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Hamilton Stone Review #30
Carole Rosenthal, Fiction Editor
From the novel Queen Lear
From the novel Queen Lear
In front of me two young twenty-somethings carried towels and bags as if on their way to the beach. But they were probably going to picnic down on the newly developed Hudson River Park. They were taking advantage of the city. If I ever retired, that would be something I could do with my grandchildren. I could sun on a bench and watch the large tourist boats go by, kicking up a wake against the shored up walkways while keeping one eye on the jungle gyms. On the other side of the walking paths they had landscaped the park with cherry trees, hydrangeas, and orange daylilies. At one time this area of derelict piers was a hang-out for gays on the prowl, looking for a quick fuck with truckers delivering livestock to the meat district.
Suddenly I had a longing to go to the real gritty beaches of New York. I looked up sites on my Blackberry and zeroed in on Coney Island and Brighton Beach. No, I wouldn’t call for my car, as usual. A few more clicks, and I found the subway route. Rushing up to my apartment, I shed my business outfit and pulled out a moldy one- piece bathing suit from my bottom drawer, over which I donned an old cotton dress. Grabbing a towel, a ten-dollar bill and my metro card, I threw the whole kit and caboodle into a canvas grocery bag, the kind that Luna kept buying to save the environment. And since my eco-responsible Luna was out, I scrawled a note that I went to the beach, leaving it generic since I had not made my decision which one.
There I was at sixty-nine, playing hooky by going to the seashore. No deals gone south would ruin this glorious day off.
When I was well into Brooklyn on the subway, I noticed a few other beach-going passengers. A young Spanish woman with children and an enormous jug of Kool-Aid sat near me.
“Excuse me. I am going to the beach for the first time in a very long time. Would you recommend Coney Island or Brighton Beach?”
The young woman with her jangling earrings eyed me and considered the question gravely, as if she were a Supreme Court judge and had presented a complicated brief. With a quick aside to her boy, “Jorge, sit down before I give you somethin’ you’re not gonna want.” She turned to me, “Ma’am, what is your intent? What kind of stuff are you into: rides, food, or the surf?”
“No rides. I guess the water and maybe some food.”
“It’s a Puerto Rican special day today so things can get a little outta’ hand at Coney. Maybe you should go to Brighton.” She gestured with her head.
I looked around the subway car. Now I noticed that most of the riders had little flags; in addition most of the young men had coolers on wheels which were probably filled with Coronas. At this point, they all looked pretty well-behaved but who knows what the end of the day might bring. The only person I had objections to was a blond young woman directly across from me who held a little oval mirror and was plucking her eyebrows, and who knew her ethnicity?
For some reason, the whole car overheard my question. As the subway approached the stop, everyone in it was yelling instructions.
“Go down the second stairs.”
“The best place is two blocks west.”
“I like near the changing station.”
Young men with bulging arms, their younger counterparts, older women with heads wrapped in scarves, the young mother I had talked to, and even the eyebrow plucker, watched me from the subway’s windows and waved their arms for me to walk further on the elevated platform. Dozens of them nodded and pointed when I came to the correct stairway. Thumbs ups. I finished my interaction, and I silently wished them Happy Puerto Rican Day. The mingling was so different from the desiccated glassed-in apartment I was planning to purchase that I started to doubt my decision. If I didn’t find crack vials in the sand at Coney, I could take little Darian to play here. I don’t think I was up to carting the young twins.
Old Jewish women played mahjong on the street; Spanish men, perhaps Dominicans, had their dominos. Then there were women with aprons and trays, hawking food items. I paused by some puffed bread with some type of ground up meat on it. “What is this?”
The answer was incomprehensible.
What the hell, for a dollar I could be adventurous and throw it in the next garbage can if need be. I bit into the puffed bread and it was wonderful, some Middle Eastern fare with lemon and garlic and perhaps cumin mixed into the ground beef. Now I had nine dollars left and I purchased a cold bottle of water from the next vender. I could have kicked myself when I finally got to the boardwalk and saw that there was a water fountain. It was against my creed to buy yuppie water, but the people here were certainly not yuppies, and the water was cold and seemed to act effectively against my thirst.
The sun warmed me from my outside in. My attention was caught by a crying little girl around three who was positioned in the middle of the boardwalk, her long dark hair curling at the ends, her skin a golden brown. Tong, my son’s adopted child, had a slight Asian accent but otherwise, this could have been a baby sister. For a moment I had a wild thought to bring her to David so Tong could have a sibling.
“What is your name, sweetheart?” I softened my tone so as not to scare her. I didn’t typically modulate for my grandchildren, all rowdy boys into sword fighting and jumping onto backs of furniture. Get down from there! was my normal interaction with those hooligans, except at bedtime when sweetness oozed as they told me their secrets and gave kisses between their demands for water.
Again I asked this plastic bejeweled little girl. “What is your name?”
“Gina,” or perhaps, “Deena,” was the sniffled answer.
“Who are you here with, your mommy?”
There was an emphatic shake of her head.
Something like Maria came from the child’s lips.
“No,” and more sobs. Since I got the name wrong, the kid thought she was doomed.
A stocky woman in shorts that emphasized her varicose veins stepped in. “Is she yours?”
“No, she is lost.” I looked in my bag for my cell phone and remembered I was traveling light.
“Yo, you can’t take that kid, understand?” She planted her stocky self in my way.
The little girl stopped bawling, interested in the potential smack-down.
“I wasn’t planning to. I would like to locate her caretaker. Do you have a cell phone so we can call 911?”
“Yeah, take her to the lifeguards over there.” She pointed to a station that I hadn’t notice before. “My eye’s on ya’. I’m going to be standing here the whole time to make sure you don’t run off.”
“You lazy bitch. If you’re so concerned why don’t you take her there yourself?’
The varicose shrew talked quickly in Spanish to the little girl. She was with her sister and her boyfriend. “Mi’citta, you go with this lady. She taking you to the lifeguard. They got ways.”
The little girl grabbed my hand, and we climbed down the wooden steps onto the hot sand and walked towards the life guard station marked with a tall flag. Halfway there a teenage girl rushed from a group and grabbed the little Deena or Gina, hugging her, crying into her hair. Some skinny Spanish guys with big Asian tattoos stood awkwardly by. David recently quipped that in the emergency room he could learn Mandarin by reading tattoos and that it was easier than studying fortune cookies.
I waited a few minutes to be questioned and thanked but no interaction seemed to be forthcoming, so I tapped the little girl and waved to her, but no one else seemed to notice. Oh well, so much for my good deed, their bad manners and my fantasy of taking her to be Tong’s sister.
Placing my towel at a discreet distance from the multitudes enjoying the day, I sat down in the warming sun. What was going on with me? What was I doing hanging out on the beach with all these people who didn’t seem to have jobs or school. My curiosity got the best of me. I turned to a gaggle of teens on a blanket to my left. “Shouldn’t you kids be in school?”
They laughed at me and I realized that was a stupid thing to say on my part, but then one answered me. “It’s senior cut day. It’s tradition that you play hooky today.”
Trying to regroup after my dumb question, I said, “Well, then congratulations. That’s great. All of you are seniors?”
“Tony is. We’s sophomores, but we keeping him company.”
“What the bitch in our face for?” snarled one young man with lightning bolts shaved into his short cropped hair.
“Tito, you ain’t got no upbringing.” The girl swatted him playfully. “Lady, don’t mind me and my friends.”
Putting a smile on my face, I nodded at the pack of young assholes, exempting the one girl from my damnation.
A blond couple on my left motioned to me. The young woman was good-looking but overly made-up, wearing a leopard bathing suit, and she had neatly placed very high heels next to her matching leopard-print towel. Who came to the beach in four inch heels? She spoke with an accent that I identified as Russian. “Don’t mix with them. They’re trouble.”
I didn’t want to give up the warm feeling that had been nurtured on the subway by my caring fellow passengers, but this young woman had a point.
“Thank you. It’s the first time to the beach in a very long time. Do you live around here?”
“We live in the high-rises over there.” She pointed to yellow brick buildings that were probably built in the sixties, right before this neighborhood took its deep slide into drugs and crime. But now it was alive again and filled with new immigrants. I should look into the potential and see what properties I could buy up here. Three bedrooms on the ocean. Come on, they won’t be making more of those. Buying beachfront would be golden even if it was at Brighton, and even if the Market was volatile. Got to scope out what developers were snooping around these parts and maybe I could hook up with them.
“They’re lovely. Are they rentals or co-ops?”
“They were rentals, but they are getting converted.”
That made my assessment correct. Real estate is, after all, my business. I kept the conversation going a little more so it could become part of my friendly subway day. “I couldn’t help noticing a little accent. Are you Russian?”
“Yes.” The woman looked down demurely.
“Wonderful,” I said as if my non-sequitur made sense, but she liked it, as did I, and we smiled.
This young couple would make up for my wasted day if I could ferret out some deals in this neck of world.
If I didn’t look to my left at the surly young man with the lightning bolt haircut, I could enjoy the scene. It was a multi-cultural Breugel painting. “Mira, mira, mira,” was shouted like musical rounds as kids chased each other into the water. Picnics were spread out with big cellophane bags of fried potatoes or plantains. Mayan-looking men with rolled-up pant legs peddled ice cold bottles of water. Every now and then a whiff of pot came from somewhere. And every so often there appeared thin, blond women in some type of animal print who I recognized as Russians since they were dressed like their counterpart on my right. I was so glad that I had come to this beach. It was if I had traveled to another country.
Eventually I decided to take a swim in the heavily populated surf. I was a good swimmer. I took off my cotton dress and put it in my canvas tote and tried not to be self-conscious about my large, white body among all the shades of tan of these smaller people. I made my way into the chilly, but not unbearable, water. My big surprise was that no one was swimming, but just standing there, letting the small waves hit their thighs.
Two very muscular black men around nineteen or twenty ran with much show and bravado into the water wetting the bystanders in their wake. Much to my amazement, these overdeveloped species could only swim two or three clumsy strokes, performing on the same level as my five year old grandson, Darian.
One of the fellows must have seen my expression so he said trying to save face, “Got to work up my strength level. It’s the beginning of the season.”
I dove in and with a few fast strokes I was beyond the mass of waders. Swimming, horizontal to the shore line, I progressed the length of the beach and back, many city blocks, counting the streets running perpendicular to the boardwalk. I was trying to remember if twenty city blocks made a mile, the popular notion in Manhattan. Who could be happier than me? I was going to purchase a fantastic apartment, my children were safe and healthy, and I was frolicking in the waves. This was a great day.
My eyes were bleary from the salt when I waded ashore. It was hard to reorient myself to my spot as the gang of teenagers was gone from the beach. And holy crap, so was my canvas bag.
I took my yellow towel and patted myself dry and calculated the damage. My dress, my eight bucks, and my metro card were in that tote. Okay, I had to plan. There was a payphone near the changing station. I could call collect and request a car and driver to pick me up. One of the immediate obstacles though, was covering myself up. I couldn’t go semi-nude into a restaurant or café and order something while I waited for them to pick me up.
The Russian couple was gathering up their belongings.
“It’s a shame,” the woman said as they’d obviously seen some of the action. “Do you want to use my cell phone?”
Thanking her, I called my office, but the call went directly into voice mail. “Where is everybody? I need some help here.” I didn’t leave a phone number, because the couple were now leaving with their phone.
“Are you going to be alright?”
“Could you lend me a quarter for the payphone? No one picked up.”
“Obviously you haven’t used a payphone in a long time. It’s fifty cents, if you can even find one.” The couple scrounged in their beach bag and came up with a lot of change. “Here.”
“Do you want to write down your address so I can repay you?”
Thunder clouds rolled across the sun and suddenly families were scrambling to gather their belongings. There was going to be a downpour. The lifeguards were blowing their whistle making everyone leave the water. A red flag was hastily raised. They were closing the beach. Crowds ran to the changing station, and a line formed around the building.
I spotted the pay phone that I had noticed before. Dropping in two quarters to get information, I gave the name of the limo company that I regularly used. An automatic computer voice delivered the requested number and said, “For an additional thirty cents we will dial it.” Worrying that I might transpose a number in my frantic state, I inserted the thirty cents, the last of my change to let them make the connection. Instead of dialing the number, the automatic voice restated, “For thirty cents more we will dial it.”
I pushed the coin return button, but my coins were not discharged. Again and again I clicked the silver lever. All the change had been gobbled up in that box.
I dialed zero and got the operator. “The phone took my money and didn’t dial the number I wanted.”
“We are sorry for the inconvenience. Write to Refunds, PO Box 217 Hackensack New Jersey and you will get a full refund.”
“Wait, I want you to dial a number for me. I have no more money.”
“Sorry, we are not allowed outgoing.”
“This is an emergency.”
“911 is a toll free number.” The phone went dead.
Did I want to do a 911? No. I looked over to the lifeguard station. Maybe they could help me out. Wind was whipping the sand against my skin, my swim suit wet and making my body colder. My hair was blown into sodden snarls that I tried to finger comb.
The rain came down in hard icy sheets. To add to the total unpleasantness, sand whipped up from the beach, stinging my face and eyes. But like the explorers of old, or at least that was what I told myself to get through the horrific here and now, I made my way to the lifeguard stand. There were stairs up to the wooden house and platform. I climbed them, almost getting blown down in the process. At the door, there was a fuckin’ padlock. Those young shits had gone home, leaving a stranded woman practically in her seventies to survive on her own.
My towel was completely sodden, my body shaking, my hair snarled in my eyes. I made my way under the boardwalk for some protection and to think, but even that leaked water as the planking did not join.
“How’s it going?”
There was an old homeless man with an unkempt beard sitting in the dark interior, like a hermit in a New Yorker cartoon. He wore a plastic garbage bag around his loins. Now that I was still, I could smell his sweet decaying pungency.
“Not so good.” I gave an ironic, social laugh.
“These little bastards stole my bag with my money and stuff.” I didn’t say it was only eight dollars and or hint about my much larger worth in a way that would give him any perspective on my situation. What was the point? He would answer that he was Prince Charles. I had to keep it to light, homeless, hermit talk.
“Lucky they didn’t set you on fire to you like they done Boomer. But it’s raining pretty good so you probably wouldn’t have burned. They had this gooey stuff in Nam that burned and no matter rain or if it was a kid.”
It was my time to nod. I didn’t need this guy to start having Nam flashbacks and thinking I was a fuckin’ Viet Cong.
“Can you tell me how I could get to Manhattan without money?”
He was quiet and I wondered if he had dozed off.
Finally he spoke as if he had considered all the odds. “Too rainy to panhandle. Got to hop the train.
“Do you do it? Do you ever get caught?” I could have been in my board room, questioning the head of a market research consulting firm on the results of a focus group.
“’Course I get caught. But a collar’s too much bother at the end of their shift.” He scratched some itchy welts.
What if I brought back bedbugs to the new fancy glass towers I was moving to so that all the movie stars got infested? The thought gave me perverse pleasure.
My guru scratched and thought some more. “Coppers stay in middle of the train. They don’t like to move.”
I didn’t see what that had to do with hopping the turnstile back near the token booth.
“What’s your name?” I wanted to send someone back to reward him like in a kid’s movie, the prince and the pauper bullshit. Or dress him up in a three piece suit, as seen in a poor taste Esquire magazine fashion feature when they took these boozers off the Bowery and gave them make-overs that made me cringe. Clothes Make the Man, was the title.
“Name? Don’t got one for tellin’.”
The one thing I could do to help him, and which I wasn’t going to do, was to give him my big thick yellow towel and go home practically naked. It was bad enough not having shoes and a dress.
The rain was still a sheet of angled water with rumblings and lightning flares that lit up the ocean and made menacing vibrations through the souls of my bare feet. I ran about ten strides in the sodden sand. The street with the elevated line was about two blocks away. A hermit crab scuttled out from its water-filled hole.
“What the eff?” I shouted against the serious thunderclaps. “What the hell is going on? Like it is going to matter in the big scheme of thing. Okay, Jesus, take a note. One soul offset.”
I ran back under the boardwalk to my no-name friend. “Here, take my towel.”
He threw it back to me. I tossed it over to him again.
“No backs!” I shouted about my near-thwarted good deed and ran off again, laughing, into the storm now a true Queen Lear, practically naked, beset by the elements and fate. Again, that old fart Shakespeare had it wrong.
Actually, running unclothed in the rain was quite liberating.
A Day at Boca with Anahi
I walked past a room with old photographs and cameras from the 19th century looking for Anahi—she was a floor beneath me. “It smells of burning lights, I smell it strongly,” she said when we embraced. Somehow the girls who are sent my way are often from the 19th century—later I realized she was able to smell the residue of when these cameras had been used, giving off flashes of small fire to make memoriam pictures of well-dressed dead immigrants of Boca. Her city in the Northern province of Jujuy was still in a different era.
Anahi Yarzagaray had called the previous day, asking to be taken to the Quinquela museum of La Boca in Buenos Aires. We would see amazing paintings and artworks, stunning social anti-real realism, portraits of the poor, paintings made by artists as they tried to depict the horrifying progress-motion realism of their neighborhoods on fire burning down as firemen tried to irrigate the hell of la Boca, which literally means Mouth in Spanish. I had been planning to seduce her, preparing my mind-anatomy with fantasy-algorithm. Yet when we embraced I was hoping the trajectory design for seduction would fail, sublingual prayers half-aware. Paintings of industrial accidents, misery, joy, sex: a depressed sailor eating alone, in old age half-smiling at his great remembering that locked him in. In another painting there sat an orphan child. Two augur women made offerings for blessings of a higher power: one was a carved statue of a woman from Jujuy, in traditional Indian garb—Jujuy, the province Anahi was from. I saw the statue of sculpted brightly painted wood, the chewing mouth of the woman, her eyes—all looked sinister, powerful, wrathful, alive.
Anahi said it struck fear in her. “Me’ da impresion. I get an impression,” she said. “It’s a problem I have. Even in churches, anywhere, I cannot look at any statue, if they are like this, it evokes a dread in me.”
I told her it is a good problem, this sensitivity or awe for statues and images. She didn't agree it was a good thing. Her finger claws pressed through my alpaca, like talons of a Jujuy hawk that picks up Cascabel noise-snakes. “Maybe the statue was of her ancestress, angry at seeing you with me,” I joked.
Anahi laughed uncomfortably as we walked further arm in arm. I still did not try to kiss her even when we were safe from the sight and ear-range of the great grandmother idol, which was by a painter of Buenos Aires, of Boca, who had painted harbor women smoking Oriental-type pipes.
Painting of sailors and an obese tango woman singing, the wretched faces of blind men, painting of an orphan boy—he was special, the holes in his shirt.
I had met a boy in a plaza, a homeless child, twenty years ago when I was a child, visiting my grandfather, Nilo Sol Libertad in Buenos Aires. I thought him cool, and free. The boy had suffered but his freedom was already clear by then, and I envied him. I could not escape from my parents the way he could. Maybe Nilo Sol Libertad had wanted me to meet the orphan, to learn from him how to become disjointed from the evil woodworks of law, maybe it had been his plan, and Nilo Sol Libertad had arranged the meeting in the park beforehand as soon as my parents left me at the elder's apartment.
I envied the free boy. He wore sandals, we played make believe, and Nilo watched us, enthusiastic, inspired—he was a jazz composer and an old anarchist, and he had been friends with the anarchist tango songwriter, Catulo Castillo. Nilo had gotten into power struggles with important Peronists when he criticized about the way they used his friend Catulo's lyrics, always to memorialize Evita after both the leaders had died. Evita was a good preventive hand against her husband Juan Domingo Peron's oppressiveness, but she was still an authoritarian, and Catulo was an anarchist. Nilo had gotten into trouble with Peronists then, standing up for the Dionysiac-rithm-wishes of Catulo's bone relics, but fared no better under the anti-Peronist dictator, Ongania. Nilo sat on the ledge of a stone masonry pot of plants, the violet trees shed petals that winter, the streets littered with Argentinean autumn in June. When the orphan left he was magical. He said, “Mi colectivo se arranca!”—“ That's my bus!”—and ran behind it while it was moving and disappeared. I could tell he had just stepped onto the outer metal rim-protector of the buswheel to ride along for free, a stowaway wind-charioting down the avenues of Buenos Aires like in an old Mexican movie. His small body was thin, dirty, sick but not fragile. I will not forget him, I call him Auroro like a male version of Aurora, the anarchist name meaning ''dawn.'' Nilo was an old anarchist, but he still had energy and he had tattoos of Ideology, what no one had, what my parents lacked, according to his critique of my mother and father.
Had he been a conservative cheto, or a more conventional person of any kind, he might have ripped me away from the hypnotic playing with Auroro, the street urchin and the more sedentary child who was lonelier without the friendship of the streets and of men made entirely of the previous weekdays' discarded newspapers.
The painting of an orphan in the Quinquela was from another century, yet somehow it brought this boy back to me. I went back to the square. I understood my grandfather was a man who needed freedom in his lungs or he would have been unable to play jazz trumpet, testing sounds as he wrote his compositions. He had sung Catulo's lyrics in the frigid dark subways so that we stayed human despite travelling under the earth in a metal caterpillar of swift sunlessness.
There was a room with wooden painted sculptures of strange cherubic men and women, half-human and half-snake, demons hanging from the walls and ceiling, glinting in the light, their wood painted with fruit resin—they were the ones placed at the front hulls of ships to ward off evil machines that patrolled and petroled the waves. Anahi panicked and grabbed my leather jacket, as if her hand was searching to grip my heart as a handle, shoving her blue-painted fingernails under my shirt into my rib-ridges.
I thought we were going to make love in that room, or the room next to it which was a recreation of a 19th century boudoir and bathroom of Porteña aspiring bourgeoisie, but instead she said, “Me dan impresion! They are giving me strong Impressions, and I need out from here, to breathe.”
Paling, she told me again her liturgy of fear, stories about her hypochondriacal childhood fear of sitting in the churches of Jujuy that have half-human and half-lizard Christs and desert demons of Humahuaca, martyrology statues. From her painted nails hooked in my leather jacket she hung like a heavy crucified iron martyr, maybe Saint Barbara. I noticed that she, like all bookish Latin American young girls, wore Frida Kahlo tee-shirts a bit past her adolescence. (Although in Argentina adolescence had recently been prolongated until the late-thirties by the Progre party as an overruling decree to compensate for the stolen generation of the seventies who entered old age at 20 and then annihilation. The waves of annihilations left behind the conformists and the meek who needed their children to stay and reassure their delusion that death and autumn without solitude are possible, purchasable with American-dollars-to-pesos and stock-shares in Monsanto)
“Why are the statues so frightening in the Jujuyan chapels? Are they like the chalkstone statues in Misiones, in the Jesuit ruins?” I was asking about the strange temples built by Indian converts who lived in the Jesuit communities in Misiones, in the North on the border with Paraguay, where they had creatures with Ave Maria veiled hair, but shameless-bared breasts, flowers explosive emerging from the navel and a lower body of fish, snake or scorpion tails—the supposed conversion masterpieces of the Jesuits. “Pre-Christian art,” I started to explain to the clinging wide-eyed Anahi who looked like she was undergoing the onset of a mild asthma attack, while drowning in the Riachuela river. “Pre-christian or non-Christian art achieves the aesthetic of the art of the Ancient Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, almost.”
“I said I need out from here now,” Anahi said, growling, gripping the jacket pulling it down around my neck like the heaviest crucifix.
“Well if that's how you want to be,” I breathed, and dragged her across the tiles like a female cross to stinking Golgotha harbor just outside this museum building.
I had known she could dance a little—but she had insisted she could not. “Soy de madera, I have wooden anatomy, can't dance,” she had sworn.
Art can heal, without descending to the therapeutic, but there was no way to write down my Ideas with Anahi hanging on me like a baby marsupial.
Her attack ended once we were outside in the daylight overlooking the watery bay of the La Boca, smelly Riachuela Harbor. The Progre government had just recently arranged for the dumping of 2000 canisters of chlorine to end the famous lagoon-stench despite its tyranny of having been part of the identity of the largely Sicilian-descended inhabitants of Boca. (I met a girl of Portuguese origins once, from Boca—her parents had named her an Italian-sounding name, Fiamma Chianti despite the lack of any Italian ancestry.)
We took a stroll afterwards outside the museum.
Stroll in Boca
I am calculating when is the right moment and place to kiss her, not that it would be the first time I hesitate to death and to frustration worse than death, but there is too much ghoulish scenery of misery and crime, too many featherless vulture-men. A man across the street resting on his back on the unpainted balcony, his pants open showing the V of where his belly and pelvis join. He is like a horrid version of Delacroix's Odalisque or of Venus, his crack-loving body strewn there, collapsed on the fading traditional zaguan verandah, his face leering and smiling at us like he is hiding a rat under his arm that he might hurl at us at the very moment when Anahi and I should try to be lovers ignoring all evil surroundings.
Fat criminals aired their bare paunch bellies over their belts, in a violation of all that is sacrosanct. One of them fan-cools his pierced navel with a Socialist newspaper. The piercing is big like the ring in the nose of a bull, but it is polished and shinier, much cleaner and more like platinum than the rings in bull snouts. It is smaller also.
“I am an anarchist because Marx despised the lumpenproletariat. Bakunin over-praised the worth of the lumpenproletariat for revolution. But I just don't call people categories like lumpenproletarians, maybe because I am one—but not a paco-smoker like these nasty motherfuckers smiling at us.” The sun, chieftain among hoodlums was bright, brighter and harsher like smacking his lips to show off a new gold tooth.
I could not kiss Anahi in front of these creeps leering like marsupials about to masturbate without the safe plexiglass of the Zoo. We walked past where grass and weeds grew over old railroad tracks that the unmentionable President of the 90s had sold off in a deal with Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen and other Nazis. Some white Boca-dwellers and black Afro-Carib musicians thronged there, next to a broken altar with lots of Santeria objects, offerings, but all the gods and fabrics were dressed in black costumes, the color of disrespect for the ancestors, red maybe for heat. They played bad joke percussion, tambourine and half-guitar charanga, cursing and singing hoarse cruel songs.
I feared it was a Bokor spell of some bad magic work against me from infancy that caused my failures with girls and women for years, the frustrations, the torment and self-hatred. The curses, I knew, were originally cast against my father Miguel Cobo, my alcoholic Porteño father who dodged the Malvinas draft to hide in the Caribbean. Miguel Cobo attacked a Haitian in front of me once. . . . No, I fought the superstitions out of my head. I needed to become rational, to accept limitations, to not dwell with the mind asleep in shadow as rats of unreason bred, I needed to be a man and a human or at least humanoid which passes for almost the same corporeal essence these days. Marx, the young Marx especially, loved to use this term—“corporeal essence,” it sounds like something a medieval alchemist would write.
I asked Anahi if she liked Marx. She said she had not read him but she recommended Rayuela by Julio Cortazar. All the professors who read Marx and Marxists lied to the stupid workers in Argentina and in her province that they were Peronists and the Marxists condescended to people who they believed incapable of understanding Marxist elaboration noodle theory.
We went back to the tourist area, some commercial tango dancers put folding reagetton hats on the heads of Austrian sex tourists, crowning them and wrapping their stocking-legs around the polo-shirt-guarded thoraxes of soulless-faced and stupid but well-educated tourist boys.
The dockbay of the great and mighty green-blue Riachuela—this walk seemed more inviting than walking among the voodoo Bokor-priest percussionists or the men who wanted to rob us and to take my virility away in front of my girlfriend. We passed walls crumbling from fate, sun and heavy mural paints of sordid realism. We stopped, and at some point there was a giant spell-hieroglyph of bare-titted sirens, painted mermaids, dramatic huge bodies on the gray walls of warehouses, the cement dark where the small waves of the river crashed against a boat-hull. Smell of seaweed.
“We’d better stop, we are getting to close to Doxsur,” Anahi said, detaining my steps. Doxsur, the slums, where I had been mugged.
The bridge stood in the distance, the Riachuela today no longer smelled the way it had last month—the stench of centuries of sewage no mayor wanted to clean up. Instead it smelled like a hyacinth grown from the sea.
I made the motion to take her, take her by arms, pulling her in for a kiss.
''No, no,'' she said, smiling, tapping my hands like a girl in the 19th century.
I tried a second time, but not a third.
We returned to the safer tourist area where the police stood—couples, man and woman cops. At the pizzeria we shared a Napolitana at a bad restaurant with too-loud Frank Sinatra retro-kitsch music. She complained of her envious friend who she no longer saw, Miranda, as we ate.
“The doctor says I have to eat meat otherwise I cannot stay grounded mentally. But Miranda was angry because she wanted me to convert to vegetarianism, she wanted me to help her start a vegetarian revolution in South America.”
“Anahi, you know, behind the esotericism it’s all about economics. Monsanto. The meat prices go up, because soy-farming cleared out the cattle.”
“Miranda isn't working for Monsanto. Why would you say that?”
“I wasn't. It’s unconscious. You see, Marx spoke of false consciousness, commodity fetishism, though actually I am an anarchist and critical of Marxist dogmata.”
“Miranda would never be in the pocket of Monsanto. It's not nice of you to say.”
“I heard La Presidenta is in cahoots with Monsanto. Some socialist she is.”
“Could be true.” She chewed some of her meat as the volume of Sinatra roll-churned louder shaking the wooden shutter of a window as we sat on the terrace. “Frank Sinatra, I hate him.” She spoke with a full mouth.
“My grandmother loved Frank Sinatra and cried when he died. He's a hero. Chew your food.”
The sails on the catamarans were beige. There was the gray bridge to Doxsur where a crackhead's embrace had pressed me harder but less loving than a snake until I let my wallet drop to the floor. He had mentioned something about having a three year old daughter at home when he ran off with my 200 pesos. Maybe with my money he had bought a three-year old, aged nice crystal of crack, paco, maybe seven white little crack hills like white elephants. I looked at that ugly bridge shining in the grayish sun, quietly remembering the lost wallet. Anahi put her hand on my fist and ordered more meat for me.
“Forget about it,” she said, a sad hyacinth blooming in her throat and larynx. I could smell it fragrant on her words despite the bad food.
After she waved goodbye at the bus-stop I got a mobile phone-screen-text from her.
“I was waiting for the third attempt, why do you never finish your work?” said the girl I thought to be 19th century, as the bus tore away like a hull, like a ship with a frightening statue that had recognized its species in the chamber of the Museo Quinquela. I thought of Anahi frightened into a mystic Christ-imitation of a girl wanting to be dragged around tiles like a ploughshare of February’s fertility rites, her green-brown eyes with tiny white thunderbolts in them, her hysteria and languor brimming with life.
Outraging the Modesty of a Woman
When all that was left of the sun was a few orange shards specked across the sky, which were being swallowed by the blue darkness that descended slowly, he had a strong urge to smoke. The book binder started rolling a joint out of the little dope that he had left. He heard someone outside. He paused, covered the ganja that he had carefully powdered using his strainer and pushed it under the bed; in case it was the policeman who decided to take a peek. He walked out, a little unsteady on his feet.
Through the doorway he saw a school girl in her uniform standing in front of his house. She looked familiar; or at least her braid did—some part of her reminded him of his own child who had lived with him, until his wife found her courage. Maybe it was the ganja; I’m hallucinating—he thought trying to steady himself. It was then that his senses came to the realization that he hadn’t lighted up that day and that he wasn’t hallucinating. He coughed and she turned.
“Umm, do you have my science text book here? My father must have left it here four days back.”
“I’ve a lot of science textbooks here. How do I know which one’s yours?”
“Oh, I’m your neighbor’s daughter– you know, Mr.____ .”
“Yes, yes he did leave it. It’s right here. I’ll need five minutes to wrap up the job. You want some tea while you wait? Without milk, I don’t have milk.”
She didn’t say anything.
She turned away from him and chose to look at the tree that was growing beside his wall. She looked at the green berries that had sprung up on the tree and thought of eating them with a pinch of salt. Her mouth filled with saliva.
“You can pick a few from the tree if you want.”
He left the tea on a chair for her and went back inside to get the book. The book was finished already. He kept the book aside and went looking for old photographs; the ones that his wife insisted that they take as a family keepsake. It was there in one of the drawers of the table. He tried the drawers of his table one by one-half of the contents of the lowest had been eaten by the termites. It was there—termites had gnawed at the edges, giving a photograph which has already started to blur an artsy aura. There was a resemblance; it was uncanny.
He lighted up his joint that he has stashed away under the bed and took a deep puff. He waited for couple of minutes and walked out with the book. He grabbed the book on birds that he had got for his child on one of his trips, when he still hadn’t got used to the fact that she wasn’t living with him anymore. She was picking the berries and putting them in her pocket. The glass was empty; she had drunk the tea. He wondered if she liked the taste of black tea. He had put a lot of sugar to make it better; he figured kids liked lots of sugar in their tea. He could feel the smoke reaching into his brain; his limbs were loosening and she still looked the same. So he hadn’t been seeing things.
He kept the books down with soft thud and she turned again. Her braid moved came to rest over her shoulders, stretched out on the left side of her chest.
“I don’t have the money to pay you now, is it okay if my father pays you later? Later this evening?”
“Okay,” he shrugged, handing her the two books.
“But I gave only one book. There are two–it must be a mistake.”
“It’s no mistake–the other one is a present, take a look. If you don’t like it you can always return it.”
“I really can’t take it. It won’t be right.”
“It’s okay with me. Keep it.”
He walked back into the house, leaving her looking at his receding figure, her hands clutching the two books with unnecessary force.
Her father waited till dinner time, when everyone gathered in the kitchen and asked her if had been to the book binder’s that day. And she said yes. Silence. A mustard seed popped in the hot oil sounding louder than usual. A series of miniature explosions followed.
“But why did you go there?” Her mother was spluttering more than the mustard seeds in the frying pan from which she had just stepped back to avoid the hot mustard seeds hitting her face. Nandini shrugged saying, “I needed to study for a test and I didn’t have my books. Appa was supposed to get them for me. He didn’t and so I went.”
“Never go there again, not one time. I want us to be clear on this, okay?” Nandini nodded at her father’s command.
“What did you do? Did he do something to you? Why are you so quiet?” Her mother’s barrage of questions had finally broken loose.
“He didn’t DO anything to me. He gave me tea.”
“Tea! And you drank it! Shiva! Shiva! What has happened to your head? You don’t remember the ice cream case? A minister—mind you—a state minister gave young girls like yourself ice cream and raped them. And you go running to have tea with this man?” This onslaught was accompanied by a spanking motion in the air with the round spatula that her mother had just dipped in hot oil. “Imagine if the ladies at ayalkoottam were to find out! Imagine your prospective groom coming to know of this? What were you thinking, girl?”
Her father shushed her mother by holding his hand up. He reminded her again. “Don’t go there again.”
Nandini deliberated whether she should divulge the extra detail that her parents hadn’t come to yet. They would come to know at some point. The scales tipped in favor of coming clean right now since they were in a forgiving state of mind.
“Appa, he gave me a book.”
“A book on birds. I want to keep it for a little while.”
“You give me this book right now. I’ll give it back to him tomorrow.”
Nandini left the book with her father and tried to concentrate on her science text book. Even though she had been reading and writing the English alphabet for twelve years, those letters seemed foreign today. Her father returned the book to the binder the next day while she was at school. In school she had a bad day. She couldn’t concentrate on the classes. The arithmetic teacher got so annoyed that he broke off a piece of chalk and threw it in her direction. It hit her on the shoulders, snapping her out of it. When the school bell rang at four Nandini hauled her bag off the bench and ran outside with the rest of the school, a legion of white uniforms encased in a cloud of brown dust.
Nandini slowed down at the gate when she saw the book binder pacing outside the gate. He caught sight of her and waited for her to leave. She walked home with her friend with a feigned air of nonchalance. The binder followed. Her friend was busy chattering about the contents of a love letter that someone had entrusted her to deliver. Nandini felt her guts clench when she realized that the binder was following them. After walking a little distance when she realized that he wasn’t going to make any attempts to stop her or talk to her, she was so relieved that she went back to listening to the details of someone’s love life; the hot masala like gossip of the day.
He felt that he was keeping her in his sights, somehow maintaining a feeble yet vital contact with her. He knew that she knew. Perhaps it was a good sign. Maybe she liked him after all; she did drink the tea that he offered her. He had tried tracking down his wife. Maybe she gave his child up for adoption immediately after she left him. His attempts to talk to her mother ended in him being chased out of the house by one of her brothers. They didn’t even tell him if she was alive or not. Perhaps she died, leaving the child behind and then she was adopted by this couple living next to me, he thought.
He went to the municipality to see if they had a birth certificate in her name; so that he could know the names of her real parents. The employee however distrusted him from the moment he walked in and threatened to call the police when she found that he wasn’t the father of the child like he claimed he was. He went back and smoked some more, the last bit of the dope went up in fumes. He emptied his wallet and the pockets of his trousers in the vain hope that some money might be tucked away somewhere. Nothing fell out. Her father had come to return the book. She told them that he had given her the book. Why would she do that if she liked him? What was she thinking? He tried to make sense of her actions. He could have asked the father to know for sure if the girl was adopted. What if she was? What would he do then? Claim her as his own? No, that wouldn’t work for him. He was content to watch her, from that safe distance, trailing her from school. It gave him a sense of thrill, the awareness that she was complicit with him, involved in his conspiracy, hidden from her parents and everyone else. This was superior; the connection shared between two people and two people alone; without anyone else knowing about it. He would keep it this way; this is how it ought to be.
In the beginning the binder followed the girls on alternate days of the week. Later he started to walking behind them every day of the week. Nandini got used to seeing him trail behind them. Her friend wasn’t a sage oblivious to the surroundings; eventually she realized that the binder was following them after school.
“Do you think he’s following us?” She asked Nandini eagerly and Nandini was quick to dismiss the notion.
“Well, I think he is. OH MY GOD! It’d be so cool if he were following us! Like in that movie in which the hero follows the heroine home from school to confess his love! Do you think he likes me? Or maybe he likes you! Ohmygod! Ohmygod!”
“I think he is just a random person.” She was sweating slightly, a tingly feeling was twisting its way up through her chest into her throat. “Why would someone follow us? It’s just insane! Don’t you think?”
“In the beginning I thought so too—but this guy, he is here every day of the week. That’s not a coincidence!”
She went home and promptly told her parents about it in the time span of not more than a single breath. Her parents telephoned the nuns who ran the school. The principal was scandalized. A Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting was scheduled to discuss the problem. Nandini’s father was the PTA president who presided over the meeting. Parents clucked their tongues about how the PTA president’s daughter had fallen into this "trap." School bus drivers and a few parents testified that they saw the binder loiter outside the gates every day. Concerned parents were up in arms. Someone complained about the new-age parents who knew absolutely nothing about raising girls in this country. The school should be stricter.
“It is said that this man’s wife and child left him because they couldn’t bear to stay with him. The police have already arrested him once for immoral trafficking. What does it say about the school when such a character has been lurking outside the school every day? Only god knows what has happened between him and these two girls! They should be expelled from the school! We want our children safe!”
The nun who was the principal stood up and implored everyone to be quiet.
“We know for sure that the girls involved in this issue were not at fault. They were terrified. They didn’t have the courage to come forward. It’s our duty to support them.” When the parents were about to heckle her she held her hands up and continued. “This incident would tarnish the reputation of the school. We should deal with this in the most stringent manner possible. If all of you agree, I’d like to file a complaint with the police against the binder.”
The PTA passed the motion unanimously. A complaint was filed. The police didn’t waste any time in arresting the binder charged under section 506 of the IPC (punishment for criminal intimidation) and 509 of the IPC (outraging the modesty of a woman) without explaining to him why he was being arrested. When Nandini’s father came home that day, he informed his wife and daughter that the binder would spend some time in police custody.
“Why did they have to get him caught by the police?” Nandini asked her father.
“Serves him right! Stalking two girls in broad daylight! The man was deranged after all!”
Her mother chipped in. “The ayalkoottam is going to talk about this one for weeks!”
Nandini didn’t say a word. Her mind put together a montage of all the news that had recently come out about police brutality. Dead bodies hanging inside police lock-ups. Deaths which were ruled suicide but which everyone knew to be otherwise. Methods to make someone talk. Nails being pulled out. Chili powder. Iron rods. Nandini now wished that she had never come across this information. She could no longer sit still. She felt as though her eyes were on fire. The letters on the page blurred. She went and stretched herself out on the bed.
Seeing their daughter in bed at an unusual time made her parents worry. Her father sat beside her. “Nandu, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t feel so good, appa.”
Her father felt her forehead. “Just a slight fever. Nothing that your mother’s coffee can’t cure.”
Her mother brewed coffee with some jaggery, a generous amount of tulsi leaves, ground pepper corns and dried ginger. Nandini held the steaming cup in her hands and took a tentative sip.
“Amma, some more sugar—there’s too much pepper in it.”
“It’s made just the way it should be. Pepper is good for you. So drink up.”
The pepper tingled on her tongue long after she had finished the coffee. However, her temperature refused to be restrained by the coffee. She was so cold that her jaws acquired a will of their own and soon her teeth were chattering. She piled so many blankets around her that her father came in every half hour to check if she was breathing. When her temperature crossed 100˚C, Nandini felt as though the solidity that defined her body was no more and it was flowing into the bed. The form and shape had ceased to exist. For a fraction of a second, she wondered whether this was what birds felt when they were in air. After a Paracetamol and the blankets made her sweat the fever out of her body, she would never remember that she had the thought.
Years later, sometimes when she came across hard cover volumes with their sleek, bound spines she would remember the book binder and try to imagine what became of him.
(originally published in Esquire)
When she was a child, Jane thought, trying to keep her mind off the road ahead, her parents used to visit her at summer camp. It was a drag for them, but they had never had to come as far as this.
The Chevy station wagon careened around an impossible curve. They were all impossible curves. Whoever had engineered this road, damn him to hell, was a vicious killer. She'd been sitting in the back seat for hours, her eyes squeezed shut much of the time in absolute terror. She could understand that they'd had to follow the mountain's contours; it wasn't practical to move mountains, and perhaps tunneling through them would have aroused the slumbering monsters within. But you'd think anyone could manage a railing, some sort of barrier between the narrow road's edge and all that sheer nothing falling abruptly off beyond it. No problem for them to plant those white crosses, so frequent along the way, that marked the end for some failed motorist. The bodies, she supposed, were irrecoverable and you had to pay some homage. Bloody pious Mexicans. She was very down on them.
Like those two in the front seat taking turns with the driving, if you could call it that. Not until they had the speed up to 90 kilometers did they seem relaxed. Ramos and Agostino. What was she doing in this Godforsaken wilderness with a brace of Mexican lawyers with whose mangled bodies her own, at any moment, might be condemned to lie forever, trapped in the twisted junk of this rattleheap, their blood all mixed together. As if they hadn't already bled her enough.
Ramos had assured her that kilometers were shorter than miles, that translated into miles, etcetera, but she was in no mood to do any translating. Too fast was too fast in any language, and it was all she could do in the few less heart-stopping moments of the road's winding, to absorb the staggering hostility of these mountains. Scarred, ancient, formed of eons of volcanic brooding and temper, they were utterly unlike the gentle green Berkshires of her childhood summers or the blue Catskills she had for a few seasons viewed from across the river. For long stretches, often an hour at a time, there was no sign of life (what could live here?), not a single picturesque person squatting at the side of the road, only vehicles hurtling at them, inevitably, around every second or third bend, like the elephantine bus that now suddenly loomed. Knowing that the road wasn't nearly wide enough to accommodate them both, and that neither driver would permit either prudence or courtesy to dent his machismo, she shut her eyes, cursing. She heard the whoosh of the bus as they flew past it and, spared once again, thanked whoever was still in charge of the miracle department.
She opened her eyes to stare with loathing at the back of Ramos' neck and saw that even Agostino was shaken enough to be muttering what sounded like a rebuke. Although Agostino had driven for the first two hours, and just as fast, she had sensed from the hunch of his shoulders and the set of his head that his trust was not in fate but in his own competence. Ramos, however, was insouciant, one hand loose on the wheel, the other lying across the back of Agostino's seat. From time to time, recalling that she was there, he would half turn his head around to make some unnecessary remark in his charming rotten English. Ramos, Spanish blood, wellborn, spoiled son of an Important Man, letting her know he was the sportsman, keeper of polo ponies, with his handsome weak corrupt face, his soft pouting mouth. She'd give odds that he beat not only his wife but his mistress.
He was groping towards one of his little conversations and she wished he wouldn't. Because her Spanish was even worse than their English, the language barrier was almost insuperable. Still, she had no trouble understanding that they both lied to her and that they were robbing her. She pretended to be asleep, wishing it were true, but Ramos persisted.
"Is your God to taking care of us, Agostino, so nothing to afraid," he chuckled. Agostino responded in Spanish. "You know what he say?" Ramos called to her. "He say he not how you say selfish. He know his God good to him but he fear for you and me."
"Tell him thanks," she mumbled. She liked Agostino better than Ramos, but not much. Slight and dark, Indian, he seemed gentler, and once or twice she thought he had looked at her with something resembling sympathy in his soft dark eyes, as though she just possibly was not a cash register but a real live person.
"Why are we in such a hurry, Senor Ramos?" she asked. "No es possibile andiamo ahora a la penitenceria, no?" She spoke haltingly, cursing with half her mind Senora Gonzalez for the two years of high school Spanish that had rendered her so inadequate to this occasion, while the other half combed among the detritus of romance languages that had accumulated there. "No es il giorno por visitare."
"Not understanding," he said reasonably.
"Tomorrow is visiting day, no?"
"So what's the big hurry today?"
"Is no big hurry," he said agreeably, soothing her, his foot no less insistent on the accelerator. "Is much time."
She sighed. She had long since learned on Dr. Kantfogel's couch that anger was often her way of dealing with fear. She was very angry. Think of something else. Think about how your parents had to come to visit you at camp (since that's where you were, unlike some people's children, who were in Mexican prisons). Once a summer, on visiting day, when all the parents came. Fever of preparing for them, scrubbing the bunks, rehearsing the play, clean uniforms, practicing the songs. Getting faces ready, brave and joyous. Then, truly eager to see them on the great day, anxious if they were a little late, hurt when so many others arrived before them and you were still waiting, your face beginning to freeze in its sickly half-smile, heart leaping as one day it would for lovers when they at last began to appear. Watching the strain on them of the day as it wore so slowly on, how tedious for them to spend all those hours viewing their child in this Other Environment. But it wasn't, from the moment they arrived until they were gone, another environment; she reverted to what she was at home, lost entirely the glorious new identity she felt she had forged in this place where she had at last come into her own: popular, good athlete, bright, inventive, funny, important, appreciated. Loved, even. Her parents were doing their duty; they patronized her with a humor that wounded. Nice that she'd won a blue ribbon in the horse show, that two of her paintings hung in the social hall, that she was editing the camp paper, that her team was ahead. How nice, her mother said, fussing with her hair. Big deal, her father said, chomping on his cigar. Though her heart had turned with love at the first sight of them (a habit), it was as much a relief for her as for them when they were finally able to leave and she could go back to being her unique summer self.
"Is much close to friend with God, this Agostino," Ramos was saying. As Ramos' assistant, one of Agostino's duties was to submit to persecution. "Too pure for marry, but he much love all children of his brothers."
The effort to communicate in unmastered tongues reduced them to idiots, robbed of all complexity and subtlety. Was that why she was thinking of her childhood, or was it the equation with Nick? But Nick, at nineteen, was no longer a child, and prison, let alone a Mexican prison, was hardly summer camp.
It had been one long nightmare, but she hadn't gone to pieces. She had swung into action the moment she heard. First the phone call to the consulate. They would make inquiries and let her know. Not much later, their wire (collect). It was a narcotics charge; they couldn't intervene. Narcotics? She knew Nick had chewed peyote at an Indian ceremony in the desert and that more recently he had been smoking grass. It hadn't occurred to him not to tell her and they'd had the usual exchange. "How old were you when you started drinking? Alcohol is more damaging." "How do you know? Besides, marijuana is illegal." "So was booze during prohibition, but that didn't stop anyone." Etc., etc.
It was the early sixties, impossible to see the configurations of the times, as one would later, in retrospect. As in the early stages of all epidemics, it was this stricken individual, then that one. So that when Nick was instantly drawn to the hippie scene (she thought of it then as a small group of misfits, and it was) on his arrival at college in Arizona, she at once felt the guilt of the failed parent. It was because of the divorce. But he was nearly seventeen when she and Herbie had separated, and even Kantfogel, to whom she had run for advice, had assured her that, while it wouldn't be easy for Nick, he was at an age when most of his interests lay outside the home and he would survive. It was Jed she would have to worry about and so it was Jed she worried about, Jed who blamed her constantly for "the terrible tragedy in my life," and wept and nagged and demanded. What a year it had been!
Still, she hadn't been totally unprepared for what happened to Nick. His letters had led in an almost undeviating line to this moment.
"I hope you'll understand what I'm trying to communicate to you, Mom, as it's terribly important to me. I'm leaving school. Nothing I study here seems to have any relevance to me or to my life."
"Who are you? What is your life?"
"I don't know who I am. I don't know what I want to do with my life. That's what I need to find out and I'm not going to find it out here. I've got to knock around a little in the world. There's nothing here for me. I'm not an intellectual like you and your friends. Maybe I'm just not very smart."
"You're too dumb to know how smart you are. You're a lot smarter than you think."
"Anyhow, that's not important to me. Who you are, what you know, what you've done, those things aren't important to me. Being is important, and being beautiful."
"Soul?" she wrote, trying to swallow her impatience, trying to understand. "Are you talking about soul, and what do you mean by it?"
If he knew, he wasn't telling. The implication was that she, out of her background, was incapable of comprehending, and maybe he was right. Did he mean character, qualities of which he had so many to admire: goodness, kindness, gentleness, honesty, loyalty, downy sweetness? But what about the sterner ones: responsibility, strength, self-discipline, determination, if not for personal achievement then for the purpose of leaving the world a little better for having been in it?
"At least finish the term. Think of the wasted time, effort, money." Proving that she had missed the point entirely. Not for them the need for money, for time (Nick, when he got on his motorcycle and headed south, threw away his wristwatch), for approval, not even for a revolution. If only there had been that.
There were twenty of them, he wrote (at least he wrote; at least he still wanted the lines kept open). They were going to a little town in Mexico, San Blas, that one of them had scouted and found ideal. On the Pacific, with whatever the sea had to offer. A freshwater river, plenty of fish. Bananas. Mangos. They were going to form a commune. He had swapped his VW for the motorcycle. Less gas. I'll write when I get there.
But they hadn't counted on the Mexicans. The beautiful, simple, romantic natives. Who didn't want them. Who hated them, these spoiled gringo brats with their long hair so you couldn't tell the sexes apart unless there was a beard and some of them weren't old enough for that. Who looked dirty out of choice. Who were godless and immoral. Who were too tall, too young, ridiculous. Who had the gall to play at the poverty that for so many centuries had been their reality. Who had no money to spend in their town, where they did not belong. Watch out, Nick, here comes the real world.
"One hour only more," Ramos said. They were coming down out of the mountains and, though the road still wound perilously, the abysses that skirted them were beginning to have floors.
Fifteen hundred miles he'd journeyed on a beat-up bike that kept breaking down before at last, utterly exhausted, reaching nirvana. He hadn't been there five minutes when he was arrested, packed into the back of a truck and hauled off to Tepic, to jail. His friends, who had preceded him, were already there.
In the hours after the wire came from the consulate, she made dozens of phone calls, casting about desperately for someone, something in her life that could be helpful, discovering once again that only in extremis do we take the full measure of our limitations. Then she thought of Clara Nevelson. Clara was a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, most of her work with juveniles, and she had friends in Mexico City.
"Oh, God, Mexico," Clara said when she'd heard the story. "Those Mexican jails are the worst. The first thing is to see that Nick gets some food and money. I'll call Max right away and get back to you as soon as I can."
"What do you mean, get him food? Don't they feed them?"
"Are you kidding? If they did, nine tenths of Mexico would be in prison."
Half an hour later, Clara called. "Max says to get down there right away. Tomorrow. Be at his office by late afternoon. She gave Jane the address. "And bring a lot of money. Cash."
Herbie had gone with her that first time, holding her hand during the takeoff, knowing how she felt about flying. It was odd being with Herbie that way. In the three years since the divorce, she had had lunch with him perhaps half a dozen times to discuss money, or a problem with the children. Their only other meetings had been in the offices of lawyers or, briefly, when he brought Jed home from a Sunday outing. During those four days in Mexico City, however, temporarily reunited by the one thing that still bound them, that perhaps would always bind them, they were together almost constantly. They had separate hotel rooms, of course, but even that had posed a minor problem. The hotel desk clerk had had great difficulty understanding that even though they were registered as Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Becker, they required two rooms and only after a struggle during which he offered and they refused a suite, did he hand them each their separate room keys.
They spent most of that first day in the office of Clara's friend, Max Kurzman, an influential businessman, discussing the legal intricacies with him and his attorney, Ramos, turning the money over to them and dispatching Ramos to Tepic, along with a note for Nick. After that, there was nothing to do but wait for Ramos to return with Nick. He was confident, Ramos, that he would be coming back in two or three days; he had only to bribe a few people, file some papers. Waiting, infected by Ramos' confidence, there was nothing for them to do but turn themselves into tourists and enjoy the city where neither of them had been before. They explored the old city, found some good restaurants, went to the folk ballet and the anthropological museum, walked in the park, browsed in shops. Odd, after all those years of intimacy, the politeness and boredom between them.
Then Ramos had returned without Nick, shaking his head. It was more serious than they had known. Also, the judge was pretending to be incorruptible. Nick had gotten off two friends who had traveled down with him by declaring that the marijuana found on them was his, and that he had brought it with him from the states. Three counts: possession, dealing, transporting it across the border. A foolish boy, Ramos said, and more than that, he had been uncooperative, angry that his parents were meddling in what was his own problem, one that he would deal with in his own way. It would take more time, Ramos said. More money. There was nothing to do but go home.
Each week after that, Nick's release was imminent and each week there was some failure. The weeks turned to months. More and more money was needed, and then her signature on many documents. She decided to make the trip again, this time alone, and to go from Mexico City with Ramos to Tepic where he had to file more documents and speak once again to the judge. She was almost surely not going to be able to bring Nick home with her, but it was a long time since she'd seen him and she missed him desperately. She needed not only to see him, but to touch him. She needed to diminish the nightmarish quality of those months.
Surrounded by a high iron fence, the jail squatted, a small square building of no particular distinction except that it was painted in festive orange and blue, belying its dreary purpose. A guard passed them through the gates after an exchange of questions and answers and a show of identity cards. At the door to the prison they were again questioned and admitted. Inside, her first impression was of complete informality, despite the desk behind which an officer sat, his uniform only slightly less rumpled than those of the guards. Others, Mexican men in varying dress and undress, barefoot, wandered freely about, one of them laconically mopping a passageway with a filthy rag at the end of a stick. At her entrance, all eyes turned towards her, brightly inquisitive; she was a curiosity, a white woman in American clothing, a head taller than anyone else there. She was aware, too, of a medley of odors which she was too nervous to sort out.
The officer at the desk inclined his head to her and greeted Ramos and Agostino with recognition and pleasure. He had been well bribed on Nick's behalf in the preceding months; he looked forward to more of the same. Almost slavering with greed, he turned again to her, the source, the cornucopia, and she saw in his glittering black eyes that he would do everything in his power to prolong Nick's stay; they were holding him for ransom. Her heart thumped with an overpowering surge of rage. She looked at the polite mask of the man's face, at the polite masks of the faces of her lawyers, feeling as though she had walked into a trap set by her own hand. Because of her concern for Nick, needing to see him, wanting him to know that he was not deserted, she had made a serious error. She should never have come.
She was ushered into an adjoining chamber, the visiting room, indistinguishable in its dreariness from any ordinary small town train station waiting-room except for the absence of that numbing sense of transience. A wooden bench ran along two of the walls, empty except for a Mexican slumped in a corner, his bare feet not quite reaching the floor, deeply asleep. She sat down to wait, facing the far end of the room that yawned like the mouth of a cave, a black hole through which she guessed Nick would enter.
And remembered his first entrance, his birth. It was as though he had at last come tunneling out of not only her womb but the dark cave of her fear. She had greeted the onset of labor with relief and excitement, even hilarity. She and Herbie, when she had finally gotten him to wake up, had giggled over her idiotic impulse to weigh herself as soon as she realized that what she was feeling was labor pains, and again at the odd assortment she threw together to take to the hospital, the carton of cigarettes, the Acrostics, the unread back issues of The New Yorker, her journal, pads, pencils, pens. "How about a cheese sandwich on rye?" Herbie had said. "How about my Swiss army knife?" As though she were off to a distant place where she would be isolated, where she would have so much empty time on her hands.
Even at the hospital's admitting desk, when the pains were severe and almost unremitting, and she'd had to stand half doubled over answering the clerk's endless questions, she'd found it funny. "Your mother's maiden name?" the woman asked and she had trouble remembering. "I'm not applying for a bank loan," she said. "I only want to have this baby." It was three o'clock in the morning, her doctor hadn't arrived yet, she was ten days early and they didn't have a room for her, she would have to go straight to the labor room, where Herbie could not accompany her. There, a nurse, bored and sleepy, gave her a hospital gown, showed her which bed to climb into (the others were all empty), secured its crib sides, and vanished, leaving her entirely alone to stare at the one sad blue bulb dangling naked from the ceiling, giving off its dim light. It was then, in the silence and her aloneness and the increasing pain, that the fear began. Why had she been left alone? There wasn't even a button to push; suppose there were complications and she died? She was usually good about pain, but this was different; her body no longer belonged to her; it had become a ravening monster, an enemy. She had no idea how long she waited, trying to keep the panic at bay, before she turned fear to anger and began to rage.
"This is my first baby," she howled into the dark. "I don't know how to have a baby. Where is my expensive doctor? This is a hospital. With all the pills in the world, there must be pills for this." On and on. "Why must I suffer this way, like a peasant in the fields, in a rice paddy, instead of someone in a modern metropolitan hospital supposedly staffed with professionals?" She had set up such a racket and then not been able to stop, even after that cold and hateful nurse had appeared and, seeing that she was indeed close, began to prepare her, that later, when it was over, the nurse had told Herbie, "Once in a while we get one like her."
They held Nicky up for her to see, told her he was a fine healthy boy, and she took one look and went blissfully, euphorically to sleep. When she awoke again the sun was high and her left hand rested in a bowl of tepid clam chowder. It was lunch time and a tray lay across her chest. "Must be Friday," she thought, licking a finger, aware of her deliciously unburdened body and in the same moment dying to see her new baby.
Jesus, in an Indian headband, tall and lean, came striding across the room towards her, a smile at once false and pure on his face. At his heels was a large brown dog with the physique of a starved goat.
"Nick!" she cried, leaping off the bench. She threw her arms around him and began to cry.
"What's that for?" he said. "Cut it out."
"Have you always had all these bones?" she said, feeling them through his shirt. She held him at arm's length, then, the better to see him. Though he was smiling, there were tears in his eyes, too. "Damn it," she said. "What's a nice Jewish boy like you doing in a place like this? How much weight have you lost?"
"Who knows? Twenty or thirty pounds, maybe. I'm in real good shape thanks to the Tepic spa and health club."
He did look fit, the contours of his face strong beneath the beard, and, surprisingly, his skin was tanned. She had always thought him beautiful; just looking at him was one of the real pleasures of her life through all the stages of his growing up. He had never had an awkward age. When he had last gone off, the soft traces of adolescence still clung to him. She saw now that they were gone.
"It's not such a bad place," he said. "They only lock us up in our cells at night. The rest of the time we're free to wander anywhere we like. On the premises, natch. We're out in the yard a lot playing ball."
"Let's sit," she said and, clutching his hand, she drew him to the bench. The dog, who had flopped on his belly at Nick's heels was instantly on his feet, right behind them, and when they sat down the dog resumed his sprawl, his nose an inch from the tip of Nick's boot, his eyes feverishly fixed on Nick's face.
"Where'd the dog come from?" she asked.
"That's right, you've never met Albert," he said. "He's the dog I got out of the pound in Arizona. I wrote you about him."
"How did you get him here?"
"I sent him down ahead of me with a few of the kids who were traveling in an old milk wagon they'd bought. When I got picked up and thrown into this joint, here he was, waiting for me. It was a real touching reunion."
"He seems very devoted."
She remembered the letter in which he'd mentioned the beautiful beast he'd been so lucky to find in the pound, and how good it felt to have a family again. It was one of the least appealing dogs she'd ever seen, somewhere between goat and boxer with hints of half a dozen other strains, and with the frantic, darting, neurotic look and absolute lack of humor of a creature who has needed all his wits simply to survive.
"I guess I haven't done too well by him," Nick said mournfully, sensing her appraisal. "Out of the pound and into the pen."
Or by yourself, she bit her tongue not to say. Plus a short lecture about how you can't assume responsibility for another creature until you can assume it for yourself. Anger, again. My son and his dog, oh idiot, oh stupid and wasteful, oh what did I forget to tell you, there was something always on the tip of my mind to teach you and what was it again?
"I brought some stuff," she said, nodding towards the three huge shopping bags Agostino had carried into the waiting room for her. She had shopped in Guadalajara. Rice and beans and canned hams and soups and crackers and cigarettes and toiletries. Everything she could think of that he might need, which was just about everything in the market. And a stack of paperbacks she had brought with her from home.
"Wow," he said, lifting the bags and putting them on the bench next to him. He peered inside, pulling items out at random. "Wow and double wow! What riches."
"Though I hope you won't be here long enough to use it all up."
"It won't last very long," he said. "There are eighteen of us."
"Angus and Linda are in the hospital with hepatitis. I mean eighteen in our group. The Mexicans, as you can see, have families."
A straggle of women and children had begun to file through the waiting room to vanish into the black hole that led to the cells. The children were barefoot and cheerful, the women, most of whom seemed to be pregnant, were poorly dressed, their faces flat and expressionless, like rough wood carvings, their arms laden with pots, sacks, buckets, string bags, dead unplucked chickens dangling head down. "They're allowed into the cells?"
"Yeah. Twice a week. It's a day's outing for the family. They cook, eat, fight, screw, a little home away from home." He scratched his head. "I wish I could take you down to see our setup but they wouldn't give me permission. It's real groovy."
"We've got three big adjoining cells. We painted the walls, murals, designs, with luminescent paint. It glows all night. We've done a lot of other fixing up, too. I made a great mobile out of those handsome little Mexican matchboxes. I keep adding to it."
Summer camp flashed through her mind again. She looked at his face. It was serene, untroubled.
Once, when we were both cranky for having been stuck in for a whole week during one of your illnesses, it was hard to tell which of us was crankier, but I being the mother said, okay, let's play, and you said what, and I said The Whole World. You'd never heard of that game because I'd just made it up. I began to push all the living room furniture against the walls and told you to bring out every single toy you had in your room, and I believe you had every toy there was, thanks to Herbie who thought he was the number one father in the history of mankind because he denied you nothing, not even what you hadn't yet begun to want. Out you came with armful after armful and on the living room floor, on that expanse of green carpet, we began to set up The Whole World: here the airplanes, there the dump truck and the garbage truck and the tow truck and the fire engines and the automobiles, the lead soldiers, the train set with its little wooden houses and its tunneled mountain, here a wall out of the big wooden blocks, there a bridge and a skyscraper out of the Mechano set, a library with your picture books, a farm with the rubber animals and the cardboard barn. When I thought we had it all out, you came running in with your fishbowl in your arms, the little glass bowl with its one surviving goldfish slurping around in it, and you said, your face shining with delight, "Here comes the ocean, Mommy, we need an ocean." Yes, we needed an ocean.
Oh, we had a good time that day! Between us, we really did make a world and we both liked it so much that we left it there, using up the whole living room, for nearly a week.
"The kids want to meet you," Nick said. "Is it okay with you?"
"They're getting dressed up for you. They've been preparing for days. It's a big event for them. For us."
"You're the only one who's come."
"What do you mean?"
"None of their parents have come?"
"No. Nobody. A couple of them get a little money once in a while, but that's it."
"Nobody? Nobody's come?"
He began to talk of their life in the prison. The state gave them a small allowance, a few pesos a day with which to buy food, enough only to keep them from starving. They got one of the guards to shop for them once or twice a week, for a fee, of course, and then they took turns cooking, beans and rice mostly, or they could get their meals at the cantina, an informal operation sloppily run for profit by an inmate serving a life term. Their own group was a tightly-knit commune (as they had originally planned, though not in exactly these circumstances), pooling whatever resources it had and sharing everything equally. Nick was their spokesman; his four years of Spanish were serving him well, and since he had made friends with many of the Mexican prisoners, he had become fluent. They had retained a local lawyer to represent them as a group. He had been furious when Ramos and Agostino (Laurel and Hardy, he called them) had first appeared, because he didn't want special treatment, apart from the group, and because he'd felt, still did, that it was his own problem and that he must handle it his way, with his friends, without her and Herbie's interference.
"But how could we have known that in the beginning?" she said. "We knew nothing. Except that they were going to get you out that first weekend."
Nick snorted. 'Nothing works like that here. Manana, manana. First it's the jail captain, then the local judge, then a higher judge somewhere in the province, then some authority in Guadalajara. No trial. You post bail money, but it isn't really bail, God knows what it is. The legal procedures are all mysteries and they keep changing every day. One day they say one thing, the next something entirely different. All you can do is wait."
As she had already learned.
"But I'm sure you slowed it up. They'd have been glad to get rid of us sooner once they saw that no one gave a damn. We're costing them money, except for your bounty. All they had to do was see us across the border and never let us back in."
"You're probably right," she said. "But I don't see what else we could have done."
Was she really apologizing to him, feeling defensive? What did it mean? He was accusing her. Again, she tasted the edge of her anger and tried to swallow it, remembering how unnaturally she had bumbled about in the mother role in the beginning, in those terrible days when she was falling apart. And later? She remembered a moment: you had bought him his Cub Scout uniform with all the trimmings and then, when he stood there decked out in it, his face so naked with joy and beatitude that your heart turned over, even while you hated it, and couldn't stop yourself idiotically thinking that this glowing eight-year old with his eyes shining with utter delight and self-love was an incipient storm trooper, so that you had to say some nasty sarcastic thing he couldn't possibly understand: clothes make the man, or: give a man a horse he can ride, rotten mother, den mother. You had to follow up, remember, think of projects for your son and the four other jugend in the pack. We're going to sleep outside tonight, bring sleeping bags, flashlights, and permission. And then you led them across the back yard and over the brook that bounded your property and was also the dividing line between townships, and you said, "We're crossing into another country," and behind the brook there was a small woods, a watershed, where you'd found a little clearing and you made them all go to sleep in it, telling them that in the morning we would cook bacon and eggs on the terrace, and then you left them there, in full view of the house, and went back to your bedroom and read Mrs. Dalloway and went peacefully to sleep. It was a huge success.
Now, against the last of the tide of Mexican visitors, the Americans began to appear, the group, the children. Nick got up and introduced them one by one. They were timid, they smiled, they shook her hand and said how glad they were to meet her, to see an adult American, someone from home, Nick's mother. She made them homesick. They were very young. They sat on the floor in a semi-circle at her feet, a softness in their eyes, a hunger on their faces, a vagueness in their speech. She felt tender towards them, a little embarrassed, and didn't know quite what to say. She wanted to tell them stories, to make them laugh. She wanted to say, now that's enough of this stupid game, get your things and we'll go home. Instead, she asked them questions, where they were from, how old they were, how they passed the time here, was it very bad.
It wasn't very bad.
A boy named Eddie told her how much they all loved Nicky. He was the greatest. He was their spokesman and their protector. Just yesterday one of them had had his underwear and socks stolen and Nick had found out who had done it and gotten it all back. From a tough Mexican murderer, a lifer, and the cat had a knife a foot long, but Nick wasn't afraid of him, he was afraid of Nick.
Alarmed, she looked at Nick. He smirked at her, embarrassed, his look saying: it was nothing. Yes, as usual, he was the tallest, the strongest, the handsomest, and now, with his black beard and long hair, the fiercest. She looked back at the children sitting at her feet and saw that their eyes were strange, a little too soft, almost glassy. She looked at Nick and saw that his eyes were the same.
"Are you stoned?" she asked Nick.
"Are you all stoned?"
"We're stoned most of the time," Nick said, smiling.
"Easiest thing in the world to get hold of here. Good stuff, and cheap. Everyone's got it."
"I don't understand."
"The stuff they grow around here is really the best," one of the boys said.
"But that's what you were jailed for."
Nick laughed. "The guards sell it to us, the prisoners' wives bring it in, everyone smokes. It's more available than the air in here."
And now her anger was a wild pounding. There was nowhere to focus it. She clamped her teeth together and closed her eyes. She was an unwilling player in this nightmare, in this squalid jail, in this town whose name she could have gone through life without ever having heard, because her son, this romantic hero, had taken a stance that had led him here, that had made it almost inevitable that he be the ridiculous victim in an idiotic and meaningless charade. He had assumed that stance out of a need to feel himself separate and his own man, and this particular stance, because it was easy and available and required little thought.
Ten years hence, history would teach her that he was part of an epidemic, but there was no way now to see him as anything but her son, this boy whose new self-image was also a rebellion, a rebellion that carried its accusation, as all rebellions do, and the anger behind that accusation.
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes and looked at Nick with all the objectivity she could muster: the scuffed cowboy boots, the worn jeans, the wrinkled white shirt he had laundered for this occasion, the long, unclean black hair held back by the Indian band across his brow, the chigger bites on his strong young arms, the untroubled eyes. This son of Hopalong Cassidy, Davy Crockett, Gene Autry, hero-worshipper for whom Scarsdale daddies with their skewed values were insufficient, despite all their fond words, heartfelt kisses, expensive gifts, patient indulgence, unquestioning love. What better world had he found behind his hair and beard and stoned brain? She wished she knew, but he was indeed separate.
She leaned back, feeling the tension go out of her. Memory was sentimental, fraudulent, a device for blackmailing the present, just as hope, false hope, was a way of blackmailing the future.
There was nothing she could do. Perhaps some day they could be friends.
Two men in wrinkled white jackets appeared at the entrance to the waiting room with the captain, conversing among themselves, looking towards them. The captain came over and spoke to Nick.
"Public Health," Nick said. "They're going to inject us all against hepatitits."
Groaning, they all got up off the floor and filed into the captain's office, the dog too, right behind Nick. One by one they returned. Nick, when he reappeared, had streaks of fresh blood on his shirt.
"I never saw anything like that," he said, shaking his head. "They didn't even sterilize the needle between shots. Probably gave us all hepatitis."
Even as he said it, she knew it was true, knew with certainty that that would come next.
The orange sun was low in the sky, thrusting brilliant shafts through the barred windows behind her. She was bone tired and her head had begun to ache. She was glad to see that Ramos and Agostino had reappeared. It was time to go. But now there was some commotion, an urgent discussion between the lawyers, the captain, the health officers. Nick went to see what it was about and she watched his face, saw anger there first, then acceptance. He came back to her, looking sheepish.
"They say you'll have to take Albert."
"My dog. They say dogs aren't allowed in the jail."
"But he's been here four months."
"Go argue with them! It wouldn't have happened if they hadn't seen you here."
"What the hell am I going to do with him?"
"It's all right," Nick said, looking sadly at the dog. "He'll be better off with you till I get out. I haven't really been able to feed him properly."
Ramos came up to them and she looked questioningly at him. He shrugged.
"We manage," he said. "We work it some way out. Is no choice. They insisting."
"I'll get some rope," Nick said. "I have a piece of clothes line."
With the dog at his heels, he disappeared into the hole for a few minutes and when he returned he had one end of the rope tied around the dog's neck. He handed her the other end and leaned to stroke the dog's head.
"It's all right, Albert. Be a good boy. I'll see you soon."
He turned to her. "Goodbye, Mom. Thanks for coming. Really."
She held him for a long minute, fighting tears. "Take care of yourself."
"Don’t worry about me. I'll be all right."
Between the prison door and the iron gates there was a stretch of flat dead ground, a kind of no man's land. She walked across it, feeling eyes on her back. The sky was still very bright, very blue. The dog loped ahead of her and, when the gates were opened, streaked out, pulling the rope from her hands, deliriously free. It wasn't until they'd finally managed to coax him into the station wagon and were on their way that he realized that he'd been separated from Nick and began to howl.
There Are No Grownups Here
Kenneth and Sally Grove were on the concrete terrace of their hotel suite, curved above the cobbled plaza of the small Mexican town. Mountains with treetops resembling bunches of purple broccoli filled the view. Unfamiliar and extravagant, the vegetation was unsettling and exciting. Streets of pastel-colored buildings extended from the plaza like spokes of a wheel. Coral, yellow, and pale-blue, the soft colors made Sally’s white pants and navy shirt, so chic in Manhattan, seem harsh in the bright sun.
Not far from the hotel, a horse stood in a square field. It raised its long head over the tired fence and Sally thought it might be looking at her. She’d been told as a girl that horses were social animals and the solo existence, even at this distance, seemed excruciating. She had always meant to confirm this fact before she doled out empathy. Beyond the fenced area was a larger pasture where cows grazed companionably, standing or lying in awkward positions. Sally had chosen the hotel and the suite for this vantage point.
The Groves lived on the upper East side of Manhattan. Their apartment was small like them, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms and a useless balcony that looked over a stream of heavy traffic and offered nothing in the way of peace or respite.
“Shall we take our books out?” Sally asked.
“Do you like the view?”
He nodded, eyes closed. “Stunning.”
“I really took a chance. There was so little to go on, just a tiny magazine picture.”
Kenneth turned to the side of his chaise lounge and suddenly vomited. Hearing him retch, Sally rushed to kneel on the other side of the lounge. “Oh my God, Kenneth. What is it?”
He shook his head and wiped his mouth with a napkin from breakfast, clutched in his fist since they ate. Sally hadn’t yet put the tray outside of their door to be collected by the maid.
It couldn’t be food poisoning. They had eaten the identical food in the past seventy-two hours and she wasn’t sick. Let it be gallstones, she thought, or a bleeding ulcer, just not pancreatic cancer. He was in his fifties, Sally, her forties. “Kenneth, are you in pain?”
He shook his head. She placed her palm on his forehead and he pressed it there. He didn’t feel warm or clammy. “Sweetie, let me call the concierge for a doctor. I’m sure they have someone who’s very, very, good.”
A motorcycle roared to a stop in the front of the hotel. Kenneth groaned.
“Sweetie, unbutton your pants. You shouldn’t have pressure on your abdomen.”
He pushed her hand away. “I’m not sick.”
“But what is it? What’s wrong?” He wouldn’t face her.
They shared everything. Kenneth said their well-being was as connected as Cheng and Eng, the sepia-colored Siamese twins. Sally preferred the analogy of peas in a pod. They even looked alike, fine-boned, with light brown hair. They’d been mistaken for brother and sister which pleased Sally who had no siblings. “Is something wrong with one of the boys?”
Kenneth had three sons before he met Sally. Though they’d been married ten years, Sally wasn’t certain how much the sons occupied his thoughts. Their second bedroom was considered the boys’ room, a joke they all enjoyed. They had vacationed together after the boys outgrew the Boy Scout camping trips that Kenneth had chaperoned. Sally had purchased the regulation khaki-colored polyester shorts for him. Kenneth and Hunter had contracted Lyme Disease two summers in a row. Later, Sally researched establishments that included water slides.
Sally didn’t regret her own childlessness. She felt that physically, it kept her more virginal for Kenneth and she imagined this pleased him although he had never indicated it. To Kenneth, it made her more precious. She had no one else to protect her.
They’d met at a bookstore located equidistant from both their apartments. A writer who they both admired was reading from his latest novel. They spoke afterwards, expressing a preference for his earlier work. Kenneth was the chief financial officer for a brokerage firm. Sally worked part-time in the gift shop of a museum. Annuities from a trust fund provided her income. They both admitted to an inability to understand poetry, without guidance, despite their love of literature.
Kenneth considered himself lucky. There were so many chronicles of miserably married men. Although labeled fiction, these stories likely mirrored the circumstances of their male authors. He had escaped their fate.
After they married, Kenneth related each day’s events at work to Sally, while she modeled whatever she had purchased. They discussed what olive oil to buy, there were so many choices now. It had been Sally’s idea, on their first trip, to select each other’s vacation books.
He thought about the boys, daily. Of course, Steven and Hunter were men, not boys. They were even large men, like his first wife’s side of the family. Kenneth always announced Steven’s job proudly, he worked for Legal Aid, but privately hoped he’d grow out of it. Hunter, a ridiculous name he agreed to because Penny loved it and he knew he was slipping away from her and wanted to leave her with as much as possible, was floundering. But they had another child, a mistake he blamed on mutual desperation—and who would have thought that this child, Max, would be his favorite? He never told Sally because she’d disapprove of a favorite.
Max had always been lovely. When Kenneth first touched him, tenderness flowed back and forth between them, as though even as an infant, Max intentionally gave to his father. Kenneth knew it was foolish stuff, a memory he created out of guilt for walking out when the boys were kids, Max, only two years old. Now, fourteen, Max was the most like Kenneth, small and very smart.
Sally thought it possible that one of the boys had come to Kenneth in some kind of trouble and wanted him to smooth the way. Maybe this was the source of his gastrointestinal distress. Kenneth was a very principled man. To him, the fact that drugs were illegal was reason enough for the boys never to try them. It was probably Hunter who had approached him, as he drifted from job to job. “Is it Hunter?”
Kenneth knew she didn’t like Hunter. Her world was circumscribed and she’d never been able to forgive the few times Hunter had been caught in acts of dishonesty which Kenneth thought was no big deal when you considered what kids got up to. Hunter and his friends had been caught shoplifting twice in junior high school. He had stolen cash from both of this parents.
“Did Steven lose his job?”
“You can’t lose a job working for Legal Aid.”
“Is it Max? Is Max in trouble?”
“They’re not trouble makers.” He didn’t know if he preferred Sally worrying that the boys were ill, or that they were in trouble.
“Of course not. You know I didn’t mean that.”
If the boys had been trouble, it would have been his fault, Kenneth thought. It hadn’t been a black and white situation and Penny would be first to agree. Although initially greatly disturbed by the idea of separation, Penny knew there was distance between them and the split was inevitable. Maybe in another time they would have stuck it out for the sake of the kids, although Kenneth’s guess was that staying together was usually was more of a financial decision. Look at all the Hollywood divorces, who wouldn’t split up if they could afford it? Perhaps some marriages had an expiration date.
Fortunately, Penny made more money than he did. She was a litigator for a very good firm and eager to return to work after each boy’s birth. The early years, in memory, were smudged. The squalling, shitting, liquid mess broken up with the miracles of “Da-Da, Mama,” the sleeping beauties.
“Kenneth, you’ll feel better if you tell me what’s wrong. You know you will.”
Sally was very good with children. Expansiveness was easier when one was less responsible.
“I’m fine. I just need some air.”
They were surrounded by air.
He looked fine. He had gotten a haircut the day before, she liked his hair short. Sally moved to the edge of the terrace. Even now, she admired the iron railing filigreed in a geometric pattern. The motorcycle continued to vibrate noisily, why didn’t the hotel make someone turn it off? She looked across the plaza, to the horse, as if for agreement, but it appeared oblivious, even to the twitching of its own tail.
When his boys were small, Kenneth had described the terrible head injuries they could suffer on a motorcycle, until Hunter had cried, and Penny became furious. “There’s a problem with Max.”
An internal geyser of fear whooshed up her stomach to Sally’s throat. She ran over to his side and knelt on the concrete, unconcerned about her white capris. “Is it cancer?”
“Is cancer the only disaster in the world?”
Sally sat back, flat on the ground. If it wasn’t cancer, it wasn’t the end of the world. Kenneth shredded the napkin, letting the pieces fall. “It’s Max and a teacher.”
“Max in trouble with a teacher?” Anything was possible but Max was the sweetest, kindest boy in the world. He still called her Sally-Mom and she called him Maxie. When he was very small, Sally had directed him to the powder room which he heard as “power room.” It became a joke between them.
“A teacher was seen acting inappropriately with our Max.”
Air she depended on was vacuumed out of her. She was incapable of inhaling. She had read about these women, seen their bleached blonde pictures. Young themselves, their transgressions seemed like an effort to put themselves back in high school, not that that minimized their criminal, sick act. Their recklessness confirmed their adolescent natures.
And who did Ken refer to with those words, “our Max?” Did the plural possessive have to do with he and Penny, or he and Sally? “She should be beaten and put in prison.”
“It wasn’t a woman.”
“Oh,” Sally breathed. That was different, even if she didn’t know how precisely.
He could tell what she was thinking. She actually thought it was less awful.
“A man?” She couldn’t understand his response, his face was still turned away from her. “Kenneth?” She shook his arm very gently.
“It wasn’t necessarily sexual.” Kenneth looked up, towards the sky, as though conceding, or hoping, there was something beyond the terrace, that might compel his interest. Surprising explanations did exist. He hadn’t left Penny for another woman. He’d never been in love until he met Sally.
Sally breathed again. It wasn’t necessarily sexual. It wasn’t cancer. Their vacation wasn’t necessarily ruined. She wasn’t going to be angry at herself for thinking that way. Self-interest could exist alongside caring thoughts.
“A girl walked into the classroom and saw a teacher hugging him.”
He straightened up. “That’s exactly what I asked, hugging?” He sounded stronger. “I said what the hell does that mean?”
They were in agreement again, in agreement against Penny.
In what context could a boy and man, hugging, be perceived as other than sexual, Kenneth wanted to know, although he didn’t voice the question aloud. Were Max and the teacher hugging one another, or holding one another? That was the crux of the matter. Either way, he wanted to kill the man. He sat back.
“I suppose it depends,” Sally offered. “Maybe it wasn’t sexual.” She blamed Penny who had to choose an ultraliberal school, where teachers were called by their first names and boundaries went into the toilet.
Kenneth sighed loudly, almost a choking sound. “When they stopped hugging, the teacher petted Max on the head.” The girl, when questioned, according to Penny, said the teacher was petting Max’s head as if he was a dog.
Sally knew better than to say it aloud, but this didn’t sound so bad. Anything could be misconstrued. She knew to be careful with other people’s children. “What does Max say?”
“He won’t speak to me. And I don’t know why.”
“Is he speaking to Penny?”
It was always a competition.
“I’m not sure.” If Kenneth was honest with himself and he made a point of trying to be, it was hurtful to him as a father. It meant that Max was starved for a grown man’s affection. How could that be when he was Kenneth’s favorite?
Of course, he had left when Max was very small and that was likely the cause of all the boys’ problems. It was why Steven worked at a go-nowhere job, Hunter couldn’t find himself and now Max was hugging his teacher. It was all Kenneth’s fault.
She stood up, brushed off the seat of her pants, and glanced at the pool of vomit. “Ken, why don’t you try standing? Walk a bit and feel the breeze. I have to call for someone to clean up the mess.”
“No, please leave it.”
Why did he want to leave this sour smelling mess? But he got up and stood with her at the edge of the terrace. They slipped their arms around each other’s waists and watched the motorcycle man light a cigarette. Sally thought vomit might contain a kind of acid that could erode the concrete. Imagine the cost of resurfacing the entire terrace, she thought.
“Look at that horse.” She pointed. “I think he was staring at me before.”
Kenneth pulled away from her and returned to the chaise. He began to cry, teeny tears that reminded her of Max when he was a little boy. It was never clear to her if Max was squeezing them out or trying to prevent them from flowing.
She ran back to him and pressed his head against her stomach. Without thinking, she began to stroke his hair. At the same moment, they both realized what she was doing. Sally sprang back as Kenneth jerked his head away from her.
“I’m so sorry, Kenneth. I just wanted to comfort you. I’m so relieved that none of the boys have cancer.”
“You’re obsessed with cancer.” He slid his fingers through his hair, ruining the haircut.
All she had done was be compassionate and a good listener. “I had no idea you felt that way.” Her only obsession was making Kenneth happy. Fortunately, she didn’t believe that one episode between two people who loved each other could alter everything, forever, although it did in books. In the theater, too, but it had to in the theater because there were only two hours at most in a play.
“I’m sorry, Sally. It’s just that I’m trying to remain calm about the situation, keep it in proportion.”
The motorcycle fumes traveled to the terrace, poisoning the sweet air but diluting the smell of vomit. Sally didn’t understand how he could sit next to it. He held his face in both hands like the boy in the movie who was left at home alone during Christmas.
“How old is the teacher? I’m not saying it matters.” She actually thought it mattered a great deal.
“Supposedly young, although that could mean anything.”
The crisis seemed of less than biblical proportion. If it wasn’t for the circumstances they could have had a rousing discussion of the word “biblical” as applied to proportion. The reference was clear, an event of monumental importance, but proportion also applied to structure, to what was pleasing. “It doesn’t seem so terrible. Max is so sweet, the teacher was probably hugging him for something he did.”
“Max is in the eighth grade, not kindergarten.”
He sounded so angry with Max. Why did people have to exaggerate and create problems? Terrible things would happen anyway. Sally’s friend, Lynn, had met a man to marry after years alone. They bought a huge house two hundred miles north of Brooklyn where Lynn had lived all her life. Homes were inexpensive upstate because no one wanted to live there. Lynn gave up her apartment and quit her job. The moving van was being loaded when Joe dropped dead, two feet from the doors of the van. Now, Lynn was in an ugly house in a strange place, the only people she knew were Joe’s family who didn’t know her. The house was so cold. She’d call Sally and cry. Sometimes it seemed as if Kenneth was the naive one.
The shreds of napkin Kenneth had created were making their way to the terrace edge. “Oh, dear.” Sally ran after them. It would be awful if they were thought to have strewn litter into the town plaza.
“Sally, there’s something else.”
She was on her knees gathering the white pieces with both hands. The geyser erupted again, panic pained her throat.
What Kenneth felt most bad about at this moment was not helping her. She looked so silly on her hands and knees grabbing at tiny bits of torn napkin. But he was afraid to get up. As long as he remained seated, time stopped. “I didn’t leave Penny because I didn’t love her.”
Sally stopped moving.
“It’s true I didn’t love her. But it was the boys.”
“The constant whining and fighting.”
“I know how bad that sounds. Cowardly.” Kenneth wondered how he could explain to Sally that every molecule of a child contained chaos. Her life had been linear, he had wanted to step in line with her. Was that criminal? “If I hadn’t left them, we never would have met, you and I.”
She turned to him, still sitting on the terrace floor, both fists clutching the shreds. It seemed as though they’d been on the terrace for hours. She heard people in the plaza below, laughing. They must be tourists. If he didn’t let her get the mess cleaned up, she’d have to go for a walk. She’d walk to the plaza where she wouldn’t see him. Or she’d follow one of the pastel-lined streets. Perhaps she’d visit the horse, put her hand through the slats of the fence, palm down, for the horse to smell. Or was that what one did with a strange dog? What if the owner of the horse strode towards her, furious at her interference?