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Chapter Six

In which Profane returns to street level

 

 Women had always happened to Profane the schlemihl like accidents: broken  shoelaces, dropped dishes, pins in new shirts. Fina was no exception.  Profane had figured at first that he was only the disembodied object of a  corporal work of mercy. That, in the company of innumerable small and  wounded animals, bums on the street, near-dying and lost to God, he was only  another means to grace or indulgence for Fina.

But as usual he was wrong. His first indication came with the cheerless  celebration Angel and Geronimo staged following his first eight hours of  alligator hunting. They had all been on a night shift, and got back to the  Mendozas around 5 A.M. "Put on a suit," said Angel.

"I don't have a suit," Profane said.

They gave him one of Angel's. It was too small and he felt ridiculous. "All  I want to do," he said, "really, is sleep."

"Sleep in the daytime," Geronimo said, "ho-ho. You crazy, man. We are going  out after some cono."

Fina came in all warm and sleepy-eyed; heard they were holding a party,  wanted to tag along. She worked 8 to 4:30 as a secretary but she had sick  leave coming. Angel got all embarrassed. This sort of put his sister in the  class of cono. Geronimo suggested calling up Dolores and Pilar, two girls  they knew. Girls are different from cono. Angel brightened.

The six of them started at an after-hours club up near 125th Street,  drinking Gallo wine with ice in it. A small group, vibes and rhythm, played  listlessly in one corner. These musicians had been to high school with  Angel, Fina and Geronimo. During the breaks they came over and sat at the  table. They were drunk and threw pieces of ice at each other. Everybody  talked in Spanish and Profane responded in what Italo-American he'd heard  around the house as a kid. There was about 10 per cent communication but  nobody cared: Profane was only guest of honor.

Soon Fina's eyes changed from sleepy to shiny from wine, and she talked less  and spent more of her time smiling at Profane. This made him uncomfortable.  It turned out Delgado the vibes player was going to be married the next day  and having second thoughts. A violent and pointless argument developed about  marriage, pro and con. While everybody else was screaming, Fina leaned  toward Profane till their foreheads touched and whispered, "Benito," her  breath light and acid with wine.

"Josephine," he nodded, pleasant. He was getting a headache. She continued  to lean against his head until the next set when Geronimo grabbed her and  they went off to dance. Dolores, fat and amiable, asked Profane to dance.  "Non posso ballare," he said. "No puedo bailar," she corrected him and  yanked him to his feet. The world became filled with the sounds of inanimate  calluses slapping inanimate goatskin, felt hitting metal, sticks knocking  together. Of course, he couldn't dance. His shoes kept getting in the way.  Dolores, halfway across the room, didn't notice. Commotion broke out at the  door and half a dozen teenagers wearing Playboy jackets invaded. The music  bonged and clattered on. Profane kicked off his shoes - old black loafers of  Geronimo's - and concentrated on dancing in his socks. After awhile Dolores  was there again and five seconds later a spike heel came down square in the  middle of his foot. He was too tired to yell. He limped off to a table in  the corner, crawled under it and went to sleep. The next thing he knew there  was sunlight in his eyes. They were carrying him down Amsterdam Avenue like  pallbearers, all chanting, "Mierda. Mierda. Mierda . . ."

He lost count of all the bars they visited. He became drunk. His worst  memory was of being alone with Fina somewhere in a telephone booth. They  were discussing love. He couldn't remember what he'd said. The only other  thing he remembered between then and the time he woke up - in Union Square  at sundown, blindfolded by a raging hangover and covered by a comforter of  chilly pigeons who looked like vultures - was same sort of unpleasantness  with the police after Angel and Geronimo had tried to smuggle parts of a  toilet under their coats out of the men's room in a bar on Second Avenue.

In the next few days Profane came to tally his time in reverse or  schlemihl's light: time on the job as escape, time exposed to any  possibility of getting involved with Fina as assbreaking, wageless labor.

What had he said in that phone booth? The question met him at the end of  every shift, day, night or swing, like an evil fog that hovered over  whatever manhole he happened to climb out of. Nearly that whole day of  slewfooting drunk under February's sun was a blank. He was not about to ask  Fina what had happened. There grew a mutual embarrassment between them, as  if they'd been to bed after all.

"Benito," she said one night, "how come we never talk."

"Wha," said Profane, who was watching a Randolph Scott movie on television.  "Wha. I talk to you."

"Sure. Nice dress. How about more Coffee. I got me another cocodrilo today. You know what I mean."

 

He knew what she meant. Now here was Randolph Scott: cool, imperturbable,  keeping his trap shut and only talking when he had to - and then saying the  right things and not running off haphazard and inefficient at the mouth -  and here on the other side of the phosphor screen was Profane, who knew that  one wrong word would put him closer than he cared to be to street level, and  whose vocabulary it seemed was made up of nothing but wrong words.

"Why don't we go to a movie or something," she said.

"This here," he answered, "is a good movie. Randolph Scott is this U.S.  marshal and that sheriff, there he goes now, is getting paid off by the gang  and all he does all day long is play fan-tan with a widow who lives up the  hill."

She withdrew after a while, sad and pouting.

Why? Why did she have to behave like he was a human being. Why couldn't he  be just an object of mercy. What did Fina have to go pushing it for? What  did she want - which was a stupid question. She was a restless girl, this  Josephine: warm and viscous-moving, ready to come in a flying machine or  anyplace else.

But curious, he decided to ask Angel.

"How do I know," Angel said. "It's her Business. She don't like anybody in  the office. They are all maricon, she says. Except for Mr. Winsome the boss,  but he's married so he's out."

"What does she want to be," Profane said, "a career girl? What does your  mother think?"

"My mother thinks everybody should get married: me, Fina, Geronimo. She'll  be after your ass soon. Fina doesn't want anybody. You, Geronimo, the  Playboys. She doesn't want. Nobody knows what she wants."

"Playboys," Profane said. "Wha."

It came out then that Fina was spiritual leader or Den Mother of this youth  gang. She had learned in school about a saint, called Joan of Arc, who went  around doing the same thing for armies who were more or less chicken and no  good in a rumble. The Playboys, Angel felt, were pretty much the same way.

Profane knew better than to ask whether she was giving them sexual comfort  too. He didn't have to ask. He knew this was another work of mercy. The  mother to the troops bit, he guessed - not knowing anything about women -  was a harmless way to be what maybe every girl wants to be, a camp follower.  With the advantage that here she was not a follower but a leader. How many  in the Playboys? Nobody knew, Angel said. Maybe hundreds. They all were  crazy for Fina, in a spiritual way. In return she had to put out nothing but  charity and comfort, which she was only too glad to do, punchy with grace  already.

The Playboys were a strangely exhausted group. Mercenaries, many of them  lived in Fina's neighborhood; but unlike other gangs they had no turf of  their own. They were spread out all over the city; having no common  geographical or cultural ground, they put their arsenal and streetfighting  prowess at the disposal of any interested party who might be considering a  rumble. The Youth Board had never taken a count on them: they were  everywhere, but as Angel had mentioned, chicken. The main advantage in  having them on your side was psychological. They cultivated a carefully  sinister image: coal-black velvet jackets with the clan name discreetly  lettered small and bloody on the back; faces pale and soulless as the other  side of the night (and you felt that was where they lived: for they would  appear suddenly across the street from you and keep pace for a while, and  then vanish again as if back behind some invisible curtain); all of them  affecting prowling walks, hungry eyes, feral mouths.

Profane didn't meet them in any social way until the Feast of San' Ercole  dei Rinoceronti, which comes on the Ides of March, and is celebrated  downtown in the neighborhood called Little Italy. High over all Mulberry  Street that night soared arches of light bulbs, arranged in receding sets of  whorls, each spanning the street, shining clear to the horizon because the  air was so windless. Under the lights were jury-rigged stalls for  penny-toss, bingo, pick up the plastic duck and win a prize. Every few steps  were stands for zeppole, beer, sausage-pepper sandwiches. Behind it all was  music from two bandstands, one at the downtown end of the street and one  halfway along. Popular songs, operas. Not too loud in the cold night: as if  confined only to the area below the lights. Chinese and Italian residents  sat out on the stoops as if it were summer, watching the crowds, the lights,  the smoke from the zeppole stands which rose lazy and unturbulent up toward  the lights but disappeared before it reached them.

Profane, Angel and Geronimo were out prowling for cono. It was Thursday  night, tomorrow - according to the nimble calculations of Geronimo they were  working not for Zeitsuss but for the U. S. Government, since Friday is  one-fifth of the week and the government takes one-fifth of your check for  withholding tax. The beauty of Geronimo's scheme was that it didn't have to  be Friday but could be any day - or days - in the week depressing enough to  make you feel it would be a breach of loyalty if the time were dedicated to  good old Zeitsuss. Profane had got into this way of thinking, and along with  parties in the daytime and a rotating shift system devised by Bung the  foreman whereby you didn't know till the day before which hours you would be  working the next, it put him on a weird calendar which was not ruled off  into neat squares at all but more into a mosaic of tilted street-surfaces  that changed position according to sunlight, streetlight, moonlight,  nightlight . . .

He wasn't comfortable in this street. The people mobbing the pavement  between the stalls seemed no more logical than the objects in his dream.  "They don't have faces," he said to Angel.

"A lot of nice asses, though," Angel said.

"Look, look," said Geronimo. Three jailbait, all lipstick and shiny-machined  breast- and buttock-surfaces, stood in front of the wheel of Fortune,  twitching and hollow-eyed.

"Benito, you speak guinea. Go tell them how about a little."

Behind them the band was playing Madame Butterfly. Non-professional,  non-rehearsed.

"It isn't like it was a foreign country," Profane said.

"Geronimo is a tourist," Angel said. "He wants to go down to San Juan and  live in the Caribe Hilton and ride around the city looking at  puertorriquenos."

They'd been moseying slow, casing the jailbait at the wheel. Profane's foot  came down on an empty beer can. He started to roll. Angel and Geronimo,  flanking him, caught him by the arms about halfway down. The girls had  turned around and were giggling, the eyes mirthless, ringed in shadow.

Angel waved. "He goes weak in the knees," Geronimo purred, "when he sees  beautiful girls."

The giggling got louder. Someplace else the American ensign and the geisha  would be singing in Italian to the music behind them; and how was that for a  tourist's confusion of tongues? The girls moved away and the three fell into  step beside them. They bought beer and took over an unoccupied stoop.

"Benny here talks guinea," said Angel. "Say something in guinea, hey."

"Sfacim," Profane said. The girls got all shocked.

"Your friend is a nasty mouth," one of them said.

"I don't want to sit with any nasty mouth," said the girl sitting next to  Profane. She got up, flipped her butt and moved down into the street, where  she stood hipshot and stared at Profane out of her dark eyeholes.

"That's his name," Geronimo said, "is all. And I am Peter O'Leary and this  here is Chain Ferguson." Peter O'Leary being an old school chum who was now  at a seminary upstate studying to be a priest. He'd been so clean-living in  high school that Geronimo and his friends always used him for an alias  whenever there might be any trouble. God knew how many had been deflowered,  hustled off of for beer or slugged in his name. Chain Ferguson was the hero  of a western they'd been watching on the Mendoza TV the night before.

"Benny Sfacim is really your name?" said the one in the street.

"Sfacimento." In Italian it meant destruction or decay. "You didn't let me  finish."

"That's all right then," she said. "That isn't bad at all." Bet your shiny,  twitching ass, he thought, all unhappy. The other could knock her up higher  than those arches of light. She couldn't be more than fourteen but she knew  already that men are drifters. Good for her. Bedmates and all the sfacim  they have yet to get rid of drift on, and if some stays with her and swells  into a little drifter who'll go someday too, why she wouldn't like that too  much, he reckoned. He wasn't angry with her. He looked that thought at her,  but who knew what went on in those eyes? They seemed to absorb all the light  in the street: from flames beneath sausage grills, from the bridges of light  bulbs, windows of neighborhood apartments, glowing ends of De Nobili cigars,  flashing gold and silver of instruments on the bandstand, even light from  the eyes of what innocent there were among the tourists:

 The eyes of a New York woman [he started to sing]

   Are the twilit side of the moon,

   Nobody knows what goes on back there

   Where it's always late afternoon.

   Under the lights of Broadway,

   Far from the lights of Home,

   With a smile as sweet as a candy cane

   And a heart all plated with chrome.

   Do they ever see the wandering bums  

   And the boys with no place to go,

   And the drifter who cried for an ugly girl

   That he left in Buffalo?

   Dead as the leaves in Union Square,

   Dead as the graveyard sea,

   The eyes of a New York woman

   Are never going to cry for me.

   Are never going to cry for me.

 

The girl on the sidewalk twitched. "It doesn't have any beat." It was a song  of the Great Depression. They were singing it in 1932, the year Profane was  born. He didn't know where he'd heard it. If it had a beat it was the beat  of beans thumping into an old bucket someplace down in Jersey. Some WPA pick  against the pavement, some bum-laden freight car on a downgrade hitting the  gaps between the rails every 39 feet. She'd have been born in 1942. Wars  don't have my beat. They're all noise.

Zeppole man across the street began to sing. Angel and Geronimo started to  sing. The band across the street acquired an Italian tenor from the  neighborhood:

   Non dimenticar, the t'i'ho voluto tanto bene,

   Ho saputo amar; non dimenticar . . .

And the cold street seemed all at once to've bloomed into singing. He wanted  to take the girl by the fingers, lead her to someplace out of the wind,  anyplace warm, pivot her back on those poor ballbearing heels and show her  his name was Sfacim after all. It was a desire he got, off and on, to be  cruel and feel at the same time sorrow so big it filled him, leaked out his  eyes and the holes in his shoes to make one big pool of human sorrow on the  street, which had everything spilled on it from beer to blood, but very  little compassion. "I'm Lucille," the girl said to Profane. The other two  introduced themselves, Lucille came back up the stoop to sit next to  Profane, Geronimo went off for more beer. Angel continued to sing. "What do  you guys do," Lucille said.

I tell tall stories to girls I want to screw, Profane thought. He scratched  his armpit. "Kill alligators," he said.

"Wha."

He told her about the alligators; Angel, who had a fertile imagination too,  added detail, color. Together on the stoop they hammered together a myth.  Because it wasn't born from fear of thunder, dreams, astonishment at how the  crops kept dying after harvest and coming up again every spring, or anything  else very permanent, only a temporary interest, a spur-of-the-moment  tumescence, it was a myth rickety and transient as the bandstands and the  sausage-pepper of Mulberry Street.

Geronimo came back with beer. They sat and drank beer and watched people and  told sewer stories: Every once in a while the girls would want to sing. Soon  enough they became kittenish. Lucille jumped up and pranced away. "Catch  me," she said.

"Oh God," said Profane.

"You have to chase her," said one of her friends. Angel and Geronimo were  laughing.

"I have to wha," said Profane. The other two girls, annoyed that Angel and  Geronimo were laughing, arose and went running off after Lucille.

"Chase them?" Geronimo said.

Angel belched. "Sweat out some of this beer." They got off the stoop  unsteadily and fell, side by side, into a little jog-trot. "Where'd they  go," Profane said.

"Over there." It seemed after a while they were knocking people over.  Somebody swung a punch at Geronimo and missed. They dived under an empty  stand, single file, and found themselves out on the sidewalk. The girls were  loping along, up ahead. Geronimo was breathing hard. They followed the  girls, who cut off on a side street. By the time they got around the corner  there wasn't girl one to be seen. There followed a confused quarter-hour of  wandering along the streets bordering Mulberry, looking under parked cars,  behind telephone poles, in back of stoops.

"Nobody here," said Angel.

There was music on Mott Street. Coming out of a basement. They investigated.  A sign outside said SOCIAL CLUB. BEER. DANCING. They went down, opened a  door and there sure enough was a small beer bar set up in one corner, a  jukebox in another and fifteen or twenty curious-looking juvenile  delinquents. The boys wore Ivy League suits, the girls wore cocktail  dresses. There was rock 'n' roll on the jukebox. The greasy heads and  cantilever brassieres were still there, but the atmosphere was refined, like  a country club dance.

The three of them just stood. Profane saw Lucille after a while bopping in  the middle of the floor with somebody who looked like a chairman of the  board of some delinquent's corporation. Over his shoulder she stuck out her  tongue at Profane, who looked away. "I don't like it," he heard somebody  say, "fuzzwise. Why don't we send it through Central Park and see if anybody  rapes it."

He happened to glance off to the left. There was a coat room. Hanging on a  row of hooks, neat and uniform, padded shoulders falling symmetrical either  side of the hooks, were two dozen black velvet jackets with red lettering on  the back. Ding dang, thought Profane: Playboy country.

Angel and Geronimo had been looking the same way. "Do you think we should  maybe," Angel wondered. Lucille was beckoning to Profane from a doorway  across the dance floor.

"Wait a minute," he said. He weaved between the couples on the floor. Nobody  noticed him.

"What took you so long?" She had him by the hand. It was dark in the room.  He walked into a pool table. "Here," she whispered. She was lying spread on  the green felt. Comer pockets, side pockets, and Lucille. "There are some  funny things I could say," he began.

"They've all been said," she whispered. In the dim light from the doorway,  her fringed eyes seemed part of the felt. It was as if he were looking  through her face to the surface of the table. Skirt raised, mouth open,  teeth all white, sharp, ready to sink into whatever soft part of him got  that close, oh she would surely haunt him. He unzipped his fly and started  to climb up on the pool table.

There was a sudden scream from the next room, somebody knocked over the  jukebox, the lights went out. "Wha," she said sitting up.

"Rumble?" Profane said. She came flying off the table, knocked him over. He  lay on the floor, his head against a cue rack. Her sudden movement dislodged  an avalanche of pool balls on his stomach. "Dear God," he said, covering his  head. Her high heels tapped away, fading with distance, over the empty dance  floor. He opened his eyes. A pool ball lay even with his eyes. All he could  see was a white circle, and this black 8 inside it. He started to laugh.  Outside somewhere he thought he heard Angel yelling for help. Profane  creaked to his feet, zipped his fly up again, blundered out through the  darkness. He got out to the street after tripping over two folding chairs  and the cord to the jukebox.

Crouched behind the brownstone balusters of the front stoop he saw a great  mob of Playboys milling around in the street. Girls were sitting on the  stoop and lining the sidewalk, cheering. In the middle of the street  Lucille's late partner the board chairman was going round and round with a  huge Negro in a jacket that read BOP KINGS. A few other Bop Kings were  mixing it up with the Playboys at the fringes of the crowd. Jurisdictional  dispute, Profane figured. He couldn't see either Angel or Geronimo.  "Somebody is going to get burned," said a girl who sat almost directly above  him on the steps.

Like tinsel suddenly tossed on a Christmas tree, the merry twinkling of  switchblades, tire irons and filed-down garrison belt buckles appeared among  the crowd in the street. The girls on the stoop drew breath in concert  through bared teeth. They watched eagerly; as if each had kicked in on a  pool for who'd draw first blood.

It never happened, whatever they were waiting for: not tonight. Out of  nowhere Fina, St. Fina of the Playboys, came walking her sexy walk, in among  fangs, talons, tusks. The air turned summer-mild, a boys' choir on a  brilliant mauve cloud came floating over from the direction of Canal Street  singing O Salutaris Hostia; the board chairman and the Bop King clasped arms  in token of friendship as their followers stacked arms and embraced; and  Fina was borne up by a swarm of pneumatically fat, darling cherubs, to hover  over the sudden peace she'd created, beaming, serene.

Profane gaped, snuffled, and slunk away. For the next week or so he pondered  on Fina and the Playboys and presently began to worry in earnest. There was  nothing so special about the gang, punks are punks. He was sure any love  between her and the Playboys was for the moment Christian, unworldly and  proper. But how long was that going to go on? How long could Fina herself  hold out? The minute her horny boys caught a glimpse of the wanton behind  the saint, the black lace slip beneath the surplice, Fina could find herself  on the receiving end of a gang bang, having in a way asked for it. She was  overdue now.

One evening he came into the bathroom, mattress slung over his back. He'd  been watching an ancient Tom Mix movie on television. Fina was lying in the  bathtub, seductive. No water, no clothes - just Fina.

"Now look," he said.

"Benny, I'm cherry. I want it to be you." She said it defiantly. For a  minute it seemed plausible. After all, if it wasn't him it might be that  whole godforsaken wolf pack. He glanced at himself in the mirror. Fat.  Pig-pouches around the eyes. Why did she want it to be him?

"Why me," he said. "You save it for the guy you marry."

"Who wants to get married," she said.

"Look, what is Sister Maria Annunziata going to think. Here you been doing  all these nice things for me, for those unfortunate delinquents down the  street. You want to get that all scratched off the books?" Who'd have  thought Profane would ever be arguing like this? Her eyes burned, she  twisted slow and sexy, all those tawny surfaces quivering like quicksand.

"No," said Profane. "Now hop out of there, I want to go to sleep. And don't  go yelling rape to your brother. He believes in his sister shouldn't do any  jazzing around but he knows you better."

She climbed out of the bathtub and put a robe around her. "I'm sorry," she  said. He threw the mattress in the tub, threw himself on top of it and lit a  cigarette. She turned off the light and shut the door behind her.

 

II

 Profane's worries about Fina turned real and ugly, soon enough. Spring came:  quiet, unspectacular and after many false starts: hailstorms and high winds  dovetailed with days of unwintry peace. The alligators living in the sewers  had dwindled to a handful. Zeitsuss found himself with more hunters than he  needed, so Profane, Angel and Geronimo started working part-time.

More and more Profane was coming to feel a stranger to the world downstairs.  It had probably happened as imperceptibly as the fall-off in the alligator  population; but somehow it began to look like he was losing contact with a  circle of friends. What am I, he yelled at himself, a St. Francis for  alligators? I don't talk to them, I don't even like them. I shoot them.

Your ass, answered his devil's advocate. How many times have they come  waddling up to you out of the darkness, like friends, looking for you. Did  it ever occur to you they want to be shot?

He thought back to the one he'd chased solo almost to the East River,  through Fairing's Parish. It had lagged, let him catch up. Had been looking  for it. It occurred to him that somewhere - when he was drunk, too horny to  think straight, tired - he'd signed a contract above the paw-prints of what  were now alligator ghosts. Almost as if there had been this agreement, a  covenant, Profane giving death, the alligators giving him employment: tit  for tat. He needed them and if they needed him at all it was because in some  prehistoric circuit of the alligator brain they knew that as babies they'd  been only another consumer-object, along with the wallets and pocketbooks of  what might have been parents or kin, and all the junk of the world's Macy's.  And the soul's passage down the toilet and into the underworld was only a  temporary peace-in-tension, borrowed time till they would have to return to  being falsely animated kids' toys. Of course they wouldn't like it. Would  want to go back to what they'd been; and the most perfect shape of that was  dead - what else? - to be gnawed into exquisite rococo by rat-artisans,  eroded to an antique bone-finish by the holy water of the Parish, tinted to  phosphorescence by whatever had made that one alligator's sepulchre so  bright that night.

When he went down for his now four hours a day he talked to them sometimes.  It annoyed his partners. He had a close call one night when a gator turned  and attacked. The tail caught the flashlight man a glancing blow off his  left leg. Profane yelled at him to get out of the way and pumped all five  rounds in a cascade of re-echoing blasts, square in the alligator's teeth.  "It's all right," his partner said. "I can walk on it." Profane wasn't  listening. He was standing by the headless corpse, watching a steady stream  of sewage wash its life blood out to one of the rivers - he'd lost sense of  direction. "Baby," he told the corpse, "you didn't play it right. You don't  fight back. That's not in the contract." Bung the foreman lectured him once  or twice about this talking to alligators, how it set a bad example for the  Patrol. Profane said sure, OK, and remembered after that to say what he was  coming to believe he had to say under his breath.

Finally, one night in mid-April, he admitted to himself what he'd been  trying for a week not to think about: that he and the Patrol as functioning  units of the Sewer Department had about had it.

Fina had been aware that there weren't many alligators left and the three of  them would soon be jobless. She came upon Profane one evening by the TV set.  He was watching a rerun of The Great Train Robbery.

"Benito," she said, "you ought to start looking around for another job."

Profane agreed. She told him her boss, Winsome of Outlandish Records, was  looking for a clerk and she could get him an interview.

"Me," Profane said, "I'm not a clerk. I'm not smart enough and I don't go  for that inside work too much." She told him people stupider than he worked  as clerks. She said he'd have a chance to move up, make something of  himself.

A schlemihl is a schlemihl. What can you "make" out of one? What can one  "make" out of himself? You reach a point, and Profane knew he'd reached it,  where you know how much you can and cannot do. But every now and again he  got attacks of acute optimism. "I will give it a try," he told her, "and  thanks." She was grace-happy - here he had kicked her out of the bathtub and  now she was turning the other cheek. He began to get lewd thoughts.

Next day she called up. Angel and Geronimo were on day shift, Profane was  off till Friday. He lay on the floor playing pinochle with Kook, who was on  the hook from school.

"Find a suit," she said. "One o'clock is your interview."

"Wha," said Profane. He'd grown fatter after these weeks of Mrs. Mendoza's  cooking. Angel's suit didn't fit him any more. "Borrow one of my father's,"  she said, and hung up.

Old Mendoza didn't mind. The biggest suit in the closet was a George Raft  model, circa mid-'30's, double-breasted, dark blue serge, padded shoulders.  He put it on and borrowed a pair of shoes from Angel. On the way downtown on  the subway he decided that we suffer from great temporal Homesickness for  the decade we were born in. Because he felt now as if he were living in some  private Depression days: the suit, the job with the city that would not  exist after two weeks more at the most. All around him were people in new  suits, millions of inanimate objects being produced brand-new every week,  new cars in the streets, houses going up by the thousands all over the  suburbs he had left months ago. Where was the Depression? In the sphere of  Benny Profane's guts and in the sphere of his skull, concealed  optimistically by a tight blue serge coat and a schlemihl's hopeful face.

The Outlandish office was in the Grand Central area, seventeen floors up. He  sat in an anteroom full of tropical hothouse growths while the wind streamed  bleak and heatsucking past the windows. The receptionist gave him an  application to fill out. He didn't see Fina.

As he handed the completed form to the girl at the desk, a messenger came  through: a Negro wearing an old suede jacket. He dropped a stack of  interoffice mail envelopes on the desk and for a second his eyes and  Profane's met.

Maybe Profane had seen him under the street or at one of the shapeups. But  there was a little half-smile and a kind of half-telepathy and it was as if  this messenger had brought a message to Profane too, sheathed to everybody  but the two of them in an envelope of eyebeams touching, that said: Who are  you trying to kid? Listen to the wind.

He listened to the wind. The messenger left. "Mr. Winsome will see you in a  moment," said the receptionist. Profane wandered over to the window and  looked down at 42nd Street. It was as if he could see the wind, too. The  suit felt wrong on him. Maybe it was doing nothing after all to conceal this  curious Depression which showed up in no stock market or year-end report.  "Hey, where are you going," said the receptionist. "Changed my mind,"  Profane told her. Out in the hall and going down in the elevator, in the  lobby and in the street he looked for the messenger, but couldn't find him.  He unbuttoned the jacket of old Mendoza's suit and shuffled along 42nd  Street, head down, straight into the wind.

Friday at the shapeup Zeitsuss, almost crying, gave them the word. From now  on, only two days a week operation, only five teams for some mopping up out  in Brooklyn. On the way Home that evening Profane, Angel and Geronimo  stopped off at a neighborhood bar on Broadway.

They stayed till near 9:30 or 10, when a few of the girls wandered in. This  was on Broadway in the 80's, which is not the Broadway of Show Biz, or even  a broken heart for every light on it. Uptown was a bleak district with no  identity, where a heart never does anything so violent or final as break:  merely gets increased tensile, compressive, shear loads piled on it bit by  bit every day till eventually these and its own shudderings fatigue it.

The first wave of girls came in to get change for the evening's clients.  They weren't pretty and the bartender always had a word for them. Some would  be back in again near closing time to have a nightcap, whether there'd been  any Business or not. If they did have a customer along - usually one of the  small gangsters around the neighborhood - the bartender would be as  attentive and cordial as if they were young lovers, which in a way they  were. And if a girl came in without having found any Business all night the  bartender would give her Coffee with a big shot of brandy and say something  about how it was raining or too cold, and not much good, he supposed, for  customers. She'd usually have a last try at whoever was in the place.

Profane, Angel and Geronimo left after talking with the girls and having a  few rounds at the bowling machine. Coming out they met Mrs. Mendoza.

"You seen your sister?" she asked Angel. "She was going to come help me shop  right after work. She never did anything like this before, Angelito, I'm  worried."

Kook came running up. "Dolores says she's out with the Playboys but she  doesn't know where. Fina just called up and Dolores says she sounded funny."  Mrs. Mendoza grabbed him by the head and asked where from this phone call,  and Kook said he'd told her already, nobody knew. Profane looked toward  Angel and caught Angel looking at him. When Mrs. Mendoza was gone, Angel  said, "I don't like to think about it, my own sister, but if one of those  little pingas tries anything, man . . ."

Profane didn't say he'd been thinking the same thing. Angel was upset enough  already. But he knew Profane was thinking about a gang bang too. They both  knew Fina. "We ought to find her," he said.

"They're all over the city," Geronimo said. "I know a couple of their  hangouts." They decided to start at the Mott Street clubhouse. Till midnight  they took subways all over the city, finding only empty clubhouses or locked  doors. But as they were wandering along Amsterdam in the 60's, they heard  noise around the corner.

"Jesus Christ," Geronimo said. A full-scale rumble was on. A few guns in  evidence but mostly knives, lengths of pipe, garrison belts. The three  skirted along the side of the street where cars were parked, and found  somebody in a tweed suit hiding behind a new Lincoln and fiddling with the  controls of a tape recorder. A sound man was up in a nearby tree, dangling  microphones. The night had become cold and windy.

"Howdy," said the tweed suit. "My name is Winsome."

"My sister's boss," Angel whispered. Profane heard a scream up the street  which might have been Fina. He started running. There was shooting and a lot  of yelling. Five Bop Kings came running out of an alley ten feet ahead, into  the street, Angel and Geronimo were right behind Profane. Somebody had  parked a car in the middle of the street with WLIB on the radio, turned up  to top volume. Close at hand they heard a belt whiz through the air and a  scream of pain: but a big tree's black shadow hid whatever was happening.

They cased the street for a clubhouse. Soon they found PB and an arrow  chalked on the sidewalk, the arrow pointing in toward a brownstone. They ran  up the steps and saw PB chalked on the door. The door wouldn't open. Angel  kicked at it a couple of times and the lock broke. Behind them the street  was chaos. A few bodies lay prostrate near the sidewalk. Angel ran down the  hall, Profane and Geronimo behind him. Police sirens from uptown and  crosstown started to converge on the rumble.

Angel opened a door at the end of the hall and for half a second Profane saw  Fina through it lying on an old army cot, naked, hair in disarray, smiling.  Her eyes had become hollowed as Lucille's, that night on the pool table.  Angel turned and showed all his teeth. "Don't come in," he said, "wait." The  door closed behind him and soon they heard him hitting her.

Angel might have been satisfied only with her life, Profane didn't know how  deep the code ran. He couldn't go in and stop it; didn't know if he wanted  to. The police sirens had grown to a crescendo and suddenly cut off. Rumble  was over. More than that, he suspected, was over. He said good night to  Geronimo and left the brownstone, didn't turn his head to see what was  happening behind him in the street.

He wouldn't go back to Mendozas', he figured. There was no more work under  the street. What peace there had been was over. He had to came back to the  surface, the dream-street. Soon he found a subway station, twenty minutes  later he was downtown looking for a cheap mattress.

 

 

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