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V.《V》


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Chapter One

In which Benny Profane, a schlemihl and human yo-yo, gets to an apocheir

 

 Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket,  sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia.  Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he'd look in on the Sailor's  Grave, his old tin can's tavern on East Main Street. He got there by way of  the Arcade, at the East Main end of which sat an old street singer with a  guitar and an empty Sterno can for donations. Out in the street a chief  yeoman was trying to urinate in the gas tank of a '54 Packard Patrician and  five or six seamen apprentice were standing around giving encouragement.  The old man was singing, in a fine, firm baritone:

 

   Every night is Christmas Eve on old East Main,

   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 East Main.

 

"Yay chief," yelled a seaman deuce. Profane rounded the corner. With its  usual lack of warning, East Main was on him.

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: East Main, a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what  to Do With, sprang on your nerves with all the abruptness of a normal  night's dream turning to nightmare. Dog into wolf, light into twilight,  emptiness into waiting presence, here were your underage Marine barfing in  the street, barmaid with a ship's propeller tattooed on each buttock, one  potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate  glass window (when to scream Geronimo? before or after the glass breaks?), a  drunken deck ape crying back in the alley because last time the SP's caught  him like this they put him in a strait jacket. Underfoot, now and again,  came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a  Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody's face green and  ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east  where it's dark and there are no more bars.

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 Main.  For it's said (and not without reason) that no sooner does a ship like the  Scaffold single up all lines than certain Navy wives are out of their  civvies and into barmaid uniform, flexing their beer-carrying arms and  practicing a hooker's sweet smile; even as the N.O.B. band is playing Auld  Lang Syne and the destroyers are blowing stacks in black flakes all over the  cuckolds-to-be standing manly at attention, taking leave with rue and a tiny  grin.

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 East Main. He stood five feet  nothing in sea boots and was always picking fights with the biggest people  on the ship, knowing they would never take him seriously. Ten months ago  (just before he'd transferred off the Scaffold) the Navy had decided to  remove all of Ploy's teeth. Incensed, Ploy managed to punch his way through  a chief corpsman and two dental officers before it was decided he was in  earnest about keeping his teeth. "But think," the officers shouted, trying  not to laugh, fending off his tiny fists: "root canal work, gum abscesses. .  ." "No," screamed Ploy. They finally had to hit him in the bicep with a  Pentothal injection. On waking up, Ploy saw apocalypse, screamed lengthy  obscenities. For two months he roamed ghastly around the Scaffold, leaping  without warning to swing from the overhead like an orangutan, trying to kick  officers in the teeth.

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 island of Malta.

Profane had been there when they met: the Metro Bar, on Strait Street. The  Gut. Valletta, Malta.

"Chicago," from Pappy Hod in his gangster voice. "You heard of Chicago,"  meanwhile reaching sinister inside his jumper, a standard act for Pappy Hod  all around the Med's littoral. He would pull out a handkerchief and not a  heater or gat after all, blow his nose and laugh at whatever girl it  happened to be sitting across the table. American movies had given them  stereotypes all, all but Paola Maijstral, who continued to regard him then  with nostrils unflared, eyebrows at dead center.

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 America - every Mediterranean  barmaid's daftness - where there was enough food, warm clothes, heat all the  time, buildings all in one piece. Pappy was to lie about her age to get her  into the country. She could be any age she wanted. And you suspected any  nationality, for Paola knew scraps it seemed of all tongues.

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 East Main barmaid. What was it about the prairie hare in the  snow, the tiger in tall grass and sunlight?

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 Cracow, took the  full impact of the onslaught, toppling over backwards into an ice-tub as the  first wave came hurtling over the bar. Ploy, hands outstretched, was  propelled over the top. He caught on to one of the tap handles and  simultaneously his shipmates let go; his momentum carried him and the handle  in a downward arc: beer began to gush from the foam rubber breast in a white  cascade, washing over Ploy, Mrs. Buffo and two dozen sailors who had come  around behind the bar in a flanking action and who were now battering one  another into insensibility. The group who had carried Ploy over spread out  and tried to corner more beer taps. Ploy's leading petty officer was on  hands and knees holding Ploy's feet, ready to pull them out from under him,  and take his striker's place when Ploy had had enough. The Impulsive  detachment in their charge had formed a flying wedge. In their wake and  through the breach clambered at least sixty more slavering bluejackets,  kicking, clawing, side-arming, bellowing uproariously; some swinging beer  bottles to clear a path.

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 East Main. "Where we going," Profane said.  "The way we're heading," said Pig. "Move your ass."

 

II

 Where they ended up finally was an apartment in Newport News, inhabited by  four WAVE lieutenants and a switchman at the coal piers (friend of Pig's)  named Morris Teflon, who was a sort of house father. The week between  Christmas and New Year's Day was spent drunk enough to know that's what they  were. Nobody in the house seemed to object hen they all moved 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 East Main. 

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 Algeria:

 Demain le noir matin,

   Je fermerai la porte

   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 island of Malta itself: an inscrutable  heart. She'd had only one night with him. Then he was off to the Piraeus.

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. 

"Meaning yes."

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 Norfolk and sat topside drinking black Coffee out of paper  cups and watching snow-shrouds flap silent against the big windows. There  was nothing else to look at but a bum on a bench facing them, and each  other. The engine thumped and labored down below, they could feel it through  their buttocks, but neither could think of anything to say.

"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 East Main to find Pig and Dewey. The Sailor's Grave was dark,  the first time Profane could remember. The cops must have closed it up.

They found Pig next door in Chester's Hillbilly Haven. Dewey was sitting in  with the band. "Party, party," cried Pig.

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 Newport News yards.

"Back to Newport News?" (Deciding not to tell Pig about the disagreement  with Teflon.) So: yo-yoing again.

"This has got to cease," he said but nobody was listening. Pig was off  dancing the dirty boogie with Paola.

 

III

 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 Liberty, New York. His  chief was one Da Conho, a mad Brazilian who wanted to go fight Arabs in  Israel. One night near the opening of the season a drunken Marine had showed  up in the Fiesta Lounge or bar of the Trocadero, carrying a .30-caliber  machine gun in his AWOL bag. He wasn't too sure how he had come by the  weapon exactly: Da Conho preferred to think it had been smuggled out of  Parris Island piece by piece, which was how the Haganah would do it. After  a deal of arguing with the bartender, who also wanted the gun, Da Conho  finally triumphed, swapping for it three artichokes and an eggplant. To the  mezuzah nailed up over the vegetable reefer and the Zionist banner hanging  in back of the salad table Da Conho added this prize. During the weeks that  followed, when the head chef was looking the other way, Da Conho would  assemble his machine gun, camouflage it with iceberg lettuce, watercress and  Belgian endive, and mock-strafe the guests assembled in the dining room.  "Yibble, yibble, yibble," he would go, squinting malevolent along the  sights, "got you dead center, Abdul Sayid. Yibble, yibble, Muslim pig." Da  Conho's machine gun was the only one in the world that went yibble, yibble.  He would sit up past four in the morning cleaning it, dreaming of  lunar-looking deserts, the sizzle of Chang music, Yemenite girls whose  delicate heads were covered with white kerchiefs, whose loins ached with  love. He wondered how American Jews could sit vainglorious in that dining  room meal after meal while only halfway round the world the desert shifted  relentless over corpses of their own. How could he tell soulless stomachs?  Harangue with oil and vinegar, supplicate with heart of palm. The only nice  he had was the machine gun's. Could they hear that, can stomachs listen: no.  And you never hear the one that gets you. Aimed perhaps at any alimentary  canal in a Hart Schaffner & Marx suit which vented lewd gurgles at the  waitresses who passed, that gun was an object only, pointing where any  suitable unbalance force might direct it: but which belt buckle was Da Conho  taking a lead on: Abdul Sayid, the alimentary canal, himself? Why ask. He  knew no more than that he was a Zionist, suffered, was confused, was daft to  stand rooted sock-top deep in the loam of any kibbutz, a hemisphere away.

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 5 mph - not fast enough to  break anything, only to send Profane, garbage can and lettuce leaves flying  ass over teakettle in a great green shower.

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 Liberty. "Come for a ride, hey Fatso," she called out. Profane  reckoned he could. It was a couple hours before he had to go in to set up  for supper.

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 Bennington, her alma mater. She talked about herself.

Rachel came from the Five Towns on the south shore of Long Island, an area  comprising Malverne, Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Hewlett and Woodmere and  sometimes Long Beach and Atlantic Beach, though no one has ever thought of  calling it the Seven Towns. Though the inhabitants are not Sephardim, the  area seems afflicted with a kind of geographical incest. Daughters are  constrained to pace demure and darkeyed like so many Rapunzels within the  magic frontiers of a country where the elfin architecture of Chinese  restaurants, seafood palaces and split-level synagogues is often enchanting  as the sea; until they have ripened enough to be sent off to the mountains  and colleges of the Northeast. Not to hunt husbands (for a certain parity  has always obtained the Five Towns whereby a nice boy can be predestined for  husband as early as age sixteen or seventeen); but to be anted the illusion  at least of having "played the field" - so necessary to a girl's emotional  development.

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 Lawrence, and Ed Sullivan still hours away, the blood of  this kingdom exit from their enormous Homes, enter their automobiles and  proceed to the Business districts. There to divert themselves among  seemingly endless vistas of butterfly shrimp and egg foo yung; Orientals  bow, and smile, and flutter through summer's twilight, and in their voices  are the birds of summer. And with night's fall comes a brief promenade in  the street: the torso of the father solid and sure in its J. Press suit; the  eyes of the daughters secret behind sunglasses rimmed in rhinestones. And as  the jaguar has given its name to the mother's car, so has it given its  skin-pattern to the slacks which compass her sleek hips. Who could escape?  Who could want to?

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.

"Wha."

"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 Bennington, no Schlozhauer's, and no Five Towns. Only  this quarry: the dead rocks that were here before us and will be after us."

 

"Why."

"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."

He shrugged.

"Write."

"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  Ithaca and south of Princeton. Places I won't know."

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 Israel, to tinker with the guts of some  tractor, trying to forget, like many exhausted workers abroad, some love  back in the States.

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 30 in the hole. Wedge made an appropriate comment. Profane gathered  up the pile of rubbers. Wedge pounded his head against the table. "He'll  never use them," he said to the table. "That's the bitch of it. Never in his  lifetime."

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.

 

IV

 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 Italy in this thing? Chairmen of the  board, movie stars, deported racketeers, maybe. "Tonight," Profane purred,  "tonight, Susanna, you belong to me:" His to mark up, to set mousetraps off  in. More than any paid passenger would ever do for her. He moseyed along the  passageway, collecting mousetraps.

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 Norfolk. This crossing they stayed inside.

 

Rachel caught up with him in the bus station in Norfolk. He sat slouched  next to Paola on a wooden bench worn pallid and greasy with a generation of  random duffs, two one-way tickets for New York, New York tucked inside the cowboy hat. He had his eyes closed, he was trying to sleep. He had just  begun to drift off when the paging system called his name.

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."

She would.

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 West Side called the Rusty  Spoon. He thought of the Sailor's Grave and could not see much difference.

"Benny." She had never cried, never that he could remember. It worried him.  But she might be faking. "Ciao," she said. That phony, Greenwich Village way  to avoid saying good-bye. He hung up.

"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 New York that night. Dewey Gland went back to the  ship and Profane never saw him again. Pig had taken off on the Harley,  destination unknown. On the Greyhound were one young couple who would, come  sleep for the other passengers, make it in a rear seat; one pencil-sharpener  salesman who had seen every territory in the country and could give you  interesting information on any city, no matter which one you happened to be  heading for; and four infants, each with an incompetent mother, scattered at  strategic locations throughout the bus, who babbled, cooed, vomited,  practiced self-asphyxia, drooled. At least one managed to be screaming all  through the twelve-hour trip.

About the time they hit Maryland, Profane decided to get it over with. "Not  that I'm trying to get rid of you," handing her a ticket envelope with  Rachel's address on it in pencil, "but I don't know how long I'll be in the  city." He didn't.

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.

At the 34th Street station, in New York, he gave her a brief salute. "I may  be around. But I hope not. It's complicated."

"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."

 

V

 So in January 1956 Benny Profane showed up again in New York. He came into  town at the tag-end of a spell of false spring, found a mattress at a  downtown flophouse called Our Home, and a newspaper at an uptown kiosk; roar  around the streets late that night studying the classified streetlight. As  usual nobody wanted him in particular.

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 Lexington Avenue local up to Grand Central. As it happened,  the subway car he got into was filled with all manner of ravishingly  gorgeous knockouts: secretaries on route to work and jailbait to school. It  was too much, too much. Profane hung on the handgrip, weak. He was visited  on a lunar basis by these great unspecific waves of horniness, whereby all  women within a certain age group and figure envelope became immediately and  impossibly desirable. He emerged from these spells with eyeballs still  oscillating and a wish that his neck could rotate through the full 360  degrees.

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 Times Square. Profane  closed his eyes before they got to him. They sat on the seat opposite,  counting the take, feet dangling. Kook was in the middle, the other two were  trying to push him on the floor. Two teen-age boys from their neighborhood  entered the car: black chinos, black shirts, black gang jack with PLAYBOYS  lettered in dripping red on the back. Abruptly all motion among the three  on the seat stopped. They held each other, staring wide-eyed.

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 Times Square, disgorged passengers, took more on,  shut up its doors and shrieked away down the tunnel. Another shuttle came  in, on a different track. Bodies milled in the brown light, a loudspeaker  announced shuttles. It was lunch hour. The subway station began to buzz,  fill with human noise and motion. Tourists were coming back in droves.  Another train arrived, opened, closed, was gone. The press on the wooden  platforms grew, along with an air of discomfort, hunger, uneasy bladders,  suffocation. The first shuttle returned.

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 Haiti, he runs into a voodoo  doctor who gives him a foul-smelling potion. He drinks it, goes to sleep and  has a dream. In this dream he finds himself on a street, lit by green lamps.  Following the witch-man's instructions, he takes two rights and a left from  his point of origin, finds a tree growing by the seventh street light, hung  all over with colored balloons. On the fourth limb from the top there is a  red balloon; he breaks it and inside is a screwdriver with a yellow plastic  handle. With the screwdriver he removes the screw from his stomach, and as  soon as this happens he wakes from the dream. It is morning. He looks down  toward his navel, the screw is gone. That twenty years' curse is lifted at  last. Delirious with joy, he leaps up out of bed, and his ass falls off.

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  Times Square, crowded. Two old ladies who had been shopping at  Bloomingdale's stood glaring hostile at them from up the car. Fina started  to cry. The other kids came charging back in, singing. "Help," Profane said.  He didn't know who he was asking. He'd awakened loving every woman in the  city, wanting them all: here was one who wanted to take him Home. The  shuttle pulled into Times Square, the doors flew open. In a swoop, only  half aware of what he was doing, he gathered Kook in one arm and ran out  the door: Fina, with tropical birds peeking from her green dress whenever  the black coat flew open, followed, hands joined with Tolito and Jose in a  line. They ran through the station, beneath a chain of green lights, Profane  loping unathletic into trash cans and Coke machines. Kook broke away and  tore broken-field through the noon crowd. "Luis Aparicio," he screamed,  sliding for some private Home plate: "Luis Aparicio," wreaking havoc through  a troop of Girl Scouts. Down the stairs, over to the uptown local, a train  was waiting, Fina and the kids got in; as Profane started through the doors  closed on him, squeezing him in the middle. Fina's eyes went wide like her  brother's. With a frightened little cry she took Profane's hand and tugged,  and a miracle happened. The doors opened again. She gathered him inside,  into her quiet field of force. He knew all at once: here, for the time  being, Profane the schlemihl can move nimble and sure. All the way Home  Kook sang Tienes Mi Corazon, a love song he had heard once in a movie.

They lived uptown in the 80's, between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway. Fina,  Kook, mother, father, and another brother named Angel. Sometimes Angel's  friend Geronimo would come over and sleep on the kitchen floor. The old man  was on relief. The mother fell in love with Profane immediately. They gave  him the bathtub.

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  Riverside Park. Kook escaped, laughing and screaming "Luis Aparicio."  Profane lay there with his nose pressed against the floor. "Have some wine,"  Angel said.

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 Riverside Drive, where Geronimo collapsed.  Profane and Angel picked him up and ran across the street with him held like  a battering ram, down a hill and into the park. Profane tripped over a rock  and the three of them went flying. They lay on the frozen grass while a  bunch of kids in fat wool coats ran back and forth over them, playing pitch  and catch with a bright yellow beanbag. Geronimo started to sing.

"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 New York, and in Boston, where I was once and in thousands  more cities . . . It makes me lose heart."

"Out in Jersey too," said Profane. "I worked in Jersey."

"A lot of good stuff in Jersey," Angel said.

"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!"

 

 

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