V, p.50

V., page 50

 

V.
 



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  “Paola,” Pappy moaned and pitched forward. They grabbed him. His white hat was long gone. His head hung and hair had fallen over his eyes.

  “Pappy is going bald,” said Clyde. “I never noticed.”

  “You never do till you’re drunk.”

  They made their way slow and unsteady down the Gut, yelling occasionally for a taxi. None came. The street had a silent look but was not so; not so far away, on the hill ascending to Kingsway, they heard sharp little explosions. And the voice of a great crowd around the next corner.

  “What is it,” said Johnny, “revolution?”

  Better than that: it was a free-for-all among two hundred Royal Commandos and maybe thirty Scaffold sailors.

  Clyde and Johnny dragged Pappy round the corner and into the fringes of it.

  “Oh-oh,” said Johnny. The noise woke Pappy, who called for his wife. A few dangling belts were in evidence, but no broken beer bottles or boatswain’s knives. Or none anybody could see. Or not yet. Dahoud stood against a wall, facing twenty Commandos. By his left bicep another Kilroy looked on, with nothing to say but WOT NO AMERICANS. Leroy Tongue must have been off underfoot somewhere, clubbing at shins with his night stick. Something red and sputtering came arcing through the air, landed by Johnny Contango’s foot and blew up. “Firecrackers,” said Johnny, landing three feet away. Clyde had also fled, and Pappy, unsupported, fell to the street. “Let’s get him out of here,” said Johnny.

  But they found their way blocked by Marines, who’d come up from behind.

  “Hey Billy Eckstine,” yelled the Commandos in front of Dahoud. “Billy Eckstine! sing us a song!” A volley of firecrackers went off somewhere to the right. Most of the fistfighting was still concentrated in the center of the mob. Only shoving, elbowing and curiosity at the edges. Dahoud removed his hat, drew himself up and began to sing “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Commandos were struck dumb. Somewhere down the street a police whistle blew. Glass broke in the middle of the crowd. It sent human waves back, concentric. A couple-three Marines staggered back and fell over Pappy, who was still on the ground. Johnny and Clyde moved in to rescue him. A few sailors moved in to help the fallen Marines. Unobtrusive as possible, Clyde and Johnny lifted their charge by an arm each and sneaky-Peted away. Behind them the Marines and sailors began scuffling with one another.

  “Cops,” somebody yelled. Half a dozen cherry bombs went off. Dahoud finished his song. A number of Commandos applauded. “Now sing ‘I Apologize.’ ”

  “You mean that,” Dahoud scratched his head, “that if I told a lie, if I made you cry, forgive me?”

  “Hoorah Billy Eckstine!” they cried.

  “O no man,” Dahoud said. “I don’t apologize to nobody.” Commandos squared off. Dahoud surveyed the situation, then abruptly lifted a gigantic arm, straight up. “All right there troopers, get in ranks now. Square away.”

  For some reason they shuffled into a kind of formation.

  “Yeah,” Dahoud grinned. “Right, FACE.” So they did.

  “Awright men. Let’s goooo!” Down came the arm, and away they marched. In step. Kilroy looked on deadpan. From nowhere Leroy Tongue emerged to bring up the rear.

  Clyde, Johnny and Pappy Hod struggled free of the brawl, dodged round a corner and began the struggle up the hill to Kingsway. Halfway along, Dahoud’s detachment passed them, Dahoud counting cadence, singing it like a blues. For all anyone knew he was marching them back to the troop carriers.

  A taxi pulled up next to the three. “Follow that platoon,” Johnny said and they piled in. The cab had a skylight, so of course before it reached Kingsway three heads had appeared through the roof. As they crawled behind the Commandos, they sang:

  Who’s the little rodent

  That’s getting more than me?

  F-U-C-K-E-Y Y-O-U-S-E.

  A legacy from Pig Bodine, who’d watched this particular kid’s program religiously on the mess hall TV every night in port; had furnished black clip-on ears to all the mess cooks at his own expense and composed on the show’s theme song an obscene parody of which this variation in spelling was the most palatable part. Commandos in the rear ranks asked Johnny to teach them the words. He did, receiving in exchange a fifth of Irish whiskey when its owner insisted he could not possibly finish it before they got under way next morning. (To this day the bottle has remained in Johnny Contango’s possession, unopened. No one knows what he’s keeping it for.)

  This weird procession crept along Kingsway until intercepted by a British cattle car or lorry. The Commandos climbed on, thanked everyone for a jolly evening and snarled away forever. Dahoud and Leroy climbed wearily into the cab.

  “Billy Eckstine,” Dahoud grinned. “Jeez.”

  “We got to go back,” Leroy said. The driver made a U-turn and they circled back to the scene of the free-for-all. No more than fifteen minutes had passed; but the street was deserted. Quiet: no more firecrackers, shouts; nothing.

  “I’ll be damned,” said Dahoud.

  “You’d think it never happened,” said Leroy.

  “Dockyard,” Clyde instructed the driver, yawning. “Drydock two. American tin can with the teeth marks of a screw-chewing fish.”

  All the way out to the Dockyard Pappy snored.

  Liberty had been expired an hour when they arrived. The two SP’s bounded past the rows of latrines and across the gangplank. Clyde and Johnny, with Pappy in the middle, lagged.

  “Now none of that was worth it,” Johnny said bitterly. Two figures, fat and slim, stood by the latrine wall.

  “Come on,” Clyde urged Pappy. “Few more steps.”

  Nasty Chobb came running by, wearing an English sailor hat with HMS Ceylon printed on the band. The shadow-figures detached themselves from the latrine wall and approached. Pappy tripped.

  “Robert,” she said. Not a question.

  “Hello Pappy,” said the other.

  “Who zat,” said Clyde.

  Johnny stopped dead and Clyde’s momentum carried Pappy round to face her directly. “I’ll be clipped in mess-hall coffee,” said Johnny.

  “Poor Robert.” But she said it gently, and was smiling, and had either Johnny or Clyde been less drunk they would have bawled like children.

  Pappy waggled his arms. “Go ahead,” he told them, “I can stand. I’ll be along.”

  From over on the quarterdeck Nasty Chobb was heard arguing with the OOD. “What you mean go away,” yelled Nasty.

  “Your hat says HMS Ceylon, Chobb.”

  “So.”

  “So what can I say? You’re on the wrong ship.”

  “Profane,” said Pappy. “You came back. I thought you would.”

  “I didn’t,” Profane said. “But she did.” He went off to wait. Leaned against a latrine wall out of earshot, looking at the Scaffold.

  “Hello Paola,” said Pappy. “Sahha.” It means both.

  “You—”

  “You—” at the same time. He motioned her to talk.

  “Tomorrow,” she said, “you’ll be hung over and probably will think this didn’t happen. That the Metro’s booze sends visions as well as a big head. But I’m real, and here, and if they restrict you—”

  “I can put in a chit.”

  “Or send you off to Egypt or anywhere else, it should make no difference. Because I will be back in Norfolk before you, and be there on the pier. Like any other wife. But wait till then to kiss or even touch you.”

  “If I can get off?”

  “I’ll be gone. Let it be this way, Robert.” How tired her face looked, in the white scatter from the brow lights. “It will be better, and more the way it should have been. You sailed a week after I left you. So a week is all we’ve lost. All that’s gone on since then is only a sea-story. I will sit home in Norfolk, faithful, and spin. Spin a yarn for your c
oming-home present.”

  “I love you,” was all he could find to say. He’d been saying it every night to a steel bulkhead and the earthwide sea on the other side.

  White hands flickered up, behind her face. “Here. In case you think tomorrow it was a dream.” Her hair fell loose. She handed him an ivory comb. Five crucified Limeys—five Kilroys—stared briefly at Valletta’s sky till he pocketed it. “Don’t lose it in a poker game. I’ve had it a long time.”

  He nodded. “We ought to be back early December.”

  “You’ll get your good-night kiss then.” She smiled, withdrew, turned, was gone.

  Pappy ambled on past the latrine without looking back. The American flag, skewered by spotlights, fluttered limp, high over them all. Pappy began his walk to the quarterdeck, across the long brow, hoping he’d be soberer when he reached the other end.

  II

  Of their dash across the Continent in a stolen Renault; Profane’s one-night sojourn in a jail near Genoa, when the police mistook him for an American gangster; the drunk they all threw which began in Liguria and lasted well past Naples; the dropped transmission at the outskirts of that city and the week they spent waiting its repair in a ruined villa on Ischia, inhabited by friends of Stencil—a monk long defrocked named Fenice who spent his time breeding giant scorpions in marble cages once used by the Roman blood to punish their young boy and girl concubines, and the poet Cinoglossa who had the misfortune to be both homosexual and epileptic—wandering listlessly in an unseasonable heat among vistas of marble fractured by earthquake, pines blasted by lightning, sea wrinkled by a dying mistral; of their arrival in Sicily and the difficulty with local bandits on a mountain road (from which Stencil extricated them by telling foul Sicilian jokes and giving them whiskey); of the day-long trip from Syracuse to Valletta on the Laferla steamer Star of Malta, during which Stencil lost one hundred dollars and a pair of cufflinks at stud poker to a mild-faced clergyman who called himself Robin Petitpoint; and of Paola’s steadfast silence through it all, there was little for any of them to remember. Malta alone drew them, a clenched fist around a yo-yo string.

  They came in to Valletta, cold, yawning, in the rain. They rode to Maijstral’s room neither anticipating nor remembering—outwardly, at least, apathetic and low-keyed as the rain. Maijstral greeted them calmly. Paola would stay with him. Stencil and Profane had planned to doss at the Phoenicia Hotel, but at 2/8 per day the agile Robin Petitpoint had had his effect. They settled for a lodging-house near the Harbour. “What now,” said Profane, tossing his ditty bag in a corner.

  Stencil thought a long time.

  “I like,” Profane continued, “living off of your money. But you and Paola conned me into coming here.”

  “First things first,” said Stencil. The rain had stopped; he was nervous. “See Maijstral. See Maijstral.”

  See Maijstral he did: but only next day, and after a morning-long argument with the whiskey bottle which the bottle lost. He walked to the room in the ruined building through a brilliant gray afternoon. Light seemed to cling to his shoulders like fine rain. His knees shook.

  But it wasn’t hard to talk to Maijstral.

  “Stencil has seen your confession to Paola.”

  “Then you know,” Maijstral said, “I only made it into this world through the good offices of one Stencil.”

  Stencil hung his head. “It may have been his father.”

  “Making us brothers.”

  There was wine, which helped. Stencil yarned far into the night but with a voice always threatening to break, as if now at last he were pleading for his life. Maijstral kept a decorous silence, waiting patiently whenever Stencil faltered.

  Stencil sketched the entire history of V. that night and strengthened a long suspicion. That it did add up only to the recurrence of an initial and a few dead objects. At one point in Mondaugen’s story:

  “Ah,” Maijstral said. “The glass eye.”

  “And you.” Stencil mopped his forehead. “You listen like a priest.”

  “I have wondered.” Smiling.

  At the end of it:

  “But Paola showed you my apologia. Who is the priest? We have heard one another’s confessions.”

  “Not Stencil’s,” Stencil insisted. “Hers.”

  Maijstral shrugged. “Why have you come? She is dead.”

  “He must know.”

  “I could never find that cellar again. If I could: it must be rebuilt now. Your confirmation would lie deep.”

  “Too deep already,” Stencil whispered. “Stencil’s long over his head, you know.”

  “I was lost.”

  “But not apt to have visions.”

  “Oh, real enough. You always look inside first, don’t you, to find what’s missing. What gap a ‘vision’ could possibly fill. I was all gap then, and there was too wide a field to choose from.”

  “Yet you’d just come from—”

  “I did think of Elena. Yes. Latins warp everything to the sexual anyway. Death becomes an adulterer or rival, need arises to see one rival at least done in. . . . But I was bastardized enough, you see, before that. Too much so to feel hatred or triumph, watching.”

  “Only pity. Is that what you mean? At least in what Stencil read. Read into. How can he—”

  “More a passiveness. The characteristic stillness, perhaps, of the rock. Inertia. I’d come back—no, in—come in to the rock as far as I would.”

  Stencil brightened after a while and changed course. “A token. Comb, shoe, glass eye. The children.”

  “I wasn’t watching the children. I was watching your V. What I did see of the children—I recognized none of the faces. No. They may have died before the war ended or emigrated after it. Try Australia. Try the pawnbrokers and curio shops. But as for placing a notice in the agony column: ‘Anyone participating in the disassembly of a priest—’ ”

  “Please.”

  Next day, and for days after, he investigated the inventories of curio merchants, pawnbrokers, ragmen. He returned one morning to find Paola brewing tea on the ring for Profane, who lay bundled up in bed.

  “Fever,” she said. “Too much booze, too much everything back in New York. He hasn’t been eating much since we arrived. God knows where he does eat. What the water there is like.”

  “I’ll recover,” Profane croaked. “Tough shit, Stencil.”

  “He says you’re down on him.”

  “O God,” said Stencil.

  The next day brought momentary encouragement to Stencil. A shopowner named Cassar did know of an eye such as Stencil described. The girl lived in Valletta, her husband was an auto mechanic at the garage which cared for Cassar’s Morris. He had tried every device he knew to purchase the eye, but the foolish girl would not part with it. A keepsake, she said.

  She lived in a tenement. Stucco walls, a row of balconies on the top floor. Light that afternoon produced a “burn” between whites and blacks: fuzzy edges, blurrings. White was too white, black too black. Stencil’s eyes hurt. Colors were nearly absent, leaning either to white or black.

  “I threw it into the sea.” Hands on hips, defiant. He smiled uncertainly. Where had Sidney’s charm fled? Under the same sea, back to its owner. Light angling through the window fell across a bowl of fruit—oranges, limes—bleaching them and throwing the bowl’s interior to black shadow. Something was wrong with the light. Stencil felt tired, unable to pursue it further—not just now—wanting only to leave. He left.

  Profane sat in a worn flowered robe of Fausto Maijstral’s, looking ghastly, chewing on the stump of an old cigar. He glared at Stencil. Stencil ignored him: threw himself on the bed and slept soundly for twelve hours.

  He awoke at four in the morning and walked through a sea-phosphorescence to Maijstral’s. Dawn leaked in, turning the illumination conventional. Alo
ng a mudway and up twenty steps. A light burned.

  Maijstral was asleep at his table. “Don’t haunt me, Stencil,” he mumbled, still dreamy and belligerent.

  “Stencil is passing on the discomfort of being haunted,” Stencil shivered.

  They huddled over tea in chipped cups.

  “She cannot be dead,” Stencil said.

  “One feels her in the city,” he cried.

  “In the city.”

  “In the light. It has to do with the light.”

  “If the soul,” Maijstral ventured, “is light. Is it a presence?”

  “Damn the word. Stencil’s father, had he possessed imagination, might have used it.” Stencil’s eyebrows puckered, as if he would cry. He weaved irritably in his seat, blinked, fumbled for his pipe. He’d left it at the lodging-house. Maijstral tapped across a pack of Players.

  Lighting up: “Maijstral. Stencil expresses himself like an idiot.”

  “But your search fascinates me.”

  “Did you know, he’s devised a prayer. Walking about this city, to be said in rhythm to his footsteps. Fortune, may Stencil be steady enough not to fasten on one of these poor ruins at his own random or at any least hint from Maijstral. Let him not roam out all Gothic some night with lantern and shovel to exhume an hallucination, and be found by the authorities mud-streaked and mad, and tossing meaningless clay about.”

  “Come, come,” muttered Maijstral. “I feel uncomfortable enough, being in this position.”

  Stencil drew in his breath too loudly.

  “No I am not beginning to requestion. That is long done.”

  Beginning then Maijstral took up the study of Stencil more closely. Though suspending judgment. He’d aged enough to know the written apologia would only be a first step in exorcising the sense of sin that had hung with him since ’43. But this V. was surely more than a sense of sin?

  Mounting crisis in the Suez, Hungary and Poland hardly touched them. Maijstral, leery like any Maltese of the Balloon’s least bobbing, was grateful for something else—Stencil—to take his mind off the headlines. But Stencil himself, who seemed more unaware each day (under questioning) of what was happening in the rest of the world, reinforced Maijstral’s growing theory that V. was an obsession after all, and that such an obsession is a hothouse: constant temperature, windless, too crowded with parti-colored sports, unnatural blooms.

 

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