Wednesday, March 12, 2014
ए विसिट फ्रॉम द गून स्क्वाड (उपन्यास अंश)..
Late at night, when there’s nowhere left to go, we go to Alice’s house. Scotty drives his pickup, two of us squeezed in front with him, blasting bootleg tapes of the Stranglers, the Nuns, Negative Trend, the other two stuck in back where you freeze all year long, getting tossed in the actual air when Scotty tops the hills. Still, if it’s Bennie and me I hope for the back, so I can push against his shoulder in the cold, and hold him for a second when we hit a bump.
The first time we went to Sea Cliff, where Alice lives, she pointed up a hill at fog sneaking through the eucalyptus trees and said her old school was up there: an all-girls school where her little sisters go now. K through six you wear a green plaid jumper and brown shoes, after that a blue skirt and white sailor top, and you can pick your own shoes. Scotty goes, Can we see them? and Alice goes, My uniforms? but Scotty goes, No, your alleged sisters.
She leads the way upstairs, Scotty and Bennie right behind her. They’re both fascinated by Alice, but it’s Bennie who entirely loves her. And Alice loves Scotty, of course.
Bennie’s shoes are off, and I watch his brown heels sink into the white cotton-candy carpet, so thick it muffles every trace of us. Jocelyn and I come last. She leans close to me, and inside her whisper I smell cherry gum covering up the five hundred cigarettes we’ve smoked. I can’t smell the gin we drank from my dad’s hidden supply at the beginning of the night, pouring it into Coke cans so we can drink it on the street.
Jocelyn goes, Watch, Rhea. They’ll be blond, her sisters.
I go, According to?
Rich children are always blond, Jocelyn goes. It has to do with vitamins.
Believe me, I don’t mistake that for information. I know everyone Jocelyn knows.
The room is dark except for a pink night-light. I stop in the doorway and Bennie hangs back too, but the other three go crowding into the space between the beds. Alice’s little sisters are sleeping on their sides, covers tucked around their shoulders. One looks like Alice, with pale wavy hair, the other is dark, like Jocelyn. I’m afraid they’ll wake up and be scared of us in our dog collars and safety pins and shredded T-shirts. I think: We shouldn’t be here, Scotty shouldn’t have asked to come in, Alice shouldn’t have said yes, except she says yes to everything Scotty asks. I think: I want to lie down in one of those beds and go to sleep.
Ahem, I whisper to Jocelyn as we’re leaving the room. Dark hair.
She whispers back, Black sheep.
Nineteen eighty is almost here, thank God. The hippies are getting old, they blew their brains on acid and now they’re begging on street corners all over San Francisco. Their hair is tangled and their bare feet are thick and gray as shoes. We’re sick of them.
At school, we spend every free minute in the Pit. It’s not a pit in the strictly speaking sense; it’s a strip of pavement above the playing fields. We inherited it from last year’s Pitters who graduated, but still we get nervous walking in if other Pitters are already there: Tatum, who wears a different color Danskin every day, or Wayne, who grows sinsemilla in his actual closet, or Boomer, who’s always hugging everyone since his family did EST. I’m nervous walking in unless Jocelyn is already there, or (for her) me. We stand in for each other.
On warm days, Scotty plays his guitar. Not the electric he uses for Flaming Dildos gigs, but a lap steel guitar that you hold a different way. Scotty actually built this instrument: bent the wood, glued it, painted on the shellac. Everyone gathers around, there’s no way not to when Scotty plays. One time the entire J.V. soccer team climbed up from the athletic field to listen, looking around in their jerseys and long red socks like they didn’t know how they got there. Scotty is magnetic. And I say this as someone who does not love him.
The Flaming Dildos have had a lot of names: the Crabs, the Croks, the Crimps, the Crunch, the Scrunch, the Gawks, the Gobs, the Flaming Spiders, the Black Widows. Every time Scotty and Bennie change the name, Scotty sprays black over his guitar case and Bennie’s bass case, and then he makes a stencil of the new name and sprays it on. We don’t know how they decide if they should keep a name, because Bennie and Scotty don’t actually talk. But they agree on everything, maybe through ESP. Jocelyn and I write all the lyrics and work out the tunes with Bennie and Scotty. We sing with them in rehearsal, but we don’t like being onstage. Alice doesn’t either—the only thing we have in common with her.
Bennie transferred last year from a high school in Daly City. We don’t know where he lives, but some days we visit him after school at Revolver Records, on Clement, where he works. If Alice comes with us, Bennie will take his break and share a pork bun in the Chinese bakery next door, while the fog gallops past the windows. Bennie has light brown skin and excellent eyes, and he irons his hair in a Mohawk as shiny black as a virgin record. He’s usually looking at Alice, so I can watch him as much as I want.
Down the path from the Pit is where the cholos hang out, with their black leather coats and clicky shoes and dark hair in almost invisible nets. Sometimes they talk to Bennie in Spanish, and he smiles at them but never answers. Why do they keep speaking Spanish to him? I go to Jocelyn, and she looks at me and goes, Rhea, Bennie’s a cholo. Isn’t that obvious?
That’s factually crazy, I go, and my face is getting hot. He has a Mohawk. And he’s not even friends with them.
Jocelyn goes, Not all cholos are friends. Then she says, The good news is, rich girls won’t go with cholos. So he’ll never get Alice, period-the-end.
Jocelyn knows I’m waiting for Bennie. But Bennie is waiting for Alice, who’s waiting for Scotty, who’s waiting for Jocelyn, who’s known Scotty the longest and makes him feel safe, I think, because even though Scotty is magnetic, with bleached hair and a studly chest that he likes to uncover when it’s sunny out, his mother died three years ago from sleeping pills. Scotty’s been quieter since then, and in cold weather he shivers like someone is shaking him.
Jocelyn loves Scotty back, but she isn’t in love with him. Jocelyn is waiting for Lou, an adult man who picked her up hitchhiking. Lou lives in LA, but he said he would call the next time he comes to San Francisco. That was weeks ago.
No one is waiting for me. In this story, I’m the girl no one is waiting for. Usually the girl is fat, but my problem is more rare, which is freckles: I look like someone threw handfuls of mud at my face. When I was little, my mom told me they were special. Thank God I’ll be able to remove them, when
I’m old enough and can pay for it myself. Until that time I have my dog collar and green rinse, because how can anyone call me “the girl with freckles” when my hair is green?
Jocelyn has chopped black hair that looks permanently wet, and twelve ear piercings that I gave her with a pointed earring, not using ice. She has a beautiful half-Chinese face. It makes a difference.
Jocelyn and I have done everything together since fourth grade: hopscotch, jump rope, charm bracelets, buried treasure, Harriet the Spying, blood sisters, crank calls, pot, coke, quaaludes. She’s seen my dad puking into the hedge outside our building, and I was with her on Polk Street the night she recognized one of the leather boys hugging outside the White Swallow and it was her dad, who was on a “business trip,” before he moved away. So I still can’t believe I missed the day she met the man, Lou. She was hitchhiking home from downtown and he pulled up in a red Mercedes and drove her to an apartment he uses on his trips to San Francisco. He unscrewed the bottom of a can of Right Guard, and a Baggie of cocaine dropped out. Lou did some lines off Jocelyn’s bare butt and they went all the way twice, not including when she went down on him. I made Jocelyn repeat each detail of this story until I knew everything she knew, so we could be equal again.
Lou is a music producer who knows Bill Graham personally. There were gold and silver record albums on his walls and a thousand electric guitars.
The Flaming Dildos rehearsal is on Saturday, in Scotty’s garage. When Jocelyn and I get there, Alice is setting up the new tape recorder her stepfather bought her, with a real microphone. She’s one of those girls that like machines—another reason for Bennie to love her. Joel, the Dildos’ steady drummer, comes next, driven by his dad, who waits outside in his station wagon for the whole practice, reading World War II books. Joel is AP everything and he’s applied to Harvard, so I guess his dad isn’t taking any chances.
Where we live, in the Sunset, the ocean is always just over your shoulder and the houses have Easter-egg colors. But the second Scotty lets the garage door slam down, we’re suddenly enraged, all of us. Bennie’s bass snickers to life, and pretty soon we’re screaming out the songs, which have titles like “Pet Rock,” and “Do the Math,” and “Pass Me the Kool-Aid,” but when we holler them aloud in Scotty’s garage the lyrics might as well be: fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Every once in a while a kid from Band and Orchestra pounds on the garage door to try out (invited by Bennie), and every time Scotty ropes up the door we glare out at the bright day shaking its head at us.
Today we try a sax, a tuba, and a banjo, but sax and banjo keep hogging the stage, and tuba covers her ears as soon as we start to play. Practice is almost over when there’s another banging on the garage door and Scotty pulls it up. An enormous pimpled kid in an AC/DC T-shirt is standing there, holding a violin case. He goes, I’m looking for Bennie Salazar?
Jocelyn and Alice and I stare at one another in shock, which feels for a second like we’re all three friends, like Alice is part of us.
“Hey guy,” Bennie says. “Good timing. Everybody, this is Marty.”
Even smiling, there’s no hope for Marty’s face. But I’m worried he might think the same of me, so I don’t smile back.
Marty plugs in his violin and we launch into our best song, “What the Fuck?”:
You said you were a fairy princess
You said you were a shooting star
You said we’d go to Bora Bora
Now look at where the fuck we are…
Bora Bora was Alice’s idea—we’d never heard of it. While everyone howls out the chorus (What the fuck? / What the fuck? / What the fuck?), I watch Bennie listen, eyes closed, his Mohawk like a million antennas pricking up from his head. When the song ends, he opens his eyes and grins. “I hope you got that, Al,” he goes, and Alice rewinds the tape to make sure.
Alice takes all our tapes and turns them into one top tape, and Bennie and Scotty drive from club to club, trying to get people to book the Flaming Dildos for a gig. Our big hope is the Mab, of course: the Mabuhay Gardens, on Broadway, where all the punk bands play. Scotty waits in the truck while Bennie deals with the rude assholes inside the clubs. We have to be careful with Scotty. In fifth grade, the first time his mom went away, he sat all day on the patch of grass outside his house and stared at the sun. He refused to go to school or come in. His dad sat with him trying to cover his eyes, and after school, Jocelyn came and sat there, too. Now there are permanent gray smudges in Scotty’s vision. He says he likes them—actually, what he says is: “I consider them a visual enhancement.” We think they remind him of his mom.
We go to the Mab every Saturday night, after practice. We’ve heard Crime, the Avengers, the Germs, and a trillion other bands. The bar is too expensive, so we drink from my dad’s supply ahead of time. Jocelyn needs to drink more than me to get buzzed, and when she feels the booze hit she takes a long breath, like finally she’s herself again.
In the Mab’s graffiti-splattered bathroom we eavesdrop: Ricky Sleeper fell off the stage at a gig, Joe Rees of Target Video is making an entire movie of punk rock, two sisters we always see at the club have started turning tricks to pay for heroin. Knowing all this makes us one step closer to being real, but not completely. When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know if it’s happened?
During the shows we slam-dance in front of the stage. We tussle and push and get knocked down and pulled back up until our sweat is mixed up with real punks’ sweat and our skin has touched their skin. Bennie does less of this. I think he actually listens to the music.
One thing I’ve noticed: no punk rockers have freckles. They don’t exist.
One night, Jocelyn answers her phone and it’s Lou going, Hello beautiful. He’s been calling for days and days, he goes, but the phone just rings. Why not try calling at night? I ask when Jocelyn repeats this.
That Saturday, after rehearsal, she goes out with Lou instead of us. We go to the Mab, then back to Alice’s house. By now we treat the place like we own it: we eat the yogurts her mom makes in glass cups on a warming machine, we lie on the living room couch with our sock feet on the armrests. One night her mom made us hot chocolate and brought it into the living room on a gold tray. She had big tired eyes and tendons moving in her neck. Jocelyn whispered in my ear, Rich people like to hostess, so they can show off their nice stuff.
Tonight, without Jocelyn here, I ask Alice if she still has those school uniforms she mentioned long ago. She looks surprised. Yeah, she goes. I do.
I follow her up the fluffy stairs to her actual room, which I’ve never seen. It’s smaller than her sisters’ room, with blue shag carpeting and crisscross wallpaper in blue and white. Her bed is under a mountain of stuffed animals, which all turn out to be frogs: bright green, light green, Day-Glo green, some with stuffed flies attached to their tongues. Her bedside lamp is shaped like a frog, plus her pillow.
I go, I didn’t know you were into frogs, and Alice goes, How would you?
I haven’t really been alone with Alice before. She seems not as nice as when Jocelyn is around.
She opens her closet, stands on a chair, and pulls down a box with some uniforms inside: a green plaid one-piece from when she was little, a sailor suit two-piece from later on. I go, Which did you like better?
Neither, she goes. Who wants to wear a uniform?
I go, I would.
Is that a joke?
What kind of joke would it be?
The kind where you and Jocelyn laugh about how you made a joke and I didn’t get it.
My throat turns very dry. I go, I won’t. Laugh with Jocelyn.
Alice shrugs. Ask me if I care, she goes.
We sit on her rug, the uniforms across our knees. Alice wears ripped jeans and drippy black eye makeup, but her hair is long and gold. She isn’t a real punk, either.
After a while I go, Why do your parents let us come here?
They’re not my parents. They’re my mother and stepfather.
They want to keep an eye on you, I guess.
The foghorns are extra loud in Sea Cliff, like we’re alone on a ship sailing through the thickest fog. I hug my knees, wishing so much that Jocelyn was with us.
Are they right now? I go, softly. Keeping an eye?
Alice takes a huge breath and lets it back out. No, she goes. They’re asleep.
Marty the violinist isn’t even in high school—he’s a sophomore at SF State, where Jocelyn and I and Scotty (if he passes Algebra II) are headed next year. Jocelyn goes to Bennie, The shit will hit the fan if you put that dork onstage.
I guess we’ll find out, Bennie goes, and he looks at his watch like he’s thinking. In two weeks and four days and six hours and I’m-not-sure-how-many-minutes.
We stare at him, not comprehending. Then he tells us: Dirk Dirksen from the Mab gave him a call.
Jocelyn and I shriek and hug onto Bennie, which for me is like touching something electric, his actual body in my arms. I remember every hug I’ve given him. I learn one thing each time: how warm his skin is, how he has muscles like Scotty even though he never takes his shirt off. This time I find his heartbeat, which pushes my hand through his back.
Jocelyn goes, Who else knows?
Scotty, of course. Alice, too, but it’s only later that this bothers us.
I have cousins in Los Angeles, so Jocelyn calls Lou from our apartment, where the charge won’t stand out on the phone bill. I’m two inches away on my parents’ flowered bedspread while she dials the phone with a long black fingernail. I hear a man’s voice answer, and it shocks me that he’s real, Jocelyn didn’t make him up, even though I never supposed such a thing. He doesn’t go, Hey beautiful, though. He goes, I told you to let me call you.
Jocelyn goes, Sorry, in an empty little voice. I grab the phone and go, What kind of hello is that? Lou goes, Who the Christ am I talking to? and I tell him Rhea. Then he goes in a calmer voice, Nice to meet you, Rhea. Now, would you hand the phone back to Jocelyn?
This time she pulls the cord away. Lou seems to be doing most of the talking. After a minute or two, Jocelyn hisses at me, You have to leave. Go!
I walk out of my parents’ bedroom into our kitchen. There’s a fern hanging from the ceiling by a chain, dropping little brown leaves in the sink. The curtains have a pineapple pattern. My two brothers are on the balcony, grafting bean plants for my little brother’s science project. I go outside with them, the sun poking into my eyes. I try to force myself to look straight at it, like Scotty did.
After a while, Jocelyn comes out. Happiness is floating up from her hair and skin. Ask me if I care, I think.
Later she tells me Lou said yes: he’ll come to the Dildos gig at the Mab, and maybe he’ll give us a record contract. It’s not a promise, he warned her, but we’ll have a good time anyway, right, beautiful?
Don’t we always?
· · ·
The night of the concert, I come with Jocelyn to meet Lou for dinner at Vanessi’s, a restaurant on Broadway next door to Enrico’s, where tourists and rich people sit outside drinking Irish coffees and gawking at us when we walk by. We could have invited Alice, but Jocelyn goes, Her parents probably take her to Vanessi’s all the time. I go, You mean her mother and stepfather.
A man is sitting in a round corner booth, smiling teeth at us, and that man is Lou. He looks as old as my dad, meaning forty-three. He has shaggy blond hair, and his face is handsome, I guess, the way dads can sometimes be.
C’mere, beautiful, Lou actually does say, and he lifts an arm to Jocelyn. He’s wearing a light blue denim shirt and some kind of copper bracelet. She slides around the side of the table and fits right under his arm. Rhea, Lou goes, and lifts up his other arm for me, so instead of sliding in next to Jocelyn, like I was just about to do, I end up on Lou’s other side. His arm comes down around my shoulder. And like that, we’re Lou’s girls.
A week ago, I looked at the menu outside Vanessi’s and saw linguine with clams. All week long I’ve been planning to order that dish. Jocelyn picks the same, and after we order, Lou hands her something under the table. We both slide out of the booth and go to the ladies’ room. It’s a tiny brown bottle full of cocaine. There’s a miniature spoon attached to a chain, and Jocelyn heaps up the spoon two times for each nostril. She sniffs and makes a little sound and shuts her eyes. Then she fills the spoon again and holds it for me. By the time I walk back to the table I’ve got eyes blinking all over my head, seeing everything in the restaurant at once. Maybe the coke we did before wasn’t really coke. We sit down and tell Lou about a new band we’ve heard of called Flipper, and Lou tells us about being on a train in Africa that didn’t completely stop at the stations—it just slowed down so people could jump off or on. I go, I want to see Africa! and Lou goes, Maybe we’ll go together, the three of us, and it seems like this really might happen. He goes, The soil in the hills is so fertile it’s red, and I go, My brothers are grafting bean plants, but the soil is just regular brown soil, and Jocelyn goes,
What about the mosquitoes? and Lou goes, I’ve never seen a blacker sky or a brighter moon, and I realize that I’m beginning my adult life right now, on this night.
When the waiter brings my linguine and clams I can’t take one bite. Only Lou eats: an almost-raw steak, a Caesar salad, red wine. He’s one of those people who never stops moving. Three times strangers come to our table to say hello to Lou, but he doesn’t introduce us. We talk and talk while our food gets cold, and when Lou finishes eating, we leave Vanessi’s.
On Broadway he keeps an arm around each of us. We pass the usual things: the scuzzy guy in a fez trying to lure people inside the Casbah, the strippers lounging in doorways of the Condor and Big Al’s. Punk rockers rove in laughing, shoving packs. Traffic pushes along Broadway, people honking and waving from their cars like we’re all at one gigantic party. With my thousand eyes it looks different, like I’m a different person seeing it. I think, After my freckles are gone, my whole life will be like this.
The door guy at the Mab recognizes Lou and whisks us past the snaking line of people waiting for the Cramps and the Mutants, who are playing later on. Inside, Bennie and Scotty and Joel are onstage setting up with Alice. Jocelyn and I put on our dog collars and safety pins in the bathroom. When we come back out, Lou’s already introducing himself to the band. Bennie shakes Lou’s hand and goes, It’s an honor, sir.
After the usual sarcastic introduction from Dirk Dirksen, the Flaming Dildos open with “Snake in the Grass.” No one is dancing or even really listening; they’re still coming into the club or killing time until the bands they came for start playing. Normally Jocelyn and I would be directly in front of the stage, but tonight we stand in back, leaning against a wall with Lou. He’s bought us both gin and tonics. I can’t tell if the Dildos sound good or bad, I can barely hear them, my heart is beating too hard and my thousand eyes are peering all over the room. According to the muscles on the side of Lou’s face, he’s grinding his teeth.
Marty comes on for the next number, but he spazzes out and drops his violin. The barely interested crowd gets just interested enough to yell some insults when he crouches to replug it with his plumber’s crack displaying. I can’t even look at Bennie, it matters so much.
When they start playing “Do the Math,” Lou yells in my ear, Whose idea was the violin?
I go, Bennie’s.
Kid on bass?
I nod, and Lou watches Bennie for a minute and I watch him too. Lou goes, Not much of a player.
But he’s—, I try to explain. The whole thing is his—
Something gets tossed at the stage that looks like glass, but when it hits Scotty’s face thank God it’s only ice from a drink. Scotty flinches but keeps on playing, and then a Budweiser can flies up and clips Marty right in the forehead. Jocelyn and I look at each other panicked, but when we try to move, Lou anchors us. The Dildos start playing “What the Fuck?” but now garbage is spewing at the stage, chucked by four guys with safety-pin chains connecting their nostrils to their earlobes. Every few seconds another drink strikes Scotty’s face. Finally he just plays with his eyes shut, and I wonder if he’s seeing the scar spots. Alice is trying to tackle the garbage throwers now, and suddenly people are slam-dancing hard, the kind of dancing that’s basically fighting. Joel clobbers his drums as Scotty tears off his dripping T-shirt and snaps it at one of the garbage throwers, right in the guy’s face with a twangy crack, and then at another one—snrack—like my brothers snapping bath towels, but sharper. The Scotty magnet is starting to work—people watch his bare muscles shining with sweat and beer. Then one of the garbage throwers tries to storm the stage, but Scotty kicks him in the chest with the flat of his boot—there’s a kind of gasp from the crowd as the guy flies back. Scotty’s smiling now, grinning like I almost never see him grin, wolf teeth flashing, and I realize that, out of all of us, Scotty is the truly angry one.
I turn to Jocelyn, but she’s gone. Maybe my thousand eyes are what tell me to look down. I see Lou’s fingers spread out over her black hair. She’s kneeling in front of him, giving him head, like the music is a disguise and no one can see them. Maybe no one does. Lou’s other arm is around me, which I guess is why I don’t run, although I could, that’s the thing. But I stand there while Lou mashes Jocelyn’s head against himself again and again so I don’t know how she can breathe, until it starts to seem like she’s not even Jocelyn, but some kind of animal or machine that can’t be broken. I force myself to look at the band, Scotty snapping the wet shirt at people’s eyes and knocking them with his boot, Lou grasping my shoulder, squeezing it harder, turning his head to my neck and letting out a hot, stuttering groan I can hear even through the music. He’s that close. A sob cracks open in me. Tears leak out from my eyes, but only the two in my face. The other thousand eyes are closed.
The walls of Lou’s apartment are covered with electric guitars and gold and silver record albums, just like Jocelyn said. But she never mentioned that it was on the thirty-fifth floor, six blocks away from the
Mab, or the green marble slabs in the elevator. I think that was a lot to leave out.
In the kitchen, Jocelyn pours Fritos into a dish and takes a glass bowl of green apples out of the refrigerator. She’s already passed around quaaludes, offering one to every person except me. I think she’s afraid to look at me. Who’s the hostess now? I want to ask.
In the living room, Alice is sitting with Scotty, who wears a Pendleton shirt from Lou’s closet and looks white and shaky, maybe from having stuff thrown at him, maybe because he understands for real that Jocelyn has a boyfriend and it isn’t him, and never will be. Marty is there, too; he’s got a cut on his cheek and an almost-black eye and he keeps going, That was intense, to no one in particular. Joel got driven straight home, of course. Everyone agrees the gig went well.
When Lou leads Bennie up a curling staircase to his recording studio, I tag along. He calls Bennie “kiddo” and explains each machine in the room, which is small and warm with black foam points all over the walls. Lou’s legs move restlessly and he eats a green apple with loud cracks, like he’s gnawing rock. Bennie glances out the door toward the rail overlooking the living room, trying to get a glimpse of Alice. I keep being about to cry. I’m worried that what happened in the club counts as having sex with Lou—that I was part of it.
Finally I go back downstairs. Off the living room I notice a door partly open, a big bed just beyond it. I go in and lie facedown on a velvet bedspread. A peppery incense smell trickles up around me. The room is cool and dim, with pictures in frames on both sides of the bed. My whole body hurts. After a few minutes someone comes in and lies down next to me, and I know it’s Jocelyn. We don’t say anything, we just lie there side by side in the dark. Finally I go, You should’ve told me.
Told you what? she goes, but I don’t even know. Then she goes, There’s too much, and I feel like something is ending, right at that minute.
After a while, Jocelyn turns on a lamp by the bed. Look, she goes. She’s holding a framed picture of Lou in a swimming pool surrounded by kids, the two littlest ones almost babies. I count six. Jocelyn goes, They’re his children. That blond girl, everyone calls her Charlie, she’s twenty. Rolph, that one, he’s our age. They went to Africa with him.
I lean close to the picture. Lou looks so happy, surrounded by his kids like any normal dad, that I can’t believe this Lou with us is the very same Lou. Then I notice his son Rolph. He has blue eyes and black hair and a bright, sweet smile. I get a crawling feeling in my stomach. I go, Rolph is decent, and Jocelyn laughs and goes, Really. Then she goes, Don’t tell Lou I said that.
He comes into the bedroom a minute later, rock-crunching another apple. I realize the apples are completely for Lou, he eats them nonstop. I slide off the bed without looking at him, and he shuts the door behind me.
It takes me a second to get what’s going on in the living room. Scotty is sitting cross-legged, picking at a gold guitar in the shape of a flame. Alice is behind him with her arms around his neck, her face next to his, her hair falling into his lap. Her eyes are closed with joy. I forget who I actually am for a second—all I can think is how Bennie will feel when he sees this. I look around for him, but there’s just Marty peering at the albums on the wall, trying to be inconspicuous. And then I notice the music flooding out of every part of the apartment at once—the couch, the walls, even the floor—and I know Bennie’s alone in Lou’s studio, pouring music around us. A minute ago it was “Don’t Let Me Down.” Then it was Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Now it’s Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”:
I am the passenger
And I ride and I ride
I ride through the city’s backside
I see the stars come out of the sky
Listening, I think, You will never know how much I understand you.
I notice Marty looking over at me kind of hesitant, and I see how this is supposed to work: I’m the dog, so I get Marty. I slide open a glass door and go onto Lou’s balcony. I’ve never seen San Francisco from so high up: it’s a soft blue-black, with colored lights and fog like gray smoke. Long piers reach out into the flat dark bay. There’s a mean wind, so I run in for my jacket and then come back out and curl up tightly on a white plastic chair. I stare at that view until I start to get calm. I think, The world is actually huge. That’s the part no one can really explain.
After a while the door slides open. I don’t look up, thinking it’s Marty, but it turns out to be Lou. He’s barefoot, wearing shorts. His legs are tan even in the dark. I go, Where’s Jocelyn?
Asleep, Lou goes. He’s standing at the railing, looking out. It’s the first time I’ve seen him be still.
I go, Do you even remember being our age?
Lou grins at me in my chair, but it’s a copy of the grin he had at dinner. I am your age, he goes.
Ahem, I go. You have six kids.
So I do, he goes. He turns his back, waiting for me to disappear. I think, I didn’t have sex with this man.
I don’t even know him. Then he goes, I’ll never get old.
You’re already old, I tell him.
He swivels around and peers at me huddled in my chair. You’re scary, he goes. You know that?
It’s the freckles, I go.
It’s not the freckles, it’s you. He keeps looking at me, and then something shifts in his face and he goes,
I like it.
I do. You’re gonna keep me honest, Rhea.
I’m surprised he remembers my name. I go, It’s too late for that, Lou.
Now he laughs, really laughs, and I understand that we’re friends, Lou and I. Even if I hate him, which I do. I get out of my chair and come to the railing, where he is.
People will try to change you, Rhea, Lou goes. Don’t let ’em.
But I want to change.
No, he goes, serious. You’re beautiful. Stay like this.
But the freckles, I go, and my throat gets that ache.
The freckles are the best part, Lou says. Some guy is going to go apeshit for those freckles. He’s going to kiss them one by one.
I start to cry, I don’t even hide it.
Hey, Lou goes. He leans down so our faces are together, and stares straight into my eyes. He looks tired, like someone walked on his skin and left footprints. He goes, The world is full of shitheads, Rhea. Don’t listen to them—listen to me.
And I know that Lou is one of those shitheads. But I listen.
Two weeks after that night, Jocelyn runs away. I find out with everyone else.
Her mother comes straight to our apartment. She and my parents and older brother sit me down: What do I know? Who is this new boyfriend? I tell them Lou. He lives in LA and has six children. He knows Bill Graham personally. I think Bennie might know who Lou actually is, so Jocelyn’s mom comes to our school to talk with Bennie Salazar. But he’s hard to find. Now that Alice and Scotty are together, Bennie has stopped coming to the Pit. He and Scotty still don’t talk, but before they were like one person. Now it’s like they’ve never met.
I can’t stop wondering: If I’d pulled away from Lou and fought the garbage throwers, would Bennie have settled for me like Scotty settled for Alice? Could that one thing have made all the difference?
They track down Lou in a matter of days. He tells Jocelyn’s mom that she hitchhiked all the way to his house without even warning him. He says she’s safe, he’s taking care of her, it’s better than having her on the street. Lou promises to bring her back when he comes to the city next week. Why not this week? I wonder.
While I’m waiting for Jocelyn, Alice invites me over. We take the bus from school, a long ride to Sea Cliff. Her house looks smaller in daylight. In the kitchen, we mix honey with her mother’s homemade yogurts and eat two each. We go up to her room, where all the frogs are, and sit on her built-in window seat. Alice tells me she’s planning to get real frogs and keep them in a terrarium. She’s calm and happy now that Scotty loves her. I can’t tell if she’s actually real, or if she’s stopped caring if she’s real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?
I wonder if Lou’s house is near the ocean. Does Jocelyn look at the waves? Do they ever leave Lou’s bedroom? Is Rolph there? I keep getting lost in these questions. Then I hear giggling, pounding from somewhere. I go, Who’s that?
My sisters, Alice goes. They’re playing tetherball.
We head downstairs and outside into Alice’s backyard, where I’ve only been in the dark. It’s sunny now, with flowers in patterns and a tree with lemons on it. At the edge of the yard, two little girls are slapping a bright yellow ball around a silver pole. They turn to us, laughing in their green uniforms.
It’s all still there: the pool with its blue and yellow tiles from Portugal, water laughing softly down a black stone wall. The house is the same, except quiet. The quiet makes no sense. Nerve gas? Overdoses? Mass arrests? I wonder as we follow a maid through a curve of carpeted rooms, the pool blinking at us past every window. What else could have stopped the unstoppable parties?
But it’s nothing like that. Twenty years have passed.
He’s in the bedroom, in a hospital bed, tubes up his nose. The second stroke really knocked him out—the first one wasn’t so bad, just one of his legs was a little shaky. That’s what Bennie told me on the phone. Bennie from high school, our old friend. Lou’s protégé. He tracked me down at my mother’s, even though she left San Francisco years ago and followed me to LA. Bennie the organizer, rounding up people from the old days to say good-bye to Lou. It seems you can find almost anyone on a computer. He found Rhea all the way in Seattle, with a different last name.
Of our old gang, only Scotty has disappeared. No computer can find him.
Rhea and I stand by Lou’s bed, unsure what to do. We know him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying.
There were clues, hints about some bad alternative to being alive (we remembered them together over coffee, Rhea and I, before coming to see him—staring at each other’s new faces across the plastic table, our familiar features rinsed in weird adulthood). There was Scotty’s mom, of course, who died from pills when we were still in high school, but she wasn’t normal. My father, from AIDS, but I hardly saw him by then. Anyway, those were catastrophes. Not like this: prescriptions by the bed, a leaden smell of medicine and vacuumed carpet. It reminds me of being in the hospital. Not the smell, exactly (the hospital doesn’t have carpets), but the dead air, the feeling of being far away from everything.
We stand there, quiet. My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit? When did you stop having parties? Did everyone else get old too, or was it just you? Are other people still here, hiding in the palm trees or holding their breath underwater? When did you last swim your laps? Do your bones hurt? Did you know this was coming and hide that you knew, or did it ambush you from behind?
Instead I say, “Hi Lou,” and at the very same time, Rhea says, “Wow, everything is just the same!” and we both laugh.
Lou smiles, and the shape of that smile, even with the yellow shocked teeth inside it, is familiar, a warm finger poking at my gut. His smile, coming open in this strange place.
“You girls. Still look gorgeous,” he gasps.
He’s lying. I’m forty-three and so is Rhea, married with three children in Seattle. I can’t get over that: three. I’m back at my mother’s again, trying to finish my B.A. at UCLA Extension after some long, confusing detours. “Your desultory twenties,” my mother calls my lost time, trying to make it sound reasonable and fun, but it started before I was twenty and lasted much longer. I’m praying it’s over. Some mornings, the sun looks wrong outside my window. I sit at the kitchen table shaking salt into the hairs on my arm, and a feeling shoves up in me: It’s finished. Everything went past, without me. Those days I know not to close my eyes for too long, or the fun will really start.
“Oh Lou, we’re two old bags—admit it,” Rhea says, swatting at his frail shoulder.
She shows him the pictures of her kids, holding them close to his face.
“She’s cute,” he says about the oldest, Nadine, who is sixteen. I think he winks, or maybe it’s his eye twitching.
“Cut it out, you,” Rhea says.
I don’t say anything. I feel it—the finger—again. In my stomach.
“What about your kids?” Rhea asks Lou. “You see them much?”
“Some,” he says, in his strangled new voice.
He had six, from three marriages he bored through and then kicked away. Rolph, the second oldest, was his favorite. Rolph lived here, in this house, a gentle boy with blue eyes that broke a little whenever he stared down his father. Rolph and I were the same age, exactly. Same birthday, same year. I used to imagine us, tiny babies in different hospitals, crying at the same time. We stood naked once, side by side in a full-length mirror, trying to see if being born the same day had left a clue on us. Some mark we could find.
By the end, Rolph wouldn’t speak to me, would walk out of a room when I came in it.
Lou’s big bed with the crushed purple spread is gone—thank God. The TV is new, flat and long, and its basketball game has a nervous sharpness that makes the room and even us look smudged. A guy comes in dressed in black, a diamond in his ear, and he fiddles with Lou’s tubes and takes his blood pressure. From under the covers, tubes twirl from other parts of Lou into clear plastic bags I try not to look at.
A dog barks. Lou’s eyes are shut, and he snores. The stylish nurse-butler checks his wristwatch and leaves.
So this is it—what cost me all that time. A man who turned out to be old, a house that turned out to be empty. I can’t help it, I start to cry. Rhea puts her arms around me. Even after all the years, she doesn’t hesitate. Her skin hangs loose—freckled skin ages prematurely, Lou told me once, and Rhea is all freckles. “Our friend Rhea,” he said, “she’s doomed.”
“You have three children,” I sob into her hair.
“What do I have?”
Kids I remember from high school are making movies, making computers. Making movies on computers. A revolution, I keep hearing people say. I’m trying to learn Spanish. At night, my mother tests me with flash cards.
Three children. The oldest, Nadine, is almost my age when I met Lou. Seventeen, hitchhiking. He was driving a red Mercedes. In 1979, that could be the beginning of an exciting story, a story where anything might happen. Now it’s a punch line. “It was all for no reason,” I say.
“That’s never true,” Rhea says. “You just haven’t found the reason yet.”
The whole time, Rhea knew what she was doing. Even dancing, even sobbing. Even with a needle in her vein, she was half pretending. Not me.
“I got lost,” I say.
It’s turning out to be a bad day, a day when the sun feels like teeth. Tonight, when my mother comes home from work and sees me, she’ll say, “Forget the Spanish,” and fix us Virgin Marys with little umbrellas. With
Dave Brubeck on the stereo, we’ll play dominoes or gin rummy. When I look at my mother she gives me a smile, each time. But exhaustion has carved up her face.
The silence takes on a kind of intelligence, and we see Lou watching us. His eyes are so vacant, I think he might be dead. “Haven’t been. Outside. In weeks,” he says, coughing a little. “Haven’t wanted to.”
Rhea pushes the bed. I come a step behind, pulling the IV drip on its wheels. As we move him through the house, I feel dread, as if the combination of sunlight and hospital bed could cause an explosion. I’m afraid the real Lou will be outside by the pool where he lived with a red phone on a long cord and a bowl of green apples, and the real Lou and this old Lou will have a fight. How dare you? I’ve never had an old person in my house and I’m not going to start now. Age, ugliness—they had no place. They would never get in from outside.
“There,” he says, meaning by the pool, like always.
There’s still a phone: a black remote on a small glass table, a fruit shake next to it. The nurse-butler or some other employee, spreading his wings on the empty grounds.
Or Rolph? Could Rolph still be here, taking care of his dad? Rolph in the house? And I feel him, then, exactly like before, when I could tell if he’d walked in a room without having to look. Just by how the air moved. Once, we hid behind the pool house after a concert, Lou yelling for me, “Joc-elyn! Joc-elyn!” Rolph and I giggling while the generator droned in our chests. Later I thought: My first kiss. Which was crazy. Everything I would ever do, I’d done by then.
In the mirror, Rolph’s chest was smooth. There was no mark. The mark was everywhere. The mark was youth.
And when it happened, in Rolph’s tiny bedroom, sun sneaking through the shades in stripes, I pretended it was new. He looked inside my eyes, and I felt how normal I could still be. We were smooth, both of us.
“Where’s that. Thing,” Lou asks, meaning the button pad to tilt the bed. He wants to sit up and look out like he used to, in his red bathing suit, tanned legs smelling of chlorine. The phone in his hand and me between his legs, his palm on my head. The birds must have chirped then, too, but we didn’t hear them over the music. Or are there more birds now?
The bed whines as it hoists him up. He looks out, eyes reaching. “I got old,” he says.
The dog is barking again. The water sways in the pool, as if someone has just gotten in, or out.
“What about Rolph?” I ask, my first words since “Hi.”
“Rolph,” Lou says, and blinks.
“Your son? Rolph?”
Rhea shakes her head at me—my voice is too loud. I feel a kind of anger that fills up my head sometimes and rubs out my thoughts like chalk. Who is this old man dying in front of me? I want the other one, the selfish, devouring man, the one who turned me around between his legs out here in the wide open, pushing the back of my head with his free hand while he laughed into the phone. Not caring that every room in the house faced this pool—his son’s, for example. I have a thing or two to say to that one.
Lou is trying to speak. We lean close, listening. Habit, I guess.
“Rolph didn’t make it,” he says.
“What are you talking about?” I say.
Now the old man is crying. Tears leak down his face.
“What’s the point, Jocelyn?” Rhea asks me, and in that second, different parts of my brain find each other, and I realize that I already knew about Rolph. And Rhea knew—everyone knew. An old tragedy.
“He was. Twenty-eight,” Lou says.
I shut my eyes.
“Long time ago,” he says, the words splitting in his wheezy chest. “But.”
Yes, it was. Twenty-eight was a long time ago. The sun hurts my eyes, so I keep them shut.
“Losing a child,” Rhea murmurs. “I can’t imagine it.”
The anger squeezes, it mashes me from inside. My arms ache. I reach underneath Lou’s hospital bed, I heave it up and over so he slides into the turquoise pool and the IV needle tears out of his arm, blood spinning after it, feathering in the water and turning a kind of yellow. I’m that strong, even after so much. I jump in after him, Rhea shrieking now, I jump in and I hold him down, lock his head between my kneecaps and hold him there until everything goes soft and we’re just waiting, Lou and I are waiting, and then he shakes, flailing between my legs, jerking as the life goes out of him. When he’s absolutely still, I let him float to the top.
I open my eyes. No one has moved. Lou is still crying, searching the pool with his blank eyes. Through the sheet, Rhea is touching his chest.
It’s a bad day. The sun hurts my head.
“I should kill you,” I say, looking at him straight. “You deserve to die.”
“Enough,” Rhea says, with her sharp mother’s voice.
Suddenly, Lou looks in my eyes. It feels like the first time all day. Finally I can see him, that man who said, You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, and We’ll see the whole goddamn world, and How come I need you so much? And Looking for a ride, kiddo? Grinning in the hard sun, puddles of it on his bright red car. Just tell me where.
He looks scared, but he smiles. The old smile, back again. “Too late,” he says.
Too late. I tilt my head at the roof. Rolph and I sat up there a whole night once, spying down on a party Lou was having for one of his bands. Even after the noise stopped, we stayed, our backs on the cool tiles. We were waiting for the sun. It came up fast, small and bright and round. “Like a baby,” Rolph said, and I started to cry. This fragile new sun in our arms.
Every night, my mother ticks off another day I’ve been clean. It’s more than a year, my longest yet.
“Jocelyn, you’ve got so much life in front of you,” she says. And when I believe her, for a minute, there’s a lifting over my eyes. Like walking out of a dark room.
Lou is speaking again. Trying to speak. “Stand on each side. Of me. Would you, girls?”
Rhea holds his hand, and I take the other one. It’s not the same hand as before, it is bulbous and dry and heavy. Rhea and I look at each other across him. We’re there, the three of us, like before. We’re back to the beginning.
He’s stopped crying. He’s looking at his world. The pool, the tiles. We never did get to Africa, or anywhere. We barely left this house.
“Nice to be. With you girls,” he says, fighting to breathe.
Clutching our hands, as if we might flee. But we don’t. We look at the pool and we listen to the birds.
“Another minute,” he says. “Thank you, girls. One more. Like this.”
X’s and O’s
Here’s how it started: I was sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park reading a copy of Spin I’d swiped from Hudson News, observing East Village females crossing the park on their way home from work and wondering (as I often did) how my ex-wife had managed to populate New York with thousands of women who looked nothing like her but still brought her to mind, when I made a discovery: my old friend Bennie Salazar was a record producer! It was right in Spin magazine, a whole article about Bennie and how he’d made his name on a group called the Conduits that went multiplatinum three or four years ago. There was a picture of Bennie receiving some kind of award, looking out of breath and a little cross-eyed—one of those frozen, hectic instants you just know has a whole happy life attached. I looked at the picture for less than a second; then I closed the magazine. I decided not to think about Bennie. There’s a fine line between thinking about somebody and thinking about not thinking about somebody, but I have the patience and the self-control to walk that line for hours—days, if I have to.
After one week of not thinking about Bennie—thinking so much about not thinking about Bennie that there was barely room left in my brain for thoughts of any other kind—I decided to write him a letter. I addressed it to his record label, which turned out to be inside a green glass building on Park Avenue and Fifty-second Street. I took the subway up there and stood outside the building with my head back, looking up, up, wondering how high Bennie’s office might possibly be. I kept my eyes on the building as I dropped the letter into the mailbox directly in front of it. Hey Benjo, I’d written (that was what I used to call him). Long time no see. I hear you’re the man, now. Congrats. Couldn’t have happened to a luckier guy. Best wishes, Scotty Hausmann.
He wrote back! His letter arrived in my dented East Sixth Street mailbox about five days later, typed, which I guess meant a secretary had done it, but I could tell it was Bennie all right: Scotty baby—Hey thanks for the note. Where have you been hiding yourself? I still think of the Dildo days sometimes. Hope you’re playing that slide guitar. Yours, Bennie, with his little wiggly signature above the typed name.
Bennie’s letter had quite an effect on me. Things had gotten—what’s the word? Dry. Things had gotten sort of dry for me. I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all.
I happened to have the next day off—the day after Bennie’s letter came—so I went to the East River early that morning and fished. I did this all the time, and I ate the fish, too. Pollution was present, yes, but the beauty of it was that you knew all about that pollution, unlike the many poisons you consumed each day in ignorance. I fished, and God must’ve been on my side, or maybe it was Bennie’s good luck rubbing off on me, because I pulled from the river my best catch of all time: an enormous striped bass! My fishing pals, Sammy and Dave, were shocked to see me catch this superb fish. I stunned it, wrapped it in newspaper, bagged it, and carried it home under my arm. I put on the closest thing I had to a suit: khaki pants and a jacket that I dry-cleaned a lot. The week before, I’d taken it to the cleaners still in its dry-cleaning bag, which caused a breakdown in the gal behind the counter—“Why you clean? You already clean, bag not open, you waste your money.” I know I’m getting off the subject here, but let me just say that I whipped my jacket out of its plastic bag with such force that she went quiet, and I laid it carefully on the dry-cleaning counter. “Merci por vous consideración, madame,” I said, and she accepted the garment without another word. Suffice it to say that the jacket I put on that morning to visit Bennie Salazar was one clean jacket.
Bennie’s building looked like a place where they could implement tough security checks if they needed to, but that day I guess they didn’t need to. More of Bennie’s good luck flowing down on me like honey. Not that my luck was generally so bad—I would have called it neutral, occasionally edging toward bad. For example, I caught fewer fish than Sammy, though I fished more often and had the better rod. But if it was Bennie’s good luck I was getting that day, did that mean my good luck was also his good luck? That my visiting him unexpectedly was good luck for him? Or had I somehow managed to divert his luck and siphon it away for a time, leaving him without any luck that day? And, if I had managed to do the latter, how had I done it, and (most important) how could I do it forever?
I checked the directory, saw that Sow’s Ear Records was on forty-five, took the elevator up there, and breezed through a pair of beige glass doors into a waiting room, which was very swank. The decor reminded me of a seventies bachelor pad: black leather couches, thick shag rug, heavy glass-and-chrome tables covered with Vibe and Rolling Stone and the like. Carefully dim lighting. This last was a must, I knew, so musicians could wait there without putting their bloodshot eyes and track marks on display.
I slapped my fish on the marble reception desk. It made a good hard wet thwack—I swear to God, it sounded like nothing so much as a fish. She (reddish hair, green eyes, flower petal mouth, the sort of chick who makes you want to lean over and say to her oh so sweetly, You must be really intelligent; how else would you have gotten this job?) looked up and said, “Hi there.”
“I’m here to see Bennie,” I said. “Bennie Salazar.”
“Is he expecting you?”
“Not at this moment.”
She wore a headset that I realized, when she spoke into a tiny extension over her mouth, was actually a telephone. After she said my name, I caught a curl to her lips, like she was hiding a smile. “He’s in a meeting,” she told me. “But I can take a mess—”
I deposited my fish on the glass coffee table next to the magazines and settled into a black leather couch. Its cushions sighed out the most delicious smell of leather. A deep comfort seeped through me. I began to feel sleepy. I wanted to stay there forever, abandon my East Sixth Street apartment and live out the remainder of my life in Bennie’s waiting room.
True: it had been a while since I’d spent much time in public. But was such a fact even relevant in our “information age,” when you could scour planet Earth and the universe without ever leaving the green velvet couch you’d pulled from a garbage dump and made the focal point of your East Sixth Street apartment? I began each night by ordering Hunan string beans and washing them down with Jägermeister. It was amazing how many string beans I could eat: four orders, five orders, more sometimes. I could tell by the number of plastic packets of soy sauce and chopsticks included with my delivery that Fong Yu believed I was serving string beans to a party of eight or nine vegetarians. Does the chemical composition of Jägermeister cause a craving for string beans? Is there some property of string beans that becomes addictive on those rare occasions when they’re consumed with Jägermeister? I asked myself these questions as I shoveled string beans into my mouth, huge crunchy forkfuls, and watched TV—weird cable shows, most of which I couldn’t identify and didn’t watch much of. You might say I created my own show out of all those other shows, which I suspected was actually better than the shows themselves. In fact, I was sure of it.
Here was the bottom line: if we human beings are information processing machines, reading X’s and O’s and translating that information into what people oh so breathlessly call “experience,” and if I had access to all that same information via cable TV and any number of magazines that I browsed through at Hudson News for four-and five-hour stretches on my free days (my record was eight hours, including the half hour I spent manning the register during the lunch break of one of the younger employees, who thought I worked there)—if I had not only the information but the artistry to shape that information using the computer inside my brain (real computers scared me; if you can find Them, then They can find you, and I didn’t want to be found), then, technically speaking, was I not having all the same experiences those other people were having?
I tested my theory by standing outside the public library at Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street during a gala benefit for heart disease. I made this choice randomly: at closing time, as I was leaving the Periodicals Room, I noticed well-dressed individuals tossing white cloths over tables and carrying large orchid bouquets into the library’s grand entrance hall, and when I asked a blond gal with a notepad what was going on, she told me about the gala benefit for heart disease. I went home and ate my string beans, but instead of turning on the TV that night, I took the subway back to the library, where the heart disease gala was now in full swing. I heard “Satin Doll” playing inside, I heard giggles and yelps and big scoops of laughter, I saw approximately one hundred long black limousines and shorter black town cars idling alongside the curb, and I considered the fact that nothing more than a series of atoms and molecules combined in a particular way to form something known as a stone wall stood between me and those people inside the public library, dancing to a horn section that was awfully weak in the tenor sax department. But a strange thing happened as I listened: I felt pain. Not in my head, not in my arm, not in my leg; everywhere at once. I told myself there was no difference between being “inside” and being “outside,” that it all came down to X’s and O’s that could be acquired in any number of different ways, but the pain increased to a point where I thought I might collapse, and I limped away.
Like all failed experiments, that one taught me something I didn’t expect: one key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out. And I, like a scientist unwittingly inhaling toxic fumes from the beaker I was boiling in my lab, had, through sheer physical proximity, been infected by that same delusion and in my drugged state had come to believe I was Excluded: condemned to stand shivering outside the public library at Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street forever and always, imagining the splendors within.
I went to the russet-haired receptionist’s desk, balancing my fish on two hands. Juice was starting to leak through the paper. “This is a fish,” I told her.
She cocked her head, a look on her face like all of a sudden she’d recognized me. “Ah,” she said.
“Tell Bennie pretty soon it’s gonna stink.”
I sat back down. My “neighbors” in the waiting room were a male and a female, both of the corporate persuasion. I sensed them edging away from me. “I’m a musician,” I said, by way of introduction.
They did not reply.
Finally Bennie came out. He looked trim. He looked fit. He wore black trousers and a white shirt buttoned at the neck but no tie. I understood something for the very first time when I looked at that shirt: I understood that expensive shirts looked better than cheap shirts. The fabric wasn’t shiny, no—shiny would be cheap. But it glowed, like there was light coming through from the inside. It was a fucking beautiful shirt, is what I’m saying.
“Scotty, man, how goes it?” Bennie said, patting me warmly on the back as we shook hands. “Sorry to keep you waiting. Hope Sasha took good care of you.” He gestured at the girl I’d been dealing with, whose carefree smile could be roughly translated as: He’s officially not my problem anymore. I gave her a wink whose exact translation was: Don’t be so sure, darling.
“Here, c’mon back to my office,” Bennie said. He had his arm around my shoulders and was steering me toward a hallway.
“Hey wait—I forgot!” I cried, and ran back to get the fish. As I slung the bag from the coffee table into my hands a little fish juice flew from one corner, and the corporate types both jumped to their feet as if it were nuclear runoff. I looked over at “Sasha,” expecting to find her cowering, but she was watching it all with a look I would have to call amused.
Bennie waited for me by the hall. I noticed, with satisfaction, that his skin had gotten more brown since high school. I’d read about this: your skin gradually darkens from all those cumulative years of sunlight, and Bennie’s had done so to a point where calling him Caucasian was a stretch.
“Shopping?” he asked, eyeing my bundle.
“Fishing,” I told him.
Bennie’s office was awesome, and I don’t mean that in the male teenage skateboarding sense—I mean it in the old-fashioned literal sense. The desk was a giant jet black oval with a wet-looking surface like the most expensive pianos have. It reminded me of a black ice-skating rink. Behind the desk was nothing but view—the whole city flung out in front of us the way street vendors fling out their towels packed with cheap, glittery watches and belts. That’s how New York looked: like a gorgeous, easy thing to have, even for me. I stood just inside the door, holding my fish. Bennie went around to the other side of the wet black oval of his desk. It looked frictionless, like you could slide a coin over the surface and it would float to the edge and drop to the floor. “Have a seat, Scotty,” he said.
“Wait,” I said. “This is for you.” I came forward and gently set the fish on his desk. I felt like I was leaving an offering at a Shinto shrine on top of the tallest mountain in Japan. The view was tripping me out.
“You’re giving me a fish?” Bennie said. “That’s a fish?”
“Striped bass. I caught it in the East River this morning.”
Bennie looked at me like he was waiting for a cue to laugh.
“It’s not as polluted as people think,” I said, sitting down on a small black chair, one of two facing Bennie’s desk.
He stood, picked up the fish, came around his desk, and handed it back to me. “Thanks, Scotty,” he said. “I appreciate the thought, I really do. But a fish is bound to go to waste, here at my office.”
“Take it home and eat it!” I said.
Bennie smiled his peaceful smile, but he made no move to retrieve the fish. Fine, I thought, I’ll eat it myself.
My black chair had looked uncomfortable—I’d thought, lowering myself onto it, This is going to be one of those hellish chairs that makes your ass ache and then go numb. But it was without question the most comfortable chair I had ever sat in, even more comfortable than the leather couch in the waiting room. The couch had put me to sleep—this chair was making me levitate.
“Talk to me, Scotty,” Bennie said. “You have a demo tape you want me to hear? You’ve got an album, a band? Songs you’re looking to have produced? What’s on your mind.”
He was leaning against the front of the black lozenge, ankles crossed—one of those poses that appears to be very relaxed but is actually very tense. As I looked up at him, I experienced several realizations, all in a sort of cascade: (1) Bennie and I weren’t friends anymore, and we never would be. (2) He was looking to get rid of me as quickly as possible with the least amount of hassle. (3) I already knew that would happen. I’d known it before I arrived. (4) It was the reason I had come to see him.
“Scotty? You still there?”
“So,” I said. “You’re a big shot now, and everyone wants something from you.”
Bennie went back around to his desk chair and sat there facing me with arms folded in a pose that looked less relaxed than the first one, but was actually more so. “Come on, Scotty,” he said. “You write me a letter out of nowhere, now you show up at my office—I’m guessing you didn’t come here just to bring me a fish.”
“No, that was a gift,” I said. “I came for this reason: I want to know what happened between A and B.”
Bennie seemed to be waiting for more.
“A is when we were both in the band, chasing the same girl. B is now.”
I knew instantly that it had been the right move to bring up Alice. I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once an asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.
“I’ve busted my balls,” Bennie said. “That’s what happened.”
We looked at each other across the black desk, the seat of Bennie’s power. There was a long, strange pause, and in that pause I felt myself pulling Bennie back—or maybe it was him pulling me—back to San Francisco, where we were two out of four Flaming Dildos, Bennie one of the lousier bass players you were likely to hear, a kid with brownish skin and hair on his hands, and my best friend. I felt a kick of anger so violent it made me dizzy. I closed my eyes and imagined coming at Bennie across that desk and ripping off his head, yanking it from the neck of that beautiful white shirt like a knobby weed with long tangled roots. I pictured carrying it into his swank waiting room by his bushy hair and dropping it on Sasha’s desk.
I rose from my chair, but at that same moment, Bennie got up, too—sprang up, I should say, because when I looked at him, he was already standing.
“Mind if I look out your window?” I asked.
“Not at all.” He didn’t sound afraid, but I smelled that he was. Vinegar: that’s what fear smells like.
I went to the window. I pretended to look at the view, but my eyes were closed.
After a while, I sensed that Bennie had moved closer to me. “You still doing any music, Scotty?” he asked gently.
“I try,” I said. “Mostly by myself, just to keep loose.” I was able to open my eyes, but not to look at him.
“You were amazing on that guitar,” he said. Then he asked, “Are you married?”
“Divorced. From Alice.”
“I know,” he said. “I meant remarried.”
“It lasted four years.”
“I’m sorry, buddy.”
“All for the best,” I said. Then I turned to look at Bennie. He was standing with his back to the window, and I wondered if he ever bothered to look out, if having so much beauty at close range meant anything at all to him. “What about you?” I asked.
“Married. Three-month-old son.” He smiled, then—a waffly, embarrassed smile at the thought of his baby boy, like he knew he didn’t deserve that much. And behind Bennie’s smile the fear was still there: that I’d tracked him down to snatch away these gifts life had shoveled upon him, wipe them out in a few emphatic seconds. This made me want to scream with laughter: Hey “buddy,” don’t you get it? There’s nothing you have that I don’t have! It’s all just X’s and O’s, and you can come by those a million different ways. But two thoughts distracted me as I stood there, smelling Bennie’s fear: (1) I didn’t have what Bennie had. (2) He was right.
Instead, I thought of Alice. This was something I almost never let myself do—just think of her, as opposed to think about not thinking about her, which I did almost constantly. The thought of Alice broke open in me, and I let it fan out until I saw her hair in the sun—gold, her hair was gold—and I smelled those oils she used to dab on her wrists with a dropper. Patchouli? Musk? I couldn’t remember the names. I saw her face with all the love still in it, no anger, no fear—none of the sorry things I learned to make her feel. Come inside, her face said, and I did. For a minute, I came inside.
I looked down at the city. Its extravagance felt wasteful, like gushing oil or some other precious thing Bennie was hoarding for himself, using it up so no one else could get any. I thought: If I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world. The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no one gives it to you.
I took a long inhale and turned to Bennie. “Health and happiness to you, brother,” I said, and I smiled at him for the first and only time: I let my lips open and stretch back, something I very rarely do because I’m missing most of my teeth on both sides. The teeth I have are big and white, so those black gaps come as a real surprise. I saw the shock in Bennie’s face when he saw. And all at once I felt strong, as if some balance had tipped in the room and all of Bennie’s power—the desk, the view, the levitating chair—suddenly belonged to me. Bennie felt it too. Power is like that; everyone feels it at once.
I turned and walked toward the door, still grinning. I felt light, as if I were wearing Bennie’s white shirt and light was pouring out from inside it.
“Hey, Scotty, hold on,” Bennie said, sounding shaken. He veered back toward his desk, but I kept walking, my grin leading the way into the hall and back toward the reception area where Sasha sat, my shoes whispering on the carpet with each slow, dignified step. Bennie caught up with me and handed me a business card: sumptuous paper with embossed print. It felt precious. I held it very carefully.
“President,” I read.
“Don’t be a stranger, Scotty,” Bennie said. He sounded bewildered, as if he’d forgotten how I had come to be there; as if he’d invited me himself and I were leaving prematurely. “You ever have any music you want me to hear, send it on.”
I couldn’t resist one last look at Sasha. Her eyes were serious, almost sad, but she was still flying the flag of her pretty smile. “Take care, Scotty,” she said.
Outside the building, I walked directly to the box where I had mailed my letter to Bennie a few days earlier. I bent my neck and squinted up at the tower of green glass, trying to count the floors to forty-five. And only then did I notice that my hands were empty—I’d left my fish in Bennie’s office! This struck me as hilarious, and I laughed out loud, imagining the corporate types seating themselves in the levitating chairs in front of Bennie’s desk, one of them lifting the wet, heavy bag from the floor and then recognizing it—Oh, Christ, it’s that guy’s fish—dropping it, revolted. And what would Bennie do? I wondered, as I walked slowly toward the subway. Would he dispose of the fish forever then and there, or would he put it in the office refrigerator and take it home that night to his wife and baby son, and tell them about my visit? And if he got that far, was it possible that he might open up the bag and take a look, just for the hell of it?
I hoped so. I knew he’d be amazed. It was a shiny, beautiful fish.
I wasn’t good for much the rest of that day. I get a lot of headaches from eye damage I had as a kid, and the pain is so intense that it throws off bright, excruciating pictures. That afternoon, I lay on my bed and closed my eyes and saw a burning heart suspended in darkness, shooting off light in every direction. It wasn’t a dream, because nothing happened. The heart just hung there.
Having gone to bed in the late afternoon, I was up and out of my apartment and under the Williamsburg Bridge with my line in the East River well before sunrise. Sammy and Dave showed up soon after. Dave didn’t actually care about fish—he was there to watch the East Village females on their early morning jogs, before they went to school at NYU or to work at a boutique or whatever East Village girls do with their days. Dave complained about their jog bras, which didn’t allow enough bounce for his satisfaction. Sammy and I barely listened.
That morning when Dave started up, I felt an inclination to speak. “You know, Dave,” I said, “I think that’s the point.”
“What’s the point?”
“That their breasts don’t bounce,” I said. “It hurts them. That’s why they wear jog bras in the first place.”
He gave me a wary look. “Since when are you the expert?”
“My wife used to jog,” I said.
“Used to? You mean she quit?”
“She quit being my wife. She probably still jogs.”
It was a quiet morning. I heard the slow pop, pop of tennis balls on the courts behind the Williamsburg Bridge. Aside from the joggers and tennis players, there were usually a few junkies out by the river in the early mornings. I always looked for one particular couple, a male and female in thigh-length leather jackets, with skinny legs and ruined faces. They had to be musicians. I’d been out of the game a long time, but I could spot a musician anywhere.
The sun rose, big and shiny and round, like an angel lifting her head. I’d never seen it so brilliant out there. Silver poured over the water. I wanted to jump in and swim. Pollution? I thought. Give me some more. And then I noticed the girl. I spotted her peripherally because she was small and ran with a high, leaping gait that was different from the others. She had light brown hair, and when the sunlight touched it, something happened that you couldn’t miss. Rumpelstiltskin, I thought. Dave was gaping at her, and even Sammy turned to look, but I kept my eyes on the river, watching my line for a tug. I saw the girl without having to look.
“Hey Scotty,” Dave said, “I think your wife just ran by.”
“I’m divorced,” I said.
“Well, that was her.”
“No,” I said. “She lives in San Francisco.”
“Maybe she’s your next wife,” Sammy suggested.
“She’s my next wife,” Dave said. “And you know the first thing I’m gonna teach her? Don’t clamp them down. Let them bounce.”
I looked at my line flicking in the sun. My luck was gone; I knew I wouldn’t catch anything. Soon I had to be at work. I reeled in my line and began walking north along the river. The girl was already a long way ahead, her hair shaking with every step. I followed her, but at such a distance that I wasn’t following her, really. I was just walking in the same direction. My eyes held her so tightly that I didn’t even notice the junkie couple in my path until they’d almost passed me. They were huddled up against each other, looking haggard and sexy the way young people can for a little while, until they just look haggard. “Hey,” I said, stepping in their way.
We must’ve seen each other twenty times on that river, but the guy aimed his sunglasses at me like he’d never seen me before, and the girl didn’t look at me at all. “Are you musicians?” I asked.
The guy turned away, shaking me off. But the girl looked up. Her eyes seemed raw, peeled away, and I wondered if the sun hurt them, and why her boyfriend or husband or whatever he was didn’t give her his glasses. “He’s awesome,” she said, using the word in the male teenage skateboarding sense. Or maybe not, I thought. Maybe she meant it literally.
“I believe you,” I said. “I believe he’s an awesome musician.”
I reached into my shirt pocket and took out Bennie’s card. I’d used a piece of Kleenex to remove it from yesterday’s jacket and place it in today’s shirt, making sure not to bend or fold or smudge it. Its embossed letters reminded me of a Roman coin. “Call this man,” I said. “He runs a record label. Tell him Scotty sent you.”
They both looked at the card, squinting in the angled sunlight.
“Call him,” I said. “He’s my buddy.”
“Sure,” the guy said, without conviction.
“I really hope you will,” I said, but I felt helpless. I could do this only once; I would never have that card again.
While the guy studied the card, the girl looked at me. “He’ll call,” she said, and then she smiled: small orderly teeth, the kind you only get from wearing braces. “I’ll make him.”
I nodded and turned, leaving the junkies behind. I walked north, forcing my eyes to see as far as they could see. But the jogger had vanished while I looked away.
“Hey,” I heard behind me, two ragged voices. When I turned, they called out, “Thanks,” both at the same time.
It had been a long time since anyone had thanked me for something. “Thanks,” I said, to myself. I said it again and again, wanting to hold in my mind the exact sound of their voices, to feel again the kick of surprise in my chest.
Is there some quality of warm spring air that causes birds to sing more loudly? I asked myself that question as I took the overpass across the FDR onto East Sixth Street. Flowers were just coming open in the trees. I trotted underneath them, smelling their powdery pollen as I hurried toward my apartment. I wanted to drop off my jacket at the dry cleaner on my way to work—I’d been looking forward to it since yesterday. I’d left the jacket crumpled on the floor beside my bed, and I would bring it in like that, all used up. I’d toss it on the counter oh so casually, daring the gal to challenge me. But how could she?
I’ve been somewhere, and I need my jacket cleaned, I would say, like anyone else. And she would make it new again.