Another Winter by Klaus Kertess

BOMB 28 Summer 1989

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Daily the city became more difficult to imagine. Shadows were robbing metaphor of its necessary light. Abject poverty and abject wealth had appropriated all the hues of meaninglessness. What words were left left little hope for nourishment. Even thoughts of the bygone summer lacked real sustenance. Progress’ greed had made his need for sunlight carcinogenic. Hospitals had spiked the rolling tides with hypodermic needles and viral waste. Inhabitants of the city were told the gaseous swelter they were gagging on was the combined result of the presence of ozone on the ground and the absence of ozone in the atmosphere. Industrial exhaust was exhausting life; science fiction was sliding out of the future tense. For many, the death penalty was the only answer. For others, more self indulgence would have to do. He inclined to the latter; but it was no longer an easy matter. Not just seduction but even desire had acquired the aloof spell of artifacts from a distant culture—and middle age alone was not to blame.

As he slurped through the morbid slush of rain and snow, he battled with the apprehension of seeing, yet again, one more face with “sex kills” written across gaunt flesh. He descended the steps of the subway to find the local homeless straightening out their sheets of newspaper on their soggy cardboard mattresses. This communal ritual of domesticity momentarily left only the silence of fermenting piss and sweat to assault anxious sensibilities. On the platform, a girl/woman made bulbously topheavy and grotesquely ageless by Downe’s Syndrome was convulsively laughing and pleading with two cops to make her their guard dog. She bit her hands and gleefully barked to prove her canine capabilities. “Have a nice day,” they all said.

In the subway, he read and silently recited the familiar litanies of threat and abstention that had gradually displaced the advertisements glamorizing smoking and drinking. With the exception of an occasional exhortation to phonesex, the placards piously devoted space to Fraud/Abuse, drug addiction; Pregnant? We can help; and the pathetically punning plea not to go out without your rubbers. More strident were the pleas of the scarred and scabbed who lurched through, one per car per stop, rattling coin filled cups and battered lives. “Have a nice day,” they all said.

He got off at Twenty-third Street to go to the Y for one of his thrice weekly battles with entropy. Mindless maintenance was demanding more and more of his time. The drudge of bodybuilding was partially relieved by the bracing sweat of steambath and sauna, and the nakedness that sported an endless variety of cocks. Once upon a time, this had led to a belated return to adolescent sessions of mutual masturbation—or even to a hurried anonymous tryst. Now the voyeuristic act of classification had to suffice as an end in itself. In the shower, his customary relish in the lavish lather proferred by a brand new bar of soap was interrupted by the simultaneous leer of three old men with nearly identical uncut cocks—their shrivelled masculinity vainly struggling out from under cascading floods of abdominal folds. “Have a nice day,” they all said.

The only solution was to leave. To leave behind the smelled but unseen sunsets. To leave behind the dank and horizonless mineshaft of the city to brood by itself over its exhausted veins. To loose himself in the endless stanzas of the sea. To see sun and horizon.

On the plane, just the thought of South smoothed his face with near beatitude. For a long time South had meant Quintana Roo—a name and a place that simply sparkled, a state and a state of mind that separated the silky undulation of the Caribbean from the weightier rhythms of the Yucatan. But, in the fall, a hurricane’s rage had blighted this delight; so South would now be further south and be Costa Rica. Could a country named “rich in coasts” be wrong?

A night in Costa Rica’s capital still separated him from the sea. What he noticed most in San José was the total absence of mucous’ guttural sputter that curdled the cold of North’s winter. The food, unfortunately was all politeness. The subtly orchestrated fierceness of earth and fire that ravished the tongue in Mexico was nowhere to be tasted there. But, in the morning, the hoped for delirium began as he drove into the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of Costa Rica’s landscapes. Atlantic and Pacific, cloud forest and rain forest, active volcano and fertile farmed valley, sun and rain, cold and hot raced and replaced each other in dream’s speed. The narrowness of the country seems only to have multiplied and intensified its diversity. His goal was southwest, but the mountains first forced the road southeast; San José was quickly superseded by a cloud forest. Pine bearing rocks and spuming waterfalls appeared, disappeared and re-appeared in an endless unfurling of puffing whiteness. He floated over the ever-twisting road as though his car were being propelled by the vaporous strokes of a Chinese wash drawing.

He quickly descended from clouds into clarity to glide through a green valley. Clumps of tall white and fleshy pink lilies, heavy with their narcotic stamens, slowly swung under the sun. He knew them from another dream. “Queen of the Night” their lush but harsh seduction was called. He stopped to pick a few. The air was hot but crystalline—radiant with the exhalation of a scent that evaporated on the threshold of his nostrils’ knowledge. The valley opened into relentless flatness; and clouds once more enveloped his path—clouds of dirt rising from a rocky, unpaved road. As straight as it was bumpy, the road bounced by countless, stiff battalions of pine trees and banana palms, occasionally interrupted by a crouching village. The Pacific Ocean, he knew, was on his right, and all was right.

Slowness and sameness blurred into uncounted hours until the straightness finally gave way to the town of Quepos and steep cliffs that paralleled the ocean’s horizon. On one of these cliffs, a farm and a guest house were precipitously inclined over the ocean below. This radically tilted plane was to be his retreat. The caretaker showed him into one of four rooms that shared an interior courtyard and a vine enshrouded verandah perched at mid-tree height with the Pacific in sight.

He rushed to wash away the city’s residue in the warm and briny bubbling of the ocean. He was too exhausted to notice much except the water lapping at his flesh and the velvet feeling underfoot on the beach. The sand was softer, finer, far denser and greyer than the sand on North’s shores. He was only peripherally aware of the long, lean, assless man who so purposefully brushed by him on this deserted strand. He was even less aware of the steamy chatter that enveloped him as he passed through the band of palm trees on his way back up the hill. Dinner served by the caretaker on the verandah was as bland as it was welcome. The thick thud of a sloth falling out of the vines above sent both the sloth and him packing. He willingly surrendered his consciousness to the waves’ polyphonic prose.

He woke up in a wailing whirlpool of sound. A high pitched, relentlessly circling shriek—like the mournful, morning supplication of some frenzied, monkish cult. Struggle as he might, he couldn’t rise to the surface of this shrillness; willingly or not he slowly sank into the regularity of its revolutions. Soon the saturated pitch began to soothe. Abruptly it stopped. He couldn’t yet see, but he already knew this hyper-chant emanated from the hind legs of a virtuoso species of cricket that he had never encountered before. This was the sunrise raga that was daily to precipitate his awakening; and, just as regularly it would lure the sun back into the ocean to the accompaniment of a fanfare of orange and flame.

Here, so often, sound, not sight, would initiate sense. His eyes, when he looked up, flinched and vibrated with vibrations counter to those of the pulsing light; when he looked down, his eyes rolled helplessly in a flood of waxy luxuriance. Only reluctantly would the lascivious turbulence surrender to the desire for categorization. For several days, orchid, lily, morning glory, and the cascading heliconia were only lurid flickerings on the racing torrents of green. Land crabs were flashes of lapis lazuli and hummingbirds an enamelled disturbance of the air. Lovebirds could only be perceived as the staccato of some frantic sonata. He recognized the parrots’ cackling screech but could see no trace of its instrument’s case.

Very slowly would sound acquire shape, and order tune the tropical cacophony. The screech turned acid green, and the chattering in the palm trees turned into a flurry of snowy white that masked the faces of a rollicking troupe of squirrel monkeys. The hummingbird surrendered its transparent suspension to gravity just long enough to acquire the weight of classification. All, of course, performed on a schedule whose logic was readily synchronized with that of his wrist watch. The cricket chant at 5:30 AM, the entrance of parrots and love birds at 7:15 AM, followed by hummingbirds, red winged blackbirds, and countless finches. At 8:00 AM pelicans glided by in a sail formation, anxious to fill the copious buckets of their beaks. By noon, all had built into a technicolor crescendo that slowly reversed itself in the course of the afternoon—until the crickets chanted all into the hush of dusk.

His schedule unwound in spirals of more subjective needs. In the morning, he simply camouflaged himself in the fluctuations of flora and fauna. In the afternoon, he gave his body to the ocean – swimming long and slowly or just floating on the roll of the surface. When the waves permitted, he climbed onto the phantom spires of the pocked rock outcroppings that framed the ocean’s shallows to watch the tide write its rhythms on the grainy softness of the sand, until he too would be called into dusk by the crickets’ wail. Dinner, sleep, and cricket chant again.

As individual species of birds, crabs, flowers, shrubs and trees began to grow and root in his awareness, so too did his own physicality. And so it transpired that one afternoon he was diverted from the puzzle of the zigzagging intaglio maze being made by tiny snails just below the surface of the sand to the more solvable puzzle of the path made by a variety of single males—a path that lost itself in a low wall of rocks. Amongst the makers of this trail, he recognized the thin, assless man who had brushed by him on his first day. This same man now smiled at him all too familiarly. He waited just long enough for the man to disappear behind the rocks, then followed. The wall hid from sight a tranquil cove where some 15 men lay alone or with a partner. A resting herd basking in sun and arousal. In his haste to avoid the leer of the one he had followed, his eyes fell into those of a languid, burnished, black haired youth lying on his back—the only celebrant who had kept on his bathing suit. The scant suit’s tightness was as brazen as the smile that slid from torrid welcome to cool disdain and back again. All this with just enough humor to forestall intimidation. The slightest flash of the youth’s dark eyes and the nearly imperceptible nod of his head were welcomed as an invitation to join him. He sat down. They appreciatively appraised each other. Words were not immediately needed. He became acutely aware of the efforts of all the other sunbathers to siphon off for themselves some of the energy of this newly possible liaison. Sufficiently encouraged, he was about to risk a declarative verbal or physical gesture, when the youth rolled over and turned his muscular back to him in order to light a cigarette. Glistening sand cascaded down the rippling backside. His fixed gaze, the reflective intensity of the sun, together with the sliding crystals of sand triggered an hallucinatory dance of purplish sun spots. As his hand reached out through this enhancement, the whirl of discs disappeared. No sooner did they disappear than they reappeared—but now in stationary randomness emblazoned on the youth’s back. His hand recoiled with unknown speed. North seized his consciousness and banished all joy as his eyes riveted on the dire monogram of the plague his dreams had never dreamed of here.

“You shouldn’t be in the sun. It’s dangerous for you.” He was speaking to the back.

The youth rolled over to face him once again. The meaning of his smile was now lost in an exasperation of opacity.

He pleaded with the smile, “Don’t you speak English?”

The smile slowly ebbed into the lips’ labors to shape the sounds of another’s tongue. Flatly he intoned, “Virgil is still the Frog Boy.”

Klaus Kertess is a writer who lives and works in New York. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a book on the painter Brice Marden.

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Originally published in

BOMB 28, Summer 1989
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