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Chapter Five

In which Stencil nearly goes West with an alligator

I

This alligator was pinto: pale white, seaweed black. It moved fast but  clumsy. It could have been lazy, or old or stupid. Profane thought maybe it  was tired of living.

The chase had been going on since nightfall. They were in a section of  48-inch pipe, his back was killing him. Profane hoped the alligator would  not turn off into something smaller, somewhere he couldn't follow. Because  then he would have to kneel in the sludge, aim half-blind and fire, all  quickly, before the cocodrilo got out of range. Angel held the flashlight,  but he had been drinking wine, and would crawl along behind Profane  absent-mindedly, letting the beam waver all over the pipe. Profane could  only see the coco in occasional flashes.

From time to time his quarry would half-turn, coy, enticing. A little sad.  Up above it must have been raining. A continual thin drool sounded behind  them at the last sewer opening. Ahead was darkness. The sewer tunnel here  was tortuous, and built decades ago. Profane was hoping for a straightaway.  He could make an easy kill there. If he fired anywhere in this stretch of  short, crazy angles there'd be danger from ricochets.

It wouldn't be his first kill. He'd been on the job two weeks now and bagged  four alligators and one rat. Every morning and evening for each shift there  was a shapeup in front of a candy store on Columbus Avenue. Zeitsuss the  boss secretly wanted to be a union organizer. He wore sharkskin suits and  horn rims. Normally, there weren't enough volunteers to cover even this  Puerto Rican neighborhood, let alone the city of New York. Still Zeitsuss  paced before them mornings at six, stubborn in his dream. His job was civil  service but someday he would be Walter Reuther.

"Okay, there, Rodriguez, yeah. I guess we can take you." And here was the  Department without enough volunteers to go round. Still, a few came,  straggling and reluctant and not at all constant: most quit after the first  day. A weird collection it was: bums . . . Mostly bums. Up from the winter  sunlight of Union Square and a few gibbering pigeons for loneliness; up from  the Chelsea district and down from the hills of Harlem or a little sea-level  warmth sneaking glances from behind the concrete pillar of an overpass at  the rusty Hudson and its tugs and stonebarges (what in this city pass,  perhaps, for dryads: watch for them the next winter day you happen to be  overpassed, gently growing out off the concrete, trying to be part of it or  at least safe from the wind and the ugly feeling they - we? - have about  where it is that persistent river is really flowing); bums from across both  rivers (or just in from the Midwest, humped, cursed at, coupled and  recoupled beyond all remembrance to the slow easy boys they used to be or  the poor corpses they would make someday); one beggar - or the only one who  talked about it - who owned a closetful of Hickey-Freeman and like-priced  suits, who drove after working hours a shiny white Lincoln, who had three or  four wives staggered back along the private Route 40 of his progress east;  Mississippi, who came from Kielce in Poland and whose name nobody could  pronounce, who had had a woman taken at the Oswiecim extermination camp, an  eye taken by the bitter end of a hoist cable on the freighter Mikolaj Rej,  and fingerprints taken by the San Diego cops when he tried to jump ship in  '49; nomads from the end of a bean-picking season some-where exotic, so  exotic it might really have been last summer and east of Babylon, Long  Island, but they with only the season to remember had to have it just ended,  only just fading; wanderers uptown from the classic bums' keep of them all -  the Bowery, lower Third Avenue, used shirt bins, barber schools, a curious  loss of time. 

They worked in teams of two. One held the flashlight, the other carried a  12-gauge repeating shotgun. Zeitsuss was aware that most hunters regard use  of this weapon like anglers feel about dynamiting fish; but he was not  looking for write-ups in Field and Stream. Repeaters were quick and sure.  The department had developed a passion for honesty following the Great Sewer  Scandal of 1955. They wanted. dead alligators: rats, too, if any happened to  get caught in the blast. 

Each hunter got an armband - a Zeitsuss idea. ALLIGATOR PATROL, it said, in  green lettering. At the beginning of the program, Zeitsuss had moved a big  plexiglass plotting board, engraved with a map of the city and overlaid with  a grid coordinate sheet, into his office. Zeitsuss would sit in front of  this board, while a plotter-one V. A. ("Brushhook") Spugo, who claimed to be  eighty-five and also to have slain 47 rats with a brushhook under the summer  streets of Brownsville on 13 August 1922 - would mark up with yellow grease  pencil sightings, probables, hunts in progress, kills. All reports came back  from roving anchor men, who would walk around a route of certain manholes  and yell down and ask how it was going. Each anchor man had a walkie-talkie,  tied in on a common network to Zeitsuss's office and a low-fidelity 15 inch  speaker mounted on the ceiling. At the beginning it was pretty exciting  Business. Zeitsuss kept all the lights out except for those on the plotting  board and a reading light over his desk. The place looked like a kind of  combat center, and anybody walking in would immediately sense this  tenseness, purpose, feeling of a great net spreading out all the way to the  boondocks of the city, with this room its brains, its focus. That is, until  they heard what was coming in over the radios.

"One good provolone, she says."

"I got her good provolone. Why can't she do shopping herself. She spends all  day watching Mrs. Grosseria's TV."

"Did you see Ed Sullivan last night, hey Andy. He had this bunch of monkeys  playing a piano with their -"

From another part of the city; "And Speedy Gonzales says, 'Senor, please get  your hand off my ass.'"

"Ha, ha."

And: "You ought to he over here on the East Side: There is stuff all over  the place."

"It all has a zipper on it, over on the East Side."

"That is how come yours is so short?"

"It is not how much you got, it's how you use it."

Naturally there was unpleasantness from the FCC, who ride around, it's said,  in little monitor cars with direction-finding antennas just looking for  people like this. First time warning letters, then phone calls, then finally  somebody wearing a sharkskin suit glossier even than Zeitsuss's. So the  walkie-talkies went. And soon after that Zeitsuss's supervisor called him in  and told him, very paternal, that there wasn't enough budget to keep the  Patrol going in the style it had been accustomed to. So Alligator  Hunter-Killer Central was taken over by a minor branch of the payroll  department, and old Brushhook Spugo went off to Astoria Queens, a pension, a  flower garden where wild marijuana grew and an early grave.

Sometimes now when they mustered out in front of the candy store, Zeitsuss  would give them pep talks. The day the Department put a limit on the shotgun  shell allotment, he stood out hatless under a half-freezing February rain to  tell them about it. It was hard to see if it was melted sleet running down  his face, or tears.

"You guys," he said, "some of you been here since this Patrol started. I  been seeing a couple of the same ugly faces out here every morning. A lot of  you don't come back, and O.K. If it pays better someplace else more power to  you, I say. This here is not a rich outfit. If it was union, I can tell you,  a lot of them ugly faces would be back every day. You that do come back live  in human shit and alligator blood eight hours a day and nobody complains and  I'm proud of you. We seen a lot of cutbacks in our Patrol in just the short  time it's been a Patrol, and you don't hear anybody go crying about that either, which is worse than shit.

"Well today, they chopped us down again. Each team will be issued five  rounds a day instead of ten. Downtown they think you guys are wasting ammo.  I know you don't, but how can you tell somebody like that, who has never  been downstairs because it might mess up their hundred-dollar suit. So all  I'm saying is, only get the sure kills, don't waste your time on probables.

"Just keep going the way you have. I am proud of you guys. I am so proud!"

They all shuffled around, embarrassed. Zeitsuss didn't say anything else,  just stood there half-turned watching an old Puerto Rican lady with a  shopping basket limp her way uptown on the other side of Columbus Avenue.  Zeitsuss was always saying how proud he was, and despite his loud mouth, his  AF of L way of running things, his delusions of high purpose, they liked  him. Because under the sharkskin and behind the tinted lenses, he was a bum  too; only an accident of time and place kept them all from sharing a wine  drunk together now. And because they liked him, his own pride in "our  Patrol," which none of them doubted, made them uncomfortable - thinking of  the shadows they had fired at (wine-shadows, loneliness-shadows); the  snoozes taken during working hours against the sides of flushing tanks near  the rivers; the bitching they had done, but in whispers so quiet their  partner didn't even hear; the rats they had let get away because they felt  sorry for them. They couldn't share the boss's pride but they could feel  guilty about making what he felt a lie, having learned, through no very  surprising or difficult schooling, that pride - in our Patrol, in yourself,  even as a deadly sin - does not really exist in the same way that, say,  three empty beer bottles exist to be cashed in for subway fare and warmth,  someplace to sleep for awhile. Pride you could exchange for nothing at ail.  What was Zeitsuss, the poor innocent, getting for it? Chopped down, was  what. But they liked him and nobody had the heart to wise him up.

So far as Profane knew Zeitsuss didn't know who he was, or care. Profane  would have liked to think he was one of those recurring ugly faces, but what  was he after all - only a latecomer. He had no right, he decided after the  ammo speech, to think one way or the other about Zeitsuss. He didn't feel  any group pride, God knew. It was a job, not a Patrol. He'd learned how to  work a repeater - even how to fieldstrip and clean it - and now, two weeks  on the job, he was almost beginning to feel less clumsy. Like he wouldn't accidentally shoot himself in the foot or someplace worse after all.

Angel was singing: "Mi corazon, esta tan solo, mi corazon . . ." Profane  watched his own hip boots move synched with the beat of Angel's song,  watched the erratic gleams of the flashlight on the water, watched the  gentle switching of the alligator's tail, ahead. They were coming up to a  manhole. Rendezvous point. Look sharp, men of the Alligator Patrol. Angel  wept as he sang.

"Knock it off," Profane said. "If Bung the foreman is up there, it's our  ass. Act sober."

"I hate Bung the foreman," Angel said. He began to laugh.

"Shush," Profane said. Bung the foreman had carried a walkie-talkie before  the FCC clamped down. Now he carried a clipboard and filed daily reports  with Zeitsuss. He didn't talk much except to give orders. One phrase he used  always: "I'm the foreman." Sometimes I'm Bung, the foreman." Angel's theory  was that he had to keep saying this to remind himself.

Ahead of them the alligator lumbered, forlorn. It was moving slower, as if  to let them catch up and end it. They arrived at the manhole. Angel climbed  up the ladder and hammered with a short crowbar on the underside of the  cover. Profane held the flashlight and kept an eye on the coco. There were  scraping sounds from above, and the cover was suddenly jacked to one side.  A crescent of pink neon sky appeared. Rain came down splashing into Angel's  eyes. Bung the foreman's head appeared in the crescent.

"Chinga tu madre," said Angel pleasantly.

"Report," said Bung.

"He's moving off," Profane called from below.

"We're after one now," Angel said.

"You're drunk," Bung said.

"No," said Angel.

"Yes," cried Bung, "I'm the foreman."

"Angel," Profane said. "Come on, we'll lose him."

"I'm sober," Angel said. It occurred to him how nice it might be to punch  Bung in the mouth.

"I am going to write you up," said Bung, "I smell booze on your breath." 

Angel started climbing out of the manhole. "I would like to discuss this  with you." 

"What are you guys doing," Profane said, "playing potsy?"

"Carry on," Bung called into the hole. "I am detaining your partner for  disciplinary action." Angel, halfway out of the hole, sank his teeth into  Bung's leg. Bung screamed. Profane saw Angel disappear, and the pink  crescent replace him. Rain spattered down out of the sky and drooled along  the old brick sides of the hole. Scuffling sounds were heard in the street.

"Now what the hell," Profane said. He swung the flashlight beam down the  tunnel, saw the tip of the alligator's tail sashaying around the next bend.  He shrugged. "Carry on, your ass," he said.

He moved away from the manhole, carrying the gun safetied under one arm, the  flashlight in the other hand. It was the first time he'd hunted solo. He  wasn't scared. When it came to the kill there would be something to prop the  flashlight against.

Nearly as he could figure, he was on the East Side, uptown somewhere. He was  out of his territory - God, had he based this alligator all the way  crosstown? He rounded the bend, the light from the pink sky was lost: now  there roved only a sluggish ellipse with him and the alligator at foci, and  a slender axis of light linking them. 

They angled to the left, half uptown. The water began to get a little  deeper. They were entering Fairing's Parish, named after a priest who'd  lived topside years ago. During the Depression of the '30's, in an hour of  apocalyptic well-being, he had decided that the rats were going, to take over after New York died. Lasting eighteen hours a day, his feat had covered  the breadlines and missions, where he gave comfort, stitched up raggedy  souls. He foresaw nothing but a city of starved corpses, covering the  sidewalks and the grass of the parks, lying belly up in the fountains,  hanging wrynecked from the streetlamps. The city - maybe America, his  horizons didn't extend that far - would belong, to the rats before the year  was out. This being the case, father Fairing thought it best for the rats  to be given a head start - which meant conversion to the Roman Church. One  night early in Roosevelt's first term, he climbed downstairs through the  nearest manhole, bringing a Baltimore Catechism, his breviary and, for  reasons nobody found out, a copy of Knight's Modern Seamanship. The first  thing he did according to his journals (discovered months after he died was  to put an eternal blessing and a few exorcisms on the water flowing through  the sewers between Lexington and the East River and between 86th and 79th  Streets. This as the area which became Fairing's Parish. These benisons made sure of an adequate supply of holy water; also eliminated the trouble  of individual baptisms when he finally converted all the rats in the parish.  Too, he expected other rats to hear what was going on under the upper East  Side, and come likewise to be converted. Before long he would be spiritual  leader of the inheritors of the earth. He considered it small enough  sacrifice on their part to provide three of their own per day for physical  sustenance, in return for the spiritual nourishment he was giving them.

Accordingly, he built himself a small shelter on one bank of the sewer. His  cassock for a bed, his breviary for a pillow. Each morning he'd make a small  fire from driftwood collected and set out to dry the night before. Nearby  was a Depression in the concrete which sat beneath a downspout, for  rainwater. Here he drank and washed. After a breakfast of roast rat ("The  livers," he wrote, "are particularly succulent") he set about his first  task: learning to communicate with the rats. Presumably he succeeded. An  entry for November 1934 says:

 Ignatius is proving a very difficult student indeed. He quarreled with me   today over the nature of indulgences. Bartholomew and Teresa supported him.   I read them from the catechism: "The Church by means of indulgences remits   the temporal punishment due to sin by applying to us from her spiritual treasury part of the infinite satisfaction of Jesus Christ and of the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints."

 "And what," inquired Ignatius, "is this superabundant satisfaction?"

 Again I read: "That which they gained during their lifetime but did not need, and which the Church applies to the fellow members of the communion of saints."

 "Aha," crowed Ignatius, "then I cannot see how this differs from Marxist communism, which you told us is Godless. To each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities." I tried to explain that there were different sorts of communism: that the early Church, indeed, was based on a common charity and sharing of goods. Bartholomew chimed in at this point with the observation that perhaps this doctrine of a spiritual treasury arose from the economic and social conditions of the Church in her infancy. Teresa promptly accused Bartholomew of holding Marxist views himself, as a terrible, fight broke out, in which poor Teresa had an eye scratched from the socket. To spare her further pain, I put her to sleep and made a delicious meal from her remains, shortly after sext. I have discovered the tails, if bolted long enough, are quite agreeable.

Evidently he converted at least one batch. There is no further mention in  the journals of the skeptic Ignatius: perhaps he died in another fight,  perhaps he left the community for the pagan reaches of Downtown. After the  first conversion the entries begin to taper off: but all are optimistic, at  times euphoric. They give a picture of the Parish as a little enclave of  light in a howling Dark Age of ignorance arid barbarity.

Rat meat didn't agree with the Father, in the long run. Perhaps there was  infection. Perhaps, too, the Marxist tendencies of his flock reminded him  too much of what he had seen and heard above ground, on the breadlines, by  sick and maternity beds, even in the confessional; and thus the cheerful  heart reflected by his late entries was really only a necessary delusion to  protect himself from the bleak truth that his pale and sinuous parishioners  might turn out no better than the animals whose estate they were succeeding  to. His last entry gives a hint of some such feeling:

 When Augustine is mayor of the city (for he is a splendid fellow, and the others are devoted to him) will he, or his council, remember an old priest? Not with any sinecure or fat pension, but with true charity in their hearts? For though devotion to God is rewarded in Heaven and just as surely is not rewarded on this earth, some spiritual satisfaction, I trust, will be found in the New City whose foundations we lay here, in this Iona beneath the old foundations. If it cannot be, I shall nevertheless go to peace, at one with God. Of course that is the best reward. I have been the classical Old Priest - never particularly robust, never affluent most of my life. Perhaps 

The journal ends here. It is still preserved in an inaccessible region of  the Vatican library, and in the minds of the few old-timers in the New York  Sewer Department who got to see it when it was discovered. It lay on top of  a brick, stone and stick cairn large enough to cover a human corpse,  assembled in a stretch of 36-inch pipe near a frontier of the Parish. Next  to it lay the breviary. There was no trace of the catechism or Knight's  Modern Seamanship.

"Maybe," said Zeitsuss's predecessor Manfred Katz after reading the journal,  "maybe they are studying the best way to leave a sinking ship."

The stories, by the time Profane heard them, were pretty much apocryphal and  more fantasy than the record itself warranted. At no point in the twenty or  so years the legend had been handed on did it occur to anyone to question  the old priest's sanity. It is this way with sewer stories. They just are.  Truth or falsity don't apply.

Profane had moved across the frontier, the alligator still do front of him.  Scrawled on the walls were occasional quotes from the Gospels, Latin tags  (Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem - Lamb of God, who  taketh away the sins of the world, grant us peace). Peace. Here had been  peace, once in a Depression season crushed slow, starving-nervous, into the  street by the dead weight of its own sky. In spite of tune-distortions in  Father Fairing's tale, Profane had got the general idea. Excommunicated,  most likely, by the very fact of his mission here, a skeleton in Rome's  closet and in the priest-hole of his own cassock and bed, the old man sat  preaching to a congregation of rats with saints names, all to the intention  of peace.

He swung the beam over the old inscriptions, saw a dark stain shaped like a  crucifix and broke out in goose bumps. For the first time since leaving the  manhole, Profane realized he was all alone. The alligator up there was no  help, it'd be dead soon. To join other ghosts.

What had interested him most were the accounts of Veronica, the only female  besides the luckless Teresa who is mentioned in the journal. Sewer hands  being what they are (favorite rejoinder: "Your mind is in the sewer"), one  of the apocrypha dealt with an unnatural relationship between the priest  and this female rat, who was described as a kind of voluptuous Magdalen.  From everything Profane had heard, Veronica was the only member of his flock  Father Fairing felt to have a soul worth saving. She would come to him at  night not as a succubus but seeking instruction, perhaps to carry back to  her nest - wherever in the Parish it was - something of his desire to bring  her to Christ: a scapular medal, a memorized verse from the New Testament, a  partial indulgence, a penance. Something to keep. Veronica was none of your  trader rats.

 My little joke may have been in earnest. When they are established firmly enough to begin thinking about canonization, I am sure Veronica will head the list. With some descendant of Ignatius no doubt acting as devil's advocate.

 V. came to me tonight, upset. She and Paul have been at it again. The weight of guilt is so heavy on the child. She almost sees it: as a huge, white, lumbering beast, pursuing her, wanting to devour her. We discussed Satan and his wiles for several hours.

 V. has expressed a desire to be a sister. I explained to her that to date there is no recognized order for which she would be eligible. She will talk to some of the other girls to see if there is interest widespread enough to require action on my part. It would mean a letter to the Bishop. And my Latin is so wretched . . .

Lamb of God, Profane thought. Did the priest teach them "rat of God"? How  did he justify killing them off three a day? How would he feel about me or  the Alligator Patrol? He checked the action of the shotgun. Here in the  parish were twistings intricate as any early Christian catacomb. No use  risking a shot, not here. Was it only that?

His back throbbed, he was getting tired. Beginning to wonder how much longer  this would have to keep up. It was the longest he'd chased any alligator. He  stopped for a minute listened back along the tunnel. No sound except the  dull wash of water. Angel wouldn't be coming. He sighed and started plodding  again toward the river. The alligator was burbling in the sewage, blowing  bubbles and growling gently. Is it saying anything, he wondered. To me? He  wound on, feeling soon he'd start to think about collapsing and just letting  the stream float him out with pornographic pictures, Coffee grounds,  contraceptives used and unused, shit, up through the flushing tank to the  East River and across on the tide to the stone forests of Queens. And to  hell with this alligator and this hunt, here between chalkwritten walls of  legend. It was no place to kill. He felt the eyes of ghost-rats, kept his  own eyes ahead far fear he might see the 36 inch pipe that was Father  Fairing's sepulchre, tried to keep his ears closed to the subthreshold  squeakings of Veronica, the priest's old love.

Suddenly - so suddenly it scared him - there was light ahead, around a  corner. Not the light of a rainy evening in the city, but paler, less  certain. They rounded the corner. He noticed the flashlight bulb starting to  flicker; lost the alligator momentarily. Then turned the corner and found a  wide space like the nave of a church, an arched roof overhead,  phosphorescent light coming off walls whose exact arrangement was  indistinct.

"Wha," he said out loud. Backwash from the river? Sea water shines in the  dark sometimes; in the wake of a ship you see the same uncomfortable  radiance. But not here. The alligator had turned to face him. It was a  clear, easy, shot.

He waited. He was waiting for something to happen. Something otherworldly,  of course. He was sentimental and superstitious. Surely the alligator would  receive the gift of tongues, the body of Father Fairing be resurrected, the  sexy V. tempt him away from murder. He felt about to levitate and at a loss  to say where, really, he was. In a bonecellar, a sepulchre.

"Ah, schlemihl," he whispered into the phosphorescence. Accident prone,  schlimazzel. The gun would blow up in his hands. The alligator's heart would  tick on, his own would burst, mainspring and escapement rust in this  shindeep sewage; in this unholy light. "Can I let you just go?" Bung the  foreman knew he was after a sure thing. It was down on the clipboard. And  then he saw the alligator couldn't go any further. Had settled down on its  haunches to wait, knowing damn well it was going to be blasted.

In Independence Hall in Philly, when the floor was rebuilt, they left part  of the original, a foot square, to show the tourists. "Maybe," the guide  would tell you, "Benjamin Franklin stood right there, or even George  Washington." Profane on an eighth-grade class trip had been suitably  impressed. He got that feeling now. Here in this room an old man had killed  and boiled a catechumen, had committed sodomy with a rat, had discussed a  rodent nunhood with V., a future saint - depending which story you listened  to.

"I'm sorry," he told the alligator. He was always saying he was sorry. It  was a schlemihl's stock line. He raised the repeater to his shoulder,  flicked off the safety. "Sorry," he said again. Father Fairing talked to  rats. Profane talked to alligators. He fired. The alligator jerked, did a  backflip, thrashed briefly, was still. Blood began to seep out  amoeba-like to form shifting patterns with the weak glow of the water.  Abruptly, the flashlight went out.

 

II

 Gouverneur ("Roony") Winsome sat on his grotesque espresso machine, smoking  string and casting baleful looks at the girl in the next room. The  apartment, perched high over Riverside Drive, ran to something like thirteen  rooms, all decorated in Early Homosexual and arranged to present what the  writers of the last century liked to call "vistas" when the connecting doors  were open, as they were now.

Mafia his wife was in on the bed playing with Fang the cat. At the moment  she was naked and dangling an inflatable brassiere before the frustrated  claws of Fang who was Siamese, gray and neurotic. "Bouncy, bouncy," she was  saying. "Is the dweat big kitties angwy cause he tart play wif the bwa?  EEEE, he so cute and ickle."

Oh, man, thought Winsome, an intellectual. I had to pick an intellectual.  They all revert.

The string was from Bloomingdale's, fine quality: procured by Charisma  several months before on one of his sporadic work binges; he'd been a  shipping clerk that time. Winsome made a mental note to see the pusher from  Lord and Taylor's, a frail girl who hoped someday to sell pocketbooks in the  accessories department. The stuff was highly valued by string smokers, on  the same level as Chivas Regal Scotch or black Panamanian marijuana.

Roony was an executive for Outlandish Records (Volkswagens in Hi-Fi, The  Leavenworth Glee Club Sings Old Favorites) and spent most of his time out  prowling for new curiosities. He had once, for example, smuggled a tape  recorder, disguised as a Kotex dispenser, into the ladies' room at Penn  Station; could be seen, microphone in hand, lurking in false beard and levis  in the Washington Square fountain, being thrown out of a whorehouse on 125th  Street, sneaking along the bullpen at Yankee Stadium on opening day. Roony  was everywhere and irrepressible. His closest scrape had come the morning  two CIA agents, armed to the teeth, came storming into the office to destroy  Winsome's great and secret dream: the version to end all versions of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. What he planned to use for bells, brass band or  orchestra God and Winsome only knew; these were of no concern to the CIA. It  was the cannon shots hey had come to find out about. It seemed Winsome had  been putting out feelers among higher-echelon personnel in the Strategic Air  Command.

"Why," said the CIA man in the gray suit.

"Why not," said Winsome.

"Why," said the CIA man in the blue suit.

Winsome told them.

"My God," they said, blanching in unison.

"It would have to be the one dropped on Moscow, naturally," Roony said. "We  want historical accuracy."

The cat let loose a nerve-jangling scream. Charisma came crawling in from  one of the adjoining rooms, covered by a great green Hudson's Bay blanket.  "Morning," Charisma said, has voice muffled by the blanket.

"No," said Winsome. "You guessed wrong again. It is midnight and Mafia my  wife is playing with the cat. Go in and see. I'm thinking of selling  tickets."

"Where is Fu," from under the blanket.

"Out rollicking," said Winsome, "downtown."

"Roon" the girl squealed, "come in and look at him." The cat was lying on  its back with all four paws up in the air and a death grin on its face.

Winsome made no comment. The green mound in the middle of the room moved  past the espresso machine; entered Mafia's room. Going past the bed it  stopped briefly, a hand reached out and patted Mafia on the thigh, then it  moved on again in the direction of the bathroom.

The Eskimos, Winsome reflected, consider it good hostmanship to offer a  guest your wife for the night, along with food and lodging. I wonder if old  Charisma is getting any there off of Mafia.

"Mukluk," he said aloud. He reckoned it was an Eskimo word. If it wasn't,  too bad: he didn't know any others. Nobody heard him anyway.

The cat came flying through the air, into the espresso machine roam. His  wife was putting on a peignoir, kimono, housecoat, or negligee. He didn't  know the difference, though periodically Mafia tried to explain to him. All  Winsome knew was it was something you had to take off her. "I am going to  work for a while," she said.

His wife was an authoress. Her novels - three to date - ran a thousand pages  each and like sanitary napkins had gathered in an immense and faithful  sisterhood of consumers. There'd even evolved somehow a kind of sodality or  fan club that sat around, read from her books and discussed her Theory.

If the two of them ever did get around to making a final split, it would be  that Theory there that would do it. Unfortunately Mafia believed in it as  fervently as any of her followers. It wasn't much of a Theory, more wishful  thinking on Mafia's part than anything else. There being but the single  proposition: the world can only be rescued from certain decay through Heroic  Love.

In practice Heroic Love meant screwing five or six times a night, every  night, with a great many athletic, half-sadistic wrestling holds thrown in.  The one time Winsome had blown up he'd yelled, "You are turning our marriage  into a trampoline act," which Mafia thought was a pretty good line. It  appeared in her next novel, spoken by Schwartz; a weak, Jewish psychopath  who was the major villain.

All her characters fell into this disturbingly predictable racial alignment.  The sympathetic - those godlike, inexhaustible sex athletes she used for  heroes and heroines (and heroin? he wondered) were all tall, strong, white  though often robustly tanned (all over), Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, and/or  Scandinavian. Comic relief and villainy were invariably the lot of Negroes,  Jews and South European immigrants. Winsome, being originally from North  Carolina, resented her urban or Yankee way of hating Nigras. During their  courtship he'd admired her vast repertoire of Negro jokes. Only after the  marriage did he discover a truth horrible as the fact she wore falsies: she  was in nearly total ignorance about the Southron feeling toward Negroes. She  used "nigger" as a term of hatred, not apparently being - capable herself of  anything more demanding than sledgehammer emotions. Winsome was too upset to  tell her it was not a matter of love, hate, like or not like so much as an  inheritance you lived with. He'd let it slide, like everything else.

If she believed in Heroic Love, which is nothing really but a frequency,  then obviously Winsome wasn't on the man end of half of what she was looking  for. In five years of marriage all he knew was that both of them were whole  selves, hardly fusing at all, with no more emotional osmosis than leakage  of seed through the solid membranes of contraceptive or diaphragm that were  sure to be there protecting them.

Now Winsome had been brought up on the white Protestant sentiments of  magazines like The Family Circle. One of the frequent laws he encountered  there was the one about how children sanctify a marriage. Mafia at one time  had been daft to have kids. There may have been some intention of mothering  a string of super-children, founding a new race, who knew. Winsome had  apparently met her specifications, both genetic and eugenic. Sly, however,  she waited, and the whole contraceptive rigmarole was gone through in the  first year of Heroic Love. Things meanwhile having started to fall apart,  Mafia became, naturally, more and more uncertain of how good a choice  Winsome had been after all. Why she'd hung on this long Winsome didn't know.  Literary reputation, maybe. Maybe she was holding off divorce till her  public-relations sense told her go. He had a fair suspicion she'd describe  him in court as near impotence as the limits of plausibility allowed. The  Daily News and maybe even Confidential magazine would tell America he was a  eunuch.

The only grounds for divorce in New York state is adultery. Roony, dreaming  mildly of beating Mafia to the punch, had begun to look with more than  routine interest, at Paola Maijstral, Rachel's roommate. Pretty and  sensitive; and unhappy, he'd heard, with her husband Pappy Hod, BM3, USN,  from whom she was separated. But did that mean she'd think any better of  Winsome?

Charisma was in the shower, splashing around. Was he wearing the green  blanket in there? Winsome had the impression he lived in it.

"Hey," called Mafia from the writing desk. "How do you spell Prometheus,  anybody." Winsome was about to say it started off like prophylactic when the  phone rang. Winsome hopped down off the espresso machine and padded over to  it. Let her publishers think she was illiterate.

"Roony, have you seen my roommate. The young one." He had not.

"Or Stencil."

"Stencil has not been here all week," Winsome said. "He is out tracking  down leads, he says. All quite mysterious and Dashiell Hammettlike."

Rachel sounded upset: her breathing, something. "Would they be together?"  Winsome spread his hands and shrugged, keeping the phone tucked between neck  and shoulder. "Because she didn't come Home last night."

"No telling what stencil is doing," said Winsome, "but I will ask Charisma."

Charisma was standing in the bathroom, wrapped in the blanket, observing his  teeth in the mirror. "Eigenvalue," he mumbled. "I could do a better root  canal job. What is my buddy Winsome paying you for, anyway."

"Where is Stencil," said Winsome.

"He sent a note yesterday, by a vagrant in an old campaign hat, circa 1898.  Something about he would be the sewers, tracing down a lead, indefinitely." 

"Don't slouch," Winsome's wife said as he chugged back to the phone emitting  puffs of string smoke. "Stand up straight."

"Ei-gen-value!" moaned Charisma. The bathroom had s delayed echo.

"The what," Rachel said.

"None of us," Winsome told her, "have ever inquired into his Business. If he  wants to grouse around the sewer system, why let him. I doubt Paola is with  him."

"Paola," Rachel said, "is a very sick girl." She hung up, angry but not at  Winsome, and turned to see Either sneaky-Peteing out the door wearing  Rachel's white leather raincoat.

"You could have asked me," Rachel said. The girl was always swiping things  and then getting all kittenish when she was caught.

"Where are you going at this hour," Rachel wanted to know.

"Oh, out." Vaguely. If she had any guts, Rachel thought, she would say: who  the hell are you, I have to account to you for where I go? And Rachel would  answer: I am who you owe a thousand-odd bucks to, is who. And Esther get all  hysterical and say: If that's the way it is, I'm leaving, I will go into  prostitution or something and send you your money in the mail. And Rachel  would watch her stomp out and then just as she was, at the door, deliver the  exit line. You'll go broke, you'll have to pay them. Go and be damned. The  door would slam, high heels clatter away down the hall, a hiss-thump of  elevator doors and hoorah: no more Esther. And next day she would read in  the paper where Esther Harvitz, 22, honors graduate of CCNY, had taken a  Brody off some bridge, overpass or high building. And Rachel would be so  shocked she wouldn't even be able to cry.

"Was that me?" out loud. Esther had left. "So," she continued in a Viennese  dialect, "this is what we call repressed hostility. You secretly want to  kill your roommate. Or something."

Somebody was banging on the door. She opened it to Fu and a Neanderthal  wearing the uniform of a 3rd class boatswain's mate in the U. S. Navy.

"This is Pig Bodine," said Fu.

"Isn't it a small world," said Pig Bodine. "I'm looking for Pappy Hod's  woman."

"So am I," said Rachel. "And what are you, playing Cupid for Pappy? Paola  doesn't want to see him again."

Pig tossed his white hat at the desk lamp, scoring ringer. "Beer in the  icebox?" said Fu, all smiles. Rachel was used to being barged in on at all  hours by members of the Crew and their random acquaintances. "MYSAH," she  said, which is Crew talk for Make Yourself At Home.

"Pappy is over in the Med," said Pig, lying on the couch. He was short  enough so that his feet didn't hang over the edge. He let one thick furry  arm fall to the floor with a dull thump, which Rachel suspected would have  been more like a splat if there hadn't been a rug there. "We are on the same  ship."

"How come then you aren't over in the Med, wherever that is," said Rachel.  She knew he meant Mediterranean but felt hostile.

"I am AWOL," said Pig. He closed his eyes. Fu came back with beer. "Oh boy,  oh boy, yeah," said Pig. "I smell Ballantine."

"Pig has this remarkably acute nose," Fu said, putting an opened quart of  Ballantine into Pig's fist, which looked like a badger with pituitary  trouble. "I have never known him to guess wrong."

"How did you two get together," Rachel asked, seating herself on the floor.  Pig, eyes still closed, was slobbering beer. It ran out of the corners of  his mouth, formed brief pools in the bushy caverns of his ears and soaked on  into the sofa.

"If you had been down the Spoon at all you would know," Fu said. He referred  to the Rusty Spoon, a bar on the western fringes of Greenwich Village where,  legend has it, a noted and colorful poet of the '20's drank himself to  death. Ever since then it has had kind of a rep among groups like The Whole  Sick Crew. "Pig has made a big hit there."

"I'll bet Pig is the darling of the Rusty Spoon," said Rachel, "considering  that sense of smell he has, and how he can tell what brand of beer it is,  and all."

Pig removed the bottle from his mouth, where it had been somehow,  miraculously, balanced. "Glug," he said. "Ahh."

Rachel smiled. "Perhaps your friend would like to hear some music," she  said. She reached over and turned on the FM, full volume. She screwed the  dial over to a hillbilly station. On came a heartbroken violin, guitar,  banjo and vocalist:

 

   Last night I went and raced with the Highway Patrol

   But that Pontiac done had more guts than mine.

   And so I wrapped my tail around a telephone pole

  And now my baby she just sits a cryin'.

   I'm up in heaven, darlin', now don't you cry;

   Ain't no reason why you should be blue.

   Just go on out and race a cop in Daddy's old Ford

   And you can join me up in heaven, too.  

 

Pig's right foot had begun to wobble, roughly in time with the music. Soon  his stomach, where the beer bottle was now balanced, started to move up and  down to the same rhythm. Fu watched Rachel, puzzled.

"There's nothing I love," said Pig and paused. Rachel did not doubt this.  "Than good shitkicking music."

"Oh," she shouted; not wanting to get on the subject but too nosy, she was  aware, to leave it: "I suppose you and Pappy Hod used to go out on liberty  and have all sorts of fun kicking shit."

"We kicked a few jarheads," Fig bellowed over the music, "which is about the  same thing. Where did you say Polly was?"

"I didn't. Your interest in her is purely Platonic, is that it."

"Wha," said Pig.

"No screwing," Fu explained.

"I wouldn't do that to anybody but an officer," Pig said.. "I have a code.  All I want to see her for is Pappy told me before they got under way I  should look her up if I was ever in New York."

"Well, I don't know where she is," Rachel yelled. "I wish I did," she said,  quieter. For a minute or so they heard about a soldier who was overseas in  Korea fighting for red, white and blue and one day his sweetheart Belinda  Sue (to rhyme with blue) up and run off with an itinerant propeller  salesman. Said for that lonely GI. Abruptly Pig swung his head toward  Rachel, opened his eyes and said, "What you think of Sartre's thesis that we  are all impersonating identity?"

Which did not surprise her: after all he had been hanging around the Spoon.  For the next hour they talked proper nouns. The hillbilly station continued  full blast. Rachel opened a quart of beer for herself and things soon grew  convivial. Fu even became gleeful enough to tell one of bottomless  repertoire of Chinese jokes, which went:

"The vagrant minstrel Ling, having insinuated himself into the confidence of  a great and influential mandarin, made off one night with a thousand gold  yuan and a priceless jade lion, a theft which so unhinged his former  employer that in one night the old man's hair turned snow white, and to the  end of his life he did little more than sit on the dusty floor of his  chamber, plucking listlessly at a p'ip'a and chanting 'Was that not a  curious minstrel?'"

At half past one the phone rang. It was Stencil.

"Stencil's just been shot at," he said.

Private eye, indeed. "Are you all right, where are you." He gave her the  address, in the east 80's. "Sit down and wait, she said. "We'll come get  you."

"He can't sit down, you know." He hung up.

"Come," she said, grabbing her coat. "Fun, excitement, thrills. Stencil has  just been wounded, tracking down a lead."

Fu whistled, giggled. "Those leads are beginning to fight back."

Stencil had called from a Hungarian Coffee shop on York Avenue known as  Hungarian Coffee Shop. At this hour, the only customers were two elderly  ladies and a cop off duty. The woman behind the pastry counter was all  tomato cheeks and smiles, looking like the type who gave extra portions to  poor growing boys and mothered bums with free refills on Coffee, though it  was a neighborhood of rich kids and bum who were only accidental there and  knew it and so "moved on" quickly.

Stencil was in an embarrassing and possibly dangerous position. A few  pellets from the first shotgun blast (he'd dodged the second by an adroit  flop in the sewage) had ricocheted into his left buttock. He wasn't  especially anxious to sit down. He'd stowed the waterproof suit and mask  near a walkway abutment an East River Drive; combed his hair and  straightened his clothing by mercury light in a nearby rain-puddle. He  wondered how presentable he looked. Not a good job, this policeman being  here.

Stencil left the phone booth and edged his right buttock gingerly onto a  stool at the counter, trying not to wince, hoping his middle-aged appearance  would account for any creakiness he showed. He asked for a cup of Coffee,  lit a cigarette and noticed that his hand wasn't shaking. The match flame  burned pure, conical, unwavering: St you're a cool one, he told himself, but  God: how did they get on to you?

That was the worst part of it He and Zeitsuss had met only by accident.  Stencil had been on the way over to Rachel's place. As he crossed Columbus  Avenue he noticed a few ragged files of workmen lined up on the sidewalk  opposite and being harangued by Zeitsuss. Any organized body fascinated him,  especially irregulars. These looked like revolutionaries.

He crossed the street. The group broke up and wandered away. Zeitsuss stood  watching them for a moment, then turned and caught sight of Stencil. The  light in the east turned the lenses of Zeitsuss's glasses pale and blank.  "You're late," Zeitsuss called. So he was, Stencil thought. Years. "See Bung  the foreman, that fella there in the plaid shirt." Stencil realized then  that he had a three-day stubble and had been sleeping in his clothes for the  same length of time. Curious about anything even suggesting overthrow, he approached Zeitsuss, smiling his father's Foreign Service smile. "Not  looking for employment," he said.

"You're a Limey," Zeitsuss .said. "Last Limey we had wrestled his alligators  to death. You boys are all right. Why don't you try it for a day."

Naturally Stencil asked try what, and so the contact was made. Soon they  were back in the office Zeitsuss shared with some vaguely-defined estimates  group, talking sewers. Somewhere in the Paris dossier, Stencil knew, was  recorded an interview with one of the Collecteurs Generaux who worked the  main sewer line which ran under Boulevard St. Michel. The fellow, old at the  time of the interview but with an amazing memory, recalled seeing a woman  who might have been V. on one of the semimonthly Wednesday tours shortly  before the outbreak of the Great War. Having been lucky with sewers once,  Stencil saw nothing wrong with trying again. They went out to lunch. In the  early afternoon it rained, and the conversation got around to sewer stories.  A few old-timers drifted in with their own memories. It was only a matter of  an hour or so before Veronica was mentioned: a priest's mistress who wanted  to become a nun, referred to by her initial in the journal.

Persuasive and charming even in a wrinkled suit and nascent beard, trying  not to betray any excitement, Stencil talked his way downstairs. But had  found them waiting. And where to go from here? He'd seen all he wanted to  see of Fairing's Parish.

Two cups of Coffee later the cop left and five minutes after that Rachel, Fu  and Pig Bodine showed up. They piled into Fu's Plymouth. Fu suggested they  go to the Spoon. Pig was all for it. Rachel, bless her heart, didn't make a  scene or ask questions. They got off two blocks from her apartment. Fu  peeled out down the Drive. It had started to rain again. All Rachel said on  the way back was, "I'll bet your ass is sore." She said it through long  eyelashes and a little-girl grin and for ten seconds or so Stencil felt like  the alter kocker Rachel may have thought he was.

 

 

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