In which Stencil nearly goes West with an alligator
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
"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.'"
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.
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.
"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.