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.
In the few months before his story was to appear, he was treated differently at work and at his usual hangouts. The bartender at the White Horse Tavern, himself a yet unpublished novelist, called out his name when he entered the bar and had twice bought him a double shot of rye with a beer backer. He had changed in everyone’s eyes: He was soon to be a published writer.
And soon a serious editor at a distinguished literary publishing house who had read the story would write him, asking if he had a novel in the works. Which he had. And another one, as well, in a cardboard box on his closet shelf that had made the tour of slush piles as far as Boston. Only twenty-three, and soon, with the publication of his story in Partisan Review, he would enter the inner circle of New York intellectual life and be invited to cocktail parties where he, the youngster, and Bellows and Mary McCarthy, Lowell and Delmore would huddle together, getting brilliantly drunk and arguing the future of American Literature.
On the day the magazine was supposed to be on the stands, he rushed, heart pounding, to the newspaper shop on 6th Avenue and 12th that carried most of the major American literary magazines, pulled the issue of PR from the rack, opened it to the table of contents and found his name was not there. Then turning the pages one by one, he found that not only was his story not there, but neither was there any breath of him.
Maybe he was mistaken; maybe he had come on the wrong day. Maybe the delivery truck had got stuck in New Jersey. Maybe he had picked up an old issue. He scrutinized the magazine again: Winter, 1965—the date was right. He went up to the shop owner perched on a high stool, better to see who was pilfering the magazines or reading them from cover to cover and call out, “This is not a library!” He asked the man if this was the most recent issue of Partisan Review, and it was, having arrived that morning in DeBoer’s truck, along with bundles of other quarterlies that in not too many months would be riding back on that same truck—bound in stacks, magazines no one would ever read.
He took a day to compose himself, to find the right tone before phoning the editor. Should he be casual? “Hi, I just happened to pick up a copy of PR and noticed that my story isn’t there.” Or very casual? “I was browsing through a rack of magazines and remembered that there was supposed to be a story of mine in the recent issue but it doesn’t seem to be there, so I wondered if I had the pub date wrong.”
With the distinguished editor’s letter in hand—typed and signed and with the praising addendum, “Bravo,” he finally got the courage to call. The phone rang a long time. He hung up and tried again, getting an annoyed, don’t-bother-us busy signal. He considered walking over to the office but then imagined how embarrassed he would be, asking: “Excuse me, but I was wondering whatever happened to my story?” Maybe Edmund Wilson would be there behind a desk with a martini in each fist, or maybe the critics Philip Rahv and Dwight Macdonald would be hanging out at the water cooler arguing over the respective merits of Dreiser and Trotsky. What would they make of him and the unimportant matter of his story?
Months earlier, he had written the editor thanking him and now he wrote him again: “Might I expect to see my story in the next issue?” To be sure his letter would not go astray, he mailed it at the post office on 14th and Avenue A. And for the next two weeks, he rushed home every day after work to check his mailbox but found no response, just bills and flyers from the supermarket. He knew no one to ask, having no one in his circle remotely connected to PR or to any of its writers. For those at the White Horse he was their ticket to the larger world.
The news that his story had not appeared quickly got around. His colleagues at the Welfare Department—avant-garde filmmakers, artists without galleries, and waiting-to-be-published poets and novelists—where he was an Investigator since graduating from City College in ’63, gave him sly, sympathetic looks. “That’s a tough break,” a poet in his unit said, letting drop that he had just gotten a poem accepted in the Hudson Review.
His failure made him want him to slink away from his desk the instant he sat down. It was painful enough that he had to go to work there, as it was, it made him queasy the moment he got to East 112th and saw the beige, concrete hulk of the Welfare Department with its grimy windows and its clients lining up—eviction notices, termination of utilities letters in hand. His supervisor, who had been at the Welfare Department ever since the Great Depression and who now was unemployable elsewhere, tried to console him, saying he was lucky to be on a secure job track and with a job where he could meet so many different kinds of people with a range of stories, some of which could find their way into his books.
But he didn’t need stories. What he needed was the time to tell them. And he had worked out a system to do that. He rose at five, made fresh coffee or drank what was left from the day before, cut two thick slices from a loaf of dark rye, which he bought at that place on 8th off 2nd Avenue that sold great day-old bread at half price, and had his breakfast.
Sometimes he would shower after breakfast. But the bathtub in the kitchen had no shower, so he had to use a handheld sprinkler that left a dispiriting wet mess on the linoleum floor, which added cleanup time to the shower itself. Thus, he had a good excuse to cut down on the showers and to use that time at his desk to write.
Usually, by 5:45AM, he was dressed and at his desk, the kitchen table he made from crate wood that almost broke the saw in the cutting. He sat at his typewriter for two hours and no matter what resulted from it he did not leave the table. At 7:45 he was at the crosstown bus stop on 10th and Ave D and if all went well he was at the Astor Place station before 8:15 and, if all still went well, he would catch the local and transfer for the express at 14th, get off at 96th Street and take another local to 114th. Then he’d race to clock-in—usually a minute or two before nine. It was not good to be late by even a minute. He was still a provisional and had to make a good impression on Human Resources.
When he got upstairs to his desk and had joined his unit, he’d look over the list of calls to see if any were urgent. They were all urgent: Someone never got her check because the mailbox had been broken into. Someone was pregnant again. Someone needed more blankets. Someone had had just enough and jumped off the roof on 116th and Park Avenue—her children were at her grandmother’s.
Today, he finished all his deskwork and phone calls by noon and clocked out for lunch, which he decided to skip. Instead, he finished four field visits very quickly, with just enough time to solicit the information needed to file his reports. He had looked forward all morning to his final, special visit.
He was alarmed when he saw a cop car parked in front of her building. An ambulance, too, with its back doors wide open. He was worried that something bad had happened to her, blind and alone. But the medics were bringing a man down in a stretcher. He was in his eighties, drunk and laughing. The cop spotted his black field book and came over asking, “Is he one of yours?”
“Not mine,” he said.
“Maybe not even God’s,” the cop said. “His girlfriend shot him in the hand,” he added. “Jealousy, at that age!” He laughed. As he was being lifted into the ambulance, the wounded man laughed, “Hey! Take me back. I haven’t finished my homework.”
He rang her doorbell only once before he heard footsteps and then the “Who is it?”
“Investigator,” he answered. She opened the door, smiling. She wore white gloves worn at the tips and a long blue dress that smelled of clothes ripening in an airless closet. Her arm extended, her hand brushing along the wall, she led him through a narrow, unlit hall. From her file, which he had reviewed that morning for this visit, he knew it was her birthday. She was eighty-five.
“It’s your birthday,” he said.
She laughed. “Is that so! I guess I forgot,” saying it in a way that meant she hadn’t. “I have tea ready,” she said.
She poured tea from a porcelain teapot blooming with pink roses on a white sky. Its lip was chipped and stained brown, but the cups and sugar bowl that matched the teapot were flawless and looked newly washed. So, too, the creamy-white oilcloth that bounced a dull light into his eyes. It was hot in the kitchen; the oven was on with the door open, though he had told her several times how dangerous that could be. A fat roach, drunk from the heat, made a jagged journey along the sink wall.
“Do you need anything today?” he asked. “Maybe something special?” He wanted to add, “for your birthday,” but he did not want to press the obvious point. He could put in for a clothes or blanket supplement for her, deep winter was days away. Or a portable electric heater she could carry from one room to another, so she would not have to use the stove. But how would she locate the electric sockets?
“Oh! Nothing at all,” she said, as if surprised by the question. “Thank you, but what would I need?”
Not to be blind, he thought. Not to be old. Not to be poor. “Well, if anything comes to mind, just call me at the office,” he said, remembering that she had no phone.
“Well,” she said shyly. “If you have time, would you read me that poem again?”
She already had the book in hand before he could answer, “I’m very glad to.”
She had bookmarked the Longfellow poem he had read to her in his previous visits. He read slowly, with a gravity that he thought gave weight to the lines. He paused briefly to see her expression, which remained fixed, serene.
When he finished, she asked him to repeat the opening stanza. “‘Tell me not in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream! / For the soul is dead that slumbers, / And things are not what they seem. // Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal…’”
She thanked him and asked, “Do you like the poem?”
“Yes,” he said, to please her. But he disliked the poem because of what he thought as its cloying, sentimental uplift. He did not want to be sentimental but he had to admit how much the lines had moved him anyway.
They sipped tea in silence. He did not like tea but accepted a second cup, commenting how perfectly she had brewed it. “Come any time,” she said, “It’s always nicer to drink tea in company.”
She walked him to the door, picking up a cane along the way. He had never seen her use a cane before. He suddenly worried that should she fall and break her hip, alone in the apartment, she could not phone for help. He made a note in his black notebook to requisition a phone for her.
“The cane is very distinguished,” he said.
“It helps me hop along.” She smiled. “Thank you for reading to me. You have a pleasing voice, do you sing?”
“My voice is a deadly weapon,” he said, surprised by his unusual familiarity. “Birds fall from the sky on my first note.”
“Does it kill rats?” She laughed. “I hear families of them eating in the hall at night.”
He fled down the stairs, having once been caught between floors by three young men with kitchen knives who demanded his money but when they saw his investigator’s black notebook they laughed and said they’d let him slide this time—everyone knew that investigators never carried cash in the field. He sped to the subway where he squeezed himself into a seat so tight that he could not retrieve his book, Malamud’s The Assistant, from his briefcase. He tried to imagine the book and where he had left off reading. It was about an old Jewish man who ran a failing grocery store and his assistant, a young gentile who lugged milk crates and did other small jobs and who stole from him. It was a depressing novel that pained him, but that had, for all its grimness, made him feel he had climbed out of the grocery store’s dank cellar and into a healthy sunlight.
The train halted three times. The fourth might be the one that got stuck in the blackness for hours and he thought to get off at the next station and take a bus or run home or, better, close his eyes and magically be there. But finally the train lurched ahead and when he exited at Astor Place, a lovely light early snow had powdered the subway steps. He waited for the bus.
He waited only eight minutes by his watch but it seemed an hour, two hours—that he had been waiting his whole life. Finally, he decided to walk and hope to catch the bus along its route. But he still did not see it by the time he got to First Avenue, so he decided to save the fare and walk the rest of the way home to 8th between C and D. By Avenue A, it began to be slippery underfoot and the snow came down in fists. Now the thought of going home and leaving again in the snowy evening to travel all the way on the snail’s pace bus to the White Horse Tavern for dinner seemed a weak idea. Anyway, he was still smarting from the bartender’s faraway look and the wisecracks from the bar regulars when he walked in. He decided to eat closer to home, a big late lunch that would keep him through the evening and keep him at home, writing.
Stanley’s on 12th and B was almost empty, the sawdust still virgin. It was still early and still quiet, with just a few old-timers, regulars from the neighborhood—the crowds his age came after eleven, when he would be in bed. He ordered a liverwurst sandwich on rye with raw onions and a bowl of rich mushroom soup, made in the matchbox kitchen by a Polish refugee from the Iron Curtain, an engineer who had to turn cook. A juniper berry topped the soup. That, the engineer told him, was the way you could tell it was authentically Polish. He always searched for the berry after that—like a pearl hiding in the fungus. Stanley, the owner, balder than the week before, brought him a draft beer without his asking. “It’s snowing hard,” he pronounced. “Should I salt the street now or later?” He did not wait for an answer and went back to the kitchen to shout at the cook in Polish.
He took two books from his briefcase, so that he could change the mood should he wish: Journey to the End of the Night—for the third time—Under the Volcano, which he had underlined and made notes in the margins. “No one writes the sky as does Lowry, with its acid blues and clouds soaked in mescal.” He was proud of that note. One day he would write a book of just such notes. Note upon note building to a grand symphony. Then he voted against ever writing such a book, pretentious to its core—worse, it was facile, a cheat. He wanted to write the long narrative, with each sentence flowing seamlessly into another, each line with its own wisdom and mystery, each character a fascination, a novel that stirred and soared. But what was the point of that? What had become of his story?
A girl he liked came in with a tall man in a gray suit. She smiled a warm hello. He returned with a friendly wave and a smile that he had to force. Now he was distracted and pained and could not focus on reading his book or on his sandwich, which, anyway, was too heavy on the onion. He had met the girl at Stanley’s several times, never with a plan, although he had always hoped he would find her there; they talked without flirting, which he was not good at anyway, going directly to the heavy stuff of books and paintings.
The first time he saw her there months earlier, she was reading a paperback of Wallace Stevens poems. He imagined her sensitive, a poet maybe. She was from upstate, near the Finger Lakes with their vineyards and soft hills that misted at dawn and had the green look of Ireland. He had never been upstate or to Ireland. He had never been to Europe. She had been, several times, and had spent a Radcliffe year abroad in Paris, where she had sat at the Café Flore educating herself after the boring lectures at the Sorbonne in the rue des Écoles. She had learned how to pace herself by ordering un grand café crème and then waiting two hours before ordering another, and then ordering a small bottle of Vichy water with un citron à côté. By then, she was more than twenty pages to the end of La nausée. What did he think of Sartre’s novel, she had asked him as if it were a test. He hated it, he said. It crushed him, written as if to prove how boring a novel could be.
“That’s smart,” she said. “If you were any more original you’d be an idiot.”
They kissed one evening under a green awning on Avenue A. He kissed hungrily, her lips opening him to a new life. After he had walked her to her doorway and gone home and got into his bed, he felt as if he just had been released from years in prison, the gates behind him shut, and “the trees were singing to him.” He did not have her phone or her address and, over the next few weeks, when he went to Stanley’s hoping to find her she was not there.
He buried himself in the Céline and tried not to look at her. But then she was beside him. “Come over, I want you to meet someone,” she said, sweetly enough to almost make him forget that there was a someone he was supposed to meet.
“This is George, she said, my fiancé.” He extended his hand and George did the same, a hand that spoke of a law office or some wood-paneled place of business high up- and far downtown, maybe in the Woolworth building.
George asked him if he’d like a drink and, before he could answer, George called out to Stanley and ordered two double Scotches, neat. “Johnny, Black Label,” he said. She was still on her house wine, white, from grapes in California, fermenting under a bright innocent sky. The drinks came. They had little to say to each other or, if they did, they said little. He made a toast: “Best wishes for your happiness,” he said. Not much of a toast, not very original. It would take him a day to think of one better; under the circumstances, perhaps never. He looked at his watch and remembered he had to meet a friend for dinner across town: they all shook hands again, and he wished them both good luck. “You too, fella,” George said.
The snow fell in wet chunks that seemed aimed at him. When he got home, his head and jacket were wet and he had to brush off the snow married to his trousers. He was worried his jacket would not be dry by morning when he went to work, and he was on the second landing before he realized he had not checked the mail. He thought it was not worth the bother of going back and checking, but he could not stand the thought that he would be home all night wondering if PR had finally written him. There was a letter in the mailbox. But it was not from the magazine. But it was also not from Con Edison or Bell Telephone or Chemical Bank, announcing the fourteen dollars in his savings account. When he got to his apartment, he closed the door behind him with a heavy, leaden clunk and slid the iron pole of the police lock into place. “Home is the sailor, home from the sea and the hunter home from the hill,” he announced.
He noticed that his cactus was turning yellow. He had overwatered it, and now it was dreaming of deserts—the old country—as it died slowly, ostentatiously. He thought of getting a cat. It would be great to have company that would be the same as being alone. A black cat that would melt in the night when he slept. He picked up the letter cautiously when he saw there was no return address. It may have come from a disgruntled client who had wanted to spew hatred and threats. But it was not. The note was handwritten with lots of curls that announced Barnard or Sarah Lawrence or some grassy boarding school in Connecticut. “Sorry,” it said, “that your story did not appear in the new issue as you were led to expect. Do call, if you like.” There was a phone number, each digit inscribed as if chiseled in granite and the seven was crossed. For a moment he thought it a prank by one of the White Horse crowd, hoping he would call and find he had dialed a funeral parlor or a police station or a suspicious, jealous husband. But what if it was for real?
He washed his face in cold water, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, took four deep breaths and dialed, holding back for a moment the last digit. At first he thought, with a little lift in his spirits, that it was the girl from the bar. Maybe, after comparing him to her beau, she had decided to call off the engagement. But then, he realized how absurd that was since the girl in the bar had nothing to do with his story. He let the call go through and on the second ring a woman answered. “I’ve been calling for a week,” she said. “Don’t you have a service?”
“I let it go,” he said. “Looking for a better one.”
“Well, I gave up and wrote you.”
“Sorry for the trouble,” he said and then in an anxious rush and hating himself for the rush, asked, “Are you an editor at Partisan Review?”
“Something like that,” she said. Then cautiously added, “We can meet if you like.” He wanted to ask if she could tell him right now, over the phone, tell him what had happened to his story but he held back not wanting to seem anxious and unsophisticated.
“Sure,” he said, adding as casually as he could, “When?”
“How’s tonight? I live just across town. You name the place.”
“You don’t mind coming out in all this snow?” he said, immediately regretting he had asked. What kind of man is afraid of the snow? “I mean, I could come to you if that’s easier.”
“I’ll just grab a cab. How’s 8?”
He wondered if she had dinner in mind. He would have to offer to pay for it, and he began calculating his finances. But to his relief, she said, “I’ll already have had dinner.”
“Okay, then, how’s the De Robertis’ Pastry Shop, the café on First, between 10th and 11th, next to Lanza’s?”
“Is that the café with the tile walls that looks like a bathroom?”
He didn’t like his café being spoken of that way. “I guess some may see it like that.”
They fixed the time at 8:30. Just as he was about to ask whether they were going to publish the story in another issue, the line went dead. There were still some hours to go before meeting her and he had time to write or to review the morning’s work. The portable Olivetti, shiny red, hopeful, was quietly where he had left it, waiting patiently on the kitchen table; the two pages he had written beside it, like accomplices. He read over the pages. They were absurd, stupid, illiterate, worthless—and worse, boring. He was stupid and boring, a failure. The Welfare building sailed at him like an ocean liner in the night. “Life is real, life is earnest,” he sang, as the ship loomed larger.
He did not want to meet her hungry and he did not want to spend money for another sandwich at Stanley’s. He scavenged the fridge. The crystal bowl heaped with Russian caviar was not there so he settled for the cottage cheese, large curd, greening at the top, which he spooned directly from the container. Then he considered taking a nap so he would be refreshed and alert and not stupid or dull but bright when he met her. He practiced a smile but it was strained and pathetic. He tried napping, leaving on the kitchen light so he would not wake in the lonely darkness. The Welfare building pressed full steam toward him but he blinked it away and tried to clear his mind of all troubling thoughts but without much success. So he rose with the idea of making himself presentable. He brushed his teeth and gave himself a sponge bath; he cleaned his fingernails and brushed his teeth again. He had reached the limit of his toilette and returned to his desk; maybe his pages would brighten at the cleaned-up sight of him; maybe his Olivetti would regard him more favorably and let him turn out some astonishing gems.
By the time he arrived at the café, he had to shake off the heavy snow twice from his umbrella. His shoes were soaked. He had not changed them for fear of getting his second pair drowned as well and thus having to spend the next day at work in wet shoes.
She was easy to spot, sitting in a booth with a pot of tea and a half-eaten baba au rhum. Her black hair was pulled tight in a ponytail, gold hoops dangled from her earlobes; kohl rimmed her eyes; her yellow sweater was the color of straw in the rain. What was she, twenty? She was more Café Figaro on Bleecker with its Parisian hauteur than someone who usually came into his neighborhood. He was sure he had spotted her at the White Horse, men hoping to catch her eye circling her table, where she sat in among other men chattering for her attention. She had never once looked up at him, even when he was ostentatiously clutching Under the Volcano in his hand.
She smiled in an anxious way that relaxed him and he took his seat and said, “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting.” He was ten minutes early, but he had no better introductory words. He felt foolish for having said them.
“I liked your story,” she said, as if she too had mulled over her first words to him and now had let them burst.
“I’m very pleased,” he said. Pleased seemed tempered and not over anxious, showing a proper balance of self-esteem and of professional dignity. But then he overrode his self-control and said, “Are they still going to publish it?”
She forced a little laugh. “I doubt it.”
This was bad news, indeed. But before he could ask the cause of this doubt, she said: “He hates me now.” She made a high-pitched sound like a young mouse broken in a trap.
“I read him in college. We all did. I never thought I’d become his assistant! Anyway, he has a new assistant now,” she said, her eyes glistening.
Johnny, the café owner, brought over the cappuccino, with a glass of water and a cloth napkin. He looked at the young woman and smiled and turning to him said, “Hai fatto bene.”
“You know, it’s just one of those crazy things that happens. Maybe not so crazy when people work so closely all the time,” she added, as if talking to herself.
He wanted to ask, “Please, what thing that happens?” But he was afraid that pressing her would only make him seem unworldly. Instead, he said: “Yes, crazy things do happen,” thinking he would offer, as a current example, the story of the shot man who said he hadn’t finished his homework.
The café was foggy, steaming up like the baths on St. Mark’s he went to once and hated, all that wet heat boiling his blood—and the absurd thing was that he had to pay for it too. He could leave now, as he had then, with the steam stripping the skin from his bones. But he was listening to her story and was not ready to run.
She looked down. “I suppose you can fill in the rest,” she said. And then with a little pinched laugh, added, “After all, you’re the writer.” He waited for her to add, “and as yet unpublished.” But he realized it would have been his addition and not hers and that he was bringing to the table the same feeling of defeat as when he went to the White Horse, where the greetings had gone stale.
“Oh! I don’t know,” he said, with some affected casualness, “I’m not good at realism or office fiction.” He was thinking of a popular novel some years back, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which he had not read but understood had to do with office politics and unhappy commuters with sour marriages and lots of scotch and martinis before dinner. He knew nothing of that world, making him wonder in what America he lived and if he was an American writer or any kind of writer at all?
She gave him a studied look and in a brisk, business-like tone said, “Of course, I know that. That’s what I like most about your story. I loved that part where a dying blue lion comes into the young blind woman’s hut and asks for a bowl of water and how she nurses him to health.”
“That sounds a bit corny,” he said. “Maybe I should be embarrassed instead of flattered that you remembered it.”
He himself had forgotten the passage as well as most of the story. It had seemed so long ago and somewhat like a friend who, for no reason that he knew, had turned on him.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “It’s an archetype, all archetypes seem corny.”
“So,” he asked, as if he had not already been told, as if, finally, to invite the coup de grâce, “why won’t he publish it?” The steam was clouding him and the wall’s white tiles were oozing little pearls of hot water and bitter coffee.
“Look,” she said, with an edge in her voice, “I just came to tell you that I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“Excuse me,” he said, “I’m a bit slow, more than usual tonight—the steam’s getting to me.” He wished he could close his eyes and find himself home and, once there, obliterate all memory of the sent story or of having received the acceptance letter that was to have changed his life.
The espresso machine was screaming.
She looked about the room and then back at him and smiled. “And frankly, I was curious to know what you were like.”
“I hope I met your expectations,” he said. That was so lame. He started to revise but she did not give him time.
“My boyfriend also thinks you’re a good writer. And he studied with Harry Levin at Harvard.”
“Harry Levin’s The Power of Blackness is a great book.” He wanted her to know he knew.
She offered to pay her share of the bill—and a little extra because she had had those two babas au rhum—but he said, in what he thought was a worldly fashion, “Not at all, you are my guest.”
He walked her to 9th and First Avenue and waved for a cab. “Thanks,” she said, “I don’t believe in cabs, do you? They’re so proletarian.” They stood on the corner shivering, and waited until the bus skidded to the stop; snow blanketed the roof and the wipers swiped the windshield with maniac fury. He wanted to kiss her on both cheeks, as he had seen it done in French films, but thought it was too familiar too soon. In any case, the hood of her slicker covered much of her face. She smiled at him very pleasantly, he thought. On the second step of the nearly empty bus, she turned and said, “I don’t have a boyfriend.” He waited until he saw her take her seat. He waved as the bus moved into the traffic, but she was facing away and did not see him.
He thought of returning to the café, but he was sick of coffee and the screaming white tiles, or of going back to Stanley’s bar for a beer, but was afraid he would run into the girl he had liked—still liked—and she would ask what he had thought of her fiancé and he would have to be brave and swallow it and say how solid he seemed and how he was happy for her if she was happy.
He went home and climbed the stairs. A dog barked at him behind a door on the second floor—Camus, The Stranger, the mistreated, beaten dog; the Russian woman on the third floor was boiling cabbage and the hall smelled of black winter and great sweeps of bitter snow, a branchless tree here and there dotting the white expanse—Mother Russia, Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, the bloody axe, a penniless student. On the fourth floor, not a peep. Then suddenly, a groan followed by a cry like a man hit with a shovel: “Welt welt, kiss mein tuchas.”
On the fifth floor, he thought about the groan and the cry on the fourth. He had seen the tattooed numbers on the old man’s wrist and knew what had given them birth—hills of eyeglasses, mounds of gold teeth, black black smoke rising from an exhausted chimney. When he finally reached the sixth and last floor, he stopped at his door, key in hand, thinking to turn and leave the building again for a fresh life in the blizzard. But he was already shrouded in snow and was chilled and wanted to take off his clothes and lie in bed and be whoever he was. There was a song coming from the adjacent apartment: Edith Piaf, who regretted nothing.
His playboy neighbor had returned from Ibiza with a sack full of 45s and a deep suntan. He always had visitors, beautiful girls from Spain and Paris and London, who came to crash and who sometimes stayed for a week or two. One had knocked at his door at two in the morning and asked if he had any coke. He apologized, he did not drink soda; she made a face and said, “Where’re you from?” Another banged at his door at five in the morning blind drunk; she had mistaken his apartment for the playboy’s. “You have the wrong door,” he said, his sleep shattered. “Who cares,” she said, staggering into his room.
He was down to his shorts and T-shirt and had pulled a khaki surplus army blanket to his knees. He sat up in bed with Céline and read. Ferdinand was working in an assembly line in Detroit. Molly was his girlfriend. Ferdinand was a young vagabond and she was a prostitute. She loved him. There was no loneliness in the world as the loneliness of America. And the two had made a fragile cave of paper and straw against the loneliness. He read until he no longer knew what he was reading. Then he gave up. His mind was elsewhere and nowhere. The day had been fraught with distractions. He was a distraction. He thought of phoning someone. Maybe the assistant he had just left at the snowy bus stop—to find out if she got home all right. Maybe he would call some friends, but he did not know whom and, finally, he did not have anyone he wanted to talk with or who would welcome his call. He thought again of getting a cat. A white one he could see in the dark. The cactus looked healthier in the lamplight; maybe it had had second thoughts and decided to give life another try. “Goodnight,” he said to himself and switched off the light.
But he quickly turned it back on, thinking again of calling the assistant, thinking that perhaps they could soon become friends. They could go to poetry readings at the Y—Auden and other great poets read there, or take in a movie at the Thalia on Broadway and 95th—he was sure she liked foreign films, like Fellini’s La Strada, or Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Maybe on the weekends they would sit over coffee under the bronze shadow of Rodin’s giant Balzac in MoMA’s tranquil garden, and he would read to her his latest work. She would immediately recognize what was excellent and what was not and, with her as his editor and muse, he would write beautiful, original stories and novels. She had already been his champion. Now they would collaborate, nourishing each other on life’s creative adventure and they would never be lonely in Detroit or anywhere else. He tried to remember if he had found her attractive, but she was a blur with a messenger’s voice.
Maybe he had neglected to see that she was beautiful, desirable. He suspected that she was both. He was sure of it. Maybe he’d invite her for a dinner of spaghetti and salad and house red at Lanza’s, where whatever you wanted on the menu they did not have. Maybe at dinner together there, under the frescos of Sicilian villas grilling in the sun, she would find its prix fixe and soiled menus louche and seductive and thus find him equally, if not more so. Maybe one morning they would wake together in his bed, the raw light from the window on her beautiful, bare, straight shoulders. Maybe one midnight, after a movie and over coffee and a plate of rolls at Ratner’s on 2nd Avenue and under the eyes of the shaking old Jewish waiters, retired from the Yiddish Theatre, they would realize they were in love. Maybe they were already in love.
He could hear the scraping of a snow-shovel in the distance—maybe on Avenue C. His own street would not be cleared for days. He went to his window. The synagogue across the way had been locked tight for two years; its smashed windows covered with sheets of fading plywood. The grocery three buildings to the east of him was closed, the two brothers who owned it were still in Rikers Island for fencing radios, so the whole way to Avenue D might be snowed over, impeding his walk to the crosstown bus on 10th and D. The snow was building on his window ledge and he would let it mount, better to gauge how much of it was piling up below in the street he could no longer clearly see. With all this snow, the morning bus might be delayed and the subway, too. He would have to get up extra early to get to work, and budget himself the time to shovel Kim’s sidewalk. The laundry was still dark: Kim was in the back recovering from a mugging and beating three days earlier. “Where is your gold?” the robbers had demanded. “Chinks always have gold,” one said, giving Kim a whack on the knee with a blackjack. He would have to shovel the snow for him before he went to work or Kim would get a summons or two. When would he find time to write? Who cared if he did? He would go down in the street and sleep there in the blanketing snow, Céline in hand. Or maybe the Lowry.
He went back to bed, tossing and turning and sleeping a dozen minutes at a time, then waking. He returned to Céline. Ferdinand was still miserable in cold Detroit, but he had no luck in focusing and no better luck with Under the Volcano, whose drunken protagonist still reeled about in the hot Mexico sun. He went to the window again. The snow had piled a quarter way up the window and was whirling in the sky like it owned the world. He might be late to work or never get there no matter how early he left his house.
There was a knock at the door, alarming at that hour, but then he thought it was his playboy neighbor or one of his wandering drunk girlfriends, or the one always prowling for drugs. He opened the door to the limit of the chain. It was the neighbor, drink in hand.
“I heard you puttering about and thought it was not too late.”
He opened the door, feeling vulnerable in his underwear.
“Just wanted you to know I’m moving out and want to sublet for a year or so. Thought you might like it for your office.”
He could not afford two apartments scraping by on one, but he said, “Thanks, give me a day or so to think about it.”
“The rent’s the same thirty-two a month—I’m not trying to make anything on it.”
“I wouldn’t have thought so.” It was cold in the hallway and he thought to invite him in but was embarrassed that he would see three days of dishes still piled up in the sink. And then, feeling he was not cordial enough, he added, “Where’re you going?” expecting him to say Ibiza or Paris or San Francisco.
“Uptown, closer to work.”
“Sorry you’re leaving,” he said.
“Well, me too. But Dad thinks it’s time to put on the harness and he got me something in publishing.”
“It should be okay. I’m told editors mostly go to lunch.”
“I’ve heard that,” he said. He wanted to add, “I’ll send you my novel, maybe you’ll like it.” But he felt humiliated and hated himself for the thought that he would ask.
“Come and lunch with me one day!”
“I’d like that,” he said. They shook hands. He shut and locked the door but felt he was on the outside, in the hall, freezing. He checked his Timex. How had it ever become midnight? No wonder he was freezing—at that hour the boiler was shut off and all the radiators turned to ice. He lit the oven, setting it on low, and left the door open. Maybe he would buy a portable heater and one for the blind woman. Maybe he’d drag out the Yellow Pages from the back of the closet and look up the closest animal shelter, like the ASPCA, which he heard was respectable. He would go there on Saturday and would come home that very day with a cat. He wondered what kind of cats they had there. Old ones, sick ones, mean ones, dirty and incontinent ones who would pee on his bed, all ready to be gassed. He would save ten and herd them in a train to follow him as he went from room to room. He’d circle them around his bed at night and keep away Bad Luck. He had Bad Luck. He’d save fifteen. Seven white ones; seven black ones. The other would be marmalade. Would they let him take that many at one time?
He could not sleep. But he could not stay awake another minute. Better than chancing a morning bus and subway failure, maybe he’d get dressed and start walking to work now, fording the snow drifts so to be sure to get there on time. He’d show up at first light, half-frozen, waiting for the doors to open. He would be exemplary. He would be made permanent. He would be promoted and never have time to write again or wait for rejections in the mail. Or maybe he would be found icy dead at the foot of the Welfare Department’s still closed doors. The editor of Partisan Review would eventually learn of it and publish his story, boasting that he had been their promising discovery.
The snow had bullied the streets into silence. The building slept without a snore. In the distance, the tugboats owlishly hooted as they felt their way along the blinding snow. He closed his eyes. He stayed that way for several minutes, chilled under his blanket. But then the oven slowly heated, sending him its motherly warmth. He rose and went to the kitchen table and to the gleaming red Olivetti waiting for him there.
This story is dedicated to Tom McCarthy.
Frederic Tuten grew up in the Bronx and later lived in Latin America and Paris. He wrote about Brazilian Cinema Novo and taught film and literature at the University of Paris 8. He has written about art, literature, and film in Artforum, the New York Times, Vogue; was an actor in an Alain Resnais movie; taught with Paul Bowles in Morocco; and co-wrote the cult-classic Possession. He is the author of five novels: The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Tintin in the New World, Tallien: A Brief Romance, Van Gogh’s Bad Café, The Green Hour, and a book of inter-related short stories: Self Portraits: Fictions.
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.