Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hewlett-Packard

Corvallis, Oregon, 1980. 4:30 a.m.

Too tired to go home and sleep, you wander with your guitar to the park, a square block of grass in the middle of the town. Under a full moon the grass glows. At the northern water fountain you bend to slurp, then sit on a bench serenading yourself. As you do a voice from nowhere says, “You play beautifully.”

You look up at a short, pudgy, dark-skinned boy with a droopy hangdog face. “Oh, please don’t stop. Please—go on.” As you start playing again he says, “Do you mind?” and sits down on the bench next to you.

He says he works the graveyard shift at the Hewlett-Packard factory, his voice soft and dripping with sadness. “I get home too early to sleep and too late to talk to anyone. Honestly,” he says, “I’m a little bit depressed. Sure you don’t mind me sitting here?” You shake your head and keep playing. He watches you with a hungry look. “You play beautifully,” he says again. Then: “Would you mind doing me a favor? Would you come back to my apartment and play your music for me there? I’ve got a color T.V. and some movies we can watch. You can sleep on my sofa if you get tired. It would be a lot nicer than staying in the park all night long, wouldn’t it?” You’re reminded of that Robert Frost poem, the one that begins, I have been one acquainted with the night.

You go to his apartment. By then, you see, you don’t give a shit. You have nothing to fear. And you understand, too, that, whatever intentions this person may have, his loneliness is real. When you lived in New York, when you were going to art school and trying your luck in show business, you got used to telling strange homosexual men to piss off, or just stepping over them, as you did with the actor who looked and sounded like Richard Basehart and who claimed he was with the Royal Shakespeare Company before inviting you to the studio apartment he had sublet and mixing you both screwdrivers. Soon he was stretched out on the floor reading aloud dirty passages from Henry Miller’s Opus Pistorum, his hand busy in his pants as you stepped over him on your way out the door. No: you had no qualms about telling such men to piss off. Sometimes you waited too long, but you had no qualms.

But this man is different. He’s younger than you, first of all, and he seems so sad, so thoroughly depressed and lonely. You resent the fact that life has left him and others like him so alone. You want revenge for his sake, for the sake of all lonesome people everywhere, yourself included. To the conditions that give rise to such extremes of loneliness you wish to convey one great Fuck You! So you go home with him.

His apartment is in a modern building, a single room with an attached kitchen modestly furnished, with white plush carpeting and no paintings or posters on the walls. While he fries up some Jiffy popcorn and mixes up a batch of cherry Kool-Aid you peruse his video collection, settling on Escape From Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.

Halfway through the movie you doze off. The boy’s whispers wake you. “Hey, there,” he whispers. “Do you trust me enough to let me give you a back rub?” You nod. As he kneads your shoulders you drift into a dream. You dream yours lying in a field. In the dream, while lying there some farmers come with torches and set fire to the field. You wake up choking on smoke, groping for an escape, but it’s too late; you’re surrounded by flames. You see yourself from above at the center of a ring of fire.

When you wake up there’s a blanket covering you. The boy sleeps nearby on the floor. You massage his shoulders for a while. Then you cover him with the blanket and leave.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Memories for Mom

I think of growing up and remember all kinds of things. I remember our house on the hill, and big willow trees along the driveway, and all those magical places in the woods and fields that we turned into “forts.” I remember the Wolf House, the rotting shell of what had been a guest house in the woods, and the old dilapidated chicken coop down by the barn that our inventor father converted into his laboratory, and that my brother and played in until it collapsed.

I remember the white picket fence that was always in need of paint and with tines missing here and there, and the mulberry tree that grew at one end of it, remember? And the time I nearly sawed down one of the three enormous maple trees around the house. All kinds of things like that I remember. The little slate stone patio next to Nonnie’s room and that we never used, and the forsythia bush that was visible outside of her window, and under which we built a baseball dugout that we used maybe twice, since there really wasn’t enough room in the back yard for a baseball field (instead George and I played “catch” on the grassy raised terrace behind the house). All these things I remember, but there are thousands more, all kinds of sweet little memories, like the space under the stairs leading down to the basement, how George and I would worm our way behind the trunks and other things stored there and play “Gilligan’s Island,” though what the basement stairs had to do with a motley crew of stranded castaways is anyone’s guess.

But the other thing I always remember is riding around in your black Mercury, how enormous that car seems in memory, so much like a boat, with its big chrome bumpers and scratchy upholstery and the hump in the middle of the rear seat. I remember us going to Danbury, to Jenung’s and the Bargain World and McRorey’s and other shops in and around Main Street, to Woolworth’s where I’d search the lollipop rack for my favorite flavor, root beer, and where we’d sit at the counter and order frankfurters for lunch. There was another store, too, that stands out in my memory because it seemed to stretch infinitely backwards, a never-ending store, I don’t recall its name, but they sold lady’s fashions and probably boy’s clothes, too (though these, I think, may have been upstairs at the top of a creaky wooden escalator).

These are good memories, very good memories, memories so good they make me slightly queasy with nostalgia. You were a good mom. You took us everywhere and did lots of things with us. I remember the carousel in the Buster Brown shoe store: do you remember the carousel? It was in the back of the store. And the Marcus Dairy bar—we used to go there, too. There was one on Federal Road on the way to Caldor’s; at least I think it was a Marcus Dairy, now I’m not so sure. And the one by the airport, though we didn’t go there so often. I remember the one on the way to Caldor’s had these big bowls of green relish on the counter, and how I would order a hot dog just to eat the relish.

Oh, yes, and there was another place you used to take us to on the way to Lake Candlewood, to the Landing (remember the Landing?), a place just at the start of Federal Road, before the Howard Johnson's there, called the Chuck Wagon, where they served fried chicken and had a salad bar with baked beans, coleslaw, and three-bean salad: George and I were crazy about that place, and especially about the three-bean-salad, so sweet it turned vegetables into candy. We liked going there and we liked going to Val’s Hamburgers and Carvel: all of these good places were on the way to the Lake Candlewood, where we’d meet up with Dotty and Hank and Papa Joe and Vera and Dut and other people whose names I don’t remember anymore. Papa Joe would take me out on his Sunfish sailboat, and Hank would take us out in his little motorboat that he’d always have to bail a bit first (with the bilge water smelling of gasoline). Afterwards we’d all eat obliquely-sliced barbecued skirt steak with macaroni and tuna fish salad. I hated the skirt steak; liked the macaroni and tuna fish. I remember, too, that we had all kinds of elaborate rubber and plastic gear (bought at the Bargain World) with which to broach the Lake: a rubber raft that took forever to inflate, goggles, and fake plastic scuba tanks whose nonfunctional air hoses George and I sliced through with steak knives playing Lloyd Bridges in "Sea Hunt."

But mostly I just remember lumbering around in the back seat of the Mercury, a car I didn’t much like back then (I thought it gave me headaches), but which I look back on very fondly now: I even look back fondly on the car that replaced it, the poor Rambler, which no one but you and the collector who bought it from you for $500 liked. I remember going to visit to Hollandas, and Ludwina B. and her daughter Jane.

In reliving all these memories I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad, because I miss things so much. I miss the innocence and simplicity and protection I felt back then, as a child. I had no idea, of course, how lucky I was, what a heaven childhood is: no child really knows it until it’s too late. As children we long to be men, and then at last we become men only to realize our longing for childhood. We appreciate everything once it’s gone. I do. Why is life that way? I miss so many things. I miss shopping at the Grand Union and the First National with you, and insisting that you buy frozen baked clams and prepared spareribs sticky with red Chinese barbecue sauce and Ovaltine and egg nog and anything highly caloric and otherwise useless.

Now I've got a daughter. Some day I'll be part of good memories like this of hers. I hope.

Well, I’d better stop reminiscing. It’s probably not all that healthy. But I do enjoy remembering. And my memories are almost all like these ones, good. And I felt like sharing them with you.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Lady Who Gives Permission

Today I’m going to see The Lady Who Gives Permission. Her apartment is on the Lower East Side, near Orchard Street, where vendors hawk shoddy clothes from their stalls. It’s a five story walk-up. The Lady Who Gives Permission lives on the fifth floor. It’s out of the way. But then The Lady Who Gives Permission is not a convenience. She doesn’t make house calls, either. You go to her; she doesn’t come to you.

Okay, maybe you don’t go to her.

But I do.

Every week, once a week. Sometimes I need to see her more often, in which case she does her best to squeeze me in. The Lady Who Gives Permission is on a tight schedule. Her dance card, as they say, is pretty full.

So I climb up the five flights. On each landing more light bulbs are blown so ap-proaching the top is like swimming upstairs into deep water, until there’s no light left at all and I start imagining secret black fish with tentacles. The stairwell smells of dead tuna fish, dust, mold, boiled cat urine. Why The Lady Who Gives Permission lives in such a dump is beyond me.

I wipe the sweat from my brow, knock. It takes The Lady Who Gives Permission five minutes to unbolt her six locks plus police bar. She opens the door a crack and peeks through, and out floats a stiff whiff of her perfume, a blend of roses and funeral lilies. She lets me in without a word.

There are two chairs, both rattan. The Lady Who Gives Permission has a thing for straw. No other furniture. Just a bean bag in the corner next to a guttering candle, and the large wicker chair that’s hers alone. The candle flame is repli-cated in the hundreds of beads of a curtain that divides the room, her “parlor” she calls it, from the rest of her apartment.

The Lady Who Gives Permission doesn’t ask me how I am, doesn’t offer me a drink, doesn’t hand me a tissue to wipe the sweat from my brow in summer or the snot from my nose in winter. She sits on her big round peacock-like wicker chair, lights a thin black cigarillo and looks at me, exhaling, the faintest of smiles cross-ing her dark lips.

“Well, now,” she says.

Those lips, by the way, are thin. The Lady Who Gives Permission has Hennaed hair tied in a rutabaga-sized bun behind her head. Her eyes are also thin, her cheeks rouged and flat, her earlobes droopy, her forehead shiny, her skull dandruffy, her fingers nicotene-stained, her teeth as golden as corn, her breath a heady blend of garlic and wine. Needless to say I am not physically attracted to The Lady Who Gives Permission. She does not interest me that way. Nor am I drawn to her mind, or her soul. From The Lady Who Gives Permission I want but one thing, and that is. . .permission.

“So, Julius, what’s on your mind today?” she asks, relighting her Tiparillo, or whatever it is, with a silver lighter in the shape of a grenade.

“I’ve been thinking,” I say hesitantly, “of going to Turkey.”

“Turkey?” she says, lifting a heavily made-up eyebrow. “You’ve been thinking of going to Turkey, have you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I’ve been thinking of going to Turkey.”

“Would you like permission to think of going to Turkey, Julius?” she asks with a tight little smile.

“No,” I say anxiously. “I want permission to go to Turkey.”

“Oh!” She takes a sip of mineral water. She always keeps a bottle of mineral water handy next to her wicker chair, but never, ever offers me any. For all I know there’s vodka inside. Or paint thinner.

“Turkey,” she says, bombing her Oriental rug with ash.

“Yes,” I say. “Turkey.”

“Why Turkey?” she shrugs. “Why not Greece? Or Rome? Or Timbuktu?”

“Because,” I say standing my ground. “It’s Turkey.”

She looks up at me, annoyed. “So, go to Turkey then. What do you want from me?”

Now it starts: the squirming. There’s no point fighting it. It happens every time. It’s part of the ritual.

“Just tell me it’s okay, okay?”

“Okay,” says TLWGP. “It’s okay. There. Satisfied?”

“You didn’t mean it,” I say, trying to keep my cool. “You have to mean it!”

“Of course I didn’t mean it, you fool! You expect me to mean it? You expect it to be that easy, big boy?”

“I just want your permission,” I say, my voice turning whiny already. “And don’t call me big boy. I hate it when you call me big boy.”

“What should I call you then, little boy? Would you prefer that?”

“Don’t call me big boy or little boy,” I say.

“What should I call you?”

“Don’t call me anything.”

“Are you being rude to me?”

“No! No, I wasn’t—I mean, I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“But you were, weren’t you? You say you didn’t mean to be, but you were mean to me just now, Julius, weren’t you? You came here to ask me for something. Wouldn’t you say it behooves you, under the circumstances, to be nice to me?”

“Yeah, sure, but--”

“Yeah? Sure? But? Is there some reason why you shouldn’t be nice to me?”

“No, but--”

“But?”

I look around helplessly, my knees knocking together. I wonder why I’m here. I always wonder. Why this woman? Who is she to me? And why doesn’t she do something about the air in here, like open a window?

“Very well, Julius,” says The Lady Who Gives Permission. “You may go to Turkey.”

“I may?” I say.

“Yes, you may.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you!”

“Please stop thanking me, let go of my hand and get up off the floor.”

“Sorry.” I get up and sit back on one of bean bag chair.

“And please don’t apologize. How many times do I have to tell you not to ever apologize to me?”

“Sorry. I mean—”

“For God’s sake. Never mind. What else?” She clips a fingernail.

“I’d--I’d like to have. . .an affair,” I blurt.

“Oh, so now you’d like to have an affair?”

“Is that asking too much?” I wonder.

“I don’t know, is it? What sort of an affair?”

“You know,” I shrug. “With a woman.”

“A married woman?”

“No! Well, yes. Could be. I don’t know.”

“You mean you haven’t made up your mind?”

“How can I make up my mind when I haven’t met her? Yet.”

“Oh, you haven’t met her yet. Why would you want to have an affair with some-one you haven’t met?”

“I thought if I had permission ahead of time it would. . .you know. . . simplify things a little.”

“Oh, you want things simplified,” says TLWGP. “That’s understandable. We all want things simplified. Very well: you may have your affair, once you find whoever. Just try not to get caught and don’t get any diseases.”

“Oh, I won’t, believe me, I won’t!” I say enthusiastically.

“Will that be all?”

“I’d like to stop swimming.”

“You’d like to stop swimming?”

“I swim a mile a day.”

“You’ve said so.”

“Well I’d like to at least, you know, cut down.”

“Which is it, then, stop or cut down?”

“I’d like to cut down first, then, eventually, stop,” I decide.

“I see: you’d like to cut down first then eventually stop. Hmm. Well, I’ll have to think about that, won’t I.” TLWGP thought. “Very well, you’ll cut down first, and then, eventually, stop. And what else can I do for you today, my dear?”

“My mother,” I said sheepishly. “Do I have to call her once a week?”

“When will you learn not to ask me such questions?”

“I’m sorry. I mean. . . I meant. . .Can I--”

“May you what?”

“May I call her every two weeks?”

“Done. Will that be all?”

I stand up and give her the money. Cash only. I’m about to go when something occurs to me. “Beggars,” I turn around and say.

“Mmm?”

“Panhandlers? Do I have to keep giving them money?”

“I don’t know: do you?”

“It’s just that. . .well, there’s at least one every block between the subway station and where I live. That’s six blocks, six panhandlers, a quarter per panhandler--that’s a buck twenty-five each way, coming and going. That’s two fifty a day. It adds up,” I say reasonably.

“And you would like to. . .” She cocks her head.

“If I could just give to every other panhandler.”

“Why don’t you give them all dimes instead?”

“Dimes. . .dimes!” The idea hadn’t even occurred to me. You have to admit she can be brilliant. “You’re right!” I said. “Jesus, you’re right!”

“We really have to stop now,” she says.

But I can’t resist; I’m on a roll. “Masturbation. I do it . . .like. . .three times a month. In the shower. While my wife reads in bed. Can I keep doing it?”

“Can you?”

“May I?”

“Of course you may,” she says wearily. “Really, Julius, must you waste your permissions that way? I’m sorry, but I’ll have to charge you for that.” She holds out her hand; I pay.

I’m at the door when something else occurs to me. “I pick my nose.”

“Ditto,” she says, and I hand her more money.

“And I don’t always wash my hands after--”

“I believe we are through for the day,” says TLWGP.

She opens the door for me. I hesitate.

“Wait. There’s—one more thing.”

“What is it?” she asks, blowing a sigh, tapping her foot.

“I’d like a hundred million dollars!”

“See you next week,” says The Lady Who Gives Permission, shutting the door behind me.