Then the Panasonic phone rings. He answers.
DORIS: David Harms. This is your cousin Doris. I know we haven’t spoken in 20 years. But I’m a lawyer, in New York making a deposition. And I just looked up your name in the phone book. Just like that.
DAVID: (his voice as attractive as dark pine wood) I’m so surprised.
DORIS: (her voice stiffer, unvarnished ply) I knew you would be. That’s why I explained myself. I feel cornball.
DAVID: Don’t … You sound so adult. Doris laughs a high lassoing laugh.
DORIS: No. I don’t think so. I’m 33. You must be about 27 now.
DAVID: Let’s meet for drinks. Is 5:00 okay?
DORIS: Yes. Yes. I’ll come straight from work at Wall Street to my hotel, the Sheraton. Pick me up please.
DAVID: (even more thrown) It’s so nearby.
David changes. He takes off his lounging suit. His body is almost completely hairless as he shaves himself often with the sideburn clipper on his electric razor, so that he looks, with his shapely body, like some statue. He puts on white jockey briefs, a yellow Beefy-T, brown corduroy pants, black turtleneck, a brown woven jacket, black argyle socks, and tan Hush Puppies.
The subway, an all-metal moving tube, like the amusement park ride, The Snake, travels on its winding track. It’s nearly rush hour. David is sitting in one of the two-person love benches at the end of a packed car next to a young working woman who’s reading a Dell novel.
David picked up The Ring, a boxing magazine, in a magazine store, to have something to read. He leafs through its smudging pages, settling on a picture of a big black boxer seemingly driving the cheekbone of a white boxer into his skull. And yet if you read the story the white boxer is actually the winner. The writer compares the white boxer, Greg Haugen, to Dane Clark, a boxer turned actor who played a lead in Pride of the Marines in 1945.
David exits at the 50th Street stop, and walks through perfumed air to the Sheraton. Loose after-work mood on the street. He goes to a lobby phone and calls up to Doris’s room. Tells her he’s downstairs.
DORIS: You’re tall and handsome. Right?
DAVID: I’m wearing brown and black, and my hair is greasy kid’s stuff. David stands by the ledge of phones. He doesn’t look towards the elevators where she will probably be appearing. Instead watches the abstract rush of strangers in and out of this big anonymous house. This inn.
Then Doris is standing about ten feet away, looking directly at him, fixed in space. She has on a tan trenchcoat, hair strained back away from her face, lips parted. She’s much shorter than he. David’s face breaks up, almost sure it’s her. She walks right up with toy soldier movements, grabs him and kisses a warm kiss on his cheek.
DAVID: (his words are a kiss) You recognized me.
They walk back outside, around the circular driveway in front of the Sheraton, up one street, down another, on their way to the restaurant. They are dissimilar. Doris is white, pale white, schoolteachery, with a determined walk. David is dark, with lips as exotic as roses in the poems of Lorca, tall, with an aimless walk, his two legs pointed slightly out. She is one of those little white birds that peck along the beach, a sandpiper, the accountant of seabirds. He is as tall and dark as a raven, though without the more mortifying and predatory side of that bird. His philosophy is to live in search of what he calls “danger.”
The restaurant is upper-middle-class. At lunch publishing people who work nearby go there. Now it’s quiet. David and Doris sit at a table for two in the window area. While they talk the light changes. At first outside is light, inside dark. But within two hours, outside is dark, inside light. Their tablecloth is red and white checks. Doris drinks whiskey sours. David, cokes. They both reach often into a bowl of peanuts that’s too tiny for human hands.
DORIS: (trying to get started) I called because last week when I was falling asleep I had this vivid … this hypnagogic … image of us when we used to play horses … that went right through one atrium and out the other.
DAVID: (mumbling) Yeah, and your mother was the horse trainer.
DORIS: That was the worst part. When your mother and my mother had the fight, if that’s what happened, they wouldn’t let us play it anymore.
DAVID: What happened?
DORIS: I’m not sure. I know my mother and my aunt had a fight over who would get the money for the house if my grandfather died. And my mother hated your father for being the only son and getting to go to college. And then you and I weren’t allowed to even talk. I’d sneak looks up at you in the balcony of the Methodist church.
DAVID: (flatly) The blond wood balcony with bronze railings.
DORIS: But I don’t want to do all the talking. You talk to me.
David can’t slump down now. Doris has just thrown him a medicine ball. He sits up and looks out the window at the passers-by who all seem filled with some sour-tasting poison they know will someday, even if it’s decades from now, kill them.
DAVID: (somberly) It wasn’t just horses. It was horse and rider. When I rode you I put my little belt between your teeth like a halter.
DORIS: (a hanky of politeness lifting from her hidden heart) And when I rode you?
DAVID: When you rode me it smelled like when my mother would stand in front of me and take her girdle off. The story riles Doris. She is embarrassed, yet she wants more.
DORIS: Do you think we did anything taboo?
DAVID: (finally) No. Doris starts to laugh her laugh. She feels she can relax. Takes off her raincoat and throws it on a vacant chair. (Elijah’s chair.) She has on a sleeved crew-neck thick-material fuschia dress.
DORIS: (loud enough for the next few tables) I have to breathe. The wine doesn’t have to breathe. I have to breathe.
DAVID: It’s so good to be talking. Ya. Maybe we don’t even have to talk about the past.
DORIS: We still have to. (teasing and testing him) What else do you remember? Of the house where I lived with our grandfather and my mother?
DAVID: I remember your mother wouldn’t let me drink water with my meal. No liquids. I remember the coal-burning hot stove where our grandmother had her heart attack. I remember the tomato patch, the garage with the big Buick in it, the wood fences and field. It was like the country. And staying up late at night watching black-and-white chain gang movies on TV. It was disgusting how much your nose ran.
DORIS: (defensively) You remember that because nothing really bad ever happened to you. They had you get up and sing little songs in front of the TV. But me. One night, when my father still lived there, and my mother went out, he dropped me off with a woman who watched children, and he went on a spree. My father owned a beer garden. When my mother came home they couldn’t find me, and my father was gone for two days. At the place where I had been dropped they put you in, like, big appliance cartons, and handed you your breakfast in there, and wouldn’t let you out of the box until you ate all the gruel. It was disgusting.
DAVID: (pulling at his stickley hair) No one had weirder childhoods than us Doris. We came from a deviant family. Let’s face it.
DORIS: They can’t all be like that.
David and Doris pay the check. By now it’s chillier outside, and night-black. The side street is pretty empty. They navigate around the circular entrance way, not talking. Then into the lobby with its tinsel chandeliers and convention-center dynamics. They take a padded blue elevator to a floor in the upper teens. Get out. Walk the quiet halls to an oak door. Doris clatters the key in the metal socket. Sound effects of a little key opening a tin box.
The two inside the hotel room are like two faces pictured in a cheap locket. The setting is a blur, a sentimental blur of blue velvet chairs and a bed with its heavy comforter that would weigh down on any sleeper as heavily as an X-ray bib. Doris turns on the TV nonchalantly to a channel that’s all printed want ads, one after another, changing every ten seconds. Their own faces are faces from the past, but it’s a past they don’t know any better than an outsider would, imagining a past for a couple of faces in a locket, and feeling left out. They have been left out of themselves by time and by other people. (A person is a kind of a clock.)
Doris slips off her trench coat, hanging it on a metal hanger in a closet as big as David’s bathroom. Then she takes off her fuchsia dress and hangs it in the closet, too. Stands there with her back to David, in black panties, black bra, black stockings. Takes out a night robe, made of blue padded material the color of a cloudy sky, and ruffled at sleeves, neck, and bottom with pink tissuey material, like the ruffs of Queen Elizabeth I.
David is sitting in one of the velvet chairs, staring, as if he were staring at a movie. He is still chilled from the walk and is holding his arms around himself, comforting and warming himself. Doris turns about-face.
DORIS: (as an announcement) Well.
DAVID: I can feel my bones. I must be cold.
DORIS: (walks to the chair, bends over and hugs his head to her chest) Don’t be cold anymore. Warm up.
DAVID: Necking with you won’t do that.
DORIS: (stands up straight) That was the last thing on my mind. She sits down on the floor, cross-legged in front of him.
DORIS: You’re my cousin. I just want you to be warm. Is that so unusual or perverse? I know New York is a warped place. But you’re not far gone in that way, are you?
DAVID: (covering his face with his hands, and breathing in the scent of his palms deeply, then taking them away) I’m thinking that there’s a family resemblance. You look straight. But you’re crooked.
DORIS: We’re dyslexics.
DAVID: (standing up, pacing between a fireplace and a heavy vanilla window drape, drawn closed) You’re right. My father always used to say “What’s wrong with us?” if we, he, even turned down the wrong road. Like it was a curse.
DORIS: I want to see his family tree when he finishes making it. I think he knows this is the end of the line. There were three siblings …
DAVID: (pacing faster, fluttering his hands like two flamenco fans) That reminds me of a play by Chekhov. It goes on and on. All this talking. And then in the middle, or about twenty minutes into it, one of the women says “We are three sisters and we live in the middle of Russia and …” She starts explaining it in the middle instead of at the beginning.
DORIS: I never read what you’re talking about. I hate it when people bring authors into conversation. It’s rank.
DAVID: (stops, his eyes two ambulance headlights, in a fury) You’re your mother’s daughter. She was the one who never let me watch The Three Stooges.
DORIS: (standing up) That still goes. (in a singsong mimic) “Sadism is sad, not funny.”
DAVID: (peeking behind drape at the twinkling circuitry board of nighttime Manhattan) So what were you saying?
DORIS: First. I don’t want you to think of me as my mother.
DAVID: Go on. Then I’ll decide.
DORIS: I don’t want to be on trial.
DAVID: Please finish it. It’s getting away from us.
DORIS: So. So there were three siblings. Each had one child. Sally is retarded. I’m divorced and can’t have children. And you’ll probably never have children.
DAVID: (testily) We’ll see.
DORIS: (sits down on chair, losing control of her lips) And it’s so lonely to be out on the windy hill when no one’s around except for skeletons of trees. David walks over and kneels in front of Doris, taking her stinky stockinged foot and kissing it.
DORIS: That makes me wet.
DAVID: (soaking the brown nylon material with his tongue) That makes my heart thump, like after a cigarette.
David’s bones creak as he gets up, walks over to fold his sports coat over a chair’s back, takes his wallet out of the inside pocket, returns with it flapped open to show Doris.
She takes the wallet, looking at the plastic-encased picture he is showing her. It is David, completely nude, lying on a white sheet. Not just a snapshot. A very arty picture, reduced to this snapshot size. Taken by a pro.
DORIS: (trying to put together the pieces) This is a physique photograph.
DAVID: (genuinely enthused) My physique. Mine.
DORIS: (handing it back) Is it pornography?
DAVID: No. Doris walks over and lies on the bed.
DORIS: I’m so tired. This is a lot for a first meeting. I feel that a lot’s happened. Heavy. Family. Muck. Stirred up. And then I feel nothing.
DAVID: I don’t know about you but I’m freaking about all this.
DORIS: Put me to bed please.
DAVID: I’m sick to my stomach.
David walks into the pale-blue tile bathroom. Turns on the electric light. Looks into the mirror. Looks pale. Turns and squats next to the exposed toilet bowl, a scent of cleanser prickling the inside of his nose like little pins. Then he heaves. Purple, orange, brown, white flecks in one whoosh straight into the oval bowl. Then again. Then again. Like punches. It is his curious way of punching.
DORIS: (from outside on her bed, shouting) David. David.
DAVID: (muffled, head in bowl) Shut up.
DORIS: No I won’t shut up. David stands up and gargles with water. Walks back into the main room, shaky. Breathes a few deep breaths. Cracks a little smile.
DAVID: I’m not sure why that happened. I threw up the peanuts.
DORIS: (grudgingly) Don’t worry.
DAVID: (brightening and heating up, as when a light bulb goes off in the head of a cartoon character) This is it! This is what I felt like after we played horse every time!
David waits for Doris to blaze also. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t share in his discovery at all.
So he doesn’t want to be with her anymore. That’s for sure. Doris stands up and walks David to the door. She lets him out into the geometry puzzle of a hallway system. They barely say good-bye and don’t talk now about any next time. She closes the door behind him and leans her back against it like a character in a soap.
Then she hurries to her bed and crawls under the covers dressed in her nightgown still. She takes the remote and finds the Dr. Ruth show. Dr. Ruth’s guest is the comedian Jackie Mason, who looks like a wise old medicine woman. Dr. Ruth says she invited him on the show because he talks endlessly about sex, just as she does. They call each other “Doctor.” He says he doesn’t want to get married because, with his money, he doesn’t want to take in a partner. Dr. Ruth sits with her little feet at the ends of her short legs resting on a low ottoman, as if she were a minor Hindu deity.
Doris is not satisfied. She made the heroic attempt to get together with David. More happened than she can grasp. It is a whole world of feeling and thinking that’s too big for her right now. Her eyes were bigger than her stomach. And so she falls off to sleep, incomplete. Like a spinoff of a big bang that is shot into space and disappears, a chip, an unfinished sentence. Yuck. Upset without closure is the worst.
David walks down the hall, enveloping himself in his sports coat as he goes. Takes the elevator. Walks out the revolving doors into the night. David is walking now as determinedly as Doris walked before. No ambling. As if she had dropped some of her pollen in him.
Finally he gets to his destination. Trix. A bar on West 50th Street between Seventh and Eighth. Looks like the bar of beasts, the space-age saloon, in Star Wars. It’s all boys and men. One of the boys stands by the green pool table lit like a boxing ring in the center of the bar. He is waiting for a contender to play against him. He is as Spanish as Unamuno, dark skinned, black hair tied back, liquid eyes, brown bags under them, high forehead, curving mountain ridge lips. Is dressed dangerously in a cheap black leather jacket, dacron shirt, green cotton trousers, black sneakers. A diamond on his pinkie finger. He glances when David walks in but doesn’t take him seriously.
Most of the other guys are like Unamuno, rough. An Italian kid whose eyes are clicking so fast they practically roll around in his head. Three black guys sitting together who smell like onions. One thin tall white boy, as tall as a basketball player, as thin as a cadaver, in a satiny red team jacket over threadbare white corduroys.
David buys a coke, then a pack of Virginia Slims from a cigarette machine that looks like a jukebox machine. A color TV up on a wall plays music videos. David sits on a stool on a side of a peninsula table coming out from a wall. He smokes and drinks, smokes and drinks, starting brushfires in his throat, then extinguishing them.
A black man sits on a stool on the other side of the short counter. Puts down his clear drink. He is probably ten years older than David. His cheeks are filled out, sagging. His black hair cut supershort. He lets his long legs in black cotton trousers just hang off the stool. Brown pennyloafers, the seams unraveling. No socks. Unzips his blue jacket over messy button-down tangerine-white stripes shirt. He could be any man on the street.
WILFRED: (loud voice extrovert) You sure drank that down fast.
DAVID: (forcing himself) I was thirsty.
WILFRED: Just soda? (David nods a few rapid nods) The thing about soda is you can drink and drink and still be thirsty.
DAVID: True. Water is best. (on low battery) Is that vodka?
WILFRED: Bad vodka. I know it’s rusty, but I keep ordering it. I just drove up from Washington. I drove a friend. He broke his leg. You can’t drive with a broke leg. (Wilfred extends his one leg straight out to show) But after a long drive you’ve got to knock back a drink. A couple of drinks.
David starts to watch the monitor. It’s a song he likes, sung by a young woman with a haunting, airbrushed voice.
DAVID: (to Wilfred) That’s a good song.
WILFRED: Who is it?
DAVID: (embarrassed) I don’t know … I think it’s Janet Jackson.
WILFRED: (suspicious when David didn’t know at first) That’s good. You got it. I like her better than her brother. But I wonder where she came from. I saw them when they were Jackson Five in a concert hall in California. There wasn’t any girl. That was the last time I ever went to one of those concerts in an auditorium.
DAVID: (happy) They’ll probably just keep finding new ones. Every five years a new little Jackson will show up.
WILFRED: (a big laugther) Yeah. They hatch ’em. They hatch ’em.
Then the Unamuno walks over to talk to Wilfred, obviously knows him as a regular. He doesn’t even glance at David.
UNAMUNO: (an audible mumble) Wilfred. You been away you sick motherfucker.
WILFRED: Don’t bring me down. Lookin’ at you brings me down. Unamuno walks back to the pool table, scuffing his soles along the dusty floor all the way.
WILFRED: (to David) You can’t compliment them, or be nice to them. If you want them to like you you got to treat them like shit, ignore them some.
DAVID: The hustlers?
WILFRED: (feigned innocence) Is that what they are? … You got any place to go? Where do you live? Should I follow you?
DAVID: (tenses) Me? I’m no hustler.
WILFRED: Who said anything about hustling? Except you, you clown.
DAVID: You mean just go? David looks straight ahead. He feels almost insulted. But then the nerve of Wilfred speaks to his condition.
DAVID: (hesitating at odd spots) You … can come to my … house.
DAVID: (burning) Piece of the rock, then … Where do you live?
WILFRED: (standing looming now in front of David, his zipper just inches from David’s face) I live on 210th Street.
DAVID: (out of his weight class) Let’s go now Wilfred.
They walk out, past the Irish bouncer with brillo hair and moonscape acne and blue tattoos as indecipherable as Rorschachs. On the street it’s raining. The rain is coming in sheets, diagonal sheets. They make a run for it, shouting for a cab coming down 50th toward Seventh.
David is wet and shivering, his sports coat as wavy now as typing paper that water’s been spilled on. Wilfred is sitting back in his seat, legs spread out, his hands on his two knees, his blue slicker instantly dry. The driver, barely visible through a foggy protective shield, seems Russian from the name filled with t’s, z’s, o’s, and u’s on his illuminated permit.
David’s building is red brick. Downstairs, a deli. Across the street a probably Mexican man with a clipped haircut is standing in the rain in a gray Perry Como sweater over white shirt over gray wool pants. He is letting out mournful shouts in some other language. In practically no language at all. Every few seconds the drone starts up again. Like the men in the minarets who sing a mournful song to the cities a few times every day. David and Wilfred hear the loud moan on their way into the building.
And they hear it again from inside David’s room. They can see the man if they stand in the window. He is on the catty-corner, lit by the yellow street-lamp that also lights up the slick sheets of rain. His tone is angry. He is annoying everyone, challenging everyone. He is like a car alarm that can’t be shut off.
DAVID: (in a monotone at the window pane) Shut up. Shut up you puss face. Shut up your fucking lungs. Get out of my face. Wilfred is sitting on the mattress on the floor. He draws David down by getting up on his knees and stretching a hand to David’s shoulder. David is scared when he looks and sees the man, so unexceptional. Body losing its rigor. Eyes with no whites, just a tan-red.
WILFRED: (as if there’s some joke) Take off my clothes.
David carefully takes off Wilfred’s socks, pants, underpants, shirt, yellow guinea-t, leaving a gold chain necklace. He folds the clothes very carefully, the kind of clothes sold in the beat boutiques on 34th Street that alternate with cheap electronic outlets. Then Wilfred turns over, his face stuffed in the Bayeux pillows, not watching while David undresses, letting his clothes fall in a pile, showing his body to no one. David turns out the light. He is as warm now as a wood-burning stove. When he joins wrinkled Wilfred he feels that he is wrapping his arms around a big log of driftwood.
As soon as Wilfred is touched he rolls over, alive, hungry. He rolls on top of David, holds David’s head down, puts his tongue in his mouth, fingers his asshole. Wilfred gets up on haunches, reaches into the pocket of folded pants for wallet, stretches a rubber over his dick. He calls it a “raincoat.” Then he begins to push his round blacklight flashlight into David’s bat cave. All kinds of spirits, bat spirits, are dislodged from their crusty corners. David is moaning on his back, not faking it. The man across the street won’t let up. A sound like a revolver goes off. It’s the answering machine activated by a call, but David has the volume turned all the way down.
Wilfred was driving his friend all day on the highway from Washington, DC. Now he is the car and driver at once. It’s healing him, at least, to put his stick in David and drive their spirits. Except now the headlights are turned inwards to the interior of his chest. He is taking David. Men are hunters. He is hunting for David inside David. What he doesn’t like he ignores. He is now pure like, pure want. His heart is pumping like the arteries of an arm around which a pressure bandage has been tightened. David is a deer caught in a flash of headlights.
It’s true. David feels lit. Wilfred is poking a button that sends light through the dark insides of his body. Like the three-minute-lights in the hallways of French apartment buildings, shutting themselves off automatically after a brief flare. But he can’t be too happy about this. Is not ecstacy. Is an accident. The car hits the deer who tries to move but it’s too late. Does no damage to the metal hood.
Wilfred shoots his stuff with a loud shout while wiping his tongue all over David’s face, even putting it up his nostrils. He then shakes David’s thing like a milkshake shaker until David comes with a little laugh. A baby’s laugh.
The next morning at 6:30 David wakes up. Wilfred has him caught in his arms and legs. He frees himself. Puts on jockey shorts and a black Clash t-shirt that comes down almost to his knees and goes into the next room, the abandoned room. It has piles of boxes and books and magazines. David almost never goes there. Seems he’s in one of those dreams where a new room opens out from a familiar layout. David sits on the floor. The morning is light. The windows are filled with pastel colors.
David walks delicately to a fridge at the far end of the room. Puts two bran muffins on two red trays. Carries them to the center, places them on the orange-pink-turquoise swirl rug, like motel rug. Wakes up Wilfred who joins him on the floor, no clothes, the fabric scratching his skin. Wilfred stretches out next to his tray. David sits cross-legged by his.
WILFRED: (mucus-voiced) I have to be at work in 90 minutes. In the dark you can’t tell the difference between black and white. Not cause it’s all white. Cause it’s all black.
DAVID: I’m subdued.
WILFRED: (ignoring that) I adjust for an insurance firm. What do you do?
DAVID: I work with my computer. But a lot of time I have zero to do.
WILFRED: (flirting again, already) You’d make a good wife to come to. To call during the day to check up on. Make sure you’re not getting any on the side. Make sure you don’t forget the tenor of my voice.
DAVID: Your deep voice.
WILFRED: That’s right. You got it.
DAVID: Wilfred. This is already way over the line for me.
WILFRED: What’s the matter with that?
David expels air loudly out of his mouth. Then he remembers the gunshot from last night and goes into his room to listen to the message. A digital 1 is lit up on the machine in ruby lights.
MESSAGE: David. It’s Doris. Maybe you’re not home yet. Or asleep. I do want to reiterate dinner when I come back next month. I forgot to tell you. I have a mystical streak. I have a theory about a way to read tarot cards using Tolkien’s hobbits. I know we have lots more to talk about. Love ya.
David raises one eyebrow. Looks mischievously at the icon, its surface practically invisible at this time of day with the sunlight all over its face.
David carries Wilfred’s clothes into the next room. Wilfred has already showered. He gets dress in them. Writes his phone number with a pencil stub on top of David’s income tax form for this year.
DAVID: That hurts.
WILFRED: (threateningly) You better call me. Or it’ll hurt more.
DAVID: (bothered) You’ll hurt me?
WILFRED: (goes over laughing to bear hug him) No. But I want you. We all want you. I heard that message. Girlfriend?
DAVID: Long lost cousin.
WILFRED: Even worse. The way a family wants is even heavier than the way a new nigger wants you. A new nigger could make you love him. The same way he got you to take him home. Just by making the area around so warm, so hot. And you being so cold you couldn’t resist.
DAVID: (feeling his mind tingle, as if it had bristles that someone had just passed a palm over) How did you know that?
Wilfred grabs David’s head from behind, licks his tongue into David’s nostrils, then sticks tongue in David’s mouth.
WILFRED: (walking out the door) I’ll call you from work.
When Wilfred says that he’ll call, David covers his crotch with his hand. Like Eve. Like Sicilian boy outside Palermo.
Now David is alone again. He feels the same volcano erupting over and over in his insides. The same scary emptiness in his chest.
David walks back in to the icon, now more in shadow, and so, more visible. He kneels down in his modified driver’s position again.