Issue 39, Fall 1966
“Phillip,” she said, “this is crazy.”
I didn’t agree or disagree. She wanted some answer. I bit her neck. She kissed my ear. It was nearly three in the morning. We had just returned. The apartment was dark and quiet. We were on the living room floor and she repeated, “Phillip, this is crazy.” Her crinoline broke under us like cinders. Furniture loomed all around in the darkness—settee, chairs, a table with a lamp. Pictures were cloudy blotches drifting above. But no lights, no things to look at, no eyes in her head. She was underneath me and warm. The rug was warm, soft as mud, deep. Her crinoline cracked like sticks. Our naked bellies clapped together. Air fired out like farts. I took it as applause. The chairs smirked and spit between their feet. The chandelier clicked giddy teeth. The clock ticked as if to split its glass. “Phillip,” she said, “this is crazy.” A little voice against the grain and power. Not enough to stop me. Yet once I had been a man of feeling. We went to concerts, walked in the park, trembled in the maid’s room. Now in the foyer, a flash of hair and claws. We stumbled to the living room floor. She said, “Phillip, this is crazy.” Then silence, except in my head where a conference table was set up, ashtrays scattered about. Priests, ministers and rabbis were rushing to take seats. I wanted their opinion, but came. They vanished. A voice lingered, faintly crying, “You could mess up the rug, Phillip, break something... “Her fingers pinched my back like ants. I expected a remark to kill good death. She said nothing. The breath in her nostrils whipped mucus. It cracked in my ears like flags. I dreamed we were in her mother’s Cadillac, trailing flags. I heard her voice before I heard the words. “Phillip, this is crazy. My parents are in the next room.” Her cheek jerked against mine, her breasts were knuckles in my nipples. I burned. Good death was killed. I burned with hate. A rabbi shook his finger, “You shouldn’t hate.” I lifted on my elbows, sneering in pain. She wrenched her hips, tightened muscles in belly and neck. She said, “Move.” It was imperative to move. Her parents were thirty feet away. Down the hall between Utrillos and Vlamincks, through the door, flick the light and I’d see them. Maybe like us, Mr. Cohen adrift on the missus. Hair sifted down my cheek. “Let’s go to the maid’s room,” she whispered. I was reassured. She tried to move. I kissed her mouth. Her crinoline smashed like sugar. Pig that I was, I couldn’t move. The clock ticked hysterically. Ticks piled up like insects. Muscles lapsed in her thighs. Her fingers scratched on my neck as if looking for buttons. She slept. I sprawled like a bludgeoned pig, eyes open, loose lips. I flopped into sleep, in her, in the rug, in our scattered clothes.
Dawn hadn’t shown between the slats in the blinds. Her breathing sissed in my ear. I wanted to sleep more, but needed a cigarette. I thought of the cold avenue, the lonely subway ride. Where could I buy a newspaper, a cup of coffee? This was crazy, dangerous, a waste of time. The maid might arrive, her parents might wake. I had to get started. My hand pushed along the rug to find my shirt, touched a brass lion’s paw, then a lamp cord.
A naked heel bumped wood.
She woke, her nails in my neck. “Phillip, did you hear?”
I whispered, “Quiet.” My eyes rolled like Milton’s. Furniture loomed, whirled. “Dear God,” I prayed, “save my ass.” The steps ceased. Neither of us breathed. The clock ticked. She trembled. I pressed my cheek against her mouth to keep her from talking. We heard pajamas rustle, phlegmy breathing. fingernails scratching hair. A voice, “Veronica, don’t you think it’s time you sent Phillip home?”
A murmur of assent started in her throat, swept to my cheek, fell back drowned like a child in a well. Mr. Cohen had spoken. He stood ten inches from our legs. Maybe less. It was impossible to tell. His fingernails grated through hair. His voice hung in the dark with the quintessential question. Mr. Cohen, scratching his crotch, stood now as never in the light. Considerable. No tool of his wife, whose energy in business kept him eating, sleeping, overlooking the park. Pinochle change in his pocket four nights a week. But were they his words? Or was he the oracle of Mrs. Cohen, lying sleepless, irritated, waiting for him to get me out? I didn’t breathe. I didn’t move. If he had come on his own he would leave without an answer. His eyes weren’t adjusted to the dark. He couldn’t see. We lay at his feet like worms. He scratched, made smacking noises with his mouth.
The question of authority is always with us. Who is responsible for the triggers pulled, buttons pressed, the gas, the fire? Doubt banged my brain. My heart lay in the fist of intellect, which squeezed out feeling like piss out of kidneys. Mrs. Cohen’s voice demolished doubt, feeling, intellect. It ripped from the bedroom.
“For God’s sake, Morris, don’t be banal. Tell the schmuck to go home and keep his own parents awake all night, if he has any.”
Veronica’s tears slipped down my cheeks. Mr. Cohen sighed, shuffled, made a strong voice. “Veronica, tell Phillip...” His foot came down on my ass. He drove me into his daughter. I drove her into his rug.
“I don’t believe it,” he said.
He walked like an antelope, lifting hoof from knee, but stepped down hard. Sensitive to the danger of movement, yet finally impulsive, flinging his pot at the earth in order to cross it. His foot brought me his weight and character, a hundred fifty-five pounds of stomping schlemiel, in a mode of apprehension so primal we must share it with bugs. Let armies stomp me to insensate pulp—I’ll yell “Cohen” when he arrives.
Veronica squealed, had a contraction, fluttered, gagged a shriek, squeezed, and up like a frog out of the hand of a child I stood spread-legged, bolt naked, great with eyes. Mr. Cohen’s face was eyes in my eyes. A secret sharer. We faced each other like men accidentally met in hell. He retreated flapping, moaning, “I will not believe it one bit.”
Veronica said, “Daddy?”
“Who else you no good bum?”
The rug raced. I smacked against blinds, glass broke and I whirled. Veronica said, “Phillip,” and I went off in streaks, a sparrow in the room, here, there, early American, baroque and rococo. Veronica wailed, “Phillip.” Mr. Cohen screamed, “I’ll kill him.”I stopped at the door, seized the knob. Mrs. Cohen yelled from the bedroom, “Morris, did something break? Answer me.”
I’ll kill that bastid.”
“Morris, if something broke you’ll rot for a month.”
“Mother, stop it,” said Veronica. “Phillip, come back.”
The door slammed. I was outside, naked as a wolf.
I needed poise. Without poise the street was impossible. Blood shot to my brain, thought blossomed. I’d walk on my hands. Beards were fashionable. I kicked up my feet, kicked the elevator button, faced the door and waited. I bent one elbow like a knee. The posture of a clothes model, easy, poised. Blood coiled down to my brain, weeds bourgeoned. I had made a bad impression. There was no other way to see it. But all right. We needed a new beginning. Everyone does. Yet how few of us know when it arrives. Mr. Cohen had never spoken to me before; this was a breakthrough. There had been a false element in our relationship. It was wiped out. I wouldn’t kid myself with the idea that he had nothing to say. I’d had enough of his silent treatment. It was worth being naked to see how mercilessly I could think. I had his number. Mrs. Cohen’s, too. I was learning every second. I was a city boy. No innocent shit kicker from Jersey. I was the A train, the Fifth Avenue bus. I could be a cop. My name was Phillip, my style New York City. I poked the elevator button with my toe. It rang in the lobby, waking Ludwig. He’d come for me, rotten with sleep. Not the first time. He always took me down, walked me through the lobby and let me out on the avenue. Wires began tugging him up the shaft. I moved back, conscious of my genitals hanging upside down. Absurd consideration; we were both men one way or another. There were social distinctions enforced by his uniform, but they would vanish at the sight of me. “The unaccommodated thing itself.” “Off ye lendings!” The greatest play is about a naked man. A picture of Lear came to me, naked, racing through the wheat. I could be cool. I thought of Ludwig’s uniform, hat, whipcord collar. It signified his authority. Perhaps he would be annoyed, in his authority, by the sight of me naked. Few people woke him at such hours. Worse, I never tipped him. Could I have been so indifferent month after month? In a crisis you discover everything. Then it’s too late. Know yourself, indeed. You need a crisis every day. I refused to think about it. I sent my mind after objects. It returned with the chairs, settee, table and chandelier. Where were my clothes? I sent it along the rug. It found buttons, eagles stamped in brass. I recognized them as the buttons on Ludwig’s coat. Eagles, beaks like knives, shrieking for tips. Fuck’m, I thought. Who’s Ludwig? A big coat, a whistle, white gloves and a General MacArthur hat. I could understand him completely. He couldn’t begin to understand me. A naked man is mysterious. But aside from that, what did he know? I dated Veronica Cohen and went home late. Did he know I was out of work? That I lived in a slum downtown? Of course not.
Possibly under his hat was a filthy mind. He imagined Veronica and I might be having sexual intercourse. He resented it. Not that he hoped for the privilege himself, in his coat and soldier hat, but he had a proprietary interest in the building and its residents. I came from another world. The other world against which Ludwig defended the residents. Wasn’t I like a burglar sneaking out late, making him my accomplice? I undermined his authority, his dedication. He despised me. It was obvious. But no one thinks such thoughts. It made me laugh to think them. My genitals jumped. The elevator door slid open. He didn’t say a word. I padded inside like a seal. The door slid shut. Instantly, I was ashamed of myself, thinking as I had about him. I had no right. A better man than I. His profile was an etching by Dürer. Good peasant stock. How had he fallen to such work? Existence precedes essence. At the controls, silent, enduring, he gave me strength for the street. Perhaps the sun would be up, birds in the air. The door slid open. Ludwig walked ahead of me through the lobby. He needed new heels. The door of the lobby was half a ton of glass, encased in iron vines and leaves. Not too much for Ludwig. He turned, looked down into my eyes. I watched his lips move.
“I vun say sumding. Yur bisniss vot you do. Bud vy you mek her miserable? Nod led her slip. She has beks unter her eyes.”
Ludwig had feelings. They spoke to mine. Beneath the uniform, a man. Essence precedes existence. Even rotten with sleep, thick, dry bags under his eyes, he saw, he sympathized. The discretion demanded by his job forbade anything tangible, a sweater, a hat. “Ludwig,” I whispered, “you’re all right.” It didn’t matter if he heard me. He knew I said something. He knew it was something nice. He grinned, tugged the the door open with both hands. I slapped out onto the avenue. I saw no one, dropped to my feet and glanced back through the door. Perhaps for the last time. I lingered, indulged a little melancholy. Ludwig walked to a couch in the rear of the lobby. He took off his coat, rolled it into a pillow and lay down. I had never stayed to see him do that before, but always rushed off to the subway. As if I were indifferent to the life of the building. Indeed, like a burglar. I seized the valuables and fled to the subway. I stayed another moment, watching good Ludwig, so I could hate myself. He assumed the modest, saintly posture of sleep. One leg here, the other there. His good head on his coat. A big arm across his stomach, the hand between his hips. He made a fist and punched up and down.
I went down the avenue, staying close to the buildings. Later I would work up a philosophy. Now I wanted to sleep, forget. I hadn’t the energy for moral complexities: Ludwig cross-eyed, thumping his pelvis in such a nice lobby. Mirrors, glazed pots, rubber plants ten feet high. As if he were generating all of it. As if it were part of his job. I hurried. The buildings were on my left, the park on my right. There were doormen in all the buildings; God knows what was in the park. No cars were moving. No people in sight. Streetlights glowed in a receding sweep down to Fifty-ninth Street and beyond. A wind pressed my face like Mr. Cohen’s breath. Such hatred. Imponderable under any circumstances, a father cursing his daughter. Why? A fright in the dark? Freud said things about fathers and daughters. It was too obvious, too hideous. I shuddered and went more quickly. I began to run. In a few minutes I was at the spit-mottled steps of the subway. I had hoped for vomit. Spit is no challenge for bare feet. Still, I wouldn’t complain. It was sufficiently disgusting to make me live in spirit. I went down the steps flatfooted, stamping, elevated by each declension. I was a city boy, no mincing creep from the sticks.
A Negro man sat in the change booth. He wore glasses, a white shirt, black knit tie and a silver tie clip. I saw a mole on his right cheek. His hair had spots of grey, as if strewn with ashes. He was reading a newspaper. He didn’t hear me approach, didn’t see my eyes take him in, figure him out. Shirt, glasses, tie—I knew how to address him. I coughed. He looked up.
“Sir, I don’t have any money. Please let me through the turnstile. I come this way every week and will certainly pay you the next time.”
He merely looked at me. Then his eyes flashed like fangs. Instinctively, I guessed what he felt. He didn’t owe favors to a white man. He didn’t have to bring his allegiance to the transit authority into question for my sake.
“Hey, man, you naked?”
“Step back a little.”
I stepped back.
“Get your naked ass the hell out of here.”
“Sir,” I said, “I know these are difficult times, but can’t we be reasonable? I know that...”
“Scat, mother, go home.”
I crouched as if to dash through the turnstile. He crouched, too. It proved he would come after me. I shrugged, turned back toward the steps. The city was infinite. There were many other subways. But why had he become so angry? Did he think I was a bigot? Maybe I was running around naked to get him upset. His anger was incomprehensible otherwise. It made me feel like a bigot. First a burglar, then a bigot. I needed a cigarette. I could hardly breathe. Air was too good for me. At the top of the steps, staring down, stood Veronica. She had my clothes.
“Poor, poor,” she said.
I said nothing. I snatched my underpants and put them on. She had my cigarettes ready. I tried to light one, but the match failed. I threw down the cigarette and the matchbook. She retrieved them as I dressed. She lit the cigarette for me and held my elbow to help me keep my balance. I finished dressing, took the cigarette. We walked back toward her building. The words “thank you” sat in my brain like driven spikes. She nibbled her lip.
“How are things at home?” My voice was casual and morose, as if no answer could matter.
“All right,” she said, her voice the same as mine. She took her tone from me. I liked that sometimes, sometimes not. Now I didn’t like it. I discovered I was angry. Until she said that I had no idea I was angry. I flicked the cigarette into the gutter and suddenly I knew why. I didn’t love her. The cigarette sizzled in the gutter. Like truth. I didn’t love her. Black hair, green eyes, I didn’t love her. Slender legs. I didn’t. Last night I had looked at her and said to myself, “I hate communism.” Now I wanted to step on her head. Nothing less than that would do. If it was a perverted thought, then it was a perverted thought. I wasn’t afraid to admit it to myself
“All right? Really? Is that true?”
Blah, blah, blah. Who asked those questions? A zombie; not Phillip of the foyer and rug. He died in flight. I was sorry, sincerely sorry, but with clothes on my back I knew certain feelings would not survive humiliation. It was so clear it was thrilling. Perhaps she felt it, too. In any case she would have to accept it. The nature of the times. We are historical creatures. Veronica and I were finished. Before we reached her door I would say deadly words. They’d come in a natural way, kill her a little. Veronica, let me step on your head or we’re through. Maybe we’re through, anyway. It would deepen her looks, give philosophy to what was only charming in her face. The dawn was here. A new day. Cruel, but change is cruel. I could bear it. Love is infinite and one. Women are not. Neither are men. The human condition. Nearly unbearable.