Self has a pile of magazines: Gallery, Penthouse, Hustler, Wet, Mayfair, Cheeks. The mags are stacked on the toilet seat lid, which is wooden. Not only wooden, oaken. Self has to laugh. Christ, the lid, the seat, polished oak. The fixtures (ansate ladder of the drawers of the commode: knob to the door: handle to the toilet: faucet ensembles of tub and sink) are bronze. The tub is round, about the size of one of those rubber kiddie blow up wading pools, and about three feet in depth. The bottom of the tub is beneath the level of the floor, and when you put your leg over the side of it there's a step you step on. The porcelain of the tub is black, matching the sink, which is made of real black marble. The whole top of the commode is real black marble with a little greenish cloud in the grain of it. The black suggests the bedroom this is the bathroom of’s corvine mood. Bella, showing self the two bathrooms she wants him to do, puts her hand on his arm, squeezes, please, Darling, whatever you do don't step on the marble, it is just so breakable, when we had them put it in they had to do it over because they cracked it and Abe was so furious I really thought he was going to kill that odious negro contractor whose English you should have heard, I mean you needed a translator from the Zulu, you wonder how any of those wonderful marble statues from the Renaissance survive, my God, and she turns, leading you her hand still on your arm out of the bathroom, leaving a faint scent of ... lavender?
Self takes a drop cloth and throws it out so it covers the black and white parquet of the floor. Then two more, one over the sink, one over the tub.
Bella sits on the side of the tub, darling think of yourself as the new Michelangelo, although wasn't he queer? and you aren't, are you, which is so refreshing, Jan tells me her cute cousin is quite the ladies man, never know what pretty young thing he is going to bring to her parties, and she laughs. The laugh leaves a little scent of ... champagne? Her legs are crossed, she holds a glass in her hand, her bare foot arched out. Do you like my toes? Her nightgown is made out of some black flimsy material, witchlike, flowing, transparent. Self waves his glass in her direction, my God this is exciting, she says, which is why I insisted on champagne, I mean it isn't every day you get a real artist in the house, I told Abe. You know Abe just adores you. He adores your vision.
The ceiling is high. He's already disassembled the ceiling fan and after sealing the plaster surface, prepping for the acrylic, he's decided on that against oil since he's brainstormed big figures instead of as he first thought little insets, two big figures more than life sized up there, that will be the bold thing, he needs to get hold of how he is going to do this. Five thousand dollars, man. And then in the space just under the ceiling, on the walls where he has about three feet and then there's this wainscotting, there he is figuring a number of different figures. There are bulbs all around the mirror, dressing room style, and the thing itself reaches all the way up to the ceiling from the sink, which must be six feet about. In its immense silvery shallows self sees himself, sees the ladder he is climbing on. Arm up, he fluffs his hair out a bit, there. The glasses are funny, it is as if he is pretending to be Clark Kent or something, but he needs them to keep the drips out of his eyes. Days before contacts, the glasses he wore in high school, the goofy look in photographs. As though some prisoner with his appointed burden, symbolic in horn rims on his nose. He might have to rent a scaffold, he probably could get Bella to even throw that in although definitely if it has to come out of the five thousand he's not going to be hurting, but today the program is just go up there and check out the space, visually grid it, and choose the picture.
Abe has talked I told you to his friend, the one from New York? Ruth is her name, she's crazy about that painting or what do you call it of yours. Bella pats a place next to her on the side of the tub. Self sits down, Ruth Parquin, the Ruth Parquin gallery, brushing up against Bella's arm, I am excited about that, brushing up against Bella's thigh, a comfortable warmth, a bit roomy, I want to do whatever I can, Bella's eyes on his, to make that a reality, maybe I ought not to be so, you know, his eyes down and up, intent, open about it, I guess I'm still a redneck, the thing I know I ought to do and Bella here no, you are perfect, and self: my feelings are like out in the open, I want you to let Abe know (arm around her back) how really I am, really (touch of the chiffon there, the skin) really thrilled. Champagne sloshes, I'm sorry and ... well, it won't ruin this old thing. I was thinking now, now wouldn't Abe be surprised if one of your pictures was me, of me, darling. Stark naked, my God. You don't know how immodest I can get!
Self picks up one of the magazines. He turns past the centerfold to the lez session. It is always in the back third, some weird tradition. A photo spread of two buxom women engaged in a four page clit workout. On the first page one is sticking a sharp little tongue in the proximity of the other's pussy, like a cat about to lap milk from a bowl. The one getting head, she's on her knees, a sort of gymnastic pose, these shots the girls have to show everything, become Mobius strips of nudity. So we see a good half of her face, her hands one of them resting on the bed, one of them on a breast. The other girl's, the one giving head. The latter woman has a sweep of long Swedish blonde hair (the other one has frizzy brown hair ‑ if they had both been blond it would have been reflected on the cover of the mag: Double Trouble Blond Action or Bodacious Blond Sexorama or something. Self flips back to the cover. It is: Loving Cousins Tracy and Trina. So these girls, in spite of a certain ethnic disparity of pigmentation and cheekbone and body type, are cousins, just cousins wanting to suck each others private parts) and she is rising up callisthetically one hand wrapped around the ankle of the other girl one hand against a buttock honing in on the pussy bristling there like Christmas right in front of her nose with her face wearing a mask of eagerness. Both women, flip to the next page, the next page after, wear masks of eagerness, but in their eyes it is: only disconnect. The model's motto.
Change the eye, elongate slightly, by a hair's breadth, the canthus.
Meeting Abe and Bella at Jan and Bob's place had been a coincidence but self wasn't surprised. Somehow how am I surprised at anything (this later to Bragg) that happens around you, why does everything happen around you? and then about Bella Bragg saying I think she is thirty‑five but she doesn't have that attrition, or that cheek that they get about then. Isn't this marvelously funny Bella had said, placing her hand on Jan's arm, because Jan, you couldn't guess, why we just met this young man yesterday, your name again Street? Longstreet, was it yesterday? As usual, Abe looks like his amusement is all he need communicate, let his wife stream‑of‑consciousness here, he'll just bounce the light off his big bald head, maybe smooth his goatee, then hands back in pockets and lean slightly back on his heels as if he was simply here to exhibit the bubbly woman twenty years younger than him by his side, one blond lock straying lovely in her eyes, keeping his lips fixed in a smile that spoke of the richer entertainment interior remark holds for him, and she turning and smiling toward self, and that friend of yours, is he here? Abe unexpectedly erupts in Thomas, yes, his wife takes up, Thomas, you see Abe knows everybody (this for Jan, who wears that expression of polite but strained interest that just infuriates self and the more so as he gets drunker, not understanding what it is that gives Bob this power over Jan and not at all understanding the anorexic bond to food, food and lots of it as Jan's appointed menace and this some type of therapy, these parties, Jan immersed in the kitchen under Bob's watchful eye, self especially triangulating between them, seeing him looking, watching Jan going back to it again and again and bringing out more and more plates, some neurotic variation of the Sorcerer's Apprentice with Jan both the appalled Mickey Mouse and the blind march of the brooms and it being the ironic part how good a cook Jan is, all those recipes of her mother's and maybe her mother's genes kicking in ‑ horrible thought ‑ after all) and so naturally yesterday morning we had to meet the son of a friend of his, your friend's mother? turned to self, Abe's family in San Antonio you know, (Bragg latter: Mom couldn't believe it when Mr. Bitten turned up with that young chick on his arm, I'm in eighth grade, right, and they came for supper and Isabella, I don't remember the context exactly says Abe and I agree on everything except he wants to be on the bottom, Esther, why do they like the bottom so much, well I smack him down, do you let yours? It froze the moment. It is just so faddish, she says. Mom goes my God, and Dad said TJ that's enough, time to do your homework son, I don't think I'd even had a bite yet and Isabella goes I hope I'm not being indiscrete) turned to Jan, (indiscrete, man) and here they come bringing with them the most attractive girl, a model, really, Jan, when I tell you she turned heads I don't just mean that as a thing to say, literally, literally wouldn't you say Street? and the hand moves from Jan's arm where it has been all this time to self's, and this young man who turns out to be just the artist Jan has been telling us about, isn't it a small world?
Bragg had called him up from Austin and said he wanted to do some filming in New Orleans, mentioning a two week limit, something he had to get back to do in Mexico City where for the last year he had been gloriously (his word) living, self was a fool not to try it out simply in terms of money for six months, cross the border between puritanism and hedonism, that border of dead skin, okay Bragg don't go off on me here and Bragg guarded by dead skin armed with dead skin speaking a language of dead skin okay okay eyes of dead skin sex of dead skin alright I've got the point dead skin, right? we're just one big dermatological nightmare up here, okay, laughing hearing again that beat sentimentality of his which self had to smile at, as if Bragg were a somehow appended part of that generation, Jack Kerouac's last sad groupie, self even agreeing as he hung up sure, when I get the money together, not that I know Spanish... What Bragg had typically left unsaid was Marissa. Not that self is terribly surprised at him having picked up a woman somewhere between Austin and New Orleans, he had a week after all to do it in, but quickly self gets it that Marissa came with Bragg up from Mexico City, probably standing next to the bastard even as he wasn't mentioning her to self on the phone from Mark's place, to whom he had also probably left her unmentioned. Bragg doesn't explain, and what is self going to say facing the fait accompli, with her tallness, her coils of silvery bracelets, her little green tattoo of a lizard on the upper right arm, her blood red lipstick, her hair so black it looked dyed, her breathless exclamations in syntactically accidentprone English about self's house. He keeps explaining it isn't his, isn't even rented, but is an extended housesit. Marissa keeps saying your house until he sees what does it matter. And so as though in some interlude of absent‑mindedness on self's part, some dream in which he forgets to lock the door and waking still dreaming discovers the silver gone, some suspension of his will and survival instinct and even (such being Bragg's casting of himself as a wholly aesthetic creature) disbelief, Bragg and Marissa spread themselves out in Mrs. Zachry's daughter's bedroom, bringing in three suitcases and then the camera equipment, self even helping them, even carrying in the heavier pieces as Bragg, typically, disappears, only to appear on cue when the last box is brought in with vodka and tonics made in the bar that of course is the first thing Bragg spotted as self gave them the tour of the place. There settles over self that same mixture of doom and amusement which has always been the tone of his friendship with TJ Bragg, response to the man's tempting carelessness, his hunger for events, his bony longing for... death? Or maybe the staging of death, probably a little of both. Certainly self's been there when Bragg had provoked people, strangers, unkind burly men with the telltale folding at the back of the neck and mouths hung open on some dark obscenity rising in bars wanting to beat the shit out of him, and sometimes when nobody was there doing it. Thus the ugly red U shaped scar above his right eye. Bragg says only that his bi side comes out at inappropriate times.
In Austin self took a lot of drugs with Bragg (acid, x, mushrooms, cocaine) but he always thought that the most dangerous drug was Bragg himself. Bragg could have the most amazing effect on self's nervous system. Normally self thought of himself as having a core temperance, a core discipline, a unity of vision upon which he could rely. A rather pompous self‑image but of great utility ‑ and not something he wanted to casually toss out with the cat shit. Bragg when he was around would instinctively make inroads upon the core ideal, he seemed to ESP the secret code like a virus and by subtle touches and intimations make a viral mockery of it or more than that make self himself see that it was a mockery getting in the way of authentic experience, dread and love, self's reluctant allegiance thereto, and he always said it was for your own good, Street, forcing self back upon the suddenly overt pomposity of his intentions, forcing him into ridiculous decisions about his courage and his integrity with no grander trials for them in some unmanageable moment of undesired confrontation.
It suddenly strikes self how to do it. Get rid of the glossy colors, make it instead a negative, with the suggestion of the skull beneath the skin, or in this case the pelvic bone beneath the cheek. He can blow up the picture, he can use either Jan's darkroom or the one at Tulane (because a photo development place won't do it. Self knows, he's had them refuse to give him back his pictures when they were some harmless and coyless shots of Jan naked, fat girl with a bouffant sitting up there smirking sorry sir, you can talk to the manager, it's Picture Plus' policy), and then get a negative of it, and he'll block it out. A negative going across nine feet, the distortion alone will be beautiful. Bella says but darling you're the artist of course and Abe respects that, he wants to respect that to the fullest extent, your wish is our command hand up finger on the tip of his nose but trust me sometimes these farther out ideas, well they simply turn people off. Practically the finger running over his lips, getting a bit of grease on it, we have to go along if we want to get along. Self is showing her the image on a slide, with a viewfinder. Isn't there Bella pouts wiping her finger on a napkin room for beauty in you young people's world? As she pays self stares at his plate, at the strip of grayish white fat soaking in a bit of brownish gravy speckled with oily spots, and it actually goes through his head (Bragg hearing this after laughs and then says if you throw this away I will personally kill you, do you hear me Street? I'm your friend and I will kill you) that he'll tell Bella to stick the five thousand up her ass.
Look Jan says it isn't even the five thousand, it is this Ruth Pasquill person, Pasquin, Parquin alright, you have a connection there and don't forget Abe Bitten is her good friend, sure she likes your stuff, you told me what she said about the Bird series, but she saw it because of Abe, I'm sorry. This is New Orleans, Street, and you aren't going to make it in New Orleans. You can come back to here or start out from here but, well I know you know, but I'm telling you, New York isn't going to come begging you to please show your stuff because you had a good show at Jack Eddyville's. God! You know what I'm saying, I don't even know why I am bothering to tell you this.
The catalogue was the most professional one self had ever been associated with, but of course in Austin he'd shown in things like restaurants or student shows and it was either some colored flier they'd advertise with and on it some blurry black and white of some piece or he was drowned in with about a hundred other people in the roundups at the end of the semester in these institutional spaces that smelled like school and that the best thing about was the free wine. I feel like a redneck the way I show everybody this catalogue he says and Jan says why downplay something you really wanted and got? The show was called 3 Southern Artists, and there was even a corporate sponsor. Jack Eddyville, the man who owned the gallery, had been funded in part by the BHovac corporation (makers of oil drilling equipment). In the New Orleans scene or what there was of a scene somebody told self unironically nobody had seen anybody so postmodern before. And his entry. Longstreet Early, b. 1960, italics, quote, My work is about the thing that happens. The beginning of any system is the thing that happens, or God. The end of any system is the other thing that happens, which is failure, or the devil, or death. I chose Audubon's birds because the intersection between God and failure is exemplary in this immigrant's life, and because the birds were his angels. I chose scissors for my own unfathomable reasons. And then the Vita, and then, on the next two pages, oh lovely, pictures. Picture one was of "Bird # 4". Self had taken Audubon's horned grebe and blown up a section of it, the head, and had painted that head on a three by three desk top. The desk top was one of a bunch he had got from an old school in Mandeville that was throwing out their desks and modernizing. You could see where words or hearts had been carved into the wood, here a rough sketch of a dick, there an attempt at a horse that got to three legs and got no farther, initials, an equation long gone wrong to a question forgotten. He hadn't sanded the scars away. History of damage, those marks, the caught beastie's tedium, visions of an old woman smelling of talc and walking dimly between desks looking for cheaters or of a thick man more interested in baseball and punishment and picking his ass than the discipline of whose names and equations he is come to tell us news. Your school, any school. Just behind the eye, he'd sawed out a droplike shape. He took the shape roughly from one of Miro's biomorphic thingies. With thin silverish wire he'd suspended some scissors in this space, blades open and turned toward the viewer. Around the board in place of a frame he'd put lengths of the ribbed, rusty rebar struts you find sticking out of concrete at construction sites. He'd put the lengths of rebar about two inches out from the desktop, and had welded a short metal bar to each length and then welded the bar to a square shaped brace attached to the back of the desktop. To get the pieces away from the wall and more in people's faces he'd mounted a metal rod in the wall (Eddyville was very good about letting him drill and move around stuff) which stuck out about a foot and hooked the piece to the rod. A foot was close enough that the metal didn't draw attention to itself.
Jan laughed about the God and systems bit, where did you get that? and you, you have to put down something and I felt that would fool em. Better than I done it cause I done it, which is the real reason anybody does anything.
I done it cause I seed it that way.
I done it cause I just keep doing these things, if I could help myself Lord I would.
The other photo showed the whole series all along the wall, built on similar principles as applied to "Bird #4". There were eight pieces in all, and then on the other side of the room he'd framed and had facing the pieces a group of pen and paper sketches which weren't shown by a photo in the catalogue. The sketches were also three by three and mostly they were drawings that seemingly led up to the bird pieces, with a lot of notes and numbers scribbled on them. Actually he only had two real drawings for the bird series and he made the others after he made the series and made them look like they were preparatory to the series because he liked the idea of opening up the process of production. Although of course by faking the sketches he was really mystifying the process even more.
Self felt like the idea for the sketches being there didn't quite come off. But Mom, who'd come down with Dad from Atlanta and was staying at Aunt Ellen's, said she liked the drawings best, and he was glad there was something there she could say that about, because he'd watched both Mom and Dad look in alarm and bewilderment at the bird pieces and stifle the thought that maybe their son's not a Picasso. When he'd come home from UT his second year at Christmas they'd given him a big coffee table book of Picasso's paintings. On the wall in the living room vaguely impressionistic landscapes done by Mom's friend, Alice Stoney. Self says I like the way she does trees to Mom's question that Christmas. Dad said afterwards don't ask me, I don't understand this modern art, and stood with folded arms near the refreshment stand talking to Uncle Andrew at the reception.
They'd left self, Bella and Abe, to go first to New York and then to this island they were co‑owners of in Lake Huron, off the Ontario side. Abe just loves it and at first you know me, I need outer stimulation, on those little personality tests I always rank "A" plus in the extravert category, but believe it or not I guess it was the second time we went out there we were going across in the boat, yes, you have to because there isn't a bridge to it and the road going down to the dock isn't really a road, more like an old goat track, so anyway, what was it I...? oh, well we were there in the boat and suddenly in all that expanse of blue, brother you haven't ever seen blue that unbroken, like one big ribbon of it, I had this complete shedding experience, that's what I call it, very mystical, I felt just all my spiritual fat lifting from me, it was like I'd been walking around with dough in my eyes, Jan, you must come up this year, Abe is always right about these things, aren't you darling? I tell him sometimes the wonder is he doesn't beat me to within an inch of my life, I mean the fuss I put up when he said Isabelle, baby, we are going to do nature, I admit it I'm the quintessential bitch, but that's Abe's masochism, he is such a dear about it. He likes the woman with the whip idea.
Since it was getting to that point in summer when the heat turns filthy, when you walk through the air and it feels on your skin like it has been sweat in already, self started working later in the day. They'd given him a key. He'd come in to that vast house about four in the afternoon, he liked to walk across Audubon park to it and get a blast of airconditioning coming in the door. He'd bring a sixpack and a couple of tapes with him. Yell for Sally Ann, the maid, it's me. Up the stairs, into Abe's room past the huge four poster bed with the scary black sheets and black canopy into Abe's bathroom. Strip, put on the clothes in the crumbled and day by day more musty smelling grocery sack stashed under the sink. Pop in a tape, sit there at first on the second rung of the ladder (all the rungs blotched with paint, himself wearing the clothes he kept there blotched with paint, the three tarps blotched with paint, as if he and the ladder and the tarps were connected by some remote tie of evolutionary circumstance), his head transparently horned with the goggles pushed back on top of it ‑ goggles he'd replaced the glasses with, the glasses not being good enough protection ‑ and swallow his first sixteen fluid ounces. Looking up at what had been done so far and still feeling bad about not doing the negative image. He'd sigh, pop in Prince now, and climb up to engage hair, curve of the leg, an intricate pinkness. Sometimes at two am in the cavernous mansion there was only self's light on and the hysterical bugaloo of whatever by that time, cutthroat electric guitar, strange harp solos, warped gurgles and clicks from random stations manned in the increasingly silent and staticy night by whatever dubious outcast on speed would tenant the listenless reaches, and self downing his sixth or if that had passed his eighth, him having gone up to the store and got him another six pack and maybe while he was at it passing that po' boy place and getting a sandwich.
At home arms folded under your head, lying there, you repeat three words: Darkness. Solitude. Grandeur.
It was about a month after Bragg and Marissa arrived that he threw them out.
There was no indication from Bragg after they'd been there two weeks that the deal he was supposed to go back to Mexico City to work on was bothering him or even some feeble excuse to lend verisimilitude to the story he'd told self about why it wasn't. A routine quickly evolved. They would all have breakfast together in Mrs. Zachry's kitchen. Bragg made the breakfasts, he was a good cook and he liked breakfast. They were all late sleepers, it was around ten thirty before they all sat down and eleven before they ate. Omelettes and fried bananas. Migas and black beans. Pork chops and eggs. Orange juice, always, and always coffee. Strong, black coffee. The kitchen faced south, with several high windows giving the morning light slanting in from the east on the cabinets of which there were plenty and the ferns and the counter up to the stove and the two ovens and up to the all of them at the table, and that was a nice feeling. Then Bragg and Marissa would venture out into the steamy day carrying the camcorder and the tripod and the mikes. They made a trip to New Iberia and Lafayette and stayed gone five days and self felt a little lonely in the kitchen without them. Self sometimes worried about Rolla, Mrs. Zachry's daughter who remained in town, an amiable woman about forty years old, a little fat, with big round glasses that gave her face an owlish cast and her face always blotched with odd red spots. Always surprisingly kind to him, always asking about girlfriends. As in why he didn't have one. Self wasn't going to explain Jan to her, it was too Byzantine. His fear was of her coming over, although the house wasn't a mess or anything, and he'd never been expressly told you can't have visitors. He just had this bad vision of Bragg making some off‑color remark to her.
Then one day you'd come home about four in the afternoon and there Bragg and Marissa were in the living room watching the stuff they'd shot on the VCR and Marissa was lying on Mrs. Zachry's elaborately upholstered sofa (pink roses on a background of green) among all of Mrs. Zachry's elaborately fringed furniture naked. She looked up at him hi Street, and Bragg looked up, howdy. Her brown little breasts. The hair short, cut to finally at the flag end slant just above the neck. Looking back down, hair gliding on the neck, catching this next sequence on the tv. Unreal. He'd ranted about that, for one thing pointing out that if Rolla did come over for this or that reason her being greeted by a naked Mexican Amazon (what does this word mean, amazon? Marissa had said) at the door was one of the few sure ways he knew of to lose the gig. And, for another thing, what about me? Do you want me to want to fuck Marissa? and before Bragg put in a word no, don't answer that, who am I talking to, hell you'd film us! and then inevitably Bragg: that's not a bad idea...
It was in his mind after that to do something pretty soon, but another week slid by. It would have gone on for a while if it hadn't been that he read the "Match", the New Orleans weekly, article. He came home with it in his hand, waving it around walking to the door like it was a flag and almost feeling like he was charging walking into the house Bragg! Bragg! slamming the door and before the kitchen in the hall the smell of pot and then in the kitchen finding Bragg and Marissa and a man with a shaved head and round glasses with very thin black frames who stood up not as tall as me, bet he's...
Ivan, this is the guy I'm telling you about, Street. An English major. You've seen him before. Ivan and I are into it about Maya, and Ivan sits down again, the veil of illusion. This guy says he's a Buddhist but I'm telling him that the last fucking illusion is to think in terms of illusion, man, because illusion has to refer to something it is the illusion of, right, that the veil like has to not only be seen through but and Ivan: sure, live for the present, and Bragg: no, man, no, then, like it's a ladder you are climbing and you reach a point and you throw it away. Self puts down the "Match" on the table, crumpled a little, takes the pipe Marissa hands him. He listens to Bragg and Ivan, not sitting down, and Marissa reaches out and touches him and asks in an undertone hey is everything alright and self sure, fine.
We met Ivan at that record store where they also have that coffee place on that street, Magazine? and guess what, he saw your show, Street.
Fucking great show, man, you had totally the weirdest shit there. I'm sort of an artist too, I'm writing these great songs. I've been thinking about learning to play an instrument, like keyboards or something. Because I'm just pouring out these songs. I wish I could write music down, what I've got to do next is write the fucking music down if I could find somebody who could write music. I'm talking about the notes, they're really important in my songs.
Really? self says.
I could sing you something.
Maybe later. Reach down, hand on the Match, look at Marissa.
You fuck! you told me you were a musician.
No, man, I said I wrote songs.
Flip the pages. Marissa turning to Bragg, Street is mad about something, Bragg not hearing her, if you can't write down the songs ‑
It is what I been telling you, man, about live in the present. The moment you learn something, see, and the moment you do it are one moment.
Bragg smiles up to see self not seated still who would be flashing on this and met with Match open to an article which features Bragg's photo, Marissa looking now hey, and Ivan, and then Bragg, smile down to self's hand, the finger under the caption.
Funny, they seem to think you are me, the caption in bold type Longstreet Early, italics, seeing through nature, the fingers now closed in fist, and up. Pounds the table. Spills the pipe, brown curlicues scatter from the bowl. Why? Just why, Bragg, feeling your face getting red, Marissa's gaze.
Now Bragg rising wait, and Ivan: what's the deal, whatever, Scott, right? you have to unclench, here we're just talking.
What happened, Bragg says, calm down for a second Street, I don't deserve this, this guy calls here and I never heard of the New Orleans "Match", right, I think it's some two sheet ass wipe so I'm sure, come on over. And this feller (doing his old man's voice) arrives, you wouldn't believe him, Street, he gets out of this unbelievably blasted Dodge Dart and he's like in his pyjamas, swear to God ‑
You're shitting me, Ivan said. Swear to God. I'm, Marissa, check this out, I was sure now this wasn't serious, okay, the guy, he's coming up the walk in these grey pyjamas and flipflops, got a beard on him that is intense, Tolstoyan, still got crumbs in it from his lunch, a grotesque spectacle is what I'm saying, and so I'm follow my lead and we let the guy in the house and like I am pretending to be you and so, well I (resuming the old man's voice) told that feller something.
Like this shit, my art what is it reflects the juncture of primitivism and the new primitive lifestyle, what the hell is that, and this part, ran away at fourteen, oh this is sweet, went to Mexico, Bragg this is your stupid dream not mine, the desert is, was my first canvas, canvas, I hate that, it's like craft, when have I used canvas recently? I hate those old fart words.
Romantic background, buddy, you're the one about Audubon, you ought to pay me.
I'm not arguing, hand up, moving to the door, why this interior tremble, this concern about Marissa, this loathing, sorry Marissa, for confrontation? and the door swung open, half turned to them, but I need my space. Find someplace else, Bragg, and through on his note of come on, Street, and letting it swing behind you.
Above the bent noises of new age synthesizer calling on the gentle alien dawn over a Baton Rouge station vaguely coming in and weaving out the phone rings in the room over. Eleven, twelve?. Startling self. Since Abe and Bella had spread the news that they were out of town pretty thoroughly, self hadn't been much bothered with calls from their friends. A spooky inbred crowd, from what examples self had met. He'd given the number to Jan, but she wouldn't be calling so late. Maybe some emergency, a crisis of confidence with Bob, he knows, I know he knows. Lately this nervousness, and more and more about Bob, Bob this and that, self saying I hate Bob. I don't want to talk about him, and Jan, you want to talk about your life, not mine. Self wanting to end what he had carelessly started. Wanting to say so what? What did we do, anyway? Once time, one little time.
When he picks up, settling his butt down on Abes satiny midnight sheets, his leaning shifting the quills in the pillow so he felt sharp little points in his back, voice there is chirruping with excitement, hey, you've got to see this Street, you've just got to.
How'd you get this number?
Called Jan. Listen, unless you are having a mad moment of genius, you got to come down here.
I'm not going to spoil this for you. I've been thinking about you since this morning. Man, this hotel is full of a particular phobia of yours, and it is like I'm an anthropologist among the apes, so just don't ask me, trust me.
Trust you? self laughs, don't even make the comment. This is the Buckingham, you know where that is? Voice a little distant, what is that street baby? Okay, the deal is it's on Royal Street and you can park here if you want, but what's that?... No, park on Canal. It's a walk down here.
Marissa's voice: come down here Street, we miss you.
In the background now self hears yells, something sounding like an intense barroom scene. Where are you? I mean, are you in the lounge?
Shit, man. And Bragg hangs up.
Self turns off the radio, strips and changes and bundles his paint clothes back into their bag. Looks up at the ceiling, a buttock, arm, face. Turns off the light, and then, going through Abe's room, stops in the doorway and flicks the light switch in there to off, too, and makes his way in the dark to the head of the staircase. Puts out his arms, as if he were going to fly, a bird, tumult of feathers, and leaps down four steps. Gets his footing, down four again, and here stumbles against the banister, bashing his knee, and dashes down, the turning, the stairs, across the dining room, rapid walk don't bump into that trestle table. Then you're out of there. Self has to race up the street, there is a good moon tonight and a mess of shadows over there ‑ the park. Up to his stop. In a fortunate coincidence getting there just as the streetcar bears down on it and so almost without a stationary moment he is up one step, reaching in his pocket for change, pulling out coins and dropping them promiscuously in the slot. He reaches a point where he thinks that is enough, more than enough. The driver is curiously disinterested, glancing at him once and then resuming his monotonous stare at the track ahead. His face gleams with a bluish shadow in the light coming in from the streetlamp. The cap casting a shadow on his forehead. A jerk forward, self leaning out, his hand up, catching the bar, swinging around to sit on the park side, looking at Tulane glide past. Nobody else at the next stop or the next one and so it goes past his stop, where he doesn't reach up, pull the chord. Why even bother with a car, a night like tonight. Palpably the moon's night. Close your eyes. Can you tell it's full from some distinct tugging on your blood? No. A mile up a person again, and halt, and an exchange of words between the driver and the guy. Past blaze of light on his side, then the other side. Then the Colony, where he and Jan dance. Now three more passengers, and the lurch and smell reminding self of long ago, the toy train at Christmas, iron the track and the dry electric spark. Guy sitting in back of him, or sort of facing him at an angle. Seat where the old and the crippled get first dibs. Leaning over, a hand on your shoulder, by breath a brother, how much have you had tonight? His claim in fact: can you help me out with some change there, brother. And self digging in his pocket comes up with a penny, sorry, that's it tonight. His brother lapsed back on his wooden seat, sleepily muttering. Smelly son of a bitch. You are sweating too. Humid still, hardly a breeze. Now what self means when he says the city, underpass and Lee's obelisk lookout and the swing around it and then that other swing, the street narrowed down, contained as almost a private arcade between the facade of buildings on both sides.
Canal and out. Always like the look of it, the fundamental nature of the street, its width, its obviousness, the jambox atmosphere store to store.
Self runs across and ducks into Royal, past a black man, leather capped, sitting in the doorway of a house. Who asks him a question, but gets no reply. Down the street. He's walked a block down when he notices the predominance of police cars, police cars parked up and down the street, and up ahead the lights of two police cars, the red round and the blue round and the red. As he comes up he sees an odd sight. An old black man with a greyish yellow beard and tufts of greyish hair around his ears is footing it to a tune, shuffling likes he's on stage, bent a little forward from the waist, his hands in front of him grasping an imaginary cane. The man is wearing cutoffs and a ragged blue denim shirt, unbuttoned. The tune is some old jazz song coming out of a boom box the guy's put on the sidewalk. Then there's a middleaged woman dancing to the same tune. She looks Spanish, is wearing a halter top. Her belly bulges out a bit. Her brindled hair is long and frizzy. There is a wide smile breaking the lines of her face, and she is nodding her head up and down, her sharp nose diving, flying up, which gives her the look of a puppet grotesquely miming affirmation. She treads up and down between the old black guy and another man. This guy is wearing a policeman's cap and he has a definite cop face under it, fat cheeks and moustache, and he has on policeman's trousers with belt and holster, but he's taken off his shirt, so he is doing a slow swaying kind of dance in his undershirt. In one hand he is waving a beerbottle.
There are two other cops there on the sidewalk, both milling in that idly threatening way law enforcement has. Simply standing by the stairs, self passing them. Two steps and pushing the glass door. Stops, for just a second, and gets what Bragg was saying: my phobia.
The lobby is crowded with policemen all in their uniforms. There is a banner up that sags over the potted palms on the far wall and it says Welcome Southeast Law Enforcement League 1985. To his left, beyond the clerk's desk, is an entrance to the lounge, and as far as he can see and that is just the round arch of the entrance and a little in there are backs of blue crowding in there too. The carpet in the lobby is incredibly littered with leaflets, cigarette butts, plastic cups and little American flags. The latter with a policeman's shield superposed on the red and white stripe part. Already self is being told by a fat bald man who is pressing his hand in a fleshy clasp on self's shoulder that this is a private function, buddy. The man is wearing even in this smoky and dimlit room a pair of glasses with lenses tinted a deep red color. Self explains his friends are here, and with the moment's inspiration makes up about him also renting a room, him sharing the room with his friends. And the guy releases, says okay, that's alright then buddy, don't let us keep you up and turns back to his friend, who laughs nastily. Self straightens up, shakes himself, breathes in, out, expanding his chest. Is that laugh directed at me? He takes a more complete survey of the room. He makes for the desk. The night clerk can't hear his question at first over the din of all those voices practiced in freeze and pull over. On top of that the music, pumping out of somewhere. Improbably, salsa. Then on the third time self shouts it he hears and looks it up and shouts back room 304. Self thanks him and then lopes over to the grey garbage can previously spotted that contains ice and the keg. A cop there, pumping it, and he exchanges a word with him, the guy's now filled his plastic cup and holds the spigot up, you want some?
Thanks. Red clay accent. No hassle about self obviously not a member of the uniformed class, so he takes a liking to the guy. Some of these pigs (takes a plastic cup from where they are piled on a table next to the keg) are alright. Holds the cup under the stream coming out of the spigot, the guy pressing down trigger on top of spigot with his thumb. Pudgy hand, pudgy thumb. Yours are long, tapered. Long fingers. Jan said about your fingers. Beautiful hands. As the beer fills the cup, all men, ain't it?
Shit no. Gestures, spilling a stream of beer on the floor, in the direction of where the banner is tacked to the wall. Self sees maybe three or four vaguely female forms, breasts muffled under uniforms, standing around the potted palms.
Hey, that's enough.
I'm not a woman's libber, the cop is telling him, letting hose and spigot fall. Women can't be real cops, buddy, I don't care what they say, that's a fact of God. Can a woman run a mile in under four minutes?
Self looks around at the lolling bellies, all that car time, the donuts.
My idea is, teach em to run just fast enough we can catch up with em.
That's saying it. Y'all from here?
Self extricates himself from the good times to come at this point, hey, got to meet some friends, Goddamn, beer up, beer sloshing, drain drain down the throat, nice talking with you (cup crushed inward, left on the table) and a step away, turns back, tell you what, they got what you want at Julian's. Go to Julian's, man. Serious. They love a man in uniform.
I might do that.
Making his way to the hall self bumps into a large man, excuse me, who gives him a look and goes back to his business. Not an I'm sorry look either. Not my fault buddy. No, fuck you buddy. You are aroused to an acrimonious state of mind by this testosteroned crew. Well. Also fear. The hall to the elevator is crowded, blue uniforms interspersed now with four or five women, a couple of men in suits, one of them startlingly in this field of white faces black. The women all in dresses of tropical colors with organdy ruffs showing a lot of cleavage and thigh. Two of them bottle blondes of big showy Dallas hair, all curled and frizzed and moussed into cotton candy postures that tempt the hand. See if the hair is that stiff. Hand up, self‑conscious, self's own hair. Underfoot an incredible number of complimentary sized liquor bottles. Self jostles his way to the elevator, squeezes in. Everybody is going to the third floor. Smell of ... Chanel? A perfume you know. Strong in close unmoving air. Stifling. Thinking if you had just assassinated the president you wouldn't have more of a police escort. The interior of the elevator is all bronzish mirrors. A woman, her hair lifted in a high frilly auburn tail over her head: I'm cop crazy. From when I was bitty, always, and I don't know why. I seen all the cop shows on the TV, I don't know what it is about me. My ex couldn't stand it. I told him it was just psychological but he said he couldn't stand it which is one of the major reasons we broke up. His name was Joe and I called him Joe Friday. Isn't that cute? He didn't think so. Well, that's him. I'm just about crazy tonight. This last, suddenly, to self.
Yeah. Not knowing what to say.
His response was cut short by the doors opening. The music here was much louder. The crowd more densely packed and the heat was pretty bad, self noticing inside his own shirt the drop of sweat trickling down from armpit. The group inside the elevator had to push on the knot of people milling there outside it to get out. The woman now by the side of self leaned into him, where are you from? There was a babel of voices, the whole hall seemed to be in an uproar. The doors to the rooms along the hall from what self could see over the heads of the crowd were open, and it looked like the party in the hall was also inside those rooms. Wondered whether the little liquor bottles were in those rooms, some bar. Self spotted Bragg in the hall. He had his eye to a camera, holding it on his shoulder, and he was shooting something in front of him. Self struck out in his direction, moving with where the crowd was porous, a slow labyrinthine crawl, and not noticing until he had almost reached Bragg that the woman was still behind him, following him, and noticing it then because when he stopped she bumped into him. Where, she yelled, are you from?
Hey, I'm not a cop.
I didn't say you were. I like cops but just because I like chocolate don't mean I have it for dinner if you see what I mean, honey. See what I mean? I think we went to high school together. Tina, hand out, my name's Tina. I knew right away you weren't no cop.
I got to catch up with my friend. Self walled out for a second, and then seeing a passage, coming around to Bragg by a lateral move and getting at the same time a picture of what Bragg is filming : Marissa dancing to what is no longer salsa but ride, ride the white pony and facing her dancing a man who is almost naked. Which is why the circle of people are pulled so tight here, watching this, everybody yelling and whooping and laughing and crying out words of encouragement to the dancers, guy next to self: go on Johnny, party, spreading out party into a long rise and fall, his arms raised over his head, big wide swings bringing his hands together.
Your name is Robert, right? Yeah, I'm pretty sure, I'd bet anything you went to St. Lawrence High, uh huh. The man is wearing a big white towel around his loins. Above the towel a hairy belly and chest. Wiry black hairs mixed with grey. He is moved to clap in sync or what he considers to be sync with the song, a side to side movement, he's a short man and so he looks alright doing this the way a taller man might look a little too much elbows and knees and he moves forward toward Marissa wobbling, one foot raised. You used to go out with what was her name, cute girl, blond, she was in the drill squad, it was Cynthia. Morgan. Cynthia Morgan. As self watches his towel slips down and comes off, revealing the same hairiness on his legs, the dense cluster of curly hair in the pubic region. You aren't married to her I hope. A thick mass coming to a blunt point. Well if you are and you want to forget it for a while, a smile, I'll help you forget whatever you want to forget, Robbie, uh huh, no problem. And her eyes narrow a bit, the eyes anyway self noticing now having a certain familiar panic to them, as though aware of the dire symbolic threshold between easy and thrown away and risking the event, entering that space of potential humiliation even as she also knew that success hinged on the temperance of expression according to a standard of degrees of advance she would at certain dreamlike moments become incomprehensibly blind to, unable at the last to enter into any but the broad and telling gestures of her want. Ah, he'd been with panic like that before.
My name isn't Robbie, or Rob, or Bobbie. It's Street. This is Bragg, touching his arm, and Bragg, hey man sorry I'll be with you in a sec, don't screw me up, it is going to be fucking shaky handheld but fuck.
What is he, making a movie? Tina squeezed somehow beside him now.
The man is doing an obscene limbo number, evoking a cheer and the cops and the six or seven women with them behind him begin to break up themselves in dancing movements, caricatures of the naked man's one. Probably it was because of this last minute loosening of the formerly compact structure of the crowd that nobody else got hurt. Marissa is shimmying to the left. She is wearing a black bra and a short black dress. She wears an outsized black policeman's belt and pistol holster around her waist, and to relieve the weight maybe of the holster that is slipping heavily down one side she takes the gun out of it, which seems a perfect cowboy gesture to choreograph ride, ride the white pony.
What the fuck...
Bragg: hey, just wait. About this time the cop next to Tina becoming aware of Bragg says hey what the fuck do you think you are doing, pussy, directing this at oblivious Bragg, who has gone into the transparent eyeball mode, and then pushing self into Bragg, who the fuck told you you could film in here, asshole, knocking the camera so that later you could say at the last moment anyway all you would get would be a crazy glimpse of the ceiling or the shoulder of the woman across the room from you and Bragg, no, man, I had it, going then hey, as Marissa, waving the pistol around, discharges it and simultaneously startled by the shot and the recoil dropping it, you got to be a bitch and the bullet dropping the naked man, catching him (self finds out later) in the leg (a miracle he wasn't killed and then you fucking clowns would have had it, he was thinking your crazy bitch friend caught him in the dick), and Bragg now in a tussle over the camera with the cop while the ring surges inward, self hearing Tina go shit, let's get out of here, and is grabbed by her as he is trying to step between the cop and Bragg, Marissa screaming Bragg, something in spanish then God damn, let go, the wounded man screaming and cussing up a storm (sweet Jesus! fucking Jesus!), and self what happened, what happened, all he can say not knowing how to process what he witnessed, his mind at this point playing this odd distancing trick on him so that it was all as if on television and him in that unconnected mode of viewer set before the glass and the picture reassembled instantly there so you could always tiring sleepy late for a date turn it off instead of participant. Tina was pulling at him going we better leave your friends here, come on! the cop now turning from Bragg (who falls backwards, having successfully wrenched the camera away from the cop, and tucking it as he can under an arm falls down and starts crawling crazily on the floor propelling himself with one arm and his knees some reversion to the rodenta family in the direction of the elevator burrowing through legs hey what the fuck and by the time Tina and Marissa and you have reached room 304 already there worried about them taking the film from him) to help his friend, trying to pick his way into the group that surrounds the wounded guy who keeps screaming and Marissa bobbing up in self's face after an unaccountable shuffle of the crowd we have to leave, come on, where is Bragg?
Bella goes you do lead an exciting life, it's so foreign to me, you make me feel old, positively Abe and I are like retirees, at this point looking up, I am beginning to like your conception of it, really, so they actually traded you for the film? And self, we were scared, we really thought they were going to put Marissa in jail. The big hold up, you see, was Bragg ‑ Thomas? ‑ Thomas, he kept insisting that it was his big once in a lifetime chance.
I guess it was. I don't imagine you'll get invited to the next annual policeman's ball, do you?
Well no, but if they'd come in and searched the room, even, a. they would have found a big wad of cocaine and b. this Connors guy could have filed some complaint. Marissa did shoot him.
But he wasn't hurt too badly?
Not so badly he wanted that film in court.
This is why, standing up, your friend won't speak to you? I really do like the way the bodies seem to move, is that on purpose? Then, very tanned arm out, fingers come around the nape of self's neck, I give you five years, Longstreet. Five more years of bad boy behavior. At the most, you hear? Lips almost on his lips, you hear?