Issue 34, Spring-Summer 1965
On Sunday Bertie walked into an apartment building in St. Louis, a city where, in the past, he had changed trains, waited for buses, or thought about Klaff, and where, more recently, truckers dropped him, or traveling salesmen stopped their Pontiacs downtown just long enough for him to reach into the back seat for his trumpetcase and get out. In the hall way he stood before the brass, mailboxed wall seeking the name of his friend, his friend’s friend really, and his friends’ friend’s wife. The girl had danced with him at parties in the college town, and one night—he imagined he must have been particularly pathetic, engagingly pathetic—she had kissed him. The man, of course, patronized him, asked him questions that would have been more vicious had they been less naïve. He remembered he rather enjoyed making his long, patient answers. Condescension always brought the truth out of him. It was more appealing than indifference anyway, and more necessary to him now. He supposed he didn’t care for either of them, but he couldn’t go further. He had to rest or he would die.
He found the name on the mailbox—Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Feldman—the girl’s identity, as he might have guessed, swallowed up in the husband’s. It was no way to treat women, he thought gallantly.
He started up the stairs. Turning the corner at the second landing he saw a man, moving cautiously downward, burdened by boxes and suitcases and loose bags. Only when they were on a level with each other did Bertie, through a momentary clearing in the boxes, recognize Stephen Feldman.
“Old man, old man,” Bertie said.
“Just a minute,” Feldman said, forcing a package aside with his chin. Bertie stood, half a staircase above him, leaning against the wall. He grinned in the shadows, conscious of his ridiculous fedora, his eye patch rakishly black against the soft whiteness of his face. Black-suited, tiny, white-fleshed, he posed above Feldman, dapper as a scholarly waiter in a restaurant. He waited until he was recognized.
“Bertie? Bertie? Let me get rid of this stuff. Give me a hand, will you?” Feldman said.
“Sure,” Bertie said. “It’s on my family crest. One hand washing the other. Here, wait a minute.” He passed Feldman on the stairs and held the door for him. He followed him outside.
“Take the key from my pocket, Bertie, and open the trunk. It’s the blue convertible.”
Bertie put his hand in Feldman’s pocket. “You’ve got nice thighs,” he said. To irritate Feldman he pretended to try to force the house key into the trunk lock. Feldman stood impatiently behind him, balancing his heavy burdens. “I’ve been to Dallas, lived in a palace,” Bertie said over his shoulder.
“There’s this great Eskimo who blows down there. Would you believe he’s cut the best side ever recorded of ’Mood Indigo?’” Bertie shook the key ring as if it were a Castanet.
Feldman dumped his load on the hood of the car and took the keys from Bertie. He opened the trunk and started to throw things into it. “Going somewhere?” Bertie asked.
“Vacation,” Feldman said.
“Oh,” Bertie said.
Feldman looked toward the apartment house. “I’ve got to go up for another suitcase, Bertie.”
“Sure,” Bertie said.
He went up the stairs behind Feldman. About halfway up he stopped to catch his breath. Feldman watched him curiously. He pounded his chest with his tiny fist and grinned weakly. “Mea culpa,” he said. “Mea booze. Mea sluts. Meapot. Me-o-mea.”
“Come on,” Feldman said.
They went inside and Bertie heard a toilet flushing.Through a hall, through an open door, he saw Norma, Feldman’s wife, staring absently into the bowl. “If she moves them now you won’t have to stop at God knows what kind of place along the road,” Bertie said brightly.
Norma lifted a big suitcase easily in her big hands and came into the living room. She stopped when she saw Bertie.“Bertie! Stephen, it’s Bertie.”
“We bumped into each other in the hall,” Stephen said. Bertie watched the two of them look at each other.
“You sure picked a time to come visiting, Bertie,” Feldman said.
“We’re leaving on our vacation, Bertie,” Norma said.
“We’re going up to New England for a couple of weeks,” Feldman told him,
“We can chat for a little with Bertie, can’t we Stephen, before we go?”
“Of course,” Feldman said. He sat down and pulled the suitcase next to him.
“It’s very lovely in New England.” Bertie sat down and crossed his legs. “I don’t get up there very regularly. Not my territory. I’ve found that when a man makes it in the Ivy League he tends to forget about old Bertie,” he said sadly.
“What are you doing in St. Louis, Bertie?” Feldman’s wife asked him.
“It’s my mid-western swing,” Bertie said. “I’ve been down south on the southern sponge. Opened up a whole new territory down there.” He heard himself cackle.
“Who did you see, Bertie?” Norma asked him.
“You wouldn’t know her. A cousin of Klaff’s.”
“Were you living with her?” Feldman asked.
Bertie shook his finger at him. The Feldmans stared glumly at each other. Stephen rubbed the plastic suitcase handle. In a moment, Bertie thought, he would probably say, “Gosh, Bertie, you should have Written. You should have let us know.” He should have written! Did the Fuller Brush man write? Who would be home? Who wouldn’t be on vacation? They were commandos, the Fuller Brush man and he. He was tired, sick. He couldn’t move on today. Would they kill him because of their lousy vacation?
Meanwhile the Feldmans weren’t saying anything. They stared at each other openly, their large eyes in their large heads on their large necks largely. He thought he could wait them out. It was what he should do. It should have been the easiest thing in the world—to wait out the Feldmans, to stare them down. Who was he kidding? It wasn’t his forte. He had no forte. That was his forte. He could already hear himself begin to speak.
“Sure,” he said. “I almost married that girl. Klaff’s lady cousin. The first thing she ever said to me was ’Bertie, they never build drug stores in the middle of the block. Always on comers.’ It was the truth. Well, I thought, this was the woman for me. One time she came out of the ladies John of a Greyhound bus station and she said, ’Bertie, have you ever noticed how public toilets often smell like bubble gum?’ That’s what it was like all the time. She had all these institutional insights. I was sure we could make it together. It didn’t work out.” He sighed.
Feldman stared at him but Norma was beginning to soften, Bertie thought. He wondered randomly what she would be like in bed. He looked coolly at her long legs, her wide shoulders. Like Klaff's cousin. Institutional.
“Bertie, how are your eyes now?” she asked.
“Oh,” he said, “still seeing double.” He smiled. “Two for one. It’s all right when there’s something to look at. Other times I use the patch.”
Norma seemed sad.
“I have fun with it,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference which eye I cover. I’m ambidextrous.” He pulled the black elastic band from his forehead. Instantly there were two large Stephens, two large Normas. The four Feldmans like a troupe of Jewish acrobats. He felt surrounded. In the two living rooms his four hands fumbled with the two patches. He felt sick to his stomach. He closed one eye and hastily replaced the patch. “I shouldn’t try that on an empty stomach,” he said.
Feldman watched him narrowly. “Gee, Bertie,” he said finally, “maybe we could drop you someplace.”
It was out of the question. He couldn’t get into a car again. “Do you go through Minneapohs, Minnesota?” he asked in differently.
Feldman looked confused and Bertie liked him for a moment. “We were going to catch the Turnpike up around Chicago, Bertie.”
“Oh, Chicago,” Bertie said. “I can’t go back to Chicago yet.”
“Don’t you know anybody else in St. Louis?” Norma asked.
“Klaff used to live across the river, but he’s gone,” Bertie said.
“Look, Bertie...” Feldman said.
“I’m fagged,” Bertie said helplessly, “locked out.”
“Bertie,” Feldman said, “do you need any money? I could let you have twenty dollars.”
Bertie put his hand out mechanically.
“This is stupid,” Norma said suddenly. “Stay here.”
“Oh, well- ”
“No, I mean it. Stay here. We’ll be gone for two weeks. What difference does it make?”
Feldman looked at his wife for a moment and shrugged. “Sure,” he said, “there’s no reason you couldn’t stay here. As a matter of fact you’d be doing us a favor. I forgot to cancel the newspaper, the milk. You’d keep the burglars off. They don’t bother a place if it looks lived in.” He put twenty dollars on the coffee table. “There might be something you need,” he explained.
Bertie looked carefully at them both. They seemed to mean it. Feldman and his wife grinned at him steadily, relieved at how easily they had come off. He enjoyed the idea himself. At last he had a real patron, a real matron. “O.K.,” lie said.
“Then it’s settled,” Feldman said, rising.
“It’s all right?” Bertie said.
“Certainly it’s all right,” Feldman said. “What harm could you do?”
“I’m harmless,” Bertie said. Feldman picked up the suitcase and led his wife toward the door. “Have a good time,” Bertie said, following them.
“I’ll watch things for you. Rrgghh! Rrrgghhhhfff!”
Feldman waved back at him as he went down the stairs. “Hey,” Bertie called, leaning over the banister, “did I tell you about that crazy Klaff? You know what nutty Klaff did out at U.C.L.A.? He became a second-story man.” They were already down the stairs.
Bertie went back into the house. Closing the door he pressed his back against it and turned his head slowly across his left shoulder. He imagined himself photographed from underneath. Odd man in,” he said. In a moment he bounded off the door and into the center of the living room. “I’ll bet there’s a lease,” he thought. “I’ll bet there’s a regular lease that goes with this place.” He considered this for a moment with an awed respect. He couldn’t remember ever having been in a place where the tenants actually had to sign a lease. He walked into the dining room and turned on the chandelier lights. “Sure there’s a lease,” Bertie said. He hugged himself. “How the fallen are mighty,” he said.
He remembered his need to rest. In the living room he lay down on the couch without taking off his shoes. He sat up and pulled them off but when he lay down again he was uneasy. He had gotten out of the habit, living the way he did, of sleeping with out shoes. In his friends’ lease less basements the nights were cold and he wore them for warmth. He put the shoes on again, but found he wasn’t tired anymore. It was a fact that dependence gave him energy. He was never so alert as when people did him favors. It was having to be on your own that made you tired.
“Certainly,” Bertie said to the committee, “it’s a scientific fact. We’ve suspected it for years, but until our researchers divided up the town of Bloomington, Indiana, we had no proof. What our people found in that community was that the orphans and bastards were all the time sleepy and run down, but that the housewives and folks on relief were wide awake, alert, raring to go. It’s remarkable. We can’t positively State the link yet, but we’re fairly certain that it’s something to do with dependency in league perhaps with a particularly virulent form of—ahem—gratitude. Ahem. Ahem.”
As he lectured the committee he wandered around the apartment, touring from right to left. He crossed from the living room into the dining room and turned right into the kitchen and then right again into the small room Feldman used for his study. “Here’s where all the magic happens,” Bertie said, glancing at the contour chair near Feldman’s desk. He went back into the kitchen. “Here’s where all the magic happens,” he said, looking at Norma’s electric stove. He stepped into the dining room and continued on, passing Norma’s paintings, of picturesque little side streets in Mexico, of picturesque little side streets in Italy, of picturesque little side streets in Puerto Rico, until he came to a door that led to the back sun parlor. He went through it and found himself in a room with an easel, with paints in sexy little tubes, with brushes, with palettes and turpentine and rags. “Here’s where all the magic happens,” Bertie said and walked around the room to another door. He opened it and was in the Feldmans' master bedroom. He looked at the bed. “Here’s where all the magic happens,” he said. Through a door at the other end of the room was another small hall. On the right was the toilet. He went in and flushed it. it was one of those toilets with instantly renewable tanks. He flushed it again. And again. “The only kind to have,” he said out of the side of his mouth, imagining a rental agent, “i mean it’s like this. Supposing the missus has diarrhea or something. You don’t want to have to wait until the tank fills up. Or suppose you’re sick. Or suppose you’re giving a party and it’s mixed company. Well it’s just corny to whistle to cover the noise, you know what I mean? ’Sjust corny. On the other hand you flush it once, suppose you’re not through, then what happens? There’s the damn noise after the water goes down. What have you accomplished? This way“—he reached across and jiggled the little lever and then did it a second time, a third, a fourth—“you never have any embarrassing interim, what we in the trade call ’flush lag.’”
He came out of the bathroom and at the other end of the hall found another bedroom, smaller than the first. It was the guest bedroom and Bertie knew at once that he would never sleep in it, that he would sleep in the Feldmans’ big bed.
“Nice place you got here,” he said when he had finished the tour.
“Dooing de woh eet ees all I tink of, what I fahting foe,” the man from the Underground said. ”Here ees eet fahrproof, air-condition and safe from Nazis.“
“Stay out of Volkswagens, kid,” Bertie said.
Bertie went back into the having room. He wanted some music but it was a cardinal principle with him never to blow alone. He would drink alone, take drugs alone, but somehow the depths of depravity were for him represented by having to play jazz alone. He had a vision of himself in a cheap hotel room sitting on the edge of an iron bedstead. Crumpled pack-ages of cigarettes were scattered throughout the room. Bottles of gin were on top of the Gideon Bible, the Western Union blanks. His trumpet was in his lap. ”Perfect,“ Bertie said. “Norma Feldman could come in and paint it in a picture.” Bertie shuddered.
The phonograph was in the hall between the dining and living rooms. It was a big thing, with the AM and the FM and the short wave and the place where you plugged in the color television when it was perfected. He found records in Feldman’s little room and went through them rapidly. “Ah-mad Jamah! for Christ’s sake.” He took the record out of its sleeve and broke it across his knee. He stood up slowly and kicked the fragments of the broken recording into a neat pile.
He turned around and scooped up as many of Feldman’s recordings as he could carry and brought them to the machine. He piled them on indiscriminately and listened with visible, professional discomfort. He listened to The New World Symphony, to Beethoven’s Fifth, to My Fair Lady, The Kingston Trio. The more he listened the more he began to dislike the Feldmans. When he could stand it no longer he tore the playing arm viciously away from the record and looked around him. He saw the Feldmans’ bookcase.
“I’ll read,” he said.
He took down the Marquis de Sade and Henry Miller and Ronald Firbank and turned the pages desultorily. Nothing happened. He tried reading aloud in front of a mirror. He went back to the bookcase and looked for The Egg and I and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. The prose of a certain kind of bright housewife always made Bertie erotic but the Feldmans owned neither book. He browsed Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring with only mild lasciviousness.
He went into their bedroom and opened the closet. He found a pair of Norma’s shoes and put them on. Although he was no fetishist he had often promised himself that if he ever had the opportunity he would see what it was like. He walked around the apartment in Norma’s high heels. All that happened was that he got a pain in his calves.
In the kitchen he looked into the refrigerator. There were some frozen mixed vegetables in the freezer compartment.
“I’ll starve first,” Bertie said.
He found a Billie Holliday record and put it on the phonograph. He hoped that Klaff out in Los Angeles was at this moment being beaten with rubber hoses by the police. He looked up at the kitchen clock. “Nine,” he said. “Only seven in L.A. They probably don’t start beating them up until later.”
“Talk Klaff,” he snarled, “or we’ll drag you into the Blood Room.”
“Flake off, copper,” Klaff said.
“That’s enough of that, Klaff. Take that and that and that.”
“Bird lives,” Bertie screamed suddenly, invoking the dead Charlie Parker. It was his code cry.
“Mama may have,”Billie Holliday wailed, “Papa may have, But God Bless the child who’s got his own, who—oo—zz—”
“Who—oo—zz,” Bertie wailed.
“Got his own,” Billie said.
“I’ll tell him when he comes in, William,” Bertie said. Bertie waited respectfully until Billie was finished and turned off the music.
He wondered why so many people felt that Norman Mailer was the greatest living American novelist.
He sat down on the Feldmans’ coffee table and marveled at his being alone in so big and well furnished an apartment. The Feldmans were probably the most substantial people he knew. Feldman was the only one from the old crowd who might make it, he guessed. Of course he was Jewish and that helped. Some Jews swung pretty good but he always suspected that in the end they would hold out on you. But then who wouldn’t, Bertie wondered. Kamikaze pilots, maybe. Anyway this was Bertie’s special form of antisemitism and he cherished it. Melvin Gimpel, for example, his old room-mate. Every time Melvin tried to kill himself by sticking his head in the oven he left the kitchen window open. Bertie laughed, remembering the time he had found Gimpel on his knees with his head on the oven door, oddly like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Bertie closed the window and shook Gimpel awake.
“Mel,” he yelled, slapping him and laughing. “Mel.”
“Bertie, go away. Leave me alone, I want to kill myself.”
“Thank God,” Bertie said. “Thank God I’m in time. When I found that window closed I thought it was all over.”
“What, the window was closed? My God, was the window closed?”
“Melvin Gimpel is so simple Thinks his nipple is a pimple,” Bertie recited.
Bertie hugged his knees, and then, again, felt a wave of the nauseous sickness he had experienced that morning. “It’s fore shadowing. One day as I am shovelling my walk I will collapse and die.”
When the nausea left him he thought again about his situation. It was odd, he thought, being alone in so big a place. He had friends everywhere and made his way from place to place like an old time slave on the Underground Railway. For all the pathos of thee figure he knew he deliberately cut, there were always people to do him favors, give him money, beer, drugs, to nurse him back to his normal state of semi-invalidism, girls to kiss him in the comforting way he liked. This was probably the first time he had been alone in months He felt like a dog whose master has gone away for the weekend. Just then he heard some people coming up the stairs and he growled experimentally. He went down on his hands and knees and scampered to the door, scratching it with his nails. “Rrrgghhf,” he barked. “Rrgghhfff!” He heard whoever it was fumbhng to open a door on the floor below him. He smiled. “Good dog,” he said. “Good dog, goodog, gudug, gudugguduggudug.”
He whined. He missed his master. A tear formed in the corner of his left eye. He crawled to a full-length mirror in the bathroom. “Ahh,” he said. “Ahh.” Seeing the patch across his eye he had an inspiration. “Here, Patch,” he called. “Come on. Patch.”
He romped after his own voice.
He moved beside Norma Feldman’s easel in the sun parlor. He lowered his body carefully, pushing himself slightly backwards with his arms. He yawned. He touched his chest to the wooden floor. He wagged his tail and then let himself fall heavily on one side. He pulled his legs up under him and fell asleep.
When he awoke he was hungry. He went into the kitchen but he knew nothing about cooking. He fingered the twenty dollars in his pocket that Feldman had given him. He could order out. The light in the hall where the phone and phone books were was not good, so he tore “Restaurants” from the Yellow Pages and brought the sheets with him into the Uving room. Only two places delivered after one a.m. It was already one-thirty. He dialed the number of a pizza place closest to him. It was busy so he dialed the other number.
“Pal, bring over a big one, half shrimp, half mushroom. And two six-packs.” He gave the address. The man explained that the truck had just gone out and that he shouldn’t expect delivery for at least another hour and a half.
“Put it in a cab,” Bertie said. “While Bird lives Bertie spends.”
He took out another dozen or so records and piled them on the machine. He sat down on the couch and drummed his trumpet case with his fingers. He opened the case and fit the mouthpiece to the body of the horn. He put the trumpet to his Ups and experienced the unpleasant shock of cold metal he always felt. He still thought it strange that men could mouth metal this way, ludicrous that his own official attitude should be a kiss. He blew a few bars in accompaniment to the record and put the trumpet back in the case. He felt in the side pockets of the trumpet case and took out two pair of dirty underwear, some handkerchiefs and three pair of socks. He unrolled one of the pairs of socks and saw with pleasure that the drug was still there. He took out the bottle of carbon tetrachloride. This was what he cleaned his instrument with, it was what he would use to kill himself when he had finally made the decision.
He held the bottle to the light. “If nothing turns up,” he said, “I’ll drink this. And to hell with the kitchen window.” The cab driver brought the pizza and Bertie gave him the twenty dollars.
“I can’t change that,” the driver said.
“Did I ask you to change it?” Bertie said.
“That’s twenty bucks there.”
“Bird lives. Easy come, easy go go go,” Bertie said. The driver started to thank him.
“Go.” He closed the door.
He spread Norma Feldman’s largest tablecloth over the dining room table and then he took some china and some sterling from the big breakfront and laid several place settings. He found champagne glasses.
Unwrapping the pizza, he carefully plucked all the mushrooms from it (“American mushrooms,” he said. “Very square. No visions.”) and laid them in a neat pile on the white linen. (“Many mushloom,” he said. “Mushloom crowd.”) He poured some beer into a champagne glass.
He rose slowly from his chair.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “to the absent Klaff. May the police in Los Angeles, California beat his lousy ass off.” He drank all the beer in one gulp and tossed the glass behind him over his shoulder. He heard the glass shatter and then a soft sizzling sound. He turned around and saw that he had gotten one of Norma’s paintings right in a picturesque side street. Beer dripped ignobly down a donkey’s leg. “Goddamn,” Bertie said appreciatively, “action painting.”
He ate perhaps a quarter of the pizza and got up from the table, wiping the corner of his lips with a big linen napkin.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “I propose that the ladies retire to the bedroom while we men enjoy our cigars and port and some good talk.”
“I propose that we men retire to the bedroom and enjoy the ladies,” he said in Gimpel’s voice.
“Here, here,” he said in Klaff’s voice. “Here, here. Good talk. Good talk.”
“If you will follow me, gentlemen,” he said in his own voice. He began to walk around the apartment. “I have been often asked the story of my life. These requests usually follow a personal favor someone has done me, a supper shared, a bed made available, a ride in one of the several directions. Indeed, I have become a sort of troubadour who does not sing so much as whine for his supper. Most of you—”
“Whine is very good with supper,” Gimpel said.
“Gimpel, my dear, why don’t you run into the kitchen and play?” Bertie said coolly. “Many of you may know the humble beginnings, the sordid details, the dark Freudian patterns, and those of you who are my friends.”
“Those of you who are my friends, who do not run off to mix it up with the criminal element in the Far West, have often wondered what will ultimately happen to me, to ’Poor Bertie’ as I am known in the trade.”
Bertie unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall to the floor. He looked defenceless in his undershirt, his skin pale as something seen in moonlight.
“Why, you wonder, doesn’t he do something about himself, pull himself up by his bootstraps? Why, for example, doesn’t he get his eyes fixed? Well, I’ve tried.”
He kicked off his shoes.
“You have all admired my bushy moustache. Do you remember that time two years ago I dropped out of sight for four months? Well let me tell you what happened that time.”
He took off his black pants.
“I had been staying with Royal Randle, the distinguished philologist and drunk. You will recall that Royal with Klaff and Myers and Gimpel and myself once constituted a quintet known familiarly as ’The Irresponsibles.’“ Bertie sighed. ”You remember the promises: ’It won’t make any difference, Bertie. It won’t make any difference, Klaff. It won’t make any difference, fellas.’ He married the girl in the Muu Muu.“
He was naked now except for his socks. He shivered once and folded his arms across his chest.
“Do you know why the girl in the Muu Muu married Randle?“ He paused dramatically. ”To get at me, that’s why. The others she didn’t care about. She knew even before I did what they were like. Even what Klaff was like. She knew they were corrupt, that they had it in them to sell me out, to settle down—that all anyone had to do was wave their deaths in front of them and they’d come running, that reason and fucking money and getting it steady would win again. But in me she recognized the real enemy, the last of the go-to-hell-god-damn-its. Maybe the first.
“They even took me with them on their honeymoon. At the time I thought it was a triumph for dependency, but it was just a trick, that’s all that was. The minute they were married this girl in the Muu Muu was after Randle to do something about Bertie. And it wasn’t ’Poor’ Bertie this time. It was she who got me the appointment with the Mayor. Do you know what His Honor said to me? ’Shave your moustache and I’ll give you a job clerking in one of my supermarkets.’ Christ, friends, do you know I did it? Well, I’m not made of stone. They had taken me on their honeymoon for God’s sake.”
“I worked in that super-marketer for three hours. Clean shaved. My moustache sacrificed as an earnest to the Mayor. Well I’m telling you you don’t know what square is till you’ve worked in a supermarket for three hours. They pipe in Mantovani. Mantovani! I cleared out for four months to raise my bushy moustache again and to forget. What you see now isn’t the original, you understand. It’s all second growth, and believe me it’s not the same.”
Bertie drew aside the shower curtain and stepped into the tub. He paused with his hand on “Hot”.
“But I tell you this, friends, I tell you this. That I would rather be a moustached bum than a clean-shaved clerk. I’ll work. Sure I will. When they pay anarchists. When they subsidize the hip. When they give grants to throw bombs. When they shell out for gainsaying.“
He pulled the curtain and turned on the faucet and the rush of water was like applause.
After his shower Bertie went into the second bedroom and carefully removed the spread from the cot. Then he punched the pillow and mussed the bed. ”Very clever,“ he said. ”It wouldn’t do to let them think I never slept here.“ He had once realized with sudden clarity that he would never, so long as he lived, make a bed.
He went then into the other bedroom and ripped the spread from the big double bed. For some time, in fact since he had first seen it, Bertie had been thinking about this bed. It was the biggest bed he would ever sleep in. (He thought invariably in such terms. One cigarette in a pack would suddenly become distinguished in his mind as the best, or the worst, he would smoke that day. A homely act, such as tying his shoelaces, if it had occurred with unusual ease, would be remembered forever. This lent to his vision an oblique sadness, conscious as he was that he was forever encountering experiences which would never come his way again.)
He slipped his naked body between the sheets and had no sooner made himself comfortable than he became conscious of the phonograph, still playing in the little hall. He couldn’t hear it very well. He thought about turning up the volume but he had read somewhere about neighbors. He got out of bed and went to the phonograph. He moved the heavy machine through the living room, pushing it with difficulty over the seamed, bare wooden floor, trailing deep scratches. ”Remember not to walk barefoot over there,“ he thought. At one point one of the legs caught in a loop of the Feldmans’ shag rug and Bertie strained to free it, finally breaking the thick thread and producing an interesting pucker along one end of the rug, not unlike the pucker in raised theatrical curtains. At last he maneuvered the machine into the hall just outside the bedroom. He plugged it in. He went back for the Billie Holliday recording he had heard earlier and put it on the phonograph. By lifting the arm that held and steadied the records on the spindle and pulling it back, he fixed it so the record would play all night.
He got back into the bed.
“Ah,” he said, “the sanctum sanctorum.” He rolled over and over from one side of the bed to the other. He tucked his knees into his chest and went under the covers. “It makes you feel kind of small and insignificant,” he said.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Graham Macnamee speaking to you from the Cave of the Winds. I have made my way into the heart of this darkness to find my friend. Poor Bertie, who, as you know, entered the bed eight weeks ago. Bertie is with me now, and while there isn’t enough light for me to be able to see his condition, his voice may tell us something about his physical state. Bertie, just what is the official record?”
“Well, Graham, some couples have been known to stick it out for seventy-five years. Of course your average is much less than that, but still.”
“Seventy-five, yes sir. It’s amazing, isn’t it, Graham, when you come to think? All that time in one bed.”
“It certainly is,” Graham Macnamee said. “Do you think you’ll be able to go the distance, Bert?”
"Who, me? No, no. A lot of folks have misunderstood my purpose in coming here. I’m rather glad you’ve given me the opportunity to clear that up. Actually my work here is scientific. This isn’t a stunt or anything like that. I’m here to learn.”
“Can you tell us about it, Bert?”
“Graham, it’s been a fascinating experience if you know what I mean, but frankly there are many things we still don’t understand. I don’t know why they do it. All that licit love, that regularity. Take the case of Stephen and Norma, for example. And incidentally, you don’t want to overlook the significance of that name ’Norma.’ Norma/Normal,you see?”
“Say, I never thought of that.”
“Well, I’m trained to think like that, Graham, in my work you have to.”
“Say,” Graham Macnamee said.
“Sure. Well the thing is this, buddy, when I first came into this bed I felt the aura, know what I mean, the power. I think it’s built into the mattress or something.”
“Shut your face, Graham, and let me speak, will you please? Well, anyway, you feel surrounded. Respectable. Love is made here, of course, but it’s not love as we know it. There are things that must remain mysteries until we have more facts, i mean Graham, checks could be cashed in this bed, for Christ’s sake, credit cards honored, it’s ideal for family reunions and high teas. Graham, it’s the kind of place you wouldn’t be ashamed to take your mother.”
“Go to sleep, Bert,” Graham Macnamee said.
“Say,” Bertie said.
Between the third and fourth day of his stay in the Feldmans’ apartment Bertie became restless. He had not been outside the house since the Sunday he had come, even to bring in the papers Feldman had told him about, (indeed, it was by counting the papers that he knew how long he had been there, though he couldn’t be sure since he didn’t know whether the Feldmans had taken the Sunday paper with them.) He could see them on the back porch through the window of Norma’s sun parlor. With the bottles of milk they made a strange little pile. He was not after all a caretaker. He was a guest. Feldman could bring in his own papers, drink his own damn milk. For the same reasons he had determined not even to answer the phone when it rang.
One evening he tried to call Klaff at the Los Angeles County Jail, but the desk sergeant wouldn’t get him. He wouldn’t even take a message.
Although he had not been outside since Sunday, Bertie had only a vague desire to go out. He weighed this against his real need to rest and his genuine pleasure in being alone in so big an apartment. Like the man in the joke who does not leave his Miami hotel room because it is costing him thirty-five dollars a day, Bertie decided he had better remain inside.
With no money left he was reduced to eating the dry, cold remainder of the pizza, dividing it mathematically into a week’s provisions like someone on a raft. (Bertie actually fancied himself, not on a raft perhaps, but set alone and drifting in, say, the Queen Mary.) To supplement this he opened some cans of soup he found in the pantry and drank the contents straight, without first heating it or even adding water.
Steadily he drank away at the Feldmans’ not really large stock of liquor. The twelve cans of beer, of course, had been devoured by the second morning.
After the second full day in the apartment his voices began to desert him. It was only with difficulty that he could manage his imitations, and only for short lengths of time. The glorious discussions that had gone on long into the night were now out of the question. He found he could not do Gimpel’s voice any more and even Klaff’s was increasingly difficult and largely confirmed to his low, caressing obscenities. Mostly he talked with himself, although it was a real strain to keep up his end of the conversation and it always made him cry when he said how pathetic he was and asked himself where do you go from here. “Oh to be like Bird,” he thought. “Not to have to be a bum. To ask, as it were, no quarter.”
At various times during the day he would call out, “Bird lives,” in seeming stunning triumph. But he didn’t believe it. He watched a lot of television, (“I’m getting ammunition,” he said, “it’s scientific”)
And twice a day he masturbated in the Feldmans’ bed.
He settled gradually, then, into restlessness. He knew, of course, that he had it always in his power to bring himself back up to the heights he bad known in those wonderful first two days. He was satisfied, however, not to use this power, and thought of himself as a kind of soldier, alone, in a foxhole, in enemy territory, at night, at a bad time in the war, with one bullet in his pistol. Oddly he derived more pride (and comfort, and a queer security) from this single bullet than others might from whole cases of ammunition. It was his strategic bullet, the one he would use to get the big one, turn the tide, make the difference. The Feldmans would be away two weeks. He would not waste his ammunition. Just as he divided the stale pizza, cherishing each piece as much for the satisfaction he took from possessing it during a time of emergency as for any sustenance it offered, so he enjoyed his knowledge that at any time he could recoup his vanishing spirits. He shared with the squares (“Use their own weapons to beat them, Bertie.”) a special pride in adversity, in having to do without, in having to expose whatever was left of his character to the narrower straits. It was strange, Bertie thought seriously, it was the paradox of the world and an institutional insight that might have come right out of the mouth of that slut in Dallas, but the most peculiar aspect of the squares wasn’t their lack of imagination or their bland bad taste, but their ability, like the wildest fanatics, like the furthest out of the furthest out, to cling to the illogical, finally untenable notion that they must have and have in order to live, at the same time that they realized that it was better not to have. What seemed so grand to Bertie, who admired all impossible positions, was that they believed both things with equal intensity, never suspecting for a moment any inconsistency. And here was Bertie, Bertie thought, here was Bertie, inside their Capitol, on the slopes of their mountains, on their smooth shores, who believed neither of these propositions, who believed in not having and in not suffering too, who yet realized the very same pleasure they would in having and not using.
It was the strangest thing that would ever happen to him, he thought.
“Are you listening, Klaff, you second-story fink?” Bertie yelled. “Do you see how your old pal is developing what is called character?”
And so, master of himself for once, he resolved (feeling what someone taking a vow feels) not to use the last of his drugs until the strategic moment of strategic truth.
That was Wednesday evening. By Thursday morning he had decided to break his resolution. He had not yielded to temptation, had not lain fitfully awake all night (indeed, his resolution had given him the serenity to sleep well) in the sweaty throes of withdrawal. There had been no argument or rationalization, nor had he decided that he had reached his limit or that this was the strategic moment he had been waiting for. He yielded as he always yielded, spontaneously, suddenly, unexpectedly, as the result neither of whim nor calculation. His important decisions were almost always reached without his knowledge and Bertie was often as surprised as the next one to see what he was going to do, to see, indeed, that he was already doing it. (Once someone had asked him whether he believed in Free Will and Bertie, after considering this for a moment as it applied to himself, had answered, “Free? Hell, it’s positively loose.”)
Having discovered his new intention Bertie was eager to realize it. As often as he had taken drugs (he never called it anything but drugs, never used the cute or obscene names, never even said “dope;” to him it was always “drugs,” medicine for his spirit), they were still a major treat for him. (“It’s a rich man’s game,” he had once told Klaff, and then he had leaned back philosophically. “You know, Klaff, it’s a good thing I’m poor. When I think of the snobbish ennui of your wealthy junkies, I realize that they don’t know how to appreciate their blessings. God keep me humble, Klaff. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder, a truer word was never spoken,”) Nor did a drug ever lose its potency for him. If he graduated from one to another it was not in order to recover some fading jolt, but to experience a new and different one. He held in contempt all those who professed disenchantment with the drugs they had been raised on and frequently went back to rediscover the old pleasures of marijuana, as a sentimental father might chew some of his boy’s bubble gum. “Loyalty, Gimpel,” he exclaimed, “loyalty, do you know what that is?”
He would and did try anything, though currently his favorite was mescaline for the visions it induced. Despite what he considered his eclectic tastes in these things, however, there were one or two things he would not do. He never introduced any drug by hypodermic needle. This he found disgusting and, frankly, painful. (He often said he could stand anything but pain and was very proud of his clear, unpunctured skin. “Not a mark on me,” he would say, waving his arms like a professional boxer.) The other thing he would not do was take his drugs in the presence of other users for he found the company of addicts offensive. He was not above what he called “seductions,” however. A seduction for him was to find some girl and talk her into letting him share his drugs with her. Usually it ended in their lying naked in a bed together, both of them serene, absent of all desire and what Bertie called “unclean thoughts.”
“You know,” he would say to the girl beside him, “I think that if all the world’s leaders would take drugs and lie down on the bed naked like this without any unclean thoughts, that the cause of world peace would be helped immeasurably. What do you think ?’’
“I think so too,” she would say.
Once he knew he was going to take the drug Bertie made his preparations. He went first to his trumpetcase and took out the last small packet of powder. He opened it carefully, first closing all the windows so that no sudden draft could blow any of it away. This had once happened to a friend of his and Bertie had never forgotten the warning.
“I am not one on whom a lesson is lost,” Bertie said.
“You’re o.k., Bertie,” a Voice said. “Go, save France.”
He laid it on the Feldmans’ coffee table and carefully spread the paper, exactly like the paper wrapper around a stick of chewing gum, looking almost lustfully at the soft, flat layer of ground white powder. He held out his hand to see how steady it was and although he was not really shaky he did not trust himself to lift the paper from the table. He brought a water tumbler from the Feldmans’ kitchen and gently placed it upside down on top of the powder. He was not yet ready to take it. Bertie was a man who postponed his pleasures as long as he possibly could. He let candy dissolve in his mouth and played with the threads on his tangerine before eating the fruit. It was a weakness in his character perhaps, but he laid it lovingly at the feet of his poverty.
He decided to wait until sundown to take the drug, reasoning that when it wore off it would be early next morning and he would be ready for bed. Sleep was one of his pleasures, too, and he approved of regularity in small things, taking a real pride in being able to keep hours. To pass the time until sundown he looked for something to do. He found some tools and busied himself by taking Norma’s steam iron apart. There was still time left and he took a canvas and painted a picture. Because he did not know how to draw he simply covered the canvas first with one color and then with another, applying layer after layer of the paint thickly. Each block of color he made somewhat smaller than the last so that the finished painting portrayed successive jagged margins of color. He stepped back and considered his work seriously.
“Well it has texture, Bertie,” Hans Hofmann said.
“Bertie,” the Voice said suddenly, “I don’t like to interrupt when you’re working, but it’s sundown.”
“So it is,” he said, looking up.
He went back into the living room and removed the tumbler. Taking up the paper in his fingers and creasing it as if he were a cowboy rolling a cigarette, Bertie tilted his head far back and inhaled the powder deeply. This part was always uncomfortable for him.
“Ooo,” he said, “the bubbles.” He stuffed the last few grains up his nose with his fingers. “Waste not, want not,” he said.
Bertie sat down to wait. After half an hour in which nothing happened he became uneasy. “It’s been cut,” he said. “Sure, depend upon friends to do you favors.” He was referring to the fact that the drug had been a going-away present from friends in Oklahoma City. He decided to give it fifteen more minutes, “Nothing,” he said at last, disappointed. “Nothing.”
The powder, as it always did, left his throat scratchy, and there was a bitter taste in his mouth. His soft palate prickled. He seized the water tumbler from the coffee table and walked angrily into the kitchen. He ran the cold water. He gargled and spit in the sink. In a few minutes the bitter taste and the prickly sensation had subsided and he felt about as he had before he had taken the drug. He was conscious however of a peculiar smell, unpleasant, unfamiliar, nothing like the odor of rotting flowers he associated with the use of drugs. He opened a window and leaning out, breathed the fresh air. As soon as he came away from the window, however, the odor was overpowering. He went to see if he could smell it in the other rooms. When he had made his tour he realized that the stench must be coming from the kitchen. Holding his breath he came back to see if he could locate its source. The kitchen was almost as Norma had left it. Bertie, of course, had done no cooking and although there were some empty soup and beer cans in the sink he knew they couldn’t be causing the odor. He shrugged. Then he noticed the partially closed door to Stephen’s study.
“Of course,” he said. “Whatever it is must be in there.” He pushed the door open. In the middle of the floor were two blackish mounds that looked like dark sawdust. Bertie stepped back in surprise.
“Camel shit,” he said
“My God, how did that get in here ?” He went closer to investigate. “That’s what it is all right.” He had never seen it before but a friend had and had described it to him. This stuff fitted the description perfectly. He considered what to do.
“I can’t leave it there,” he said. He found a dustpan and a broom and propping the pan against the leg of Stephen’s chair he began to sweep the stuff up. He was surprised at how remarkably gummy it seemed. When he finished he washed the spot on the floor with a foaming detergent and stepped gingerly to the back door. He lifted the lid of the garbage can and shoved the broom and the contents of the dustpan and the dustpan itself into the can.
He went into the bathroom and washed his hands.