In which Benny Profane, a schlemihl and human yo-yo, gets to an apocheir
Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black
Every night is Christmas Eve on old
Sailors and their sweethearts all agree.
Neon signs of red and green
Shine upon the friendly scene,
Welcoming you in from off the sea.
Santa's bag is filled with all your dreams come true:
Nickel beers that sparkle like champagne,
Barmaids who all love to screw,
All of them reminding you
It's Christmas Eve on old
"Yay chief," yelled a seaman deuce. Profane rounded the corner. With its usual lack of warning,
Since his discharge from the Navy Profane had been road-laboring and when there wasn't work just traveling, up and down the east coast like a yo-yo; and this had been going on for maybe a year and a half. After that long of more named pavements than he'd care to count, Profane had grown a little leery of streets, especially streets like this. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about:
Arriving at the Sailor's Grave, Profane found a small fight in progress between sailors and jarheads. He stood in the doorway a moment watching; then realizing he had one foot in the Grave anyway, dived out of the way of the fight and lay more or less doggo near the brass rail.
"Why can't man live in peace with his fellow man," wondered a voice behind Profane's left ear. It was Beatrice the barmaid, sweetheart of DesDiv 22, not to mention Profane's old ship, the destroyer U.S.S. Scaffold. "Benny," she cried. They became tender, meeting again after so long. Profane began to draw in the sawdust hearts, arrows through them, sea gulls carrying a banner in their beaks which read Dear Beatrice.
The Scaffold-boat's crew were absent, this tin can having got under way for the Mediterranean two evenings ago amid a storm of bitching from the crew which was heard out in the cloudy Roads (so the yarn went) like voices off a ghost ship; heard as far away as Little Creek. Accordingly, there were a few more barmaids than usual tonight, working tables all up and down East
Beatrice brought beer. There was a piercing yelp from one of the back tables, she flinched, beer slopped over the edge of the glass.
"God," she said, "it's Ploy again." Ploy was now an engineman on the mine sweeper Impulsive and a scandal the length of
He would stand on the fantail and harangue whoever would listen, flannelmouthed through aching gums. When his mouth had healed he was presented with a gleaming, regulation set of upper and lower plates. "Oh God," he bawled, and tried to jump over the side. But was restrained by a gargantuan Negro named Dahoud. "Hey there, little fellow," said Dahoud, picking Ploy up by the head and scrutinizing this convulsion of dungarees and despair whose feet thrashed a yard above the deck. "What do you want to go and do that for?"
"Man, I want to die, is all," cried Ploy.
"Don't you know," said Dahoud, "that life is the most precious possession you have?"
"Ho, ho," said Ploy through his tears. "Why?"
"Because," said Dahoud, "without it, you'd be dead."
"Oh," said Ploy. He thought about this for a week. He calmed down, started to go on liberty again. His transfer to the Impulsive became reality. Soon, after Lights Out, the other snipes began to hear strange grating sounds from the direction of Ploy's rack. This went on for a couple-three weeks until one morning around two somebody turned on the lights in the compartment and there was Ploy, sitting crosslegged on his rack, sharpening his teeth with a small bastard file. Next payday night, Ploy sat at a table in the Sailor's Grave with a bunch of other snipes, quieter than usual. Around eleven, Beatrice swayed by, carrying a tray full of beers. Gleeful, Ploy stuck his head out, opened his jaws wide, and sank his newly-filed dentures into the barmaid's right buttock. Beatrice screamed, glasses flew parabolic and glittering, spraying the Sailor's Grave with watery beer.
It became Ploy's favorite amusement. The word spread through the division, the squadron, perhaps all DesLant. People not of the Impulsive or Scaffold came to watch. This started many fights like the one now in progress.
"Who did he get," Profane said. "I wasn't looking."
"Beatrice," said Beatrice. Beatrice being another barmaid. Mrs. Buffo, owner of the Sailor's Grave, whose first name was also Beatrice, had a theory that just as small children call all females mother, so sailors, in their way equally as helpless, should call all barmaids Beatrice. Further to implement this maternal policy, she had had custom beer taps installed, made of foam rubber, in the shape of large breasts. From eight to nine on payday nights there occurred something Mrs. Buffo called Suck Hour. She began it officially by emerging from the back room clad in a dragon-embroidered kimono given her by an admirer in the Seventh Fleet, raising a gold boatswain's pipe to her lips and blowing Chow Down. At this signal, everyone would dive for and if they were lucky enough to reach one be given suck by a beer tap. There were seven of these taps, and an average of 250 sailors usually present for the merrymaking.
Ploy's head now appeared around a corner of the bar. He snapped his teeth at Profane. "This here," Ploy said, "is my friend Dewey Gland, who just came aboard." He indicated a long, sad-looking rebel with a huge beak who had followed Ploy over, dragging a guitar in the sawdust.
"Howdy," said Dewey Gland. "I would like to sing you a little song."
"To celebrate your becoming a PFC," said Ploy. "Dewey sings it to everybody."
"That was last year," said Profane.
But Dewey Gland propped one foot on the brass rail and the guitar on his knee and began to strum. After eight bars of this he sang, in waltz time:
Pore Forlorn Civilian,
We're goin to miss you so.
In the goat hole and the wardroom they're cryin,
Even the mizzable X.O.
You're makin a mistake,
Though yore ass they should break,
Yore report chits number a million.
Ship me over for twenty years,
I'll never be a Pore Forlorn Civilian.
"It's pretty," said Profane into his beer glass.
"There's more," said Dewey Gland.
"Oh," said Profane.
A miasma of evil suddenly enveloped Profane from behind; an arm fell like a sack of spuds across his shoulder and into his peripheral vision crept a beer glass surrounded by a large muff, fashioned ineptly from diseased baboon fur.
"Benny. How is the pimping Business, hyeugh, hyeugh."
The laugh could only have come from Profane's onetime shipmate, Pig Bodine. Profane looked round. It had. Hyeugh, hyeugh approximates a laugh formed by putting the tonguetip under the top central incisors and squeezing guttural sounds out of the throat. It was, as Pig intended, horribly obscene.
"Old Pig. Aren't you missing movement?"
"I am AWOL. Pappy Hod the boatswain mate drove me over the hill." The best way to avoid SP's is to stay sober and with your own. Hence the Sailor's Grave.
"How is Pappy."
Pig told him how Pappy Hod and the barmaid he'd married had split up. She'd left and come to work at the Sailor's Grave.
That young wife, Paola. She'd said sixteen, but no way of telling because she'd been born just before the war and the building with her records destroyed, like most other buildings on the
Profane had been there when they met: the Metro Bar, on
Pappy ended up borrowing 500 for 700 from Mac the cook's slush fund to bring Paola to the States.
Maybe it had only been a way for her to get to
Pappy Hod had described her for the deck apes' amusement down in the boatswain's locker of the U.S.S. Scaffold. Speaking the while however with a peculiar tenderness, as of slowly coming aware, maybe even as the yarn unlaid, that sex might be more of a mystery than he'd foreseen and he would not after all know the score because that kind of score. wasn't written down in numbers. Which after forty-five years was nothing for any riggish Pappy Hod to be finding out.
"Good stuff," said Pig aside. Profane looked toward the back of the Sailor's Grave and saw her approaching now through the night's accumulated smoke. She looked like an
She smiled at Profane: sad, with an effort.
"You come back to re-enlist?"
"Just passing," Profane said.
"You come with me to the west coast," Pig said. "Ain't an SP car made that can take my Harley."
"Look, look," cried little Ploy, hopping up and down on one foot. "Not now, you guys. Stand by." He pointed. Mrs. Buffo had materialized on the bar, in her kimono. A hush fell over the place. There was a momentary truce between the jarheads and sailors blocking the doorway.
"Boys," Mrs. Buffo announced, "it's Christmas Eve." She produced the boatswain's pipe and began to play. The first notes quavered out fervent and flutelike over widened eyes and gaping mouths. Everyone in the Sailor's Grave listened awestruck, realizing gradually that she was playing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, within the limited range of the boatswain's pipe. From way in the back, a young reserve who had once done night club acts around Philly began to sing softly along. Ploy's eyes shone. "It is the voice of an angel," he said.
They had reached the part that goes "Peace on the earth, good will to men, From Heav'n's all-gracious king," when Pig, a militant atheist, decided he could stand it no longer. "That," he announced in, a loud voice, "sounds like Chow Down." Mrs. Buffo and the reserve fell silent. A second passed before anybody got the message.
"Suck Hour!" screamed Ploy.
Which kind of broke the spell. The quick-thinking inmates of the Impulsive somehow coalesced in the sudden milling around of jolly jack tars, hoisted Ploy bodily and rushed with the little fellow toward the nearest nipple, in the van of the attack.
Mrs. Buffo, poised on her rampart like the trumpeter of
Profane sat at the end of the bar, watching hand-tooled sea boots, bell-bottoms, rolled up levi cuffs; every now and again a drooling face at the end of a fallen body; broken beer bottles, tiny sawdust storms.
Soon he looked over; Paola was there, arms around his leg, cheek pressed against the black denim.
"It's awful," she said.
"Oh," said Profane. He patted her head.
"Peace," she sighed. "Isn't that what we all want, Benny? Just a little peace. Nobody jumping out and biting you on the ass."
"Hush," said Profane, "look: someone has just walloped Dewey Gland in the stomach with his own guitar."
Paola murmured against his leg. They sat quiet, without raising their eyes to watch the carnage going on above them. Mrs. Buffo had undertaken a crying jag. Inhuman blubberings beat against and rose from behind the old imitation mahogany of the bar.
Pig had moved aside two dozen beer glasses and seated himself on a ledge behind the bar. In times of crisis he preferred to sit in as voyeur. He gazed eagerly as his shipmates grappled shoatlike after the seven geysers below him. Beer had soaked down most of the sawdust behind the bar: skirmishes and amateur footwork were now scribbling it into alien hieroglyphics.
Outside came sirens, whistles, running feet. "Oh, oh," said Pig. He hopped clown from the shelf, made his way around the end of the bar to Profane and Paola. "Hey, ace," he said, cool and slitting his eyes as if the wind blew into them. "The sheriff is coming."
"Back way," said Profane.
"Bring the broad," said Pig.
The three of them ran broken-field through a roomful of teeming bodies. On the way they picked up Dewey Gland. By the time the Shore Patrol had crashed into the Sailor's Grave, night sticks flailing, the four found themselves running down an alley parallel to
Where they ended up finally was an apartment in
An unfortunate habit of Teflon's drew Profane and Paola together, though neither wanted that. Teflon had a camera: Leica, procured half-legally overseas by a Navy friend. On weekends when Business was good and guinea red wine lashing around like the wave from a heavy merchantman, Teflon would sling the camera round his neck and go a-roving from bed to bed, taking pictures. These he sold to avid sailors at the lower end of
It happened that Paola Hod, nee Maijstral, cast loose at her own whim early from the security of Pappy Hod's bed and late from the half-Home of the Sailor's Grave, was now in a state of shock which endowed Profane with all manner of healing and sympathetic talents he didn't really possess.
"You're all I have," she warned him. "Be good to me." They would sit around a table in Teflon's kitchen: Pig Bodine and Dewey Gland facing them one each like partners at bridge, a vodka bottle in the middle. Nobody would talk except to argue about what they would mix the vodka with next when what they had ran out. That week they tried milk, canned vegetable soup, finally the juice from a dried-up piece of watermelon which was all Teflon had left in the refrigerator. Try to squeeze a watermelon into a small tumbler sometime when your reflexes are not so good. It is next to impossible. Picking the seeds out of the vodka proved also to be a problem, and resulted in a growing, mutual ill-will.
Part of the trouble was that Pig and Dewey both had eyes for Paola. Every night they would approach Profane as a committee and ask for seconds.
"She's trying to recover from men," Profane tried to say. Pig would either reject this or take it as an insult to Pappy Hod his old superior.
Truth of it was Profane wasn't getting any. Though it became hard to tell what Paola wanted.
"What do you mean," Profane said. "Be good to you."
"What Pappy Hod wasn't," she said. He soon gave up trying to decode her several hankerings. She would on occasion come up with all sorts of weird tales of infidelity, punchings-in-the-mouth, drunken abuse. Having clamped down, chipped, wire-brushed, painted and chipped again under Pappy Hod for four years Profane would believe about half. Half because a woman is only half of something there are usually two sides to.
She taught them all a song. Learned from a para on French leave from the fighting in
Demain le noir matin,
Au nez des annees mortes;
J'irai par les chemins.
Je mendierai ma vie
Sur la terre et sur l'onde,
Du vieux au nouveau monde . . .
He had been short and built like the
Tomorrow, the black morning, I close the door in the face of the dead years. I will go on the road, bum my way over and sea, from the old to the new world . . . .
She taught Dewey Gland the chord changes and so they all round the table of Teflon's wintry kitchen, while four gas flames on the stove ate up their oxygen; and sang, and sang. When Profane watched her eyes he thought she dreamed of the para - probably a man-of-no-politics as brave as anyone ever is in combat: but tired, was all, tired of relocating native villages and devising barbarities in the morning as brutal as'd come from the F.L.N. the night before. She wore a Miraculous Medal round her neck (given to her, maybe, by some random sailor she reminded of a good Catholic girl back in the States where sex is for free - or for marriage?). What sort of Catholic was she? Profane, who was only half Catholic (mother Jewish), whose morality was fragmentary (being derived from experience and not much of it), wondered what quaint Jesuit arguments had led her to come away with him, refuse to share a bed but still ask him to "be good."
The night before New Year's Eve they wandered away from the kitchen and out to a kosher delicatessen a few blocks away. On returning to Teflon's they found Pig and Dewey gone: "Gone out to get drunk," said the note. The place was lit up all Xmasy, a radio turned to WAVY and Pat Boone in one bedroom, sounds of objects being thrown in another. Somehow the young couple had wandered into a darkened room with this
"No," she said.
Groan, went the bed. Before either of them knew it:
Click, went Teflon's Leica.
Profane did what was expected of him: came roaring off the bed, arm terminating in a fist. Teflon dodged it easily. "Now, now," he chuckled.
Outraged privacy was not so important; but the interruption had come just before the Big Moment.
"You don't mind," Teflon was telling him. Paola was hurrying into clothes.
"Out in the snow," Profane said, "is where that camera, Teflon, is sending us:"
"Here:" opened the camera, handed Profane the film, "you're going to be a horse's ass about it."
Profane took the film but couldn't back down. So he dressed and topped off with the cowboy hat. Paola had put on a Navy greatcoat, too big for her.
"Out," Profane cried, "in the snow." Which in fact there was. They caught a ferry over to
"Did you want to stay," he asked.
"No, no," she shivered, a discreet foot of worn bench between them. He had no impulse to bring her closer. "Whatever you decide."
Madonna, he thought, I have a dependent now.
"What are you shivering for. It's warm enough in here."
She shook her head no (whatever that meant), staring at the toes of her galoshes. After a while Profane got up and went out on deck.
Snow falling lazy on the water made 11 P.M. look like a twilight or an eclipse. Overhead every few seconds a horn sounded off to warn away anything on collision course. But yet as if there were nothing in this roads after all but ships, untenanted, inanimate, making noises at each other which meant nothing more than the turbulence of the screws or the snow-hiss on the water. And Profane all alone in it.
Some of us are afraid of dying; others of human loneliness. Profane was afraid of land or seascapes like this, where nothing else lived but himself. It seemed he was always walking into one: turn a corner in the street, open a door to a weather-deck and there he'd be, in alien country.
But the door behind him opened again. Soon he felt Paola's gloveless hands slipped under his arms, her cheek against his back. His mental eye withdrew, watching their still-life as a stranger might. But she didn't help the scene be any less alien. They kept like that till the other side, the ferry entered the slip, and chains clanked, car ignitions whined, motors started.
They rode the bus into town, wordless; alit near the Monticello Hotel and set out for
They found Pig next door in
Some dozen ex-Scaffold sailors wanted a reunion. Pig, appointing himself social chairman, decided on the Susanna Squaducci, an Italian luxury liner now in the last stages of construction in the
"This has got to cease," he said but nobody was listening. Pig was off dancing the dirty boogie with Paola.
Profane slept that night at Pig's place down by the old ferry docks, and he slept alone. Paola had run into one of the Beatrices and gone off to stay the night with her, after promising demurely to be Profane's date at the New Year's party.
Around three Profane woke up on the kitchen floor with a headache. Night air, bitter cold, seeped under the door and from somewhere outside he could hear a low, persistent growl. "Pig," Profane croaked. "Where you keep the aspirin." No answer. Profane stumbled into the other room. Pig wasn't there. The growl outside turned more ominous. Profane went to the window and saw Pig down in the alley, sitting on his motorcycle and racing the engine. Snow fell in tiny glittering pinpoints, the alley held its own curious snowlight: turning Pig to black-and-white clown's motley and ancient brick walls, dusted with snow, to neutral gray. Pig had on a knitted watch cap, pulled down over his face to the neck so that his head showed up as a sphere of dead black. Engine exhaust roiled in clouds around him. Profane shivered. "What are you doing, Pig," he called. Pig didn't answer. The enigma or sinister vision of Pig and that Harley-Davidson alone in an alley at three in the morning reminded Profane too suddenly of Rachel, whom he didn't want to think about, not tonight in the bitter cold, with a headache, with snow slipping into the room.
Rachel Owlglass had owned, back in '54, this MG. Her Daddy's gift. After giving it its shakedown cruise in the region around Grand Central (where Daddy's office was), familiarizing it with telephone poles, fire hydrants and occasional pedestrians, she brought the car up to the Catskills for the summer. Here, little, sulky and voluptuous, Rachel would gee and haw this MG around Route 17's bloodthirsty curves and cutbacks, sashaying its arrogant butt past hay wagons, growling semis, old Ford roadsters filled to capacity with crewcut, undergraduate gnomes.
Profane was just out of the Navy and working that summer as assistant salad man at Schlozhauer's Trocadero, nine miles outside
Profane had wondered then what it was with Da Conho and that machine gun. Love for an object, this was new to him. When he found out not long after this that the same thing was with Rachel and her MG, he had his first intelligence that something had been going on under the rose, maybe for longer and with more people than he would care to think about.
He met her through the MG, like everyone else met her. It nearly ran him over. He was wandering out the back door the kitchen one noon carrying a garbage can overflowing with lettuce leaves Da Conho considered substandard when somewhere off to his right he heard the MG's sinister sound. Profane kept walking, secure in a faith that burdened pedestrians have the right-of-way. Next thing he knew he way clipped in the rear end by the car's right fender. Fortunately, it was only moving at
He and Rachel, both covered with lettuce leaves, looked at each other, wary. "How romantic," she said. "For all know you may be the man of my dreams. Take that lettuce leaf off your face so I can see." Like doffing a cap - remembering his place - he removed the leaf.
"No," she said, "you're not him."
"Maybe," said Profane, "we can try it next time with a fig leaf."
"Ha, ha," she said and roared off. He found a rake and started collecting the garbage into one pile. He reflected that here was another inanimate object that had nearly killed him. He was not sure whether he meant Rachel or the car. He put the pile of lettuce leaves in the garbage can and dumped the can back of the parking lot in a small ravine which served the Trocadero for a refuse pile. As he was turning to the kitchen Rachel came by again. The MG's adenoidal exhaust sounded like it probably could be heard all the way to
Five minutes out on Route 17 he decided if he ever if back to the Trocadero unmaimed and alive to forget about Rachel and only be interested thenceforth in quiet, pedestrian girls. She drove like one of the damned on holiday. He had no doubt she knew the car's and her own abilities; but how did she know, for instance, when she passed on a blind curve of that two-lane road, that the milk truck approaching would be just far enough away for her to whip back into line with a whole sixteenth of an inch to spare?
He was too afraid for his life to be, as he normally was, girl-shy. He reached over, opened her pocketbook, found a cigarette, lit it. She didn't notice. She drove single-minded and unaware there was anyone next to her. She only spoke once, to tell him there was a case of cold beer in the back. He dragged on her cigarette and wondered if he had a compulsion to suicide. It seemed sometimes that he put himself deliberately in the way of hostile objects, as if he were looking to get schlimazzeled out of existence. Why was he here anyway? Because Rachel had a nice ass? He glanced sidewise at it on the leather, upholstery, bouncing, synched with the car; watched the not-so-simple nor quite harmonic motion of her left breast inside the black sweater she had on. She pulled in finally at an abandoned rock quarry. Irregular chunks of stone were scattered around. He didn't know what kind, but it was all inanimate. They made it up a dirt road to a flat place forty feet above the floor of the quarry.
It was an uncomfortable afternoon. Sun beat down out of a cloudless, unprotective heaven. Profane, fat, sweated. Rachel played Do You Know the few kids she'd known who went to his high school and Profane lost. She talked about all the dates she was getting this summer, all it seemed with upperclassmen attending Ivy League colleges. Profane would agree from time to time how wonderful it was.
She talked about
Rachel came from the Five Towns on the south
Only the brave escape. Come Sunday nights, with golfing done, the Negro maids, having rectified the disorder of last night's party, off to visit with relatives in
Rachel wanted. Profane, having repaired roads around the Five Towns, could understand why.
By the time the sun was going down they'd nearly finished the case between them. Profane was balefully drunk. He got out of the car, wandered off behind a tree and pointed west, with some intention of pissing on the sun to put it out for good and all, this being somehow important for him. (Inanimate objects could do what they wanted. Not what they wanted because things do not want; only men. But things do what they do, and this is why Profane was pissing at the sun.)
It went down; as if he'd extinguished it after all and continued on immortal, god of a darkened world.
Rachel was watching him, curious. He zipped up and staggered back to the beer box. Two cans left. He opened them and handed one to her. "I put the sun out," he said, "we drink to it." He spilled most of it down his shirt.
Two more folded cans fell to the bottom of the quarry, the empty case followed.
She hadn't moved from the car.
"Benny," one fingernail touched his face.
"Will you be my friend?"
"You look like you have enough."
She looked down the quarry. "Why don't we make believe none of the other is real," she said: "no
"Isn't that the world?"
"They teach you that in freshman geology or something?"
She looked hurt. "It's just something I know."
"Benny," she cried - a little cry - "be my friend, is all."
"Now don't expect -"
"How the road is. Your boy's road that I'll never see, with its Diesels and dust, roadhouses, crossroads saloons. That's all. What it's like west of
He scratched his stomach. "Sure."
Profane kept running into her in what was left of the summer at least once a day. They talked in the car always, he trying to find the key to her own ignition behind the hooded eyes, she sitting back of the right-hand steering wheel and talking, talking, nothing but MG-words, inanimate-words he couldn't really talk back at.
Soon enough what he was afraid would happen happened - he finagled himself into love for Rachel and was only surprised that it had taken so long. He lay in the bunkhouse nights smoking in the dark and apostrophizing the glowing end of his cigarette butt. Around two in the morning the occupant of the upper bunk would come in off the night shift - one Duke Wedge, a pimpled bravo from the Chelsea district, who always wanted to talk about how much he was getting, which was, in fact, plenty. It lulled Profane to sleep. One night he did indeed come upon Rachel and Wedge, the scoundrel, parked in the MG in front of her cabin. He slunk back to bed, not feeling particularly betrayed because he knew Wedge wouldn't get anywhere. He even stayed awake and let Wedge regale him when he came in with a step-by-step account of how he had almost made it but not quite. As usual Profane fell asleep in the middle.
He never got beyond or behind the chatter about her world - one of objects coveted or valued, an atmosphere Profane couldn't breathe. The last time he saw her was Labor Day night. She was to leave the next day. Somebody stole Da Conho's machine gun that evening, just before supper. Da Conho dashed around in tears looking for it. The head chef told Profane to make salads. Somehow Profane managed to get frozen strawberries in the French dressing and chopped liver in the Waldorf salad, plus accidentally dropping two dozen or so radishes in the French fryer (though these drew raves from the customers when he served them anyway, too lazy to go after more) From time to time the Brazilian would come charging through the kitchen crying.
He never found his beloved machine gun. Lorn and drained-nervous, he was fired next day. The season was over anyway - for all Profane knew Da Conho may have even taken ship one day for
After teardown Profane set out to find Rachel. She was out, he was informed, with the captain of the Harvard crossbow team. Profane wandered by the bunkhouse and found a morose Wedge, unusually mateless for the evening. Till midnight they played blackjack for all the contraceptives Wedge had not used over the summer. These numbered about a hundred. Profane borrowed 50 and had a winning streak. When he'd cleaned Wedge out, Wedge dashed away to borrow more. He was back five minutes later, shaking his head. "Nobody believed me." Profane loaned him a few. At midnight Profane informed Wedge he was
Profane wandered up by Rachel's cabin again. He heard splashing and gurgling from the courtyard in back and walked around to investigate. There she was washing her car. In the middle of the night yet. Moreover, she was talking to it.
"You beautiful stud," he heard her say, "I love to touch you." Wha, he thought. "Do you know what I feel when we're out on the road? Alone, just us?" She was running the sponge caressingly over its front bumper. "Your funny responses, darling, that I know so well. The way your brakes pull a little to the left, the way you start to shudder around 5000 rpm when you're excited. And you burn oil when you're mad at me, don't you? I know." There was none of your madness in her voice; it might have been a schoolgirl's game, though still, he admitted, quaint. "We'll always be together," running a chamois over the hood, "and you needn't worry about that black Buick we passed on the road today. Ugh: fat, greasy Mafia car. I expected to see a body come flying out the back door, didn't you? Besides, you're so angular and proper-English and tweedy - and oh so Ivy that I couldn't ever leave you, dear." It occurred to Profane that he might vomit. Public displays of sentiment often affected him this way. She had climbed in the car and now lay hack in the driver's seat, her throat open to the summer constellations. He was about to approach her when he saw her left hand snake out all pale to fondle the gearshift. He watched and noticed how she was touching it. Having just been with Wedge he got the connection. He didn't want to see any more. He ambled away over a hill and into the woods and when he got back to the Trocadero he couldn't have said exactly where he'd been walking. All the cabins were dark. The front office was still open. The clerk had stepped out. Profane rooted around in desk drawers till he found a box of thumbtacks. He returned to the cabins and till three in the morning he moved along the starlit aisles between them, tacking up one of Wedge's contraceptives on each door. No one interrupted him. He felt like the Angel of Death, marking the doors of tomorrow's victims in blood. The purpose of a mezuzah was to fake the Angel out so he'd pass by. On these hundred or so cabins Profane didn't see mezuzah one. So much the worse.
After the summer, then, there'd been letters his surly and full of wrong words, hers by turns witty, desperate, passionate. A year later she'd graduated from Bennington and come to New York to work as a receptionist in an employment agency, and so he'd seen her in New York, once or twice, when he passed through; and though they only thought about one another at random, though her yo-yo hand was usually busy at other things, now and again would come the invisible, umbilical tug, like tonight mnemonic, arousing, and he would wonder how much his own man he was. One thing he had to give her credit for, she'd never called it a relationship.
"What is it then, hey," he'd asked once.
"A secret," with her small child's smile, which like Rodgers arid Hammerstein in 3/4 time rendered Profane fluttery and gelatinous.
She visited him occasionally, as now, at night, like a succubus coming in with the snow. There was no way he knew to keep either out.
As it turned out, the New Year's party was to end all yo-yoing at least for a time. The reunion descended on Susanna Squaducci, conned the night watchmen with a bottle of wine, and allowed a party from a destroyer in drydock (after some preliminary brawling) to come aboard.
Paola stuck close at first to Profane, who had eyes for a voluptuous lady in some sort of fur coat who claimed to be an admiral's wife. There was a portable radio, noisemakers, wine, wine. Dewey Gland decided to climb a mast. The mast had just been painted but Dewey climbed on, turning more zebralike the higher he went, guitar dangling below him. When he got to the cross-trees, Dewey sat down, plonked on the guitar and began to sing in hillbilly dialect:
Depuis que je suis ne
J'ai vu mourir des peres,
J'ai vu partir des freres,
Et des enfants pleurer . . .
The para again. Who haunted this week. Since I was born (said he) I've seen fathers die, brothers go away, little kid, cry.
"What was that airborne boy's problem," Profane asked her the first time she translated it for him. "Who hasn't seen that, It happens for other reasons besides war. Why blame war. I was born in a Hooverville, before the war."
"That's it," Paola said. "Je suis ne. Being born. That's all you have to do."
Dewey's voice sounded like part of the inanimate wind, so high overhead. What had happened to Guy Lombardo and "Auld Lang Syne"?
At one minute into 1956 Dewey was down on deck and Profane was up straddling a spar, looking down at Pig and the admiral's wife, copulating directly below. A sea gull swooped in out of the snow's sky, circled, lit on the spar a foot from Profane's hand. "Yo, sea gull," said Profane. Sea gull didn't answer.
"Oh, man," Profane said to the night. "I like to see young people get together." He scanned the main deck. Paola had disappeared. All at once things erupted. There was a siren, two, out in the street. Cars came roaring on to the pier, gray Chevys with U. S. Navy written on the sides. Spotlights came on, little men in white hats and black-and-yellow SP armbands milled around on the pier. Three alert revelers ran along the port side, throwing gangplanks into the water. A sound truck joined the vehicles on the dock, whose number was growing almost to a full-sized motor pool.
"All right you men," 50 watts of disembodied voice began to bellow: "all right you men." That was about all it had to say. The admiral's wife started shrieking about how it was her husband, caught up with her at last. Two or three spotlights pinned them where they lay (in burning sin), Pig trying to get the thirteen buttons on his blues into the right buttonholes, which is nearly impossible when you're in a hurry. Cheers and laughter from the pier. Some of the SP's were coming across rat-fashion on the mooring lines. Ex-Scaffold sailors, roused from sleep below decks, came stumbling up the ladders while Dewey yelled, "Now stand by to repel boarders," and waved his guitar like a cutlass.
Profane watched it all and half-worried about Paola. He looked for her but the spotlights kept moving around, screwing up the illumination on the main deck. It started to snow again. "Suppose," said Profane to the sea gull, who was blinking at him, "suppose I was God." He inched on to the dorm and lay on his stomach, with nose, eyes and cowboy hat sticking over the edge, like a horizontal Kilroy.
"If I was God . . ." He pointed at an SP; "Zap, SP, your ass has had it." The SP kept on at what he'd been doing: battering a 250-pound fire controlman named Patsy Pagano in the stomach with a night stick.
The motor pool on the pier was augmented by a cattle car, which is Navy for paddy wagon or Black Maria.
"Zap," said Profane, "cattle car, keep going and drive off end of the pier," which it almost did but braked in time. "Patsy Pagano, grow wings and fly out of here." But a final clobber sent Patsy down for good. The SP left him where he was. It would take six men to move him. "What's the matter," Profane wondered. The sea bird, bored with all this, took off in the direction of N.O.B. Maybe, Profane thought, God is supposed to be more positive, instead of throwing thunderbolts all the time. Carefully he pointed a finger. "Dewey Gland. Sing them that Algerian pacifist song." Dewey, now astride a lifeline on the bridge, gave a bass string intro and began to sing Blue Suede Shoes, after Elvis Presley. Profane flopped over on his back, blinking up into the snow.
"Well, almost," he said, to the gone bird, to the snow. He put the hat over his face, closed his eyes. And soon was asleep.
Noise below diminished. Bodies were carried off, stacked in the cattle car. The sound truck, after several bursts of feedback noise, was switched off and driven away. Spotlights went out, sirens dopplered away in the direction off shore patrol headquarters.
Profane woke up early in the morning, covered with a thin layer of snow and feeling the onset of a bad cold. He blundered down the ladder's ice-covered rungs, slipping about every other step. The ship was deserted. He headed below decks to get warm.
Again, he was in the guts of something inanimate. Noise a few decks below: night watchman, most likely. "You can't ever be alone," Profane mumbled, tiptoeing along a passageway. He spotted a mousetrap on deck, picked it up carefully and heaved it down the passageway. It hit a bulkhead and went off with a loud SNAP. Sound of the footsteps quit abruptly. Then started again, more cautious, moved under Profane and up a ladder, toward where the mousetrap lay.
"Ha-ha," said Profane. He sneaked around a corner, found another mousetrap and dropped it down a companionway. SNAP. Footsteps went pattering back down the ladder.
Four mousetraps later, Profane found himself in the galley, where the watchman had set up a primitive Coffee mess. Figuring the watchman would be confused for a few minutes, Profane set a pot of water to boil on the hotplate.
"Hey," yelled the watchman, two decks above.
"Oh, oh," said Profane. He sneaky-Peted out of the galley and went looking for more mousetraps. He found one up on the next deck, stepped outside, lobbed it up in an invisible arc. If nothing else he was saving mice. There was a muffed snap and a scream from above.
"My Coffee," Profane muttered, taking the steps down two at a time. He threw a handful of grounds into the boiling water and slipped out the other side, nearly running into the night watchman who was stalking along with a mousetrap hanging off his left sleeve. It was close enough so Profane could see the patient, martyred look on this watchman's face. Watchman entered the galley and Profane was off. He made it up three decks before he heard the bellowing from the galley.
"What now?" He wandered into a passageway lined with empty staterooms. Found a piece of chalk left by a welder, wrote SCREW THE SUSANNA SQUADUCCI and DOWN WITH ALL YOU RICH BASTARDS on the bulkhead, signed it THE PHANTOM and felt better. Who'd be sailing off to
Outside the galley again he started throwing them in all directions. "Ha, ha," said the night watchman. "Go ahead, make noise. I'm drinking your Coffee."
So he was. Profane absently hefted his one remaining mousetrap. It went off, catching three fingers between the first and second knuckles.
What do I do, he wondered, scream? No. The night watchman was laughing hard enough as it was. Setting his teeth Profane unpried the trap from his hand, reset it, tossed it through a porthole to the galley and fled. He reached the pier and got a snowball in the back of the head, which knocked off the cowboy hat. He stooped to get the hat and thought about returning the shot. No. He kept running.
Paola was at the ferry, waiting. She took his arm as they went on board. All he said was: "We ever going to get off this ferry?"
"You have snow on you." She reached up to brush it off and he almost kissed her. Cold was turning the mousetrap injury numb. Wind had started up, coming in from
Rachel caught up with him in the bus station in
He knew immediately, even before he was fully awake, who it must be. Just a hunch. He had been thinking about her.
"Dear Benny," Rachel said, "I've called every bus station in the country." He could hear a party on in the background. New Year's night. Where he was there was only an old clock to tell the time. And a dozen Homeless, slouched on wooden bench, trying to sleep. Waiting for a long-haul bus run neither by Greyhound nor Trailways. He watched them and let her talk. She was saying, "Come Home." The only one he would allow to tell him this except for an internal voice he would rather disown as prodigal than listen to.
"You know -" he tried to say.
"I'll send you bus fare."
A hollow, twanging sound dragged across the floor toward him. Dewey Gland, morose and all bones, trailed his guitar behind him. Profane interrupted her gently. "Here is my friend Dewey Gland," he said, almost whispering. "He would like to sing you a little song."
Dewey sang her the old Depression song, Wanderin'. Eels in the ocean, eels in the sea, a redheaded woman made a fool of me. . .
Rachel's hair was red, veined with premature gray, so long she could take it in back with one hand, lift it above her head and let it fall forward over her long eyes. Which for a girl 4'10" in stocking feet is a ridiculous gesture; or should be.
He felt that invisible, umbilical string tug at his midsection. He thought of long fingers, through which, maybe, he might catch sight of the blue sky, once in a while.
And it looks like I'm never going to cease.
"She wants you," Dewey said. The girl at the Information desk was frowning. Big-boned, motley complexion: girl from out of town somewhere, whose eyes dreamed of grinning Buick grilles, Friday night shuffleboard at some roadhouse.
"I want you," Rachel said. He moved his chin across the mouthpiece, making grating sounds with a three-day growth. He thought that all the way up north, along a 500-mile length of underground phone cable, there must be earthworms, blind trollfolk, listening in. Trolls know a lot of magic: could they change words, do vocal imitations? "Will you just drift, then," she said. Behind her he heard somebody barfing and those who watched laughing, hysterically. Jazz on the record player.
He wanted to say, God, the things we want. He said: "How is the party."
"It's over at Raoul's," she said. Raoul, Slab, and Melvin being part of a crowd of disaffected which someone had labeled The Whole Sick Crew. They lived half their time in a bar on the lower
"Benny." She had never cried, never that he could remember. It worried him. But she might be faking. "Ciao," she said. That phony,
"There's a nice fight on," Dewey Gland said, sullen and redeyed. "Old Ploy is so juiced he went and bit a Marine on the ass."
If you look from the side at a planet swinging around in its orbit, split the sun with a mirror and imagine a string, it all looks like a yo-yo. The point furthest from the sun is called aphelion. The point furthest from the yo-yo hand is called, by analogy, apocheir.
Profane and Paola left for
About the time they hit
She nodded. "Are you in love, then."
"She's a good woman. She'll put you on to a job, find you a place to stay. Don't ask me if we're in love. The word doesn't mean anything. Here's her address. You can take the West Side IRT right up there."
"What are you afraid of."
"Go to sleep." She did, on Profane's shoulder.
"Shall I tell her . . ."
"She'll know. That's the trouble. There's nothing you - I - can tell her she doesn't know."
"Call me, Ben. Please. Maybe."
"Right," he told her. "maybe."
So in January 1956 Benny Profane showed up again in
If anybody had been around to remember him they would have noticed right off that Profane hadn't changed. Still great amoebalike boy, soft and fat, hair cropped close and growing in patches, eyes small like a pig's and set too far apart. Road work had done nothing to improve the outward Profane, or the inward one either. Though the street by claimed a big fraction of Profane's age, it and he remained strangers in every way. Streets (roads, circles, square places, prospects) had taught him nothing: he couldn't work a transit, crane, payloader, couldn't lay bricks, stretch a tape right, hold an elevation rod still, hadn't even learned to drive a car. He walked; walked, he thought sometimes, the aisles of a bright, gigantic supermarket, his only function to want.
One morning Profane woke up early, couldn't get back sleep and decided on a whim to spend the day like a yo-yo, shuttling on the subway back and forth underneath 42nd Street, from Times Square to Grand Central and vice versa. He made his way to the washroom of Our Home, tripping over two empty mattresses on route. Cut himself shaving, had trouble extracting the blade and gashed a finger. He took a shower to get rid of the blood. The handles wouldn't turn. When he finally found a shower that worked, the water came out hot and cold in random patterns. He danced around, yowling and shivering, slipped on a bar of soap and nearly broke his neck. Drying off, he ripped a frayed towel in half, rendering it useless. He put on his skivvy shirt backwards, took ten minutes getting his fly zipped and other fifteen repairing a shoelace which had broken as was tying it. All the rests of his morning songs were silent cuss words. It wasn't that he was tired or even notably uncoordinated. Only something that, being a schiemihl he'd known for years: inanimate objects and he could not live in peace.
Profane took a
The shuttle after morning rush hour is near empty, like a littered beach after tourists have all gone Home. In the hours between nine and noon the permanent residents come creeping back up their strand, shy and tentative. Since sunup all manner of affluent have filled the limits of that world with a sense of summer and life; now sleeping bums and old ladies on relief, who have been there all along unnoticed, re-establish a kind of property right, and the coming on of a falling season.
On his eleventh or twelfth transit Profane fell asleep and dreamed. He was awakened close to noon by three Puerto Rican kids named Tolito, Jose and Kook, short for Cucarachito. They had this act, which was for money even though they knew that the subway on weekday mornings, no es bueno for dancing and bongos. Jose carried around a Coffee can which upside down served to rattle off their raving merengues or baions on, and hollow side up to receive from an appreciative audience pennies, transit tokens, chewing gum, spit.
Profane blinked awake and watched them, jazzing around, doing handsprings, aping courtship. They swung from the handle-grips, shimmied up the poles; Tolito tossing Kook the seven-year-old about the car like a beanbag and behind it all, clobbering polyrhythmic to the racketing of the shuttle, Jose on his tin drum, forearms and hands vibrating out beyond the persistence of vision, and a tireless smile across his teeth wide as the West Side.
They passed the can as the train was pulling into
Kook, the baby, could hold nothing in. "Maricon!" he yelled gleefully. Profane's eyes came open. Heel-taps of older boys moved past, aloof and staccato to the next car. Tolito put his hand on Kook's head, trying to squash him down through the floor, out of sight. Kook slipped away. The doors closed, the shuttle started off again for Grand Central. The three turned their attention to Profane.
"Hey, man," Kook said. Profane watched him, half-cautious.
"How come," Jose said. He put the Coffee can absently on his head, where it slipped down over his ears. "How come you didn't get off at Times Square."
"He was asleep," Tolito said.
"He's a yo-yo," Jose said. "Wait and see." They forgot Profane for the moment, moved forward a car and did their routine. They came back as the train was starting off again from Grand Central,
"See," Jose said.
"Hey man," Kook said, "how come."
"You out of a job," Tolito said.
"Why don't you hunt alligators, like my brother," Kook said.
"Kook's brother shoots them with a shotgun," Tolito slid.
"If you need a job, you should hunt alligators," Jose said.
Profane scratched his stomach. He looked at the floor.
"Is it steady," he said.
The subway pulled in to
Among the crowd that squeezed inside this time was young girl wearing a black coat, her hair hanging long outside it. She searched four cars before she found Kook, sitting next to Profane, watching him.
"He wants to help Angel kill the alligators," Kook told her. Profane was asleep, lying diagonal on the seat.
An this dream, he was all alone, as usual. Walking on a street at night where there was nothing but his own field of vision alive. It had to be night on that street. The lights gleamed unflickering on hydrants; manhole covers which lay around in the street. There were neon signs scattered here and there, spelling out words he wouldn't remember when woke.
Somehow it was all tied up with a story he'd heard once, about a boy born with a golden screw where his navel should have been. For twenty years he consults doctors and specialists all over the world, trying to get rid of this screw, and having no success. Finally, in
To Profane, alone in the street, it would always seem maybe he was looking for something too to make the fact of his own disassembly plausible as that of any machine. It was always at this point that the fear started: here that it would turn into a nightmare. Because now, if he kept going down that street, not only his ass but also his arms, legs, sponge brain and clock of a heart must be left behind to litter the pavement, be scattered among manhole covers.
Was it Home, the mercury-lit street? Was he returning like the elephant to his graveyard, to lie down and soon become ivory in whose bulk slept, latent, exquisite shapes of chessmen, backscratchers, hollow open-work Chinese spheres nested one inside the other?
This was all there was to dream; all there ever was: the Street. Soon he woke, having found no screwdriver, no key. Woke to a girl's face, near his own. Kook stood in the background, feet braced apart, head hanging. From two cars away, riding above the racketing of the subway over points, came the metallic rattle of Tolito on the Coffee can.
Her face was young, soft. She had a brown mole on one cheek. She'd been talking to him before his eyes were open. She wanted him to come Home with her. Her name was Josefina Mendoza, she was Kook's sister, she lived uptown. She must help him. He had no idea what was happening.
"Wha, lady," he said, "wha."
"Do you like it here," she cried.
"I do not like it, lady, no," said Profane. The train was heading toward
They lived uptown in the 80's, between
Next day Kook found him sleeping there and turned on the cold water. "Jesus God," Profane yelled, spluttering awake.
"Man, you go find a job," Kook said. "Fina says so." Profane jumped up and went chasing Kook through the little apartment, trailing water behind him. In the front room he tripped over Angel and Geronimo, who were lying there drinking wine and talking about the girls they would watch that day in
A few hours later, they all came reeling down the steps of the old brownstone, horribly drunk. Angel and Geronimo were arguing about whether it was too cold for girls to be the park. They walked west in the middle of the street. The sky was overcast and dismal. Profane kept bumping into cars. At the corner they invaded a hot dog stand and drank a pina colada to sober up. It did no good. They made it to
"Man," Angel said, "there is one." She came walking a lean, nasty-face poodle. Young, with long hair that danced and shimmered against the collar of her coat. Geronimo broke off the song to say "Cono" and wobble his fingers. Then he continued, singing now to her. She didn't notice any of them, but headed uptown, serene and smiling at the naked trees. Their eyes followed her out of sight. They felt sad.
Angel sighed. "There are so many," he said. "So many millions and millions of girls. Here in
"A lot of good stuff in
"Out on the road," said Profane. "They were all in cars."
"Geronimo and I work in the sewers," Angel said. "Under the street. You don't see anything down there."
"Under the street," Profane repeated after a minute: "under the Street."
Geronimo stopped singing and told Profane how it was. Did he remember the baby alligators? Last year, or maybe the year before, kids all over Nueva York bought these little alligators for pets. Macy's was selling them for fifty cents, every child, it seemed, had to have one. But soon the children grew bored with them. Some set them loose in the streets, but most flushed them down the toilets. And these had grown and reproduced, had fed off rats and sewage, so that now they moved big, blind, albino, all over the sewer system. Down there, God knew how many there were. Some had turned cannibal because in their neighborhood the rats had all been eaten, or had fled in terror.
Since the sewer scandal last year, the Department had got conscientious. They called for volunteers to go down with shotguns and get rid of the alligators. Not many had volunteered. Those who had quit soon. Angel and he, Geronimo said proudly, had been there three months longer than anybody.
Profane, all at once was sober. "Are they still looking for volunteers," he said slowly. Angel started to sing. Profane rolled over glaring at Geronimo. "Hey?"
"Sure," Geronimo said. "You ever use a shotgun before?"
Profane said yes. He never had, and never would, not at street level. But a shotgun under the street, under the Street, might be all right. He could kill himself but maybe it would be all right. He could try.
"I will talk to Mr. Zeitsuss, the boss," said Geronimo.
The beanbag hung for a second jolly and bright in the air. "Look, look," the kids cried: "look at it fall!"