leonard michaels on telling stories

 

Leonard Michaels, “What’s A Story?”

i

Thrusting from the head of Picasso’s goat are bicycle handlebars. They don’t represent anything, but they are goat’s horns, as night is a black bat, metaphorically.

Come into the garden . . .

. . . the black bat night has flown.

 

     Metaphor, like the night, is an idea in flight; potentially, a story:

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.

 

Here, the metaphorical action is very complicated, especially in the syllables of the second line, bubbling toward the period—the way the old lady had children—reflecting her abundance and distress. The line ends in a rhyme—do/shoe—and thus closes, or contains itself. With her children in a shoe, the old lady is also contained. In effect, the line and the shoe contain incontinence; but this is only an idea and it remains unarticulated, at best implicit.

“Can you fix an idea?” asks Valery. “You can think only in terms of modifications.” Characters, place, and an action “once upon a time” are modifications deployed in rhythm, rhythmic variation, and rhyme- techniques of sound that determine the psycho-physical experience, or story, just as the placement, angle, spread, and thrust of the bicycle handlebars determine horns, a property of goat, its stolid, squat, macho bulk and balls behind, like syllables of a tremendous sentence.

Lo even thus is our speech delivered by sounds significant: for it will

never be a perfect sentence, unless one word give way when it has

sounded his part that another may succeed it.

 

St. Augustine means perfection is achieved through the continuous vanishing of things, as the handlebars vanish in the sense of goat, as the dancer in the dance, as the bat in the night in flight.

Here is a plain sentence from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” which is metaphorical through and through:

Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps.

 

Those pumps walk with the weight and stride of the moral being who inhabits them, as she inhabits herself, smugly, brutally, mechanically good insofar as good is practical. The pumps vanish into quiddity of Turpin, energetic heave and thump.

Taking a grander view than mine, Nabokov gets at the flow and sensuous implication of Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat.”

The story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

 

No absolute elements, no plot, only an effect of passage, pattern, and some sort of change in felt-time. The temporal quality is in all the above examples; it is even in Picasso’s goat, different parts vanishing into aspects of goat, perfection of bleating, chomping, hairy, horny beast.

The transformation, in this seeing, is the essence of stories:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

     I had no human fears.

She seemed a thing that could not feel

     The touch of earthly years.

 

Life is remembered as a dream, her as a “thing,” and himself not feeling. Amid all this absence, is an absence of transition to the second stanza. Suddenly:

No motion has she now, no force;

     She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course;

      With rocks, and stones, and trees.

 

The transformational drama is deliberately exemplified, in the best writing lesson ever offered, by Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. He tells how he forces himself to remember having seen the cowardly and inept bullfighter, Hernandorena, gored by a bull. After the event, late at night, slowly, slowly, Hemingway makes himself see it again, the bullfighter’s leg laid open, exposing dirty underwear and the “dean, clean, unbearable cleanness” of his thigh bone. Dirty underwear and clean bone constitute an amazing juxtaposition—let alone transformation of Hernandorena—which is redeemed (more than simply remembered) half-asleep, against the blinding moral sympathy entailed by human fears.

In this strenuous, self-conscious, grim demonstration of his art, Hemingway explicitly refuses to pity Hernandorena, and then he seizes his agony with luxurious exactitude. Though he does say “unbearable,” he intends nothing kindly toward Hernandorena, only an aesthetic and self-pitying reference to himself as he suffers the obligations of his story, his truth, or the truth.

The problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of “and then”) and the latter belongs to art. Most impressive in the transformations above is that nothing changes. Hernandorena is more essentially himself with his leg opened. Wordsworth’s woman is no less a thing dead than alive. The handlebars, as horns, are fantastically evident handlebars.

ii

In Chekhov’s great story, “The Lady with the Dog,” a man and a woman who are soon to become lovers sit on a bench beside the sea without talking. In their silence the sea grows loud:

. . .  the monotonous roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, or the eternal sleep waiting for us all. The sea had roared like this long before there was any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, the utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of life on our planet, and its never-ceasing movement toward perfection.

 

But this man and woman care, through each other, about life, and they transform themselves into the creatures of an old and desperately sad story in which love is the vehicle of a brief salvation before the sound of the sea, the great disorder that is an order, resumes and caring ceases.

The man’s feelings in the story, like those of Wordsworth and Hemingway in their stories, are unavailable in immediate experience. He lets the woman go, time passes, then it comes to him that he needs her, the old story.

The motive for metaphor, shrinking from

The weight of primary noon,

The A B C of being.

The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

 

He goes to the woman’s hometown, checks into a hotel, and is greeted by the sight of

 … a dusty ink pot on the table surmounted by a headless rider, holding his hat in his raised hand . . .

 

A metaphor. To find his heart, he lost his head. Nothing would be written (ink pot) otherwise; nothing good, anyhow, and that is the same as nothing. “There is no such thing as a bad poem,” says Coleridge. In other words, it doesn’t exist.

The best story I know that contains all I’ve been trying to say is Kafka’s:

A cage went in search of a bird.

 

Like the Mother Goose rhyme, it plays with a notion of containment, or containing the uncontainable, but here an artifice of form (cage rather than shoe) is in deadly pursuit of spirit (bird rather than children). A curious metaphysic is implied, where the desire to possess and the condition of being possessed are aspects of an ineluctable phenomenon. (Existence?) In any case, whatever the idea is, Kafka suggests in eight words a kind of nightmare—chilling, magnificently irrational, endless—the story-of-stories, the infinitely deep urge toward transformation. ” . . one portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring,” says Blake, a great storyteller, obsessed with cages and birds.

iii

The ability to tell a story, like the ability to carry a tune, is nearly universal and as mysteriously natural as language. Though I’ve met a few people who can’t tell stories, it has always seemed to me they really can but refuse to care enough, or fear generosity, or self-revelation, or misinterpretation (an extremely serious matter these days), or intimacy. They tend to be formal, encaged by prevailing opinion, and a little deliberately dull. Personally, I can’t carry a tune, which has sometimes been a reason for shame, as though it were a character flaw. Worse than tuneless or storyless people are those with a gift for storytelling who, like the Ancient Mariner (famous bird murderer), go on and on in the throes of an invincible narcissism, while listeners suffer brain-death. The best storytellers hardly ever seem to know they’re doing it, and they hardly ever imagine they could write a story. My aunt Molly, for example, was a terrific story- teller who sometimes broke into nutty couplets.

I see you’re sitting at the table, Label.

I wish I was also able.

 But so long as I’m on my feet.

 I don’t have to eat.

 

 I went to visit her when she was dying and in bad pain, her stomach bloated by a tumor. She wanted even then to be herself, but looked embarrassed, slightly shy. “See?” she said, “that’s life ” No more stories, no more rhymes.

—from Leonard Michaels, What’s a Story?, Ploughshares, Vol. 12, No. 1/2, (1986), pp. 199-204

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leonard michaels on youth in love

"I felt envy, a primitive feeling. Also a sin. But go not feel it. According to Melanie Klein, envy is among the foundation stones of Brain House. Nobody is free of it. I believed envy is the chief principle of life: what one man has, another lacks. Sam is smart; hence, you are stupid. Joey is tall; hence, you are a midget. Kill Sam and Joey, you are smart and tall. Such sublogical thoughts applied also to eating. The first two bites satisfy a person’s hunger. After that comes eating, which satisfies more than hunger. Seeing hundreds of people eat three times a day in the dining room brought to mind the Yiddish expression "Eating is nothing to sneeze at," which is no joke. Guests looked serious in the dining room, as if they had come to eat what life denied them—power, brains, beauty, love, wealth—in the form of borscht, boiled beef, chopped liver, sour cream, etc. In the bunkhouse at night, falling asleep, I saw hundreds of faces geshtupt, like chewing machines in a factory that ingests dreams."

“Honeymoon”

By Leonard Michaels

 

One summer, at a honeymoon resort in the Catskill mountains, I saw a young woman named Sheila Kahn fall in love with her waiter. She had been married a few hours earlier in the city. This was her first night at dinner. The waiter bent beside her and asked if she wanted the steak or the chicken. She stared at him with big sick eyes. Her husband said, "Sheila?" Three other couples at the table, all just married, looked at Sheila as if waiting for the punch line of a joke. She sat like a dummy.

The waiter, Larry Starker, a tall fellow with Nordic cheekbones and an icy gray stare, was considered dangerously handsome. In fact, he’d modeled for the covers of cheap paperbacks, appearing as a Teutonic barbarian about to molest a semi-naked female who lay at his feet, manacled, writhing in terror-pleasure. He’d also appeared chained to a post, watching the approach of a whip-queen in leather regalia. But the real Larry Starker, twenty-two years old, didn’t have a clue about exotic sex. He’d completed a year of dental school and hoped to have an office someday in Brighton Beach, where he’d grown up playing handball with the neighborhood guys. Like everyone else on the dining-room staff, he was working to make money for books and tuition.

I was eighteen years old, Larry’s busboy. This was my first job in a good resort. The previous three summers, I’d worked in a schlock-house where, aside from heavy meals and a lake with a rowboat, there were few amenities, and the dining-room staff slept two to a bed. Husbands arrived on weekends, set a card table on the lawn, and played pinochle, ignoring the women and children they’d come to visit. My own family used to go to a place like that every summer, and my father was one of the men playing pinochle. He never once took me fishing or hunting, like an American dad, but then he never went fishing or hunting. The only place he ever took me was to the stonecutter’s, one Sunday afternoon, when he ordered his gravestone.

As Larry’s busboy, I cleared away dishes, poured coffee, served desserts, then set the tables for the next meal. Between breakfast and lunch, we had an hour break and we all lay about dozing in the bunkhouse or sat on our narrow beds writing letters home. Between lunch and dinner, there was a two-and-a-half-hour break. Some of us slept through the afternoon heat, others spent the time reading, and others played cards, or handball, or basketball, or went swimming. After we worked dinner, nobody wanted to sleep. It was then about 9:00 p.m. We’d taken orders from strangers in the dining room, and chefs had screamed at us from behind a steam table. We should have been exhausted, but the nighttime air smelled good, the starry mountain skies were exhilarating, and we were young.

As we showered and dressed, the fine strain of a flute came through the darkness. It meant the Latin dance band was playing. In clean shirts and sport jackets, we left the bunkhouse, hurrying toward the lights of the casino, where we danced the mambo. Our partners were the young brides. When that became depressing, we took off for another resort and danced with free women, governesses, chambermaids, or guests who were unmarried or whose husbands were in the city.

There may have been waitresses in the Catskill resorts, but I never met one. Since women guests far outnumbered the men, waiters and busboys were universally hired to make up the shortage. At the honeymoon resort there was no shortage, but the dining-room staff was all men, anyway. I don’t know why. Maybe the atmosphere of newly married bliss forbade hanky-panky among the help.

We called Latin music "Jewish." The wailing melodies were reminiscent of Hebraic and Arabic chanting, but we only meant the music was exciting to us.

Latin music was the rage in the early fifties. You would hear the dining-room staff singing in Spanish: rumbas, mambos, cha-cha-chas. We understood the feeling in the words, not the words. We called Latin music "Jewish." The wailing melodies were reminiscent of Hebraic and Arabic chanting, but we only meant the music was exciting to us. A fusion music, conflating Europe and Africa. In mambo, Spanish passion throbs to Nigerian syncopation. In Yiddish, the German, Hebrew, Spanish, Polish, and English words are assimilated to a culture and a system of sound. The fox-trot and lindy hop we called "American." They had a touch of Nigeria, too, but compared to mambo or Yiddish, they felt like "Jingle Bells."

Handsome Larry Starker, with his straight dark-blond hair and long bones, danced the mambo as well as anyone at the Palladium in Manhattan, great hall of the conga drum, Machito, and Tito Puente. Other dancers made a space when Larry stepped onto the floor. The music welcomed him, horns became more brilliant, congas and timbales talked to his belly. He did no fancy steps, but in the least of his motions he was wonderful, displaying the woman who danced in his arms, turning her around and around for the world to see.

Larry gave me 40 percent of his tips, the customary waiter-busboy split. On Sundays after lunch, guests checked out and tipped the waiter six dollars, and the busboy four. Sometimes they put money directly in my hand, but more often they gave it to Larry. We shoved the money into the pockets of our black sweaty trousers. Later, in the bunkhouse, each of us went off alone and pulled out sticky wads by the fistful, peeling away bills, counting as they fluttered to the bed. At the end of the summer, having worked ten-to-fourteen-hour days, sometimes seven days a week, I expected to make between eight and twelve hundred dollars.

I’d have done a little better working with a waiter who didn’t have icy eyes and a face like a cliff above the North Sea, beaten by freezing winds. Larry spoke Yiddish and was fluent in the mambo, but he looked like an SS officer. Not a good way to look after World War II, especially in the Catskills, where the shadow of death, extending from millions of corpses in Europe, darkened the consciousness of surviving millions in New York.

Comedians, called tummlers, who played the Catskills were even stranger in their effects than Larry. Masters of Jewish self-mockery, they filled casino theaters with a noise never previously heard in the human universe—to my ears, anyway—the happy shrieks of unghosted yiddim. "What does not destroy me makes me stronger," says Nietzsche. We laughed. We danced the mambo. Because we weren’t dead, we lived.

Entertainers came streaming up from the city—actors, magicians, hypnotists, jugglers, acrobats, impersonators, singers. But with or without entertainment, there was always dancing. After the dancing, we sometimes drove to a late-night Chinese restaurant called Corey’s, ate sweet-and-sour spareribs, and listened to a small Latin band. Piano, bass, horn, congas, and a black-haired Latina in a bright red dress who played maracas and sang so beautifully you wanted to die at the table, lips shining with grease, cigarette forgotten, burning your fingers. She played maracas as she sang and danced, taking small steps, her shoulders level, hips subtly swaying to intimate the grandeurs and devastations of love. Pleasure was in the air, day and night.

The newly married couple, Sheila and Morris Kahn, took meals in their honeymoon suite for two days after their embarrassment. Larry said, ironically, "I don’t expect them to tip big." I thought they had checked out of the resort and we’d never see them again, but the evening of the third day, they returned to the dining room.

Wearing a bright blue dress and high heels, Sheila looked neat, cool, and invulnerable. She took her seat, greeted everyone at the table, plucked her napkin out of the water glass, where I’d propped it up like a tall white iris, and placed it in her lap. But she didn’t make it past the soup. Larry set down her bowl. She stood up clutching the napkin and hurried away. Morris gaped after her, his ears like flames of shame, his cheeks pale. An urgent question struggled to shape his lips, then perished. The blue dress of happiness fled among the tables. Larry muttered, "I didn’t do anything," and strode off to the kitchen to pick up the next course. I collected Sheila’s soup bowl, contents untasted, and put it out of sight.

Morris lingered through the meal. I heard him talking, in a loud, officious voice, about Hitler. "According to my sources," said Morris, "Hitler isn’t dead." Nobody disagreed with his sources. The flight of Sheila, the only subject, wasn’t mentioned.

Larry read one book all summer, which was about the mechanics and pathology of the human mouth. Otherwise, he was dedicated to Latin dancing and handball. He took on challengers at handball every week—lifeguards, tennis instructors, waiters, and bellhops—first-class players who often came from resorts miles away. Some referred to him as "the Nazi," even to his face. Catskill resorts weren’t polite society, and conversation could be blunt and cruel. To call Larry a Nazi wasn’t fair, but he looked the way he looked. It had an alienating effect, despite his Yiddish, despite his being a Jew.

The hard black rubber ball, banging the backboard, sounded like gunfire as Larry annihilated challengers. I didn’t root for Larry, because he always won, anyway, and I felt sorry for the others. They wanted badly to beat him, as if more than a game and a couple of dollars were at stake. He knew what they felt, men with strength and speedy reflexes who had come from miles away to beat the Nazi. He beat them week after week.

There was another great handball player, "Hairy Murray," also known as "the maniac from Hackensack." He worked the resort circuit as a tummler. He’d challenged Larry, and a date had been set for a game. The odds were usually around ten to one against the challenger, but against Hairy Murray there were no odds. People wanted to see these competitors in the flesh, the way people want to see horses before a race. I assumed Larry would win. He played like the God of Isaiah, an insatiable destroyer. Larry’s dancing wasn’t altogether different. He moved without a smile or the dopey rictus of ballroom professionals, his body seized by rhythms of the earth. I could live with his inhuman sublimity, and even his good looks, but I couldn’t think that I’d ever have Larry’s effect on a woman.

Seeing hundreds of people eat three times a day in the dining room brought to mind the Yiddish expression "Eating is nothing to sneeze at," which is no joke. Guests looked serious in the dining room, as if they had come to eat what life denied them.


I felt envy, a primitive feeling. Also a sin. But go not feel it. According to Melanie Klein, envy is among the foundation stones of Brain House. Nobody is free of it. I believed envy is the chief principle of life: what one man has, another lacks. Sam is smart; hence, you are stupid. Joey is tall; hence, you are a midget. Kill Sam and Joey, you are smart and tall. Such sublogical thoughts applied also to eating. The first two bites satisfy a person’s hunger. After that comes eating, which satisfies more than hunger. Seeing hundreds of people eat three times a day in the dining room brought to mind the Yiddish expression "Eating is nothing to sneeze at," which is no joke. Guests looked serious in the dining room, as if they had come to eat what life denied them—power, brains, beauty, love, wealth—in the form of borscht, boiled beef, chopped liver, sour cream, etc. In the bunkhouse at night, falling asleep, I saw hundreds of faces geshtupt, like chewing machines in a factory that ingests dreams.

I also saw Sheila’s light brown curly hair and her appealing face, with its pointy lips and small, sweet chin, and her nice figure, today called a "body." Like a sculptor’s vision, it was nearly palpable, an image in my hands. I remembered her agony, too, how she stood up clutching her napkin, how she seemed transfigured, going from mere appealingness to divinity. She got to me, though she wasn’t my type, and I’d have felt nothing, maybe, if she hadn’t been deranged by Larry.

The morning after she fled the dining room, Morris Kahn arrived for breakfast alone. He carried the Times. It was to suggest that he was an intelligent man, with interests beyond personal life. He opened the Times and began to read. Larry approached like a robot waiter, wordless. Not looking up, Morris said, "Scrambled eggs."

Larry spun away, returned with scrambled eggs.

Morris said, "These eggs are cold."

Larry took away the eggs.

Morris said, "Fuck eggs. Bring pancakes."

Larry quick-marched to the kitchen, reappeared with pancakes.

Morris let them get cold, then ordered more.

I stepped forward, took away cold pancakes.

Larry set down warm pancakes.

Morris read his newspaper, ate nothing. Larry’s white rayon shirt, gray with sweat, sucked his chest. Hair, pressing up against the rayon, was a dark scribble of lines.

Morris, about thirty years old, maybe ten or twelve years older than Sheila, was almost completely bald, and he had a pink, youthful, placid face that showed no anguish. He ordered pancakes five times. He wanted to make a bad scene, but, like a round-headed dog, he was hopelessly affectionate and at a loss for an appropriate violence. Larry and I sped back and forth, rolling our eyes at each other as we passed, in opposite directions, through the swinging doors of the kitchen. At last Morris was content. He rose and walked out, the Times folded under his arm, like one who has completed important business and is at leisure to amble in the sunlight.

That morning, he checked out of the resort with Sheila. At the desk, he left an envelope with Larry’s name scrawled across the front. It contained a thirty-five-dollar tip, much more than he’d have left if he’d stayed a week and never missed a meal. The tip was an apology. Had Morris been a Catskill gangster, Larry Starker would have disappeared, dumped in a mountain lake.

In the following weeks, Larry received phone calls from the city, sometimes in the middle of the night. It was no secret who was calling. He stayed long on the phone and never discussed the calls. Sheila had spent only a few days at the resort, and if she and Larry had found moments to talk, nobody noticed. Lovers are sly, making do in circumstances less convenient than the buildings and grounds of a resort in the Catskills.

One afternoon, in the break after lunch, I was lying in my bunk, groggy with fatigue and heat, unable to sleep or to sit up and finish reading The Stranger, in which Camus’s hero mysteriously murders an Arab, on a blindingly sunny beach in Algiers, and feels no remorse, feels hardly anything else, and has no convictions. A modem believer, I supposed, different from the traditional kind, like Saint Teresa, who draws conviction from feeling. I thought the book couldn’t have been written before the Holocaust.

Larry was lying in the bed next to mine. I heard his voice: "What do you say?"

"All right," I answered, hearing my own voice, as I sprawled in stuporous languor after lunch, a dairy meal, which was always the hardest of the day. Guests had to sample everything. Busboy trays became mountains of dirty dishes. The dining room was too warm. The kitchen was hot, and the wooden floors were soft and slick, dangerous when rushing with a heavy tray on your shoulder. The chefs, boiling behind the steam counter, screamed at you for no reason. In the middle of the meal, the dishwasher cut himself on broken glass. He couldn’t stop working. More and more dishes were arriving, and there was blood everywhere.

"Then get up."

"Doing it," I said.

I’d agreed to play handball, surprised and nattered by Larry’s invitation, never before offered, but my body got up reluctantly, lifting from the clutch of mud. I followed him out of the bunkhouse. He’d brought a ball and two gloves. "You lefty or righty?" he asked. I mumbled, "Righty," as if not sure. He said, "Here. Take both gloves." He didn’t really need them, since he could hit killers with his iron-hard, naked hands. In the glare and stillness, the ball boomed off the backboard. As we warmed up, my body returned to itself. I hit a few good shots, then said, "I’m ready." We played one game. Larry beat me by eighteen points. It felt like an insult. He’d slammed the ball unnecessarily on every play. My palms were burning and swollen. Walking back to the bunkhouse, he said, "Sheila Kahn has a sister. Adele. Would you like a date with her? They live in Riverdale."

"Too far."

"I’m talking about later, in the city. Not now, not in the Catskills, moron. She’s seventeen, goes to Barnard, a chemistry major. Sheila says Adele is pretty. You and Adele. Me and Sheila. A double date."

"Double-shmubble. I don’t have wheels, and I don’t want to sit in the subway for an hour and a half to meet a chemist."

"Ever hear of Glock Brothers Manufacturing?"

"No. Go alone."

"I’ll pick you up on my way from Brooklyn. You never heard of Glock Manufacturing?"

"You think, if I go with you, it will be easier to face Sheila’s parents. Since you ruined her life."

Larry said, "Don’t hock mir a chinek," which means, "Don’t bang me a teakettle," or, without the Yiddish compression, "Don’t bug me with empty chatter." He continued: "You don’t know shit. You’ll never get anywhere."

"Fuck you. I don’t like to be used."

"Sheila’s father is Herschel Glock."

"Fuck him, too."

"Glock Manufacturing makes airplane parts for Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. Her father owns the company."

"So he’s a rich man. So his daughters are rich girls. Big deal."

"I can’t talk to you."

"You want to talk to me? Why didn’t you tell me?"

To go out with Sheila’s sister would have been kicks, but Larry let me score only three points and used me like a dog to retrieve the ball for him so he could hit it again too hard and fast for me. Besides, I had no car and didn’t want charity. Who knows what the date would cost? Maybe twenty bucks. It took a week, serving a married couple, to make fifteen. I planned to go alone the next day to the courts and slam the ball till the pain was unbearable. It was near the end of the season, not enough time to improve much, and I’d never beat Larry anyway. But if I could win five points, I’d say I twisted my ankle, and quit in the middle of the game, and never play him again. He wouldn’t know for sure if he could beat me. The sunlight was unbearable. And I was too mixed up with feeling to know what I wanted, but I could refuse to go out with Sheila’s sister. That was a powerful response, disappointing to Larry and hurtful to me, because I wanted to go with Sheila’s sister. In the bunkhouse we flopped on our beds, two feet apart, and lay shining with sweat. I reviewed the game in memory, making myself more depressed and angry. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t relax. Larry said, "Is it raining?"

"It’s the sunniest day on record," I said, and my hurt feelings grabbed my voice. "You want to know something, Larry. We’re different. We don’t look like each other. We don’t think like each other. We don’t nothing like each other. It’s a miracle that we can even speak and understand what’s said, either in English or Yiddish."

He groaned.

I glanced at him and saw eyes without pupils, showing only whites. A horrible face, as if he were tortured by my remarks or he’d remembered something extremely important that he hadn’t done.

I sat up, saying, "You’re making me sick, you freak," then realized he couldn’t hear me. He was foaming at the corners of his mouth, and his body was thrashing like a live wire. Foam pinkish with blood streamed down his chin. I shouted for help. Nobody came. I heard voices in the next room. I ran into the next room. A bed was strewn with dollars and quarters and playing cards. Two guys sat on the adjacent bed to the left, facing three on the bed to the right. Nobody noticed me until I brought both fists down on the cards and dollars. Quarters flew up in the air. I shouted, "Larry is having a fit."

They rushed after me into my room. Larry, still thrashing, was sliding up the wall against his back, as if to escape a snake on his mattress. His face was blue. Bloody foam was running down his neck. Someone said, "He’s swallowing his tongue. Do something." I saw a comb on the window ledge above Larry’s bed and snatched it. Two guys seized Larry’s arms and forced him down flat onto the bed. I straddled his chest and pried his mouth open with the edge of the comb, clenching it in my fists at either end. I said, "Open, open, open," as I forced the edge of the comb between his teeth, trying to press his tongue down. He went limp abruptly. The guys let go of his arms. I slid off his chest. We backed away. His head rolled to one side, then slowly to the other, as if to shake away the seizure. He opened his eyes, seeing, and said, "What?" The word was dim, from far away. I said, "Are you all right, Larry? You had a seizure."

"When?"

I took over his station at dinner, waiting his tables. Busboys came shooting from nearby stations to clear dishes, doing double work. We’d have done the same at breakfast, but he insisted on returning to his station. He made it through the day with no help. That night, in the casino bar, drinking beers, he said he felt fine. He didn’t remember the seizure. I described it to him, feeling nervous and guilty, as if I shouldn’t be telling him this about himself. He said it had happened before. Only his parents knew.

"I’m worried," he said.

"Of course."

"Hairy Murray the tummler is driving up to play handball tomorrow afternoon."

"You’re worried about that? Call off the game."

"I’ll rip his head off."

"Sure. But not tomorrow."

"I put money down."

"Forfeit. Tell him you’re sick. Hairy Murray doesn’t need your money. He’ll let you keep it."

"He hangs out with hard guys. He won’t let me keep one cent. It’s a question of honor."

"It’s a question of you being sick."

"I can play."

"You want to be king of the little black ball."

"Yeah."

We sat for a while in silence. Then I said, "Because of Sheila?"

"That’s over."

"Yesterday you were fixing me up with her sister, the great chemist."

"I phoned Sheila last night. I told her what happened and said to stay out of my life."

"What did she say?"

"She was crying."

"I’m sorry. So why are you playing?"

"I want to win."

"You want to lose."

"If I need a psychiatrist, I’ll give you a ring."

"Do that. I’ll have you put in a straitjacket. You had a fit right in my face. El gran mambo."

When people arrived from other resorts, they sat on the grass. Everyone knew about Larry’s seizure. It made the game more interesting.

Hairy Murray arrived like a boxer, with an entourage. He was on the short side, with a thick neck, wide and deeply sloping shoulders, and short arms. He wore a white linen suit, white shoes, and sunglasses. He looked tropical. When he stepped out of his Cadillac, he began limping heavily toward the handball court, then, suddenly, he became a blind man, walking in the wrong direction. His entourage, five guys in flashy gabardine slacks, were laughing their heads off. The dining-room and kitchen staff were already in the stands, along with the musicians and a lot of the guests. When people arrived from other resorts, they sat on the grass. Everyone knew about Larry’s seizure. It made the game more interesting.

Hairy Murray waved to the crowd, then began to strip. One of the gabardine men had his shorts and sneakers. It was another joke, changing in public. When Hairy Murray dropped his pants, he snapped them back up again instantly. He had no underwear. He pretended to be confused, shamed by his forgetfulness. Everyone had seen his big cock slop free of his pants. Men cheered and booed. Women stared wildly at each other, smiling with disgust. Hairy Murray’s entourage, virtually in tears, was laughing as they made a circle around him, shielding him from view while he changed.

Larry ignored the spectacle and warmed up, serving the ball to himself, slamming righty, then lefty. He looked thoughtful, faintly slower. He wouldn’t even glance at Hairy Murray, whose legs, arms,back, and neck were covered with black hair. A gold Star of David, on a fine gold chain, floated on the black sea of chest hair. I thought maybe he would beat Larry. A man couldn’t have so much hair without being exceptionally gifted. His arms were stumpy but looked powerful. The question was, could he move fast? Larry’s hope was to hit wide angles, make Hairy Murray chase the ball.

The coin was tossed. Larry called tails. It came down tails. Hairy Murray quit joking, took his position on the court, and braced to receive the first serve, a tremendous boom off the board, speeding back low and at a wide angle to the left sideline. Hairy Murray was after it with a blur of short steps. He sent the ball back with the least flick of his left wrist, a soft, high lob. Larry went drifting to the end line, where he returned hard, but no slam was possible. They played even for seventeen points. Neither was clearly superior. Then Hairy Murray served, won four straight points, and the game was over. There wasn’t a sound from the stands and nobody moved to pay off bets. Hairy Murray said, "Double or nothing?"

Larry shrugged. "I don’t think so."

"I’ll spot you the four points you lost and triple the bet."

"Thanks, no."

"You don’t have the cash?"

"Not today."

"You’ll owe me."

"You want to play me that bad?"

"I want to kill you." He said this smiling.

Larry looked vague, as if he didn’t remember he was a Teutonic barbarian, handball ace, mambo genius, future dentist, and the man Sheila Kahn had been smitten by so hard it ruined her life. I wanted to go to the bunkhouse, go to sleep. Seeing him like this was a kind of betrayal. Nameless, creepy feelings swarmed about my heart. I wished I could shoot him and put an end to my feelings. I wished he would say goodbye, go. He couldn’t say anything, and couldn’t go. He bounced the ball, caught it, bounced it. Hairy Murray put his hands on his hips, waiting, patience and contempt in his posture.

Then another man walked out on the court. A bald man, so much the opposite of Hairy Murray, he looked like his taller brother. It was Morris Kahn. I hadn’t noticed him arrive. "Take the bet," he said. "I’ll cover it." Morris looked haggard, with dark, puffy crescents under his eyes.

Hairy Murray said, "Hey, Starker, you hear this cat?"

"I don’t want to lose your money," said Larry to Morris.

"So don’t lose it." Morris’s voice was quick and definitive. "Do you think I drove up here, two hours from the city, to see a loser?"

Hairy Murray, grinning, said, "Four points, kid. Beat me." He twitched faintly, enough to suggest epilepsy, then grinned, holding his hands out, palms up, to suggest no harm intended. Morris said, "Khazar fisl kosher," meaning, more or less, Hairy Murray is a pig showing us clean little feet. Hairy Murray laughed, exhibiting every tooth and a flare of crimson gums. In his thickness and vigor, he was pleased; didn’t feel injured. Smiling at Larry, he said, "What’s shaking, baby? You’ll take a four-point spot?"

He looked at Morris; said nothing.

"A four-point spot is for losers," said Morris. "Larry plays even. Double or nothing." Morris reached into his pants pocket, came up with a quarter, tossed it high, and said, "Call, Larry." The coin hit the ground and rolled away too far to make out how it landed. Hairy Murray looked at Larry and said, "Nu, boychick, you call it, or I’ll call it."

Larry looked vague, as if he didn’t remember he was a Teutonic barbarian, handball ace, mambo genius, future dentist, and the man Sheila Kahn had been smitten by so hard it ruined her life.


Larry said, "Tails." I heard a sort of keening in his voice, high and miserable. It came from neither fear nor defiance, but, like the wind of Golgotha, from desolation. In that instant, I knew the difference between winners and losers has no relation to talent or beauty or personal will, what athletes call "desire," but only to a will beyond ourselves. Larry had just established his connection to it. If I weren’t exceedingly frugal, I’d have bet every cent I made that summer on Larry. He slipped off his wristwatch and T-shirt, handed them to me, then returned to the court. His eyes were lonely, remotely seeing, unlike the blind man a day ago, torso electrified and thrashing. Charged with cold control, he looked grim and invincible. I wasn’t the only one who felt it. People were making new bets even before the first serve. Hairy Murray took in the change. He chuckled, as if he’d thought of something funny but decided not to say it. I think he felt fear. Between himself and Larry, the air had become glass. Hairy Murray would play against himself, his limits.

Morris went to the coin to see how it lay. He said, "Larry serves." Morris then picked up the coin and walked off the court, returning to the stands, where he’d left his newspaper. He began reading as he had that morning in the dining room. The moments of the game were of no concern.

Larry bent low to serve. His long naked arm swept back, then flashed forward. He slapped the ball, and it boomed off the wood face of the backboard. Hairy Murray returned boom for boom. Larry then hit a killer. Murray couldn’t return it without tearing his knuckles on the concrete. He let it go. Larry served again, stronger, faster. Near the end of the game, Morris looked up from his newspaper. There was no excitement in his eyes and hardly much interest. He looked back at the newspaper, its bad news. From the way his shoulders slumped, I felt his resignation. Larry won by eleven points. People were counting money, passing it back and forth. Morris put the paper down. His expression was tired and neither pleased nor displeased. He rose and walked toward Larry.

What Morris and Sheila had said to each other can’t be known, but I imagined fifty conversations, how Sheila called Morris after Larry told her to stay out of his life, how she cried. It was inconceivable that she had asked Morris to help her with Larry, but I knew she had. Morris must have loved her a lot. In his pain and disappointment, he drove up from the city to talk to Larry and heard about the game. Afterward, he and Larry walked away together. Morris’s round, youthful face was turned toward Larry. Larry stared at the ground. Their conversation was brief. Morris extended his hand. Larry extended his. I didn’t want to watch them and walked away to the bunkhouse, carrying Larry’s T-shirt bunched up in my fist with the watch.

A few days later, the season ended, and the dining-room staff went home. I didn’t go out on any double dates with Larry. I didn’t see him again until three summers later. I’d been promoted to waiter at the honeymoon resort. Larry appeared in the casino bar one night, drinking alone. He wore a dark blue suit, white-on-white shirt with sapphire-studded cuff links, and a yellow silk tie. He looked elegant as a gangster. In his chest and face, he was slightly heavier. "Larry Starker," I said. He looked at me without a word as he shook my hand, offering only a little smile, as if he were remembering his opinion of me.

"Sigmund Freud, right?"

The hotel tummler, master of ceremonies at the resort, thrust between us before we could talk, slapping Larry on the shoulder, saying, "Let’s go, Doctor. Where’s the wife?" Walking away, Larry glanced at me and said, "Hang around. Come backstage later." Then the tummler was onstage, introducing a dance team. They had won a Latin dance contest in Brooklyn and were touring the Catskills. "Larry, the dentist, and beautiful Sheila. Give these kids a hand."

The first number, a triple mambo, was wild with congas, bongos, and timbales. Cowbells were clanging, gidong-gidong-gidong-dong. The beat could make dancers look frantic, but Larry and Sheila were smooth and cool. Him in his dark suit and yellow tie. She in spike heels and a black, supremely elegant cocktail dress. A moment ago, she might have been sipping an exquisitely dry martini. In the stage light, in this music, they were king and queen. I ached with admiration and primitive envy, and applauded madly. Afterward in a room backstage, I shook hands with Larry again, told him he and Sheila were fantastic, and reminded him that I’d once been his busboy.

He said, "I know."

"I’m waiting table now. Our old station."

To my own ears, I sounded a little false, pressing our connection too happily. My feelings were impure. I’d never actually been able to love him as a friend. He introduced me to Sheila, his wife, and said she was almost four months pregnant. It didn’t show. She sat in a folding chair, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette.

I said, "Hi."

She said, "Hi."

1 didn’t feel invited to step closer and shake her hand, but she nodded to me with an empty smile, then looked at Larry. The moment was strangely awkward, nobody saying anything. I felt intrusive. Then Larry said he had his dental degree.

"Not everyone in my class made it. You need hand-eye coordination. Like a fighter pilot. You’re always looking in a tiny mirror to see what your hands are doing—in reverse—inside somebody’s mouth."

"Are you still playing handball?"

Sheila’s father had bought him into an office in Brighton Beach, he said, walking distance to the handball courts, but he didn’t play much. He was too busy, too tired at the end of the day. Then he talked about their dance routine.

"We’re working a story into it. The man dances in place. He is almost motionless. The woman dances for his pleasure, like she is exhibiting herself. He watches, but still dancing in place. Suspense is building, building, until the woman can’t hold back, can’t stay away. She goes to him. It’s a chase, but different."

He worked himself up as he talked, and began to clap out the clave rhythm—1, 2, 3—1,2—doing the steps in place, carrying himself like a tall, smooth, arrogant seducer. Sheila, sitting in her chair, watched with no expression until she realized he was seriously involved in the routine and expected her to join him. She said, "Aw, Larry. Enough already. I just finished dancing my ass off."

Larry looked good, even when almost motionless; he had the music inside him. He ignored her protest, and kept dancing in place, clapping out the clave sharp and loud, and he raised an eyebrow the least degree, and faintly, he curled his lip. Barbarian lights flashed in his teeth. He said, "Dance, bitch."

Sheila sighed, dropped her cigarette on the floor, looked down, and stepped on it. She looked back up at him with the face of a sweet, pathetic dummy and whimpered, "No."

Larry kept on dancing, clapping out the beat, staring at her. The tension was unbearable. I wanted to say, "I’ll see you two do it another time," or, "Leave her alone," but I didn’t know if I was looking at a dance routine or real life. As if in a trance, Sheila was then rising from her chair, beginning to move toward Larry, tentatively, moving to the beat in a deliberately broken, mechanical way. She said, "No," once more, but was now very close to him, face to face, then leaning into him, pressing against his chest. He had stopped clapping, and they were pressed flat together from chest to thigh, dancing. There was silence in the room, except for the rhythm of their feet sliding along the floor, perfectly together.

As I watched, gooseflesh swept along my arms, like a breeze across the surface of a Catskill lake. At the bottom of the lake, in the shimmering murk, I made out Larry Starker, ankles chained to cinder blocks, straight blond hair streaming up, wavy in the water, slow as smoke. His arms were flailing at his sides. There was a bullet hole in his forehead.

 

 

—from Leonard Michaels, The Collected Stories

 

new york city in the 1950s: leonard michaels’ sylvia

"weird delirium was in the air, and in the sluggish, sensual bodies trudging down MacDougal Street"

Cover Image

[cover art: Quappi in Pink Jumper (detail), 1935, Max Beckmann]

 

Sylvia: A Novel

by Leonard Michaels

 

In 1960, after two years of graduate school at Berkeley; I returned to New York without a Ph.D. or any idea what I’d do, only a desire to write stories. I’d also been to graduate school at the University of Michigan, from 1953 to 1956. All in all, five years of classes in literature. I don’t know how else I might have spent those five years, but I didn’t want to hear more lectures, study for more exams, or see myself growing old in the library. There was an advertisement in the school paper for someone to take a car from Berkeley to New York, expenses paid. I made a phone call. A few days later, I was driving a Cadillac convertible through mountains and prairies, going back home, an overspecialized man, twenty-seven years old, who smoked cigarettes and could give no better account of himself than to say "I love to read." It doesn’t qualify, the essential picture, but I had a lot of friends, got along with my parents, and women liked me. Speeding toward the great city in a big, smooth-flowing car that wasn’t mine, I felt humored by the world.

My parents’ apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, four rooms and a balcony, was too small for another adult, but I wouldn’t be staying long. Anyhow, my mother let me feel like a child. It seemed natural. "What are you doing?" she said.

"Washing dishes? Please, please, go away. Sit down. Have a cup of coffee."


My father sighed, shook his head, lit a cigar. Saying nothing, he told me that I hadn’t done much to make him happy.


From their balcony, fourteen stories high, I looked down into Seward Park. Women sat along the benches, chatting. Their children played in the sandbox. Basketball and stickball games, on courts nearby, were in process morning and afternoon. On Sundays, a flea market would be rapidly set up in a corner of the park-cheap, bright, ugly clothing strewn along the benches. In the bushes, you could talk to a man about hot cameras and TV sets. At night, beneath the lush canopy of sycamores and oaks, prostitutes brought customers. Beyond the park, looking north, I saw Delancey Street, the mouth of the Williamsburg Bridge eating and disgorging traffic. Further north were the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Ever since I was a little kid, I’d thought of them as two very important city people. A few degrees to the right, I saw the complicated steelwork of the 59th Street Bridge. To the west, beyond Chinatown (where Arlene Ng, age ten, my first great love, once lived) and beyond Little Italy (where they shot Joey Gallo in Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street), loomed Wall Street’s financial buildings and the Manhattan Bridge. Trucks, cars, and trains flashed through the grid of cables, crossing the East River to and from Brooklyn. Freighters progressed slowly, as if in a dream, to and from the ocean. In the sky, squadrons of pigeons made grand loops, and soaring gulls made line drawings. There were also streaking sparrows, and airplanes heading toward India and Brazil. All day and night, from every direction, came the hum of the tremendum.


I talked for hours on the telephone, telling my friends that I was home, and I sat up late at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, reading, and smoking. Most of the city slept. In the quiet, I heard police sirens as far away as Houston Street. Sometimes, I was awakened around noon or later by the smells of my mother’s cooking which, like sunlight, became more subtle as the hours passed. Days were much alike. I didn’t know Monday from Wednesday until I saw it in the newspaper. I’d forget immediately. After my parents had gone to bed, I’d step out to buy The Times, then stare at the columns of want ads. Among thousands upon thousands of jobs, none said my name. I wanted to do something. I didn’t want something to do. Across the darkened living room, down the hall, in the big bed with my mother, my father lay snoring.

Whatever my regrets about school-lost years, no Ph.D.I wasn’t yet damaged by judgment. I hadn’t failed badly at anythinglike Francis Gary Powers, for example, whose name I heard every day. His U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Russia, and he’d failed to kill himself before being captured. Instead, he confessed to being a spy. President Eisenhower, who claimed the U-2 was a weather plane, looked like a liar.

There were few heroes. Malcolm X and Fidel Castro, fantastically courageous, were figures of violent disorder. They had both been in jail. But even in sports, where heroes are simple, they could be the focus of violence. A mob swarmed out of the stands after a ballgame, surrounded the great Mickey Mantle, tore off his hat, clawed his face, and punched him in the jaw so hard they had to take X rays to see if the bone was broken.


The odor of fresh newsprint, an oily film on my fingertips, mixed with cigarette smoke and the taste of coffee. Pages turned and crackled like fire, or like breaking bones. I read that 367 were killed in traffic accidents during the Memorial Day weekend, and, since the first automobile, over a million had been killed on our roads, more than in all our wars. And look: Two sisters were found dead in their apartment on Gracie Square, in the bathtub, wearing nightgowns. A razor lay in the hand of one of the sisters. Blood wasn’t mentioned. This was old-style journalism, respectfully distanced from personal tragedy. Nothing was said about how the sisters had arranged themselves in the tub. Their life drained away as the crowd vomited out of the stands to worship and mutilate Mickey Mantle. There were really no large meanings, only cries of the phenomena. I read assiduously. I kept in touch with my species.

About a week after I arrived, I phoned Naomi Kane, a good pal from the University of Michigan. We’d spent many hours together drinking coffee in the Student Union, center of romantic social life, gossip, and general sloth. Naomi, who had grown up in Detroit, in a big, comfortable house with elm trees all around, lived now in Greenwich Village, on the sixth floor of an old brick tenement on MacDougal Street.


"Push the street door hard," she said. "There is no bell and the lock doesn’t work."


From my parents’ apartment I walked to the subway; caught the F train, took a seat, and was stunned into insentient passivity: The tram shrieked through the rock bowels of Manhattan to the West Fourth Street station. I walked up three flights of stairs in the dingy, resonant cavern, then out into the light of a hot Sunday afternoon.


Village streets carried slow, turgid crowds of sightseers, especially MacDougal Street, the main drag between Eighth and Bleecker, the famous Eighth Street Bookshop at one end, the famous San Remo bar at the other. I’d walked MacDougal Street innumerable times during my high school days, when my girlfriend lived in theVillage, and, later, all through college, when my second girlfriend lived in the Village. But I’d been gone two years. I hadn’t seen these huge new crowds, and new stores and coffeehouses all along the way. I hadn’t sensed the new apocalyptic atmosphere.


Around then, Elvis Presley and Allen Ginsberg were kings of feeling, and the word love was like a proclamation with the force of kill. The movie Hiroshima, mon amour, about a woman in love with death, was a big hit. So was Black Orpheus, where death is in loving pursuit of a woman. I noticed a graffito chalked on the wall of the West Fourth Street subway station: FUCK HATE. Another read: Mayor Wagner is a lesbian. Wonderfully stupid, I thought, but then the sense came to me. I remembered a newspaper photo showing the city’s first meter maids, a hundred strong, in slate blue uniforms. They stood in lines, in a military manner, as Mayor Wagner reviewed them. Ergo: a lesbian. Before 1960, could you have had this thought, made this joke? There had been developments in sensibility, a visionary contagion derived maybe from drugsmarijuana, heroin, uppers, downersthe poetry of common conversation. Weird delirium was in the air, and in the sluggish, sensual bodies trudging down MacDougal Street. I pressed among them until I came to the narrow, sooty-faced tenement where Naomi lived.


I pushed in through the door, into a long hallway painted with greenish enamel, giving the walls a fishy sheen. The hall went straight back through the building to the door of a coffeehouse called The Fat Black Pussy Cat. Urged by the oppressive, sickening green walls, hardly a foot from either shoulder, I walked quickly. Just before the door to The Fat Black Pussy Cat, I came to a stairway with an ironwork banister. I climbed up six flights through the life of the building. A phonograph played blues; an old lady screamed in Italian at a little boy named Bassano; a hall toilet was clattering and flushing, flushing, flushing. At the sixth floor, I turned right and walked down a dark hallway, narrower than the one at street level. No overhead lights burned beyond the landing. There was the glow of a window at the end of the hallway. Brittle waves of old linoleum cracked like eggshells beneath my steps. Naomi’s door, formerly the entrance to an office, had a clouded glass window. I knocked. She opened. With a great hug, she welcomed me into a small kitchen.


Behind her, I saw a refrigerator and stove. A half-wall partition separated the kitchen from the living room, with a gap that let you pass through. The partition served as a shelf for a telephone, papers, books, and pieces of clothing. A raw brick wall dominated the living room. The floor was wide, rough, splintery planks, as in a warehouse. It was strewn with underwear, shoes, and newspapers. Light, falling through a tall window, came from the west. The window looked over rooftops all the way to the Hudson River, then beyond to the cliffs of New Jersey. Another tall window, in the kitchen, looked east across MacDougal Street at a tenement just like this one. I supposed that Naomi’s apartment, in the middle of Greenwich Village, must be considered desirable. Naomi said, "Don’t make wisecracks. The rent is forty bucks a month." Then she introduced me to Sylvia Bloch.


She stood barefoot in the kitchen dragging a hairbrush down through her long, black, wet Asian hair. Minutes ago, apparently, she had stepped out of the shower, which was a high metal stall in the kitchen, set on a platform beside the sink. A plastic curtain kept water from splashing onto the kitchen floor. She said hello but didn’t look at me. Too much engaged, tipping her head right and left, tossing the heavy black weight of hair like a shining sash. The brush swept down and ripped free until, abruptly, she quit brushing, stepped into the living room, dropped onto the couch, leaned back against the brick wall, and went totally limp. Then, from behind long black bangs, her eyes moved, looked at me. The question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.


Sylvia was slender and suntanned. Her hair fell below the middle of her back. Long bangs obscured her eyes, making her look shy or modestly hiding, and also shorter than average. She was five-six. Her eyes, black as her hair, were quick and brilliant. She had a high fine neck, wide shoulders, narrow hips, delicately shaped wrists and ankles. Her figure and the smooth length of her face, with its wide sensuous mouth, reminded me of Egyptian statuary. She wore a weightless cotton Indian dress with an intricate flowery print. It was the same brown hue as her skin.


We sat in the living room until Naomi’s boyfriend arrived. He was black, tall, light complexioned. Mixed couples were common, especially with Jewish women, but I was surprised. Conversation was awkward for me, determined not to stare at Sylvia. The summer heat and the messy living room with its dirty floor destroyed concentration, discouraged talk. Things were said, but it was dull obligatory stuff. Mainly we perspired and looked at one another. After a while, Naomi suggested we go for a walk. I was relieved and grateful. We all got up and left the apartment and went down into the street, staying loosely together, heading toward Washington Square Park. Naomi came up beside me and whispered, "She’s not beautiful, you know."


The remark embarrassed me. My feelings were too obvious. I’d been hypnotized by Sylvia’s flashing exotic effect. Naomi sounded vaguely annoyed, as though I’d disappointed her. She wanted to talk, wanted to put me straight, but we weren’t alone. I said "Ummm." Incapable of anything better, I was literally meaningless. Naomi then said, as if she were making a concession, "Well, she is very smart."

We were supposed to have dinner together and go to a movie, but Naomi and her boyfriend disappeared, abandoning Sylvia and me in the park. Neither of us was talking. We’d become social liabilities, too stupid with feeling to be fun. We continued together, as if dazed, drifting through dreamy heat. We’d met for the first time less than an hour ago, yet it seemed we’d been together, in the plenitude of this moment, forever. We walked for blocks without becoming flirtatious, barely glancing at each other, staying close. Eventually, we turned back toward the tenement; with no reason, no words, slowly turning back through the crowded streets, then into the dismal green hall and up six flights of stairs, and into the squalid apartment, like a couple doomed to a sacrificial assignation. It started without beginning. We made love until afternoon became twilight and twilight became black night.

 

Through the tall open window of the living room we saw the night sky and heard the people proceed along MacDougal Street, as in a lunatic carnival, screaming, breaking glass, wanting to hit, needing meanness. Someone played a guitar in a nearby apartment. Someone was crying. Lights flew across the wails and ceiling. The city, made its statement in the living room. None of it had to do with us, lying naked on the couch, just wide enough for two, against the brick wall. Released by sex into simple confidence, we talked. Sylvia told me she was nineteen, and had recently left the University of Michigan, where she had met Naomi. Some years earlier, Sylvia’s father, who worked for the Fuller Brush company, died of a heart attack. The doctors had told him not to smoke and he tried to give it up, tearing his cigarettes in half, carrying the halves behind his ears until he couldn’t not put one between his lips and light it. Her mother was a housewife who did well playing the stock market as a hobby. Soon after her husband’s death, she became ill with cancer. Sylvia visited her in the hospital every day after high school. She said her mother became exquisitely sensitive as she declined, until even the odor of the telephone cord beside her bed nauseated her. After her mother died, Sylvia lived with an aunt and uncle in Queens. She had bad dreams and heard jeering voices, as if the loss of her parents had made her contemptible. To get out of New York, she applied to the University of Michigan and Radcliffe. Her boyfriend was at Harvard. She described him as very kind and nice-looking, a lean, fine-featured blond. She said she was brighter than her boyfriend, but Radcliffe turned her down. They didn’t need her; they could easily fill every class with German Jews. Sylvia took the rejection personally. That was the end of her boyfriend. Her present boyfriend worked in a local restaurant. He was a tall, sweet, handsome Italian; very sensitive and loving. He would show up tonight, she said. His swimsuit was in the apartment and he’d come for it after work.

 

Sylvia was telling me how she’d met Naomi, and then telling me how much she loved Naomi. "But Naomi loves me in theory, not in practice," said Sylvia. "She’s very critical, always complaining because she can’t find a shoe or her glasses or something in the apartment. She sometimes threatens not to come home if I don’t clean up."


"Really?"


I was listening without hearing.


The boyfriend would show up tonight. Sylvia hadn’t mentioned a boyfriend before she let me take off her clothes. I felt deceived. I wanted to go. She had a boyfriend. I’d have done it anyway, maybe, but I felt suddenly
distanced from Sylvia, as if I’d dropped through the darkness into a well, darkness more dense. I wanted to get out and I imagined my clothes on the floor beside the bed. I could reach down, grab my underwear and pants, dress, go. I didn’t move.


"He has a key?"


"No."


"The door is locked?"


"Yes."


"Look, I should go. I’ll phone you in the morning."


"Stay."


She got up. Without turning on a light, which would show in the glass window of the door, she moved quickly in the chaos of the apartment, shoving books and papers about, tossing pieces of clothing, and then she found it, with blind feel only, a rag amid rags. His swimsuit. She hung it on the doorknob outside the apartment by the jock, then returned to the bed.