THE REFLECTIONS OF THE FROG PRINCE IN THE HALL OF MIRRORS, PART IV

Not wanting to go home, he walked south on 2nd Avenue. A north wind had kicked in, scouring out the remaining summer dampness, bringing with it a scent of the Canadian forests. Despite the sun still high in the evening sky, the buildings cast a premature dusk across everything. Like oil calming a stormy sea his glasses quelled the cosmic flux in the faces around him. In the distance the numbers of “attractive” figures seemed countless. But as they drew near, they separated like chaff from the kernels, those with undisturbed, calm features from those with features consumed by a vortex right under their noses. Lao Tzu said the realization of beauty lead to the recognition of ugly. For a courtesan like his mother the concept of ugly must have been revealed daily. Those seeking her must have desired her healing hands upon their own ugliness. Still he had never detected that kind of tension between his parents.
After turning west on St. Mark’s, he came to 5th Avenue. A middle-aged man carrying a large department store clothing box under his arm, stepped out under the awning of a high-end apartment building. His black flannel trousers were tied at the ankles. He wore white silk socks and brown sandal slippers. When the strange man turned south Francis followed him. In Washington Square Park Francis sat on a bench just west of the Arch not far from where the stranger took a seat. Groups of young people were hanging out. Because of the chilly evening air the young men shuffled about with hands stuffed deep into pockets. From time to time members of one group broke off and visited other groups sitting further off. Streams of familiar music emanated from various corners, held together by the beating of drums. The repetitious beat was reiterated in the foot-to-foot sidestep of young women, arms folded, trying to stay warm. All around him the conversation tripped from lip to lip, like the froth on cresting waves. He felt old. He had missed all this. After graduating from high school he had gone straight to work.
The sharp report of high heels on the pavement broke his reverie. He looked up and saw a tall woman passing whose dress and style seemed cast from another era. She had long hair, nearly to her shoulders, which curled under and was wearing a long beige coat over her shoulders, her arms free beneath the folds. In the fingers of one hand she held an unlit cigarette. She was an incongruous vision in this place where kids were hanging out in blue jeans and sweat shirts. She seemed to have stepped out of an ancient time, one that belonged to his parents. To see her better he removed his glasses. Despite her maturity, she appeared to be no older than he was. For some reason, like his mother this morning, she was distortion-free, her skin lovely and simply adorned. She approached the bench where the man with white socks was sitting and stopped. The man in the white socks was sitting sideways, legs crossed, his back to Francis. He looked up. After a brief conversation the odd man stood up and walked over to a group of kids near the fountain. He looked like a prominent sheik or an elegant Brahmin. His white socks collected the last of the evening’s light. When he returned, she was gone. Francis hadn’t seen her go. Like the balls set in motion on a pool table, an outside force had energized the scene; yet to all appearances nothing had changed.
In the dining room at home, where the family photographs were on display, he had always been fascinated by his parent’s wedding picture. What set it apart from the others, aside from the subject, was the special bamboo frame etched with narrow leaves. It was a relic from a distant past. World War II had ended. His mother and father are standing in a Japanese tea garden. In her silk kimono his mother harkens back to another era, while his father in his white naval uniform, hat in hand, proudly displays the trademarks of a youthful conqueror, an invincible smile. His thin frame gave him a boyish air, much younger in appearance than she with her powdered white pallor. She stood heels together like an exquisite doll made of porcelain, her features of the most delicate workmanship, proof that his father had left the small world of Brooklyn a young man and returned a worldly one. At some point during the Pacific campaigns he crossed a shadow line and became the man who, one day on shore leave, reached out to embrace something alien to his parochial view.
All his life Francis had drifted into other people’s lives, become part of their lives, without ever offering them the possibilities that might change them. He was always what they wanted, and without any effort on his part. No, his own meticulous care over his appearance, parting his hair with conscious effort, always making sure his hair was not too short, shaving every other day, the choice of his casual wear and jewelry set him among those who sought to please others.
He got up and walked over to 6th Avenue and bought a sausage sandwich. The night had finally come. He walked on, swiftly sidestepping the pedestrians. Young lovers held each other tightly, their arms over shoulders and around waists as if conserving heat on this cool evening. The incandescent street lights glowed eerily in the darkness created by his glasses. At Sheridan Square he descended the stairs and caught the northbound train.
Keep moving, keep moving, the chill air provided the necessity but not the meaning. Keep moving, keep fluid. Somehow he had to bring order to the chaos. The train came into the 42nd Street station. Forty-second Street, where the doll man had come in search of the Goddess. The platform was crowded. Musicians were playing at different ends of the platform, strings and horns and the echoing of flutes. Instead of taking the Queens-bound train he emerged on the north side of 42nd Street. and wandered west, the direction the doll man had taken on his own quest. Through his dark glasses the glow from window displays and marquees merged into an incandescent strata above the street. Between the luminous buildings rose interminable muddled clouds forming a single unreal world of twilight, like a steam room lit somewhere by a bare light bulb.
Ahead of him, at the end of the block where the brilliant confusion of Broadway finally weakens, on the corner of 8th Ave, he saw a beacon of glowing orange, towering at least a foot and half above the crowd. It drew him toward it, as if he was a wayward ship lost at sea. Beneath it, an animated group of young women conversed, turbulently throwing out their arms toward the various points of the compass, but above them, with apparent disinterest, stood this beacon of serenity drawing him through the pedestrian traffic. She was a woman, a very tall woman, a giant woman gazing toward some far-off place to which only her thoughts were tethered. As she drew him into her calm of reserve, her features became more distinct. She was clearly visible above the others, in a brilliant orange, plastic raincoat with large white buttons. Even at a distance her face was clear, her lips bright red, an uneven line around her mouth, as if not much interest had been taken in the application of the makeup. Her hair was long, wild and black, in sharp contrast to her white stockings below. She was six feet tall and more, with thin shoulders hunched forward to disguise her height. Her friends were dressed to kill. He couldn’t see their faces, only hers, clearly glowing in the lurid light, a singular eddy of isolated nervousness in a social whirlpool. The same impetuous drive that took him to Anita’s after all these years now carried him directly toward her. He was outside of himself, watching while he strode on. The words of the Tao surged in his ears, like the mysterious sounds that once streamed through his conch shells when he listened to them as a kid. The words crashed against an obdurate remnant deep inside of him that was resisting this new impulse. Turn back. Go back to the way things were. But the waves of rebellion carried him forward, embrace what you fear, embrace what you loathe. . . As he closed in an isotropic thrill shot through him. For the first time in his life he was the predator. Still she didn’t notice him. Her face was radiant with clarity. The simplicity of her features was dazzling, a still pond of clarity where the bottom stood out clearly to its very depths. The group continued gesticulating. There was still time, turn back, the old way pleaded. But she was tall and thin and her makeup failed to hide her acne. He was locked in, there was no turning back.
“Who are you?”
She was visibly startled. He had arrived like a stone crashing through her placid waters. It wasn’t the kind of come-on she had ever envisioned. Her arms were crossed, one hand holding a cigarette close to her mouth. She looked down at him from on high, the clouds of smoke drifting up from her cigarette. Her eyes bulged wide and her mouth paused in open wonder. Several black teeth between her vibrant red lips amazed him. Then the smoke from her cigarette drifted into her eyes and she coughed. But the other women looked at each other, smiled as if to say, “Wow, who is this dude, with the dark shades, and why is he talking to her?”
“Hey,” said a blond, her hair wrapped in a purple bandeau, the rest of her in stretch jeans and a short black leather jacket. “My name’s Jane.”
But Jane was wrapped in the chaotic circles of the storm, her features, like those of her friends, in gross disorder. He didn’t care who she was. But the sight of her simply confirmed his choice: the tall one, upon whose features he found peace.
“Yeah, hi, but I’m asking what your name is?” he said, directing his attention to the tall one.
He was helpless beneath her, unable to take his gaze off her. He wanted to reach up and take hold of her, as if she could calm the seas around him.
“She’s shy, just hanging out with us.” Jane was insistent.
“Well that’s nice, Jane. . . but what is your name,” he repeated to the tall one, almost pleadingly.
Somewhere near Jane’s nose a whirlpool was drawing in the other features on her face. Rivulets of eyeliner were melting into the vortex. He had spent his entire life, assuming by a process of unconscious selection, that those he noticed were beautiful?
In the lurid light, already a block removed from Times Square, the jostling crowd was shifting their course around this annoying pool of stalled humanity. He was mystified by his own confidence. A look of distrust appeared on the tall woman’s face. Another woman, this time a red head in luminous pink tights, chewing gum, with lips the color of plums that ran like ink down into her evolving cleavage, spoke up.
“Hey, leave her alone. She’s not your type.”
Francis persisted.
“So what’s your name? Mine’s Francis.”
This broke the small crowd up. Jane found his name humorous. Everyone was laughing.
“Sarah. I’m Sarah,” she said, unbuttoning her coat, to reveal a starched white dress.
Her voice broke through the laughter of her friends like chimes on the wind, a clearly audible tintinnabulation that silenced even the sounds of passing cars. Around her neck dangled a laminated name tag.
“Sarah. Say that again,” he pleaded.
“Let’s not push it.” She, too, was chewing gum.
By now she had gotten hold of herself. Still mortified by the attention, still distrustful of this suitor, she didn’t want to come off looking idiotic before her friends, who closed in around him.
“So what’s the deal, Francis,” asked plum lips. “Are you really coming on to Sarah?”
She conveyed these words like weapons of war.
“I mean,” she added teasingly, “no one wants to be hurt.” Was she pouting her lips?
“Who’s hurting whom?” he asked; “I’m being straight here.”
“Are you sure, Francis?” came a voice at his side. “I’m Dee. Maybe there’s room for two,” she added taking his arm.
Several other women who had participated in the laughter grew impatient. They hadn’t come to stand all night on 8th Avenue while some dude from nowhere scammed them, no doubt put up to this by his friends hiding out there somewhere.
“You have friends, Francis?” asked Jane, sidling up to him and looking up with wide and innocent admiration belied only by a cocky smile, yawning with a darkness that grew out of the depths of her throat.
“So, where are you from,” asked Dee, reaching up with her fingers to the back of his neck.
As they all closed in, Sarah, as if out of habit, stood quietly by the side.
“Queens.”
“So you live alone, got your own place?”
“Nope.” His eyes never left Sarah.
“‘Cause we were just discussing where we should go. Bett wants to go downtown to the village, but she’s a hippie, you know, free love and all.”
“Fuck you,” said a woman in bell bottoms with a small heart tattooed on her cheek. Her cheeks grew larger and larger like elastic soap bubbles. “You don’t want to listen to music at CBILs?”
“But the rest of us, Francis, we’re hard-working, you know. We should save our money.”
“Thanks, but I like Sarah.”
“Oh come on. . ,” they pleaded, their hands on his shoulders.
“Besides, like I said, I don’t have my own place,” he added, hoping to end all this.
“So, maybe you’re roommates wouldn’t mind some fast moving company.”
“My roommates! You mean my parents. They would mind!”
Again laughter issued from the group, this time more raucous than before.
“Old guy like you still living with your parents, how lame.”
And again the noises of the street were silenced by the voice of the luminous beacon on their outskirts.
“Leave him alone.”
They looked up at Sarah within the following silence, a silence that presages the next movement in a symphony. Her friends nodded, stepped aside and let her back into the group.
“Wherever we go,” she said to him, “you can come if you want. But let’s keep it simple.”
“You are some slick guy, Francis,” admitted Jane, the cutting edge of her humor completely rounded now. “You just came into our lives like a UFO, the masked man.”
Sarah held out her hand and he took it. They were following Bett back along 42nd to Broadway. He didn’t know where they were going nor did he care. The novelty of this experience was feeding energy directly to his feet, where he felt a dream-like spring in his gait. Had he willed it, he could have flown. Only her hand inside his, her long fingers curled around his thumb, helped tame his circuitry, siphoned off the excess electricity of which she must have been aware.
“So, why are you wearing shades?”
They were approaching the subway station he had just left. With her partially hidden white uniform, shoes, and stockings, she gambled along on her long legs, completely out of place on the street. Her unbuttoned orange, plastic coat gave her the appearance of a winged spirit out of Hieronymus Bosch. Despite his excitement he could barely keep up.
“My eyes hurt.”
“You’re kidding?”
“No, I was over at the Eye, Ear and Nose clinic on 14th today.”
“What did they say?”
“Nothing, just gave me these shades.”
She stopped short and nearly yanked his arm off.
“That’s all?”
“Come on,” cried the others. “Train’s coming!”
She was looking down at him.
“We better go,” he said.
They went through the turnstile.
“I feel like I’m back in high school,” he added. “Like I’m starting all over.”
“My friends never seem to grow older. . ,” she said, “But I haven’t been so lucky.” Her fingers smelled of nicotine.
The women filled the car with their raucous conversation. As long as he kept his eyes on Sarah it all made sense.
“Do they hurt?”
“What?”
“Your eyes. The way you’re staring at me freaks me out, like you’re some kind of a crazy. You’re not crazy, are you?”
“God, I’m sorry. No, it’s just that when I’m looking at you, my eyes don’t hurt, I mean I know that sounds stupid, you know like full of shit, but hey, that’s why I am staring at you.”
“You are crazy,” she said, pushing a bubble the color of her coat through her lips. “Nobody,” she added, retrieving the bubble with her tongue, “says stuff like that to me, except maybe some old guy in a hospital bed.”
The train pulled into the Christopher Street station. The young women walked ahead of them, shaking their heads, tresses akimbo, arms pointing, voices shouting, a gang of women heading down Grove. In contrast to the NYU kids they were definitely cut from foreign fabric, glamorous but without the air of scholastic coolness.
The club was a dark cavernous space filled with the noise of recorded music and people talking loudly. Groups formed and disintegrated as people felt their way about looking for friends. Everyone was drinking beer from bottles. No one collided, no one fell. Her friends disappeared into the darkness. He asked her what she wanted and she answered domestic as she unwrapped another bubblegum square.
“You want one,” she asked.
He nodded no.
With bottles in hand, they stood watching the shadows drifting around them. After a few minutes he pointed to a quieter corner near the back where a small light illuminated the access to the rest room hallway. She nodded. So they walked back.
“You come here often?” he asked her.
“Not really. When I do go down here I usually go next door.”
“What’s next door?”
She cocked her head.
“A whole different world.”
A teenage band stepped onto the dimly lit stage. Without an introduction, more like a “yeah!” they leaped body and soul into a strident song. From where they stood they could only see the rocker heads, appearing and disappearing above the movements of the audience. But the music reverberated along the walls and floor. The giant amplifiers guarded the stage like demons at the gates of hell.
“What can you see with those things, anything?”
“You,” he asserted, “nothing else matters.”
She laughed.
“Me?” Her voice opened up some new channel of exploration. “Why me?”
“You’re. . . I like you, Sarah. . . Does it matter why?”
In spite of her self-consciousness, a calming influence continued emanating from her, like the remnants of a supernova scattering the basis of new creations into the night, impressing an order on the chaos around her. In her presence there was nothing to fear. She was who she was, and more, much more not yet revealed, in total contrast to everyone else who shielded their emptiness beneath glossy waxed faces. She was changing before his eyes and her voice was the life-giving stream that carried him into these discoveries. Perhaps she wasn’t even aware of her power, only saw herself as others saw her.
“My friends think you’re beautiful.”
“Do you?” he asked.
“I’m not telling you what I think.”
“I’ve never stalked a woman before.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“You mean like I’m worth stalking.”
“Yes. Did I scare you?”
“You are one intense dude, Francis. . . Actually I don’t know why I come here with them. I’ve known them all my life. I guess I’m afraid of being alone.”
“Me too. But I’ve always believed I would come upon a perfect place somewhere. I never thought of it as a person. You’re a nurse?”
“How did you ever guess,” she replied sardonically.
“How do you become a nurse?” he shouted. He realized they were both shouting, the music enclosing them in sound.
“I got my BS in nursing after two years at Lehman. . . In a way I’m better off than my friends. They work as secretaries and receptionists for companies they don’t care about. . .”
Her voice disappeared inside a wave of electronic feedback emanating from the stage. In his frustration he reached for her hand, and pulled himself closer to her lips. She shouted into his ear. Just the simple touch of her fingers at one end and the arcing chain of her words completing the circuit excited him like a school boy on his first date.
“I said, they’re looking for guys,” she laughed with gusto. A moment later, while looking down at his hand which she held in hers, she asked, “You really live with your parents?”
“Yeah, you?”
“Sure. . , so we have something common, ” she added looking at his face. “How old are you?”
“Does it matter?”
“No.”
“I’m thirty two,” he said. “You?”
“Twenty five.” She let go of his hands putting hers behind her back against the wall. “You don’t look it,” she added.
“I take after my mother, she looks much younger than she is,” he shouted. “She’s Japanese.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Japan.”
“Sarah, have you ever felt you were drifting, like a leaf on the water, the wind pushing you this way and that way, the waves moving you around, you know what I mean?”
“In the flow.”
“Exactly. Like we’re all in the current . . . I’d like to meet your parents.”
“You’re moving fast, Francis. Maybe too fast. The other chicks would be sleeping with you by now. I’m much slower. To be honest I’m not used to the attention.”
Leaning over he whispered, “I’m not even asking for a kiss.”
“Are you looking for one?” She removed the her cigarette and gum from her mouth.
“Yeah.”
She closed her eyes as he reached forward and upward with his hand to find her face in the dark room. Someone near them opened the door into the men’s room where the lurid red light escaped as if from a furnace. With it came a draft of disinfectants from the urinals, the sweetness camouflaging the odor of urine. For a moment his senses were confused. A drunken fear came over him again, a part of him wildly objecting. Look at her teeth! Feel her rough skin! The idea of beauty, harvested from a century of advertising models, besieged him. He squeezed his eyes shut with such violence, pain shot through his eyelids, lacerating the inner darkness with bolts of lightning that seemed to shatter the stony core of these reflexive beliefs. Even as he was reaching over to her with one hand, he suddenly and violently punched the wall with the other, startling her. Before he had a chance to redeem himself, she began moving away from him. But he grabbed her, pulling her face down toward his, and kissed her then. For a moment he was swimming against a resisting current, imagined himself struggling against the seaweed drifting in on the waves, wrapping around him, then his tongue was free and he realized her tongue was against his, both moving frantically around each other. He could taste the tobacco on her lips and the sweetness of the bubble gum. He felt the gaps in her teeth. Each revelation on this new level intensified his interest and his fervor. He tightened his grip on her, while she remained passive, indulging him; then, she took her hands and gently pushed him away reminding him of where he was.
“And I haven’t even seen your eyes,” she added, pulling another cigarette from her purse as she ignited her lighter.
He saw her etched against the wall. He wondered at the changes in her since they had met. Slowly, one precious word at a time, she was revealing herself, looming larger in the process. And she seemed unaware of this beauty of hers that was casting more and more light into his universe.
“You know better than to smoke,” he said with a domestic firmness.
“No lectures please, I get plenty of lectures from my father. My mom died of lung cancer.”
“I’m sorry…”
“She died in my senior year of high school. Actually I started smoking when I was living in France.”
“France?” he shouted, incredulous.
She reached down and put her fingers on his lips.
“Jesus, I’ve never been out of the country. I mean I’ve been as far west as the Hudson River. I’m no adventurer. Like I’ve been upstate, if you know what I mean.”
Had he not gone to the county fair with Estelle and her kids he wouldn’t be standing here. A melancholy sound of steel strings cut through the darkness in the club. He leaned back against the wall. The air around him was charged by Sarah’s proximity. He turned toward her the way a leaf turns toward the sun. The air, charged with unseen messages, made words unnecessary and sight secondary. Even though he probably didn’t need the glasses in the dark, he still was afraid of the possibility of a visual meltdown.
“You want another beer?” he asked.
“No. I have an early shift tomorrow.”
He nodded toward her friends.
“I’ll let them know I’m going.”
Hunched over, she carefully threaded her way through the crowd until she found their table, bearing its arsenal of spent beer bottles. When she returned she took his hand and led him through the door. Outside the sudden exposure to the cool night air and comparatively quiet sounds of the street were comforting.
Beneath the street light, she paused to light another cigarette, her shadow twisted like a character in a children’s book illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. Then she turned to him, her bright plastic raincoat suspended on her shoulders in a continental fashion, the pendant wings of an exotic moth. With both hands she removed his glasses. She looked into his eyes. He saw her clearly, the green eyes, the long earlobes with large loop earrings, the freckles and pitted surface of her skin, her hair a marvel of knots and tangles. Several of her teeth were missing, several were black, a cigarette dangled from her bright lips.
“Your eyes are beautiful,” she said, gently touching his eyelids with her warm fingertips. The kinesic energy from her fingers filled him with excitement and yearning.
“They’re a reflection of what I see,” he stated foolishly.
Then he remembered what she had said inside.
“So what’s next door?”
“We’re not ready to go there, Francis.”
She replaced the glasses, her head cocked back, one eye squinting from the smoke.
On Christopher, before descending the stairs to the PATH, she turned to thank him.
“I’m going with you.”
“No, you’re staying here.”
“No, I’m taking you home.”
“But you live in Queens, you won’t get home until who knows when.”
“Who cares?”
So he followed her, this tall, winged victory, down into the station, his hands in his pockets, whistling unconsciously.
“That’s one of my dad’s favorite old songs,” she said passing through the turnstile.
“What song?” he asked, stuck without a pass.
“ That one,” she said, returning to the turnstile and paying his way. “Stairway To Heaven.”
People stared at them, the giant woman with the wild black hair sitting beside her small companion in the dark shades. A group of kids sat opposite them, loudly fooling around as the train pulled out of the station. Among them sat a quiet couple who leaned heavily on each other, caressing and kissing, ignoring the comments of their voluble peers. He realized he didn’t know where Sarah lived.
“Bayonne,” she stated flatly.
“Oh yeah. . .” Everything around him, the kids across from the them, the dull plastic seats, the fiberglass paneling, even the barely illuminated tunnel walls just beyond the windows possessed a novelty. “I never knew where that was?”
“In Jersey. . ,” she emphasized, chewing her gum defiantly, her arms folded across her chest. “I warned you.”
“Look, I’ve never been west of the Hudson, and you’ve been to France. I’ve got some catching up to do. You grew up in Bayonne?”
“Most of my life. My father works for the MTA.. He’s a mechanic at the Hoboken depot,” she said. “I told you it was a long way for nothing.”
“I love trains,” he said, ignoring her comment. “I used to have a train set that had all the good stuff, you know, the accessories, little houses, stores, tunnels, the works, used to set them up on the holidays around the tree, using white cotton for snow.”
“So you celebrate Christmas.”
“Well, yeah, I was raised a Catholic. When my mom came here she converted. I can’t imagine my old man becoming Shinto. . . You know it’s funny about your father working for public transportation. My old man drove a cab.”
Her energy seemed to rise from her depths, burst free from her lips and pop. Words floated in the air like pearls in a world without gravity. Each word resonated with the value of its birthplace, somewhere, he was sure, near her heart. When she stretched out her crossed legs they reached half way across the aisle to the other side. He discovered a silver diadem partially buried beneath the unruly waves of black hair, revealed in glints of reflected light.
“So,” she said, a bit sardonically, blowing another pink bubble and letting it pop, “we all grew up in the business of getting people someplace.”
“Yeah, and I work for the airlines, at La Guardia. So I’ve inherited the family trust. You trust me, don’t you. . .
“We’ll see where it all goes, Francis,” she said, letting go of his hand. She fiddled with one of the big white buttons on her coat.
“Okay, so tell me about France.”
She cocked her head to the side and stared at him for a moment, her jaw working the gum, before retaking his hand.
“There’s nothing to it,” she said, as another bubble the color of her coat appeared. She collapsed it. “I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted out of Hudson County. . .”
“Where’s that?”
“A fine transport expert,” she laughed. “That’s where I live. Bayonne’s in Hudson County.”
Her strong voice was full of direction. Silk ribbons the color of the rainbow emanated from her lips. It was beyond belief, really, that he could see these things. But then he saw the convulsions caused by the standards of beauty so prevalent around him, so why not ribbons of silk? If he was crazy, so what? He had never been so happy in his life.
“I wanted to do something really different. My daddy worried naturally. But he wanted me to be happy. Why I chose France, I’m not sure, maybe it was romantic, like chasing after the Abelard of Henry Adams.”
“I don’t know either of them.”
“Imagine a culture where towns vied with one another to build the largest cathedrals in the world, churches with colored glass. The one at Beauvais finally collapsed, ending centuries of madness. And I had always identified with those forlorn lovers in Victor Hugo. They were always male, but who isn’t subject to the pain of rejection. . . But I told daddy I wanted to go to France to study nursing.”
“All the way to France to learn that?” piped Francis, not knowing what else to say, having never heard of Beauvais.
“Exactly what my daddy wondered,” she laughed, pushing the wad of gum forward through the gap in her teeth, then retrieving it. “It was true though, I mean the part about wanting to be a nurse. During the last few years of my mom’s illness, I took care of her at home. In the hospital, I helped the nurses – that’s when I decided I wanted to become a nurse. They were my mother’s guardian angels.”
The girl across the way had her legs over her boyfriends legs, her arms around his neck. They hardly moved, hardly heard their boisterous friends who jumped up, stood by the door, sat down again, over and over.
“Whether daddy believed me or not I don’t know. I think he knew I needed time away. So he cashed in my mom’s life insurance and gave me free rein. My mom would have been pleased. She was always saying, you’re only young once, you’re only young once. . . My dad, he really loved her. It’s so hard to see someone else’s passion when we’re seeking it ourselves. But his generosity was proof somehow.”
Her words rose up like a richly embroidered rug out of the Arabian nights carrying him upward, empowering him, though he was barely hanging on by his fingers nails.
“ What airline?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts.
“What?” he replied, startled.
“Where do you work?”
“North Star.”
“That’s cool. So why haven’t you traveled. Isn’t that one of the perks?”
“Everybody asks me that.”
“Yeah, why?” she repeated, looking at him curiously.
“I don’t know. I’ve lacked the motivation,” he said with embarrassment.
She studied the back of his hand, her fingers gently touching the tops of the hairs. They became extension of her lips, silent words unfurling through the sensation of touch. He laughed, a bit giddy. His scalp tingled.
“My parents met in Japan at the end of the war. They were married there.”
She stilled her hand and held on to his with both of hers, as if holding a balloon on a windy day.
“My brothers and sisters and I sent them to Japan for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. There’s a photo in our dining room – that’s where we keep the family pictures – of my parents standing in the garden of the Silver Pavilion in the hills outside Kyoto. The surrounding evergreens are melting into the mountain air. Behind them, a two-story pavilion rises up and in front of it a mound of sand. My mother calls it the Moon Facing Height.”
“You speak like a poet. Are you a poet?”
“No, why?”
“No one would say evergreen melting into mountain air. No one would say half the things you say.”
“I’ve never thought of myself as a poet. Usually I don’t say much. You can ask my friends. In a way I feel as if I have been there, at the Silver Pavilion,” he added. “If you were to look at my father you would never know he had been a gunner on the USS Missouri, saw action in the Pacific, saw Tojo, the emperor when he came aboard to sign the surrender. And MacArthur.”
“That’s wonderful!” she said, her jaw going slack, excited by the idea. “How did he meet your mother?”
He hesitated.
“She was a geisha.”
“A geisha!”
She brought both hands up to her lips, like a child unable to hide her awe.
“Yeah, crazy isn’t it?” he said embarrassed by the notoriety of his mother’s former life.
His parents had lived a storybook life. The closest he ever came to the fantastic was the jetway, where he stopped, as if the yearning of others who desired to see the world, was enough.
“I don’t think her life was easy. She never talks about it. On the other hand,” he added wanting to move away from the aura of his parents, “when I’m listening to you I see your words flowing from your lips on colorful, silk ribbons.”
Her tongue wedged the wad of bubble gum through one of the openings in her teeth producing another perfect pink sphere. With the same precision she deflated it, resumed chewing, nodding her head all along.
“Nope, people don’t talk like that, Francis. It’s hard to believe you and yet. . . in medieval painting a lot of the saints talk with ribbons, it’s kind of like bubble speech in comics.”
“Did you learn that in Paris?”
“In museums. There are examples of this in the illuminated manuscripts at the Morgan Library. . .” she stated, looking at him critically. “I didn’t stay in Paris very long.”
“What about the nursing school?”
“I didn’t go to school. I wandered around, met different people. Went to Bayonne in the south of France…”
“You’re kidding, there’s a Bayonne over there?”
“Yeah, that’s where the bayonet got it’s name, believe that?
“I’m beginning to believe anything.”
“For awhile I lived in a commune outside St. Gaudens. I started accepting myself. I even auditioned for a cirque as a giant lady, but there were plenty of tall women, much taller than me, who could actually do crazy things 20 feet in the air! And they were beautiful. . .”
“And you’re not! I know a thing or two about beauty.”
“I’ve nice legs.”
He had to laugh.
“What about French? You speak French?”
“Oui, mon monsieur mysterieux, je parle francais tres bien…”
The tone and intonation of her voice, her melodic stream of consciousness, carried the breath of her personality into the air, like a heady perfume, casting a scent of far-off places; her voice was more effective than any jetway, for she had found the means to convert the internal flywheel of her desires into a conveyance for her dreams. Who would know looking at her, that through her lips, where lay an irregular crenellation of darkened teeth, came this worldly scent?
“When I came home, my daddy was hurt. He had sent me away out of love for me and I return smoking like mom. He was shocked by my careless appearance,” she said. Extending her arms out hands open, “Voila. Instead of attending school, I’d learned how to be myself, and. . , anyway, he forgave me and here I am.”
“Will I meet your dad?”
The flash of a light bulb went off followed by the rowdy laughter of the kids. The young Romeo looked up at his friends. He shook his head disdainfully while his Juliet smiled with eyes half closed. Another picture was taken of them before their faces disappeared again behind their ardor.
Francis followed Sarah out of the PATH terminal, the corners of her rigid coat maintaining its strict semblance of wings. They entered an open area where cars were moving in every direction. In the wake of her long, but quiet stride, her white shoes cushioned with cloud-like heels, he crossed a wide street that curved off dramatically and found himself at last, at rest at a bus stop.
“Where are we?” he asked, breathing heavily.
“Journal Square. . . Jersey City.”
“So!” he shouted exuberantly, “I finally made it across the river!” His voice was carried into the four corners on the crisp night air.
“Under,” she corrected him, quietly.
“Yeah. So, I have always thought of this side of the river as being one big industrial park, factories, refineries. . . ”
“Sometimes Francis, I can’t tell if you’re fucking with me or not.”
“Actually,” he smiled, taking her hand, “I’m waking from a long sleep. It’s like I’ve been living under a rock, or in a deep well, like a toad in a fairy tale.”
He took a deep breath. The passing cars seemed to be pushing layers of atmosphere before them. He thought of his mother, a Japanese war bride, landing in the Los Angeles port of San Pedro, traveling cross-country alone on a train. What did she think when she first saw the Empire State building rocketing upward on the skyline against the laws of gravity?
A bus appeared from around the bend and stopped in front of them. Once inside, he stared out the window, darkened by his glasses to an almost obsidian blackness. He could see her dim reflection and beyond her in the distance dense concentrations of light, like the stars near the center of a galaxy.
“Was your mother really a geisha?” she asked, pulling him in from the darkness. “I can’t imagine what she looks like? I’ve always imagined geishas, in white robes, trussed up with a back bows, serving tea. I imagine them as healers, perhaps a bit romantic.”
“I think it was a little more than that. . . But there’s a picture of her from those days. The white face, the long silk gown, it’s her wedding picture, she’s standing next to my father in his navy uniform.”
“She must be a very interesting woman.”
“After I was born she attended night classes at The BE READY Business school, taught herself English along the way. How my folks ever communicated in the early days is beyond me.”
But having said this he realized if words had the power of touch and the process was reversed then two disparate bodies lacking a cultural connection could communicate with means others than words. It wouldn’t matter if one was from Brooklyn the other from Japan, or Bayonne even.
“She’s a stenographer in the New York City criminal courts. She’ll retire in a few years.”
“Are you the youngest?” her lips pursed, the last word inflated in a pink bubble which collapsed as she inhaled.
“How did you know?” he marveled.
The bus pulled over to the curb in front of a boarded kiosk, a residential area that reminded him of Astoria. She took off down the boulevard, crossed at the light and entered a darkened street.
She gave up the embarrassment of her height, throwing her arms and legs out, pigeon-toed, knees bent, all to speed her home. The pale brick house had square columns in front but was otherwise unimposing, a small front yard with a birdbath. She mounted the steps two at a time and was already opening the door by the time he reached the top level. He thought, is she running away from me, but then she turned toward him and smiled.
When they entered the house her father was sitting in the small living room reading a book with a dictionary beside him on a side table. He greeted her absently before looking up. When he saw Francis, he sat straight up, stared at them over the rim of his glasses. He had an unkempt short white beard and a crew cut that blended well with his bald head.
“This is Francis, Dad”
“Francis. Nice to met you, Francis.”
He got up and walked awkwardly over to greet the young man, removing his glasses. They shook hands. He was taller than she was. Francis had entered a house of giants! Even the décor was appropriate, enormous chairs with large padded arms and cushions and a sofa into which he could disappear.
“Francis wanted to take me home.”
“A gentleman.” he laughed.
“I don’t know about that, sir,” Francis replied awkwardly. Then too quickly, he added, “Seems we’re all in the same line of business.”
“Oh? And what might that be?”
“Transportation,” replied Francis, lamely.
“I told him you worked for the MTA,” she said, kicking off her shoes and picking them up.
“Call me, Frank.”
“He works for North Star,” continued Sarah, removing her plastic raincoat, “at La Guardia.”
All in white, she now exemplified her trade. She untangled the diadem from her hair.
“I see what you mean,” said Frank, shrugging his shoulders. “You want a beer, Francis?”
“Yeah thanks, Frank,” answered Francis gratefully. “What about you, Sarah?”
“Nope, I’m going up to change. My feet are killing me,” she said, striding off defiantly, taking the stairway, two steps at a time. “He likes Led Zeppelin, daddy,” she called down as her voice disappeared upstairs.
“A Page and Plant fan. They were really different from anything I had heard before. I saw them at the Fillmore in. . . ‘69. . . more than thirty years ago!”
Francis followed her father into the kitchen. The house was immaculately clean, not an article out of place. Opening the refrigerator Frank removed two bottles of beer. At the cupboard he took out a glass.
“Young people like to drink out of the bottles, but I like a glass. You want a glass?”
“Yeah.” A moment later Francis offered, “I was whistling Stairway To Heaven.”
“Oh yeah, one of their popular songs.”
Returning into the living room Frank sat in his chair by the little table. Francis studied the sofa, then chose one of the arm chairs into which he sank, his elbows angled upward on the padded arms. They drank in silence. Bookcases lined the living room walls. He had never seen so many books. There they all stood, standing at attention, the thin with the fat, paperbacks with hardcover, those with jackets, those without, row after row, like the guardians of the place.
“Place is so tidy.”
“I do my best. Sarah’s the cook, otherwise we would all die of starvation.
“Where’s your TV?”
“TV? I don’t know, maybe in the garage. Now Francis, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s with the sun glasses? Prescription?”
“My eyes have been troubling me. The eye doctor gave me these to protect them from the light.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“I’ve turned a corner.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” added Frank. “So where do you work, out on the runway?”
“I’m a boarding officer.”
“Sounds like a good job. Good pension?”
“I suppose.”
After a few moments Frank attempted another round of conversation.
“So where did you folks meet up?”
“Near the Port Authority. . . She was with her friends.”
“Another transportation link,” the older man mused.
“She’s beautiful.”
“I think so,” said Frank, studying Francis intently, then adding, “they say love is blind.”
“I’m not blind.”
“I can’t imagine how you can see anything with those glasses. It must be dark as hell in here.”
Frank looked at him, his eyes pinched together quizzically. Francis felt foolish. To prove his sincerity he removed the glasses for a moment.
“Are you Chinese?”
“I’m American.”
“Yeah, I know that, but what is your heritage?”
“Japanese, my mother’s Japanese. My father’s Italian, like you.”
“I’m Irish, actually. And Christ was a Jew but they call him Christian. It’s all the same isn’t it?”
He slid the dark glasses back in place.
“I can tell you this, Frank, Sarah’s different, she makes me feel real.”
He stumbled along, helplessly as if walking sideways on a stony hill.
“So it’s a question of reality, is it?”
“Until tonight,” continued Francis, regaining his step, “I didn’t feel anything.”
Her father took a deep breath.
“I’m questioning the wisdom of offering you that beer,” said Frank amused. “We used to call it ‘finding yourself.’”
“Oh yeah. Well, I’ve had it easy. I’ve never had to search for anything. Until recently. . .”
They sat looking at each other for a moment.
“She was standing on the sidewalk, I mean I spotted her from way off.”
“We tend to be tall, though her mother wasn’t a tall woman by any means.”
“I mean by finding her I’ve became myself. I woke up!”
“You do have the gift of gab, Francis,” chuckled Frank, absently flipping through the pages of the book he had been reading.
“That’s just it. I’m not known for my gab. I’m just the opposite, that is, until now. Because of her… She brings out the best in me.”
Smiling as he shook his head, her father rose up from his chair and disappeared into the kitchen. He returned with two more beers.
“Sarah’s mother would be looking at me with a questioning eye right now, but seeing that you and I have good taste when it comes to women. . . ”
“I’m sorry about your loss.”
“She did the same for me,” he said after a brief pause.
“Did what?”
“Brought out the best in me. There is no explaining that, is there?”
“No.”
“But there is a difference.”
“What’s that?” asked Francis.
“The test of time. I knew Sarah’s mother thirty years; and you’ve known Sarah a single evening.”
Sarah came downstairs. She was wearing loose jeans and a baggy t-shirt that looked like it might have been her night shirt. She wore flip flops that must have been a size twelve. Her toe nails were painted orange, the color of her raincoat. Her face was scrubbed clean, no makeup, like a kid’s, a skin pitted like a ripe fig after the yellow jackets have eaten. He had never imagined a woman like this, having never had to imagine any since they were always there for him, made-up and ready to go, just the way he was. Estelle always made him wait until she was out of the bathroom before letting him see her in the morning. Sarah returned from the kitchen with a beer which she drank from the bottle. She dropped into the matching chair Francis sat in, but unlike him her head was well above the back edge. She watched him curiously as he cautiously removed his glasses.
“I asked him how he could see anything inside here?” reiterated Frank.
The doll man had talked about a standard. It clouded one’s eyes. But now the scrim had been removed. He was free to see her through his own eyes, not through the eyes of the advertisers and the movie moguls, who stood before their palaces of deception, marquees ablaze, inveigling everyone to come and see, for the price of a dollar, the most beautiful women of all. It was like eliminating the hands of the clock; without them one could live each day as an eternity.
“Still seeing diamonds and pearls?” she asked seriously.
He nodded yes, smiling like an idiot. She laughed.
“I’m hungry,” she said, sprawling. “Anybody else?”
“He looks hungry,” emphasized her father, jerking his head toward their guest.
She got up and signaled Francis back into the kitchen where she raided the refrigerator, pulling out cheese, a bean dip and a bowl of potato salad. From the bread box she removed a loaf of bread. Before sitting down at the kitchen table, he asked where the bathroom was. In the dark he stood hesitantly at the sink. When he switched on the light and looked into the mirror, his face was normal.
Next morning, he arrived at work early, despite the long trek from New Jersey and after only a few hours of sleep. He was changing into the extra uniform he kept in his locker when Murphy entered the bathroom. The younger man broke into a wide smile.
“You are up shit’s creek, man!”
“What are you talking about?”
“When you see Estelle. . .”
“Oh, yeah.”
Francis adjusted his tie, enjoying the peace he found in the mirror. It wasn’t the same face. It was but it wasn’t. His hair was thinning. He could lose it.
“But don’t worry, we’ve arranged things. . ,” interrupted Murphy.
He studied the young man’s face, behind his own in the mirror. He had never really noticed the glasses. Murphy’s eyes looked huge, like those of a large beetle, but combined with his smile he had a winning face.
“What do you mean?” queried Francis.
Murphy turned to the stall behind them and pointed to the door. Someone had placed a series of strips on which there was an ink engraving. Francis approached the door and read the strips, one underneath the other.
In Honor of
FRANCIS SALVEZZA
Taoist
Who gave his life in his quest for balance
When in fact
Estelle Escalera
Was already fully balanced
Francis laughed.
“By the way,” he added as they left the men’s room, “I heard you’re a follower of Confucius.”
In the hallway he saw her approaching with her friend, the woman whose name he could never remember. The heavy woman was strutting with a lively buoyancy, her hair was literally flowing behind her. Estelle, of course, was impeccably dressed, her features, no longer marred by cyclonic vortexing, bore the determined features of the county DA about to clamp down on her prey.
“My infatuation with Confucius is over. I saw the light,” said Murphy. “I discovered that my teacher in Eastern Studies is actually a follower of Descartes. Well, this is where I leave you,” he nodded quickly. “Good luck.” And with that he turned a corner and disappeared.
“I knew it,” she said, stopping before him, defiantly maintaining her distance.
The other woman stopped, then seeing the look in Estelle’s eyes, smiled awkwardly and moved on.
“Don’t get any ideas, Marie, just because he two-times me.”
“How do you know I two-timed you?”
She expelled a burst of air to convey her disgust.
“By the look in your eyes. You have finally fallen in love. Even your mother called me.”
“My mother?”
“The first time she ever called me. She wanted to know where her son was. So you weren’t at home and you weren’t with me!”
Her face was lovely, architecturally perfect, beyond any established standard. Yet it was over. She was proof of his freedom, proof that the standard the doll man revealed had been dismissed.
“I’m sorry, Stell.”
“Is it somebody in the Terminal?”
“No. Nobody around here.”
“Good. I’d have a hard time being polite.”
And with that she kissed him goodbye and walked off without looking back, her hips moving like the armatures of a locomotive.

THE REFLECTIONS OF THE FROG PRINCE IN THE HALL OF MIRRORS, PART III

On Sunday he woke up struggling with an idea he couldn’t clarify. He felt as if he had been staring at a cloud whose boundaries refused to conform to a comprehensible order. The harder he tried to see something comprehensible, the greater his need to comprehend. The harder he tried, the harder his head hurt. His eyes ached. It was the flu, he thought, feeling a chill. So he pulled the window shades, called down to his mother not to disturb him and stayed in bed the entire day.
He woke Monday morning, feeling much better, though his eyes were sensitive to bright and colorful objects. Not until he was inside the terminal did he realize the intensity of his problem. Michele Essense, a stewardess who usually worked the 0700 flight to Chicago, came bustling through the automatic doors toward the escalator hauling her wheeled suitcase. She knew the wrath of Escalera having once slept with Francis shortly after he met Estelle.
“Hey, you don’t look well, Francis,” she said hurrying by, her voice emanating from chaos.
She turned her head to keep her eyes on him, unable to resist a smile. Only her smile sank into a vortex of whirling flesh which yawned wider and wider like a galaxy whose center no longer held, her makeup flowing toward the circumference of what must have been her hair.
One of Estelle’s friends came in, a heavy-set woman. He couldn’t remember her name. She greeted him cheerily as she passed by. Her appearance was normal. During the next thirty minutes manning the boarding gate waiting area, he realized that only the faces of women he never noticed before remained unchanged. He tried to stem the tide of visual horror with extra cups of coffee from the vendor down the hall. He went into the men’s room several times and washed his face. His own features twisted away like a dish towel being wrung. He gripped the sink and stared at his face hoping to force his cheekbones into conformity, but they continued gyrating, so much so that he became nauseous.
At lunch, terrified he would meet Estelle, he left the North Star concourse and walked over to the US Air terminal where he sat at a bar staring into a coffee cup. At a nearby table behind him, an animated conversation rose above the dominating buzz of air-conditioning. The mention of Lao Tzu caught Francis’s attention. He turned and saw Murphy the intern, sitting among the group, discoursing with great authority in his Irish accent. To his great relief, Murphy’s back was to him. The students underlined their eclectic ancestry by drinking imported brews from bottles with colorful international labels, even as they consumed all American hamburgers with fries. Wearing nondescript sweatshirts and khakis they were immune to the devouring convolutions swallowing all the faces of the fashionably dressed people around them. They had gathered to see off one of their friends who was flying out to the University of Oklahoma.
Murphy and his faction felt that Taoist philosophy advocated keeping people stupid. They favored Confucius who, they believed, wanted to educate the people. The other faction disagreed. A young, unadorned woman everyone called Clio, felt they were repeating the lessons of their pundit in Eastern Studies, who didn’t like Lao Tzu. And why should the teacher like Lao Tzu since a philosophy advocating wisdom over cunning knowledge would cripple the great money-making machinery of the university system, which, after all, pays the professor as well as the college CEOs. Her friend, whose sturdy face resembled an Inca, added that Confucius wanted the people taught so they could become effective bureaucrats. The argument was pursued by both sides with all the vigor of opposing athletic teams.
“Therefore,” quoted the Inca, “the sage manages affairs without action and spreads doctrines without words.”
“Unlike Ophelia’s father, the foolish Polonius,” Clio interjected, her long hair unkempt, “always meddling in everything, like the preachers and the teachers who never see the wholeness of things.”
“Yeah, well you’re a student, just like the rest of us,” hotly contested Murphy. “Without school we’re nothing, no jobs, nada.”
“Probably no job with or without school,” the Inca retorted.
“Naturally,” said Clio, “Dr. Ripple wouldn’t like Lao Tzu because here we have someone saying the way is multiple, observe and learn, but beware of people preaching The One Way which is generally the way into your pocket book.”
“Harvard and Columbia,” added the Inca, “aren’t there to simply enlighten us, they’re big business, they supply big companies with the CEOs.”
“If you’d gotten into Harvard, would you’ve gone? Would you have gone?” ardently repeated one of Murphy’s confederates.
The Taoist student hesitated.
“Provided I could afford it, yeah,” came his reply.
“Yeah right, because you want top billing just like the rest of us, go right to the top. Big companies like GE and Enron hire these guys right at the top, top pay and best of all top decision-making.
For a moment no one spoke. Everyone fiddled with their bottles. Then the young woman piped in.
“OK, so we’re not immune. Still you say decision-making, but like what does that mean?”
“Means,” said the guy bound for Oklahoma, the only one dressed neatly, pressed sweat shirt, freshly washed jeans. “Means. . .”
But he never finished his statement because the young woman pursued her goals with diligence.
“Means nothing unless you’re independent, that’s the heart of the matter. Can you see clearly, independently, or do you see it the way your Harvard profs saw it? If the profs and the CEOs at Enron can’t see the red light ahead then who can?”
“What red light?”
“The warning light,” asserted the Inca. “Lao Tzu is preaching independence. The Tao desires wholeness, whereas an education promoting desire creates opposites.”
Opposites, thought Francis, furtively rising from his stool. Opposites, he repeated over and over as he left the bar without acknowledging Murphy. A mumbled litany of ‘Opposites’ strung out like the beads of a rosary he used to hold on the way to school when he whispered his Hail Marys during exam week.
He went straight home after work, went upstairs to his room and changed his clothes. He left the house telling his mother he was going over to his aunt and uncles’. They lived three blocks east. Large trees lined the street anchoring the brick homes to an air of prosperity. Some of the row houses had originally possessed castle-like turrets with cone roofs. The owners of the other houses, desiring a similar feudal look, had attached crudely fashioned towers, some of them unfinished, to their rectilinear facades. His aunt and uncle had done well, operating a hardware store on Ditmars in Astoria. After his uncle suffered a heart attack, the family sold the business. Their house was midway down the block. The front door, located in one of the original towers, was braced on either side by tall gangly yews. A single rose bush rose from a mound of soil embedded in a cement patio that covered the rest of the yard. He rang the door bell. His Uncle Louis answered the door.
“Francis! Well I’ll be. . . Haven’t seen you in. . . Honey, it’s Francis.”
“Really?” came a voice from the other end of the house followed by rapid footsteps leading to the door.
“Francis!” cried his Aunt Rosa.
She reached up with both hands and kissed him on the forehead as if he were the prodigal son. Once inside the small living room, his aunt turned off the TV. They sat down in the stiffly upholstered chairs. They looked at each other with embarrassment. Finally his uncle asked him if he wanted a glass of wine.
“Sure.”
“Your mother has kept us informed, though she worries about you and I ask her why, you know.”
“Yeah I know. That’s what mothers do, right, Aunt Rosa?”
“Sure,” she said, smiling at him. “We worry and then we worry…” she added, watching her husband shuffle into the kitchen.
“I think of Anita and I worry. She got a college education and a great job but then I wonder if she will ever settle…”
“She’s got what she wants,” said Uncle Louis, returning with a bottle of wine and three glasses.
“She’s a writer,” he added, handing a glass to Francis.
“Mom told me she was a media specialist.”
“Exactly,” affirmed his uncle, settling down into his recliner with some effort. “She writes up the papers for the big shot scientists at Rockefeller University. But she also writes…”
“He means she wants to be a…”
“No, she’s a writer. She writes every night, after work.”
“Have you seen any of her writing, smart alec?”
“I don’t have to, she tells me, that’s good enough.”
“That’s a father for you,” said Rosa.
“So what do we drink to?” Louis asked his nephew.
“To this reunion,” answered Rosa, triumphantly.
“Let’s get Anita down here. She’ll be real happy to see you.”
Aunt Rosa went to the stairway by the front door, and called up in a loud voice.
“Anita, Anita, we got a guest, a special guest.”
She’s probably climbing out the window to escape him, he thought. He was ashamed for having come without notice. He heard the footsteps descending the stairs. She entered the room with a tremendous smile. Nothing had changed since graduation, except her smile. Everything about her was as large as he last remembered, her nose, her chin, her entire body, and her face still carried the marks of acne though expertly camouflaged with makeup. But her smile was captivating and her face, despite her nose and chin, was an undisturbed isle of peace. She came over to him and quickly hugged him as he was standing.
“What a surprise,” she laughed, squeezing him with affection.
She sat down spreading out the hem of her dark, pleated dress, which was both serviceable and elegant. When the smile dwindled to a bemused inquisitiveness he saw her differently. She had gained in some inner space a strength and direction he still lacked. She was wearing the pearl necklace she had worn to work as well as two or three silver bracelets. He noted her pierced ears, though she had already removed her ear rings.
“You just got home?” he asked.
“She’s always working.”
“Oh, Mama, you know I was just sitting upstairs reading magazines,” she laughed.
“Sure,” said the old woman skeptically.
“I was just telling Francis about your writing,” intercepted her father like a tennis player responding to his wife’s backhand.
“Oh, Daddy. It pays me well.”
“I didn’t mean that writing. I know you’ve got that under your belt. I meant the other writing.”
“Actually,” quipped Anita, “it’s like that analogy of the falling tree in the forest. If no one has seen what I’m writing, can anyone say I write?”
“See, even she admits it. Besides,” Aunt Rosa added, “what would she be wanting to write about anyway?”
“A falling tree, whatever, why don’t you just say you write on the side!” said her exasperated father. “You kids make life too complicated.”
“So how have you been, Francis?” Anita asked.
“OK.” His confidence stalled, paralyzed by loss of words. “I mean it’s been OK. North Star keeps me busy.”
“And I bet you keep the girls busy.”
He blushed. There was more to her life than he could see. The way she carried herself had erased the effects of her body. Living at home with her parents told only half the story.
“Don’t be shy,” prodded his aunt, after inviting him to diner. They sat down to pasta with broccoli rabe, sautéed in oil with onion and garlic. Breaded chicken cutlets were stacked on a flowery oval plate with a serving fork.
“Take two,” his aunt insisted.
His dad once taught his mom to cook this way but somehow the spaghetti always came out Japanese style. Sometimes it was rice noodles in tomato sauce, other times fettuccini with a white ginger sauce. There was nothing like having good old Italian spaghetti. As the meal came to a close, he looked at his watch and asked Anita if she would like to catch a movie, for old time’s sake.
“What’s playing?” she asked.
“ I don’t know,” he admitted. “Actually I rarely go to the movies anymore. We can call and see.”
“So we are being spontaneous!” she laughed. “That’s just like you, Francis.”
She carried herself, he thought, somewhere beyond vanity’s perimeter, as if she had found something to replace the all too usual fascination in one’s own looks. On the other hand this sounded like the apparent wisdom gleaned from years of isolation, a hermitess on an island, a prisoner in solitary confinement. A painfully earned wisdom!
“Actually it’s not like me,” he injected, realizing he had completely forgotten his eye problem.
“I could use a break,” she said.
“Amen,” added her mother.
At the foot of the stairs, Anita asked him if they should take her car.
“You’ve got a car?” he asked.
“You remember how much I hated driving! But it was taking me too long on Amtrak to go down to Princeton. So I finally gave in.” Seeing his expression, she added, “Sometimes I’ve got to discuss a paper with an author or publisher. And it’s more productive face-to-face, than by phone or e-mail.”
The car stood out the way she did, distinctively, a 15-year-old, maroon Volvo.
“Yeah, I love it,” she said, patting it. “I bought it up in Cambridge, when we were attending a genetics seminar.”
“I’m impressed,” he said. “Let’s head down to Queens College to that place on Kissena and see what old flicks are playing.”
“Sounds good.”
“Anita, I ran into this guy at the airport. He collects dolls.”
“How weird.”
“Yeah, it’s a little weird but I told him about your collection.”
“Mine?” she laughed as she turned onto the Grand Central.
“Yeah, he told me you might be sitting on a gold mine.”
“No,” she said, “I gave mine away.”
They parked the car and walked the half block to the Vintage Cinema where they sat in a half-filled theater, legs up, watching a double feature based upon a common theme: Dark Passage with Bogart, Bacall and Moorehead and Face/Off staring Travolta, Cage and Joan Allen. They bought popcorn with its excess of synthetic butter and two giant wax-coated cups of Coca Cola which the salesgirl called small. He put his arm over the back of her chair and sat that way for nearly a quarter of the film, until his arm fell asleep. During the highly charged moment when the Travolta character realizes he has donned the face of the man he hates, Francis turned to Anita and tried to kiss her. His hand was numb. His arm tingled silly, so he couldn’t hold her. When she saw him reaching toward her she blocked his motion with the popcorn box spilling half the contents on his lap.
“Please,” Anita whispered, “don‘t.”
What had come over him? His own cousin. Anita was practically his sister, the two of them inseparable at childhood until puberty intervened. He withdrew his arm awkwardly, unable to feel his fingers. His limp hand fell to his lap like a bird shot out of the sky. He wanted to shake it awake, but he was so embarrassed by his actions he was afraid of drawing more attention to himself.
“I’m sorry, ‘Nita, I don’t know why I did that.”
They drove home in silence.
“I’ll walk you to your door.”
“That’s okay, Francis, let me drop you off in front of your house. It’s not late.”
They turned onto 31st Avenue and as they topped the incline the Empire State building rose up like a rocket, brightly illuminated on the distant city skyline. It was so prominent he felt the guiding power of its light. She turned the corner and pulled up to the curb. His house stood near the corner next to a small lot enclosed by a chain-link fence. His father rented the lot to several Egyptians who parked their coffee and pastry trailers there. He stared out at the parked cars on the street and, without looking at her again, asked for her forgiveness.
“It was fun seeing you, Francis, after all these years. I’m flattered.”
He looked at her, not knowing what to say or do. Then she stuck out her hand and they shook hands lightly. She smiled at him. He opened the door and got out. As he turned to say goodbye once more, she was already pulling away.
At the end of the block the Volvo turned the corner and disappeared. The peace he had found in her presence, free of the gross distortions initiated in The Hall Of Mirrors, ebbed. As he turned toward the gate in front of his house, a car screeched to a stop, then sped west down the avenue. Something small and white wobbled across the road, then fell in the near lane. Several cars swerved around it. He ran over and found a pregnant cat. She lay on the asphalt, her chest heaving deeply. He saw the lights of approaching cars but was afraid to lift her. He ran back to the fence and grabbed a piece of scrap wood lying against it. Carefully he slid the wounded animal onto the board and dragged it to the side, just as another car passed. She was gasping heavily, trying to get up but no longer able. He touched her head, then gently stroked it, fearing he would hurt her. He didn’t know what to do. Take it to a vet? The teats on her gravid body were fully formed. She leaned her head back as if looking at him, her eyes reflecting the street lights, softening with dullness. She tried to move her hind legs, spasmodically, kicking the air, once, twice, then died. He carried it to the front door and carefully set it down on the pathway near the stoop, placing a garbage lid over it.
His father was asleep in his easy chair in front of the TV and his mother was sitting pensively at her usual place in the dining room.
“Estelle called.”
“Yeah,” he said.
The eyes of the white cat were glowing in the recesses of his mind.
“I saw Anita tonight,” he continued. “Aunt Rosa said she was worried. . .”
“That’s silly. Anita can take care of herself.”
“I guess she worries that she’s lonely.”
“Lonely,” his mother scoffed. “She’s had a scientist boyfriend in Princeton for many years now. They just haven’t married. She lives at home because of her father.”
“I didn’t know that,” he answered.
Death, he ruminated, was loss of vision. If there was an afterworld it drew on that something he had seen in Anita. It wasn’t based on visual standards, but on something she emanated. She must think him a complete asshole. Why didn’t she tell him? Then again it was his assumption she was unattached and deserving his pity. He decided he would bury the white cat in the morning.
How was it, he asked himself, staring into the circulating maelstrom where his face should have been, that he too was plagued by the distortions? Angrily, he washed his face without looking into the mirror. What a pleasure it had been looking at Anita, her features clear and distinct, free of the minute-by-minute changes that were shaping his own, pigment by pigment, pixel by pixel, darkening and brightening like some computer graphics program gone mad. Exhausted, he turned out the light. At least in the peaceful darkness the solid features of his face were free of the critical judgment of the eye. He was afraid he was going crazy.
In the twinkling of an eye he was in the flux, a part of a circular flow twisting into a single point of darkness. He thought of struggling but realized he wasn’t suffering any pain; he was enjoying himself, as he had on those rides at the fair, before his fateful visit to the Hall of Mirrors. Intellectually he wondered whether there was room for him in so narrow a point but no sooner had he thought this than he passed through. He found himself waking from no sleep since he hadn’t fallen asleep, amid an open-air lair of furry animals. Some of them were large, others small. Rolled into this mass of languid contentment were humans, their flesh like his, tantalizing. An arm appeared and then a foot. He sucked on someone’s toes like a baby on a nipple. His mother was somewhere near, he could feel her presence. Rather than find her he simply accepted her proximity. He felt the energy of the group. The group acted as one, moved as one. His mother belonged to everyone. She was everywhere, around all of them and around each of them personally. When he had arrived at the moment of climax, he and all the creatures of the world about him, he actually saw her, his own mother, his alone, her eyes, like great wells leading into subterranean chambers. He could see articulated, without hearing them, these words:
“When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty
There arises the recognition of ugliness.”
Upon the last word the spell was broken, he was heaped upon himself, among copies of himself, all entangled in some incestuous motion. And the furry creatures with whom he had been intimately associated were standing apart from him and his kind, with eyes of dumb fear. His own nakedness was hideous so he struggled to hide it. Everyone was embarrassed; everyone struggled to hide themselves. Out of the air he was able to draw gossamer fabric that turned opaque upon touching his skin. When he noticed the mirrored images of himself, his curiosity sharpened with strange pleasure. For the first time he saw some were males, others female. And each coveted what the others were hiding, what he had once taken for granted. What were they hiding? Did she have what he had or something more mysterious? When he shook himself he saw that his mother was no longer a presence larger than life but an ancient sage sitting in the bar at the airport. A linoleum floor had replaced the red earth.
“Francis, Francis.”
His mother was calling through the door.
“I thought you had already left for work. Do you know what time it is?”
“It’s my day off.”
He was confused.
“No,” she said, “it’s Tuesday.”
He got out of bed and found his bathrobe. A cool draft was blowing in through the open window, the first indication of summer’s departure. Even the way the light was striking the curtains was different. He opened the door, where his diminutive mother stood, braced for disaster.
“It’s okay mom. I overslept.”
“You are telling me something I didn’t know? I thought you had already left. Are you going to work?”
“Yes, don’t worry.”
“Estelle called.”
“Did you tell her I was home?”
“No, because I thought you were at work. But she didn’t believe me. What is happening?”
“Nothing, don’t worry.”
“What, you go out to see your cousin, the first time in many years and for the first time in many years you get up so late? Why do you keep blinking so much?”
“Mom, I’m not feeling well. My eyes hurt.”
He realized for the first time that his mother, who was still a beautiful woman, had not been affected by his epiphany in The Hall of Mirrors.
“I was right!” she cried, hands to her mouth.
“Nothing bad, Mom, but I think I’ll go downtown to the eye clinic.”
“Why?”
“My eyes hurt.”
“I knew it!”
“Mom, I think I have something in my eyes. That’s all.”
Before leaving he called work and asked to speak with Murphy, the intern.
“Hey,” answered Murphy, “they’re all asking about you, especially Estelle.”
“Yeah, I’m not feeling well. Listen, do you remember something in the Tao. . .”
“Hey, are you into that, too?”
“Not really, but I heard something about beauty and ugliness, from you maybe?”
“Maybe, sure sounds like the stuff. Hey, thanks for putting my book by my locker. Estelle told me you found it by the gate last week.”
“Yeah. . , well, I’m going to the doctor, so I’ll catch you later.”
It was already three in the afternoon by the time he arrived at the Eye, Ear And Nose Clinic on East 14th St. He showed his insurance card then filled out the questionnaire on the clip board. He was staring at the receptionist who was serving him. Her makeup swirled uniformly like a pinwheel powered by a breeze. It was hypnotic. The other receptionist behind the adjacent computer screen looked perfectly calm, her features restful to look upon. It would be his luck to get the beautiful one – of course he couldn’t be sure she was beautiful. He just assumed that since his epiphany in The Hall of Mirrors three nights ago it was only the beautiful people whose features spiraled like galaxies in space. Just what made them “beautiful” in the first place? She was looking over his history.
“So you’re here for a checkup?” she asked. “Or to check me out. You seem real interested.”
He looked away with embarrassment, while the other receptionist laughed.
“No,” he answered in a hoarse voice.
“Excuse me,” she persisted flirtatiously, trying to draw him in. “You don’t have to be shy.”
Her voice emanated from somewhere near the vortex of her facial disturbance. The disturbance reminded him of the satellite images of a hurricane, the awe-inspiring cyclones viewed from the perimeter of Earth’s atmosphere. He struggled with his fascination. This ever changing, all powerful weather pattern, appearing on her face, had become a serious distraction. He had to remind himself not to stare.
“No,” he repeated.
Unable to look her in the face, he held his hand to his eyebrows and looked down at the counter, doodling on a post-it pad lying there. He had no way of judging the affect of his apparent rudeness.
“Okay,” she added in a straightforward manner, no monkey business in her voice. “So what’s the problem?”
“. . . distortions, everything I see is distorted.”
“You mean blurry?”
“Not exactly. I mean distorted.”
She paused as she looked at something on her screen.
“I’m not sure your insurance covers distortions. For now just take a seat.”
“What? You mean I’m not covered? I’ll have to pay out-of-pocket, the co-payment won’t do it?”
“I’m not sure. I’m going to check on it. Please take a seat.”
As he took a seat he remembered the white cat. He walked into the hall and found a public phone.
“Yes,” his mother answered, “your father put it in the garbage.”
“It was pregnant.”
“It was dead.”
He returned to his seat. He had promised her a burial. He might as well have been driving the car that ran her over.
Most of the people in the clinic were retirees. In thirty years he too could sit here on any day he chose. For an hour he read magazines off the rack. Although the captions and texts were unaffected, the faces of the rich and beautiful were affected by the same strange physics initiated by The Hall of Mirrors. In the smallest pictures the faces appeared more like a printing glitch. In the full-page spreads, they looked like distorted tabloid shots. In one large facial shot advertising sunglasses continental shifts in ink around the thick eyebrows and dark mustache revealed a vortex disappearing into the nostrils of a famous actor. In a foldout for dungarees, the whirlpool of glossy pigment streamed down the face of a well-known model into her abundant cleavage partially hidden by a bikini top. It was as if they had all gone to the same beautician and found that the creams they used had become unstable at body temperature. Censorship was taking place on a cosmic level. Rather than the medieval fig leaf covering genitalia, a colorful vortex covered all fashionable faces. He decided he would browse later through a porno magazine to see if entire bodies were affected. Disgusted by his obvious need to follow the lives of the rich and famous, he was shuffling through the magazines with reckless abandonment when he came upon an art journal that had found its way into this heap of popular pulp. His first impression of a review of Francis Bacon, an English artist, was that he too was painting only the beautiful. However, the author’s wordy description contrasted sharply with this impression. The melting features were taking place in these works of art. The writer, in describing Bacon’s torment, had found the right words to describe Salvezza’s misery.
With relief an aide led him down a hall to a seat where an Asian nurse prepared her instruments. She joked with him. Unfortunately he couldn’t concentrate on the punch lines. Her features sank into a black hole, only to spew forth, no, to rupture from another area of the face, first from the ear, then from the eye, the circulating flesh growing outward again before the gravity of matter drew it round and down yet another vortex somewhere else on her face.
“Does the light bother you?”
“Sort of.”
“You didn’t stare into the sun or into the light of an acetylene torch?”
“Not really. It’s like my eyes burn but not really.”
She asked him to rest his head on a chin rest and look through the lens at a small green tree displayed on a picture inside. Then she asked him to look through an optical gadget with multiple lenses at a point of light somewhere ahead.
“What are you looking for?”
“Measuring your eyes. So what’s the trouble?”
Should he say “luminous matter is circling around a dark hungry hole where your face should be?”
“I. . . I seem to be having a problem focusing.”
“Well, just wait in this room, the doctor’ll be with you in a moment.”
A photograph of his eyeballs showed a slight swelling around the iris. So they wanted to test for glaucoma. On another chin rest he stared into a large box where little lights blinked on and off, like bursts of star light. In response to each burst he pressed a button to indicate he saw it.
Afterward she took him to a small cubicle and asked him to wait a moment. She placed his folder in a plastic file holder on the door then walked away. He was relieved to see her go, his eyes exhausted from the effort of trying to focus on her face. He prayed the ophthalmologist was hideous. Dr. Lenz opened the door with a flourish, one hand already pulling his file, the other disappearing beyond the door jam into a space apparently occupied by the Asian nurse, whose voice he could hear. Dr. Lenz was flirting. With a flourish he came in, rather proud of himself, a large smile on his homely face, a bulbous nose and skin with distinct pores like pin holes. He dressed dapperly, a bright orange tie against a light blue shirt. The white coat defined his professional status.
“OK, let’s see here, Mr. . ,” looking at the file, “Salvezza – that’s an Italian name. . .”
“Yes, but my mother is Japanese.”
“Ah, yes, well, let’s see what we find.”
Once again Francis rested his chin on a padded brace while the doctor swung an optical array of lenses in front of his eyes. He asked him to read the lines on a distant screen, first the larger letters followed by the smaller and finally the smallest. Then with rapidity he flipped one lens after another in and out of the provided slots and asked each time if this lens or that allowed him to see the line of random letters more clearly.
“Is this better or is this?”
“First.”
“This or this?”
“First.”
“This or this?”
“Second.”
“This or this?”
“First.”
And so on.
“You appear to have perfect vision, though I will look further with drops.”
“Drops?”
“To dilate the iris. Mild these days, nothing like the old days when you walked out half blind for part of a day. Betty tells me you are suffering from distortions.”
“Yeah.”
The doctor swung yet another optical machine before him and asked him to stare at the pencil he was holding up.
“Everything seems in good shape. What is distorted?”
“I. . . I. . . it’s hard to describe.”
“You see the letters on the wall clearly enough, right?”
“Yeah.”
“Look at my finger, is it blurry?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. . . I see, I mean only things that are beautiful are distorted.”
Even Dr. Lenz paused a moment considering this.
“Like flowers?”
“No, like faces, mainly faces.”
“Ok, what does my face look like?”
Oh my god, Francis panicked. What was he to tell him? Dr. Lenz your face is unaffected. You are ugly.
“Your face, well your face is swirling, as if the pigments of color have run, the way paint runs when laid too thickly on a wall.”
Dr. Lenz was pleased. He smiled grandly as he sat back to ponder this.
“This is quite unusual. It could be a problem with the rod and cones. The tips of these are made up of a layer of cells which capture an image and deliver it to the brain for interpretation. In that instant they are destroyed and replaced by the next layer of cells which produces the next image and so on, much the way the old movie reels operated, each frame carried rapidly before the light creating a fluid image of motion. Perhaps these rods and cones are misfiring, for lack of a better word. . . Does the light bother you?”
“Yeah, a little. I mean, when I am in a dark room, I can’t see anything so my eyes aren’t playing tricks on me. I mean I can touch things and they feel fine. It’s only when I look at them.”
“Did you stumble and fall, bang your head, anything like that?”
“No.”
“Despite this blurriness you are still able to recognize people?”
“Yeah, I recognize the blobs, I mean I know who they are.”
“I am going to give you these sun glasses. Wear them. They aren’t prescription, that’s not your problem, but they will allow your eyes to rest. Let’s see how these help your eyes adjust. If there isn’t any improvement, we’ll see you in a week, how’s that?”
“That’s great, great. . . Thank you, doctor.”
Wearing his glasses, Francis stopped at the desk. The receptionist he had spoken with earlier was talking on the phone.
“Honey, I have to go,” she said, looking up, “yeah, perfect, see you then.”
She hung up the receiver and looked at Francis. Her face had become a dark spot, like the blackened out face in the old Police Gazettes. The glasses were effective.
“Mr. Salvezza, the insurance will pay. Ten dollars.”

THE REFLECTIONS OF THE FROG PRINCE IN THE HALL OF MIRRORS, PART II

A cool, dry air mass had settled into the region. They all felt comfortable in the early hours of Saturday morning, as Francis drove Estelle’s bright red, Honda Accord upstate for a late-summer outing at a county fair. The windows were down. Dappled shadows swept casually over them. Estelle sat beside him and miracle of miracles, her kids reclined in the back seat.
Estelle knew that before she started dating him, he had slept with other women working at the terminal, and always at their behest. She also had the foresight to fathom the inertia which propelled him. As long as she kept him occupied he was hers. Some women had assumed his gentlemanly concerns a sign of their success, and had failed to hold him. Others, especially the stewardesses, had considered his absentmindedness a sign of insolence. Ambivalence, perhaps, but certainly not insolence. That much Estelle knew. She knew he was not immune to beauty nor to the wily ways of her sex. If a woman passed wearing the right skirt he noticed. With her seductive ploys Estelle generated the gravitational field that kept him in orbit around her. A momentary lapse, like paying too much attention to her kids, and he would simply drift off into space until another body of greater power captured him. Perhaps one day Mr. Right would come by. He might not have the beauty of Francis, nor his subtle ways in bed. But Mr. Right would be driven by a need for permanence. Until yesterday, when she met the strange man talking to Francis in The Leap For Light, she never thought Francis had an interest in children.
“Murphy was telling me if we got there early enough we’d be able to park close to the admission gate, otherwise we have to walk.”
“Walking is ok.”
“Not with the kids,” she said.
In the rear view mirror he saw Jose, six years old, looking sleepily out one window and Cecelia, four years older, staring out another.
“Do you think they like me?”
“Do you guys like Francis?”
“Oh Jesus, what are they supposed to say?”
“Yeah,” came a dispassionate chorus.
“That guy with the Barbie sure gave me the once over,” she teased. “What’s he into, S&M?”
“What’s S&M, mama?” asked Cecelia, without appearing interested.
“Oh, Dios mio, tengas las orejas grandes, mi hija. S&M son dulce y lo mismo M&M.”
He looked over at her. She winked at him, her eye brows raised, her lips pursed. At work she could maintain a prosaic appearance of all business. Then by simply unfastening an extra button on her blouse she unleashed the mischievous thoughts of male travelers without, of course revealing anything. The unfastened buttons only came into play when she chose to arch her back or breathe in a certain way. When they were alone she knew how to lead him through the surface of the everyday appearances into the tangled layers of undergarments the likes of which he had never known before Estelle. Each layer lured him closer to the prize, each strap of lace, each string of jewelry vortexed him deeper into a region where even the prize itself, once acquired, left him yearning for still more.
It’s no wonder that for the last two years, Stell’s kids lived only on a theoretical plane in his consciousness. Sitting on her bed, he never wondered why her kids were never at home. The brown teddy bear or the little kitchen set which he played with absently while waiting for Estelle to emerge from the bathroom were evidence of their existence. Sometimes he wondered what they looked like? Did they look like their mother? That they might look like their father soured his interest – their father, after all, had created something out of the relationship. And what did Stell expect of Francis? She would wrap her arms around him and talk about how she liked it, and was he hungry and did he like her new curtains and did he think she should cut her hair and what was he thinking about – she always wanted to know that. Sometimes he didn’t know what he was thinking, other times, more recently, he recalled his own childhood days, his own brothers and sisters, all with families of their own now. He seemed to watch himself, an object making love to Estelle. He could have been watching a movie. Then the following day he always returned home where he lived with his mother and father. It all amounted to nothing.
As soon as they came around a hill the fair grounds loomed ahead like an enchanted parkland, punctuated by pinnacled tents. The kids became excited as soon as they saw the giant Ferris wheel which looked as if it had rolled into the valley from one of the surrounding hills. A teenage car attendant standing in a large field pointed them to a parking place. At a kiosk a heavyset man jovially admitted them as one happy family. Estelle sidled close to Francis, squeezing his arm.
“My young husband,” she whispered in his ear, gently biting it.
“Jesus, Stell,” he cried pulling away. She laughed.
The scent of farm animals intensified. Inside the first 4H Club tent they found pens with enormous pigs consuming hay from opened bales. The strong smell of urine forced Cecelia back out to her mother. Jose’s curiosity drove him on behind Francis. The truculent hogs charged the pen walls with feigned aggression. For Estelle and Cecelia, the chicken house, with its varieties of colorful hens, was the only interesting animal exhibit. She described the chicken coop on her father’s farm in Puerto Rico.
“I didn’t know your father had a farm,” asked Francis surprised.
“Everybody has chickens.”
“But a farm?”
“You don’t have to have a farm to have chickens.”
“But you just said. . .”
“Don’t take me so literally. It’s not like it is up here. Besides to these kids a backyard is like a farm. My god!”
Hunger and thirst led them into a new region where small, jerry-rigged booths displaying handmade crafts formed a narrow lane. In front of the booths sat the proprietors in nylon-webbed, aluminum folding chairs. A patrolling golf cart squeezed through carrying officials of the fair. The proximity of so much unusual merchandise at such apparent give-away prices was more than Estelle could resist. Francis and the kids waited as she bought one irresistible object after another for one or another of her aunts and uncles and of course for her mother. Finally Francis and the kids complained. They were hot and starving. So with bags full of candles and macramé plant holders, she reluctantly followed them.
The lane widened into a pavilion of games. The barkers harangued them to play. By the time they found their way out, no one was smiling. Another area opened up, this one enormous, a panoply of rides punctuated by the Ferris wheel. The kids nearly fainted with anticipation. Only the promise of return helped quiet them. At last, at the far end of the fairground, they came to the eating booths. With the exception of the Italian sausage place, these were nothing more than the usual fast foods Francis and Estelle could find at the airport.
“Hay caramba! They don’t even have Chinese or Spanish cooking!” said Estelle glumly. “Eating is like everything,” she added.
The kids sat down at a grease-stained bench. They demanded hotdogs with mustard and large cokes. Francis found a tray and bought sausage heroes and beers for Estelle and him and hotdogs and cokes for the kids. They looked down with disdain at the cup of sauerkraut he also brought.
“Now, what do you say, guys?” Estelle commanded.
“Thank you” was their lukewarm response.
As he ate Francis watched the vigorous activity at the Port-a-potties along the opposite fence.
The beer had the effect of dropping an iron anvil on his head. All he wanted to do was lay down and sleep. But the kids, only an hour earlier showing signs of total collapse, had found new energy and wanted to be off to the rides. Estelle, downing the last of her beer, decided to return to the craft area for a last look. Directing her kids to stay with Francis until she returned, she entrusted her bags of stuff to his care. The kids, especially Cecelia, did not like this idea but with a florid goodbye her mother disappeared around the corner of the corn dog stand. Fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes passed. At first the kids sat patiently at the table. The sun beat down. The flies buzzed. Then Jose, followed by Cecelia, began circling around the table. Jose found a stick and began hitting the ground dispassionately. Inevitably Cecelia wanted to ‘borrow’ it and try something.
“Try what?” asked Jose.
“Something,” she reiterated.
And so on, until they were arguing over who knew the most about what. It was Cecilia, now turning to Francis, his eyes in deep recession beneath his seashell eyelids, who finally questioned the purpose of coming to a stupid fair if all they were going to do was to sit for a hundred years waiting for their mother.
“Hasn’t been a hundred years, Cecilia. Maybe half an hour at the most.”
“No, it’s been years. Besides how would you know? You don’t even carry a watch.”
“That’s true.”
“Besides you are not my daddy.”
“I know that.”
“So you can’t tell me what to do.”
“I didn’t. Your momma did.”
“That was years and years ago.”
Forty-five minutes later and even Francis had lost his patience. Struggling against the effects of beer and heat he rose to go. Now Cecelia sat down, didn’t want to go.
“What about the bumper cars?” asked Jose continuing to circle the table.
This appealed to Francis.
“No,” said Cecelia. “You promised the Ferris wheel. Besides, then we can see the whole world and probably find Mama.”
Francis didn’t recall the promise.
“How about a compromise,” he offered. “Let’s wait for the rides until your mother returns.”
“No,” came an adamant voice from Jose, who had turned to face Francis with a disappointed but defiant face.
“I don’t mean we just sit here. We do games. That way we go far enough to see if your mother is on her way.”
They agreed. Feeling like a father, he guided Jose with a hand on his shoulder through the beckoning of the barkers. While Jose tried throwing pennies into a plastic dish floating in a plastic wading pool Cecelia stood to the side refusing to participate. Hoping to win Jose the large stuffed koala bear being offered as a prize, Francis tried. To his embarrassment he found the apparently easy-looking task impossible. They left the booth with Jose disappointed, Francis on the verge of fuming and Cecelia composing a look of “I told you so.” She did try the rifles at the shooting gallery, taking careful aim at the passing ducks on the conveyor belt on the far wall. When she succeeded in whacking the first three ducks in a session that took her over eight minutes of concentration, she earned the admiration of her brother as well as three stuffed chipmunks which she shared with him. Francis dared not try since Cecelia had proven herself a crack shot. Still no sign of Estelle.
“What about the Merry-Go-Round,” he suggested.
“For babies,” she retorted.
“Maybe your little brother would like to try.”
“He thinks you are a baby.”
“I am not!”
Francis shrugged. “Okay, forget it.”
“Only if Cissy goes with me,” countered Jose.
“You heard her, she thinks it’s for babies.”
“It’s not.”
“I know that, but she thinks so.”
“Come on,” pleaded José.
“I can’t. Someone has to watch for your mother,” added Francis holding up Estelle’s bags of goods.
Cecelia relented and they both sat in the saddles of galloping, wild stallions. Once the giant organ intoned the beginning of the ride, Cecelia, despite feigned indifference, was just as rapt as Jose with his unadulterated grin.
“Oh my god,” cried Estelle, “they’re having a ball.”
“Where have you been?” was Francis’s exasperated response.
“Shopping. I bought all kinds of little things for them, Christmas gifts and one or two little surprises for you,” she added with her lips suddenly parted in a pout as if he had hurt her feelings after all her hard endeavors for the sake of the family.
“For two hours! Here’s your stuff.”
“I also took the packages to the car and locked them in the trunk,” she added.
When the ride ended the kids ran to their mother, though only Jose hugged her.
“So what’s Uncle Francis…”
“I’m not their uncle?”
“Just this time…”
“He’s not our uncle,” emphasized Cecelia.
Later he and José sat in a swinging two-seater of the Ferris wheel perched high above the fairground as the sun was setting behind the Catskills. Their seat rocked back and forth in giddy little arcs. He realized he had been listening to the rattling staccato notes of the cicadas all afternoon. Now that the sun was setting their rapid outbursts of energetic wooing grew more sporadic. Below them Estelle and Cecelia sat, calling up to them. After the last vacancies had been filled, the ride lurched into motion. They shot up to the top where they could see the surrounding world in a haze of purple. The hills stretched toward eternity. As they crested the peak in a weightless moment, their bodies, borne upward seemed no longer tethered to the Earth. Then they dropped abruptly. The earth, reasserting its rule, brought them down with dizzying effect. Jose kept his mouth and eyes shut during the descent. Above them they could hear the girls scream. On the third round the lights on the wheel went on, effectively shutting out the world beyond in its own brightness. They spun in a world of their own, a world of light.
Back on the ground, they found groups of young people loitering about, most of them separated into gender groups. Boys hung languidly over the safety railings smoking cigarettes with caps perched backwards and pants hanging like deflated balloons from their hips. The girls moved quickly, like shimmering moths evading predators between the lit circles beneath lamp posts. An invisible current of interest radiated between the groups. Amid these charged gestures older couples materialized out of the dark air, the men with pony tails and cowboy hats, women in granny dresses. Young kids gathered around the rides, their parents laughing and joking while they waited in line. Over the PA someone announced the arrival of a well-known local band at the bandstand.
“What bandstand?” asked Cecelia.
Neither Francis and Estelle knew nor cared as they debated whether they should be going since the kids were sure to collapse soon. The evening air had cooled. The kids resisted, despite their exhaustion. They wearily passed the Moonwalk and found themselves in an isolated area of immense quiet in front of an unfamiliar amusement stand bearing the sign: The Hall of Mirrors. Francis couldn’t understand how they had missed this place. This mattered little to Estelle who wanted to show the kids the freaky affects of the funny mirrors. Since no one was in the ticket booth Estelle left their stubs on the wooden panel beneath the sales grill. Inside, the corners were illuminated by bare light bulbs that burst against the reflections of the visitors. Francis was startled to see his lovely Estelle transformed into a woman of gigantic proportions; then she was a woman as narrow as a high school teen plagued by anorexia. His eyes ricocheted from the mirrored reproductions to their source . Estelle laughed. She was hamming it up for the kids, who in turn mimicked her, hanging their arms down in simian fashion. They stretched their lips to absurd widths but never as wide as Estelle’s who stretched hers with her fingers reminding Francis of a stone carving of a gorgon he had seen on a Greek isles travel poster. His own distorted figure troubled him. He was accustomed to his face. So he was shocked by the sudden contortions into which his face erupted. Lumps grew out of his eye brows while his mouth sank into itself with self-consuming fury. Estelle laughed at him, her teeth transformed into ferocious daggers which curled and disappeared into her face leaving her without a nose: the giant eyes of an insect resting on mandibles of flesh.
The silence collapsed. A forest of tree toads erupted into strident love song. The din intensified, grew deafening. Francis wanted to stop his ears, close his eyes. His mouth was dry; he could barely swallow, and his face was wet. Then the violin-like chords emanating from beyond the pale, morphed into the jagged edges of guitar chords. They cut through the stale air inside the mirrored hall. Somewhere a band was tuning up. After a moment the cacophony rolled into the Cream’s interpretation of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads. Estelle began dancing in front of the mirrors. Her normally tight and perfectly rounded ass moved from side to side with ever increasing intensity, became suddenly as huge as a mountain then just as suddenly cooled down like a massive star sinking into oblivion. The kids emulated their mother, all three moving about in the hall of mirrors like a chorus of a thousand monkeys. With every step they morphed into new creatures, from one instar to the next. His head was pounding, his stomach churning like a washing machine. Was it the sausages, he wondered? Estelle had eaten them too. As he staggered out of The Hall of Mirrors, the Escaleras followed, dancing like a drunken party. For Estelle, liberated of her appearance, all was levity. The kids perhaps were more amused by their mother’s reaction than their own alterations. But inside Francis felt truly changed.
From the rear door of The Hall of Mirrors they looked down a long avenue of booths serving drinks and ice cream. People were walking down the avenue toward a wall of bleachers which apparently surrounded a stage from which the music was emanating. Estelle and her kids fell under the music’s spell. They were carried along without any decisive yea or nay toward the center of the fairgrounds, drawn like iron filings to the magnetic core of the well-lit stage. Francis followed, his eyes aching as if he had been staring at the sun. He was afraid he would lose complete control and throw up at any moment. Hundreds of teenagers had gathered by the bleachers. Where had they all come from? Kids just past puberty, the guys with their necklaces and cigarettes, the girls in their tight pants and low-cut tops, everyone flirting. Beneath the bleachers couples were making out.
As they were entering the arena the band finished Crossroads, letting it fall apart into discord. Out of its ruined notes rose up a wailing sound, the lead singer cursing the Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers. This piece carried Francis and Estelle and the kids to a high seat in the bleachers. Estelle was telling Francis she used to dislike the white boys’ music, preferring the horns and cymbals of Latino music, but since she had a white half-breed Asian lover she had to admit she liked the old music too. The Allman song also died in discord. For a moment all was silent. Then came the soft first notes of guitar and flute that formed itself into a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven. He knew this song. He remembered his older sisters playing the scratchy LP on the family record player after school. Their mother always closed the doors to the kitchen, shaking her head in disapproval. Listening to Led Zeppelin had made him a respectable character in grade school. He even knew the words. Estelle didn’t know the piece but she was enjoying herself. The Page and Plant lyrics illustrated the simple mysteries of doing what is right. Rung by rung the melodies carried the audience up. Who could fail to follow? It appeared as if time had come to a halt, some planetary zenith reached. The summer stage seemed poised at any moment to dissolve into the warm night air, made of stuff like dreams. At any moment he would find himself alone in the field among the tree toads, driven by the instinctual need to procreate. The toads, like the cicadas, belonged here. So did all the young people, driven by their own needs, they belonged. But he didn’t. He and Estelle had been together too long. He could see the air of excitement had been ground down by their routine encounters. Stell used ploys to keep him interested. He didn’t deny it, he liked the foreplay, her use of lingerie. He stayed for lack of anything better to do. He liked her kids, liked the feeling of being a family man, but none of it was his.
When the final chord was reached, there was clapping in front of the stage where groupies had gathered to support their band. After a pause, a brisk I Got You Babe, reached deep into his stasis with its sense of irony. Estelle put her arms around him. He could barely see her face.
“Hey, lover boy, what is the problema?”
“Nothing, nothing,” he said shortly.
He carried little Jose while Cecelia quietly followed holding her mother’s hand. The music of the previous hour was consumed by the incessant sound of the tree toads beyond the pale. Unaided by electric amplification, it had been there all along, oblivious to human concerns.

THE REFLECTIONS OF THE FROG PRINCE IN THE HALL OF MIRRORS, PART I

One Friday morning in the North Star terminal at New York’s La Guardia airport a young boarding agent with high cheekbones and broad, slightly inclined eyes with eyelids as smooth as worn seashells, entered the men’s room. Above the urinal in front of him he read the label listing the manufacturer’s name and the urinal’s serial number. Above that he saw a bronze memorial plaque:
The Family of Salvezza, in Loving Memory of Their Son, Francis Salvezza.
No, make that in bold letters:
FRANCIS SALVEZZA
Who Gave His Life That Others Might Fly!
Looking at the other urinals, he saw a bronze plaque above each of them, each in loving memory of someone who had served at La Guardia. For the stalls he saw more elaborate plaques fixed on the metal doors, like those found on crypts providing the necessary space for longer testimonies. It was a sad day, he thought, as he dried his hands under the automatic hand-drier, when they did away with the employees’ suggestion box. Management could have benefited from this unique fund-raising avenue.
This bathroom inspiration gave him and his co-workers at the boarding gate hours of entertainment. That is, before Murphy, the college intern, drove the ribald discussions onto the rocks with a deep yearning to reveal all he had learned the day before in his Comparative Eastern Religions course. The professor, an ex-hippy leftist according to Murphy, came down hard against Lao Tzu for his denunciations of knowledge. Despite Murphy’s rhetoric, Francis was able to keep alive his delight in his own bawdy fund-raising campaign. It was one of his most original ideas since graduating from high school, fourteen years ago.
On entering The Leap For Light, he took a seat at the empty bar. He stared out the big window at the ground crews working beneath the airplanes, then up at the TV with its picture perfect newscasters and pulsating advertisements. He ordered a burger with fries. He doodled on a napkin, his head resting in his hand. He watched the dark clouds building up over the Bronx, while sketching drolleries along the napkin’s edge. Within cloud-like filaments he enclosed the words of his own bathroom memorial. In sixth grade, he confessed to his teacher, Sister Mary Ursula, his fascination in the turbulent motions of the clouds. Unfortunately, his teachers and his parents had lacked the key to the door separating his dreams from their functional application. The curling smoke, rising from his father’s cigarette as it intersected the bars of light under the lamp by his lounge chair, provided Francis ample opportunity to study air flows; but this misunderstood discipline drove his old man crazy. That is until the old man, who at that time was driving a cab out of the airports, found his son a job with an upstart airline.
When his order arrived he looked up and saw a large man with a smoothly shaved head sitting one stool down from him. Otherwise the bar was empty. The anchor woman on TV, seated in front of an ocular blue, was looking down on Francis. Somewhere on the vast stage where important news was being made, his own insignificance was being demonstrated as a by-product; people of power were making lots of money, buying big homes they didn’t need while he, Francis Salvezza, continued drifting like the smoke from his father’s cigarettes, inconsequentially. She was describing an Amnesty International case in Pakistan: a woman raped by men as punishment for a sexual crime her young male cousin had committed. The anchor woman had that beautiful, but made for business, look. A mauve jacket with wide lapels and a white blouse with a deeply cut V-neck provided qualities both alluring and managerial. He imagined his girlfriend Estelle Escalera wearing that jacket. It would fit her perfectly. When he glanced over, he noticed that the big guy was holding a Barbie Doll, like a baton, tapping the counter as he scanned the menu. Everything else about the clean-shaven man seemed comprehensible, light brown work boots, jeans, a plaid short sleeve work shirt with a gold neck chain. When the stranger looked up, Francis looked down with feigned interest at his uneaten burger. The man, who knew the bartender’s name, ordered the usual, plus a Virgin Mary.
Francis continued staring at the burger. To look out the window seemed to spotlight his deception. When the man’s drink arrived Francis saw him out of the side of his eye set his doll down on the counter. The man sipped his tomato juice. Francis, who hadn’t swallowed for a whole minute, took the opportunity to gulp down the mounting saliva.
“What do you see there, man? God forbid, not a cockroach, not here in The Light?”
“The Light?” asked Francis ruefully, his face bright red with embarrassment.
“Short for The Leap, long name, you know?”
The man’s order of bacon and eggs came and he set to with relish. After a minute or two he looked up at Francis again.
“Well?”
“Well what?”
“You were staring like that bun is alive. I’d like to know if it was alive. . , you know, since I am a regular here.”
“Me too, I’m a regular here.”
“So?”
“No, I was just thinking about things, just thinking. My girlfriend says I daydream too much, so there you go. No cockroaches.”
Francis looked out toward the runways but he could hear the stranger chomping on the toast. The mounting clouds had taken on the ominous look of an approaching wall. What would a man be doing with a doll?
“Looks like a thunderstorm,” the man said. “It’s too damn humid. I hope we’re in for a cool spell.”
Francis agreed without looking away from the window.
“You work here, I mean with the North Star jacket and all?”
Francis looked back and found the man efficiently wiping the egg yolk with the last morsel of toast.
“Yeah, at the boarding gates.”
“Yeah, North Star’s a good outfit, at least that is what I hear down in loading. Good benefits. Like travel, right?”
“It’s just a job. I live in East Elmhurst, so the commute is short. What about you?”
“Teamster. . . Do you take advantage of the opportunities and travel?”
“I suppose.
For a moment they sat looking up at the anchor woman in the Blue Eye. Then the teamster laid out a couple of bills, grabbed his check and was lifting his Barbie when he saw Francis covertly staring at the doll. He sat back down.
“This is Barbie.”
“I know that. My cousin has a closet full of Barbies.”
He thought of Anita, and wasn’t sure if she still had a closet full. In elementary school, she had possessed a girlish beauty. But with puberty her trusted features struggled against each other in a civil war for dominance. Acne pitted her face like a 19th century scourge, leaving her pockmarked. Her friends abandoned her. His popularity grew. But he offered her no helping hand. Then fate dealt her one final blow: despite her initial efforts at fasting, her weight shifted titanically beyond her control. He hadn’t seen her since graduation, even though, like him, she still lived with her parents just a few blocks from his house.
“Is she a collector?” the man asked.
“Oh, so you’re a collector.”
“No man, this is more like the realization of an idea – a trophy if you will, commemorating that realization.”
The anchor woman was now onto national news. Her blue background had become the gray waters of the Mississippi river overflowing its boundaries…
“Does your cousin belong to a club?”
“I don’t think so. Well, it was nice …”
This time Francis was preparing to leave.
“It’s all about The Mould.”
Francis looked down at the bread roll. He realized he still hadn’t started his hamburger and still didn’t possess a check.
“I called Her The Nameless One. I didn’t know what else to call Her. And then I started looking for a name I could call her…”
“Call who?”
The fries were cold and the burger stiff, the roll soggy from the catsup.
“The perfect woman.”
The idea of the perfect woman struck Francis, the cold burger wedged between his teeth. His mother had often called him perfect looking. “You are so handsome, so fine looking, like Kennedy,” she would say in a tone of admonition. “But without college you will be without success.”
“Perfect woman?” Francis repeated.
“Exactly. The one who is perfectly suited to attract us. She fits the mould. She’s part of the standard. I finally found her on 42nd Street, down by 8th Avenue. Barbie, understand?”
Francis didn’t understand but he nodded, his mouth full, his eyes transfixed by the stranger’s intensity. He remembered the old 42nd Street, the marquees of the porno theaters bearing funny titles, the white-washed windows of the magazine shops, the dingy, grey buildings, and the aimless people collecting on the corners near the overflowing trash baskets.
“I was dreaming about her without even knowing who I was dreaming about. You understand? I’m talking wet dreams.”
Fatally the conversation had taken a downward turn. He still didn’t have his check, and he had taken but two bites of his repulsive burger.
“The first mould was made in 1959. This one!”
With pride the stranger raised the doll up in the air.
“Actually it’s a replica commemorating the original. Originals can go for seven to nine thousand dollars. Your cousin may be sitting on a gold mine. But …”
At the mention of his cousin Francis found himself less afraid.
“In one moment a woman can be carrying the standard, in the next she’s lost it. Is it something she did or something you did?”
The bartender reappeared. He asked Francis if there was something wrong with the burger. Francis, with embarrassment, began eating it again. The stranger ordered another Virgin Mary.
“What’s your name?”
“Francis.”
“Interesting. Mine’s Tony. . . you know, St. Francis embraced what he feared.”
The bartender set the tomato juice on a napkin.
“So Francis, are you Chinese?”
“My mother’s Japanese, my father Italian. He met her in Yokohama after the war.”
Tony looked at Francis and smiled.
“She must be a beautiful woman.”
Francis looked down at his burger. Beauty and diplomacy were intricately connected for his mother, who met his father, Frank Salvezza, in a brothel, and discovered in this roughly handsome, burly man a means of escaping defeat. Once stateside his father turned out to be no more than a common man, hardly one of the victors, without a job, soon a cab driver. Still she never failed to display her gratitude. On her marriage day she dropped forever, her birth name, Asagao and became Eileen Salvezza. In the eyes of a former prostitute, beauty was no idle concept.
“. . . had paid more attention to, they would have avoided centuries of misery.”
“I didn’t hear what you said,” blurted Francis, startled from his reverie.
“I said the Chinese bound the feet of their women, made them doll-like, useless. . . Once you have a standard of beauty, you automatically create a standard of the ugly. One way or the other, the Goddess rules, no matter which sex reacts negatively. Check out the Moslems, half the world covering their women with veils out of fear of seeing Her.”
“Maybe the Moslem tradition of hiding the women behind veils and robes at least gives women an equal chance at finding a partner.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Tony.
He took out a small black notebook from his back pocket, from it pulled out a pen and wrote something down.
“I’m going to look into that,” he said putting the notebook away.
“Francis! Where’ve you been?”
A striking woman, in her mid-thirties, with long black hair, bright red lips and exotic gold ear pendants walked briskly up to them. Her heels clicked with the rapid cicada surety of someone in a tight skirt.
“Tony, this is Estelle,” said Francis bashfully. “She’s my boss.”
She swung her arm in around his arm and came to rest against his side. Like Francis she was wearing the company’s navy-blue blazer with the North Star emblem on the breast pocket.
“Estelle, this is Tony. He’s a regular on the delivery runs to the loading docks.”
Tony held out his hand and shook hers.
“Nice to met you, Estelle,” he smiled. He looked for his check again. “You guys are lucky the company provides a uniform.”
Francis laughed as Estelle pulled at him playfully.
“She hates the uniform.”
“He can wear his jacket off-the-rack, and still, look good. These uniforms aren’t made to fit women. More like wearing a box!”
“Well, I think you look pretty good in yours,” said Tony with a smile.
“Ai! This man knows how to say the right thing. You wouldn’t believe what I must spend of my small paycheck to take in the jacket!”
“It pays off,” added Tony, grabbing the doll as he picked up the check.
“A Barbie!”
“I was telling Francis she’s still popular.”
“I love her.”
“She’s a remake of the ’59 classic that initiated the whole Barbie line.”
“Can I hold her?”
She studied the details with intense interest.
“I just love the eyes. Oh, the liner makes her look like she means business. You have a daughter?” she asked, returning the doll.
“Three!”
“You’re surrounded,” laughed Estelle.
“Actually they’re all out of the house now. It’s just my wife and me,” said the stranger as he paid.
“A house full of kids must really be something,” added Francis wistfully. “I was the last kid born and my brothers and sister were much older than me.”
Estelle looked at him with surprise. Tony was turning to leave when he touched Francis on both shoulders with his doll as if conferring a blessing.
“Here’s to cooler weather.”

THE ANATOMY OF A SAINT

Today a president is being impeached because of You. He could have invaded a nation with mercenaries, lied about the reasons and gotten away with it. But as soon as You had him by the balls, he was finished, a guilty man, gripping his bible in apology before a gossip hungry nation. The Goddess rules.
Some say You’ve been reborn out of the blue desktops of the computer, an Aphrodite of the internet. Forget about the old guys jacking off on magazines, the young men are hooked. And the young women have thrown all caution to the wind, using every device You conceived to turn us on. Among all ages the market for erection pills has swollen and pornography has risen to nearly respectable levels. You still rule. But as I look into your eyes I ask You, for how long?

My wife, Beatrice and I live on the eighth-floor of a once elegant building on the north corner of 158th Street and Morgan in New York City. Our three daughters now have homes of their own but at the time Agatha, the youngest, was still living here. One morning I woke from a dream in a sweat. The blinds were down but the bedroom was already bright. Up on Broadway trucks were grinding to a halt at the stoplight. In a panic I reached for the phone. I wanted to confirm the day’s deliveries with the dispatcher at Blue Freight. I’m a teamster with a pension. I had a responsibility.
Now I’m no fool. I went to college, if for a short time. I studied philosophy with a neo-Platonist. And in those realms where philosophers have sought evidence of either the personal or the archetypal, I became aware, again, both physically and mentally of a female image whose face I couldn’t distinguish, but whose figure and apparel I certainly and unmistakably knew. At forty-five I’d known Her longer than Beatrice, who was asleep beside me. I didn’t know Her name and Beatrice knew nothing of Her, even though for years Bea had been Her embodiment, instinctively employing many of Her attributes to woo me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Until recently lust and love had been one.
My wife teaches English in junior high school. Her work with adolescents is lauded by parents and faculty alike. Her interest in literature runs deep. Her favorite literary hero is not a character out of Jane Austen, but Dimitri Karamazov. As for film, any movie issued after 1975, flounders in a pyrotechnical decadence of sex and violence. Unlike my parents, who knew nothing of Doctor Spock, Bea’s parents had strictly followed the doctor’s parental guides. As an undergraduate at Hunter she was reading Piaget and Erickson. She is as beautiful today as the day I first met her. But I’d become aware of two entities when we made love. One was Bea, the other this Goddess. If Bea didn’t spend time coaxing me into life by applying the blatant attributes of the goddess, attributes, which Bea has come to believe are needless, often comical, I fell victim to Bea’s more commercial rival.
“Oh my god,” she said, just then, sleepily, “you are ready to go . . ..”
Then I recalled it was Good Friday. I didn’t have to go to work.
She rolled over and took hold of me while I gently stroked her hair. The paragon moved off. I realize now the Goddess never cared one way or the other if I made love with Beatrice, as long as she was in my mind’s eye. But I was sure Bea would care if she knew about the initiating powers of this Nameless One. I held onto her. In the warm spring air, shot through with the ever-brightening light of the coming equinox, I sensed the goddess flitting in the wings, like Circe in Ovid’s tales of transformation. Although Beatrice was happy, my own feelings of accomplishment were marred. Had I known where I was going from the very beginning, and I mean the very beginning back at the woodpile, I would have fought stubbornly. But fought stubbornly against whom? Nature?
Thirty-four years ago I was still a child when the Nameless One entered my dreams in the form of rain. The cells of my sleeping body filled with the lancet-like explosions of Her enigmatic force. Later She was the sea, enveloping me as I lay on a colorless beach. With Her liquid embrace I melted into the greater world, its arteries and currents always promising new adventures.
It was not until my friend Thomas Vellum and I discovered the stack of damp magazines behind the neighbor’s woodpile that She revealed Herself in Her more familiar earthly forms. We had been rooting about in the litter of the adjoining woods looking for the early appearance of skunk cabbages. Even on the coolest days of April, the warm, conical temples draw in early spawned flies to their alluring statuary. Now you may question whether a nearly naked woman lying on a bed of pink nylon, circa 1963, is anything but earthly; certainly She lacks the purity of water, but to us She was earthly and pure.
The magazines had suffered from the elements. They were on the verge of becoming part of the forest debris that pushes verdant landscapes into maturity. We removed them from the process of decay and consigned them to a sacred wooden chest we kept in a small fort nearby. Our fort lay on the cliffside overlooking a small harbor on the north shore of Long Island –West Egg, if you will. It was partially buried within the roots of an enormous locust tree. In this hollowed-out area, which looked out on the rock strewn shore, we studied our newly found cache as if they were ancient Celtic documents. Where the pages were matted together, we carefully and with the most intense delicacy separated page from page. Such astute care would have shocked our mothers, who were used to us wreaking havoc wherever we set foot. Not in their wildest dreams would they have imagined their twelve-year-olds manifesting the traits of archaeologists. Like archaeologists we sought answers to age-old questions.
Some of the pages had become translucent, the images on one side merging with those on the other, mutant palimpsests that contorted the natural world. On the other hand even the straight-forward images of women with enormous breasts as firm as the bark bolls of the black locust above us, and with waists narrowed to an unbelievable circumference in tight-fitting slacks, like no slacks we had ever noticed on anyone, were not standard. Here was the nameless mystery I sought, Her appearance from the sea distilled from my countless sleeps, not like the Venus of Botticelli but rather a temptress with no hints of virginal purity, composing Herself for me from the endless pages of the sacred manuscripts. She bore a different mien depending on Her cover story, and names of banal content, like Pamela and Patti. For an elemental force that was ushering me into a new era, Playmate of the Month seemed grossly inappropriate. So for lack of a better name, I began thinking of Her as the Nameless One. How else could I describe something that first came to me as an element of the Earth?
By this accidental discovery of the sacred manuscripts, a standard of beauty had established the form of the goddess as perfect. But was it accidental? After all, how can an accident have so dramatically affected my entire life, shaping it in every way, including my relationship with Beatrice? Believe me, I’ve studied this in detail. I noticed that the temporal manifestations of the standard differed from place to place and from time to time. Only the Ideal was steadfast. To whom did the Dutch painter, Rubens, owe his standard? To the Paleolithic sculptors of Gagarino and Willendorf? To a chance meeting when She surfaced for Rubens in a haywain or even, perhaps, behind a woodpile? Did Rubens then establish the paragon for entire generations to follow who then sought out their own rotund beauties beneath the sheets? What became of the painter’s standard?
One day in the seventh grade my lanky friend, Ned Still, whose hair was always perfectly parted, showed me a textbook from his father’s medical library. His father was a family doctor. His office was attached to their house, a few blocks from the school. On page after page naked people displayed the lumpy anatomy of Homo sapiens. Unlike the images of near nakedness found in the sacred manuscripts, these pictures from the doctor’s book showed the clitoris, unadorned and the penis too. The subjects looked common and everyday, not like the Olympian beauties of the woodpile with their suggestive attire. I still ask myself, what if I had found this heavy leather-bound medical book first? Would I have latched onto a different standard of beauty, one more in tune with everyday people? Was Ned Still, who I haven’t seen in twenty-three years, a votary of the Nameless One? If so, does She resemble mine? I don’t know. But I do know that my standard differs from Rubens’s. The antecedents for mine seemed more like those drawn by artists in ancient Crete and Egypt. I also know that Beatrice and I were changing, imperceptibly but inevitably. Our bodies were slipping into the realm displayed by those pictures in Doctor Still’s library.
Her laughing brought me back. I was slowly circling her belly button with my index finger. I was staring into the narrowing depression where the knotted remnants of her umbilical cord were neatly packed.
“Enough, enough,” she said. “What are you thinking about?”
I looked up.
“Nothing really. I was thinking of Ned Still and the woodpile.”
“What woodpile?”
“I was chosen at the woodpile.”
“Is this a guy kind of thing?”
“Sort of. At the woodpile I was introduced to a fare of visual pastries.”
“I love pastries. You used to bring me cannolis from Arthur Avenue. And flowers from 28th Street, don’t forget the flowers.”
“If you had a choice between a salad and a pastry…”
“Is this a trick question,” she asked, her hands resting around the nape of my neck, “remind me to trim your hair.”
“It’s a question regarding perfection,” I replied.
“There is no perfection,” she countered seriously. “Except…maybe in Love, and Love can’t be defined as this or that.”
In that moment her voice could have filled the universe with its importance. On Broadway the stoplights had brought the traffic to a halt. Nothing moved.
“Bea, you are talking about pure Love; all I was talking about was pastry.”
I couldn’t visualize this abstract enormity. The goddess was a visual idea but Love. . . Even Christianity, the religion of Love, had failed to realize its goal.
“I know what you’re talking about,” she said, “the come on. . . the stage gear. I like that, sometimes. But you know, the Love that comes after you know someone a long time, the way I know you, and you me, the look on your face, the way you walk, you’re good for me, and good for the kids. . .”
“You are my best friend, if that’s what you mean. . .”
“But I don’t know anything about the woodpile.”
Rolling over onto my back, I stretched my arms out above me as if I could snatch an answer from the air. She went on.
“Besides, we’ve two daughters already in college. Agatha is going to be a senior in high school. . .”
I shuddered. My own daughters beneath the lustful gaze of old men. I withdrew my arms from the void and stepped back from the precipice. I reached over and kissed her, then excused myself, promising her two fried eggs over easy with toast and coffee. But I sensed that my first free day, though only just begun, was over, thanks to the perturbations caused by Bea’s rival. I was angry. I popped the toast with fury; jabbed at the eggs, flipping them aggressively. My comments on sitting down to eat were no better. I camouflaged the truth by complaining of the small amount of free time allotted to me. Driving for Blue Freight was lucrative, but left me intellectually dry at the end of the day. Beatrice was sympathetic but wanted no more of my outbursts. She asked me if we wouldn’t be better off if I went out for a walk.
I did. On Morgan I turned left on 158th Street and began a slow amble up the incline toward Broadway. The appearance of the Goddess had left fragmentary shreds of desire in me, like lingerie left behind to remind a lover of a sacred encounter. Sacred was hardly the right word. On this particular weekend of universal suffering and salvation, as I passed Catalina’s Unisex Beauty Salon I found the Virgin Mother and child set on a small plastic dais in one corner and by the door, like an ascending Venus, a life-size mannequin of a woman dressed in stretch jeans and a blouse cut to the navel. The contrast polarized my own needs. I’m not religious, in spite of my parochial school upbringing. Still I couldn’t help but see my conflict in epic form as a battle between the forces of good and evil. This irrational vision was like a cleaver dividing me in two.
“I am the Earth,” said the mannequin, looking me straight in the eye
“Come on,” said the Virgin hugging the baby Jesus to her bosom, “that stuff went out with the Romans.”
“Apparently not, I mean look at my antecedents, they’re ancient, four thousand years.”
“The Word changed all that.”
“All I’m saying is that I’ve always resembled my worshipers. The makeup and the gowns have always led successfully to children.”
“Not in my case.”
“Get off it. Tell me the color of your lips are natural!”
“What did you expect from representational art?”
“I am Earth. I’m covered with wondrous colors, a green mantle in summer; my vestments shine with golden grain in autumn; and wondrous jewels are embedded in my dark skin. My followers wear jewels in their ears and color their faces with the hues of the field. A beautiful Earth is a bounteous Earth.”
“Look around you, Harlot, the farms have became factories, Earth’s a kicked mule. If they can kick the mule, then we can do without makeup!”
I moaned.
“He’s known me since the beginning,” she said, smiling at me. “I am the indelible lettering on tablets dedicated to Inanna and my honey men, the farmers and the shepherds of Sumer. In the beginning was Me. I am the melody in the Song of Songs. My breath still fills the universe to capacity.”
“Don’t listen to her,” said the Virgin, adjusting her robe modestly. “She’s from pagan times after all. There’s no single way of liberating yourself from Her protean power. She can inhabit so many beings, appear in so many forms. . .”
“And you talk about me being pagan, you who gave birth to a god. . .”
“Unless. . . unless you squeeze her like a used tube of toothpaste; fling her like an old, discarded sock. In other words reduce her to her most banal denominator.”
She stared hard at me for emphasis.
“You think he’s innocent? He set you up to protect his interests. He uses you as much as he uses Me. And what better way than to create a rivalry between the good girl and the bad girl. Nameless One, my ass! That’s just a name he uses because he can’t tell a good Linda from a bad Linda!”
She just smiled at me.
“Me, I just love those petty nominations.”
“I see your point,” the Virgin said, looking at her son. “Still his life would be simpler without you.”
I sensed the eyes of the nearest beautician staring at me. I blushed and nodded.
“And a lot less fun. Besides, getting rid of me would mean the end of you.”
From out of the dim reaches of the shop where women in smocks were having their nails done, their heads disappearing into the hair dryers, appeared a young woman who, amid much discussion with the patrons, removed the mannequin’s head. She handed the head to one of the small boys playing underfoot who took it and shook it like a balloon. His mother sitting in one of the salon chairs yelled at him. He threw the head at his friend and ran out the door past me carrying the wig. The young woman picked up the head, as she threw out a rapid volley of reprimands, which made the other women laugh. She set the head on the window sill beside an old man patiently reading the newspaper. In one of the drawers she found a new wig. Much fussing went into Catalina’s appearance, for this is what I imagined Catalina looked like. The phone rang and the woman left the head with its tangled mess of colorful extensions transforming Catalina into a Gorgon.
My father was Cuban. In his quest for an American identity he failed to impart in his kids a lasting memory of Spanish. As a result I remained a tourist in the neighborhood, which is predominately Dominican. I was brought up on the north shore of Long Island, a product of a thoroughly American suburban upbringing. My mother was every bit American, a renegade Baptist from Texas of pioneer stock, whose aspirations were the opposite of my father’s. She met him in Corpus Christi near the end of the Second World War where he was stationed at the Naval base as part of a special pilot training program for Latin Americans. After the Cuban lieutenant married my mother, he began flying commercially for a Venezuelan airlines. To my mother’s satisfaction they lived several years in Caracas. I was born there. Later to my mother’s great disappointment we moved back to the states where my old man flew out of Idyllwild, later renamed J.F.K Airport to commemorate the assassinated president. My parents became a hit in the neighborhood. The luxurious life style they brought back from Venezuela helped them stand out and be appreciated. My mother was beautiful by any standard and used to etch her almond shaped eyes with eyeliner like Sophia Loren. My pubescent male friends used to help her carry in her groceries from the car to the house, using every means possible to touch her. My father with his elegant manners and impeccable dress was as popular among the neighborhood wives, as my mother with their husbands. He always smelled of cologne. But it was my mother who brought us up, since he was away for weeks at a time. Because the doors of advancement seemed to open up easily after the Second World War for everyone of my parents’ generation, it was a great disappointment to my mother when I dropped out of college in my freshman year to pursue a different kind of life. My mother, thinking back on her ancestry, must have thought this an unfavorable regression.
The following Monday, I was leaning against the wall on the northbound side of the Broadway subway station when I actually saw the Goddess standing on the southbound platform, a young Persephone, who repeatedly straightened her tight skirt, adjusted her open blouse, heedless of those who looked on. She was there the next morning and the morning after, standing opposite me on the far side of the tracks, unaware of me. Furtively I followed her self-absorbed antics of beautification. Staring into a compact mirror she fussed with her lipstick, her lashes, the color of her cheeks. The fluorescent lighting illuminated her hair. The unseasonably hot temperatures had no effect on her at all. She paced between the tiled columns and the statue-like poses of the other commuters. If she stood behind a column, I moved to view her better. I began to think of her while I was making my deliveries. Then one day after work I began making love to Her in the shower.
On the first day of summer I abruptly went into the back office to request a week’s vacation from my boss, Benny Crankcase. He consented. During this hot and sultry week Beatrice and I went out to Jones Beach several times. We had the beach to ourselves. Then Agatha, our youngest daughter, thought it would be nice to have a family outing. But on the appointed Saturday she grew sullen and refused to bring a friend along on a family trip. She wondered loudly why her sisters, Susana and Isabella had been given a reprieve. On the crowded beach with my wife and daughter present, I saw the Nameless One many times over in wanton display. Agatha could have been Her avatar. Thankfully her icy stare numbed all but the most fervent eyes of her admirers. Only my fatherly instinct and the ancient taboos prevented my free associations. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.
Then on Sunday morning, the last precious and most melancholy day of my vacation, I was aroused again. This time, instead of the usual mental evocation, I awoke actually rubbing myself as if I was the Goddess; as if She had filled me from the inside out and not from the outside in as when She took hold of me from some projected image in the street. Somehow She had become entangled in my manliness and we were one. My legs tingled, the hairs on my inner thighs rose up, and for a moment just after waking, I was scared to death I had been groaning. I looked over in a panic to see if Bea had heard me. Had I been dreaming? My skin felt sensitive, my lower body strange, as if it belonged to someone else. When I moved my legs beneath the sheets it felt sensual, the way I imagined a woman’s legs felt, or at least the way the Nameless One made women look like they felt. Embarrassed and frightened by this pleasure, I leaped from bed an hour before my intended rising. It was Sunday. My last opportunity to sleep in! I had just lost an hour.
“Why are you getting up so early,” whispered Beatrice, half sleep.
“Oh, I don’t know, you know, Sunday, ready to roll. . .”
“Roll where, and why are you shouting?”
Going into the bathroom I rubbed myself as if what was mine belonged to someone else; no, I rubbed it as if it were mine but that I was someone else, no! I was confused. Still, I liked it. Beatrice was on her summer break. She didn’t sense the seconds nibbling away at my last day of vacation. She roused me from my self-pity by encouraging me to join her on a trip to the supermarket. I spent part of the time standing outside the market in the hot sun, ostensibly shopping for nectarines and peaches, or was it bananas and cucumbers? In reality, I was involuntarily seeking out among the pedestrians some means of recapturing the events of the morning. After lunch, we cleaned the house and did the laundry. By that time Agatha was up, sighing with great intensity at the constancy of the heat. She complained she was an only child.
“What’s the point of having sisters if they are always sleeping at other people’s houses.”
By evening Isabella had returned from her boyfriend’s apartment. After dinner I wanted to read. Instead, at Isabella’s suggestion, we rented Blake Edwards’ Switch and sat in front of the TV, eating chips with a bean dip. Later, unable to fall asleep, I thought about the film. Why had we chosen that film? It was weird. Then I recalled a Taoist phrase: “Can you play the role of the female in the opening and closing of the gates of Heaven?”
The next morning before work I searched for my battered translation of Chan’s Lao Tzu which I found in a box of books in the back of the bedroom closet. I was reading it during my momentous courtship of Beatrice twenty-five years ago. At the time the phrase had carried no meaning, so why I should remember it now alarmed me. Back then I had relished my manhood. My looks and strength, like my love for the young Beatrice, were eternal and unchanging.
A week later, with the reports of firecrackers fragmenting the stillness somewhere over by Webster Avenue, the Nameless One sauntered out of the Fordham University administration building in the Bronx. I had parked the truck behind Millennium Hall, after delivering a Xerox copy machine that had been given priority delivery status. Sitting on one of the granite benches I was eating my sandwich, in the shade of the giant elm and chestnut trees on the elevated walk near the statue of Archbishop John Hughes. The leaves of the dogwoods were limp. It was my subway goddess, coming out of the back door, her red hair glossy. I recognized Her. She passed in front of me, moving in a way that indicated a complete understanding of what her body was doing. It was whispering private things to all the grounds men patching the asphalt paths leading down to Martyr Hall. Not until I was in the shower that evening did She uncoil within me, stretching Her legs inside mine which I rubbed tentatively, recharging that electric sensation I had felt in bed a week before. Instinctively I reached for Her nipples and felt them sensitively respond. I was afraid my breasts were growing. Whose breasts? I became afraid, but was overcome. Was I cheating? Or was I simply turning myself on, this time more elaborately? Still the question arose, who was I? In that moment, as I rubbed Her legs, I felt I was both me and She. Slowly She moved this way, that way, that is, my legs and my ass moved as if She was a dancer, that is, I was dancing like Her, that is, the way I imagined She would dance. No, She was dancing. Did I mean the woman walking toward Martyr Hall? For an instant the face of Agatha appeared, superimposed on the inchoate features of that student’s body. A brief moment of terror followed as I erased the face, even while feeling the strange drunken carelessness of the queen as She drove the innocent things that were Her vehicles. In the following moment I was ecstatic, as if I had actually had sex with a stranger. But I hadn’t, had I? I had simply had sex with myself. If one thought of masturbating as sex, good and fine, but now that She had entered me, I felt this not to be the case. As I grabbed myself, I was also physically, or so it seemed, grabbing Her. If that was the case, wasn’t this infidelity? A moot question from an outsider’s point of view. But the brief appearance of Agatha distressed me, as if she had been watching. As I left the bathroom, I couldn’t look Bea in the eyes.
I was under siege. Every day whenever I was alone I could feel the woodpile goddess filling me with Herself as I became the predator. I moved the way She moved and I moved the way a man moved. I was both at once and for a week or so it was indeed like having an affair, but an affair where no one is caught, no one is hurt, no one becomes pregnant or contracts AIDS. But Beatrice noticed the difference.
“How many showers do you need, I mean, like you’re taking two or three showers a day now. Are you that dirty?”
“I hadn’t noticed. . . Well, I guess it’s the heat. It’s the hottest July I can remember.”
To stop the Goddess by proving my love for Beatrice I wanted to make love with Beatrice. The last time had been that morning on Good Friday, almost three months ago. That was when the Goddess began Her campaign. I waited for the right moment when Agatha was out, which was the first Saturday afternoon of August. Outside the omniscient hum of air conditioners filled the still air. I sat in the living room moving my legs in and out, knees touching. In grade school I would do the same thing while sitting nervously at my desk, ill-prepared for the important exam before me. Once aroused, I sauntered into our bedroom only to find Beatrice preparing to leave for school.
“Hey where are you going?”
“Hey,” she said looking at the front of my shorts.
She smiled before continuing.
“I was going to drop off these summer reading assignments some kids already sent me. And where are you going? I hope not out to the fire escape to sun yourself.”
“I wasn’t considering that,” I said; “but I was considering something, a little assignment of our own.”
She cocked her head as I approached her. I found myself turning her on using the techniques of a woman. I behaved the way Bea once did when she had embodied the Nameless One. I aroused in her the things she used to arouse in herself when she prepared for me, or so I thought. What a turn of events. Afterward she was ecstatic and I was relieved. I had feared that my addiction would sterilize my real love of Bea, or at least ruin my prospects of proving my love for her.
But instead of relief, the Goddess upped the ante. Second week in August Beatrice was back at school working on projects that would become impossible to complete once the school year began. Having used up all my vacation time I was back at work. The streets were hot and empty. My air conditioner made life more bearable in the truck cab than at home where we didn’t have any. A passing beauty could ignite my internal woman or the internal woman could project herself upon any woman on the street whether she had all the characteristics of the Nameless One or not. I had never imagined back at the woodpile that my rain-soaked cloud would one day fill me with all the thunderous aspects of the opposite sex no matter who she might be. Like old king Midas, whatever I looked upon became gold for my loins. The Goddess made me feel the very things I wanted desperately to feel whenever I reached across and touched Bea. Not the Bea of today but Bea when she herself was a young avatar of the Goddess.
On walks with Beatrice, I couldn’t concentrate on our conversation. My eyes flitted from the newsstand fashion magazines to the figurines in lingerie shops. Under the guise of watching the cute kids in Catalina’s I often lingered too long, philosophizing on abstruse realities existing outside of everyday reality, all while staring at the mannequin. Beatrice wasn’t fooled. A bus pasted with advertising posters might pass displaying a teenager in low-cut jeans and my eyes followed it down to the next light, like a fly stuck to sticky paper. My train of thought would linger on Bea’s last spoken word, while my eyes followed one woman after another as they passed me. Even the botanica on Broadway with its multicolored statuary of St. Lazarus and St. Anthony and the cardboard signs posting rare herb formulas carried meanings regarding potency. Only the very oldest women and the very youngest girls passed beneath my radar.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she finally shouted one afternoon. “It’s enough to make me want to scream.”
“I don’t understand,” I said weakly, my face reddening.
“You’re watching tail, every tail! You’re acting like a dirty old man!”
“Come on, you know I’m not that way.”
“Then you must be seeing someone, or want to see someone and are just looking for the right one!”
I denied it. But the subject came up again and again, generally after dinner which passed awkwardly for us with Susanna and Isabella home now, both of them talking about their summer experiences, subjects Agatha found offensive. Beatrice and I dove into them with the yearning of middle-aged adults remembering our own youthful escapades. Only Agatha seemed to notice how her parents avoided each other with the exception of asking the other to pass the rolls or the salad dressing. Finally left alone, neither of us knew where to begin. Beatrice admitted that here in the apartment I seemed interested in her, in what she was doing. And she knew me well enough to trust my avowals. But it was hopeless once we left the apartment for a movie or a coffee house. She told me she had made up her mind not to go out with me until she knew what was going on.
“What about the last time we made love?” I asserted. “Didn’t that tell you how I feel about you?”
“Oh yeah,” she admitted, even smiling; “but even then you were different, like you had learned some new tricks or something.”
“I’m just doing research. . , because I want to turn you on. . , you know, since we don’t always do it any more. Life’s different.”
“What do you mean, research? You mean like outside research, I mean that’s where you lose it, Anthony, completely lose it. Are you seeing somebody?”
“God no, Bea.”
“Then what are you talking about? Are you simply revisiting your youthful fantasies by watching all the young things, and not so young things, I might add – that’s what gets me, you’re even watching older women. You know I’m even throwing out those Victoria’s Secret catalogues before they reach the front door.”
“I know, I see them in the hallway by the garbage. Because of Agatha.”
“No, because of you!”
I remember not long after my revelation at the woodpile I would peruse the women’s section in the Sears Roebuck catalogue. Nothing had changed. I was still a pubescent kid.
“What research,” she asked emphatically.
Frantically I searched through my memories. I passed over the Tao-te ching.
“I’m reading The Karma Sutra.”
“Get out,” she said, “I thought that book went out of here, along with The Joy Of Sex when Susanna was born.”
“Well yeah, and I haven’t brought it back either, because of the kids. I’ve been reading it. . . during lunch whenever I’m making a stop up at Fordham University. I sit in the library.”
She actually burst into laughter, suddenly, like a gunshot report. At which point I apologized for my behavior on the street. But if she could recall we had never really read The Kama Sutra, only looked at the pictures, and now I was reading it, needing more information to spur my love for her, and the book suggested (I couldn’t believe I was digging this hole for myself) that visual stimulus was a condiment for affairs with one’s consort. I was over the hump and we were talking again.
I remembered the evening I first met Beatrice. I didn’t understand the Goddess the way I do now. Although I can see that if Bea hadn’t personified the Goddess I might never have been attracted. A mutual friend of ours, George Menter was hosting a small party. We were all living in the East Village. She was sitting on a worn brown couch, her long legs, glazed in glittery stockings protruding from a dark blue miniskirt. Her white lacy top was just as brief. Several guys were talking to her. I stood in the corner watching her cherry red lips move in response as well as her long eye lashes, edged in liner, sweeping slowly up and down. Her blond hair was tightly curled like a doll’s. I spoke to her briefly, as I handed her a joint. When she moved into another room I followed her. The next day I asked George who she was and where she lived. With that information I literally stalked her, using Menter as a foil.
“Beatrice, hi, actually we’re here to see if Kathy was home, but what a surprise to find you here. Do you remember my friend, Anthony, Anthony Morales. . ?”
With Menter’s introduction I returned a second time. This time I stayed for dinner and watched her bring canned soup to a boil, watched her intently move about, her back to me. I could see the fault line of her ass where the waist of her bell bottoms began. As we talked I showered great affection on her Siamese cat who reciprocated with noisy appreciation. After dinner we spent an hour or so maneuvering with words, staring during moments of silence into a half-burnt candle that needed assistance from time to time if it was to continue its romantic illumination. She found it incredible I had returned for her, when it was Kathy we had come to see the first time. Kathy was the outgoing one. Beatrice had several boyfriends at the time, none of them of consequence.
“You dropped out of school?”
“Yeah. No point in staying in school just to avoid the draft.”
“What if they draft you?”
“That’s another story.”
“No other interests?”
“You mean besides you?”
“Yeah.”
“Yeah, well no, I like history, reading, mainly traveling. I want to see the world.”
It was her impatience with this ritual that lead to the first kiss which ended with both of us in the back room on a guest bed. I pulled her tight bellbottoms off, and to my delight discovered she was wearing French underwear. This was something then. I began to pull my own pants down when she stopped me at my crotch and forced me over, my legs pinned by the constricting fabric, my penis the only liberated feature of my lower body. She played the pipe until in a frenzy I reached forward to her legs and forced reciprocation, each of us entangled in each other’s knees, each lost in feelings that seemed to belong to the other. Now I wanted to conjure up that winter scene. But what remained of that evening was still the sum of many years, a real person. Yeah, twenty-five years ago Bea had been hot. As time passed she transcended. So for me, despite my pavlovian response to standards of beauty, my ethical code demanded I remain loyal to her.
A few days later I stopped the truck right in the middle of the intersection on Webster at the ramp leading down from the Cross Bronx Expressway. It must have been for a moment too long. A cop pulled me over and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was lost. What I didn’t tell the officer was that I had stopped in precisely this spot during the past week on my way back to Blue Freight because here I could inspect an enormous billboard on which a scantily clad woman was advertising soap. The following day I even went out of my way to follow a bus which had an advertisement on the back of a woman in high heels, black lingerie and stockings who stood at least eight feet tall before a luminous desert city, no doubt the City Of Angels. She was staring right back at me, eye to eye, until a red light divorced further contact. I tucked her away inside of me, along with all the other billboard queens I was beginning to stare at with unforgiving intensity, bringing all these representatives of the protean Goddess home after work for my now ritual one-night stands.
When I learned that Bea and the girls were going to take the train mid-week, out to Long Island to visit her mother for a few days, I panicked.
“For a few days!”
“So you’re going to miss me,” she laughed. “Well, I forbid you to make any deliveries to Fordham. You’ll just have to wait.”
On Monday, two days before they left, my route took me to the East Village where I was delivering a shipment of scanners to a computer store. I passed a lingerie shop. That’s all I did. But after work I looked through Bea’s drawers and found her silk underwear. To mock Beatrice, which mocked me as well, the Nameless One slowly slipped one on. It seemed to mark my wife’s loss of power over me. Wednesday, the day she and the girls left for Grandma’s, I drove past the same shop in the East Village. I double parked, ran inside and bought a tube skirt, which my woodpile Goddess could wear during our acts of love.
I arrived home and hurriedly undressed, though I knew I had all the time in the world now. Excitedly I squeezed into it in the flush of erotic thickness. The Nameless One danced with me, each of us holding the other. The moment the act was complete, I began thinking of the tube skirt as evidence. I could simply replace Bea’s underwear in her drawer. But the skirt was not hers, I had bought it for the Goddess. Even if I told Beatrice I had bought it for her, she would have looked at me suspiciously since she knew I knew she wasn’t interested in that stuff any more. Besides, if The Nameless One had the power to make me go out and buy Her things, what extravagant items would She demand next to maintain my interest? Would She require makeup and net stockings? This was becoming far too complicated. It seemed to me I was working as hard as any woman did for her man. I had never seen Bea’s earlier efforts to please me in this light. As I could see for myself, the effort to play the part was excruciating.
As fate would have it, this was the moment when the Nameless One again upped the ante. I was working overtime on Saturday, because no one was home. After work I was in the shower rubbing Her ass, my eyes closed, feeling the rhythm of Her motions against one hand, while pulling my penis with the other. She was pushing against my hand with Her ass while pulling on my penis when my middle finger penetrated Her hole, kick starting a plunge and pull motion that automatically gained momentum like a chugging diesel engine when the throttle is applied. I cried out in joy. The ensuing silence frightened me. Had anyone heard me? Had She cried out, I mean, had I cried out? This was the high point of my affair with the Nameless One. How could I claim innocence now when talking to Beatrice? Guilt flooded every pore, but wasn’t enough to staunch my desire. I vowed never again. But the sight of the subway goddess on my way to work once again kick started my internal motor. Alone with Her again, I went all the way.
The Monday after my tautological, for lack of a better word, fling with the Nameless One, I was standing outside the Blue Freight dispatch office, along with the other drivers, waiting for the dispatcher to enter the garage and begin the ritual of calling out our names and assigning us routes. Until that morning I had looked upon my fellow teamsters as equals. So what if I jerked off to a fantasy, who hadn’t? But finger fuck myself ? I was clear- headed enough to know what that was, even though I euphemistically called it a Dream fuck. It felt like it anyway!
“Samson!” cried Louis Sleeve, the dispatcher, an overweight guy whose belt rode the crest of an abdominal swell.
Jay Samson happened to be standing beside me.
“Fucking better not be going out to Riverhead again.”
“Riverhead!”
“Son of a bitch! The LIE and the Cross Bronx should be double time.”
Jay had twin tattoos, one on each arm. The left arm bore a heart pierced through with a sword, drops of blood dripped onto a banderol underneath, where the name ‘Mildred’ was etched. The right arm bore the figure of a woman in a bikini riding a seashell, her hair flowing, her hands on her thighs, ‘Mildred’ again etched on a banderole, this one bearing drops of saltwater. These guys had never stooped to my level. I was alone. Still I couldn’t wait to get home.
Like any affair that is based totally on lust, the subsequent meetings with the Nameless One became routine, and the routine needed the support of more extravagant means of enticement. My relationship with Beatrice began very much on the same principles of lust but had matured over many years to include a wider universe of possibilities, as well as an affection based on the memories of those many years of mutual experience. I couldn’t imagine spending an entire day with the Goddess! What would we talk about? Her unvarying approach hadn’t changed much since my initiation into Her rites back at the woodpile. All this was essentially based on the body, the perfect body as established by the sacred manuscripts. What changed were the means of penetration, the tricks involved. On Sunday, the fifth day of my bachelorhood, with Beatrice and the girls still out at Grandma’s, I started applying Vaseline. On Monday after work I bought Trojans.
“Have fun,” said the Hispanic woman at the pharmacy on Broadway and 157th who rang up my purchases, raising her darkened eyebrows.
Her deadpan voice and the straight line of her bright red lips recalled Jack Benny’s expression following a remark by Rochester. Momentarily caught off guard on what was a touchy purchase anyway, I blushed, but then I thought, hey, I do have a heavy date. The last laugh was mine!
“Thank you.” I smiled brazenly.
On these ascending feelings I could rationalize my engagement: I was hurting no one, seeing no one, causing no harm. Unfortunately, my guilt echoed accusingly. What is the difference whether between an actual woman or the Nameless One? Aren’t both betrayal? Of course, wouldn’t the manly thing be to do the woman I saw daily in the subway? That is assuming she was willing, since she knew nothing about my desire. Actually, the most appealing aspect of the affair was its convenience. Whereas Bea and I would have to be on the same plane of need, which rarely happened – either I was too tired or she was too tired – I could have the goddess at any time. She lay inside of me, coiled in hibernation, waiting for the moment when the right image from outside brought Her to life. Drawn out by the miracle of beauty, She would unfold and take hold of me as I in a sense took hold of Her. On Tuesday night I worked my protected finger deep into Her hole. After dinner I couldn’t wait to do Her again. Until now I had been using discretion, not overdoing a good thing; but knowing this was my last night alone, I couldn’t resist another tryst. A bottle of beer did me in. The entanglement of feelings and the physical sensations were excruciatingly delicious. Two had to be the limit or I’d sink into an orgy. Naturally my mindset worked to deny me the innocence I had early rationalized. On top of that I was sore. By the time everyone got home on Wednesday evening, I had thrown out the last Trojan and the tube skirt fearing discovery. But already I was thinking of buying another one.
One day was like another, hot and sultry, the sky always white with humidity. When I talked to the groundskeepers at Queen’s College they told me the drought was damaging the roots of trees and shrubs. I had noticed that the grass had turned the color of straw back at the end of July.
“It’s Mother Earth’s revenge,” said one gardener, striking the dry soil with the toe of his work boot.
That afternoon I was returning from La Guardia along Ditmars Boulevard after dropping off ten fifty-gallon drums of floor wax. I stopped off at a favorite Greek takeout in Astoria to buy a souvlaki, with extra lamb and onions, lathered in yogurt. The pita was wrapped tightly in wax paper and aluminum foil to prevent the contents from leaking out. I folded back the foil and paper so I could eat while I drove. The streets were congested. Delivery trucks were double parked, off-loading supplies to vendors. No one had patience in this heat, horns blared. But I was content; the day was over for me. I was making my way slowly down the crowded street toward 29th Street where I turn south for the Hoyt Avenue entrance to the Triborough Bridge. I had one hand gripping the wheel, the other holding the souvlaki, when the Nameless One stepped out of the Venus Jewelry store near the corner. Was she the same young woman I saw every morning on the opposite platform while I waited for the uptown Broadway local? Was she Greek? Perhaps I was already primed by all the women I’d seen in short shorts and tight jerseys on the Campus doing pre-registration. I slowed the truck to a crawl so I could feast my eyes on this young body of undulating topography. Could her blessings, or were they also skills, be attributable to DNA or social training? As I absently fumbled for my zipper, the Nameless One began squeezing Her ass reflexively. With both hands occupied that left the lamb souvlaki wedged between my teeth, the yogurt oozing down my chin. For a frightful moment I could see myself from the young woman’s vantage. I was both a dirty old man leering at a woman through a truck window and that woman. The dirty old man was pulling on himself. Something awful was in his mouth, dripping. An enraged driver, laying on his horn in a car behind the truck, brought me to my senses. The heavens had opened. An army of seraphim were descending. Horns blared in severest admonition. Just then the elevated N train from Astoria Boulevard rumbled ominously into the Ditmars terminal. The brake wheels of the local were screeching to a halt. Even the young thing in her tight jeans looked toward the street. Was she really the same woman I saw every morning? Things had gotten out of hand. In fact, they had reached a tragic dimension.
At least as a kid back at the woodpile I had imagined Her dream hole as a vaginal chamber of epic proportions, even if I hadn’t known then where Her vagina was exactly. Now in the clarity of my sexual experience I knew exactly whose cherry I was popping. Night after night the succubus of memories born in daylight were drawing me into still more foolish escapades. The dream hole had changed the ante here. The dividing line that distinguished me from Her had faded. But who was imitating whom? Were the billboard queens mimicking the teen woman who was staring at me, or were they giving credence to a fashion style that enabled the teen woman to look like a billboard queen? There was a time when my imagination was enough to enlarge her breasts; now science had provided her with protean capabilities. With money, any woman could physically become a billboard queen. But where does it end ?
In the rear view mirror I saw the guy laying on the horn. I saw myself, Anthony Morales, a dirty old man sitting in a truck, his hands sliding over her body, his mouth stuffed with something gross oozing juices. Everyone was staring at me. I had to get a hold of myself. Shit, I already had! I pulled out from behind the double parked truck to escape. Instead I collided with the asshole behind me who had decided the same thing. By this time the girl was gone.
Instead of arriving home before my wife as usual, I came in long after her. Filling out the police report had taken 30 minutes and when I got back to the garage, I had to fill out an accident report. Luckily both parties had been wrong in advancing into the oncoming traffic lane. For me this accident was a first. Of course, the truck was ok. The only damage was that idiot’s smashed right headlight.
“What happened?” Bea asked innocently, more as a greeting than anything else.
“What do you mean?” I shot back, on the defensive, seeing the innocence in her words but overpowered by the shame of my own actions.
“Usually I get here after you. Must have been a long day.”
“Traffic.”
“I want to buy an air conditioner, just an inexpensive one, for the bedroom window.”
“Jesus, that’s a lot of juice, and if you buy one for our room, what about the girls?”
“They’re just about out of here.”
“Not quite, Agatha is still living here.”
“But not for long,” she countered. Then looking at me with a meaningful eye, “maybe we’ll have some time for ourselves.”
I nodded with bravado, but it was more as if an anvil had landed on my head.
Surely my humble ancestors had raised their arms in profound awe of the Goddess. So why was I subsumed by these meaningless but derivative pleasures? Instead of the great mother of creation providing me with the staff of life, she cluttered my life with images of vanity and seduction. The corporate monograms of DKNY, Klein, Fendi and Guess were sutured to my brain lobes; their sultry, all knowing models peopled my thoughts. I could throw out the TV, terminate the mail, lock myself in the apartment and refuse to go out. The world outside was dangerous, temptations lurking everywhere. Within the desert-like severity of an empty apartment I could live like an anchorite. Naturally this was impossible. Bea lived here too, not to mention the rest of the family. Bea paid half the rent.
“What are you talking about,” she’d laugh. “We just bought the TV. You were the one who wanted the big, giant screen!”
The next morning I was running late. The harpies of the ad-world had played havoc in my dreams. I walked quickly over to Broadway, my eyes nearly shut to block out the wide detestable world. I heard the sound of the train and began running across the street.
“Watch it, man,” shouted a tall homeless man standing on the corner.
The downtown bus missed me. In his heavy overcoat he reminded me of a Moorish king in a painting by Albrecht Durer. All the king’s possessions were in a plastic bag at his feet.
“You don’t look so hot,” said he in his oracular voice.
I nodded, my eyes opened wide with appreciation. And who should be approaching me from the other side of the street, but my Persephone.
She was walking toward me on her way to the downtown entrance. I’d never been this close to her before. She was morphing through a series of seductive versions. But when we were side by side, an arm’s length away, her blond hair in disarray, the Goddess was nowhere to be seen. An older, swarthy woman passed by. Was this my underworld queen or her mother? My god! Her makeup couldn’t hide the wrinkles under her eyes, the worries etched across her face. I recognized the dress, tight and revealing. But it was poorly made, the fabric, illustrated with peonies, was faded. It had all the innocence of a homey tablecloth one might find on a picnic table in Riverside Park. If she had once been a temple for the Goddess, she was now deserted.
In the sultry air below ground the commuters stood in agonizing stillness waiting for an air-conditioned train to arrive. When I took up my regular position on the platform opposite her, it was not the same. Other aspects of her life were prominent now, which had nothing to do with the Nameless One. I imagined her suffering from a serious disease, saw her struggling to keep her marriage intact. I was ashamed. With the authority of the sacred manuscripts, I had laid upon her delicate humanity the imprimatur of the Nameless One. Not far from her stood an older man, dressed impeccably in a gray suit. With his short beard he looked like Sigmund Freud. He held a brown leather briefcase at arm’s length in front of his legs. He too was intently watching the woman, who at this moment was busy straightening out her dress. She wore no stockings. When she bent over to work on the hem, which I now knew to be wrinkled, we both could see her black underpants. Was he a votary of the Nameless One, a celebrant of the woodpile? In the distance I heard the downtown train approaching. Why hadn’t I noticed him before? My shirt with the Blue Freight emblem on the shirt pocket was soaking wet. Could the old man have reached the innermost sanctum of the dream hole? I ran back to the turnstile and up the stairs. I rushed across the street, with the street light against me, wove between gypsy cabs and vans, heard a horn blaring. I saw the king watching me on the far corner. But there was no time to think, I could hear the incoming number one. As I passed him, he nodded disapprovingly. I swung around the post of the entry railing and nearly fell down the stairs. The train was entering the station as I popped the token into the slot and pushed through the turnstile. The train stopped. I nearly killed a woman on the crowded platform as I squeezed through the closing doors of the very car in which the man in gray and my former Goddess stood.
Her perfume was nauseating. The man in gray was standing behind her, reading his folded newspaper. He must have lived in the expensive Grinnell, across the street from us. Whenever the train jolted, he rubbed against her with more than sloppy innocence. His crisply quartered Times never needed refolding. But at 50th St when she got out, he didn’t pursue. Neither did I. He got out at Times Square. I followed him up the stairs to the street and along the north side as he walked west on 42nd. The theater district was slated for remodeling. The few remaining X-rated movie houses were closed. This is crazy, I thought, I’ll be late for work. He headed north on 8th Avenue. Then I lost him because at 48th Street I stopped short in front of a long cart table on the sidewalk, opposite a store with a whitewashed window. A woman in loose jeans and a cotton jersey was setting up a Barbie doll display. Her companion was a large man wearing a black leather vest with the teamster logo sewn on the back.
“Interested in buying?” he growled menacingly as he handed her pink boxes from a van
parked alongside the table.
“No, not really. I was. . . was on my way to work – what a setup.”
“We come into the city on our days off,” she said, her dulcet voice contrasting the teamster’s.
Inside each box, behind a glassine window, stood Barbie. Each doll was wearing a different costume, although several were wearing the same outfit. I asked the big guy if he was indeed a union member. He nodded yes.
“Me, too,” I told him.
Finally the woman placed on the table a cardboard cut out of Barbie stenciled: Teaneck Chapter. I was amazed. While I was looking at the literature, Bill took out a cigarette and lit up. He looked at me and held out his pack. I declined.
“Bill hates coming into town, even in the van, but he comes along anyway.”
“Why here, Wendy?” Bill asked, looking at me for sympathy.
He nodded toward the white-washed window.
“He helps me screen the clients. Some of these Barbies are expensive, especially the early dolls. . . You know, this is mid-town, near Port Authority.”
“How much is this one?” I asked pointing to a crumpled box where Barbie stood on her inflexible heels in a fringed mini with her unflagging smile.
She wore round pink glasses and her hair was braided with flowers.
“The flower child? I’m asking seventy-five dollars. Though the box is crumpled it’s Mint in the Box.”
“Wow. . ! And this one,” I asked drawn like an iron filing to a magnet by an illustrated Barbie in one of the pamphlets.
She was the raw image of the Nameless One, stunning in her simplicity, a stock straight doll with long face, black eye lashes and petite red lips, standing on heels, wearing a striped swim suit. She lacked all personality. She bore a feral look, like a Minoan snake goddess. Like Rudi Guernich’s topless bathing suit model. I remembered seeing her in Life magazine, not long after I met the Goddess at the woodpile.
“That’s the Montgomery Ward 100th Anniversary Barbie. #3210.”
I had to see it.
“How much?”
“Ready? Eight hundred bucks. Mint No Box. I don’t bring that one. It’s by appointment only.”
“Eight hundred dollars!”
She saw the look in my eyes.
“Actually she’s just a copy of the very first models made in ’59. . .”
The year opened up like the window in my boyhood room. I was nine. The earth was still the earth to me, the trees still trees, the water still water. A few years later the Nameless One came to me in Her most elemental form; but here her transubstantiation had already occurred!
“. . . some of them go for nine thousand dollars.”
“Incredible! My youngest daughter would get a big kick out of it, but eight hundred is way, way over my head.”
“Crazy, isn’t it?” said Bill.
Some women on their way to work stopped. They were in their late thirties, wore dark suits and carried briefcases. They ooohed and aaahed.
“I haven’t seen one of these in years.”
She was looking at one Barbie entitled ‘Twist & Turn’.
“I had one just like her.”
“My aunt gave me Barbie the Cheerleader when I was ten. She knew how to drive my mother crazy because my mom hated Barbie. Do you sell accessories too?”
“Yeah,” said the dealer, who gave each of the women her card.
“Those kind of women are my biggest customers,” Wendy explained.
“They spend that kind of money?”
“Oh, yeah, big time. And you should see the girls dress up when we host the Tri-State Look-Like-Barbie contest at Palisades Mall. I mean, these women are lawyers and CEOs. One of them is a judge.”
“She’s the president of the Teaneck chapter,” said Bill, shaking his head.
“We hold most of our meetings in our homes but the bigger symposiums are held at various malls. . . There are collectors all over the country.”
“That mall’s sinking,” said Bill, “because they disrupted an Indian burial ground.”
“I see what you mean,” I agreed, without really knowing what he meant.
“This is like a full-time job,” I added.
“She’s a cop,” said Bill, for the first time smiling.
“Yeah,” she agreed, “I work the front desk at Woodbridge, up by the Garden State.”
“Can I pick one up?”
“Go ahead,” said Bill, rubbing his cigarette into the pavement.
I picked up the one unboxed doll. She was still wrapped in plastic. She was dressed in flowery patterns with tights that had lace edges. I turned her upside down pretending to study the details – actually I was looking for her dream hole. The doll squeaked: “Math class is tough.” I was startled. Wendy laughed.
“That’s model # 5745, recent vintage, ’92.”
When I thanked them for their time, she gave me her card.
The Goddess was ruthless. She had poured Herself into the once youthful contours of my Persephone. Then She abandoned her as She eventually did all Her youthful protégées when Persephone could no longer fit into the contours of Model #3210. Only in Hollywood could cinema queens spend fortunes maintaining their bodies for Her. These nubile priestesses squeezed and bolstered their dimensions into the contours of The Doll. As long as they stayed young the Goddess stayed powerful. Imagine a rebellion among the beauty caste? “Hollywood Beauties Throw Off the Reins of The Nameless One” reads the headline in the Entertainment Section of The New York Times. But they were no better off than I was. The same idea moved inside them. They were in love with Her, loving Her as long as She continued to grace them with the favors of men, in particular men with power.
Around noon, throwing all common sense out the window, I decided to go to Teaneck, New Jersey. Clouds of gray were mounting on that side of the river. I had to have #3210, no matter what She cost. It was irrational, this desire to possess a doll, a relic, something shaped in a Paleolithic cave, perfected fifteen thousand years later on Madison Avenue. But when the traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway came to a standstill, I slipped off the highway at Jerome and continued on to my last delivery. Why couldn’t I caste Her out of me and imprison Her voluptuous motion in plastic. My golden idol, stored neatly in a box, like an effigy in ice. Benny Crankcase walked out to meet me, when I brought the truck back to the garage.
“Anthony, you’re late. It’s not like you. Late this morning, late this evening. What’s going on, problems at home?”
Benny wasn’t the kind of guy who sympathized with his drivers. It was all fair and square. You drive and I pay, and I pay this amount and you’re right, I don’t like the union, but do I got a choice?
So when I saw Benny coming over to me with his heavy jowls and dark eyes showing worry, his hands in the jacket pockets of his wrinkled olive green suit, I thought the guy was going to ask me to take a leave of absence based on some hidden clause in my union contract, what with the accident and the police report and being late this morning.
“Nothing, Benny, nothing, it’s…it’s just this heat. You know, I can’t sleep at night. When I get up in the morning, it’s like I’ve been working all night.”
“What, you got no air conditioning?”
“No, my wife is democratic. Either we all get it or none of us.”
“You don’t have something on the side, do you?”
I was shocked and must have looked it.
“You know, a chippy, something on the side?”
He couldn’t know about Her.
“You remember what happened to Hapless? He started with something casual, then began to see her during working hours. Even the union couldn’t save his ass. Anyway I didn’t think so.”
“Bea would kill me.”
“You been driving with us for years. I don’t want to see that relationship jeopardized. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah. Well, you don’t have to worry, me with three daughters and a wife.”
“Looks like all hell is going to break out soon,” said Benny looking west.
Thunder broke overhead as I climbed out of the station at 157th Street. A few rain drops followed. I was going to run for it, but a cool breeze blowing up from the river changed my mind. I walked along Broadway past El Mundo. The grocery vendors were securing the awning. Some shoppers, oblivious to the weather, were testing the honeydews on sale. A young girl came out through the aisle with her mother. She was sucking the juices from a mango, a smile on her sticky face. New Yorkers were strolling on the streets as if on a sunny day. The teenagers were calling out to each other with rash enthusiasm. Their exuberant voices were carried away on the up-surging gusts like the tattered confetti from a windy New Year’s Eve celebration. Masses of dark clouds roiled overhead then moved on, leaving the higher gray above. Grandmothers were leaning out the windows, elbows on pillows. They calmly warned the kids of the approaching storm. The large drops falling in spurts were delicious. The stately King was standing beneath the awning of the botanica, in front of a windows full of statues of saints. I noticed a red flower in the label of his overcoat. I dropped a dollar in his hand. The King returned it. He pointed to the flower shop on the corner. I bought bright red dahlias with dark leaves. I had them wrapped completely like a tube, nothing showing. As I walked past Catalina’s, I stopped. The fluorescent lights were on, an aproned woman was seated in the raised chair closest to the window, her hair tousled while her young attendant, back to the window, gently applied shampoo and worked it into a lather on her scalp. Small kids were playing around the legs of an old woman who was seated waiting in one of the faux leather chairs with metal tube arms. The headless mannequin was standing in her usual place by the door. The Virgin and the baby Jesus were nowhere to be seen. The young woman who was washing the hair of the nearest patron turned and looked at me. She said something to the old woman, who in turn looked at me. They laughed. Unabashed I stepped in.
“Are you Catalina?”
Everyone broke out into conversation. I understood none of it. Fervid in his patriotism, my father had never enforced the use of Spanish in the house, even though among Cubans, he’d been eloquent.
“Is this Catalina?” I asked, pointing to the mannequin.
The young woman, who had smiled at me, whose impossibly long fingernails seemed too lethal for the work she was doing, looked at me uncomprehendingly.
“Is this Catalina?” I repeated, touching the blouse of the mannequin and widening my smile to encourage a response.
“I think she is an old woman who lives in the Dominican Republic. She is retired.”
“Si, si,” nodded the old woman in the chair, lifting her cloaked arm and pointing with an exposed hand at the mannequin. “Este es Santa Catalina con su cabeza, por que su cabeza era muy linda. Donde la cabeza,” she asked looking at her attendant.
The young woman still didn’t understand until a look from the old woman explained it all and she began nodding her head repeatedly. She pointed to the mannequin’s head sitting on a pedestal between two separate panels of walled mirror. The head wore a blond wig and had long eyelashes.
“She says this is St. Catalina, who lost her head because of her beauty.”
The old woman was nodding with a big smile on her face. A flash of lightning in the darkened street and the ensuing thunderclap overhead brought a gasp from everyone. The kids ran outside onto the sidewalk to look. Grandmothers shouted worried invectives to bring them back. After a moment, I gently unraveled the work of the florist. From the bouquet I drew a single stem which I placed in the stiff arms of the headless Catalina. Everyone laughed. I bowed and left.
Passing our apartment building I headed north toward Riverside Park where the elm canopies increased the premature dusk. The rain had stalled despite the darkness and lightning. Still people were strolling with dogs along the broken asphalt walkways without a care in the world. When lightning broke right overhead I winced. I was afraid. But the wind, gusting erratically, was strangely soothing, baffled by the dense foliage. Large drops fell again, one by one all around me. The experts say that standing under the trees is dangerous during lightning storms, and here I was under an allee. But out on the elevated highway it seemed exposed. A woman ran past me in her jogging gear wearing a Walkman, totally tuned out. I laughed. But with the next clash the darkness descended with finality. A driving rain began penetrating the canopy. Another sharp crack made me duck. I must have looked like Ichabod Crane walking with bended knees passed a graveyard. By the time I had reached the safety of my building doorway, I was soaked. But I enjoyed the cool wetness. In the glow of the street lamp the silver drops exploded on the pavement. Setting the bouquet down in the building foyer I returned to the street, feeling safe in the building’s proximity. Up on Broadway the gypsy cabs passed one after the other in a solemn procession, an occasional horn blew. A yellow cab turned west and pulled up across the street at the Grinnell. Someone bolted from the vehicle into the tall archway.
When I entered the apartment, carrying my rolled floral treasure, I tripped over a stack of Cosmopolitan Magazines sending the cloned images of women across the foyer floor. Both Agatha and Beatrice stared at me.
“Where have you been?” asked Bea. “We were worried.”
“I was outside watching the storm come. . . It’s wonderful!”
“I’m throwing away all these magazines,” said Agatha, coming over to restack the scattered pile. “But not all of them are mine, you know.”
“As if any of them were mine,” said Isabella, coming into the living room from the hallway.
With a haughty air she turned the face of one magazine around with the extended toe of her left foot.
“I guess I do recognize that issue. My, how the years have passed!”
“Yes,” laughed Beatrice, ‘your many years have caught up with you!”
“Daddy,” continued Isabella, “where have you been? Mama was biting her nails.”
Susanna entered the room.
“Oh, god, Agie’s throwing out her horrid copies of Cosmopolitan. Good-bye Britney.”
She paced around the coffee table dramatically, carrying a clipboard and paper on which she was making a list of items she needed at Sarah Lawrence this coming semester.
“I’m throwing yours away too,” replied Agatha, sure of herself in the face of her sisters’ blatant denials.
“Man, daddy, you are soaked.” Susanna had walked over and was offering to take the package. “What were you doing, driving a convertible?”
“I was just walking, enjoying the cool air. What a relief! Thank you, Sue. Could you just open that up and set them in a vase?”
“A vase?” asked Beatrice, her interest piqued. “Did you buy us flowers?”
“Weren’t you scared?” asked Agatha. “Even the windows rattled!”
“Well, yeah, but the beauty of it, you know, I wanted to appreciate it. . . Yes, flowers.”
Beatrice stood in baggy shorts and jersey, her mouth open in disbelief.
“This is the first rain we’ve had in months, momma,” said Agatha.
“No, Aggie,” said Isabella, “mama is shocked because Daddy has come home with flowers.”
“Why, what’s the big deal,” replied Agatha. “Even though they are used to each other, they’re still in love.”
The third or fourth wave of thunder and lightning crossed over the city after everyone had gone to bed. In my sleepy ruminations, I heard grumbling, angry voices, saw the slicing bars of light. After all, Beatrice had thrown the Goddess out. Beatrice had asserted full control of her life, of her aging, of her intellect. So the Nameless One had revenged Herself on me.
“Yes, my honey-man, you do prefer my hollow but exquisite features, my painted eyes, my amber lips and the way I make you feel, deep inside. Talk to your wife, the bitch, whenever you want, but dear boy, come back to Me when you want to feel young, the sweet, young man you were when I first came to you at the woodpile.”
In anguish I rolled over in bed and felt Beatrice. She moved imperceptibly. I found her less than perfect breasts, the quietness of those fruits that didn’t strive for the illusions. These were not the sweet canned fruits of my youth. She giggled in her sleep.
Ardently the Goddess whispered, “Pay attention!”
I held onto Bea’s breast with ever tightening grip.
“NO! my sweet thing here, I am here inside you!”
“Ouch,” cried Beatrice, waking suddenly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh god, I’m sorry, I was just holding on, afraid to let you go. I must have been
Dreaming.”
She reached sleepily around and held me in her arms. I held onto her, as onto a raft, my head leaning against her chest. Her breathing resumed its deep and regular rhythm. The night air smelled sweet with rain. A gentle, susurrus melody stripped of any malicious content, helped to quiet the eternal city. On it we were floating in a sea of gentle motion. Around me stretched the endless surface of the sea broken by the steady cadence of drops. The sound comforted me the way rain falling steadily on the surface of a wooden roof comforts. I loosened my grip, but didn’t relinquish my hold. A gentle propelling breeze cooled us. Her stomach rose and fell to the gentle rhythm of her breathing. She was asleep again. The moment had passed. Ahead still lay the rich lands of the imagination. At last the two of us were alone.

VELLUM’S PARADISE, PART IV

Time, that mysterious movement issuing from the indefinable, filling the vacuous dimensions men chose to call days, months, years. . . With his marker, he would regulate its motion, crossing each day off the calendar, replacing it with another, which, because it possessed the same characteristics, caused him to see in every passing day but one eternal day. But Time, despite his efforts, continued passing through the four walls of his room, in a succession of nights and days, of days growing shorter and nights growing longer, accumulating in the great reservoirs of days, weeks and months. It would flow forth interminably from a corner of the universe, a bottomless font; and it had been silly of him to have believed he had discovered a means of halting its motion, of paralyzing it, even for the moment. What he had done, perhaps no man had ever done before, not here in this country. In the east, the far east, men had probably seen what he had seen, the timeless tranquility of paradise. But even that now was a memory, since he had not possessed, nor understood the motion itself.

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VELLUM’S PARADISE, PART II

The shop door was locked. He rang the bell once more and waited. No one came. Despite the reflections of the street in the window, he could see, beyond the scrambling pedestrians late for work and the ramshackle townhouses on the opposite side of the street where he lived, the dusky interior. He couldn’t see it and he alone was to blame. The man probably sold it. Vellum had quibbled over details, had vacillated over the cost. Still, there was a possibility the man had only moved it to another corner of the shop. He followed the advancing light, became fascinated with its progress through the interior of the shop. A glimmer of hope charged his despair. He watched the light probing the interstices between the large pieces of dark wood furniture. Glass glittered in the passing light. In chiffoniers and commodes the light revealed small enameled pillboxes. Shelves appeared lined with odd sorts of bric-a-brac. Beneath the shining intruder, etageres and cabinets were forced to display their holdings. Vials, flasks and flagons, decanters and demijohns, capsules and canisters, all seemed uplifted and overturned. Then, near a point where the light dissolved in the reflections in a mirror, he distinguished the veiled crags, pinnacles, the entire landscape in the print he wanted.

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VELLUM’S PARADISE, PART I

One late November day, Thomas Vellum sat by the window watching the families gathering in the portal of the church across the street. Tears formed and all hope dissolved in the flow down his cheeks. He was unemployed. His landlord was raising the rent in January. With the government’s permission the utilities were increasing their rates next month. Once, he was in the habit of turning off his lights when they weren’t needed; despite his frugality, he was paying more. He rarely used the telephone, his bills astounded him.

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