Hearing this speech has made the sliding
sickness in her so steep that Janice wonders if she can keep her grip on the
"Don't come over, Mother," she begs. "Please."
have a bite of lunch and be over in twenty minutes. You go to bed."
Janice replaces the receiver and looks around her with
horror. The apartment is
horrible. Coloring books on the floor, glasses, the bed unmade, dirty dishes
everywhere. She runs to where she and Nelson crayoned, and tests bending over.
She drops to her knees, and the baby begins to cry. Panicked with the double
idea of not disturbing Nelson and of concealing Harry's absence, she runs to
the crib and nightmarishly finds it smeared with orange mess.
you, damn you," she moans to Rebecca, and lifts the little filthy thing out and
wonders where to carry her. She takes her to the armchair and biting her lips
unpins the diaper.
"Oh you little shit," she murmurs, feeling that the
sound of her voice is holding off the other person who is gathering in the
room. She takes the soaked daubed diaper to the bathroom and drops it in the
toilet and dropping to her knees fumbles the bathtub plug into its hole. She
pulls on both handles as wide as they will go, knowing from experiment that
both opened wide make the right tepid mixture. The
water bangs out of the faucet like a
She notices the glass of watery whisky she left on the top of the
toilet and takes a long stale swallow and then
puzzles how to get it off her
hands. All the while Rebecca screams as if she has mind enough to know she's
Janice takes the glass with her and spills it on the rug with
her knee while she strips the baby of its nightie and sweater. She carries the
sopping clothes to the
set and puts them on top while she drops to her knees and tries to stuff the
crayons back into their box. Her head aches with all this jarring up and down.
She takes the crayons to the kitchen table and dumps the uneaten bacon and
lettuce into the paper bag under the sink but the mouth of the bag leans partly
closed and the lettuce falls behind into the darkness in back of the can and
she crouches down with her head pounding to try to see it or get it with her
fingers and is unable.
Her knees sting from so much kneeling.
gives up and to her surprise sits flatly on a kitchen chair and looks at the
gaudy soft noses of the crayons poking out of the Crayola box. Hide the whisky.
Her body doesn't move for a second but when it does she sees her hands with the
little lines of dirt on her fingernails put the whisky bottle into a lower
cabinet with some old shirts of Harry's she was saving for rags he would never
wear a mended shirt not that she was any good at mending them.
shuts the door, it bangs but doesn't catch, and on the edge of linoleum beside
the sink the cork cap of the whisky bottle stares at her like a little top hat.
She puts it in the garbage bag. Now the kitchen is clean enough.
living-room Rebecca is lying naked in the fuzzy armchair with her belly puffing
out sideways to yell and her lumpy curved legs clenched and red. Janice's other
baby was a boy and it still seems unnatural to her, between the girl's legs,
those two little buns of fat instead of a boy's plump stub. When the doctor had
Nelson circumcised Harry hadn't
wanted him to he hadn't been and thought it was unnatural, she had laughed at
him he was so mad. The baby's face goes red with each squall and Janice closes
her eyes and thinks how really horrible it is of Mother to come and ruin her
day just to make sure she's lost Harry again. She can't wait a minute to find
out and this awful baby can't wait a minute and there are the clothes on top of
set. She takes them into the bathroom and drops them into the toilet on top of
the diaper and turns off the faucets.
The wavery gray line of the
water is almost up to the lip of the
tub. On the skin quick wrinkles wander and under it a deep mass waits
colorless. She wishes she could have the bath. Brimful of composure she returns
to the living room. She tips too much trying to dig the tiny rubbery thing out
of the chair so drops to her knees and scoops Rebecca into her arms and carries
her into the bathroom held sideways against her breasts. She is proud to be
carrying this to completion; at least the baby will be clean when Mother comes.
She drops gently to her knees by the big calm tub and does not expect
her sleeves to be soaked. The water
wraps around her forearms like two large hands; under her eyes the pink baby
sinks down like a gray stone. With a sob of protest she grapples for the child
but the water pushes up at her hands,
her bathrobe tends to float, and the slippery thing squirms in the sudden
opacity. She has a hold, feels a heartbeat on her thumb, and then loses it, and
the skin of the water leaps with pale
refracted oblongs that she can't seize the solid of; it is only a moment, but a
moment dragged out in a thicker time.
Then she has Becky squeezed in
her hands and it is all right. She lifts the living thing into
air and hugs it against her sopping
chest. Water pours off them onto the
bathroom tiles. The little weightless body flops against her neck and a quick
look of relief at the baby's face gives a fantastic clotted impression.
A contorted memory of how they give artificial respiration pumps
Janice's cold wet arms in frantic
rhythmic hugs; under her clenched lids great scarlet prayers arise, wordless,
monotonous, and she seems to be clasping the knees of a vast third person whose
name, Father, Father, beats against her head like physical blows.
Though her wild heart bathes the universe in red, no spark kindles in
the space between her arms; for all of her pouring prayers she doesn't feel the
faintest tremor of an answer in the darkness against her.
Her sense of
the third person with them widens enormously, and she knows, knows, while
knocks sound at the door, that the worst thing that has ever happened to any
woman in the world has happened to her.
"On behalf of Daniel Boone," Rabbit says,
"I thank you."
"It's wrong," Jill goes on gently, "when
you say Americans are exploiters, to forget that the first things they exploit
are themselves. You," she says, lifting her face, her eyes and freckles and
nostrils a constellation, "you've never given yourself a chance to think,
except on techniques, basketball and printing, that served a self-exploitative
purpose. You carry an old God with
you, and an angry old
patriotism. And now an old wife."
He takes breath to protest, but
her hand begs him to let her finish.
"You accept these things as sacred
not out of love or faith but fear; your thought is frozen because the first
moment when your
instincts failed, you raced to the conclusion that everything is nothing,
that zero is the real answer. That is what we Americans think, it's win or
lose, all or nothing, kill or die, because we've never created the leisure in
which to take thought. But now, you see, we must, because action is no longer
enough, action without thought is violence. As we see in Vietnam."
at last can speak.
"There was violence in Vietnam before we ever heard
of the fucking place. You can see by just the way I'm sitting here listening to
this crap I'm a pacifist basically."
He points at Skeeter. "He's the
violent son of a bitch."
"But you see," Jill says, her voice lulling
and nagging, with just a teasing ragged hem showing of the voice she uses in
bed, "the reason Skeeter annoys and frightens you is you don't know a thing
about his history, I don't mean his personal history so much as the history of
his race, how he got to where he is. Things that threaten you like riots and
welfare have jumped into the newspapers out of nowhere for you. So for tonight
we thought we would just talk a little, have a kind of seminar, about
... Skeeter's face is shedding its shell of
scorn and writhing as if to cry. He has taken his glasses off. He is reaching
toward Jill for the marijuana
cigarette, keeping his eyes on Rabbit's face. Rabbit is frozen, his mind
racing. Nelson. Put him to bed. Seeing too much. His own face as he listens to
Skeeter feels weak, shapeless, slipping. The beer tastes bad, of malt. Skeeter
wants to cry, to yell. He is sitting on the edge of the sofa and making
gestures so brittle his arms might snap off. He is crazy.
"So what did
the South do? They said baboon and lynched and whipped and cheated the black
man of what pennies he had and thanked their white Jesus they didn't have to
feed him anymore. And what did the North do? It copped out. It pulled out. It
had put on all that muscle for the war and now it was wading into the biggest
happiest muck of greed and graft and exploitation and pollution and
slum-building and Indian-killing this poor old whore of a planet has ever been
saddled with, right? Don't go sleepy on me Chuck, here comes the interesting
part. The Southern assholes got together with the Northern assholes and said,
Let's us do a deal. What's all this about democracy, let's have here a
dollar-cracy. Why'd we ever care, free versus slave? Capital versus labor,
that's where it's at, right? This poor cunt of a country's the biggest jampot'
s ever come along so let's eat it, friend. You screw
your black labor and we'll screw our immigrant honky and Mongolian idiot labor
and, whoa-heel Halleluiah, right? So the Freedman's Bureau was trashed and the
military governors were chased back by crackers on horses who were very big on
cutting up colored girls with babies inside 'em and Tilden was cheated out of
the Presidency in the one bonyfidey swindle election you can find admitted in
every honky history book. Look it up, right? And that was the revolution
of1876. Far as the black man goes, that's the '76 that hurt, the one a hundred
years before was just a bunch of English gents dodging taxes."
is Rich 1981
Janice has on underpants beneath
her nightie but no bra and in the bright light her nipples show inside the
cloth with their own pink color, darker, more toward wine. She is saying, "It's
a hard age. They seem to have so many
choices and yet they don't.
taught by television all their lives to want this and that and yet when they
get to be twenty they find money isn't so easy to come by after all. They
don't have the opportunities even we had."
In bed, perhaps it's the
rain that sexes him up, he insists they make love, though at first Janice is
"I would have taken a bath," she says, but she smells great,
deep jungle smell, of precious rotting mulch going down and down beneath the
ferns. When he won't stop, crazy to lose his face in this essence, the cool
stem fury of it takes hold of her and combatively she comes, thrusting her hips
up to grind her clitoris against his face and then letting him finish inside
her beneath him.
Lying spent and adrift he listens again to the rain's
sound, which now and then quickens to a metallic rhythm on the window glass,
quicker than the throbbing in the iron gutter, where ropes of
earth is hollow, the dead roam
through caverns beneath its thin green skin.
"This is horrible," Nelson
announces from the sofa. "What'd we drag this poor guy in here for anyway? Pru
and I didn't ask to be married in a church, I don't believe any of that stuff
"You don't?" Harry is shocked, hurt.
"No, Dad. When
you're dead, you're dead."
"Come off it, you know
you are, everybody knows it down deep."
"Nobody knows for sure," Pru points out
in a quiet voice.
Nelson asks her furiously, "How many dead people have
Even as a child, Harry remembers, Nelson's face would get
white around the gills when he was angry. He would get nervous stomach
aches, and clutch at the edge of the banister on his way upstairs to get his
books. They would send him off to school anyway. Harry still had his job at
Verity and Janice was working part-time at the lot and they had no babysitter.
School was the babysitter.
......... The top photo, flash lit in this
same room, on this same satiny bedspread, shows Cindy naked, lying legs spread.
Her pubic hair is even darker than he imagined, the shape of it from this angle
a kind of T, the upright of the T infolded upon a redness as if sore, the
underside of her untanned ass making a pale blob on either side. At arm's
length he holds the glazed picture closer to the bedside light; his eyes
water with the effort to see
everything, every crease, every hair. Cindy's face, out of focus beyond her
breasts, which droop more to either side than Harry would have hoped, smiles
with nervous indulgence at the camera. Her chin is doubled, looking so sharply
down. Her feet look enormous. In the next shot, she has turned over, showing a
relaxed pair of buttocks, fish-white with an eyelike widening staring from the
Her voice presses into his
ear. "I want to do something for you so you won't forget me, something you've
never had with anybody else. I suppose other women have sucked you off?"
He shakes his head yes, which tugs the flesh of her breast.
"How many have you fucked up the ass?"
He lets her nipple slip
from his mouth. "None. Never."
"You and Janice?"
"Oh God no. It
never occurred to us."
"Harry. You're not fooling me?"
that was, her old-fashioned "fooling." From talking to all those third-graders.
"No, honestly. I thought only queers ... Do you and Ronnie?"
"All the time. Well, a lot of the time. He loves it."
"It has its charms."
"Doesn't it hurt? I mean, he's big."
"At first. You use Vaseline. I'll get ours."
"Thelma, wait. Am
I up to this?"
She laughs a syllable. "You're up."
away into the bathroom and while she is gone he stays enormous. She returns and
anoints him thoroughly, with an icy expert touch. Harry shudders. Thelma lies
down beside him with her back turned, curls forward as if to be shot from a
cannon, and reaches behind to guide him.
It seems it won't go,
but suddenly it does. The medicinal odor of displaced Vaseline reaches his
nostrils. The grip is tight at the base but beyond, where a cunt is all velvety
suction and caress, there is no sensation: a void, a pure black box, a casket
of perfect nothingness. He is in that void, past her tight ring of muscle.
He asks, "May I come?"
Her voice sounds
faint and broken. Her spine and
shoulder blades are taut. It takes only a few thrusts, while he rubs her scalp
with one hand and clamps her hip steady with the other. Where will his come go?
Nowhere but mix with her shit. With sweet Thelma's sweet shit. They lie
wordless and still together until his prick's slow shrivelling withdraws it.
"O.K.," he says. "Thank you. That I won't forget."
embarrassed. What does it do for you?"
"Makes me feel full of you.
Makes me feel fucked up the ass. By lovely Harry Angstrom."
he admits, "I can't believe you're so fond of me.
at Rest 1990
Everything falling apart, airplanes,
bridges, eight years under Reagan of nobody minding the store,
making money out of nothing,
debt, trusting in god.
He used to fuck Jill that crazy summer, though he could tell she didn't
much like it. Too young to like it.
"You weren't quite yourself today,
my friend," Bernie admits. "You got girlfriend trouble or something?"
Horny, Jews are: he once read a history of Hollywood about their
womanizing. Harry Cohn, Groucho Marx, the Warner Brothers, they went crazy out
there with the sunshine and swimming pools and all the Midwestern shiksas who'd
do anything to be movie stars - participate in orgies, blow a mogul while he
was talking on the telephone - yet his golf partners are all married to the
same women, forty, fifty years, women with big dyed hair and thick bangles and
fat brown upper arms who can't stop talking when you see them all dolled up at
dinner, Bernie and Ed and Joe sitting smilingly silent beside them as if all
this talking their women do is sex, which it must be - pep, life. How do they
do it? Wear life like a ready-made suit that fits exactly.
"I guess I
told you," Harry tells Bernie, "my son and his family are visiting."
"There's your problem, Angstrom: you felt guilty horsing around with
us. You should have been entertaining your loved ones."
Janice is working at the dining-room table, making lists for herself to
memorize. When she looks up, her eyes have a rubbed frowning look and her mouth
is open a dark slot. He hates to see it, hates to see her struggling so hard
not to be dumb.
Janice would get back at ten-thirty at
the earliest. There was plenty of time to see this through. He relaxes back
into his pillows. Good he had that nap this afternoon.
"Is that how you
see it?" he asks. "He was a shit to you?"
"Absolutely. Terrible. Out
all night doing God knows what, then this snivelling and begging for
forgiveness afterwards. I hated that worse than the chasing; my father was a
boozer and a chaser, but then he wouldn't whine to Mom about it, he'd at least
let her do the whining. This immature dependence of Nelson's was totally
outside my experience."
cigarette tip glows. A
distant concussion of thunder steps
closer. Pru's presence here feels hot in Harry's mind, she is awkwardly big and
all sharp angles in the sac of his consciousness. Her talk seems
angular and tough, the gritty Akron toughness overlaid with a dismissive
vocabulary learned from professional copers. He doesn't like hearing his son
"You knew him for some time out at Kent," he points
out, almost hostilely. "You knew what you were taking on."
didn't," she says, and the cigarette tip loops through
an agitated arc.
"I thought he'd grow, I never dreamed how enmeshed he
was, with you two. He's still trying to work out what you two did to him, as if
you were the only parents in the world who didn't keep wiping their kid's ass
until he was thirty. I tell him: Get real, Nelson. Lousy parents are par for
the course. My God. Nothing's ideal. Then he gets sore and tells me what a cold
fish I am. He means sex. A thing that goes fast with coke is shame; these women
that are hooked will do anything. I say to him, You're not going to give me
AIDS from one of your coke whores. So he goes out again. It's a vicious circle.
It's been going on for years."
"How many years, would you say?"
When she shrugs her shoulders, Ma's old bed shakes.
you'd think. That crowd
around Slim was always doing pot and uppers - gays don't give a damn, they have
all this money only for themselves. Maybe two years ago Nelson became a big
enough user on his own to need to steal. At first he just stole from us, money
that should have gone into the house and stuff, and then he started stealing
from you - the company. I hope you send him to jail, I really do."
has been cupping her hand beneath the
cigarette, to catch the
ash, and now she looks around for an ashhtray and sees none and finally flips
the butt toward the window, where it sparks against the screen and sizzles out
on the wet sill. Her voice is hoarsening and finding a certain swing, a welling
"I have no use for him any more. I'm scared to fuck him, I'm scared
to be legally associated with him. I've wasted my life. You don't know what
it's like. You're a man, you're free, you can do what you want in life, until
you're sixty at least you're a buyer. A woman's a seller. She has to be. And
she better not haggle too long. I'm thirty-three. I've had my shot, Harry. I
wasted it on Nelson. I had my little hand of cards and played them and now I'm
folded, I'm through. My husband hates me and I hate him and we don't even have
any money to split up! I'm scared - so scared. And my kids are scared, too. I'm
trash and they're trash and they know it."
"Hey, hey," he has to say.
"Come on. Nobody's trash."
But even as he says it he knows this is an
old-fashioned idea he would have trouble defending. We're all trash, really.
Without God to lift us up and make us into angels we're all trash.
sobbing is shaking the bed so badly that in his delicate postop state he feels
queasy. To quiet her big body he reaches out and pulls her toward him. As if
expecting his touch, she huddles tightly, though a blanket and a sheet are
between them, and continues sobbing in a bitter, lower register, her breath hot
on his chest, where a pajama button has come undone. His chest. They want to
carve it up.
"At least you're healthy," he tells her. "Me, all they
need to do is nail down the coffin lid. I can't run, I can't fuck, I can't
eat anything I like, I
know damn well they're going to talk me into a bypass. You're scared? You're
still young. You've got lots of cards still. Think of how scared I feel."
In his arms Pru says in a voice gone calm again, "People have bypass
operations all the time now."
"Yeah, easy for you to say. Like me
telling you people are married to shits all the time. Or you telling me people
have their kids turn out to be dope-addict embezzlers all the time."
small laugh. A flash of light outside and, after some seconds, thunder. Both
She asks, "Does Janice say you can't fuck?"
talk about it. We just don't do it much lately.There's been too much else going
"What did your doctor say?"
"I forget. My cardiologist's
about Nelson's age, we were all too shy to go into it."
Pru sniffs and
says, "I hate my life."
She seems to him to be unnaturally still, like
a rabbit in oncoming headlights. He lets the hand of the arm around her broad
back move up across the bumps of the quilted robe and enter the silken cave at
the nape of her neck, to toy with the warm hair there.
"I know the
feeling," he says, content to toy,
aware through the length
of his body of a cottony sleepiness waiting to claim him.
him, "You were one of the things I liked about Nelson. Maybe I thought Nelson
would grow into somebody like you."
"Maybe he did. You don't get to see
what a bastard I can be."
"I can imagine," she says. "But people
He goes on, "I see a lot of myself in the kid."
The nape of her neck tingles under his fingers, the soft hairs rising
to his electricity.
''I'm glad you're letting your hair grow long," he
"It gets too long."
Her hand has come to rest on his bare
chest, where the button is unbuttoned. He pictures her hands with their
pink-knuckled vulnerable raw look. She is left-handed, he remembers. The oddity
of this excites him further. Not waiting too long to think about it, he with
his free hand lifts hers from his chest and places it lower, where an erection
has surprisingly sprouted from his half-shaved groin.
His gesture has
the pre-sexual quality of one child sharing with another an interesting
discovery - a stone that moves, or a remarkably thick-bodied butterfly.
The eyes widen in the dim face inches from his on the pillow. Tiny
points of light are caught in her lashes. He lets his face drift, on the tide
of blood risen within him, across those inches to set their mouths together,
carefully testing for the angle, while her fingers caress him in a rhythm
slower than that of his thudding heart.
As the space narrows to nothing
he is watchful of his heart, his accomplice in sin. Their kiss tastes to him of
the fish she so nicely prepared, its lemon and chives, and of asparagus. Rain
whips at the screen. The leak onto the windowsill accelerates its tapping. A
brilliant close flash shocks the air
everywhere and less than a second later a heart-stopping crack and splintering
of thunder crushes the house from above.
As if in overflow of this
natural heedlessness, Pru says "Shit," jumps from the bed, slams shut the
window, pulls down the shade, tears open her bathrobe and
sheds it, and, reaching down, pulls her nightie up over her head. Her tall pale
wide-hipped nakedness in the dimmed room is lovely much as those pear trees in
blossom along that block in Brewer last month were lovely, all his it had
seemed, a piece of Paradise blundered upon, incredible.
"I know how to inflame a cunt. I
shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your
Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something does he? He feels the
remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed
out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St.
Bernards." - Henry Valentine Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 1934
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