An excerpt from an unpublished novel
“I’m just not human anymore,” I finally spoke through my tears.
Just days after moving me in with him, Antony had come home to find me weeping over my lost life. He had installed me in his luxurious high-ceilinged apartment on the Upper East Side and made me promise that I would never venture out. I could be expected to find there what time it took to heal myself or to somehow find an answer to the problem.
“We all say that at some point or other in our lives,” he said, glossing over it. “I’ll just make us some tea,” he nodded at me; ran out of the room.
“I felt,” I started. “I felt I might douse myself with gasoline, set myself on fire. I mean, to have that number of people out to rape you…” But then I realized he was off in the kitchen, could not hear a single word of what I said. “See how you feel about your body, then.” I went on, anyway. The entire Idiot Cabal had packed my things up, moving most of them to storage minus the list of what I imagined I needed most. I took a leave of absence from my job as a shopgirl at Syvia's on Madison Avenue. All that that was moved to Antony’s vestibule ended up in his spare room, my sumptuous new bedroom. The apartment, in a magnificent pre-war building on the edge of Central Park, was his inheritance from Darien, his lover, dead of AIDS, designer and owner of a menswear company. I had been there barely three days sleeping hard, taking endless baths, eating myself to death, watching movies.
“This would be the perfect safe house for any fugitive for whatever amount of time.” Antony lectured me. “Time is needed to take a look at who we might be, what we could want from our lives. I know. It worked perfectly well for me already.” Yet I seemed, here at the end of my twenty-five years, unable to admit to anything at all. To imagine all those people wanted me dead was a huge anguish, yet the same thing was going on in Bosnia. Here in New York City, it wasn’t the same as the ‘social cleansing’ of a race, but rather the methodical murder of any basic humanists in the city. In time, I found I could take out my sketchpads and somehow take up where I had left off months earlier before I succumbed to the gangs in the streets hunting me down. What I knew was to soldier on with my ‘Eva’s Finery,’ my designs and crotchet, to my own line of sweet teddies, panties and bras. My ‘elegant undies,’ as Antony called them. He hoped I might consider ‘taking the plunge’ right then and there to the idea of designing men’s underwear as well, for an entire revolution was in the making. No one could miss that Calvin Klein ad over Broadway, least of all for its provocation. Here we were, facing the end of the 90’s. Big things were on their way, he insisted. We should count ourselves in.
The Stones he put on, Lou Reed. Nico crooned softly onto his midnight blue walls. His magnificent lampshades were dimmed by even more magnificent silk scarves of the lightest hues. Antony insisted I learn to chill, handing me bit my bit tomes of black and white photos from his lover’s old library, introducing me to Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton, even dragging out old articles on Darien’s work. On top of that, Antony would bring me home the latest magazines, Elle, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, introducing me to my favorite delight,’ W’ or Women’s Wear Daily. Raquel promised me she and Martini would honor me with a shoot here in Antony’s rooms, as the large apartment of fine carved furniture, Louis Seize chairs, painted screens, monster plants, and even a chandelier, would be a dream. Antony insisted we could get through by using some of Darien’s old cameras. I was certainly game.
Within weeks, my initial freakouts became a thing of the past. I found myself enjoying my days alone, Sade and the television on full blast while Antony slept like a baby after his nights as the go-go boy at the Palladium. Often I found myself at Darien’s drawing table pausing as if Darien were watching. Antony said he felt Darien’s presence constantly.
Antony himself usually arrived around five-thirty a.m.
I would find him chortling to himself over the morning edition of the Post in the fabulous Italian-tiled, wood and stainless-steel kitchen with a wall of hanging pots. He would have our breakfast from the deli already unwrapped, coffees, scones, fresh juice, when I would pad in on slippers wearing his huge Kabuki robe over the Dior pajamas he had bought me. We would laugh at his stories of his ‘overnights of paid depravity,’ under glitter balls. Someone kept slipping Barbara Streisand into his mix, so he was off to a new ‘modern’ choreography session this week. He would then retire to his ‘beauty sleep,’ while I would start my day with a yoga workout.
As a New Yorker, I found it important to not admit to the reality of the matter, putting aside the endless run of men waylaying me in the street, doubling back to run at me or flash a gun at me, corteges of black cars, the larger Queen Victorias, coming out of nowhere midtown, screeching to a halt around me. I could see by the drivers’ smiles I was expected to step into the car. That I would never do, for what was promised me was several guns being emptied into me, or worse, by their salacious smiles, the gang rape that would precede my death. I would be pointed out by the crowd waiting the second I set foot on the street. I could feel the guns at my head, and not so strangely, too, in my house. This group set themselves up on adjoining rooftops not only from my house, but across from my dance classes at Steps in order to watch me in class. I was informed I would be shortly dead, hideously. This was part of the new mayor’s cleanup of ‘criminals,’ or basic innocents, across the city. The most common response was to freak out so that police in uniform could have reason to shoot you down. Many, many, ended up in mental institutions, sent by young immigrant doctors happy in their new careers to put ‘paranoids’ away.
I found myself blacking out more and more as the frequency of attacks became expected. It was like I was blacking out ahead of the fact in order not to experience the guns at my head. Not eating or sleeping for months on end didn’t help.
People like me, or the grieving families of those hunted down by ‘Offices of the Fuck’ as we called them, Offices of Investigation, were labelled ‘subversive’ by the tabloids. The District Attorney had his agenda to see to. Our hideous deaths were to be accompanied by a barrage of official lies. When my politico boyfriend finally spoke to the Police Commissioner, everything was promised to be brought to a halt, yet nothing at all was done. It seems Guevara was under ‘surveillance’ as was anyone related to him for the new mayor was begging him to join his staff. I wondered why this very carefully worked out torture unto death delivered by twentysome officers day and night was anything but the ‘information gathering’ cited by famous liberals.
People would say ‘you must have done something illegal,’ or ‘Are you doing drugs?’ A city that had been taught to murder its own innocents. “You hate drugs,” Antony laughed. “That’s why they hate you. Word is they’re trying to get the new drug highway from Santo Domingo in the Eastern Corridor, politicians stepping out of their way so they don’t take a bullet. That’s why New York City looks like Juarez, Mexico. A smokescreen of innocents murdered, ‘missing,’ simply to hide the massive new drug traffic. That’s the reality behind the cleanup promised by the new mayor.”
Dirty clothes and trash had piled up in my apartment while I wandered through my days comatose. I hoped to outlast the problem. I ended up in the hospital, bloodily miscarrying. I was never to be able to have children again. Antony insisted I move in with him immediately as I could hide out there easily.
I got nervous, listening to the noises in the building. The whine of the door downstairs, the whir of the elevator. People in and out of the building, kids shrieking up and down the stairways. Often I would sit late afternoon with my tea, and from five stories up in the beautiful old apartment building, stare out at the triangle of trees and grass by the wall of Central Park. When we ordered Chinese Antony would open carefully. I wondered why.
“Why so nervous?” I asked.
“You mean, you never saw the scene from Donnie Brasco, where the delivery guy gets in and kills the federal witness?”
“You’re right. I am the federal witness,” I laughed.
“This too shall pass,” Antony intoned, but in days I was to see Donnie Brasco, as his whole movie collection was hauled out. Shortly I was to see the entire Godfather series, ‘The Sicilian,’ ‘The Damned,’ and his favorite, ‘The Conformist.’
Yet Antony insisted he’d seen this sort of purge before. ACT-UP was no stranger to these ‘secret operations.’ Major figures in the protests had been beaten up to the point of being parapalegic. Some had been chased in front of oncoming subway trains, had learned to hug the walls of the station. One of their most prominent members had died, a faked suicide.
“Once they murder out a number of Democrats, it’ll all be back to normal. They won’t give you a second glance. Guaranteed!”
He called me from the vestibule one afternoon when he had slipped out. I found him with so many packages from not only Bendel’s and Saks, but a serious number of bags from D’Agostino’s packed with groceries.
“You don’t think I would miss your birthday?!” Antony cried.
“Well, no. But I didn’t expect….”
“This,” he gestured at the little old lady by his side already unfastening her coat, “is cousin Nia.” The lady took my hand, nodded and smiled, then went directly to the kitchen to haul down several pots. “Happy to meet you,” I cried.
“Get dressed.” He stooped down, handing me up a number of bags. “Try the dresses and the shoes. Everything can be returned, but don’t just wear it and return it, like my Aunt Deidre did. She did the same thing with her husbands. They’re delivering the wine in minutes. I simply did not have enough hands.”
I loved both dresses, tried them both on, decided on the outrageous white and flowered Norma Kamali as more the statement of a dramatic evening, yet the more difficult choice was that of which pumps to wear. I settled on the black velvet stiletto. The bell rang several times, and then I heard the clink of bottles. Instantly then when the door shut, the bell rang again. A small army of serious-looking young people in fashionable silks marched in the door, came past Antony into the rooms as if they’d been there before, with bouquets of every flower imaginable in their arms, finding vases everywhere, even huge Chinese pots on the floor I hadn’t noticed since I moved in.
“Darien always had them deliver, I just lost the habit,” Antony sighed, as everyone landed in his arms then promptly back out the door.
“I’m so thankful you robbed Lufthansa,” I cried.
“Someone had to do it. Are you keeping all your gifts?”
“Absolutely. It smells good, already.”
“She’s a chef, believe me. Shame we got rid of the restaurant.”
Antony was just putting the champagne on ice when the first guests arrived. I had been sitting in the kitchen fully dressed in my stockinged feet, eating biscotti and sipping wine while laughing at his family stories. Lenny Stein came early so he could film the entire event. There was Bille, our elegant society lady with a wonderful scarf wrapped around a wonderful present. The mewing was an important clue. I unwrapped a tiny Calico kitten, taking her into my hands. I named her Terra right there, in that moment, while Antony ran to put Buster, his little Chihuahua, away in the bedroom. Vodca Bear had bought me a special, embossed diary. ‘For secret things,’ he laughed. He was beside himself with the stately apartment that he had, of course, never visited. He said it reminded me of that movie, ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ “The Dakota?” Andre added. Martini and Raquel had chipped in on a few new sketchpads and a set of charcoals. Andre handed me a delicately wrapped item which I tore open immediately, a fabulous Dior scarf.
“See how carefully she saves for the future,” Antony noted of me.
Andre sighed. “Youth,” he began.
“Wasted on the young. Yes,” finished Raquel. “But aren’t we all guilty here?”
We had the braciole, the pasta, and salad, several Chilean and Argentinian wines. Once Antony sent us to the living room, he turned the lights down low for the birthday cake. I blew all the candles out. It was a rum cake, my favorite. I had several helpings with espresso. I was already drunk, Terra asleep on my lap. Someone wondered what I had wished for. Someone else cried ‘Freedom,’ but I said no. I wished for love, but then no one knew it. I was barely getting over Guevara dumping me, yet Antony had told me I couldn’t be luckier. That Guevara was undoubtedly being blackmailed with my death in mind in order to stop his reform. Better I had nothing to do with the man. At least now I was finally dreaming a different future.
“Can’t have your cake and eat it, too?” Antony inquired of the look on my face.
“Are you mind-reading?” I answered.
“Yes, of course. I’m known for that. Isn’t that what Baba used to say of me, Nia? That I seemed to know everything? Of course, it was gone once I reached my eleventh birthday. Then I became normal. A real curse.”
I can’t even remember where in their conversations I fell out, yet I would wake in the dark to an occasional remark. Someone would stand, or sit down. Someone would get up to pour themselves another drink.
Once Antony got up to see Andre and Martini and then Bille off, I stretched out fully on the couch. Raquel was talking about her latest lover, the son of a famous financier from Spain, when I drifted off again.
Later, I heard them move to the kitchen. I heard them wish Nia good night, then the door shutting.
I found them there in the morning, Raquel, Antony, Vodca Bear and Len. Moving in slow motion, they could barely speak. I stood there silent and unnoticed until Len took up his camera and started filming. Caught, there, barefoot with Terra in my arms, I shrieked with laughter.
Days later the phone kept ringing. Antony wouldn't bother to answer.
"Calls from the Club?" I asked loudly. I stood in the living room, hands on my hips. Loud messages came over the answering machine, begging him to pick up, to come into work.
"I'm sick," he sputtered. He came out of the kitchen to the living room.
"No. What about your doctor's?!" I asked. "I haven't heard a word about them in awhile."
"Useless. I'm not their guinea pig." Antony made a face.
"But all this is new. For everyone."
"I miss Darien."
Antony was there in my arms then, sobbing and sobbing. "Antony, I said, Antony."
"I miss Darien," he said again.
He excused himself to take a long bath. Subdued, he came out in his robe, his wet hair swept up into a towel. His face was heavily made up.
"I hope you don't think you're going out, do you?!! And not to work."
"Don't tell me what to do," Antony replied.
Later that night after I went to bed, I heard him slip out the door.
"And Good night to you too, Miss Candy Ass," I said loudly long after he left. Not one word earlier than that for Antony, occasionally referred to as a 'vicious queen,' was known to slap people down.
Weeks later, I woke to Buster crying and scratching. I opened Antony’s door to let him out. He ran to the kitchen where I filled his food and water. Terra sauntered in. The two of them had become easy friends after a few days.
“Buster’s fed,” I cried. I had heard the phone ring a few times the night before, but had not heard Antony go out.
“I have this spot,” Antony told me sometime after I’d arrived, just before my birthday. He pulled up his shirt from his lower back, then his pants down. A wealth of creamy white skin, yet there, a small red mountain, a dark red encrustation. Blinking hard, he looked at me gravely. The doctors would not tell him a single thing. All he knew was that he had simply no t-cells left, not a single one. People knew it was a miracle he was still alive.
Once I got the door wide open, Buster leapt up, landing on the bed, crying and barking. I went to nudge him off the bed as he lunged for Antony. I touched Antony on the arm. It was ice-cold.
I sat for a while without doing more. I sat for some time. The needle on the record player went on, like Antony let it, his favorite Lou Reed droning on, ‘I'm Waiting for My Man.' I put my hand on his back, followed up the arm to his neck.
“Sleeping Beauty,” I cried. “Wake up.” But he would not.
My darling was dead.
Pat a Cake
Lenny Stein, East Village auteur, named by his Ma for Lenny Bruce, found himself glued to the side of the chainmail fence that looked over the brightly lit chasm of twisted metal and debris hundreds of people worked manically and painstakingly to clear. Here, the unending call of voices, whir of machinery. Lenny glanced up at the embracing hulks of the massive dark buildings and saw now in the warmth of their darkness how they were like some Disney cartoon, comforting animals. He gagged, inhaled too hard and started coughing, reached for the paper mask in his pocket. The string was missing, he noticed as he brought it up to his nose. Had X-Files, his Persian kitty, eaten it? He recalled having to wrest the mask from the paws of the kitty who thought it was a catnip mouse. Yes, there were even claw marks gouging in tiny holes. A bit was torn off the end, savagely eaten. Not totally airtight. Sweet X-Files, his powerball of a kitty, constantly gagging on hairballs. He’d found the kitten, a tiny ball of fluff, mewling outside a Chinese restaurant one night, took her home. Her had got her past a bad cold and a case of malnutrition. She was now going on strong two years. But here was not such a swift gasmask. The Taliban would surely laugh themselves to death if they knew.
His old leather briefcase hanging from his shoulder, overpacked with prime pages from scripts-in-progress, notes of indie film openings, bootleg dvds, religious tracts of all faiths including a schedule from the more glamorous uptown Kabbalah Center Madonna was now touting, commie newspapers disseminated by ancient hippy friends, all sorts of coupons to be clipped, recent and old copies of the New York Press and the Brooklyn Rail, for God knows the Voice was unreadable with so much advertising and such a sellout these days. Ma kept warning him he would lose everything if he didn’t clean it out. He kept promising to, but the precious load continued unedited. He kept the briefcase next to him in bed in case Ma might grab it, clean it out, exterminate every vestige of hope he might have, as she did in the ‘Extermination of 1998.’ He was so blown away and pissed off, he disappeared to Berkeley for weeks, staying with a girlfriend there just to work his feelings out. Why couldn’t Ma understand the beauty, the ‘exigencies’ of process he had built his life and work on, how it always tore him up, nostalgia and the passing of time. If he found himself throwing away anything at all, he would go insane with grief, sob for hours. That’s how he so often ended up doing nothing at all. He would be incapable of editing, writing, and shooting, “Just focus on the now,” his ex had told him. “But Ma doesn’t like ‘the now,’” he explained, No future, no possibility either. She’s only interested in preserving the past. If you’re not in Ma’s museum, you’re nowhere. Hey, she did good, cleaning up the Holocaust and such, putting the cousins and grandparents, etc. into their eternal frames in the albums with adjoining commentary like some Hitler Hallmark Series, but it’s hard for her to deal with anyone but the Rabbi, period. “So know it,” the girlfriend said, “and proceed.” The first days back, Lenny slept with the briefcase nailed down in his arms. Lately though, it had been creeping off past the bed. On one occasion, he woke up realizing he’d left it outside his room in a demilitarized zone. He ran butt naked out of the room clutching a pillow to his private parts to get it. There it was, still standing in total grandeur where he left it. A few hours more, with the light of dawn, his briefcase stuffed with precious items may have been a goner. But hey, there was his trusty old black notebook in there, notes on shoots, poetry, and girls’ phone numbers. How could a genuine Ma toss all this into a dumpster downstairs so you have to climb in right in front of the demolition guys and root down there among the broken doors and bricks and plaster to find what you could? It’s not like he didn’t love her. Maybe it was all the rage to clean the world up of its untidiness afflicting her from the Holocaust. But still. Was it fair to erase other people’s lives?
Lenny’s shock of graying black hair seemed to stand straight up, his mournful eyes under wirerims glittering hard as he brought his trusty old videocam up, aiming it directly at the busy Site. You never know, you could be taken for a terrorist doing absolutely nothing these days, but to film the Recovery so brazenly was a serious matter. One needed to film it for the soul. He hoped he wouldn’t get caught.
Here now, someone was singing, coming nearer in the dark. It was the worst, most godawful rendition of ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’ Lenny had ever heard in his life.
“Oh hey,” he heard himself scream happily, for it was ‘Ipod’ as they called him, the nutty cameraman everyone saw everywhere, always plugged into his white earplugs, always dreamily pointing his cameras at everything in sight. Warm brown eyes, a shock of chestnut hair that begged Brylcreem, a goodnatured soul wheeling in delight under the broken skies, always rapt with joy in the company of so much brotherly love among the vast crews arriving from all over the nation and world to dig out the Twin Towers. The red kerchief the guy had tied over his jaw doubled as a gasmask. He would appear a bandit from the gunslinger days except for his bevy of cameras hanging from his neck.
Len lowered his cam, the eye gently landing on Ipod. Ipod came to a halt with a flourish, stopped singing. ‘I’m in love,’ he concluded his song, tore out his earplugs with a wide grin.
“Strip wind,” said the guy.
“Yeah, yeah,” agreed Len. It wasn’t windy at all, but maybe he meant something else by the remark. “Cloud sticks in your throat.”
The guy nodded back vigorously.
“Can’t take it in fact,” Len went on. “Look at my mask.” He pulled it off his nose and showed it to the guy who was now leaning against the chainmail fence with what looked like exhaustion. “Think I’m prepared for any of this nonsense? What do I care if women wear veils? Some of it I find it really cool. Vote, or don’t, if you want. They should be allowed anything, Iran or what? And what about this new anthrax scare? Check your cable bill for spoors? I can’t take it. With the rate the plaster is coming down on Ma, she’ll never be able to spot anything. And what about my bad eyes?” Len pulls off his glasses, rubs his eyes, then polishes his lenses with the back of his jacket sleeve. He puts them back on, then inhales deeply at the sight of Ipod and that of the Recovery dig lit in the night behind him.
“Maybe I should get Ma some kind of spacesuit to see her through. It’s been on my mind. I mean, they let us know you’re not safe drinking your MickyD orange juice in the morning, or Al Qaeda will get to my egg mcmuffin before I do. They can keep it. Think of all those boxes of old sea rations I passed up in New Jersey last year. Coulda got us through. I could have some kind of emergency bunker thing by now, but OH NO, I’m not prepared to live with such insecurity. What about this duct tape business? Do you know how to deal with it? I dozed through the tv report on how to protect yourself from poison gas. I mean, I’m embarrassed to ask anyone for weeks now how do you get duct tape off the subway doors before your stop comes up? What if you can’t? Wow, I see you have the new digitals there. How did you do it?”
“Camerbe,” answered the man proudly.
“Yeah, yeah,” agreed Len. “You can never be prepared enough.” He gestures at the cameras. “You’ve even got the new Rebel. I see you everywhere. You musta got some good shots.” Ipod was nodding, but pointing at Lenny’s webcam.
“Super Eight, yeah! I came in with the dinosaurs. I’ll go out with diners on Mars. But look, I came here tonight to test out an idea.” He gestured at the scene beyond the chainmail fence, the litter and jumble of massive carnage over which cranes and vehicles traversed tentatively, under the intense white light of stadium lamps that lit a massive dark sky.
“The view. See how the view shifts? Look, there where the sky begins. Can you get a clear fix on anything there? No, you can’t. You know why?”
Ipod murmured excitedly, deep in his throat.
“It keeps moving, is why. The sky keeps moving. I mean, I saw it in my footage. I thought maybe the cloud got in, ruined my camera. No. About a billion pounds of cement, glass, and steel, poison gas, all just hovering out there. Hitting us, the city. The EPA gives it a clean bill of health, while we gotta be dead meat, all of this going directly down our lungs. Whaddya think?”
Ipod, staring hard at the sky, stepped back. Recoiled.
“Mazing, “ he said. “Merz.”
“Murderers. Exactly. Al Qaeda's not even in the running anymore.” He extended his hand to Ipod. “Lenny Stein, East Village auteur.”
“Ipod. I heard you go by that name. I read about it in the Talmud. How important to take on a new identity, to have a new life…”
“Ippps,” the guy started up appreciatively.
“Superfragilistic,” agreed Lenny. Here he was so taken with his good fortune of meeting this guy and their future discovering the new world together. “How about a beer at Blarney Stone?”
They started off then. After a second, Ipod stopped, overwhelmed with a thought. Pondering, he looked at the ground while Lenny stood waiting for his remark, yet could only murmur something deep in his throat. It barely got out, a long anguished moan.
“Stuck, yeah?! I can believe it. A few beer’s’ll unstick ya. Easy to get stuck in some kind of metaphoric state. I can’t really locate myself except somewhere between Dostoyevsky and MickyD these days. We’re all trying to puzzle it out,” he nodded while Ipod was passing him up, a smile lighting his face.
“Neocon escape artists having us eat our own kids for lunch, dinner, and breakfast,” Len was saying between bites of his club sandwich with fries while Ipod gazed on happily past his huge chunk of corned beef, the cabbage pushed aside. They sat at a table to the side of the long bar there in the dark reaches of the Blarney Stone on Fulton, down past the winding streets of massive office buildings. Not long past ten p.m., the place was still alive with guys and girls, recovery site crews winding down.
“We’re funneling billions and billions of our dollars into dream programs, CIA, FBI, who in the same office, are not allowed to share the basic info. Genius technocrats who can’t even get themselves to the bathroom on time designed our intelligence systems. Al Qaeda's plans were known more than a year ago, yet the contempt these agencies had for each other a year ago led us to this pie in the face. Some pie.”
Len saw that Ipod was inhaling hard, nodding in agreement. The guy was exhausted.
“We got some narcissistic jerks here asleep at the wheel. Driving planes through buildings? Seven-year-olds could have thought that up. I bet they did. We have no respect for the seven-year-old mind.They do. Omigod.”
“God less,” Ipod sat up and blurted out.
“God’s last?” queried Len.
“Less, less,” Ipod nodding hard.
“YEAH, yeah! I get it. God-less. Us. We’re the ones with no God. Godless Infidels. Yikes!”
“With ippp….” began Ipod.
“Ipppp?” wondered Len.
Ipod fingered the wires to his ipod, nodded.
“Infidels with Ipods. YEAH, “ Lenny jumped up, screaming with joy. “I get it. Tech is anti-God. Think. This will usher in a new era of film. Hawks, Ford. A new age coming in at us. Imagine the Searchers made with their Arab counterparts. DAMN. Oh, look.”
“This guy Ford. The tv guy. Comes in here every night.”
Tall, sparkling and craggy, the guy was loping through the front door of the bar. His eyes shone as the bartender greeted him across the room and reached for the bottle of Cutty Sark.
“Neee,” cried Ipod, for he seemed to pour forever.
“Some neat shot, yeah!” laughed Len. Hard for him, losing his son here. Imagine, a top trader for that company that refused to leave their desks. Left his show to run the food pantries.”
The older actor held a copy of the Times under his arm while he surveyed the diningroom. The two of them caught his eye. He grabbed his glass from the bar and presented himself at their table.
“YOU SEE THIS?! Ford was crying, opening up the newspaper and shaking it at them. “The Bastard cooked up the Patriot Act, making freedom illegal! What kind of b.s. is that?”
“B.S.,”replied Ipod simply.
The place was packed for dinner with crews ending their shifts at the Site. Blinking hard and almost keeling over, IPOD lurched in the front door. Weighted down by so many cameras hanging around his neck, he sagged for a moment. His eyes were red above the death stare of his hanging gasmask with the goggles. Everyone paused in their conversation, staring up at the door. There was a roar of greetings.
“IPOD,” people shrieked happily. He was grinning hard now at the roars of offers to buy him a beer. Reddening. Stunned with delight, nearly strangled by the camera straps. He has to take them off one by one, put the cameras on the table.
“HEY,” Len cried from somewhere in the crowd.
“Yeah!” he returns.
“Join us.” It was Ford’s voice. Were they at the same table?
“Your horses,” he found himself screaming back. He gathered up his things. “Hold ‘em, yeah. Hold ‘em.” Ipod was laughing to himself. Gasping with exhaustion, he tried to accustom his eyes to the dim seascape of bar. Guys and girls were busy, excited everywhere, telling stories, having fights, drinking hard, all glowing in the darkness. Barely surfacing, he made out Len sitting to the side of Ford, the sleek old jaguar holding court as usual in the back. At his side, his latest squeeze, Ginny the cop, with her frizzy blond mane poking itself out her cap. There were the usuals surrounding him, engineers and firefighters giving Ford the daily rundown’. Ipod makes a mad dash for the empty chair at the table, yet the day piles up at him.
Slow fall of ash. Feels himself wheel around. Sail. Sail past the icy figures. Drum down, white hush. Question. Question what? Your legs buckle underneath,.yet you. Yet you what? Need to clean the lens. Bit of lens tissue, you laugh. To actually have some lens tissue now, the entire world coming to an end. Shiny, the blood under that. A girl there. How could this possibly be West street, even if the sign says so?
Light burns into the nuclear storm from a gutted laddertruck.
“Hey, guy, you checking into the hotel?” He wakes, some kind of IV in his arm. Devastated, the ultra modern hotel lobby. A giant hand ripped the windows and the walls out, tore the computers up and threw them all about.
“I wanted to get some shots.”
“Looks like they got you.”
“Survivors?” he felt himself asking.
“Did you come from the Towers?” they asked.
“Hey. Hey.” They call to him. Why can’t he answer back?
Breathes. He feels himself breathe. Feels his own smile sparkle out at them, the crowd brimming with talk, glances. Everyone smiling at him. Bovis guys, he hears them talking hard. Heroes, our ironworkers. This, their day saving the earth. He’s gotten up to get another beer, With that in hand, he plods through the crowd smiling. The tvs rage at them now. Bush. Missiles now, airplanes. The hard rasp of the President’s voice.
“What is he hiding, anyway?” he finds himself screaming.
“You alright?” Ssomeone asks.
“Our flag,” Bush rails at them.
But he flips open his own wallet, and there Gray is. One of those mornings they came off the Westside Highway to deliver the cakes to Gracie Mansion. Their first orders of that first year. Yes, it was true, he was difficult. The Mad Queen of Cakes, himself, insisted on excellence at all costs. “ But you know I love you,’ Gray would always remind him. Insecure, inferior in fact, as he had been ‘straight’ all his life. His first week running the pastry department of Windows on the World, met Gray in the elevator. It was a case of instant enchantment, of seeing Gray ‘in his whites’ for the second or third time. They met for drinks. The rest, history. The only problem that one morning he slept in the morning of that special breakfast for Risk Waters. Gray said he would cover. ‘No worry, love.’
Pat a cake
Pat a cake
Put me in your oven
And here I am.
It took Len a bit of time to unlock the three locks on the massive metal door which proclaimed ‘Trashki Filmski Company’ strangely covered in dust as if it hadn’t been opened in eons, there at the end of the third-floor landing in some kind of commercial space on the edge of Chinatown.
Len put his weight against the door that burst free suddenly, almost hurtling him to the floor inside. Here, he switched on the light revealing a loft that was several stories high. The walls were built up with shelves full of equipment of all sorts, television monitors, yet on the other wall, the collection of books and records had somehow come down, as if some giant Godzilla had torn into them. Rows and rows of books had been upended. What lay inside was a shambles, desk upended, file cabinets torn open, files scattered everywhere, clothes and shoes littering the floor, tapes and dvds flung at every corner. Yet tacked up on the walls were the most marvellous movie posters, 8 ½, Ringu, the SEARCHERS. Up overhead was an old revolving fan, revolving.
“Some mess,” cried Len. He slammed the front door shut.
“Sclear?” inquired Ipod, if the fall of the Twin Towers barely a block away had caused this.
“No. I got crazy. Looking for X-Files, my kitty. Then later, the reel. The reel I had put together of Gia. The only one. I still can’t find it. You see how I tore the place apart.” Len was now descending towards the huge couch in the corner, at the same time indicating Ipod should join him there. Len took his camcorder off, laid it down, started to take off his jacket.
“Make yourself at home,” he announced. “You see, I was here when it happened. I get up early to have my espresso. I buy it at Jacks, you know, the discount place. Sometimes I get their challah bread, but Ma gives me a hard time. Says it’s inferior. Lucky Ma was in the Bronx with her sister Leah who just got outta surgery. But there was such an explosion. I mean, from right down the street. In a minute we were hit by a dark cloud. It came in and took over. I was choking, and then there was screaming. They got the Chinese sweat shop downstairs. They didn’t take it well at all. I don’t know how I got out. Everybody found a way to get out, somehow. Down the stairs and into the street. We kept going for miles. Running. Everyone was running for their life. We kept running until the sky cleared out, and we knew we were safe. Not knowing nothing. Lucky. We were lucky. Us.”
Lenny was silent then, jumping through the mess where strips of film hung on ropes. He took one of the cloths piled up on the floor and began gently wiping them off. He shook his head, sniffed, went on.
“I came back for my kitty. I wouldn’t just leave her here. The second I hit the stairs I heard this terrific mewling, howling. I found her stuck under the couch. I mean, she didn’t even fit there. I pulled her out, my X-Files. I had bought all sorts of treats for her. She was some big dustball, but luckily I keep gallons and gallons of water. I made her a kitty bath in the tub. It occurred to me then, what about my films, my life’s work, are they melted in the can, soldered into one big celluloid clump, and I went nuts, running around, opening up my canisters, but hey, they were okay, every last one of them. X-Files couldn’t contain herself, frolicking all over the place, barely dry. I had to give her another bath, wrap her up in Ma’s robe. Took her out, down the street. Showed her everything. Everybody wanted to meet her on the way, even some FBI guys in those weird jumpsuits. She was the big star at the checkpoint on fourteenth street. Superstar kitty. YEAH. Where is she? Where is she now? X-Files?!” There was a small miaou. ”She’s shy with strangers. Look, let me get some bedding. You take the couch, see?! You look like hell.”
“Tanks is right. With this guy Bush, we’re gonna see a lotta tanks. Even maybe by here.”
Sad cloth. Look. Humans underneath all soldered together. Ipod wonders then, is this all you get for crawling through the blizzards to find Lenny’s place?!
“ALL OF US, BUDDY!”
Isn’t that Giuliani’s voice? So, where is the emergency bunker? They say it was the first to go when the World Trade Center went. So it was upstairs from Lenny’s. Figures, Giuliani being the Voice of the Whirlwind.
“YOU THINK IT’S JUST YOU?”
There he is again, the ‘mayor-on-his-way-out-of-office-trying-to-get-all-the-credit,’ of course Ipod would never think it’s just him suffering, but how to explain that to such an egomaniac?
Could it be real, that a barelegged elderly woman in a print dress stood in the doorway to the next room smiling down at him, her wild hair backlit by heavy sunlight, or was he dreaming it? Could that have been Ma? Hours later, he sat up, picked up the t-shirt, khakis, fresh socks and large towel Len had left him on the arm of the sofa. He took off to find the bathroom. Barefoot was good if you didn’t step on anything. The big hairy kitty appeared, bounding at him, then bouncing off.
“X-Files. Pleasure to meet you.”
There were many cluttered rooms here, yet one small doorway promised a bathtub and a toilet. He was happy to lock himself inside immediately. Ipod took a bath and a shower at the same time in the old clawfoot tub. All sorts of ugly crud was coming off his skin and he felt weird looking at it. He stood up in the stream of water from the shower. Was this he, himself? All this sadness? He was crying, wailing then. Hugging himself. Innocence gone, or what? When would himself return? Lenny was giving him a chance to stay alive. He looked down to find his cameras, but realized they were there, safe by the couch where he left them.
Said the big note in the kitchen. He picked it up and kissed it, settled down to fresh bagels with soft cream cheese. Cheerios he loaded down with milk and extra sugar, even found bananas to cut in. He poured himself too much OJ. The coffeemaker was happily sucking away, the small radio belting out classical tunes. Here it was a warm sea of worn reflecting surfaces, the old steel table and soft sculptured fridge under a barrage of a million Post Its. The curtains were even frilly, with bright red apples and a green trim, yet loaded down with dust. The window looked down over fire escapes, dark gated windows. Even the cockroaches seemed well-fed, happy running up and down.
Wobbling as he stood, he realized how he needed to get back to sleep.
“You know I love you.”’
Was that an actual voice, or no? He reeled around.
He recalled laughing ecstatically, coming out the double doors of the massive kitchen into the lush shadowed foyer of the dining room. Windows. Windows on the World. His dream job. Stepping back to view the surveillance screens just off to the left. There were the views of many refrigerators, the various food stations, massive pantries under gates, lock and key on his massive keyring. Views of the large dining room, a soft sea of tables under massive windows, elegant nooks for staff that housed computers, glassware, silverware. A camera pointed at himself in shadow. He moved back and forth, watching himself in the camera.
‘Security views,’ he likes to call them. Digital numerals scurry over the top of the screens. A strange bluish light bathes each view. In just hours, there would be a crush of people on those screens, chefs, sous chefs, busboys, waiters, even clients.
Later in the day when the hubbub had died down, when the kitchen had thinned out, there was still a number of left- over plated desserts spread out. Gray came out from behind the salad station, took a quick look at the emptying dining room, then came to join him. Ipod took a teaspoonful of poached pears in crème Anglaise he himself had made earlier, slid it deliciously into his mouth. One for himself, then fed Gray the second spoonful. Ipod reached for the partially full bottle of Chateau D’Yquem Gray had just swiped off a table. Taking a swig, he passed it over. Ipod stood there smiling. Warmed, his eyes were shining.
As he had said into the cellphone, the very last of moments, he found himself saying it again.
“You know I love you.”
Blasted 'Ford Show,' his idiot role as a cranky middle schoolteacher now in its third season always finding a way to send his lost students into their dreams despite themselves. What if he hadn't landed the show? He'd be out there auditioning for years on end, like all the other poor bastards. Even old guys, like himself. How thankful could he be but for the revolution in television of new shows, in the wake of Hill Street Blues, Homicide, Law and Order. Think, Jerry Ohrbach led the way. Even more, the genius of the Sopranos blasting through.
Should Ford be thankful they decided to follow him out of the school room to the massive food pantry at the edge of Soho when he refused to budge an inch from his decision to work there? He felt it was the greatest honor working with the top chefs in the country, hundreds of volunteers, getting the meals out to the recovery teams. Why not televise it?
Cellphone rings. Alex would be blocks away, coming to pick him up four a.m. to go to the Site. Ford sniffs, turns the tv off, the earliest weather reports. Lights on bright everywhere, the bedroom a shambles of clothes and shoes, bedclothes. The kitchen a nightmare of dirty dishes, emptied takeout boxes, empty soda bottles. Slipping into his hoody, putting on a jacket. Looking down over the dark neighborhood, the garbage trucks already grinding away, Ford felt himself for a second as seen from the outside, windows blazing in the still darkness above Murray Hill before he switched off the lights and checked for his keys.
Ipod came out to find all the blinds had been taken down midafternoon. Len, sitting on the edge of the sofa was hugging a round film canister.
“I found it,” he cried, “the missing reel. Gia. My Gia.” He nodded towards the projector that had already been set up.
“Let’s see,” said Ipod.
“No reason to be,” Ipod found himself saying.
“You think?” Len kissed the canister, stood up, put it down.
A black street is seen while the massive room drowns in a soft darkness. A steady stream of cars ascends an icy bridge in the middle of the night. ‘Delancey,’ explains Len. We hear then the crunch of snow and ice underfoot, arriving at the door of a hip old bar. LANSKY’S, where the cameraman Len, ‘Meyer’s cousin’ as he explains, the ‘Isaac Babel of avantegarde film’ gets no laugh from the Israeli Russian punkheads patting him and his camera down at the door. Inside, he discovers boozy smoky rooms of old kitchen tables, low chairs, and graffiti, pounding noise passing as music. The only grace he found was a sultry almond- eyed waitress, an actress from Tel Aviv. He manages to interview her there with his camera. Her favorite actresses are Sasha Dadidov and Meryl Streep. Later, on his way out, after insisting she would be his Anna Karina, she objected, saying no, she would have none of that crap, that Godard had brutalized the woman. He found her minutes later, outside in a thin coat, gulping at a cig in the bracing dark night. She runs laughing hard, growling, hissing and clawing, at the camera.
The next section pictured her in Len’s sheets, giggling nonstop in full sunlight, playing with an earlier incarnation of X-Files and stepping down off the bed. Gathering the covers around her, she began singing ‘Second Hand Rose’ when the frame froze.
Pout in dark lipstick, heavy lidded, too much eyeliner. Closeup on her face overburdened with thick matte makeup. Walls scarred. She is listening as someone speaks to her in Russian. She undoes the heavy black bustier. Background voices in English, Hebrew. Doors heard opening and shutting. Girl comes by to give her a quick kiss, and we see the mirror in front of Gia. The girl is grabbed up and away by her escort. Gia grabs for a t-shirt while her breasts spill out. Tries to wipe the makeup off her face, takes a drag on her cigarette from time to time. Some talk at her in Hebrew, and she answers their questions.
Who points at himself, but the huge- clawed Len, a bear suit below the neck.
“Such a GOOD bear, your husband,” the Israeli suddenly switches to English.
“Not easy to tame,” these Americans,” laughs Gia.
“But you do GOOD job,” says the girl.
The camera catches Gia kissing his forehead. She stands up, packing up her small cosmetic case.
“I want to sleep,” she says.
“Soon. We’ll get home.”
Gia is yawning and yawning. People come by, take her hand, talk.
“Gia, home,” he cries impatiently.
“I will. I will.”
A peek at the ornate ballroom as they shuffle out. The old opulence with the falling plaster glows with morning light. So many white- clothed tables and chairs among the large columns, a small stage and concert piano. White angels ascend into the shocking pink and red of the flourished ceiling.
“I love this place,” she stops to muse.
“I know,” he says.
“Weddings. They hold so many weddings here. You know that?”
Outside the sun is bright. The glare off the cars is blinding. Everywhere here, the crowd leans on cars, lounges with drinks in hand.
“Don’t know how to go home?” Gia screams, insane with laughter. She runs at them, falling there on her knees. She has to be helped up, but no one can stop laughing.
Massive apartment houses slant under a dazzling sky.
“Sleep,” Gia says. The camera can’t seem to right itself.
“We can nap here in the sand,” says Len.
“The water,” she says. The water laps not so far from them. “I love the water.”
But they sleep. For minutes there is only the sound of their breathing, that of the tide.
Noisy sea of coffeeshop. An old guy, the waiter, runs by, bowed over. Gia cackles happily at the sight of him. The waiter stops, raises ecstatic eyes. Clank of plates, silverware. Gia sags over coffee and a donut in a small booth.
“Food. I told you get food.”
“Don’t nag. I prefer fake. I might throw up anyways.”
“Anyways is more accurate.”
“English is not accurate language.”
“Not at all accurate disease.”
“It’s not a disease.”
“Oh, how can you say such mean things?”
“I’m delirious, is all.”
“You are the disease.”
“You win, Gia. We go home.”
“You’re in love with yourself, your image.”
“No. It’s not true. I want to marry you.”
“Green card?!” she cried.
“Green card? Anything you want. Marry me.” He slid onto his knees on the floor. But Gia is laughing hysterically, ecstatically, taking his face up into her hands, kissing and kissing him.
But it got worse. The camera skittered, veered over the bed; a crying Gia.
“HOW DARE YOU?!” X-Files bounded or bounced over the covers. She slithered forward, and there was a loud crack as the lens shattered.
“Our souls are fucked,” Lenny’s voice came in strong and clear.
“No, no,” she was saying between sobs, “Yours. Your soul, not mine.”
Scowls up, chair tipping back for a second, Ford, reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, raises his eyes from ‘A NATION CHALLENGED’ section of the New York Times, squints now at the cool stone floor, making out a few tables here and there, one guy sitting on a stool at the bar, joking with the bartender. A soft darkness of early evening is seen through the neon beer logos at the window.
Ruffles the paper, folds it and puts it down. Takes up the fork and stabs the last of the mushy french fries on his plate, ignoring the cold steak that stains the thick white bread with blood. Downs the last of his Smithwicks, yet gloats then, holding the mug lovingly to his chest. Thankful, nodding at this sweet refuge.
“SON,” he whispers loudly, reaching then for the small black moleskin notebook that sits by the Styron book at his side, almost pitching the plate to the other side of the table. “SON,” he says again. Louder now.
Opens the small notebook he found his son left in the cabin in the Vineyard months ago. Yes, trudging over the sand dunes, sinking in the long grass, talking, talking. Just him and Jess reminiscing early while the family slept. On their way to the local store to get breakfast for everyone. Actual talk about his first teachers. Jess now more aware because of his own kids, Ford’s darling grandkids. But then what else might get him away from the trading desk? Anything at all? Ford couldn’t recall much of that morning of fine sunlight, the talk and moves, tirelessness of the kids, the caution of the mother that irked him most. Jess seemed ridiculously exhausted. What was that about? They moved around the barbeque spit with such happiness, and certainly Ford’s wine coolers that evening weren’t allowing him memories at all. The kids going in and out of the sand until the meat was done, the corn charred. He grew quite giddy in that lawn chair, to drown something out. Was it pain? Pain of too many years crashing down too fast? He got up to go inside as the mosquitos were eating him alive. Lurching, he tripped on his granddaughter’s gym shoes, almost fell on Jess. They laughed and laughed.
Thanksgiving, Christmas. Figured he would get the notebook back to him. On the phone Jess said he could get another one. No bother. Hey, they aren’t cheap, he laughed back. Small pages parted to precise entries. Birthdays, anniversaries. Budget considerations. Where had Jess felt the need for the personal, if anywhere at all? And why so compliant when they told the traders to stay at their desks, to be left behind to die so hideously? Wasn’t that his, Ford’s fault, to create a child with such a fear of failure, a fear of being present in the world?
Imagine, the flawless backpack. The stop at Starbucks. Trains packed as usual. The instantaneous electronic opening of the entry gates to the company badge, packed elevators. God bless the daily grind. He cannot see, no matter how hard he tries, his son. His father, all our fathers, sons. All their eyes, but cannot see.
Flips through the many many empty pages, the shocking white onionskin. Pages that would be filled by the future. But, no.
Child of Mengele
‘the man’ would say. Standing off to the side of the small packed seminar table of five, he would so dryly pick up and open his withered 95 cent copy of the assigned book until he found the passage he was looking for.
As usual, ‘the man’ read too rapidly at the beginning, as if unsure of himself as a teacher. He read too rapidly to get the sense of things, and at the same time, ridiculously matter-of-factly, while the students had barely found the same passages in their brand new reprint editions. Stamm, ‘the man,’ the great novelist, would stop suddenly and look around, eyes glittering. He took a deep breath, and then went on, wild with excitement at his discoveries.
Andre sat back suddenly, inhaling loudly. Eyes were turned to him as his long eyelashes flickered madly under his thick round glasses. Stamm himself looked. Andre had put the book down on the thick oak table, and looked off into space. Stamm had lost not a word, and while he went on, Andre began nodding slowly. This thin elegant young man in a white shirt and tie cupped his head in his hands and began to smile sweetly. His wartorn black leather jacket with the deep red gash of AIDS ribbon hung on the back of his chair. He glanced for a second at Cath, who smiled hard at him, the long face with the sharp nose under a helmet of dark red hair. Her attention, too, began to wander. The high windows of the ninth floor office transformed into a seminar room looked out over a still darkening campus. Many eyes had begun to be drawn out to the reaches of an endless sky.
Hands, gestures, lives intertwined as Stamm went on. New Jerusalems erected themselves in the Bronx, a billion passageways of light emerging through a text of shoes, houses, voices and hands, children, death. Names especially he would nod at.
Now she let her gaze fall on him, Stamm. This icon of culture had chosen each and every one of them especially by their essays for the privilege of studying with him for the only year he deigned to teach at all. ‘Look,’ she thought, ‘such a beautiful Jew.’ The soft blue shirt open at the chest proffered a forest of shiny black and grey hair. His ebony eyes were an ocean under heavy black brows, now quizzical, but often playful, there above the famous bulbous nose.
So her family had barely made it through the Warsaw Ghetto, but she didn’t seem to find the vaguest understanding of any of it, this business of being ‘Jewish.’ Anger had made her family put all of that aside yet Catherine could see that what she was missing she might find here.
So, what of The Years?! Who in New York City hadn’t had a copy of it in their hands last year? So much of it, so dry, hadn’t translated to the world around her. Yet there was Andre, knowing it all by heart, going on about a man called ‘critical of his own people,’ laughing at the sham around the reception of the book, in awe of a man courageous enough to want the best of his people. The book spoke of his talks with his son and his son’s suicide. Andre went on about Stamm’s self- imposed exile since that time, the years in kibbutz, the travels and ongoing lovestory with the Israeli poetess Chen. Why did Andre have such contempt for Stamm’s bouts with ‘the depressive states,’ or ‘the slut at the till?’ How was it that Andre would insist that Stamm was just playing to an audience of brainwashed yuppies in order to stay in print?
Yes, how exciting to see ‘the man’ in this lamplight. The barely laden bookshelves in the tiny elegant room were lost in shadow while the room rang with his voice. Here he was, going at the text as ‘if, well, can we agree at all where this might be taking us? Often the words would pile up at Stamm too rapidly, and then he would come to a slow walk with the text. There the class met him. Cath, Andre, Sonia, and Carl, now joined by Stamm’s sweet old friend, Cy. Cy was a balding man in his late sSixties, billed as Stamm’s ‘buddy from long-ago.’
Stamm would puzzle out phrases, then double back as if trying to sound out a foreign language. There would be coughs and sighs. Bodies would shift in hardknobbed chairs. No one could seem to find the right position. Sonia’s eyes darted about the room a great deal. She was known to be some sort of serious actress according to Andre, but students in this serious a seminar would never be caught socializing, noted Andre. “One needs to preserve one’s own notoriety,” he laughed .
Something burned at Catherine’s face. Snickering, yes. Andre was snickering in full sight of everyone. His eyes closed, and his hand came down on her wrist at the same time he kicked her hard under the table. Why, he might start shrieking with laughter by the look of him. ‘Battered by text,’ is how Andre termed it, one of the ‘primary abuses’ of Stamm’s seminar. Cath made herself listen there, realizing Stamm was going over some longwinded description of an unbelievably brutal sexual act. Someone yawned loudy, and she wondered why.
Stamm sucked his breath in deeply, elegant in his best suitcoat and trousers. Bathed in the brilliant fluorescence of the overhead light, as was Andre, nodding back at him. The class stared hard at the two of them.
“Deconstruct,” cried Stamm., “Yes.”
Andre let out a loud sigh. “Aren’t we talking the end of content itself?” He drank air.
“Um,” nodded Stamm.
“Think,” cried Andre, “how the minimal text itself calls up the indeterminacy of language.”
“Not only because of a glut of telecommunications, but the lack of context renders atrocity on the par with television comedy.”
“We’re all suddenly, well, designer toilet paper! Yes.” Stamm was stunned, electric, ecstatic.
“So, we haven’t gone too far, then?” Andre cried out almost tearfully.
“Oh, but have we?” Stamm laughed deliciously.
“Like making a joke of the masses, of their anguish?”
“But isn’t that what they’re for ?!” Stamm said, turning away with a smirk, blinking hard, and opening the text for the lesson.
“The white. Do you see the white, my dear?!”
Andre’s face shone in the dark sea of the West End Bar. He was clasping the book to his chest then, howling with pleasure. There it was, the first edition of Stamm’s famed short stories ‘the man’ himself had insisted on lending him. Andre was deliriously suffused with alcohol, his rumpled CK tee sticking to his thin ribs. Outside it was bitter cold. It had just started snowing, a fall of thin sharp flakes. At his feet lay his rumpled sweater and the contents of his spilt backpack, books fallen open, escaped essay pages. Their first assignment lay exiled on the other end of the table, while Andre and Cath were lost on a sea of beers and stories of past semesters. Of course, Stamm had insisted on reading Andre’s brilliant first paper aloud, and now Andre couldn’t help but gloat, ordering the two of them cognacs.
Why in the world would he, Andre, come to study in New York, when they had such fine or finer universities in Boston? Andre himself was known for his short stories, one of many to appear shortly in the Paris Review. Cath had heard of Andre’s brilliant work on Beowulf, yet was put off immediately when she heard it was the usual gay interpretation of the text. During the previous semester in their James Joyce class, Andre had been a pompous bastard, shouting down the finest of scholars. Yet now Andre’s mad passion for every single word Stamm uttered, his very breath, fascinated her. She had decided to return to graduate school this semester after having run off to do her painting. Deciding to apply on a whim with an old paper on Elizabeth Bishop, she was startled to find she had been accepted for the seminar.
“But, here,” Andre drummed on the pages. “Between the words. Look at the margins. Something, huh? Fiction in the Sixties. Just try to find that in your paperback reprints,” he laughed.
“Like some sexual act, then?! Is that how you see it?” nodded Cath.
“Yes, oh yes,” the Nasty Brat gloated back. Under the low light reflected back on his glasses, his skin was glowing with sweat.
“Stamm just worships you,” she said, “but he can’t acknowledge me in the least.”
“What, you aren’t dying to be moulded?!” Andre sat up, slammed back in his chair.
“Oh no. Thank God.”
“Now that Sonia, that actress, she’s dying to be moulded. She could give Stamm toilet paper, and he would give her an A.”
“She does. Yes.” Cath sat straight up. “I read her so-called paper.”
“While complimenting her every move?”
“See how they hang onto his words?” Andre’s voice rang with glee.
“How could I miss it?”
“Trying to figure out what he’s driving at.”
“Think he actually reads the books?”
“How Jeanine flounders in her seat.”
“They all suffer,” sniffed Cath.
“Nothing. He’s driving at absolutely nothing.”
“So sad,” murmured Catherine.
“I love it,” said Andre. His eyes absolutely shone. “I love how he tortures them.”
“But he doesn’t care about my work. No. No. It hurts so,” wailed Cath.
Wincing hard, Cath picked up her essay on In Cold Blood for the fifth time that evening. “I mean, his whole idea of sex having to do with violence, and violence alone, well, seems to blind him to everything. People do have lives.”
“Some do. Some do.” Andre leant back deliciously. It was nearing eleven p.m. The campus bar had cleared out only to another table of loud Asian drunks, several staggering back and forth to the bar to get their own drinks. ”Look here, Professor Stamm. We can’t have you put us on any longer. We see that you’re not here for Literature, like us. It’s all ONE BIG FUCK BOOK TO YOU, Sir.”
While he spoke, the book of Stamm’s slipped down off the table to his feet. Laughing hard, Andre pulled his chair back to retrieve it, then ran his fingers through his blond hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. He sniffed then, taking off his glasses, closing his eyes tight with joy.
“Mmmm,” he hummed to himself.
“You intend to be his lover?” Catherine enquired.
“Aren’t I, already?” he sang back.
How taken Stamm was with Sonia’s throbbing fragility. He stood above her, lips pursed. Nodding, he reddened. She had begun on the idea of ‘internal landscape,’ yet struggled to find ground. She seemed not to have a clue at all.
“So very…” she began.
“”So very what?” demanded Stamm.
“Personal? What could you mean by that?”
“I ...” She twisted in her seat. She sniffed, laughing up at him. A warm warble came through her throat, surprising even her. The other women in class murmured. Suddenly everyone was aware of their own sitting in this small room, the sky through the windows. Wondering again at what they were doing there.
Stamm’s eyes peeled at the delicacy of her hands on the book. She let out a small laugh, throwing the book down on the table.
“The ironies,” Andre said, hoping to rescue her.
“Yes, the ironies,” said Stamm, darkly moving around the table. He nodded to each and every one of them until he took his seat at the head of the table again.
There, in the silence of the ‘private conference’, Cath sat across from Stamm who had his hand dead on her paper. In the course of her speech at him he had picked up the paper once and put it down. He never glanced at it. She heard her own voice go on and on. Point by point she went over her citations of textual strategy, how it was operative, how it tied into the major theme, or what she took for the major theme of the text.
He wasn’t hearing a single word she was saying.
“It makes no sense at all,” he repeated again, what he had said when she first arrived. Stamm hung forward, as if he might keel over. “Sorry,” he said, “I can’t possibly give you a decent grade.”
“SCUM. Ha, ha.”
Andre stood so archly at one of those piles of Stamm’s new book, leafing through it so briskly.
“Oh, no,” cried Cath. She was afraid he would topple the tower of Stamm’s new bestseller here at Brentanos on Fifth Avenue right then and there. He closed the book, throwing it from hand to hand as if it were red hot.
‘No, no, no, no,” gurgled Catherine with laughter.
“’Smut,’ he cried.” Oh no. More like ‘Scam.’ Big one. Look. Already translated into fourteen languages.”
“Is it real?” she asked.
“Don’t cry, Andre.”
“I thought he had some values.”
“No, you didn’t.”
Andre abruptly put the book down, moved off darkly.
“Scary world,” he said. “Scary man.”
‘Mengele’s Children’ is what he’d dryly called them, the class photographed for the Times article on Stamm, his new book and his teaching. Here, the students were no more than the horrifying results of Nazi experimentation, yet in the weekend article, they were depicted as no more than earnest students of the semiotics of world literature.
“Earnest retards, yes,” concluded Andre.
“Why should these books look so ugly, Sir?” asked Andre . They were ready to launch into the Roth novel when Andre stopped him short.
“WHAT?!” Stamm laughed insanely while the class smiled back brightly.
“Taking them at surface value only makes them ugly.”
“Is it my fault how you take them?”
“That might be an instructor’s job, to some degree,” countered Andre.
“You think so?” laughed Stamm.
“This is Stamm’s class, not your’s,” cried Carl.
“Precisely. You do a good job showing us the ‘affect’ of the text. Yet isn’t there more?” Stamm looked doubtful at this. “In their historical, political and cultural context, they might in fact have value. Moral, even. Why do we never stop to consider any of that?”
“We can talk after class, Andre.” He cleared his throat and opened his book.
“Some of us call that ‘bad faith,’ Sir.”
“You’re deflecting my question, Sir.”
“As far as I see it, Andre,” Stamm leant back luxuriously, “there is none.”
“So that’s what it is, Professor Stamm. You prefer to embody the cruel fuck of the Old Testament God.”
Stamm yelped loudly.
“Our generation won’t take it. We’re dying of AIDS.” Andre was screaming. ” We’ve got Kosovo to face. Anything we might write reflects life or death. We haven’t viewed a single one of these books as if there were something at stake. Reading Nadine Gordimer or V.S. Naipaul as if they’re boutique items makes sense only if you’re stuck in a dream world. You have the vaguest idea why this material exists. More, I don’t need your cruel fuck to give meaning to my life.”
“No, Andre, no,” screamed Cath.
“Come on, Andre,” jibed Carl., “Aren’t you dying for it?”
“Fuck you,” spit Andre, standing up.
“GET OUT!” shrieked Stamm.
Cath is late to class, mumbles an apology when Stamm opens the door for her. His eyes sparkle. This was to be the final class of the semester. Stamm clears his throat, stands patiently as coats are moved and a chair pulled out so Cath can settle in. He resumes the discussion.
Janine, to Cath’s side, with her big hair and ostentatious boots, sighs. She is busy making lists for Channukah. Carl is composed, as if posing for a magazine shoot in his fine suit and tie. Andre always wondered how the guy might possibly keep a job. He actually worked as an assistant in a literary agency. Doing what, Andre had wondered. He didn’t seem to have the vaguest idea what a book or manuscript might be. Sonia is worn, pensive. Her eyes flit over her book as if it were in another language she could not possibly understand. Since Stamm insisted she looked like a Polish moviestar, Andre surmised she spent her time thinking how sexy she was. Cy, the old man, smiles like a stuffed doll, sitting forward, hunched. Andre called Cy Stamm’s ‘Holocaust yes man.’ Andre was no longer allowed in class. The story was that he barged into Stamm’s office, and ‘spoke his mind,’ spoke of the excess of bad faith that was poisoning the modern world. It had no business here, he insisted. Speaking his mind had included his ‘throwing a few punches, ’’not bad for a gay boy, either,’ insisted Stamm’s assistant. Many, many, it seemed, wished they’d done it themselves. At least Andre was out of harm’s way, maybe he would learn to temper his feelings in the future.
“Can you read for us, Cath?” asked Stamm. “We’re on page 84.”
“This?” she had the page open of the Holocaust memoir.
“Of course,” he answered back.
“I can’t,.” she said simply.
“Why not? Is there a reason?” demanded Stamm.
“We take the albums out. Family albums. The faces..”
“What in hell are you talking about?” demanded Stamm.
“Most of my family died there,” she replied.
“Please, Carl,” cried Stamm then., “Could you read this passage for us, then?”
Carl shuffled in his seat. He had grown his hair out to a long pageboy.
“I don’t have my copy of the book. Not with me,” he cried.
“You did read it, didn’t you?”
“Sir, it’s so busy at the office these weeks.”
“You do have a copy of the book, don’t you?”
Sonia stifles a giggle. Carl nods ‘yes.’
“You need to read it,” nodded Stamm. Sonia stands up suddenly, indicating she has to leave the room for the moment. As she moves to the door, everyone looks up to see the streams of tears shining down her face. A shriek of laughter reverberates down the stone corridor once she closes the door behind her.
“Maybe you could help us out, then,” said Stamm, his eye falling on his ‘old friend’ Cy.
The sweet old man with the halo of long wispy hair hauled himself around. His chin had sunk down in his chest as he gazed hard at the spot Andre liked most to sit.
“WHAT?” he cried.
“Could you read for us?” cried Stamm.
“Read. Read? I love to read.”
“But read for us, Cy.”
“Oh yes. Yes.”
Cy was putting on his reading glasses.
“Take my copy. Here. You know it well. You helped me do work on it.,” Stamm purred. He had to wait until Cy had the glasses on securely before handing him the book.
“I know this book," Cy said.
“Of course you do.”
Cy sat back in his chair, the book closing in his lap.
“The Ringleblum,” he gasped.
“But why? Why my life? Why force me again and again?”
“Just read it, will you?!”
But Cy was already sobbing hard. Many had put their books down, but then a few were reaching for their coats. Nodding hard at one another, some reached the door to leave.
she asked. Andre had answered the door in stockinged feet, cigarette in hand. “Downtown Beirut,” she laughed at the disarray of his apartment. Pictures had been torn from the walls, glass shattered, the entirety of the bookcase thrown against the opposite wall, glasses, cups and plates shattered everywhere.
“I’ve always wanted to see Downtown Beirut,” she cried. He laughed, nodding at what he’d done, yet looking about pensively like the cat who ate the parakeet.He pulled her to the diningroom table to show her a newly opened envelope. There, a manuscript and letter for an article he’d written. His study of the poems of Pasolini that was to be published shortly in a fine journal.
Andre started up with a low laugh which got stuck in his throat. He mashed out the cigarette, and grabbed to hug her with his bony arms and chest. Tears started down his face. Then came the convulsive sobs, but he held her tightly and finally reached through to breathe.