As it worked out I slept on the couch that night and woke up with first light, a bit stiff here and there because the nights were still cool. I went out and sat on the bricks below the porch and stretched for a few minutes and then went farther into the yard. There had been a heavy dew, and the grass was cool and wet under my bare feet. I stood in the yard and did twenty front kicks and twenty side kicks and fifty twist punches, wincing a little whenever my left elbow popped. It was getting warmer, and I worked up a light sweat. When I was done with the workout I sat down to stretch and breathe. It pleased me that I didn’t seem to have any hangover from the drinks the night before.
There were birds singing invisibly in the trees and a couple of volunteer chickens, banties, came wandering across the yard in front of me, picking at the weeds and dandelions. I had not yet cut the grass this spring, so it was overgrown; also the weeds were taking over. At the lower end of the yard I could see what looked like the beginnings of thistles. These were matters I couldn’t seem to bring myself to address. Living here alone, I had wanted to touch nothing, change nothing, as if my mind were repeating endlessly the phrase don’t change, don’t change, while my self, whatever that might be, remained in some quiet state of suspended animation. Yet the land was changing anyway, if only by decomposing, on its way, perhaps, toward becoming some new thing. I’d been idle for six months and it was time for me to make some sort of move. Kevin had been right or close when he guessed at that, though I didn’t much care to admit it. But it wasn’t just Kevin, it was Darwin’s rule: you change or die.
There was a tenant house at the far end of the place with a man in it I let live there rent free in exchange for counting the sheep now and then when I was out of town, and things like that. I went into the house and called him and found out he would drive me to the airport. Then I had a shower and packed, light, a few clothes in one shoulder bag and a couple of books and the American Cinematographer Manual. By noon I was standing around in the Nashville airport, a good hour early; my flight was at one-fifteen. I thought of spending the time in the bar, but instead I opted for pacing in front of the big wall of windows in the main waiting room, watching planes drop down out of the mild haze to land and smoking too many cigarettes. There wasn’t so much as a thought on my mind.
I’d brought a couple of Kierkegaards along in case I felt like getting serious and improving my mind and morals on the plane, and I also picked up a mystery while I was hanging around the airport, in case I got really bored. However, I didn’t read on the plane. For half an hour I looked out the window. The plane leveled off in a sunny spot and there was a big fluffy cloud bank below it. Childishly I imagined how much fun it would be to get out and walk around on the clouds, with some sort of helium snowshoes perhaps. It looked perfectly possible, from inside the plane.
When that fantasy paled, I got down to the real business of the trip, rationalization. The mere fact that I was going to New York, I kept telling myself, didn’t necessarily mean that I would take Kevin’s offer and go on to Rome or wherever else he might have in mind. Nobody was making me do that, and there were so many beautiful arguments against it. If I didn’t take the job, I’d be out a plane ticket at the very worst. There were plenty of other trees I could shake in the city, and in fact it was high time that I shook a few. So maybe I wouldn’t even call Kevin. Let him wonder whatever happened to me. Or I could just see him socially, so to speak. Or I could call him for a drink or dinner and talk about the job and try to fox out what was funny about it and then decide. Or, or, or...
I was still running around in this squirrel cage when the big gray poisonous cloud that usually covers New York materialized just off the right wing. My heart sank. Why would I want to go to such a place as this? I asked myself, by no means for the first time. The plane dropped through the smog cover and began to bank over the Hudson. Looking down the wing, I could see the buildings of Manhattan, as tidy and neatly defined as an architect’s model. I could cover up neighborhoods I’d once lived in with the tip of my finger. Then the plane leveled out and flew over the island to La Guardia.
I could have taken a cab, but I didn’t. I waited on the sidewalk for the Q-33, paid my ninety cents exact change, and rode jouncing and rattling in the bus to Jackson Heights, the terminal stop. There I bought a couple of tokens and went down the stairs to the F train. People hummed by me like bullets on the stairs and the platform. I wasn’t readjusted yet to the New York forty-mile-an-hour forced-marching pace. On the train I sat with my bag in my lap, watching people covertly out of the corner of my eye.
At 14th Street in Manhattan I got off the train. There was a Puerto Rican junkie bebopping around at the head of the stairs, with a couple of fresh-looking cuts on his face and forearms. As I passed him, he said to himself or the world at large: "Jesucristo, I fucking bleeding to death and I don’t even know I’m bleeding..."
Perfect. I was back in New York. Sixth Avenue: a heavy smell of roasting meat on the air from the souvlaki stands. On the east side of the avenue a sizable crowd milled through the open junk markets that lined 14th Street. It was six-thirty, two hours before I had planned to call Kevin, if I called him. I wanted him to wait and wonder for at least thirty minutes. I hadn’t had a drink on the plane and I thought I would reward myself by having one now—the old familiar doublethink coming back again. I decided to go to Grogan’s and see if Terry was still there.
The bar was just off the corner of Seventh. I walked in holding my breath; I was always afraid after a long absence that Terry might be dead or gone when I came back. In fact, nothing had changed; I might have been there just yesterday. It was a long narrow railroad bar, with an unused, atrophied steam table rusting quietly near the door. The bar itself was lined with late-middle-aged blue-collar types, both male and female, black and white, all heavy drinkers and smokers. The place was rank with a smell of old beer and old tobacco and a faint overlay of urine. There were televisions up near the ceiling at each end of the bar, and in the back there were many broken-down booths and tables, some with people sleeping in them.
I found a seat near the end of the bar beside two elderly white ladies with bandannas on their heads.
"Jaysus, Terry, it stinks in here," one said as the bartender came by. "Get a mop and clean the floor."
Terry snarled at her wordlessly and smacked a double shot glass down on the bar in front of me. He was a great burly Welshman, with a battered boxer’s face and a wonderful head of silver hair. I’d have guessed him to be around seventy, at least. Terry splashed I. W. Harper into my glass and went off to draw me a beer. I never had to order a drink in this place, it just arrived. When he came back with the beer he mumbled something and I mumbled something. Neither one of us had ever understood a word the other said. We loved each other.
I drank my shot, had a sip of beer, lit a cigarette. No immediate effect. While finishing the beer I began to watch the news on the TV to my left. An experiment on rats had just proved that cocaine was addictive, to the amazement of all. I pushed my two glasses over the little lip on the inside of the bar and Terry came by and refilled them, paying himself from the small pile of singles I’d put up on the bar. I drank the shot. A small effect. The two old ladies got up and left. I read the clock in the mirror, a skill I’d first picked up in this very place. Time was passing.
A man in a white coat was working his way down the bar. When he reached me he pulled two cellophane-wrapped steaks out from under the coat and offered them to me for three dollars. It seemed like a bargain, but I declined. Terry came back and poured me a free drink, pumping the bourbon bottle like a salt shaker.
"Thanks," I said.
He walked away without saying anything. An old black man sat down on the stool to my right and began hissing something into my ear. I couldn’t understand him and I didn’t much want to. He smelled like he might have been dead for three days. I turned the other way on my stool and drank my free shot. There was a muscle-bound white truck-driver type with a Cat hat on sitting at the corner of the bar to my left and staring rather unpleasantly in my direction. I swiveled back to the center and looked at myself in the mirror, the image of my face balanced on the necks of bottles on the shelf behind the bar. Light reflected from my glasses so that I couldn’t see my own eyes. That was pretty tough looking, or so I thought. Various New York phone numbers I knew began to play themselves back in my head.
Then the old black man and the Cat hat were in a fight. Terry came quickly around the end of the bar. I stood up. I could move if I needed to. Terry grabbed each man with one hand by the throat and jerked them apart. It was like a man breaking up a dogfight. He dragged them to the door and threw them both out and stood in the doorway screaming after them in some language incomprehensible to me—Gaelic, perhaps. I sat back down and reached for my beer.
Now there was a game show on TV. Terry came back behind the bar and poured himself something black from an unmarked bottle and filled up the glass with Coke. He knocked back half of it, whatever it was, and lit a cigarette.
"What’s that you’re drinking?" I said. I had to rephrase the question several times before he understood it.
"Blackberry brandy," he said.
"Jesus," I said. I clicked my glasses together and got another drink. I watched the game show through two commercials. Then I read the clock in the mirror. It was seven-forty. I’d drunk enough to be confident, but not enough to be stupid, or so I hoped. I went to a pay phone on the wall opposite the bar and called Kevin and told him I’d be by in ten or fifteen minutes. When I came back to the bar Terry had poured me another free one, and I drank that quickly before I left.
When I hit the street I was feeling good, feeling fine, feeling no pain whatsoever. The drinks had given me a nice little buzz, without stupefying me. I walked over to Ninth Avenue and headed up into Chelsea, where Kevin lived. It was a mixed neighborhood over here, with a lot of Spanish. People were out on the steps with radios and beer and joints. Summer in the ghetto was gearing up.
I turned left on 19th Street. The lights were out on the block for some reason. Two shadows fell in hard behind me as I turned the corner. I just had time to drop my bag before they had me, one clamping his arms around my body from behind and the other with a knife just under the point of my chin, pushing my head up and back, the blade piercing the skin a little, or at least that’s what it felt like.
"Easy," I said. "You definitely got me, gentlemen. The wallet’s in the back pocket." I only had about thirty dollars cash, anyway.
The one with the knife reached around the back and pulled my wallet. Then he went in my front pocket and found my money clip, which was a present from Lauren. Damn. He stepped back a little to see what he had.
"Let’s be reasonable about this," I said, feeling a little bolder with the knife off my neck. "Take the cash and give me back the other stuff, you’ll never move it anyway."
The man in front cracked me one across the face with the back of his hand. Gratuitous, that was. I blinked and looked at him. He had my wallet open and was thumbing through the cards, holding the knife against the back of the wallet like a bookmark or something. I got off a front snap kick, hitting him in the crotch with my instep, lifting him a couple of inches off the ground, then twisted and drove my elbow back hard into the ribs of the one behind me and at the same time hooked a spear thrust over my own shoulder into his eye. He let go and I spun out and hit him over the kneecap with a side kick. He went down. Couldn’t believe I’d made that shot; I was never very good at spinning kicks. The one in front was lying on his side throwing up. I picked up my stuff from the ground, and the knife too, and then I ran.
In Kevin’s entryway I waited for five minutes before I could stop shaking. Another drink would have gone down good but I didn’t have one handy. It was amazing I’d been that stupid. I could have lost my life over a clip and a couple of pieces of plastic. What was really riskier, I wondered suddenly, a straightforward mugging or a quiet, tricky little evening with Kevin? Lucky me, I was getting a chance to try both and compare. Finally I calmed down enough to ring the bell.
When Kevin opened his door I felt immediately that rush of excitement, affection, and (yes) trust, all part of the symbiosis that characterized our better moments together. Knowing full well that Kevin had charmed countless other people, often to their ruin, I still told myself at times that it went deeper than that, still believed he loved me too. I had not seen him in the flesh for several years. We gave each other a big hug and back slap and stepped apart, each instantly wary; in retrospect I can see that he may have had even more excellent reasons for caution than I.
"Hey, you’ve cut yourself" was the first thing he said. "You’re bleeding."
I touched my chin and my fingers did come away red. "I nicked myself shaving this morning," I said. "I must have brushed it on the way over."
Being around Kevin inspired me to tell lies about the littlest things. I stepped around him and went into the bathroom. It wasn’t much of a cut, I could see in the mirror, but it seemed to be a bleeder. I washed it with cold water and pressed a Kleenex over it to stop the bleeding. While I was waiting for it to quit I took the knife out of my pocket and flicked the slide. Six inches of double-edged steel came rattling out, zot, straight out of the handle, not jackknifing like an ordinary switchblade. Under my index finger, the blade felt very sharp indeed. I pushed back my sleeve and tried it on my forearm; it gave a closer shave than the razor I used on my face. You could just nudge the thing up against somebody and be in his carotid artery with a touch of your thumb. Vicious little mother. I pushed the slide the other way and the blade sucked back into the handle.
Kevin’s loft was basically one big room laid out on an ell with the short end at the front door. There was a sort of sleeping compartment built into the other end of it. The walls were white and lined with modestly framed stills from various pictures Kevin had had something to do with. He was a fairly good amateur photographer, and had taken most of the stills himself.
I walked down the row of pictures, stroking the cut on my chin with my thumb. Kevin was sitting at a round Formica table at one end of the loft, under a row of dark uncurtained windows. I sat down across from him. Some people were of the opinion that we resembled each other, though he was dark and I was fair, or were negative images of each other, perhaps. The truth was that there was not much of a likeness when you really looked, except for our being about the same build, tall and fairly lean (I was just a little bigger). Kevin’s features were sharper and finer than mine, and unlike me he’d put on no weight at all with the years. He also still had all his hair, though it was going gray around the temples.
"Have you eaten?" Kevin said. "You feel like going out?"
"Let’s go for a drink," I said. I had an urgent wish to play the next couple of moves on my own territory. Kevin wasn’t much of a drinker, as a rule, and he’d been known to get a little careless when he did drink. We strolled over to the Empire Diner, talking idly and harmlessly about the more unimportant members of our mutual circle of acquaintance. It was warm enough for us to sit at the little wrought-iron tables on the sidewalk outside the place. I ordered two margaritas. Kevin liked designer drinks.
They made pretty good margaritas at the Empire, but it could just as well have been straight Sterno for all I cared. I was still a bit jangled from the mugging—attempted mugging rather. My drink was gone in two good hits, and Kevin was fidgeting with his. Not good.
"Drink up, son," I said. "Don’t play with it."
Crude, but it worked, Kevin laughed, a little nervously I thought, and finished his glass. I ordered two more and some extra salt. The waiter brought a cutting board with a mound of coarse salt on it. Very nice.
Kevin took an envelope out of his jacket and slid it over the little ironwork diamonds of the table to me. I dropped my hand on top of it.
"Why don’t you tell me a little more about this deal?" I said.
"Oh well," Kevin said. "It’s pretty simple. Documentary. It’s about drug rehab."
"Nice," I said. "Friends of yours?" Couldn’t resist. He ignored it, however.
"It’s for RAI," he said.
I nodded. That was the Italian state TV network. I’d worked for them, tangentially, before. So had Kevin.
"See, they’ve still got this heavy heroin problem over there," Kevin said. "So these people set up the project around that." Here Kevin dropped a few names. "They shot at some rehab centers in the city and a couple of them upstate. Behavioral therapy is where they’re all at... Anyway, it’s only an hour program. You could cut it in a month. Less if you’re as fast as you used to be. In and out, easy money."
"Six to one, maybe a little less."
"Sure," I said. Kevin had possibly just made a little mistake. A six-to-one shooting ratio didn’t really agree with such a fancy price for an editor. I opened the envelope. A certified check, by God and Jesus. On Manufacturers Hanover. They were still solvent, so far as I knew. Kevin was two-thirds down his drink. I’d been mousing around with mine. That was more like I wanted it. I stuck my fingers in the salt and licked them. If I could get Kevin a bit drunker it was conceivable he might drop another card. I put the check back on the table.
"I booked you a flight," Kevin said. "Seven P.M. tomorrow. Kennedy."
The waiter came by and I ordered more drinks. What’s wrong with this picture? I wasn’t playing the game. The game was playing me.
"I don’t get it, Kevin," I said. "Why is it so much money?" Sometimes, when subtlety fails you, you can get somewhere with a direct question. Not this time, however.
"Oh well," Kevin said. "The rough cut’s pretty rough, actually."
"It’d have to be," I said. "That’s not the reason, is it, baby?"
Already it was time for another margarita. I ordered us a couple. Kevin was beginning to look just a little wobbly around the neck, but he still had his mask on straight.
"I was thinking of bumping you onto another job if you were interested," Kevin said. "It would be a trip to Brussels if I can work it out."
"I still don’t quite get it," I said. "You’re not famous for paying for maybes."
"Oh, it’s a pretty good budget on the RAI thing," he said. "Besides, who knows, maybe I owe you one. But I could always pay you less if you prefer."
"No, that’s okay," I said. I picked up the check and put it in my pocket. Why was I doing this? Why did the chicken cross the road? Screw it. I seemed to be getting drunk.
"Oh yeah," Kevin said. "Lauren says hello back, by the way."
I looked at him. My, they were seeing a lot of each other. She was sleeping with him again; I could practically smell it. Kevin looked like he was going to go on with the subject. I put my hand on the knife in my pocket. If he started some sort of weird confessional about Lauren I could always jump across the table and slit his throat. No, no good. Get caught for sure.
And now Kevin was running down names and numbers of people in Rome. I took out my book and wrote down all the information. Circumstantial evidence indicated that I’d taken this job. Then we were sitting there over our half-empty glasses, without another word to say to each other.
"So," Kevin said. "Bon voyage, I guess." He looked at his watch.
I pulled the knife out of my pocket and hit the slide. Zot!
"Jesus, what’s that?" Kevin said.
I was crazy. Too many drinks, and a bit of trouble focusing my eyes. I looked down my nose at the point of the knife and saw Kevin’s face somewhere beyond it.
"Present for you," I said. I thunked the knife into the cutting board where the salt had been. It went in an easy inch, like the wood was butter, and shivered when I took my hand away
"Gee whiz," Kevin said. "What did I do to deserve a nice present like that?"
"Let’s say you pay the tab," I said. Not a great exit line, but the best I could come up with on short notice. I got up and touched Kevin lightly on the shoulder and started walking away down Tenth Avenue, no particular destination in mind. Two or three blocks, and I remembered that it’s bad luck to give someone a knife. You’re supposed to give a penny back to ward it off, and Kevin hadn’t done that. Of course, I did have my certified check in my pocket. But somehow I don’t think you can buy out a superstition with a check.
Copyright © 1986 by Madison Smartt Bell. All rights reserved.