EDITOR’S NOTE by Mary Gaitskill
Years ago I had a conversation with a friend comparing John Updike and Saul Bellow. At the time I liked Updike a little better, but she said something on Bellow’s side that nearly changed my mind on the spot. “Updike sees,” she said. “He sees the world and he knows what he is looking at. Bellow looks and he doesn’t always know. Bellow is stunned by the world.” By that she meant that Bellow’s vision is deeper.
I’m not sure that she was right (I’m not sure, for one thing, that Updike is always so knowing), but I’m still thinking about what she said. This blunt and exquisite little beauty, “Something To Remember Me By,” is a small example and counter-example of what she was talking about. The narrator is a worldly old man with a sophisticated eye and a wise-ass sense of humor describing an incident from his boyhood. But for all his wise-assedness, he remains amazed by the force and plenitude of physical life: pocket lint, soiled snowbanks, a tile wall with gaps “stuffed with dirt,” the “salt, acid, dark, sweet odors” of strange pussy. Then there’s social life: the order of family and religion, the chaos of morality, crime, goofiness, love, deception and holy books, some of which hide money, others of which cost 5 cents and come apart in your hands. As his scornful older brother says, this boy “doesn’t understand fuck-all,” and through this boy’s eyes, who would?
The story takes place in depression-era Chicago and it is told almost like a fairy tale: the boy, whose mother is slowly dying, goes on the “journey” of his day at school and work. At its very start he kisses his bed-ridden mother; though he lives in a city, he then encounters hunters, steps over the blood they’ve spilt and enters a park (or wood). Later he enters a strange home to deliver flowers; in the dining room he sees a young girl lying in a coffin. Her frowning mother gestures with her fists. He sees “baked ham with sliced bread” on the drainboard, a “jar of French’s mustard and wooden tongue depressors to spread it;” there’s a dead body, but it’s these daily things that make him say “I saw and I saw and I saw.” Under this mortal enchantment the boy then goes to see his uncle and instead meets another girl, also supine, but naked and very much alive. The boy forgets his mother and is falsely seduced. He is humbled, does service, is punished. There is mercy and knowledge.
Actually punishment comes last, but mercy and knowledge have more power — which would say that my friend was wrong, that Bellow does look and know. Except that the knowledge of the story, which comes from the world of objects and cheap books, plus people who make fun, speechify, cheat and punch hell out of the kid — this knowledge is peculiar; blunt, yet hard to read, right in your face, but off the color spectrum.
“That was when the measured, reassuring, sleep-inducing turntable of days became a whirlpool, a vortex darkening towards the bottom.”
“I myself know the power of nonpathos, in these low, devious days.”
The boy turned old man thinks both these thoughts close on each other; his knowing and his amazed unknowing come together and fall apart again.
Something to Remember Me By
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WHEN THERE IS TOO MUCH GOING ON, more than you can bear, you may choose to assume that nothing in particular is happening, that your life is going round and round like a turntable. Then one day you are aware that what you took to be a turntable, smooth, flat, and even, was in fact a whirlpool, a vortex. My first knowledge of the hidden work of uneventful days goes back to February 1933. The exact date won’t matter much to you. I like to think, however, that you, my only child, will want to hear about this hidden work as it relates to me. When you were a small boy you were keen on family history. You will quickly understand that I couldn’t tell a child what I am about to tell you now. You don’t talk about deaths and vortices to a kid, not nowadays. In my time my parents didn’t hesitate to speak of death and the dying. What they seldom mentioned was sex. We’ve got it the other way around.
My mother died when I was an adolescent. I’ve often told you that. What I didn’t tell you was that I knew she was dying and didn’t allow myself to think about it — there’s your turntable.
The month was February, as I’ve said, adding that the exact date wouldn’t matter to you. I should confess that I myself avoided fixing it.
Chicago in winter, armored in gray ice, the sky low, the going heavy.
I was a high school senior, an indifferent student, generally unpopular, a background figure in the school. It was only as a high jumper that I performed in public. I had no form at all; a curious last-minute spring or convulsion put me over the bar. But this was what the school turned out to see.
Unwilling to study, I was bookish nevertheless. I was secretive about my family life. The truth is that I didn’t want to talk about my mother. Besides, I had no language as yet for the oddity of my peculiar interests.
But let me get on with that significant day in the early part of February.
It began like any other winter school day in Chicago — grimly ordinary. The temperature a few degrees above zero, botanical frost shapes on the windowpane, the snow swept up in heaps, the ice gritty and the streets, block after block, bound together by the iron of the sky. A breakfast of porridge, toast, and tea. Late as usual, I stopped for a moment to look into my mother’s sickroom. I bent near and said, “It’s Louie, going to school.” She seemed to nod. Her eyelids were brown; the color of her face was much lighter. I hurried off with my books on a strap over my shoulder.
When I came to the boulevard on the edge of the park, two small men rushed out of a doorway with rifles, wheeled around aiming upward, and fired at pigeons near the rooftop.
Several birds fell straight down, and the men scooped up the soft bodies and ran indoors, dark little guys in fluttering white shirts. Depression hunters and their city game. Moments before, the police car had loafed by at ten miles an hour. The men had waited it out.
This had nothing to do with me. I mention it merely because it happened. I stepped around the blood spots and crossed into the park.
To the right of the path, behind the wintry lilac twigs, the crust of the snow was broken. In the dead black night Stephanie and I had necked there, petted, my hands under her raccoon coat, under her sweater, under her skirt, adolescents kissing without restraint. Her coonskin cap had slipped to the back of her head. She opened the musky coat to me to have me closer.
Approaching the school building, I had to run to reach the doors before the last bell. I was on notice from the family — no trouble with teachers, no summons from the principal at a time like this. And I did observe the rules, although I despised classwork. But I spent all the money I could lay hands on at Hammersmark’s Bookstore. I read Manhattan Transfer, The Enormous Room, and A Portrait of the Artist. I belonged to the Cercle Français and the Senior Discussion Club. The club’s topic for this afternoon was Von Hindenburg’s choice of Hitler to form a new government. But I couldn’t go to meetings now; I had an afterschool job. My father had insisted that I find one.
After classes, on my way to work, I stopped at home to cut myself a slice of bread and a wedge of Wisconsin cheese, and to see whether my mother might be awake. During her last days she was heavily sedated and rarely said anything. The tall, square-shouldered bottle at her bedside was filled with clear red Nembutal. The color of this fluid was always the same, as if it could tolerate no shadow. Now that she could no longer sit up to have it washed, my mother’s hair was cut short. This made her face more slender, and her lips were sober. Her breathing was dry and hard, obstructed. The window shade was halfway up. It was scalloped at the bottom and had white fringes. The street ice was dark gray. Snow was piled against the trees. Their trunks had a mineral-black look. Waiting out the winter in their alligator armor, they gathered coal soot.
Even when she was awake, my mother couldn’t find the breath to speak. She sometimes made signs. Except for the nurse, there was nobody in the house. My father was at business, my sister had a downtown job, my brothers hustled. The eldest, Albert, clerked for a lawyer in the Loop. My brother Len had put me onto a job on the Northwestern commuter trains, and for a while I was a candy butcher, selling chocolate bars and evening papers. When my mother put a stop to this because it kept me too late, I had found other work. Just now I was delivering flowers for a shop on North Avenue and riding the streetcars carrying wreaths and bouquets to all parts of the city. Behrens the florist paid me fifty cents for an afternoon; with tips I could earn as much as a dollar. That gave me time to prepare my trigonometry lesson and, very late at night, after I had seen Stephanie, to read my books. I sat in the kitchen when everyone was sleeping, in deep silence, snowdrifts under the windows, and below, the janitor’s shovel rasping on the cement and clanging on the furnace door. I read banned books circulated by my classmates, political pamphlets, read “Prufrock” and “Mauberley.” I also studied arcane books, too far out to discuss with anyone.
I read on the streetcars (called trolleys elsewhere). Reading shut out the sights. In fact there were no sights — more of the same and then more of the same. Shop fronts, garages, warehouses, narrow brick bungalows.
The city was laid out on a colossal grid, eight blocks to the mile, every fourth street a car line. The days short, the streetlights weak, the soiled snowbanks toward evening became a source of light. I carried my carfare in my mitten, where the coins mixed with lint worn away from the lining. Today I was delivering lilies to an uptown address. They were wrapped and pinned in heavy paper. Behrens, spelling out my errand for me, was pale, a narrow-faced man who wore nose glasses. Amid the flowers, he alone had no color — something like the price he paid for being human. He wasted no words: “This delivery will take an hour each way in this traffic, so it’ll be your only one. I carry these people on the books, but make sure you get a signature on the bill.”
I couldn’t say why it was such a relief to get out of the shop, the damp, warm-earth smell, the dense mosses, the prickling cactuses, the glass iceboxes with orchids, gardenias, and sickbed roses. I preferred the brick boredom of the street, the paving stones and steel rails. I drew down the three peaks of my racing-skater’s cap and hauled the clumsy package to Robey Street. When the car came panting up there was room for me on the long seat next to the door. Passengers didn’t undo their buttons. They were chilled, guarded, muffled, miserable. I had reading matter with me — the remains of a book, the cover gone, the pages held together by binder’s thread and flakes of glue. I carried these fifty or sixty pages in the pocket of my short sheepskin. With the one hand I had free I couldn’t manage this mutilated book. And on the Broadway-Clark car, reading was out of the question. I had to protect my lilies from the balancing straphangers and people pushing toward the front.
I got down at Ainslie Street holding high the package, which had the shape of a padded kite. The apartment house I was looking for had a courtyard with iron palings. The usual lobby: a floor sinking in the middle, kernels of tile, gaps stuffed with dirt, and a panel of brass mailboxes with earpiece-mouthpieces. No voice came down when I pushed the button; instead, the lock buzzed, jarred, rattled, and I went from the cold of the outer lobby to the overheated mustiness of the inner one. On the second floor one of the two doors on the landing was open, and overshoes and galoshes and rubbers were heaped along the wall. At once I found myself in a crowd of drinkers. All the lights in the house were on, although it was a good hour before dark. Coats were piled on chairs and sofas. All whiskey in those days was bootleg, of course. Holding the flowers high, I parted the mourners. I was quasi official. The message went out: “Let the kid through. Go right on, buddy.”
The long passageway was full too, but the dining room was entirely empty. There, a dead girl lay in her coffin.
Over her a cut-glass luster was hanging from a taped, deformed artery of wire pulled through the broken plaster. I hadn’t expected to find myself looking down into a coffin.
You saw her as she was, without undertaker’s makeup, a girl older than Stephanie, not so plump, thin, fair, her straight hair arranged on her dead shoulders. All buoyancy gone, a weight that counted totally on support, not so much lying as sunk in this gray rectangle. I saw what I took to be the pressure mark of fingers on her cheek. Whether she had been pretty or not was no consideration.
A stout woman (certainly the mother), wearing black, opened the swing door from the kitchen and saw me standing over the corpse. I thought she was displeased when she made a fist signal to come forward. As I passed her she drew both fists against her bosom. She said to put the flowers on the sink, and then she pulled the pins and crackled the paper. Big arms, thick calves, a bun of hair, her short nose thin and red. It was Behrens’s practice to tie the lily stalks to slender green sticks. There was never any damage.
On the drain board of the sink was a baked ham with sliced bread around the platter, a jar of French’s mustard and wooden tongue depressors to spread it. I saw and I saw and I saw.
I was on my most discreet and polite behavior with the woman. I looked at the floor to spare her my commiserating face. But why should she care at all about my discreetness; how did I come into this except as a messenger and menial? If she wouldn’t observe my behavior, whom was I behaving for? All she wanted was to settle the bill and send me on my way. She picked up her purse, holding it to her body as she had held her fists. “What do I owe Behrens?” she asked me.
“He said you could sign for this.”
However, she wasn’t going to deal in kindnesses. She said, “No.” She said, “I don’t want debts following me later on.” She gave me a five-dollar bill, she added a tip of fifty cents, and it was I who signed the receipt, as well as I could on the enameled grooves of the sink. I folded the bill small and felt under the sheepskin coat for my watch pocket, ashamed to take money from her within sight of her dead daughter. I wasn’t the object of the woman’s severity, but her face somewhat frightened me. She leveled the same look at the walls, the door. I didn’t figure here, however; this was no death of mine.
As if to take another reading of the girl’s plain face, I looked again into the coffin on my way out. And then on the staircase I began to extract the pages from my sheepskin pocket, and in the lobby I hunted for the sentences I had read the night before. Yes, here they were:
Nature cannot suffer the human form within her system of laws. When given to her charge, the human being before us is reduced to dust. Ours is the most perfect form to be found on earth. The visible world sustains us until life leaves, and then it must utterly destroy us. Where, then, is the world from which the human form comes?
If you swallowed some food and then died, that morsel of food that would have nourished you in life would hasten your disintegration in death.
This meant that nature didn’t make life; it only housed it.
In those days I read many such books. But the one I had read the previous night went deeper than the rest. You, my only child, are only too familiar with my lifelong absorption in or craze for further worlds. I used to bore you when I spoke of spirit, or pneuma, and of a continuum of spirit and nature. You were too well educated, respectably rational, to take stock in such terms. I might add, citing a famous scholar, that what is plausible can do without proof. I am not about to pursue this. Still, there would be a gap in what I have to tell if I were to leave out my significant book, and this after all is a narrative, not an argument.
Anyway, I returned my pages to the pocket of my sheepskin, and then I didn’t know quite what to do. At four o’clock, with no more errands, I was somehow not ready to go home. So I walked through the snow to Argyle Street, where my brother-in-law practiced dentistry, thinking that we might travel home together. I prepared an explanation for turning up at his office. “I was on the North Side delivering flowers, saw a dead girl laid out, realized how close I was, and came here.” Why did I need to account for my innocent behavior when it was innocent? Perhaps because I was always contemplating illicit things. Because I was always being accused. Because I ran a little truck farm of deceits — but self-examination, once so fascinating to me, has become tiresome.
My brother-in-law’s office was a high, second-floor walkup: PHILIP HADDIS, D.D.S. Three bay windows at the rounded corner of the building gave you a full view of the street and of the lake, due east — the jagged flats of ice floating. The office door was open, and when I came through the tiny blind (windowless) waiting room and didn’t see Philip at the big, back-tilted dentist’s chair, I thought that he might have stepped into his lab. He was a good technician and did most of his own work, which was a big saving.
Philip wasn’t tall, but he was very big, a burly man. The sleeves of his white coat fitted tightly on his bare, thick forearms. The strength of his arms counted when it came to pulling teeth. Lots of patients were referred to him for extractions.
When he had nothing in particular to do he would sit in the chair himself, studying the Racing Form between the bent mantis leg of the drill, the gas flame, and the water spurting round and round in the green glass spit-sink. The cigar smell was always thick. Standing in the center of the dental cabinet was a clock under a glass bell. Four gilt weights rotated at its base. This was a gift from my mother. The view from the middle window was divided by a chain that couldn’t have been much smaller than the one that stopped the British fleet on the Hudson. This held the weight of the druggist’s sign — a mortar and pestle outlined in electric bulbs. There wasn’t much daylight left. At noon it was poured out; by four it had drained away. From one side the banked snow was growing blue, from the other the shops were shining warmth on it.
The dentist’s lab was in a closet. Easygoing Philip peed in the sink sometimes. It was a long trek to the toilet at the far end of the building, and the hallway was nothing but two walls — a plaster tunnel and a carpet runner edged with brass tape. Philip hated going to the end of the hall.
There was nobody in the lab, either. Philip might have been taking a cup of coffee at the soda fountain in the drugstore below. It was possible also that he was passing the time with Marchek, the doctor with whom he shared the suite of offices. The connecting door was never locked, and I had occasionally sat in Marchek’s swivel chair with a gynecology book, studying the colored illustrations and storing up the Latin names.
Marchek’s starred glass pane was dark, and I assumed his office to be empty, but when I went in I saw a naked woman lying on the examining table. She wasn’t asleep; she seemed to be resting. Becoming aware that I was there, she stirred, and then without haste, disturbing herself as little as possible, she reached for her clothing heaped on Dr. Marchek’s desk. Picking out her slip, she put it on her belly — she didn’t spread it. Was she dazed, drugged? No, she simply took her sweet time about everything, she behaved with exciting lassitude. Wires connected her nice wrists to a piece of medical apparatus on a wheeled stand.
The right thing would have been to withdraw, but it was already too late for that. Besides, the woman gave no sign that she cared one way or another. She didn’t draw the slip over her breasts, she didn’t even bring her thighs together. The covering hairs were parted. There were salt, acid, dark, sweet odors. These were immediately effective; I was strongly excited. There was a gloss on her forehead, an exhausted look about the eyes. I believed that I had guessed what she had been doing, but then the room was half dark, and I preferred to avoid any definite thought. Doubt seemed much better, or equivocation.
I remembered that Philip, in his offhand, lazy way, had mentioned a “research project” going on next door. Dr. Marchek was measuring the reactions of partners in the sexual act. “He takes people from the street, he hooks them up and pretends he’s collecting graphs. This is for kicks; the science part is horseshit.”
The naked woman, then, was an experimental subject.
I had prepared myself to tell Philip about the dead girl on Ainslie Street, but the coffin, the kitchen, the ham, the flowers were as distant from me now as the ice floes on the lake and the killing cold of the water.
“Where did you come from?” the woman said to me.
“From next door — the dentist’s office.”
“The doctor was about to unstrap me, and I need to get loose. Maybe you can figure out these wires.”
If Marchek should be in the inner room, he wouldn’t come in now that he heard voices. As the woman raised both her arms so that I could undo the buckles, her breasts swayed, and when I bent over her the odor of her upper body made me think of the frilled brown papers in a box after the chocolates had been eaten — a sweet aftersmell and acrid cardboard mixed. Although I tried hard to stop it, my mother’s chest mutilated by cancer surgery passed through my mind. Its gnarled scar tissue. I also called in Stephanie’s closed eyes and kissing face — anything to spoil the attraction of this naked young woman. It occurred to me as I undid the clasps that instead of disconnecting her I was hooking myself. We were alone in the darkening office, and I wanted her to reach under the sheepskin and undo my belt for me.
But when her hands were free she wiped the jelly from her wrists and began to dress. She started with her bra, several times lowering her breasts into the cups, and when her arms went backward to fasten the hooks she bent far forward, as if she were passing under a low bough. The cells of my body were like bees, drunker and drunker on sexual honey (I expect that this will change the figure of Grandfather Louie, the old man remembered as this or that but never as a hive of erotic bees).
But I couldn’t be blind to the woman’s behavior even now. It was very broad; she laid it on. I saw her face in profile, and although it was turned downward, there was no mistaking her smile. To use an expression from the thirties, she was giving me the works. She knew I was about to fall on my face. She buttoned every small button with deliberate slowness, and her blouse had at least twenty such buttons, yet she was still bare from the waist down. Though we were so minor, she and I, a schoolboy and a floozy, we had such major instruments to play. And if we were to go further, whatever happened would never get beyond this room. It would be between the two of us, and nobody would ever hear of it. Still, Marchek, that pseudoexperimenter, was probably biding his time in the next room. An old family doctor, he must have been embarrassed and angry. And at any moment, moreover, my brother-in-law Philip might come back.
When the woman slipped down from the leather table she gripped her leg and said she had pulled a muscle. She lifted one heel onto a chair and rubbed her calf, swearing under her breath and looking everywhere with swimming eyes. And then, after she had put on her skirt and fastened her stockings to the garter belt, she pushed her feet into her pumps and limped around the chair, holding it by the arm. She said, “Will you please reach me my coat? Just put it over my shoulders.”
She, too, wore a raccoon. As I took it from the hook I wished it had been something else. But Stephanie’s coat was newer than this one and twice as heavy. These pelts had dried out, and the fur was thin. The woman was already on her way out, and stooped as I laid the raccoon over her back. Marchek’s office had its own exit to the corridor.
At the top of the staircase, the woman asked me to help her down. I said that I would, of course, but I wanted to look once more for my brother-in-law. As she tied the woolen scarf under her chin she smiled at me, with an Oriental wrinkling of her eyes.
Not to check in with Philip wouldn’t have been right. My hope was that he would be returning, coming down the narrow corridor in his burly, sauntering, careless way. You won’t remember your Uncle Philip. He had played college football, and he still had the look of a tackle, with his swelling, compact forearms. (At Soldier Field today he’d be physically insignificant; in his time, however, he was something of a strongman.)
But there was the long strip of carpet down the middle of the wall-valley, and no one was coming to rescue me. I turned back to his office. If only a patient were sitting in the chair and I could see Philip looking into his mouth, I’d be on track again, excused from taking the woman’s challenge. One alternative was to say that I couldn’t go with her, that Philip expected me to ride back with him to the Northwest Side. In the empty office I considered this lie, bending my head so that I wouldn’t confront the clock with its soundless measured weights revolving. Then I wrote on Philip’s memo pad: “Louie, passing by.” I left it on the seat of the chair.
The woman had put her arms through the sleeves of the collegiate, rah-rah raccoon and was resting her fur-bundled rear on the banister. She was passing her compact mirror back and forth, and when I came out she gave the compact a snap and dropped it into her purse.
“Still the charley horse?”
“My lower back too.”
We descended, very slow, both feet on each tread. I wondered what she would do if I were to kiss her. Laugh at me, probably. We were no longer between the four walls where anything might have happened. In the street, space was unlimited. I had no idea how far we were going, how far I would be able to go. Although she was the one claiming to be in pain, it was I who felt sick. She asked me to support her lower back with my hand, and there I discovered what an extraordinary action her hips could perform. At a party I had overheard an older woman saying to another lady, “I know how to make them burn.” Hearing this was enough for me.
No special art was necessary with a boy of seventeen, not even so much as being invited to support her with my hand — to feel that intricate, erotic working of her back. I had already seen the woman on Marchek’s examining table and had also felt the full weight of her when she leaned — when she laid her female substance on me. Moreover, she fully knew my mind. She was the thing I was thinking continually, and how often does thought find its object in circumstances like these — the object knowing that it has been found? The woman knew my expectations. She was, in the flesh, those expectations. I couldn’t have sworn that she was a hooker, a tramp. She might have been an ordinary family girl with a taste for trampishness, acting loose, amusing herself with me, doing a comic sex turn as in those days people sometimes did.
“Where are we headed?”
“If you have to go, I can make it on my own,” she said.
“It’s just Winona Street, the other side of Sheridan Road.”
“No, no. I’ll walk you there.”
She asked whether I was still at school, pointing to the printed pages in my coat pocket.
I observed when we were passing a fruit shop (a boy of my own age emptying bushels of oranges into the lighted window) that, despite the woman’s thick-cream color, her eyes were Far Eastern, black.
“You should be about seventeen,” she said.
She was wearing pumps in the snow and placed each step with care.
“What are you going to be — have you picked your profession?”
I had no use for professions. Utterly none. There were accountants and engineers in the soup lines. In the world slump, professions were useless. You were free, therefore, to make something extraordinary of yourself. I might have said, if I hadn’t been excited to the point of sickness, that I didn’t ride around the city on the cars to make a buck or to be useful to the family, but to take a reading of this boring, depressed, ugly, endless, rotting city. I couldn’t have thought it then, but I now understand that my purpose was to interpret this place. Its power was tremendous. But so was mine, potentially. I refused absolutely to believe for a moment that people here were doing what they thought they were doing. Beneath the apparent life of these streets was their real life, beneath each face the real face, beneath each voice and its words the true tone and the real message. Of course, I wasn’t about to say such things. It was beyond me at that time to say them. I was, however, a high-toned kid, “La-di-dah,” my critical, satirical brother Albert called me. A high purpose in adolescence will expose you to that.
At the moment, a glamorous, sexual girl had me in tow. I couldn’t guess where I was being led, nor how far, nor what she would surprise me with, nor the consequences.
“So the dentist is your brother?”
“In-law — my sister’s husband. They live with us. You’re asking what he’s like? He’s a good guy. He likes to lock his office on Friday and go to the races. He takes me to the fights. Also, at the back of the drugstore there’s a poker game…”
“He doesn’t go around with books in his pocket.”
“Well, no, he doesn’t. He says, ‘What’s the use? There’s too much to keep up or catch up with. You could never in a thousand years do it, so why knock yourself out?’ My sister wants him to open a Loop office, but that would be too much of a strain. I guess he’s for inertia. He’s not ready to do more than he’s already doing.”
“So what are you reading — what’s it about?”
I didn’t propose to discuss anything with her. I wasn’t capable of it. What I had in mind just then was entirely different.
But suppose I had been able to explain. One does have a responsibility to answer genuine questions: “You see, miss, this is the visible world. We live in it, we breathe its air and eat its substance. When we die, however, matter goes to matter, and then we’re annihilated. Now, which world do we really belong to, this world of matter or another world, from which matter takes its orders?”
Not many people were willing to talk about such notions. They made even Stephanie impatient. “When you die, that’s it. Dead is dead,” she would say. She loved a good time. And when I wouldn’t take her downtown to the Oriental Theatre she didn’t deny herself the company of other boys. She brought back off-color vaudeville jokes. I think the Oriental was part of a national entertainment circuit. Jimmy Savo, Lou Holtz, and Sophie Tucker played there. I was sometimes too solemn for Stephanie. When she gave imitations of Jimmy Savo singing “River, Stay Away from My Door,” bringing her knees together and holding herself tight, she didn’t break me up, and she was disappointed.
You would have thought that the book or book fragment in my pocket was a talisman from a fairy tale to open castle gates or carry me to mountaintops. Yet when the woman asked me what it was, I was too scattered to tell her. Remember, I still kept my hand as instructed on her lower back, tormented by that sexual grind of her movements. I was discovering what the lady at the party had meant by saying, “I know how to make them burn.” So of course I was in no condition to talk a bout the Ego and the Will, or about the secrets of the blood. Yes, I believed that higher knowledge was shared out among all human beings. What else was there to hold us together but this force hidden behind daily consciousness? But to be coherent about it now was absolutely out of the question.
“Can’t you tell me?” she said.
“I bought this for a nickel from a bargain table.”
“That’s how you spend your money?” I assumed her to mean that I didn’t spend it on girls.
“And the dentist is a good-natured, lazy guy,” she went on. “What has he got to tell you?”
I tried to review the mental record. What did Phil Haddis say? He said that a stiff prick has no conscience. At the moment it was all I could think of. It amused Philip to talk to me. He was a chum. Where Philip was indulgent, my brother Albert, your late uncle, was harsh. Albert might have taught me something if he had trusted me. He was then a night-school law student clerking for Rowland, the racketeer congressman. He was Rowland’s bagman, and Rowland hired him not to read law but to make collections. Philip suspected that Albert was skimming, for he dressed sharply. He wore a derby (called, in those days, a Baltimore heater) and a camel’s hair topcoat and pointed, mafioso shoes. Toward me, Albert was scornful. He said, “You don’t understand fuck-all. You never will.”
We were approaching Winona Street, and when we got to her building she’d have no further use for me and send me away. I’d see no more than the flash of the glass and then stare as she let herself in. She was already feeling in her purse for the keys. I was no longer supporting her back, preparing instead to mutter “bye-bye,” when she surprised me with a sideward nod, inviting me to enter. I think I had hoped (with sex-polluted hope) that she would leave me in the street. I followed her through another tile lobby and through the inner door. The staircase was fiercely heated by coal-fueled radiators, the skylight three stories up was wavering, the wallpaper had come unstuck and was curling and bulging. I swallowed my breath. I couldn’t draw this heat into my lungs.
This had been a deluxe apartment house once, built for bankers, brokers, and well-to-do professionals. Now it was occupied by transients. In the big front room with its French windows there was a crap game. In the next room people were drinking or drowsing on the old chesterfields. The woman led me through what had once been a private bar — some of the fittings were still in place. Then I followed her through the kitchen — I would have gone anywhere, no questions asked. In the kitchen there were no signs of cooking, neither pots nor dishes. The linoleum was shredding, brown fibers standing like hairs. She led me into a narrower corridor, parallel to the main one. “I have what used to be a maid’s room,” she said. “It’s got a nice view of the alley, but there is a private bathroom.”
And here we were — an almost empty space. So this was how whores operated — assuming that she was a whore: a bare floor, a narrow cot, a chair by the window, a lopsided clothespress against the wall. I stopped under the light fixture while she passed behind, as if to observe me. Then from the back she gave me a hug and a small kiss on the cheek, more promissory than actual. Her face powder, or perhaps it was her lipstick, had a sort of green-banana fragrance.
My heart had never beaten as hard as this.
She said, “Why don’t I go into the bathroom awhile and get ready while you undress and lie down in bed. You look like you were brought up neat, so lay your clothes on the chair. You don’t want to drop them on the floor.”
Shivering (this seemed the one cold room in the house), I began to pull off my things, beginning with the winter-wrinkled boots. The sheepskin I hung over the back of the chair. I pushed my socks into the boots and then my bare feet recoiled from the grit underfoot. I took off everything, as if to disassociate my shirt, my underthings, from whatever it was that was about to happen, so that only my body could be guilty. The one thing that couldn’t be excepted. When I pulled back the cover and got in, I was thinking that the beds in Bridewell prison would be like this. There was no pillowcase; my head lay on the ticking. What I saw of the outside was the utility wires hung between the poles like lines on music paper, only sagging, and the glass insulators like clumps of notes. The woman had said nothing about money. Because she liked me. I couldn’t believe my luck — luck with a hint of disaster. I blinded myself to the Bridewell metal cot, not meant for two. I felt also that I couldn’t hold out if she kept me waiting long. And what feminine thing was she doing in there — undressing, washing, perfuming, changing?
Abruptly, she came out. She had been waiting, nothing else. She still wore the raccoon coat, even the gloves. Without looking at me she walked very quickly, almost running, and opened the window. As soon as the window shot up, it let in a blast of cold air, and I stood up on the bed but it was too late to stop her. She took my clothes from the back of the chair and heaved them out. They fell into the alley. I shouted, “What are you doing!” She still refused to turn her head. As she ran away, tying the scarf under her chin, she left the door open. I could hear her pumps beating double time in the hallway.
I COULDN’T RUN AFTER HER, could I, and show myself naked to the people in the flat? She had banked on this. When we came in, she must have given the high sign to the man she worked with, and he had been waiting in the alley. When I ran to look out, my things had already been gathered up. All I saw was the back of somebody with a bundle under his arm hurrying in the walkway between two garages. I might have picked up my boots — those she had left me — and jumped from the first-floor window, but I couldn’t chase the man very far, and in a few minutes I would have wound up on Sheridan Road naked and freezing.
I had seen a drunk in his union suit, bleeding from the head after he had been rolled and beaten, staggering and yelling in the street. I didn’t even have a shirt and drawers. I was as naked as the woman herself had been in the doctor’s office, stripped of everything, including the five dollars I had collected for the flowers. And the sheepskin my mother had bought for me last year. Plus the book, the fragment of an untitled book, author unknown. This may have been the most serious loss of all.
Now I could think on my own about the world I really belonged to, whether it was this one or another.
I pulled down the window, and then I went to shut the door. The room didn’t seem lived in, but suppose it had a tenant, and what if he were to storm in now and rough me up? Luckily there was a bolt to the door. I pushed it into its loop and then I ran around the room to see what I could find to wear. In the lopsided clothespress, nothing but wire hangers, and in the bathroom, only a cotton hand towel. I tore the blanket off the bed; if I were to slit it I might pull it over my head like a serape, but it was too thin to do me much good in freezing weather. When I pulled the chair over to the clothespress and stood on it, I found a woman’s dress behind the molding, and a quilted bed jacket. In a brown paper bag there was a knitted brown tam. I had to put these things on. I had no choice.
It was now, I reckoned, about five o’clock. Philip had no fixed schedule. He didn’t hang around the office on the off chance that somebody might turn up with a toothache. After his last appointment he locked up and left. He didn’t necessarily set out for home; he was not too keen to return to the house. If I wanted to catch him I’d have to run. In boots, dress, tam, and jacket, I made my way out of the apartment. Nobody took the slightest interest in me. More people (Philip would have called them transients) had crowded in — it was even likely that the man who had snatched up my clothes in the alley had returned, was among them. The heat in the staircase now was stifling, and the wallpaper smelled scorched, as if it were on the point of catching fire. In the street I was struck by a north wind straight from the Pole, and the dress and sateen jacket counted for nothing. I was running, though, and had no time to feel it.
Philip would say, “Who was this floozy? Where did she pick you up?” Philip was unexcitable, always mild, amused by me. Anna would badger him with the example of her ambitious brothers — they hustled, they read books. You couldn’t fault Philip for being pleased. I anticipated what he’d say — “Did you get in? Then at least you’re not going to catch the clap.” I depended on Philip now, for I had nothing, not even seven cents for carfare. I could be certain, however, that he wouldn’t moralize at me, he’d set about dressing me, he’d scrounge a sweater among his neighborhood acquaintances or take me to the Salvation Army shop on Broadway if that was still open. He’d go about this in his slow-moving, thick-necked, deliberate way. Not even dancing would speed him up; he spaced out the music to suit him when he did the fox-trot and pressed his cheek to Anna’s. He wore a long, calm grin. My private term for this particular expression was Pussy-Veleerum. I saw Philip as fat but strong, strong but cozy, purring but inserting a joking comment. He gave a little suck at the corner of the mouth when he was about to take a swipe at you, and it was then that he was Pussy-Veleerum. A name it never occurred to me to speak aloud.
I sprinted past the windows of the fruit store, the delicatessen, the tailor’s shop. I could count on help from Philip. My father, however, was an intolerant, hasty man. Slighter than his sons, handsome, with muscles of white marble (so they seemed to me), laying down the law. It would put him in a rage to see me like this. And it was true that I had failed to consider: my mother dying, the ground frozen, a funeral coming, the dug grave, the packet of sand from the Holy Land to be scattered on the shroud. If I were to turn up in this filthy dress, the old man, breaking under his burdens, would come down on me in a blind, Old Testament rage. I never thought of this as cruelty but as archaic right everlasting. Even Albert, who was already a Loop lawyer, had to put up with the old man’s blows — outraged, his eyes swollen and maddened, but he took it. It never seemed to any of us that my father was cruel. We had gone over the limit, and we were punished.
There were no lights in Philip’s D.D.S. office. When I jumped up the stairs, the door with its blank starred glass was locked. Frosted panes were still rare. What we had was this star-marred product for toilets and other private windows. Marchek — whom nowadays we could call a voyeur — was also, angrily, gone. I had screwed up his experiment. I tried the doors, thinking that I could spend the night on the leather-examining table where the beautiful nude had lain. From the office I could also make telephone calls. I did have a few friends, although there were none who might help me. I wouldn’t have known how to explain my predicament to them. They’d think I was putting them on, that it was a practical joke — “This is Louie. A whore robbed me of my clothes and I’m stuck on the North Side without carfare. I’m wearing a dress. I lost my house keys. I can’t get home.”
I ran down to the drugstore to look for Philip there. He sometimes played five or six hands of poker in the druggist’s back room, trying his luck before getting on the streetcar. I knew Kiyar, the druggist, by sight. He had no recollection of me — why should he have? He said, “What can I do for you, young lady?”
Did he really take me for a girl, or a tramp off the street, or a gypsy from one of the storefront fortune-teller camps? Those were now all over town. But not even a gypsy would wear this blue sateen quilted boudoir jacket instead of a coat. “I wonder, is Phil Haddis the dentist in the back?”
“What do you want with Dr. Haddis — have you got a toothache, or what?”
“I need to see him.”
The druggist was a compact little guy, and his full round bald head was painfully sensitive looking. In its sensitivity it could pick up any degree of disturbance, I thought. Yet there was a canny glitter coming through his specs, and Kiyar had the mark of a man whose mind never would change once he had made it up. Oddly enough, he had a small mouth, baby’s lips. He had been on the street — how long? Forty years? In forty years you’ve seen it all and nobody can tell you a single thing.
“Did Dr. Haddis have an appointment with you? Are you a patient?”
He knew this was a private connection. I was no patient. “No. But if I was out here he’d want to know it. Can I talk to him one minute?”
“He isn’t here.”
Kiyar had walked behind the grille of the prescription counter. I mustn’t lose him. If he went, what would I do next? I said, “This is important, Mr. Kiyar.” He waited for me to declare myself. I wasn’t about to embarrass Philip by setting off rumors. Kiyar said nothing. He may have been waiting for me to speak up. Declare myself. I assume he took pride in running a tight operation, giving nothing away. To cut through to the man I said, “I’m in a spot. I left Dr. Haddis a note before, but when I came back I missed him.”
At once I recognized my mistake. Druggists were always being appealed to. All those pills, remedy bottles, bright lights, medicine ads, drew wandering screwballs and moochers. They all said they were in bad trouble.
“You can go to the Foster Avenue station.”
“The police, you mean.”
I had thought of that too. I could always tell them my hard-luck story and they’d keep me until they checked it out and someone would come to fetch me. That would probably be Albert. Albert would love that. He’d say to me, “Well, aren’t you the horny little bastard.” He’d play up to the cops too, and amuse them.
“I’d freeze before I got to Foster Avenue,” was my answer to Kiyar.
“There’s always the squad car.”
“Well, if Phil Haddis isn’t in the back maybe he’s still in the neighborhood. He doesn’t always go straight home.”
“Sometimes he goes over to the fights at Johnny Coulon’s. It’s a little early for that. You could try the speakeasy down the street, on Kenmore. It’s an English basement, side entrance. You’ll see a light by the fence. The guy at the slot is called Moose.”
He didn’t offer so much as a dime from his till. If I had said that I was in a scrape and that Phil was my sister’s husband he’d probably have given me carfare. But I hadn’t confessed, and there was a penalty for that.
Going out, I crossed my arms over the bed jacket and opened the door with my shoulder. I might as well have been wearing nothing at all. The wind cut at my legs, and I ran. Luckily I didn’t have far to go. The iron pipe with the bulb at the end of it was halfway down the block. I saw it as soon as I crossed the street. These illegal drinking parlors were easy to find; they were meant to be. The steps were cement, four or five of them bringing me down to the door. The slot came open even before I knocked, and instead of the doorkeeper’s eyes, I saw his teeth.
“Kiyar sent me.”
I felt as though I were falling into a big, warm, paved cellar. There was little to see, almost nothing. A sort of bar was set up, a few hanging fixtures, some tables from an ice cream parlor, wire-backed chairs. If you looked through the window of an English basement your eyes were at ground level. Here the glass was tarred over. There would have been nothing to see anyway: a yard, a wooden porch, a clothesline, wires, a back alley with ash heaps.
“Where did you come from, sister?” said Moose.
But Moose was a nobody here. The bartender, the one who counted, called me over and said, “What is it, sweetheart? You got a message for somebody?”
“Oh? You needed a drink so bad that you jumped out of bed and ran straight over — you couldn’t stop to dress?”
“No, sir. I’m looking for somebody — Phil Haddis? The dentist?”
“There’s only one customer. Is that him?”
It wasn’t. My heart sank into river mud.
“It’s not a drunk you’re looking for?”
The drunk was on a high stool, thin legs hanging down, arms forward, and his head lying sidewise on the bar. Bottles, glasses, a beer barrel. Behind the barkeeper was a sideboard pried from the wall of an apartment. It had a long mirror — an oval laid on its side. Paper streamers curled down from the pipes.
“Do you know the dentist I’m talking about?”
“I might. Might not,” said the barkeeper. He was a sloppy, long-faced giant — something of a kangaroo look about him. That was the long face in combination with the belly. He told me, “This is not a busy time. It’s dinner, you know, and we’re just a neighborhood speak.”
It was no more than a cellar, just as the barman was no more than a Greek, huge and bored. Just as I myself, Louie, was no more than a naked male in a woman’s dress. When you had named objects in this elementary way, hardly anything remained in them. The barman, on whom everything now depended, held his bare arms out at full reach and braced on his spread hands. The place smelled of yeast sprinkled with booze. He said, “You live around here?”
“No, about an hour on the streetcar.”
“Humboldt Park is my neighborhood.”
“Then you got to be a Uke, a Polack, a Scandihoof, or a Jew.”
“I know my Chicago. And you didn’t set out dressed like that. You’da frozen to death inside of ten minutes. It’s for the boudoir, not winter wear. You don’t have the shape of a woman, neither. The hips aren’t there. Are you covering a pair of knockers? I bet not. So what’s the story, are you a morphodite? Let me tell you, you got to give this Depression credit. Without it you’d never find out what kind of funny stuff is going on. But one thing I’ll never believe is that you’re a young girl and still got her cherry.”
“You’re right as far as that goes, but the rest of it is that I haven’t got a cent, and I need carfare.”
“Who took you, a woman?”
“Up in her room when I undressed, she grabbed my things and threw them out the window.”
“Left you naked so you couldn’t chase her… I would have grabbed her and threw her on the bed. I bet you didn’t even get in.”
Not even, I repeated to myself. Why didn’t I push her down while she was still in her coat, as soon as we entered the room — pull up her clothes, as he would have done? Because he was born to that. While I was not. I wasn’t intended for it.
“So that’s what happened. You got taken by a team of pros. She set you up. You were the mark. Jewish fellows aren’t supposed to keep company with those bad cunts. But when you get out of your house, into the world, you want action like anybody else. So. And where did you dig up this dress with the fancy big roses? I guess you were standing with your sticker sticking out and were lucky to find anything to put on. Was she a good looker?”
Her breasts, as she lay there, had kept their shape. They didn’t slip sideward. The inward lines of her legs, thigh swelling toward thigh. The black crumpled hairs. Yes, a beauty, I would say.
Like the druggist, the barman saw the fun of the thing — an adolescent in a fix, a soiled dress, the rayon or sateen bed jacket. It was a lucky thing for me that business was at a standstill. If he had had customers, the barman wouldn’t have given me the time of day. “In short, you got mixed up with a whore and she gave you the works.”
For that matter, I had no sympathy for myself. I confessed that I had this coming, a high-minded Jewish schoolboy, too high-and-mighty to be Orthodox and with his eye on a special destiny. At home, inside the house, an archaic rule; outside, the facts of life. The facts of life were having their turn. Their first effect was ridicule. To throw my duds into the alley was the woman’s joke on me. The druggist with his pain-sensitive head was all irony. And now the barman was going to get his fun out of my trouble before he, maybe, gave me the seven cents for carfare. Then I could have a full hour of shame on the streetcar. My mother, with whom I might never speak again, used to say that I had a line of pride straight down the bridge of my nose, a foolish stripe that she could see.
I had no way of anticipating what her death would signify.
The barman, having mein place, was giving me the business. And Moose (“Moosey,” the Greek called him) had come away from the door so as not to miss the entertainment. The Greek’s kangaroo mouth turned up at the corners. Presently his hand went up to his head and he rubbed his scalp under the black, spiky hair. Some said they drank olive oil by the glass, these Greeks, to keep their hair so rich. “Now give it to me again, about the dentist,” said the barman.
“I came looking for him, but by now he’s well on his way home.”
He would by then be on the Broadway-Clark car, reading the Peach edition of the Evening American, a broad man with an innocent pout to his face, checking the race results. Anna had him dressed up as a professional man, but he let the fittings — shirt, tie, buttons — go their own way. His instep was fat and swelled inside the narrow shoe she had picked for him. He wore the fedora correctly. Toward the rest he admitted no obligation.
Anna cooked dinner after work, and when Philip came in, my father would begin to ask, “Where’s Louie?” “Oh, he’s out delivering flowers,” they’d tell him. But the old man was nervous about his children after dark, and if they were late he waited up, walking — no, trotting — up and down the long apartment. When you tried to slip in, he caught you and twisted you tight by the neck band. He was small, neat, slender, a gentleman, but abrupt, not unworldly — he wasn’t ignorant of vices; he had lived in Odessa and even longer in St. Petersburg — but he had no patience. The least thing might craze him. Seeing me in this dress, he’d lose his head at once. I lost mine when that woman showed me her snatch with all the pink layers, when she raised up her arm and asked me to disconnect the wires, when I felt her skin and her fragrance came upward.
“What’s your family, what does your dad do?” asked the barman.
“His business is wood fuel for bakers’ ovens. It comes by freight car from northern Michigan. Also from Birnamwood, Wisconsin. He has a yard off Lake Street, east of Halsted.”
I made an effort to give the particulars. I couldn’t afford to be suspected of invention now.
“I know where that is. Now, that’s a neighborhood just full of hookers and cathouses. You think you can tell your old man what happened to you, that you got picked up by a cutie and she stole your clothes off you?”
The effect of this question was to make me tight in the face, dim in the ears. The whole cellar grew small and distant, toylike but not for play.
“How’s your old man to deal with — tough?”
“Hard,” I said.
“Slaps the kids around? This time you’ve got it coming. What’s under the dress, a pair of bloomers?”
I shook my head.
“Your behind is bare? Now you know how it feels to go around like a woman.”
The Greek’s great muscles were dough-colored. You wouldn’t have wanted him to take a headlock on you. That’s the kind of man the Organization hired. The Capone people were now in charge. The customers would be like celluloid Kewpie dolls to the Greek. He looked like one of those boxing kangaroos in the movies, and he could do a standing jump over the bar. Yet he enjoyed playing zany. He could curve his long mouth up at the corners like the happy face in a cartoon.
“What were you doing on the North Side?”
“Hustling after school but with ramming on your brain. You got a lot to learn, buddy boy. Well, enough of that. Now, Moosey, take this flashlight and see if you can scrounge up a sweater or something in the back basement for this down-on-his-luck kid. I’d be surprised if the old janitor hasn’t picked the stuff over pretty good. If mice have nested in it, shake out the turds. It’ll help on the trip home.”
I followed Moose into the hotter half of the cellar. His flashlight picked out the laundry tubs with the handoperated wringers mounted on them, the padlocked wooden storage bins. “Turn over some of these cardboard boxes. Mostly rags, is my guess. Dump ’em out, that’s the easiest.”
I emptied a couple of big cartons. Moose passed the light back and forth over the heaps. “Nothing much, like I said.”
“Here’s a flannel shirt,” I said. I wanted to get out. The smell of heated burlap was hard to take. This was the only wearable article. I could have used a pullover or a pair of pants. We returned to the bar. As I was putting on the shirt, which revolted me (I come of finicky people whose fetish is cleanliness), the barman said, “I tell you what, you take this drunk home — this is about time for him, isn’t it, Moosey? He gets plastered here every night. See he gets home and it’ll be worth half a buck to you.”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “It all depends on how far away he lives. If it’s far, I’ll be frozen before I get there.”
“It isn’t far. Winona, west of Sheridan, isn’t far. I’ll give you the directions. This guy is a city-hall payroller. He has no special job, he works direct for the ward committeeman. He’s a lush with two little girls to bring up. If he’s sober enough he cooks their dinner. Probably they take more care of him than he does of them.”
“First I’ll take charge of his money,” said the barman. “I don’t want my buddy here to be rolled. I don’t say you would do it, but I owe this to a customer.”
Bristle-faced Moose began to empty the man’s pockets — his wallet, some keys, crushed cigarettes, a red bandanna that looked foul, matchbooks, greenbacks, and change. All these were laid out on the bar.
When I look back at past moments, I carry with me an apperceptive mass that ripens and perhaps distorts, mixing what is memorable with what may not be worth mentioning. Thus I see the barman with one big hand gathering in the valuables as if they were his winnings, the pot in a poker game. And then I think that if the kangaroo giant had taken this drunk on his back he might have bounded home with him in less time than it would have taken me to support him as far as the corner. But what the barman actually said was, “I got a nice escort for you, Jim.”
Moose led the man back and forth to make sure his feet were operating. His swollen eyes now opened and then closed again. “McKern,” Moose said, briefing me. “Southwest corner of Winona and Sheridan, the second building on the south side of the street, and it’s the second floor.”
“You’ll be paid when you get back,” said the barman.
The freeze was now so hard that the snow underfoot sounded like metal foil. Though McKern may have sobered up in the frigid street, he couldn’t move very fast. Since I had to hold on to him, I borrowed his gloves. He had a coat with pockets to put his hands in. I tried to keep behind him and get some shelter from the wind. That didn’t work. He wasn’t up to walking. I had to hold him. Instead of a desirable woman, I had a drunkard in my arms. This disgrace, you see, while my mother was surrendering to death. At about this hour, upstairs neighbors came down and relatives arrived and filled the kitchen and the dining room — a deathwatch. I should have been there, not on the far North Side. When I had earned the carfare, I’d still be an hour from home on a streetcar making four stops to the mile.
Toward the last, I was dragging McKern. I kept the street door open with my back while I pulled him into the dim lobby by the arms.
The little girls had been waiting and came down at once. They held the inner door for me while I brought their daddy upstairs with a fireman’s-carry and laid him on his bed. The children had had plenty of practice at this. They undressed him down to the long johns and then stood silent on either side of the room. This, for them, was how things were. They took deep oddities calmly, as children generally will. I had spread his winter coat over him.
I had little sympathy for McKern, in the circumstances. I believe I can tell you why: He had surely passed out many times, and he would pass out again, dozens of times before he died. Drunkenness was common and familiar, and therefore accepted, and drunks could count on acceptance and support and relied on it. Whereas if your troubles were uncommon, unfamiliar, you could count on nothing. There was a convention about drunkenness, established in part by drunkards. The founding proposition was that consciousness is terrible. Its lower, impoverished forms are perhaps the worst. Flesh and blood are poor and weak, susceptible to human shock. Here my descendant will hear the voice of Grandfather Louie giving one of his sermons on higher consciousness and interrupting the story he promised to tell. You will hold him to his word, as you have every right to do.
The older girl now spoke to me. She said, “The fellow phoned and said a man was bringing Daddy home, and you’d help with supper if Daddy couldn’t cook it.”
“Only you’re not a man — you’ve got a dress on.”
“It looks like it, doesn’t it. Don’t you worry; I’ll come to the kitchen with you.”
“Are you a lady?”
“What do you mean — what does it look like? All right, I’m a lady.”
“You can eat with us.”
“Then show me where the kitchen is.”
I followed them down a corridor narrowed by clutter — boxes of canned groceries, soda biscuits, sardines, pop bottles. When I passed the bathroom, I slipped in for quick relief. The door had neither a hook nor a bolt; the string of the ceiling fixture had snapped off. A tiny night-light was plugged into the baseboard. I thanked God it was so dim. I put up the board while raising my skirt, and when I had begun I heard one of the children behind me. Over my shoulder I saw that it was the younger one, and as I turned my back (everything was happening today) I said, “Don’t come in here.” But she squeezed past and sat on the edge of the tub. She grinned at me. She was expecting her second teeth. Today all females were making sexual fun of me, and even the infants were looking lewd. I stopped, letting the dress fall, and said to her, “What are you laughing about?”
“If you were a girl, you’d of sat down.”
The kid wanted me to understand that she knew what she had seen. She pressed her fingers over her mouth, and I turned and went to the kitchen.
There the older girl was lifting the black cast-iron skillet with both hands. On dripping paper, the pork chops were laid out-nearby, a Mason jar of grease. I was competent enough at the gas range, which shone with old filth. Loath to touch the pork with my fingers, I forked the meat into the spitting fat. The chops turned my stomach. My thought was, “I’m into it now, up to the ears.” The drunk in his bed, the dim secret toilet, the glaring tungsten twist over the gas range, the sputtering droplets stinging the hands. The older girl said, “There’s plenty for you. Daddy won’t be eating dinner.”
“No, not me. I’m not hungry,” I said.
All that my upbringing held in horror geysered up, my throat filling with it, my guts griping.
The children sat at the table, an enamel rectangle. Thick plates and glasses, a waxed package of sliced white bread, a milk bottle, a stick of butter, the burning fat clouding the room. The girls sat beneath the smoke, slicing their meat. I brought them salt and pepper from the range. They ate without conversation. My chore (my duty) done, there was nothing to keep me. I said, “I have to go.”
I looked in at McKern, who had thrown down the coat and taken off his drawers. The parboiled face, the short nose pointed sharply, the life signs in the throat, the broken look of his neck, the black hair of his belly, the short cylinder between his legs ending in a spiral of loose skin, the white shine of the shins, the tragic expression of his feet. There was a stack of pennies on his bedside table. I helped myself to carfare but had no pocket for the coins. I opened the hall closet feeling quickly for a coat I might borrow, a pair of slacks. Whatever I took, Philip could return to the Greek barman tomorrow. I pulled a trench coat from a hanger, and a pair of trousers. For the third time I put on stranger’s clothing — this is no time to mention stripes or checks or make exquisite notations. Escaping, desperate, I struggled into the pants on the landing, tucking in the dress, and pulled on the coat as I jumped down the stairs, knotting tight the belt and sticking the pennies, a fistful of them, into my pocket.
But still I went back to the alley under the woman’s window to see if her light was on, and also to look for pages. The thief or pimp perhaps had chucked them away, or maybe they had dropped out when he snatched the sheepskin. Her window was dark. I found nothing on the ground. You may think this obsessive crankiness, a crazy dependency on words, on printed matter. But remember, there were no redeemers in the streets, no guides, no confessors, comforters, enlighteners, communicants to turn to. You had to take teaching wherever you could find it. Under the library dome downtown, in mosaic letters, there was a message from Milton, so moving but perhaps of no utility, perhaps aggravating difficulties: A GOOD BOOK, it said, IS THE PRECIOUS LIFE’S BLOOD OF A MASTER SPIRIT.
These are the plain facts, they have to be uttered. This, remember, is the New World, and here one of its mysterious cities. I should have hurried directly, to catch a car. Instead I was in a back alley hunting pages that would in any case have blown away.
I went back to Broadway — it was very broad — and waited on a safety island. Then the car came clanging, red, swaying on its trucks, a piece of Iron Age technology, double cane seats framed in brass. Rush hour was long past. I sat by a window, homebound, with flashes of thought like tracer bullets slanting into distant darkness. Like London in wartime. At home, what story would I tell? I wouldn’t tell any. I never did. It was assumed anyway that I was lying. While I believed in honor, I did often lie. Is a life without lying conceivable? It was easier to lie than to explain myself. My father had one set of assumptions, I had another. Corresponding premises were not to be found.
I owed five dollars to Behrens. But I knew where my mother secretly hid her savings. Because I looked into all books, I had found the money in her mahzor, the prayer book for the High Holidays, the days of awe. As yet I hadn’t taken anything. She had hoped until this final illness to buy passage to Europe to see her mother and her sister. When she died I would turn the money over to my father, except for ten dollars, five for the florist and the rest for Von Hugel’s Eternal Life and The World as Will and Idea.
The after-dinner guests and cousins would be gone when I reached home. My father would be on the lookout for me. It was the rear porch door that was locked after dark. The kitchen door was generally off the latch. I could climb over the wooden partition between the stairs and the porch. I often did that. Once you got your foot on the doorknob you could pull yourself over the partition and drop to the porch without noise. Then I could see into the kitchen and slip in as soon as my patrolling father had left it. The bedroom shared by all three brothers was just off the kitchen. I could borrow my brother Len’s cast-off winter coat tomorrow. I knew which closet it hung in. If my father should catch me I could expect hard blows on my shoulders, on the top of my head, on my face. But if my mother had, tonight, just died, he wouldn’t hit me.
This was when the measured, reassuring, sleep-inducing turntable of days became a whirlpool, a vortex darkening toward the bottom. I had had only the anonymous pages in the pocket of my lost sheepskin to interpret it to me. They told me that the truth of the universe was inscribed into our very bones. That the human skeleton was itself a hieroglyph. That everything we had ever known on earth was shown to us in the first days after death. That our experience of the world was desired by the cosmos, and needed by it for its own renewal.
I do not think that these pages, if I hadn’t lost them, would have persuaded me forever or made the life I led a different one.
I am writing this account, or statement, in response to an eccentric urge swelling toward me from the earth itself.
Failed my mother! That may mean, will mean, little or nothing to you, my only child, reading this document.
I myself know the power of nonpathos, in these low, devious days.
On the streetcar, heading home, I braced myself, but all my preparations caved in like sand diggings. I got down at the North Avenue stop, avoiding my reflection in the shopwindows.
After a death, mirrors were immediately covered. I can’t say what this pious superstition means. Will the soul of your dead be reflected in a looking glass, or is this custom a check to the vanity of the living?
I ran home, approached by the back alley, made no noise on the wooden backstairs, reached for the top of the partition, placed my foot on the white porcelain doorknob, went over the top without noise, and dropped down on our porch. I didn’t follow the plan I had laid for avoiding my father. There were people sitting at the kitchen table. I went straight in. My father rose from his chair and hurried toward me. His fist was ready. I took off my tam or woolen beret and when he hit me on the head the blow filled me with gratitude. If my mother had already died, he would have embraced me instead.
Well, they’re all gone now, and I have made my preparations. I haven’t left a large estate, and this is why I have written this memoir, a sort of addition to your legacy.