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
The apartment is
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.
"Damn 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.
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 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 filthy.
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.
Her head aches
with all this jarring up and down.
Her knees sting from so much
She gives up and to her surprise sits flatly on a kitchen
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.
She 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.
In the 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.
the doctor had Nelson circumcised Harry hadn't wanted him to as he hadn't been
and thought it was unnatural, she had laughed at him he was so mad.
The wavery gray line of the water is almost up to the lip of the tub.
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.
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.
off them onto the bathroom tiles.
The little weightless body flops
against her neck.
A contorted memory of how they give artificial
respiration pumps Janice's cold wet arms in frantic rhythmic hugs.
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 compassion 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. As we see in Vietnam."
He 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."
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 Afro-American history."
Skeeter's face is shedding its shell of scorn and writhing as if to
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.
"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
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
pollution and slum-building and Indian-killing this poor old whore of a planet
has ever been saddled with, right?
The Southern assholes got together
with the Northern assholes and said, Let's us do a deal. And that was the
1876. 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
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.
saying, "It's a hard age. They
seem to have so many choices and yet they don't. They've been 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 reluctant.
"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 water twist.
"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."
Harry is shocked, hurt.
"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 you seen?"
Even as a child, Harry remembers,
Nelson's face would get white around the gills when he was
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.
Janice was working part-time
at the lot.
They had no babysitter.
School was the babysitter.
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?"
How dear that was, her
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."
She slides away into
the bathroom and while she is gone he stays enormous.
She returns and
anoints him thoroughly, with an icy expert
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.
spine and shoulder blades are
It takes only a few thrusts, while he rubs her scalp with one
hand and clamps her hip steady.
"O.K.," he says. "Thank you. That I
"I feel embarrassed. What does
it do for you?"
"Makes me feel full of you. Makes me feel fucked up the
ass. By lovely Harry Angstrom."
"Thelma," 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,
running up debt,
trusting in god.
weren't quite yourself today,"
Bernie admits. "You got girlfriend trouble
he once read a history of
Talmudwood about their womanizing.
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.
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
"Absolutely. Terrible. Out all night doing God knows what,
then this snivelling and begging for
forgiveness afterwards. I hate 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."
Her cigarette tip glows.
concussion of thunder steps closer.
Pru's presence here feels hot in Harry's mind, she is awkwardly big and
all sharp angles.
Her talk seems angular and tough, the gritty Akron
toughness overlaid with a dismissive vocabulary learned from professional
He doesn't like hearing his son called immature.
knew him for some time out at Kent," he points out, almost
"Harry, I 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.
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.
"More than 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."
She 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 up.
"I'm scared to fuck him, I'm scared to be legally associated with him.
I've wasted my life. 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
But even as he says it he knows this is an old-fashioned idea
he would have trouble defending.
Without God to lift us up and make
us into angels we're all trash.
Her 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."
his arms Pru says in a voice gone calm again, "People have bypass operations
all the time."
"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."
A small laugh. A flash of
light outside and, after some seconds, thunder. Both listen.
"Does Janice say you can't fuck?"
"We don't talk about it. We just
don't do it much lately. There's been too much else going on."
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
She seems to him to be unnaturally still, like a rabbit in
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," aware through the
length of his body of a cottony sleepiness waiting to claim.
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.
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
The eyes widen in the dim face inches from his
on the pillow.
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
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.
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.
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,
"I know how to inflame a cunt.
I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania.
I make your ovaries
Your Sylvester is a little
something does he?
He feels the remnants of my big prick.
have set the shores a little wider.
I have ironed out the wrinkles."
- Henry Valentine Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 1934
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