Why Do They Think They Know Me?
A story about the loneliness of desire from James Alan McPherson’s 1968 debut collection
INTRODUCTION BY MARCUS BURKE
Anyone who knew or studied with James Alan McPherson can attest that he exuded a rare warmth and generous brand of humanity to almost all that crossed his path. James received some of literature’s most prestigious prizes, namely being the first black man to win the Pulitzer Prize, though the awards did not define his identity. I studied with Jim while attending The Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I was 23 and green to the world. I’d often haunt his office to pick his brain and he’d always encourage me to be into “regular things,” like having good conversations with friends, reading good books, or taking walks, the simple things that make us all feel connected, creative, and alive. After rereading “All the Lonely People” from his soon to be reissued short story collection Hue and Cry, it appears these characters are searching for the same things.
I hear the lyrics from the Eurythmics’s song “Sweet dreams” ringing in my head. “Everybody’s looking for something…Some of them want to use you. Some of them want to get used by you.” This dynamic, between the users and the used of this world, is what McPherson leverages to build the beat for “All the Lonely People.” With McPherson’s expert choice of characters, spread across the full range of socioeconomic strata, gender, race and sexual orientation, a new social-ecosystem, emerges based on the dichotomy of Hunters and the Hunted: “The idea of social classes is a mythic invention, I suspect, manufactured like religion by successful hunters who have found their prey and who want to maintain what they have already won from other hunters.”
We first meet the hunters of the story, our narrator Dennis, a young black man and, an acquaintance, Alfred, a wealthy gay white man, who’s painfully lonely and desperate for connection. “We all begin as hunters uncertain and fumbling until we gain sufficient confidence in our weapons and equipment so that we can afford rest, and let others seek him out.” Alfred is deeply upset by the fact that the people never pay him back, nor acknowledge him in the streets. Nonetheless, said people continue to beg him for money. And against Dennis’s advice, Alfred continues to haphazardly lend people money in an attempt to connect. Alfred too, is a hunter, though his weapon is money and though he desires more than Dennis’s company. Dennis, meanwhile, doesn’t mind the attention, though he doesn’t want Alfred’s affection. Though Dennis demurs the attention he receives, in doling out rejection, he’s neither satisfied nor satiated. It’s a feeling that haunts his plodding through the rest of the story’s world.
At the heart of “All the Lonely People” (and many more stories in Hue and Cry) is an examination of the human condition and the conditions that create the desires that control us. What makes McPherson’s examinations sing has so much to do with the way he observes and indicts us all, with his signature stroke of humanity. There are users and the used, sure. But everyone is filled with wanting.
Author of Team Seven
Why Do They Think They Know Me?
James Alan McPherson
“All the Lonely People”
by James Alan McPherson
Deep, deep down and far away it lies, waiting, dormant, lazily latent and still waiting, confined, measuring the time, conditions and touching circumstances; imprisoned, but marking life and time with its own violent beats against suppressing strictures and rectitudes, and estimating the chances of being reborn.
Sometimes, in the night, it is expectant and therefore eager to be out. It has slept too long and is restless, fighting the force that keeps it patient. Years of internal slumber have drugged it, but not decisively, so that, once slightly touched, it starts and quivers and attempts to announce itself so strongly that, occasionally, a man’s mind will wake in his bed and ask itself: “Who is there?”
Why do they always fail me, Dennis ?” he said.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” I said.
“They never pay me back; but they always want to borrow again.”
“You’re too generous, Alfred,” I said. “Save your money.”
“Sometimes they won’t even speak to me on the street.
And when I try to speak to them they get mad.”
“That proves they’re not your friends,” I said. “Don’t lend them anything else.”
Alfred looked at me across the table. He spread his bony fingers flat on the plastic surface of the table and looked me full in the face. “You wouldn’t fail me, would you, Dennis?”
I looked again under the dress of a careless girl, at another table across the room, who had now noticed me and was pumping her knees up and down under the table, telling me to forget about the fellow who sat too intellectual and confident across from her.
“Of course not, Alfred,” I said.
“Thank you,” Alfred said.
He was a coffee-shop fag, to use a local expression, who was getting older and desperate so that his teeth were not wet when he smiled, as is their custom, because his mouth was so dry from his daily decreasing expectations. He was also losing most of the hair from the top of his head and his eyes were soft and scared, like a trapped animal who does not know how to fight. Doubtless he had been in that place before and had some unpleasant experience, because he kept looking over at the counterman, a rednecked fellow who picked at his chin, as if he expected to be thumbed out at any moment for some past sin against the establishment. He smiled very little, in fact, and leaned too far across the table when talking so that the entire clientele of the café, if they cared enough to look, could easily surmise what we were about. I had come into that place for coffee.
“Do you know Rudy Smith?” he breathed across the table almost passionately.
I recalled Rudy Smith, sometime stud, dope-pusher, and freelance hip black who wore a great head of natural hair and an African costume in order to work part-time as a shill in one of the mod shops. “No,” I said.
“You should. Everybody knows Rudy.”
“It’s a common name.”
“Well, he’s a friend of mine.” He paused to allow me to become sufficiently impressed. “He owes me money, too.”
“You must have lots of money to lend it out so freely.”
“I have a trust fund,” he said quickly. Then he added, somewhat more casually: “I’m really a poet.”
“I’ve a book almost finished. It’s on Melville’s poetry.”
“Did he write poetry?”
“Very little. It’s a small book. I’m trying to put all his poems in chronological order by tracing the deterioration of his handwriting in the original manuscripts. I had to take a course in handwriting analysis just to do that,” he said very proudly. “And I guess I have to do something scholarly to justify my own self as a poet.”
“People have this impression that poets just go around sniffing little girls’ bicycle seats.” He laughed. “It’s my private Holy Crusade.”
“Of course,” I said, looking at the bobbing knees again.
The intellectual friend was now explaining some very fine point to her. I heard him mention Nietzsche as he made little progressive motions on the table with his hand, and I knew that he was lost. He did not notice her smiling at me, he was so enraptured with his ideas.
“Are we going to be friends, Dennis?” Alfred Bowles was asking.
“Sure,” I said, not looking at him.
“You do like me?”
“Of course.” The friend had finally noticed her smiling and was now talking faster and making the motions on the table with both his hands.
“She’s got the clap,” said Alfred. He had been watching me all along.
I looked back at him. “How do you know?”
He looked pleased. “Rudy Smith told me when we were here last. She hangs out here all the time.”
“I guess he would know,” I said.
“I thought you didn’t know him?”
“I don’t. But I guess he would know all right.”
“Rudy gets around,” Alfred said. He considered for a moment and then said very carefully: “Let’s have a drink.”
Our coffee was cold by this time. “All the bars are closed now,” I said.
“I’ve got scotch at my place?” he offered.
“Not tonight,” I said. “I have something to do.”
“Please have just one. I don’t live far from here.” He leaned closer and said more intimately: “We could have some grass if you want.”
Bobbing Knees was looking hard at her watch and making sure that I saw her. “I’ve got to go,” I told Alfred.
“You’ll get clap,” he warned me.
“What about him?”
“She knows what to do. Besides, we’re not after the same thing. He wants to impress her with his mind.”
“There’re too many good minds here to bother with exercises,” I said. “I can impress her with my lack of one.” I picked up my check very conspicuously. The girl pushed her watch close to the intellectual’s face. He looked at her watch and then at his own, and then he threw up his hands in what might have been exasperation or an over-dramatized apology. She got up quickly, motioned for him to stay and paused while he wrote something in his note- book. Then she left him and walked past us and toward the door.
“Goodbye,” I said to Alfred Bowles. “I really enjoyed the talk.”
“At least take my card,” he said. He handed me a homemade, handwritten quarter of a lined index card. “Everything’s on there,” he said. I glimpsed a wad of similar cards in his wallet before he put it back into his pocket. “Please call,” he said in a voice that made me look at him, really, for what was probably the first time in the whole hour we had spent at the table. The tone was sad and lacking optimism, as if he did not expect me to call but, deep inside himself, pleadingly wished that I would.
“I will,” I told him.
He gave me that last-hope look directly in the eyes and said: “Please don’t fail me, Dennis. Don’t be like all the others.”
“Look,” I said, trying to be sincere and trying not to be hard all in the same voice, “we’ll have a drink or something. That’s all. We’ll talk, that’s all. We’ll be friends, that’s all.”
“Good,” he said, somewhat slowly. “But do call.”
“I will,” I assured him. “I promise to call.”
I left him there looking over the brim of his empty coffee cup, holding it up to his face with both hands as if he were hiding, possibly searching the room for others who had not yet found their bobbing knees. I met mine out- side on the street, cigarette in mouth, being patient and selective about who she would ask for a match. I gave her a light and then walked away. She had only been for the benefit of Alfred, a convenient and manly excuse for get- ting out of that shop without having to give an aging fairy specific reasons why I would not have a scotch with him. Also, there was a certain affirmation of something, a certain pride, a sense of some small and sensual accomplishment in it for me.
For those who choose to live their lives as animals, life is really very simple. In the human jungle there are only the hunters and the hunted. The idea of social classes is a mythical invention, I suspect, manufactured like religion by successful hunters who have found their prey and who want to maintain what they have already won from other hunters. And successful hunters are a higher order; for once their prey is secure in their caves, other, less fortunate hunters begin to sniff around and smell them out and they then become the hunted. We all begin as hunters, uncertain and fumbling until we gain sufficient confidence in our weapons and equipment so that we can afford to rest, and let others seek us out. Sometimes, like the lion, we fight to keep other hunters away; and sometimes we share, out of generosity or kindness but most often out of unconcern and sated appetites, a small part of our prey. And this sharing also serves as a declaration, in the jungle of things, that one has passed the hunter stage and recognizes his coming into the ranks of the very select few who are hunted. A man is my friend and seeks me out either because he wants something I have acquired or he hopes to get closer to something to which I alone have the necessary access. Unsuccessful hunters are weaker than the hunted because they declare, by their searching, their inability to be self-sufficient; they have nothing to guard from others, they are always seeking, they have very little to lose. In nature, the stronger animals are not really the hunters; they are called so merely because they have the ability to fend for themselves. Those who follow the lion for the scraps he may leave, and not the lion himself, are the real hunters. The lion is all-confident and certain that he will always be able to bring down his meat, and allows jackals to follow him, at a safe distance, to see that he can very well survive on his own and needs them only to feed his own ego. Sometimes I want to be a lion because I have many friends who have grown strong that way.
On the subway in the early-morning going-to-work hours I met Alfred again. His eyes were not the same as they had been that first night: they were very bright and open, and only his mouth, when he talked and occasionally wet his lips might have suggested to the straphangers around us in the jostling car who he really was. We talked of politics, poetry, our jobs, and certain other things. He was a teacher by day, he told me; poetry was only his nighttime thing. He was professionally cool and detached from me, his card, and anything of that night now more than two weeks old. “We might have lunch downtown some noon,” he said to me just before his station.
“That would be fine,” I said.
“I’d really like to know you,” he said sincerely, his eyes not looking at mine. “Truthfully, I really like talking to you.”
I gave him my number and address, knowing the risk of midnight desperation and sudden drop-ins, because he looked so changed and different from that night.
“I’ll make it a point to call you someday for lunch,” he said.
“Please do,” I told him.
He went away with the crowd and was one of them in an instant. I wondered how many others like him went that same way to work each morning without disclosing by their movements or eyes the secret thoughts or interludes of the night before.
He knocked on my door very late at night when I had been expecting a girl. Opening the door and seeing him there, nervous and sweating and a little funny because he was relieved and afraid at the same time, irritated me.
“Oh God!” he said. “Please can I talk to you!”
“Come in,” I said, resigned to tolerate him for the little time until the girl came. He moved into the room and sat on the sofa with the timidity of a child carefully exercising properly taught manners for the first time.
“Have a cup of coffee, Alfred,” I said.
He accepted and I heated water while he sat on the sofa, his face in his hands. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” he kept repeating.
“What’s wrong?” I asked from the kitchen when I knew he was waiting for me to respond.
“Nothing. Everything. I haven’t a friend in the world. Are you my friend, Dennis? Are you really?”
“Of course,” I said. “You know I am.”
“Do you like me?”
“I like you. I love you.”
Not knowing how to respond, I handed him the cup of hot water and the jar of instant coffee. His hands shook as he put them on the coffee table and continued to stare at me.
“What happened?” I finally asked.
“It’s Rudy,” he said. “He won’t pay me. I went over to his place to talk about it—just to talk about the money— and he called me all kinds of names. Now, that wasn’t right. You know it wasn’t right.”
“No, it wasn’t,” I said.
“And he had a bitch there, and they both laughed at me. A bleached-blonde bitch, and she laughed at me! ”
“It wasn’t right,” I said again.
“Now I love your people,” he said. “I think they’re all beautiful. I think it’s a dirty shame the way they treat you people down South.”
“I’ve never been South,” I lied, drinking my own coffee busily.
“But Rudy owes me money and he and that bitch laughed at me.”
“I’m sorry about it,” I said. I looked at my watch. “Just don’t lend him any more money.”
He made a great effort to look deep into my eyes. I looked into his. They were his nighttime eyes now; the hurt there was that of a wounded animal, almost tearful and brightly moist and desperate for a life that was fast leaving him.
“I love your people,” he declared again. Then he paused and continued to look directly at me. And then he held out both his arms. “Dennis,” he said, “Dennis, Dennis, Dennis. Oh come to me.”
I looked at him, not quite in amazement. I had been expecting it all along, but I was disgusted by his lack of finesse or tact.
“You’re such a beautiful man, Dennis. You’re all so beautiful. Oh, God! You’re so beautiful!”
I got up from the chair and began to walk about the room and away from him. “Now look,” I said, with all the manhood in my voice I could muster. “I understand your position but you’ve got to see mine. I’m straight. I can’t do what Rudy does.”
“Come to me,” he said again, his arms still raised in a Christly pose.
“You have to go,” I said decisively.
“Please, Dennis, oh please, please, don’t leave me alone.”
“Finish your coffee and just cut it out.”
He mixed his coffee, which was now cold and undrinkable, and kept his eyes moving over my face, my legs, my body, all the while he was stirring. He drank it in gulps, glancing up at me as if I were holding a gun on him or had some great reward to be given as soon as the coffee was finished. It was a terrible power to have; and having it weakened me, made me want to give him reasons for not doing the thing he wanted. I hated Rudy Smith for having this power, I hated him for using it the way he had; and I hated and pitied Alfred, both at the same time, for forcing me to fall victim to his own inability to cope with himself and for forcing an invasion of his dignity onto me.
“Isn’t there some bar you could go to?” I asked.
“No. The vice squad men all know me and I’d have to pay them money.”
“Would it help if we just talked some—about your poems?”
He had that dying look again. “Please, Dennis, oh please help me!” he moaned, again with his head in his hands.
“I’m sorry, Alfred. I really am,” I said.
He kept his head pressed into his spread palms and commenced to sob. He sounded like a rooting pig, smothering great sniffles and coughs in his two hands. I could not touch him, although I wanted to; I dared not touch him, although he needed just the slightest touch, the merest sign at that moment more than anything else in the world. But my rooms were not the world, and his world was surely not there, in that room. And so I opened the door for him and stood outside it, and waited for him to come out because I had, all at once, the greatest fear of having him behind me. “Come and talk whenever you want,” I told him. He still sat on the sofa, his eyes red, his face blotched with very red and very white areas; sniffing, he sat there. I stepped out further into the hall. “I want you to know that you can come back to talk—to talk—whenever you want.”
He rose meekly from the sofa and came out the door, toward me. I backed away. He looked hurt, even more, and I was sorry.
“I’m all right now, Dennis,” he said. He looked awfully tired. He looked at me a long moment longer, as if daring himself to say something more, and then he turned and went away down the hall.
I lay on my bed after I had made sure that he was not standing around in the hall and waiting before he knocked again. I lay on the bed and wondered at how close I had come to touching him. I thought about Betty and how late she was getting there and how I needed to ask her to spend the night, for company and for something else. I hated to have Betty in my bed in the morning: it was a small bed and she did not know what to do with her legs. Besides, she was a huge feeder and it disgusted me to have to eat with her and watch her eat breakfast. Still, I needed to have her there and I could endure anything as long as I had a girl there—for other things.
I thought about those other things.
Jeffrey is the only boy in our high-school class who has already got a moustache. We all envy him.
Sometimes he lets us touch it. Sometimes he lets me buy lunch for him. Then we hang around together after school. When I make Jeffrey laugh he slaps me on the back very hard. I like it. I try to make him laugh all the time. At graduation time he lets me autograph his yearbook. I use a whole page for a poem I write on friendship. Then the other kids come to autograph the book and see the poem and begin to look at me. I see them talking and laughing in the corners and Jeffrey is embarrassed and laughs too. The teacher knows about it and comes over to me and says, “Never mind, that’s a good poem,” but it does not help. I do not have anything to say to him. That last week of school I begin to find written on my desk the kind of words they put above the toilets in men’s rooms of bus stations.
“What happened to you ?” I asked Betty over the telephone. It was 2:00 a.m.
“I got tied up,” she said.
“Can you still come?”
“It’s too late.”
“You could have called.”
“I know,” she said. “I guess I’m no good for you.”
I could not lose her tonight and was prepared to lie relentlessly just to have her there that one night. “You’re too good for me. Come on over.”
“Look,” she said. “It’s late. We can have a drink some other time. Let’s both just get some sleep.”
“We could do that together.”
“I’m tired. And I’m sorry that I didn’t call or come but I just didn’t. Can’t you accept that?”
“Goodbye,” I said and pushed down the button.
It is very hard to push down a button that way when that little, little expenditure of strength cuts off forever the source of what has kept me from touching Alfred Bowles or from being on the streets like him, a hunter, with different, desperate eyes, reserved for the night, looking into back alleys and risking every degradation to solicit strangers in search of an affirmation of what he thought was himself. I lay back on my bed and thought of him, where he was now, whether he was still crying and to whom, or on what hard ear his pleas were falling. I thought of what must be his deep determination to get whatever it was he wanted, his desperate acceptance of whatever a hustler demanded for his company, his endur- ance of blows and laughs and insinuations, all for what? I had the feeling that I might have gone into Alfred’s arms earlier and that would have been all he really wanted, even though he might have tried to do something else, perhaps for no other reason than because he was expected to.
I took out my wallet and found his card, wondering how many other of these crude, homemade, handwritten offerings of himself were moving through the city, forgot- ten in wallets, left on the floors of men’s rooms or coffee shops or taverns or dormitories, or even libraries. I looked at the writing for the first time. It read: Alfred Bowles: 17 Brewster Street, Apartment Number 21, Telephone Number: 351–5210, Poet. Nothing was abbreviated; nothing that might misdirect the holder of the card was left to chance. It was a sad summation of himself, a crudely pleading invitation to invade a privacy he did not want. The card was a limited, almost secret, declaration of himself, cut and set and written, not by his own hands, but by the subtler, more powerful hands of men who had discovered girls very early in life in closets and school play areas, and who had learned, as he had not, that a man’s place in life must necessarily be that of the hunted and he must hurry through the hunter stages before something stops him from becoming a lion.
My friend Gerald is one of the hunted. His specialty is girls. Although his reputation is firmly established as one of those to be sought out, he modestly prefers to call himself a cock-hound; and when in private company, but especially in the company of girls, he takes great pleasure in getting down on his knees and crawling around on the floor and declaring: “I am a cock-hound, gimme-some, gimme-some” in a voice very much like a bark. He is not crude, because he drinks good scotch and only does his dog thing in the company of honest girls who, he is always confident, will laugh immediately and not later, when they are alone. He has a keen eye for these girls, a virtue with which I was never blessed. He is a lion and is quite successful. Like me, he is a bachelor; unlike me, he knows how to live by his wits. He is my source. Whenever I do not have a girl, it is only necessary to call Gerald and he will arrange for me to meet one, usually the rare ones who do not laugh at his cock-hound bits.
“I need one,” I told Gerald that Thursday in our favorite barroom. “I need a date bad.”
He looked at me, thinking. Gerald is the kind of person who believes in the credit-debit system of life. He does not give anything away.
“I drove you to the airport last week,” I reminded him.
“Yeah,” he said from his carefully trimmed moustache.
“You did. Well, all I have for you is a dog.”
“Your kind?” I asked.
He laughed. “No, a real dog. I already had it. She’s a real bitch. A real community chest. Do you want it?”
“Sure,” I said, knowing that Gerald dislikes immensely anyone with tastes different from his own. “How do I play it?”
“Just be cool,” he said. “She’s such a dog your natural reaction to the way she looks will make you look cool. But don’t say anything intelligent; she’s also a dummy and can’t stand intelligence.”
“That’s all you got?”
“That’s it,” he said. “But it’s a sure thing. Take it or go horny all week.”
“It’s not the pussy, Gerald,” I said.
“Like hell,” said Gerald. “You can’t bullshit me. You just like to talk a lot before you get into it just to make yourself suffer.”
“You’re a real Freud,” I said.
“Like hell,” he said. “Freud knew the shit and went horny. I know it and don’t.”
“But it’s really not the pussy that matters.”
Gerald looked at his watch. “Do you want the dog or don’t you?” he said.
I thought about the weekend and some other things. “O.K.,” I said. “I’ll take the dog.”
Gerald smiled, and for a second his eyes and big teeth behind his moustache were laughing at me in the worst way. “Her name is Gloria,” he said. “I’m screwing her roommate Friday night so I’ll take you over when I go to pick her up.”
“Shouldn’t I call her myself?”
“Hell no,” said Gerald. “I told you she’s not that kind of girl. Look,” he said, eyeing me seriously for a moment, “this girl is a shortcoat. If you go over there longcoating you’ll fuck up and not get anything. Play it my way. Play it cool.”
“O.K.,” I said. “I’ll play it shortcoat.”
“Now you’re being hip,” said Gerald.
Certain people I do not know always speak to me on the street. They are very neat boys in tight pants and impeccable shirts; they are men who walk in fast, sometimes nervous steps, men with suggestive, sensitive mouths. They seem to recognize me or nod or stare, and know me; but I do not know them, although their eyes, passing over my face, say that I do. I make a point of not speaking to them, but I cannot help looking back whenever they recognize me. And whenever I do, I see that their eyes are frightened, always frightened, and I know that my own are. But I do not know why. Once, drinking beer in a bar with a friend, one of them comes over to our booth and ignores my friend and looks directly at me, and says: “What happened to you? They’re all waiting for you at the party.” I wink at my friend and he winks back and I begin to put the fellow on. “I stepped out for a while for a beer,” I say. “Tell them I’ll be back in an hour.”
“Take your time,” he says. “It’s been going on for days, it’ll last awhile longer.”
“Why did you leave?” I ask him.
“I’ll tell you later,” he says, noticing my friend for the first time. “But do hurry back. They’ll miss us both.”
“I’ll be there,” I say.
He walks back to the bar.
“Who was that?” my friend Norris asks.
“I don’t know,” I say honestly. “I was just putting him on.”
“He probably mistook you for somebody else,” says Norris.
“Yeah,” I say. “This is a crazy bar.”
“Wasn’t he gay?” asks Norris.
I think a minute. “He probably was,” I say at last. “There’re more fairies here than in the Brothers Grimm.”
Norris laughs and drinks his beer. I look at mine on the table and see how round and big my face looks reflected in the brown liquid. All at once I do not feel like drinking.
She was a real dog. I really expected her to bark, but she only held out her hand and looked very unhappy to see me. Gerald, of course, was very pleased to introduce us. His date was pretty, with smooth, dark brown skin and a genuine smile, and I could see that Gloria hated him, per- haps not so much for screwing her and then taking out her roommate, as for insinuating in his wide, toothy smiles and sly asides to me, that he was passing her body on to someone who had need of it for a night.
“Watch out for the curves, if you can find them,” Gerald said to me in his most obvious aside. Gloria was watching us as we stood by the door. I knew that she hated both of us.
“God help the dogs,” I said to Gerald, trying, in my own way, to be hip.
He laughed heartily.
“What’s funny?” said Gloria.
“You are,” Gerald said. “You are one funny chick.” “You know what I think of you,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Gerald. “And you know that I don’t give a good goddamn.”
The odd thing was that they were both smiling, which gave me the feeling that they had long ago arrived at some silent agreement, of which this scene was merely the verbal part.
The roommate came out of her room. She was very pretty, especially when she stood next to Gloria. She was wearing a white miniskirt, which complemented her skin. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Gerald watching me watching her and laughing, and knew that he would not introduce me to her.
“Stay cool,” he said, still smiling and taking the roommate out the door. And then the dog and I were alone.
We talked. She was from the South and was ashamed of it. “I left when I was real young,” she said.
We drank. Scotch. Because, she said, that was all she ever drank. “It doesn’t get me drunk,” she said, watching me.
“What sort of music do you like?”
“I like Maggie and the Vaudevilles,” she said. “I like all their stuff. I like the Impressions a lot too.”
“That’s all you like?”
“Yeah,” she said defensively. “What about it?”
“Nothing. I like them too.”
We were both silent. “What do you think of Gerald?” I said just to hear myself speak.
“He’s a real son-of-a-bitch,” she said. “He’s a no-good bastard, if you ask me.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I’ll tell you something about Gerald. He uses people. He don’t give a damn about anybody but hisself.”
“Oh,” I said.
I had been sitting all this time in a cushioned chair, allowing her to sit by herself on the sofa, her thick legs open, her long girdle showing far below the hemline of her dress. I had been waiting all this time for her to become attractive; because everyone, even the worst dog or most colorless person, can become attractive almost immediately if they are touched in the right place. Even a round, hard face like hers can, almost magically, become interesting if the mind gives the eyes sufficient reason to come alive. Her magic spot was her utter helplessness and her dull inability to defend herself against it. She had been used, probably, all her life by people like Gerald and I suspected that she did not know or could never accept any other way to live. I pitied her for this. And because I pitied her, I remained in the chair while she shifted her legs on the sofa in a pathetic effort to be seductive, a grotesque display of all she had in the world to make her interesting. I did not want to play dumb in order to impress her because I did not want her. I wanted to brush her short, wiry hair with my hands and hold her hands and tell her that she would always be used and passed from body to body by men like Gerald and myself, and cry with her for all of us.
“What’s wrong with you?” she said.
“Why are you looking at me that way?” She was smiling, expecting a momentary movement over to where she sat on the sofa.
“I am looking at you this way, Gloria, because I do not know any other way to look.”
“You’re funny,” she said.
“I might as well be,” I said. “You want to dance?”
She put on one of the records, a slow one, and I got to touch her hair the way I wanted and then she laid her head on my shoulder and waited for me to execute the thing high-school boys do in the dark to girls at chaperoned dances. I could not bring myself that close to her.
She looked up at me, her small eyes uncertain, cloudy, questioning, her face big and hanging below me on the brink of something. “You’re queer,” she said.
I looked down at that face and felt something go far away from me. “I might as well be,” was all that I could say.
She was sitting on the sofa and I was back in my cushioned chair when Gerald and his date came in, early. We had not spoken to each other for almost twenty minutes when they came. Gerald called me out into the kitchen. “Man, I got fucked up tonight,” he said.
“This is her night to be a bitch. She won’t do anything.”
“I thought you were going to a movie?”
Gerald looked at me, disgusted. “I never take a bitch out until afterwards. First we go to my apartment. That way if she won’t go, I save my money.” He looked as if I should have known that. And I should have, since I know him.
“How did you make out?”
“O.K.,” I said.
“Did you get over?”
I considered my reputation and esteem in Gerald’s eyes. “No,” I finally said.
“You weak cat! ” he said. “I told you that chick belongs to everybody. A real community chest. I told you, play it cool. Don’t pull that longcoat shit on her.”
“I know,” I said.
“And you just blew it?”
“You know your trouble?” Gerald said. “You’re trying to be a martyr.”
“That’s me,” I said. “A martyr.”
He thought for a minute. “Look man,” he said, “do you want it or not?”
“No,” I said flatly.
“Do you mind if I take it?”
“How can you when she hates you?”
“That bitch? She isn’t smart enough to hate anybody.”
“What about the other girl?”
“I’ll take Gloria out when she goes to bed. Don’t worry about it.”
I just looked at him.
“Now watch this,” he said. He went to the refrigerator and searched the bottom drawers until he found a large, thick cucumber. “Come on,” he told me, slamming the refrigerator door. He led me back into the living room. Both girls were now sitting on the sofa and the proximity was making Gloria a dog again. Gerald sat in my chair directly in front of them and I stood against the wall and watched. Gloria made a point of not looking at me.
Gerald put the big cucumber in his lap and commenced to tell his penis jokes. I knew them all from drinking beer with him. In a few minutes both girls were laughing with Gerald. I looked at Gloria. She was laughing much harder than the other girl or even harder than Gerald, who always laughs loudest at his own jokes. And even when the other girl said, “Oh come on, Jerry, that joke’s as old as the hills,” Gloria was so convulsed with laughter that she could not stop herself or stop the tears which were flowing from her eyes.
There are certain green areas in every city given to the citizens for recreational purposes. Of course there are rapes and muggings and homeless men sleeping in them on summer nights, but for the daring, for the care-less, for those who want to be alone, these are very good places to walk, or recreate, or think. At certain times, very well into the night, a smell comes up from the grass that is worth any dangers present in these free areas. And there is a certain cleanliness, hard to distinguish, but just present, and there. There are also birds walking in these places in the late night, pecking in the ground for things only they can see, absolutely free of the popcorn bribes of children and well-meaning daytime bench-sitters. These animals are themselves at night and seem to unlearn all the day-time tricks they use to lure their daily doles of popcorn and bits of bread from some office girl’s lunchbag: they do not wander near the benches; they do not flutter up into the air and down again to tantalize a potential crumb- thrower; they do not coo gratefully when they swallow whatever it is they pull from the dark green, wet earth. They have earned it themselves, and they swallow without a sound. And continue to peck, again in silence, for more.
I called Alfred Bowles from a telephone booth at the far end of the park. Of course he was not in: it was only 2:00 a.m. and Alfred was, of necessity, a night hunter. If he had been in, I would have restated, over the telephone, my position, and would have required him to restate his. Of course it would not have mattered, being over the telephone, but we might have laid some ground rules for our talk and our drink that night. After the drink, I might have asked him about the crusade for Melville’s poetry, as if the man needed it, and his own crusade for himself as a poet and whatever else he wanted to be. I might even have let him touch me, in some inconsequential place. Certainly the most important thing I wanted to ask him was why certain people recognize me on the street and speak to me in bars when I am positive that in all my life I have never seen them before. Perhaps he might know.
At 3:00 a.m. I sat in the same coffee shop, at the same table, and recognized some of the same faces. Alfred was not there. Behind the counter, the rednecked waiter, it seemed, gave me the same look he had given Alfred that night. I did not care. At the next table sat an intellectual, pandering his readings late into the night to a girl whose legs I could not see. That did not matter either. My readings will always be safe with me, never pandered, never used without a legitimate purpose. That is the way I am. But sitting there, at that table, with the eyes of the counterman occasionally checking the direction of my own eyes, I began to wonder about the way I am.