The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
And then Gregory said that Gloria, who really was just a kid, inexperienced, not at all sophisticated in affairs of the heart, had left the apartment on Clinton Street just before Christmas, a few days after you met me in the bookstore, Gregory said, she started driving me up the wall, he said, he said that her incessant demands, her sexual demands on him, would start at 4:00 in the morning when he got off his shift at the restaurant, I’d be half dead, Gregory said, my feet would be throbbing all I’d want to do would be to get my clothes off and do aerobics for 20 minutes and then pass out, he said, and Gloria, as soon as Gregory came through the door, would grab at his belt trying to get his pants off, she just wasn’t capable of understanding that the last thing in the world I would want at 4:00 in the morning after being on my feet for 12 hours was sex, Gregory explained, in a tone of infinite reasonableness, compassionately, though an aggrieved note kept slipping into his voice, and she’d moved out, finally, actually he’d sort of kicked her out, made her leave, the thing is the apartment is in my name, he said, and now Gloria was persecuting him. He said he’d supported her for several months and even though she had put up some of the initial money for the apartment she’d lived off him since then, he’d certainly more than paid back whatever funds she’d invested in the Clinton Street apartment, but now she’s demanding that I give her back her seven hundred dollars, Gregory said, which is crazy, I just don’t have it. I’m making a lot at the restaurant but I also have a lot of debts, he said, and I’m trying to get my work made, his work involved expensive photographic processes, first I make slides and then those have to be blown up into prints, Gregory explained, it’s costly, my work means everything to me, right now it’s the most important thing in my life, and now, he said, Gloria had launched a campaign of persecution. She had started ringing his door buzzer at all hours, or phoning him in the middle of the night on his nights off, waking him up, throwing pebbles at his windows, screaming up from the street at him, ambushing him when he left his apartment house, he’d taken the keys away, or changed the locks, anyway she couldn’t get in any more, she was demanding money and also claimed he had some of her belongings in there, in fact some of her things are there, he said, she’s welcome to have them back but I won’t have her coming into the place, she has to set it up, so I can have her stuff carried down to the street. I won’t have any more dealings with her, she’s insane. Gregory said that Gloria’s insane behavior was beginning to make him completely paranoid and he had taken to unplugging the telephone and cutting himself off from any contact with the outside world on his days off, I bring all this food home and hole up there watching television, Gregory said, or cutting things out of magazines, I use stuff from magazines in this work that I make, I really want you to see it, he said, but I’m honestly afraid that Gloria’s becoming violent, she’s made threats over the phone, she says she’s hiring goons to beat me up, or she’s going to have this old boyfriend of hers beat the shit out of me, she says all this stuff to me and then she says real sweet that she’d like us to get together and just talk things over, I told her, there’s no way we’re getting back together again, if that’s what you’ve got in mind, Gregory said, I can’t take it, he went on, I’ve been through a lot of bad crap and my threshold for insanity is extremely low, if she keeps this up I don’t know what I’ll do. I am having the telephone number changed, he said, because the phone’s in her name. You threw her out? I said, meaning how does one throw someone out in the middle of winter, a few days before Christmas, in New York City, someone with whom one has been sleeping, it sounded somehow off, a trifle ruthless actually, not withstanding Gloria’s sexual importunities, I thought, there has to be more to it than this.
Not exactly, Gregory said, I mean she agreed to leave, we’d done nothing except fight for days and days and it couldn’t possibly go on like that any longer because one of us would’ve killed the other one, she’s not that crazy, besides which it’s my name on the lease, if one of us were going to move out it was going to be her, I don’t know where she’s staying now but she found somewhere else right off, it’s not like she was suddenly sleeping in the gutter or anything, but now that she’s settled in she’s decided to make my life a living hell, 24 hours a day, all hours of the day and night, it’s incredible that anyone can throw so much energy into making another person miserable.
But this is awful, I said, what’s wrong with her, if she agreed to leave and she knows you can’t possibly pay her this money right now, why does she keep it up? She hates me, Gregory said, she thinks I betrayed her, she’s still in love with me, she won’t give up. I actually feel sorry for her, the sooner she forgets all about me the better off she’ll be, she ought to just find herself another boyfriend, she’s quite attractive, but she always was in love with me with that kind of clinging horrible fixity, we couldn’t just have an ordinary relationship, on her side it was this major passion whereas I loved her but I was never in love with her, being in love is dangerous and stupid, Gregory said, it blinds you to everything, it’s unfair all the way around, I feel a lot of compassion for Gloria but I can’t make myself love her if I don’t love her, can I?
No of course not, I said, I think she’s behaving very unreasonably and this harrassment is absolutely destructive, it’s a pity she can’t step back from her feelings and realize you don’t feel about her the way she feels about you, situations like that are always traumatic, you must be really frazzled, I said, between that job and her showing up all the time, God.
I’m trying with all my will to hold things together, Gregory said, I went through a very very bad time, a few years ago, I had to leave the city for a long time, I got involved in some pretty sordid scenes, fell in with a lot of people who were really, really evil, things got very bad and I had a kind of crack-up and had to get out of here, and for a while I went in and out of a mental hospital, that’s how extreme the thing got, it’s taken me almost four years to put myself completely back together again, I spent two years living like a complete hermit at the seaside, I never saw anyone, I worked as a short order cook in a little diner and kept to myself all the time, I lived in what was basically a shack, out in the dunes up on Cape Cod, I had a dog and that was all I had for company, Lucie, my dog’s name was Lucie, it took me four years to put my nerves together, and before that, when I was living here before, at the end of this truly rotten period I got involved with heroin, heavily involved with it, I made a lot of money back then as an interior designer, which I just sort of fell into, I had this lover who did that for a living and he taught me how to do basic stuff and I began designing stuff myself and then I got written up in a couple of magazines and then every rich old bag in Manhattan wanted me to redesign her apartment, he said that someone in the same business was in love with him at the time and turned him on to smack “and later after I was all fucked up and strung out this guy told me he’d gotten me hooked so I’d get into a condition where nobody else wanted me,” Gregory let this statement sit there for a few moments as if he had unveiled the nature of true evil, then went on, within six months his business went bankrupt because he’d gone through about a hundred thousand dollars in drugs, buying them for himself and buying them for everybody else he knew, and then he’d got severely strung out and sick, also, I finally went home, he told me, first they put me in a dry-out hospital but on the wrong ward, they put me on a ward for the criminally insane, I almost got killed on that ward.
But you’re all right now, I said, thinking that he certainly looked as normal as anybody, in fact looked bursting with health, and furthermore sounded as lucid as anyone I knew. Yes, he said, but this is after drying out up there and fucking up all over again while I lived at my mother’s house, I got completely out of control twice and finally my mother threw me out, after that I checked into the hospital and they assigned this counselor who actually put me straight, I went into her office and started telling her all this bullshit about how great I was and how I’d been at the head of my class in college, which I was, and she just looked me straight in the eye and said, You’re nothing but a scummy little junkie, Gregory, and until you clean up that’s all you’re ever going to be, Gregory asseverated that this initial encounter woke him up, and from that moment on he began really working on himself, “I started seeing all the ways I had found to deceive myself, I never acknowledged my basic patterns,” Gregory stated.
One thing that had profoundly affected him without his ever understanding it, was this trouble between him and his father, not simply between Gregory and the father but between the mother and the father, and Gregory’s sister and Gregory’s brother and the father, and between Gregory and his sister, and Gregory and his brother, and in a completely different way between Gregory and his mother and perhaps also between Gregory and his Yugoslavian grandmother, and relations on the Yugoslavian, that is to say on his father’s side of the family. On that side of the family, Gregory claimed, lay mania and depression. Everyone on the Yugoslavian side of Gregory’s family was a chronic depressive given to periodic bouts of mania.
Not only had the children, that is, Gregory and his siblings, inherited the congenital manic-depression of these despondent Yugoslavs, but living with the father for almost 20 years had reduced the mother to a nervous wreck. The father was, had been, a compulsive gambler, whose fortunes and therefore the family’s fortunes had oscillated wildly from one week or month or a year to the next, sometimes they were, according to Gregory, “incredibly well off,” whereas, at other times, they “suddenly had no money,” life “was either a feast or a famine” in the Burgess house, during Gregory’s whole childhood. At some juncture in the middle past, Gregory did not stipulate precisely when, the mother had divorced the father, after years of torment, Gregory assured me, my mother crawled through hell for that man, all they ever really had in common was their physical attractiveness, she tried every minute to make a good home, and all he ever cared about was gambling, and now he’s living in a car, on the street, selling pencils on the street in Meridian, Connecticut, right near where my mother works, sometimes if she walks to the office she has to walk right past my father selling pencils, Gregory said, or sleeping in his car. He’s a complete derelict, Gregory said, when I see my sister she says, I wonder if we’ll both end up like Dad.
Now, he said, the main problem in my life is this job, it sucks away all my time and energy, it’s unbelievably draining. Philippe, the guy who owns the restaurant, is a certifiable lunatic, a total coke freak, he’s completely out of his mind, he throws fits, sometimes he takes out the gun he keeps under the bar and goes into the basement and shoots at targets, while these hoards of trashy Europeans are upstairs gobbling up his lousy nouvelle cuisine and swilling alchohol at the bar, everybody who hangs out there is a coke freak, they get it from Philippe, in fact his main profession is selling coke, he only has that restaurant so he can socialize with other coke freaks. He’s even beaten up a couple of waitresses, one of them took out a lawsuit against him and she’s been getting death threats from him over the telephone. When Philippe gets high he’s either effusively and suspiciously friendly or homicidally paranoid, he swings from one mood to another without a moment of warning. He likes me, he’s never actually attacked me. Gregory said that before he’d made all that money in the design business he’d waited tables for Philippe in the same place, Philippe had been just as crazy then, or possibly a bit less crazy, since Philippe’s insanity was obviously a degenerative disease.
I almost despise myself for going back there, Gregory told me. He’s always had this sort of sick affection for me. There’s this odious bond between us. I think he wants to fuck me. He’s not openly gay or anything but he’s always grabbing me and saying “Dah-ling, you are ze only one who is worse any sing,” and planting these big slobbering kisses, right on the lips, he’s such a pile of shit really, a total psychopath. Everything Philippe does is completely criminal, he’s never even paid taxes on that dump, and the people who eat there, these braying bosomy pigs and their oily gigolos, utter trash from Ibiza or Goa or wherever they come from. You can’t imagine what hell it is serving them food, and when I’m bartending they’re all the time coming on to me, telling me all about their repulsive sex cravings or who they’re fucking and what fucking so and so is like. Just human garbage basically. I hate the way they eye me behind that counter, I feel like a fucking monkey fixing their cocktails for them. And when I’m waiting tables, unbelievable, the way they dawdle over the menu and make what they imagine are sexy remarks, sometimes it’s the same ugly, pawing assholes from one night to the next, after a while they even think they have some kind of personal relationship with you, before you know it they’re inviting you up for threesomes after work.
But why, I said, do you keep on working there. There are a million restaurants in New York, they aren’t all run by maniacs. That place is notorious, I said, everybody knows what a trashy clientele it has, I mean, I’ve even heard about Philippe and the drugs and all that. I used to go there years ago when I was more or less employed by this woman Rita, she had a lot of friends and family connections who were the type that hang out in there. I can’t imagine you working there, I continued, not for a minute. It’s the kind of environment calculated to drive any sensitive person into Bellevue. I said that I knew several perfectly nice people in the restaurant business and would gladly try and find Gregory a more agreeable place to work.
The problem is, Gregory said, lighting a cigarette, which suddenly drew my attention to the mess of butts that had accumulated over lunch, I’d never make as much money, Gregory explained that part of his odious bond with Philippe was the tacit understanding that he, Gregory, along with Philippe’s other employees, would rob various amounts every night from the house till, pocket checks from the other tables, neglect to ring up various bar receipts. Philippe knew all about this furtive rake-off, according to Gregory, and didn’t care about it, he was too far gone in his drug addiction to care about it, except sometimes, while throwing one of his absolutely inevitable yet invariably surprising fits, Philippe would accuse one or another waiter or waitress of robbing him, the accusation typically accompanied by blows, and not infrequently by threats with the gun, Philipe had in fact on one occasion pistol-whipped the bartender, who had quit on the spot but had later, somehow, been lured back by Philippe’s honey-tongued, empty promises of higher wages. Philippe’s fits and accusations and assaults took place in full view of the clientele, usually when the restaurant was jam-packed, during the stylishly late dinner hour. Philippe’s fits were a grotesque entertainment for the customers, Philippe’s tirades had seasonally driven away any normal habitues, the place was mainly crawling with Philippe’s drug-crazed friends and acquaintances. But precisely because Philippe was this kind of monstrous, criminal exhibitionist, Gregory felt no particular ethical qualms about peeling off anywhere from 80 to 500 dollars from a night’s proceeds. This money would enable Gregory to get his real, that is, his photographic work, fabricated, at decent laboratories. The success of Gregory’s art work absolutely depended on using the best laboratories available.
But he was, he said, caught in a Catch-22 situation, since the job deprived him of the time and energy required to go at his real work full steam, so to say. Gregory’s artistic aims, he elucidated, were impossible to achieve through half-measures. It was, he emphasized, integral to his work that it resemble the most techologically crisp sort of advertising images. He was, he said, de-constructing the media in his work. The satirical qualities of Gregory’s art could only be perceived, he said, in mental contrast to contemporary advertising, and therefore the technical level needed to be as high. For the moment, he had purchased a Nikon, and on his days off he made transparencies of his little cut-out tableaux, which he would later get blown up to giant size. I’ve spent a fortune just on the slides, Gregory said. Until I get a show, sell some works, I’m going to be stuck at the restaurant. I don’t see any alternative. I would never steal from a place that treated me decently, and if I worked in such a place, I’d never make enough to get my career going.
Gregory said that the expense involved in becoming a contemporary artist had almost discouraged him from pursuing any such endeavor. He had started making these little images, deconstructing the media and so forth, on Cape Cod, purely for his own amusement. First he had been living with his friend Pugg, and the dog Lucie, Gregory said, You must meet Pugg, he’s so bright, he’s in art school now, Pugg had been wonderful to live with, but immature, confused, a bit too demanding, I worry about him now, Gregory said, he’s sleeping around a lot, AIDS, I mean, he gets fucked quite often, picks people up in bars, French types, boy model types, and he’s such a great guy. When Pugg left Cape Cod for New York, Gregory lived with Lucie in the shack, until the dog died from chewing lead-based paint off the moulding, of which Gregory’s despicable lesbian feminist landladies had been entirely culpable, when Lucie first started gnawing on the moulding Gregory went to the dykes insisting they strip the toxic old paint and repaint with harmless latex, the dykes then told him to get rid of the dog, they weren’t going to all that trouble for a cocker spaniel, and, besides, he owed them several months’ arrearage. If he paid the arrearage they would consider repainting the place, but not before then, consequently, by the time Gregory had slaved double shifts at Helen’s Truro Hash Palace to settle the arrearage the dog had already ingested lethal quantities of lead, gone into convulsions, and died. Then after that he met Gloria, which at first seemed the kind of placid, mutually nourishing relationship Gregory needed as a firm check on his excessive tendencies. Gloria didn’t smoke or drink, didn’t take drugs, her only major problem was wanting her pussy full of Gregory’s cock every time he turned around, but this hadn’t been as much of a problem at first, up there, than it became later, down here, since Gregory then was learning about screwing women for the first time and therefore smitten with the novelty of it, and of course it proved interesting, even from a clinical perspective.
Then last summer this old friend of his, Bruno, visited him for a couple of weeks. You know Bruno, Gregory told me, Bruno runs that gallery, he named the gallery, Oh yes, I said, I do know him, Right, Gregory said, well, I’ve known him for years, he came up to Truro and saw the pictures I’d been making, Gregory said that after that he’d started getting letters from Bruno, full of encouraging remarks, urging Gregory to move back into the city, even inviting Gregory to stay with him until Gregory found a job and an apartment. In the letters Bruno said that the art scene was opening up for the type of work Gregory was making. Bruno implied that he could even help Gregory “launch himself” in the coming year.
Gloria sensed danger. Bruno’s letters also conveyed a restrained but unmistakable romantic interest in Gregory. Gregory said that Bruno’s attraction toward him had been simmering unobtrusively for several years but had suddenly churned to a low boil during those two weeks in Truro. How can he do this to me, to us, Gloria wanted to know, poring over Bruno’s twice-weekly semi-love letters to Gregory. Bruno’s invitation did not extend to Gloria. He said in his letters that his apartment was much too tiny for two long-term guests, besides which, as Gregory well knew though Bruno’s letters didn’t say so, Bruno loathed Gloria and everything about her. Gregory knew that Bruno had told Pugg that Gloria was a vicious cunt. He told Pugg, according to Gregory, that Gloria was destroying Gregory. Bruno had made contact with Pugg, apparently, to check up on Gregory, was continually phoning up Pugg for news of Gregory, grilling Pugg about Gregory’s relationship with Gloria, looking all the time, Gregory said, for some little crack to drive a wedge into, Pugg reported all of Bruno’s calls directly to Gregory with bemused exasperation.
As it turned out, the heinous lesbians who owned the shack served a 30-day notice on him for the arrearage, which he hadn’t paid, finally, because of the dog’s death, which had been entirely their monstrous fault, and they also hated him because he was fucking Gloria, whom they both were vainly trying to get their mitts on, and the tourist season was ending, which meant that business at Helen’s Hash Palace would soon start dropping off, and he’d either have to move to Boston, a dead town, where everyone he knew was a heroin addict or an alcoholic, or go back to his mother’s house in Connecticut, where, despite his slightly improved relations with his family, he remained an object of intense suspicion and constant anxiety, since his greatest behavioral excesses had actually occurred there after his initial removal from New York and his first unsuccessful rehabilitation at Silver Hill. Ultimately, given this array of dreary options, Gregory and Gloria devised a scheme, wherein Gregory would move into Bruno’s apartment while Gloria stayed with Pugg, keeping Gloria’s presence in the city a secret from Bruno, until she and Gregory found an apartment. In that case, Gregory would not be subject to Bruno’s whim, at least with respect to Bruno’s sexual jealousy of Gloria, and later, when Gregory and Gloria turned out to be living together again, Bruno would be compelled, by his own logic, to continue his support of Gregory’s work on the basis of his expressed respect and friendship, since he, Bruno, was too rigorous in his dealings to cease promoting an artist just because he hadn’t been able to exploit the artist sexually.
Which was, Gregory said, putting it too crudely, really, and if my part of it sounds calculating, he said, you have to understand that Bruno’s infatuation with me was and is a thing quite apart from our friendship, and it would have been very wrong of Bruno to invite me here just to get me into bed. And don’t forget, he went on, if he did invite me here only for that reason, he himself was deviously planning to break up my relationship with Gloria.
Which, I pointed out, had gone kaputt anyway as soon as they moved in together.
Yes, Gregory said, But that hasn’t got anything to do with Bruno.
Excerpted from the novel Burma.
Gary Indiana’s collected stones, Scar Tissue, are being published this winter by Calamus Press. He is currently working on his first novel, Burma.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.