In which the yo-yo string is revealed as a state of mind
The passage to
A few of the Crew had come to give Profane, Paola and Stencil bon voyage; those who weren't in jail, out of the country or in the hospital. Rachel had stayed away. It was a weekday, she had a job. Profane supposed so.
He was here by accident. While weeks back, off on the fringes of the field-of-two Rachel and Profane had set up, Stencil roamed the city exerting "pull," seeing about tickets, passports, visas, inoculations for Paola and him, Profane felt that at last he'd come to dead center in Nueva York; had found his Girl, his vocation as watchman against the night and straight man for SHROUD, his Home in a three-girl apartment with one gone to Cuba, one about to go to Malta, and one, his own, remaining.
He'd forgotten about the inanimate world and any law of retribution. Forgotten that the field-of-two, the twin envelope of peace had come to birth only a few minutes after he'd been kicking tires, which for a schlemihl is pure wising-off.
It didn't take Them long. Only a few nights later Profane sacked in at four, figuring to get in a good eight hours of Z's before he had to get up and go to work. When his eyes finally did come open he knew from the quality of light in the room and the state of his bladder that he'd overslept. Rachel's electric clock whined merrily beside him, hands pointing to 1:30. Rachel was off somewhere. He turned on the light, saw that the alarm was set for midnight, the button on the back switched to ON. Malfunction. "You little bastard"; he picked the clock up and heaved it across the room. On hitting the bathroom door the alarm went off, a loud and arrogant BZZZ.
Well, he got his feet in the wrong shoes, cut himself shaving, token he had wouldn't fit into the turnstile, subway took off about ten seconds ahead of him. When he arrived downtown it was not much south of three and Anthroresearch Associates was in an uproar. Bergomask met him at the door, livid. "Guess what," the boss yelled. It seemed an all-night, routine test was on. Around 1:15, one of the larger heaps of electronic gear had run amok; half the circuitry fused, alarm bells went off, the sprinkler system and a couple of CO2 cylinders kicked in, all of which the attendant technician had slept through peacefully.
"Technicians," Bergomask snorted, "are not paid to wake up. This is why we have night watchmen." SHROUD sat over against the wall, hooting quietly.
Soon as it had all come through to Profane he shrugged. "It's stupid, but it's something I say all the time. A bad habit. So. Anyway. I'm sorry." Getting no response, turned and shuffled off. They'd send him severance pay, he reckoned, in the mail. Unless they intended to make him cover the cost of the damaged gear. SHROUD called after him:
"What is that supposed to mean."
"So long, old buddy."
Keep cool. Keep coal but care. It's a watchword, Profane, far your side of the morning. There, I've told you too much as it is.
"I'll bet under that cynical butyrate hide is a slob. A sentimentalist."
There's nothing under here. Who are we kidding?
The last words he ever had with SHROUD. Back at 112th Street he woke up Rachel.
"Back to pounding the pavements, lad." She was trying to be cheerful. He gave her that much but was mad with himself for going flabby enough to forget his schlemihl birthright. She being all he had to take it out on,
"Fine for you," he said. "You've been solvent all your life."
"Solvent enough to keep us going till me and Space/Time Employment find something good for you. Really good."
Fina had tried to shove him along the same path. Had it been her that night at Idlewild? Or only another SHROUD, another guilty conscience bugging him over a baion rhythm?
"Maybe I don't want to get a job. Maybe I'd rather be a bum. Remember? I'm the one that loves bums."
She edged over to make room for him, having now those inevitable second thoughts. "I don't want to talk about loving anything," she told the wall. "It's always dangerous. You have to con each other a little, Profane. Why don't we go to sleep."
No: he couldn't let it go. "Let me warn you, is all. That I don't love anything, not even you. Whenever I say that - and I will - it will be a lie. Even what I'm saying now is half a play for sympathy."
She made believe she was snoring.
"All right, you know I am a schlemihl. You talk two-way. Rachel O., are you that stupid? All a schlemihl can do is take. From the pigeons in the park, from a girl picked up on any street, bad and good, a schlemihl like me takes and gives nothing back."
"Can't there be a time for that later," she asked meekly. "Can't it wait on tears sometime, a lovers' crisis. Not now, dear Profane. Only sleep."
"No," he leaned over her, "babe I am not showing you anything of me, anything hidden. I can say what I've said and be safe because it's no secret, it's there for anybody to see. It's got nothing to do with me, all schlemihls are like that."
She turned to him, moving her legs apart: "Hush . . ."
"Can't you see," growing excited though it was now the last thing he wanted, "that whenever I, any schlemihl lets a girl think there is a past, or a secret dream that can't be talked about, why Rachel that's a con job. Is all it is." As if SHROUD were prompting him: "There's nothing inside. Only the scungille shell. Dear girl -" saying it as phony as he knew how - "schlemihls know this and use it, because they know most girls need mystery, something romantic there. Because a girl knows her man would be only a bore if she found out everything there was to know. I know you're thinking now: the poor boy, why does he put himself down like that. And I'm using this love that you still, poor stupe, think is two-way to come like this between your legs, like this, and take, never thinking how you feel, caring about whether you come only so I can think of myself as good enough to make you come . . ." So he talked, all the way through, till both had done and he rolled on his back to feel traditionally sad.
"You have to grow up," she finally said. "That's all: my own unlucky boy, didn't you ever think maybe ours is an act too? We're older than you, we lived inside you once: the fifth rib, closest to the heart. We learned all about it then. After that it had to become our game to nourish a heart you all believe is hollow though we know different. Now you all live inside us, for nine months, and when ever you decide to come back after that."
He was snoring, for real.
"Dear, how pompous I'm getting. Good night. . ." And she fell asleep to have cheerful, brightly colored, explicit dreams about sexual intercourse.
Next day, rolling out of bed to get dressed, she continued. "I'll see what we've got. Stand by. I'll call you." Which of course kept him from going back to sleep. He stumbled around the apartment for a while swearing at things. "Subway," he said, like the hunchback of Notre Dame yelling sanctuary. After a day of yo-yoing he came up to the street at nightfall, sat in a neighborhood bar and got juiced. Rachel met him at home (Home?) smiling and playing the game.
"How would you like to be a salesman. Electric shavers for French poodles."
"Nothing inanimate," he managed to say. "Slave girls, maybe." She followed him to the bedroom and took off his shoes when he passed out on the bed. Even tucked him in.
Next day, hung over, he yo-yoed on the Staten Island ferry, watching juveniles-in-love neck, grab, miss, connect. Day after that he got up before her and journeyed down to the Fulton Fish Market to watch the early-morning activity. Pig Bodine tagged along. "I got a fish," said Pig, "I would like to give Paola, hyeugh, hyeugh." Which Profane resented. They moseyed by Wall Street and watched the boards of a few brokers. They walked uptown as far as Central Park. This took them till mid-afternoon. They dug a traffic light for an hour. They went into a bar and watched a soap opera on TV.
They came rollicking in late. Rachel was gone.
Out came Paola though, sleepy-eyed, benightgowned. Pig began to shuffle furrows in the rug. "Oh," seeing Pig. "You can put Coffee on," she yawned. "I'm going back to bed."
"Right," Pig muttered, "right you are." And glaring at the small of her back, followed zombielike to the bedroom and closed the door behind them. Soon Profane, making Coffee, heard screams.
"Wha." He looked into the bedroom. Pig had managed to get atop Paola and seemed linked to her pillow by a long string of drool which glittered in the fluorescent light from the kitchen.
"Help?" Profane puzzled. "Rape?"
"Get this pig off of me," Paola yelled.
"Pig, hey. Get off."
"I want to get laid," protested Pig.
"Off," said Profane.
"Up thine," snarled Pig, "with turpentine."
"Nope." So saying, Profane grabbed the big collar on Pig's jumper and pulled.
"You are strangling me, hey," said Pig after a while.
"True," said Profane. "But I saved your life once, remember."
Which was the case. Back in the Scaffold days, Pig had long announced, to anybody in ship's company who'd listen, his refusal ever to don a contraceptive unless it was a French tickler. This device being your common rubber ornamented in bas-relief (often with a figurehead on the end) to stimulate female nerve ends not stimulated by the usual means. From Kingston Jamaica last cruise Pig had brought back 50 Jumbo the Elephant and 50 Mickey Mouse French ticklers. The night finally came when Pig ran out, his last having been expended in the memorable battle with his onetime colleague Knoop, LtJG, a week before on the Scaffold's bridge.
Pig and his friend Hiroshima the electronics technician had a going thing on the beach with radio tubes. ET's an a destroyer like the Scaffold keep their own inventory of electronic components. Hiroshima could therefore finagle, which as soon as he'd found a discreet outlet in downtown Norfolk he proceeded to do. Every so often Hiroshima would heist a few tubes and Pig would stow them in an AWOL bag and run them ashore.
One night Knoop had OOD watch. All an OOD usually does is stand on the quarterdeck and salute people going on and off. He is also a sort of monitor, making sure that everybody leaves with their neckerchief straight, fly zipped and wearing their own uniform; also that nobody is swiping anything from the ship or bringing anything on board they shouldn't. Lately old Knoop had been getting hawkeyed. Howie Surd the drunken yeoman, who had two grooves worn bare in the hair of his leg from adhesive-taping pints of various booze under one bellbottom by way of providing the crew with something tastier than torpedo juice, had almost made it the two steps from quarterdeck to ship's office when Knoop like a Siamese boxer fetched him an agile kick in the calf. And there stood Howie with Schenley Reserve and blood running over his best liberty shoes. Knoop of course crowed in triumph. He'd also caught Profane trying to take over 5 pounds of hamburger swiped from the galley. Profane escaped legal action by splitting the loot with Knoop who was having marital difficulties and had somehow come up with the notion that 2-1/2 pounds of hamburger might serve as a peace-offering.
So only a few nights after that Pig was understandably nervous, trying simultaneously to salute, produce ID and liberty cards, and keep one eye on Knoop and another on the tube-laden AWOL bag.
"Request permission to go ashore, sir, hey," said Pig.
"Permission granted. What is in the AWOL bag."
"In the AWOL bag."
"That one, yes."
"What is in it." Pig pondered.
"Change of skivvies," suggested Knoop, "douche kit, magazine to read, duty laundry for Mom to wash -"
"Now that you mention it, Mr. Knoop -"
"Radio tubes, also."
"Open the bag."
"I would like, I think," said Pig, "maybe to just dash in ship's office there for a minute to read the Naval Regulations, sir, and see if maybe what you are ordering me to do might not be a little, how would you say it, illegal . . ."
Grinning horribly, Knoop made a sudden leap in the air and came down square on the AWOL bag, which went crunch, tinkle in a sickening way.
"Aha," said Knoop.
Pig came up for captain's mast a week later and got restricted. Hiroshima was never mentioned. Normally larceny of this sort is rewarded with a court-martial, the brig, a dishonorable discharge, all of which strengthen morale. It seemed however that the Scaffold's old man, one C. Osric Lych, commander, had gathered round him an inner circle of enlisted men, all of whom you could call habitual offenders. This troupe included Baby Face Falange, the machinist mate striker, who periodically would put on a babushka and let the members of the A gang line up in the compartment to pinch his cheek; Lazar the deck ape who wrote foul sayings on the Confederate monument downtown and was usually brought back off liberty in a strait jacket; Teledu his friend who one time avoiding a work detail had gone to hide in a refrigerator, decided he liked it and lived there for two weeks on raw eggs and frozen hamburger until the master-at-arms and a posse dragged him away; and Groomsman the quartermaster, whose second Home was sick bay, being as how he was constantly infested by a breed of crabs which unhappily only thrived on the chief corpsman's super-formula crab-killer.
The captain, having seen this element of the crew at every mast, came to look on them fondly as His Boys. He pulled strings and indulged in all manner of extra-legal procedure to keep them in the Navy and on board the Scaffold. Pig, being a charter member of the Captain's (so to speak) Own Men, got off with no liberty for a month. Time soon hung heavy. So it was of course toward the crab-ridden Groomsman that Pig gravitated.
Groomsman was the agent in Pig's near-fatal involvement with the airline stewardesses Hanky and Panky, who along with half a dozen more of their kind, shared a large pad out near Virginia Beach. The night after Pig's restriction ended, Groomsman took him out there after stopping by a state liquor store for booze.
Well, it was Panky Pig went for, Hanky being Groomsman's girl. Pig after all had a code. He never did find out their real names, though did it make any difference? They were virtually interchangeable; both unnatural blondes, both between twenty-one and twenty-seven, between 5' 2" and 5' 7" (weights in proportion), clear complexions, no eyeglasses or contact lenses. They read the same magazines, shared the same toothpaste, soap and deodorant; swapped civilian clothes when off duty. One night Pig did in fact end up in bed with Hanky. Next morning he pretended to've been drunk out of his mind. Groomsman was apologized to easily enough, having it turned out hit the sack with Panky under the same misapprehension.
Things cruised along all idyllic; spring and summer brought hordes to the beach and Shore Patrolman (now and again) to chez Hanky Panky to quell riots and stay for Coffee. It came out under incessant questioning by Groomsman that there was something Panky "did" during the act of love which turned Pig, as Pig put it, on. What this was nobody ever found out. Pig, not normally reticent in these matters, now acted like a mystic after a vision; unable, maybe unwilling, to put in words this ineffable or supernal talent of Panky's. Whatever it was it drew Pig out to Virginia Beach all his liberty and a few duty nights. One duty night, Scaffold bound, he wandered down to C&O compartment after the movie to find the quartermaster swinging from the overhead whooping like an ape. "After-shave lotion," Groomsman yelled down to Pig, "is the only thing that gets to the little bastards:" Pig winced. "They get drunk on it and fall asleep:" He descended to tell Pig about his crabs, having lately developed the theory that they held barn dances among the forest of his pubic hair on Saturday nights.
"Enough," said Pig. "What about our Club." This was the Prisoners-at-Large and Restricted Men's Club, formed recently for the purpose of hatching plots against Knoop, who was also Groomsman's division officer.
"One thing," Groomsman said, "that Knoop cannot stand is water. He can't swim, he owns three umbrellas."
They discussed ways of exposing Knoop to water, short of throwing him over the side. A few hours after lights out Lazar and Teledu joined the plot after a blackjack game (payday stakes) in the mess hall. Both had been losers. As were all the Captain's Men. They had a fifth of Old Stag conned from Howie Surd.
Saturday Knoop had the duty. At sundown the Navy has this tradition called Evening Colors, which around the Convoy Escort Piers in Norfolk is impressive. Looking at it from any destroyer's bridge you would see all motion - afoot and vehicular - stop; everyone come to attention, turn and salute the American flags going down on dozens of fantails.
Knoop had the first dog watch, 4 to 6 P.M., as OOD. Groomsman was to pass the word "Now on deck attention to colors." The destroyer tender U.S.S. Mammoth Cave, alongside which the Scaffold and its division were moored, had recently acquired a trumpet player from shore duty in Washington, D. C., so tonight there was even a bugle to play retreat.
Meanwhile Pig was lying on top of the pilot house, a pile of curious objects beside him. Teledu was down at the water tap aft of the pilot house, filling up rubbers - among them Pig's French ticklers - and passing them to Lazar who was putting them next to Pig.
"Now on deck," said Groomsman. From over the way came the first note of Taps. A few tin cans down the line, jumping the gun, started lowering their own flags. Out on the bridge came Knoop to supervise. "Attention to colors." Splat, went a rubber, two inches from Knoop's foot. "Oh, oh," said Pig. "Get him while he's still saluting," Lazar whispered, frantic. The second rubber landed on Knoop's hat, intact. From out of the corner of one eye Pig saw that great nightly immobility, dyed orange by the sun, grip the entire C.E. Piers area. The bugle knew what he was doing, and played Taps clear and strong.
The third rubber missed completely, going over the side. Pig had the shakes. "I can't hit him," he kept saying. Lazar, exasperated, had picked up two and fled. "Traitor," Pig snarled and threw one after him. "Aha," said Lazar from down among the 3-inch mounts, and lobbed one back at Pig. Bugle blew a riff. "Carry on," said Groomsman. Knoop brought his right hand smartly to his side and with his left removed the water-filled rubber from his hat. He started calmly up the ladder on the pilot house after Pig. The first person he saw was Teledu, crouching by the water tap, still filling rubbers. Down on the torpedo deck Pig and Lazar were having a water fight, chasing each other among the gray tubes now highlighted vermilion by the sunset. Arming himself with the stockpile Pig had abandoned, Knoop joined the struggle.
They ended up drenched, exhausted and swearing mutual fealty. Groomsman even named Knoop to honorary membership in the PAL and Restricted Men's Club.
The reconciliation came as a surprise to Pig, who'd expected to get the book thrown at him. He felt let down and saw no other way to improve his outlook but to get laid. Unfortunately he was now afflicted by contraceptivelessness. He tried to borrow a few. It was that horrible and cheerless time just before payday when everybody is out of everything: money, cigarettes, soap, and especially rubbers, much less French ticklers. "Gawd," moaned Pig, "what do I do?" To his rescue came Hiroshima, ET3.
"Didn't anybody ever tell you," said this worthy, "about the biological effects of r-f energy?"
"Wha," said Pig.
"Stand in front of the radar antenna," said Hiroshima, "while it is radiating, and what it will do is, it will make you temporarily sterile."
"Indeed," said Pig. Indeed. Hiroshima showed him a book which said so.
"I am scared of heights?" said Pig.
"It is the only way out," Hiroshima told him. "What you do is, you climb up the mast and I will go light off the old SPA 4 Able."
Already tottering, Pig made his way topside and prepared to climb the mast. Howie Surd had come along and solicitously offered a shot of something murky in an unlabeled bottle. On the way up, Pig passed Profane swinging like a bird in a boatswain's chair hooked to the spar. Profane was painting the mast. "Dum de dum, de dum," sang Profane. "Good afternoon, Pig." My old buddy, thought Pig. His are probably the last wards I will ever hear.
Hiroshima appeared below. "Yo, Pig," he yelled. Pig made the mistake of looking down. Hiroshima gave him the thumb-and-index-finger-in-a-circle sign. Pig felt like vomiting.
"What are you doing in this neck of the woods," Profane said.
"Oh, just out for a stroll," said Pig. "I see you are painting the mast, there."
"Right," said Profane, "deck gray." They examined at length the subject of the Scaffold's color scheme, as well as the long-standing jurisdictional dispute which had Profane, a deck ape, painting the mast when it was really the radar gang's responsibility.
Hiroshima and Surd impatient, started yelling. "Well," said Pig, "good-bye old buddy."
"Be careful walking around on that platform," Profane said. "I robbed some more hamburger out of the galley and stowed it up there. I figure on sneaking it off over the 01 deck." Pig, nodding, creaked slowly up the ladder.
At the top be latched his nose over the platform like Kilroy and cased the situation. There was Profane's hamburger all right. Pig started to climb on the platform when his ultra-sensitive nose detected something. He lifted it off the deck.
"How remarkable," said Pig out loud, "it smells like hamburger frying." He looked a little closer at Profane's cache. "Guess what," he said, and started backing quickly down the ladder. When he got level with Profane he yelled over: "Buddy, you just saved my life. You got a piece of line?"
"What are you going to do," said Profane, tossing him a piece of line: "hang yourself?"
Pig made a noose on one end and headed up the ladder again. After a couple-three tries he managed to snare the hamburger, pulled it over, dragged off his white hat and dumped the hamburger in it, being careful all the time to stay as much as he could out of any line-of-sight with the radar antenna. Down at Profane again he showed him the hamburger.
"Amazing," Profane said. "How did you do it?"
"Someday," Pig said, "I will have to tell you about the biological effects of r-f energy." And so saying inverted the white hat in the direction of Hiroshima and Howie Surd, showering them both with cooked hamburger.
"Anything you want," Pig said then, "just ask, buddy. I have a code and I don't forget."
"OK," Profane said a few years later, standing by Paola's bed in an apartment on Nueva York's 112th Street and twisting Pig's collar a little "I'm collecting that one now."
"A code is a code," Pig choked. Off he got, and fled sadly.
When he was gone, Paola reached out for Profane, drew him down and in against her.
"No," said Profane, "I'm always saying no, but no."
"You have been gone so long. So long since our bus ride:"
"Who says I'm back."
"Rachel?" She held his head, nothing but maternal.
"There is her, yes, but . . ."
"Anyway I say it is nasty. But I'm not looking for any dependents, is all."
"You have them," she whispered.
No, he thought, she's out of her head. Not me. Not a schlemihl.
"Then why did you make Pig go away?"
He thought about that one for a few weeks.
All things gathered to farewell.
One afternoon, close to the time Profane was to embark for Malta, he happened to be down around Houston Street, his old neighborhood. It was cooler, fall: dark came earlier and little kids out playing stoop ball were about to call it a day. For no special reason, Profane decided to look in on his parents.
Around two corners and up the stairs, past apartments of Basilisco the cop whose wife left garbage in the hallway, past Miss Angevine who was in Business in a small way, past the Venusbergs whose fat daughter had always tried to lure young Profane into the bathroom, past Maxixe the drunk and Flake the sculptor and his girl, and old Min De Costa who kept orphan mice and was a practicing witch; past his past though who knew it? Not Profane.
Standing before his old door he knocked, though knowing from the sound of it (like we can tell from the buzz in the phone receiver whether or not she's Home) that inside was empty. So soon, of course, he tried the knob; having come this far. They never lacked doors: on the other side of this one he wandered automatic into the kitchen to check the table. A ham, a turkey, a roast beef. Fruit: grapes, oranges, a pineapple, plums. Plate of knishes, bowl of almonds and Brazil nuts. String of garlic tossed like a rich lady's necklace across fresh bunches of fennel, rosemary, tarragon. A brace of baccale, dead eyes directed at a huge provolone, a pale yellow parmigian and God knew how many fish-cousins, gefulte, in an ice bucket.
No his mother wasn't telepathic, she wasn't expecting Profane. Wasn't expecting her husband Gino, rain, poverty, anything. Only that she had this compulsion to feed. Profane was sure that the world would be worse off without mothers like that in it.
He stayed in the kitchen an hour, while night came along, wandering through this field of inanimate food, making bits and pieces of it animate, his own. Soon it was dark and the baked outsides of meats, the skins of fruits only highlighted all shiny by light from the apartment across the courtyard. Rain started falling. He left.
They would know he'd been by.
Profane, whose nights were now free, decided he could afford to frequent the Rusty Spoon and the Forked Yew without serious compromise. "Ben," Rachel yelled, "this is putting me down." Since the night he was fired from Anthroresearch Associates, it seemed he'd been trying every way he knew to put her down. "Why won't you let me get you a job? It is September, college kids are fleeing the city, the labor market was never better."
"Call it a vacation," said Profane. But how do you swing a vacation from two dependents?
Before anyone knew it there was Profane, full-fledged Crew member. Under the tutelage of Charisma and Fu, he learned how to use proper nouns; how not to get too drunk, keep a straight face, use marijuana.
"Rachel," running in a week later, "I smoked pot."
"Get out of here."
"You are turning into a phony," said Rachel.
"You're not interested in what it's like?"
"I have smoked pot. It is a stupid Business, like masturbation. If you get kicks that way, fine. But not around me."
"It was only once. Only for the experience."
"Once I will say it, is all: that Crew does not live, it experiences. It does not create, it talks about people who do. Varese, Ionesco, de Kooning, Wittgenstein, I could puke. It satirizes itself and doesn't mean it. Time magazine takes it seriously and does mean it."
"And you are becoming less of a man."
He was still high, too high to argue. Off he rollicked, in train with Charisma and Fu.
Rachel locked herself in the bathroom with a portable radio and bawled for a while. Somebody was singing the old standard about how you always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn't hurt at all. Indeed, thought Rachel, but does Benny even love me? I love him. I think. There's no reason why I should. She kept crying.
So near one in the morning she was at the Spoon with her hair hanging straight, dressed in black, no makeup except for mascara in sad raccoon-rings round her eyes, looking like all those other women and girls: camp followers.
"Benny," she said, "I'm sorry." And later:
"You don't have to try not to hurt me. Only come Home, with me, to bed . . ." And much later, at her apartment, facing the wall, "You don't even have to be a man. Only pretend to love me."
None of which made Profane feel any better. But it didn't stop him going to the Spoon.
One night at the Forked Yew, he and Stencil got juiced. "Stencil is leaving the country," Stencil said. He apparently wanted to talk.
"I wish I was leaving the country."
Young Stencil, old Machiavel. Soon he had Profane talking about his women problems.
"I don't know what Paola wants. You know her better. Do you know what she wants?"
An embarrassing question for Stencil. He dodged:
"Aren't you two - how shall one say."
"No," Profane said. "No, no."
But Stencil was there again, next evening. "Truth of it is," he admitted, "Stencil can't handle her. But you can."
"Don't talk," said Profane. "Drink."
Hours later they were both out of their heads. "You wouldn't consider coming along with them," Stencil wondered.
"I have been there once. Why should I want to go back."
"But didn't Valletta - somehow - get to you? Make you feel anything?"
"I went down to the Gut and got drunk like everybody else. I was too drunk to feel anything."
Which eased Stencil. He was scared to death of Valletta. He'd feel better with Profane, anybody else, along on this jaunt (a) to take care of Paola, (b) so he wouldn't be alone.
Shame, said his conscience. Old Sidney went in there with the cards stacked against him. Alone.
And look what he got, thought Stencil, a little wry, a little shaky.
On the offensive: "Where do you belong, Profane?"
"Wherever I am."
"Deracinated. Which of them is not. Which of this Crew couldn't pick up tomorrow and go off to Malta, go off to the moon. Ask them why and they'll answer why not."
"I could not care less about Valletta." But hadn't there been something after all about the bombed-out buildings, buff-colored rubble, excitement of Kingsway? What had Paola called the island: a cradle of life.
"I have always wanted to be buried at sea," said Profane.
Had Stencil seen the coupling in that associative train he would have gathered heart of grace, surely. But Paola and he had never spoken of Profane. Who, after all, was Profane?
Until now. They decided to rollick off to a party on Jefferson Street.
Next day was Saturday. Early morning found Stencil rushing around to his contacts, informing them all of a third tentative passage.
The third passage, meanwhile, was horribly hung over. His Girl was having more than second thoughts.
"Why do you go to the Spoon, Benny."
She edged up on one elbow. "That's the first time you've said that."
"You break your cherry on something every day."
Without thinking: "What about love? When are you going to end your virgin status there, Ben?"
In reply Profane fell out of bed, crawled to the bathroom and hung over the toilet, thinking about barfing. Rachel clasped hands in front of one breast, like a concert soprano. "My man." Profane decided instead to make noises at himself in the mirror.
She came up behind him, hair all down and straggly for the night, and set her cheek against his back as Paola had on the Newport News ferry last winter. Profane inspected his teeth.
"Get off my back," he said.
Still holding on: "So. Only smoked pot once and already he's hooked. Is that your monkey talking?"
"It's me talking. Off."
She moved away. "How off is off, Ben." Things were quiet then. Soft, penitent, "If I am hooked on anything it's you, Rachel O." Watching her shifty in the mirror.
"On women," she said, "on what you think love is: take, take. Not on me."
He started brushing his teeth fiercely. In the mirror as she watched there bloomed a great flower of leprous-colored foam, out of his mouth and down both sides of his chin.
"You want to go," she yelled, "go then."
He said something but around the toothbrush and through the foam neither could understand the words.
"You are scared of love and all that means is somebody else," she said. "As long as you don't have to give anything, be held to anything, sure: you can talk about love. Anything you have to talk about isn't real. It's only a way of putting yourself up. And anybody who tries to get through to you - me - down."
Profane made gurgling noises in the sink: drinking out of the tap, flushing out his mouth. "Look," coming up for air, "what did I tell you? Didn't I warn you?"
"People can change. Couldn't you make the effort?" She was damned if she'd cry.
"I don't change. Schlemihls don't change."
"Oh that makes me sick. Can't you stop feeling sorry for yourself? You've taken your own flabby, clumsy soul and amplified it into a Universal Principle."
"What about you and that MG."
"What does that have to do with any -"
"You know what I always thought? That you were an accessory. That you, flesh, you'd fall apart sooner than the car. That the car would go on, in a junkyard even it would look like it always had, and it would have to be a thousand years before that thing could rust so you wouldn't recognize it. But old Rachel, she'd be long gone. A part, a cheesy part, like a radio, heater, windshield-wiper blade."
She looked upset. He pushed it.
"I only started to think about being a schlemihl, about a world of things that had to be watched out for, after I saw you alone with the MG. I didn't even stop to think it might be perverted, what I was watching. All I was was scared."
"Showing how much you know about girls."
He started scratching his head, sending wide flakes of dandruff showering about the bathroom.
"Slab was my first. None of those tweed jockstraps at Schlozhauer's got any more than bare hand. Don't you know, poor Ben, that a young girl has to take out her virginity on something, a pet parakeet, a car - though most of the time on herself."
"No," he said his hair all in clumps, fingernails gone yellow with dead scalp. "There's more. Don't try to get out of it that way."
"You're not a schlemihl. You're nobody special. Everybody is some kind of a schlemihl. Only come out of that scungille shell and you'd see."
He stood, pear-shaped, bags under the eyes, all forlorn. "What do you want? How much are you out to get? Isn't this -" he waved at her an inanimate schmuck - "enough?"
"It can't be. Not for me, nor Paola."
"Where does she -"
"Anywhere you go there'll always be a woman for Benny. Let it be a comfort. Always a hole to let yourself come in without fear of losing any of that precious schlemihlhood." She stomped around the room. "All right. We're all hookers. Our price is fixed and single for everything: straight, French, round-the-world. Can you pay it, honey? Bare brain, bare heart?"
"If you think me and Paola -"
"You and anybody. Until that thing doesn't work any more. A whole line of them, some better than me, but all just as stupid. We can all be conned because we've all got one of these," touching her crotch, "and when it talks we listen."
She was on the bed. "Come on baby," she said, too close to crying, "this one's for free. For love. Climb on. Good stuff, no charge."
Absurdly he thought of Hiroshima the electronics technician, reciting a mnemonic guide for resistor color-coding.
Bad boys rape our young girls behind victory garden walls (or "but Violet gives willingly"). Good stuff, no charge.
Could any of their resistances be measured in ohms? Someday, please God, there would be an all-electronic woman. Maybe her name would be Violet. Any problems with her, you could look it up in the maintenance manual. Module concept: fingers' weight, heart's temperature, mouth's size out of tolerance? Remove and replace, was all.
He climbed on anyway.
That night at the Spoon, things were louder than usual, despite Mafia's being in stir and a few of the Crew out on bail and their best behavior. Saturday night toward the end of the dog days; after all.
Near closing time, Stencil approached Profane, who'd been drinking all night but for some reason was still sober.
"Stencil heard you and Rachel are having difficulties."
"Paola told him."
"Rachel told her. Fine. Buy me a beer."
"Paola loves you, Profane."
"You think that impresses me? What is your act, ace?" Young Stencil sighed. Along came a bartender's rinkydink, yelling "Time, gentlemen, please." Anything properly English like that went over well with the Whole Sick Crew.
"Time for what," Stencil mused. "More words, more beer. Another party, another girl. In short, no time for anything of importance. Profane. Stencil has a problem. A woman."
"Indeed," said Profane. "That's unusual. I never heard of anything like that before."
"I can't help you."
"Be an ear. It's all he needs."
Outside, walking up Hudson Street: "Stencil doesn't want to go to Malta. He is quite simply afraid. Since 1945, you see, he's been on a private manhunt. Or womanhunt, no one is sure."
"Why?" said Profane.
"Why not?" said Stencil. "His giving you any clear reason would mean he'd already found her. Why does one decide to pick up one girl in a bar over another. If one knew why, she would never be a problem. Why do wars start: if one knew why there would be eternal peace. So in this search the motive is part of the quarry.
"Stencil's father mentioned her in his journals: this was near the turn of the century. Stencil became curious in 1945. Was it boredom, was it that old Sidney had never said anything of use to his son; or was it something buried in the son that needed a mystery, any sense of pursuit to keep active a borderline metabolism? Perhaps he feeds on mystery.
"But he stayed off Malta. He had pieces of thread: clues. Young Stencil has been in all her cities, chased her down till faulty memories or vanished buildings defeated him. All her cities but Valletta. His father died in Valletta. He tried to tell himself meeting V. and dying were separate and unconnected for Sidney.
"Not so. Because: all along the first thread, from a young, crude Mata Hari act in Egypt - as always, in no one's employ but her own - while Fashoda tossed sparks in search of a fuse; until 1913 when she knew she'd done all she could and so took time out for love - all that while, something monstrous had been building. Not the War, nor the socialist tide which brought us Soviet Russia. Those were symptoms, that's all."
They'd turned into 14th Street and were walking east. More bums came roving by the closer they got to Third Avenue. Some nights 14th Street can be the widest street with the tallest wind in the earth.
"Not even as if she were any cause, any agent. She was only there. But being there was enough, even as a symptom. Of course Stencil could have chosen the War, or Russia to investigate. But he doesn't have that much time.
"He is a hunter."
"You are expecting to find this chick in Malta?" Profane said. "Or how your father died? Or something? Wha."
"How does Stencil know," Stencil yelled. "How does he know what he'll do once he finds her. Does he want to find her? They're all stupid questions. He must go to Malta. Preferably with somebody along. You."
"He is afraid. Because if she went there to wait out one war, a war she'd not started but whose etiology was also her own, a war which came least as a surprise to her, then perhaps too she was there during the first. There to meet old Sidney at its end. Paris for love, Malta for war. If so then now, of all times . . ."
"You think there'll be a war."
"Perhaps. You've been reading the newspapers." Profane's newspaper reading was in fact confined to glancing at the front page of the New York Times. If there was no banner headline on that paper then the world was in good enough shape. "The Middle East, cradle of civilization, may yet be its grave.
"If he must go to Malta, it can't be only with Paola. He can't trust her. He needs someone to - occupy her, to serve as buffer zone, if you will."
"That could be anybody. You said the Crew was at Home anywhere. Why not Raoul, Slab, Melvin."
"It's you she loves. Why not you."
"You are not of the Crew, Profane. You have stayed out of that machine. All August."
"No. No, there was Rachel."
"You stayed out of it." And a sly smile. Profane looked away.
So they went up Third Avenue, drowned in the Street's great wind: all flapping and Irish pennants. Stencil yarned. Told Profane of a whorehouse in Nice with mirrors on the ceiling where he thought, once, he'd found his V. Told of his mystical experience before a plaster death-cast of Chopin's hand in the Celda Museo in Mallorca.
"There was no difference," he caroled, causing two strolling bums to laugh along with him: "that was all. Chopin had a plaster hand!" Profane shrugged. The bums tagged along.
"She stole an airplane: an old Spad, the kind young Godolphin crashed in. God, what a flight it must have been: from Le Havre over the Bay of Biscay to somewhere in the back country of Spain. The officer on duty only remembered a fierce - what did he call her - 'hussar,' who came rushing by in a red field-cape, glaring out of a glass eye in the shape of a clock: 'as if I'd been fixed by the evil eye of time itself.'
"Disguise is one of her attributes. In Mallorca she spent at least a year as an old fisherman who evenings, would smoke dried seaweed in a pipe and tell the children stories of gun-running in the Red Sea."
"Rimbaud," suggested one of the bums.
"Did she know Rimbaud as a child? Drift up-country at age three or four through that district and its trees festooned gray and scarlet with crucified English corpses? Act as lucky mascot to the Mahdists? Live in Cairo and take Sir Alastair Wren for a lover when she came of age?
"Who knows. Stencil would rather depend on the imperfect vision of humans for his history. Somehow government reports, bar graphs, mass movements are too treacherous."
"Stencil," Profane announced, "you are juiced."
True. Autumn, coming on, was cold enough to've sobered Profane. But Stencil appeared drunk on something else.
V. in Spain, V. on Crete: V. crippled in Corfu, a partisan in Asia Minor. Giving tango lessons in Rotterdam she had commanded the rain to stop; it had. Dressed in tights adorned with two Chinese dragons she handed swords, balloons and colored handkerchiefs to Ugo Medichevole, a minor magician, for one lustless summer in the Roman Campagna. And, learning quickly, found time to perform a certain magic of her own; for one morning Medichevole was found out in a field, discussing the shadows of clouds with a sheep. His hair had become white, his mental age roughly five. V. had fled.
It went on like this, all the way up into the 70's, this progress-of-four; Stencil caught up in a compulsive yarning, the others listening with interest. It wasn't that Third Avenue was any kind of drunk's confessional. Did Stencil like his father suffer some private leeriness about Valletta - foresee some submersion, against his will, in a history too old for him, or at least of a different order from what he'd known? Probably not; only that he was on the verge of a major farewell. If it hadn't been Profane and the two bums it would have been somebody: cop, barkeep, girl. Stencil that way had left pieces of himself - and V. - all over the western world.
V. by this time was a remarkably scattered concept.
"Stencil's going to Malta like a nervous groom to matrimony. It is a marriage of convenience, arranged by Fortune, father and mother to everyone. Perhaps Fortune even cares about the success of these things: wants one to look after it in its old age." Which struck Profane as outright foolish. Somehow they had wandered over by Park Avenue. The two bums, sensing unfamiliar territory, veered away toward the west and the Park. Toward what assignation? Stencil said: "Should one bring a peace-offering?"
"Wha. Box of candy, flowers, ha, ha."
"Stencil knows just the thing," said Stencil. They were before Eigenvalue's office building. Intention or accident?
"Stay here in the street," Stencil said. "He won't be but a minute." And vanished into the lobby of the building. Simultaneously a prowl car appeared a few blocks uptown, turned and headed downtown on Park Avenue. Profane started walking. Car passed him and didn't stop. Profane got to the corner and turned west. By the time he'd walked all around the block, Stencil was at a top floor window, yelling down.
"Come on up. You have to help."
"I have to - You are out of your head."
Impatient: "Come up. Before the police get back."
Profane stood outside for a minute, counting floors. Nine. Shrugged, went inside the lobby and took the self-service elevator up.
"Can you pick a lock," Stencil asked. Profane laughed.
"Fine. You will have to go in a window, then."
Stencil rummaged in the broom closet and came up with a length of line.
"Me," said Profane. They started up to the roof.
"This is important." Stencil was pleading. "Suppose you were enemies with someone. But had to see him, her. Wouldn't you try to make it as painless as you could?"
They reached a point on the roof directly above Eigenvalue's office.
Profane looked down into the street. "You," with exaggerated gestures, "are going to put me, over that wall, with no fire escape there, to open, that window, right?" Stencil nodded. So. Back to the boatswain's chair for Profane. Though this time no Pig to save, no good will to cash in on. There'd be no reward from Stencil because there's no honor among second- (or ninth-) story men. Because Stencil was more a bum than he.
They looped the line round Profane's middle. He being so shapeless, it was difficult to locate any center of gravity. Stencil gave the line a few turns round a TV antenna. Profane climbed over the edge and they began to lower away.
"How is it," Stencil said after a while.
"Except for those three cops down there, who are looking at me sort of fishy -"
The line jerked.
"Ha, ha," said Profane. "Made you look." Not that his mood tonight was suicidal. But with the inanimate line, antenna, building and street nine floors below, what common sense could he have?
The center of gravity calculation, it turned out, was way off. As Profane inched down toward Eigenvalue's window, his body's attitude slowly tilted from nearly vertical to face down and parallel with the street. Hanging thus in the air, it occurred to him to practice an Australian crawl.
"Dear God," muttered Stencil. He tugged at the line, impatient. Soon Profane, a dim figure looking like a quadruply-amputated octopus, stopped flailing around. Then he hung still in the air, pondering.
"Hey," he called after a while.
Stencil said what.
"Pull me back up. Hurry." Wheezing, feeling his middle age acutely, Stencil began hauling in line. It took him ten minutes. Profane appeared and hung his nose over the edge of the roof.
"You forgot to tell me what it was I was supposed to do when I got in the window." Stencil only looked at him. "Oh. Oh you mean I open the door for you -"
"- and you lock it when you go out," they recited together.
Profane flipped a salute. "Carry on." Stencil began lowering again. Down at the window, Profane called up:
"Stencil, hey. The window won't open."
Stencil took a few half-hitches round the antenna.
"Break it," he gritted. All at once another police car, sirens screaming, lights flashing round and round, came tearing down Park. Stencil ducked behind the roof's low wall. The car kept going. Stencil waited till it was way downtown, out of earshot. And a minute or so more. Then arose cautiously and looked after Profane.
Profane was horizontal again. He'd covered his head with his suede jacket and showed no signs of moving.
"What are you doing," said Stencil.
"Hiding," said Profane. "How about a little torque." Stencil turned the rope: Profane's head slowly began to rotate away from the building. When he came around to where he was facing straight out, like a gargoyle, Profane kicked in the window, a crash horrible and deafening in that night.
"Now the other way."
He got the window open, climbed inside and unlocked for Stencil. Wasting no time, Stencil proceeded through a train of rooms to the museum, forced open the case, slipped that set of false teeth wrought from all precious metals into a coat pocket. From another room he heard more glass breaking.
"What the hell."
Profane looked around. "One pane broken is crude," he explained, "because that looks like a burglary. So I am breaking a few more, is all, so it won't be too suspicious."
Back on the street, scot-free, they followed the bums' way into Central Park. It was two in the morning.
In the wilds of that skinny rectangle they found a rock near a stream. Stencil sat down and produced the teeth.
"The booty," he announced.
"It's yours. What do I need with more teeth." Especially these, more dead than the half-alive hardware in his mouth now.
"Decent of you, Profane. Helping Stencil like that."
"Yeah," Profane agreed.
Part of a moon was out. The teeth, lying on the sloping rock, beamed at their reflection in the water.
All manner of life moved in the dying shrubbery around them.
"Is your name Neil?" inquired a male voice.
"I saw your note. In the men's room of the Port Authority terminal, third stall in the . . ."
Oho, thought Profane. That had cop written all over it.
"With the picture of your sexual organ. Actual size."
"There is one thing," said Neil, "that I like better than having homosexual intercourse. And that is knocking the shit out of a wise cop."
There was then a soft clobbering sound followed by the plainclothesman's crash into the underbrush.
"What day is it," somebody asked. "Say, what day is it?"
Out there something had happened, probably atmospheric. But the moon shone brighter. The number of objects and shadows in the park seemed to multiply: warm white, warm black.
A band of juvenile delinquents marched by, singing.
"Look at the moon," one of them called.
A used contraceptive came floating along the stream. A girl, built like a garbage-truck driver and holding in one hand a sodden brassiere which trailed behind her, trudged after the rubber, head down.
Somewhere else a traveling clock chimed seven. "It is Tuesday," said an old man's voice, half-asleep. It was Saturday.
But about the night-park, near-deserted and cold, was somehow a sense of population and warmth, and high noon. The stream made a curious half cracking, half ringing sound: like the glass of a chandelier, in a wintry drawing room when all the heat is turned off suddenly and forever. The moon shivered, impossibly bright.
"How quiet," said Stencil.
"Quiet. It's like the shuttle at 5 p.m."
"No. Nothing at all is happening in here."
"So what year is it."
"It is 1913," said Stencil.
"Why not," said Profane.