I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
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I want to scream for the hungry people around the world.
Is it all right, is it all right if I scream?
I don’t think you all know what I’m talking about.
I have never believed in decorating cells.
—Nelson Mandela, on visiting his former cell at Robben Island
They think we know what we’re doing,
that don’t mean a thing,
Money changes everything.
l have the right to remain silent. I have the right to remain single. I have the right to live with someone. I have the right to have a lawyer. I have the right to be sad. I have the right to be stupid. I have the right to be happy when other people are miserable. I have the right to make one telephone call.
In jail, after she’d murdered the moron, she’d be given one phone call, but only after she’d demanded it. She’s gonna lawyer up, a sleek cop would whisper to his partner, the beer-bellied one. Elizabeth didn’t know who she’d phone from jail. Roy would think it was a joke. She didn’t have a lawyer.
Silently Elizabeth gave herself a Miranda warning. You aren’t Latin, you aren’t going to wiggle your hips for money and wear fruit on your head, you aren’t going to turn yourself in to the authorities, even though you are guilty. You will try to destroy the authority within. You are not going to destroy yourself. You will sleep tonight. You are going to quit your job. You are going to tell her to leave you alone.
A car alarm shrieked. Elizabeth flipped over on the couch. She covered her ears with her hands. The alarm screeched, wailed. Pulsated, throbbed. It sounded like inevitability. There were fewer car alarms now. No one paid attention to them.
They cried wolf. It was torture. The chimes on the church across the street rang dully a few minutes after the hour. 8:00 AM.
Her friend kept a dozen eggs on his windowsill. When a car alarm went off under his window, especially when he was sick and couldn’t sleep, he was always ready to toss eggs at the cars. He was tall and had long arms. She never asked him if he hit a car. It was too late. He was dead.
Elizabeth watched the clock. She worried about retaliation. If one of her foes saw her throw eggs, and that foe owned the car or knew the person whose car it was, if the young super caught her doing it, it could mean trouble for her on the block.
Cops didn’t respond to car alarms. She didn’t want to think about her dead friend. If she phoned the cops, they’d say they were sending a car. They always said that.
Being alive was its own reward.
Roy was sleeping. So was Fatboy. The clock alarm rang. Unconscious, Roy reached for the alarm. He had a hard time finding it on the floor. He did and shut it off. He was still in Roy’s underworld. The car alarm stopped.
Heavy feet stomped up the stairs. Doorbells buzzed. Their doorbell. Twice. Rebellious, resigned, Elizabeth grunted and crossed the room. She walked to the broken clothes closet. She was naked. She pulled on her thickest robe. It was the Con Ed man.
The Con Ed man always rang twice. He appeared regularly, once a month. Depending on how eager he was to finish his day, which was the beginning of her day, he woke her at 7:00, 8:00, or 9:00 AM. She’d put on her robe—he’d be shouting, CON ED CON ED CON ED, buzzing everyone’s doorbell—and she’d let him in. He’d beam his flashlight at the meter, he’d punch in the numbers on his blue electronic notepad. Then he’d leave.
Elizabeth wondered how he felt about people in general, what kind of feelings he had about waking everyone, if he did, and how he felt about seeing people in semiconscious states, in their ratty robes, or half-naked, and whether he wanted the job so that he could see people like that. She wondered if his job made him like people more or less.
Elizabeth yelled, OK, wait a second. Her nakedness was covered. She opened the door to Con Ed. It was 8:30 AM.
—You’re late, she said.
He grinned and flashed his light at the meter, punched in the numbers. He appeared sheepish. He bent his head down as he walked out the door. He always lowered his head. He was tall, not as tall as her dead friend. Elizabeth shut the door behind him.
In the hospital her dead friend said to his mother, I’m at peace, then he shut his eyes, went to sleep, and left the world in the early morning of an Independence Day.
The Con Ed man shouted again, Con Ed, Con Ed. Some tenants never opened their doors to him. He probably didn’t take it personally, unless he was paranoid. Some tenants figured that the amount of gas and electricity Con Ed estimated was less than what they actually used. Those tenants received an official letter. Con Ed insisted upon reading their meters.
Elizabeth switched on the radio—we’ll give you the world, Ten Ten WINS. She turned the volume low. The radio muttered fitfully. She put a pot of water on the stove. A thread dangled from the gas pipe. It hung there petulantly. It’d been there for half a century. It was there because if there was a gas leak, you could put a match to the thread and then explode.
Roy said she used too much toilet paper. She couldn’t accept his leaving the seat up. After years of living with him, she still didn’t understand him. She had a boyfriend who didn’t use toilet paper when he pissed, like Roy and other men, but his penis leaked. It left a wet spot on his pants. He had an operation on his penis, performed by his surgeon father. Later, he went to a therapist for a long time. Elizabeth broke up with him three years before Roy came along. She saw him on the street every once in a while. He looked insane.
She switched off the news. She turned on Courtney Love who sang petulantly, “I make my bed and I lie in it.” She had a right to be miserable. Everyone did.
Elizabeth sat down at the rectangular formica table in the kitchen. Sunlight or gloom entered through two dirty windows. She wouldn’t clean them. She could lose her balance and fall out. The young super would be ecstatic if she cracked her skull open and her brains bled out. He’d be delighted. All her enemies would.
She’d fall onto the backyard patio. There was a backyard, with a tree. A New York tree, a weed. It was unashamed and hardy for a long time. Unabashed, it grew. Now the tree was dying. The landlord didn’t tend it. It was suffering from a disease that was probably curable. Gloria was a treekiller. Elizabeth had become attached to the once-sturdy weed. In winter, it shed its leaves and withered. It became skeletal and forlorn. There’d been a weeping willow in front of the house she grew up in. The willow’s roots were strong. They made the walkway buckle. Her parents had the willow tree pulled out and thrown away, because it caused trouble. A weeping willow, out her bedroom window, a weeping pillow in her bedroom, the tree caused trouble, and she grew up.
A man goes to the pearly gates. St. Peter asks how much he made last year, and he says, $300,000. What’d you do? St. Peter asks. I was a lawyer. St. Peter says, Go through. The next guy comes along, and St. Peter asks him how much he made, and he says, I made $100,000. St. Peter asks, What’d you do? I was a doctor, the guy says. Go through, St. Peter tells him. The next guy arrives, and St. Peter asks him how much he made. I made $7,000, the guy says. St. Peter says, Oh yeah, I think I’ve heard you play.
Elizabeth was on call for the proofroom today. If one of the obese men was still sick, she’d do some time, a few hours. Yesterday she finished a freelance job—a dictionary, small print—in the room. The room called doing freelance doubledipping. The obese men frowned on it, others just didn’t do it, others could care less. As long as you put your freelance away when the pages swished into the basket, you didn’t get in trouble with the supervisors.
There’s always something that needs to be done around the house, her mother often remarked. It was a reason to hate houses and mothers.
Elizabeth stirred the black coffee in the blue cup. Roy stirred in the bed at the other end of the apartment. She didn’t talk to him in the morning. He wasn’t available. It wasn’t his time.
The air wasn’t circulating. It was stolid and stale. When she thought about summer in winter, she didn’t remember how dead the air was. People like the change of seasons. They don’t remember everything about them.
She had to get Greta, Regreta, out of her life, extricate her. It was funny. She’d realized that one night after a rainstorm, when she’d come home soaked and frenetic, and there was another Greta phone call, asking for something and denigrating someone else, it was about how the person had taken something from her, used her. Regreta complained about people stealing from her, imitating her, borrowing for good her work, men, books, jokes, clothes. On the surface, Greta was calm and compassionate. It had never occurred to Elizabeth that she schemed, that she was part of Greta’s scheme. The revelation came after the thunderstorm.
Elizabeth’s wet clothes were lying in a lump on the floor. She kicked them into the bathroom with her bare foot. She listened to Regreta complain and realized, everything she’s complaining about she is and does.
Friendships never end nicely. People want to think that the things they hate are not in them, that what hurts them isn’t in them to do, that they’re incapable of behavior like that. Almost beyond repair, people did precisely what they complained others did to them. A simple thing was not phoning a friend back and keeping the friend waiting, for days maybe weeks. Simple sadism. People hated it done to them, and they did it to other people. Elizabeth didn’t trust herself. She thought primitively, she thought all thought was in a way primitive or basic, there was no purity in thinking. Everyone was a fool to think they could think their way out of their thoughts.
The spring thunderstorm was huge, and the city collapsed for a minute or two under its weight. The tops of roofs crumbled and one or two people were hit on their heads by bricks falling from a great height. They died. A terrible way to die. You finish work and a brick hits you on your temple. First you’re lied to by a friend and then a brick falls on your head and you’re dead.
She’d quit her job and lose the friendship. Elizabeth stared at the phone, her indifferent emissary to the outside world.
She took a shower. The guy next door took a shower. The water stopped running in her shower. He’d made a science of it, timed it. Maybe he wanted to be next to her. Pink tiles separated them. He was scrubbing, she was scrubbing. Maybe he’d heard her turn on the water, and the thought of it seeped through, he remembered he hadn’t showered. The water pressure lowered. It got lower. The water trickled down. Oscar, she yelled, Oscar, wait a second. He turned off his water and waited. She rinsed. OK, she shouted. He started his water. It was a weird intimacy.
Oscar was a wiry Irish guy with a shaved head. He’d been in the States for years. He did odd jobs and had a string of girlfriends. They were all Irish. All the people who visited him or lived with him were either Irish, Irish American, or African American. Oscar once played his music very loud, in the middle of the night. They’d worked that out. It took a while, but they’d worked it out. He was all right. Except he showered when she did.
Roy and the dog went for a walk, coffee, the newspaper. Fatboy was a mutt. He wasn’t fat, he was solid like Roy. When the two returned, Roy drank his coffee and fed Fatboy. Elizabeth was on the phone, talking to Larry.
—With families you don’t need enemies.
Roy handed Elizabeth the Times. He took a shower—Oscar never showered at the same time as Roy—dressed for work and walked to the door. They kissed. As soon as she touched his lips and smelled him, she wanted him to stay. But he left.
—It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, Lizard, Roy said.
He locked the door behind him. Elizabeth went back to the table. Abandoned, Fatboy marched over to be petted.
New York, Friday, June 17, 1994. Late edition. Today, early clouds, then hazy, warm, humid. High 86. Tonight muggy, coastal fog. Low 75. Tomorrow, sultry. High 92. Yesterday, high 82, low 67.
GOP IN THE HOUSE IS TRYING TO BLOCK HEALTH CARE BILL. GENERALS OPPOSE COMBAT BY WOMEN. NEW YORK DEBATES ITS RULES FOR COMMITTING MENTALLY ILL. US JURIES GROW TOUGHER ON THOSE SEEKING DAMAGES. QUEST FOR SAFER CIGARETTE NEVER REACHED GOAL. LIRR WORKERS GO ON STRIKE; COMMUTERS BRACE FOR GRIDLOCK. CLINTON MAY ADD GI’S IN KOREA WHILE REMAINING OPEN TO TALKS.
It wasn’t a good death day. A newsworthy death was noted on page one, in a box, or the obituary itself started on page one. BRINGING BACK WOLVES was the box. There was a picture of a wolf, grinning. Thirty wolves were going to be reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. They could introduce them to Tompkins Square Park.
Elizabeth smiled like a wolf at Fatboy. He growled.
She turned to the obits first. Sports fans turn to the sports page for the scores. She was a death fan. She read every one, including the listings. She learned about the deaths of uncles and aunts of people she barely knew. Losses of high school friends she never saw. Some deaths consumed space. Famous figures. Infamous. Peculiar. Some deaths the living fought to have recognized by the Times. She knew of people who worried about how long their obits were going to be. They worried they wouldn’t get a full column. They wanted a picture. Pictures were usually taken 20 years, on average, before the person’s death, which meant the person’s achievements were made 20 years before, then they disappeared from public view or they didn’t want to be photographed later, older, otherwise there’d be a more recent picture available. Columns of print about the dead next to pictures of their relatively young faces.
His death may have been a suicide, technically, since he didn’t choose extraordinary measures. He let himself die naturally. He didn’t tell her of his wish for self-death. Selfish death. He said once, I’m not afraid to die.
Death notices were straightforward. They paled next to the In Memoriams, addressed directly to the dead. Eerie, sad, silly, understandable, the way most things are.
“My heart is with you.” The dead person was not going to read it, will never know this. “I have never stopped thinking about you.” Only the living will know that someone’s thinking of her. Elizabeth wondered what it meant—direct addresses to the dead for the living to read.
—I guess it’s the thought that counts, she told Roy yesterday.
—Yeah, but what’s the thought.
In Memoriam. Told death to fuck itself, death fucks everybody except itself. Write if you can.
The coffee was bitter. She put another lemon peel in it and stirred again. Fatboy shook his tail. He wanted another walk. Elizabeth didn’t want to take him. She didn’t like scooping up his shit especially in the summer.
A man comes home from the golf course. His wife says: Why do you look so depressed? The man says: Harry had a heart attack. His wife says: That’s terrible. The man says: Yes, it was. All day long it was, hit the ball, drag Harry, hit the ball, drag Harry.
The void was outside her door. The stairs were an abyss of green sticky slime. There was an uncommonly strong, foul smell. It didn’t seem to be the green slime. Someone may have died. The last time she thought someone was dead in the building, because of a smell wafting up from below her wooden floor, she figured a dead rat or pigeon was decomposing, and she went downstairs and asked her downstairs neighbors if they smelled something dead. They said they were cooking. They were a little distant after that. Roy said, What’d you expect.
Elizabeth was stymied in front of her door. She unlocked it. Ernest trotted jauntily down the stairs. They met at her landing. It was the first time in months.
—What’s that stench? Elizabeth asked.
—There’s a guy sleeping at my door. I’m still running a homeless shelter, Ernest said.
—Even in the summer?
They walked down the filthy stairs together. Cigarettes, a used condom, gum wrappers, dried gum blackened with time. It didn’t stick anymore. Nothing big. The smell became worse.
Ernest clutched The Confessions of St. Augustine to his chest.
—If there’s a heat wave, he said. All the garbage …
—Don’t say it. The Confessions?
—When I was a kid, I wanted to be a priest.
—Did you go to confession?
—Sure. Catholics go to confession.
There was blood on the vestibule floor. Crack vials. The smell was overwhelming. There was a pile of shit near a bunch of take-out menus pushed behind the door.
The smell was coming from upstairs and downstairs.
Elizabeth was nauseated, speechless. Ernest understood. They looked into each other’s eyes and stepped over the shit. Probably human shit. Some of the crack-heads came back and shit on your floor if you pushed them out of the vestibule, or were too tough with them. It was retribution. It could’ve been the peroxided one. She was out to get Elizabeth.
—Nice, Ernest said.
—Lovely, Elizabeth said.
She held her nose. Ernest said he’d call the landlord about getting a new door. If there was a good lock on the outside door, the dopesters and crackheads wouldn’t get in, and the homeless man wouldn’t be able to get up the stairs and sleep on the top landing.
Elizabeth and Ernest were on the street, in front of the lousy door.
—I’ve tried, Elizabeth said.
—I’ll give it another whirl, he said.
—Good luck, she said.
—Good lock, he said.
Ernest smiled grimly.
Hector was outside, too, on the sidewalk, conspiring with the Big G.
—Not our day, Elizabeth whispered.
—I’m not ready for this, Ernest said.
Ernest walked one way, she walked the other. She had to pass the Big G and Hector. This is my street, they’re not going to make me run, Elizabeth encouraged herself. She marched past them, eyes straight ahead. She controlled her breathing. In, out, in, out, in, out. Calm, even breaths. She controlled herself from jumping up and down on the sidewalk and screaming, There’s shit in the vestibule, Hector. Human shit.
It was late morning. Elizabeth felt late, good for nothing. Her mother said she was a good for nothing.
Elizabeth fell into the day. The endless night had oozed, dripped into day. She walked on. There may have been people who despised her on sight, or who had grown to dislike her over the years, or who never even noticed her though they passed her on the street every day. But she was ignorant of them. She headed east toward Avenue A, toward the park.
Tyrone was coming toward her.
—Hey, Elizabeth, let me wash your windows. I’ll do them today.
Tyrone always had a wave and a big smile for Elizabeth. Hector and the Big G were watching, she knew they were. So was Frankie. Everyone knew Tyrone. He was a big, friendly black guy, almost a giant. Tyrone was retarded. He hung around the neighborhood, their building especially. He appeared out of nowhere. He needed work. He wanted to clean the halls of their building.
Tyrone told Elizabeth he lived in Brooklyn. Sometimes he couldn’t get back to Brooklyn because he didn’t have a token. She lent him money and told him she didn’t want it back. He always tried to pay her back. He’d grab her hand, shake it and hold it. He needed affection, to be touched. She’d shake his hand and then, after he’d passed by, she’d wave her hand in the air. She didn’t think she’d catch something. He was a sad case.
—I’ll wash your windows, Tyrone said, I’ll do your windows, today, anytime.
—No no, she said, no, thanks.
—I’ll do a good job, you’ll see.
—I’ll pay you if you do it.
—You’ll see how clean I can get them.
—No, no, Tyrone. Thanks, but no, not today.
—You don’t have to pay me. I’ll do a good job.
Voluntary servitude alarmed her, she’d been a volunteer. She’d had other slavish offers, to rub her back, massage her feet, do her floors, suck her cunt, whatever. She didn’t take them up, not for long, anyway. It’s easy to be a casual sadist.
She didn’t want the pleasure. A man’s face, blurry, ashen, a trashy hotel room, a bottle of Jack Daniels, picture imperfect, sounds muted, the tape played often, had worn itself out, rubbed itself out. It speeded up and slowed down, and the pictures were smeared, run through too often, everything in pieces, he doesn’t matter. Rocket to oblivion. She didn’t want that. No sense to it, she thought. He tried to take me down with him, but in the end I ruined him. He’s a ruined man today, Elizabeth remembered contentedly.
Everyone should confess.
Sometimes Hector used Tyrone to clean the halls. He probably didn’t pay him, or he paid him next to nothing. Hector permitted Tyrone to do it, gave him the chance to work, because he didn’t want to bother to do it himself. Tyrone needed approval, so he’d do anything. You have to be in pretty bad shape yourself, reduced to petty inhumanities, to take advantage of retarded people. Hector was oppressed and oppressive.
Tyrone would clean the halls and stairs. But since he hadn’t been properly hired—the Big G didn’t know or wouldn’t approve, Hector should be doing it, it was his job—Tyrone’s work had to be accomplished surreptitiously. Tyrone didn’t have access to a sink and clean water. He’d mop the six floors with the same bucket of dirty water. The dirt was pushed around, spread from corner to corner. Elizabeth always thanked him, because the floors looked a little better, the dirt was diluted, thinned into dark streaks. All Tyrone wanted was to be thanked.
When Elizabeth offered Tyrone money for cleaning the halls, he refused. He seemed hurt by her offer. Offended. He’d say no, and awkwardly offer his big hand to shake hers, and they’d shake, and then she’d walk away. She tried not to look back, then she did. He’d be smiling at her and nodding his head.
Today, he held her there. She was trapped. Tyrone showed her pictures of his wedding. Maybe his wife was slightly retarded too. They both looked blissfully or uncomfortably out of it. Tyrone was happy about the wedding. Marriage was the highpoint of many people’s lives. It was pathetic. She thought she should buy Tyrone a present. Roy would tell her not to get any more involved than she was. Elizabeth had as many compunctions as compulsions.
What do you call a midget psychic on the lam?
A small medium at large.
Tyrone reminded her of the money slave. Roy and his friend Joe hooked up with the money slave years ago. Joe saw an ad in the the Village Voice about earning money writing music reviews, no experience necessary. Joe and Roy contacted him. Easy money.
It was a hustle, a ruse. The money slave wanted another kind of transaction—he wanted them to make him work, wanted them to order him to work, he demanded them to force him over the telephone to work harder for them, to make him make money for them, to take two jobs, even three, to support them. He paid them to say that. He phoned them, and they’d accommodate him.
They met with him in person occasionally. The money slave would hand over the money he’d asked Roy and Joe to order him to earn for them. Elizabeth followed Roy to one of his meetings with the money slave, at the World Trade Center. From behind a column she watched Roy make the exchange with the money slave. He was an average looking white guy, a low level Wall Street suit. Time passed, and Elizabeth thought it’d never happened.
Roy was supposed to be the money slave’s master. It’s hard to be a master, if you’re not trained for it. There’s an art to everything. The money slave probably didn’t have a family to make demands on him or to give purpose and meaning to a life of pallid corporate indenture. He was a lonely guy with strange, memorable desires. He explained to Roy: If you made me take a second job, that would make you the most important thing in my life.
When the money slave was groveling, squealing, on the phone—tell me to work harder, tell me, tell me to take a third job to support you, tell me, make me work harder for you—suddenly Roy couldn’t control himself. He laughed. The money slave was insulted, embarrassed. He hung up. He never called again. Roy lost the gig. The money slave paid for his own brand of humiliation. He had needs, desires. The city offered him anonymity. He could buy workers, substitutes. When he wanted, who, where, what kind, for how long. Roy laughed at an inappropriate moment. He couldn’t keep it up, even for the money. Someone else’s fantasy is a joke, a comedy.
Tyrone walked west. The Big G and Hector trapped him. They were talking to him. The Big G was shaking a hypocritical white finger at him. They’d castigate him, Gloria especially, she’d mete out some punishment for him, and call it work. The Big G didn’t want him around, Hector did if he could use him. Tyrone was unpredictable, but he was harmless.
Lynne Tillman is the author of Cast in Doubt and The Madame Realism Complex. In her most recent book, The Velvet Years: 1965–1967 (Thunder’s Mouth), Tillman’s text accompanies Stephen Shore’s photographs of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Haunted Houses, her first full-length novel, was recently reissued by High Risk Books. No Lease on Life is a novel-in-progress.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.