UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
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I found Thomas Wolfe’s shin-splints on the Brooklyn Bridge. He was on his way to withdraw money from Scribner’s.
He was rubbing his temples and walking gingerly, his arches and prospects fallen, with the heartache of years of writing while holding his breath. It started in his lungs, a turbercular cloud on an x-ray. Even when you’re dead, you have to get in your cardio. He was thinking of Emily Roebling driving a motorcycle (a chopper) across the bridge she built, and how eager he was to move back to the east side of the island, even now that the United Nations blocked his view of the river.
Tom was winning the literary contests posthumously, contests in which I was a contender, a Juliet of the slush piles. When I repatriated after a year abroad and discovered that the fourth floor of 5 Montague Terrace was open to let -- where he had lived unhappily, terse with the world, furious and verbose -- I let it. The garret of the great man. I had once gawked at the landing with a limp map of historic Brooklyn, awed by the size of his fame and his size. This borough is a poem, not a love poem. Our neighborhood smells like kimchi and permanents. The rumor was that he still lived here, a maltempered apparition versus the tenants. They hadn't the courage or heart to face him. And like any girl, I sought out a man to reform as a project. It came fully furnished, which wasn't saying much: a small Frigidaire that doubled as a writing desk, and the walls stripped down to the original trim and papering of maroon fleur-de-lis, and old, unsalvageable mirrors, streaked with decaying nickel. Walls talk. Mirrors don’t remember anything.
His morning was my afternoon. His drawl and his devil-may-care drinking and how he would dress himself, from a pile of clothes on the floor, as if he wasn’t the country’s best author. Drinking my scotch because it wasn't ladylike. And his undergraduate sensitivities: at 111 years old, he collected insults like stamps, and he would drink carelessly, a hair-trigger drunk with clenched fists, and when he was fully whisked he rolled out his voluminous file of affronts, injustices that amounted to an invective of a million words. Our relationship is a spin-the-bottle kind of thing, an undergroundswell of every want I have repressed. We climb the fire escape to the roof and watch the cruise ships parked in Red Hook, marveling at the clockwork of the helicopter tours and the Ikea water taxis. In 1930 it was longshoremen and stevedores, but now it's baristas he eavesdrops on, waitresses in black leggings. They are friendly to him, he is expressive and grateful and eats with gusto. He was the loner poet in the corner gnawing on his fingers and out of shampoo, writing in moleskins for his kinsfolk, who did not read; and when he says his work is selling like pancakes, he means it's not.
He is industry and immaturity, he likes to exaggerate, lambasts the unjust, from meddling scumlords to his best friends. He wanted into heaven but the bouncer, Peter, won't oblige. Righteous pontifications. For all intents and purposes, I'm the soapbox. His feet are asleep and he’s stamping them, and below us they’re retaliating with a broom handle against the ceiling.
"I hate, one, writers who write about writing, two, writers who say they write because the have to, which, three, is bullshit," he said, having counted off for me. "We write because we aren't carpenters. What is it with your writers, anyway? Like this guy, Whitehead, he thinks he’s your best novelist. Thinks he’s preternatural at it.”
“Colson’s harmless,” I said. "Where did this all come from? We were talking about our bracket."
“Why is he so popular?"
"He isn't," I said.
Tom's goat was easily got. It was so easy it wasn't sporting.
"Who is North Carolina playing?"
"I have them losing to Clemson," I said.
"Scotch, men's basketball ... you spend your liberation strangely." He turned on his heels. "You're betting against North Carolina? It's my fucking alma mater!"
At heart he was a dumb oaf, but classically trained. He knew Latin but the miracle of contraception was a mystery to him. He isn’t shy but he stammers, then his voice deepens, then it was a torrent, all in the span of ten minutes. His bucket list is a bender with Cat Power, karaoke with Grammy winners. He couldn't beat me, so he joined. We were the prowling, lonely shadows on earth, we gaped at the moon and we brayed, benders and two wines too many, sweating it out on our six-mile daily constitutionals, bouncing from benefactor to benefactress, hoping to find a statue of ourselves somewhere.
"That’s why you get splints," I said, tilting my hands like ailerons. "You're hitting the ground crooked." I introduced him to my shoe repair, inside the Hoyt St. station, the ? stop. But he never met a cobbler he could trust. And like a ghost he was given to mischief. Carelessly I would leave my typewriter unattended, and return home to:
i am thomas wolfe author plagiarist and I have writ one million words and
i have fucked many women travelled cities and i
am the tides coastlines Telemachus lost wind-grieved
He regrets he cannot garden. He wants a pair of Air Jordans. He craved fresh air, deep draughts of it, face out the window, musing on his recollection of these tenements.
“This used to be a Slovak neighborhood,” he said.
A black man walked on the terrace underneath, whistling. Tom turned to me.
“It got awfully dark," he said.
“Have you been drinking?” I asked. “You’re talking like you’ve been drinking.”
I’m just a girl to him, an irrational, hysterical rolodex of recipes. He was an opacity of dry ice, a husky caricature, a hologram, a clap on the shoulder, a night watchman. Often it was his hair I saw first, a great mat of it that he used as a prop, harpooning it with his fingers. Then it was his footfalls, hitting like anvils, as if he intended to collapse the floor. He loved the drumbeat of boots on hardwood, and could take the apartment in fourteen strides. Third was his whoring. He brought home women, wispy blondes, rank German girls. I supposed that sleeping with him was moving up in the afterworld. The clues were nylons tied to the bedposts, wine remnant on the cups, five-and-dime perfume on my
It’s the inclination of writers to libel that stirs women, he said. Libel is a magnetism. He had libeled his landlady and his schoolmasters and his mistresses. But he never ruined a marriage and couldn't, because marriage was its own fracture ... look at us, look at me and Aline Bernstein, he said, as evidence that diamonds were forever, fifty percent of the time.
His intellectual moving parts were flipping pages, dogears, scribbling obscenities in ledgers. He hated the theatre and theatre people. He was content as the voice off-camera in the audition tapes. He doesn't understand why my suitors aren't queued up outside. He doesn't understand ... fame for girls in New York is not so easily arrived at. He was an optimist, a canary, a salve for days which were sorrow into which I hurled my entire self. He was evolving into my projections, and when he wasn’t himself, I didn't need him around. Like when I came home from work and he had his tie loosened and he was in child’s pose on my yoga mat.
“Stop haunting me,” I said. “Just for today.”
“Can’t go out today,” he said.
“Razorburn,” he said.
The ineffability of our chemistry. We sat down in front of the television. His favorite is Gossip Girl, but it's Tuesday night, and the only watchable show is a baseball flick.
“You should have gotten into movies,” I said.
“Anything but that,” he said. “Budd Shulberg's mother tried to get me to Hollywood once.”
“It’s beautiful there,” I replied. “They have a subway now.”
“When I asked how to pay for the trip, she suggested I hitchhike," he said. "Schulberg." (His emphasis.)
He was also fond of Communists.
“Isn’t it strange watching Field of Dreams together?” I said. My head was on the shoulder of the must of his coat gone seventy years without drycleaning.
“That’s very meta of you,” he said.
“Post-meta,” I said, burrowing in.
“I know, right?” he said. “Because you’re seeing things, and he’s seeing things.”
He likes me because he likes women he can lean on. Co-habitation has turned me into a sap. Saturday flea markets in the old bank vault. The garment racks that telescope, western shirts with tails and snaps. Life at its most elemental. Rhubarb jam in mason jars, latticework on pies. A life full of anticlimaxes. Tom is death and what it looks like, feels like. I’ll find out soon enough. I was raised not to think about what I one day would be unable to face. One of the many pitfalls of trusting in the Lord. I don’t have a premonition of it. I can't see my future. And I see ghosts, so I know I can see.
I am the city, he said: the bag lady exorcizing her flowerpots, the doorman throwing snowballs at traffic. The city is anxious lately, tense and worried, in defiance of the shallow wisdom of my forearm tattoos, and the bald eagle inked in spread-eagle on my chest. Overdue for a haircut. He entreats me to stop talking in metaphors but I can't help it: I was the fashionista in a Dior coat smoking American Spirits (the lights) in the Meatpacking District, and Tom was holding a can of red paint on the roof above. To settle my nerves I take a green tea on the landing. In the great beyond there is the who’s who of skyscrapers that is the Manhattan skyline, and in front is the Bridge -- our bridge, Tom called it: his mine and Emily’s -- and in the penultimate foreground is the dog run on the Promenade, and the shellshocked veterans raking the bocce courts, and my brassieres drying on the sill. Tom doesn't appreciate how expensive bras are.
The wind from off the river carried canine arguments for blocks. “Your dog attacked me,” one said.
“If attacking you is licking your palms ...”
America, when you are wronged, get litigious. Tom didn’t understand this. He had to sue in his lifetime, and had been sued, and nothing gave him quite so much worry as adjudication and legalese. There was a lot he didn't understand.
“I was wondering," he said. "Everywhere I go, people are doing this:”
He touched his thumb and forefinger and expanded them.
“:and typing on these small boxes.”
“That’s how people talk to themselves these days,” I said. “Instead of talking.”
You can’t see capillaries on ghosts, or eyes, but the morning sunrise prizms beam through them, and it is in silhouette that I see Tom best, professorial in his corduroys, and the cufflinks and pleats that take five pounds off his 260-lb frame. To hear him on civilization. And his thoughts on marriage. It started with fermentation, then the struggle of man with his libido, then the sport of lovers out to outdestruct one another. It was pushing the envelope, rationing vitriol, cramming one year of sex into ten years.
Aline was the subtext of his haunting. Her cooking warmed the cockles of his stomach. And her terror of bedbugs. She wouldn't go to movie theatres, cafes, anywhere that's upholstered. I had hoped to see her, just a glimpse. I always wanted a grandmother figure. Mine must have known I would one day sublimate her failures, because one long weekend when I was two with my father out on business she left me in the crib and skipped town, real actual desertion, cocaine at fifty, and when they found me on Monday I was too dehydrated to cry. Childhood as I saw it was meaningless pain, and it was unfair that children weren’t spared. But Tom found it fascinating practice, his paper routes, his kindergarten seductions. Children don’t like fundamentals, he said; they see the big picture as a kaleidoscope of inevitabilities. It's adults who think in miniscule.
It's fools who think in largesse ... in his day there were a few billion fewer people to compete with. Still I dream of wide audiences, to be fete’d unto exhaustion over cocktails and bottomless congratulations. These aren't just words, they're understatements, emoluments, putrescences. The city eats organic. The city has just changed her birth control again. The city obliges Tom to hop fast, eight miles a minute, ramming speed. A harried tempo, hypercaffination, nicotine, accelerants. My fiction is one of those unfortunate situations where my voice is drowned out and there's no mention of me in the liner notes. Checks for my commercial writing came in the mail, Tom wondered who from. Didn't I know that writing wasn't living forever? Wouldn't I get wise already? But I wrote because I simply had to.
Our last day together we went on an art spree, in a lull in his fervent misanthropy. He insisted we walk across the bridge, where, in 1936, esophagus eroding, the sunsets turned him to God. In his twenties it was holy, and in his thirties he commenced to treating his body like a trash can. His favorites were towns without rotogravures, with underworlds of Sunday virtue he could scandalize.
"Would I enjoy Vegas?" he asked.
"It has quite a few chapels," I said.
That night I decanted the $8 cabernet he liked, our daily liter of wine. Like Tom, it was better when it breathed, and came a long way to die in my glass. He was pacing and irritable and I knew that look in men, I'd seen it before: the shifting eyes and restlessness, the sum of tells -- you can find it in any body-language guide -- that amounts to a disinclination to stick around long. "Let's go into LES," he said. "I like to keep my money in Brooklyn." "Fuck that," he said. "Let’s go cougar hunting." Why not. You only live forever.
"Let's go into LES," he said.
"I like to keep my money in Brooklyn."
"Fuck that," he said. "Let’s go cougar hunting."
Why not. You only live forever.
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