage, meanwhile, was horribly hung over. His Girl was having more than second thoughts.

  “Why do you go to the Spoon, Benny.”

  “Why not?”

  She edged up on one elbow. “That’s the first time you’ve said that.”

  “You break your cherry on something every day.”

  Without thinking: “What about love? When are you going to end your virgin status there, Ben?”

  In reply Profane fell out of bed, crawled to the bathroom and hung over the toilet, thinking about barfing. Rachel clasped hands in front of one breast, like a concert soprano. “My man.” Profane decided instead to make noises at himself in the mirror.

  She came up behind him, hair all down and straggly for the night, and set her cheek against his back, as Paola had on the Newport News ferry last winter. Profane inspected his teeth.

  “Get off my back,” he said.

  Still holding on: “So. Only smoked pot once and already he’s hooked. Is that your monkey talking?”

  “It’s me talking. Off.”

  She moved away. “How off is off, Ben.” Things were quiet then. Soft, penitent, “If I am hooked on anything it’s you, Rachel O.” Watching her shifty in the mirror.

  “On women,” she said, “on what you think love is: take, take. Not on me.”

  He started brushing his teeth fiercely. In the mirror as she watched there bloomed a great flower of leprous-colored foam, out of his mouth and down both sides of his chin.

  “You want to go,” she yelled, “go then.”

  He said something but around the toothbrush and through the foam neither could understand the words.

  “You are scared of love and all that means is somebody else,” she said. “As long as you don’t have to give anything, be held to anything, sure: you can talk about love. Anything you have to talk about isn’t real. It’s only a way of putting yourself up. And anybody who tries to get through to you—me—down.”

  Profane made gurgling noises in the sink: drinking out of the tap, flushing out his mouth. “Look,” coming up for air, “what did I tell you? Didn’t I warn you?”

  “People can change. Couldn’t you make the effort?” She was damned if she’d cry.

  “I don’t change. Schlemihls don’t change.”

  “Oh that makes me sick. Can’t you stop feeling sorry for yourself? You’ve taken your own flabby, clumsy soul and amplified it into a Universal Principle.”

  “What about you and that MG.”

  “What does that have to do with any—”

  “You know what I always thought? That you were an accessory. That you, flesh, you’d fall apart sooner than the car. That the car would go on, in a junkyard even it would look like it always had, and it would have to be a thousand years before that thing could rust so you wouldn’t recognize it. But old Rachel, she’d be long gone. A part, a cheesy part, like a radio, heater, windshield-wiper blade.”

  She looked upset. He pushed it.

  “I only started to think about being a schlemihl, about a world of things that had to be watched out for, after I saw you alone with the MG. I didn’t even stop to think it might be perverted, what I was watching. All I was was scared.”

  “Showing how much you know about girls.”

  He started scratching his head, sending wide flakes of dandruff showering about the bathroom.

  “Slab was my first. None of those tweed jockstraps at Schlozhauer’s got any more than bare hand. Don’t you know, poor Ben, that a young girl has to take out her virginity on something, a pet parakeet, a car—though most of the time on herself.”

  “No,” he said, his hair all in clumps, fingernails gone yellow with dead scalp. “There’s more. Don’t try to get out of it that way.

  “You’re not a schlemihl. You’re nobody special. Everybody is some kind of a schlemihl. Only come out of that scungilli shell and you’d see.”

  He stood, pear-shaped, bags under the eyes, all forlorn. “What do you want? How much are you out to get? Isn’t this—” he waved at her an inanimate schmuck—“enough?”

  “It can’t be. Not for me, nor Paola.”

  “Where does she—”

  “Anywhere you go there’ll always be a woman for Benny. Let it be a comfort. Always a hole to let yourself come in without fear of losing any of that precious schlemihlhood.” She stomped around the room. “All right. We’re all hookers. Our price is fixed and single for everything: straight, French, round-the-world. Can you pay it, honey? Bare brain, bare heart?”

  “If you think me and Paola—”

  “You and anybody. Until that thing doesn’t work anymore. A whole line of them, some better than me, but all just as stupid. We can all be conned because we’ve all got one of these,” touching her crotch, “and when it talks we listen.”

  She was on the bed. “Come on baby,” she said, too close to crying, “this one’s for free. For love. Climb on. Good stuff, no charge.”

  Absurdly he thought of Hiroshima the electronics technician, reciting a mnemonic guide for resistor color-coding.

  Bad boys rape our young girls behind victory garden walls (or “but Violet gives willingly”). Good stuff, no charge.

  Could any of their resistances be measured in ohms? Someday, please God, there would be an all-electronic woman. Maybe her name would be Violet. Any problems with her, you could look it up in the maintenance manual. Module concept: fingers’ weight, heart’s temperature, mouth’s size out of tolerance? Remove and replace, was all.

  He climbed on anyway.

  That night at the Spoon, things were louder than usual, despite Mafia’s being in stir and a few of the Crew out on bail and their best behavior. Saturday night toward the end of the dog days; after all.

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