Nervous and Joking Joseph by Richard Elovich

BOMB 4 Fall 1982
004 Summer Fall 1982
​Liz Cash

Liz Cash, 1982, acrylic.

Joseph Burke said there is something special between Lucy and me: as if we are brother and sister; the parents left us in the house once, never returned: and we are living on in the house doing clever things. Playing house, that’s what Joseph said we are doing. Lucy said he was making fun of us, but I think he wants to join our life. Lucy said he’s a ghost and a parasite we can’t get rid of.

Lucy doesn’t want to eat breakfast. There are dishes on the counter and in the sink from supper last night. I decide to go out to the coffee shop on Eighth Avenue for the breakfast special. Lucy is smoking a cigarette and is crouching on the floor looking through last Sunday’s papers for anything worth holding onto for another week.

“You didn’t know it,” Lucy says, “but I could have killed you last night for waving your hand like that in front of me. You can’t dismiss like that. You’ve encouraged Joseph to stay here whenever he likes.”

“He’s not here now,” I say pointing at the sofa. I am looking on the closet floor for a pair of gloves I dropped there yesterday. Lucy wanted me to tell Joseph he must leave with everyone else at the end of the evening.

“That’s because he thinks Nancy doesn’t like him—she asked him about his sex life, so he left right after dessert. This isn’t a cafeteria for him. He thinks he can just walk in, sit down, and be fed. He doesn’t notice anything about us.”

I pull on an overcoat and walk over to Lucy. I say, “Lucy, he doesn’t have his own apartment and we’re his friends.” She is pretending to be reading. I get down on all fours, I knock her over and lick her face. She squirms away and wipes her face with her bathrobe sleeve, “you wiped it off,” I say. “You wiped it off. I knew you would.”

The waitress sets a cup of coffee on the table without waiting for me to ask. She writes down my order and repeats it to the cook. The other waitress is walking toward two men at the end of the counter. One man says to the other, “It was a present. I wouldn’t sell it. It was a present from you. I know that. I wouldn’t sell it.”

The waitress is carrying two glasses of orange juice to a table, and she pours juice from one glass into the other to make them even before she puts them down. A large woman leads an elderly man to a table near me at the back. Both waitresses seem familiar with the man and fuss over him.

The waitress brings a plate of eggs and bacon with a small plate of buttered toast. She points to the toast and says, “The toast was like bread. I had him toast it again. You wouldn’t’ve liked it the way it was. Just stale bread.”

The waitress turns and says to the woman with the elderly man, “Joe likes to sit at the table in the window where there’s sun.”

The woman helps the elderly man stand up and leads him to the table. “There, Papa Joe,” she says in a loud voice, “isn’t this better in the sun?”

Joseph Burke grew up in Douglaston, Queens. His father was an actor in television soap opera. Joseph remembers sitting in front of a big brown television every afternoon watching his father play Mike Carr, the lawyer and the hero of The Edge of Night.

When Joseph was ten, his father quit the soap opera and joined a public relations firm in Hawaii. The house in Douglaston was sold and the Burkes moved to Honolulu.

Occasionally, Mr. Burke returned to New York to appear in radio and television commercials. A year after the move to Hawaii, Mrs. Burke learned Mr. Burke was having a relationship with a former neighbor in Douglaston. She divorced Mr. Burke. He married the neighbor; who was a widow, and moved into her house in Douglaston.

Joseph was unhappy in Hawaii. He was 12 years old and lonely. He wrote short stories. He read a book on aesthetics by Susan Sontag. When he learned Susan Sontag was a living writer, he wrote her a letter in care of her publisher. She wrote back, and a correspondence began. Susan Sontag read the stories he sent her. She encouraged him to continue writing.

After high school, Joseph applied to colleges in New York, where his mother was planning to move. His brother Wayne had tried to kill himself the year before, and he was already living in New York at a psychiatric hospital recommended by a friend of his father.

Joseph lived at a dormitory near New York University. There wasn’t room for him at his aunt’s apartment, where his mother was living, but he visited the apartment frequently during his first year in New York. From his aunt, he learned to make chocolate mousse. He brought a bowl of chocolate mousse to Susan Sontag when he visited her at her apartment on Riverside Drive. He showed her the stories and poetry he was writing. She encouraged him to submit work to magazines. She was disappointed when he told her he had destroyed his earlier work. Joseph thinks she actually preferred the stories he wrote when he was 12.

Two years ago, Mr. Burke died of cancer. Joseph and his mother didn’t go to the funeral. Wayne was living in Douglaston with Mr. Burke’s new wife and her daughters. They wanted Wayne to leave after Mr. Burke died. The daughters were Joseph’s age and he hated them. Joseph’s mother moved into her own apartment in the East Seventies, and Wayne moved in with her.

Lucy and Joseph attended New York University at the same time. Lucy studied journalism, and Joseph studied philosophy. Lucy fell in love with Joseph, but he seemed indifferent to her. She rented a small studio in the East Village, and because he didn’t like his roommate—he did savage parodies for Lucy of his roommate’s tales of romantic conquest—he was at Lucy’s apartment when he wasn’t at classes. They went to films several times a week and planned their days and nights according to their classes and the films showing at revival houses. They ate meals together at a coffee shop near the theater or at Lucy’s.

Lucy continued to be infatuated with Joseph. She attempted seducing him but he made fun of her romantic notions. He made coffee in her apartment and smoked her cigarettes when he ran out of his own. He cooked omelets in the middle of the night and picked through her bookshelves. He didn’t sleep at night and was restless. He slept between classes in the afternoon. Lucy slept while he sat up reading or telling her a story about Kant or Djuna Barnes. He made grimaces which she thought were affectations. He snorted and whinnied when he was reading. He had a fetid odor. Lucy thought this was because he didn’t shower or change his clothes often. He hated to return to his room if he thought his roommate might be there. He was good at mimicking people. Lucy thought he learned his way of smoking a cigarette from his visits with Susan Sontag, and his elegant way of wearing very plain clothes from Djuna Barnes. He imitated the violent prancing and gyrations of Tina Turner when Lucy tried to hold him close or kiss him. “Geet baack,” he sang into an invisible microphone as he whipped his long hair from his face and jerked his shoulders. In bed with her, he didn’t take his clothes off, only his shoes, and he turned on his side away from her. She was in love with him. She read the books he was reading. She made certain she saw him every day. She met him between classes and they went to Sutters on Greenwich Avenue for coffee and French nut cake. She avoided her friends who thought he was weird. She telephoned him at his dormitory if she was late getting back to her apartment. When she accepted a date with someone else, she thought of Joseph and was afraid of missing him. She phoned and left messages at the dormitory for him to go to her apartment or meet her somewhere after her date.

When I met her, during her last year at the University, my junior year, she wasn’t seeing him at all. Maybe she gave up. But then last year, two years after she graduated, they bumped into each other on Fourteenth Street where Lucy was shopping for a sofa.

Joseph told her he had tried to find out where she was living. We were already living together on West 24th Street. Lucy told him about me. He told her he wanted to marry her. He said what she told him about us threw “cold water on his dreams.” She thought he was crazy. His odor seemed worse and she wondered if she were the only one who smelled it. She thought he looked the same, and he still made her smile, but she felt something different. As he talked to her, he jerked his head, and his right arm shot out as if he were trying to shake the shirt sleeve back from his wrist. “Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome” Joseph said. “He was the first to recognize it: some kind of nerve dysfunction at the synapse which causes involuntary incidents of movement and speech.” I don’t think Lucy knew how to react.

Joseph began telephoning at odd hours to say he was nearby and to ask if he could come up. When Lucy wasn’t there, he wanted to come up anyway and visit with me. His toothbrush is in the bathroom now, a shopping bag of his things is in the closet, and he sleeps on the sofa outside the bedroom.

The woman with the elderly man tells the waitress she went shopping for groceries with her father and had to carry two large bundles up the four flights to his apartment with her bad back. She says she is trying to find another apartment—in this neighborhood, but one with not so many stairs to climb. Before she and the elderly man leave, she gives each of the waitresses a small present wrapped with Christmas paper. “This is from Papa Joe,” she says, “You’re both dolls to keep an eye on him like this.”

Lucy is on the telephone. I know from the way she is talking she is talking with Nancy. We had Christmas at Nancy’s new loft on Crosby Street. After dinner, we opened our presents. Everyone was stoned and drunk. Lucy and Nancy asked Joseph to take pictures with Nancy’s new SX-70. He took picture after picture while they posed. When a picture came out, it was passed around, and Lucy and Nancy discussed it as though they were trying on clothes in front of a mirror. “It makes you look too serious.” “You look too s & m-eee in this one.”

In the kitchen I am washing dishes. Lucy hangs up the telephone in the bedroom and comes into the kitchen. Lucy works in the art department of a magazine. The work exhausts her, and when she comes home in the evening, she makes herself a pot of tea and carries it on a tray to bed, and then reads until she falls asleep. On weekends she likes to stay in.

“Nancy says she’s ruined the whole day already. She mixed chocolate ovaltine, milk, and sugar with five cups of coffee, and then drank it all She’s overexcited now, and can’t finish anything she starts. She said that after she got off the phone with me she was going to take a valium and go back to bed until she calms down,” Lucy says.

Lucy asks me to tell her when I’m finished with the dishes because she wants to take a shower. Showering without the light on was Joseph’s idea. Lucy says it prolongs the womb-like feeling of sleep.

I am reading a magazine article about aspirin when Lucy asks me if I like codfish cakes. I say, “I haven’t eaten codfish cakes except heated from a frozen package.” She tries to remember where she first ate codfish cakes.

“It wasn’t in the South,” she says. Lucy is from the South, and she says in the South they fry fish.

Lucy says when she is close to Joseph, it is like swimming under water, and she has to hold her breath because she would drown if she didn’t. She wants to know if I smell the odor. I shake my head no. She thinks the odor comes from his nerve dysfunction.

Lucy says, “We treat Joseph as if he belongs here. He thinks if he can make himself useful to us, we’ll be interested in him and our brilliant life will rub off on him.” She says, “Joseph is dead and he’s a ghost.”

I say, “I don’t think it’s so bad to have a ghost who is content to live under the kitchen table. He just wants to be around and do things with us.”

“You have to tell him to leave,” Lucy says.

“Why?” I ask, and I accuse Lucy of not wanting me to give Joseph so much attention.

She says that’s not it. She says she loves both of us.

I ask her why she stopped seeing Joseph. I follow her into the kitchen where she opens the refrigerator and looks inside. Lucy prefers to buy only enough groceries for the meal she is planning. She says that’s what they do in France.

“I’m going to Casa Moneo on Fourteenth Street to buy some codfish and then I’m going to Union Square to buy new pillow slips. The ones we have look yellowy,” she says.

“For tonight?” I ask.

“No” she says, “they have to soak for 24 hours to get rid of the salt. We’ll have them tomorrow for lunch or supper.”

Joseph telephones at noon and asks if there is anything he can pick up at the grocery store because he is nearby. I tell him Lucy is already out shopping, but ask him to buy a newspaper if he is coming by.

Joseph sits down on the sofa. His face and clothes are streaked with dirt.

Once Joseph told me that when he accompanied his brother to the emergency room of the clinic, a doctor noticed Joseph’s behavior and asked back the next morning for tests. Joseph said there are respectable ladies with Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome who may suddenly scream obscene epithets in the middle of a bridge party, without apparent provocation. Joseph said the doctor told him he has a mild case. He takes a medicine every day to control the symptoms.

The last time I was at the library, I looked in the catalog for the syndrome. There was a listing for a book published on the subject, but it wasn’t on the shelf. I paid ten cents and put a reserve on it. That was months ago. I did look the medicine up in a Physicians Desk Reference.

Joseph fumbles in his pockets and then asks me if I have any cigarettes. I go into the kitchen and take a pack of cigarettes from Lucy’s carton of True Blue.

I ask, “What happened to you?”

Joseph lights a cigarette and inhales deeply. He says, “Two kids attacked me last night.”

“Where? Are you all right?”

“Broadway and Tenth. One held a knife and kept jabbing at me and yelling while the other held me and pulled at my pockets, but the pavement was icy and we fell down.”

“What did they get?”

Joseph snorts and swallows phlegm. “Nothing. The pavement was icy and we kept falling down and getting up and falling down. I think the smaller one, the one with the knife, cut himself when he lunged at me and fell. I ran to the subway. There was no one on the street.” Joseph stands up and takes his ski jacket off. It has left a dirty outline on the sofa. I tell him to take a shower. His yellow hair is matted and dark. He says he doesn’t have other clothes here. I tell him I will take his clothes with ours to the laundry this afternoon, and he can have them back in a few hours. He is shaking. I tell him he looks like he had been skating on a pond and fell through the ice. I bring him a blanket.

Last week Joseph and I went to see a film that was made in Germany. Joseph wore a green-blue raincoat with a collar that covered his face. We went to a coffee shop after the film. He clammed up when I asked him questions about his life away from us, but he talked about his brother Wayne.

He said Wayne seems better. Wayne is now an out-patient at the clinic and is living with Mrs. Burke.

Mrs. Burke has worked for a large law firm since she moved back to New York. She was a receptionist but has been given promotions and raises, and is now an office manager with many responsibilities. She is having an affair with a man who lives in Pennsylvania. Recently she went to Ohio where her mother lives. Her boyfriend met her there. Her mother didn’t approve of the relationship because the boyfriend is married and has children. Mrs. Burke and her boyfriend left Ohio and went to Las Vegas for a week.

Mrs. Burke eats out on the terrace when the weather is warm. She cooks a chicken breast and drinks a glass of wine with her dinner. Sometimes she buys a small chicken cooked on a rotisserie in a delicatessen. When he is home, Joseph sits with her while she eats, and they talk.

Wayne doesn’t eat meals but makes snacks for himself. He cleans up after himself now. He changes his clothes at regular intervals and takes his laundry across the street once a week. For awhile he even had a girlfriend called Fran.

Wayne sits all day and looks at television. Ballgames. He told Joseph the rules have changed. The pitcher’s wind-up is limited now. The pitcher is not allowed to stand on the mound, staring at the batter or at the ball in his hand, and then make an elaborate wind-up before releasing the ball. He has only a moment now before he must throw the ball.

Joseph said Wayne looks through the books Joseph has stored in cartons. Wayne reads a paragraph in a book and puts the book down. Joseph said Wayne is intelligent and knows Latin ‘backwards and forwards.’ But he talks only of their past. He is two years older than Joseph. What he remembers of something that happened 15 years ago, when they were children, seems more immediate to him than what is happening now. Wayne is impatient with Joseph when Joseph doesn’t remember something. Last summer, Wayne took a subway to Flushing and then a bus down Northern Boulevard to Douglaston where he found the house they lived in before they moved to Hawaii.

Lucy is shredding a coconut when I return from the laundry. Joseph is wearing my bathrobe. He is standing at the stove pouring water from the kettle over coffee grounds. She says to Joseph, “In a story, to believe the characters, I have to know what their jobs are.”

Joseph says, “Well, the people in this novel just travel from city to city and run into each other; they don’t have jobs.”

Joseph had a job as a typist. He was very secretive about who his employer was. He said he also took some dictation—he made up his own shorthand from a manuscript he saw in the Morgan Library of Samuel Pepys coded diaries. He answered telephones. He said that after he invented his shorthand, the job was boring. He was fired. The boss told him that he looked bored and was bright and should move on to some job that interested him. Lucy thought Joseph worked as a typist for the mafia because the office was on Spring Street near Mulberry Street, and Joseph wouldn’t say it wasn’t for the mafia. Joseph said he wouldn’t mind making a lot of money doing something. Now, like me, he is on unemployment.

Lucy is changing the water in which the codfish is soaking. She asks me to combine the shredded coconut with three cups of milk and a cup of sugar. Joseph asks what he can do. She tells him to beat the whites of three eggs until they are stiff. Lucy is standing over a cookbook which is balanced on the dish rack. I ask her what the difference is between combine and mix. She says she thinks it would be good if the sugar is dissolved. Lucy lights the oven and glances at the cookbook to see what temperature the oven should be. I ask what else I should add to the mixture. She says, maybe some vanilla extract. I measure out a teaspoonful. Joseph shows Lucy the whites. She takes a turn beating them and then I do. Lucy folds the whites into the mixture, and turns the whole thing over and over “without patting the mixture,” she says, “because you don’t want to let air out of the whites.” Joseph suggests we add egg yolks. I look at Lucy. “How many?” I ask. “It won’t be the recipe for old fashioned coconut pie,” she says. She decides to pour half the mixture into one of the uncooked pie crusts before Joseph adds two yolks. While Lucy carries it to the oven, Joseph adds the yolks and pours the rest of the mixture into the second pie crust. Lucy carries it to the oven and I set the timer at 40 minutes. When the oven is on cockroaches race around the stovetop and burners. “There are more roaches living in that oven than you can shake a stick at,” Lucy says.

I go to collect our laundry. The laundromat will close soon.

Along the street there are dead Christmas trees dumped in trash cans and in the gutter. I hear computer music from the pinball machines in the back of the pizza parlor. The front window above the griddle, where sausages are fried for hero sandwiches, is steamed up. In front of the dry cleaner’s, a stocky man, who has been shuffling along talking to himself, stops a woman carrying a pile of clothes over her arm. He warns her that she should be careful walking on the icy pavement. He tells her that last winter he fell on his neck and broke his shoulders. She looks at me and shrugs. I open the door to the laundromat.

Joseph sits cross-legged on the sofa. I tell him Lucy and I have been talking. That sounds dumb but sometimes talking with Joseph is difficult. His mood changes and he averts his eyes. I ask him a question and he mumbles. After a while, I am mumbling too. Joseph asks me, “what?” I ask him what he is reading. Joseph is smoking cigarette after cigarette. The room is full of smoke. He says he is looking through a book of photographs taken of people in rural towns just after the civil war. He says there is something foreign in their faces.

“I understand,” I say. “They were unfamiliar with cameras and didn’t know what the camera would do to them, like an animal before a looking glass.”

“No,” Joseph says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen these expressions before on anybody. I think facial expressions have changed. Evolution. Like soon we won’t have toes.” Then he is talking about his brother. “… My brother used to do things that were self-destructive like testing how far he could push something over an edge before it fell, like bending a metal clip back and forth until it broke, like having an impulse while we were riding through a car wash to shift into drive and step on the gas.”

I tell him that for a while I doubted he really had a brother.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“You know,” I say, “I thought you were really talking about yourself … I have this friend who got his girlfriend pregnant—what should he do?”

I carry the dishes into the kitchen. Lucy brings out the pies. We will taste both of them. Joseph brings plates and forks. Lucy asks Joseph if he still takes flowers to Djuna Barnes on her birthday. The pie with the yolks is more yellow.

Djuna Barnes is about 84 years old. On June 12th, Joseph used to buy flowers and leave them at her door. He knew about her legendary reclusiveness. He never waited to see her.

Joseph says he was eating at Casa Paco the other afternoon, and he was telling a friend about Djuna Barnes, about a book she wrote, and about Paris in the glamorous ’20s. Joseph drank too many beers and was drunk. Joseph says he became a three-ring circus of spasms of jerks. Beer didn’t mix well with his medication. He tried to keep up with his friend, who marched into a liquor store and bought a quart of bourbon. They walked up Seventh Avenue to Tenth Street, then east on Tenth Street to Patchin Place. Joseph said he didn’t want to bother her, but his friend buzzed and she buzzed them in. They walked up a flight of stairs and stood outside her door. She called out to say it would take her a while—she was old. She did take a long time to come to the door. She was dressed in a long nightgown though it was still afternoon. She told them to go away. She said, “I am having a hard time today. You can come another time.” Joseph’s friend bent down and stood the bottle of bourbon at her feet inside the threshold. He said he just wanted to leave her the bottle. She said, “Do what you will, sir. Then, go away.” She closed the door. On the street, Joseph’s heart pounded. He was so thrilled. He asked his friend what had happened, “What did you say, What did I say, and what did she say?”

I lie down on the bed beside Lucy, who is watching television. She asks me if I have talked to Joseph.

I ask, “about what?” And then I know, and I shake my head.

She says she still loves Joseph. “I keep trying to see him as I imagined him that first year. I made everything up. Everything I saw about him told me what I wanted and I thought I couldn’t live without him. Then something changed and everything seemed to parody what I believed about him. I feel ashamed when I smell that odor about him. I think I am making that up now. When he mimics people I hate him. He’s so vague. He laughs at everything and he laughs at us.

“But suddenly the other night while he was talking about something, I remembered the early feeling I had. The other night, he used some word—whirligig to describe the things that went on in someone’s head in a novel he’s reading. I asked him what whirligig meant and he told me. There was something different in his voice, lighter, reverent, as if he were singing for me. He was smiling. His eyes were shiny. I wanted to hold him. I thought I was in the presence of someone experiencing a moment of grace. And then he was gone and he was Joseph again, nervous and joking Joseph.”

“Don’t you still love him, then, if you can remember that? You’ve never said anything like that about me,” I say.

“I wanted to have Joseph. I wanted to know he was with me. I was afraid if he didn’t say he was mine, he wouldn’t be mine, and he would tell me stories that didn’t have me in them. I had to make him pay attention to me, but he wouldn’t.”

“Do you love Joseph like you love me? How can you love both of us?”

“I do. It isn’t the same with him anymore. I don’t know why he is here. I feel I’ve let him down. I’ve changed and he doesn’t know that.”

“Why do you want him to leave?” I ask.

“Because he’s ruining everything,” she says.

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The Bar On Tompkins Square Park by Frederic Tuten
Frederic Tuten

In the fifth installment in BOMB’s Fiction for Driving Across America series, Frederic Tuten reads his story “The Bar On Tompkins Square Park,” originally published in BOMB 108’s literary supplement, First Proof.

The Bar On Tompkins Square Park by Frederic Tuten

This First Proof contains the short story “The Bar On Tompkins Square Park.”

Originally published in

BOMB 4, Fall 1982

Georgia Marsh, Paul Bowles, Michael McClard, Olivier Mosset & Fred Brathwaite, and Duncan Hannah. Cover by Mary Heilmann.

Read the issue
004 Summer Fall 1982