[a fictive memoir]
Spellman was certainly there in lamb's wool and leather—splayed against the gray beyond the street, there over asphalt as Justin descended with the briefcase. And the grin—strong and even—slash against the ruddy face in the bitter cold—coming on and against him, spinning on gray with the black swath briefcase sucking in absence turning to Sharon. Blond hair down looking up past the smooth, utterly smooth forehead and the wistful even teeth smile and the gust of breath stabbing the tan ribbed corduroy and dark slacks creased over gray suede boots there on asphalt. Pulling back, Spellman looked at him direct—the eyes ever sad, creased at the edges, glitter of contact lenses—those eyes always taking in more than prudent.
"Jesus, Justin. You look like hell, I guess."
"Maybe. Sharon. Art. I have to get some sleep."
"Yeah. Sure. You look terrible. I guess. Are you all right?"
"I need tranquilizers. But I need to sleep. And I might need the tranquilizers to sleep. I'll try that. Perhaps without them. I just want some quiet. Sharon, you're fat."
"Yeah. I think I'm pregnant. Well no. Not really."
"It's very quiet."
"Yes. It's always very quiet, Justin Price."
They pulled out in the Datsun, Spellman's big hands.
"There's a hookah in the glove compartment."
"No. Go ahead. It's really dynamite."
Asphalt rushing under, past, flash of cars frozen, twitching through traffic. Justin inhaled deep and it all became crisp and sharply defined. Spellman inhaled. Sharon. Stabbed an underpass, chill light breaking on the hood, Datsun straining. Maelstrom flashing metal—glass, chill paint, chrome. HEMINGWAY—red letters at the back of a van.
Justin's pale slender hand left trails to his mouth with the hookah.
"She wouldn't let me quit. She said it was my last chance. She'd leave me."
"She called early this morning. I said I didn't know anything."
"Thank you. Jesus. Spellman, you're still using the same hookah."
"Yes. That's right."
Justin exhaled a thin shudder of darkness into the glass.
"Anything to drink? That might work a little better."
Spellman stabbed left sunlight toward the ramp and gunned it through, hard left, hard right—down a glitter of shop fronts and into a lot.
"What do you need?"
"Something cheap. Gin. Yeah gin that's cheap. Buy the cheapest."
"Sharon. Give me ten dollars. We need some Grain Belt."
"Grain Belt? You still drinking that shit?"'
"Drink anything. Christ, it's cold."
They could see him flicker past the shelving, the bottles. Then a little man came out with the case. The little man had a white apron and a striped shirt. Spellman had the fifth in a brown bag twisted tight over the neck. Justin heard the trunk, the case nudging down, saw Spellman with the bottle, brown paper thrust through the gap to touch his hand—Spellman entering.
"Cold as shit. Heaters aren't worth a fuck in these things."
Spellman nudged into the first gap and it spun past again.
Justin raised the bag and took a pull with the frames flashing and the color and the bottle in the brown bag and head back toward vinyl with the sky shading white toward gray and darker and the images easing into each other a pastel blur and then dark and dark under bridges toward the throughway, a blur again, and cutting off and under to quiet frame houses, some trees, a cat raking shudders up a small hill under telephone wire like spider webs, creasing the snow with shadow. Spellman's house was white frame, listing shutters, stoop collapsed and rotten under dangling posts, limbs and rubbish powdered mostly white. Two mangy dogs lunging in noisy hysteria, perhaps rapture, snorting plumes of vapor, buffeting a wire fence.
"Forgive them. They know not what they do. Dumb sons a bitches. Yes. We're home. My little children. Oh my cute little ones. Dumb shits."
Justin on the stoop took a short pull from the bottle.
Spellman's living room was an ashtray—notches between furniture for cigarettes, large cigarettes that winked and fumed haze of tar, tar film, cracked plaster—and litter. There was probably a kilo of marijuana drifting over from a plastic thermos onto the end table and a wedge of albums, flecks and seeds—twigs. Slush of typed sheets over a dictaphone and head sets. Puddle of coffee on the rough board floor. Dried oatmeal in a blackened pot. The two sofas really slabs of black flecked yellow fuzz listing and shedding stained plates, dried spaghetti. And Spellman turning turning with his arms outstretched, flipping the approximation of a V with the big hands over the thick groin and sliding home with the hookah from the car to pull out the brass insert and scoop some up from the end table. Stereo under newspapers suddenly active as he nudged a switch to Janis Joplin.
"This is it. This is where everything happens. This is paradise."
"I have to sleep Art. I'm going to need sleep."
Spellman somber nailed down the volume, toked hard and held.
" I guess it's bad then. Depression?"
"I guess. Mostly tired. I haven't slept. I need sleep."
"Yeah. Come on."
The stairs were very thin and pale past dark paper.
"There's no heat in here. But you got blankets plenty and this room gets the sun in the morning. Remember this?"
Just inside a horribly grotesque and primitive painting of an old lady.
"Jesus. I had forgotten how ugly she was. Grannie?"
"Yeah. You just lay down there and I'll cover you."
Justin lay down on a stained mattress with the topcoat buttoned. He lifted the bottle against broken plaster and pulled in enough to make it slow down. The bottle felt good in the brown paper, and it was very quiet with his breath gusting white toward Spellman.
"You poor son of a bitch. You get some rest. Then we can talk."
When the door clicked shut Justin doubled up over against the wall. It was fairly dark, dark enough to hide the muted prints. And then with the lids pressed it was very dark, and he tried very hard to feel the mattress, the blankets, the wallpaper with his fingers. He tried not to think of her waiting when he didn't come home, calling the school, his parents, calling everyone to fill that absence and just not knowing. Tried hard not to feel her pain. Swung forward and felt for the bottle.
Spellman was downstairs in the litter watching a portable television.
"No. I'm going to need tranquilizers."
"What if she calls?"
"Tell her I'm all right. Tell her you don't know where I am, but tell her I'm all right. Want some of this?"
"Sharon. Get me a Grain Belt. No. You keep it."
"I'm going to need tranquilizers. I'm going to need them soon."
"We'll try Drug Rehab. They got an M. D. down there."
"What are you watching?"
"Something heavy. Flintstones. Maybe you want to talk."
"No. I can't stop thinking. I'm thinking hard about her. I have to kill it."
"How much do you want to kill it?"
"Well plenty. What do you have?"
"No. I was going to say kill that fifth and you won't feel anything."
"No. I'd just get sick. Art, I really tried, but after a while I was screaming and crying in the morning doubled up on the floor, and I didn't want to pick up the briefcase and go out there and face them. The anxiety. And then she wanted me to ride it out, and I knew I couldn't so I came out here."
"How do you feel now? Is it any better?"
"I just need the tranquilizers. And some sleep."
"Sharon. Are you cooking anything out there?"
They ate on TV trays something that took two hours rummaging at the base of a large galvanized can. Something with eggplant and hamburger. Justin ate around the egg-plant, and ate a lot. Spellman ate with the ear phones on, the muted sound of Carole King audible as he raised his fists and yelled at places he seemed to like, forking in the food and hollering at places he liked to eat, sliding the plate over to the big couch beside Sharon and letting Gretta, the deaf mongrel, finish it up.
"Other dog shits on the rug. Can't allow her up. But you'd like her."
Justin was holding himself together with wire and staples.
"What did you think of the casserole, honey?"
"Excellent. Justin, we're going to open a restaurant."
Justin was shaking, holding it down tight and dead.
"Listen to this. Listen to this cut."
Justin heard her sing that he had a friend and liked it.
"I used to listen to that every night and think of you. God would I like to fuck her. Sweet Jesus yes. Fork ten inches up her cunt. Stay fucked. You wouldn't mind. Would you, honey? That's enough, girl. Get off the plate. Get the fuck down."
Spellman lashed out a foot and kicked the mongrel in the chest. There was a lot of noise, scrabbling on the kitchen hardwood, battering the cellar door. Sharon shook her head quietly and moved out of sight.
"Dumb shit. Always overeats. You ready to go?"
"Drug Rehab. Guy down there, M. D., very heavy type. I think we can get a prescription fast enough."
Scudding light—flare of color and intensity in the sea, the gray, the night. Maelstrom gathering focus in careening vision, drunken frenzied scatter rushing past, over, gloss of asphalt cutting. Battering the slick membrane of motion and birth totally, wholly, shotgun rush into incandescent splendor as Spellman gunned it. Underpass slicing the sky black and sky and sky and asphalt glistening, shatter and scud through the yellow clicking down toward red in the click click of meters gray, the blinking doorways, cave ways, tunneling toward incandescence, opening into glitter and truth. Truth of the shudder and the frames frozen in the brittle bright white night as they jerked in toward the curb and passed the hookah.
"Just act all fucked up and they'll give you anything."
"Won't have to try too hard."
Justin drew down some gin and capped it, swung out.
"Is Crager in?"
"He'll be in shortly."
"We'll be back in the gym. All right?"
"Yes. There's no light in there. It's very dark."
Tap tap tap, scud of shoes, sprong of the bank board, sprong of the hoop, tap tap tap. Spellman played basketball in utter darkness.
"How can you see, Art?"
"I can see."
The little fat woman in madras notched the opening.
"Dr. Crager has just arrived."
Spellman bathed in sudden light, creased eyes, concern, as he looked at Justin sitting on the hardwood wrapped in the topcoat. They forked down a corridor into a small brilliant room with a short, bearded man, beads and work shoes against a dark wool suit.
"This is Justin. He just came in from New Jersey. He needs Mellaril to sleep. He's very fucked up and doesn't have his medication."
"Art. I can't do that. I'm supposed to be getting people OFF drugs."
"How about just for tonight?"
"I don't have any drugs here. Take him to the hospital."
Justin doubled in the back seat, sipping the gin as the colors twitched on the windows, on the vinyl roof, slashed past Spellman gunning the Datsun. Stab of brakes and the colors and the motor and stab of brakes as Justin sipped from the brown bag and finally pressed the lids against it, and it was all motion until they were finally dead on the loop toward the Emergency Room.
"This is going to take a couple hours at least. So hang on."
There was a very large room with broken people on metal chairs.
"This is my friend Justin. He's manic depressive. He needs medication to wind down. He doesn't have his drugs. He needs Mellaril."
"Take a chair and fill this out."
"Can you make it fast for him? He's very ragged, very hyper."
"I'll try. There are many people with problems. But I'll try."
Down the corridor was an old man retching into a steel basin.
"Look at that fucker. He's lost it. That guy's really lost it."
Justin worked on the form.
Spellman was down the corridor talking to some nurses. He was laughing great bellows, guffaws in the brittle silence, coming on flushed and tears streaming, poking a big thumb at the old man in the hospital gown retching in agony.
"Dumb shit old cock sucker drank four quarts of wine to celebrate his seventieth birthday. Ever hear anything like it? That guy's suffering. I mean he's suffering."
Justin managed a dry scuttling laugh.
"When were you last hospitalized?"
"One year back."
"How much Mellaril are you taking?"
"400-500 milligrams a day."
"How do you feel?"
"I don't know. I'm a little scared I might go high. Too high."
"Listen. Why don't you admit yourself here for a few days?"
"No. Then I'd go low. I might never get out."
"All right. You're staying with that fellow?"
"Well, my name is Broadhurst. You can reach me all night."
"Good luck to you. Hang on and breathe slowly. All right?"
Justin sat rigid in a metal chair. He sat for sixty minutes precisely.
"Mr. Price. Mr. Price."
The nurse at the counter handed him a large bottle of yellow tablets.
"Thank you. Yeah, thank you."
Justin stood at the water fountain and forced down ten 100 milligram tablets.
"Let's get out of here."
The dark hood gleamed on the white, and the light flashed brilliant.
"What's it like? Can you feel it yet? What's it like?"
"I'm winding down. Where's the gin? I need the gin."
"In the back seat. Here."
Justin sat quiet sipping the gin while the night hovered dark over the flare of shop fronts, wink of tail lights, stab of head lights, winding toward the throughway and gunning into the right lane, cutting into a gap left and gunning while the night above was darker than a dead man's mind and the incandescence swimming like birth. Justin capped the gin and lay back against the door, nodding out. Then he felt the chill air and Spellman's gentle strong hands, gathered up and lurched toward the stoop with their breath gusting in the flare from the window. He made it to the upstairs mattress and doubled up with the topcoat still on and the shoes and then the blankets and his mind finally quitting totally into dark dark and something vague like wet, drifting, knowing that he was lying in utter darkness with the wet of it, lying in his own warm urine.
Awaking suddenly, he saw the yellow paper and felt the chill of his groin. He had the blankets up over his torso, and his trousers were rigid and damp. He kicked down the blankets and rolled over to his back. Grannie was still there on the wall, incredibly bizarre and ugly. There was a poster of Dylan and one of Frank Sinatra in a Panama hat. Justin found the gin and sipped down to make his stomach warm, raised up and entered the hallway, the bathroom. He stripped off the trousers and shorts and washed them in the tub. He slipped them back on wet and went back to the cold room and flipped over the mattress, crawled in under the blankets. He lay there in quiet for an hour, sipping the gin, finishing the last half-inch. Then he heard their clock radio and then the alarm, and he heard them talking and then some protest and then moans and some thrashing and louder moans and quiet. He heard the shower.
"Spellman. I pissed myself last night. I washed it out in the tub. But I'm still wet. You don't have anything I can wear?"
Spellman was pale beyond the undulations of the plastic.
"I don't have anything your size. You'll dry out. Maybe we can pick up some clothes in the afternoon.
Justin found a bottle of Grain Belt in a battered white refrigerator with the handle torn off. There was a lot of food in there, most of it several months old, he guessed, and rotting, and he opened the door by inserting his fingers in the rubber crack. There was a hole in the hardwood near the stove. He looked down and saw the basement floor littered with excrement and the two white mongrels lying in steaming mounds. He pried the cap off with his left hand and entered the dark dining room and then the muted living room with the two couches and the incredible clutter, motes of dust flickering in a shaft of light, the air hot and dry, stabbed with drafts from the three windows.
Justin sat down and sipped the Grain Belt. He inspected the burnt crest of the hookah and found a match and sucked in some, lit a cigarette. Spellman descended through the living room, lurching on the steps. There was an ungodly din of barking and scrabbling on the cellar steps, and Gretta came lunging through like animated white rubbish, a wad of clotted hair opening to the big pink mouth, dancing over the ragged furniture, leaping and battering the walls, and Spellman in bare feet looking like a resuscitated corpse.
"Jesus. You sure as hell are wet. How is it?"
"Better. I'm still tired and ragged. Very ragged but better."
They sat there drinking Grain Belt and passing the hookah.
"Sharon. Where's my fucking Krispies? I want my fucking Krispies."
"In a minute, honey."
They sat at the TV trays and ate bowls of Rice Krispies. Spellman's bowl was very large. He ate with his fingers cradling the spoon, his thumb at the edge of the curvature. Justin sat alone in the topcoat while Spellman pulled on his shoes in the other room, sat there drinking Grain Belt and tugging on the hookah. Spellman appeared at the archway a flash of grin over the tan suede. Gretta raised up from the three bowls on the floor and danced toward him, wagging her white tail. Spellman kicked her on the head, a mighty whonk that sent her reeling across the floor, howling piteously.
"Dumb shit. You know, Justin. This is a very ignorant dog."
"Do you think they'll accept me into the Program?"
"Fuck yes. They'll have to."
"How much does it pay?"
"Forty dollars a week. We might get some food stamps too."
"What should I say?"
"Just say you've been living with me for three months."
The cold was severe, acute, stabbing Justin's nostrils frozen as they sat trembling in the Datsun and Spellman worked the ignition. They edged out into the quiet street and shuddered past frame houses to cut left up an incline toward the throughway. The misted windshield and the streaks of Spellman's glove as they passed the hookah, pulling into traffic, shuddering with the terrible cold and the Datsun straining, dead neon slashing past with the click of signs and Des Moines gray and frozen in the morning bleak gray sky. The colors of the cars themselves muted, pastel, faded in the frigid slant of light that drew great shadows over the powdered white and the dull concrete and stroke of asphalt gray, working down the exit toward downtown and entering a vacant lot beside a battered Oldsmobile and a grimy Fiat. Across the street—the Concentrated Employment Program, dark letters on a darker front yet glistening. A café on the corner feeding light into the obscurity of the street.
They stepped out into the deeper cold, and Spellman kicked the Fiat.
"Piece of shit. Belongs to fellatio. Jim Fellatto. See the Olds? Used to be mine. I sold it to Otis Parks. You'll meet him."
The second floor was milk glass over steel partitions, a black secretary at an IBM yawning into her fingernails, a row of steel chairs under the windows. Spellman indicated the row and went on back. Justin sat and watched the secretary's flat breasts and spotted neck. Spellman emerged with some forms, waved Justin over to the desk, and nudged into a chair. The secretary screwed in the white sheets and asked for personal data in a harsh metallic voice. Spellman answered. Justin answered. Spellman clarified. The secretary raised up several times to adjust her chair and burst into laughter when Justin reported his M. A. in English.
"Art Spellman. Is this another one of your drifter friends?"
"No. Not at all. He's been living with us for three months."
The hole in the secretary's mouth was very dark.
"Just sign here on the bottom line."
"Then he's enrolled?"
"Mr. Fellatto has to approve it."
Spellman had the forms in his big hand back into a small office with a portrait of Lincoln and a poster of an old lady smoking marijuana. Justin sat down and waited. Spellman returned with a big bald man with winking little eyes and a quizzical smile.
"This is Jim Fellatto. This is Justin Price."
"All right. Well, Art will go over the rules. Mostly attendance and punctuality. You'll have to get used to the schedule. 9 AM to 5 PM. A lot of people drop out, you know. But you have an education."
The tug of a big hand, and the face clicked behind milk glass.
"What'd I say? What'd I say?"
Outside by the row of chairs was Howard, someone he had known from way back.
"Howard, you son of a bitch. You bastard you."
"Justin. Art said you were coming yesterday morning."
Those first times getting high with Art.
"You work here?"
"Yeah. Justin, you look like hell. You look pissed on."
Howard hated the full moon. His father smoked four packs of Camels a day and told him death was a blessing. Spellman enjoyed hurting Howard more than he relished kicking the dogs. And yet it was hard not to love Howard, just as it was easy to forgive Spellman.
"They got you enrolled?"
"I got to go. Hey Art. Justin's here."
"Yeah, dumb shit. Ignorant one. Justin's here."
"Yeah. He's right here. And he looks wasted."
"Well, he's going to look strong in a couple of days. Stay away from this dumb shit. He's got no education. He's very ignorant."
"Yes. Yeah, I will."
Howard forked left into the partitions. They descended to the street. The rehabilitation center was low cinderblock, gray and spare on an asphalt lot. A fat black lady, elderly and possibly crippled, sat at the elbow of the entrance at a metal desk. On back was a small lounge, dark and shabby, depressing. There was an open room with metal chairs and a refrigerator. Metal partitions cordoned the other areas, metal and milk glass and rapping typewriters beyond toward the office where Spellman worked out Justin's schedule—typing, orientation, carpentry, reading laboratory, orientation, book keeping. There were broken whites in tight shoes, natty young blacks in flashy hats and beads, fat women, nervous women, haunted desperate faces clicking open and shut as if a solid matter filled the rooms, the partitions, with a quiet nagging despair more palpable than the very real hostility that battered Justin with invisible waves when the faces tightened up to his own desperate smile, there in the clicking little rooms over gray tile.
"Well. This is it. Try and hang on. I'll be back at noon."
"Don't leave me in here, Art. Stay on a while."
"I got to work. I have to get back to the office. You'll be all right."
"What if I can't handle it?"
"You'll handle it. I'm depending on that. Look at these wasted fuckers hanging on with frayed threads, living out an hour at a time and suffering every fucking minute, dying holding on when it's just too damned miserable to cry. I don't want to be melodramatic about this, but the thing is they can hold on and pick up their check every week. Some of them will even walk out of here with dignity. Otherwise we're all lost. A few will. Hold on, Justin."
"Yeah. Okay. Where do I go?
"Through that opening. Just sit there for an hour and pretend you're typing. Just hammer away. Don't worry about it. Look busy."
"All right. But what if I can't handle it?"
"Call me at the office. Dial for CEP. They'll tell you how."
Spellman faded through the open room past a handful of dead broken tortured ciphers flashing worried beaten smiles. Justin closed his eyes for several seconds and jerked toward typing class.
Justin was at an IBM on a gray metal table. He had typed his name 37 times. The large lady proctor had inspected his efforts. He had screwed in a new sheet and begun the following prayer:
"Dear Jesus. Dear sweet Jesus I don't know what I want. Teach me to know what I want. Teach me to know. Help me to know something. Help me to need something. Help me to feel something. Teach me what to feel. Dear Jesus, sweet Jesus, help me to pray to you because I don't even know whether you're there. Teach me to pray for the right things if there are right things and this isn't just a big ugly joke, Lord. Thank you for Spellman and for Sharon and for Howard. Thank you very much for making this prayer. Lord Jesus get me through this day."
Justin looked up suddenly. The proctor was at her desk. There was a very large black lady behind his head. He put his hands over the prayer and then felt her hand incredibly soft on his shoulder. He closed his eyes and the touch was gone. He turned and the big dark woman was back in the corner at her own table. The big dark lady was crying.
In the small enclosure were about 30 on metal chairs.
At the center the Puerto Rican proctor read from a manila folder.
The big black lady from typing was smoking black cigars.
Others took turns with the folder. No one paid attention.
"All right now. The question for today is does Tom Jones have soul?"
There was a great gale of laughter and much hysteria.
"Marcie Phillips. What are your ideas, honey?"
"Tom Jones got about as much soul as our honky President."
"Randy Milford. What are your ideas on this?"
"Ain't no honky son of a bitch got soul. They just imitates."
"Ask one of the honkies. Ask them for yourself, Roderigo."
"Bert Williams. Does Tom Jones have soul?"
"I don't know. I don't give a fuck."
"We talked about soul yesterday, Roderigo."
"Yeah. What we going to do today, skinny?"
"Charlie Everson. Go on reading where we left off."
"Shit man. Let's play some kind of game or something."
"Charlie Everson. Go on reading."
"'Soul, as we have seen, is thought widely to be the expression or property of a particular race. Some might argue that other racial groups possess elements or even overt manifestations of this property, that certainly entertainers of the Caucasian peoples, particularly entertainers such as Janis Joplin or Tom Jones, possess that property or mode of expression. These considerations are worth noting but cannot be entertained seriously from the Afro-American point of view. Certainly the blues, or jazz itself, are earlier manifestations of this phenomenon.'"
"See. See what it say. Roderigo, you just ignorant."
Justin lit a cigarette and closed his eyes.
Justin held the electric sander against the long sheet of plywood. Phil Sandler gripped his hands and taught him how to control the abrasion. The shell of a large cabinet stood over against a partition. Everyone vied for the solitary green stool or walked out to the open area for cigarettes. Sandler had the soft voice of a nursemaid and felt for the absolute futility of teaching anyone a craft or wedging them into the union. They took turns at the sheet and aped the quiet man behind his back. Justin stood in the corner by the cabinet and trembled. A natty black man in a scarlet hat stared at him from two feet and edged closer.
"If you got ten dollars I can help you first rate."
"You couldn't help me if I had ten million."
"All right. Just asking."
The big saw bucked in Sandler's hands and chattered off a dime thin strip.
"Well don't bother. I'm not into that."
"Yeah. Well you look it. You look pissed on."
"I feel pissed on. But I'm not a junky. I'm not on needles."
"You married? I said are you married?"
"Yes. So what?"
"What if your wife be a junky? Your woman."
"I don't know. I think I'd leave her. I left her anyway."
"But if you loved her. Wouldn't you feed her habit?"
"I wouldn't feed anybody's habit. Never. Not at any time."
Sandler was gripping the sheet in a great vise, smiling gently.
Justin watched the others in the small dark lounge. Watched and waited for Spellman. Most of them were into their lunch—soft drinks and candy from the refrigerator. Some weren't eating, were listening to the eating sounds. Through the rents in the vinyl, dark wool oozed in a clotted abscess. A pale white man with split shoes ate American cheese in slices of dry bread with dark hands, talked incessantly about his last job, three years past, as dishwasher. Talked about bookkeeping class, hopes of landing work as an accountant, that, hell, they make ten grand easy. And the food clotted teeth and the words were an irritation of the boil they all felt burgeon on their innards, draining on the grimy tile. Spellman suddenly animated in the tan suede, the beard full over the weak mouth, and the agitation in the eyes—that energy in the void of the lounge and the dead man's brittle monologue.
"All right. All right. What'd I say?"
"Yes. But let's get out of here. Let's eat."
They entered a small cafeteria down the block. They pushed fiber trays down a tubular counter and helped themselves to spaghetti and white bread, diced carrots and coffee.
"What'd I say, Justin? I knew you could hack it."
"You didn't know shit."
Through pale curtains was the gray cold street, snow flurries, a white sky toward gray, sunlight none the less, trembling robot figures gusting vapor and jerking past traffic. In the cafeteria enrollees sat at deep fried pork and boiled potatoes, spaghetti, Western omelets, slices of white bread, chocolate milk. They forked it in like automata, shuddering movements into ragged mouths under vacant eyes. Now and then the stab of laughter into the dead fluid settling like formaldehyde, stabs and ripples leaving behind a great vacant wound as the milk machine at the end of the counter proclaimed FUCK in bright streaks through the mist.
"I knew it, Justin. I really knew it."
"You ever see much of Howard?"
"Yeah. Sure. We're still friends."
"Still shit on him too. Haven't changed."
"Howard's a nice guy. Ignorant but nice."
"How about Midget? See him much?"
"Yeah. Has his head up his ass these days."
"Art. I feel tight. Let's get out of here."
In the reading laboratory was a slender young man, perhaps twenty.
"You're the proctor?"
"No. I'm Ronald Dietz. The proctor is ill today."
"Would you mind if I just read? There are books over there."
"Well you might try that. But the laboratory is designed to increase speed and comprehension. Reading alone won't do that. What's the level of your education?"
"I have a Master's degree in English. Two years beyond that."
"Then you don't belong here. Who sent you here?"
"Art Spellman. Just let me read something. All right?"
"Sure. And if that bores you we can talk. Would you like that?"
"I wouldn't like anything very much. But that's all right."
Justin sat down with ANIMAL FARM and tried to concentrate.
"I could teach you to read a thousand words a minute."
"I wouldn't like that."
"But for God's sake. Why not?"
"I don't know. I just wouldn't like it."
"I'm an engineering graduate. Does that interest you?"
"No. Not particularly. In fact not at all."
"I graduated from Drake last spring. I teach speed-reading at Trexler Institute. I could arrange for you to spend your afternoons there. Within a month you could be reading well over a thousand WPM."
"Forget it. No, I'm sorry. No, forget it. No, I don't feel well. Can I smoke in here? I'd like a cigarette."
"We'll step into the corridor. Mary doesn't like it. She's the proctor."
"All right. And I think I'd like speed-reading."
At orientation it was Tom Jones and soul all over. The black lady with her small black cigars couldn't keep her eyes off him. Her skin was like stained walnut and she was very large. They called her Roberta. Her name was Waller. Roberta Waller. She had large soft eyes and a pleasant smile and laughter like a clear running brook. She felt that Tom Jones had soul. No one argued very much and for a time it was perfectly quiet.
Between each session was a ten-minute break. Phil Sandler unlocked the big white refrigerator and some bought candy, some soft drinks. Most of them wouldn't eat until Friday, he learned, when they got their checks. They would sit and watch the others. Roberta Waller always had a large Dr. Pepper and a Three Musketeer. She sat splayed out over two chairs with her gray nylons creasing the walnut flesh just over the knees. She drank her Dr. Pepper with her soft eyes on Justin, eyes that seemed to go back deep into a great soft pool of tenderness that filled her body, that surrounded her like an aura. Justin was afraid of the large dark lady. He sat through bookkeeping afraid of the large dark lady.
In the bright white slash of gray snow he waited for Spellman.
" . . . Lambrick. Phillips. Easter. Murphy. Jackson. Smith. Williams. Waller. Brown. Shipley. Harbison. Ditenhafer. Boyle. Charlesworth. Baker. Ross. Orfanos. Wicket. Martel. Bixby. Johnson. Tredler. Marks. Dedson. Wilks . . . "
The dead people collected their checks from Roderigo.
They sat impatiently or stood around the partitions.
"All right. I'm going to let you go in five minutes."
"Shit man. Time's a wasting. Shit."
"Come on, skinny."
"All right. Who's going to invite me to a party?"
"Shit. I wouldn't invite you to my funeral. Shit."
"Come on, Roderigo. Let us go. Bank closes in fifteen minutes."
"All right. Have a heavy weekend, people."
"Yeah. Don't fall in no cesspool, skinny. You can't swim."
"Yeah. Don't scare no snakes with your ugly face."
Justin stood in the entrance, facing the fingerprints and stains on the glass door. Three young blacks flashed by in an Eldorado. Roberta climbed into a rusted out '55 Studebaker and waved back with her face in a wide soft smile behind the misted glass. Justin twitched a grin and went frozen. Even this side of the door his breath smoked, and he was cold in the thin topcoat. There were no more dead in sight, beyond the big cripple behind his shoulder, the receptionist. Then he saw the Datsun and bolted out, stabbed the bitter air over the concrete and the curb, over the asphalt to Sharon holding the door. Thrashed into the back seat and reached for the hookah, pulled in tight and held.
"What's pizza sound like? How's it sound to you?"
"I don't know, Art. Maybe I'd just like to sleep."
"Not tonight, sweet chips. We're going to party."
"I don't know. I really don't know. Pull in up there."
"The liquor store. Maybe you want something."
"Maybe you want something you mean."
They forked in by the curb, and Justin climbed out past Sharon. There were about a dozen enrollees in there buying mostly flavored wine. Justin picked up a quart of Virginia Gentleman and two fifths of gin, trembled money into a wide hand, and watched them bag it, three narrow bottles into heavy duty brown paper. Outside in downtown Des Moines cars were bumper to bumper trailing haze, the Datsun thick with dust and salt, the windshield smeared clean into arcs.
"Where's good pizza, Art?"
Justin opened the bourbon and pulled down a half inch. He passed it to Spellman, who sipped with his head low and held it, sipped again and cut into traffic.
"Mr. Pizza's okay. They got beer on tap."
"Where we going tonight, Art?"
"We're going somewhere. I don't know yet. We're going to meet Midget over at Howard's, maybe the two wives. Okay?"
"I don't know. I think I'd just rather kill one of these bottles and sleep for a long time. Sleep's about the only thing I have left anyway. I think I'd rather get some sleep."
"Justin. You know you're a real asshole."
"No, I mean it. You're a real sad case. You almost got me crying."
Justin nudged back with the quart and sipped in the flash of darkness, the pastels careening beyond the window. He had about an inch of it down when they entered the asphalt lot and stabbed in beside a brown Mercedes, the engine cutting dead toward silence and muted traffic. Spellman reached back for another sip and passed it back, and they left the three bottles on the floor, locked in, heading for the stucco hut with the center chimney shaggy and brown, ugly really, inside florid types slaking their thirst, small eyes glittering in the twilight.
"Justin. What do you like on your pizza?"
"Arm pits and pigs' eyes. Testicle of a boar hound. Minced foreskins."
"Come on. What do you like?"
"Pepperoni. Mushrooms. Anchovies. I don't give a shit."
A vacant blonde leered as if at the end of a long tunnel.
"We'll have two large pizzas. One with sausage. One plain. And we'll have four large pitchers of Grain Belt."
"We don't serve Grain Belt. There's Hamm's and Miller."
"No Grain Belt? You're kidding."
"Just Hamm's and Miller, sir. I'm very sorry."
"We'll make it four pitchers of Hamm's."
The blonde clicked out of view, red and white vertical stripes nudging toward darkness.
"Sweaty fucking bitch. Bad teeth sweat hog. Very ugly. Ignorant. Repulsive. Gross and abominable. Sickening. Foul."
There were four fluted pitchers on the imitation wood.
"You know I'm starting to worry about you, Justin."
"You tell me about this big spade chick's got the hots for you."
"Yeah. So what?"
"Well you tell me the whole story, and you don't even once ask her to spread and suck."
"Spellman. You're a real shit you know. A real shit."
"I mean the pussy's there and twitching. What's stopping you?"
"Come on. That's already enough."
Justin tilted his mug and set it down empty.
The blonde was there with two very homely looking pizzas, like abscess on cardboard.
"Well Roberta's all right. She's all right. I know that."
They reached for slices and ate rapidly.
"Well I'm not going to start defending her. But you are a shit."
Spellman poured more in and drank it off, and Justin drank his off, and they went on to the last pitcher with about half a pizza left untouched. Spellman pulled a big plastic bag out of his pocket and loaded it up with what was left and twisted the opening into a knot.
"Yeah. But you're alone out here. Who's going to know the difference?"
Justin drained another mug and leaned back bloated.
"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Spellman, that was the worst fucking pizza I've ever eaten."
"Come on. It was very tender and succulent. It was absolutely divine."
"Yeah. Well I want to cash it in now. I want to sleep."
"Bull shit. We're going to party. I means party."
"Well let's get it on then. Let's get it on."
They pulled in at a pink bungalow back a short drive. There was a late model Pontiac ahead and an old station wagon. By now it was quite dark with the lights flaring and cutting as they swung out on asphalt, Justin with the bourbon, pulling on it in the cold toward a side door, toward a strip of walk. Spellman gave a mighty thwacking to the plywood door and pushed in to a tile landing and aluminum strips, to four steps and a second door. There were four adults in the tiny yellow living room around two center playpens containing twin girls smiling radiantly, terribly cute, perhaps just off a Pablum commercial. The corner TV was a dented portable flaring a quiz show just under a cheap stereo tuned to early Dylan. Howard was drinking a quart of Grain Belt on a ratty sofa, crowding Dylan with his imitation, nasal, abrasive, beating the empty hand on an end table. Midget was feeling up his wife and pounding his left foot on the hardwood. He lurched erect as they entered.
"Justin. You son of a bitch. Jesus Howard, it's Justin."
"What say? What say, Midget? Still selling law books?"
"Fucking A, buddy. Jesus Justin, it's real good."
His wife Laureen was one beautiful wench at 26, neoclassical American. Howard's wife could have been pretty with effort and some work on the overbite. They all had a big hug in the gap between the playpens. Justin retired to the corner and pulled on the bourbon.
"Why don't you get that fucker some clothes, Art? He looks like he's been sleeping in that whole outfit for a week."
"Not my fucking fault the fucker doesn't take his clothes off."
"You mean you let him sleep like that? With that ugly overcoat?"
"Laureen. Justin's half pig. Nothing I can do. Right?"
Justin nodded and pulled down some bourbon. He settled down to squat in the topcoat, pulling from the bourbon and grinning. It would sure be nice to get some sleep. The twins smiled and pointed to the funny man with the Virginia Gentleman.
"Well Spellman. What's it going to be tonight?"
"Well I don't know. I thought somewhere cheap, something blue collar."
"Why don't we go down to Warbucker's and gross out the sweaties?"
"Dennis. You'll do no such thing. Not with us along."
"Remember Justin's shit kicker? We could sing it full blast at Warbucker's and put a new crease in their gray matter."
"Yeah. Why don't we sing the shit kicker? Anybody remember it?"
"Give Justin some paper and he can write it out for us."
There was a little blond desk in the alcove. Justin sat with the bourbon and tried to remember the last verse. Then he had the whole thing in three copies and folded them up to shove in the topcoat.
"Where's the baby sitter, Howard? Hey ignorant. Where's the sitter?"
"Up your asshole where it's warm. Honey, where's Alice?"
"I don't know. Maybe that's their car out there on the street."
Howard's sitter stripped to a yellow dress and grinned over high firm breasts and milk white legs. The women weren't very happy, and Justin pulled on the quart.
"Well let's hit it. Let's get it on the road."
They jammed into Howard's station wagon and backed out onto the lawn and the drive and the street, one light stabbing the distant trees, the other focused but faint.
"Howard. Tell us about your last night at Purdy Grove."
"Shit. I told that a hundred times already."
"Fuck man. Narrate."
"All the way."
"Well I was out front with a '62 Plymouth and I lost it on the curve and mowed down the railing and about thirty prize sheep at the exhibit. I mean through the big enclosure and out into open sky rolling and the sky flashing like Jesus and I looked up. I mean I looked down cause I was ass up with the roof in the dirt. I stuck my head out the window, and there it was, the full fucking moon."
"You ought to hear him tell it when he's stoned."
"I mean the full fucking moon. Every fucking time."
"Howard won't even leave his fucking house with a full moon out."
"Do you blame me? I mean does anybody blame me?"
"Howard. Don't show off, dear. It's very ugly."
Warbucker's was cinderblock around boarded windows, neon sign courtesy of Hamm's, half of it dark or flickering. Inside was a bar and stools and some tables toward the back which they shoved together under some belligerence from the group at the bowling machine. Just the slush of the machine and the patrons along the hardwood like hogs at a trough. Some beehives and hunting jackets, a florid bartender going over 300 in close cropped white hair. Spellman stood up there and ordered pitchers and carried them back to the vinyl, and they started throwing it down.
"Let's have the shit kicker. Where's the shit kicker?"
Justin passed out the copies with the slush of the bowling machine.
"Announce it, Howard."
"Ladies and gentlemen. You are about to hear an original composition by the one and only Justin Price. What's left of him."
They were staring back toward the dark over the tables like lizards under a large slick rock. Howard turned back to direct their howling parody of all the lizards loved.
"Mom sent a sack full of goodies.
Sister Jane sent me socks she'd done.
Freddie, my sixteen year old brother
Sent me oil for to grease my M-1.
Vietnam, Vietnam, when we clear up Vietnam,
We'll all pack up and go home."
The response was stunned silence and then shouting and insult into the second stanza, and they never completed it. Someone had the juke box on full blast, and the bartender was under the hinged counter and out to the tables, hushing them with his gestures, and there was a lot of cursing, and Spellman was chugging and rearing back HAH HAAH HAAAH and giving the finger. And then they were being herded out toward the station wagon with Spellman giving the finger back till the door slammed and it was over.
"Spellman, you're an evil son of a bitch. You're impossible."
As they pulled out Justin wanted suddenly to die.
He said good night to the rest and crawled in under the blankets sipping and doubled toward the wall. He could hear Gretta barking and scrabbling on the kitchen floor and then a hard noise, leather on skull, and the piteous howling of the dog with Spellman's HAH HAAH HAAAH. He reached for his medication and drank down five tablets with the bourbon, and pretty soon he was asleep, mercifully dead to it with no dreams, just the dark against the chill of the mattress. Someone was calling for him from a great distance, twenty billion light years beyond in the void where the voices huddled in the small tight room of his soul.
"Justin. Your wife's on the phone."
"You tell her I was here? Shit, Spellman, I told you."
"I think she knows no matter what I say."
"Tell her I'll call her tomorrow. Tell her I can't talk to her."
"She's pretty upset. She's crying."
"Tell her tomorrow. Tell her to call in the afternoon."
"I think you better talk to her."
"Tell her tomorrow. I mean it."
"Justin, you better do it."
"Get out of my fucking life."
"All right. All right. Tomorrow. I'll tell her."
Justin fell for light years, plummeted toward morning.
When he awoke he could hear them thrashing in the other room. He entered the bathroom and relieved his bladder, had one look in the mirror, and went back to the mattress. He lay there sipping the bourbon, listening to Sharon's moans, Spellman's brutality, sipping and closing his eyes on the pale wash over the posters and the portable TV, the portable stereo, over the open closet stuffed with boxes and rope, a pile of clothes, sunlight over the dust. He capped the bottle and pulled the blankets up over his face and tried to go back to it, the dead mind sleep. He lay there for about an hour in eventual silence and then walked out to the littered hallway and thrashed his fist into the battered door, screaming hysterically.
"All right, hit it. Drop your cocks and grab your socks."
Spellman's dead head poked out, eyes like pools of urine.
"I don't know about you, fucker, but we got to bed at 3 AM."
"Spellman, I heard you. I heard you pumping. I know what you were doing."
"How do you feel? How do you feel, Justin?"
"Sucking wind. Sucking the nether eye."
"Well go on down and listen to some music where it's warm. Jerk off. Only let us get some sleep."
In the ashtray living room Justin found some early Beatles and the hookah. He sat there with the earphones, tugging in smoke and pulling on the bottle. And then he killed the music because it wasn't doing the right things, was stirring up memories that he had buried carefully over several years. As if the feeling or lack of feeling brought back the first time he had heard it, and that was too much pain.
After a while he heard Spellman, heard him toward the last inch in the quart, heard his bare feet on the steps. Saw him enter looking very ugly and ragged, lurching toward the sofa with a bottle of Grain Belt. Sitting there quiet with the stereo silent and then Sharon on the steps. Gretta howling, scrabbling in to them with the white clots of hair and the tail going like a pinwheel.
"Shut up, ignorant. God that dog's ignorant. Makes me puke."
"Maybe if you treated her better."
"You gone Christian on me? Jesus? Going to church now?"
Spellman was down on all fours springing at the dog and barking, clicking his teeth and ramming into the ragged mouth. The dog was making a terrible noise, and the two looked hydrophobic with the saliva dripping.
"That dog's going to take a bit hunk out of you someday."
"Shit. She loves it. Little dumb fucker."
Justin leaned back and sipped, examined his hands, sighed.
"Sharon? Where's my fucking Krispies? Beat your brains in."
They ate large bowls of Rice Krispies on TV trays.
"Well what is it today, Art?"
"You act like it's a fucking death sentence. Krispies. Krispies. Eat your fucking Krispies. We're not going to torture you. Believe me. Have faith in me. Faith in Spellman. Right? Shut up, Gretta."
Art's bowl was very large. The milk drained from his open mouth. Spellman grinning diabolically, thumbing his nose, rubbing Gretta behind the ears, big pink feet there on the hardwood among the caked dishes.
"I thought we'd con the shit out of Midget and Howard."
"We go down to Porky's see. And we get to shooting some pool. And you act like you can't shoot for shit, and we get them to bet a couple of dollars, and then we shove it to them just like that. What do you say?"
"I don't know, Art."
"Shit. Bullshit. I'm not going to let you stick in your fucking shit. You're going to pull up, fucker. I'm going to pull you up if I have to kick you in the fucking balls. Hear? Hear me? You're going to pull up."
Justin set his bowl on the floor for Gretta and lit up a cigarette.
"All right. But if I go all the way down Jesus himself isn't going to matter."
"Talk like a fucking zero. Well you aren't going down there. Hear?"
Justin finished the quart while Spellman made some calls. He climbed to the cold room and fished out a bottle of gin. He had another look in the bathroom mirror. In the topcoat with the tie still in place he looked like something dead under water. He tried a grin that came out a smear, watched himself tilt the bottle, gagged, stuck his head under for some water. Rinsed out his mouth and made the stairs. Spellman was on the phone with Howard.
"Ignorant. Very ignorant. Totally and without qualification, grossly, without compromise, utterly and completely a wasted dumb shit ass ignorant son of a bitch."
"What's the matter, Art?"
"He says he don't trust me. Howard, you suck. You really suck. He says call Fellatto. Howard. Ignorant one. It's just a friendly game. Yeah, that's right. Just the four of us down at Porky's."
"How good's Fellatto, Art?"
"He's the best fucking stick in this part of the state."
"Forget it then. Come on, let's call it off."
"Howard. We're going down to Porky's. You get down there when you can. That's right. Just a friendly game."
Spellman hung up and danced around the room bellowing and kicking at the walls, whooping and giving the finger to an imaginary audience.
"He fell for it. The dumb shit's going to lose his balls."
The air was so totally stabbing cold that Justin could hardly hold the gin tight to sip in the Datsun reving up toward the first intersection.
Porky's was on asphalt, single level cinderblock, four tables left of the bar. They put their claim on one and ordered a pitcher.
"We'll get some practice in first to make sure you're ready."
"Well I don't know. I haven't played serious pool for years."
"Shit Justin. You could beat those two poking the ball with your what's-it."
"How good are they?"
"Howard's a turkey, a little better than I am. Midget's fair, just fair."
Justin broke and ran three, Spellman staring with his mouth open. Spellman missed the thirteenth and Justin sank four.
"I tell you what. You go play like you know something about the game. I mean play a little better than Howard, but let them win a couple of games. We'll see if we can't get them to bring it up—a little money on it, you know. All right?"
Midget came jerking in flipping V's and stomping his feet in a shuffle and dance toward the bar for a pitcher. They played some rotation, the three of them, with Midget winning heavy, waiting for Howard. Whenever Art bent for a shot Midget poked him in the ass with the cue, leaving little chalk marks all over the lean twill, grabbed him by the balls, HAH HAAH HAAAH, and did a little shuffle toward the booth for the pitcher, poking his glasses back with a middle finger and singing a song about roller skates.
Howard lurched in from the cold, scratching his armpits and shuffling.
"Hey ignorant. How about you and Midget against Justin there and me? How's about a little eight ball? Feel ready to get your ass reamed?'
"Okay by me but just for who pays the next game."
They paired up, and Midget and Howard won the first three games. Won the fourth and sixth hands down. Midget was poking at the air, screaming with zest and excitement, pulling Howard over to the side for a conference.
"How about a pitcher and a buck on each game? Four of us share the pitcher. Get more interesting when we're wasted."
Another conference. Midget excited and stamping on the hardwood.
"Tell you what. Spot you two balls. Just shove the freebies in the pocket every game. Come on, Art. Be a fucking sport.
Spellman pulled Justin aside over by the far booth.
"Okay. You let them win the first two. Then take them gradual. Show them the nether eye. Jesus on the cross. The whole thing very rich and dramatic. The pageantry. Let them suck it the whole way down. Okay, Midget. Keep a tight asshole cause we're stiff and ready."
After four more games they were starting to feel it, chugging down glasses and lurching toward the table to cut wind and belch and stroke. After six Justin was out in front, pulling Art Spellman. At ten games he was running three or four and tightening that up until they were so drunk and wasted that nobody else was doing much beyond lurching over the felt and chugging, the games going longer toward afternoon.
"Art. You fucker. Either he's a hustler or an alcoholic. He don't miss."
"That's your fucking problem, turkey. Gobble gobble gobble."
"All right. Let's make it interesting. Low man licks an armpit."
"Shit. We played that last month."
"All right. Low man licks an ashtray. Licks it out clean."
"Yeah. If you spot me ten points."
"We'll spot five, Spellman. You lose you lick out an ashtray."
"Okay if I break."
"Let him break. Gobble gobble gobble. Just watch this shit."
The whole bar was watching Spellman scratch on the break, Howard without a shot, Midget sinking the one and seven. Justin ran two through six and sank the twelve on a combination. It went on that way. Spellman going further behind until it looked nearly certain he'd lose, and he edged out toward the toilet. Howard sank the eleven, and it was all over for Spellman, and the whole bar was hollering for him to get his ass out of the toilet. Midget found the most repulsive looking ashtray along the bar and waited for them to go in and get him.
Spellman was in the second booth with the door locked.
"Get your nasty ass out of there, Art. You lost."
"Ain't going to do it. Go fuck yourself, ignorant."
A big guy in a goatee ripped the door off, and Spellman was kicking and thrashing out into the big room beside the tables, and they had him down with his face florid and the arm in a hammer lock, and Midget had the ashtray at his face, and they put the pressure on his arm, and Spellman was screaming.
"Ain't going to do it. Midget, you fucking ingrate. God damn it leave me alone. Ain't licking no fucking ashtray."
"Licked my armpit last month. Ashtray should be easy."
"Ain't going to do it."
The big man with the goatee put a little more pressure on the arm.
"You lick it out, fucker, or I break it."
Art Spellman tongued out the center of the tray.
"The whole thing. Everything or I break your fucking arm."
Art Spellman licked out the inside of the glass tray. They howled and chortled and groaned with excitement as he worked over the inside and the notches. And then they let him up, held him back when he tried to get at Midget.
"Fuckers. Fucking pricks. Ignorant. Animals. Cock suckers. Virgins."
They drove back from Porky's in the bitter cold.
"Art licked out an ashtray. You should have seen it."
"Art. Art. Jesus, Art, do you have to do that? It's evil."
"Didn't have no choice."
They sat there for a while, and it got quiet.
"I think you better give her that call, Justin. Better let her know."
"All right. Yeah. All right. Let's have another hit off the hookah."
Justin inhaled and pulled down some gin and leaned back quiet.
"Just don't let it pull you down. All right?"
"Yeah. You know I think I'm wasted. Totally and without qualification."
"Yeah. Well don't let her pull you down. Take it slow."
Justin dialed. It rung twice.
"Yes. I called all over. I suppose you understand that."
"Yes. I understand. I'm sorry."
"What's that supposed to mean? Justin, I didn't know if you were dead. You had threatened. You had threatened a hundred times and suddenly you were gone. You didn't come home. And I didn't know what to think. I started calling. I've been calling all week. I knew you were out there with Art. But I didn't know. What do you think this is doing to Anna? All right, we'll forget that. Are you all right?"
"I'm all right."
"You don't have any clothes. Do you need some clothes?"
"All right. Yeah. All right. Christa, I was against the wall."
"Where do you think we are? There's about a hundred dollars left in the bank. Are you going to work out there? Can you work? I mean are you strong? How do you feel? I don't know how you feel."
"Christa, I'll write. I'll write you a long letter but I can't talk anymore. Hey, Art. Here's Spellman. Talk to Art Spellman."
He gave the receiver to Spellman and tilted the gin on the way up the steps. He crawled in under the blankets sipping the gin. He pulled down a lot of the gin, a half inch maybe, and set the bottle on the floor. With the pillow doubled over his ears he couldn't hear Art's reassuring voice. He lay there a long time with his face to the wall and then turned over to Spellman's feet, Art staring down from a great distance, saying things that didn't register and moving over to the TV and flicking it on, pulling off one of the blankets and wrapping up. They watched something Justin couldn't make out, likely football, watched several hours in the utter cold of the small tight room.
Justin sat behind the IBM and watched the paper darken staccato.
"Lord Jesus, if I knew you were my savior. If I knew anything. If I know how to thank you, that you entered my life and made these last days bearable. If I was not broken because you entered my life. If there really was something to appeal to. If I could really appeal to you I'd try to thank you. I'd thank you for Spellman. Lord Jesus, get me through this day. Don't break me today. Lord Jesus. Enter my life. Help me to know."
He looked up and saw Spellman at the proctor's desk.
"Justin. Come on outside a minute."
He followed Spellman out to the open room. There was a young black man there in a maroon hat and an expensive leather jacket. He walked up to Justin and took his hand in the freak's grip and stood back with a smile that flickered over his whole face into his body.
"This is Otis. Otis Parks. This is Justin, Otis."
"Yeah. Art sure has said plenty about you. You're a writer."
"Well I'm a failed writer. I don't even think I'll sell the book I put this in, but if I do live it out you'll be in it. Okay?"
"Serious dude, this Justin. Right on."
"Otis going to take you over to pick up some food stamps."
"Yeah. Only I don't think the second part's going to work."
"What's that, Art?"
"Rent money. Here's Midget's address. You tell them to call him if they need to verify it. You've been living there since August 3 at seventy dollars a month, and he's going to throw you out if you don't come across with fifty by the end of the week. Right?"
"I suppose Midget knows about it."
"Right. Okay. See you later."
"Later. Much later. A whole lot later. Never late enough."
"Otis just loves Art Spellman. Everybody does."
They drove toward the capitol in Otis's Oldsmobile.
"How long you known the Spellman?"
"Since '66. We were students together. Spellman was getting his undergraduate degree. I was working on the doctorate."
"Spellman smart or is he just dumb? Ignorant."
"Spellman is pretty smart. He puts on a front."
"That's what I thought. He sure does some dumb shit."
"Like what, Otis?"
"Well he lick out an armpit here last month."
About a block from the capitol was a low building, aluminum and glass. They pulled into a lot and walked around to the front. It seemed even colder just in the short distance, and Justin was shuddering in the topcoat.
"Justin. You mind if I say something?"
"No. Go ahead."
"You stink something awful. When's your last bath?"
"I don't know. It's been a while."
"You know. You're a handsome dude. You get yourself a shave, some clean clothes. Don't have to be too sharp, just clean and decent. You do that and you get yourself a shit load of pussy."
"Yeah. I'll remember that. Thanks a lot."
The receptionist was very red and old like candy cotton on a wrinkled cue ball. She handed Justin a form and indicated a row of chairs and a stack of clipboards. It took about a half hour to fill out the form and hand it back, another thirty minutes to be summoned to a small desk by a Puerto Rican dignitary, very official, examining the neatly lettered but quivering responses, peering over thick lenses and smiling carefully.
"I see here that you've been unemployed for three months."
"And you're currently with the Employment Program."
"Why haven't you applied for stamps prior to today?"
"I didn't know about them."
"You're a college graduate and haven't heard of food stamps?"
"I've met some Ph.D.'s who couldn't find their own asshole."
"I see. Well yes. Well take this slip over to the window."
Parks was shuddering with laughter off to the side while he bought the stamps. A little man with strands of hair slicked front tight over a bald skull counted them and clipped them into a folder. He grinned up as if into a strong wind and turned back to some papers as Justin counted the stamps and headed for the door. Outside it was extremely cold, only the sun to hold to, bitter stabbing air to the end of the building where they entered another room. Parks was still laughing.
A fat lady looked up with a kindly face.
"We want to apply for a rental payment."
"Sorry, Mr. Parks. We've not been funded for this quarter."
"You mean this guy can't get some money? He needs fifty right now or he's in the street. Go ahead. Ask him."
"I'm sorry but we can't help you until there's funding."
"Yeah. All right. All right all right. Be good, Grace."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Parks. Try again in April."
Outside in the lot Otis had trouble with the lock. He heated up the key with a butane lighter and got it open. They pulled out into traffic with Otis glancing aside at Justin now and then with a HAH HAAH HAAAH and pulling on a Winston. Pulling finally on a joint he nudged from his silk shirt, passing it over. And HAH HAAH HAAAH and cutting off a Subaru with a right turn from the left lane and smiling into slits out and onto the throughway.
"Where to now, Otis? Trexler Institute?"
"Well we do got to eat, friend. You sure are a crazy dude. Couldn't find his own asshole. No, we're going to meet Spellman at Mr. Steak."
"How long have you known Art? Since when, Otis?"
"Since two years past. I was on his team just like you, and now I'm working for CEP. You hang on there, space man, and you'll get yourself a job maybe too. But I mean you will have to wash yourself."
"Yeah. Well I haven't gotten around to that yet."
They pulled into Mr. Steak stoned out and giggling. Justin felt his head about to go and forced it down by shifting his eyes all over and counting up to fifty by the time they were at the waiting line and eighty at the table back under an emerald plaque with Spellman sucking down a mug of beer and checking out his watch. Pretty soon the girls brought them their rib steaks, the baked potatoes and the salads.
"Man says to space man if he's a college graduate why don't he know about food stamps. Space man says. What did you say, Justin?"
"I said I knew Ph.D.'s that couldn't find their own asshole."
The steak was about a quarter inch thick. Justin had it down in three minutes and was eating the baked potato.
"Space man sure eat fast."
"Justin's a growing boy, Otis. You leave him alone."
"We couldn't get the apartment payment. No funding."
"Yeah. Okay. You know I had a good idea this morning."
"What was that, Art? Going to sell your corpse?"
"Already did that. Got the number already on the bottom of my right foot. Otis has the same thing. No, I'm not going to sell blood either."
"What are you going to do, Spellman?'
"I figure Howard and me set up a boxing match, me against Howard, and we split the money from the tickets. Winner gets the biggest cut. Everybody that hates us will show up for that one."
"I don't know, Spellman."
"We just might give it a try. Got to ask Howard first."
"I got a good idea, Art. Loser eats a turd."
"No. Howard wouldn't do that. No, make it for the money."
"You mean you probably would."
"Well. Well not. Well maybe if the money was right."
"Spellman. You spoiling my meal. Shut your mouth."
"Well we should have something to draw them in."
"Yeah, Spellman. Don't worry about it. You'll think of something."
"Where you going for Thanksgiving, Otis?"
"I got that planned. I'm going straight up."
"Yeah. Three grams and five bitches. A real party."
"Yeah. We're going to Sharon's parents in Cedar Rapids."
"You taking the space man?"
"We can't leave him here alone. Yeah. We're all going."
"Honky heaven's a 65 grand house and space man to eat the turkey. Better get your ass cleaned up, Justin, or you'll scare them into shitting."
"Sharon's parents are very liberal, Otis. Very liberal."
"Well I guess if they lets you marry her."
When they went back out the lock was frozen again, and Otis heated the key. Justin leaned against the old sedan and watched Spellman's Datsun suck out into traffic, trailing haze. They climbed in and headed for the Institute, threading through side streets, pulling on another joint, Otis grinning under the hat, his hands smooth walnut on the wheel.
"You go in there and ask for Trexler. Tell them you're in CEP."
Justin took one last pull and headed for the door.
Trexler was in an office off the anteroom, worried creased face crested wiry black, nudging his nose with a forefinger.
"I'm from CEP. I'm an enrollee."
"Well you're early. Just go in there and wait with the young lady."
He pulled up three chairs down from something pure and twenty, clean skin, wide open eyes, legs spread in a faded denim wrap around skirt.
"You're Justin. I know that because somebody told me."
"What's your name?"
"Morgan. I'm really confused. I think we're going to read some of these books."
"Yes. I guess so. Do you like to read?"
"Sometimes when I'm very lonely. I was just telling Larry that he should try the organic mescaline that's going around. Larry reads."
"Who's Larry? Is Larry your boy friend?"
"No. Larry's a very fucked over guy. He's in methadone maintenance. He's been off the needle for three weeks, but everybody says it won't last. Even Larry says that. Larry says he read a book once that was first rate, but he never told me what it was. I think it might have been SIDDHARTHA, but then it really could have been anything. Have you read a lot of books, Justin?"
"A few. But I forgot just about all of them."
"Tell me about one that you didn't forget."
"I can't think of any right now. Maybe the book you mentioned."
"Which one was that, Justin? SIDDHARTHA?"
"Yes. I've read that one maybe twenty times. Maybe more."
"Well let's not talk about books."
"Let's just sit here and be very quiet for a long time. I think I'll have a cigarette."
"All right. We'll be very quiet and have a cigarette."
After the second break a little man came in with long white hair. He had a handsome leather briefcase. He had perfect white teeth and a pleasant tan. He sat off by himself and examined his fingernails, the gloss of his soft leather boots. Everyone but Justin liked the little white-haired man. It seemed that way. They liked him before he said a word and then they liked him more. Mr. Silverstein, who had published maybe fifty juveniles before 1957 and none since, was going to be their instructor in the other segment of their course, the one that had nothing to do with scanning pages with a forefinger and trying to remember what they had read or not read—creative writing.
"I would like you to do something. Now give it a chance. It will take a little of your time and a lot of your imagination, and it will reveal more of you than everything else I could ask you to write. Now I know that some of you will be reluctant to express yourself about so personal a thing, but I think once you've started you'll give it maximum effort. It may even free you of something that has been troubling you. When you're finished you will hand them in to me unsigned, and I will read through them, select some at random, and read them to all of you. Perhaps you will want to try to guess who was the author of these short essays. Now. Consider. If you were able to have what you wanted most in the world, what would you do with it?"
"Can that be anything, Mr. Silverstein? I mean anything?"
"Yes indeed. Whatever you want most in the world."
Justin wrote rapidly and folded his sheet. After a while, Silverstein collected the papers, scanned them, and sat on the edge of the table.
"All right. Let's try this one first: 'If I had everything I wanted in this world I would have a lifetime's supply of heroin and a 45 automatic. And I'd shoot up that heroin in three months and then I'd shoot myself with the revolver, and then it'd be over. I guess you know who wrote this.'"
"Yeah. That's Larry. Come on, Larry. You don't mean that."
"That's Larry all right. And he means it."
"All right. Let's try this one next: 'I want money. I want a lot of money for a new Ford and a bigger apartment with a good neighborhood where I would let my little girl loose without some sick fucker going for her. I guess that would make it worth living. Maybe I'd like a steak dinner too.'"
"That's Frieda. That's you, ain't it, Frieda?"
"Yeah. I guess so. Well maybe I ain't going to say."
"Well now, would you like to hear a few more?"
"Yeah. Let's hear a couple more, Mr. Silverstein."
"All right. This one is interesting, but I have little trouble with the handwriting: 'If I were to have everything I wanted in the world I would have ultimate knowledge and power leading to perfect . . . '"
"Thank you, Justin. Justin would have ultimate knowledge and power leading to perfect bliss. 'I would sit on a warm eternally warm sunlit summer hill among all the children of the earth. And they would bring me . . . '"
"Thank you. 'And they would bring me presents, simple things such as twigs and flowers, and I would embrace them and give them eternal life and eternal bliss for those presents, and no one would . . . '"
"' . . . and no one would age, no one would die, no one would suffer again in this perfect and holy world, and the children would love me.'"
Silverstein looked around at the mute class, shrugged, waited, went on.
"I don't really know what to say about that one. Here's one more which is interesting in its own right: 'If I had what I really wanted I'd lock the door, swallow the key, and get naked. I'd have me my man.'"
"That's Roberta. That's you, Roberta Waller."
"Yeah. That Roberta, all right. We knows who that is."
Roberta Waller, the large black lady, looked across at Justin. She had been watching him the whole session. The open warmth and the need in that face frightened him. They were all looking at him and at Roberta Waller, and then someone asked Silverstein to reread Justin's short essay, and they heard it the whole way through with Larry nodding and a ferret faced man clenching his fists and stroking the masonite, Roberta wide-eyed sad warmth radiance across a stretch of table, holding, seeming to hold Justin broken, a sparrow in her pale creased palm. And Spellman entering from the anteroom at the final lines, with that puzzled strong awareness, florid energy in the suede coat, big boned movement toward the masonite table.
On the way back they stopped for Justin's gin.
They left Des Moines at 7:30 PM with a case of Grain Belt and three fifths of gin.
"We'll pick up Marka in Iowa City if the bitch'll let her go."
"How IS Jill?"
"Still a piece of ass. Thin, mid-Fifties clothes, still a bitch."
"How's she get along with Sharon?"
"She don't get along with anyone that well. All right?"
"Yeah. I guess you know she tried to fuck me once. Yeah. I told you that when you were up in Wisconsin. She got me alone in the Quonset and rubbed those big lungs against me, and I was nearly seduced."
"Well I don't want to hear about it."
Justin leaned back against the seat and tilted his gin. It was very calm on the Freeway, motion into silence and cold, stabs of light under brittle stars and the chill vinyl roof, Spellman pulling on the hookah and passing it back to glow with his inhalation under the web of ash.
"How WAS Jill, Art? Was she a good fuck?"
"Justin, ease off, will you?"
"I just wanted to know. Maybe you could fix me up."
"Yeah. All right. Forget it."
They pulled into a trailer camp beside the river. Small smooth shells of steel glowed like illuminated beetles, square perforations, muted TV's, stereos, and their breath gusting white down gravel to a cinderblock stoop and laminated door, plastic or metal, certainly thin and dead with Spellman's rap and some excitement within, probably Marka, a stab of bouffant and slender face, some cruelty in the pulsing lamplight.
"Why it's Justin Price. How delightful. You didn't prepare me."
"Yeah. He wants your pussy. Been talking about it the whole say up."
"Art Spellman. You're still such a foul-mouthed nonentity."
Little Marka stuck her head out, the beauty of her mother without the synthetic sheen, trying desperately to be excited about Spellman, about her father, who gathered her up and entered the narrow trailer, grunting and whispering to sag into a vinyl chair by the cathode glow of a portable RCA. Justin stood in the corner sucking on the fifth, taking it in.
"I'm just having a cocktail. Would anyone like a cocktail?"
"Justin has a cocktail. Straight gin and saliva."
"We'd like a cocktail. Art and I will have an Old Fashioned."
"Well. How perfect. I just adore Old Fashioneds. Justin?"
"No thanks. This gin is fine."
"Justin. Why don't you take a chair?"
"Here's fine. I'm very comfortable."
He sank down into a squat and flexed his knees.
"You make me nervous that way."
"She's afraid you'll shit on the rug."
"That's funny, daddy. That's very funny."
"Justin's a writer. Tell Marka about your books."
"Don't you dare, Justin. You just better not dare."
"Everybody eats shit in my books. It's the going thing."
"Justin. That's enough. You tell him to quit, Art."
"Yeah. Knock it off, Justin."
"Yes. Well I suppose we should go. We should go, Art."
Spellman was sitting in the chair, the drink small in his big-boned hand.
"Justin. Remember the first edition I gave you?"
"Yeah Jill. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. You had to scratch on the jacket."
"Well. Remember what I wrote on there?"
"Yeah. Let's go, Art."
"Well I wrote that I wanted a first edition of yours from you in repayment."
"Yeah well, the only first edition I got just yet is here between my legs."
Spellman leaned back HAH HAAH HAAAH and pulled Marka in tight with Jill there trying to hold the studied calm.
"Make sure she says her prayers. Marka. Go get your little bag and your coat and things. Make sure she's polite and lady-like and don't scold her if she wets. And don't let her pick up your language . . . and . . . come here a minute, Art."
She whispered in Spellman's ear and he backed off flushed.
Outside in the Datsun they felt the tug of acceleration into the dark and the gloss of the river beyond the bridge.
"What did she say to you, honey?"
"Yeah. What was she whispering?"
"Nothing. Just a lot of shit, believe me."
"Well, what was it then?"
Heavy into the lane to approach concrete and then smooth ahead.
"The bitch said we shouldn't leave her alone with Justin."
Justin, sipping from the gin, was moved to a sharp difficult sadness.
"Hey, Sharon. What are your folks like?"
"Well they're nice. Liberal. A little crazy in their own way. My dad is. He's an engineering executive. Kind of smart."
"Don't worry, Justin. They'll like you."
"I'm not worried. I know the right things to say."
Locked in, Justin nuzzled the gin into the dark vinyl corner.
The house was fair sized—modern colonial.
He watched Spellman with the luggage, gusting white through the open garage.
Several well-groomed people met Sharon with a hug.
Spellman leaned close and whispered.
"Take off your coat and sit in a chair. All right?"
"Sure is a nice house here. Solid upper middle class. Living room reminds me of Madison General."
"Of Madison General? Is that a hospital?"
"Would you like a glass, son? Perhaps some ice."
"I'm all right."
"What do you think of Iowa? I mean what do you think of the people here, the countryside, the culture, things in general?"
"Well, it's hard to say. I've seen better. But then I guess most people back in Pennsylvania where I grew up."
"You were saying?"
"Well that's what I meant. Most people back there."
"I see. Well I'm not sure I follow you."
"Wayne. Children. I have a good suggestion."
"What's that, mom?"
"Why don't we all have a large bowl of vanilla ice cream?"
They crowded toward the kitchen.
"Everything is so clean, mom."
"I've always felt that there was no good reason to put up with those spots we were having with the old equipment. Now I had thought it was the detergent. Then I got this idea that it might be the water. I mean—Dolores, this ice cream is simply delightful, tangy in fact. Where did you buy it?"
"Well I bought three gallons last evening at Pathmark."
"It's marvelous. No, as I was saying, I thought it might be the water. Too many minerals, hard water, that is, staining the bowls and the glasses with mineral deposits—oh, this ice cream is a treat—what did you pay for it, dear?"
"Three dollars and thirteen cents the gallon."
"Reasonable too. Well I bought a Mantrex V114 water softener from Harvey Treadmire and had it installed. And you know it didn't alter a thing. That's when I got this big baby here."
Wayne Hubler leaned back and ran his hand over the dishwasher.
"Well it sure does make a difference, daddy."
"You see I've always had this thing about cleanliness. I mean if I don't have two baths daily. I mean if I don't brush my teeth after every snack. If I don't scent my armpits, I feel irregular. Picked up the habit in the Army, I guess. A lot of people like me, I would think. I mean maybe not as far as I go, that's for sure."
"Yes. Well Wayne and I both scrub our bottoms thoroughly after every bowel movement."
Justin entered the bedroom and crawled in with his shoes on and pushed the blankets free at the foot of the bed. He took one last swig of the gin and fell toward sleep. In his dream Wayne Hubler was taking him on a tour that ended in the one bathroom he knew about, kneeling finally to plead that he just take one simple, one luxuriant shower.
The table was very large. It was mahogany veneer and within three feet of the walls. It was covered with white lace cloth. At the periphery were six people, heads inclined in prayer. Little Marka's voice shuddering over the enormous glazed turkey, the sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, the oyster casserole, the cranberry sauce, the peas and carrots, five slender goblets of Sauterne, an iced Coca-Cola.
"God is gracious, God is good, and we thank him for our food. By his hand we must be fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread. God bless mother daddy Sharon grandma grandpa Hubler Mr. Price."
"That is pleasant. Wasn't that pleasant, Dolores?"
"Yes. That's just what I was going to say. Very pleasant."
Mr. Hubler plugged an electric knife in the overhead fixture and began to rend the turkey into neat segments.
"That's quite a knife there, Mr. Hubler."
"Yes son. This is the Woombler V-22. It's guaranteed for 400 years."
"On the contrary. I could show you the warranty. It's a precision industrial instrument with a genuine Bakelite handle and chilled carbon steel blades. It vibrates in excess of 700 quarter inch passes a minute."
"I am moved."
"I suppose you've noticed our fixture here. These tear-shaped bulbs are wired to a calibrated system monitored to a dial in the wall. I can adjust the total lumens in this room fairly much at will. A photo-sensitive eye in the same wall plate can take over where there is human error and compensate for the total illumination coming from those windows."
"That is incredible."
"Yes. Especially when you consider the price of the whole unit. Tell them, Dolores."
"Why yes. That whole package came to less than 300."
Mr. Hubler loaded the plates with brisk efficiency.
"Here's a nice big slice of tom turkey, son. Crisp and succulent."
"Mother. These sweet potatoes are simply marvelous."
"Well yes. Well thank you. I'm using an added dash of brown sugar. Well I hate to say this but it will be more fattening. And you do have a problem."
"The turkey. Well it's just too much. It makes me giddy."
"Well that's your touch, honey. I must say I am happy."
"Take some peas, little Marka, honey."
"I don't think she'll eat them, mother. I just don't know how to get her to eat her peas. She's very obstinate every time we visit together."
"I would think that there are unpleasant associations, Sharon."
"How's that, son?"
"She's probably thinking of something terrible, rat pellets perhaps. Downright filthy. Excrement, I'd say. Certainly no harbinger of delight."
Art Spellman stood up abruptly and folded his napkin.
"Justin? I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes in private."
They stood in the alcove, Spellman flushed and threatening.
"All right. You're making fun of them. Ease off."
They sat back down and Justin emptied his Sauterne.
"Mother. This stuffing is simply marvelous."
"Well I thought you'd say that. You won't believe this, but it's right out of the package. Sharon, it's Louffler's."
"You don't mean it.
"That's the unadorned truth. Well I freshened it up a bit with some of my own herbs, but that's Louffler's."
Wayne Hubler nudged Justin and stared intensely into his eyes.
"I see you like the Sauterne."
"More Sauterne everybody?"
"My yes. Just pass the decanter."
"Justin. I want you to wager a guess. Foreign or domestic?"
"Domestic. Assuredly domestic. You see it's very fruity."
"That's it on the button. Now. Brand name?"
"I'd say Taylor New York State, and I bet I'm right."
"Art. This friend of yours is a veritable genius. Right on the button. How in heaven's name could you tell?"
"I saw the bottle this morning when I threw out my empty."
"Oh that's rich. That is truly rich. Oh, Dolores. I'm paralyzed. HAH HAAH HAAAH HAAAAH. That was just priceless."
Justin drank off his Sauterne and sat back vaguely nauseated, depressed.
"You know I haven't had this much fun in a long time."
"Well it certainly pleases us to hear that, son. Just think of Dolores and I as your family. Enjoy yourself. Relax. Maybe we can all play a good long game of Monopoly tonight to finish off a perfect day. I know Marka would like that. Wouldn't you, dear?"
"Oh wonderful grandpa Hubler. Oh that's keen."
"Gracious no. We're stuffed."
"I think they're ready for it, honey. Now close your eyes. Everybody close your eyes and don't peek. I'll be back in a jiffy."
Everyone closed up and sat back bloated.
"Keep'm closed, children. Wayne. Don't peek. Now. No peeking. Can anybody guess what it is?"
"It's a big dipper of chocolate ice cream."
"No. No it isn't, Wayne. It's something else."
"It's strawberry shortcake. I just know it is."
"No no, Sharon. It's something else."
"Pumpkin pie with whipped cream."
"No, no, little Marka. It's something else. Can anybody guess what I've put in front of them? Anybody?"
"What is it, mother? Can I peek?"
"Everybody listen to this. It's tapioca pudding with blueberry marmalade and little flecks of Graham crackers frosting the top. Yes it is. Open your eyes."
"Oh. How thrilling. Oh my. I'm overcome."
It was very quiet before Justin knelt at the toilet.
"What's the matter with those fuckers, Art?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean they just stepped off some awful commercial."
"You know they're happy, Justin. That's all that matters."
"If that's all that matters we ought to close it down."
In the thin dark night they pushed the Datsun toward Iowa City.
"Did Wayne Hubler really vote for McGovern?"
"Hell, he campaigned for him."
"That's weird. That is really weird."
"Not when you think of it."
"Art, pull over."
He was down in the gully heaving. For himself or for the Hublers, or for the whole hard mess.
"He campaigned for him then."
"That's the truth."
"Well then God bless him. God bless them one and all."
Justin sat behind the IBM and watched the paper darken.
"Jesus. Dear Lord. Help me through this. Just a few minutes. Lord. Enter my life. Be kind to me. Be gentle to your son. Help me to love you, to believe in you. To believe in something. To believe in Spellman. Something. Help me to be good to myself. To love myself. To love something. Forgive me that I cause so much pain. Forgive me that I wish to overthrow your influence. To destroy you. To destroy you in myself. Empty my room and fill it. Let me feel you in me. Let me feel you. Help me to love you. To love. Forgive me my hatreds. Forgive me that I hate you. That I hate you in myself. That I hate. Forgive me. Forgive me for praying to you in my weakness."
Otis Parks was there by the proctor in his natty hat and jacket.
"Justin. You ready? Spellman sent me to drive you over."
"Yeah. Yeah I'm ready. Yeah I'm very ready."
"Hi there, big woman. What's happening?"
Roberta Waller smiled and nodded from down the row.
They went out past dead people in the open room and finally the lounge.
The Oldsmobile was jammed up the slope beside a Subaru.
They crawled in and Otis lit a joint, passed it. The engine cleared its throat and caught immediately, backed them into traffic. Otis Parks had smooth stained-walnut hands over the covered wheel.
"That Spellman's idea going to the Buddha man?"
"Going to the counselor?"
"Yeah. The witch doctor. The nerve man. The psych."
"No. It was my idea. I need a prescription."
"Well don't let them fuck with you none. Had me a buddy once into acid and mescaline. They put him through some shit. Little head set on the brain and 200 volts. Came out a zombie."
Justin pulled on the joint and tried to float with it, but it pulled him up taut and trembling. The next time Otis passed it he shook his head negative and slumped back into the window. Out there people were very stiff and rigid, snorting vapor past gray shop fronts.
"That's called shock therapy."
"What's that, Justin?"
"When they wire your head. That's called shock therapy. I had a baker's dozen—thirteen treatments, once, and when it was all through I couldn't remember the names of my best friends, the ones that stuck. Nine years of college, graduate school, burned out of me. Books I read maybe three times I couldn't even tell if I had read them. People came to visit. Couldn't remember. Couldn't remember anything. I mean some things, yes. But not a lot."
"They going to wire you again out at the County hospital?"
"No. No. I'm just going to talk to someone and get my medication."
"Yeah. All right."
"How was Thanksgiving, Otis? Work out all right?"
"Wasn't worth a fuck. Couldn't cop. Little weed—that's all. Then Thelma got sick. Puked all over the rug. Bad scene. Worst time I've had in about eighteen years."
"How old are you?"
"23. Want another hit off this?"
"No. No thanks."
Otis Parks dropped the roach in a silver box with some others. They pulled into a rear lot by some evergreens and swung out into bitter cold, a hundred yards toward a service entrance and down corridors into the clinic. A little lady there took Justin's name.
"Tell you what. Fucking place spooks me. I'll be back later."
"All right. How about before noon?"
"Yeah. All right. Say hello to Charlie."
"Who's that, Otis?"
"The Buddha man. The witch doctor. Say hello for me."
"Yeah. See you later."
"Yeah. Much later. Very late and late completely."
The motion was gone, just the wan drawn faces inward on nothing, his compatriots.
A very clean lady in blue tweed called him out of that absence.
He sat in a padded chair across from her tidy presence.
"Justin. I want you to take a Rorschach. Would that displease you?"
"You can get my records from Madison if you need that."
"Yes. Well, we've wired for them. But we'd still like to see what your reactions are after a few years. It won't take more than a few minutes."
"All right. But I do need medication. That's important."
"Certainly. The test will have nothing to do with your medication. We've arranged a prescription for you. You may pick it up when we've finished the test and our little talk."
"I'm not so sure I want to talk."
"That's up to you. We're just trying to be friends. You know that. In fact, you can call me Edith."
"Is that your name?"
"Oh yes. Isn't that embarrassing? Edith Prentice."
The tidy lady handed him a blotted card across the desk.
"I'm afraid this is going to sound as if it came right out of a textbook."
"No. Go ahead."
"Well it seems like a moth toward light, a laser that reaches to pierce the entrails and rip it apart. And the center is energy, the periphery structure. Energy, the laser, pulsing against structure. The moth is trying desperately to hold together, but the light is rending it."
"I want you to circle the wings and label them. Circle the head and label it. Okay. Now the inner light. Label it. Fine."
She handed him a second card.
"Again rending. Here I see Siamese twins joined by structure and organic flow. They are being severed, torn apart by immense and hostile energy. They seek union but are being rent in the same fashion. Perhaps a laser, perhaps an idea. An idea of perfection. A force greater than their pathetic attempts to find union. The force of primal life rending them brutally. I find this blot very frightening. Hostile."
"All right. Circle and label the parts. Label each element."
It went on that way for a while till Justin swiveled away toward the wall.
"What is it? What is it, Justin?"
"Lady, why don't you go hide?"
"Justin, you must know. You're classically schizophrenic, and yet I think you're orchestrating it. Maybe you felt this way some time ago, but this time there's the strong hint of anachronism. You're much healthier than you make yourself out to be. You can't let go."
"I saw some monkeys. I saw an elephant."
"Come on now. You're upset. Right?"
"Tired. I'm very tired."
"Well there's a couch in the next room. You can wait there for your friend. Unless you'd like to chat a bit till he comes."
"No. I'll just lie down for a while."
"Fine. You can pick up your medication at the desk."
Lying on the couch, he was very sick, crying small and tight into the vinyl with the light muted in the quiet room and just his sound into the uterine enclosure, pressed there with his utter loneliness and futility as if stranded at a great distance where the ideas began. No sound but his own silence, the glossy dark unyielding vinyl.
"Justin. Hey. I don't want to see that. Hey Justin."
"It's all right, Otis. Where are we going?"
"There's a diner on Galaxy. Spellman out there."
The little lady handed him his pills. He didn't even see her.
"Take a hit on this. You'll feel better. Take a good hit."
Spellman was in the rear booth in front of a pile of lasagna.
Otis slid in and looked around as if at enemies.
Justin sat across, facing Spellman and the window.
"You look terrible, Justin. You look like something I threw up."
"They gave me a Rorschach."
A fat lady with good teeth leaned massively on the table.
"Hi, fellows. Would you like a menu?"
"You got chili here, lady?"
"We sure do. We got the best chili in this whole damned county."
"I'll take some chili and some crackers and a cup of coffee."
"All right. You won't be disappointed."
"Give me a cheeseburger, I guess. A chocolate shake."
The lady walked away, stuffed tight in the white dress, and squeezed behind the counter with the plaid hunting jackets and blond bouffants. Spellman forked in lasagna with his big hands. Justin checked the selections in the chrome box over the table and gave it up after a lot of Hank Snow and Charlie Rich.
"Prices in here are out of sight. Ain't that true?"
"Yeah. And really good people too. I saw more flag stickers in that lot than maybe a year driving Des Moines. Patriots and citizens. Honky bigots laying in fuel for the next witch hunt."
"You're just prejudiced, Otis. Prejudiced and full of shit."
"Yeah. Well that beard don't make you a nigger lover."
"Otis Parks, there ain't nothing I love more than a black man. Big black dick in my mouth and I'm in paradise."
"Shut up, Spellman. You making me sick."
Otis drove Justin to Trexler Institute in the bitter shuddering cold.
"All right turn to 168 of BRAVE NEW WORLD. Use your pacer. We're going to do eighteen pages in one minute. Three passes per page should do it."
Silverstein walked in imperiously after the third break. He bought coffee for everyone and described a game called Analogy.
"You see it's really an attempt to open the mind to the power of definition by comparisons. One person is picked to leave the room. The others select a second person but keep the information secret from the first. The first person returns and attempts to determine who was picked second by asking questions of everyone assembled. He asks for example: 'If this person were a horse, what kind of horse would he be?' Or: 'If this person were a car what kind of car would he be?' The people assembled answer one at a time, and after three questions the first person picked has to guess who was picked as the second person. Does everyone understand?"
"I don't want to play no games, Mr. Silverstein."
"No. We like it. Let's play it, Mr. Silverstein."
"Let's play it. Make Larry leave the room. Make Larry try and guess."
Larry walked into the anteroom, and they picked Justin as the second person. They called Larry back in finally, and he asked his first question. Everyone was very excited, even Mr. Silverstein, even Justin.
"If this person was a house, what kind of house would they be?"
"A big house with pillars in the front. A big mansion."
"I think it would be a mansion. Maybe a castle."
"I think it would be worth $200,000 and have a swimming pool."
They went on through the whole group, and Larry asked his second question.
"If this person was a drug, what kind of drug would they be?"
"Hell. You can't ask that, Larry?"
"Fuck I can't. What kind of drug?"
"I don't think this person would be a drug. Maybe a upper."
"Yeah. I'd say an upper. Maybe speed or something."
"I'd say a downer."
"LSD. Maybe LSD."
Everyone laughed at that. They went through the group, and Larry asked the third question.
"What kind of dog would this person be?"
"A dachshund. One of them little dogs."
"Hell no. A Doberman pinscher."
"A German pinscher."
It was Roberta's turn. She looked directly at Justin with those soft bright eyes and smiled, melting, with her whole body arching back to fit tight against him, sunlight across the masonite. They were all watching her, and they knew what she had for him.
"How about you, Roberta? What kind of dog would they be?"
She flushed at the longest pause. Then:
Spellman's Datsun died in the back lot of the Winterside Apartments, nosed into 41D. They sat there in darkness passing the hookah, just the inhalations and stabbing it tight, and a distant melody broken in shifting wind.
"Thing you got to understand is that's she's got the conventions of a middle class white. Now maybe she's a little freer but not in ways that count. And she's really upper class black, seeing she's a secretary, and not many go that high."
"So you want me to behave myself. Is that it, Art?"
"Well don't just pull a lot of shit she won't understand."
"Like licking her ear or farting or calling Jesus a homosexual."
"Yeah. Like any of that shit. She'll loosen up after a while but don't offend her."
Even the elevator was carpeted, numbers winking like blind eyes toward the top of a shirt, silence down the corridor to 432S and rapping lightly. Spellman bracing his shoulders, Lincolnesque in the beard, forced grin like a split in rotten fruit. When the door opened the big black lady was there in a lot of dress, Roberta Waller with her eyes on Justin, flicker of a soft curved tongue.
"Dorothy's in with her mother. Hello now. You just come on in."
The big living room was Danish modern and some department store prints. Group photographs of dark skinned people in bright gilt frames. Tidy, even frightening, like the waiting room of an obstetrician, the precision of the furniture chilling Justin against the warmth of the large lady in black edging toward a seat, smoothing down with that weight and the pale net stockings creased with elastic under the knees. She was smoking one of her small black cigars, smiling pool of silence in the fragile chair. They sat there waiting, Spellman sizing up the room, squaring his shoulders.
Dorothy Spitzer entered with flat breasts.
"Well this is marvelous. Hello Art. Sharon."
She gave Sharon a tight squeeze and stepped back and clapped her hands.
"And Mr. Price. I see you're still wearing that topcoat now. La la."
Justin edged into a chair and pulled out a pint bottle of gin.
"Well now. I see Mr. Price's a drinker. Now I guess nobody else is."
Spellman laughed hollowly and leaned further back into the couch.
"Well I got some Heineken's. How about everybody have a glass of Heineken's?"
Everybody nodded. Justin pulled on the gin in the brown bag.
They drank Heineken in goblets for about an hour, and then Miss Spitzer put on something that sounded rather saccharine and they drank some more Heineken. Justin squatted by the record rack and went through the LP's—the Temptations, Roberta Flack, Mantovani, an old collection of Johnnie Ace he pulled out and laid on the top of the console. He had to urinate.
Back a short corridor was an open door. He looked in at an old black woman in a wheelchair watching a portable color television. She smiled with half her teeth and chuckled and looked back at the set. In the bathroom were large towels and blue water in a yellow toilet bowl.
On the way back he looked in again at the old lady. She looked as if she were from another century and wasn't making much sense out of the program. Her hands were very large and arthritic, clasped over the arm rests, her dark feet sunk deep into fluffy pink slippers. Justin had another hit from the gin and entered the music and Spellman dancing with some emotion, flipping V's and causing some laughter. Dorothy Spitzer was clutching her spotted neck and heaving asthmatically, spilling just a touch of Heineken on the floral rug. The large lady was beaming over a little black cigar into Sharon's frown.
"You white men dance all the same way. Move your legs but not your body. Look like you're dead from the rear end up."
"Justin can dance. You won a contest, didn't you?"
"The story's apocryphal. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't."
"You ask Roberta to dance. She love to dance."
"Not me. I don't do the dancing. Lord no. Not this girl."
Justin set down his gin and walked up to Spellman.
"All right. Lesson number seven. Yeah. A little higher."
They sparred for about a minute, Justin slapping Art's face about a dozen times and taking no hits, warding them off easily.
"You going to get creamed, Art Spellman. That Howard's going to beat your face in. Hell you get scared and close your eyes. I never seen such a fraidy cat. Howard going to beat your face in for sure."
"When that fight going to be, Art Spellman? I just gots to see that fight. You really going to fight bare naked?"
"Friday night is the big match. And we're going to wear jock straps."
"Oh. That's awful. I ain't going to see that no way, Art Spellman."
"Well that's your problem, Dorothy. This is going to be the biggest thing around here in ten years. Hell we sold a hundred tickets already. Justin's been training me, and he learned from an Army middleweight. Right, Justin?"
"Yeah. But if you keep closing your eyes he's going to wipe the mat with you."
"That what I say. Spellman, you just a sissy."
Justin backed off to the console and put on the Johnnie Ace. Spellman pulled up Dorothy and started to slow dance. They sat there watching, and then Justin looked over left, and the big lady was so somber and then looking at him in a very funny vague way, and pretty soon he was asking her to dance, and he felt that big lady against him, that lady he didn't desire, because he didn't desire anything except perhaps to go back to Spellman's and sleep. But he could feel her weight against him, and she was making it very plain that she did in fact desire him, perhaps more than anything in her small taut world, there over the floral rug with Spellman steering Miss Spitzer, and Sharon alone with a goblet of good beer, very erect in the soft chair, very rigid and working on the smile, as Justin danced into that soft body that seemed to envelop him and his sadness.
"I want you to come home with me. I wants to take care of you."
"I don't think you want that, lady. I think that would be the last thing you want."
"You don't know how big my want is. Tell Art you coming home with me. Tell him Roberta will bring you back. Safe and sound."
"I'm a very ugly person, Roberta. You go on back alone."
"Justin, you are the beautifulest man I have ever seen. You makes me want to cry I feel that so much. You shut up now and come home with me."
They drove to Roberta's in the old Studebaker.
"Do you inhale them? Those cigars."
"Yeah. Yes indeed. I inhale just about everything I smoke."
"What street is this?"
"Fifty-first. I live on East Fifty-first. 36A."
Sitting there in the dark coat, she filled up much of the front seat. The lights went by like beads on an invisible chain, spaced out far and chill like the houses gray in near total darkness. They pulled behind a two-story frame house, nosed back into a gap between shrubs. The sounds over the concrete walk, Roberta massive ahead with her hair pulled tight and straight, were thin and metallic seeming, like fingernails over a coffin, that sound of their feet and a television flare in an upper window.
"I want you to meet my friends. You knows one of them, the skinny one, Cecilia. Other's Rachel Farrad—junky girl but pretty. We just make a visit to say hello and things. That's the TV up there. Rachel lives down the hallway with her little boy. Suppose asleep, the boy, Clinton, about seven and real smart like his father."
They circled the rotting house and climbed past a sagging landing. The TV was loud now, contending with the large lady's three sharp raps, and then muted and loud again as the door opened to the skinny lady from Trexler Institute, darker than Roberta, and smiling against a drawn homely face, pulling back to a dark room bathed with cathode light, a striking Negress there in a cotton gown. Pretty but rigid and taut like drawn wire ready to break and coil into spiraled fragments—taut and jerking the hand out that he took.
"Rachel is the pretty one. And this one you knows—Cecilia."
"I am Justin. I don't want to bother anyone."
"We was just talking about hustling when you knocked."
They were close to the television in the tiny dark room.
"I was just telling Skinny that you has to be a real genius."
"Yeah. If you wants to stay alive."
"Yeah. You has to judge the man. A judge of character. Or you pick up one of the sick ones."
"Yeah. I was turning some dollars in Oklahoma outside of Fort Sill. My partner would bring them in one door and out the back. And one of them, a big redneck type, cut me down the chest."
Justin pulled out his gin and passed it. He pulled out his gleaming bottle of Mellaril and swallowed two tablets.
"What you got there, Justin? Downers?"
"Tranquilizers. They're very strong, you know."
"You give me some, hear? Give me and Cecilia some."
He handed them each two and they took them with the gin.
"The secret of it be to keep from enjoying it. I mean letting them come quick and don't be getting worked up over it. You has to make yourself cold and dead between the legs or the sex will get to you finally."
They sat there passing the gin. Cecilia had some beer, and they drank that. The little room with the sad furniture and the commercials and the late show seemed a stopover between infinite suffering that they huddled against, afraid of the next increment of the screw that was pressing them tight. Most of the time they just sat there saying nothing, and finally Roberta gathered up and he followed her out toward the landing.
"You go in there and take a bath. Hand me out your clothes. Going to clean them up in Rachel's big tank if she ain't sold it."
"I don't really want a bath. Feel good the way I am."
"Yeah well you going to take a nice long bath. Get in there."
Justin pulled off his clothes and handed them out through the crack. He turned to the old tub and filled it steaming hot. Lowered himself in and soaped his hair and upper body. Slid further in and raised his groin to soap. Lay there in the heat and wet, staring up at the cracked and sagging plaster, the narrow slats protruding from a break toward the center. He heard the door open a slit and saw the robe there a puddle on the floor together with a hotel towel. Slid all the way under and stood with the water rivulets down his pale belly. Toweled off and combed his hair with his fingers, staring into the cracked mirror, the dead face with the stubble.
The robe was much too short. He pulled on his desert boots and descended. She was there in the corridor with the wet pile of his clothes.
They entered her one-room apartment with the large yellow bed and a straight chair, a television and sink and refrigerator. He picked up his gin from the chair and drank the last inch. She turned away and he dropped the robe, kicked off the shoes, and peeled back the spread. He lay down naked on the floral sheet, belly down in the hot room.
He heard her moving heavily over the bad floor, probably hanging out his clothes on the wire over the sink. And then he heard her clothes sliding against rayon and flesh and he lay there unexcited, listening to that sound of her going naked, his eyes pressed tight to the rose color which went black with a snap of the switch. The feet on the sagging floor and then the bed shifting mightily as she lay down there beside him and touched her small soft hand to his back.
"My first husband was a white man, fairer than you. My little boy, he got red hair from it. He some pretty little boy, Justin."
The soft hand and the bed shifting, and she was kneeling beside him with her both hands there kneading the muscles gently.
"You a very pretty man, Justin. Very fair and thin. I knew when I seen you that you was going to be coming home with me some day. I don't got much to offer, but you don't need that. You that kind."
He felt himself coming aroused and shifted up and back with his sex up his belly against the sheet. Her thigh against him was very smooth and warm, her hands so very gentle that he felt the need to cry there quietly with her hands on him in absolute darkness.
"I know I'm not much to look at. Sister used to say how I let myself get this way, but I knows that you the kind of good man like you are that don't care none about that. I knew that when I seen you, when I seen you writing on the machine, on the big typewriter. Now Spellman, he a good man, but he cares. He wouldn't ever care for me like I knows you must, Justin. Justin, I asking for you. You turn over now and touch me."
He lifted and sat against her in the darkness with his arms tight against that big body until they lay back, and he tried to enter. She was there beneath him with her tears wet against his face, and he couldn't enter, could only lie there quiet and feel her dark soft body. Lie there until he twitched back and lay along her side, feeling the immense sadness catch him tight warm tender sobbing while the big woman wept in her own shudders over the cotton sheet.
"I'm sorry I can't do it for you, Roberta. I guess you forgive me."
"Justin, I lived with a rich man once in my twenties. We was together for over a year, and only toward the end did it happen. He was homosexual, and he used to make me watch him with the young boys. But he loved me, Justin, and toward the end we did the sex. And it was the best sex and the best loving I ever had with anyone. Believe me."
"I believe you. And I guess you do forgive me."
They lay there for about an hour listening to their own breathing.
"Do you like Mr. Silverstein? The guy that teaches writing."
"He a good man in his way. He wants me to write down stories about my men and what we did together. He thinks we might be getting them published."
"Roberta, did you ever do drugs when you were having sex? Did you ever smoke marijuana? Did you ever smoke marijuana and do it?"
"I never smoked that stuff. I never fooled around with that kind of drugs."
"It's nearly worth it. Even with all the pain. It's a taste of something. It's a kind of paradise or something. I can't really explain. It's everything in the whole universe all at once, and then it's nothing."
"Justin, there really ain't no paradise nowhere. Just a lot of people trying to create it and shove it down throats. The oneliest thing there is be lonely people trying to get it over in their own emptiness."
"Let's be quiet then. Let's sleep. Maybe we can sleep. I'll try to know you better just staying quiet."
"We'll try that. We'll be trying that hard."
"Good night, pretty man. And dream sweet."
He turned to kiss her shoulder and lay back over on his stomach. He fell asleep with her soft hand touching his back.
Somewhere toward morning there was a light on, and it seemed she was ironing his clothes.
Art Spellman was straddling the end of the bench in a dark red satin robe. Justin, standing over, could see the crests of yellow letters down the back—SPELLMAN. Art, thrusting out his gloves for Justin to tie, sucking on a banana yellow joint, as back another bench was Howard with Otis Parks, Howard in pink terrycloth and red felt letters—REID. Justin saw the green gloss of the lockers and the flushed face squinting into the smoke of the joint, saw the pail of cold water and the sopping towel, saw Sharon worried by the exit with the hollow sound of several hundred stoned out spectators from CEP and Porky's and the other bars where they had sold the tickets, promising free beer and a naked match. And Spellman squinting and sucking in grass and twitching with the energy that pooled high in his fear and excitement.
"Look, Art. You're not going to take him unless you tire him out. You got the reach, so use it. Hold him off and let him burn himself out swinging at you. Don't throw a punch except to hold him off and keep backing off until I tell you. It's simply the only way."
"Look. Howard's fat in the stomach. I pound him in the stomach, and he'll be throwing up in ten minutes. Let me do it my way. I get in close and pound him in the stomach. How about it?"
"Art. You go for the stomach, and he'll pound the shit out of you. Let him try to get to you. Let him wear himself out. Do it my way."
"We'll see. We'll see."
Outside in the gym were exercise mats and four stands holding the ropes. There was a big crowd at the kegs and around the ring on wooden chairs and standing, up close sitting on the hardwood. When he walked out through them with Spellman, the roar was deafening, hollow shrieks and whistles, some booing, over the wooden floor, Spellman dancing, throwing punches at the air, a cop over in the corner trying for solemnity.
A large fat guy was sitting on Spellman's stool. At first it didn't seem as if he would give it up. Justin intervened, and finally they had the stool inside the ropes, and the big fat guy was off to the side giving everybody the finger and getting some laughter, swigging on a bottle in a brown bag, moving off at last as Spellman climbed in the ring and did a shuffle and dance, a few V's, to some more laughter and some jeering—till Howard came out and then a surge of sound and frenzy for their favorite. Howard clasping his gloves in a dance of victory down the aisle, Otis trailing with a bucket, Howard stoned out and drunk, veering from side to side in the pink robe, swinging under the ropes and giving Spellman a fake kick in the ass to draw outrageous cheers and huzzahs.
And then they took their robes off.
Standing there in jock straps with the crowd going berserk—cheering, whistling, yowling, clapping, stomping, leaping to their feet in a cacophony of utter hysteria as the cop forced his way through, his chrome whistle impotent in the uproar.
Spellman dancing, forking V's with the big gloves over his massive genitals distending the supporter. Howard flushed, his equipment modest in comparison, flushed the whole way down his chest, as the cop entered the ring to an avalanche of booing, jeering uproar, catcalls, howling dismay. The cop raised his arms, piercing the maelstrom with his whistle, begging for quiet when at last it came.
"All right. All right. I'm going to run these two in for indecent exposure if they don't get some shorts on. All right. Hear me out. It's either shorts on or there ain't going to be no match. And that's final."
"It ain't fair. It ain't fair."
Spellman raised his arms to quiet them, hollered.
"You want a fight we got to get the shorts on. Ain't no god damn choice. Otis. Get in there and find some shorts."
"It ain't fair, Spellman. You cheating us out of five dollars."
"Well what the fuck did you come for? For a fight. Right? All right. We're going to have a fight. Otis, get the shorts."
There was a lot of hollering, and then it quieted down some. The cop stood there with his arms crossed while they waited for the shorts, with more hollering, and the cop was bending down to leave the ring and head to the kegs for a cup of beer. Somebody had a big garbage lid for a bell and a stopwatch, and another guy, black with a full beard—they said he was a field representative for Zonk Enterprises—stepped in as referee and made a few announcements—eight minute rounds, no round limit, winner by knockout or TKO, no point system involved. Spellman was running around the ring during it all, forking V's and dancing, throwing punches in obscure directions to some uproar, some indifference, Howard off to the side pulling on a quart bottle of Ripple, chasing it with beer from the tap, Howard flushed and certain of victory.
Finally they had the shorts and were ready to go. There was a stab of silence and then the clatter of the hammer into the garbage lid, and Spellman lurched forward to the center of the ring. Howard, handing the Ripple back through the ropes, turned and spit some onto the mat, flexed and sprang in three leaps into Spellman and began flailing, Spellman back pedaling rapidly around the ring and warding off the blows.
The crowd was furious, hooting, jeering Art Spellman, these first minutes like a track meet with Spellman in reverse.
"Pussy. Spellman a big fucking pussy. Pussy pussy Spellman."
"Spellman eats shit. Spellman eats shit and barks at the moon."
Howard lunging drunkenly, flailing at Spellman's gloves, his arms, elbows, lurching after Spellman with the crowd berserk, tossing beer and cups, bottles into the ring, shrieking for Howard to batter him into the ground when the hammered lid came, three clatters in the din, and Spellman bolted for his corner, for Justin toweling him off as they hollered their derision.
"Look Justin. It's pissing them off. Why don't I go in there and pound him on the stomach? Shit, he'll puke his guts out."
"Spellman. Look. Stick to the plan. You're doing fine."
"Yeah, but those fuckers going to tear me apart if I don't stand up and fight."
"Only guy's going to tear you apart is Howard. You're doing fine."
The clatter came, and Spellman danced around, forking V's, meeting Howard midway, back pedaling as Howard connected with some good ones. The crowd was getting louder, more furious, angered by Spellman's pedaling.
"Spellman a chicken shit pussy. Spellman a pussy."
"Kill Art Spellman. Kill Art Spellman. Kill Art Spellman."
The chant was deafening, with Howard flailing at the retreating body, Howard winded, sucking air in spasms, flushed to the shorts as Spellman retreated, having not yet thrown a punch.
"Kill Art Spellman. Kill Art Spellman."
"Spellman a pussy. Spellman a chicken shit."
And the clatter came with the uproar as Justin entered with the stool and the pail of water. He was hoarse, yelling against the crowd, and he could hardly hear himself, hear Spellman arguing against the chant.
"It's time. It's time. I'll finish him off. Go for his belly."
"He'll hammer you into the mat, Art. Stick to plans. Throw a few but keep your distance."
"If I don't get him now they're going to enter this ring and have my ass. I got to show I ain't no chicken shit."
"Okay. Throw a few. But keep your distance. And don't go for the stomach. Lay some jabs into his head but back off. Got it?"
"All right all right all right all right."
They could hardly hear the garbage lid for the chanting. Spellman was out there in the middle with Howard, throwing his first punches. The chant went frenzied, shattered into disorder, generalized uproar, chaos, a hideous avalanche of sound as Howard took some hits and laid in some of his own, staggering Spellman toward renewed back pedals, flailing and taking heavy hits with Howard pouring it on. They were holding up and slugging it out, Spellman taking most of it, big welts over his taut belly, over his face and arms.
"Kill him, Howard. Kill that dumb son of a bitch."
"Kill that pussy. Kill that chicken shit cock sucking pussy."
With the clatter they lurched toward the corners, Spellman trailing blood down one nostril and under his lower lip. The crowd was sucking beer and chanting, bellowing in waves of anger and excitement. Justin heard Art Spellman muted through that turmoil, through the spasms of his chest, sucking in air like a dead man, dead or dying Spellman twitching on the slick stool as Justin toweled off that body.
"I'm going for him. I can take him. I'm going for the body."
"No. No Art. He's killing you. You got to go back to the game plan. Back off and hold him away with your reach. You'll be hamburger in two more rounds."
"Justin. I got him. I'm going to take that fucker. I know it."
"Back off. Use your reach or he'll murder you."
They heard the clatter, and Justin was under the ropes. The sound rose into further frenzy as Spellman lurched dead into Howard, pounding at the body, pounding with everything he had and leaving himself wide open from the chest up, open to a battering so brutal and effective that the crowd went mute. They were squared off at each other, Howard taking it in the stomach, Spellman in the face and neck, hammering each other with the hardest licks they could muster, the sound of each punch like a sledge hammer into raw meat, Spellman finally going limp in the knees and staggering backwards, saved by the big garbage lid clatter, deafening in the sudden silence.
"Jesus Spellman. He's destroying you."
"I got him. I'm going to take him."
"Give it up. This is a lot of shit. I won't watch it."
"I'm going for the fucker's belly, and if that don't work I got a trick up my sleeve those pricks don't realize. Howard ain't going to take my ass. Art Spellman will prevail."
"You got to give it up. You've had enough."
"Justin, I can take him. He's going to puke."
"The only one puking's you. You look ready to bury."
"Well then I'm going to let them have what they asked for."
With the clatter Spellman was out there staggering but holding back. Howard was throwing punches at a distance and Spellman was holding back and gaining some poise and strength until he backed into Howard's corner and the pounding started. And some of the drunks were yelling kill him kill him, and there were cries of stop the fight and more kill him. And Howard was laying it in good when Spellman got loose and stepped back and kicked Howard Reid in the groin with all the strength he had, and they heard that last sound like a sledge hammer, heard it into meat, and heard Howard after it, heard his bellow as he doubled fetal into the mat and Art Spellman dancing drunkenly about, flipping V's, and hollering in laughter and triumph, the crowd stunned, watching his minced face and his dancing till he finally grabbed his shorts and supporter and yanked them down past his knees and twitched his groin out at them with the big genitals, flipped a V and bent over to show them the whole territory.
"Yay for Art Spellman. Yay for Art Spellman."
"Spellman the hero of our time. Yay Art."
When Justin entered the cell, Spellman was on his back staring straight up through bandages. When Justin sat down on a corner of the bunk, Art's head raised and he saw the slitted eyes, red and feverish, the weak grin surrounded by tape.
"I brought your clothes. And I got some money if you need it."
"See that guy in the next cell?"
Justin glanced up at a theatrical looking type in a page boy.
"He's been trying to suck me off through the bars. They caught him and the guy on the other side sixty-nine-ing under a table in the Blue Goose."
"He's a good looking guy, Art. Maybe you ought to take him up."
"You got fifty?"
"I got 85."
"I need fifty. How's Sharon taking it?"
"She's all right. A little pissed maybe."
"Well I'll get dressed while you take them the money out there."
The guy in the neighboring cell was looking on like neon.
"Ain't nothing wrong with him, you know. Just wants a dick in his mouth."
"Well you're a good guy, Art. Why don't you help him out?"
Justin got a receipt for the money and waited on a straight chair under the big walnut bench for Art.
"You better drive, Justin. I'm still a little shaky."
"Who fixed up your face?"
"Some doctor they called in. Abrams or Whittle. I don't remember."
"You haven't asked about Howard."
"Fuck Howard and the horse he rode in on."
"Well he's all right. Nothing permanent."
They shuddered into the dead street and forked left into traffic.
"Howard's a shit ass cock sucker. A sadistic prick. And besides that he's ignorant. He'll die ignorant. And no one will ever care."
"I guess he feels he had it coming."
"I guess I just about tore his balls off, you know. I enjoyed that."
There was a bottle of gin behind the far couch. They passed the gin and pulled on the hookah, and they stayed there talking and smoking into the first sunlight when they went on up to bed.
And Justin lying on the mattress in the stabbing cold heard her concern and her protest until there was moaning and Art was giving her some of the meat he displayed in the gym, Justin lying quiet to hear it, sucking on the bottle, raising up to swallow Mellaril, sucking on the gin through the thrashing until he had it finally capped and was drifting, down so ever slowly, downward into sleep.
The big black box arrived on a Saturday morning. Justin was upstairs on the mattress when Spellman carried it up, and he raised up on one elbow to reach for his gin, to find the bottle empty, as Spellman squatted and tore off the wrapping paper.
"I guess that's my clothes. I guess that's all it is. There's no food in there."
"Listen, fucker. She ain't going to send you a package, and there ain't no food."
Art Spellman pulled back the straps and reached in and came up with a hunk of foil-wrapped fruitcake. He just squatted there and started gnawing with the bandages on his face, his eyes piggish with greed. Justin sat up and swung his legs over to the floor and leaned forward to pull out a sweater and a dark green jacket and some other things. There was a tin of Austrian sausage and some cheese, which he opened and broke into two pieces, one for Spellman, who bolted it and went back to the cake.
"You know she's the second best cook in this universe, and the best is Jesus."
"What do you have planned for today, old buddy?"
"Thought we'd drive up to the museum. Take the big disk, do a little sledding. It's going to be pretty warm, they said."
"You mean they have a museum in this backwater?"
"Yeah. Real paintings. Got one of George Washington molesting a slave. In media res? They got a good museum. You'll be surprised."
They were downstairs eating the Krispies when Sharon let up the dog, let up Gretta like a pinwheel into the living room, bounding from floor to furniture, barking and yowling a hideous din while Art lifted his spoon, trailing milk into the dark orifice, a dark cut in the white.
"Here you dumb fucker. You ignorant beast. Lick this out."
And Gretta crept forward gingerly to nuzzle the bowl at Spellman's feet.
"Catch that? There's sun out there, crisp fresh sunlight."
Justin lifted a spoon and sucked off cereal.
"The little birdlings are singing. The world is alive. The gloom is dispelled. All creation is a-twitter and it's Saturday. It's Saturday, fucker."
Sharon stuck her full blond face in and smiled innocently.
"You want me to pack a basket of fresh snacks and things?"
"You do just that. Pickled eggs and some of that raisin bread. Trim off the mold good though."
The battery was dead on Spellman's Datsun.
"Ignorant fucking bitch. Ought to soak you in gasoline, torch you."
"Call Howard, honey."
"After what I done to him?"
They waited inside for the service truck, and then Spellman was out there watching them jump the terminals. He came back in, cursing, this side of the exhaust rising beyond chilled steel and glass, slamming the front door and doubling over, sobbing.
"25 bucks. Those sick mother fuckers taking my pennies."
"It's all right, dear. You get paid next week."
"Mother fuckers. Bleeding me. Vampires. Predators. Scavengers. Leeches."
"Well let's try and enjoy ourselves, honey. I put in a big tub of potato salad."
"Love it. Love it. Someday this world going to eat up on my ass."
In the chill bright day they backed out and hit the street.
"You really have a picture of George sucking meat?"
"No. But we sure as hell got a picture of the old ruffian."
The museum was on a rise, flat and wide and modern. Beyond, sledders dotted a white slope streaked with bare earth, the sky an eggshell blue.
Inside was George Washington, the one Justin had seen on the dollar.
"Hell, Art. This is the most beautiful portrait I've ever seen."
"I told him. I told him, Sharon. This is a real ball buster."
"Art. I am impressed. This beats the Metropolitan."
"Shit man. I told you. You just write to Christa about it all, and she'll be out here flat. Tell her Des Moines got culture. Wait'll you see the capitol sometime. God, it's beautiful. One big dome like a virgin titty shining there in the sun. Makes your heart all puff up and your throat choke up and everything swim past like you're going to faint."
"I saw it, Art. I saw it last week with Otis."
"Well what did you think of it?"
"I thought it was utterly fantastic. Like a big cathedral. Like St. Paul's in London. I was moved. Shit Art. I almost passed out."
"Come on. What did you think of it?"
"I popped my cork, Art. I had a big wet load in my pants."
"Justin, you make me puke. Hell I'm serious."
"That big parking lot around it with 50 thousand cars and the building sticking up like a big pustule, a blackhead with a creamy top—made me sick, Art. I had to get out and blow my lunch in the gutter."
"Eat it, Justin. You're a real sick fucker. You're sick."
They emerged at the base of a long corridor where a gift shop flared light and glitter, corn-fed types standing around taking it in. In a glass case was a hand-made silver necklace, over on the table a jewel box from Pakistan. They walked out of there with Spellman suddenly mute. Then:
"You couldn't afford that stuff. Shit, Justin. Wake up."
"Come on. I want to see George again. Let's see George."
"I mean you forked out eighty dollars. You got to be practical."
"I mean you can't erase things that way with them, and you should know it."
"Eat it, Spellman. Hunker down and eat it."
They went on out.
Art leaned into the Datsun and pulled out the picnic basket.
"What do you think, Justin? Has she got a way with food? Has my little woman got a way with food? Taste that potato salad."
"Succulent. Piping and delectable. Each morsel wrenches the very foundations of my spirit, fills me with ethereal bliss. I am tempted to call this fit for Jesus of Nazareth."
"Shit Justin. Can't you be serious? What do you really think?"
"Tastes good. Sharon. I like it all right. I mean it."
"Look around slow, Justin. See big tits there in the ski sweater?"
Justin looked back at a vacuous blonde with enormous breasts.
"Yeah. Jesus, Art. That's some fine set of lungs."
"Yeah. Well you know who fucked her? Howard Reid. Ignorant Howard. My victim."
"No shit then."
"You know what he told her? He said he was in the Writer's Workshop in Iowa City. And he recited some of Dylan's early lyrics and said it was his, and a half hour later she was spread and sucking."
"Yeah. Well did she ever find out the truth?"
"Hell yes. Art Spellman told her. His good buddy. She was one pissed off bitch. Howard won't go near her, believe me. Hell he tells all the women the same shit. Even told his wife, and then he knocked her up with the twins, and they had to get married, and she really hates his guts. Thinks she's too good for him."
They finished up and then had the disk and were across the beaten snow and climbing, juking sleds, mostly kids in heavy coats and scarves, knit caps, careening down the slope, flushed faces gusting vapor, Spellman unsteady toward the top, shoving his backside into the aluminum and kicking off an awkward frenzy of limbs shrieking downward, spinning and snaking toward the bare strips with the kids looking on disgusted, hitting the bare earth and end over end down the mud and grass, all of it clotting his jacket.
"Art. Art honey. You have mud now on your good coat."
"It was worth it. It was incredible. All the good things in the world shoved up your ass simultaneously, paradise on earth."
"I'll give it a try then."
"You got to lean toward the good snow or you'll end up like me in the mud."
There was the nick nick nick of sledders past in a blur of color against white glitter and the sky pale and his head going up up and giggling as he hit the bare place and cart-wheeled head over into the mud in a tangled heap, laughing with the high that went toward the top of his head, nearly childhood.
"What'd I say? What'd I say?"
They were there on the slope with the sky spinning, and then they had had enough and staggered toward the base of the hill, the sledders blurring toward the center, Art leaning back with his head up, catching light, and his flushed face trailing tears and gusts of laughter. And suddenly, in all that manic exhilaration, Justin saw something very dark and ominous, and he went silent and sober at Spellman's trailing laughter into some vast impending abyss, the shadows on the snow like lacerations, a cruelty against the white.
"'Here a pretty baby lies,
Sung to sleep with lullabies.
Pray be silent and not stir
The easy earth that covers her.'"
"God damn it, Justin. That's morbid."
"I don't care if it's LBJ. That's morbid."
"Where we headed?"
"Wide World of Sports. Fellatto's got a color set."
When they entered the Datsun the battery was dead again, and Spellman raised up howling and kicking at the unfeeling metal, dancing out onto the lot and kicking and beating the Datsun with anger and frustration.
And then at Fellatto's the TV wasn't working, and they stood around in the garage watching Fellatto with his hobby, sanding a great wide slab of cabinet, sucking a Jack Daniel's and water, tuned in, so to speak, but a dead man and not the slightest clue.
And then they drove home in late afternoon, the light very precise over the housetops, drove home sucking on the hookah, finally into the drive with the penned dogs hysteric, buffeting the fence, a last kick to the steel of the car and opening into the living room, Spellman flushed at the hookah, eyes into the web over the coal that was fuming smoke and silence. Justin watching it all for a while, then climbing the stairs to sleep.
He lay there for the longest time before it came, and then it lasted seemingly a minute, or half a minute, and when he raised up even his erection went away.
Where Justin sat, on the couch, his knees touched the larger playpen. The twin girls, fresh off advertisements, were gooing, gurgling, reaching for vague objects, perhaps collars, hair. Howard Reid was over in the corner with a stack of black based signs proclaiming MERRY XMAS in florescent paint and glitter. Their Santa Claus was ruddy and plump, a grotesque stereotype with wall eyes glistening and pearly teeth. Art Spellman, to the side, big hands jammed in pockets, sucked on a banana yellow joint, chortled in feverish anticipation.
"Shit. I bet I can take those fuckers for five bills easy."
"Well they cost me fifty cents apiece. You can have them one for a dollar. I know you can get three bucks easy. I got three last year."
"Love it. Love it. Those scroungey fuckers going to suck my ass and pay for it. I'm going for five. Sharon? You got the checkbook handy? Here. I'll take an even hundred."
"You sure you got enough in the bank to cover it?'
"Hell yes. Hell we got at least that."
Spellman counted off his signs and set them on the sofa.
Howard passed out of sight, reappeared with four quarts of Grain Belt. They sat around sucking beer as Prudence changed the twin in the smaller playpen.
"Justin's going to be alone for Christmas."
Justin snapped erect and stared at a van Gogh print on the far wall.
"What's that, Art? You didn't tell ME that."
"Well you won't be going with us to the Hublers. There ain't room for you. And I don't like it, but that's the way it is. Howard, I was going to ask you if maybe Justin could have your car for the two days you'll be with your mother. That's Christmas Eve and Christmas, ain't it?"
"Yeah. Sure. Shit, that's a bad scene staying alone."
"Why didn't you tell me, Art? Hell, it scares me."
"Shit. Justin, you're a wasted son of a bitch, trying to play on my sympathy. Justin, you make me weep. You sucker you."
Justin was very erect watching the van Gogh print. And then he leaned back and slid out a pint of gin, swigged, chased it with the beer.
"Well if we're going to milk those fuckers, we better hit it."
They gathered up and descended to the side door, Spellman with the big stack of signs. Outside, it was very dark, fiercely cold with the air stabbing their nostrils toward the Datsun, shuddering there quiet as the engine finally caught.
"Going to hit Porky"s. Hit Warbucker's. Hit the gas stations."
"Art. Can you take me home first? I want to crawl in."
"Shit. You're going to break my fucking heart you keep it up. Listen. We're going to take some fuckers for their money and then and only then. Then we're going home. And I don't want you whining none. No tragedies. Spellman will prevail. Pull over, honey."
They nosed in behind some gas pumps, and Spellman pulled out a sign. A big guy walked out in a Mackinaw, red sideburns, creased cheeks from a spastic smile that trembled toward Spellman.
"What seems to be the problem, son?"
Spellman stepped out into a pool of light and flashed the sign.
"Ever see one of these? Ever see anything this beautiful? Well I'll tell you. I represent the Crippled Children's Fund for greater Des Moines, and I'm prepared to give you one of these for a donation of five dollars. That way we're both happy. You get the sign and I get five dollars for those poor children."
"Listen, Mack. I don't need no fucking signs."
Spellman stabbed a look over toward the window. Howard had beaten him to it. There were three Santa signs under a silver wreath. He jerked back in and motioned to Sharon to pull out.
"Hold up there. Last guy here charged me three bucks a sign. Said it was for the TB fund. You guys pulling something?"
"No sir. I hope you enjoy the holidays. Later. Much later."
Sharon pulled out, the big man pooling shadow by his feet.
"Next time check it out, Art. You could end up in trouble."
"All right. Sharon, pull in up there at the corner."
In by the air pump they checked the windows for signs.
"All right. The thing is Howard might have been here."
"So let them do the talking, Art."
A skinny guy with a limp and a mid-Fifties haircut was in beyond the cigarette machine. Justin followed Spellman to the door and then retreated to the car. They could watch the two in there, Spellman's gestures, and the skinny guy going for his wallet. Art backed out of there flushed with victory, danced for the car.
"Fifteen bucks for three signs. I shoved it to that fucker. Oh he ate it. He ate it. Ignorant sucker thought they were beautiful."
Art Spellman swung in and clapped his big-boned hands.
"What'd you tell him, Art. Crippled Children?"
"American Cancer Society. That fucker was ignorant. Fucker cried. Actual tears. Told him about my uncle Ned Busky died of a tumor in the right lung. He bought it. Bought it."
They pulled out of the light into the dark street toward Warbucker's.
"Art. I'd like to cash in. I'd like to get some sleep."
"Oh no. Not now, fuck face. We got work to do."
"All right. One more stop and then I'd like you to drop me off. I'll even go in with you. How's that sound?"
"Shit. Shit. It's Warbucker's and the big presentation."
Justin in the rear seat sipped from the pint and watched the neon slide past, a shudder and blur out of sight as they pulled into Warbucker's.
"All right. Now. I want you to just stand there and moan pitifully every once in a while. Just moan and twitch the right side of your mouth. You can hold the signs but act like you can't hear what's going on. Okay?"
"All right. You going to take me home then?"
"Yeah. I'll take your wasted ass straight home. Let's go."
They climbed out with a big stack of signs and entered the cinderblock bar, into a swell of sound and beer fumes, a dozen crowding at the bar in plaid jackets, bouffants, maybe thirty more at the bowling machine and back at the booths. Justin walked over to the jukebox and stood quietly as Spellman conversed with the bartender. And then the music cut down and Spellman yelled for attention, waved the big hands, shouted hoarsely until it was quiet.
"All right, friends. I ain't going to take much of your time, but I got to have your help. Now. The guy there at the jukebox is my brother, recently from Cedar Rapids. Now he's thirty years old and he's deaf and dumb. Been deaf and dumb since birth. Now that ain't all. Frank there's got tic douloureux. Now that means he got a nerve spasm in his face that burns like ten thousand hot needles down the whole side of his body."
Justin moaned pitifully and twitched the side of his face.
"That's right, folks. That boy there's suffering. Now there's an operation to cut that nerve, but that operation costs over a thousand U. S. dollars. Now that boy ain't in the condition to work or pay for the operation. And now. Now I'm out of work myself but I got a good buy here. See his face twitching? Ain't it horrible?"
Justin moaned pitifully and twitched the side of his face.
"I got me here a good buy for every one of you good people. You see this sign?"
Spellman held up the luminous Santa face and turned it for all to see.
"This here sign's only five dollars. Just five dollars, and that boy's going to be five dollars closer to the end of his suffering. Now, come on, folks. This is your chance to show this boy a good Christmas free of pain, free of that deadly stabbing pain like hot pincers gripping his body."
Justin moaned pitifully and twitched horribly. The big bartender pulled out a ten and took two signs from Spellman. An old man in a miner's hat forked over another five, his face damp with tears, walked over toward the toilet. The others came on slowly, some crying, some moved by the beauty of the signs themselves, to buy three, even four, as Justin Price made horrible moans and gurgles and slobbered down his chin. A little lady in a blue crinoline dress walked up and pulled down his forehead to kiss it, and Justin gurgled and moaned, and Spellman raked in the money. They walked out of there with $125 and the patrons dewy-eyed and bidding them God speed all the way to the door's click and Spellman dancing and throwing V's, pulling Justin into a big hug and stabbing the finger back at the closed door.
"Ignorant. Ignorant suckers ate it. They ate it. Did you hear them? Justin, you were beautiful. Fuckers. They going to bed happy tonight cause Spellman robbed their pennies. Oh God. Beautiful. Love it. Love it. Dumb. Ignorant. Retarded. Shit kickers. They ate it."
Justin climbed in the back and nursed on the pint of gin.
"Sharon. Justin's a fucking genius. They were crying."
And they headed toward the shabby frame house.
He was upstairs in the darkness, a thread of light over the littered floor. And he heard them pull out and heard the dogs and then silence, just the treble of the cap pulling loose and the gin, sipping and turning toward the wall, there in the bitter chill with the emptiness. And he lay there sipping and waiting for the warmth, and it didn't come, just the silence and at last mute sleep toward some other silence which he wouldn't recall, wouldn't ever, not in anything exceeding his worst nightmare.
And he heard someone on the stairs.
And he pulled back toward the corner, his heart in his throat.
And he heard her voice.
"Spellman? Art? Sharon? Where the hell's everybody?"
And his heart went back where it started, and he heard his own voice, strangely hollow in the gap of sound.
"Is that you? Is that you? I think that's Morgan. Is that you?"
The door split inward, and she was there in a ratty fur coat and bare legs up past the creases behind her knees, very fair and soft.
"You're Justin. I know you. You're on my Christmas list."
She was carrying a denim bag fairly large and stuffed full.
"I was sleeping. I didn't hear you. Art's out selling signs."
She backed out and stood in the hall. He followed her down the stairs into the bright living room and the couches and the slush of marijuana on the end table. He watched her roll a joint as he sipped from the pint.
"Hey you know Larry dropped me off. Larry copped some good doodge. I think cause he nearly nodded out on the way over. I like Larry. I think he's nice for needle people."
"Larry's all right. I guess so anyway. You have something in the bag maybe. Is it for Art?"
"Well yeah. T's for Art and for you. Two little presents."
She was very pale and open-faced, open-eyed into vagueness.
"Presents? I haven't got any presents for you."
"Well that don't matter. Besides. Yours only cost a quarter."
"Well yes. Well all right. Can I see it?"
She sucked on the joint and passed it, trapping the air tight.
"We'll wait for Art. Hell it's past midnight. He should be back."
"He'll be back. He said so anyway. He'll be back."
"You know something? Larry likes you. And Frieda does."
"That's very pleasant. Want some of this?"
"No. But thanks. No. I'm not into alcohol. Want to see your present?"
"Yes. I would like that. You're not going to wait then?"
"For Art? I got to wait for Art. I'll be waiting."
"I mean to give it both at once. That's what I mean."
"Well there's two presents. Here's yours, Justin. I'm giving you this because you seem like you need a present. I hope you like it. It's not much, but I do think you should have it."
Justin took the tiny wrapped package and tore it open. There was a tiny pinball machine with depressions for the silver balls. There was a wrapped candy kiss. He didn't know what to do because he couldn't define how he felt or how he was supposed to feel.
"Well this is nice. I'm very happy I guess. I don't know."
"Well you don't have to feel anything. You know I don't expect you to feel anything. I was telling Larry the same thing. You're like needle people, you know. The feelings just ain't there. I guess. If I sound a little funny I just smoked some DMT soaked parsley. It's very heavy and intricate, and yet I can't get much out of it except my feet. They feel like they're big as balloons. And for a while I was grinning, forced grinning like it is with good cocaine. We had some super mescaline last week, but it's all used up."
"Morgan. You know there's a funny thing about you."
"What's that? Don't hurt my feelings if it's bad."
"Well there are two things. You seem like you've slept around, but you seem innocent. And you seem like you're innocent, but you seem like you've slept around. And I think you might have that working in you all the time like you're watching me now as if it would be possible to sleep with me and yet you'd never manipulate it toward that. And yet you'd never recognize it as such if I were to manipulate it in the same direction. But I'd like to say that I have about as much sexual instinct as Art's refrigerator, and I'm very tired, and you woke me up, and I'd rather just forget that you came because I don't have any interest in anything but this gin and that mattress up there. Understand?"
"I ain't that good at pulling things apart. I think you want to sleep."
"Would you forgive me if I did that?"
"I don't need to forgive anybody. You do what you want. But I'll tell you. I could take some of that gin away and make you sleep very sound. Larry says I'm built for the right things, and Larry's had his women even though he's needle people. But you do what you want."
She was very open-eyed with her fair full thighs spread in the skirt.
"I think I'll go up to bed or maybe you'll see me cry."
"Larry cries. But Larry's needle people."
Back a very long tunnel he saw just the hint of another woman. Her brains were on the floor.
"Maybe someday someone will bring me another present. Maybe I'll be lucky."
He lay in the darkness on the mattress sucking gin, and then he slept.
And he awoke to the overhead light and Spellman bending low.
"You sorry fucker. You turned that girl down. Jesus H. Christ, you turned that woman down."
"Art. Turn out that light. Tell her I'm sorry. Is she still there?"
"Yeah. I'll send her up. Jesus, Justin. She's beautiful."
"Art, don't send her up. Tell her I'm sick. Make an excuse. No. Don't tell her anything. Young girl like that doesn't need a dead man."
"Justin. You are the most wasted pitiful excuse I know."
In the morning she was by the end table pulling on the hookah. He tried to talk to her, but she was very cold, it seemed, if it was indeed possible to tell, to tell anything about anything that really mattered.
There were cars in the high rise lot as he ascended the spiral, but below, the street was deserted, and he walked for blocks past lighted shop fronts, looking for a restaurant, finding a steak house, and crossing to place an order with a young woman at the end of the counter where a man's twin furrows of baldness spun backward to reveal yellow teeth and a cleft chin. He took a table toward the corner alone in the broad room with the emerald plaques of oily rustic scenes trailing toward the entrance like chips on a taut wire.
And he smoked a cigarette, and the tiny rib steak came and the potato and salad. And the ancient child smiled as if she was fairly careless with it and had paid with the appearance of her face and her buttocks winking in the tight skirt toward the counter, for Justin, a student of buttocks, missed the high taut swell that would have gone with her body had she spent less effort in bed.
And he ate quickly and finished another cigarette and entered the street.
Three blocks up were some stragglers at a James Bond double feature. He bought his way into the end of DR. NO and watched some of that with the flare toward the screen and maybe thirty in the theater.
And he entered the lobby and lit up a cigarette and watched part of GOLDFINGER from a white metal loveseat and entered the street past the empty shops and everyone going somewhere on Christmas Eve with only his loneliness that he didn't pursue, and the fearful thing pursuing from the dark distance, a flash of blond he had to kill somehow, entering a liquor store and picking off three fifths of gin from a rack.
And he was standing as they rang it up when he saw where he was going. And he went back for a bottle of cold duck and set that on the counter, and he was out in the street with the bagged bottles, looking for the high rise lot where he spiraled upward toward Howard's station wagon.
Fifty-first Street was split by the throughway embankment, and he had to double back to find a street through to reach the other side. All the streets were quite deserted, the traffic sparse under the decorations, illuminated stars under synthetic wreaths. When he finally entered the street, he was too far north and had to return toward the throughway. And then he saw the ramshackle house, the big frame listing monster, and he cut into the drive and pulled around behind her Studebaker. He pulled out a bottle of gin and the cold duck and walked the slit of concrete in the snow and bitter cold to the front and Nat King Cole singing Christmas carols against a choir's HEILIGE NACHT. He rapped at Roberta's door and waited and rapped and climbed the stairs to Cecilia's tiny room, the door ajar, and Cecilia framed by cathode glow, drinking a can of Hamm's, sitting there alone in a housecoat with her processed hair and her emaciation, turning back in a broken grin and soft vague eyes.
"Roberta going to have some joy. Oh how she is."
"Where is she?"
"Down by Rachel. I takes you down there, Justin."
She rapped for him, and a big man answered, very dark with the eyes flickering yellow toward darkness, as he retreated and they could see the big woman there on the couch, see Rachel dazzling in a black sheath over by the tree, little Clinton before the television among a disturbing excess of Christmas gifts and shards of wrapping paper, strands of sateen ribbon. Rachel's voice was very sleepy, as if she had not seen them enter, preoccupied.
"I was telling them that it was a big night, and I copped very heavy while they sat around nodding and no one even saying goodbye. It was like that. A big room with the works on the end table and everyone on the floor nodding and the smell of fried chicken and vomit."
Roberta was erect, mellow smile, stab of exhilaration, crossing the room.
"Justin. Oh you welcome here. This is Maynard. Maynard the father of little Clinton. We was just watching him open his presents. Oh Justin. You so welcome here. We was just talking about you. Oh sit down over here. Here. Right here beside me. Maynard honey. Get Justin some wine, honey. You looks so tired, Justin. But it don't matter now you here. And can sit here. Yes. Hello, Justin."
By the tree Rachel Farrad looked as if she were nudging upward against rubber bands holding her weightless body precariously to the hardwood. Her gestures were caught in slow motion, shuddering frames that held and clicked and held as she continued her monologue through their entrance and Roberta's greeting, continued as Maynard handed Justin a glass of wine and little Clinton sat rigid as if wired to the television entering his skull. Cecelia knelt at the presents and began to push them along the rug—the bulldozer, the large red truck. Maynard gathered into a soft chair with his drink and clicked dead in the monologue that wound on sleepy and endless into the silence.
"I got myself some works out of it with nobody paying much attention and maybe a pint of ether and on the way back picked up a trick on William's Street that paid for it really. I guess it was just the Christmas spirit, and they knows I'm beautiful when I got the powder ready and it's in the veins. Just like a metamorphosis. I guess you don't know that word. Means a big changeover. And Clinton there's got hisself some good toys that makes him happy too. Haaaah haaaah haaah hah hah hah."
Roberta was wearing red satin with a bow at her breasts, white mesh stockings below the heavy knees. She sat there through the monologue smiling like clouds parting on sunlight, a flash of it in the walnut skin with the brown eyes lovely and soft.
"I bought a bottle of cold duck that we have to chill."
"Well we can take it downstairs shortly, and you can wait for me there."
"Where are you going? Are you going out?"
"Going to be taking a fresh hot bath and get very pretty."
Maynard was slumped back with his mouth poking open and pink.
"Art's in Cedar Rapids with Sharon."
"And they leaving you alone. La la."
Justin pulled out the gin and uncapped, slugged some down after the wine, nudged the bottle toward Roberta, who laughed and declined. Rachel's voice was trailing toward mute whispers under the drone of the set. Little Clinton rubbed his nappy black hair and adjusted the focus. They gathered up past Cecilia still there with the toys and caught her smile so soft from that body so taut and slender, so very dark and brittle. And then they were in the hallway and down the sagging stairs past Nat King Cole with the other music mute, perhaps skipping in toward the spindle, nicking dull and repetitive with the first bars of DECK THE HALLS as if under fluid into the small tight room and silence. Roberta leaning into a closet for a terry cloth robe and some slippers, turning to take the cold duck and grind it into the iced-over freezer hanging down toward the shelves.
She walked out of there, out of his sitting back on the bed against the headboard, sipping the warm gin and smoking a cigarette into a long ash splintering into the glass tray by her dark cigars.
And of Roberta Waller he was very afraid sitting there quiet.
He was afraid in fact of the feelings she might require of him, of the shabby room pulsing with her treble blood toward warmth that didn't suit his angular suffering, a despair that would feed on her vitality and cast her off again, forget her dark rich vibrations, forget her own loneliness, her despair, in another state, another state of consciousness with another body, another simple loneliness.
"You sure a big boy sitting there alone. Maybe you frightened."
"Maybe. Yeah well you're a big woman you know."
"When I was nineteen I was very small. I was the prettiest girl in my county. My parents, my foster parents, was white. You know that?"
She handed him an old photograph framed in cardboard. A very old couple in front of a large frame house, their faces in shadow that dappled the earth and the first step of the porch, they looked as if they had grown from the rough soil and weeds that trailed forward toward the base of the dull print.
"They seem very nice. They seem like people I might have known."
"I didn't know I was black until I was in the third grade."
Roberta in the dark robe turned toward the refrigerator and drew the bottle out of the freezer, husky abrasions over the ice. She set it on a small blond table and reached up for some glasses, thick tumblers she held to the light and inspected before setting them down and filling them with ice.
"You go ahead and open it. I have me a big candle over there in the drawer. We can drink this with just that candlelight and maybe you won't be seeing how ugly I am. Maybe I look like your wife then."
"Roberta, you're not ugly in any way of looking at ugly. You're very beautiful."
"I didn't think you liked me that much, but it's all right."
He pulled the wire off the cork and nudged it off carefully as she pulled out a big convoluted candle and set it on a dish, lit it and stood back to watch with childish pleasure, to cross to the bed stand and light up a small cigar. Then she hit the light and stood very large in the flicker and took her full glass.
"When I was in third grade somebody new moved in and called me a little black nigger and they all started doing it, and it wasn't fun no more."
She stood there with her drink and set it on the counter and took off the robe in the muted light. She was very large with a dark sheen texture on her naked body, with the breasts heavy and the belly and the big thighs. It was much as if it were his sister there without the clothes, and he felt no desire, even when she bent down to him and he touched the pendulous breasts and held the back of her neck as she kissed him. When she raised up and sat over in the chair with the drink and he filled his up again and lit a cigarette.
"We don't have to do nothing, just lay there where we touch, just lay there for a while and feel each other and stay quiet and let time be passing on."
He drank the cold duck in his glass and filled it with gin and drank that off and crossed to blow out the candle.
And it was utterly dark and quiet, just the sound of his clothes sliding off and the shift of the floor as he reached the bed and pulled back the covers and sat at the edge, groping for the gin with the flare of her tiny cigar illuminating a segment of her fingers at the lips and chin, trailing over toward an invisible ashtray to smear into hot shards and fragments that winked finally dark, and there was nothing of her he could see, could only feel the bottle as he sipped more gin and capped it, lay back on the bed against the big stiff pillow with the smell of her body in the linen and the shift of the floor as she came to him.
"I wanted you ever since you left me and never came back from Spellman."
"You don't like Art."
"Art is a person and he good enough at that, but you worth ten or twenty of that man just the way you look at a person from across the room and another ten or twenty from the way you laughs and more for your smile and your touch and the way you stand and everything you does. Cause you the beautifullest man I ever seen anywheres, and your heart is very sound cause if it wasn't you'd never look at an old big woman like me. Cause you'd laugh at me and scorn and mock me and make me cry, cause and you be doing none of that and cause you likes me cause you knows that I more than just this big old body. And you is totally beautiful in everything you is and I feel good things for you."
They lay together in the big bed for a very long time, and he didn't kiss her lips there in the darkness but merely held her and felt her warmth, the slow heat of her gentle passion there in the absolute void as time went dead and the anger stopped.
"I don't love nothing in this world, Justin, because it makes me hurt too much. But I think I loves you a little cause it too hard not to love you the way you are and what you are coming to me this Christmas."
"I don't want to think about it."
"You just lay there and don't be getting up and leaving. Hear?"
"All right. I won't leave you until I have to, and I won't even think about it."
And he kissed her mouth strangely, chastely, and again with the gratitude of being inside her and against her lips, lips of her mouth and belly taking him gently.
Suddenly his outcry, like a child delivered of a great burden of guilt and anguish, tempered wail into her loins and, strangely, her gratitude, as she lay there beneath and he shuddered to a stop and lay quiet, and she so quiet as if in accusation.
"I tried to wait."
"Don't talk, Justin. Please lay there so very quiet and listen. Listen to the room."
"But I'm sorry."
"You lay quiet. You lay very quiet and listen. Maybe you be hearing it."
She turned him aside and wrapped tight against him with her great thigh over his buttocks on the big bed that smelled of her. It was very still, just their breathing subsiding toward silence. She had her hands at his face, holding it tenderly as he listened to the room.
"There. Hear it? Can you hear it, Justin?"
"I can't hear anything but our breathing. I can't hear anything."
"There's another sound. You listen now. Listen very hard."
"I can't hear anything. I'm trying but I can't hear anything."
She lay there against him, cradling his body, gripping his face, almost pulling him out of himself, nursing him like a child, fingers on his neck and face.
"What do you hear that I can't hear?"
"Ain't it the sound of our pain? I hear it. I always hear it."
"But you don't know completely. What it is."
"It's pain. I think it be pain. I always hears it when I'm happy."
"Are you happy?"
"Just a touch. First time I seen you I was happy."
"I wish I could hear it, Roberta."
"Justin, I had a lot of men and a lot of women, and they never did hear it once. But I thought you'd hear it, I really did. Thinking that from the start."
They lay there quiet for what seemed a very long time.
"What time is it, Roberta? Any idea?"
"Must be past twelve, maybe toward one AM."
"Merry Christmas then. I mean that too. It probably sounds funny."
"Well it don't sound too funny. Fact I might cry."
And she turned into him and cried very painfully, and at last he drifted off toward sleep.
Justin was at the end of a terribly long masonite table. He was supplying answers for a three by five form. Through an open door were a cabinet and blood pressure apparatus, a stainless cot with a crisp white pillow. He worked carefully on the form, alone in the narrow room, until at last the tidy white nurse reached down for it and clicked out of sight through the open door. He found a cigarette and began smoking in utter silence there at the border of that smooth tan plane, his hand at the notched glass tray, the solitary object on the expanse aside from the hand itself, which was trembling. A further door opened to emit faint music and clicked tight. No one had emerged from that door, and in fact Justin was quite alone at the end of the table with the notched glass tray and the cigarette and his anxiety.
"Mr. Price, enter room 340D. Mr. Price, enter room 340D."
He moved very carefully past the corner of the table and turned back to snuff his cigarette. The loudspeaker had startled him only for the merest fraction of a second, and he was soon over the tile to the open door and the nurse who had just assisted him with the form.
"Yes. Now. Please open your trousers and remove your penis."
Justin found it relatively simple to carry out her instructions.
"Yes. Now. Squeeze the end of the organ and force the contents of the ureter forward. Yes. Do it very carefully please."
Justin squeezed the end of his penis and forced the contents forward. There were no contents.
"I see. There is no discharge. Without discharge we can determine nothing."
"Can't you give me a blood test?"
"No. I'm afraid not. You say there is itching however."
"Yes. At the end there has been itching for three days."
"Well I would suggest you contact your family physician."
"But you can't help me?"
"Without discharge we can determine nothing."
"But my penis itches. What should I do?"
"Well I would suggest you contact your family physician."
He sat there in the cold beside a concrete planter, watching the cars for Spellman.
They wound past noiselessly, trailing vapor, lending identity to many of the vague people inside them.
Beyond the rooftops was the capitol dome, thin birds flecking the gray sky, a silver airliner very slow sinking like ash, as Justin lit a cigarette and shuddered on the steps.
And then he saw Spellman, descended the glinting concrete, and swung in beside the lean body, the big-boned red hands over the black wheel.
"Well. Is it the clap?"
"I don't know. There wasn't any discharge so they couldn't tell."
"Well what are you going to do?"
"I have to see a doctor about it. You got a family doctor?"
"Yeah. It ain't that far either. Maybe we'll just stop off there."
"Where'd you put the pint?"
"Under the seat. Don't worry. I ain't going to drink from it."
"You know I feel pretty ashamed about this. I feel pretty damned sick."
"Yeah. Well that's your upbringing. I know guys pick up a dose every year."
The motion of the Datsun stabbing toward the distant notch in each street, stabbing toward the gray at the furthest reach, the sky above a cold steel lid.
There were small shops on the asphalt, offices on the second floor. He sat down with a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and looked through for something erotic, perhaps a bikini, as Spellman talked to the receptionist, as they both sat there across from three pimply youths in seeming fright wigs, perhaps fresh from detention or molesting a child.
Across from a little old lady with a homely face and beatific eyes, knitting arthritic hands into a black shawl.
To the left an incredibly fat little girl splayed over a heavy thigh, perhaps her father's there with the meaty red face and compulsively trimmed temples.
Justin leaned over to Spellman, whispered.
"This is a sick fucking collection in here, Art. I can't believe this."
"Well how the fuck do you think you look with your fucking clap?"
"All right. But this looks like the waiting room for a side-show. Unbelievable."
A heavy woman with spongy white legs hobbled from the inner office and they called Justin in. The doctor had some stuffed moose heads on the wall and a cabinet filled with expensive rifles and shotguns. He had the traditional white jacket, protruding white hands, and an onyx ring. He shoved the right hand into a rubber glove and grinned wryly, myopically, blinking in the bright light.
"So we have a little itching at the ureter, son. And you think you might have a social disease. Well I think you'll just have to let us take a look."
The doctor held his penis carefully and motioned for him to bend over. Justin felt the finger inserted and then an incredible hot stabbing pain that made him cry out and his eyes water, and he straightened up while the doctor peeled off the glove and tossed it in a can.
"Prostatitis. Just a little prostatitis. The nurse will give you some antibiotics. It should clear up in a week. If there's anything else the drugs will take care of it."
"But where's the itching coming from?"
"You have an infection. That's all. A simple infection, and you're otherwise perfectly all right. No gonorrhea, no syphilis. I would advise you, however, not to drink anything because that'll just irritate it. No alcohol."
"Well I never drink, sir. That's no problem."
"I'm very pleased to hear that."
Outside in the Datsun, revving toward Spellman's, Justin pulling on the pint.
"He said I shouldn't drink. Well I'm going to drink today and tonight."
"Yeah. Sure. You can even suck me off too, and I won't scream when I piss."
"Yes. Well there are lots of blessings. I'm thrilled with gratitude."
"Yeah. You're a lucky guy. You're about the luckiest fucker in the world."
"Yeah. I got prostatitis and I got Art Spellman for a friend."
Spellman flicked a knob and they heard the end of the song about roller skates.
He was with Art and Grain Belt and gin when she brought out the plates.
"Hot shit. Love it. Love it. Roman Holiday, Justin. This is it."
"Yeah well I'm not that hungry."
"Yeah well you better eat. It's going to be a long night."
"You never told me what kind of party it is. You said it was special but you didn't say why."
"I'm going to let you guess. Just give it time. I'll even give you a hint, and then you'll guess."
They sat in there listening to the stereo and eating the noodles and hamburger.
"Sharon's a nice piece of ass, Justin. What do you think?"
"Well she's your wife. She should be."
"Tell you what. Give me a hundred and you can breed her."
"Art. Tell you what. She'd never go back to you."
"Really? Gretta. Come and get it. Num nums."
The white mongrel came forward gingerly wagging the big tail. She bent down to the plate just as Spellman lashed out with his foot and kicked her on the head. There was a terrible yowling and scrabbling toward the cellar door, a maelstrom of white fur and then silence.
"Art. That's no damned way to treat an animal."
"Look. It's my fucking dog. Besides, she understands."
"Yeah. Well sometime she's going to rip you a new asshole."
After a while they climbed the stairs to Justin's room. Spellman reached back in the closet for a big brown trunk and dragged it out, scattering hockey skates, Frisbees, an accumulation of dusty trash. He pulled out a flat key and unlocked it, swung back the lid.
"This is what you were going to show me?"
"Yeah. Just look at this shit. Remember these?"
He held up a big pair of dirty white bucks. There was a leather jacket in there with chrome buttons and stitching, an old crinoline ball gown, several pairs of pegged pants, some pink V-necked sweaters, an old gabardine suit, key chains, assorted memorabilia. Justin watched him haul it out lovingly and spread it on the floor, the eyes misted with tearful reverence.
"What is this shit, Art? What do you got in there?"
"Justin. Use your imagination a little. Come on, fucker. When's the last time they was wearing white bucks?"
"Shit. You mean it's a mid-Fifties party?"
"Right. Right. It's going to be a fucking blast."
"I don't know, Art."
"What do you mean you don't know. This is God's green clover."
"Scary? Lighten up."
"Yeah. Okay. What the hell."
When Spellman finally emerged from the bedroom he was wearing blue suede shoes and the leather jacket. His black trousers were pegged tight below the key chain, and his hair was slicked with cold cream in a huge DA. He was dancing and flipping V's and mouthing HEARTBREAK HOTEL in a sibilant whine that outdid Presley, down the steps and through the living room. They pulled up there, Justin serious through the gales of Art's laughter, then giving in to it, to his own pink V-neck and chinos, to his dirty white bucks. And then they heard Sharon on the steps and watched her descend in the saddle shoes, the bobby socks and crinoline gown, and they were all laughing, a thin staccato against the cold walls and the dogs beneath, the barking and feverish laughter buffeting the chill beyond and the dark finality as Justin slumped back into a seat and reached for his gin.
"What are they going to do for music?"
"Hell. Howard's got a big collection of old 45's."
"Shit. Howard was shitting green in his diapers when this stuff went over."
"Yeah. But Howard got them from his older brother."
"Love it. Love it. Push me that paper. Got to roll some J's."
They sat there quiet, toking on the hookah, sifft of air tight, as Spellman rolled some joints with the big flushed hands. He had a bundle tied with some elastic when they killed the light and stepped out into the bitter night. Stepped into the Datsun turning over husky in the silence with the windshield fogged and Justin on his back in the rear seat sucking gin, feeling the tug out and on up the hill, closing his eyes on it and trying to trap his thoughts, force them down for 35 blocks when they still wouldn't die. And then they jerked out onto the powder and reached the door, dazzle of light opening with warm air and Midget in a high school sweater with a letter D, saddle shoes and tight bottomed jeans, his hair a greasy cowlick.
"You wasted fucker. Jesus, Art. You look like BLACK-BOARD JUNGLE."
"Yeah. And you look like something I ate and shit out."
"This is keen. Oh this is really keen."
"The word's neat, fucker. Everything is grossly and without qualification, manifestly and overwhelmingly neat."
"Yeah, Justin. And Jesus sucks meat for breakfast."
"That's enough of that, Art. Really. Don't say that shit."
"Yeah. Okay. Where's that hot piece you call your wife? Midget's a fundamentalist. Got to watch him. Where's the one with the titties?"
"Downstairs with Prudence. Howard's in the den. Fellatto called. Said he'd be late. Well come on in. Got some good cold Grain Belt you can suck on."
"Love it. Midget, you're a hell of a swell guy. Really keen."
"Neat. The word's neat. You guys never learn."
And they crowded into the warmth and light, down toward the furnished basement.
It was very dark down there, quiet as they entered.
And then Laureen turned in a mid-calf skirt and bobby socks, oversized mammae in the tight sweater, the hair in a pony tail, and she rushed toward them and pressed all of them, at last Justin, where she lingered.
And they took the couch.
Over at the end was a curtain parted at Midget's desk.
Howard descended in chinos and a buttoned down collar shirt with stains at the armpits. He crossed to the stereo and jammed down a stack of 45's.
Midget came down with a case of iced Grain Belt.
They began to dance frantically to ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK, to RUBY BABY, to the Crew Cuts, to Doris Day, Midget with Sharon, Art with Prudence, Justin with Laureen, pulling those big lungs into his chest and back out in elaborate twirls.
And he slumped on the couch and sucked gin and Grain Belt.
And it all went very tight out there on the tile, went shuddering still, image to image with the music trapped—and then it breathed again and went on in vibrant energy, Spellman's V's, Midget's shuffling duck walk and V's, Howard by the case notching Grain Belts and chugging them down with a pint of VO he drew from a large brown bag under the table. The glitter of shapes and Fellatto descending in a pink flannel suit with the solitary light glistening on his balding crown. The rest of them convulsed and his grin toothless and vacant, and his hoarse voice and laughter.
"Art. For Christ sake."
"I know. Like BLACKBOARD JUNGLE."
"Yeah. And the last shit I just took."
Justin was pulled out again to dance with Midget's wife, and when it was over he sat back with the gin and declined some more offers, especially the one from Spellman to go back behind the curtain to suck him off, from Midget to lick his armpit. And Howard went on chugging with the VO and the light vague and the garish faces and glitter gradually into him so that he was accelerating the silent staircase with the wheels a frightening howl and the trees rushing past and up further toward silence in a back room with the pint and the smell of Laureen, and trying hard not to think, the foundations shuddering from the lower stairwell.
"Justin. Are you all right, Justin? Are you all right?"
She was there with the breasts in the sweater—Laureen.
"I'm all right. Yeah. I guess I'm all right."
"You know they all like you. I like you."
Pulling his head into those big breasts until he twisted back and gritted his eyes on it—her beauty and her warmth.
"We all love you and we want you to stay."
"Then why don't you suck me off?"
She slapped him hard and lunged out of there, and he was alone again with the gin and the scent she left behind. He sat there through the noise from below, sat there a very long time until he couldn't hear it anymore, and then gathered up and entered the bathroom. He found a safety razor in the cabinet and pulled out the blade and felt for his carotid and then dropped the blade in the sink and grinned at himself in the mirror and stepped over to the bowl and urinated and stepped outside without washing his hands.
Midget and Art Spellman were standing over Howard, pissing all over his unconscious body, standing there weaving alone in the dark room with Fellatto slumped in the corner, taking it in with some detachment. The women were gone, probably upstairs with the Times Square on the TV, and he would never know what was really on their minds, at least on Laureen's. There was little that he could understand of man OR woman, of himself a smaller quantity, just the tiniest pinch of scary cul-de-sac.
Justin was in typing class when they called him into Spaeder's office.
Jim Fellatto was in there with Spaeder and Spellman, everyone very jubilant perhaps, hard to gauge from the faces as Spaeder reached out his hand.
"Reason we called you in here is mother Mary—you know Mary Strite—will be leaving Monday and Art here and Mr. Fellatto are convinced that we should take you into the position for a period of probation, mind, and if you go along with that she could show you the ropes today and Friday, and if it works out you'll be given the position on a permanent basis at—what is the salary, Mr. Fellatto?"
"Ninety-three hundred with his master's degree."
"Yes. And that would be after six weeks on probation. What do you say?"
Justin held the fear down and answered flatly.
"I'm very grateful. This is a big chance for me. I'd be able to send for my family. I just don't know who to thank."
"Well I think you can thank Art here and Mr. Fellatto."
"It's a big day for you, Justin. Thanks for hanging in there."
"Thanks, Art. Jesus, thanks."
Mary, in the reading laboratory, was stroking a black man's arm and threading a projector.
"I'm supposed to take over when you leave. Mr. Spaeder said you would teach me."
"Well Mr. Spaeder's full of shit. There's nothing to learn."
"There ought to be something. I don't know anything."
"Come here. Over here."
She reached into the filing cabinet and pulled out a manila folder.
"You give them one of these tests when they come in. Correct it and you know their level. Here's the manual. You read that and the equipment will be easy. The only other thing is the rating form. You keep one on every enrollee."
She picked up a lined sheet and waved it in front of him.
"It's self-explanatory. You just sit down there and read the manual. If there's any questions I'll be here until early Monday morning."
"But there ought to be something you could tell me."
"It's a sinecure. It's a very easy job and it's not that tedious. You'll like it."
He sat in the corridor where he could smoke and read at the manual. Most of it was an effort to justify the program. Some was necessary, some useful. About 11 AM someone dark with a fancy hat stood there in the light looking at him.
"I got some cigarettes you can have for two dollars a carton."
"You got Camels?"
"Yeah. Come on out front."
In the back of an old Pontiac were some groceries and a big box of cigarette cartons. Justin bought two cartons and dumped them into a paper sack, carried them into the laboratory and shoved them into a bottom drawer.
"Why are you leaving the job, Mary?"
"I'm getting tired of niggers with natty hats. No, really I'm in love. Shit, I don't know. I have a big date in San Francisco. I mean use your imagination. Des Moines isn't exactly the center of the known universe."
"I kind of like it out here. No, I really do. People a little closer to the earth."
"Yes. Well there's plenty of that. Good dark earth. Plenty of corn."
He ate lunch with Spellman across the street, ate ravioli and two hard rolls.
"Why's Strite leaving, Art? Why's mother Mary leaving?"
"Some flashy piece of shit's heading out to the coast. She's trying to hold on."
"I think I'll call Christa tonight. Tell her about it."
"Maybe you better wait. See how it works out."
"Still going to that workshop tonight, Art?"
"Silverstein's? Yeah. Thought we'd see what it's like. Maybe gross them out, nothing that outrageous. Maybe just sit there and suck it in."
He read the manual till 3:30 PM and signed out sick.
He entered the chill brilliance and walked for nearly an hour, heading into the sunlight, not seeing much, gathered in toward his own thoughts.
He entered a tavern.
Beyond the swath of gleaming hardwood were beer signs bright through plastic. There was a very fair slender man at the end in velvet trousers and a great leather jacket. There were a few squat businessmen splayed over stools. Justin moved into the gap toward the jacket and ordered a shot of gin and a draw. It was abnormally quiet and dark, just the signs winking and the hum of the cooler, a glass slid back on the gleaming bar. The jacket faded toward the toilet like a force field and reentered at the seat beside Justin.
"I suppose you know Seabury. He said he'd be here at two. Said he'd be with someone that answers your description. I'm sure you know him. Seabury is the image of Montgomery Clift."
"Yeah. Well I knew a faggot once, was T. Garrie. But that was in another country, and besides he's dead. I'll keep you good company though. You can tell me about your friend while we wait."
"You're nice. I'll buy you something."
"Well make it a gin and a draw. That would be most pleasant."
The bartender smirked as he took the money from the guy in the jacket.
"Seabury is very sensitive. He's about five eight and he collects first editions, if you know what they are. He's losing some hair on top, but that's to be expected. After all. He's past thirty. Are you certain you haven't run into him? Maybe at the Blue Goose."
"No sir. The only Seabury I knew was a T. Garrie, and he used to like it in the ass on occasions, though he'd never admit to it. And the bitch is dead."
"You certainly express yourself forcefully."
"Yes. Well I learned that in the Army."
"Yes. Well I have a nice apartment two blocks down. Maybe we could go there. I could play you some early Lou Reed albums. Maybe you like Judy Garland. We could listen to just about everything. I have Denon equipment and over three thousand albums. Maybe Seabury will drop in if he misses me. It ought to be diverting."
"I tell you what. I live out near the throughway. Why don't we drive out there?"
"Oh I'd like that. I think that would be very pleasant. Do you have a car?"
"No. The last car I had was in another country."
"Well I have a little Subaru. It will suffice. What's your name?"
"You won't believe my name. No one ever does. Simply no one."
"What's your name?"
"Christi. Christi Superlative. It used to be my stage name, but now it's my real name, well since last April."
Three blocks down they entered a lilac Subaru and pulled into traffic.
"What do you do for a living then? I suppose you're an actor."
"No. I sing. I sing with the Big Jug Panthers. I suppose you've heard of them."
"No. I haven't. And I never heard of you except in my nightmares."
"Now. That's not nice. It's not nice now, really. Is it?"
"No. I suppose not."
They were three blocks on when Justin reached over and began to stroke Christi Superlative's groin, to touch the penis with his fingertips through the velvet until it was upright along the zipper, smallish yet hot through the fabric.
"You're so rough and now you're so gentle. Oh. I'm so excited."
"Yeah. Well it's an exciting world."
"That's what I was telling Seabury. He's with the Big Jugs."
"Is that right? What's Seabury play, the flute?"
"No. He's strictly rhythm guitar. You're going to have to stop that, you know. Let's save it for later. You'll have to tell me where to turn off. I just might miss the exit. Sometime you come down and see us at the Blue Goose. You won't believe it."
Justin went on stroking Christi's erection out on the throughway and then cutting off and shuddering up the tree lined street. They pulled into Spellman's drive, and he jumped out and leaned in grinning.
"Thanks a bunch for the lift, fellow. This is where we split."
He walked up the drive and heard the other door slam, and the jacket was tugging on his arm, and he turned to the flushed angry face.
"You can't do this to me. This is utterly cruel. I'm going in there with you."
"Let go of my arm, faggot."
"You've got to let me go in with you. You're being horrible."
"Let go of my arm."
"You're a big fucker you. You let me go in there or I'll choke you."
Justin lashed out a left and caught him in the windpipe. He was crying holding his throat, and Justin gave him a right that bloodied his nose and stood back and kicked him in the groin, and the man in the jacket folded up fetal and hit the asphalt moaning piteously. Justin stood there over him a few seconds and turned toward the door. Inside it was warm and quiet when the door slit winked tight and he reached the end table and knelt there laughing in his sickness.
He was sucking on a Grain Belt when Spellman entered with Sharon.
"Hey, shit bag. Why didn't you leave a message?"
"Sorry. Wasn't time. What's so funny?"
"Faggot outside in the drive. Made him clear out. Said he was waiting for Art Spellman. Said he was going to run him down with his faggot car."
"Yeah. That was my ride home."
"Said Art Spellman got him hot and then kicked in his balls."
"Well did you?"
"Where the fuck did you pick that creep up? Fucking winner, that one."
"Yeah. I guess. What time is it, Art?"
"Yeah. Thought we'd hit the Blind Munchies over by Drake."
"Yeah. All right. Sounds all right I guess so."
"I'll be right down, honey."
"What's the matter with her?"
"Ragging it. The gender's curse. Pass me that paper."
Spellman rolled about nine joints, fired one up, shoved the rest in his pocket. They sat there quiet and sucked down three until she descended in a sari, very heavy but still sexual and attractive, maybe too bright at the teeth but moving with some grace that wasn't U. S. prime. Big Art lunged erect and grabbed her ass and ground into her with his taut crotch, and she blushed and pushed him back, and they all had a good laugh—tight giggles, not that pleasant. They hit the drive and loaded into the Datsun.
The Blind Munchies was crowded with fringe hippies. They stood at a glass faced cooler and pointed at the contents of their sandwiches. Spellman chased out one table so they could sit. They settled down with the big sandwiches and bottles of Coca-Cola. The language around them was laden with hip expressions and joyful hysteria, and they ate quickly and entered the street.
Silverstein's workshop was in a big steel building flaring lights at the darkness and the soft sound of their feet through the entrance and up two flights toward the end of a corridor.
The faces looked tense and feverish, meaty flushed rapacity contending along the haze of hardwood, fluttering gestures, the greed and ferocity of a crowd at a bargain table. Justin felt it go tight and oppressive until Silverstein rapped with his knuckles and it trailed toward quiet.
"We have visitors tonight. They are Art Spellman and his wife Sharon. The other male is Justin Price."
There was a small stir, then silence.
"I think we should describe for their curiosity where we've taken this seminar. The requirements are certainly minimal—one new poem, one fresh and original poem by the end of the term. Now there might be as many as thirty versions before we've reached the final copy, but the requirement remains one original work. Of course there has been an attempt to define poetry, just what constitutes the poem itself as compared to prose. We have arrived at a definition, which too may be revised. A poem is a highly condensed form of expression in words which compresses within it much feeling and meaning and which may contain imagery, metaphor, meter, or rhyme to obtain its objective."
The matrons hung onto each word with frightening tenacity.
Justin opened his wallet and pulled out a frayed white sheet.
"I see that Justin has something there. An offering?"
"One of my best."
"'I think that I shall never fuck
A poem lovely as a duck.
A duck whose loving beak is pressed
Against God's godlike hairy chest.
A duck that looks at Christ all day
And hunkers down and tries to pray.
Poems derive from some old suck,
But only God can fuck a duck.'"
There was utter silence. Then:
"You certainly . . . have . . . a marvelous reading voice."
"I'll be back. I'll be right back."
He began walking fast toward the lobby. He leaned on the railing and looked down at the glossy tile. He walked the total length of the building and paused again at the railing. He returned to the seminar room and thrust his head in, their faces raised and startled as he bellowed.
"My asshole itches when I think of you!"
He retreated and jogged toward the railing, Spellman in pursuit.
"Hey fuck face. That's enough of that shit, you know."
Leaning over with Spellman holding his shoulder.
"Look. Calm down. It's all right. Just calm down."
They walked back to the seminar room and entered. Just inside he bellowed.
"Pissing in your mouth I saw the eye of God!"
Bolted for the railing. The big hand on his belt, hauling him back to collapse on the floor.
"You ain't going to die at that height. Now straighten out."
"Those fucking people, those smug cunts in there."
"Yeah. Well they're not going to forget THIS evening."
In the rear seat on his back sucking at the gin. All she had ever wanted was kindness, a soft word or touch. All any of them had ever wanted. He had only given them pain. Just six weeks more to go. Six weeks and then Christa. And Anna, little blond Anna whom he loved.
Justin in the Datsun watched Sharon board the Greyhound, watched wistful as it backed into the street, watched Art as it faded transformed into a dancing pulse of energy over the asphalt, forking V's, sliding in to rev out toward traffic.
"Well it's all clear now. The road is open and thank Jesus cause it's Saturday."
"You know where she lives?"
"Morgan? Over on Wolcan Terrace. Collection of freaks in a big white house."
They drove toward Wolcan Terrace, pulling on the hookah and some gin.
It was a fashionable neighborhood, tree lined streets, houses pushing 120 grand. They entered the open door over a colony of weird types sucking joints or bottles of flavored wine, Leon Russell very loud—the first album.
Morgan was in the kitchen feeding soup to a blind freak in day glo slacks, a body shirt, costume jewelry and a glossy mouth.
"Art Spellman. You really made it then."
"Yeah. Did the stuff come through?"
"900 hits of window pane. Genuine too."
"Yeah. We'll take three. Is that right, Justin?"
"Yeah. Three. Here's the money."
He slid six dollars over the vinyl tabletop. The blind man was humming and grinning and flicking his tongue out like an adder.
Morgan reached into the freezer for a big jar of tiny translucent tablets and shook out their three in a small glassine envelope.
"This stuff is dynamite. Very strong. But it's mellow too if you dig. I mean bless you. If you understand that."
They headed for the door over beads and Indian print, work boots and more beads and the sweet smell of burning hemp.
They pulled into the big supermarket and headed for the meat counter, picked up some spareribs, some salami. On down was Wisconsin cheddar, potato salad, a case of Grain Belt, a gallon of rainbow sherbet. They loaded that all on the cart and headed through checkout past pinched housewives and tired husbands and entered the asphalt lot.
"Reckon there's anything else? How about a strobe candle, some incense?"
"I don't know. Maybe not. I can make a gizilch."
"What the fuck's that?"
"I'll show you when we get back. You got a plastic clothes bag somewhere?"
Spellman entered the kitchen and laid out the food on plates. He shoved the sherbet and half the beer in the refrigerator and carried the rest out to the living room with the food. Justin was going through the records, sliding some out of their jackets and stacking them on the end table. Spellman lit up the hookah, notched a Grain Belt, and slid home on the soft chair. After a while he remembered the bag and went for it in the closet, ripped it off a suit. Justin had the stack on the stereo and another Grain Belt and it was almost ready.
"Okay. Tie a knot every other foot till you have a rope with it. That's right. Now nail it to the ceiling. Got a tack or something?"
Spellman reached up and hung the knotted plastic.
"Now you need a pie plate or something to catch the plastic when you set it on fire."
"You're out of your fucking mind, shit face. I ain't going to burn this bag in here. Fuck, we'll all be cremated."
"No. It slows down when it hits the knots. The burning plastic drips into the pan. Looks incredible when you're wasted."
"Yeah. All right. When are we going to drop then?"
"Any time now. Won't hit us for about twenty minutes. Give or take."
"How many are you going to swallow?"
"One same as you. If I don't get off I'll take another."
Justin slid out two tablets and swallowed his with the Grain Belt, reached the second to Spellman, who crossed himself and swallowed.
"You sure this is okay, Justin? I mean mostly for you."
"Don't worry about it."
"Yeah. You know what we need. Christ Jesus, we were ignorant."
"What's that, Art?"
"Pussy. Hot twitching pussy. Snappers firm and ripe. Twitchers."
"Yeah well. Yeah well save that for the next time. The first's got to be pure."
"Yeah. Well I see your point I think. Maybe you could suck me though."
"Ain't sucking no one, Art baby. Gave that up for Lent."
Big Art Spellman relaxed into the chair, pulling on the hookah. It was quiet for about three minutes, just passing and toking in the fumes.
"Justin. I never asked you. Ever take it in the ass?"
"No sir. Sucked a couple off. That's as far as it went."
"Yeah well did you ever lay a little pipe, I mean, up the nether eye?"
"Never got anal. Never once."
"Well I'm glad to hear that in case I pass out on this shit."
"Never dropped anything then. Never once?"
"Closest I came was in Wisconsin at your house when you were going off the deep end. Too scared, I guess."
"Well get ready baby because this goes a lot more than that stuff you're smoking."
They sat there quiet, mildly stoned, sucking Grain Belt and waiting for it to hit. Justin felt the grass and nothing more when Spellman broke into a silly frozen grin with the saliva pooling in his neck, reached up at air and loaded onto his feet to stagger three steps and hit the deck like a stack of excrement, leaden there drooling and making pitiful moaning sounds and gurgles as the eyes protruded and the tongue flicked out onto the rug, a pitiful sight.
"How is it, big boy? Almost too much. Right?"
"Jesus Justin. This stuff is dynamite. Nuclear."
"How's it feel?"
"Feels like I'm soaking in a big cunt. Jesus be-Jesus Christ."
Spellman humping the carpet and gurgling hideously, the fingers raking his neck as if the collar were tight and choking, massive spasms.
"Justin, I'm going to roll over if I can and I want you to blow me. I'll give you anything. You can take my fucking job, take the whole bundle, but get down here with me and suck it. Please. I'm pleading."
"Not sucking you off, Art. Just lie there and think of something else."
"Justin, I'm in agony. I can't move. This whole room is a cunt."
"Yeah. Well whose cunt is it?"
"It ain't whose cunt. It's THE cunt. It's cunt in essence. Goddamn it I'm going to wet my belly here. You got to help me."
"Just lie there and relax with it. You're fucking my mind."
Justin gathered up in disgust and climbed the stairs to the bathroom. He stood there urinating, sucking on the Grain Belt. There was the usual time distortion that accompanied the marijuana but no particular sign of the acid. He stood at the mirror and reached for the third tablet. He watched himself chase it with the beer and fade toward the door. In the cold room on the mattress he lay quietly waiting for it to hit him, lay quietly for what seemed a very long time. There were some muted sounds from below, otherwise silence. He descended to the living room. Art was nude on the floor among his scattered clothes, a massive erection gripped in his right hand. With his other hand he was devouring the food from the supermarket, the spare ribs, the potato salad, the cheese, lifting it to cram in his greasy mouth, scattering bits of it over his naked chest. Justin looked down in absolute disgust, crossed to the stereo and flicked the first record down to the turntable, RIPPLE from the AMERICAN BEAUTY album. He sat there with the lyrics, killing some of the gurgling lapping sounds, the pitter of expelled gas, with that raw ugly body greasy with the food, the blood red erection veined and glossy in the fading light.
Justin looked up at the gizilch hanging directly over Art's groin. He reached up and lit it and sat back as the flames erupted into the second cut, as the first beads of fiery plastic dripped to Art's erection.
Spellman doubled in agony and hit his feet, and Justin was out the door running when it went high high into the darkness, higher ever higher chasing down the asphalt until it was shredding him, and he doubled into the base of the drive with Spellman nude over him swinging until at last it was all shredded, flaring outward with the feeling of pain and his exhilaration and the chill and the night night night dark as Spellman cursed him, there rolling on the concrete with the naked flesh, and the fists and the dangling penis with it higher higher, ever upward spiral toward disintegration and death, death of his mind, recoiling at the last and thrashing upward to his feet and sprinting down the road like a great tunnel leading always to nowhere, nowhere, ever to nowhere, to absence, absence of Spellman laughing now wildly, chasing him toward the tunnel's interior in the chill night, fear that entered his legs, turning toward Spellman Spellman Spellman.
"You fucker. You burned my cod. You dirty fucker."
"Art. Please Art. Don't. Now that's enough. It's all enough. It's very much enough. I can't stand it enough. Please be enough. Ever enough. Enough is enough of something. Please Art. This is even worse than before. I have to get back. I have to get back. I got to get back. Back to the house."
And he walked back with Art's arms around him and the fear building, naked Art in the street with Justin Justin Justin down the block where they had run until he was kneeling on the carpet with the flare of the gizilch, the fiery beads dripping toward a burning stench on the carpet, kneeling fetal and holding on lest he die, lest the fear break his heart into shreds of striated muscle there over the rug, and Art came down with his Mellaril and he swallowed ten tablets with the Grain Belt and the sulphurous hole in the rug and the food and clothing scattered and the click slap of the third record onto the turntable, and it was SERGEANT PEPPER, and he was on the rug then moaning his fear of that affirmation that might rend him there in the spurting darkness until Spellman had that dead and was holding him, talking to him to the sifft sifft of the plastic onto the carpet.
"It's all right. It's all right. It's all right."
Art Spellman held him there over the rug, chanting calmly, soporific.
"I'm going to die, Art. I'm sorry I hurt you."
"It's all right. It's all right. It's all right. It's all right."
"I'm going to have a heart attack. I can feel the ache, the knot like fire."
"It's all right. Here. Let me hold you. Just breathe slowly. Calm down. Now very slow, Justin. Calmly and slowly."
Spellman pulled out a Grain Belt and notched it, held it to Justin's lips. And suddenly he was down down down down, sitting there with the sifft sifft of the plastic onto the mound below. He was very far down sipping the beer and going further as if there were levels to it that reached as far as the opposite direction from whence he came.
"Just hold on there with that beer. Can you hold it?"
"I think so."
Spellman snuffed the fire, reached for his clothes, pulled on shorts and trousers, sat there with the flushed lean body over the rug that was very pale, with the wash of it, Justin sucking the whole thing in on itself toward depression.
"Art. The last time I felt like this they put wires to my head."
"Look. We're going to get you up to bed. You're dead on your ass. Here. Come on. Stand up. You can lean on me. You never saw shit stacked this high in your life. Come on. Tower of power. That's Art Spellman."
He was entering the bedroom where it was dark, there on the stained mattress while Spellman knelt and covered him over.
"Art. You got to promise me something."
"If it doesn't go. If it doesn't go you won't stop me. You'll make it easy."
"Yeah. Okay. It's all right. Everything's all right."
When he awoke Spellman was in the bathroom pulling the blade from his razor, dropping it into a bag with the stainless packet, with the kitchen knives and the scissors, turning at last to see Justin there in the doorway, gentle Art wild-eyed and feverish, yet pale, so pale with the muted light.
"What are you doing, Art? Collecting your weapons?"
"Look, fucker. This is for your benefit, not mine."
"Yeah. Well there's always a way."
"Yeah. Well don't wear out your welcome."
"I wasn't sure I had one."
"Yeah. Well I used to wonder what your wife was talking about. You sure make it all pretty clear, I'd say so, friend."
Justin stood there a while and then went back to his room.
"The Wolrath method introduces the system of flashing frames. The Wolrath method introduces the system of flashing frames. The Wolrath method introduces the system of flashing frames. Each integer is coded for maximum impact. Each integer is coded for maximum impact. Each integer is coded for maximum impact. The range is from 3 to 330 frames per second and can be adjusted at will. The range is from 3 to 330 frames per second and can be adjusted at will. The range is from 3 to 330 frames per second and can be adjusted at will. The hide system prevents anticipation. The hide system prevents anticipation. The hide system prevents anticipation. Note: Every formalax projector is calibrated for maximum efficiency. Note: Every formalax projector is calibrated for maximum efficiency. Note: Every formalax projector is calibrated for maximum efficiency."
The coal had reached his fingers, and within seconds he felt the pain. He dropped it to the floor and kicked it into the corner, reached for another and sucked in fire. He could hear the flick of the projectors beyond in the laboratory and mother Mary's last interview. It wasn't so much the sound of the image or the manual but rather a lack of both that he felt on the metal chair.
And he felt the time, gray time crowd him, the time that hadn't moved since he last checked the clock over Mary's desk. As if every instant was prolonged by the nullity it confined within its limits, that great gaping absence that had entered him on Spellman's ruined carpet.
"Justin. Would you come here a second?"
He leaned over the diagnostic test and watched her sure red pencil.
"See? He measures at eighth grade. What track does that suggest?"
"346, I think. It's hard to remember."
"Well it is 346. You have remembered that."
"Yes. Well it is good I think that I can remember."
"It's very good. It is surely very good. When's your appointment?"
"I'm not sure. I think eleven. I am waiting. I am waiting for Otis."
"Otis is a real piece. I guess you know that."
"I'm not sure I would but I'll take your word."
He sat again in the corridor and lit another cigarette.
He was into yet another cigarette when Otis loomed dark in the corridor.
"Justin. Yeah Justin, we going to be late."
"I'm not sure it matters. But let's go."
"Yeah. Let's make it, Justin Price. You look like my dog that died."
"Well something died and I can smell it and it might be me."
Justin saw only the hood when he saw anything, and it stayed that way to the asphalt lot.
"Miss Prentice is waiting for you, Mr. Price. You just go right on in."
"Otis. Going to wait for me? Please wait."
"Yeah. Sure. You just go right on in there and get some help."
"From the Buddha man?"
"Yeah. From any man. You sure can use it, baby. I can tell."
"Yeah well you keep it up and big Art's going to promote you."
"Yeah. You bet. Head cock sucker and corn hole artist."
Miss Prentice was very tidy, very precise with tight little gestures that fluttered birdlike.
"Justin. We did receive your call and of course everyone was concerned."
She tapped his folder by curling her fingers down, three distinct gestures. Justin leaned back toward the sound proofing, thousands of tiny perforations in the fiber.
"I did acid Saturday and bummed out. I'm very far down, suicidal."
"Well yes. Well. You took some LSD then and you're depressed. A bad reaction."
"That's right. I'm very far down and I need some advice."
"Well. Would you like to enter the ward here? Perhaps lithium therapy."
"That's what I want to know. I'm afraid I'll just go further. I've had that happen."
"You've known more intense symptoms then. I see."
"It's hard to say. That seems to be the situation if there is any situation."
"Any situation? I'm not sure I understand."
"I mean if the whole thing is real. If you can understand that."
"Well. You're being very cryptic, young man. Very mysterious."
"Let's put it this way. You're familiar with my medications?"
"Yes. Here they are. Elavil. Right? And Mellaril. An antidepressant and a tranquilizer."
"Well I wonder if you could tell me what constitutes a lethal dose."
"I can't tell you that. Even if I could I can't tell you that. I may not."
Justin sucked in smoke and let it go toward the perforations.
"I understand. It's very clear. There's nothing you can do for me."
"That's not quite true. You see we could sign you in and try lithium therapy."
"I don't want lithium therapy."
"Why are you here, Justin?"
"Listen. Let's get to the essentials. If I took a hundred tablets of Elavil what would happen? Would I die? Would it merely be a coma? Would it destroy brain tissue?"
The small fingers curled onto the folder four crisp taps, again four.
"I can't tell you that. Even if I knew I can't tell you that. I suppose you understand."
"I understand perfectly. I am well aware of your situation. Thank you."
"Justin, it would be a very easy thing. To come on the ward. Just a formality, the proper documents."
"Yeah, and when the lithium failed you would wire my head."
"Is that your fear then? Then your fear is unjustified. We would need the proper authorization."
"But I wouldn't be consulted. I've seen the way you people operate."
"You mean the staff here? But that's not possible. It's really quite irrational, Justin."
"I have been in these hospitals. The need exists. It feeds on itself."
"Justin, let's be candid. You're expressing paranoid delusions."
"But you are."
"Them advise me about my medications. About the Elavil. Or the Mellaril. Just a little advice."
"Justin. Come on into the ward with us. We can help you."
"You've done all you can."
He jerked erect and walked out of there on tight wires, dangling from his own tension like a robot on wires toward Otis in the waiting room.
"I sure don't like to say this, space man, so I won't. On the other hand, I will say you look terrible."
In the corridor the dry bright glossy walls, turning toward the exit.
And then the flare of sunlight over asphalt, iridescent powder, the scrape of leather, and very far across that painful fierce neutrality toward steel.
The Oldsmobile and sitting back, declining the joint Otis passed.
"I mean you look horrible. I mean terrible most awfulest."
The sunlight's pale austerity.
"Take me to Spellman's. Out to Art's house."
"He say I was supposed to bring you back to the Center."
"Yeah. Well I'm saying I want to go home."
"Listen. Spellman maybe have a piece of my ass but it's your show."
He reached a hand to Otis—fingertips, and slid out, on out and across the asphalt and concrete to the listing stoop and inward to darkness with the dogs below.
And he reached into the oven and blew out the pilot light.
And he pulled the tablecloth off and stuffed it under the door.
And he found his gin in the cupboard and sat back on the linoleum.
And he turned on the gas and leaned back sucking gin.
In the absolute absence of anything, he floated, sucking gin, floated forever into nowhere quiet as he eased into sleep. And the linoleum was without texture, and there were no textures, just this lulling into reverie and quiet, setting down the bottle vaguely and sliding toward the floor. There coiled like a fetus, neither tense nor calm but only full of the absence he felt in his gin stomach and the cool at his face and his eyes on the speckled gray of the oven's interior. That gray full of the same textureless absence and holding him with the linoleum and the chill air in an amniotic fluid of the same absence and void. Drifting on it now so vast and boundless there on the linoleum with the sound of the gas that fed him fetal into sleep into quiet into nothing, an ether of absence, darkness ever darkness floating into nothing toward nothing, nothing at all but Spellman's voice voice voice voice.
"Shit head shit head. Oh you fucker. You bastard. Shit head. Justin. Oh God, Justin. You fucker. This ain't it. It ain't it, you fucker, you bastard. Oh God."
The restaurant was much later and had one small room.
Spellman and Sharon were at tacos and refried beans.
Justin was not eating, but he was drinking—pale green bottle of Heineken.
"I mean the thing is you have a job here, there's a future."
"Yes. I suppose there's a future. But I'm going home."
"I called Roberta. She wants you to come down to see her. Anytime."
"Yeah sure. Yeah sure. I could go down there and soak in the big tub, and she could commiserate, and I could try my best to deserve it."
"I tell you what. You could enter the ward out here. They'd hold your job for you at CEP. You could go through whatever they do with you at those places, and the job would be waiting when you got out. Your friends are here in Des Moines. There's nothing out there like what you got here. You could enter the ward out here."
"I could end up with the wires connected and peeing and shitting myself. And they could put in a feeding tube. And then maybe I'd come around."
"Justin. You're pissing me off. I don't pity you. You go out there she'll pity you. You'll always find wasted sons of bitches pity you. Well I won't. You stay out here where we can boot your fucking ass upstairs when you start crawling down there with the dog shit."
"Art. I want to sleep. Let's go back so I can sleep."
"Come on. I'll take you down to the big woman for some laughs."
"Shit no, Art."
"You say something to this wastrel, Sharon."
"I don't know, Art. Maybe he does need his wife. Maybe she'll pull him out of it."
"Ah Christ. All right. We'll check out the flights."
"I'm sorry to let you down, Art. I mean about the job."
"The main thing's you. Shit. I mean it's always like this. There's some fuckers you just can't help. I mean I see it out there every day. The fuckers lost it all their fucking lives, and you try and pull them up, and you think you've got them where they can make it, and they somehow always fuck themselves. I'm getting out of this job, Sharon. Look at that fucker. Look at Justin. Ah Christ. Justin, you go on back there but don't you ever show up on my fucking porch looking for a hand out or a lift or whatever cause buddy, I'm spent. I've had it."
Art Spellman stood up with his eyes blurred and dropped a twenty on the table.
"Let's get out of here. Come on, Sharon. You're fat enough."
They drove home silent in the Datsun and sat quiet in the living room, Spellman back on the couch with his big flushed hands folded, leaning taut back with the tears still there.
Then Art let Gretta up. He pulled the mongrel up into his lap and held her in his arms, set her down and went down beside her on the floor, there on fours suddenly lunging and barking as the dog barked and lunged away, lunged back snapping and barking. And they were barking and lunging at each other for a very long time after Justin was fast asleep.
Long after Justin's plane circled New York.
He circled New York for 45 minutes.
And that motion toward Manhattan in the late afternoon with the gray-blue sky and the glossy vehicles and asphalt, and at last the canyons, solidity and power, towers of glass and steel, Justin cupping the cigarette on the bus, gusting down between his legs until they reached at last Penn Station.
And sitting there in the press of bodies through the chill street and the traffic, sitting on his luggage, the solitary black box, and waiting for Christa.
And in the pulse of nether time he lit a cigarette and inhaled and saw the gray gust into the thin translucent medium between his presence and the street. In the pulse of time itself, he inhaled and gusted toward the gray street, toward Christa there somewhere, her image there, could he see it. And the time flickered and the feeling died. In that pulse of time he saw a Ford Torino threading in toward the curb and the door gained on space and she was there suddenly in a black velvet coat and blue suede skirt, there suddenly, and yet not there, there really only the street and the vague crowd of floating steel and glass and vacant faces, and yet he knew she was there in the flick of her image surely there, and she was there. And he held her. And he held her hand. And he held her hard against the dead gray street. They were just that close that he almost knew her, that he hardly knew his pain.
"And it's really you?"
"And it's you again."