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V.《V》


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Chapter Ten

 In which various sets of young people get together

 I

 McClintic Sphere, whose horn man was soloing, stood by the empty piano,  looking off at nothing in particular. He was half listening to the music  (touching the keys of his alto now and again, as if by sympathetic magic to  make that natural horn develop the idea differently, some way Sphere thought  could be better) and half watching the customers at the tables.

This was last set and it'd been a bad week for Sphere. Some of the colleges  were let out and the place had been crowded with these types who liked to  talk to each other a lot. Every now and again, they'd invite him over to a  table between sets and ask him what he thought about other altos. Some of  them would go through the old Northern liberal routine: look at me, I'll sit  with anybody. Either that or they would say: "Hey fella, how about Night  Train?" Yes, bwana. Yazzuh, boss. Dis darkey, ol' Uncle McClintic, he play  you de finest Night Train you evah did hear. An' aftah de set he gwine take  dis of alto an' shove it up yo' white Ivy League ass.

The horn wanted to finish off: he'd been tired all week as Sphere. They took  fours with the drummer, stated the main theme in unison and left the stand.

The bums stood outside like a receiving line. Spring had hit New York all  warm and aphrodisiac. Sphere found his Triumph in the lot, got in and took  off uptown. He needed to relax.

Half an hour later he was in Harlem, in a friendly rooming (and in a sense  cat) house run by one Matilda Winthrop, who was little and wizened and  looked like any elderly little lady you might see in the street going along  with gentle steps in the waning afternoon to look for spleens and greens at  the market.

"She's up there," Matilda said, with a smile for everybody, even musicians  with a headful of righteous moss who were making money and drove sports  cars. Sphere shadowboxed with her for a few minutes. She bad better reflexes  than he did.

The girl was sitting on the bed, smoking and reading a western. Sphere  tossed his coat on a chair. She moved over to make room for him, dogeared a  page, put the book on the floor. Soon he was telling her about the week,  about the kids with money who used him for background music and the  musicians from other bigger groups, also with money, who were cautious and  had mixed reactions and the few who couldn't really afford dollar beers at  the V-Note but did or wanted to understand except that the space they might  have occupied was already taken up by the rich kids and musicians. He told  it all into the pillow and she rubbed his back with amazingly gentle hands.  Her name, she said, was Ruby but he didn't believe that. Soon:

"Do you ever dig what I'm trying to say," he wondered.

"On the horn I don't," she answered, honest enough, "a girl doesn't  understand. All she does is feel. I feel what you play, like I feel what you  need when you're inside me. Maybe they're the same thing. McClintic, I don't  know. You're kind to me, what is it you want?"

"Sorry," he said. After a while, "This is a good way to relax."

"Stay tonight?"

"Sure."

 

Slab and Esther, uncomfortable with each other, stood in front of an easel  in his place, looking at Cheese Danish # 35. The cheese Danish was a recent  obsession of Slab's. He had taken, some time ago, to painting in a frenzy  these morning-pastries in every conceivable style, light and setting. The  room was already littered with Cubist Fauve and Surrealist cheese Danishes.  "Monet spent his declining years at his Home in Giverny, painting the water  lilies in the garden pool," reasoned Slab. "He painted all kinds of water  lilies. He liked water lilies. These are my declining years. I like cheese  banishes, they have kept me alive now for longer than I can remember. Why  Dot."

The subject of Cheese Danish # 35 occupied only a small area to the lower  left of center, where it was pictured impaled on one of the metal steps of a  telephone pole. The landscape was an empty street, drastically  foreshortened, the only living things in it a tree in the middle distance,  on which perched an ornate bird, busily textured with a great many swirls,  flourishes and bright-colored patches.

"This," explained Slab in answer to her question, "is my revolt against  Catatonic Expressionism: the universal symbol I have decided will replace  the Cross in western civilization. It is the Partridge in the Pear Tree. You  remember the old Christmas song, which is a linguistic joke. Perdrix, pear  tree. The beauty is that it works like a machine yet is animate. The  partridge eats pears off the tree and his droppings in turn nourish the tree  which groves higher and higher, every day lifting the partridge up and at  the same time assuring him of a continuous supply of good. It is perpetual  motion, except for one thing." He pointed out a gargoyle with sharp fangs  near the top of the picture. The point of the largest fang lay on an  imaginary line projected parallel to the axis of the tree and drawn through  the head of the bird. "It could as well have been a low-flying airplane or  high-tension wire," Slab said. "But someday that bird will be impaled on the  gargoyle's teeth, just like the poor cheese Danish is already on the phone  pole."

"Why can't he fly away?" Esther said.

"He is too stupid. He used to know how to fly once, but he's forgotten."

"I detect allegory in all this," she said.

"No," said Slab. "That is on the same intellectual level as doing the Times  crossword puzzle on Sunday. Phony. Unworthy of you."

She'd wandered to the bed. "No," he almost yelled.

"Slab, it's so bad. It's a physical pain, here." She drew her fingers across  her abdomen.

"I'm not getting any either," said Slab. "I can't help it that Schoenmaker  cut you off."

"Aren't I your friend?"

"No," said Slab.

"What can I do to show you -"

"Go," said Slab, "is what you can do. And let me sleep. In my chaste army  cot. Alone." He crawled to the bed and lay face down. Soon Esther left,  forgetting to close the door. Not being the type to slam doors on being  rejected.

 

Roony and Rachel sat at the bar of a neighborhood tavern on Second Avenue.  Over in the corner an Irishman and a Hungarian were yelling at each other  over the bowling game.

"Where does she go at night," Roony wondered.

"Paola is a strange girl," said Rachel. "You learn after a while not to ask  her questions she doesn't want to answer."

"Maybe seeing Pig."

"No. Pig Bodine lives at the V-Note and the Rusty Spoon. He has a letch for  Paola a mile long but he reminds her too much, I think, of Pappy Hod. The  Navy has a certain way of endearing itself. She stays away from him and it's  killing him and I for one am glad to see it."

It's killing me, Winsome wanted to say. He didn't. Lately he'd been running  for comfort to Rachel. He'd come in a way to depend on it. Her sanity and  aloofness from the Crew, her own self-sufficiency drew him. But he was no  nearer to arranging any assignation with Paola. Perhaps he was afraid of  Rachel's reaction. He was beginning to suspect she was not the sort who  approved of pimping for one's roommate. He ordered another boilermaker.

"Roony, you drink too much," she said. "I worry about you."

"Nag, nag, nag." He smiled.

 

Next evening, Profane was sitting in the guardroom at Anthroresearch  Associates, feet propped on a gas stove, reading an avant-garde western  called Existentialist Sheriff, which Pig Bodine had recommended. Across one  of the laboratory spaces, features lit Frankenstein's-monsterlike by a night  light, facing Profane, sat SHROUD: synthetic human, radiation output  determined.

Its skin was cellulose acetate butyrate, a plastic transparent not only to  light but also to X-rays, gamma rays and neutrons. Its skeleton had once  been that of a living human; now the bones were decontaminated and the long  ones and spinal column hollowed inside to receive radiation dosimeters.  SHROUD was five feet nine inches tall - the fiftieth percentile of Air Force  standards. The lungs, sex organs, kidneys, thyroid, liver, spleen and other  internal organs were hollow and made of the same clear plastic as the body  shell. These could be filled with aqueous solutions which absorbed the same  amount of radiation as the tissue they represented.

Anthroresearch Associates was a subsidiary of Yoyodyne. It did research for  the government on the effects of high-altitude and space flight; for the  National Safety Council on automobile accidents; and for Civil Defense on  radiation absorption, which was where SHROUD came in. In the eighteenth  century it was often convenient to regard man as a clockwork automaton. In  the nineteenth century, with Newtonian physics pretty well assimilated and a  lot of work in thermodynamics going on, man was looked on more as a  heat-engine, about 40 per cent efficient. Now in the twentieth century, with  nuclear and subatomic physics a going thing, man had become something which  absorbs X-rays, gamma rays and neutrons. Such at least was Oley Bergomask's  notion of progress. It was the subject of his welcome-aboard lecture on  Profane's first day of employment, at five in the afternoon as Profane was  going on and Bergomask off. There were two eight-hour night shifts, early  and late (though Profane, whose time scale was skewed toward the past,  preferred to call them late and early) and Profane to date had worked them  both.

Three times a night he had to make the rounds of the lab areas, windows and  heavy equipment. If an all-night routine experiment was in progress he'd  have to take readings and if they were out of tolerance wake up the  technician on duty, who'd usually be sleeping on a cot in one of the  offices. At first there'd been a certain interest in visiting the accident  research area, which was jokingly referred to as the chamber of horrors.  Here weights were dropped on aged automobiles, inside which would be sitting  a manikin. The study now under way had to do with first-aid training, and  various versions of SHOCK - synthetic human object, casualty kinematics -  got to sit in the driver's, death, or back seat of the test cars. Profane  still felt a certain kinship with SHOCK, which was the first inanimate  schlemihl he'd ever encountered. But in there too was a certain wariness  because the manikin was still only a "human object"; plus a feeling of  disdain as if SHOCK had decided to sell out to humans; so that now what had  been its inanimate own were taking revenge.

SHOCK was a marvelous manikin. It had the same build as SHROUD but its flesh  was molded of foam vinyl, its skin vinyl plastisol, its hair a wig, its eyes  cosmetic-plastic, its teeth (for which, in fact, Eigenvalue had acted as  subcontractor) the same kind of dentures worn today by 19 per cent of the  American population, most of them respectable. Inside were a blood reservoir  in the thorax, a blood pump in the midsection and a nickel-cadmium battery  power supply in the abdomen. The control panel, at the side of the chest,  had toggles and rheostat controls for venous and arterial bleeding, pulse  rate, and even respiration rate, when a sucking chest wound was involved. In  the latter case plastic lungs provided the necessary suction and bubbling.  They were controlled by an air pump in the abdomen, with the motor's cooling  vent located in the crotch. An injury of the sexual organs could still be  simulated by an attachable moulage, but then this blocked the cooling vent.  SHOCK could not therefore have a sucking chest wound and mutilated sexual  organs simultaneously. A new retrofit, however, eliminated this difficulty,  which was felt to be a basic design deficiency.

SHOCK was thus entirely lifelike in every way. It scared the hell out of  Profane the first time he saw it, lying half out the smashed windshield of  an old Plymouth, fitted with moulages for depressed-skull and jaw injuries  and compound arm and leg fractures. But now he'd got used to it. The only  thing at Anthroresearch that still fazed him a little was SHROUD, whose face  was a human skull that looked at you through a more-or-less abstracted  butyrate head.

It was time to make another round. The building was empty except for  Profane. No experiments tonight. On the way back to the guardroom he stopped  in front of SHROUD.

"What's it like," he said.

Better than you have it.

"Wha."

Wha yourself. Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday. (The  skull seemed to be grinning at Profane.)

"There are other ways besides fallout and road accidents."

But those are most likely. If somebody else doesn't do it to you, you'll do  it to yourselves.

"You don't even have a soul. How can you talk."

Since when did you ever have one? What are you doing, getting religion? All  I am is a dry run. They take readings off my dosimeters. Who is to say  whether I'm here so the people can read the meters or whether the radiation  in me is because they have to measure. Which way does it go?

"it's one way," said Profane. "All one way."

Mazel tov. (Maybe the hint of a smile?)

Somehow Profane had difficulty getting back in the plot of Existentialist  Sheriff. After a while he got up and went over to SHROUD. "What do you mean,  we'll be like you and SHOCK someday? You mean dead?"

Am I dead? If I am then that's what I mean.

"If you aren't then what are you?"

Nearly what you are. None of you have very far to go.

"I don't understand."

So I see. But you're not alone. That's a comfort, isn't it? To hell with it.  Profane went back to the guardroom and busied himself making Coffee.

 

III

 The next weekend there was a party at Raoul, Slab and Melvin's. The Whole  Sick Crew was there.

At one in the morning Roony and Pig started a fight.

"Son of a bitch," Roony yelled. "You keep your hands off her."

"His wife," Esther informed Slab. The Crew had withdrawn to the walls,  leaving Pig and Roony most of the floor space. Both were drunk and sweating.  They wrestled around, stumbling and inexpert, trying to fight like a western  movie. It is incredible how many amateur brawlers believe the movie saloon  fight is the only acceptable model to follow. At last Pig dropped Roony with  a fist to the abdomen. Roony just lay there, eyes closed, trying to hold  down his breathing because it hurt. Pig wandered out to the kitchen. The  fight had been over a girl but both of them knew her name was Paola, not  Mafia.

 

"I don't hate the Jewish people," Mafia was explaining, "only the things  they do." She and Profane were alone in her apartment. Roony was out  drinking. Perhaps seeing Eigenvalue. It was the day after the fight. She  didn't seem to care where her husband was.

All at once Profane got a marvelous idea. She wanted to keep Jews out? Maybe  half a Jew could get in.

She beat him to it: her hand reached for his belt buckle and started to  unfasten it.

"No," he said, having changed his mind. Needing a zipper to undo, her hands  slid away, around her hips to the back of her skirt. "Now look."

"I need a man," already half out of the skirt, "fashioned for Heroic Love.  I've wanted you ever since we met."

"Heroic Love's ass," said Profane. "You're married."

Charisma was having nightmares in the next room. He started thumping around  under the green blanket, flailing out at the elusive shadow of his own  Persecutor.

"Here," she said, lower half denuded, "here on the rug."

Profane got up and rooted around in the icebox for beer. Mafia lay on the  floor, screaming at him.

"Here yourself." He set a can of beer on her soft abdomen. She yelped,  knocking it over. The beer made a soggy spot on the rug between them, like a  bundling board or Tristan's blade. "Drink your beer and tell me about Heroic  Love." She was making no move to get dressed.

"A woman wants to feel like a woman," breathing hard, "is all. She wants to  be taken, penetrated, ravished. But more than that she wants to enclose the  man."

With spiderwebs woven of yo-yo string: a net or trap. Profane could think of  nothing but Rachel.

"Nothing heroic about a schlemihl," Profane told her. What was a hero?  Randolph Scott, who could handle a six-gun, horse's reins, lariat. Master of  the inanimate. But a schlemihl, that was hardly a man: somebody who lies  back and takes it from objects, like any passive woman.

"Why," he wondered, "does something like sex have to be so confused. Mafia,  why do you have to have names for it." Here he was arguing again. Like with  Fina in the bathtub.

"What are you," she snarled, "a latent homosexual? You afraid of women?"

"No, I'm not queer." How could you say: sometimes women remind me of  inanimate objects. Young Rachel, even: half an MG.

Charisma came in, two beady eyes peering through burnholes in the blanket.  He spotted Mafia, moved toward her. The green wool mound began to sing:

   It is something less than heaven

   To be quoted Thesis 1.7

   Every time I make an advance;

   If the world is all that the case is

   That's a pretty discouraging basis

   On which to pursue

   Any sort of romance.

   I've got a proposition for you;

   Logical, positive and brief.

   And at least it could serve as a kind of comic relief:

[Refrain]

   Let P equal me,

   With my heart in command;

   Let Q equal you

   With Tractatus in hand;

   And R could stand for a lifetime of love,

   Filled with music to fondle and purr to.

   We'll define love as anything lovely you'd care to infer to.

   On the right, put that bright,

   Hypothetical case;

   On the left, our uncleft,

   Parenthetical chase.

   And that horseshoe there in the middle

   Could be lucky; we've nothing to lose,

   If in these parentheses

   We just mind our little P's

   And Q's.

   If P [Mafia sang in reply] thinks of me

   As a girl hard to make,

   Then Q wishes you

   Would go jump in the lake.

   For R is a meaningless concept,

   Having nothing to do with pleasure:

   I prefer the hard and tangible things I can measure.

   Man, you chase in the face

   Of impossible odds;

   I'm a lass in the class

   Of unbossable broads.

   If you'll promise no more sticky phrases,

   Half a mo while I kick off my shoes.

   There are birds, there are bees,

   And to hell with all your P's

   And Q's.

By the time Profane finished his beer, the blanket covered them both.

 

Twenty days before the Dog Star moved into conjunction with the sun, the dog  days began. The world started to run more and more afoul of the inanimate.  Fifteen were killed in a train wreck near Oaxaca, Mexico, on 1 July. The  next day fifteen people died when an apartment house collapsed in Madrid.  July 4 a bus fell into a river near Karachi and thirty-one passengers  drowned. Thirty-nine more were drowned two days later in a tropical storm in  the central Philippines. 9 July the Aegean Islands were hit by an earthquake  and tidal waves, which killed forty-three. 14 July a MATS plane crashed  after takeoff from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, killing forty-five.  An earthquake at Anjar, India, 21 July, killed 117. From 22 to 24 July  floods rampaged in central and southern Iran, killing three hundred. 28 July  a bus ran off a ferryboat at Kuopio, Finland, and fifteen were killed. Four  petroleum tanks blew up near Dumas, Texas, 29 July, killing nineteen. 1  August, seventeen died in a train wreck near Rio de Janeiro. Fifteen more  died the 4th and 5th, in floods in southwest Pennsylvania. 2161 people died  the same week in a typhoon which hit Chekiang, Honan and Hopeh Provinces. 7  August six dynamite trucks blew up in Cali, Colombia, killing about 1100.  The same day there was a train wreck at Prerov, Czechoslovakia, killing  nine. The next day 262 miners, trapped by fire, died in a coal mine under  Marcinelle, in Belgium. Ice avalanches on Mont Blanc swept fifteen mountain  climbers into the kingdom of death in the week 12 to 18 August. The same  week a gas explosion in Monticello, Utah, killed fifteen and a typhoon  through Japan and Okinawa killed thirty. Twenty-nine more coal miners died  of gas poisoning in a mine in Upper Silesia on 27 August. Also on the 27th a  Navy bomber crashed among houses in Sanford, Florida, and killed four. Next  day a gas explosion in Montreal killed seven and flash floods in Turkey  killed 138.

These were the mass deaths. There were also the attendant maimed,  malfunctioning, Homeless, lorn. It happens every month in a succession of  encounters between groups of living and a congruent world - which simply  doesn't care. Look in any yearly Almanac, under "Disasters" - which is where  the figures above come from. The Business is transacted month after month  after month.

 

IV

 McClintic Sphere had been reading fakebooks all afternoon. "If you ever want  to get depressed," he told Ruby, "read through a fakebook. I don't mean the  music, I mean the words."

The girl didn't answer. She'd been nervous the past couple of weeks. "What  is wrong, baby," he'd say; but she'd shrug it off. One night she told him it  was her father who was bugging her. She missed him. Maybe he was sick.

"You been seeing him? A little girl should do that. You don't know how lucky  you are to have your father."

"He lives in another city," and she wouldn't say any more.

Tonight he said, "Look, you need the fare? You go see him. That's what you  ought to do."

"McClintic," she said, "what Business does a whore have going anywhere? A  whore isn't human."

"You are. You are with me, Ruby. You know it; we aren't playing any games  here," patting the bed.

"Whore lives in one place and stays there. Like some little virgin girl in a  fairy tale. She doesn't do any traveling, unless she works the streets."

"You haven't been thinking about that."

"Maybe." She wouldn't look at him.

"Matilda likes you. You crazy?"

"What else is there? Either the street or all cooped up. If I do go see him  I won't come back."

"Where does he live. South Africa?"

"Maybe."

"Oh Christ."

Now, McClintic Sphere told himself, nobody goes and falls in love with a  prostitute. Not unless he's fourteen or so and she's the first piece of tail  he's ever had. But this Ruby, whatever she might be in bed, was a good  friend outside it too. He worried about her. It was (for a change) that good  kind of worry; not, say, like Roony Winsome's, which seemed to bug the man  worse every time McClintic saw him.

It had been going on now for at least a couple of weeks. McClintic, who'd  never gone along all the way with the "cool" outlook that developed in the  postwar years, didn't mind as much as some other musicians might have when  Roony got juiced and started talking about his personal problems. A few  times Rachel had been along with him, and McClintic knew Rachel was  straight, and there wasn't any jazzing going on there, so Roony must have  genuinely had problems with this Mafia woman.

It was moving into deep summer time in Nueva York, the worst time of the  year. Time for rumbles in the park and a lot of kids getting killed; time  for tempers to get frayed, marriages to break up, all homicidal and chaotic  impulses, frozen inside for the winter, to thaw now and come to the surface,  and glitter out the pores of your face. McClintic was heading up for Lenox,  Mass., for that jazz festival. He knew he couldn't stand it here. But what  about Roony? What he was getting at Home (most likely) was edging him toward  something. McClintic noticed that last night, between sets at the V-Note.  He'd seen the look before: a bass player he'd known in Fort Worth who never  changed expression, who was always telling you "I have this problem with  narcotics," who'd flipped one night and they took him away to the hospital  at Lexington or someplace. McClintic would never know. But Roony had the  same look: too cool. Too unemotional when he said "I have a problem with my  woman." What was there inside for deep summer in Nueva York to melt? What  would happen when it did?

This word flip was weird. Every recording date of McClintic's he'd got into  the habit of talking electricity with the audio men and technicians in the  studio. McClintic once couldn't have cared less about electricity, but now  it seemed if that was helping him reach a bigger audience, some digging,  some who would never dig, but all paying and those royalties keeping the  Triumph in gas and McClintic in J. Press suits, then McClintic ought to be  grateful to electricity, ought maybe to learn a little more about it. So  he'd picked up some here and there, and one day last summer he got around to  talking stochastic music and digital computers with one technician. Out of  the conversation had come Set/Reset, which was getting to be a signature for  the group. He had found out from this sound man about a two-triode circuit  called a flip-flop, which when it was turned on could be one of two ways,  depending on which tube was conducting and which was cut off: set or reset,  flip or flop.

"And that," the man said, "can be yes or no, or one or zero. And that is  what you might call one of the basic units, or specialized 'cells' in a big  'electronic brain.'"

"Crazy," said McClintic, having lost him back there someplace. But one thing  that did occur to him was 1f a computer's brain could go flip and flop, why  so could a musician's. As long as you were flop, everything was cool. But  where did the trigger-pulse come from to make you flip?

McClintic, no lyricist, had made up nonsense words to go along with  Set/Reset. He sang them to himself sometimes on the stand, while the natural  horn was soloing:

   Gwine cross de Jordan

   Ecclesiastically:

   Flop, flip, once I was hip,

   Flip, flop, now you're on top,

   Set-REset, why are we Beset

   With crazy and cool in the same molecule . . ." 

"What are you thinking about," said the girl Ruby.

"Flipping," said McClintic.

"You'll never flip."

"Not me," McClintic said, "whole lot of people."

After a while he said, not really to her, "Ruby, what happened after the  war? That war, the world flipped. But come '45, and they flopped. Here in  Harlem they flopped. Everything got cool - no love, no hate, no worries, no  excitement. Every once in a while, though, somebody flips back. Back to  where he can love . . ."

"Maybe that's it," the girl said, after a while. "Maybe you have to be crazy  to love somebody."

"But you take a whole bunch of people flip at the same time and you've got a  war. Now war is not loving, is it?"

"Flip, flop," she said, "get the mop."

"You're just like a little kid."

"McClintic," she said. "I am. I worry about you. I worry about my father.  Maybe he's flipped."

"Why don't you go see him." The same argument again. Tonight they were in  for a long spell of arguing.

 

"You are beautiful," Schoenmaker was saying.

"Shale, am I."

"Perhaps not as you are. But as I see you."

She sat up. "It can't keep going the way it's been."

"Come back."

"No, Shale, my nerves can't take this -"

"Come back."

"It's getting so I can't look at Rachel, or Slab -"

"Come back." At last she lay again beside him. "Pelvic bones," he said,  touching there, "should protrude more. That would be very sexy. I could do  that for you."

"Please."

"Esther, I want to give. I want to do things for you. If I can bring out the  beautiful girl inside you, the idea of Esther, as I have done already with  your face . . ."

She became aware of a clock ticking on the table next to them. She lay stiff, ready to run to the street, naked if need be.

 

"Come," he said, "half an hour in the next room. So simple I can do it  alone. Nothing but a local anaesthetic."

She began to cry.

"What would it be next?" she said a few moments later. "Larger breasts,  you'd want. Then my ears might be a shade too big for you: Shale, why can't  it be just me?"

He rolled over, exasperated. "How do you tell a woman," he asked the floor.  "What is loving if not -"

"You don't love me." She was up, struggling clumsy into a brassiere. "You've  never said it and if you did you wouldn't mean it."

"You'll be back," he said, still watching the floor.

"I won't," through the light wool of her sweater. But of course she would be.

After she left, there was only the ticking of the clock, until Schoenmaker  yawned, sudden and explosive; rolled over to confront the ceiling and begin  swearing at it softly.

 

While at Anthroresearch Profane listened with half an ear to the Coffee  percolating; and carried on another imaginary conversation with SHROUD. By  now that had become a tradition.

Remember, Profane, how it is on Route 14, south, outside Elmira, New York?  You walk on an overpass and look west and see the sun setting on a junkpile.  Acres of old cars, piled up ten high in rusting tiers. A graveyard for cars.  If I could die, that's what my graveyard would look like.

"I wish you would. Look at you, masquerading like a human being. You ought  to be junked. Not burned or cremated."

Of course. Like a human being. Now remember, right after the war, the  Nuremberg war trials? Remember the photographs of Auschwitz? Thousands of  Jewish corpses, stacked up like those poor car-bodies. Schlemihl: It's  already started.

"Hitler did that. He was crazy."

Hitler, Eichmann, Mengele. Fifteen years ago. Has it occurred to you there  may be no more standards for crazy or sane, now that it's started?

"What, for Christ sake?"

 

While Slab lounged meticulous about his canvas, Cheese Danish # 41, making  quick little stabs with a fine old kolinsky brush at the surface of the  painting. Two brown slugs - snails without shells - lay crosswise and  copulating on a polygonal slab of marble, a translucent white bubble rising  between them. No impasto here: "long" paint, everything put there more than  real could ever be. Weird illumination, shadows all wrong, surfaces of  marble, slugs and a half-eaten cheese Danish in the upper right textured  painstakingly fine. So that their slimy trails, converging straight and  inevitable from bottom and side to the X of their union, did shine like  moonlight.

And Charisma, Fu and Pig Bodine came rollicking out of a grocery store up on  the West Side, yelling football signals and tossing a poor-looking eggplant  about under the lights of Broadway.

And Rachel and Roony sat on a bench in Sheridan Square, talking about Mafia  and Paola. It was one in the morning, a wind had risen and something curious  too had happened; as if everyone in the city, simultaneously, had become  sick of news of any kind; for thousands of newspaper pages blew through the  small park on the way crosstown, blundered like pale bats against the trees,  tangled themselves around the feet of Roony and Rachel, and of a bum  sleeping across the way. Millions of unread and useless words had come to a  kind of life in Sheridan Square; while the two on the bench wove cross-tally  of their own, oblivious, among them.

And Stencil sat dour and undrunk, in the Rusty Spoon, while Slab's friend,  another Catatonic Expressionist, harangued him with the Great Betrayal, told  of the Dance of Death. While around them something of the sort was in fact  going on: for here was the Whole Sick Crew, was it not, linked maybe by a  spectral chain and rollicking along over some moor or other. Stencil thought  of Mondaugen's story, The Crew at Foppl's, saw here the same leprous  pointillism of orris root, weak jaws and bloodshot eyes, tongues and backs  of teeth stained purple by this morning's Homemade wine, lipstick which it  seemed could be peeled off intact, tossed to the earth to join a trail of  similar jetsam - the disembodied smiles or pouts which might serve, perhaps,  as spoor for next generation's Crew . . . God.

"Wha," said the Catatonic Expressionist.

"Melancholy," said Stencil.

And Mafia Winsome, mateless, stood undressed before the mirror,  contemplating herself and little else. And the cat yowled in the courtyard.

And who knew where Paola was?

 

In the past few days Esther had become more and more impossible for  Schoenmaker to get along with. He began to think about breaking it off  again, only this time permanently.

"It isn't me you love," she kept saying. "You want to change me into  something I'm not."

In return he could only argue a kind of Platonism at her. Did she want him  so shallow he should only love her body? It was her soul he loved. What was  the matter with her, didn't every girl want a man to love the soul, the true  them? Sure, they did. Well, what is the soul. It is the idea of the body,  the abstraction behind the reality: what Esther really was, shown to the  senses with certain imperfections there in the bone and tissue. Schoenmaker  could bring out the true, perfect Esther which dwelled inside the imperfect  one. Her soul would be there on the outside, radiant, unutterably beautiful.

"Who are you," she yelled back, "to say what my soul looks like. You know  what you're in love with? Yourself. Your own skill in plastic surgery, is  what."

In answer to which Schoenmaker rolled over and stared at the floor; and  wondered aloud if be would ever understand women.

Eigenvalue the soul-dentist had even given Schoenmaker counsel. Schoenmaker  was not a colleague, but as if Stencil's notion of an inner circle were  correct after all, things got around. "Dudley, fella," he told himself,  "you've got no Business with any of these people."

But then, he did. He gave cut rates on cleaning, drilling and root-canal  jobs for members of the Crew. Why? If they were all bums but still providing  society with valuable art and thought, why that would be fine. If that were  the case then someday, possibly in the next rising period of history, when  this Decadence was past and the planets were being colonized and the world  at peace, a dental historian would mention Eigenvalue in a footnote as  Patron of the Arts, discreet physician to the neo-Jacobean school.

But they produced nothing but talk and at that not very good talk. A few  like Slab actually did what they professed; turned out a tangible product.  But again, what? Cheese danishes. Or this technique for the sake of  technique - Catatonic Expressionism. Or parodies on what someone else had  already done.

So much for Art. What of Thought? The Crew had developed a kind of shorthand  whereby they could set forth any visions that might come their way.  Conversations at the Spoon had become little more than proper nouns,  literary allusions, critical or philosophical terms linked in certain ways.  Depending on how you arranged the building blocks at your disposal, you were  smart or stupid. Depending on how others reacted they were In or Out. The  number of blocks, however, was finite.

"Mathematically, boy," he told himself, "if nobody else original comes  along, they're bound to run out of arrangements someday. What then?" What  indeed. This sort of arranging and rearranging was Decadence, but the  exhaustion of all possible permutations and combinations was death.

It scared Eigenvalue, sometimes. He would go in back and look at the set of  dentures. Teeth and metals endure.

 

V

 McClintic, back for a weekend from Lenox, found August in Nueva York bad as  he'd expected. Buzzing close to sundown through Central Park in the Triumph  he saw all manner of symptoms: girls on the grass, sweating all over in thin  (vulnerable) summer dresses; groups of boys prowling off on the horizon,  twitchless, sure, waiting for night; cops and solid citizens, all nervous  (maybe only in a business way; but the cops' Business had to do with these  boys and the coming of night).

He'd come back to see Ruby. Faithful, he'd sent her postcards showing  different views of Tanglewood and the Berkshires once a week; cards she  never answered. But he'd called long-distance once or twice and she was  still there close to Home.

For some reason one night he'd dashed lengthwise across the state (a tiny  state considering the Triumph's speed), McClintic and the bass player;  nearly missed Cape Cod and driven into the sea. But sheer momentum carried  them up that croissant of land and out to a settlement called French Town, a  resort.

Out in front of a seafood place on the main and only drag, they found two  more musicians playing mumbledy-peg with clam knives. They were on route to  a party. "O yes," they cried in unison. One climbed in the Triumph's trunk,  the other, who had a bottle-rum, 150 proof-and a pineapple, sat on the hood.  At 80 mph over roads which are ill-lit and near-unusable by the end of the  Season, this happy hood-ornament cut open the fruit with a clam knife and  built rum-and-pineapple-juices in paper cups which McClintic's bass handed  him over the windscreen.

At the party McClintic's eye was taken by a little girl in dungarees, who  sat in the kitchen entertaining a progress of summer types.

"Give me back my eye," said McClintic.

"I haven't got your eye."

"Later." He was one of those who can be infected by the drunkenness of  others. He was juiced five minutes after they climbed in the window to the  party.

Bass was outside, in the tree, with a girl. "You got eyes for the kitchen,"  he called down, waggish. McClintic went out and sat down under the tree. The  two above him were singing:

   Have you heard, baby did you know:

   There ain't no dope in Lenox . . .

Fireflies surrounded McClintic, inquisitive. Somewhere you could hear waves  crashing. The party inside was quiet, though the house was crowded. The girl  appeared at a kitchen window. McClintic closed his eyes, rolled over and  pushed his face into the grass.

Along came Harvey Fazzo, a piano player. "Eunice wants to know," he told  McClintic, "if possibly she could see you alone:" Eunice was the girl in the  kitchen.

"No," McClintic said. There was movement in the tree over him.

"You got a wife in New York?" Harvey asked, sympathetic.

"Something like that."

Not long after along came Eunice. "I have a bottle of gin," she coaxed him.

"You will have to do better," said McClintic.

He hadn't brought any horn. He let them have their inevitable session  inside. He couldn't ever see that kind of session: his own kind of session  didn't belong here, wasn't so frantic, was in fact one of the only good  results of the cool scene after the war: this easy knowledge on both ends of  the instrument of what exactly is there, this quiet feeling-together. Like  kissing .a girl's ear: mouth is one person's, ear is another, but both of  you know. He stayed out under the tree. When the bass and his girl descended  McClintic got a soft stocking-foot in the small of the back, which woke him  up. Leaving (nearly dawn) Eunice, entirely plastered, scowled at him  horribly, mouthing curses.

Time was McClintic wouldn't have thought twice. Wife in New York? Ha, ho.

She was there when he reached Matilda's; but only just. Packing a good-size  suitcase; quarter of an hour the wrong way and he'd have missed.

Ruby started bawling the minute he showed in the doorway. She threw a slip  at him which gave up halfway across the room and floated to the bare floor,  peach-colored and sad. It passed through the slant-rays of the sun almost  down. They both watched it settle.

"Don't worry," she finally said. "I made a bet with myself."

Started unpacking the suitcase then, tears still falling promiscuous on her  silk, rayon, cotton; linen sheets.

"Stupid," McClintic yelled. "God, that's stupid:" He had to yell at  something. It wasn't that he didn't believe in telepathic flashes.

"What is there to talk about," she said a little later, the suitcase like a  ticking time-bomb shoved back, empty, under the bed.

When had it become a matter of having her or losing her?

 

Charisma and Fu crashed into the room, drunk and singing English vaudeville  songs. With them was a Saint Bernard they had found in the street drooling  and sick. Evenings were hot, this August.

"Oh God," Profane said into the phone: "the roaring boys are back."

Through an open door, on a bed there, an itinerant racedriver named Murray  Sable sweated and snored. The girl with him rolled away. On her back began  half a dream-dialogue. Down on the Drive sat somebody atop a '56 Lincoln's  hood, singing to himself:

   Oh man,

   I want some young blood,

   Drink it, gargle it, use it for a moufwash.

   Hey, young blood, what's happening tonight . . .

Werewolf season: August.

Rachel kissed the mouthpiece on her end. How could you kiss an object?

The dog staggered away into the kitchen and fell with a crash among two  hundred or so of Charisma's empty beer bottles. Charisma sang on.

"I find one," Fu screamed from the kitchen. "One bucket, hey."

"Fill it wiv beer," from Charisma, still a Cockney.

"He look pretty sick."

"Beer is the best thing for him. Hair of the dog." Charisma began to laugh.  Fu after a moment joined in bubbling, hysterical, a hundred geishas all set  going at once.

"It's hot," Rachel said.

"It will be cool. Rachel -" But their timing was off: his "I want -" and her  "Please -" collided somewhere underground in midcircuit, came out mostly  noise. Neither spoke. The room was dark: out the window across the Hudson,  heat lightning walked sneaky-Pete over Jersey.

Soon Murray Sable stopped snoring, the girl fell quiet: everything a sudden  hush for the moment except the dog's beer sloshing into its bucket and an  almost inaudible hiss. The air mattress Profane slept on had a slow leak. He  reinflated it once a week with a bicycle pump Winsome kept in the closet.

"Have you been talking," he said.

"No . . ."

"All right. But what goes on underground. Do we I wonder come out the same  people at the other end?"

"There are things under the city," she admitted.

Alligators, daft priests, bums in subways. He thought of the night she'd  called him at the Norfolk bus station. Who'd monitored then? Did she really  want him back then or was it all maybe a troll's idea of fun?

"I have to sleep. I have the second shift. Call me at midnight?"

"Of course."

"I mean I broke the electric alarm clock here."

"Schlemihl. They hate you."

"They've declared war on me," said Profane.

Wars begin in August. In the temperate zone and twentieth century we have  this tradition. Not only seasonal Augusts; nor only public wars.

Hung up the phone now looked evil, as if it schemed in secret. Profane  flopped on the air mattress. In the kitchen the Saint Bernard began to lap  beer.

"Hey, he going to puke?"

The dog puked, loud and horrible. Winsome came charging in from a remote  room.

"I broke your alarm clock," Profane said into the mattress.

"What, what," Winsome was saying. Next to Murray Sable a girl-voice began  talking drowsy in no language known to a waking world. "Where have you guys  been. " Winsome ran straight at the espresso machine; broke stride at the  last moment, jumped on top of it and sat manipulating the taps with his  toes. He had a direct view into the kitchen. "Oh, ha, ho," he said, sounding  as if he'd been stabbed. "Oh, mi casa, su casa, you guys. Where is it you've  been. "

Charisma, head hanging, shuffled around in a greenish pool of vomit. The  Saint Bernard was sleeping among the beer bottles. "Where else," he said.

"Out rollicking," said Fu. The dog began to scream at humid nightmare-shapes.

Back in August 1956, rollicking was the Whole Sick Crew's favorite pastime,  in- or outdoor. One of the frequent forms it took was yo-yoing. Though  probably not inspired by Profane's peregrinations along the east coast, the  Crew did undertake something similar on a city-scale. Rule: you had to be  genuinely drunk. Certain of the theater crowd inhabiting the Spoon had had  fantastic yo-yo records invalidated because it was discovered later they'd  been sober all along: "Quarterdeck drunkards," Pig called them scornfully.  Rule: you had to wake up at least once on each transit. Otherwise there'd  only be a time gap, and that you could have spent on a bench in the subway  station. Rule: it had to be a subway line running up and downtown, because  this is the way a yo-yo goes. In the early days of yo-yoing certain false  "champions" had admitted shamefaced to racking up scores on the 42nd Street  shuttle, which was looked now on as something of a scandal in yo-yo circles.

Slab was king; after a memorable party a year ago at Raoul, he and Melvin's,  a night he and Esther broke up, he'd spent a weekend on the West Side  express, making sixty-nine complete cycles. At the end of it, starved, he  stumbled out near Fulton Street on the way uptown again and ate a dozen  cheese Danishes; got sick and was taken in for vagrancy and puking in the  street.

Stencil thought it all nonsense.

"Get in there at rush hour," said Slab. "There are nine million yo-yos in  this town."

Stencil took this advice one evening after five, came out with one rib to  his umbrella broken and a vow never to do it again. Vertical corpses, eyes  with no life, crowded loins, buttocks and hip-points together. Little sound  except for the racketing of the subway, echoes in the tunnels. Violence  (seeking exit): some of them carried out two stops before their time and  unable to go upstream, get back in. All wordless. Was it the Dance of Death  brought up to date?

Trauma: possibly only remembering his last shock under ground, he headed for  Rachel's, found her out to dinner with Profane (Profane?) but Paola, whom he  had been trying to avoid, pinned him between the black fireplace and a print  of di Chirico's street.

"You ought to see this." Handing him a small packet of typewritten pages.

Confessions, the title. Confessions of Fausto Maijstral.

"I ought to go back," she said.

"Stencil has stayed off Malta." As if she'd asked him to go.

"Read," she said, "and see."

"His father died in Valletta."

"Is that all?"

Was that all? Did she really intend to go? Oh, God. Did he?

Phone rang, mercifully. It was Slab, who was holding a party over the  weekend. "Of course," she said, and Stencil echoed of course, silent.

 

 

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