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Chapter Two

The Whole Sick Crew

 

I

 Profane, Angel and Geronimo gave up girl-watching about noon and left the  park in search of wine. An hour or so later, Rachel Owlglass, Profane's  Rachel, passed by the spot they'd abandoned, on her way Home.

There is no way to describe the way she walked except as a kind of brave  sensual trudging: as if she were nose-deep in snowdrifts, and yet on route  to meet a lover. She came up the dead center of the mall, her gray coat  fluttering a little in a breeze off the Jersey coast. Her high heels hit  precise and neat each time on the X's of the grating in the middle of the  mall. Half a year in this city and at least she learned to do that. Had lost  heels, and once in a while composure in the process; but now could do it  blindfolded. kept on the grating just to show off. To herself.

Rachel worked as an interviewer or personnel girl at a downtown employment  agency; was at the moment returning from an appointment on the East Side  with one Shale Schoenmaker, M.D., a plastic surgeon. Schoenmaker was a craftsman and came high; had two assistants, one a  secretary/receptionist/nurse with an impossibly coy retrousse nose and  thousands of freckles, all of which Schoenmaker had done himself. The  freckles were tattooed, the girl his mistress; called, by virtue of some  associative freak, Irving.  The other assistant was a juvenile delinquent  named Trench who amused himself between patients by throwing scalpels at a  wooden plaque presented to his employer by the United Jewish Appeal. The  Business was carried on in a fashionable maze or warren of rooms in an  apartment building between First and York Avenues, at the fringes of  Germantown. In keeping with the location, Brauhaus music blared over a  concealed loudspeaker system continuously.

She had arrived at ten in the morning. Irving told her to wait; she waited.  The doctor was busy this morning. The office was crowded, Rachel figured,  because it takes four months for a nose job to heal. Four months from now  would be June; this meant many pretty Jewish girls who felt they would be  perfectly marriageable were it not for an ugly nose could now go  husband-hunting at the various resorts all with uniform septa.

It disgusted Rachel, her theory being that it was not for cosmetic reasons  these girls got operated on so much as that the hook nose is traditionally  the sign of the Jew and the retrousse nose the sign of the WASP or White  Anglo-Saxon Protestant in the movies and advertisements.

She sat back, watching the patients come through the outer office, not  particularly anxious to see Schoenmaker. One youth with a wispy beard which  did nothing to hide a weak chin kept glancing at her embarrassed from moist  eyes, across a wide stretch of neutral carpeting. A girl with a gauze beak,  eyes closed, lay slumped on a sofa, flanked by her parents, who conferred in  whispers about the price.

Directly across the room from Rachel was a mirror, hung high on the wall,  and under the mirror a shelf which held a turn-of-the-century clock. The  double face was suspended by four golden flying buttresses above a maze of  works, enclosed in clear Swedish lead glass. The pendulum didn't swing back  and forth but was in the form of a disc, parallel to the floor and driven by  a shaft which paralleled the hands at six o'clock. The disc turned a  quarter-revolution one way, then a quarter-revolution the other, each  reversed torsion on the shaft advancing the escapement a notch. Mounted on  the disc were two imps or demons, wrought in gold, posed in fantastic  attitudes. Their movements were reflected in the mirror along with the  window at Rachel's back, which extended from floor to ceiling and revealed  the branches and green needles of a pine tree. The branches whipped back and  forth in the February wind, ceaseless and shimmering, and in front of them  the two demons performed their metronomic dance, beneath a vertical array of  golden gears and ratchet wheels, levers and springs which gleamed warm and  gay as any ballroom chandelier.

Rachel was looking into the mirror at an angle of 45 degrees, and so had a  view of the face turned toward the room and the face on the other side,  reflected in the mirror; here were time and reverse-time, co-existing,  cancelling one another exactly out. Were there many such reference points,  scattered through the world, perhaps only at nodes like this room which  housed a transient population of the imperfect, the dissatisfied; did real  time plus virtual or mirror-time equal zero and thus serve some  half-understood moral purpose? Or was it only the mirror world that counted;  only a promise of a kind that the inward bow of a nose-bridge or a  promontory of extra cartilage at the chin meant a reversal of ill fortune  such that the world of the altered would thenceforth run on mirror-time;  work and love by mirror-light and be only, till death stopped the heart's  ticking (metronome's music) quietly as light ceases to vibrate, an imp's  dance under the century's own chandeliers ....

"Miss Owlglass." Irving, smiling from the entrance to Schoenmaker's  sacristy. Rachel arose, taking her pocketbook, gassed the mirror and caught  a sidelong glance at her own double in the mirror's district, passed through  the door to confront the doctor, lazy and hostile behind his kidney-shaped  desk. He had the bill, and a carbon, lying on the desk. "Miss Harvitz's  account," Schoenmaker said. Rachel opened her pocketbook, took out a roll of  twenties, dropped them on top of the papers.

"Count them," she said. "This is the balance."

"Later," the doctor said. "Sit down, Miss Owlglass."

"Esther is flat broke," Rachel said, "and she is going through hell. What  you are running here -"

"- is a vicious racket," he said dryly. "Cigarette."

"I have my own." She sat on the edge of the chair, pushed away a strand or  two of hair hanging over her forehead, searched for a cigarette.

"Trafficking in human vanity," Schoenmaker continued, "propagating the  fallacy that beauty is not in the soul, that it can be bought. Yes -" his  arm shot out with a heavy silver lighter, a thin flame, his voice barked -  "it can be bought, Miss Owlglass, I am selling it. I don't even look on  myself as a necessary evil."

"You are unnecessary," she said, through a halo of smoke. Her eyes glittered  like the slopes of adjacent sawteeth.

"You encourage them to sell out," she said.

He watched the sensual arch of her own nose. "You're Orthodox? No.  Conservative? Young people never are. My parents were Orthodox. They  believe, I believe, that whatever your father is, as long as your mother is  Jewish, you are Jewish too because we all come from our mother's womb. A  long unbroken chain of Jewish mothers going all the way back to Eve."

She looked "hypocrite" at him.

"No," he said, "Eve was the first Jewish mother, the one who set the  pattern. The words she said to Adam have been repeated ever since by her  daughters: 'Adam,' she said, 'come inside, have a piece fruit.'"

"Ha, ha," said Rachel.

"What about this chain, what of inherited characteristics. We've come along,  become with years more sophisticated, we no longer believe now the earth is  flat. Though there's a man in England, president of a Flat Earth society,  who says it is and is ringed by ice barriers, a frozen world which is where  all missing persons go and never return from. So with Lamarck, who said that  if you cut the tail off a mother mouse her children will be tailless also.  But this is not true, the weight of scientific evidence is against him, just  as every photograph from a rocket over White Sands or Cape Canaveral is  against the Flat Earth Society. Nothing I do to a Jewish girl's nose is  going to change the noses of her children when she becomes, as she must, a  Jewish mother. So how am I being vicious. Am I altering that grand unbroken  chain, no. I am not going against nature, I am not selling out any Jews.  Individuals do what they want, but the chain goes on and small forces like  me will never prevail against it. All that can is something which will  change the germ plasm, nuclear radiation, maybe. They will sell out the  Jews, maybe give future generations two noses or no nose, who knows, ha, ha.  They will sell out the human race."

Behind the far door came the thud of Trench's knife practice. Rachel sat  with her legs crossed tightly.

"Inside," she said, "what does it do to them there. You alter them there,  too. What kind of Jewish mother do they make, they are the kind who make a  girl get a nose job even she doesn't want one. How many generations have you  worked on so far, how many have you played the dear old family doctor for."

"You are a nasty girl," said Schoenmaker, "and so pretty,too. Why yell at  me, all I am is one plastic surgeon. Not a psychoanalyst. Maybe someday  there will be special plastic surgeons who can do brain jobs too, make some  young kid an Einstein, some girl an Eleanor Roosevelt. Or even make people  act less nasty. Till then, how do I know what goes on inside. Inside has  nothing to do with the chain."

"You set up another chain." She was trying not to yell. "Changing them  inside sets up another chain which has nothing to do with germ plasm. You  can transmit characteristics outside, too. You can pass along an attitude .  . ."

"Inside, outside," he said, "you're being inconsistent, you lose me."

"I'd like to," she said, rising. "I have bad dreams about people like you."

"Have your analyst tell you what they mean," he said.

"I hope you keep dreaming." She was at the door, half-turned to him.

"My bank balance is big enough so I don't get disillusioned." he said.

Being the kind of girl who can't resist an exit line: "I heard about a  disillusioned plastic surgeon," she said, "who hung himself." She was gone,  stomping out past the mirrored clock, out into the same wind that moved the  pine tree leaving behind the soft chins, warped noses and facial scars of  what she feared was a sort of drawing-together or communion.

Now having left the grating behind she walked over the dead grass of  Riverside Park under leafless trees and even more substantial skeletons of  apartment houses on the Drive, wondering about Esther Harvitz, her long-time  roommate, whom she had helped out of more financial crises than either could  remember. An old rusty beer can lay in her path; she kicked it viciously.  What is it, she thought, is this the way Nueva York is set up, then,  freeloaders and victims? Schoenmaker freeloads off my roommate, she  freeloads off me. Is there this long daisy chain of victimizers and victims,  screwers and screwees? And if so, who is it I am screwing. She thought first  of Slab, Slab of the Raoul-Slab-Melvin triumvirate, between whom and a lack  of charity toward all men she'd alternated ever since coming to this city.

"What do you let her take for," he had said, "always take." It was in his  studio, she remembered, back during one of those Slab-and-Rachel idylls that  usually preceded a Slab-and-Esther Affair. Con Edison had just shut off the  electricity so all they had to look at each other by was one gas burner on  the stove, which bloomed in a blue and yellow minaret, making the faces  masks, their eyes expressionless sheets of light.

"Baby," she said, "Slab, it is only that the kid is broke, and if I can  afford it why not."

"No," Slab said, a tic dancing high on his cheekbone - or it might only have  been the gaslight - "no. Don't you think I see what this is, she needs you  for all the money she keeps soaking you for, and you need her in order to  feel like a mother. Every dime she gets out of your pocketbook adds one more  strand to this cable that ties you two together like an umbilical cord,  making it that much harder to cut, making her survival that much more in  danger if the cord ever is cut. How much has she ever paid you back."

"She will," Rachel said.

"Sure. Now, $800 more. To change this." He waved his arm at a small  portrait, leaning against the wall by the garbage can. He reached over,  picked it up, tilted it toward the blue flame so they both could see. "Girl  at a party." The picture, perhaps, was meant to be looked at only under  hydrocarbon light. It was Esther, leaning against a wall, looking straight  out of the picture, at someone approaching her. And there, that look in the  eyes - half victim, half in control.

"Look at it, the nose," he said. "Why does she want to get that changed.  With the nose she is a human being."

"Is it only an artist's concern," Rachel said. "You object on pictorial, or  social grounds. But what else."

"Rachel," he yelled, "she takes Home 50 a week, 25 comes out for analysis,  12 for rent, leaving 13. What for, for high heels she breaks on subway  gratings, for lipstick, earrings; clothes. Food, occasionally. So now, 800  for a nose job. What will it be next. Mercedes Benz 300 SL? Picasso  original, abortion, wha."

"She has been right on time," Rachel said, frosty, "in case you are  worrying."

"Baby," suddenly ail wistful and boyish, "you are a good woman, member of a  vanishing race. It is right you should help the less fortunate. But you  reach a point."

The argument had gone back and forth with neither of them actually getting  mad and at three in the morning the inevitable terminal point - bed - to  caress away the headaches both had developed. Nothing settled, nothing ever  settled. That had been back in September. The gauze beak was gone, the nose  now a proud sickle, pointing, you felt, at the big Westchester in the sky  where all God's elect, soon or late, ended up.

She turned out of the park and walked away from the Hudson on 112th Street.  Screwer and screwee. On this foundation, perhaps, the island stood, from the  bottom of the lowest sewer bed right up through the streets to the tip of  the TV antenna on top of the Empire State Building.

She entered her lobby, smiled at the ancient doorman; into the elevator, up  seven flights to 7G, Home, ho, ho. First thing she saw through the open door  was a sign on the kitchen wall, with the word PARTY, illuminated by pencil  caricatures of the Whole Sick Crew. She tossed the pocketbook on the kitchen  table, closed the door. Paola's handiwork, Paola Maijstral the third  roommate. Who had also left a note on the table. "Winsome, Charisma, Fu, and  I. V-Note, McClintic Sphere. Paola Maijstral." Nothing but proper nouns. The  girl lived proper nouns. Persons, places. No things. Had anyone told her  about things? It seemed Rachel had had to do with nothing else. The main one  now being Esther's nose.

In the shower Rachel sang a torch song, in a red-hot-mama voice which the  tile chamber magnified. She knew it amused people because it came from such  a little girl:

 

   Say a man is no good

   For anything but jazzing around.

   He'll go live in a cathouse,

   He'll jazz it all over town.

   And all kinds of meanness

   To put a good woman down.

   Now I am a good woman

   Because I'm telling you I am

   And I sure been put down

   But honey, I don't give a damn.

   You going to have a hard time

   Finding you a kind hearted man.

   Because a kind hearted man

   Is the kind who will . . .

 

Presently the light in Paola's room began to leak out the window, up the air  shaft and into the sky, accompanied by clinking bottles, running water,  flushing toilet in the bathroom. And then the almost imperceptible sounds of  Rachel fixing her long hair.

When she left, turning off all the lights, the hands on an illuminated clock  near Paola Maijstral's bed stood near six o'clock. No ticking: the clock was  electric. Its minute hand could not be seen to move. But soon the hand  passed twelve and began its course down the other side of the face; as if it  had passed through the surface of a mirror, and had now to repeat in  mirror-time what it had done on the side of real-time.

 

II

 The party, as if it were inanimate after all, unwound like a clock's  mainspring toward the edges of the chocolate room, seeking some easing of  its own tension, some equilibrium. Near its center Rachel Owlglass was  curled on the pine floor, legs shining pale through black stockings.

You felt she'd done a thousand secret things to her eyes. They needed no  haze of cigarette smoke to look at you out of sexy and fathomless, but  carried their own along with them. New York must have been for her a city of  smoke, its streets the courtyards of limbo, its bodies like wraiths. Smoke  seemed to be in her voice, in her movements; making her all the more  substantial, more there, as if words, glances, small lewdnesses could only  become baffled and brought to rest like smoke in her long hair; remain there  useless till she released them, accidentally and unknowingly, with a toss of  her head.

Young Stencil the world adventurer, seated on the sink, waggled his  shoulderblades like wings. Her back was to him; through the entrance to the  kitchen he could see the shadow of her spine's indentation snaking down a  deeper black along the black of her sweater, see the tiny movements of her  head and hair as she listened.

She didn't like him, Stencil had decided.

"It's the way he looks at Paola," she'd told Esther. Esther of course had  told Stencil.

But it wasn't sexual, it lay deeper. Paola was Maltese.

Born in 1901, the year Victoria died, Stencil was in time to be the  century's child. Raised motherless. The father, Sidney Stencil, had served  the Foreign Office of his country taciturn and competent. No facts on the  mother's disappearance. Died in childbirth, ran off with someone, committed  suicide: some way of vanishing painful enough to keep Sidney from ever  referring to it in all the correspondence to his son which is available. The  father died under unknown circumstances in 1919 while investigating the June  Disturbances in Malta.

On an evening in 1946, separated by stone balusters from the Mediterranean,  the son had sat with one Margravine di Chaive Lowenstein on the terrace of  her villa on the western coast of Mallorca; the sun was setting into thick  clouds, turning all the visible sea to a sheet of pearl-gray. Perhaps they  may have felt like the last two gods - the last inhabitants - of a watery  earth; or perhaps - but it would be unfair to infer. Whatever the reason,  the scene played as follows:

MARG: Then you must leave?

STEN: Stencil must be in Lucerne before the week is out.

MARG: I dislike premilitary activity.

STEN: It isn't espionage.

MARG: What then?

(Stencil laughs, watching the twilight.) 

MARG: You are so close.

STEN: To whom? Margravine, not even to himself. This place, this island: all  his life he's done nothing but hop from island to island. Is that a reason?  Does there have to be a season? Shall he tell you: he works for no  Whitehall, none conceivable unless, ha ha, the network of white halls in is  own brain: these featureless corridors he keeps swept and correct for  occasional visiting agents. Envoys from the zones of human crucified, the  fabled districts of human love. But in whose employ? Not his own: it would  be lunacy, the lunacy of any self-appointed prophet. . .

(There is a long pause, as the light reaching them through e clouds weakens  or thins out to wash over them enervated and ugly.)

STEN: Stencil reached his majority three years after old Stencil died. Part  of the estate that came to him then was a number of manuscript books bound  in half-calf and warped by the humid air of many European cities. His  journals, his unofficial log of an agent's career. Under "Florence, April,  1899" is a sentence, young Stencil has memorized it: "There is more behind  and inside V. than any of us had suspected. Not who, but what: what is she.  God grant that I may never called upon to write the answer, either here or  in any official report."

MARG: A woman.

STEN: Another woman.

MARG: It is she you are pursuing? Seeking?

STEN: You'll ask next if he believes her to be his mother. The question is  ridiculous.

Since 1945, Herbert Stencil had been on a conscious campaign to do without  sleep. Before 1945 he had been slothful, accepting sleep as one of life's  major blessings. He'd spent the time between wars footloose, the source of  his income then, as now, uncertain. Sidney hadn't left much in the way of  pounds and shillings, but had generated good will in nearly every city in  the western world among those of his own generation. This being a generation  which still believed in The Family, it meant a good lookout for young  Herbert. He didn't freeload all the time: he'd worked as croupier in  southern France, plantation foreman in East Africa, bordello manager in  Greece; and in a number of civil service positions back Home. Stud poker  could be depended on to fill in the low places - though an occasional  mountain or two had also been leveled.

In that interregnum between kingdoms-of-death Herbert just got by, studying  his father's journals only by way of learning how to please the  blood-conscious "contacts" of his legacy. The passage on V. was never  noticed.

In 1939 he was in London, working far the Foreign Office. September came and  went: it was as if a stranger, located above the frontiers of consciousness,  were shaking him. He didn't particularly care to wake; but realized that if  he didn't he would soon be sleeping alone. Being the sociable sort, Herbert  volunteered his services. He was sent to North Africa, in some fuzzily  defined spy/interpreter/liaison capacity and seesawed with the rest from  Tobruk to El Agheila, back through Tobruk to El Alamein, back again to  Tunisia. At the end of it he had seen more dead than he cared to again.  Peace having been won he flirted with the idea of resuming that prewar  sleepwalk. Sitting at a cafe in Oran frequented largely by American ex-GI's  who'd decided not to return to the States just yet, he was leafing through  the Florence journal idly, when the sentences on V. suddenly acquired a  light of their own.

"V. for victory," the Margravine had suggested playfully.

"No." Stencil shook his head. "It may be that Stencil has been lonely and  needs something for company."

Whatever the reason, he began to discover that sleep was taking up time  which could be spent active. His random movements before the war had given  way to a great single movement from inertness to - if not vitality, then at  least activity. Work, the chase - for it was V. he hunted - far from being a  means to glorify God and one's own godliness (as the Puritans believe) was  for Stencil grim, joyless; a conscious acceptance of the unpleasant for no  other reason than that V. was there to track down.

Finding her: what then? Only that what love there was to Stencil had become  directed entirely inward, toward this acquired sense of animateness. Having  found this he could hardly release it, it was too dear. To sustain it he had  to hunt V.; but if he should find her, where else would there be to go but  back into half-consciousness? He tried not to think, therefore, about any  end to the search. Approach and avoid.

Here in New York the impasse had become acute. He'd come to the party at the  invitation of Esther Harvitz, whose plastic surgeon Schoenmaker owned a  vital piece of the V. jigsaw, but protested ignorance.

Stencil would wait. He'd taken over a low-rent apartment in the 30's (East  Side), temporarily vacated by an Egyptologist named Bongo-Shaftsbury, son of  an Egyptologist Sidney had known. They had been opponents once, before the  first war, as had been Sidney and many of the present "contacts"; which was  curious, certainly, but lucky for Herbert because it doubled his chances of  subsistence. He had been using the apartment for a pied-a-terre this last  month; snatching sleep between interminable visits among his other  "contacts"; a population coming more and more to comprise sons and friends  of the originals. At each step the sense of "blood" weakened. Stencil could  see a day when he would only be tolerated. It would then be he and V. all  alone, in a world that somehow had lost sight of them both.

Until such tune there were Schoenmaker to wait for; and Chiclitz the  munitions king and Eigenvalue the physician (epithets characteristically  stemming from Sidney's day though Sidney had known neither of the men  personally) to fill up the time. It was dithering, it was a stagnant period  and Stencil knew it. A month was too long to stay in any city unless there  were something tangible to investigate. He'd taken to roving the city,  aimlessly, waiting for a coincidence. None came. He'd snatched at Esther's  invitation, hoping to come across some clue, trace, hint. But the Whole Sick  Crew had nothing to offer.

The owner of this apartment seemed to express a prevailing humor common to  them all. As if he were Stencil's prewar self he presented to Stencil a  horrifying spectacle.

Fergus Mixolydian the Irish Armenian Jew and universal man laid claim to  being the laziest living being in Nueva York. His creative ventures, all  incomplete, ranged from a western in blank verse to a wall he'd had removed  from a stall in the Penn Station men's room and entered in an exhibition as  what the old Dadaists called a "ready-made." Critical comment was not kind.  Fergus got so lazy that his only activity (short of those necessary to  sustain life) was once a week to fiddle around at the kitchen sink with dry  cells, retorts, alembics, salt solutions. What he was doing, he was  generating hydrogen; this went to fill a sturdy green balloon with a great Z  printed on it. He would tie the balloon by a string to the post of the  bed whenever he plane to sleep, this being the only way for visitors to tell  which side of consciousness Fergus was on.

His other amusement was watching the TV. He'd devised an ingenious  sleep-switch, receiving its signal from two electrodes placed on the inner  skin of his forearm. When Fergus dropped below a certain level of awareness,  the skin resistance increased over a preset value to operate the switch.  Fergus thus became an extension of the TV set.

The rest of the Crew partook of the same lethargy. Raoul wrote for  television, keeping carefully in mind, and complaining bitterly about, all  the sponsor-fetishes of that industry. Slab painted in sporadic bursts,  referring to himself as a Catatonic Expressionist and his work as "the  ultimate in non-communication." Melvin played the guitar and sang liberal  folk songs. The pattern would have been familiar - bohemian, creative,  arty - except that it was even further removed from reality, Romanticism in  its furthest decadence, being only an exhausted impersonation of poverty,  rebellion and artistic "soul." For it was the unhappy fact that most of them  worked for a living and obtained the substance of their conversation from  the pages of Time magazine and like publications.

Perhaps the only reason they survived, Stencil reasoned, was that they were  not alone. God knew how many more there were with a hothouse sense of time,  no knowledge of life, and at the mercy of Fortune.

The party itself, tonight, was divided in three parts. Fergus, and his date,  and another couple had long retreated into the bedroom with a gallon of  wine; locked the door, and let the Crew do what they could in the way of  chaos to the rest of the place. The sink on which Stencil now sat would  become Melvin's perch: he would play his guitar and there would be horahs  and African fertility dances in the kitchen before midnight. The lights in  the living room would go out one by one, Schoenberg's quartets (complete)  would go on the record player/changer, and repeat, and repeat; while  cigarette coals dotted the room like watchfires and the promiscuous Debby  Sensay (e.g.) would be on the floor, caressed by Raoul, say, or Slab, while  she ran her hand up the leg of another, sitting on the couch with her  roommate - and on, in a kind of love feast or daisy chain; wine would spill,  furniture would be broken; Fergus would awake briefly next morning, view the  destruction and residual guests sprawled about the apartment; cuss them all  out and go back to sleep.

Stencil shrugged irritably, rose from the sink and found his coat. On the  way out he touched a knot of six: Raoul, Slab, Melvin and three girls.

"Man," said Raoul.

"Scene," said Slab, waving his arm to indicate the unwinding party.

"Later," Stencil said and moved on out the door.

The girls stood silent. They were camp followers of a sort and expendable.  Or at least could be replaced.

"Oh yes," said Melvin.

"Uptown," Slab said, "is taking over the world."

"Ha, ha," said one of the girls.

"Shut up," said Slab. He tugged at his hat. He always wore a hat, inside or  outside, in bed or dead drunk. And George Raft suits, with immense pointed  lapels. Pointed, starched, non-button-down collars. Padded, pointed  shoulders: he was all points. But his face, the girl noticed, was not:  rather soft, like a dissolute angel's: curly hair, red and purple rings  slung looped in twos and threes beneath the eyes. Tonight she would kiss  beneath his eyes, one by one, these sad circles.

"Excuse me," she murmured, drifting away toward the fire escape. At the  window she gazed out toward the river, seeing nothing but fog. A hand  touched her spine, exactly that spot every man she ever knew had been able  to flag sooner or later. She straightened up, squeezing her shoulder blades  together, moving her breasts taut and suddenly visible toward the window.  She could see his reflection watching their reflection. She turned. He was  blushing. Crew cut Harris tweed. "Say, you are new," she smiled. "I am  Esther."

He blushed and was cute. "Brad," he said. "I'm sorry I made you jump."

She knew instinctively: he will be fine as the fraternity boy just out of an  Ivy League school who knows he will never stop being a fraternity boy as  long as he lives. But who still feels he is missing something, and so hangs  at the edges of the Whole Sick Crew. If he is going into management, he  writes. If he is an engineer or architect why he paints or sculpts. He will  straddle the line aware up to the point of knowing he is getting the worst  of both worlds, but never stopping to wonder why there should ever have been  line, or even if there is a line at all. He will learn how to be a twinned  man and will go on at the game, straddling until he splits up the crotch and  in half from the prolonged tension, and then he will be destroyed. She  assumed ballet fourth position, moved her breasts at a 45 degree angle to  his line-of-sight, pointed her nose at his heart, looked up at him through  her eyelashes.

"How long have you been in New York?"

 

Outside the V-Note a number of bums stood around the front windows looking  inside, fogging the glass with their breath. From time to time a  collegiate-looking type, usually with a date, would emerge from the swinging  doors and they would ask him, one by one in a line down that short section  of Bowery sidewalk, for a cigarette, subway fare, the price of a beer. All  night the February wind would come barreling down the wide keyway of Third  Avenue, moving right over them all: the shavings, cutting oil, sludge of New  York's lathe.

Inside McClintic Sphere was swinging his ass off. His skin was hard, as if  it were part of the skull: every vein and whisker on that head stood out  sharp and clear under the green baby spot: you could see the twin lines  running down from either side of his lower lip, etched in by the force of  his embouchure, looking like extensions of his mustache.

He blew a hand-carved ivory alto saxophone with a 4-1/2 reed and the sound  was like nothing any of them had heard before. The usual divisions  prevailed: collegians did not dig, and left after an average of 1-1/2 sets.  Personnel from other groups, either with a night off or taking a long break  from somewhere crosstown or uptown, listened hard, trying to dig. "I am  still thinking," they would say if you asked. People at the bar all looked  as if they did dig in the sense of understand, approve of, empathize with:  but this was probably only because people who prefer to stand at the bar  have, universally, an inscrutable look.

At the end of the bar in the V-Note is a table which is normally used by  customers to put empty beer bottles and glasses on, but if somebody grabs it  early enough nobody minds and the bartenders are usually too busy anyway to  yell at them to get off. At the moment the table was occupied by Winsome,  Charisma and Fu. Paola had gone to the ladies' room. None of them were  saying anything.

The group on the stand had no piano: it was bass, drums, McClintic and a boy  he had found in the Ozarks who blew a natural horn in F. The drummer was a  group man who avoided pyrotechnics, which may have irritated the college  crowd. The bass was small and evil-looking and his eyes were yellow with  pinpoints in the center. He talked to his instrument. It was taller than he  was and didn't seem to be listening.

Horn and alto together favored sixths and minor fourths and when this  happened it was like a knife fight or tug of war: the sound was consonant  but as if cross-purposes were in the air. The solos of McClintic Sphere were  something else. There were people around, mostly those who wrote for  Downbeat magazine or the liners of LP records, who seemed to feel he played  disregarding chord changes completely. They talked a great deal about soul  and the anti-intellectual and the rising rhythms of African nationalism. It  was a new conception, they said, and some of them said: Bird Lives.

Since the soul of Charlie Parker had dissolved away into a hostile March  wind nearly a year before, a great deal of nonsense had been spoken and  written about him. Much more was to come, some is still being written today.  He was the greatest alto on the postwar scene and when he left it some  curious negative will - a reluctance and refusal to believe in the final,  cold fact - possessed the lunatic fringe to scrawl in every subway station,  on sidewalks, in pissoirs, the denial: Bird Lives. So that among the people  in the V-Note that night were, at a conservative estimate, a dreamy 10 per  cent who had not got the word, and saw in McClintic Sphere a kind of  reincarnation.

"He plays all the notes Bird missed," somebody whispered in front of Fu. Fu  went silently through the motions of breaking a beer bottle on the edge of  the table, jamming it into the speaker's back and twisting.

It was near closing time, the last set.

"It's nearly time to go," Charisma said. "Where is Paola."

"Here she comes," said Winsome.

Outside the wind had its own permanent gig. And was still blowing.

 

 

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