UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
There were three of them and you probably could have smelled their wiring in
Brooklyn, but - my purpose eluding me - I found myself headed straight in
If I didn't know what I was doing in that respect, however, I wasn't in the
least unclear about my impending decomposition.
Although none of my vital parts had actually shut down yet, I was convinced,
and had been for weeks, that one or more of them was about to, that I was
already in the end stages of a fatal wasting disease. In all manner of
physical distress - perpetually light-headed and nauseous, my breath short,
my vision dim and my gait unsteady - I'd never felt so weak and frail. Or
small. Not that, at 5'6", 140 lbs, I wasn't small. But I was getting even
smaller. In fact, I was shriveling - I swear, I could see myself withering
and contracting in my mirror. No, it would not be long before I was reduced
to something ghastly, to a thing you might find in a drawer, deep in the
bowels of a Port au Prince curio shop cellar.
I'd been living with the expectation of my imminent demise since my
fifty-second birthday - which had coincided with my son's acceptance into
college and was when it first hit me that I'd turned fifty. And the anxiety
I was feeling had begun to color my perception of the world at large. I mean
here I was, returning home from an errand through the Village on a Saturday
afternoon. It was one of those fine days you get just a precious few times
in midsummer New York when the humidity's low and the temperature's
reasonable. The narrow streets were teeming with people celebrating the
weekend and the weather, and all I could think was that, at one point or
another, every last one of them was going to get very sick and then
Okay. I know. I didn't need to be a Starfleet engineer to appreciate that I
was in the throes of a monster midlife depression. But my awareness of this
made no difference. If I was exaggerating my situation, if my expiration was
perhaps not so close at hand as I believed, it was still true that my youth
was gone, and my hyperconsciousness of my body's impermanence, which
recognizing that fact had generated, didn't go away.
So literally staggering under the weight of the menace my body was posing to
me, I was turning into West 4th Street (hoping I wouldn't pass out in the
crush of a very dense crowd - and holding a freshly lit cigarette, which
would prove to be significant) when I saw them a little way up the block. In
their mid-to-late twenties, and emphatically not from the neighborhood, they
were swilling beer from bottles and loudly passing judgment on the females
who happened near them, even those escorted by men. One of them, his T-shirt
advertising a Jersey City tavern, was leaning against a parked car. He had a
face that was almost identical to Jack Black's and he'd apparently nourished
his resemblance to a celebrity by shaping his body to match Black's as well.
The other two, similarly proportioned, were sprawled just opposite him on
the bottom step of a stoop. Their legs were stretched onto the sidewalk and
left with no more than a foot or so to pass, most people were taking to the
street to get around them.
As I came up to them and, as I've indicated, without a clue as to why, a
sizable trepidation notwithstanding, I felt compelled to enter their space,
my only conscious intention was to slide my way by. But when I turned
slightly sideways to accomplish this objective, the Jack Black ringer
reached out, grabbed me by the stomach, and pulled me toward him. "Are
you a fag?" he said, his eyes not quite looking into mine.
Now his breath - and an overlay of alcohol did little to mute it - smelled
like nothing so much as a chicken coop. His skin, moreover, glistening with
sweat, despite the moderate temperature, was riddled with brutal acne scars
(the remnants of a likely bleak adolescence). And yes, his grip hurt a lot.
But what I couldn't help concentrating on was a huge white globule of snot
that was hanging precariously from one of his nostrils.
"I think you're a fag," he continued, squeezing my stomach harder and
grinning at his friends. "And you know what? I hate fags."
With that my focus shifted to his brain. I think of stupidity as more often
than not willful, as a way of shutting out the complexities and ambiguities
of life. But this guy's stupidity wasn't a choice he was making. No, it was
clearly congenital. He was the grim product of his family history, of
generations of inbreeding with other people from New Jersey.
And registering then the full sweep of his stupidity, his evident
derangement, his heft and his inebriation (not to mention the booger and the
prospect of it landing on me), I felt a very real panic. And what I started
to say was: "Hey, you've got the wrong guy. I'm straight, man. I'm married.
I even have a kid. Not everybody in the Village is queer, you know? Believe
me, I share your disgust. Of course it's a perversion. The AMA and the
American Psychological Association really caved in on this one, didn't
But, no, Jesus, I didn't say that. My pathetic reflex was aborted almost
immediately by an intuitive recognition of a large reward to be gained here
- a recognition that was accompanied by a feeling of elation and a sense of
abandon (had I connected to my purpose?). And what I said was, "Let go of
When he didn't let go, and after taking quick stock of the resources that
were available to me - the cigarette I held and the single file approach of
two enormous guys with gym bags who by all appearances were oblivious to
what was going on and about to push past us - I said to him: "Do your
parents know you boys are in the big city by yourselves?"
And then, the cigarette between my fingers and my fingers clenched into a
fist, I hit him in the face.
It was hardly what you'd call a devastating punch, but the lit end of the
cigarette more than compensated for the limitations of my swing. Crying out,
he liberated my stomach immediately and before he could retaliate - or his
buddies, who rose in unison, could react with more than a "What the fuck!" -
I darted (with an agility it amazed me to learn I still possessed), between
the gym guys. Remaining ignorant of my circumstance, or indifferent to it,
they were, in any case, visibly irritated by my abrupt intrusion. So hanging
with them for only a few yards, I reluctantly abandoned the shield they
provided to less than graciously barge ahead of a group of tourists who were
just then emerging from a restaurant and starting up the block. From there
on, muttering "excuse me's" and "sorry's," I seized upon every space that
presented itself and, twisting and lunging, stumbling once, but not falling,
I finally arrived at the relatively open expanse of Sheridan Square, where I
turned right on Seventh Avenue.
As I headed north, alternately running and marching double-time, I was
certain that the Jersey boys were right behind me and I didn't want to look
back. But when I happened to notice the faces of people coming toward me
from the opposite direction, I saw no alarm in them, no sign, in their
expressions, that danger lurked at my rear. And when, three blocks later at
Charles Street, I dared to stop and turn around, my adversaries were nowhere
to be seen.
At that point, with the adrenaline evacuating my blood and my heartbeat
returning to its normal cadence, I realized that all of my symptoms were
gone and I began to feel good in every imaginable way. In fact, for the next
few days (for about as long as the welt on my stomach and a blister on my
knuckle lasted) I was buoyant. I felt precisely like what I'd needed to feel
like. I felt like a survivor.
And the thing was that when I came down, when my high evaporated and I
settled back, as it were, into my body, my symptoms were still gone and I
was something like comfortable with my body. I understood, of course, that
in the risk and challenge department the feat I'd devised for myself had
been somewhat less than heroic. But I'd won a victory nevertheless, and I
knew that my body was not without a lingering capability or two.
With this information to fortify me I had my balance back. Indeed, my mirror
reflected, such as it was, my full height again.
Robert Levin is a former contributor to the Village Voice and Rolling Stone
and the coauthor and coeditor, respectively, of two collections of essays
about jazz and rock in the '60s: "Music & Politics" and "Giants of Black
Music." Among other places, his fiction and recent essays have appeared in,
or on the web sites of, Absinthe Literary Review, Best of Nuvein Fiction,
Cosmoetica, The Drexel Online Journal, Eyeshot, Sweet Fancy Moses and the
Word Riot 2003 Anthology. His short story, "When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot" was
a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story of 2004.
© 2007 Underground Voices